December 12, 2014

#FridayFlash – The Lament

Chris Upson, via Wikimedia Commons

The bow scrapes across the strings, tentative at first, and faltering notes tumble into the twilight. As the prelude gives way to the melody, the bow glides back and forth, and delicate fingers caress the neck of the instrument. I remember those fingers, so long and pale, even in life.

The violin sings its mournful lament, and the early evening chill carries its melancholy song across the lake to where I stand on the shore. I remain perfectly poised, perfectly still. I am not the only audience for his song, for I sense spectres in the woods behind me, but I am the one for whom the song is intended.

He played this song for me some years ago, accompanied by a cellist. Their harmonies brought a tear to the eye of even a man so unmoveable as my father, and the humble violinist was to be my husband. How could I have known the source of such unfathomable talent?

Ripples break the calm surface of the water, and I sense they have arrived. They gave him his gift, and they took his life in payment, yet he defies them even now. They cannot touch him while he plays. It seems he is lost to me in life, but in death he continues to give away shards of his soul with each song. I look on with horror as his lament reaches its crescendo, and realisation dawns.

The music fades, and a heavy silence descends across the lake, rolling in with the mist. He has given me the last sliver of his soul. I stand in the cold night air, savouring the final notes as they continue to roll around inside my mind. Eventually I can remain no longer, and I turn to walk back up the shore, the spectres in the woods parting to let me pass.

My lips purse and I whistle a familiar tune, so doleful and full of sadness – his tune. I am so wrapped up in the melody that I do not hear movement in the water behind me. I do not hear them.


December 5, 2014

#FridayFlash – Winter’s Bride

Captured by the Beltsville Electron Microscopy Unit, part of the USDA.

Marianne huddles in the corner. Only her hands and nose are visible beneath the heap of moth-eaten blankets in which she swathes herself. The December chill seeps through the old fabric, sinking into her bones. A stub remains of her last candle, and she holds her hands either side of the flickering flame, anxious for warmth.

Marianne thinks of the empty wood basket beside the cold fireplace. The money from her last commission ran out several days ago. No one will hire a seamstress whose fingers are too stiff and frozen to do the work. She ate the last of her food earlier, a hard heel of bread with cheese so mouldy even the mice will not eat it.

Marianne sings under her breath. She keeps forgetting the words to songs she has known since childhood. She tries to keep the worry from nibbling at her clouded mind. Marianne knows she must fight to keep herself awake. If she falls asleep, she does not think she will wake again.

A tap at the window shakes her from her thoughts. Marianne peers across the room, but the film of frost on the glass obscures her view outside. She hauls herself to her feet and hobbles across the room. The cold has numbed her feet too much for her to hurry. She opens the window, and a blast of icy air slashes at her face.

“I say, you don’t think you could let me in, do you?”

A young man stands on the ledge outside her window. She gazes at him in disbelief. How could he have reached her small turret so high above the town? Mute, she stumbles backwards. The man pushes open the window and climbs inside. He wears a fine frock coat and waistcoat. Silver thread traces snowflakes across the white silk. Snow clings to his white top hat.

“Who are you?” asks Marianne.

“Who I am is far less important than the reason I am here, Marianne. Poor, sweet Marianne. This has been such a hard winter for you, has it not?” asks the young man.

“Aye, it has,” says Marianne. She casts a suspicious look at the young man.

“Well then! You have borne the weight of this winter so well, my dearest. You resisted where others would perish. It is for this reason that I have chosen you for my bride,” says the young man.

“I’m too cold for such nonsense. I am too poor for you to rob me, so I suggest you try your luck elsewhere,” says Marianne.

“I do not wish to rob you! I wish to marry you!” exclaims the young man.

“Don’t be silly, I’m in no mood. You must be all of five-and-twenty – I am twice your age, and I won’t survive this winter. Go now, you tire me so,” says Marianne.

Marianne looks up into his handsome face. If only she were twenty years younger. If only she weren’t so poor. If only he weren’t a stranger. If only…

The stranger peels off his white gloves and brushes his hand against Marianne’s cheek. Icy fingers crawl across her skin, and the cold sinks into her. She tries to scream but there is no breath left in her frozen lungs. The blood in her veins turns to ice. Marianne stands in her small room, a statue paralysed by winter.

The young man leans forward, and plants his lips on hers. The thaw spreads, the ice and the years falling away from Marianne. She coughs as air melts her lungs, and she stumbles forward into the young man’s arms. Her heart flutters, pumping ice water through her veins. Marianne looks into his eyes, and sees the reflection of her youthful self. She looks down to find her tattered tags replaced by a gown of white silk. A fur mantle drapes around her shoulders.

“What did you do to me?” she asks, her voice husky from coughing.

“I made you my bride, as I said I would. I have returned to you what time has stolen,” replied the young man.

“Am I dead?” she asks.

“You are dead in the sense that you are not a human, but you are alive with the power of winter,” replies the young man. “Come, Lady Frost. Let us explore the town together.”

“Lady Frost? Oh my…you’re Jack Frost, aren’t you?” asks Marianne.

The young man smiles in reply. He leads her to the window. They climb out onto the ledge, and she yelps as he leaps into the night air. He grasps her hand, and together they ride the air currents above the town. Marianne gazes down over the town square. People cluster around the tree, singing carols to ward off the cold.

Jack leads her to a row of small cottages at the edge of town. He touches a finger to the window of the first house. Beautiful patterns reform the crust of frost on the glass. He invites her to do the same. She holds out a trembling hand, amazed that she no longer feels the cold. She touches the glass, and the frost beneath her finger forms a delicate filigree of icy lace. Marianne squeals with glee; she remembers staring at these same patterns for hours as a child.

They spend the rest of the evening turning the cruelty of winter into a paradise of art. Marianne learns to turn the compacted ice back into fluffy snow to prevent the townsfolk slipping on their way home from the service in the square. Jack teaches her to sculpt secret faces in the icicles to keep watch over the children. Later, he takes her hand and they walk back to the square. They stand in the shadows, listening to the carols. Marianne has never heard anything so heartfelt in her life.

The clock chimes midnight. Jack pulls Marianne into an embrace. He feels warm in her arms, and she buries her face in his collar. She thinks she ought to feel sad about her death, but how can she? Life took her livelihood and her pride, but death has given her youth, and romance.

“Merry Christmas, my dear,” whispers Jack.

“Merry Christmas to you,” she replies.

Jack leads her away from the square. There are more houses to visit, and more children to be delighted by the frosty drawings on the windows in the morning.

December 2, 2014

Discount in my Etsy shop to fundraise!

compilation2It’s that time of year, folks…Christmas is almost upon us. Naturally everyone is offering sales and discounts, and my Etsy shop, Icy Handmade is no different. I’m currently offering 10% off everything until 12 December – simply add the code XMAS10 during checkout to receive your discount. Don’t forget I have a couple of pieces related to The Necromancer’s Apprentice in the ‘merchandise’ section.

However this is very much a fundraising endeavour for me. As most of you know, I’m working on a PhD thesis in Film Studies, with heavy emphasis on the Gothic. The Gothic has enjoyed a slight revival of interest of late, possibly due to the Terror and Wonder exhibition at the British Library, and my supervisor wants to me present a paper at the International Gothic Association conference in July 2015. I’d love to go, but it’s in Vancouver! It’ll cost me a pretty penny, but I would love to go, and I don’t doubt that such a stimulating environment will also help with my fiction, as well as my academic work. So all proceeds from Icy Handmade will go towards my intended Vancouver trip!

If you would like to take advantage of my offer and would like items for Christmas, please note the posting deadlines for me to mail from the UK;

New Zealand – Wednesday 3 December
Australia – Thursday 4 December
Africa – Friday 5 December
Eastern Europe – Monday 8 December
Canada – Tuesday 9 December
USA – Friday 12 December
Western Europe – Saturday 13 December
UK 1st Class – Saturday 20 December

November 30, 2014

Winning at NaNoWriMo

You’ve probably seen plenty of Facebook statuses or tweets about rising word counts for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this November. For those who don’t know, the general point is to write 50,000 words in thirty days.

I’ve ‘won’ NaNoWriMo in 2008 and 2010, but I had to drop out in 2009 after being made redundant at work, and 2011 and 2012 were too busy as I was working on my teacher training qualification.

Despite the fact I’ve got a million and one things to do, I decided to have another go this year. I started out trying to write one book that I’ve had the idea for since 2010, but by day five, I knew it wasn’t going to work. I had to force myself to sit down and write, which is never a good thing – and it’s not a good way to try and write a book over 30 days.

Apprentice_eBook_smallSo I changed my idea. I’d already plotted the then-unnamed sequel to The Necromancer’s Apprentice, and I decided to give that a go instead. I managed to pull a few thousands words out of the bag during the first weekend in November to get me up to speed, and I’ve been nicely rattling along ever since. I crossed the 50k word mark yesterday afternoon, although the story is far from done.

The best parts about working on the NaNoWriMo are;

  • I’ve been able to get a huge chunk of the book committed to paper (well, Word). Sometimes working up the motivation to write can be difficult for me, but once I’ve started, the momentum carries me along.
  • I now have a name for not only the sequel, but also book three in the Necromancer trilogy. This one is The Necromancer’s Rogue, while the last one will be The Necromancer’s Mage.
  • I’ve managed to organise my time more effectively, so I’ve had time to edit book reviews for the academic journal I work on, write my NaNoWriMo, produce weekly Friday flashes, and contribute to The Scions of Sundavia, the fantasy serial I’m working on with Nerine Dorman. I now know I really can pull the words out of thin air if I want to.
  • I’ve been able to further explore the world of The Necromancer’s Apprentice, extending the lore while delving into the politics between the Underground City and the City Above. I’ve been able to use my time in the Paris catacombs to good effect!
  • I’ve also learned that I can’t write it I have an idea plotted to within an inch of its life, but I find writing flows so much better if I at least have a rough idea where I want the story to go before I even start.

The worst parts about working at such a pace have been;

  • Not having the luxury of going back to fix continuity errors for fear of lowering my word count, instead of increasing it.
  • Sometimes having to force the words when I haven’t felt in the mood for writing, but haven’t been able to take a day off.
  • Having to put my PhD work aside to complete it.

I’m glad I’ve finished, particularly a day early, and I’ll be continuing the novel, leaving edits and rewrites until it’s completely, but at least now I can write at a more leisurely pace!

You can check out The Necromancer’s Apprentice on Goodreads, or grab it from Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords and Barnes & Noble.

November 28, 2014

#FridayFlash – For Whom The Bell Tolls

Image by Wetape.

The death bell tolls in the town, long and low as it rumbles around the old market square. It’s the third time that it’s tolled today.

It tolls so often here. I sometimes joke that you can tell the time by it. Dawn, noon, and sundown, without fail. Not many people laugh at my joke, and I suppose I can’t say I blame them. There aren’t many people left to laugh at anything, not since the plague arrived in the town, and it’s not really a laughing matter.

No one really knows where the plague came from, or even how it got here, but the cry went up a week ago when the butcher’s wife noticed his symptoms. He was dead within twelve hours. After that they started dropping like flies. Doors with red crosses outnumber those without. There won’t be an untouched house left at this rate.

But I won’t get sick, I know I won’t. I don’t take a lot of satisfaction from that, but you do what you can with the hand that you’re dealt.

The death bell tolls again. The bell rope is rough in my cold hands, and I wish I’d worn gloves. Though there aren’t many left to hear the death bell. As it happens, I should probably stop tolling and do some work. These dead won’t collect themselves.

November 26, 2014

Two Exhibitions, One Day

On Sunday I had a day trip down to London to see a couple of literary exhibitions – the cultural opportunities are definitely one of the things I miss about living in the capital, although I can do without exorbitant rent and packed public transport. Anyway!

The first exhibition was Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die at the Museum of London near Barbican. I’ve seen a few exhibitions at the museum, and while they’ve occasionally varied in their ability to capture my interest (for example, their exhibitions on Jack the Ripper, Captain Kidd, and Resurrectionists were more interesting than the Cheapside Hoard) I’m always curious what they’ll do next. I’ll be honest, I’m more aware of Sherlock Holmes through his film and television incarnations than I am the original literary source material, although I’ve finally started reading one of the ‘complete collections’ on my Kindle as a result of seeing the exhibition. Still, I’m fascinated by the concept of the character, and the way that he continues to capture the cultural imagination even now – he’s also an interesting character in that contemporary versions work just as well as period-set ones. I think my favourite version of Holmes is that of Peter Cushing, but then he’s essentially a celluloid god who can do little wrong.

Cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring A. Conan Doyle’s story A Study in Scarlet (David Henry Friston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a strange exhibition, in that in almost seems divided into three parts. The first, and smallest, section is about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, featuring portraits, audio snippets of him talking, and early illustrations from the stories. It’s somewhat heartening to know that even he had work rejected early in his career. One of the images featured is the Christmas annual cover for ‘A Study in Scarlet’. Part Two is photographs, drawings and paintings of late Victorian London. They’re beautiful, and give a wonderful insight into the fog-bound metropolis, but have little, if anything, to do with Sherlock Holmes as a character. Luckily I’m a fan of art and photography exhibitions. Part Three features props and clips from the films and television programmes, as well as replicas of items that appear in the stories. One of the props is the coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch, although sadly the man himself was not inside it at the time. The clips give a useful means of comparison between performances, which just means Robert Downey Jnr does not fare well alongside Cushing, Cumberbatch and Basil Rathbone.

It is a fascinating exhibition, and I did enjoy it, but I couldn’t help wondering what was at the root of the complete and utter lack of anything relating to Elementary, the CBS detective show featuring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes, and Lucy Liu as Dr Joan Watson. I don’t know if it was a licensing issue, or the curator just didn’t like it, but as a fan it seemed a rather obvious oversight. Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die runs until 12 April 2015.

I had a short jaunt back across to Euston, to see the Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition at the British Library. I’m of the opinion that the British Library host some of the best exhibitions in London, and I’m particularly pleased because my student discount means I often only have to pay a fiver, which is a bargain given everything they have on display. The Gothic as a notion is a large component of my PhD thesis, and I figured that it would be useful to see how the British Library had presented it.

The exhibition largely follows a chronological journey through the concept of the Gothic, from architecture through to its debut within literature (largely ascribed to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764), and then cinema, with heavy focus placed on Universal’s 1931 version of Frankenstein. Famous novels such as The Picture of Dorian GreyFrankensteinDraculaDr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Monk get a lot of focus, with sections dedicated to MR James, Edgar Allen Poe and even Charles Dickens, and the cinema section is largely a trip through twentieth century horror, with the inclusion of films such as Night of the DemonThe HauntingThe Wicker Man and even Hellraiser. The exhibition finishes with an exhibition of photographs taken at the Whitby Goth festival but I’ll be honest, I was disappointed at the relative lack of Gothic fashion and design, beyond a couple of cases about Bauhaus.

It was a fascinating exhibition, and I enjoyed it more than Sherlock Holmes, but I would have enjoyed it more if the British Library didn’t insist on placing their title cards below eye level, meaning other visitors often end up casting shadows across them – or simply standing in front of them. The exhibitions often end up quite busy, and the last entry on a Sunday was a lot busier than I was expecting. It does take at least an hour to see everything, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys anything even remotely Gothic. It runs until 20 January 2015.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day trip to London, although I possibly could have done without sitting on a train home for over three and a half hours. As ever I find myself wondering why such exhibitions can’t go on tour to allow other parts of the country to enjoy such cultural wonders since not everyone can afford excursions to the capital. If you get the chance to see either of them, then take it because they’re both interesting, and intellectually stimulating. They certainly got me wanting to write more Gothic fiction!

November 21, 2014

#FridayFlash – Daredevils

Image by Strjek4.

They came in twos and threes, strutting down the hill behind the bus stop. Feeling the unease that is perenially provoked by groups of teenaged boys, I pretended to be engrossed in the bus timetable, but I watched them all the same.

They tried to ruffle each other’s hair, their fingers getting stuck in copious amounts of gel, and punched each other’s arms, each shouting slurs that called into question their target’s sexuality. They played chicken on the main road, ignoring the crossing to dart between passing cars. Each group made its way into the new housing estate opposite, swallowed up by the growing dusk.

Were they going to a party? I’d noticed no girls among the groups, only boys, with matching haircuts and a sense of fashion so similar it bordered on identical. Skinny jeans, Converse trainers, oversized shirts – their only consolation was they all looked ridiculous together. But what teenaged boy wants to attend a house party in a surburban housing estate if there are no girls present? I’d also counted 27, which seemed excessive – who knew so many young men lived up the hill?

My bus turned the corner far down the road, and I stared into the shadows that hid the estate across the street. A long howl erupted somewhere among the darkened houses, and a chill ran through my veins instead of blood. Was that a dog? No dog howled like that for so long. A cheer went up in the darkness in reply to the howl.

My bus pulled up at the stop, its brakes hissing in the cold air. The door slid open, and I stepped up beside the driver. I told him my destination just as another howl tore open the night. He shuddered, but took my money. The doors slid shut and I shuffled along the bus to sit down.

The bus pulled away from the kerb, and safely ensconced in electric light, I peered out of the window into the housing estate.

That’s when the screaming started.

November 14, 2014

#FridayFlash – Colours

IMG_5475859945673The pastel shades faded first. No one noticed, not really. They just assumed they’d washed that particular top one too many times, or that sunlight bleached the colour from the walls. It was a reasonable assumption at first.

Until the tertiary colours went. No more amber, magenta or chartreuse, their hues replaced by shades of grey. Commentators nudged each other and chattered, somewhat nervously, about the new colour palette of the world. “Fifty shades” jokes abounded.

The secondary colours faded to subdued tones, before the colour leached out entirely in June. The shops were full of summery fashion that no one would buy, now that orange, green or purple had become different shades within the grey spectrum. Shoppers snapped up red, yellow and blue, keen to display their colour sensibilities without realising their own skin had faded to the same greys they wanted to avoid in their wardrobe.

The world reached a collective state of outrage when the primary colours disappeared entirely. More enterprising designers turned their attention from colours to patterns, and fashionistas adorned themselves in different configurations of black, grey and white.

Cinemagoers fell out of love with CGI and rediscovered film noir. The trouble was, crime somehow became less appalling when blood was no longer red. Humanity indulged too much, and light began to fade from the world. Shadows lengthened, and darkness grew until only black and grey remained. It was only a matter of time before black won the battle, and the world plummetted into eternal darkness.

I don’t think we’ll live much longer. There are a few survivors, but humans need light to see, and we don’t fare well in the dark. Nocturnal predators are thriving, evolving and adapting, but we’re stuck in a rut. We backed ourselves into an evolutionary dead end with our fancy technology and reliance on others. Now we just have to rely on ourselves.

If you find this, it means I didn’t make it, but you did.

Make it count.

November 7, 2014

#FridayFlash – Remember or Forget

I miss strange things about the city. I miss the sunrise in spring, when the first rays of dawn sparkle in the windows washed clean by April showers overnight. I miss the heat in summer, when everyone sheds their coat and smiles in the street. I miss the fall of leaves in early October, when the wet pavements shimmer like rivers of molten bronze. I miss the hustle and bustle in the run up to Christmas, although this period gets longer every year. I remember when it didn’t begin until the days before Christmas arrived.

It’s inevitable that I miss strange things, things that didn’t exist the last time I walked the streets, yet things that have caught my fascination all the same. Sleek motor cars. Neon signs. Maps displayed on handheld devices. A city and its people change over the course of a year, but they become unrecognisable over the course of a century.

Most of the time I just drift through time and space, unthinking and unfeeling as a shadow. The world passes me by and I don’t even notice, much less care. There’s not a lot to do but let it pass. I exist in a haze of forgetfulness, unable to even remember that I have forgotten anything. I simply am.

Remembrance is a powerful thing, and once a year I regain something that resembles my soul. The outpouring from the living confers a shred of life, and I am aware of the world. I walk the streets of my city and learn its new ways, and mourn its losses. Yet through all of that, I remember the pain, and the mud, the awful food, and the endless cold. I remember the end of my life in a desolate place. Yet I also remember the nobility. The sense of standing up for others. The camaraderie. The adventures. The anticipation at being sent away from the Front, and the dread at being sent back.

Midnight strikes and the blessed relief of forgetfulness sets in for another year, but I know that others shall not forget.

We will remember.

November 6, 2014

#BookReview – Within Wet Walls

www-cover-3-frontOf all of the horror sub-genres, I’ve always had a real fondness for the gothic, particularly that strain that comes infused with a flair for the historical. So when Lily Childs asked for reviewers of her new offering, Within Wet Walls, I was there like a shot.

In this short, Lily has woven a dark, ethereal tale of things that creep and drift through the forgotten spaces of this bloodsoaked old island. Set in and inspired by the darkness of the Sussex woodland, Within Wet Walls tells the story of an archetypal old house, Wealdstone House, and its spectral inhabitants who derive sustenance from the skin of the living.

The story is mostly told by Eliza, the lingering spirit of a Victorian servant who is as enthralled by her ghostly companions as her audience become, and we learn about ” beings as old as the land itself” that “swirl translucent in the damp mists” (from the blurb). It’s a story soaked in rain, mist and twilight, that never frightens, but instead creeps and sinks its teeth into your unconscious. The set dressing is as sumptuous as you’d expect from a story that claims a lineage from MR James, and the story captures the dark fairytale feel that underpins the early Gothic classics.

It’s a masterfully written story, which I read in one go, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since – is it wrong that I’d love to visit Wealdstone House myself?

You can buy Within Wet Walls for Kindle UK or Kindle US, as well as in paperback (UK and US).