Microfiction: Waters & Door

I’ve been enjoying creating 50 word stories recently. Here are a couple more I’ve come up with…
Rushing waters in a river flowing over rocks. A black and white photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

Waters
To save our village, we fed people to the river. We pretended this was her desire, but truly it was ours.

Still the waters rose and she swept us away.

When we returned, we found our homes reclaimed. Bloated bodies occupied every bed and chair, with their unending, triumphant smiles.

A glass door. On the outside, through the glass, you can see a breezeblock wall. Photo from Carolina Pimenta

Door
The house tried its usual tricks, but the new owner was unperturbed.

When the walls bled, she thanked it for redecorating.

When the pipes wailed, she complimented its musical talents.

The house, exhausted, asked why she was unafraid.

She glanced for a moment at the rarely-opened front door.

“Am I?”

A work in progress

I’m working on fragments of stories at the moment. This one doesn’t have a real title yet. I’d planned for it to be a longer story, but it kind of feels right to end it where it is, at the moment. It might end up being the start of a different story, but instead focused on another character. I may come back to it later, so we’ll see!
A moss and grass covered forest floor. Thin, bare trees are dotted around

Blood ran down his bare arm, mingling with the drops of rain to form streams along the back of his hand. He suddenly remembered raspberry sauce; the way he would draw patterns with it upon the melting ice cream in his bowl, despite mother’s silent disapproval.

The sound of screeching rubber against asphalt echoed across the forest, usurping the memory of his mother’s implacable face. 

Escaping from the past to an equally hostile present did not ease his distress.

The rain fell hard, and so did he.

He flattened his body to the ground, cheek and jaw resting on the earth and rotting leaves. He dared not lift his head; could not turn his gaze towards the voices that may have been laced with concern, or something darker. The dying light melted its way through the trees, seeking him out like their words.

Shunning them both, he pressed his cheek further into the slick and scratching detritus. He closed his eyes and, as the rain continued to flick at his skin and into his ears, he let the scent of decay envelop him.

Eventually, the voices faded, and he wondered if their owners had resumed their hunt elsewhere. He knew that soon there would be others to aid the search, their voices louder, more insistent, accompanied by shrill electrical screams that would fall like a tocsin upon him.

He opened his eyes as the rain faded from a steady deluge into haphazard drips. Hesitating, he pushed his body up, ignoring the muddy stains upon his shirt that simply added to the ones already present.

He crouched and counted to 10 in his head, supplanting the pain in his arm from his mind while he still could. He waited for a sound, a tell-tale noise. Hearing none, he stood, and began to run once more.

At first, his lungs shuddered, his throat choking as he pounded his feet into the earth below. His thoughts drifted for a moment to his mother; but they withdrew almost instantly from that sting to focus on his present circumstances.

Looking down at his feet, he marvelled at how it seemed like he was pushing the earth away from him, bounding across it before gravity imprisoned him again, yet the heaviness of each step lessened as he ran. 

He could not place when it started, but soon he felt the distance between each leap lengthen, milliseconds at first then seconds then perhaps minutes. He sensed a growing lightness within his bones, and he stretched out his arms and his legs and his fingers and his toes. Soon, soon, he could not be sure that he was not flying through the trees. Leaves and branches reached out to him, blessing his face as he soared past them. 

He felt a glory singing through every muscle and tendon, a chorus of joy that pushed him further and further, away from the road, away from who he had been and who he would have become.

Absentmindedly, he wondered if he was in his right mind; he knew he was not.

And as he inevitably stumbled, sinking into the ground as it gave way and consumed him whole, he knew he did not care.

Adventures in microfiction

Adventures sounds very grand for what I’ve been doing.

Ever since an inspiring and fascinating talk by Daniel Pietersen about microfiction during the last Gothic Day of Creation, I’ve been taking the time every evening to write a ~50 word story.

It’s helped me work on editing. More importantly, it’s made me think about how to create little worlds as effectively as possible.

They’re starting points, but I find it relaxing to switch off from work and do something creative. I’m privileged to have the ability to do so, to be fair.

Below are two examples of microfiction I’ve made so far. The first, Hunger, is from an exercise during the Gothic Day of Creation. The second, Ritual, is one of my evening stories:

Hunger

He ran, blood falling from his teeth, forest branches scratching his body. His only crime had been hunger, and they had so much meat to spare. Escape was near until, suddenly, it was not: up ahead he spotted her small figure, her shining axe blade and her bloody, red cloak.

Ritual

Candles illuminated the body. Thia kissed his decaying lips and recited words wrenched from her mother.

She waited, watching the mist coalesce and settle upon him. His body spasmed twice, the ritual complete. 

Eyes wide open, Michael stared at her.

“Was I dead?” he whispered.

“Far too long, this time.”

To be seen (short story)

I just took part in the Gothic Day of Creation. This was a day-long event organised by Dr Sam Hirst, who has been incredible in delivering and organising talks about Romancing the Gothic for the last few months.

I’ve learned so much and, while I don’t always have the capacity to join in with the more social aspects like the group’s film nights or book discussion nights, I’ve found a wonderful community when I have joined in. Attend the lectures if you can (they’re free but you can also support via ko-fi and patreon).

I wrote the story below a couple of months ago, inspired by a writing prompt about captivity/escape. I submitted it for the Day of Creation’s Authors’ Showcase and was incredibly pleased to be able to do a reading of it.

To Be Seen

A photo of a woman sitting at the beach. It's a sunny day. She is wearing a red swimsuit and red hat. The image is from a 1970s seaside postcard

There was nothing in particular that drew me to her photo. It was simply there, shuffled in the pile, waiting to be claimed. Anyone else could have picked it out. But they didn’t.

I keep thinking, if only I’d spent more time researching. If only. 

Still. I was the one who wanted to see. 

My course was meant to be the first step in becoming better. While I’d got my photography degree over 10 years ago, I knew I hadn’t achieved as well as I could have. A nasty case of depression in my final year, and a 4 month waiting list for support, put paid to that. 

I originally had plans to become a photographer. Instead, I stumbled into the first sort-of-related job I found. The next decade was just me going through the motions in an advertising firm. It was steady work, and kept me going.

But regrets erode you, piece by piece, and one day I decided to make a change before I became worn down by them. I wanted to go back to creating things for people to enjoy. Adult education centres aren’t as well-funded as they used to be, but there was still a decent advanced arts photography course to get me back into the game.

The first project was about using images of the past. One of my classmates wanted to colourise old photos, another was going to collect and arrange some to tell a story.

As for me, I didn’t feel particularly inspired. I thought that, once I got the materials together, I’d know where to start. 

I left it to the last minute, partly thanks to an issue with an office project, but mostly because I struggle to get anything done until I’m right up against the deadline.

That’s why I ended up scanning the shelves of the local bric-a-brac shop only a week before the hand-in. To call Treasure Trove a shop doesn’t really do it justice. It’s spread over two floors and almost the size of a warehouse, an Aladdin’s Cave of antiques, eccentric objet d’arts and general weird crap. 

Come for the 1930s bakelite phones, leave with a creepy clown painting.

This bizarre mixture means it’s favoured by local art students searching for resources, as well as determined middle class couples hoping to find some unique home decor trinket. I’m painfully middle class, but this time I wasn’t visiting for fun or to marvel at the 1960s magazines. This time, I was there as an aspiring art student.

One of the things they sell at Treasure Trove is photos. There are literally thousands of them, featuring people probably long-dead. Discarded photo albums packed with memories end up here, shaken apart for the paying public to pick through.

I’d had an idea to find pictures with a historical link to the area. Honestly, though, I just wanted to grab whatever intrigued me.

I found her photo, the first one, in an unmarked green shoe box. The scene was that of a young woman standing on the local beach. Judging by the colourful pier in the background, I guessed the photo was at least 50 years old, way before the fire that had reduced the pier to a charred skeleton.

She was standing on the sand a few metres from whoever was taking the photo. She was mostly turned away from the camera, one hand raised as if waving at someone in the sea. Her red skirt was ruffled by the wind, blowing up against her legs as strands of dark brown hair whipped across her face. With her blue and white striped top, she looked very nautical, like she had heard the word “seaside” and leaned into it, style-wise.

I rummaged through the box and was pleasantly surprised to find more photos of the young woman, all of her facing the sea. They were almost identical, but each one captured her arm in a different position as she waved.

Pleased with my haul, I went to pay. The owner, Gracie, is an odd sort. He runs the place, permanently fixed behind the counter, but I’ve never seen any indication that he actually wants to be there. There’s a scowl ground into his fleshy face, immovable after years of practice. I’ve maybe heard five words out of him in all the years I’ve visited.

So you can understand it was a shock when Gracie started a conversation. He had just taken the photos to check the backs for his pencil-marked price, and I was preparing to place the money on the counter for him, as he preferred.

Then he paused, looked at me with his milky blue eyes and said, “You interested in the lady?”

It took me a moment to respond, but eventually I replied that yes I was, sort of, for an art project.

Gracie nodded once and said he had got a whole batch of photo albums from a house clearance, and this woman was in most of them. He didn’t know if she was the deceased person whose possessions he had bought, catalogued and set upon his shelves. He said that, for some reason, her photos had caught the eyes of several locals, and they’d been buying handfuls of them.

I should have just left it at that, made a polite comment about the whole situation, and moved on quickly, but, like the fool I am, I asked what it was about the photos that made them so popular.

Gracie smirked then and I didn’t particularly care for it. He said he didn’t know, but there must be something I and the other collectors saw in them that he couldn’t.

Then he almost too-casually mentioned that he might have more of her photos, and would I be interested in them?

My immediate thought was no, not really: I had what I needed, which was the research material for my project. There was also something about the way Gracie was looking at me that made me feel like I was being weighed up, and that I had been found wanting. Something bristled against my skin and, in that moment, I needed to be as far away from him as possible.

But instead of no, the word that tumbled from my lips was “Yes”.

His mouth spread thin across his face like an elastic band stretched too far and he grabbed a pencil, demanding to know my contact number.

He was so eager, scribbling away, promising me more photos for my collection. At the time, I put it down to him appraising me, like I was a profitable source of further income. Nothing more.

When I got home, I began to think about what I wanted to do and I had the bright idea of taking this figure of the woman and superimposing her upon new photos of the same scenery.

It was supposed to be an image full of pathos, this carefree person set against the now ruined remains of the pier. Unoriginal, maybe, but quick and easy to complete before the deadline.

I took the three photos and, one by one, began to cut chunks of them away with scissors, freeing her from the surrounding scene. 

The next few days, I took photos of the seafront during my lunch break. It was 5 minutes from where I work, so it didn’t take long, and I made sure the derelict pier was always in frame. 

I printed the photos out and pasted her onto the new scenery. It looked better than I had imagined it would. She seemed so out of place, her brightly lit figure practically glowing against the murky grey of a September sky. Staring at her photo, for the first time in a long while, I felt a sense of calm fall upon me.

A loud, shrill noise interrupted my reverie. I remember snatching up my phone as if I was going to throw it against the wall, but I stopped myself when I saw the call was from Gracie. He’d found more photos and said he could drop them off, if I’d be happy to send him the money online. So I did.

That night, I dreamt of the woman. I was begging her to look at me, screaming until my voice evaporated. Her hair moved like crashing waves as she began to turn, only for me to wake, shivering alone in the darkness, tears still falling down my face.

The next day, I found a small envelope on my doormat. There were three photos inside, and I was excited because I recognised some of the places in them. A famous old pub (practically a national heritage site round here), a shot of the high street, and one of the clocktower. 

The woman was in all three of the photos, still wearing the same outfit. Still as exquisite as before. 

In each one, she was walking away from the camera, though looking back a little towards her mysterious companion. Her face always seemed to be out of focus or obscured, though in one of the photos I could just about trace the faint outline of a smile developing beneath the dark strands of her hair.

I thought about making the project into a series. Fired up, I charged further into town during lunch, taking photos at all three sites.

Cut. Shoot. Print. Paste. That’s all I’d been doing the last few days.

Then yesterday, I was woken early by the letterbox clattering as another envelope fell through it. In it, three more photos, this time of the woman strolling down what looked like Hilder Road, a street not far from mine. Her strides were getting wider, like she was almost jogging. She was moving towards the camera now, but her head was twisted to the left, towards a row of houses. 

I could see her smile more clearly, her mouth curling at the corners, and I realised that my heart was racing at the thought she might reveal her face to me.

The joy and excitement all seemed so normal, at the time.

After work, I decided to walk home and get the shots I needed on the way back.

I left the office with a starless night beginning to settle upon the town. I found myself going past the old pub I had stood outside the day before. I then turned down the high street, and it didn’t even register when I walked past the clocktower.

I stopped at Hilder Road and decided to make the best of the dying light. I was so busy messing around with the camera, I almost missed her. 

I felt someone brush past me and by the time I looked up, she was already at the end of the street. I saw the flash of a red skirt disappearing around the corner and I felt the cold air punch through my chest.

I chased after her, of course I did, but she wasn’t there. 

I think I ran home. I know I didn’t stop.

There was another envelope waiting for me. This one was crumpled, almost balled up, just sitting on my doormat.

I shouldn’t have opened it.

But I needed to see her.

Three more photos of the woman. In each one, she’s now facing towards the camera. She’s sprinting down another street, the one at the end of my road, and her arms are swinging, her long fingers outstretched, and she’s running towards me. 

In each photo, she moves closer to the lens, catching up to her photographer, until in the last one her entire face fills the frame and I can see everything now and I cannot understand and I can hear her whisper how she could never get the smile right.

I’ve tried calling Gracie. He’s not picking up anymore.

An envelope arrived earlier this evening, corners ripped. There are dirty, long fingerprints smeared all over it.

I don’t want to open it. I already know where she’s standing.

I can’t believe I remember the password

It has been about 2 years since I last wrote on this site and woooow things have changed a lot.

Part of the reason I stopped uploading is I started writing more reviews (see the About page for examples). Then I started an MA course on Creative & Critical Writing last year (yay!). It was going pretty well, and I got really great grades for my research piece on The Magnus Archives, as well as my short story Seeds.

I’ll upload the latter this week as I’m very proud of it.

Then. Well. Everything.

I work in education, so as well as trying to study I’ve had to navigate how to do my job during a global pandemic. I haven’t exactly felt inspired to write.

But, for whatever reason, I had a bit of a breakthrough the last few weeks and I’ve been writing a ridiculous amount. I’m hoping to share that with you soon.

Dragon Age and Me

Dragon Age: Origins art - featuring Morrigan in the foreground with a demon behind her

As I’m writing this, I’m cursing my haphazard approach to “putting things in a safe place”.

You see, I had plans. I was going to go home after work tonight and play a few hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I haven’t played it in at least a year. However, 4th December 2018 is #dragon4geday , an unofficial Dragon Age day, created by the fandom. It felt right to go back to the world of Thedas and say hello to some old companions.

As with all the best laid plans, they often go wrong. Scrabbling around my living room this morning, I couldn’t find my copy of the game.

It’s in there somewhere, buried under a book or an abandoned, half-finished craft project. But the momentary sadness I felt about not being able to revisit Thedas reminded me how much the whole game series means to me.

We’ve been through a lot.

Dragon Age: Origins was the first video game I ever completed, multiple times. It was also the first RPG I’d ever played. There was something that always kept me coming back: the companions, their stories, and building relationships with them.

I…wasn’t great at it to start with. On my first play-through, I was unaware that certain items were gifts that would, when given to the right character, reveal more of their personal story. I had completed nearly 75% of the game when someone explained it to me, as well as how the friendship/enemy mechanic worked. I stared at the hundred or so hours I had poured into the game, sighed, and restarted.

I next played as a female Elven rogue. I couldn’t help but fall for Alistair’s goofy humour, and set about romancing him. I was surprised by the sex scene (such as it was). Yes, it was awkward as fuck, and my character seemed to kiss by bumping her face against Alistair’s jaw. But I’d never played a game where one of the main points was to build a relationship, sexual, romantic or friendly.

I think of how I now unashamedly embrace smut and sexy times in video games, fanfiction, and not very subtle TV shows about cannibal serial-killers. That I have read and reviewed erotic fiction. I can’t help but smile at how the clumsy campfire scene once made me blush.

Dragon Age: helping you become the smut-enthusiast you were always meant to be.

I continued on with Origins – it was a struggle, but I managed to help make Alistair king. He complained, but he eventually got on with it.

Then, the ultimate betrayal: I was ditched because he couldn’t have an Elf as his queen. The people of Ferelden, he blustered, would not stand for it. I was more than a little heartbroken. After everything, the best I could hope for was to be his secret, barely-tolerated mistress. What happened to the romance, to standing up for love?!

Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins
Swooping is bad, but not as bad as supporting social injustices, Alistair

I begrudgingly finished the game, then replayed it, this time as a human. I read guides, which I hadn’t done since I was 10 years old, entering cheat codes to skip infuriating Lemmings levels. I discovered that, to make Alistair more accepting of his kingly duties, you had to persuade him to lose some of his softer side.

I finished again, this time as queen to Alistair’s king, but was still pissed off. I hadn’t wanted to change who Alistair was, but if I didn’t then he might be a terrible ruler. At the same time, I was annoyed that the social norms of Thedas meant an Elven queen would not be tolerated.

It was the first time a game had made me realise that, in order to get a particular outcome, I might need to make certain moral compromises. I had never played anything which had really given me choices, or made me face the consequences of making a choice.

It was refreshing to find myself emotionally invested in anything, let alone a video game. A recent period of depression had numbed me, and I was still clawing my way back to feeling myself.

As I was starting to care more and more, I read guides on how to say the right thing to the right characters. I wanted to get it right. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m on the autistic spectrum. It was sometimes difficult for me to work out which approach works best with different people, what things I should and should not say. It still is. However, what I didn’t know at the time was that playing Dragon Age: Origins helped me understand how to relate to others, or at least try. The characters all had pasts and preferences that affected their reactions. I was already well aware that saying what I wanted or thought didn’t generally work well in real life. Playing this game let me see that it wasn’t impossible for me to adapt if I paid attention.

On the flip side, it also played into my fears about my poor social skills. I would focus on “getting it right”, saving constantly in case I messed up. Yet, having a guide or wiki was a comfort. Here, for the first time, was a manual for how to deal with other people!

These days, I try to accept myself more for who I am, asking why others can’t adapt to me instead of me having to always change. That said, learning that I might be able to improve and manage social skills meant the world to me at the time. Though I had a small, wonderful group of friends, I always felt isolated from others, lacking confidence to manage day to day small talk due to previous bad experiences. It seems strange, looking back on it now, but Dragon Age forced me to think about the perspectives of others in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

Dragon Age: Origins also showed me that positive LGBTQAI+ representation could exist in games, or that gay relationships existed in games at all. When Dragon Age 2 rolled around with the freedom to romance any character, regardless of whether you were male or female, I was pleased they had made this an option. It also made me happy for reasons I wouldn’t really understand until last year, when I accepted another part of myself. I’m still working out what it means to me, but god bless Dragon Age’s Isabela for kick-starting my little bisexuality epiphany all those years ago.

Isabela in Dragon Age 2
She like big boats and she cannot lie

As a female character, I romanced Fenris and Isabela on different play-throughs, then as a male character with Anders (god dammit, Anders!) and Fenris again. I was drawn to Fenris’s story the most, particularly because the writers managed to represent his trauma’s long-lasting impact upon him. It takes literally years for Fenris to trust you or himself. Your romance is not an immediate fix to all his problems. I liked that, having endured a constant media message while growing up that women are supposed to magically repair men through their love.

Fenris from Dragon Age 2
You know he’s only thinking about punching Anders

By then, I was becoming more and more engaged with Dragon Age fan art and fic. Tumblr (Rest In Peace) became a source of amazing illustrations, stunning cosplay, and snarky Gifs. The dedication and warmth of the community was incredible, and I felt welcomed. That’s a rare feeling for me.

Dragon Age: Inquisition was a sanctuary. At the time, I had just left a challenging job. I can see now that a lot of the problems stemmed from my then-undiagnosed Aspergers. I couldn’t verbalise or explain why I wasn’t able to do what others seemed able to manage, or why certain tasks gave me panic attacks. I’m doing better now, with an employer and manager who understand me and how I work.

But back then, I was still dealing with the anxiety and depression fallout. Even though I had left the job and found a more suitable working environment, it would take me a long time to build myself back up. I immersed myself in Inquisition as a coping mechanism. I would come home, eat, then relax by kicking Templar arse. There was so much beauty in that game that I sometimes ran around the Hinterlands or Emprise du Lion just to enjoy the scenery. Playing the game was a comfort, one that I had felt throughout the entire series.

It also helped that I wanted to romance pretty much every character (although Solas can jog on), even ones who weren’t romance options. I can only hope that Krem makes it into Dragon Age 4.

While Dragon Age has helped me understand who I am, as well as allow me to hide away and repair myself, it also gave me a way to connect. I’ve met new people through our shared love for the world. I’ve been able to write very serious articles about who should be romance options in Dragon Age 4. I even moderated and participated in a Nine Worlds 2018 panel about inclusivity in dating sim games versus mainstream games (also called: “Dragon Age is a Dating Sim: Fight Me”).

There are worlds within these fantasy lands that spill over into reality, often in ways we don’t understand at the time. Dragon Age was that for me, and I’m grateful to have had the whole series in my life (I will defend Dragon Age 2 to the death, don’t @ me). I’m lucky that I can look back now and trace the person I was to the person I became through these games.

How could I have possibly known back then that something as silly as “swooping is bad” would be the start of so much joy?

 

 

 

 

 

A quick update

Blue notebook with

So I haven’t really posted much on here directly for some time. This isn’t because I’ve just been laying around surrounded by empty Jaffa Cake packets and zero regrets (though I have been doing this as well).

I’ve been focused on writing reviews and essays, trying to build my particular set of skills. These have mostly been for Women Write About Comics, Sidequest, and Popularly Positive, as well as an essay with Rogues Portal. Each site has been very supportive, especially after I had to take a break a few months ago.

The reason for the break was that, after several years, I finally decided to go get a diagnosis for autism. Turns out, I am indeed on the autistic spectrum. The diagnosis in itself was not an issue. It was actually a relief, something that allowed me to make sense of and accept a part of who I am. No, the problem came around having to relive some incredibly difficult moments in my life as a part of the assessment. These moments had been emotionally challenging to go through the first time, let alone having to remember and repeat them to someone as they and two other people made notes.

And then there was the report.

I work in Disability, so I know diagnostic reports are clinical and medical model by design. I wasn’t really prepared, however, for seeing aspects of my personality defined as deficiencies and failures. I had a hard time dealing with this for a few months, but I am doing OK now thanks to the people around me.

I’ve just come back from Nine Worlds – I’m currently writing up a con diary, and aim to post some of my more personal reflections upon it here soon. For now, let’s just say that a lot came up.

In the meantime, you can find most of my work on WWAC, Sidequest, and Popularly Positive. Below are some links to pieces I’m particularly proud of:

I, along with other writers at WWAC, get intrigued by the new Dragon Age: Deception cover

A “suggestion” list for characters we might romance in Dragon Age 4

An interview with Backstory podcast host and tabletop RPG designer, Alex Roberts, about her newest game: Star Crossed

A review of Blade of the Immortal and what it says about glamorisation of violence

A personal essay on how, as awful and insensitive as Doki Doki Literature Club is, it allowed me to work through some issues

A review of Pairanormal Chapter 1, a dating sim/visual novel I fell in love with

A reflection on being caught between two different culture’s beauty ideals

and, of course

Me recounting my unabashed first crush on… Dr Ian Malcolm

Short story: Here Lies My Love

blue velvet ribbon background

Note: I’ve posted this previously on a different blog, but am slowly shifting things over.

A while ago, I had the opportunity to attend a Creative Writing Workshop at the London College of Fashion. The aim was to create stories, poetry or narratives generally inspired by pieces of clothing from the LCF Archive.

I can’t help but feel incredibly privileged to have been able to view and handle things like exquisite lace dresses from the 1930s, or kid leather shoes from the 1800s. It was like being able to step into a museum exhibit and literally get to grips with history.

It was fascinating to get an insight into how other people viewed each piece, and the stories they wanted to tell. I wanted to share the story I wrote because I sometimes forget that I can write.

I was obsessed by a blue, velvet jacket. I’ll describe it in the story so you get a sense of it.

Here Lies My Love

He couldn’t remember the photo being taken, but there he was, framed on the mantlepiece, and looking very handsome even if he did say so himself.

Wearing that beautiful blue jacket; my goodness, hadn’t he been beautiful?

In the photo, his eyes were certainly less bloodshot, his hair more blonde than the strange, tobacco-stained locks he sported now.

The walking frame barely supported his weight, but he pulled himself up from the draining comfort of his armchair. It wasn’t like he had far to travel.

He grimaced as he set off, musing that when they had imprisoned him here, they had made the cramped space sound like a positive feature.

‘Traitorous bastards,’ he thought, his socks scratching the carpet as he shuffled forward.

Back then, when they had made him a pot of musty-smelling tea, when they had sat him down in his own living room to “have a chat”, it hadn’t taken long for the full horror of what they were saying to start peeling away at his mind.

He had looked past them then, his gaze instead flittering around his lounge, his home with its many secrets. He had cried then.

They had told him to cheer up.

Over the next few weeks, they had informed him of the need to “downsize”, allowing him to keep little. However, he’d fought for that jacket and he had won.

Step. Step. Step.

He mentally saluted himself for another strenuous mission completed as he arrived in front of the closet. Carefully, he lifted one finger, then his hand, testing his balance.

It held, and he opened the closet door.

The blue velvet sparkled and shone amongst dull, sensible shirts and drab trousers (which reached impossibly, unnecessarily high).

His ran his hands over the black lace of the lapels, the papery skin of his palms catching upon it, his fingertips juttering at every detail.

Years ago, too many to recall, he had spotted the jacket in a shop window and fallen deeply in love for the first time. He had saved for weeks to afford it because, from the moment it had appeared before him, he had known that he needed it. It was an extravagant piece, true, but it was a statement.

And he had always wanted to make a statement.

He closed his eyes and let his hand fall away from the velvet. He glanced back over at the mantlepiece and smiled at his younger self, as well as the dark-haired vision arranged beside him in the photo.

His smile grew a little wider as he remembered that the jacket had certainly caught Simon’s attention.

He reached once more for the jacket and, holding it lightly between his fingers, he slipped it off the satin hanger.

He had forgotten how soft the velvet felt on his skin. He lifted it up and slid his arms through the sleeves, pursing his lips as he did so; he had also forgotten how much the lace cuffs scratched the shit out of him.

Grabbing hold of the frame once more, he manoeuvred his unreliable bones backwards in order to admire his reflection on the closet door mirror.

He nearly cried when he saw himself. True, he was older, and Simon was no longer there to hold him up, but he could still see the face of the beautiful boy, the boy who had fallen in love and who had been loved.

Tiredness ate at his muscles and he suddenly found the armchair a terribly inviting prospect.

He collapsed back into his meagre throne and felt warmer for the first time in years. His eyelids began to slide shut, but he didn’t try to fight it.

‘Let them find me like this,’ he thought, ‘the beautiful boy in the beautiful jacket.’

As his eyes closed for the final time, he thought about Simon and his stupid, lop-sided grin, and the way that the light from his smile could resolve the darkest disquiet. He thought about what his not-family would do with the jacket. He wondered if they would let him wear it as they poured the soft earth upon him.

He thought that he would like that, to be buried with his love. And though it would decay around him and rot as he rotted, it would always be his.

The Twilight Pariah: Scooby Doo, with added dismemberment

Author: Jeffrey Ford
Publisher: Tor
Publish date: 12 September 2017
Pariah 2

All Maggie, Russell, and Henry wanted out of their last college vacation was to get drunk and play archaeologist in an old house in the woods outside of town. When they excavate the mansion’s outhouse they find way more than they bargained for: a sealed bottle filled with a red liquid, along with the bizarre skeleton of a horned child.

Disturbing the skeleton throws each of their lives into a living hell. They feel followed wherever they go, their homes are ransacked by unknown intruders, and people they care about are brutally, horribly dismembered. The three friends awakened something, a creature that will stop at nothing to retrieve its child.

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The Twilight Pariah is a curious beast. It is the story of three childhood friends meeting up during a college/university summer break. Maggie plans to rope Russell and Henry, our narrator, into her amateur archaeological dig, and rope them she does. Things go well until they unearth something unpleasant, kick-starting a series of murders and general spookiness. The problem is that, for a book touted as being scary or creepy, it just… isn’t.

Let’s start with the positive. Ford weaves a nostalgic story around the three friends, adding a layer of wistfulness as they reflect upon how this may be the last summer they spend together. He succeeds in creating a set of believable relationships, evoking the slight melancholy that comes from realising some friendships end as lives take different turns, and that that’s just the way it is.

The relationship that resonates loudest is the one between Henry and his father. Ford delicately creates the sense of being alone, together, yet wanting to connect. It is even more powerful when Ford couples this with the sad realisation all children come to at some point: that their parents will eventually disappoint them. Ford builds realistic relationships, yet others between main and side characters lack depth. This undermines the emotional impact when Bad Things happen to those around the overly-curious trio. The Bad Things are thus predictable as the reader quickly recognises that these side characters are, essentially, disposable plot points.

It is worth pointing out that the book is an enjoyable enough read. There are some genuinely funny scenes as the trio banter, even some laugh out loud moments. The dialogue is sometimes clunky, but the three protagonists are likeable as they stumble through the plot. However, there is also the sense that this book has been badly mis-sold.

A reader could understand some of the comparisons made to Stephen King (nostalgia combined with horror or dark fantasy is a common theme). However, this is the part where the book fails. The discovery of what sets events in motion is truly unsettling, but it is the only such disturbing moment in the story. There are attempts to build suspense as things go missing and there are several bumps in the middle of the night. The problem is that the “monster” is seen too soon, and easily escaped.

There’s a common trope in cinema where the filmmakers hold off on showing the creature in their movie for as long as possible, with this “monster delay” increasing tension. However, this early confrontation cements it as real, removing the thrill of discovery. Compounding this, the exposition is awkwardly revealed, with pages full of info-dump towards the end of the book. It lands heavily and sits there in the middle of the narrative like a somewhat embarrassed elephant in the room.

Without wanting to go into spoilers, the Twilight Pariah itself is not very frightening. Yes, the beast cuts a swathe of violence through the story, as the book blurb gives away, but it often involves characters in whom the reader has no emotional investment. Scenes where the Pariah is confronted aren’t slowly built, they just happen, like a jump-scare. It feels like Ford was aiming for an IT-vibe, as old friends band together to fight some unnamed evil. Instead, reading about these crazy kids stumbling around decrepit mansions and unearthing revelations feels less like Stephen King and more like Scooby Doo, albeit with added dismemberment.

The Twilight Pariah suffers from trying to be two things at once and failing at establishing itself as either. On one hand, it’s a story about growing up and away from the people we love. On the other, it wants to be a dark tale where a “terrifying” evil threatens these fragile relationships. The problem is that, whilst you may care for the three main characters, there isn’t enough depth in their relationships with others (save Henry’s father) to have an impact when those around Henry, Maggie and Russell start getting attacked. There simply isn’t anything that gets under your skin and the terrible things happen to characters whose only purpose is to be cannon fodder. Nothing about the Pariah feels truly dangerous because of this and, if you’re writing a book sold as creepy or scary or even just “dark”, that’s the one thing you really need to get right.

Ghost Stories: hauntingly familiar

Author & Artist: Whit Taylor
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Publish Date: 10 January 2018

Ghost Stories Cover, 2018, by Whit Taylor
Ghost Stories, 2018, by Whit Taylor

Ghost Stories is a collection of three tales, all connected by a sense of loss, be that of a loved one, a friendship, or yourself. Using a cartoon-style that belies the sometimes dark subjects, Taylor explores the ways we fall in and out of grief throughout our lives. It is a series tinged with a sense of pathos and humour, one that is (sometimes too) easily recognisable.
Taylor’s art is vivid and eye-catching. Throughout, she uses bright, lo-fidelity illustrations, which juxtapose well with the more melancholic themes covered here. It’s a vibrant reminder that, even within despair and loneliness, life continues.
The hand-coloured images often follow a hard bordered panel layout, but there is little use of this in Ghost, reflecting the dream-like plot. The first story begins as a fantastical journey where a female character (possibly Taylor herself, but never stated) is told she can meet with three of her deceased idols. There are, of course, rules: she gets one day, and the only thing she can’t discuss is their death.

Title Cover for Ghost, Whit Taylor, 2018
Title Cover for Ghost, first tale in the collection

The conversations between ghost and living being are at first light-hearted, but soon become a way of exploring philosophical ideas, and revealing more about the female character. This feels clunky as the conversation can sometimes awkwardly pivot to her, running the risk of portraying the ghostly idols as merely over-qualified sounding boards.
What prevents this from feeling like an exercise in self-indulgent navel-gazing is having the first two meetings interrupted by seemingly unrelated vignettes. This reinforces that there is surrealism at work, hinting at a hidden depth that helps the story flow to the final encounter. It is only when she meets the third person that the relevance of these interruptions, and the underlying cause of these ghostly apparitions, becomes clear. It is an intriguing narrative device, which invests a greater, more touching meaning in the previous pages.
Wallpaper is delivered in a different style, pairing up chunks of text with some truly unique examples of wallpaper design. It’s a deceptively simple story reflecting on the snapshots that make up a family’s life together. The large and the small moments are captured and filtered through decisions about DIY and mundane day-to-day details, lending a poignancy to the tale as the constant shifting, remodeling, re-papering of the home reflects the fragility and impermanence of life. It’s an effective and affecting story of childhood and change.
Makers also deals with change, this time looking at the reality of female friendship. Taylor lays bare her characters in a series of scenes spanning over a decade. This builds a firm understanding of who they are, what they want to be, and why they become what they become. In turn, this brings the characters to life, allowing the reader to recognise them in an uncomfortably relatable way.
Ghost Stories is ultimately not just about grief, but about life; they are all familiar tales, the issue being that they are sometimes too familiar. However, the way they are told, particularly in Ghost, allows the reader to explore these themes in ways they perhaps haven’t before. Each story leads to some kind of resolution of the loss, but none of them has a neat conclusion. If there is a power in these tales, then this is it.