Review: Treacle and Other Twisted Tales

Karen Eisenbrey

Treacle coverTreacle and Other Twisted Tales by Yvonne Marjot (Crooked Cat Books, 2017)

The stories in this excellent collection consist of familiar tales retold in new settings, or new tales inspired by familiar folk tale patterns. They are told in language that feels timeless and exactly right. As promised in the title, each comes with a twist: of humor, of horror, of unexpected magic.

“Aurora in Tatters” presents an Arctic Cinderella who makes her own choice. “Treacle” presents an apparently cozy and humorous situation, but watch out for that twist! “Imago,” set in an entomology lab, uses the language of moth life cycles to illustrate the end of life. “Maryika’s Journey” and “Maryika’s Christmas” follow a contemporary woman into Russian folktales. (I first encountered “Maryika’s Journey” in Paws and Claws, an animal-themed charity collection from Cake & Quill, in which work of mine also appears.) “Five Stay…

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Dressing for (Fantasy Worlds) Success

uprooted pb coverwinged bootsdarker shade pb cover

There are some things everyone would choose. Who wouldn’t want a magic ring? Although maybe not the One Ring; I don’t think any of us have enough darkness to handle that. Of course, if the ring possesses the right properties then it might not matter what you wear. But there are lots of things you can’t do when you’re invisible – so here are my wardrobe choices for those times when you need to look just right, whatever doorway might open.

Newt Scamander’s suitcase, obviously. It beats Mary Poppins’ carpet bag hands down. I’d also like one of those wee bottomless purses; that could be very useful. I probably first encountered this type of magic bag in Andrew Lang’s The Grey Fairy Book, since I worked my way through all the colour fairy books when I was still in primary school, but apparently the object appeared in print as early as 1509AD (fairytalez.com) and it was just as effective when J K Rowling wrote about Hermione’s purple beaded bag almost five hundred years later.

Kell’s coat (A Darker Shade of Magic). Whatever situation presents itself, whatever disguise is required, simply take off the coat and turn it inside out. Sometimes you have to do this several times to get the right coat for the occasion. “Kell wore a very peculiar coat… the first thing he did when he stepped out of one London and into another was take off the coat and turn it inside out once or twice (or even three times) until he found the side he needed.” In my case, one of the sides would be Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak (assuming I didn’t have the Ring) and another would be one of Lothlorien’s elven cloaks. And, of course, one side would need to be The Doctor’s coat, complete with sonic screwdriver. Which doctor? Well, I was going to go for Jodie Whittaker’s new look – I do love a hood – but I’ve realised she’s actually wearing a hoodie under a coat (not a long hooded coat) so I’m going for Peter Capaldi’s elegant scarlet-lined coat.

Vanastalem. I don’t think you can go wrong with the spell Agnieszka is forced to learn in Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. Vanalem – Vanastalem – the simplest form of the word conjures up a straightforward working outfit. The more complex the word, the fancier the clothes, until with a mouthful of syllables you can clothe yourself as befits royalty in full court dress. That’s a lot easier than transporting a wardrobe suitable for all occasions – maybe I won’t need that suitcase after all. “Power shuddered out of me. Crusted pearls and whalebone closed up beneath his hands like armour, and he jerked his hands off me and stepped back as a wall of velvet skirts fell rustling between us.”

Wherhide trousers and vest. Vanalem is all to the good, but for everyday wear I can certainly see the sense in a fabric which is resistant to pretty much everything except threadscore (Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight etc). They’d look good with the coat, and after all I will be riding a dragon of some kind. Or, at least, something huge and disturbing and not altogether easy to see, which people’s minds will tell them is a dragon for want of a better label to pin on the phenomenon (Sheri S Tepper, Grass).

Footwear. I favour soft, low-heeled boots myself. Comfortable for walking – good for running away (always a better plan than fighting, if possible). A pair of Hermes’ cast-offs would do nicely, for those time when flight is required and one’s dragon is otherwise engaged. I’m sure Percy Jackson could get me a pair. Shoes seem simple, but stand for a lot. I’m not even going to get started on the social, or sexual, symbolism of footwear. But my bottom line is that comfort is more important than looks. I plan to journey – and I don’t intend to get blisters!

If you were running away into a fantasy-world adventure, what’s the one object or item of clothing you couldn’t do without?

And here’s the list of books I’ve just referenced:

J R R Tolkien                       The Lord of the Rings

Seanan McGuire               Every Heart a Doorway

J K Rowling                          Fantastic Beasts (screenplay)

P L Travers                          Mary Poppins

Andrew Lang                      The Grey Fairy Book

J K Rowling                          Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

V E Schwab                         A Darker Shade of Magic

J K Rowling                          Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

BBC Television                   Doctor Who (the 12th and 13th Doctors)

Naomi Novik                      Uprooted

Anne McCaffrey               Dragonflight

Sheri S Tepper                   Grass

Rick Riordan                       Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great Summer Reads II – Paranormal

090717 paranormal summer reading covers

‘Paranormal’ is a genre I love to read, whether it crosses over with romance, horror, or pure adventure. It’s a pretty broad category, and these are all very different books. But the five I didn’t write myself are all among my favourites reads, and I recommend all of them.

Storm Bound is my favourite in Dani Harper’s Grim series – a modern take on fairies, witches, and transformative magic. Her books are exciting, romantic, and often quite funny, and even the most bizarre of her fantastic creatures becomes somehow completely believable. If your heart doesn’t break for spellbound Aidan then it must be made of stone.

Jami Gold’s Mythos series introduces a whole range of stories that spring from the supposition that there is a mythical realm lying adjacent to our own – from this realm all our human mythologies arise. She has written a series of books, each focusing on the interactions between a particular Mythos denizen and the human world. This one, Unintended Guardian, is a piece of short fiction, offered free as an introduction to the Mythos universe. There are four full length novels to read as well. Any of them would make a great summer read.

Walking on Wild Air, my own contribution to the genre, is a ghost story with a difference – a male protagonist who is bound to his island hilltop; Scottish noir with nary a kilt or bagpipe in sight. Dougie MacLean is (perhaps literally) to die for, and his love is definitely worth the wait.

Shani Struthers writes a different kind of ghost story in her Psychic Surveys series – ghostly carryings-on are investigated by a team of psychics, who all have their own problems to contend with. The simple process of  sending souls to the light becomes ever more difficult as Ruby Davis and her team are forced to confront a true evil. The Haunting of Highdown Hall is the first in a critically acclaimed series, and I love them.

Last Days Forever is a story about angels. But like everything Vanessa Knipe writes it’s an original take on a familiar trope – indeed a number of familiar storylines are interwoven here, including a time travel strand. Clever, entertaining, well worth a read.

And lastly, Robin McKinley’s Sunshine has been around for a while now, but it’s still the best book about vampires I’ve ever read. Forget everything you’ve been told. This is the dance of light and dark, and it doesn’t go at all the way you expect. Neil Gaiman called this ‘a perfect work of magical literature’, and who am I to argue with the master?

Whatever you decide to read this summer, I hope you’ll consider one of these six. Or do you have a better suggestion? I’m always on the lookout for quality paranormal reads. Let me know what your favourites are.

Walking on Wild Air myBook.to/WildAir

Unintended Guardian http://smarturl.it/UGKin

Storm Bound https://daniharper.com/storm-bound/

The Haunting of Highdown Hall http://a-fwd.com/asin-com=B00JY83HBI

 

 

Great Summer Reads 1

historical cc for summer 2017

Do you want to travel this summer? Come on a journey without leaving your armchair. No matter what the weather is like, I can take you on a trip around the world to sunny climes, to sinister places, to past times as you’ve never experienced them before.

Journey across Europe on the hunt for lost treasures in Nancy Jardine’s thriller Topaz Eyes. Or relax in sunny Corsica while brave Rachel traces her family history through a cache of love letters (The House at Zaronza by Vanessa Couchman).

What if the story of Romeo and Juliet didn’t end the way we think it did? Travel to medieval Verona to relive the events of the famous play, in Sue Barnard’s The Ghostly Father.

Cathie Dunn takes us to the twelfth century in Dark Deceit, where England and Normandy are being torn apart by a bloody civil war. Young Alleyne de Bellac must decide which of her would-be protectors she can trust – the other is deceiving her for his own gain. Jennifer Wilson’s Kindred Spirit is a light-hearted look at the dead kings and queens of England – Richard III haunts the Tower of London, and he has plenty to say about modern day visitors to his haunted home.

And in Lamplight Olga Swan takes us on a journey across the world at the beginning of the twentieth century – from impoverished Birmingham to the bright lights of New York, David Klein seeks his vocation as a war photographer, finally finding himself recording the rise of Nazism in pre-war Germany.

And my books? The Calgary Chessman and its sequels are contemporary romances, but each has an archaeological theme. The first introduces the early mediaeval Lewis Chessmen, the second involves a dig at a 6th century monastic site, and the third investigates the march of the Roman Empire into eastern Scotland.

These are just a taste of what Crooked Cat has to offer. Why not join our reader community https://www.facebook.com/groups/crookedcat/? We love to hear comments from our readers – and if you’re fascinated by a particular part of the world or period of history, let us know. There might just be someone out there writing about it.

The Calgary Chessman myBook.to/CalgaryChessman

The Ghostly Father http://authl.it/B00IBZ96JC

Topaz Eyes http://getbook.at/buymehere

The House at Zaronza http://getbook.at/Zaronza

Kindred Spirits: Tower of London http://authl.it/B016TRKU2A

Lamplight authl.it/4q0

Dark Deceit http://mybook.to/Dark_Deceit

 

 

 

 

 

Taming the Tango Champion

What is it about the tango?

That’s a rhetorical question, by the way. As any of you who know anything about tango already know, it’s all about sultry chords, throbbing rhythms, latin passion, and highly suggestive movements which are (barely) held in check, the male half of the tango pair being, of course, a perfect gentleman, maintaining an air of manly restraint no matter how much the lady (or so it is implied) wishes he would come in close and possess her, right there on the dance floor.

Oof. Sorry, just needed a moment to catch my breath.

Anyway, you don’t need me to tell you anything. There are any number of great renditions online, both from professional dancers and in films. Here’s one of my favourites, starring one of the screen’s great hotties – Antonio Banderas. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lAKlYTQVKY And if you really want an insight into just how sexy tango can be, I’d recommend the wonderful Al Pacino film ‘Scent of a Woman’. In fact, I might treat myself to it tonight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCnB05GrUgc

Cait O’Sullivan’s Taming the Tango Champion https://www.amazon.co.uk/Taming-Tango-Champion-Wicked-Romance-ebook/dp/B06XC4VKRD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498398858&sr=8-1&keywords=taming+the+tango+champion is tango-in-words. It comes in hot and steamy and full of passion, and just keeps ramping it up from there. The tango champion himself, Argentinian Matthias, horse trainer (mm, those thighs…) and dance master, is a barely-contained maelstrom of passionate emotions. He strides onto the first page and takes control, and hardly lets go of it long enough for our heroine, Ava, to tell her story.

Will she fall in love all over again with the completely unsuitable man who fathered her child two years ago? Will she admit to him that he is Bella’s father – and how will he react when he finds out? Most importantly of all, will they finally dance together in front of an audience? Although one suspects that if they do standards of public decency will be not only flouted, but will go up in flames and possibly bring the house down with them.

I first read Taming the Tango Champion in April and enjoyed it very much, but I wasn’t sure I really believed that two people were capable of feeling quite as much as Matthias and Ava manage to express over the course of their story. But they’ve stuck with me, their problems feel very real and the solutions just as difficult to find. Today as I read the book again I’m feeling the truth of this quote from Scent of a Woman.

“No mistakes in the tango, darling. Not like life, simple, that’s what makes the tango so great. If you make a mistake, get all tangled up, you just tango on.”

Matthias and Ava are going to have to sort out their differences, both on and off the dance floor, and the journey this book takes us on describes that very enjoyable process. Tango on down to the good old interweb and get yourself a copy. See if you can handle the Tango Champion. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Taming-Tango-Champion-Wicked-Romance-ebook/dp/B06XC4VKRD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498398858&sr=8-1&keywords=taming+the+tango+champion

Five Scariest Screen Psychos Of All Time

Eli Carros the watcher artwork

While writing my crime thriller The Watcher, and forming the make-up of my lead antagonist, I made a study of various infamous psychopaths.  I did this both from real life psychopaths, and from fictional psychopaths depicted in novels and on screen.  What I was attempting to do was to build up a composite, a unique character who possessed his own, individual motivations, but would feel authentic to readers by carrying on the long tradition of the fictional and cinematic psychopath.

The true psychopath is probably one of the most interesting and yet possibly one of the hardest characters to write, as although he (or she) might be superficially charming, the psychopath has absolutely zero good intention once you get down to the bottom line.  No empathy, zilch, none.

Unlike most villains, who might at least have a redeeming feature or two, a psychopath is defined by their distinct lack of empathy.  It’s hard to find redeeming features in someone who lacks this essential quality.

After all, people can be flawed, they can even do bad things, but someone who can’t identify with people’s pain, who might even enjoy causing harm and seeing others suffer is naturally abhorrent to us.

Quite rightly too, for that lack of empathy, that sadistic streak, is what makes them a psychopath after all, and not just someone’s who’s merely antisocial or has behavioural problems or violent tendencies.

With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how psychopaths have been portrayed on the big screen.   I selected five screen psychopaths, who I feel have made the most impact on viewers and on movie depictions of psychopathy in general, each selected for their own particular brand of psychosis.

So here it is, my round up of the five all time scariest screen psychos – ever.  Feel free to comment if you agree, or disagree, and mention your fave screen psychopaths in comments, if they haven’t been included.

Max Cady in Cape Fear (Robert De Niro) 1991 Directed by Martin Scorsese

Cape Fear was one of the first films I remember watching that scared the hell out of me, which was mostly due to Robert De Niro’s sinister portrayal of convicted rapist Max Cady.  Cady is a menacing, violent and revengeful psychopath, who’s determined to seek revenge on the lawyer he sees as having betrayed him.

The Scorsese directed film also stars Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden, the aforementioned lawyer, and  introduced me to one of my favourite actresses ever, Juliette Lewis, who went on to star in another psycho flick, with Oliver Stone’s bloodsoaked Natural Born Killers.

Cady is manipulative, a master at getting his own way, but he’s also predatorial, as evidenced by the way he expertly works his way into Nolte’s family, via his grooming of Lewis.  There are many points during this movie where I felt the suspense grab me by the gut and the end scene is particularly tense; the first time I saw it I was, literally, on the edge of my seat.

This film is important in the hisroty of fictional psychopaths because it emphasises a common trait many who possess the psychopathic personality have and that’s being unable to rest until perceived injustices are righted.  In Cady’s mind, that’s his rape conviction, and in the movie, his mission number one is to cause maximum damage for the person he perceives as responsible for that conviction, Nolte’s Bowden.

Annie Wilkes in Misery (Kathy Bates) 1990 Directed by Rob Reiner

A truly chilling depiction of a screen psychopath, the sinister yet chillingly everyday Annie Wilkes, brilliantly portrayed by Kathy Bates in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of the Steven King novel.  Annie’s psychopathy unfolds slowly, which only prolongs the intensity and suspense for the viewer, as we all suspect what’s coming for James Caan’s poor writer Paul Sheldon, but we have to wait to have our worst fears confirmed.

When I watched Misery for the first time, it struck me that a claustrophobic domestic setting such as Annie’s cabin can be just as scary, if not more so, than any scenario involving high octane chase or outright kidnap or abduction.

Often it’s the ordinary things, mundane situations carrying a hint of the sinister, that have the power to elicit more creepiness out of us than any amount of over-the-top outright psychotic displays.  What could be more ordinary than the stereotypical middle-America character of Annie Wilkes, at first glance?   Though of course Annie does go on to unleash the full power of her terrifying psychosis in Reiner’s film, at first it’s this subtle undercurrent of menace that grips us and makes us watch on.

Eli Carros the watcher banner

Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (Christian Bale) Adapted from the Bret Easton Ellis Novel

As well as being a brilliant satire on corporate America’s culture of greed, and more, more, more, American Psycho introduces us to one of the most chilling psychos I have ever seen depicted on screen, or in fiction for that matter.

Bateman exudes danger, and unpredictable menace, and what’s more he inflicts the most brutal carnage without showing one shred of remorse.  The film, adapted from the excellent novel by Bret Easton Ellis, is more than just a slasher fest, but is also a fusion of bitingly acerbic social commentary, horror movie, and sly observation on just what happens when a character with no soul like Bateman is enabled by a society committed to some truly selfish mores.

American Psycho features some bizarre and disturbing scenes that perfectly depict the senseless violence of a psychopathic and damaged mind.  More than that though, I think it goes further, and forces us to take a long hard look in the mirror, at our society, and some of the values we currently embrace.

Norman Bates in Psycho (Anthony Perkins) Directed By Alfred Hitchcock 1960

Norman is the classic movie psycho, the gold standard of terrifying madness depicted on the silver screen.  Influenced by his bullying, sadistic mother, Norman goes on to become a psycho of utterly horrifying proportions, butchering seemingly randomly selected hapless guests who’ve had the misfortune to book a stay at the Bates Motel with merciless frenzy.

Norman though, is unlike our other screen psychopaths.  In fact I would argue he is a psychopath made not born, as we the viewers are shown that while indeed he is under the grip of a psychosis of  biblical proportions, his madness is at least in part someone else’s fault aka his mothers.

Hitchcock, of course, was one of the masters of suspense, and in this movie he peaks, with a chilling portrayal of a disturbed and abused mind.  Norman is important in the pantheon of movie psychosis because twisted and depraved as he might be, because of what he has had to endure, viewers can even find some empathy with him.

Hannibal Lector in Silence Of The Lambs (Anthony Hopkins) Directed by Jonathon Demme (Academy Award Winning)

Ah, Hannibal Lector, the menacingly muzzled psychotic, first introduced to us on the silver screen in Jonathon Demme’s dark psychological cinematic foray, The Silence Of The Lambs.  The movie, starring Jodie Foster as FBI agent with a troubled side Clarice Starling, and Anthony Hopkins as the charming but psychotic Hannibal, dares to probe beneath the typical trappings of the big screen psychopath and lets us glimpse at the even more horrifying psyche beneath.

Silence Of The Lambs is particularly scary because Hopkin’s Hannibal knows no bounds.   In his world, everything can be justified, and morality is all relative, held in thrall to a madman’s slanted perspective.  Everything Hannibal does, he can justify, at least in his own mind, and frequently, extremely eloquently to others.

Lector is such an expert manipulator, and so adept at getting under other’s skin, that even Foster’s tough-as-nails FBI Agent Starling starts to unravel. Even in Lector’s most brutal killings there is a chilling restraint and meticulous execution, unlike Bateman, or Bate’s frenzied violence.

Who’s your favourite big screen psycho and why?  Leave a comment below and tell us why you agree or disagree with the top five cinematic psychos featured in this article.

If you enjoy probing the recesses of a psychopathic mind, you’ll love THE WATCHER, a terrifying journey into the twisted mind of a master predator.  The novel is released on June 21st by Crooked Cat Books, and you can pick up a paperback copy at special discount price ahead of the official release, or pre-order your e-copy
GET YOUR COPY OF THE WATCHER AT PRE-ORDER PRICE HERE!

Eli Carros is published by Crooked Cat

Eli Carros author picCClogosmall2Eli Carros the watcher cover

Telling Tales Slant – Something Wicked

This one’s not so much twisted as updated, and brought back to the level of nastiness I remember from reading translations of Grimm. By name and by nature – the endings of folk and fairy tales were once much darker. For this one I have in mind the wonderful Cloris Leachmann (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001458/) , who is currently owning the small screen in ‘American Gods’. Who would you cast in the role of Malva?

Treacle paperback spreadCloris Leachman imdb

Something Wicked, Something Pink

So many people. They must have invited everyone. Malva inserted herself into the stream of partygoers pouring in through the great doors, flung open to the cool air of early evening, and peered through the throng. Everyone except me, that is. She stamped her foot. A startled footman glanced in her direction and she plastered a pleasant smile on her face and accepted a vol-au-vent from the tray he proffered. Now, where is that blasted baby?

She shouldered through the crowds, working her way into the heart of the building. Security was easy to spot – black suits, mirror shades, the whole stone-faced thing – but she had nothing to fear from them. Out here no-one was checking invitations (after all, everybody had one) and a little sleight of hand and misdirection should see her past anyone who took more than a casual interest. As for getting into the christening party itself… “Hello, dear.”

The sharp-suited man startled as the frail elderly woman greeted him. He drew himself up, preparing to send her on her way, but she grasped his elbow with surprisingly strong fingers. “I don’t…”

The words died in his throat as she administered three brisk taps to his wrist, neck and temple. All intelligence drained from his face and he gazed at her, open-mouthed, as she took charge and led him away. “There’s a good boy. Just keep walking. Now, take me to the family.”

He nodded, and escorted her through the crowds, all the way to the golden cradle. Malva relinquished her hostage as soon as she passed through the security cordon (her sibyllic ID – slightly psychic – and a pet security agent were all she needed to baffle the guards) and he wandered back to his post, none the worse for his experience, apart from a baffling tendency to scream whenever small, elderly ladies approached him.

The cradle was mobbed. All the invited bigwigs were offering their well wishes to the family. Malva wormed her way to the edge of the cradle. Some simpering fairy was offering up a pitiful wish. “May your days be merry, and your heart full of cheer.

Pathetic. The parents were lapping it up. The father stood grasping a glass of fizz, while the mother was practically festooned in ribbons and shiny paper from the gifts she was unwrapping. A teddy bear. Pink. A doll’s house. Pink. A satin dress with three layers of frills. Pink, what else? It was enough to make you sick.

“Darling child, your lips are like rosebuds, your eyes as bright as stars. May you marry the handsomest man in the land and live happily ever after.”

For heaven’s sake, is that what it’s come to? A chubby ball of fat, barely out of the womb, and it’s already being wished into a life of painted boredom? It had better hope it didn’t have much of an intellect, because otherwise this promised life was going to be nothing but a disappointment. Malva could stand it no longer. She stepped forward, sharp elbows at the ready.

“If you exchange your identity for invisibility in a pink shroud, you might as well be dead. So be it. At sixteen, you will come of age and die.”

Hilary Mantel

Lynn Forth

I was blown away by Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lecture this morning. So much insight, wisdom and humour, especially about the intertwining of history and fiction  Please listen if you can. I had goose pimples at the end.

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So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

  1. a. British: a thick, sticky dark syrup made from partly refined sugar; molasses.

         b. syrup of a golden-yellow colour; golden syrup.

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

“enough of this treacle—let’s get back to business”

Origin: Middle English (originally denoting an antidote against venom): from Old French triacle, via Latin from Greek thēriakē ‘antidote against venom’, feminine of thēriakos (adjective), from thērion ‘wild beast’. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

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According to various online sources, the word treacle goes back to a borrowing from Old French triacle, a word referring to the sugar-syrup base into which apothecaries would decant whatever nasty-tasting cures they wished their patient to take. The word derives ultimately from a Greek word thēriakē, meaning an antidote against venom, which suggests that its early applications were topical (i.e. slather it on the outside, rather than apply it to the inside).

This dark, viscous product of sugar refining thus gained its name due to its association with apothecaries and their products. All the syrupy by-products of sugar refinement were known as treacle, but later the British firm Lyle perfected the refining process to produce that other, more popular, sugar syrup known as golden syrup. You can still buy treacle – these days it’s often called black treacle (or, in the US, molasses), to distinguish it from its golden cousin.

While sugar can be produced from beets as well as sugar cane, only the latter produces a pleasant tasting treacle.

The 17th century seems to mark the time when treacle made the jump from a medicine to a foodstuff. https://britishfoodhistory.wordpress.com/tag/treacle/ suggests ‘bread tart’ and ‘sweetmeat cake’ as early recipes using treacle, and the earliest recipes for ‘treacle tart’ in the 1870s precede Lyle’s development of golden syrup, even though most modern recipes call for golden syrup rather than black treacle. Gingerbread, which has been around at least since the 1400s, switched to using treacle as an ingredient during the 18th century. But the popularity of ‘Mary Poppins’ suggests that the association of sugar syrup with medicines remains as strong as ever.

I’m rather drawn to the idea that a substance famed for being sickly sweet (as in the famous treacle tart of my story – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter – and the treacle wells mentioned by the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland) ultimately derives its name from medicines which were so bitter that they required a sweet coating. That seems a good metaphor for this story collection.

In Treacle and Other Twisted Tales I take some well-known tales and retell them with a twist, a difference, or a wee flicker of darkness. There are new stories, too, some drawn from imagination and others from experience. There are no entirely happy endings – I don’t really believe in them – but some at least come to satisfactory conclusions. If there’s a moral in the story, it’s that beneath sweetness there is always a small, sharp tang of bitterness, and sometimes the sugar coating is very thin indeed. Life isn’t fair, and nothing ever turns out exactly the way we want it to. These aren’t fairy stories, you know.

As for the second meaning – sentimentality or flattery – isn’t that the business of we fiction writers? I employ my words as the appetising coating to encourage some unpalatable suggestions to go down. Did I sweeten the mixture enough?

And am I genuinely channelling my East End ancestors, or merely mocking Eastenders the soap, when I say to you, “Don’t worry, treacle* – if you don’t like this story, maybe the next one’ll suit you better”?

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart

mybook.to/treacle

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Why Do Beautiful Days Hurt the Most?

800px-Temple_wood_2006

Temple Wood cairn in Kilmartin Glen, by Lnolan at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7247430

So… there I was, driving home from family visits in England. I crossed the border early in the morning, with a quick stop at Gretna for coffee and to say ‘hello’ to Scotland. I had errands to run in Glasgow, and ended up mid-afternoon on the last leg of the journey to catch my ferry, pushing on through torrential rain in a queue of cars all possibly heading for the same destination. Due to a road closure, I’d been forced to take the long way round, south from Inveraray to Lochgilphead, and then up the back road to Oban. The rain gradually eased and the sky lightened. I passed through an area of poor radio reception and pressed the CD button.

I hadn’t registered it consciously, but over the last few weeks I’ve become less and less likely to be struck with a sudden wave of unbearable grief, and I’ve got used to driving again. It’s ages since I’ve had to actually pull off the road and curl up around a pain so awful that it feels as though I’m going to stop breathing. The empty hole in my chest is much larger than a heart ought to be – I’m sure it occupies its own mysterious pocket universe, as no matter how much I feel it seems to have an infinite ability to feel more at a moment’s notice. But there we are – I’d hardly thought about it at all for days. I hadn’t considered the way bad weather keeps us at home, or if we go out it makes us keep our heads down, concentrating on the task at hand rather than taking in our surroundings.

I came round a bend in the road just as the CD started up and a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the rich green pastures of Kilmartin valley, one of the most beautiful and interesting pre-historic sites in Scotland. The song was Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure For Love”, and its haunting saxophone intro hit my ears just as the shaft of sunlight struck the ground, and I remembered that this – this place, these ruins, this history – was one of the places I’d planned to bring Mark to, as soon as we had a chance.

It’s a very beautiful location – lush, rich pastures laid out across the floor of a broad valley, with scattered remains of cairns and standing stones dating from both Neolithic and Bronze Age periods of occupation. I went there with my Dad last October, and I’ve passed through a couple of times on the way to meetings. It’s such a contrast to the rough lands to the north, with their steep slopes and skeletal soils, fit only for forestry or vast swathes of bracken.

Mark had a great love for old places. He wasn’t necessarily compelled to find out the facts about them – he loved to wander into a ruin, perch himself on a pile of stones and pontificate about what life might have been like at the time they were laid down. There are certain abandoned villages on Mull that I can’t visit without breaking down, because his presence there is still so strong. He’d have loved Kilmartin; the place is rich with history: every stone has its story. Under the blade of sunlight lancing down from the heavens, all the brighter for the dark hint of rain behind it, the fields glowed an almost impossible shade of green and Cohen began,

I loved you for a long, long time.

I know this love is real.

It don’t matter how it all went wrong,

That don’t change the way I feel,

And I can’t believe that time is gonna heal

This wound I’m speaking of.

There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.

I shut my eyes. I was in the middle of traffic, at fifty miles per hour, on a winding country road and I shut my eyes. I couldn’t help myself. It only took seconds to extricate myself from the line of cars and pull into a side road where I could stop. There weren’t any tears – I doubled up over an oh-so-familiar pain and as the sunbeam broadened and the landscape glowed I heard myself making a terrible sound, like an animal with its leg in a trap. Interesting thought – if I could rid myself of this pain by some means analogous to gnawing my own leg off, or even if it was possible to free myself by some simple expedient such as medication (and don’t think it hasn’t been suggested to me) – I don’t believe I’d do it. I’m not ready to let go yet.

Someone asked  the other day – not just me, there was a group of us and it was a pretty general question – if you could bring anyone back from the dead for five minutes, who would it be? God. I would bring him back mouldering and half-skeletal for the pleasure of hearing his voice again. I would bring him back just long enough to get there and tell him I loved him before he was gone again. I’d bring him back simply to be there in that final moment, so that he would know he wasn’t dying alone. God help me I’d bring him back for good even if it ended time and destroyed the universe. Thank goodness it isn’t possible to raise the dead!

Of course I didn’t stop breathing. The song ended, the sun went back behind its cloud, the world became ordinary again. My heart kept beating. I’m sorry, my love. For such a long time I hoped it would stop. After all, it isn’t mine. You gave me your fragile but reliable heart, and I promised to take care of it. You broke mine, so badly that it couldn’t keep you alive any more, and now I have your steady beat in my chest and it won’t let me stop. The sun shines, there are still songs to be sung, and beautiful places are somehow even more beautiful now that I wear my nerves exposed and raw. And I couldn’t give your heart back now, even if I wanted to.

It was Philip Sidney (1554 – 1586) who wrote these lines. They are ours, and they remain true.

My true-love hath my heart and I have his,

By just exchange one for the other given:

I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss;

There never was a bargain better driven.

His heart in me keeps me and him in one;

My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:

He loves my heart, for once it was his own;

I cherish his because in me it bides.

His heart his wound received from my sight;

My heart was wounded with his wounded heart;

For as from me on him his hurt did light,

So still, methought, in me his hurt did smart:

Both equal hurt, in this change sought our bliss,

My true love hath my heart and I have his.

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