Where Nightmares Come From by Joe R. Lansdale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Where Nightmares Come From, The Art of Storytelling in the Horror Genre, was received free from Crystal Lake Publishing via HorrorAddicts.com in return for an honest review.
As a writer gradually developing her craft I am always open to hearing and reading the views of those at the top of their game, those who have ‘made it’. Like most, I think we approach such articles in the hope that we’ll discover the magic ingredient, the key that turns a novel in the drawer into a published piece of work. I didn’t get that from this book, nor is it something I discovered from my go-to motivational source, On Writing by Stephen King, who also appears in this particular publication. What I found however, which was equally valuable, was the same story from all contributors—whether they be film maker, author, poet, director, publisher or editor—the rule of three: read, write and finish what you start. No exceptions. I learned from Ramsay Campbell that you don’t need different notebooks for different projects, he—like me—makes notes on one thing, goes on to another, then returns to that first project … in the same notebook! I learned that daily word counts don’t always matter—unless you’re trying out for that annual marathon, NaNoWriMo. I learned that you should write for yourself. I mean, if you don’t enjoy it, why bother? In truth, and in my heart-of-hearts, these horror giants were merely stating what most of us already know, the only rule is that rule of three. Whilst the book was geared towards those who write in the horror genre, much of what was said can be applied to writers across the whole range of fiction, and even non-fiction. And when it comes to nightmares—everybody is different but the contributors reinforce the idea of developing horror from the everyday and mundane, from the what ifs? There doesn’t have to be blood and gore, it can be subtle, more dark and slow-building—again, another reassurance as that is the style of horror I prefer. So what did I take away from all this? A lot of reassurance and a reading list … oh, and the determination to keep on writing. And now I’m off to read Patricia Highsmith’s The Snail-Watcher.
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Microcosms was slightly different last week, offering writers selected lines from previous competitions to incorporate into their flash. My story was Runner-Up and included the following line:
#85 She grieved for the girl for whom the song was written
The Butterfly Collector
The key turned and slowly the dancer pirouetted, boxed in she was a prisoner of time and place.
“She’s beautiful,” said the watcher, gazing at the figurine as it spun to the haunting melody. She knew the song, the words had haunted her since childhood and now she mouthed them in time to the gentle melody.
“I’m glad you like her,” said her companion. “You remind me of her.”
“You talk as if she was real,” said the girl, smiling at the rather grand gentleman who had taken such an interest in her. He was famous for his songs which were sung in music hall and opera alike. He held the key to her future, she was sure of it.
Only when the clockwork finally wound down could the dancer see her audience. This girl was young, an angel; just like she had been once, like she still was even though more than a century had passed. The Devil liked angels. He liked to trap them, hear their wings beating against the prisons he built them—his butterfly collection. He had bated her, promised her a stage that would be hers forever if she would dance for him, sing for him, and so she had. Too late had she realised her danger as invisible chains formed from his words as they wove their spell. Too late did she try to resist their iron. Too late did she understand her flesh and blood had turned to ivory, made her the figurine which now entranced her audience. She grieved for the girl for whom the song was written—such a long time ago now—and for the girl who watched, another butterfly about to be caught.
This story was the Judge's Pick for Microcosms 90 and incorporated the elements: hunter, lake, horror. I also linked it to the site's reference to Native American Day. Enjoy.
“Tear Drop Lake,” said the guide. “Formed from the tears of my people.”
The hunter stared at the mirrored expanse, ignored the myth behind its origin. Still and silent, nothing rippled on its surface, it showed no sign of sustaining any sort of life in its depths. Yet appearances could be deceptive. Tom prepared his line.
“You won’t catch anything that way,” said the guide, handing over a small spear. This is how it’s done. Try it.”
“It’s too deep,” said Tom.
“No, look again. Can you see how the incline makes it shallow along this shore? My people ate well here.”
My people. The man certainly had his faux Native American Indian act down to a tee. He even claimed they were following the Trail of Tears, the forced march where over four thousand had died.
Tom walked towards the water’s edge. The spear felt light and flimsy. “You sure this is up to the job?” he called. But he was speaking to thin air. He shrugged. The lake was beautiful, peaceful; just him and Nature. He waded in, splintering the glassy surface. The water lapped at the intruder, turning its attention from the shore. Soft slivers crawled over his trousers, mercury rising. Tom did not notice, too busy trying to see the fish he had been promised. A shadow moved. He readied himself.
Somewhere, someone was sobbing but that too he dismissed, a bird perhaps. He refused to break concentration. The mercury climbed higher until—too late—he noticed the cold creeping over him, the wavelets becoming tendrils as they pulled him down, his screams muffled by unbodied lamentations.
His guide watched from the shore. Others had joined him. They cast their lines to reel Tom in. After all, he had said his people ate well here.
Brisk Worlds by Brian S. Creek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For the past few years, I have been a member of an online Flash Fiction community the FlashDogs. Week in, week out we would compete against each other in competitions like Flash Friday, The Angry Hourglass and MicroBookends. These competitions have since ended but the community has remained, albeit in a slightly looser form, and it has been wonderful to see its members bringing their work to a wider audience. One of these long-time writers is Brian Creek, author of Brisk Worlds. I remember always enjoying his stories so as soon as I heard he’d released a collection of this work I purchased it immediately.
Reading those flashes was a walk down memory lane, wonderful snippets of Sci-Fi, little nuggets of emotion, the crazy adventures of Chris and Mike as they try to save the world, all were there. Flash as a writing form requires real skill and Brian Creek has shown how it can be done, how so much can be said or conveyed with so little and I would urge anyone who is a fan of this art form to dip in and take a look. Personal favourites for me include Tanks For The Help, Meeting Of New Killers and Only Way Out.
Time is precious these days and it can be hard to fit in the time to read. Brisk Worlds solves this problem. Dip in.
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Quiet Places: A Novella of Cosmic Folk Horror by Jasper Bark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This novella was received free from Crystal Lake Publishing in return for an honest review.
Yet again, Crystal Lake Publishing has not failed to deliver. This is my first reading of a Jasper Bark book, and I must admit that being of a squeamish nature I had avoided his work having heard rumours of a certain tendency towards gore. I prefer my horror dark, atmospheric, sinister—possibly a touch more subtle than what I expected from this author. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that Quiet Places ticked all the right boxes for me. A story very much in the folk horror tradition, it tells of a young woman, Sally, lured to a remote part of Scotland by her husband to share his sudden inheritance. There, she finds herself not only isolated from the rest of the country but also from her husband as his behaviour and secrecy mark a growing distance between them. Eventually she discovers he, and subsequently she, have been summoned back to Scotland to mitigate the effects of an age-old curse hanging over his family and the people of the town of Dunballan, a curse which turns people into mindless and helpless beings. Sally’s researches into the curse encourage her to try and put an end to it, to free her husband from his suffering; unfortunately, her well-meaning attempts have disastrous consequences. From the disembodied voice of Hettie of the Hedgerows, the appearance of the supernatural Beast of Dunballan, and the almost Lovecraftian city and otherworldly plane of existence, this book has it all. I read it in a day, always a good sign.
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Two pieces for you from recent times, a drabble from Janet Reid's competition and my latest Microcosms entry, Dead to the World. Whilst the latter did not get placed, my week was made by getting a comment from Janet for the drabble - something a lot of us aim for and I rarely achieve. I've managed it only once before and successfully 'creeped her out'. This time her comment was 'Not quite a story but egad, what great imagery' (I hope you feel the same!). Responses like these make me happy and keep me writing.
Requirement: incorporate snap, gator, tie, ask, iron.
Helen picked up the iron. Steam hissed satisfyingly from its base. Normally she disliked this particular task but sometimes life gave you wrinkles which needed to be smoothed out.
The offending item, the instigator of her current mood, lay tied up in front of her. He eyed the iron anxiously. “When you said you wouldn’t mind a bit of experimentation, this wasn’t what I had in mind.”
“You mean like this?” She held the Snapchat image in front of him. He looked away.
So wrinkled, so … shrivelled, so much to iron out. Time was pressing - and so was she.
Dead to the World
Elements included: Flat/Apartment; Horror
The bed had refused to move. So it had been left behind, stained mattress, corroded metalwork and all.
“Ugh,” said Diane. “It can’t stay here. God knows what’s living inside it.”
Gregg sighed. It would be up to him to start shifting the thing. But he couldn’t moan too much: the flat had been a bargain, despite the junk left by the previous tenants.
“Just vanished,” said the landlord, with a shrug. “Not even behind with the rent.”
Their neighbour hovered in the doorway. “I give you a month,” he said, as they moved in. “Then you’ll disappear, just like everyone else.”
Gregg ignored him. The flat was a dream come true … apart from the bed. He looked at it and yawned.
“No,” said Diane. But her tone was uncertain, her eyelids fighting to stay open.
The couple stared at the mattress, becoming oblivious to its filth, seeing only its invitation. Without further argument, they threw a blanket on the bed and lay down, not feeling the bones rattling beneath them.
The children were awake.
“They seem nice. Can we keep them, Bobby? I’d like to have a mummy and daddy again. I always sleep better with someone to cuddle.”
“Okay, Tilly. But don’t get too attached. You know they don’t last long.”
The blanket rippled in the moonlight as small arms pushed up through the mattress, wrapped themselves tightly around the bodies.
“It’s going to be different this time,” said Tilly, pulling them down through the foam, the coils snaring their flesh as she did so. “I’m never going to let go. Little children should never be left on their own.”
Steel pierced skin and new stains formed on the mattress. It had been a long day and both Gregg and Diane were dead to the world.
A two for one this week, both recent wins at Microcosms. A bit of relevant flash with Fire and Fury (Microcosms 84) and a poem, The Fly in the Ointment (Microcosms 82).
Fire and Fury
“He wants to stop here? But why?” The aide peered through the ash-covered window. Beyond lay splintered high-rises and fragmented office-blocks, everything blackened, rusted and long-abandoned.
The guard shrugged. “Wants to speak to the people.”
“What people?” asked the aide, staring at the emptiness. “No. I know we were told to play along but we are not stopping.”
“It was so much easier in the days of twitter,” muttered the man. “I could reach so many people and now …” He picked up two clockwork birds and wound them up. The birds began to trill ‘fire and fury’ with repetitive monotony.
“If I didn’t know it was already the end of the line for our guest, I’d strangle him myself,” said the guard. “He told me Odin had two ravens which perched on his shoulder as he hung on the Gallows Tree. Kept him in touch with the world – like twitter.” The guard spat.
“Huginn and Munin, thought and wisdom. Not quite the same,” said the aide, “If only …”
The train left the destroyed city, started up the hill. Now they saw movement, a mass of distorted humanity crawling out of blasted shelters, following the train to its final destination.
“Doesn’t he realise?” asked the guard as their prisoner strode purposefully to the tree, allowed the noose to be slipped over his neck, the two little clockwork birds placed on his shoulder.
“God complex,” said the aide.
“I wish to speak,” said the prisoner, “as a part of the government …”
The executioner stared at him. “140 characters only,” he said maliciously.
Yet even as the condemned started to count on his fingers, the trapdoor opened. And it was a man who swung there, not a God. Just a man. One who had gifted Death millions of followers.
The Fly in the Ointment
I am the fly in the ointment
The one who walks
The one who talks
Of equality and justice
And other fanciful things
I am the fire ant
Burning out bigotry
Breaching the walls
My refusal to die
The sting in the tail
I am the spider
Weaving a web of silken truth
Catching the unwary
In a casual conversion
An opening of eyes
I am the worm
Turning over the lies
Of the dumb and the blind
To reveal the truth
Of the hypocrite’s heart
I am the butterfly
Beating its wings
Bringing the beautiful chaos
Of our diversity
Into the light
I am the one who walks with ghosts
On Freedom’s Road
I am the one
I am the many
And we are swarming
We march and we fall
And we crawl if we have to
To the feet of black-visored puppets
A civilised barricade
Of guns against words
Where we will talk
Of equality and justice
And other fanciful things
Coldwood: The Haunted Man and Other Tales by A.M. Shine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Real gothic darkness haunts these pages which overflow with stories of madness and murder all within the confines of that strange town of Coldwood. It has everything you could desire, from a lunatic asylum, to neglected mansions and abandoned churches, all set against a backdrop of savage snowstorms, strange red mists and lowlands across which wolves roam. The inhabitants of the town live up to their setting and display strange habits, obsessions and twisted desires, much of which directly leads them back to the Asylum. The stories interlinked unobtrusively and wove the community together, the quality of each matching its neighbours. I would select however, A Wolf at the Door, as my personal favourite for its portrayal of madness and self-deception.
Gothic literature for me, when written well, is a delight because of the language it uses, and here words from the past pepper the pages to create a richness not seen in many modern tales, this makes me happy - even if it is describing a suicide or wolves ripping their victim apart. Poe is the master of this tradition but this anthology is a wonderful homage to the genre. Recommended reading, particularly on a winter's evening with dusk drawing in and a fire crackling in the hearth.
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BEHOLD! Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders by Doug Murano
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This collection was received free in return for an honest review from Crystal Lake Publishing.
The new weird has arrived. A collection of the strange and the freakish, the dark and the fantastical. Divided into Oddities, Curiosities and Wonders, this is a literary cabinet of alternative delights.
Oddities starts off with the freaks of LaRue’s Dime Museum, a frozen image of a past thought dead and buried. But is it? Wildflower, Cactus, Rose ponders the eternal question of the nature of beauty and the power of image over others, “The world is a mirror … What we see is a reflection of who we are.” The Baker of Millepoix gives himself in more ways than one to help those in his village. And then there is Clive Barker’s Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament. Dark and disturbing, it’s story of who truly wields power “We cannot believe, we men, that power will ever reside happily in the body of a woman … Not true power … The power must be in male hands.” Jacqueline has power, but does she have real control? This tale is my favourite amongst the Oddities.
Curiosities begins with Madame Painte: For Sale, a cursed ornament which wreaks destruction on those who dare to take it into their homes. It is followed by the wonderfully humorous Chivalry by Neil Gaiman. I loved this story for the sheer pragmatism of Mrs Whitaker when the Holy Grail enters her life and an Arthurian knight appears and tries to cut a deal with her for its return. She packs him off with cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches, what’s not to love? Then we plunge from the gentle humour and uplifting nature of Chivalry into the grim holiday-from-hell world of Fully Boarded. The hotel inspector doesn’t stand a chance. In Amelia’s Wake takes us back in time to Canada and the clash of old-world superstition with non-belief, a theme also developed in John F.D. Taff’s A Ware That Will Not Keep. The latter is a tragic tale of what one will do in order to survive, in this case the concentration camp, and the price that had to be paid both then and now. A heart-breaking story. Earl Pruitt’s Smoker pulls us into the world of the hive and the section closes with Hazelnuts and Yummy Mummies, a hallucinogenic trip into the past to make peace with oneself.
Too soon you find yourself coming to the end of the book and its Undefinable Wonders. The Shiny Fruit of Our Tomorrows with its train-hopping and dream-chasing, The Wakeful and a very strange garden. My favourite here, Knitter, a story of creation and destruction, of making and unmaking, scary in its far-reaching consequences for those who see the Knitter. Then it’s underground in Through Gravel, and finally Hiraeth with its elements of folklore and superstition in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm.
Special mention must go to Stephanie M. Wytovich and her poems An Exhibition of Mother and Monster and As a Guest at the Telekinetic Tea Party. The poems are placed at strategic points in the anthology perfectly linking the tales before with those to come, dovetails of darkness which should not be overlooked.
I honestly loved this anthology, the quality of writing and sheer imagination is second-to-none. Diverse and endlessly entertaining, this is story-telling at its best.
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My Runner-Up entry for Microcosms 79. The prompt was to include the line 'The rain seemed to be writing cryptic messages on my window panes.'
Life was being difficult. People would look at me oddly, speak in languages I didn’t understand, move further than they needed to when I joined their queue. Even the rain seemed to be writing cryptic messages on my window pane. Somebody was trying to tell me something. I just needed to tune-in, decode the transmission. So I listened with greater care to the babble of those around me, felt their words spike my brain, repetitive waves of command merging into something I could not ignore, something I had to share.
“Mummy, tell me a story …”
So I told her a story, a story made of the words from the world beyond. I didn’t notice her shrink from me.
“Mummy, can you draw me a picture …”
So I drew her a picture made by the words hooked onto my heart. I didn’t notice her tears watering the page.
The word was even stronger in the hospital. It was everywhere. But I never told anyone. It was my secret.
“Time for Mary to go now, Mrs Williams.”
“Can we have a minute alone?”
A smile, a nod, a closed door.
The word crawled on my tongue, itching to be released. My gift to my child. A secret to be passed from mother to daughter.
“I have a present for you, Mary.”
I pulled her tight to me, whispered my secret word into her ear. I didn’t notice when she stopped struggling.
A scream. “What did you do?”
Still the word itched. It had tasted freedom and wanted more.
“Do, nurse? Come here and I’ll tell you. Let me whisper in your ear …”
A writer - I think that says it all.