‘The Gift And The Giver’ – new short story

Another free short story‌—‌The Gift And The Giver. Not going to say too much about this one‌—‌check it out here.

I wasn’t purposely basing the musician in the story on anyone in particular, but after catching Ed Alleyne-Johnson busking in York again last weekend, I’m sure he was a bit of an influence‌—‌although I’m sure he doesn’t feel the same way about performance as the story character does. If solo layered violin sounds interesting, check him out (edalleyne-johnson.com)

And if you want more short stories, click here.

Gatekeeper is still free, despite the price on Amazon!

Gatekeeper_smallI’ve just noticed that Amazon has changed the price of my short story, Gatekeeper (A Dominions Prologue) up from free to 99p/c. I’m trying to sort this out, but in the meantime, you can still get Gatekeeper for free through BookFunnel (click here).

This is only an issue with Amazon‌—‌it’s still free at Kobo, Barnes & Noble, iBooks and other places.

Apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll let you know when Amazon have price-matched it back to free.

Whose voice do you hear when you read?

When you read, do you hear the words in your head? And if you do, whose voice do you hear?

For me, the voice I hear is fairly nondescript, a bit like the one I hear when I talk. To me, it has no accent and no distinguishing features. But sometimes, another voice takes over.

Most of the time this is because of films. When I re-read Fight Club after seeing the film, I could hear Ed Norton narrating it (and I could also picture him, Brad Pitt and the rest of the cast‌—‌great book, great film). When I read Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy I hear the voices from the original radio show in the dialogue, and Peter Jones (who played ‘the book’ in both radio and TV versions) for the rest. Even in the later books, it is Peter Jones’ voice that is reading the words to me.

This makes sense. If the film (TV show/radio show/whatever) is done well and complements the book, they almost merge to become one thing. If they are different, or if they don’t connect so much in my mind, then I revert to my generic voice. So, when I read Daphne du Maurier’s story The Birds, it is so different to the Hitchcock film that there is no cross-over. Similarly, although there have been some TV adaptations of Terry Pratchet’s books, they haven’t been as good as the books, so I don’t automatically connect them in the same way.

Most of the time, the voice-from-the-film effect works well for me. But sometimes, hearing different voices can be a distraction.

group-1825503_1280I’m a fan of the Sterling & Stone guys‌—‌Sean Platt, Johnny B Truant and David Wright. Not all of their books work perfectly for me, but they’re never afraid to try something different, and their books are always work reading. And when they’re good, they’re fantastic. Yesterday’s Gone, overall, was wonderful. Crash was a gem of a book. I love Unicorn Western, and The Beam is constantly intriguing. And their Tomorrow’s Gene trilogy is a current favourite of mine.

They also produce a weekly podcasts. Although they generally stick to the topic in these shows, there is a natural banter between them that often takes them off in other directions. They’ve even taken this off-topic stuff into its own show (Worst Show Ever).

They’ve been doing this for years, and I think I’ve listened to just about everything they’ve done. I’ve had their voices in my ears for hours and hours.

Maybe this isn’t too healthy.

Their written work reflects the way they speak. They’ve even done readings of a couple of their books. And now, when I read anything they’ve written, I hear it in their voices.

For their non-fiction, like Iterate And Optimize, this makes sense. These books are supposed to teach me things, after all, and they are the teachers. Rather than their non-fiction being lists of instructions, it becomes personal advice. In The One With All The Advice (where they pull writing advice from different episodes of Friends), it adds a great deal to my enjoyment of the book.

But this also happens in their fiction. This started becoming obvious to me in the last few books in their Invasion series, and has carried on with everything they’ve written since that. Even with Dead City, which they first released in audio format as a separate podcast, narrated by Scott Brick—‌when I read the book, I still heard their voices.

Mainly Sean’s. Probably because he talks most on their podcasts, and he’s involved in just about every book they produce.

I’m starting to find this distracting. Maybe that’s because I’m noticing it more often.

Some people might suggest this is a problem with their writing, but it is clear that they are improving in their craft all the time (their latest ‘literary’ novel, Devil May Care, might not be a total success, but it contains some of the finest writing they’ve done to date).

It’s often said that the writer should be invisible, and that the story (and the characters) should be everything. But every writer has their own voice, which becomes more identifiable as they progress in their writing journey. Unless they are specifically trying to write like someone else, their books will all be ‘theirs’. And if, as a reader, you identify with their voice strongly, it is natural that you will hear the story being read to you in their voice.

Which, ultimately, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We often choose books because we enjoy a particular writer’s work, and that usually means their voice resonates with us in some way. With the rise of podcasts and videos, writers are becoming more accessible‌—‌we don’t have to wait for a book-signing to see or hear our favourite authors any more. The connection between the writer and their work is more apparent than it ever has been.

So I guess I’m looking forward to having Johnny, Sean or Dave reading their next book in my head.

As I’m writing this, I’m wondering something else‌—‌whose voice are you hearing right now? I doubt it’s mine (because only a few of you will have heard me speak). Is it your own internal voice, or some kind of ‘generic blog post’ voice? I’m British, but if you’re from somewhere else, do you hear it with an English accent or your own, or is it some kind of mid-Atlantic thing? If you’re British, does this read with a northern or southern accent, or a hint of west-country? Has that voice changed over the last few sentences?

And how much of this has pulled you away from the words as you try to listen to the voice in your head? Have I messed up your reading?

Maybe listening to the voices in your head isn’t such a great idea.

Why read dark fiction?

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at some of the things that makes a scary story work (you can read that post here). Today, I want to explore the appeal of horror and dark fiction.

fantasy-2847724_640Horror is a strange genre. It used to be a sub-genre of ‘speculative fiction’, along with fantasy and science-fiction, and writers like Lovecraft blended all three. But now, it doesn’t quite fit. Where some science fiction is considered serious and literary, horror is more likely to be thought of as ‘nasty stories’. Where fantasy creates whole new worlds, horror is (generally) stuck in the real world, with a few supernatural elements thrown in‌—‌and ghosts aren’t in the same league as dragons and elves.

Science fiction and fantasy sell far more, and have a larger fan-base. Horror has been left behind.

Yet there are many important horror works, like Frankenstein and Dracula. Stephen King is considered a horror author, and he is one of the most popular writers around. The genre has in part been responsible for influential TV shows, like X-Files, Buffy and The Twilight Zone (and even Doctor Who uses monsters and other horror tropes). There are shades of horror in literary books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Some of the best-known sci-fi franchises have their roots in horror, like Alien. Without horror, the whole urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres (think Twilight) would not exist, and those stories continue to draw in many readers.

Then there are the ghost stories, and the monsters that everyone knows about‌—‌vampires, zombies, werewolves. There are ghost trains at the funfair. There are the costumes at Halloween.

For a derided genre, horror is incredibly influential.

So what is the appeal? Why do we enjoy stories that terrify us?

cliff-1209263_640I used to work at outdoor activity centres, and as part of this I would take people abseiling. Grabbing hold of a rope and leaning over a drop isn’t a natural thing to do, and many people would (quite sensibly) be scared. They’d be shaking. They’d need coaxing over the edge. Despite all the assurances that it was perfectly safe, they’d imagine the worst.

But they’d do it anyway. They might be swearing under their breath the whole way down, and they might need another instructor by their sides, encouraging them for each tiny step, but they’d reach the bottom. And then, legs shaking and heart hammering, they’d smile.

They’d done it. They’d conquered their fears and survived. They’d pushed themselves through their terror, and they’d overcome. Even if they never abseiled again, they could be proud of what they had achieved. Often, they would give it another go. Or they’d remember how they overcame their nerves, and push themselves a little further on the next activity.

Maybe you’re starting to see where I’m going with this.

For most of us, our lives are comfortable. We wake up, we go to work or do whatever else fills our day, we move around freely, we relax in safety at home, and then we go to sleep.
The news warns us of the dangers out there‌—‌the murderers, the rapists, the paedophiles. It brings us images of natural disasters, and of atrocities brought about by others. Yet most of us will not encounter any of this in reality. It is news because it is rare. If it were commonplace, it would not be reported with anything like the same intensity.

So we are safe.

Yet there is a part of us that thrives on adrenaline. Sometimes, conflict is good. We need that risk, and we need to push ourselves. Sometimes, we need to grab that rope and dangle a hundred feet from the ground.

It is often said that, when times are bad, people look to feel-good escapism in their entertainment, and when times are good darker fiction grows in popularity. And this makes sense‌—‌we need both security and tension. Inactivity, physically and mentally (spiritually and emotionally?), is bad for us.

roller-coaster-654081_640It explains why roller-coasters are popular. We know they are safe (again, the accidents are reported because they are anomalies), but they give the illusion of danger. Hurtling around a twisting track, being thrown upside-down, with the screams of others in our ears, gives us an adrenaline rush. And afterwards, we can smile and laugh about it, because we’ve survived.

Thrillers are often described as ‘roller-coaster reads’, because they take us on a thrilling journey, with twists and turns that toss us about unexpectedly. And horror does something similar.

In any fiction, there has to be tension. The higher the stakes, the greater this tension, and the more we are drawn into the story. We fear for the hero, knowing that they face something terrifying. In thrillers, this is death‌—‌from the villain’s gun, or the bomb the hero is racing to diffuse, or from the trap they have found themselves in. But in horror, it is damnation. In horror, death is not the worst that can happen.

In vampire legends a bite can turn the victim into one of the undead, cursed for all eternity. Ghosts come back from beyond the grave, and threaten to take us to places we can hardly imagine. In apocalyptic horror, like McCarthy’s The Road, those who have died are the lucky ones, escaping the hell that the survivors must endure. In Thomas Harris’ Silence Of The Lambs, Hannibal is not scary because he kills, but because of how he desecrates his victims bodies. In King’s The Shining, Jack Torrence becomes a monster, no longer himself, and turns on his own family.

This is the stuff of nightmares. Life and death are constants, but damnation, and the torture of the soul‌—‌that is terrifying.

Like the person queueing for the roller-coaster ride, or the person putting on their harness at the top of the cliff, a part of us is drawn to the terror. As much as it disturbs us, we want to know what is out there. It’s like an itch that won’t go away.

Horror stories allow us to scratch that itch. They allows us to confront dark forces. As much as logic might tell us that monsters and supernatural forces don’t exist, there’s always that ‘but what if…’, and dark fiction gives us possible answers to that. It lets us in on a world that makes the unreal real, and unleashes our nightmares.

But in a controlled manner. Just as we trust the designers and operators of the roller-coaster, or the person belaying the rope at the top of the cliff, so we trust the storyteller to bring us through to the end. Whatever happens along the way, we will survive. And then we can walk away, our need for adrenaline satisfied, and our fears conquered. We can emerge from the darkness to look around and appreciate all the good things we have in our lives.

This is another huge appeal of horror, even if it is subconscious‌—‌there is an end. No matter how bad things get, there is always a way through. Even though there may be (are?) things out there we cannot understand or even comprehend, we are survivors. Despite (or because of) the darkness, there is always hope. Good will triumph over evil. The vampire will be slain. The monster will be defeated. The night will end. There is always a new dawn.

And, when there is so much going on in the world over which we have no control, that has to be a comfort.