Sunday, 9 December 2012
The paranormal in my ancient world historical romance
Paranormal elements creep into almost all of my fiction. Why? Because eerie, hair standing up on the back of the neck moments do happen in life, Also because I place my characters into strange situations and unusual settings, where their senses are heightened to an almost supernatural state.
In real life, people can experience extraordinary things. A woman I know of was passing a man on a staircase and a thought entered her mind: this is the man you are going to marry. She dismissed the idea as absurd - but it happened and they are still married. In life, people under stress can do extraordinary, almost superhuman things. The woman after a car crash lifting an engine block to free her trapped child beneath. We can all experience feelings of disquiet, of something being 'off'. We can all have dreams which can stalk us.
This is very much the stuff of fiction. Romance especially lends itself to the paranormal and supernatural. When we are in love we feel to be in a transfigured state: all senses and emotions are heightened. In addition, I write romantic suspense, where my characters are in danger and those warning senses we have are on high alert. I also write romance set in the past, at times in the far distant past, where beliefs in spirits, strange creatures, omens and gods were part of everyday life.
In modern life we tend to separate religion and state. In the past belief in supernatural forces, particularly malign supernatural forces, was far stronger. How else could people in the ancient world make sense of what happened to them and around them? When the causes of illness were not understood it would seem logical that an outside influence - an angry god or an evil spirit - had targeted that person or that animal.
Belief is a powerful force. If a character believes he or she can do something out of the ordinary, then sometimes they can. In my historical fiction I use the beliefs of my characters to allow them to tap into something larger than themselves. This 'something' can be a thing of delight or of terror. It is the wonder of the story-teller, used in tales before humans devised writing. And when we did begin to write, ghost stories, paranormal stories 'spooky' stories, were among the earliest tales we committed to clay, papyrus or parchment.
Here are a few paranormal moments from my novels. The first is based on an ancient Roman ghost story of a haunted house, which I adapted to use in 'Flavia's Secret'. In this excerpt, the paranormal is used to show wonder and delight in a special, secret place; a place where Flavia finds the strength to tell Marcus her own deadly secret.
Walking quickly, to show that she did not regret her decision to share this place with him, Flavia returned along the twisting beaten-earth path between the rampant rosemary and lavender bushes. One more twist of the path and they reached the heart of the garden and its startling secret—a private outdoor pool, its shimmering waters steaming in the sun.
‘By Mithras, what a place.’ Looking around, Marcus halted beside her, dropping onto his knees to test the waters of the deep, lead-lined pool. ‘It’s hot!’ he exclaimed, shaking moisture from his hand.
Flavia pointed to a large lead pipe leading away from the pool in the direction of the deserted house before it was lost in the luxuriant undergrowth.
‘We think the owner fixed a conduit somewhere off the spring waters of the Aesculapius spring and directed some of the thermal water here,’ she explained. ‘The pool drains somewhere, too, but we do not know where.’
Marcus sat back on his heels. ‘We?’
‘Those of us who come here, when we can.’
‘Your own private bathing place.’ Marcus jumped to his feet again and walked around the marbled perimeter of the pool. ‘I am surprised nobody has tried to make money with it.’
‘We are careful who we tell,’ Flavia said, squashing disappointment at Marcus’ mercenary approach, but he was staring across the sun-gilded water at the leaf-strewn timber portico leading to the deserted house.
‘I am not surprised at that,’ he said quietly. ‘It is beautiful.’
He watched a small breeze tumble a bronze oak leaf along a small marble walkway leading from the semi-derelict portico to the edge of the pool. ‘Mysterious, quite eerie, but also...comforting. As if you are in an entirely different world.’ He turned about, pointing to the sparkling spiders’ webs on the lavender bushes, rimed with heavy dew. ‘Somewhere forgotten by the rest of the city. A place where magical things become possible.’
‘You understand,’ Flavia whispered, breathing out in relief.
He smiled. ‘It is more than likely that the old owner saw an easy chance to grab some free hot water, but what he has made here, what time has made...I am not surprised he was thought to be a sorcerer.’
Marcus held out both hands to her. ‘Thank you for sharing this, and be assured—your secret with be safe in my keeping.’
Flavia walked to the edge of the secret pool and joined him in studying the waters.
In 'Bronze Lighting,' set in Bronze Age Europe, many characters believe in and practice magic. Here Fearn and Sarmatia, hero and heroine, are taking part in a sky ritual, a dangerous rite that they believe may unmask a murderer.
By this time it was early evening. A pall of dark clouds had gathered over the Sacred Hill. The sun hung over the eastern hills like a bloodstained shield. Fearn looked up at the sky.
'The God will come here when I summon him and we must be ready. Each of you strip off your gold, your silver and bronze. The Sky God does not like the gleam of metal on others.'
He lifted the bronze diadem from his head and laid it on the grass. 'Pile your ornaments here together. Give it to the earth for safekeeping. Quickly!'
At his command, Atterians broke their circle and came to heap their metal broaches, swords, arrows, arm-rings and finger-rings upon the King's diadem. Sarmatia watched Laerimmer take off his golden throat disc and glanced down at her own bronze ring, reluctant to remove it. Looking up, she saw Fearn walking towards her.
'Must I take off my ring?' she asked in Kretan as he reached her. Fearn answered in the same tongue.
'I fear so, Sarmatia.' He looked at her. Men were still gathered about the growing heap of metal. He and Sarmatia had a moment together.
'What is this ritual?'
'Nothing you need fear, Sarmatia. The Sky God knows our hearts. He does not touch those who are innocent. Twice now as King I've been asked to do this rite. The God may take some of our metal as sacrifice and payment, but that's a small thing for the truth.'
Sarmatia took off her bronze ring and gave it to Fearn. 'You must put this with the rest, Fearn. I can't.’ Then, although she already sensed the answer, she asked, 'Is the Sky God the same whose shrine is the Great Stone Circle?'
'It's the same God. And this is the rite the southern kingdoms have forgotten.' He turned and left her.
There are gods in my novels, too. In 'Blue Gold' the gods of ancient Egypt watch mankind from the sun-boat that crosses the sky each day and they sometimes interfere more directly.
“What happens now?” asked Astarte-with-the-moon-in-her-hair.
The eastern goddess of love was paying another visit to the sun boat of Ra. She thought the climate good for her complexion.
The blue god Amun, casting an admiring glance at the silver-haired goddess’s shapely long legs, mumbled something about a race. He ran his hands through a thick fleece of cloud, parting it with his fingers. “Look below us. There is my Pharaoh, a true Egyptian.”
“Ah yes. Sekenenre. The king who toils like an ant. He certainly looks to be making haste.”
Astarte leaned forward, the corners of her eyes crinkling at the sight of Sekenenre and his retinue of priests running their chariots again and again at the same high dune instead of doing the sensible thing of going round it. At her high vantage point, the fifteen chariots moving with such fanatical haste from the small water course where they had hidden their ship looked bizarre, like weevils.
No one on the sun boat reproved or remarked on the goddess’s comments. Those long, shapely legs were even better when she bent over the gunwale. From the middle of the boat came a muffled exclamation as the soul of the long dead Pharaoh Unas dropped the sun god’s fan.
“Fool of a mortal,” said old Ra sharply, squirming on his throne, crossing hands over thighs.
Astarte looked round over one shoulder and smiled, but she reserved her warmest look for Amun. “He is a long way from Thebes, your Sek-en-enre. Did you send a dream to instruct him? Does this true Egyptian know where he is going?”
“Pay no attention to anything Amun says. Sekenenre’s dash into the desert is due entirely to me.” Set materialized at her elbow. He directed Astarte to look over the other side of the boat. “Here’s my man.”
Aweserre’s chariot scuttled jauntily along below them.
In ‘Blue Gold’ when these two pharaohs meet, it is a clash of arms, force and beliefs and it leads to the unleashing of more paranormal forces.