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Tag: Horror

Review: Lovecraft Country

I am unable to consume speculative fiction TV/movies if they’re based on a book I haven’t read. Such was, naturally, the case with HBO’s Lovecraft Country. When the book first came out, I filed it under “Huh, seems fun”, and moved onto the other three billion books I wanted to read. But once the trailer for the show dropped, it no longer seemed like a matter of choice.

Lovecraft Country bills itself as self-aware pulp. It takes place in 1950s ultra-segregated Chicago, where a Black family deals not only with racist white folks, but also the machinations of a sorcerous coven. The book is actually episodic. I was quite taken aback when the story just ended after the first 100 pages, and a new one started. But after a while it became clear that the vignettes added up to a complete picture. They all tie back together by the end, forming a somewhat coherent narrative.

It felt like Matt Ruff set out to create an alternative “mythos”, in which his Black cast seeks to reclaim agency from the racist era they live in. But on a more meta level, they are reclaiming it from the even more racist Howard Lovecraft. While the story does not take place within his world, he is referred to often, and there are moments throughout that resonate with his works. If I am being entirely honest, I don’t know how comfortable I felt about it. A white author “saving” Black people in this way is already iffy enough. But more than that — I am not sure the experiment was all that successful.

Lovecraft Country reads like tongue-in-cheek romp, but it is filled with contradictions. The first story especially has some truly chilling examples of real world Jim Crow horror. But then the actual supernatural stakes never quite amount to feeling like a real threat. The main villain is not only charming, but also quite friendly, despite his villainy. The characters are all smart and resourceful, yet they are constantly outsmarted by him, which devalues their intelligence. The villain’s main fault, meanwhile, is that he is entitled, obnoxious, and white. Which — don’t get me wrong — is enough, but again confuses the stakes.

Overall, I enjoyed the book up to a point. The writing is solid, the characters are fun, if not terribly deep or memorable. The overall conceit is quite charming too. But the execution left me… uh… whelmed. Not over, not under, just kind of whelmed. I can tell that Matt Ruff is capable of a lot. But here it felt like he got scared of the underlying seriousness of his chosen subject matter, and kept himself from going all the way. That said, Lovecraft Country has all that it needs to make a spectacular TV show. Which I am now free to watch!

Review: Harrow the Ninth

Tamsyn Muir’s debut novel Gideon the Ninth was an absolute revelation to me. Unapologetic and audacious, it easily became my favorite book of 2019. If I could have “Queer Baroque Necropunk” be a legit genre, I would likely buy anything published in it. And as for the sequel, I would have been perfectly content to read another story like Gideon.

But that would be too easy.

The following review contains spoilers for Gideon the Ninth.

Right from the get go, Harrow the Ninth aims to confuse. You see, this is not the Harrow we remember from the first book. Gone is the viper wit, the withering confidence, the precocious bone genius. Instead, we are offered a Harrow that somehow bungled the Lyctoral process. One who is beset by physical frailty and the gravitational pulls of anxiety and depression. She is a young girl, alone and trapped on a space station with teachers who despise her — one of whom is even trying to murder her! — and a God who feels sorry for her, and has no answers to her questions.

This is also a Harrow who went to the First House with Ortus Nigenad as her cavalier primary. But…

Is this how it happens?

Harrow the Ninth is a brave new frontier that flirts with the post-modern. Tamsyn Muir has earned the reader’s trust, and soon the maddening mystery of Harrow’s sorry state, as well as the inconsistencies of her existence begin taking shape. The novel alternates between two types of chapters. Some are in second person, in which she is being told how the present is unfolding by a mysterious narrator. The past tense makes them an interesting experiment of storytelling, as if Harrow herself was not present for these events. The rest are in traditional third person, and retell the story of her journey to the First House. Except, it’s all wrong. Nothing happens the way it was described in Gideon the Ninth. Characters are not who they appear to be, and at sudden moments people will question the reality around them.

The cast of said characters is just as colorful as that of Gideon, though in a completely different way. Everyone carries their own unique damage. Harrow’s new sister Ianthe Tridentarius — formerly Princess of Ida, now Lyctor of the First House — has murdered an unwilling cavalier to achieve her sainthood. Now struggles with a sword hand that won’t obey her. God himself and his three surviving original Lyctors are creatures who have known each other for ten thousand years, They have accumulated civilizations’ worth of grudges and emotional baggage, deliciously opaque for any reader who has not been alive for a myriad. Meanwhile, Ortus Nigenad — failed cavalier primary of the Ninth House in Gideon the Ninth — seeks redemption in the eyes of the reader, as he tries to fulfill his role in a story that never happened.

Harrow the Ninth throbs with the disquieting feeling of paranoia and an almost Gene Wolfean puzzle box quality. Things are not as they seem, the world is not as it should be. This is not how it happens. The wrongness permeates not only the inaccurate retelling of the events at the First House, but also the present in the Mithraeum — the Emperor’s space station, 40 billion light years away from Dominicus and its Houses — where a dead Lyctor stalks the hallways seeking vengeance, while a living one bears the name of the wrong cavalier, as well as an inexplicable thirst for Harrow’s life. In the twisted hallways of God’s home, she is not simply frail and confused. She is haunted.

That this mystery is absolutely maddening, is a given. But Tamsyn Muir uses it brilliantly to tell a story of a girl on the brink of mental breakdown. It is a story of depression and inadequacy, and of injustice. And as Harrow tries to understand her failures, and overcome them, it also becomes a story of heartbreaking intimacy and truly heroic emotional openness.

Harrow the Ninth is an absolute masterpiece, just like its predecessor, while being twice as ambitious. It takes a bold new trajectory, but still retains the baroque darkness that makes Muir’s universe so enticing. What it lacks in contemporary humor, it more than makes up for in far more complex storytelling and character development. The book makes you emotionally invested not only in the current plot, but also in a messed-up retelling of a story you already know. And it the process, it gives wonderful center stage to characters you thought you’d never meet again.

Which is outrageous, as well as absolutely delightful, just like everything about Tamsyn Muir’s writing! To be fair, I wish that the first few chapters were a little more welcoming. The story is extremely confusing at first, and the reader is thrown into a labyrinth with no clear exit. But in the end, there was never a doubt in my mind that the book would deliver on its mysteries. I just didn’t anticipate how incredible it would be in the process.

Review: The Only Good Indians

Before I start this, I need to admit something. This is the first work by Stephen Graham Jones that I have ever read. I could immediately tell that I would be unable to fully appreciate the cultural nuances of the Native American (his characters even mock this term) experience. But with that out of the way, let’s dig in!

On surface plot level, The Only Good Indians resonates with the classic Stephen King style of horror. Four Blackfeet Native American friends (the author’s own tribe) once trespassed into land reserved for tribe elders. They found a herd of elk and shot them down. Except, a small female had more to fight for than the rest, and refused to die. Lewis, one of the four, had to shoot her repeatedly in the head before she would give up. And after her eventual gruesome death, he found out she had been with calf.

Ten years later, the massacre still haunts Lewis. And while his friends have forgotten all about it, it’s going to haunt them as well. As all four have broken with tribal traditions to one degree or another, and lost the meager support systems they had in the past, a dark entity driven by hatred and pain targets them one by one.

One needs very little understanding of the Native American experience to recognize how deeply suffused with it this book is. The Only Good Indians is a tale of sorrow and abandonment, more than it is about elk demons and vengeance. It deftly explores identity, and what’s left of it when you cut out tradition. Only to find that tradition was all that held the whole thing together. The characters are a fractured bunch, members of a fractured people. Even within the chamber ensemble of the story, being “Indian” is not all-encompassing. Jones deftly uses the Blackfeet’s ancestral mistrust of the neighboring tribe, the Crows, to sow paranoia, to brilliant effect.

Paranoia is actually one of the strongest tools of the book. While the prologue already tells us in no uncertain terms there is to be some spirit shit going down, the first half of the story is slow and ambiguous. Unsettling. We follow Lewis himself in those chapters, as he superstitiously jumps from one insane scenario to the next, trying to decipher the haunting that seems to be choking out his life outside the reservation. And then the story starts escalating, and refuses to stop until the gore-splattering end.

Jones is an amazing writer. I know I am late to the party, but damn! He paints an atmosphere with just a few words, and it is THICK, and disturbing, and visceral. The writing evokes powerful imagery, whether you want to see it, or not. On that note, if I had one — very personal — complaint about The Only Good Indians, it would be the graphic depictions of violence against dogs. Poor puppers…

In the end, I cannot speak to the mindset, worldview and emotional experiences of the characters in the book. But I can definitely attest to how strong their impact was on me. This book is a short read, simultaneously heavy and impossible to put down. The Only Good Indians is a miasmic mixture of tragedy, a sense of pointless waste, and a flickering of triumph, snatched from the jaws of desolation. And if the genre is not a deal breaker for you, it is easily among the most impressive works of the summer.

Review: Mexican Gothic

I have experienced very little Gothic aesthetic, especially in literature form. Just about enough to recognize its trappings, but certainly nowhere near as much as I’d need to analyze it competently. This might be why I approached Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic with a certain trepidation. Turns out, I needn’t have worried. This is a novel that speaks for itself, in clear and compelling voice.

Young, rich debutante Noemi Taboada is running wild and carefree in 1950s’ Mexico City. Then her father abruptly changes that when he shows her a letter from her orphaned cousin. Catalina recently married into a once-rich old British family, and now lives with them in a faraway part of Mexico. Her letter is rambling and insane. She accuses her husband of poisoning her, mentioning voices within the walls, and other disturbing things. Noemi’s father insists that she goes to her cousin, to make sure the family will avoid a tabloid scandal.

But upon arrival in High Place — an old manor with no electricity, up on a foreboding hill, perched above an impoverished village – Noemi quickly finds herself trapped in a strange and hostile world. The Doyle family, into which Catalina married, is unfriendly and strange. The ailing old patriarch Howard is an eugenicist, deeming her “mixed” race inferior. Her cousin’s husband Virgil is in turns menacing, lascivious, and tender. Catalina herself has taken ill, and Noemi barely gets to see her, only to find her listless and distant.

Then the dreams come.

The house loomed over them like a great, quiet gargoyle. It might have been foreboding, invoking images of ghosts and haunted places, if it had not seemed so tired…

Mexican Gothic is exactly as advertised — a gothic horror with a socially conscious twist. The Doyles are an old British line. They’re steeped in tradition, stringent rules, and sense of superiority, despite their impoverished and decaying state. There are other elements that place the story firmly in its time and place as well. Even so, the novel is far more focused on its plot than any kind of sociological exploration. Though the pacing is slow to begin with, it never seems to drag, but rather weaves subtle layers of tension. In the second half, this tension explodes in directions often gruesome and genuinely disturbing.

In typical gothic fashion, the story has an underlying current of forbidden sexuality. And as any self-respecting horror, it uses it to unsettle the reader. Noemi is a strong-willed and brave girl, but she is just a girl. And she is among people who often don’t even try to hide the predator behind the noble facade. To her credit, Moreno-Garcia understands how to do horror well. She never crosses lines for shock value, but rather allows her story to dance on the edges of snapping tension. Meanwhile, she also fully utilizes the gothic aesthetic, both in dialogue, and in painting Noemi’s surroundings.

Just because there are no ghosts it doesn’t mean you can’t be haunted.

What I loved most of all, is that while using traditional forms and language to tell her story, the author is unabashedly creative with her worldbuilding. While I happened to guess many of the book’s plot-twists and revelations, I actually loved them no less for it. The concept at the core of Mexican Gothic is original and profoundly unnerving, while still utilizing the themes of gothic literature. In all honesty, Silvia Moreno-Garcia vastly over-delivers on the minimalist setup she begins with.

In short, Mexican Gothic is a captivating, alluring, living thing, pulsating with promise. From the gorgeous cover to the last sentence, the novel brings equal doses excitement and revulsion. It is highly aestheticized, yet tells its story in a consistently discomforting way. As a sidebar, I would recommend that you avoid reading too many reviews. The story is easy to spoil unwittingly, and it is worth experiencing without expectations. Suffice it to say that it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and if gothic horror is something you are willing to give a chance to, I cannot imagine you will be disappointed.

Working on the Craft: Ways of Seeing

Back to the 3 A.M. Epiphany, and an exercise titled “Ways of Seeing”, in which a first person POV is used to describe an idiosyncratic viewpoint as the narrator observes a traumatic event that does not concern them directly. The goal is to focus on the idiosyncrasies. I am only about 60% sure that I achieved this, but I tried to turn it on its head a bit. Hopefully, someone can tell me if I got it right.

I step inside the bar, the interior revealing all its secrets to me in an instant. The subdued atmosphere of shadowed corners, belying the barrage of sound they are designed to withstand. The twists and turns, made for people to be pressed against walls, almost, but not quite out of sight. The strobe lights above – hibernating now, to awake and rage later.

But in the early afternoon hours, the place is almost entirely empty. A bored bartender picks at his nose, confident in his invisibility at this time, hours before the place could make its first claim to crowding. Two girls sit at the tall stools on the other end of the bar, sipping at something that’s just the right color of pale red to be considered “basic”. A barback is roaming around in the shadows leading to the inner sanctums of the place, probably setting up for whatever events they have on work nights.

I have been here before. Not in this particular bar, but in a hundred like it. You could say I collect them. I am part of their scene, and – for reasons about to be apparent – also not. I get to observe them from afar, and then merge seamlessly with what they offer.

Which is, let’s be fair, often not a lot.

In a few hours, the first tendrils of the night will start creeping in, and there will be music, growing louder and louder as the place fills up. Groups of threes and fours, and the occasional hopeful single person. Not the couples, of course. Those come later, if they show up at all. Predominantly young men, predominantly attractive in the traditional sense, or failing that – bedecked in the flashiest possible regalia of their pageantry.

This place is made for them. The ones who want to see and be seen, by anybody, by any means necessary. The ones who dare to be desired. The bar abhors weakness. It doesn’t even feed on it, but simply rejects it. You don’t have to have a decent self-esteem to be here, but you sure as all hell must be able to simulate it.

The bartender sees me, gives me a disinterested nod, pretends to be cleaning a glass. Inwardly, I smirk. Sure, honey. As if you don’t pour most of this garbage in plastic cups. But I play along, and sit on another stool nearby. If he is here now, then he is the early shift. Could be the one, we’ll see.

Provided his girls leave earlier, or stay after.

The barback comes into the front, and my eyes pass through him, making the barest of cliff notes. Places like this have their own hierarchy of players. This guy is just that tiny bit too short, has just those few extra pounds, and just enough of them coalesce on his bearded cheeks, that he could never hope to make it behind the bar. Not for him, the shirtless look that gets the tips from men and women alike. Not for him, the perks.

People like that grin and bear it, because that’s what they have available to them.

As I reach for a drink I don’t remember ordering, it occurs to me – seemingly out of the blue – that there are other options available to people like that.

There is a gunshot. A scream. Another scream. Another gunshot. And a few more. The sound of glasses breaking.

A light goes dark.

The barback stares at the gun in his hand, eyes wide and wild. As if he can’t believe it’s his hand, with a gun in it. His gaze moves, as if dragged against its will, to the two bodies on the floor, splayed in a tangle of toppled stools, and beyond them – the empty, glass-shard covered space behind the bar, where a more traditionally attractive young man stood only a moment ago, but doesn’t anymore. Heavy breathing going faster and faster, the barback moves to look over the edge, and sees the bartender on the floor by the minifridge, a broken glass by his head. His eyes stare at the dark ceiling, but see nothing.

He would see me, if he weren’t dead. The barback never even knew I was there. They don’t unless I want them to. He just walks around the violated place now, in a daze, gun still in his hand. He holds it so tight, that it must be burning him. He doesn’t seem to understand what has happened any more than his victims did. Even though he must have planned this. I can only imagine he is in shock.

So, when I alight behind him, and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. When he whirls around, only to see what they all see when I want to reveal myself to them. He doesn’t even scream. From a certain angle, this is the most poetic way for things to end for him. It makes a cruel sort of sense. Harm received for harm caused. A life pays for life. Who cares if I wasn’t owed that life?

I am gone before the first sirens sound. The next bar awaits.

Working on the Craft: No Ideas, But in Things

This exercise from The 3 A.M. Epiphany is in a section titled “Images”, and the goal is to tell a very short story (300 words) only in imagery. The character should be a part of it, but rather than show their thoughts or words, the author has to focus on their actions and movement instead. I found it eerily calming, as well as detached, which Kiteley says is a common effect of this exercise. Showing emotion through (in)action rather than word, is an extremely valuable skill (duh), and this was a very enjoyable way to explore i.

She walks out of the back door, and into the small garden. The muted light of the invisible sun paints the dome of mist in swirling pale gray. A small path leads from the house to where the two copper chains that hang on their short rods almost meet. Forming an exit, should she wish to exit their tenuous protection. She stops in the middle, staring at the meager yield of the mushrooms to her left. Avoids looking to the right. Sighing, she leans over, plucks a few that are ripe enough. She puts them in a small basket, but does not pick it up.

Her eyes move up, stop at the wall of mist behind the mushroom patch. She rises, slowly, and walks around, so she could approach the copper chain. It reaches to about her waist, and the gray wisps strain against it, as if pushing, wanting to invade the garden. Her face tightens. She reaches with a bare hand, and the mist pushes even closer. Her fingers are almost touching the tendrils when the metal bracelet on her wrist glows and a dagger materializes in her hand.

The mist recoils, as if burned, an angry hissing sound coming from where the silvery blade touched it. She smiles now. A cruel smile, but also brittle. Exhausted.

She turns back, and heads for the small house, leaning to snatch the basket on her way. Her eyes stay focused on the door, never straying to her right. But once her fingers are pushing against the grainy wood, she pauses.

Her eyes close. Tighten.

She looks behind her shoulder, at the small grave post in the mud. The soil there is still uneven, and her eyes trace its short length. One foot. Two feet. Stop.

She walks inside the house, her stride unsteady. But her eyes are dry.

Working on the Craft: Implication

Today’s exercise comes from Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft. In both of its parts, the author has to describe something without the help of characters. Part 1 is dedicated to a room, which should describe its occupant without them being present at the time. In Part 2, the goal is to depict the aftermath of an event without anyone currently participating in it. I really enjoyed both segments. The exercise seems very useful as a tool in writing longer works, and Le Guin herself points out that it doesn’t have to be limited to omniscient authorial view. A character could be describing these things from their own point of view (though I opted for the former option).

Part 1:

The room was more statement than office. Every aspect of it designed for a marriage of utility and the demonstration of rank. From the first step one took inside, a portrait of the House’s first ruler greeted them, hung on the wall behind a massive oak desk. Its height was perfectly positioned so that the stern face of the ancient noble would look above the head of the desk’s occupant, adding weight to their every meeting. The desk itself was designed for full integration with the Network, smart surface seamlessly crafted into hand-worked wood, of the kind one had to import from off-world at obscene cost.

Floor to ceiling bookcases covered the dark blue walls to each side of the desk, their shelves packed with physical books – tomes that were clearly priceless artifacts, yet meticulously selected for their relevance to the House lord’s projects. The faintest smell of ozone marked the high-end security fields protecting the paper from entropy or unauthorized fingers.

The office was equipped with complete overlay capabilities as well – projectors and forcefield generators designed to meld with the walls. Yet none of them were ever active, unless necessary for e presentation. Where lesser nobility might simulate expensive art or other objects of great value, this room belonged to a House that could possess anything it wanted in the real world.

And often used that capability, for the sake of demonstration, because it sent a clear message to rival Houses: Anything could be bought.

Part 2:

The sweet smell of rotten wood permeated the small clearing, the bent limbs of branches reaching out with arthritic fingers from the wall of mist, yellow poison seeping out of split bark like pus.

It was almost enough to mask the stench of blood from the bodies on the stunted grass. The tableau told the story of sudden violence. Limbs splayed in unnatural positions, farm-made clothing torn to shreds by sharp claws that had gouged ragged groves into the flesh beneath. And the look of frozen terror on slashed faces, no longer seeing the monster that had taken their lives.

Each body had a totem attached to its wrist – a bracelet of simple copper and High Technology meant to protect in a world where the very air could manifest teeth, even when one could see beyond three feet into the mist. The ancient devices had helped not at all, for the protection they offered was a chance, and not a promise.

The mist advanced now, swallowing the bloated limbs of the diseased trees, closing in on the corpses as their totems no longer repelled it. Grey wisps slithered over dying grass, like a thing alive questing for food. They closed in on the bodies, caressing shredded clothing, covering wounds.

Before the clearing was fully swallowed, the first corpse began moving.

Working on the Craft: Journalism

Continuing with the exercises from The 3 A.M. Epiphany , today’s pick is Exercise 5, titled Journalism. The idea is to tell a short story through journal entries and try to convey important parts of it in the gaps between what is written. A play on the writer’s perceptions and the reader’s expectations. Which, of course, made me think of Gene Wolfe, and his Seven American Nights, which to this day is one of the best short stories I have ever read. So, without further ado, here is my mediocre tribute to Gene Wolfe.

January 7: I arrived in Reprobation at sunset. It’s a small, shitty place, way out of any trade route that still exists in this blasted wasteland. One of those townships where prospectors gathered back when everyone thought they would strike crystal if they only dug deep enough. And once it was clear this asswipe of a land would rather swallow them up than give anything of value, the dregs remained, too obstinate or too desperate to move.

I got a room in what passes for an inn around here. Too expensive for what it is. But I think the guy saw the hand cannon and decided I would want to do this question-free style. He is right.

Everyone is weird. They act almost like normal folk, but then give me these long looks, like they measure me for a coffin. Doesn’t matter. If anybody is moron enough to try something, my gun loves making examples.

Moonless night. Reprobation is too quiet. Maybe it’s such a depressing town that even those whiny murder lizards  from the wilds don’t want to be nearby and make noise. I miss the moons. That was a dumb war.

He is here. And if he isn’t, he sure as fuck passed through, and someone knows where he went.

January 9: This town has fewer than a 300 people, only one purifier station, no means of long-range communication, and so little high technology that it might as well be from before the diaspora. Yet, some-forsaken-how, it has a church! Because obviously it would. People who stay in places like Reprobation tend to find gods. Or worse – a God, singular. Still, made sense to go there first thing yesterday.

Why do religions with just one dude – and it’s always a dude – in charge suck so much more ass than those with a merry crowd of drunks and sex abusers?

This one had three gods, maybe. Or four. Barely any finery. No icons, just a drab alter and some carvings on the walls. Creepy stuff. Tentacles and fangs, and big bulging eyes. What fucking religion is this?

A single woman taking care of the whole thing. Priestess. Or High Bishop, Supreme Wizard, whatever. I guess she told me, but who cares. Weird like the rest of the township. Stared at me like she wanted to mate with me and feed my body to her young. And she knew nothing. Which is bad, because it seems most of this glorified latrine passes through her hovel on whichever day service is. So either he is hiding better than I thought he could, or she is lying to me.

Or he passed by so quietly, that nobody noticed.

But he didn’t. Not his style. And a place this small will notice the corpses.

Still, the day wasn’t a total waste of life. Inn has a bar. Reprobation has drunks. Drunks love talking. When they don’t love talking, a hand cannon in the face makes them talk. And mine is fancy. Exo-tech. It whispers to them, so they get extra scared.

They still looked at me funny, but I guess alcohol loosens their buttholes a bit. Got some information there. Someone did pass through, a week ago. They didn’t want to tell me, and I doubt they knew much. I don’t know if they’re secretive, or unobservant. Perhaps both.

But why would the Grand Hierophantess not want me to know?

Going to check the nearby caves today. Mine didn’t work out, but tunnels still make great hidey holes. They say people go in there sometimes, to avoid trouble. If he is still around, that’s where he would go.

Innkeeper looks like he will try to go through my things while I’m gone. If he hasn’t already. Doesn’t matter, everything I care about is in the holster at my hip.

And maybe the nearby caves.

January ???: I don’t know

Woke up in room how did I get here

Hurts so much but only when I breathe should stop breathing

I can barely move. Don’t know how I got back to the inn. I am not sure what happened in the mine. Got shot. Maybe stabbed.

Bitten? Why would that be an option?

I remember noise. Loud. And then something was on me, and I think I fell. I remember the pain, but nothing after. Was there bulging eyes?

Don’t know how long I was out, or what day it is. Panicked real good when I could think straight. No pants and no shirt is fine, but if they took my hand cannon, I am fucked.

It was fine. Gun was in its holster on the chair. Not fucked.

Maybe a bit fucked. My side is all bandaged up. Wasn’t me. Inkeeper guy? The Archpopetress? Fresh bandage too, so they changed it at least once. Hurts when I breathe. But manageable.

Thank you for the memories, Reprobation, you lizard nutsack.

But also, no memories. What happened in the mine? My thoughts keep going back to the church for some reason. Who in the endless starless void worships things with tentacles? This is some fifty-million-years-ago shit.

Must go back to tunnels, but hurts too much. Gotta gather my strength. Should rest now. Maybe getting feverish.

January 12: I woke up and felt wonderful. The bandages were such a great relief, and I was thankful to the kind soul who had taken such good care of me, nurturing me to good health so quickly. If I ever find who they are, they shall have my love.

I endeavor to leave this place now, for what I seek was not here. Perhaps I shall abandon this journey and settle down elsewhere. Certainly far from here, even if Reprobation has proven a worthy township.

This will be my last entry. I leave this journal here, as a memorial to the life I leave behind, and a promise for a bright, beautiful future in a distant land.

Do not look for me.

Working on the Craft: Omniscient Out of Sync

As I am listening to the entirety of Writing Excuses for the 3rd (I think) time, I decided to actually try and do some of their prompts this time around. In S07E12, titled Writing the Omniscient Viewpoint, the exercise in the end asks us to write a dialogue from an omniscient third person, in which the characters are out of sync with each other. Now, I am relatively certain that the goal here was to achieve this through mostly/exclusively dialogue. But once I started, I found myself enjoying the scene, so this is what happened. I think, objectively speaking, I may have only paid lip service to the actual prompt. But it was still fun to be in the heads of two people not understanding each other, so I don’t consider my time wasted.

Villem felt hot all over. He wished it were as simple as a fever but knew better. His hand twitched, wanting to scratch the bandaged wound under the sleeve of his shirt. He stopped it. Scratching only made the itch worse. And the waves of heat radiating from the bite.

‘Something happened to me,’ he said, his throat dry. ‘I was… attacked. In the forest.’

Linea felt the words like slaps on her cheeks. Her little brother’s face was red with anxious flush, his entire body seemed to tremble. She had known something was awfully wrong the moment he slammed the door of her hut open. She wanted to reach out and comfort him. But it seemed that it was too late for comfort. And this was her fault.

‘I am so sorry, Villem,’ she said. ‘Did they hurt you?’

How could he deny it? His sister had always been on his side, even when he had grown up different from other boys. She stood by him and defended him when the others made him an outcast in the village. Would she turn away from him now? ‘N-no. Not a lot. I bandaged it, and…’ His hand went to the hidden wound now, rubbing at the place over the sleeve. The shivers the touch sent through his entire body were almost pleasurable. ‘I am sorry.’

‘Bandaged it? Let me see!’ She reached forward, but her brother pulled back as if burned.

She felt the beginnings of true anger. The other youths could be cruel. Their parents thought Villen morally bankrupt, and had taught their sons to fear his attentions, and their daughters to mock his manliness. She knew they teased and insulted him. But to draw blood? This was an outrage. He was different, but he was still part of this community.

‘I need to teach them a lesson,’ Linea said through gritted teeth. ‘The village healer’s family is off limits to these monsters.’

‘A lesson?’ Villen stared at her in disbelief, the feverish heat in his body almost forgotten. Was she deranged? He had always looked up to his sister, but the things that had attacked him in the forest were beyond even her ire. ‘You cannot teach them a lesson! They will tear you apart!’

She was baffled, then felt her heart break. Had it become this bad? Did he really fear the other villagers this much? A decision formed then, one that was both sudden, and – she realized – the result of months of buildup. ‘We are going to leave this place,’ she said.

‘Our home?’

‘It has not felt like a home since father’s death. And I think things will only be getting more… compicated.’

‘Complicated.’ Villen repeated the word. ‘Complicated.’ It felt strange in his mouth. Like trying to fit a ball in a square hole. His sister thought going away from the village would help him? Or was she just trying to save the villagers? He couldn’t blame her. Already, his nose assaulted him with smells he had never experienced before. His ears throbbed with too much sound, as if the hut was full of people whispering, feet shuffling, cloth rustling, wood scraping on wood. It was driving him mad. ‘Where would we go?’

‘There is another village a day upstream into the mountains,’ Linea said with more confidence than she felt, and turned her back to him, already making lists in her head, looking at the shelves on the wall. ‘I need to pack a few things, leave some notes for the elder, and we could be gone by morning.

‘And you think they could help me there?’

Her hand froze as she reached for a book. She wanted to lie and say yes. But she could not. As a woman of healing, she knew that there was no helping her brother. He was not broken or sick. He was just born different. It angered her to see him this distraught. Perhaps the new place would be kinder, see that he was a gentle soul. She wished he didn’t have to hide his desires from others, for they harmed no one. But could he? And if not, how long before things in the new place were just as bad as here?

Still, Linea forced a smile as she looked at him over her shoulder. ‘I can help you. I will help you. But not here. We must leave.’

Villen felt relief flood him. His sister could help. She knew herbs and medicine. Maybe she could stop this curse. He opened his mouth to thank her, but a wave of nausea overcame him. A horrifying itch spread from the bandaged wound under his shirt, and the skin on his hand grew darker before his horrified eyes, tiny black hairs sprouting from his skin. He looked up, but his sister had her back to him. He felt a sudden urge to jump on her back, to tear and bite, and smash.

‘Oh, Villen?’ Linea said, turning to find her brother with his back to her, about to leave through the already open door. He stopped. In his hunched back and stooped shoulders, she read so much tension that it scared her. He was like an animal about to pounce. Tears threatened to well in her eyes at the thought of how threatened the villagers had made him feel. ‘Pack light. We will have a long walk and little time to rest, if we want to reach the village by nightfall.’

He stood still, his shoulders rising and falling with his ragged breaths. Linea made to go and put a hand on his back to make him relax, but as she stepped forward, he just grunted and went out the door.

And as Villen walked outside in the cool night air, he knew there would be no leaving. Not with his sister at least, who only wanted to help him, but who would not survive a day’s travel with him. He knew it was too late. A soft buzz fogged his thoughts, made it hard to focus. His chest swelled, skin stretching over muscles and bones that were growing bigger than they had ever been. He felt his shirt ripping in several places. The smells and sounds of the village assaulted him from all sides.

‘Oh hey, look, it’s Villen, looking for victims in the night,’ a mocking voice said. He looked up, his vision suddenly tinted red. Two boys stood across the little square. One pointed at him. The other laughed. For some reason, he could not recall their names.

He started walking toward them.

Working on the Craft: Unreliable Third

Continuing my journey through Brian Kiteley ‘s The 3 A.M. Epiphany, and Exercise 3 is both simple, and infuriating: Write a fragment of a story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator in tight third person. We are so used to unreliability being the realm of first person, that it was a really exciting thought process to tell a story I knew was wrong, but through the perspective of a more detached, supposedly less subjective point of view. Kiteley’s idea is that in this way, the author can play within the edges of unreliability, and actually coax more trust from the reader. And unlike a first person, where you understand the thought processes of your character and know how to use them to mislead, it seems that if you use third limited, you have to believe your own lie to a greater extent. Or at least that was my experience.

Waking up was a burst of joy. He arose and contemplated his reflection in the mirror.

That he was alive at all, was a miracle to his parents. When the terrifying illness had taken hold of their precious beautiful newborn, they had wailed. Oh how they had wailed! Matronly nursemaids had ran from the castle screaming in terror. Healers had fainted, too weak to comprehend what had befallen the Duke’s family.

His mother and father had wept for joy, he knew, when the illness had simply gone away one day. He woke every night, basking not in dreaded sunlight, but in the feeling that radiated through his home – of a family that cherished and loved him, of servants that rejoiced in his existence, saw him not as master, but as kin.

He opened the door and left the shadowed cave of his chambers, as he did every night. He enjoyed roaming the corridors upon waking, once the harsh dayglow he only faintly remembered was gone from the world. The hallways would echo with his footsteps, hushed voices drifting from far away. Those usually dwindled further as he approached. He wondered now, as he sometimes did, at the coincidence. He was the beloved master, the shining liege, and as he grew fat with joy, so did his servants and parents grow to love him even more. But yet there was rarely a soul nearby when he began his nightly strolls.

No matter. Should he wish for something, he knew he had to only call out.

There was much to do in the castle at night, much to experience. His pale skin glistened. The light from the lanterns that lined the walls painted oily colors across the length of his arm when he raised it before his face. He laughed, turned it around to see the play of crystalline reflections, as it danced up his lean triceps. The skin of his neck stretched and he felt the familiar click inside as he moved his head to chase the pattern further, over his shoulder and down his ribbed back…

A soft gasp brought him out of his reverie and he allowed his neck to return to its usual position, to look upon a young servant boy, standing frozen at the entrance of a side chamber. The boy’s eyes were wide with awe and a bead of sweat traced a line down the side of his face. The servant dare not breathe for fear that his beautiful lord would avert his countenance away.

He laughed. The boy need not fear. He moved forward, crossing the distance with a single glide, and reached with long fingers to caress the servant’s face, taking the bead of sweat with the tip of a nail. The boy trembled with adoration. He laughed and made to turn away and heard a gasp behind him.

He got confused for a moment. It happened sometimes. He was used to it and did not let it worry him.

As he continued roaming the corridors, screams sounded somewhere behind him. They made him wince. The castle was a happy place. His very presence brought delight to all who lived there. And yet, on occasion during his nightly strolls, there would be such dreadful tumult! It made him angry, but he was as merciful as he was beautiful. The bounty of his joy was big enough for all to partake, even if at times they would refuse to be content.

His very mother had wailed and screamed at him once, the tears so striking on her normally smiling face. She knew how much he loved her smile, and so she always smiled for him. But that time she had not smiled, even when he told her to. She had been the one confused then, his mother. Her voice shrill with accusations, yelling something about a brother, calling him – him! – a monster. Her distress had been tiring, and unnecessary as well.

He had never had a brother, he told her, and all the monsters had gone away once he had come through his illness as an infant. He had hugged her tight to console her, and her screams had turned into rasping sobs. She fell on the floor when he let her go, twisted strangely, but when he had made to help her stand, she had screamed that there was no need. She smiled then, the way she knew he liked, and so had his father, when he had turned around to see him standing at the doorframe.

His mother only sat in a chair now, with wheels. He giggled as he thought about the silly contraption, but she was so attached to it. And she never yelled at him anymore, so of course he indulged her in her game, even if it must be uncomfortable at times.

The last vestiges of his confusion were now gone, and he found himself alone once again, in the hallways of his ancestral castle, seeking joy. He licked his fingers without looking at them. They tasted slick, salty. Metallic. He loved that taste. Lived for it. Through it.

As he traveled down the corridors, sometimes skipping on the stone tiles, sometimes gliding above them, he laughed his rich laughter, reveling at the happiness he felt. His dark world was beautiful and filled with the brightness of love. He only had to reach out and pluck it.