channelling poe

NeedleInTheHay.net called it “lyrical beauty”.  I like that.  The challenge this time came, fittingly enough, from a dead man: Martin Heidegger.

Man acts as though he were the shaper and master of language, while in fact language remains the master of man.

I say ‘fittingly’ because the brief called for 600 words of horror, into which contestants also had to somehow work the theme of the “power of language”.

Those of you who know me know that I am not the kind of man to write about ghosts and ghoulies and that, when I dip into the horror genre, I like to do so in a more creeping, subtle way.  When the themes of language and horror came together in the same brief, I thought about Poe.  What would he do?

If you go and check out the WINNER ANNOUNCEMENT, you’ll see that Sophie Macdonald took the trophy with her excellent story My Best Friend, a story with remarkable – but not obvious – links to my own.  In both our stories, we explored the question: ‘Can you be cursed by language?’  And although Ms Macdonald and I both said ‘yes’, the way we went about it is different.  In her story, it is a quite literal curse, and in my own – in a humble homage to Poe – the curse comes entirely from the mind of the protagonist.

Following judges’ feedback, I have made some minor improvements which have pushed it over the 600-word mark, but – as always – I am glad to receive any and all feedback from my readers.  Enjoy!

Read up on Sophie Macdonald HERE

Swallowed Whole

It’s time to go out.

The poem will never be finished. I understand that now. For when it’s finished, it will swallow me whole. How arrogant to even imagine I could capture you, trap you down on paper.

The diamond of her face as she slept

Her scent, drawing me as a beacon draws ships to the safety of harbour

The silver sheen of her hair at night. . .

Pure arrogance.

Outside, the night is black and full of everything. Everything. A year I’ve been trapped, exiled in that room, eating because food was brought, sleeping only from exhaustion, my head upon the desk.

And still it isn’t finished.

But outside: Everything. My bare arms prickle with sweat in the warmth of the night, my feet moving as if they’re only now learning what it is to truly walk. Not to pace. Not to pace one room, endlessly, from wall to window, but to stretch and move.

So many smells. So many good smells: seafood; the sharp tang of spices; rich, greasy meat; baked bread; cocktails of sauces and dressings; piss from the alleyway, strong with ammonia – but that’s good, too. Everything is good.

Lanterns festoon the street, end to end, and the colours . . . had I forgotten about them? I must have written the colour of your hair. I must have, but now . . .

All the things I’ve missed, my year alone. You weren’t there.

You aren’t here either, in this street lined with bright pools of light, with tacky jewellery stands, with mountains of deep-fried doughnuts lost in clouds of sugar, all of it undeniably alive. Of course you aren’t here. You don’t belong here any more.

I drink the Everything in, I touch every surface. My senses draw me on, ever further from my door. I want to remember, not to disappear again. At home, there is only silence, and a poem that can’t be finished.

I open my mouth, taste the air. Midnight approaches and still people boil along the market street. Elbows scrape against my ribs, hair brushes my arm, something wet and cold – I don’t care what – splashes my leg.

The voices . . . a mad grindwheel, scratching at my ears like passionate fingernails. After the silence of my room, it’s agony, but if I had the power to stop it, I wouldn’t. I’m alive. You died, I remain. Perhaps I forgot to die with you, perhaps I wanted to finish your poem first. Perhaps, even, I hoped it would bring you back.

Foolish.

Arrogant.

It lies unfinished, and I’m alive And I know now: I want to stay. I cannot embrace your cold, lingering traces any longer. It’s time to colour our memories with new experiences, fresh ones to flavour the old. It’s time to–

. . . drawing me to her . . .

Your scent.

No.

I take the alley, forging into darkness. Here it’s cooler, with vague silhouettes lurking from the shadows. I must escape. I burst out into a street lit not by lanterns, but by streetlights. More puddles lie on the road here, shining–

. . . silver sheen. . .

No!

I run. Why has it come? Why now?

Ahead, the harbour. The last place you ever were. We met here, once. But now I see: my poem isn’t at home.

It’s here, waiting for me at the jetty.

And here’s how to finish it:

A kiss.

It washes my feelings away, washes everything away. The silence feels like bliss. The waters close over my head, harbour lights shimmering above me. Below me, the diamond of your face.

Finally finished.

Emblem Black (2)

gorge yourselves

Although it appears I have seriously fallen off the wagon when it comes to regular updates, let me assure you that I am, at the least, gainfully employed in my craft.  The flash fiction trade is keeping me nice and busy, and as a special gift to you, I am giving you the complete and whole story of my shortlisted flash fiction piece: An Ugly Harvest
All questions, comments, and out-and-out abuse gratefully received.

An Ugly Harvest

Bill sits through another eighty-minute commute. Today is Friday, a day usually marked by nothing much – but today, for the first time in seven years, he will go home on time. The flesh-tinged aroma of recycled air barely bothers him; his mind is, for once, in a rosy future where the breeze is sweet and at four pee em on the dot, he will go home.

On time.

The agency receptionist gives him her trademark eastern-European scowl as he punches in. He bites his tongue; now would be a terrible time for over-confidence. Last week he returned her grimace and, as punishment, Perce pitched a flash drive at him at fourteen minutes to four – with a wink and a double-point and a ‘Top priority, Billy!’ Nobody ever calls him Billy. Only Perce.

Of course, it is laughable to think that Perce somehow went downstairs to talk to the receptionist, scoured the departments for buggy code, waited until just before quitting time and then gave it, specifically and personally, to Bill. Laughable. But still . . .

Bill is no writer, but a fixer. He is good at it. And he hates it.

He hates the way the coders never explain anything like they are supposed to; he hates their lack of finesse, the way they just mash line after line together until it runs – on their system, at least. The mammoth, lumbering, convoluted pile unfailingly lands on Bill’s desk before the client can actually use it.

But today . . . today he will go home on time. There are no projects to complete, no reports left to file. He has only to top and tail the week’s work. His thoughts wander to the evening ahead, and his fingertips begin to sweat.

No less than three episodes of his favourite series to watch!

A pizza with meatballs on it!

Meatballs!

And some expensive German beer that you can only get from that international boutique on the edge of town (that is for after dinner, of course. With dinner, there is actual, real, Coca Cola).

And then, as four o’clock approaches, Perce’s disembodied head floats past the office screens towards Bill and tells him that some bad code was sent to him attached to an email, an email that has just pinged back to sender due to a host error, but an email that was nonetheless actually sent yesterday.

Naturally, it is top priority.

He might need to come in on Saturday.

Maybe he could work from home over the weekend.

A big bug.

A salmonella.

And as Bill eats his now-tasteless meatball pizza in front of his laptop, the figures before him slowly spiralling into nonsense, he knows already that he will work on the program all weekend in order to be ready for Monday’s roll-out.

He knows that, even if he watches his series, the spectre of the approaching deadline will watch, clucking its tongue like a disapproving, puritanical nun, until the experience is as bland as his overpriced dinner.

Bill’s news feed auto-scrolls towards infinity. His friends and colleagues live their lives. Each new post twists into his guts like a worm.

Why can’t he just couldn’t close the tab?

But then, he has always known his place. Always. It is he alone who sowed the seeds of his life, and now they are grown, and the fruit is this pizza, on this night, that passes his lips and clogs his arteries, but brings no pleasure.

It is an ugly harvest, but he grew it himself, and it is all he has.

Emblem Black (2)

The website who originally posted this competition is http://needleinthehay.net/

an ugly harvest

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.  I’m currently writing for a competition.  Flash fiction!  It’s all the rage at the moment.  Essentially, it means simply writing to a (sometimes ludicrously-)low word count.  This piece currently stands at 677 words, which means the next draft will have to cut a minimum of seventy-seven words.  I am only allowed to reproduce a small section, but I gladly do so for my loyal readers.

A closing section of ‘An Ugly Harvest‘:

Bills news feed auto-scrolled into infinity as his friends and colleagues lived their lives, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to close the tab. As far back as ninth grade, he had known his place. He had never been one to say no. He had sown the seeds of his life, and now they were grown, and the fruit was this pizza, on this night, that passed his lips and clogged his arteries, but had no taste.

Emblem Black (2)

phosphoros

The second of my short stories this year, a classic tale of a bad guy and a good guy.  Your heart will swell at the pure goodness of the hero, and you will gasp at the depravity of the villain.  The thrilling conclusion will give you chills you’ll remember for days!
But you can’t read it.
Again, since this piece is going in for a competition, I can’t publish it anywhere beforehand – apologies for that.
  I will, however, give you a little taste:

Phosphoros

Today, the prisoners were loud again. The ones with strength, they shouted. Always the same; they try to trick me, to draw me from my purpose.
Let it be known that I am not violent with them.
When the deed is done, let the world know that I was patient.
When the prisoners ask why, I answer them. I tell them I serve a higher purpose. I tell them I act in the interests of my master. I do no more.

When all is done, the world will know I did no more.

* * *

Questions, comments gladly received.

Emblem Black (2)

you’ve gotta do something. don’t you?

How much sympathy can you have for an inanimate object?  Why don’t you ask this young jacket from Los Angeles?

It was a good jacket. It had seen many things: the inside of a hundred cars, the blood of its owner’s rivals (and of the owner himself, on occasion). Scrunched up in a corner, or draped over a headrest, it had observed backseat tussles – had, in fact, been instrumental in bringing them about.

Not surprising, really: the jacket was as much a part of Buzz as was his own skin; it had absorbed his essence through sheer proximity. The leather was strength, it was leadership, it was effortless cool. Invincibility. Little wonder that the sight of that jacket – striding down the street, hanging out at the bar, slung over a shoulder in the heat of the day – had such an effect on the girls.

Why didn’t Gunderson rip the strap right off? Surely he was strong enough. Why didn’t he just open the door and leap out, leaving the jacket to fend for itself? He was certainly fast enough; his skill with a flick-knife was legendary. As the car tumbled end over end towards the surf-sprayed rocks, the man screamed, but the jacket was silent.

It had won, after all.

a story challenge

I decided to have a little fun today, since my social media just will not cease reminding me that I haven’t posted anything in twelve days, by God!

The kind of fun that I will have tonight will be decided by a phrase that has floated more-or-less spontaneously to the top of my brain.  In preparing for this, I actually had two or three phrases come up.  The first was: “I’m sure they’ve taken over.”, but I dismissed it as a little too 1970s horror.  Next came: “I’m sure he’s up there.” shortly followed by: “I’m sure he’s down there.”

And since ‘down’ is far too obvious a direction, I’m going to with ‘up’.  Free writing, three paragraphs, no further rules.  And off we go:

I’m sure he’s up there.  The house is two floors, two doors – obviously, both at street level – so he can’t have left.  On the other hand, he’s been up there a long time; how many hours now?  Six?  And he hasn’t come downstairs yet.  I tell myself, ‘He’s always been on the slow side.’  One time a car hit him and he had to miss cricket training.  The driver ended up in hospital and the car was written off; that’s why they call him The Wrecker.  No one’s tougher than my brother.

Six hours.  I really would like to go soon.

But I can’t leave without him; it isn’t safe.  I tell myself, ‘He wanted me to stay safe, that’s why he left me downstairs.’  He’s checking it out.  I’m . . . I’m not really sure what the point of me is right now.  I’m an excellent student, but he’s The Wrecker, and this is no time for brains, it’s a time for action, and that’s that. Besides, you can’t just leave family behind, not even I can do that, no matter how much my legs desperately just want to go.  Just cross to that door and run.

No.  This isn’t some mystical, fraternal, inner strength.  I’m lying.  My jeans are soaked all the way into my left slipper.  I’m terrified; static buzzing through all my muscles like taser-fire, forcing me to stand here, paralysed.  Because we both heard it.  I was halfway to the stairs myself before his arm shot out and barred my path.  He reminded me; she’s been dead for years.  And then he went up to find out who had called for us in her voice.  I tell myself, ‘He’s all right.  He’ll be down any minute.’

No one’s tougher than my brother.  But he hasn’t come downstairs yet.

Emblem Black (2)

edit: All right!  I admit it: it’s a little more than three paragraphs.  Think you can do better?  I’d certainly like to hear from you.

want to go back to the circus?

My dearest darlings, today we find out if the circus master really does always have a plan, or if – as the whispers on the street seem to say – he has lost his wits altogether.
Perhaps you would like to refresh your memories with PART ONE

It will be a quick fight. The tiny humanoid seems terrified of the monstrous man, and who could blame him? For years, Chran has fought with axe and shield, leather trousers for dignity, but otherwise naked. What need has he for armour? There are few that can get close to him, and for those who do, death comes swiftly. Smash! goes the axe, and the body parts bounce off the dirt. Well, usually. This little one is particularly fleet of foot; it manages to avoid the first blow and to dodge behind Chran’s back, amid jeers and riotous applause.

And once more, the applause turns to laughter, as Chran’s opponent hops onto his back, wrapping arms and legs around his torso and holding on for life. Chran thrashes this way and that, but cannot dislodge it. His massive muscles prevent him from reaching behind his own back. Why doesn’t he simply fall down? That is an easy question. Chran knows that once a fighter is off-balance, he is doomed. What is to stop the tiny creature from leaping off Chran’s back as he falls, stabbing him in the heart with its little dagger?

Gasps, now; gasps from the spectators. Where did this dagger appear from? The creature did not have one at the start. No matter; it has one now, and it jams the blade between Chran’s shoulders, making the big man bellow with rage. Not pain, no. Surely not pain from Chran, who has destroyed so many men, borne so many wounds without complaint. Anyway, the knife is tiny, too small to damage such a man as Chran.

And yet, does Chran not seem to be growing desperate? See his limbs flail without clear purpose. Hear his mighty roars, becoming more and more like howls. Around and around he spins, his opponent still holding on – but no. It cannot be the same opponent. This one has thick thighs, bulging with muscles. And Chran, too, looks different. His skin, before of solid white marble, now is shot through with blue, furiously-pumping veins.

The axe and shield fall from his fingers. Chran takes a knee. What can be happening to the hero of a hundred fights? Nobody knows. They can only watch as his throes become rhythmic and mechanical, but no less ineffectual. They can only watch as the bones of his ribs begin to strain against his skin. They can only watch as the strange creature on his back continues to swell and grow, sucking the very life from Chran not through a dagger at all, they can see that now, but through an elongated thumb. The thing on Chran’s back begins to shriek in joyful gluttony; it is now the same size as any normal man, and as fat as any king.

We will never know whether, as Chran struggled to his feet, he had already planned to crush his opponent, or whether it was the effort of standing that finally finished him, but what every man, woman, and child will remember to their dying day is the sound that the swollen monster made as it burst. As best as this old man can describe it, he will: imagine a butcher’s cleaver cutting through a steak in one stroke. Imagine, at the same time, a chamber pot being emptied from an upstairs window. Imagine, too, the sucking sound of horses’ hooves as they walk over a muddy river bed.

And now…the circus needs a new hero. And they will get one, as sure as the sun will rise in the morning. I may be an old man, but I knew what I was doing when I bought that strange little creature from the eastern pirates – though I do not think I will have them bring me another. It is always so disappointing when the slaves must roll two bodies into the flames.

It is true what they say; the circus master always has a plan. And it will forever be true that no man – and there are no exceptions – no man escapes the pit forever.

Emblem Black (2)