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Stan – the perfect story song?

A friend and I were talking the other weekend about narrative songs. He writes and performs as part of the splendid steampunk trio Pocketwatch, whose songs are generally stories. One of the things he apparently finds difficult, and which I sometimes struggle with as a writer, is creating a satisfyingly structured story.

This reminded me of one of my favourite story songs, and to my mind one of the most concise and perfectly formed pieces of narrative of the last couple of decades – Eminem’s Stan. While Eminem has built a career out of playing with persona, Stan is unusual for him in being so story focussed. Over the course of a few rapped verses we see the development of two relationships, one existing almost entirely in someone’s head – the central plot of Stan’s obsession with Eminem and the subplot of his relationship with his girlfriend. There is a first act in which the central relationships, characters, and plot are established. A second act in which things become worse, Stan’s anger growing, his personality unravelling through conflicts which drive the story but are entirely rooted in character. And then, in the final act, comes the climax, subplot resolving before main plot, in the terrible drama of Stan and his girlfriend’s death, followed by the pathetic tragedy of how little he has meant to his idol, and a few kind words of intervention coming too late. There’s a distinct character voice, interesting themes of obsession and identity, and a real sense of change through conflict.

I’ve always found Stan moving. But it’s only now, as learning to write has taught me more about the art of story-telling, that I’ve come to admire how skillfully it’s put together. I don’t write song, but if I could craft something half so eloquent I’d be a happy man.

 

Coming up – Steampunk Revolution

My story Urban Drift has been accepted for the latest in Ann VanderMeer’s series of excellent steampunk anthologies, Steampunk Revolution. Being included in the previous volume, Steampunk Reloaded, was a real highlight for me, and it’s awesome to again be published alongside the likes of Garth Nix, Cherie Priest and Bruce Sterling. If you want to know more there’s a full table of contents here, and the book will be out later in the year.

Out now – The Midnight March

I have a story, The Midnight March, in the April 2012 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly. It’s a melancholy little piece of flash fiction that scratched the itch of a particular idea in my head.

Humanising monsters isn’t a new theme. From Mary Shelley to Joss Whedon, it’s been used to emphasise our own humanity, or provide contrast with the brutality in man. I’ve used a defining point (maybe the defining point) in all our lives to nudge around that theme, and though I can’t say I’ve covered it too deeply in the space of a thousand words, I’m happy with what I’ve achieved, and I hope you will be too.

About ‘On The Third Day’

I spent a lot of time at university studying the middle ages. Between that and the period’s long tradition as the fantasy baseline, a tradition going back at least to Tolkien, it’s inevitable that I turn to that period a lot when writing. But that’s not where this story comes from.

A few years ago I saw a painting in the National Gallery in London, taking the theme of judgement day, a common feature of medieval painting, and giving it a modern context. Here were the dead rising from the tomb in a quiet, twentieth century English village, ready to be judged. It drew my attention to the contrast between modern and medieval takes on the rising dead. To our ancestors, this would happen when God came calling them to him. It was a time of judgement, but it was a good thing, a godly. For us, it’s usually the zombie apocalypse, a story of horror and desperation. Similar image, very different meaning.

That’s where ‘On The Third Day’ came from. From taking the contrast I felt looking at that painting and flipping it around. Because if you’re comforted by the thought of the walking dead, then you’re really not ready for the zombies.

As a small aside, Mulbarton is a real village in Norfolk, near where I grew up. I have no desire to see it consumed by the walking dead, it’s just a name that for me conjures up the image of a country village. To the best of my knowledge, it’s never been attacked by zombies. Yet.

On The Third Day

On the third day following his untimely death, Father Oswald rose from his resting place in Mulbarton’s small cemetery. Hugh, son of Edric the carpenter, was the first to spot him. Abandoning the family pigs in alarm, he rushed back to the village.

‘What?’ Edric demanded, as the flustered youth appeared in the doorway.

‘Tis judgement day!’ Hugh exclaimed, tugging fearfully at the edge of his tunic. ‘Father Oswald’s risen.’

‘What are you jabbering about, lad?’ Edric flung aside his lathe. ‘And where in hell are the pigs?’

He stormed to the door, then stopped in his tracks as he saw the priest approaching sedately across the common land, oblivious to the swine scattering before him and the grave dirt clinging to his face.

‘By our lady! Tis a miracle!’ Edric strode to the next hut. ‘Widow Aetheling, come see this.’

A woman in her forties, wrinkled and greying, peered out through the gap that passed for a doorway.

‘What is it now? Another turnip in the shape of… Oh my!’

She sank to her knees in the mud, hands held aloft in supplication.

‘Dear lord, have mercy on this poor sinner, and let me enter the gates of heaven with your worthy messenger Oswald.’

‘And the rest of them,’ said Hugh.

‘The rest of what?’

‘Them.’

Hugh pointed past pale Oswald at a dozen more figures approaching slowly from the direction of the church. Crows circled overhead, harbingers of revelation.

‘It’s just like them carvings on the church,’ Hugh said. ‘Look at them reaching out to welcome us.’

By now all the villagers were in the street, cares of hearth and field forgotten as they stared at the miracle that shuffled haltingly towards them. Some looked up into the sky, disappointed by the lack of blinding light and roaring trumpets. Others wept with joy to see loved ones again.

‘There’s my Gert,’ the widow Aetheling exclaimed, tears streaming down her face. ‘As perfect as the day the pox took her.’

Hugh gazed at Gert. He’d been closer to her than the widow would have liked, and was pleased as only a young man could be to see her walking again. But even so, something seemed wrong. Her step lacked that enticing bounce, and her face had slipped out of its previously irrepressible smile.

‘I’m not sure…’ he began, but no-one was paying him any attention. They were rushing to meet lost friends and family, now risen to join them on the day of salvation, apparently oblivious to the smell of rot that hung low and nauseating on the breeze.

He turned towards his father, but Edric had stepped forward, reaching out his hand to shake Father Oswald’s.

‘Father!’ the carpenter beamed, then looked down in bemusement at the fleshless fingers that had come away in his firm grasp. ‘Father?’

Oswald groaned and lunged, sinking his teeth deep into Edric’s neck. There were screams as the returning villagers leapt upon their former neighbours, all of them too bewildered to fight back. Blood flowed as the old corpses set to devouring the new.

Hugh looked longingly at Gert, now chewing on her mother’s arm. He thought of running his fingers across her flesh one last time, then thought better of it. Biting aside, who knew which bits of flesh still remained? He turned on his heel and fled, past the wattle huts, down the dirt track and into the forest, heading for the hills and a different kind of salvation.

 

First published in Alienskin, February 2010

Walking the Plank

‘Laces loose, lassie?’

Francesca stood and turned to face the snarling voice, her skirts trailing on the powder-room floor.

‘Captain Deadeye,’ she said with her best smile. ‘What news? Have we found another fat merchant to rob of his spoils? Or perhaps more merfolk to hunt for sport?’

‘You’re to come up on deck,’ the pirate replied, chewing on the words like a pickled lemon. ‘The crew would like a talk.’

‘Perhaps you could give me a moment?’

‘This ain’t a request,’ Deadeye replied, his cutlass hissing as it emerged from the scabard. ‘Now get up there.’

‘As you wish.’

Francesca crossed the room and ascended the well-worn ladder. Unseen by the captain, something crossed the room behind her, snaking through the sawdust.

The first thing she noticed as she emerged into bright daylight was the volcano. The island of Mahonia had blown its top at last, spitting flames and dense smoke into a crystal clear sky. Outcast gulls wheeled away from it in flocks, seeking a new sanctuary. She thought of the marooned geological expedition, trapped between the fire of the underworld and the deepest, bluest of seas. She was not the sort to let her breast heave at the first hint of sorrow, but she felt a tremor of loss at the thought of poor Welby and his colleagues.

However, more urgent matters demanded her attention. A motley collection of faces glared at her from around the deck. Tatooed Chinese renegades, their hair in tight pony tails, the fire of foreign magic burning in their eyes. Fugitive Frenchmen, scarred by jaunts in the Bastille and on the chain gang. Strange savage creatures from the Americas, their faces spread across their chests, flat nostrils exposing flashes of lung. In the rigging Barbary apemen dangled beside powder monkeys, while pygmies and Lilliputians scrambled up the lower rungs for a better view. The Wandering Dog’s crew, all frowning as grimly as the skull and crossbones under which they sailed.

‘There’s few things worse than bein’ an outcast,’  Deadeye said as he followed her out of the hatch. ‘We should know, shouldn’t we boys?’

The crew muttered assent.

‘And there’s few we won’t take in, if they’re willin’ to pull their weight. After all, everybody’s got to have a home.’

Deadeye bore down on Francesca as he spoke, cutlass held out before him, so that she had to back off towards the starboard beam. The crowd parted to let her through, then merged again behind the captain, a mass of weathered flesh and faded cloth. There was no sound except the distant rumble of Mahonia. One of the chimps in the rigging began to screech, but was beaten into silence by his neighbours.

‘But there’s one sort that’ll never be welcome on this here boat,’ the captain said, his voice rising, ‘and that a traitor!’

This time the crew roared their approval. Francesca trembled, perspiration peppering her brow. Her heels knocked against the raised edge of the deck. Behind her was a gap in the beam and a plank stretched out above the water.

‘Did you think we wouldn’t work it out?’ Deadeye bellowed. ‘A fallen woman fleeing her father’s wrath, yet not a scar or blemish on you – oh yes, I had one of the monkeys watch you bathe. Scales was all they saw. What sort of woman has scales? Not an English aristocrat, that’s for sure. And you were so well equipped for a lass who’d never travelled. Too much experience and too little knowledge, that gave it away. Perhaps we should have left you to die with lover boy on the island – don’t think I didn’t notice the looks between you two. But me, I like a bit of variety. It spices up life.’

Francesca felt the sharp point of the cutlass prodding at her guts. She stepped onto the plank.

‘It has been an exciting journey,’ she said, putting on a brave face as she backed unsteadily along the creaking board.

‘Aye, we’re all sad to see the end,’ Deadeye said with a grin.

Francesca reached the end of the plank and looked back at the crew’s leering visages. The wind turned and the gutsy reek of sixty unwashed bodies was replaced by the fresh salt breath of the ocean, tinged with a faint, sad scent of smoke. She looked the captain in the eye and smiled smugly.

‘It’s nearer than you think, captain,’ she said.

The wind lifted her skirts, and for the first time the pirates saw the cord tied to her boot, running back along the plank, between their feet, and down into the powder room. They had time for one shared gasp. Then Francesca leapt into the air, graceful as a salmon in a stream, and plunged into the waters below. The line hissed out behind her and pulled taught. Down in the powder room, the little noose on the end tightened round the trigger of a pistol. The flint fell and sparks flew into the barrels of gunpowder. The Wandering Dog exploded with a deafening roar.

Francesca rose to the surface and watched the shattered remnants of the ship bobbing on the water. A plume of smoke poured from the scorched, sinking hull, a twin to the cloud rising over the volcano. She tore herself loose of the cumbersome dress and dived back down beneath the waves, her heart swelling with pride at her triumph and joy at returning to her people. Other merfolk rose to greet her, scales glinting as they swam victory laps. She kicked off her boots and joined them, webbed feet flexing through the crystal clear sea.

 

This story was previously published in Alienskin magazine, February 2008

How We Fall – out now

One of the few pieces of creative writing I managed to get done this summer was a sci-fi short called How We Fall, published now by Redstone Science Fiction. It’s a story of soldiers put in a difficult situation, and the clash between their personalities. It’s also about how the same thing, or in this case the same person, can have very different meanings for different people.

For me, there’s something particularly powerful about the image of angels. I don’t know where this comes from. The religious part of my up-bringing didn’t feature a lot of traditional iconography. I’ve never had a grand vision or vivid dream in which the heavenly choirs descended on me in blinding light and close harmony singing. And yet the lure is there. A large part of what I love about Ennis and Dillon’s Preacher is the use, mostly subversively and occasionally reverentially, of that sort of Christian iconography. So when an ad campaign involving angels appeared across bus shelters around Manchester, it caught my eye. What for the ad-men was a gimmicky tagline, for me became the heart of my story. I’ve not delved deep into the spiritual implications of a winged messenger, but I like to think I’ve at least got more depth out of this than the guys selling deodorant.

Interview at Alt Hist

I’ve recently been interviewed for Alt Hist. This is the first time I’ve been interviewed for anything other than a job, and it felt strange to answer questions that weren’t about my administrative experience or people management skills. But that made it a far more enjoyable sort of interview to do.

Unrelated to that, yesterday I sent off the final assignment of a non-writing related course that’s kept me from creative writing for most of the summer. Now I’m trying to get my brain back into a writing gear, trying to think in literary rather than academic terms.  This should be liberating, unfettered by needing to write about facts in an essay format. But instead I’m finding that the creative gears have become rusted, and are slow to grind back into action. It’s an enjoyable challenge to get them going, but more of a challenge than I’d like.

From the Sea

Pheidippides ran from the sea, the crash of waves and Persian steel still echoing in his ears, a memory of salt spray kissing his neck.  Behind him his brother Greeks piled the dead on the scarlet sands and gave hearty thanks to Pan for scattering their foes.  Harsh chants of victory gave way to the steady thud of his sandals on the path, joined by the rushing of blood in his ears as he ascended the steep mountainside.  His heart soared at the news he carried, of the triumph granted by the satyr god.

Pace after pace the road stretched out behind him, dust rising and finding the sweat so that his shins were coated with mud.  He stumbled, toes ramming against a rocky outcrop.  Pain seared his nerves and blood dripped into the dirt but he righted himself without pausing.  His lungs burned and an ache throbbed through his legs, rising to meet the muscles straining for each ragged breath.  He rubbed the sweat from his eyes but still his vision shifted, trees by the road blurring into a green veil that danced in the breeze.  Then the leaves were torn asunder and a horned figure stepped forth, grinning fiercely as he sprang towards Pheidippides on cloven hooves.

Fear seized the runner.  Had Pan, having broken the Persians, now come for him as well?  Not even daring to catch the god’s eye he hurled himself forward, faster through the thin mountain air, and out into the hills below.  He felt a piercing gaze on his back, heard laughter rattle on the wind, and thought of the enemy soldiers, eyes wide with panic as the Greeks bore down upon them.

At last Athens appeared across the plains.  He staggered into her streets, women and children watching him nervously as he ran on, each breath a wave of fire through his chest.  Finally he reached the temple and sank to his knees on the cold marble floor.  Staring up at the goat-legged figure before him he called out one last hoarse word.

‘Victory!’

The statue smiled at this prayer of thanks, and Pheidippides felt the panic fade, leaving him to drift into welcome blackness.

 

Originally published in Carillon 18, June 2007.

The Bomb

Shoppers shuffled to market beneath the tall concrete buildings of Century Square. The towers reached to the dizzying light of heaven, blocking out the sun. Each one was a masterpiece of functionalist architecture, cold, dismal and empty. Companies needing office space looked outwards instead to the redbrick suburbs, and the Ministry of Appropriations, forced to occupy one of the grey blocks, was notorious for inefficiency. But from the rooftops the air-raid sirens could be heard for miles, a distorted melody backed by the percussion of distant artillery.

In the square figures shuffled from stall to stall, huddling round products even the war had not consumed. Old ladies in shawls prodded vigorously at wrinkled apples then complained that they were bruised. A mother berated a penniless stallholder, demanding a refund for cleaning fluids that left greasy smears across her windows. Another fretted around her screeching daughter, offering dollies and candy canes if she would be quiet. Outside the Ministry of Appropriations a street sweeping van belched black exhaust soot. All of them ignored the siren’s wail, made indifferent to its warning by countless practices and false alarms.

A bomber buzzed low and angry over the rooftops, onlookers gawping upwards as it hurled its load into the heart of the square. A thought bomb burst open, showering the place with lettered casing and infectious memes. Concepts hurtled through the air, embedding themselves in shoppers and stallholders. There was panic as the victims found their minds invaded by new and outrageous ideas, confusing and contradicting the reality to which they held. Raw, unexpected perspectives overwhelmed a decade’s dogged resistance, stubborn habits receding in the face of reality’s shifting front line. Some victims, startled into panic by their own discordant thoughts, ran off through the monotone grid of streets, spreading the word in their wake. The rest simply sat down, stunned into surrender by the unending, bloodthirsty futility of violence. The bomb had riddled them with doubts, shown its victims the self-defeating horror of war, the pointlessness of resistance.

The idea spread through town like a contagion, carrying its symptom of silence. Homes, offices, schools, all fell quiet. The handles of sirens ceased to turn, radios hissed with static as local stations gave up educating the indifferent masses. Cars sat dormant in the street, their drivers gazing at each other in stillness. By dusk the distant guns of the front line had ceased their brutal barking. For the first time in years, an owl could be heard.

* * *

Two days later the tanks rolled into town, a grime-streaked victory parade as the opposition sealed their success. Scouts ran ahead of them, darting from one doorway to the next as they watched warily for signs of resistance. Not a finger was lifted against them, citizens watching passively as gunmen stormed their homes and stole their food.

The whole town had an eerie, ghostlike feel, draped in a quiet made not of calm or comfort but of hopelessness and inertia. The invaders initially prowled the streets with a wary determination, rifles at the ready, eyes darting back and forth as they swept through silent buildings or patrolled the deserted, wind-swept roads. The locals went wordlessly about their work, heads bowed, shoulders hunched, as though bent low by a great weight. They went outside only when necessary, and talked in hushed whispers when it became necessary to buy their bread and milk. The soldiers watched them nervously, at first afraid that they might rise into armed revolt, then wary of the unnerving, lifeless silence. But fed, sheltered and safe from any sign of resistance, the war-weary troopers began to relax.

The soldiers’ orders were clear – no fraternising. But set a rule and you set someone a challenge.

‘It’s not fraternising if we don’t talk, right?’ a private said, watching a pretty blonde walk by, long green dress swaying enticingly with each step. His comrades smirked knowingly to each other as he followed the girl down an alley and grabbed her by the arm.

‘Doesn’t seem safe,’ he said, ‘pretty thing like you out on your own.’

He leaned in close, stubble rasping at her cheek, hands reaching round her unresisting waist, fingertips caressing her curves. She reached up, tilted his helmet aside and began to whisper in his ear. He ceased his fumbling. Arms fell slack by his sides. At last she fell silent, gazing into his eyes. He nodded, turned, and walked numbly back towards his companions, rifle trailing in the gutter. The squad huddled around him, eyes flitting back and forth, glancing warily at their friend then nervously over their shoulders. He spoke, and one by one the camouflaged huddle ceased to twitch their heads, sinking into apathy or setting off in determination, spreading the word through their unit and beyond.

Silence crept along the war’s front line. The sharp chatter of small-arms gave way to crickets chirping on the breeze. Bombers idled on disused runways and tanks gathered dust. All across the continent owls could be heard.

This story was originally published in Atomjack magazine, November 2007.