Thank you to Rose Caraway for first hosting this article on her wonderful website.
On the creation of Cautionary Tales: Writing the eerie, the bawdy, the horrific and the erotic
I was living in Eastern Europe, in one of the former Soviet states, just over a decade ago, and began studying rites and customs. Those that existed to warn us to tread carefully: we the envious, greedy, uninitiated, gullible, and boastful; we, who presume too far in believing that we know how the world works.
In ancient Slavonic folklore, demon-spirits live more closely alongside us, watching our behaviour, sniffing the air for the perfume of vice. It is they who punish (and did so long before a Christian God became the omnipresent watchful eye).
Being ‘watched’ is a recurring motif in my Tales: not just by the mischievous or malevolent demon world but by the spirits of the restless departed, those having committed heinous crime or having been subject to it. Everywhere, eyes are watching, and judging, helpless to truly intervene, but eager to warn. They may exert their influence over natural elements, such as speaking through bird messengers, or sighing from the rising mist.
As Margaret Atwood said: ‘That’s where monsters live – at the edges, at the borders. Monsters also live at the edge of our consciousness.’
We feel the watchful presence of those demon monsters as the representation of our fears.
Working with my wonderful editor, Adrea Kore, I developed the narrator voice for the tales: each story is told through the eyes of the tormented spirits of the departed.
Whispered to you from the edges, from the haunted mouths of those who see more than you or I, the ghostly narrators unveil tales of lust, rivalry, envy and deceit.
The aim is bring a sense of unease and dread to the narrative, adding an edge of danger to the eroticism, and balancing some of the bawdiness.
‘We are the shiver on your uneasy flesh,
The creep of the unknown on your skin.’
We’re familiar with folk tales as vessels of wisdom, passing on advice. In their grisly unwholesomeness, they present life in all its darker glory.
The spectral narrators share their pain: secrets gouged from the dark depths of the human heart: our tremors of doubt, regret, anger and sorrow.
Wherever there is a sense of danger, and of fear, we feel the stir of sexual arousal. There are some overtly erotic scenes. These work well with the atmosphere of dread and horror, and allow me to explore how sexual impulse can lead us ‘astray’. In following our lustful nature, against our better judgment, we can be led into hurting others, or into danger ourselves.
Folk tales offer warning against transgression, against crossing certain lines, against straying into unchartered territory, but they also invite you to transgress. They entice you to take the journey with the characters, to keep turning the pages, to hear what happens next. You desire to witness the flouting of the ‘rules’ and excitedly anticipate retribution and punishment.
In my tales, the lover at your window or in your bed may have the scent of your death already on their breath.
A common motif in folk tales is the forest. Dark and mysterious, it represents the unknown, and is filled with dangers awaiting those who stray from the path. There are no hierarchies or rules. Anything can happen in the wilderness. The forest is an unchartered, liberated, wild space, a place of subversion and potential, of self-discovery and exploration. There, the imagination is free. It is a place of dreams and nightmares.
There are ‘magical places’ where everyday rules are set aside and otherworldly things can happen. They are enchanted places. It is there that truths can be learnt.
The forest is one such: a place of sexual liberty, as we see on Kupalle Night, when couples disappear into the trees, in pursuit of pleasure. In entering the woods, you ignore usual codes of behaviour.
Transgressions from the ‘accepted path’ can take place not just in the forest, but elsewhere ‘beyond’: in the fields or marshes, or in the cemetery. In my tales, fearful creatures lurk at the edges, regularly drawn to the windows of houses, peeking in, eager to catch humans in their folly. They are rarely disappointed.
Our Freedom as Writers, and as Readers
As a writer, no one controls your choices. You may be shaped by your own preoccupations, but only you decide what is placed upon the page. The same freedom is granted to the reader. So much of our behaviour can be controlled by social norms, but our opinions cannot. There is my intent in writing, and there is your interpretation, as the reader. If you like, there is a ‘space’ between us, and in that space, you bring yourself. There, in that margin beyond the words, there are no rules. You can respond however you like.
Folktales offer particular freedom in this respect, as you enter a supernatural otherworld. Where the boundaries between the everyday and the unearthly are snakeskin-thin, you can write anything. The trees can have eyes, restless spirits of the departed can whisper from the shadows, and demons can be drawn by the scent of wickedness.
Folk tale formats are familiar to us. We feel ‘safe’, knowing how characters are likely to behave and what the consequences are likely to be. We are invited both to feel ‘superior’ in this advantaged position, and to recognise ourselves and be humbled.
The tales follow a traditional moral pattern, in brutal punishment of murder, greed, miserliness, laziness and faithlessness. They also, sometimes, offer the protagonist the chance to change their course. The demons may gobble you up without warning, if they judge you beyond redemption, but they may also give you the chance to recognise your folly or deceit, and start anew.
This is the pagan world of action and consequence, so wrongdoing does tend to bring punishment. However, being ‘innocent’ is no guard against being caught in the crossfire. In this sense, there is no unequivocal moral justice. Life is more chaotic than that. There may be a happy ending for some, but don’t count on it…
Not every tale centres on an aspect of sexual behaviour but most of the tales carry an erotic charge. I explore the pursuit of sexual excitement at the cost of neglecting your duties; and acting upon desire without thought for others’ emotional (or physical) wellbeing. Sex is not the transgression in itself. Rather, we are punished for indulging (or withholding) sex where it brings detriment to others. Our transgression lies not in seeking sexual pleasure, but in crossing other lines of duty in doing so.
In folktales, characters often lack individual identification. Each represents not a fully drawn character but a metaphor for a certain way of behaving or thinking. They are almost purely one dimensional, so that the reader can concentrate on the obvious nature of their folly. We aren’t required to feel too conflicted and, in their actions, are invited to see ourselves. I wanted to write the unsettling, in a world inhabited by characters twisted from the norm, yet recognizable. Humour is a useful device in helping us to open up to the stories, and to accept the possibility that they do have something to teach us. In laughing, we are more likely to recognise ourselves.
The characters may lack the rich interior life of their counterparts in novels but what does this matter when their motivations are so familiar. Whispers of malice and jealousy need little explanation. As they say, purged of excess wax, the flame burns brighter.
I’ve endeavoured to avoid being too predictable. Yes, there are plenty of grisly endings, but also some of hope, or alternative paths of happiness. In my final story, the two sisters decide to set up home independently, without husbands at all, despite having begun the story intent on finding them. Naturally, they have no intention of giving up on the pleasure of sex!
My Cautionary Tales are available from Amazon.