Last week was Microcosms 100th anniversary. Having been part of this right from the start, I made sure I took part in this one. When the competition began, stories were only allowed to be 100 words max and last week you could opt for that word count as a special challenge - which I took, and which managed runner-up position.
Elements: werewolf, publishing house, fairy tale
Word count: 100 (challenge)
Unread proofs lurked on old oak desks awaiting the fresh eyes of morning. The moon’s soft beam picked out the one remaining worker. Her golden curls tumbled across the pages as she devoured the story within but it left her hungry. The tale was too short. She picked up another. This was too hard, too improbable, too many long words like lupophobia and lycanthrope. Reject, she scribbled across it. Another book. This was just right, but she never got to the end. The moon rose higher and a howl shattered the silence of the building. Goldilocks padded to the door.
Very Short Stories (#vss365)
These prompts are run by the FlashDogs on Twitter and a new word is given every day. I'm not as regular in participating as others, managing only a couple a week normally but it is a good writing exercise. Here are some of my most recent:
Yoga was not her thing. Susan could not twist herself into the positions demanded. But she could fold up others. You only had to look into her trunk to see how good she was. Trouble was you would soon be packed away too.
Close. Closer. Closest. A superlative of nearness. Tight. Tighter. Tightest. My hand is a vice. Beat. Beating. Beaten. My soul unskinned.
She had been broken on the wheel, bone by bone, a torture in the round; such was the circle of life. And hers was about to begin again as her spirit fled the burning stake to seek an empty womb, a breeding of revenge.
They were two of a kind. He would've given her his heart - if he had one. She in turn found she'd lost her heart to him. A painful experience from which she never recovered, her undead body shuffling after his. Together forever.
And finally ...
Janet Reid, Literary Agent posted one of her occasional competitions recently. The words to be included were: bon, kismet, fate, kismet, luck, chance. They could be used as they were or as part of other words, the only rule is that the order of letters in the word doesn't change. Here is my offering ... with apologies to Shakespeare.
The Fates settled around their bonfire of souls, a relaxed gathering arranged for Cousin Kismet’s birthday. He was late.
“You sure you sent the invitation?” asked Clotho.
“Recorded delivery. He signed for it. Look.” Lachesis plucked a card from her pocket.
A twig snapped. “He’s here. Ready, girls?”
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked …”
“No, dear,” said Clotho to Atropos, now suddenly awake. “It’s Kismet, not Macbeth.”
A tiny creature hopped towards them.
Lachesis looked at the signature again, Kermit. Oh. Mischance had sent him, but on the upside they were short of toe of frog.
Something I have learned in the past few years is that it is very easy to forget what you have achieved and that the ever-present voice of self-doubt will continually ask - what have you done lately, what have you got to show for all that effort?
So this is my reminder to me of what I've done, what I've achieved and what I hope to do next year. I think all writers should allow themselves such a moment of reflection.
The Infernal Clock
A fledgling step into the world of publishing with David Shakes. We published our first anthology, The Infernal Clock, back in April 2017. This book contains a story for every hour of the day, including two of my stories, The Graveyard Shift and Whispers. It also saw me taking a large part in the editorial role.
We then embarked on our second anthology, CalenDark, The Infernal Almanac with 16 stories, each centred on a particular day in the calendar. This book, only published on 2nd December, contains two of my stories, The Blessing of the Throats and The Dance. My editorial role in this project was even larger but I would like to thank all the authors I worked with for making it such a smooth process.
There are plans in the pipeline for a third, and final, anthology based on the concept of time to be produced next year.
Christmas in Spring
An invite from Dean Drinkel to contribute to FEAR Magazine's Christmas anthology, 12 Dark Days: One Hell of a Christmas, appeared at this time. Whilst the magazine subsequently ceased production, Dean still pushed the project ahead and it was released today. I was given the 10th day of Christmas, and had to link it to 10 Lords-a-leaping, this morphed into a story called The House of Lords, where I'm afraid another poor vicar suffers horribly.
First Novella Published
This was a major step forward for me. Dark Chapter press had put a submission call out for their Bloody Heathers anthology back at the start of 2016 (might even have been earlier). I wrote a novella for this, Domnuill-Dhu - don't ask me how to pronounce it - and they accepted. It involves bagpipes and general nastiness. Due to a variety of factors, this anthology of just 5 novella-length stories was delayed but finally saw publication at the end of September. Being one of only four other authors made me feel very exposed, a scary but exciting change. My story in this collection also earned me the following review from Nev Murray at Confessions of a Reviewer. A lovely write-up which I treasure:
'John was whisked away from Scotland as a child by his mother, and his aunt, Esther. He never knew why, but he always heeded the warnings from his mother never to return.
Now he has a wife of his own, and Mair has talked him into returning to his family home for the funeral of his Grandfather. She is sure everything will be OK. John should have listened to his mother.
Never heard of Stephanie Ellis before but by god after reading this, I will be looking for more of her work.
There are so many different feels to this, I don’t know where to start. If feels quite Victorian in many ways even though it is clear that it is set in modern times. In some instances, it feels almost Lovecraftian. In more than one scene it feels very Hammer Horror and I could imagine the blessed trinity of Cushing, Price and Lee playing starring roles in this story.
Absolutely loved this one.
It was lovely to meet him at Birmingham HorrorCon and thank him in person.
The Waiting Game
So, what else did I do?
I wrote another novella which is currently out with a publisher and I'm waiting a decision.
I completed a novel, Live, based on a near-future world which has suffered both a flu pandemic and loss of power from normal sources. The solution to the energy crisis is grim with some humans showing the ability to harness the earth's natural energy and become 'batteries'. I've sent the first few chapters to Gollancz and yes, I'm waiting.
I submitted a 12,000 word story to the The Binge-Watching Cure for their Horror Anthology.
A short story is with Electric Spec.
Another story is with Titan Books for their New Fears 2 anthology.
I've compiled a collection of my previously published (and some unpublished stories) which I will put out hopefully in the spring of next year, if not sooner. The delay is due to the stories I am awaiting decisions on. If they don't get accepted by their respective markets, I intend to include them in the collection.
I started another novel, based on a short story, Transcending Nature, which I wrote a couple of years ago. This story is due to be published some time next year - I hope. It's one of those instances of the ups and downs in publishing. It is an industrial horror but one which was put on hold due to The Infernal Clock and other commitments. I intend to restart it soon.
Having written a couple of folk horror short stories in the past, I really wanted to develop a novel in this field. This year, bar the final 2 chapters I have yet to write, I did it as part of NaNo and used the discipline of the month to get me to the 50000 mark. I intend to get The Five Turns of the Wheel, edited and sent somewhere next year.
The Horror Tree is a brilliant resource for authors and every week publishes the latest calls for flash, short stories, novels and novellas. It's where I found many of my own publishing opportunities. Following a post from Stuart Conover, I volunteered to help as co-editor for the site's online magazine, Trembling With Fear, my way of giving back. Since July, this has seen me reading and editing flash submissions from writers across the globe. It does take a lot of work - perhaps I should be careful what I volunteer for - but has proved strangely enjoyable. If you write drabbles or flash (max 1500 words) in the speculative fiction genre, send them in. We'd love to read them.
Book Reviews and Beta Reading
I've done a number of reviews for Crystal Lake Publishing this year, receiving free ARCs in return for an honest review and I've also joined the review team at HorrorAddicts.com. Another 'giving back'. I don't regard myself as a professional reviewer by any means, I mean the writer won't necessarily get those 'sound bites' from me that some reviewers give. I just want to show that I have read the book and enjoyed it. That is the most important thing for a writer to know.
I post my reviews here, on goodreads and on Amazon; I'm happy to read people's work - but please nothing too extreme.
As well as reviews, I've become involved with a small beta-reading group run by Emerian Rich of HorrorAddicts. Each month I get a few short stories, a chapter in progress etc for me to comment on, these may be from a typo/grammar point of view or assessing the story line and whether it works or not. Reading other people's work either in beta stage or at review is a real learning process - and I get free stories.
And Finally - Flash
I am still writing this, not as much as I used to but have managed to be a fairly regular contributor to: Microcosms weekly competition; FlashFeed, the latest FlashDogs platform where you will find some of the best flash writers in the field; Visual Verse - 50-500 words in 1hr; Verstype - cut-up poetry and Janet Reid's occasional competitions.
So, all in all, quite a lot achieved this year and already things in the pipeline. I wonder what I'll be writing about this time next year. Why don't you take a few minutes and reflect on your own achievements?
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.
View all my reviews
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.
View all my reviews
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.
View all my reviews
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.
View all my reviews
A writer - I think that says it all.