Updated: Jun 15, 2021
In the sixth of our Q&A features, we talk to our latest Short Fiction contributor Drew Martyn, who's behind the enchanting A Cottage in Autumn, a somewhat mythical horror piece that effortlessly evokes the beauty of the Welsh countryside. We talk about exactly this, and stray onto topics such as real ale, literature and football, alongside a discussion on the creative - yet entirely mysterious - process behind the formation of fiction.
Drew Martyn lives in the Land of Song, Druids and Rain (sadly not in that order) Wales, UK, with his wife and daughters, two ferrets and a cat. When not writing or reading, he's probably watching his beloved Chelsea play football, listening to rock or baroque music, or sampling real ales.
So, Drew - A Cottage in Autumn speaks volumes to our own adoration for the Welsh countryside. For myself, it evokes much comfort in its oft-ignored beauty. You reference the Black Mountains - Y Mynydd Du - for one. Could you tell us a little about a favourite location of yours?
Any mountain area is good for me, but (other than holiday destinations) perhaps my favourite is the road north from Ebbw Vale across an area of moorland, after which it dips steeply down, either into Llangynidr or Crickhowell, depending on which route you take. That view from the top of the moors across the River Usk valley is breathtakingly beautiful, absolutely stunning. Spoiler alert: if you haven’t been there before, it’s a view that, after a stretch of moorland, suddenly opens up in front of you, and it’s all the more impressive for the surprise. It’s a place where you can stand and see the effect of hundreds of thousands of years of geology on the landscape in one vast and sweeping scene.
Another place I love is the Neolithic burial chamber at Pentre Ifan, near Nevern in west Wales. The structure itself is interesting, made up of a giant stone – is it called a capstone? – that looks incredibly precarious perched on top of three standing stones – but as it’s been there since the Stone Age, I guess it’s not going to collapse anytime soon. Yeah, that’s interesting, but it’s the location that gets me every time. Even when it’s not shrouded in mystical mists it gives the impression it should be. It looks across the valley to the Preseli hills and is the sort of place that makes you understand why Druidic beliefs emerged, why Druids and others believed in spirits and powers inhabiting the landscape. Just awe-inspiring.
As for towns, if I never go anywhere else other than Wells in Somerset, Stratford on Avon and Cardigan, I’d still die happy.
You touch on Welsh folklore - or perhaps wider Celtic mythology - with such vivid naturalistic imagery that centralises trees and deities, a running theme in classic tales such as Pedair Cainc Y Mabinogi (Four Branches of the Mabinogi) and Cad Goddeu (Battle of the Trees). Were you inspired by any localised tales or specific pieces of folklore, or is this more of a passing resemblance?
I think when I wrote this it was more of a passing resemblance. I read The Mabinogion many years ago, but was certainly not aware of any direct influence during the writing process – though I have no doubt it’s in there somewhere (points to head), alongside other books, influencing what comes out.
To be honest, it’s rare when I start writing that I have an idea of what I’m going to write about, other than a vague and amorphous end point - and it was the same with Cottage. I had the characters, Alex and Jenny, and I knew that Jenny was Wiccan and they were going to a remote cottage (yes, that old trope) for a break at the end of Autumn, but other than that the story shaped itself as it went along. The trees were there just for atmosphere, initially, but they quickly morphed into something more, which I guess is logical given Jenny’s interests. Other than that, I’ve been very influenced by Tolkien’s worlds, so maybe there’s an Ent or two in my head trying to get out…? In this way I can (tenuously) say that the story has perhaps been indirectly influenced by Celtic mythology.
Veering in a very different direction - on the topic of real ale, what and where is your usual go-to draught pint, prior to 2020?
Thinking about this bought back something of a cherished memory: my first pints of Brains. At age 16 or 17 (or was it 18, officer?) in a pub in Cardiff centre – can’t remember which one, sadly. All the old codgers were drinking Skull Attack (Brains SA) so of course I had to have one. I had never tasted anything so bitter and disgusting in my life! I left half, had a Brains Dark and was saved – hallelujah! - and put on the road to real ales. It was gorgeous! For the record, I now love SA, it’s one of my favourite drinks.
To get back to the question, lol, I’ve never had a local or a go-to pub. I’m not the sort who wants a regular watering-hole nor who’s happy waiting to be served, or standing three or four deep at a bar (it has to be over twenty years since I’ve been out on a New Years Eve, for example). I can be an anti-social old git, so most of my supping is done at home on a weekend.
In a pub or restaurant, I’d go for London Pride, McEwans or Newcastle Brown. At home, the same, plus Champion ale, Headspace, Hobgoblin, Shepherd Neame… essentially anything dark, especially a stout or porter. Can’t be lighter than a ruby ale. I can’t cope with citrus-y brews or beer that just doesn’t taste like beer. See, I’m proper set in my ways!
"Other than that, I’ve been very influenced by Tolkien’s worlds, so maybe there’s an Ent or two in my head trying to get out…? In this way I can (tenuously) say that the story has perhaps been indirectly influenced by Celtic mythology."
Returning to the rich characterisation of the environment and gorgeous imagery in A Cottage in Autumn, do you often find yourself on nature walks and cosy getaways as part of the writing process?
No, not as part of the writing process, all my getaway places for writing are in my head. Most of them, anyway. But it’s true what they say about writers – if you’re not writing you’re thinking about writing. So, when I’m out walking, especially if I’m alone, my mind soon turns to whatever story I’m working on, or looking at plots and trying to find new ways to twist them.
Family holidays, though, are usually a good catalyst for a story – I often return home with a story more or less formed – so getaways do contribute. But I come back to that saying – you’re either writing or thinking about writing – so there really is no particular place in which the process occurs.
One thing I know is that I couldn’t verbally come out with what I’ve written here. The words won’t come. It’s only when I’m in front of a keyboard or have a pen and paper that they take on a life of their own and appear, almost of their own accord. I don’t know if that’s unusual for writers or not: I’m guessing not.
Talking music, hypothetically, what artist or band would you travel the furthest for to see live?
I’m an Old Rocker at heart, so the first name that will always top my list are Jethro Tull. They’re a Marmite band, I think – you either love them or hate them. Me, I love them. You never know what to expect from them, on an album level and even down to a song level where unexpected changes of time signatures in songs keep the listener on their toes. Their lyrics are usually very clever, often very witty and self deprecating, but rarely bland or derivative. Two of my go-to albums are Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses which is appropriate given the context of this chat. For me, they’ve never come out with a duff album, and live they’re phenomenal, a great set of (changing and interchangeable) musicians.
I can’t not mention Tom Waits, too. Similarly Shawn Phillips, whose music I’ve loved since I first heard it when I was fifteen or sixteen. He’s a Texan singer-songwriter, whose music crosses genres – country, folk, rock, jazz, world, classical, you name it, he’ll incorporate it. I’m amazed he’s not more universally known, but as someone once said he’s “the best kept secret in the music business.” He, Tom and Tull would be on my Desert Island Disks for sure.
You mention a few adored idols of your own - to highlight Patrick Hamilton, a hugely underappreciated author who is - trivia warning - responsible for the modern incarnation of the term ‘gaslighting’. Could you tell us a little about a particular work that was a formative element of your style and/or perspective?
Difficult question, thanks! After much umming, I’d have to go for Lord Of The Rings for its love of nature, characterisation and world building. I originally read it many years ago and have read it many times since and it’s so rich and well written as well as having terrific storylines.
But I’m sure we are influenced by every book we read. As a kid, I loved Michael Moorcock; since then, Iain Sinclair, Sam Selvon, Piero Scanziani, the list goes on and on. Patrick Hamilton you mentioned as under-rated: so, too is Julian Maclaren-Ross, who wrote like I’d love to write. More recently I’ve discovered Christopher Isherwood, who could write about the most boring subject in the world and make it interesting and effortless reading. Stella Benson is one who, though a product of her time (which occasionally dates her work) writes with a such ease and wit.
I’d give my right arm to write like those guys (if I didn’t need it to hold a pen).
As an example of direct influence, I was lucky enough to have a story appear in SexyFantastic mag. It was called The Passing Of Donnamaria, was heavily into magic realism and to an extent was influenced by Yuri Herrera’s Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding The End Of The World which I’d read during the previous year. That, for me, is a fairly blatant example of being influenced by a specific book, but the influence of most books is more subtle, I think.
The author who has shown me that anything is possible in the written word is George Perec. He wrote A Void, a 300(ish)-page novel that doesn’t contain the letter “e.” (Just to round things off, he also wrote a short story The Exeter Text which uses only the vowel “e” and no other vowels. Awesome!)
"All my getaway places for writing are in my head. Most of them, anyway. But it’s true what they say about writers – if you’re not writing you’re thinking about writing."
Other than the written word, for you, what piece of “horror” media scared you the most as a kid?
I don’t know about scared… actually, I do, but it was a comic book. Astounding Stories, or one of that ilk. I was a kid, maybe eight. The story was about a boy and a monstrous-looking Being from another dimension who the boy befriended, accessing this other dimension via a bridge from the corner of the boy’s bedroom. Unfortunately, as the boy grew, the bridge crumbled: the older he got the more unsafe that bridge became, until one night the tearful Being told the boy it would be too dangerous for him to continue crossing. It explained: the older the boy became the less he believed in a bridge to another dimension. The less he believed, the less real the bridge became. The last scene was the boy alone in his bedroom, crying because the bridge had collapsed and he’d lost a friend, and the monster in its dimension crying because he was so lonely and missed his friend.
Man, I cried.
And then I imagined the bridge existed in the corner of my bedroom and for a few weeks afterwards I was bricking it every time I went to bed, in case that monster came across…
Horror doesn’t particularly scare me, but I’m very into that film genre where horror, the supernatural and religion mixes. I still love Carrie and The Exorcist – despite after seeing it and being in a pub with a friend, an image of Linda Blair’s flickering snake-tongued face turning and grinning suddenly appeared in front of me as if projected onto the pub wall. Just shows what the mind is capable of, doesn’t it? I find splatter and gory horror fairly boring, but the occult and its relationship with religion is fascinating. That could be due to a family friend who was a spiritual healer and was deeply interested in the occult, which as young teenager resonated with me big time.
As a Chelsea fan, you’ve got the Champions League final to look forward to in the near future [at the time of writing]. Last being crowned the victors in 2012, how are you feeling about your chances almost 10 years later?
I’ll try to keep this short (ish) as I think I may have rambled on a bit too much so far. Well, it’s Manchester City isn’t it? How do you outscore Man City? They’re a phenomenal team with a great manager, and we’ve hit a poor run of form right at the wrong time. (A hat-tip and a thank you to Spurs, at this point, for beating Leicester and gifting us a place in the Champions League!)
So, on the face of it, we don’t have much of a chance.
On the other hand, I think our poor form over the last four or five games has been the result of mental tiredness rather than lack of ability. It’s no surprise that after beating Porto and Real Madrid to get to the Final, and then beating City and close rivals West Ham, that the load began to show and individual and tactical errors crept in.
A week without a game and I think we’ll be back to our usual selves, which is perhaps not quite good enough to challenge Man City over a league season, but close enough to give them a damn good game and take them on a one-off match. So, Chelsea to win 3-1 (you heard it here first!)
In three words or less - what can our readers expect from A Cottage in Autumn?
Self-contained, homely fear.
Thank you for your time and fantastic submission, Drew. We’re looking forward to the debut of A Cottage in Autumn in The Needle Drops… Volume One.
Drew's stories have been published in a number of print anthologies, including Horror Library Volume 5 and Soteira Press's horror anthology What Monsters Do For Love (2020), as well as online and in magazines including Ethereal Tales, Isotropic Fiction and Dark Tales. His most recent story The Passing Of Donnamaria appeared in SexyFantastic magazine, March 2021, with another story due to appear in a forthcoming issue.
His story, A Portrait of Felice, is free to read online here.