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Respectable Horror: Matthew Pegg

MR James Ghost StoriesHaunted Objects.

Sometimes it can be quite hard to put your finger on exactly where a story came from or what inspired it, because so much of writing happens in the subconscious. I usually start out with a snippet of a plot, or a character or an idea, but once I start writing other things accrue and attach themselves to it; events occur that I wasn’t expecting, characters pop up and demand to take part, the story takes on a life of its own.

But I can put my finger on some of the influences on The Well Wisher.

I’ve always liked classic horror and ghost stories, ever since reading my grandparent’s copy of A Century of Thrillers: From Poe to Arlen, which sat on their small and only bookshelf, along with The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith. (I’ve still got the book and the bookshelf.) A Century of Thrillers is a chunky volume, published by The Daily Express newspaper in the 1930s. Its a great collection of classic tales and well worth tracking down.

I wanted to write a story in that vein and thought it would be interesting to write about a haunted object. M.R. James’s The Mezzotint, A Candle in Her Room, (a terrifying children’s book by Ruth M. Arthur,) and Stephen King’s Christine all tackle this concept in quite different ways.

James’s haunted engraving replays a horrific incident from the past but doesn’t offer any real threat to its observers. You could argue that the true horror of the tale lies in the fact that the protagonist is powerless to influence the events he sees slowly unfolding in the picture.

In A Candle in Her Room the wooden doll Dido exerts a malign influence over three generations of the same family. It is the way that possession of the doll changes its owner that is frightening.

The Witch DollChristine, the 1950s Plymouth Fury, is the most concrete haunted object of the three, quite capable of killing you on its own. But like Dido, possession of Christine changes its owner. I like the way King turns the classic 1950s car, a symbol of the American Dream, into something evil. I also like the detail, missing from the film, that Christine’s milometer runs backwards: the more you drive it the newer the car gets. When thugs trash the car, owner Arnie pushes it round the block all night, putting his back out in the process, until the car repairs itself. There’s something satisfying about the physicality of that action.

I had a feeling that if you’re going to write about a haunted object then it should be a functional object, and if its normal function can become threatening in some way then that seemed to me to be satisfyingly neat. Of the three examples of haunted objects above, I think only in Christine do you get a sense of what has caused an inanimate object to turn nasty: Christine has been created by the human hatred of its previous owner, rather than any supernatural force. So its progenitors are Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde rather than Dracula: we create the monster and we become the monster, rather than the monster being a threat from elsewhere.

I like structure in stories. I find it satisfying when things have some kind of internal logic. So I wanted to know why my haunted object behaved the way it did. And that ‘why’ had to also be something to do with it’s function. That was what I was trying to achieve and I hope it works.

I’m being a bit coy about revealing too much about The Well Wisher because I hope you’ll read it and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Miss Andrews, the central character, evolved all on her own to become a troubled, clever, kind, brave, flawed person. And I can’t claim to have planned any of that, it just happened. I do know that one influence on her was Jane Eyre. I’d recently seen a theatre version of the story and it was rattling round in my brain, especially Jane’s orphan status and poverty, which define the choices she can make in life.

For an unmarried Victorian woman, educated but not wealthy, being a governess was one of the few options available. Charlotte and Anne Bronte did this in real life and that experience is reflected in both Jane Eyre and Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey.

I felt that the Victorian governess was in a rather uneasy position, not quite one of the servants, but not truly a member of the family either. I liked that sense of isolation, unease and insecurity.

So Miss Andrews became a governess, sometimes too forthright for her own good but worried about her future, and much braver than me. I would like to know what happens to her next.

But as I said at the start, a lot of any story emerges from the subconscious. So when I was reading the proof copy of Respectable Horror, I was struck by how much of The Well Wisher seemed quite unfamiliar. “Where did that come from,” I wondered, “And that?”

I can’t even claim credit for the double meaning in the title….
 
Matthew Pegg is a writer based in Leicestershire in the UK. Most of his writing has been for theatre and includes work for puppet companies, youth theatres, community plays and a script designed to be performed during a medieval banquet. His most recent theatre work was Escaping Alice, a love story with chains and handcuffs, for York Theatre Royal. He’s also completed a community radio play based on the life of Wordsworth and has been commissioned to create a puppet play to tour to care homes for people suffering from dementia. In 2012 he completed an MA in Creative Writing, and since then he has been working on a novel, and placing short fiction with a variety of publishers. Website: http://www.mpegg.co.uk 

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Waxing Lyrical : Orange is the New Black by Ferdinand Page

(If you are interested in writing for Waxing Lyrical please contact adele@foxspirit.co.uk)

Orange_is_the_new_Black

For every fiction writer, the book shares roughly the same gestation period of a newborn infant. On arrival, both share the same fate; however special, individual and unique, it gets a label stuck on it.

At the submission stage the infant book must be allocated an age range, readership and genre(s), rather like, to quote the magnificent Della in Raised By Wolves, “pushing an enraged otter into a jumpsuit.” When I drew up the first submission letter, I admit I’d pushed the idea of writing for the market around the plate, until my writer’s stomach rebelled, but the book was what it wanted to be by then, characters and plot repeatedly hijacked by a story which wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Unpacking the phrase I admit I’d pushed the idea of writing for the market in the interests of explanatory splainy, my first experience of writing commercially was on the fringes of a big concept. I got sucked in, like that time the Millenium Falcon got sucked into the pull of the Death Star, then spent a lot of time in start-up production companies in Soho or whatever space the leading commercial creative could cadge for meetings. Mostly it was in cafés where I found I was paying the bill. My bit of the project was to adjust the story to accommodate various amazeballs marketing opportunities. So Billy wasn’t dyslexic, he was a skateboarder; it was partly manga so the production company could play around with a very cool technique they were developing, but the sound therapy and dynamic yoga had to get in there somewhere. We were up to seven interlocking universes by the time I said I was losing my way a little amongst the high-concept stuff and I’d like to write my own book.

I still had Billy and he was dyslexic but everything else was completely different. Until the obvious market demands were removed, I didn’t realize the biggest force on writing in any genre, even bigger than the Death Star, is the story, an unstoppable, sucky, manipulative force breaking and re-making the outline and carefully constructed arcs of the first few drafts.

At some point the story has to be shoved, kicking and snarling, into the constraints of commercial publishing and marketing. Readers are as wide and diverse as people, but books go on shelves. Which shelf? You have to get slotty, or shelvish which is the same thing but looks like Lionel Bloom and has pointed ears. First you are brave and upfront in describing the book as written for, well anyone really, then you use the word crossover, then you realise you’ve gone over to the dark side and in a couple of sentences you’re going to stab Han Solo your own father between the second and third ribs. Didn’t you hate that bit? I hated that bit.

It gets worse. Having removed a few genre crossovers because anything that difficult to shelve isn’t going to get past the first submission (good plan) you find that the label your story goes under, the shelf allocation for your genre, isn’t fashionable.

Orange is the new black in your genre.

There is only one label left, the one they tie on the body in the morgue? No. Genre is always a matter of labelling, and the market in publishing is subject to fashions. As labels go, my speculative fiction is mainly urban fantasy. Some months ago an agent told me they were “not taking urban fantasy”, which another source informed me was, well – dead. But whatever the label, and still under that label, urban fantasy exists.

You can choose another label, my submission letter now refers to ‘contemporary fiction’, or invent your own, or push it as retro-pastiche.

But don’t try and hack the unfashionable genre out of the story. The story knows what it is and fashions in genre apart, it is what it is. Stick whatever label on it you need to, what gets the book published is the story.

Trust the story.

African Monsters : The Tokoloshe by Nick Wood

Why the Tokoloshe?

Have a look at Penny Miller’s (1979) wonderful ‘Myths and Legends of Southern Africa’ or, if you’re more academically inclined, try Nhlanhla Mkhize’s (1996) ‘Mind, gender, and culture: A critical evaluation of the phenomenon of Tokoloshe “sightings” among prepubescent girls in Kwazulu-Natal’ – via http://www.criticalmethods.org/bodtwo.htm

penny

But, as for me, if you want the truth, the little monster called me to watch him…

*****

The Tokoloshe smelt someone coming, even as the late afternoon air hummed with hot sun and clouds and a rainbow arch crumbled into a million dying pieces above his head.

Still, the river flowed strongly, swirling logs and leaves and dead fleshy things past him.

He stepped up onto the river bank to sniff the air, and he could smell the coming human was a she.

He grinned then, licking his sharp teeth, flicking fur out of his eyes and twisting his only garment, a leather strung hip pouch, into ready position. His witch would be pleased. The thick riverside bushes bustled with movement.

Ooh, a young smell. She whom he served would be very pleased.

He slung his penis over his left shoulder and fumbled in his pouch for his stone, but there was no time. The bushes burst apart and a skinny, dishevelled girl was staring down at him.

She looked tired and her trousers were torn, with both her legs bleeding.

I know, fuck those thorn bushes, he thought, but the girl’s eyes opened wide in shock and she shrunk against the bushes.

He licked his teeth again, slowly, waiting for her to turn and run.

But she stood firm, returning his gaze.

He grabbed his penis, flailing it like a warning whip.

Still, she did not run.

Brave or stupid?

Either way, she was dead meat.

He leaped forward to grab her…

Aunty Fox guest post on The Asian Writer.

You are probably all familiar with the fuss over the Hugo’s and therefore Worldcon. Well I was fortunate to be invited to comment on diversity in SF and the events scene on The Asian Writer and the article went live today.

You all know that diversity in spec fiction is important to me, I’ve posted on it before, but it would be a real shame if we let the puppy contingent be seen as speaking for our community.

diverse

Spinning Tails: Animals and Cornish Spyrys (Fae) By R. A. Kennedy

Something a little different for you today from deepest Cronwall (where they put jam on their scone then the cream). So without further ado I shall hand you over to your host for the day. R.A. Kennedy.

***

When asked to do an article about Cornish Fae by Aunty Fox, I immediately knew what it was I wanted to write about. Animals.
It comes as no surprise that animals are prevalent in Folklore, and Cornish folklore is certainly no different.
The relationship between Fae and animal shows that the two can coexist, and their destinies coincide and collide with one another on a regular basis.

I remembered hearing a story when I was in Primary School and since have heard only a few times after, although very different versions to what I originally heard. I havent been successful in finding it any publications online or otherwise. I did however manage to find out from other sources such as friends etc that such a story is within existence. However, the many different versions makes it difficult to confirm where in Cornwall it happened. Folklore is like Chinese whispers i.e A barrel can roll to one end of the street and in the next town that barrel can be something else. Its one of the many wonderful things about such stories.
So I took up my trenchcoat and fedora and went into the Private Investigation business. So let me tell you about it, its quite extraordinary.

Sculpture by Marilyn Collins. Image source http://undergroundlore.blogspot.co.uk

Sculpture by Marilyn Collins. Image source http://undergroundlore.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/i-love-spriggans-in-springtime-i-love.html

Romeo Kennedy F.I.
Thats my name over the door. The F is for Folklore and the I is for Investigator, or on a bad day the F can stand for Innumerable amount of things that I’m not willing to repeat.
Tracking down stories is my thing. Stories that lay hidden for years, stories that tell of the Spyrys and all manner of wonderful creatures, among other things.
I was sitting at my desk, late one misty Monday evening when there was a knock at the door. With a creak and a groan I got up from my comfy chair and casually opened the door.
Said she was a Spriggan, told me her brother had gone missing, asked me to find him.
I asked how long he had been missing?
She told me a thousand years.
The look on my face said it all. ‘Did you not think to search for him a bit sooner?’ I asked
Thats me, always try to go for the cheap shot. Needless to say she wasn’t Impressed and the snarl and large hands around my throat told me as much.
Looks like I have a new client, I thought, and I wasn’t in any position to argue.

The Spriggan told me that her brother’s name was Tiddy and he just upped and disappeared one night. Spriggans don’t tend to leave explanations. Hell they never usually leave anything except bones. Especially when treasure is involved.
Before Tiddy’s departure, he would regularly make long distance journeys to somewhere and come back with nets full of fish. When his sister asked where he had been Tiddy said not to ask. This went on for months, until he vanished.
‘Maybe he doesn’t want to be found?’ I said taking a sip of my stone cold coffee.
Apparently that wasn’t the case.
A few days before our meeting she was handed a note by a Pisky named Trevara. I say ‘a note’; it was more of a cryptic scrawl written on a leaf in a watery blue ink.
She handed me the screwed up leaf and I held it under the lamp. I couldn’t read whatever the hell it said but knew someone who could. I asked if it was okay to hold on to it.
That was all she could tell me. Other than: ‘Find him.’ Which was either a threat or just a friendly reminder that if I didn’t I would probably have a lot more free time on my hands, if you catch my drift?

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European Monsters : Mermaids and the Deep

Mermaids and The Deep
Peter Damien

It’s an interesting thing what happens, when you tell people that you really like mermaids and mer-folk and writing stories about them. They have a pretty specific idea what your mer-folk look like and therefore what kind of story you’re probably writing about them. Specifically, Disney. If you say “mermaids,” people understand that you probably have some sort of singing Jamaican Lobster around the edges somewhere.

So with that in mind, it’s really interesting what happens when you tell people that 1) you’re writing a ghost story, approaching being a horror story and 2) your mermaids aren’t necessarily friendly beautiful half-women who are wondering what fire is, and why it burns, but might have more in common with the strange and alien things that live in the depths of our oceans. It doesn’t process, and mostly I get an odd look and they wander off.

I don’t care. I love mermaids, and I know exactly when it started: there was a brief sequence in a live-action Peter Pan movie from 2003, starring Jason Isaacs (who is somehow not always Lucius Malfoy??) in which for a brief second, we meet mermaids. They are pale and not friendly-looking at all, strange creatures that do look like, if you fall into the water, they might eat you.

jason2

That was all it took. Since 2003, I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in my head and on paper building my own world of mermaids which had more to do with my abiding love of marine biology than it did with Disney mermaids. I’ve almost never discussed it, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I was excited to get to use some of it, in the story Old Bones. Tracing the origins of stories and the things that appear in them is always tricky, isn’t it? It’s such a blurring mash in your head. Here, though, it came from a song by a band called Nightwish, of whom I am a massive fan. The song was called Turn Loose the Mermaids. From the lyrics of the song, I garnered a general notion of mermaids, ghosts, and being exhausted and longing for rest. Impressions like these drift around in the back of my head, where they collect ideas, pulling from my mermaid lore, my general love of ghost stories (both haunting and tragic) and like so, my story began to come together. A story of an old man, made both physical and mental wreckage by his time at sea and the brutality of that life. From there, I had a very clear image of him coming out one night and on the rocky beach by his home, he sees a mermaid dragging herself across the ground and toward a graveyard. A strange, pale creature with long hair – more like seaweed than human hair – and sharp teeth, with too-big eyes. Not a Disney mermaid at all, but definitely a creature of the deep.

Mermaids are brilliant monsters when you start looking at marine biology and working out why things work the way they do underwater, and how a mermaid would exist down there. And personality-wise, they would be drastically alien to us. At least in the beginning. As the story goes, I try to humanize them, because there is nothing more engaging (and scary, sometimes) than humanizing a monster and making them relatable, or suggesting that perhaps the true horror isn’t the strange creature at all, but very human and acceptable elements of our lives: brutal violence, bad memories, old ghosts haunting our sleep and our lives without any spirits around at all.

(Well. Some spirits. Come on. Who can resist putting mermaids and ghosts into the same story? Not this guy.)

Drag Noir: Redfern Jon Barrett

RedfernJonBarrettDisability as Drag
Redfern Jon Barrett

Regardless of the social progress made in recent years, our world is still not yet kind to the subversive: women who love women remain the target of stares and lewd comments; men who love men have blood which is considered unclean by the majority of the planet’s health authorities (because ‘AIDS was invented by homos’); whilst men who dress as women are still victim to physical and verbal abuse. Public acceptance may be on the increase, but as every queer person and drag queen knows, we have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, a different yet parallel rights movement is fighting for its own social and legal equality: rights for the disabled. Those with cerebral palsy are still the target of stares and verbal abuse; those with mobility needs are still denied access to the majority of the planet’s public transportation (back of the bus? You’re not even getting on!); whilst closed-circuit hearing loops are still absent from most public spaces. Progress has been made, but as every blind or autistic person knows, we have a long way to go.

Of course there are more similarities between disability and gender nonconformity than my structuring two similar paragraphs on each. Firstly, each has the ability to make the public uncomfortable, as each causes us to question our own identities: whether the shaky and often-transitional nature of our perceived gender, or our immortal able-bodiedness. Each presents us with  a deviation from the norm which a great number of people still feel uncomfortable with, and which presents this difficult truth: that the privilege one receives for cis-heterosexuality or able-bodiedness is a result of random chaotic chance.

The second similarity is that both gender nonconformity and disability have been heavily medicalised by both public discourse and institutions. The very term ‘homosexuality’ was coined in an attempt to diagnose a mental condition; trans people are subject to intense physical and mental scrutiny by medical professionals who pass ultimate judgement on their personal identities; the disabled are also still viewed through this same medical lens. Are deaf people merely a medical condition, or a culture with its own language and social groupings? The nonconformists share a history of dehumanising medical discourse. Both groupings have been the target of eugenics programs. It is this similarity which prompted me to write my sci-fi short story ‘Straight Baby’.

It is this shared discourse lies at the heart of the story. In a world in which parents have (or believe they have) genetically engineered every aspect of their children, the disabled and the queer face the same threat of marginalisation and persecution. This shared struggle is embodied in Thomas, a disabled homosexual who faces intense persecution because of the random chaotic chance of his birth – a deviance which can never be truly eradicated, regardless of technological advancement.

Yet the story also examines the interplay between his identities as a gay, disabled man. Whilst other gay men are beaten and arrested when caught with other men, Thomas’ physical disability has, thus far, allowed him to escape the clutches of the heterosexist legal system. In this future, as in our own time, the disabled are frequently viewed as asexual. Thomas’ physical state covers his deviance as a homosexual: his disability is his drag.

Yet Thomas’ drag is not merely external. He manages his position in society via an internal drag, mentally conceiving of himself as a female femme-fatale – a perspective which allows him to navigate his affairs with married men. In short, Thomas is a sexual being in the ‘asexual’ drag of disability, perceiving himself in female terms. Each ‘deviance’ contradicts and reinforces the other. He is a threat masquerading as harmless.

At its root, the story is based in the fact that every struggle is a shared struggle. Gay men and wheelchair users, lesbians and the blind, drag queens and the autistic have all been marginalised by social and medical discourse. Without solidarity and recognition of our shared fight, we risk a future in which society once again uses technology in an attempt to eradicate the nonconformists – a future in which no drag can save us.

DRAG NOIR is out tomorrow!

 

Drag Noir: Becky Thacker

Becky Thacker

Portrait of the author in her younger days

How I Came to Write ‘Geezer Dyke’

Becky Thacker

A port stop during a cruise disembarked us in Mexico, facing a row of tour vans and buses.  Most of these were staffed by sign-wielding native folks with weary, worldly-wise faces; obviously they did this job for the living it provided and not because they found it fun. One of the tour guides was a lesbian, white-skinned, aging none too gracefully, and it was evident from her accent that she’d begun life as a North American Midwesterner. She looked and clearly felt, however, more akin to her brown-skinned career associates than to the flocks of North American tourists who surrounded her. We wondered what, or who, had led her to this path.   And of course, romantics that we are, we wondered whom she went home to when her day of tourist-wrangling was over.

DRAG NOIR: Out this Halloween!

Cover by S. L. Johnson

Cover by S. L. Johnson

 

Things I learned from Cult TV by Fiona Hutchings

Life Lessons in 50 Minutes

Cult TV shows become cult because they provide the viewer with something to relate to.  It might be a character or story resonates with the audience straight away or makes us laugh.  Equally it might provoke confusion and even distress but being aware that we are reacting is why we watch some things over and over, quote them to our friends and ‘like’ them on Facebook.

ST:TNG and DS9 both taught me that no one is every wholly good or bad and that sometimes painful decisions are necessary.  Troi sending La Forge to his certain death in order to pass her command exam has always stuck in my mind.  While Roddenberry’s optimistic view of humanity was a welcome relief from the many apocalyptic/post apocalyptic visions of the future, it didn’t shy away from showing some situations can not be resolved neatly and painlessly.  While Kirk revelled in being the boss, TNG explored the weight of responsibility that comes with power.

kirk

This was also a recurring theme in The West Wing.  In the season 2 finale ‘Two Cathedrals’ the President stops being the commander in chief and instead becomes accessible.  He stands alone in the great and holy space and vents his sheer fury with the God he believes in.  His anger and confusion and disgust as he rails against a force unseen and unheard resonated with me so powerfully the scene left me sobbing.  I thought I was the only person who struggled with reconciling the idea of a supposedly loving God  with the pain and hate and downright unfairness I see in life everyday.

Doctor Who taught me that love can run very deep without being romantic or parental and that no man is an island, even a mad man in a box.  The Doctor in all his regenerations has been very clever but despite having two hearts he has relied on the human sensitivities of many of his companions to come to important decisions.  In return his companions and his audience have been presented with ethical dilemmas with no obvious answer and resolutions that must be reached with the minimum of violence, at least on The Doctor’s part.

Firefly demonstrated that morality is a social construct not an absolute.  If Inara Serra was being portrayed in a TV show set in the present, her job as a companion would not be lauded or as glamorous as it seems aboard Serenity.   She would be damaged in some way, there would be drugs and violence around her which would wreak havoc inside and out.  She would be judged and discarded and be presented as an invisible part of a society that would like to pretend she didn’t exist.

inara

In Whedon’s world Inara is perfectly happy with her chosen profession and it grants her a higher social standing than Captain Tightpants and his ragtag crew of soldiers, preachers, medics, mercenaries and, well, River.  Inara is one of the few female characters who is shown as at peace with her sexual appetites and partners.  That some clients are female provoke no anxiety about her sexuality, she is truly comfortable in her own skin.  Plus although there is a strong romantic undercurrent between her and Mal, neither sees those unspoken feelings as meaning they can’t have sex with other people.  In making sex such a fundamental part of Inara, it actually freed her from the usual stereotypes and expectations so many female characters become buried under.

Sometimes 50 minutes considering what constitutes a violation of the prime directive or a UN peace treaty, crying with a President because grief and loss leave scars that never quite heals or getting lost in a space western is the best therapy there is.

What I Learned from Cult TV by Tony Lane

What The A-Team Taught Me
When I first watched the A-Team I remember thinking that for a unit of soldiers they were all really bad shots. Watching ten years later I had a better understanding of what suppressive fire was. In basic terms it means to proving covering fire to aid the movement of troops. The added bonus being that it is significantly harder to stand up and shoot straight with incoming fire whizzing above your noggin. Last year I watched some episodes again and realized that the firing of weapons by The A-Team was usually a distraction as well as covering fire. It made me think of that old adage about true strength being in not using your strength. I’m pretty sure that any member of the team could have wasted every single criminal in their path whilst they were sleeping if they wanted to. That for me was always one of the central parts of the story. They were accused of theft and murder but when they acted as mercenaries for hire they asked for little or no financial recompense or glory. Must importantly though they did not kill the criminals and took great pains to avoid seriously injuring them.
ateam w

It was a violent show. People got hurt, but NOBODY got killed unless it was important to the plot. Think back to all those car crashes. There was always a shot of somebody crawling out of the car. When somebody was shot they were only winged by a through-and-through. Everybody pulped by B.A Baracus either got up or was shown later in cuffs.
Cabbage cannons! How freaking cool! OK, I’ll calm down now. There was something fundamentally appealing about the way The A-Team were able to turn a pile of old junk in to a tank with a bizarre but effective weapon. I may have strapped the odd water pistol and stick to my bike after watching an episode. I still would if I was allowed.
I can’t really talk about The A-Team without mentioning Hannibal. The leader and perennial smartest man in the building always gave off the impression that he was intellectually bored and seeking a challenge. I loved the way he took great delight in using disguises and other methods of subterfuge to undermine the bad guys. It was like he was playing chess several games ahead. It showed that you didn’t have to be as physically imposing as B.A. Baracus or mad like Murdock to be effective at taking nasty people down a peg or two.
a team
More than anything the thing I got most out of this show was a pretext to play soldiers in the woods  with other kids. We didn’t need to know each other as we could just play a role from The A-Team.