Gothic scriptor


Writer of strange tales. Occasional ghost hunter. In awe of everything macabre, magical and ancient. Author Liliana Cârstea explains how she took her extraordinary Romanian family saga to the UK, to weave words with memories

Liliana Cârstea

Thinking in two languages means I experience two worlds: one whispers into my ear, the other unfolds before my eyes. Writing in a language that offers me more words than my native tongue destroys old habits but encourages new perspectives. It brings a kind of freedom.

When I decided to leave Romania to study Creative Writing at the University of Bedfordshire, my departure saddened my family, especially my mother who felt like she was losing me. She understood, though, that being a gothic writer would be almost impossible for a young woman coming from a simple family and living in a corrupt country where weird literature isn’t valued.

Wearing a female body or identifying as a woman in my country can be a terrible curse

The UK presents its challenges as well. Having the chance to develop a greater command of English, a language I knew before but never to this level, has made me aware of how the political class in power is utilising words to induce fear of the unknown—in this case, the unknown is me, one of the many foreigners who are about to be banished from coming to this island to create a better life for themselves. Whilst I’ve been mostly welcomed here, I can’t say the same about everyone I know.

When I started my fiction website in April this year, I knew I wouldn’t be writing about how beautiful Romania is (it is a stunning country!) or what delicious food we lure people into our houses with—although I mention Romanian cuisine in some of my pieces, because food plays an important role in our culture. The world I want to evoke when I write is the magical, dark, and macabre world of my background. Is it a cliché that I’m a Romanian fascinated by witchcraft, the supernatural, and death? Maybe. But I can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t be, especially when my mind is saturated with the strange and ethereal prose of writers I’m obsessed with, like George Bacovia (a Romanian symbolist poet), Leonora Carrington, Camilla Grudova, Helen Oyeyemi, Angela Carter, and Edgar Allan Poe. I owe my courage to go further creatively to Keith Jebb, the experimental poet who has been my lecturer and supervisor for the past two years. I’m certain he’ll hate the praise, and I take full responsibility for that.

Liliana’s paternal great grandmother, with her mother on her death bed

During my childhood, my family had to move regularly, but we always took with us the things that mattered most, things we still have: clothes, books, toys my sister and I used to play with (they’re still in a box somewhere on top of my parents’ wardrobe) pictures of us and our relatives (we also have some professional post-mortem photographs, marked by dirt, dust, and the traces of time), my mother’s sewing machines and fabrics, her collection of macramé, my father’s drawings and a few letters sent to him by former lovers after he was married (each time she reads them, mum smirks proudly at the thought of her being the one), journals and diaries, fashion magazines and a couple of almanacs with faded photos of the dictator on the cover, kept so we can take the piss out of him when we feel like it, albums on tape, and video cassettes of family weddings and baptisms. You could say we’re haunting ourselves with these mementoes, and I won’t deny that; they’re a big influence on my craft. When I write, I aim to relinquish the agony of the past by invoking it.

Maybe I’m not really a writer, but simply a witch, someone who crafts life with still memories

I have written long and elaborate essays about my craft as a writer and still have no idea what I’m doing. Am I a storyteller? Possibly. I do tell stories of Romanian women, their tragedies and acts of metamorphosis. Wearing a female body or identifying as a woman in my country can be a terrible curse. In my tales, women take control of their flesh and psyches through a myriad of sometimes beautiful, sometimes awful acts. They are often possessed by moths, by the spirits of ancient goddesses who want to rule, punish, or instruct the world, or by the healing and protective force of Mother Nature.

Liliana with her mother and maternal grandmother

These women represent what I love to call a nightmare for the patriarchy and its paradigm of the pious woman; they are witches who are reborn from their own rituals of sacrifice and could make Henricus Institoris turn over in his grave. Maybe I’m not really a writer, but simply a witch, someone who crafts life with still memories and is trying to enchant the world through ancestral healing.

My parents both have a lot of stories to tell. Mum grew up with five sisters, their mother who they nicknamed ‘The General’, and a rarely present father, who beat his wife and stabbed knives into their bedroom door when he was drunk (which was always), and who never offered any financial support to his daughters.

Liliana’s great grandfather (second left) with his friends

Dad was slightly better off because his distant family had a bit more money. His mother, who raised me, was kind to her kids, although a difficult mother-in-law for my mum. Her husband went to buy a pack of cigarettes one day and never returned. This had a profound impact on her and her two boys, who endured many difficulties growing up without a father, as mixed-raced children (Dad has both white Romanian and Romani ancestry).

But their stories are not only of troubled childhoods. The tales that have mesmerised all of my friends who’ve visited our house are mostly macabre, some grotesque, some comforting. My dad had to impale his mother at her funeral, so she wouldn’t become a striga after burial. A young woman an aunt knew died suddenly in her thirties and returned in her husband’s dreams to beg for help, for she’d been buried alive (it was too late by the time the family received approval to dig her up). Stories of the deceased returning in dreams to warn of possible health issues, to chitchat, or to ask for a dish they loved eating in life (it is considered bad luck not to cook that dish and offer it in the name of the hungry dead). Of black magick rituals being performed by old ladies who curse their children and their children’s children by burning candles upside down, or by hiding around the house pouches filled with animal teeth or bones, string that had been used to hold together the hands of the dead during wakes, and melted tin or silver.

My dad had to impale his mother at her funeral, so she wouldn’t become a striga after burial

The dead refusing to relinquish their connection to the world of the living is a recurrent theme in Romanian folklore, and highly inspiring to me as a writer. My mum thinks she is to blame for my predilection for the morbid: when she was five months pregnant with me she attended the exhumation ceremony of a relative, and found the experience so fascinating that she believes I somehow understood and enjoyed that feeling from inside the womb.

Liliana’s father (left) with his brother, grandparents and aunt

It is not only death customs and beliefs that we hold onto, culturally speaking—despite Romania being an Orthodox country—people cherish a lot of traditions drawn from the old paganism of our ancestors. As an example, many believe in fairies called iele or sanziene who come to earth a few times a year to bless our crops and our animals and to bring fertility to the land and to women who wish to become mothers—they are dangerous if offended, so during their “apparition”, people are not allowed to bathe or swim, clean their houses, or be outside after midnight.

Am I exaggerating some facts when I experiment with these strange vignettes for my website? Of course! I do miss writing longer stories with a plot, and I plan to do that again, but there is something exciting about combining flash fiction with prose poetry. It is almost like writing a spell. Each word decides the next one, and is there because it has to be, otherwise the rite won’t work. I also like to think they watch us, these spirits and fairies. It doesn’t matter whether I believe in them or not. When they return, I want them to know I’ve acknowledged their presence and never tried to cast them away. I think I have a lot of sympathy with their desire to not let go. C