Wyrd Daze Seven: an interview with Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Cover art by Richard Anderson

Best experienced in the PDF zine

The Gutter Prayer is quite possibly the most exciting and extraordinary fantasy novel of 2019, and is certainly a favourite for us here at Wyrd Daze.

The city has always been. The city must finally end.

When three thieves – an orphan, a ghoul, and a cursed man –
are betrayed by the master of the thieves guild, their quest for revenge uncovers dark truths about their city and exposes a dangerous conspiracy, the seeds of which were sown long before they were born.


Cari is a drifter whose past and future are darker than she can know. Rat is a Ghoul, whose people haunt the city’s
underworld. Spar is a Stone Man, subject to a terrible
disease that is slowly petrifying his flesh.


Chance has brought them together, but their friendship could be all that stands in the way of total armageddon.

As a game designer you’ve worked within many fiction universes, including Traveller, Paranoia, Babylon 5, The Laundry RPG, 13th Age, and various Lovecraft-themed systems. Can you tell us about some of your favourite pieces of writing and game mechanics that you’ve produced throughout your career?

Career highlights? Hmm. The Dracula Dossier (with Kenneth Hite) is probably the best thing I’ve done, and certainly the most ambitious. We took Bram Stoker’s Dracula and turned it into an alarmingly plausible spy story spanning more than a century of intrigue and horror, a campaign that’s both entirely player-driven and leads towards a single climatic confrontation with the man himself…

Getting to write in Middle-earth on Cubicle 7’s The One Ring was also a joy, telling tales of Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain, of Moria and Minas Tirith. I’ve been a Tolkien fan since my mother introduced me to it at age eight.

PARANOIA was a chance to work on a much-loved property, one that’s terrifying relevant to the present day. I’m very proud of some of the missions I wrote for that line. Really, though, you have to find love in what you’re doing when you’re a freelancer, to find that spark of excitement and nurture it.

How did you start your career as a game designer?

Accidentally.

I’d done a little freelancing as a hobby, while working in a Real Grown-Up Job as a programmer. Then the company I was working for downsized, and I thought I’d try freelancing until my savings ran out. They haven’t, yet. I didn’t plan this as a career, certainly.

How has your experience in game design shaped you as a writer?

Some skills cross over perfectly. World-building works the same way in both fields; ditto descriptive prose. Supporting characters, too. The big differences are in plotting and characterisation. In a game or adventure, you want to have multiple paths through the story, lots of options for the players to take, places for the players to add to the story. In a piece of fiction, you want the most compelling, dramatic path, which isn’t the same route at all. And in a game, the players provide the protagonists and you build the story around those constraints. In a novel, it’s all up to you.

What advice concerning story structure/plot and character design would you give to aspiring writers or game designers?

You know, I suspect open-ended questions like that always end up being prompts for the interviewee to write about what’s currently pre-occupying them. For example. my current answer is “don’t be afraid of simplicity – a compelling story doesn’t need tons of twists and revelations to be compelling”. I offer that as general advice, but I think I’m really subconsciously telling myself something about my current work-in-progress…

Are there any other fictional universes that you’d particularly like to write for?

I’d love to do something with Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood series.

Will there be a Black Iron Legacy RPG?

I think so, in some form. I don’t know if it’ll warrant a full-scale sourcebook, or a short supplement for D&D5E or some other open system, or just a free guide on my website. I’ll do something with it, certainly. It’s an obvious step!

The majority of The Gutter Prayer is told in the present tense. What drew you to tell the story from this perspective?

Partly, because I knew that a lot of the book would be about stuff that happened in the past of the city, and I wanted to contrast those deep dives into Guerdon’s history and archaeology with what was happening now. Partly because it felt comfortable. The prologue is second person present, which is the vernacular of a roleplaying gamesmaster – “you descend into the dungeon, and you see the dragon…”

What were your inspirations for the city of Guerdon?

The architecture of Edinburgh, the size and complexity of London, the ambition of turn-of-the-century New York, and – very roughly – the geography of Cork. New Crobuzon, Ambergris, Waterdeep. They’re all in there.

There are a variety of strange, wondrous and terrifying beings in The Gutter Prayer: Tallowmen, Gullheads, Ravellers, Singers, Saints, Crawling Ones, Kept Gods, and Fever Knights – were these all created from scratch for the novel, or have they been haunting you for longer?

Oh, it’s a mix. Tallowmen and Gullheads I originally wrote up for an obscure RPG supplement under different names. The Crawling Ones are straight out of Lovecraft. A lot of the others came name first, concept later. I threw the words Fever Knight down on a page, and he showed up a few chapters later.

The Gutter Prayer is set in the midst of armageddon, with the Godswar raging and the city of Guerdon teetering on the brink of a world gone mad. Who are these mad gods, and what happened to them?

There are lots of mad gods. The exact origin of the madness is obscure, but it’s sort of a viral idea or infection. In the world of The Gutter Prayer, gods cannot die – but they can be broken down to the point of almost non-existence. They’re not truly conscious, either – they’re more like magical patterns of thought and purpose that humans can tap into. The Godswar is another pattern, one that reminds the gods that there are other gods out there, and that their patterns are incompatible. The result is a lot of violent, paranoid, deities imperfectly channeling this pattern through human vessels.

Does the world have a name, and a map?

There’s a map, at least of the area around Guerdon. The world doesn’t have a name. I should probably get around to that…

As The Black Iron Legacy grows beyond the first novel, have you developed an overarching plot for the greater story, and do you have an idea of how many books there might be in the series?

If all goes according to plan, it’ll be five books. I’m trying to keep each book sort-of self-contained, although that’s proving trickier as I write books 3 and 4. The Black Iron Legacy keeps the focus on the Thay family, on Cari and Eladora. I could do more in the same setting, I suppose, if I went off and followed other strands of story.

What sparked your imagination when you were a youngling?

I don’t know if sparked is the right work. Often, for me anyway, imagination is more like a river. It’s always flowing – sometimes fast, sometimes slow. On a good day, you can just dip a waterwheel in and it’ll power whatever mechanism you attach. Sometimes, odd stuff falls into it and gets carried for a long long time until it finds its place. Some ideas have been lurking in the back of my head for many, many years, and are still waiting for the right place to rest.

To what extent does a sense of place affect your writing?

I think I come at place through space and function – all things had a purpose, once, even if it’s now been lost. I’m enchanted by digressions into the past, and by spatial relationships – and especially by spots where they cross over. Spaces are static – places are given meaning by the people who live there, and have lived there.

It strikes me, as I write this, that I’m talking entirely about artificial places, about cities and buildings and settlements. I suppose I’ve always lived in cities and towns, so my instincts are urban.

How do you handle unruly characters that want to do their own things or change the course of the story in unexpected ways?

Run with it. It’s the advice I’d give in roleplaying games, and it applies equally well here. Inspiration is always worth chasing, at least for a little while.

As someone who harnesses imagination for a living, do you have any philosophical or spiritual views on the serendipity of ideas?

Inspiration is basically banging rocks together and looking for a spark, so you need plenty of rocks. Especially in fantasy books, you can add all sorts of weird asides and quirks to your story without knowing how they’ll fit in later on. Often, you’ll solve plot problems by taking something that you originally thought was a minor bit of background flavour and promoting it to a fuller plot element. But you need that background flavour to begin with. So, don’t be afraid to scatter rocks in first drafts.

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is a writer and game designer. Originally qualified as a computer programmer, he took a three month break to see how “this writing thing” would go. More than fifteen years later, he’s still on that break.

The writing thing seems to be going.

Gareth has published more role-playing games and supplements than he can even recall, including the award-winning The Laundry RPG, Adventures in Middle Earth and The Dracula Dossier.

He describes writing as “the process of transforming tea and guilt into words”. His debut novel, The Gutter Prayer was published by Orbit Books in 2019.

Its sequel, The Shadow Saint is due in January 2020.

Gareth lives in Cork, Ireland
with more dogs, children and fish than he ever anticipated.

Gareth’s excellent
A Guided Walking Tour of Guerdon
can be read on his blog

Gareth on Twitter

Wyrd Daze Seven: Hookland

Best experienced in the PDF zine


The Broken Oak, Damsel’s Cross

Some taverns tell their tales in the free public library of swinging signs. Some like The Broken Oak will only give up their strange stories if you venture inside. While its name and sign is simple memorial to a lightning-tortured tree that once stood on the village green, once inside, the establishment offers a unique look at old method of dealing with troublesome spirits. For the price of a pint, you can take a look at its perpetually locked ‘ghost room’.

In the late 18th century, The Broken Oak was so troubled by an unruly spirit that scratched and scarred both the landlord’s wife, her young maid and several of its patrons, that a ghost-layer was called. When the sanctions of the Church of England were unable to end the spiritual terror, the services of the cunning folk were sought. The one who answered the call was Tom Warden, one of the then Walking Nine.

The Walking Nine refers to the folklore claim that there are always nine cunning women or men not tied to any parish who wandered abroad in the county at any time. Given they are the class of cunning folk traditionally viewed with most suspicion in Hookland, it suggests the haunting of the tavern must have become a desperate for one of them to be trusted to resolve it. Warden proved up to the task, even if he resorted to employing a long-established measure used only against the most intractable spirits.

For upstairs at The Broken Oak is a room that has been sealed since 1797. Previously a bedroom when the establishment was an inn, it was sacrificed by Warden to end the haunting. In the ghost lore of Hookland, when a dead spirit refuses all forms of banishment and exorcism, there is a chance that it can be dealt with by trapping it. Although ideally this is done in a bottle which can easily be disposed of by burial or placing in running water, it is also possible for a ghost-layer to confine it into specific place where, by use of ritual and sealing marks, it may rendered powerless and forever shut in.

Paying customers of the inn with a disposition for spook curiosity, are allowed by the current landlord to go take a peek at what regular patrons call the ‘Never Open’. Previously plastered over, renovations in the 1920s exposed the entrance to the ghost room that had become part of local legend. Now encased by a glass box that covers a metal grill put across the threshold after Tom Warden had finished his work. Visible evidence of the spirit attacks of 1797 reduced to an ancient wooden door. The once open wound of its keyhole sutured with solder; seven heavy iron bolts, inscribed with the names of angels, drawn; a network of mystic symbols carved into it providing map to the occulted mind of the 18th century cunning folk.

There is something about seeing the door that infects the imagination. At first you may think you are troubled only by the thought that superstition was once so strong that rationality as well as a room were abandoned. However, the idea that evolves and refuses to be expelled is that something must have actually happened, something tangible and dreadful that such a drastic action was undertaken. If you ask downstairs about any phantom problems since 1797, you will be told that Tom Warden did good considering he was one of the Walking Nine. The only more recent suggestion of an alleged trapped entity, come from claims by some visitors like yourself that when they tapped on the glass, they were certain they could hear them answered by knocks coming from within the ghost room.


David Southwell is an author of several published books on true crime and conspiracies, which have been translated into a dozen languages.

However, these days, he mostly writes about place.

Creator of the
@HooklandGuide
@Cultauthor
And introducing:
The Phoenix Guide to Strange England: Repton

Wyrd Daze Seven: The Leaf Library – an interview with Matt Ashton

Best experienced in the PDF zine

The Leaf Library bring their hypnotic drone-pop to vibrant heights & depths with their wondrous new album The World Is A Bell.

An interview with Matt Ashton

2019 has been a prolific year for The Leaf Library, with your side-project Monuments, the About Minerals album on the Inner Space Travels label, and now the wondrous new album The World is a Bell. Is this productivity reflective of a state of evolution for you, both personally and as a band?

Yes, I guess it is. There are several reasons for the amount we do; partly to do with constantly feeling like time is running out, and partly to do with making the most of the people around us while we still can. There will be a point when we can’t all make music together for one reason or another and when that comes I want to feel like we’ve made the most of our time.

There was a period a few years back where we weren’t really getting anywhere with new songs and I definitely considered stopping. That we got another chance to put more music out is great, thanks to Where It’s At Is Where You Are and it makes me feel that we should make the most of the opportunity.  

Finally, I’ve always admired bands like Stereolab who were super prolific – anything less just seems like slacking. Lewis (Young, drummer) and I write a lot, and I’m pretty impatient about getting new stuff out there.

Can you give us an insight into band-member dynamics within the compositional and recording process?

Most commonly the music starts with Lewis and I. We rarely write together, instead working on things separately at home and then sending basic sketches back and forth online. We live a few roads apart but still find this the easiest and most productive way to do things. I don’t tend to start something with the intention of it becoming a particular type of music – I usually just record to get something out of my system.

One of the great things about working the way we do in those initial stages is that I know Lewis can (and will) totally transform something I’ve sent him. A good example is An Edge, An Ending from the last album (About Minerals) – I don’t recognise anything of what I sent him but I know it’s in there. And had I planned what the track would end up sounding like we wouldn’t have found our way to the weird and surprising place we eventually did. Lewis is a studio wizard and should be producing pop hits for Ariana Grande (all the rest of the band are also wizards in their own special way – will DM the curious with details). Without the working relationship we’ve built up (and Dropbox) I don’t think we’d have quite the same sound going on as we do.

Once we have something that is definitely a Leaf Library track then we’ll decide what else it needs (or doesn’t), and the others will add parts accordingly. The great thing with the other members is there’s very little ego involved anywhere – if something only needs a very simple, one note line then people (including me!) are pretty happy to play it and to just serve the song. The vocals tend to come right near the end, however for something to be a Leaf Library track it needs to feel like it’s going to work with Kate’s singing. Pretty much everything I consider for us is written with her voice in mind – without that there is no band, really. 

With recording it’s different every time. The majority of the last two studio albums were done in the same places (Studio Klank in Wood Green, London and The Drone Lodge in Walthamstow in London), with people coming and going as interest and energy allowed, whereas About Minerals was made whilst we were mixing The World Is A Bell, on laptops in the control room. The four of us that made that one were rarely in the same room together, aside from doing Kate’s vocals. Melinda recorded hers at home and sent them in (before she and I mixed them in a café).

I understand that that you typically allow a year or more of gestation in the studio for the creation of an album. How important and impactful is this maturation from kernel to finished product?

It’s really by necessity rather than design. We have a certain amount of time each week we can give to recording, so naturally things take a little longer than they might if we were to go away and concentrate on something day after day. The World Is A Bell took a particularly long time because the pieces were written and arranged (as part of On An Ocean Of Greatness, for the WIAIWYA 21st Anniversary release) before they were even considered as songs, so we had to fit everything around pre-existing structures. It was a really torturous process. Because it took so long we have some of the next album written, having slowly built up new songs whilst playing live over the last few years. We’re hoping to record these as simply as possible, ideally live. But we’ll see what happens.

About Minerals actually took very little time at all – about six months all together. There was a very definite deadline for that one, and I wanted to see if we had it in us to do something quickly. I was very grateful to Tiago who runs Inner Space Travels for asking us to make it.

You write the majority of the lyrics for The Leaf Library. How do approach the craft?

Before any music happens I write many single lines and titles in my notebooks. Often when starting a piece of music (or deciding it’s going to be a Leaf Library song) I’ll find a suitable title to give it and when it comes to writing the lyrics the title will often help give me the start of the lyrics, or a jumping off point (or sometimes just an idea about atmosphere).

All of that seems very considered so I think it’s worth saying that lyric writing is still an absolute mystery to me. Many people have said this before but it’s definitely a case of putting oneself in the right situation or frame of mind in which to channel something that might lead to some useful or interesting sounding phrases, rather than an easy flow of words from the conscious brain. I have no idea where a lot of the lyrics come from – so much gets discarded, and things are written and re-written many times so I love having the notebooks because it’s the only proof that wrote them.

I’ve never found it easy but I like the challenge nowadays – the feeling when the last line clicks into place is great. I do sometimes decide that I want to write vaguely about *something* but it’s always much more fun finding the meaning in things once it’s done.

Do you have any rituals or quirks in regards to your process of composition, recording and producing?

This will sound ridiculous but I honestly feel that the act of making something, of setting oneself up to create something and see it through is one long ritual in itself, though that might not be the thrust of the question.

And there are definitely quirks to how we work – most seem pretty inconsequential as I come to write them down, but I guess they all add up to something in the end. Some examples (most of which could be shot down by other band members): I try to not use the grid too much when making music on the laptop, and we try and stick to the ‘first thought, best thought’ principle as much as possible – in writing and recording. I try and use whatever equipment is nearby, and to do as few things as possible with it, or at least try and squeeze out as many variables of the same sound before moving on, particularly when it comes to synthesisers (both hardware and computer).

I also only ever use a plain black Bic biro when writing – anything else just feels like excessive ornamentation.  

What non-musical pursuits inform your music? 

Same as most people I know – titles and lines come from books and the titles of paintings, the artwork and design comes from all the cool looking stuff that people have made over the years. We’re lucky living in London to be able to get to galleries and museums on a regular basis. That said, I’ve mis-read the back of a food carton in the past that has then turned into a lyric or atmosphere for a song so anything can happen.

I guess walking and travelling are the most personal things that affect the music. Train travel in particular is something that I come back to again and again – it’s one of my favourite places to listen to music, and I very rarely read on a train journey.

You’re based in London but seem thematically more interested in things rural than urban. Is there a philosophy behind this perspective?

That’s hard to answer because I don’t want to undo any meanings or feelings people have attached to particular songs or pieces of music. I think the rural in our music is very much from the perspective of city dwellers – stuck within the M25 looking out.

To me there is much more of the urban in our music than other people might make out, though I admit we’ve definitely talked up the coastal themes in our work before (possibly at the expense of other narratives). There are several songs on the new album that, for me at least, exist in the city, definitely on the outer edges and suburbs if not the centre. But when the rural or non-urban does appear it’s usually as a means of escapism, even if it’s just intended for me as the writer, rather than attempting to transport people somewhere. I think the philosophy behind that is clear – I’m obviously bored of the city!

To what extent does a sense of place affect your creativity?

I like to think it has a deep profound effect on me, though I do just end up about writing about the same things over and over again. The sound we find ourselves working with is usually far more to do with what equipment or space is available to us at the time. I’ve been living in a new flat for six months and have had very little hardware here, so what I’ve made in that time is different to what I would have done back at home in the same time. It would be interesting to know what we’d sound like if I moved to the countryside. I’ve always loved the idea of doing an artist’s retreat somewhere, and trying to make an album really quickly whilst in a barn on a hill.

Having said that, I wonder if one day I’ll look back on these London albums and a pattern, or an obvious city atmosphere will be clear. Time will tell.

You often bring in guest musicians for your releases, and The World is a Bell is no exception. Tell us about these collaborations and the impact they had on realising the album.

This relates to the point in the first question about having people around us now that won’t all live within easy distance of the studio in the future – I made a decision when making Daylight Versions to get as many friends on there as possible before they all moved away. It was so much fun that it seemed like an obvious thing to do again. There’s something about strength in numbers too.

In terms of picking the guests for this one, most were obvious choices. When I first saw Ed Dowie perform I hoped I’d have the courage to ask him to sing on the record – I was very pleased when he said yes and, like when Alasdair from The Clientele came to sing on the last one, it was so surreal to hear a voice I admired so much singing my weird words.

Far Rainbow were another obvious choice as I’ve wanted to do something with them for a while. I’ve always thought we were probably a bit straight for them but the song Bodies Carried Off By Bees seemed to be a good meeting point for us both. They turned it from a bit of an aimless amble into something much more intense. 

We came to Iskra Strings through Ben at Daylight Music, and when Dan (Fordham – arranger, saxophonist) were discussing who we were going to get to play the arrangements it made much more sense to get an established group to do it. Knowing that they were going to be able to do it gave us much more confidence in doing the arrangements we really wanted – we didn’t have to worry whether they’d be able to play them or not.

Everyone else has been in and out of our orbit in one way or another over the years. Michael ‘Whoa Melodic’ Wood (piano) was our third guitarist for a while, and Laura from Firestations has been a sort of unofficial member for a long time now. I wanted her and Mike to sing on the record because they both have such lovely voices, and they’re pretty fun to have around in the studio. Pete Gofton is a whizz on the vibraphone, and we got Nathan Thomas in right at the last minute as we decided we absolutely MUST have some French horn on the album.

Making music is a fun thing to do so it just makes sense to try and share that with as many people as possible. Knowing that all those hands have been involved with it makes me a lot more confident about what we’re doing, and it makes things interesting. Adding new sounds and voices into songs that already exist can bring a spark that otherwise might be missing.

What is The World is a Bell about?

The title comes from a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe quote: “The world is a bell; it is cracked and does not ring out properly” – when I first read that I knew that I wanted to use it as a title. I loved the sound of it and the shape of the words; it carries a lot of implied meaning, but at the same time is blank enough to allow you to attach your own meaning to the phrase.

What are your plans for 2020?

As usual we have many plans, and even if just a few of them come to fruition it will be very pleasing. I have a couple of collaborations planned, one with Firestations and another with a really good poet that I’ve been chatting to on and off online for a while. With that we have got as far as writing some titles, and he has written some fantastic lines but we need to be able to give it the time it deserves.

I would like to have the time to collaborate more with others, particularly as we have the Monuments series as a good outlet for that sort of thing. I’ve recently been talking to an excellent Canadian artist called Pallas Athene who I would love to make some joint tracks with but again, there’s no point rushing these things. Likewise, our recent t-shirt artist Teruyuki Kurihara and I have talked about doing some kind of music exchange.

There is talk of reissuing the About Minerals album from earlier this year on LP, and we already have a handful of songs written for the next album. I’d love to record that one very quickly, but I know that once we get into it the ideas will come and it’ll roll on and on. I would also like to do another Basic Design (solo) album – there are many sketches for that one already. Melinda (Bronstein, TLL co-vocalist and percussionist) and I have made an album as well, so that might see daylight soon. Melinda and Lewis also have another band together called Zonate Tooth who are working on things, Gareth our bass player’s other band Wintergreen are working on the follow up to The Rule Of Small Things and Simon (Nelson, guitar) is just about to release something as The Nameless Book.

Finally it would be great to get back to playing live again as we haven’t done it for ages – I want to hear how the new album sounds when we all try and play it at the same time.

The World Is A Bell on WIAIWYA

The Leaf Library

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Samhain Séance 8 : There’s No Going Back

The Ephemeral Man presents:

Samhain Séance 8 :
There’s No Going Back

Listen / Download

Features excerpts from the films:
Midsommar – written & directed by Ari Aster, music by Bobby Krlic
In Fabric – written & directed by Peter Strickland,
music by Cavern of Anti-Matter
Without Name – written by Garret Shanley, directed by Lorcan Finnegan,
music by Gavin O’Brien and Neil O’Connor

1 Gong – Other Side of the Sky
2 CocoRosie – Gallows
3 Neal Heppleston – Willie of Winsbury
4 Peter Gundry – The Sacred Order
5 Biosphere – Strigiformes
6 Beautify Junkyards – Prism
7 Bridget St. John – Curious Crystals Of Unusual Purity
8 Floating Points – Kites
9 Vanishing Twin – Cryonic Suspension May Save Your Life
10 Clara Engel – Meteorite Dust On My Fingers
11 The Leaf Library – Hissing Waves
12 Les Vampyrettes – Biomutanten
13 The Utopia Strong – Moonchild