The Velna Valsis

My story “The Velna Valsis” is now up at issue #11 of Fantasy Scroll Magazine.

Herr Doktor Ostermann drops the needle. A scratchy hiss fills the decayed splendor of Charlotte’s Viennese apartment. Outside, night is falling and a crowd gathers in the plaza. There are angry shouts — “Murderers! Juden!” — the sound of dogs barking. Charlotte does not know the reason for the commotion, nor does she care; her world has shrunk to the parlor, to Ostermann’s blood-smeared smile as he turns from the gramophone and says, “Shall we dance, meine Liebe?”

“The Velna Valsis” is a dark story. Possibly the darkest I’ve written. All the more dark since it’s obvious the Velna Valsis is still being played and eagerly listened to across the world right now. Its victims and players vary and swap sides, fluid like flame, but the damage left in its wake is unmistakeable.

Someone should really lift the needle.

Inspiration came from a writing prompt featuring a photograph by the talented Robin Cristofari, together with a piece of music by Carlos D’Alessio, his Valse De L’Eden. I paired them up, put D’Alessio’s piano waltz on loop, and a little while later “The Velna Valsis” popped out. The photo is obviously not of late 1930s Vienna, and the music didn’t urge me to indulge in wanton violence, so I’m not quite sure from which strange corner of my mind this story emerged, but that’s often just how it works. At least a couple of readers have mentioned Mikhail Bulgakov. I think one said they were reminded of The Master and Margarita. I’ve not read any Bulgakov so I can’t say whether I agree, but I’ll gladly take it as a compliment.


PS. In case you’re wondering, “Velna Valsis” is Latvian for “Devil’s Waltz”. Why Latvian? No reason other than I liked the sound of it.

Full Night Over Thranrak

My story “In the Belly of the Angel” is now up at new e-zine Metaphorosis. Albino Angel Apes versus Vegan Super Powers, wheee!

It was Full Night, the climax of the two-week Festival of Threll, and the narrow streets of Thranrak heaved with the devout, the curious, and the avaricious. Freya Adinyan plunged past the torch-lit processions and the bustling market stalls, her heart pounding in time to the drums. Tonight she was determined to leave Thranrak and the world of man behind.

“Angel” began as a 17,000 word novelette, a spin-off idea from a novel in progress. Over time the story was topped and tailed, tightened and revised, until it shrank to less than half its original length. Became much better for it. Became the story you can read today.

(And in case you’re wondering: yes, the type of angel and the world described here are the same as featured in my other recently published story, “Dance of the Splintered Hands“.)

Bone Flowers

Aaaaand… a Happy New Year to you! I hope it’s a good one.

My story “The Osteomancer’s Husband” is now up at Diabolical Plots as the January 2016 story.

He warned his wife the villagers would come. With their pitchforks, their fire. Their hateful ignorance.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “We have to leave. They saw beneath my mask.”

The inspiration for this story were a couple of photographs used for a writing group prompt challenge. One image was of flowing water (“…the burbling mountain stream…”), the second was of a hand tossing what looked like tiny bones to the wind (“Like…tiny snowflake vertebrae…”), both by the talented Robin Cristofari. To me the bones looked like seedlings, so I immediately began to wonder what their origin might be.

If you like the story (or even if you don’t), please feel free to comment here or on the Diabolical Plots site. Any feedback is always welcome.

"Les Feuilles mortes 3" by Robin Cristofari

“Les Feuilles mortes 3” by Robin Cristofari.

The Dragonmaster’s Doom

Received in the post today a copy of Dragons, Droids & Doom: Year One, the collected stories from the first year of Fantasy Scroll Magazine, edited by Iulian Ionescu and Frederick Doot. Amongst many other stories by many other authors, it contains my Mevlish story, “The Dragonmaster’s Ghost”, first published in FSM #4. Very happy to see it reprinted in what is a very handsome-looking physical book. 

Dragons, Droids & Doom: Year One is available as a trade paperback or as an e-book from most of the usual places as well as from its own dedicated website. 


On Persistence

In which I both vacillate and state the obvious, but here goes…

Should you ever give up on a story?

Yes, absolutely. Some stories are stillborn and can’t be revived. Sometimes, usually (but not exclusively) early on in your writing career, you just can’t recognise that. You see the story you wish, not the story that is. Maybe you’re not aware of the clichés that plague it. The clunky prose. The unoriginal premise or predictable ending. The beginning scene(s) that benefit the writer not the reader. Unless you come to recognise and acknowledge these potential flaws you’ll end up in an endless cycle of rejection and growing frustration and bitterness. Why oh why can’t anyone recognise the sheer magnificent genius of your work? You can’t move on. You can’t write new stories. You’re creative font becomes clogged. You become paralyzed with uncertainty. What if you’re too niche? What if you’re no good? More pertinently, what if the story is no good? The answer to that last most definitely could be, yes: the story is no good and it needs revision (but beware Heinlein’s 3rd rule), or indeed it is too broken to be saved. So learn the lessons. Move on. Apply them.

But, really. Should you ever give up on a story?

No, absolutely not. Have you scrutinized it in the light of any personal rejection notes? Do the editors have a point? Is it fixable? Do they say they like the story, or the writing is good but it’s just not a “fit”? After each rejection, have you revised the story to match your current writing skill level (which should always be evolving, improving)? Do you still love the story and have faith in it? Are there markets you are happy for the story to appear in but haven’t tried yet? Are there any markets you’re too scared to submit to because you think you’re not good enough? Then submit. And keep submitting.

Because there are stories I’ve looked askance at after only a few rejections and thrown so deep into the apocryphal trunk they’ll never see the light of day again, and there are stories that have received over 30 rejections, have spent a total of 1689 days out on submission at different markets, and they’ve still been published and paid for and received complimentary reviews.

So should you ever give up on a story?

The answer, my friend, is maybe, maybe not. The trick is to write and keep on writing, to keep learning and challenging yourself, so that you have many stories to choose from.


Hands Out

My story “Dance of the Splintered Hands” is now up at the Autumn 2015 issue of Kaleidotrope. What are you doing here? Go read it now!

Closer to the dome, I began to make out the hands in more detail. They varied hugely in size and shape: from crab-like creatures the size of dinner-plates, up to huge multi-legged earth-moving monstrosities that chewed up the ground with their jagged mandibles. Many of the hands were smoothly metallic, some were covered in swirling geometric patterns, and others were organic-looking and roughly textured — no two were exactly alike.

Although “Hands” is one of my earliest stories, it’s still a favourite of mine, set in my novel-verse milieu of the Heptatheon, with its god moons, angels, faces and hands. I’m really glad it found a home.

H.R. MacMillan Space Centre crab sculpture, Vancouver, Canada. Photo (C) Neil Every.

Acceptable in the 1980s (Part 2)

So here is Part 2 of the list of ten books I read during the 1980s that for one reason or other have stuck with me to the present. (See here for Part 1.) I noted previously that the entries so far were exclusively by white male American authors… time for a break from that, surely?

DreamsnakeVonda McIntyre – “Dreamsnake”

A book difficult to summarise, one that left impressions and memories of moments rather than grand sweeps of plot and conflict. And very different from the visions of glittering hardware so prevalent in most other SF at the time. Snake, the protagonist, is a healer travelling in a post-apocalyptic world, making use of her genetically modified and alien snakes to help those in need. Her quest is not one of earth-shattering consequence, but it’s of important to her — to replace her murdered dreamsnake so she can provide relief from pain to her patients. This is a story about society, about the internal journey, about people.

Gate of IvrelC. J. Cherryh – “Gate of Ivrel”

Hugely prolific, many of C. J. Cherryh’s books dominated the store bookshelves of the early- to mid-80s, “Downbelow Station” probably being chief amongst them. But I mostly remember her first novel, “Gate of Ivrel” (actually first published in 1976). It turned the tables on standard F&SF gender roles, with the male Vanye being the frustrated companion to Morgaine’s enigmatic champion (in Moorcockian terms). I also remember many of the characters having motivations and agendas that appeared ambiguous and difficult to fathom. I had to think. Who did I trust? Who was telling the truth? What people said and how they acted didn’t necessarily match — a very valuable lesson.

The StandStephen King – “The Stand”

Uh oh. Back to the white US male dominance again.

So, growing up, horror never really appealed to me all that much… garish covers of giants slugs, crabs, or half-melted human faces… no thanks! But then I caught the TV adaptation of “Salem’s Lot” — the one with David Soul and James Mason — and I knew this was a book and an author I would have to read. From “Lot” to the “The Shining” and then to “The Stand”. For most authors just the initial premise of a virus devastating the human population would have been enough to fill an entire book, but King goes beyond that, to a climactic confrontation between “good” and “evil”, with one of the most memorable deus ex machina resolutions ever. The novel’s true power lies in its characters, of course, each faced with multiple opportunities to change their destiny from damnation to salvation (and visa versa), and the reader caring about the outcome. Neat trick. Like GRRM, another up-and-coming author to keep an eye on.

WindhavenGeorge R. R. Martin & Lisa Tuttle – “Windhaven”

GRRM’s first appearance in this list (and second overall), here along with Lisa Tuttle is — shock! — a tri-part tale of high hopes, dashed dreams, a life made worthwhile despite (and perhaps even because of) tragic events and unexpected defeats. “Windhaven” is basically a tale of class warfare, the struggle between those with talent and ambition but no means, versus the entitled flyers who inherit their privilege — in this case the right to own artificial wings which allow them to travel across Windhaven’s vast stretches of ocean. An age old tale with far-reaching appeal, but certainly not simplistic: unintended consequences, setbacks, and complications abound, with eventual “success” only achieved at the expense of struggle, loss, sacrifice, and compromise.

Fevre DreamGeorge R. R. Martin – “Fevre Dream”

In my considered opinion, possibly the only vampire novel you’ll ever need to read. The whole trope has been so bombed out recently that reading it now it could appear derivative, but remember it predates the recent run of movies and TV series. “Dream” basically explores every reasonable permutation of the sparkly vs non-sparkly vampire conflict: vampires as unthinking beasts that consider humans their cattle to feed on as and when they desire vs vampires as enlightened rational beings struggling to uplift their kind against their nature. So: no more need for “The Vampire Diaries”. Plus! Paddle steamers, ugly person ennui, gumbo! GRRM’s best novel, IMHO.

The Many-Coloured LandJulian May – “The Many-Colored Land”

Heavily promoted at the time as the first part in a ground-breaking epic trilogy (which, of course, later grew to more than three books), I fell for the marketing and cool cover… and found to my surprise that actually, yes, this was something I hadn’t seen before – science fiction but with epic fantasy/fairytale overtones. Starting in the future, it fairly swiftly and decisively shifts to the far past — the Pliocene Era — where a ragbag band of human exiles twine through their various character arcs alongside the Tanu (read: elves) and the Firvulag (read: dwarves), who also happen to inhabit that distant time. It’s pretty kooky, but the setting and the various soap-opera like developments for the diverse cast grips and gives the story impetus that almost lasts for the whole of the first trilogy.

The Black CompanyGlen Cook – “The Black Company”

I first encountered Croaker and the Black Company in the pages of F&SF. Only much later did I realise that initial story had been expanded to a novel (and, inevitably, into a whole series). I loved the Black Company’s camaraderie, their deadpan humour, their grim understatement. It felt very real(istic). “The Black Company” highlighted the importance of names (such great names: Croaker, Limper, Raven, Darling…) and the gamifying allure of enumerated groups (something Tolkien and Moorcock had obviously taken advantage of long before, but which I had never really been conscious of): the Ten Who Were Taken, the Circle of Eighteen, etc., immediately creating a plot punch list of escalating opponent encounters.

Mythago WoodRobert Holdstock – “Mythago Wood”

The first novel I read of Holdstock’s was the criminally under-rated “Where Time Winds Blow” — a sort of temporal version of Pohl’s “Gateway” — and I knew immediately that as the buzz around “Mythago Wood” grew it would need to be added to my TBR list. “Wood” is a very different novel from “Time Winds”, but they are both very British, confounding the expectations of a simple quest-driven plot (although there are certainly elements of that), or a neat and tidy conclusion. Nor are there too many elements shared with Enid Blyton’s “Far Away Tree”. “Mythago Wood” is its own thing, and you may only successfully approach it on its own terms, a singularity hidden deep within the heart of ancient English woodland, inhabited by… well, who knows what?

NeuromancerWilliam Gibson – “Neuromancer”

What list of SF in the 80s can be complete without mention of “Neuromancer”? None! I first encountered William Gibson’s writing in the monthly glossy Omni, with his “Johnny Mnemonic”. That story’s streetwise “razorgirl” Molly Millions went on to feature in “Neuromancer”, and despite the battle between the Wintermute and Neuromancer AIs having dated somewhat, at the time it seemed punky, urban, gritty, ground-breaking and there’s no doubt it helped spawn a host of imitators and what went on to become a decade-defining subgenre. My day job now involves plenty of exposure to evil corporate mainframes… and I can tell you, “Neuromancer” they are not.

HyperionDan Simmons – “Hyperion”

My first encounter with Simmon’s writing was “Song of Kali”, a grim and gritty travelogue urban horror, as well as some of his great short stories (“Metastasis”, “Iverson’s Pits”, etc.). Then there was a fairly long gap, and then suddenly he seemed to re-explode onto the scene, with his gripping thriller “Carrion Comfort” and terrifying “It” tribute, “Summer of Night”. But it’s his “Hyperion Cantos” that he’s best known for, and deservedly so. “Hyperion” is loosely structured along the lines of The Canterbury Tales, a series of narrated, interwoven tales by a variety of characters travelling to the mysterious Time Tombs on the planet of Hyperion. Sense of wonder galore here, as Simmons targets organised religion and human hubris.

Life During WartimeLucius Shepard – “Life During Wartime”

And so we close with Lucius Shepard’s second novel. A hallucinatory, largely plotless novel where reality and hallucination intertwine. Like many of the authors featured here, I think Shepard’s short stories are stronger than his novel work, with such classics as “Mengele”, “R & R”, “The Jaguar Hunter”, “Kalimantan”… not to mention his sequence of tales set in and around the gigantic corpse of the Dragon Griaule…  all packing one hell of a moral punch. But “Wartime”, I think, perfectly captures a moment, just before the 1990s, a transition from one decade to another, a point where the 80s, for me, came to an end.

So. That was my 80s. Spanning my nerdy teenage years in Thatcherite Britain to university and beyond. My personal reading golden age. How could the Nineties possibly compare?