Fans of urban fantasy may be interested to learn more about “Come Hell or High Water” a trilogy written by New York-based author Stephen Morris – a former Eastern Orthodox chaplain at Columbia University. His series, set in Prague, not only blends past legend with the present, but meticulously works with occult European magical practices and beliefs.
“It depends on how you define either of those elements. One of the things that made the greatest impressions on me when I was very small was the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and I ran from the room screaming when she appeared out of fire and smoke. But the next year when I was five or six I forced myself to watch and I became enamoured of her character partly because when all is said and done she is the only character in the film that has any real power: all the others just work in illusion and persuasion. The only real magic is wielded magic. So I fell in love with the character and then with fairy tales as a result.
“In fourth grade, I reached the conclusion that God existed, and part of the thrill of that was that the supernatural ‘existed’. Not necessarily in the way the Brothers Grimm had described it… but things opened up. A much larger world than I had been aware of or thought possible with miracles, saints, angels…
“Also, as I got older I realised that although magic has been consistently condemned by the Church, the practices that define magic are very elusive and have never been consistent. Things that are considered science in one era would not be acceptable in another. If you go looking at the definitions of magic in pre-Christian Europe, magic was pretty anybody else’s religion which you ‘didn’t like’. For the Romans, ‘magic’ was practiced by the Babylonians, the Mesopotamians, and all the non-Roman peoples. It was illegal because anybody practicing a non-Roman religion was considered likely to also be involved in some of kind of treason or rebellion.
“That definition of magic as other peoples’ religious practices was pretty much what the Church settled on. The Protestants accused the Catholics of magic and vice-versa, and there is even in Russia there is a 16th century council that says that a certain text is a prayer when a priest says it and a spell when a layman does. That really underlines magic as simply illicit religious practice.”
Was your decision to study medieval history inspired by your interest in magic?
“They went hand-in-hand. As a boy growing up in Seattle, my relatives noticed that I liked history and took me the museum. But on the West coast all of the exhibits were about Native Americans or Japan. Where were the knights? Where were the castles?! Later when I went to study on the East coast at Yale, and I remember distinctly as a freshman that year at Christmas when I realised that it was closer and easier and cheaper to fly to London than back home. I felt the axis of the Earth shift under my feet!”
The Czech Republic is not a bad place to visit for anyone who has an interest in castles…
When it comes to urban fantasy, has Prague been utilised much?
“To my knowledge not yet; I understand that Dan Brown was here a few weeks ago, possibly scoping a new novel, and one of my reviews referred to me as the ‘Dan Brown of Prague’… so I beat him to it. But I think Prague is just waiting to burst into the urban fantasy landscape because there is so much material here. On the other hand, I don’t mind being the first.”
You have Paris or London as sort of key locations but I guess this city has a lot of legends and myths of its own…
“Absolutely. There is so much here. Just walking around the Old Town you have the thief who broke into St. Jacob’s church and was caught by the statue; you have the priest who killed the prostitute at Our Lady of Týn and now lurks in the alleyway; you have the miser running from his house near the Old Town Square sort of repeating his death, clutching his money; you’ve got the black dog up by Loreto who I used in my stories. I tried very hard to find his origin story but couldn’t so I had to make up my own. There is an amazing cornucopia of material here.”
Now the first book of your trilogy opens with a bang: the prologue is very entertaining and it is written at a very filmic pace. What I noticed as a reader was your attention to detail and how these felt in place. When one of the characters is accused of being a witch she is treated as one would expect, at least, if you have a little knowledge of how these things were conducted. She is first dunked into the river to see if she sinks. How important was it for you to stick to historical facts, even though you were writing a fantasy?
“It was very important to me because I really wanted the magic to be what stood out. And there’s no point in gratuitously offending people who know what you are writing about! So you stick to history as much as possible. In fact, the magic depicted in the books is all based on real Medieval and Renaissance occult practices. It was important to stick to the truth as much as possible, so that the reader would know when I departed from it. For instance, the witch that is burnt in the prologue: in reality, no one was ever executed in Bohemia for witchcraft. So it is the German priest who riles up the crowd to lynch her but there is no legal basis for the event and that explains ‘why’ there was never any legal record or trace.”
I was caught up in the action but it’s true I kept thinking at the back of mind ‘Will the King’s men show up?’ … and it was satisfying or even a relief when they did, because that is what would have happened I felt…
(laughs) “Yes, that’s it.”
Feňka is the condemned witch who curses the city and gets the ball rolling… what about the storyline set in the present: tell me about Magdalena as a central character.
“Magdalena is a secretary at Charles University who is rather bored of her life and the mundane and is looking for something. She has dabbled a little in New Age magic and Wicca but she is missing excitement and is really kind of lost. She encounters the ghost of Feňka who is paddled up in a boat by this giant woman who turns out to be the ‘troll who lives under the bridge’ who likes to drown people and rule over the dead in the waves. The encounter leaves Magdalena trying to correct what happened on that day in 1356, to set the record straight and to begin a much larger process, which is the unravelling of centuries of oppression against women and religion against freedom. She is the linchpin in a momentous revolution which is quite thrilling, as is the experience of the supernatural.”
The topic of the suppression of women is also something that came up in The Da Vinci Code… there the role of Mary Magdalene was ‘historically suppressed’. Is this a central motif in New Age?...that women played a greater role pre-Christian traditions, maybe something less known in the past that has now become part & parcel…
“It has certainly become part & parcel of the modern image of what Pre-Christian religions in Europe were based on. It is hard to say how much of that is truth and how much is us looking back and reading into the record. Roman religion, for example, does not seem to have been particularly woman-friendly, Celtic, possibly, but is still difficult to discern the record because no living memory of these religions exists. Of course, some people like to claim that it does, that the traditions survived in the forests and dens and crooks of European wilderness. But it is important to say that a lot of what we think of pagan religion today was reinvented in the 1850s: it takes a lot of elements from a lot of different places.”
If we look at some of the fiction coming out there days it seems that fantasy, science fiction, five minutes into the future novels… have all become a little more mainstream than they used to be. Is this a good thing or a curse? For example, you have The Walking Dead: it used to be a comic, now it as a series (Ed. note - an excellent one so far, by many accounts). It is a TV series about survivors and… zombies! I never thought I would see that happen!
(laughs) “To tell the truth, neither did I! I always thought I was the strange one in high school! And here, all of a sudden, the nerds have taken over: zombies, Game of Thrones, True Blood… all these things are just racking up the points and hitting high rankings. It’s nice that we finally got our due (laughs)… that everyone sees what we’ve seen all along. It’s gratifying and surprising, I never expected it!”
“I think all great literature is escapist. We all need to check out of this world for a couple hours and read a good book or see a good movie and just take a break. That is why all those musicals and dance spectaculars were so popular during the Great Depression in the United States. People just need to get away from their mundane and sometimes not-so-pleasant lives. And I think fantasy is a particularly good way – especially urban fantasy – because it keeps you rooted in this world and contemporary society, so it is familiar but it adds the thrill of magic which actually works.”