I have always been drawn to literature that mixes the historical with dramatic elements of myth and mysticism. Even as a child, I adored fictional accounts of the lives of historical figures, atmospheric tales of thrilling exploits, and almost any story set in medieval times. Later, I became interested in the history of the 20th century and understood how we, as a society, got where we are.
My next novel The Wild Hunt, has been variously described as historical fiction, literary fiction, thriller, family drama, and a ghost story steeped in folk horror. I no longer remember exactly how I discovered the myth of the sluagh. I was studying at the University of St Andrews and knew I wanted to write a book that captured the feeling I had when I was in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands – the heaviness of history, the vastness of the landscape, the way the two rub against each other until they feel like wool together. I was interested in how history, myth and legend shaped communities; with this interest in mind, I started researching Scottish folklore to find a seed of inspiration.
Somehow I found the sluagh, a type of airborne fairy or sidhe said to be “the host of the unforgivable dead”. The stories suggested that the souls of dead sinners lingered after death as a physical scourge – a motif shared by both Celtic and Northern European folklore. Often considered an omen of war or tragedy, the sluagh flew west and preyed on the living. The spirits were said to steal the souls of those who died, or physically abduct people and carry them high into the air.
Those taken by the sluagh seldom returned alive; those who did were never quite the same as before. The sluagh’s attention could be drawn in many ways, either by the despair of truly broken hearts or by saying “sluagh” nine times. Creatures have always been considered the most dangerous in Samhain, the Gaelic precursor to modern Halloween, when the barrier between the mortal and fairy worlds was thinnest.
The physical form of the sluagh varies from story to story, ranging from actual armies fighting in the sky to incorporeal gusts of wind. The myth is related to the folk motif of the “wild hunt” which appears in various forms in northern European folklore and includes, for example, Norse valkyries. Of the Scottish version of the myth, folklorist Alexander Carmichael related that “spirits fly in great clouds, along the face of the world like starlings, and return to the scenes of their earthly transgressions”. Elsewhere the sluagh are depicted as birds.
This, I think, is what makes folklore so interesting: as a way of entering the world, any individual version of a motif reveals as much about the storyteller as anything else.
Mythology buffs will notice that the sluagh in The Wild Hunt are relatively far removed from traditional representations of wild hunts. When I started writing the novel, I was determined to portray the sluagh in a way that was as faithful to the traditional myth as possible. But that kind of precision, I found, doesn’t always lend itself well to fiction, and so I started deciding which elements of mythos to incorporate and which to leave on the cutting room floor.
This, I think, is what makes folklore so interesting: as a way of entering the world, any individual version of a motif reveals as much about the storyteller as anything else. The pattern grows and changes as it passes from culture to culture and history to history, but always retains its recognizable heart. In this way, these stories create a kind of community, connecting disparate storytellers and listeners who otherwise might never meet.
From the first draft to the final version, it was clear to me from the start that the sluagh represents an externalization of grief, mourning, guilt and suffering. In stories where sluagh appear as birds, there’s a tension, I think, between the human and the natural, and the power and unknowability of the natural world. (In this regard, I think it would be foolish of me not to note the influence of du Maurier’s work on this novel, particularly “The Birds”, a wonderful short story that bears little resemblance to the Hitchcock film which was inspired by it.)
But as I delved into this aspect of the myth and the resulting tension with the natural world, I discovered that other aspects of the myth were less of a fit with what I wanted to explore in The Wild Hunt. We impose a morality on the world in a way that doesn’t necessarily exist naturally – surely it makes sense that these creatures are considered ‘dark’, like the souls of ‘sinners’, but I felt the telling lacked a certain compassion, while centering the human by imposing artificial constructions of morality where there would be none otherwise. The reality, I think, is much more nuanced.
The novel is also overtly historical. The Second World War, which is looming in the recent past, forces the characters of the novel to reconsider their place in the world, the order of things, the consequences of their actions. A landscape depicting representative creatures of guilt, grief and suffering seemed appropriate, as a vanity, as a way to explore the post-war environment, not to mention the allegorical similarities between the sluagh and a flood of bomber planes. Mixing the real and the unreal, the historical and the folkloric, required a lot of research in itself, so that each element was as immediate and believable as the other. In fact, every historical detail in the novel, especially in the story of the RAF bomber pilot, actually happened to someone (including the somewhat remarkable story of a bomber crew bailing out France and climbing the Pyrenees in Spain).
Writing this book made me realize that history, folklore, and fiction are actually more similar than different. Each uses storytelling as a way to come to terms with the world, process trauma – both individually and collectively – and find their place. At the same time, these stories, whether fictional or factual, connect us to something bigger, a shared understanding of where we came from, who we are, and who we could become. I hope readers will recognize elements of their own personal journeys and private reflections on being and belonging, thereby connecting them – us – to a common understanding of history and community.
by Emma Seckel The Wild Hunt is available now through Tin House.