750 words Short story: Eck, Bill, and Lack-Lack

750 words short story – a charnel pit, and an impossible question…..

Joanna K Neilson

This was for the 750word .com challenge – 96 day streak!

To kick it off, I chose 3 words from flicking through Sherri S Tepper’s ‘Sideshow’ – a good book but haven’t finished it yet.

The words were:  Humiliated, smell, skull.

Eck, Bill and Lack-Lack

A dreadful reek rose from the sacrificial pit. A stink of uncommon gruesomeness permeated the flared nostrils of the king’s chief poison taster, whose refined nostrils recoiled in revulsion. Eck didn’t notice any of it. Eck had lived among the stink for all of his short years, and all those yeas had effectively cauterised his inner sensibilities, so that the mere reek of the charnel pit from a distance mattered very little to him.

“What be it you’re looking for again, Bill?” Eck asked his companion.

Eck had never met anyone quite so fancy looking. Bill glared back at him, “It’s ‘Sybill’, you cretin. And…

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Review: Future Lovecraft by Innsmouth Press

Future Lovecraft
Future Lovecraft by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles

You’ll definitely get your money’s worth from this vast collection of stories and poetry, which takes humanity’s relationship with the Cthulhu Mythos into the distant future and to other worlds far beyond our own. It also takes readers to fresh horrors on aliens planets and in some very trippy alternate dimensions. Lovecraftian monsters invade both inner and outer space, and it’s likely more than one story will stay with you long after completing this substantial collection. It may not be a surprise that there aren’t many happy endings here, although that can depend on which way your squid is battered. There are also more than a couple tales involving worryingly insane astronauts and doomed asteroids, and spaceships, but none of these blend into a homogeneous, shoggothy mass. The sheer variety is very impressive. Future Lovecraft is an unsettling look at humanity’s future, and questions if we even have one at all.

The Haunted Eyeball’s preferred stories in this collection are marked with a ‘*’ and explanations about why are given in the brief summaries underneath.

In This Brief Interval by Ann K. Schwader

Poem. Best line – ‘Before our sun first sparked, the stars / turned right.’

In the Hall of the Yellow King by Peter Rawlik

A diverse group of Lovecraftian alien races and outer-dimensional beings meet for a grave negotiation, and a power play which could change the very structure of the universe.

Inky, Blinky, Pinky, Nylarthotep by Mick Mamatas

Humanity evades the return of the Great Old Ones by transporting themselves into the virtual Newspave, but they haven’t quite avoided the threat of destruction and madness, and it’s possible that the only way out is to evolve into a self-replicating PAC-MAN-esq game. Utterly mad, although I think it almost made sense.

*Tri-TV by Bobby Cranestone

Channel hopping was never this fun on Earth. Flicking between TV stations somewhere in space, it appears our future is indeed touched by Cthulhu, and all his mates, too.

Do Not Imagine by Mari Nessas

Poem. “We see your grey ships
and thirst
We eat upon human screams,
and in the shadows of the stars,
We hunger.”

*Rubedo, An Alchemy of Madness by Michael Matheson

Brilliant tale. Stranded at the ass end of space, a female scientist assists with a difficult birth. Terrific description really pulls you into this tale of insanity, sadness and solitude. Very impressive space action here, too.

People Are Reading What You Are Writing by Luso Mnthali

Felt like a highly surreal Margaret Attwood study on the power of words to stir people, especially women, from their oppression, even after humanity has colonised other worlds. Interesting.

*Harmony Amid the Stars by Ada Hoffman

More madness aboard a spaceship, but who is truly losing their mind? Effective use of the diary entry format (this is a Lovecraft collection after all) and the characters are cleverly sketched as events unravel. Feels nicely old-school, and I mean that in a highly complimentary way.

*The Comet Called Ithaqua by Don Webb

A deliciously ghoulish tale of outer space madness and folks pushed to breaking point losing a bit of their humanity in the process. Another classic Lovecraftian tale of mankind bringing its nightmares wherever it goes.

Phoenix Woman by Kelda Crich

Poem. “Groomed with persistent
nano-mites”
and

“ancient teeth/ feed by fluttery mouths”

Postflesh by Paul Jessup

A spaceship crew are stranded on an alien world inhabited by leftover biotech creations. Graphic, poetically written and appealingly nasty.

*The Library Twins and the Nekrobees by Martha Hubbard

Two super-powered twins guard a futuristic library containing the last few hard copy books in existence. They catch a powerful entity attempting to alter the meaning in their pages, and a battle soon ensues. A great story, witty and flowing, and the fearless twins’ banter is great fun to read, while the creature they encounter poses a significant threat. Leaves you wondering ‘what if they failed….?’

Go, Go, Go, Said the Byakhee by Molly Tamzer

Utterly mental in an enthralling way. You don’t so much read as tumble between the lines, but this zips along with an irresistible sense of primitive, savage innocence, and also, it’s full of tentacles. Great fun.

*Skin by Helen Marshall

After a fateful trip to Egypt, a university professor reports on a morbid secrets of the Alexandria library which were learned while investigating the origin of ancient book cover, bound in an unidentified type of leather. What is the price of preserving knowledge? Ominous and very effective.

The Old 44th by Randy Stafford

Poem: “Right there, where the mesa ends,
And their blue, frothy Hound blood
Shone under the moons,
Is where they’re kennelled.”

Iron Footfalls by Julio Toro San Martin

Partly a stream of conscious, a cyborg soldier awaits rescue, and as she tries to figure out the cause of the delay, it seems she might be waiting an eternity.

This Song is Not For You by A. D. Cahill

Poem: “His writhing, festering pleasure
Strikes a ten-dimensional chord.”

*Tloque Nahuaque by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas

Scientists harness the power of creation, via the hadron collider, with some dire repercussions for reality. Surreal and full of monsters, which are a good thing, this was written with authority and class.

*Dolly in the Window by Robyn Seale

Excellent story creating a real switch in the reader’s perspectives as the narrator, who appears deeply violent and unpleasant, starts to explain the unhappy reality of the situation. Creepy, very effective.

*A Cool, Private Place by Jen White

The real estate in this part of Australia is cheap, but only because no one else is crazy enough to live so near to ‘time wells’, bubbles of time past and future. Occasionally, something gets into present day, and this expertly crafted tale explores how you might survive it.

Venice Burning by A. C. Wise

A jaded private eye investigates a missing person case, in a bleak world where timestreams have mashed together following the rising of R’lyeh. Great imagery.

A Day and a Night in Providence by Anthony Boulanger

A pilgrim isn’t all he seems as prayers bring forth madness and the end of the world. Perceptions of holiness are about to change. An effectively realised sense of doom, destruction and religious madness.

*A Welcome Sestina From Cruise Director Isabeau Molyneux by Mae Empson

In retrospect, feeding the starving people of earth with baby giant squid, found underneath the ice cap, might have been a mistake. Presenting in an unravelling stream of consciousness, this was effectively quirky and may possibly make you very hungry while you read…

* Lottie Versus the Moon Hopper by Pamela Rentz

A space-shuttle cleaning crew get a lot more than they bargained for. This blue collar sci fi story is written with a very wry sense of humour, and some vividly realistic, world-weary characters really bring this great piece of ‘horror from a mundane perspective’ to life.

*The Damnable Asteroid by Leigh Kimmel

A strange meteorite is sucked into the orbit of a mining-pod’s asteroid, and starts to have an unpleasant effect on the men underneath its gaze. Proper old school science fiction nightmare, there are things out there in space we really shouldn’t mess with, and keep watching the skies!

*Myristica Fragrans by E. Catherine Tobler

An alien market owner (although actually considerably more exotic than that sounds) comes into contact with some unusual specimens which start to obsess her to a dangerous extent. Unusual, and highly effective.

*Dark of the Moon by James S. Dorr

A female Russian cosmonaut deals with outer space by reading Western science fiction writers, only to discover that Lovecraft may have been on to something. Definitely worth a look, sadness and the dark side of the moon are a powerful combination.

*Trajectory of a Cursed Spirit by Meddy Ligner

A fantastic tale of the Russian gulag translated up to Mars, and what a political prisoner found out there. This story has a really classic feel, with a very impressive use of setting and character.

Transmigration by Lee Clarke Zumpe

Poem: “the sparks of his divine machinery
danced above the roofless temple
beneath the swarming, callous stars.
I saw inappropriate shadows.”

*Concerning the Last Days of the Colony at New Roanoake by Tucker Cummings

Another great story using the classic diary entry structure. More of a report on what was found at a doomed colony, and it leave just enough is left unsaid, or has been lost, for the reader to draw their own startling conclusions.

*The Kadath Angle by Maria Mitchell

Set in Lovecraft’s notorious town of Innsmouth, many years after the army got involved, many years after humanity forgot all about it. Even this mutated town has its social pariahs, but even monsters can greatly underestimate each other.

*The Last Man Standing by Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso

This takes an unusual perspective on a worldwide apocalypse, basing its story in Nigeria. It turns out, old superstitions die hard, even through a modern day plague. Bleak but very involving.

Exhibit at the National Anthropology Museum in Tombustou by Andrew Dombalagian

A short piece that examines an artefact that ‘early’ humans used to plead with the Elder Gods for protection, with more poetry than prose here, a cleverly frozen moment using a futuristic perspective.

The Door From Earth by Jesse Bullington

On an alien world, they have as much trouble stopping mad scientists as Earth-bound heroes. Really fun, Lovecraft-flavoured science fiction here. Its non-human protagonists add some real spice, too.

The Deep Ones by Bryan Thao Worra

Poem: “We grow with uncertain immortality
At the edge not made for man,
Bending, curving, humming cosmic
Awake and alien,”

* The Labyrinth of Sleep by Orrin Grey

A professional dreamer (shades of Inception here if you’d like a reference) seeks out a missing friend in the universal labyrinth of dreams, and learns something rather troubling about the deepest levels of humanity’s sub-consciousness. Highly recommended.

*Deep Blue Dreams by Sean Craven

Using jellyfish sludge creates a cheap, natural high, only you’ve gotta feed it something…the term ‘Jellyhead’ is great, and this is a delightfully squidgy tale of a worldwide addiction going badly wrong.

Big Bro by Arlene J. Yandug

Poem: “Watching the dust
Of our names
In the wake of our own thoughts,
Crawling out
through the cracks of cubicles.”

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Review: The Best British Short Stories 2011

The Best British Short Stories 2011
The Best British Short Stories 2011 by Nicholas Royle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The trouble with a lot of short stories is that a lot of them just peter off, with nothing actually happening. There are some in this collection which do just that, but in the Introduction Nicholas Royale explains that he, too, was looking for some kind of resolution, i.e. a shift in perspective for the characters, by the end of each story. While Science Fiction and horror provides ‘punchlines’ more reliably, I found a lot of these stories hovered somewhere inbetween. There’s ALMOST a resolution to most of these, but because of the length and the genre, interesting ideas tend to vaporise into ambiguity and raise more questions than they answer. But most of these stories are very well written and this collection is at least worth a try. A lot of them do become quite surreal, even if they don’t all admit they’re really science fiction or a similar genre. Basically, they’re just stories, and some of their worlds are a bit off-kilter, which is always interesting to read.

Here are my thoughts on each short story, as I remember them. These brief summary reviews will contain spoilers depending on how satisfying the endings were:

WARNING BRIEF SPOILERS

Flora by David Rose

Slightly detached feel about this one. Interesting idea, about a man who helps a mysterious woman with her plant research by letting her into his extensive library. There’s something odd about her, but we never really learn what or who the chap she hangs around with is. When she vanishes, leaving nothing but defaced books behind, there’s just a sense of emptiness and a great deal left unexplained. The thrust seems to be that it’s bloody rude to deface library books, which is very true but annoying for a story with hints of something truly strange going on. A bit disappointing but very well written.

Winter Break by Hilary Mantel

Great story. At first appears to be about a childless couple’s unhappy journey to an unwelcoming, snow-smothered mountain holiday. Actually about them being in denial about what their driver to the resort has actually hit – and it’s not a baby goat. I liked this because of the sense of foreboding and the actual fury you feel when you realise the characters are actively avoiding getting involved in what they know is something more serious.

Emergency Exit by Lee Rourke

Sort of pointless until you go ‘oh, shi….’ . This sneakily insinuates ‘you’, the reader, into the text, and describes ‘you’ escaping an office through the titular ‘Emergency Exit’ and meeting a strange man on the stairs and climbing down the fire escape until you can only continue to go down, and down, and….well, I’m assuming it’s about a descent into Hell. Right? Was that what it was all about? Good for its sense of doom, but again lots left unsaid here.

Love Silk Food by Leone Ross

A great piece about a middle aged, Afro-Caribbean woman who is resigned to her husband cheating on her with ‘Excitement girls’ who are younger and flashier than her. She makes an unexpected connection on the London Underground and comes to a sort of peace within herself. I liked this, certainly not something I’d have sought out if it wasn’t in the collection, but I liked the insight and the woman’s attitude, and felt happier for having read it, although it’s hard to say exactly why. I think a character’s quiet self-acceptance is an good way to finish a story, though.

Feather Girls by Claire Massey

Certainly one of the more surreal, pseudo-science-fiction or fantasy stories in the collection. Matter-of-factly talks about men capturing the ‘feather women’ as their brides, while mixing up the mundane and the fantastic with slightly obscure construction. It riffs on the old legends of Kelpies and other fantastic beings whose animal skins get stolen by men seeking power over them. All interesting, and could also be an allegory, which is less fun. I would like to have seen this fleshed out, although it’s verging on the dreaded ‘magical realism’ here.

Foreigner by Christopher Burns

The downbeat story of an ex-soldier and his ex-wife quietly dealing with emotional fallout after the death of their beloved son, who was also a soldier. This was well told and very atmospheric, and the clashes of opinion over whether it is ever right to fight, the cost and brutal morality of war, is dealt with brilliantly in this initially tiny setting and short space of time. Very interesting, liked this a lot.

Dinner of the Dead Alumni by Adam Marek

First of all, as someone who lived in Cambridge for a year recently I LOVED the description on the town here. Set during one of the busiest weeks, this story follows a quest by a very tall man to find the one person on the planet who could, when they touch, orgasm instantaneously. Also, there are ghosts. It shouldn’t work, but there’s such a bustling yet deadpan humour about the whole tale that I couldn’t help enjoying it immensely. Very funny, with a dirty yet ultimately fitting payoff. Also, kind of glad I didn’t run into this chap whilst living in Cambridge!

The Swimmer by S J Butler

A woman takes a skinny dip in a river on a baking hot afternoon, and becomes obsessed with how it feels. I loved the moody setting, and the drifting feel of the river and the oppressive sense of heat is made palpable. She becomes drawn by a swan on the river, and I’m not sure if it survives or not in the end, or if she gets swept away and never returns, but I liked this story despite or perhaps actually because of the ambiguity.

So Much Time in a Life by Heather Leach

Didn’t really warm to this one at all, although I could understand the structure of the story and it seemed to be taking place inside a warped mother’s mind. Did she kill one of her children? Well written and moody but not really clear what happened, at least not to me.

Staff Development by Alan Beard

A man on the cusp of retirement, or redundancy, seeks to get some control back, whilst struggling to come to terms with the drug habit and enabling git of a husband his daughter has hooked up with. Not a lot seems to happen, I would have liked a bit more confrontation but that doesn’t seem to fit the character drawn here, who was very well realised but a bit too hopeless to root for.

The Rental Heart by Kirsty Logan

Another story bordering on real science fiction. Hearts can be bought to help the owner to love the person they’re with, and heartbeats attuned to please the listener. A heart can literally be broken. It’s basically a story about restarting someone’s capacity to love, and how a real love can supercede the technology in place to fake it. Nicely odd, I liked this story which borders on Bradbury.

No Angel by Bernie McGill

Another sort of fantasy ghost story sort of story. It’s not clear how common being able to see dead relatives is in this particular universe, but the narrator doesn’t seem altogether surprised that her dead father pops up while she’s in the shower, and then again at different moments of her life. The other great tragedies in her life are revealed, and it’s suddenly made clear this is about the troubles in Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s. It does feel like it was all delusion at the end, but I liked the journey getting there, and the growing potential threat and the significant sense of change and perhaps a release, too.

Slut’s Hair by John Burnside

Brilliantly written account of a woman struggling to cope with an abusive partner. You WISH she could get away from this monster, who has invaded every part of her mind and even pulls out her rotten tooth so she won’t ‘make a face’ all the time. The tooth-pulling trauma seems to spur a moment of inner strength, and she doesn’t really escape her situation here. I do feel that her subsequent hallucination – although it could be a strange reality reaching out to her – of an odd, terrified little blue mouse is perhaps a sign of hope, symbolising a part of her the bastard hasn’t yet destroyed, and I loved the weirdness amid the horrible, unbearable home situation. A fantastic, strange and beautifully told story.

Comma by Hilary Mantel

This one reminds me strongly of ‘Eraser Head’, the surreal David Lynch film. There’s an odd baby, dysfunctional housing estates, and a childhood friendship that fails to stand the test of time. It’s really about families and friendships, and if this was written as a science fiction story a great deal more would have been made of the strange entity the two girls encounter. I’d have liked to know more. Instead, the story tilts back toward the friendship without really dealing with the strangest bit.

Moving Day by Robert Edric

This one reminds me a bit of ‘The Machine Stops’ by E M Forster, and an alternate version of the world in ‘The Road by Cormic McCarthy. Here, uptight bureaucracy comes banging on the door of a man living underground in a vast unused complex of buildings. Even the flies can’t exist in an outside world which is so polluted that the mountains have entirely disappeared from sight. The man remembers the tops of mountains and the names of clouds, and while not a great deal happens here, and it’s a little slow, it’s a good take on possible-future dystopia.

Tristram and Isolde by Michéle Roberts

OK, after the first page I thought the twist would show the narrator was a dog or something, except for the part where they brush their hair! Turns out, it was about a very dodgy relationship ‘Tristan’ has with an underage child. So this was ultimately creepy, very thought-provoking, and contained beautiful references to nature and the nature of love itself.

Looted by Dai Vaughan

Really liked this tale about a soldier who rescues a grubby painting from a war-ravaged house, only to discover it’s something remarkable. I appreciated the choice of artist it turns out to be, too, as Bocklin is one of my favourite painter. It ends wistfully, and not a great deal happens, but I liked this short story very much.

When the Door Closed, It Was Dark by Alison Moore

The penultimate story in the collection is a nightmarish story of an Au Pair who goes abroad to an undefined country to take care of a baby. The mother has vanished, and the grandmother doesn’t like her, and soon it becomes increasingly terrifying as the Au Pair loses control of everything, including her passport, and while there is a climax of sorts, her fate remains annoyingly unclear.

Epiphany by Salley Vickers

In this final story a young man reunites his estranged father with his dying mother. One of those stories where much is left unsaid, so it borders on banal, and it seems to be eclipsed by the broad nightmare of the story preceding it. Still a decent character study and a muted end to a strong short story collection.

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Review: Just After Sunset by Stephen King

Just After Sunset
Just After Sunset by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stephen King rarely disappoints. I’ve always particularly enjoyed his short stories, and in the introduction, he confesses that he’d thought he’d lost the knack for writing shorts until he edited a collection of short stories by other people and found his groove again. I find this an interesting lesson.

As for the stories themselves, I’d say I enjoyed well over half of them and even the less likeable ones kept me reading, eager to find out what happened next. The best ones are very grounded and all you can do is hold on tight as the characters’ worlds slowly spin off their axis and gather speed towards the freaky and terrifying. Not everyone gets out of here alive.

Before I list each one, my favourites were: Gingerbread Girl, Stationery Bike, N. , The Cat From Hell and A Very Tight Place.

Now here’s what I felt about each story – SLIGHT SPOILERS BELOW:

Willa – A ghost story, fairly enjoyable, I didn’t feel a lot happened but I liked how the ghost of the couple found a better place to rest.

The Gingerbread Girl – One of my favourites here. King goes back to survival horror and serial killer fun. It should be a movie.

Harvey’s Dream – really short, I liked it and it ends on a doomey note.

Rest Stop – A real ‘what would you do?’ one here, which King admits was taken from a similar experience. For that, I liked it, and will also avoid scary deserted rest stops in future!

Stationery Bike – Weird. Loved it, but oh, so, very weird. Great stuff. Tripping out on your own brain while exercising certainly beats using a Wii anyway.

The Things They Left Behind – Strangely, I didn’t like this one because of its weirdness. I couldn’t get into it. It was written as a reaction to the events of 9/11 and it feels very clogged compared to most of his other work. One of the few I don’t think I would revisit. Obviously a personal work, though.

Graduation Afternoon – Hope and anticipation melts into the moments before an apocalypse. Another really short one, but great moment of character and mostly wins on atmosphere as well.

N. – The absolute standout, the H P Lovecraft elements work perfectly. Diaries which should be destroyed are of course uncovered and passed on to the next luckless soul. Throw in some OCD syndrome, a circle of eight – or is it seven – stones preventing the end of the world, and a troubling sunset, and I was very happy to get creeped out here. The references to Hill of Dreams by Arthur Machen don’t hurt either, as I stumbled on that book at the library earlier this year (there was a note of recommendation by H P Lovecraft himself!) and I was pleased to see King drawing from this text too.

The Cat From Hell – A pretty strong story, silly as it is on the surface. This was made into a segment of Tales from the Darkside, one of my favourite Creepshow-esque anthology movies (Debbie Harry’s in it, check it out). Basically, an old man responsible for the deaths of a LOT of innocent kitties calls in a hitman to take out a feline with sinister markings, which he can’t get out of his house. The hitman actually likes cats, but decides to do the job anyway. Naturally, the cat has other ideas, and some unfinished business with the evil old man. As a ‘cats take revenge’ story, and as a cat lover myself, I really have to give King kudos for the plausible carnage this feline inflicts. Don’t mess with this li’l kitty!

The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates – OK, I really don’t have a lot of patience with voices beyond the grave stories, and this felt like something Spielberg would have a field day with (although I think he’d staple on a slightly cheerier ending). Bittersweet, and short, it’s all right, but the title doesn’t help me to remember the story too well.

Mute – Another very strong one, where a guy picks up an apparently deaf mute hitchhiker and proceeds to rant about the crap dealt out to him by his cheating wife. The rant leads to some problems being solved, but his conscience leads him to a priest who may offer some useful advice. Worth it for the descriptions of the dreadful things the cheating wife bought, and the gradual justification of what the guy decides to do.

Ayana – A blind girls performs a miracle with a kiss, then the witnesses start to feel the same gift affecting them. It’s another one that felt like a slightly saccharine Spielberg (although King never gets that sugary, really) but didn’t say much except that miracles happen to the most random people.

A Very Tight Place – Another great one involving realism and survival. It’ll also turn your stomach in places, but this is Stephen King at his best, taking an unpleasant but possible situation and working through it until you’re with the poor bastard every step of the way. Think that ‘Buried’ movie only a great deal ickier. Highly recommended.

There’s also a short section right at the end explaining the origin of each story, which is probably best left until the very end instead of skipping ahead.

This confirmed to me that Stephen King is often at his very strongest when he’s bringing out short stories that can be devoured in one or two sittings. This is a mixed bag, and I still don’t believe they are all his very strongest works, but there’s always something compelling in a Stephen King story, and this collection is no exception.

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