Manuscript vs Myth: The Hollow Tree
“After her hand is amputated following a tragic accident, Rachel Cooper suffers vivid nightmares of a woman imprisoned in a trunk of a hollow tree, screaming for help.”
In his supernatural thriller, ‘The Hollow Tree’, James Bogden pulls inspiration from British and global mythology in order to create a feeling of suspense and dread that grows deeper as the story continues. After loosing her hand in a terrible accident, protagonist Rachel learns that the sensations she feels from her phantom limb connect her to another world. As her abilities grow stronger, she manages to give life to dead leaves, an ancient, mummified cat, and eventually a person. The newly resurrected Mary does not remember her past. She does not remember being murdered and stuffed in the hollow of an old oak tree. But in the world of ‘The Hollow Tree’, there are consequences to resurrection. As Rachel struggles to discover more about Mary’s past and how it intersects with her own, they realise that they are being hunted by terrifying creatures determined to drag Mary back to the other world. These creatures are identified as Psychopomp.
The term Psychopomp comes from the Greek psukhopompos. This is derived from the words psukhē, meaning soul, and pompos, meaning conductor. Translated literally, it means the conductor (or guide) of souls. As such, Psychopomp can be used as a general term to describe a mythological figure whose purpose was to bridge the gap between life and death and carry the soul to its final resting place. This could be done gently, often by attractive women cradling you in their arms and carrying you away – or violently, with foul creatures dragging you down.
Around the world the Psychopomp takes on many shapes and forms depending on the culture and religion that it belongs too. There are hundred of examples of animals, natural phenomena and beings who are capable of guiding the soul to its final resting place. They can be singular, or one of many, benevolent or malicious, physical or intangible. It is this that makes them so ideal for use in fiction. As long as there is the link between the other world and the being, any creature can be classed as a Psychopomp.
In Greek Myth, Charon the Ferryman was responsible for ferrying the souls of the dead across the river Styx. He required payment, and those who could not pay were unable to cross the river and forced to wander mournful across its banks for a hundred years. In order to ensure that their loved ones would be able to meet his fee, a coin was usually placed in the mouth of the deceased.
In Norse Myth, there are many who carry the souls of the dead. The Valkyrie are a host of warrior women, riding on the back of winged horses. Half of the men who die in battle will be chosen by a Valkyrie, who will take them in their arms and carry them to Valhalla, a realm of eternal battle and feasting. Those taken to Valhalla become eternal warriors and prepare for the events of Ragnarök and are waited on by the Valkyrie that chose them, who is, of course, described as breath-takingly beautiful.
In Chinese Myth, there are two who guide the souls to the realm of the dead; The Heibai Wuchang. Both male, they are dressed identically, except that one wears robes of white and the other robes of black. They were allegedly once human, and the closest of friends, granted their abilities and duties as a reward for their intense loyalty towards each other. Depending on your actions, they may treat you with either benevolence or vengeance.
In other places, the Psychopomp is not an ethereal, anthropomorphised figure, but instead something real and tangible, given spiritual properties. There are real animals assumed to be capable of ferrying the human soul to the afterlife or acting as a mediator between the two. The animals are often birds such as crows, sparrows or cuckoos, but in some cultures, horses, or deer play the same role.
In modern Europe, the most well-known Psychopomp is possibly also the simplest. It is the personification of Death, often called the Grim Reaper. The Reaper is clad in a black cloak and is entirely skeletal. It is often seen carrying a scythe, with which it harvests the souls of the dead. Whether the Grim Reaper actually determines when you die or simply shepherds your soul to the next world afterwards is a matter of debate. Either way, genuine belief in the Grim Reaper is rare, and it is typically used in films and books as either an antagonist, narrator, or source of comedic value.
In ‘The Hollow Tree’, the Psychopomp is presented as a predator, hunting poor Mary and to desperately try to drag her back to the afterlife that she escaped from.
Drawing on the varied and changeable nature of the Psychopomp mythos, James Brogden creates a changeable creature, sometimes human, sometimes not, and defined in part by the beliefs of the person it is trying to claim. The resurrected Mary does not know who she was, or how she was killed. But as she and Rachel investigate, they learn that her death has been a source of much speculation. Was she a gypsy witch, murdered by a cuckolded husband? Was she a Nazi spy, turned double agent for the Allies and killed by her old handler? Or was she an unlucky prostitute, run afoul of a violent client? Each of these possible deaths produces a new Psychopomp, and each terrifying creature must be defeated to bring us closer to knowing who Mary actually is.
It is only once we genuinely know how Mary died that the Psychopomp ceases to be a figure of fear. It was a perfectly normal (if tragic) death, of a perfectly normal woman, not one of the dramatized caricatures that speculation had made of her afterwards. Even face to face with the man who killed her, Mary is not afraid. The fear was in the unknown and the forgotten, not in the death itself. And once she remembers, even face to face with her actual killer, Mary is able to accept her death, and move on in peace.