Spotlight on author Casilda Ferrante and her short story “The Hand of Annie Jones” from Spirits Unwrapped

Spotlight on Australian author Casilda Ferrante and her short story “The Hand of Annie Jones” from the Spirits Unwrapped anthology.

 

Casilda Ferrante is an author of exceptional talent that I had the good fortune of working with as my role as the editor of the Spirits Unwrapped anthology from Steve Berman’s Lethe Press. Casilda has recently started publishing her own unique brand of speculative fiction with her short stories appearing in several notable publications in 2019. It is my prediction that these fine works are only the wondrous start and you will be hearing much more from her. When I invited Casilda to contribute to the mummy themed anthology Spirits Unwrapped I asked her if she could deliver a story definitively set in Australia a story that could only be set in Australia. I hoped to receive a take with the same hallmark “magic” and power that I had read in some of her at the time unpublished works that I had read. She exceeded my expectations by turning in “The Hand of Annie Jones”. The story is a not only a tale centering on the lore of the Hand of Glory, it is a tale of the women of the “female factories” of Australia. At the end of last year I had the opportunity to ask Casilda a few questions.

 

DB:  Your story “The Hand of Annie Jones” features as the supernatural element a hand of glory. What research went into this and how did you decide to use this in the story?

 

CF: I spent a lot of time researching Hand of Glory folk lore. It’s an object I was generally familiar with, I wanted to know much more detail about it before incorporating it into a story. A Hand of Glory can take many different forms and was believed to have a variety of powers and influences. It appears in folklore, fairy tales and grimoires from the 16thto early 19thCentury, mainly from Scotland, England, France and Germany. It is a gruesome object to procure, one legend calls for the toes or fingers of unborn children, torn from the belly of a female thief and murderer. Once obtained the hand had to be prepared and transformed into a magical object according to specific rituals.

 

Severing the hands of criminals was a form of punishment in medieval Europe and the amputated hands were displayed in public to dissuade criminal behaviour. The Hand of Glory folk magic inverts this practice by using a felonious hand to create a tool of destructive power.
Based on my research, I wanted to create my own version of a Hand of Glory and wrote charms and spells to accompany it. The Hand in my story is nefarious and vindictive and develops a consciousness of its own, becoming a central character and driving force. This is a common trait in the portrayal of mummies – they reanimate with a certain personality and awareness intact.

 

DB: How has living near the bush in Australia informed your fiction? What are some things that you might encounter on a daily basis that we who live elsewhere might not think of?

 

CF: The Australian landscape is dramatic and beautiful with a gothic sublime quality, it’s an ideal setting for folk horror and dark fiction. More of my stories are being inspired by the land as I personally engage with it more. Living close to the bush I am acutely aware of being an immigrant and visitor to this country. It is very different to the countryside of Southern Italy where I was born and recall in early childhood memories. Even though I have grown up in Australia it will always feel like a new home, a strange home. I sense the magic and mystery and sacred stories that dwell in the land that I am yet to access and understand. There is a well of deep grief, rage and violence, a result of the genocide committed here in recent history.

 

What I love about living in bushland is that the experience of nature is immediate and sometimes extreme – I’ve experienced bush fires, floods, tropical storms. I love encountering wildlife as part of the every day – snakes, wallabies, toads, bats. Nature works both ways, wild creatures also begin to observe you as a permanent fixture in their world, they slowly accept you and allow closer access to them.

 

DB: Can you tell us about the Female Factories of Australia and how you wrote about them in the “Hand of Annie Jones”

 

CF: I had to conceive of a way to tie European folklore of the Hand of Glory with an Australian setting, so I started reading about early colonial life. I wasn’t aware of the female factories previously, it was shocking to learn about them. My story mentions the factories to provide historical context, I haven’t elaborated on them very much. I wanted to give some detail of the factories as they epitomise the desperate and desolate reality convict women were faced with when arriving in Australia. The factories were prison and work houses where women were housed while waiting for “assignment” which meant being bought as a wife, mistress or housemaid. Conditions were extremely poor, overcrowded and violent. Women were divided into ‘classes’ depending on behaviour and crimes committed. Good behaviour permitted them to be eligible for marriage which was the easiest way out of the factory and convict system, enabling them to become free settlers after they had worked their sentence.
The commonly held view of convict women is that they were all prostitutes but in fact prostitution was not a transportable offence. As women were unable to afford food and lodging, sexual services were often their only means of barter. Many who were transported to Australia had committed menial and petty crimes, the main reason for their transportation was to populate the new colony.
Convict women had few options available to them in the brutality of colonial life. In “The Hand of Annie Jones”, Sarah and Annie break the conventions imposed on them, using sorcerous means to forge a fate of their own.

 

DB: What, if anything, do you find dis-likable about portrayals of mummies in popular culture and fiction? 

 

CF: I’d never given mummies much thought before writing for Spirits Unwrapped but I’ve since become fascinated with mummy trivia! The most boring thing about mummies in popular media is that they are always Egyptian, the Egyptians were not the first or only to embalm their dead. Mummification appears in many religions and cultures including Incan, Aztec, Australian Aboriginal, African and European.

 

There are many interesting aspects to popular mummy narratives. Mummies are based on a type of relic as opposed to other monsters such as vampires, zombies and werewolves. The “legend of the mummy’s curse” was a Hollywood film fabrication, wrapped up in stories of eternal love affairs and revenge. It’s a strange idea that a corpse can regenerate due to an act of betrayal and dispense punishment. Obviously, there was some collective guilt about robbing ancient graves, looting treasures and stealing the bodies of kings and queens.

 

DB: What is it about mummies that captures the general public’s imagination and causes them to be so popular in Museums?

 

CF: Mummies epitomise the romance western culture has with ancient Egypt, the ideas about royalty, immortality, mysterious gods and the meaning and purpose of the pyramids. One of the points of fascination during the early 20thCentury Egyptian craze and tomb raiding was that Egyptians had very sophisticated methods of embalming and organ removal, preventing the desiccation of the corpse. In some pop culture portrayals the mummy reverses death, becoming youthful again when it is awoken. It hints at our fantasies of eternal life and eternal beauty. It is a morbid vanity to admire mummies from another culture, especially in a museum and particularly when those mummies are identified as historical figures.

 

DB: Do you have a favorite short story? If so what about it has made it your favorite?
CF: I try to read as much short fiction as I can, I can’t come up with one favourite. Recently I enjoyed All The Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma, it was heart warming and moving, both down to earth and magical. I’m currently reading Sing your Sadness Deep by Laura Mauro, I’m enjoying the diversity, finesse and surreal quality of the stories.

 

DB: Thank you, Casilda ! I look forward to reading what is next from you and for the opportunity to speak with you again soon !

 

Spirits Unwrapped can be ordered directly from Lethe Press or at your favorite online bookseller.

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