The process of writing a story has a way of revealing one’s knowledge or fascination in terms that extend beyond conscious understanding. A powerful lens into the nature of experience, metaphor conveys information that literal explanations can only attempt. Somewhere inside, our hearts make the connections.
Generally speaking, the ancient practice of shamanism involves learning to perceive those connections via a journey into the Otherworld, the realm of essence and the source of exteriorized reality. This typically happens during some years-long cataclysmic life event such as illness or loss whereby the shaman endures the dissolution of personal boundaries, limitations, and false perceptions, and thereby emerges from the Otherworld not only expanded but also connected to the source. It is essentially a mystical experience.
When I began writing The Gray Isles, I didn’t sit down and think, “How about a story about shamanic initiation?” It started as a story about a young fisherman’s son named Hemlock who has big dreams that contrast miserably with his lot in life. Through him, I embarked upon a sailing trip over the shining waters of an attractive cliché and was promptly accosted by a sea monster with its own ideas. My story grew into a novel complete with tempests, swords, and teeth.
The shamanic initiation often heralds a crushing landslide of doubts and questions about the nature of reality. It’s hard to ignore the forces of the Otherworld when one’s life falls apart at the hands of one’s deepest dreams and desires. At the same time, everything one once imagined possible becomes an illusion in the face of actual experience. It’s a paradox. Transformation inherently implies death: one can’t change unless something is released. For the shaman, this is everything that blocks connection to the Otherworld and understanding of his or her place in the overall scheme of things.
Hemlock’s journey begins with a classic refusal of the call. His perception of reality is shaky as it is, even by the estimation of the wizards he serves, ironically. But he has a deep, visceral connection to the sea. When it shows itself, he naturally assumes it’s just another fantasy. When he gets the idea of trying to prove otherwise—to defend his sanity, of course—he crashes headlong into the implacable clutches of initiation.
This takes Hemlock down, rends him asunder and spits him out on the other side. Now a lost soul, his roots to the earth begin to disintegrate beyond his control. But, cruel as they are, the forces of the cosmos are on his side in the guise of wizards and assassins—and the sea itself, a literal metaphor in this case. A bridge between earth and water, Hemlock is transformed quite nearly to the destruction of everything around him. So it goes. Who would possibly sign up for such a thing if they knew what it would mean?
The legends of sailors and wizards collide in an epic tale of witchery, secrets, curses, and the birth of an immortal.
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© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.