Wales, one of four small countries which make up the United Kingdom, is a land of contradiction and contrast. From the former coal mining valleys in the south, to the mountainous National Parks of the north, Wales is renowned for its language, its friendly people, its national flag which features a red dragon (Y Ddraig Goch), and…rain! Yes, we have plenty of rain here.
And one more thing: in Wales, sheep outnumber people four to one.
As a writer, my surroundings provide a wealth of opportunity. I grew up in the industrial south, and went on to teach there for twenty-eight years. As a child, the landscape, with its many coal mines (almost all of which are now closed), was pretty bleak. Slag-heaps and abandoned coal carts were our playground, and after a day playing outdoors we would arrive home with faces as filthy as the coal miners’.
In every valley, towering metal structures loomed out of the ground, winding wheels groaned and spun as they lowered the men into pit bottom. And you knew, even as a child, that ‘down there’ was pitch dark, nothing but coal dust which corroded lungs and turned wounds into everlasting blue-black scars. I remember an uncle who wore one such scar above his left eye. It fascinated me, the colour. If your dad didn’t work down the pit, your uncle did, or your grandfather, or neighbour. It was impossible to be brought up in a coal mining town and not be influenced by it.
I’m a little too young (just) to remember the Aberfan disaster which featured in the Netflix series, The Crown. However, the tragedy struck just a few miles from where I lived, and, like J.F.K’s assassination or 9/11, no-one forgot where they were when they heard the news. Days of relentless rain caused 150 000 tonnes of coal sludge to avalanche onto the primary school, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Those were the kind of stories I grew up with. And those are the kind of stories that stick.
The story “Coblynau”, from my collection Mists and Megaliths, pays homage to such events and is told from the point of view of an ex-miner, one who witnessed the devastating events that day and who now finds himself in a nursing home suffering from dementia.
Another story influenced by living and working in the South Wales Valleys is the dark comedy, “Two’s Company, Three’s a Shroud”, published in 2020 by Kandisha Press in the Graveyard Smash anthology. This story also features in my collection, Mists and Megaliths. As I said in the introduction, the people of Wales are renowned for their friendliness. We also have a propensity towards dark humour and will often spin an amusing yarn out of bad fortune.
“Two’s Company, Three’s a Shroud” was inspired by an article I read in a local newspaper that explained how the graveyards in the South Wales Valleys (the most densely populated area of Wales) were full to capacity, and how the council were considering reclaiming old graves so that they could bury people on top of the remains of those long buried. There was a condition attached: the reclaimed graves had to be at least a hundred years old.
This got my dark humour juices flowing. I wondered what it would be like if a typical Welsh ex-miner was buried on top of a wealthy former magistrate. What kind of relationship would develop between the ghosts of two men with such conflicting life experiences? What kind of banter would occur? I loved writing this story. The protagonist, Stan, is so typical of characters I know in real life, though I did worry a little about whether non-Welsh readers would be able to tune in to the humour. Judging by the positive reviews, there was no need to worry.
After teaching in South Wales for twenty-eight years, I escaped the valleys and moved to West Wales where the grass is greener, beautiful beaches can be found within spitting distance, and Welsh is still most peoples’ first language. Now I’m free to write every day, free to roam the scenic coast-path or amble beside the many rivers, and life is glorious!
My husband is an artist/photographer, so we often pack a picnic and set off on a shoot at a moment’s notice (also known as when the rain finally stops). Although neither of us is religious, we both adore old churches and graveyards and can often be found haunting such places. Ancient churches provide a wealth of story potential: unique atmosphere, incredible architecture which seems to defy everything the Welsh climate throws at it, and they also offer a dip into personal stories inscribed on gravestones.
The photograph depicting an old window (above) was the stimulus for my short story, “Mosaic”, which I’m thrilled to say will be published in the June 2021 edition of The British Fantasy Horizons Journal. We stumbled upon this particular church by accident after the sat nav led us along a complicated route of narrow lanes and farmland. Long-abandoned, this particular church was a gem. I fell in love with the window which stood at the back, overlooking crumbling headstones and beyond to woodland. Instead of plain glass, I imagined it once depicted a creature spawned of Cthulhu, a demonic deity once worshipped in this backwater place. My husband created a CGI image of the creature, which, by the way, will feature on the front cover of the aforementioned journal (how exciting!), and my pen did the rest.
The main character in the story is a photographer who stumbles upon the window, but finds it smashed to pieces. She becomes obsessed with piecing it back together, revealing the ancient deity in doing so.
Many of my stories are set on or close to the Atlantic coast. The photo above, taken top-down, of a little beach with a smattering of buildings, is of a place called Llangrannog and is the setting of my supernatural story published in the winter edition of West Wales Life & Style Magazine. Once again, my husband’s illustration was published alongside the story. We love working on projects together. As childhood sweethearts, it seems we have known each other all our lives. Our interests and skills compliment one another well; yin and yang, or since we’re Welsh, Arthur and Guinevere. Having this story published brightened what for each and every one of us had been a tough year, and the message in the story pays homage to the pandemic in a subtle way. It features in Mists and Megaliths, or if you prefer to hear me narrate it (complete with Welsh accent), then check out the YouTube link below…
A little farther north from Llangrannog lies the tiny hamlet of Mwnt, with its tiny white-washed church set on the cliff-top (pictured below). In 2018, the funeral of Ray Thomas, founding member of The Moody Blues, was held right here in this little church beside the sea. It is the setting of my novella, Immortelle, a Gothic ghost story, which, I’m thrilled to say, will be published by Off Limits Press July 2021.
Throughout Wales, and especially in more untouched regions such as this, Victorian immortelles can still be found in graveyards. Intended as permanent memorials to the dead, they consist of ceramic flowers, birds, cherubs and such like. These ‘permanent’ memorials are arranged on a base and covered with a glass dome before being placed on the graves of the deceased. Such things appeal to my macabre nature, and for this story I imagined a ceramicist who begins to create customized immortelles as a means of coming to terms with a personal trauma. I dare not reveal more without giving spoilers, but I am hugely excited for this publication.
The short story, “Lure”, is set deep in the heart of Mynydd Epynt. This one was published in The One That Got Away anthology by Kandisha Press and is also another of the stories from Mists and Megaliths. Written in second person narrative, this one is deliciously dark and frankly quite sick in a subtle, suggestive way.
I’ll end with “Carreg Samson”, the story published in the charity anthology, Diabolica Britannica in 2020, and told from the point of view of a cromlech (pictured above). Wales is riddled with standing stones, cairns, cromlechs and castles, and this one is set in the former fishing village of Abercastle, a few miles farther along the coast in the neighbouring county of Pembrokeshire. It’s a love story of sorts, but not your usual kind. It also carries a moral message about the way we treat the natural environment.
I will be forever grateful to horror master, Ramsey Campbell, for the kind words he wrote about this story. Referring to it being told from the point of view of a cromlech, he said…
“Catherine McCarthy’s extraordinary saga gives a stone a voice. Might it be a distant cousin of those rocks that inhabit a nightmarish landscape in Machen’s “The White People”? As well as a heart unhappily close to human, it has the soul of the land it inhabits, on whose behalf it exacts a terrible revenge. That the author makes us care about the dilemma and the suffering of such an object is an achievement close to mystical.”
So, Wales…Land of my Fathers, Land of Song, Home of the Red Dragon…you will always hold a special place in my heart.
Long may you offer a nudge to the nib of my pen!