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Fireside Reflections: The Heart of a Heartless World by Sarah Gray

Updated: May 24, 2021

A Second Helping…

The Supper Club is here to convince readers that the short story is a mighty feast, imbued with complex flavours and the second sitting was a triumph.

Thank you to everyone who came to sup and share bonhomie at our table. We appreciated all of your generous comments and useful suggestions.

For those of you who couldn't join us, come sit by the fire with us…

Wow! This week really was a feast for the eyes. We were all enthralled as the brilliantly creative artist Alodie Fielding opened her sketchbook and allowed us a peek at her process. Alodie and I have collaborated on all three of my short story collections with beautiful results, so it was an absolute thrill sharing in her inspirations at the Short Story Supper Club.

Before we got to rifle through Alodie's sketchbook, she enlightened us with a brief history of the illustrated story. It all started with chapbooks. These became popular in the 1500s and remained so until the 19th century. They were usually roughly-made 40 page pamphlets, which shared all manner of content from children's stories to bawdy songs and gossip. Often they included a wonderful, if crudely rendered, woodcut.

Samuel Pepys (1633 - 1703) was an avid collector of these mischievous and salacious pamphlets with over a 1,000 of them still surviving and inspiring today.

Chapbooks waned in popularity with the rise of The Industrial Revolution. Growing transport networks and literacy levels increasing amongst the poor all contributed to the rapid expansion of book and magazine sales instead.

By the 1800s, there was an incredible variety of work published in a range of formats. One such example is the ‘penny dreadful’. First produced in the 1830s, they took over the mantle from chapbooks with their focus on horror, crime and daring-do. Another prominent example is the work of Charles Dickens whose novels were published in monthly instalments in magazines. He also paved the way for illustrators by being one of the first authors to actually collaborate with an illustrator. Dickens commissioned John Leech to illustrate A Christmas Carol (1843) and it was an enormous success – published on 19 December the first edition sold out by Christmas Eve.

And now back to us…

It was a real treat to talk about our ostensibly 'found' Victorian pamphlet, The Heart of the Heartless World, first published in Half Life, (Claret Press, 2016). Written by Henry Scott in 1897 it tells of his near death experience with the supernatural creature, the Skogsrå, at the heart of the deep, dark Scandinavian forests. Incorporating all our shared passions; Gothic imagery, dark, threatening woods and lost souls, it's a wonderful example of how we give rein to our imagination in developing our ideas and making decisions about authenticity.

For HH, we wanted to capture the key moments of the terrors at the heart of the forest. I'm usually quite far into writing the book when I share with Alodie, because it's important I have a clear idea of what the illustrations should convey about the tone, plot and its characters.

After sending Alodie some example images to set the mood and some quotes from the story to give direction, she starts with a pencil drawing. At this stage she is trying to get the composition right. For HH we decided to adopt Victorian style etching to enhance the authenticity. The pamphlet cover itself is the dramatic moment when Henry Scott sees the Swedish coast for the first time. Extreme angles and fork lightning convey danger and mirror Henry's trepidation.

It's also important that illustration and design are harmonious. Alodie works closely with designer Ginny Wood and they make incremental adjustments until both components work together.

I became obsessed with the folklore of Scandinavia on visits to my Swedish friend and Supper Club co-producer, Josephine. Living deep in the countryside, her house firmly nestling in the woods was both exhilarating and terrifying. I imagined figures standing amongst the trees observing our human habits, waiting to steal our souls. On first seeing the Northern Lights twisting and mutating, pink and green fingers reaching over us, the only lights in an otherwise pitch black sky, I could well believe that supernatural creatures make their home in the forest.

Skogsrå are emotional vampires who drain humans of their life force, leaving them as lonely ghosts wandering the forests. Most northern European countries have a version. In England they are underwhelmingly referred to as ‘woodland nymphs’ – absolutely terrifying, I think you'll agree. In some stories they are said to have wooden hollows in their backs and in others foxtails. This is the feature we emphasised in our interpretation. Our Skogsrå’s hair becomes a sleek tail, reaching to the ground, keeping her perfectly balanced and in harmony with nature.

I like to think that Racontesse are the inheritors of a long tradition of illustrated stories, going back to the chapbook and the penny dreadful.

With The Heart of a Heartless World we have told the first tale of an exciting story world. Watch out for the spring/summer launch of Heartwood and come with us to let us lead you into the deep, dark heart of the forest.

We are so grateful to Alodie and all of you for joining us last time. Be sure to pull up a chair by the Supper Club fire next time… on the menu, The Lady of the House of Love by Angela Carter, 16 March.

We'll talk all things, Angela Carter. Carter's short story collection, The Bloody Chamber (1979) is often cited as some of her most accomplished writing.

My absolute favourite story in the collection is The Lady of the House of Love which introduces us to a vampire. She's the last of her line and preys on the blood of any young man who happens to wander into her village. Blending and drawing out the Gothic with traditional fairytale, it reinvents Sleeping Beauty with not a spindle to prick but a long sharp tooth.

The Short Story Supper Club is hosted by Racontesse and Kensington and Chelsea Libraries. For more wonderful KCL events subscribe to their newsletter.

Twitter: @rbkclibraries

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