Monday, December 14, 2015

Every New Beginning...

2015 has been a year of good-byes, for me and for many of my friends and colleagues.

Some of these good-byes have come out of important decisions of our own; others have been thrust upon us, making us unwilling partners in the changing patterns of our lives. 

Whatever circumstances, good-byes serve a purpose. They make us stronger, bring us closer to our true friends, and more often than not, open up opportunities that would not have appeared were it not for that first, brave act of letting go.

This month, after much reflection and conversation, Heroines of Fantasy is getting ready to say good-bye, as well. Starting January 2016, we will no longer be offering our regular Monday posts or Wednesday book reviews. Terri-Lynne DeFino and I, who have coordinated this operation for about two years now, each decided independently that we can't dedicate the same time anymore to the blog. The rest of our crew, unfortunately, is similarly bogged down by other commitments. There isn't anyone else at the moment who can take up the reins. 

I'm not sure whether this marks a true end to Heroines of Fantasy, or whether it will be a sabbatical of sorts that will allow us to rest, regroup, and perhaps come back together again six or twelve months down the line. In any case, I wanted to let all our readers know how deeply we appreciate your support and participation. All of us, in our own way, are sad to see this project end.

Back when Kim Vandervort, Terri-Lynne, and I started Heroines of Fantasy in 2011, there were very few public venues where we could engage in the kind of conversations we've had here, challenging the status quo and celebrating stories that give central roles to women from all walks of life. I've learned so much, and found so much inspiration, from our readers, reviewers, contributors, and guest authors. I will miss this venue very much.

What will we do now, you ask? 

Well, for my part, I'm looking forward to the release of several works in 2016. We are preparing new editions of Eolyn and High Maga, the latter to be marketed under a new title, The Sword of Shadows. This is a major undertaking. Not only am I re-editing both books, but what used to be packaged as separate companion novels will now be put forward as a single cohesive series, called The Silver Web trilogy. In addition to these two novels, I plan to put out a paranormal novella, The Hunting Grounds, in autumn. This time next year, I hope to be counting the days to the release of third novel of The Silver Web, entitled Daughter of Aithne. 

I very much want to keep in touch with all of you, and I hope you will visit and follow me at my website, or on Facebook or Twitter. Any plans to reboot Heroines of Fantasy will be announced there. 

I've invited the rest of the crew to share their plans in the comments below. I know many of them have exciting news and dreams for 2016, so I hope they'll stop by and tell you more. 

I'd also like to hear your news and dreams. What are you saying good-bye to this year? What do you look forward to in 2016?

Because I always like to go out dancing, I'll leave you with this New Year's Eve song by Ana Torroja. It's in Spanish, so my apologies for those who can't understand the lyrics. But it's basically about the topic of the day: Saying good-bye and starting anew. I find it very serendipitous that in this video, the song is interpreted by three women. I can't help but imagine them as Kim, Terri, and me, the ones who started it all, way back when. I suspect that's Eric T. Reynolds back there on the bass, and Mark Nelson is almost certainly playing one of the guitars. 

My best wishes to everyone for a beautiful holiday season and a prosperous New Year.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Endings and Beginnings

December always makes me particularly mindful of time and its passage; how it speeds and slows according to age, tasks, days, stress level, and a variety of other variables. I am ever more conscious of how quickly time flies as I grow older, especially now that my daughters are nearly grown and flown the nest. But I feel the passage of time most in December, when the frantic bustle of the holiday season can’t quite mask the recognition that another year is grinding toward its inevitable conclusion, firmly closing the door on yet another year of hopes and disappointments, successes, failures, joys and sorrows. For better or for worse, this chapter in the book of life has come to an end.

Before the last page of the year is written, at 11:59 p.m. on December 31st, we have one last month to tie the loose ends, to sort the done and the undone, to reflect and regroup. Winter lends itself nicely to this process; even here in sunny Southern California, there is a drop in temperature, a crispness to the air, a dullness to the sunshine that drives us indoors to more contemplative occupations. This is my favorite time of year to write, when I cocoon inside my favorite hoodie and sweats, sit in front of the computer, and escape inside my imagination. As I do, I am mindful that these are the last words I will type in the old year. They become a tribute, a last minute love poem to the best and the worst; what was and wasn’t.

January will come soon enough, sparkling with promise. I, like many writers, will resolve to write more, send out more stories, publish, market, repeat. I will approach each writing task with renewed energy, ready to discard old habits and embrace the new, inspired by the blank pages of this fresh chapter. The empty page is always terrifying: what should I say? Do I have anything to say? How do I make these new words the best they can possibly be? I know what I want to write, and the story has a way of telling itself; soon I will lose control, become swept away into wherever the plot takes me. I will have good writing days, and bad; some days, I won’t write anything at all. I will cry, I will rage, I will celebrate. This is writing. This is life. And so I will carry on until next December, when another chapter ends.

Endings and seem to carry the most significance; we measure our lives in what we start and what we finish. Yes, these are important milestones that drive us to accomplish goals and to reflect upon them. Yet when at last we finish our book, what really matters most are not our first and last chapters, but all of the story in between.

~ Kim Vandervort

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Winter Reading: Under the Skin by Michel Faber

This isn’t one of my regular new book reviews. It’s nearly the end of the year, the northern nights are long and dark, and I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite books. Many of these I first read a long time back. One book, however, that I only met for the first time late last year now sits firmly amid my favourites. It’s Michel Faber’s Under the Skin*.

I nearly didn’t read it. It was published way back in 2000, but I avoided it for years because the first of Faber’s books I’d encountered was The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) and that I hated (I’ve not changed my mind about it, either). But for whatever reason I did eventually pick up Under the Skin, and within a few pages I was transfixed.

Isserley, slight, scarred, in constant pain and with perfect, eye-drawing breasts, drives up and down the northern stretches of the A9 picking up hitch-hikers. Only men. Only men travelling alone. After she’s picked them up, whilst their eyes linger – or try not to linger – on those breasts, she talks to them, finds out where they’re from and who will miss them, decides if they measure up to her standards and fit her needs. And then, well, yes, those warnings you’ve been given about the dangers of hitch-hiking and accepting lifts from strangers are all warranted. But not, in this case, for the obvious reasons.

Summarised baldly the plot would sound fairly banal, an equal mix of sci-fi horror and urban myth. Plot, of course, is not usually the most important aspect of a book, certainly not of a book one reads and rereads. This book gets everything right, characters, setting, echoes and resonances. I don’t want to make it sound over-burdened with cultural baggage – it’s first and foremost a taut and gripping story – but it could be read through the lens of gender politics, or societal divisions between haves and have-nots, as a satire on western fears around immigration or battery farming.

It is also quite beautifully written. Every sentence, every word, counts. There’s no exposition, no clumsy transfer of information from page to reader. It’s Isserley’s world and she inhabits it utterly. Everything comes from that. Everything has context. It’s a story I can believe in completely, even fourth time around. Faber positions the reader more or less under her skin to feel her hatred of the Elite who used her and betrayed her, of the surgeons who mutilated her, of herself for her complicity in that mutilation. And Isserley herself is seen, through the eyes of the men she drops off by the roadside or takes back with her to Ablach Farm. The world-building is fantastic. It’s a double world building, in fact, conjuring the Scottish landscapes, roads and weather as finely and precisely as anything I’ve read. All the details are right, from the cheery banality of the overhead warning signs to the smell of whelks on the shore. And because all those details are right I can, of course, trust all the other details too, the ones not rooted in any reality outside the book.

In life, of course, no one can ever know what lies under someone else’s skin. In a book the reader sees all. As the story unfolds in perfect pace, I learn who Isserley is, what happens at the farm, why she finds the seascapes of the Moray Firth so alien and lovely. I learn of her escape from a miserable life on the Estates back home and the dreadful price she paid for it. I see too that the men she picks up all have their pasts and stories. Some are lonely, some are hopeful, some are well-meaning, some lecherous and dangerous. Isserley must question each, listening, guessing, hoping desperately all the while that she doesn’t make a mistake, but over and again I’m aware of the gulf between reality and perception, and how easily and neatly tragedy slips in to fill that gulf. Only connect, but Isserley has no wish to connect. She has a job to do, only she can do it, and she prides herself on doing it well.

For her past has left its scars upon her psyche as well as her body: she’s a tight, prickly soul, wary of kindness, estranged from the workers at the farm as much as from the hitchers on the road. At the same time, she’s filled with wonder at the strangeness and the beauty of her new home. Most wonderfully of all, I can see, as the story unfolds through Isserley’s experiences and encounters, how the landscapes through which she drives day after day seep under her skin, changing her slowly from one thing to another until, finally, she makes a connection. Metaphysics, perhaps, but still the perfect end to the story.

Harriet Goodchild

* Under the Skin was made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s often said that the best film adaptations are those which don’t attempt a literal rendering. This one certainly doesn’t, being a very free interpretation of the novel. As it was, having read the novel first, I tried to map it onto the film and found myself perhaps more baffled than a completely na├»ve viewer. In retrospect, that’s the wrong way to view it as, although it retains something of the central conceit, the film works it in another mood and direction entirely. It's a rather beautiful, surreal couple of hours but not much like the source material. The book is, I think, also very beautiful but it’s not at all surreal and not really that strange. It’s concrete and grounded in character and place in a way the film is not.

Buy links
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Monday, November 9, 2015

I'm a Believer

This is going to be one short post, because my weekend slipped by, and then suddenlty I remembered: I'm up on HoF for Monday!

Fortunately, I have a topic handy that ties in with writing fast: National Novel Writing Month.

I'm doing Nanowrimo for the first time ever this year.

I confess, I've always been a skeptic about this event. Being a quality over quantity person, I've never been much into punching out words just to punch out words. Moving too fast toward a number goal seemed to me a sure recipe for having to spend double time on revisions later.

And who knows? Maybe I'm right. Maybe it takes just as much time to mull and agonize over wording while you go along, as it would to just throw whatever comes to mind into the manuscript and then go back later and...well, mull and agonize again.

Still. This year felt like the right year for me to give it a try. I happen to be working on a short novel that seemed amenable to the 50k challenge. Even more tempting, I knew if I took the challenge and succeeded, I could very well have this manuscript done by December.

Now, a week into the dare, I have just over 11,000 words written. Not quite on target to meet the 50k challenge, but well within range to accomplish my own personal goal. Needless to say, this gives me a great sense of satisfaction.

But there's more to this, really, than numbers. Nanowrimo has given me something very much unexpected, and also very welcome. For the first time in a long time, all that matters right now is my story. In a way, I'm reliving the early days of crafting my first novel, when every spare minute was devoted to discovery and creating. I remember this feeling, and have thought of it often in recent years with nostalgia.

Once published, it seems, it's hard for an author to enjoy that pure focus that inspires the first novel. There's just so much else getting in the way. Editing, marketing, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, book signing... the list goes on and on; a veritable truckload of writing related things demand our attention, leaving us with very little time to, well, write.

No matter how far I get on my word count this month, I'm grateful to Nanowrimo for allowing me to sink back into that spark that is the creative moment; to wallow in it, even, for a full month while everything else (even Heroines of Fantasy!) goes on hold.

So yes, Nanowrimo, this skeptic has become a believer. I may be back again next year, and the next, in only to keep in touch with the writer I most like to be.

How about you? Are you doing Nanowrimo? And how do you keep the creative focus alive when all those other writerly responsibilities get in the way?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Wednesday Review: Last Night at the Blue Alice

Title: Last Night at the Blue Alice
Author: Mehitobel Wilson
Genre: Fantasy/Paranormal/Urban
Publisher: Bedlam Press
Publication date: September 2015
Point of sale: Amazon
Price: Kindle $2.99 or Paperback $9.95
Description: Mollie Chandler is on the verge of joining a shadowy Order whose magical operatives, the Glymjacks, manipulate events of the past. As the only candidate for the role of Psychopomp, she must pass one final test before the job is hers. The crumbling Blue Alice has been gathering ghosts for over a hundred years. Once a grand mansion, it was converted to a rooming house in the 1920s. Tenants throughout the century since have suffered violent poltergeist attacks by a vengeful spirit, complained of a spectral woman in black who looms and leers at their every move, reported hearing music when there should be none playing, and appealed to exorcists when tormented by a judgmental demon. Mollie must use magic, ingenuity, and intuition to travel back in time to the source of each haunting, avert their circumstances, and change history. If she succeeds, she will have to give up everything she’s ever known to become a Glymjack. If she fails, Mollie will not survive - if she’s lucky. The alternatives to death are far worse. Mollie has but one night to change the histories of the dead and plot the course for her own future. She is running out of time, and into the haunted heart of the Blue Alice.

Good morning! Cybelle here with another Wednesday review. This week I read an intriguing novella by Mehitobel Wilson. The Blue Alice is considered the most haunted house in the region, and it has been selected as the location of Mollie's final exam. In order to become a true psychopomp, she must travel back in time to intervene in the final moments of people's lives and prevent them from becoming the tortured spirits that haunt the place. When she returns to the present, she must give the details of the experience to her Second. During the course of the night, Mollie makes four trips to the past to correct the ghost problems in the old house. The first one goes smoothly, but the three following encounters present far greater challenges. Although Mollie succeeds in clearing the place of ghosts, she fears her methods will destroy her chances of joining the Glymjacks.

This novella is an engaging read and often quite funny. Each of Mollie's interventions would make great standalone stories, but they are beautifully linked through the framework of a final exam. It's an interesting twist on traditional haunted house stories. Although Wilson is best known for horror, this is more of a paranormal fantasy. Her research into various cultural beliefs surrounding death and haunting is clear throughout the novella and adds to its charm. The characters are well developed and memorable. The tale of the sad Goth girl, Gillian Frye, is both humorous and tragic. She sees Mollie as a ghost and is eager to communicate with her. Her death is the hardest for Mollie to process and forces her to reconsider the usefulness of her empathy in dealing with the dead. Her encounter with another young woman, Ruby, makes her question whether all hauntings are bad.

If you're in the mood for a quick, lighthearted read with horror elements, this is a good choice. You'll find references to classic horror films and classical antiquity, along with a great cast of well-drawn characters. Definitely a treat for anyone who already misses Halloween!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Apologies to Thanksgiving

Dear Thanksgiving,

Effective November 1st, all stores have officially transitioned from Halloween to Christmas. I would like to thoroughly apologize on behalf of American culture for, once again, forgetting all about you. I know this may sound insincere, but truly: it's not you, it's us.

Part of the problem is placement. Despite your great significance and firm roots in American history, unfortunately, you are nestled between Halloween and Christmas, which have both transitioned from somewhat modest holidays grounded in old religious and cultural traditions to grand displays of secular commercialism (just be glad you aren't Chanukah, or Ramadan-- they get even less cultural love than you). Let's face it, Thanksgiving: they are big, sparkly and fun, celebrated with lots of parties and freebies. You are old money; they are Gatsby. It isn't your fault that they suck up all of the attention, but there isn't really anything you can do about it, either. Sorry.

Another reason why we tend to slight you is cost. Halloween is a lot of effort, and has become quite expensive. We can't just buy some candy, flip on the light, hand it out to some cute kids in plastic tie-on costumes purchased at the drugstore, turn everything off when the candy's gone, and go to bed. No, the costumes are now either extravagant hand-made Cosplay or pricey Party City fare that clearly costs at least $40 a yard of fabric (or lack thereof). We have to decorate now, too: giant spiders (I'm looking at you, neighbors, and I really resent your 5-foot tarantula), sticky webs, orange sparkle lights, gravestones, mummies, skeletons, etc. At least $100 in candy must be purchased to avoid getting "tricked" by "children" varying in age from 0-60, and we haven't even discussed the cost of booze and snacks for parties. By the time November 1st rolls around, we're so broke that it's time to save for Christmas, and we all know what a financial burden that is. 

Another real problem here is time. To put it bluntly: we're exhausted from Halloween, and we now have less than two months until Christmas. I'm stressed just thinking about it. The retailers enjoy reminding of this fact hourly, with their cheerful "15 shopping days until Christmas!" countdowns and snappy jingles. You used to be a lovely little break in the chaos, but now, thanks to the miracle of commercialism, we can forego acknowledging you entirely in favor of that new little pseudo-holiday upstart "Black Friday" who has seriously encroached on your space.

Look, I really enjoy you. Having a few days off to give thanks for our blessings and remember the historical coming together that saved our colonists' asses so many years ago is really kind of amazing, especially when life seems to move at ever more frantic a pace. Taking time to reflect upon what is truly important to us, to our families, to each other, and to just sit together and be grateful for what we have, in every way that is important to us, is not something we can honor by putting giant sparkling pilgrims in our yard or dressing like hookers, but that doesn't make it any less valuable. We may not exchange physical gifts, but sitting down with those we love and giving them our time and attention-- two of the most elusive commodities in our fast-paced society-- are probably the best gifts we can share with one another. And need I mention that you come with turkey and pie? What are people thinking?!

Thanksgiving, I, for one, promise to do better this year. As much as I love these other holidays, this year I vow to push Christmas off just a little longer so that when you come around, we can really enjoy hanging out. As much as I like that Black Friday guy, I'm not letting him have my Thanksgiving Thursday. I and my family are going to hang out in our pajamas and watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, enjoy a hearty meal, and above all, remember that the world needs a little more gratitude and a little less marketing. 

Maybe if we all slow down and spend a little more time being grateful for what we have and less time worrying about what we don't, we can all achieve some true peace. 

All the love,

Kim Vandervort

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Who Needs Horror - We've Got History!

Hi, there!  Louise here - now it's my turn to offer some fare for the 2016 Fright Fest season.  And I thought that this year, I'd go back to basics.  Forget demons and zombies and werewolves and all that supernatural stuff - if it's something truly scary or horrible that you're looking for, then you don't have to seek it out in the Otherworld, or in fantastic realms.  Just open your front door and look around you.  Yes, I'm talking about the human race. You can't get much more horrible than us - we've been doing things that are mean, and nasty and downright horrific for thousands of years - just open a history book, and you'll see exactly what I mean.
Today I'm going to share an insight into the evil that men do.  It's a fragment from my second novel, 'The Gryphon at Bay:' the immediate follow-up to my historical novel 'Fire and Sword,' it's currently lodged with Hadley Rille Books.
The scene I've chosen to share with you imaginatively recreates an actual event which took place between October and November in 1489, so the timing is just perfect. History doesn't fill in many details: all we know is that the Lord Kilmaurs was slain by Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie.  Was it murder? Was it a judicial killing?  And what of the aftermath? Can we assume that the real Hugh Montgomerie felt perfectly justified in his actions? Perhaps.  Did he think about it afterwards, and regret what he had done?  Who knows?
Such things are, of course, beyond the scope of historical sources.  But they are the meat and drink of historical fiction writers, of course.
So may I present to you an episode of true horror, from a time and a place which weathered more than its fair share of feud and war and casual brutality.  Perhaps that night, the Cunninghames might have been forgiven in thinking they were in the presence of the Devil incarnate: when we join the action, the Lord Kilmaurs lies dead, and for his brother Will Cunninghame of Craigends and his son Cuthbert, Master of Kilmaurs, the future is far from secure.

They followed the road for several miles, then Craigends changed course, heading off across the fields. By the time they slowed their pace, the horses were blowing and lathered in sweat.
Craigends cocked his head. He could’ve sworn he’d heard the bray of a horn. “Alright.” He halted near a small stand of trees. “Let’s leave the horses. They’ll find their own way home.”
“What?” Cuthbert demanded, disbelieving.
“Montgomerie’s after us.”
“Surely we can outrun him?”
“He has the instincts of a sleuth-hound. And the persistence.” Craigends was already dismounting. “Don’t give him the satisfaction of hunting you down. This way, we’ll leave him a false trail.” He cast the boy an anxious glance. “Can you walk?”
Cuthbert winced as he lowered himself to the ground. “I’ll have to.”
“Good lad. Now get on with you!” He lunged and hissed at the horses, waving his arms to drive them away.
“I don’t even know where we are,” Cuthbert whispered.
“Ah, but I do. If God wills it, we’ll get home in one piece, and in reasonable health, too. We owe it to your mother.”
“We could seek shelter until he calls off the pursuit?”
“He’ll search every byre and cottage. If he found us, he’d slay us. As it is, he’ll burn the poor souls out of their homes and kill their beasts.”
*           *           *
Mist hung like a shroud over the land. A reassuring sight, Craigends thought, for it meant that even Montgomerie might call off the chase sooner rather than later.
Sounds travelled far in the still evening air, so they heard the hue and cry in plenty of time. The thunder of hooves, the blood-chilling calls of their pursuers.
“We’ll find cover over there.” Grasping Cuthbert’s arm, Craigends tugged him over to a dense thicket of whin and brambles that overlooked the river. They ducked deep into its depths, oblivious to the thorns that snagged their clothes and tore their flesh.
Cuthbert was trembling. Craigends held him close, an attempt at reassurance. “Not a word, for God’s Sake...” Staring into the gloom, he saw two Cunninghame retainers approach, unhorsed and stumbling with weariness. They skirted the river, wading through reeds and sliding over rocks.
Cuthbert stirred. “We must help them.”
“Hold still!” Craigends growled.
The enemy soon appeared: a dozen Montgomerie men-at-arms, fanning out across the valley.
Craigends swallowed. Sweat settled chill across his shoulders and back.
The beleaguered Cunninghames were spotted. One of Montgomerie’s retainers shouted out to his companions, and spurred his horse in pursuit. Splashing through the river, he headed up the sloping ground at a lumbering trot. He drew his sword and swept past, bringing one man down. The other fled, back towards the jeering pack of men that waited below.
Craigends glanced aside, unwilling to witness the slaughter. As he did so, he glimpsed something from the corner of his eye, a flash of white.
A horse approached, walking shin-deep through the river. A grey spectral beast, bloodstained and terrible.
And on its back, Montgomerie himself.
Lord Hugh halted, just twenty feet away. He was bloodied and unkempt, his unsheathed sword resting against his shoulder. He lifted his head, a wild beast scenting the air for quarry, nostrils flared, a feral light in his eyes. His steel gaze fixed on the thicket and he stared into its depths.
Craigends screwed his eyes shut, briefly, praying for a miracle. Alongside, Cuthbert bowed his head and stifled a moan.
A twig snapped, a figure moved nearby. It was the Cunninghame retainer they’d dismissed as dead: he scrambled to his feet, staggered a few steps.
Montgomerie’s head jerked round. He sat quite still, watching keenly as the wounded man tried to flee. Then he stirred. Lifting his sword, he closed in at a canter. With one lazy sweep, he hacked the man down as he passed. He didn’t look back, riding onwards through the river with spray flying from his horse’s hooves. He called to his men, and soon they were gone.
The silence returned.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Usher's Well

She waits by the window. Behind her, the kitchen clock beats out the time. Seconds slip away into minutes; minutes pile up into hours. Strangers’ voices fill the room: the pips, the news, The Archers, drama, more news. She listens. Easier to listen than to think. Even today. Especially today.

Sometime after three she makes coffee. Drinks it, standing by the window, watching the last leaves tumble from the apple tree and a blackbird searching the leaf mould at its foot. The day lingers, sour and sad, a dull, grey afternoon as so many in that year. With the unabashed self-interest of his kind, Jeoffry saunters in in search of chicken. She points him to his bowl where the giblets are waiting. He eats, then twists himself around her ankles, leaps mewing to the windowsill demanding to be stroked. She obliges, and his purr fills the kitchen. His fur is soft beneath her curving fingers. So warm. So vital. So alive.

The light is thicker now. She checks her watch: half an hour until the sunset. She fills it with another coffee. The radio drones on and on, its empty words a counterpoint to Jeoffry’s purr.

She looks around. All is in order. The house is clean, the food prepared, the beds made up, fresh towels in the bathroom, fresh flowers on the table. Chrysanthemums: red and gold and yellow, each a splash of colour against the November day. All is ready. The house is waiting to be filled.

Jeoffry, sated, satisfied, slips away. She checks the clock again. Ten minutes left; nine. She reaches for her cup but her hands are shaking too much to hold it.

No colour in the world beyond the window. No pomp or glory in this sunset. Merely the thickening light, the silent fall of rain upon the garden. So had her tears fallen, she thinks in a moment of fancy, salt rain falling down to water the cold clay.

The car stops at the gate at the appointed time. Exactly to the minute, she marks, passing the hall clock as she hastens to the door. She throws it wide to the dreich evening and stands, heart racing, on her threshold.

The driver gets out and walks around the car. It is the man she’d met in the kirkyard, dressed now, as then, in black. He opens the rear door and three boys – her three boys – pile out onto the pavement. The driver touches the eldest on the arm and stoops to whisper in his ear. Will glances at his brothers, nods, answers. She is too far away to catch his words. And then there is no need to think at all. Three boys come charging up the path to throw themselves into her waiting arms and all at once the world is as it should be.

Despite the rain. Despite the falling rain.

The house is full of noise and light. Coats and boots lie discarded by the door but even so they have left clods of damp earth on the carpet, and a litter of yellow birch leaves. As she picks up coats, more leaves drift from their pockets. She shivers, shaking her thoughts away. They have come home, and that is all that matters. They charge about upstairs from room to room, dragging out old toys, scuffling upon the landing, setting the telly to full blast. She smiles and locks the door, draws the curtains fast against the night.

Jeoffry streaks down the stairs, eight pounds of furious tabby blown up into a tiger. She takes a step towards him, holding out her hand to soothe and stroke. He hisses, ears flat against his head, a wild thing at bay. She steps back and he hurls himself into the night, leaving the flap swinging behind him.

‘Boys,’ she calls upstairs, ‘boys – what did you do to Jeoffry?’

‘Nothing, Mum,’ comes back the chorus. ‘Nothing.’

She pauses a minute in the hall, wondering whether to pursue it. No need, she thinks, he’s a grown cat now, used to a quiet life. He has forgotten them, that’s all.

‘Supper in an hour,’ she calls.

No answer. Unless you can count the distant sound of Adam’s drums an answer.

Back in the kitchen she sets the final touches to the meal. The chicken waits, crisped skin brown and glistening. Mashed potatoes yellow with butter, heavy with cream; carrots glazed with sugar; peas dressed with chopped mint; chocolate fudge near an inch deep on the cake. Food to tempt their appetites.

The youngest drifts in, clutching a toy dog.

‘I can’t find Teddy,’ he says.

Cold fingers clutch at her heart. ‘Oh, Tom.’

She puts down the spatula and wipes chocolate from her fingers. Gathering him into her arms, settling him upon her lap, she breathes in the smell of him. Woodland. Leaf mould.

He presses his face into her shoulder, small hands clinging tight. So familiar this feel, small boy curling himself into her heart. He’s wearing the top she’d laid out for him: his favourite, red, blazoned with dinosaurs; its colour had burned in a world turned all to grey and halflight.


‘Kiss,’ he demands, turning up his face.

She obliges, laughing. She wraps her arms around him, does not realise how tightly she is holding him until she feels him struggle.

She lets him go. ‘Tell your brothers supper’s ready.’

He skips out, dragging the dog by its ear behind him.

Beyond the window, the night is full of rain. Within the warm kitchen, she carves and spoons and dollops, fills plates with chicken, mounds of potatoes, carrots, peas, pouring glasses full of fizzy drink – the kind often begged for, seldom granted – a treat to mark the day. They talk and squabble round the table, her three boys, her flesh, her blood, her children. Before she takes her place she puts down a plate for Jeoffry.

She eats and talks, polices bickering, settles an argument between Tom and Adam over who would win: T. rex or ten – no, twenty! – ’raptors?

The food is good, she is hungry. It’s been a long time since last she took such pleasure in her cooking. The chicken was a gift from next door; well-set urbanites retiring to play the rural good life, their little flock the bane of weekend lie-ins. There have been many such gifts, these last months, from friends, from neighbours, from people who will hold her hand but not, quite, look her in the eye. Looking around the table at her sons’ faces, the months before this night are as a dream, a bad dream, from which she has now woken.

She stands to help herself to more. Jeoffry’s food remains untouched. No sign of him, despite the rain.

A clatter behind her. The eldest, carefully, is clearing plates, scraping unwanted food into the bin. He smiles, reassuring, suddenly so much older than his years. ‘It was lovely, Mum. Really. It’s just, we cannot eat.’

She smiles brightly, pouring flattened drinks away. ‘It’s the excitement, I expect. I could never eat after a journey.’

Will lays his hand on her arm. ‘Mum, you know. He explained it.’

Her mind flicks to the driver; their meeting in the kirkyard. She’d thought him first a minister in his black garb, holding his black book, and hurried past, avoiding his gaze. Even so, he’d come to stand beside her beneath the birken trees, besides the stone, and she’d seen his book no Bible but The Tragedie of HAMLET, Prince of Denmarke. He’d tapped its spine and told her, ‘There are ways, you know. He’d not tell you,’ a wave of his white hand to the minister’s house, ‘but I can.’

So she had listened.

She thinks, now, of the milk in the ’fridge, the bacon, the eggs, the unopened boxes of cereal, the pancakes she has planned for breakfast. She thinks of the man beneath the trees, of all he told her. Of her promise and her crooked fingers. The door is locked. The windows fastened.

‘He is not here,’ she says. It comes out more sharply than she means. ‘Only we are here.’

Will nods, biting his lip, turning away without an answer. She cuts the cake and gives each boy a slice. Tom looks from brother to brother, and shakes his head.

‘Just a little bit?’ she asks. ‘A mouthful?’

He shakes his head again, lips wobbling, a tear just spilling from his eye.

‘Never mind,’ she says with a bright, forced smile. ‘It will keep until you're hungry. Run away and play.’

The evening draws on into night. The eldest plays on the PS with his brother whilst the youngest has his bath. The house is filled with the crackle of gunfire, the crash and blast of heavy shells, with boys’ voices cheering on destruction. Tom sings and splashes, soaking the bathroom floor just as he’s always done. She looks out of his bedroom window, watching the rain run down the glass. Unlike Jeoffry to be without on such a night. He is a one for creature comforts. Ah well, she thinks, it’s his look out. He has a catflap, and knows well how to use it.

Tom comes in, sweet and small in blue pyjamas. His pale, bright hair, towel-dried, stands up fluffy around his face. He picks his way through the litter of toys strewn across his floor – How do boys wreak such havoc in so short a time? – and pulls book after book from the shelf until he finds the one he wants.

‘Read it!’ he demands, and so she does, snuggling up with him under the duvet. He smells of soap now; his neck has the milky smell she remembers from his babyhood. After a while there is a ceasefire beyond the door. His brothers wander in and settle themselves, Will resting against the pillow beside Tom, Adam lounging at the bedfoot.

‘Not too old for stories, then?’

They pull disgusted faces at such sentiment, but neither moves away.

The world dwindles down to this small room, bounded by the circle of lamplight; the only sounds beyond her voice the tick-ticking of the dinosaur clock upon the wall and the rain against the window.

‘I want Teddy.’ Tom’s voice is scarce more than a whisper, conjuring a flash of earth clodding down upon worn fur. Her heart turns over in her breast.

Will puts an arm around Tom’s shoulders. ‘Just tonight, okay. You’ll have Teddy again tomorrow.’


‘Promise,’ Will answers.

The door is locked, she thinks to calm her racing heart, the door is locked and bolted. They are mine again, forever and for always.

‘Go on, Mum,’ Will says. ‘You’re coming to the good bit.’

She reads on, late into the night. Tom relaxes into sleep beside her, his slight body becoming a deadweight on her arm. The others yawn and stretch themselves. She wonders if she should turn them out, make them wash, send them to sleep in their own rooms. But it is late and she as tired as they. And besides, now they are here, she cannot bear to have them leave her.

Will’s head lolls against her shoulder and she too drifts into sleep, the patter-pat of rain running through her dreams.

At cockcrow, she wakes all of a start to darkness and finds the space in the bed empty beside her. She snaps on the light and three boys look around with wide, dark eyes. Will is crouching down by Tom, the red top ready in his hands to pull over his brother’s tousled head.

‘What are you doing?’ she asks.

Adam points to the clock. Half-past seven. ‘He’ll be here soon, Mum.’

Less than fifteen minutes, she thinks; the time of sunrise written ’cross her mind, for all there is no sign of dawn beyond the window, only the rattle of rain against the glass.

She shakes her head. ‘I’ll make breakfast. What shall we do today?’

‘Mum,’ Will says, quietly, ‘you know we can’t stay. A night. You agreed.’

‘The door is locked,’ she says. ‘He can’t come in.’

‘No, but if we’re missed –’ Adam begins. A glance from Will reduces him to silence. Wide-eyed, fearful, Tom looks between his brothers and then to her. She wants to run to him, to catch him up into her arms and hold him tight and never, ever let him go.

‘Please,’ Will says, ‘don’t make it harder than it is.’

‘Will,’ she holds out her hands to her sons, ‘Adam, Tom, this is your home.’

Will shakes his head and continues, carefully, gently, to get Tom dressed. Next door, the cock crows again, heralding the day. The clock ticks on, conscienceless, relentless, measuring out the minutes.

Downstairs, the door is locked; the key is heavy in her hand, memories of other mornings heavy in her memory: the rush to leave before the bus, the scrabble for forgotten books, for rugby boots and pencil cases, the nag and niggles over unfinished prep and untucked shirts. Today, they wait quietly for the door to be opened, washed, brushed, ready. So had they been last time she saw them, still-faced and silent, so clean and combed they had scarce seemed her sons. Only Adam’s tapping foot betrays impatience.

‘Adam,’ she has to ask, seeing him glance to the clock, ‘it wasn’t just me? This is what you wanted?’

For a moment, only for a moment, she sees in the depths of his eyes something that should be in no child’s face, something more than she has ever dreamt of. She could have stood against the world, she thinks, kept the door locked fast, broken all her promises to the black-clad man, but for that. Will holds out his hand and she gives him what he needs.

Will turns the key and draws back the bolt. He kisses her good bye, then Adam takes his place, cold arms about her neck, cold lips against her cheek. She crouches down and buttons Tom’s coat, pulling up his hood against the rain. He is again clutching the toy dog.

Holding Tom’s face between her hands, she kisses him, then stands back to let them pass her by. Hand in hand, her sons step out into the rain and the halflight before dawn. The car is waiting at the gate, the black-clad driver by its open door.

As the car pulls away, as she crouches, weeping, just inside the door, Jeoffry stalks in, tail held high, heading for his bowl.

The Wife of Usher's Well (Child Ballad no. 79) is a ghost story. It's not a scary story - well, not in the obvious way - but a very, very sad one. You've just read my version: here's Karine Polwart singing another.

Harriet Goodchild

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Talk in the Dark

Hi folks! Mark here with a small offering to the fright-fest celebration. To be honest, I wasn't sure if I would come up with something. I think this is on the different or odd end of our common equation, but in retrospect I think it touches on some of the themes running throughout my Pevana novels. I will final judgment to you, the readers. I call it 'A Talk in the Dark.'  It reminds me of a very old story of mine, written back when I was 18-19 and trying to figure out how to survive at a big university. I might have to go back and dig through the notebook boxes and revisit it. There might be some seeds there. I hope this small bit suffices for now.

A Talk in the Dark

    I awoke again to darkness. At least, I think I awoke. Light, definition, shape and texture have begun to fade for me. All I know is I move my eyes because I can feel my lids and lashes. Like all the other times, I reach out to my right and touch the wooden bowl and jug of water. Someone puts them there when I sleep, I guess. I’ve tried staying awake to at least hear the sound of someone else’s breathing or a footstep—anything. But so far, nothing. I reach back in my memory to try to assemble the sequence of events that brought me here, but even that has become difficult.

   I was a soldier. Just a ranker with a spear and shield. Nobody important. I’m not sure why I’ve warranted such special attention.
   Or is it special neglect?
   There are times in the dark when I talk to myself. I natter away with my memories to dispel a little of the nothing with noise. I can tell my eyes are open, can feel the dryness when I’ve bugged them out for too long, striving against the Nothing for a hint of Something. I have to actually tell myself to blink.
     But all I have are tactile sensations and the monotony of my own voice, and even that pales over time. I can tell I’m dirty. My hair has grown long. I do not know for sure how long I have been here, whether I am young or old. I can stand and move with relative ease but only cautiously. In this absence of landmark, I inch about more careful than a truly blind man, toes and fingers hyper-sensitive to any change, any alteration in the air currents caused by my breathing that might suggest…something.
     Change. I keep reaching for it; I can’t say looking because I have all but forgotten what shape is other than my own limbs and body. I know I hug myself constantly, as though I were some catatonic holding on to insanity.
     Or sanity. In this place I do not think there is much difference.
      I have memories of light, faces that I still recall as family, and others I vaguely remember as friends. But more and more I find the images harder to conjure. Mostly now all that comes easily to me are the sounds of fighting, cruel faces in strange garb thrusting spears and blades, leering faces, bearded, sweaty, disfigured by tattooed designs and ritual slashes. I remember the smells of burning wood and flesh, the choking, retching horror of defeat and displacement.
     And then a spear butt smashing into my forehead, followed by darkness.
     This same darkness, unchanged, ever since. And the silence, which I break with my hesitant breathing and snatches of odd conversation with my terrors, rubbing at the slowly healing scar, which is the only tangible tie I have to what went before.
    I walk out of habit but afraid of what I might bump into, and I talk in a whisper, which still seems loud to me, out of fear that someone or something might be listening. Oddly enough, I never come up against a wall, or a pit, nothing.
    But as for that, I cannot make out why. I have all but forgotten who I am. Or was.
    And that is what terrifies me the most and keeps me huddling and whispering and dry-eyed in the darkness: who am I that I should suffer so, and who are they that would do this to one so insignificant? Such thoughtless power serves to intensify the dark and make my gibbering all the more hapless.
   In a dark such as this, it is difficult to maintain pride and dignity.
   “I’ve had enough!”
    The sound of my own voice, croaking and broken, scares me back to silence and I crouch down, waiting for a blow.
    But nothing. Nothing ever responds. At least, nothing that doesn’t come from inside me.
    I wonder if this is what death feels like, then I catch myself. What if this is what death IS?
   “Then who keeps feeding me?” my faltered self asks. “I’m not dead. That much I can claim. I smell my own excrement and sweat. The dead don’t eat and drink.”
     “Ah, but who is to say?” responded my better self. “You’ve cracked too much to reason it out, admit it.”
     “I will admit no such thing!”
     “It doesn’t matter what you will or will not admit. You’ve no choice in the matter, anymore.”
     “But why?”
     “Because your side lost.”
     “Don’t you mean ‘our’ side?”
     “Don’t try that old game. You will just make it worse.”
     “But how can you live without knowing?”
     “How can you know without living? Answer me that, why don’t you? Perhaps if we could draw some conclusions, ha, ‘draw’, that’s good, as if we’d be able to see them.”
     “Stop it with your stupid irony.”
     “Why don’t you stop it with the crouching and the whining? You make us smell like a savage.”
     “But I am, ‘we’ aren’t savages! Oh, blast you! I remember a city of white stones on a hill above the sea. Flags and towers and song drifting on the breeze.”
      “Fine and pleasant illusions.”
      “But you knew them, too!”
      “Yes. I knew them. We knew them. Everyone knew them. Can you see them here? Smell them? Hear them?”
      “No,” my faltered-self quavered. “All there is here is nothing.”
      “Yes, like I said, all pleasant illusions.”
      “I cannot accept that.”
      “I know, but we both know we are out of options. Defiance means nothing in the Nothing.”
      “I hate it when you make sense.”
      “I don’t do it to anger you. It is who I, ‘we’ are, what they have made us—those painted, bearded victors. We never had a chance once they broke the wall.”
      “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten that part, too! Are we so fractured, then?”
      “No, I remember now. We’ve had this talk before, haven’t we.”
      “Many times, one time, doesn’t really matter now. Time is not for me, ‘us’.”
      “You think you know something, don’t you. Tell me. You know something. You remember more than I do. Tell me!”
       And then silence, as though in my madness my better-self thought better of the answer. I blinked, waiting, hugging my dirty, scrawny limbs. I felt small. So small.
     “Tell me,” my faltered-self whispered.
     “I think I am,” came the answer, final, sepulchral. “ Or ‘we’ are, culture, all but forgotten save by the scribes and keepers of records. We are the words of the poets fallen on all but deaf ears, recalled as an afterthought, shelved.”
     “So what are we to do?”
     “But this is the Nothing!”
      “Yes, it is the Nothing. We might wait long…”
Mark Nelson
The Poets of Pevana
King's Gambit
The Poet King
Pevanese Mosaic