‘Intuitive Magic Practice’ by Natalia Clarke

There’s so many books out there on ‘how’ to explore your own magic. What made this one stand out to me was the word ‘Intuitive’ – which is pretty much how I’ve worked for many years now!

Natalia speaks honestly and clearly about how to ‘reclaim your voice’. From discovering how your intuition feels, to allowing yourself to be guided by it, she uses anecdotes and advice from her own experience – not telling the reader what to do, but encouraging them in what they may have already been doing! People speak of ‘returning’ to Paganism, and this absolutely reinforces practices that you may have played with as a child – listening to birdsong, carrying a favourite stone, being aware of the turning of the seasons and moon phases.

So much modern-day learning is intellectual that it can be hard to let yourself go and simply trust yourself and your own intuition – but that’s precisely where the magic lies. This is an excellent wee guide to reinforce a burgeoning magical practice, and simply living as a practical Pagan in a magical world.

‘Intuitive Magic Practice’ is available now as paperback or ebook here.

Visit the author’s website here.

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‘Mask of Silver’ by Rosemary Jones

After enjoying Aconyte’s previous adventure in the Arkham universe, I was keen to see what would come next. This series really does seem to be going from strength to strength, and – I’m very pleased to say – takes the work of HP Lovecraft and expands on it in ways that would probably make him retreat to his room with smelling salts.

This tale is one of 1920s-era Hollywood and our narrator is Jeany Lin, a sought-after costume designer and makeup artist for a troupe of horror movie makers. Oh, and she’s half-Oriental. And the female script-writer for their latest movie has a girlfriend. Who is – gasp! – a successful actress! Out of the way, Mr Lovecraft, the twentieth century has arrived!

Right away, Jeany is endearing to her readers. Despite the horrors that she’s seen, she is clever, exceptionally pragmatic and aware of the ‘otherworldliness’ of Hollywood compared to the realities of post-War life. She loves what she does, and the almost Repertory-theatre-like group that she works with make a close-knit family that we’re rooting for from the start.

Famous horror director Sydney Fitzmaurice is taking the group to his ancestral home just outside Arkham to work on a passion project that promises to be the scariest film of his career. Is this just studio hokum or something darker? Of course it’s the latter, but the book takes time establishing the characters and their history together, as well as the unique mood of Arkham itself and its residents. By the time doors start slamming and the cast’s nightmares affect their reality, we can no more leave than they can.

The issues of discrimination are touched upon realistically rather than heavy-handedly, and the general theme of ‘other-ness’ winds through the narrative as the uncanny events begin to ramp up. Jeany has to create the titular Mask, but most of the cast seem to wear their own just to survive anyway. The insidious magic of their location easily works its way into the monstrous movie, and we’re genuinely not sure who’ll make it out alive.

‘Mask of Silver’ is absolutely gripping, and although it’s considerably longer than any Lovecraft tale, it takes its time as needed and I was sorry to see it end. I had my favourite characters, suspicions on who was behind the devious activities, and wish to see more of the Arkham natives – who may well appear in other books in this series (I hope).

I absolutely do recommend this, for the mood of Golden Age silent movies combined with ancient unknowable evils. Magic of all kinds, and regular folks trying to survive in many ways.

I loved ‘Mask of Silver’, and am very much looking forward to the next title in this excellent series.

‘Mask of Silver’ is out now in paperback and ebook editions.

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Look!

Another post from Lockdown UK. Here I am, dressed basically as I work from the sofa. I can’t remember when I last wore makeup. What’s the point? Thoughts that I suspect are familiar to many of us right now.

BUT I’ve just dyed my hair for the first time since last July – and I feel like Me again!

Every time, it’s a question. Do I bother? Is it finally time to let my natural hair show? Well, several inches of growth and once again, I’m reminded that I really don’t like it (not silver enough yet!).

I’ve always had issues with how I look. Always. From years of pageboy haircuts to years of braces, never really understanding what I looked good wearing and then being mocked for wearing what I liked…

Only as an adult did I really discover what felt good to/on me. I love colourful hair, but prefer goth style with splashes of bright. Pastels: NO. I have many leather jackets, which double as armour when in cities or crowded places. And of course, I have my Druid Drag of robe and cloak, plus relevant jewellery.

I’ve seen the extremes of lockdown life, with one group dressing up to play at home and make beautiful social media art. The other stays in comfortable clothing, makeup-free, minimal effort. I’m obviously the latter.

But this year, in Lockdown 3.0, I’ve become what feels like unhealthily insular. The ups and downs of mood haven’t helped, as I feel very self-aware when I go out, as well as not being able to exercise as much leaving me low. I don’t feel worthy of the effort; there’s no point, I can’t work miracles.

Recognising this may help to fix it. I’m slowly returning to ‘public’ work, which is a kick in the pants to sort myself out. I’m being inspired by those social media folks, friends and strangers, rather than overwhelmed by their skill.

Himself commented when I wore some jewellery the other day that it suited me. I took that thought and turned it around in my head: What is ‘me?’ Here, now, at this stage of life, with this shape and with practical needs?

A work in progress, as always. But returning my hair to its colourful best is a start (I’ll get the split ends sorted when I’m allowed again).

Writing this seems so vain in one sense, although I suspect it’s something many of us have thought about as we kick our heels at home. How playful can we be in such scary, mad times? Isn’t such a topic trivial? There’s bigger issues to worry about!

And yet self-care is high on the agenda, as we struggle to find what works in keeping us sane and moving.

I love seeing my friends dress up to go to the supermarket, or post cosy pictures with soft toys and hobbies. This is still who we are, even when we’re not putting on a Public Face for Work. I need to learn not to be ashamed of who I am, nor fear the mockery. I thought I’d got past that, but old demons resurface if given half a chance.

What am I doing? I’m exploring gently to see what pokes a head up from the ground this Spring.

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Light in the Dark

Today was not a good day.

But I did receive some advice that struck me, and which I would like to remember. I should try to ‘surround myself with things that make me happy.’

Even though we may have our own spaces, how consciously do we do this? Not random piles of Stuff, nor the minimalism of only keeping what gives us joy, but taking time to seek out soul-deep happy things in the moment – as medicine, solace, comfort, fuel to keep yourself moving forward.

The world is turning, things are changing, and I don’t know where we will end up. But for the first time in a while, I feel that I am seeing something to aim for, with the pulling back of self-care helping radiate outwards to larger work.

Tonight I sit, exhausted in body and spirit. I have soft knitting in my lap, colourful yarn gifted by fellow yarnies. A pup or a kitten may come by for a snuggle. A toy Jackalope sits nearby, sent from a friend miles away. Fire crackles in the hearth, and Himself prepares comforting food. Before bed, I will dip into a few pages of an excellent book.

Tomorrow, I will work on gifts for friends. Writing plans are germinating, throwing out tiny shoots of growth as characters begin to talk to me. Ritual ideas are also coming, as we near Imbolc, but also as I prepare a rite of Passing.

All of this while the country is locked down by illness. When we need companionship but cannot even touch family and friends – at least we have this technology to keep our shared spirits up. We have items with stories, that have come to us when needed.

We keep going through the winter months, and I am glad of being able to reach beyond that dark to the flame of happiness again.

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‘A Dowry of Blood’, by S.T. Gibson

Years ago, I discovered a copy of ‘Dracula’ in my local library. I remember doing virtually nothing for the rest of that day – just curled up on the sofa, engrossed in one of the most enduring tales in English literature.

I’ve loved vampire tales ever since. This was in the days before it was a trend, and what was published had to perform as a novel first, a sub-genre second. So it was that I found Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Fred Saberhagen and others. Adult vampires, not teen dreams.

Years later, Kim Newman published ‘Anno Dracula’, one of his super-meta books that references virtually everything in its field, fictional or historical. Dracula rubs shoulders with Oscar Wilde, Lestat and Jack the Ripper. Everything swirls together in a marvellous characterful universe.

This books feels as if it is naturally part of that world.

As the book opens, we are being addressed by the narrator as she tells her history. She is one of several ‘brides’, to a long-lived warrior vampire lord whose name she vows never to mention.

We follow the little vampire family through the streets of European cities and beyond, exploring anew what it feels like to witness the world changing around you, while remaining stuck, frozen in time exactly as you were when you changed into an almost-immortal night hunter.

The writing is beautiful. I found myself absolutely captivated, swept up in the tale as I was with the original story back in my own past. I felt the same wish for the characters to grow beyond their immortal lives, while knowing they never could. I felt traces of the different versions of the same characters (although to my knowledge, only Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has specifically tackled the Brides themselves before).

We, the reader, know who this is, of course. But it’s one perspective, and somehow a voice we’ve never heard before, despite its familiarity. I became as emotionally involved with the protagonist as I had with those well-told vampire tales gone by, and I realized all over again what was missing from the mass-marketed iterations flooding the bookshops these days.

Please do pick up this book and see for yourself. I’m already looking to buy the physical version of the ebook I have, and will absolutely be reading it again, as well as looking out for whatever this author writes in future.

A huge recommend.

‘A Dowry of Blood’ will be released on January 31 as paperback and ebook. I was kindly provided with an ebook version of this title by the author, in exchange for a fair review.

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‘The Harrowing of Doom’, by David Annandale

I wasn’t quite sure what to think going into this. I love comic books, and have read some of the most poignant and memorable tales within their pages – but my experience with prose versions of the very colourful and vivid characters has been mixed. Somehow words alone haven’t been able to do justice to what is usually a very visual experience.

Within a few pages, I knew I needn’t have worried. I find myself deep in Latveria, home and domain of scientist and magician Dr Victor von Doom, witnessing his quest to rescue the spirit of his mother from Hell. Almost like a damned soul himself, it’s a battle he (literally) fights every year, only to lose over and over. But this time will be different…

I was absolutely captivated by this book. I knew the author from some of his Warhammer fiction, but reading his little note stating his love for one of comics’ greatest villains, I can only agree – he’s more than done justice to what could well have been a pretty two-dimensional character.

The outline of the base plot is above, but threads run swiftly through the pages to depict a busy, thriving country ruled by a benevolent dictator, with everyone fighting their own battles much as we all do. From the lowest to the highest, this book expertly balances magic and science, contemporary and medieval, superstition and fact, love and duty. In a way, it reminded me of the cleverness of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, which confused and awed many critics with its skilful mix of real-world and comic-book.

No previous knowledge is really needed, and it doesn’t take much to suspend your disbelief. If someone were to point out Latveria on a map now, I think I’d just want to know more about it as a place and culture!

This story absolutely left me wanting more. I read it at increasing speed, with moments of calm thoughtfulness slowly ramping up to a crescendo of action – all beautifully described, so I never felt lost.

This is the Doom we have never seen in the movies. I love how his tale has caught the imaginations of many through the years, and I’m absolutely looking forward to future prose versions of his fantastic peers.

Definitely recommended.

Available from January 7th in paperback and electronic format. With thanks to Aconyte Books for kindly providing the review ARC.

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Farewell to This Year

It feels as if this is a moment we’ve all been working towards for so long. 2020 has been A Year unlike any other that we’ve known. Time itself has seemed tenuous and changeable, whether elastic or like wading through thick mud. Very little has been certain, day-to-day.

We’re stepping into a new calendar year with even more trepidation than usual, and (perhaps) greater awareness of the weight of what might lie ahead. But also with hope – because that is what keeps us moving on.

I rarely make New Year’s resolutions, as that’s always been a Samhain thing for me. But after some extremely fallow writing weeks, ideas have tapped on my brain to be noted and shared; maybe even looked back on next December.

Moving into 2021, I hope…

To keep rediscovering my strength. Ditto bravery. Fear and weakness can have their time, and then be overcome.

To explore my creativity. Be it fiction in places that I’ve not explored before, or new and intriguing skills. Also…

To allow myself to make mistakes. To mess up, trip up and then pick myself up. It’s all part of the journey. Blame and guilt are not helpful.

To keep speaking my truth, and digging deep when necessary to see what that means.

To allow myself to share more without shame.

To learn to love myself as I am, here and now.

To make and share my own personal magic.

To not give up.

Step, step, step…

Stay safe, friends. Thinking of you all. We’ll see each other again soon.

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‘Home Before Dark’, by Riley Sager

This was an interesting novel. Not least because I’d read and enjoyed some of the author’s work in the past (particularly his debut, ‘Final Girls’), but because I’d already seen a lot of good things from other reviewers. Riley Sager clearly has a love for the horror genre, so when I heard he was writing a haunted house tale, inspired by ‘The Amityville Horror’, I was keen to see his take on the theme.

Our primary narrator is Maggie, whose author father has recently died as the story opens. He wrote what she refers to as ‘The Book’ – and we soon begin to see excerpts from it, and to see why she is both affected and haunted by that overarching work.

Because Maggie is a grown-up version of the little girl from The Book itself, a ‘based on true events’ story of a family escaping from a lethal haunted house. She’s travelled through life with what became a best-seller hanging over her; it’s hard to meet anyone who doesn’t know her own story better than she does.

When she learns that she’s inherited that very house, she resolves to put her past demons to rest – and we’re off and running.

This was an enthralling read. We see Maggie exploring the house as an adult, seeing its effect – and that of The Book – on the nearby town, as well as the constant thread of basically trying to figure out if her father was telling the truth or not. Is the house haunted? What about the multiple deaths there over the years, the mysterious staff members and their daughters, and the previous living residents of the house itself?

Maggie’s explorations in the present day are interspersed with chapters from The Book, letting us ‘see’ what actually happened. Except her father may be an unreliable narrator. Or is that Maggie’s memory playing tricks?

Before I knew it, I had sped through the majority of the book (this one, not The Book) and was entering the end zone. Which is sadly where it lost me.

I felt very let down by ‘Home Before Dark’. The twisting plot-threads were excellent, but the multiple fake-outs were not. Everything is tied in a neat bow as the story closes, but that actually felt disappointing after so many mysteries; almost as if I’d have preferred the final door remained closed.

I’m actually reminded of the debate over ‘The Blair Witch Project’ original movie. Would you rather see the monster, or leave that to your own imagination?

Ultimately, for me, trying to figure the puzzle out was far more fun than what happened when the Scooby Doo villain’s mask was pulled off. I know some people will be happy with that, but after a kind of supernatural whodunnit, it was frustrating to be told that the reader had been mislead (in a manner of speaking) as much as the characters.

I doubt I’ll be rereading The Book again soon. But I bet it’ll make a great movie.

Available now from all physical and electronic bookshops.

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Permission to Try

A while ago, I was chatting to a friend and happened to mention that I loved horror movies, especially when I was feeling low. She looked at me in horror. ‘Why?!’ she gasped.

I honestly didn’t know how to reply, because I couldn’t quite understand the question.

I don’t know if it’s still true (I suspect it is), but when I was younger, it wasn’t ‘cool’ to be really passionately into something. Be it a hobby, interest or whatever struck your fancy in a big way, it seemed that unless that topic was currently ‘trendy’ – and therefore permissible – you could expect to get mocked for it. So you quickly learned to keep it quiet.

A classic example is Dungeons and Dragons, which was widely derided for many years after launch (despite its popularity), but is now ‘cool’ because those nerdy kids grew up and are still enjoying themselves. Thus others are finally drawn in though curiosity rather than put off by derision.

I’ve never understood why someone being really keen on a subject should have to push that down for the sake of their ‘image.’ When do we learn to mock others for things they enjoy? I think the nearest I came was having a laugh at my brother for his football-madness, but our whole family had that – I always took a book (or two) wherever I went, unless I wanted to sit with them watching two groups of men chase a ball around a field for 90 minutes. Fun for many, not for me.

I still joke with him about ‘Doing A Sport’, by the way. It’s not malicious at all, as I love seeing my nephews enjoying it as they get older. I really wouldn’t want to tell anyone what they can and cannot like! My technically-correct explanation of the Offside Rule (‘that man’s in front of that other one and he shouldn’t be’) shows how daft I am, if anything.

It’s interesting to take a step back to consider why some things are permissible and others not. So many social rules fly around gendered roles, for example: historically, women were looked down upon for reading, because they might Get Ideas. Let alone Playing a Sport (still true).

I love that we’re now starting to really dig into the irrationality of such invisible laws, which seem to originate in the schoolyard. At some point (hopefully by adulthood) an individual can stop, think to themselves ‘Hang on…’ and realize that the thing they love is for a valid reason.

I mention my ribbing of my brother and his football because he has been known to do similar to me about my Paganism. He used to call it ‘That stuff you do’, until he came to my Handfasting and saw what the Stuff was for himself. It’s not for him but he gets it, and I’m glad.

At every single such event I’ve ever attended, regular folks have approached me to tell me how lovely the ceremony was, and how they’d never realized. I do wonder what they imagine Pagan Ritual to be, but it’s always lovely to share The Stuff I Do with others in an open way, so they can see for themselves. Not with a view to recruiting at all – people can make up their own minds about that! Just demonstrating.

If people ask me for introductory information about something I love, I try to help them understand and hopefully inspire a little. It’s always a true pleasure to hear others speak on such topics. Personal passion is a wonderful thing.

I’m writing this today because allowing myself to feel deeply about certain things is something that’s been on my mind recently. What I am allowing myself to have or to do. What’s permissable – and if not, why not?

I’ve been reviewing books to share my opinion and also help authors and small publishers. Genre fiction isn’t always ‘cool’, but if I liked it, I’ll say so. It’s up to those reading the review if they pick up the book themselves or not.

I’ve been watching makeup videos on YouTube, and debating playing with colours again. The greater part of a year spent in lockdown means I’ve been making do with basic primping, but I want to remember how fun it is to dress up. I love my dark red lipstick, and will have to wear it at home for a while… but that’s ok.

What do we allow ourselves to do, or not do? Why avoid things that we love for the sake of what others think, or what we feel we ‘should’ be doing? Those awful social expectations, codes and rules…

This isn’t about anarchism or chaos. This is simply about pausing to ask ‘do I really want to do this?’ when you know the answer is Yes.

Because right now, we need to give ourself permission to enjoy what we love. Explore new languages, cultures, topics, genres, games, pastimes. What can we do to brighten the days during lockdown? Bake, read, play, craft, dress up. Even play D&D with friends across Zoom, which Himself and I will be doing tonight.

I feel as if sometimes I’m relearning what I love all over again, because the depression brings back those playground voices that tell me I can’t, shouldn’t, will look stupid, etc etc.

But what if I try?

Wintry blessings, my friends.

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‘The Last Ritual’, by S.A. Sidor

Disclaimer: I was so excited to receive this book for review! I’d seen the new Arkham Horror series as Coming Soon for most of the year, and given the popularity of Lovecraft-inspired fiction happening right now (almost as if the world’s gone mad), I was hopeful that such a dedicated selection of books from proven writers would be both true to the Mythos and also original for the 21st Century.

I’m glad to report that this book hits it out of the park on both fronts.

The story is narrated by famed artist Alden Oakes, and while we are told he is revealing horrific events from his youth, he seems at first to be more of a rich old man simply reminiscing. But soon you’re (appropriately) sucked into the tale and the momentum begins to rise…

We travel from the Old Ways of Europe to the newer – and stranger – happenings in Arkham itself. The town is as much a character as any of the humans, and it’s fascinating to see that while it’s comparatively forward-thinking (particularly with regard to women and people of colour), it’s built on a truly ancient foundation.

It’s difficult to speak about the plot without giving anything away, but suffice to say that the tale is the best sort of rollercoaster matinee adventure. By spending time with the protagonists, we become invested and genuinely caring for their wellbeing in a way that Lovecraft never really had time for. I was also relieved that the author has far more liberal views than HP himself – no racism, sexism or xenophobia here.

Initially, I felt that the book could be shorter, but I quickly realized that it’s precisely as long as it needs to be. While Alden can seem a little Wooster-like with his rank and privilege, he realizes it and tries to use it to help those other than himself. He’s a silly young man, who is forced to grow up and face the very real dangers of his home town (hopefully without pranging Father’s Rolls).

The 1920s setting is both well-researched and appropriate. Prohibition is something that everyone kind of works around; the recent war was its own kind of madness. Arkham is almost an island, tangentially affected by the wider movements of America at large but also looking far beyond, to the stars and the deepest seas, where the mysteries are strangely hypnotic, even attractive.

The characters are so well-drawn that I was casting them in my head (and missing Christopher Lee for one crucial baddie!). This would make a wonderful TV serial, akin to the recent ‘Lovecraft Country’.

I enjoyed my time in this strange land immensely, and am looking forward very much to the next titles in the series. Absolutely recommended.

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