Murder Ballads is now available for preorder from Egaeus Press, producer of dark and imaginative books. My tale “In Scarlet Town” will mark my second appearance in an Egaeus anthology. I’m proud to be included among a host of fine writers such as Angela Slatter, Reggie Oliver, Philip Fracassi, Helen Marshall, Timothy J. Jarvis, Alison Littlewood, Daniel Mills, Avalon Brantley, Stephen J Clark, Lisa L Hannett, Louis Marvick, Brendan Connell, Colin Insole, Rhys Hughes, Charles Schneider and Albert Power.
When editor Mark Beech sent me the guidelines, I took many trips down my musical memory lane. There’s such a wealth of material. I found my interests gravitated towards the more contemporary(ish) side of the genre. I considered PJ Harvey’s Down by the Water, Neko Case’s Furnace Room Lullaby and Inkubus Succubus’ The Rape of Maude Bowen with its angry chorus:
“Now here is a tale, a story to be told
Of a young girl but fifteen years old
Impaled as a vampire, her mother burned as a witch
Now these were the crimes, the crimes of the rich…”
But it was Gillian Welch’s enigmatic “Scarlet Town” that captured my imagination in the end. So what the hell was going on in Scarlet Town? The name itself conjured up a dry and dusty place, but one that is full of colour, fragrance and the timeless pursuit of pleasure. I saw menacing beauty that disguised a host of ugly secrets.
I discovered that Bob Dylan also wrote a song called “Scarlet Town”, which came out after Gillian Welch’s tune. Dylan portrays a place with the “evil and the good livin’ side by side”, where “all human forms seem glorified”. I mulled over a fascinating discussion on the themes of the Dylan song, with its echoes of the traditional ballad Barbara Allen alongside more current concerns. Dylan’s imagery is complex and contradictory, complementing the starkness of Welch’s song.
Gillian Welch references the traditional ballad “Pretty Polly” with the line: “You left me here to rot away, like Polly on a mountainside”. I’ll add that conflicting interpretations have appeared: some song lyric websites seem to think she’s singing “like holly on the mountainside”. But it sounds like ‘Polly’ to me and it makes more sense, so my story contains a pinch of that old ballad too – have a listen to an old-timey Appalachian-style version by Patty Loveless and Ralph Stanley.
The final ingredient for this story was suggested by notes I made over a year ago. I was walking down the road near a friend’s house in North London. I was so lost in thought that I walked right into the overhanging branches of a tree full of incredible yellow flowers as big as my face. What the flowering fuck indeed… I’d never seen anything like it. And the scent was intense and entrancing. Honey-sweet, but lemony too with a touch of spice. It was a complex scent I needed to keep sniffing at… addictive and enthralling.
I later looked up these flowers, Angel’s Trumpet aka brughansia. I discovered that these plants have a long history of lore and myth, along with close cousin datura or Devil’s Trumpet. Their hallucinogenic and potentially toxic components have been used in shamanic rituals; it was believed that they enabled people to communicate with the dead and denizens of other worlds. According to some accounts, brughansia and datura were used as aphrodisiacs in brothels. And the plants also had more prosaic medicinal uses, such as treating asthma and haemorrhoids.
I’ll note that one component, scopolamine, plays a less than enlightening role in the weird Netflix series The OA. These plants have also been used to induce disorientation and docility.
I read an article about a town in Louisiana where teenagers were raiding front gardens for drug-related purposes. It got to a point where the cops went knocking on doors if they spotted Angel’s Trumpet growing in a garden. A few people actually destroyed their plants. But many of the comments at the end of the article basically went: Fuck the police! They’re not gonna mess with my brugs!
I made notes about all this and put them in one of those little folders on my computer that just sit around for a while. But I came upon the material again and realised that these beautiful yet deadly blossoms will show me the way to Scarlet Town…
My story also includes a tip of the hat to Leena Krohn’s novella Datura, Or a Figment Seen by Everyone, where a woman acquires a datura plant, uses it to help her asthma and becomes addicted. She observes:
“I hope you understand that plants, too, are conscious. The consciousness of plants resembles human dreaming. That, too, is consciousness.”
Some heady thoughts to go along with a very heady scent…