Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent Ghosts 2014: The Stories

From your chair by the window, you can see snow sluicing down from a leaden sky, white on gray. The radiator ticks. The eaves creak. Metal clinks against porcelain as you shiver while stirring your drink. The world itself seems blasted by cold, an empty waste of icy earth hard as iron, denuded of life.

But, oh, it is not. Had you eyes to see, you could behold the host of restless spirits moving across this chill tableau, a cloud of unsettled witnesses. Are you sure you want to know what have they seen? Because you are anything but alone. They can tell of the wayfarer huddled in the woods just over the hill whose red right hand turned against his brother. They can tell of the nameless thing that stalks him, desperate to slake its undying thirst. And they can tell of the quiet congregation accreting by your back door.

Come, turn the knob and let us tell you our stories...
• "Real Game" by Brent Aikman (see below)
"The Camera Sees" by James D. Witmer on James D. Witmer
"A Million Pieces" by Rhonda Parrish on RhondaParrish.com
• "Jingle Bell Run" and "The Steenbok" by William Gregory (see below)
"Heiligabend" by KJ Mansfield on KJ Mansfield.com
"Spooky Tale" by Linda Casper on Third Age
• "The One" by Lynn Amaral (see below)
"Copy of a Copy of a ..." and "Elisabeth" by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"Eyes Full of Tinsel and Fire" by John Norris on Pretty Sinister Books
"Anesthetic" by Scott Garbacz on Advent Ghosts
"The Road Trip" by Simon Cantan on SimonCantan.com
"The Snowman" by Craig Scott on CS Fantasy Reviews
"Whiteout" by Simon Kewin on Spellmaking
"December 11001" by Ben Mann on BenMann.net
"The Other List" by Nick Johns on Tales from a Tightrope
"The Last" by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher on Esse Diem
"Naughty, Naughty Nick" by Sandra Seamans on My Little Corner
"One Night Ago" by Paul F. Boekell on Betrothed to Another
"Christmas Spirit" by Hunter F. Goss on Hunter F. Goss
"August In December" by Jason Jones on Catchy Title Goes Here"
"A glass of wine" and "Parasite" by Eric Douglas on Books by Eric Douglas
"What Scares Father Christmas?" by Paul Liadis on The Struggling Writer
"Assassin in Jack’s Backyard, AD 1660" by Joseph D'Agnese on Daggyland
"The Dark is Silent" by Erin Cole on Erin Cole
"Attic Ghosts" by Rachael K. Jones on Rachael K. Jones
"Collapse" by Dave Higgins on Davetopia
"Where Is Santa?" by Michael Morse on Rescuing Providence and "Silent Night, Good Girl" on Mr. Wilson Makes it Home
"Memories" and "The Charity of Strangers" by Derek Manuel on Derek Manuel
"I Saw Lightning Fall" by Scott G.F. Bailey on Six Words for a Hat
"Be Good for Goodness Sake!" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog
• "Doll Face" by Geoffrey Miller (see below)
"A House, Haunted" by Nathaniel Lee on Mirrorshards
"Excrucimas" by Ollwen Jones on Fiction - Miscellaneous and Sporadic; (Probably Especially the Latter.)
"Good Help" by Bon Steele on The Process

* * *


"Real Game"
by Brent Aikman

Christmas morning snow covered leaves just enough, allowing her silent creeping to the wooded spot. Here generations before her had also stood, rifle in hand, and waited for their prey.

She waited. He might be quiet too. She would have to be patient, watch for any movement. They would not hear each other.And then, there he was, headed her way. She raised the gift from her father to her shoulder, put the sights directly on her brother’s chest, and slowly squeezed the trigger. It was only a BB gun. Practice for her chance to someday win the real game.

* * *


"Jingle Bell Run"
By William Gregory

Julie’s breathing was labored as the frigid air bit into her lungs. Her nose ran. Her eyes teared. The tiny bells on her running shoes jingled like a metronome marking her pace. She registered the red form on the side of the trail just as his black boot caught her shin and sent her crashing to the forest floor. Instantly everything stopped. She could barely draw a breath as his heavy bulk pinned her down in the icy snow. A paralyzing mix of fear and adrenaline coursed through her body… until she heard his jolly voice exclaim, “Ho, Ho, Ho!”
("Jingle Bell Run" copyright 2014 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *


"The Steenbok"
By William Gregory

Trevor crouched silently behind the acacia tree. He had stalked the tiny Steenbok for nearly 30 minutes. Now he was in range. Trevor focused his camera on the doe-eyed creature. Through the viewfinder the Steenbok’s intense stare made Trevor uneasy. It appeared to be fixated on the tree above him. Suddenly his camera strap went taut around his neck. Trevor realized his grievous mistake just as the full weight of the musky leopard fell upon him. The last thing Trevor saw before the big cat’s knife-like canines penetrated his throat was the little Steenbok casually slipping off into the veld.

("The Steenbok" copyright 2014 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *


"The One"
by Lynn Amaral

The altercation occurred without provocation. The embarrassing barrage of excuses for him imprisoned her. Buried in isolation, fearful of exposing what she allowed tied her to him so tightly she could barely breathe. Chained, not because she believed he would change, but desperate to believe she couldn’t have been so wrong. Doubting her own instincts crippled her, more than broken bones. Bruises confirmed what her mind believed: you’re an idiot. Change became phantasmagorical. Denial bred despair, suffering, and silence. Broken and bruised, her body defiled, yet that paled, incomparable to the scars of shame in her heart.

("The One" copyright 2014 by Lynn Amaral; used by permission)

* * *


"Doll Face"
By Geoffrey Miller

“Thank you. I only ever wanted a child."

The crone strokes the doll's hair, lovingly twining its yellow yarn curls round her knobby, gnarled fingers. A jewel on its stomach pulsates rhythmically to a disembodied sob, a sob that once woke you many anight. Your daughter’s sob—your poor daughter, who was exiled as a mere child, thrust beyond the safety of the city walls into the dark wilds because of her uncleanness of flesh.

“Jennyra wasn't going to live long anyway," says the crone with a toothless smile. "Now she doesn't have to hurt anymore. Now, we're both happy."

("Doll Face" copyright 2014 by Geoffrey Miller; used by permission)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Elisabeth"

Did the Bright Man blaze with starshine or corpsefire? Did glory or terror shut my Zechariah's mouth? Can this haunt-eyed haint be the man with whom I grew well-stricken in years? After all those years, why does my monthly blood flow again?

So many questions. Yet in the night as our bodies cleave and his silent mouth meets mine, they fall away. My barren belly has swollen, and I have my answer. It is a sweet sword that heals even as it pierces.

And beholding my young cousin, her virgin stomach rounding, I know it will pierce more than me.




Postscript: If the above widget is giving you trouble, visit ISLF's Soundcloud page or consider subscribing to the podcast to listen to audio recordings of this and other stories.

"Copy of a Copy of a ..."

Tau-sub-Beta had officially lost it. "Marmalade!"

"It's lonely," ZetaPrime said. "Be nice to meet someone new."

BetaPrime grimaced at his missing left leg. "That's how it starts."

"Marmite!" Tau-sub-Beta howled.

"The Splice-o-Matic only needs 450 grams to produce an identical imprint," ZetaPrime said.

"Identical?" BetaPrime snorted. "No copy of a copy is ever as sharp."

"Marmolada!"

ZetaPrime sighed. "Back to the well, then."

Down the bunker's hall lay a tube-filled lump as mad as Tau-sub-Beta. Stubbed limbs flailed as the pair approached. "Please. I'm Spencer Bridwell. Last survivor. Phoenix, Arizona."

"We know," ZetaPrime said, brandishing the bonesaw. "We all are."



Postscript: If the above widget is giving you trouble, visit ISLF's Soundcloud page or consider subscribing to the podcast to listen to audio recordings of this and other stories.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Tired Tropes Revisited: The Fascist Corporation (Dollhouse)

During my early morning workouts, I've taken to catching up on TV shows I missed the first time around. My most recent viewing? Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, a two-season SF thriller seemingly considered one of the director's lesser efforts.

The basic premise goes like this: A nigh-mythical brothel exists somewhere in Los Angeles, a bordello where you can get anything you want from anyone you desire -- for a price. A loving wife. A sultry schoolgirl. A sexy psychopath. But those Janes and Johns don't need acting prowess to please clients. Thanks to the magic of neural imprinting, the employees of this brothel (dubbed the Dollhouse) can have new personalities imprinted in an instant. Flick a switch, and they become someone new. Press a button, and they get wiped down to a minimally functional "doll" state. Dolls are recruited from the ranks of the economically disadvantaged, emotionally scarred, and criminally convicted. Give the Dollhouse five years of your life, then wake up wealthy and well-adjusted, if a little worse for wear. Selling any imaginable dream is a profitable, if ethically problematic, business plan. But not all is well at the Dollhouse. An FBI agent has become obsessed with taking it down. A doll designated Alpha went rogue, killing several during his escape. And a new recruit dubbed Echo is becoming resistant to wiping.

The plot of Dollhouse suffers almost as many problems as its characters. You can tell that Whedon changed his mind about the show's direction a few times during production. One character shifts alliances so suddenly it nearly imparts whiplash, and the final few episodes morph the show into Mad Max by way of Neuromancer with a pinch of Wendell Berry thrown in for seasoning. Still, the show is pretty fun -- except when it falls foul of the oh-so-tired trope of the fascist corporation.

Behold the Rossum Corporation! This ostensibly benign producer of MRI machines Alzheimer's has secretly created technology that facilitates voluntary sexual slavery. What's more, in Dollhouse this bastion of big business is powerful enough to thoroughly fathom the mysteries of the brain, install 48 facilities across the globe, thwart a federal investigation, manipulate a member of Congress, manufacture a supercomputer powered by human suffering, and create a humanistic form of eternal life. Kneel before its might! It alone has the power to bend worldwide affairs to its own purposes. In fact, only its eventual downfall (hardly a spoiler, amirite?) could bring about the destruction of civilization.

This is the point where I hope you've joined me in shaking your head in bemused disappointment. How could a corporation fall that's so large, so grand, so mighty? In truth, pretty easily. I've talked before about why the tropes of the fascist corporation could never work, so allow me only the briefest refresher. Most everyone who made it through high-school econ remembers economies of scale: As production expands, average costs fall up to a point. But once that point is reached, diseconomies of scale kick in. Things start getting more expensive. Corporate bloat makes communication difficult. Competitive advantages start to erode. Rivals start to circle like wolves.

In reality, Rossum Corporation would almost surely have never gotten the opportunity to attempt global domination. It would fall to more nimble competitors (if it functioned in a free market) or to government regulators (if it existed in a more top-down system). On the small screen, though, Rossum only perishes after growing great thanks to the sabotage wrought a handful of individuals. It's not just unconvincing; it beggars belief. So no matter your economic ideology, steer clear of the fascist corporation. Your readers deserve better.

(Picture: CC 2009 by Evan Hamilton)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gurri on Amazon.com and the Future of Publishing

Over at The Federalist, Adam Gurri writes about how Amazon.com's recent spat with Hachette doesn't signal the end of days for traditional publishing. Excerpt:
The extended dispute between Amazon and publisher Hachette finally came to an end earlier this month. Amazon had wanted Hachette to price its e-books lower while giving Amazon a bigger cut; and when Hachette didn’t comply, Amazon slowed delivery of Hachette books and removed the pre-order option for them.

During the contract disputes, we learned that publishers have become relatively sympathetic in the public eye now that a behemoth like Amazon is bigger than they are. Yet it seems not so long ago that many exulted that the web would allow authors to circumvent publishers and go to readers directly. In this scenario, publishers were often painted as monopolistic gatekeepers. This image is still embraced by writers such as Matthew Yglesias, but during the dispute most observers voiced a concern that Amazon has simply become too powerful, and that it would be bad for readers and worse for authors. I think this whole incident was overblown, on all sides; Amazon has made things drastically better for readers and writers, and while publishers will have to adapt to new technological realities, they are still likely to have an important role.
Read the whole thing -- right now, if your schedule allows. No, seriously, anyone with a passing interest in fiction publishing ought to spend five-or-so minutes with Gurri's piece. In the social-media world, I've seen more than a fair share of authors using expansive terms to bemoan the Hachette spat. But by using the example of pop-horror author Scott Sigler (an indie who rode the nĂ¼-publishing wave to mainstream success), Gurri reminds us that intersection of technology, economics, and entrepreneurship offers more options for creative types, not fewer. Careers are determined by discipline and creative risk taking, not faceless hegemonies hunched around teak conference tables.

(Picture: CC 2012 by Vincent Lee)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2014

Is any season lonelier than solstice? The elements shove the sun over the horizon, force the flora into the earth, drive animals deep into their dens. And what of us? We contend with old paths turned treacherous by ice. Well-known tableaus have gone foreign, hills hoary with frost and trees stripped down to bare boughs. Spare a sigh over goldengrove unleaving, just one while rubbing aching knuckles and flexing numb toes, face ruddied to rawness by the cold. Then go home to shelter and faces known -- if not always friendly. We understand why. The half-full bottle hidden beneath the sink. Bills shoved to one side of the desk. Those hard words muttered in still moments. Breathe in the tired smells of stale coffee, damp cigarettes, and aerosol air freshener. Then pause. The air holds a hint of wood smoke as fire flares up in the hearth. The house creaks, wind whipping around the eaves. Tinsel glitters in the dim light. The person sitting across from you smiles tentatively. Starts to speak. Hesitates. The silence, filled as it is with the ghosts of old arguments, is deep.

What will you say to break it?

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2014, the sixth annual shared storytelling event at ISLF. Every year, a group of us gather to celebrate the old Anglophile tradition of swapping spooky tales on Christmas Eve. We shake things up just a little bit, though. Rather than writing lengthy pieces, we compose 100-word stories -- dubbed "drabbles" -- and post them the weekend prior to Christmas. All comers are welcome, just so long as they follow a few simple rules ...
1) Email me at ISawLightningFall [at] gmail [dot] com if you want to contribute.
2) Pen an eerie little tale that's exactly 100-words long -- no fudging the length.
3) Post your story to your blog on Friday, December 19 and email the link to me. Hosting can be arranged for those without blogs of their own.
4) Understand that though I never have and never will censor stories, I do reserve the right to put content warnings on particularly graphic tales.
Remember this: Even though the event is dubbed "Advent Ghosts," you don't necessarily need to incorporate either element from that title. We're looking for a particular tone. Aim for creepy, scary, sad, unsettling. Work it any which way you want using the genre you like. Anything from horror to fantasy to crime fiction to weird takes on religious tales is fair game. Why not read the stories from last year and the year before that and the year before that? But whatever you do, just make sure the gooseflesh crawls up our necks. Come and help us pass these lonely days.

(Picture: CC 2010 by i k o)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Vossler on Soaping and Writing

Over at Mythic Scribes, A.L.S. Vossler of The Lonely Young Writer discusses the commonalities between soaping and writing. Excerpt:
Recently, I took up the hobby of soaping, which, as you might guess, is making soap. ... At first blush, soaping and writing have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There is little to no risk of being exposed to extremely caustic chemicals while writing -- if there is, you are probably doing something drastically wrong. Soaping has many rigid rules, whereas writing has very few by comparison. With writing, you can bend the rules and wind up with something awesome; bend the rules in soaping, and the best-case scenario is disappointment. Worst case is severe lye burns. As often is the case, however, one discipline can lend insight to another, and it is no different with soaping and writing. To be a successful soaper, you must choose your ingredients carefully, be attentive to ratios, use a recipe, be patient, and most importantly, have fun. All of these things have far more to do with writing than one might realize.
Read the whole thing. Vossler's article is worth going through from intro to end, but what really resonated with me was her section on ratios, on the balancing of different parts of the compositional craft. We all know that genres have their fixations. Literary fiction tends to focus on characters, SF on extrapolations of technical details, and fantasy on fully realized imaginative settings. All good things -- but not if moderation doesn't serve as a counterpoint.

According to my Kindle app, I'm currently at 18% of a fantasy novel by a well-known author, and I'm finding it tough going. Not because the author doesn't have chops. Indeed, every jot and tittle seems charged with creativity, an imaginative effulgence spilling out into the book's secondary world. So far, though, that's all it has to offer. Minimal plotting. Mostly flat characters. No outstanding themes. Perhaps that will all change as I plow on, but right now the title's giving me plenty of reasons not to. Vossler notes, "Too much emphasis on the milieu leaves the reader feeling less like they have read a story and more like they have listened to someone build a world for Dungeons and Dragons." Amen.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Keith Williamson; Hat Tip: @JRVogt)