Cross posted from Read Write Muse

On the whole, fantasy writers think a lot about the past.

There are classic medieval-inspired epic fantasies, of course, but even contemporary urban fantasy draws on ancient folklore in the form of vampires, demons, and fairies. As Michael Moorcock pointed out in his often-quoted essay about epic fantasy, there are different ways for a fantasy writer to approach history.

A writer can romanticize bygone days of rolling hills, round wooden doors, and leafy forests. Or, an author could go the other way, scouring history’s dark side—picking over the bones of bludgeoned kings, botched executions, and the frenzied witch-hunting mobs—the murky days before modern science, when feeding a urine-cake to a dog could identify a witch.

. . . and that brings us to dark fantasy.

If reading a book is like taking a journey to another place, then dark fantasy is a macabre walking tour through Jack the Ripper’s murder sites. It’s the accidental wrong turn on a late night walk that sends you past the methadone clinic. Dark fantasy describes the stories that dwell on morbid and unsavory subjects: the death themes and occult rituals. It dredges up pauper’s graves and turns them into novels.

In New England, where my husband and I began writing The Witching Elm, it’s easy to romanticize the past.

It’s known for Paul Revere’s ride, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and the shot heard round the world. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll see morbid reminders left by the people who came before the American revolution. The Puritans very much wanted to needle future generations about our own mortality. The phrase Memento Mori (remember death) is etched in many of the their gravestones, alongside images of skeletons, skulls, and hourglasses. Engraved in many stones are epitaphs with a variation on this theme:

“Look at you, walking around all alive, thinking you’re so great. You’ll be dead soon. Just thought you should know.”

There Be Witches here.

New England was home to executions by burning, civilian massacres, and terrible plagues. And, let’s not forget the witch hangings.

There were later horrors, too. The hill where the witch judge John Hathorne once lived became the site of a Victorian psychiatric hospital known as the Danvers Lunatic Asylum. Danvers itself is named for a mentally ill English baronet, Danvers Osborn, who hanged himself in his garden. It’s easy to see why Massachusetts’ north shore inspired Lovecraft’s dread-filled brand of horror.

But it’s not just books that can take us on a grim tour of the past.

Like a city, language has its own dark history. One of my sources of inspiration for The Witching Elm is a book of archaic British slang. Flipping through the pages is like visiting the strange old parts of London, where the gutters run down the sides of narrow alleys, and the street names sound like fragments of nursery rhymes (Pudding Lane, Crutched Friars, Savage Gardens).

Apart from learning that there were a staggering number of ways to refer to a woman’s commodity, the parts of the book that really caught my fancy are the creepy phrases that give insight into the terrors of people who lived long ago.

Though, I’m not the only writer to be inspired by these old-fashioned turns of phrase:
There was an executioner so disastrously inept that his name became synonymous with both death and Satan.

Oooh maybe I could have a character based on Jack Ketch—ah, Neil Gaiman’s already done it.

I was excited to discover that monks were referred to as “crows.”

Aha! Must have been because of their black robes. Maybe I could develop a secret order of men, known as crows. Like monks, they have to take vow of silence and protect… oh that’s Game of Thrones.

Ultimately, what inspires me are the neighborhoods in history where you’re not supposed to wander.

Having grown up in Lexington, Massachusetts, I heard plenty about the American Revolution. But learning about the founding fathers feels a little like a PR initiative.

“And this is where Paul Revere shouted about the redcoats…”

Yeah, I got it.

It was a glorious time full of valorous people. But for me, where history gets really exciting is when I look at what’s omitted. I want to know about slave revolts, pirates hanged in gibbets, and the forgotten graves of prostitutes. I want to know where the gallows stood, and what happened to those who lived before the Puritans arrived.

It’s the buried history that inspires the stories I tell.

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