Inside the cave lived a Fox – Chapter 4, Part 2

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

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Their eagerness to know more transfused into Neave. She allowed herself a deeper breath, eyes not meeting eyes, hers into the distant where the memory existed.

“The man who lived in that house over there told it to me.” Neave pointed at the smallest of the three houses, a green door marking it. “When I asked why he would want to hurt a hungry fox he asked me ‘what do you think the fox eats, little girl?’ and I said ‘chickens of course what else’.” Neave reached for Ambrose’s cigarette, an old habit calling back, and took a drag that jimmied open her throat clogged with difficult memories. He received it back with a twinkle in his eye.

“That man was not nice, I recall that. He laughed at me but when I tried to run away he grabbed my arm and took me inside his house. ‘Do you want to know the truth about your precious fox?’ he asked. His breath stank of alcohol and milk, his hands of gunpowder and dirt. But I wanted to know. I wanted to.”

She looked at them, Ambrose eager to hear, Sierra eager to see.

“He told me a long time ago just after the first houses were built near the river ill luck befell the people and the village. It desolated most of it and the elder stricken with grief, took a rope and headed to the oak tree to hang himself. When he got there a man wearing a fox skin was sitting under it roasting a chicken leg on a tiny fire. He talked the elder out of suicide and shared his chicken with him while the elder told him of their predicament. After hearing all, the stranger offered a solution. He told the elder that if they dined him with the finest meal tonight, tomorrow the sick would be healed and the crops would be rich again and if they gave him one girl after her first blood every autumn the village would flourish and expand and fill with the riches of the earth. They would be kings among the hills.”

“The elder agreed and in the morning when he returned to the village what the stranger had promised had come true. Come autumn the man in the fox skin came for the first girl just as he’d promised he would. The villagers were angry with the elder and how he’d hidden the truth from them. Dealing with demons and spirits…they called him a witch and butchered him. The demon took his girls despite everything, sneaking in the night soft as a whisper, quiet as a fox.” Neave inclined her head towards the green door of the small house. “I was so little, couldn’t be more than six. After I heard the story I wanted to cry but the man just laughed. ‘It’ll happen to you too! The man in the fox skin will come to take you and make you his whore you little bitch.’ I snuck past him and didn’t leave our house for days.”

“What a fucking weirdo. I’m so sorry, Neave. That must have been horrible,” Sierra sighed.

“Did it come? Did he come for you?”

Neave watched Ambrose, his unblinking stare piercing.

Sierra’s eyes widened. “Ambrose! Don’t be an asshole!”

She wanted to tell him, she wanted to be sure. The mark of something held in her hand returned and she flexed her digits tickling at her palm and the pressure there. Her mouth was dry, the red dirt carried in the wind crunching beneath her teeth.

A distant almost indistinguishable cry pierced her ears.

“Did you hear that?” Sierra asked and she swiftly ran down the stone steps and back to the yard where it was darker. The narrow light from her phone’s flashlight provided indication as to where she was.

“Inside the cave lived a Fox,” Neave whispered staring at the jagged rock.

 “Why isn’t it marked on the map, the cave?” Ambrose asked.

“It’s so people don’t go there.” Neave said listening to the cry. It was a woman crying, a child screaming, a person wailing in agony. It was a horrible sound and it chased away all other noise present in the vanishing daylight – the sound of night approaching through the trees making them sway as it came.

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Ambrose joined Sierra adding to the stretch of yellow glow. He clutched his hunting rifle and aimed it at the approaching darkness.

Chapter 5

Portland sunsets and a Brass Automaton: An Interview with D. Paul Angel

d_paulangelIn the breaking days of a new indie novella blending Snow White with The Terminator and placing them in a steampunk world, I talked to one of its authors about what it takes to write, about trials and life and dreams, about books and authors that inspire, about his amazing photography skills, about the future and what excitement lies there and of course about Brass Automaton, including a neat little sneak peek behind the scenes! Paul offers very healthy thoughts about the self-publishing scene and delivers some fantastic links to things he loves and respects, so I urge you to check them on the way to knowing who D. Paul Angel is and why you should be on the lookout for his name.

Tell me about your journey in becoming a writer. Was there a particular moment or event that turned you to writing? What was the first story you published online about?

I have enjoyed writing since I was in elementary school.  I loved coming up with stories and letting my imagination run wild.  What I did not like, was having to go back through and correct my work.  So as I was going through the editing, I would cut significant portions of the story during the revisions just to avoid having to copy it over again.  I should add that this was well before personal computers, so everything was written in longhand, with the rough draft in pencil and the final in pen.

We would also have to draw a picture to go with our story, which I also enjoyed, but I would be far too ambitious in my drawing so I would have to rush to finish that too, because by this time all my friends would already be outside playing.  Priorities!  It’s interesting looking back and realizing that I still enjoy the initial flurry of writing significantly more than the tedious work of revising.  (I’m sure I’m totally alone in that too!)  And, more importantly, that my biggest weakness continues to be follow through.  I’m getting there, but I’m still learning the discipline required for the revising (and revising and revising) needed to continue improving.

Which brings us to the first story I ever posted online: Dagger of Delphi It is about the daughter of an oppressive King who is deeply affected by the suffering of her people, and must ultimately choose whether or not to take the throne herself.  Or something like that.  Truth be told I winced reading it, and I’m not wholly sure I even understand what my intentions were.  That being said, I posted it 11 years ago now, and I have grown substantially as both a writer and a person since then.

How do you go about your writing? Do you have a specific place? 

I have desk in my room where I now do most of my writing.  I have had mixed success over the years writing on the couch with my laptop.  It works pretty well for editing, especially with Netflix, but it can be distracting writing first drafts.  So I’m steadily learning how to set aside time every day to write, and make use of the writing space that I have.  It is, again, part of the growing process.

That being said I do some of my best writing in coffee shops, pubs, and Thai restaurants.  I invested in a cheap Chromebook, and it has been great for this- just pure word to page.  There is something to be said for being alone amongst people, and letting the myriad of conversations and crowd’s energy blend into a gentle hum of background noise.  Since I live in Portland, I’m blessed by a stupidly huge number of amazing coffee shops and pubs.  There’s just something about the ritual of writing while enjoying a drink that’s inspiring.  Thai also has a certain magic to it which I discovered quite by accident over lunch.  The heat in the peppers made me eat it slow, and it ended up creating a rhythm between the writing and the eating.  So now I mix in a couple Thai restaurants amongst the pubs and coffee shops.

Outside of writing who is D. Paul Angel? I know you do a lot of photography aside from writing, so is there a particular mood you like to capture and set with your photos? 

As with most of the other writers I’ve been fortunate enough to meet online, I have a dayjob that pays the bills and takes up most of my time.  I’ve been in the legal field as a paralegal for 15 years now.  My specialty is supporting trials and I have gotten pretty good at it.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that trials tend to be all consuming in both time and energy.  Trials can last anywhere from a couple days to several weeks, and the prepping takes even longer.  So when I am working on a large case my ability to write is hugely diminished.  That being said, while trials are exhausting, and mentally draining, they’re still rewarding over all.

Because of the work I do, I have always been vague about my professional career, but I’ve been happy to share most of my creative side online.  The writing is a huge part of that, with my photography being the other significant part of my repertoire.  With my photos I find myself drawn to capturing transitions, textures, light, and scale.  I’ve come to find that there is a lot of beauty throughout the world, even in the most familiar of places and things.  I have uploaded quite a few of my shots to Flickr, and I have been posting a lot on Instagram  too.  Flickr is all the shots from my DSLR, (a Canon T3 for the camera nerds in the audience) so they are higher quality and “bigger” scenes.  My Instagram shots are captured with my phone, so they are “smaller” scenes, and are definitely more found shots, as opposed to the shots on Flickr which I’ve sought out.

In 2016 I made the jump to selling my photos as a member of the Three Rivers Artist Guild in Oregon City, just outside of Portland, Oregon.  While I only had a modicum of commercial success, I learned quite a bit in the process.  I certainly would have liked to have sold more, but my sales did ultimately cover my costs of printing and such.  I even turned a bit of a profit, though only just enough to buy a large coffee, instead of a small.  I’ll sell in the gallery again this year too, and will start selling cards in addition to prints.

Finally, while I don’t have one definitively favorite photo, almost all of my favorite photos are either on my prints page, or my cards page.

Tell me about Brass Automaton. It looks really amazing and that cover art is just fantastic. I read the final, complete version in a heartbeat and I loved it. How did that start and where is it today? 

Brass Automaton was a fantastic experience.  I met Mark through #FridayFlash posts a few years back. He wrote a stream of consciousness story called Beginnings , which he wasn’t sure what to do with.  I volunteered to write the sequel, Overboard, and then he and others picked it up and it became the Beginnings Project.  I wasn’t able to contribute anymore to that story, but we stayed friends via blog posts and Twitter.  Then out of the blue he emailed me about a story he had just written called Brass Automaton.  He had rolled a pair of dice against a table of stories to determine which pair he would do a mashup of.  The luck of the dice gave him Snow White and Terminator, which I found both hilarious and awesome.  So when he asked if I’d be interesting in co-authoring it with him and I jumped at it.

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“This story happened when His Majesty was still a young man, a huntsman to be precise. It is the tale of a clockwork machine from the future, with a mission to terminate His Majesty to prevent him from meeting his future queen.” Jarvis paused for effect. “Then, she was known only as Snow White.” – Overview for Brass Automaton

We started with us alternating a couple chapters each, but we deliberately had very little communication between postings.  It quickly turned into the writing equivalent of, “Hold my beer and watch this!”  We tried to one up each other with each chapter, but more in terms of showing off than writing the other into corners.  Ultimately, it was all about trying to make it as good as possible, and pushing each other to get there.  At the time I was never expecting we would publish it, (or that anyone would enjoy it so much!) so I wrote with absolute abandon.  It was incredibly fun to write and I’m looking forward to starting on the sequel in the Spring.  This time, however, we’re going to collaborate more and make the chapters flow together more smoothly.

The cover art was all Mark.  He’s got some mad Photoshop skills and put the whole thing together.  It turned out beautifully and I have had a lot of people tell me how much they like it.  (I know Mark is already thinking about the sequel’s cover too!)

How did the experience of collaborating with another writer feel? 

Collaborating with Mark was great.  He’s very easy going but a driven writer, which I needed.  I tend to write in fits and spurts, and have struggled with getting word to page on a daily, consistent basis.  Mark was a huge encouragement, and having him drop his chapters, so rapidly meant I couldn’t procrastinate on mine.  Beyond just originating the story, this project wouldn’t have happened without him, let alone getting it published.

Was it a challenge to create the Brass Automaton universe? Were there any bumps on the road, did you have a lot of different opinions as to how to build up the world and the characters?

The biggest bumps in the road for us came from external sources.  Work and life take a toll when writing isn’t your main support, and we were both hit with extra busy times outside of writing.  We had actually written through about 2/3 of it when we hit our respective walls, and nothing more was done on it for some months.  Then Mark got over his wall, and was inspired again.  I was knee deep in trials at the time, so when he asked if I was cool with him finishing Brass Automaton I didn’t hesitate giving him carte blanche to finish.

The closest thing to a conflict we had was after I finished my second set of chapters.  I thought it was a great ending point, so wrote what I thought was an excellent setup for Mark’s ultimate finish.  I emailed him and told him what I was doing and he did the electronic equivalent of laughing before turning my “climax” into a battle creating far more story to explore.

Which was your favorite character to write in Brass Automaton?

My favorite characters were the Dwarfs.  I got a text from a good friend about their names along the lines of “King Odc? Pypha?  Really!?”  He laughed though when I explained that I hadn’t expected to be published when I wrote it, so I just used anagrams for the Dwarves names. I did the same thing with other names too, like Tenycks for Skynet, or Rennoc Woods which is Conner backwards.  Mark, of course, just took it in stride and ran with it.

My favorite character ended up being Poedy (Dopey of course!).  He had fulfilled the role of comedy relief quite well, and then I gave him a uniquely grim backstory, which also explained his lack of beard.  The chapter where this all comes to a head is my favorite in the book, but I’m deeply biased since it’s one of my best pieces of writing so far.

What do you think a story like Brass Automaton brings to the world of self-publishing today? It’s quite unique, a very rich mixture of fables, time travel and an industrial revolution, plus it manages to create a very feministic atmosphere in an era where it did not exist, so I’m curious how do you think it places in the world of fiction today.

I often read Whatever which is the personal blog of John Scalzi,  a moderately successful SciFi author.  And by “moderate” I mean standard bearer of the industry!  He knows the publishing industry better than anyone else I regularly read, and his first book, Old Man’s War, was originally self-published too.  The biggest thing I have taken away from his insights is how there is far, far more I don’t know about both self publishing and traditional publishing than I do know.

I think Brass Automaton especially is too unique to ever be picked up by traditional publishers, but it’s still a great story that self-publishing has allowed us to share. 

So what I offer here is based on my own, admittedly limited experiences, and I’m sure Dunning-Kruger will be watching me closely.

Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey (the latter of which started life as fan fiction of the former) are both, for lack of a better word, awful.  They are also awfully successful, which reinforces that quality is not necessarily an indicator of success, though I’m talking about their literary quality more so than their technical quality.  In other words, I’m sure they were correctly formatted, typo free, etc., even though their content was lacking (IMNSHO…).  But they obviously resonated with a large audience and were hugely successful from a financial perspective, so when I look at traditional publishing I see that not all variables are equal, nor are they dependent.

A brilliant story with fresh ideas and amazing characters that’s submitted with typos, randomly mixed fonts, and inconsistent formatting isn’t going to make it far enough along to be read to see the gem within the rough rock.  On the flip side, a submission that is technically flawless is likely to pass onto the next step, even if it is more mediocre than not.  Personally I’d think the first example is far easier to work with than the second, but typos have been the bane of my writing since forever, so I may biased.  (Fun fact: Spellcheck’s biggest influence on me has been to make ever newer and more creative spelling errors.)

Ultimately though, traditional publishing is a business which drives financial concerns to take precedence over creative quality.  This is true throughout the entertainment spectrum, which is why we have Transformers movie ever third summer even though its budget could pay for 10+ original, creatively stunning smaller movies- because ultimately far more people will pay to see Transformers than they would to see our 10 odd theoretically awesome movies- combined.  Traditional publishing, as far as I have seen, is no different.

Self-publishing though is an entirely different animal.  There are a lot of people who were rejected by traditional publishers, for very good reasons, who are now flooding Amazon with their works, making it increasingly difficult to find good works amongst the crap.  There are also “books” on the marketplace which are literally gibberish or collections of wikipedia pages as a means of gaming Amazon’s payment schedules.  Needless to say, this makes for a lot more noise than signal.

The reward of self-publishing though is that signal.  It gives a voice and allows an audience to works that would never be seen otherwise.  I think Brass Automaton especially is too unique to ever be picked up by traditional publishers, but it’s still a great story that self-publishing has allowed us to share.  One of the websites I frequent is fark.com, and they have a weekly thread for writers.  They put together an anthology called Heart of Farkness which I helped a teeny, tiny bit on.  The stories vary between great and amazing, and its another example of being able to share stories with the world that would otherwise go unread.

For all the troubles in the world, we live in a Golden Age of arts.  We have the ability to share books, photos, music, movies, and more across the entire world.  You and I live over 6 thousand miles away and yet we have been sharing and enjoying each others works for years now.  That isn’t just unprecedented in human history, it’s truly beautiful.  If ever there was a mechanism for peace and understanding amongst so many diverse cultures it’s this sharing of our artistic souls.  That’s a bit too optimistic, perhaps, but I have seen in my own life that Love beats Hate, and being able to share our own loves makes the world that much better.

What is the Emoji Raiting Guide?

One of the things that I have wanted to do with my blog is give my thoughts on movies, TV shows, and other things that catch my interest.  I started with the old, traditional star rating from 0-4 stars.  I know most ratings are now from 1-5 stars, but there are some efforts out there for which even a single star is too much!  As I started working with it though, I found that the number of stars wasn’t really indicative of my thoughts.  Zero stars are easy.  Same with four, but what differentiates a one from a two, or a two from a three?  Instead I came up with my own emoji ratings.

This way I could break things up into what I think are more helpful categories.  It helps differentiate between something you’ll be happy to see versus something that you should absolutely see.  On the lowest end it also helps distinguish between the bad, and the so bad its awfulness angers my blood and makes baby Jesus cry.  Where it really helps though is in the middle ground.  Those things which are flawed, but still worthwhile, versus those things which are basically more flaw than not.  It also allows me to differentiate why something is bad, helping to explain whether it just failed completely, or if it was bad because of poor decisions.

I’m always on the hunt for fresh titles and so are many of the people who come across this blog. What book recommendations do you have for us? 

My current read is The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Amazing Number by Mario Livio.  (It’s a loaner from @ganymeder, another friend from the #FridayFlash world and twitterverse, and yet another reminder of the amazing connections our world now offers.)  The books traces the history of phi, one of those magical irrational numbers like pi, only it is seen far more in patterns.  It’s been a great read so far, and I’ve been really enjoying nerding out on it.

I tend to oscillate between fiction and non-fiction reading, with the bulk of my reading being done on the bus to and from work.  I just finished a re-read of Harry Potter, which reminded me once again  that J.K. Rowling is truly a God amongst mortals.  After I finish The Golden Ratio I’m going to read Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars trilogy.  It’s basically the Star Wars movies written as Elizabethian plays, and I’m really looking forward to it.  When I’m done I’m going to share them with a theater friend of mine to see if they want to try and and produce them.

In addition to all this, I want to start making a concerted effort to read more self-published books, and in particular read more works from women and minorities.  I had never thought about how white male centric almost all of our popular culture is because, well, I’m a white male.  I have never lacked for representation, and I have now come to see how vitally important it is.  (And another way to bring our cultures together too!)  There were three things that really brought this to life for me, with the first being the work and studying my ex-wife (and still dear friend) was doing on social justice issues.  It has really opened my eyes to so many of the inequalities that I had previously been so blissfully unaware of.

Then, with these thoughts percolating there was a post on Scalzi’s Whatever blog about reading only women and minority authors for a year.  In thinking on it I realized just how white, male centric my reading had been.  It was driven home even more I had a story idea that I was thinking of writing as an Epic Poem.  To stay true to the form I wanted to write a prologue as a sonnet asking my muses for guidance.  In a clever twist I decided to have my muses be the authors who had most influenced my own writing.  As I began compiling the list, I realized they were all white males.  While there’s no disputing that Asimov, Adams, Heinlein, Voltaire, and so on were deeply talented and influential, the Venn Diagram of their worldviews is basically a circle.  So, I’m (finally) learning how reading authors from with diverse backgrounds, and significantly different knowledge and experiences than me, can greatly help to expand my horizons.

While we’re on the subject of books which book and why is your all-time favorite? 

As for ye olde “book on a desert island” question.  My all time favorite book series is Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  It is insightful, funny, and uniquely imaginative.  We lost a rare gift with Adams’ passing all too soon, but his works have influenced me far more than anyone else.  To tie this all together, I’d share one of my favorite insights of Adams’, from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, since it is such a fantastic metaphor for privilege.  It’s one of the opening scenes in which the Electric Monk is on a horse lost in his own world of thoughts, while the horse is only thinking about the Monk, setting up a line about the difference in thoughts between when you are being sat upon. And not.

Are there any new projects you’re working on right now or looking forward to?

Always!  I have far more ideas than I do time or, realistically, ability right now.  I’ve already talked with Mark about the sequel to Brass Automaton and we’ve agreed to start writing this March, and we’re going to forego the oneupmanship in favor of stronger collaboration.  We’ll still alternate a pair of chapters at a time, but we’re going to work out the major plot points ahead of time and talk about things as we go so we to make the chapters flow better on top of everything else.

I’m also working on my own SciFi adventure novella. It desperately needs some rewriting, but I think its story is both unique and intriguing (though I may be biased).  Ultimately I think I’ll be able to forge a larger story from it that would span 4 novellas altogether (give or take).  But, I have to take one step at a time and get this one finished first.

I also have a humorous short story I’ve been working on that was originally submitted, and rightly rejected, from the 2016 Heart of Farkness anthology.  I’ve improved it considerably since then and it’s just about done.

I’ve also been doing some beta-reading and editing work of late too.  It’s amazing how much easier it is to see what needs attention, and how to fix it, in other people’s works than it is in your own!  One of the books I edited is going to be published this summer.  It’s a history Boeing’s 737, written by a friend of mine who flies them for Southwest Airlines.  It was challenging, but a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to reading the finished book.

Down the road I have a couple ideas that I think would make great Graphic Novels.  The first is a humorous SciFi story idea which is the one I was originally thinking of writing as an Epic Poem.  I really do think it will do better in a graphic format.  It’s open ended and is driven by a cast of diverse, quirky characters who must save the world by going from quest to quest to quest.  It also makes use of the venerable Greek Chorus structure as an added bonus (thought they’ll simultaneously be affecting the story and breaking the Fourth Wall).

The other story idea is closed, and far more serious in nature.  It’s all the more important now too in light of how fake news stories affected voters in our last election here in the US (and Brexit too apparently).  It explores that our reality is necessarily framed by what we are told, and that what we grow up with is “normal,” regardless of the reality.  It’s also SciFi in nature and revolves around a “Millenial Ship,” on a thousand year journey to a new planet.  While there really isn’t a shortage of Colony Ship stories, my vision is rather darker, and more unique than those I’ve read.

Further down the line, much further, I have an idea for a very complex novel, which I don’t quite have the technical skills to pull off yet.  I’m roughly outlining it as inspiration strikes, but definitely need more writing experience before I can pull it off the way I feel it needs to be told.

Outside of fiction I have been working on a tabletop wargame.  It is meant to be super easy to play for people with little to no gaming experience.  It uses a chess set for the pieces, construction paper for the terrain, and dice.  A lot of dice!  It’s called DieLuck’s Chess and true to its name relies upon extensive dice rolls.  I’ve completed the second draft of the rules and am working on finalizing it so I can send it out to playtesters.

Finally, perhaps even more far afield from the normal, I’m writing, for lack of a better descriptor, a framework for religion, spirituality, and/or philosophy.  I have always been fascinated by religions, spirituality, philosophies, and the universality of all cultures that there is something beyond our mortal realm.  So I’m trying to articulate a framework for people to think about life, and its decisions, amongst the myriad of our emotions and experiences.  The idea is for it to work for anyone, regardless of their own personal beliefs, or lack thereof, in a higher power.

You were and still are a part of the #fridayflash community. What’s the first thing any aspiring writer should know about flash fiction writing?

That it is awesome and amazing and why aren’t you already doing it?  It is a fantastic tool in honing your writing skills.  Constraining yourself to a wholly self-contained story in a 1,000 words or less is far more challenging than I originally thought.  So many times I’ve written out what I thought was a simple, straightforward story only to look down and find that I’m less than halfway through and already over 1,000 words.  It really teaches you what words are truly invaluable, and what needs to be cut- no matter how great a line it is.

It is also an rewarding way to explore different genres, practice dialogue, or any other technique you want to hone.  In my #FridayFlash’s I’ve written SciFi, Fantasy, Humor, Horror, Mystery, Satire, and I’m sure others which I’m now forgetting too.  I’ve also used it to practice writing with sparse descriptions, as well as utilizing it to explore the possibilities afforded by more complex sentences, more vibrantly colored adjectives, and an aggrandizingly exaggerated vocabulary.

The other great thing is the community.  While I haven’t post a #FridayFlash in awhile, unfortunately, it truly is a great way to get feedback on your works.  It will also help you learn how to give positive, usable feedback to others.  I’ve met a lot of great people over the years through reading other people’s posts and getting thoughts on my own.  Almost every person I’ve met in this community  has been both encouraging and helpful, with people tailoring their critiques to the writer’s skill level.  Indeed, most of them I still keep in touch with via twitter, and it’s inspiring to read how they’re all doing with their own writing.

You can find Paul at these links:

dpaulangel.com 

Twitter

Amazon – Brass Automaton

Instagram

Flickr

Inside the cave lived a Fox – Chapter 3

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

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Neave woke in bed in the spare room of the cottage. Mud and anxiety washed away, she had surrendered to a motionless sleep lulled away by the low kept voices of Ambrose and Sierra and the still lingering scent of the opiate candle. The morning was a different shade but Neave was still clutched in the remembrance of yesterday.

She rolled on her side, fingers woved into the blanket, pulling hard to simulate possession. She curled her body into a fetal position escaping for new seconds into darkness behind closed eyes. Beneath the cover she felt naked, exposed, only a skin thin shroud of a memory covering her, the house, Enok, the blurred faces she called family. And nothing more of her present self, of who she was. All memories were fragments from the past, just nostalgia in heaps, nothing useful, only bittersweet. A fickle horror swirled like smoke from a burning cigarette but she blew on it disconnecting its chances of encompassing her to suffocate in its blue haze.

Despite it all her memory loss had boundaries now, a beginning to be placed with precision and an intermission- now, to be played out in order to restore the middle and provide the ending. Her want to go home was still present, but returning would also mean living with the missing and Neave couldn’t bear to be her own stranger. She opened weary eyes to the dull silhouettes in the room. The voices in the other room had escalated to fully developed sentences, rising in volume and urgency. Neave left the bed and received the cool morning air against her bare skin.

She found Ambrose and Sierra in the small kitchen. The devious grin that had played on his lips hours ago was replaced by a youthful smirk.  There was a sudden gentleness lurking in his features and Neave found herself reaching for the coffee mug he offered, a symbol of an act of complete normality she welcomed.

“We know where to go,” he said pointing towards the backpacks on the sofa. Next to them rested against the leather seat was a hunting rifle.

“I don’t know why he needs this,” Sierra joined taking a long sip from her cup.

“In case. Just in case.”

“There is something wild to shoot? How about you leave the shooting to me?” Sierra waved an instant camera at him and slipped it in her backpack.

Neave left the coffee untouched. “I don’t understand. What do you mean you know where to go?”

“It was something you said that gave me an idea. Fair fact, it’s a long shot but I suspect a plausible one. On the way here you mentioned that story, “Inside the cave lived a Fox”. You said it was like local lore, so we did some digging and sure enough there is a similar folklore tale originating in Yarlford, one of the villages up in Mt. Wrell. We figured it would be best to start there.”

Neave folded her arms searching through her brain for the village, a place she had known, had visited. Yarlford, hundreds of years old withstanding the wheels of time, the changing currents. It surfaced with semi-vivid imagery, echoes more than voices, passing weak odors instead of pungent smells. It hovered ghostlike but the more she focused on it, the more the link strengthened returning her to a world less distorted and more memory like. It settled right there in her childhood, a pieced of her mind untouched by her amnesia. Neave could feel Ambrose watching her closely, leaning into the same want to construct a world that was not tainted, that could be reached and anchored.

“I remember spending my summer vacations there but…. Could I have gone there?” And was I alone if I did, Neave wondered.

Sierra took Neave by her hand and pulled her towards the door. Her lips hovered close to Neave’s ear, the breath ticklish on her skin when she whispered. “I think it’s worth the try. Are you ready, Neave? You will rediscover yourself today.”

*      *      *

Yarlford was far. Neave remembered trekking up to it from the train station in Tallbridge. It would take half the hours of daylight to cross the invasive river, hoping from boulder to boulder, to climb over fallen trees shattered by lightning and find the right herd path beside game trails leading into deep woods. A bullet had whistled above her head once, the hunter hiding in silence behind his scope. She had to crisscross over hills and valleys overgrown with grass, remaining at all times above a quaint quiet world populated by distant yowls of cattle. By the time she would reach the house the sky would be turning indigo.

Ambrose took the wheel leading them out of the dirt road and on to a new one miles away that climbed them in her periphery of civilization’s reach to a domain where the wind rustled through the tall grass. Sierra rolled down the backseat window. Her hair scattered, toyed with by the currents.

“It really is a moaning mountain,” she noted. They crawled, tires fighting against the still wet unevenness of the red dirt road threatening to become a landslide and throw them in a ditch of splintered trees soaking in mire ponds filled with rocks. Sierra took photos and wrote down with a blue marker on the white space of the Polaroid her thoughts.

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Neave could see she was enthralled by the endless valleys and jutting peaks colored in pale blues.

A map was spread on the dashboard but Neave’s uneducated eyes couldn’t see where they were or would go. Ambrose tapped a finger at a junction. “That would be somewhere at the foot of the village. We’ll leave the car there and continue on foot.”

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Outside of the car the steep trail that opened on the side of the road snaked its way past the first houses, caved in under time and nature’s pressure. Neave knew them to be sanctuaries of snakes, tongue-splitting venomous reptiles hiding inside their man-made shrines.

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“These were abandoned a long time ago,” Ambrose spoke squinting to look inside an empty window.

“When I was a child people would still search for buried gold coins in them. One man was bitten twice by snakes.”

“Did he die?” Sierra snapped her photo pausing only to scribble, the marker leaving a squeaky noise.

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“I think so.”

“But did he find gold coins? A pot of gold coins perhaps?” Ambrose caught up with her lighting a cigar. The smoke he blew caught her in a sweetened haze.

Neave pictured two gold coins dug from underneath dusty floorboards crawling with the slimy bodies of smooth green and yellow snakes, placed over her eyes, a cold payment for greed, mistrust and cruelty.

“I don’t think there were ever any.”

Coming up the uneven trail outside the density of trees and nodding houses, Neave’s heart skipped and she rushed ahead. She slipped over exposed rocks white as bone to climb the path to open ground. The sight of a crownless oak spreading dried branches like a scarecrow to touch no sky, made her smile.

“I remember this tree. Lightning struck it and it never grew afterwards.” The snap of the camera behind her sealed the moment. Ambrose gave her his leading stride offering open palmed the discovery.

“We’re here,” Neave told them.

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Chapter 4

Inside the cave lived a Fox – Chapter 2

Chapter 1

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The road took a swerve and the car eased into a stretch illuminated only by the headlights. Pine trees white against the colorless background buckled under a high wind and she could just catch their crowns so high above. The world wasn’t clearing and she felt trapped on this narrow road, in this car going somewhere that meant nothing to her. She was going in the wrong way regardless of the promise.

Her body shifted away from him patiently pulling on his thin cigar providing the same scent she had breathed with familiarity on his coat. Her heated temple rested against the cool glass of window. Her head was static, memories heavily faded. Lolling with the motion of the car she thought her fingers someone else’s. She opened and closed her palm, flexing her digits. There was a sense of something amiss, something that had been there in her hand but was now gone taking away with itself her feel, her touch. Her skin hurt and she rubbed a thumb against it feeling nothing.

Soon he chose to break the silence “I’m Ambrose by the way in case you fear riding with nameless strangers. I don’t know why I didn’t tell you that before. It seems stupid now, but…”

She could feel his eyes on her back, waiting, wanting to ask more, to know. “Neave. My name is Neave.”

“Are your folks Irish?”

Neave shifted again so she could face him.

“I think they just liked the name. It isn’t spelled like you would if it was Irish. What about you, were your parents religious? Were you named like after Saint Ambrose?”

He laughed and his laughter was even hoarser than his voice. “No, they were not that religious. I like to think Ambrose Bierce served for inspiration. My mother…she was a scholar. She taught Latin and Greek almost her entire life. That and maybe she thought the name sounded posh.”

Ambrose cleared his throat, his grin waning away. His lips became thin, the lines around them more pronounced now that the dimples of his smile were gone. His eyes under a furrowed brow returned to the road.

Neave disregarded her own half-smile and returned her attention to the dial. Time had scarcely passed since they had left the near accident. “Where are we?”

 “Just outside of Tallbridge. See there? That’s Wrell mountain. People sometimes call it “the moaning mountain” because of how the wind whistles through the valleys.”

Neave inched in her seat, inclining her head to catch the slowly rising hills in the distance. There was not a flicker of light there and the mountain looked wild and undisturbed, but she knew of villages hidden within its folds.

 “Inside the cave lived a Fox.”

Ambrose looked at her. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s an old story my grandmother used to tell. Local folklore I think. I remember it originated in a village somewhere high in the mountain.”

Ambrose steered the car left leaving the main road. The tires hit gravel and they started to climb a narrow dirt road between the trees. “What is it about?”

Neave shook her head. “Not sure. It was a really long time ago when I first heard it. I think it made me both scared and sad.” Her skin goosed up when she thought long and hard about it. It too was amiss, not fully formed, partial. Memories of the past were easier to access and process. The now was a blur haunted by them and not all were happy memories.

 “Here’s the house.”

The headlights broke through the dark revealing a small cottage visibly a faded white, a side of it overgrown with ivy, red and brown and orange, an Autumn coat. It had been here for a long time and Neave could sense the coziness it provided along with seclusion. She followed Ambrose through the dark alley, tiny sharp rocks sticking in her soles, and past the makeshift swing still wet with tiny droplets. The light and warmth seeping from inside the house came with a voice.

“Where the hell have you been? I tried calling but you’ve left your phone and…”

Neave shut the door behind her awkwardly stepping inside and facing the petite woman with her arms akimbo.

“Who’s this?”

“Sierra this is Neave. I nearly ran her over on the farm road.”

Sierra’s face changed. She took hold of Neave and led her further into the living room sitting her down on the coach by the fireplace.

“What were you doing at this hour in the fields?”

Neave took the warmth of the fire for a second to defrost her thoughts.

“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”

Ambrose sitting across from her shook his head in dismay. “You never said…I assumed…”

“You never asked.”  She still wore his coat and it was enough but Ambrose was pale, wet strands of hair falling in his dark eyes.

Sierra reached over to the cabinet placed between the couch and the armchair and produced a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of red wine. She poured a healthy dose for Neave, none for herself and for Ambrose filled an elegant glass with the wine.

The alcohol burned her throat, not a sensation Neave was used to. It loosened her and the fire, the stillness of everything around her, the disappearing numbness from fingers and limbs altogether softened her. She glanced at the phone hanging on the wall, a landline most definitely dead and then at their phones on display on the table. There was no one to call however. Relationships were strained, a thread of her memory knew that.

“Do you want to?” Ambrose asked, his voice gentle.

“I don’t want to bother anyone.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Sierra probed.

“Nothing. I find only nothingness and the more I try to remember the more distant I feel.”

Sierra found her hand, warm against her still cold one. “Think hard. Last image, last sound.” Ambrose lighted a candle and placed it on the table in front of Neave. The scent filled her nostrils, sweet and heavy. She inserted it into herself within seconds, deep breaths to calm herself bringing more of the opium scent into her body and mind.

Neave closed her eyes following Sierra’s voice to continue breathing deep. She could hear a door getting closed, the rattle of a key chain, the muffled barks of a dog behind that door.

“It’s my house in Lowview.” It was her hand closing the door, turning the key. “I’m at the door and Enok is barking.”

“How does your door look? Describe it to me.” Sierra said.

“It’s just a normal door. White but the paint around the handle is peeling and you can see the original green underneath it. It has scratch marks from Enok, deep into the wood.”

“Is there a date somewhere?”

A car had unlocked behind her and the key was in her hand. She was walking towards it, climbing in it, starting it. The dial caught her attention. “October 16th,” she whispered.

The scent was removed from her and replaced by that of burning wood and sharp whiskey.

“There is your start. But you’re still missing three days and they seem gone for good.” Sierra blew the candle free of its dancing flame.

Neave shook her head feeling lonely without Enok. How could she forget about Enok?

‘The way I see it you have two choices,” Ambrose said rubbing his greying goatee. “You could go home tomorrow, forget all about this and return to normal. Call it an episode.” He swirled the dark red wine in its thin glass. “Or you could try to discover where you went and what you did during those three days.”

“I told you, I want to go home.” She spoke with urgency, one that threatened to tumble-down what little defence she had left.

He cocked his head to one side. “But aren’t you curious?”

Neave remembered the thing that was amiss, her fingers closing in on thin air hoping to grab something that wasn’t there but had been.

Ambrose stood up and circled around the couch she was sitting in. His hand fell heavy on her shoulder, the squeeze a new seal.

“Tomorrow we’ll find out what happened. You have my word.”

Chapter 3

Inside the cave lived a Fox – Chapter 1

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The lash of the rain was harsh against her face, the droplets like needles against her skin as she ran. Knee-high streaks of wheat, drowned in the downpour earlier, lolled via the rushing she made as she slipped on fresh mud, white sneakers dipped from sole to laces. She battled her way through the bleak grounds, cowering away from the grey clouds and the low rumble hidden within them waiting as if to unleash full power, a thunderous roar to echo through the empty unobstructed air and space above and around her.

Her eyes managed to spot a wide patch bald with the lack of useless crops swaying. It seemed to hover with low settled fog on what appeared the edge of the field. She went to it and took down from mud to asphalt darkened by the rain in one swift step. Then there were lights approaching fast without the alert of a signal. The shift from dreary dark to illuminating xenon turned her to a frightened deer staring at death. The signal finally came and her teeth began chattering, a previously unknown cold settling in her bones and weakening them.

The entire torso of the car took to the left, the screech of tires against the slippery road canceling the rain fully. Acceleration carried the car and it zigzagged towards her unavoidably. Her eyes blinked away the seconds of artificial blindness, the deer becoming a rabbit hurrying to escape. She feared, blood pressure rising, ears burning. Her knees buckled and she tumbled backwards returning to mud, grabbing fistfuls of it amidst bouquets of wheat cutting through her fingers.

The rain was light, a pitter-patter on her face as she lay in the soft bed of earth, her form sinking into it, molding with it. In her eye, the sky previously one equal gray horizon to horizon, was now curling up, rolling onto an invisible spindle layer by layer of white, gray and black. It reminded her of cotton candy heavily colored by those inks the Japanese use to make their burger buns and ice creams black. But it was a cell storm consuming the sky, sucking each and every cloud into its gaping hole to spin and spin and spin it until there was no sky and it was a storm on a spindle the dome above. Against it a voice shouted trying to overcome the winds that picked up to rotate this heavenly carousel.

“Are you alright? Can you stand up?”

She spotted a man hovering above her but his face was blank and his voice was low and gruff. He put out a hand for her to take.

“I won’t hurt you. Please, take my hand.”

Just like that she was stood up from her bed of earth and took back to the road where the car stood sideways, an ugly skid mark marking its dangerous path.

“You jumped out of nowhere. I nearly ran over you,” the tall stranger said. He stood at a careful distance shadowed by his headlights, the voice of a silhouette and waited for her to speak up, to explain.

“I suppose I did. Sorry, I didn’t know whether it was a road or more wheat. It was hard to see.”

“I startled you.” It wasn’t a suggestion and she confirmed it with a slight nod. Her hands went to her hair, messy and tick with mud. She dropped them to her pockets instead unsure of what to do.

He pointed at her arm and she found a skid mark all of her own, red and raw under the torn cloth on her elbow.

“Do you want to go to a hospital?”

The pain was absent but it would come soon enough, she knew. It was quickly ignored as there was a greater need tugging at her from the depth of her being, a destination more alluring than any other. “I want to go home,” she told the man.

He slipped off his coat and passed it on to her. She breathed in a distinct tobacco soaked in chocolate and underneath it a lingering scent of earth, pines and ash mixed with the man’s own cologne. She pulled it close against her damp body.

“I see. That’s alright, that’s fine. I can drive you there if you just tell me where you live.”

The where was nonexistent in her mind for moments that made her feel light-headed and distant. She looked frantically about at the nothingness stretched from where she’d emerged to where to road disappeared in fog and darkness. Home was a place that she needed to find and it existed in her consciousness but its shape and form were gone. The man caught on her confusion and gestured for her to enter the car sealing his intentions to bring her back to where she belonged. The leathery interior was instantly warmer and the soft tap of the windshield wipers against the steamy window and the low volume rumble of the radio slowly drifted her back to her own world.

“Lowview. I live in Lowview.”

He had climbed beside her, shaking the rain and cold away. The doors were closed and the dark interior lighted up. She waited for his reply, to confirm that the destination she had named was a real one. He slicked back his salt and pepper hair and tucked strands behind his ear. His eyes, perhaps dark brown were soft and friendly.

“Lowview is about a four-hour drive from here. If we head there now I’ll be able to drop you off early morning but with the weather forecast…I don’t know. There’s more of this storm to come and we might end up getting trapped on the road. These country roads flood in the blink of an eye dragging mud and branches, whole trees too and sometimes dead cattle. Lambs, I’ve seen. Chickens too, poor things.”

“There was a cell storm,” she said trying to imagine the Biblical flood it would cause. It would swipe them where they stood into a vortex of limbs and roots. Her head throbbed. The clock on the dashboard blinked and the digital numbers told her it was nearly 2 A.M. and the night was just getting dark and darker for the lack of stars and Moon.

 “Listen. I have a house nearby. If you want you can spend the night there, get yourself cleaned up and get some rest and in the morning I’ll drive you to Lowview.”

“I should be home.”

But she wasn’t. She gazed out the window steamy and spattered with raindrops. The world had disappeared completely and its bleakness was renewed with the start of fresh rain of rounder, heavier droplets which began to rattle against the hood. There was only her and the stranger, a proposition awaiting a decline or an acceptance. He would go and she with him, or she would exit the car and start up or down the road seeking the way home.

“In the morning you’ll drive me to Lowview,” she repeated his words at him to seal the deal. He drew a cross, ghosting his fingers against his chest.

“You have my word.”

Chapter 2

Happy New Year!

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A toast!

To each and all of you

I wish you all

in this upcoming 2017

that came and settled for some of you

and for the rest of us is yet to come

to be as courageous as you’ve always been

to be loved and love in return

to be patient and understanding

to be happy with yourself

and never

Never

doubt what you can accomplish

if you set your mind on it

Write, explore, create

Take moments, capture them

and share them

Be a person of value

Happy New Year!

Stay weird

#BestReads2016: Year of the Graphic Novel

Lists from previous years:

Best Reads 2012

Best Reads 2013

Best Reads 2014

Best Reads 2015

*   *   *

It’s the time of the year again when we sit down and gather our best reads from the past year, the books and stories that made us laugh or cry or dance, dream and think beyond our lives or about our lives in different nuances. It’s the last days of 2016 so as a tradition on this blog as is on many other blogs, it’s time to look back and share which novels made an impact on me.

Last year I went on something close to a rant about myself and my inability to finish bigger works of fiction or non-fiction during 2015. I put my faith in short-story collections and then tried to apologise that the majority of my best reads list consisted of short-story collections. That was 99% stupidity. The Best Reads lists make themselves in our heads as we flip page after page, read book after book and gasp in awe at comic book after comic book.

Short-story collections are one of the best things to exist. They have been my guide, my encyclopedia through fiction. They have been a constant fuel and inspiration. If one genre tops your Best reads list it means it sucked you in, it transformed you and inspired you. It made you think, it made you love. It sat with you through gloom and sunshine, a blanket of words and pictures tightly wrapped around your arms.

Best Reads lists should show all that. I’m ever glad they exist and that we as avid readers can share what stories we fell in love with, what stories moved us. It’s a fitting way to say goodbye, farewell to a passing year because these stories reflect our view of 2016, they mirror what we felt, where we were, who we were. In a way, at least.

Here’s my Best Reads 2016 list!

 *  *  *

FANTASY

A Song of Ice and Fire series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords 1 by George R.R. Martin

fhahefhaFive years ago I bought the first book of the series “A Game of Thrones” and didn’t read a single page from it until this past summer. It would sound like a bad excuse but the tv adaptation “Game of Thrones” is to blame for that.

But I’m ever glad I finally started the series especially with the huge hiatus between season 6 and 7 of the tv show. I have plenty of time to catch up on the source material.

A lot of people joke about how much banner talk (I nearly wrote bathroom talk, smh) there is in these books. They aren’t wrong. I’ve lost track of the number of houses, banners, sigils and names George R.R. Martin has come up with. The heraldry in the series is insane. And unlike the people who find that a snore fest I quite enjoy the long paragraphs introducing an endless array of cousins and nieces and houses.

I found an interesting thing when reading the books. They set a very steady rhythm with me. I can read for hours and never the voice in my head drifts off. I don’t know whether it’s because each chapter is told through the POV of different characters or simply because Martin has a way with words that even monologues roll of your tongue with ease and they are quite poetic and sing-song like often times. I hadn’t read much fantasy in the past years so the fact that “A Song of Ice and Fire” clicked with me with ease is the best thing. I can’t talk about the plot of the series, that just feels wrong because it’s just this huge, huge thing today that even if you are not a fan you know the basic premise – a war, a family torn apart, lots of death, lots of Machiavellian mischief and dragons of course.

What I love about the series is the vast diversity in its territories. The transitions are easy to set the mood appropriately for the desert, for lost cities, for rain and mud, snow and frost, lavish fields, and barren castles. Each land just by its description creates a legend – there are a great many legends of the world on their own, but the things Martin doesn’t write but hints at are what makes this story so grand for me.

I won’t stop to talk about the characters because there are so many fantastic personages. I’ll tell you however who one of my favorite characters in the series is – Littlefinger.

HORROR

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

25458371This is the type of novel I finish and can just say “Oooh”.  The Guardian called the novel “a gothic masterpiece” set on the northwest English coastline, two things that quickly made me want to read “The Loney” – a mystery near the bleak, bleak sea. I was looking at reviews the other day and found a surprising amount of 2 star reviews and mentions how the novel did not live up to the hype and how it left much unfinished and unexplained. But the novel is a lie in a way, news you receive at the last page so you go back to the beginning and wonder how much you trusted it when you started reading and how much you trust its narrative now that you’ve finished it. I don’t know. I trust the uncanny, the unexplained, the pagan, mystic, horrible part of it but I also entertain the other possibility. It’s open to interpretations.

The story carries us on a deeply religious pilgrimage that bares the hope that a mute and institutionalised boy, will be cured of his affliction through the ancient powers of a shrine belonging to a desolate, dank, foreboding land giving way to grey sea. Whether a healing process occurs I will not say. The novel dabbles in surreal horror and each character carries a sense of spiritual crisis, a downfall of faith through faith. They seek redemption and we see their nuanced experiences into reaching one or failing to do so. The story battles with the unquestioned love for a past sadistic Father and the mistrust of his successor who interprets faith in a different way.

I vastly enjoyed the novel and it became my train read on late nights coming back from uni. If anything tickled your interest, go see for yourself. If its blank, it’ll show right away.

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Whitstable by Stephen Volk

16163489“1971. A middle-aged man, wracked with grief, walks along the beach at Whitstable in Kent.

A boy walks approaches him and, taking him for the famous vampire-hunter Doctor Van Helsing from the Hammer movies, asks for his help. Because he believes his stepfather really is a vampire…”

                                                                               – from Goodreads

Whitstable is probably my favorite read from this year. I put the description here on purpose because if you haven’t figured out who this novella is about or dedicated to just by reading it…well I’ll tell you.

It’s about Peter Cushing.

I don’t want to sound like one of those fans but my first introduction to him was through Star Wars: Episode IV as Grand Moff Tarkin. Of course when I watched it I had no idea who he was. I was a wee child! And much later on becoming better versed in the classic horror movies I recognized him and saw him in a different light – as the hero. As Doctor Van Helsing.

Whitstable is a crushingly poignant story exploring in frightening depths the darkness inside us. It’s a story mixing fact and fiction but Stephen Volk balances that masterfully. His language is rich and detailed in his rebuilding of Cushing’s world of grief and solitude after the death of his wife Helen.

The story true in its main character and his difficult period in life, fictionalized an event which awakes Cushing from his peripheral, private existence and asks of him to be brave again, to step into the shoes of the actor but do so in a new role that begs of him to be cunning and fight a much more real monster of flesh and bones, but not with stakes and sunlight – with compassion, with understanding.

I urge you to read this novella. It’s equal parts sad and uplifting. You don’t have to be acquainted with Peter Cushing or his career to enjoy this. Just know that whilst fiction in the sense of the narrative, it’s also a true to life story. It’s a very human story.

The Wendigo by Algernon Blackwood

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Blackwood became a favorite with “The Willows” which I read for #NaNoReMo ( a.k.a The National Novel Reading Month) in 2015. I scared me beyond words and its howling winds are still audible in my nights. But when I saw there was a novella called “The Wendigo” I got over excited. Wendigos are one of my favorite creatures in folklore by far surpassing werewolves. I believe some areas in Canada still see practiced the wendigo taboo ceremony. It was performed in times of famine when the human soul was thought to become greedy and the human flesh a craving. Thus the evil spirit was awoken and it took over the human transforming or possessing him with the Wendigo spirit.

 

It was really cool to learn that Blackwood’s Wendigo is considered to be the first appearance of the creature in literature. And although it vastly differs from its folklore description – a cannibalistic monster, an evil spirit – Blackwood’s monster of the wilderness is a force to be reckoned with.

I’ve watched a lot of movies and tv shows featuring a Wendigo – namely Supernatural, Hannibal even games like Until Dawn (where the story was set in Blackwood Mountain). So I was aware of what a Wendigo looked like, how it behaved, what it wanted. Algernon Blackwood surprised me with his vision of the spirit of the wild. It befalls at first two men camping in the Canadian wilderness during their moose-hunting trip. Again as with The Willows though not as rich in details, the novella carries with sounds, night noises that are outside of the world the characters inhabit, unnatural and provoking the telling of legends and spirits, that of the Wendigo. When divinity student Simpson sees his guide Defago run out of their tent seemingly called by a voice high above the trees, he panics and follows only to discover two sets of footprints – one of unnatural proportions and one human, oddly transforming with each stride until they too become unnatural, belonging to some entity of giant proportions.

The brave but delirious student Simpson finds his way to the main camp and calls for reinforcements. Alas Algernon Blackwood is unforgiving and his characters cannot brave the sights they see, the scents they smell – if you’ve ever wondered how a Wendigo smells, its odor is that of lions in a cage – the voices and words they hear. Wendigos have their feet on fire. The heroes fall in deep beliwderment and as they recollect the events frightening images of the dark depths of the Canadian wilderness form.

Artist: Matt Fox

Artist: Matt Fox

Photo belongs to Sffaudio.com

Photo belongs to Sffaudio.com

CRIME

When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie #3) by Kate Atkinson

3289281I approached this novel series from the middle but that’s because I couldn’t find the other books at the time. I assured myself it wouldn’t be that much of a problem since I was familiar with Case Histories, the tv series based on Atkinson’s famous PI Jackson Brodie (quality drama!).

I used to love reading crime novels. There were plenty of books at home, noir, mafia novels, lots of Puzo, Chandler, Greene and others more diverse it seemed to me with elements of sci-fi and horror. So I always had a crime to solve in the face of a novel or a short story and still do.

This novel is a train wreck both in its narrative where a train literally crashes and in terms of the lives of its characters. People deceive, people lie and people’s destinies lay on the same path. Junctures lead to a highway of sadness, memories, passion, friendship, love and family. And of course mystery. Jackson Brodie is a pretty neat character – he’s cheeky, smart, determined, loyal to his work as a private investigator. And somewhat unfortunate as he always gets tangled so deeply in people’s lives that the ordeal often threatens his own life. I grew fond of him via the tv series and whilst reading this novel couldn’t help but blend the episode based on it with the written word. I was actually quite pleased with how they had approached the episode. The novel has buckets and buckets of dark humour in the midst of all the drama which sets the pace quite nicely and the novels becomes easily gripping. One can only hurry to finish it as the story doesn’t allow you to catch your breath. There’s a healthy dose of Scotland as the events unfold there. What’s not to love?

SHORT-STORY COLLECTIONS

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

22522808I would betray myself and the tradition of creating these lists if Neil Gaiman isn’t included. This year he is more than present not only with this collection but with a few graphic novels. Right off the start I want to say how gorgeous this William Morrow paperback edition is. I love the cover and the print is fantastic as well.

Gaiman’s short-story collections have always been amongst my favorites starting with Fragile Things, my first introduction to him. I mention Fragile Things because it surprised readers with an additional novella – “The Monarch of the Glen” – about Shadow Moon, the protagonist from Gaiman’s most celebrated novel “American Gods”. Trigger Warning repeated that gesture with another novella about Shadow set again after the events in “American Gods” called “Black Dog”.

I remember there was some controversy surrounding the title as people didn’t consider the stories and poems published in this body of work to fit the meaning behind a “trigger warning”. If my memory serves me right there was a backlash of sorts and people were genuinely offended.

This is an excerpt from the introduction of “Trigger Warning”. You can read the full piece here.

“There are things that upset us. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, though. I’m thinking about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming. Our hearts skip a ratatat drumbeat in our chests, and we fight for breath. Blood retreats from our faces and our fingers, leaving us pale and gasping and shocked.

And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead…..”

“We build the stories in our heads. We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what they see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?”

I urge you to read the full introduction even if you are not interested in the collection itself. It discusses a topic considering creators of content from movies to books to art everywhere and Gaiman’s opinion or theory is a solid one that I too share.

I’ve talked about Neil Gaiman many, many times on this blog. His stories are worth your time. In this short-story collection they come from distant places, they are different from one another controversial to the traditional way short-story collections are constructed. So you go near and far within the span of a few pages. You travel light and never land in the same narrative.

You get to visit a tribute to Bowie, run alongside the 11th Doctor in a nightmarish scenario. You journey to caves withholding gold for a price. I love how Gaiman says that this short-story collection fails the consistency test but that’s why I quite love it. It’s hazardous and in that unknown between each story hide other smaller trigger warnings. I like to do this thing that after I’ve read a story or two I go back to the beginning of the book at the behind the scenes of each story. Beforehand I try to figure out where Gaiman might have written it, for whom, why. I never guess correctly but am always surprised at the reveal.

I had many favorite stories here so I’ll just point out a few that gave me a fright at night or rattled my bones. You’ll have to discover what hides behind these titles on your own: The Thing About Cassandra (which I looked for, for ages even convincing myself at one point Gaiman hadn’t even written), Down to a Sunless Sea (which you can read here), The Case of Death and Honey, Jerusalem, The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury, Observing the Formalities, In Relig Odhrain and Black Dog.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

The Sandman – Issues 40 to 75 by Neil Gaiman

sandman_no-1_modern_age-comiccoverAfter so many years I finally had the chance to finish my favorite comic book series. The unraveling of its protagonist Dream of the Endless, Morpehus, Lord of Dreams ending with him becoming a tragic hero is a one of a kind journey from the dimmest corners of dark horror through the multilayered fantasy LSD trip incorporated with classical and contemporary mythology ending with the masterful artwork of Michael Zulli.

I actually don’t know what to write here. This comic book series was the highlight this year as it was with its first 39 issues years back when I first discovered it. It combines everything I love in fiction ticking off genre after genre – urban fantasy, epic fantasy, occult, superhero, mythology, history. I couldn’t summarize it in such a short space here, this legend of the late 80’s and titan by the time it ended its original run in 1996.

Dream of the Endless is perhaps my all times favorite character. I’ve always thought there’s a hint of Gaiman himself in his visual.

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I was trying to pick an issue or issues that I really loved but it’s very hard. Worlds’ End is amongst them in which travelers from different universal plains or realms are stuck in an endless inn called “Worlds’ End” whilst a reality storm roams outside. They tell stories to pass the time and each story is narrated by a different character. “A Tale of Two Cities” is told by a city dweller who one day finds himself in what he thinks to be a dream or opposite version of the city in which he lives, but then he meets an old man stuck there who explains his fear that the cities will someday awaken because they too sleep and are aware of wandering people through them.  “Cerements” the fifth story is told by a ‘prentice’ from the necropolis Litharge which is basically a city devoted to the processes of multicultural burial.  During these storytelling sessions a funeral procession crosses the sky and that perhaps is one of the most frightening things I’ve seen drawn on paper. It’s also a neat foreshadowing.

The Sandman: Overture has been sitting on my shelf since last bloody Christmas and I’m really excited to be able to finally read it because I didn’t want to start it before The Sandman was done.

If you haven’t by this day and age read any Sandman please, please do so especially if you enjoy the genres it combines. You will not regret it.

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The Dark Night: A True Batman Story by Paul Dini

dark_night_a_true_batman_story_vol-1_1I actually did an extended review on this autobiographical graphic novel some weeks ago. You can check it out here. It includes some additional thoughts and memories about Batman, some personal aspects regarding the idea behind the Caped Crusader and is filled with links to cool blogs and videos.

I will shamelessly pull out a paragraph from that review and paste it here!

Dini, a lifelong Batman fan is a lucky man as he is writing stories for his idol. Alas he isn’t a happy man. In the first pages of the graphic novel Dini tells the story of a loner, battling low self-esteem and fighting to float above but always drowning in his self-manufactured misery that generates from falling for shallow women mistaking him with a BFF ticket to a Hollywood success. Then one night, in 1993, as he is taking a long walk home Dini gets attacked, mugged and brutally beaten. He survives the attack but spirals down a cycle of self-pity, self-harm, alcohol and abstinence from Batman.

“So…I got beat up.”

That’s how the autobiographical story opens and throughout it we as readers get to experience a painful yet oddly humorous transition from the pretend happiness of a loner to the downright scary self-harming psychological daymare infested with Batman’s cast pouring criticism and bullying Dini into submission or opposition.

I really enjoyed it not knowing what exactly I was getting myself into and after I read it I was confused for a while until my brain processed the brutal impact this story delivers and how true it speaks for the darkness lurking inside of us in moments of vulnerability. I highly recommend it.

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The Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal

2128495By far the weirdest thing I read this year. I remembered the movie Immortel (ad vitam) which was really bizarre to me and I got the vague notion that it was based on a graphic novel. Truly it is, written in French by Yugoslavian born Enki Bilal between 1980 and 1992.

So, check this out. The central plot of the science fiction trilogy, set in a dystopian, technopolis 2023 Paris, follows one Alcide Nikopol, a man returning, more like crashing to Earth after a  30-year sentence spent orbiting our planet in a cryopreservation chamber/capsule. He finds himself in France under fascist rule following two nuclear wars. Also there’s an Egyptian pyramid doubling as airship hovering above the capital. Le immortel gods are stuck there because they don’t have fuel and the government doesn’t want to give them any. Also they want to revive their rule over humanity. Can you imagine a pyramid hovering above Trump tower demanding fuel or promising destruction? I can.

Alas, Horus isn’t having any of that, so he hopes down to Paris and possesses crashed Nikopol’s body sharing his immortality with the fragile human. Together they concoct a conspiracy that would overthrow the regime and screw the ancient gods plans.

If any of this doesn’t grab your attention here is a snapshot.

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Hellblazer, book 2: The Devil You Know & book 3: The Fear Machine by Jamie Delano

2382804I guess Hellblazer will always have a place on my Best Reads lists until the day I finish all issues and all spin-offs. I’m madly in love with it. Book 1 was rightfully included in my 2015 list and back then I said how much I loved Constantine as a character. He is right there with Morpehus from The Sandman, an equally complex character though vastly more nuanced. He’s only human after all, though he dabbles in inhuman practices.

Once more I can only urge you to introduce yourself with the multidimensional, dark and oft gory universe of Hellblazer, the charming John Constantine battling demon after demon. It’s quite political at times as well, so mind that.

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HONORABLE MENTIONS

Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman

18956270Death of the Endless is my second favorite character in the Sandman universe. I really wanted to go as her this Halloween but couldn’t muster the courage. She is a complex character as Death should be and when I saw that there was a separate story involving her as the protagonist I had to read it.

Simply put one day in every century, Death has a tradition to walk the Earth in order to better understand people, those to whom she takes the hand last. She becomes a young mortal girl named Didi.

Didi befriends Sexton, a teenager typing his death note on the computer one afternoon. It isn’t a suicide note to say. It’s a way to say he’s tired. It’s all pointless.

But after accidentally meeting Didi he spends the most remarkable time in his life in her company and together they help a 250-year old homeless woman find her missing heart.

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It’s a heartwarming story of life, love, ones place in the world and of course Death. She as a character both mortal and immortal is enigmatic and comforting as she lays her pale hand on your shoulder and gently guides you away without fear, without concerns. Reading the three issues was a pleasing adventure offering a different mindset.

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The City of Shifting Waters (Valérian, 1)  by Pierre Christin 

7810429This was a pleasant surprise. I kept hearing about the movie and how faithful it would stay to the comics. Now I’m a sucker for comics and for the original source, so naturally I had to see what the fuss was about. It turned out to be a very neat sci-fi comics with charismatic protagonists Valerian and Laureline, two Spatio-Temporal agents jumping from adventure to adventure in time.

The comic carries that 70’s style of talk and walk. It’s comical and bright in the best possible way with all the crazy sci-fi talk you’d expect.

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So there you have it – my #BestReadsList of 2016. Why can’t I never keep this thing short and simple? I’ll try to behave in 2017.

I’ve got my hands on Foundation by Asimov, Red Rising, some Hunter S. Thompson with his Hell’s Angels memoir and an array of horror novels like Let the Right one In, The Ritual and many, many more. I’m looking forward to a diverse list for next year – classics meeting new age fiction. And a Gaiman story. Otherwise I’ll break my tradition. It’s like that House Stark saying that there must always be a Stark in Winterfell. There must always be a Gaiman in my Best Reads Lists. Funny thing that.

What did you read this year? What made you excited about reading and about literature? Share your lists! This is the best way to exchange books!

I also want to wish you a Happy New Year! I hope you will be the best you in 2017, that you will love and be loved, share happiness and comfort and you will be patient and understanding. I hope you read the best books and write the cleverest stories. Cheers guys! Xx