New short story in ‘It’s Behind You’ anthology

This has been out for a few days now, so apologies if you already know about it, but I have a new short story in an anthology, available on Amazon as both an e-book and a paperback.

It's Behind YouThe anthology is called It’s Behind You, and is a collection of stories based around fear (and yes, a couple of the stories do feature clowns). My story is The Reason We Run, a post-apocalyptic thing that might be a twisted love story (don’t want to give too much away, but you can probably guess it’s going to be dark).

The e-book is currently 99p / 99c (a bargain for seventeen stories and one poem), and you can find it at the links below:

E-book (UK/USA)

Paperback (UK/USA)


Riled Dogs (Dominions IV) now available to pre-order

The next story in the Dominions series, Riled Dogs, is now available to pre-order for only 99p/99c.

Riled Dogs (Dominions IV)The only certainty in life is death.

Genna can’t let her guard down, even for a moment. Running a district is hard work, and there are always those determined to undermine her. And now she has a fugitive from the Dome to protect, someone who is still seen as a threat to be neutralised.

Then there is her old enemy to the east, an enemy who appears to have new, worryingly powerful weapons. Already, the dog is snapping at her heels. Genna knows that is it only a matter of time before he attacks.

And if he wins, she could lose everything.

Click here to pre-order now‌—‌the price will rise a few days after the book is released on 27th March.

Is reading fiction useful?

A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the use of story in relating real-world events, and how this engages us on an emotional level (and you can read that post here). But what about fiction?

Fiction obviously uses story to engage us, but using imagined events. We might become wrapped up in the plight of the protagonist, but we know it’s all make-believe. It’s entertainment, with an emotional pull to keep us reading/listening.

But there’s more to it that that.

Think, for a moment, what children do when they play. They make up worlds and characters, and seem to exist in a make-believe world. But this play is important, because it enables the child to learn. Through pretending to be an intrepid explorer, or a doctor, or a teacher, the child is learning how they might cope indifferent situations. They are developing an understanding of the way the world works.

Fiction works in a similar way, by allowing us to explore settings and situations that are unfamiliar to us. And there’s a quote from Stephen King that encapsulates this‌—‌’We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones.’

Cope with Horrors

Obviously, that doesn’t mean we read a book like Salem’s Lot to learn how to deal with a town overrun by vampires, and The Shining isn’t a manual on how to cope with a deranged writer when cut off in a creepy old hotel. But these books do deal with characters facing situations that they never even considered could happen. They deal with characters who have to make difficult decisions, often requiring them to go against what they would normally do. In The Shining, Jack’s wife doesn’t want to leave him, but she had to think the well-being of both herself and her son. In Salem’s Lot, as more members of the town become vampires, characters are forced to confront their own feelings towards friends who are now turning on them.

But the characters don’t always make the best decisions. King says the horrors help us cope‌—‌they don’t simply give us a list of actions to follow. The best stories don’t tell us what to think, even though they might nudge us in a certain direction. Sometimes, the lesson in the book (the ‘coping strategy’) is not obvious. Of course it isn’t. Nobody likes being told what to do, and if our fiction did just that, how many of us would continue reading?

Sometimes (most of the time?) what we learn from a work of fiction will depend on us at that particular time. The same work can have different meanings, all equally valid, for different people. Take Lord Of The Rings‌—‌is this a simple tale of good overcoming evil, or is there more to it? Frodo cannot let go of the ring at the end, so what does that tell you about either the power behind the ring or Frodo’s character? Maybe Sam is the real hero‌—‌the one with no real power, who doesn’t want to be there except that he is loyal to his friend, but who ends up carrying Frodo for so much of the story‌—‌and the lesson here is that we can look past our own fears and limitations. And what of Golum‌—‌is he villain or victim, and what does his plight tell us about ourselves? There is clearly a warning about greed, but is there also a fatalistic lesson in how our desires can control us no matter how hard we try to fight? And what does the way we view him tell us about ourselves, and how we see others who are ‘evil’? Does our attitude to Golum change as we realise how he has been manipulated?

It’s a vast book, and there’s clearly more that can be drawn out‌—‌but only when we start to question. We put ourselves in the characters’ positions, and ask what we might do (or what we’d like to imagine we’d do, if we didn’t freeze with fear the moment an orc appeared).

Purpose of Storytellers

Brandon Sanderson put it this way‌—‌’The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.’ And a good storyteller will often leave the answers open. A well-crafted story will force questions into our minds, where they will ruminate for days. Think of the character of Hannibal in Thomas Harris’ books (such as The Silence Of The Lambs), and ask why we are drawn to an unrepentant cannibal?

America Psycho is another book that provokes questions. On the face of it, the book is a nasty tale of a sociopathic killer. But it’s also about money and wealth. It’s about power, and the lack of it. Why is Patrick Batemen such a despicable creature? Is he simply evil, or has something pushed him to this point? Is he, like Golum, corrupted by a power that he never saw coming? And what of the revelation (spoiler alert) that the killings are all in his head? Does this make him less of a monster, or does the way his mind convinces him that he has killed make him more evil?

Are there definite answers to these questions? I’d say no. Bret Easton Ellis is well-known for not explaining his book, and that is good. The reader needs to pull whatever they can from his stories. And that means one person’s answers will be different to another’s. Because we are all different. We all have different questions, and seek different answers.
But surely this is all academic. We’re discussing fiction, and characters who don’t exist in real life. What difference can this make to our day-to-day lives? So what if we analyse‌—‌it’s all make-believe.

Hopefully you’re ahead of me here.

We think, and we question. The answers we arrive at affect the way we think, and that alters the way we see the world. And, when so many books are, at their heart, about humanity, and about the way people respond to others, this alters the way we see those around us. It alters our whole world-view.

We could make these changes through other means‌—‌philosophical discussion, or ‘education’ (whatever that means). If we want people to think a certain way, we could simply tell them. We could come up with a set of rules, or instructions. But stories speak to us in a way facts and data cannot. Stories reach deep inside and force us to step outside ourselves. Stories show us a world far wider than anything we can imagine.

And that is why, throughout history, fictional stories have been used for the advancement of mankind. From camp-fire tales, to religious parables, to morality tales, stories have always been at the forefront of guiding us in our journey through life.

Yes, fiction can change us. Think of the anti-war sentiment in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, or the challenge to prejudiced ideas in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Think of the chilling vision of the future in George Orwell’s 1984. And then think of the books you’ve read, the books that have stayed with you. Maybe the ones you re-read, the ones that are still opening up their secrets. The stories that are still making you think.

I’ll finish with another quote, this time form Neil Gaiman. His stories are larger-than-life, with fantastical elements, and I don’t think it is any surprise that he writes for both adults and children. He understands how those age-old primal stories can be a force for good, and he knows that we should never lose that child inside, the one that play-acts as a way of solving difficult problems before they even appear. He understands the power in stories. And that is why he said, ‘Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.’

Dragons Can Be Beaten

New short story ‘…if you only walk long enough’

Bit of an odd short for you this time. Not sure where the idea came from (although the quote from another book hidden in this story might be part of it), and the title was slow in coming (and is another quote from a different book), but I’m pleased with how it turned out.

It’s called ‘…if you only walk long enough‘, and you can read it here. As usual, I’d love to hear any thoughts on it (I’m interested to see how many people spot where the quotes come from — the one used in the story itself is becoming something of a classic now).

If you want more short fiction, don’t forget the other forty-two stories on this site. You can read them here (and if we’re playing about with quotes, the number forty-two could count as another).

The World is Built on Stories

We have told stories probably since we first developed language. Maybe language came about because we wanted to tell stories. There’s something in-built about the need to relate events that have happened, to us or to others. There is a need for companionship, and for camaraderie, and stories are instrumental in initiating and strengthening bonds with others.

Of course, good stories entertain. They might make us laugh, or make us cry. They might scare us, or take us on a wonderful journey. But they are often fun. We don’t have to be forced to endure stories‌—‌we choose to listen, or watch them played out, or read them.

But stories do more than entertain. They instruct. It is easy to imagine our ancestors after a day’s hunt, relaxing around a fire and swapping tales of their day’s adventures. They told stories of what worked, and what didn’t. And through these stories, they learnt.

people-2557508_640The same thing happens today. Parents tell stories to their children as ways of explaining the world, and as guide to behaviour‌—‌Santa, the tooth fairy, all the lessons of good and evil in bedtime-stories. Religions use stories, too‌—‌tale of miracles, morality stories, parables and so on. And even science uses stories. Evolution is explained as a ‘survival of the fittest’ tale, where those who are better suited are the ones who live on. The water cycle is presented as a journey.

That doesn’t mean these stories are fabrications, just that they are ways of explaining concepts.

Over time, these stories change. Once, the sun rose because some god-like being willed it so, or because some larger-than-life being dragged the sun across the sky. Then we discovered more about the universe, and our place in it. And now, we know that our fairly small planet spins around a star. We know about the orbits of the other planets, and we know about other universes. We have gone back in time to discover how (probably) things came into being. And we have searched forward, seeking an answer to what will one day happen.

Yet this is still a story. The journey of the universe, from big bang to whatever happens at the end (heat death?) A journey is always a story, and we can learn from any journey.

But stories do more than entertain and inform. I would argue that stories are one of the major things that separates us from other creatures. Stories make us human.

The word story comes to us from the Latin historia, and was originally used to describe a narrative of an important event. It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that it came to mean a fictional tale, but we still use the word in that original meaning. We are presented with stories every time we read or watch or listen to the news. Think about the number of times news-readers say ‘‌…‌and more on that story later’.

news-1074604_1280Maybe some people still refer to news ‘reports’, but there is a world of difference between a report and a story. A report sets out to give the facts and figures, whereas a story strives to explain what happened. A report lays an event before us like an autopsy, whereas a story takes us on a journey through the event. A report engages our intellect, but a story engages our emotions too.

It’s worth repeating that‌—‌a story engages our emotions.

Those who create news stories know this. That is why they look for the human angle. That is why, rather than simply showing collapsed buildings after an earthquake, they linger on devastated faces and frantic searches for survivors. That is why, after a tragic death, we see (and hear from) those left behind, those who are struggling to understand how their worlds have been turned upside-down.

This could be seen as cynical‌—‌using misery to evoke a reaction. But I like to think this drive to display pain serves another purpose.

Most of us will not encounter the kind of tragedy we see on the news. In the UK, hardly any of us will have a friend shot dead. The majority of us won’t be caught up in humanitarian or natural disasters. And so, it is hard for us to understand, on an emotional level, what is happening to those who are involved. It is easier to shut ourselves off, even though we know this is cold, even though we know that we should feel something.

Reports state the facts. Stories engage us on an emotional level.

For a story to ‘work’, we need to empathise with the characters. We need to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and in some small way feel what they are feeling. Facts and figures (a report) of a shooting can leave us cold, because it’s names and dates, nothing more. But a story strives to put us there, with those caught up in the horror. It forces us to join with the victims in their suffering, or (and) feel the elation when the antagonist is brought to justice. If it is a natural disaster like an earthquake, details of the magnitude and the epicentre are numbers, the amount of damage a stream of figures. But the stories of those caught up in it‌—‌those who have lost loved ones, those who have been rescued, those who have put aside their own safety to help their neighbours‌—‌these are the things that make it real. These stories are what make us care.

And when we care, we are more likely to act. When we not only see people suffering, but also sense their pain, we are driven to help.

Then there are those stories where something negative is given a positive spin. There are stories of people defying disease and recovering, but there are also stories of those who succumb, but in a manner that humbles us. There are those who know they don’t have long left, but who strive to make every day count.

A news report could give details of the disease, or how fast the cancer spread. It could give facts and figures about white blood cells. Or the story could tell us of the person themselves, showing us their determination to life the remainder of their life to the full. It could focus on the way they are trying to help others with similar conditions.

Stories are powerful. They put meaning behind the data. They turn facts into action. They might enable us to live vicariously through others, but they also enable us to empathise with people we have never met, from different cultures in far-off places. They spur us on to do more, or to face barriers within ourselves. They enable us to see those around us not as mere human beings, but as people. They turn existence into life.

Without stories, we are nothing.

New short story

This latest short has a thriller/espionage flavour, influenced by recently reading Mark Dawson’s Isabella Rose books. It’s about a simple operation, a meeting in a cafe — what could possibly go wrong?

It’s called The Rendezvous, and you can read it here.

I have more short stories, all under a thousand words long — you can read them all here. For those of you who prefer e-books to web pages, I have a couple of free anthologies available (Millenary and Millenary 2). And as always, I’d love to know what you think of them.