We continue in our mission to be a signpost for the sort of neat stuff that might not be familiar to you. And to find a snappier title for that mission, come to think of it. Today, dear listener, we look into the work of a British writer, Bev Allen, whose recent collection, A Solemn Curfew, is a delightful (and subtly dark) read. It blends elements of folk tales, folk horror and wry British unease, and is well worth a look.
The best way to explain what we mean seemed to be to talk to her about her work, so we did. We’re cunning like that…
An Interview with Bev Allen
greydog: Welcome to greydogtales, Bev. We’re here to talk to you about your collection A Solemn Curfew, but for those who don’t know you, perhaps you could provide a bit of personal background?
bev: You have a choice, either – “Bev Allen is married with two adult children and lives in a small market town in the English shires” or “Bev Allen is an old bat who likes to write stuff. Sometimes it’s science fiction/fantasy adventure stories about soldiers and things (she has a fondness for soldiers, but this should not be taken to mean she likes to hang about outside barracks blocks, at least not often) and sometimes it’s short stories about weird bollocks.
greydog: A fine introduction! It looks as if you emerged in the last five or six years, with your Jabin YA science fiction novel coming out in 2012, and The Tattooed Tribes in 2015. Had you been writing for publication for a while, or is this a relatively recent move for you?
bev: Back in 2007 my son, sick and tired of listening to me whinge on about not knowing what to do with my writing, shoved a copy of SFX magazine under my nose and said, “Send some of it here”. They were running their annual Pulp Idol competition for short stories.
I made a large number of excuses why it wasn’t a good idea and some more stuff about no-one being interested, which he ignored and made me enter. Despite my repeatedly telling him it was a complete waste of time, ‘Maud: A Garden Tale’ was a winner. I was so excited I forgot to smack him round the head for being smug. (BTW, Maud’s story is in A Solemn Curfew and Other Dark Tales).
Remarkably after this I got a commission from Big Finish to write a Dr Who story for one of their anthologies. There will be a small pause now while I do a happy dance, even after all this time, I still get over excited when I remember. Dance over.
I had written Jabin, or a version of it, a few years before all this happened, but in the light of the above I did a bit of a rewrite (as in removing 50,000 surplus words and renaming all the characters to something which wouldn’t make readers want to reach for a bucket. I’m not sure what I was thinking, I may have eaten too much Turkish Delight or been attacked by refugee from a 1960’s acid party when I chose them). It was eventually picked up by an Indie Publisher who published, but added “and the Space Pirates” to the title.
“Why did you let them do something so stupid!” I hear you cry and I can give you no logical reason except I was an idiot or still suffering from the Turkish Delight sugar rush. Anyway, they went belly up and it was picked up by another Indie who dropped the ghastly add on, but who also went belly up after a year or so.
It was after this I gave up on other people publishing me, it seemed a bit unfair, I was beginning to feel I should be called “Bev The Indie Slayer.” I thought there would soon be a crowd of other authors lining up to shout “Jonah”, so I decided to go it alone.
greydog: We’ve seen various comments on the novels, including suggestions that they blur science fiction proper with an amount of fantasy, and, in Jabin’s case, that whilst it is labelled YA, it’s fairly adult in theme emotionally. Are those fair assessments?
bev: Totally and completely fair. I love science, but to be honest, I’m a bit hazy on some of its more complex ideas and when it all gets really, really clever, I’m completely lost and it’s all a bit fantasy like to me; hence I mix SF and fantasy to hide the cracks.
And no, I do not think there is an elf living inside my hard drive with a mind of its own, it’s just that I wouldn’t be totally surprised if it turned there was.
I’m not comfortable with the YA label, but because my main characters tend to be in their teens, the stories are taken to be aimed at that age group. They aren’t, they are suitable for older kids, but they aren’t aimed at them.
I write about teenagers because I like them and it’s a time when the adult is still emerging and character is forming and can still, to a certain extent, be moulded. They are a great age group, they are brave and often gallant, they have an enormous capacity to be idiots, but at the same time can have the wisdom of Solomon. Mix in a few adults who care about them and some villains who don’t and all the story food groups are present.
A Solemn Curfew Explored
greydog: Now, to the meat (or nut-roast) of the day, A Solemn Curfew and Other Dark Tales. Which seems an appropriate way to put it, because food – or the preparation and consumption thereof – is an important part of the collection. Food, and fertilisation. So we’re going to try and explore that without spoiling the stories. For instance, were you aware that the two Fs run though the book, or was that a happenstance, just an accident of collecting the stories together?
bev: I didn’t realise it until you said it. I thought they were all a bit soggy, because my friend Tina pointed out the amount of water involved, but now I see it goes with food and fertilisation as you say.
It was a complete accident, but to be fair, it reflects some of the things which interest me. I like social history and I like to cook, so the history of food is something I find fascinating and I am a sucker for a recipe book, especially if it is one using a technique or ingredient I am unfamiliar with.
I had a go at cheese making last year, hence the ‘Say Cheese’ story. It’s the sum of what I learnt, coupled with the inadvisability of putting out saucers of milk to the little people.
I would like to say I am now an excellent cheese maker, but if I did my nose would probably go through the screen and might even get as far as the elf in the hard drive.
The title story ‘Solemn Curfew’ itself is set mainly in a later Medieval style kitchen and I did a fair bit of research on how it was organised. I also did a lot of reading up on wild mushrooms and what you can and can’t eat. It was fascinating to find out just how easily you can kill yourself if you get it wrong and just how easy it is to get it wrong.
greydog: The stories in Solemn Curfew might not be what readers of Jabin or The Tattooed Tribes would have expected (and vice versa). Why the shift from SF to this type of tale?
bev: Cos my brain goes fizz every now and then and I don’t know why. One minute I am happily writing about “strange new worlds” etc, the next moment something in my head goes “what if that old wives’ tale was true?” and suddenly I’ve got to write about weird stuff. I blame four people.
Ma, who encouraged me to read everything and answered all my history and folklore questions. My paternal gran who had a thing about worms. There wasn’t much that didn’t give ‘em to you.
- Soil under the finger nails…worms
- Eating unwashed fruit…worms.
- Sucking the ends of your plait…worms.
- Biting your nails…worms.
- Playing with unapproved kids…worms.
- Eating grass blades…to be fair, she might have been right about that one.
It’s very hard not to have a feel for the strange when you’ve been convinced at a very early age wriggly things are out to get you.
My maternal gran who liked just like a fairy godmother (small, round, blue eyed and silver haired) who was convinced destiny guided our every step. And my cousin Jem gave me a “comic” to read when I was about nine, it was a graphic novel edition of “Dracula.” I discovered SF when I was about thirteen and I swear to God it saved my sanity, it was all so non-organic, so cleanly scientific and so sensible – I love it, but every now and then I get a wormy/fairy blood sucking moment and the early influence just oozes out.
greydog: Your humour is dry, and as we said, your approach is earthy in a ‘natural world’ way, rather than being vulgar. In fact, Solemn Curfew is a very soil-under-the-fingernails book, moving between feudal and modern settings. Excluding SF, do you have a preference for period?
bev: What really interests me is early history, from the Neolithic to about the 10th C. All history is a source of fascination, except for the damn Tudors and Stuarts, I can live without 1485 to 1714.
greydog: Consider them forgotten. Your approach to the folklore world is one which encompasses sex and appetites, rather than airy dispassion. It’s a welcome change, and adds dimension to your work, some of which might be described as folk tales in the best sense – stories which feel as if they have roots.
bev: They do, they all have their roots in English folklore and in the sort of tales that were told around the fire to stop people thinking about what might be lurking in the dark. I love folk music and folk songs, I adore Morris dancing and the guys who dance with stag’s horns. I like the so called Holy Wells and hill forts and stone circles. I love the roots of England and the history deep in its bones. And I like to put just a small twist in the mix.
greydog: Which you do nicely in Solemn Curfew. It must be said that you also touch on rather dark areas in some of the stories, including delusion and warped intent. ‘The Girl in the Water’ and ‘Swan Song’, for example, cover very unpleasant subjects at the same time as being written with grace. Did you find those harder to write?
bev: Oh God. I wish I could say it did, it might make people less inclined to avoid me at full moon, but the truth is I find it easier to explore the darker side of nature and humanity than the fluffy bunny side. I blame the damn worms.
greydog: It’s difficult to pick a favourite. ‘Cunning Water’ has an almost Roald Dahl feel to it; ‘Say Cheese’ is an unexpected delight – you don’t get many quality fantasy stories that focus on cheese-making. ‘Maud: A Garden Tale’ is perhaps our favourite, for its simple observation of something completely strange. Favourite(s) for you?
bev: I like ‘Maud’. There were “fairies” at the bottom of Maud’s garden, maybe there are “fairies” at the bottom of everyone’s garden. What a happy thought, I may concrete everything and have window boxes instead.
‘Cunning Water’ is probably the one I liked writing most of all. I live near a large number of bournes and local stories about them abound. And then there’s Brenda…shall we say Brenda is not wholly a figment of my imagination, although I did make up the bit about white chocolate.
greydog: And you’re a quilter. We couldn’t leave that out. Share some quilting lore.
- Fabric is a worse addiction than crack cocaine.
- Spit is the best thing to remove blood and chocolate stains from your sewing.
- “Oooh! A new quilt shop. I’m only going in to look and not to buy anything, because I don’t need any more fabric…why are you looking at me like that?”
greydog: Finally, the inevitable ‘What’s Next’. Promoting Solemn Curfew around, writing more along the same lines, or heading off in a completely different direction?
bev: New book out very soon, total fantasy this time, but loads of soldiers. It’s called The Lord of the Faran Hills and is about mercenaries and muskets. It’s just come back from the editors and is with the blurb writer – I am hopeless when it comes to writing blurb.
I should be writing a new SF book, but I keep being attacked by ideas for new short stories. So far there’s the one about the supermarket access, the one about brewing and the one about metal detectors, all I have to do is write them, so maybe if I get attacked enough and stop sewing, there will be another collection of dark tales in due course.
greydog: We’d certainly look forward to more of those dark tales, our meat and drink here at greydogtales. Thank you, Bev Allen, for joining us today, and good fortune.
bev: Thanks. That was a lot of fun.
Bev has an author site which includes books, recipes and quilting, here:
And A Solemn Curfew and Other Dark Tales is available on Amazon US and Amazon UK in Kindle format: