Saturday, July 12, 2014

Guest Blogger J.M. Hayes

This weekend Type M welcomes guest blogger J.M Hayes, author of the wonderful Mad Dog and Englishman series, whose soon-to-be-released  novel, The Spirit and the Skull, represents a fascinating new direction in his writing. Welcome, Mike!

North Slope

I once spent a summer doing archaeology on the North Slope of Alaska's Brooks Range. We searched for hard evidence of early immigrants into the Americas.

We set up camp on a ridge overlooking a stream unnamed on USGS maps. Our principal investigator called it Sedna Creek, after the Eskimo goddess of the animals. We collected heavily patinaed primitive tools made by worshipers of a much earlier version of the Earth Mother, or so we believed. Permafrost made it impossible to prove their exact age, but we returned with a segment of mammoth tusk, the tip of which had been cut off by humans. We recovered a mammoth tooth from the same spot.

The tundra is a harsh and beautiful place—one of the last true pieces of raw wilderness. Rolling sedge grassland filled with mountains, rugged ridges, lakes, streams, and rivers stretches beyond horizons. Empty of game one day, it filled with caribou, moose, elk, dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, grizzly bear and millions of mosquitoes the next.

I wanted to write about the tundra for years. I finally realized the correct method was to tell the story of the people who crossed it so long ago. That's what my newest novel, The Spirit and the Skull, sets out to do. Murder would have been unthinkable to those early migrants, so how would they have dealt with the ultimate crime? Who might be required to solve it? How would their relationship with the tundra and its spirits affect the result?

Spirits, what spirits? Am I speaking of supernatural forces or something more concrete? After a summer at Sedna Creek, I discovered the answers aren't simple.

From the beginning we sensed the strangeness of the place. The tundra didn't care whether we represented science. It threw its wildness at us as soon as we unloaded our float plane and watched it leave—our last contact with the world we understood. The May Lake bowl, where we'd landed, turned gloomy as dark clouds and high hills to the north left us in seemingly perpetual dusk. The odd light helped put us face-to-face with a grizzly bear, establishing an enduring sense that anything might be possible there.

Caribou in flowing massive herds reinforced a sense of otherness. We felt as if we could climb a ridge and discover mammoths grazing beside a stream as ancient big-game hunters silently stalked them.

The weather demonstrated nature's indifference. We recorded temperatures ranging from 94 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit. It rained two days out of three and snowed weekly. And the fog . . . . It hung in silence, hiding familiar landmarks. But its silence wasn't absolute. We heard voices. More than 40 miles from the nearest habitation, an Eskimo village, we heard people speaking in the fog. When night returned with a few hours of darkness, we watched the aurora's veils dance across the sky south of us. And saw a strange beam of green light, bright as any laser, reach from the uninhabited Brooks Range into space. What was that about?

One of our members, while hiking Sedna Creek, looked up and saw a woman dressed in skins and furs. Impossible! When he shook his head and looked again, she was gone. But since this was Sedna's stream, seeing the goddess, if that's who she was, didn't seem inappropriate or unlikely. Evidence of Arctic Hysteria? We never feared the place. We felt blessed by it.

I hope I've conveyed an accurate sense of the land and its spirits in my new novel. The place defies civilization's expectations, and will continue to do so even as we try to tame it.

J.M. Hayes—Mike—was born in Hutchinson, Kansas when it was the fourth largest city in the state. It's now eleventh. He was a graduate student studying archaeology at Wichita State University when he joined a National Science Foundation project that inspired his latest novel. He moved to Arizona to continue his archaeological studies and has lived in Tucson ever since. He has written seven other books—The Grey Pilgrim and the six entries in the Mad Dog & Englishman mystery series. Visit Mike's website at



Donis Casey said...

I love this kind of "pre-historical", Mike. I love your take on the way early people perceived the world. so different from us today, but I often wonder if seeing a thing a certain way doesn't make it so. Maybe our forefathers and mothers were able to perceive reality in ways that we no longer can--or will.

J.M. Hayes said...

Certainly, when you live close to nature you perceive the world very differently than from inside our urban enclaves. It's hard to hear the spirits when you may not hear the storm.