Though the Norse side of the equation hasn’t penetrated the Western cultural imaginary as thoroughly as the Ancient Greek and Roman equivalents, it’s safe to say that Vikings and the tales they carry with them retain a firm grasp on our collective consciousness.
You don’t have to venture very far to spot how appealing both historical narratives of Vikings and associated Norse mythology remains to this day. Just this month, Neil Gaiman — arguably the most popular and celebrated fantasy writer of our time — released his own take on some key stories from that domain, and the History Channel TV show Vikings appears to be trotting along rather nicely into a new season thanks to healthy ratings and online buzz.
But against this backdrop of an audience ever-hungry for more stories of the hardy men and women of the North, and the fantastical stories that sustain their sanguine worldview, a new player arrives on the scene of offer a shade of the weird and the majestic to that already rich weave. Released in the coming days from the ever-dependable American indie publisher Word Horde, Christine Morgan’s The Raven’s Table presents 18 examples of ‘Viking Stories’.
Given Word Horde’s standing as an exemplary publisher of off-the-beaten track genre fiction, one would expect Morgan’s collection to take a ‘genre’ tack to the history of the Northmen — and true to form, Morgan’s stories certainly take a liberal approach to both history and the parameters of reality, with all the stories featuring at least some element of the supernatural. Happily, however, this broadens out beyond a predictable association with the Sword ‘n Sorcery genre — the logical, obvious generic frame for Viking stories — to encompass a rich array of styles and storytelling modes.
But beyond the make-up of the individual stories in and of themselves, a feature that remains a running thread throughout is Morgan’s deft grasp of pacing and tension; ensuring that readers turn the pages while always being at the ready with a surprise. This is complemented by Word Horde’s consistently clever editorial approach, and once again the stories are grouped together in a way that complements their tone and approach.
In fact, The Raven’s Table opens with a grisly flourish, as the inaugural tale, ‘The Barrow-Maid’ spins a lurid yarn of treachery and vengeful resurrection that uses some fundamentals of the viking lifestyle — or rather, death-style — to give way to a zombie story with a hugely satisfying catharsis.
But beyond the make-up of the individual stories in and of themselves, a feature that remains a running thread throughout is Morgan’s deft grasp of pacing and tension
This is perhaps the story that most clearly recalls Morgan’s association to the Bizarro genre-cum-movement; with its freewheeling embrace of the violent and the grotesque. While it certainly makes for a great opener and a hugely satisfying story in its own right, it made this reader happy to discover that it wasn’t really there to set the tone for the rest of the collection, which gives way to more varied — and even gentle — stories in this otherwise unforgiving milieu.
Along with tales of battles and their aftermath, there are stories of metamorphosis that clearly draw on a rich mythic and folktale tradition; whose sense of pacing and dramatic irony Morgan manipulates into the viking world with great effect. Among these is the heartbreaking ‘The Mottled Bear’ which, once again, comes with a hard-earned catharsis that will make the reader whoop with vindictive joy through their tears.
But there is also ‘To Fetter the Fenris Wolf’, whose metamorphosis comes late in the story to give full bloom to the theme of marginalized women in a patriarchal society. That story also deals with the power of storytelling itself, and is one among many examples in the collection of Morgan using the poetic idiom of key Norse texts such as the Elder Edda to insert stories-within-stories in which the characters reiterate the key folk narratives of their time.
Along with tales of battles and their aftermath, there are stories of metamorphosis that clearly draw on a rich mythic and folktale tradition
Some of these poetic interludes are stand-alone entries — ‘At Ragnarok, The Goddesses’, ‘The Shield Wall’, ‘As We Drown and Die’ — but more often they are framed by a wider story, as in ‘The Vulgarity of Giants’, where an imprisoned band of vikings recall the story of Thor vs the giant Geirrod in a desperate attempt to boost their morale.
Horror also features heavily in the anthology, which is hardly surprising given Word Horde’s predilection for contemporary weird fiction in general and — as it happens — Lovecraftian fiction in particular, with Morgan channeling the sometimes controversial but enduringly popular pioneer of cosmic horror in not one, but two stories.
My favourite from this bunch has got to be ‘With Honey Dripping’, a gloriously perverse depiction of a pagan ritual to ‘Ia Sib-Njurath’ that is far more sexually explicit than anything Lovecraft would have dared to imagine, with Morgan thankfully going all-out to depict a shocking ritual that achieves a kind of grotesque, orgiastic splendour by dint of being entirely unfettered.
On the other hand, ‘Aerkheim’s Horror’ gives a viking spin to the Lovecraftian fear of miscegenation — particularly the ‘fish men’ of ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ — with Morgan evoking a sharp sense of dread as the oblivious viking crew washes up on a seemingly arid island whose ancient inhabitants will not leave without a sanity-shattering fight.
There is more traditional horror too, with the vampire-tinged ‘Sven Bloodhair’ and the folksy siren tale ‘Njord’s Daughter’. Also noteworthy is ‘Nails of the Dead’, narrated in a voice that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud and whose central image — a ship made entirely out of human nails — will certainly stick in the mind.
All of which is to say that The Raven’s Table may not be the revisionist viking story anthology you’re perhaps looking for — though male : female representation is pretty solid, it remains limned by the political realities of the period it depicts, and by a general desire to spin gripping yarns evoking traditional narratives — and neither is it a flinty, historically accurate portrayal of viking life as it was lived.
But Morgan’s collection certainly is a gripping read through-and-through. It takes all the things we find appealing about vikings and their world — the propensity towards righteous violence, a kind of vaunted machismo as a way of life and a mythic world that’s both weird and epic — and distributes them evenly across a tonally rich and inspired set of stories.
Morgan certainly taps into the raw nerve of the ‘viking imaginary’, but not in a way that feels mercenary. Rather, this is a labour of love about a period and a people we all seem to find very easy to love, despite their violent, rough edges.