I love the ocean. I love its crash and roar, I love how it purrs violently at night. I love it in a storm, on a clear calm day, or when the full moon is sitting just above the horizon and turning all that black water to silver. I’m also terrified of it. It’s a force of nature: it doesn’t care that you’re there, you can’t negotiate with it, you don’t matter. It’ll eat you up, dash you on rocks, drag you down into the depths. Sometimes it will spit you out – but not always. My family came to Australia on ships a couple of hundred years ago, nothing between them and the deep blue sea except a few planks of wood. The beach is the place I go when everything gets too much, when I just need to sink my feet into the wet sand, feel the waves coming in and out, kind of trying to pull me in, but not really. It’s where I go to empty my head and heart, so the feelings I have for it are powerful and conflicted.

I wanted to write a book in which the sea featured, was almost a character in its own right. Initially I thought All the Murmuring Bones would be an Australian gothic, which I generally (facetiously) define as replacing the darkness of the traditional gothic with burning sunlight, while retaining the same number of weird and creepy uncles trying to steal your inheritance. But as I wrote, it was apparent that it wasn’t quite working. While pondering solutions, it became clear that what (continually) interests and invests me in writing are fairy tales and legends, myths and whispered stories that might be truths or falsehoods or something in between.

I’d already created a fantasy world where versions of such tales formed the scaffolding, the one in which I’d set the mosaic collections Sourdough and Other Stories and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings, and now the very recently released The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales. It’s filled with fairytale monsters, and gothicy elements: horror, mystery, death, romance, dread, fear, a dash of melodrama, picturesque landscapes, darkness, and dimly lit grand houses from which young women run (or toward, depending on the circumstances). I’d woven in lot of strange creatures, but had only ever written one mermaid – a mari-morgan to be precise, in “A Good Husband” – so the answer, the connection lay in the mythological merfolk, those who rule beneath the waves.

I’ve always been interested in water-maidens – mermaids, ashrays, mari-morgans, rusalkas, selkies, finfolk, etcetera – but also deep disliked the main mermaid tale of my childhood, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” (don’t get me started). I wanted my merfolk to be different, frightening: the seas are dark just like gothic houses; there are mysteries lurking deep there; there is danger beneath; it’s beautiful and terrifying.

The protagonist, Miren, flees one big house (Hob’s Hallow) for another (Blackwater). Her life is shrouded – perhaps smothered – in secrets, and there’s the usual repression from family members and societal expectations; all hallmarks of the gothic. Fairy tales are naturally dark (the proper ones, the old ones, the ones told around fires to encourage us to not wander off into the woods because, you know, wolves that go on two legs as well as four). They’re our oldest horror stories, and the gothic shares a lot of the same DNA: darkness, relatives who do not have our best interests at heart, ill-considered romance.

The fairy tale, however, adds magic and that’s what makes them, well, magical. To bring the Sourdough world and the merfolk together as I wanted, I invented “The O’Malley Book of Tales”. It was written over hundreds of years by the family, a mix of myth and legend and lore of the sea. These are the stories Miren (my protagonist) grew up with, which guide her – but it’s a difficult sort of “map” because there’s no way of knowing which stories are true, which are false, and which are a little bit of both. Some are newly written and some are tales I’ve told in other Sourdough books because I wanted those to be the stories of Miren’s childhood the way the Grimms’ were for me.

In All the Murmuring Bones, the O’Malleys always had strong ties with the sea, one foot on land, the other in the water, and I thought about how strange this might make them and what it might have cost – and also what a fraught relationship they might have with those who ruled beneath the waves. I wondered how Miren would go about leaving a family legacy behind, how she might escape it and what that might entail – and what might continue to pursue her. One of the refrains of the book is “All the waters in the world are joined”, so how do you flee? I wanted my dark brooding mermaids to represent that ever-present threat.

So, there you have it: gothic mermaids.

 

 

You can read the SF Book Review at https://sfbook.com/all-the-murmuring-bones.htm