Have you ever been on a viking? Or is that a delicate question? We’re all Norse today, dear listener, because of an excellent new collection of tales, The Raven’s Table, by Christine Morgan. Also, we come from the Nordic North of England – most of the family are from around the old Viking capital of Jorvik (York, if you must). And we grew up by the North Sea, steeped in this stuff, which is something we’ve talked about before. Our rune-roots are strong, so let the rowers put their backs into it…
If you have ever felt like you wanted to fara í viking, you would have been driving your longship through the spray, and dreaming of rich pickings. You would be a vikingr, a Norse raider and trader, but not exactly the revived romantic of the 18th and 19th centuries. You wouldn’t have had too many cow horns stuck to your helmet, either.
If you doubt our expertise, by the way, here’s a genuine photograph of John Linwood Grant. Here he is dressed in his usual day clothes, taken in the late 60s in East Yorkshire.
Christine Morgan is a North American writer of many years’ experience, with a varied output from her Elf Lore books to The Horned Ones: Cornucopia and Murder Girls, shifting between fantasy, other speculative forms and horror. Perhaps most importantly, she’s been a prolific short story writer, and might be said to major in twisting history.
Now she is about to release a collection of her short stories, but this isn’t a slice through her multi-genre range. Instead, The Raven’s Table is very specifically tales of the vikings or Norsefolk. We say folk, rather than men, because the book is generously spattered with women, men and monsters. It’s an excellent read, and we really do recommend it – brutal, lyrical and fantastical. No sitting on the fence with vague plaudits. Let’s find out more…
greydog: Christine, Welcome to greydogtales. Your new book The Raven’s Table is a must-have for anyone with an interest in stories based on Nordic mythology and lore. Reading it was a great pleasure, so first of all, congratulations!
cm: Thanks so much! This whole thing, for all it’s been years in the making, still seems like a rather stunning and sudden surprise, but I’m loving it!
greydog: We know that you write horror. We know that you write fantasy. We even know snippets of your work from stories like ‘Her Father’s Skin’, in Flesh Like Smoke, from April Moon Books (ed. Brian Sammons). What we hadn’t expected was this major collection of Nordic tales. So we’d better ask a few questions. When did the idea for Raven’s Table first come to mind?
cm: Sort of light-heartedly, when I realized I was getting quite a stockpile of Viking stories… “enough for a collection already” was the thought that went through my head. But once it was in there, I couldn’t shake it, and in the meantime I kept writing and selling yet more Viking stories. I figured hey, I must be doing something right, as well as this being something people like to read. Then some of those people started asking when it was going to happen. I half-jokingly pitched the notion to Ross at Word Horde, and he went for it! Now, here we are!
greydog: We imagine there’s some serious research behind Raven’s Table. A necessity or a pleasure?
cm: Both, definitely lots of both. Including a family vacation Norwegian cruise, which gave me the chance to soak in the spectacular scenery from the comfort of a cruise ship — I am not in person rugged or outdoorsy; I’m a bad camper; the idea of doing the actual living history or re-enacting is one I love and admire but am totally unsuited for.
On that trip, we did visit an Iron Age farm, and the Viking Ship Museum, and both were amazing experiences. Being able to stand there within feet of those ships, absorbing the history and taking it all in… wow. For book-type research, it gets a little trickier because so much never got written down, but even that makes for some fascinating puzzle-piecing and extrapolation.
greydog: The collection is a mixture of previously published and new stories, but you wouldn’t know it. They read as a fairly seamless set of tales. Did you have to tinker, or did you find that they flowed nicely as they were?
cm: To my surprise, not much tinkering was required. I gathered them up mostly in chronological order of publication, which was also mostly the order in which they’d been written — many for themed anthology calls, which I adore! — and that made for an interesting variety. The others got added in wherever, finishing with the longest, the novella ‘Brynja’s Beacon.’
I’d started writing that one and realized partway in that it was, in a weird sort of way, a Viking take on the brooding gothic, where the young governess arrives at the mansion of dark intrigue and family secrets, with the mysterious handsome master and the children and the sinister relatives … except, instead of a governess, it’s Unn the slave girl, and instead of a mansion, it’s a longhouse.
greydog: Norse Gothic sounds a good route to go. There’s quite a lot of song/verse sprinkled here and there in the collection. Was this all your own creation, or a reworking of traditional lays to fit the mood of the stories?
cm: The one in ‘The Vulgarity of Giants’ is a reworking of the saga about Thor in the giant Gierrod’s hall, and the one in ‘With Honey Dripping’ is a … well … goat-smutted up variation on another traditional Thor story … the rest are pretty much mine, though some also draw heavily upon fairy tales and other influences. The thing about sagas that I find most appealing is, I love poetry but am not good at it in most other forms. Whenever I try, it locks into Dr. Seuss rhyming structure. The sagas get me away from that.
greydog: Viking and Nordic fantasy can be very cliched – a longship and some hack’n’slash raids. You seem to have teased out much richer elements, showing many different sides of their life, including domestic issues – ‘The Fate-Spinners’, as one example. Can we take it that this was quite deliberate?
cm: Oh, definitely; I wanted to look at those other aspects of life, those other perspectives. In addition to the hack’n’slash, of course; I do always love me a good battle too. When I was working on ‘Sven Bloodhair’, I seem to recall posting something about how any day I can write about grisly decapitations is a good day. But yes, I also wanted to bring in a lot of female point-of-view, as well as those of children and elders, not all the big burly warriors.
This also tied in to my love of fairy tales, a lot of which originally came from the mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers. It helped, though, that there were also a lot of strong women in Viking history and culture. They had to be, and it showed.
greydog: It would be pointless to separate these into fantasy or horror tales – many embody elements of both genres. And some are intensely dark and serious, with endings which bring a shiver. At the same time you have a touch for the earthy, rather than the high-falutin’. Troll piss springs to mind, and shockingly, people have to empty bladder or bowels. Does the mix reflect a personal preference for stories rooted in reality, rather than high fantasy?
cm: My preferences as a reader range widely, from the high-falutin’ literary artistic to the gonzo bizarro and gross-out extreme, so it just naturally goes the same in my writing. And it’s particularly apt for the Viking stuff … the stories of their gods got crass and raunchy too … Loki zinging Freya about farting during sex with her brother, or tying his testicles to a goat’s beard … Odin drinking the magic mead of poetry and then escaping in eagle form and pooping some of it out onto mortals … Thor having to put on a bridal dress to get his hammer back … the people of that time liked their ribald earthy humor as much as anyone else in history. Shakespeare and Chaucer certainly had their share.
greydog: Very true. Now, we have to mention your tale ‘Nails of the Dead’, which must be the best take on Naglfar and its role in Norse myth we’ve seen. Can you share something about that story?
cm: I’m so glad you brought that up; ‘Nails of the Dead’ is a personal favorite and I really wanted to do justice to a myth that is this fantastic evocative spooky thing of which we’re left with hardly any information. At the time, the tellers could just toss the mention out there because it was part of the general lore their audiences knew — my academic hero Professor Drout has a whole bit about this in one of his lectures — but by the time anybody got around to writing it down, the details somehow never made it.
So here’s this bit of wisdom about trimming your nails, and why, and this ship … and that’s all we get. I wanted more. What would this ship look like? How did they get the fingernails? I started thinking someone or something had to collect them, and got this image in my head of a kind of tooth fairy graverobber ghoul-type figure, going around with little pliers; from there it just wrote itself.
greydog: It is a fantastic story. And is this collection the masterwork, or mistresswork, for your Nordic plans? Do you have more in store?
cm: More, more, more! I’ve continued submitting Viking stories to anthologies; probably close to enough for another collection before too long. I’m about thirty thousand words into a Viking horror novel called ‘The Slaughter’, which I elevator pitch as Dexter-meets-Beowulf. I love historical fiction, mythology, and ancient cultures of all types, so I also dabble with Greek/Roman, Egyptian, Aztec/Maya, and others… but the Vikings is where my heart’s truly happiest. Probably because I can get away with the most outrageous purple prose; that’d earn me an editorial swat in any other genre, but over-the-top descriptions and poetic language and alliteration is all good here!
greydog: Finally, we grew up on Viking stories and films which varied from utterly naff to inspiring. What fictional treatments – film, TV or books – are you most fond of?
cm: My first Viking-type memory, like so many others of us I’m sure, would have to be What’s Opera, Doc… kill da wabbit, spear and magic helmet, Bugs Bunny as sexy Brunhilde. I learned early on that the horned helmet thing was Wagnerian license taken too far, so I’ve developed a bit of a peeve about that.
My hands-down fave for best depiction in film is The 13th Warrior; I thought the Lord of the Rings movies did a great job with the Riders of Rohan as drawn on Tolkien’s take on the Norsemen. Book-wise, Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon series is part of what woke my own inner Viking in the first place, and I enjoyed the TV adaptation of The Last Kingdom. And I must give a huge shout-out to the animated series Gargoyles, not only for its many major impacts on my life but because their Vikings were proper Vikings, they brought in Odin, they did a lot very, very right.
greydog: A lovely range of choices. Many thanks for joining us, and the very best with your next project.
cm: Thank you for having me, for the great questions, and giving me space to ramble!
The Raven’s Table is out on 28th February 2017, and you can order here (UK)
Or here (US)
We couldn’t end without the classic theme tune from The Vikings (1958). It wouldn’t be right.
You can find more Nordic stuff kicking around the site, including this post here: whale-road, widow-maker
In two or three days on greydogtales, O best beloved, – something with less vikinger in it, we imagine…