Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Top 5... Books With WTF? Endings

Have you ever enjoyed a novel, only to feel let down by a weak, poorly thought out, or simply insane ending?  As if the author gave up on making sense and decided to let his pot-smoking dog write the final chapter instead.  Some writers base an entire novel around an ending that doesn't make much sense - a prime example of which is Jeffrey Eugenides and The Virgin Suicides.  Below are five examples of how to do it properly: these books will leave you baffled, bemused and scratching your head, but ultimately grateful for the experience.  I've included no spoilers, so that you may go on to enjoy these mad, mad stories for yourself.

5. I'm Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti
This novel's opening premise is as bizarre as its ending - the central character, a young boy in 1940s Italy, discovers a hole in the ground which conceals a captive child.  Initially, I expected the story to play out like a fairy tale - is the boy a monster, or some kind of spirit?  Neither - the explanation is much more logical, although no less surprising.

4. The Snow Garden by Christopher Rice
The main characters in Rice's second novel all see their freshman year of college as a chance to reinvent themselves and shed the troubles of their former lives.  This means that, as a reader, you grow to empathise with people who are not what they seem.  The climactic scenes in this book are among the most bizarre, grotesque and well-written endings that I have ever read.

3. Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis
I'm pretty sure that you could include most novels from Bret Easton Ellis's oeuvre here, from the abrupt, mid-sentence ending of The Rules of Attraction to the peculiar revelations of American Psycho.  But Lunar Park is my personal choice for this list, simply as it is the most frustrating.  It seems to switch genre every couple of pages, transforming from a standard Bret Easton Ellis sex-and-drug-fuelled romp into a ghost story, a missing child drama, a horror tale, and ultimately, pure meta-fiction.  I'll admit to not very much liking this book for the entire time I was reading it - that is, until its poetic, redemptive final few pages.

2. The Accidental by Ali Smith
Amber, a most peculiar woman, arrives out of nowhere to disrupt a troubled family's holiday.  The husband assumes she is a friend of his wife, and the wife assumes the opposite.  The truth is, nobody knows who Amber is or where she came from.  She inserts herself into the daily lives of their children: young, curious Astrid and anxious teenager Magnus.  For a little while, you suspect this is going to be one of those stories where a magical stranger changes a family's lives for the better - but nothing could be further from the truth.  The final few chapters of The Accidental confound the reader so much that it is impossible to resist the urge to go back and read from the beginning, in the hopes that you missed some kind of clue that will give this book some kind of meaning.

1. Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont
If you're a fan of the films of David Lynch, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  The central character is a taxi driver who has spent so long working the night shift that he feels disconnected to real life.  Into his fractious world walks Valerie, a terminally ill woman who lives at 13 Wish Road.  As the driver's hold on reality begins to crumble, he discovers that there is no Number 13 Wish Road - the street ends at 12.  Soon, he is meeting more people like Valerie - individuals that seem to know him, even though he has never met them before.  Thus begins a surreal, riveting journey into madness.

Flash Fiction #7: Two Minutes

It's surprisingly easy getting your hands on a pregnancy test when civilisation has all but crumbled around you.  Pharmacies are one of the first places to get looted - people stocking up on painkillers, bandages, caffeine pills, cough syrup, fucking contact lenses - but nobody's in a real hurry to pee on a stick.

I'd witnessed the end of the world along with a handful of others, fled my house without even a backwards glance.  I'd adapted to a life underground, only returning to the surface on salvage missions with Ty.  I'd quickly schooled myself in the arts of self defense and interrogation.  I've earned, quite rightfully, a reputation among our new community as quite the hard-ass.  But none of that prepared me for the agonising, seemingly endless two minute wait.

Two minutes.  Long enough to ponder what the hell I was going to do if it was positive.  If I was going to be relieved if it turned out negative - after all, it's not like bringing a child into this world would be the responsible thing to do.  I hadn't said a thing to Ty - at this very moment he thought I was fetching more medical supplies, not crouching in a doorless restroom, wishing I still had a watch so I could track the passing seconds.

Could I be a mother?  Before the world ended, I'd always just assumed I'd make the decision when I was older and more mature.  While life had forced me to grow up a hell of a lot faster than I'd intended, I still wasn't sure whether I had what it took.  Kids were hard work, apocalypse aside.

Ty would be thrilled, though.  We've known each other for a year, and been together for less than that.  But I know he would make a great father.  I've seen him protect strangers, horrible people who didn't deserve saving.  But he did anyway.  Because that's who he is.  If they ever do manage to rebuild, to launch an Earth 2.0, Ty would make an excellent blueprint.  Me, not so much.

Two minutes.

Of course, it was positive.  Life just wasn't complicated enough these days.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

"Little Death" Extract 6: Haunted (continued)

"Your coffee, sir."
"Thanks," Zach takes the proffered cup with one hand and digs a folded, Xeroxed photo out of his jeans with the other.  "I don't suppose you've seen this girl around, have you?"
The teenager behind the counter squints at the photo for a couple of seconds, then shrugs.
"Don't recognise her.  But we get tons of people in here."
"Alright, well thanks anyway."
The sheer logistics of the task before him begin to dawn on Zach.  How many people will he have to flash this picture to before he can say in good conscience that Georgina isn't in Bellevue?  When he'd first accepted this peculiar job, he had planned to check into the hotel room that the Forresters had booked on his behalf and spend a couple of days drinking the local liquor before reporting back that there was, well, nothing to report.  It wasn't like he owed Quentin and Eleanor anything.  But his own morbid curiosity had reared its head, and first thing this morning he had located the phonebooth from which the Forresters' mystery calls had been made.  To his misfortune, the culprit had not been loitering nearby with a placard that said "It Was Me", and so Zach had taken to canvassing.  If he found no trace of Georgina after a few days, he told himself, he would return to Florida, cash his cheque and hop on a plane to Jamaica.
“So you’re saying you don’t believe in ghosts?”  The urgent, almost shrill nature of the question makes Zach falter on his way to the door, unsure if it is intended for him.
“Not necessarily,” a second, lower voice says.  “I just don’t think places are haunted in the way that you think.”  The speaker is a pretty young blonde.  Her companion is a swan-necked redhead with a pixie cut.  Zach backtracks and sits as inconspicuously as he can at the table next to theirs, facing the front of the cafe so that their conversation takes place in his peripheral vision.
“What do you mean?”  Asks Thin Red.
“I just imagine that if the dead were going to hang around, it wouldn’t be places they were drawn to,” says Honey Blonde.  “It would be people, don’t you think?”
“Not places, but people...  People are haunted...”  Thin Red says, seemingly rolling the concept around on her tongue.  “I like it.”
“But either way, to answer your original question – no.  Truthfully, I do not think there is anything wrong with our place, or with you, that couldn’t be cured by a couple of sleeping pills and a glass of whiskey.”
The trace of impatience in her voice makes Zach smirk.  This girl speaks sense, and he gets the impression from their brief exchange that she is often talking this girl down.  He is taken off guard by a sharp, unexpected pang; how long has it been since he had this kind of casual, throwaway conversation?  Out of nowhere, he is filled with longing for Jacksonville, for dinner with friends, for drinks and human company in general.  He’d withdrawn from everyone and everything after William died, and one by one his friends had stopped trying to reach him.  Not that there were many of them at all; he and Will had always been something of a closed club.  Except, of course, for when it came to Georgina.
“Well either way, that dreamcatcher didn’t work one bit.  You might as well return it, get your money back.”
Honey Blonde hums noncommittally, and drains the contents of her cup before picking up her bag and standing.
“Are you working tonight?”  Thin Red asks, following her out of the booth.
“Yeah, the new girl quit so I’m stepping in.  Although I’m not sure it counts as quitting when she only showed up for a handful of her shifts.”
“Excuse me,” Zach says to the two girls, and they both pause, turning to him in unison.  “Sorry for interrupting.  I was just wondering if...”  He fishes the folded picture out of his pocket yet again.  “...If either of you has seen this girl?”
They both give the photo their full attention, more than the cretin behind the counter had done.  The redhead squints in such a way that suggests she would be better off wearing glasses, but is prevented from doing so by vanity.
“No, sorry,” she says, and the blonde shakes her head.
“Nevermind,” he says.  “Thanks anyway.”  These words already feel carved onto his tongue after just one morning. 
“Are you alright?”  The blonde asks as he turns away.
“Peachy,” he says, with a smile that isn’t convincing enough for either of them.
The rest of the day is spent at the police station.  He is told by the desk clerk that somebody will be with him shortly.  “Shortly”, in Tennessee, apparently translates to “never”.  After he has watched the clock for what feels like an eternity, after he has examined every pamphlet on the coffee table and read every poster on every wall of the reception area, Zach goes back to the woman behind the desk.
“All I want is for somebody to take a look at this photo,” he says, holding it out to her.  “I just need to know if anybody has seen her.”
The impatience with which the woman looks at him suggests that Quentin Forrester’s constant calls have made them intolerant to out-of-town missing persons cases.
“I’m sorry sir,” she tells him.  “I wish I could help.  But I’m telling you, honestly, there are no officers here.  There’s been a...”  Her previously hard face creases and softens as she holds back a sob.  “Something terrible has happened.  To a girl.  A local girl.”
Her message is clear.  They cannot spare a man, or a single moment, for Georgina.  And Zach silently agrees.  He mumbles something that might be an apology, or a condolence, and leaves.
Back at the hotel, he tries to sleep, but the sun is still painfully bright as it descends behind the houses.  The sky is orange and violet, like that of some alien world, when he leaves his room again, driven out by pangs of hunger.
The manager at the hotel had recommended a place just a few blocks away, and Zach is grateful for the closeness.  Despite having done little more than sit since he got up this morning, he is exhausted.  As he approaches the restaurant, he spies the pretty blonde from the cafe this morning through the window, working.  Not a complete write-off, then, he thinks of the day.
His shoulder collides with that of somebody hurrying out of the entrance.
“Sorry,” he begins, just as the other man barks:
“Watch yourself!”
Their eyes meet for a second before the man turns away, striding off, and Zach’s heart leaps into his mouth.  The face looking back at him had been a perfect mirror image.
“William,” he utters, before logic or reason can tarnish what he has seen.  But his double has already disappeared around a street corner.
“William!”  He shouts, running after him.  His legs are weak when he turns the corner, but there is nobody in sight.  What had he been wearing?  Is there a doorway he might have vanished into?  Somebody gets out of a parked car, and Zach almost jumps on them, before forcing himself to think rationally.  What would he ask?  Had they seen anybody around who looked exactly like him?  Somebody who had been dead for over a year?
“I’m losing it,” he whispers, and the sheer act of talking to himself again makes him cry out in despair.  He sinks to his knees on the pavement, face burning with rage and the threat of tears.
Not places, but people.  Laura’s words from earlier that day sound in his ears.  People are haunted, says a voice in his head, and now he can’t stop hearing it, echoing and ceaseless, like a prophecy fulfilled.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Flash Fiction #6: Belonging

I'm luckier than most runaways.  I ended up with a roof over my head, food in my belly.  Lots more than can be said about others who started out the same as me; young, skint, alone.
Some people are just born so different from their parents that it's impossible to ever get along.  They weren't bad people, my mum and dad - I was never smacked around or fiddled with like just about every waif and stray on TV.  I think the feeling was mutual, though, that our relationship wasn't meant to be.  The bond that binds parents to their child, and vice versa, was missing.  I speculate to this day that the wrong child was taken home from the hospital.
The long story short is, I was eighteen, I stole twenty quid from my mum's purse, and I ventured out into the big bad world.  It was exciting at first; an adventure.  I was living proof that you didn't need your parents.  The shine wore off pretty quick, though.  You soon lose track of time, but I think it had been about a month and a half before hunger and thirst overrode my teenage pride and I was on my knees helping middle-aged men with their flies.  Even then, I managed to convince myself it wasn't so bad.  I was free, independent, making my own living.
It was only when the Parkers found me that I realised I'd been kidding no-one.  When they stopped their silver Audi right in front of the doorway where I was crouched, I automatically puckered my lips and gave Mr Parker my fullest come-to-bed eyes.  But when his wife got out of the passenger door, I didn't know what to make of it.  
"Get in, dear," she'd said to me.  I can remember thinking, even then, how beautiful she was.  Not a single hair out of place, make-up immaculate, her expensive looking clothes hanging pristinely from her poised frame.  She, along with the handsome, well-groomed Mr Parker, exuded what my own family had always lacked: class.
I live with them now.  They're what many might call the perfect couple; loving, attentive, and so romantic with each other.  They love me too now, and I them.  Some days I think back to what it was like to sleep in a bed, but I quite like my cupboard.  It's got everything I need, and I've lived in worse.  The spell spent in the yard behind Toys'R'Us was pretty grim - compared to that, my cupboard is a palace.
I've long since stopped using the name my own parents gave me.  The Parkers call me "pet", and I am happy enough with that.  The food that Mrs Parker lovingly prepares for me is delicious - so what if I eat it out of a bowl on the floor?  I can tell I make them proud: when their good friends come to visit, I am asked to sit at their feet so they may stroke my hair.  
The collar they gave me to wear on that very first day still sits around my throat – a symbol of ownership, of loyalty, of the true home I was always looking for.  I doubt I will ever take it off.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Top 5... Children's Books

Here is my selection for the five best children's books.  I've cheated a bit, and entire series are listed under just one entry in some cases. 

5. The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
Beginning with Over Sea, Under Stone, Susan Cooper's five-book series draws on Arthurian legend for its inspiration.  The first book begins innocently enough as a Famous Five-style adventure - a group of siblings find a treasure map while on holiday in Cornwall which might just lead them to the Holy Grail.  The second instalment, The Dark Is Rising, raises the stakes considerably - Merriman Lyon, the kindly uncle from the first book, arrives in the life of young Will and informs him that he is an Old One, and is charged with defending the earth from the forces of darkness.  I won't go into any more detail - suffice to say, Cooper invents a magical but dangerous world in which her young heroes and heroines fight for the triumph of the Light over the Dark.

4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman's imaginative, Gothic take on The Jungle Book centres on Bod, a toddler who wanders into a cemetery after his family is murdered.  While this motif of "the boy who lived" may smack of Harry Potter, that is where all similarities end.  For one, the villain in this single volume is more sinister than Voldemort manages to be over the course of seven.  Raised by ghosts, tutored by a werewolf and protected by what may or may not be a vampire, Bod soon learns a number of supernatural tricks that will ultimately help him track down his parents' killer.  There are also lighter elements, such as Scarlett, a young girl who befriends Bod, and Liza, the spirit of a witch who was buried just outside consecrated ground.  As is usual with Gaiman, the relationships and emotional lives of the characters are never compromised for the sake of plot - Bod grows from a confused and ignorant child into a young man wise beyond his years, and the final few pages gave me a lump in my throat.

3. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Okay, so this may not exactly be a children's book.  But it is a book about children, and a damn fine one at that.  Exploring the innately savage nature of Man through the prism of a group of marooned schoolboys, Golding realistically and grippingly details the decay of manners and civilisation, slowly at first, then with chilling rapidity.  Its denouement is one of the best things I have ever read, even as an adult.

2. Tales From The Wyrd Museum by Robin Jarvis
The Wyrd Museum is an antiquated crypt of a building, located within a labyrinth of side streets somewhere in London.  Owned by the mysterious Webster sisters, it houses a most unusual collection.  When young Neil Chapman and his little brother arrive at the museum, where their father has just accepted a job as caretaker, they have no idea what horrors lie in store.  This trilogy, composed of The Woven Path, The Raven's Knot and The Fatal Strand, mixes ancient mythology, modern humour and elements of genuine fear - the Valkyries in book two are particularly terrifying.  It is first inferred, then dramatically and compellingly revealed, that the museum's trio of elderly proprietresses are in fact the Nornir, embodiments of the Fates, and they have been guarding a secret beneath the Wyrd Museum for centuries.  Neil and the savage, elfin Edie Dorkins, find themselves in the middle of a battle between good and evil that will take them from the blitzed London of the 1940s to present day Glastonbury, and ultimately back to the heart of the Wyrd Museum.  Enjoyably dark and surreal elements include a possessed teddy bear, a pair of talking ravens and creepy-as-hell bird dolls that exert a malignant influence over their owners...

1. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling
It is hard to talk about this book in isolation from the rest of the series.  Like many others of my age, I grew up with Harry Potter - literally.  Initially, I began reading the books out of sequence; I picked up The Prisoner of Azkaban at the age of thirteen, the exact same age as Harry in the book.  After that, I read The Chamber of Secrets, which I found lightweight and disappointing (it is by far my least favourite of the entire series).  When I finally got around to reading the first novel, The Philosopher's Stone, I was under the impression that reading about eleven-year-old Potter's adventures would be fluffy and easy compared to the dark twists and turns of The Prisoner of Azkaban.  I was pleasantly surprised; the first book does the incredible job of creating the mythology of Rowling's wizard world with remarkable ease, as well as setting the young hero on his path from the very first chapter where he miraculously survives the death of his parents.  It doesn't get much darker than a double murder, not to mention the Roald Dahl-esque abomination of a family with which Harry endures his early childhood.  From the outset, Harry is an underdog, an everyman.  A hero with no outstanding personality traits, which meant that young boys could imprint their own personalities onto him, inserting themselves into the starring role.  After the third book in the series, events began to take epic, tragic turns.  Classmates are murdered, Voldemort's power grows, the delicate balance between the wizarding world and that of the muggles begins to blur... but it all begins with a baby on a doorstep in the suburbs.

Another trilogy by Robin Jarvis which I very nearly included in this list is The Whitby Witches, about a pair of orphaned siblings who are fostered by an elderly eccentric named Alice.  The youngest of the two, Ben, is cursed with second sight, a power that is greatly coveted by many in the small seaside town of Whitby.  I would also highly recommend Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Complete Works of Saki.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Flash Fiction #5: The Flood

Soaked from head to toe, she bites back tears as she walks through the town. People look up from their candles as she passes them, their midnight vigil interrupted by the half-drowned girl and her own grief. Freezing cold and dripping wet, even though the night is warm.

She can't help but think of the river and it's more than she can bear; a moan escapes her shaking lips. The night air gasps at this breaking of the silence, but she doesn't see the wide, baleful stares of the candle-holders - she sees nothing but the ground before her, nothing but the desperate instinct that keeps putting one foot in front of the other. If she could find it in herself to run, she would. But the best she can do is walk.  Away from the past, and the water.

The entire city stands in mourning, silently bowing their heads in prayer, and for a moment the girl feels like one of the many ghosts they are ushering into the next life.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Top 5... Horror Novels

It takes two things to make a decent horror novel.  First, the author has to convince you that everything you're reading is real.  If you can't believe in the characters, the setting or the plot, then their second task is impossible.  The second task being, of course, to scare you rigid.  Below are my five personal favourites, taken from the last century or so of horror fiction.  I highly recommend you read them all.  But not too late at night...

5. The Shining by Stephen King
Let's be honest.  I could fill several Top 5 lists with works by Stephen King.  So I'm exercising an enormous amount of self-restraint by including just one of his many horror masterpieces in this countdown.  I've selected The Shining not just because it is one of the best (and most affecting) horror stories I've ever read, but also because it comes from very early on in King's career; it is a raw and potent example of the skill that he would continue to hone over the next three decades.
Runners-up for Stephen King's slot were Salem's Lot, Bag of Bones, Desperation and Duma Key.

4. Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill
A modern nightmare from horror heir Joe Hill.  Judas Coyne is an ageing rockstar with a collection of occult objects.  When he buys a genuine ghost on the Internet, gift wrapped in a heart-shaped box, Jude unwittingly opens a door to his own troubled past.  Hill's second novel Horns was a devilish tour-de-force with strokes of black humour, but his debut Heart Shaped Box is a genuinely disturbing read.

3. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
This particular ghost story invented many of the last century's horror staples.  A haunted house, spooky children, and a naive central character who finds herself caught up in events that may or may not be of a paranormal nature.  Is the governess in this Gothic tale the victim of malignant spirits, or her own hysteria? To this day, I remain unsure.

2. Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
A bullied adolescent boy, a pale and strange girl, a cold and unforgiving urban landscape and an endless thirst for blood make this one of the most original and entertaining horror stories of the last ten years.  Adapted into a film in its native Sweden and more recently the United States, Let The Right One In revels in its 1980s setting, chronicling the highs and lows of childhood along with the chilling reality of what life might be like for a vampire waif.

1. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
These days, the young Mary Godwin might be dismissed as an emo poseur, similar to Effy "Skins" Stonem.  But back in the day, she was the young bride of Peter Shelley and a creative genius - Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus is a work of incredible imagination, full of ideas that are still relevant today (humankind's interference with nature, science vs religion etc.).  The truly scary thing about this novel is not the Creature itself, but rather the very fact of its existence - here is the story of something which never should have been, and Victor Frankenstein must face the consequences of playing God.

If this were a longlist, I'd include Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the second half of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (seriously, Voldemort's resurrection and the murder of Cedric were truly unsettling as a kid).

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

"Little Death" Extract 5: Sleeper

The entire room seems to rock but they know it’s just them, just the cheap headboard clattering lightly against the wall.  Their lovemaking is electric – or is that the static hum of the light bulb that hangs naked over them?  When he comes, her whole body seems to tighten around him, her arms wrapped firmly around his shoulders, her legs intertwined with his until it feels like he's falling into her, becoming swallowed whole by her embrace.  Then the euphoria clears and he realises he is merely lying on top of a hooker, and a bored one at that.  She looks up at him, as if to query whether they are done here, and the unflinching eye contact makes him queasy. 
Out in the hallway, Eli exhales heavily, his itch scratched.  A familiar glow settles under his skin, but the satisfaction he feels is as empty as that of the man on the other side of the wall.  Sometimes you eat simply to keep going.  It unsettles him, the frequency with which his hunger has been surfacing these last few weeks.  It seems that every time he passes a building where somebody inside is indulging in personal fantasy, or two lovers are grabbing a moment of urgent pleasure, he is drawn to it.  The energy created in such an instant has proven irresistible, and Eli has known for a long time now that other people do not feel such a pull.
For most, sex is about the physical sensation, the gratification of the self.  Eli learned the appeal of this as an adolescent, just like everybody else.  But he learned at the same time that what he felt on the surface wasn’t necessarily what nourished him.  It was during somebody else’s release that he sensed their soul open, and felt something inside himself reach out and grab at their essence like a greedy child.
Eli’s early lovers, following a night in his bed, always awoke with a feeling of fatigue, of faint illness.  As if a tiny portion of their life force had been diminished.  Of course they would dismiss this thought with an empty laugh, and a day or so later the memory of it would fade as they were restored.
There are no lasting effects.  The mantra that Eli mouths to himself day and night, to abate the guilt and to justify doing it again.  And again.  They always recover, so long as it only happens the once.  Eli has never been bold enough to attempt feeding on the same person more than a couple of times; the after-effects become more pronounced, take longer to shake off, and God only knows what after that.  Until Jerome, he’d made a habit of not staying around for long enough to find out.
Of course, Eli sleeps with Jerome.  They make love; they do insane things to each other in the shower; they have dozy and stale morning sex.  But Eli has never reached into him and taken what he needs.  Doing that, treating Jerome like someone he could use, no different from any of the others, it would sully the only pure thing Eli has ever had.  He would sooner die.
It’s colder tonight than it has been in weeks.  The night air gets under the thin cotton of his shirt and stays there, chilling him to the bone, his heady afterglow already dissipating.  The guilt will seep in faster this time, he can tell.  Like floodwater under a door.  At least there was no actual physical contact on his part this time.  Although a petty justification like that falls flat against all the other times that there were.
He is only a few streets away from home when he passes Anna.  For a while he’d had a theory that she was like him.  Some nights he’d see her in the bar alone, pale and languid.  Other times, her complexion would have a healthy flush and she’d be laughing with her companions.  And for somebody who spent so much time in a restaurant, she didn’t eat a lot.  Hungry for other things, perhaps.  But Eli hadn’t even been able to begin to think how he could broach such a subject with anyone, much less somebody like Anna.  And so he’d said nothing, and after a while his theory fell by the wayside.
The high has completely worn off by the time he reaches the apartment block.  Back to reality.  He feels his belly growl, and he tries to remember the last time he ate.  The entire day had been spent painting, and Jerome had taken the lunchtime shift so as soon as he got home they’d shut the bedroom door and not opened it again for hours.  His boyish mouth twitches into a dirty smile.  He wishes that could be enough.  More than anything.
He knows something is wrong as soon as he opens the door to the apartment.  He feels it in the pit of his stomach, and elsewhere.  The sense that tells him when he needs to feed, now it’s telling him there is something in the bedroom.  Something sick and malignant that doesn’t belong there.
Eli races across the living room and through the bedroom door.  Jerome lies on the bed, fast asleep.  At first, Eli mistakes the shadow on his chest for a trick of the light.  Then it moves, and a pair of yellowed eyes fix on him.  Eli realises he has disturbed something, and whatever that thing on the bed is, it doesn’t appreciate the interruption.  How the fuck did he think it was a shadow?  Perched on Jerome’s torso like a cat might be, only three times the size with long spindly arms and squat hind legs, it is more solid, more visible than it was a moment ago.  While at first its body had seemed shadowy and insubstantial, now it glistens like tar.  Eli’s first thought is of a gargoyle, or a gremlin.  A broad grin exposes a mouthful of crooked teeth the colour of charcoal.  A stretched, misshapen nose further distorts its wretched face.
He wants to scream.  He wants to yell his head off, to wake Jerome and call for help, to run back out of the bedroom as fast as he can.  But he stays rooted to the spot.  Not entirely from terror, but rather out of curiosity.  What in hell is it?  Its narrow amber gaze has not strayed from Eli, as if it is just as fascinated and repulsed by him as he is by it.
“Get out,” Eli says, more calmly than he would have thought possible.  “Get away from him.”  Jerome’s expression is one of pain, and fear.  Unconscious or not, he is suffering at the hands of this creature.  Eli takes a step forward, then another.  The closer he gets to the thing, the more his right hand itches, closing into a fist and then opening, fingers outstretched. 
Kill it.
Where did that come from?  He doesn’t have time to ponder the question; the creature has turned back to face Jerome, as if it knows it is only a matter of moments before Eli reaches the bed, and it needs to finish its unholy business.  It places a gnarled, slick hand on Jerome’s chest, and the gesture is so familiar to Eli that he feels sick to his stomach.
It is feeding.
Any trepidation he’d felt up until now vanishes.  He bolts over to the bed, arms outreached, ready to throttle the creature if necessary.  Anything to stop it from taking from Jerome what he had been so careful all this time to honour.  Its eyes snap back to him and it lets out a hideous, eldritch shriek.  By the time Eli’s hands close around the air where its body had been, it has vanished.  It simply isn’t there anymore.
“No,” Eli barks.  “No!” 
“Wha...?”  Jerome is waking up.  Eli sits down on the mattress beside him and pulls him into a hug, one that is tighter than is comfortable for either of them.
“I’ve been having some fucking weird dreams,” Jerome gasps.  “Some pretty twisted stuff, actually...”  He is short of breath.  Eli can’t meet his eye.  Jerome’s skin is pallid, drenched with sweat.  Eli has seen this before, has been the cause of this in others.  His cheeks flush with shame, and he buries his face in Jerome’s bare chest.  His boyfriend’s arms close around him, then he feels Jerome lower himself back onto the bed.  Eli pulls his feet off the floor and lies down next to him, even though he has never felt more awake.
“Sleep,” he says, as if Jerome is the one who needs reassuring. “It was just a bad dream.”  Jerome grunts something non-committal in response.
You didn’t tell him.
Eli ignores that thought, and tries to expel the other one, the one from earlier.  The impulse he’d felt to beat whatever life remained in that creature right out of it.
He’s never seen anything like it before.  Something that ugly, that inhuman – it can’t be real.  And yet, he had not panicked, or reacted with terror.  He’d been curious.  Because as grotesque as it was, it was the closest he’d come to anything even remotely similar to himself.  And just like that, the thought crosses his mind.  The hunger he feels, the need he gets.  The possibility that he’s just seen its true face.
“That’s not me,” he whispers to himself, so quietly that a dozing Jerome does not hear him.  “Not even a little bit.”
Then why, when it looked at him, did its eyes flash with something akin to recognition?

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Top 5... Love Stories

I've given you mysteries. I've given you fantasy. Next up on my canon of countdowns is that most curious of literary creatures: the love story.

In real life, I like romance as much as the next man.  But I hate to read about it.  It rings false, it jars on the page, and it is often so sickly sweet that it makes my teeth hurt.  And let's be honest; a book whose entire plot revolves around two people being in love is kind of boring, right?  (Twilight, I'm looking at you.)  But in the hands of a capable author, two people can share something profound and emotionally rewarding that contributes to the potency of the story without it being the be-all and end-all. 

Here are my five.

5. Drawing Blood by Poppy Z. Brite (1993)
Possibly the most reader-friendly of her earlier horror novels before switching to food-lit, Drawing Blood is rich with Brite's trademark prose, a swampy, Southern lethargy, and characters that are so bizarre and yet so real that they seem to jump off the page and grab you by the throat.
On the run from the law is Zachary Bosch, a hacker with a lust for life and lots of other things.  Returning to his childhood home is Trevor McGee, the sole survivor of a family bloodbath years before.  Both men are damaged goods, but when they cross paths in a haunted house in North Carolina, they soon discover they may be able to help heal each other.
Drawing Blood boasts an enjoyable cast of supporting characters and a sinister backdrop of paranormal intrigue against which the young men's relationship is able to grow.  Fairly violent in parts and sexually graphic in others, Drawing Blood is the perfect romance for horror fan - and her vampire novel Lost Souls is a refreshing antidote to the namby-pamby bloodsucker fare of today.

4. Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)
Let me be clear about one thing: I'm talking about the novella, not the Hepburn-starring film adaptation.  While the movie is one of those rare occasions where I actually enjoyed and appreciated the tacking-on of a conventional Hollywood ending, which brings emotional satisfaction to an audience who have spent two hours watching George Peppard and Audrey Heburn dance around each other, the book is a different animal entirely.  Holly Golightly is, as is often repeated by critics and fans alike, "top banana in the shock department".  In other words, she's no ordinary girl.  And as such, Truman Capote would never allow for her to settle down with her upstairs neighbour, no matter how much they loved each other.  She's too much of a free spirit, you see.  Also, he's poor and cash is king in Holly's world.  But that doesn't stop Miss Golightly from sharing a deep connection with the nameless narrator over the course of one year in New York, before she vanishes off into the sunset on her next adventure.

3. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (1598-ish)
Yes, I know it's not technically a book, it's a play.  But I am including it for the simple reason that Beatrice and Benedick's witty, acidic banter is hugely enjoyable, and their realisation in the final act that they love each other is so matter-of-fact, so very in keeping with the characters: "I love nothing in the world so much as you; is not that strange?"  Not to mention that the pair whose mutual antipathy masks a mutual attraction are essentially the blueprint for Lizzie Bennet and Mr Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, that most famous of romances (which is not on the list for the simple reason that I prefer its companion novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

2. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (2008)
This is one of my favourite books for a number of reasons, and I've mentioned it already on more than one occasion on this blog.  The Gargoyle is, in many ways, the perfect love story for me.  Neither of its two central characters are perfect.  In fact, they are both hard to like at times.  The narrator is a former playboy, pornstar and addict whose life is turned upside down by a car accident that leaves him permanently disfigured.  Marianne Engel is an intensely religious artist who begins to visit him in his hospital room, telling him stories to pass the time, much like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights.  Her tales include that of an Italian blacksmith, an English farmer's wife, a Japanese glassblower and a Viking artisan, all of whom suffer and ultimately die for love.  Interspersed with these stories is the history of how Marianne first met the burn victim, hundreds of years before in another life.
The Gargoyle is part fantasy, part historical thriller, part sheer fever dream.  But at its core, without ever once being sentimental or overly emotional, is a love story.

1. Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
One day in the summer of 1935, young Briony Tallis becomes witness to an adult encounter between her older sister Cecilia and family friend Robbie - an encounter that she doesn't quite understand.  When she tells her version of events, which mutates into an outright lie, Cecilia and Robbie are separated - first by his imprisonment, then by World War Two.  Briony spends her entire life regretting the incident, and sets out to make amends to the couple who have since been reunited after the war.
The tragic twist in this tale is, Robbie and Cecilia are never reunited.  The scenes in Atonement where Briony visits them in their London flat, desperate to make things right, turn out to be a fabrication, yet another figment of her wild imagination.  In truth, Robbie died in the war and Cecilia was killed during the Blitz, leaving Briony with the awful knowledge that she single-handedly destroyed any chance they had at happiness together.  Only a handful of pages in this 371 page novel are devoted to actual scenes between the two of them; an exchange near a fountain, a tryst in a library, and a meeting in a cafe following Robbie's release from prison.  But every single word is charged with feeling, even if neither of them dares to acknowledge it.  Atonement's film adaptation remains loyal to the book, and this doomed love is played out perfectly by James McAvoy and Keira Knightly (it is a stroke of marvellous casting that Knightly closely matches Ian McEwan's physical description of Cecilia).

Other books about love, lust and relationships that nearly made the grade: Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald, One Day by David Nicholls, Lisey's Story by Stephen King, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters.

Check out the first two instalments of my Top 5 series:
Top 5 Mysteries
Top 5 Fantasy Novels