Q&A With S. P. Oldham
Q1) Tell us about your book
Born and brought up in Pentyrch, a village at the foot of the Garth Mountain in South Wales, Mari Ann Cabbage is a name I have always been familiar with. As a child she filled me equally with fear, awe and wonder. She played a mysterious and compelling part in the folklore of the region. Many people believed she was a witch, while others called her a thief of sheep, among other things. Whatever was true, it was generally agreed that she came to a sticky end. I wrote a short story loosely based upon her called Mari on the Mountain, though I make no claim to any of it being the truth. It is simply a story of dark fantasy, based upon an intriguing character from my childhood.
Perhaps one day someone will dig beneath the stone on the Garth Mountain that may or may not be her headstone and find out if there are human remains under it. Perhaps science will one day allow us to read whatever is engraved upon that stone. It could be nothing more than myth and legend, but I like to think that she was real, though I dread to think how she might have met her death.
Devil’s Drop is another story based upon mythology I grew up with. At the end of the my street there was a field where we kids used to play daily. There was a gate to clamber over, a horse’s shelter to play in and a patch of trees and shrubs we called ‘the woods.’ In these woods were two small caves, side by side, which led to a maze of underground tunnels. We never went in these caves because we believed, as legend had it, that the Devil lived in them. We did, however, make a rope swing which attached to a tree limb that stretched over the top of them, daring each other to swing over the Devil’s head. This, of course, was all nonsense. Sadly, what was true was that several potholers and cavers, on separate occasions, lost their lives in those caves, due to flooding I believe.
The field has gone now and as far as I know the caves have too. A housing estate stands there now. Perhaps that is just as well.
The Face of the Gale is a story in which I made elemental conditions, i.e., the weather, an actual physical being, a little like Jack Frost except this being is a representation of the wind. Both Devil’s Drop and The Face of the Gale are stories in Wakeful Children: A Collection of Horror and Supernatural Tales.
Another mythology that fascinates me is that of witches, which are universal, though they tend to be different wherever you are in the world. I think these are characters full of wicked potential. They are often portrayed as child-friendly ‘baddies’ in modern culture, but I think they can be far more evil than that. They can become true horror characters very easily.
That said, in Hag’s Breath: A Collection of Witchcraft and Wickedness I have tried to portray witches of all different kinds, including the traditional. I had great fun writing these stories. I can identify with witches in so far as they have a reverence for nature and the ability to work in harmony with it. That resonates with me.
Q2) Why did you focus on myths/legends from that particular region?
Simply put, because it is where I come from! I am familiar with these characters and places, I know what those woods, those caves, looked like. I walked up and played on the Garth Mountain many times in my childhood and teen years. Writing about things you know is not only easier it’s therapeutic, in an odd kind of way. It makes me keen to share with the reader the things I saw, heard, felt, even smelled in those places. I try to convey the darkness, the eeriness, the mystery of the places and people in the same way that they affected me as a child, in the hope it might affect the reader too.
Q3) Who is your favorite mythical figure?
This is a difficult question to answer. I am not sure I have a favourite. I have an affection, if that is the right word, for witches, as I explained above. Spring-Heeled Jack is a genuinely frightening myth, I think. The story of his origin is interesting, too. I have a special place in my heart for Mari Ann Cabbage of course. I love dragons and wizards. As I say, I am not sure I have a favourite.
Q4) If you could choose to hang out with one mythical God, who would it be and why?
It would have to be Offler the Crocodile God created by the wonderful, inimitable Sir Terry Pratchett. Offler is just one of the many gods of Discworld, but he was the first I came across when I first discovered Discworld many years ago. There is a lot more to Offler than the fact that he forbids his adherents from eating broccoli. (I love broccoli but the way. This just made me laugh.)
Q5) Do you plan on writing similar books in the future?
Yes. Mythology, folklore and legend fascinate me. They are a wonderful inspiration for books, stories and poetry, as well as making interesting reading in themselves. I am currently writing a short story based on a mythology that spread the length and breadth of the UK, possibly into Europe; that of wishing trees. I will keep the details under my hat, for now.
This is an extract from my work in progress, a dark fantasy with adult themes called Wicked Little Blade. It is raw and unedited, so while the content and storyline will remain unchanged when it is finally finished, the grammar and presentation probably won’t!
I hope you enjoy it.
S P Oldham
Copyright © S P Oldham
The marble floors of the palace were deliciously cool beneath Shaderassa’s bare feet. In the rare moments when she was able to relax a little, out of the watchful eye of her mother, other parts of her body could delight in the perpetually cool marble of the walls too. She would lean against them, relishing the feel of the smooth, hard stone against her bare arms and shoulders, the back of her legs. Here and there, if she timed it right, it was possible to catch a breeze winding its way down the spotless maze of corridors. It would ruffle the gauzy veils of curtains hanging across the wide doorways like draped cobwebs; the only barriers, such as they were, into the Great Lady’s Inner Sanctum.
Thicker veils were drawn between the pillars at night, enclosing the court in a soft, yielding embrace. The Great Lady had a scorn for doors and gates. At every turn there was a burly guard, with a back as broad and immovable as any door. A legion of assassins was at her disposal; formidable men and women who would kill without a moment’s hesitation. What she called her personal army – a cohort of one hundred seasoned fighters – were permanently lodged in the grounds outside the palace entrance, ready to take arms and fight in her name at any given moment.
Shaderassa’s place in the sanctum was due only to the fact that her mother, a Mirror-mind, was held in high esteem. Over the years she had accurately predicted events both large and small, providing the Great Lady with many an advantage over her adversaries.
Beyond the hearing of the Great Lady there had been many crude jokes and jibes eleven years ago, when her mother had found herself unexpectedly with child. That had been Shaderassa’s start in life, from the very first the object of derision and scorn. No one dared speak a word in the Great Lady’s presence, nor in earshot of any of her close consorts. But outside, in the sweat and sawdust taverns, in the filthy alleyways, the huddled, grimy huts and dusty streets, the people had plenty to say. A seer who could not predict her own pregnancy was too rich a source for ribaldry to let it pass.
“She should have seen that coming!” Someone would shout, someone else replying with the formulated answer, “She couldn’t see it coming, it was buried too deep inside her!”
Then they would fall about laughing, impressed with their own smutty wit, never seeming to tire of it.
Her mother rose above it, not deigning even to look upon the common people. They were of no consequence. For a time though, she teetered on a knife edge in the Inner Sanctum.
The Great Lady’s anger was a cold, hard thing. Though she barely spoke on the subject, it was apparent to all who knew her that she was at war within herself; a Mirror Mind was too great an asset to cast aside, yet such a public failure in one so high could not go unpunished. That the end result was a pregnancy, of all things, was embarrassing as well as disappointing. The court could not be allowed to become a thing of ridicule.
As a result, Shaderassa’s mother was subtly yet blatantly disgraced; made to sit in the lowliest place at table, rarely invited into close conversation, ignored during councils and never asked for her opinion. There was even a rumour of banishment. It was only when she went to the Great Lady after an especially vivid dream, warning her of a conspiracy in the Inner Sanctum - a plot to take her life, no less - that she was finally forgiven and welcomed back into the Great Lady’s good graces.
It was unfortunate, a mere coincidence, that one of the two guards implicated in the plot happened to be the man who had fathered Shaderassa.
The two co-conspirators were dragged to the square, protesting their innocence every scrape and slide of the way. Even as the nooses were laid around their necks and the hoods placed over their heads, they protested. The excited masses stood watching, drooling for their entertainment, but a chill fell over them all at the words one of them uttered as the trapdoor opened beneath his feet.
“Curse you Ellera, you faithless seer! May your bastard infant be the death of you!” The last word was choked off, never fully uttered as the gallows did its grisly work, but everyone heard well enough.
Shaderassa loitered now in the shadows, behind her mother. The Inner Sanctum was gathered in full. The atmosphere, usually languid and decadent, was tense. The Great Lady sat on an ornate, cushioned chair, everyone else standing parallel to the walls, forming a wide and graceful U-shape before her, their eyes cast down in deference.
Immediately in front of the Great Lady a large bathing pool beckoned darkly. Usually a pair of slender, naked bath-maidens swam in it, intoxicating scents wafting at every ripple. Today, the pool was empty.
From her hiding place, Shaderassa looked more closely at the water. It appeared black and oily, no steam rising in lazy curls, making her wish she could shed her garments and slide into it unnoticed. No heady scents to make the eyes close and the imagination wander.
The Great Lady never raised her voice. A clever ploy, her mother had once explained, to make people listen more attentively. Shaderassa rarely heard her mother raise her own voice. She wondered if she had learned that from the Great Lady, or if it was the other way round.
The Great Lady spoke now, her voice somehow dark, seductive. No one dared look up at her words, except Shaderassa, who took care to remain out of sight.
“It grieves me to stand here before you today,” she began, “For I desire nothing more than to lounge in my pool, my maidens attending to me whilst my gracious court entertains and informs me. I wish for nothing more than to be attired in my cool, clean robes, safe in the knowledge that I am secure here in the heart of my kingdom, where the people love and revere me.”
Shaderassa bit her tongue. If she let free the snort of derision at that last remark, she would likely have it cut off. Could it be that the Great Lady did not know how she was resented among the common people?
“Today, I have wearier work to do.”
She fell silent again, scanning the court, seeking someone out. Heart pounding with sudden, inexplicable dread, Shaderassa sank even deeper into the shadows, leaning into a column of marble as if she hoped to become part of it.
The Great Lady’s gaze travelled the u-shape of assembled attendants, flicked over Shaderassa’s mother, remained there. Her mother gave no sign of distress or discovery, remaining rigid where she stood, eyes cast obediently down.
“You again, Ellera. It is ever you.” The Great Lady sighed, the sound echoing in the space, expanding to become the cold breath of a thousand dead souls, making the flesh rise.
She turned her back, the move elegant, assured. For a horrible moment, Shaderassa thought her mother might be rooted to the spot, she took so long to obey the command. Time stood still as the girl held her breath, willing her mother to do as she was bid before the wrath of the Great Lady fell upon her. Then, to her shocked surprise, her mother did indeed move; she turned around, picking Shaderassa out easily among the shadows, catching her eye and holding her there.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed.
The words were soundless, yet they resounded in Shaderassa’s ears as if they had been bellowed. No one else seemed even to have heard. Her mother turned, stepping gracefully after the Great Lady.
Shaderassa watched with growing unease. The two were not exiting the room to go to some private parley, nor was the Great Lady returning to her grand seat. They were making for the dark pool, its slick waters shining like polished leather. When they reached the steps leading down to it, the Great Lady called a halt to their progress.
“The court may look upon me,” she granted. There was a low murmur as the court raised their aching necks to do as they were bid, their faces masks of indifference, afraid to show any emotion lest it be the wrong one.
Shaderassa did not care. She stared through the gap her mother had left, wishing her back was not turned that she might see her face. She had never in all her young life heard her mother apologise. She could not imagine why she had done so now. She realised it was not merely the words she had spoken, but the finality in her mother’s voice. She might just as well have said ‘goodbye.’
With a start, Shaderassa realised the Great Lady was speaking again. It took effort to calm her racing mind and concentrate on what she was saying.
“Here before me stands Ellera. My seer, my prophetess, my lady of wisdom. My Mirror-Mind. That is how I have always looked upon her.” Leaving Shaderassa’s mother at the edge of the pool, the Great Lady began another slow circuit around those assembled there.
“Was I not marvellous, then? Was I not both merciful and gracious when I forgave Ellera her transgression all those years ago? Did I not welcome her back at this court with open arms? Alas, perhaps my tenderness has been my weakness. As was hers, when she opened her arms and legs to a man, allowing herself to become with child.” She stopped suddenly, spinning on the spot to face Ellera from the other side of the pool.
“Does she expect me to be so forgiving a second time?”
There was a gasp from those gathered there, the Great Lady’s demeanour implying that she expected such a response from her audience. She had lifted a slender arm, pointed a thin finger at Ellera.
Shaderassa saw her mother’s shoulders tense at the accusation. Frustrated, she ran between the marble pillars, her bare feet practised and silent as she flew, ghost-like, around the outer perimeter of the court. She needed to see her mother’s face. She was confused. What did the Great Lady mean? Was her mother with child?
Shaderassa knew how babies were made. At night, when the Great Lady had retired to her rooms, there was evidence enough around the court, if you were stealthy enough to spy without being seen. She had been made to lurk in the shadows all her life; she had become proficient at invisibility.
She came to a halt directly behind the Great Lady and the row of courtiers at her back. She pressed deep into the gloomier parts where the light could not reach; at least, not until the torches were lit. She took a sideways step, ducking to see through the gaps. It was no good; she could see nothing clearly.
Atop the marble pillars, high up, there ran a ledge like a shelf, all the way around the court. It had always made Shaderassa think that the columns were holding hands, as if even they needed support to remain standing.
The veils between the columns had not yet been drawn. They hung in neat braids down the length of each pillar, ready for a servant to unfold them. As a small child, Shaderassa had been scolded many times for playing with them as she passed them by. She would have been punished if the Great Lady had found out. Her own mother would have been furious had she known how Shaderassa had learned to climb them, scaling them as easily a monkey up a vine; a skill which had got her out of a tight spot more than once.
It was a risk to do it now, when the court was fully, formally gathered. Shaderassa deliberated, chewing her lip. No one there would dare look away from the spectacle unfolding before them. However it ended, the Great Lady would command them to lower their eyes again, once it was all over. She desperately needed to see her mother’s face; to try to read in it any message she would not be permitted to speak.
It was a risk worth taking. Shaderassa ducked behind the nearest pillar. She grasped the veil hanging there and with surprising agility, moved hand over hand, her feet braced against the marble, until she had reached the top. Not daring to lie along the length of the ledge; that was too bold even for her, she settled for resting her right foot upon it, her left hooked into the soft folds of the veil. She held another bunch of it knotted into her hands. This way, she was still partially hidden by the pillar.
This was better. Now, she could see clearly down into the court. No one had looked up or had stirred at her movement. It was always a curious thing, to be able to see the tops of their heads. Her mother’s hair was dark and glossy, not dissimilar to the pool. She was frowning, her usually calm features distorted. With a jolt of shock, Shaderassa realised her mother was afraid.
I write horror, dark fiction and dark fantasy as well as the occasional horror poem. I have written a zombie trilogy and a standalone (currently) zombie novel, as well as two short story collections and a dark fantasy novel.
I am an avid dog lover and have also published a book based on life with my beautiful, now deceased, Golden Retriever named Roman. I have lots of free reads on my website so if you want to get to know my writing, that’s a great way to start. Feel free to drop me a message if you call in.
You can find me on the following platforms:
On my website, So Lost in Words: https://solostinwords.com/
Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B01N2LSUMX
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About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”