I recently had a chance to talk with author Steven McKay about his writing, which I think will appeal to the audience of the library quite a bit.
Steven was born in 1977, near Glasgow in Scotland; lives in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. Steven also plays Jackson guitars and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University, and then decided to follow a life-long ambition to write a historical novel; which has become a full series.
The cover for the forthcoming Blood of the Wolf, the fourth novel in Steven’s series, based on Robin Hood, was recently revealed, and the book itself should be available around June.
John Griogair Bell, Librarian: We initially got in contact when you responded to something I posted on Twitter asking for real people following the library to get in touch. So, thanks for reaching out, and saying hello. Would you like to introduce yourself to the audience of the library?
Steven A McKay: My name is Steven A (for Alaric) McKay and I’m a historical fiction author from Glasgow in Scotland. I also play guitar. I’m a big fan of the Hermetic Library—I browse it all the time on my phone when I’m out and about, it’s a fantastic resource!
L: Thanks for the kind words about the site. Formatting could be better for phones though, so I apologize about that bit! I’m always fixing things, but usually figure out some new way to fix things half way through the previous fix, and that causes things to break. But really, it’s a lot like editing. When do you know you’re done? When you can’t stand to look at it anymore?
S: No, I’m quite lucky in that respect—I generally write something once and that’s it. Some writers redraft their stuff endlessly—even throwing out thousands of words at a time—but not me. My editor will go over it, and my beta-readers will make suggestions too, but generally my first draft is very close to what is eventually published.
L: Some of the best stuff I’ve ever written is the stream of words that have come first to tongue and fingers, and woe to me when those have gone unsaved or lost. Trying to recapture the same first inspiration seems to always disappoint me.
S: Pretty much everything I write just comes out on its own. I mean, I have a basic plan of where I want to go, but it practically writes itself once I sit at the laptop. Sometimes it even deviates from my plan without me expecting it. I’ve had characters die unexpectedly in some cases but I just go with it and things end up better for it I believe. That’s why, when I get the occasional review saying my books are “predictable” I find it amusing, because I don’t even know myself where they’ll go once I start writing.
L: As an aside, there’s a funny bit of synchronicity that my paternal grandfather was born in Wishaw, not far from Glasgow. So, howdy neighbor! There’s a lot of interest in psychogeography and landscape in the readership of the library. Has your experience of the land, the terroir, had an influence and informed your work?
S: Wishaw isn’t far from me but I don’t know it well. I love the land in Britain and, yes, it certainly has influenced my work in a massive way. When I was first thinking about writing a novel I knew it had to involve the forests and streams and so on that makes up such a big part of this country. Robin Hood was perfect for that, living in the greenwood as he does, and being an extension of mythical figures like John Barleycorn. Put it this way—I once decorated my living room with green walls, dark green carpet, a blue ceiling and had plants, a little fountain and such around the place to try and make it as much like the forest as possible. It didn’t work and it looked silly but never mind, I was young and stupid …
L: By the way, can’t let this slip by: Is your band online at all, where readers can get a listen? And are you going to participate in the audio pool or anthology some time?
S: The band isn’t really on the go any more, we only get the chance to jam occasionally, but I still sometimes write music for my book trailers. You can hear some of my solo stuff on Youtube or on Soundclick. The songs probably most interesting to library readers would be “Black Flame of Set” which is a kind of ritualistic metal thing I came up with about 8 years ago; “Slaves of God” which is probably the first song to have the chant “All hail Satan, All Hail Set, All Hail Jesus!”; and “Hope”. If you just want some good old fashioned hard rock, Def Leppard style, check out “We Two” which I play everything on, even the drums, or, if you need something heavier in the Iron Maiden vein, “Nocturnal Fire”.
L: Great stuff! I’m sure our readers will be interested in those. Speaking of readers being interested, you brought to my attention a couple of your novellas, specifically Knight of the Cross and Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil. What about these would interest the audience of the library?
S: Knight of the Cross is heavily influenced by HP Lovecraft, although the “black eyed kids” and “Slender Man” folklore of recent years also played a part in the creation of it. I like to leave things open-ended and allow the reader their own interpretation of certain things, rather as Lovecraft did. There’s some magick and sleep-paralysis and things like that which I’ve had personal experience of many times over the years and I’d bet many of the Hermetic Library’s audience have too, right?
I’m a big death metal fan and I took a line from the Nile song “4th Arra of Dagon” for this book. The idea of a large group of crazed devil-worshippers chanting, “Arra! Arra! Arra! Dagon! Dagon! Dagon!” in an underground cavern was too good to ignore …That novella is being translated into German and will be out soon as Ritter des Kreuzes.
Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil is a more straightforward historical fiction tale, with the odd little reference thrown in for those that might spot them …
The main focus of my books so far is Robin Hood and anyone that’s ever looked into that whole legend will know there’s a lot more to it than just some guy in green waving a longbow. There’s quite a deep mythology hidden in there, with aspects of the Green Man, rebirth of winter into spring, the little man vs. the establishment, etc., all playing a part.
L: Seems to me that Lovecraft’s intentional verisimilitude meshes well with the kind of intentional LARP / Cosplay leaking fictive worlds into our everyday experience, like Heavy Metal creating a culture that supports itself and the narrative. We’re in our own imaginations, an augmented reality, at all times. So, yeah, I would expect that any practicing magick would involve direct experience, the method of science. But, moreover, we’re learning to develop that advanced technology as part of mundane life as well; magick being the practice of getting things done, but also of developing symbolic webs of meaning for some practical purpose.
I freaked out my Latin instructor in High School by mentioning some of the underground chanting in Lovecraft’s material once. Good times, good times.
There’s a timely timeliness to mythological depth as well. I mean, we tell our myths not around fire pits, but crowded around arcade cabinets or in online streaming channels; we no longer simply hear about our heroic myths, but viscerally participate in them as well; and identify directly with these archetypes through, frankly, forming them in pixel godforms. We’re telling these tales to ourselves, about ourselves nowadays.
S: Yes, and it’s fantastic! I mean, take a videogame like Skyrim. Not only did that have a wonderful story but it really immersed you in its world by allowing you to gather ingredients for potions and foods which you could craft yourself while resting in an inn with a roaring fire and a bard singing folk songs. I spent a lot of fun hours in the world of Skyrim. I think we’re very lucky to have that outlet for our imagination these days.
Of course there’s still a big place for books but, again, technology is really opening things up even there.
You can read a book on your Kindle, for example, in my Knight of the Cross, I mention in the endnotes about that Nile song and the chant in it. Nowadays you can use your Kindle or tablet to instantly find that song on Youtube, hear the chant for yourself and put it all together in your mind. It all adds to the immersion and the shared experience.
Similarly, I was listening to the new Graham Hancock book, Magicians of the Gods, on my smartphone using the Audible app, and he was talking about all these incredible places like Göbekli Tepe and Baalbek which I already knew about, but then there were other places I hadn’t heard of. Despite the fact I was in the middle of nowhere, in my car, I was able to use the phone to pull up the internet and research those places Graham was describing. That’s an amazingly powerful tool humanity has at our disposal.
Science has truly become like magick in my opinion.
L: The deep mythology of Robin Hood is perennial and evergreen, isn’t it? Especially at this moment in time, perhaps, politically and economically. There is a sense of having read the instruction manual, being familiar with these deep archetypes, but also, perhaps, of being trapped by them, yes? Isn’t that why it becomes essential to retell these stories?
S: We’re doomed to repeat history’s mistakes. When you look at the Robin Hood legend it’s all about a man being treated unfairly by the system, and, not just one man, but a whole segment of the population. You’re right, it’s relevant today just as it was 800 years ago because it’s still those with the most money who are controlling the populace via the mass media, big pharma, the war on terror etc etc. Robin Hood is a hero for all times and we could really do with someone like him in the 21st century to stand up and become a figurehead for the masses.
Of course, on top of all that Robin was just a man who liked a drink and a fight and I try to show that in my books!
L: You also mentioned your book The Wolf and the Raven as having been influenced by Aleister Crowley, and that there’s a very personal connection to the idea of hope in that work. What’s that about?
S: When I was writing that book—my second—I went through a very traumatic time as our second daughter was still-born. That whole period was really hard as it felt like someone had cursed me—everything was going wrong. For example, one day the shower broke, but I could still go for a bath so it was okay, but then the very next day the hot water boiler broke too, so even a bath was out.
Little things like that were just piling up day after day, on top of the major stress of the loss of a baby and I started to feel like I couldn’t take any more.
At that point I made a conscious decision to fight back and NOT give in to all the shit life was throwing my way. My by-word became “hope”. I even wrote a song with that title as I mentioned earlier (in Open G tuning, a la “That’s The Way” Zep fans!), dealing with the emotions I was feeling. Robin, the hero in the novel The Wolf and the Raven ended up taking the word as his own too, after a pep talk from the wise Friar Tuck…
Lots of gurus or philosophers believe in the power of certain words—from Thelema to Xeper or Indulgence or whatever. Well “Hope” became mine and Robin’s magical Word. I have a silver unicursal hexagram that I imbued with the word and I wear it every day to remind me of everything I’ve been through. It gives me strength to deal with all the crap life throws at every one of us.
When I was writing that book in particular I was listening almost exclusively to the Polish metal band Behemoth who also take a lot from Crowley.
So much of my creative process is infused with his spirit.
L: I’m sorry for your loss. But, and I hope this doesn’t seem trite or inappropriate, I’ve wondered about how it’s only the people that have truly gone through some shit are worth talking to about anything. The struggle is real, but it also makes us more real. (“It flows through us. It controls our actions but also obeys our commands.” Shoot me now.) I’ve talked to soldiers who’ve come back from combat that say they’ve been essentially changed in ways that cannot be understood by those that have not gone through that kind of experience. That seems obvious, in a way, until one takes the next logical leap: one cannot become fully human, develop one’s full potential as a human, without having suffered that kind of trauma. There are dimensions of Job’s humanity, for example, that cannot be realized by anyone else.
Something like a single word, “Hope”, is not only useful as a focus but a foundation or scaffold on which magick identity can be created, right? Whether we create from scratch or cultivate from unrealized potential, our magical selves require work that needs to be done, perhaps. The tools are real, have practical purpose, and, somehow, those that have taken up those tools and made it to the other side of the dark seem to me more real and fully human than those who have not found themselves forced the first step forward on what then becomes a seemingly inexorable drive to go—to Go.
S: What you say is correct, and it’s possible our trauma has made me a stronger person. Yes, it added to my life “toolbox” but to be honest it’s a tool I could have done without. I suppose it’s just part of growing older. When we’re 21 death seems so far away – then one goes through a horrible experience like a still-birth, or a soldier comes home with PTSD, or one contracts a terrible illness, and the reality of death becomes very, very real. And that’s when you truly start to wonder about an after-life, or what might lie outside the so-called “real” world.
That’s where a talisman, or a magical word like “Hope” comes in. Anyone that’s ever tried any sort of magick will know it’s real, never more so than when you’re harnessing all the experiences and emotions of life. Honestly, I was shocked at how my life changed when I began to “hope” again. I became thankful for all the good things in my life and stopped focusing on the bad stuff and it was like everything started to go well from that point on.
It was a real lesson for me—be thankful for what you have and try to stay positive!
There’s a place for mourning and it’s fine to feel sad sometimes but wallowing in it is the way to oblivion.
L: That kind of aspirational energy is something I think I’ve also seen in the way that authors interact with each other, especially online. For example, there was a recent exchange between you and Richard Kaczynski about authors seeming to prize signed books more than non-authors. Certainly there might also be some sympathetic, maybe even some talismanic magic going on there. But I also have noticed how supportive authors tend to be toward each other; including how much I’ve seen you do on Twitter to help spread the word about other people’s work. I see that as a kind of collective servitor being built up, and it must help being part of that. How conscious is that, do you think?
S: I never thought of signed books as being talismanic but yes, in some cases I suppose you’re right. I have some which are just cool to have and it’d be nice if they were worth something in years to come, but that book of Richard’s—Perdurabo—really is extra special and I’ve been treating it with a lot more reverence than a regular book. Interesting point!
Much of the sharing I do on Twitter is purely in hopes of it being reciprocated though, I must be honest. Marketing is an act of magick in itself of course, one of the oldest forms!
L: And, there’s a little Aleister Crowley easter egg in Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil. Do you want to let the cat out of the bag?
S: Ha, yeah, no-one has spotted it so far, or if they have they haven’t mentioned it. The priest in the little English village of Brandesburton has a library with some very strange books in it … Perhaps if any of the Hermetic Library readers ever check out the novella they’ll see it. Do let me know if you spot it!
L: Although, somewhat obvious from the relevance of your books to the library audience. What’s your personal background and interest in occult and esoteric subject matter?
S: I was never really interested in the occult or anything like that until my late twenties, when I started to feel like something was missing in my life. I almost wished I believed in Jesus or Buddha or, well, anything like that. I found an initiatory school and joined them. I became an Adept by completing certain tasks which were all about self-improvement. I really did grow as a person during that period and I have a lot to thank that school for, but, ultimately, I’m a solitary person so I left them. Since then, I mostly just read Crowley’s books and try to understand what he was getting at.
The best thing any of us can do is read as much as possible and take whatever we find useful from each source. Crowley might have been a really shitty father and mate, but that doesn’t make his ideas worthless or “evil”.
I recently re-read John Fowles’ The Magus and was struck by the parable about the magician. I don’t remember that at all from when I first read the book a decade ago but now, it really jumped out at me. Read it online if you don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s extremely relevant in this day and age with all the horrible crap being reported in the mainstream media around the world.
That’s what I enjoy so much about this kind of esoteric art, particularly Crowley’s —sometimes little nuggets leap out at you and make you go, “Aha!” and often it’s at the exact moment in life that you really need it. Synchronicity is an amazing thing.
L: You had mentioned to me previously about taking care not to overtly or at least overly advertise your esoteric interests. I’m personally quite interested in how the library can bridge some of the town-gown-tau divides and boundaries, but maintaining mainstream approachability while still doing the material justice is a bit of a tight rope, isn’t it?
S: Yes, because there’s always people out there with preconceived ideas about the likes of Crowley. Even people who call themselves Wiccans look down their nose at Aleister, calling him “evil” or whatever because they’ve read the press saying things about him. Of course, that’s ironic because many Christians would look at Wiccans, with their pentagrams and such, as being just as evil as Uncle Al. And from what I understand he actually came up with many of Gerald Gardner’s ideas anyway!
To an extent it’s understandable. Regular people read comments about sacrificing children and take it literally. Why wouldn’t they? Who would automatically assume Crowley was talking about masturbating?
So this is what we’re up against when facing a mainstream audience. It’s not because they’re stupid assholes, it’s because they’ve never put the time in to understand what the real meaning behind this occult stuff is and why would they?
Look at the headlines when Boleskine House went up in flames in December 2015. “Satanist’s house burns down!” was the gist of most of them. Crowley was no Satanist—Christ, some would say Anton LaVey wasn’t even a Satanist!—but that’s the public perception of anyone in the West who looks at things outside a Christian framework.
I bet if most folk actually read The Satanic Bible they’d think the majority of it was simple common sense.
To me, and probably most who have an interest in this stuff, it’s about thinking outside the box and improving yourself by working differently to how everyone else does.
So many people are shocked when I tell them I took my wife’s surname when we got married, for example. It’s just not the done thing in Western society. It’s antinomian and people don’t understand it. But it was perfectly normal to me because I felt no affinity with own family name.
The idea of “Do what thou wilt” is beyond most people who simply want to take it at face value and react against it, without taking time to understand it means making the most of your gifts rather than just being decadent.
Ultimately, all we can do is treat people well and hope they accept an interest in the occult doesn’t mean we’re all crazed devil-worshippers because that’s obviously ridiculous. As Ian Anderson once said (and I’m convinced the Jethro Tull mainman was influenced by Crowley even if he didn’t make it a big thing like Jimmy Page): “Somebody wake me, I’ve been sleeping too long.”
In this new æon, with the internet at humanity’s disposal, there’s really no excuse to be asleep any more.
L: Don’t even get me started about the stupid internecine prejudice between Neopagan Witchcraft and Thelema, which goes both ways; and it’s about perception of values as well as some deeply shitty gender stereotypes. There’s some history, but I feel there’s also plenty of the same nasty harassment and animosity as is being surfaced in other subcultures, like in Gamergate and so forth. It’s ugly, but I think is some internalize cultural level shit that hasn’t been worked out. And, so the “treating people well” part still, I think, has a long way to go, even among movements that are at the least nominally related through Uncle Al and Uncle Gerald having met and talked.
There’s been a lot of great work done to tease out what influence there really was on Gardnerian Witchcraft, but it’s clear there was some. For me, personally, I feel Uncle Gerald had his Word and it is Wicca; he was also closer in contact with Crowley, when they were talking, than anyone left alive today who is second guessing the relationship between these luminaries, so that cannot be so easily dismissed. Further, Gardner was contacted about leadership of OTO after Crowley’s death, so even their contemporaries knew there was an important connection.
In the end, people who want to purify either Gardner or Crowley, dare I say force them unto that self-same procrustean chopping block we’re still struggling to escape with our lives, make them inhuman; I think those efforts fail to realize it is exactly in their complex, real humanity that they are, if you will allow, essentially New Æon. If one’s prophets and saints and friends aren’t allow to have profound flaws along with profound strengths, I think there’s more delusion than divinity in them.
S: I don’t know much about Wicca to be honest but I do know someone who is very into it. I was shocked when I told her I was reading a Crowley book and she angrily denounced him as being “evil”. I can’t understand that mentality. I mean, she’s never even read any of his books.
Of course he had his flaws but as you say, we all do—that’s humanity!
Even the God of the bible had a bad temper and a vindictive streak, just ask everyone that drowned in the flood.
The trick is to ignore what society says you “should” like. Read widely and make up your own mind. There’s many things I read in Crowley’s books that I don’t agree with, and much of it I don’t even understand to be honest, but occasionally I’ll find a little nugget of gold that really shines out and I feel like I’ve gained a new level of understanding.
L: We’re also announcing as part of this interview a giveaway for a couple of the audiobook version of your work. Do you want to say something about what we’re giving away, such as which works and anything about the production of the audiobooks?
S: Well all five of my books are available in audio so I’m happy to give away a copy of whatever one the winners would like. Obviously these are historical fiction books, not occult treatises or even magically-themed works so take a look at my author page, read the blurbs and see what tickles your fancy!
I have five free downloads to give away—all you need is an Amazon account and the Audible app which is free to download on your tablet, smartphone or just your computer.
Not much to say about the production of the audio. My narrator, Nick Ellsworth, is a real pro (he was in a James Bond movie) and easy to work with so I don’t have any funny stories to relate. They’re just fun to listen to.
L: What’s next, and in the near future, that readers might expect to see from you?
S: Once my Forest Lord series is finished this summer (Blood of the Wolf will be the final book) I plan on going further back in time to dark age Britain, when the Romans were just pulling out and leaving us to it.
My main character in the new series will be a warrior druid and I’m really, really looking forward to exploring his magick. Real things like mentalism, sleight-of-hand, herb lore and charisma are just as interesting as shooting bolts of blue fire from your fingers in something like The Sword of Shannara and it’ll be fun to explore all that real magick while telling a good old fashioned tale of brutal ass-kicking, adventure and, maybe, love!
Look out for the first book in that new series around 2017.
The three books in Steven’s The Forest Lord series are Wolf’s Head, The Wolf and the Raven, and Rise of the Wolf. The fourth, and final, book in the series Blood of the Wolf should be available this June.
Head over to Steven’s website, where you can sign up for his email list and also get a free short story. Follow @SA_McKay on Twitter, via his Amazon author page, and The Forest Lord series page on Facebook.
(The contest for the free audiobooks on offer from The Forest Lord author Steven A McKay has ended!)