Under an Evil Star: A Cosy Chat with Author, Jane Holland

Martha Dunlop Book Chat, Fiction Leave a Comment

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Jane Holland is a Gregory Award-winning poet and bestselling novelist, whose thrillers have hit #1 in the UK Kindle store twice. You can find her on Twitter as @janeholland1

She’s published dozens of novels with major publishing houses under various pseudonyms and in different genres, including: Jane Holland (mostly thrillers), Betty Walker, Victoria Lamb and Elizabeth Moss (mostly historical fiction), Hannah Coates (feel-good novels) and JJ Holland (action thrillers). She also self-publishes with her agent’s blessing!

Jane, welcome to The Story Cave!

Under an Evil Star is a thriller based on horary astrology. What led you to choose this as a topic?

Since astrology is such a big part of my daily life, I wanted to extend that into my fiction. But how? Last year, eager to write for radio, I listened to Alastair Jessiman’s great radio plays about a Scottish psychic, The Sensitive, and kept thinking throughout, I need to use my esoteric knowledge in my fiction in the same way. Then I hit on the idea of making an astrologer my main character. But obviously, you need to know who the villain is to study their birth chart. But with horary, a much wider field of possibilities becomes open to you. 

How long have you been interested in astrology?

I passed my Certificate in Astrology from the Faculty of Astrological Studies back in the mid-90’s, and have been studying and practising astrology ever since, including a recent foray into the FAS Diploma, though it’s proved a little too expensive for my budget, so I may not be able to finish it.

What is different about horary astrology?

Horary astrology is not like natal astrology (birth charts/transits etc). A person (the querent) asks a question of the astrologer, who then casts a chart for the exact time and location at which she understands the question fully. 

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The chart is interpreted according to well-defined traditional markers, mostly aspects to the Moon and other key planets for each question (e.g. sport would be Mars, a lost letter Mercury) but also looking at planets in houses, planet and house rulerships, and less well-known astrological terms such as antiscia, dignity, reception, Arabian Parts and others.

One important distinction is that only inner planets up to Saturn, plus the Lunar Nodes, are considered valid, since horary is an ancient art predating the discovery of the outers. Unless the three outer planets fall on an important point or conjunct a key planet, they can be disregarded, though even then their interpretation is more generic than in a birth chart: Uranus brings sudden changes (mostly unpleasant); Neptune is confusion, delay or illness; Pluto can signify death or the end of a situation. This also affects sign rulerships, since obviously if we can’t count Uranus, the rulership of Aquarius must fall back to its traditional ruler, Saturn, and so on with Scorpio (Mars) and Pisces (Jupiter). Without the outer planets in the picture, the greater malefic is Saturn, and the greater benefic Jupiter.

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I use horary on a regular basis, both for myself and others, to answer questions. There’s a temptation to see them as transits and set them against the natal chart too. But the horary chart exists as a separate entity outside the birth chart, and the same rules do not apply. In general terms, good horary questions give an unambiguous Yes/No answer within a set time frame. Anything less clear-cut tends to produce a woolly response. So you can ask, ‘Will I get married in the next five years?’ but not ‘What kind of person will I marry?’ The astrologer then looks for either positive (Yes) or negative (No) aspects and placements within the chart. This is more complex than it sounds, as frequently a chart produces contradictory results. No aspects to key planets or the Moon void-of-course are traditionally seen as a No answer. Though a detailed and nuanced response is usually better – and more gratefully received - than a blunt Yes/No.

For those wishing to learn more about horary, there are many books out there on the topic, and I own most of them. I highly recommend The Horary Textbook by John Frawley. He can be curmudgeonly, but his book makes the most sense and is amusing to read – always a plus!

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Is horary astrology ever actually used to solve crimes?

I don’t know, but I doubt it! Maybe I’ll start a trend. Though horary can be used to locate missing objects, using a tight set of parameters for interpretation, and may even suggest the identity of the thief in some cases. (Astrologers need to be careful where they point the finger of accusation, of course, to avoid innocent parties suffering!) So I guess that’s a bit like solving a crime. And indeed that is the basis for Stella’s astrological help in solving her father’s murder in Under An Evil Star.

With Tintagel and a sacred grove, the location plays a strong part in the story. How much did local history inspire the story?

I’ve lived in Cornwall, on and off, for over a decade now. I met my husband while he was living in Tintagel and I was in nearby Camelford. I still live less than half an hour away, a little further up the north coast. The whole place is infused with Arthurian legend, you can’t get away from it. So it was a natural choice to bring those elements into my story, since I was already on esoteric territory with an astrologer for my main character. I also like to ground stories like that in everyday reality, so they feel possible. Hence a lot of genuine local detail. There’s also a cosy crime feel to the Stella Penhaligon thrillers, including a slightly tongue-in-cheek narrative. While the astrological lore is – in general – sound, these books are intended to be pure entertainment, so I have no qualms about making them amusing as well as dark and spooky!

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There’s also an in-joke here. My astrologer lives in a fictional Cornish resort called Pethporro – also the fictional town in my contemporary romance series written as Beth Good. (Latest book: A Very Cornish Christmas, due out October 2020.) Obviously my characters in these very different books do not mix and match, but I’ve tried to keep the two Pethporros roughly the same. Just my sense of humour again!

Stella’s conviction that her belief in astrology will not be taken seriously drives the story forwards and leads her into some tricky spots. Does Jack, the detective, have any more faith in her methods by the end of the book?

I believe he does, yes, but he still doesn’t like that part of himself. So he rejects it, even with the proof staring him in the face. And that basic conflict needs to be there throughout the series, I feel, because in some ways Jack represents the typical reader of these stories, ambivalent and sceptical, but intrigued as well and open to the suggestion that astrology may occasionally have something behind it - even if they would never admit that in ‘real life’!

Jack’s has an interesting past that is hinted at in this first book.  What inspired him and how much of a sea change is this case for him?

Jack is at a crossroads in his life, having lost his wife a year before to what appears to have been suicide. He is still grieving but beginning to consider what else is out there. This is further hinted at in later stories, though Stella’s backstory and slightly chaotic home life take precedence for now. I’m not sure anything in particular inspired his character. He’s a pragmatic detective who tries to push aside his own sensitivity to otherworldly things. But meeting Stella forces him into considering that there are more things in heaven and earth etc.

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With novellas, the space available to develop the characters’ back stories is limited, as the plot must move ever onwards to maintain pace. But his character will be further revealed in The Part of Death, Book 3 in the series, when he finally takes time off to be with his sister, while Stella is grappling alone with a difficult client.

This is the first book in a new series.  What can we expect from Stella and Jack in the future and are there more astrological stories to come?

I’ve already given some hints about Book 3 above, but in the second book, The Tenth House Murders, Stella starts running an astrology class in Pethporro, which introduces us to more characters with an interest in the esoteric arts. Suffice it to say, one of these budding astrologers is murdered. Stella feels so guilty about it, she allows herself to get involved in an ongoing related investigation, even though she’s sworn not to help the police again. Meanwhile, sceptical Jack is trying to train up his young constable Ronny Myles, who’s a bit of a clown, to be a better detective. So the last thing he wants is to bring astrology into the mix again.

Thanks for asking me such fun questions in this interview, Martha. I hope I have interested some new people in horary astrology, and of course, in reading my new Stella Penhaligon series.

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