Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tales From the Holograph Woods reviewed

 This recent review of my speculative poetry collection, Tales From the Holograph Woods, is by Julie H. Ferguson, author of Book Magic and James Douglas: Father of British Columbia. She writes:

 Tales from the Holograph Woods is a slim volume of exquisite poetry by Eileen Kernaghan.   

First, I should explain that I am no poet. However, I am a non-fiction writer who has known Kernaghan and her fiction for many years. What I also know is that her poetry captivated me.

 This collection covers nature, the spirit world, the broad sweep of universe, faeries, mysticism, physics and more. How it all works so well, I don't fully understand, but Kernaghan's extraordinary eye and her minimal, tightly woven stanzas held me spellbound.

The language is breathtaking, both light and dark, and leaves the reader staring at the starry sky or the lush forest wondering what is really out there. Kernaghan also has an ability to grasp relationships in unusual partners and weave them together into verse that made my hair stand on end.I'd finish one poem and eagerly turn the page for the next. I was reluctant to put the book down when I finished it, saddened there were no more poems into which I could leap. I found myself reading Kernaghan's words over and over again.

Tales from the Holograph Woods may be small in size but it's vast in scope and beauty. Highly recommended, even for non-poetry readers like me. --
Julie H. Ferguson

Tales From the Holograph Woods is available at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver, Renaissance Books in New Westminster, and online from the publisher, Wattle and Daub Books.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Living in the Past: Part II

When I begin a historical fantasy set in a real time and place, I know that I have an unspoken contract with my reader. I’m free to create new adventures for real historical figures – events and situations that are not recorded in the history books; but I can’t – or at least I shouldn’t – relocate them in times and places where history tells us they couldn’t possibly have been. When I write in the cracks and empty spaces of documented history, I try not to change the things that we know to be true.

In the quest for authenticity, you find yourself searching out the tiniest details – what, for example, is the difference between benzine with an “i” and benzene with an “e”? Thanks to google, I now know that benzine with an “i” is a cleaning solvent, and benzene with an “e” is a highly toxic and flammable liquid; use the wrong one, and I could inadvertently kill my heroine.

In Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural, my heroine sets out in 1888 on a journey from London to Paris, with the help of a Baedeker’s travel guide. From the invaluable online used book site abebooks I was able to buy the original edition of that 1888 Baedeker's Paris and its Environs, and follow faithfully in Jeannie Guthrie’s footsteps. This is a kind of time travel available to anyone, of any age.

For me the writing of a new book is in itself a kind of detective story that leads me from one clue to another in a gradual process of discovery.

Obviously, I start out by researching the period for the sake of the plot. But very quickly the research starts to shape the plot, and steer it into unexpected and intriguing places.

As an example, here’s what happened when I was writing The Alchemist’s Daughter, set in Elizabethan England. I started out by reading a great deal about sixteenth century alchemy, which in turn led me to stories of unsuccessful alchemists who, having promised gold they couldn’t deliver, were very likely to be tortured and executed. That gave me my basic plot – how the daughter of a very unsuccessful alchemist set out to save her father from a foolish promise to the Queen.

It also led me to read about Dr. John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist who was rumoured to have discovered the philosophers’ stone and buried it at Glastonbury. That fit nicely into the plot – and set my heroine, Sidonie Quince, on the road to Glastonbury.

But then I chanced across another historical figure rumoured to have dabbled in magic and alchemy– Lady Mary Sidney,  known as the second most intelligent woman in England. At her family estate, Wilton House, not far from Glastonbury, Lady Mary conducted a famous literary salon, attended by most of the well known writers and musicians of the age; and meanwhile she grieved the death in battle of her much beloved brother Philip Sidney. At this point the ghost of Sir Philip Sidney made his way into my plot, along with some famous visitors to Wilton House – including Will Shakespeare, who got a walk-on part.

A little deeper research, and I came across the little known and seldom mentioned figure of Adrian Gilbert, brother of the much more famous Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Adrian was living at Wilton House as a gardener, but in earlier times, I discovered, he had been involved along with Dr. John Dee in an ill-fated search for the fabled northwest passage to Cathay. So here was a curious sidelight of history that I couldn’t resist including. Eventually all these twisting paths I’d been following seemed to circle around and meet.

During the writing of the book I discovered all sorts of other things I needed to know: how many miles you could travel in a day on Elizabethan roads, how much you’d pay for a loaf of bread, the cost of admission to the stands at a royal pageant, how often upper class Elizabethans bathed (more often than you’d think, actually).

And how to describe Elizabeth’s court at Hampton Court Palace, when the palace has been altered so much since Elizabethan times? I went back to biographies of Elizabeth I, where I found a reference to Travels in England in the Year 1598 by a German visitor, Paul Hentzner. So then it was off the university library to track down the book and make notes. Hentzner was so blown away by the splendours of Hampton Court that he described them in loving detail – details upon which I eagerly seized.

Without access to a time-travel machine, you can never hope to get the details exactly right, but I’m always aware of that obligation to the readers to come as close as I possibly can. Now I’m working on a new book, set this time in British India, circa 1914. A daunting amount of research lies ahead, but the reference on my desk at present is Margaret MacMillan’s Women of the Raj, a treasure chest of small, fascinating details of life in British India.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Tales from the Holograph Woods

Finding the perfect cover illustration for a new book is always a challenge. For my speculative poetry collection Tales From the Holograph Woods (due out this month from Wattle and Daub Books) I hoped for something colourful and elegant, and a bit mysterious -- an image, perhaps, that hinted of unseen danger lurking in a magic realist wood. And so I was thrilled to come across this Henri Rousseau painting On the Forest Edge. It's less well known than much of Rousseau's work, and it seemed the ideal illustration for the title poem of my collection.

"Kernaghan has touched something deep and visceral with these verses. You will read them once, then, in the middle of the night, wake suddenly, shivering, and need to read them again." -- Sandra Kasturi, author of The Animal Bridegroom.

On Saturday, September 26 at 2 p.m. I'll be reading at White Dwarf Books, 3715 West 10th Avenue in Vancouver B.C., along with fellow poet Marci Tentchoff of Double-Edged Books

Tales From the Holograph Woods
, a thirty-five year retrospective of my speculative poetry, is available from the distributor,  Red Tuque Books   or from   Wattle and Daub Books, Grandview RPO, PO Box 78038, Vancouver BC Canada. Trade pb ISBN 978-0-9810658 $9.95

Cover design by C.J. Wolf

Monday, August 31, 2009

L. Frank Baum and H.P.B.

One of the pleasures of literature is the discovery of unexpected sources from which a favourite author may have drawn inspiration. I came across one such connection in a recent book called Finding Oz, by Evan I. Schwartz. In his chapter “Witch-hunting” Schwartz traces the influence of Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, head of the British Theosophical Society (fondly known to her associates as H.P.B.) , on L. Frank Baum’s beloved Wizard of Oz series.

Schwartz describes how Baum was drawn into Blavatsky’s teachings by his wife Maud and by his mother-in-law, militant feminist writer and suffragette Matilda Gage. As Schwartz explains, Theosophy includes a belief in the Astral plane, a spiritual dimension close to our own which can be explored by means of an out-of-body experience.

Schwartz writes, “One can find many subtle references to the views of Madame Blavatsky throughout the works of L. Frank Baum and the movie based on his book, yet there’s one grand overriding Theosophical allusion: the Land of Oz itself. To get to the Land of Oz, one projects a phantom of oneself, magically flying to a spectacular place…” In Theosophy, he continues, one’s physical body and one’s Astral body are connected through a silver cord. "In Frank Baum’s own writing, the silver cord of Astral travel would inspire the silver shoes that bestow special powers upon the one who wears them.”

In the film, of course, the slippers that transported Dorothy to Oz were red; but as Schwartz points out, this change from silver to ruby-coloured was simply a decision by the filmmakers, who felt that red slippers would show up better on the yellow brick road.

Footnote: The formidable Madame Blavatsky plays a prominent part in my historical fantasy, Wild Talent. There are also cameo appearances by William Butler Yeats, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexandra David Neel and the poet Paul Verlaine -- but not by L. Frank Baum. Sadly, he and H.P.B. were not destined to meet -- except perhaps in spirit.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

In Search of Doctor Dee

Prague, in the late sixteenth century. was a flourishing centre of alchemy. The Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II was known to be indulgent towards practitioners of the art, and unlike other less lenient German princes, never had one executed.

Alchemists from across Europe were attracted to the city. Some were scholars and serious researchers, seeking to interpret arcane Egyptian and Alexandrine texts. But many others were simply con artists, adept at disappearing before their alchemical gold was discovered to be gilt paint.

The most famous alchemists in 1580’s Prague were two oddly assorted Englishmen. Quite apart from his occult studies, Dr. John Dee was a brilliant and respected mathematician, astronomer and navigator. He was also official astrologer to Queen Elizabeth. On the other hand Dee’s partner, Edward Kelley, was by all accounts an inventive fraud with a criminal past.

In Prague in Black and Gold: The History of a City Peter Demetz says the idea that "Prague harbours more secrets of the magical, or mystical, kind than any other city in Europe” is "of rather recent origins." Italian scholar Angelo Maria Ripellino’s 1973 book Praga Magica, in Demetz’s words, “aimed to resuscitate the city as an eerie place of mystics, specters, madmen and alchemists, poets maudit and soothsayers of occult powers…”

On a recent trip to Prague, like many visitors before me I was eager to learn about the city’s occult and mystical traditions. However, it seems that the spiritus loci of present day Prague are not Dr. Dee and his fellow alchemists, but rather the golem, Alfons Mucha and Franz Kafka.

The Czech Republic’s only alchemical museum is located not in Prague but in the nearby town of Kutná Hora, where a building in the main square houses an alchemical laboratory in its cellars, and in an adjoining Gothic tower an alchemist's study filled with ancient books.

In Prague itself, hints of the occult past linger in the names of some hotels and clubs, and in a children’s picture book, The Alchemists of Prague, that I spotted in the Mucha Museum. Alchemist were rumoured to have practised their art in the Golden Lane, a narrow alley in the castle precinct, but that seems to be a myth based solely on the fact that goldsmiths had their workshops there. Several Czech websites suggest that Powder Tower on the castle grounds was an alchemical workshop -- but no hints survive in the tower itself, which now houses a permanent historical exhibit devoted to the Castle Guard.

Prague, in the 21st century, is a magical city; but in its winding streets and alleys, crowded now with souvenir shops, few traces of Dr. Dee and the old alchemical tradition remain.

(Left) The Powder Tower

(Right) The Golden Alley

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Phyllis Gotlieb 1926-2009

A very sad postscript to my previous post about the Sunburst Award, named in honour of Canadian SF writer Phyllis Gotlieb. Phyllis passed away earlier today, at the age of 83. She was a talented writer, a generous mentor, a gracious lady. For many years Phyllis was Canadian science fiction. She will be terribly missed.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sunburst Award short-list announced

Phyllis Gotlieb, the Grande Dame of Canadian science fiction, was one of the first native-born Canadians to publish contemporary speculative fiction. Her first novel Sunburst was released in 1964; now in her eighties, Phyllis continues to write and publish. An annual juried award, The Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, is named for Phyllis’ groundbreaking debut novel.

The award, which consists of a cash prize of $1,000 and a hand-crafted medallion incorporating the "Sunburst" logo, designed by Marcel Gagné. is based on excellence of writing; the jury
selects five short-listed works and one winner in each of the two categories, adult and young adult, representing the finest of Canadian fantastic literature published during the calendar year.

I came across Phyllis Gotlieb’s Sunburst over 40 years ago. It was the first science fiction novel I had ever read that was actually written by a Canadian – that in itself was exciting. And it was one of the first I had encountered in that male-dominated genre with a strong, engaging, entirely believable female protagonist. I fell in love with it from the very first pages.

Yesterday morning I was thrilled and immensely honoured to learn that my historical fantasy Wild Talent was one of five young adult titles shortlisted for the Sunburst Award. Thank you, Phyllis, for leading the way.

You can find all the details, and the list of other short-listed titles at the Sunburst website

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Summer Breeze Books

Congratulations and happy summer reading to Sonya Hucks, who won three speculative books by British Columbia authors in the recent IWOFA (Infinite Worlds of Fantasy Authors) Summer Breeze Scavenger Hunt. Sonya's prize books are In The Palace of Repose by Holly Phillips (Wildside Press) , Finding Creatures and Other Stories by C. June Wolf (Wattle & Daub Books) , and my Victorian historical fantasy Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural (Thistledown Press)

Monday, May 25, 2009

An evening at Le Chat Noir

(excerpted from Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural)

“If you have not been to the cabaret Le Chat Noir,” said Alexandra, “you have not seen Paris.” And so we set out this past afternoon for Montmartre, meaning only to stay until the supper hour. But Alexandra’s eagerness for adventure has carried us into a place where I would never have ventured on my own, and where I saw and heard things that have left me sleepless and overwrought.

The afternoon began pleasantly enough as we climbed the steep streets and stairs of Montmartre in late afternoon sunshine. Le Chat Noir is as much art salon and theatre as it is cabaret. The ground floor is decorated in a sort of mediaeval theme, with a stained glass bay window and a lot of imitation tapestries. The walls are entirely covered with paintings and drawings by Montmartre artists who have been refused by the academic galleries, and so display their work in the cabarets instead.

We had arrived, it seemed, at ‘l’heure verte” – which is two hours, really, from 5 to 7 p.m. As we looked for a quiet corner table not too close to the illicit piano, Alexandra explained why this was known as the green hour: it was the time of day when the poets and artists of Montmartre were fond of sipping absinthe. As for Alexandra and me, we were content for the moment to order coffee and madeleines.

... Later there were performances by the poet-chansonniers . One pale, gaunt young man dressed all in black sang a strange lament in the manner, Alexandra says, of M. Baudelaire. Here, en anglais, are some of the words as well as I can remember them, translated with Alexandra’s help:

You come to me at twilight
under the broken walls
of the old city
where the Aubergine's dark waters
sigh like tattered silk.
You come to me from the shadows

under a bruised sky, heavy

with unshed rain.

Your small feet make no sound

on the lichened stones.

I feel on my throat

your insubstantial touch,

your chill sweet breath.

Our days apart

are a fever-dream, a torment,

each meeting

a small exquisite death.

...Then “Mademoiselle David! Mademoiselle Guthrie! How very pleasant to find you here!” I looked up and there, quite as though I had conjured him up, was M. Etienne d’Artois, resplendent in an evening suit of claret coloured velvet. And now he was settling in at our table, clearly inclined to chat.

“What was your impression of that last singer, Mademoiselle Guthrie? An interesting performance, was it not?”

“His voice is pleasant enough,” I agreed. “But did you find the song a little ...” “I hesitated over the right word – “a little morbid, perhaps?”

“Morbid! Précisément! That is exactly what I should have said – a delicious morbidity! The perverse beauty of the fevered imagination!” (“Perverse”, I do believe, is M. d’Artois’s favourite word.)

Summoning our waiter, he asked “Is this your first visit to Montmartre, Mademoiselle?”

I nodded.

“And you are drinking coffee? Non, non, that will simply not do.” And over our faint protests, he ordered absinthe.

Voila, mesdemoiselles,”said M. d’Artois, “Elixir of wormwood – the green fairy!” The waiter had brought us three tall footed glasses, each with a portion of pale green oily liqueur, along with three long slotted spoons, a bowl of sugar cubes and a jug of ice water.

M. d’Artois led us through the ritual, resting the spoon over the glass and placing a sugar cube in its bowl, then pouring cold water over the sugar, until the liquid in the glass turned cloudy.

I did not much like the sound of “elixir of wormwood”, and besides, I have read that absinthe drinking can drive you mad, but I took a cautious sip for politeness’ sake. Tasting of anise and bitter herbs, it was not as unpleasant as I had feared, but there is little danger that I will become addicted to it.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Wild Talent reviewed in The New York Review of Science Fiction

In the April 2009 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction reviewer Ursula Pflug writes that "acclaimed Canadian author Eileen Kernaghan ... is known both for her painstaking historical research and her interest in diverse cultural and historical manifestations of spirituality. Wild Talent is no exception."

Pflug goes on to note that Alexandra David, one of the two main protagonists in Wild Talent , was a real person, and a brilliant young adventurer. "Kudos to Kernaghan for unearthing a fiercely free-spirited woman whose life was perhaps even stranger than fantasy fiction."

Photo: Alexandra David Néel

Monday, April 20, 2009

On living in the past

I grew up in the era of the technicolour historical epic – the kind in which Tony Curtis famously announced, “Yonda lies da castle of my faddah!” Even at eleven or twelve, I realized that the filmmakers may have been less than scrupulous with historical fact, just as they were less than scrupulous with their hero’s accent. And so as soon as I got home I hauled out the encyclopaedia to find out what really happened in, say, ancient Rome, or 14th century Britain. This is probably why I chose to be a writer of historical fantasy. It’s a genre that, along with a certain degree of imagination and narrative skill, requires close attention to historical fact.

From an online article in Salon magazine: “Children’s fantasy demands the strictest logic, consistency and attention to detail… It is no wonder that the greatest children’s fantasists – Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien – had day jobs in the driest reaches of logic and philology.”

Someone else remarked that when you venture into a fantasy world," it’s not seven-league boots you need, but good stout walking shoes and a Swiss army knife.” (To which I would add, a reliable map of the region.) What makes any fantasy novel work is not how fantastic it is, but how believable. You have to write as though you’ve spent time as an inhabitant of your created world.

A great many children’s and YA fantasy novels are time-slip books, in which the only fantasy element lies in the time-travel itself. The protagonist walks through a hidden gate or into a painting, finds a magic talisman, opens a box in an attic… These time-tourist. stories are entertaining and usually well-researched, and it’s a very appealing way to learn about history. However, events are necessarily interpreted through a modern eye and coloured by a modern sensibility.

As a writer and as a reader, I’m drawn towards the kind of story that totally immerses me in the long ago and far away. My protagonists have no choice but to deal with the dangers, both real and imagined, that lurk in their world. Whatever happens, there’s no chance of escape to the 21st century.

For that kind of book to work, the author has a special challenge. Every sentence must capture the flavour of the period, in dialogue, in narrative voice, in descriptive details -- and yet remain accessible to the young reader who picks up the book in 2009.

I started reading fantasy set in imaginary worlds as far back as I can remember, but as I grew older I realized that the history of the real world is every bit as full of magic, and mystery, and astonishing possibilities. lists over 32,000 children’s and YA fantasies. I was well into the hundreds in order of popularity before I came across a real-world historical fantasy title, and I found that disappointing. Historical fantasies deserve their place on bestseller lists and bedside tables; and they belong in every school library. A good story is always more engaging than straightforward facts. and a history text, however well written, can’t begin to capture the true flavour of a distant time. Add an element of magic, and you send the reader on an unforgettable journey.

Some Resources:

Living History Through Canadian Time-Slip Fantasy

The Historical Novels Review

Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Ever-Expanding Bookshelf

With each one of my historical fantasy novels, I add another section to my already crowded reference library. It’s an eclectic assortment, reflecting many historical periods and many systems of belief. There are the books on northern exploration and Finnish mythology from my research for The Snow Queen; British prehistory (The Grey Isles trilogy) and prehistoric Indus Valley archaeology (Winter on the Plain of Ghosts.) There are Elizabethan histories and alchemical texts for The Alchemist’s Daughter, and a full shelf of books on Tibetan Buddhism and Himalayan travel for Dance of the Snow Dragon.

Here’s a sampling of the books I used for my latest novel, Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural. You won’t find all of them in your local library, but for anyone interested in late Victorian England or fin de siècle Paris,-- particularly in the flourishing artistic and occult movements of the period – they’re well worth tracking down.

Charles Dickens, Dickens’s Dictionary of London 1888: an Unconventional Handbook (compiled by the novelist Charles Dickens’s son, and reprinted by Old House Books, Devon, England 1993)
Charles Fort, Wild Talents (Ace Books, 1932; reprinted in Complete Books of Charles Fort, Dover, 1975)
Barbara & Michael Foster, Forbidden Journey – The Life of Alexandra David-Neel (Harper & Row, 1987)
Philippe Jullian, Dreamers of Decadence (Praeger, 1971)
Ian MacDougall, Bondagers: Eight Scots Women Farm Workers (Tuckwell Press, 2000)
Marion Meade, Madame Blavatsky, The Woman Behind the Myth (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980)
Alexander Varias, Paris and the Anarchists: Aesthetes and Subversives During the Fin de Siècle (St. Martin’s Press, 1996)

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Available in the US March 21st

March 21st, 2009 sees the US release of my historical fantasy, Wild Talent: a Novel of the Supernatural.

"The drudgery of rural poverty, the decadence of absinthe-soaked artists, the glamour of the Paris world's fair, and the spiritual debates among London's occult circles are all handled with skill. When I finished Wild Talent I felt that I'd paid a visit to the late 19th century, that I'd been right there with Jeannie all along." Read Kelly Lasiter's review at

"If you enjoy well-written historical fiction, with particular reference to spiritualism, this is a book for you. Alexandra David and Madame Blavatsky were real people who led fascinating lives." --
Charlotte's Library