Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 20
Challenge #9: Write a story featuring every sense but sight. It must have a palindromic word count and not use any adverbs ending in “-ly.”
“Bugger. There go the lights.”
There were a few seconds of vigorous clicking while Harper tried the switch.
“Oh well. Absolute last resort I suppose…”
I fished about in my pocket for the lighter. What I found instead was most disconcerting.
“Harper, there’s a hole in my pocket.”
The silent dark of the Alterworld was polluted by a string of graphic obscenities. Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2017, Day 13
Challenge #6: Write a creature horror story featuring a psycho party member in which a torch is used as a weapon.
“I was terribly sorry to learn about your uncle, Mr. Heathcote.” Mr. Smith extended his hand to shake.
Taking it, the man gave a dismissive tut. “Oh, he was only second uncle. And, ah, it’s Lord Harlington now.”
“Ah, yes. Yes, of course.” This fellow might have been rather callous, but since he was quick to pick up his uncle’s title, he would be quick to pick up the pen. “Shall we go inside?”
“In a moment, perhaps.”
The hesitation caught Smith by surprise, though the slightly imperious tone did not.
“I overheard some rather curious gossip in the bar of my hotel last night.”
Smith remained at the door, his hand on the key in the lock. The longer he kept it there, the more that unturned key started to feel like his commission slipping through his grasp.
He let go and turned. “I daresay you must have.” He smiled faintly. “A man dies inside a locked room but his body is nowhere to be found: your uncle’s misfortune might have been lifted straight out of the latest Christie. But I assure you, the investigation was quite thorough, and its conclusions entirely unremarkable. Come.” He turned the key at last. “I will show you.”
The interior of the stately home was in need not so much of a good clean as complete redecoration. Smith directed his torch about the place. The late lord had been known to have a taste for trophies, but clearly that was all the taste he had.
“What’s that smell?” demanded the current lord, placing a handkerchief to his nose.
“I’m not sure,” admitted Smith. “Until we found you, the Harlington estate had no known heir. There hasn’t been a custodian employed here for just over two years.” Even walking ahead he could sense Harlington’s dismay. Hastily, he added: “A long time for one so large.”
They came at last to the door of the trophy room, a splintered dent in the wood where an iron bar had, just over two years ago, been driven between it and the frame. It swung open without resistance, revealing an array of heads—if heads they could be called—on plaques, lining every wall. These were not beasts of Africa or India, but of somewhere altogether more exotic.
“This,” said Smith, “I am sorry to say, is where your second uncle met his end. He had spent much of the day hunting in the Alterworld—that much is clear, the servants’ statements were entirely consistent and his boots and socks stood wet by the door—and returned, we believe, empty-handed. He came to this room to unload and clean his gun—it was found here, on the floor by the cabinet—but crucially did not remove from his back the apparatus he had used to travel that day. The servants heard a commotion and a scream—here their statements were less consistent—and then silence.”
The topic of conversation did not seem to sit well with Harlington, but Smith thought it better that he be troubled with the knowledge of the true disaster than by the nonsensical gossip of the townsfolk. Both were unsettling, but only one fostered the kind of superstition that made a man turn down a windfall such as this.
“It is thought,” Smith continued, after a respectful silence, “that your uncle’s apparatus suffered some form of malfunction. Either it drew him suddenly back into the Alterworld, where he became hopelessly lost in the darkness, or he disintegrated in transit and never arrived. In neither case would one expect to find a body, and in neither case would—”
It was Harlington who saw it first. Smith merely followed his gaze.
Out in the hallway stood a long, lithe beast the colour of the gloom cast by the curtains. No eyes gleamed in the torchlight, for there were no eyes at all. It walked smoothly and in absolute silence. Had Smith not swung the torch towards it as he gestured, and had Harlington’s eyes not happened to follow when he did, this beast might have taken one of them without even interrupting the conversation.
Instead, discovered, it leapt, and Smith threw shut the door.
The impact as the creature struck was immense. Had the door been intact, it would have broken. Instead, it swung open, but only far enough to strike Smith’s foot. Fighting the pain, he tried to force it closed once more as claws curled around the edge. Foul breath spilled through the crack, cold despite the fierce struggle.
Then, as if into thin air, the beast was gone once more.
There was a snap as Harlington drew back the hammers of his second uncle’s finest gun.
Still keeping his whole weight against the door, Smith was relieved to think the man had kept a cool enough head to find and load the weapon. His relief faded the moment he saw that it was directed at him.
“You knew that thing was here!” Harlington spat. “You’d heard the stories!”
All the hair on the back of Smith’s neck suddenly stood on end, but it was not fear that caused it. It was the unfamiliar yet unmistakable feeling of something foreign pushing into the room, though the door was still held tight. Smith directed the torch towards it, Harlington his gun.
The beast was there, head outstretched, the vast mouth open to scent the air.
Neither man dared make a move. Harlington would not risk the gun. Smith had no such option. All he had was the torch.
And yet, he realised, that was all he needed.
As softly as he could, he threw the item at Harlington’s feet.
The creature was upon the man before his finger found the trigger.
Quietly, Smith took up his briefcase and slipped out the door.
Lord Harlington must have had other, more distant heirs. Perhaps in America or India. Too distant, perhaps, to care much about the house and its troublesome inheritance.
If you’ve enjoyed this story, you can find my work from previous Flash Fiction Months collected in these books:
Click any cover to find that book in your choice of format.
You might also be interested in my sci-fi murder mystery novella, Ten Little Astronauts, which is currently crowdfunding at Unbound. Most pledge levels include all the books shown above, and all will include your name in the back of Ten Little Astronauts itself as a patron of my work.
You wonder for a moment if this place might have been abandoned before you remember the beacon, quietly blinking on its pylon atop the roof. If this place has been abandoned, it has been abandoned in the last few hours. Hello? you call again.
I’ve spent the past few days familiarising myself with Twine 2: partly to prepare for this year’s National Novel Writing Month, partly to produce something eerie and interactive for Halloween. The result is Outpost, a little chunk of Alterworld for you to explore.
And by “little,” I mean “infinitely large.” I would strongly recommend not straying too far from the beacon, though: it’s awfully easy to get lost out there, and even easier to get found.
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 23
Challenge #10: Write a cosmic horror story from a first person perspective. It must include tentacles and at least one suspicious character.
The Henge was a marvel. Where so much in the Alterworld was chaos and madness—adaptation indistinguishable from aberration—here was order and sense. This was an object with meaning: a function to perform, a message to be discovered.
I lifted the mouthpiece of the radio to my lips. “The structure is approximately eight feet in height and between thirty and fifty in diameter. Difficult to be say without better illumination. It appears…” man-made would be hideously inappropriate, “deliberately assembled.”
I walked around the perimeter of the Henge, apparently a perfect circle. It would be difficult to prove conclusively that this was not the result of some natural process. It could conceivably have been an artefact left by some long-dispersed ALICE hotspot, but it could not be purely geological. For one thing, the streaks of rust suggested it was at least partially composed of iron. For another, each of the pillars contorted into strange and unlikely angles on its path from silt to sky. The structure danced like a figure in a zoetrope as I progressed around its circumference. Continue reading
Flash Fiction Month 2015, Day 4
Challenge #2: “The Blue Pill.” Write a 600-word piece, which must incorporate dreams or dreamlike imagery. Also, it should have elements of stream of consciousness writing included somewhere within.
Lord Harlington pushes between phosphorescent strands of growth stretching for the lightless sky. A shame that the world has furnished him with no game greater than the elephant—but there are hunting grounds beyond the world, and lands darker than darkest Africa.
Cold, stagnant water in knee-high boots. The warning click of the Ferniot counter. Shut it off. What threat is ALICE exposure after Malaria in Nairobi? After fever in the Congo? His quarry is near: a few dark tendrils waving above the glowing multitude. He readies his weapon: a shotgun over a large-calibre rifle.
In the overgrowth, progress is unnaturally slow. Everything is silent, calm. Bright shoots curl around Harlington’s coat, drag across the fabric, then retreat as he passes. Despite the cold, he remembers India, the trail through the wilderness, the guide who vanished into the grass and was never seen again. He presses on, wading through the stalks until they thin out into a kind of clearing.
The creature is vast. A buoyant, gas-filled thing that has descended to drink. Harlington traces the sights across its form, looking for some vital place to put the shot. Waving fronds. Flapping membranes. Exposed ribs of cartilage.
The beast is dead.
So why does it move? Continue reading
Last weekend wasn’t my first time at the Winchester Writers’ Festival, but thanks to a scholarship from the University of Winchester, it was the first year I managed to attend the entire event. That really made quite a difference, since the full range of day courses, talks and workshops offered far more variety than I could have got from any individual day. It was particularly useful to be able to get advice on both writing and publishing. Here’s how the weekend went:
Each day of the festival starts (if you get up early enough!) with coffee and an opportunity to chat to other delegates. For the first two days, this was also an opportunity to wander around the Book Fair. I was really keen to make the absolute most of the weekend, though most people didn’t turn up until a little later.
Being there at quieter times was pretty handy, because when it got busy (such as immediately after Sebastian Faulks’ keynote speech) it actually got a little difficult to move about the place. I got talking to Matador (on the far left) who were kind enough to spread the word on Twitter. Continue reading
Why, hello there! It’s been a while.
It’s actually been so long that I’m struggling to remember exactly how much progress I’ve neglected to update people with. First things first, I guess, back in 2012 I made the first little bit of Inhuman Resources available online and, in response to the interest it gained, promised I’d let everyone know how it was getting along. Well, that didn’t go entirely as planned. I figure I’ve mentioned it perhaps two and a bit times in those two and a bit years. However, in this case no news is good news: I’m actually still working on it on a semi-regular basis. The main thing slowing it down at this stage is that other, smaller projects (and various jobs I’ve had, and the Master’s course I’ve since started) end up taking priority.
I’d also like to reassure people that, though it’s been a while since the last chapter appeared, Beyond the Black Throne will also continue. It might even continue soon, since the next chapter is already written. My main concern at this point is that I set a schedule that won’t involve immediately dropping it for several more weeks in a row. Which leads in nicely to the next thing it’s probably worth mentioning: Continue reading
The air of the Alterworld was cool and moist. Hettie had to remind herself that it wasn’t nighttime. That this was simply the nature of the place. That the sun was never going to rise, though just at that moment a faint glow filtered through the misty air at the crest of a pathetic hill. A bulging creature with spindly legs, body faintly luminescent, paused to point its boneless head towards the heat and light of the paraffin stove. Hettie slowly reached for her revolver.
“It’s not dangerous.” Jeanne stabbed a fork into her can of stew, not bothering to look up. “Not valuable, either.”
The creature took a step closer, a pair of soft, quivering apertures flaring where its eyes should have been. Hettie could hear it breathing, a regular one-two hiss as the vents on its flank flapped open, drew closed.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. They’re dead common, and they don’t do well outside of the Alterworld. Not worth the cost of bringing it back.”
A double-row of tiny appendages unfurled from beneath the creature’s head, like the limbs of a lobster. Hettie forced herself to stay perfectly still as the bloated head inched closer, closer, and then past her: the object of its attention was the stove, glowing with a blue light like its own. The vents continued to flap, and now she could feel its breath on her skin. It had a smell that, though not unpleasant, was totally unfamiliar, totally un-animal, as though even the constituent chemicals of its flesh were foreign.
Yet at the same time, this creature belonged to this place, while Hettie did not. Here in the dark, this creature was at home while she was a visitor. There was something marvellous about that. About how readily it accepted her, how content it was for her to sit by while it investigated the paraffin flame. The limbs hanging from its face quivered towards the light, occasionally snapping back in response to a sudden flare of heat. It was hideous, but it was beautiful too.
Then Jeanne hurled a slop of mud, and the creature fled. A scream escaped the vents in its flank and its light winked out, like a red hot match being stabbed into a wet teabag. Away from the stove, it merged with the darkness, a swirl of glowing vapour like ink from a squid the only evidence that it had ever been.
“Why’d you do that?” asked Hettie.
“You don’t let anything get that close here.” Jeanne wiped her hand on her trousers before picking up the fork again. “That’s the rule.”
“But you said that it was safe.”
“Not anything,” said Jeanne, in a tone that emphasised that this was not to be argued with.
Hettie wasn’t going to try. There was a silence broken only by the scraping of Jeanne’s fork around the inside of the tin.
Then, as an afterthought, she continued: “Those things are fine, but you don’t know what might come with them. Predators. Trigger-happy game hunters. ALICE contamination. You can get into trouble real easy out here.”
As if to illustrate her point, there was a pleading voice from the darkness: “Can anyone hear me?”
Hettie almost answered, but stopped herself in time. She looked to Jeanne.
Jeanne softly snapped shut the barrel of her shotgun and latched the hammer. She waited.
“Can anyone hear me?” the voice called again. “Is anyone there?”
Hettie squinted out into the darkness. With only the light of the stove to go by, she couldn’t see far, but the voice sounded close. Close enough that the man who was calling should have been able to see the stove.
Jeanne looked at Hettie, gestured to the revolver lying by her knee. Hettie picked it up.
“What do you want?” Jeanne’s shout rang through the permanent night.
Silence. It went on for so long that, had Jeanne not been crouching there, gun pointed out over the stove, that Hettie might have thought that the voice had only been the product of her own mind and the quiet darkness.
But then: “Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”
Hettie stared at Jeanne. The woman’s mouth was a flat, thin line as she crouched motionless in the dark. Then, suddenly, she broke the shotgun, swept a damp cloth over the stove. Hettie could hear the stamped metal clacking gently together as Jeanne packed the parts away.
“Pack your things,” whispered Jeanne. “Hurry.”
“Why?” Hettie wasn’t sure where she’d left everything. Couldn’t be sure she’d pick it all up. “What’s wrong?”
“Don’t talk. Just go.”
Hettie picked up her revolver, but once it was in her hand she didn’t know what else to do. She couldn’t hold onto it while she gathered her things, but at the same time, if they were in danger, she didn’t feel as though she could let it go. And then there was…
“Is anyone there?”
He was close. He was close enough that he should have been able to hear their whispers, but if he had he didn’t pay them any mind.
“What about that man out there?”
“Forget it.” Jeanne heaved something into her pack. Simultaneously, Hettie heard something else tumble onto the ground. “Just go.”
Suddenly, the whole situation seemed absurd, and Hettie knew why. Jeanne, so practical and collected in the face of whatever horror surfaced in this place, was now panicking. And why? Because all Jeanne knew was monsters. Presented with another human being who just needed help, she didn’t know what to do.
“Is someone there?” The speaker was so close. If the stove had been lit, they could have seen him.
Jeanne scrambled away, footfalls loud in the mud. Hettie stayed, however. Hettie switched on her lantern. The sudden glare—brighter by far than the paraffin flame—stung her eyes, but what greeted them was unremarkable. The man seemed to be a soldier, though his uniform was muddied almost beyond recognition: par for the course in the grubby dark of the Alterworld. His face was enclosed in a gas mask, also reasonably common, though of doubtful efficacy.
“Take off the mask, please.” Hettie kept her revolver pointed at him. He was unarmed, but there was no sense taking chances.
“I think my mask is stuck.” He spoke as loudly as he had done when calling for help. “It’s attached to my skin. I don’t want to force it.”
“Hettie, get away from there!” Jeanne’s voice came from beyond the wide ring of light cast by the lantern. Suddenly she was the one in the dark, Hettie and the stranger the ones illuminated.
“He needs help!”
“Please, somebody help me.”
“Listen to me! You can’t help him. Just get away.”
“We can help him! You’ve got the apparatus: we can all just jump back to our…” but she was interrupted.
“Can anyone hear me?” called the man again.
Hettie stopped. She and Jeanne both waited for a moment.
“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”
Jeanne spoke quietly. “Turn the light off, Hettie. Walk away.”
At last, Hettie did as she was told. Together, she and Jeanne began to make their way out through the dark.
“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?” In the distance now. They were leaving him behind.
“What’s going on?” asked Hettie, at last, addressing Jeanne’s footsteps. “What’s wrong with him?”
“It’s not a him,” said Jeanne. “It’s an it. A thing. Just something that happens out here, like Elmo’s fire or the Northern Lights.”
“The Northern Lights don’t call for help.”
Jeanne stopped. Sighed. “They call it ‘Echoes of the Eighth.’ Back when people first started visiting the Alterworld, the technology was unreliable. In those days, lots didn’t make it here. But the Eighth Expedition was different. They got…stuck halfway.”
“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”
“So how is he—it—here?”
“He’s not. How could he be? Those expeditions took place years ago. Those people, even if they didn’t die…they couldn’t have survived. Not for that long.”
“Is anyone there?”
“I think it’s following us,” whispered Hettie.
“Can’t be,” snapped Jeanne. “It’s just that sound carries out here. Or maybe we just happen to be going the same way.”
“Is someone there?”
They continued in silence.
“I think my mask is stuck. It’s attached to my skin. I don’t want to force it.”
“There.” Hettie could tell from Jeanne’s voice that she was smiling in relief. “You can tell it’s not real. It’s just repeating itself. It really is an echo.”
Hettie stopped. “So why are we so desperate to get away from it?”
“Please, somebody help me.”
Jeanne stopped too, just ahead of her. “It may not be real, but it’s unsettling.”
Hettie felt the weight of the revolver in her hands. “So why don’t we do something about it? Why don’t we try to help?”
Jeanne breathed out slowly. “I don’t have an answer to that. But I can tell you this: I’ve been out here a long time. I’ve heard stories about the Echoes. I’ve met people who say they saw one and just walked away. But I’ve never met someone who tried to put one out of its misery. Maybe no-one’s tried. Maybe you don’t meet them if they do.”
Hettie waited and listened.
“Can anyone hear me?”
She hated the thought of going back to him. This walking, pleading figure that could not be alive.
“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”
But more than that, she hated the thought of leaving him. This walking, pleading figure that could not be dead.
Hettie switched on the lantern once again, and Jeanne watched as she plodded back towards the voice. First she was a figure, then just a light, then nothing more than a glow over the horizon. But the sound carried.
“Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there?”
“If there’s any way I can help you…” Hettie’s voice wavered. “If there’s any way we can bring you back, just give some kind of sign.
“Can anyone hear me?” Is anyone there?”
The hammer of the revolver clicked as it was drawn back.
We always joked that having gone down the rabbit hole, stepped through the mirror, one day we would walk right into Alice.
Well, one day we did.
~Pvt. John Reynolds, Alterworld Expeditionary Force
It’s been a while since I posted anything Alterworld-related, largely because I’ve been working towards writing stories to go in the collection. However, there’s been one development I’m more than happy to share:
I’ve got in touch with Thomas Venner, a local artist whose work is absolutely spot-on for this setting. The scene above–from Never Look Away–should hopefully give some idea what a difference this could make to the stories themselves. Dealing with a world in which there is no light, and where seeing or not seeing can be the difference between life and death, having something visual alongside the text seems especially significant.
I’d also just like to point out that I didn’t ask for this scene specifically. Despite writing the thing, I couldn’t even imagine what this creature looked like, so it seems like a particularly ambitious thing to tackle. Seeing it done, though, it all works so well: there’s just enough visible to suggest something entirely alien, but at the same time not enough to build up an complete idea of what it looks like, or even what it is.
Fun fact: at exactly this point while writing this post, my internet connection cut out for five days. So much for getting this out there straight away!
Thomas has told me quite a bit about the thinking behind this image–particularly the quality of light emitted by the lantern and how it interacts with the creature–but I’m really not qualified to pass any of it on. Visual art isn’t my strong point, which is one reason it’s so nice to be able to work with someone who properly understands it. Still, even just at a glance I feel like it all works. Having the creature’s “face” partially obscured by the character’s shoulder is a particularly nice touch: again, it provides enough detail to suggest something really creepy, but not enough to give away the complete madness-inducing view.
Flash Fiction Month 2014, Day 31
Challenge #15: Write a story featuring summertime, and a multi-headed entity. It must include a word beginning with “f” in every sentence, become progressively more insane, and be written in the form of a 369er. A 369er is three different stories that are each exactly 69 words long, that are connected by a common theme, and meant to be read together.
Even without looking closely, you can tell that someone managed to survive here—alone and desperate—for quite some time. The festering animal bones in the corners of the room make you glad of your respirator. There are pages of writing scattered about the floor, but the hand is jagged, illegible. Your superiors refuse to tell you what happened here, and for the first time, you do not care.
We have watched a flaring match blaze into the sky. Oldself knows this is signalsymbol for canvasbirds flying overhead. We mastered such once, flicking switchsticksockets behind eyes glass. We once glad pilot training trusted mission special payload for gloryforce air. But newself has no formshapehandslimbsorder. Failure forced bailout made tankrupturerelease. No matter now, for someone is at the door. For we will greet. For we will make them new.
DOWNED PLANE HAS BEEN FOUND STOP
FERNIOT COUNTER CONFIRMS SEVERE CONTAMINATION OF CRASH SITE STOP
PASS UNNAVIGABLE EXCEPT IN SUMMER USING FULL TRACKED VEHICLE STOP
FIRST PILOT CONFIRMED DEAD BUT SECOND UNACCOUNTED FOR STOP
LOCAL WILDLIFE EXHIBITING FULL RANGE OF ALICE INDUCED ABERRATIONS STOP
SIGHTED FAUNA WITH MULTIPLE HEADS SPINY PROTRUSIONS WHIPLIKE APPENDAGES STOP
RECOMMEND FLAMETHROWERS TO CLEAR AFFECTED FOREST STOP
FORCES EXPENDABLE BUT PAYLOAD MUST BE RECOVERED STOP