Tag Archives: magic

Murder Ballads and Old Magic: Jason Jack Miller guest blog

~TODAY’S BLOG COMES FROM JASON JACK MILLER!~

In my novel Hellbender, things aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s set in an Appalachia where serpents can be called forth from rocky crevasses and rattlesnake beads can be used to keep the devil away. Springs can be poisoned from afar, and milk can be ‘blinked’–or tainted by a rival witch. The Appalachians of Hellbender may not be the tallest, but they are the oldest, and as such, contain many nooks where beliefs remained untouched for generations. In some instances, the valleys and ridges blocked modernization so well that the culture of the mountain people could be totally forgotten by the ‘outside’ world. In other words, the mountains have let time stand still.

Where streams carved hollows into the lush Appalachian Plateau, families found shelter from the same kind of persecution that forced their ancestors out of Europe a generation earlier. Many of the first Europeans to settle Appalachia were Germans who picked up stakes when Pennsylvania got just a little too crowded for them. They filtered down through the Shenandoah Valley, trickling westward as rivers like the Potomac and James poked holes in the imposing Allegheny Front, and later, through the Cumberland Gap. They brought fiddle tunes, some of which remain virtually unchanged in Appalachia compared to their counterparts in Europe, melodies that either succumbed to contemporary styles or had been forgotten altogether. The new wave of settlers brought their food culture–no place on earth expresses the German love of deep-frying like Pennsylvania, with its potato chips and funnel cakes, and Southern culture’s chicken fried chicken and hush puppies. Even the log cabin, the butt of many an Appalachia joke, came from Germany and Scandinavia by way of those first Europeans.

Living so far from civilization had its quirks. Laws were less likely to be enforced, or just as easily ignored depending on which side of the law you fell. The Whiskey Rebellion is a prime example of folks thumbing their noses at distant lawmakers. The influence of the Catholic Church diminished in much the same way. It wasn’t until Protestant churches ordained ‘lay pastors’ to venture into the wilderness to tame the savages that religion gained a strong foothold in Appalachia. Not that it mattered to some folks, who were content to rely on the traditional culture of their ancestors, the magic that kept the devil away. The Swiss and German-speaking people of Helvetia, West Virginia, still burn an effigy of Old Man Winter on Fasnacht, a pre-Lenten holiday that falls on the cross-quarter day of Imbolc. It’s a tradition that can be traced back to pre-Roman Europe.

At its most basic, the magic of Appalachia is a response to the dangers of the new landscape. Mountain lions, wolves, bears, snakes, harsh winters, floods and unruly neighbors were just a few of the perils faced by those first settlers. In times of severe famine, or when a cow had been cursed (or had simply just stopped producing milk) an axe could provide magical sustenance. The blade is stuck into a tree and a rag is tied to the end. With the utterance of a few magic words, milk will drip from the threads into a bucket providing the family with nourishment. The magical nature of the axe comes to Appalachia via Scandinavia, most likely as a result of the magical nature of Thor’s Hammer.

From Hellbender: “There’s still plenty of women in these hills who can get a full pail of milk from an ax handle or an old rag. And Mary Lewis was one of them. I seen it done with my own eyes a hundred times.” 

Hair magic is another theme seen in Appalachian folklore. The idea that you could have control over a person if you possessed something that belonged to them is a belief expressed in many different cultures, not just Appalachian. Folklore says if just one of your hairs found its way into a bird’s nest you’d end up insane. So hair clippings and fingernails are buried, and their location is kept a secret by the buriers. It may sound strange, but the same idea is a building block of Roman Catholicism, with the consuming of the body and blood of Christ.

From Hellbender: “She wrapped the hair around her middle finger and made three crosses over Alex’s lips. Inaudible words flowed from Chloe’s mouth to Alex’s ear. Chloe pulled a silver coin out of her pocket, dropped it into the cup and tipped the purple liquid toward Alex’s gasping mouth. “Put the coin in your mouth, but don’t swallow it.”

The ultimate expression of Old World magic comes from a need for the most basic of human necessities–protection, mostly from enemies, especially from the Devil. Of course, the magic needed for such an old foe is an old one and there are none older than the SATOR Square. SATOR Squares have reportedly been found at the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed in 79 A.D. Early Christians considered it a sign of their coming savior. One found in Manchester, England, in the Second Century was taken as proof Christianity had spread at least that far in less than 200 years.

Essentially a multi-directional palindrome, a SATOR Square is placed above a window. The devil becomes confused by the repeated letters. It’s a key piece of the iconography of the Hellbender cover, designed by Hatch Show Print of Nashville, Tennessee.

From Hellbender: “Jamie picked open a pair peanuts then threw the shells into the fire. “SATOR squares? I don’t know. They’re like puzzles I suppose. They’ve been found on the walls of buildings destroyed by Vesuvius at Pompeii. Early Christians say it was a message from God saying their savior was on his way.”

He gestured for Dave’s stick and began drawing rows of letters in the dirt. “Five lines of five letters arranged in a square that form multiple palindromes.”

I tried to read the letters, but it was difficult in the low light. I leaned over to see. It read:

S A T O R

A R E P O

T E N E T

O P E R A

R O T A S

“Some people say the words are nonsense, but when rearranged in a cross they spell out ‘paternoster’ flanked by an ‘A’ and an ‘O’.” Jamie handed Dave back his stick. “Our father and the Alpha and Omega.” Jamie stomped the letters away with his foot.

Silence fell over the camp. By now the crickets were in full swing. Finally, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut anymore. “In my life I’d never seen anything to prove magic was real. Magic would’ve kept my mom around. Would’ve kept Jane alive.”

I’ve witnessed some crazy/scary things in my time here in Appalachia–mountain lion footprints where mountain lions were thought to be extinct, back-to-back comets after 50 years with none, ball lightning, mountaintop removal. Things that have rational, explanations, even if the explanations are unpopular. But I’ve had even more amazing experiences with people I’ve met and friends I’ve made here–making music, drinking wine, paddling wild rivers.

Something’s going on up in the mountains, but it’s not my job to figure it out. Nobody believed me about the mountain lion footprints anyway. Maybe it has something to do with the people. After all, it’s people who end up passing those stories on. And maybe the stories are so hard to believe because of how they went down. Late at night. Middle of nowhere. Not a credible witness in the bunch.

Or maybe it’s the mountains themselves. Over the last three hundred million years they’re the only real constant in this equation. Moses received the Ten Commandments on a mountain. The gods of ancient Greece lived on a mountain, too. So maybe it’s only in the mountains, my Appalachians, that snakes can be called, and protection from the devil can be obtained with a few rows of ancient letters. Doesn’t matter what I believe, those traditions will be here long after I’ve gone.

Jason Jack Miller hails from Fayette County, Pennsylvania, as in, “Circus freaks, temptation and the Fayette County Fair,” made famous by The Clarks in the song, “Cigarette.” He is a writer, photographer and musician who has been hassled by cops in Canada, Mexico and the Czech Republic. An outdoor travel guide he co-authored with his wife in 2006 jumpstarted his freelancing career; his work has since appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals, online, and as part of a travel guide app for mobile phones. He wrote the novels Hellbender and All Saints during his graduate studies at Seton Hill University, where is now adjunct creative writing faculty. He’s been a whitewater raft guide, played guitar in a garage band and served as a concierge at a five star resort hotel in Florida. Now he’s an Authors Guild member. When he isn’t writing he’s on his mountain bike or looking for his next favorite guitar. He is currently writing and recording the soundtrack to his novel, The Devil and Preston Black.

Anonymous, Shakespeare, Nerdiness… and a book!

I’m guest blogging over at the Madhouse! Come see what I have to say about Shakespeare, the new film Anonymous, and generally being a nerd.

And, speaking of Shakespeare, have you seen the release of my book yet? It has a Romeo and Juliet theme — with magic! What could be better for a fall read?  🙂  Get your copy now and let me know your thoughts.

From Light to Dark

Release!

I’ve been a bit quiet lately for a reason: I’ve been gearing up for the re-release of my book, From Light to Dark!

This Halloween, get your romantic fantasy fix!

(cover artist Justin Togail)

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry.

Last night I saw the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.

There it was, the second half of the seventh book unfolding in front of me and then slipping away like a wisp of magic leaving a broken wand. With every event that happened on screen, I was that much closer to being done with Harry Potter forever.

Harry has been my friend for over ten years. I started reading his stories  in a Denny’s, where I would go to be alone during my lunch breaks. The real world just melted away as I snuggled up for a few chapters each afternoon. Once, a woman dashed over to my booth and tapped me on the shoulder, snapping me out of Hogwarts and back to the diner. Looking a little embarrassed, she asked, “Are you reading those, too? Aren’t they amazing?”

When the movies started, I loved sharing the fun with friends by dressing up and generally acting insane. Have you read John Scalzi’s blog about just how unique these films have been?

Yes, I'm a Hufflepuff.

To prepare for the theatrical release of one of the best of the series, my mom and I bought an audio version of Prisoner of Azkaban and listened to it together every day, remembering our favorite parts of that great story.

My brother accompanied me on a road trip to my grad school one summer, and in the hotel he hooked up a PlayStation and put in a Harry Potter game. I had fallen asleep critiquing manuscripts for class when he woke me up with a loud, “ALRIGHT!” My eyes flew open, and there he stood next to the television, one arm behind his back like a General instructing his troops, the game on pause. He pointed at the screen dramatically, tapping locations on the game map. “We have Prefects HERE, HERE, and HERE!”

Now that the books and movies are complete, we’re done. I look back on those years of joy that surrounded Harry Potter, and I know I’m really going to miss it. Of course we’ll have fun in other ways, but there’s nothing quite like sitting around with your friends and family late at night, adamantly defending Snape’s innocence to the one person who admits to being on the fence.

🙂  Oh, Snape. You’re so dreamy. Sirius, too.  /swoon

So, let me take this moment to make a desperate plea to JK Rowling:

Please write more! How about the story of Dumbledore vs. Grindelwald? Or seven books about the Marauders? We can’t really be expected to get by without any Wizarding World fiction ever again, can we? Can we???

Okay. We’ll see how that works.  🙂

In the meantime, though, what do we do? It’s easy enough to say, “Here’s a great book to read if you love Harry Potter!” but somehow I wonder whether anything can really touch the magic that Hogwarts brought to our lives.

The Wizarding World at Universal Orlando

Are you a fan who misses the Wizarding World? How are you coping? What are you reading now to get by?  🙂

Inspiration

Hello again! I hope you’ve had a great week.

I’ve been trying to stay creative in this humid summer heat! It’s hard to think straight when the sun is beating down on me and the air feels like swampy water, but that’s the price we pay for Florida living.

People sometimes ask where I get ideas for my stories. That’s a tough question because there are so many answers.

The inspiration for “God Corp.” came after several people expected me to fall over with tears because it was possible Shakespeare hadn’t written any of the plays I loved. It was such a strange thing, that anyone would assume the debate somehow negated the value of his plays. I mulled this problem over for a while, and then, poof. “God Corp.” 🙂

Another story (available in a few months) came to mind when I was reading an article online about brain waves. It’s fascinating what scientists are able to learn about people through technology, and I always enjoy imagining what future inventions might bring to our everyday lives.

Once I was inspired to write an entire fantasy novel while watching a performance of Cirque du Soleil.

Anything can spark an idea if I’m in the mood for it. A strange picture, some unexpected music, or even the odd placement of an object in a room will lead me to my keyboard.

Not everything works out the way I’d like it to. But some do turn out, and those are enough to make me remember interesting conversations, bookmark weird websites, and look for inspiration in everything around me.

Afterward, I’ll never look at reality the same. It’s as though I’ve opened up a new possibility in my mind, and now the world is just a bit stranger… in a good way. 🙂

Remember when you were a kid? Everything was filled with mystery, and you were the super sleuth who was going to solve it all. Magic was real. Flying cars were a likely part of your future — they’d probably even have lasers on the front so you could shoot down enemies in battle.

Everything you saw as a kid had the potential to be bizarre and cool with just a little imagination.

I don’t think that changes when we grow up. I think many of us tuck our dreams safely inside so we don’t attract funny looks as we zoom through the mall, arms outstretched, pretending to be an airplane and half-expecting to really lift off. It’s a matter of acting grown up. Not being grown up.

That’s the fun of fiction.

So, how about you? Have you visited a magical world at night while you slept? Has a penny you picked up brought you luck? Have you noticed a coincidence and wondered whether it was actually a “sign”?

What inspires you?