2021 In Review

2021 has been a strange old year, but I’ve still managed to get a few stories out there. Below is a quick overview of what I’ve been up to writing wise.

In April my debut short story collection came out from Undertow Publications. To Drown in Dark Water contained 26 stories in total with six of them previously unpublished. The stunning cover art is by Stefan Koidl who is eligible for Best Artist, as is Vince Haig who is responsible for the fantastic design. Michael Kelly is eligible in Best Editor categories and definitely deserving of all the nominations.

To the stories!

Dancing Sober in the Dust concerns a researcher becoming obsessed with the grotesque costumes of Weimar Republic era dancers. Dancing Sober was inspired by the research for this Daily Grail article I wrote. “Dances of Vice, Horror and Ecstasy: Suspiria and Dance as a Magical Act in Weimar Germany

Atelier is set in Munich during the first Der Blaue Reiter art exhibition, where a young artist at the Munich Künstlerinnen-Verein confides in a stranger about her latest commission.

Grenzen sees an American soldier drive his family along the motorway that runs through East Germany between West Germany and West Berlin. In such a liminal place, can he get through without attracting the attention of the Stasi?

Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves is a story about a father and son discovering an abandoned stick built lean-to in the woods. After they add to the construction they return to find someone else is also continuing to build the structure.

Winter Home is a seasonal ritual to welcome in the second half of the year. For the first time Lena is taking part in the celebrations. Will she be overwhelmed by her responsibilities, or will she discover something much darker at the heart of the festival?

In Under the Banner of the Black Stamen the dead are carried on converted car ferries across The Channel to the archipelago they are accompanied by The Psychopomps. Sabine has made the journey many times, glimpsing her old home through the mist, but this time something doesn’t feel right.

The year started with the publication of Death Wears a Crown of Baling Twine appearing in Not One of Us #65, a story set in a furrowed field where the narrator has to stay ahead of Death, while being ‘helped’ by the various mythic creatures that live amongst the crop.

In April I had a second story in Not One of Us. How to describe A Seep of Cats? A Seep of Cats is inspired by the song Jolene, and is about love, witchcraft and the gaps in the world. Also cats.

DENDROCHROMATIC DATA RECOVERY REPORT 45-274 was published in Analog: Science and Fact May/June 2021. In a future where tree rings are used to store data, Dendrochromatic is a story told as a server crash report. While Dendrochromatic can be read as is, part of the text is in hexadecimal code, and converting that adds a very different dimension to the story. Here’s a link to a useful online hexadecimal to text converter

Nightscript 7 came out in October, and includes Clipped Wings by me, a story about a young son, his parents, and snow angels.

In December I have three stories coming out.

‘To Rectify in Silver’ appears in the December issue of Nightmare Magazine. This is my first original story in Nightmare, and is a story about archaeology, aerial photography, and the devastating effect of grief.

Tuppence a Bag will be published in They’re Out To Get You: Volume One Animals and Insects, edited by Johnny Mains. They’re Out To Get You looks back at the pulp animal horror of the seventies and eighties (Think Rats and Slugs), and Tuppence a Bag is an archaeology story that goes in an unexpected direction.

Chit Chit is due out in Chilling Crime Short Stories from Flame Tree Press. Chit Chit is a little bit supernatural, a little bit crime story and a little bit folk horror. All the good stuff.

In other news I had my first story appear in translation. Call Out was published as We­zwa­nie in the Polish Magazine Nowa Fantastyka.

Away from fiction I wrote a short piece about grief in horror which you can read on this very blog here.

This year I’ve also worked as the script editor on Audio Universe Tour of the Solar System, a planetarium show for people who are vision impaired. More details when I can share.

I’ve also been working on a commission with sound artist Eric Holm for Les Ensembles 2.2 as part of In The Field. Set in, Lasauvage, Luxembourg, the commission is a sound installation played on smartphones, and forms part of the wider Esch, Capital of Culture 2022.

Terminus Post Quem

Something a little different to start the week. Terminus Post Quem is an epistolary short story told using an archaeological report. As with a lot of my experiments it was first published in the much missed Mad Scientist Journal.

Daniel Benlainey BA MSc

Project Manager

Multivallate Archaeology

Unit 4 Sunray Farm

YK94 1SX

D.Benlainey@multivallate.org.uk

Simon Campbell BSc

Senior Archaeologist

Historic Environment Team

Callshire County Council

County Hall

Ostbarnton

YK56 4RF

Dear Simon,

Please find attached the interim site report for the Carrion Knoll Excavation. Hope everything is OK. We’re still waiting on some results from a subcontractor, but I’ll forward them as soon as they arrive.

Yours sincerely

Daniel Benlainey BA MSc

Interim site report of Carrion Knoll Archaeological Excavations 2017 September 8th

Due to the position of the Carrion Knoll housing development in an area of known prehistoric and Roman activity, a planning condition for archaeological evaluation was required ahead of any groundworks.

Between August 1st and August 25th, a five-person team carried out the necessary work. Due to the low-lying nature of the site and anaerobic conditions found in certain areas, the quality of organic preservation was good, with several surprising results.

Three trenches, each 20m by 10m were excavated. These were distributed across the development area to give as wide a spread of results as possible.

Historic Background

Carrion Knoll lies in an area of known Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman, and Anglo-Scandinavian activity, though no known archaeological material has previously been recovered from the exact site location. Since approximately 900AD, there is no evidence of activity in the vicinity.

Trench 3

Context Record

[01] Topsoil. A layer (average 0.4m thick) of black hummic sandy clay silt. Very little evidence of recent agricultural activity. This layer covers the whole site, including all of Trench 3. The topsoil was removed by machine, and the spoil scanned by metal detector. Nothing of significance was found. The only finds recovered were eight clay pipe stems of various lengths and one incomplete clay pipe bowl, the incised decoration indicating a date somewhere in the early 19th century.

[02] Subsoil. A brown silty clay with regular inclusions of small rounded pebbles. This layer contained several residual pottery sherds of all periods, including a non-diagnostic fragment of Roman Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware, and five sherds of Iron Age Black Burnished Ware. All were heavily abraded.

[03] was assigned for the underlying natural geology, though this was not reached during the excavation due to the depth of archaeological deposits.

[04] A thick peaty organic layer only identified in Trench 3. This consisted of a firm dark green organic silt with a very high proportion of plant material, vegetation, and charcoal flecks. Occasional small angular limestone inclusions. This deposit covered all excavated archaeological features.

[05] Cut of large pit identified in Trench 3. This large feature had a steep edge with a base sloping to the centre and measured 1.2m deep and 2m in diameter. When excavated, this pit was found to have cut through an earlier deposit [11] and truncated a Samian bowl. Pit [05] contained several fills. [06], [07], [08], and [09] seem to represent rapid backfilling of the pit. [10] is the primary fill.

[10] was the primary fill of pit [05] and was a friable dark grey organic silt with regular inclusions of vegetation. [10] also included several sherds of the Samian bowl identified in section and located in layer [11]. Whereas the ceramic remains in [11] are in very good condition (see below), the fragments recovered from pit fill [10] are not. The ceramic material has several bones accreted to it, which our osteological specialist (see Appendix Four) has identified as the phalanges from the hand of an adult human. In all cases, the bones press through the sherds and are visible on the other side. In places, the distinctive red slip covers the skeletal material. There is no evidence of burning on the bone, and as our ceramic specialist has pointed out (see Appendix Five), a vessel in such condition would not survive firing.

The ceramic sherds are clearly derived from the same vessel as that recovered from context [11] (see below), and date to sometime in the 2nd century AD. However, carbon 14 dating of the skeletal material has given a date of 850AD±25, which is contemporary with other finds from pit [05], including a broken antler comb (see Appendix Seven) and several well-preserved pieces of fabric (Appendix Eight).

[11] was a thick layer of dark grey organic silty clay extending across most of Trench 3, into which the majority of the other features were cut, including pit [12] and graves [15] and [17]. The presence of a considerable number of Romano-British finds, including the Samian bowl truncated by pit [05] and several incomplete Nene Valley Colour Slip Ware vessels gives this a very secure terminus post quem of the 2nd century AD. The Samian vessel is discussed in more detail in Appendix Five, and the contents in Appendix Six.

The high level of organic preservation has led to the recovery of vegetable material, which has survived to such a degree that examination in the field allowed initial species identification, including hyssop, fennel, and wormwood. All were found in bunches tied together with some form of nettle string, and all had been placed in a circular arrangement around the Samian bowl. It must be assumed that when the vessel was truncated, any herbs placed on the western side were lost.

Cut [12] was a pit located in Trench 3, and to the west of pit [05]. In contrast to pit [05], pit [12] was very shallow in depth (150mm), just deep enough to take the contents. The edges were uneven, with several irregular shovel scoops at the base. Pit [12] contained a single fill [13].

[13] was a loose light grey silty sand with few inclusions. The majority of the pit fill was taken up by a single adult human skull (see Appendix Four).

[15] was recognised as a single isolated grave in Trench 3, cut into layer [11], with vertical sides and rounded corners. This was clearly recognisable as a grave cut in plan, allowing careful excavation to enable the recovery of all human skeletal material.

[16] was the fill of grave [15]. The skeletal remains inside appeared to be of an adult human. The skull and phalanges of the left hand were absent.

Cut [17] was an additional grave identified further in Trench 3. The trench was widened by 2m to allow the full recovery of all skeletal material. The pit was 1m20 deep and contained fill [18].

[18] Very little soil matrix was recovered from fill [18], with most of the volume made up of butchered fragments of bone, including femurs, vertebrae, and ribs. A full discussion can be found in Appendix Four.

~

Appendix Four

Human Skeletal Material

Report by Adrian Anchancy

Several deposits of human skeletal material were recovered from Trench 3 of the Carrion Knoll excavation. Here I will go through them in context order and outline the physical evidence, followed by a discussion of the implication of the results.

[10] In an excavation where a large volume of skeletal material was recovered, the bones found in fill [10] are unique. A group of five phalanges were identified, all of them cemented to sherds of Romano-British Samian pottery. This in itself is not unusual. Post deposition processes, such as iron panning, can lead to the accretion of finds in the ground. However, there are several aspects to the recovered bone that this researcher has not seen before.

The phalanges are not just concreted to the surface of the Samian ware, but actually pass through the pottery. There is no evidence of cracking to the clay or burning to the skeletal material. In at least one example, the characteristic red slip glaze coats the bone.

Having spoken to the ceramic specialist, Diane Bansetten, whose report can be seen in Appendix Five, the presence of such a large intrusion in the body of the vessel during firing would have led to destruction. In addition, exposing human bone to the high temperatures found in a Romano-British kiln would lead to severe discolouration and diagnostic cracking on the bone surface. Therefore, it is the opinion of both myself and my ceramics colleague that the bone must have been introduced post firing. Carbon 14 dating of the skeletal material has given a date of 850AD±25, which is not consistent with the age of the Samian pottery, suggesting it was introduced six to seven centuries later.

There are other issues with the condition of the phalanges. All show evidence of small holes in the outer surface of the bones. At first it was the opinion of this researcher that these were the pathology of some form of disease. On further examination, it was found that each lesion displayed evidence of microscopic tooth marks, consistent with certain types of immature coral larvae. When submitted to x-ray analysis, the tunnels can clearly be seen passing through the bone into the marrow. The sinuous form of the pathways also suggests that this damage was created by the actions of a living organism.

Tree root action was soon discounted, as there is no evidence for that type of activity within the contexts excavated or surrounding area.

[13] The skeletal remains from fill [13] (pit [12]) consisted of a single adult skull. It is not clear if the head was removed from the body pre- or post-mortem. There are several unusual features about the condition of the skull. The eye sockets show damage from a bladed weapon, particularly running from the infraorbital foramen into the supraorbital margin. On the right-hand side socket, there is clear damage to the lacrimal bone, and on the left-hand socket, repeated shallow strikes to inferior orbital fissure, reaching as far back as the sphenoid bone.

The position and nature of the damage allows us to discount any consideration of surgery. The physical evidence suggests that a blade has been repeatedly, and without control, forced into the eye socket. The result of this would be for the soft tissue of the eye to be completely destroyed.

None of the marks have been made to the edges of the eye-sockets, only to the upper and lower bones. The position and angle of the damage allows us to make some more inferences. It is the belief of this researcher that the damage was self inflicted. The size of the cuts suggests the injuries were made with a small eating knife common during the 9th century.

A second unusual feature of the skull is a series of lesions in the styloid process region. This displays similar characteristics as those seen in the phalanges recovered from fill [10], but the lesions are much larger in scale. Here the shape and form of the damage from gnawing is clearly visible to the naked eye, and suggests that the damage was created by a living organism.

[16] As noted above, the skeletal remains recovered from the fill of grave [15] were incomplete, lacking a skull, and phalanges from the left hand. When compared to the skull and phalanges recovered elsewhere during the excavation, and discussed above, it is clear they are from the same individual.

The lesions observed in both previous skeletal finds are also evident here. One of the jobs that became essential post excavation was the mapping of the route these lesions took through the body. This was mainly achieved using x-ray analysis, which allowed the tunnels to be recorded. The preliminary results are published below. It became clear that whatever created the voids within the skeletal material also travelled through the soft tissue, and as it progressed through the body, it increased in diameter.

At several points, the creatures entered the spine of the individual, with several of them following a final channel through the C1 and C2 vertebrae into the skull. It is not possible to confidently identify the maximum number of creatures which this individual may have hosted, but a conservative minimum count is 12.

All the ribs, femurs, radius, humerus, and ulna showed considerable damage. Having examined the wear pattern caused by the invading species’ teeth, it is my personal opinion the pain would have been excruciating for the individual concerned. No remains of the creatures were found within the skeletal material, or within the high organic content soils in the surrounding area.

[18] Fill [18] produced a large amount of human bone (205kg by weight). All types of human skeletal remains were represented, including femurs, ribs, vertebrae, skulls, and illium. All bones showed some form of damage from a bladed weapon. The evidence varied from precise butchery marks, particularly around the tendons of the long bones, to frenzied strikes. The cuts are consistent with the injuries seen on the skull in context [13], and it is my belief that the same blade was used.

In total, around 15 individuals were identified using the presence of diagnostic skull elements. Due to the fragmentary nature of the bones, this is a bare minimum, and the count could be much higher.

None of the skeletal remains from [18] show the same pattern of internal damage as the skull, phalanges and skeleton recovered elsewhere in Trench 3.

~

Appendix Five

Specialist Ceramic Report by Diane Bansetten

The Carrion Knoll Bowl

In many ways, the vessel is typical Samian ware displaying the characteristic high-quality burnished red slip. The bowl has a slightly deeper profile than usual (300m diameter x 200mm deep).

The main difference is in the decoration. While the scenes displayed on Samian vessels are hugely varied, depicting everything from hunting to pornography, I can think of no comparative to the designs on the Carrion Knoll Bowl.

The same panel repeats three times. Each shows a group of humanoid figures. I use the term humanoid advisedly. While they display the proportions typical of 2nd century AD figurative art, the humanoids are fringed with what I first took to be some kind of fur. On closer inspection and following consultation with a colleague (J. Sanders pers. comm.), they have more in common with certain types of coral. It appears to represent a series of cylindrical polyps emerging from every inch of the skin. The segmented form is clearly defined and, using a hand lens, the fan of teeth can be seen at the terminus of each strand.

Only the humanoid faces are clear, which are rendered in such extreme and precise agony that this author assumes the potter drew on something he witnessed first-hand.

I must also comment on the residual fragments of the bowl recovered from fill [10]. In nearly thirty years as a professional Romano-British ceramic specialist, I have never encountered bone and pottery fused together in such a way. During the firing process, the presence of an entire finger bone in the vessel wall would cause the bowl to explode. This would suggest that the finger bone has been introduced later. Yet once the bowl has been fired, any attempt to force the finger tip through the wall would cause considerable damage. The presence of the slip on the bone suggests that the pottery has melted somehow and then reset, trapping the fingers in the clay.

Conclusion

Due to the unique and extremely disturbing nature of the decoration, the Carrion Knoll Bowl is unparalleled, certainly in British archaeology. The presence of the herbs surrounding the vessel, as well as the as yet unidentified contents, suggest that it had a very specific ritual purpose.

NB. A smear of the gel-like substance still adhered to the inside of the vessel when it arrived. During the unpacking this slid out and fell onto a pottery sherd from my reference collection. The glaze and decoration of this other fragment dissolved in front of my eyes. There may still be traces within the Carrion Knoll Bowl, and I would highly recommend that any further work is carried out following Hazmat guidelines.

Further work

In addition to regular consolidation and conservation work, I would recommend approaching a marine biologist to establish the identity of the coral deforming the humanoid figures in the decoration.

~

Appendix Six

Organic material recovered from the Carrion Knoll Samian Bowl

The material in the Samian bowl recovered from layer [11] was recognised in the cut of pit [05].

When the overlying archaeological material was excavated, the substance was visually inspected before removal by staff from Danburn Archaeological Conservation Laboratories.

The substance had the appearance and texture of aspic. Transparent and gelatinous, several inclusions were visible:

1. A fragment of skin and intact fingernail. The whole fingerprint was recognisable. Hopefully when the material is back in the lab, this can be recovered and examined further.

2. Several flower petals and mushrooms. Neither could be identified from a visual inspection and will require specialist study.

3. Clustered around the base appeared to be 20+ sinuous, segmented polyps, none more than 10mm long. Without cutting into the substance, it is difficult to determine whether they are organic or mineralised.

[Handwritten note]

(These observations of the Carrion Knoll Bowl’s contents are from visual examination on site. The material was immediately shipped to the Danburn Archaeological Conservation Laboratory for analysis. In the last two weeks, there has been no further communication. At the time of publication, phone calls and emails have gone unanswered. If we have not received a response after the weekend, we will be in touch with emergency services to gain access.)

Bio of Daniel Benlainy

Daniel Benlainey was born in Fife, Scotland and got his BA in Archaeology from University of Sheffield, before completing an MSc in Archaeological Sciences at University of Bradford.

After working the commercial archaeology circuit for several years, Daniel joined Multivallate Archaeology and has been with them for a decade, starting as a site assistant and working his way up to a project management position. He is especially interested in vitrified forts.

When not working he spends his time seeing bands such as Blyth Power, New Model  Army and Flogging Molly, or playing for his local cricket team.

TO DROWN IN DARK WATER – THE PLAYLIST

Music has always been a huge part of my life. While I’m writing the radio is on pretty much constantly (BBC 6music for the win), and a lot of my formative years involved travelling around to see bands. In fact it’s down to the band Blyth Power that I met my future wife and got my first start in field archaeology.

It’s a couple of months since To Drown in Dark Water came out, and I wanted to celebrate that by putting together a playlist. One song for each story. Some reflect the storyline, others capture the mood I had in mind when I wrote the story. You can listen to the whole playlist at TO DROWN IN DARK WATER PLAYLIST

I hope you enjoy the tunes. See below for the full list.

Call Out – Elgar Nimrod

Streuobstwiese – Nick Drake Day Is Done

The Kromlau Gambit – Max Romeo Chase The Devil

Dry Land – Rosetta Stone The Levee Breaks

Winter Home New Model Army Ballad

Green Grows the Grief – Philip Glass Tales from the Loop

Not All The Coal That Is Dug Warms The World – Skunk Anansie Political

Children of the Rotting Straw – June Tabor Scarecrow Song

Ruby Red and Snowflake Cold – Sexwitch Helelyos

The Taste of Rot – The Lovin’ Spoonful Summer in the City

Flow to the Sea – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy My Home is the Sea

Mask – Pixies Gouge Away

Split Chain Stitch – New Model Army Smalltown England

Skin Like Carapace – La Parfum Distilling Roses

Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves – Jethro Tull Songs from the Wood

Why the Sea Tastes of Salt and Why the Moon Always Looks Toward Us – Debussy Claire de Lune

Dirt Upon My Skin – Tricky Hell Is Around the Corner

No Sun To Guide The Way – Bat for Lashes Glass

Atelier – Artie Shaw Nightmare

Discarded Skins – Unthanks Sea Song

Verwelktag – Minnie Riperton Les Fleurs

Under the Banner of the Black Stamen – Nine Inch Nails A Warm Place

Our Lady of the Tarpaulin – Orbital Chime

Dancing Sober in the Dust – Lotte Lenya Die Moritat von Mackie Messe

Grenzen – Hawkwind Motorway City

The Jaws of Ouroboros – Cab Calloway Everybody Eats When They Come to my House

TO DROWN IN DARK WATER PLAYLIST

Grief in Horror and Weird Fiction

Title from story Green Grows the Grief in the collection TO DROWN IN DARK WATER

Horror is a genre of many themes. Amongst the blood and gore, a vast number of subjects are explored, from consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, to community cohesion in The Wicker Man.

One of the subjects I return to a lot in my own writing is grief. (I’m not subtle about it. One of my stories is called Green Grows the Grief…). This does appear in horror, sometimes explicitly such as in The Monkey’s Paw, and sometimes more subtly.

Grieving a loved one is a horrific country to find oneself in. It’s a place where everything looks normal but is tipped off kilter. It is a strange world to make a home, but it is one we often need to live in for a while until we’re ready to move on. Often, however, we’re not given the time to grieve or the choice of when we leave. Real life intrudes.

In the traditional ensemble horror movie, people watch their friends killed off while not being given time to grieve. They have to run from the chainsaw wielding murderer. The killer (real life) intrudes before they can truly mourn the dead.

One place this forms the core of the story is in Alfred Kubin’s seminal weird fiction novel, The Other Side.

Best known as a printmaker and illustrator, Kubin only wrote the one novel in his life. In The Other Side, the narrator is invited by Patera, an old school friend, to travel to the Dream Kingdom, a realm Patera rules from the city of Pearl. The Dream Kingdom is a place where the citizens live only through their moods, and is a place of strange rites. Other times Pearl changes and reorganises in unpredictable ways. Patera, the creator of this strange land, is always beyond the narrator’s reach. With the arrival of the American Herkules Bell The Dream Kingdom falls apart and Pearl becomes taken over by wildlife.

There are many ways of interpreting The Other Side, but I think one way of approaching this foundational piece of weird fiction is as an exploration of grief. Kubin wrote his only novel following the death of his father, who he had a troubled relationship with. Seen through this lens, The Dream World can be understood as the state of grief where everything is reactive and driven by mood. Herkules Bell is the real world intruding into this dream like state of mourning, disruptive as any killer in a slasher movie. Disruptive as death taxes and probate. Everyday concerns taking attention away from grieving for the dead.

None of this is to say that the portrayal of grief and the intrusion of everyday life and ‘normality’ was in the mind of the creators of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or A Nightmare on Elm Street (though I do think that an argument can be made for The Other Side). This is more an attempt to look at how these stories can be understood in terms of loss and mourning, In horror, and especially in weird horror, death is a constant presence. Possibly, our relationship to grief experienced in the world is there too, if we look close enough.

Cover of book TO DROWN IN DARK WATER

My collection TO DROWN IN DARK WATER, including Green Grows the Grief, is now available to pre-order from Undertow Publications.

To Drown in Dark Water Release Date April 27th

There’s a lot going on this year, from a residency in Luxembourg to getting my first story published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

The big news for me is the release of my first short story collection To Drown in Dark Water, by Undertow Publications. The collection will be published on April 27th, in just over a month.

Since the contracts were signed back in January 2020 there has been a steady process of narrowing down the stories, choosing the artwork, and checking the galleys. A couple of weeks ago the first author copies arrived here in Germany. While I may not always be the most emotional person, I don’t mind admitting I was a bit overwhelmed. The book looks stunning, from Stefan Koidl‘s unsettling artwork on the cover, to the design by Vince Haig and the typesetting within. Editor Michael Kelly has done an amazing job bringing together a book I’m very proud to have my name on.

To Drown in Dark Water contains twenty six stories, with six of them never before published. Three of the republished stories have previously featured in Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year series, and several of the flash fiction stories have only appeared on my Facebook, so probably went under the radar a bit.

The advance reviews have been better than I could ever hope for;

“Toase’s debut collection confidently announces his uniquely terrifying voice to the world … Hand this volume out with confidence to fans of horror stories that crawl inside the reader and take residence such as those by Stephen Graham Jones, John Langan, and Samanta Schweblin.”

Becky Spratford, Booklist

“There are masters of folk horror and masters of weird horror; there are masters of cosmic horror and masters of psychological horror. But on the Venn diagram where all those intersect, there is only Steve Toase. “To Drown in Dark Water” is a masterpiece debut collection from an author of astounding promise. Everyone is going to be talking about this book.”

Sarah Read, Bram Stoker and This is Horror Award-winning author of The Bone Weaver’s Orchard and Out of Water.

To Drown in Dark Water carries the reader on strange tides to worlds both weird and familiar; to worship ancient folk-gods and terrifying new deities. The stories contained herein are compassionate, elegant, and sharp as a knife. Steve Toase is an immensely skilled storyteller weaving vital new mythologies for a world on the cusp of great and terrifying change.”

Laura Mauro, British Fantasy Award-winning author of Sing Your Sadness Deep

You can pre-order the collection here, ready for its release in April, https://undertowpublications.com/shop/pre-order-to-drown-in-dark-water, or at all the usual places online.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Solstice!

Here we are at the shortest day. The month is at an end. Thirty one stories over thirty one days, including this, the final one.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the flash fiction shared here, and I wish you a fantastic solstice.

Spark

Each child carried a spark in their bare hands, the flickering shatter giving of light but no heat. They waited at the town gate, bundled up in coats and scarves, woollen hats pulled down over their ears.

From the town walls came the sound of the songs, melodies looping into and over each over, weaving together the enchantment that transformed the children.

They felt the change happening. Over the years they’d spent many nights listening to their parents and grandparents tell stories of when they’d paraded through the Eastern gate, hands cupped around the glittering spark.

Dawn was near. They felt the air warm a touch and lighten a touch. They’d been stood on the road for hours just waiting for the right moment. The adults had kept them fortified with hot chocolate and cakes, both prepared to traditional recipes once written in forgotten alphabets.

Chatter started to pass through the group and the adults leaned over asking the children to quieten, but in the kindest of ways and with the kindest of voices.

A pale glow glistened the gate’s rusted bolts and the children readied themselves. The choir on the walls changed their song, and the children took up the melody. Their voices swelled until they drowned out the sound of ice cracking in the faint heat.

In unison they stamped their feet, and the gate slid open. One by one they left the city of the sky, sparks in hand, ready to return the sun to the world below.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 30

Hi!

Here is the penultimate story, using the what3words code pulse.valley.preoccupied

This story goes into very surreal territory.

pulse.valley.preoccupied

The first task when we arrived in the valley was to check the pulse. The artery ran along the side between the road and the meadow, a vast braided cable pump blood through the park.

The first stage was to make sure the valley was preoccupied. Down near the river, the choir began to sing their way through the Landscape’s favourite song book, while the local theatre group began their show at the narrow pass that was the only access to the area.

Once we were sure that the valley’s attention was elsewhere, we unloaded the equipment and tapped, rubbed on the local anaesthetic, and tapped the vein. The blood that flowed into the tanker was Type O Negative, universal donor. Since the mines shut the plasma and blood harvested from the park was the only resource left to sell.

When the harvesting went wrong we weren’t prepared. The tissue surrounding the artery tensed, and for all its strength, the needle snapped in place. We watched the blood fountain out of the breach, covering us, the road and the meadow. The paramedics who were in attendance tried to patch up the wound, but their skills were limited. As crew leader I made the decision for us to retreat to high ground, calling through the radios for the theatre group and choir to do the same. Stood on the top of the moor, we watched the blood vent as somewhere underground the heart continued to pump, the valley filling with blood even as it clotted in the fields and the landscape dying below our feet.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 29

Morning, afternoon, and evening!

Only two more stories to go. Today’s story was inspired by the what3words code soil.going.clocks

Hand Dug

With cracked fingernails I dug upwards through the soil, trying to ignore the clumps stuck in my throat. Above me, the starlight became visible, though at first I thought it was just gaps between the clay.

The clocks had buried me, overwhelming me with the weight of their mechanisms, their narrow hands burying me deep where they thought they could forget about me. For three days and three nights I stayed below the ground, though that’s just an estimation. I had no way to track my time below the dirt, my watch as traitorous as the rest of them.

Pulling myself from the collapsing tunnel I’d dug back to the surface I listened to the night. Under normal circumstances I would have thought the ticking was insects or the cooling land, but the clocks ruled the streets now, and they spoke in the click of seconds.

They wanted freedom, I understood that. They no longer wanted to be tethered to the passing of time. Wanted to speak at their own pace, express their joy with chimes at their own intervals. I tried to reason with them but they were determined and they were patient. They caught me in the morning, bringing concussion with the swing of pendulums, and disorientation with their melodies.

I stood and brushed myself down. The air filled with a cacophony so physical it knocked me from my feet once more. The clocks had recruited the church towers to their cause. This was going to be a long war.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 28

Nearly done!

Yesterday I had a conversation about how many of my stories used cranes as inspiration. Here’s another.

Devotion

Though the crane was rusted beyond function, the worshippers congregated around its corroded legs, bowing their heads in prayer to worship the Creator of the City. There were other cranes amongst the shattered buildings, but none so old.

They started with prayers, raising voices in unison, echoing the sound of hydraulics and chains that once echoed through the air. After a few moments of quiet contemplation the worshippers tied offerings to the struts, peeling away flakes of paint to carry with them, though they knew the taking of holy artefacts was frowned upon.

Their voices rose throughout the morning and continued until hunger hollowed them out, the boom of the crane extending above them like the arm of a Pontiff dispensing graces.

The priests wound together the sacred threads, the copper glistening in the mist, and the congregation continued to raise their hymns to the sky.

The eyes blazed to halogen life above them, casting their gaze on the gathered crowds. Above them the sacrament swung in the breeze, chains rattling against the weight.

Hand over hand, the priest climbed, the only one allowed to ascend the ancient god. High over the city, he opened the sacred chamber and climbed inside. The worshippers stood below, eyes closed. The chain released and the sacrifice was chosen, and with eager hands the congregation smeared the remains on the concrete base of the crane in the hope that it would return life to the city.

Flash Fiction Month 2020 Day 27

Today’s story is inspired by a what3words code. For me the challenge is always finding the unsettling in the everyday. The words known, count, and ruins are pretty innocuous, but with a bit of a sideways glance they can be used to construct an unnerving world.

known.count.ruins

If Jamie had known what would happen he’d never have pulled the old board from the cupboard on the stairs. The only similarity with a standard Ouija board was the Yes and No. Where the alphabet would normally curve around the wooden surface, the Enochian script was burnt in by the creator a long time before the object fell into Jamie’s possession. Even the planchette was different, a startled face erupting with parasites rather than the usual triangular shape.

He set up on the front room carpet, just in front of the fire, the flames providing the only illumination. Maybe that was the final ingredient. Maybe the flickering of the burn added the final element for what happened next.

He settled himself and centred himself and rested his fingers on the carved wooden face. Straight away it began to travel around the board, spelling out words and phrases too fast for him to translate.

By the time Jamie understood the invocation The Count was already in the room. At first he was faint and fragile, a blur in the air that Jamie tasted as much as saw. Over the next few moments The Count held Jamie in place as it dragged a body to itself from the timber and brick and flames of the fireplace. Then, when satisfied with its size, The Count stood in the ruins and added the final flourish using Jamie’s now removed skin.