When I read Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick, I was struck by the overwhelmingly creepy stories that intertwined throughout time. But what gave those stories an extra layer of the creep factor was the setting– the island of “Blessed.” A place where things just aren’t quite what they seem.
Therefore, I’m very pleased to welcome Marcus Sedgwick to Almost Grown-up today for part of the Midwinterblood Blog Tour to talk about some of his inspiration in creating the island of Blessed and Midwinterblood itself.
Islands. What is it about islands? Whether it’s a place where treasure is buried, or castaways wash up, where sinister idols are being worshipped, or monsters of a prehistoric size still rule, there is something powerful about islands. Utopia, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Gulliver’s Travels, King Kong, Jurassic Park, Lost. All these stories have made use of this power.
But why is an island such a strong symbolic device? For me it’s about one thing; isolation.
I should come clean – my first book was also set on an island. In Floodland I quickly realized I was in danger of re-writing Lord of the Flies, with a group of kids gone wild on a deserted island. Though my story was set in a climate change ravaged England, the parallels were obvious, so I decided I should pay homage to Golding’s classic and reference it a couple of times in the text.
I should come even cleaner – there was direct inspiration for the Isle of Blessed in Midwinterblood too. This inspiration came from two sources. First, and pretty directly, at the time I conceived and wrote Midwinterblood I was living on an island myself. An island called Brännö, one of the islands of the Gothenburg Archipelago, Sweden. Brännö (very roughly pronounced ‘brenner’) is a lovely place. Gorgeous. Small. Cute. Flower-laden in the summer, snow-deep and ice-bound in winter. I would spend my days meeting friendly smiling people, going swimming in the warm pools, basking on sunny rocks. And from time to time doing some work. It’s about the safest, most-charming, peaceful and welcoming place I’ve ever lived. So of course, what does a writer do, but start imagining that there is some terrible evil lurking in the rose bushes. That everyone on the island is secretly plotting some awful monstrosity. That the little old lady who lives across the lane from you is a murderous witch. Of course.
I was stuck for a book. It hadn’t happened to me before, but I was feeling glum about it, and so one day I left the island and took a train to Stockholm to see an old friend of mine. Though she knows Stockholm far better than me, she didn’t know a certain painting in the National Museum, and I thought she might like it. I took her to see it. It’s called Midvinterblot, it was painted in 1915 by a man called Carl Larsson, and it looks like this:
I should point out that this painting is over 15 yards wide. The figures in it are bigger than life size and it is, quite frankly, jaw-dropping to see it in the flesh. It depicts the legendary sacrifice of a King in pre-Christian Sweden, in order to bring fertility back to the land.
I told my friend Merl that I loved the painting and would like to turn it into a book but that the problem was that not only this idea, but every book I wanted at the time, was The Wicker Man.
Here’s that moment:
See? I wasn’t making it up.
And here’s the film I’m talking about, since it’s not so well known these days:
This, according to many people, is the best British horror film ever made. I’m one of those people. Why? It’s a weird film, yes. It looks very dated now. It’s silly in places and yet somehow, it just gets scarier every time you watch it, because when you know how it ends, watching poor Edward Woodward stumble towards one of the most twisted ends to any film ever is even more chilling. If you don’t know it I’ve probably said too much already. In which case it won’t matter if you have a look at the next image, from the closing moments of the movie.
Yes, that is Christopher Lee’s best hair-do ever.
At this point, as I told Merl that all I could think of writing felt like The Wicker Man, she said to me four words of genius; ‘what’s wrong with that?’
Good point, I thought, as I took the ferry back across the water to Brännö. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the next thought I had, as I cycled back across the island to my cabin, was how to turn that painting into more than just an imagined retelling of the scene depicted and how to move my story away from The Wicker Man itself. This is the only time in the more than ten years that I’ve been writing that a whole book seemed to pop into my head almost fully formed. I say ‘seemed’ because my unconscious mind had probably been working away hard for some time, but that’s a subject for another blog, another day.
Nevertheless, the real island of Brännö and the fictional Summerisle from The Wicker Man were a big part of how my book came about, and as I said, at the heart of why islands are powerful is their isolation. Isolation is a simple but incredibly effective device to use in writing. Isolate your characters, and they are immediately in more danger than they were before. There is no one to turn to when things go wrong. The emergency services are not just down the road. You cannot call 911. You are stuck. On an island, with whoever and whatever waits for you there, and let’s face it, the places at the edge of the map are the places where things are done differently, where people can form their own religions or cults, where laws can be broken, where evil things can occur. Etymologically, the word isolation has the same origin as the word island. They are one and the same, which brings me to one other ‘happy’ etymological coincidence I chanced across.
The name of Carl Larsson’s painting, Midvinterblot, actually translates as Midwinter Sacrifice. Not Midwinterblood. In the book, the island is called Blessed. How do these two things relate? Well, it turns out that the word ‘bless’ comes from a proto-Germanic word meaning to sacrifice. Specifically, it means to sacrifice in blood. So the next time someone sneezes and you say ‘bless you,’ be very careful what you mean.
Thank you so much, Marcus! Readers, Midwinterblood is available now!
You can also try your luck with a giveaway!
Want to learn more about Midwinterblood? Check out the rest of the Midwinterblood blog tour stops!
The Midnight Garden
Alexa Loves Books
Bunbury in the Stacks