The Battle for Harmatia has begun…
Cover Art by Stef Tastan
The Harmatia Cycle © Madeleine E. Vaughan
The Battle for Harmatia has begun…
Cover Art by Stef Tastan
The Harmatia Cycle © Madeleine E. Vaughan
The following is a brief exploration of why some find horror and violence in fiction cathartic. While I don’t go into explicit detail, certain topics and tropes found in Horror fiction and other genres will be mentioned.
I have a vivid memory from when I was a young teen, about reading a story that involved several truly horrific and highly detailed torture scenes. Though it was well over ten years ago now, it scared me so much that I can still remember it with terrible clarity. Without going into detail, these scenes would have put Ramsey Bolton’s treatment of Theon Greyjoy to shame – body mutilation, psychological torture, forced cannibalism…I was unable to finish reading the work.
At the time, I couldn’t understand how anyone could stomach writing about something in such explicit detail, let alone reading it. Of course, I am far from innocent when it comes to the treatment of my own characters, and anyone who has read The Harmatia Cycle will know that I do not shy away from putting Rufus, Zachary and the others into truly horrific situations. This, I do, for the purpose of the plot, in order to create conflict.
But never, in all my goriest scenes, have I ever gone into the same explicit detail as that one writer from my childhood.
And it got me thinking – why? Why would someone write something like that?
A few years later, I began studying Greek Tragedy as part of my A Levels, and I was introduced to the concept of Catharsis. Catharsis comes from engaging with an activity or media that releases strong emotions, resulting in an overall sense of calm, refreshment or relief. For example, having a good old cry when you’re stressed or screaming into a pillow when you’re angry can be cathartic. Similarly, watching Tragedy, or Horror, or anything that incites strong emotion can be cathartic too.
Now, this was something that, internally, I was vaguely aware of, but this was the first time that I really got to engage with it on a deeper, more meaningful level. Catharsis is one of those fundamentals that exists within our lives—it ticks along in the background, and is something we all engage with. Media and stories, in particular, provide very safe ways for people to relieve stress and deal with trauma. Think, have you ever listened to a sad song because you actually need to feel sad for a while?
Learning about this, got me thinking about that story I read. Now, I have never been a fan of Horror, nor am I particularly fond of Tragedy—I don’t like being jump-scared or body-horror, and I crave happy endings. Hearing about movies like ‘Saw’ honestly make me come out in a cold sweat, and I have never had the desire to watch ‘Atonement’. I don’t mind characters suffering and going through hardship, but I don’t really get a sense of the catharsis unless there is some kind of recovery at the end, in one shape or another. These things are very particular to me, and go hand in hand with my personal life experiences. Once I became aware of why, and what things gave me a sense of catharsis, I began to see them everywhere in all the media I consumed and created. In-fact, I realised that the sense of catharsis was actually the main component behind all of my artistic preferences and tastes.
I remember now, how my friends would constantly complain that I never knew how to play or sing anything happy—most of the music I performed and composed was sad. (This is still the case.) I also remember my mother complaining about how much I wrote about death, and sadness, and magic. (Also, still the case.) I can map the reasoning behind all of these things, and it leads right back to catharsis. Making myself cry with sadness over a tortured character, and then feeling my heart swell as that character finds inner peace, acceptance and joy makes me feel great. Using emo music to momentarily over-dramatize the grievance of my day, and let my angst soar for the duration of the song, makes me feel better. Simple.
But while it is beguiling to me that anyone would voluntarily watch “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” I also understand that for some people, horror is cathartic in the same way. Indeed, for many, it’s funny. And that humour is based around one very particular thing. It’s fictional.
The safest possible way to deal with your emotions is through the medium of fantasy. You watch “House of Wax” and can laugh or enjoy the thrill, because you know it’s just “actors”, playing parts, and not actual people being horrifically murdered. You can laugh as the obnoxious lawyer gets eaten on the toilet by a T-Rex in Jurassic Park, because it’s not real.
So we go back to the horrific story I read when I was a child—a story which, on reflection, was appropriately detailed for a piece of horror. And now, I can understand it for what it is. The writer wasn’t some kind of monster that was scribbling down their dark, sadistic fantasy about capturing and torturing a person. No, consciously or not—this was a piece of cathartic writing.
And just as I examined why I found certain things cathartic, I began to wonder why someone else would find relief in this kind of materiel. At first, I considered it might be a release of darker emotions—violent, but un-actionable feelings that bubble away in the psyche. The kind of thing that makes you fantasize about punching someone when they’ve really made you angry.
And then I realised if that was the case, then why was it told from the victim’s POV? In-fact, almost all of the Horror fiction I’ve ever had the courage to look at follows the victim’s story. Surely, if the point was to explore the release of violent desires for cathartic or comedic purposes, it would look at the pain from an external perspective—like the lawyer getting eaten in Jurassic Park. (Note the difference between that scene, framed externally, and the one with the children, from their POV as they hide in the kitchen from the raptors.)
That means the catharsis comes from the victim’s experience. The hero who must saw off their own foot to escape from the crocodile enclosure is going through all the pain, the horror and the fear for the reader. And the reader gets to experience these fears, these horrors in a safe environment. They are both brought in and distanced from the events. And at the end, once the book is done, it is closed and the reader is safe.
But why would they want to experience fear and horror, I asked myself, rather hypocritically as I sat next to a pile of ghost stories and closed a Youtube video about cryptid sightings. Well, for the same reason I want to occasionally wail out a sad song. Because those emotions are already boiling away inside of us, and sometimes they need out. On a personal level, watching or reading horror or dystopia would only exacerbate my fear and my anxiety without any reprieve, just as for others listening to endlessly sad songs would lead to a depressive episode, rather than any kind of relief. It can all depend on the person, on the content, or even just on the day. The woman who fears walking down the street at night, gets to safely explore that fear by reading about a crazy man with knives for hands, luring people into the sewers and liquidising their eyes. Meanwhile, the man who fears emasculation and being overpowered, gets to safely deal with those feelings by watching a man-eating Alien torment a crew of space-engineers in what I can only describe as an extended rape metaphor.
I remember an old friend of mine, who had serious phobia about anything eye-related, writing about her character getting blinded.
“Why?” I asked, as she curled over her laptop, staring at her own words in vague horror.
“Because it’s the worst thing I can think of,” she replied.
Later, my mother would pose a similar sentiment to me, about why the parents of my characters were either awfully abusive or dead?
Because the idea of not having parents—real, loving parents—was one of the worst things I could think of.
Now a-days, anyone who reads my work can’t fail to notice the theme of absent or dead mothers. Unfortunately, the worst thing I could think of happened. I lost my mother, and so have the majority of my characters. Where once, they were a vessel to explore my fear, now they explore my trauma. And here’s where another, darker and sadder aspect of cathartic writing rears its head—something which has made me hyper aware of what I read these days, and how I judge it.
Sometimes, people aren’t writing in order to explore their fears or feelings—sometimes, they’re writing to explore their experiences. Violence, grief, trauma—for some, the idea of putting these things to paper is terrifying. It would empower the trauma and trigger negatives memories or feelings. For others, however, re-enacting the trauma through fiction provides a therapeutic opportunity to process what happened, and all of the complexities that come with it.
You might ask – why would someone want to relive their trauma in this way, or take it further? Why wouldn’t they try to rewrite it instead? And many do—they write the narrative they wished for, rather than the one they got. But for me, the catharsis comes in letting my characters experience the pain and grief I often forced myself to downsize and hide, and gives me the chance to have a conversation about the uncomfortable parts of my particular trauma. Writing about it allows me to separate the complexity of my own experiences, and look at it from an outside perspective, which instantly made me more forgiving. I look at the protagonist of my children’s book, and instead of berating her struggles, I want to take her hands and say, “Hey, it’s OK that you’re not 100% together. You just lost one of the most significant figures in your life.”
I could never say that to myself.
It feels like being forgiven.
Ultimately, what this all boils down to is an invitation for self-consideration and reflection. Being aware of my own response to materiel, and why I seek certain things has given me greater understanding of my own needs, and more consideration to the needs of others. I used to be quite snobbish and suspicious when it came to Horror, and side-eyed anyone who enjoyed it “too much”. I thought: “Anyone who actively puts on a movie about teenagers getting killed by a guy who looks like he kissed the inside of a blender, is either a sadist, or just putting themselves through it to look cool.” Because I didn’t get anything out of it, I never bothered to consider the deeper cathartic implications for others. I was throwing stones and judgements without thought or consideration, and at times I was also shaming and blaming myself for the content I reached for.
“Why do you have to be such a baby, Madeleine? It doesn’t always have to have a happy ending. It would be more realistic if you killed this character.”
“You’re being depressing—stop listening to this emo rubbish and put on some real music. Who cares if it doesn’t ‘speak to you’, everyone says it’s better.”
In conclusion, I still don’t like horror. Dystopia makes me anxious. Tragedies usually leave me feeling empty and lonely and unfulfilled. So I know not to reach for that content.
But was the author of that body-horror filled, dystopian tragedy that I read a sadistic monster? Probably not. They were just dealing with their own thing, and I really hope, wherever they are now, that the content they safely create and consume is giving them the catharsis they need.
And if you’re one of those people who relaxes by watching straight to DVD movies about scantily clad teenagers screaming for two hours, as they try to out-maneuver a machete wielding hillbilly riding a giant python, then go for it.
The paradox of quarantine is that there has never been a greater opportunity for people to be creative in an atmosphere which couldn’t be less conducive to being productive.
Even for the seasoned introvert who is very comfortable getting along in solitude, the forced isolation can be difficult. It comes from the restriction, I think, of not being able to go out when you choose, rather than from any particular desire to be doing more than you currently are. It is a limitation of freedom which hangs around your neck like a weight, holding your loved ones, your neighbours, the whole world to ransom. How are you supposed to work in an environment where Covid-19 prowls, invisible, outside the door, like an eldritch monster that that you cannot predict or see.
The added disadvantage is that for many people things feel busier. This even applies to people who aren’t essential workers, but have set themselves up at home. For those who have little experience working from home it can feel like a nightmare—everything takes longer, it’s harder to get into the groove of things, and you have all the frustration of technology and delegation and other nonsense. The very mind-set of working from home can take time to cultivate. After all, we’re used to a certain routine: specific hours, specific clothes, specific locations which are all part of the working experience. When you deviate so suddenly from it, it can be hard to engage your brain into work-mode. On top of that, lots of people have the added pressure of doing another full-day’s work in terms of care-giving, child-care and household chores. (Because yes, if a bunch of people are all in the house constantly together, the washing, tidying and cleaning are going to double!)
This is the sort of environment where stress, fear and tension can cultivate, like mould in a petri dish, multiplying and growing more and more deadly. You pace around your habitat, like a tiger in a cage, simultaneously under and over-stimulated. (The whole question of life for animals in captivity is another conversation entirely.) The results can be a sense of restlessness, anxiety, depression, lethargy and hypertension. Your problem-solving brain is trying to engage and misfiring, staring down the barrel of a pandemic where the only viable solution for many is to stay in-doors and do as little as possible.
One of solutions to this claustrophobic nightmare is to engage your mind with something creative. And yet, at a time where our sanity calls for it, it seems to be more difficult than ever.
So why can’t people just allow themselves the release of being creative? Well I believe that actually comes as an unfortunate by-product of our society’s insistence on marketability. Time and materials are resources that you should only dip into if the resulting product has ‘worth’, and the worth of the product is usually assessed on its monetary value. (Eg. “You could sell that!”). In other-words you can only create things if you are doing it at a professional level. We’re no longer allowed to enjoy something, unless we’re good at it, and thus we don’t do it.
For those who are capable of creating to a professional level they have the added pressure of usually having a vocation related to their art. Perhaps it’s a full-time job, perhaps they’re a freelancer, perhaps they’re a student – the point is that their art is intrinsically connected with work. They can’t draw or write for pleasure, because if they’re drawing or writing, they should be working! Only, as we’ve established, working and productivity are currently harder than ever. And can you blames us? With the weighty traumatic terror of Covid-19 looming, how is any reasonable person supposed to balance the added pressure of deadlines, which are hard enough on their own!
Forget fight or flight, we’re all in full fright mode—we’re playing possum, too overwhelmed and petrified to move.
And yet it remains that being creative might just be the only thing we can do right now, to help relieve this pressure, to combat symptoms of anxiety and depression, and to bring a little brightness into the disaster. But in order to take advantage of it though, we have to let go of that expectation that the product is the important thing. At this time the product doesn’t matter so much as the process—the pleasure of writing, of painting, of playing, of baking, of building. It truly is a situation where ‘The treasure is the friends you made along the way’. By giving yourself a task, but relieving the pressure of expectation, you can engage your problem-solving brain, without the paralysis of inadequacy and requirement getting in the way. Whilst some people have been able to dive into long projects—and kudos to you, my friends—for many, now is not the time to try and create your magnus opus. Now is the time to have fun.
Draw, paint, sculpt, even if you’re bad at it. Take out that candle making set you got for Christmas, make your own cookies with spare Easter treats, learn some origami from a Youtube tutorial. Pick up the guitar that’s gathering dust, make models out of playdough or lego, start scrapbooking. And if you’re like me—write. Write whatever you want; prompts, short-stories, poems, ideas, fanfiction…Anything you want.
And for those who can’t convince themselves to try something they know they’re bad at, or for the artists who cannot suppress the guilt of doing something just for fun, I remind you that practising a craft is never a waste of time. It is the best way to improve. Furthermore, without the pressure, many people will produce good things. Think how many of the great innovations came about by accident, or by someone indulging in a hobby. You might come out of this with your magnus opus yet! The point is to remove the emphasis on the result, and place it on the process.
It’s a rough time for so many people. For those stuck at home, for those who can’t see their families, for those who are out there protecting and serving the public as essential workers, and for those who may have already lost someone…We can’t make that aspect easier, but we can try to help ourselves even as we help each other by staying home, and doing our part in flattening the curve.
A personal note:
I have been running a series of Live ‘Writing Retreats’ on my Author Facebook for the last few weeks, which have been really good. It’s been attended by a whole number of people—dabblers of fiction, and dab-hands, professional writers, students and hobbyists. Each session consists of a number of fun prompts, set to engage your creative mind, without the expectation of results. From my standpoint, I have found them beneficial—coming up with prompts and seeing so many cool ideas has been brilliant. Those who attend have also seemed to really enjoy it, and particularly like the social aspect of sharing ideas and work. Naturally all of my readers are welcome to come and join us. The next Live episode will be on Monday the 20th of April, 14:00. Come and join us, if you like! Until then, stay safe and well, my friends.
In a Fairy Tale Fictions class I taught recently, while analysing the set text, a discussion was started concerning the gender-coding found in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Carter famously moves away from much of the gender expectations, by swapping gender-roles, or at time combining them. (Eg. In “The Bloody Chamber”, it is the mother, not the brothers, who come to the maiden’s rescue. In “The Werewolf”, ‘Red’ is both the young girl, and the hunter, while her grandmother is both Grandmother and Wolf.)
This discussion triggered a desire for me to lay-down to paper (or page) some ideas I had a while back regarding this topic. I will begin by saying that I have often been complimented and thrive off subverting gender-roles and expectations in my work. For example, In The Sons of Thestian, the prophetic royal in need of rescuing from a vicious step-mother is not a Princess, but a Prince, while the knight in shining armour who comes to his rescue is a fairy woman, not a man. It will come as no surprise that I actually wrote The Sons of Thestian whilst first studying The Bloody Chamber, during those delicate school years long ago. Whether I realised it at the time or not, I can see now that Carter’s writing—however much it was prone to make me squirm!—had a significant influence on how my feelings toward gender were initially shaped.
Carter, unfortunately, died the year I was born. And almost ten years after picking up her book for the first time, I cannot help but notice cracks in her particular brand of feminist writing, and re-analyse why in some parts I felt so disconnected by what she wrote. This is through no fault of Carter, nor should she be seen as anything other than a voice at the forefront of feminist writing and literature. Had she been alive today, as the conversation of gender continues to grow, her writing may have reflected the new discussions we are having. It feels cruel to poke at the work of someone who is dead, and cannot defend, explain, or allow their voice to grow in accordance with all modern information. So rather than hold Carter accountable, I will instead use the foundation she built to springboard into some new ideas.
To me, the problem with simply reassigning gender-roles is that ultimately it still exists within the binary. Once again, I say this as someone who frequently explores the dynamics of a story by switching the gender-roles, and swapping typically ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ characters, tropes and ideas. The exploration of gender (and sexuality) is something I pursue in almost all of my works, and I believe it produces nuanced, three-dimensional and believable characters. I also tend to be influenced by fairy tales, which are massively gendered, thanks to the way they were shaped into moral tales for the middle and upper classes. What then can I do but subvert the roles for my enjoyment, just as Carter did? By doing it, however, and advertising it, I am acknowledging the fact that these tropes are gendered. It’s like the exception that proves the rule. I’ve done something new, by acknowledging, and therefore, reaffirming the ‘norm’. Now, this is really a product of society, more than my (or Carter’s) fault as authors. We, as people, gender the most inane things—hobbies, behaviours, objects, colours, names—and then reinforce these ideas in everyday life. You can’t go into any babies sections, without seeing the segregation of the girlish pink, and the boyish blue. From before our fragile minds can even process the information around us, we are inundated with gender specifics. So is it possible to write about gender without acknowledging the very ideas, tropes and expectations which promote and reinforce the arbitrary binary?
Personally, I think Carter’s writing was revolutionary and important, and I think her switching of the gender-roles was a rebellion against the expectation of women (and of men). I also think, however, it relies on the cis-gendered, straight perspective.
In today’s world, we understand that the subject of gender is much more complicated than genitalia. What defines gender is as much to do with brain chemistry, hormones and the general mysteries of the universe, then it is to do with the reproductive system, the mechanics of which is a complicated debate even of itself. The binary is an ancient concept, used as the simplified answer to a deeper conversation, based on a statistical average. And yet, we allow it to dictate the colours of our clothes, toys, hobbies, habits and lives? Essentially, trying to claim that 50% of all human beings are a certain way, must fulfil certain expectations, and all want certain things, based on an understanding they share a physically similar reproductive system, is…putting it bluntly, bat-shit insane. Were we to try and divide it in any other way, it would seem ridiculous. Do we create categories of blue and brown eyed people, and consider green, hazel and grey as outliers? Do we define intelligence, habits, capabilities by this?
Now, the matter of gender is more complex then eye colour. There are a mixture of biological factors that come into it, but these too fall under question the moment you accept that there are more than two genders, and that transexual and transgender people exist. You might say, the strongest man will always be stronger than the strongest woman, but in that example, what constitutes a man? And what constitutes a woman? Could a trans woman compete as the strongest woman? And if she were permitted, would she be forced to medically and hormonally alter herself to fit certain parameters first? Not to say anything about where one places intersex, genderfluid or non-binary people. The case of Renée Richards comes to mind, as well as Caster Semenya*.
Heading back to Carter, and without accusing her of being a TERF—because, as I said, she’s dead, and never even touched on the subject**—her ideas do still rely on the cis-gendered experience. Were I to present her with the ‘strongest man vs strongest woman’ conundrum—and again, I can only imagine, so I will not put words in her mouth—I assume she would answer the question from a limited, cis-gendered standpoint, and would not consider gender as being contained in the brain, but as being irreversibly tied to the body. Instead she might approach the question as I once did:
“Just because the strongest man is stronger than the strongest woman, does not mean all men are stronger than all women. For the strongest woman will still be stronger than the average man. And the weakest man stands no change against the average woman.”
I maintain this belief, which is grounded in the idea of merit being given to the individual’s strength, rather than there gender, but I also understand that there is no true basis in which we can irrefutably say that the physically strongest and weakest people on earth are and will always be a male and female respectively at any given time. (Unless we universally start measuring how much all new-born babies can bench-press?)
Once again, this is not an attempt to demonise Carter. I have genuine bones to pick with her, like some of her appraisal on De Sade and her occasionally maddening writing style, but her brand of feminism is merely a product of its time. But Carter’s writing, despite the reassignment of gendered ideas, is still firmly stuck within the binary, because it does not acknowledge that anything beyond cis-gendered men and women exist. Her women may be nuanced, but their femininity is physically tied to their (straight) sexuality, and their (cis-gendered) body.
Carter’s exploration of female sexual liberty is unapologetic, and arguably still crucial in an era where it remains repressed and underexplored, but Carter’s writing remains painfully hetranormative in it’s exploration. To begin with, so far that I know (and please feel free to prove me wrong!) Carter doesn’t portray any homosexual or Queer relationships in her work. This, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, but the dated hetronormative angle of her work is pronounced even beyond this. In particular it shines through in the tropes she uses, with the undercurrent of power and empowerment going hand in hand with (hetro)sexual liberty.
For example, when depicting her happy relationships, Carter brings the couples together under equal terms—there is consent, there is enthusiasm in both parties—but a traditional binary coding burns clear, either unconsciously or through deliberate choice. How often it is the men, antagonistic or not, who guides the sexual experience to a nervous, virginal girl? How often is the occasion marked by that archaic breaking of the hymen and the blood on the sheets? How often does the maiden swoon into the man’s arms? How often does the woman become the seductress, to try and induce the man to provide her with what she needs (not wants), be that liberty, purpose, or sustenance? How often is the woman described as beautiful? And how often is fulfilment supplied not by the self, but by the right man?
A message shines through, right from the hellish landscape of De Sade’s writing, which equates sexuality with empowerment, the kill or be killed, or in this case, the dominate or be dominated. And while we can wax lyrical about the potential philosophical usefulness and realism represented in De Sade’s disgusting writing, it doesn’t change that it fits a traditional gender role, even if De Sade himself arguably disregarded gender (and even sexuality) as part of the equation. The role of the dominant, sexually capable and strong man, and the subdued, innocent – or perhaps coquettish – female who presents herself to him as a lamb for metaphorical slaughter, is a painful stereotype, and it’s one Carter uses, over and over. The trembling virgin woman and the sexually advanced man, the man being the provider of wealth and home, the virgin myth and the breaking of the hymen, the first orgasm and sexual fulfilment being induced by a male hand… Even the idea of sex as a penetrative act between a man and woman. It’s all outdated. And when the woman is the dominant character, empowered through her sexuality, it is because through this she can control a man. A man then is still needed for her to fulfill her basic needs.
These may be real experiences for some women, but in the Western world, I’m not sure I’d paint them all as the standard, even if we completely ignore the LGBTQA+ community. There’s nothing wrong with Carter’s writing, but as a modern conversation it doesn’t push any new boundaries in the gender conversation. It simply reinforces the old ones, which is an important job, mind, since as quick as those conversation go, someone out there tries to stamp them out again.
I think it’s important to recognise that for some women and men, cis-gendered or trans, their gender identity is tied to their physical body, and is expressed through their sexuality. For some, the gender-norms do apply, and this should not be snubbed, or disregarded. But as we enter a new age of feminist writing, as we explore the subject of gender and sexuality, we must question the binary nature of the discussion. No one quality belongs to a gender, be that strength, colour, or a predilection for knitting. If you want to empower your character, empower them as an individual, and remember; simply applying a male-coded trope to a woman does not equal empowerment.
* This case, beyond gender-politics, was heavily steeped in racism, which must be considered and acknowledged when discussing it.
** That I am currently aware of
This article has just been an expression of some of my thoughts, and I welcome opinions and ideas, whether they be contrary or an expansion of what I have written. I would ask you engage the subject with respect. Intolerance, rudeness or abuse will be deleted. Should you have your own thoughts on the subject, from another standpoint, I would love to hear them as well, and should you have any examples of Carter engaging with LGBTQA+ issues, I especially welcome it.
A folk song written for The Harmatia Cycle Universe, about a Korrigan and a foolish King who wanted to know the future. Written, composed and recorded in an afternoon, using Audacity and Live 10, and an AKG Mic. Performed on an Ibach baby grand piano.
Silvery starlight, hair so fine
The lady sat waiting as fair as moonshine
Lady, tell me your secrets,tell me no lies
On the banks of the water before sunrise
Come closer, my King, come closer yet
To hear my truths you must get wet
Step into the water and into my arms
And I shall reveal all that you ask
The water is cold it bites to the bone
But I will wade in for the sake of my throne
Lady, tell me my future, tell me no lies
For I am safe, only until sunrise
Oh glorious King, how rich you shall be
You kingdom will flourish, your subjects will eat
Your wife will be the envy of every lord
Your son will grow as tall and strong as oak
But as they spoke, the sun did rise
The beautiful lady lost her disguise
Eyes as red as blood shone through her face
And teeth so white and long sank into his flesh
Oh heed now this story, for she told no lies
The King became rich in birds and in flies
From his body a kingdom began to thrive
And his bones were wed to the earth and embraced for all time
And in that spot, where he did lie
A tree did grow, so tall and so wide
Its branches shaded the lady and kept her cool
And there she remains waiting for her next fool
© Madeleine E. Vaughan
Howell was singing loudly in the front-room as Rufus stepped into the house, the snow clinging to his raven hair.
“Sweet boughs of Holly
to make the lord jolly,
And ivy all over the ’ouse!
Spiced mead and wine
And roast ’oney-swine
And a kiss when the sun goes down!
Season of ends, is just the beginning
And in spring will rise up the sun
So, sew your seeds now,
while you all be merry,
And at harvest a baby will come!”
“What are you singing?” Rufus demanded, stamping his feet as he unfastened his sodden cloak. Howell looked over his shoulder with a large smile. He was decorating the threshold with wreaths of holy, mistletoe and ivy.
“Tis an ol’ spell, Love,” Howell said, “for a warm Winter Festival.”
“Sounds more like a sex song in disguise.”
“Aye, well, you would think that.” Howell leant forward and accepted a quick kiss from Rufus, brushing the snow out of his hair. “But the Winter Festival means more to us down ‘ere than it does to you fancy folk from the Capital.”
“Is that right?”
“Tis. Our traditions are old and sacred.”
“And dirty songs are part of that?”
“Nothin’ dirty about love-makin’. Well,” Howell pulled off, “success?”
“Success.” Rufus held up his bag, pulling it open to let Howell expect the contents. “I managed to get all the ingredients. And I deserve high praise, because it was no easy feat.”
Howell picked through the food, running his hand over the packages of meat and game. “Aye,” he said, softly. “This’ll be a feast.”
“You know there are only going to be three of us, don’t you?” Rufus let Howell take the bag. “This is a ludicrous amount of food.”
“Tis a week of celebration, and the season of uninvited guests—the food won’t last, I promise.” Howell patted Rufus’s stomach. “Maybe we can fatten you up for the colder months to come.”
Rufus huffed, but didn’t say anything as something small and fast came shooting down the stairs toward him.
Joshua flung himself from half-way up, and Rufus almost had a small heart-attack as he dove to catch the six year old. “Oof!”
Joshua squealed with delight, wrapping small, strong arms around Rufus’s neck. “Papa!” he gabbled. “There’s a troop passing—can we go? I want to see them!”
“Actors,” Howell clarified. “Puttin’ on the Seven Days.”
“They’re performing here?”
“Nay—down the valley, in Tromoth.”
“Can we go?” Joshua begged, and Rufus tensed, hesitating. Joshua sensed his uncertainty immediately. “Please!” He wrapped his fingers into Rufus’s collar and looked him deeply in the eye. “Please!”
Rufus felt something unnatural tugging inside of him. Joshua had reached into his head and was forcefully trying to shove his uncertainty away, and draw out Rufus’s never-ending desire to please his brother. Rufus frowned. “Joshua,” he scolded, “I’ve told you not to use your powers like that.”
Joshua’s presence in his head snapped back out, and his brother blinked rapidly. “Sorry,” he said, and Rufus wondered whether he’d done it intentionally or not.
“I told him we’d talk about it with you,” Howell said gently, still holding the bag of food.
“I suppose you want to go?” Rufus didn’t intend it to come out as snappish as it did.
“Tis the season of story-tellin’, and the lad’s not seen any of the Seven Nights.”
“I’m not sure those performances are appropriate for a six year old.”
“He won’t pay mind to the parts which don’t mean anythin’ to him. An’ I only propose we go to see the first one—they’re performin’ one each for every day of the festival, startin’ tomorrow.”
Rufus slowly put Joshua down. “Take my bag to the pantry,” he said.
Joshua obeyed without a word, apparently keen to show what a well-behaved a good boy he was. Rufus waited until he’d left the room.
“Tromoth is a proper town,” he said.
“Aye, ’tis—but not so big I imagine there’ll be Magi frequentin’ the ol’ harbour theatre, especially not to see drunkards in costumes tryin’ to remember their lines.” Howell crossed the room and pulled Rufus’s hands clear from where he’d started to run them up through his hair. “Tis a fishin’ town, Love. Not fancy enough for your types.”
“They’re not my types.”
“Nay,” Howell chuckled, “I suppose not.” He cupped Rufus’s face. “The lad’s got a real longin’ for it.”
“He deserves to go,” Rufus agreed. “Perhaps you can take him. Alone.”
“I’m loath to leave you, Love.”
Rufus groaned. “Is it worth the risk?”
“The performance, no? But to be free for a night, Rufus—to unshackle you from ’idin’, I’d like that.”
“I’d like it too. But—”
“I know.” Howell pulled Rufus’s hand up his mouth and kissed it. “I’d rather you safe.”
It snowed all through the night, covering the ground in a thick, perfect blanket. Rufus cut a path from the door through with magic, so that Howell and Joshua could get the horse to the road. Joshua’s hair—dyed freshly black—peeked out from under layers and layers of clothing. They were always wary of winter colds and fevers, with his lungs.
“Have you got money for an inn?” Rufus asked. “Just in case the snow starts up again and you can’t make it back by tonight?”
“Aye—your Papa’s a worrier, isn’t he?” Howell kissed Joshua’s temple as the boy giggled. “Yes, Love, we’ve everythin’ we need and more. I’ll be spoilin’ the lad rotten.”
Rufus’s heart swelled, and he leaned up and squeezed Joshua’s arm. “You behave now. And have a good time.”
Joshua nodded. “I will, Papa.”
Rufus stood and watched them ride away, until the white landscape swallowed them up.
He spent the majority of the afternoon preparing the food for the next few days. He’d bought several books for both Joshua and Howell—as ‘story exchanges’ was one of the key traditions of the season—and bound them together with ribbon.
Howell had already seen to most of the decorations, but Rufus quickly found himself outside, gathering more material, until it felt like there was more of the garden indoors than out.
When he was finished, he practised his fiddle, read, attempted to take a nap, read a little more, played more fiddle, and finally abandoned all hope of distracting himself and went outside.
Darkness had descended quickly, the day hours shortening, as Athea’s reign won over the sky. It was bitingly cold; as Rufus trudged through the snow, his magic gathered to him, fighting off the worst of the chill. He walked down the path along the back of the house, toward the sparse woodland. Perhaps he could make snow sculptures. With a little magic he was sure he could crystalize them into ice, as clean and beautiful as diamond. There had always been ice sculptures at the Winter Festival in Harmatia—huge displays, each more intricate and wonderful than the last.
Don’t think about Harmatia! He forced the thought from his mind, but it was wistfully replaced by another…The smell of spiced soup rising from the kitchen to his small, crooked bedroom in their house above the tailor’s shop. Was there snow in the capital? Were his parents clearing the streets today, as he had cleared the path? How would they be celebrating the first day of the Festival? Would they go to one of dozen theatres in the city? Would they go to an ale-house, or tavern to hear a story-teller? What books would they exchange?
The longing for home struck him so hard he almost doubled over. Rufus gasped, arms clenching tight around his chest. Home. He could see it so clearly. The shop. His bedroom. His parents sat together in the kitchen.
And that wasn’t it, because he couldn’t stop the images of castle either—bedecked in light, hundreds of candles filling the feasting hall, decorated in green and red and white with huge wreaths. And his friends—Zachary, Marcel, Emeric…
The spell was immediately broken. The longing for home gave way to something sharper, and more familiar.
What did it matter if the castle was dressed and beautiful? It was an empty promise. His ‘friends’ had betrayed him, he’d been divided from his parents and Jionat was gone. Forever. Not home. Not anymore. Never again.
Something cold and wet touched his cheek, pulling him from his thoughts. He blinked, and looked up. It was snowing again. Rufus sighed and glanced back up the path he’d come. Distantly he could see the house, a dark speck against a royal blue sky. He didn’t want to return yet, and so he slowly lowered himself to the ground and watched the silent descent of snow across an untouched world.
He wasn’t expecting to see fire-light as he approached the house, an hour later, soaked and cold to the bone. The back door opened and Joshua came charging out. Howell followed with a lantern in his hand.
“There you are, Love! You ‘ad us worried!”
Rufus was thrown off as Joshua caught him around the legs, almost sending him toppling back into the snow. “What are you two doing back so early? I thought you wouldn’t be home for another few hours or so.”
Joshua didn’t reply, his face buried in Rufus’s waist.
“Oh well,” Howell said, shrugging, “we got ‘alf-way through the first performance, and this one suddenly announced it was time to go.”
“Didn’t you enjoy it, Joshua?”
Joshua pulled away only so far as to be able to look up at Rufus. There was something shrewd about his expression, an intelligence beyond his age. “I wanted to go home,” he said, simply, and he hugged Rufus again.
Oh. Rufus felt a lump forming in his throat, and had to swallow down the wash of emotion that welled up inside. Oh. That’s right.
It was stupid, how his little brother could come to the answer before Rufus did—how he could solve the problem so simply. Rufus had longed for home, and Joshua had brought it. Rufus felt that cold, hard sadness in him melt away just a little more.
“Come on now,” Howell said, smiling knowingly, “’ow’s about you two get inside before we let the whole winter in. I think I might have a good story to share instead, fit for weather!”
“That sounds perfect,” Rufus said, and stooping down he picked Joshua up, and stepped into the threshold, into Howell’s waiting arms.
Wishing you all a beautiful Winter Festival of your own. May the holidays be full of friendship, love and beautiful stories.
There was something silver glittering in the forest. It twinkled in the corner of Sorcha’s eye, as inviting as a fishhook.
Monsters hide behind pretty masks, they said, but Sorcha couldn’t look away.
The silver thing rippled. It was a cloak of light, shifting weightlessly in the air. It would be so soft against her skin, Sorcha knew, so breezy and cool, like chiffon woven from secrets.
Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but the cloak was the loveliest thing Sorcha had ever seen.
The silver fabric rippled lazily, it’s trimming burning with an intricate weave of sunlit thread, as thin as spider-web. It was tailored for a God. Never-mind the scratchy woollen shawl around her shoulders, if Sorcha were to wrap that cloak around herself, she’d become the shimmering night sky itself, a constellation of stars.
Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but Sorcha stepped off the path, mind clouded by a green haze of envious desire.
At the corners of the cloak, translucent figures floated on dragonfly wings. They were sprites—small and fantastical, born from the first touch of sunlight on morning dew. Sorcha crept like a huntress, watching as they plucked the winter mist and spun it with dainty hands, weaving it into the beautiful cloak.
Monsters hide behind pretty masks, but the sprites were so small, as fragile as insects, unaware of Sorcha’s watchful eyes.
And so, carefully—so very carefully—Sorcha reached out, and caught the closest sprite in her hand. One squeeze, and the body broke apart like a dried leaf, leaving a glistening stain of gold across her palm.
The second sprite’s scream was like a blackbird’s call, but with shimmering fingers, Sorcha silenced it, and the silver cloak drifted down into her waiting arms.
She threw it around her shoulders and its gleaming aspect transformed her instantly. Her dun brown hair shifted into a cascade of autumnal chestnut, her black eyes deepened into pools of night, and her pockmarked skin become as fresh, and lovely as new snow. She was a Queen, in a cloak of secrets, mist, and stars.
I guess it’s true, Sorcha thought, admiring her reflection in her gold-stained hands. Monsters do hide behind pretty masks.
This piece of flash-fiction was written for one of my classes. We were told we could write about anything, but the story had be 365 Words, one for each day of the year. As someone who struggles to write short work, this was an interesting and enjoyable challenge for me.
I wrote a couple of 365 Word Stories, but this was my favourite. The traditional fairy tale structure lends itself to flash-fiction—a simple story, with strong imagery, ending with a conclusive lesson. The Victorians did a fine job of tailoring fairy tales to be about how good women should behave—dishing out punishments for ‘transgressions’ like confetti at a wedding. As such ‘fairy tale endings’ are often quite transparent. Justice served, goodness rewarded, evil vanquished. It’s so ingrained, not even I expected Sorcha to win, until she did.
It made the whole thing deliciously vicious, and rather than modern…I feel like I’ve ended up telling a very old story instead. One that was never sanitized. One that ought to be remembered.
For those of you on twitter, or deeply invested in the booklr, booktube or bookstagram community, you may have recently come across the disaster that was #SoapGate. It was a hashtag which exploded recently after a book-box subscription included some pretty risky merchandise in their A Court of Thorns and Roses inspired haul. Namely two very highly detailed penis shaped soaps which definitely made this box NSFW. I’m not going to even talk about the completely illegal published fanfiction also included in the box, which breached copy-right on so many levels, because honestly…I don’t have the time or energy to deal with that intense level of nonsense.
Instead, I want to take a different approach to the discussions that surrounded the whole #SoapGate fiasco. It seemed to me that many people were deeply offended by the soap which, whilst hilariously inappropriate, was ultimately harmless and precisely the kind of merchandise you’d expect in an ‘Illyrian boy-friend’ box. Why not enjoy some penis-shaped soap? You stick it to the wall, lather it up and have a giggle…just as long as you don’t try anything else with it, what’s the harm? The box was rated 18+, so no one should have been surprised.
But people were. Why? Not because of the illegal publications, not because of the (some would argue) questionable quality of the writing, but because A Court of Thorns and Roses is a Young Adult book, and including dicks just wasn’t on.
And this really bothered me, because A Court of Thorns and Roses isn’t a Young Adult book. It’s New Adult. So why is no one calling it that?
Unless you’re into a niche in the American market, or you’ve kept your finger on the pulse-line of the book word, the term ‘New Adult’ probably doesn’t mean a whole lot to you. And why should it, when the book world routinely ignores New Adult as an age-group and genre? You go into a book-shop, and you’ll see the Children’s section, the YA shelf, and then adult…and no in-between.
Unfortunately, a between does exist, both in the demographic of readers, and in the books which are being produced.
So what is New Adult? Well to answer that, we have to look at what Young Adult is. Young Adult is a category of children’s books aimed for 14-18 year olds. A good, and easy example of YA is probably Twilight. In YA the main characters are usually between 17 and 18, and there tends to be a romantic plot-line somewhere in the story. The books are more likely to dwell on feelings and thoughts than Middle Grade books, and there is usually a sexual/romantic awakening in some form or another. YA books, especially YA fantasy, have a particular sort of feel to them—they will often be criticised by ‘critical’ readers because of their subject-matter, and are written off as shallow or dull, because anything that’s written for or enjoyed by teenage girls can never be considered valid.
YA also, however, has a knack of addressing subjects in new and innovative ways, through setting, character and story. We get LGBTQ+, Disabled, POC characters in YA books like Six of Crows or The Mortal Instruments. Other YA books comment on capitalism, racism and corruption, such as The Hunger Games and Noughts and Crosses.
These books tackle interesting topics, whilst being relatable to their readers by examining the difficult ins-and-outs of being an adolescent. It’s only natural their ‘film-franchise’ popular.
The problem, however, is the assumption that past 18, we all magically become adults, and 18 to 50 year olds are all the same…
Between the ages of 19 and 25, our personalities are still versatile and developing. From finishing school, most people this age are moving into University, which far from ‘adult life’ is just another phase of learning, adapting, and character building. The human brain is still developing during this time, and it’s only after the age of 25 that our identities and personalities really start to solidify—(and for some, it’s even later!).
So why is this generation of people, the last of the millennials and the eldest of the Gen Z, being completely ignored? We’re not Young Adults any more—that 17 year old girl who’s never kissed a boy isn’t relatable to us, on average. We are a generation who have possibly, if not probably, lost our virginity. We are a generation that has kissed, and flirted. We are a generation who can legally drink, and drive (not at the same time!), and don’t have a curfew. We are a generation who are panicking as we learn to manage our own finances, live alone, get into long-term, serious relationships…
And we are a generation that grew up with the first few cycles of YA books. There is a big, and marketable difference between Game of Thrones and Cinder, Saturday and The Fault in Our Stars. From my own experience, having dabbled in adult-fiction from a young age, even I still got whiplash when I tried to jump from one tier to the other all at once. To me, adult fiction felt too distant, too dense, too impersonal for me to fully enjoy, while with each passing year, YA became increasingly and frustratingly un-relatable. I felt like I was being tossed between two campsites, without ever being comfortable in either, and the Lord knows I wasn’t the only one.
And thus, like Excalibur rising from the lake, New Adult fiction rose from the murky depths of the publishing world. At first glance, it was essentially YA with sex—explicit and detailed, not the virginal, censored touches that made us blush and hide behind our books when we were teenagers. It existed almost primarily within the Romance genre, concerning itself with characters in their early twenties, getting up to some hot mischief—not yet mature, but not children either.
And then, slowly, those nineteen and twenty-year old characters began to leach into other genres as well. And suddenly, A Court of Thorns and Roses was on our shelf, staring a young sexually active woman, with a sexually-active mind, all packaged up in that glorious, readable way that made YA Fantasy so easy and enjoyable to read.
I should add, very quickly, that New Adult isn’t all about sex. Sure, portraying sexual relationships is a key part of it…But there are other avenues that are opened up by NA that YA can only brush on. Abuse, trauma, rape, abandonment, monetary issues—the list goes on, and while YA has been tackling this nest of nightmares for years, it could only ever be as mature as the youngest reader could cope with…And it was also governed by what was deemed appropriate for that age. I mean, when was the last time you read a gay sex scene in a YA book?
And yet, despite the fact that New Adult fiction is being produced, and it is being marketed to us, and it is being read, the prevailing belief that New Adult fiction doesn’t exist continues to burn a hole through my waning patience.
I walked into my local Waterstones recently and saw A Court of Frost and Starlight on the YA shelf. I crossed over, grabbed a copy, picked a sex scene and began to read it aloud. Within two lines, my friend nearby was squirming. Sure, Sarah J Maas doesn’t use the words cunt, fuck and cock, but, my god, all three are present in vivid enough detail that, had I been an old guy in a trench-coat, I’d have probably been arrested. If it’s not something you’d want read-aloud in the children’s section, you probably shouldn’t have it in the children’s section.
And so, back to the #SoapGate disaster then. Ignoring copyright scandals, you all need to stop worrying about phallic toiletries—they’re not the real problem here. The real problem is that a book written for 19+, is being shelved in the same place as books for 13+ because the industry is too afraid of dealing with a new market, when the YA one is already established. Why take risks, when you can make money?
But whether they’re ready to acknowledge it or not, New Adult is in demand, it’s being written, and with the success of each new book, it’s only going to grow. And with growth come cash.
So get used to the term, because New Adult is here to stay.
And so is the dick-soap. (Or not.)
On the 20th of July, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch for Flight, a middle—grade children’s book written by Dr Vanessa Harbour. Vanessa is an academic and lecturer of creative writing at the University of Winchester, as well as a mentor at the highly prestigious Golden Egg Academy.
In one of the old, quiet streets of the picturesque city of Winchester, beyond the magnificent cathedral and through the old stone gates, the book launch was held at PG Wells, a charming independent book-store with buckets of character. There was no better setting for the evening, as people gathered together in an excitable crowd, surrounded by walls of books. Glasses of sparkling prosecco and elderflower press were on hand, and fellow bibliophiles could all gather together in small groups and catch up before the main event began.
The launch was thrown into motion by an opening speech from Crispin Drummond, who runs the Winchester branch of the bookstore. This was followed by a word from Penny Thomas of ‘Firefly’, the publisher responsible for bringing Flight to us. A hush fell over the crowd, which had grown so large it was spilling into the street, people gathered eagerly around the doorway to hear. Stuck on the very edge of the crowd, and unable to slip closer without getting dizzily claustrophobic, I was privy to only every other word, but applauded loudly as Vanessa was asked to address her adoring fans.
As Vanessa stepped up to speak, she may well have been nervous, faced with so many people. After years of commanding the attention of sleep-deprived, hyperactive and occasionally volatile students however, I doubt there’s any crowd that Vanessa can’t easily charm with her natural warmth and humour.
Disappointingly, I only caught snippets of her speech, as noise in the street combined with my bad positioning meant I wasn’t able to get the whole thing. What I can tell you is that the atmosphere in the room was electric. Peering in through the windows to try and get a better look, all attention was focused on Ness. The address was followed by a short reading from Flight, performed by Sally Ballet.
From the first sentence, my imagination was snatched. Flight feels like a book that was meant to be read aloud—the tension, the description, the strong character voice all mingle together to paint a vivid impression. I had the pleasure of hearing the beginning of the book read by Vanessa previously, but was gripped with the same intensity as before. Vanessa’s natural story-telling ability brings the book to life, whilst the narrative is both original and yet classic at the same time. It feels like a book of all ages—the kind of story that will never really grow old.
The reading was met with rapturous applause, and then the second half of the launch began. Two large queues formed—toward the till, and toward the author herself. At the beginning of the evening a copy of Flight could be found propped up on every shelf, in every corner of the room, but these quickly began to disappear as copy after copy was snatched up. By the end of the evening, around 100 copies had been sold, with plenty of guests anticipating the arrival of pre-orders they had already put in.
As I queued to see Vanessa, slices of the fantastic cake, which was decorated for the front cover of Flight, were handed out. An amazing book under arm, a glass of bubbly in one hand, and a slice of chocolate cake in the other, my evening was topped off by Vanessa signing my copy of Flight.
All together, the event was a huge success, and I feel very proud to have been in attendance. A colleague, a teacher and an inspiration, Vanessa has been a role-model to me for years. It was she who introduced me to the Golden Egg Academy—of which many ‘Eggs’ were in attendance to share in Vanessa’s celebration—and it was she who pushed me and supported me through some of the hardest times at University. How one woman can be so full of love, courage and talent I can’t tell, but I feel privileged to have been able to share this moment Vanessa, who deserves every success.
My copy of Flight now sits by my bed, waiting for me to delve back into the 1945’s Nazi-occupied Austria, where Jakob and Kizzy must face perilous odds to save the dancing horses.
Be sure to purchase your copy of Flight from your local bookstore today, or order it online and find out what all the fuss is about!
I’ve just finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora and thought I would share some of my thoughts on my reading of it. I have had a few things spoiled for me about the next couple of books, but for the most part everything I am about to say is based on my reading of book one of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence. Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t read the books.
I realise it isn’t canon, but I have been reading the first book through a ‘Queer’ lens (in the Literary Theory kind of way), and have been analysing the story and text with the idea that Locke Lamora is actually a trans man.
This is based on a number of things, and whilst it isn’t supported by anything which couldn’t otherwise be given an explanation, there are some interesting ideas that make the reading possible.
1) Locke’s size. He is decidedly and noticeably thinner and smaller than the others. This is put down to malnutrition when he was younger, but he was adopted into Chain’s care at around 6/7, and was well fed from there. Despite this, he remained small and thinner than the other characters.
2) Locke rejected and doesn’t go by his ‘birth name’, and chose a new name for himself. He only reveals his ‘birth name’ to his best-friend/brother Jean at the end of the book, and the readers don’t see it. Jean professes that he can understand why Locke decided to call himself Locke instead, by stating that he would have changed his name too (Lynch, p. 529). Once again, we find out this name in book 3, but within the context of the first book alone it fits in with the reading that Locke rejected his birth-name because it was female.
3) Locke is a master of disguise and ‘mummery’ with access to a great number of resources. Considering the Gentleman Bastards have a million disguises, lotions and potions to change their appearance, and also had Sabetha in their ranks, it would be strange if they didn’t have a binder among all of those things. Locke would have had access to all of the materials he might want or need to battle any dysphoria.
4) So far as I remember Locke never refers to his own facial hair or a need to shave. In-fact, in chapter 12, part 1, Locke notes of Jean: ‘Normally fastidious, he was now several days unshaven’ (Lynch, p. 383). This suggests they do not have access to a razor during this period of the book. Despite this, Locke’s only complaint about himself is the fact his hair is greasy (Lynch, p. 397). Not once does he mention a stubble of his own. Seeing as Locke was unconscious for several days prior to this point, we know he didn’t shave himself, and it is unlikely Jean shaved Locke. We know Locke doesn’t have any facial hair during that time, however, because he later applies a false bread and a mustache.
The biggest oppositions to the reading are the following:
All three of these can be fairly easily argued.
In Chapter 3, part 6, Locke breaks into Don Lorenzo’s house and ends up getting into a scuffle with Conte. In the ensuing struggle, Conte fells Locke by kicking him specifically in the ‘groin’ (Lynch, p. 129). At no point does the narration, or Locke himself refer to the injury as being to the balls, the testicles, or any other specific terminology. Indeed, when asked to describe the pain, Locke states it’s ‘As though I’m with child, and the little bastard is trying to cut his way out with an axe.’ (Lynch, p. 129). Locke’s need to vomit and unsteadiness, as well as the pain of being kicked in the groin, can be ascribed to the fact he was also punched three times in the stomach and solar plexus (Lynch, p. 129).
In Chapter 6, Part 5 Locke has gone to a brothel to ‘get [his] brains wenched out’ (Lynch, p. 251). Despite his intentions however, the next section has Locke lying naked in bed, stating that, ‘This isn’t working’ (Lynch, p. 252). His companion, Felice offers him an aphrodisiac, and we are given the impression that Locke just isn’t getting an erection.
Once again, however, nothing is explicitly named. There is no mention of a penis, or testicles. Felice is described as rubbing Locke’s inner thigh, and Locke refers to himself as ‘nothing resembling aroused’ (Lynch, p. 252), never once using language such as ‘hard’ or ‘stiff’ or other words often ascribed to an erection in fiction. The fact that Locke has a ‘slender line of hair’ (Lynch, p. 252) that runs down his stomach is also not direct evidence that he is cisgendered man.
Finally in Chapter 12, part 1, Locke is topless during a scene. The only two people present, however, are Jean, Locke’s closest friend, and Master Ibelius, a physiker (Doctor). Locke is topless because he had been heavily beaten, and Ibelius applied a poultice to his chest to help heal him. This all occurred while Locke was unconscious. Whilst this does play into the rather uncomfortable trend of trans characters being outed through un-consensual nudity, it never-the-less does not rule out the reading, especially if Jean was already aware of Locke being a trans-man, which would be very likely. This would explain why there were no questions asked when Locke woke up, and Locke did not feel overly uncomfortable. Given that the world contains alchemy which is used to recreate a number of technologies, such as lights, heating and other modern day conveniences, it also isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that Locke – given his substantial wealth – was able to purchase a testosterone or hormone equivalent, or even have surgery.
Once again, I am aware this idea was not Scott Lynch’s intention, and that Locke was almost certainly written and conceived as a cisgendered man. However, the book lends itself to the reading, and it is definitely worth considering the text with that literary lens in mind. So far as I currently see it, Locke Lamora is a trans man, and I have yet to find any sufficient evidence that really jars my interpretation.
Lynch, Scott, The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gollancz, London, 2017)