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)

a tiny little voice

Good morning everyone, and welcome to Tuesday.  I have delved into the records today to bring you a section from a piece I actually finished before Christmas last year.  I’m still not one hundred per cent happy with it, and of course – as you know – I welcome comments and suggestions.  Today, let me ask you a question: where does authority come from?  Specifically, why do we follow the rules, and who is it who makes them?  This piece is called Passengers.

 

Chapter One

The room was dark; the rods of light that pierced the shutters barely reached the figure on the bed. Michael opened his eyes. It was 6:02, and the voice had already started.

He always woke up around six o’clock, six o’clock being the optimal time for doing everything required of a man before he goes to work, and although today he happened to have stolen an extra two minutes of sleep, he hadn’t required the help of an alarm clock since he was a teenager. He lay in bed for a few moments more, staring into the murk.

The voice chattered away in his head, far more awake than he felt. Prosperity is Good. If work promotes prosperity, then work is Good. Today is Friday, Friday is a work day. Friday is a Good day. Today is a Good day. He did his best to silence it and rolled out of bed.

It appeared that today was yet another Good day.

Michael poured a cup of coffee and eased himself onto his creaky chair. For a few moments, he simply sat there; he had prepared a fruit salad, and he didn’t want it. Fruit salad is Good! insisted the voice. Michael picked up the bowl, tipped the whole thing into the bin, and made toast instead. He didn’t want the toast either, but at least this way the voice was as dissatisfied as he was. A splinter pushed into his back. He smoothed it flat and then leaned over, the chair creaking again as he reached for the radio. The radio was Good, because it prevented loneliness.

“–quavet Hysteria, which still has no cure, has today been proven to be a delayed effect of the heat of the equator and its suppressive effect on the Passengers,” said the voice of Kit Fisher. “The violence that goes with it, however, remains unexplained. For the war itself, there is still no end in sight. Last night, the Equatorial Forces detonated several explosive devices in key areas, cutting off Allied supplies as well as their own. Clearly, they have resigned themselves to defeat, but the Allied victory is coming at a huge cost. To date, the death toll–”

Kit’s news was equally as depressing as if Michael had never turned the radio on.

He killed it.

* * *

Michael’s workplace was walking distance from his house; the Gilbert Ryle building; a giant concrete monolith, perfectly suited to the task of housing data entry clerks in relative comfort, while being at the same time extremely cost-effective in its use of paint and other decorative materials: it didn’t use any. Of course, everyone in the building knew that such resources were much better used elsewhere, and did not complain. As Michael rounded the corner of the building, he brushed his hand on its rough, grey surface. He was careful to do it in exactly the same place every day, and to watch for signs that he was making an impact. To date, there were none.

Michael knew for a fact that he had a Good job, because he knew that prosperity thrived on order, and that he was instrumental in maintaining that order. Every day, new people were born, and old people died. People moved house, people got married, and sometimes – even now – people got divorced. Michael catalogued everything. There could be no doubt; his was a Good job.

At some point in the past, the carpet under Michael’s workstation had gotten damp. He was sure he could smell rot, but his colleagues insisted he was imagining it, leaving him to wrinkle his nose and ignore it. The computer clicked like a beetle as it awoke; soon it was ready to be used. Michael got to work. Adding, editing, and moving, it was an endless sea of information, organised by Michael Cantwell into stackable, bite-sized yoghurt pots of data. He altered and amended, compiled and consolidated, attached commentaries and removed redundancies until his eyes swam with fatigue. He glanced at the giant clock. Yes, 11am; time to go.

The other guys from pillar 14 were waiting for him in the cafeteria, dutifully shuffling along the sofa to make space for him as he approached the machine.

“You got any taste buds left, Michael?” asked Harry.

“There’s a couple still working,” he replied, punching the ‘Espresso’ button again.

“You ever think about taking it easy on the caffeine?”

Business as usual. First Harry, then Jake. Next, would come–

“Yeah, you’re not getting any younger. How about just the two shots today?”

Ah, yes. Rob’s contribution.

“You want me to sit somewhere else? I can go somewhere else, you know.”

“Look, we care about you, Mike. Everyone knows about your heart, we just want you to make a Good choice for your health – nobody knows the systems like you do, what if you…you know…”

“Thank you, Jake. I’m well aware of my importance to society.” It had come off a little stronger than Michael intended. He tried to take some of the sting out of it. “Look, don’t I have a right to damage my own body if I want?”

“Not really, Mike. If one of us has a problem, we all have a problem. It’s not Good to put yourself in danger.”

“Yeah, yeah. Let me just enjoy this one last real cup.”

“Decaf tomorrow?”

“Come on, Harry…”

“Alright, one shot. But no more! OK?”

Michael grumbled incoherently and drank the rest of his cup in sullen silence.

* * *

Three times a week, after work, Michael called his mum and chatted to her.

“Michael! So good to hear from you. Perhaps you could tell your father how the phone works.”

“Well, the war isn’t going well, mum.”

“The last phone call wasn’t anything to shout about. Five minutes, and – poof!”

“The Equatorials aren’t playing by the rules any more. Scorched earth. Suicide runs. I’m surprised he can find the time to call at all.”

“Don’t you take his side!”

“Alright, alright! I’m not. It’s just…I feel like this should all have been over years ago. If the Equatorials are as much of a rabble as everyone seems to think they are, then we should have long since finished them off. What’s the hold-up?”

“Why don’t you ask your father? He seems to–”

Michael snapped. “Why is everything about him!” He took a few deep breaths. She just needs to let off steam, he reminded himself. Letting off steam is Good. “If you two are having so many problems, why don’t you get counselling, or…a divorce? Or something?” Michael’s voice rang of futility, even to his own ears. It was at about this point in the conversation that he always began to grow hoarse. His mother’s problems were like water torture; they were grinding him to dust.

“Why should I? I don’t want the world to know my problems. Normal people don’t have problems. Equatorials have problems. No order, no prosperity.”

“I have to go, mum,” Michael croaked. “Talk to you on Monday.”

This piece will be continued in subsequent weeks

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.

bon appetit – part 2

Please enjoy the conclusion to last weeks tiny story about addiction.  Today we find out – in simple, logical steps – where such an addiction would end.  As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.
Missed last week?  Read it HERE

Emblem Black (2)

Just like those addicts, I can’t get high any more. I lived my addiction so fully that I developed a tolerance against it. The ordinary world lost its colour years ago – I don’t even remember when – and now even the most succulent steak just tastes like mashed fucking potatoes.

Junkies can increase dosage or concentration. Well, the former won’t work – I can’t just keep increasing the dosage until my heart gives out; it’s the taste I crave, not the volume. The latter is also difficult – I mean, when you’ve already tasted the finest dishes in the world two or three times, where do you go from there?

One solution was presented to me by this high-flying sex columnist I used to know. “Taboos, darling” – those were his exact words – “break a few taboos; all the old feelings just come rooooaaaaring back.” He was a smoker, come to think of it, with a face like a wolf. “Middle-aged couples are always the kinkiest. Once they’ve gotten bored with vanilla, things start to get really interesting . . .”

Perhaps now, perhaps later, you’ll fire up your favourite search engine and have a little look at ‘Food Taboos’. There are lots, I think you’ll find. Not all of them are relevant – for example, we can forget the eating of pork. I’m not religious, so pork is just meat. Others, though . . . veal calves, living dishes, endangered species, the list goes on.

He was right, old Mr Wolf. The taboo aspect of the food excited that part of my brain that bypassed my tastebuds, a primeval part of my brain that was pure pleasure, and I could taste again – for a while. Although I made sure to start small – a lavish dinner of delicious, unethically-reared foie gras, for example – by the end, I was eating pre-formed, hairless panda bear, poached in its own embryonic sac. And even that wasn’t doing it for me.

I began to crave death.

I so dearly wished that I could overload the syringe, stick the needle in my vein, and let my addiction kill me. I had seen it happen enough times. But I couldn’t, and I knew the next step was cannibalism, and even I have my limits. There simply had to be a way for taste to end my life. I wrestled with the problem for weeks; I lost sleep; I began to lose weight. As I looked at the bones stretching at the skin, I had a moment of clarity – finally, I knew it: the final taboo.

So, this is my note, if you like. A willing – if a little perverted – chef has been found, and lasts night’s little appetiser has proven two things: that the drugs I have acquired are effective, and that my skills as a nurse have not yet left me. My only regret is that we didn’t start with my foot, because then this letter would have taken a fraction of the time to write, and we wouldn’t have had to delay tonight’s entrées.

Bon appetit.

bon appetit

Dear reader, another late-in-the-week post, I’m afraid, but I assure you you’re not to blame.  By way of an apology, please find below the first part of a completely new story, written specifically for the blog, and therefore for you.  Part two is HERE NOW!

Emblem Black (2)

I hope that this takes considerably less time to read than it did to type it. I’m still getting used to typing with one hand; that’s the problem. Anyway – let’s begin:

I suppose, in the end, it all comes back to having what they call an addictive personality. It wasn’t a problem for me as a nurse: we spend so much time assisting with operations and looking after whatever lumps of flesh survive them that we don’t have time to develop a gambling problem or something like that.

Plenty of us would drink, but often that tended just to put us to sleep, and only very few became alcoholics, and then only the type that suffered from insomnia without a few glasses of wine of an evening, and not the type that used to come into the hospital yellow and doomed.

Smoking, that was another one, but even with the best will in the world, you can’t manage more than twenty a day on our schedule, and – more to the point – those things are far too expensive for a nurse in an NHS hospital. In any case, I avoided drink and cigarettes, drugs…everything, really.

Because, as I have already mentioned, I have an addictive personality.

We don’t need to discuss it, it’s already clear, and I’ve been this way since childhood; it can’t be helped. I only mention it now because it has some bearing upon what I am about to tell you. You should also know that I gave up being a nurse 20 years ago – an excellent move, and one that, even now, I can’t bring myself to regret.

You see, no matter how much one avoids temptations, there is one thing that we must all do to survive – most of us three times a day – and that was my downfall. I could also blame my childhood of crazy scribblings and the love of my supportive – but sadly deceased – parents for the way things have turned out, but I suppose that wouldn’t be fair. It was my choice, after all, to start that blog, and it was my choice to accept the offer of that magazine.

I suppose, technically, it was also my choice to accept that culinary critique award, but come on: who would refuse the top prize in their profession? Especially one such as me, who had worked bloody hard to get it? No, you go to the dinner, you wear a dress and a big stupid grin, and you take the award.

And then you take the invitations.

My God, there were such a lot of invitations, and no wonder: all it took was a few favourable sentences from me, and a restaurant could double its earnings. All the top chefs, all the top restaurants; flights; cruises; the best hotels; so many people paid so much money to bring me to their establishments, and to shamelessly spoil me. There are those restaurant critics who fly under the radar, receiving a taste of the average diner’s experience. I am not one of those critics.

Looking back on it now, I suppose I feel the same kind of nostalgia a crack addict feels when they think back to when they first used to get high – bitter, and full of resentment for their younger self. If you’re wondering why this isn’t prize-winning prose, by the way, you can blame that resentment.

My muse is dead.

so were the children evil or not?

Either you can answer the above question today, or you never will.  What will it be, big shot?  Finish it.
FIRST PART
SECOND PART

#####: Nothing… specific, but the muscles in my arms were so charged up and I felt so tense. I had all this energy and I needed to get rid of it. So I’m in this bedroom, I’m roaring, I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I’m walking over to the bed, over to Martha, and looking at her. I can’t really see properly, don’t know why, maybe that stuff, tunnel vision a little, but Martha doesn’t look right at all. You know when you watch those documentaries and you see mitosis? That cell that just splits and there’s an identical one? Well, one side of Martha’s face was way too big; there was this thing that was sliding away from her nose, like an extra nose sliding away from her real nose, coming up on her left side, my right. That whole side of her face was discoloured and waxy, looked like old meat.

Mackenzie: You couldn’t see very well?

#####: No, I couldn’t.

Mackenzie: But you’re sure this is what you saw?

#####: Yes. When I was a kid I used to read in the dark. I had to concentrate pretty hard, but I never read words that weren’t there.

Mackenzie: A fair analogy. So Martha was undergoing some sort of mitosis, in your opinion?

#####: Actually, maybe it wasn’t like mitosis, because if it was mitosis then this other thing should have been identical, but it wasn’t. Martha’s a cute kid; this thing was just horrible. Her left eye was looking straight up at me, and it was round. Not eye-shaped at all, just round, like a child would draw an eye, not like an eye actually is. This thing, whatever it was, it started to slide back into Martha, but I wasn’t going to let it go. I grabbed her hair on both sides, and pulled with my right hand as hard as I could. I’m not a strong guy, but this thing started sliding out of Martha like slime.

It was the shape of a child, the shape of her – of Martha, I mean – but the colour was so wrong. That whole family is dark-skinned. Not black, I don’t know what they are, but darker than me. This thing looked like – I know it’s weird, but it looked just like this – one time on holiday, I had this ‘jarret du porc’, this purplish-red piece of meat, and this thing looked just the same. Swollen and waxy and purplish-red. That’s not how a kid should look, but whatever it is, I’ve got it in my hand.

Mackenzie: You have it in your hand?

#####: I told you, I’m not such a strong guy, but I’m holding this jarret du porc by the hair, feet swinging in the breeze, and I let go of the real Martha with my left hand, and grab this thing by the throat instead. And then I’m just pounding it with my right hand, just pounding it and pounding it and squeezing with my left. I don’t have big hands, but Martha doesn’t have a big neck, and my hand went pretty much all the way round, and I was squeezing. Eventually I felt all these sinews and stringy things and I don’t know what, they started to give way, so I squeezed as hard as I could. I could feel my fingers digging into the skin, I could feel these things snapping, I was crushing and crushing and then I grabbed both its ankles, swung it over my head and smashed its throat against the foot of the bed. Fair near decapitated it.

Mackenzie: You killed it?

#####: This thing was dying, I’m pretty sure. You can’t survive without a throat, right? And this one was pretty smashed up. But it was still talking, I don’t know how, and I still can’t get its voice out of my head. This big grin all over its face and sounding like the most cheerful thing in the world, and most definitely a man’s voice: “You’ve killed me! Look!” then it was sick. Looked like seawater and I’m sure there were carrots or something. “Isn’t that disgusting?” it said. “Isn’t that disgusting? Look!” and it was sick again. I couldn’t hear any more from this thing. The other sounds of the room were starting to come back to me as I raised my fist and hammered it into its belly, at which point it fouled the room from both ends.

Mackenzie: So it’s dead now?

#####: I don’t know. Everything was swimming in the room by this time, so I took a knee and tried to get my breath. Terri stopped screaming; I hadn’t noticed her start. She’s got her children in her bed, close to her, and I can see them, and I know they’re safe, and the thing… I think it’s dead. That’s the last thing I remember. I must have passed out.

But I never thought the children were evil, understand? The kids are great. Whatever that thing was, that was the evil thing. It wasn’t their fault.

Can I see my family now? They’re probably wondering where I am. Is my sister ok?

11:40am

[end transcript]

04/05/13

The remains of one child and one adult were found at an address on the morning of Saturday 4th May. One adult male was found sleeping in the bedroom where the corpses were discovered. The police were summoned by the family’s five-year-old, who has been taken into care. Traces of vomit and faeces were discovered in the bedroom, but aside from this no evidence for the above account has yet been found.

PM

05/05/13

The male in question was found dead in the night. Despite being under heavy surveillance, he had somehow managed to crush his own throat. Early police reports indicate that it is almost certain that he perpetrated the murders, though forensic evidence is as yet unclear. My responsibility in this matter ends here.

PM

Case Closed

Case Open 07/07/13

Complaints about the five-year-old have started arriving from the school. It appears one teacher has gone missing.

PM

[Dr. Mackenzie has been removed from the case.]