January 30, 2015

#FridayFlash – She

Shadow and doorways from Freeimages.com. Assembled by Icy Sedgwick.

Shadow and doorways from Freeimages.com. Assembled by Icy Sedgwick.

She stands beyond the doorway, and watches through windows.

Her breath fogs the pane at night, and her feet make the floorboards creak in the hall when you think you’re the only one home.

She’s the smudge in the reflection, observing from the other side of the glass, and the shadow that moves at the corner of your eye.

She prowls around your house and stalks through your garden, always putting walls between herself and the living.

She stays at the edge, patrolling the boundary but never crossing it, never daring to approach your flickering warmth.

She stays outside.

If she came inside…she’d have to kill you.

January 25, 2015

The Lost Art of Subtlety in Supernatural Horror

I went to see The Woman in Black: Angel of Death on Friday, having been so impressed by its 2012 predecessor starring Daniel Radcliffe, and I have to say…this sequel encapsulates just what is wrong with contemporary supernatural horror in the cinema. I’ve seen a lot of it – I have to, since my thesis is all about these films. But The Woman in Black: Angel of Death just proves that this particular cycle of supernatural horror has lost all pretence at subtlety. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in the post that follows, but The Woman in Black: Angel of Death isn’t exactly a film that relies on narrative twists and turns.

In a nutshell, The Woman in Black (2012) told the story of Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe), sent to the isolated Eel Marsh House sometime in the 1900s to sort through the personal papers of the late Alice Drablow. While there, he encounters a ghostly presence. Every time the Woman in Black is seen, a child in the nearby village dies in some gruesome fashion. It seems the children are persuaded to kill themselves by the Woman. Arthur investigates and discovers that Alice Drablow had a son who died in a tragic accident. The problem is, Nathaniel was not Alice’s son, but rather he was the son of Alice’s sister, the unmarried Jennet Humphrye. Already unhinged after the forcible removal of her son, Jennet’s grief turns to rage when Nathaniel drowns, and she blames her sister. After she kills herself, she returns as a force of nature capable of stealing local children. Arthur tries to lay her to rest, but fails.

Fast forward to the 1940s, and two teachers, Mrs Hogg (Helen McCrory) and Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), are taking a group of schoolchildren to Eel Marsh House to keep them safe during the Blitz. I won’t support with your intelligence as to pass any comments regarding the wisdom of sending children to a house associated with such a legend. The local village is now abandoned, and the Woman in Black develops an affection for one of the children, an orphan named Edward (Oaklee Pendergast). The film essentially becomes a tussle for Edward between Eve and the Woman, and naturally two children are dispatched during the process. RAF pilot Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine) is added to provide an adult male counterpoint to the film’s two female teachers. Who will win the day, Eve or the Woman?

Yet the true villain of The Woman in Black 2 is Backstory. Yes, it becomes so important to the narrative, so all consuming that it becomes a solid presence in the film. Everyone has a Backstory that seems to be something they need to overcome, or it becomes their sole motivating force throughout the story. Eve feels compelled to save Edward from Jennet’s clutches because she lost her own child – she couldn’t just want to save him because, as his teacher, his safety is her responsibility? Or because it’s the right thing to do?

It seems instructive at this point to compare the first film and the sequel. Let’s look at Arthur Kipps. He investigates the secrets of the house because it’s his job to go through Alice Drablow’s papers. He uncovers the family secret almost by accident, and when he realises who the Woman in Black is, feels compelled to help her. He has Backstory, in the form of the death of his wife, but he wants to help reunite Jennet with her son because he thinks it’ll bring them closure, and because he wants to lay Jennet to rest before his own son can arrive in Crythin Gifford. By contrast, Eve’s Backstory makes her almost hysterical in places, and it seems to be the only way the screenwriters could get the Woman to target her. Why? The Woman in Black was shown in the previous film to be an indiscriminate force, taking children no matter who saw her. This made her frightening – there was no rhyme or reason to her appearances, and the lack of logic or predictability elevated her beyond the status of a mere spectre. There were no laws governing her behaviour which meant there was no obvious way to stop her other than staying away so you couldn’t see her. In this film, she’s given an air of predatory intelligence seemingly at odds to her previous appearances. In one scene, the Woman pursues them away from the house, kicking off a veritable visual feast of special effects worthy of a KISS gig to force one of them, any of them, to see her so that she can claim another child. It’s a weird inversion of the childhood belief that if you can’t see a monster, it can’t harm you. In Jennet’s case, if she wants to harm you, then she’ll find a way to make you see.

Eel Marsh House, so integral to the first film, has become a dilapidated wreck, a visual demonstration of how much Jennet has disintegrated since Arthur Kipps’ well meaning intervention forty years earlier. Already unhinged, born as she is from sheer rage at the loss of her son, and her punishment at being unable to fit within the narrow confines of Victorian sexuality, her rage has now become vindictive. Eve is initially set her up as her double – both are women who have had children taken from them due to social pressures. Later Eve is cast as a double to Alice, Jennet’s sister and the cause of her son’s death, and therefore a target for the Woman’s rage. She seeks to ‘punish’ Eve by taking Edward. To me, this is unnecessary, since the Woman would have been just as potent had she not been viciously targeting Eve, but simply trying to replace her dead son with Edward. This reading would have been supported by her behaviour, exacerbated by her tendency to target those children who have wronged Edward in some way. She’s not just an angel of death, she becomes his avenging angel. In a more intelligent horror film, the Woman could have become the projected personnification of Edward’s own paranoia, but sadly those days of horror seem long gone.

I loved Jennet in the first film, but in The Woman in Black 2, Hammer seem to have confused her with Kayako from Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), while her costume design is based more upon the Bride in Black from Insidious (2010)! You can probably guess the ending, and despite its largely negative reception by critics, there will no doubt be a third instalment, and Jennet will be further reduced to a dull bogeyman, instead of the potent force she was in 2012. It must be borne in mind that Hammer were a company based on the franchising of monsters, making nine films about Dracula between 1958 and 1974, seven films about Frankenstein between 1957 and 1974, and four films about mummies between 1959 and 1971. Yet do we need another monster franchise where the only way to generate suspense is to show people wandering around in the dark, just so the director can add cheap jump scares by making the spectre go “Boo”?

In essence, this is my problem with contemporary supernatural horror. It’s the lack of subtlety. This particular strain of horror was born as far back as the Graveyard School of poetry in the mid eighteenth century, and influenced the original Gothic texts such as The Castle of Otranto (1764). The original supernatural tales were creepy, weird, and downright unsettling – you only need to read ‘The Signal-Man’ by Charles Dickens, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman or pretty much anything by M. R. James to see that. Move into the twentieth century and watch Night of the Demon (1957), The Innocents (1961), or The Haunting (1963). Hell, even watch The Sixth Sense (1999) – there should be an air of unease, a tension between the existence of this world and the next within the same physical space. James Wan got it right in 2013 with The Conjuring, and its pointless prequel, Annabelle (2014), suffered massively by having a director who didn’t understand suspense or subtlety. Backstories are held up as the be-all and end-all, as if humans aren’t capable of reacting to a crisis based on their own moral compass, or simply the situation at hand. In The Conjuring, the family simply move into the ‘wrong’ house, and have to deal with the consequences. Backstory is irrelevant. So why is it so heavy-handed in The Woman in Black: Angel of Death?

Having said that, horror always moves in cycles. The ‘assault on the family’ films of the 1970s were replaced by the endless slashers of the 1980s, which gave way in the early 2000s to the slew of titles inspired by the success of The Sixth Sense. I’d argue that it was the success of Paranormal Activity in 2009 that kickstarted the current trend for supernatural films – which is ironic since the first PA film succeeded precisely because you spent much of the film waiting for something to happen. With any luck the studios will stop underestimating the intelligence of their audience and reintroduce subtlety, nuance and elegance to a strand of horror that was always about what you imagined, as opposed to what you saw.

January 23, 2015

#FridayFlash – The Professor

The Professor comes in at 4:45pm every week day, and Shaun tells me he comes in at the same time every weekend, too. I don’t know what he’s called, and the one time I asked him his name he asked me who I was and who I worked for, so I just call him the Professor. It suits him, in an absent-minded sort of way.

He always wears a battered old macintosh over a pinstripe jacket and black Polo neck, but his faded blue corduroy trousers don’t match the jacket. Even though his clothes never change, he never looks dirty, and he certainly doesn’t smell like some of the people that shuffle in off the street, wearing plastic bags over the remains of their shoes and begging for cups of tea. The Professor also wears a big Russian hat, and even temperatures in the twenties won’t persuade him to take it off. He has the ear flaps pinned up at the crown, and while the stalls at the market sell versions in tweed or acrylic fluff, I think his may be genuine fur. He speaks with a thick Russian accent and waxes lyrical about the good old days in Moscow but I suspect he’s never been further east than Basildon.

He won’t read newspapers, and he doesn’t trust electronics. Still, he tips well, and he’s a sturdy regular among the ‘half decaf with almond milk latte’ brigade. The Professor can’t stand those types – he likes to lean across the counter, and whisper about them. Most of what he says is funny but then he’ll inevitably start talking about the mirror people, and how the posh customers, with their sugar free syrup and inability to be polite, can’t see them. I can’t see any people in the mirror, apart from the reflections of the people in front of me, but I just smile and nod, and agree with everything he says. It seems easier that way. He’s a nice guy but there’s a hare trigger there, and I don’t want to be around when he snaps.

It’s a cold and blustery Monday afternoon when I first notice something isn’t right. He’s not his usual self when he comes in. The smile he offers is tired, and forced, and he hides himself in a corner where he couldn’t see the mirror behind the counter. He’s quiet, and withdrawn, and even the incessant chatter of the yoga bunnies with their mobile phones and diet juice doesn’t stir him. I try to coax him out but eventually he leaves after half an hour. He’s normally here for at least two.

Tuesday afternoon is busier than usual, and I’m rushed off my feet. Eventually the crowd dies down and I realise it’s 5pm and there’s no sign of the Professor. We close at 7pm, and those two hours drag by while I keep peering into the street. I don’t know why I’m looking for him, it just feels strange in the cafe without his outlandish stories. Wednesday and Thursday pass, and there’s still no sign of him. I worry about him, particularly after his behaviour on Monday, but I’ve got no one to call. I don’t know his real name, where he lives, or if he’s got anyone to look after him. Will anyone besides me notice if anything has happened to him?

4:45pm on Friday comes and goes, but I’m clearing tables when movement behind the counter catches my eye. The cafe is empty, except for me and a man doing the crossword by the window, but I think I see someone in the mirror. It’s just a smudge in the shape of a person, but it’s enough. Worse still, I feel like it’s seen me too.

I do everything I can to avoid looking into the mirror, and for the rest of my shift, I keep thinking about the Professor. I close up at 7pm and head home, wondering what’s happened to him. I think about a million and one trivial things, just to keep my mind off that shape in the mirror. The shape with eyes. Did I recognise those eyes?

Every time I look in a mirror that evening, I see movement. Small blurs, tiny flickers – none of it made by me. I stop looking in mirrors on Saturday, and I spend the afternoon wearing no make up and watching rubbish films on TV. I forget about the reflections, and for a little while, I forget about the Professor.

Sunday morning rolls around and I decide to pop out to see the new Michael Keaton film. I want to know if it’s worthy of the Oscar nominations. I go to the bathroom to wash my face, and I look in the mirror. I’m alone in the room, only my reflection isn’t alone. The Professor stands behind me. He holds out his hand to me, but I scream and run back into the living room like a little girl. I go out without makeup, and avoid looking in shop windows on the way to the cinema. I catch a glimpse of him in the mirror in the ladies’ toilets, and I finally realise what’s happening.

The mirror people got him at last. And now he’s here for me.

January 16, 2015

#FridayFlash – The Plague Doctor

Image from the Wellcome Trust

Doktor Pinaldi swept along the close, his waxed leather cloak swishing behind him. He peered through the eye holes of his moulded mask, the scent of flowers drifting up from its beak to his nose. Other medical men believed the smell warded off the plague, but Doktor Pinaldi knew that was ridiculous. He just preferred floral scents to the smell of damp stone and rubbish that characterised the closes of the Underground City. He remembered the days before the sewers were installed, and shuddered at the memory.

He turned into another close that led away from the river. He passed doorways glimmering with his trademark green ward, shimmering curtains of magic that kept the family inside the house, and callers in the street. Preventing the spread of plague could be impossible if no one made an effort to contain it.

Doktor Pinaldi stopped halfway up the alley. A white flag hung out of a window on the third floor – another family needed his help. He pushed open the street door into the narrow vestibule. Normally children played on the stairs of the tenement buildings, and housewives chattered outside their lodgings, but the stairwell was quiet, aside from the distant sound of coughing.

He climbed the stairs, where flickering light pooled shadows across the steps. He reached the third landing, where a white smear on the front door to his left marked the afflicted rooms. He took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of lavender, and knocked on the door.

“Go away, we got plague in ‘ere!” A strong voice rang out within, and Doktor Pinaldi smiled. At least one soul inside was still burning brightly.

“I’m a Plague Doctor, good madam,” he called.

The door flew open. A housewife held a toddler on her hip. Exertion coloured her cheeks, but Doktor Pinaldi could tell this woman was healthy. He glanced at the toddler, who stared up at him and giggled.

“Neither of you have the plague,” he said.

“I’d bleedin’ well hope so! I put me ‘usband in quarantine the minute he started coughing,” said the housewife.

Doktor Pinaldi smiled behind his mask. He bowed to her.

“Well done, my good madam. I could not have prescribed better myself. Do you know where he caught the infection?”

“I’d reckon he caught it from his friend, Euan Bogglesthwaite. He lives in the building next door,” said the housewife. She gestured to the right with a jerk of her head.

“Ah, I have seen him. He will live,” said Doktor Pinaldi. He remembered the man, a hearty dockworker. The plague always sneaked into the City via the river, carried in bundles of fabric or sometimes even shipments of food. It was the precise reason why Doktor Pinaldi restricted his medical practice to the district by the docks.

“Good. I’ve sent me eldest kids to me sister, but Jude ‘ere wouldn’t go,” said the housewife. She tickled the little girl under the chin.

“Excellent. You are a model woman – if more took your precautions I should certainly have less work to do!”

The housewife smiled. The toddler giggled and clapped. Doktor Pinaldi ruffled her hair.

“You’ll want to see me ‘usband then?”

“Yes. When did he present symptoms?”

“Yesterday afternoon,” replied the housewife. “He’s got swellin’ under ‘is arms, and I put a poultice on them. I wore ‘is work gloves and everything.”

The housewife gestured to a room at the back of the lodgings, and through the grime-caked window Doktor Pinaldi saw the white flag hanging outside. She came no further, and closed the door behind him.

A burly man lay in a bed, a sheet tangled around his legs. Pale green poultices barely covered the black swellings under his arms, and a miasma of sickness hung in the air above him. Doktor Pinaldi peered at the man. His life force shone a weak yellow, black flecks wriggling within the glow.

Doktor Pinaldi removed a glass jar from beneath his cloak and sat on the edge of the bed. The sick man didn’t register his presence. Doctors would cure the man by combating the germs, but medical wizards worked more quickly. He unscrewed the lid from the jar and plunged his hands into the life force, wiggling his fingers. The black flecks continued to wriggle, but they headed towards his hands. He whispered an incantation, and they clung to the fingers of his gloves.

“Yes, you’re leaving this man now,” said Doktor Pinaldi.

He continued wiggling his fingers and whispering until all of the flecks covered his gloves. They shifted like settling dust, and once they were all attached, he lifted his hands out of the glow. He flicked all of the black flecks into the jar, and screwed the lid back on. He spoke an incantation and the lid fused with the top of the jar.

Doktor Pinaldi patted the sick man on the head. He didn’t thrash as wildly, and now that the infection was removed, his body would have time to heal itself. The Doktor left the room, and found the housewife in the hallway.

“Your husband will be fine, my good madam. I will need to put up a ward to prevent anyone coming or going for a few days, but that’s just to give him the chance to get better before he sees anyone. You don’t want him catching something else while he’s weak,” he said.

“Oh, thank you sir, thank you! You’re a miracle. But…’ow much will it cost?” asked the housewife.

“Nothing. You owe me nothing.” The Doktor inclined his head in a farewell greeting, and left the lodgings. He placed one ward on the front door, and another on the door of the building.

Doktor Pinaldi walked away down the close, watching out for other white flags. He patted the jar secreted beneath his cloak, and thought of the housewife’s enquiry about the cost of his services. The black beauties he removed were all the payment he needed.

* * *

Apprentice_eBook_smallThis 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!

January 14, 2015

Just Why I Love Edinburgh

As some of you know if you follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook, I went up to Edinburgh at the weekend for a research trip. A visit to its Mary King’s Close attraction back in 2012 gave me the inspiration for the Underground City of The Necromancer’s Apprentice, and I reasoned that a second visit would be handy while I work on the novella’s sequel, The Necromancer’s Rogue, begun during NaNoWriMo. So off I went, along with my travel companion Mummy. She was rather pleased to kick off our journey at Costa Coffee. She’s fond of a strong Americano. Unfortunately the train journey was a bit of a pain, with the train breaking down just outside Morpeth. East Coast demonstrated a stunning lack of customer service, with their train guard giving one reason for the delay, while the website gave another, and everyone ended up having to leave the train, and board another one, well over an hour after the time we should have arrived in Edinburgh! I finally made it to the fair city, some two and a half hours later than planned.

02 premier innI’d booked into the Premier Inn in Lauriston Place because the company were having a £25 a room sale on at the time, and I’d highly recommend it if you’re ever in that neck of the woods. It’s at the Westport end of Grassmarket, and it’s only about a ten minute walk up to the Royal Mile. The room was comfortable, the staff were friendly, and the breakfast was well worth the money. Wahey! I’m pretty sure this room was bigger than my old flat. I didn’t get a lot of sleep due to the wind screaming outside but there’s not an awful lot anyone can do about the British weather.

First stop was Mary King’s Close again. I’ve blogged about it before, here, but as a quick recap, Mary King’s Close lies below the Royal Mile, and this particular close was named for Mary King, a prominent businesswoman who lived in the close in the 1630s. Originally open to the air, it ran between the Royal Mile and the Nor Loch, now the Princes Street Gardens. It would have been noisy, and filthy, with inhabitants emptying their slop buckets into the close twice a day, in the hope that the rain would wash their sewage down the close into the loch (which was also the city’s water supply). The close was built over during the seventeenth century, and some of its floors now form part of the foundations of the Royal Exchange. Many theories abound as to what must have happened in its murky depths, from plague victims being walled up alive, to rampant murder. Either way, it’s now a tourist attraction, and visitors can explore the weird atmosphere of the four connected closes (Mary King’s, Pearson’s, Stewart’s and Allen’s Closes). As it’s below government buildings, you aren’t allowed to take photos down there, except for a single souvenir photo that they take for you. It’s an infrared photo so it looks a bit weird, but hopefully it’ll give you an idea of how I picture the closes of the Underground City!

One of the things I love about Edinburgh’s Old Town is its closes, narrow crooked alleyways that cut through the buildings along the Royal Mile. Mary King’s Close may now lie beneath the Royal Exchange, but many more are still passable. I took a ridiculous number of photos of them, and these are the narrow passages that Jyx traverses in the Underground City.

03 Advocates Close

Advocate’s Close.

04 Byres Close

Byres Close.

06 anchor close

 Anchor Close.

IMG_1197

Leading to Castlehill.

09 greyfriarsLast stop for Friday was the famous Greyfriars Kirkyard – I also visited on Saturday so I could take photos during daylight hours. It’s not as beautiful as Highgate, or as neglected as Abney Park, or as vast as Brompton, but it has a majesty all of its own. It’s also the site of a massive plague pit, and my tour guide told me that on exceptionally rainy days, bones occasionally make their way back up to the surface, and they have to store these elsewhere in the graveyard as it’s illegal to remove remains from consecrated grounds – which is ironic considering its importance to the graverobbing trade in the early nineteenth century. It’s the location for the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby, about a Skye terrier who allegedly sat on his owner’s grave for fourteen years, and it would be a lovely tale if it were true. Greyfriars is also notable for being right next to the cafe where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, and her view of the George Heriot’s School provided her with the inspiration for Hogwarts. You can see why!

08 hogwarts

It’s awe-inspiring even during the day.

11 greyfriarsI went along on the Friday evening to do the City of the Dead Tour so I could see inside the Covenanter’s Prison. It’s normally out of bounds, having been locked seventeen years ago, and doing the tour is the only way to see it. In 1679 it was a part of the graveyard used to house over 1000 supporters of the National Covenant. This document was signed by those who wanted to oppose the the interference of the Stuart kings in the affairs of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. In a nutshell, the king believed that the monarch was head of the Church, but the Scots believed that only God was head of the Church. Signing the document was considered an act of treason, and those defeated in the Battle of Bothwell Brig were kept here. It’s an important moment in British history and I wanted to pay my respects, but I had another, darker reason for wanting to visit.

The Covenanter’s Prison is also said to be the home of a particularly active poltergeist. I took the photo on the Saturday during the day, but it’s a very different place late at night, when the wind screams through the trees, and shadows flicker and dance across the unlit paths. There’s a tomb partway down on the left known as the Black Mausoleum, and has been the site of hundreds of reported attacks. Having a background in paranormal investigations, I just had to see it for myself. Yes, the graveyard is spooky, and yes, I wasn’t happy going into a pitch black mausoleum, but no, nothing happened. I’ll admit, I was rather disappointed, but who knows, maybe poltergeists don’t like gale force winds either. Anyway, here’s Mummy enjoying the tombstones.

10 greyfriars

 She does love a good cemetery.

12 vaultsThe other attraction of Edinburgh, for me, is its vaults, located inside the South Street Bridge. I’d been in the vaults on the Blair Street side with Mercat Tours back in 2012, but this time I wanted to see the vaults on the Niddry Street side with Auld Reekie Tours. I picked one of their daytime tours because I wasn’t interested in having people jump out at me, or over-enthusiastic tour guides waving anachronistic torture equipment about, and it proved to be as fascinating as I’d hoped. The vaults lie in the arches of the bridge, which opened in 1788 – only one of the arches is actually open to the air, at Cowgate, but the others are all hidden behind tenements. They were intended to house taverns, cobblers and other tradesmen, as well as storage space for the shops on the bridge itself, but the structure isn’t watertight so the vaults became damp, the air quality deteriorated, and the businesses left. The destitute moved in, and the vaults became a less salubrious place. No one knows for sure when they were officially closed, though it was some time in the nineteenth century. They lay undiscovered until the 1980s. There are around 120 vaults under the bridge, but each tour group only visits a handful – the Auld Reekie one visits five on one level. I’d also like to point out that the people at Auld Reekie were lovely enough to let me transfer from a tour on the Friday (that I’d already booked) to one on the Saturday due to my troubles with the train!

13 vaultsThere was one particular vault I wanted to visit, having been told about it by others who’d done the tour. One of the vaults is used by the Wiccan group, the Source Coven of the Blue Dragon, but it’s not the original vault they used when they moved in. Their first vault lies further up the passage, its stone circle now abandoned after the coven’s founder believed they conjured something less than pleasant. People report paranormal activity in the room, and on my tour, I felt nauseous in the room while another girl got dizzy. While circles are traditionally used to protect those inside them, and to keep things out, this particular circle is believed to hold something in, to protect those outside it, and no one in my group was brave/stupid enough to step inside it! Another vault smelled strongly (to me) of wood smoke, while another, named the Haunted Vault, is apparently the site of many sightings of a young woman in a dirty white dress, believed to be a banshee since one man who saw her suffered a death in the family shortly afterwards. She’s not as well received as the ghostly child, most often seen by women.

14 innWhen the tour was finished, I went off to the office of another tour group, who have a rather macabre relic on their front desk. After William Burke, he of the notorious bodysnatchers Burke and Hare, was hanged, his body was donated to medical science, but his skin was used to cover a book which is only occasionally on public display. The skin from his left hand was used to make a calling card holder, and it’s this holder that now sits in the office of Cadies & Witchery Tours. It’s a bit macabre, I suppose, but it just looks like regular leather. I couldn’t take a photo, so I took a photo of the White Hart Inn in Grassmarket where the pair are said to have hunted for their victims.

It was with a heavy heart that I returned home, but I’m brimming with ideas and inspiration, not only for The Necromancer’s Rogue, but also a plethora of other stories!

Apprentice_eBook_smallIf you’d like to catch up on The Necromancer’s Apprentice while I continue to work on The Necromancer’s Rogue, then you can grab it from Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble. There are plenty of reviews over on Goodreads!

If you like the sound of anything I’ve mentioned here, then the links are below – or just leave me a comment!

City of the Dead Tours – Haunted Graveyard Tour

The Real Mary King’s Close

Auld Reekie Tours – The Original Underground Tour

January 9, 2015

#FridayFlash – The Donor

The Weighing of the Heart, from the British Museum

Awareness has been slow in coming to the corpse, but it explodes into life as it opens its eyes. Bandages cover its face, and it cannot see, but its fury gathers in its dormant muscles. Life sparks throughout its dead fibres, and it tears its right arm free from its wrappings. Cold fingers form hooks and rip the fabric away from its face. Its eyelids flicker, and its vision swings from blurry to pin sharp and back again. What on earth is going on?

The corpse realises it is not merely a corpse, it is a mummy. Just as it requested. Its heirs fulfilled its wishes. It would smile if it could remember how.

Realisation dawns, and the urge to smile splits in two. The process has gone awry. They have followed the procedure – up to a point. It concentrates, and performs an inventory of its body. Lungs and liver, both gone. Presumably resting in their designated canopic jars. But the stomach and intestines are still there – as is the brain. What? The brain should be gone, and there should be jars for the guts.

A chilling howl erupts from the throat of the corpse. The heart is missing. The only organ that should remain present after mummification is gone. Without the heart, it cannot pass into the Halls of Ma’at for the final judgment. Without the heart… I am doomed.

* * *

Max lies in the hospital bed. A drama plays out on the television, and women with spray tans gesticulate in silence since the sound is off. He barely pays attention, preferring instead to gaze out of the window at the blue sky, and the waving branches he can see wafting above the sill. Who needs soap operas when the world is so wonderful?

He doesn’t tire of the view, although he does tire of the hospital. He can’t wait until he can leave, but transplants are debilitating, and they want to make sure he’s well enough to be discharged. Edie visits daily, but he can’t wait until they can start their life again properly, at home.

The nurse enters as the last wisps of blue leave the sky, chased away by deep indigo and twinkling stars. She closes his blinds, insisting he needs to rest, and he chastises her for spoiling his view. She leaves the blinds closed, and stalks out. I don’t like her. She’s got a bedside manner like a bulldog.

Max drifts in and out of sleep until an hour before dawn. The hospital never truly shuts down, with the shouts of the stricken fighting with the moans of the dying. Still, in that quiet hour before the day begins again, the building finally approaches the nearest state to silence. Max lies back to enjoy this short bubble of peace.

Something moves in the corridor outside. Max looks to the door. Fabric is being dragged along the linoleum floor. A rhythmic thump between swooshes. Are they footsteps?

Max assumes an orderly is struggling with a patient, and resolves to ignore it. Moments later, the door handle rattles. Max reaches to his bedside table for the alarm button, but he cannot find it. Did I leave it there? The door handle suddenly slams down, and the door swings inward.

A figure stands silhouetted in the doorway, the rough approximation of a man, with fabric dangling from his limbs. It reminds him of the mummies in the old horror films that Edie loves to watch on late night TV. Is this some kind of a joke?

“Who are you?” calls Max.

The figure does not respond, and shuffles into the room, thudding its feet on the floor, dragging its wrappings behind it. Max tries to wriggle up onto his elbows, glancing about the room for the alarm button, but there’s no sign of it. He’s too weak to roll over to see if it’s fallen onto the floor.

Before he can reach under his pillow, the figure looms over him. It glares down at him, vivid green eyes peering out from between torn bandages. The skin around the eyes is waxy, and pale. Who the hell mummifies people in this day and age?

“What are you supposed to be, some kind of a joke?”

“No….joke….” The figure’s voice comes in rasps as it fights to draw breath into its body. It sounds like his father did, just before his 40-a-day habit finally killed him.

“Then what do you want?” Max knows he should feel afraid, but there is something too absurd about this to really worry him. Robert at the office probably hired an actor to liven up Max’s days.

“What…is….rightfully…mine….”

Before Max can react, the figure dives forward. Its fingers are more like talons than human digits, and it rams its hand into his chest. Fragile bone splinters, and blood wells up between the torn stitches. Max howls in pain. He tries to raise his arms to fend off another attack, but the figure is too quick. Its second punch breaks through, and Max feels his new heart torn free before he loses consciousness.

* * *

The mummy clutches its heart to its chest, the dead man in the bed forgotten. The bedroom disappears in a golden glow, and it is dimly aware of figures standing around it. Long fingers pry the heart from its grasp, and voices murmur around it. It longs to smile, or sing – its time has come. Its heart will be weighed and measured.

The glow fades, and a growl erupts in the shadows. Its blood would run cold if it had any.

I shouldn’t have killed that man…

Its heart is tossed into the shadows, where it disappears into the jaws of Ammut. The mummy falls to the floor, a crumpled heap of limbs and bandages. No afterlife awaits its soul, only an eternity of nothing.

January 7, 2015

#Pattern – Simple Crochet Case

I spent a bit of time over Christmas coming up with a basic pattern for a crochet pen case, and I figured I’d share it since it turned out to be so easy!

All you need for this super simple pattern is two different shades of DK yarn (or you could use a plain one, or even a self striping one) and a 3.75mm hook. I can’t remember which brand my yarn is but it’s 100% acrylic!

I wanted my case to hold my Pro-Markers, so I measured how long they were, and used that as a guideline. Also, remember I’m in the UK so I’m using UK crochet terms, but as the only stitches I used were slip stitch and double crochet, just remember to substitute ‘dc’ for ‘sc’ (or single crochet) if you’re outside of the UK.

First, I created a chain of 31 stitches using the brown yarn. Then I skipped the first stitch from the hook and slip stitched into each of the remaining 30 stitches. At the end of this row, chain 1 and turn.

Now, skip the first stitch from the hook and double crochet into each of the 30 stitches. At the end of this row, chain 1 and turn. You need to get the hang of this process as it’s what keeps the edges of your work straight.

Repeat this line. Before you chain 1 to turn the work, change your colour yarn if you’re using different colours. Draw the new colour up to make your chain 1, and turn. 30 dc, ch 1 and turn. 30dc.

Repeat this process to give you your stripes, with each one made up of two lines per colour. I carried the different colours up the side of the work, but you can trim and sew in the ends if you prefer.

The number of stripes will depend on how deep you want your case to be, but I ended up crocheting 13 stripes for the front, one stripe for the bottom of the case, and then another 13 stripes for the back. I also crocheted another set of stripes for the top flap, so I had 32 stripes in total, each one 30 stitches wide. I began to decrease for the edges of the flap on the next stripe, which in my case was brown.

To decrease, 1dc, 1dc2tog, 24dc, 1dc2tog, 1dc. Ch 1 and turn. 28 dc.

Change colours. Ch 1 and turn. 1 dc, 1 dc2tog, 22dc, 1dc2tog , 1 dc. Ch 1 and turn. 26dc.

Change colours. Ch 1 and turn. 1 dc, 1 dc2tog, 20dc, 1dc2tog , 1 dc. Ch 1 and turn. 24dc.

Now you’re going to do your buttonholes.

Change colours. Ch 1 and turn. 1 dc, 1dc2tog, ch 3, skip 3 stitches, 12dc, ch 3, skip 3 stitches, 1dc2tog, 1 dc. Ch 1 and turn. 22dc, performing 3dc across each buttonhole.

Change colours. Ch 1 and turn. 1dc, 1dc2tog, 16dc, 1dc2tog, 1dc. Ch 1 and turn. 20dc. Ch 1 and turn. Slip stitch into each stitch across.

Don’t fasten off yet! Slip stitch down the side of the flap on the ‘right’ side to create a nice edge. Now fold the case so that the right sides are facing, ideally with the stripes matching up (in my case I had a ‘spare’ beige stripe that forms the bottom of the case) and slip stitch the side seams together. Fasten off. Starting at the bottom on the other side, slip stitch the side seams together. At the top of the seam, continue slip stitching up the side of the flap on the right side of the work to give a more decorative edge. If you carried your yarn up the side of the work, this also helps to hide it.

Turn the case the right side out, sew on your buttons, and ta da!

Incidentally, my buttons are cast from resin that I coloured using old powder eyeshadow by Max Factor! I wrote an earlier post here about using casting resin, and it’s fairly easy if you have resin, a mould, and a drill!

Let me know how you get on!

Incidentally, if you do make an item using this pattern, please note products are only for personal or gift use, not for sale. Also, please don’t share the pattern without linking back here!

January 3, 2015

Is the Urban Decay Vice 3 palette worth it?

I was lucky enough to get the Urban Decay Vice 3 palette for Christmas. Having been a fan of Urban Decay for a while (I use their Naked 2, Pulp Fiction and Smoked palettes regularly), I was dying to get stuck in to the new array of fab colours. The set has a huge mirror in the lid and comes with a double ended brush, and it’s in a matching pouch – the box reckons you can keep your brushes in it but I’m just keeping the palette in it for now since all of my brushes came in their own pouches, wallets or bags.

Trying makeup with high expectations can be daunting (Illamasqua’s Complement palette was a massive let down) but thankfully, I was not disappointed! The colours are as highly pigmented as you’d expect from Urban Decay, and they blend well, although I tend not to use the brush that comes with the set, preferring instead to use my own. There is no ‘black’ equivalent, meaning you need to use other shades if you want to contour or line the eye, but I always use separate eyeliner anyway. They also last really well, especially when you use them with Urban Decay’s Eye Primer Potion, which keeps eye makeup in place all day.

What I like about the set is that the twenty colours are arranged in five columns, essentially giving you five ‘quads’ of complementary shades. You can obviously mix and match between colours, but keeping within the columns gives a well-balanced look. Here are four of the looks I’ve attempted thus far;

This look was achieved by putting Alien on the half of the eyelid nearest the corner, and blending it with Sonic from the centre of the eyelid to the outer corner. Then I put Bondage in the crease, and blending it upwards into Alchemy. I used Bondage and Sonic below the lower lashes.

This was a nice day time look, that featured Angel all over the eyelid, with Revolver in the crease, blended upwards into Defy. I then blending Defy into Last Sin beneath the brow. I smudged Revolver under my lower lashes. I think I might have liked these colours if they were less shimmery, but they work nonetheless.

This one was a little more experimental – I put Lucky in the corners of my eye, and swept it across the eyelid, blending it into Reign at the halfway point. I also put Reign above the eyelid, blending Vanity into it at the crease. Vanity looked a lot more purple in person than it does in the photo! I finished it off with Bobby Dazzle as a highlight beneath the brow.

This look was achieved by sweeping Freeze all over the eyelid and above the crease, blending it out towards the brow with Truth, and then layering Heroine into the crease. I also ran Heroine along the lower lash line, and I put a little Bobby Dazzle under the brow as a highlight.

I obviously haven’t tried all of the colours yet, but I think the Alien – Sonic quad is my favourite so far. I’d definitely recommend this palette to anyone who likes experimenting with colour, but if you’re looking for something more ‘natural’ then definitely check out Urban Decay’s Naked palettes as they’re far more suited to daily wear than some of the shades in Vice 3!

January 2, 2015

#FridayFlash – New Year, New You

Newyear_newyouFed up with your current look or style? Tired of seeing that same old face in the mirror? Sick of trying to upgrade yourself at the gym and beauty parlour? Are you looking for a way to start 2015 with a bang? Why not take advantage of our New Year, New You offer, valid until Twelfth Night, and start making all of your dreams come true?

We know that you’re a special, unique individual, but here at B-Better Inc., we want to help you express that in the best way. You could trade in your existing chassis and choose from over fifteen exciting new models, including The Explorer, The Athlete, The Artist, The Dancer, and The Intellectual. They’ve all passed our exclusive Society Approval Test, and as each of them comes with a lifetime* guarantee, they’re bound to bring you all of the good cheer that you deserve.

So why wait? Stop in at one of our showrooms, and our friendly staff will help you choose a body that will help you achieve that ‘new you’ goal.

Why be yourself, when you can be better?

*Lifetime refers to the shelf life or continued popularity of the chassis, not the life span of the consumer.

December 31, 2014

Review of 2014

2014It’s New Year’s Eve, and no December 31st would be complete without a review of the outgoing year. I could talk about things in my personal life, but really, I’d rather not because who is actually interested? Instead, I’d like to look at three main areas in 2014 – my writing, my handcrafts, and my travels!

Writing

Writing took the form of both fiction, and academia, with work continuing on my PhD thesis throughout the year. I also had some publishing success, which I think is worth highlighting.

Apprentice_eBook_smallThe Necromancer’s Apprentice was published in March 2014 by Dark Continents, before being republished by Crossroads Press in August. Reviews described it as “a chilling read”, “a gripping read”, “a well written tale that will keep you turning one page after next”, “one part Neverwhere, one part Hammer Horror” and “a must read for anyone who likes horror or fantasy tales”, while I was described as “the secret love-child of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett”! It’s all pretty flattering stuff. You can read other reviews over on Goodreads. I was so pleased to see it finally available, and you can get it from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and the Kobo store – I’m still hoping for a second paperback release. For those who have read it, rest assured that work is underway on its sequel, The Necromancer’s Rogue, and there is a third book planned, tentatively named The Necromancer’s Mage! I don’t think it’ll be any longer than a trilogy but there is plenty for Jyx to do in the mean time!

suspendedinduskI also had a story in the Suspended in Dusk anthology, which was edited by Simon Dewar and came out in September through Books of the Dead Press. My story, ‘A Woman of Disrepute’, was inspired by Crossbones Cemetery, Victorian London and all things gothic after a chat with fellow writer Michael Shean, and I’ve written a blog post about the inception of the story here. The anthology also features tales by Ramsey Campbell, Benjamin Knox and Alan Baxter, among others – most of the reviews will highlight about six or seven of the stories, but there are a whopping nineteen to get your teeth into! It’s tremendous value for money – at the time of writing, it’s just 77p on Amazon, which makes each story just 4p. Where else can you get entertainment at 4p a time? One review described ‘A Woman of Disrepute’ as “a gothic style story with a Jack the Ripper feel. I thought this one ROCKED!” You can get Suspended in Dusk from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo and Smashwords.

downloadIn December, the European Monsters collection by Fox Spirit Press came out, featuring my story, ‘The Cursed One’. The story is a monster story set in eighteenth century Venice, during the Carnevale, about a mysterious Order, and their quest to hunt down ageless beings who hide in the deep, dark places of the world. I wrote a blog post about it here. The anthology is a combination of illustration, stories and beautiful art, and while you can get European Monsters from Amazon, it’s only available in traditional dead tree format due to its stunning content, which I think makes a bit of a change in this digital age. I can’t wait to see the reviews of this one.

Handcrafts

Rose quartz pendant necklace, £7.99

I originally launched my Icy Handmade line in September 2013 but 2014 was the year in which I finally started to see more sales, possibly as my pieces got better and I got more exposure through Twitter chats such as #CraftHour. My initial concept was to make original, one-off jewellery pieces that were both quirky and affordable, with nothing being more expensive than £15, but as the year progressed, I expanded into handknits, and even merchandise for The Necromancer’s Apprentice. My handknits are original designs and are again one-off pieces, but in 2015 I’m going to focus on only using premium yarns, while my jewellery is going to centre around semi precious stones, glass, wire and resin. Being a handcrafter also helped when it came to making Christmas presents, as my Secret Santa post will attest!

Travels

osloopera

The Oslo Opera House

2014 was the Year of the Jaunt, with a few trips to London for various exhibitions, a weekend in Yorkshire poking around abbeys and priories, a trip to Oslo in June for the annual conference of the New Zealand Studies Association, and a week in Paris. Oslo was particularly good, as I got to see the opera house, explore the Kon-Tiki and Maritime museums as they were our conference venue, and hang out at the botanical gardens with my writer friend Margrét Helgadóttir!

Paris was a lot of fun, as I got to see Notre Dame, the Catacombs, the Palace of Versailles, Pere-Lachaise Cemetery, and the Opera House. I can’t quite believe I queued for three and a half house to get into the Catacombs but they were definitely worth it – especially since they’ve made an appearance in The Necromancer’s Rogue. I think the Opera House was my favourite thing to see, but that might just be due to my Phantom of the Opera fixation. I even got to see Box 5!

catacombs

Inside the Catacombs. I’d never seen so many bones in my life. It certainly brought a new perspective to As Above, So Below, which I saw earlier this year!

melies

Mummy, who ended up in a lot of the photos, with Georges Melies, founder of sci-fi cinema, in Pere-Lachaise Cemetery. I wrote a post about Mummy’s selfies here.

opera

The truly stunning opera house.

It’s difficult to sum up a year in a few words, but I hope I’ve managed to highlight the best parts in photographic form! So I’ll raise a mug (coffee, naturally) to the outgoing year, and leave out a slice of cake for the incoming 2015. I hope it treats everyone well!

Icy

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