Winter Webs


Greetings!

Here’s an interesting thing for lovers of nature, spiders, and all things Gothic. Last night, it dropped to a lovely -21°F (-29.4°C) here in northern New England, and early this morning, draped over the porch eaves, was a startling tangle of frozen orb-weaver spider webs.

While harmless, orb-weavers can get alarmingly big over the course of a summer, but their webs are more subtle (all the better to catch and eat you with). You don’t really notice them unless you’re sitting on the porch warily eyeing one of the hobbit-eaters perched in the center of a web glistening in the morning sun; or you unwittingly get a web in the face like an Alien Facehugger (accompanied by a near heart attack resulting from the image of a spider coming after you for revenge).

But when frozen–yikes! Looks like, I don’t know, Australia or something. Seriously, deep winter is the only time I ever notice this phenomenon.

If nothing else, it’s a fascinating reminder of who’s boss around here.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2022. All Rights Reserved.

The Old One

In the Chronicles of Ealiron, the Old One is a primordial goddess of nature, life, death, and transformation. Often referred to as Maern, which means “mother” in the wizard’s tongue, she is unknowable in her true form, but perceived as the concept of the Triple Goddess, a being that comprises three aspects of the Divine Feminine integrated as one: Maiden, Mother and Crone. These aspects exist and are manifested in all things, whether nature, events or the shadows of the psyche.

In the world of Ealiron, wizards govern balance in the realms and gods walk among them; but both mortals and immortals revere the Old One as sovereign. While referred to as a deity, she is more like a force underlying all things. She is inexorable; she is wyrd; she is the void from which all creation emerges. Life always comes, it preserves itself to its own expression, and all things die. She is the power by which consciousness knows itself.

Maiden

She was the first woman, the only woman, the one all women knew. She was as pure as the first breath, soft as flowers and fresh cream as she yielded to him, her cry blowing through the tree in the swirling language of the lair as he broke through her maidenhead and into the eternal warmth and safety of a mother’s womb. – From The Winged Hunter

The Maiden emerges from the void as new: birth, spring, desire, unfolding. She is the individuality of a bud, an egg or a fresh idea, innocent of darkness. Her light shines like a beacon attracting its own demise, as the cycle begins.

© F.T. McKinstry

Mother

She was all cycles, all changes, all movements in the shapes of waves, circles, wells, and caves protecting the wounded. – From The Winged Hunter

The Mother is the abundance of life. She nourishes, grows, heals and protects. She is the exuberance of a blooming garden in full summer, the blush and glow of pregnancy, the instinct of a mother protecting her offspring and the healing of a warrior’s wounds.

Crone

The Destroyer curled her body with supple grace, caressing the depths. She moved up towards the shimmering surface in a silent spiral, hungry and inexorable. To be worthy of providing a vessel in which to hide her child, these mortals would surrender to the forces that gave him life. – From The Gray Isles

The Crone is the Unknown, the Void, Formlessness, that from which all things come and to which all things must return, from a blade of grass to a galaxy. Hers is the power of death, transformation, rebirth and regeneration. All things must pass through the darkness to know the light, and it is usually through her that one can perceive the aspects of the Old One as inseparable. There can be no birth without death; no protection without swords; no healing without destruction; and no innocence that cannot fall. Likewise, there can be no destruction without rebirth. Every phase of life depends on the other.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Old One appears in one shape or another throughout the Chronicles of Ealiron and many of the short stories in Wizards, Woods and Gods.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2021. All Rights Reserved.

BookBub

Greetings, geeks and bookworms!

So I finally got my cats in a row (it’s a more accurate metaphor than ducks, trust me) on BookBub, a good place to find new books and authors, get deals, recommendations, author updates and the like. If you’re into it, feel free to follow me there. I won’t lose you in a creepy forest, I promise. Well. Not right off, anyway.

 

Happy Halloween!

© F.T. McKinstry 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Between the Worlds: Illness and the Forces of Wyrd

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” ― Carl Jung

The Old English term wyrd is a feminine noun that generally means “fate.” In Germanic mythology, it is associated with one of the Norns, the weavers of fate, an arbitrary and implacable force to which all things, even the gods, are subject. In the classical sense, fate and destiny are somewhat dreary concepts. You can resign yourself and make the best of it, but the path is cast.

However, when contemplated from say, the point of view of seiðr, an Old Norse magical practice related to telling and shaping the future; or the quantum theory that everything is energy and all is connected, wyrd gets a bit more complex. From these perspectives, wyrd is an infinite, living web that exists in the present moment, where one choice can send a ripple that will touch the whole. Because we are mostly focused on the physical outcomes of these choices, it can be difficult to see the source, and easy to perceive the outcome as fated events over which we have no control.

Wyrd bið ful aræd. Fate is wholly inexorable. Or is it? When the sovereign power of choice is brought into the equation, wyrd becomes less of a spider web that hopelessly entangles us, and more of a loom on which a story is woven. A seiðr witch might change a fucked situation by peering into the web to discern the choices that created it, then plucking out the threads to allow new choices. Even when we’re affected by a choice someone else made, no matter how seemingly permanent the result, we can still make our own choices. The only thing that’s inexorable is the ripple on the web.

I’ve been sick for a long time. One of those arcane autoimmune conditions with unsatisfactory explanations, lots of theories and no cure. Life ruined from one day to the next kind of thing. The details don’t matter; these scenarios happen to people every day, and each instance is profoundly personal and subjective no matter what label gets superglued onto it.

One thing common with illness, however, is the experience of fate in all its classical glory, complete with cruel, capricious deities wielding bone needles as they cast their empty gazes over the fallen. Resisting fate is a hallmark of humanity. You’ll do anything to evade it. Fate will send you and your sword down, down to the roots of Yggdrasil for answers and there, you will drop to your knees and weep as you surrender to your own reflection in the pool.

The seiðr witch doesn’t work for free, in other words. You have to leave something behind.

And this brings me to the reason I’m talking about this on my author blog. Something happened to me by that pool, in the still point between the worlds, the spaces between the silvery strands of the web.

Stories. I had been writing for quite some time, wrestling the demons of depression — but not like this. Over the years that followed, I wrote seven novels, culminating with a series involving knitters, witches, warriors, seers, and a realm at war with the Otherworld. I wasn’t thinking about sickness, fate or my unconscious when I wrote those tales, but my heart was, and as I spun up worlds, a path appeared. I didn’t see it until years later. But it was there, an opening on the edge of an old dark forest, mysterious, kind of scary the way it snaked into the dappled shadows — but enchanting too, a portal tucked into the cold, materialistic battlefield of a modern-day illness.

Now I’m the one plucking threads. I’m making new choices. I’m spinning my own story one step at a time. I have no earthly idea where the forest path will lead…but I’m not evading it anymore.

© F.T. McKinstry 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Woodland Snippets

The saying “Can’t see the forest for the trees” is a lovely way of describing how we can get so caught up in the details that we miss the big picture. The opposite can also happen, of course, where our focus is so wide, we miss the details. The ability to shift perspective like this is handy generally, but to my mind, particularly so in writing and art. One needs to be able to stand back and get in close, often at the same time.

Now and then, I’ll notice a detail in one of my paintings that’s interesting on its own. This could be a patch of brush, a leafy branch, a sapling, some flowers, a wolf, a ferny hollow. It might be featured in the work, but more often, it’s not — and that’s what makes it interesting.

So I had this idea of fishing out some of these details, tinkering with colors and moods, and creating new images. Here are some samples; click to see a slideshow. You can also check these and other images out on Fine Art America, where you can buy them on cards, prints, and cool stuff like puzzles and yoga mats, among other things.

© F.T. McKinstry 2021. All Rights Reserved.

The Hunter’s Rede on Self-Publishing Review

The Hunter’s Rede, Book One in The Chronicles of Ealiron, where the Otherworld is alive, nature is sovereign and balance is kept by the sword. The books in this series are driven by an assassin named Lorth of Ostarin, a complex character with a bent toward bringing things to their darkest ends. These books stand alone as individual stories that happen in the same world with Lorth and some of the other characters appearing throughout. Each book includes a map and a glossary.

Below is an editorial review of The Hunter’s Rede from Self-Publishing Review. See it on SPR here.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

“A lethal warrior without banner or cause rises to heights of heroism he never sought in The Hunter’s Rede by F.T. McKinstry, a dark and thoroughly fun new fantasy saga.

Tapping into the best elements of high-genre writing, with cryptic wizards, dark powers, and jaw-dropping plot twists, this character-driven knockout is a thrilling pleasure to read. The sprawling new realm of Ealiron is ripe for storytelling, and newly hooked fans will be pleased to know this is only the first in a four-part series.

Lorth is one of the most compelling new fantasy characters in recent memory, summoning shades of Drizzt Do’Urden, Aragorn, and other legendary loners from fantasy lit. Not only is he the most feared and well-paid assassin in the realm, having served the Wizards of Tarth for years, but he is a self-taught practitioner himself, which makes him doubly dangerous, and intriguing.

However, when he falls out of favor with those who have newly seized power, and kills one too many of the wrong people, the enemies begin to close in on him from every side, and fall to his blade. An unparalleled hunter being on the other side of the chase makes for exciting reading, as do the visceral battle sequences and graphic details from this author’s slicing pen. However, this novel is not all sword-swinging and sorcery – there is expert plot-crafting at work as well, not to mention multilevel world-building, original rules for magic, and a compellingly dark streak of philosophy.

The exposition is doled out like delectable crumbs, leading readers gradually deeper into this world, but still ensnaring them fully within the first few chapters. A lyrical meditation on darkness within the human soul, peppered with gripping action scenes that feel cinematic in their effortless intensity, this is a must-read work of fantasy, puppeteered by an author with an ear for authentic dialogue and vivid descriptions. The caliber of the writing deserves additional praise, as the dark mood is rarely broken, and every line of prose feels heavy with intention. “As he waited for Death’s exhale,” or “throbbed with prickling fire, like a glowing coal” are just a glimpse of the subtly brilliant lines that tie this novel together.

There is plenty of “journey narration” in an epic adventure like this, but the frequent twists of language and artful descriptions keep even the longest stretches of travel engaging. There are very few weak points in the writing that stand out – self-referential questions, overuse of internal monologue, and occasional lapses in point of view – and there are some overly familiar tropes and bland narration that could use another editing pass, but these issues are few and far between, and pale in comparison to the sincere pleasure of the reading experience. McKinstry has a masterful pen, one born for this niche of darkly epic storytelling.

All in all, this is a stellar first installment of the Chronicles of Ealiron series, with massive potential to be a heavy-hitting standout in the genre.”

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Hunter’s Rede, Book One in The Chronicles of Ealiron.Only wizards and hunters know the true meaning of darkness. Lorth of Ostarin, a highly paid assassin with the rough skills of a wizard and a penchant for bringing things to their darkest ends, is about to discover there are worse things in the dark than him.

Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Apple Books
Kobo

© F.T. McKinstry 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Monsters, Art and the Voice of God

“In order to be created, a work of art must first make use of the dark forces of the soul.” – Albert Camus

I like dark things. When it comes to art, whether it’s literary, visual, musical or cinematic, I like it complex, subtle, not easily categorized and reeking of the shadow realms. It needs to affect me, to change me somehow. The most interesting thing about art is that the mystery exists in every form and genre, to whatever extent, like a ghostly silver thread that will lead you across the veil, should you be so inclined.

Dark Shadows (1966-1971). Vintage gothic horror at its finest…

This is not to say everything has to be high-end sophisticated. Far from it. I’ll trawl over that flashy, highly acclaimed drama film for a monster splatter flick every time, like a cat ignoring an expensive toy to play with a crumpled-up candy wrapper. I know monsters. They are the ultimate metaphor for the dank recesses of the psyche, where I like to play.

Consciousness loves contrast, as my beloved old psychologist used to say. If you face down the deepest, darkest abyss of your soul, you’ll break through to the other side. To the light. And vice versa: fly into the sun and you’ll plunge, flaming, into the chthonic depths. And again, and again. After years on this circus ride, I thought I was crazy. Surely, there were psychiatric terms for this, arbitrary labels to categorize the forces of existence, none of them nice. Here, take this pill to filter down that high amplitude, high frequency sine wave so you can be normal.

Yeah, fuck that. I don’t wanna be normal. But this was existential and so intense that I eventually fled to my aforementioned psychologist nonetheless, and it was she who posited the idea that these energies are inherently creative. Once I put that together, I became a maelstrom. I wrote books, painted, gardened, made music—all the things I’d always loved but never connected to the turbulence.

So the other night, I sat down to watch something. On a whim, I clicked on this movie I’d seen float by a zillion times: A Monster Calls. Cute little boy, coming of age, dying mother, invisible friend, etc. Typically, unless it’s a fairy tale or particularly well-done epic fantasy, my favorite stories about kids involve camping trips in remote places where a werewolf or an alien picks them off one by one. Not that I’m a curmudgeonly wicked witch or anything—well ok, I am but whatever—this is more about the power of metaphor. To make art, an innocent part of us must die.

Enter the implacable forces of the unconscious. I watched this movie as if my life depended on it. It went into my cleverly organized perception of who I am and demolished it like a wrecking ball. It hit every little thing. Rotten Tomatoes called this movie “trite and overly melodramatic.” There might have been a day when I thought that (doubtful). But not this day. When it was over, I fell apart like an old cicada shell, sobbing my guts out as I realized I had a choice to make around something I’d been hiding from for years.

A monster, if you will.

Ergo, art is necessary to existence—and ultimately subjective. Where one person sees dreck, another hears the voice of god.

© F.T. McKinstry 2021. All Rights Reserved.

The Evolution of an Antagonist

Annihilation, by F.T. McKinstry

Eadred took the orb into his hands. Something glimmered inside, a tiny star tingling in his palms. His heart began to pound as a force gripped his chest, swirling, writhing, searching. Stars, whales, sun and moon. Her wrath boomed across time, shredding the veil. Terns, seals, white horses roaming the cliffs. She wept in the oldest tongue, her grief and desperation raising tempests. The dead, their pale eyes staring. Her child was gone. She crashed the Gates, sending them soaring end over end into the stars. Then she turned, her emerald slitted eyes fixing on Eadred as she raced, spiraling in a black, spiky maelstrom toward the wound in his heart left by a witch.

WIZARD, she roared, splitting sea from shore. – From The Gray Isles

As any writer will tell you, characters in stories take on lives of their own. Imbued with the forces of creation, the psyche is immensely arcane, and the act of creating something, whether it’s music, a painting, a garden, a book — anything, really — is always a bit mysterious. As for characters in a novel, they have a way of appearing in the writer’s imagination of their own accord, with their own agendas. To me, it feels as if they exist already, in a story that’s happening somewhere, and I’m just tapping into it.

The main protagonist driving the books in the Chronicles of Ealiron is one Lorth of Ostarin, a wizard and elite assassin in service to the Keepers of the Eye, an ancient order of wizards who keep balance in the world. He is sent on assignment to a remote northern archipelago called the Gray Isles to discover why another in his order, a fey, volatile wizard named Eadred, broke his vows to the Eye in an egregious breach of conduct he never explained or attempted to defend. Lorth’s task of getting Eadred to tell him what happened, however, goes straight to hell at the outset, spiraling into a manhunt, a costly encounter with a sea monster, and some nasty backwater politics.

With long hair the color of snow, eyes the color of reindeer lichen and a silvery breath of Elven blood in his veins, Eadred is a powerful rogue element, a trickster whose tormented machinations have gained him great knowledge which he uses to help prevent a rising cataclysm. But aside from Eadred’s having been cursed by a witch and later banished to the isles, we never learn the specific events that drove him to forsake his wizard’s mantle and leave a trail of bloodshed and woe over two realms.

The Gray Isles, by F.T. McKinstry

Ealiron: The Gray Isles

For years, I thought about pulling Eadred’s backstory from the shadows and writing it into the book, but all I got were vague impressions, almost as if his past was hidden from me and Lorth alike. The book felt incomplete, somehow, until earlier this year, when the mists cleared and I saw not only the old wounds and workings of Eadred’s mind, but also the rugged string of events that made him the madman who appears in the original edition of the book. In a fury I wrote it down, wove it in, had the whole work beautifully edited, and the third edition was born. Huzzah.

Sneaky Serpent, by F.T. McKinstryFor the record, I’ve added this to my Hah! Fuck You 2020 list. It’s a short list, but hey, we’ll take what we can get.

Stay tuned, and stay well.

© F.T. McKinstry 2020. All Rights Reserved.

A Small Yet Complex Universe

The Kingdom. Enter at your peril.

Next to books and cats, keeping fishes is one of my greatest passions. When it comes to my aquarium, however, I am careful not to let my geeky, insufferable excitement trip into claiming I’m anything remotely resembling an expert. This is one of those The more I know, the less I know things.

An aquarium is an ecosystem, a small yet complex universe where everything is connected and working together to sustain and create life. I’ve learned more respect for the natural world by keeping aquariums than I have any other thing. Nature is mind-blowingly smart. She makes beautiful things look easy. In an aquarium, where every parameter (and there are lots of these) is up to the keeper, the slightest deviation can throw things out of balance, often to unfortunate results. It’s magical in that you’re amazed when things work, terrified when they don’t, and in either case you probably have no idea why.

My freshwater aquarium is full of live plants and as many critters as I can give homes to without causing Mother Nature to frown disapprovingly. And here comes the geeky part: you’re getting a tour, oh yes. Do stay on the path, lest something eat you like a shrimp flake.

Haunted Castle. I’ve had this castle for quite some time. It used to be dark with red roofs. Now it’s weathered, and looks especially creepy covered in black algae. Yeah don’t get me started on black algae. (Nature: 1; Faith: 0) Thankfully, my lovely snails eat the stuff (Nature: 1; Faith: 1), leaving the castle ghostly and abandoned but for the kuhlii loaches, who have special powers and aren’t afraid of ghosts. They like to prowl around in there and wriggle out the windows.

Enchanted Mountain. The natives will warn you about this place (see, there’s one up top, and you’d best heed him). Even the black algae avoids the mountain. (Nature: 1; Faith: 2) Lurking beneath a lush canopy of Cryptocoryne wendtii, the rock face rises toward the stars, whispering just below the threshold of hearing. The aliens hear it. The cave witch too, probably.

The Enchanted Mountain

Old Forest. Here is a tangled thicket you wouldn’t want to get lost in. The water wisteria (Hygrophila difformis) is hungry, crazy stuff, sending out roots everywhere which grow into more trees. The java fern (Leptochilus pteropus) in the corner grows on a weirdly shaped piece of driftwood that forms a cave network underneath. This is a popular place for wayward fishes to skulk or hook up. Maybe both. I’m not judging. What happens in the Old Forest stays in the Old Forest.

The Old Forest

Witch Cave. Deep within the Old Forest, this is the most dangerous place of all. The witch who lives here knows all your demons, and if you’re mad enough to go see her, she’ll summon them. Those plants guarding the opening will close around you. They have teeth and eyes, you know. Fishes have been known to go into the cave and never come out. True story. (Nature: 2; Faith: 2)

Ferocious Dragon. Well, he’s not actually that ferocious, lurking there next to the Witch Cave. His name is Desmond, and he’s friends with the witch. The algae eaters keep him looking spiffy, and the toothy plants tell him stories. The snails like him, too. Desmond is an all around good guy, really. For a dragon.

 

From left to right: Bristlenose, Nerite Snail, Kuhlii

Bristlenose Catfish (Ancistrus cirrhosus). This is a beautiful, industrious little fish with a big ventral suckermouth and these gnarly, fleshly tentacles on its snout. It looks prehistoric, and probably is. It’s cool to catch the beastie on the glass, where you can see the inner workings of its mouth. If you’re into such things.

Nerite Snails (Neritina natalensis). These interesting creatures move very slowly, when they move at all (they actually sleep), creeping along over everything and keeping it clean. They have powers of teleportation. No kidding, you can be watching one snailing over the glass in the corner, look away for two minutes and swoop! that sucker is clear on the other side of the tank and you’ve no idea how it got there. Sneaky.

Kuhlii Loach (Pangio kuhlii). How I love these critters. The kuhlii looks like a little eel with gills, fins and tiny, beady eyes. They are shy, peaceful creatures, and have no scales as such, making them sensitive to changes in the aforementioned water parameters (Nature: 3; Faith: 2), but this gives them their special powers. They are bottom feeders, and slither around beneath the plants and driftwood, and in the caves. They are also known to hang out in the Witch Cave, where they snack on demons.

The rest of the fishes, I love dearly of course, but I won’t wear out my welcome like an introvert at a party who gets started talking about books or scifi horror movies or something. So I’ll swim away for now. May you all stay well, and don’t overfeed the fish (Nature: 5678042; Faith: 2).

© F.T. McKinstry 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Forests and the Art of Metaphor

Forest at Twilight, Gustave Doré

And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul. ― John Muir

I recently saw an image of a tangled forest and thought, “Wow, that feels like the inside of my head.” Then I started to think about that.

The forest is a rich and venerable metaphor for the unconscious, a wild realm where the sun and moon cast shadows indiscernible from the shapes to which they belong; where sound travels strangely and without reference; where creatures can be of this world or the other. Storytellers figured this out a very long time ago, and psychology took it from there, recognizing the nature of forests in the human psyche, complete with predators, hungry roots and vines, mist, vanishing paths, will ‘o the wisps, terror and awe.

Silvery Trees by F.T. McKinstry

The fantasy genre, one step away from fairy tales, if that, is the singular province of the dense, hoary wood. Having written fantasy in one form or another for the better part of my life (and I’m not young), I don’t think I’ve ever written a story without a forest in it somewhere, filled with whispers, prowling things, assassins, spies, fugitives, hidden temples, witches, immortal predators, goblins, phooka, draugr and the like. The forest symbolizes the infinite and inscrutable realm of the unknown, assuming one is brave — or daft — enough to venture in. Of course, there’s always a price to pay for such heroics. But who listens? Fairy tale protagonists are notoriously foolish — as are we all, innocent one moment and facing the monstrous forces of the soul the next.

The rule of thumb is, one finds in the wood what one brings there.

Just the wind…

Psychologically speaking, everyone knows the spooky forest. You can’t be human and not know this. When your life falls apart, when trauma or grief plows into you and shatters your general sense of who, where, or what you are, when you lose your bearings in the unsettling twilight of change, it’s like being lost in an old dark forest, the domain of shadows, tricksters and things that don’t have your best interests in mind. Unnerving enough by day but unthinkable at night, the forest will convince you that there’s no way out. It is a living, breathing being in which you are a tiny thing.

The spooky forest metaphor happens at the collective level, too. Let’s take 2020. For whatever reason — and there’s a fucking Halloween bag full of theories about that — this year was a perfect storm of unfortunate events all tangled up together for the seeming purpose of bringing out the worst in humanity — and I mean all of it, whatever side you’re on. It feels like a bleak, old haunted forest where everyone is lost, confused, and thoroughly pissed off, darting and stumbling around screaming and pumping rounds into anything that moves. Like all fairy tale forests, this one has no gate, no path, only shadows and mirrors. And the only way out is to face down both within ourselves. Put another way:

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is in you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you. – Gospel of Thomas

The Fairy Pool, ca. 1850 by Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Peña

It’s not all gloom and doom, of course. If you’re clever, curious, brave and respectful (rude fairy tale protagonists always get their comeuppance), you might befriend an owl or a fox who knows all paths, or be helped by an old witch who decides the trolls don’t need a snack today, or you might step into a golden ray of sun that finds its way through the canopy to give you hope.

Whatever you do, don’t go waving around an axe or a torch. Because, you know, Fangorn.

© F.T. McKinstry 2020. All Rights Reserved.