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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

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.

On being and doing: becoming an author (and a story)

February 6, 2011 4 comments

Over the last few days I’ve managed to get embroiled in some discussions about whether someone can describe themselves as an ‘author’ if they haven’t in fact published anything, or possibly even written anything.

The question is probably only really of interest to those who are aspiring authors who haven’t yet written much or published anything (though ‘publish’ in this internet age is itself a slippery concept, with self-publication, vanity publishers, blogs and other ways to get writing in front of potential readers).

There are parallels, though – the aspiring musician who hasn’t quite ‘made it’ in terms of regular gigs or a recording contract, the artist who has yet to do anything with their work other than leave it under the bed or in the attic, even the carpenter who hasn’t yet made anything out of wood.

And if there are parallels, there are also – what should we call them? Divergents? Perpendiculars? There are plenty of labels that have more moral force and are applied to someone’s entire social identity on the basis of an act that took maybe a minute or two – murderer, for example. There probably are people out there who might be described as ‘aspiring murderers’ or ‘murderers in waiting’ (I’ve known one or two people who might fit that description) but I don’t think it’s a term in common use. Certainly not as common as ‘aspiring author’, anyway. Which is probably a good thing.

(On a side note: I seem to remember Jake Arnott’s novel He Kills Coppers having a character who might be described as a ‘serial murderer in training’. In any event it’s a good book, well worth the read. There’s also plenty of sociological work on labels and how they’re used but it’s not entirely relevant to this discussion…)

Beyond that, it’s a niche philosophical question about the slipperiness of labels, the relation between doing and being, between intent and achievement. Very often, the advice offered to ‘aspiring’ authors is that they should ‘act as if’ – and in acting out the intent, the accomplishment gradually slips into reality.

What follows is a short piece of fiction. Probably.

***

John Undescribe (1952-2011) – the best writer you never read?

John Undescribe, one of the most talked-about yet mysterious authors of his generation, was found dead in his apartment last week. The cause of death is described as ‘accidental’ but no details have yet been released.

His writing career began at university. Though not a member of any student societies he participated in several ‘performance art’ projects, reading poetry and stories at events that often included a mix of dance, music, light projection, fire-breathing and large remote-controlled robots. None of this work was ever published. It is possible it was improvised.

Those who recall them say that they were emotionally moving, though frequently only semi-audible due to the nature of the performances. ‘They had a dreamlike quality,’ said one of his contemporaries who delined to be named. ‘They were like random phrases from some great, lost book of forbidden knowledge.’

Through most of his life, Undescribe lived in a cluttered, rented apartment within easy reach of The Foolscap, a bar favoured by many writers and poets. Regulars there remember him as a lively conversationalist with a sharp insight into contemporary social issues, whose off-the-cuff remarks could easily become the first lines of novels. Judging by the number of works in which he received dedications or other mentions, many of his comments have, in fact, become the first lines of novels by others. He has been described as ‘inspirational’ and ‘the greatest unknown writer of our time.’

He was retiscent about the details of his own writing, though was often prepared to discuss the underlying arguments, philosophical positions, or plot devices. Of his first novel he is reputed to have said ‘Publishers will hate it: it reads like a mystery writer’s second novel.’ He said he wouldn’t send it to a publisher until another novel by him had been released first.

That novel were a long time coming. In 1994, Undescribe was heard to remark in the bar that he’d written ‘three quarters of a million words, about a hundred thousand of which would be a novel – it’s just a case of which hundred thousand.’

At that time, however, poststructuralism had come into prominence. ‘The book’s finished,’ he announced one evening in the Foolscap bar. ‘But in the current climate, there’s no longer any point in getting it published. It addresses concerns no longer relevant to our understanding of what writing is.’

Instead he began work on another novel, also hewn from his massive manuscript. ‘The secret is in my name,’ he said. ‘Language has a complex relationship to reality because it constitutes what we see as reality. And it’s a recursive relationship, because our idea of language itself and what it can do is also constituted in that reality. We don’t have myths any more, we have fictions that are plastic and disposable. I no longer want to describe the world – even a world in which ships dream furiously of green translations. I want to undescribe it.’ (The reference to ‘ships dreaming furiously’ is probably a partial nod to George Steiner’s After Babel).

Other projects followed, including a cycle of short stories, allegedly translated into a mystical language of Undescribe’s own devising so that he could back-translate it into a finished product. In his last few years Undescribe appeared to move away from writing to focus on the impact of the spoken word. He would sometimes recite lengthy sections said to come from his works to acquaintences in the bar, to reactions varying from incomprehension to ecstacy.

Most notably, on one occasion he was credited with literally hypnotizing the entire bar, causing those present to believe for several days that they were in fact characters in one of Undescribe’s novels. None of those present knew the plots of the novel involved, though there was subsequent speculation that the novel would in fact be based on how the individuals concerned acted. Undescribe commented on occasion that truth was often stranger than fiction, because our imaginations are often limited by what we see as real: remove those limits and we can re-make the truth in strange ways.

Undescribe had no partner or children. If he left a will it is entirely likely to be contested on the basis that it is a work of fiction and not a legal document. A search of his apartment revealed many books, some rare and valuable, but no personal paper and no manuscripts of any description. It is unclear whether these ever existed, except perhaps in Undescribe’s own imagination. He is, on the basis of his contemporaries’ comments, perhaps the best writer whose works you will never be able to read.

What are the odds?

January 24, 2011 10 comments

I was going to blog about something else today but this happened.

A long while back I finished a story, a paranormal horror, and sent to to a magazine. I heard nothing for a while (which is normal) and then got an apologetic email saying the mag has ceased publication.

We live in hard times. I didn’t think much of it. I just sent it to the next magazine on my list. I am at least organised enough to have  a ‘hit list’ for each story, of potential markets for it.

A few months have gone by, and now the same thing’s just happened again – apologetic email, ‘we have officially ceased publication’.

Anyone apart from me see any parallels here with the horror film ‘Ring‘? Have I got a story on my hands that is so spooky it can cause magazines to fail?

Should I accept some moral responsibility about where I send it next? Or just create a hit list of people and agencies that have pissed me off in the past, send it to them and see what happens?

I think I need to try at least one more place just to prove it’s no coincidence.

Suggestions, anyone…?

Needs of the Dead

November 8, 2010 2 comments

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction 34 front cover

A new short story – well, not new exactly since I wrote it a while back – is now out in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction 34. Zombie stuff. I’ll have to read the rest of the issue now to find out what other authors have been up to!

Out soon – The Speculator

June 5, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m an occasional, inconstant member of The Speculators, a Leicester-based SF/fantasy writing group that came up with the idea of an occasional newspaper-format publication with members’ stories.

Issue 1 of The Speculator is now printed, I’m pleased to say including one of my stories.

The newspaper as a whole has 17 short stories, a news article, editorial and a bunch of artwork, which is a lot for 12 pages.

The plan is to distribute the paper free at the upcoming Alt.Fiction event on 12 June, a one-day festival of alternative fiction including horror, fantasy and SF in Derby (UK). Thereafter, I think the idea is that the PDF will be available online from the Speculators website (no, it’s not there right now – be patient!).

Everything’s normal…

April 20, 2010 6 comments

It just struck me I haven’t posted here for over a week. Nothing momentous to report, no flashes of insight into the meaning of life, just solid nose-to-the-grindstone work.
Well, sort of. I’ve been marking distance learning scripts and musing about how we can motivate students. I’ve had conversations with others involved in the marking, to discover that ideas I put forward at the back end of last year are actually under active development. I just didn’t know about it because the person doing the development work is one of my colleagues who has more computer skills (the developments I suggested involved setting up various forums and website add-ons that are his expertise, not mine).
I’ve finished off and dusted down a short story, sent it off to its uncertain and fragile future. It’s a strange one for me in that it’s not horror or scifi or fantasy, but based on a conversation I had with a very depressed person and some of the more or less standard self-help advice that’s on offer. The advice, generally speaking, is very good: it revolves around realising that the world isn’t perfect, there isn’t a binary ‘everything’s perfect/everything’s shit’ scenario, and if you don’t succeed that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. There may be room for improvement but you can also take credit for what you have achieved. The ‘USP’ of the story is someone for whom the advice brings unanticipated results. Not having written anything quite like it before, I had to do quite a bit of poking about on Duotrope.com to find a possible market, and we’ll see. If the place I sent it to don’t like it, I haven’t failed, just not succeeded yet. But I probably won’t find out for months.
In the in-between times I caught a programme on BBC about young and struggling artists, and another one on fashion photography in the 60s.
The first tried to open up the question of ‘what is art’. One of the lessons aspiring artists are taught, apparently, is that they need to be able to network, talk about their work and explain what their art is about – what it ‘means’. And it struck me that if you could do this and the explanation was sufficient, what would be the point of the art? On the one hand, there’s a qualitative difference between, say, being told that an artwork is ‘about’ some issue or concept, and seeing the actual product, the real object, with your own eyes. Art often does ‘make a statement’ but it’s not necessarily one that can be easily encapsulated in language. Surely that’s the point?
The second programme wasn’t ‘about’ the point I took from it. There was a segment of maybe ten seconds in which someone contracted Allen Jones with Brian Duffy – the former an artist who made strange, fetishistic artworks but was generally regarded as extremely sensible and normal in his private life, and the latter a photographer whose work was widely seen as exciting but in many ways ‘straight’ though whose mental processes and social relationships were (apparently, but I haven’t read up on this so I’m relying on what was said) very strange. The point was that it’s not possible to make an assumption that strange work is made by strange people. Zen-like poise can be the product of chaotic turmoil and vice versa.
Quite what I want to do with this insight I don’t know. But it already sounds like the starting proposition for a story. I’ll add it to the list – I’m slowly plodding through ‘to do’ list of things I’ve been meaning to write, some of them for months now.

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