There is this island I go to on vacation during the summer. It’s situated in the south of Croatia in the region called Dalmatia—a very popular destination for tourists and quite pricey for that exact reason. A town in this region has also become popular as a filming location. You may have heard of Dubrovnik, thanks to the Game of Thrones tv show, where they shot some of the King’s Landing scenes. In any case, the south of Croatia has beautiful coast and islands, but also, it’s not very accessible during the season for those who don’t have a lot of money.
I’m lucky that I don’t have to pay for accommodation when I visit the island Korčula, otherwise you can be sure I wouldn’t go there very often. From my hometown to Korčula, it’s some nine to eleven hours of driving, depending on traffic, the situation on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina that day, and whether or not we manage to catch a spot on the ferry or need to wait for hours to board. When you add to that the amount of money you spend only on traveling, you can be sure I would rather be spending my time on some closer, more accessible island. But I have an opportunity to go there and sleep without the need to sell my organs to pay for the apartment, so that’s what I do because it’s really beautiful there.
The clear blue sea, the beaches, the little villages. Everything is much more magical, fairy tale-ish and relaxing. And, because of that, on my last vacation there, I was inspired to write a story that was also very disturbing and depressing, because I’d heard an interesting, albeit sad tidbit about the people living there.
This is the story behind The Rock at the Bottom.
So, the place where I’m staying when I’m on Korčula is called Lumbarda. It’s something like a big-ish tourist village, but still small enough not to be considered a town (though, my maternal grandmother comes from a small place on the Pag island and that’s what I consider to be a village, so Lumbarda, which has more than one supermarket, multiple coffee shops and restaurants, a hotel and tourist shops is more of a town, than a village, to me). From Lumbarda you can hop to the several smaller islands by boat within a few minutes. Some of these islands have houses (and art studios), one has a monastery, but some are uninhabited because they are too small and have no water source. All of these islands are also close enough for kayaking, if you want to paddle, rather than use a taxi boat.
One of these islands, an uninhabited one, is called Gubavac, which means leper in Croatian. It should give you an idea what the locals think of it, given the name. You can swim to it from some points in Lumbarda, but it’s much better if you have a floaty. It’s small, it’s ugly, with unruly bushes and undergrowth growing on it, and a lot of trash from the passing-by cruise ships and big yachts washes out on its beach. But also, it’s really cool to swim or paddle there, and spend some solitary time on the deserted rocky beach while everyone is on Lumbarda’s beaches.
The story I heard of Gubavac is a very sad and disturbing one, for all of us who love animals, but unfortunately not surprising for Croatian countryside mentality. I should warn that this next part will talk about animal death.
I heard that people from Lumbarda, not that long ago, used Gubavac as a dumping ground for unwanted kittens. They would hop on to Gubavac, where there’s no food or water, and leave them there. It got stuck in my head because, while I do write a lot of scenes of animal death in my horror stories, it’s not something I’m okay with. I absolutely hate it when people are cruel to animals, and real life animal cruelty is disturbing and can hit me hard.
While this story saddened and angered me immensely, I did start thinking in the line of why would someone do such a thing, outside of the most obvious answers that humans are cruel? And, because I was starting to notice folk horror as a genre more and more, my mind went there. The answer I got was—what if people used it as a sacrifice, for prosperity and riches (because I knew that these parts had a lot of problems with famine, before tourism became a thing). And soon I had the first sentences in my head, a clear hierarchy of ritual sacrifices, starting with cats, then going on to sheep, until animals stopped being good enough. The main emotional core, suspense and plot showed up, and from there on, it was easy writing.
It’s important to note, though, that the island and the village mentioned in The Rock at the Bottom are completely fictitious. I was inspired by Gubavac, yes, and there are mentions of the Croatian south, Dalmatia, in the story, as well as a mountain top visible from Lumbarda, and even some surnames typical for Korčula, but the village and the island are fictional and don’t actually exist.
This is probably the most depressing story in my Mistress of Geese collection. There are multiple reasons why. While there are some mentions of transphobia being a thing that exists in Make a Toast to Spring, I usually write stories where queerness itself is not a problem. But in this one, homophobia, as well as misogyny, definitely play a big part. The Croatian south is a notoriously homophobic and sexist place. So it was natural for me to imagine a southern village as a not that good of a place for gay people and women. Especially historically. While the story is supernatural, the main horror comes from the atrocities that humans are capable of doing for their own gain, rather than some hidden monsters. So, the village is homophobic and misoginistic, on top of being just awful, which is a driving point for the tension. It also means that there is a lot of longing, depression, anxiety and sadness that permeate characters and what they’re doing for survival. However, it’s balanced out with the second storyline, where things, while not perfect, are much better.
For the supernatural part of the story, my inspiration was something from Croatian folklore, not necessarily Dalmatian folk tales, which is actually a shame. But I found something, from another part of Croatia, that I really liked and thought it would work great with the history of Dalmatian islands. Mostly because Korčula was once a part of the Croatian mainland, a mountain, actually, before the sea level rose after the last ice age, turning it into an island. I’m not going to go into more details about this folk element, because of potential spoilers, but I found it fit beautifully with that historical tidbit. Another part of the supernatural comes from old Croatian mythology, and that one was definitely inspired by the location. The aforementioned mountain top visible from Lumbarda has a name after a Croatian saint, but it’s believed that it used to be dedicated to the pagan god Perun, a god of lightning, the sky, war, storms, oak trees and whatnot (he was the highest god in the pantheon). What can I say? I couldn’t ignore something this convenient.
So, if you’re interested in folk horror which has everything; from a very messed up oppressive village, ritualistic sacrifices and paganism, to queer characters who have to deal with these realities, and don’t mind fictional animal deaths, give it a chance. The Mistress of Geese collection is available on all major stores.