I was inspired to write The Dragon of Stroma standing at John o’Groats one fine spring morning, looking out at the island across the choppy Pentland Firth, when the image of a great dragon alighting there came to my mind. I’ve long wanted to make my own contribution to the lore of dragons; and ever since I read once that the herb pipewort had a cooling effect on the blood I saw a use for it as a dragon poison.
The Magician’s Son is my affectionate take on the famous story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with a touch of the Thorne Smith classic novel Skin and Bones at the very end. It was always intended to raise a gentle smile, as well as the dead.
Seals is my variant of the Scottish myth of the selkie, the seal-woman who leaves the sea to take a human mate. I sometimes set myself the challenge of telling a story in a given number of words, and 1,000 words forces a certain discipline on a writer. Like the Dragon of Stroma, the story came to my mind after a visit to the tiny atmospheric harbour of Whaligoe just south of Wick, and more or less wrote itself; one of those where I effectively took dictation from the voices in my head.
Alcwyn and the Tylwyth Teg features the heroines from my Elfael trilogy, Mair and Heulwen, a few years after they appear in the novels (partly as a promise—to them, as much as anyone—that they have a future outside the confines of the books, though possibly in a parallel universe). I knew as soon as I created the legendary magician Alcwyn in The Wraiths of Elfael that there were interesting stories to tell of his adventures; this is the first. The shape-changing fight between Alcwyn and his Saxon counterpart was inspired by the old folk ballad, “Two Magicians”, which I first heard in the classic Steeleye Span recording. The verses towards the end are adapted from the medieval Welsh poem “The Battle of the Trees” from the Book of Taliesin. The Welsh Otherworld of Annwn, the Tylwyth Teg, the Cyhyraeth (death spirit) and the Cŵn Annwn (the dogs of Annwn) all figure in Welsh mythology; I have freely adapted them, like the verse, for my own purposes.
I don’t think The President and the Angel came from a dream—but one day I woke up with the story complete, so I jumped out of bed and wrote it down before I forgot. This was a 2,000 word story, another exercise in self-discipline, and again appears more or less untouched. This was the first story I wrote that persuaded me that I could actually write, and started my love affair with angels and demons.
I had the outline of An Heirloom in the back of my mind for a very long time, but not the ending. (Originally it was going to feature an old soldier and his manservant burgling a sorceress’s house in a desert city to pay off a debt, but I couldn’t see where it was to go; and besides the manservant kept morphing into Jeeves until I was forced to write him out altogether.) When I read of the old Roman Strigae, the witches who could turn themselves into owls, I had both my sorceress and my setting.
The Angels of Wick is another of my Caithness mystery stories, combined with my love of (obsession with?) angels. Intended as a light-hearted and even optimistic conclusion to the collection, book-ended with the coming-of-age tale of The Magician’s Son, as soon as I had the idea of angels visiting Wick in the past as a sort of adventure holiday I knew I had my story.
Transgression is the earliest story in the collection, an unusual foray into science fiction for me, and written under a fairly obvious Joseph Conrad influence. I originally wrote this as the prelude to a novel that sensibly refused to be written—the character Ash was to be rescued drifting in space by a party of adventurers on a mission to recover their usurped home world, or something. The Klepht were old Greek pirates, and as so often, the name inspired the story.
Christmas Eve is a throwaway piece, originally written to cheer up a friend who was going through a bad time. The woman has come out on Christmas Eve with thoughts of suicide; but in the human contact with the man and the dog, and his story, she finds a reason to keep going. It seemed important at the time.
I don’t remember much about Genus Loci—when I think of my stories, this is the one I always forget. Whenever I read it I find it obscurely disturbing. But it feels like something someone else inserted into my folder, the cuckoo in my nest—inserted by someone with a few issues, at that.
Kelp is another of my Caithness mystery stories. The idea is simple enough, the link between the two words kelp (seaweed) and kelpie (the supernatural Scottish water horse that drowns its victims in lochs and rivers). It’s all a bit DH Lawrence, and I feel I never quite captured the story the way I wanted; it felt like the real story hid from view until it was too late, like the unicorns in the song who missed out on catching Noah’s Ark. The kelpie has a wet mane, and will throw its rider to safety if they utter Christ’s name.
I feel rather the same way about The Price of Experience. I had the idea of angels and devils fighting a ‘Cold War’ on Earth (not original, but original to me), and as ever I’m drawn to the theology: I love trying to see things from God’s point of view.
The Ghost of Manor Farm is a bittersweet tale, and one of my personal favourites. It owes something to another classic Thorne Smith novel, Topper, in the idea of a ghost falling in love with a mortal and trying to kill them so they can be together. The idea of two stone effigies with linked hands to show their affection for each other in life derives, of course, from Philip Larkin’s great poem, “An Arundel Tomb”. (And I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve wanted to write a story about a bowler’s trousers falling down during a cricket match ever since I was a schoolboy.)
They Do It With Mirrors is just a quick sketch, another throwaway based on the idea that a stage magician might really be a great magician from another world. (It’s an idea I revisited in the Bone Fire with Merlin.)
Finally, Dreams of Flight was another not-quite-dream, another idea that was in my head one morning when I woke up. It’s my other SF story, though as much fantasy as science fiction, and also owes something to Conrad. The central mystery is given away early on, and is hardly a surprise when it comes, but I hope the dénouement is still slightly disquieting, for all that.