I’m pleased to welcome April-Jane Rowan on Queer Books Unbound to celebrate the release of Beneath A Bethel. Beneath a Bethel is a dark queer fantasy set in a frozen town with a culture where teeth are replaced with magical, porcelain ones. But what secrets hide behind this gruesome tradition? What cruelties will the town’s citizens continue overlook in the pursuit of their own wishes? Angora, the son of a poor fisherman, is about to find out…
This fantastic new novella also includes gorgeous full-page illustrations by Nem Rowan – scroll down for a sneak peek!
Every youth of Elbridge remembers their Floris, the holy ceremony where their teeth are pulled out with pliers. It marks their ascension into adulthood and their right to have new porcelain teeth, ones that are embedded with magic, that grant the ability to make wishes.
Angora’s Floris will be upon the banks of the Eldwen river, the communal ceremony befitting his station. However he longs to remember his ceremony for the splendour of the Bethel, wreathed in candle light, drooping flowers and holy hymns.
Seeking to fulfil his dream leaves him the victim of violence and an outcast from society, living on its fringes until a chance meeting brings him to the heart of the Masters Guild, the place teeth are made. Learning secrets he never thought he’d be privy too, he eventually discovers the dark cost of their tradition.
Beneath A Bethel is a dark horror fantasy, set in a harsh, snow-covered city that hides its brutality with pageantry.
The inspiration for Beneath A Bethel came from the small fact that bone china really does contain animal bones. I’ve known this for years, but one night it popped into my head, tugging at my thoughts and making me start spinning ideas. From there, I began to imagine a city where porcelain wasn’t used for teacups and statues, pretty delicates that can be forgotten, but for something everyone needs.
They have always held a special fascination for me and I even have a collection of them in my writing desk, mostly made up of family members’ teeth and one or two dog teeth. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I find them so interesting, but I think it has something to do with how small and insignificant they are on their own, but as a set they are integral, both for eating and for appearance. Not only that but they can also impact your well-being, as having unhealthy teeth can make your whole body sick. A person’s smile is important to the way they are perceived. Society makes many silent judgements about someone’s smile, too. Missing teeth, broken teeth, rotting teeth are all teeth that are likely to be judged in a negative way. Teeth come in different hues, changing with our diets, how much tea we drink, if we smoke or don’t smoke, and even with age. Like so many aspects that make up the human body, we often forget just how important they are in our daily lives.
I wanted try and capture that same fascination within Beneath A Bethel, but instead of it being just one weird writer getting excited about teeth, it would be a whole town! A lot of my writing focuses on the juxtaposition of horror and beauty, twisting the grotesque or strange until it becomes almost desirable. So its no surprise that I couldn’t let go of this idea.
But what would a town where teeth were the focus look like? Soon, the town of Elbridge unfolded before me. The harsh winter climate and its furred inhabitants that love grandeur despite the snowstorms trying to batter down their doors. The sleighs pulled by hounds and tall houses painted pastel colours. Grand bethels reaching up into the sky where jewelled pliers would pull teeth from their roots. Showrooms full of painted porcelain sets and people flashing wide grins. Most of all though, the idea of wishes took root: magic controlled by those same false teeth.
I would be lying if I told you that I had the idea for the wishes all figured out, as like many of my ideas, I can only glimpse the peak of them, an iceberg hidden in my mind. Only with writing more can I slowly uncover the rest as I dive deeper into the plot. The wishes granted by the teeth were no different but in a way, it was poignant because Angora himself knows so little of them. He is thrust into the world of the Floris Masters after his own Floris ceremony becomes a nightmare. Together, we discovered the secrets of wishes and the teeth. How could such simple thing grant the power to make wildest dreams come true?
What dark secrets were hidden in the illusive process of making them, a closely guarded secret? Well, to say any more would spoil too much! But, let me say that figuring it out as I write is part of the fun!
One thing I did know straight from the first draft is that I wanted to make the Floris ceremony seem almost spiritual, a rite of passage that is given freely. That the ruination of such would be akin to rape for the citizens of Elbridge. A few early reviews have mentioned that the assault against Angora is worded much like a sexual assault, which was my intent. I used such language to try to convey that in Angora’s culture, losing one’s teeth in such a violent and primitive way would cause absolute misery and a sense of personal violation. That the trauma caused by them being taken by force would be more than a physical pain, that it would be a spiritual trauma too.
When writing I wanted the act of the Floris ceremony to be very at odds with the grandeur of the town, much like how the frigid, mountainous region it is set in is at odds with the quaint houses painted in pastel colours. That behind those beautiful painted teeth was a painful right of passage, and more, even darker, secrets.
Illustrations by Nem Rowan
April-Jane Rowan was born with a morbid fascination that she turned into writing so she could explain away her strangeness. Luckily for her, she found she rather liked it, so for many years, she has been creating bizarre, dark tales. When not writing, she can be found lurking in graveyards, libraries and museums. She lives in Sweden with her two partners and their pack of beasties.