Monthly Archives: October 2014

Flash Fiction – Good Dog

A little Halloween Flash Fiction …

They said it was an accident, and I believed them, although that wasn’t going to help me unravel my poor dog from beneath the wheels of their car.

‘We haven’t been drinking, I swear!’ the girl kept saying, her words floating towards me on a tide of stale beer. The driver said nothing for a few minutes. He just stood with his face slack in the headlights, his glassy gaze flicking between the bloody, dented grille of his vehicle and the tangle of black fur and exposed meat hugging the road beneath it.

‘I tried to brake,’ he said finally. ‘But I just … froze. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ He turned his bloodshot eyes to me. ‘What was that thing?’

‘My dog.’ I told him, reaching inside my jacket for the knife tucked into my belt. ‘You broke him, and now you have to help fix him.’

I remember how their eyes widened when they saw the blade.

My dog is on the mend now, even though I had to amputate some of him to get him out from under the wheels. The man and the girl helped to fix him up, though. He’s kind of clumsy with the hand instead of his paw, and he’s only got one of his own heads left, but I can see him getting used to seeing through their eyes, and barking through their mouths.

‘Good boy, Cerberus,’ I like to say to him. ‘Good dog.’


Flash Fiction – The App

Sometimes, as I suspect all FP-contributors know, the microfiction machine doesn’t necessarily shut itself down once the unspoken deadline of midnight has passed. Normally, when this happens to me, my imagination usually decides to move on and delete whichever mini-tales that didn’t make it home before the witching hour, but the following tiny slice of story evolved from the glass slipper that one unused FP left behind.  It’s a slight tale, but I thought it was fun, with a certain “around the campfire” spookiness to it. We’ll see …

‘No, I don’t think so,’ Ellis said, looking over her glasses at Sarah’s phone. ‘It sounds kind of creepy.’

‘Oh, it’s just a bit of a laugh,’ Sarah said, scrolling the screen. ‘All you have to do is download the app then put your details in.’

Ellis’s fingers tightened a little around her own phone, but she didn’t tap in the code to unlock it. It wasn’t that she thought Sarah might peek at the numbers, or use the phone to sneak into her Facebook or anything. She trusted her friend, and they’d even gotten past that night when Sarah had got off with Billy Simmons when Sarah had known that Ellis really liked him. She thought that Sarah had probably guessed the unlock code, anyway. One, Nine, Nine, Four – the year Harry Styles was born. Ellis didn’t really listen to One Direction anymore, but she still thought that Harry was gorgeous. It wasn’t her fault she liked older men.

‘What kind of details?’ she asked doubtfully.

‘Nothing much,’ Sarah told her with a smile. ‘Just stuff like your age, your height and weight,’ She drew on her cigarette. ‘How much you smoke and drink, that kind of thing.’

Ellis drew back as if Sarah’s phone was infected with some horrible disease. ‘I’m not putting my weight in.’

‘It’s fine,’ Sarah said. ‘You only have to do it once, and it doesn’t show up again.’

‘We’ll be late for school,’ Ellis shrugged. ‘I might do it later.’

‘Do it now,’ Sarah insisted. ‘We’ll walk quick.’

Ellis sighed. Sarah wasn’t going to let this go. She unlocked her phone as they started walking along Temple Road. Behind them, at the corner that led into Church Avenue, an old, olive-green van paused briefly at the junction, then began to turn in their direction.

Sarah gave Ellis the site address, and the two of them watched the screen as the app downloaded. Sarah finished her cigarette and pitched it into the road. Ellis followed the instructions on screen, tapping in her birthday, her height (she added an inch), her weight (she made Sarah look away, but still deducted a pound), and her smoking and drinking habits (never smoked, drank occasionally).

‘All you have to do now is press Calculate,’ Sarah said. Ellis was slightly conscious that her friend had raised her voice a little, speaking over the growing growl of an engine. ‘And the app works out the day you die.’

‘What did you get?’ Ellis asked her as they approached the kerb. Her fingertip hovered over the Calculate icon, but she still wasn’t sure if she wanted to touch it.

‘Oh, I got ages away,’ Sarah grinned. ‘Like, sixty-five or something. That’s even older than my Nan.’ Her voice clicked up another notch to compete with the approaching engine noise. ‘You don’t even smoke, so you’ll probably do even better than me.’

‘I hope so,’ Ellis said as she stepped off the kerb. Very suddenly she could smell petrol fumes, hear the tinny jingle of some morning radio programme. She tapped the Calculate button, her eyes widening as the projected date of her death appeared on the screen.

Beside her, she heard Sarah scream, a high, startled squeal that seemed to entwine with the other screech, the song of tires against tarmac. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sarah leaping back, back onto the kerb. She glanced the other way and saw the van, and the driver’s pale, horrified face. An air-freshener in the shape of a Christmas tree hung from the rear-view mirror, dancing madly on its string as he hit the brakes, the driver’s coffee toppling from the dashboard as the van stopped perhaps an inch from where she stood. Ellis could feel waves of heat streaming from the engine grille, sour with petrol fumes, but suddenly she was very conscious of how thin and insubstantial the heat felt to her, how little it warmed her skin.

‘Fuck,’ Sarah was saying, her voice ragged at the edges. ‘Fucking hell, Ellis, you nearly -‘

The driver was swearing too as he pushed open the door of the van and got out. ‘You stupid little cow,’ he was shouting. ‘You almost got yourself -‘

Ellis barely heard them. She was staring at the digits flashing on her phone. Staring at them and remembering that Dad had come home again drunk last night. Remembering how he’d been arguing with Mum at the top of the stairs and how she’d gotten between the two of them, frightened and wanting nothing more than for them to stop fighting. She remembered a shove in the middle of her back, her Mum or her Dad, she couldn’t be sure which of them it had been, but she supposed it didn’t matter, because she remembered falling from the top of the stairs, toppling like coffee from a dashboard, and she remembered –

She stared at the digits, realising that after that, she remembered nothing at all.

The numbers blazed red on the screen of her phone.

Yesterday’s date.

 


A Devil On Both Shoulders

I’ve been asked by those good people over at Grey Matter Press to contribute to a VERY exciting blog tour, in which the authors of the mighty EQUILIBRIUM OVERTURNED anthology (a 5-star best seller, dontcha know) offer their thoughts on the origins of their tales and/or the concept of a Horror Author’s best friend … Evil.

If you dare, I’d thoroughly recommend seeking out the other posts in the tour, which can be found at the Grey Matter Press site or the author’s individual blogs. All of them are excellent, and I’m honoured to present my own post here to join their ranks …

A DEVIL ON BOTH SHOULDERS

The devil on his left shoulder told him to kill her. He looked to the angel on his right. The angel smiled and said “Use the big knife.”

The above is a breath of microfiction that I composed for the Friday Phrases (#FP) phenomenon on Twitter, and when I was asked to contribute to this collection of thoughts on the concept of Evil, that FP was one of the first things that slithered into my mind.

It would be nice to think that Evil was that anthropomorphised little demon on your shoulder, an impulse that could be swept away like dust on your jacket, but as we know it’s not that simple. The modern science of the mind dismisses Evil as a metaphysical entity (the views of a certain Dr Loomis, a visitor to Haddonfield, Illinois, notwithstanding) and so, without the comfort blanket of believing that our species’ unpalatable actions are governed by some unknowable external force, we’re left with the cold hard truth that People Can Be Bad. It’s a frightening thought, that the gurgling, smiling baby that your co-worker proudly shows endless photographs of has the very real potential to grow up into a serial killer or cannibal. I’d venture that the assassins that have ascended into grim notoriety, the one’s with a heart on the stove or a head in the fridge, probably had a family photo album tucked away in the same apartment.

If you looked through that album, the chances are you wouldn’t be able to see the eyes of a killer in the pages. But it’s there, a time-bomb in the psyche, submerged in the coils as deeply as is the potential for good, if you ascribe to Jungian theory. There has been research to establish that there are certain physiological traits present in studied psychopaths (structural differences in the brain, a low resting heart rate etc) but of course these conclusions have been reached after the psychopathy has already been confirmed, when the evidence of a catastrophic behavioural glitch is in the bloodstains on the floor, their own irrefutable Rorschach test. These are the people with a devil on both shoulders.

It can’t be foreseen. As far as I’m aware no DNA test exists that can predict psychopathy in the womb (and wouldn’t that change the nature of those Jerry Springer type shows, with parents-to-be squabbling over which of them the flawed impulse came from?). Ultimately, we’re all born with our own devil on our shoulder, our own killer’s heart. It’s an instinct for survival and defence gifted to us by our reptilian selves, the primal fury that makes the placid man turn to violence when his family is directly threatened. Thankfully, for the most part in our lives, the most extreme responses of that instinct aren’t needed, and the reptilian brain remains a vigilant shadow behind the Paleo-mammalian and Neo-mammalian brains (respectively, our emotive and higher-thinking cores). The devil on our shoulder remains largely silent, quieted by the angelic constructs of society and culture.

As a Horror author, Evil, in both its metaphysical and real-world incarnations, is a tool of my trade, and I’ve learned to listen closely when that little devil whispers in my ear. I’ve never written about Evil as an absolute, bad just for the sake of it, because Evil needs a motivation or logic, however twisted it might seem to Human sensibilities. In my view, fictional Evil works best when it’s fuelled by, or preys upon the traits of Humanity, when it finds a breach or amoral void to exploit.

To return to the views of Dr Loomis, the psychiatrist devoted to ending Michael Myer’s killing spree in Halloween (1978), there’s a moment in the film when Loomis voices his assessment of Michael:

“I met this six-year-old child, with this blank, pale, emotionless face, and the blackest eyes… the devil’s eyes. I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply… evil.”

It’s a nice few lines in the script, and delivered with chilling elegance by Donald Pleasence, but there are clear metaphysical implications to what Loomis is saying. One might speculate that what he’s seeing in Michael is that amoral void I mentioned, a nothingness burned into him by the failed circuits of his psyche, and translating that in supernatural terms. On the (masked) face of it, Michael isn’t possessed. His inhuman resilience to injury aside (and again, that could be simply that he functions with his reptile brain in the pilot’s seat, the instinct that allows people to overcome the agony of a shattered leg and crawl away from a burning wreck), there’s nothing identifiably supernatural about Michael Myers. He’s presented as a kind of classic psychopath, finding a focus in the character of Laurie Strode, but content to leave a trail of random corpses behind him in his pursuit of her. He’s also somehow playful in his homicidal endeavours, taking a few moments to pose as sheet-wearing ghost prior to strangling one of his victims. His brief stint in a costume is there to provide a moment of tension and a slight amusement, but I like it because, intentionally or not, it contrasts the spooky trappings of the uncanny with the flesh and blood reality of Michael’s physical violence. He isn’t a ghost or a demon, he’s a man who just happens to be insane.

If there is Evil behind his eyes, it’s all his, and I think that gives us an intriguing perspective on how Evil might actually work, at least in fictional terms. What if Evil does exist as a metaphysical force, but rather than invading our lives from without, what if it’s infiltrating from within? What if something that each and every one of us is born with, our killer’s heart, our reptile brains, acts as a kind of lightning rod to our darker impulses? What if we’re all breathing the Evil in, absorbing it from each other in every touch or kiss or smile, never knowing the moment when it might reach enough critical mass to trip our kill-switch? What if the devil on your shoulder is calling his cousins home?

What if you have more than one?

 


Hide and Seek – #10WeeksOfHorror Writing Challenge

Ah, writing challenges, those silver-tongued and snake-hipped sirens that I find myself unable to resist! One such bright and shiny thing at the moment is the wonderful #10WeeksOfHorror challenge. The original post explaining the concept can be found here, at the oasis that is the Prose Before Ho Hos blog (DISPATCHES FROM THE MAN CAVE OF WRITERLY AWESOMENESS!), but essentially it involves being inspired by 10 writing prompts posted in the 10 weeks prior to Halloween (Halloween! Whoop Whoop! HALLOWEEN!). If you haven’t already, I’d thoroughly recommend heading over that way to take a look at the awesome poetry and prose the challenge has inspired so far. As I write this, we’re halfway through the challenge, and the following story owes its existence to the prompt Creepy Kids. I’d like to thank the splendid Jessica West (@West1Jess), who I’d venture is something of a silver-tongued, snake-hipped siren herself, for kindly bending the laws of time a little with the submission deadline.

Incidentally, all of the prompts are nefarious variations on the 12 Days Of Christmas song (5 Creepy Kids as opposed to 5 Gold Rings etc) and, given they’re counting down to Halloween (I’m excited about Halloween, have I mentioned that?), they come across almost as a strange, dark reflection of the original song, a kind of evil twin, if you will, which considering what you’re hopefully about to read, seems somehow apt …

Of all the games that Liam had played in his nine years, hide and seek was his very favourite. Even now, although it was dark, and he could hear more murmurs of thunder approaching the house, he could feel the excitement of the game running through him, feel his heart beat faster, feel his palm grow damp around the neck of the broken bottle he held.

He thrust it into a shadowed corner, disappointed when the sharp, jagged edges found nothing but empty air. He much preferred to be seeking rather than hiding, but the game seemed to have lasted a long time, and he and his sister seemed to be getting nowhere. He supposed that two seekers against one hider wasn’t fair, but Lauren had said that, as she was older than him – almost by two minutes – that made her the grown up and she could change the rules of the game if she wanted.

He could hear her upstairs, stamping about, opening doors and cupboards, breaking things. Sometimes he heard her singing, songs from that boy-band that she had all the posters of on her bedroom wall. Her singing wasn’t very good, but Liam loved his sister, and would never tell her that. He wouldn’t dare.

She had the carving knife. Liam had wanted it, but again Lauren had told him that she was the eldest, she was in charge, and that if he wanted to play then he’d have to use the bottle. He’d struggled to smash it properly though, thumping it uselessly against the kitchen worktop, until Lauren had taken it from him and shattered the base upon the stone steps outside the front door.

‘Be careful,’ she’d said as she handed him the weapon. ‘There’s just the two of us, remember.’

He’d nodded, understanding. Just the two of them, looking after each other, just like always. He still remembered the other one, though, had thin, hazy memories of a third, stuttering heartbeat with them in their mother’s tummy, an interloper in their living cradle. Their brother had been much smaller than either of them, less developed, with barely a scrap of mind to him, no thoughts, just a shallow puddle of feelings cased in soft bone. His confused, numbed tangle of emotions had been an unwelcome ghost on the secret frequency between Liam and Lauren, a kind of idiot static crackling through their line of communication. He’d been a spindly little thing as well, Liam recalled, a blind shape sheathed in thin, vein-webbed skin that, as Lauren had promised, even the twins’ tiny fingers could puncture and tear.

Lauren claimed to remember it all, but Liam remembered enough. Their mother had told people she’d lost their sibling – Liam had heard her say as much, back when he was a newborn himself, and she’d felt that she could talk freely. Lost. That was how she’d phrased it, talking to someone else in the hospital while Liam nestled into the soft warmth of her breasts, pretending to be asleep but listening to every word. Lost, as though their brother had been a cluster of car keys instead of a cluster of cells, and that had always struck Liam as strange, because she hadn’t lost him at all. The dismantled tatters of him had emerged from her minutes after the twin’s own sudden arrival into the world.

Being outside had felt very different to being in their mother’s tummy, too bright and too cold, a frightening tide of colours and sounds. There were green sheets and silver lights where there had been only a rich, watery dark, and loud voices where there had only been the rush of blood and the soothing throb of his and Lauren’s pulses. There had been screams. Yes, their brother had shrieked as the last of him was unravelled, but that had been a been a kind of confused, scared echo on the twins’ mental wavelength, nothing like the noises that had welcomed them into the world, their own spidery wails and the thick, hoarse cries that shuddered from their mother when she saw their sibling.

They were real screams, long howls that splintered in the air, spilling pain and horror and distress from the cracks. The kind of screams he’d heard tonight.

He stepped quietly into the dining room. There was nowhere to hide in here, not really, not except under the wide wooden table. He crouched, not near enough so that anyone hiding under there could reach out and clutch at him, and angled the glass teeth of the bottle into the darkness beneath. Through the wide window of the dining room he saw the lightning flash, as if the clouds were taking snapshots of the surrounding countryside. For a moment he thought he saw a trembling shape huddled back near one of the legs and he raised the bottle, ready to jab it forward, but the shape faded with the lightning, and he breathed again. The space beneath the table was empty. She wasn’t there.

He stood. He could hear Lauren on the landing, hear the stairs creak as she started down them. She must have finished her search, and she would have called out if she’d found the hider, if only to let him know that she’d won the game. But she hadn’t called out, and that meant that he might still win for once. The doors and windows were all locked, and Lauren hadn’t even told him where she’d hidden the keys, and there was no way out of the house until the game was over. Lauren hadn’t found her upstairs, and he’d searched almost everywhere down here, which meant that there was only one room where the hider could be. He could do this. He could still win.

The thunder growled as he entered the living room. The storm was getting closer, he thought, just like him. The carpet squished beneath his shoes as he moved forward. He should have known that this was where she’d be. This was where the game had begun tonight. He should have known that she’d come back here.

‘Liam!’ Lauren was shouting. She sounded like she was at the bottom of the stairs now. ‘Liam, where are you?’

He didn’t answer. He was so close now. He kept looking down at his feet, navigating a silent path between the dark, wet islands on the carpet. The first teardrops of rain had begun to fall, ticking against the windowpane. He glanced that way and saw smeared, bloody handprints on the glass, where she’d tried to escape. As he drew nearer to the sofa, he thought he could hear her breathing.

Somewhere behind him, in another room, he could hear Lauren swinging open doors, hear the metallic swish of loops on a rail as she pulled curtains aside, checking all the places he’d already checked, as if she thought he wasn’t any good at the game. He’d show her. He was going to be the winner.

Another flicker of lightning showed him the shape behind the sofa, not his imagination this time. She probably thought she was well hidden, that she was playing the game well, but Liam could see one of her hands, trembling, the thin fingers twitching. She looked like she was wearing a red glove.

‘Liam!’ Lauren yelled again. She sounded close now, like she was in the dining room, but she was too late. He had won.

He moved closer to the shape behind the sofa, bringing the glassy fangs of the bottle upwards to strike. He stood in front of her, stepping over his father’s outstretched legs to do so.

‘Found you, Mum.’ he said.

She looked up at him through the wet strands of her hair, and he thought that her eyes looked strange, too dark somehow, too flat, like the eyes of the teddy bears in Lauren’s room. It was if something was missing from them now, nothing left but the same murky void that he’d found in his brother, no thoughts, just feelings. Lauren had managed to catch her a few times in the tummy with the carving knife, but looking at her now, with her empty eyes and her slim, white arm draped across their dead father’s chest, Liam started to understand that she was hurt in some other way, some way that he couldn’t quite see, some kind of pain that even a kiss couldn’t make better. It made him feel a little sad. He had wanted her to enjoy the game as much as him, right to the very end.

He raised the bottle, hesitating when she spoke.

‘Liam …’ Her voice sounded heavy, too wet, as if she were breaking her own rules and talking with her mouth full. Her bloody hand shook as she brought it up. Her fingers reached for the bottle and he thought she was going to try and snatch it from him, but instead her fingertips merely brushed the broken, jagged edges.

‘Sharp, my love …’ she said thickly. ‘… careful, don’t … cut yourself …’

And there it was again, that light in her eyes that he knew so well, the one he’d always craved when knees were scraped and heads were bumped, when gold stars at school needed an approving smile or lullabies needed to be sung. That light, that sparkle. It made her eyes shine, made them glow as bright as cat’s eyes in the shadows of the living room, and so that was where he aimed the shattered teeth of the bottle, again and again.

When it was done, he heard Lauren’s voice behind him. ‘Oh,’ she said, disappointed. ‘You won.’

He turned. She was standing in the doorway to the living room, the carving knife still in her hand. Lightning painted her pale features paler for a moment, and less than a heartbeat later the thunder boomed. The storm was right on top of them, he thought.

He looked down at the bottle, its fangs glistening now. The shape of it looked different, some of the teeth shattered or lost. He knew that if he glanced at the wet wreckage of his mother’s face he would find them, but he didn’t look. He didn’t have to. He knew he’d see it forever.

He threw the bottle aside. It thumped to the carpet and rolled away into the shadows.

‘I want to go outside.’ he said. Suddenly his face felt too hot and sticky and all he wanted was the rain on his skin, the cold on his face. ‘Where are the keys?’

‘You can’t go, not yet.’ Lauren told him, her smooth forehead creasing into a little frown. ‘The game isn’t over.’

He shook his head and made a small gesture at their parents, but he didn’t look at them. Suddenly he didn’t feel like he could do that. ‘Of course it is. There’s no-one left to seek. I won.’

‘I’m changing the rules again,’ Lauren said, stepping forward. ‘If you want to go outside, now you have to look for the keys.’

The thunder spoke just before he did. ‘And what about you? What will be you be doing?’

‘I’ll be seeking you, of course.’ she said brightly, and he realised that while he had thrown the broken bottle aside, his sister still held the carving knife.

‘Tag, Liam.’ she smiled. ‘You’re it.’