WARNING: HERE BE DRAGONS. AND GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS. IF YOU AREN’T UP TO DATE TO SEASON 4, EPISODE 3 (“BREAKER OF CHAINS”) THEN YOU MIGHT NOT WANNA READ ON.
Your choice, though…
WARNING: HERE BE DRAGONS. AND GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS. IF YOU AREN’T UP TO DATE TO SEASON 4, EPISODE 3 (“BREAKER OF CHAINS”) THEN YOU MIGHT NOT WANNA READ ON.
Your choice, though…
When I was in university, I travelled by train a lot. Mostly this was due to having a long-distance relationship for two and a half of the three years (we’re now living together, and will be soon celebrating five years of our relationship, for anyone who cares) and travelling two to three hours across the country most weekends. And to fill that time, I read.
To start with, I read novels and magazines. The likes of Black Static and Interzone and the now sadly defunct Murky Depths. I devoured fiction, and even sometimes my textbooks. It was in this mad hunger for the storytelling — and a desire to escape the interminable boredom of public transport — that I discovered the Escape Artist podcasts.
It was actually through TTA Press’ own (apparently also now-defunct) podcast Transmissions from Beyond that I came to encounter first Escape Pod, then Pseudopod. And I was hooked throughout and beyond my university years. More lately I’ve even started listening to the third sibling, PodCastle.
But now these titans of (free) genre fiction are under threat, and they need your help.
It started slowly, almost imperceptibly. A slow, fine mist descending from a cloudy sky, barely even noticeable until it reached the ground and settled. It was snowing.
Each tiny flake was invisible insight, except for when a section of the snowfall caught and reflected the light of distant fires in brilliant colours. It looked like a shoal of fish,dancing and darting their erratic journey earthwards.
And for a moment — for the barest and most bittersweet of moments — the burly man in the church clocktower, watching it all through a high-powered scope, could believe that all was right with the world.
Until he spied the lights on the horizon.
One at first, a flickering shimmer that might have been a cluster of snowflakes. But then it was joined by another,and another, swelling to an unmistakable host. Even among the reflective dance of semi-frozen rain they stood out, unmistakable as the dawn. Individually they flickered and stumbled, but their combined might illuminated the blasted landscape and picked out each crater and imperfection.
The man in the clocktower shuffled within his winter clothing, eventually extricating a gloved hand, which squeezed the button on a hand radio.
‘They’re here,’ he said into it, curtly and emotionlessly.
After a moment’s pause came the reply, ‘Roger that. Stand by, and maintain visual observation.‘
The man didn’t reply, but withdrew back inside his warm cocoon, and adjusted the rifle beneath the blankets. Through the scope he watched the horde approach as he tried to count the falling snowflakes.
The four of them in the church froze, all eying the radio on the altar. Stephens was closest, and he picked it up, but hesitated before responding. His grey sergeant-major’s eyes looked to each of them in turn before he pushed the broadcast button.
‘Roger that. Stand by and maintain visual contact.’
Markus didn’t answer. The dour Frenchman was thrifty with the few words of English that has knew, and wasn’t given to waste them.
‘We’re going with the plan then?’ Lucy asked. They had already discussed this to completion several times. She drummed her fingertips against the pew she sat on in a stacatto and disjointed rhythm.
‘Yep,’ Tim replied, launching himself into action. ‘If you’ve got any prayers left to make, do it now. Ladies and gentlemen, the service is over, it is time to leave the church!’
Stephens — the Colonel — sprung into action immediately, with a career of military discipline behind him. He started loading up their camping equipment, and spreading it evenly between the four packs.
‘Harry, go and see to the generator would you?’ Tim asked. ‘Syphon off the bulk of the petrol, but leave enough to keep everything running for an hour or so yet.’
With a stifled groan, the gangly IT Technician levered himself off the floor. In better times he had worked for the same marketing firm as Tim — albeit in a different department. Lucy had worked behind the bar of a pub on the same street. Markus and Stephens were just lucky survival nuts.
‘I still say we should take the genny with us,’ Harry complained.
‘And carry it with what?’ Lucy asked, before Tim could find the words. ‘The sled is busted, and I really don’t fancy hauling that monstrosity across two hundred miles of wasteland.’
‘Besides,’ Tim added quickly, gently, ‘these savages aren’t going to stop chasing us until we’re dead. The plan is the only way.’
With a resigned nod, Harry headed off to the back room where they’d linked up their small generator to what remained of the church’s electrical system.
‘Huh,’ Lucy exclaimed softly. The other three turned to face her with curious — and worried — expressions. ‘Merry Christmas guys!’
She held up her watch. 00:03. 25 Dec.
‘We always used to spend Christmas Day with my dad and his girlfriend. After he retired, he left my mum for his secretary, and bought a cottage in Cornwall. We’d spend Christmas there and then go to mum’s for new years.’
Lucy rambled on whilst she packed. Tim didn’t mind. She was a nervous girl and talking seemed to keep her mind off the situation.
‘Christ, what I wouldn’t give for a roast turkey with all the trimmings now.’
Tim’s stomach gave a painful — but thankfully inaudible — rumble. They hadn’t had enough food for weeks, and the scant rations which remained were being stretched so thin that it was becoming painful to even think of food.
‘A turkey, a turkey, my generator for a roast turkey, and all the trimmings!’ he muttered sardonically, but it evoked a cackle of laughter from Lucy. In the dank, shadowy surroundings of the church the seemed darkly out of place. Tim couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed or heard laughter.
He realised he was smiling, just as another strange sound broached the air.
‘What the fuck is–‘
‘Music!’ Lucy cut him off with a gleeful cry. She was right, it was definitely music, the tinkling and ethereal opening notes of a piece which tugged at the atrophied threads of his memory. Momentarily he recalled a film, the moment in Apocalypse Now when the helicopters come over the Vietnamese village.
But no, this is different. Gentler, more atmospheric, more…festive?
‘Have…yourself…a very merry Christmas…’
‘Harry, you mad bastard,’ he growled under his breath. But he was smiling. They all were. Lucy was grinning like…well, like a kid on Christmas morning. Even the surly Colonel was not immune to the tugging at the corners of mouths.
‘Well, I thought it fitted the mood,’ Harry said, coming back into the church with a shiver and a mischievous grin.
But the elevated mood didn’t last. From above came the sound of gunfire; heavy, echoing shots from Markus’ rifle. A hail of automatic fire answered, rattling against the stonework of the tower. As Markus issued a loud rebuttal, they all spurred into action.
The Colonel sprayed bullets through the rotten wooden door, showering Tim and Lucy with splinters as they hurriedly finished their packing.
‘Did you get that petrol sorted?’ Tim shouted over the sporadic busting of gun reports.
Harry nodded. ‘Six jerry cans, and enough juice left in the tank to make this madness look convincing.’
‘Good. Whether or not we can get another genny together, petrol’s always good for trade.’
He could see another objection — or a repeat of the same objection — but he never heard it. Two, or maybe three, explosions outside blew the door in, knocking them all to the ground and making their ears pop viciously.
The Colonel was first up, firing more bullets through the smoky orifice. Tim followed, shouting across to the self-appointed quartermaster. ‘Colonel! Gun! Fucking now!’
He plucked the automatic rifle out of the air as he turned to the other two. ‘Time to leave! Is the mistletoe ready for our guests?’
Harry waved a small cylinder topped with a red button, as a few more shots boomed overhead and a cluster of hostile bullets flew through the door.
Tim only noticed he was hit when he was lying on the floor, his friends shouting over him. He noticed idly that it didn’t hurt, and that the song was still playing.
‘Oh fuck Tim!’ Lucy was saying, repeating ‘Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck’ under her breath like a mantra. Her hands were red, and when he looked down he couldn’t make any sense of what he was seeing. But there was a lot of blood.
As he realised that he was dying, that to all intents and purposes he was already dead, the most surprising thing was how calm he felt. It had become so damn normal, death.
‘Time to go kiddies!’ he managed to gasp. ‘Make for the coast. Stick together. And hang onto that petrol! Harry, give me the detonator.’
‘What?’ Harry suddenly looked very young, and very frightened. It was upsetting for Tim to think that he had no idea just how old any of his companions were.
‘Harry, mate,’ he whispered. ‘I’m not walking away from this one. Give me the detonator. I can at least take some of these bastards with me.’
As Harry sheepishly handed it over, Lucy started to sob and wail. Tim saw Markus climbing down from the clocktower, rifle strapped across his back, swinging down off the ladder. he took one look at Tim’s stomach and gave him a sad nod as he carried Lucy away.
‘Go on lad,’ the Colonel said to Harry, kneeling next to Tim’s shattered and dying form. ‘Go on with them. I’ll follow.’
When Harry was gone, Tim tried to speak. He wanted to tell Stephens, to make the old soldier promise to get the other three to the coast, and across to Ireland. But there was too much blood in his throat, and it merely gurgled up with a sound like a blocked plughole.
‘Save your strength lad,’ the Colonel whispered. He pushed something into Tim’s blood-slicked hand, something it took him a moment to identify as a pistol.
‘Set the dead man switch, and leave the party. You’re a brave man Tim, and you don’t deserve to go out like this. I’ll get them to safety, don’t you worry.’
Tim was almost loathe to break the tenderness of the moment and connection with a man he hadn’t thought capable of it.
Tim lapsed in and out of consciousness over period which could only have been minutes. Each time he awoke clutching the deadman switch with a trembling hand. He wasn’t sure if the smoke was in his fevered mind, or if more grenades had been set off.
The music still played in the background, some long-dead singer crooning about making the Yuletide gay. He chuckled, a spasmodic cascade of blood.
When the first of the savages walked into the church, he looked at Tim with an unmistakable expression of surprise; even through the tattoos and piercings on his face Tim could see it clearly. The dark shapes of the rest of the horde loomed behind the outrider.
The last of his strength ebbing out of him, Tim lifted the gun that the Colonel had given him.
‘Merry fucking Christmas!’
The shot blew clean through the young man’s forehead, and he fell to the ground with that look of surprise still on his face. The retribution was as swift as Tim had known it would be, but between the bullets tearing him apart and the song wishing him a very merry Christmastime he felt the deadman switch slip from his grasp.
I like Game of Thrones. I like it rather a lot. I was sceptical when it first arrived, thinking it would be another Lord of the Rings rip-off (I hadn’t read the books, A Song of Ice and Fire, on which it is based). But over the course of its 10-episode first season run, it seduced me with its gritty intrigue, excellent acting, and casual disregard for the wellbeing of characters to whom I had become attached- so much so that I rushed out and bought the DVD box set when it was released.
Laurie Penny, however, doesn’t seem quite as enthusiastic about it, if her latest New Statesman column is anything to go by.
Ms Penny’s writing frequently inflames, agitates and sometimes inspires many across the political spectrum, but I confess I’m usually pretty indifferent to her. I’m a NS subscriber, and I read her columns along with the rest of it, but they don’t seem to ever incite much emotion in me. But I see now it was just a matter of time.
In her article “Game of Thrones and the Good Ruler complex”, she manages to labour a spurious point and misconstrue the entire nature of fiction and storytelling, in an effort to criticise the monarchy by comparing it to Game of Thrones, which she calls “racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons“. Which is perhaps a truth, but certainly not a whole truth.
Here, I think, is my favourite part of her article:
“If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful, as is our assumption that the default setting for any generically legendary epic must involve really rather a lot of rape.“
How many of you responded to that with some variation on “Erm…wow…“. It’s hard to know where to start in taking that particular gem to pieces, but how about here: if every piece of fiction was set in a lovely, perfect utopia, then it would get very boring, very fast.
I say this as a writer and a reader, you cannot have meaningful stories without conflict and friction. It’s what makes Game of Thrones so interesting, and keeps it from just being Ned Stark having tea with Robert and Cersei, whilst discussing the fact that it’s getting a little nippy.
You also can’t take everything so damn literally. Writers use metaphors of different types, and very often the entire story is an extended metaphor. I write horror and science-fiction, so very often I’m writing about nasty and unpleasant things. I’m not doing so because I want to say that those things are right- very often its the opposite. Similarly, just because George R. R. Martin has rape, racism, murder, and other unpleasantness in his stories does not mean that he agrees with them.
In terms of Game of Thrones itself, I’m not completely convinced that the amount of sex is Martin’s fault. HBO isn’t known to shy away from sex (True Blood, anyone?), and the sad truth is that we’re a bit sex-obsessed as a society. In a more primal society such as Martin’s Westeros, that’s going to be emphasised.
I could also highlight how much better a job Game of Thrones does in portrayal of women than, say, Lord of the Rings. Tolkein’s masterwork has a grand total of two female main characters, one of whom spends most of the time sobbing, and the other who spends most of it trying to stab things with swords. Game of Thrones boasts characters such as Queen Cersei, Brienne of Tarth, Catelyn, Sansa and Arya Stark, Shae, and so on. Not all good people, but a full range of characters. Like the real world.
I don’t doubt there are legitimate concerns about the potrayal of social issues in Game of Thrones. But Laurie Penny’s objections are nothing short of infantile.
The last couple of weeks have been rather politics-heavy on my blog, and with the May elections edging ever closer, that’s only going to get worse, honestly. So it’s nice, occasionally, to be able to break from the theme tune every once in a while with something a little different.
I’ve already announced Blood Bound Books’ Night Terrors II anthology being released, but now it is finally available on Amazon (sort of…) and on Kindle. Which is awesome, because there are some brilliant authors in this collection- and no, I’m not refering to myself. Though my short story “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” does feature amongst the offerings.
At £4.57 for the digital format, I reckon it’s a bargain (well I would, wouldn’t I?). So since it’s Sunday, why not treat yourself, and settle down in a comfortable spot with some good old-fashioned horror stories?
And if you do, please let me know what you think. I’m always happy to hear feedback.
Today is National Libraries Day. There, I bet you didn’t know that?
It’s pretty much what it says on the tin- a day for raising awareness of libraries, and of celebrating all that they contribute to our lives and communities. It’s also of special significance to me, both as a writer and as a campaigner to save Wokingham’s libraries from privatisation.
To me, the library is the mark of civilisation. It shows that we value knowledge so highly, and believe so strongly that it should be available to all (and for the betterment of all) that we are willing to provide access to it to everyone. A bold idea, but a good one, and fundamentally a right one.
A library, to me, is like a magic cave in a children’s story. Filled with untold wonders, just waiting to be uncovered. I have been lucky throughout my life to live in very close proximity to excellent libraries. As a child, learning to read at primary school, I savoured the hour or so after the day finished, when I could go and lose myself amongst opening pages and chapters as I tried to narrow down my decision to just one book.
More than ever, our libraries seem to be under threat now. In these hard times, they present an easy target for the pruning shears of local government. So many are being cut back, closed down, or (in true Wokingham Tories’ style) sold off. On today, of all days, we need to understand and appreciate how short-sighted and foolish that is.
Libraries offer so many things to us. To the our children, they give endless worlds of fun and imagination right at our fingertips, never to be cut off by the parental cry of “We can’t afford it”. They offer a lifeline of internet access to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it, so essential in our increasingly digital and virtual world. They offer every one of us the answers to so many questions we wonder both casually and urgently.
Every pound spent on library services is an investment, never a waste. The influence libraries had on me was a lifelong passion for reading, and an avenue of escape which I now look to make a career. And if they did that for me, imagine what they could do for others.
Can we live without libraries? Of course we can. But ask yourselves, what sort of life would that be?
My contribution is entitled “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”, and having been accepted in the second half of last year is a great way to kick off my 2012. The story is about a recently-single mother, dealing with strange goings on around her daughter, and hopefully it will get the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end.
The anthology doesn’t seem to be up on Amazon yet, but I’ll post an update when it is. For now, it’s available through Blood Bound Books themselves, for a one-day-only special price of $13 (about £8) from the publisher’s website.
In sincerely hope you enjoy it!
Dead or Alive
By Matthew S. Dent
He was already sat at the bar when Lucas walked in. A short man in a wide-brimmed hat, tipped low over his face. He periodically raised a glass of whisky beneath its shadow, to his unseen mouth.
It was early, and the bar was mostly empty. Two men played cards, whilst a third lay unconscious, facedown on the table. A gaggle of farmhands chattered like songbirds over their beers. And in a shadowy corner, a bare headed man slept.
“Whiskey,” he told the waiting bartender.
He sat down and waited whilst his drink was poured. With a nod of thanks, and a green banknote, the bartender left the bottle and returned to his sentinel point behind the bar.
“Sure is hot out there,” he said, taking a sip of the whiskey. Cheap stuff, worth half of what he paid. He took another sip anyway, playing with a worn and folded piece of paper.
He offered a hand to his mute neighbour. “Lucas O’Connell.” The man just took another sip of his drink. Lucas looked at his own, and was thinking of what to say next, when there was movement behind him.
The bare-headed man, who he had taken for sleeping, had stood up. He was tall, with thinning hair and a greying moustache squatting over his mouth like some sort of furry insect. Around his waist he wore a faded leather gun belt, from which he pulled a revolver.
“John P. Hammond,” he said in a broad drawl, addressing the man next to Lucas, “Y’ gonna stand yerself up, slowly mind, and turn around, wi’ yer hands where I can see ‘em.”
Hammond sighed, and downed his remaining whiskey in one. Setting the glass on the table, he climbed wearily to his feet. As he turned towards the speaker he lifted the brim of his hat, to reveal a thick beard- grown out of laziness rather than desire- and a strong, square jaw.
“I’m a lucky man. The reward I get for you’ll set me up for life,” the bare-headed man gloated. “So let’s get you along to law house.”
A soft smile spread across Hammond’s lips; a dangerous, humourless smile. A knife had appeared in his hand- Lucas hadn’t seen where it had come from, and judging from his expression neither had the bare-headed man.
“Now now,” he warned, twitching the barrel of his gun threateningly. “Let’s not have any of this bullshit. That’s a mighty fine knife you’ve got there, but it’s not gonna beat my gun, now is it?”
When Hammond spoke, his voice wasn’t how Lucas had expected. It didn’t match his appearance, being higher pitched than it should be, and having a distinct nasal tang. Lucas braced himself with another sip of whiskey.
“You misunderstand, sir,” Hammond said quietly. “This isn’t a matter of your gun versus my knife. It’s all down to how you use your gun, against how I use my knife.”
Lucas had heard weapons fired before- in this part of the world a man could hardly not have- but always outside. Inside, the roar was deafening, accompanied by the sound of smashing glass.
Hammond had moved- only turned to the side really, but it was enough. The bullet, which would have buried itself in his shoulder, had shattered instead one of the bottles behind the bar.
As the card players and farmhands ran, the bare-headed man was already on his back, splayed across the card players’ table. Hammond’s knife was embedded in his forehead, flicked so fast it had escaped notice. The gun slipped from dead fingers, clunked heavily on the floor.
The bartender clucked, angrily shaking his head and muttering to himself as he cleaned up the spilt liquor. Lucas could see him counting lost profits. Hammond’s dark and beady eyes alighted on Lucas. He could feel the intensity of his gaze, as the bearded man looked him over.
“What do you want?”
“Me?” Lucas picked up the whisky bottle, and started pouring a fresh measure into his glass. “Nothing at all.”
Hammond grunted, and downed the drink in one. Lucas went quietly back to his own.
He kept on sipping as Hammond started to choke, gurgling and coughing and clawing at his throat. He pawed at Lucas arm as he slipped off his stool. After a minute, the sounds stopped, and John P. Hammond lay dead on the bar floor.
Lucas finished his drink without hurrying. Then he lay another wad of bills on the counter, and opened out the folded piece of paper he had been playing with.
“Wh…What?” the bartender stammered.
Lucas lay the newly flattened paper on the counter, next to the bills and the whiskey bottle.
“It’s not about what he does with his knife,” he said, standing and waving a vial of clear liquid. “It’s about what I do with my poison.”
The paper was a poster, the corners torn from where it had been ripped down from a wall or noticeboard. A roughly drawn sketch of Hammond’s squat face filled it, heralded by the words “WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE”. The last two words had been struck through.
Picking up the corpse, Lucas swung it onto his shoulders. “Good day to you, barkeep,” he said. “I’ve got a reward to collect.”
And with a tip of his hat, he was gone.
Today is All Hallow’s Eve, and all manner of things creepy are cropping up across the internet. And this weekend, that has included the Halloween Shorts event which I and a few other authors have been holding. In brief, Friday through today Jennifer Williams has hosted four Halloween-themed short stories on her blog.
It’s been a great experience, seeing some great stories featured (free, naturally) for the whole internet to read, and if you haven’t taken a look yet, I very much recommend giving them a read. The stories are great, and the authors are some of the up-and-coming stars of the genre. So light up your jack-o’-lantern (See? I can do the lingo!), put on a creepy soundtrack, tuck into something with far too much sugar to be healthy, and scare yourself silly with four short stories:
Horror can be funny, as well as creepy. The first story of the lot features a couple whose (rather annoying) child suddenly turns emerald green. Plumbing the ample reservoir of fear within parental responsibilities, Andrew offsets the fear with a very funny ending. Slightly scary fun- just the spirit of Halloween, I think.
The second short story is a loosely connected anthology of snapshots of different people’s fears, and how fear can chase and pursue you. A very well written tale, which will have you wondering what form your fear would take, what would be in your metaphorical “Room 101”.
Yep, I’m number three. And I’m not nearly vain enough to do a flattering summary of my own story. Sufficed to say, it involves a little girl, an inattentive father, a railway line, and evil pumpkins. You can make your own mind up about it.
Halloween itself naturally goes to our host, with a creepy diary-style story about love, hunger and shapes in the snow. I read it on the train this afternoon, and in a gloomy carriage, it really puts a chill in the blood.
So there you go. Some spooky fiction to indulge in this evening. And once you’re done, you can put on a good horror film, wrap yourself up warm, and if you hear any odd noises in the darkness outside, it’s probably best to just ignore them and turn the TV up…
In all the fuss over the by-election, it must look from my blog like I’ve forgotten all about my writings.
This isn’t, of course, true. A return to writing was one of the things I was most looking forward to about finishing my exams. In the period between Christmas and exam time, I had written no new stories, edited a couple, and made one submission. Admittedly, that one submission has today been shortlisted for inclusion in the anthology (Huzzah!), but with no acceptances yet this year, I’ve felt a little unfulfilled on that front.
But since finishing, I’ve written four short stories, one more of which has been submitted. It feels very good, I must say. And, naturally, I’m still doing reviews for Tony Lee, on his sites VideoVista and The Zone. And now, I have two more reviews to boast about.
First is Sweatshop, a hacker/slasher/gorefest of a film, described by IMDB as: “A group of friends break into an abandoned factory in order to throw a impromptu party; unaware that it is not as empty as they originally believed.” Which is charitably brief, frankly. If you want to know what I thought of it in more depth, you can read it here.
Secondly, we have Universal Squadrons, a science-fiction/thriller based around a soldier back from serving in Iraq. Again, it’s not going to win any awards, but after Sweatshop, it was something of a breath of fresh air. Read my review here.
And that’s it. Nice and brief. Hopefully I’ll have more good news to report soon, but in the meantime I’m just enjoying being able to write.