EXCLUSIVE – This Dreaming Isle – Kickstarter Launch Interview

Today Unsung Stories launch a Kickstarter campaign for This Dreaming Isle, an anthology of short stories exploring British folklore and local history. We asked editor Dan Coxon about the concept behind the anthology, and the stories we can expect to read.

– Tell us a little bit about This Dreaming Isle?

This Dreaming Isle is an anthology of fourteen new short stories exploring the folklore and history of the British Isles – each story is tied to a very specific place, mapping out the weird and unsettling across the nation. It’s important to stress that these are modern fictions, though, not simply retellings of folk tales. We wanted the anthology to draw upon centuries of tradition, but at the same time to be something of its time – for it to reflect the issues and troubles of contemporary Britain. I think we’ve achieved that. It also falls into the territory which has been dubbed ‘folk horror’ in recent years: hauntings, mythical beasts, weird goings-on. We have ghosts and mer-people sitting side by side, straddling the country.

– Who’s involved in the project and which of the authors are you most excited about?

I honestly wouldn’t want to single anyone out. Our table of contents is close to my dream line-up. We have established authors of the horrific and macabre like Ramsey Campbell, Tim Lebbon, Catriona Ward and Stephen Volk; literary authors of the strange and eerie, like Andrew Michael Hurley, Alison Moore, Jenn Ashworth, Aliya Whiteley, James Miller and Angela Readman; and some emerging writers, those just at the start of their careers, like Gareth E. Rees, Gary Budden, Jeannette Ng and Richard V. Hirst. Short of getting a last-minute story from Neil Gaiman, I couldn’t be happier.

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– Why do you think now is a good time to release an anthology on this topic?

It’s something that’s been brewing for a while. I first started work on This Dreaming Isle over two years ago, and in that time it’s only become more relevant, not less so. Obviously Brexit has spawned all kinds of questions about national identity, and the toxicity of nostalgia, but when this book was first conceived we hadn’t yet had the Leave vote. I see the Brexit referendum and the impetus for this anthology as both being symptoms of the same unease. Who are we now, as Britons in the twenty-first century? Is there a way we can respect and be proud of our past that doesn’t lead towards nationalism, racism and a right-wing resurgence? These are the questions that people seem to be asking, and I suspect we won’t find the answers any time soon.

– What sort of conversations do you anticipate being started by the release of this anthology? What are your short and long-term expectations?

First and foremost, I’d like people to discuss the stories as stories. There’s an undoubted political aspect to some of the contributors’ work (James Miller’s story ‘Not All Right’ is a fine example) but it isn’t our intention to offer any kind of political agenda here. These are works of fiction – and excellent works of fiction, at that. So above all else, I’d like people to enjoy the stories, be entertained by them, and hopefully find some new writers to love. But it’s naïve to imagine that there won’t be political discussions too. Hopefully, we might even start moving towards answers to a few of those questions.

– Do you believe that we now have an opportunity to redefine ourselves as British people in a positive light, albeit in the shadow of the Brexit era?

It certainly seems that we’re at a tipping point. Britain is in flux, and as yet it’s unclear how we’re going to emerge from it. For most of us, that’s rather scary – it’s no coincidence that these are horror stories! But at the same time, there does seem to be an opportunity to redefine ourselves, to decide what’s important to us as a modern nation and to stick to those principles – and to decide what we don’t want to be, too. As a people, we’re renowned for being slightly mired in the past. Maybe this is when Britain finally starts moving into the future.

– How does being British define your identity, if at all? 

I spent almost six years living overseas in America, and during that time I came to realise that it defines me more than I think. Most of us like to believe that we’re unique individuals and that the land we happen to be born in is of little relevance in the Internet age, but that really isn’t the case. During my time in America I found myself adrift from my moorings, surrounded by cultural references, upbringings and assumptions that simply didn’t gel with my own. Like most of us, I suspect, I’m more British than I care to admit.

– In light of Britain’s long history of political and economic dominance on the world stage, do you anticipate pro-Brexiteers ever really being satisfied with our post-Brexit identity?

At this point in the Brexit debacle, I wouldn’t want to anticipate anything. Who knows what might happen? I certainly don’t. And I find it hard to imagine my way inside the heads of the pro-Brexit crowd. My suspicion, though, is that many of them voted Leave on the assumption that we’d make a strong exit from Europe, and forge some groundbreaking deal that left us with the best of both worlds – none of which has happened. I’d also point out that we were all lied to by the politicians, but that goes without saying. After all, isn’t that what politicians do?

– To what extent do you think being an island nation shapes our identity?

Vastly, and in ways we probably don’t even imagine. One thing that I learned while in America is that Britain is really, really small. People there wouldn’t think twice about driving two hours to go out for the night; here, if our friends live more than an hour away we consider them beyond the pale. As you’ll see in the anthology, many of the stories engage with the coast in some way, whether it’s via kelpies, mermaids or ghosts of the Norman invasion. About a third of the book is set on the coast, which seems apt.

– How important is it to look back to the past? When setting out to define our future British identity, should we do it in light of the past or does that create a danger of wanting to hold on to what has been, rather than what could be? How do the stories challenge these choices?

I’ve had a couple of discussions on this topic recently, and it’s something I tackle in my introduction to the book. I think I can safely say that all the writers in This Dreaming Isle avoid nostalgia and sentimentality about the past. Maybe that’s simply in the nature of folk horror: the past isn’t tea and scones on the lawn, it’s malicious ghosts and weird goings-on in the fells, it’s witches burned at the stake and towns razed to the ground by Vikings. The past is a dangerous, cutthroat place, filled with violence, injustice and inequality. Stephen Volk’s story for the book, ‘Cold Ashton’, demonstrates that perfectly, drawing from the medieval period when women were burned at the stake just for surviving without the company of men. Those who see it through rose-tinted glasses aren’t really engaging with it, they’re only fantasizing. And that’s always dangerous.

– Folklore is woven into our history – can it play a part in shaping our future? Why is it important to remember these stories?

I suspect it’s no coincidence that folk horror has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, just as these concerns are bubbling to the surface. If there’s an antidote to Theresa May’s tea-and-scones nostalgia, then it’s surely folk horror. Britain’s history isn’t cosy and twee. It’s dark and disturbing, unsettling and weird. And it has a body count that would put Hollywood’s entire output to shame. But folklore – and folk horror – show us that the past can do more than simply scare us. It can also teach us, by showing us the dark places that our country has been to before and strengthening our resolve not to build that same Britain again. Maybe then, once we’ve learned from the past, we can finally move into the future.

This Dreaming Isle is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, and will be published by Unsung Stories later this year. As well as ebooks, paperbacks and limited edition hardbacks, you can also pre-order new books from Unsung Stories by Aliya Whiteley and Peter Haynes, as well as other rewards and exclusives. Check out the This Dreaming IsleKickstarter page here, and please show your support.

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