Tuesday, 31 May 2011

5 Wicked, Warped Women in Fiction

Forget the femme fatale of noir lore.  The five females in this list take dangerous and ruthless to the next level.

5. Bellatrix Lestrange
(The Harry Potter books by JK Rowling)
Yeah, yeah, Voldemort is the megalomaniacal Dark Lord.  But is he even half as loopy as Bellatrix?  She creeped me out in the books even before I saw Helena Bonham-Carter's completely unhinged performance in the films.  Those clothes!  That hair!  And she gleefully murdered her own cousin!  (Do not even begin to think about complaining - it's not a spoiler when the book and film have been out for years.)

4. Morgan Le Fay
This is going back a bit, but Morgan is definitely one of the more twisted characters to come out of the later cycles of Arthurian legend.  In these versions, she immerses herself in the black arts and seduces her half-brother (ewww) in order to get what she wants.  Bitch crazy.  Depending on which account you want to believe, the mad cow title may also be awarded to her sister Morgause, mother of the traitor Mordred.

3. Ruth
(Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)
SPOILERS Ruth, for her sins, never stood much of a chance.  Growing up sequestered in the chilling Hailsham grounds with the other "special" children, her views of right and wrong must have been pretty skewed.  But her decision to come between her best friend Kathy and her soulmate Tommy, to keep them apart for precious years of their short lives, is truly heartless.  Ruth justifies her actions by saying she was frightened of being alone - and this is exactly how she dies.  Alone.

2. Lady Macbeth
(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)
"Out, damned spot!"  The calculating, manipulative would-be queen that we meet early on in Shakespeare's play soon becomes a shadow of her former self, driven to madness by the consequences of her actions.  Proof, perhaps, that ambition isn't everything.

1. Annie Wilkes
(Misery by Stephen King)
She's the kind of person that makes the word "fandom" a chilling thing indeed.  While a part-time writer such as myself might dream of one day receiving adoring fan mail, the reality in Stephen King's novel is less rosy.  The moment that author Paul Sheldon's rescuer is revealed to be his "number one fan", the reader feels a growing unease.  Annie Wilkes is magnificently characterised, slowly shedding layer after layer until she is exposed at the novel's climax in all her deranged, deluded glory.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Flash Fiction #13: Battle Cry Of The Ginger Stepchild

"If ever there were an argument for strawberry blonde," my mother opined, "it would be you, my dear."
She was being kind. Unfortunately, we both knew that 'strawberry blonde' was just a white lie other parents told their kids. I was undeniably ginger, and therefore, in mortal danger.
When the first body was found in one of the fields between Telford and Bridgnorth, a young woman of twenty, the region had gone into shock. The papers called it a local tragedy, and everybody moved on with their lives. After a second body washed up on the banks of the Severn, a man this time, nobody dared voice their fears. But when a young couple walking their dog in the woods discovered the third red-haired corpse, word spread fast. Somebody was killing gingers.
Living in Shropshire, I'd never found myself in the path of a serial killer before. Part of me felt flattered. Of course, the rest of me just didn't want to die. If I'd been born in another time, they might have drowned me at birth for my hair colour, presumed me evil. Lucky then, one could say, that I had reached nineteen at all.
The three dead gingers - they'd had their throats cut. When it became apparent that somebody was targeting individuals of the auburn persuasion, the papers had a field day. Every combination of the words "red" and "dead" were used to the point of exhaustion.
I was the only ginger in my family, by the way. My mother was fair, my step-dad dark. My father, the out of the picture one, he'd been the one to pass on “the curse”. Every family photo made me look like the result of a fling with a flame-haired milkman.
Stop thinking, darling,” my mother drawled whilst applying lipstick. “You'll get lines.”
I can't help it,” I told her. “How am I to know I won't be next?”
A look of genuine concern flitted across my mother's usually impassive, impeccable countenance. Only for a second, mind. She'd just applied foundation.
There must be hundreds of redheads in Shropshire,” she said after a moment's thought. “Thousands, even.”
Your reassurance warms my chilled heart.”
Oh, sweetie.” She looked up from her compact mirror and smiled. “What is it you want me to say? That everything is going to be just fine? I firmly believe that it will, but I've not been able to shut you up that easily since you were twelve.”
This was true. Compared to my older brother and sister, I was considered “difficult”.
Where are you off to again?” I asked her.
Theatre,” she said, lost in her mirror once again. “With the girls.”
You mean he's going to be in all night?”
Yes, your stepfather is going to be in the house all evening with you. Try not to think of it as a punishment, sweetie.”
I hated him. I couldn't even pretend any more that I didn't. And the feeling was deeply, irrevocably mutual. I kissed my mother on the cheek, wished her a pleasant evening, then sat down to simmer. If only there was some way I could get rid of him. When he first married my mother, I had tried all kinds of tricks to get him to leave. I'd told so many lies, pulled so many stunts, that nothing I attempted now would be credible.
No, I couldn't. Could I?
At that moment he came into the living room, walking past me on the way to the kitchen. His aftershave, something that would smell awful even on a man half his age, made my nose wrinkle.
Alright, ginge?” He asked casually.
I'm strawberry blonde,” I muttered under my breath. Then, even quieter: “Bastard.”
And I knew what I was going to do. But I'd have to plan it properly first. Get it all straight in my head before I acted. The devil, after all, was in the details.
From the front page of The Shropshire Star, Friday 27th May 2011:
After a reign of terror that lasted four months, the identity of the slayer of three young people in the county of Shropshire has been discovered by the authorities. We can reveal that the killer, who can not yet be name publicly, died in a struggle with his intended prey. In a shocking twist, a source close to the West Mercia Police has informed us that the fourth would-be victim was, in fact, the killer's own stepchild. Although an official statement is pending, it is believed that they acted in self-defence and will not be penalised for their actions. Quite the opposite, in fact: this unnamed teen will likely meet with the support and gratitude of the community for bringing the killer of three to justice. Considering the tragedies through which the people of Shropshire have lived recently, a hero with red hair could not be more appropriate symbol of better times to come.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Top 5: Stephen King and the "Final Girl"

In the same way that Joss Whedon's feminist beliefs compel him to imperil beautiful girls in order for them to fight their way to freedom, so Stephen King brings us tale after tale of ordinary women (and plenty of men) who find themselves in the most nightmarish of scenarios and must risk everything to survive.  This Top 5 post is dedicated to that classic horror trope, the "final girl" - the female who, through cunning or skill or sheer virtue, stands triumphant at the end of the tale.

Spoilers may lie ahead for readers not familiar with all of Stephen King's work - so, you know. Beware.

5. Lisey
There's a tiny clue in the title of this novel as to which character might last to the final page.  As everything in the book is from Lisey's perspective, one might suspect that there is no feeling of danger - but King still manages to make the reader fear for Lisey as she discovers the unreal world that her late husband spent much of his troubled life in.  More than any other King novel, Lisey's Story is about empowerment.  Having long been the supportive wife, Lisey is forced to walk into hell alone, and come out the other side.

4. Sue Snell
It would be easy enough to remember the ending of Carrie, which we all read a long time ago, as one where everybody ended up dead.  Not quite: Sue Snell, the popular girl who tried to do something nice for outcast Carrie White, survives to witness the destruction her own actions caused.  If she hadn't encouraged her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom, then the unfortunate pig's blood incident would never have happened, and all those cruel teenagers who tormented her would still be alive.  Actually, come to think of it, it sounds like an unconventionally happy ending to me.

3. Wendy
Motherly love never came stronger than it did in Wendy Torrance.  A large, uneasy portion of The Shining is spent watching her walk on eggshells around her recovering alcoholic husband, all the while being eaten up inside with fear and anger at what might happen to their son Danny if Jack falls off the wagon.  Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation did nothing to convey the lioness-defending-her-cub strength of character that Wendy embodies in the book - shattered bones and a head injury do not stop her dragging herself, inch by painful inch, to Danny's aid.

2. Rosie
This story is one of numerous trials.  Rose Daniels suffers for years at the hands of a violent, abusive husband.  When she finally works up the courage to leave him, an even more terrifying journey begins, as she finds herself drawn into a dream-like painted world, where her fearsome doppelänger holds the key to vengeance.  Rose's survival is a triumph, but is shadowed by an epilogue which reveals (SPOILERS) she has inherited her former husband's bloody rages.

1. Jessie
Personally, I think the word "harrowing" is overused, especially when describing books.  But in this case I find it incredibly apt - I was as attached to Jessie's ordeal as she was to the bed.  When a simple sex game goes awry and Jessie is left naked and alone, it is not death that poses a threat.  It is the voices.  The madness.  And the misshapen face that keeps emerging from the shadows.  Gerald's Game is not a supernatural novel, making the unlikely peril Jessie faces feel all the more real.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

5 More Awesome Fictional Characters

Following on from my Top 5 Fictional Characters, here is a second lot of made-up people who are incredibly entertaining.  I'd be happy to sit down and have a drink with each and every one of them.

5. Holly Golightly
(Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote)
Whether you're watching Audrey Hepburn charm her way through life on-screen or reading Truman Capote's source novel, there's no denying that Miss Holiday Golightly is no average gal.  Born Lula Mae Barnes in a backwood town in Texas, Holly is constantly reinventing herself, shaping her own destiny and cheerily hopping from romance to disaster to adventure.  One could also interpret the character as a manic, selfish strumpet, but let's not be mean-spirited.

4. Marquis de Carabas
(Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman)
I know, I know.  I seem incapable of composing any sort of book list without including one of Neil Gaiman's creations.  But seriously, read Neverwhere and try not to fall in love with the Marquis de Carabas, the protagonist's enigmatic guide to a fantastical London underworld.  Paterson Joseph's portrayal of him in the BBC miniseries is pitch-perfect in its wicked playfulness.  You might not trust the Marquis, but it is impossible not to like him.

3. Belle de Jour
(The Secret Adventures of a London Call Girl)
Technically, this one isn't fictional.  But while the anonymous nature of her numerous explicit memoirs lend her an almost mythic quality, Belle is at her most beguiling when she drops her seductive facade and addresses the reader honestly.  The ins and outs of her personal life are bared for all to see on the page, and though some (or most) readers may enjoy her adventures as mere titillation, there is a level of humour and intelligence in Belle's storytelling that make her genuinely likeable.

2. Tyrion Lannister
(A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)
I have a confession to make.  I have never been within a hundred miles of George R.R. Martin's A Song Of Ice & Fire novels.  But Peter Dinklage's performance as "The Imp" in HBO's Game of Thrones has been so full of arrogance, sly wit and genuine emotion that I feel as if I know him well.  Everyone in my house agrees that he is by far their favourite character in this sprawling epic of scheming villains, noble heroes and bare-chested everyone else.

1. Jackson Brodie
(Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?, Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson)
The world-weary private investigator has now featured in four novels, each of which finds him dragged into a fateful web of interlocking yet seemingly unrelated mysteries.  His quest in life, it seems, is finding people who are lost, a self-imposed mission which stems from the murder of his sister years before.  Her killer was never found, a fact that haunts Jackson more potently than any ghost.  He also seems to be a magnet for a series of disasters that become comical and Job-like in their frequency - a blown up house here, a train crash there.  Atkinson's novels are full to the brim with wry humour, but at his core Jackson is a deeply troubled soul.  Despite this, the reader cannot help but hope that in the next instalment, or the one after that, he will find peace.

Who is your favourite fictional character? I'm thinking about mining the wealths of JK Rowling's world in a future post and coming up with my Top 5 Harry Potter characters.  Or maybe a themed post: Top 5 spies, witches, adventurers, lovers.  Thoughts?

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

5 Modern Novels That Deserve To Be Classics

For a heathen like me, reading a good book or coming across an immensely talented author is probably the closest thing I have to a religious experience.  It happens quite rarely, but when it does, it's the most peculiar feeling.  I want to tell, no, order everyone I know to immediately go out and buy the book I've just read, but another part of me wants to hold this treasure back, keep it all to myself.  I think it stems from my teenage crush on the Scissor Sisters, which faded as soon as they became immensely popular.  Nobody likes their own private joy to become mainstream.

On the other hand, there are some novels that I read and instantly find myself hoping that other people feel as thrilled by it as I do, that it will be the topic of discussion in book clubs and living rooms all over the world.  Because some books are just that good.  Here are five modern novels which I feel deserve widespread, long-lasting admiration.  I hope there's something on this list for everyone!

5. The Green Mile by Stephen King
Until this spiritual, heartbreaking serialised novel hit the shelves, the world had seen Stephen King as a horror author and not much else.  "Horror author", in this context, not particularly being a compliment.  Then he penned the tale of John Coffey, a gentle giant on death row with an extraordinary gift.  The film adaptation serves as a lesson in how to adapt a novel, as the story has incredible power in either medium.

4. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides's first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was a poignant and pensive fable of innocence lost.  His second book, Middlesex, massively ups the ante in ambition and scope, spanning several generations of an immigrant family, tracing a rogue gene through time and culminating in the birth of Calliope - protagonist, narrator, hermaphrodite.  This is no literary gimmick, however; Eugenides follows Cal's story believably and lovingly from being raised as a girl, through a shocking and transformative adolescence, all the way to adulthood, by which time Cal is living as a man.  Written with humour and intelligence, Middlesex makes me wish Jeffrey Eugenides would write more books.

3. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
I've raved about this book before, so forgive me if this all sounds a little familiar, but months down the line the story has stayed with me.  A handsome but arrogant porn star and drug addict is involved in a car accident that leaves him drastically disfigured.  While recovering in the hospital, he is visited by a woman named Marianne, who is clearly deranged but also entirely bewitching.  She tells him that they've met before, even though he has no memory of this encounter.  What follows is an eight hundred year love story, a trip around the world and a journey to the very heart of Dante's Inferno.

2. A Density Of Souls by Christopher Rice
I've included Rice's second and third novels The Snow Garden and Light Before Day in previous lists, but his debut A Density of Souls is probably my favourite.  It is in turn a coming of age story, a revenge tragedy, a romance and a horror novel.  Four friends enter high school and are immediately pulled apart - by bullying, by their own selfish desires, by love disguised as hate and vice versa.  What happens to them as teenagers sends ripples throughout the rest of their lives.

1. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
I first read this book when I was meant to be revising for a French exam.  Subsequently, each time I revisit it I get the same rush, as if I am doing something slightly naughty.  It is a feeling that goes well with this read.  The premise is a very, very loose parody of The Omen, but the duo of writers have taken a step back and seen the bigger picture.  The opening chapter introduces us to Aziraphale, an angel, and Crowley, a demon, who are seen conversing as Adam and Eve are booted out of the Garden of Eden.  Their friendly banter is a running motif in the novel, as is a book of prophecies by Agnes Nutter (the world's only reliable psychic) and the adventures of young Adam, a perfectly ordinary boy who just so happens to be the Antichrist.  Good Omens works as an intelligent, good-natured satire, but also as a not-too-serious meditation on human nature.

Some other books I wanted to include in this list are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon - but I reckon they're going to go down as classics anyway.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Flash Fiction #12: Poppet

She made him from twigs, straw, and a lock of hair.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the hair had been the trickiest ingredient to acquire; but anything worth doing demands you go that extra mile.  And this, Amy thought, was definitely worth doing.  It was a simple enough design - two legs, two arms, a loop of straw for the head - but Amy worked lovingly over it, tying the dried out leaves and twigs together until they looked just right.

Mark, it seemed, lived in complete obliviousness when it came to Amy.  He knew her name, or at least she flattered herself that he did, but that was about it.  She had been in love with Mark for years, but to him Amy was a nothing word, a face on the periphery of his existence.

Until now.

The straw doll was the first step.  Next came the blood.  This was a lesson Amy had learned early, and learned well.  To give your hopes life, you give them your blood.  Amy sliced into her own hand, not even flinching from the searing pain, and let three drops of blood fall onto the doll.  She watched as the red seeped into the straw and wood.

It was days before Amy next saw Mark.  Then one morning they collided quite literally outside a cafe.

"Hey there," Mark said, putting his hand on Amy's shoulder to steady her.  She felt the blood rush to her face.  "It's Amy, isn't it?"

"Yes," she replied, desperately nonchalant.  "Mark, right?"

"Yeah."  A second or two passed.  Then; "Well, see you." 

And he was gone.

When Amy returned home that night, she immediately snatched the straw doll from her nightstand and looked at it accusingly for a moment, before taking a blade to her right palm once again, allowing another three drops to fall onto the poppet.  The lock of Mark's hair knotted around the neck of the doll quickly absorbed the fluid.

The next day, Amy sought him out.  She wore her best summer dress, and had let her hair fall freely around her shoulders.  If a love spell was too much to ask for, how about a little lust?  But Mark seemed curiously immune to her charms; he smiled politely and went about his business.

So Amy returned home once again, crying with frustration and longing.  She took her ceremonial blade and slashed at her arm, smearing the straw doll up and down the cut.  If she hadn't been sobbing quite so loudly, she may have heard something to give her pause - a soft, suckling sound.

Of course, spells are not the same as wishes.  Magic is a living thing, with a puckish, mercurial will of its own.  As unpredictable as the weather, is how Amy's mother used to put it.

Feeling faint from the loss of blood (although oddly, there were no stains on her dress or the floor), Amy made her way to bed.  She collapsed onto the mattress, the straw doll still clutched in her hand.  To love, and be loved back - she thought even a hopeless witch like her could have managed that.  She brought the doll to her chest and thought of Mark.

"I love you," Amy whispered, her eyes fluttering closed.

"I love you too," answered the doll.

5 Great Books Summarised In One Sentence

Don't worry, this is a spoiler-free zone!

5. Atonement by Ian McEwan
An epic, heartbreaking novel about how your life will fall apart if you use the "C" word.

4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Gripping story that will terrify the parents of university students everywhere.

3. A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
Four people decide to kill themselves, then don't.

2. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon
The most unconventional and rewarding murder mystery you will ever read.

1. Carrie by Stephen King
Beware teenage girls who have not had the birds and the bees conversation with their mothers.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Top 5... Villains in Fiction

Heroes are alright I suppose.  They get the job done, they fight the good fight.  But isn't it so often the case that the villain of the piece is the more interesting character?  Here are my top 5 fictional villains, ranking from bad seed at Five to evil incarnate at One.

5. Meursault
The Outsider by Albert Camus
Existentialists may wish to have me hanged for categorising Meursault as a villain, perhaps preferring to refer to him as an anti-hero or a damaged everyman.  But my reading of the character is as follows: a feckless bureaucrat loses his mummy but still has a job and a pretty new girlfriend to live for, then throws it all away by committing a senseless murder on the beach.

4. Bill
Kill Bill, Vol.2 by Quentin Tarantino
We don't properly meet the elusive target of The Bride's rage until the concluding instalment of this kung fu saga.  And when we finally do, we already know what he is capable of, after seeing him shoot his pregnant former lover in the head, leaving her in a coma and stealing her child.  Pretty darn twisted.  Even worse is his defense: Uma Thurman's character broke his heart, so he ordered the execution of her entire wedding party.  As overreactions go, it's what one might call a "biggie".

3. Mrs Coulter
Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
She is beautiful.  She is clever.  She has a vicious, golden monkey on her shoulder.  And SPOILERS, she is our heroine Lyra's mother.  Which makes her experiments on children and other wicked deeds all the more despicable.

2. Iago
Othello by William Shakespeare
He never tells the audience why he does what he does.  His actions cause the death of practically every character in the play, and yet at its finish, when it becomes clear that he is going to be tortured (potentially to death), he simply swears to never speak again.  "I am not what I am", he declares early on in the play, a reference to his deceitful nature and an inversion of God's words in the Bible: "I am what I am."  Are we to take this to mean that Iago is, in fact, the Devil?

1. Jadis
The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Chronicles of Narnia are hardly the scariest or most challenging works of children's fiction.  But the otherworldly empress Jadis, rescued by Diggory and Polly from a dying world in The Magician's Assistant, provides genuine menace in an otherwise quite jolly tale.  Once the characters are transported to the shiny new land of Narnia, Jadis becomes temptation incarnate: she offers the enchanted fruit to Diggory when they are both within the walled garden (Allegory! Allegory!) before vanishing into the wilderness, reappearing years later as the White Witch, title character and main villain of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  By this time, she has conquered Narnia and enslaved its many magical races.  She also seems to have no qualms when it comes to corrupting children and committing vile acts of cruelty to animals (poor, poor Aslan).  And anybody who has the power to make it always winter, and yet never Christmas, is pure evil in my mind.

Some other exceptionally nasty pieces of work: The Marquise de Meurtuil (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), The Man Jack (The Graveyard Book), and almost all of the boys in Lord of the Flies.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Flash Fiction #11: The Imaginary Café

Once upon a time, there was a marketing assistant named Natasha. She was a pretty thing, with wide blue eyes and blonde hair that curled just so. Very slight she was too, with the slender, willowy build of a ballerina – something she worked hard to maintain.
Natasha worked in a gleaming office filled with ambitious young professionals, each one trendier and more beautiful than the last. They all hailed from the city, naturally, while Natasha was a country girl herself, a fact that never made its way past her fine, dry lips.
Each day when the lunch hour came around, Natasha would politely decline her colleagues' invitations to join them, and take herself off for forty five minutes. This soon became the norm, and eventually the lunch invitations petered out.
When asked where she went on her lunch hour, Natasha would speak fondly of a small café in another part of the business district. Her achingly fashionable co-workers, who favoured restaurants that served fusion cuisine or were owned by celebrities, never felt the desire to venture out to this seemingly delightful bistro themselves.
What's it called?” One of them asked her once.
Natasha looked upwards for a moment, as if struggling to remember, then answered:
Jessie's Café was, of course, fictitious. A name plucked from nowhere. When Natasha slipped out of the office at noon each day, she simply went for a long walk around the district, hoping to burn off the calories from the porridge her mother damn near forced down her throat every morning. Needless, stony weight that she could feel pulling her down all morning.
You'll eat your breakfast if it kills me,” her mother would say each morning through gritted teeth. “We're not going down that old road.” Her mother had moved down to live with Natasha some time last year, and showed no sign of leaving, despite Natasha's claims that she no longer needed her help, much appreciated as it may be.
And so every day Natasha would leave her own flat with a packed lunch, fist clenched around the brown paper bag like an angry schoolgirl. The bag would be nowhere on her person by the time she reached work. Lunchtime was a perfect opportunity for exercise, one which she never let go to waste. And if she appeared to be getting gradually thinner while her fellow workers began to strain in their lithe, fashionable clothes as a result of fine dining and comfortable office chairs... well, nobody said anything.
One morning, Natasha's mother encouraged her to eat a particularly hearty breakfast. As soon as she arrived at the office, early as usual, she rushed to the ladies room and gingerly placed her index and middle fingers in her mouth. The delicacy with which she made herself ill was, in her mind, most polite and ladylike.
The morning dragged on. Natasha was not her usual efficient self; she could not focus, found her computer screen blurring before her normally flawless eyes. The smell of coffee would waft through the office occasionally, making her nauseous, along with the occasional stink of cigarettes which followed the small number of smokers back into the building.
Natasha?” She looked up and saw Will from Accounts standing over her. That in itself might have looked imposing, had it not been Will from Accounts, with his gangly build and tendency to shift from one foot to another. He reminded her of a clock, if all the cogs happened to be triangles.
Hi Will,” she said, not realising until that moment how sore her throat was. “What can I do for you?”
I was just wondering,” he said, sounding as if he were short of breath himself, “whether you might fancy lunch at that small café you're always going on about.”
Yes I would, Natasha thought. I would like that very much. She imagined sitting across a table from Will, reaching forward to draw that floppy fringe of his out of his eyes. It isn't the first time she has had such a notion.
I can't,” she told him. “Another time, maybe.” Her mother would have been shocked at her poor manners. Will nodded, shrugged, smiled, and walked away before Natasha could think of anything else to say. She busied herself with replying to emails for the rest of the morning, typing away so quickly that her fingertips began to ache. Natasha ignored this discomfort. She was very good at it.
She felt slightly light-headed as she rose from her desk at lunchtime. Her usual walking route circled several blocks, but Natasha barely made it a few streets before her legs gave way beneath her. She threw her hands out to break her fall, scuffing them painfully on the footpath.
She tried to stand, but simply fell down again, knees useless. She couldn't muster up the tiniest ounce of strength, could barely even keep her eyes open. Men in suits walked right past her, couriers zoomed by on their bikes without even looking. An impeccably dressed woman in fuck-me heels stepped over Natasha, too busy fiddling with her umbrella to notice the young woman lying prone on the pavement. Natasha thought it odd now, that this had been her plan – for people not to notice.
Here,” somebody said in her ear. “Let me help you up.” Natasha felt a firm, secure grip around her waist, and she felt herself being raised to her feet. Her good Samaritan was a woman with mad flowing dark hair and eye-shadow to match. She had a figure, and general aura, that could be described as both maternal and voluptuous at the same time.
Why don't you step in here for a moment,” she said, directing her through a red-painted doorway, into a small coffee shop. “Just until you come back to yourself.”
Natasha nodded in assent; she hadn't the will to do much else. She seated herself at a small round table with a colourful tablecloth and tea light. Her rescuer brought over a cup of tea and advised her to drink it all.
Plenty of sugar,” she said, as if this were a given. “You've clearly had some sort of shock.” She disappeared again behind the counter, re-materialising a moment later carrying an ornate-looking pastry on a plate with a napkin.
Pain au chocolat,” she said, again with that air of authority, as if French baked goods were the widely known remedy for a fainting spell.
No thank you,” Natasha said instantly, creature of habit that she was. “I'm feeling much better now.”
No you're not,” the woman said, and proceeded to raise the chocolatine to Natasha's mouth. Unsure of how to refuse any more politely, Natasha took a tiny, reluctant bite. She hated pastry; found it dry and stodgy.
In an instant her mind was changed. This pain au chocolat was light, sweet, delicious. She took another less hesitant bite, and smiled as a heady glow came over her. The woman continued to feed her the pastry, until the entire thing was gone. Then she gestured the cup in front of Natasha; she took a sip, then a gulp, and then drained the entire thing, rolling her tongue over her teeth, enjoying the sensation for what felt like the first time.
Good?” The lady asked. Natasha nodded, mouth wide – it took her a second to remember the word for smile. The pretend version she'd perfected over time felt like it should have a stretched, papery word of its own.
I feel much better,” she said, truthfully this time. “Thank you.”
My pleasure,” her hostess smiled back at her. “Now, I imagine you'd best be on your way.”
Natasha glanced down at her watch – somehow, almost an hour had passed. Lunch was very nearly over.
Yes,” she replied. “Must run.”
Run? Don't go overboard,” the lady said, chuckling. “A gentle amble should do the trick.”
Natasha thanked her again, and the lady walked her out.
Look after yourself, precious,” she told her, in a softer rendition of her mother's tone of voice. “Or you'll be answering to Jessie.” And with a final warm grin, she vanished back indoors.
Natasha took a few steps away from the café, and was about to cross the road, when something entered her newly refreshed mind.
Jessie,” she breathed. A name plucked from nowhere.
She turned back to the café. And found herself staring at a laundrette.
Impossible, she thought. Just impossible.
I'm crazy,” she said out loud. A passer-by gave her an odd look, as if to confirm that this very well could be the case. Natasha found herself smiling at them anyway.
She licked her lips. They were sweet.

Friday, 13 May 2011


Some things that happened this week:
I discovered the new and fairly useless talent of squirting liquid out of my nostrils.
I finished the fantastic Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson and started Dancing Jax, a new novel by Robin Jarvis.
I decided that if/when I write my life story, its title will be The Philiad.
We learned that our kitten Baby is having six kittens of her own. It's the feline equivalent of "16 and Pregnant".
I edited "Broken", a new story by Jemima Valentino. Keep an eye out for it on Smashwords.
I unearthed a half-finished horror story that I began over two years ago, and am now having a crack at making it readable.
I came across the best link in the entire world: a blog dedicated to writers and their cats - http://writersandkitties.tumblr.com/
I found out that in less than a month I will be eligible to upgrade to an iPhone. I should not be as excited as I am.

Top 5... Short Stories

For me, short stories are a fine art - when done well, they are able to take the reader on a journey, without the luxury of a few hundred pages to set the scene and develop character.  Below are five of my favourites; the titles in brackets refer to the author anthologies in which they can be found.

5. The New Daughter by John Connolly (Nocturnes)
A single father and his two children move to a house on the edge of a vast field, home to a mysterious mound.  As time passes, the man begins to notice peculiarities in his daughter's behaviour.  She spends more and more time by the mound behind their house, and odd-looking straw dolls keep appearing, as if from the ground...  A chilling fairy tale that is made all the more effective by its brevity.

4. A Lamia in the Cevennes by A.S. Byatt (Elementals)
Magical realism at its best here, as a troubled Brit awakes one morning in his sun-drenched villa in the Cevennes to find a mysterious, serpentine woman living in his swimming pool.  Bizarre stuff, beguilingly written.

3. House of Flowers by Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany's)
Surreal and beautifully imagined, Capote's writing has never been better than it has here.  House of Flowers follows the trials and tribulations of Ottilie, a beautiful young prostitute in the West Indies. 

2. The Problem of Susan by Neil Gaiman (Fragile Things)
Something that has long bothered fans of C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia is the way in which Susan, the eldest Pevensie sister, is dismissed at the end of The Last Battle as too much of a grown-up to return to the magical land.  Gaiman's tale catches up with Susan years later in real life, by which time her memories of Narnia have become distorted symbols of her adolescent anguish and sexuality.  A wonderfully dark look back at a masterpiece of childrens' literature.

1. Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier (Not After Midnight)
The story will be familiar to many fans of the film adaptation.  A grieving couple travel to Venice following the death of their child.  They are approached in their hotel by an elderly, scatty woman who claims that the spirit of their daughter is still with them.  Shortly after, the husband begins to see a small hooded figure running through the side streets and back alleys of the city.  Could their daughter have truly come back to them?  For newcomers to this tale, the climax will truly shock.  If you're familiar with the ending, then I recommend you try Ian McEwan's novella The Comfort of Strangers, in which another couple find themselves in trouble in Venice.

Flash Fiction #10: English Rose

Oh, Lyssie.  I shouldn't have waited.  I should have got down on one knee last New Year's Eve, I know now that's what you were hoping for.  It's too late now, of course, but I hope you know that I truly did love you.

When you showed up on my doorstep this morning, birthday cake held out in front of you as a peace offering, I was so relieved to see you that I didn't think it might just be too good to be true.  A lover's quarrel such as ours can rarely be forgotten easily.  On any other day I might have been suspicious, but you'd made the cake yourself.  The thought of licking that sublime trademark frosting of yours from your fingertip eclipsed any other worries in my mind.

It didn't seem curious to me that you didn't want even a single bite.  Some womanly reason, I'd assumed at the time; watching your figure, although of course I'd protest that you needed to do no such thing.  There wasn't even an aftertaste the way you might expect.  Just blackness.

Do you remember how we met?  Of course you do.  The black and white ball at your parents' house.  You, the centre of attention as always, stunning in virginal white, and you have no idea what that did to me.  Me, ill at ease in my rented tux, uncomfortable in my surroundings as usual, intimidated by the waiters and string quartets and marquees.  Only there to be the fresh face of the charity after old Lawson got done for embezzling.  I was surprised that you even deigned to speak to me.  That you fancied me came as the biggest bolt from an impossible blue.

I can still taste the strawberry frosting when I wake up.  It has made my lips sticky, and as I lick them I realise how thirsty I am.  I notice a lot of other things at this point.  Such as, the fact that I have been stripped of my shirt and tied to the headboard of my king sized bed.  I don't feel any pain until I look down and see the blood on my chest.  A series of angry-looking cuts, pinched and sore like bite marks, criss-cross my torso.

"Lyssie?"  You're standing next to the bed, summer dress creased and smeared here and there with something red (for some reason, I don't make the immediate connection - my blood).

"Lawrence."  You say in response.  Nothing more.  A simple invocation of names, confirmation that we are still the same people that we were yesterday, and the day before.

The instrument in your hand resembles a comically oversized pair of hairdressing scissors.  No, that's not right.  As you take a step closer, I can see my own shade of red dripping from one tip.  Pruning shears.  Secateurs.  French, fancy.

"Every rose," you say softly.

"What?"  I can feel my heart beating, hot and anxious, beneath the cuts on my chest.

"Every rose."  You say it with conviction this time, but your meaning is lost on me.  My mind is too preoccupied with my bound wrists, my bloodied chest, the girlfriend hovering over me like an angel of death, too preoccupied with all these things to ponder Lyssie's riddle.

You drag the shears across my chest again - at first all it does is chafe the skin.  Then the pressure increases, and I see your petite hands clench the handles together, scraping the insides of the blades against my ribcage.  I cry out, but it is only partly from pain.  Mostly, I just want to know why you're doing this.

That's a lie.  I know the reason you're doing this.  But I must admit, your actions have taken me by surprise.  Lyssie is such a sweet girl; who knew she had this in her? 

You were always my better half.  Made me good, more than I once was.  But not, it would seem, good enough.  I wonder how you found out about the other woman.  Not that it matters much now.  It hardly even seems worth asking - too late Lawrence, much too late.

My better half.  Who could have predicted that all the time this monster was trying to better himself for his angel, she was falling down to earth.  Deeper, ever deeper.

Oh, Lyssie.  The beauty to my beast.  You know what they say.

Every rose has its thorn.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

A Bit Of Nostalgia (Or, The Time I Met A Bestselling Author)

When I was eleven or twelve, my father introduced me to a friend of his.  Dad was self-employed as a personal driver, and one of his regular fares was a rather charming lady named Erica James who lived not far from him.  My dad thought it was important that I meet her, as she was a recently published author with a growing fanbase.  Unbeknownst to me, he had passed on a story I'd written to Erica - and on his next weekend visit, he brought the story back with him, covered in pencilled notes, questions, and suggestions.  Admittedly, it was a rather shoddy science fiction tale, an attempt at an epic space opera inspired by countless episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager.  But this woman had taken it seriously and read it not as a teacher might read a child's work, but as a lover of books might read a new story.  She was curious about the world I'd created, and her enthusiasm seemed genuine.

On my next visit to Davenham, the village where my dad lived, I met Erica.  She invited me round to her house, a beautiful yellow-painted cottage, for a chat one evening about my writing and about books in general.  She was warm and generous with her praise on my story, and gave good advice which I can remember even now, twelve years later.  Her genre was very different from what I usually liked to read - she wrote modern novels about love and relationships, rich in humour.  This was just before the phenomenon that is "chick lit" had poisoned the well.

I remember her telling me about her first book getting published.  She'd wandered into WHSMith, seen it there on the shelf, and she'd had to leave the shop, overcome with excitement.  I remember wanting the same thing to happen to me.  I'd always wanted to be a writer, but I think it was then that I decided I wanted to be an author

It wasn't until after meeting Erica that I began to notice her books in shops.  As the years went by, more and more titles would appear under her name, and it always made me happy to think that her dream had come true.  I often still wonder, when a new novel makes its way onto the shelves, if she still gets that overwhelming rush of excitement.  I hope so. 

I only ever met Erica James that one time, and I've not been back to the village in the years since my dad passed away, but that friendly, chatty evening has stayed in my memory.  I'd had encouragement before, from my parents and teachers, but having somebody who'd penned a number of bestsellers tell me I wasn't bad was something of a turning point.  So I encourage lovers of Maeve Binchy and Marian Keyes to give Erica James a try - just so I can say that I'm doing my bit to support her, like she did me. 

Visit Erica's Amazon page here or visit her website at http://ericajames.co.uk

Monday, 9 May 2011

Top 5... Fictional Characters

I could list ten, twenty or thirty fictional characters who have stayed in my mind for one reason or another.  This limited list includes peeps from classic literature, noir and fantasy.

5. Philip Marlowe
Created by Raymond Chandler
Featured in The Big Sleep, The Little Sister etc.
The Big Sleep, Chandler's first novel to feature Philip Marlowe, was a curious mix of Greek tragedy and post-war sleaze.  Marlowe embodied these qualities wholeheartedly, navigating the seedy underworld of Los Angeles with his own brand of honour, knowing that the world was not as it should be, inhabited by people more inclined to violence and theft than to honesty and peace.  He didn't sugar the pill when it came to the sorry status quo, but he also never took advantage or allowed himself to be swayed by the numerous femme fatales that came his way.  There is a certain pleasure to be had in reading the stories of a man who is, while definitely no angel, a good guy among bad guys.

4. Jed Parry
Created  by Ian McEwan
Featured in Enduring Love
You know almost from the very beginning of this novel that there is something slightly strange about Jed Parry.  In the aftermath of a bizarre and tragic balloon accident, Jed accompanies the protagonist Joe Rose in his search for survivors, and it is during this time that he suggests they kneel down and pray together.  Joe does his best to shake off this oddball, but Jed has become fixated, and spends the next few hundred pages thinking up ways to invite himself into Joe's life and convince him to profess his love.  Sinister yet somehow guileless, Jed is so realistically imagined that his peculiar brand of devotion will stay with you long after you've turned the final page.

3. Sophie Fevvers
Created by Angela Carter
Featured in Nights at the Circus
Sophie Fevvers was found on the doorstep of a brothel in Victorian London, a baby girl lying on broken eggshell.  The working girls who take her in don't truly believe that the child was hatched - that is, not until white feathers begin to sprout from her back, growing into a magnificent pair of wings.  Sophie goes on to become a famous aerialiste in a travelling circus, earning herself the stage name "The Cockney Venus".  Nights at the Circus is a fantastically written piece of magical realism, and its protagonist Fevvers is a larger than life character in just about every way.  Outspoken, curvaceous, aggressively sexual and always charming, Fevvers bewitches the reader like the fairy-tale creature that she is.

2. Atticus Finch
Created by Harper Lee
Featured in To Kill A Mockingbird
I don't know what to say about Atticus that hasn't already been said by fifty years' worth of literature enthusiasts, except that he is bold, brave and honourable without ever being unrealistic or sentimental.  He is the mould from which all fathers should be made, and he is the kind of man that all men should endeavour to become.

1. Faith
Created by Joss Whedon
Featured in Buffy the Vampire Slayer / Angel
Best described as "the working class Slayer", the introduction of roguish Faith in Season 3 of Buffy provided an effective dramatic foil for the heroine.  Faith was the unwanted sister in Buffy's life long before Dawn appeared out of thin air, and it was through her mistakes that Buffy learned what it truly means to be a Slayer.  Whether she was casually taking people's virgnity, going on violent sprees or facing up to her own self-loathing, Faith was always compelling.  It pleased a lot of fans when Faith reappeared towards the end of Buffy's run as a reformed character: while still a tad on the loose side (Faith remains the only openly promiscuous female character in the Buffyverse), she was repentant and no longer coveted Buffy's life.  Her time in prison had granted her perspective, and she was wiser for it.  Which is nice for her character arc, but much less fun to watch than any one of her many violent smackdowns with frenemy Buffy.

Other memorable characters who are worth your time: the benevolent Jean Valjean (Les Miserables), the adventurous Lyra Belacqua (His Dark Materials), the incompetent Rincewind (Discworld) and the deliciously arrogant Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Flash Fiction #9: Miracle Cures

It’s always a big deal when the carnival comes to town.  For Jim Jones, it brings with it a sense of wonder, and has done ever since he was little.  Not that he’s a kid anymore – just turned twenty, engaged to the prettiest girl in Pleasant Peak.  He was meant to call on Daisy, pick her up so they could go to the carnival together, but she’s fallen prey to a nasty cold.  Sweet girl that she is, she insists he go anyway.  Have fun.
Off he goes after dinner, boots clomping satisfyingly against the sun-baked earth, the night air warm and welcoming.  He hears the carnival before he sees it – laughter, applause, music that borders on the eerie – and when he turns a corner in the road there it is, as if by magic.
The sign that Jim walks under welcomes him to the Wyrdofsky Brothers’ Travelling Phenomenanza.  He finds himself wondering if the pleasures of the carnival make up for its crimes against the English language.
"Read your palm, sir?"  Asks a woman with beautiful kohl-rimmed eyes.  Jim smiles and shakes his head before walking on; God only knows what secrets a gypsy such as her might coax from his heart line.
His thoughts are coloured with concern for Daisy, but a deeper concern keeps trying to surface.  A niggle, a worry that he keeps trying to prevent from coming up for air.  The truth, he supposes he should call it.  The truth that however worried he might be about the state of Daisy’s health, it doesn’t mean he loves her.  At least, not as much as he loves –
Jim pushes the thought back into its box and focuses his attention on the card tricks being performed by a pale man in evening dress, before continuing his amble through the heated throng, passing a bearded lady and the tallest man he has ever seen before running into a miniature tribe of jesters.
The clowns are diminutive and rambunctious; it is impossible to determine whether they are children or dwarves under their harlequin makeup.  They prance and cartwheel right past Jim, vanishing into a nearby tent.  As he watches them go, someone wanders into his eye-line.  There, in the crowd, is Harry Baker.  He’s with a group of friends, laughing, enjoying the carnival like everyone else.  When Jim sees that they’re moving in his general direction, he looks away quickly, almost as if burned, and ignores the tightness in his chest.  And elsewhere.
He occupies himself by joining the small crowd that is gathered in front of one of the many stalls dotted around the carnival.  A bearded gentleman in a bottle green coat is extolling the virtues of his creation, which is described by a large banner above him as: 
A Wondrous New Creation From The Master Of The Alchemic Arts!
 "This is no mere tonic," he bellows to the crowd.  "This will alleviate the most downtrodden person of any ill feeling.”  Jim’s ears practically prick up at the sound of this.  Perhaps a dose would do Daisy the world of good.  “Bad dreams?  No more!  Anxious?  Stressed?  This mystical concoction will embolden you, strengthen your natural constitution, cure you of your deepest troubles."
Then again, perhaps Daisy wasn’t the one who would benefit the most from a sip of this magic potion.  When everyone else in the tiny mob has purchased a bottle and gone their own way, Jim approaches the entrepreneurial Doctor Marvolo.
“Is it true what you said?”  He asks nervously.  “About what this elixir can do?”
“My good son,” the man replies in a more ordinary tone of voice, words slightly muffled through his preposterously shaped beard, “every word I say when I stand under this banner is true.  The experiments I have conducted to reach this point!  The hardship, the metaphysical terrors I have endured...  To answer your question, yes.  Anything which may afflict you –”
The doctor gives him a knowing look, as if he can see every detail of Jim’s inner life mapped out across his face, and nods. 
 “Take it from a magician,” Doctor Marvolo says, winking as he hands him two bottles. “I’m never wrong.”  Marvolo has long, tapering fingers and impossibly wide palms.  They are the hands of a trickster, an illusionist.  But Jim wants to believe, and so he does.
"Thank you," he breathes, before handing over his money and leaving the carnival.
He purposely walks home the long way so he can drop off the elixir for Daisy.  She is too ill to come to the door, and Jim doesn't want to bother her, so he leaves the small bottle with her mother.  "Such a thoughtful boy," she says to him warmly, before he continues his walk home.  He is almost at his own house when he draws out the second bottle from his pocket and stands there at the side of the road as he slowly removes the stopper, gives its contents a quick, curious sniff, and then downs the whole thing.
For a moment, nothing is different, other than a brief metallic aftertaste.  Jim shrugs, and approaches his house.  He reaches into his pocket for the key, and it is in the lock when he feels the elixir's effect.  The crickets that inhabit the undergrowth up and down the street seem to be chirping ten times louder than they had been a moment before; the stars shine brighter; the hum of the streetlamp is almost deafening.  With an unfamiliar clarity, Jim removes the key from the lock, places it back into his pocket, and turns around.  As if possessed by a will all of their own, his legs carry him at a brisk pace across the town.  When he arrives at a small house on the outskirts of Pleasant Peak, it is with the utmost surety that Jim knocks on the door.  Harry Baker answers.
He says nothing for a moment.  And then the words rise up, buoyant, like minims from a marching band.
"The one I love is you," he says.  Clumsily, simply and truthfully.  He watches Harry absorb this, and when he holds out a hand to welcome him inside, Jim feels no trepidation like before, no urge to run.   He takes Harry's hand in his own (read your palm, sir?) and follows him into the little house.
Morning comes and the carnival is already on its way, leaving nothing but a storm of dust in its wake.  When Pleasant Peak is not much more than a speck in the distance, Doctor Marvolo, just plain Marv when the customers aren’t around, looks back and thinks of the young man who came to see him.  Marv knows what he’d wanted curing.  He may not be a bona fide sorcerer, but you don’t travel from one coast to another without learning a thing or two about the human animal.  Of course, the elixir holds no magical properties.  A flavourful mix of drugstore goods which does little more than clear the head.  The innocence of the young man’s request, his sheer naivety, makes Marv laugh. 
A cure for the heart simply wanting what it wants?  Ridiculous.
“These country folk will believe anything,” he chortles, and counts his earnings once again.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Top 5... Ghost Stories

The ghost story has been around since the invention of the campfire.  Since children have woken in the night and asked; "what was that noise?".  The best ghost stories chill you to the bone.  These five paranormal novels provide numerous spooky moments, but there's also plenty of meat on their bones when it comes to characters and plot.

5. Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris
Effie Gray, an artist's young wife, is drawn into the devious plans of a Tarot-reading brothel keeper in this chilling, lustrous Victorian thriller.  Set against the backdrop of the thriving Romantic art movement, Harris's novel spins a tale of deceit and possession that mystifies and grips at the same time.

4. The Witching Hour by Anne Rice
Michael is saved from drowning by Rowan, an ambitious surgeon.  As an after-effect of his near-death experience, Michael develops psychometric abilities - he can touch an object or a person and experience visions of the past and future.  Rowan soon finds that Michael's powers are connected to her own search for her biological family, after she was adopted as an infant.  Together they discover that Rowan is a child of the Mayfair family, a New Orleans dynasty that also happen to have supernatural powers - powers that have been inherited by Rowan.  This is a hefty read, and at times the narrative can drag (an entire section of the novel is devoted to the generations of Mayfair witches), but the end result is worth it.  This is the first book in a trilogy, by the end of which your head will be spinning with the intricacies of Mayfair geneology and the Machiavellian plottings of the spirit Lasher.

3. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Taking place in the aftermath of the abolition of slavery, Beloved follows Sethe, a mother and former slave who is haunted by the crimes she endured (and committed) in her past.  One day, a mysterious woman arrives at her house.  Much of the novel is spent trying to figure out exactly who she is: simply a stranger passing, or an avenger from the spirit world?  Read it and decide for yourself.

2. Bag Of Bones by Stephen King
Like many of King's novels, the protagonist in Bag of Bones is a New England-based writer.  When he loses his wife suddenly, he is paralysed by grief, and decides to go to their old lake house to mourn.  Once there, he becomes involved in a local power struggle, develops a fixation with the lake, and comes across numerous clues that his wife has not truly left him...

1. Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel went on to win the Booker Prize with her historical epic Wolf Hall.  This novel, by comparison, is less ambitious - but still gives the reader much food for thought.  The central figure in Beyond Black is Alison, a psychic medium by trade who tours the South of England with her manager Colette and spirit guide Morris.  Colette is a hard-hearted harridan, and Morris is just this side of pure evil.  Alison, by contrast, is a large and jovial soul (I kept thinking of Dawn French in the role), or at least, that is what appearances would suggest.  As the reader follows Alison on her seemingly endless stage show around the suburban dystopia of middle England, it becomes evident that she is running from her past, as well as trying to find her place in the world.  Beyond Black effortlessly blends the ethereal with the domestic and is both depressing and hilarious, as the best British fiction tends to be, with something to say about human beings, not just their ghostly counterparts.