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 Moon Freebie!

I love this time of year. And there’s a new moon at that, which is cool. What better time to say THANK YOU to my readers, followers, writers and peeps by offering a present? Through October 26, you can get Outpost, Book One in The Fylking, on Amazon for free. First time ever. It’s fantasy, it’s epic, it’s dark. It features a backdrop of Norse mythology, some nasty villains, an army of draugr and other malevolent fae creatures, witches, wolves, ravens and heroes with interesting skills.

Yeah, and a cat named Pisskin. (You didn’t think you were getting away with an epic tale that doesn’t involve a cat, did you? Tsk.)

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking. In a war-torn realm occupied by a race of immortal warlords called the Fylking, trouble can reach cosmic proportions. Using the realm as a backwater outpost from which to fight an ancient war, the Fylking guard an interdimensional portal called the Gate. The Fylking’s enemies, who think nothing of annihilating a world to gain even a small advantage, are bent on destroying it.

After two centuries of peace, the realm is at war. A Gate warden with a tormented past discovers a warlock gathering an army that cannot die. A King’s ranger is snared in a trap that pits him against the Fylking’s enemies. And a knitter discovers an inborn power revered by the gods themselves. Caught in a maelstrom of murder, treachery, sorcery and war, they must rally to protect the Gate against a plot that will violate the balance of cosmos, destroy the Fylking and leave the world in ruins.

The god they serve is as fickle as a crow.

© F.T. McKinstry 2022. 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.

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.

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.

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

© 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.

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.