10 books that inspired Hollie Starling when writing The Bleeding Tree

By Ebury Publishing

10 books that inspired Hollie Starling when writing The Bleeding Tree

By Ebury Publishing

Entry-level memoirists could be forgiven for thinking that when it comes time to put pen to paper all the material that one could need is up there ready to spill out. It’s not something I ever got to test because I designed The Bleeding Tree to be as difficult to write as possible, incorporating stories of my childhood and family lore with much more besides: the cultural history of mourning and memorial, anthropological studies of funerary ritual and of body preservation and disposal, strange little fictional interludes, not to mention folk beliefs around death and what comes after from across the entire world. With so many diverse subjects to wade through, writing The Bleeding Tree could have been a headache. But though I discarded far more material than I ended up using, I was able to root out so much juicy stuff that I’m still not done thinking about. Some of these choices directly informed my project, but others were more mood lighting, and are presented here as a serving suggestion for those inclined towards morbid speculation. 

Treasury of Folklore – Seas and Rivers: Sirens, Selkies and Ghost Ships

Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham

£12.99 £12.34

All of the books by the creators of Folklore Thursday are as indispensable as resources as they are beautiful objects, but this one is about sea monsters so for me it wins by a nautical mile. Growing up by the sea and having a family tree full of mariners and smugglers The Bleeding Tree was always going to take a long hard look into the horizon in search of monstrum marinum. As every superstitious sailor knows, the deep conceals creatures beyond our imagination with the power to rob a man of his reason. The pitch and pull of the seas has long served as analogy for the human mind, its ebbs and flows, flood tides both destructive and baptismal, and the border between life and death itself.

The Manningtree Witches

A. K. Blakemore

£8.99 £8.54

I read this novel as I was putting together my pitch to literary agents and loved it; it is very much deserving of the Desmond Elliott prize it was awarded for best debut. A.K. Blakemore tells the story of a community in rural Essex that welcomes a stranger named Matthew Hopkins. If you know your history of English witchcraft you can probably guess the rest. The women of Manningtree are so richly painted, so familiar, so animate, that you want to reach out and warn them they are the frog in the pan and it’s about to boil. Widows in particular - ‘once time has blunted the edge of their bereavement’ - are figures of suspicion, something I look at in depth in the winter cycle of my own book. Though historical figures and archival records knit together the intimate narrative, what actually happened in Manningtree is Blakemore’s invention. But that invention is delivered with a vivid textural prose that sings with beauty even when the fates of the accused take the darkest of turns. Blakemore restores a voice to women suppressed from the record by history’s privileged few.

The American Way Of Death Revisited

Jessica Mitford

£10.99 £10.44

Going to save you a google by saying upfront that this Mitford sister is not one of the problematic ones. The 1963 publication of this piece of investigative journalism into the American funeral industry was revised and reissued just before Mitford’s own death in 1996, when sadly unscrupulous business practices were still exploiting grieving families. The Civil War gave rise to the invention of commercial embalming and by the mid-twentieth century the belief, failed to be corrected by those for which the misapprehension made money, that the preservation method was a legal essential, as well as the falsehood that the process could prevent a corpse decaying indefinitely, was widespread. Mitford’s investigation led to the entire US funeral industry receiving censure under Federal Trade Commission rules in 1984. Savage, sassy, subversive but with an underlying salience about what we lose when we allow our last act - dying - to become sentimentalised and commercialised in service of someone else’s bottom line.

On Suicide

Emile Durkheim

£12.99 £12.34

Not a beach read, granted, but you can’t tackle the topic without the foundations. Revolutionary in its time, Durkheim challenged the centuries-old notion that suicide behaviours are a product simply of individual despair, moral turpitude, poor genetic material or all of the above, and argued that the human impulse towards self-annihilation can and should only be understood as a feature of societal forces and structures.

Delicacy: AS SEEN ON BBC2’S BETWEEN THE COVERS

Katy Wix

£10.99 £10.44

Truthfully I didn’t read this until after I’d handed in my first draft. Katy Wix acts in two of the shows that have revived TV comedy for me, Stath Lets Flats and Ghosts, and is a great writer besides, so I knew her book would combine bleakly funny meditations on loss with an artful tonal balancing that might intimidate me. It did and it does. But it’s also a painfully articulate and deeply moving survey of trauma in all its unvarnished (unfrosted?) honesty. The interspersed recipes for lemon drizzle and the like adds a further mien of absurdity, a Nora Ephron for anyone who has experienced emotional devastation in a big Tesco.

The White Goddess

Robert Graves

£17.99 £17.09

Maiden, mother, crone: Graves posits that there exists a single but multifaceted goddess who has been worshipped under many names and that all true poetry is an invocation of her as muse. Dazzling and disorientating, unabashed propaganda for poetic license, and responsible for a good deal of the ‘fakelore’ out there, if you dig all this folk stuff the poet’s great work of comparative mythologies and the festivals of the ritual year is one you need on your bookshelf.

The Loney: 'Full of unnerving terror . . . amazing' Stephen King

Andrew Michael Hurley

£9.99 £9.49

Possibly due to the nauseous exhilaration of irreversible ecological collapse, folk horror is enjoying a resurgence, something I like to track on my social page @folkhorrormagpie. Andrew Michael Hurley has deservedly risen to the top of the pack in the literary sphere, and The Loney, an unsettling tale of a sensitive boy and his mute brother on a Presbyterian pilgrimage, is my favourite of his. Poetic, hypnotic, appalling, and unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Workers' Tales: Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables, and Allegories from Great Britain

£14.99

What a delightful discovery to find two of my areas of interest in such close communion. Here children's author Michael Rosen brings together the fairy tales and fables that informed the foundations of the labour movement. It’s not as unlikely a mix as it first appears; to the uninitiated a public speaker delivering a tract by Karl Marx or Rosa Luxemburg could well be too abstract and dry to inspire action. But by using the formats of children’s literature, stories familiar to all, the inequalities and hypocrisies of the British class system could be revealed plainly. Such was their effectiveness that many of these stories found their way into publications like the Clarion, William Morris’s Commonweal and the Workmen’s Times. Keir Hardie put such stories to use up and down the country while campaigning for his Independent Labour Party, and ended up being quite a prolific writer of them himself. The summer cycle of The Bleeding Tree, a very personal discussion of the men in my family, pulls these strands together and argues that death, like so much of life, is a class issue.

Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

Mary Shelley

£14.89

What happens when man, in his mania for power and control, bends Nature to his will, cheats death, conjures the spark of life, becomes himself God? For centuries humankind confronted its death anxiety through folk stories of restless ancestors and the realm beyond the veil. Now as science brings forth technological advancements that revolt against the cycle of death that sustains all that exists, Shelley asks: yeah are we absolutely sure that’s a good idea? Though it makes me sick to type, the best novel about our eternal fascination with mortality was written by a teenager, and is as vivid now as it was in 1818. I mean, come on: ‘By the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs’ - it’s a GREAT beach read.

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