12 Apr 2014

Limerick Nation

I recently heard that I'd had four limericks accepted for publication in an anthology to be published by Iron Press in September.

The submission guidelines were that the poem be about the town where you live and that the first line end in the name of that town. I think that one of my life's greatest ever achievements is in rhyming "Tunbridge Wells" with "Dardanelles".

This is the first poetry I've ever submitted for anything ever, so I'm quite excited.

Actually on reflection I wouldn't go so far as to call it poetry, as I know some very talented poets at the Tunbridge Wells Writers group (I'm looking at you, Jess Mookherjee) and I wouldn't dare compare these limericks to what they come up with.

Anyway, I don't think I'll be writing any more for a while. Rhythm and metre? Not for me. Back to prose fiction, I think.

2 Feb 2014

Edge Of Oblivion now available

Great news! The Edge Of Oblivion short story anthology is now out, and as well as my short story Still it contains some great stories from indie publishing talents such as William Vitka, David Hulegaard and the far-too-young-to-be-having-any-business-writing-as-well-as-he-does Brendan Swogger, plus many others whose absence here is by no means a reflection on their ability but is every bit a reflection of the fact that I'm too lazy to list them all. 

You can buy the ebook for really not very much money at all from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com using these handy links:
...and all proceeds go to the charity The Cystic Fibrosis Trust, so if you buy it then you can pretend that you're a kind-hearted soul (even though we all know the truth).

20 Dec 2013

Feast

At the northern end of Old Tom’s Knap there is a door that can be seen only on the year’s longest night. The moon emerging from its bed of clouds reveals it, casting knot and grain in silver threads, and the door thus lit draws to it all the half-folk of the world.

Under the barrow’s chalk earth lies a great hall, and in the centre of the hall is a long table cut from white oak and inlaid with stars of nacre and quartz. Chairs in their dozens surround the table, and each place is laid with plates of pewter and silver and gold.

In rags and lace the half-folk come, in velvet and in iron. On the year’s longest night the ancient kings shake free their bones, and the forgotten creatures pass from their world into this. From their standing stones and crossroads the hobs and fairies come, from their hills and holes the sidhe and the elves, all down deep into the long, cold barrow.

At the table as they take their seats lazy tapers bob, and waxy lamps cast black shadows that lick up at the walls. Food is brought and set before them, great platters of meats and roasted fowl, trays laden with vegetables and bowls filled with spiced fruits, each piled high and glazed with unfamiliar sauces. Narrow lips hold narrow tongues, thin fingers curl and twitch, and around the table, impatient, they watch and they wait.

And at last comes the Winter King, in robes of menace that whisper at his feet, and as he walks through the great hall to take his place at the granite throne a terrible silence follows behind him.

When he reaches his throne the Winter King looks at the empty chair beside it and he asks “Where is the child?” for the feast cannot begin until all places are filled.

A dark bell is rung, and a door opens, and into the hall a low, crooked creature comes, leading by the hand a young girl who blinks in the sudden light. The creature brings the girl to the empty seat, and the half-folk watch her pass with hungry eyes, for they are older than time and there is nothing that they prize more than youth.

When she has taken her place beside him the Winter King waves his hand, and somewhere a band strikes up and the feast begins. Around the table the half-folk fall upon the food, teeth and talons flashing, and the hall is brought into life by the sounds of celebration.

Only the Winter King does not eat. Every year it is the same: a child taken, a curse of a feast, on the year’s longest night that they might continue on. Their kind are blackened by fate, and the Winter King alone understands that without the child their bodies will fade and their great halls will crack and crumble until nothing remains but dust on the blade of the wind.

He feels the child looking up at him. “Where are the fairies?” she asks, “The lady said there would be fairies.”

There are fairies here, but since their tales were first written and their ballads first sung they have been broken by the long ages, their wings plucked and their hair thinned and their skins made coarse and calloused. The Winter King recalls a time when they brought light to the elder woods, when they dazzled and seduced, but with each passing year those memories sink further into a past concealed. At the Winter King’s table in the Winter King’s great hall the fairy is a lament for what has been lost.

Around them the creatures are destroying the feast, tearing at the meat with cruel fingers, plucking roasted potatoes and steamed fruits and cramming them carelessly into chittering mouths.

“When can I go home?” asks the child.

He wants to tell her that she is already home, that the changeling planted in her family will grow in her place, that she will remain here for eternity. He wants to tell her that eventually she will become one of them; that, in time, she will grow to love them. He wants to tell her these things.

“I want to go home,” she says.

“Eat,” says the Winter King.


This short fiction was written for the Tunbridge Wells Writers Advent Calendar project, in which members of the group were each provided with a Christmas-themed title and then given free rein to write up to 1,000 words in any format and genre using that title as inspiration. 

Visit the Tunbridge Wells Writers Advent Calendar to read the other 24 pieces.

30 Oct 2013

Atoc

The house is ancient, and its two redbrick chimneys pierce the lead-coloured sky like a pair of dead fingers. We fill it with boxes from a hired white van reversed up close to the front door, and as we go in and out dry leaves scuff around us in the driveway. The house is unfamiliar, with angles and echoes that we do not yet recognise.

“Have you been up into the attic yet?” asks Vicky as I manoeuvre past the stack of boxes in the hallway.

“Not yet.”

“We need somewhere to put these when we’ve unpacked,” she says. With every new box the house shrinks a little.

I pull the stepladder out of the hired van and carry it upstairs, and I set it beneath the entrance to the attic. The entrance panel in the ceiling is stiff, which makes me think that it hasn’t been opened in some time, but with a little pressure it creaks open and I pull myself up. The attic is dark, and although the light from the entrance doesn’t penetrate far into the gloom I can make out enough to see that the space has been used as storage for years. I call down to Vicky and she brings two torches.

The torches reveal a narrow space piled unevenly with what might accurately though unkindly be described as junk. There is a full-length mirror with a baroque gilt frame. There are African shields made from animal hide. There are artisanal tools with handles smoothed by the years: a bradawl, a rasp, a hammer. It is the debris of a life well lived, a disordered array of memories lost beneath cobwebs and dust.

“Look at this,” says Vicky. Illuminated by her torch is an old wooden crate, which stands about four feet high and perhaps half that wide and deep. It seems very old, and the ancient wood looks as hard as marble. The front of the box is hinged, such that it can open outward like a door, and the whole thing is fastened shut with a brutish metal padlock.

“What do you think’s in it?” she asks.

“I’ve no idea.”

“Try one of the keys.”

I pull out the bunch of keys that the estate agent gave us, and I poke them into the padlock until one clicks home. I turn the key and slide the padlock out of the hasp. There is no handle on door of the box so I grasp the edge of the front panel and pull, but it won’t move. Then I notice the rows of metal studs thumped into its edges.

“Pass me that hammer,” I say, and Vicky lifts it from the pile of antique tools.

“Why would they nail it shut?” she says.

I work the claw of the hammer into the join and ease it backwards and forwards until, with a loud crack and what feels like an exhalation of breath, the front of the box comes loose. I pull it open, and we are greeted by the sight of something quite grotesque.

Inside the box is a large glass case, almost as large as the box itself, and inside the case is a shrunken figure. It looks like a mummy, but it is unlike any that I’ve ever seen before. The position is all wrong, for a start: it is sat upright, hugging its knees to its chest, and its chin is perched neatly upon its folded arms. There are no bandages; instead it is naked apart from a perished woollen loincloth, a couple of dull gold bracelets and a woven headdress tied with feathers made almost translucent by age. Its dead skin is the miserable grey of wet slate, and dry black fingernails protrude like chips of bark from its fingers. Worst of all is its face, from which two black pebbles stare dully out of the puckered sockets of its eyes above a collapsed nose and two desiccated lips that have shrivelled into a cruel grin.

“What’s it doing in the attic?” says Vicky, “Shouldn’t it be in a museum?”

“The guy who lived here before must have been a collector.”

“We should call someone about it.”

“Look, there’s a little plaque on the bottom of the case,” I aim the torch at it and read: “‘Atoc Capac’.”

“Is that Egyptian?”

“It doesn’t look Egyptian.”

“We should call a museum,” she says, “Get them to take it.”

“It could be worth some money.”

“It’s creepy. The sooner we get rid of it the better.”

“We could bring it out for dinner parties,” I say, but I’m only saying it to tease her. I can barely stand to look at it. The way the light from the torch gleams at the edges of those black pebble eyes seems unearthly.

“Close it,” she says, and I gladly shut the door of the box.

By evening we have unpacked the larger items of furniture and most of the kitchenware, and though there are still boxes heaped in every room it feels as though we have made progress. Vicky pours us a couple of glasses of wine and we sit on the sofa and share our plans for our new home.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m shattered,” she says eventually, then she declares that she’s heading to bed. I tell her that I’ll join her after I’ve finished my drink, and she kisses me and heads upstairs. The bare walls make her footsteps sound oddly brittle.

I finish my wine, then I head up after her. The old staircase groans as I climb it, and when I reach the landing I pause to listen to the sounds that our house makes as it settles.

That’s when I hear a kind of dry scraping noise. Every house has its own language of creaks and sighs as pipes cool and timbers relax, but this is different; this noise sounds almost like a sack being dragged across a wooden floor. I hold my breath and close my eyes: the noise seems to be coming from above me. Yes, definitely from above. From the attic.

I wait under the entrance panel for a time and listen. The noise continues, unmistakeable: scratching, scraping, a hoarse sound reminiscent of something heavy being pulled along the floor. Then it stops.

The silence is more awful than the noise. I imagine something holding its breath, trying to detect me. I wait there for a long time, silent and still, my breath caught in my chest, and I have no idea how long I would have stayed if Vicky hadn’t appeared in the bedroom doorway.

“What are you doing?” she says, rubbing her eye.

“I thought I heard something,” I say, and I suddenly realise how ridiculous I must seem.

“I’m tired. Turn the light off and come to bed.”

I do as she says, and climb into bed beside her. I hear no further noises, but I don’t sleep well.

The next morning over breakfast I ask Vicky whether she heard the noises from the attic the previous night.

“What noises?” she says.

“It sounded like there was something up there.”

“I hope we haven’t got rats.”

“I’m pretty sure it wasn’t rats.”

She takes a bite of toast and chews it thoughtfully.

“When I was little an owl made its nest in our loft,” she says, “Every night it sounded like someone was stomping around on the rafters. I was terrified, I thought it was a monster. So dad went up and blocked up the hole where it was getting in.”

“You think that’s what it was?”

“Could be.”

“I’ll take a look up there later. See if there’s a hole anywhere.”

“You should put some poison down.”

“Maybe.”

When we finish eating I take a torch up into the attic to have a look around. I poke every corner with the beam of the torch, but nothing seems any different to the way it looked the previous day. The wooden box is as we left it, but there is something about it that draws me to it, and I can’t prevent myself from opening it up and looking inside once more. Atoc Capac is just as we left him, scrawny grey limbs folded up tight and staring out into oblivion from those black stone eyes.

The silence up here is absolute, almost unnaturally so, and I realise that I can hear neither Vicky downstairs nor any birds outside. All I can see are the pebble eyes and that petrified grin, and all of a sudden this attic feels impossibly distant from all the warm and comforting places of the world. Outside of the cone illuminated by the torch the darkness seems to pulse, as though it is something alive that wants to pinch out the light. I quickly close the lid of the box and retreat back down the ladder.

“Are you all right?” asks Vicky, “You look a bit shaken.”

I tell her that I’m fine, that it’s just my eyes readjusting to the light, and she asks me if I found any holes or nests. I tell her that I didn’t see any, and she seems surprised.

“You were up there a long time,” she says.

“I suppose so, if you call ten minutes a long time.”

“You went up an hour ago.”

I look at my watch. She’s right; an hour has passed. I have no idea where it has gone.

“Anyway, guess what I did while you were up there,” she says.

“What?”

“I looked him up. On the internet.”

“Who?”

“Atoc Capac. He was an Inca chief.”

“So what’s he doing in our attic?”

“No idea.”

“Did it say anything about a mummy?”

“A French explorer found it and shipped it back to Paris, but it looks like he sold it almost immediately. Then it skipped between owners for a few years until it just kind of...fell off the map.”

“Well it’s back on the map now.”

“The odd thing is that no-one seems to have kept hold of it for more than a few months.”

“And nor will we. I’m going to call the museum on Monday.”

The rest of the day is lost to unpacking, and as pictures appear on walls and ornaments on window sills the house warms and begins slowly to take on something of our character. That evening we go to bed feeling for the first time that this is our home.

Before long I can tell from her breathing that Vicky is deeply asleep, but for some reason I am unable to drop off and I lie there wide-eyed in the darkness. As my eyes adjust I trace the imperfections in the walls, map the contours of the ceiling, but nothing I do to distract myself does anything to hasten the onset of sleep.

Then I hear it. The same noise as the previous night. The awful dry scraping, the dragged hessian sack.

“There’s that noise again,” I say, but as I say the words the noise stops.

“What noise?” says Vicky.

“Can’t you hear it?”

The room is silent.

“Go back to sleep,” she says, and turns over.

I lie in bed staring at a crack that runs like lightning across the ceiling, my ears sensitive to every sound. I hear every ping of metal contracting, every sigh of dry leaves on stone. I am utterly awake.

Then the noise begins again. Scraping, scuffling. Unmistakable. Right above us. I shake Vicky’s shoulder.

“Did you hear that?” I ask.

“What are you doing?” she says.

“Listen.”

She closes her eyes and waits for whatever it is she has been woken to hear, but again, the sound has already stopped. Eventually she sniffs and rolls back over onto her side.

I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep until I have resolved for myself the source of the noise. I slip out of bed and pad onto the landing, out beneath the entrance panel to the attic. I stand there and wait, stand there in silence, barely daring to breathe. My heart thumps in my chest. And then I hear it. Once more the scraping noise comes from above.

“Did you hear that?” I call back to Vicky, but she doesn’t answer.

It doesn’t matter. I set the stepladder in place, grab a torch and climb up.

When I get up there the attic is still, and I stand in the darkness and strain to make out the noise that I am sure I heard.

For a long time it is silent, but then the noise begins. I follow my ears and swing the torch around, and the light falls on the wooden box. I hurl the lid open and fire the torch into the case, and as I do so the noise stops. The hunched little figure is perfectly still, grinning out into infinity.

I am so sure that what I’d heard was real. I begin to wonder if I might be losing my mind.

Under the glare of the torch the pebble eyes glint darkly, and in the dancing shadows that unbearable smile seems to widen. I feel light-headed, overcome by a strange vertiginous sensation as though I am tilting forwards, about to fall. I reach out to the box to steady myself, and I lean heavily against it. It is draughty up here, but I feel sweat on my forehead, on my temples. I feel dizzy. Nauseous.

My gaze falls on Atoc Capac in his glass case. He looks grotesque sat in there, folded up like a dead spider. Then I realise that the door to the case is wide open. Did I open it? I don’t remember opening it.

I feel suddenly faint. The strength in my legs drains away and I begin to tip forwards, begin to collapse towards the mummy. I reach out to stop myself and as my finger makes contact with the papery skin of his forehead there is a flash of light and what feels like a clap of thunder, then everything goes dark.

When my vision returns it takes me a moment to regain my bearings. I am still in the attic, but my view has shifted; the entrance panel in the floor that had been behind me is now in front of me. I must have turned as I fell. I try to move my head, try to get to my feet, but I can’t.

“What are you doing up there?” shouts Vicky, “Is everything all right?”

I try to answer her, but I am unable to make a sound. My throat feels as though it is packed full of sand.

Then I hear myself reply.

“Nothing,” says my voice, from somewhere nearby, “Everything’s fine. I’ll be right down.”

Then I see myself appear in front of me.

Only it can’t be me.

The imposter smiles curiously and reaches out to a point just beyond my vision, then he closes in front of me what I realise is the door to a glass case.

At this I understand what has happened.

I try to stand up, to reach out, but my limbs will not respond. The folded grey arms just visible are utterly lifeless.

“You’re not messing around with that mummy, are you?” calls Vicky.

“Just locking it up,” says whoever is inhabiting my body, “I’ll call the museum tomorrow.”

He smiles again, then he reaches out and closes the door of the box. I try to move, I try to call out, I try to scream, but I can make no sound. The light from his torch slivers and then disappears, and in absolute darkness I hear the click of a padlock, then footsteps, then nothing. 


=====================================


This piece was written for the Tunbridge Wells Writers Hallowe'en Fright Night event (which should have been called Write Fright Night or Tunbridge Wells Frighters if you ask me).

If you enjoyed it then you might also like to read my horror ebook The Slender Man - available from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo.

2 Sep 2013

Edge Of Oblivion - cover art

I think I tweeted a little while ago that my short story Still had been accepted for inclusion in a charity anthology being compiled and edited by the always energetic and inspirational Tony Healey.

I don't remember whether or not I did, though, so it may not have happened and my recollection of having done so could in fact simply be the world's most mundane dream.

Either way, the anthology is real, which I know for sure because Tony has just informed me that it has both a name and some exceptionally beautiful cover art featuring a painting by Bruce Pennington, which I have helpfully pasted on the right-hand side of this post.

Amazing, isn't it?

If you want to know more about the anthology then you can click here and read about it on Tony's blog. Remember to say hello to him from me.

6 Aug 2013

Tunbridge Wells Writers Dot Org Dot You Kay

OK, so, if you're following the Tunbridge Wells Writers on Twitter or on Facebook or even in real actual life at The Black Pig on alternate Tuesdays like I haven't been then you'll probably already be aware that the site has outgrown its previous home and has been dragged away and dumped into a new patch of internet.

It looks and feels a bit different - there's a lovely picture of someone (whose name from now on I shall insist for absolutely no reason at all is Orville Gaspar Chalk and shall not be persuaded otherwise) reading a book in the lee of the Wellington Rocks, and the navigation is cleaner.

So, with only a relatively small amount of further ado - honestly, so little further ado as to make no difference, so little that you probably wouldn't even go so far as to call it further ado at all - such an insignificant amount of further ado that in fact I don't even know why I mentioned it at all - with that little further ado (i.e. hardly any, not really any worth mentioning, at any rate) the new URL is www.tunbridgewellswriters.org.uk.

Pretty straightforward, really. So make sure you update your links or bookmarks, and don't forget to check back often to see what the group is up to.

18 Jun 2013

Man Of Indestructonium

I saw the new Superman film the other day.

OK, so it would be very easy to criticise the fact that it had almost as many flashbacks as Rocky V, and that the camera did not stay still for even a single moment even when people were sitting down quietly talking, and the fact that the force of Superman punching Zod in the head was not sufficient to collapse his skull but the force of him twisting his head was enough to break his neck [spoiler alert, y'all!], but I won't, because what I want to talk about is where on earth the drama comes from when your protagonist is invincible and morally unimpeachable and has no character flaws. Because this is a far more fundamental criticism of the film than simply stomach-turning cinematography and a narrative timeline with ADHD and a frankly cavalier attitude towards physics.

In Man Of Steel, Superman's unique quality - and his downfall in this film - is that he is all-powerful and essentially perfect in every way. He never hits anyone when they get their shit all up in his grill. He's always kind and altruistic, never selfish or greedy or jealous or proud or human in any other way (I know, I know, he's not actually human, but we the audience are human and so we need our protagonists to exhibit human characteristics in order for us to empathise with them). And he can't be hurt. By anything.

Read that back: you have a protagonist who always does the right thing, never does anything bad and can't be hurt.

So where's the drama?

Sure, in most films we understand that the protagonist probably isn't going to die, and that he or she is probably going to achieve his or her primary goal, but we go along with it because what's interesting are the challenges that the protagonist faces and overcomes, and the personal growth that he or she undergoes. Even superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, who we expect to win in the end, have to make sacrifices or are damaged by their experiences in some way, either physically or emotionally (if I wanted to sound pretentious then I might call their victories Pyrrhic, but I don't so I won't). Until now I have never seen a film in which the protagonist is already perfect (so has nothing to learn and no way in which to grow as a person), in which he has to make no difficult choices and in which there isn't even a pretence that he is in any danger.

For example, the climactic fight with Zod involved two invincible superbeings taking turns at propelling each other through buildings over and over and over again via the application of knuckle to face, and at no point did either of them appear to be in any danger. In one instance Superman punched Zod so hard in the face that he flew backwards through the air, then Superman flew after him and repeatedly propelled him forward with his fist for mile after mile until Zod simply dodged or blocked the next punch (I honestly can't remember what happened) and then just carried on fighting as though nothing had happened. The only point at which Superman seemed in any way vulnerable, when his powers were diminished, was when he was trapped beneath the terraforming tripod, and at that point he simply clenched his teeth, deepened his frown and somehow got his powers back.

Where a character is invulnerable there can still be drama, however; it can come from the choices that they make, or are forced to make, and the emotions that they experience. But here, too, I struggle. I don't see how I can empathise with someone whose moral code is as bullet-proof as his chest and whose most taxing dilemma is "face or groin?" in terms of where on the victim's body the knuckles should be repeatedly applied.

As a result I didn't really care about Superman. Why should I? He's definitely going to win, he's not going to get hurt, he's going to be on the moral high ground from the start and remain on it until the end, and he's not anything like me. The characters that I care about are flawed and vulnerable and make bad decisions and change their minds and sometimes do bad things for good reasons and sometimes do good things for bad reasons. In short, they're human. Even Zod was more human than Superman - he was confined by an accident of birth into a role in society that meant that he had to do a bad thing (destroy all humans) for a good reason (to save his people), and he didn't really give any indication that he was particularly happy about it. Right up until he went cardboard ("Now that you've foiled my plan I'm going to kill everyone on this planet ha ha ha ha ha ha!") I think I liked Zod more than I liked Superman.

When I spoke to a friend about this they said to me oh but have you read the comics it's all in the comics in the comics he's like really really deep and he's got like this really really complex moral code that he can't ever ever break even if he like really really wants to and it makes much more sense if you've read the comics and. I don't care about what's in the comics, I'm talking about the film. I don't expect to have to read 200,000 words of context in order to enjoy what is being presented as a stand-alone narrative. That'd be like going to a restaurant and having to eat a million potatoes beforehand in order for their chips to taste good.

So although Superman is exactly the person I'd like to find standing next to me if a leather-and-denim-clad motorbike gang from a 1980s film jumped me under a disused railway bridge on my way to pilates, in Man Of Steel he's just boring. Give me a bat-obsessed billionaire vigilante clearly suffering the harrowing psychological effects of post-traumatic stress disorder any day.

PS Man Of Steel wasn't all bad. I liked the part when Superman and Zod were fighting and Zod said "This can only end one way" and then described the two ways that it could end. Also, the surprising girth of Laurence Fishburne is always entertaining. What happened to you, Furious?