To test his daughter’s new knowledge, Troels took Gjerta deeper into the woods than he ever had before. They stopped frequently and he would ask her, ‘Which way home?’ Gjerta was proud to be right every time. She understood the darkness of the sky.
But the dark between the trees was different. Gjerta could not explain this to Papa. She did not have the right words for it. The darkness between the trees had teeth you couldn’t see until they were upon you. Not fox teeth, not wolf, nor the teeth of a bear.
“Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow” by Ray Cluley
Happy New Year.
I find January a difficult month- post-Christmas blues, dark weather, etc. Perversely, I gravitate to traditional ghost stories such as “The Woman in Black” by Susan Hill or books set in wintery climes like Michelle Paver’s “Outer Dark” and “The White Darkness” by Geraldine McCaughrean.
As such, Ray Cluley’s “Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow” was a real treat and I’m going to sit down for a second reading. Tonight seems like an apt night, with the wind howling around the house. It’s the story of a woman called Gjerta Jørgensen, a member of Slædepatruljen Sirius, who patrol the coastland of Greenland with her partner, Søren Olsen and a dozen sled dogs. As if the extreme conditions aren’t dangerous enough, the darkness of Gjerta’s past waits within the wind and beneath the snow.
I’ve always been a fan of Ray Cluley’s work. This story is ominous from the start and it never lets up- it sustains a smothering and claustrophobic atmosphere, which is no mean feat. The landscape itself is a character in its own right and the language is particularly beautiful in this respect, with lines like “Everything was the colour of starlight. And all between was nothing but wind and snow, offspring of the cold and dark.”
When I think of Ray Cluley, I think of crazy Hollywood (of your award winning short story, “Shark!Shark!”) but more often, dark urban Britain. Is this story a deliberate departure for you?
RC: Yeah, it was. As much as I like to use settings I know well (i.e. that dark urban Britain) it’s important for me to escape a little or else I lose interest in my own stories. I don’t think I’ve stuck around in urban Britain enough for it to mark my work too much (there are other writers you’d think of first in that department) but without occasional forays into Nicaragua or the US, and recently Russia, I’d become too restricted in my writing and bored. (That’s also why I try a little science fiction from time to time as well, a change being as good as a rest and all that.) Regarding ‘Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow’, I’ve always loved the look of the Netherlands but a recent trip to the fjords had me fall in love with the place, though I’ve not seen anywhere near enough of it yet. The Greenland aspects of the story came from an interesting article in the National Geographic, accompanied of course by the usual stunning photographs you’d expect from the magazine. I’m drawn to bleak cold places in literature and films almost as much as I’m drawn to ocean settings (which is possibly my favourite) so I’ll probably write a few more stories based in such locations. I’d love to see an anthology of ‘cold location’ stories, actually.
Tell me a bit of the research you did for this piece, as it contains some authentic sounding detail about living in those conditions as well as folklore, such as the Nisse (elves) and references to St Morten. Some writers hate research and others love it. How do you feel about it?
RC: Oh, I love the research. Love it. Almost as much as the writing, actually – in fact, I possibly love it too much as at times the research kinda takes over and I end up with copious amounts of notes. One of the best things about writing for me, right up there with being able to make up stuff, is the chance to learn a variety of things about different places and cultures and professions, everything. I’m a bit nerdy like that and love learning. The National Geographic article I mentioned pointed me in the right direction for a lot of the Slædepatruljen Sirius information as well as providing useful details about Greenland, and books like The Terror by Dan Simmons and Dark Matter by Michelle Paver helped with immersing myself in the cold. I also used research as an excuse to rewatch classics like The Thing. As for the folklore, I have a load of books on that and often dip into them for inspiration. Google is obviously every writer’s friend but I do like to flick through books and magazines because that’s how you make fortuitous finds or discover lucky links between points that benefit the story, such as being able to reflect Gjerta’s relationship with her father via appropriate Norse gods, or the way Sirius tied Gjerta’s two stories together.
I’m always interested in a writer’s style. I think of humour and word play on one hand with you, and an effortless literary weight on the other. I think this represents something quite different from the other stories I’ve read by you – it has an almost mythical tone. How did that evolve?
RC: Part of it evolved from a conscious desire to ‘get serious’ about my writing. I do try to include a fair bit of humour and/or wordplay to offset the horror sometimes, you’re right, but sometimes it leaves me thinking, well, people will think I’m being a bit flippant with this one. Teaching English exposed me to a lot of the greats and I (rather foolishly?) wanted to attempt something that was a bit more literary. Perhaps most influential was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Now I know I’ll never be McCarthy, but I wanted something of that tone, that seriousness, so I’m hoping the influence goes beyond Gjerta’s use of “papa”. The monochromatic setting comes directly out of the natural landscape of course, but I also hoped to use it in the same way McCarthy used “gray” and “ash” throughout his novel. It was bloody hard work trying to for a more literary feel, but thanks for saying it seems effortless because I’d hate for that effort to show! I was pretty tough on what was cut, and aimed for more ‘show, don’t tell’ than perhaps I’d ever done before, but hopefully it’s not too oblique for the reader.
As for the more directly mythical qualities you mention, those grew out of my focus on the child/parent relationship. Parents hold a gods-like status in the eyes of a child, and those gods aren’t always benevolent; Gjerta creates her own mythology as a way to deal with that realisation. It’s probably also a natural result of Gjerta’s isolation because it puts a her closer to nature, all of its beauty and mystery and danger, and creating a mythology around nature has always been how we as people start to understand or at least explain it. Human nature is more complicated perhaps, more difficult to both understand and accept, hence the story’s psychological aspects as well. The northern lights, the stories about stars, the darkteeth, the man of traps – they’re all ways for Gjerta to acknowledge and interrogate aspects of herself and the world she lives in.
Music is very important to you. You mention listening to Sigur Ros in the intro to the novella. Do you consciously have playlists for each story? Would you tell us the playlist to read to this story to?
RC: I often write to music but it has to be a film score (the new Interstellar soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is fantastic writing music, by the way) or something without lyrics (Philip Glass maybe) or as is the case with Sigur Rós, something with lyrics I can’t understand (some Dead Can Dance tracks are good for this as well). Often I’ll make a playlist but for this story it merely meant all of my Sigur Rós albums – there’s a beautiful haunting melancholy to their music, an ethereal quality, that was entirely appropriate, and being Icelandic they kinda fit with the cold vibe I was going for. I won’t listen to music during the rewrites though because I worry that the music I can hear might do too much of the work for me and that a reader will miss that; I have to ensure the same mood is in the text without musical assistance. That said, if you want a little extra atmosphere, I fully recommend reading ‘Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow’ to a soundtrack of Sigur Rós music turned down low.
Having Jim Burns illustrate this is fantastic. Were you aware of this when the story was accepted? How did you feel when you saw it?
RC: It’s bloody great, isn’t it? What a wonderful wraparound cover, I absolutely love it and will have to get a copy for my wall. I had no idea Jim would be doing it when the story was accepted but I was delighted when I found out, which was at FantasyCon 2013. I had just been talking to Jim about his art actually when Simon (Marshal Jones of Spectral Press) told me about it, so I went right back to Jim to say thanks. He’s illustrated one of my stories before (‘Bloodcloth’, in issue 240 of Interzone) so I knew he’d get the tone of the story right, use appropriate imagery, but I was still blown away by just how perfect his work for ‘Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow’ turned out to be. I’d been using a wonderful painting called Magdalena Bay, by François-Auguste Biard, as an onscreen wallpaper throughout the writing of it but now I use Jim’s art regardless of what I’m working on because I love it so much.
Any advice for writers planning to take a leap into full time writing?
RC: Ha! Not sure I’m the right one to offer such advice. I’ve only done it because, a) I was no longer willing to put up with the unrealistic workload expected of teachers, and b) I sold my flat with enough profit to support myself for a short while. If I’m lucky I’ll manage to make enough over the next year or two to support a meagre existence but it’s very likely I’ll be getting a job again soon, if only part-time. As long as it doesn’t suck the life out of me the same way teaching did, I won’t mind that at all. In fact, whatever I end up doing is bound to give me new ideas for stories.
What else can we expect from you in 2015?
RC: Well the collection, Probably Monsters, should be out from ChiZine Press at the beginning of the year, which I’m very excited, slash, nervous about. Excited, because it’s been a while in the making and it’ll be great to finally have some of my work collected in one book, but nervous because I’ll be reaching a wider audience now and as much as I write for my own enjoyment it’s important to me that others like it. I understand writers who write for themselves first and foremost and all that, but I’m a sucker for reader appreciation because without people reading and enjoying my stories then what’s the point? Not what’s the point in writing – that’s fun – but what would be the point in getting published? Might as well stick each finished story in a drawer. So yeah, I’m hoping people like the stories. Hell, I hope people LOVE them. Black Static readers will be familiar with a few of them, but many are gathered from other publications and there are three new ones in there as well.
Other than that, there are a few shorts stories due in print next year. ‘The Swans’ will appear in the Robert Aickman anthology edited by Johnny Mains, I’ve a zombie story coming out as a part of a series looking at different classic monsters of the horror genre, and hopefully there’ll be one or two more stories I can’t confirm yet. Other than that I’ll be focussing on new projects and getting back into my column for This Is Horror. I’m looking forward to the new year – I’ve got a lot I want to get on with…
Ray Cluley is a British Fantasy Award winner and his stories have been published in various places such as Black Static, Interzone and Crimewave from TTA Press, Shadows & Tall Trees from Undertow Press, and Icarus from Lethe Press, as well as featuring in a number of anthologies. His work has been reprinted for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year (volumes 3 and 6) and Steve Berman’s Wilde Stories 2013: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction. It has also been translated into French and Polish.
You can order a copy of ‘Within the Wind, Beneath the Snow’ here:
Catch up with Ray’s work here: https://probablymonsters.wordpress.com/
And read his column for This Is Horror here: http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/columns/less-is-more/