Rime by Tim Lebbon

Sneak Peek Extract: 

I open my eyes and I’m still alive. It comes as a blessed relief and a welcome miracle, as it has every morning since I’ve been here. But then I remember the reason for my survival, and what came before, and guilt lands with the force of unknown gravities. I despair at the awfulness of it all, yet I can’t help but revel in my continued survival. The two emotions form the extremes of every waking hour. I am, as Luke insists on reminding me, a creature of contradictions.

As if bidden by my thinking his name––and perhaps that’s true, because there are many aspects I have yet to learn about this amazing, almost unfathomable future––Luke walks through the door as if it wasn’t there at all. I have seen this a dozen times since my arrival, and a dozen times I have tried, unsuccessfully, to leave the same way. For me, the door remains solid.

“Good morning,” Luke says. “Shall we go out onto the balcony?”

I’ve tried going out there as well, but have found no way to open the wide glass walls. Luke and the woman accompanying him walk straight through. I follow, feeling no hint of resistance at all. Once outside, I glance back briefly and see myself reflected in the glass, like a ghost from the past.

I’ve been avoiding my reflection because it reminds me of what I’ve done. I see the sad, haunted man; the thin, haggard face; the long limbs, tall body, waving hair framing my sadness. Yet it’s the unmistakable glint in my eyes that troubles me most. The knowledge of a second chance.

“Shall we sit?” Luke asks, and three comfortable stools rise from the balcony’s floor.

“Who’s we?” I ask, looking at the woman. Like everyone I’ve seen here she’s very beautiful, and perhaps one day soon I’ll ask about that. It’s one more question whose answer frightens me.

“This is Olivia,” Luke says. “She’s going to be your liaison for the case.”

“I’m being charged, then?”

Luke’s smile drops. Olivia looks away, out from the balcony and across the staggering view that I usually see only through glass. Now, being out in the open air and involved in the view itself, it almost takes my breath away. The building I’m being kept in must be over a mile high, one of seven set across the wide, flat plain. Silent aircraft drift gracefully between towers on slender wings, and huge airships sometimes cruise in from the distance, emerging from the haze to park high above and disgorge their smaller cousins.

A river flows across the plain, and the tall towers are built along its winding course. There are boats moving slowly along its length. Settlements speckle its banks, none of them large. Herds of creatures I can’t identify spot the ground, moving like shadows on my eye. Birds flock and swoop, and several times one or more have landed on my balcony, cleaning their feathers or scraping their beaks on the balustrade. None fly close now, not with us sitting there. I’m not surprised. It’s as if they know who I am.

“I don’t think there was ever any doubt,” Olivia says.

“You’re responsible for the deaths of seventeen million people.” She has no real expression as she states that stark fact. I can’t read her at all. I’m already doubting that they’re even human.

“You can’t kill those that are already dead,” I say.

Olivia sighs and looks away, as if I’m already a lost cause.

“That’s not what the ship’s records hint at,” Luke says.

He’s only repeating what he’s stated a dozen times before.

“You told me you’re not sure what they show. That they’re so old, you’re having trouble accessing them.”

Luke glances at Olivia and shrugs. It makes no difference. I know the truth, however unknowable it is.

I stand and lean on the balustrade, looking down. The height is dizzying, barely visible vehicles crawling around the base of the tower like ants, wisps of cloud drifting past below. I wonder if there are real ants on this world. Once, several days earlier, I awoke to find a low cloud layer obscuring the entire landscape, only the protruding tower tops visible, sunlight making the cloudscape glow with a gorgeous, unnatural light. It was beautiful, but didn’t make me feel any more lonely than I already am.

I wonder if they’re worried that I’ll throw myself from the balcony. I suspect there are safety measures I can’t see. And even if there aren’t, I would only be ridding them of an awkward, unprecedented problem.

“It wasn’t my fault,” I say, tears burning my eyes because I know, I know, that all of it was.

“Tell Olivia what you told me,” Luke says.

I laugh. “What, so it can become my defence?”

“Just so that I know,” she says. “Luke thinks…” She glances at Luke, and it’s the first time I’ve seen anything approaching doubt, uncertainty, humanity. It confuses me even more.

“I’ve told her you have an amazing story,” Luke says. I look out over that vast, incredible landscape once more, and wonder if I’ll ever feel that I’ve reached the end of my journey.

Available for Pre-Order. 

Tim Lebbon tells us his inspirations for his SF novella, Rime.

Rime by Tim Lebbon

I’ve always loved the epic poem ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and much as I’d love to claim it was from a love of classical poetry … in truth, it’s all down to Iron Maiden. I remember being in school when their Powerslave album came out, featuring their song based on the poem, and every day we’d pile into school and ask our mates how many times we’d listened to it the night before. Their song led me to the poem. I still love both poem and song (in fact, I listened to it only yesterday), and for a long time I’ve considered writing a science fiction novella inspired by both.

The chance came when I decided to try writing something longhand.

Now, anyone who’s seen my handwriting will already be guffawing at the mere idea of me picking up a pen. Sometimes even I have a problem reading my own writing (true … and a problem when I randomly scribble a story idea down and then attempt to retun to it later). But I’d been thinking for a long time about how writing something longhand, instead of sitting at a computer, might change the creative process. So armed with a couple of new notebooks––and like most writers I love empty, fresh notebooks––I left the house and hit the cafes.

Rime probably cost me a hundred pounds in coffee and cakes to write, but it was a fun process. The notebooks filled quickly, the story flowed, and I sensed that my writing style was somehow streamlined simply through the process of brain-finger-pen instead of brain-keyboard. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t constantly going back and correcting what I’d written (I’m a 4 fingered typist, which necessitates frequent pauses to correct what I’ve typed.  An ongoing editing process, but perhaps also a distraction).

When it was finished, I left the novella for a while and moved on to other projects. This is also something I don’t often do anymore, and in this case it did the story some good.  Typing it up––and revising and editing as I did so––was a revealing process, and I’ve ended up with a novella that not only is unlike most things I write, but which also makes me very proud.

I hope you’ll check it out!

Available for Pre-Order.

The Smallest of Things by Ian Whates

Sneak Peek Extract:

IT ALL STARTED WITH A TEXT. Nothing dramatic, just a simple message that popped up on his screen: Help need 2 c u urgent. The number was tagged as Claire’s.

Since he considered himself a prime candidate for the world’s worst texter, Chris felt a sense of achievement when he managed to send a simple where when in response.

Gino’s 6 pm 2day,came the reply, far more swiftly than his inept fumbling.

Six o’clock: a little over two hours away, which gave him about half an hour to get ready and out of the house—assuming no one cancelled a train on him. He almost texted back suggesting a later time, but hesitated.

He had plans for that evening, though nothing that couldn’t be rearranged. Ella, a second date—God, did people still say ‘date’ these days?—though in his heart of hearts he knew it wasn’t leading anywhere. He was just going through the motions to appease Susan, his sister, who’d set him up with her ‘friend’ in the first place. The excuse to cancel came as blessed relief.

Ok, he sent back.

After the exchange, Chris sat staring at the screen for a moment, wondering what could be so urgent; it wasn’t like Claire to press the panic button. He hadn’t seen her in months, not since she took up with her new boyfriend, Bartosz. Chris had nothing against Bartosz; he simply didn’t know the man. Just a tall, broody, Eastern European mystery—Polish, if he remembered correctly.

Claire had grown elusive since the two of them had hooked up—not for any sinister reason; she was simply too wrapped up in her new beau and what was developing between them to spare any attention for much else. Even her band, the Quiet Catastrophe, found itself relegated to the limbo of hiatus, and that was something Chris had never thought to see. They’d seemed on the brink of breaking through, as well, with their peculiar brand of retro-ambient sleaze, steadily gathering an online following, getting bookings for larger venues…He’d never known Claire to put any man ahead of her music before.

His first thought on receiving the text was that their relationship must have floundered, but that didn’t feel right. Claire had plenty of girlfriends with sympathetic ears and shoulders broad enough to cry on if need be; far more likely she would turn to one of them. She wouldn’t trouble him with anything personal like that, not while calling it ‘urgent’ at any rate. no, there had to be something more going on.

After all, Claire knew what he did for a living.

The lead up to six o’clock is never a good time to travel in London: The swell of rush hour is still in evidence, which means packed trains and bustling crowds of distracted people impatient to get home. You never can tell who or what you might bump into among so many. Chris was on his guard, but today everything felt reassuringly normal.

Gino’s was in Dean Street, just a brief shuffle across from Claire’s shop in the upper reaches of Berwick Street, which was one of the reasons they used to meet there. Chris surfaced at Leicester Square tube station because that was the most convenient place for London’s underground system to deposit him. He exited on to Charing Cross Road at a few minutes short of quarter to six, which meant he was more or less on time. Weaving his way through the crowds, he skirted Chinatown and then dodged the traffic across Shaftesbury Avenue before entering Dean Street. Then it was just a matter of crossing Old Compton Street and he was almost there. A minute later found him stepping through the coffee shop’s doorway.

Gino’s was a narrow, cramped room stretched along the inside of a plate-glass window. Chris could never decide whether they’d utilised the space cannily or had tried to squeeze in one too many tables. Despite treading this delicate line, the place always managed to feel welcoming, not least because of the coffee, which was unfailingly excellent.

It had been a couple of months since his last visit, but some things remained unchanged. A great domed gleaming-chrome espresso machine squatted on one end of the bar—the centre of the whole operation—and Luciano, the shaven-headed barista, stood at his station beside it. He nodded a greeting as Chris came in. The espresso machine resembled a robotic extra from a sci-fi movie, though the sounds it produced were more steampunk than R2-D2. This machine was Luciano’s pride and joy, and Chris always got the impression that the barista had just finished polishing it the second before he walked in.

Chris ordered a double caffè macchiato, which was produced with a minimum of banter and presented with a foamy heart-shaped flourish on the top. Only then did he spot Claire.

Nowhere at Gino’s could be described as ‘at the back’, but Claire had done her best, choosing a seat at one of the few tables that didn’t stand directly against the window, and about the only one not immediately visible from the doorway, hidden as it was by the bulk of the espresso machine.

Coffee in hand, Chris threaded his way past a couple of occupied tables to join her. Claire wore a faded black T-shirt beneath a black leather jacket adorned with silver studs, and sat huddled in the corner; a defensive position whether she realised as much or not. Most of the stylised white lettering on the T-shirt was obscured by a combination of her posture and the jacket, but he recognised it as one of her staples and knew what the slogan read: “Ultraviolet Catastrophe: Infinite Power,” a reference to her first self-produced online album.

“Chris.” The relief in her voice was unmistakable. She gripped his arm as he bent to kiss her hello. “Thank you so much for coming.” Her smile was as warm as ever, but it seemed fragile and her eyes betrayed tension even if her voice remained steady. She looked drained and dishevelled, frazzled.

His intended ‘Are you okay?’ died before the words were formed. She clearly wasn’t. “Christ, you look dreadful,” emerged instead.

“Thanks. You really know how to make a girl feel good about herself.”

It wasn’t especially true, come to that—or only in comparison to the vibrant woman he was used to. Still in her late twenties, Claire had the sort of flawless complexion and striking looks that most women would kill for, defying the vagaries of mood and any lack of sleep or makeup. She was tall and slender, with a mane of auburn hair that was tied back on this occasion, which only accentuated her high cheekbones and showed off the inevitable silver earring—a miniature Gibson Flying V guitar—which he could never recall seeing her without. Today, though, her normally vivacious self seemed dulled and oddly muted. She looked vulnerable; which was something he had never expected to say about Claire.

“You know what I mean,” he temporised.

“Yeah, I know. It’s been a long day.” Her gaze dropped to the half-drunk cappuccino sitting on the table before her, dried froth clinging to the inside of the cup.

He didn’t push but waited patiently as she gathered her thoughts. At length she looked up, dark brown eyes meeting his gaze. He noted weariness there and fear—perhaps fear that he wouldn’t believe her, though she should have known him better than that. When she did speak it was with deliberate quietness, as if to ensure that even Luciano, who stood only a few feet away, had no opportunity to overhear.

“Chris…Someone’s trying to kill me.”

If anyone else had said that he might have laughed or made a wisecrack, but not today, not from Claire. “Who, and why?” was all he said.

“Fuck knows and ditto.” She was visibly shaking, clearly struggling to hold it together.

“I suppose it would be a cliché for me to say ‘Start at the beginning’…”

“Yeah, probably.” And she grinned, which he took as a good sign.

“Too late now, though, eh? Okay…” She took a deep breath and then the story came tumbling out, the words chasing each other as if anxious to emerge into the open. “I’m having trouble getting my head around all this, so I’m sorry if it doesn’t make much sense but I’ll do my best…It must have somethingto do with Bartosz… I just can’t work out how or what…I think they killed him, Chris. I saw them, saw what they did to him, and then they came after me, hunting me…” There was a suggestion of tears as she screwed her eyes tight. “Fuck, how did this happen? God, Bartosz…”

“Hey, slow down, slow down.” He reached across to hold her hand. Her grip in response was tight, desperate.

Luciano was looking across at them now with obvious interest, if not alarm.

“Yeah, I know, tell it from the beginning…” The deep breath she then drew was more akin to a shudder. “Sorry, but as you may have gathered, it’s not easy…”

“That’s okay. Tell me in your own time, as it comes.”

And she did, with far more coherence than he would have credited given the jumbled start.

“Bartosz is a dispatch rider, you know?” Chris didn’t, but saw no point in admitting as much. “Even in this day and age, not everything can be handled online—some things, even documents, need a physical existence. ’Specially sensitive stuff, you know? no electronic footprint…” She sniffed, and wiped a finger across her nose. “Anyway, he had this delivery today south of the river, at offices in Tooley Street, not far from the Shard but towards the Tower Bridge end. We’d arranged to meet for lunch—there’s this brasserie in Hay’s Galleria, where they do the most fabulous sarnies made to order: roast turkey off the bone with mustard, and really good smoked salmon with a squeeze of lemon and a grind of pepper…” She was starting to babble, her words tumbling out unfiltered. “And it has a terrace that overlooks the water. I got there early, so rather than wait around I decided to walk across and meet Bartosz after he’d made his delivery. Don’t know why. Wanted to surprise him, I suppose.”

She took another deep breath, and when she spoke again her tone was more measured, as if she was determined to tell this properly. “There was no sign of his bike outside the office but that was hardly a surprise—the traffic warden gestapo are real bastards in that area; it doesn’t matter if you’re just stopping for a few seconds to make a delivery or what. So I went round the side of the building—there are a couple of narrow back streets with metred parking. Sure enough, there was Bartosz and his bike, but he wasn’t alone. Three men were standing with him. They’d sort of surrounded him, and the strange thing was their clothes: long brown coats, buttoned up to the top. It’s been cold the last few days but even so, these looked…I don’t know, wrong. They were all identical, like some kind of uniform—and those coats might have been fashionable in Eastern Europe maybe, in the 1940s, but today and in London…? It was as if they were extras who’d just stepped off a film set.” She shook her head. “It wasn’t just the coats either. They all had these rimmed hats on—fedoras, you know?— like Chicago gangsters in an old movie.

“I stopped as I rounded the corner. Wish I could make you understand what it was like: the oddness, the menace of these three outlandish figures. It was fucking sinister! Their posture and the way they had him penned in…For a moment I wasn’t sure whether to walk brazenly over and show support for Bartosz or sneak back round the corner and not let anyone know I was there. Before I could decide, one of the brown coats whipped out some sort of a gun and…shot him. It was so sudden, so abrupt, and the shooter didn’t hesitate, didn’t pause to threaten or even take aim— it was just one swift movement…And Bartosz vanished. I screamed, I couldn’t help it, and all three of them spun around and looked at me.

“Those eyes…They had no whites, Chris, just gleaming blackness. Three pairs of demons’ eyes…These brown coats, they aren’t human…not our sort of human, you know?”

Unfortunately he did, all too well.

Most people think of London in the singular, as just one place. They’re wrong. Consider it this way: If you were to ask twenty different individuals the first image that pops into their mind when they hear the word ‘London’, you would likely get twenty different answers: the Queen, Buck House, the changing of the guard, pomp and ceremony; Harrods, Knightsbridge, Fortnum & Mason, and all those boutique shops; the City, the stock exchange, and the financial hub; 10 Downing Street, Parliament, Whitehall, and the machinations of government; red busses, black cabs, and beefeaters at the Tower; Le Gavroche, the Ivy, celebrity restaurants, and top-end dining; Covent Garden, street theatre, and bustling markets; pie and mash, jellied eels, pearly queens, and cockney humour; theatre land, the Royal Opera House, and the ballet; Soho, sex shops, and scantily clad lap dancers; museums, cultural events, and art galleries; the London Eye, Madame Tussauds, and Regent’s Park Zoo…The list goes on. And that just accounts for those faces of the capital that everyone is aware of—the facets that catch the light and glitter. The truth is that there are many Londons, not all of them so apparent or accessible; but at certain times in certain places the boundaries between the different Londons blur and merge. When that happens, the oddest things can sometimes slip between the cracks. At those times it’s possible to step across into places that are unsettlingly familiar but at the same time profoundly different…If you know how to.

Chris knew that Claire was one of the privileged few—or perhaps some might say ‘cursed’—who were sensitive to London’s shifting faces; she had seen things in her time that most people wouldn’t believe, and she had just let him know that those hunting her didn’t belong here, that they came from somewhere ‘other’. now he understood why she had turned to him with this rather than anyone else. Claire knew full well that he had seen far more and far worse than she ever had.

Available for Pre-Order.

Ian Whates chats about his new novella, The Smallest of Things.

Character Profile: 

A few years ago, after a day of wandering around numerous shops in central London, I sought refuge in a pub close to Covent Garden. While my better half, Helen, continued with the retail therapy, I began jotting down some notes on the various characters we’d encountered during our browsing.

As I did so, I reflected on the manner in which London possesses so many different faces: the political hub of the nation, the financial centre, the home of pomp and ceremony, celebrity restaurants and high-end dining, exclusive boutiques and famous stores, cockney heritage and the spirit of the Blitz, nightclubs and all-night bars, markets and street entertainers, red buses and tourist attractions, and so on… What if there were other Londons, less apparent, more difficult to find? Londons that brush alongside the city we know without quite intersecting, hidden from view by the facets we’re so familiar with that catch the light and sparkle.

That was the moment Chris was born; an individual who can sense the places where other versions of London come closest to what we know, who is able to step across into these other realities. Chris is a fixer, a solver of problems, utilising his (almost) unique talent to find objects and sometimes people that have fallen between the cracks and become lost between worlds, putting folk in touch with those who can help them, even when they don’t realise it themselves.

Those notes, jotted down while sipping a pint or two of Young’s Special, became a story called “Knowing How to Look”, which marked Chris’ first appearance. Making a cameo appearance in this tale was a character called Claire, based on a tall, vibrant young woman who had been serving in a Berwick Street shop earlier that day. Despite the brevity of her contribution to that particular story, there was an obvious chemistry between her and Chris, and Claire returns in a far more pivotal role in “The Smallest of Things”.

I was keen to revisit Chris because that first story had barely scratched the surface. It centred on the dark side, on the shadows, involving infidelity, a succubus, and a curse, but the potentially infinite nature of alternative realities offers a wealth of other possibilities beyond that. The set up enables me to straddle the boundaries between science fiction and fantasy, depicting high-tech societies that boast gadgetry far in advance of our own and low-tech ones where spells and magic prevail. I have great fun drawing on both of these for “The Smallest of Things”, with high and low tech tricks being called upon as Chris and Claire strive to stay one step ahead of their pursuers, while the story’s denouement relies on a scientifically feasible anomaly thrashed out between myself and a friend, who also happens to be a leading MD often consulted by the BBC.

London is somewhere I know reasonably well – I spent seven years attending school in the City and have been a frequent visitor ever since. It’s a place where I feel comfortable, so provides a natural home for Chris and his exploits. London has a beat, a rhythm, a pace of life that can seem bewildering until you acclimatise, and I wanted to reflect that in “The Smallest of Things”, producing a high-paced narrative intended to keep the reader guessing and intrigued, while throwing in a twist or two along the way.

“The Smallest of Things” was a joy to write and – who knows? – Chris may well crop up in further stories. I still have a great deal more to say about him and the worlds he inhabits.

Available for Pre-Order.

Remembering Harlan Ellison

Once upon a time when the world was younger and maybe just a tiny tad or two wiser . . .

(though perhaps that’s just the way it seemed), I strolled to the stop one day after school to pick up the bus home and, keen to delay homework, sidestepped into one of the Leeds branches of Woolworths—yesirree in those days the bigger towns regularly had several Woolworth stores. First port or ports of call were the comics and book counters (always a healthy display) and their Embassy records stand where you could buy cover versions of ‘hip pop songs’ of the day recorded by other artists (yeah, these truly were wiser times). Anyway, on the bookstand, I saw, amidst a confusion of gaudily covered paperbacks, one book that has, it’s fair to say, pretty much changed my life: ELLISON WONDERLAND by Harlan Ellison, in whose brief but brimming 190-page array of creativity I was to meet Skidoop, a beatnick Beelzebub; I think, member of a race of suicidal super giants visiting Earth briefly on his way to eternity; and Gnomebody, a jazzy little leprechaun in a pork-pie hat.

I bought the book (aged 13 or so—it was 1962) and pretty much read it that same night and so started a love affair with Harlan Ellison’s writing, his joie de vivre, that irreverent and often downright cruel chutzpa, and his pure alligator-like irascibility. And now he’s gone. Just like that.

And so we went on together, with me steadily building my Ellison collection (along with many others), the two of us, not actually meeting until 1993 at the World Fantasy Convention in Bloomington, Minnesota (about which more later).

In the dog days of autumn 1988 . . .

John Gilbert and the Newsfield crew (CRASH magazine, LM and others) came up with a new magazine called FEAR and I started freelancing for them doing reviews and fairly detailed interviews which I was also doing for David Pringle’s INTERZONE and MILLION, Jessica Horsting’s MIDNIGHT GRAFFITISTRANGE THINGS ARE HAPPENING and so on which included Ray Bradbury, Patrick McGrath, Andrew Vahchss Jonathan Carroll, Ramsey Campbell and, of course, Harlan not to mention umpteen musicians including Frank Zappa (now there’s a story!).

Talking to Harlan was a gas, hilarious, eye-opening (and—watering!), and both funny and sad, often in the same breath. The man did not pull punches and when he had an opinion (like, when did he NOT!) he let everyone know. Thus you’ll find many people in the industry hold differing opinions and I have to say that they’re all justifiable. In closing that particular item, I’ll say this. Being some years away from emails and the internet, I sent the article across to Harlan and got on with the process of preparing for our annual holidays then a couple of weeks away.

Imagine my surprise, then, at the docks about to leave for France, to receive a telephone call (I had a mobile phone courtesy of my job at the bank but it was a far cry from the tiny cell-jobs I carry now . . . more a fully realized telephone kiosk strapped to my back!) from my mother who, in turn, had received a delightful call from a “lovely young man (all men were young as far as my mother was concerned, even then, when she was the age I passed just yesterday) in California called Alan Ellington” who wanted me to ring him about an article. To cut to the chase, I called Alan Ellington (a cunning disguise on Harlan’s part) and he waxed lyrical about the piece which, with a handful of amends, he passed for publication.

We remained pretty good friends from that point, exchanging comic books and telephone conversations.

 

Harlan never seemed able to come to terms with the fact that when it was 8 in the evening for him, it was 4 in the morning for me. But I have to say I could forgive the guy pretty much anything, even when, just a few years ago when we were working on the special PS edition of ELLISON WONDERLAND (which is where we came in on this topic, kids, so stay with it to the end as well as this entire Newsletter) and had a contretemps with Harlan calling me daily (in the Yorkshire Dales when Nicky and I were taking a few days walking) and saying things that I like to think he didn’t really mean. Thus the book appeared without the two of us speaking about it, but it did receive some great reviews and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to reprint the book as a trade paperback under PS’s Drugstore Indian Press imprint . . . along the same lines as our Caitlin Kiernan collections. I’ll let you know.

But now I’d like to finish a little more upbeat

. . . by going back to my attending (at the same time as Harlan, whom, I believe, was a Lifetime Achievement winner) the Convention in Bloomington.

It was my first Big convention and my first time in Minnesota where, I kid you not, the spit freezes in your mouth in seconds unless you dress warm. I was up for Best Anthology Award for my editing debut, NARROW HOUSES and, in line with the generosity and warmth of spirit that is so prevalent in this screwball business lots of folks were coming up to me and telling me—with winks and back-slaps galore—that I stood a good chance of winning, even given the remarkable quality of volumes up for recognition. Thus I spent a goodly amount of time the evening before the big Banquet at which the Awards were made, writing my acceptance speech.

And so I sat, trembling nervously as one after another, the categories and nominees were announced until, lo and behold, Small Crowther Person, the time came for Best Anthology.

Now, I’m not going to BS ya on this cos it wouldn’t be fair.

This is how we operate, you and me, and it’s too late to stop now even if I wanted to. And so I will tell you this: for the briefest of moments, I wanted to kill Dennis Etchison, for it was he who, with that fabulous tome, METAHORROR—and Dennis, there’s still a part of me that hates you—accepted the Best Antho Award to rapturous applause. And ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell you that some of that applause was from me—truthfully—delivered as it was with a rictus grin and a tear-channelled face. METAHORROR was/is a damn fine book. And, hey, I regained the power of speech in a short time thereafter.

But there was someone else at that Convention, someone else who, it turned out, also thought I should win (not as much as I thought I should win—don’t forget, we’re telling truths here, kids) and, Goddamnit, he was on a mission to make sure the whole world knew.

So I’m in the lobby talking with Dennis Etchison (who, somewhat annoyingly, was holding his statuette—MY damn statuette, ladies and gents) plus Tom Monteleone and Peter Straub. And suddenly, entering stage right, Harlan appears a few yards away, and he’s marching determinedly in the direction of we four humble scribblers.

I like to think that everything went quiet and, heck, maybe even time stopped, but I guess it didn’t, not really. But Harlan’s presence turned heads—no question. And he stepped right up to us, took hold of my beard (I wore a full set in those halcyon days) and shook it so hard I thought he was about to pull the damn thing right on off of my face. And relaxing his grip, Harlan said “You wuz rucked, kiddo.” And without further ado, having completed his message to the troops, he strolled off like the Tasmanian Devil in the old Warner Bros cartoons, threw his saddle and blanket over the pinto tethered to the bar and then he was gone leaving Dennis, Tom, Peter and me considering the only possible response which was “Hey, who was that masked man?”

And now he’s gone and, dammit, I’m pissed off that that singular voice has been silenced . . . though I suspect that on certain nights when the fire embers are still crackling in the grate and the candle is flickering close to dark, we’ll hear from him again—or think we did. And that’ll just have to do for now.

Happy trails, Harlan. You were a rascal, no denying, but one rascal every once in a while is essential.

— Peter Crowther 

 

Sneak Peek Extract: Uncommon Miracles by Julie C. Day

 

Check out these story extracts:

Change always comes slower to the Midwest. Sacramento, California, had lost power months ago: bunnies in the substations and gas pipelines that had run dry. Meanwhile, DC had emptied of its politicians and any semblance of nation-wide emergency management.

The Ohio version of the apocalypse mostly involved Pilates classes and running clubs filled with other women of childbearing age. Bunny fever, people called the new birthing paradigm, and not in a good way. If you were a woman, you better be a skinny woman with no possible baby bump in sight. Nothing like impending group hate to motivate. Regular exercise had never been so popular.

Even after the fall of both coasts, in Lakemore we had streetlights, local news, and reliable refrigeration. And staying healthy wasn’t such a bad thing. Compared to most everywhere else, it was actually a good place to live. That’s what Steph and I and all those other women told ourselves. And why not? We had nowhere else to go.

—From “Everyone Gets a Happy Ending”

And this:

Horace’s fingers were skeletal thin and oh so hungry. His eyes dark as empty holes. Once upon a time, before the scream of metal against metal had mixed with all those other screams, before she and Horace and the Orphan Train had arrived in the woods, Horace had been different. Back then, Horace had loved the hills on the west side of Manhattan almost as much as he loved these woods. He’d loved rolling barrels through the alley next to their apartment and yelling at the top of his lungs. One autumn day he’d tucked one of their father’s many hand-rolled cigarettes behind his ear and chased a wooden barrel down the steep hill on Strathmore Street, grinning and making Eliza swear she wouldn’t tell, even as he flipped and fell and lay sprawled across the paving stones at the bottom. Eliza had screamed then too despite Horace’s laughter, wrapped her arms round his neck.

—From “The Woman in the Woods”

Or this:

Long before Veronica’s death and everything that followed, I understood the power of film. The one secret that all photographers know: Only physical images offer an actual path to our living world. It is the chemicals—the darkness—the photographer’s intention—that cuts through death’s wall. No photographer is ever really alone. When we’re working, our darkrooms are like crowded railway stations: the dead passing through with each developed frame.

At night in my darkroom, I soak my limbs in developer, fixer, rinse, and then stare—hopeful—as the ghosts rise from the pictures I’ve imprinted on my arms: a longhaired child with stick-thin limbs, a scowling old woman with a limp, a village, a traveling horde, a forgotten family, the father carrying their smallest child. No matter what I try, it is always dead strangers who follow my guideposts back to the land of the living. My wife Veronica’s face is never among them. And so, each night after our daughter, Jenny, goes to bed, I turn on the blood-red light, submerge my arms, and try again.

—From “A Pinhole of Light”

What about this:

Just like every other morning, Momma sat with Sylvia and Grandma in the dim, wallpapered kitchen. Momma sipped her coffee and Grandma ate her oatmeal one careful bite at a time. Sylvia could almost count the seconds between each mouthful.

Three. Two. One. Swallow.

Meanwhile, Momma smiled and smiled.

“I thought I’d plant a few flowers, Mom, to get my mind off of things. You know, therapy.”

From the center of the table, two salt-and-pepper-shaker girls in yellow dresses watched Momma and Grandma Charko. Nearby a crowd of wallpaper ladies stared at them with faded, gone-away eyes. Momma’s own eyes were wide and shiny, like all those nights in Asheville when Momma didn’t bother to sleep, swallowing stuff she took out of that small wooden box. Momma took a different kind of pill now. Grandma and her days-of-the-week pillbox made sure of that.

—From “Raising Babies”

Wait, this:

After Tuttle’s stealth inspection and her second letter, the deputy, some newcomer fresh from the academy, showed up at my front door. He wore aviator sunglasses and very little hair. His pink skin glowed, oily from the summer heat, as he stared down at me. I thought I saw his nose wrinkle as he bent down to give me the papers.

“I don’t want them,” I said, trying to wave him away. This was only partially true. Paper was always a useful addition to the collection. It was the words written on them that I didn’t want.

“I drove all the way out here,” the deputy said in slow, careful tones, as though he was sure I’d somehow never noticed the county sheriff’s substation on my walks around town. As though my tiny stature indicated a tiny brain.

Stupid Arizona hick. I knew the titles of most works in the Phoenix Art Museum’s Latin American collection, along with a handful more in the Heard. I spent my time with Vik Muniz, Mario Martinez, and Gabriel Orozco. When I looked at their works, I felt myself stretching high into their private universes. Breathing was easier inside those frames.

—From “Holes in Heaven”

Also, this:

Peter’s hand moves slowly, hovering above Delia’s bare forearm, as little as an eighth of an inch between her flesh and his trembling fingers. The ghosts feel safest that way. That’s what Peter had told her as he swallowed the last of his beer and set the glass aside, his eyes intent, lingering first on her lips, and then falling from her breasts to her right arm.

Peter doesn’t look away despite the sideways glances of their companions and the uncomfortable clatter of their silverware. A lone waiter watches from across the terrace. Delia bends her head, ignoring them all. She is focused on Peter’s open palm as it creeps above her bare arm.

“Concentrate,” Peter whispers. His hot breath envelopes the outer curve of her ear.

What do the ghosts feel? Delia wonders but does not ask. Instead, she closes her eyes. For a moment nothing changes. The night air still feels dark and cool on her bare shoulders. She can hear the cars on the nearby Boulevard Saint-Michel as the taxis bring their loads of tourists to the Left Bank. A cab parks just beyond the terrace’s back stairs. A group of women erupt from the open door, speaking in English.

—From “Finding Your Way to the Coast”

And this:

When I was little I thought the world must be full of Mrs. Henrys: a second voice safely encased inside each special child, watching everything through their bright young eyes.

Back then, David didn’t care that he couldn’t see or hear or even touch Mrs. Henry. After all, Mrs. Henry was funny. And I was more than happy to repeat everything she said.

“When I’m bigger…” David said. “When I’m bigger, I’ll drive a car all the way to Alaska so I can see the polar bears and the igloos. Esta will come too because she’s my friend.”

“I was bigger once, little David Tissandier,” Mrs. Henry replied in her Mrs. Henry way, and already David was cracking up. “No. Really. Much bigger. With two extra rows of teeth, just like a dragon.”

“Fat whopper, Mrs. Henry. Fat whopper. Everyone knows dragons have one row of teeth. It’s sharks that are all jumbled.” But David was laughing. And Mrs. Henry was laughing too, the sound like a deep hum or a rumbling purr.

Of course, I was the only one who could hear her.

—From “Florida Miracles”

And this:

As soon as Hazel stepped off the ferry and onto Vinalhaven Island, she felt it. The carved stone eagle, the curb, the granite planter set in front of the fire station: the ghosts of Carver’s Harbor were embedded in the building materials of the little town. The other passengers who’d disembarked—even Hazel’s mom—didn’t seem to notice a thing. In that way the island ghosts were no different from the ones at home. Most people missed their presence entirely.

It was June, not even close to the height of tourist season, but the harbor town’s streets were bustling. An old man walked along the sidewalk dressed in a three-piece suit, his expression hidden by both his walrus mustache and the brim of his Trilby hat. A little farther down, a woman with weathered skin and upswept hair stood outside the Davidson Realty storefront. Despite the month, she wore a black skirt that hung just inches from the ground. Meanwhile, two boys in knee-high boots and woolen trousers raced the length of Main Street.

—From “Signal & Stone”

One more:

I took my time, silent, lips soft against your stomach. Tangled sheets. My hands clutched your narrow hips, then slipped higher until I felt the outer edges of your breasts. I tasted the dampness trickling from between your thighs, salt and musk. Like 8-mm film, my movements took sixteen frames one slow second at a time.

Afterwards, you held pieces of your special brown-orange film up to our bedside light, sharing your work. Each cell was marked, scratched, the original image buried somewhere underneath. Your art, you told me, was about transformation.

Even then I made mistakes. Pointed out a slash mark, an odd corner of red. Left the ghost of a fingerprint behind. “Love me,” I cried, finally deciphering the film’s tiny words. The long L and five smaller letters suddenly clear.

—From “Raven Hair”

C’mon now! How can you resist? Julie C. Day’s debut collection is now available for pre-order

 

Sneak Peek Extract: The Wind in His Heart by Charles de Lint

 

 

 

Those days, the prickly pear boys hung around the Little Tree Trading Post during the day, drowsing in the desert heat mostly, but still seeing and hearing everything that took place between the old adobe building and the two-lane road that ran up into the rez from the highway. They weren’t seen, themselves—or at least not as themselves. Nobody gave a second glance to the small grove of cacti crowded up against the base of one saguaro or another. Nobody even noticed that they were rarely in exactly the same place from one morning to the next.

But Thomas Corn Eyes did. He worked at the trading post and noted their different position every morning when he arrived for work.

No one in Thomas’s family had ever had eyes the colour of corn, either the green leaves of the tall midsummer growths or the yellow of the kernels. They got their name back when the federal government insisted a surname was required for everybody, without exception. On the rez they had a lot of fun coming up with names the whites thought were pregnant with traditional meaning. Johnny Squash Mother. Agnes White Deer. Robert Twin Dogs.

No, Thomas had brown eyes, the same as everyone else in the tribe. The difference was he could also see a little deeper into the invisible world of the spirits than most people could, but that wasn’t something he would ever talk about. He didn’t want to risk gaining the attention of the tribal shaman, Ramon Morago. For the past decade Morago had been searching for an apprentice, and working with him was the last thing Thomas wanted.

It wasn’t that he was ashamed of his Kikimi heritage, or even that he didn’t consider himself a spiritual person. But he was only eighteen and he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life living on the rez, organizing sweats. He didn’t want to be making medicine bags for the aunties, taking Reuben’s dog boys out on their spirit quests, or any of the hundred-and-one other things a shaman did.

But no matter what he wanted or didn’t, he still saw into the spiritworld, and the spirits knew it.

Thomas was studying the cacti through the windows, trying to catch one of the prickly pear moving, when the long black Caddy pulled into the parking lot. It was a ’56 or ’57, a real classic and in perfect shape, the glossy black paint job so deep it seemed to swallow light. He couldn’t see a speck of dust on it, which, considering the roads around here, had to be a bit of a miracle. The tinted windows didn’t let him see the driver, but man, you’d have to feel like the king of the world behind the wheel of a car like that.

He straightened up behind the counter when the driver’s door opened and a striking older woman stepped out. He wasn’t sure what made him think she was older. Her features were youthful and she moved with the easy grace of a dancer. She was tall and colt-thin with a wave of thick black hair that was almost as glossy as the car’s paint job. He figured her for a model, maybe even an actress, but neither explained what she was doing driving herself out here in the sticks except that she looked Native—not Kikimi, but definitely Indian. Then he caught a glimpse of her aura—the ghostly shape of a raven’s head on her shoulders—and he figured she was going into the rez to meet with Morago or the Aunts.

She glanced in the direction of the trading post and caught him staring. Thomas looked away, but not before he saw her smile. So much for maintaining his cool.

When she came inside she should have seemed out of place in her tight designer jeans, strapped sandals, and the midriff-baring T-shirt that probably cost more than everything he had in his closet put together. Her skin was the hue of the shadows in a red rock canyon and her eyes so dark they seemed all pupil. The eyes, he decided, were what had made him think she was older.

The trading post was like an old general store, the shelves stuffed with everything from groceries and toiletries to clothing and tools, with a cast iron stove up against one adobe wall around which Reuben’s friends would sit in the afternoon to gossip and drink coffee or tea. But oddly enough, the woman appeared to fit her present surroundings as comfortably as she might a runway or some fancy restaurant. Odder still, her raven aura didn’t rest passively on her shoulders. It looked around the trading post as though it had a mind of its own.

He’d never seen anything like that before. He wasn’t a stranger to the auras themselves—his awareness of them was an element of his being able to see into the spiritworld. Not everybody had an aura. It was only those with the closest ties to their ma’inawo blood. Those who carried an animal spirit as well as a human one inside them. But he’d never seen an aura that acted independently the way this one did.

“Ohla,” he said. “Welcome to the Painted Lands.”

The woman smiled and pointed to the cooler at the far end of the counter. “Do you have any bottled Coke in there?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

His response seemed to amuse her, and Thomas felt a flush creep up from under his shirt collar. To cover his embarrassment, he went over to the cooler. He took a bottle out of the icy water, wiped it down with a terrycloth towel, and popped the cap. Returning to his place behind the counter, he set it down in front of her.

“How much?” she asked.

“A dollar.”

Her perfectly shaped eyebrows went up.

Thomas shrugged. “People around here don’t have a lot of money. Reuben, my boss, doesn’t like to gouge them.”

She pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of the front pocket of her jeans and handed it to him. Thomas didn’t think there’d been room for even a bill in that pocket.

“Keep the change,” she said.

Do I really look like that much of a charity case? Thomas thought, but he only nodded and put the money in the till. A woman like her? She could afford to help out Reuben’s bottom line.

“And how much for a map?” she asked.

“Of the rez or the National Park?”

“I’m going to the casino.”

Of course she was.

“You’re on the wrong side of the rez,” he told her.

“There’s a right and a wrong side?”

“No. Though I guess that might depend on who you’re talking to. What I mean is, this isn’t the fancy side with the casino. That’s south of here, on the other side of the Vulture Ridge Trailhead.”

“The what?”

“That’s just the part of the National Park that divides the two sides of the rez. All you need to do is keep going south when you get to the trailhead. There’s plenty of signs, so you don’t need a map.”

He gave her directions that would take her back down Jacinta to Zahra Road where a south turn would take her straight to the casino. She barely seemed to be paying attention, but her raven aura fixed him with an unwavering gaze as he spoke. It was as if it was more than simply an aura and was memorizing his words for her as well as itself. Thomas focused on the woman’s face, trying to ignore the ghostly presence of the bird.

“Just remember,” he said, “that Zahra changes names at the crossroads and becomes Redondo Drive when it continues south.”

“I will. Thank you.”

He watched her start for the door, the head of the raven aura revolving so that it continued to face him. She paused just before stepping outside and turned back to look at him.

“You’ve been so helpful,” she said, “that I feel I should share some direction with you.”

Thomas had no idea what she was talking about.

“That’s okay,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I know where I am.”

“Are you?”

Thomas shrugged. “I’ve lived here all my life.”

“But do you know who you are?” she asked.

The raven aura cocked its head when she spoke. Thomas had really never seen anything like it before. He’d never seen a woman like the one at the door, either. She could as easily have stepped right out of the pages of a magazine, or from a movie screen, as from that long black Caddy she was driving.

“I don’t really think it matters who I am,” he said.

“That might be the saddest thing I’ve heard all day,” she told him.

That was because she didn’t live on this side of the rez, he thought, but all he did was give her another shrug.

“It should matter to you,” she added. “You should learn about yourself. Embrace all the aspects of who you are.”

Thomas couldn’t stop himself. “Says the woman in designer clothes on the way to the casino in a vintage Cadillac.”

Her dark gaze held his for a long moment.

“Not everything is what it appears to be on the surface,” she said.

Then the door was closing behind her.

He tracked her through the window as she returned to her car. She never looked back, but the raven aura watched him until the closing car door cut them both from view.

Well, that wasn’t weird.

He stood looking out the window long after the dust kicked up by her tyres had settled.

Available for Pre-Order.

 

Sneak Peek Extract: Walking with Ghosts by Brian James Freeman

As William Peter Blatty writes in his introduction to Brian James Freeman’s WALKING WITH GHOSTS . . .

“Freeman’s prose is clean and lovely, painting the canvas of the printed page so unobtrusively yet with such pronounced effect. His writing will leave you both chilled and deeply moved.”

And he’s right. Brian’s first full-length collection features twenty-nine unforgettable tales including several that are seeing print for the very first time. Intense, eerie, and compelling, the pages within contain characters and creations that will leave a haunting impression on the reader long after the final page is turned.

Here are a few tasters:

No one was supposed to be in the abandoned town. The escorted group of reporters, photographers, and cameramen wore paper masks provided by the U.N.’s media liaison team and they wouldn’t be here for more than half an hour. There had been no sign of any civilians when the four CH-47 Chinook helicopters circled the region on the way in and they didn’t expect to see anyone on the way out. Only the insane and the sick would still be living here.

Stephen carried his camera close and he walked alongside Rick McDuff, a reporter whose career dated clear back to Vietnam. Nothing fazed him anymore. Stephen wished he could say the same, but he was merely a self-taught photographer on his first tour of duty outside his hometown and, even after several months of traveling to places like this with Rick, he didn’t have the courage or the stomach to process the horrific scenes with a cold, clinical eye the way his much older colleague did.

They were passing a crumbling house when a hesitant movement in the shadows caught Stephen’s attention. There was a young girl in there, wearing a dirty and tattered dress draped over her skeletal frame. Her skin was pale and her eyes were very blue.

“Rick, look,” Stephen whispered, pointing as the girl ducked deeper into the shadows of the interior.

“The house?”

“No, the little girl.”

“I don’t see anyone,” Rick said. He glanced at Stephen for a moment, as if to confirm he wasn’t joking, and then back at the ruins. “They searched to make sure the area was clear, you know.”

—From ‘An Instant Eternity’

And this:

Every Saturday, his little boy awakens with the rising sun.

The middle-aged widower is already awake in his own bedroom down the hall. He has barely slept in the six months since his wife’s tragic accident ripped her from their lives, breaking his heart and devastating his little boy, but he remains in bed and waits for the day to begin. What else can he do?

He hears his son’s bedroom door creak open. He closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep. He hopes his son will not speak the words he always speaks on Saturday mornings, but the man’s heart knows better.

“Daddy?” his little boy whispers.

The man blinks his eyes open, as if he’s just waking up, and he forces a big smile for his son who stands in the doorway in his pajamas. The August sunlight sneaks around the curtains, washing across his little boy’s angelic face. The father smiles even though he’s frozen inside. He smiles and he hopes today won’t be like every other Saturday for the last six months.

“Good morning, Timothy,” he says.

“Mornin’, Daddy. Can we go on the Mommy Tour?”

The father wants to sigh, but he holds his smile. This is what their therapist, Dr. Linda Madison, has advised him to do.

“Yes, of course. Give me ten minutes to get ready.”

His son’s smile widens as the little boy bounds back to his bedroom.

The father’s smile fades into a grimace. He dresses in silence.

—From ‘Where Sunlight Sleeps.’

Or this:

The young man must be lonely.

There is something terrible about the look in his eyes, about the way his body slumps over the heavy, black answering machine perched on his lap. He sits on the chair in the middle of the barren room, and he is naked except for his white underwear and his cheap watch. He’s drenched in sweat. A single tear hovers on the edge of his pale, trembling lips. He has dark hair and narrow fingers with fingernails chewed to the quick.

The wood floor groans when he shifts his weight. There are no windows, only the door to the hallway and a door to the walk-in closet. A single lamp glows with a yellowed light, but the light does not reach the corners of the room. An extension cord snakes across the floor, powering the lamp and the old, boxy answering machine.

He pushes the button that was once marked ANNOUNCEMENT before years of contact rubbed the word away. The tape crackles, there is a beep, and a woman’s voice speaks: “You’ve reached the Smith Family, we can’t come to the phone right now, but if you leave a message, we’ll get right back to you.”

This is the voice of the dead. The sound has deteriorated a bit with age, but when the young man plays this tape, the dead woman lives on, just for a moment. There is a second beep and the woman is dead once again.

The young man plays the tape one last time, then checks his watch and sighs. He returns the machine to the closet. He wouldn’t want to be late for work, and the dead woman isn’t going anywhere.

—From ‘Answering the Call’

And from his foreword:

In these days of almost gleeful excess there’s a surprising gentleness to Brian Freeman’s work though, of course, you should also be prepared for the occasional slam-dunk when you least expect it. Otherwise, it’s a veritable oasis of calm in a frenetic world.

“When I’m between projects,” he says in his Foreword, “I’ll often find myself drifting toward my ‘finished stories’ folder — a poorly selected moniker if there ever was one — where I’ll open manuscripts and tinker here and there until it’s time to give up on them again.

“That’s where the title of this volume comes from. It’s how I would describe my life with these short stories. In my head, I walked among these events, transcribing them to the best of my ability and then rewriting in an attempt to convey the realness of what I first experienced, but even after I typed The End, they never left me alone. Not really. These characters are still waiting for me to walk with them again. And I do. Often.

“But it is better to have gotten the stories down on paper as best I can, that much is true. The ghosts aren’t nearly as boisterous once the story is written and published. But still, they wait. They often have more to say.

“Collected here are twenty-nine ghosts that have haunted me at one point or another since I was thirteen years old. I’m ready to visit with them again.”

Available for Pre-Order. 

Best New Horror #25 Edited by Stephen Jones

There are some readers out there who have missed one or two volumes in Stephen Jones’s long-running BEST NEW HORROR. So, with volume 29 now well underway and in order to help fans of quality horror fiction to fill in some of those frustrating gaps, we’re about to publish volume 25.

This 25th edition of Best New Horror showcases some of the very best short stories and novellas published in 2014. So get ready to spread your wings and take a bite out of this latest anthology of agony. And don’t forget to tell your fellow fiends about our new series of Best New Horror reprints. Just let them know who sent you . . . The Old Hag.

  • Introduction: Horror in 201
  • Who Dares Wins: Anno Dracula 1980 by Kim Newman
  • Click-clack the Rattlebag by Neil Gaiman
  • Dead End by Nicholas Royle
  • Isaac’s Room by Daniel Mills
  • The Burning Circus by Angela Slatter
  • Holes for Faces by Ramsey Campbell
  • By Night He Could Not See by Joel Lane
  • Come Into My Parlour by Reggie Oliver
  • The Middle Park by Michael Chisleet
  • Into the Water by Simon Kurt Unsworth
  • The Burned House by Lynda E. Rucker
  • What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Z— by Lavie Tidhar
  • Fishfly Season by Halli Villegas
  • Doll Re Mi by Tanith Lee
  • A Night’s Work by Clive Barker
  • The Sixteenth Step by Robert Shearman
  • Stemming the Tide by Simon Strantzas
  • The Gist by Michael Marshall Smith
  • Guinea Pig Girl by Thana Niveau
  • Miss Baltimore Crabs: Anno Dracula 1990 by Kim Newman
  • Whitstable by Stephen Volk
  • Useful Addresses

In-stock and available to order.

Sneak Peek Extract: Plague of Gulls by Stephen Gregory

November in Snowdonia. I’m in the caravan, up at the quarry. The gulls are going crazy, screaming and battering at the windows with their wings. I can hear the slither of their feet on the roof as they land and take off again. 

When I open the door, step outside and fling them a handful of bread and biscuit, they fight and gobble as though they’re starving and then they beat away from me, a white and black and grey cloud. I shut the door and walk to the edge of the quarry. 

It’s cold, eight o’clock in the morning. There’s a silvery drizzle blowing in the air. 

My stump’s hurting. The doctor said it’ll ache when the winter comes, he said I’ll feel the ghost of the missing finger when the days get colder. The ghost is haunting me already, a throbbing pain where the finger used to be. I cup both hands around my mug of tea and peer over the brink of the quarry.

My quarry. It still seems strange. It belongs to me, the hole, and everything in it. The gulls, all mine.

The birds calm down, once they’ve woken me and winkled me out of the caravan. And the pain in my hand eases a bit as I press it to the hot mug. Standing on the edge, I look down into the pool, a hundred feet below me. The water’s always different, it changes with the time of day and the light on the surface. In the mornings, before the sun’s risen over the hillside, it’s perfectly black, perfectly smooth, and I can see deeply into it. 

Dad’s car. I can make out the humped, rounded shape of it, lying in the pool like a dead whale. Dimly, the headlamps peer up at me. Shivering. Hard to believe, not so long ago it was August, the summer, the carnival in town. November … the word sends a shiver down my spine.      

I blink away from the round eyes at the bottom of the pool and look about the quarry. It’s littered with the rubbish which people bring up from Caernarfon: there’s a raggedy kind of avalanche, where people have driven up and slung their bags and boxes and broken machinery, unwanted bits of their homes, their gardens, their lives. A spillage of discarded stuff, snagged on the rocks on its way down to the pool …

A strange inheritance. I own a hole a hundred feet deep, and all the air and water in it. I own all the broken, unnecessary things which are thrown into it. And hundreds of gulls, which come to the quarry for the pickings and to wake me in the morning for their breakfast. 

My tea’s going cold. I sling the dregs onto the ground. I look up to the top of the hill, the iron fence and rusted barbed wire which are supposed to stop sheep and curious hikers from coming too close. Down to the town, miles below me: the gleam of slate from the rooftops, the towers of the castle no more than a glimmer of grey through the drizzle. 

Cold. I turn away from the quarry, with just a glance at the pool again. A flurry of a breeze picks up a sheet of newspaper. It whirls in the air, folding and turning this way and that, and a few of the gulls dive to the hole, as though they think the flutter of white is a gull from another quarry trespassing on their territory. But then they twist away, and the paper settles on the water. It spreads and darkens and sinks. The outline of the car blurs and disappears.

I turn back to the caravan. When I open the door, there’s a rush of air and some of the gulls drop to the roof and land there. They try to get into the door as I squeeze inside. For a mad moment, there’s a brawling of wings and their big rubbery feet and jabbing beaks around my shoulders, as they try to force themselves past me …

‘No, not you! And not you! And not you!’ 

I yell at them, and I beat them off with my hands. They clack on my mug with their horny beaks. And then, when they fall away from me, squalling among themselves, one of them springs forward again … 

Yes, you! Get inside!’ 

I let the bird come in, between my legs and into the caravan, and I quickly shut the door. 

Outside, the racket gets louder and louder. All the gulls in the quarry are banging at the windows and on the roof to try and get in. I pull the curtains shut and sit on the bed, with my hands around the cooling mug. Minute by minute, the commotion subsides, until my little space and the world outside are quiet again. 

‘You,’ I say to the bird. ‘This is all because of you.’ Right now, it’s standing on the end of my bed, rearranging a few ruffled feathers with the tip of its beak. At the sound of my voice, it cocks its head on one side and looks at me with a bright black eye. ‘Yes, you. What makes you think you’re so different from all the others?’

And you? the bird seems to say to me. What’s so special about you?

Nothing special. No claim to fame. I’m David Kewish, eighteen years old. Five years in a dingy little private school in Bangor and then I do so badly in my exams that not a university in the land will take me in.

David Kewish, sitting in a caravan in a Welsh quarry, with my gull. It pants into my face. I love that smell. The carpet feels damp, and the rumpled bed I’ve been sleeping on. I see myself in the wardrobe mirror. Funny, even when I’m tousled and bleary I look alright, a well-made teenage boy with a clear complexion and thick black hair. Nothing special. 

It was a strange summer. Some upsetting things happened. That’s why I’ve come up to the quarry, to let it all blow over. Rumours and whispers and tales about me. About the bird. About me and the bird. 

A strange summer. People got hurt. Was it one or two? Or three? Who’s counting?

Available for Pre-Order.