August 3, 2015

7 Gothic Characters Penny Dreadful Could Consider

I finally managed to watch the finale of Penny Dreadful season two last night, and my, Rory Kinnear certainly knows how to wring every last drop of nuance out of Frankenstein’s Creature, doesn’t he? I’ve certainly enjoyed the second season more than the first, and according to Den of Geek, writer John Logan has hinted that he’ll be adding another ‘classic’ character in season three. Most people assume it’ll be Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although DoG have also pointed at Dr Moreau and The Invisible Man as being interesting alternatives.

Horace Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill

Really, this is where my one problem with Penny Dreadful actually lies – the supposed belief that Gothic literature begins with Frankenstein in 1818, and then does nothing as a genre for a few years until The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Dracula (1897). The genre actually dates back to the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, and had become so popular that it was ripe for parody when Jane Austen published Northanger Abbey in 1817.

Name checks have been given to infamous characters, both real and fictional, such as Burke and Hare, so which other characters could make an interesting addition to future episodes of Penny Dreadful?

Sweeney Todd

It’s amazing how many people think the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a real person but he was in fact a product of the original Victorian penny dreadfuls. Odd that he’s so far been neglected by the series. I’m not sure how he’d fit within a story arc but he would make an interesting background character – and these people clearly need haircuts from time to time.

Spring-Heeled Jack

Spring-Heeled Jack wasn’t a character so much as an urban legend that sprang out of the popular tradition for ghost stories, such as the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803/04. The first alleged sighting of Jack was in 1837, after a serving girl claimed to have been accosted on Clapham Common by a strange figure with claws and cold flesh. He gained his nickname from his ability to leap over 9ft high walls with apparent ease, and he did make his way into the penny dreadfuls of the era. Opinion is still divided as to who, and what, he actually was.

Lord Ruthven

The famous night at the Villa Diodati that birthed Frankenstein also led to the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori, although Lord Ruthven has been hugely overshadowed by another more famous vampire from Transylvania. With his aristocratic air, this distinctly Byron-esque bloodsucker would be a welcome alternative to the rather tedious Dracula. Besides, Vanessa needs a distraction now Ethan has left for America, and Sir Malcolm has gone to Africa again.

Ambrosio the Monk

Possibly one of the reasons the writers have stuck to later characters is the fact that pre-Frankenstein, Gothic novels are often unwieldy and ponderous, and they’re largely unfilmable. The later, so-called Decadent Gothic is more reader friendly, and so we’re more familiar with the characters. That said, Ambrosio from The Monk (1796) is the prototype of Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. When The Monk was first published, it was considered so horrific that it caused a family scandal for author MG Lewis, which is hardly surprising since Ambrosio commits murder, rape and incest in the same book. No reason why he couldn’t be updated to a London priest, eager to reaffirm Vanessa’s faith for his own devious ends.

Roderick Usher

Vincent Price as Roderick Usher

So far the writers have only plundered English Gothic tales, which ignores the Gothic literature written elsewhere in the world. Two of the genres most famous names were American, and if they’re going to include the Wolf Man, who was only really invented for the cinema, then I see no reason not to include the work of other Americans. While I think the show is weird enough without a detour into Lovecraftian shenanigans, it’s surprising that Edgar Allan Poe has so far been ignored. I’d love to see Roderick come to England seeking a cure for his sister’s condition, and premature burial hasn’t really been featured yet, despite being a major fear of the time.

The Phantom of the Opera

Given series one quietly relocated the Grand Guignol Theatre from Paris to London, there’s little reason why the masked impresario couldn’t do likewise, though I suspect he’d be more of a cameo than a recurring character due to his nature. With Erik’s flair for the dramatic and ingenious inventions, he could certainly be an interesting figure – and he’d be bound to appeal to Vanessa’s better side, given the way she showed such humanity to the Creature.

Queen Tera

So far the only Egyptian references have been regarding Dracula’s nature, or the prophecy which foretells Vanessa becoming the Mother of Evil, but a possible use for Ferdinand Lyle’s character could be as the discoverer of Queen Tera, the Egyptian mummy from Bram Stoker’s largely forgettable The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). The novel itself concerned fears around powerful women, which would tie in nicely with Lily’s newfound quest for dominion over man.

These are just the ones I could mention, and they don’t even take into account the other Gothic staples that could appear in passing. Someone could buy a house named Udolpho, and I’d love for someone to discover a mysterious whistle on the beach that calls up a mighty wind – and something else besides.

Who would you like to see in the next series?

July 31, 2015

#FridayFlash – The City’s True Face

Murky dayI walk up the street and the darkness of the early hours surrounds me. Flickering street lights hum among bare tree branches. Silhouettes dance across shuttered shop fronts. A fox lurks behind a phone box and noses through discarded food wrappers.

The low drone of occasional traffic ceases. For a few moments, no cars pass. Only the steady rhythm of my footsteps breaks the silence. Darkened windows gaze down upon me. Could I be the only living person left?

London briefly raises her veil and I see her true face. Centuries of history dance in her eyes, a knowing smile playing about her lips. The blood, sweat and tears of millions roll down her pock-marked face. She is mine.

A motorbike roars past and tears open the night as it scatters fallen leaves in its noisy wake. Their dry whispering tries to tell me something, but the illusion is broken.

I am just another citizen walking home at 4am.

July 27, 2015

What to See and Do in Florence

Italy has become something of a favoured destination of mine after two trips to Venice, so when the opportunity presented itself to also visit Florence, I naturally jumped at it! I went on Wednesday afternoon and came back on Saturday night, and I thought I’d share my findings for anyone else who might fancy a trip there.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Gabriele D’Annunzio, on Via Gabriele D’Annunzio 141A-B. It’s about 20 minutes from the centre of Florence but the area is quiet and less ‘cramped’ than the city centre. It’s served by two bus routes but a third isn’t that much further away. The hotel’s only real downside is the fact it doesn’t have its own restaurant, and there aren’t really any in the area. Just use it as a base and do everything in the city centre.

The hotel does offer breakfast, and its wi-fi is spotty (but at least it’s free). There’s also an outdoor pool, if you fancy a swim! There are plenty of angel statues around the garden but don’t worry, they don’t move.

Getting Around

As we flew with Jet2, we actually flew to Pisa, not Florence, but there’s a regular coach service, run by Terravision, that travels between Pisa Airport and Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station. It’s only €6 (£4.25/$6.58) for just over an hour’s trip.

In Florence, we really made the most of the bus service – the 10 and 17 routes served our hotel, with the 10 going to the Piazza San Marco, and the 17 going that bit further to the Santa Maria Novella train station. A single trip is just €1.20, and you buy your tickets before you board. You validate them when you get on, and the ticket is valid for 90 minutes. We also bought a four use ticket, for €4.70. As of today’s exchange rate, that’s 85p/$1.32 for a single ticket, or £3.33/$5.16 for a four use ticket. Absolute bargain.

What to See

The sightseeing bus

We bought a 24 hour pass for €20 (£14.15/$22) to use the city sightseeing bus. It has three lines, and we used lines A and C. C is a two hour trip that goes up to the nearby town of Fiesole, an Etruscan settlement, and also takes in the Fiorentina stadium. A is more ‘local’ around the city centre. As with any of the sightseeing buses, you can hop on and off to see the attractions, and the commentary provides a good insight into the city you’ve chosen to visit.

Galleria dell’Accademia

No trip to Florence would be complete without a visit to see Michelangelo’s David. There are other artworks on show but David is very much the star here – with good reason! We pre-booked tickets before we left the UK, which cost €23, but you can buy tickets when you get there. Even with timed tickets we still had to queue but it was only a 20 minute wait.

Previously you couldn’t take photos inside the Accademia Gallery but now their only stipulation is ‘no flash’. It’s not difficult to achieve and it’s well worth learning how to turn off your flash so you don’t get a telling off!

Entry also includes entry to the Musical Instruments Museum, which is an interesting set of rooms including violas, hurdy gurdies and different types of piano.

Duomo – Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore

The Duomo is the massive cathedral that dominates the Florence skyline, as well as the Piazza del Duomo in the historic city centre. It’s free to visit, but beware of the queues! We didn’t make it inside since the lines were too long. If you fancy trekking up 400+ steps, you can get breathtaking views from the dome.

Museo Zoologico La Specola

Situated on the Via Romana in the Oltrarno area south of the Arno river, the museum is off the beaten track, so to speak, so it has the definite advantage of not being full of tourists. It’s quiet and quirky, and well worth a visit. “La Specola” dates back to 1775, and until the early nineteenth century it was the only scientific museum specifically created for the public. 24 of its rooms are dedicated to zoology, included taxidermied animals, while 10 rooms are given over to the anatomical waxes, some of which date back to the seventeenth century. They were originally created in order to teach anatomy without students having to directly dissect corpses. Entry to these rooms costs €6 (£4.25/$6.58).

In addition, the museum also has the Tribune of Galileo, a nineteenth century secular temple dedicated to Galileo. The museum was hosting a special exhibition on crystals while we were there, so for an extra €4, we paid for the combined ticket to see that as well as the main museum. (€4 is £2.83 or $4.39). The crystals on display were gorgeous, though I didn’t see any Kryptonite.

Palazzo Pitti

Near La Specola is the imposing Palazzo Pitti. The palace building was begun in the fifteenth century but was only truly completed in the seventeenth century, and now it actually houses a whopping eight museums. There’s the Gallery of Modern Art, the Royal Apartments, the Boboli Garden, the Carriage Museum, the Silver Museum, the Palatina Gallery, the Porcelain Museum and the Costume Gallery. We bought Ticket No. 2, which granted us entry to the Garden, the Silver and Porcelain Museums, and the Costume Gallery. It cost €10. (£7.08/$10.97).

The Silver Museum is, as you might imagine, a collection of jewellery, although they also had a Lapis Lazuli exhibition on at the time we were there. The rooms in which this exhibition was held were worth the entry price alone, with generally astonishing frescoes on the ceilings. The Costume Gallery usually displays fashion through the ages but a special ‘Women in Fashion’ exhibition was on, and I fell in love with a lot of the clothes, particularly this dress!

The gardens are HUGE and we didn’t even see all of them. Entry is incredibly good value for money and you could easily spend an entire day exploring all of the galleries, as well as the gardens. Like La Specola, it benefits from being in the Oltrarno district, which is a bit more bohemian than the districts north of the river, and it boasts plenty of artisan craft shops if you fancy a spot of expensive window shopping.

Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is one of THE things to see in Florence. Like the Rialto Bridge in Venice, it’s a good example of the bygone days when people thought nothing of erecting houses and shops on bridges. Originally the bridge housed butchers, but these were cleared away to house jewellers since the bridge was a main route to the Palazzo Vecchio. It now hosts jewellery shops, art dealers and your typical souvenir tat. We walked across to reach the city centre from the southern district and it’s very, very busy. The Vasari Corridor also runs along it, connecting the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti via the Uffizi Gallery. Most of it is closed to visitors but it hosts a large art collection that you can apply to see.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

If, like us, you travel via Pisa and you have the time, then it’s well worth getting the bus to the tower. It only takes around twenty minutes by bus, and the bus is every fifteen minutes, and the stop is right outside – like Florence, each ticket only costs €1.20. There is a charge if you want to go up the tower, or you can pose like a loon beside it for free.

Finding dinner options is a lot easier than finding places for lunch, and there are an array of restaurants around the city centre. Many of them offer typically Florentine cuisine, which is what you’d expect from an Italian restaurant outside of Italy. There are bars where you can buy sandwiches, and some smaller shops offer single slices of pizza to take away, but we found our favourite two restaurants were Giglio Rosso, at Via dei Panzani 35, near the Santa Maria Novella station, and I Matti, at Via Borgo San Lorenzo 31, just off the Piazza del Duomo.

Prices vary, but you’ll find restaurants get cheaper as you move away from the Piazza del Duomo. I noticed most pizzas were between €7 and €10, which is $4.95 to £7.08. Compare that to Pizza Express, where the cheapest pizza is £11.60! Pasta dishes are around the same price, but the main course options can be between €11 and €16 each. I don’t drink so I can’t speak about the prices for alcohol but a litre of still mineral water was just €3!

Also, a lot of restaurants simply add a €2 cover charge to the bill – some add it to the whole bill, others add it per person. Either way, it’s easier than working out how much you have to leave as a tip.

My thoughts

I was only in Florence for two full days (the remaining half day was spent souvenir hunting and seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and I didn’t get to see half of what is available, but I was pleased with what I did manage to see – although I’m glad we focused on the slightly more offbeat attractions. I’m not sure that tourists get a particularly warm welcome in the city, having had fairly surly service in a couple of cafes, and in July it’s incredibly busy, so be prepared for the city centre to be packed. Head down to Oltrarno and enjoy a more laidback side of Florence, and see some of the more unusual museums on offer!

July 20, 2015

Put the ‘social’ back into social media

We hear daily news stories about the ‘evils’ of using the internet, whether it’s sick adults grooming children, trolls jumping on anything they can to provoke a reaction, or those being recruited to fundamentalist causes.

That said, social media can also be a brilliant place, connecting like-minded individuals, raising awareness about issues, spreading news stories that are ignored by major outlets, and even reuniting lost teddy bears with their erstwhile owners. It’s SOCIAL media, people.

So why on earth do people insist on using it in the same way as traditional marketing methods?

You know what I’m talking about – those people that follow you on Twitter, and spam you with an auto-DM the second you follow them back. It was one such message, from someone claiming to be a marketing guru no less, that prompted me to write this post.

Here are three things guaranteed to make me walk away from you on social media.

1) The Auto-DM


This has to be my biggest pet hate. If I’ve connected with you on Twitter, then why on earth would you send me a message directing me to also follow you elsewhere as well? OK cool, so you have a Facebook page, a website, a million books on Amazon – so what? I don’t know who you are. You’re better off sending me an @ reply to thank me for the follow, and then start a conversation about something relevant. I’m more likely to check out your page/website/shop etc. if I see you as a real person and not just a Twitter spambot.

I don’t even know why people persist on doing this. None of the marketing blogs I read recommend it as good practice, and I once told someone who sent me a “BUY MY BOOK” auto DM that I unfollowed people who sent me such DMs, and got called antisocial. No, what’s antisocial is you directing an unsolicited advert to my personal inbox, or flat out telling me to connect with you on a completely different social media platform, where you’ll probably just direct me to your presence on another one. Stop it.

2) The ‘I’ll like your page if you like mine’ message

This doesn’t happen so much now that Facebook has changed the way that users see Pages, but nothing is guaranteed to make me NOT ‘like’ your Page more than you asking me to like it just so you’ll like mine. ‘Likes’ are not Pokemon – you do not have to catch ’em all. Besides, the more Pages you like, the less you’ll see, so it’s all rather counterproductive. Provide stuff I’m interested in and then I’ll ‘like’ you – but not a moment before.

3) The ‘I don’t actually interact with people’ people

“Leave me alone!”

Why on earth are you using social media if your entire Twitter feed is either links to your books, retweets of tweets mentioning your books, or links to other books your publisher puts out? I could find all that stuff using Google if I wanted to.

But, and this goes back to point #1, if I don’t know you, then I’m probably not going to go looking for it. If, on the other hand, I see you talking to people, tweeting links to cool websites, sharing photos, or just generally being human then I’m way more likely to follow you AND interact with you…which massively increases your chances of me checking out your book without you even needing to mention it.

So there we have it. I know marketing is hard, and you sometimes don’t want to do it, but bombarding users of a social network with adverts doesn’t work. It just pushes them away. Treat social media like a conversation – which means listening as well as talking – and you’ll have a lot more fun.

What social media pet hates do you have?

Teddy bear image by Dan O\’Connell
Robot image by Sachie Yamazaki
Man on a pier image by Adriana Herbut

July 18, 2015

The Best of Luna Station Quarterly is here!

I’m pleased to announce I have a story in a new anthology! The Best of Luna Station Quarterly: The First Five Years  features FIFTY stories by women writers who have all appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, and it has an absolutely stunning cover by Hugo Award-winning artist Julie Dillon.

My story is The Sought After Smile, a fantasy tale about a court jester who is not what he appears. There are some truly fabulous authors in this collection and I’m really pleased to be included among them.

The Best of Luna Station Quarterly is only available in print at the moment due to the fact it’s a behemoth of a book, but you can order your copy from Amazon US, and Amazon UK. It is indeed a thing of beauty. Just look at that cover!

Or, if you don’t like Amazon’s business models, you can buy direct from the press! Use the code B52GP555 to get 10% off and support an indie publisher in the process.

July 16, 2015

Should authors be paid per page?

Do you love books? Do you think that it’s fair that when you buy a book, you only pay for the pages that you actually read?

Well there was uproar recently when Amazon announced that it would be paying authors not according to the sales of each title, but rather the percentage of that title that gets read. On the one hand, it’s a move allegedly designed to encourage authors to write better books, to make each page count, but on the other hand, it doesn’t take into account how cultural products actually work.

After all, I can’t watch an hour of a two hour movie at the cinema and then demand half of my ticket price back. I can’t take a DVD back because I gave up on the film after twenty minutes. We enter into a sort of contract when we purchase a cultural product that we’re buying the finished article, but we’re also buying all of the time and talent it took to create it in the first place. So if you buy (*shameless plug*) The Necromancer’s Apprentice, you’re not just buying a horror/fantasy novella, you’re also buying the part of me that wrote it. Even if I pay for a pay-per-view sporting event I don’t get money back if I don’t watch all of it.

Imagine asking for your money back halfway through a film! Image by Michal Wojciechowski.

I was going to blog about it when it first cropped up but I thought I’d wait to see how it develops. At first it looked like it would apply to all authors, but now it turns out that as of the 1st of this month, the ‘experiment’ to pay per page actually only applies to authors who self-publish through KDP Select on Amazon. Those are the authors whose books are ‘borrowed’ through Kindle Unlimited, which is the monthly subscription service, and the Kindle Lending Library, which you get with an Amazon Prime membership. According to Gizmodo, “[i]n the new scheme, authors will be paid for each page that remains on the screen long enough to be parsed, the first time a customer reads the book”. [1]

I’m not about to start running around crying that the sky is falling in because as it stands, none of my three self-published titles (The First Tale, Checkmate & Other Stories and Dead Man’s Hand) are available through KDP Select. BUT. It’s only a matter of time before Amazon tries to force the same rulebook onto all submissions.

The Benefit

The only advantage that I can foresee is that it’s going to force writers to write better books – which will hopefully circumvent the problems that are still inherent with self-publishing, such as bad formatting, typos, and generally horrific writing. Still, that’s what the sample option is for. In most cases, if a book is going to be badly written then it will be bad from page one, and if that’s the case, you just don’t buy the whole book. If you get 75% of the way through and disagree with the turn of events? Well the writer isn’t writing a book by committee. It’s not a choose your own adventure novel.

That said, there’s always been a way to make your feelings known about that. You can return Kindle books. I’ve only done it once, because the sample was incredibly misleading as to the later content of the book, and judging by the reviews it got, I wasn’t the only one to think so. But I digress.

The Downsides

I’ve bought books by authors I know to support them, and sometimes I just don’t have time to read them because I have so many other things to read. In the current climate that’s fine – they still profit from the sale. If the pay per page idea takes hold? They don’t get paid until I read it. That’s no good for writers whose books are bought by serial downloaders who rarely read most of what they download. It’s also going to be problematic for people who want to offer free e-books – in the early days, readers downloaded them in copious amounts because there was less to choose from, but now there are so many titles to read, free e-books have lost their value. A reader is more likely to buy a book they’ve paid for, and thus invested in, than one they haven’t.

In my head, my Kindle looks like this. Image by Carlos Sillero.

How is the system even going to work? In the current KDP Select program, where your ‘profits’ are divided up according to lending patterns, you don’t get paid until after its been borrowed in the first place. But are Amazon going to then charge a reader for a book, and hold the funds in escrow until the book is finished, only paying out when the reader reaches 100%? What if they don’t? Will Amazon refund the difference, or keep it themselves? The reader certainly doesn’t benefit from that, and nor does the writer.

I’m assuming the model is going to be based on a percentage system – after all, if you’re literally being paid by the page, then surely those who write the equivalent of 100,000 word behemoths are going to benefit more than the 40,000 word novella folks.

Image by Jean Scheijen.

Quite simply, I think as a system is a dangerous idea, and it also adds fuel to the fire that an electronic book is somehow not a “real” book. If I want to buy a real book then I have to walk into Waterstones and pick one up – I can’t go back a week later and ask for money back because I lost interest after page ten. So if I can’t do it with a real book, why should I be able to do it with an electronic book? Besides, I buy beautiful books of art or photography but because the pages are images and not text, then I’m technically not ‘reading’ them. What about that?

If Amazon REALLY want to promote better fiction then Kristen Lamb has a good proposal for them. “If I were Amazon, I would start promoting works based of rates of completion. Could we be witnessing the birth of an entirely new form of ranking? … Sure Big Shot Mega Author with a gajillion-dollar marketing budget sold X books, but the book only had a 34% rate of completion. But Jane Newbie who has thus far only sold Y amount of books and has only her social media for marketing has a 97% rate of completion. Hmmm, this might impact my decision.” [2]

So it’s really quite a shame that Amazon are in a position where there’s no real viable alternative. I’ve started buying more paperbacks from other retailers such as Waterstones, The Book Warehouse or even Tesco, but I still read an awful lot on my Kindle. Sure you can download books for your Kindle from Smashwords, but how many ‘general’ readers are going to do that? Falling sales for the Nook by Barnes & Noble have removed another competitor [3], and how many people actually bought a Kobo?

I’ll be keeping an eye on how this develops because quite honestly, I like my Kindle, and I don’t want Amazon to screw it up.

[1] Gizmodo – Amazon Will Soon Start Paying Authors Based on e-Book Pages Read.

[2] Kristen Lamb – Brave New Publishing—Amazon Testing Paying Authors by the Page.

[3] Good E Reader – Barnes and Noble Nook Sales Decrease by 40%

July 13, 2015

The Appeal of Leadenhall Market

I was down in London for a swift break at the weekend, and as I found myself in the City late on Friday, I figured I’d take a short detour via Leadenhall Market to take some more photos. It’s a magnificent structure and I sometimes feel like it’s one of those places you’d walk past if you didn’t know it was there.

Leadenhall Market

The market can be found behind Gracechurch Street, and it was originally a game, poultry and meat market in what was Roman London. Back in the fourteenth century, the site was actually a manor, belonging to Sir Hugh Neville, but the surrounding area became a meeting place for poulterers. Leadenhall was gifted to the City in 1411, and the manor building was replaced by a granary, school and chapel. The market expanded to sell other goods, and throughout the following two centuries, it became a booming centre of commerce. You could buy bread, cheese, wool, leather and even cutlery.

Hustle and Bustle

It managed to escape the Great Fire of London with only minimal damage, and during the rebuilding process it became a covered structure. At this point, it became the Beef Market, the Green Yard, and the Herb Market. The stone structure was replaced with wrought iron and glass in 1881. Now it sells greeting cards, pens, chocolate and cigars, among other things, and is even home to a Pizza Express and Ben’s Cookies. The market appeared as Diagon Alley in Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone, and was also used in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. It was restored in 1991 and is now a Grade II listed building. I’ve been in before, a few years ago at Christmas and a couple of years ago past closing time when it was deserted, but I always like to go back.

Leadenhall Market

While I never actually use any of the shops, or eat at any of its restaurants, I absolutely love Leadenhall Market. It has such a wonderful aesthetic, and I’ve got a bit of a thing about covered markets. They’re just such a good idea, and the fact that they’re covered gives them a feeling of permanence denied to regular markets – you know it isn’t going anywhere, and you can develop a connection with its shops and traders.

Leadenhall Market

We used to have two covered markets in Newcastle, but the Green Market was turned into an extension for the main shopping centre, leaving just the Grainger Market, which has seen something of a regeneration in recent years. Places like Leadenhall Market become tourist attractions, not to mention fashionable, and it’s an easy way to preserve little slices of history.

The shops are largely open from Monday to Friday, 10am to 6pm, but you can walk through the cobbled walkways any time of night or day as they’re open to the surrounding streets.

July 3, 2015

#FridayFlash – Bad House

Steve Partridge

Ada walked past number 23 twice a day. Known locally as “the bad house”, it was the last house on the left before the bus stop – or the first house on the right, depending on your direction.

It could have been a nice house, if the owner hadn’t let it rot on the end of the block. Its porch clung to the front wall, the broken front door obscured by an old kitchen bench hammered into place by the local police. Some months ago the downstairs curtains disappeared, and Ada occasionally sneaked a sideways glance into the front room. Illegible graffiti now covered one of the walls. She didn’t always like to look – she often worried that one day she’d see someone looking back.

Ada didn’t know who owned the house, but a phone call to the council revealed that the owners intended to sell “at some point” and would “renovate when necessary”. Ada thought that sounded like nonsense, but it wasn’t really her place to say so. She just didn’t like walking past the overgrown front garden and broken windows at night.

On the morning in question, she walked past number 23 at 7:30am towards the bus stop. The early morning sunlight forced itself between the streaks of grime on the windows, and for a moment, the house would have looked pleasant, were it not for the newspapers taped to the upstairs windows. Ada risked a glance at the garden. Foxgloves and periwinkles lined the remains of the path to the door, holding back a thicket of long grass and brambles.

She caught the bus into town and thought no more about number 23, until 10pm that evening when the bus pulled up at the stop. She clambered out of the bus, regretting that final drink with her colleagues, and tottered along the road. The path curved up to the left, past the Bad House. She tutted at herself – it was quite safe to pass it this time, now that number 23 was the first house on her right.

Ada passed the garden, refusing to look up. She wouldn’t give in to her fear. Not when she’d had such a pleasant evening. Her phone buzzed in her bag, and she looked down, glad for the excuse not to look at the house.

She had just passed number 19 when the slow creak sliced open the quiet night air. Her mind wanted her to pause and process the sound, but her feet forced her onwards. They obeyed that tiny primeval voice in the back of her head that knew exactly what the sound was.

Something moved between the plants behind her. Ada told herself not to look, and not to be so silly. Two kitchen worktops covered the door to number 23. Anyone inside would have to take those off before they could reach the path, and she’d definitely hear that. After all, it’s not like someone could just squeeze between them…

“Excuse me miss, do you know when the next bus is due?” The voice made her jump, and Ada whirled around. Its owner stood behind her, a man clad in black. He stood beneath the streetlight, his features lost in darkness – all of his features except his teeth. Why did she want to look at his teeth?

“Miss? The bus?” He spoke again. She caught a glimpse of white, but nothing more.

“Er, should be fifteen minutes I think. I don’t know at this time of night,” she replied. She looked down, trying to estimate the distance between his feet and hers. Would he think her rude if she bolted? How far would she get before he caught up? And why didn’t he cast a shadow on the tarmac path?

A cat pushed itself out of number 17’s cat flap to her right. It landed in its front garden, and gave her its best disdainful expression.

“Hey kitty,” said Ada.

The cat looked at the stranger. Its back bristled, its fur on end, and it hissed. The hiss went on for what felt like hours, rising in pitch to a frenzied yowl. Ada took the hint and bolted, sprinting up the path on her toes. She reached the top of the block, where a dog-leg in the fence led her around a corner into the next street, and risked a look over her shoulder. The stranger was gone.

Ada allowed herself a moment to catch her breath, and let her pulse slow. The cat wandered up the street towards her. She smiled – normally she didn’t like cats, but on this occasion she could see the appeal.

Ada turned away, and walked straight into the stranger. He loomed over her, his features in shadow and his clothes smelling of cold and damp places.

“Running away was so rude, Ada.”

He smiled, revealing white, pointed teeth. They were the last things she saw before the world went black.

June 26, 2015

#FridayFlash – The Occasional Table

Occasional Table, 1937-1941

The Academy boasted many fine laboratories, practice suites and classrooms, but if Jyx had to choose his favourite place, then it was surely the library. For one thing, it was the only room in the entire building where he didn’t feel out of place. His shabby and mended robes matched the cracked spines and moth-eaten covers of the ancient tomes. For another thing, he was one of the few students that used the room regularly, meaning he’d earned certain privileges from the librarians. They often allowed him to help them restock the shelves, which is the only way he could sneak a look at the books reserved for older students.

One rainy winter’s day, Miss Tuesday handed him a stack of volumes intended for the fifth year section.

“Remember Jyx, no peeking!” She winked, and turned away to the card catalogue behind the issue desk.

Jyx carried the books to their section, and perused the titles as he placed them back in their correct slots. The fifth years must be up to their History of Magickal Theory module, as nearly all of the books were about dry topics that didn’t interest Jyx in the slightest. Only one title in the pile caught his eye – Transmogrification 101. Jyx knew how to do a lot of magick that was beyond the abilities allotted to his year group, but he’d never even considered turning one object into another.

He peered around the corner of the bookcase to check Miss Tuesday still had her back to him. Satisfied the coast was clear, Jyx sat at a nearby table and opened the book. He flipped past the usual warning pages to the introduction. Its gist concerned the uses of Transmogrification – it expected fifth year students to restrict their attempts to inanimate objects. Jyx shrugged – he just wanted to know how it worked.

Moments later, he’d located a beginner’s spell to turn one piece of furniture into another. The instructions stated it was easier to work with objects that had a similar purpose or size at first. A stool further down the aisle seemed the ideal object to start with. Jyx carried it back to the table. He consulted the book, and drew a sigil in the air over the stool.

Illuc vertere alio in aliud, supellectilem in supellectilem“, he said, keeping his voice to a whisper.

The stool disappeared with a soft ‘pop’, and a strongbox appeared in its place. Jyx grinned. He turned back to the book when another soft ‘pop’ caught his attention. The strongbox was gone, replaced instead by a tall, ornate hat stand. He moved closer but before he could touch it, the hat stand winked out of sight, and a low table appeared in its place. A rustle of silk behind him made him jump.

“Jyx! What are you doing?” Miss Tuesday appeared in the aisle.

“I, er, I, well, I tried one of the Transmogrification spells,” replied Jyx. He knew better than to lie to Miss Tuesday.

“Which one?” asked Miss Tuesday. She raised an eyebrow but said nothing about the fact he’d openly admitted to trying magick beyond his year group.

Jyx showed her the book, and then showed her the low table, which was now a trunk.

“What’s it doing? Why does it keep changing?” asked Jyx. The trunk turned into a small cabinet, which became a sturdy chair, followed by a bookcase. A soft ‘pop’ and a puff of coloured smoke accompanied each change.

“I think I know what’s happened. You’ve made an occasional table,” replied Miss Tuesday. A grin tugged at the corners of her lips.

“What’s an occasional table?” asked Jyx. The bookcase turned into a strongbox.

“Exactly what the name implies. It is a piece of furniture that is only occasionally a table.” On cue, the strongbox disappeared, replaced by a small table. “They’re really very useful if space is a premium.”

“How can that be useful if it keeps changing?” asked Jyx. The table turned into an umbrella stand.

“You just need to add a mechanism that only lets it change when you tell it to. Dicam cum eum locutus est.” Miss Tuesday drew a sigil in the air and flicked it at the umbrella stand. Its outline shimmered, and the stand flickered twice, but it remained an umbrella stand.

“Now it’s stable. That’s the part you missed out.” Miss Tuesday pointed to a small box underneath the main incantation. Jyx groaned.

“How do I make it change?” he asked.

Miss Tuesday demonstrated the sigil, and pointed to the shorter incantation in the book. Jyx copied her movement, and spoke the words aloud. “Mutatio!

The umbrella stand disappeared, and the small cabinet reappeared in its place.

“At this level, you need to go through all of the furniture in its cycle to get the one you want, but in time you’ll be able to change it to the one you want immediately. There are other spells you can add too, like the preservation of space. So if you put books in the cabinet and then turned it into a strongbox, you could turn it back into the cabinet and your books would still be there.”

“Can you show me those too?” asked Jyx. His mother could definitely benefit from space-saving furniture in their tiny, cramped garret.

“I think you’ve tried out enough for today and I really  shouldn’t be encouraging you like this. Finish putting the books away, without reading them, and I’ll see you next week.”

“Same day?”

“As always.” Miss Tuesday smiled, and glided away down the aisle.

Jyx whipped out a scrap of parchment, and scribbled down the incantations and the sigils. He’d practice on his mother’s sewing box when he got home.

* * *

This story was set in the Underground City, the world of my novella, The Necromancer’s Apprentice. It’s available from Amazon, Kobo,Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. There are plenty of reviews over on Goodreads!

June 22, 2015

Stop apologising for your book

Have you ever met a writer who almost seemed apologetic about their own work? Or are you a writer who tells people that your book is “a horror, but it’s all a bit silly really”?

Stop apologising for your own work.

When I told people that I had my first book coming out, I was naturally asked the question “What’s it about?” When I replied that The Guns of Retribution was a Western, I met either a lukewarm “Oh that’s nice”, coloured heavily with disinterest, or “I don’t read Westerns”. It actually hurts to have someone who previously enjoyed your writing dismiss your latest book based solely on its genre – I started wishing I’d written a horror or fantasy story since that’s what people knew me for. Trouble was, it got to the point where I started apologising for the fact it was a Western, as if I was pre-empting the disinterest. It got so bad that I didn’t think people would care, solely because it was a Western.

I know Westerns aren’t particularly fashionable. Unless you can shoehorn aliens or Jeff Bridges into one, a Western is seen as something staid or outdated. They’re no more or less formulaic than romantic comedies, thrillers or horror, and yet we’re still inundated with those. I think what surprised me was the number of people who absolutely loved the True Grit remake…but still won’t entertain the notion of reading a Western. In essence, Westerns are simply a specialised form of historical fiction – but would I have any more success if I described it as a historical story?

After a while, I almost didn’t want to tell people about The Guns of Retribution. I suppose it didn’t help that most people I talked to were from the UK, and there isn’t a massive appetite here for the Western.

So why the sudden change of heart?

Well I’m damn proud of my book, and I keep seeing other authors apologising about their book. It’s as if for every author who sends a million tweets a day exhorting people to buy their book, there are others saying “It’s a good story, I suppose, but…” I want those authors to be proud of their work, and to stand beside it.

I’ve altered what I’ve been saying so that I now describe The Guns of Retribution as a pulp adventure set in the Old West, which I think is a better description of its content than simply calling it a Western. But I’ve had an epiphany. I can’t keep apologising for a book I’m essentially very proud of. I’ve had positive reviews, and people asking for a sequel (which is on its way!) Readers have warmed to my bounty hunter, Grey O’Donnell, and want more.

You have to own your writing, and you have to be unashamed to talk about it. There are so many other books out there, and so many people doing the same thing – if you won’t champion your own writing, who will?