Thursday, November 20, 2008

M. Villemain's Painting

Excerpt, Chapter Eight: Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural

On Sunday I went to visit Alexandra. She seemed to me a little pale and subdued. When I asked after her health, she told me, “I am well enough, but I have had a very curious adventure.”

One of the guests presently staying at the house of the Supreme Gnosis is a landscape artist from Paris, called M. Jacques Villemain. Alexandra seems quite smitten, although of course she will not admit to this. She describes him as a tall, pale, rather solemn young man with an unworldly air, “not at all like an artiste Parisien.”

He was a mystic, he informed Alexandra, though not religious, and he invited Alexandra to his room so that she could see some of his work. His landscapes, he said, had a secret reality that ordinary people could not perceive. Of course Alexandra, who is insatiably curious, was intrigued; though she did not think the English would approve of her visiting a young man alone in his room. However, he reassured her, saying that the adepts of the Supreme Gnosis regarded such conventions as absurd and in any case, all Gnostics were pure in spirit.

“Besides,” he said in all seriousness,” I will leave the door ajar ”-- which made Alexandra laugh.

All she saw at first were simple landscapes. “They seemed accomplished enough, with a certain charm, though whether they were anything out of the ordinary I was not qualified to judge. But M. Villemain urged me to look deeper, and gradually I began to see the paintings with different eyes. It was, as he said, as though another, stranger reality hovered just beneath the surface.”

Everywhere Alexandra looked -- at rocks, flowers, bushes, mountains -- she saw an unsettling double image. In one painting a vast deserted heath stretched away to the edge of a lake, with snow-capped peaks rising out of the mist beyond. All across the heath were slender indistinct forms that were at once trees or bushes, and at the same time something else. I saw her shiver a little as she went on, “Somehow they had become men, or animals, and as they looked out at me their faces were full of cunning and a dreadful malice. At that moment I felt quite terrified.”

But needless to say Alexandra’s curiosity overcame her fear, and she reached out to touch the picture. As she did so, M. Villemain suddenly cried out, “Be careful. You could be pulled in.”

“Into what?” she asked in alarm.

“Into the landscape. It is dangerous.”

By now I was quite caught up in this strange story. I leaned forward in excitement. “And what happened then?”

Alexandra shrugged. “That is all that happened. I felt all at once overcome with a terrible fatigue. And so we went downstairs for toast and tea.”

I longed for more. It was as though Alexandra had strayed to the edge of faerie, and returned to tell me only half the tale.

She laughed, as though to dismiss it all as fancy, but there was an edge to her laughter that told me the experience had left her shaken. In truth, I am beginning to fear a little for Alexandra, in case her boldness and her curiosity may take her into places better left unexplored.

(Painting by Albert Pinkham Ryder, courtesy of wikimedia commons)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wild Talent : now available

I'm pleased to announce that my fourth young adult historical fantasy, Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural, is now available at in stores, including Vancouver Kidsbooks, White Dwarf Books, and most Chapters outlets. You can also order it online at , and other online bookstore sites.

The year is 1888.

Life takes an abrupt turn for sixteen year old Scottish farmworker Jeannie Guthrie when she defends herself against the advances of her n’er-do-well cousin George. Convinced that George’s wound may prove fatal, Jeannie flees in panic to the anonymity of London. There she is befriended by the free-spirited Alexandra David, and introduced to Madame Helena Blavatsky’s famous salon. Drawn reluctantly into the world of the occult, and seemingly haunted by her cousin’s vengeful ghost, Jeannie must learn to control her dangerous power in order to survive.

The story follows Jeannie and Alexandra from the late Victorian world of spiritualists and theosophists; to the fin de siècle Paris of decadent artists, anarchists and esoteric cults; and finally to the perilous country of the Beyond.

Historical Note: Wild Talent: a novel of the supernatural imagines the meeting, in late Victorian London, of three extraordinary women. In 1888 and 1889 Madame Helena Blavatsky, head of the British Theosophist movement, known to her friends and many admirers as HPB, was living in London’s Holland Park. Fashionable and artistic London flocked to her Saturday afternoon salons.Also residing in London, as a student of oriental languages and religion, was twenty year old Alexandra David. In later life, as Alexandra David Neél, she was to become widely known for her travels in the Himalayas and her many books on Buddhist mysticism. Given Alexandra’s fascination with the occult, we can be fairly certain that she was familiar with Madame Blavatsky’s eccentric household at 17 Lansdowne Road. (Above right) The young Alexandra David

In her London journal of 1888 Alexandra mentions that she has engaged a young girl to help her practise speaking English. In Wild Talent this anonymous jeune fille is given a name -- Jeannie Guthrie – a history, and her own strange story to tell.


George moved closer, and I broke out in a cold sweat. There was no way of escape, standing as he did between me and the door. At that moment I spied a pitchfork leaning against a post; and at the same instant he reached for me.

And then all at once there was blood, and George was clutching his shoulder, and cursing in a shrill, outraged voice. The pitchfork, that a moment before had been standing harmlessly against the wall, was now lying at his feet. One of the tines had struck by his shoulder, piercing shirt and flesh.

He clutched his shoulder and stared at the blood welling up between his fingers. "You've killed me," he said, and there was a kind of puzzlement as well as anguish in his look.

"I haven't," I cried. "I didn't." Something had happened, sure enough, and George without question was wounded; yet I felt it had naught to do with me.

"You're a witch," he said, and what I saw in his face now was hatred, and bewilderment, and naked fear.

They fetched George to the steward's cottage, and the steward's wife cleaned his wound and bound it up while they waited for the doctor to come from the village. If his wound should turn bad he may die, and then I will be a murderess, and must be taken away to prison, and will hang. Though perhaps -- and I pray it be so -- the wound is not a fatal one. Still, he named me a witch -- though I swear what I did was through no conscious intent, but a thing I could not control. They burned witches once; and not so very long ago they threw them in the water to see if they would float or drown. I think there are folk hereabout who still hold to such beliefs.

And after all his wound may be deep, and may fester, and he will die. And I will hang for it.

There is naught for it, but to run away.


Set in Great Britain and France in the late Victorian era, Eileen Kernaghan's current young adult novel is a compelling exploration of the nineteenth century obsession with the supernatural and the occult.

Displaced by family misfortune, sixteen-year-old Jeannie Guthrie is taken in by her uncle, and must earn a hard living as a farm labourer in rural Scotland. When she rejects the advances of her over-attentive cousin, George, injuring him seriously, Jeannie fears she has killed him, and dreading the Draconian punishment of the time, she decides to flee.

Jeannie finds her way to Victorian London, hoping to lose herself in the populous bustle of the city. She is fortunate in befriending the young Frenchwoman, Alexandra David, who introduces her to the salon of the famous Victorian spiritualist, Madame Helena Blavatsky. Jeannie finds employment there, and confirms, to her trepidation, that she has paranormal abilities of her own. Haunted by her experience with George and in constant fear of reprisal, she is forced from her surroundings by circumstance once more. Necessity draws Jeannie and her supernatural gifts into the darker byways of Victorian society, and from there to the heady environs of fin de siècle Paris, where events compel her to confront both her past and her considerable talent.

Kernaghan's eye for period detail and her realization of historic figures seem to get better with every novel, and she weaves a rich cultural tapestry throughout the book. Her portrayal of a young girl trying to make her way in an indifferent society resonates with the attitudes of the era. Jeannie's romantic interest, too, unfolds in keeping with Victorian custom, and her cross-cultural friendship with the sometimes volatile Alexandra plays out in ever-darkening counterpoint. The reader is drawn swiftly into this tale of misadventure and youthful resilience. That we follow Jeannie's exploits by way of her journal entries only adds to the narrative tension.

An absorbing read for any age, and beautifully done.


Review by Charlotte Taylor, Charlotte's Library

WILD TALENT: A review by Harriet Klausner


Sunday, April 20, 2008


the shadow is always there
dark subtext, dissonance: the mocking laughter
in the fairy wood, the scowling presence
at the birthday feast, the faint suggestion
of warts beneath the velvet coat

this is the page in the book you dare not turn to
the face you see in the mirror
when the light falls at the wrong angle

this is the sly poison under the apple's
smooth red skin, the dark that is not
light's absence, but its twin.

First published in Tesseracts 5, 1996

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

News from the Land of the Thunder Dragon

“When the king of Bhutan told his people to take power for themselves and embrace democracy, few of them wanted to listen at first.” (Vancouver Sun, March 25, 2008)
The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan isn’t often in the North American news, but recently it captured worldwide attention when it held its first election – at the direction of the king. Reluctant to make any changes in a country ruled by a philosophy of “gross national happiness”, the Bhutanese turned out enthusiastically to the polls, and voted to keep things pretty much the way they were.
Some years ago I decided to write a fantasy novel set in one of Himalayan kingdoms , and I looked for a country in which northern Buddhist culture has been preserved to the present day. Nepal has been overrun by tourists; Tibet has had its culture systematically destroyed. Sikkim? Ladakh? Then a friend who had just been to a performance of the touring Royal Bhutanese Dance Troupe said “Write about Bhutan.”
By restricting tourism, the kingdom of Bhutan has preserved its ancient culture in an almost pure form. Though inevitably western civilization is encroaching, the magic and mystery of this little-explored kingdom has endured. I found a number of fascinating books by the independent travellers who have been allowed into the country. In those accounts, in Buddhist texts, and in descriptions of life in the monasteries of an earlier Bhutan, I found my story.

Dance of the Snow Dragon, set in 18th century Bhutan, tells of the young monk Sangay, who sets out on a perilous journey to the mystical kingdom of Shambhala, beyond the farthest snow peaks. It was first published by Thistledown Press in 1995, and happily is still in print. It is still, as far as I know, the only fantasy novel set in Bhutan. You can read an excerpt, and some reviews, on my website.

Here is a link to some wonderful photos of Bhutan.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Sarsen Witch reviewed

Harriet Klausner, MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW:

The Dark Folk, the Ancient people, the Witch People have all been subjugated to the horse-lords. Those not enslaved hide deep in the hills out of fear of captivity. Naeri of the House of the Lady Ashton of the Albur clan hid in the mountains and caves alone foraging for food from the enemy. Eventually she is caught and brought before Chief Ricca to be punished for theft.

She is saved by the smith Gwi, who takes her on as his apprentice though he wants much more form her. The minstrel of the tribe is hers cousin Daui who helps her find a magician who teaches Naeri how to use the stones and earth magic. Once she becomes proficient with its use, Daui directs Ricca and his men to construct a stone circle as a memorial to him at a place where the leylines are numerous and power is stored like a battery. After it is built, Naeri will use her prowess as a geomancer to bring down the horse lords and their tribes. Although frightened Naeri feels obligated to her kin, but believes no good will come of her mission.

THE SARSEN WITCH is a mesmerizing reading experience that depicts life in the Bronze Age of what will eventualy become Britain. Naeri is a survivor who will allows herself to be pushed so far before she goes her own way. It is fascinating to observe how Ricca holds the various horse tribes together using threats and gifts (today we call it an earmark) to keep everyone in line; he is not a bad leader just a product of his time as he is not interested in the welfare of those he conquered (today we call them democrats).



As I finished writing this book, archaeologists were moving toward a new prehistory, in which the old notions of invasion and conquest gave way to movements, influences and cultural process. Still, as Christopher Chippindale notes in Stonehenge Complete, “…culture process models may have a weakness when it comes to accounting for single, unique events in prehistory, of which the building of Stonehenge appears to be one. In a novel of prehistory one can only attempt not to violate what is known to be true. This story borrows something from the old prehistory, something from the new; the rest is pure invention.

For those who wish to read more about megaliths and about earth-magic, here are some of my sources:

Atkinson, R. J. C. Stonehenge. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1979 (rev)
Burl, Aubrey. Prehistoric Avebury. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002 (2nd ed
Chippindale, Christopher. Stonehenge Complete. London, Thames and Hudson, 2004. (New ed.)
Dames, Michael. The Avebury Cycle. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996. (New ed)
Hitching, Francis. Earth Magic. London: Cassell & Co., 1976
Michell, John. The Earth Spirit. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975
Pennick, Nigel. The Ancient Science of Geomancy. London: Thames and Hudson, 1979.
Underwood, Guy. London: Abacus, 1972. The Pattern of the Past. (Reprint)