Gabriela Houston is joining us today to talk about her novel, The Second Bell. Here’s the publisher’s description:
To the world you are an abomination; a monster with unholy abilities. You’re shunned and left to fend for yourself. Your only chance of survival is to tap into that dark potential – would you do it?
In an isolated mountain community, sometimes a child is born with two hearts. Such a child – a striga – is considered a dangerous demon, which must be abandoned on the edge of the forest to protect the community. The only choice the child’s mother can make is whether to leave her home with her infant, or stay behind and try to forget.
Miriat made her choice. She and her nineteen-year-old striga daughter, Salka, now live a life of deprivation and hardship in a remote village, where to follow the impulses of the other heart is forbidden.
But Salka is headstrong and young, and when threatened with losing everything, she is forced to explore the depths of her true nature, testing the bonds between mother and child.
What’s Gabriela’s favorite bit?
The Second Bell is about many things. It’s about families, and the familial bonds which might or might not withstand the pressure of social taboos.
It’s about the desire to belong and the need to find yourself.
And in the background, in the space which gives the novel its flavour, are the contrasts: the beauty and the danger of nature, the pleasures and the struggles of those who choose to live away from the safety and the comfort of the more technologically advanced society. The concept of duty, as seen by those who most value obedience towards the community, and those who will always put their children first.
One of my favourite songs is “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now…” is a concept I think about a lot in my work. Thinking that you see things for what they are and then the unbalancing realisation that there is a side yet unseen, undiscovered.
The Heyne Mountains where Salka and her mother live are starkly beautiful, but while the strigas might love their home, the squalor and the hardship of their daily lives is undeniable. It is nature in all its glory, without pastoral sentimentalism, which allows us to grasp the true enormity of the sacrifice made by mothers like Miriat, who chose to abandon their former lives of safety and comfort in order to stay with their children.
Those who chose to live with the strigas in the mountains didn’t just abandon their homes and families. The treeline separating the striga forest from their old lives was a symbolic boundary that, in a sense, took them back in time, to a practically neolithic-level of technological development.
But humans (and strigas) are adaptable creatures, and the pride they feel in the homes they created, and the love of the mountains that offered them a home, is there as well as the punishing grind of the daily struggle for survival.
For me, it’s important to note not only the hard reality of the difficulties faced by the strigas, but also the small joys they find pleasure in, like the warmth and the companionship of their animals sleeping next to them in their small huts.
When Salka first sees Heyne Town she notices both the extravagant beauty of its painted homes, with their straight walls and tiled slanting roofs, and the strangeness of the animals living in the barns adjoining the homes. She can’t understand the humans’ willingness to deprive themselves of the heat generated by the animals’ bodies, which to her is a necessity of survival as well as a comfort.
This contrast of experience is something at the very core of The Second Bell.
The beauty of the nettle-dyed woollen cloth Miriat lovingly wove for her daughter’s clothes is not appreciated by the townsfolk, who only see rough-spun rags.
The pine forest, so strange and terrifying to Miriat when she first joins the striga tribe in the mountains, is the very definition of home to her daughter. The pines’ purply-red bark and their spreading crowns are a comfort, an enclosure of safety and the familiar, so much so that when Salka has to leave the forest surrounding her village she feels unmoored, out of balance.
One of my favourite things about writing is the freedom of finding the different angles for the same idea and describing the different points of view, exposing the multi-faceted nature of the world. Those conflicting, colliding contrasts are my favourite bit of The Second Bell.
Gabriela was born and raised in Poland, brought up on a diet of mythologies and fairy tales. She spent her summers exploring the woods, foraging and animal tracking with her family. At 19, Gabriela moved to London to study English Literature and obtained a Masters degree in Literatures of Modernity. She has worked as an assistant editor and as a freelance writer. Gabriela’s short stories have been selected for the Editor’s Choice Review by Bewildering Stories and have been featured on the Ladies of Horror Fiction podcast. She lives in London with her husband and two children.