The other day, when I first saw the amazon.com page for my short novel Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi‘s latest incarnation as an infinity plus ebooks edition, it felt like I was greeting an old and valued friend whom I hadn’t seen for far too long. In many ways the book occupies a fairly central role in my fiction, yet far, far more people have read the various offshoots and permutations of the tale that have appeared elsewhere in my work than have ever read the tale itself. Let’s hope the appearance of this new edition will reverse that imbalance.
The story was born in the early 1990s on a train between Exeter and London. My agent at the time, the excellent Jane Judd, had suggested I might enter for the first One-Day Novel Competition, which was being organized by the Groucho Club. I’d been able to borrow a laptop computer from my pal Matt, who’d just bought it second-hand, and he and I had loaded it with Word Perfect 5.1 – about as much as its hard disc would take. (An Amstrad, it weighed about as much as a modern desktop computer; by the end of a weekend of carrying the thing around my arms were measurably longer.) The sf author Dave Hutchinson and his wife Bogna had offered to put me up for the couple of nights I needed to be in London for the competition (despite the contest’s title, the writing was to be done over two days, 12 hours per day). In short, the logistics for my participation had all been successfully put in place.
It was on the train, though, that it occurred to me it might be a good plan if I had, you know, a novel to write – or at least a few ideas to get started with.
Instantly my mind went blank.
I sat there gazing out the train window at the fields and trees rushing backwards past me, and after a while realized I was seeing the reflection of the face of a passenger a couple of seats along at the same time as I was seeing the countryside. This was hardly an original insight but it did give me an image as a point of departure. For some reason I linked the image to the flat my wife and I had occupied in a small edge-of-Dartmoor town around the time my daughter was born. That reminded me of the cumbrous old second-hand wardrobe our spare room had boasted, best known for the fact that in the middle of one joyously drunken night a moderately famous author staying with us had got out of his bed and climbed into it, thinking he was on his way to the bathroom.
There were all sorts of story elements by now jostling for my attention. I took a few notes (little knowing that later, minutes before the start of the contest, we’d be informed that, contrary to the instructions we’d all been sent, we were not allowed to take any notes into the “exam room” with us).
But I didn’t need to make any notes about the two main components of the story that was now with increasing urgency taking shape in my mind – or, really, a single component that was manifesting itself as two different narrative strands. The strand that was foregrounded so far as my main character (by now called Joanna) would perceive things concerned a strange and strangely over-friendly family, the Gilmours, that lived in but was not a part of my Dartmoor town. But really (whatever the word “really” means in this context, because I still to this day do not myself know how literally Joanna’s experiences should be interpreted) the Gilmours were to be just a sort of projection into the mundane world of the figure who’d now moved to the conceptual centre of the evolving tale: Qinmeartha.
I’ve always been interested, ever since stumbling across the ideas of Joseph Campbell and, earlier, Sir James Frazer, in the notion of archetypal figures who can appear and reappear in diverse tales that appear on their face quite distinct from each other. I’m far from the first writer to have followed this lure; perhaps the fantasist most famously to have exploited these notions has been Michael Moorcock with his multiverse concept. In the early 1990s, not fully realizing what Moorcock had been up to along these lines (at the time I’d read neatly the wrong bits of Moorcock, Behold the Man rather than Elric of Melnibone, as it were), I’d explored such notions in my novel The World . . . calling my scheme the multiverse, a term I’d picked up from reading popular science books, until crossly discovering Moorcock had already snaffled the word and having to use “polycosmos” instead.
But the notion dawning on me as my train pounded toward London was of a far more powerful archetype than anything I’d conjured before. Here was not just a character (or pair of characters) who might appear in different guises in a whole slew of tales, but an underlying structure of (fictional) reality that could, as it were, be viewed through many different narrative lenses – a way of perceiving how reality was put together that I could approach in many different ways. The derided creator god Qinmeartha’s ceaseless quest to complete himself with or just to annihilate the fleeing Girl-Child formed the basis for – to cast my innate modesty aside for just a moment – a complete fantasy cosmology.
By the time I got to the Groucho Club I knew all kinds of things that were going to go into the plot of what I provisionally called The Legend of Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi without actually knowing what the plot itself would be. Finding out that plot was what was going to occupy me for the next two days.
The first day I wrote a little over 20,000 words of it; the second I added a further 11,000 words or so. I even finished with a few hours to spare . . .
What happened to my humble offering during the judging process I do not know. It certainly never made it to the shortlist; c’est la vie. But I myself was completely haunted by the tale. A few days later, back home, recovered from my exhaustion, when I nervously printed out a copy of it and read it pen in hand, I was surprised by how little beyond basic typos and the odd ghastliness I wanted to change. And both the imagery and the underpinning legend/archetype still spoke to me potently.
Of course, there was a major problem with a 31,500-word novel: it was exactly the wrong length to have any chance of publication – too long for a magazine or anthology, far too short to be published as a standalone. (This was years before the emergence of the modern fashion for publishing novellas/short novels as solo items.) So Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi sat around gathering metaphorical dust in my metaphorical drawer for some years. Every now and then I’d dig it out, read it again, be moved by it again, perhaps rejig it a little, think of turning it into a full-length novel, realize this would be a bad thing to do, and put it to one side. More importantly, Qinmeartha and LoChi and the cosmology they comprised were sneaking into my other fictions, not always in the most obvious of fashions – although they were pretty much to the forefront of my 1994 science fiction novel The Hundredfold Problem (done originally for a Judge Dredd series, whodathunkit).
Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi finally saw print about a decade after I’d written it thanks to Sean Wallace’s much mourned small press Cosmos. Sean paired it with The Tomb of the Old Ones by my old friend Colin Wilson and in 2002 released the two together in anthology form – the first (and perhaps only) “Cosmos Double”. And now finally, in 2011, it has achieved the standalone publication I’ve always wanted for it.
Well, not quite standalone. One of the received wisdoms of ebook publishing is that it’s a good idea to give the reader some “added value” material as an inducement to buy. I decided the ideal companion to the existing short novel would be my much more recent novella “The Beach of the Drowned”; this first appeared in a 2009 anthology called Under the Rose that was edited by the very same Dave Hutchinson who’d put me up over that One-Day Novel Competition weekend ‘way back when – see how even real life has these repeating patterns, eh?
But that doesn’t seem to me to be the only link between the two tales. They’re both born of the quarter-century or so I lived in Devon; I wouldn’t exactly describe them as regional stories, but it’s in Devon – or a version thereof – that both of them start and finish. And they’re both attempts at mythopoeia; the legend I created for “The Beach of the Drowned” has no archetypal possibility itself, I reckon, but I can see where it has been influenced by the Qinmeartha/LoChi archetype.
It’s been a long and a winding road for this particular child of mine, from that weekend-long sweatshop at the Groucho Club in London in the early 1990s until now, when, with its author living two decades and several thousand miles away from there, the tale is appearing in a format that no one even conceived at the time the piece was written: the hard disc of that ton-weight laptop on which I wrote it probably couldn’t have accommodated the software required for reading ebooks, and anyway internet access was a thing of the future.
That’s all, so far as I’m concerned, perfectly fitting.
For me, the legend of Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child is likewise long and winding as it manifests and re-manifests in my imagination, and it seems to adapt to new and unforeseen circumstances as they arise . . . just like all good archetypal legends should.
Qinmeartha and the Girl-Child LoChi is available from: