The entirety of December was a really chaotic time for me, mostly because I had some family and health issues happening. In the midst of it, my queer folk horror novelette collection Mistress of Geese came out at the winter solstice (21th of December) and my brain was really not in the game for the release. Not to mention I was really sick, so I couldn’t celebrate my book in the way I wanted. But now, I’m feeling better and am ready to write some words! Which mostly means, writing a sort of “story behind the story” post series; inspiration, little trivia and such. Each of these stories is different from one another, regardless of them falling into the same broader category of folk horror. Even when they deal with the same themes and motives (there’s a lot of ritualistic and human sacrifices going on in there), the locations, the subgenres and the writing styles vary among them.
Which is why I decided to write one post for each story.
This is the first one; or the story behind Make a Toast to Spring.
As a long time congoer and conruner, I was really nostalgic in 2020. Cons were either cancelled or went online, which, for the Croatian standard, just isn’t the same fun as it is when it’s live. A little backstory—we have ten active annual conventions, spanning across the whole of Croatia, which I know a lot of people outside of our country find fascinating. We’re a small country, but a big and active fandom. I’m involved with the organization of the Rikon convention (held in my hometown, Rijeka), but I’m also an avid congoer (even though, unfortunately, I can’t visit each and every one). So I was definitely working through some of my nostalgia when writing this story.
Make a Toast to Spring is about four friends visiting the Istrakon convention, held in a town called Pazin in the center of the Istria region, whose experience turns dark soon after drinking something they shouldn’t have. It’s as much of a love letter to Istrakon, infused with multiple references and jokes, as it is a trashy horror movie. Of all five stories, this one is the most gory and absurd, written in the style of horror movies, where a group of young people have to survive some backwater murdery villagers.
I had so much fun writing it and my editor claims it’s one of the best stories in the collection. But she’s as biased as I am, or even more than me—Istrakon is her favorite convention, after all, and she pretty much laughed her way through my references in the first half of the story. There’s a lot of it there—from cosplay, to the type of lectures and presentations, so much so I hope the organizers won’t be too angry about some of the stuff written there. Because, let’s be honest, I chose Istrakon for three reasons, and the first one is that I really love it. It’s one of the first conventions I ever visited, not counting my own hometown’s Rikon, so I have a longtime tradition of going there, more than any other con.
The second reason I chose Istrakon for my folk horror is because Istria has the kind of geography I was focusing on in these types of stories, where nature plays a big role. Even though Pazin is a town, it’s in central Istria, has a canyon with a dark forest, a river and a famous cave. Perfect for folk horror, especially when you take into account that, to book a place to stay for the duration of the convention weekend you sometimes need to find a house outside of Pazin, in some small village in the middle of woods.
The third reason I chose it is because, for me, Istria has some really interesting folk stories and creatures Croatian writers use in their fantasy. Most notably krsniks and shtrigas—people born with supernatural powers and shapeshifting abilities, on opposite side of the ethical spectrum, where the krsnik is a fighter for good, and the shtriga is usually depicted as a malevolent force, which makes them mortal enemies. When I started reading Croatian speculative fiction, I actually started with Istrakon’s own annual anthology, and, like I said, a lot of Croatians write about krsniks and shtrigas. I’m one of those writers, too (my short sapphic horror story Of Monsters and Dogs has a shtriga for main character, for example), so Make a Toast to Spring was a sort of a traditional story in that sense, but with some new twists.
Other references to folklore include—traditional instruments and the story of bellmen—men who dress up in wool with masks (mostly animal masks, bull skulls, or flower crowns) and ring cattle bells on their butt, to chase away winter and bring out spring. Some of the bellmen came from a region that historically fell under Istria, so I connected all of these little references to make this story work.
Another thing I mentioned in the story is the Bronze Age city of Monkodonja. It’s also in Istria, not close to Pazin, though, but that’s not so important. We have amazing ruins left behind to visit, not to mention a huge pit that I heard some mention might have been a sacrificial pit, especially since it’s speculated that the rocks above the pit are a sort of a stone throne. If I’m remembering it correctly. I’ve visited Monkodonja twice, and would like to visit it again one day. It’s truly a remarkable place.
All in all, Make a Toast to Spring was supposed to be a fun, gory love letter to Istrakon, similar in tone with trashy horror movies, dealing with themes of the changing of the seasons and transformation, and with good old cultists doing screwed up cultisty things.
Mistress of Geese is available on all major stores. Leave me a comment if you read it.