Horror Short Story: Pigeon

I know it sounds crazy, but I’m being stalked.

Even I think it’s crazy but I’m being stalked, I’m 100% sure of it.

Let’s get another thing straight, I’m not some whacko basement-dwelling YouTube star who doesn’t even know what the real world is like because they are too busy reviewing the top ten 90’s Power Ranger action figures.

I’m an architect, I design buildings. I breathe life into them, some of the most beautiful homes on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Toffs line up to do business with me and half the time I’m in the position to turn them away. Get lost, I’m a busy man, stuff to do.

So, we are on the same page, right? I’m not insane or some crazy freak looking for attention.

Good, we need to get that out the way before I tell you the next bit.

I have a nice office – see the previous points, not a loser freak- and the view is clear to the castle. I love this view, it never fails to impress the clients when we have them round. You need to do that, kick them in the balls (or tits or whatever) when they walk in and practically beat them into submission.

What the view and office say is:

  • I’m smarter than you
  • I’m more successful than you
  • People who are wealthier than you pay for my services
  • They follow my advice to the letter
  • So don’t contradict anything I suggest

It makes every meeting so much easier.

If there is any doubt, the customers will seize on that. They will doubt your advice and make their own suggestions. Oh god no. No, no, you don’t want that. They will push back against your prices, want a breakdown of your expenses.

Nope, avoid that, kick them in the balls when they come in and keep your foot there.

You can imagine my horror when I saw a pigeon sitting proudly on the veranda outside my office. I sometimes took guests out there when the weather was nice, a rarity in Scotland. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I quickly realised that the rat with wings was proudly sitting atop a nest. A nest! On my veranda. On my perfect, stylish veranda there was a nest squatting, built from rotting twigs, a few pieces of garbage.

I threw open the door and the dumb bird just looked at me.

“Move,” I hissed, but it did nothing other than cock its head to the side. It was as if the dumb creature was amused by my presence.

“Get out!” I stamped my foot loudly, again and again. It didn’t budge.

That was it, screw this. I went over, grabbed the nest which had two large eggs sitting in it. Without hesitation, I flipped it over the edge of the building. The pigeon barely managed to escape as the crude construct tumbled towards the pavement. It shattered on impact, eggs cracked to pieces, branches scattering. A few people looked up in shock but I ducked back into my veranda.

A hiss caught my attention, the pigeon on the edge of the balcony. It’s previously dull expression was livid, wide eyes, beak open and the damn thing was hissing at me. Did pigeons do that?

I smirked and flipped the stupid bird off, going back to work.

That should have been the end of it. For anyone else it would be.

Not for me.

Days passed and on occasion I would still see that damn pigeon come round. I would look up from my latest sketches, or cast my eyes back after a meeting and there it was. I knew it was the same pigeon, don’t ask me how I knew given all these foul birds look the exact same, but I did.

My response was always the same.

“Fuck. Off.”

Then away it went.

I was going to my car one Friday after work, a spring in my step, ready to spend the weekend with my wife and two kids. Normal weekend would be a fun day out shopping, a nice restaurant afterwards, then some alone time with my wife and wine while the kids played upstairs. My kids are coming along nicely, they sit properly at meals and thank the waiter, they order their own food and they are only seven and ten. Not like those screaming banshees I see infesting most restaurants these days, the parents shrugging as if, “oh well, we are too fucking stupid to keep a leash on our kids, so you can suffer along with us tonight.”

My wife should get thanks for that but I do my part. I’m not shy about disciplining my kids when it is needed. More people should.

When I came up to my car, my jaw dropped.

The first thing that caught my eye was that it was completely encrusted, entombed almost, in bird shit. White and green goo was splattered over the doors, dripping from the handles, smeared over the bonnet. I ran over, almost retching from the smell and noticed it was even worse. There were scratches, little claw marks, in the glass, up and down it, deep scrapes and gouges.

I’m not some clean freak but I couldn’t even bring myself to touch the car, I could almost see the fetid germs slithering over it from the bird dung. God, I wanted to be sick.

I made my way back up the office which was already almost empty. That was the way this office worked, everyone checked out at about three thirty, four.

There he is, the boy I was looking for. Fresh faced, big brown eyes and an over eager smile. Most of the guys (and yes, it is mostly guys), wore shirts, no ties and had a fairly casual demeanour. Only senior partners came in with suits and ties, like me. And this kid. Full blown suit, buttoned up, tie, shoes that almost blinded me.  He all but saluted when I came up to him.

“I need your help,” I said, not using his name because I didn’t know it.

“Sure thing sir, you name it.”

“My car is a bit messed up, needs some elbow grease to get it in good order. Think you could take care of that?”

He almost leapt out the chair in his burst of enthusiasm.

Hats off to our unpaid intern, I snapped my fingers and the young boy scrubbed my car clean. I was going to slip him a twenty, but I regained my senses and gave him a fiver. Hey, better than nothing and I will remember it if he ever needs a reference. That’s part of the climb to the top, sometimes you need to wade through shit- literally.

All in all, it took the kid about an hour to clean up my car and have it looking halfway decent. I came in late, in a foul mood since my evening routine was in ruin. Hey, I work hard, is it so much to ask for that my evenings are the way I want them to be?

I came in, glowering at no one in particular, and slammed the door behind me, a coiled spring ready to snap.

Then I saw her, bounding out the living room, and I couldn’t help the smile forming on my face.

“Look what I made dad,” she said, grinning ear-to-ear.

She displayed a drawing she had done in school, which was actually pretty good, of me.

“Wow, that’s amazing.”

“I’m gonna be an artist.”

“Yes, yes you will,” I said, patting her on the head.

Last week she wanted to be a police officer and before that a doctor. Her ambition must be getting lower if she wanted to be an artist. No cause for concern, next week she would want to be something else, hopefully a better career than a penniless artist. Assuming there will be any jobs in the future that the machines haven’t taken.

My other daughter will survive the robot uprising, she’s already a tech head, able to reprogram my phone and iPad better than I can.

Next day, determined to improve my mood, I buried myself in work. I was taking the lead on a project, at my level I didn’t dirty my hands with the minute details but rather the big plans. We were handling plans for a new Edinburgh shopping centre, smack bang down town. Yet another attempt for Edinburgh to tackle Glasgow as the shopping capitol of Scotland.

Another perk of being a senior partner, I can decide some days that I don’t want to take any calls. I can have total isolation when I want, I don’t abuse that, but it is refreshing.

Out the corner of my eye I could see the bird, sitting there, eyes fixed on me. I ignored it, there were more important issues at hand rather than flying vermin.

I got a monumental amount down, approving plans, tweaking them, seeing graphical displays of how it would look. That is what makes me happy, to see material progress of my toil. I could never be in one of those professions where your actions had no physical impact. A call centre, one of the ever growing middle management type roles. No, here we created actual, physical things. I created them.

In a far better mood, I made my way back to the car.

My shit covered car.

“What the fuck!” I shouted in the empty car park.

Once again it was if a flock of pigeons with diarrhoea had decided to gleefully unload over my car at the same time.

No intern in at this time, I had to swab it myself. With my own two hands, fistful after fistful of tissues from the bathroom. By the time I was done there was a heap of the filthy, ruined tissues by the side of my car as high as my waist.

I decided to write an email to be constructive rather than personally go out with a handgun and kill every single rat with wings I could find in the city centre.

***

Dear KACL property management,

On five separate occasions (you need to exaggerate with these people to get things done) I have found my BMW (proof I am a serious customer) encrusted with bird faeces (need to be proper here not bird shit).

Given that we pay you to maintain the standards of the car park and cars within, I expect immediate action (shoot the damn things).

Yours sincerely (I use words like sincerely, so I am better educated and more important than you).

***

Big day today, the representatives of the consortium that is building the new shopping mall want to check in. Given this is one of our biggest ever projects, they have earned the right to sit with me, not one that I readily give out to mere mortals.

They were interchangeable suits, arriving in a gang, no doubt trying to justify their pay cheques.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “let’s begin.”

I ran them through the plan, showed them some quick packs the marketing team made up, wowed them all.

Then, halfway through the climax of my speech I noticed the mood had changed. One of the men had went red in the face, others were looking at their shoes. One mouth breather was staring dumbfounded at me. No, not at me, behind me.

A row of them.

A row of the damn things.

Pigeons, above my window on the perch, had released their bowels in long streaks down my magnificent view.

On the balcony, watching, was that same damn pigeon. Trust me, I could pick that bird out of a police line-up without any hesitation.

I ran out, swatting at the filthy creature, “will you leave me along you bloody pigeon!”

Impotently I tried to grab it, wanting nothing more to snap its little neck, but it was out of reach, fluttering and hissing before flying away.

All the representatives were staring at me as if I was a deranged lunatic. They had no idea the misery these birds were putting me through, if they had they would be helping me rid of the world of the disease-ridden things.

I barely remember the rest of the meeting, they showed themselves out after about another fifteen minutes. As I was rubbing my aching head at my desk, a few of the other senior partners dropped me emails to check if I was “okay”. Word got around quickly in this place. I was going to go back to each of them with a two-word suggestion, the second word being “off”, but decided not to. Waste of my valuable time to even acknowledge those dick heads existed.

I was relieved when I went to my car and saw that it was pristine. Too bad about my window and view but my car was in one piece for today at least. Maybe they had emptied everything they had on my window. Revenge fantasies were going through my head as my foot squeezed down on the accelerator. I could electrify the balconies, put those little spikes out. No, that would be too easy. Glue. Yeah, glue. Super glue over the balconies and perches. They would land and get stuck fast, I could sip my coffee and watch them die slowly. That would be sweet.

Pulling into my driveway I could see the faces pressed against the windows of our neighbour’s homes, peering at my house, desperate for some gossip from the looks of things. Outside my house, I noticed police cars, the bright yellow standing out against the dull browns of the houses.

I walked in through the front door, two police officers talking to my wife. My wife is the embodiment of calm and collected, a counterbalance to myself. I don’t think I have ever heard her raise her voice after about twenty years of marriage. Now she was screaming hysterically, a deranged vision of grief, clawing at her own face and sobbing. If she saw me coming in the front door, she didn’t show it. An officer tried to push me but I slammed my way past them and rushed up the stairs. I don’t know why but I felt that a terrible thing had happened up there, I was being pulled towards it.

The door to the kids’ room was covered in that plastic police tape, crisscrossing over the front of it to prevent entry. Behind me the officers were shouting but I couldn’t hear them or my wife wailing at the top of her lungs.

Their room was covered in feathers and bird filth, like my car, like the window. Two shapes were slumped against the wall, huddled together, as if trying to protect each other in their final moments. Dead birds littered the room, snapped necks and broken legs, but they had won their little war. The two figures were covered in blood, gouges out them, scratches, their eyes two hollow caves.

My daughters.

Dead.

And the pigeon, that pigeon, was watching from outside the window, its head titled.

I could swear it was almost smiling.

Does horror need to be scary?

Seems an obvious question, doesn’t it? Of course, horror should be frightening, the whole point of horror is that it should scare people. Romance makes the heart flutter, action gets the adrenaline flowing, horror is meant to scare you. The idea most people have of horror films and books is like a ghost train where you get strapped down and roll down the rails, monsters springing out at every turn, jump scares and frights galore.

I would say though it doesn’t necessarily need to be.

Thinking back to some of the great horror icons, I wouldn’t say I find them frightening. Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street belongs in the horror genre without a doubt. However, I don’t feel scared watching those films, they are fun. Dark, messed up fun but without a doubt an enjoyable watch. When I see Freddy show up, I’m not hiding behind the pillow, I can’t wait to see what outlandish death he has planned for the interchangeable teens. So, that is a great horror icon that isn’t frightening per se. Same with Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th or Chucky. Ghostface from Scream, a 90’s horror icon, is the same. Recognisable, makes the scenes he is in, but scary? No.

Likewise, there has been quite a Stephen King revival of late. Stories like Christine, where a car comes to life and starts murdering people, are horror stories but they really aren’t frightening. Same with plenty of his stories, they are interesting, fun, horror but not scary.

Horror can be morbidly fascinating, I actually read a collection of horror love stories. One included a girl abducted by a psychopath, kept in a box for years who is eventually rescued. When she eventually escapes and returns to her normal life, she finds she needs that kind of controlled situation to be happy, a cushion from her PTSD. It was strange, almost deranged at points, horror ceartinly but none of it was frightening.

How genres are defined can be totally subjective, you might agree or not but I wanted to throw my two cents into the argument.

Horror will take on anyone

Horror writers, directors and fans I would say won’t back down from any sacred cows. It’s one of the most admirable aspects of the genre.

If you have a scary story, with compelling characters and a genuine threat, people will read or watch it. You can tackle whatever issue you want as long as it doesn’t turn into a soap box moment and detract from the horror. In several interviews, Wes Craven said exactly that, as long as it’s scary, you can talk about whatever issue you want really. That always stuck with me.

I don’t mean the false, safe we will take on anyone. Wow, that film is so edgy, it said corporations/politicians can be bad. That’s a shocking image, I bet people will be up in arms about that.

I mean really going for the jugular in a way that if it was a mainstream drama, they might not be able to get away with.

  • The Green Inferno takes on shallow leaders

In this, the main villain isn’t really the cannibals, they are more of an environmental threat. It is the shallow, arrogant leader of the environmentalist protesters who really sees the movement as a way to stroke his own ego. That’s quite a shocking character to include, to call out some of the leaders of these movements as narcissists who don’t really care about people. He was even prepared to let one of his followers die if it got more attention for the movement, and most importantly him. Imagine a drama where the main villain is an environmentalist leader, it would be so controversial, it would be trending everywhere. But it sits there in the background of a gory story in The Green Inferno.

  • The Blob 1988 takes on children

One of my favourite films, the Blob 1988 shocked audiences when a child is killed, brutally. While trying to escape through a sewer, the blob seizes him, and painfully dissolves him. You even see him try to escape with most the flesh on his head gone. My jaw hit the floor. I thought the adult might be fair game, but the kid? Well played Blob, you knocked the wind out of me there.

Normally in games, films, novels, kids are safe (the movie Feast inverted this as well). Even the kids aren’t safe in horror.

“Wont someone please think of the children!?” – Helen Lovejoy

  • Scream takes on the horror genre

Horror doesn’t even consider itself beyond reproach. Scream was intended to be a mocking but still affectionate goodbye to the slasher genre (it ironically rejuvenated it). None of the horror icons on a pedestal were safe, not Jason or Michael Myers, the movie is ruthless in how it exposes how formulaic these films are. Wes Craven loves the genre but he didn’t hold back here.

  • Babadook takes on realistic single mothers

I think the flip book scene will stick with us all for a long time. But beyond the horror terrorising this woman, the film takes a close, realistic, all too human look at the resentment a single mother may have towards her child. I hadn’t seen that before. In most fiction, single mothers were portrayed as total saints or disinterested monsters, I hadn’t seen a mother who did have darker feelings but wanted to resist them. Babadook took it on.

  • Nightmare on elm street takes on mob justice

I admit when I hear a story about some scumbag serial killer or child molester, my gut reaction is “execute them, do the human race a favour.”

However, Nightmare on Elm Street shows that acting out of hatred can incite more hatred. It doesn’t shy away from it, especially in later films, the parents who embraced mob violence didn’t create any justice, it was vengeance and hatred, which in turn leads to even more suffering as Freddy returns time and time again. Could they have represented the case to the court? Or pulled together enough in the town to hire an ace law firm? Instead they decided mob rule was the way to go which only leads to more death and pain.

***

I need to nip this post in the bud before it becomes a sprawling essay but horror will take on anyone.

Fantasy and Horror: The Elf Eater

Ityak-Ortheel.

The elf eater.

A monstrous entity from hell, that resembles a shambling mushroom with three elephant like legs propping it up. Tendrils coil around it, snatching up everything it can and feeding it into a mouth full of shredding teeth. The howl the creature emits sounds like metal screeching, the only sound it ever makes, propelled forward by endless hunger.

Created by the dark god Malar, Ityak-Ortheel exists to devour elves, a race he despises for an ancient transgression. Men, women, children, warriors, civilians, they are all fair game.

This creature sounds like it belongs in the horror genre but it is from the Druidhome trilogy of books, a fantasy series. I recently read those very books and it got me thinking, there are some really terrible monsters in fantasy settings. Usually the darker side of it is glossed over, only mentioned once, then it reverts to being a typical fantasy enemy to overcome.

The dungeons and dragons monster manual has some truly terrifying creatures in it when you really consider the implications.

  • A gibbering mouther is an insane blob of eyes and teeth that seeks out the fluids of intelligent beings. While it attacks, it babbles away horribly.
  • Beneath the ground, in the Underdark, slaves toil for the dark elves, a miserable, cruel and short existence.
  • There is a great war between the abyss and hell, waging at all times, that threatens to destroy the universe.
  • The chaos hound is a demonic entity that devours the souls of the faithful before they get to their heaven. After a lifetime of service and belief, it is stolen from them through sheer bad luck if they happen across the chaos hound at the wrong time.

Whoa! Now that is all prime horror material right there.

I think it remains fantasy when the horrific parts are only hinted at, when you really start to go into it, you cross into horror or at least fantasy horror.

Example,

Your hero stumbled across some Illithids, who enslave the minds of others, while adventuring. He kills the foul creature and the people are free. It’s mentioned the villagers were compelled by the monsters psychic powers but we keep it brief, more for framing the conflict than really explain it. That’s fantasy.

If you really go into depth about the horror the villager thralls are in, how they are compelled into acts that they find horrifying but have simply lost control of themselves, you are in horror territory. Fathers forced to feed their children to the elder brain that rules the town, mothers willingly impregnating themselves with alien spawn to carry on the next generation of tyrants.

The same scenario but it swings from one genre to the other depending on how you approach it.

Fantasy horror is few and far between, I really would like more. See a need, fill a need, I think that will be the next novel I tackle. A fantasy horror!

When you SHOULDN’T continue

In the past, I have been critical of some self-help books. There are plenty that offer a refreshing insight on the modern world. The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F**K for one was a good read. So was No More Mr Nice Guy.

Others though are full of snappy soundbites and littles else, the book equivalent of junk food. A McPatronising Advice with a side Unrealistic.

Keep your chin up, smile, and never give up. That is what these entire books boil down to.

It’s too simplistic to be of any real use.

These books can also build business, political and cultural leaders into superhuman heroes. How many times have you read something like this-

“PERSON X never gave up! They had all these problems but they never gave up, never doubted what they were doing. You need to be like that with your own dreams!”

Doubt is normal.

A person with no doubt would be arrogant at best, genuinely unhinged at worst.

It is normal to wonder if you should continue down the path you are on or change it. It’s not weakness, it’s not wasting time, it is genuinely reflecting if this is what you want to do.

Case in point, I studied law at university, the LLB in Scots law is what you need to practice the law here. It is a four-year course and after it, you do a 9 month diploma of law, followed by a two year legal apprenticeship. Then boom, solicitor. Advocate (or a barrister as they call it down south) is a slightly different journey. Most people in the LLB course will become solicitors.

I knew so many people who after only a few months realised they hated the law. They had never really been interested in it in the first place, they just liked saying they were studying law and had good grades.

They should have asked themselves, do I want to continue with this or not?

Without exaggeration, there are people who have been through the whole 4 year LLB, diploma, completed their legal apprentice and hate it. Despise the whole profession. Year on year, solicitors top the charts in surveys for people who would not recommend being in their profession.

These poor souls felt they had to continue no matter what. They had to march onwards, it was too late, they had to go down this career path.

Don’t get me wrong, some had dreamed of being solicitors since they were kids and love their careers but others sleepwalked into the degree, then into a job, then into their life.

I completed my LLB but in my final year focused on banking law, realised this was the career I wanted, a banker not a solicitor- and that’s where I work now, banking. I really enjoy the role, I find it fulfilling and I am glad that is what I went for because I knew being a solicitor wasn’t for me. I had to find the courage to admit it to myself but I eventually did.

Without all the glib “you can do anything” “never give up” nonsense that is dime a dozen, I wanted to walk you through my decision not to be a solicitor after my LLB was done.

Casting my mind back, I am in my final year and deciding if I want to register for the diploma or not when I was starting to have my doubts.

  • Research

I researched and even spoke to a few solicitors and found many of them bored, indifferent towards the profession. That is a big red flag right away that so many people kept saying the same thing, it wasn’t how they thought it would be. Refusing to fall into that, I done even more research. What was the legal apprenticeship like, what about actually practicing as a solicitor. Although criminal solicitors have some crazy stories and love the drama, the vast majority of solicitors were really just bureaucrats, shuffling paper from A to B.

  • What was I interested in?

I done well in my course, I even won the W.Green prize for coming in first in Delicit (or Tort in England). However, banking law, I found that fascinating, and the entire banking system in general. How does it work, how does money work, that had me endlessly interested. Not only did I read all the study materials back to front, I sought out other books on the topic. By comparison, I found my attention waning in other subjects, going to lectures was almost painful.

  • What were my options?

I studied law, I had to be a solicitor. Right? Well no. As I found out, there was plenty of use in having a law degree that didn’t involve becoming a practicing solicitor. In the age of regulation post 2008, banks were especially keen to get people with a legal background.

My reasons for pressing on with being a solicitor seemed increasingly flimsy, little more than I should continue because I have come this far.

Knowing when not to continue is as important as having the strength to go on.

I realised that path wasn’t for me, I stopped and went into a career that I really enjoy. Young Banker of the Year Finalist in 2015, one of the four in the UK, passing my chartered banker exams, helping customers and clients with their day to day needs, the challenges posed by Brexit and the Scottish referendum to the financial system. Exciting, vibrant times in the banking world, far more than if I was a solicitor. To stress that is in my opinion, others would find banking tedious but I love it and I am so glad of the choice I made.

I’m glad I had the strength to say I didn’t want to continue.

via Daily Prompt: Continue

Exploring morality in fiction- or why Catherine is great

I’m on the brink of exhaustion as you can probably imagine.

Getting married in a matter of weeks, preparing to move to London, starting a new job, still trying to meet my writing schedule. It’s as if a giant pair of hands have grabbed me, squeezed and won’t let go.

Each evening and weekend is jampacked with activities and usually they are not fun ones. Updating the spreadsheet on wedding invites, financially planning the first few months in London so we don’t go beyond our means, checking the duties of my new role, proving more documentation to the letting agency. Not fun.

I don’t have the energy to do very much. Probably the best example of that is my eating habits of late. I love my food, my meals are the highlight of the day. The good company of my fiancée and just enjoying the food, lovely. We have a bit of a duty roster, she makes the amazing meals, I do the cleaning and keep the flat in good order, we’re happy with that arrangement. Lately though, we have been ordering food in from pretty meh take away places and I have equally dropped the ball and need to give the flat a serious tidy. We are too tired.

I took a long weekend off work to try and gather myself and decompress after the whirlwind of changes. My better half is visiting her mother, so it was a chance for some time to sleep, relax, catch up on a few things. It’s Sunday and I do feel like I am getting my breath back now, got tomorrow off as well.

Given how exhausted I am, it would be pretty hard for a story to properly catch my attention through the haze.

One did however.

Catherine, the game.

The main premise of this romantic horror is you play a young man, Vincent, who has had a one night stand. How you handle the situation, and other people in general, goes on to form the main narrative of the game, giving you plenty of choices throughout. Worst of all, there is a rumour going around of a curse, “The Woman’s Wrath,” cheating men are being found dead all across the city. There is an eerie supernatural edge to the story which I loved, no surprise there.

I idly gave it a go and got totally absorbed in the exploration of morality. I was tired, I didn’t really want an interactive medium per se but I was fascinated by the story and moral choices presented. I played on and couldn’t put it down.

I enjoy playing games, especially role playing games. Most explore morality but in a fairly cartoonish way. You can be a deranged dark lord or a saint, with little in the middle. In these kinds of stories, I almost always go the evil route. It’s true, I end up the moustache twirling villain, whether it is Mass Effect, KOTOR, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout. Part of the fun in choosing the evil option is the outrageous results that can come from it.

Here are some of the most sadistic decision I made in gaming

  • I flooded a mine in Baldur’s Gate, damaging the enemy yes, but I made no effort to evacuate the slave workers.
  • In Fallout, I entered a plague into the new water supply to ensure that it would be undrinkable for mutants.
  • In The Wolf Among Us, I killed the villain of the game on the spot rather than take him back for a fair trial.

Given my brutality in these games, you would expect that playing this game, I would go the jerk option. Cheat on your girlfriend, be a total scumbag, gleefully be hooking up with the girl on the side, being a terrible friend.

However, I wasn’t.

The choices felt so real, so relatable, I was really in the shoes of the character. The same guy who mercilessly crushed the Galactic Republic and established an evil empire, killing countless millions, couldn’t bring himself to lie in a text to the girl.

A lesson I took from this is when we deal with moral issues that are relatable, it can have more of an impact and be more interesting. I can’t imagine what it is like to be an all powerful hero and having to make a moral decision that will determine the fate of an empire. Not really. It can still be fun, a bit of a power fantasy I suppose, but I don’t really understand it. However, Vincent in Catherine, trying to salvage a relationship, I get that, I understand that in a very real sense.

When it comes to morality in fiction, bigger isn’t always better. The fate of nations and the universe can be less interesting than Vincent trying to deal with the fact he had a one night stand.

It is certainly something I will keep in mind for my own fiction writing.

Short Story: Spore

Monday is a tough day, treat yourself to this horror short story for free. Part of the soon to be released Vermin Anthology.

***

SPORE

“Stop. Look will you just to stop and talk to me. Please, stop.”

She powered on past me, through the crowd, speed walking as quickly as she could. She was barefoot and dressed only in cheese and sauce stained pyjamas, drawing some amused looks from the people on the busy street, but she didn’t even give them a second glance.

“Will you stop,” I shouted again, but to her I was a phantom.

Angelica was only five foot and part of me thought I could physically throw her over my shoulder and march back to the house, but I was too taken aback by the bizarre behaviour. What on earth was she doing?

Only an hour ago we were sitting together on the couch, Netflix on, munching our way through an inhumanly large pizza that really should have served four. Four people with serious appetites at that. I had to hand it to Angelica, she was keeping up with me which was unusual. Normally, being the glutton I am, I would devour the pizza, delighted as a pig rolling in mud. She would nibble her way through a slice, maybe two if she was feeling especially hungry.

I suppose it was to do with our different jobs. I worked in human resources, so being a slightly rotund, jovial sort, wasn’t a deal breaker. On the contrary, it seemed to put people at ease. I’ve read all these studies about how attractive people are perceived as more confident and put people at ease. I haven’t found that to be true at all. People feel intimated by overtly attractive people, it makes them hesitant to open up, the guards are raised immediately. So not being a striking Adonis can actually be beneficial, I’m not just saying that bitterly because I’m fat and prematurely balding either.

Angelica (never Angie or An, always Angelica, and we have been married for five years) was the embodiment of fitness. No wonder, she was a personal trainer.

Recently though, she had been facing a dilemma. I’m forty and she is thirty five, although in my opinion she still looks twenty, When I tell her that, she rolls her eyes in mock annoyance but gives a little smile to herself.

The issue was that, god forbid, she was getting older.

You didn’t see many fifty year old personal fitness trainers. She told me when people met their personal trainer, you should resemble what they want to be, an ideal version of female fitness and beauty. Crow’s feet and wrinkles weren’t part of the package. People could be shallow.

For the first time, she began to really think about her future and it worried her. She would toss and turn all night while I pretended to be asleep- if she knew she was keeping me awake, she would feel guilty and I didn’t want that.

Both futures looming ahead of her were equally horrible. She would be some broken down, exhausted physical trainer who got the pity assignments and made the other young, nubile trainers look better. Or she would end up in an office. To me, that might not sound so bad, but we aren’t talking about me (heck, I like offices). At every point in her life, she had made choices to keep her away from a desk and working 9-5. Takes all kinds to make the world turn, I like that stability and routine, she doesn’t. Fair enough.

The thing about being a personal trainer, there aren’t really a lot of transferable skills to be honest. It’s a pretty specific skillset you have there.

Angelica felt trapped and I hated seeing her like that, it was driving her to distraction.

We had a bit of luck though, just when we felt things would never get better.

I was meeting one of the company’s employees, soon to be ex-employees, in order to ensure a smooth transition. He was a good guy, friendly, and it wasn’t contentious, he just had a better job lined up. Good for him.

“What’s next?” I asked him, conversationally while we got all his documents signed in my private office. I don’t get a private office because I’m important by the way, I’m a tiny, tiny cog. It’s only because HR stuff needs some privacy to function. Hard to say your boss is bullying you when he is two chairs away.

“The government is hiring forest rangers, get some fresh air, bit of fun, stretch my legs.”

“Rangers? Huh. What qualifications do you need for that?”

He looked over at my gut, bulging over the table, “No offence…but you need to be fit.”
“Funny smartass, it’s for my wife and she gets a big tick in that box.”

“That’s really it. Ability to work independently is a big bonus as we spend a lot of time by ourselves.”

“What is it you do?”

“Catalogue all the various animals we find evidence of. Sometimes they ask us to try and find a specific kind if they believe maybe it has went extinct. Usually bugs, nothing big.”

“Hmm interesting. Any more openings?”

“Dozens man, they can’t fill them all.”

I told Angelica about it. She wouldn’t be at a desk, her fitness would be an asset, her ability to fill her own roster of clients as a personal trained would be seen as effective self-management. She would walk into that job.

She applied, nailed the interview and after a few tense days, got the job.

She explained to me that the Scottish Government was obsessed with the environment for a few reasons, some good, some selfish. They wanted to preserve the countryside because it was one of the main draws for tourists to Scotland which made the country money. That’s good. It was also a way to keep the Green Party quiet, who the government needed to keep on their side given the amount of seats they hold in Holyrood. That’s a bit more selfish.

She loved her new job and it made me happy to see her sleeping soundly. Angelica was excited to go to work in the mornings, sometimes she had to stay overnight for a few days cataloguing the insects that lurked in the Scottish countryside.

I did feel a pang of jealously when I saw some of her photos. She was the only woman in the group as far as I could see and was spending her days surrounded by chiselled, handsome guys who looked like they stepped out of a Calvin Klein advert. It wasn’t hard to imagine some of them creeping into her sleeping bag.

It wasn’t serious doubts, she would never do that, but your mind is a sadistic monster.

Her routine was always the same, she would get home, normally in the evening, flop down on the couch next to me. I would have started dinner for her getting home. No offence to Angelica, she wasn’t much of a cook. After we ate, straight to bed (sex being reserved for weekday evenings).

We settled into our new, happier routine.

The only blip was one weekend when she was sent to find some possible extinct caterpillar. She hadn’t found any of the creepy crawlies and ticked the big extinct box on her iPad. When she came home though, she was a bit ill, as if she had a touch of the flu. I assured her it was psychological, she was stressed at having failed to find the insect, the first time she hadn’t managed to do so. She should take it easy for a few days and she would be right as rain.

She agreed and had a few days well-earned holiday.

Then the night came that changed everything.

As I was saying, we were getting tucked into an insanely large and greasy pizza. Angelica had insisted we order it to my surprise. A pleasant surprise, she normally forced me to eat healthy.

She almost ripped the delivery guy’s hand off and plopped it on the table.

Angelica ate the first slice in a single bite almost, while it was still piping hot.

“Slow down babe, enough pizza to go around,” I laughed.

She shovelled a second into her mouth.

Then a third.

I wasn’t laughing anymore.

“Stop,” I said firmly, having no idea what was going on.

She ate another slice, almost choking as she forced it down her throat.

“Stop it right now,” I shouted.

She did stop, looking at me with utter confusion. I didn’t know what to say, so I tried to put on my HR smile and gave a fake laugh, “you will give yourself a tummy ache, don’t want that.”

She continued, paying no attention to my objections.

“How about I run you a bath babe?”

Don’t ask me why, that is always my solution when a problem comes up. Running a bath does tend to relax her in my defence, very few things put Angelica at ease but that is one of them.

She stood up, ramrod straight, eyes wide.

Then she began walking to the door, with forced, almost comical exaggeration. Her trembling hand tugged at the door several times before she undid the lock. She opened it and stepped out into the flat corridor, making her way down the stairs. I threw on my jacket and a pair of shoes, running after her as fast as I could.

Here we are now, she walked down the high street and was now heading to the top of the shopping centre, where the open air carpark overlooked the streets.

She pushed by anyone in her way, eliciting a group of teenage girls to shout, “watch where you’re going, you stupid bitch.”

“And get a pair of fucking shoes,” one of them added, giggling.

Like everything else, she didn’t give the girls a second thought, marching on over all obstacles. Soon enough she was climbing the stairwell as if her life depended on it.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed her arm and pulled, this foolishness was over. I had no idea what she was trying to prove but it had gone too far. She resisted, a toned arm elbowed me brutally in the chest. She hadn’t held back, that was with every ounce of strength. Wheezing, I buckled on the floor and wretched up blood. I think she broke one of my ribs.

She wouldn’t turn round to see if I was okay, she kept that unstoppable march, heading up the stairs towards the top level of the carpark. It was about eight floors up, one of the tallest buildings in Edinburgh, but she was bounding up them.

Despite the agony, the fire in my lungs, I hauled my bulk up and went after her. I managed to keep pace with her, pleading with Angelica to stop.

“Please, talk to me, what’s happening?”

Now I realised how much of a trance she was in. Her eyes were wide, watering, tears pouring although her jaw was locked and her legs never stopped marching forward.  A patch of urine had formed on her crotch and was running down her leg and she whimpered pitifully to herself. She was terrified.

Even if she couldn’t make a peep her eyes were screaming.

She walked across the car park without a second thought, ignoring angry honking drivers. My own steps were becoming more laboured, I think she really did break a rib. My imagination turned a simple stich from over exertion into a splintered bone rubbing at my insides.

She reached the edge, climbed up on the rail.

For a brief moment, I was afraid she was going to hurl herself from the top of the carpark to the streets below. We were so high up, no way she would survive that, they would be scraping her off the pavement. My beautiful Angelica, a broken corpse, I couldn’t bear the thought.

“Don’t, don’t Angelica,” I howled, so hoarse with desperation everyone in the vicinity turned to look, “for god’s sake, please don’t.”

She stood perfect still, holding her arms open wide, as if she was waiting for something.

There was an eruption of colour from her head, a bang that was as loud as a hand grenade. The brightly coloured particles, reds, purples, yellows, like a gruesome rainbow were caught in the wind and blew down over the crowded streets below.

The particles poured out of her as her skin she crumpled. Her burst, limp body collapsed in a heap, like an empty garbage bag.

I didn’t even know I had witnessed the beginning of the end of the world…

FACT

In the summer of 2017, a phenomena in the UK was witnessed in Lancashire and brought to public awareness by Dr Chris Miller of the Lancashire Wilderness Trust. Caterpillars had become infected with the baculovirus. This meant the mad caterpillars they would eat until they were full to bursting, climb up as high as they could get in the sunlight (bizarre behaviour for the ground dwelling insects) and then explode, showering others with the virus on the ground below.

Experts said this virus poses no threat to humans.

 

Problems with modern fantasy writing- and solutions

If it wasn’t for Dungeons and Dragons, I wouldn’t be a writer today. One of my earliest memories is sitting with my friends, knee deep in our most recent campaign. It would normally be at my house on the weekend as my parents would be happy to sacrifice the living room, even if they didn’t quite understand how our game worked.

There would be dozens of cans of coke, sweets like strawberry laces, mars bars, snickers (my teeth hurt now thinking about how much sugar we devoured). We would all be joking and laughing, then I would clear my throat when it was time to start the adventure.

Silence would fall over the group as the adventure started. Seeing the genuine enjoyment on my friends faces as they cut their way through my admittedly remedial stories was a thrill for me, I felt so proud. In terms of the stories being totally by the numbers fantasy, cut me some slack, I was sixteen! Dark Lords, orc legions, a small group of prophesied heroes, it was great fun even if the stories were an unoriginal mix of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Baldur’s Gate.

As we grew older, the stories became more nuanced. Now, in our late twenties, we still find time for the occasional campaign, which we do over skype since we have been scattered across the country. Our most recent campaign is set in a Greek themed fantasy world where there is a clash between mortals who want to be masters of their own fates and those who believe mortals should serve the pantheon of gods led by Zeus. What began as debate has devolved into violence and hatred on both sides. The players are sent back in time by a Chronomancer to prevent this turning into a full-blown war between the two agitated factions. How they tackle this is up to them. Do they simply murder the most violent members of each side? Do they try to find genuine understanding and common ground between the two factions? Do they take a side and ensure the war never happens because one side attains crushing victory during the opening shots? Time travel, morally grey sides, problem solving at a society wide level. Quite a move away from “ye olde town is under siege by orcs, we need your help brave heroes!”

I owe a lot to D&D. Through it, I realised that the one of my greatest joys is someone getting pleasure from a story I have written. At first I thought this might be limited only to D&D but I progressed to Star Wars, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th fan-fics which people online seemed to really enjoy as well. I still remember some of them, most were pretty bad but the rise of Jabba’s criminal empire was well received. Then, with some encouragement from my fiancée,  I hit out with my original works, North Sea Nightmare, Bad Credit, The Shape in the Sky. I’ve made some decent sales, had good feedback, and am pressing on with my fourth book.

None of it would have happened without D&D.

So, you can tell, I like fantasy as a genre, my writing originated from writing these sorts of stories.

That doesn’t mean though that the genre, and especially its most recent incarnations, don’t have some major problems that really put me off, problems endemic to the whole section of fiction rather than one or two isolated works. I wanted to discuss a few of these and possible solutions.

  • Book one of fifty in the blah blah saga

The elephant in the room, there seems to be some unspoken covenant between fantasy writers that every story should really be a dozen or so books. I’m being jocular, but you know what I mean. Part of it is no doubt because the giants of fantasy all have vast sagas, and it is normal to want to emulate the greats of your field (I’m sure I do that in my horror).

It can be off putting to see that. I’m in Waterstones, looking for a new book as I am pushing through my Goodreads 2017 goal. A novel catches my eye and I see on the cover “book five of….” Really? Most the time I put it back down and see what else is on the shelf. Don’t get me wrong, there are some sagas I really enjoy, Dune is my favourite book series of all time, but I am struggling to find many fantasy stories that are one story, self-contained and lean.

A gut reaction can be that it sometimes feels a bit self-indulgent, the author wanting to spend book after book talking about how fascinating their world is without much concern for the reader. Indeed, many of these sagas have pretty flat characters. There are writers who can do a whole compelling character arc in one book, then there you get a series ten books long where almost everyone is exactly the same at the end as they were at the start. If not self-indulgent, these extended sagas can come across as a very shrewd commercial decision. I was disturbed how many writing guides I read that suggested a saga is a great way to maximise sales rather than a one shot story. The fact that might not suit the story you are writing seemed irrelevant. I have rejected that advice needless to say.

We need more stand alone fantasy novels, self-contained stories that you can pick up and finish. Jonathan Strange comes to mind, as does The War of the Flowers. The genre is in danger of drowning in an ocean of needlessly long sagas.

  • Generic vibe

In fantasy, anything can happen. A city that is actually the crown of a benevolent giant? Sure, no problem. A castle that stands at the intersection of all parallel universes? Can do that. How about a literally two faced royal court, where the venomous courtiers have two faces constantly arguing and undermining each other? Yeah, you can put that in your story.

Despite the unlimited possibility, so many fantasy settings feel the same. To look at gaming, Dragon Age, Neverwinter and Skyrim/Oblivion all feel very similar to me. They might as well be the same world, they are almost indistinguishable. If I saw Neverwinter on the horizon when trudging through Skyrim, I wouldn’t think “What on earth!?” Rather, it would fit perfectly with the setting despite being two totally different works.

Fantasy novels, games, films should feel different, unique, there is unlimited possibility, use it.

  • Too lazy to write historical fiction?

David Gemmell was a fantastic writer. Legend was the book that got me into his writing, the same for many others I’m sure. His fantasy world has very muted magic, generally is only populated by humans and has a lot of similarities with real world history. In numerous interviews, Gemmell admitted that he would have written historical fiction but felt the burden of researching the period and making sure it is all accurate was too much. He opted to write fantasy that feels very familiar to real world history. George R.R. Martin has made similar comments.

If you a going to write FANTASY, I think it is better to making a running jump into it, really submerge yourself into it. If I was going to write a fantasy story, I wouldn’t want to copy a historical battle with one or two tweaks.

BAD EXAMPLE

I’m a history buff and I have always thought the Bishops War was an interesting flash point in the pretty violent history of Scotland, where I live. In an attempt to standardise religious worship, the King Charles 1st wanted to impose Bishops in Scotland. There were Bishops across England but in Scotland, there was the Kirk, a far less formal, less hierarchal church, more a loose gathering of religiously motivated people. As the King of Scotland and England, Charles 1st decided there would be Bishops in Scotland as well and all these Bishops would answer to his friend and colleague Arch-Bishop Laud, who in turn, answered to the King. Long story short, the Church in Scotland would have a hierarchy and he was going to be at the top of it.

When the Bishops arrive, Scotland erupted in revolution. The King marched his army up to enforce this but it was massacred. Most the English troops didn’t even understand the conflict (think the typical GI in Vietnam) whereas the Scots were fighting for their very way of life. Awkwardly, after the string of military defeats, Charles 1st said Scotland could keep the Kirk, there would be no Bishops. In order to placate the Scots, the UK Parliament demanded the execution of Archbishop Laud, who had suggested the whole plan to the King in the first place. Despite being the King’s good friend, the man was indeed executed, the pleas of the King ignored. This was laying the seeds for the English civil war.

So, I could write a story set during all that. Hmmm, that would be tough though. I would need to research key battles, understand what society was like back then. I might even need to make the people speak differently. No…I’m not liking that.

I know!

In the fantasy world of Scoloand, conflict looms. The evil Emperor Caharles 1st is imposing his own religion on the land, using High Clerics to stamp out the native religious practices. However, when the people rise up, a hero shall lead them to victory.

By A. Hack.

It will follow all the same beats but I don’t need to bother with all that research or realism.

GOOD EXAMPLE

I recently read the War of the Spider Queen series. The Drow are dark elves who are ruled by a violent, tyrannical priestess class. They gain their magic from their fickle goddess Lloth, a chaotic evil spider like being. She falls silent though, stops granting her followers magic, and suddenly the whole Drow Matriarchy is in the midst of violent revolution from the lower classes, non-Drow slaves, Drow men and female non-priests and foreign powers keen to destroy them. It’s fascinating, I read all six books in a matter of days. This is fantasy done well, it isn’t just our history rehashed. We need more of this, fantasy that really uses the genre it is in, not rehashed real world history.

If it wasn’t for fantasy, I wouldn’t be a writer. I owe the genre, and D&D in particular, everything. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some big problems though. 

Short Story: Tough Shift

Soon to be released, my next book the Vermin Anthology is a collection of short stories featuring rats, insects and other monsters to make your skin crawl.

Enjoy one of the stories for free, read it before bed at your own peril!

***

Tough Shift

 

You can get used to anything.

Cameron had always considered that the mantra that made the world keep on spinning. You can get used to anything. He was becoming an old man now but that one lesson proved itself true again and again.

When people would say “how could that happen?” or “how could people live like that?” he knew the answer. You can get used to anything.

Even the guards at Auschwitz probably got bored, he reasoned. They would be in bed at the bunkhouse, shiny black uniforms on the coat hanger by the bed, the alarm clock would buzz and would groan about having to get up for another to at work. The guards would have become accustomed to the pain and misery around them and had the same chats by the watercooler most office workers did. They got use to the nightmare around them, now it was banal and boring.

Professional hitmen, like the one who took an axe to Big Bobby, the Glasgow crack kingpin, probably had days where they were tempted to look on a recruitment website and see if there was anything else. Murdering people for money would probably get boring after a while as well surely.

Cameron wasn’t bored at work but he was ceartinly use to it. If the public had known about it, they would have asked him “how can you do that?”

“You can get used to anything,” he would have replied in the hypothetical conversation.

He felt at home in the dark tunnels beneath the city of Edinburgh, he knew them as well as others might know their war around the Royal Mile or the pubs on Rose Street. The tunnels were devoid of any decoration, the same narrow corridors and hanging pipes repeated again and again. Those imposing overhead pipes carried the refuse of an entire city, numbering five hundred thousand.

The darkness didn’t bother him, neither did the silence. He felt himself missing the silence as his compatriot blabbed on and on. Maybe it was nerves but the man, some youngster called Nick, wouldn’t shut up.

“I mean, when an opportunity comes up, you need to grab it with both hands, right? Won’t lie, I was scared but sometimes you need to take the plunge.”

Cameron said nothing but Nick continued, “The way I see it, twelve months of hard work, then I can put my feet up for the rest of my days. Maybe take up a few hobbies, I’ve always wanted to try golf. Feels like the national sport, you know? If I can afford it I mean.”

It wasn’t like that scene from Armageddon where the drillers turned astronauts could all demand millions of dollars from the government, a tax free life and other luxuries. The men, and it was mostly men, who volunteered for this job in the sewers would never need to work again and could enjoy a steady, middle of the way income that would see them into old age. Not glamorous lifestyles but comfortable. For a lot of people in post-recession Scotland with a flat economy, it was a damn good offer.

Fatalities did happen but were pretty rare, these new recruits weren’t being marched into the Somme.

Cameron had seen a grand total of four deaths in his time.

The two men marched on, “don’t talk much, do you?”

Cameron used his hand held industrial torch to cut a swathe of light in the ever present darkness. Most the lights in these parts got smashed out because of the inhabitants and the council saw no point trying to replace them, now they armed the teams with their portable torches.

“Think we will see any action? I’m four months in and haven’t seen a damn thing.”

Cameron could feel the weight of his heavy back pack starting to take its toll. His joints ached, that was the curse of old age, even his rubber suit felt like it was made of lead these days. Nick seemed able to handle his own large metal pack with ease although he held the sprayer gun awkwardly and kept getting the tube that connected pack to gun tangled.

“Don’t get your tube tangled,” Cameron said to him, the first words he had said since patrol began. Four out of the four fatalities he had seen, that was the cause. There would be danger, panic, the adrenaline rush and some idiot would try to spray the acid in their backpack with the tube not going anywhere. Nothing would happen, no burst of sizzling acid, and they would be torn to shreds. All over in a few seconds normally.

“Ten years, I’ve seen four deaths, all because of the damn tube getting tangled. Keep your eye on it or you will be number five I’ve seen. That’s more paperwork for me.”

Silence again as the two men trudged onwards through the labyrinth of tunnels.

Hesitantly, Nick spoke, “I thought you only had to do this for a year.”

“You only have to do it for a year.”

“Wait, so you choose to do this? You could have quit by now?”

Cameron growled at Nick, ending the conversation.

He wasn’t going to justify himself to some kid. This wasn’t about bowing out to some middle of the way life. Unlike the rest of these punks, Cameron saw a point in what he was doing. It made him feel satisfied, happy even. They did important work here, work that kept the entire city safe.

Not that any of these clowns or the idiots in charge really appreciated it. Not really, not like he did. He had served on the frontlines and would continue to do so, at least for another year or two, when he felt like this could be left in half way decent hands. Succession planning, that’s what the bigwigs called it, he needed someone in place to take over when he was gone. That would keep the fatalities low and the job done to the highest standards. So far, no one decent had caught his eye. They all wanted to cash in their chips and walk away from the blackjack table.

“Wouldn’t you rather be home? Wife, girlfriend, even just some pals? I can think of a million better things to do than this.”

Cameron didn’t really have anything to go home to but that wasn’t the point, even if he had, he was sure he would rather be in these dark tunnels. This is where he was needed, this was where he mattered.

“Shut. Up.”

Cameron was quickly losing his temper with this idiot. Next shift he was asking for a change in his support. The north-west tunnels were even more maze like and prone to bother than the rest, that was why he asked for it and the higher ups wanted a veteran to take point. It was the best of the best that should be serving here, not people like Nick. Other part of the tunnels, like the eastern ones, had gone years without a single sitting. Not so in the north-west, they knew real trouble. Cameron regretted that a part of the secrecy clause in their contacts forbade contact after the job was over. He remembered Darren who had worked in the tunnels a few months ago, good guy, dependable, knew his stuff. Quiet as well unlike Nick.

“We probably won’t see anything today either,” mumbled Nick to himself.

Idiot.

They rounded the bend and bingo, exactly what Cameron was looking for.

It was a chair sized mound of flesh and dark brown, matted fur, reeking of damp and sewage. Swarms of rats were crawling over and around the creature, a teeming, living carpet.

Pink, thin tentacles, resembling extended rat tails whipped in the air and the shapeless lump emitted a high-pitched screech from somewhere deep inside it. Despite the fact it didn’t have a face, a dozen misshapen and diseased eyes narrowed in what could be perceived as anger.

Rats flowed forward, as if ordered by their general into action, desperate to sink their teeth into the interlopers. Rats were aggressive creatures at the best of times but these ones were practically salivating at the thought of violence.

Nick screamed.

Cameron would have turned to look at him in utter disdain but he couldn’t afford it.

When the city council approached the people to work in the sewers exterminating these things, they made sure they were well prepared. It was explained to the new starts the purpose of the job, how they were keeping the city safe from these creatures that seemed to live in the sewers and spawned through some unknown process. Secrecy was vital to prevent panic from the general populace.

The new inductees were shown footage of the monsters, nicknamed rat kings but with the official designation the sterile and bland hostile lifeforms. They got pictures, they could even see recordings that they had managed to get.

Despite all this preparation, most of them buckled at the first sight of a rat king. Dozens, hundreds of rats fused together in a twisted single entity and leading the lesser kind. It was nightmarish, no way around that, but they should have been ready. Cameron bad been ready all those years ago when he killed his first rat king because he did the prep.

He became obsessed with understanding those creatures but there was so little information on them. He didn’t know if other cities had this problem, if they were naturally occurring or some bizarre experiment. Left to their own devices though, they would breed, and soon the entire undercity would be brimming with the foul monsters. Worst of all, they would meet and fuse together. All of Edinburgh being seated on one colossal creature would keep Cameron awake at night. That was why what they did matter, that was why he refused to take the cash and bow out like so many others.

Cameron knew most of the new recruits wouldn’t care about grandiose missions, they wanted money. The were pouring over the employment information the council gave them. How much they would be paid. The guarantee of a monthly salary until they reached sixty-five, more than enough to live on. The secrecy clauses in their contracts. They memorised all that and tossed the monster information to one side as useless junk.

Nick probably wished he had spent more time on that.

Cameron sprung into action despite his age, spraying the approaching rat hordes with the acidic goo, reducing them to little more than puddles. Step one, take out the smaller rats, step two, get rid of the rat king.

Nick fumbled with his own gun, spraying the good harmlessly onto the wall and not catching a single rat. Had he fired the thing before? Pathetic. He was moving forward and continuing to spray, getting ten out of ten for enthusiasm but little else.

“Go easy on it Nick,” shouted Cameron.

He was actually starting to cut into the hissing rats.

Click.

The spray suddenly stopped from Nick’s gun, the arc lessening until nothing came out the gun.

He frantically squeezed the trigger.

Click. Click.

Nothing.

Cameron realised the idiot had used up almost all the pack during his wild attack and had ran dry. Like it was in the training, controlled, short bursts not trying to do a Rambo impersonation. The packs could only hold so much of the lethal acid.

A rat leapt and clamped its jaws down on Nick’s arm. He gave out a cry of pain and tried to pull the hairy ball off him but the rat had locked its jaws down onto his tender flesh. Rubber clothing could stop the smaller, younger rat’s teeth but not the mature adults. Others took advantage and began leaping onto him in droves, biting, scratching, clawing. Nick fell to the ground, rolling wildly and trying to get them off.

Cameron dare not spray him, the acid would eat through Nick as easily as a rat, he had to focus on wiping out the swarm and keeping his distance from the rat king as best as he could.

The rat king rolled over and a large segment of it cracked open, revealing an oversized mouth with at least seven rows of broken, jagged teeth. Pink, rat tail tentacles coiled round Nicks neck and pulled him closer, inch by agonising inch. He wailed pitifully for help. Then it clamped down, Nick screaming from inside the rat kings mouth as it awkwardly chewed, shredding him into bloody chunks, blood spraying like a fountain.

Cameron knew Nick was a goner now, and directed his fire to the rat king, dousing the foul creature in thick, viscous acid. It wailed in pain and started to dissolve into itself, pausing only to burp out what looked like Nicks left cheek.

There was the sizzling for several minutes and then nothing.

Silence.

Back to the normal silence.

Nick was missing the top quarter of his body, gone in the pile of discoloured slime that was the rat king. Five fatalities Cameron had seen now. Four from a tangled hose. One from excessive overuse of pack acid. He would make a note of that in his report and suggest it be included in future training.

Per procedure, he removed the equipment and doused Nicks body in the acid. It was easier that his head was missing, spraying a recruit in the face with acid wasn’t a pleasant activity. Within in a few minutes, there would be no evidence he ever existed. The formerly chatty young man would be brown goo soon enough and Cameron would meet his replacement tomorrow, not breathing a word about his predecessor.

Time to head home before the shift tomorrow. Home, glass of milky tea, biscuit, and then lie in bed with the tv on.

You could get used to anything.

***

I hope you enjoyed that, it was fun writing it as always.

If they even make it into a film, I would insists the rat king be animatronic or a puppet and not CGI haha.

The Power of Nightmares

We spend a lot of time thinking about our hopes and dreams for the future. It’s natural, we want to be positive and it is fun to daydream about where we want to be.

It is easy for my mind to drift over to what I want to happen. I want to be a successful writer and blogger, success being defined by myself as widely read and the writing having an impact of some kind on the reader (scaring them with my horror stories for example). In my day dreams, I can see myself reaching the upper echelons of the banking world and being well respected in the field. I want my upcoming marriage to be long and happy, full of romantic times and fun.

Dreams are useful, they give us comfort.

Nightmares are important as well though, just as important as dreams. It doesn’t seem that way, whenever we dwell on nightmares, we are often told to bury it or be more positive. I don’t think that is the best way to look at our darker thoughts.

What we are afraid of and what makes us feel uncomfortable defines us as much as what we want. It can drive us to action, help us discover more about ourselves and face some of our problems.

I want to give some examples of how my nightmares and fears have driven me to positive actions.

Example 1 The Scottish Referendum

I didn’t want the Scottish Referendum to happen and was filled with dread when it was officially announced by the First Minister at the time. As it went into full swing, this feeling only grew.

My nightmare was in a mindless nationalist fervour, we would break away from the UK, not considering the consequences. Working in banking, I knew how fragile our economy was, I could see it totally collapsing like a house of cards. We would go from the strongman of Europe to another Greece, an economic basket case people would avoid like the plague. Our extensive public services would fail, from free universities to the national health service which were barely balancing even before the referendum. A besieged political leadership, the ones who promised utopia, would blame some group or another for the failures. Given the toxic debate, friendly relations with England would be difficult. Spain had vowed not to allow an independent Scotland into the EU and seemed hell bent on making things as hard as possible for us (in order to stifle Catalan and Basque separatists in their own country).

The country I love and live in would be destroyed. Would I be part of a doomed generation trying to cobble it together so maybe the next generation could have an easier time? Would I leave for Canada or the US to try my luck there?

I decided that, driven by this nightmare vision of the future, I was going to get stuck into the political debate. I went door knocking and delivered leaflets for Better Together, the Unionists’ body in Scotland. I signed up to various newsletters to ensure I was fully aware of how the referendum was progressing. On the night of the election, my fiancée and I stayed up all night as each result was coming in.

When victory was announced, we majority of Scots breathed a sigh of relief. I went to the nearby supermarket and bought a big magnum bottle of prosecco, my fiancée and I had a toast to the United Kingdom surviving.

I wouldn’t have joined the fight if I didn’t want to address some of the darker, worrying thoughts I had about the future of the country.

If the separatists at the time had tried to tackle the nightmares and worst thoughts of the voters, they could have won. If they acknowledged how difficult this was going to be, an uphill struggle, industries would be damaged or even destroyed. If they set out their plans to address this, tapped into the nightmares and tried to deal with it, they probably would have won. Instead they simply glossed over it. Separating from the UK would lead to a golden age, we would all be rich and happy, crime would end, there would be an economic boom and unemployment would end, Scotland would be invited to all the most important tables in world politics, rubbing shoulders with the US, China, Russia.

If you didn’t buy into it, if you were worried or concerned about any of these assertations or wanted proof, you were a fearmonger, a traitor, not-Scottish.

The separatist SNP government tried to rely totally on dreams and not address the flip side- and lost, pretty badly. They then proceeded to lose a majority in the Scottish Parliament for the same reason. And then lost a bunch of MPs in the UK parliament again.

Whether you support them or not, you have to admit, not addressing concerns people had has backfired horribly on them.

Compare that with the recent Brexit vote. I thought whatever happened, the UK would survive and be okay. I wasn’t as interested or concerned, I was positive that no matter what happened, we would push through it and as such I took less action. If we stayed in the EU, I could see advantages to that. If we left, fair enough, I can see why. I was disengaged though.

Example 2 Body Horror

As you can tell from the fact I write hard core horror stories in my free time, I don’t scare easy. I can sit comfortably through horror films and read entire horror sagas, enjoy them but not really feel to creeped out or scares.

The Blob 1988, the remake.

That movie, freaks me out.

Now if I was all positive thoughts and great dreams, I would avoid it and movies like it, and never really grow. Instead I wanted to know why I was so freaked out by it. I realised that when the Blob eats people, it painfully dissolves them, mutating them and they feel every agonizing moment.

This led me to realise that the subgenre of body horror is what taps a nerve with me and watched similar films to it. The Thing, The Fly, The Stuff.

I realised that these films scared me in part because the idea of my own body failing was so frightening to me. My nightmare was my body could fail. I don’t have any physical disabilities and take it for granted how easy it is for me to do what I want. The idea of being unable to do what I want does scare me, and part of that is vanity, I wouldn’t like the idea of having to be dependent on someone else to help me if it was an extreme disability or the like.

I wouldn’t say I have conquered that fear but I understand it as part of my psychological make up.  If I had glossed over my nightmare, something that makes me uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have realised this about myself.

Example 3 Relationships

I was recently at a steak restaurant in Edinburgh, Millar and Carter, with my fiancée. It is a great restaurant with amazing food. We were laughing, chatting, having a great time. We have been together six years but sitting down to a dinner together is still one of my favourite things to do. The waiting staff were friendly and very well informed, happy to give advice on steak/wine pairings.

Right next to us was an older couple who looked totally miserable. They ordered a steak, barking they wanted it well done despite the pleading waiter suggesting at most the steak should be medium. They picked the “house red” not caring what was in it, wanting a drink and nothing more. They barely said a word over the whole dinner. If you think it can be distracting having a noisy couple near you, try a totally silent one. It’s even worse.

My dream is to have a happy marriage, that is important to me. However my nightmare is ending up like one of those couples. Those negative thoughts drive positive actions. If we have a problem, we discuss it. I go out my way to make romantic gestures even after all these years and at the same time we can just laze around too.

If I was all positive, ignored all negative thoughts, I would dream of my happy marriage and expect everything to fall into place. The voice saying I shouldn’t take my partner for granted is born of nightmares but leads to positive actions. I embrace it rather than ignore it or refuse it even exists.

****

Stay focused on your dreams but don’t ignore your nightmares, they might be trying to drive some positive actions out of you.