... 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.
Talking with Psychopaths and Savages: A Journey into the Evil Mind by Christopher Berry-Dee
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Thought there would be more to this than there was. Touched very lightly on a number psycopaths, giving accounts of interviews etc but throughout there were references to the author's other books and considerable references to his publisher, John Blake which felt almost like book 'product placement' which was very irritating.
View all my reviews
Kingdom of Fire and Darkness was my entry for last week's Microcosms flash fiction contest. The special challenge asked that you create a 'new' myth as well as incorporate the prompts. I chose the creation of the Underworld.
Kingdom of Fire and Darkness
Half-flesh, he crawled through dead tunnels. The skin of him, albino patches splintered by bone. Blind eyes bleeding tears of despair as fingers tore at rock, guided old roots of ancient trees into a mouth forever hungry. Exhausted, he collapsed and once more allowed himself to remember.
“Creatures move beneath our land,” had said the Elders as the ground opened to swallow the year’s harvest. “We need a warrior to go down into the dark, destroy those who seek to destroy us.”
Erebus had volunteered, entering the belly of the mountain with eyes wide open only to close them as he starved and found his nails picking at the meat of himself, making him lesser. His mind began to wander and his mutterings echoed along tunnels, crept out across the valley, disturbing those who had long since given him up for dead. The lands had been quiet since Erebus had gone into the below world.
But then he returned. Half-man, half-abomination he crawled out of the dark, slithered amongst villagers frozen in horror, wrenched a child from its mother’s arms, dragged it back into the tunnels from which he came. There he showed it the lakes of fire, the bodies of others, strangers he had captured, taught the child his ways.
“This is my kingdom,” he rasped. “I will let you return above but you must tell them of the fires that await them, tell them of this world of the dead, tell them to send me their madmen and murderers. If you do not, I will come for you.”
So the child, now a youth, returned to the light; told of the inferno below, spread the story of Erebus, travelled far and wide until all knew of the horrors of the Kingdom of Fire and Darkness.
This was my Runner Up entry for Microcosms weekly flash fiction competition. Elements I used: 'The Empty Room' (Burt Bacharach song) and horror genre.
A frail hand caressed the thick stone wall, felt its solid reassurance. Dim light filtered through a crack in the brick canvas, an almost accidental slit admitting only a weak jagged ray which settled on papyrus skin, illuminating the calligraphy of age. The hand moved and continued to trace its unsteady path around the perimeter of the tomb. For many years the hand had marked the passage of time in this manner, fingers trailing the white powder of mildew in never-ending rotation, dragging fear and despair in its wake. Occasionally the hand would feel cold metal break the monotony of brick, chain links heavy, weighting down weary flesh, would linger over the smoothness of iron, its curves the curtailer of a freedom long-since lost. Deformed feet allowed the hand to lead, soles immune to the soiled floor, its soft slipperiness. It was a path they had walked many times before and, until now, always in company. The voice belonging to the hand tried to sing, a weak and feeble sound compared to the strength of the screams which had once echoed around the chamber. It was a song he missed. The voice broke with frustration, let out a sob. Death had been impatient, had stolen what he had intended to give, a gift which he had been lovingly preparing for years with such exquisite tortures. The hand led the feet to the door and back out into the world leaving the room empty behind him. But it would not stay that way for long. His eyes would choose another guest and soon his hand would be caressing more than stone.
Title: Hekla's Children
Author: James Brogden
Publisher: Titan Books Ltd
Synopsis from the book: A decade ago, teacher Nathan Brookes saw four of his students walk up a hill and vanish. Only one returned - Olivia - starved, terrified, and with no memory of where she'd been. After a body is found in the same woodland where they disappeared, it is first believed to be one of the missing children, but is soon identified as a Bronze Age warrior, nothing more than an archaeological curiosity. Yet Nathan starts to have terrifying visions of the students. Then Olivia reappears, half-mad and willing to go to any lengths to return the corpse to the earth. For he is the only thing keeping a terrible evil at bay...
Review: A thoroughly enjoyable tale which I would describe as a dark fantasy rather than horror. As I read, it brought to mind the stories of Alan Garner – particularly the Weirdstone of Brisinghamen – which I had loved as a child. It took me a while to work out what it was about the book that brought this back but eventually figured it out to be the tone and atmosphere and the tantalising sense of the ‘otherworld’ in the present or only just beyond the veil. The story focuses very much on Nathan Brookes and his attempts to make sense of what happened in the past and, in a way, his redemption. I felt truly sorry for him when he was left behind in Un as Scattie took on the role of saviour. It was a bit of a pity that her character was not as rounded out as Nathan’s as her story is told as a straightforward recount. This makes her seem somewhat lacking in emotion and prevented me from engaging with her more, for example when she describes leaving her child or refers to her daughter, there is a strange distance I would not have expected. However that was the only downside (perhaps to be addressed in a future story?) and overall this was well-crafted and original escapism.
This book was received free in return for an honest review from Crystal Lake Publishing.
Initially when I looked at the cover and read the blurb I wasn’t too sure that I would like it. The cover itself would’ve put me off and the blurb which talks about a ‘perky blonde’ added to that feeling; I pretty much share Sarah Killian’s views on the type, although I doubt I would kill. BUT. Once I started to read, I was completely drawn into the book. The chatty, friendly tone of the book, of Sarah herself, meant that I could not but help warm to her. I cared about a serial killer, regardless of who her intended victims were, and the killings were actually secondary. It didn't matter that it the prospective victims were young people - and I am a parent with a horror of school violence and the mindless massacres that crop up in the US. I should care about the youngsters but in the end their possible demise faded into the background. It became all about Sarah and whether she survived the attentions of a former colleague who wanted her to join him in a new organisation set up in opposition to that which she worked for, or, if she refused, he would have killed her. A very easy read, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to further adventures with Ms Killian.
Zeroflash is a monthly competition which I have only occasionally entered - something which I really should rectify as it's a good place to exercise those old flash muscles. This particular story was my first entry here for some time, probably because they chose a genre dear to my heart ... horror, naturally.
Zeroflash 2nd Place
Mary held out her hands, palms up. Blood dripped on the floor.
“The stigmata of the damned,” said the priest. She moaned at his words, a bleeding Madonna. His tableau was coming along nicely. “Mother Mary,” continued the minister kneeling down beside her. “Mother, giver of life, but that’s not you … is it?” He nodded at the body lying next to her, still and silent. “Your only begotten son,” he said. “That too is a lie though … isn’t it? For our sins God gave his only begotten son. Would you do the same?”
She shook her head, whimpered in pain.
“No? Another lie,” he said. “You’ve done it before.”
Did she remember? Was that shameful memory buried so deep she’d forgotten? Her sin. A baby left to die. He watched carefully for that light of awareness to reach her eyes, was gratified when he saw it. Now she knew who he was, this preacher she had welcomed so unquestioningly into her home.
“But I didn’t die, did I mother? So here we are—a holy family, a trinity—remembering the message of Easter, the power of the Crucifixion.”
The empty cross he had fashioned stood ready against the wall. Hammer and nails lying at its feet. Metal already bloodied from Mary’s own martyrdom. Now it was Adam’s turn. The priest dragged him across and raised him up onto the wood, ropes holding him whilst iron pierced flesh. When he’d finished, the minister kissed his brother on the cheek. “They named me Judas,” he said, ripping the dog-collar from his neck. “Pretty apt, don’t you think?” Then he turned and walked away, leaving behind a Madonna and Son waiting for a resurrection that would not come.
The Angry Hourglass
He stroked the skull. The last film of skin clinging determinedly to bone, defying the man whose hands now caressed its surface so possessively. A flesh mask serving no purpose. Noah suddenly felt lonely; longed to see a smiling face again. It had been an age since anyone had smiled at him. Normally they turned away in revulsion, even this one, his latest visitor. But such things could be rectified. His scalpel delicately traced the outline of a grin up from the corner of the man’s mouth towards his cheek. That was better. A smile never hurt anyone.
The man groaned in response. Cursing, Noah realised he would have to work quickly before the drugs wore off completely. He picked up the blade again only to be disturbed by something rubbing against his leg. It was Kitty waiting expectantly for her tea. He cut swiftly, dropped the tongue onto the floor. He loved his pets. They just took a bit of house-training. This new one though, did he have the patience? He gazed down at Kitty, the faceless creature had devoured her treat and had turned her blind eyes expectantly back in his direction.
“Shall we keep him?” asked Noah, looking across at the other members of his little menagerie. “Time for new blood?”
They stirred restlessly at the sound of his voice, chains shifting, clanking against the side of their cages whilst Kitty, tired of waiting, crawled back to her basket. Noah noticed the goosebumps on her arms, went over and tucked a blanket around her, stroked the blonde hair, feeling her shrink back from his touch as he did so. Out of all of them, she knew who was master. The others, sensing his nearness, had sat up, fingers gripping the bars of their prison.
“You’d like company, wouldn’t you,” he said.
Unable to stand, they shuffled back and forth on all fours, knuckles dragging on the ground, just like their ancestors had done. And he had space. There was one more cage to be filled. Nor was food a problem, there was plenty in the basement … and there was always the occasional visitor.
Hell on Earth
Microcosms 68 HM
Stained glass made the rain look purple, a Boschian nightmare of a landscape, the garden of earthly delights turning into the last judgement. Luke savoured the violence of the storm outside, defied the lightning as it knifed its reflection down the aisle to sink its blade into the hanging man. He looked up at the carved figure, quickly pulling off his hat in a long-buried act of enforced respect, the beret twisting easily between his fingers as they too remembered.
“Luke?” Lightning flashed again, revealing the face of his priest. “It’s been a long time. I’d heard you’d been released. I prayed for your recovery, your restoration to our community.”
Luke knelt … gestured towards the altar.
The priest followed his gaze. “Ah, you have brought an offering. Come. Let us give thanks.”
Luke allowed himself to be led to the foot of the altar where the priest raised a cup, made the sign of his cross above it, offered it to Luke. Then the body too was offered and received.
“He looks cold,” said Luke, eyes once more on the crucifixion.
“Flesh of your flesh, blood of your blood,” said the priest, handing Luke a box of matches. “Let him burn.”
“Let them all burn,” said Luke as the storm continued to rage. He struck a match.
“Tonight He is with us,” said the priest.
“And will be tomorrow,” said Luke, visions of other fires, other fathers, other meat, burning in his head. It felt good to be free, unmedicated, blessed.
The minister watched him go, dark eyes turning red, a jagged-tooth grin spreading across his face. The night was still young and there were so many more madmen already dancing to his tune. It was hell on earth but he was in heaven.
The beginning of April saw the birth of a new horror anthology, The Infernal Clock. Here we speak to one of the co-curators and evil mastermind behind the whole project, David Shakes.
What triggered the idea for the Infernal Clock?
I spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter and was tweeting about the resurgence of genre TV and my nostalgia for shows like ‘The Twilight Zone’. I mused that a horror ‘24’ would make a good show. I also thought it would make a pretty good theme for an anthology book…
How did you go about selecting the stories?
That’s a pretty scary story! I didn’t. I tweeted something along the lines of: ‘Who wants to be in a book? Pick your timeslot between 12am and 11pm.’ Within an hour, 24 people had! I then had to worry for 5 months if they were going to write anything or, in some cases, had written anything before. To get such high quality in the end product has been more by luck than judgement.
What was the most difficult part of this project?
Trying to wrangle 24 individual people, who’s only commitment is a throwaway tweet. By the time I’d finalised the line-up and realised the initial time allocations had gone wrong it was getting quite fraught. When another couple of writers had to pull out, I knew it was time to call on the FlashDogs crew. They came through with last minute stories, changes of timeslots and, in the case of my fabulous co-curator Steph Ellis, the time and space to pull together a hefty master document.
How did you feel when you finally saw the finished product?
1) Proud as punch! I know that I am biased, but it’s superb. It’s not just me saying that either – independent reviews of both Kindle and print versions have noted Tamara Rogers’ top artwork, the perfection behind Steph Ellis’ lead in quotes and of course Emily June Street’s faultless production values. A fairly big genre publisher I sent a print version to recently shared how impressed they were with the final product.
2) Relieved. I was floundering towards the end, I missed my own Halloween deadline for the launch and my day job was getting tougher and tougher. I owe it to a lot of other people that we got such a polished anthology out there.
Would you do this again and if so, is there anything you would do differently?
Right after we’d done it, I said ‘never again.’ Now – it’s a maybe. I’d organise things a bit better and involve the right production people from the start. I’m great at the big ideas but need other people to concentrate on the details. I would also get more of my own work in there next time. The Infernal Clock ended up being produced at a time when I wasn’t writing much and what I was producing wasn’t my best. I’ve also learned a lot about marketing and would set aside time and money to promote the work effectively too. It’s a saturated market and you need ways of getting your book noticed.
We were musing about Infernal Clock Publishing the other day…
You contributed a story to the Prologue which seamlessly introduced the rest of the book. If you could've chosen an hour, which one would it have been and why?
Like some of the other writers have said in their own upcoming interviews at The Infernal Clock, I’d choose an unassuming hour – early morning or mid-afternoon. It would be more open to interpretation. Demons by Daylight as the amazing Ramsey Campbell once wrote.
You've show you can write consistently to a high standard - your flash stories online and contributions to the FlashDog anthologies have shown that. Why don't we see more?
Firstly, thanks for the compliment. Secondly, and without irony, it’s all about time. I started writing when I turned 40 and one of my favourite authors, James Herbert, passed away. I even wrote down 3 aims:
1) See if people will read you and like what they’ve read
2) Win a competition and get into a real book
3) Write a novel by the time (I’m) 45
I was really disillusioned with my job at the time and threw myself into writing and photography. Flash, poetry and short stories were a perfect medium for me. The first two aims are complete - FlashDogs became a thing, I’ve an Amazon authors page and have featured in half a dozen books and was once called ‘the author, David Shakes’ uncynically!
In the meantime, my day job (a primary school headteacher) has grown tougher and tougher as I take on greater challenges. I write a lot, but for the job – policies and letters and web content and reports and agendas and minutes and emails…it hasn’t left a lot of time anything else.
In my down time I try to prioritise family and then my broader social circle. I currently have 8 months to get that novel sorted!
Do you have a favourite story of yours we can read here as a sample?
As good an example as any:
They'll tell you that the Mersey is clean, teeming with life, but poison takes on many forms. The dead clog the estuaries, their unclaimed bodies shifting on the tides. They pollute the river with anguish and regret. Their anger swirls amidst the grey waves. Their imploded egos become black holes of emotion, sucking life into the oily mud of its banks. The lost and the wicked. The damned and deranged. They all sink the same.
You can't ordinarily see them, but there are times when the veil is lifted. Thin times.
Rare, stormy nights when the promenades fill with spectres and the river is clogged with sodden souls. On these nights the river may offer up a body, release a soul to move on to whatever may come next.
That's what happened for us; why I'm here on this ferry able to see her this one, final time.
The early morning commuters look right through her. They may glimpse the urn on the salt bleached deck and turn their thoughts to brighter things. They may sense the tragedy and close their minds to it; incongruous as it is to their steaming lattes and Facebook updates.
She stays by the urn.
It's been months since the suicide.
We'd been at a low ebb. Debts were mounting. She'd said she couldn't cope. The pressure grew with every final demand. She'd become withdrawn, secretive. We'd barely spoken, even when I knew she was waking in the night to be sick.
That's been the worst part since it happened. Not being able to talk to her, but now she's here, as hauntingly beautiful as I remember her. I want to hold her so badly but know I can't. The dead have no corporeal being. The tear that makes its silent way down her pale cheek says it all. It's almost time to let go.
As the ferry hits the halfway mark the wind rises in anticipation. There's an offering in the urn; a conclusion. A release.
The body had washed up at New Brighton. Once identified and the coroner's report complete, it had been a short wait for a slot at the crematorium. There were a few friends at the service. Small comfort.
This part was always going to be private. We'd discussed spreading ashes on the Mersey the way the immortal young do, secretly knowing their own death will never come.
Oh, for that time again - before mortgages and redundancies; before drunken rows and suicidal thoughts.
I'm almost standing beside her now. Her eyes gaze out across the water. My hand hovers over the swell of her belly. The heat of the life within too intense for my cold, dead spirit.
I'd been so lost in our money worries, so lost in myself that I hadn't even seen the signs of early pregnancy.
It's a boy. Does she know it's a boy?
I am saddened by the thought of her having to raise my child alone. How could I have been so selfish?
She looks at me - really looks. She speaks, a low whisper:
"It's okay. I forgive you." She puts her hand on her stomach and smiles sadly. "We forgive you."
If it wasn't ashes in the urn my heart would break. Now I know I'm no longer lost.
Maybe the best part of me will live on in my unborn son.
The ageing sound system cranks up and Gerry starts singing 'Ferry Cross The Mersey.'
She takes the lid from the urn and scatters me to the wind.
My soul soars as Gerry sings:
"We don't care what your name is boy, we'll never turn you away."
What genre do you tend to write in and what is about that genre which appeals to you?
Horror of course. I think the fascination began as a child – it was thrilling to be scared and I devoured all the Hammer films and BBC2 creature features. My first adult horror book was Carrie I think. There was no YA genre but that book opened me up to a world beyond The Hobbit. Writers like Clive Barker made the genre an artform and I realised that the best of the genre had as great a depth as the books I was studying in school and later at university.
Who are your darkest influences?
Writers? King, Campbell, Barker, Herbert, Straub, McCammon, Morris, Hutson (not to everyone’s taste but he knows what works!) More recently, Adam Neville and C.J. Lines.
How do you come up with your ideas?
Beginning my writing life as a flash-fictioneer, I’ve become accustomed to prompts and criteria. Most of the rest of the time it’s from daydreaming or following a stream of consciousness. I get visual images in my head or sometimes a phrase or snippet of dialogue. I read a lot of non-fiction too which can spark ideas.
What next for the Shakes?
I am going to attempt that novel. I have procrastinated long enough and it’s time to nail something exclusively Shakes to the world.
I hope to contribute to the newest FlashDogs project which will be an online magazine.
I once threatened to do some rewrites of Enid Blyton tales for David Southwell who is busy mapping Hookland for the masses right now.
The novel comes first.
6 Who do you think are the 6 most evil humans in history?
Hitler, although he’s on a continuum any other leader that would devalue another human being or commit atrocities in the name of something ridiculous.
Elizabeth Bathory who managed to kill almost 666 girls in the mistaken belief that she’d preserve her youth.
I actually believe the most evil people are the ones we don’t know about – the ones who are manipulating from behind the curtains, and there are more than 4 of them…
6 Who do you regard as the 6 most evil villains in literature or film?
Evil is about intent and awareness – so I’m going to say Pennywise / IT (let’s hope the new movie gets it right), Flagg from The Stand and The Dark Tower series, General Woundwort in Watership Down, Damien in The Omen, The demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist and The Trunchbull in Matilda.
6 What do you think are the 6 most disgusting meals or food products ever created?
Wotsits, sheep brains, durian fruit, microwave chips, jellied eels, wotsits again.
And finally ...
The Devil walks up to you in the bar. What drink would you buy him?
Whisky, single malt – aged, dark and peaty. No ice, no water. A double. The Devil doesn’t dick about with cocktails.
Many thanks to David Shakes for taking part in this interview. Want to find out more about the authors of The Infernal Clock? Read more here and even better, grab a copy of the book itself here ... with some excellent reviews you will not be disappointed.
A writer - I think that says it all.