My First Attempt at Writing Short Fiction

Recently, I had to take a writing class as part of my degree, and one of the assignments was to write a short story. I’ve long wanted to write fiction, but I always felt unprepared. The class I took was pretty great though. The instructor’s attitude was; “I don’t care if you don’t feel ready. You’re handing me in a story at the end of the week, so shut up and get to work.” It was the kick up the hole that I needed.

There were no topics assigned, but it was suggested that we write about something that we were interested in. Before putting pen to paper, I had to sit down to think about what interests me. I glanced at my desk, noticed the books on aliens and black magic that I had been reading, and shrieked, “Eureka!”

Here is the story I came up with. It may not be a masterpiece, but I feel that it’s a decent first attempt, and I think that anyone with an interest in the books I review will probably enjoy it. I definitely plan to write more short fiction in the future.

night shift

Night Shift – Duke De Richleau

The King in Yellow – Robert W. Chambers

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Wordsworth Editions – 2010 (Originally published in 1895)

This is the first time that I’ve reviewed a single book of short stories. Usually I wait until I’ve read everything (or at least all of the good stuff) by an author of short fiction, but this is a little different. (I do own a copy of the Complete Weird Tales of Chambers, but I haven’t got around to it yet.) The King in Yellow was one of Chamber’s earliest works, and it remains his best known; he spent most of the rest of his career writing popular romance novels, but nobody remembers them. Some of the tales in this book managed to induce a lingering discomfort (I read most of them just before going to bed and afterwards lay awake, thinking of the sinister King, sitting on his throne in his tattered yellow rags.), and overall, this book is pretty neat. If you haven’t read it and you’re wondering why it sounds familiar, it might be because elements of it were borrowed for the first season of True Detective.

So this is a collection of 10 short stories, only the first 4 of which really refer to the Yellow King. I’ll get to that later though, for now I’ll just explain the  others:

5. The Demoiselle d’Ys is a ghost story. It’s not scary, but it’s enjoyable (and not dissimilar to the stories of M.R. James).
6. The Prophet’s Paradise is really just a short series of of prose-poems. It was a bit arty for my liking.
7. The Street of the Four Winds doesn’t deal with the supernatural, but it is quite creepy.

After the above, all elements of the horrific, weird or creepy completely disappear.

8. The Street of the First Shell is confusing, dull, and not worth the effort that it requires.
9. The Street of Our Lady of the Fields is the romantic tale of an innocent young man who moves from one continent to another and falls madly in love with a rambunctious young woman. Needless to say, I was almost in tears by the end. This was beautiful.
10. Rue Barrée is a less interesting and ultimately less satisfying version of the previous tale.

Ok, let’s rewind to the best bit. The first 4 tales all revolve around an obscure book of horror and despair. (You might already see why I enjoyed this.) The King in Yellow is a two act play that drives its readers insane. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, it’s a very difficult book to avoid, and if you do start reading it, it seems impossible to put down. (It’s a bit like those modern horror movies where the people who watch the video get killed.) Just to clarify here; it’s the characters in Chambers’ stories that get to read the play, not his readers. He never gives an outline of the plot of the play, but each story begins with a short quote from it. The lack of details make it all the more intriguing, and although I am aware that it does not actually exist, I have spent a more than reasonable amount of time in the last week trying to figure out ways to get my hands on a copy. How fucking cool is the idea of a book that either possesses you or drives you mad? 10/10, would read. The snippets that Chambers does include drive me wild too. Check out the poem that introduces the first story:

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Absolutely deadly. Does Carcosa sound familiar? That might have something to do with the fact that it was first mentioned in An Inhabitant of Carcosa by Ambrose Bierce. Chambers borrowed other elements Bierce’s fiction, and elements of his own fiction were in turn borrowed by Lovecraft.

I really liked 7 out of the 10 stories in here, but it would really make more sense if the book was called ‘The King in Yellow and some other stuff”. The stories at the beginning are totally different to the ones near the end, and if you like weird tales exclusively, you won’t be missing out if you don’t bother with the last few. I would advise anyone who is going to read this to save the best for last; read the last 3 stories first, then move on to the 5th, 6th and 7th, and finish with the first 4.

As a final suggestion:
If you have read this book and haven’t seen the first season of True Detective, watch it now. If you’ve seen True Detective but haven’t read this, read it now.  If you haven’t read this nor seen True Detective, get your act together.

(Most of) The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

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The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce
Citadel Press – 1994 (Originally Published in 1946)

I bought this book for 2-3 stories in 2012, and only got around to reading it cover to cover within the last 6 months. This ‘collected works’ is not a ‘complete works’ as I had hoped for when I bought it. (There was a 12 volume edition of his works printed about 100 years ago, but I don’t know how complete that is either.) I found the first collection of short stories in here to be the least enjoyable by far. I spent more time getting through that first 100 pages than all of the rest put together. I found that all of the short story collections, aside from Negligible Tales, are available on Librivox as audiobooks, and so I loaded these onto my phone and listened to them whilst cooking dinner every day.

Bierce was a rather interesting man. I first heard of him in the third From Dusk Till Dawn movie. (The third film was way better than the second one, but nowhere near as good as the first. I haven’t watched the TV series.) I’ve also had to teach his short stories to high-school students on a few different occasions. There’s an essay in the introduction to this book that makes him out as a very cranky man, but I didn’t really get that impression from his stories. He definitely had a dark sense of humour, and he could be very, very funny. His wife and children all died before him, and at age 72 he moved to Mexico by himself and disappeared. In one of his last letters to his family, he wrote “Goodbye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!”
Ambrose Bierce was fucking cool.

I looked online for a comprehensive list of his short stories, but every list that I found omitted a bunch or contained the names of poems, essay and fables. In this post I have listed all of the stories in the editions of the texts that I read. (I will also list all of other known independent stories/collections at the bottom.)

Ambrose_Bierce

In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians)
(“A Horseman in the Sky”, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, “Chickamauga”, “A Son of the Gods”, “One of the Missing”, “Killed at Resaca”, “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”, “The Coup de Grâce”, “Parker Adderson, Philosopher”, “An Affair of Outposts”, “The Story of A Conscience”, “One Kind of Officer”, “One Officer, One Man”, “George Thurston”, “The Mocking-Bird”, “The Man Out of the Nose”, “An Adventure at Brownville”, “The Famous Gilson Bequest”, “The Applicant”, “A Watcher by the Dead”, “The Man and the Snake”, “A Holy Terror”, “The Suitable Surroundings”, “The Boarded Window”, “A Lady from Redhorse”, “The Eyes of the Panther”)

This collection is split into two sections. The first is Tales of Soldiers. Although this contains some of Bierce’s more popular stories (An Occurrence at Owl Creek Ridge, Chickamauga…), it’s by far the hardest section to get through. Some of these stories are really dull, and almost every one of them features a twist ending. That said, this collection contains George Thurston, one of my all time favourite stories. (Imagine Hemingway crossed with Monty Python.)

The second section, Tales of Civilians, is where things get more interesting. I think it’s appropriate to refer to Bierce’s work as ‘weird fiction’, but it’s not quite weird in the same way that Lovecraft is weird. His stories often deal with the supernatural, but they’re rarely scary.

Different editions of this collection contain different stories.

Can Such Things Be?
(“The death of Halpin Frayser”, “The secret of Macarger’s Gulch”, “One summer night”, “The moonlit road”, “A diagnosis of death”, “Moxon’s master”, “A tough tussle”, “One of twins”, “The haunted valley”, “A jug of sirup”, “Staley Fleming’s hallucination”, “A resumed identity”, “A baby tramp”, “The night-doings at “Deadman’s””, “Beyond the wall”, “A psychological shipwreck”, “The middle toe of the right foot”, “John Mortonson’s funeral”, “The realm of the unreal”, “John Bartine’s watch”, “The damned thing”, “Haïta the shepherd”, “An inhabitant of Carcosa”, “The Stranger”)

These are best of Bierce’s darker, spookier tales. Again, none of these stories are terribly scary. It feels like they were written to make you think rather than to make you scream. I liked this collection though. This is the one you want if you’re a fan of Robert W. Chambers or the first season of True Detective. (See Haïta the Shepherd and An Inhabitant of Carcosa)

Different editions of this collection contain different stories.

Negligible Tales
(“A Bottomless Grave”, “Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General”, “The Widower Turmore”, “The City of the Gone Away”, “The Major’s Tale”, “Curried Cow”, “, “A Revolt of the Gods”, “The Baptism of Dobsho”, “The Race at Left Bower”, “The Failure of Hope & Wandel”, “Perry Chumly’s Eclipse”, “A Providential Intimation”, “Mr. Swiddler’s Flip-Flap”, “The Little Story”)

Fairly negligible alright. There’s a few funny ones, a few very weird ones, and one (Jupiter Doke) that I don’t get at all. City of the Gone Away is definitely worth a read.

 

The Parenticide Club
(“My Favourite Murder”, “Oil of Dog”, “An Imperfect Conflagration”, “The Hypnotist”)

Without doubt, my favourite section/collection. These four tales are narrated by individuals who have killed their parents (and others). There’s a thoroughly enjoyable nastiness to these characters. The third story, An Imperfect Conflagration, contains what may be the single greatest opening line in the canon of English literature. Here is a text version, and here is an audiobook version. These stories are not scary in the least, but they are truly vile. Do yourself a favour and read them. Honestly. This is the good stuff.

 

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter
This is a novella. Apparently it’s Bierce’s retelling of a German Gothic novel. I didn’t know that when I read it back in early 2012. To tell the truth, it wasn’t shit or good enough to remember.

 

The following collections were not included in the book pictured above.

Present at a Hanging
(“Present at a Hanging”, “A Cold Greeting”, “A Wireless Message”, “An Arrest”, “A Man with Two Lives”, “Three and One are One”, “A Baffled Ambuscade”, “Two Military Executions”, “The Isle of Pines”, “A Fruitless Assignment”, “A Vine on a House”, “At Old Man Eckert’s”, “The Spook House”, “The Other Lodgers”, “The Thing at Nolan”, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field”, “An Unfinished Race”, “Charles Ashmore’s Trail”, “Science to the Front”)

This collection is pretty good. The stories are mostly standard ghosty Bierce. Not hugely memorable, but still fun. The Librivox version was perfect for my bus ride into school. Link to Audiobook version here.

 

Bodies of the Dead
(“That of Granny Magone”, “A Ligh Sleeper”, “The Mystery of John Farquharson”, “Dead and ‘Gone'”, “A Cold Night”, “A Creature of Habit” )

This is quite similar to Present at a Hanging. These stories are all very short and about corpses. The first tale, That of Granny Magone, is very obviously an earlier draft of The Boarded Window. I found this collection in an online edition of Can Such Things Be? that also includes most of Present at a Hanging.

 

The Ocean Wave
(“A Shipwreckollection”, “The Captain of “The Camel””, “The Man Overboard”, “A Cargo of Cat”)

This is a short collection of stories about lads on a ship. Not great. Link here.

 

The Fourth Estate
(“Mr. Masthead, Journalist”, “Why I Am Not Editing “The Stinger””, “Corrupting the Press”, “The Bubble Reputation”)

Another collection of stories on a particular topic. This time it’s journalism. I read these stories out of order because I didn’t know there was a sequence. They didn’t make much sense to me at the time, and they weren’t interesting enough to reread. Link here.

 

I’ve spent a lot of time reading Bierce recently, and while I really enjoyed some of it, a lot of it I could have done without. There are collections out there of just his ghost stories, so  if you’re interested in checking him out, I’d recommend picking one of those up and downloading the audiobook version of the Parenticide Club. If you are a fan, the book that I have is actually pretty good. All of his good stories are in there, and anything else you can find online if you really want it. I didn’t review his fables or the Devil’s Dictionary because I haven’t read them start to finish, but they are hilarious. They’re the kind of thing that you’ll flick through for a chuckle now and then.

I did not read or review The Land Beyond the Blow, The Fiend’s Delight, or Cobwebs from an Empty SkullAlso, I have seen several references to a story named “The Time the Moon Fought Back” from 1911, but I can’t find it anywhere. I don’t know whether it really exists or not. Some lists of Bierce’s short stories contain one or more of the following: Hazen’s brigade, The Ingenious Patriot, Tale of the Sphinx, Revenge, and Visions of the Night. These are not short stories; they are fables, poems or essays. If you notice that I have missed any actual short stories, or know where I can read “The Time the Moon Fought Back“, please let me know.

 

Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood – Weird Fiction from the Golden Dawn

2016-05-06 19.05.55The Three Imposters and other stories – Vol. 1 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen 
The White People and other stories – Vol. 2 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen 
The Terror and other stories – Vol. 3 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen
Chaosium Publishing

It’s very rare that I would read a book of short stories in the same way that I would read a novel. I usually have a book or two of short stories on the go that I’ll dip in and out of when I’m between other texts. It can take an awfully long time to get through a book in this manner, but it stops me from getting bored of the author’s style. (The Collected Stories of M.R. James, for example, took me about 7 months to finish, but I got through another 35 full texts in that same period.) In this particular case, the collection of short stories was broken up over three books, and I interspersed other collections between each of these volumes. It has hence taken me about 4 years to get through Chaosium’s collected weird tales of Arthur Machen, and I can’t honestly say that I remember much about the first ones that I read other than that I absolutely adored them.

Much like Penguin’s editions of Lovecraft’s stories, the first volume of this collection contains the best material. I took a copy of it out of the library after reading about Machen online, and I enjoyed it immensely. These creepy stories about freaks, weird experiments and dark forces are top notch stuff. I’ve already linked to my posts on James and Lovecraft, and I feel that Machen, at his best, occupies the middle-ground between these two authors. Every story in here was deadly. You should buy and read this book.

The second volume has some good stuff, but some of it is lame. This book contains the Angels of Mons stuff.  During the first World War, Machen wrote a story about some angels appearing on a battlefield at Mons. The story was published in a newspaper, and many people, including some of the soldiers who had been in that battle, took it to be a factual account. It’s kind of cool that this happened, but the story isn’t that great. The Red Hand and The White People are the highlights in this volume. Maybe take this one out of the library, or read those two stories online instead.

The third volume is plop. There were a few stories that seem promising at the beginning, but these either teeter off into incoherence or abruptly turn to shit. Changes was worth reading for the hideous, yellow-faced goblin-child, and Out of the Picture was entertaining if quite silly, but the rest of the stories in here are garbage. The title story is actually the uncut version of a story that appears in the second version, and it’s a drawn-out piece of trash. Speaking of what is contained in this volume, S.T. Joshi claims; “None of these works add anything to Machen’s overall reputation as a horror writer.” I agree. Joshi afterwards mentions other works of Machen’s which were too poor to be included here. Those stories must be the literary equivalent of sniffing a shit-stained pair of britches. Don’t bother with this one unless you’re a completist. It’s not an enjoyable read.

Machen also wrote a novel called Hill of Dreams. I haven’t read that yet, but it’s supposed to be good. I’ll get around to it someday.

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Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories – Algernon Blackwood
Penguin  – 2002

I took this book out of the library right after finishing the first volume in the above Machen collection. I read it straight through without breaks, and while I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, by the end I was getting burnt out on short stories. It has been a long time since I read this book, but I seem to remember the individual stories from this one better than those from the first Machen collection. There’s 9 stories in here, and they are all quite different. The weird in ‘Weird Fiction’ is a tricky thing to pin down, but I found that Blackwood’s stories are weirder (in the common sense of the word weird) than those of Machen or Lovecraft. That being said, this is the only collection of Blackwood’s that I have read, and maybe his other work is different. I would love to hear from anyone who has any recommendations on Blackwood’s other stuff. The layout of this book is nice; it has an almost identical format to the Penguin editions of Lovecraft (an introduction by Joshi and a small article and set of notes for each story). I would recommend picking this one up.

Both Machen and Blackwood were members of the magical order of the Golden Dawn along with W.B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley. Whatever though. I’m not going to get into that. If you’re interested, you can find out more about their involvement in this magical order online.

 

Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe!

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(Card made by my wonderfully creative wife)

Were he still alive, Edgar Allan Poe would be 207 today. If you haven’t read all of his stories, stop wasting your time on my dumb blog and check them out. It would be rather difficult for me to overstate how much I love Poe. Teaching English, I’ve had to read the Tell-Tale Heart, the Cask of Amontillado, and Masque of the Red Death more times than I can count, and I still get excited every time I get the opportunity to go back to them. There’s so many other great tales though. The Black CatThe Imp of the Perverse, and Fall of the House of Usher are some of my other favourites, but he wrote plenty more that are equally as brilliant.

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The pictured books are just some cheap collections I’ve picked up in the last few years. There are countless editions of Poe’s works out there, and I can’t recommend any in particular. (I will say, as I have said before, that the Complete Poetry Collection is a handy one for taking into the bathroom on a slow Sunday morning.) When I get rich, I’m going to buy a hardback edition of his collected works for my fine mahogany bookshelves. I’d also love a copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination with the illustrations by Harry Clarke, but I guess shitty thrift store collections and the internet will have to suffice until I hit the big time. Anyways, Happy Birthday Edgar!!!

And just so ye know; I’m right in the middle of the busiest part of my course at the moment, and this blog might get a little slow for the next month or so, but don’t fret; it won’t be long until I get to put down the textbooks and take up some quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore!

Here is just some of the utter garbage that I’ve picked up recently:2016-01-13 22.56.47

Le Fanu’s Short Stories – Madam Crowl’s Ghost and In a Glass Darkly

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Sheridan Le Fanu – Madam Crowl’s Ghost & Other Stories / In A Glass Darkly
Wordsworth Editions – 2006 and 2008

Here are two collections of short stories from one of my favourite writers. I would recommend the Oxford edition of In A Glass Darkly, as that one contains nice notes at the back. Wordsworth editions are bare bones and rarely contain annotation. They are cheap however, and I own quite a few of them.

In A Glass Darkly is the better of the two collections. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I distinctly remember the joy I felt when the evil monkey appeared the first story. It’s also great because it contains lesbian vampires in a vampire story that predates Dracula. I think my favourite story in here is the novella: The Room in Le Dragon Volant. It’s not as spooky as the others, but I really like Le Fanu’s writing

Madam Crowl’s Ghost is a nice collection of ghost stories compiled by none other than M.R James. I read this one more recently, but I read the first two stories on a transatlantic flight and didn’t end up enjoying them as much as I would have were I to read them on the couch at midnight with a cup of peppermint tea. The stories in here are collected from different sources, and the quality and tone varies quite a bit. Some are great though, and most of them are set in Ireland. You can imagine my sheer delight on finding a story in here about a man from my hometown who shares my name. I loved this book, but the other collection is probably a better place to start if you haven’t read Le Fanu before.

The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Wordsworth Books – 20072015-04-29 20.24.35

I recently reviewed Hans Holzer’s Gothic Ghosts. It was an absolutely atrocious piece of garbage, but in retrospect, I think that one of the reasons that book seemed so shitty to me was the fact that I had been reading it on my commute into work each morning while simultaneously spending my evenings reading the ghost stories of M.R. James. Holzer is shit at best, but in comparison to James, he is the shit of a shit.

Ironically, James’s ghost stories, while hugely entertaining and infinitely better than Holzer’s tripe, are also quite formulaic. They’re nearly all about elderly, educated, asexual gentlemen who find some kind of ancient artifact whilst on a vacation in a rural town. This ancient whistle, book, photograph, map, key, dollhouse or manuscript will prove to be haunted, and terror will ensue. That might seem unenjoyably predictable, but it’s the atmosphere and sense of impending doom that make these stories so entertaining. You know from the start that something fucked is going to happen; it’s the build up that allows the ghouls to get right in under your skin. I found audiobook versions of some of the stories on youtube, and listened to them whilst lying in bed.  While doing so I took great precautions to avoid the icy grasp of any skeletal hands that may have been reaching up from underneath my bed. I kept my arms, legs and head safely under the blanket.

These stories are magnificent. The Tractate Middoth, A View from a Hill, A Warning to the Curious, and Wailing Well might be my favourites, but most of the stories in here are top notch. There are a few stinkers; Two Doctors is crap, and The Story of a Disappearance and Appearance, although it does contain a chilling nightmare sequence, is fairly disappointing. The book I am reviewing here is the Collected Ghost Stories, not the Complete Ghost Stories. James wrote 4 other ghost stories that are not included in this publication. They are:
The Experiment
The Malice of Inanimate Objects
A Vignette
The Fenstanton Witch
They’re not James’s best, but they’re all worth reading if you like the stories in this book. A quick google search will sort you out.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing James or his tales, as there is an abundance of information on both him and his writing online. I really enjoyed the BBC documentary on his life, and the M.R. James Podcast is good for additional information on each of the tales.

I’ve already mentioned that the cover of this book is fairly shit, but the real disappointment with this edition is the lack of notes. James was an exceptionally well-read individual, and he makes reference to many peculiar characters, events and texts. It would be really nice if the book included short explanations of these obscure references. I’m not sure if other publisher’s editions have notes sections either, but I know that the Wordsworth Series are crap for this kind of thing. I read the Oxford edition of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which had extensive helpful notes, but the Wordsworth edition that I bought has none. (Incidentally, M.R. James was a huge fan of Le Fanu.) Also, it bears repeating that this is not the complete collection of his ghost stories. I don’t know which is the best edition of James’s tales, but I know for sure that this isn’t it.

Either way, this gets an 8.5/10. It’s an extremely enjoyable read, and one that I will surely come back to in the future.