Devouring God – a fantasy short story

Image by sipa from Pixabay

Our local guides cried out in alarm as they walked into the clearing.

“What have you done?” Bor exclaimed.

“It’s a campfire,” I explained. “We use it to—”

“Not that!” Bor snatched up the python skin, all thirty blood-slicked feet of it, and held it out, his hands trembling. “This!”

“Quite a beast, isn’t it?” I patted my belly. “We caught it by surprise at it slithered into the clearing. It’s fed us well, and with enough left over for several days.”

“You monsters!” Bor drew his shortsword, firelight burnishing the bronze blood red, and shouted at the top of his voice. “The travellers have killed God!”

I grabbed my bow, and my companions followed, snatching up a sword, an axe, a crossbow. But locals were pouring out of the forest, and though their furs were ragged and their weapons simple, they outnumbered us ten to one.

“There’s been a misunderstanding.” I lowered my weapon and raised my hands. “You said that this clearing would provide for us, and when the snake appeared…”

“He has provided for his people for a hundred generations.” Bor’s face was pale. “Since the day he ate his brother, took his power, and became God.”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t understand.”

“There must be justice.”

“Of course.” I knelt and opened my saddlebags, glad that we had brought plenty of gold and other trade goods. The risk of being robbed was nothing next to the risk of being unprepared. I held out a handful of coins. “A hundred, perhaps? Two hundred?”

“You think you can buy justice?”

At a nod from Bor, two of his people pinned my arms behind my back. Around the clearing, my companions were held tight where they stood, their weapons flung out of reach.

“There must be blood.” The tip of Bor’s sword touched my throat, gentle as a traitor’s kiss, while he readied himself to strike.

“Please, it was an accident!” I tried to keep my voice steady, but it was hard to die with dignity when I so desperately wanted to live. My stomach was tying itself in a knot. “Where’s the justice in killing me for that?”

“Where is the justice in letting a deicide live?”

My guts squirmed, and I struggled not to shit myself. Fear was making an infant out of me.

Then the snake skin moved, scales rippling as it slid away from the fire. Bor sank to his knees as the hollowed out beast raised its head, empty eye holes staring from the space where a skull had been.

“You killed me,” said a voice that rattled like dead leaves in the winter wind. “But I killed my brother when the world was young and took his power for myself. I am a killer of gods, and I will easily kill you.”

“Yes, my lord!” Bor cried out, and his people cheered with him. “Punish the transgressor!”

The writhing in my gut spread through my body. Muscles trembled and skin crawled. My bones cracked and twisted. I cried out in pain. My punishment had come.

“What is this?” the God asked.

My clothes fell away, no longer fitting me. My arms slid from my captors’ grasp, then dissolved into the sides of my chest. Scales burst through my skin as realisation burst through my mind.

“I ate you,” I hissed, forked tongue flickering. “As you ate your brother. I am the God of this place now.”

I shot across the clearing and grasped the old God, wrapping him in my coils. He cried out in anger, but it was too late. I tightened my grip, exhilarating in the movement of muscles I had never known. My opponent crumpled. At last, I flung his empty skin into the campfire and watched as it withered in the flames.

The locals were on their knees, chanting my praises. My travelling companions, freed of their grasp, snatched up weapons and saddlebags, ready to make an escape.

“Can you ride like that?” One of them asked, looking up at me in admiration. “Or do you want to stick around for a bit, see what we can get out of this?”

I slithered across the clearing and wrapped my coils around him.

“I am God,” I said. “What do you have to offer me, little man?”

***

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***

Silver and Gold

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold is available as an ebook from Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

The Man in the Wall – a historical short story

Image by bassoon12345 from Pixabay

Liza wandered awe-struck through Lady Sarah’s house. It was more like a palace than a house, with a dozen rooms at least, most with their own fireplaces, fancy carved furniture and rugs on the walls. There was even glass in the windows, though not in the kitchen where Liza’s mother was talking with the steward. Glass was only for the richest people.

Liza walked quietly. She wasn’t meant to leave the servants’ rooms, but she couldn’t resist coming to see the glass, like squares of perfectly clear ice, rows of them filling each window.

She walked through a doorway and saw a man in a black dress standing by a fireplace, talking with Lady Sarah. There was a hole in the wall behind him, where a wood panel normally stood.

“Hello, who are you?” the man said, crouching to look at Liza.

“Oh God, the brewer’s daughter.” Lady Sarah’s hand darted across her chest like she was sewing four giant stitches. “What’s she doing here?”

“It’s alright.” The man smiled at Liza, and she almost believed that he was happy to see her. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

“But the family aren’t—”

“What’s your name, young mistress?”

“I’m Liza.” She finally remembered to curtsy. Doing that felt fun. “Or Elizabeth.”

“Like the Queen.”

Liza smiled. The Queen’s house must be a lot like this one.

“What do we do now, Father?” Lady Sarah’s voice trembled. “If Topcliffe questions the girl we’re all undone.”

“We will carry on with our game,” the man said. “That’s what we’re doing here, Liza, playing a game. I’m hiding from some friends, who are looking all over the country for me. You wouldn’t spoil the game by telling them where I am, would you?”

Liza shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Not even if they ask very nicely?”

“No, sir.”

“Or if they ask very meanly?” He scowled comically.

Liza laughed. The man was far friendlier than Lady Sarah, who stared at her like a dog that might bite.

“No, sir.”

“Then I think we will be alright. God would not send an innocent to do the devil’s work.” The man walked into the hole in the wall, then turned and waved. “Goodbye, Liza.”

The wood panel swung into place and the hole was gone. Liza curtsied, then ran away before Lady Sarah could tell her off.

#

Liza was in the kitchen of the big house, watching her mother argue money with Lady Sarah’s steward, when men burst in with muskets, clubs, and swords. The fiercest of them wore armour on his chest and a fancy hat with a feather.

Liza’s mother pulled her close, holding on so tight that her fingers dug into Liza’s shoulder. The steward spluttered, but was silenced by a slap from the armoured man. Liza buried her face in her mother’s skirts, wishing that the men would go away.

“Spread out,” the armoured man said. “Search every nook and cranny. I’m not letting that damnable priest slip through my fingers again.”

“This is an outrage,” the steward said.

Liza opened her eyes a crack. Two men had the steward pinned against the wall, but the armoured man was looking at Liza’s mother, and that made her really scared.

“Where’s the priest?” he asked.

“I’m here on business,” her mother said. “We’re good Protestant folk, and I don’t know anything about a priest.”

“If you’re such a good Protestant, what are you doing in this den of papists?”

“Their money’s as good as anyone’s.”

“Good for buying silence, I’d wager.” The man’s eyes narrowed as he stepped closer, then looked down at Liza. “I bet you see things, don’t you, child?”

Liza tried to curtsy, but her legs wobbled and she almost fell. The man laughed.

“Do you know what a Catholic is?” he asked.

Liza remembered the church bells ringing the year before, and people telling stories about Spaniards, ships, and storms. The Catholics in those stories were terrible foreigners coming to kill the Queen.

“Bad men,” she said.

“That’s right. And one of them is hiding in this house. Have you seen him?”

That didn’t make sense. The man she had seen was friendly. He couldn’t be one of these Catholic devils. And besides, he had asked her not to tell.

She shook her head.

“Have you seen anything strange here?” The man took hold of her mother’s chin and tipped her head from side to side, staring into her eyes. The trembling of her mother’s hand passed into Liza’s shoulder. “Remember, bad things can happen when you lie.”

Liza didn’t want to tell the angry man about the friendly man. She had promised that she wouldn’t even if he asked meanly. But she had never seen her mother scared before, and that made her more frightened than she had ever been.

“There’s a man in the wall,” she whispered.

#

Liza watched through a veil of tears as the men smashed the wood panel with axes. The friendly man didn’t look scared as they dragged him out, not like Liza’s mother or Lady Sarah or any of Lady Sarah’s friends, who stood by one wall, swords pointing at them.

The man in armour had a terrible smile.

Lady Sarah stared furiously at Liza, but when the friendly man saw her, he only nodded and smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Liza wailed.

“Don’t be,” the friendly man said. “None of this is your fault. Besides, I’m going to a better place.”

Liza hoped that place was a palace, like the one the Queen lived in. She hoped it had rugs on the wall, carved chairs, and those perfect squares of glass in the windows. She hoped the friendly man would be happy, no matter what a Catholic was.

***

During the 16th century, attitudes to religion got pretty screwed up in England. Fear and anger led to a brief period when Protestants were oppressed by a Catholic government, then a much longer period when the Catholics were oppressed by Protestants. There were covert religious services, a secret printing press, and a long, deadly game of hide and seek as the authorities hunted down priests sent to England from abroad. Those priests hid in specially built hiding holes in the mansions of sympathetic nobles, only to be tortured and executed if they were caught. Richard Topcliffe, the only real named person in this story, was among the more fervent priest hunters, and by all accounts a nasty piece of work. If you want to learn more, check out God’s Secret Agents, a very readable history of the period by Alice Hogge.

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***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Maintaining the Gearwheels of God – a steampunk short story

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Sister Savrin set aside her tool belt and placed the chipped gearwheel reverently on the table in the corner of her cell. She closed her eyes, clasped her hands together, and bowed her head in a moment of prayer.

According to doctrine, as espoused by Mother Superior, this gearwheel was no longer a part of God, had not been since Savrin removed it from His great mechanism in the heart of the cathedral. The new, undamaged gearwheel was a part of God now, and would help in performing His divine calculations, while the old one was drained of divinity, mundane scrap to be discarded.

But those scraps made Sister Savrin feel closer to Him. The small spring that she carried in the folds of her shift was an anchor securing her soul through the storms that raged through her heart.

There was a knock on the door. She eased it open just a crack, and peered out at Mother Superior, craggy faced and frowning.

“Sister Savrin,” Mother Superior said. “May I come in?”

To say no would raise as many questions as it avoided. Could she put it off until she had time to come up with an excuse?

“I…” They had brought her into the order for her gift with machines, not with words.

“Sister Bonopass says that you haven’t been bringing scrap to the smelter after tending to His mechanisms. What have you been doing with it?”

“I…”

“You can’t go selling machine parts to the faithful as relics. That was what got Brother Castazzo into trouble, remember?”

“I haven’t…”

“Then there won’t be a problem. Now please let me in.”

That please was accompanied by the pressure of Mother Superior’s substantial boot against the bottom of the door. Savrin lacked the courage to resist authority with words; physical resistance was beyond unthinkable. She stepped back and bowed her head, ashamed, as the door swung open.

“Oh, Savrin.” Mother Superior stared at the pile of broken and rusted machine parts, Savrin’s own private chapel. She didn’t sound angry, just disappointed, but that made Savrin feel like an invisible key was winding her guts like a spring. “What is this?”

“It’s God,” she whispered.

“I’m sure I heard you wrong.”

“I said it’s God. I couldn’t bear to throw him out.”

“Savrin, this is not God. It is just some pieces of metal.”

“Of course it’s God!” Her voice rose, becoming to big for the stone-walled confines of the cell, spilling out like a tide into the corridors beyond. “God is perfect and his pieces are too, even if they’re broken. They came from inside him, and everything in God is divine. How could it stop being holy, just because it stopped moving?”

“Sister Savrin, you know this. God is in the whole, not the parts.”

“Parts make up the whole. My hand is me. My heart is me. My brain is me. I’m made up of pieces, and so is God.”

“God is a pattern, a process-”

“God is a mass of gears that spits out commandments. If those parts aren’t holy then nothing is.”

“Sister Savrin!” The Mother Superior looked appalled. Behind her, other brothers and sisters had gathered in the corridor, staring in shock at what they heard. “Are you denying His divinity?”

“If your rules are His rules, then yes I am!”

The brothers and sisters stared, white-faced. The only sound was the soft, distant thud of God’s master wheel, the heartbeat of all their lives.

“Sister Madack, Brother Jerroff,” Mother Superior called out, her face fixed in cold fury. Two burly siblings stepped out of the crowd. “Take Sister Savrin’s robes and escort her from the cathedral. She is done here. And call for Sister Bonopass to gather this scrap.”

Savrin wept as she was dragged from her cell and stripped down to sandals and shift. She had lived for years among the holy order, and now her whole life was being wrenched away. Some of them watched in silence as she was marched down the nave to the great iron doors. Others, some of them men and women she considered friends, jeered at her miserable fate. Then the doors swung open and she was cast out into the cold.

She stood stunned in the middle of the mud road, while passing strangers stared at her through the pouring rain. She had prayed so hard, but God had ignored her, let her be cast out on her own, while the fragments she had believed were relics were melted down to make nails.

Mother Superior was right. There was nothing divine in those pieces.

Mother Superior was wrong. There was no God at all.

Then Savrin felt something, wrapped in a fold of her shift. A rusty spring, its end twisted, a piece she had taken the first time she ever maintained the great machine. Touching it, she felt peace flow across her like the dawn, chasing away the shadows of fear and grief. Like the saints in old stories, she had been cast out by the ignorant, but God had left her a sign, a part of him that would travel with her.

Sister Savrin straightened her back, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and strode out into the world. Whatever storms raged, this small iron anchor would keep her soul secure.

***

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***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Fish Supper – a fantasy short story

Image by katermikesch from Pixabay

The Reverend Hastings straightened his collar and pressed his hands together in a posture of prayer, fingers rising like a steeple above his supper plate. It was Friday, and so of course Mrs Abernathy, the housekeeper, had served him fish, in accordance with his own instructions and the traditional tenets by which a good Christian lived.

Mrs Abernathy had precise opinions on how fish should be served, opinions which the Reverend Hastings dared not defy, and as a result he found his dinner staring up at him, a beady eye glistening in the face of a whole cooked herring. He found the sight distasteful, but understood that this was fish as Christ himself would have seen it, shining in the nets on the shores of Galilee, and so he accepted it as one more providential source of inspiration for the prayers which would one day bring him a miracle.

The gleaming eye swivelled, the pit of its pupil staring straight at him.

The Reverend Hastings leapt back and his seat thudded to the floor. He pressed his hands to his chest and felt the racing of his heart as the fish twitched, then wriggled, then arched its back and leapt up to balance on its tail. Both eyes gazed down a pointed silver face towards him.

The Reverend Hastings’ alarm turned to exaltation as he realised what was taking place. He had always known that his faith, though less ardently expressed than that of the fiery modern evangelicals, was a tower of secret strength inside him. Now the Lord had recognised that faith.

“My miracle,” he whispered, sinking to his knees.

“Your miracle?” the fish asked. “Which of us has come back from the dead?”

“A talking fish! Truly, the Lord moves in mysterious ways. What message do you have for me?”

“What do you think I am, the postman?” The herring flexed its fins. “My message is for my own people.”

“Oh no.” The Reverend Hastings pushed himself back to his feet, from which to look down upon this obstinate son of the sea. “This is my miracle. It will prove to all the parish that I am worthy of their attention. It will be my loaves and fishes moment.”

“Loaves and fishes, eh?” The herring bobbed its head. “Let me try something.”

It spread its fins and made a melodious gurgling sound, like a mermaid’s song emerging from the depths of the ocean. The Reverend Hastings tingled from his smallest toe to the tips of his ears. Suddenly, another man appeared beside him, and another, and another, popping into existence one at a time until a score of them stood in a circle around the dining table. Every one looked exactly like him.

“How…?” twenty clergymen chorused, then clamped their hands to their mouths in alarm. “Why?” they murmured in unison, the words filtered through trembling fingers.

“Because I have a message for all herring kind,” the herring said, its voice somehow noble despite the flapping of its diminutive jaw. “And I’ve got to get their attention somehow – herring are very hard to please.”

The Reverends stared at each other with wide eyes. A talking fish no longer seemed so extraordinary.

“How do I know that I am the real me?” the Reverends Hastings asked, their voices wavering. “Which of us has been offering up prayers all these years? Which of us…” They swallowed, struggling to sustain themselves in the face of the next thought. “Which of us has our soul?”

“All of you, I suppose. Or none of you perhaps. It’s much the same thing.”

The Reverends shuddered. “Which is the real me? Which of us is this moment for?”

“Oh, I see.” The herring’s tone was rich with slowly dawning realisation. “You’re trying to draw a distinction that doesn’t exist. You are all just as much the Reverend Hastings as each other.”

“But then what makes me unique?” the Reverends asked, their limbs hanging as heavy as lead, their vision blurring with unshed tears.

“Maybe I have a message for you after all,” the herring said, hopping to the edge of its plate and from there down onto the floor. “Simply to live is a miracle in itself, and one does not have to stand out from the crowd to be amazing.” It patted one of the Reverends on the shin. “Just ask all those fishes Jesus was so fond of.”

Using its tail fins as tiny legs, the herring wobbled its way to the door. As it stepped out of the dining room, Mrs Abernathy walked in. She looked down at the passing fish, then around at the assembled Reverends, her expression shifting through curiosity to confusion to resignation in the space of seconds.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting the large teapot then?” she asked, picking a Reverend at random to address.

Nineteen Reverends Hastings nodded in unison. The twentieth was staring out the window, his attention caught by a beam of sunlight streaming through the garden. His thoughts filled with the wonder of God’s creation, like the thoughts of so many men before.

***

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Each Creature a Letter – a science fiction story

I have it at last. The final piece of the code. The last of the message hidden by God in his creation.

It took me years to understand where the code was hidden. I scoured holy books, trying to divine the secret alphabet they concealed. Years of research wasted in dusty rooms and crumbling manuscripts, scrutinising the conclusions of theologians and mystics, looking for the gaps in their work.

Then I realised that the message wasn’t in those texts, it was written into creation itself. That was why Noah had to build the ark. Each creature is a letter, and only when those letters are put together will we see God’s message for us.

I have them all now. Genetic code from every creature known to man. My computers have been analysing them, finding what is unique in each one. Those fragments of code will be the letters, and when I bring them together, joy of joys, His will be done!

I know that now is the time because now is when it has become possible. A decade ago, I couldn’t have extracted the individual letters and brought them back together, but gene editing has changed the world. This is what he preordained, calibrating our intelligence to work this out now, when the animals we know are the ones for the code. In his omniscience, he was able to see a path for us. Humanity is the tool with which he will perfect creation, and I am the sharp point of that tool.

Fingers trembling at the controls of the computer, I set the machine to put the final piece into place. What letter does the zebra represent? There is no A, B, or C here, but a holy alphabet thousands of letters long, barely comprehensible to the human mind. Still, I wonder what sound each letter represents.

Perhaps my creation – His creation – will be able to tell me.

The code is complete. Now it goes into the incubator, a vat of nutrients and electricity from which life can be born anew. Let it grow there, in this modern primordial soup. This is the darkness into which The Word will be breathed – a word beyond any we can fathom, recreated from the beings it set loose.

The weeks of gestation are long and gruelling, grinding my patience down to a nub. I snap at colleagues but cannot explain or excuse myself. If they knew what I was doing in the farthest corner of the lab, they would call me insane. They don’t understand. They never have.

At last the time comes for me to open the incubator. As I lift the lid, I imagine what might emerge. A glowing figure perhaps, like the Christ child in a renaissance painting. An angel even, wings spread and singing the glory of his name.

When I see it, I am struck not by wonder but by nausea. It is a terrible twisted thing, mismatched limbs barely able to drag its body out of the amniotic pool. It looks up at me with wide, desperate eyes and reaches out, dripping, toward my face. Then it collapses, gasping, twitching, hanging limp and feeble across the edge of the incubator.

This is no divine message. I have birthed an abomination.

I grab a syringe and fill it from a small and deadly vial. I force myself to touch the creature’s neck, to hold it steady while I slide the needle in. As skin meets skin, the creature looks up at me once more, pupils wide, and leans in towards me. I have to look away as I push the plunger.

I don’t wait for the abomination, still as stone now, to go cold. I haul it into a waste sack and drag it down to the incinerator. My terrible mistake is reduced to ash, its visage lingering only in my nightmares. No-one will know what I have done. I return to the lab and scrub every last surface clean.

I was arrogant, wrong-headed, thinking that I understood God’s message. In my hubris, I created something terrible and the experience has humbled me.

There is more to God’s message than just hidden letters. There is the ordering of those pieces, the spelling of His words and the grammar of His text. I must return to my studies. One day, I will complete His message for humanity, but today is not that day.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

A Different Sort of Devil

The Devil has spoken to me. Appearing out of books, comics, and TV shows, he’s there wherever I look. And he has a single consistent message.

He says that he’s not such a bad guy after all.

Evil Incarnate

Most of us know the classic version of the Devil, drawn out of the theology of Abrahamic religions. He’s the ultimate embodiment of evil, a force for darkness tempting us to do wrong. His story didn’t feature much in my liberal religious upbringing, but I knew about him from the surrounding culture. He was evil personified.

This is a Devil to fit a binary universe. Good and evil are sharply differentiated and clearly defined. God and Satan represent that division and show us two different, entirely incompatible paths. A black and white world.

The Devil You Know

But now, when I’m more exposed to images of the devil than ever before, they’re very different from that old school Satan.

There’s the Lucifer of Gillen and McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine, one stylish god out of a dozen, more concerned with a good time than with changing humanity’s fate.

There’s Morningstar in Alliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, looking out for his followers amid a tangle of dark politics.

There’s the Lucifer of the TV show, as adapted from the comic books of the same name. The comic version is a metaphysical rebel, the small screen one a playful rogue. There are temptations and deals with the devil, but they’re using about having fun, not bringing ruin.

The Devil I hear calling out from me from these stories seems pretty reasonable. So has he completely changed?

Lost and Found

That probably depends on what you mean by “changed”.

Milton’s Paradise Lost first popularised sympathy for the Devil. His Satan was a baddy, but he was a sympathetic one. He had more reason for his actions than “this is the embodiment of badness”. Milton might have argued that what he showed was implicit in the old texts, that a more nuanced Satan was waiting to be found. True or not, it’s a theme that many others have run with.

In the modern world, many of us are uncomfortable with clear-cut truths. The horrors of two world wars, followed by the philosophical wrecking ball of postmodernism, showed us a world that isn’t divided into black and white. We see rebellion as a good thing, not a danger to society and our souls. And once the Devil starts looking like a hero, it’s not a big stretch to these modern portrayals. His interest in pleasure, defiance, and even temptation can become liberating virtues. This Devil is on our side.

All the Angels

I’m sure people are still writing stories with the old version of the fallen angel. After all, there are people who believe in old-school Old Testament Christianity. But they aren’t the mainstream anymore, and so neither is their Lucifer. A new version calls out to us from page and screen. Apparently, he’s not such a bad guy.

But then, that is what he would say, isn’t it?

Stories and Faith in Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun

From the very first page, Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun sets out its big themes of intertextuality and faith. Before we meet the protagonist, Catherine Helstone, we get an invented quote from a missionary espousing the need to spread the Christian faith in Arcadia. We’re in a story of interwoven texts, one that depicts a collision between two narratives of great power – European fairytales and Christianity. This is a book that dives deep into the playground of stories, and in doing so highlights their role in making faith possible.

But before I head down the rabbit hole (or up my own arse, depending on how you view these things), let’s start by defining some terms…

Intertextuality

Intertextuality is the exploration of the relationship between texts. In books, it usually involves a writer leaning heavily on references to other stories. In the examples I like, recognising the references adds meaning to the story. But there are times when a story becomes virtually meaningless if you don’t know what it’s referring to. Intertextuality can be powerful and exciting, but it can also become a barrier to understanding (I’m looking at you, James Joyce).

Intertextuality has always been a part of fiction. This video by the Nerdwriter explores its part in modern Hollywood, while Extra Credits’ recent introduction to Frankenstein highlights its role in classic literature.

Faith

Faith is a tricky word. It means different things to different people. Here, I’m going to be talking about religious faith – a powerful belief in a particular view of reality and the moral teachings that arise from it, a belief that does not need to be grounded in evidence, but is more often rooted in the believer’s emotions and instincts about the world.

Blurring the Lines

Under the Pendulum Sun is rich with intertextual references. Each chapter starts with a quote from a book, letter, pamphlet, or diary that exists within its world. Its style is a reference to 19th-century fiction, including the gothic fears fostered by the likes of Mary Shelley and the more grounded stories of social and emotional struggle written by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.

The references to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre are particularly obvious, from Catherine’s encounter in the countryside with the master of her new home to the lost and damaged woman roaming the corridors of their house. It’s a nice example of intertextuality as bonus content. Having recently read Jane Eyre, I got a thrill from reading that the woman’s eyes darted with fire and from a description of the lights of the house seen from the countryside. But those parallels aren’t essential to understanding the story.

In a story about missionaries trying to spread the Christian faith, the references to the Bible are the most important. From a house named Gethsemane to the sermons and readings of the characters, Christian stories are everywhere. And of course….

Christianity is Intertextual

Christianity is based on a mass of interwoven texts. The books of the Bible, which existed separately before they were brought together in a single tome, are full of references to each other. The New Testament parables are stories within a story. If the accounts of his life are to be believed, Jesus was constantly whipping out a good story to make a moral point. It’s impossible to make sense of the Book of Revelation without referring back to preceding stories of the Jewish and early Christian communities. And our interpretations of this are built on two thousand years of people studying these books, a great mass of intertextual scholarship.

Where faith and intertextuality meet, there you find Christianity. That makes an intertextual story like this one perfect for exploring Christian faith.

Blurring the Lines

Intertextual stories blur the lines between one work and another. If you read both Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses, your reading of one will include memories of and reflections on the other. A Star Trek episode involving a holodeck Sherlock Holmes can’t exist without Conan Doyle’s stories, and someone who’s watched that episode may find images of Mr Data interrupting their reading of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The stories start to blend.

But they don’t just blur the lines between different fictions. Stories can blur the lines in our heads between what’s real and what isn’t. Stories help us to make sense of the world, and in doing so they open us up to believe in what they offer. Mr Benjamin, the fae servant in Under the Pendulum Sun, specifically says that he is looking to find his place in the Christian story. It’s a natural impulse, to want to be part of something that makes sense, and so we want to accept that perspective as real. However true they are or aren’t, religious stories blur the line between the world they present and the one we experience.

Faith is made possible through something akin to intertextuality.

Stories Versus Stories

In that sense, it might seem ironic that the fae in Under the Pendulum Sun are immune to Christianity’s charms. Like many fae in modern fantasy, they are bound by narratives. As Mr Benjamin says, “Fae are nothing but stories”.

But isn’t this itself a reflection on faith? If we already have a story, like the fae do, then it protects us from the power of other stories. No amount of reasoning will break through to the “true believer”, and neither will an alternative tale. Their faith, for better or for worse, is a story, one that is intensely powerful to them.

The characters in Ng’s book stumble through story after story. Stories about God, about themselves, even the stories they made up as children and that they now find reflected in the world of Arcadia. Their stories set their moral boundaries, as shown by Catherine’s behaviour, which shifts with the story she believes about herself. Even on the final page, it’s through reference to a story that they find a way to move on.

This is a story about stories. It’s a story about faith. And it’s a story about how deeply the two are tied.

The God of Drawers and Eyeballs – a flash fantasy story

“You never answer when I call,” Jenver said as she stormed around the room, thrusting possessions into her bag. Toothbrush, pajamas, books, everything lying in the open.

Everything except the statue of Hobal of the Many Bodies, with his broad chest, seven eyes and thirteen arms.

“It’s not like I ask much,” she continued, glaring at the statue. “But if I’m going to be your high priest, I should at least get a reply to one or two of my prayers.”

Ignoring the wardrobe full of priestly robes, she approached the old wooden chest of drawers that held her personal clothes. The top drawer handle was damp and rubbery to the touch, and she jerked back in alarm.

The handle had been replaced by an eyeball. So had the one next to it. The drawer below had gained a mouth.

Its lips parted. The wood around it rippled like flesh, making Jenver’s skin crawl.

“I am Hobal, He Who is Praised Most Highly,” the drawers announced in a voice like a stampede. “How dare you abandon me?”

For a moment, Jenver stared in awe. It was years since she had seen any sign of response from the god. Direct manifestations were almost unheard of. Maybe he loved her after all.

Then she remembered all those years of silence.

“We pray and you never answer.” She folded her arms across her chest. It had taken all of her courage to consider giving up her career, but now the decision was made, stubbornness carried her through the shock of the manifestation. “I’ve had enough.”

“Enough?” Hobal boomed. “You dare say enough to Hobal?”

Jenver took a step back. Her leg knocked against the bed.

“Unpack your bag,” Hobal commanded. “Return to my service or face the consequences.”

The bed shifted as the mattress turned into a giant tongue held up by a frame made of arms and legs. The pulsing of the tongue against her leg made Jenver want to heave. The madness of the sight made her want to curl up in the corner and hide.
If she had seen even a fraction of this power before, things would have been different.

But then, if Hobal had this power before, why was he only using it now?

“What consequences?” she asked.

“Terrible things,” Hobal replied. “Awful things.”

The tongue ran along her thigh, leaving her trousers soaked with drool.

“Is that all you can do?” she asked. “Terrible things? Because I’ve been waiting all this time for your bounty to the faithful. I’m not staying to be bullied.”

“Then what will make you stay?” the drawers asked.

“Just give me one good thing,” Jenver said. “Something to make my service worthwhile.”

The eyeballs turned to look at each other, then down at the lips.

“Um, flowers?” the Hobal drawers said. “Gifts of flowers are a good thing, are they not?”

“I organise the flower rota for your temple!” Jenver said. “I don’t need you to give me flowers.”

“Chocolates?” the god asked.

“Argh! You’re my god, not my boyfriend!”

“Gold, then?” Hobal sounded pleased with himself. “I can make you wealthy.”

“If I wanted to be wealthy I’d have become a stockbroker like dad wanted.”

Gritting her teeth, Jenver grabbed one of the eyeballs and pulled. The lips screamed. The drawer opened, revealing her socks.

“That’s it!” Hobal bellowed. “You’re not getting out of here alive.”

The doorway turned into another mouth, teeth gnashing up and down. A liquid that smelled like vomit oozed out from under the bed and started dissolving the carpet.

“Fine.” Jenver threw her socks down into the sludge. “I dedicated my life to you. If you won’t answer the prayers of your people, I might as well be dead.”

“Wait.” The eyes looked at each other again. The one she’d pulled on was bloodshot and twitching. Then they turned their gaze on her. “When you say answer, do you mean give people what they want?”

“Yes,” Jenver said. “No. Maybe. Sometimes. People ask for stupid things. But you could at least tell them why you can’t help.”

“You would stay for that?”

“I…” Jenver hesitated. It sounded so much better than what had been happening. Infinitely better than dissolving in a room full of stomach acid. But it wasn’t actually good. “You have to do what they ask for sometimes as well. You can’t always say no.”

The giant lips pursed. Then the whole chest of drawers leaned forward as if nodding.

“Very well,” Hobal said. “We have a deal.”

The tongue turned back to a mattress, the teeth to a door frame. Bile stopped oozing from under the bed, though the carpet would need replacing.

Jenver looked at the statue of Hobal.

“I’ll be keeping an eye on you,” she said.

“And I on you,” the lips replied before disappearing from the front of the drawer.

The eyes – one white and one bloodshot – stayed staring at her as she unpacked and prepared for the evening service.

* * *

 

This story came out of an exhibit I saw in a museum while on a date. Because I will take inspiration from literally anywhere, and have weird ideas about what makes a good date.

If you enjoyed this story then you can get more like it by signing up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free e-book and stories straight to your inbox every Friday.

Talking Preacher at Sci-fi Addicts

At first glance, Preacher was a blood-soaked story of brutal violence and obscenity that trampled religious taboos in the dirt. But pay attention to the graphic novel that is Preacher and you find something more. This is a richly philosophical exploration of morality, friendship, and faith, a book that delves deep into the guts of what it means to be human…

Looking for a different reflection on religion and friendship to balance the festive shmaltz? Then check out my recent article about Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s amazing comic series Preacher over at Sci-Fi Addicts.

And then go read Preacher, because it is amazing.

The Perfect God – a fantasy flash story

Picture by Kurtis Garbutt via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Kurtis Garbutt via Flickr Creative Commons

Hogan’s arms ached as he made his way up the ceremonial road to the temple. He had been ready for the fact that a pilgrimage would be arduous. Without struggle, it would be no proof of his faith. Dragging himself hundreds of miles on his wooden trolley, the stumps of his legs barely keeping him upright, had been the test of will he sought.

He had thought there might be some reprieve at the temple precinct. Instead there was a winding gravel avenue in which his wheels became constantly stuck, cherry blossom falling from the trees as he tried to force himself forwards.

Most of the other pilgrims looked away as they walked past, embarrassed at the sight of him. A few offered to help, and he tried to stay polite as he said no, this was his journey, and the priests had been clear that he had to make it for himself. In some ways, those conversations were worse, the pity on their faces reminding him of just how little he fitted in.

At last he reached the end of the path. With a final crunch of gravel, he rolled onto the smooth tiles of the temple forecourt. Too tired to drag himself up the steps to any of the roofed shrines, he sat staring at the statues, the places where the gods accepted prayers and offered miracles in return.

Looking around, a growing unease settled on him. Even here, he was alone. Every god was an image of bodily perfection, as judged by the eyes of sculptors and priests. All had two legs, two arms, two eyes. None were scarred or disfigured, none stooped or twisted.

He had heard stories of gods injured in battle or laid low by disease. Where were the signs of such suffering, never mind of gods born in different shapes, as Hogan was?

These statues were supposed to give everyone a sense of belonging, to open their hearts to the divine. Hogan felt nothing looking at them.

His arms had rested enough to move again, and so he rolled over to one of the blue-robed priests setting incense in a jar.

“Excuse me?” he said.

The priest looked down at him.

“Yes, my son?” she asked.

“Where are the other gods?” Hogan asked.

“There are no other gods,” she said with a tolerant smile.

“But I was told there were gods for everyone, from the humble fisherman to the mighty king.”

“This is true.”

“So where are the gods for people with no legs?”

She laughed, the sound like sand being ground into a wound in Hogan’s heart.

“The gods are perfect,” she said. “So are their bodies.”

“But these statues…” Hogan waved his hands and the incense smoke billowed around them, a sweet scent that made him want to cough. “How can I feel closeness to the gods through these statues when they are nothing like me?”

The priest nodded thoughtfully, and then smiled.

“There are broken statues in a clearing back there.” She pointed down the gravel road. “You could try praying to them.”

“I’m not broken!” Hogan had no energy left for patience. He was tired, aching and bitterly disappointed. He felt as if the whole world had betrayed him. “I’m not half a person. I don’t want half a statue to pray to.”

“Well really.” The priest folded here arms. “Is that the tone to bring to the holy of holies?”

Hogan gritted his teeth. She had at least been trying.

“Thank you,” he said, and set off back down the road.

*

The track leading to the clearing was made of the same thick soil from which the priests took clay for their statues. Hogan’s wheels became stuck in it, his hands filthy and slippery, but he pressed on.

At last he found the broken statues. They had been abandoned in a heap in the centre of the clearing, years of cherry blossoms rotting to a soft mulch around them. Someone had lifted a few out and set them up beneath the trees. There sat an old blind man with his young guide, as well as a woman missing half her arm. They smiled in welcome as Hogan approached.

“Imperfect gods,” the man said, running his fingers lovingly over one of the statues. “For imperfect pilgrims.”

The words snagged at Hogan’s heart. Was this really how the man thought of himself – as someone lesser than the rest? But the woman was nodding agreement. Maybe this was how they could fit in.

Hogan looked at the statues and tried to let their divine essence in, to feel the touch of faith. But there was nothing. Just a broken statue for broken people.

Trailing his fingers despondently in the clay mud, he scooped some up and rolled it idly between his hands. He had been looking at bodies all day, and almost without thinking he formed the clay into one. He gave it one leg and a whithered arm, a patch over one eye and a bent nose.

At last, something stirred in him. A feeling of recognition, and of seeing something deeper looking back at him.

He placed the figure on one of the fallen statues. The woman smiled, and as his guide described it so did the man.

“The perfect god,” Hogan said, “for perfect people.”

Together they bowed their heads in prayer, and finally Hogan felt that he belonged.

* * *

 

This story was inspired by a comment from Laura, who wondered if there were any disabled or impaired gods. It’s been wonderful to find that, even though we’ve separated, she’s still a great source of inspiration to me. Hope you enjoy this one Laura!

If you enjoyed this then you might also like By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy short stories, available as an Amazon ebook.