If you want to tell a story in a modern setting, you often have to look at the past to figure out how you got here and now — even if, in the here and now, you want to write a fantasy story. Mike Shevdon learned this in the course of writing Sixty-One Nails, in which a desire to tell a story set today meant he had to follow paths that lead to the past, in the process discovering, as Faulkner once memorably put it, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Here’s Shevdon to explain why.
When I started writing Sixty-One Nails, I wanted to write fantasy set in the real world – the world of shopping malls, CCTV cameras and mobile phones. I wanted to create a feeling that if you were quick and observant enough, you might see something quite extraordinary. I wanted magic in the now.
This is easy to say, but it immediately spawns a host of questions. Where is the magic? Who’s doing it and what are they using it for? Most of all, why don’t we know about it? After all, if people were able to do magic, it would be obvious, right? We’d be able to go into stores and buy it.
As I began researching the novel I realised how little people actually see. So much of modern life is about attracting your attention to adverts or warnings, that we routinely block out anything that isn’t shouting for our attention. It occurred to me, therefore, that it wouldn’t take very much to be completely unnoticed – not invisible, just not seen. I began to postulate that there could be another race of beings living alongside humanity, unseen by most people; the creatures of folk-tales and faerie stories. What if they existed and were part of our world, but we just didn’t notice them?
That spawned a whole new set of questions. If they exist, why aren’t there any records of them? Where are the fossil remains? Why has no-one photographed them? Why don’t they show up on CCTV or trigger burglar alarms? Where do they live? What do they eat?
I started reading and researching English folk-lore and discovered layers of stories like sedimentary rock, with the oldest stories often revealing more ominous themes. The Victorians gentrified fairies and gave them flower petal hats and mushroom houses to live in – Barbie for the nineteenth century – but before that there were other stories with a darker tone.
A number of themes emerged. The appearance and disappearance of creatures and people, often accompanied by a loss of time. Abduction and replacement of children with something older and not necessarily human is also frequent. Sex crops up, often as a single night of passion which seems like a dream once daylight returns. Deals and bargains occur, often to the benefit of the human party, only to fall apart when the human gets greedy or tries to take the source of the power for themselves. These themes fed into the imaginary world hidden beneath the surface of everyday life.
The questions became opportunities. Why are they so interested in sex, fertility and children? Don’t they have any children of their own? What if they live a very long time and therefore breed very slowly? What if they breed so slowly that a catastrophic failure in fertility goes unnoticed until it’s too late? What if they’re dying out? What if they’re the last of their kind? What happens when they discover that a union with humanity is fertile? What happens to the children of that union? Would the half-breeds be a welcome boon, the saving of a dying race? Or would they be gene pollution for an ancient and noble race?
What if it’s both?
As part of the research I started looking into the relationship between faerie-folk and iron. Its use as a talisman against magic is still present in today’s society, which is why horse-shoes hang over doorways and are used as symbols at weddings. It’s why you find iron nails embedded in the roof-beams of old houses and why blacksmiths are considered lucky.
While researching horse-shoes, I came across something unique. In London each year, in the Royal Courts of Justice, which is home to the Supreme Court, a ceremony is conducted as it has been since the year 1211. It’s the oldest legal ceremony in England barring the Coronation, and it involves the payment of two quit rents, a medieval mechanism allowing a person to ‘go quit’ and avoid an obligation to their baronial lord by making a payment or delivering a service in its stead.
The first of these quit rents is for wasteland called ‘The Moors’ in Shropshire, an area well-known for its ancient iron-workings, and it consists of two knives, one blunt and one sharp. The knives are made by a smith and presented to the Queen’s Remembrancer, an official who is also a senior master of the Royal Courts of Justice. The knives are tested in court to verify that the blunt knife will dent, but not cut, a hazel stick of one year’s new growth, and the sharp knife will cut clean through it.
The second Quit Rent is for a forge in Tweezers Alley, just off the Strand and not far from where the ceremony takes place. The forge is no longer there, but the rent is still paid. It consists of six iron horse-shoes and sixty-one nails, all of which are counted out each year in court. The horse shoes are massive, sized for a Flemmish war-horse, and are the oldest known to exist in England.
The ceremony takes place each autumn (I have been to several now) and next year will be the eight-hundredth anniversary. The question that occurred to me was why, after 800 years, though numerous different governments and changes of political system, an industrial revolution, a civil war and two world wars, was a ceremony involving horse-shoes and iron knives still being performed at the heart of the realm?
The answer to that question forms the core of Sixty-One Nails and inspired the title of the book. It is a tale of magic hidden in plain sight, of danger and darkness threading back through human history. It is the story of a man who has a heart attack on the London Underground and is revived by an old lady who tells him that the reason he is alive is that he is not entirely human. It is about his fight for survival, and his discovery of the magic hidden in the real world.