“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?” ― John Lennon
It was a dark and stormy night in Black Ness, the wind was cruel and the rain fell in harsh, icy sheets. All through the town not a soul could be seen, but down in the bay a lone figure made his way through the waves, the sole survivor of a merchant ship, dashed to smithereens on the sharp rocks. Late that night, as the town settled down to sleep, a stranger came ashore.
A Stranger Came Ashore delves into the myths of the selkie-folk – seals that can assume a human form, and are often seen with their heads bobbing just above the waterline, staring into shore with strangely human eyes. The myths are known most commonly in the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands – the latter being where this story takes place. While the myths of the selkie-folk vary from place to place, one thing is always consistent, in order to assume human form, a selkie must shed its skin, at which point it becomes instantly vulnerable, for if a selkie should lose its skin it cannot return out to sea.
I love to read up on local myths and legends, not only does it give a great insight to the culture of a place, but I find the thrill of the unknown absolutely irresistible. I like to look up local legends and famous haunted spots anytime I visit a new city – an odd quality perhaps, but there you go. So, basically, I was absolutely thrilled to discover this book.
I have heard of selkie-folk before, but the only stories I can recall are about the female selkie. These stories are often more tragic than dark: the woeful tale of a beautiful selkie woman lured onto land by a human man, who inevitably steals her seal skin and takes her for a wife. Typically, the woman in the story eventually reclaims her skin, usually because one of her children stumbles upon it, and flees back to her home beneath the waves never to be seen again. Tales of the female selkie are somewhat notorious for following this theme, as is eloquently summed up by Sofia Samatar in Selkie Stories are for Losers:
I hate selkie stories. They’re always about how you went up to the attic to look for a book, and you found a disgusting old coat and brought it downstairs between finger and thumb and said “What’s this?”, and you never saw your mom again.
A Stranger Came Ashore is different to the ‘selkie stories’ so abhorred by Samatar, however, and instead focuses on the insidious, manipulative side of the male selkie.
The male selkie when in human form is said to be a wonderfully handsome creature, with magical powers of seduction over Earth-borne women. In selkie lore, the male selkie enjoys nothing more than coming onshore, shedding his skin, and seeking out unsatisfied women, both married and unmarried, to satisfy his cravings. Indeed, according to 19th century Orkney folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison, selkie males ‘often made havoc among thoughtless girls, and sometimes intruded into the sanctity of married life.’ Scandalous!
Enter Finn Learson – the protagonist, and guest selkie, of A Stranger Came Ashore. Finn Learson appears to the Henderson family one dark and stormy night, knocking on the door of their simple butt and benn house to seek refuge from the weather. Assuming him to be a victim of a ship wreck, the family offer him a bed by the fire, and are quickly taken by the young man’s charms. Indeed no one is more taken with Finn Learson than young Elspeth Henderson, who, though she herself is bequeathed to the wonderfully eligible Nicol Anderson, is instantly bewitched by the stranger’s deep brown eyes. The only members of the family who are not fooled by Finn Learsons’s charade are Robbie Henderson, and his grandfather, Old Da – both of whom are horrendously outspoken, one for being young and impressionable, the other for being old and somewhat ridiculous. Soon after Finn Learson’s arrival Old Da’s health takes a sudden turn for the worse and he confesses his suspicions to Robbie. Informing the boy that Finn Learson is none other than the evil great selkie of Shetland legends, and he has come to take Elspeth.
Poor Robbie Henderson knows in his heart there is something wrong with Finn Learson but he is never to be believed by his family, who see only the polite young man that the great selkie wants them to see. The selkie-folk are nothing but a myth – and Old Da is guilty of filling Robbie’s head with fantasy. With no one in his family willing to listen, Robbie turns to the only person who might be able to help, a man who fills his belly with terror: Yarl Corbie – the local schoolmaster. Yarl Corbie is a brutal, terrifying and mysterious man, who agrees to lend a hand to Robbie, if only to fulfil his own personal vendetta.
On the night of Up Helly Aa – a pagan festival celebrated in the Shetland Islands – Finn Learson makes his move. As the daylight fades, the young men of Black Ness are transformed into the Earth spirits of old and a dreamlike state of merriment falls over the town. Finn Learson weaves through the celebrations, leading the beautiful Elspeth from house to house, while Robbie follows. The pair fly through the crowds, dancing in the moonlight and jumping from place to place like shadows in candlelight. There is mystical, almost spiritual feel to the festival, as though Robbie is chasing an apparition – in a blink of an eye all could be lost.
One moment he had the will-o’-the-wisp figure of Elspeth in full view as she danced ahead of him across the hill. The next moment, his weary eyelids drooped, and before he could blink them open again, the green of the northern lights had vanished behind one of the sky’s spells of total darkness.
As she slips through the crowds Elspeth is blind to her fate. Obliviously living out what could be her last moments on Earth; she dances closer and closer to the great selkie’s home beneath the waves.
This book is positively brimming with everything I love: myths, legends, premonitions, dark tidings, strange characters, and creatures that lurk in the shadows. It’s is a creepy, thrilling read, which also offers an insight into some truly fascinating culture. A Stranger Came Ashore would be the perfect novel for anyone with an interest in myths and legends, but would be particularly well suited to a young Goosebumps or Point Horror enthusiast who fancies sinking their teeth into something a little more substantial.