Fantasy writing: the ghosts within us

A while ago I was clearing out my cluttered desk and came across an old manuscript of a YA novel I’d written in the early nineties. It was quite odd to feel the weight of it in my hand, to look at words I’d labored over for around two to three years – and realise I’d forgotten all about it. Yet at the time, it had consumed my life. It had been my drive, my compulsion, my raison d’etre.

Right there, sitting on the floor, I began to read – and became immersed in my own story. I read it as though it had nothing to do with me. The words, the sentences, the strange worlds I’d created became freshly remade in my new reader mind. And as I read, I became aware that everything in the story was based on my childhood yearning for something scary: witches, goblins and hidden places in the malignant shadows of mushrooms and twisted roots.

What is it that makes us search for the odd and the unreal? Perhaps there is some dim remembrance stamped into our history, our bones, our genes; a hardly connected ancient psyche still driven by firelight shapes on a cave wall. When did we first begin to believe there were unknown worlds to be revealed at any moment by a cosmic sign or some cataclysmic event? Our imagination – well before anything approaching civilization – was busy. Every object we couldn’t explain became a source of power and magic: strangely shaped stones, reflections in rock pools, rainbows, comets and the crisp patterns of stars.

I wonder what techniques were used by early storytellers to hold their audience spellbound around the fire: humour – maybe; romance – hardly; monsters that lurked in crooked rocks and the black bark of a dead tree – oh, yes! Fear – the very nature of it – carries little punch without the threat of violence. For every notch we made up the ladder of control over our environment, the more entertaining those scary stories around the fire became.  We could be scared, but we didn’t have to be blind with terror. We had our weapons and the power of inquiring minds. We could test limits – and race home shrieking with excitement as that rotten ghoul lurched from the dark but naturally, failed to get us. The frightening elements were all still there, but we had kinda grown up.

As a child I wanted those stories – I wanted to see what was in the back of the cave, under the rock or deep in the murky depths of a silent pool. I loved any story with a ghost, a witch, or something that couldn’t quite be seen in the dark. And these stories were best under a blanket at night with a torch. We could turn our minds back to the firelight in the cave – safe in a place and time that assured us such things were not so but still wanting to enjoy the possibility.

Growing up in South Africa, I never experienced Halloween. But I read about it in comics – and I loved it. Does anyone remember Little Lulu and the witch? I hardly read the other stories. It was the witch I wanted. The secret mystery magic of the witch. She had knowledge of those unknown things hovering on the furthest rim of collective memory.

Writers have old souls, I think; imaginations that still nurture vivid memory of rearing imagery in flickering flames. And fantasy writers in particular have developed the ability to scratch away our veneer of civilization and find those ticklish spots of old  fear; that moment when you’re just too far from home and the stinky, foul-breathed thing in the dark has caught the scent of blood. And you’re running, plunging through the woods in terror.

Instinctive, primitive fear of shadows is still relevant in our delicately layered minds; hair-raising, sense-sharpening, and mesmerizing with breathless intrigue. As vibrant in the freshly mowed backyard as on the cave wall.

And ain’t that just the best fun ever?

Twitter: @MallaDuncan



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