My maternal grandfather lived to be one-hundred-and-six years old before he succumbed to age-related illness. He was born in Hvalso, Denmark, in 1904—the eldest of fifteen siblings—and witnessed numerous world-changing events during his life, including the tail-end of the second industrial revolution and two world wars. In 1924, at the age of twenty, he boarded a steam ship bound for Canada. He arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a week later and from there rode the trains westward until he arrived in Saskatchewan. Though he didn’t speak any English at the time, he managed to gain full-time employment as a farm hand. A few years later, he met my grandmother, and eventually, they bought their own land to farm. From then until the late 1980’s, he worked that plot of land as the world continued to change around him.
He observed as new wars broke out in Korea and Vietnam. He witnessed the rise of rock and roll in the fifties, watched as the sexual revolution took hold in the seventies, and was there when home computers went mainstream in the eighties. Besides being a farmer, he was an avid reader throughout his life—devouring books on politics, religion, and anything else that interested him. When his eyes began to fail in his nineties, he resorted to buying larger-print books and using a magnifying glass to make out the words. He was also a natural storyteller—and a good one at that.
As a child he would often take me along with him on the long walks through the countryside. He was retired from farming by then, and there was never any sense of urgency about these lazy adventures. As we wandered through hilly meadows filled with wildflowers and fields gone fallow, chewing sticks of Big Red gum, he’d relate the many things he’d seen and done during his long life. He’d tell me about his youth in Denmark and the changes he’d seen in the world since coming to Canada. One subject that he returned to again and again was the topic of religion. Though he was an atheist from a young age, he had a fascination with religion none-the-less. He’d explain to me his stance on Christianity and other practices, and though he never condemned any of them outright, neither did he sugar-coat his feelings regarding them. I was far too young at the time to have any real opinion of my own, so I’d chew my cinnamon-infused gum and listen quietly as he spoke.
Once, while discussing the roots of western religions, he made specific mention of Norse mythology. I’d never heard the word ‘Norse’ before, and I asked him what it meant. It was then that he told me about how the early Germanic tribes populated Scandinavia and eventually became known as the Norsemen, the Men of the North—whose descendants became the legendary sea-faring Vikings. That led to a discussion of the type of paganism these Norsemen practiced, and how it was eventually replaced by mainstream Christianity.
Later that day, he showed me a book in his library about Norse mythology and the epic sagas that sprang from them. It was filled with these amazing woodcut illustrations. There were depictions of Yggdrasil, the mythical tree at the center of Norse cosmology, and the nine worlds that it united. There were pictures of the various heroes, seers, and gods of their mythologies, too. It was then that I first read about the Scandinavian myth regarding ravens being imbued with the souls of dead men who’d not been given Christian burials.
I remember the illustration that went along with that particular myth like it was yesterday—an unkindness of beady-eyed ravens squabbling over the hacked and hewn bodies of the warriors who’d recently fallen in battle. Equal to my fascination, though, was my revulsion at the thought that men’s souls could be trapped inside those black-feathered bodies, forced to dine on their brethren. There was an uncomfortable thread of cannibalism baked into that particular mythology that made me feel uneasy in ways my young mind had never been forced to consider up until then. My grandfather posited that the genesis of this horrid idea was just another way to convince the early pagans to abandon their ancient practices and accept the new religion of Christ. He likened it to the eternal damnation that the fundamentalists often say awaits those who refuse to atone for their sins before they die. In other words—a tool of control. I was too young to fully appreciate the gist of it at the time, but as I grew older, I never forgot that woodcut illustration of those ravens eating the dead.
Ravens have long been depicted as bad omens and harbingers of death in many cultures, and it’s not hard to see why. Their habit of congregating among the dead and feeding on their decaying remains makes their morbid association with death quite understandable. In our modern secular world, they’re just birds, but to those ancient superstitious people they often represented something far more intangible and disconcerting. Many years later, when I saw the submission call from Transmundane Press for short stories about transcendence through dreams and nightmares, I knew that I wanted to revisit that old myth again. I also knew that I wanted to carry it forward and tell a surreal, first-person tale set in the modern world, in a place where the dead were numerous: a battlefield in a war-torn foreign country. So it was that my story “Carrion Dreams” was born.
Jude Mael Eriksen is a writer whose interests skew toward the dark and uncanny places that lie just beyond the realm of possibility. Most of his stories are firmly rooted within the horror genre, while others ride a fine line between horror and science fiction. Born and raised in Western Canada, he divides his time between crafting weird tales and trying to avoid various existential crises. He lives with his long-suffering wife, their teenage son, and two mildly evil cats in a house on a hill. During the winter months you’ll rarely see him stray from his habitat, but in summer he emerges once the snow has melted. When he isn’t writing horror fiction Jude enjoys reading, hiking, photography, and fiddling with the unknown.
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Featured Image Credit: Nevermore by Sam Lofti