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X-Factor – a short story

September 21, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m supposed to be writing about sociological studies of the police. In fact I am writing about this. However in odd moments of downtime I’ve been playing with a story I wrote a couple of months ago. It’s not exactly horror, not exactly science fiction, and neither is it really fantasy or urban or any other easy-to-pigeonhole genre. If anything it’s a gentle meditation on a very limited aspect of unknowns, conspiracy theories, life, the universe and everything, and I don’t really see a commercial market for it. But I’m still vain enough to think you might enjoy reading it.

Rather that just include it in the post (it’s about 4,600 words) I’ve messed around with it, included a couple of images, experimented with prettying it up and saved it as a PDF. Partly, I confess, as an experiment in making PDFs available this way. There’s a download link at the end of this post.

The ‘X-factor’ tag comes from the Global Risks Report 2013  from the World Economic Forum (the ‘world leaders’ meeting that happens in Davos each year). The report outlines what it sees as the major global risks – chronic fiscal imbalances, systemic financial failure, increasing global income disparities, water supply, food shortages, greenhouse gases and other ‘usual suspects’. However it also discusses what it calls ‘X-factors’ – ’emerging concerns of possible future importance and with unknown consequences’, ‘serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict’.

Here’s the opening of the story:

In crime novels, there’s often a point where the detective turns up at a murder scene and one of the uniforms says ‘A dog-walker found the body.’

That’s because it happens. Twenty-three per cent of dead bodies left in public spaces are found by dog-walkers. Not that I found that out until later.

My watch said 01:41. I’d left Miss Grosgrain at quarter to one, gone home, had a glass of wine, gone out with Daisy. I work unsocial hours. I often walk Daisy late at night.

The street lights around here have been switched to part-night operation as an economy measure. There are signs saying so on every lamp post. They turn off just before one. We’re used to walking in the dark.

On Botts Way there’s a grassed area, the kind of open space that developers put on their estates to add ‘amenity’ to the houses. Parents never let their kids play there.

In the middle of the grassed area there’s a body, face up in the dim starlight. A young guy, late teens or early twenties. Jeans, T-shirt. Much blood. Stabbed, I guess. Eyes open, brown. There’s a thin fuzz of hair on his chin. Close-cropped hair with a widow’s peak. Full lips, nose just a little too wide for the face. A small mole on the right hand side of his face, near his nostril.

I have my mobile phone. I take pics, just in case of… something. I don’t know what, exactly. I lean over the guy, make sure he’s not still breathing. I call the police. And wait.

If you want to read the whole thing, the image below is a link to the PDF of the X-factor story (should open in a new window):

 

Link to 'X-factor' story

Link to ‘X-factor’ story

 

And just for fun (sort of) here’s a snap of some notes I made literally on the back of an envelope while writing the thing:

 

Back-of-envelope notes

Back-of-envelope notes

So now it’s back to writing about studies of policing…

 

 

 

 

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Writing on Walls again

May 10, 2013 Leave a comment

horror cover 3Relaunched. New cover art. Updated link to the video of the first story. Lower price (99 cents or 77 pence, I believe, but don’t hold me to it – the UK price will fluctuate with exchange rates). Now you can ignore it all over again. Or maybe just for the first time?

Eight short tales of horror and dark fantasy based on the understanding that one characteristic of being human is the ability to use one’s imagination, that imagination constructs reality, and that we construct our own worst fears and horrors.

It’s on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. And if you want to view the video, which is an abridged version of the first story, shot in an amazingly low-tech way using the embers of a fire and an oil lamp for lighting, I just uploaded it to Vimeo.

A taster? This is from a bit you won’t see on the ‘Look Inside’ function, the story MacGuffin. And yes, the narrator is the MacGuffin of the story. I take it you know the meaning of the term – Hitchcock popularised it in film to refer to a ‘plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist) is willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to pursue, protect or control, often with little or no narrative explanation as to why it is considered so important. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of MacGuffin is an object, place or person’ (I’m quoting this from Wikipedia).

The story opens this way:

It’s more difficult than you’d think to dig up a buried box in the woods at night. I have explicit instructions, a spade and a torch. But I have company; there are more people out here at two in the morning than there are in the town centre. Couples use a small clearing for alfresco exchanges of DNA. Illegal immigrants are camped a hundred metres away. Some kind of deal is going down near to where I left my car.

Thank fuck I’d done a recon when it was still light. Go to this point on the path, head for that forked tree, see that rock outcrop, dig one metre directly in front of the fault line on the rock. It’s probably an SSSI, digging prohibited on account of rare species. I’m in favour of environmental protection but right now there’s something more important at stake.

Clearing away leaf litter makes a hell of a noise, but no one seems to care. I shield my flashlight, and find a slightly sunken square of earth. At some point in the past it has been dug and loosely refilled.

Do I know for sure there’s a box under here? I swear at Giles for his cloak-and-dagger temperament, his love of practical jokes. I could get to the end of this and find some whimsical object with a sarcastic note.

I know you have severe reservations about my work. Perhaps you think I’ve had a breakdown and went insane. Perhaps you’ll find the world has had a breakdown and gone insane. It doesn’t matter. I’m just relying on you to have the same sense of honour you had when we were postgrads. You said on a particularly drunken evening that whatever our differences, I could always count on you as a friend.

You’re reading this because something has happened to me. My fail-safe was that this email would be sent automatically in such circumstances. I hope can still depend on your drunken promise, because the fact that you’re reading this means there is an important task I need you to undertake on my behalf.

You must recover some information and evidence, and make it public in a way that will attract the attention of the public – not the authorities, who will no doubt label me a deluded fool and deny everything, but capable, right-thinking people who are able to determine their own best interests and act on them.

The email was dated a year ago but arrived last week. Outlook has a function to delay sending selected messages, and my guess was that Giles just kept putting the date back until, one day, something had happened to stop him doing it. The countdown clicked to zero, the message was sent. With instructions: this path, that tree, this rock, one metre in front of, about half a metre down. There was more: reference to a housing estate he was ‘investigating’. The roads show on Google Maps but there are no street views. I’m guessing it’s a scummy little place, low priority on every local authority agenda.

I curse Giles for a drama queen, an overweight and pouty prima donna of melodrama. Had he come out here at this time of night to bury the thing? It would have appealed to his twisted sensibilities. But he was never one for physical effort, which makes the fact of his actually digging a hole – if it was him that dug it – significant.

Thank you for reading this. To ensure it remains secret, now please set fire to the device you have been reading it on…

Writing on Walls in the UK

August 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Collection now also available from Amazon.co.uk. The current price is a very reasonable £1.96 (but will go up or down by a few pence from time to time as it’s tagged to the dollar exchange rate).

Writing on Walls

August 28, 2012 2 comments

Writing on Walls ebook cover

This is the culmination of, believe it or not, over two years of work. OK, so some of that was procrastination and diversion and moving house and urgent (as in fee-paying) projects. And some of it was learning how to format and edit PDFs, epub files, audio files, movies and so on, and working out the best programmes to use for different purposes. Some of it was just investigating the general market for self-published work. But it’s done, and I’ve proved to myself I can do it so I’ll do it again, soon.

Writing on Walls, and Other Horrors is a 24,000-word collection of eight horror and dark fantasy stories ranging from 1,000 to 6,000 words apiece. The stories draw on WI James’ statement to the effect that if if you think something is true, it is true in its consequences. One characteristic of being human is the ability to use one’s imagination. Imagination constructs reality, and it can bring into being the hopes, fears, magics and horrors it creates.

The stories offer a spread across psychological horror, vampires, the occult and the plain weird. Some had, actually, been accepted by small magazines that went under before they reached the publication date for the pieces – though one had been rejected by several mags that specialise in weirdness for being too weird. The contents are:

Writing on Walls: is it possible for someone to write their own future? Can their scribbling change what happens to them, and to others? What happens when they’re washed up, suffering from too much past history and a psychiatric condition?

Defining the Situation: if you define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences. The philosopher WI Thomas said that, a hundred years ago. It’s still true. So if you think a typewriter is inhabited by a manipulative evil spirit, then it is. And you have to live with the consequences.

MacGuffin: technically speaking, a MacGuffin is the name for a film device that starts the action but isn’t important in itself. For example, a box buried in the woods by a man who died. It doesn’t matter what’s in the box, it’s just a thing that some people will fight and kill to get their hands on. But can a person be a MacGuffin, too?

UXB: some people have heads like unexploded bombs. The question is, what can trigger them? Trying to cross the road, maybe? Trying to cross the road to go to the doctor to get their head defused?

The Writing of Evil: forensic psychiatrists have tried to profile and categorise murderers. But writers can be worse that murderers, because they invent distorted narratives that confuse our grip on reality and can lead to massive social injury. This article presents a heirarchy and classification of authorial depravity and deviance.

Mabon Whores: a ‘craft fair’ is normally about scented soaps and home-made jam. But the word ‘craft’ can have darker meanings, with darker consequences.

John Undescribe (1952-2012) – The Best Writer You Never Read: an obituary for a writer, following his unexplained death. His influence on other writers was legendary – but what of his own work?

Spiritalk 23: The User Experience: do you want to talk to the dead? Really? Are you ready to handle the consequences?

Yes, if you buy it, it will cost you a little over $3 (or sterling equivalent when it turns up on Amazon.co.uk) and you can get all of HP Lovecraft’s fiction on Kindle for 77 cents. But that’s largely a function of Amazon’s minimum pricing for 70% royalties, the fact that out-of-copyright works don’t qualify for the higher royalty rate, and the fact that as far as I know I’m alive and need the money while Lovecraft isn’t and doesn’t. Though he did, as you may know, die in penury; and even at the higher price, I’m not anticipating my collection will do a whole lot for my pension fund. That will be, I hope, I function of my next few publications.

About me: in the interludes between writing social science educational materials and management training materials, I’ve published occasional pieces of fiction. You’ll find them in places such as Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Ignavia, Ballista and online in Dark Fire.

Shot from promo video

Shot from promo video

Oh yeah. There’s also a promo video I made with a few friends. You can see it on Youtube. It’s a much shortened version of the ‘Writing on Walls’ story. I had an email yesterday from someone who thought it was interview footage relating to a real event, which I suppose is praise of a kind…

Those involved (or alternatively, the guilty parties other than me) were Ric Sharples (that’s him on the left, he can act as well as do equality and diversity training), Richard Gray and Chris Cafferkey, who took a break from photography to shoot some video footage.

I hope you buy the collection. I hope you like it, and/or that it both engages and scares you. In a pleasant way, of course. And I hope you’ll buy the follow-up collection when it appears.

Elvis the phisher, part II – the horror story

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

You may have seen a previous post of mine about a phishing attempt that, unusually, took the form of a phone call. It gave me an idea for a story, and here it is, finished off at 1700 words or so. The phisher really did call himself Elvis Winston, though I imagine that was an assumed name for phishing purposes – a nom de scam, if you like…

***

Elvis Winston is a phisher of men. Or women. He doesn’t mind. What’s important is that someone answers the phone, and what’s even better is that they do what he says.

He stares at the computer screen, which shows the progress of calls made by a random dialler programme. This is the same technology used by cold-calling companies – though they probably have bells and whistles on the software that filter out numbers logged to the Telephone Preference Service and suchlike, and this one doesn’t because there’s no point. The system is automated. If someone picks up, he’s connected to them. And the background colour of the screen flickers rapidly, red-blue-red-blue, to tell him this is happening now.

‘Good morning,’ he says smoothly, ‘I’m calling from Windows Technical Department. We have a report here from your internet service provider that your computer has been causing repeated problems. Your software is infected with a dangerous virus and this could damage your hardware. Can you go online now please and follow my instructions: we can diagnose the problem and clean up your operating system.’

This is of course a series of straight-up lies. The part about being from Windows Technical Department is somewhat true, because what Elvis wants the person on the other end of the phone to do does relate to their computer’s Windows operating system and it is technical. But he’s relying on that person making the imaginative leap, the assumption, that he’s working in a division of Microsoft and that isn’t true. He has no idea which ISP the person is using. He has no idea whether their software is infected. And the instructions he’s going to give them will enable him to ‘clean up’, in a sense. In the sense that he’ll be able to access their personal data, which gets used to run a bunch of scams and, if possible, clean out their bank and savings accounts.

Elvis encounters suspicion. He gets insults followed by the phone being slammed down. He gets threats of being reported to the police or the Telephone Preference Service. It’s all part of a day’s work.

Even so, it’s surprising how many people respond to an authoritative voice, and an urgent threat. It’s surprising, in fact, how many respond with concern and want to co-operate even if they don’t have a computer.

What galls him is that all the time he’s working, he’s not even on minimum wage. The work is strictly commission-only, based on the number of people he can persuade to download the information-gathering trojan they use. The office is set up in the back of some engineering fabrication company that’s skating on the brink of bankruptcy. His notional ‘employer’ is some kind of underworld figure, aided and abetted by a young geek whose first language is not English. It’s better than his previous job – selling pills and wraps of dope on a street corner. But he’s heard about a guy who has an internet shop for second-hand DVDs and old copies of pulp magazines. He needs someone to package the stuff and take it to the post office. Elvis wouldn’t be phoning people all the time, wouldn’t have the aggravation, and he could still sell the odd wrap to the clubbing crowd at weekends.

All this is going through his head as he does his pitch, on autopilot. He keeps going until he gets some kind of response from the person on the line. What he doesn’t expect is:

‘Thank God you’ve called. I don’t know how you got through, I thought they’d cut the phone lines. You’ve got to send us food, and water and medical supplies. And guns. We need to defend ourselves.’

What the fuck? Just stick to the script!

‘So if you can open up the control centre on your version of Windows…’

‘No, listen, I’m serious. You’ll have to avoid suspicion somehow, maybe just load the stuff onto a supermarket truck and offload it at their store.’

‘If you have the control centre open, just click on–’

‘Listen to me! You know the workfare scheme, where people on benefits get forced to work six months for free, just staying on the benefits, with a job interview at the end for a non-existent job because they’ll choose some other poor bastard to work for free? You know most of those jobs are shelf-stacking in supermarkets? They just extended the scheme.’

‘If you have the control–’

Just pay attention, dammit! They’ve set up choke points, and a curfew, and anyone who can’t prove they’re in a job is being arrested and taken away. No one knows where. Maybe it’s a concentration camp somewhere. And they’re using guns, shooting people who resist. We’ve got to stop them.’

Elvis has it figured now. He’s talking to a nutter. The people who cause problems, he divides mentally into twats, freaks and nutters. The twats are the ones who threaten to call the police, or whatever. The freaks are the ones who lecture him about how they hate Microsoft, don’t even use Windows, have a Mac or run on Ubuntu or Linux or some other off-brand operating system. And the nutters… It’s not so much a case of what they’re on as what the men in white coats should be injecting them with.

Also he knows about workfare, this thing the government announced a few months back that’s hit the press because people are indeed, as the nutter is saying, being expected to work for supermarkets, stacking shelves, just to qualify for continued welfare benefits. Since Elvis is working completely off the books – this whole ‘Windows Technical Department’ thing being a scam in every sense of the word – he’s on Jobseeker’s Allowance at the same time, and he knows eventually they’ll get round to making him do it as well. Which is why packing second-hand DVDs and pulp mags would be useful, because it’s a proper job.

The guy’s raving about different kinds of guns, how it would be best if he could get a mix of general-purpose handguns and sniper rifles, things that pack a punch because the troops have body armour, and they’ll need RPGs to take out the vehicles.

There’s no mute button on the headset, no way to stop the drivel other than just hang up. Elvis keeps saying ‘Do you have Windows on your screen?’ as thought it’s a mantra, or a programme loop that doesn’t have an exit point.

‘There’s nothing about this on the BBC,’ the guy is saying now. ‘You have to get the word out, let people know about it. Get a message to Al Jazeera.’

Elvis knows a couple of people called Al but doesn’t think either of them would he able to help. One’s an alcoholic and the other’s doing time for an arson he swears he didn’t commit, despite being a professional torcher for bankrupt businessmen.

There are noises coming from the other end of the line now, some kind of garbled argument going on away from the receiver. Then something that sounds like a car backfiring.

‘Hello? Hello? Are you still there? Do you have Windows open on your screen at the moment? Hello?’

The line stays open, but Elvis doesn’t hear anything he can make sense of. Some kind of bubbling, frothing sound. Some scrapes, like furniture being moved around on a wooden floor. Then nothing.

He hangs up.

The random dialler registers this, gives him fifteen seconds and connects him to another line.

‘Good morning,’ he says smoothly, ‘I’m calling from Windows Technical Department. We have a report here…’

He doesn’t get out of there until eight in the evening, walks home in the dark. It’s been raining and the road is slick with reflections off the streetlamps. There’s not as much traffic as usual. He’s almost home, at the junction of South and Admiral, when he has one of those ‘what the fuck?’ moments. Lorries parked across the street, making a roadblock, but no lights on them. There’s a white car, blue and orange flashes on it, parked up. And quite a few people there.

He hugs the sides of the buildings, moves closer. Sees a knot of people around a young guy on the ground, struggling. Someone in uniform on top of him, a knee jammed into the guy’s kidneys, and a flash of silver like he’s trying to cuff his hands.

There’s a crowd gathered around looking ugly.

Oh well. It’s the kind of area where the police come looking for people. The kid might have been picked up on an outstanding warrant, tried to rob someone, just got too verbal with the cops.

That doesn’t explain these other characters, in army uniforms.

The crowd’s common enough, too, in this area. No one round here has any sympathy for the cops.

Then the crowd surges forward and there are scuffles, a melee, the cop who’s got his knee in the guy’s kidney is sent sprawling on the street. The guy he was trying to cuff is suddenly up and running. And there’s a freeze-frame moment of disbelief as half a dozen shots crack out. They don’t sound like the movies or the video games: just ripping sounds like a firecracker being let off, which is a common enough occurrence on these streets.

There’s people running, and people not running who are on the ground. The kid who’d been arrested, he’s one of the ones not running.

The army guys are moving forward, disciplined, weapons ready. One of them reaches the kid and feels for a pulse.

Elvis tries to be invisible. Wishes he’d just walked away when he could.

‘You’ll do,’ the soldier says.

Thirty seconds later he’s on the ground, tasting blood where his lip kissed the tarmac. They’re rifling his pockets.

‘Find anything? Employment ID?’

He doesn’t see who’s asking the question. But they won’t find any ID, will they, because he doesn’t carry any.

‘Just put him down as “undocumented”.’

One of them throws Elvis’s wallet into the bushes on the other side of the road.

‘He’s fucking undocumented now, mate.’

Elvis swears at the nutter he’s spoken to, under his breath. As if the nutter had made it happen just by talking about it. As if it was all the nutter’s fault. And he swears at his job, which made him talk to the nutter in the first place.

But he knows nutters don’t create the world. Politicians do. And they’re worse, because they not only believe what they say, they make everyone else act out their vision of insanity.

Vampire fiction and training materials

October 11, 2011 2 comments

I’ve had a bit of word-collision going on.

Yesterday I was writing a short vampire story. A vampire, in some older literature, is described as a revenant – a term Wikipedia defines as ‘a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living’. So it was a word I used quite a few times.

Today I was writing something about economic regeneration in local contexts, and the roles of relevant government departments and other agencies.

And the spellcheck, of course, didn’t pick up that I’d managed to include quite a lot of references to revenant government departments.

Hmmm…

The end is nigh!

May 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Last night, after something like four months of a group of us juggling diaries, we finally did the video shoot for a project I’ve had in mind since late last year. There’s more to do: some still photography, design work, and fitting the whole thing together. It’s been a steep learning curve because I’ve had to work out how to do video editing and various ancillary things, but the end is now in sight. Another couple of weeks and I should be able to show and tell…

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