interview by Joe Vaz

From Issue 13 (Sept 2011)


Where is home?

Home is where the bookshelves are. Or, for a more sensible answer, home is the province of New Brunswick in Canada. If by some strange chance you’re not familiar with New Brunswick, here’s the quick Tourism-Department-unapproved overview: it is roughly the size of the province of Mpumalanga in South Africa, or of the Republic of Ireland. Our charming nick-name is “Herring-chokers”, for our traditional pastime of throttling tonnes of fish in nets and weirs, and then turning them into kippers. Our two official languages are New Brunswick English (sort of like real English) and Acadian French (kind of like real French).

Generally, New Brunswickers are a bloody-minded people. But in a nice way. For example, after an 18th century war, the Acadians were all deported from the area, but they insisted on coming back home (except the ones who preferred spicy food – they stayed in Louisiana). Likewise, the English-speaking Loyalists came here from the 13 Colonies (sometimes known by revolutionary firebrands as the “United States of America”) because the Loyalists insisted on remaining British even when all of their neighbours were doing the trendy thing and becoming Americans. Of course, in those days New Brunswick was still part of Nova Scotia, but the Loyalists, perhaps picking up a little of the American spirit of separatism, separated from Nova Scotia and called themselves New Brunswick. And the aboriginal peoples of the area bloody-mindedly stayed here despite all of the troublesome British and French who were moving in and making such a mess of the place.

In our favour (in case you’re considering a visit) I should point out that our days of ethnic cleansing are largely a thing of the past. Lastly, we eat a seaweed called “dulse”, and have very high tides in the Bay of Fundy, so bring a watch and tide table if you ever go to a Fundy beach, because it can spoil your day to have a 12 metre tide unexpectedly come in as you picnic on seaweed below an impassable cliff.


Are you a full-time writer

Yes. I also do other things full-time, too. Fortunately I don’t sleep very much.


If this is a stupid question well take it out. Is the title a pun? (Cotton, have I seen her before?)

As someone who has been known on occasion to achieve professional-level punning speeds (25-30 puns per minute), I am ashamed to say that this is one I completely missed. I humbly relinquish my punster’s crown to one more worthy to wear it.

I suppose it’s a fair question, though, since the title is so obscure. The title is actually derived from a real library. The “Cotton Library” — now part of the British Library — was collected by Sir Robert Cotton about four hundred years ago. It was a collection of manuscripts (i.e. handwritten rather than printed), and could without exaggeration be described as priceless. Some of the manuscripts were over a thousand years old, and some are the only surviving copies of particular works; the story of Beowulf, for example, would be unknown today had the Cotton manuscript not survived. Likewise, other Old English and Middle English works survived only in the copies Cotton collected.

A curious feature of the Cotton Library was the somewhat eccentric filing system. Instead of being alphabetical, or using the Dewey-Decimal system or something, Cotton had busts of various emperors and empresses on top of the shelves, and the books got referred to as things like Caligula (for the Caligula shelf), A (for row A), ix (for the ninth book in the row). Thus Caligula A ix refers to a particular book in the library, and that book itself might have had several manuscripts bound together into one volume.

In my story, I’ve imagined the existence of another shelf — Avicenna — which would have once sat under a bust of the Persian philosopher Avicenna, with Persian and Arabic manuscripts including the Cotton Avicenna B iv. In the story, Rafe mentions that the manuscript is discoloured due to damp, not fire – a reference to the Ashburnham House fire of 1731. That fire damaged many of the Cotton manuscripts.

The Ashburnham family’s other house, Ashburnham Place in Sussex, wasn’t immune to misfortune either. In World War Two, a B-26 full of bombs crashed into it. The Earls of Ashburnham have a connection with New Brunswick, too, since the last earl came here in Victorian times as a commoner and (as P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Ickenham might say) worked his way up to earl through sheer pluck and hard work until, after the death of several relatives, he came into the title. By then he’d (in another Wodehousian touch) married a local telephone operator who suddenly found herself the Countess of Ashburnham. She is affectionately remembered in the province for “Lady Ashburnham’s Pickles”, though to be truthful the recipe was actually her sister’s.


What inspired this story?

Always a tricky question. I often forget exactly what inspired a story, probably because it’s usually a convergence of several things. Or sometimes because of a lack of sleep. (See question 2.) One thing that contributed to it was a realization that Rafe’s timeline was going to coincide with the Jack the Ripper murders. Also, I took a notion to conflate the person of Jack the Ripper with the mythical figure Springheeled Jack. The fact that Jack the Ripper sent a postcard to the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee with the return address “from hell” was another thing that suggested the idea to me. Probably I’d been reading Dante, too, and perhaps thinking about the legends of antiquity in which people travelled to the underworld.


Rafe Maddox and the Etheric Explorers Club feature in The Resident Member, do you often write within that same universe?

I’ve written a number of short stories involving the E.E.C. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When I write about that time period, I tend to do it in that world, with a lot of real historical detail but with the supernatural too. Generally, the idea behind the E.E.C. is that these “supernatural” things – ghosts, demons, precognition – are not so much supernatural as unusual phenomena that are susceptible to scientific explanation. It’s just that the science is a bit different than in our world, with the ether preserving impressions of living organisms, for example – ghosts – and nature containing (as the Bard said) more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy, i.e. ordinary science.


Where can we read more about the Etheric Explorers Club?

Rafe Maddox makes a few appearances in the novel Knights of the Sea (now available in both the attractively bound paperback size, and the convenient e-book format for those economizing on dollars and shelf space), and the club is the setting for the story “The Resident Member”, which you can listen to for free – it was turned into a radio play with the brilliant acting of Gideon Emery, Damon Berry, Christa Schamberger-Young, Joe Vaz, and Digby Young. Download the mp3 from Something Wicked, or from my website

The other Etheric Explorers short stories are, alas, no longer in print – that’s the ephemeral nature of magazine publishing. One of these days, when I’m feeling Quixotic, I will compile them into a collection that will shake mankind’s faith in the beneficence of Providence, in the solidity of this goodly frame the earth, yea, even rock the very foundations of Man’s understanding of the Cosmos. Well, maybe not that, but it will probably give a few hours of amusement by the fireside on a long winter’s night, and generate mutterings of ‘hmm, yes,’ over the glass of port.


The character of Brenna is extremely mysterious. She seems to act as Rafe’s bodyguard, but no-one else in the story seems to interact with her (other than the guys whose ass she kicks). Who is she?

She first appeared in another of my Etheric Explorers stories, one called “The Mudmen of Tower Tunnel”. The current story is, of course, narrated by her, and I’ve tried to give hints of her origins without spelling it out completely. For example, she’s from another London before the Tower, when there were walls. She uses Latinish terms like insula and columbia. She is superstitious and doesn’t quite understand Rafe’s religion. She regards everyone who has emigrated to Britain since antiquity as foreigners. In fact, she’s a Celtic Briton from Roman times who was murdered and dumped in the Thames where she was stuck in the mud, squelching around in the dark for 1500 years as a footloose soul. Consequently, she isn’t fond of darkness or riding the London Underground.

During the digging of the Tower Tunnel under the Thames, the terrified workmen fled the pit when a clay creature was uncovered in the mud, and when Rafe came to investigate he discovered what and who the creature really was. Rafe let her reach the Pagan afterlife at last by giving her a proper burial in a barrow on his property, but she returns to the world occasionally for visits.


What was the most recent short story youve read?

“Nets of Silver and Gold”, by James Blaylock. It was first published by Asimov’s back in 1984, and is about a man re-encountering an old friend from childhood. The friend was always peculiar, and now he is convinced that he sees people and things through the keyhole of a door in his bedroom wall, a door that should lead only to an empty space where the balcony was removed years ago…


[hana-code-insert name=’ArticleBlockOpen’ /]

Joe Vaz

Joe Vaz is the founder and editor of Something Wicked, which occasionally affords him the honour and good fortune to hang out with really cool people.
In his other life he is a film and television actor who gets small parts in big movies, most recently in Dredd 3D, due to be released in September 2012.

[hana-code-insert name=’ArticleBlockClose’ /]

Comments are closed.