“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

Houses Borders Ghosts
Jane Alexander won the 2014 Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition with ‘In Yon Green Hill to Dwell’. In the latest of our ‘Stories behind Stories‘ posts, here she is to tell us how she came to write it…

As so often happens, this story was formed from the coming-together of what I’d thought were two separate ideas.

I’d been trying for some time to write a story that jumped off from the 18th-century Border ballad ‘Tam Lin’. I’d first come across ‘Tam Lin’ as a teenager, when I read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock – a young adult novel that relocates the ballad to a contemporary setting. The women in 18th-century Scots ballads tend not to have a great time of it, often ending up murdered or executed – but ‘Tam Lin’ stands out for its protagonist: a woman who knew what she wanted, and took it. Though it’s named after the young man claimed by the Faerie Queen, the story it tells is that of his sweetheart Janet. It’s Janet who takes control of her destiny; who does as she pleases, goes where her father has forbidden her to go. It’s bold, steadfast Janet who rescues Tam from being sacrificed to the Devil. At the end of the ballad, it seems like happy ever after for Janet and Tam. But the end is also the beginning of the young couple’s life together, and I couldn’t help wondering what happens next. What happens when the adventure is over, and all the responsibilities of motherhood kick in?

I knew I wanted to write about this; but I kept getting stuck, abandoning draft after draft. I didn’t yet know what, exactly, I was writing about.

At around the same time I’d seen a call for submissions of stories inspired by particular songs, and I was trying to write about an old Billie Holiday track, ‘You’ve Changed’. Or rather, the song I wanted to write about was a cover by the Afghan Whigs. It’s a much darker version than Holliday’s. The singer reproaches his sweetheart for changing, growing indifferent to him – you’re bored of me in every way – but his voice gives him away: lazy, unfeeling, revelling in his own indifference; like there’s a chip of ice in his heart. What’s really changed, I think, is the singer’s impossibly romantic perception of his lover as a perfect angel. He’s blaming his partner for his own failings, and for being a flawed, ordinary human.

I listened to the song on repeat; wrote drafts and scrapped them, on repeat.

So what changed? One day, I sat down at my desk and realised that the two stories I was wrestling with might actually be a single story. In ‘Tam Lin’, Tam is literally changed, over and over again, transformed from a snake to a lion to a burning coal. He’s saved by Janet holding him fast: by her faith that he’ll change back to his human self. But fast forward seven years, and I imagined Janet playing that song to herself. You’re not the angel I once knew… Does she feel cheated because Tam is no longer the charismatic poet she fell for? Does she want him to change back into the man she first met? Is that even possible: to recover our younger selves, and the excitement, the thrill, of first falling in love, or in lust? Is it Janet, not Tam, who needs to change – or who already has?

Suddenly, the theme came into focus. And since short stories are always more potent when they’re as distilled, as concentrated as possible, compressing two stories into one made sense.

Pretty soon I knew how the whole thing would unfold, right up to Janet’s confrontation with the Faerie Queen. I knew she’d beg the Faerie Queen to change Tam one last time, change him back into the man who’d captured her heart. At least, I thought I knew. In the end, though, she did something completely different. Somehow, that singer’s chip of ice had ended up in my Janet’s heart.

— Jane Alexander

Read Jane’s story in New Ghost Stories II, out now in paperback and Kindle.

One Comments on “Jane Alexander on ‘In Yon Green Hill to Dwell’”

  1. Amy Says:

    Thanks Jane, for talking about how the story came to you.
    I love Fire and Hemlock (and also Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, set in a liberal arts college in the Midwest of the US, with the Queen as the head of the Classics Department) and am happy to gobble up a new vision of their story. Well done!