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 …”
Recent times has seen the return of VERStype's regular Jigsaw Cut-up poetry challenge. The site posts two poems from which the writer selects words and phrases to create their own found poem. June's choices were Rudyard Kipling's A Charm and Angel or Demon by Victor Hugo. These are great fun to do and a real challenge as well as exposing you to poems and poets you may not have read. Why not give it a go next time? Look out for the alert via @VERStype.
Below is my response to Kipling and Hugo:
Clutch the hand of Virgil
Take thy ease in his presence
Treasure the soaring of his voice
The echoes dazzling, breathless
Spreading the loveliest reverie
To sweeten and make whole
The woe of all uncounted folk
Whispered Echoes by Paul F. Olson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This collection was received free in return for an honest review from Crystal Lake Publishing.
When a collection of stories is reissued, you know it must be regarded as special by the publishers, that it is still ‘valid’ in some way. Even though this book included a brand new novella, I was still slightly sceptical, thinking that perhaps the stories might seem dated, jaded. Would stories published in the late 80s still hold up today?
Firstly, I must admit I have never read Paul F. Olson’s stories before so I was not quite sure what to expect but I did read the stories in the order printed as suggested by the introduction which indicated a clear progression in the quality and depth of writing – something with which I must concur.
The early stories were entertaining, dark happenings in small towns very much in the mould of Stephen King but without as many of the little details he throws in to set the scene so perfectly. However, these touches of increasing atmosphere and tone began to come through stronger for me from Through the Storm onwards.
Before this though is The Visitor. An unsettled autumn sees the return of a yearly visitor and strange happenings occur—very much ‘something wicked this way comes’. Attempts to encourage his leaving or prevent his returning fail and nothing, nothing can be done to change it. This inability to prevent disaster, to ward off the darkness that is out there continues in From a Dreamless Sleep Awakened, The Forever Bird, Homecoming and They came from the Suburbs. Each story finishes in such a way that the reader has to fill in the gaps … although they are very clearly signposted.
Then there’s the ‘something horrible in the cellar’ trope of Through the Storm. The imagery of nature’s fury as the backdrop for the escalating conflict between Andy and his great aunt ratchets up the tension in this tale; the build-up mirroring the seething anger and resentment in the boy until he erupts … with such disastrous consequences. The More Things Change brings a surreal, Daliesque quality to an horrific situation which results in paranoia and ignorance and a witch hunt. Ghosts, curses, facing fears and confronting the past are all covered in Guides, Getting Back, Faith and Henry Gustafson and Down the Valley Wild.
Finally you are left with the meatier, and newest, offering from Olson, Bloodybones. It wrong-footed me straight away, at least for the first few pages, and then the perspective shifts as David Mahon describes his hunt for Amy, his missing girlfriend and you realise the tale began as a story within a story. Even though time has passed and his girlfriend is assumed dead, he still searches the area of her disappearance and, together with her sister, eventually discovers the old story of Bloodybones and past murders, of a ghost who is no longer resting. Bloodybones is the standout story for me here. Olson’s imagery and pacing was spot on and the ending was much more satisfying than those earlier stories.
Whispering Echoes is certainly an entertaining collection and a worthwhile read with carefully crafted stories. All shades of darkness are represented here.
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For those of you who do not know, The Infernal Clock (originating as an anthology which I co-edited with David Shakes), is in the process of evolving into a brand in its own right. Both of us hope to develop it in such a way that we can provide a platform for horror writers to develop their own writing and get wider exposure - something that is very difficult in the publishing industry, as well as to further our own writing careers.
Following the publication of The Infernal Clock we announced the Infernal Flash Competition, challenging writers to create a 500 word (max) horror story based on the prompt to be found here.
This week we are delighted to announce that Mark A Morris is our Fourth Place winner.
Please drop by The Infernal Clock and read his story. If you want to find out more about him, check out his website The Assorted Writings of Mark A Morris and look for him on Facebook where he is a frequent poster of quality flash fiction.
My Microcosms 74 flash entry. Joint Community Pick and HM from the Judge. Not bad when trying to combine my elements from the spinner which threw Pegasus, Thule and horror at me. If you like writing flash, why not join in? Microcosms is every Friday and offers the chance not only of being selected by the Judge but also by the community.
Weary eyes followed the boy’s directions. A mass of white slowly loomed into focus, stark against the ink of night. The crew shrugged their shoulders and turned away. It was just another iceberg.
Only the Captain paid any attention. He had not quite given up. Slowly the ship drifted towards the frozen mound, the temperature dropping so that by the time they reached the hostile shoreline frost dusted his men, transformed them into ghosts.
The mysterious island of the northern wastes. “Prepare to go ashore,” he ordered.
“But Captain, the stories …”
He looked sadly at his men, his ghosts. “We have no choice. No food, little water. Here—we might have a chance.” Then he looked back at the ocean, the never-ending emptiness and they saw it with him.
It was as bleak as expected, ice and barren rock, but they found an easy path leading them inland. Soon snow started to fall, obscured their vision. The group huddled together as the flurry became a blizzard.
“Did you see it?”
The Captain turned.
“A horse,” said the man, pointing. “I saw a horse!”
The Captain looked in the same direction. Could see a shape that might be a horse, might not. Might be false hope.
“A horse, Captain!” Others were pointing now and they could all clearly see the creature, whiter than anything they had ever seen before. “It must come from somewhere.”
Hope sparked dead eyes. Until the horse stretched out impossible wings.
“Pegasus,” said the crew, voices awed.
“We can never follow him,” said one sailor. “He belongs to the spirit world.”
But the Captain smiled. That was no longer a problem. The storm had dropped and the horse led them on. It left no mark on the snow. And they left no footprints.
... sort of. I've had a bit of a declutter here at My Playground. When it's a wet Bank Holiday, thoughts usually turn to housekeeping of some sort and I thought it was about time to blew the cobwebs away from this site.
Some things have gone, some remain but in particular you might notice a Reviews page. A recent step for me was to become part of Crystal Lake Publishing's advance reader group. They send an email asking if I'm interested in a book and I say yay or nay. I've been lucky in that the two they've sent me so far, second to be posted in June, have been good - as far as I'm concerned. I know others may disagree. If I don't like something, I will say. I reviewed a Grey Matter Press book recently, Mister White and only gave it 3 stars which made me feel bad, even though 3 means I liked it! Others have rated it much higher. But reading is subjective and publishers will be prepared for this, just as much as writers have to be. The Mister White book, by the way, was one I purchased as part of my determination this year to read more from small and independent publishers.
I have put a note on my Reviews page that I will consider approaches to review books when I can. You can get in touch with me via the Contacts page or send me a message over twitter @el_Stevie.
What else have I been up to? Working behind the scenes for The Infernal Clock. This wonderful anthology - I am allowed to say that as I am biased - is available on amazon. If you would like the chance to win a print copy why not enter our Infernal Flash Competition. You still have a chance to enter your story, maximum 500 words, closing date 3/06/2017. Go here for more details and to check out the prompt. The winner also gets consideration for a slot in our next anthology and the top four will get their stories published on The Infernal Clock blog. I look forward to reading your stories.
A writer - I think that says it all.