I’m delighted to be taking part in a blog tour today to celebrate the release of Sandra Ireland’s gothic thriller Beneath The Skin. Set in Edinburgh, the novel centres on damaged ex-soldier Walt whose life becomes unexpectedly tangled with a cruel, calculating taxidermist named Alys. Today, Sandra shares her thoughts on why taxidermy still horrifies and fascinates us…
Why Taxidermy Both Horrifies and Fascinates by Sandra Ireland, author of Beneath the Skin
Taxidermy is all a bit marmite. The mere mention of it provokes some very strong reactions! People are either fascinated by it, and keen to relate examples of ‘bad taxidermy’ they may have spotted, or even ‘bad taxidermists’ they may have met. Others will regard you with suspicion, as if you’ve just confessed to regularly dining on dormice. Even the dictionary definition of the word- ‘an arrangement of skin’- conjures up images of nightmarish Frankenstein-esque creations.
The truth is that this ancient art is enjoying something of an renaissance, thanks to the work of a new generation of young, predominantly female, artists. They are possibly the most unlikely candidates to fill the role of the traditional taxidermist.
Leading the field is Polly Morgan, the inspiration behind the character of Alys in my debut novel Beneath the Skin. Polly has a freezer full of birds and small mammals in her kitchen, When she shakes your hand, she is imagining the structures beneath the skin. She also sells bizarre and beautiful taxidermied creations for six-figure sums.
Emma Willats is an Aberdeen-based entrepreneur. With her background in anatomy, it was a small step into the world of taxidermy. Emma recently launched her business The Dapper Dead. She makes and sells sporrans and other accessories created from roadkill foxes , badgers and so on. Even the odd guinea pig has found its way into her products. In a recent interview she reveals, “ You don’t want them [the animals] to die, but if they’re dead, you want them.”
It is this passion, this desire to resurrect the dead that I personally find so intriguing. It has opened up a whole new layer of meaning in Beneath the Skin, with Alys’s ‘undead’ animals inhabiting the twilight world of Walt, her assistant, who is suffering from PTSD. We may be repelled by the notion of keeping these creatures alive, but our human nature means we are fascinated by it too.
This is borne out by the Victorian obsession with taxidermy. It fed into the preoccupation with death and mourning which prevailed in this era. Walter Potter, a hero of my character Alys, was a renowned taxidermist who created anthropomorphic dioramas to astound the viewing public. Think kittens dressed up for a wedding, or toads playing cricket. These arrangements are decidedly creepy to out tastes, but were hugely popular in their day, and not that far removed from Polly Morgan’s white rat in a wine glass. ( Title: ‘Rest a Little on the Lap of Life’, 2006).
Although our views on what is ‘good taste’ and ‘bad taste’ are constantly changing, I predict that taxidermy will remain an endless source of fascination for us. There’s something raw and primitive about it that calls to us. We like to act all squeamish; we love to be repulsed. It is a horror film we just cannot look away from…
As Alys would say, taxidermy isn’t for wimps!
About the Author
Sandra Ireland is an award-winning writer, poet and artist. Born in Yorkshire, she was brought up in the North East and lived for many years in Éire. Her work has appeared in various women’s magazines and publications such as New Writing Dundee, Dundee Writes and ‘Furies’, an anthology of women’s poetry. Beneath the Skin is her first novel and was inspired by a love of all things curious and unseen.
About the Book
Taking a job in the studio of an Edinburgh taxidermist probably isn’t Walt’s wisest decision. Suffering from combat stress and struggling to outrun the demons from his past, he now finds himself confronted by the undead on a daily basis. His enigmatic boss, Alys, and her sister, Mouse, have their own uneasy relationship with the past. Someone doesn’t want to let them go. Can Walt save Mouse’s eight-year-old son, William, from becoming the next victim? And can he save himself?
Deliciously disturbing, this psychological thriller peels back the skin of one modern family to reveal the wounds no one wants to see. It deals with the effects of trauma and how facing up to vulnerability is sometimes the only way to let go of the past.
Praise for Beneath the Skin…
“The debut novel from Sandra Ireland is an exceptional calling card.” The Courier
“Sandra Ireland shows an impressive skill at locating her reader’s empathy and drawing it out to make you both emotionally invested and totally hooked on the action.” Becky Hinshelwood, Books etc.
“Powerful, unsettling, captivating.” Liz Robinson, Love Reading UK
Sandra’s debut novel, Beneath the Skin is available in both paperback and ebook. You can order a copy online here: Beneath The Skin