The Big Idea: J. L. Worrad

What is an urban legend without people to tell their tale, and spread fear into the hearts of others? Luckily, author J. L. Worrad is here with a new novel to keep the legend of his hometown monster alive. Read on to see how he utilizes this boogeyman in The Keep Within.


Have you ever heard of Black Annis? On the internet she’s something of a niche folk-monster. Nowhere near the level of Slenderman, granted, but certainly the recipient of much gruesome fan art and fiction. The hipster’s choice of bogeywoman. 

Black Annis hails from my home city of Leicester, England, and so I’m perversely fond of her as I am my local and ever-struggling soccer team. Everyone’s heard of Black Annis around Leicester and, secretly, they hope she hasn’t heard of them.

Of late there has been attempts to rehabilitate mythical witches, with authors reclaiming the likes of Circe or Morgan LaFaye as feminist symbols. Not Black Annis. Black Annis is just fucking creepy. Vast talons foul with human flesh, there grew in place of hands, says one Georgian ode to her, whilst her obscene waist/ warm skins of human victims close embraced. She drains the blood of victims, preferably children, and hangs their tanned hides from an ancient oak outside her cave. Leicester cottages had tiny windows, it is alleged, because people feared her getting in.

The Keep Within, my latest fantasy novel, shamelessly steals Black Annis. Set in the same world as previous novel Pennyblade, the decaying city of Becken is stalked by Red Marie (beautifully rendered on the book’s cover by Julia Lloyd), a creature of ancient fable. The poor live in terror of her. The rich could not care. 

This was a realisation that writing The Keep Within soon led me to: bogeymen are the peasant’s fear, never the noble’s, never the priest’s. Folk monsters represent the ever-ready talons of a precarious life: hunger, want, disease, landlords. But the legend of Black Annis takes the metaphor further. Annis lives in her self-carved cave, yes, but the cave is home to a tunnel that leads some two miles (Leicester’s folklore boasts several absurdly long tunnels) to the cellars of Leicester castle. How poetic is that? The commoner was shrewd indeed to imagine the very seat of power gave succour and respite to their worst nightmare.

The Keep Within is about power. Fear’s power, physical and fiscal power, the desire to have power over others and the desire to be controlled in turn, to be a cog in a machine. It’s perhaps the oddest and most awkward part of the human soul to have to consider. Power—and the allure of power—is also utterly and unforgivably absurd. Thus The Keep Within soon became a black comedy. Most humans, the vast majority in fact, have been serf and slave, sweating out their lives and hopes and true potential beneath another’s yoke. Just thinking about that breaks me out in a cold sweat, as it should any half decent person. Thus one must laugh in the face of Black Annis because it’s either that or weep.

Naturally it’s my protagonist who does much of the laughing. Sir Harrance ‘Harry’ Larksdale, proprietor of the Wreath Theatre and bastard brother of the king. A kind and hearty soul, a man with a foot in both the streets of Becken and the halls of the Keep, the brutish citadel that looms above the city. Larksdale is duality itself, an aristocrat and bawd; a lover of both men and women; the procurer of the king’s delights and the bane of his queen, with whom Larksdale shares a best forgotten past. Like Red Marie he roams freely through a regimented world. Unlike Red Marie he uses that gift, or tries to use it, for his idea of the good. 

The Keep Within was the hardest book I’ve ever worked on but the end result pleases me beyond measure. If nothing else I survived a long walk in the dark with Black Annis.

This time around.

The Keep Within: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Bookshop

Visit J.L. Worrad’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

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