Sunday, August 20, 2017

"The Things That Make for Peace"

Note: The following was written as part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas’ eclipse-themed story challenge. Please visit Books By Eric for more tales.

Then Aarlacrax—the Smiter of the Sun, Scourge of the Six Kingdoms, he who was hated by heaven and feared on the earth, whose name became a curse that would last until seasons ceased and the stars slid from the sky—perished in battle. And behold! the fight was thick as the wild men of the south surged up the dark temple’s mount, and the Blue Fussiliers hammered its ramparts with volley after volley of lead shot, and a sudden explosion rang out as shaped charges blasted the main gate to rubble, and cobalt fire roared up from the wreckage to consume the cultists who stood guard, and a sanity-shattering howl rose as an eldritch SOMETHING the eye could not properly perceive and the mind refused to acknowledge advanced on the gap.

A full account of that conflict has never entered into the Annals of the Wise. But in the end, every source agrees that Aarlacrax lay cold and dead, his body graven with many blows and an expression of such horror fixed on his face that it would have turned the blood of the most doughty soldier to water in his veins. In that very hour, the darkness lifted and the sun appeared once more in the sky. Thus we call the first day of every year in the new calendar Eclipsend.

Yet while the battle itself finds no record in the Annals, there is a mention of the final meeting of the Ruling Council of the Society of Solaire at the estate of Lord and Lady Lexau, Master and Mistress of Captrinia and the High Moors …

“With this cup do we honor those who have given so much for the mutual peace of the Six Kingdoms!” Lady Genevieve Lexau’s voice rang out, proud and uncowed despite years of conflict that had, for all intents and purposes, pared the Six Kingdoms down to four.

Her guests raised their cups, which were filled with an unremarkable vintage (although any vintage seemed miraculous after the years of sunless skies). Even they couldn’t help but notice how her call echoed hollowly in the great hall. The structure had been stripped down to stone, the war effort consuming the tapestries, crests, rugs, and all the furniture save a smattering of hastily hewn tables and benches. Only a single servant remained, a young woman of no more than seventeen summers slipping this way and that amongst the council members with as much efficiency as she could manage.

As Karak Warbringer’s left fist thudded against the table, the girl shuddered and shrunk back. The wild man’s grin stretched into a checkerboard rictus of missing teeth, his face a webwork of white scars, his right sleeve hanging empty. “Zig ari wakip! And none have given more than the Mrucha.”

A ripple of unease rolled through the hall. The serving girl sensed it, her gaze darting this way and that. Then a coughing laugh came from the table beside the wild man.

“How many of your berserkers returned to the Blessed Plains, Karak? Three out of ten? Four even? More than enough for a remnant, I’d say.” The septuagenarian who’d spoken looked as though he’d been carved from sallow ivory. Repeated privation and pain had etched his face with lines deep as hatchet blows. His name was Garrett—just Garrett—once the most renowned thief on any of the seven continents.

Karak made a dismissive noise in the back of this throat. “What are a few years in a hole, little man? They cannot compare to our sufferings.”

“Your warriors fought and died cleanly. They didn’t feel a fraction of my torment. I have lain in the fire that is not quenched. I have known the bite of the worm that does not die. I have seen the ceremonial knife flay my flesh, and I have watched foul magics reknit the wounds before my eyes. There is no pit beneath that blasted hill in which I was not sunk. How do you think I knew how to direct the sappers?”

A shapeless form staggered to its feet. “To feel,” it croaked, and only after a moment did the assembly realize it was Sesquinious the Dire before whom whole battalions had once quavered in fear of her arcane power. “If only … to know the touch of pain or pleasure, sun or frost … To hear music again … To understand sorrow or joy or hate … I would give … I would … I …” She trailed off into silence, and the hall was still as a stone. The serving girl’s face had blanched pale as fresh parchment, because only then did she realize the terrible cost extracted by each act of magik, the price paid for commanding the elements and altering the aether.

A shriek broke the silence, a sobbing howl from some far wing of the estate, wild and crazed and utterly insane, distant but no less horrible for its lack of proximity. Lady Genevieve Lexau twitched at the sound, but her composure held. She was used to her husband’s gibbering by now. Lord Edgar Lexau hadn’t uttered an intelligible sentence since his occult communion had drawn the eldritch SOMETHING from beneath the sea.

“Why are you standing there?” the Lady finally snapped at the serving girl. “Bring our honored guests their meals! Move!

The girl moved, hiding her tears. The official accounts continue on, recording the escalating argument between the surviving members of the Ruling Council, the airing of bitter recriminations in the wake of their triumph. They do not bear repeating. It should surprise no one that this was the last official meeting of the Society of Solaire.

And in the midst of them, the serving girl continued to move, unnoticed and unhallowed. Perhaps she is moving still, always at her work. History has not carried her name down to us. Nor the name of the boy who pledged his troth to her and perished on a cultist’s pike. Nor the names of her parents, who set fire to the farmstead with themselves inside rather than surrender it to Aarlacrax’s forces. Nor the names of the thousand thousands like her, the anonymous sacrificial horde who paid with their husbands, their children, their dignity, their sleepness nights, their futile days, their barren futures—all the things that make for peace.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

People Pulls a Bit of a Bait and Switch

Can I be forgiven for initially assuming that Kevin Wignall’s People Die is a crime novel? His debut ticks off all of the appropriate boxes on the genre checklist. A sympathetic hitman under the gun from former allies? A Byzantine plot he has to unravel in order to survive? Gunplay and fisticuffs that suitably swell the double-digit body count? Yes, yes, and yes—but there the similarities end. Rather than focus on high-octane action, Wignall has chosen an entirely different emphasis: internal monologues preoccupied with subjective musings and big existential questions.

JJ has a reputation as a non-partisan contractor, a service provider free of ideological hang ups, a guy who gets the job done in as clean a manner as possible. It just so happens that his chosen profession involves killing people, murdering anyone for money anywhere—but not anyhow. JJ doesn’t go in for torture. He won’t off a target with a baseball bat or brick. “Overkill” isn’t in his dictionary. A couple of pistol shots neat and clean as you please, and JJ’s out of there. That was what happened in Moscow when JJ executed his latest mark, a family man named Bostridge. JJ doesn’t know why the guy has to die. The agency doesn’t pay him enough for that. Nor does the size of his retainer allow him the luxury of wondering why there was a girl in the room. A girl who wasn’t his wife. A girl who took a wrapped package from the room after the hit. JJ doesn’t worry about it until a few days later when his handler shows up dead. Then former colleagues start to drop like the proverbial flies. Someone is killing everyone around JJ, and the Moscow job might very well have something to do with it.

The setup for People Die sounds like something straight out of the thriller writer’s handbook, doesn’t it? That’s why it surprised me so much when Wignall immediately steered the proceedings away from the bang-bang-die stuff and into JJ’s mental machinations. And by immediately, I mean immediately. No sooner is Bostridge bleeding out onto the floor (a scant five paragraphs in) then readers find themselves plunged into his thoughts about the isolating power of sudden tragedy, the cultural cluelessness of Westerners, and the fragile beauty of the young whore. Such shifts shock in more ways than one. Not only are they unexpected for the genre, they’re linked with a substantial stylistic disconnect. The action reads like Hemingway. Short and sharp bursts. Almost business-like action. But everything after that tumbles out in lengthy, unhurried prose, dependent clauses unspooling one after another, some landing, in a development that you might find odd, smack in the middle of others. Interestingly, Wignall seems to prefer the literary stuff to crime content, a valid enough compositional and thematic choice that nonetheless feels off in a book with a big old hollowpoint bullet emblazoned on the cover. So does the main thematic thrust that JJ’s emotionless murders may somehow tilt the cosmic scales for good. I have no problem with crime fiction getting existential or diving deep into another genre’s territory. But it’s hard to feel as though People hasn’t pulled a bit of a bait and switch.

(Picture: CC 2008 by mr.smashy)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Advent Ghosts 2016: The Stories

Note: This post will be updated regularly throughout the day. Check back early and often to get your fill of spooky stories!

The periodic purges have begun, jackboots tromping through the frosty night. No one knows how they began, what petty bureaucratic infringement sparked the settling of old scores, the creation of new ones. We’ve killed the lights for safety’s sake, because who would think this old hovel with its icy stove and chinked walls and cracked windows was inhabited? A hoarded blanket flung over the scarred table in the dining room serves as our shelter, and we huddle beneath it for warmth, lifting a corner now and then to peer out at the fissured glass, at the roving lights striking white against shifting sheets of snow. But then the howling starts, bellows of fear and pain and something that could almost be called delight. We shiver as one. It has nothing to do with the cold. We let the blanket drop, knowing that no human throat could’ve made some of those sounds, knowing that we won’t dare to raise it again until the sun stands tall in the sky, knowing that there are things worse than the secret police out in the darkness.

We stare at the blanket's patchwork surface. Tough, undyed homespun. A section of chiffon. A swath of powder-blue cloth printed with puppies. A match flares, finds the precious stub of a candle. A trembling hand passes around a flask. A low voice starts to sing about bells wild and sweet, catches on a soft sob, and stops.

Please, dear friend, come here. Warm your hands, recall the old songs, pass the night with us. And while you're here, don’t forget to tell us a story ...
• "Into the Void" and "A Condo Christmas" by William Gregory (see below)
• "I-Bowndyn" by David Llewellyn Dodds (see below)
"The Trampoline" by Kel Mansfield on Kel Mansfield: Write Stuff
"It's Only ..." by Loren Eaton on I Saw Lightning Fall
"Under the Mistletoe" and "Tree" by Craig Scott on CS Fantasy Reviews
"Christmas Eve at the Tree Farm, Candler, North Carolina" by Joseph D'Agnese on Joseph D'Agnese
"What's Under the Tree?" by Phil Wade on Brandywine Books
"Nose" by Lester D. Crawford on Lester D. Crawford Blog
"Mother and Child, West of the World" by R.S. Naifeh on Advent Ghosts: Short Theological Fictions for the Dead of Winter
"Bethlehem‘s Star" by Rhonda Parrish on Rhonda Parrish
"Fresh Paint" by David Higgins on Davetopia: Fragments of a Curious Mind
"The Elves Are Busy" by Michael Morse on Rescuing Providence
"Ever Here" by Paula Gail Benson on Little Sources of Joy
"Birth of a God" and "Data Breach Expected to Have Consequences" by Eric Douglas on Books by Eric Douglas
"This Old House" by Patrick Newman on Lefty Writes
"It's Not Mama" by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher on Esse Diem
"Scrawled on Memo Line of Giant Novelty Check Presented by Blackgall Creamery to Diluvian Street Firehouse Rebuilding Fund Dated 12/25/1985" by Manuel Royal on Donnetown Today or Recently (or a Long Time Ago)
"Finally Alone" by Simon Cantan on Simon Cantan: Science Fiction and Fantasy That Moves
"Cold Comfort" by Katherine Tomlinson on Kattomic Energy
* * *

"Into The Void"
By William Gregory

The blank white space is overwhelming. Intimidating. I take a deep breath. Settle myself. My mind.

Standing before me a void. Nothingness. Thoughts of failure. A palpable fear and dread.

Why? Why do I keep coming back?

A small blinking light in the corner. Beckoning.

Another deep breath. Go forward. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.

I press the keys and the first word appears. I begin down a path unknown. A sense of where it may lead, but never knowing where or how it will end. This is the adventure I seek. I am a writer.

("Into The Void" copyright 2016 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"A Condo Christmas"
By William Gregory

Apartment 5A: “I feel so honored to have my children here tonight. Nothing makes a father or I should say, new grandfather, happier than having all his children with him for the holidays.”

Apartment 6B: “More wine honey? It’s so nice to spend our first Christmas together.” “To new beginnings!” “To dreams come true!”

Apartment 8C: “Mommy, when will Santa be here? Can we stay up? Can we put the cookies out now? Please??? Oh Please????”

Apartment 1D: Too cold on the roof. Razor is too messy. (And you’ve tried that before dumbass.) Xannies and Popov? (Yeah) “Merry Fucking Christmas!”

("Into The Void" copyright 2016 by William Gregory; used by permission)

* * *

"I-Bowndyn"
By David Llewellyn Dodds

Darkness, confusion, buried alive, like a well, a building-collapse. Light, sound, voice, crashing into head, heart, so fine, clear, certain – all suddenly gone, what long years ago? Borne, patiently, hope carbonized to diamond in the dark. Now, what rumor (how?) stirring, of excavation – of more than restoration? What glint, in the depths, sheltered roundabout? What surge from root to branch to bud? “Yirmiyahu, – ” “O, Yeshayahu, what a city of grey desolation is this, we’ve not escaped the making of: how the sorrow weighs against hope…” “No!: hear that submerged ghostly breath of joy in the womb, ‘Eloi!’ – He nears!”

("I-Bowndyn" copyright 2016 by David Llewellyn Dodds; used by permission)

"It's Only ..."

“... 100 words.” The voice seems to float to me across a great gulf. “Then freedom.”

I look at the flames ringing my desk. The sores on my skin. The squamous squirming within them.

I start to write, only occasionally diverted by the seething hellscape.

At 25 words, I notice my title is a consonantal garble. I fix it. At 57 words, I see that my protagonist is speaking in Yiddish. I fix it. At 99 words, I sigh, close my eyes—

—and open them to a blank page.

But that’s fine, right? I can fix it. It’s only ...



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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Shared Storytelling: Advent Ghosts 2016

Winter, summer, autumn, spring—the season hardly matters here. The only significant difference between them are the smells. Cold dampens the reek of cabbage, of unwashed flesh, of the acrid stench of polyamides from the government-run factories that stipple the blocks. But days always run to gray across the obdurate cityscape, the concrete tenements uniform only in their ugliness. Even an arrival only five minutes fresh from the train could chart the rise and fall of a dozen administrations in the architecture itself. The squat bunkers from the war years. The crowded clusters of multifamily high rises sprouting brown lines of laundry like fungus. The trapezium arcology that the central planners failed to foresee, a desperate amalgamation of old offices and older scrap that started to accrete once the administrative cordon appeared. No one dares cross the cordon. It isn’t just the acrid stench of ozone shed by the buzzing perimeter of pylons. There’s something about the guards themselves, about the shape of their helmets, those irregular, bulbous shells without any obvious ports for sight or sound. But even the guards are preferable to the things that skulk around the city’s outer walls. Only the old roaming trader will ever hint about their unholy forms. There he is in the corner, the one with the patch on his eye, the man who goes where he will and sells luxuries like soap and tissues and socks without the sanction of any officially sanctioned price sheet.

Go on. Buy him a drink. See what he has to say—if you dare.

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2016, the eighth annual shared storytelling event at ISLF. In the spirit of Charles Dickens, M.R. James, Neil Gaiman, and countless other writers down the years, a group of us gathers each year to swap eerie tales immediately prior to Christmas. We aren’t so doctrinaire as to insist that stories go up on Christmas Eve itself. Neither are we elitist in the least. Everyone is welcome, and our only rules for participating are ...
1) Email me at ISawLightningFall [at] gmail [dot] com.
2) Pen an eerie tale that’s exactly 100-words long—no more, no less.
3) Post the story to your blog on Saturday, December 17 and email the link to me. Hosting on ISLF is available for those without blogs or anyone who wants to write under a pseudonym. (Don’t worry, you’ll maintain copyright.)
4) Understand that while you have the freedom to pen as extreme content as you’d like, I reserve the right to place a content warning on any work that I think necessitates it. Just being upfront about it.
So get thee to your pen or word processor and share a story with us. Don’t worry about the genre. While it can be a ghost story à la the title, we love every genre. Go for SF or crime fiction. Write a bizarre romance or a weird western. Try traditional poetry or experimental prose if you’d like. Write what you like just so long as its slightly scary. Want more info? Check out our 2015, 2014, and 2013 events, and discover what horrors wait for you in those ancient, long-buried vaults.

(Picture: CC 2016 by Adam Jones)

Monday, October 31, 2016

"The Everlasting Arms"

Note: The following was written as part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas’ Halloween-themed 100-word-story challenge. Please visit Books By Eric for more spooky tales.

Jeffrey’s mother chucked up the covers and groaned, “What the hell?”

“Monster,” Jeffrey said. “In my room.”

“You’re too old for this.”

“The monster—”

“Damn it, go to bed, you little bastard.” Her breath smelled of juniper.

Jeffrey went. He lay weeping as the room filled with the odor of rotting violets and a sickly light welled from beneath his bed and an encircling score of squelching tentacles slowly squeezed him to his mattress.

“I WILL ALWAYS BE HERE,” The Voice said from everywhere and nowhere.

“I know,” Jeffrey said. And he hugged the pseudopod’s squamous surface in return.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

NOS4A2 Would Make Chekov Proud

Genre tropes get long in the tooth so quickly, turning into hoary monstrosities that still shamble onto bookstore shelves long after they ought to have been buried. Sometimes they owe their demise to oversaturation, the same old staggering off to market again and again. For example, consider zombies and their cranium-crunching cornucopia of gory stories, movies, and comics that have infected pop culture. (An aside: Would any of you be forlorn if an international diktat forbade the creation of new zombie yarns for a few years? I doubt it.) Other times, though, conventions die an iterative death, one slightly altered work following another until the concept gets so far afield that it jumps the proverbial shark. I think this is where the good, old vampire stands. Forget Stoker’s suave Count. In recent years, creatives have transitioned to prepubescent horrors, rock-and-roll revenants, and those notoriously sparkly denizens of the night. No wonder people got tired of Anne Rice’s old standbys. They hardly resemble vampires anymore. So when I saw that Joe Hill planned to visit the idea with his novel NOS4A2, I wanted to see what twist he’d work into the old legend—and I can honestly say that his take was the last thing I expected.

Victoria McQueen—dubbed “The Brat” by her rough-around-the-edges father and mostly shrieked at by her neurotic mother—has a special talent: She can find things. Forget about change between the couch cushions or missing keys, though. Vic can suss out more important stuff, things like beloved heirlooms or lost pets, pretty much anything she wants. Her talent is less impressive than the way in which she implements it. Vic conjures a long-demolished local bridge out of thin air and pedals her bike across it. Viola! Instant transportation to the missing item. But like many gifts, it comes with unanticipated consequences, real downsides that manifest themselves in Vic’s very body. Raging fevers. Debilitating headaches. Mysterious bleeding from one eye. Still, it’s a gift that Vic will need to use very soon. She’s about to come face to face with one Charlie Manx, a hundred-year-old child abductor who says that he isn’t stealing kids at all, oh no. Rather, he claims that he’s ferrying them to a magical paradise called Christmasland.

Even given the brevity of the above description, you can probably guess that Charlie Manx is NOS4A2’s titular vampire. What might surprise you, though, is that he bares no fangs, bites no necks, fails to transmogrify into a single bat. Rather, Manx’s vampirism restricts itself to the realm of the mind. Like Vic (and this is hardly a spoiler), he has a talent, only his gift feeds on the psychic energy of children. An interesting enough idea on its own, but Hill doesn’t develop it further, and that makes for pretty thin genre sauce, especially given the richness of vampiric lore. Wordy passages and crass asides—including a scene where (I kid you not) a pigeon defecates into the mouth of a fervently praying supplicant—only detract further. But where Hill excels, really excels, is in his plotting. He strews narrative firearms left and right throughout the book’s early stages, not a single one of which remains unfired by the end. Chekov would be proud. NOS4A2 may not exactly advance vampire fiction, but it’s an enjoyable read all the same.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Rodolfo Polanco Casasola)