Friday, 18 November 2011

These macabre are well and truly dancing

Quod fuimus, estis; quod sumus, vos eristis ...

If an understanding of that once-famous Latin quotation doesn't spring immediately to mind, don't be too embarrassed. It only exists now as part of a fading fresco in a 14th century European church. But back in the day, that would have been quite a salutory lesson to anyone who encountered it, especially if he was in church because he felt he had a few sins to unburden from his soul.

It features originally at the end of a short medieval parable, in which three well-heeled young men are hunting in the forest only to strange hear voices calling them to an isolated glade. When they arrive there, they are confronted by three decaying cadavers who approach and embrace them.

The Latin text relevant to this tale translates as: "What we were, you are; what we are, you will be."

Nice thought, eh? But to be fair, the artist responsible was only trying to do what I have tried to do with my new short novella, KING DEATH, released by SPECTRAL PRESS this last week: take some meaning from the appalling tragedy that was the Black Death, the ghastly plague which arrived in England, having already ravaged Europe and the Middle East, in 1348.

('Black Death' was the name given to it by English writers of the time; it was also known as 'the Pest', 'the Scourge', 'the Visitation' and 'the Darkness' - none of which, correct me if I'm wrong, sound as if they were coined to try and reassure those living in its shadow).

Okay, okay ... I'm not trying to put myself on the same pedestal as the great artisans of that gloriously artistic age. I'm just trying to point out that the Black Death has long been a source of fascination to creative types.

Haivng minuscule science to hand, those living at the time were moved to try and understand it through their imagination. With two out of every three people dying (imagine that!), it's perhaps no surprise that many artworks produced during the plague years and post-plague years came to depict the inevitability of Death in general, and made great play of its non-discriminatory nature. The woodcut at the top of this column is the famous 'Dance Of Death' by Michael Wolgemut from (1493), a shocking image which movie buffs will also recollect from the end of the classic motion picture on the same subject, Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957).

Below is 'The Abbot' by Holbein the Younger, which shows that even the most dignified personages could also be dragged off to become part of Death's cannibal feast. Lower down is a freely pinched segment from 'Totentanz' as it was in L├╝beck’s Marienkirche (destroyed in World War II); this one is particularly chilling, as it vividly portrays the fiendish glee with which the dead prepare the living to join them.

Of course, the artists who created these meaningful nightmares had a better excuse than me. They experienced the plague at first-hand, and it almost certainly marked them for the rest of their lives. All I can admit to with KING DEATH is having told a grim and hopefully spooky tale set against the turbulent backdrop of plague-stricken 14th century England.

If you can forgive a minor conceit, thus far the reviews are pretty positive. I'm not going to reproduce them in full, but here are a couple of choice extracts.

Walt Hicks of HELLBOUND TIMES says of it:

In the capable hands of multiple award-winning author Paul Finch, we are masterfully, if reluctantly, transported to those unimaginably dreadful days of pestilence, death and misery. And yet, Finch renders these gruesome horrors with such an achingly beautiful and precise prose that the reader’s heart is torn in pity ...

Geoff Nelder of SCIENCE42FICTION comments:

“... award-winning author, Paul Finch, steeps us in the stench of rotting bodies, and plays with the retaking of the environment by Nature. To keep us engrossed in the medieval experience we are treated to a wonderful lexicon of the ages: Jongleur, rambraces, rerebraces, miniver, bascinet, seneschal, sokemen, and my favourite – ouches of gold. To save you reaching for there is a glossary bringing up the rear though the context is usually enough to keep you going ..."

(It would be very remiss of me not to here thank Spectrals's Simon Marshall-Jones for suggesting the idea of a medievasl glossary of terms - I do sometimes forget that not everyone is as drenched in that era as I am).

In some ways it feels strange being congratulated for having re-evoked the full horror and mystery of the plague era, but I'm fortunate in that history never feels dead to me. I always believe that, unless you have a specific agenda to do otherwise, you're not being true to the past unless you present it - even in fictional terms - warts and all.

Or should that be 'plague-sores and all'?

I'll get my coat ...

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