Today I am very honoured to have Dr Bob Curran appear on Written Worlds. Many of you will know Bob from his many books, especially those that explore the origins of all things supernatural.
Bob lives in Derry, Northern Ireland, not far from the world-famous natural basalt land feature known as the Giant’s Causeway.
First of all, Bob, I would like to thank you for appearing on Mark Knight’s Written Worlds. You certainly know your supernatural stuff, and have quite a few books out there on the subject.
Bob, you are a prolific writer. Your books about the origins of supernatural beings have been very popular. What compelled you to write about vampires, faeries, and werewolves?
I grew up in a largely rural mountain community in Northern Ireland during the late 1940s/early 1950s in which tradition and superstition often played a significant part in everyday life. For example, when I was a child there was a widespread belief in both fairies and ghosts – it was believed for instance that fairies could spirit away children or could cause illness in both livestock and in humans – and this to some extent shaped the world around us. At certain times of the year, the dead were believed to walk the lonely roads around my home and few would venture out after a certain time of day. There were too, old earthworks and standing stones all about – some with a particularly evil reputation and this determined, as children, where we could go and play.
I remember when I was very young, hearing of a girl in our area who had simply vanished near an old stone – there was a hunt for her for several days but she was never found, goodness knows what had actually happened to her – and being told that the fairies or sheehogues had taken her and I was not to visit that site or the same would happen to me.
I was raised mainly by my maternal grandmother and grandfather and it was from him that I got my love of storytelling. As a young man, he had been a labourer in many parts of the North and he had a fund of stories that he could draw on – many concerning ghosts, witchcraft and the supernatural. Such beliefs determined both my community and my grandfather as an individual and so you could say that it also formed part of the culture that I grew up with and that it became ingrained within me.
Later, I began to travel a bit and I began to see how culture and belief systems were replicated in various ways in other parts of the world. Each culture seemed to have variants of fairies, werecreatures, walking dead etc. which somehow underpinned and to some extent explained the world around it. So I began to write about it in my books, I suppose as a way in which to explore my own past and to understand what my community was like when I was growing up.
I suppose the question for me is not whether or not these being actually exist – they may do, they may not – but rather why we would want to believe in them and what they tell us about ourselves. And what they tell me about myself.
You have appeared on Coast to Coast and other radio shows, and are always a popular guest. What do people ask you about the most when they phone in to a radio show or podcast?
In a sense this question continues on from the last. Not only do I get a host of e-mails with questions and comments – some through the publishers and some directly to me. A good number of them ask me or want to tell me about experiences which the caller/writer has had. In these situations people are trying to make sense of the world for themselves and to determine their place in, in relation to other things.
I suppose speaking with a psychologist’s hat on, some people are seeking reassurance that they are not “bizarre” or mad; others might be seeking a rational explanation for an event which they can’t really explain for themselves, others still want to know how what I write fits in with other things that they have read pr are thinking about.
Other questioners want to ask me about my religious beliefs and how what I write fits in with them. I have received communications from Born Again Christians who tell me that I shouldn’t be dealing in such things, even to explain them to myself. It is of course their right to question me in this as it frames up their world for them and gives them some form of certainty. Mind you, I’ve been already denounced here in Northern Ireland and in print as “the physical embodiment of the Antichrist” by a leading minister.So you now know who you’re talking to!
But I get all sorts of questions on all sots of topics and no matter how strange I always try to answer them as best I can.
Vampires seem to be perennially popular. You have written three books about them. Do you think that they could actually exist?
Vampires are indeed extremely popular and I think they have changed a lot over the years. For instance, when I was growing up, the vampire was a tall and saturnine East European nobleman who looked something like Christopher Lee who lived in a ruined castle somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains. Now vampires can be some angst-ridden teenager who attends a local high-school somewhere near you. In between these are languid aristocrats who inhabit some gloomy area of New Orleans.
What interests me most is not whether or not they actually exist but why we would want them to. As you say, they have been perennially popular down the years and almost every culture in the world has its own variation of them. Therefore what fundamental human questions does a belief in vampires address? I would think it might try to answer a couple of them…
A) What happens to us after death? Death is of course the last great mystery. Nobody has ever come back to give us a detailed account of what happens beyond the grave so we can speculate.
B) What would it be like to live forever? Would there be some sort of price it we did? I think that the idea of vampires addresses some of these questions in part – there are of course a number of other elements in the vampire motif such as eroticism, eternal youth etc. Much of our perceptions of the creature are of course determined by the wider popular culture, through books, television and films.
As I said earlier, it was the vampire films of Christopher Lee which determined how vampires “looked” when I was growing up but if you go back earlier you’ll see the horrible creature in black and white films like Nosferatu as portrayed by Maximilian Shrek.
Nowadays, in our celebrity based culture, the vampire has to look something like a rock star. Therefore, here in the West the idea of the vampire emerges out of the dominant culture and often how we see ourselves. In other cultures it emerges out of the fears and nightmares of the people – the old woman living alone; the person who is slightly at variance with his/her community, those who have different ways. These get absorbed into the wider myth. So in a sense it is possible to say that vampires do exist – but only because we create them.
Bob, you have compiled a great deal of information about folklore, and have travelled to many countries. What is the most bizarre myth or legend you have come across?
In a sense, the folklore of any community or country is shaped by the perceptions of the people. This is why I’ve argued that some of these old tales are just as important as actual historical documentation in that they tell us how our ancestors—and their culture—have framed up the world for themselves. And each community frames that world up in a slightly different way. So the culture of say the Middle East is a bit different from that of Western Europe but essentially they address the same problems because no matter where we live, human experience is roughly the same for us all. We’re born, we love, we eat, we sleep, we die – no matter who we are or what status or culture we belong to, the broad experience of being human is roughly the same.
But there are idiosyncrasies in every community/culture just as there are in human beings, that’s what makes the traditions and folklore of different parts of the world distinctive in their own right. Legends too serve to explain and to provide a context for experience and each one is distinctive. We only consider them to be bizarre, I suppose, if they don’t conform to our own interpretations of the world.
So I don’t think there is a “most bizarre” myth or tradition. Although many would appear to be unique to the culture that has produced them, I think that, in their own way, every one tries to explain some aspect of human experience
You were of great help to me when I was writing my Young Adult novel, Solomon Grimm and the Well of Souls, which is out later this year. The book is set mainly in Ireland and deals with many of the weird and wonderful supernatural creatures known to Irish folklore – the marbh bheo, the Dullahan, and sheehogues. There seems to be more supernatural folklore in Ireland than anywhere else, yet people really only know about the banshee. Why do you think this is?
The Irish are great storytellers and much of their tradition —and culture—in an oral one which has, up until recently, been passed down across the generations.
My own grandfather for instance was a known seanchie —a man of lore or a storyteller who kept old stories and local knowledge alive in the area around our home. Over my lifetime, such tradition has more or less died out, even in country places, largely thanks to television and other media. So it’s no real surprise that some of the beings and entities have in many ways passed into obscurity.
Another point is that although such beings are weird and wonderful they were largely localised and were possibly the product of a localised and tightly knit community. There were of course more widely recognised beings such as —as you say—the banshee or the leprechaun which often travelled with the Irish people, although there were localised variants of each. The leprechaun is well-known I think because of Irish marketing —he seems to appear on everything Irish. And of course the banshee —which also appears in various localised forms—has always been associated with the Irish and in particular the Irish abroad. However, other entities —the Dullahan, the Far Gorta and such were more localised in their aspect.
Bob, you are also involved with your local community in Derry, Northern Ireland. Tell us a little bit about the causes you support, and any important issues that visitors to this blog may be interested to hear about.
The community work is another aspect of my life and is one that I was involved with even before I started writing. I came into it through community education which more or less developed to encompass other social and community problems. I am now working in a part-time capacity for the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. That’s not as grand as it sounds of course but there’s quite a bit of work involved.
Here in Northern Ireland we’ve come through between thirty or forty years of conflict. Although we now have what might be described as a “Peace Process” in operation things are by no means over. Scars have been left on many communities —and on individual lives—by conflict; despite the relative peace, paramilitaries still hold a great deal of sway in certain areas and there are still deep sensitivities amongst many people. A good many of the communities have been left devastated, both in a financial, resource and personal sense by the years of conflict.
Part of my job is to go into these communities from which the paramilitaries have more or less withdrawn and help them to rebuild their sense of identity, their confidence and their financial resources. Some of this is done through education – the development of local history programmes for instance —some of it is done through organising local events; some of it is done by working on community projects. Some of my work is done on a cross-community level by organising shared events between Catholics, Protestants and other nationalities —for example in some areas we have large Polish, Chinese and Indian populations who sometimes find it difficult to integrate into already existing communities. I help them set up bodies which will aid that. And, as funding for community programmes gets tighter and tighter, I have to encourage small groups in certain areas to work together – sometimes Catholic and Protestant, sometimes Northern Irish people and other nationalities; sometimes places here there have been local tensions. It’s not always easy.
For instance, I’m working with a small village in North Antrim which has only one street but four community groups operating there, none of which speak to the other. And they’re all Protestant, though varying shades of Protestant perspectives. So a lot of my work comprises educator, counsellor, peacemaker and government official – often with varying degrees of success. And of course in some of the areas I work in —particularly the large estates on the edges of towns—the paramilitaries are still pretty much in control and I have to negotiate setting up community programmes with them. On some occasions I’ve been sitting in a room negotiating with men wearing shoulder holsters and on a couple of times a loaded firearm has been set on a table in front of me. It can get a bit scary at times. But of course, it’s not all like that —just a few instances. However, things can still be a bit tense in Northern Ireland.
The recent flag protests have created problems in some areas and recently I suffered from bruised ribs when I was hit by some concrete thrown by a protestor at a venue which I was doing a presentation. But these things are few and far between and are part of the job. However, the tensions are still very high in some areas – mainly stirred up by paramilitary elements – and so 2013 has really hit the ground running for me in that respect.
I also chair a couple of community programmes on some of the large and generally neglected estates across Northern Ireland – one, for instance, to help young mothers get qualifications by providing education on their estate and crèche facilities for their children. I was one of a team who set that up from scratch and it’s now running very well. I step down as chair but remain involved next week.
On an individual level I run a couple of weekly trauma programmes in a nearby town —this was something I set up at the end of last year and which has been a success. This is mainly for the unsung victims of the conflict —people who have had relatives shot, blown up or who have been affected by the conflict in some way. Sometimes people have had to flee the areas they were brought up in and are just feeling lonely where they’ve had to settle. I’ll work with them all. It’s a small contribution but I like to think that I’m doing a little bit to make life more tolerable in Northern Ireland. Although we have a so-called peace process it’s far from perfect and there’s still a great deal to do it we’re to move forward.
Finally, what is the subject of your next supernatural book?
Because of the community issues – and they have got worse over the last four or five months largely because of the flag protests and other elements – I’ve not had as much time to write as I would like. Still having a think about some major books and discussing them with publishers.However, there are a couple of illustrated books coming up for which I’ve done/am doing the text.
One is the Carnival of Dark Dreams and the other is The Witch Hunter’s Handbook. Also another project which I don’t want to say too much about as nothing’s been finalised as yet. But keep watching this space!
More on Dr Bob Curran, his works, and latest projects on his official blog site: drbobcurran.blogspot.co.uk