Monday, May 5, 2008

The House of Dust

by Janine Ashbless

For the Magic and Desire collection I wrote a dark historical fantasy novella called The House of Dust. My Lustie buddy Olivia Knight sent me a few questions about it (see below). First though, a brief synopsis:

Setting: The land of Sumer (in modern times: Iraq), approximately 2600 BC.

Plot: Ishara, the narrator, is the high priestess of Inanna, the goddess of sex and love. Every year she is ritually married to the King and shares his bed for nine nights. But the story opens with King Tamuz dying; he has been poisoned by his step-brother Nergal. When Nergal takes the throne and proceeds to publicly insult the goddess and humiliate Ishara, she decides to seek magical vengeance. She will open the way to the Land of the Dead and descend through its seven gates – each with its demonic guardian - to negotiate with the Queen of the Underworld and bring the rightful king back to life…

Olivia: What are you wearing and where are you sitting?

Janine: Well, I’m writing this while I’m waiting in the bathroom queue at a Dungeons & Dragons weekend … so, blue silk pyjamas and dressing gown. And red slippers. Apologies for the colour-clash.

O: The collection is fantasy, though yours is based on "true myth". Which parts of The House of Dust did you make up and which did you derive from mythology?

J: The House of Dust is based on two related myths from the Mesopotamian region, which was the cradle of civilisation and the place writing (and written fiction) were invented. The first myth is The Descent of Inanna, which is about how the great love goddess journeys into the underworld to confront her sister the Queen of the Dead. This original myth includes the death and resurrection of Tamuz and the image of a seven-gated Underworld, at each gate of which Inanna has to remove a piece of her sacred regalia (her crown, her necklace, her belt etc) until she reaches her destination naked and powerless. Some suggest this story is the original of the "dance of the seven veils." In HoD my heroine is the priestess of Inanna and also treats this story as myth – only, because it is a myth about her goddess, she can use it to do the same thing by magic: open the way to the Underworld and go down.

The second myth I use is a chunk of The Epic of Gilgamesh which deals with the stand-up row King Gilgamesh has with Inanna. Basically she says "Phwoar, come and get it, Big Boy," and he says "No way, you dirty slag," and then she gets really angry and releases the Bull of Heaven on him, which he kills. I used that for the political struggle that provides the background to my heroine’s quest. For certain reasons I transferred the struggle between Inanna and the King to Gilgamesh’s father, that’s all.

O: How did you come to choose ancient Sumer for the House of Dust?

J: This was a story I felt I had to write. Look, The Descent of Inanna is among the oldest – if the not the oldest – story ever told by human beings and written down: it’s at least 5500 years old (but incredibly long-lived: the death and return of Tamuz was still being ritually commemorated across the Middle East right into Christian times). And it’s about a woman undertaking a quest. And in it she has to remove her clothing piecemeal! How could I not turn it into an erotic story?

Also the fragments of the myth we still have date from different times (they were adopted by different cultures and rewritten over thousands of years, during which Inanna mutated into Ishtar who was goddess of war as well as sex) and are sometimes contradictory. For example, some versions say that Inanna descends in order to rescue Tamuz, some that the King dies because she orders it upon her return. Some have the Queen of the Dead single and lonely, some give her a husband. Some fragments treat Inanna and Gilgamesh as allies, but the later ones have him behaving with incredible hostility and rudeness toward her (and suffering as a consequence). I wanted to write a version that "explained" all these contradictions and how people might have got confused. To be honest, I was probably being just a tad ambitious for a sex novella.

And I have always been fascinated by Land of the Dead stories and wanted to write one. The question of what (if anything) awaits us after death is universally intriguing.

O: We’re both obsessed by ancient cultures to the point where we’ve had to divvy them up so we don’t tread on each other’s toes! Why do you like these so much as settings for erotic novels?

J: You’re not kidding about our shared obsession! I was writing The House of Dust when I first heard about the publication of your story Inanna's Temple (in Sex in Public): both deal with the ritual Great Marriage where the priestess of Inanna has holy sex in front of everyone, and my squeal of horror was pitched to break glass. Luckily they are very different takes on the subject!

Why do I like ancient civilisation settings? Ooh … warmer weather, fewer clothes, fabulous temples and exotic gods. Sounds like I’m on holiday, doesn’t it? The serious answer is, I think, to do with suspension of disbelief. I do write contemporary erotica but in a modern setting my natural reactions to, ahem, challenging erotic situations are more likely to intrude and I can’t help a part of my mind muttering "She would really be horrified/call the police/sue for sexual harassment." I like writing in settings where I am not bound by modern social rules and standards.

O: Your stories inevitably walk the dark side of fantasy and The House of Dust becomes very dark with Ishara’s descent into the underworld. Is that about the erotic potential of darkness, or the kinds of plot you prefer? Do you see yourself as a "dark" writer?

J: I see myself as someone who writes about the redemptive light of love and passion shining in the darkness. (The House of Dust has a happy ending, I promise!)

There are two different types of darkness in this story. The first is the sexual: my heroine undertakes a journey of submission, surrendering her power and identity and ego as she goes down through the Seven Gates. The necessary ordeal brings her to new understandings of mortality, herself and her relationship with the man she loves. It allows her to save him. She is broken down and rebuilt as a wiser, better and stronger person.

The second kind of "darkness" is that this is a story that begins with the death of the heroine’s lover. It is about loss, grief and death. My vision of the underworld is true to the source myths and not particularly pleasant.

Yes, it’s a dark story. It has to be to make its point: love is what matters.

O: The queen passes seven Gatekeepers to reach the Underworld and they each demand something different from her. Which is your favourite? What does that say about you?

J: My favourite is probably this passage here – the Second Gate. I had a lot of fun playing with sub themes for this novella. And it includes my favourite line of the story.

Later on Ishara encounters the scorpion-men guarding the Sixth Gate and I loved this image too: "then I see them, because when they move they generate a flickering light like the dance of distant lightning. There are four of them, bigger than oxen. Their rear parts are the bodies of scorpions and from the front grow the bodies of men. All parts are covered in black chitinous plates, and when those plates rub together the light flickers into being, illuminating their staring faces. Venom-laden tails arc high over my head."
Push, push, push the envelope of what is acceptable…

O: And your favourite line of your own story is…?

J: The House of Dust contains my favourite line of all time!
‘Do you suck cock, Queen of Heaven?’
I can’t read it without a big evil grin.

So, for a hot and wicked excerpt go over to my blog. And to win a copy of Magic and Desire, just drop a comment here or at my blog and I’ll pick someone at random – winner announced in Coming Attractions this Sunday.

And come back on Wednesday and Friday to see what Portia and Olivia made of the Magic theme – and for more chances to win!


Erastes said...

Great post, I find the whole history part really fascinating. It's a mythology and history I know absolutely nothing about!

Jade Taylor said...

Wow, I like how not only do i get to read about how you get your ideas, but i also get an history/mythology lesson too! And I like how you wrote about how writing in another time stops the problem of suspension of disbelief, it's strange how still social convention can get in the way of even the most enlightened erotica writing!

Janine Ashbless said...

The path to enlightenment is steep and long, Grasshopper...

Actually I've always had a problem with reading and writing about things I wouldn't like in real life. I know some (maybe most) people don't take what happens in a story seriously, but I struggle to separate my personal ethics from my reading enjoyment. You'd be astonished at the authors that can depress or upset me...

Olivia Knight said...

This story took my breath away, Janine. I love it when writing makes me pause to reread a phrase or sentence, just for its deft beauty. I had no idea how much of it was mythically precise. I knew about the ritual removal of clothing, but most of my own research for my story about Innana was about the daily life. (Mine was also set circa 4000 BC, so quite a bit more primitive.) Clothing, food, huts - the religious observances were also more primitive, in mine. So maybe we can share Egypt, after all!

And yes, "Do you suck cock, Queen of Heaven?" made me burst out laughing. Oh, how the mighty have fallen...

Deanna Ashford said...

It sounds so fascinating. It is a part of history I've really never looked into before but this post really makes me want to read it.

Social conventions can be a pain in modern erotica and I agree with Jade writing in another time does stop the problems of suspension of disbelief.

It is a pity we are all being discouraged to step back into the past or venture into mythical universes at present!

Portia Da Costa said...

Super interview, ladies, and an impressive and compelling plunge into mythological eroticism, Janine!

I think Magic and Desire is a really strong collection because its component novellas are so incredibly diverse. :)

And I too love that line... ;)

Janine Ashbless said...

deft beauty is a high compliment coming from you, Olivia!

Madeline Moore said...

Wow. Talk about research. I too know nothing about any of this particular mythology. It looks and sounds fantastic, Janine. Kudos!

Lil said...

It was interesting to read about the background to the story. Great interview.

Kate Pearce said...

Fascinating insight into how you got the idea and a history lesson-love it, can't wait to read it :)

Madelynne Ellis said...

I'm totally in awe of your mythological knowledge! This story sounds fascinating.

rlr260 said...

Great interview. I always enjoy stories from mythical or exotic civilizations. It's fascinating to read of the rituals and beliefs in some ancient time. And adding a sexy love story just makes it more inviting!

Janine Ashbless said...

Thanks everyone!

Olivia Knight said...

Push, push, push the envelope of what is acceptable…

I can't believe you did that, btw - the scorpion-men. When our editor said "It has to have a human head!" I never thought of taking my favourite beastie and sticking a human head on it. I originally wanted to write a different story about dragons - you see, this is why Janine is the evil twin: a) she nicked the dragon idea before I even had it, exceptionally rude; and b) she was allowed to do it. I was told, in a gentle but stern fashion, very avuncular, that I was not to have sex with dragons. Maybe I should have given them human heads. Next time I'll try get centaurs past the censor... ;-)

Janine Ashbless said...

Yes - Centaurs. It had occured to me! I bet we find it has to have a human dick too!

Scorpion men had to be given a chance because they are genuine Sumerian demons. Well, genuine in the sense of having mythical reality - I make no claim as to their ontological status.

Mathilde Madden said...

Scorpion men, dragons - how great is this antho sounding?

This story sounds brilliant, Janine. And I love the excerpt on your blog - who knew I would be quite so taken with the thought of a guy with flames for hair!

Janine Ashbless said...

Thanks Mat!