Friday 1 March 2013

#FridayFlash - Don't Look Back

A man broke into our house when I was nine. My dad was away on business - at least, that's what Mom told me. I found out later he was visiting his new girlfriend in Hackensack. Anyway. This man broke in. Turned out he'd been stalking Mom for weeks - the papers later called him the Machete Killer. They were never imaginative with names. He chased her around the house, and the noise woke me up. Mom tried to get me to leave, to go and get help. I ran across the lawn, lights already coming on in the neighbouring houses. Mom screamed and I looked back. I saw why they called him the Machete Killer.

At Mom's funeral, some mad aunt I'd never met before told me the story of Lot and his wife, as if I was somehow to blame for looking back. That guy would have killed my mom whether I was looking or not but I got the point. Don't look back. I never have.

I blamed my dad for not being there, so I went to live with my uncle. He took little interest in me so I sort of drifted through life. I walked out of high school on the last day - everyone else was hanging around, making plans for things to do. I left and never looked back. I met a girl in college, dated her for a while, but she couldn't decide between me and the captain of the football team. I broke up with her in the street, and left her crying on the sidewalk. I never looked back. I got a job in a law firm, did reasonably well, and after a couple of years, decided I wanted to be a writer. I quit, and packed up my few things in a cardboard box. I walked out of the building, and didn't look back.

I got a job in an occult bookstore to pay the rent while I worked on my novel. The owner did weird stuff in the backroom while I minded the store. I never asked what - I just didn't care, as long as I got paid. Earlier today I accidentally walked in while he was busy, found him stood in the centre of a circle of salt, chanting mumbo jumbo and waving something around that looked like a thigh bone.

I just left work, and I'm walking towards the subway. Footsteps echo in the street behind me, footsteps that match mine. I speed up, they speed up. I slow down, they slow down. I cross the street, they cross the street. Except now they're getting closer. I can feel hot breath on the back of my neck, hot breath that smells like something crawled into a hole and died.

But it's okay. If I don't see it, it isn't there.

I won't look back.

(Original photo by ColinBroug, edits by me)

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Northern Spaces: Lighthouses

I was having a Twitter conversation on Sunday about what writers should actually blog about. I've seen a few people, both on Twitter and various blogs, asking writers not to blog about writing. It does get repetitive, I suppose, and I guess there are so many blogs about writing you have to wonder how you can do anything new with the topic. Trouble is, what would you blog about instead? Some advice suggests you should let readers get to know you, so blog about your life. I'm too private, I guess, and I'm not sure how interesting my life would be to others. Other people recommend you blog about things related to your fiction - so if you write sports fiction, you blog about sports. If you have a protagonist who's an anthropologist, you can blog about anthropology. Hm. Well my WiP is about mummies so should I blog about necromancy?

Instead, I decided I'd start using the topics of my PhD thesis as a starting point for discussions. One of the things I'm looking at is the representation of space in horror films, so I thought, "Hang on, there are some fantastic spaces where I live!" I figured I'd share some of them with you - so today, I'm looking at lighthouses.

Lighthouses are strange places at the best of times. They're often isolated from the mainland, accessible only at given times of day when the tide hasn't covered the causeway, and by implication they become very lonely places. They were inhabited by lighthouse keepers, but the function of the lighthouse was as a workplace, not a dwelling, so the intention overrides the domesticity of the space. It's further confused by the fact that 'lighthouse' implies a dwelling through the name 'house', but the addition of 'light' implies that the building is where the light lives, not the keeper. I suppose this makes sense for automated lighthouses which have no keepers, but by humanising the light and assigning it a home, it marginalises the keepers and turns the space into a functional one. Furthermore, the function of the lighthouse is to prevent disaster, making them spaces of both warning and danger. Their size and shape doesn't make them conducive to traditional patterns of living. Some people find lighthouses romantic - I find them creepy.

On Friday, I went out to St Mary's Lighthouse in Whitley Bay. It's one of those places you reach via causeway, meaning it's cut off from the mainland at certain times of day. As it's only February, the lighthouse itself was closed during the week, but I've been inside before years ago (1994 springs to it was a while back!).

St Mary's Island has had a light of some form since  medieval times, and the current lighthouse opened in August 1898. The island was originally settled by monks, and a chapel dedicated to St Helen was built near the end of the eleventh century. The chapel kept a light burning to warn sailors of the rocks; this light was called St Mary's Light, which gave its name to the bay. It hasn't always been such a pious place - there is a channel on the north of the island known as Smugglers' Creek, and the whole coastline was a favoured haunt of smugglers. At the end of the eighteenth century, Russian soldiers stricken by cholera were isolated on the island, and those who died were buried there. The chapel was gone by 1867. Despite the presence of the lighthouse, there were still shipwrecks in the area, and the remains of the California can still be seen at low tide, after wrecking on the rocks in 1913.

St Mary's went electric in 1977, its light being automated in 1982. By 1984, it was deemed obsolete and the lighthouse closed. It's looked after by the Friends of St Mary's, and in 2013, visitors to the island can see birds and wildlife in the nature reserve, and if you climb the 137 steps to the lantern room, you can see as far as the North Yorkshire coast, and the Cheviot Hills. Lighthouses are always proud of their views, as if you're not to look at the lighthouse itself, always look away from it...

Further down the coast in Whitburn, Sunderland, we also have Souter Lighthouse, now run by the National Trust. The lighthouse actually stands on Lizard Point, with Souter Point situated a mile further south, but the visibility was believed to be better at Lizard Point, and the site location was changed. There was already a Lizard Lighthouse in Cornwall, so Souter kept the name of its intended location. The stretch of rocks between Whitburn and Marsden meant there were twenty shipwrecks in 1860 alone, and in response, the lighthouse was opened in 1871. Souter was the first to use alternating electrical current, and its 800,000 candle power light was generated using carbon arcs. The light could be seen for up to 26 miles. Its most famous lighthouse keeper was Robert Darling, the nephew to local heroine Grace Darling, who was keeper for 24 years. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1988, and was opened by its current owners, the National Trust, in 1990. They've opened it as a tourist attraction, allowing visitors to explore the engine room, light tower and keeper's living quarters. If you climb the 76 steps to the top on a clear day, you can see as far as Coquet Island to the north, and Whitby to the south.

I originally visited Souter in 2011 as part of a paranormal investigation, while TV’s Most Haunted visited several years ago, believing to have made contact with Isobella Darling. I'm unconvinced by its haunted reputation and take the 'evidence' of ouija boards with a pinch of salt, but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest for the whole area to have some sort of psychic thumbprint. After all, the caves at Marsden were also used for smuggling, and that many shipwrecks in one place is bound to create some kind of disturbance. Souter is notable for being situated on the mainland, as opposed to a separate island like St Mary's, meaning it doesn't have the same abandoned, isolated feel - it's more industrious and 'lived in'.

I feel lucky to have both examples of such spaces within travelling distance, though whether lighthouses will come to feature in any forthcoming stories remains to be seen.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Between Two Thorns coming soon

I've been a big fan of Emma Newman since I discovered her blog a few years ago, and I was lucky enough to meet her when she did a London book launch for From Dark Places, her collection of short stories.

For some time now, she's been releasing short stories set in her Split Worlds universe, and I hosted 'Cause for Complaint' back in December 2011. I'm quite excited for the lovely lady because the first Split Worlds novel, Between Two Thorns, is due out soon!

The Blurb

Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city. The new season is starting and the Master of Ceremonies is missing. Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is assigned with the task of finding him with no one to help but a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer.

There is a witness but his memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break. A rebellious woman trying to escape her family may prove to be the ally Max needs. But can she be trusted? And why does she want to give up eternal youth and the life of privilege she’s been born into?

Emma's running some competitions for lucky readers. First off, if you pre-order a copy of Between Two Thorns you'll be entered into a prize draw. If you win, you’ll have a character named after you in "All Is Fair" – the third Split Worlds novel (released October 2013) – and a special mention at the end of the book. So how do you enter?

Pre-order a copy of the book from your favourite retailer (if you pre-order from Forbidden Planet you'll get a signed copy). If you order from Forbidden Planet or (for ebooks) you don't need to do anything else – Angry Robot will take care of your entry for you. If you pre-order from anywhere else you'll need to email a copy of your order confirmation to: thorns AT and they'll assign a number to you.

Here are links to all the places you can pre-order:

Angry Robot Trading company – for DRM-free ebook

Amazon (paperback) UK
Amazon US

The Book depository (Worldwide free postage)
UK Edition
US Edition (bigger)

There are also two UK launches and an international one using the magic of telephone conferencing. All the details are here.

Monday 25 February 2013

NaNoReMo - Finished!

At the end of January, I announced that I'd be reading Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto for NaNoReMo. I updated on my progress a couple of weeks ago, and I'm pleased to say I've finished it. I'm glad about this for two reasons; on one hand, I'm glad I finished within the given month, and on the other, it became such a chore to read that I was glad it was finally over when I reached 'The End'.

I'd originally chosen The Castle of Otranto due to its privileged position within the canon of Gothic literature - it's considered by many to be the first gothic novel, and its lineage can be traced through both its literary and cinematic descendants. My copy is only 115 pages long, divided into five chapters, and that is 115 pages of hand wringing, melodramatics, and absolutely no indication of which character is speaking at any given time.

I said in my last update that "I know that storytelling has changed an awful lot in the 249 years since it was published but the novel feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction" and I stand by that. The entire novel is 'told' in the same breathless fashion as a rumour being repeated in a washroom, and the characters never get the opportunity to become anything other than one dimensional stereotypes. Even the villain is devoid of personality.

It's a shame because there is a good idea buried within the story. Manfred, the Prince of Otranto lives in fear that he will lose his principality unless he produces a son, and after his own son is crushed by a giant helmet that appears from nowhere, he contrives to divorce his wife, Hippolita, and marry Isabella, the princess intended for his son. A local peasant, Theodore, continually throws a spanner in the works, especially when he falls in love with Manfred's daughter, Matilda. There is a lot of running to and fro, with characters spending most of them time dashing off to the local convent, or disappearing somewhere to talk to someone else. At the same time, a group of knights arrived, bearing a sabre that matches the helmet that they dug up in the woods, and Manfred's servants see a spectral giant within the castle. The idea of the Prince desperately trying to outrun a prophecy becomes buried beneath the melodrama of the family relationships.

There are subterranean passages, mysterious knights, prophecies, long lost heirs, and intrigue, so this should have been an enthralling read. Later authors have taken these themes and run with them, so perhaps my disinterest in this book comes from an unfair comparison with later works, but I really didn't enjoy reading this at all. I truly envy Helen Howell for reading Dracula for NaNoReMo - now THAT is a gothic classic!