Sunday, 29 May 2011

The Moon Under Water

This weeks flash fiction challenge over at terribleminds is on the subject of 'An unexpected guest'. I had to trim this a bit to get it to fit in the word limit (a story within a story in under a thousand words, what was I thinking?), but I think it worked out better for it in the end. Also, about that title, yes I know there is no mention whatsoever of either the moon or water in the story, but I did a wikipedia search for common pub names and that one caught my eye (see here for more details), in the end the inn in the story went unnamed for reasons of style and space but the title stuck because for reasons I can't quite explain it sort of fits I think. Or maybe I just like it. In any case story:

The Moon Under Water

The midwinter sun is setting, stretching my shadow into a bluish scarecrow, sprawled across the snow. It reaches all the way to the woods as though throwing a tantrum, childishly clinging to the trees so as not to leave. I'm tempted to imitate it but my arms are not so long and the path down to the village is calling me onwards.
There are few lights lit in the village, fewer than I remember. Several of the darkened windows are boarded up, houses empty and depressingly corpse-like. For a moment I wonder if the inn will still be there, but when I turn the corner I see the old sign hanging from the wall, paint peeling, the words almost unreadable. Here, at least, a light is shining.
The door creaks halfheartedly on it's hinges, the floor boards are too tired for even that much effort. Dusk on the shortest day, early for drinkers, but the empty bar is lonely nonetheless. It seems an age before the landlord appears, an old man, slow on his feet. He eyes me with vague surprise "Can I help you sir?"
"I'm looking for a room for the night."
He seems troubled by my request "Most of the rooms is closed up for the winter. No call for them this time of year. Us being near the sea, folks only want to visit when there's fair chance of the sun shining." he pauses, torn between emotions I can't quite read "There is one room open."
"Is there a problem with it?"
"You'll think me superstitious, a young man like you." he says "But we always keeps one room made up in case old Tobias should call."
"A ghost story?"
"Aye. Do you know it?"
I shrug "I think I may have heard it once."
The old man nods sagely "That's him up there." he says, he means the portrait above the bar "Wife always reckoned him a looker but I can't say as how I ever saw that myself."
"Hard to tell now." I say. Time has darkened the varnish to a muddy brown and the sitter's features are barely distinguishable from the landscape beyond.
The man nods again "Age takes it's toll on us all. But it's quite the romantic tale, if you like that kind of thing. Young couple in love, betrothed to be married, but of course the witch of the woods has taken a shine to the boy and she casts her magic to spirit him away." the landlord laughs now "Got cold feet and run off with an easier bird if you ask me, but I guess that don't make such a pretty story."
"And the room?"
"Ah, well that's not the end. They say the girl died of a broken heart and that when Tobias heard he was so overcome with sadness that he was able to break free of the witch's magic. They say he kneeled at her grave praying night and day for her forgiveness. Until the witch found him and in her fury she struck him dead and bound his ghost to her so he might never leave her again. But the witch's magic is tied to the seasons and every few years, when the winter is especially cold, Tobias escapes and comes looking for his lost love." The man sighs "I expect you think it's all pretty silly."
It's a story I have more reason than most to believe, "I think a ghost has little need of a bed." I say
The man considers this sadly "I suppose you're right. Never did credit it myself, but it kept the missus happy, and the girls when they were here. Don't know why I kept up the tradition." he reaches a decision "Still, perhaps it's lucky for you I did. I'll need a name, sir, for the log book."
I look at the painting again "Dorian." I say. I pause but he doesn't notice "Joe Dorian."
"Well Mr Dorian, if you'd like to sign, room's just up those stairs and on the left, you can't miss it." He roots around under the counter for the key.
I sign the book, take the key, walk up the stairs. It's all hauntingly familiar like I've done this a dozen times before. Then again, I have.
Inside the room I walk to the window. The sun has long vanished from the sky and there's little to see except my own reflection in the glass, but still I stare out into the darkness. A maid taps on the door before entering, I barely glance at her, but she reminds me of Lucy, they always do. I don't turn, or talk to her I just gaze at nothing and wonder. I wonder why I do this, why I still need this desperate hope for redemption. I wonder what I will do when this inn no longer stands, where I will go to keep up this ritual. I wonder, fleetingly, if this is the same maid as last time, but no, she can't be, a decade has passed since I was last here.
The door clicks closed. Strange that a place this run down should still have a maid. I stop, barely breathing, my heart thumping. I feel the floor beneath my feet, the glass of the window pane beneath my hand and at long last I wonder why I expected a ghost to look like one.
Sudden hope awakens, I cross the room in three bounding steps, fling open the door. The maid is still in the corridor and for the first time I look at her, really look at her "Lucy?"
She stops, and for a moment I'm sure I've made a mistake. Then she turns. She smiles at me, familiar and enchanting  "Well Toby. Are you finally ready to be forgiven?"

Monday, 23 May 2011

Where it all began.

I've mentioned this before, but I'm writing a novel (trying to anyway, some days more successfully than others), I've also mentioned a few odds and ends about it, it features hermaphroditic aliens for example, but today I thought I'd take a moment to go back to the beginning and talk about why I'm writing it (admittedly as much to remind myself as anything).
I don't mean why I'm writing at all, that's a question that makes only slightly more sense than 'why are you breathing?' I have a need to create stuff, writing seems to be the most satisfying way of doing that, I mean why this particular story? Well it actually started with a play by post roleplay game (Dark Heresy, if you know what that is, or care) and specifically with the character I was playing, one Severus Gently, charming, elegant, promiscuous and very, very dangerous, oh and he was one other thing, he was enormously good fun to write for. Anyway the game slowly died as roleplay games often do, but I still wanted to write about him, I decided that I would make write a novel about him. I also decided that I needed new novel-writing software (the program I had didn't run on my new computer) so I did an amazon search, but I forgot to specify software and the book No Plot, No Problem popped up. At that point I didn't really have a plot (I'm not one hundred per cent convinced I have one now, I suspect that is a problem) so I had a look, it looked entertaining, it looked useful I liked the idea of having a first draft to work with after only a month, the book got bought, it got read, I discovered NaNoWriMo.  By some quirk of fate it happened to be the middle of October at the time (2009, if you were curious), so it made perfect sense to sign up on the NaNoWriMo forums and spend a couple of weeks planning before starting on the actual writing part of the project.
Well by the end of November I had my 50,000 words, although the story was still lacking an ending and since then it's nearly doubled in length and most of the things I actually wrote in that month have been cut out, rewritten or are sitting on my ever expanding to do list, I have an ending, in fact I have two or three, I'm not entirely sure which is the ending yet but if I just keep working at it I'm sure I'll get there eventually.
The point of this post however (although I appear to have wandered considerably from it) was to share the one piece of stand alone writing about this character which predates my attempts to write him into a novel, it was written to give my gm some idea of what the character I was proposing to play was like and what his background was, it's nearly two years old and the character has grown somewhat more complicated since then and the writing could do with some pretty heavy editing really, but nevertheless this is the birth of the character which started it all, enjoy.


Severus doesn't need to see the woman's face to recognise her, the outline of her figure, the heady scent of her perfume, the tumbling mass of dark hair the same shade as his own, all are memories so well known they are part of him. Hearing the door open, she turns and he knows before they fix on him that her sea-green eyes will be a perfect match for his, in colour and in emotionless intensity.
Severus smiles, polite and steely "Ravia, to what do I owe the great, nay, inestimable, honour of your presence?”
“So cold Severus, you weren’t always so cold.” she purrs, stalking hypnotically towards him, her seductive tone undercut by hatred, her movements by fury.
“No.” he replies softly, his submission as real and as feigned as her seduction “Once, I burned.”
A predatory expression crosses Ravia’s face “You burned for me.”  she insists. She smiles eerily “You still do.” She reaches out a hand to caress his throat, but in the moment before she can touch skin Severus blurs into motion. When the motion stops he stands behind her, his right hand gripping her wrist, her left arm around her waist holding her tight against his body.
“Always.” he affirms huskily. He rips the poison rings from her fingers with greater violence than the simple act of disarming her requires and her cries are nine parts pain to one of pleasure.
“Careful now,” Ravia teases “You wouldn’t want to take my fingers off.”
Severus’s seeming desire turns abruptly to rage, he pushes Ravia violently away from him, sending her stumbling into the wall “Wouldn’t I now?” ire drips from every syllable. He fans out the fingers of his left hand, the velvet glove he wears hides the fact that the outer three fingers are augmetic, but she knows as well as he that they are, and she knows how he came to lose the originals “Some people.” he sneers “Might consider that justice.”
“Justice?” Ravia croons “When have you ever been interested in justice?” she leans back against the wall, alluring and defiant.
Severus doesn’t reply, his face is expressionless as he walks toward her, as he pins her against the wall, as he runs his free hand under her skirt and up to her thigh. He ignores the sudden shallowness in her breathing, pulling the knife from her garter and holding it to her throat.
Ravia’s eyes go wide, for the first time she appears afraid, suddenly aware that she is pleading for her life “Severus.” she breathes “We used to be so good together, you must remember.” She pauses, smiling at her own memories “I remember the way you looked the first time…” her voice trails off.
“I remember” Severus replies, the anger is still present in his voice, but softened now by the raw passion of his memories.
“You could have that again.” Ravia purrs persuasively “You could have me again.”
Severus’s voice is bitter “And how could I ever trust you?”
“You don’t need to trust me, tie me up, hold me down.” Ravia smiles wickedly “I’d like that.”
Severus swallows “No.” he says, but his voice trembles and the knife drops from his fingers, clattering to the floor.
Sensing victory, Ravia slides her arms around his waist, drawing him closer “No?” she queries “But I know you want to.” She lets her eyes drop meaningfully down his body “I can feel it.” She draws closer still, her lips a hairsbreadth from his “Kiss me.” She whispers.
The last of Severus’s resolve crumbles to dust, unthinking he obeys and for one, rash, everlasting moment there is nothing in the world for either of them but their passion. It burns like fire, as hot, as bright and as destructive.
Something like thought returns, Severus reaches out to open the door, and pushing Ravia away from him, he throws her out into the street “I said no.” he repeats.
Ravia curls elegantly to her feet, even in defeat her poise is exemplary “Very well, little brother.” she says, turning to leave “But we will meet again.”
“I will be watching for you.” Severus replies, watching her walk away before he closes the door.
Then, with no one to see him, he begins to shake, gathering his most necessary belongings he packs to leave, he knows this place is no longer safe for him.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Assorted Books I've Been Reading

So, I know I haven't posted in ages, there isn't really a good reason for that. There's a reason, in that I've been depressed in the struggling-to-get-out-of-bed-because-everything-feels-pointless sense of the word, but I'm not sure that really qualifies as a good reason. In any case, one thing I have managed to do in the last few weeks is reduce the pile of books waiting for me to read them. I figured I'd share my thoughts on some of them, so in no particular order:

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Reason for reading: Recommended by my mother. Well sort of, she said I probably shouldn't read it because she thought what I was writing was similar so I'd better not read it in case I ended up stealing ideas from it... so I figured that maybe I should read it, for hopefully obvious reasons. (As it turns out my mother seems to have latched on to some coincidence of clothing colour, otherwise there isn't a lot of similarity as far as I can see).
General impression: V for Vendetta for feminists, only not as good.
Stuff I liked: The central idea is fairly interesting, essentially the handmaid of the title is a woman forced into prostitution, except with the intent of providing babies rather than pleasure. Also what little is explained of the setting is thought-provoking, basically a projection of what would likely happen if the 'women belong in the kitchen cos the bible says so' subset of religious idiots got into power. Some of the imagery is nicely poetic.
Stuff that got on my nerves: Several things, but top of the list would be the epilogue, which isn't really part of the story at all, instead it's supposed to be a scholarly lecture by a professor who's been studying the tapes that the rest of the story was apparently on. I have a number of issues with this, for one thing it's completely unnecessary to have the story have been found on audio tapes, it's been established that the narrator can write (even though writing is banned for women), and it doesn't read like something that's been spoken, it reads like something that's been written, the dreamy poetic descritions of the flower garden for example, nobody talks like that, it's writing in a diary type stuff. The other main problem I have with this epilogue is that it feels very much like the author telling me what I should have been thinking and feeling about the story, it doesn't really add anything else. Well it does, it adds some explanations of what was going on from a historical perspective, which would have been entirely unnecessary if the narrator had ever bothered to mention them. Which, given that she was apparently recording her experiences for some future, unseen person, and she seems bright enough to realise that they might not know much about her situation (she actually comments that as handmaids are left out of family photographs so future historians might not know they existed) it's rather unnatural that she then doesn't explain. All right, all right I'll stop there.
Conclusion: Good but not great alternative history story, spoiled by a rant inducing epilogue.

The Conqueror's Shadow, Ari Marmell
Reason for reading: The author was on babel clash and was entertaining so I started following him on twitter and he was more entertaining so eventually I decided I really aught to check out his actual books.
General Impression: You know that thing in games where in the sequel your character from the previous game is now the villain? Well this is kind of that in reverse. Crossed with a kind of aging hero thing.
Stuff I liked: Villain protagonists, well all right they're pushed just over the line into being antiheros by dint of the actual villain being so much worse. Oh and also by the fact that, in theory, more or less, on average, they're saving the world. Still, one bloodthirsty former tyrant with a pet demon, one moody ogre and a canabalistic witch, this is not the hero roll call of your average disney movie now is it? And they're so much deeper for it, I especially liked the witch Seilloah. Also I really liked the author's take on vampires, all right they're never called vampires, but they drink blood and can only be killed by a stake through the heart plus decapitation combo, so yeah, vampires. Only ickier, they leave bloody footprints everywhere they go and magic people's blood out through their pores. I thought they were a well thought out attempt to make vampires scarier and more monstrous without taking away their intelligence.
Stuff that got on my nerves: The first couple of pages did not really sell the story to me, if I'd been flicking through the beginning in a book store I'd probably have bought something else instead. Maybe it's just an unfortunate coincidence that I've read a couple of other books that start that way, but it does seem to me that 'recently destroyed city at dawn' is the go to media res beginning for epic battles fantasy.  Apart from that I only have a couple of minor complaints, there's a couple of scenes near the beginning where the main character's relationship with his wife seems a bit cardboardy and there was one particular plot twist fairly late on that irritated me because of the way it was presented (the actual twist is pretty cool in hindsight, which is why I'm not spoiling it).
Conclusion:  I'm going to have to buy the next one now.

Persuasion, Mansfield Park & Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen.
Reason for reading: I have an ongoing sporadic quest to read 'classics' partly because I think I should and partly because sometimes they turn out to be really good. Mind you, having decided to try Jane Austen these were probably not the most logical titles to begin with, but Mansfield Park is the book Door is reading in Neverwhere and then Amazon suggested the other two.
General Impression: You know how popcorn doesn't really taste of anything but you keep eating until the bottom of the packet anyway? Like that.
Stuff I liked: Every now and then there was a line of dialogue that amused me or a description I particularly liked. In general the prose style is pleasant enough, I mean I got to the end of all three without actually dieing of boredom, but I can't really explain why not.
Stuff that got on my nerves: The beginnings, each of the three books begins with a long description of the heroine's family background before actually introducing the character round about chapter three. The endings, they don't actually end they just sort of fizzle out and then the last chapter is a 'what happened next' epilogue, which would be less annoying if 'what happened next' didn't include 'how the problems I've spent this whole book setting up were suddenly resolved'. That bit in Northanger Abbey where everything stops for a page and a half while the author rants about the depiction of novels in novels by other writers. While I get that applying 'show don't tell' to the adultery in Mansfield Park would have been way too risque for the time of writing, does it have to be told third hand?
Conclusion: I read these to try and find out why they're considered classics, I still don't know, I feel kind of guilty about that. Then again, I like Shakespeare, I like Dickens, it doesn't make me culturally barren if it turns out I don't like Austen too. Does it?

The Kitchen Daughter, Jael McHenry
Reason for Reading: People on twitter linked reviews of it, it sounded interesting.
General Impression: Like a bored cookbook had an affair with a dashing young ghost story.
Stuff I liked: The heroine, I like that she has a different way of seeing the world, it makes otherwise quite normal events into interesting story points. It also helps show how odd 'normal' people are in some circumstances. Makes you think twice about things that might otherwise have been taken for granted. The ghosts, both their individual personalities and the mechanism by which they're summoned.
Stuff that got on my nerves: I could include the heroine's pushy sister in this catagory, she most certainly did get on my nerves, on the other hand she's quite clearly intended to and the book wouldn't work if she didn't. Which basically leaves me with the vague sense of disappointment I had with the ending, specifically the disquieting feeling that after an entire book defending Ginny's right to be different the ending still had to be made happy by making her more normal, on the other hand I'm not sure how else it could have been ended and worked so hmmm...
Conclusion: Now have the paradoxical problem of wanting more stuff like this, when one of the major reasons I liked it is that (as far as I know) there is nothing else like this.