Thursday, 21 January 2016

Throw Down Your Hair.

A little something to pour some water onto my poor, withered blog. A Lovecraftian piece of flash fiction: 'Throw Down Your Hair.'

 Throw Down Your Hair.

"Be gone, oh trespassing fiend!" I shout down the kitchen roll tube, from my room at the top of the lighthouse. The girl looks up, shielding her eyes from the sun. I wait for her to run, to go slipping and sliding and screaming away, but her battered black boots press down hard on the jagged, black rocks. She waves. I stop gurning and waggling my tongue, and while I should be warning her, I wave back.


"Keep away from the window," my dad says, later. He plucks a fish-bone from his tongue, and gives me that look. "I've told you. It isn't safe." He's got bats in the belfry, my dad, if you believe what all the gossipy old codgers from the town have to say. He does look the part: heavy eyebrows (black and bushy), dark eyes (overcast, with the threat of thunder), and the outfit (long, swishing mackintosh and tall, black wellies). They say that he killed my mom, but that's because only me and him know that she was eaten by the Terror from the Deep.
"You know what a secret is, Chloe?" he'd asked me, after we'd thrown what was left of mom into the settling sea. I'd tried to nod, but he was holding me still, the electric razor buzzing across my skull and not-too carefully around my ears.
"Y-yes?" I said, sucking on the sore tips of my fingers from where he'd clipped my nails into nothing. He didn't reply, just dusted down my shoulders with the whip of a damp towel, like he didn't want to touch me.

"Yo! Lighthouse girl!"
I fumble up, and grab my torch from under the bed. She's back, but nearer this time. "Come out!" She takes a swig from a bottle and grimaces, and wipes her lips on the shoulder of her coat.
"I'm locked in," I say.
"Like Rapunzel?" I shine the light onto my shiny bald head, and wait. She shrugs. "Don't you have keys?"
"It's for my own protection, it's The Terror…" I begin, my heart thumping as I feel the secret trying to slither past my teeth. This is why I can't have friends. I can't be trusted.
"Suit yourself," she says. She turns away and jabs small, white headphones into her ears, as the roaring of the sea fills mine.


In the morning the kitchen is flooded. Tiny, silver fish gasp and flop on the salt-crusted kitchen table, kelp dangles from the light-shades.
            "I can do it," my dad mutters as I reach for the mop, so I empty the red, plastic bucket that's full of dirty water and start drying a framed photograph of my mom that's been propped up on the draining board. It was taken when her and dad first moved here. Before The Terror fixed its eyes on her. Before I was born.
"Put that down!" Dad snaps. He looks set to charge over and snatch it from me, but he forces a smile, instead. "Please. You'll ruin it," he says, quietly, "and Chloe, please don't see that girl again."


But I do.
The next time she calls up, I shout, "I can speak downstairs!" and I'm charging down the slippery steps to meet her. "Are you alone?" I ask, my ear to the thick, iron door as she scuffles and thuds down onto the doorstep.
            "We're all alone, aren't we?" she sighs, all poetic, and I know why she's here. The cliffs are dangerous. The water is dangerous. This entire place is dangerous. And we only got one type of visitor. Perhaps The Terror called to them, like some old volcano god, saying "Diiiive iiiiin" in a gurgly, barnacled voice that smacked against their sense like waves against the sand.
"Are you going to stop me? Talk me out of it?"
Do you want me to? I try to ask, but my mouth feels full of water, full of weeds and wrecks and dead things. Then she laughs, and I laugh. Somewhere above us a lost gull screams. Somewhere below us, something stirs.
"I think we could be friends, me and you," she says, and I'm nodding, even though my hands are twisting and my cold skin is stretching and the top of my head is itching and my fingers are scratching at the soldered letterbox; at the flimsy barrier between us.


The day after.
My dad's talking to two policemen, who are flanking a woman who's hunched over and wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her cardigan. The girl must have done it. I get a flash -me and her, sitting in my room, painting our nails signal red and bruised plum and talking about boys as punk rock blares, both of us giddy on warm wine and hoarse from stolen cigarettes-but then the waves crash, and it's gone.
"This place," the woman shouts, suddenly. "People going missing, people turning into…things. Babies even, born wrong. Born bad. My mother told me to move away," she says, but then she's crying too hard to carry on. The policemen's eyes meet over her crumpled head.
There's a tickle behind my ear, a trickle. I dab at it, and my bandaged hand comes back blurred with black blood. My head's nicked with plastic razor cuts. The electric one broke years ago, and my dad doesn't care about being gentle anymore. Down on the rocks the policeman is scribbling something in his book, and I know that my dad's telling that he doesn't know anything, and that they're wasting their time, and I think that they believe him. Just tell them, I think, about The Terror. Maybe you can help others? But he'll take it to his grave. This big, dumb secret. The biggest bat in his belfry.  His eyes skim across the water, and then they flicker to the window, and to me. I wave at him. He doesn't wave back.

The End.

 picture: Stürmische See mit Leuchtturm/ Stormy sea with Lighthouse- Carl Blechen.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

New fiction- 'A Letter to the Widowed Mrs. Wilkinson.'

Today I thought I'd post a short story I wrote a while back, as

a) I haven't updated my blog for ages.
 b) I don't have any novel news, or anything I can really talk about.
 c) I'm currently focusing on writing full-length fiction, and working on a handful of horrible-as in grim and terrifying, not awful, I hope- children's books, so selling short stories isn't as high up on my agenda as it was.
 d) I just can't be bothered to go through the submit-wait forever-get rejected- process at this point in time. I'm a slush reader and while I'm happy to man that side of the wall, on the other side I'm a wimp. The slush pile is brutal and my blog is kind and accepting.

So, a tale of murderous moms and suuuuper-beaky bird freaks (plus a wiki link to shrikes and their behaviour at the bottom. Oh, and the picture is from the TV series Hannibal, whose Shrike-like serial killer provided the spark of inspiration):

A Letter to the Widowed Mrs Wilkinson.

Dear Mrs Wilkinson,

I, Hazel, and my sister, Heather are very sorry about the death of your husband. Mr Wilkinson was sound. He always gave us sherbet lemons and cola cubes, and when Heather went shrike that day in the corner shop and tried to impale Mark Evans on top of the plastic whirly cornet on top of the ice-cream fridge, he stuck up for her, waving his walking stick at Mark Evans and calling him a nasty bag of washing, and then going all mafia and tight-lipped and not saying shit when the police came, except for telling them to "bugger off and catch some real criminals".
But I'm going off track. I'd start again but this is the last piece of paper. Heather started the first letter, and blubbered all over it, smudging the ink, and Mom's shredded the rest of the writing pad to make a nest. She's plucked out half her feathers since what happened, happened, and there's no pillows left on the bed. She's mental when she's stressed.
So, Mark Evans told everyone at school- "those two f-ers tried to peck my f-ing face off!"- and where Ms Foggerty (long grey hair, lives at number 54?) used to be the baby-eating-witch-weirdo around here, just because she did an Irish jig around the park, tripping her tits off on mushrooms last solstice, me and Heather became the new monsters.
"Suuuuper-freak, Suuuper-freak, they're suuuuper beaky," they sing, thinking they're cool even though they're singing songs that even my mom wouldn't get up and dance to. You might have heard them, if your hearing isn't knackered. And if it is, then I hope it's because you went to too many rock concerts in the 60s, or because you didn't wear a helmet when you were zooming through the countryside on a big Harley Davidson, with your cheeks burning bright and hair all tangled. Thinking of you and Mr Wilkinson young makes me sad. Mom said you and him were born in the war, she shouted it, "THEY SURVIVED HITLER, AND THEN…THIS!" but then Heather was shaking so hard that mom had to shut up.
I wish I couldn't hear, sometimes. Most of the time. Me and Heather always play deaf, humming on the bus on the way to school, and singing as we shake the spit-ball paper from our hair in the playground, swinging it about like Beyoncé and smiling like we're in a toothpaste advert. You probably don’t know Beyoncé. And you probably don’t have to worry about your real teeth, so couldn’t give a shit about toothpaste, either. But Queen Bee doesn’t live in this neighbourhood, which is your whole world now you can’t walk far, so I don’t suppose it matters much. We could kill those kids at school, well Heather probably, I'm too young, but we don’t.
"Guilt will eat you alive!" Mom screeches that every time she wakes up with what's left of her feathers slick with blood, and her stomach churning from all the livers and hearts and kidneys she gulped down the night before. She's lucky it's so rough around here, and that people get stabbed as much as they get impaled on rusted railings, or we'd have detectives smoking all over our garden and mom threatening to peck her old boyfriends' eyes out unless they gave her alibis.
It used to crack us up, watching mom groaning and clutching at her head, like some pisshead who's had too much vodka, her eyes growing wide as memories lurched down the twisty, back alleys of her mind and whacked her upside the head. Me and Heather would give each other side-eyes as the laptop came out -mom rocking and clucking over it in her dressing gown, her skin rubbed pink and smelling of vanilla and jasmine- her disappearing talons click-clacking over the keys as she looked for herbs and head-shrinkers and hypnotists; for something that could fix her.
"The last time, the last time," she'd mutter, and then she'd close the laptop, sneaky, like, and mumble something about flat batteries and pretend to plug it in, and me and Heather would smirk, 'cus she don't want to be cured. Not when she remembers how the black sky unrolled in front of her like she was a princess, and about how she rode the bucking North wind like she was wearing spurs and cowboy boots speckled with stars. That's why dad left. Breath like a rotting sausage he could handle, but not that glimmer he sometimes saw in her eyes.
But she means it now, I think. Now Heather's turning, which means I might do the same. And it's not so funny anymore. Nothing's funny, anymore.
So, Mrs Wilkinson. I know I’ve been babbling on and on but I didn’t want to get to it or deal with it but that’s the whole point of me writing this. Me and Heather had gone to the shops that night, and we were walking back, stuffing flaky cod and vinegary chips into our gobs, when Heather went off. She started twitching, and then there was this weird sound coming from her throat. Pickled onion, I thought, as that old perv in the chippie had chucked her one in for free, and I was trying to remember that move we learned in first aid- under the ribs, and up- in case she was choking, but no, there was the onion, sitting slap-bang in the middle of her greasy, polystyrene tray like an all-knowing eyeball.
"Hev?" I said, but she pushed me away, and her face was changing, turning, and my heart was racing knowing what was happening but hoping it weren't. She hadn't gone shrike-like since last summer (Mark Evans and his f-ing face), and we thought that that was a one-off, hormones, or something, but as I watched her she chucked back her head and started cawing, hooting, the sound coming like a car alarm, like a hammer to the temples, making me flinch and your Mr Wilkinson yank open the curtains. 
I saw his shape, shoulders up, against the dim lamp-light of your sitting room, and then there was the clanking of all your locks and bolts opening (and if I find those druggies who burgled you, I'll set mom on them, I swear) and then Mr Wilkinson was heading across your garden in his slippers, pushing back his glasses and looking all worried. For us. Coming to see that we were ok. 
It kills me to think of it. 
He was a good man; a good, good, good man, your husband, but you loved him, so I'm not telling you nothing you didn't know. Seeing you and him together always made me smile, going around the supermarket, or him snipping roses as you sat with your face in a paperback in your garden when it was warm enough, and while I don't know shit about romance, I'm not even twelve, I know what you had was more than all that Romeo and Juliet stuff we did at school. Sixty years you'd been together, and while his socks might have stunk, and he might have slurped his soup and made you mad, you and him were knitted together, tight as, close as, like me and my sister – you'd unravel without each other- and he was doing a good, good, good thing that night, when Heather flew at him.
She was too fast to grab, and then there was a splitting and ripping as wings broke through her blazer, and then she'd grabbed Mr Wilkinson and they were both going up into the air, higher and higher, over the roofs and the lamp-posts and veering all over the sky like clowns on a wobbly bike.
“Leave him alone, Heather!” I shouted, and while my eyes were fizzing with coke from the can I'd dropped, I saw a flicker across her face, and then the beak that was growing went back in and Heather was her again, just a girl again, and she was so scared she nearly pissed herself, and I nearly pissed myself, and her arms were straining but she couldn’t hold him, and her wings were shrinking and hurting her, she said, like needles going into her skin, a thousand at once. And Mr Wilkinson, he was too heavy. Just too heavy. And I'm sorry. So, so sorry. It’s my fault, as well as hers. Maybe if I didn’t call her, or if I’d tried to fly up to her, even though I haven’t got wings; I've not got nothing, not even a feather. Yet. But then you haven't got nothing now, neither, but a load of lies about a heart attack, and a cold side of the bed, and a letterbox jammed with cheap cards.
Heather said you know, Mrs Wilkinson. When she tried to leave those flowers she'd spent her pocket money on your doorstep, and sneak off, she felt your hand on her shoulder.
“Forgive yourself, dear,” you said, and while Heather couldn't turn and look at you, she took your wrinkled hand, and seeing your wedding ring she said she felt herself swelling with tears and temper and questions, and she wanted to ask where your children were, and why they didn't visit, and ask why you lived here, still, in this neighbourhood that had gone to shit, and why you didn't move somewhere safer, away from us, the monsters, the weirdos, the suuuuper beaky-freaks; them that only brought darkness and death, even if we didn't mean to, but then you whispered something else, said it so quiet that Heather only just caught it, a shiver of sound, like wind through the petals of wilting lilies.
She’s asked me to ask you if you meant it. And if you do, then she'll do it, swear down and cross her heart. Leave the upstairs light on, and stand in the garden at midnight. You're light, Mrs Wilkinson, just a sparrow, and Heather's sadness has made her hawk-strong. There's soft fields of bluebells, somewhere, away from these boxy houses with their broken windows and the pylons and the grey streets that stink of piss and weed; away from your small rooms made wide with missing and your pictures turned face-down on the mantelpiece as you can't bear to look at them no more, and up there, above this shitty world that makes bombs and bird-freaks and that takes away the boy you loved, there's nothing but stars, and silence, but for the thump-thump-thump of your heart.

The End.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Favourite Books.

I've seen loads of 'pick your favourite album' type things going around Facebook of late so thought I'd (briefly) list my favourite books as a) I haven't updated my blog for ages and b) the publishing industry is very secretive and I can't really say anything about anything that's happening/happened there.

I've gone back to finish my MA this year, where since September I've read- The Changeling by Thomas Middleton, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, Zofloya by Charlotte Dacre, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Italian by Ann Radcliffe (I'm studying an academic Gothic module alongside my writing one, if you'd hadn't guessed from that ghastly line-up); and on the Creative Writing side: The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, The Inheritors by William Golding, Miguel Street by V.S Naipaul…sure I've missed something… but none of these have leap-frogged into my affections (well, Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein were already there, and I'd recommend ALL the Gothic books, just because, and Pnin for narrative skills and wonderful writing, and Ripley, for general uneasy creepiness).

So, in no particular order, my top five:

1)The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I wasn't initially sold on the premise here- aging butler, Stevens, does butler-type things and then decides to have a holiday to visit the old housekeeper, Miss Kenton - but this book broke my heart. I wept. And I don't mean a little sniffle, I mean I sobbed my eyeballs out, and then thinking about it later I sobbed them out some more. It's very quiet on the surface, and you get carried along feeling that not much is actually happening at all…and then you're wailing for a man who's wasted his life and you're not quite sure where the hit came from. The novel touches upon themes of duty, and dignity, and love, and loss, but so subtly. It's writing wizardy at its finest. I would be jealous of the author if I wasn't so smitten. And here's Salman Rushdie telling you why you should all read it, too (spoilers).

2) The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. 

I've blogged about this before but Faber is just fantastic. I love his short stories, too, but this hefty neo-Victorian doorstopper is marvelous. It's mainly the story of Sugar (although there are interesting sub-plots aplenty), a teenage prostitute, who is attempting to elevate her social standing (and publish a penny dreadful), and her 'relationship' with perfume magnate and dandy William Rackham. Critics have commented that this book is "the novel Dickens would have wrote had he been allowed to speak freely" and while we have the evocative descriptions of London-its prostitutes, orphans and slums; its philanthropists and criminals; its aesthetes and decadents and its lunatics- its post-modern/post-feminist knowingness gives the entire novel a voyeuristic edge; it's a sly wink through the keyhole that subverts the traditions that it continues.

3) Perfume by Patrick Suskind.

The bastard Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born -to a woman with syphilis, whilst she's gutting fish- into a gutter in 18th Century France, and, having no smell of his own (which turns him into an object of fear and disgust) soon becomes obsessed with…smells, so decides to murder everybody in his pursuit/capture of the perfect scent (the ultimate 'perfume' being the scent of a beautiful young virgin). It's the darkest of dark fairytales, and a study of sensual depravity, but there's humour and some bleak French existentialism thrown in there, too. The ending cranks up the weird factor to another level entirely (which I won't spoil), but overall, a great psychological study and a unique tale, with gorgeous writing, to boot.

4)We Have Always Lived in the Castle- Shirley Jackson.

A novella, and a strange, sinister, claustrophobic one at that. The opening paragraph, for example:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

The narrator, Merricat, lives her sister Constance and their uncle Julian, in isolation from the village following an 'accident' which saw the other members of their family poisoned. Merricat is a huge ball of hatred, which is to say she's great fun, but there's an undercurrent of a more insidious, subtle misanthropy at work in the text which semi-justifies Merricat's feelings. Shirley Jackson's work in general seems to recoil at the proximity of people; seems to scratch at the surface veneer of our civility to see what's really inside, and here is no exception. It's such a bizarre, beautiful book, and Shirley Jackson's writing (and her frequent scathing attacks upon humanity) ticks all the 'favourite' boxes. I'd also highly recommend Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle nudges slightly ahead, on originality factor.

5) The Brides of Rollrock Island/Sea Hearts-Margo Lanagan.

It makes me sad that Margo Lanagan doesn't get more attention, and while I'm yet to finish Tender Morsels (which may usurp this novel), The Brides of Rollrock Island is perfection. Poetic, gorgeous prose, and while many tales have used selkies for inspiration, the multiple POVs/narrators here, plus the poetic, gorgeous prose (did I mention that already?) makes it feel totally unique. Odd. Ethereal. Intriguing. Awesome. I'd also recommend her short stories.

Some other random favourites:

-Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith-Sarah Waters
-The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid's Tale-Margaret Atwood.
-Rebecca- Daphne Du Maurier
-The Collector-John Fowles
-The English Patient (well, the Katherine/tortured love affair section, mainly)- Michael Ondaatje
-Gothic usuals- Frankenstein, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, Dorian Grey, Wuthering Heights…
-Florence and Giles- John Harding.
-The Goldfinch-Donna Tartt.
-Wide Sargasso Sea- Jean Rhys.