The Metamorphosis of a Book Cover

Earlier this year, I released a novella called The Crossroads Bargain, a gothic fantasy tale about an old forest with a dark history, a tryst with an elven lord, a lot of unexplained deaths and disappearances, and a faerie curse cast in a centuries-old crossroads bargain.

I created the cover art in the usual way. But for some reason, it unsettled me; it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. There were nervous whispers. I brushed them aside, knowing full well how reckless that is.

Just recently, I did a painting of a scene from the book, in which our protagonist, a sensitive, tormented sort, fades into the faerie realm and there sees the hall of an elven lord tucked into the forest. As I worked on this, a calm whisper suggested that it might make a good cover image.

Okay but I’m keeping that spiderweb.

Then, I suddenly thought of a title, from a saying in the story that describes what to do on a crossroads if you want to summon something from the otherworld:

A northward gaze; a wish as clear as a mountain stream; and a willingness to sacrifice the unimaginable.

Yeah, that little bit of advice causes all manner of horrors, by the way. But never mind that. My new cover came together so beautifully, I decided to change it. It captures the vibe of the story well.

A Northward Gaze is now available on Amazon. Oh, and about those crossroads instructions. Don’t try that shit at home.

© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

New Cover Art and a Freebie

Happy New Year!

For a while now, I’ve had this dark little wolf in my head. Well, ok, my mind is full of all kinds of wild things at any given time–but this guy needed a furever home. So, after painting him, I put him on the cover of one of my books: Raven of the West, a standalone short story that’s part of the Chronicles of Ealiron.

The protagonist of this story is named Urien. He belongs to the highest order of the Keepers of the Eye, a hierarchical order of wizards who maintain balance in the world of Ealiron. Among other things, Urien can shapeshift into flora, fauna, earth, or fog, and he can cast an apparition or merge with the minds of gods. For years, he has haunted the fringe after having loved and lost a powerful wizard on the verge of ascension. But such secrets do not hide well, and when he delves into the darker powers at the bidding of a shady priestess with a hidden agenda, Urien finds himself facing the loss of everything he loves.

To celebrate my lupine invisible friend, Raven of the West will be FREE on Amazon, all day Saturday, January 7. This story is around 60 pages long, gives a rich, detailed picture of the wizards’ realm in Ealiron, and delves into all kinds of unsavory things like witchcraft, heartbreak, vengeance and disasters at the hands of the powerful.

Dark and darker. But fear not! Light always follows, and the days are getting longer now.

Raven of the West on Amazon

© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

A Northward Gaze, A Novella

Previously published as The Crossroads Bargain by F.T. McKinstry.

Elspet’s mother died between the worlds, her staring eyes as milky white as a lily. A common occurrence in their bloodline, it is said. Even marrying into Aelfwine, an old family with as many secrets as trees in the dark wood that borders the estate, did not qualify her to be buried in hallowed ground. This fact is not lost on Elspet, a sensitive, tormented soul who has inherited her mother’s wayward interest in the Fae.

Grieving amid a turbulent household of superstitious servants, the mysterious disappearance of her father, and an ambitious aunt with a draconian agenda, Elspet begins to see things in her bedroom wallpaper. What begins as a mesmerizing portal to the Otherworld, however, becomes all-consuming when a beautiful elven lord slips through and captures her heart. Only Elspet knows the reason for the series of grisly, unexplained deaths that flood into the wake of her lost innocence.

What she doesn’t know is the high cost of consorting with the Fae. When her otherworldly trysts begin to result in impossible events, she is driven into the forest for answers. But not even the village witch or the Fae themselves can stop her inexorable descent into her mother’s fate. After a devastating loss, Elspet is drawn into a war between her lover and his enemy—an elven warlock who cursed her bloodline on a crossroads centuries ago.

To end the curse, she must destroy him with a secret whispered in a dream.

Novella, 120 pages
Available on Amazon.
Read for free on Kindle Unlimited.

© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Tolkien Meets Poe

I am a passionate and dedicated fan of high fantasy; that is, any world other than this one and preferably one that smacks of a fairy tale, though not in a wholesome way. You know, like those old, dark Irish or German fairy tales that are not written for children. Beautiful things cast long shadows, and the summit is never far from the abyss kind of thing. Think J.R.R. Tolkien meets Edgar Allan Poe.

I started reading these authors roughly around the same time, when I was a kid in the 70s. Tolkien changed my life, I’ll just say that. Among other things, Poe’s short stories and a steady diet of Dark Shadows messed me up properly and got me hooked on Gothic Horror.

So this kind of crept up on me recently, the way the universe sometimes gives you a bitch slap so you’ll recognize what you’ve been looking at all along. While I love Gothic Horror, especially the supernatural–ghosts, werewolves, vampires, witches and the like–I never sat down and tried to write something like that, not specifically. But it was there nonetheless, slinking around in my work like a shadow in the corner of my eye.

Then this happened: A story flashed into my head. It was right out of one of those 60s pulp Gothic Horror novels, with a voluptuous sex kitten in a white nightgown fleeing over the moors from a black castle on the hill. It also featured the kind of fairytale lore I like to write into high fantasy novels. Yeah. My subsequent internal dialogue went something like this:

Writer me: I don’t know how to write this stuff.
Smarter me: You’ve been writing this stuff for years.
Writer me: Rubbish. This isn’t fantasy.
Smarter me: Um. It has elves in it.
Writer me: So. He’s not–
Smarter me: He’s a fucking elf. Beautiful, moves between the worlds, enchanting, seductive, and sneaky. So he’s not from the House of Fëanor, big deal.
Writer me: It’ll suck. You suck.
Smarter me: Whatever. Get to work.

So I did. It’s a novella called A Northward Gaze. A manor hall bordering an old forest with a dark history, a family curse, a string of grisly, unexplained deaths and a fey young woman who sees otherworld beings in the floral patterns of her bedroom wallpaper. Spoiler alert: Our aforementioned elf is one of them and he’s up to no good. Well, maybe. Maybe not. The Fae are tricky like that.

 
 
 
 
© F.T. McKinstry 2023. All Rights Reserved.

The Rise and Fall of Lovely Sentences

Redcap. One of the most malevolent beings of the Otherworld, the goblin liked to tease Twigs with trickery, such as leaving a fetid bouquet of her mother’s favorite flowers on the steps, or offering deadly mushrooms for a soup, laughing as she refused. But as surely as the sun set each day, the wicked creature would have something far darker in mind, something that would result in a big enough puddle of blood in which to soak its cap. – From Masters of the Veil, Book Three in The Fylking

One of the grimmest realities of writing is the fickle nature of words. Sometimes, a sentence, phrase or passage comes out of the void on an angel’s wings and reminds us why we do this. And we need that reminder. Because most of the time, we have no idea why we do this.

A written work such as a novel is an ever moving, flowing being with its own agenda. Not every sentence has its place in the overall scheme of things, no matter how pretty it is. If you’re good at editing–and by that I mean you are a cold, merciless bastard–you’ll get wise to this. Sometimes, that beautiful sentence you thought of three months ago isn’t quite so beautiful anymore. It doesn’t fit, it’s irrelevant, purplish or flawed, and you would be a vain little fop to leave it in there. Your editor will surely cut it–because there’s that other thing…oh yeah, readers. Just because you think it’s a beautiful sentence doesn’t mean they will. Someone might read it, yawn and think, “What rubbish.” So there’s that.

This is the kind of thing that drives authors to drown themselves in scotch and spend the night sobbing and pissing in a gutter somewhere.

But there is hope. Your ability to bring up that beautiful sentence will allow you to bring up another, and another, and on, because creativity is infinite and ever-expanding. It is always fresh because things are constantly dying and falling away to make room for other things in a much greater picture. Just look at nature. It keeps growing, cycling and expanding, and it is always what it is. Writing is like that.

So be warned: now and then, I might play the Insufferable Writer card and drop a sentence or three out here for you to read.

If nothing else, you’ll know I’m actually working on my next book.

© F.T. McKinstry 2022. 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.

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.

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.

Creepy Bugs and the Mind of a Warlock

As Vaethir gazed down, torture began to appeal to him. Something involving the souls of warlocks. A rusty sword. Leopard moths. The entrails of horses. Something that would lay this man bare and dissolve the layers of his presumptions. – The Wolf Lords, Book Two, The Fylking

It’s amazing, the things that come up while writing. When I was a little kid, I had some horrid cousins. I was at a family picnic and a leopard moth landed on my arm. This was terrifying enough, but when one of my cousins said, “Oh, they BITE!” I screamed bloody murder, prompting my father to put me in the car to think about this egregious indiscretion.

Enter Vaethir of the Dragon Clan, Commander of Niflsekt Covert Operations, Destroyer of the Math Gate, High Vardlokk of Chaos. Years later, while I was writing The Wolf Lords, this character, an immortal warlock who had infiltrated the world and employed an ancient order of sorcerers to work their unsavory arts on his behalf, grew weary of their tendency to hide things from him. As he briefly considered torture, what did I think of? You guessed it! Add the leopard moth to my comprehensive collection of childhood trauma, a great source of writing material.

What the High Vardlokk of Chaos planned to do with the leopard moth, well, I didn’t go into that. It was just too horrible.

In retrospect, Hypercompe scribonia is a beautiful, harmless creature, unless you’re five and you have evil cousins. Then, we get the warlock involved. Yeah. I showed them, didn’t I.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

“A truly masterful achievement.”
SPFBO Finalist

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Wolf Lords Cover ArtThe Wolf Lords, Book Two in The Fylking.

A wounded immortal warlock bent on reprisal.
An ancient order of sorcerers hungry for power.
Warriors beset by armies of demons and immortals.
And a lonely hedge witch whose dark secrets could change everything.
…If only they could find her.

“This is a gem of a novel.”

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