WiHM 12: Tara Grimravn and her “Literary Nectar for the Shadowed Soul”
Tara Grimravn and her “Literary Nectar for the Shadowed Soul”
By Angelique Fawns
Tara Grimravn grew up immersed in the sad songs, myths, and stories of the Appalachian Mountains. Coming from a long line of storytellers, she creates worlds imbued with dark fantasy and horror. She is currently finishing her first full-length fantasy novel, “Beneath a Red Hunter’s Moon”, and has published numerous short stories based on a multi-verse of her own creation. Grimravn also works as a First Reader for Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores. I sat down with her to find out more about her ambitious projects, and fascinating background.
AF: How did you originally become interested in horror?
TG: To be honest, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in horror. That probably sounds weird, but I have always loved it. If you had to nail me down to an answer, though, I’d say my grandmother was to blame.
My grandmother grew up in the backwoods of the Tennessee, up in the Appalachian Mountains, and when my siblings and I were growing up, she’d tell us these stories that she’d heard from her grandfather and grandmother when she was a child. Everything from seeing glowing coffins in the woods the night before the death of her 4-year-old brother Berdine (he died of diphtheria), to the sounds of ghostly horses running circles around the cabin they lived in, to a creature she called “Raw Head and Bloody Bones.”
When I got older, of course, and started my undergraduate degree in archaeology, I realized that “Raw Head and Bloody Bones” was originally an old English nursery bogey that migrated to the U.S., and there are several versions of the fairy tale. My grandmother’s version was about a child-eating monster that lived in the deep forest of the Appalachian Mountains in a rundown cabin (similar to the medieval English version that lives under the stairs), but I’ve heard of a version from Arkansas that involves a razorback hog and an old witch, too. Either way, I have to credit my love of folklore, especially dark folklore, and horror stories to her.
AF: What kind of writing do you do yourself?
TG: In a nutshell, I write mostly dark fantasy and horror, although I do have plans for a sci-fi novel in the future. I must admit, though, that everything I write has threads of horror running through it. When I was working on my MFA in Creative Writing, one of my classes involved writing a story from each kind of genre fiction. One of those was romance, of course, and I was, well, to say I was a bit hesitant to attempt a romance story would be an understatement. I agonized over that story! In the end, I wrote it, but my professor had a good giggle over it. I don’t mean that she didn’t like it; she did. I just mean, I made no bones about the fact that I didn’t think I could do a straight romance. I think I ended up calling it “Dear Valentine, I Give You My Heart” or something like that and, while, it’s genuinely a romance, it did not escape the horror-tipped paintbrush I tend to write with.
AF: Now that sounds like a story I’d like to read! I can just imagine what your character got for Valentine’s Day… Who are your writing influences?
TG: When it comes to relatively recent influences, Edgar Allan Poe is a major one for me. Obviously, he hasn’t published anything since at least 1849, though that would be awesome… Seriously, he was so much more than his writing. Poe was a fabulous philosopher and literary critic, too. Really, though, it’s the underlying current of shadow, a pervasive chill, that flows through his work that I have a hard time explaining but that I love. It’s sort of like H.P. Lovecraft, another older writer whose work is favorite of mine (though I’m not a fan of the moral, personal, or societal values he held). More recent authors that I feel influence my writing would include Neil Gaiman for the dark humor and insanely rich, detailed worlds he creates. Stephen King is another, as I know he is for so many. I could go on to list authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Anne McCaffrey, among others.
Aside from those more Western authors, I’m also heavily influenced by horror and fantasy from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. I fell in love with Indian authors like Ratnakar Matkari and Ruskin Bond a few years ago, and I’ve really taken to Middle Eastern horror. World folklore, especially Sumerian and Norse lore, play a huge role, as well, in a lot of my writing. I love world mythologies, in general, because of what they tell us about the cultures from which they come. In my writing, specifically in the way my multiverse works, you’ll find traces of Greek and Egyptian, for example, but Sumerian and Norse tend to be the most prominent. You’ll find hints of H.P. Lovecraft in there, too.
AF: A multiverse created with international mythology? Tell me more about about it.
TG: So, the multiverse idea kind of evolved organically from a story I started writing when I was 12. As I got older and was exposed to more and more concepts, folkloric ideas, and fantasy novels, it ended up becoming this sort of monstrously large—and potentially convoluted—thing. Haha! I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started shaping into what it is right now, but it serves as the backdrop for every story I write and plan to write in the future. There are even some characters that I’ve planned to be recurring through several different novels, all of which are set in different universes.
But as for the multiverse itself, that’s kind of where the Lovecraftian meets older pagan religions. Imagine for a moment that everything we know, every god that man has ever worshipped (with a few exceptions), every planet, even every spirit that man has ever encountered, all of that is part of what’s known as the “Inside” of Creation. And Creation itself, the universe we know, is just one of many floating in what, to mortals, appears as an endless, lightless, timeless void. If you were to step outside the multiverse and into the Outside, as a human, time would cease to exist because it just doesn’t apply to anything on the Outside—it’s a strictly mortal phenomenon.
In the distance, you just see this column of swirling smoke, but as you get closer, you start to realize that column is comprised of a countless number of immense energetic spheres, each one a different universe. They collide with one another, swirl around each other, etc., as they rise and fall continuously within this column of creation. Now, out in this void, here in the Outside, there are numerous beings, one faction of which calls themselves the Ancients, whose every breath or movement is an act of creation or destruction, of bringing into manifestation or wiping from existence. Even travel for them is done via intention and will, not physical movement as we know it. It’s those beings (or at least those few of them who care enough to pay attention to the multiverse) who are responsible for what happens on the Inside.
The Ancients and other Outside denizens aren’t what humans would consider benevolent. You can’t even call the malevolent. They just are what they are. Their mindset is entirely alien to that of mortals, and they have their own motivations for doing what they do. They also prey upon others of differing factions (but never each other—an Ancient will never devour or harm another Ancient, for example—well, usually, anyway), a trait which is mirrored among the various pantheons of gods within the Inside of Creation.
The Ancients can come and go at will, moving from the Outside to the Inside and back whenever they want (although Inside gods/mortals cannot enter the Outside without an Ancient taking them there). And that’s kind of where the stories link up. There are three Ancients (Light, Darkness, and Balance—or Sword, Arrow, and Shield) who’ve been sent Inside to enact the will of the others throughout the multiverse and kind of keep things in balance and working smoothly. Without them, Creation itself cannot exist. So, while they don’t play a role in every story directly (although they do play a direct role in several), the influence of this trio is still evident everywhere.
That’s kind of the multiverse in a nutshell. As I said, there’s some overlap with characters that I have planned to appear across different universes for various reasons, but that’s the easiest way to explain it.
AF: I can’t wait to read about the adventures of Sword, Arrow, & Shield. How has your background affected your work?
TG: Well, for starters, my archaeological background plays a huge role in my writing, despite dropping out halfway through my archaeology Master’s degree and switching to Creative Writing. Because I write in mostly fantasy setting, I spend a lot of time world-building and creating cultural profiles for every race and country in my stories. A large part of anthropology is centered around understanding how culture and society works, how it changes, and how individuals adapt to and are shaped by their environment. I use this a lot to build the cultures and characters in my work.
Going back before that, you know, I’ve always wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I grew up relatively poor. My dad was a shop rat for GM. He worked the production line and never made a whole lot of money. College was something that was not encouraged, even though I ultimately went on to attend and earn one and half advanced degrees. There was very much a mindset that you were just supposed to get any old job as long as it paid the bills. And even when I did buck the status quo for my family in that regard, writing and archaeology both were seen as basically dead-end endeavors. I was not encouraged by my parents to study writing or archaeology. That drive came from one of my dad’s sisters.
My uncle was a firefighter, and so he would spend several nights at the station. My aunt would always come and stay with us on those nights. I remember as a kid her helping me make magic potions in the rainwater-filled wheelbarrow out of the nightshade that used to grow in our back yard. But one day, in particular, stands out in terms of writing. It was a rainy weekend, and my uncle was pulling an all-nighter at the station. I was about 11 years old, and my brother and I were bored out of our minds. She suggested that we sit down and write and story, and I fell in love with writing from that moment on. Incidentally, she also put a high value on education and was one of the voices that made me apply to university.
Of course, I also have to credit my mother and grandmother again here. Both were prolific storytellers, both orally and in song. I mentioned some of the tales my grandmother told us as kids, but she also sang folksongs from the hills, most of which told incredibly heartbreaking stories. My mother wasn’t much different. There were many day trips where she’d pile us into the car, and we’d just drive country roads to get out of the city for a while. If she saw a cemetery, it was a sure bet she was going to stop. One of her favorite past times was to find the oldest grave in the cemetery and muse on what that person must have been like and what their life was like. She did this a lot with antiques, too. My mother is a major lover of all things Victorian—she even used to joke that her decorating style was “funeral home on a budget.” Haha! But she’d do the same with objects. One old roll-top Victorian writing desk she bought once became the subject of numerous whimsical discussions on what the lady who once owned it was like. Did she write letters to a lover sitting at it, for example?
Last but not least, I’m a pagan. I wasn’t raised one (my parents are devout Christians), but I’ve always been one, if that makes sense. That, too, influenced on my work.
AF: “Funeral home on a budget” sounds like a story prompt for a writing exercise, LOL. Do you have a day job?
TG: I do! As much as I wish I could say I spend all day writing, I do have a day job. I work as a park ranger for a federal agency. Most of my duties revolve around program management and supervision, so my schedule can be a bit wonky at times. As a result, I do most of my writing in the evening after work. I tried the 5am writing hour but that didn’t last long. I am not a morning person…
AF: What is exciting you most in the current field of horror?
TG: One of the things I’ve noticed in the horror genre recently that has me incredibly excited is the number of narratives that are moving away from Eurocentric plotlines. I’ve been seeing a lot more stories from a wide variety of authors focusing on settings in other vastly underrepresented cultures. It tickles the anthropologist in me, because I genuinely love reading about other cultures, and it sheds light on some very fascinating aspects. Not too long ago, for example, I read a short story by Malaysian author Nin Harris titled “What Cradles Us But Will Not Set Us Free,” told from the perspective of a penanggalan, a vampiric monster out of Malaysian folklore. It was a fascinating read for the cultural aspects alone but, as a horror story, it was brilliant. I’m really looking forward to seeing more like this.
AF: A penangglalan? I learned something new today! How did you get involved with Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores?
TG: It was kind of a fluke, honestly. I’ve been a staff review writer for Tangent Online since 2018, and I would frequently be assigned Cosmic Roots to review. I’ve enjoyed nearly every story they’ve published so, one day, I decided to look into submitting a story of my own. I’m a bit like a magpie, though, and get distracted easily. So, when I signed into the submissions manager and saw that they were looking for First Readers, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I completely forgot about submitting anything of my own, I was so excited. The next day, I think it was, I got an email from the editor at Tangent, Dave Truesdale, and he told me he’d been asked by the editors of Cosmic Roots for a reference check on me. It kind of took off from there.
AF: What do you look for as a First Reader?
TG: I can overlook bad writing in terms of mechanics, although the editor in me will pick up on typos very easily. That’s not a deal-breaker, though. I tend to look for good flow, well-developed characters, a storyline that can hold my attention and has been well-researched. I want to be able to see that the writer has spent time thinking their story through.
For me, the devil really is in the details. I very much need the details to make sense in a story, both in terms of the nature of those details, the context surrounding them, and in what order they are presented. The details should be just as well-planned as the action and dialogue. For example, if an author spends five pages characterizing Mr. X as a staunch realist who doesn’t believe in the supernatural whatsoever, and then suddenly he has an encounter with a ghost (and he knows it’s a ghost) but it doesn’t faze him at all because now, on page six, we’re being told he had an experience with a pixie once which told him spirits were real, and so, of course, Mr. X knows suddenly how to help ghosts move on to the afterlife…that’s going to throw me out of the story and have me looking at the page all sideways. Or if the story is about a noblewoman in 13th-century England being escorted to church by knights wearing full steel plate armor, that’s going to throw up a flag for me, since that type of plate armor wasn’t in use until the 15th century.
AF: It’s true, nothing throws a reader out of a story quite like a glaring error. Any advice for writers submitting to Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores?
TG: I think the advice I would give is pretty much universal to the writing field, in general. The first, and most obvious, is to be familiar with the submission guidelines. Read through some of the prior issues to get a feel for the kind of story that Cosmic Roots publishes.
Second, be patient, and take the time to polish your work. At some point, you are going to have to hit that submit button, but don’t make the mistake of doing it too soon. Unless we’re publishing a novel, most of us are editing our work ourselves, and that is not an easy task. Editing and revision are so much more than proofreading for punctuation and typos, so give your work time to sit for a week or so. Then, go back to it with fresh eyes. Inconsistencies, plot holes, repeated words, bad sentence structure, and other issues will be much easier to spot and correct if you do. And you might have to do this more than once. Don’t worry about missing a submission window. Cosmic Roots currently opens submissions on the first of every month, so if you have to wait a month longer to give your work its best chance to be accepted, that’s okay.
Next, take advantage of feedback, but don’t take anything personally. First Readers at Cosmic Roots always submit comments to the editors on a piece. As First Readers, our goal is to provide polite and constructive feedback. Sometimes, that feedback might be negative, and that can hurt. As authors, negative feedback can feel like someone just slapped our baby, but it’s never intended that way (not at Cosmic Roots, at least). Remember that feedback helps us grow in our craft; it hones our skills by telling us what we did good and where we can improve. So, if you happen to receive negative feedback on your work, no matter who it comes from, don’t let it discourage you. Review it, take the time to consider it, and then decide whether you feel the comment is valid. If it is, great! Use it to improve. If you don’t feel it’s useful, that’s okay, too.
No matter what, though, don’t give up. Keep writing, keep submitting.
AF: I’ve submitted a few stories to Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores and I’m always thrilled with the honest, helpful feedback. Tell me about your current projects and what readers can look forward to.
TG: Right now, I’m in the revision process for the first novel in my trilogy, “Beneath a Red Hunter’s Moon.” It wasn’t meant to be a trilogy—it was envisioned as a stand-alone book—but, as I wrote, it grew! The first volume, “The Games That Gods Play,” sets the stage for every plotline in the book (and there are a few).
It’s hard to boil this down into a simple summary for the entire trilogy, it really is. So the very, very simplified version is this:
The overarching plot involves a war between the Ancients of Light and Darkness, Kalthe and Neria, that I mentioned earlier, and another war between two factions of Inside gods, the Verdinians and a rogue death god named Faruk. The second plotline involves the mortals caught up in these divine war games. Ligeia is the daughter of the Dracinian Emperor. She was once the high general of the Dracinian armies and held a seat in the Senate, but she’s been wrongly exiled thanks to the manipulations of the Verdinian gods. She’s now working for one of the great houses of the dark elves as more or less a hired sword. Meanwhile, on another continent, Iskra is Faruk’s chosen champion. In an effort to undo the damage done by the Verdinian gods to their plane of existence, he recruits a young girl named Iskra as his Herald. Since the gods depend on the worship of mortals for sustenance, he plans to use Iskra to spread his influence through a new power he learned from Neria—undeath—and create a new race of perfected undead dedicated solely to him. In doing so, he would essentially starve his former family of their sustenance, which is essentially what they did to him.
The first book will be released in the late summer or early fall this year.
In addition to this, I’m also co-authoring a book series called “The Teknomicon”. The plan with that one is to make it both a graphic novel and a book. Neria, Kalthe, and Neas (Darkness, Light, and Balance) make a reappearance in this series. Again, the purpose of the trio is to maintain the balance of the multiverse.
In “The Teknomicon”, which takes before the events in “Beneath a Red Hunter’s Moon”, the story unfolds on present-day Earth right here in our own universe. Neria and Kalthe are still very close at this time, and Neas (Balance) hadn’t yet woken. Gaia, Earth’s controlling spirit, has been asleep for the last two centuries. Gaia, though, isn’t the real Earth Mother goddess. She’s an invading alien being who usurped the throne of the real Earth Mother millennia ago. She also set up a blockade around Midgard, the physical plane in which we live, which blocked the native gods access (thus severely limiting how they can interact with their followers) and kept magic from every being truly physical. Neria and Kalthe have a plan to restore the proper Earth Mother to her rightful place and let magic back into the world, but they need a way to break down the defenses the interloper has set up. But with Gaia asleep, cracks have appeared in her defenses. Using those as a way in, Kalthe has influenced humans to hide and create relics around the world, while Neria has acted as an author’s muse, prompting him to write The Teknomicon. As the book gains notoriety and scholars start finding the relics, the flood gates of magic open, starting at first with strange occurrences across the globe. All of this, of course, wakes Gaia from her slumber, marking the start of phase two in Kalthe and Neria’s plan.
I’ve got a few other works waiting in the wings, as well, but they’re a ways off yet.