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  • Writer's pictureMarni Scofidio

Never Throw Anything Out: From Saturn to Clarke and Back Again

Rider-Waite-Coleman Tarot Card illustrated by Pamela Coleman Smith


“The feeding of the Muse, then… seems to me to be the continual running after loves, the checking of these loves against your present and future needs… Nothing is ever lost." - Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing, p.30


Some years ago, 1986 or 7, living in LA, I had an idea for an occult detective named Nick Saturn, who, traumatised by seeing his mother eaten by a demon conjured by his necromancer father, vowed to spend his life hunting this demon down.


A much over-used trope now. Of course back then the only TV supernatural investigator I'd heard of was Carl Kolchak, of The Night Stalker fame. No others to riff off, with Buffy still in infants' school and Scolder and Mully (sic) squeezing their zits.


Though bar a couple standout episodes like "Tooms" and "Humbug", I never liked The X-Files; FBI (or as Burke's Robicheaux calls them, Fart Barf & Itch) stuff leaves me cold. Silly to see them running round with guns cocked against monsters and aliens. And they take themselves so seriously; none of the glorious deadpan humour and Ambrose Biercesque satire of Kolchak, buoyed by the marvellous Darren McGavin whom I enjoyed watching miss his hat hook every week. (The theme music is genius, too, switching as it does from jovial to sinister in a heartbeat.)


I found my demon's name — how perfect that it belonged to an attorney! — on the letterhead of an LA law firm, said envelope seen when I took the day's mail for the company I was receptionist for. Much as I loathed my job at the time, looking back, I'm grateful that I had it, as without it I never would have received the spark that very nearly got me an agent. (Perhaps that's why I've kept the postcard all these years, as a reminder of where hard work could, once upon a time, get you. Almost.)

I never got anywhere with my script because I had three characters minus a plot. I had yet to learn the mechanics of story, the beats, as screenwriters call the arc of a tale. How to leave early and arrive late, two skills I’m now expert at, at least when it comes to socialising.


Roll ahead some years—the end of May 2023, 35 years on since the agency postcard—and I'm a bit stuck with writer's block, engendered, I'm pretty sure, by marketing b.s. Although I've been traditionally published since 1991, I only started on my self-publishing journey in 2022. Writing has never been easy for me but compared to marketing, which I loathe, it’s a doddle.


In the middle of this block I just happened to be corresponding with a friend on Messenger who co-publishes a fantastic magazine with another very talented writer, and they were preparing a Mythos edition to take to a Lovecraft-themed convention. My friend said, you don’t happen to have a story you’ve had published we could use? I didn’t, but I offered to write a new one. My friend said well for what we’re paying we don’t expect anyone to write to order.


But I was fired up. Cue a return to an idea I first had in the 1980s when I was unequipped to write it. I remember being turned down by an agent in the 1990s because my work was too literary. Fast forward to 2014 when I was rejected by another agent for being too commercial! (This is why you must discover and write what pleases you.)


The original Saturn idea had segued into a new one for a series where a fictionalised Pamela Coleman Smith (aka Pixie), most famous for her Tarot paintings, joins forces with a fictionalised Harry Clarke, famed illustrator of Poe and Anderson and Ireland’s most famous stained glass artist, to fight supernatural evil. Having been introduced to Tarot by my black paternal grandmother, who taught me on the Rider-Waite-Coleman deck, I was fascinated by Pixie’s life. Like me, not only did she have dual USA/UK nationality yet chose to live abroad, I felt certain she was mixed race.


Pamela Coleman Smith


I had pictures in my head—Harry trapped in a crypt, run to ground by Something Unspeakable—Pixie a formidable warrioress, a sort of Mrs Peel for the fin de siècle, who could fence and swim and shoot and ride bareback.

Harry Clarke as painted by his wife Margaret Crilley


But, thanks to the pitfalls of writing historical fiction, that’s as far as I got, and that idea, along with Nick Saturn (the demon he pursues turns out not to be as much of a danger to him as his own family) was shelved in my subconscious.


Until that day last spring, speaking to my friend on Messenger, when I suddenly had a revelation: what if I updated Pixie to now, made her a modern female who plays women’s rugby (No. 8), who is mixed race, happily single, and fights supernatural monsters when forced to by the employers for whom she works as a sketch artist. My Harri is the lovechild, if they'd had a fling, of Kolchak and Pam Grier's Coffy.


I realised that a lot of my stuff—half-written novels, ideas scribbled down on index cards and kept in a recipe box, stories that didn’t work in their first incarnation—could be of use. As well, the vintage stories of Monty James, Freddy Benson, and the Boomers’ Rowling, Frank Baum, could be ripped apart and stitched together again, a different kind of monster, just for the fun of it.


As Mr Bradbury said, nothing is ever lost. Nothing is ever wasted. Especially if you learn to treasure everything you collect, whether valuable or junk, life experiences, successes and failures, even, if you are fearless and patient and submit your work to editors and publishers, your acceptance or rejection letters.


Because you can use all of it. Even if in ways you couldn't imagine when you were younger or in different circumstances. Even if as things stand in my own fictional omniverse, in the current crop of stories I have sown seeds for and am patiently growing, Nick Saturn isn’t the protagonist so much as the assistant, the second fiddle.


It’s worth keeping hold of all your drafts, even if you have to stuff them in a banker’s box you keep in your attic; because you never know what can be cannibalised to be formed into something new and strange and wondrous.


And I have my publisher friend to thank for giving me back my writing mojo; even if the story I wrote hadn’t been accepted, I received that most valuable of gifts: a direction to pursue with a hero it’s fun to write about, a hero in a present I know as well as I know myself but that can still be full of surprises. Modern times aren’t much fun to live in—but then, it’s interesting times that make drama, that give us, with luck and a following wind, unforgettable stories.

Clarke’s wonderful pen & ink illustration for Poe’s “The Premature Burial”, from Tales of Mystery and Imagination

 

Harri Clarke’s first case, “Beyond the Wall of Sheep”, appears in Occult Detective Magazine, Mythos Special 2, published by the brilliant folk at Cathaven Press.

To purchase in the UK click here

To purchase in the USA click here



For more on Pamela Coleman Smith click here

For more on Harry Clarke click here

For more on the maestro Ray Bradbury click here



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