Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Story: Strangers in the Garden.

Noah was running late. He was driving as fast as he could without breaking the speed limit. He was pretty sure that the traffic light had been turning orange. Only pretty sure, admittedly, but he was running late. Juliet had reminded him, had asked him if he’d remembered to pick Alex up from the party. He hadn’t wanted to leave her but she’d insisted. Anyway, the doctor had said that she needed to rest. It was at times like this that he felt that she judged him. Or, if she didn’t, maybe she should. He couldn’t help it that he still cared about her more than he cared about her son. He hoped that in time he would learn to love Alex like he was his own. But he had to admit to himself that it hadn’t happened yet.

He made a left turn and was struck by the number of trees that lined the road. This was a nice area; he’d never had a reason to come here before. It was the birthday of one of Alex’ classmates. Noah had forgotten his name. Not that it mattered. The surname was Williams and Noah would go in, grab Alex, and take him home. He slowed down as he counted the numbers on the houses. 12. 14. 16. He turned onto the driveway and parked. He would go inside, say thank you to the Williams, and make a swift exit. He had no idea what he was supposed to do with Alex. Or, for that matter, what he was supposed to tell him. He’d never been left alone with him for any extended period of time. This was all new, and it didn’t sit well on his shoulders. What would he make for dinner?

He rang the doorbell. From where he was standing he could hear the sounds of kids having fun. It must be coming from the garden. He had been sitting in the car with the air-conditioning on and had almost forgotten how humid it was today. The more he thought about it the quicker beads of sweat started to form on his brow. He heard a loud splash. Jesus, did they have a swimming pool?

The door was opened by a skinny red-headed woman wearing a loose fitting white dress. She looked as though the heat hadn’t affected her at all, which didn’t surprise Noah as a wall of cool air hit him.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Sorry, yes, I’m Noah. I’m here to pick up Alex”

She smiled and beckoned him inside. He wiped his shoes on the doormat, conscious of the white carpet that stretched out towards the kitchen that was visible at the end of the hallway.

“You’re early,” she told him. He wasn’t, but he apologised regardless. “Oh, it’s no bother. Come on, would you like a beer? Or some juice, if you’re driving?”

He thought seriously about accepting a beer before deciding to be sensible.

“Juice would be great, Mrs Williams, thank you,” he said. She grinned.

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Noah, you’re not one of the children. Please, call me Vivian.” He smiled at as she bared her white teeth, glaringly white against the dark red of her lipstick. She beckoned again with her dextrous hands, and he followed her through to the kitchen. Everything was so clean, it was difficult to imagine that one child had been here, let alone an entire party. From the kitchen window he could see children milling around, chasing each other. At first glance he couldn’t see Alex.

“So, you’re Juliet’s new boyfriend?” she asked. The word ‘new’ riled him but he did his best not to show it.

“That’s right,” he said. “Two months, now.”

“That’s just great,” Vivian cooed. “We all love Juliet so very much. She’s such a wonderful woman, I’m sure you agree.”

He did, and nodded to show that he did. She handed him a small, clear plastic cup filled with something that looked sticky. He took a sip and put it back down. The juice tasted like apple-flavoured sweets. A grey-haired man who was verging on pudgy, wearing a jumper that was slightly too tight, came in from the garden, putting an empty beer bottle down onto the side with a clink. He smiled at Vivian, which pushed his red cheeks back and up, then held his hand out.

“I heard you come in,” he said, like he was letting Noah in on a secret. Noah wondered whether that was a loaded statement before the man smiled and said, “My name’s Frank. I’m Vivian’s husband.”

Noah extended his forced smile and shook Frank’s hand.

“She giving you the Spanish Inquisition?” asked Frank with a grin, and Vivian playfully swatted him with a dishcloth.

“No, not at all,” said Noah, aware that he was ruining the joke. But he didn’t want to be here, didn’t actually care at all, he wanted to grab Alex and get out. He looked past Vivian’s hair and out of the kitchen window. He thought he could see Alex in the distance; he saw him running behind some bushes.

“We were very keen to meet you,” said Vivian. Frank moved closer to her, putting one hand around her waist, pulling her towards him. Noah had not heard of these two before being instructed to go and retrieve his girlfriend’s son. And he thought it was high time he did what he had come to do.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t want to be rude, but I’m in a bit of a rush. Is Alex in the garden?”

He thought he saw the briefest glimmer of displeasure cross Vivian’s face, but it was gone just as quickly. “Of course he is,” she said. “Where else would he be?”

Noah moved past Frank, muttering apologies, or perhaps they weren’t even that, and went out of the back door into the garden. There was indeed a swimming pool, small but there nevertheless. He scanned the small groups of screeching children, each of their voices cutting through his head like a scalpel. He hadn’t even felt this headache coming on. Alex wasn’t in any of these bunches. Noah looked towards the bushes at the end of the garden. He saw a small girl’s face peer out and an unmistakable look of guilt cross her face as they made eye contact. The girl disappeared back into the undergrowth and Noah walked quickly over towards her.

As he grew closer he heard several distinct laughs. He recognised one of them as belonging to Juliet’s son. He’d heard it when Alex had been excused from the dinner table to watch TV. He pushed his way past some branches and found himself in a small clearing. Four boys and two girls were standing in a circle.

“Alex?” he asked.

The children all turned to face him, and he felt the strangest instinct to take a step back. Then he saw what they standing around.

The crow was dying, but was clearly not quite dead. Its beak was slowly opening and closing. The wing moved up and down torturously, you couldn’t call it flapping. A trainer he recognised pushed down on the animal, producing a desperate noise. He heard that laugh again. He looked up at saw Juliet’s son. Alex was looking at him, challenging him. He pushed his foot down again and that same awful noise pierced the air.

“Alex. Come here,” said Noah.

“Why?” asked Alex.

“Come here, right now,” Noah said, putting as much authority in his voice as he could. Alex did not move. Noah reached over and grabbed the boy by the arm. Alex cried out in outrage, looked Noah in the eye, and stamped down hard. There was a crunch and the man and the boy both looked down at the red and black mess under Alex’s shoe.

Noah didn’t think about what he did next. He slapped Alex, hard. He had no control over himself. He didn’t compensate for the boy’s size. Alex toppled backwards and landed next to the dead animal.

“Jesus, Noah!”

Noah turned to see Vivian and Frank standing, both red-faced and shocked, staring at him. Alex started wailing. He stood and ran to Vivian's side, who hugged the boy close to her and made comforting noises. The other children scattered.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked Frank.

Noah ran. He pushed past the two adults, ignoring both of their cries of displeasure. He ran through the groups of children, who had stopped playing and turned to see what all the fuss was about. He ran back into the house, through the kitchen and the hallway, and out of the front door. He ran all the way to his car.

As he drove away he checked the rear view mirror to see if anybody had followed him to the front door. Nobody had. He was alone as he drove, too fast, away from the house.


Hello again.

So here is, later than planned, my new short story. Not much to say about it, really. I suppose you can make of it what you will. I was determined that it wouldn't take any sort of supernatural turn, and I'm pleased that it didn't.

But it's still fairly unpleasant, which is a challenge I will take for my next story. I'm not saying that I will write a pleasant story. Because I can't guarantee that. What I will do is write a story that's not UNpleasant. So let's see what I can do with that. It may take a little longer, but I'm working on another writing about writing post. Promise.

Otherwise, I've got some ideas for The Novel that I'm going to try and put onto paper over the next few days. They might not all be winners, but the more I think about the characters, the more I want to write them. That's a good sign.

I'm still reading The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy. She's a very clever writer and it's written in a very distinct, deliberate style that I found took me a little while to get into but it's very good.

Having ranted about how much I like Jack Ketchum, I went to see The Woman at FrightFest, which he co-wrote with the director Lucky McKee. I was...impressed. It's the kind of film that produces a visceral reaction, and that's always something I'm interested in. I'm still thinking about it several days later. I would say that it's not for everyone. God, no. There will be a review up soon at www.fohnhouse.blogspot.com which, as you probably know, is where you can find my film ramblings.

Hope you liked the story.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A rather delayed post

In which there is an apology, some grovelling, some chatting about plot, and praise for Jack Ketchum's Off Season.

Hello all,

I'm very sorry about the fact that I've not updated in a while. It's been preying on my mind. Well, when I've not been sleeping, or busied with both welcome and unwelcome real world preoccupations. I know, it's been two weeks. What excuses can I possibly have? I was busy over last weekend, flaunting my press pass for all it was worth at Empire Bigscreen (though it couldn't get me into Drive) for the entertainment blog I write for (Look! Here's a link! www.fohnhouse.blogspot.com), and I started a two week unpaid internship on Monday. But I said I wouldn't talk too much about personal stuff, and here I am, grovelling, and without a story. Useless. And even now, I have to close this window and do a two-hour writing exercise for a different internship....

And I'm back. I do apologise. Again. But let's move on. We can talk about writing a bit. Which I said I'd do at some point.

One aspect of writing that's been particularly interesting to me lately is plot structure. Pretty big area, I know, but there's a lot of snobbery surrounding plot-driven fiction. I've always been a bit ramshackle when it comes to plotting, which will come as no surprise to readers of this blog or people who know me personally, and as I moved from short story to novel writing it became a more serious issue.

I have a great, great respect for writers who can plot well, both in prose and television. I find myself watching The Wire (a poor example as it's a bench-mark I will never, never reach) or the old TV series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People (ditto) and wondering how on earth did they keep all those strands together. Off on a slight tangent, the ability to write running jokes in comedy is something I marvel at, particularly in Arrested Development. I bring that show up mainly because it gives me an opportunity to have a flashback to some of my favourite AD running jokes. It'll probably never happen but I would, maybe just once, like to write something that someone would describe as "labyrinthine". Partly because it's such a wonderful word.

No, I think what I'm writing at the moment could best be described as "sprawling". I've decided to follow up my first person non-published novel with a multi-character effort. As I slowly move forward, I'm becoming increasingly anxious about how I'm going to tie everything together. Wait, that's not quite right. Not just tie everything together. Tie everything together WELL.

These worries have made me nostalgic for less ambitious projects, and have had me trawling my laptop's archives for the first time I tried to write a novel. It was set over three days, focused on a few main characters, and was aiming to be short, sharp, and brutal. I was skimming through it a couple of weeks ago, pondering whether it would be worth going back to it, expanding it (it only weighs in at about 50,000 words), when I finally started reading Off Season by Jack Ketchum. It was lent to me by my friend Martin who said that the plot of what I was writing reminded him of this novel. I quickly realised quite how much work would need to be done my misshapen effort to get it into the same genre. The novel does what I was feebly trying to do, but so much better.

I really have no business comparing my writing to Mr. Ketchum's, so I'm not going to. But the most basic plot synopses are superficially comparable in that both involve a group of people going to a cabin only to be brutally attacked by local monsters. Mine are supernatural, and I reused them for my subsequent novel, and continue to reuse them ad nauseam because I like them. Ketchum's, however, are all too real. Let's chat about Off Season a bit, because it deserves to be talked about.

The plot is this: Carla and her sister, their respective beaus, along with Carla's ex and his girlfriend, head up to a cabin in Maine. Unfortunately, there's a large and nasty family of savages in the woods that see them as quick and easy prey.

Ketchum doesn't waste any time. Off Season is a short book and the limited space serves it incredibly well. We only just to get to know the characters, and get to like a couple of them, before the figures in the woods burst in and start to tear them apart. It doesn't slow down until it stops. The only respite from the nail-biting tension comes from the scenes with the local law enforcement. However, it's not much of a respite as they are moving in the right direction, just not quickly enough. One of the novel's masterstrokes is the humanity of the creatures who are hunting our heroes. They're not vampires or demons, they're people gone wrong who are looking to fill their pot. They're also going to have some fun doing so. If you want a lesson in economy of prose and how to punch your reader in the gut you should read Off Season. (Thank you to Martin for lending it to me!)

So, coming back round to our plot discussion, Off Season isn't Smiley's People or The Wire. From the brutal opening sequence, it moves like a bullet from a gun: in a straight line and damn quickly. While that sort of plotting could be called simplistic if done badly, Ketchum uses it to great effect. If you can keep momentum and keep your grip on the throat of your reader, the straight-forward plot can be thrilling.

Right, that's all for now. I'm working on a short story for you, hopefully it should be up soon. I'll do my best to make the updates a bit more consistent. And before I go, take a look at AL Kennedy's new book, The Blue Book. This is a good looking book:

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Story: Send in the Clowns

The circus was closed for the night, and the last wailing child had been ushered out of the big top. Puzzled parents got the little ones safely into their cars and drove them bawling back to town. As the carnies set about dismantling the equipment and throwing sawdust on what the kids had left behind, the clowns went back to Bo’s trailer for a drink. As Jojo, Abe, Red, Emmett, Chazzie, Bebe, and the others found a seat in the cramped space with customary skill; Bo reached into the cupboard above the sink and pulled out a bottle of bourbon.

“I swear,” he declared, “kids used to want to come see the clowns.” He took a slug and passed the bottle on to Jojo, who wiped Bo’s red make-up from the bottle before putting it to his lips.

“You want a bit of fear, Bo, a bit of fear to make them excited,” Jojo said, forever in search of a silver lining.

Bo scoffed. “Did you see the look on their faces, Jojo? That wasn’t excitement. That was terror.” Red, the oldest of the group let loose a hacking cough and spat a wad of phlegm into the first handkerchief of his multicoloured chain.

“It’s the horror films. They make ‘em think we’re all monsters” he grunted, stuffing his handkerchiefs back into his roomy left pocket. As the make-up smeared bottle was passed around the trailer the clowns continued to bemoan this sorry state of affairs. Where was the wonder? Where were the happy smiles? What had happened to the fun?

When the bottle had come full circle and returned to Bo, he took a long gulp and stood up straight, the roof of the trailer flattening his green wig against his skull. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I didn’t become an entertainer, an artist, to frighten the piss and sick out of small children. I say we do something about it.” A murmur went around the trailer. Jojo, sat at Bo’s right hand, looked up at him.

“What, exactly, do you suggest?” he asked. Bo grinned.

“We take the fun to them.” As the clowns leaned closer in interest, Bo produced another bottle and told them his plan.

Louis the barker was finishing his cigarette by the entrance to the big top when he saw the door of Bo’s trailer open, and the entire clown troupe pour out. He watched without much interest as they piled into Bo’s Ford KA with their usual dexterity and heard their whoops of excitement and laughter as the KA sputtered into life. He could hear Blue Oyster Cult start up on the car stereo as they drove away from the big top, off the heath, and towards the town. Louis sniffed and dropped his cigarette, crushing it under his boot. He didn’t have time for their antics tonight. Tess d’Urbearded-Lady said that Butch the dog boy had given her fleas and had come complaining to him about it. He hated these small towns. Nothing good ever happened in a small town.

In the small town of Lidlock, at Number 5, Cedar Place, little Sara had been put to bed an hour ago but still lay wide awake. Her parents had told her that clowns were nothing to be scared of. They weren’t bad people. They were just trying to entertain her. Still, lying alone in the darkness, she saw clowns in every dancing shadow on her bedroom walls and curtains. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and told herself that it was all in her mind. The clowns were in the circus, back up at the heath. She was safe here. She started to drift off to sleep.

There was music coming from outside. Almost inaudible at first, but steadily growing louder. Music and laughter. Sara knew that she should stay in bed. She knew that she shouldn’t look. But somehow she couldn’t help herself. She crawled out from under the covers and went to the windows, pulling the curtain back just a crack.

Sara’s bedroom window, like many bedroom windows in the little town of Lidlock looked out onto the town square. The town square was little more than a glorified roundabout, with a modestly sized fountain of a modest mermaid in the centre of it. As Sara stared into the night, she saw the source of the music; a small car careening around the roundabout at a dangerous speed. The car screeched to a halt and the doors opened.

Sara watched in terror as a seemingly endless number of clowns poured out of the car. There was no way that they could have all been inside. Under the streetlights their paint-caked faces seemed to glow in the dark. She watched as they staggered and swayed, laughing raucously. A fat clown in a red wig dropped the bottle he was carrying and it smashed on the road. He turned his face up to the night sky and cackled. She watched as one of them, wearing a blue wig and blood-red makeup smeared on his mouth, turned and saw her watching. He saw her and he grinned. His maw was missing several teeth, and the few that remained were stained a dark yellow. He raised his hand and extended a finger, pointing at her. Sara screamed.

Standing in the square, trying to get some kind of routine started, Bo started to question the wisdom of his plan. Obviously there was no way to back out now. And it had been a good idea. Still was. They probably should have gone a little easier on the whiskey. Chazzie was trying to juggle but was just embarrassing himself. Red was leaning against the side of the car, having a coughing fit. They hadn’t changed the CD, which meant that Blue Oyster Cult was still belting out of the stereo. And even he knew that Emmett shouldn’t grin like that at that kid in the window. Jojo called out his name and pointed to one of the houses. The front door was open and a tall man in a dressing gown was approaching, holding what looked like a cricket bat. Bo put out his hands and started to explain, but the man didn’t want to listen. Instead he lifted the bat and hit Jojo over the head, hard. Jojo crumpled to the floor. This was all wrong. Bo braced himself for a fight and was raising his fists when something hard hit him in the back of the head and everything went black.

Sara’s father would never be higher in his daughter’s estimation. Her dad had not only been brave enough to go outside and face the horrible clowns, he had beaten them. Then the police had come and taken them all to prison. Well, some of them. Some of them left in an ambulance. Sara’s dad and the other dads were heroes.

The next morning Louis stood outside where the now-dismantled big-top had stood. He waited for the clowns for an hour, then dropped his cigarette neatly by the other stubs, crushing it under his boot. He could always find other clowns. Small towns, he thought. Nothing good happens in small towns.


Hello there.

Some of you have read this story before. I've been doing my best to write new material for this blog, but there's been a bit of progress on my longer projects recently so I thought I'd cheat and put this little piece up.

It was originally written for a "reading out loud without seeming like a nervous wreck" workshop on the Warwick MA Writing course given by super writer AL Kennedy. I find reading aloud difficult, nerve-wracking, and unpleasant. So, I thought I'd write something funny. And it got a couple of laughs, which was lovely.

This story was also inspired by being told by one Lucy Amsden that clowns aren't scary. Apparently it's a popular misconception (which I share, because they certainly scare me) and she should know, she studies them. So I thought I'd write about misunderstood clowns who mean well but suffer because of their image in pop culture. I'm pretty sure I gave her the story for her birthday, so it's technically hers. She probably won't mind. On that note, I suppose this is as good a point as any to thank Lucy and her fella (and my old, old friend, from the times before I could form words) Guy Dorey for providing me with everything a writer needs during the difficult novel writing period: many mugs of tea, good food, quality sofa time, reassurance, a fire, and a kind of sloe gin.

There will hopefully be another (new) story soon, and some of that writing about writing I promised. I hope you enjoyed this one. I'm working on my rather shapeless novel, which is slowly getting going, and a pilot script which could be a lot of fun.

Oh, I found the cure for my reading out loud nervousness. It's a glass and a half of white wine, in case you were wondering.

Oh, and finally, finally, Guy's brother Max is a builder of theatre worlds but is also a very talented illustrator. He works with Adam Z. Robinson on an excellent blog of dark short stories called Tales From the Red Barn. Check it out! http://talesfromtheredbarn.wordpress.com/ For those interested in Max's theatre stuff, his blog is here! http://cardhousetheatre.blogspot.com/

This is my writing hat. It reminds me I should be writing.