The Master’s Tools: the poetry and perversion of control

“They fly through my doors
And they crawl out on all fours”

– ‘Master of The House’, Les Miserables

“Give me food, and I will live; give me water, and I will die. What am I?”
Traditional riddle

My second poetry collection, Hot Cockalorum, came out late last year and I’ve been meaning to write a little more about the folklore and fetishism that drives it, starting with the story that inspired the title. Here’s a self-interview exploring some of these themes.

Hot Cockalorum poetry book, with plum-coloured leather cover with embossed white cartoon cat skull

Where does your interest in folklore come from, and how has it shaped the collection?

I’ve always been fascinated by folktales and fairytales, but ‘Master of All Masters’ has stuck in my mind since childhood, when I read it at my Grandma’s house.

For starters, its structure is very odd. Having devoured the Grimm treasury and the Andrew Lang Fairy Books, I had a clear sense of the fairytale arc: the scene is set, the problem is established, trials are undergone and usually the protagonist prevails/the villain meets their downfall. ‘Master of All Masters’ sets the scene (a man goes to hire a maid), establishes the problem (she must memorise his idiolect for household objects) and the trial materialises (the house goes up in flames). The maid valiantly tries to wake the master using his quirky lexicon…and that’s it. We never know whether any of them make it out in one piece.

The story ends with the servant hammering at her master’s door, shouting:

“Master of All Masters, get out of your Barnacle (bed) and put on your Squibs and Crackers (trousers)! For White-Faced Simminy (the cat) has got a spark of Hot Cockalorum (fire) on its tail, and unless you get some Pondalorum (water), High Topper Mountain (the house) will be all on Hot Cockalorum.”

A line drawing of a young servant girl hammering on a closed door.

It’s a supremely odd story – much shorter than most of the others, with no romance, no magic and no clear good/evil characters. I think it’s that resistance to the tropes and trappings of other fairytales that sang to me. I identified strongly with the servant, who is baffled at the master’s demands but tries her best to follow them.

When it came to curating and naming the book, I thought back to this tale. At first, I called it White-Faced Simminy, but in the end I settled on Hot Cockalorum, the source of the Master’s downfall.

How is language weaponised in the book?

The self-styled Master of All Masters constructs his own names for things in an attempt to control his own domain. By then instructing his young servant to use these names and not the ones she knows, he is attempting to fold her into his orthodoxy, and potentially into his suite of possessions.

It’s quite telling, by the way, that even the female cat gets a name. The maid is the only “undubbed beastie” in the tale.

Why does the Master bother renaming his things? Is he an eccentric with a penchant for wordplay or a pompous fool, interested only in flexing his power over others? When it comes to himself and the house as a whole, he certainly overeggs the pudding. Not content with being Master, he must be the Master of All Masters – practically godlike. Rather than naming his house with one superlative, he uses three: High Topper Mountain. The story has travelled far and wide, finding variants in many countries and indeed, the pleasure lies in its retelling and shifting, and in that final word-salad of imperatives.

In Hot Cockalorum, language is used time and again to trip and corner female characters. In ‘Harvey’, a toy rabbit forbids its schoolgirl owner from swearing, and eventually even speaking. The anime superheroines of ‘Cannonade’ must wait, “tits bobbing” for their enemies to lecture them, before beginning their Sisyphean battle. Even the princess in ‘Enter Village’ stands mutely as she is berated for her shortcomings in a flurry of dialect.

When the intrepid maid reels off the Master’s words while the house burns down, how should we see her?

a) panicked but obedient to the letter?
b) foolish to waste time on long-winded words instead of yelling “FIRE”?
c) completely aware of her employer’s pomposity, and minded to demonstrate the drawbacks of his demands?

I’ve read this story aloud many times, and each time, I find myself adopting a new character for her, from weary, wise Morgiana to half-witted Bubble. I never settle on one reading, but then, that’s entirely in keeping with folk tradition.

Morgiana, disguised as a dancer, slays the robber chief who plans to kill her master.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

As folktales traditionally sprang up in rural, working-class communities with lower literacy rates, they would be passed on by mouth. This period of fluidity, before curators like the Grimms gathered and bound these tales in books, left countless retellings in circulation, with no authoritative version. 

This lack of canon ties into a general celebration of the underdog in folktales. Time and again, powerful characters are outwitted and brought down by smaller, nimbler, poorer figures. I suspect ‘Master of All Masters’ is one such dig at oafish rich types, and the maid, a relatable figure for the audience, knows exactly what she’s doing.

How does kink play into this collection?

Kink plays frequently with power exchange, surrendered control, adopted characters and artificial rules. Like folktales, kink scenes allow us to explore scary or extreme situations in safe ways.

Bondage model Ariel Anderssen coined the term “playing to lose” to describe a kinky sub’s M.O., and named both her blog and her memoir after this idea. Just as the dom/top in a scene hopes to unseat their partner in a fun and mutually enjoyable way, the sub/bottom goes in hoping to be bested and taken down, even if they play at resisting. Perhaps an impossible task is set, in which failure is guaranteed. Perhaps the task is not quite impossible but the bottom, seeking trouble, ‘finds’ a way to mess it up.

A young woman nervously removing her glasses and saying "Oops".

Robert Coover’s surreal novel Spanking The Maid plays with the dynamic of failure and punishment, using a classic fetish framework (master and servant) to depict the trials of writing. The story reads like a Joe Orton farce, built around increasingly maddening repetitions. There are only two characters: an employer and his female servant. The employer has strict instructions on how he wants his house maintained. Every day the inept maid finds a new way to screw up the process and the employer spanks her as punishment. Not that the spankings do any good; with each passing day the maid’s work becomes worse. Coover’s novel is a metaphor for the trials of writing, trying to scourge into shape a text that will not behave.

While assembling Hot Cockalorum and its characters, I pondered whether the Master in the folktale wants his maid to succeed in remembering and executing his instructions, or whether he secretly hopes she will slip up and give him an excuse to restate his authority over her.

When she performs her role perfectly, memorising the master’s lexicon and denying him the excuse to chastise her, you do wonder if he’s not a little miffed.

How do animals feature in Hot Cockalorum, and what is their link back to folklore?

The animals in the collection fall into three groups: companions, hybrids or alter-egos and agents of chaos.

In seeking dominion over his domestic space, the Master overreaches. He tries to name and own two ungovernable forces – the fire and the cat – and these bring his world crashing down in smoke.

Cats are creatures between worlds, long associated with demons, witches, gods and shifting fortunes. In the pirate comedy series Our Flag Means Death, a superstitious pirate called Frenchie designs a ship’s flag with a cat on it, asserting: “Cats are terrifying – everyone knows that! ‘Cause they’re witches! And they’ve got knives in their feet.”

In Brian Hoggard’s Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft, there is an entire chapter dedicated to dried cats, placed in the walls and chimneys of houses to ward off devilry and bad luck. In their silent movements, crepuscular habits and mimicry of everything from snakes to babies, cats suggest an ability to traverse states and forms. For this reason, they are the ideal ambassadors to head off evil at the pass, before it arrives in our world. Or they would be, if they were at all obedient.

A smiling mackerel grey cat with a white face, standing in profile.

Animal familiars pop up throughout Hot Cockalorum, from bears to birds to wolves, vanishing and rematerialising at different points. Sometimes they are fixed in form, but sometimes animal bodies are glamours or disguises, as female characters in search of freedom try a little therianthropy.

One of the sections in Hot Cockalorum is called ‘Otherworld’. Does the unknown offer a sense of trepidation, as well as escape?

Absolutely. Especially for female characters, who are instructed in every folktale to avoid risk and transgression, even where it might improve or save their lives. Don’t go to the woods alone, don’t look in that particular room, don’t eat that apple…

In ‘Alice Carves The Door To St Frideswide’, Alice Liddell – famous for her fictional otherworldly adventures – honours a nun who escaped forced marriage to the king, and she does so in the liminal space of a doorway:

Some of us had just one sister.
Some of us sought many more.
Some of us were told by cats
the way to slip through any door.

Nuns also appear as potential threats and as innocent victims – symbolically they both play into and buck ideas of womanhood. Hence why they are often fetishised in horror and porn. As chaste women they self-impose restrictions on their conduct, environment and dress, but through this restriction they become liquid, immortal and sometimes invisible.

A young nun reading a book titled "The Devil Walks Among Us".
Nastassja Kinski as Sister Catherine Beddows in To The Devil: A Daughter

In Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, two young people discover how to enter and navigate new worlds for themselves, and in doing so, threaten religious order. Their bodies are on the cusp of puberty and their transgressions are linked strongly to sin, or dust. I wanted to explore this disquiet around changing hormones, shapeshifting and becoming both ungovernable and unrecognisable.

The changing body as a foreign country?

Yes, in a way! The collection leans into the uncanny with a series of blended bodies – women and girls whose forms do not fit the desirable mould. The speaker in ‘Wolf Postcards’ is both childlike and wild, describing her own tenderness and submission before advising on how best to shit in a hole. Similarly, in ‘I Thought What I’d Do Was…’, we shadow Major Kusanagi from the dystopian anime Ghost in the Shell (Stand-Alone Complex) as she’s led in circles by a criminal trickster. A highly sexualised character, with a tight, revealing uniform that nobody seems to acknowledge, the Major has been almost entirely cybernetically rebuilt after injury, leading the series to ask how human these hybrid forms still are; whether after a point there is still a soul, or ghost, in the shell.

The changing body is often at risk of colonisation. The Hot Cockalorum poem that shifted the most between edits was ‘Pastoral With Sirens’. The piece was inspired by Nabokov’s Lolita – itself about a girl on the verge of puberty, whose journey is forcibly accelerated by a man’s desires. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, explains that he does not desire every young girl, only the ones in whom he perceives a hint of presexuality and otherworldliness; creatures between states:

Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets’.

By marking out Lolita as ‘demoniac’ (and therefore slightly non-human), he abdicates responsibility for his actions, shifting the blame onto her.

‘Pastoral With Sirens’ is based on the opening and closing scenes of Adrien Lyne’s film adaptation, which show Humbert swerving his car all over the road, sobbing uncontrollably after Lo has dismissed him for the last time. By this point in the story, his once-‘daisy-fresh girl’ (her words) is 17, poor, pregnant and married to a sweet man she does not love. It’s far from an ideal life, but she does seem, for the first time, to be in control of her narrative, finally ready to break free of her stepfather.

A dead-eyed young woman in glass and a dowdy housecoat walks away from an older man.
Lolita (1997). Image:

As the film’s final scenes swerve between Humbert’s revenge on his rival, his doomed flight from the police and his realisation of the wrong he has done, we get a glimpse into the future: a caption tells us that just before her 18th birthday, Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze and her baby die in childbirth. Once again, her journey has been derailed, and her story taken from her.

In this poem, I wanted to capture the sonic fragments in this emotional tornado: the noise of the playground nearby, songs on the car radio, screaming sirens (Lyne drowns these until the very end with romantic music). Like the Master’s house burning down, Humbert’s delusions of himself as romantic hero or ‘bewitched traveler’ crash down about his ears:

What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that … and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

What is the significance of the section header, ‘Love/Danger’?

This goes back to the temptation/punishment idea, especially for women. The familiar scenario of going on a date but telling your friends the address, with the dark joke that if you don’t come home, that’s where they’ll find your body.

The injustice of the rigged game in Lolita and ‘Master of All Masters’ really haunted me. The power differential in each pairing is ludicrous, in terms of age, status and social capital – like Lo, the maid begins the game on the hardest setting, and the Master’s challenging demands really do seem like a calculated trip-hazard.

Several poems in Hot Cockalorum feature similar snares, from the framed narrator in ‘Murder At Rydell High’ to the hissed warnings in ‘On Being Given A Necklace’ and, in ‘Mr Flowers’, the fractured memory of Louise Brooks’ abuse at the hands of her childhood neighbour.

The book closes with a series of literal traps from the movie franchise Saw, presented as emotional stages in a break-up. As in Jigsaw’s sadistic maze, some of the hazards must be navigated alone and some demand cooperation through the pain.

So is the Master figure a tyrant or a fool?

When all is said and done, is the Master’s eccentricity dangerous for the maid? Is he controlling and delusional or a harmless kook?

To read the character generously, obsessions and restrictions often stem from anxiety. Many of us self-soothe with rituals and habits. But when our sources of comfort threaten to swallow us and those around us, we must abandon them.

When the house catches light, it may not be a bad thing. What looks like a shelter might well be a prison. From inside, it can be hard to tell. Perhaps the cat who begins the blaze is trying to set everyone free.

Hot Cockalorum is out now in hardback and audiobook from Guillemot Press.

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