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.
I’m sorry, dear blog readers, but I’ve been cheating on you. I have a post over at Alt Hist. “At the Boundary of the Normal” is about how horror and historical fiction work well together. So if those are things that interest you, go check it out…
I love it when stories have strong narrator voices. The way the story is told gives you a sense of the narrator’s character without describing them directly. It can make for a really interesting read.
This year, I’ve encountered two Cthulhu mythos stories that do this well, and that make the mythos accessible to someone like me who doesn’t know it well.
First up is “My Friend Fishfinger by Daisy, Aged 7” by David Tallerman. It’s told from the point of view of a 7-year-old girl. She’s describing her friend, nicknamed Fishfinger, who is nice but unusual. Her parents worship a strange god and they’re going to take Daisy on holiday with them. From the child’s point of view, it’s incredibly sweet. As an adult reading the story, it’s obvious what’s amiss, and Cthulhu fans will doubtless know exactly what it refers to. The contrast between the strong character perspective and the reader’s understanding creates a wonderful strand of dark humour, as well as telling us a lot about the characters involved.
Then there’s “Donald” by Adrian Tchaikovsky. An academic, responding to some unnamed investigator, tells the story of his encounters with a man named Donald Toomey. Again, there are the ironies that creep in through the gaps between reader and narrator understanding. There’s also a great pleasure to be taken in the narrator’s voice. His opinions, biases, and assumptions flavour the text like tasty spices. There’s a certain amount of belligerence and bloody-mindedness. There’s also a tendency to assume that the world works a certain way, a set of academic assumptions that are carefully shown rather than crudely explained. It makes the storytelling subtle and the voice authentic.
Horrors creeping in around the edges of modern life. A sense that something terrible and abnormal is reaching out toward us. The eldritch amid the mundane.
No, I’m not talking about party political conference season. I’m talking about The Private Lives of Elder Things, a cracking collection of Cthulhu mythos short stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Keris McDonald, and Adam Gauntlett.
Making Sense of the Incomprehensible
I don’t read a lot Cthulhu fiction. I hold my hands up now and confess that I’ve never read a word by H. P. Lovecraft himself. But I’m friends with two of the authors of this collection, I like their writing, and there was free wine at their book launch. So not only did I buy a signed copy, but I started reading it.
Weeks later, I told Keris that I was reading her book and hadn’t read much Cthulhu. She seemed surprised and asked what I thought of it. After all, the stories are built on references to existing Cthulhu creatures. Without that prior reading, a lot of the references were going to be lost on me.
The answer is that I’m really enjoying these stories. I can tell as I read them that they’re referring to things I don’t recognise or understand. For me, that doesn’t leave me frustratingly lost. Instead, it creates the feeling of being embedded in a larger, richer world. I’m intrigued by those hints at things beyond the stories in my hands. They add to my immersion because they’ve been done well and so hint at a wider in-story world, rather than being nudge wink references that pull me out of the text.
And of course, the feeling of incomprehension is part of the allure of the mythos.
Superheroes and the Supernatural
I get the same experience reading the better superhero comics from DC and Marvel. References to events and characters in their wider continuities can create a sense of depth and richness. As long as those add to the story, rather than being what holds it up, they create depth whether I understand the references or not. Take this page from Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers:
Do I need to know about the current story arcs of Thor and Captain America to understand the significance of them ignoring events outside? No. Is a deep understanding of their personalities vital to the story? No. Does it add something? Yes.
Of course, when poorly handled, these references become meaningless and frustrating, and that happens a lot in comics. A reliance on continuity rather than its use as flavour makes many comics inaccessible to new readers and boring to the less continuity-minded like me. Some people love it, but I think you can over-salt this meal.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen in The Private Lives of Elder Things. These are creepy stories set in the modern world that hint at something more. They’re thoroughly enjoyable.
I don’t know why I started working in the factory.
I was walking past one day, keeping off my bad leg, through the strangely sweet smoke that drifts out of there. I saw the sign saying they were hiring. I could feel a single farthing in my pocket, and couldn’t remember any money at home. Seemed like that sign was made for me.
The recruiter was a proper gent, all dressed up in a tailcoat, top hat, and bow tie. His smile was as familiar as an old friend. He took my name and took me inside, past rows of shifting pistons, down corridors turning on platforms and stairs that moved by themselves. I felt out of place in all that amazing machinery, like I were too stupid to be doing with it. But he put me straight to work. No fuss, no papers, just there you go – crank the handle on this press until the shift bell rings.
It wasn’t exciting, but work never is. I took to it like I’d been doing it for years, the movement of the handle effortlessly familiar. The day became a haze of repetitive movement and that sweet smelling smoke.
I cranked that handle for hours, watching tin disks go in one side of the machine and little bowls come out the other. They rolled down the line, past other lads staring blank-faced at the machines in front of them. After a while, I found myself watching those lads, not thinking anything, mind drifting.
That was when I must have cranked the handle wrong. It got stuck in place, tin disks piling up while I tried furiously to pull it free.
“Here!” I called out, blinking to try and wake myself up. No-one looked over, and I reckoned they couldn’t hear me over the roar of the pistons – it were a mighty loud roar. I shouted louder. “Hey! Can someone help?”
No-one even looked up from their work. The next lad on the line kept turning the handle of the buffing wheel, even though the tin cups weren’t coming out of my machine to go into his.
I walked over to him, a little unsteady on my legs after so long stood still.
“Hey, mate.” I waved a hand in front of his face but he didn’t respond. I tried again, then just kept waving, staring in wonder at the movement of my own hand.
It was my bad leg that snapped me out of it. Too much weight and the old scar starts to tingle. By the time I noticed, it was fair screaming at me. I lurched back, shaking my head, trying to find my own good sense.
I didn’t know what was messing with my mind, whether it were the smoke or the rhythm of the pistons or something else. What I knew was I had to get out.
Breathing through my sleeve, I set off across the work floor, back out the way I’d come in.
Except it weren’t the same. The corridor had changed. Doors were in different places. There were stairs that I didn’t remember from before.
It didn’t matter whether it were real or my mind playing tricks – all I could do was try. So I ran, bad leg aching, to the far end of the corridor and up those stairs.
The stairs twisted as I went up, until they were pointing back down and I was going down with them. Then came a junction, and a corridor that seemed to go straight but just brought me back where I’d started. I was getting scared now. Numbness descended on my brain, the smoke and the pistons closing in, and I imagined myself as one more of those poor expressionless men on the assembly line.
I decided to go up. Up was air. Up was hope. Every time I saw stairs I went up them. Some turned back down and I had to start again, cursing my poor judgement and wasted effort. But floor by floor I made my way up through the factory. At last a hatch opened and I emerged into a fresh breeze.
I took deep, long lungfuls of clear air. My mind was starting to return. Leg aching, I hauled myself out of the hatch, found a drainpipe, and scrambled down into the cobbled yard. That sweet smoke was in the air again, but I didn’t run – I didn’t want to draw attention. Fast as I could walk, I hobbled to the front gate and out into the road.
The relief was overwhelming. I slowed down, letting my leg recover as I ambled through the factory district, trying to get my bearings. Soon the experience felt like nothing more than a bad dream, a hazy memory half-forgotten. Then I was just one more unemployed man walking through the factory district, only a farthing in my pocket, wondering where my next meal might come from. I half recalled something about men and machines, but the sweet smoke soothed and distracted me.
I passed a factory with a sign outside saying they were hiring. A gent were stood out front, all smiling and friendly in his top hat and tails.
Ghosts, Gears & Grimoires, a collection of supernatural steampunk stories, is out now from Mocha Memoirs Press. Edited by Rie Sheridan Rose, it features such fine stories as my own “Steel and Steam”, in which industry unearths something it shouldn’t. So if you like something a little spooky, or are looking to inject a little more steam into your life, then go check it out.
Trigger warning: Today’s story features violence against women and makes reference to sexual violence.
* * *
Bill March’s body lay in the cut through the end of the hill, where the canal was going to go. There was no blood down there, but the navvy’s throat had been opened with a long gash, a pink slice across pale skin. Muddy hands stretched out above his head as if reaching for help.
Lila looked down at the body with a mix of revulsion, and relief. Her eyes kept flitting around the crowd of navvies and camp followers who had gathered, peering down at the foreman as he contemplated what to do. Could they see her guilt? Did they notice her trembling or the spots of blood on the hem of her dress?
“He deserved it,” Jen whispered. She squeezed Lila’s arm, but the reassuring gesture just inflamed the bruises Bill had left there. “Just because he paid don’t mean he can just-”
It was too much. Lila turned from her friend and wriggled away through the crowd.
In the cold darkness of her small canvas tent, Lila felt a cold hand touch her thigh.
“Get off,” she said. “I’m done for the day.”
The hand crept higher.
“I said get off!” She kicked hard but connected with nothing. Pulling herself up in a tangle of blankets, she lit a candle.
There was no-one else in the tent, just a man’s muddy hand print on the sheets.
It must have been a dream, she thought. But tired as she was, it took a long time for sleep to return.
By the third night, Lila could barely sleep. Certain that it was no dream, she lay rigid with fear as she waited for a cold hand to touch her.
There it was, creeping up her leg, grasping at her thigh. She lit a match, hoping that the light would dispel the horror. Instead it illuminated a face, ghostly pale and dead eyed, leering at her out of the darkness.
The heat drained from Lila as he pressed against her. As she grew colder he gained substance, until it seemed as if the real Bill were weighing down her icy body.
At last she found the strength to scream. She pulled a knife out from under her straw mattress and held it up in front of her face, the same knife she had killed him with. For a moment, Bill looked afraid. Then her hand wavered. Even as people came running, an angry and lascivious gleam twinkled in his eyes. Then he disappeared.
“Stop working and get some sleep,” Jen said, wrapping an arm around Lila as they stood outside their tents, smiling at the navvies as they stumbled past. “You’re cold and pale as frost. You need rest.”
“Can’t sleep,” Lila said. “He comes.”
“He’s dead and buried,” Jen said. “All that’s bothering you is your imagination. Get some sleep and you’ll feel better.”
“Can’t,” Lila said.
She held out her hand as a navvy approached, a gleam in his eye and a coin in his fingers. Together, they went into her tent.
He wasn’t the first that night, nor the last. With each ride between the sheets, Lila hoped to wipe away the thought of what was coming. Fast or slow, rough or gentle, she didn’t care. Anything was better than what was coming for her.
At last she lay alone in the darkness. Exhausted, aching, feeling more wretched than ever before. Clutching her knife to her like a talisman.
Memories washed over her. Not the happy ones – that cold, terrible spirit had chased those away. Instead they were the memories of every man who had ever hit her, who had ever forced her, who had ever left her feeling wretched and weeping for release.
Of how many she had let get away with it.
Of the one she hadn’t.
As the tears streamed down her face, a cold hand touch her ankle.
She couldn’t stand it any more. She leapt from her bed and ran, barefoot and half-dressed, through the camp. Everyone else was sleeping. Clouds blotted out the stars, the last embers of cooking fires the only light.
At last she reached the edge of the cut. Soon this would be a canal, its waters carrying coal and iron to the factories of Leeds and Liverpool. She could have flung herself into those waters and been washed clean as she let the world fade away. But she could not wait until then.
She pressed the knife against her wrist. She should go along, not across. One of the other girls had told her that once. If you were really intent on the business, cut along not across.
“That’s it,” Bill hissed.
He was barely visible in the darkness, a ghostly figure with a dark line across his throat.
“Get what you deserve,” he said.
His cold hand grasped her by the neck, just as he had before. Her breath froze in her throat.
“No,” she whimpered, full of terrible memories of the men who had come before.
His throat felt strangely solid as she hit it with the knife. No blood poured out, but he gurgled as he dropped her and fell in the same pose as when she killed him.
“No,” she said again as the ghost faded away.
“Are you alright?” Jen asked, looking at Lila with fear. “I mean…”
They watched the navvies they’d been serving walk away into the dusk. Everyone in the nearby tents must have heard Lila’s yell and the sound of the man complaining as she sent him packing.
“I’m fine,” Lila said.
She went back into her tent and lay on the bed. As darkness descended, a cold hand touched her thigh. She lit a candle and looked at Bill March’s face. It held the same expression it did every night.
What happens when the supernatural and steampunk collide? When ghosts get into the gears and cowled figures haunt the cogwheels? When blood drips with the fog from the streets of cities that rattle with industry?
In just over a week’s time you can find out, with the release of Ghosts, Gears and Grimoires, an anthology of steampunk horror stories edited by Rie Sheridan Rose of Mocha Memoirs Press. It includes my story “Steel and Steam”, in which colonial industry faces native spirits, and over a dozen other tales. There’s a very nifty book trailer here, and if that doesn’t whet your appetite enough, here’s a small taster of my story…
Hywel snorted. “This is the nineteenth century, Mr. Kagunda. The world is powered by science and steam, not ancient superstitions and mystification.”
“Mr. Jones is right,” Filbery said. “There are far more plausible explanations. Human error, machine fault, even sabotage. If this superstition is causing us problems, then we should nip it in the bud.”
“You have a Bible in your room, Mr. Filbery?” Kagunda’s voice was rising, his guarded, respectful tone giving way to something more primal. “And you, Mr. Jones? I have heard you singing songs of God as you work.” He made a wide, sweeping gesture with his arm, taking in the whole of the surrounding plains. “This land is my Bible. My songs are of this earth, and those who came before.”
“I say!” Filbery protested, as Kagunda grabbed each of them by an arm and dragged them to the back rail. Hywel knew the foreman was strong, but this was the first time he had felt the intensity of that strength, pulling him about like a rag doll.
“The white.” Kagunda pointed at pale flecks in the broken dirt thirty feet below them. “What is it?”
“Chalk?” Filbery asked.
“Flint?” Hywel murmured, knowing as he said it that the geology was wrong.
I recently introduced Laura to the film Tremors, after making the shocking discovery that she’d never seen it. In doing so, I realised how great an example it is of a key storytelling trick – try fail cycles.
Footloose vs Dune
In case you’ve somehow missed this cinematic classic, Tremors is a 1990 film about a small town under attack by giant burrowing worms. Starring Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward as handyman heroes Valentine and Earl, it’s a film that I love not because it’s masterful or innovative, but because it’s so much fun. It uses a horror structure, but lacks the dark atmosphere of horror. It has a humorous tone, but isn’t a comedy. The characters are clichés, but together they’re an interesting mix. The climax features one of the most hilariously in-your-face ropey special effects shots I’ve ever seen.
It’s as if Frank Herbert’s worms from Dune escaped to hunt down that guy from Footloose, and exactly as serious as such a film would be. I love it.
Try, Try Again
Try fail cycles are an important part of plotting stories. They consist of a character repeatedly trying to achieve a goal, and repeatedly facing setbacks, until they finally get there. Those failures are what make the final success feel rewarding – after all those struggles, the character and their plan have grown, and there’s real tension around whether this attempt will succeed. Given that we know that heroes usually win in the end, it’s an important way of creating doubt about the outcome.
In Tremors, those cycles are really clear, and they show how the pattern can vary.
In the first act, Valentine and Earl make repeated attempts to leave town, for a variety of reasons. Every time they are stopped in their tracks. Their eventual failure is what keeps them in town for the film, and for one final escape attempt in the last act.
In the second half of the film, once the monsters are on display in all their rubber and gunk glory, we see two try fail cycles from the townspeople. One is them trying to get to a place of safety, as one option after another at first works and then fails. There’s the same pattern with their attempts to kill the worms. They try, they succeed, but then something means they can’t follow the same approach. It’s not just a cycle of try then fail. It’s a cycle of try then succeed and then fail, which creates strong emotional peaks and troughs. We celebrate the successes and bemoan the failures along with Valentine, Earl and the rest.
Finally there’s the romantic arc, as Valentine tries to work out how to communicate with geologist Rhonda. It’s much less prominent, and less obviously a repeating cycle, but it’s there. Valentine faces his own awkwardness several times, all under the amused eye of Earl. It’s a reluctant try fail, in which Valentine fails toward realising what he wants romantically and how to make it happen.
Learn from the Worms
Sometimes it takes an unsophisticated story to expose the clever tools writers use, and Tremors is one of those occasions. If you haven’t seen it then go watch it – I’ll still be here when you get back. And maybe share your thoughts on the film or try fail cycles in the comments below.