So, what’s the story behind my novella Skin For Skin? Is it the product of a fevered imagination? Yes. Are its roots buried deep into my out-in-the-sticks upbringing? Absolutely. Does it owe anything to Hope-Hodgson’s House on the Borderland? You bet it does. And The Book of Job? Most certainly, although not until the story was underway and I began to understand what I was trying to write.
Much of my fiction has a religious undercurrent. My plays, Tattletale Mary, Jar of Flies and The Bayonet all have ministers as key characters. Soul Masque is a somewhat brutal look at the war between God and the Devil. Deadside Revolution features a fallen angel and a conflict in Hell, and my novella, Joe, explores the agony of trying to reconcile sexuality with religious belief.
I come from a long line of Baptists, so religion, by which I mean Western Christianity, has played some part in my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I was a regular at an Anglican Sunday School and was even educated at a Church of England-funded primary school.
At the age of 10 or 11, however, I voluntarily transferred my spiritual obligations to one-service-a-week at the Baptist Chapel my parents attended, because continued Sunday School membership meant joining the church choir. There was no way I was going to wear a dress, frilly collar, and sing in a girl’s voice (no disrespect to girls’ voices, they are beautiful, but I think you know where I’m coming from). Such was my need to escape, I was prepared to endure interminable, ancient hymns, ground out on an equally prehistoric harmonium and hour-long sermons delivered by a regular cycle of thee-and-thou preachers who had stepped straight out of the Edwardian era. I love those old hymns nowadays, by the way. There’s power in their language.
So, the idea of God, Jesus, the Bible, prophets, apostles and all the rest were inculcated into my system from my first awareness. Predictably, I kicked against it when a teenager, embraced it with great fervour in my early twenties, then watched my faith slip like sand from my tightly clenched fist as I entered my thirties.
I still believe, but can no longer subscribe to the organised structures of the faith I once cherished. They are riddled with too many tightly-tangled philosophical conundrums that I cannot simply shove aside. Yet the wonder of it remains. Think about it. A being so vast, ancient and powerful it could create and sustain a universe. The enigmatic references in the early chapters of The Bible to the “Sons of God” who came down to Earth to take human women to wife. Enigmatic characters such as Enoch who simply “walked with God and was not” and yet, looms large over ancient Biblical history. Nimrod the Hunter, who or what was he? A catastrophic global flood, the sun travelling backwards in the sky. Plagues. A sea being ripped part into two towering walls of water to allow safe passage for an entire nation.
Ah, yes, the strange and terrible story of Job.
A rich, devout man, he seems to have caught the attention of Satan, who comes before God to issue a challenge. Take everything from Job, leave him ruined and broken, and he will “curse thee to thy face”. Astonishingly, God gives Satan permission to rip Job’s life apart, which he does with great enthusiasm. Job’s entire family and all his livestock are killed, his home demolished and his crops destroyed. Job, himself, is afflicted with sores and left to rot. It is an act of immense cruelty, a life trampled into the dust simply to settle a dispute.
History or parable, the story of Job portrays God as more concerned with scoring a point than caring about one of His creations. Yes, ultimately Job was rewarded for his steadfastness, but why did the poor guy and his family have to suffer all this in the first place?
Like most of my extended fiction, Skin For Skin evolved from a completely different idea, then found a life of its own. It always feels to me as if stories already exist and it is the writer’s task to uncover them. If that is the case, then this one was buried deep. I found myself being drawn deeper into the heart and soul of the main protagonist, Eve, and realised that she is, in many ways, the personification of my own bruised spirituality.
Unlike me, she is a courageous, difficult and principled person who was born into terrible poverty and neglect. The darkness of her early childhood is the engine for her faith, and passion (if not obsession) for helping those in trouble. Crushed by the enormity of the burden, her own sense of right and wrong and then by the religious establishment who see her as a troublesome priest determined to disrupt the status quo, she is exiled to a remote church, located in a storm-ravaged, otherworldly landscape - the same lonely East Anglian landscapes I walked as a child.
Like Job, Eve’s life is shattered through no fault of her own. She chooses what she sees as the Right Path and ends up broken and cast out. Then, once in exile, she discovers that she is once more to be a used as a pawn in The Game.
I think that the root of my religion-themed writing is anger at the idea that the complex, wondrous entities God has created, beings capable of beautiful art, mind-bending technology and acts of immense compassion, are simply cannon fodder in the war between “good” and “evil” and damned to Hell if they don’t subscribe to this or that point of doctrine. I don’t believe that to be the case. Any God big and powerful enough to create an infinite universe can fight His own battles. We, as the end of Skin For Skin declares, are here for each other.
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