Monday, 27 July 2009


I should never have called her Josephine. It’s too adult a name for a child. It is ripe with sensuality, knowing and corruption. When she was a baby, cradled in my arms, twitching her body in preparation for movement, it seemed delightful to have given her such an old name. She had grave, dark eyes and it suited her. She was a toy doll with the eyes of a libertine. It was amusing. I suppose that I thought her eyes would change at some point.

They didn’t though. She learned to crawl and then to walk. She learned to smile and then to talk. And always her grave black eyes taunted and tempted. By the time she was two, Josephine had become obscene. I had no idea how beautiful she would be. No-one will know how lovely she may have become.

All mothers think their children are beautiful and I had thought so of my three others. I still do; they are charming, engaging children that I love purely. Andrew shone with energy and intelligence; he was our first and so special. Emma was a golden angel, ethereally pretty, and Robert was breathtaking in his grace. They were all in school when Josephine was born. She was a surprise, in so many ways. Her beauty was different. She had the beauty of a vamp; she was earthy, animal promise. This was no abstract, innocent prettiness, but voluptuous sensuality. She was blonde and pale, like her sister, and looked like Emma had at that age. Looking at Josephine was seeing Emma in a mirror of corruption. Emma’s shining hazel eyes made grave and dark; Emma’s sweet mouth twisted with depravity. A fallen angel.

Women would stare at her when we went to toddler groups. I tried not to go to the same one two weeks running. There were about half a dozen that I would go between. With the other children, I had enjoyed the company of the mothers but with Josephine I couldn’t bear the looks. In their eyes there was a mixture of desire and disgust that I felt myself and I hated to have it reflected back to me. I would tell myself that I loved her, cleanly, purely, as a mother, as I loved my older children. But in the secret stolen moments that I could call my own, and for the first time was glad were so infrequent, I would look at my beautiful daughter with her hint of corruption and desire her and be disgusted.

I disliked her because I saw in her the seed of corruption. I looked at her knowing eyes and rolled her name around my tongue. Josephine. I had given my child a whore’s name. She had only been alive four months by the time we were exclusively calling her Josie. It was possible that the name was innocent and it only became ruined when it was attached to her. She had that effect on things, and people. By the time I realised that I already blamed her name.

Josephine clung to her. She preferred it. When people first heard it they would sigh it out with dread comprehension. Their breath would settle around her, laden with desire. She would smile her coy, lewd half-smile and look up, seductive, knowing. As if she already knew what you wanted to do. The first swell of lust is quickly followed by revulsion and fear. I met no-one who was not deeply disturbed by my toddler’s carnal beauty and I met no-one who did not hate her for it.

How can the features and manner of one tiny child evoke such a response? It is taboo, utterly wrong and it sickens me. I have other children and never felt this way. I have suckled them, cleaned them, clothed them, bathed them with pure maternal love. I had nothing but bewildered contempt for anyone who might find these little beings sexual. Even when they became aware of themselves, even when they played with themselves, it left me cold. They still do. As they should.

And then there was Josephine. I’m not sure when it first happened. Perhaps it grew gradually over time. It was maybe a year before her beauty became astonishing. And maybe another before I realised how fleshly she had become. I would look at pictures of her and wonder if this temptress was truly my daughter.

My husband, Greg, didn’t help me with Josephine. With Andrew, Emma and Robert he had been very involved. He bathed them, fed them, played with them, read to them. He is a model father to all but his youngest child. I noticed early on that he didn’t like to look at her and I thought I knew why. We’ve never talked about it and I didn’t insist. It seemed better that I should be the only one to do these things. When she climbed on his knee for a cuddle I saw how ill at ease he was, how he was uncomfortable putting his hands on her body, how he moved her away as soon as he could.

We called her Josie exclusively after only four months. Perhaps I knew then. Perhaps it took me that long to acknowledge what I felt. Perhaps it took that long to name what I felt.

It was torment to bathe her, to clothe her, to touch her and pretend it was innocent. To believe she was innocent. But I couldn’t let anyone else do it. I was too afraid of others’ lack of control. If I, her mother, who had never harmed one of her children, had never conceived the possibility of abuse, of even a physical nature much less sexual, could barely restrain myself around her fleshly, earthy presence, what chance did anyone else have?

I dreaded gifts of clothes. A vest and shorts, androgynous and plain on other children, became slutty on her. It is fashionable to dress children as miniature adults. The adult she became in embroidered jeans and a fur-trimmed jacket was stickily ripe. This future woman had tasted everything and smeared the juices over her body. She had joyfully slipped into depravity. She was lewd and lascivious and rejoiced in every moment. I hated her for the experiences I had never had and never known I wanted until I saw my three year old in a metallic blue, sequined Stetson.

I took my desire and my disgust and put it away in a box. I never discussed it. I wonder if things would have turned out differently if I’d talked to someone then, a professional, about what I felt. Now I have no choice. At the time, I was too ashamed. What would I have said? Would I have told someone that relations between Greg and I had changed since Josephine had come along. We had never been particularly adventurous sexually and that suited us both. We were tender and loving and gentle. Josephine changed that. We started to experiment and as she grew older our games grew darker.

Maybe I thought she would grow less beautiful, maybe I thought her beauty would become cleaner. Nobody said anything to me about it.

With my older children I worried that they would be snatched. Of course I had. They are adorable. Who wouldn’t want them? But I worried in an abstract way.

It was only with Josephine that I began to imagine what might be done to her. I told myself it was normal to picture this child naked and tormented, subject to depredations I would never consent to myself. And always with her grave black eyes and half-smile. This over-ripe plum could not be corrupted. She was born corrupt. Josephine. I cursed you with a whore’s name; a name that becomes a groan, an expulsion of pent up air, a release of tension I didn’t know I was holding. Her name was a moment of ecstasy that should be tender, intimate but became dirty, obscene.

When she was four we went on holiday. I didn’t want to go to Spain. Greg insisted. We hadn’t had a holiday since Josephine had been born. I was agitated by the thought of her carnality in a swimsuit, but we needed a break. Perhaps I thought after all, that two weeks away in the sun would be a tonic. The resort was child-friendly and our friends were all going. Maybe I thought that seeing her amongst other children would reduce my fears. Maybe I had simply seen something once and been unable to see anything else. Perhaps my fevered imagination had made more of my daughter’s corruption than was really there.

I was so wrong. To see my beautiful plum running and playing on the beach with her siblings, with the other children, was torture. My body hummed in response to her. I felt it in my breasts and groin and it sickened me. I saw other parent’s notice her, be absorbed by her and forget their own. I saw Spanish women make the sign of the cross, as if her carnality could only have come from the devil. She was like a child. She was innocent and carefree and playful. Until she turned her grave eyes upon you and then she and you were lost.

Through all this, I cannot say that my daughter behaved with awareness, that she did anything wrong, that she in any way acted differently than any other child. What people see, what I see, is read by us and not written by her. We see sensuality, corruption and carnality and who is to say it is there? The only thing that kept me from believing it was only my fault, my twisted sickness, was that I saw it in everyone around me. In the possessive, obsessive eyes of other mothers, in the open-mouthed shock of adolescent boys we passed in the street, in the towels dragged across the laps of the fathers on the beach, I knew my rotten, depraved daughter aroused others as she aroused me.

She wore a pink sun hat with yellow flowers. I saw the same hat on a few other little girls while we were on the beach. They looked adorable. They looked cute and protected from the sun. I watched them play and laughed with joy. On Josephine’s harlot head the hat said, ‘strip me, fuck me’. It topped her tiny body, pale skin slick with sun cream, mimicking more natural fluids, sticky and suckable like an over-ripe plum, and an innocent sunhat was perverted because she wore it.

For a time I had put her to bed in long, white, Victorian style nightdresses. They buttoned at the neck and covered her to her wrists and ankles. It was supposed to be demure. I thought chaste nightwear might make her look more innocent. Emma had worn them and looked a picture of angelic grace. Then I saw Josephine stand on the bottom stair, her tiny white hand caressing the shiny wooden finial at the end of the banister, looking at me with her grave dark eyes, half-smiling as if she knew what I had tried to do and knowingly thwarted me. Her dirty beauty sullied the nightdress. Her voluptuousness made it seem a sordid dressing up game. A debauchee dressed up as an ingénue, licking her lips at the thought of the unspeakable acts she might force you to force upon her. We went back to Bratz pyjamas. Their superficial sexuality was the most innocent game on my bruised plum.

Greg was wrong: the holiday was not what we needed. It was the worst thing we could have done. We watched our friends with their children, playing with our children. I saw how the games that involved Josephine seemed furtive as if they were doing things they didn’t want the grownups to know about. I spent less time with her. Not all of our friends had children so there were more adults than children and everyone pitched in to help. A little distance changed how I felt. Freed from the cloying, decaying presence of my youngest daughter, the balance between desire and disgust shifted.

I became angry. This one person had affected everything in my life. I hadn’t gone back to work because I dare not leave her with anyone. Greg hadn’t said anything; he just did more overtime. Our relationship with each other changed. Physically, we couldn’t get enough of each other; the needy, desperate, dirty sex was compulsive. Shame drove a wedge between us. He was tired from working and I was tired from childcare. We fucked without eye contact and barely spoke.

We both tried so hard with the other children, Andrew and Emma were on the cusp of adolescence when we went to Spain and they needed us. I would look at them and marvel that they were so grownup in some ways, yet neither of them had lost any innocence or become less pure. It gave me hope that there were some things that Josephine couldn’t corrupt. I insisted that Josephine had a room of her own. It meant we had to have a bigger house, and to afford that, we had to live in a poorer area. The schools weren’t as good as they would have been if Emma could have shared a room with Josephine. I couldn’t bear the thought that Josephine might make her sister as rotten as her. So we all sacrificed.

In the resort villa, Emma and Josephine had to share a room. They were excited, Greg was nervous and I was frantic. The only other option was to have her in the same room as us but we both knew that wasn’t possible. There was no way we could go two weeks without sex, not since Josephine had been born, and neither of us wanted the chance that she would see what we did. I listened to my friends complain that they haven’t the time or energy for sex. When you hit your forties it seems as if everyone runs out of steam whether they have children or not. But Greg and I found time, in the depths of the night when the children were asleep and the door was locked.

We left the children at night for dinner. They weren’t far away and we all took turns to check them. We weren’t the only ones to do so. The first night we’d left them I was fraught. My stomach was so tight I could barely eat. There was nothing I could say to explain without touching on what I was really worried about. After all, Andrew and Emma were twelve and eleven. They knew not to be caught out of bed and they knew how to get us if anything were wrong. I dreaded going back to the villa, frightened of what I might find, the things I thought Josephine would do the others. But nothing happened. They slept. They were exhausted from swimming and running on the beach and they fell asleep straight away.

After that night, my friend Claire offered me sedatives. She suffered with her nerves and thought they might help me. She always had many more than she needed, just in case.

“You need a blow out.” She said. “You’re so tense. These will help.”

Now I think about it, she probably meant that I should take them. I gave them to Josephine. If I could be sure that she was asleep I could relax a little. Part of me felt that just proximity to Josephine could corrupt. So far my angels had been immune but now Emma was sharing a room with her. I’ve no idea what I thought she would do and no evidence on the part of Josephine that she would do anything except be a normal child, but I feared for my daughter.

My husband went to check the next time. He returned concerned. Andrew, the eldest, he was sure had been in the girls’ room. He said Josie, stumbled over the impulse to sigh Josephine. I saw desire and disgust mashed in his eyes. He was sure it was innocent and Andrew had scrambled back to his room as his father had come into the villa. I wanted to check again but feared what I might find. The minutes dragged painfully, pulled like a rope through my hands.

I walked the few steps to our cabin heavily. Oh how I hated what she had made. I had withdrawn from my three pure, innocent babies, frightened by her sensuality. I hated the images that flickered through my mind, those grave eyes, the smile that half-licked the lips, the sticky rotting flesh of my over-ripe plum smeared on the virginal flesh of her brother. I hated the thought that she might cause me to see my other precious babies in the way I saw her.

The villa was quiet and dark when I pushed open the door. The soft snuffling indicated sleep. I checked the boys’ room first. Andrew and Robert were sleeping open mouthed and twisted up in the sheets. They looked like snoozing angels. I pulled the sheets from Andrew’s legs and smoothed it over him, then did the same for Robert. Neither woke, but Robert clutched his toy rabbit closer to his chest. I closed the door behind me, gently, and rested my forehead on the cool wood veneer. I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears of relief and swallowed down the sick fear for my girl, Emma, alone in a room with Josephine.

The door to the girls’ room was a couple of steps down the corridor. I had taken my shoes off when I came into the villa so as not to clatter my heels on the marble floor. It was cold under my bare feet. Swallowing the hard, jagged lump in my throat I pushed the handle down and opened the door. Cool, peaceful darkness greeted me. The light rhythmic breathing of sleeping children was audible over the noise of diners at the poolside restaurant. Relief can be an unpleasant feeling. It choked me, stabbing at my throat and burning my eyes with unshed tears.

After a moment, I crossed to Emma’s bed. A shaft of light fell across her pillow where the curtain didn’t quite cover the edge of the window. Her pale blond hair splashed across the white linen and her arms were thrown wide. I knelt by the bed and gently kissed her forehead. A noise like a sob drew my attention to the other bed. Josephine. Now she’s gone, she’ll always be Josephine. She was never Josie; that was only the desperate hope I harboured that this could have turned out well, that things could have been different if she hadn’t had that name. I hoped I might never have to tell this story.

I looked from my perfect angel to my other daughter. She lay on her side facing me, the thin sheet pulled up around her shoulders, tiny hands clutching it up to her face. Her eyes were half closed with sleepiness.

“Mummy?”Still on my knees I crossed to her bed and with one finger, brushed her fringe from her eyes. “Go to sleep.” I whispered. With her eyelids heavy from the sedative I felt almost tender towards her.

“Can I have a drink?” she said.

I looked at the empty glass on the nightstand between the two beds. I smiled and picked it up.

Sitting here, in this featureless room with plastic tables and chairs eerily like the ones in the villa’s kitchen diner, I don’t remember what was on my mind as I walked out of the room. It was a terrible blankness as if my conscious mind wanted nothing to do with what was going to happen. Yet, I can’t say I had no control, that I couldn’t have stopped myself, that it wasn’t deliberate. I took the little baggie of sedative from the high cupboard in the kitchen. There was enough for the rest of the week. I tipped all the pills into the mortar and ground them to dust. Normally I give the children water in the night, but I chose to give Josephine juice. She liked apple. I stirred and stirred until the grainy white powder dissolved and carried the glass back to Josephine.

She had drifted back into sleep. I had to wake her up. It is this one thing that means I can’t pretend I did this by mistake or I didn’t know what I was doing. I stacked the pillows against the headboard and lifted her under her arms so that she was sat up against them. She obediently took the glass and drank. She must have been thirsty because even though she pulled a face at the taste she drank most of the glass straight down. I might have left it at that, but when she handed the glass back to me, she opened her eyes and looked directly at me. I saw my guilt reflected back at me and told her to finish the drink. She did. I suppose I should have felt bad.

Returning to my husband and friends, I felt tired, but light. As I sat down, I caught Greg’s gaze across the table. I smiled and for the first time in four years I loved him. The wine tasted sweeter in my mouth and people seemed brighter, their laughter like crystals chiming in a soft breeze. The next forty five minutes flashed by and soon it was time to go check on the children again. This time the knot in my stomach was excitement.

She wasn’t breathing. She looked like she had been strangled and if you put your fingers to her throat there was no pulse. I checked the others briefly. They were fine; nothing could hurt them now. I knew I had to put on a show and act the distressed mother. I stood there for a few moments savouring my freedom and then I imagined it had been Emma lying still and cold in the bed. I fuelled my sadness with the pent up anger and fear that Josephine had given me and rushed outside. I screamed and screamed, releasing all the horror I had kept inside since she had been born. I screamed until I had no breath left and then I screamed in silence.

Eventually I was exhausted and sought refuge in my bewildered husband’s arms. I saw in his eyes that he knew what had happened and I saw his relief. For four years he was as shut down as I was. If he hadn’t picked up the baggie from the kitchen and put it in his pocket, if he hadn’t washed up the mortar and pestle, perhaps our other children would have their father at least. That’s what I feel bad about. I should have cleaned up after myself. Then it would only be me locked up and my precious angels would be safe with their father. Even in death, she makes what should have been good into something very wrong.

Originally published in Pantechnicon, 2008. Pantechnicon had to close due to malicious attacks on the website.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Electric Spec's first page critique game is back!

The rules of the first page critique game are in detail on the Electric Spec blog, and it basically boils down to 'send in the first 200 words (ish) of a story that you want some feedback on and they'll comment publically on their blog'.

The comment is always erudite and helpful and I shall be digging out a first page as soon as I get home.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Posting stories for free

I was a bit busy over the weekend so I just pasted a story into a post and let that be it. I wanted to offer some explanation and to have it in a separate page of it's own, but I had a train to catch. At some point I'll have a play around with blogger and see if I can present it differently. I can sort out the explanation part.

On Thursday last week, I was having trouble getting the Hub website to load, so I followed a link to their old wordpress website. The penultimate post, from 2007, was a lengthy discussion of the declining readership of speculative fiction magazines and it touched briefly on the model of giving work away. Which got me thinking.

My goal is to eventually publish novels. I write short stories for fun and as vehicles for working on writing technique. Most short story markets don't pay in actual cash and those that do, don't pay much. Even the highest paying markets don't pay at rates that really reflect the hours that go into writing a short story. Black Static, for example, I believe pays £20 per thousand words (although there's nothing on their website about paying at all; I will check) and is one of the highest paying markets. Is £100 fair remuneration for the amount of time a 5000 word story will take?

Ok, maybe I'm a slow writer and maybe each story needs a lot of work. And I should say my basis for comparison is what I earn in my day job - £15 an hour. At that rate, in order to make a living I need to be writing and editing 750 words per hour, thirty five hours a week. Probably more, because I won't be getting holiday or sick pay. Maybe some people can do it, but to me that feels like an exhausting and unrealistic pace.

So, if I'm not making money with my short stories, what is the purpose of trying to get them published? Partly, it's about getting feedback and partly it's about raising my profile.

I want some feedback on my writing and I want it from people who know what they're talking about. That can come from a writers' group or you can pay for it, but there's nothing that says 'yes, you're good enough' like getting accepted for publication. But what if that says more about my beliefs about validation than it does about the standard of my work? Many editors acknowledge that they reject plenty of stuff that is 'good enough' but not right for another reason. These days I feel that my critical faculties are better - I can objectively judge my own work and rely less on the opinions of others.

Profile raising is really the key reason I want to publish short stories. It's all about getting my novel off the slush pile and read. It's about having a readership. Several authors have shown that there are other ways to do that, such as putting stories online and giving them away for free. So, there you go - Hell is a free to read story. And I'd love to know what you think.

I'm not eschewing traditional publication totally - it's still a great feeling when someone likes your work enough to publish it - just expanding my options.

Friday, 10 July 2009


I followed Tanya across the crowded cafe to the table she’d spotted. A plastic pot of chicken salad and a bottle of sparkling water rolled around on my fake wooden tray. It wasn't so much about being healthy as it was about wanting an empty stomach later.

“So, what’s the plan for tonight?” I said as I eased into the chair wedged between the table and the wall.

“Troy and Daniel are coming at about eight, although knowing them they’ll be late. I have a couple of decorations still to put up.”

She paused to take a big bite of her sandwich, chewing thoroughly. I pushed around some limp lettuce and fished out a tiny piece of chicken.

“Then we have a traditional Halloween activity.”

“Like bobbing for apples?”

“A bit like that.” Tanya smiled mysteriously and changed the subject.

We finished work at five thirty. Tanya was ready to go at twenty five past and came to hover by my desk. I felt a wave of irritation start to surge and ruthlessly repressed it. This job was new and although everyone was welcoming, Tanya was the only one who’d been friendly. I wasn't sure I liked her but it’s not like I have so many friends that I can afford to be picky.

Her car was a flash little two-seater in British Racing Green, low and uncomfortable in the rush hour traffic. Still, it was better this way. I could get settled in and have a glass of wine before her friends arrived. Not for the first time that day I wished I’d said no and was going home to my comfortable Friday night routine of pizza and movies.

Tanya's house was bigger than I expected and full of little Gothic touches, a bat mirror in the hallway, a skull candleholder in the downstairs loo. You’d never tell from the way she dressed at work.

“What do we need to do in the way of decorating?” I said.

“It’s mostly done really. I want to change out of my work clothes. What about you?”

“I brought a change of clothes.”

“Great. Come upstairs and I’ll show you the spare room.”

Tanya pointed me into a box room with a single bed and then disappeared into the bathroom. It was dingy. A dark purple shade prevented the lightbulb from doing its job. I put my overnight bag on the bed and sat down beside it. This room was obviously for junk. The rest of the house felt cared for.

I really wished I’d stayed home. I drank half a glass of wine without tasting it. When I put the glass down my hand shook and nearly knocked it off the bedside table. I stripped down to my underwear and got clean clothes out of my bag. As I was freshening up with a cleansing wipe, I felt a chill. The hairs on the back of my neck, my shoulders and arms stood up and I couldn’t control a convulsive shudder. Quick, shallow breaths of cold air rasped in my ears and I knew there was someone standing behind me. I tensed in anticipation of his touch.

When it didn’t come, I picked up my top and pulled it over my head. I couldn’t bring myself to turn around although I knew I would have to, eventually. I wriggled into my jeans. Material between my skin and questing fingers made me feel safe enough to half turn and reach for the wine. Once the glass was empty I turned again, warmed from the inside.

BANG, BANG, BANG. The door shook and I yelped and jumped as the knock was followed immediately by the door opening.

“Did I scare you?” Tanya laughed. “I was coming to see if you needed a top up. Looks like you do.”

“I got really creeped out a minute ago.” I held my wine glass out.

“Mmmm, this room has a draught and I can’t figure out where it’s coming from.”

She left again and I brushed out my hair and made up my face. Then I went downstairs with my wine. Despite having been in a bathrobe when she’d come into my room Tanya was already in the hall, hanging plastic bats from the ceiling.

“You didn’t say we were dressing up.” Looking at Tanya’s black lace gown I felt underdressed.
“Would you light the candles in the pumpkins please? There should be a lighter on the windowsill.”

There was a pumpkin on the kitchen windowsill where anyone coming to the front door would see it. Another, more grotesquely carved, was in the living room. There was a stick of incense in holder on the mantle so I lit that too. A jumble of crystals and halloween knick-knacks were littered amongst the candles on the black marble hearth. Then the overhead light went out. I jumped and dropped the lighter. There was a throaty laugh from the doorway.

Tanya was silhouetted in the light from the hallway. “Wow, you’re really jumpy. I thought it would be more atmospheric in here with just the candles.”

“It’s certainly that. I didn’t hear you moving.” I started to rearrange the folds on my top. I loved it. The red was the perfect shade for me and it had a low scooped neckline with loose drapy folds of material. The long, bell sleeves hung loosely from my shoulders. It looked amazing until I moved and then everything needed adjusting.

Tanya disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a bowl of funsize chocolate bars which she placed on a small table by the door.

“The guys will be here any minute,” she said.

She bought the bottle of wine through and filled our glasses again. It was working its magic and I was more relaxed. I wondered if I should slow down. There wasn't much in my stomach and I didn't want to be drunk too early, but then the doorbell rang and my nerves took over. Tanya shoved a CD into my hand as she went to answer the door. I put it in her player; the doomy notes of Paradise Lost were at odds with the noisy, excited greetings in the hallway.

Daniel and Troy were nice. For a while I forgot why social situations fill me with dread. Daniel was in love with Tanya, hanging on her every word, gazing longingly at her with big, brown eyes. He sat cross-legged on the sofa watching her. I'd expected that someone called Troy would be rather fey. He wasn’t. He was blond and tall, understatedly pretty.

“Ok, let’s do this,” said Tanya.

“Do what?” I said.

She just smiled at me. “You’ll see.”

Troy moved furniture, taking little tables to the side of the room and pushing the sofa and chairs back to make a big clearing in front of the fireplace. Daniel gathered up all the dead beer bottles and nibbles. I grabbed my wine bottle before he could remove that as well. Tanya killed the music. The sudden emptiness of the air was strange and threatening. She turned into the room and stood by the fireplace.

“Amy," she looked at me. "As it’s Samhain we’re going to contact the dead.”

Daniel and Troy sat on the floor to either side of her. In her black lace gown she looked like a priestess with her neophytes. I didn’t want to do it but I didn't believe in ghosts. The spirits of the dead don't talk.

I joined them on the carpet. Tanya asked us to close our eyes. The sweet, cloying incense tickled my nose. I had a sense that I was the only one who didn’t know what we were doing.

“Breathe deeply in through your nose. Hold it for a count of three. Now breathe out through your mouths. Hold for three.”

Tanya's voice was warmer and deeper than usual. We breathed like that for a while. I began to feel spaced out and I had a weird sense of stillness. The first stirrings of a screaming panic rose in the back of my brain followed by an angry, judgemental voice that told me to get it together, reminded me not to embarrass myself.

“Now, there is a ball of white light in the centre of your body. Feel it there, get an idea of its size and weight, see how it glows, this pure light energy.”

I struggled to hold the image in my mind. My ball of light wanted to change shape and colour. It was flickering and disappearing, red one second, blue the next.

“The ball of light grows bigger.”

When I had wanted it to stay one size it had been happy to grow and shrink. Now I needed to enlarge it, my multicoloured ball of light stayed resolutely the same size.

“It’s surrounding your whole body.”

My ball was nowhere near that big. I opened one eye. The three of them sat still, eyes closed. I tried again. This time I started with the light surrounding my whole body. I still couldn’t get the colour right.

“Your ball of light grows bigger and merges with the people either side of you.”

I fastforwarded my light expansion. Once again I wondered whether I really liked Tanya. But if I was arrogant enough to reject her friendship I’d never have any friends and the thought of the rest of my weekends alone was too much. I hadn't been paying attention. Our collective ball of light was supposed to be encompassing the whole house.

“When you’re ready, come back to the room and open your eyes.”

I wasn’t the only who was spaced out. The room felt warm and there was a tingle in the air. Tanya hadn't said who we were trying to contact. Even if I'd believed in ghosts I wasn't so close to my family that I wanted to talk to the dead ones. At the thought of my family I felt a surge of anger and disappointment. I reached for my glass to quell it then panicked that I was getting too drunk to control my emotions. The others shuffled round so we were now in a half circle and the hearth was visible.

“This is Samhain, the night when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. The night that we can converse with those that have moved on,” said Tanya.

“I call on Anubis, Lord of the Dead, to open the gates of the underworld.” Troy reached to the side of the fireplace for a small statuette of a dogheaded man and placed it on the hearth.
What I had thought was a random collection of vaguely Halloween related objects amongst the candles on the hearth was actually an altar. This had been planned in detail and Tanya hadn’t told me anything.

“Hecate, Crone Goddess, give us your blessing tonight. Allow those who wish to speak to the living to pass.”

They began to chant. Daniel and Troy set up a deep, droning wordless sound. Tanya began to weave a haunting dirge over the top. I thought I should try to join in but I’m no singer. My wine glass was empty so I reached for the bottle beside the sofa and filled it up.

I shuffled backward to lean on the sofa watching them chant. Tanya smiled at me and I began to suspect a cruel trick. That somehow the whole evening had been orchestrated to achieve my humiliation. I felt sick and tearful. My heart pounded in time with the chant, speeding up as they got faster. Soon my heart was racing so fast I thought I would collapse.

And then they stopped, clean, like they’d rehearsed. My heart banged in my chest and I was breathing as hard as if I’d been running for my life. It wasn’t warm anymore. The room was cold, a taste of ice on the air. I looked up. Our little circle was surrounded by fog, glowing whitely around the candles.

"I think someone's here," whispered Troy.

We all looked around. I couldn't see anything or make out how the fog and the cold had been achieved. Tanya's face was flushed and she smiled widely.

“Someone is with us,” intoned Tanya. “Step forth and speak with the living if that is your will.”

Daniel’s eyes went wide. Whatever he was seeing now was a surprise. I turned my head to look.

I didn’t know that he was dead. No-one told me. A cocktail of hurt and disappointment and shame filled me. I should know better after all this time, but every time they let me down it hurts more than I can bear. And like salt on the rim of a marguerita glass is the loneliness of knowing there’s no-one in the world that’s on your side. They should have told me that he’d died.

Through the white fog drifted the translucent figure of my father’s brother. He was dressed as he used to when he babysat me, in a black silk kimono, loosely fastened so he flashed his skinny thighs as he walked.

“Step forward, spirit,” said Tanya. “Tell us what your message for the living is.”

I was six years old again, watching my parents leave. I couldn’t understand then that they didn’t know how scared I was. Later, when I discovered that they’d known all along and hadn’t done anything, I didn’t understand what was so wrong with me that it didn’t matter.

“Tanya, please,” I croak, but it’s not enough.

She waved her hand to shut me up. There was a slight smile on her face and she leant forward toward the spectre. The words stuck in my throat and all I could say was “Make it stop.” She didn’t see my distress. I knew the only way to make her hear me was to scream and shout, but I had no voice. It was taken years ago and so I suffered quietly.

He smiled and it frightened me just as much as it always used to.

“I’ve missed our special times, Jenny.”

Tanya looked at me, her brow screwed up. Amy is my middle name. I can’t stand to hear anyone say Jennifer or Jenny. I wanted to ask her to stop but my vocal cords failed. There was a part of me that believed I’d been betrayed and it wouldn’t let me beg. I bowed my head to hide my eyes.

An icy draught on my cheek made me look up again, eyes tearing. The spectre was crouched in front of me. I tried not to look at the open front of his kimono but I didn’t want to look at his face either.

“I’ll be waiting,” he said. “Just like this. When you die, it’ll be just like it used to be.”

Monday, 6 July 2009

Crossed Genres, Issue 4

Issue 4 of Crossed Genres mixes scifi/fantasy with crime. I was looking forward to this as I've been known to dabble in the fantasy thriller.

The first story is amazing. The Near-Sighted Sentinel by Adam King is the tale of a superhero dealing with ageing and failure. The Sentinel has to face loss of status and recognition and then finally to face up to not having made a difference. It is incredibly well written and structured. I was totally absorbed and might even read it again.

Time Out by David Siegel Bernstein deals with a complex future society and packs in a lot of worldbuilding. I think the story, one of the disillusionment of the main character, suffers a little for it. Most of the dialogue is exposition and little time is given over to characterisation. I like the idea and the worldbuilding is fascinating. Given the space of a novel, with time to explore the technology and economics and develop convincing characters, this could be really good.

I wasn't as keen on the third story, Murder at the Tipsy Minotaur by Marie Robertson. The magical fantasy community created feels more like a checklist than sense of place and the characters come across as quite flat. The reveal at the end is done Poirot-style and that's handled quite well. I liked the title.

Dead Men Don't Drive by Timothy Friend is a zombie story. I'm not a fan of zombies, especially the shuffling, groaning variety, but this was quite good. The narrator is a not-so innocent bystander to a bigger crime - the details of which are left in shadows. I like that the author resisted the temptation to explain what was going on. It's worth a read.

It takes a while for Dead Hands by Jason Rolfe to get going. The plot is quite tense with the main character in a lot of danger for most of the story, but somehow the emotional tension doesn't come across. I never get the sense that she's really scared. I liked the ending though. It had a nice twist and maintained the pace of the story.

The last story, The Eyes that Catch by Bruce Bretthauer, wasn't as enjoyable as some of the others. The writing side of things is mostly good, except for a tendency to infodump. It was more the characterisation and stereotypical gender representation that put me off. The characters weren't very well differentiated or particularly developed. The narrator felt more like a man with female parts than a female character.

So, this issue has been a bit up and down, but there's a couple of real gems.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The new issue of Electric Spec is out

I've just seen the announcement on the Electric Spec blog that Volume 4, Issue 2 is out. And so is Issue 8 of Crossed Genres.

Hopefully I'll get around to reading them soon.