• Scrap Diving in the Aether – a flash steampunk story

    Clouds slid past beneath me as the Mystic Bicycle rose into the aether. I stopped pedalling for a moment, the wings falling still as I drifted beneath the balloon of Vernian gasses that kept my trusty vessel aloft.

    Unclipping a butterfly net from its place against the frame, I caught one of the passing pieces of scrap. On close inspection, it proved to be a fragment of hull from an aetheric ironclad, possibly an American vessel destroyed during their civil war. Fairly common, as stratospheric scrap went, but not without value.

    I put it in one of my baskets and closed the wicker lid tight.

    This was the first time that I had flown so high in scavenging, a word I choose with care. Whatever terms others may use to dignify this work, we are little more than mudlarks of the air.

    Up here there was not just ordinary scrap. There were escaped devices. I saw clockwork birds such as are given to well-behaved children at Christmas. There was a canvas weather balloon, its propeller stirring in the breeze. There were levitating messenger boxes and unexploded aerial torpedoes, around which I navigated with care.

    As I rose higher, I saw that there was a whole ecosystem here. Clockwork finches steered their messenger boxes nests clear of torpedoes and mines. Wind-up bats, probably escapees from some Germanic folly castle, brought combustibles to fuel a flying waggon, then took it in turns to wind their mechanisms using its steam vents. Many of the machines appeared to have been repaired, mismatched patches and solder adding variety to their forms.

    Such marvels.

    Soon my baskets were half-full and my arm aching from netting so many escaped devices. I felt terribly pleased with myself, perhaps even a little smug.

    Then came the attack. Large birds swooped down as I approached a cuckoo nesting on a floating clock. Ravens, gulls, and even something like a falcon struck the Mystic Bicycle. A was almost flung from my seat, teetering precariously above oblivion.

    They ripped at the baskets with beaks and claws. I tried to knock them away with my net but they kept returning. Reluctantly, I drew my old service revolver and let fly. The shooting bronze on my mantle piece is no stolen scrap, but a tribute to the skills of my youth. I was pleased to find my aim still sharp. One by one, the birds tumbled from the sky.

    As the last two gave up their attack and flapped away, I decided to follow. If I could take them intact they would be a valuable prize, perhaps enough to buy new wings for the Bicycle.

    Pedalling hard, I spiralled up after them, through a layer of cloud and into clear skies.

    The handlebars were wrenched from my grasp as a fierce wind caught the Bicycle. As I was swept across the cloud tops I looked back to see fans rigged from old aetheric metal and mismatched gears. Someone had made that wind.

    Bursting through another cloud bank, I saw the crows ahead of me. They circled around something far larger. A mass of machines connected together with cogs, spindles, and fan belts. On a flat area at its front lay damaged devices across which mechanised tools were moving – soldering, screwing, winding, gluing.

    In delight, I drew my butterfly net.

    A dozen more machine arms appeared above the others. Each of them pointed a gun my way.

    The mass of machines shifted. I swear by the Almighty, it somehow seemed to smile.

    Discretion seemed the better part of valour. Besides, it was time to change my trousers. Clipping the net back in place, I turned the Mystic Bicycle’s nose down and headed out of the heavens.

    I shall not be returning to the upper air. But if you would care to purchase a clockwork cuckoo, this one is going very cheap.

    * * *

     

    If you enjoyed this story then you can get a free ebook of steampunk stories by signing up for my mailing list. Go on, you know you want to.


  • Humour in Joe Abercrombie’s Grim Darkness

    Some writers have a reputation that doesn’t quite fit their style. One aspect of the work gets exaggerated, especially in the eyes of those ill-acquainted with their writing. In my mind, one of those is Joe Abercrombie.

    Don’t get me wrong, Abercrombie is no victim of misrepresentation here. Having embraced the title of Lord Grimdark, and the twitter handle to match it, he’s become the figurehead for a particularly dark style of fantasy. It’s a gritty, muscular, action-packed sort of darkness, rather than the angst of goths, vampire novels, and urban fantasy. But I imagine that the very label “grimdark” puts some people off.

    Yet there’s a wonderful humour to Abercrombie’s work. Reading his short story collection Sharp Ends has reminded me of this. Little details, from thugs discussing architecture to one-liners in fights, round out the world and its characters. As a reader, I’m never left drowning beneath the sea of sorrow that “grim” and “dark” imply. This is all about the black humour.

    It shouldn’t be a surprise. The phrase “grimdark” originally applied to Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe, whose catchphrase referred to the “grim darkness” of the future. Like Abercrombie, GW created a setting of darkness so exaggerated it can sometimes become cartoonish. Humour and hideousness are inseparably intertwined. Characters and places become over-the-top in an entertaining way. The pleasure of reading them comes from smiling at the absurd side even as you prepare for a serious moment to follow.

    Like the spaghetti westerns he paid tribute to in Red Country, Abercrombie creates stories that are somehow both grounded and mythologising, humourous and serious. Their very existence undermines the false divides we try to set between these things, splitting our world into black and white. It’s damn fine stuff, to which I find myself returning over and again.

    But then, what should we expect from such a self-mocking title as Lord Grimdark?


  • London’s Burning – a historical flash story

    By New York Times Paris Bureau Collection.

    Even through the thick walls and the blackout curtains, the sounds of the bombing raid filled the fire station. Sirens blaring. Bombs exploding. The fire of anti-aircraft guns. The roar of engines from the planes overhead.

    Albert Wright sat on the side of the fire engine, ready for action. He had rushed here as soon as the raid started, leaving behind the flat above his tailoring business. He was surprised that they’d been waiting here so long.

    The phone rang. Macaulay snatched up the receiver, listened for a few seconds, then set it back in the cradle.

    “First of the night,” he said grimly.

    A minute later, they were out the doors and racing through London’s dark and empty streets. Somewhere overhead, the RAF were fighting the Nazis.

    Down here, Albert had his own battle to face.

    As they reached the street, it was obvious what had happened. The remnants of incendiary bombs still smouldered in the road, but the fire at the end of the terrace lit up the night. Smoke billowed from the blazing house. Flames darted from the windows.

    They leapt from the wagon, connected the hoses, and directed them onto the blaze. Neighbours watched, some fearful, some grim, some blank-faced as they stared up into the deadly skies.

    Albert was helping Macaulay direct a stream of water when a woman tugged at his elbow. She pointed to the next house along. The flames were spreading there, smoke starting to drift out.

    “There’s a boy lives there,” she said. “Mother works nights. He hasn’t come out.”

    Albert looked to Macaulay.

    “Do it,” Macaulay said. “I’ve got this.”

    As Albert let go of the hose, his colleague struggled to direct the spray. The woman grabbed the hose to help as Albert grabbed a torch, ran to the next door house, and kicked the door open.

    “Anyone in there?” he shouted through the smoke.

    He wasn’t sure whether he heard a voice or the creak of straining timbers. That was the sort of mistake that had cost a lot of good firemen their lives, and Albert knew he wasn’t even much of a fireman. Just a tailor with a badge and a determination to help.

    He couldn’t live with himself if it turned out that he’d left someone in there.

    Smoke rasped at his throat and made his eyes stream as he strode into the house, the beam of the torch showing the way. The noise had come from upstairs, so that was where he went. He could barely see the threadbare carpet through the smoke, and the heat was already pressing in, but he took the stairs two at a time until he was on the upper landing.

    There he froze. A bomb protruded from the ceiling above him, where it had got trapped on a beam. A small device, as incendiaries went, but more than enough to kill him and burn the house down.

    Through a bedroom door, a boy of twelve years or so sat in his bed, staring in terror at the bomb.

    “Come on,” Albert said, holding out his hand. “Got to get you out of here.”

    “What if it goes off?” the boy shouted.

    Albert could almost have sworn. What was he meant to say? Of course the bomb might go off. With the house straining as its neighbour collapsed, their movements might be the thing that caused the bomb to drop. But if they didn’t get out now, they’d be burned alive.

    “It’s fine,” Albert said. “Hurry.”

    “I…” the boy said. “I can’t.”

    He pulled back a blanket, revealing the stumps of his legs. This wasn’t his first bomb.

    There was a crash as a section of ceiling gave way, flaming timbers falling onto the landing, fire threatening to catch on the stairs. The bomb shifted and for a moment Albert thought it was all over, but it didn’t fall yet.

    Summoning all the courage he had, he leapt through the flames on the landing. He’d never thought of himself as strong, but he swept the lad up in a single motion.

    “Hold on tight,” he said.

    Sweat poured down him and the boy’s fingers dug into his back. He couldn’t jump with this weight, so instead he laid the blanket across the boy for protection, turned, and strode through the flames.

    His legs blazed with pain and his exposed fingers felt like they might burst.

    The smoke was so dense he could barely breath. His head spun as he staggered down the stairs, desperate not to let the boy go.

    Something groaned behind him.

    Albert let momentum take over, almost falling down the stairs in his rush to get out. Then he was on the flat and running, slamming against a door frame before he stumbled into the street.

    Someone took the boy. Someone else – he couldn’t see who, his eyes were streaming so badly – pushed him down on the pavement and beat at him with a blanket, putting out flames.

    Behind him, there was a roar as the bomb went off.

    At last, he got back to his feet. He tried to walk back to the hoses, but Macaulay stopped him, pointing instead toward an ambulance.

    “There’ll be more fires,” Albert protested, trying to ignore his pain.

    “Not for you,” Macaulay said. “Go let someone else save your life this time, you stupid bloody hero.”

    * * *

     

    I’ve been reading a lot about the Second World War lately for my work at War History Online. It’s been a powerful reminder of the fact that civilians are always affected by war. Several British firefighters won medals for their lifesaving service during the Blitz. Many more died. Their courage and hard work are worth remembering, especially as many were not professionals but had volunteered to help.

    If you’d like more historical fiction, check out my collection From a Foreign Shore. And if you enjoyed this story then please share it.


  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – An American Sort of Weird

    I love Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently books. His weird stories of an offbeat detective and his surreal methods are my favourite Adams work, even in a world where The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy exists. So I was intrigued to see what happened when the Americans turned it into a TV show.

    Turns out they’ve done a decent job. To me, this feels like it gets the surreal tone and crazy connections of the books. Dirk is just as exasperating as you’d expect, though in a less whimsically British way. The adventures might lean a little heavily toward action at times, but they still feel like Dirk’s sort of adventures.

    There’s some Americanising here, or perhaps modern-TV-show-ising. It’s not enough for Dirk to just have strange methods. Instead he’s the escaped product of some government-backed scheme that has unleashed a bunch of psychically powered people into the world. I can’t say that feels like a good fit for an Adams story to me, but all the characters coming out of it do. Sure, I’d rather that Dirk was just a man with an unexpected method that works against the odds, but I’ll accept this change in return for the holistic assassin and the crazy guys in the van.

    Honestly, I don’t know how well fans are responding to this – I haven’t dared look. But I liked it. Whether you’ve read the books or not, I think it’s worth a look.


  • Salting the Soil – a flash fantasy story

    To Ellis’s relief, the rain had cleared as the sun came up. Dark banks of cloud still rolled over the windswept moors, but they were thinning as they headed toward the sea.

    Grumbling to himself every step of the way, Ellis pushed a rickety wooden barrow full of salt up the ridge line. He would have rather spent time at the plow or milking his cows, but both law and tradition were clear. After the rains, locals must re-lay the ward.

    Ellis hated the ward. Not just for the work of maintaining it and the poor recompense sent by the crown. It was the way it poisoned the soil, salt soaking in with every rainfall, creating a stretch of land where nothing could live and no man could farm.
    Such a waste.

    At the top of the ridge he stopped, took out his shovel, and started filling gaps in the thick line of salt that was the ward.

    A spirit approached from the other side. It didn’t even try to hide its nature. Though it was shaped like a woman, its body was the stuff of a fetid pond, all algae, thick weed, and dirty water. Its only clothing was wooden sandals.

    “Neighbour, will you leave a gap that I might get through?” the spirit asked. “I have business on the other side.”

    “I’m sure you do,” Ellis said, hurrying to fill nearby gaps. “Business stealing souls, no doubt.”

    “You don’t really believe that, do you?” the spirit asked, its voice dancing like a spring brook. “I’m no more a soul stealer than you are. I just want to get across to trade my wares.”

    It held up a sack and opened the mouth to reveal wild herbs, things that could heal injuries and preserve meat, plants that seldom grew on Ellis’s land. Things he needed.

    For a moment, he hesitated.

    “I know your game,” he said, reluctantly returning to laying salt. “You’re trying to tempt me. But letting you through will only lead to hurt.”

    “As opposed to this?” the spirit asked, pointing at the ward. “Poisoning your own land on the orders of people you’ve never met?”

    “Why would they have me do it if there weren’t danger?” Ellis asked.

    “Danger to them, not you. The conflict between our rulers goes back centuries. I could tell you about it if you like, though not until I’ve traded my herbs.”

    Ellis moved on to the next gap. None of the breaches in the ward were large enough for the spirit to cross, but if they grew it would be another matter.

    Assuming he wanted to stop her. Which he was almost sure he did.

    “Please,” the spirit said, lips trembling. “My name is Onina. I have a daughter. She is sick and needs medicine that does not grow on this side. I must get through to trade.”

    Ellis paused. He thought of his own Kara, playing with her straw dolls in the farmhouse kitchen.

    There was no-one else to see what he was doing. Still, instinct made him step close to the barrier and to Onina, speaking in a secretive tone.

    “How old is your daughter?” he asked.

    Onina took a step closer, almost touching the barrier. Her rippling green flesh shrivelled a little at the closeness of the salt and she winced.

    “Six years old,” she said. “Our children grow slower than yours, making them vulnerable for longer. It is as if she were a three-year-old human, burning with a terrible fever.”

    Ellis remembered the winter Kara had fallen sick, her little face screwed up in misery as she shivered and coughed. If not for the berries her grandmother had found she would have died.

    “If I let you through, you’ve got to promise to be back within a day,” he said. “I can disguise you in some of my wife’s clothes.”

    “Thank you,” Onina said, leaning her face closer through a small hole in the ward. “Just leave a gap, and I will be gone as soon as I am done.”

    “Someone might see that.” Ellis shook his head. “I’ll close it, then when you’re done I can make a gap again.”

    “In that case…”

    Onina shot out her hand, grabbing Ellis’s wrist. He fell in the salt, startled and bewildered, and she shoved him back and forth on the cold ground.

    “Now!” she shouted.

    A dozen more spirits appeared from hiding places across the countryside behind her.

    Horror grabbed Ellis. She was using him to break the barrier, his body scattering salt as he was shoved back and forth. The spirits would pour through. Who knew what they would do.

    He struggled, but Onina was twice as strong as him and he could not break free. He could not reach his shovel or the salt in the barrow. He did not dare grab any from the already weakened ward.

    The spirits rushed towards them.

    Onina shoved his face in the mud. Even that tasted of salt. The bitter flavour of his poisoned farmland.

    Poisoned to her as well as him.

    Grabbing a handful of mud, Ellis flung it in Onina’s face. Green flesh shrivelled at the salt’s touch. She flung her hands up, letting him go.

    He leapt to his feet, grabbed his shovel from the barrow and swung it wildly. Salt sprayed through the air and the spirits jerked back mere feet from the gap. Another shovelful and the gap was too small to pass through. Two more and it was gone.

    The spirits glared and screeched at Ellis. Onina’s placid face became an ugly mess of teeth and hatred. But no more ugly than Ellis’s thoughts about her trickery and betrayal.

    Pushing his wheelbarrow ahead of him, he went eagerly to repair the rest of the ward.

    * * *

     

    This story was inspired by R J Barker’s workshop on landscape and writing at Sledge Lit 2016. I left the workshop with a photo of a landscape crossed by a white barrier (snow, but it looked like it could be salt) and this is what it inspired. R J Barker’s first novel is coming out later this year, and if it has half the energy and inspiration of his workshop then it’ll be well worth a read.

    If you enjoyed this story then please share it. And remember, you can get more like it straight to your inbox every week by signing up to my mailing list.


  • The Man in the High Castle: WW2, Identity and Resistance

    The Man in the High Castle is a gripping piece of television. It takes the ideas laid out in Phillip K Dick’s book and expands upon them to create something powerful and fascinating. More than this, it’s an exploration of morality and of why the Second World War is still so powerful in all our imaginations.

    Why WW2?

    The Man in the High Castle is a rarity. It’s an alternate history story that, both in its original novel and in the TV show, has reached beyond that small cultural niche and found a wider audience. Both versions have received popular and critical acclaim.

    A huge part of its success lies in the choice of historical settings. The Second World War lies heavy in historical memory. For the generation before mine, it still had a great immediacy. In Europe, they grew up amid the rubble and rebuilding efforts. Across the world, they grew up with the consequences and with the war stories of their parents’ generation. As a result, the war also felt immediate for the generation that followed – my own. It was a modern event that shaped the modern world.

    The scale and impact of the war are also factors. The term “World War” is a little misleading, given the number of countries that weren’t involved. But it was still a war on an unprecedented scale in the number of nations and combatants, as well as the sheer destruction. Millions died both in combat and in atrocities against civilians. The political and cultural landscape of entire continents was transformed in the space of a decade.

    Perhaps most powerfully, it is a war where the sense of moral right and wrong has lingered. While all sides committed terrible acts and every nation had figures striving for good, a distinction remains. The Nazis and their allies sought to enforce their will upon others through violence. They tried to wipe out entire groups of people because of who they were. The Allies fought against that.

    Trying to assert a sense of right and wrong upon history is usually misguided at best. But in this case, nothing has shaken off the sense of being in the right that the Allied nations retain.

    Playing into Our Vision of WW2

    The Man in the High Castle plays into this collective vision. It uses our understanding of the war and how significant it is. This is an easy shortcut to show us that the alternate world is very different and far darker.

    By sticking inside the 20th century, it retains that sense of immediacy. Sure, its 1960s setting is now decades behind us. But it’s still modern enough to feel achingly familiar, painfully so when things are wrong.

    Most powerfully, it plays up the moral aspect. The horrifying nature of Nazi moral values is there from the start. Characters have taken part in and borne witness to atrocities. Political murder and oppression are common. Aberrations against what the Nazis consider normal, even those as innocent as ill health, are dangerous.

    On the Pacific coast too, continued Japanese militarism creates a menacing state with clear racial distinctions.

    Undermining Our Certainties

    But what makes The Man in the High Castle so powerful is that it questions and undermines these certainties.

    Partly, this is about the significance of the war. Within the story, films of alternate realities create questions about the world the characters live in and by extension our own. If there are many other possible realities, is any one event really so significant? Don’t other events equally shape our lives? If the Axis powers had won, would the war still be the single most significant event, or would others that followed match it?

    Most tellingly, The Man in the High Castle challenges our moral certainties.

    By dropping the atomic bomb on Washington, it forces us to face the terrible nature of the things the Allies did to win the war. The Nazi leadership may have been villains, but can the other side still be considered heroes after wiping out entire cities?

    By showing us sympathetic characters on the German and Japanese sides, it undercuts the image of these regimes as all bad. It reminds us that ordinary people can do terrible things if society leads them that way. The question for anyone watching then becomes “in what ways is society leading me to harm others while seeing myself as right?”

    Darkest of all, the story undermines the image of those resisting the Axis powers as good. Resistance fighters do desperate and terrible things in the name of freedom. At times, they become antagonists to the show’s hero. They go so far that it’s hard not question whether anyone is in the right here. There are different degrees of wrong and the Nazis are clearly far more hideous in their values than anyone else. But still, the certainties fade…

    No Certainties

    The Man in the High Castle uses a powerful part of our historical memory to raise powerful questions. To do right, we have to be able to act. We cannot be frozen by doubt. But we still need those doubts, to be able to see when we might be wrong and to adjust our path.

    This is a show that should help us to approach morality more intelligently and to examine the past more critically.

    Fortunately, it’s also damn good entertainment of the most chilling kind.


  • I’ve Written a Little Code – a flash science fiction story

    The rebel ship Small Necessity hurtled through the hollow sea of space, engines constantly accelerating as she ran from the Imperial pursuit ship. Somewhere in the darkness, missiles were hurtling past, their guidance systems foiled by the Necessity’s shield of countermeasures – programs that jammed targeting systems, misdirected rockets, and preemptively detonated warheads.

    Russ’s fingers darted across the keyboard. The pursuit ship’s e-war team had locked frequencies with receptors in the Necessity’s computing network. Their hacking codes were worming into the system, trying to bring down the shields, while he fought to repair, rebuild, and fend them off.

    A few unprotected seconds were all it would take for a missile to hit.

    “How are we doing?” Captain Tuer stood at his shoulder, peering at his system admin screen as if she could understand what was happening. Maybe she could – they’d been here plenty of times before.

    “They’re good,” Russ said. “They got through the first firewall. But I’ve written a little code to-”

    “Last time you wrote a little code it was to diagnose our systems,” Tuer said. “It brought everything to a halt.”

    “That’s because it was missing an iteration limit,” Russ said distractedly, trying to code while monitors showed how close the missiles were coming. “This time – shit!”

    A brute force attack had carried the hackers into the guidance-baffling software. The ship shook as a missile hit the port bow.

    Strapped into his seat, Russ hit the key to lock off that part of the mainframe. A back-up guidance-baffling program stirred into life.

    He’d known that this would happen. He’d just hoped it would take longer.

    Sirens screamed. So did a voice over the intercom. People were dying in engineering, but there was nothing he could do about that. All he could do was to stop more missiles hitting.

    Somebody swore on the other side of the bridge. The hackers had broken into the navigation system. Two crews were now fighting over the ship’s course. Even as Russ countered that, weapons control went down, then the program for detonating pursuing missiles.

    Every time he fixed a glitch in the code, two more popped up. The hackers were all the way in.

    He wanted to fix the beautiful, broken programs he’d written to run the ship. But as he kept fighting fires, more were springing up. He needed to put out the dragon lighting them.

    “I’m going into their systems,” he said.

    “What?” Tuer asked with a frown. “Couldn’t you have done that before?”

    “Not while maintaining ours,” Russ said.

    It was easy to reach the pursuit ship’s network. He just piggybacked the two-way signal they were using. Moments later, his screen was full of data as his console got to grips with what it was seeing.

    The Necessity shook as another missile hit. Across the room, the rear gunner bellowed an obscenity as his targeting system went blank.

    “Do something,” Tuer said, pointing at the furious gunner.

    “Can’t,” Russ said. “Not while I’m doing this.”

    “Then stop doing that and do your job! This is your stupid little code all over again.”

    Russ grinned. She was more right than she knew.

    The pursuit crew were busy attacking. They’d only just realised that he was in their system. He opened their diagnostic software and dropped in something of his own – a copy of the little code he’d tried to use on the Necessity.

    The one with the unending iterations.

    On his screen, data usage stats soared. The other ship’s systems started grinding to a halt.

    He flicked back to his own network and reactivated the rear gun systems, then the targeting bafflers, then the code that detonated pursuing missiles.

    “They’ve stopped accelerating,” the helmsman said.

    “They’ve stopped firing,” someone else announced.

    “We’re losing them,” Captain Tuer announced, gazing in incredulity at a monitor.

    Russ grinned. He imagined the fury of the pursuit ship’s system administrators as they tried to work out what was wrong. They would be looking for hostile worms, not a friendly little diagnostic program. By the time they found it, the Small Necessity would be well away.

    The crew cheered. Tuer patted Russ on the shoulder. The Small Necessity hurtled on through the hollow sea of space.

    * * *

     

    This story exists in large part as a thank you. My friend and fellow writer Russell Phillips is always helping me out with website problems, as well as offering other IT help. His catchphrase, “I’ve written a little code…”, symbolises the casual calm with which he can do things with computers far beyond my ken. Thanks Russ. I hope you like the story.

    And if you, dear reader, enjoyed this, then please share it, and consider checking out my collection of sci-fi stories, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.


  • Bodies of Water by V. H. Leslie

     

    When I wrote my post about history and horror, I hadn’t yet read V. H. Leslie’s unsettling Bodies of Water. But this book is a great example of how history and horror can collide to great effect.

    Two Lives, One Story

    Bodies of Water is the story of two women, Evelyn and Kirsten. They live in the same building but in different eras. For the Victorian Evelyn, Wakewater House is a hospital using water to treat women’s ailments. For 21st century Kirsten, it’s a new home, a near-empty building of converted flats in which damp is a constant problem.

    Both women are struggling with the harsh events that life has thrown at them. Both become intrigued by the waters lapping at their lives. And both face strange and disturbing events.

    The Specifics and Strangeness of History

    I was drawn to this book after hearing the author talk about it at Fantasycon. She’d researched the way women were treated by doctors and the police in Victorian England, uncovering some fascinating and deeply troubling practices. It’s an issue that the book explores, an unfamiliar area of history that draws attention to the creeping, socially authorised nature of much abuse. Setting this alongside a modern story helps to draw attention to the dark, strange, and yet somehow too familiar elements of both settings.

    The history accentuates the horror, while the horror brings out important themes in the history. Like much of the best historical writing, by implication it also says something about the modern world. The juxtaposition of parallel narratives makes that implication clearer.

    A Book for a Specific Audience

    This book isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. It combines history, horror, and feminism to explore all three. Leslie’s understated approach means that it lacks the immediate intensity off some writers in all three fields. Like a spreading damp, it eases toward its potentially destructive conclusion. If you’re looking for something that’s thoughtfully, almost gently unsettling, and if you’re interested to see these genres intersect, then It’s well worth reading.

    If nothing else, it’s a good lesson in combining genres.