Friday 11 March 2011

Friday Flash - The Painted Man

This is written for Write Anything's [Fiction] Friday Challenge #198 - Set your story in the 1880s, in a mid west, tumbleweed town. The doors of the bar open, the piano stops playing and all eyes are drawn to the figure in the doorway…… Now keep going.

I walk along the street, my ornamental spurs jangling at my heels. I do not use them for riding, as I do not believe in the mistreatment of animals. I have suffered more than enough at the hands of human cruelty myself over the years. I shan't put a beast through the same.

Yonder lies the tavern, looming from the darkness like a blessed port in a storm. Yet I must not call it a tavern in these parts. I must remember to refer to it as a saloon. It would not do for the local populace to realise I am not from the area, although I am sure that one look at me will tell them that all the same. I would not imagine that these people will have seen many men covered in so many tattoos that their skin glows a luminescent blue. Indeed, I daresay few people in this entire country have seen such a man. Why else would they flock to see the Painted Man in a travelling show?

Our wrangler approves of my visit to the town. In polite company, he calls himself our manager, but away from the crowds, he treats us as cattle. Mr Virgil Soames is far from genteel. He calls our small fair a medicine show, yet he refers to us as freaks. We are used to his mindless chatter and pay him little mind.

He has sent me into town to drum up business for the show. The conjoined twins loiter elsewhere, papering the walls with handbills. The bearded lady will pay a visit to the barber in the morning. We hope that the townsfolk will be fascinated or appalled – either way, they will pay their pittance to gawp and we shall afford to eat until the next town. It is a wretched way to earn a living, but for folk such as ourselves, we have little else to recommend us, save our difference.

I push open the swing door. The pianist stops hammering out his tune. A bartender stands behind the bar, his mouth hanging open. Each of the patrons stops and turns. Every eye in the room is upon me, and I feel as though I might buckle and fall beneath the weight of their stares. I face this claustrophobia on a nightly basis, yet I suffer all the same for it.

“Hey fella, you ain’t welcome here,” calls a man. He stands near the bar, swaying from side to side. He peers at me through a drunken haze.

“Relax, friends. I mean no harm,” I reply.

“You, er, you sure do look a little, er, different, fella,” says the bartender.

“He’s bluer’n a pecker in a snowstorm!” cries the pianist. A ripple of laughter circuits the saloon. I shift inside my jacket.

“I mean only to tell you fine folk that the Virgil Soames Medicine Show has arrived in town,” I tell them.

I walk across to the wall opposite the door, and paste a handbill to a wooden beam. Virgil’s face beams at me in sepia ink.

“You one of them circus freak types then?” asks the bartender. He stares at the handbill.

“I could scarcely be a county marshall with an appearance like this,” I reply.

The saloon’s patrons laugh again. My discomfort lessens; they are laughing with me, not at me. The pianist scowls at me. He raises one arm and points across the saloon. A young woman sits in the shadows at the back. Alarm spreads across her face and she shuffles in her seat.

“You should take her, she can join your band of freaks,” shouts the pianist.

I walk across the saloon to where the young woman quakes. I smile down at her, and she offers me the tiny ghost of a smile in return. I hold out my hand to her. She gingerly places her small hand in mine, her skin so normal in a sea of blue. She looks down at my fingers, and notices the tiny painted fauns that frolic in the forest around my thumb. She gasps with delight.

“On what grounds would you have such a delightful creature admitted to a medicine show?” I ask.

“She’s the daughter of a witch. Stands to reason she’s evil too,” says the drunk.

I turn back to the young woman. She stares at the floor, and I feel her hand trembling in mine. She is terrified of these people. I know that kind of terror, and empathy plucks a melody on my heart strings. I lean in close to her ear.

“My dear, you’re clearly no freak, but my employer could use an assistant. Would you care to join our motley crew of artists?” I ask in hushed tones.

Her other hand skates across her belly as her eyes dart between me and the townsfolk. If I’m not much mistaken, I am on the verge of hiring two new people for our travelling show. She nods at me.

“Ladies and gentleman! I am proud to announce an addition to our show!” I roar, turning to face the patrons with a flourish. I hold the young woman’s hand aloft. The townsfolk cheer, thinking their young woman is leaving to become a freak. She gives a nervous smile, and allows me to lead her to the door.

“I hope we shall see you all soon?”

I reach into my pocket and draw out a knife. I flick it with practiced ease, and it sails across the room. The blade hits the beam with a thud, and it holds the handbill in place. The townsfolk gasp, staring at the knife in stunned silence. I leave the saloon with my new friend, confident that we shall do a roaring trade in this town.

* * *

This story acts as a teaser for the next Choose Your Online Adventures tale, set in the Old West! I've been handling the story's "freak show" contingent, and figured I'd introduce you to one of them...

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Book Review - Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West was first published in 1985. As Cormac McCarthy's fifth book, it comes well before his more famous works, No Country for Old Men and The Road (both adapted for the screen in recent years). The book is a fictional account based upon both true events and a memoir - Samuel Chamberlain's book, My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, detailing his time with the notorious Glanton gang.

Blood Meridian follows the exploits of a teenaged runaway from Tennessee who finds himself caught up in the Indian massacres along the Texas-Mexico border in 1849. We know him only as "the kid", and through him we are introduced to the rest of the Glanton gang. Real life figure John Joel Glanton, born in 1819, led his band of scalp hunters through senseless violence in the borderlands at a time when the price for Indian scalps was high. Unfortunately, Glanton seemed disinclined to restrict his butchery to Indians, with seemingly anyone he encountered falling prey to his murderous intent. McCarthy details with almost fiendish delight their depraved excesses as they traverse the unforgiving landscape in which they find themselves.

Blood Meridian has been hailed as "epic", and one of the finest novels of the 20th century, but I have to say...I can't exactly see why. The seemingly endless passages of description descend into repetition, and McCarthy's refusal to use quotation marks means trying to follow dialogue becomes a real chore - a task made even more difficult since few of the characters exist as anything more that caricatures or brief sketches, so their words can't be identified through their "voice". Indeed, it's nigh-on impossible to warm to any of the characters, particularly the blank kid. McCarthy sets up the insane Judge Holden as the primary antagonist, and while his lengthy diatribes provide an intellectual counterpoint to the mindless violence of the gang, eventually they become a parody of themselves and the comparison collapses inward.

I have no doubt that McCarthy included these repetitive exploits to highlight the senseless nature of the gang's behaviour, and to underscore the life of depravity thrust upon the kid after his own fruitless wanderings. I am sure there will be many who may say "Yes, it does go on a bit in places, and he does sometimes seem too fond of his own 'voice' when he's describing something, but that is the point!" Sorry, I'm unconvinced.

That said, for some reason it becomes a real page turner. The overly florid language, which I fully believe would not suffer from the occasional insertion of punctuation, leads into a flow of sorts, and his descriptions of the landscape often verge on sheer brilliance. Many of his metaphors fall flat, but when he nails them, he perfectly evokes mood and setting. It does subvert the expectations of a Western, and the extent of his research oozes from every page - this is not a writer who feels compelled to give his work a Hollywood sheen, and he revels in the harsh reality of it all. I'd even go so far as to say that I was really enjoying it, despite its flaws, right up until the end. Or should I say, the "non-end". For a book that smouldered and burned with the inflamed sense of indignation at such unnecessary atrocities, it simply fizzled out in the last few pages.

3.5 blunt pencils out of 5

Tuesday 8 March 2011

International Women's Day

According to the official website, "International Women's Day has been observed since in the early 1900's, a time of great expansion and turbulence in the industrialized world that saw booming population growth and the rise of radical ideologies." It seems almost fitting to be celebrating it this year, what with the tide of radical change that is currently sweeping parts of the world, and with the massive expansion of new technologies that circumvent traditional industrial processes. Indeed, it's an exciting time for writers in general as the boom in independent publishing allows us to get our work in front of a wider audience than ever before. As a woman writer, I'm downright excited about what the future holds.

So I'd like to take a little time, and pay tribute to a few of my favourite women.

My mother
Yep. She has to come first. She's my biggest fan and my most ardent supporter. Yes, she may be biased, but I would venture to say that if my mother didn't enjoy my work, she'd be the first to say so. She doesn't pull her punches, and she's reason why I say what I think.

Sarah Connor, Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley
All fictional, but they proved girls didn't have to be the simpering victims portrayed in slasher films or Disney movies. Leia in particular needs a mention as she gets to look glamourous AND take the honour as the only character in the Star Wars universe capable of dispensing with Jabba the Hutt. Ripley gets a mention as being the first female character to carry an action series in an era dominated by Stallone, and Schwarzenegger etc.

Enid Blyton, Margaret Atwood and JK Rowling
Enid Blyton's books were some of the first novels I ever read, and I still adore her Adventure series even now. Yes, it's all ginger beer and picnics, but it's a snapshot of a bygone age, when innocence was prized and kids could play outside without fear of abduction (or worse). Margaret Atwood has made great in-roads in getting women accepted as writers of fiction other than chick-lit or romance, with her forays into dystopian futures or epic storytelling. JK Rowling may have gone off the boil in the later Harry Potter series but you have to credit the woman for getting kids reading again.

Kate Winslet, Dame Helen Mirren and Angelina Jolie
 I just love Kate. She always seems so nice in interviews - such a far cry from the attention-grabbing shenanigans you see over the pond. She can act, as well as proving girls with curves really do look better than her stick insect counterparts. Dame Helen Mirren gets a nod for proving older women can far outshine their younger rivals, while Jolie gets a mention not for her (laughable) acting skills or questionable methods for finding partners, but rather the fact she uses her star power to help affect change in areas that really need it. She donates a portion of her salary to charity, and is actively involved in various projects around the world.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Emmeline Pankhurst and Vivienne Westwood
To the first woman to qualify as a doctor in the United Kingdom, a woman instrumental in securing the vote for British women, and the absolute genius who invented a look and style that resounds throughout pop culture to this day...I am so sorry that the best the UK can do these days is Katie f***ing Price.

Happy International Women's Day!

Monday 7 March 2011


I'm taking part in Read an Ebook Week over on Smashwords so until March 12th, you can get my steampunk novella, The First Tale, for free! That's right - instead of the usual 99c, it now costs nothing. Just add the coupon 'RE100' at the checkout. Smashwords offer all kinds of formats, from EPUB to mobi and PDF.

I'm quite pleased about the timing of this as I have plans for forthcoming Tales from Vertigo City mini serials - so get to know everyone before the new adventures start!

My short story collection, Checkmate & Other Stories, is still free on Smashwords, though if you want to show your support, you can get both The First Tale and Checkmate for 99c for the Kindle from Amazon.

Photo Prompt 23

Twenty-third prompt, ready and waiting.

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The twenty-third prompt is Boats on a Lake.

Two Boats

All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr.