Are vampires real?

When my daughter was little she used to wonder about the imaginary creatures and monsters she’s heard about or read about in storybooks. Were they real? She already had a pretty good idea they weren’t, but she still needed to ask, just in case.

I had two answers for her, depending on whether the creature was one she liked, or one she was afraid of.

Answer # 1:

“Dad, are unicorns real?”

“Yes, they’re very real … in your imagination. And imagination is one of the most powerful forces there is. Without imagination we would never have been able to invent new things, fly to the moon, or discover cures for disease. Sometimes we need imaginary things that we don’t find in the real world. We need to believe in them because they mean something important to us…”

Usually by the time I got this far she’d already walked away.

Answer # 2:

“Dad, are vampires real?”


Apparently the question “are vampires real?” is a very common internet search query. Vampires have so permeated pop culture that it’s not surprising people have begun to wonder whether they’re really just fiction or not. Further confusing the issue are the people out there who believe they themselves are vampires. They live a vampire lifestyle (or undeadstyle), in some cases to the point of convincing people to donate blood to them so they can drink it.

As far as I know there isn’t a subculture of people who think they’re unicorns. I wonder why not. Harder to fake a great big ivory horn, I suppose.

But then again, in my opinion vampires and unicorns and iron golems and talking trees do exist. They exist in a dimension we call Story. In my fantasy novels I call this dimension the Perilous Realm (a phrase coined by J R R Tolkien, I believe). Some people also call it the Storyverse. This story dimension permeates our own. We move in and out of it on a daily basis. We’re always telling ourselves stories … about who we are, about things that happened in the past (we call these stories memories), about what we hope will happen in the future. We spend much of our time living inside these imagined story-worlds of hopes, memories, dreams, fears. Are these stories “real”? They have a powerful impact on how we live our lives, that’s for sure.

More on the “story dimension” coming in another post.

 Illustration: T Wharton

The Blank Tarot

Pick a card, any card. It doesn’t matter which. They’re all blank.

Tarot cards seem to be more popular than ever these days. Most people use them for spiritual guidance or predicting the future, although some, like the wizard Calvino, use tarot cards to invent stories. Personally I prefer the latter use. I don’t believe tarot cards are magical or that they can tell you anything about yourself you don’t already know. But they can help you think creatively.

That’s why I want to tell you about a tarot deck that originated, it’s said, in the Perilous Realm. It’s called the blank tarot. The deck consists of 78 cards with nothing on them. Every card is the same: blank and featureless.

Here’s what you do: shuffle the cards well. Take a moment to think about the problem or the answer you seek that led you to consult the cards. Then draw one card and look at it. You can imagine there’s an image on it, any image you like, or you can just keep the blank card in front of you as you meditate for a few moments on what you’re seeking. You can also lay out a sequence of several cards and make up a story by imagining an image or scene on each card. Don’t try to solve the problem or force an answer. Just let your thoughts come and go.

Sounds silly? Maybe it is. I mean, why bother with the cards at all, right? You could just stare at a blank wall or close your eyes and imagine whatever you like. People who use the blank tarot, however, say that there’s something about going through the actions of shuffling and then drawing the cards that helps them get in the right frame of mind. Because the cards are meant for consulting and problem-solving, (unlike a blank wall), they help foster an imaginative, creative attitude in the one using them.

The point is that you decide what the cards mean. If each card could be any card, you face your own freedom as a human being. You use your own creativity and imagination to help you to the solution or answer you seek.  Because that’s where the answer is anyway. In you, not in some arcane image invented hundreds of years ago.

If you’d like to try the blank tarot, you can find blank card decks at teacher supply stores or on the internet.

Popular Posts from the Past: Ice Dragons

Long ago, when much of the Perilous Realm was locked in a neverending winter, the ice dragons ruled. They were mighty creatures, powerful and unpredictable. Few humans ever saw them, for they dwelt only in the most frozen, inaccessible regions.  Nor were they interested in gold or treasure or in capturing princesses, like their more avaricious and meddlesome cousins, the dragons of fire.

Those few storyfolk who dared travel in the lands of ice brought back tales of huge winged shapes that left blizzards of frost in their wake, of avalanches that had the power to change direction and even charge uphill, of lakes that would suddenly freeze over, or just as suddenly crack apart and plunge travelers into the icy water.

There are those who say that the glaciers we see today are the sleeping bodies of these mighty beings, and that although their kingdom has shrunk much from what it once was, they may still be roused from their slumber. Even as it withers away and dies, ice is a magnificent and dangerous phenomenon to behold.

In The Shadow of Malabron, Rowen of Blue Hill has a very close encounter with an ice dragon on the Whitewing Glacier. An encounter that will have important consequences for the fate of Fable and all of the Perilous Realm.

Illustration by Mary Wharton


My son was playing Minecraft and I was watching (I can’t play computer games: a few minutes of that jerky screen motion and I start to feel like I’m going to throw up). Some sort of creature I’d never seen before appeared on the screen. I asked my son what it was and he told me it was an iron golem. It was protecting the village.

An iron golem?

I did some looking around. Golems are cropping up in stories, games and elsewhere more and more often nowadays. And they’re not just made of clay anymore. There are golems of iron, stone, diamond, fire, blood, and snow in games like Minecraft and Diablo. Sometimes they're protectors, sometimes destroyers.  

There are days as a writer when I feel like a golem myself, performing endless toil from which there is no escape unless someone releases me with a magic word. Like “Lunch!”

Much like Ord, the man of clay in The Perilous Realm trilogy, the origins of the golem legend are wrapped in mystery. There are ancient Jewish tales of beings created from earth and given life, and in the Talmud even Adam himself was said to have been a golem until God granted him mind and will. One of my favourite modern interpretations of the Golem legend is the moving retelling by David Wisniewski, with dramatic illustrations made of cut and torn paper.

Come to think of it, why not a golem made of paper? I may just have to write that story myself.

The man made of clay plunges his thick, powerful arms into the muck of the bog.

Without any sign of strain or even a grunt of effort, he uproots an immense stone and lifts it over his head.

The man of clay carries the stone to a tower standing by itself in the middle of this bleak, uninhabited bog. The tower is unfinished. It is roofless and has a gaping hole for a doorway.

The man of clay climbs the winding stair inside the tower. At the top he sets the stone he is carrying in place on top of the unfinished wall.

He pauses for a moment as if to survey his work, although his face remains  expressionless. In the middle of his forehead is a small mark. A shape that could be a letter in some unknown alphabet.

The man of clay descends the tower and strides off into the bog to search for another stone.

No one knows who brought this creature to life and commanded it to toil like this day after day. Those who wished the tower built may be long dead.

Slowly, steadily, without rest, the clay man builds the tower, day after day. And day after day the tower sinks a little further into the bog. The man of clay will never finish the tower. He will keep adding stones but the tower sinks faster than he can build it up.

The Elements of Story ... the Fifth Element

The Elements of Story # 5: The Fifth Element

In earlier posts I’ve played around with the four classical elements of water, earth, air, and fire by imagining them as the elements of Story. But there was another element in ancient philosophy, sometime called the quintessence, or the fifth element. In Greek mythology it was the pure, celestial aether that the gods breathed, then was later defined by classical and medieval philosophers as a substance without any physical properties, or a quality of the universe that was “subtler than light.” Then there’s the 1997 Bruce Willis science-fiction film which reveals that this subtle, mysterious element, with the power to save the world, is LOVE.

So what’s the fifth element of story? I had a tougher time with this one than the other four. What was the subtle, magical “aether” in which a story takes place? It had to be something common to every story, whether told by book or screen or even the good old-fashioned human voice. Could I really pin down something so elusive and mysterious? In the end I realized I couldn’t define the fifth element, or I didn’t want to. Instead it made more sense to get at it by way of a story. It’s a very short story but one of my favourites -- I posted it on this blog a couple of years ago. It’s Tale 200 in The Complete Grimm's Tales for Young and Old, translated by Ralph Manheim:

The Golden Key

One winter's day, when the ground lay deep in snow, a poor boy was sent to the forest with a sled to bring back wood. After gathering the wood and loading it onto to the sled, he was so cold that instead of going straight home, he thought he'd make a fire and warm himself a bit. He cleared a space, and as he was scraping away the snow, he found a little golden key.

"Where there's a key," he said to himself, "there's sure to be a lock."

So he dug down into the ground and found an iron box.

"There must be precious things in it," he thought. "If only the key fits!"

At first he couldn't find a keyhole, but then at last he found one, though it was so small he could hardly see it. He tried the key and it fitted perfectly. He began to turn it--and now we'll have to wait until he turns it all the way and opens the lid. Then we'll know what marvels there were in the box.

The Grimm brothers placed this story last in their collection, as if to remind us that stories and storytelling have no end but go on and on through the ages. It’s also a story that draws you in with a character you can begin to care about, and a mystery, and then, just as the story seems to be about to really get going, it leaves you hanging. One can imagine a traditional storyteller ending an evening’s performance with this tale-with-no-end, as a way of bringing her audience back to the real world while reminding them of her skill. As if to say “See how I have you under my spell? Now I’m letting you go.”

Together a story, its teller, and its listener enter a magical space, a field of invisible forces that draws much of its energy from the desire to know what happens next? This is the fifth element, the quintessence of Story.

Fathomless Fire book trailer

is now on Youtube!

Trailer produced by Chris Hill. Music by Conor Wharton. Illustrations by T Wharton.

The elements of story: fire

The elements of story 4: fire

If water is the flow of a good story, and earth gives a story weight and substance, and air is the freedom of the storyteller’s art, then fire is the imagination itself.  The energy that creates worlds.

To tell the story of fire is to tell the story of everything and how it came to be. The universe itself, we're told by the storytellers we call scientists, began in a burst of fire. Whether there was an Author behind it or not, this universe is an unfinished, always astonishing act of creativity. Just look at a lilac bush, or a sunset, or a giraffe. 

The universe came up with stars, galaxies, planets, life, and then it really got going and dreamed up a being that could create universes inside its own head, share them with others, and change the way things are. A being who can tell new stories.

That’s the incredible gift and power a storyteller has at her command. A trace of the fear and reverence that used to be felt for those who wield this creative fire survives in the way we still regard authors as slightly mysterious beings. The difference being that we used to be in awe of the power of their art, but now we respect them only if they make lots of money.   

Both attitudes miss the point. The fire is something meant to be passed on, from mind to mind, to be shared by all. We all have this creative fire in us. We all have the power to transform the world.

In the Perilous Realm trilogy, the spark of creativity is called the fathomless fire. It can be used for good, or it can be used for selfish reasons, to control others. The battle for the Realm coming in Book Three of the trilogy is a struggle between these two ways of wielding the power of story.

Coming soon: a post about the mysterious fifth element of story.

The elements of story: air

The elements of story # 3: air.

    Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
    as I foretold you, were all spirits and 
    are melted into air, into thin air….

-- Shakespeare, The Tempest

Prospero, the magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is a brilliant storyteller. Almost the first thing we see him doing in the play is telling his daughter Miranda the story of how the two of them came to live on this enchanted island. He tells it with such skill and power that Miranda exclaims “Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.”

But the story he tells doesn’t have an ending … yet. The play that unfolds before us is the completion of that unfinished story. From start to finish we see Prospero, with his magical art, in control of everything that happens. He carefully shapes events in order to weave a happy ending, and the element he uses most in his story-shaping is air.

The chief spirit under his command, Ariel, not only has an airy name, he is mostly air himself. Ariel “performs” the storm which brings the ship carrying Prospero’s treacherous brother Antonio to the island. At Prospero’s bidding he creates lifelike visions that beguile or frighten, and just as quickly makes them dissolve. Like air, he seems to be able to go anywhere -- he has no physical limitations, other than Prospero’s power over him. (Of course Prospero has another servant who is far more solid and far less willing: Caliban, whom he refers to at one point as “thou earth.”) After one of Ariel’s visions has suddenly vanished, Prospero tells Ferdinand that the spirits have melted into thin air. He then goes on to say that everything in the world will eventually do the same, since “we are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Air, then, is the boundless freedom of the storytelling mind, constrained only by the storyteller’s skill and vision. Air is the breath of inspiration, by which the maker of story reimagines and shapes experience into the stuff dreams are made on. And air is the word, uttered by the breath, or spoken silently in the reader’s thoughts, which weaves the “baseless fabric” of a story.