Author Helen JR Bruce was born and raised in Essex but now lives and writes in Somerset. She studied for an English Literature degree at the University of Westminster. Helen is about to publish the second novel in her folkloric trilogy about the fabled wild hunt. She is a resident writer for Witch magazine and has had a short story published in Gramarye, the journal of the Chichester centre for fairy tales, fantasy and speculative fiction. She runs a Facebook group Dark Fae, Black Dogs & Wild Hunters.
You wrote about black dogs and the wild hunt in your first novel, Heat of the Hunt. Was the book inspired by any real life experiences?
A great deal of what I write about is inspired by real life experiences. Ever since I was a small child, I have been accompanied by a black dog spirit, and over time I have come to be grateful for his companionship. I used to wake up in the night and see it sitting in the doorway to my room, the soft yellow of the landing light framing its silhouette. At first, I was frightened. But, as I grew up I came to realise that the dog was more active and present in difficult times of my life, and I understood it was a guardian and guide. Black dogs get a lot of bad press in folklore, often being named as portents of death, but I like to remind people that some tales tell of helpful black dogs, such as the Gurt Dog of Somerset, who guides lost travellers on the Mendip hills.
Why is the book set around Dartmoor? I first fell in love with Dartmoor during a school trip to the moor. It was a long coach ride, all the way from Essex to Devon! But I remember that we each sat in one of the ruined Bronze Age hut circles of Grimspound and wrote a poem. It was then that I felt the magic of the land, and the bones of the ancestors beneath me. Dartmoor remained wild, in a world that had so much been tidied and tamed. In the many years since then, I returned multiple times each summer, visiting all the wonderful real places that feature in my books. The more I explored places like Hound Tor, Princetown and the Dewerstone, the more I came to appreciate the deep interconnectedness of local folklore and the land. It became my passion to capture some of this awe and wonder in the pages of my books, so that many more people were inspired to return to the land and its stories.
Which of the characters do you relate to the most and why?
In all honesty, I relate to all of them, even the villains! Gemma and Adrian are the main protagonists, and being human I can relate to their practical struggles and the many tests of their friendship. But I can also relate to Gabriel’s centuries old weariness about his duty to lead the Wild Hunt; we’ve all felt trapped by a responsibility that begins to crush us, I’m sure. In Lie of the Land I can really relate to Owain’s fear as he is forced to take on more than he can handle, because there’s simply no other option. As Apprentice to the huntmaster, it’s his job to step up and protect his Clan, even when it seems impossible, and I feel any of us would do the same for our own friends and family. We also meet the wonderfully eccentric Clara, a middle-aged lady new to witchcraft, in the second book. She’s the kind of person who uses an out of date pork chop in a ritual because she doesn’t want to waste it, and I’m completely on her wavelength.
Do you believe in the fae?
Simply put, yes, although by that I don’t mean the small winged faeries which we see in Victorian illustrations and in many modern-day depictions. Although there is a place for these, and I understand folklore as an endlessly adapting and developing system, which is constantly recycling and reworking old myths to be palatable for a changing audience. For me, beings like the fae and black dogs, are projections of spirit which manifest in a way in which we can understand them. They draw on our own, in some cases subconscious, store of folkloric archetypes and symbols, in order to be seen and impart something of relevance to us. Of course, this may not align with human morals, and something of importance might well be ‘if you dare set foot in these woods again you will die’. All this being said, I would never discount the possibility of running into a flesh and blood fae creature. Perhaps I already have.
What research have you undertaken for your books? The research and writing of Heat of the Hunt took over ten years, because I wanted to physically go to all the places which I was writing about, in order to really get a feel for them and portray them correctly. I also read up on the local folklore and spoke to people, such as the owners of the Warren House Inn, about the tales that are believed and retold even now. The fire in the Inn has been burning non stop since 1845, and the ghostly ‘hairy hands’ are still reported to be active, grabbing the steering wheels of cars and forcing them off the road and into the mire! I visited Wistman’s Wood many times, making the mile long trek over the open moor to sit in the shade of those stunted oak trees. It is said that the Wild Hunt ride out from there, and that the hounds are kennelled in the fenced-off heart of this tiny scrap of forest. Certainly, it was here that I had the very strange experience of hearing a hunting horn and feeling a shift in the mood of the forest around me. As for the crash site of the German plane in Heat of the Hunt, I couldn’t find it exactly, as there is absolutely no trace left on the moor. But I did look at maps of the reported locations of the many planes that came down on the moor, and I wonder how many stretches of bog have the great metal rib cage of a plane at their bottom.
What's different about your fantasy books compared to others in the genre?
Certainly, the feedback from my readers has been that they’ve found something different in this story. I think part of this is the fact that I have come to this tale through a deep reverence for the land and the tales that bind us, and our ancestors, to it. In this sense, my books are an invocation; a spell made with words that summon memories of magic which you may have forgotten. But the writing is also accessible and often funny; myths which modern people can’t connect to, have, in my opinion, been allowed to go stale. Plus the places are real, so you can go to the Plume of Feathers pub yourself, or climb up Hunters tor and search for the remains of the Iron Age hillfort. The lines between fantasy and reality become so blurred, that you aren’t quite sure where they are any more, and that is my greatest gift to a reader. Alongside this, it felt so important to have an inclusive set of characters which feel as real as the land they inhabit. So, we have Adrian who is gay, Elaine who is blind and Clara the witch who has those statues of woodland gods with a lot going on in the trouser department. The bad guys are also real people with motivations which we can understand. I know I’d sacrifice hikers to my undead minions like my antagonist Benjamin, if it meant I could make my fortune, and stop my child and I having to live out of a car!
You also produce the cover art for your novels. Can you tell us a little about that?
The cover artwork felt like such an important part of the story as a whole, and I began by going to various artists and looking at their wonderful work. But the more I discussed my ideas for what the cover should portray, the more it began to feel important that I channeled that vision myself. I studied art at school, but did not continue with it into University as I did with writing, so I was both excited and a little bit nervous about creating a piece that would be put to such prestigious use! Luckily, the cover art for Heat of the Hunt came out even better than I'd hoped, and the wonderful texture created by watercolour and ink pen really captured the lush green of Wistman's Wood. I was given the confidence to not think twice about creating the slightly more complex cover art for Lie of the Land, which features Glastonbury Tor and the constellation of Canis Major. Occasionally, I have had doubts whether hand drawn cover artwork can compete with more modern digitally created images, but I remind myself of the wonderful illustrations produced by Paul Kidby for Terry Pratchett's books. There is certainly something appropriate about real paint on real paper, which ties in to the real locations in my writing and the real local folktales which inspire these adventures.
Are there any secrets hidden in your books that only those in the know will find?
I love this question. There are loads of hidden things to find that aren’t really secrets. Basically, almost any aspect of the book can be delved into deeper; if I’ve mentioned a number, I will have chosen it for its symbolism in numerology, and if a character picks up a book, it will be a real one you can look up and buy- take Dartmoor Plane Crashes as an example. If I mention a bird, then the spiritual or folklore message of seeing this bird will be relevant to the story, such as with the thrush being a symbol of death.
Lie of the Land, Book two in your series is coming out soon, what exciting developments can we expect in book two? When will it be released?
Lie of the Land is the follow on from Heat of the Hunt and is due for release on the 23rd July 2021. I’m so excited to share this next installment of the story with you, which brings us back to the wilderness of Dartmoor, and also to the magical land of Ireland and the world beneath the hills. Plus, you can find out what happens when Clara the witch throws an off pork chop at the demon huntsman!
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