Angels From Hell


Welcome back!

Today I’m going to talk about the first in a series of four books by author Mick Norman. It’s worth putting a small heads-up at the start of this article.

Angels from Hell is incredibly violent, contains descriptions of sexual abuse, and some homophobic stereotypes (although this is a bit more complex as I’ll discuss below). All the books I discuss here are pulp fiction and often have sensationalised elements designed to shock their audience. Angels from Hell is no exception. However, what I hope to highlight is the interesting science fiction, fantasy, horror, and occult themes that make these a little more interesting.

Mick Norman

Mick Norman was the pen name of editor and author Laurence James, and James’s story is interwoven with that of NEL itself.

After travelling to London for teaching college, James dropped out, spent some time employed at Foyles and Harrods, then worked in publishing for a decade before ending up at New English Library. At NEL he spent three years in charge of editorial work. Finally, he decided to turn his hand to writing, sent the manuscript for Angels From Hell to NEL anonymously where it was picked up for publication.

James became a prolific writer, with many novels under his belt using many pseudonyms. His most successful books were the Deathlands series. Taking over writing Pilgrimage to Hell from Christopher Lowder, James wrote 34 of the novels on his own, which sounds a lot until you realise that the whole Deathlands sequence runs to 125 books and 18 audiobooks.

However, this is a long time after he worked at NEL and had Angels from Hell accepted for publication.

The Perception of New English Library

There is an important point to make here. New English Library is often stereotyped as a very reactionary publisher. TV Tropes describes NEL in terms of;

“The NEL’s output covered all the bete noires of the right-wing establishment: skinheads, teen gangs, uncontrolled non-white immigration, Football Hooligans, biker gangs, greedy trade unions, and liberal politicians acting as willing or unaware dupes for Moscow’s diabolical plan to destroy the West from within before moving in to “restore order”, as well as having side-swipes at pagans, Wiccans, atheists, and others who threatened the traditional British way of life. Looking back with hindsight, it is almost as if somebody was deliberately setting up Nightmare Fuel for the bourgeoisie as well as a stern warning from Nanny not to eat cheese before bedtime. It was like reading the Chick Tracts recast as moral fables for our age, but with Satan replaced with more secular bogeymen.” (Source https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Creator/NewEnglishLibrary)

While I’m not going to sit here and defend all of NEL’s output, I think this doesn’t really capture the nuance of what was going on. Certainly some of their books were incredibly right-wing, particularly the Richard Allen Skinhead books. Yet this wasn’t a political view shared by the editorial staff, and definitely not the view of Laurence James. In the excellent 1994 by Stewart Home, James doesn’t pull his punches when talking about Jim Moffat (the alcoholic Canadian writer behind the Richard Allen name).

JAMES: I can’t remember the catalyst for the skinhead books but Jim started doing them, and he was a terrible old man. He was unreliable, extremely right-wing, a terrible drunk, a liar, he hated kids. What more can I tell you about Jim Moffatt?
HOME: He was a talented hack with reactionary political views and a drink problem.
JAMES: In his early days he was an extremely talented hack, a really good hack writer, but unfortunately, as it went on, he began to believe that he was in touch with youth culture. And youth culture to him was fascist skinheads. He started putting masses of terrible racism in his books. His manuscripts were just completely racist. And I was labouring away trying to get rid of all this from his prose and saying “Jim, sorry, you can’t keep kicking the heads of asians (sic), no, sorry Jim”
.” (Source https://www.stewarthomesociety.org/interviews/james.htm)

So how did Laurence James counter this in his writing and was he successful?

Angels from Hell

Cover of Angels from Hell by Mick Norman

Angels from Hell is the first in a quartet of books about Gerry Vinson and The Last Heroes chapter. In many ways it’s a very typical biker book following the cliched journey of someone joining the club, and rising up the ranks. Yet there are some very stark differences from other books such as Chopper.

The book starts, as many of the biker books do, with an act of violence.

Jerry Richardson is blind. As he walks down the passage under Hither Green station, between Staplehurst Road and Nightingale Grove, he is mown down by several motorbikes. (According to Stewart Home’s interview with Laurence James, this was a particular fear the writer had when using the tunnel himself.)

“Jerry Richardson had been blind. Now he was dead.” (pg9).

Before his untimely demise, Richardson’s thoughts give us an insight into the political landscape of the book. He has spent the night at the London Buddhist Society, where a faction brought a vote to support the Home Secretary as he tries to stamp out the “Permissive Socialists and their fringe elements”, a vote Jerry opposes.

Already Mick Norman is giving us the sense that this is not a broad minded time in British history.

British society at the time the book is set (slightly in the future – probably late 1970s looking at the dates of the various fake news reports and articles featured in the book, and those in the subsequent series) is portrayed as an authoritarian, verging on totalitarian, regime where all the Hells Angels clubs have either been wiped out or driven underground. While the book focuses on bikers who might not be the most sympathetic of targets, it’s safe to assume that under a government where they were outlawed, other forms of descent and rebellion would also attract the government’s attention.

The Last Heroes chapter have gone underground, only emerging for the occasional run led by their president Vincent.

Norman explains what has happened in the US compared with England, and, in some ways, does predict the rise of the right wing politics that came to dominate in the latter half of the seventies/early eighties.

In this alternative timeline, the US government of a Wallace/Nixon coalition (I assume this is George Wallace) stamp down on the biker subculture, with Reagan as Secretary of State with Special Responsibilities for Social Hygiene leading the charge. After Sonny Barger‘s brakes are cut, leading to his death, the rest of the American HA are rounded up. This leads to the collapse of the subculture across US.

Similar techniques in the UK have a different impact. They serve to drive away the younger members who aren’t really committed, leading to a hardcore whose average age is over thirty. (It’s worth remembering that the backpatch scene in the UK at the time the books were written was still very much a youth subculture, mainly comprising young men in their late teens and early twenties, rather then the more established multi-generational scene it is now.)

Into this background, enter Gerald (Gerry) Vinson and his girlfriend Brenda.

Gerry Vinson is not your typical biker pulp novel stereotype. At twenty-eight years old, he is an arts graduate who wanted to be a teacher (intelligent), spent five years in the army, fighting in Ireland, with a talent for unarmed combat (battle trained). After his five years, he refuses to sign up again, meeting Brenda at the Young Anarchists (politically aware). They share similar views, that the running of the country by the old reactionary right has taken away personal freedoms, and while they admire the ideas of the Angry Brigade, Brenda talks him into seeing the Angels as a disruptive force that can change things.

Very early on, their idealism meets the reality of the Last Heroes and nearly ends in a mess of blood and bone. Gerry has to fight Tiny Terry, who, as the nickname suggests, is anything but Tiny. Armed and brutal, Tiny potentially has the advantage. By calculating and using his experience of unarmed combat, Gerry cripples Terry, finally killing him.

After Gerry wins the fight, Brenda is subjected to sexual abuse by the rest of the members, and because this is a pulp book from the seventies, there is a suggestion that she is turned on by her abuse. This is definitely one of the low points of the book.

Throughout, the central conflict is between Gerry and Vincent, with the carelessness of the latter attracting both the government and the media. This raising of the Last Heroes profile also brings the bikers to the attention of film-maker Donn Simon, who sends out his assistant and occasional lover Rupert Colt to make contact with the Last Heroes, and convince them to take part in his bikesploitation film.

Rupert Colt is clearly coded as gay, and portrayed as very camp. What’s interesting is how Norman develops the friendship between Gerry and Rupert. In many pulp books of the era (particularly those of Richard Allen) gay men are just there as victims to be beaten up. In Angels from Hell, Norman makes it clear that Gerry Vinson, the violent driven rival for the president role in the Last Heroes, has a lot of time for Rupert. Over time this develops into a friendship that carries on throughout the quartet. Don’t get me wrong, some of the stereotyping of other minor characters isn’t anywhere near as nuanced. Nancy the lesbian actor teases the bikers and then gets sexually attacked by them. Tarquin the male lead tries to seduce the chapter president Vincent and gets killed when he doesn’t take no for an answer. Both of these events may make Rupert’s friendship with Gerry seem small change, but it is an advance in a very unforgiving genre.

Although the book continues, the climax of the story happens in the quarry during filming, where one event after another explodes, culminating with a police raid, the officers outclassed and killed by the bikers who have been prepared by Gerry. Out of the chaos most of the Last Heroes escape, fleeing to Wales with the intent to hide out and maybe meet up with an almost mythical second backpatch club; The Wolves.

SFFH Elements of Angels From Hell

On first reading its quite hard to spot any science fiction or fantasy in Angels from Hell, and most of the horror comes from the violence and gore, which is not uncommon for pulp fiction. Yet hidden amongst the usual pulp ingredients is a very clearly dystopian police state.

Although police violence in the seventies (and after) is no secret, the difference in the society shown in Angels from Hell is the scale and visibility.

“Now life for an Angel was very different. Authority had come down on them in the biggest way possible and any gang member caught wearing colours or riding a chopped bike was likely to draw a punitive jail sentence. There was another hazard if you fell into the sticky hands of the fuzz. An unlikely percentage of bikers appearing before the new local magistrate’s court were either carried into the dock on a stretcher, or walked in with broken ribs, teeth missing or other facial injuries.” (pg12)

A knock on effect of the suppression was motorbikes almost going out of production, so all the choppers ridden by the Last Heroes date before 1972.

The main driver for the suppression in the book is Home Secretary George Hayes, and the Hayes code. Not only does this give the police the power to act with impunity, for example when they discuss fitting up a police informant with drugs, but also allows, even encourages, vigilante groups.

When one thinks of vigilante groups the image that comes to mind is either masked paramilitaries, or enraged suburban homeowners. In Angels from Hell they are portrayed slightly differently.

Scurrying through the side streets, black dots of people, all heading for the motorway. Mainly women. Not young, hair swept up in curlers. A few men. Drab clothes. Some women in dressing-gowns and lime-green fluffy slippers. Occasionally a flash of weak sunlight off something metal held in the hand or tucked in the belt. Up and onto the road. Hundreds. Waiting.” (pg 90)

The women opened out as the bikes roared at them, let them through. Closed up, encircled the bike lying on its side. Stood ringing the fallen Angel. Dylan, struggling to his feet, leaving his hog. Looking round him.

Police stopping, beyond the circle. Seeing, but not interfering. No way round, and others had held their chance. Got clean away, sneaking into their meeting place. And the vans made it. All but one.

Dylan.

He didn’t try and run. He didn’t try and fight. He just stood there as they tore him down. As the knives flashed and the nails tore, he died. Quickly. The pain was not long.

Although he died quickly, the mob were not easily satisfied. His head was hacked from his shoulders and passed gleefully from hand to hand. His clothes were ripped to shreds. Some women dipped pieces of his jacket in his blood and took them away. One elderly women (sic), dressing gown and hair still in tight curlers, got the biggest cheer when she went and sliced his genitals from the white flesh of his stomach, holding them high over his head.

Violence breeds violence.

All the Last Heroes made their rendezvous. All but one.

Dylan.” (pg 91)

It’s tempting to think that Norman used the image of older women as murderous vigilantes purely for shock value, but reading Stewart Home’s interview, I think that he is far too considered for that.

I wonder if he included this image of housewives tearing apart a biker as a way of countering the images of male violence included in pulp fiction. I’m not claiming that he was purely focused on redressing the balance, he is writing pulp and does include acts of graphic sexual violence designed to shock. There is a sense that he is aware of some of the prejudices of his contemporaries, particularly Jim Moffat writing as Richard Allen, and tried to do something different in his own work.

He is also tapping into the familiar image of the (mainly older) female wrestling audience of the seventies who would think nothing of attacking the wrestlers with umbrellas and handbags.

At the end of the book, the failed police operation leading to the high profile Quarry Slaughter, forces the Home Secretary Georg Hayes to retire, and the government to go to the country for a general election. In the aftermath of fifty police deaths and no biker convictions, the public have no appetite to live under such an oppressive system anymore, and vote for a more permissive government.

Although Norman positions the government as socialist, when such an oppressive police system became a reality, it was under the Conservatives as the Thatcher government sought to suppress those who did not conform, including;

miners

and New Age Travellers

1984 by New Model Army

In the TV Tropes quote at the start of this piece, they try to align NEL with a right-wing suppressive viewpoint, I would argue that Norman is showing that such an oppressive government will fail.

So, even though the SFFH aspect of Angels from Hell feels light, it is definitely there, and also acts as the basis for setting up the following books in the series which have a far more obvious SFFH feel.

Writing Style

Norman likes playing with form, particularly breaking up the main story with epistolary chapters, including police memos, news broadcasts, press clippings, historical reflections from fictional academic texts, and teenage poetry. These two to three page interjections are effective in allowing Norman to work in different perspectives and exposition without losing the pace.

During the finale in the quarry, Norman breaks the text using scene directions, echoing the film location setting. This lets him cut between different events without jarring the reader.

In several places during the story, he also breaks the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly.

By using these different techniques, Norman prevents the story feeling stale, managing to vary the pace and atmosphere.

Ephemera

As with many of the NEL books, they refer to events in other NEL books. On page seven, Norman describes;

The violence and killings by young hoodlums reached its anarchistic peak in the Salisbury Festival of Heavy Rock. The massive slaughter has been caused, according to the television, by rival gangs of Hell’s Angels fighting and by the death on stage of two members of an Afro group, shot, so left-wing troublemakers insisted, by army units sent in by worried politicians. Whoever started it, the blood of the gentle people had been liberally split in an unprecedented tribute to political paranoia.” (pg 7)

This seems to echo the events at the end of Alex Stuart’s The Bikers.

Cover of The Bikers by Alex Stuart

There is an even more explicit reference on page 53.

“It’s no bloody good. You’re still living in the past, when it was all colours and runs and tangling with the law or the skinheads. The days of Little Larry and Chopper are gone, Vincent. I know it. You ought to know it.

(Although in The Bikers it’s Little Billy and Larry the Lamb, with Chopper appearing the eponymous protagonist in the novel by Peter Cave.)

Cover of Chopper by Peter Cave

On page ten, before the News reports on Jerry Richardson’s death, they talk about a round-the-world yachtsman called Mike Cornelius lost at sea in his ketch, Elric, all clear references to Michael Moorcock and his work.

On Page 69 Rupert goes to a bookshop on Berwick Street, Soho called Light She Was And Fleet Of Foot, a clear stand-in for the famous science fiction bookshop, Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed.

Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed flyer

In Angels from Hell, the bookshop is run by a Mary Shelley, while in reality Dark They Were… was founded by Derek ‘Bram’ Stoke.

When I first started rereading Angels from Hell I wondered if the quarry scene had been influenced by the biker scenes in Ken Russell’s Tommy. On checking the dates, Angels from Hell came out in 1973 while filming for Tommy happened in 1974.

I wonder (though have no evidence other than the dates) if the scene in the book influenced the scene in the film. However, it was quite common for bikers to party in quarries as they were often far from towns and the attention of the police. If you want to find out more about the bikers involved in Ken Russell’s film, there is a good article about the Black Angels MC North East Coast here, and an archive Guardian article from 1975 here.

If you want to find out more about Tommy, I can highly recommend Tommy from Midnight Monographs by my good friend Kit Power.

Conclusion

In many ways Angels from Hell has more in common with the run of the mill bikesploitation/youth subculture pulp books than the strangeness of The Devil’s Rider. Yet, even with the fairly typical storyline, the five minutes in the future, dystopian oppressive police state with middle-aged women vigilantes firmly places this in speculative fiction. While the story-line is far too pulp to be seen as progressive by today’s standards, I admire Laurence James in his Mick Norman persona for introducing different gender roles, non right wing protagonists, and sympathetic gay characters at a time when this wasn’t at all common in the youth subculture genre of fiction.

In the 1994 interview by Stewart Home, James is explicit about his approach.

One of things I always try and do in all my writing is subvert expectations.” (Source https://www.stewarthomesociety.org/interviews/james.htm)

In my opinion while not moving too far away from the core of the biker pulp novel, he manages to succeed, laying groundwork for taking that further in the following novels of his Angels quartet.

Gardening, not architecture

Since I was given a set of Oblique Strategies cards, (digital version here) I’ve been choosing one at the start of each writing day. Some I use to set the mood of my work for the session, and some I use to have a bit of snark. One has become so important to me I have separated it from the main card pack and display it above my desk. That card simply says ‘Gardening, not architecture’.

There are many, many metaphors for writing, and many, many metaphors for writing practice. For me, gardening, not architecture fits very well to writing fiction. 

Beeez

Architecture implies a plan, building materials, and permanence. In traditional architecture, the impression is one of a project that is built with certainty and is rarely revised when construction begins. Sure, some repairs might be made and issues addressed if they occur, but overall, what’s on the plan ends up being built.

Gardening, I believe, is a more flexible and useful metaphor for writing, and I think this works whether you plan out every paragraph or you discovery write. Let me explain what I mean. (Warning, this metaphor is going to get stretched atom thin, but stay with me.)

Good advice

If you’re gardening you take account of the seasons and the soil, the prevailing wind and the local conditions. You might have a plan for your flowerbed or allotment plot. What’s at the heart of this approach, is that when you plant seeds, bulbs or shrubs, you never quite know how they will turn out. Of course your plans may turn out perfect, and your fruit bushes may be abundant. Or it might go disastrously wrong. There may be major storms or drought. Parts of your garden might become waterlogged or the birds might strip the fruit from the branches of your cherry tree. Your potato rows might become overgrown with weeds. 

You have to be responsive and proactive in your management by constantly making decisions and adjustments. (Doing nothing and allowing it to go completely wild is an entirely valid decision). You might decide that the fuchsias are far too dominating in the back corner of the garden, so you trim them back. You might see a mysterious plant growing by the compost bin, research it, find it’s a rare orchid and decide to leave it in place. You might choose to sacrifice one blackcurrant bush to the garden birds, but net the others so you have them for yourself.

Gardens can grow anywhere

However, the important part of all of this, is that throughout all the decision making, the garden is still a garden; coherent, whole and intact. It might look very different from what you intended, with roses and magnolia dominating where you hadn’t intended them, but you will still have your garden.

I think this responsiveness, this flexibility is a more useful mindset to approach writing fiction than architecture or sculpture. Often we have an idea of where we want to go, but until we start writing, we don’t quite know what it’s going to look like, and in the same way as we can pull weeds up from amongst the potatoes, or thin out the bedding plants, during editing we can change elements of the story while still allowing it to stay coherent.

Even in the cold, something good can flourish

I also think that the gardening metaphor allows for the possibility of surprise, the chance that we can arrive at a beautiful outcome that we weren’t expecting.

The idea of gardening works whether you are a planner or a discovery writer. You might have more control as a planner, but the final story is probably still going to need some editing, in the same way as a planned garden will need management to get it looking how you intend. And if you’re a discovery writer? Well, you can throw seeds all over the place, see what comes up and work from there.

Can I stretch this metaphor even further? Oh yes!

What happens when a story just doesn’t work. If a garden doesn’t work, you can salvage seeds, ready to start again. You can dig up plants that are in the wrong place, put them in the greenhouse over winter, and replant them in better locations the next year.

In the same way, you can dismantle a story, find the elements that did work (because no story is a complete failure). You might have a good character, but not in the right narrative. A setting might be perfect, but not fit the particular chapter. You might have nothing to show apart from the way the protagonist holds her cup of coffee as she looks out across the city. What you can do if you approach this as gardening is take the elements that might work elsewhere and nourish them in the better soil of another story.

Architecture is different. The building might develop and age. You might be able to tinker. You might even be able to add to it, but the architecture has a solidity and coherence that doesn’t allow for much flexibility. The garden is constantly changing, and constantly changeable. You can beautify it, or make it more practical. Even with all this tinkering, the garden will still be the garden as a story will still be a story, and eventually, you can sit back and put your feet up, enjoying the beauty of it.

So when it comes to writing, my suggestion is, don’t be an architect, be a gardener.

There are even gods to find in the garden, if you look close enough

Stories Selected for Best Horror of the Year, and The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve received some very good news to start the year.

Firstly, two of my stories have been selected by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year 14.

‘Dancing Sober in the Dust’ was one of the original stories published in my Undertow Publications collection, To Drown in Dark Water. The story is about Weimar Era dance, and was inspired by the research I did for a Daily Grail article.

The second story Ellen chose for inclusion in the anthology is ‘Chit Chit’, published in Chilling Crime Short Stories from Flame Tree Press. Chit Chit is a rural heist story with a heavy folk horror influence.

The full Table of Contents for Best Horror of the Year 14 is below;

Redwater — Simon Bestwick

Caker’s Man — Matthew Holness

Black Leg — Glen Hirshberg

The Offering — Michael Marshall Smith

Fox Girl — Lee Murray

Shuck — G. V. Anderson

The Hunt at Rotherdam — A. C. Wise

Dancing Sober in the Dust — Steve Toase

The God Bag — Christopher Golden

The Strathantine Imps — Steve Duffy

The Quizmasters — Gerard McKeown

All Those Lost Days — Brian Evenson

“Elephant Subjected to the Predations of a Mentalist” – Dir. B.S. Stockton, 1921

And “Ol’ Will’s Birthday Bash and Dither Family Reunion” – Dir. Various, 1952.

— Jonathan Raab                                                                                

Three Sisters Bog — Eóin Murphy

The Steering Wheel Club — Kaaron Warren                                     

The King of Stones — Simon Strantzas

Stolen Property — Sarah Lamparelli

Shards — Ian Rogers

Chit Chit — Steve Toase

Poor Butcher-Bird — Gemma Files

Trap — Carly Holmes

I’ll Be Gone By Then — Eric LaRocca

Jack-in-the-Box — Robin Furth

Tiptoe — Laird Barron

Then last week I found out that Paula Guran will be reprinting ‘Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves’ in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror vol. 3.

(This is the shelter that inspired Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves)

Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves is inspired by time spent in a local forest finishing a small shelter we found in a clearing, and was another original story from To Drown In Dark Water.

The full Table of Contents is below:

G. V. Anderson, “Shuck” (Deadlands #2)

Seán Padraic Birnie, “Hand-Me -Down” (I Would Haunt You If I Could)

J. S. Breukelaar, “Where We Will Go On Together” (The Dark #70)

Rebecca Campbell, “The Bletted Woman” (F&SF 3-4/21)

Tananarive Due, “The Wishing Pool” (Uncanny #41)

Brian Evenson, “The Sequence” (Conjunctions 77)

Christopher Golden, “The God Bag” (Beyond the Veil, ed. Morris)

Elizabeth Hand, “For Sale By Owner” (When Things Get Dark, ed. Datlow)

Alix E. Harrow, “Mr. Death (Apex #121)

Maria Dahvana Headley, “Wolfsbane” (Nightmare #100)

Glen Hirshberg, “Jetty Sara” (December Tales, ed. Horn)

Stephen Graham Jones. “Refinery Road” (When Things Get Dark, ed. Datlow)

Richard Kadrey, “Across the Dark Water” (Tor.com)

Alison Littlewood, “Jenny Greenteeth” (Mammoth Book of Folk Horror, ed. Jones)

Chimedum Ohaegbu, “And for My Next Trick, I Have Disappeared” (F&SF 7-8/21)

Suzan Palumbo, “Laughter Among the Trees” (The Dark #69)

Sarah Pinsker, “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather” (Uncanny #39)

David J. Schow, “Caving” (Weird Doom, ed Scoleri)

Molly Tanzer, “In the Garden of Ibn-Ghazi” (F&SF 3-4/21)

Sheree Renee Thomas, “Barefoot and Midnight” (Apex #122)

Steve Toase, “Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves” (To Drown in Dark Water)

Jade Wilburn, “Blood Ties”(Fiyah #18)

A.C. Wise, “The Nag Bride” (The Ghost Sequences)

I’m immensely grateful to both Ellen and Paula for choosing to include my work in their anthologies, to Flame Tree Press for publishing Chit Chit, and Undertow for all their work on To Drown in Dark Water.

Subside

Although it does deal with grief, a subject I write about a lot, this short piece is very different from my usual style. Because of that I was a little nervous about sharing it. I hope you like it, but beware it does talk about death, suicide, grief and loss.

Subside

You remember that song we used to dance to? Said something about if I leave the world alive the insanity will lessen. Doesn’t though, does it? You went and the insanity intensified. Like a cutting diamond, faceted and precise.

I don’t know if you left the world alive. One day you were there, the next gone. 

There was no pile of clothes carefully folded on a tide strewn beach or note with my name written on the back of the folded paper. 

Sometimes I like to imagine the world cleaved in two and you fell through the fissure to another place where you live on, trying to find a way home. I know this isn’t true. You’re probably beneath some undergrowth, bones greening with lichen as time turns you to forest. Nothing subsides with you gone. Not the madness. Not the memory. Not the guilt. Only the chance that I might see you again. That’s what subsides, and it lessens me every single day.

END

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.

Short Story Collection On Its Way January 2021

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I’m very happy to announce that my first short story collection ‘To Drown In Dark Water’ will be published by Undertow Publications in early 2021.

Undertow are a fantastic publisher, who are responsible for collections by Priya Sharma, Laura Mauro, Georgina Bruce amongst other wonderful writers.

I can also share the amazing cover for my collection. The artwork is by Austrian artist Stefan Koidl, with design work by Vince Haig.

Michael Kelly has done a wonderful job arranging the cover, and I’m so proud that this will be on the front of my book.

While I’d like to keep this blog updated far more than I do, you can keep up to date about my work by signing up for my newsletter at tinyletter.com/stevetoase. Coming out once a month, it includes bits of news about my work, some art related chatter, a bit on archaeology, and a free flash fiction story.

Flash Fiction Month 2019 Week 2

Hope you enjoyed last week’s stories. Here are the next seven.

Day 8

nasal.buzz.grape 

“I’m afraid you do not get any choice in the decision.”

When the Assessor spoke it was with a nasal whine that made Carla’s head hurt. A buzz in the top of her spine.

She leant over to pick a grape from the fruit bowl, saw the Assessor’s expression and cradled her hands on her lap.

“Do I not get any say in the matter?” She asked, already knowing the answer. He plucked the fruit that she had been going to eat only moments before. Slowly, he used his tongue to pop it against the roof of his mouth. A small amount of juice seeped between his thin lips and down his chin.

“Of course, you could have chosen not to attend this morning,” he said, grinning. She saw bits of skin between his yellowed teeth, but couldn’t tell if they were fruit or flesh.

“And if I hadn’t?”

He smiled wider.

“Please, Miss,” he said, the title spoken like an infection. “The door is open. Your only choice now is whether you go through voluntarily.” There was a moment’s pause. “Or not.”

Carla pushed the chair back, straightened her dress and placed her cloche upon her head, adjusting it until it sat just right. Slowly, she slid her gloves on. With one more look of defiance toward the Assessor she walked toward the open door, already feeling the heat blistering her skin.

Day 9

funky.shadows.snowmen

There was nothing funky about the nightclub any more. Damp had rotted all the cheap cardboard decorations and curled the floorboards like rotten petals.

Hannah wrapped her arms around her knees and tried to keep track of the shadows, but they kept shifting and twisting.

Around her were fifteen heaters, the only noise the diesel generator shuddering in the entrance. Beyond the circle of warmth were pools of water, floating in each one was a scarf, a hat, and blood clots from their victims.

Soon the generator would run out of fuel. Soon the circle would cool. Soon the snowmen would find their form again. Soon there would be nowhere warm left for her to hide.

Day 10

inhales.delighted.bulge 

The Captain stands delighted in the middle of the playground. Above him the moon is full and though he feels the cold he does not choose to acknowledge the way it chills his muscles.

There are scars in the Tarmac below his feet that he put there many years ago. He lets his feet scuff the lines to wake them up. The scent of bitumen rises into the air. He inhales the taste of cough sweets and burnt skin.

The pile of papers barely reaches his knees; old exams and school reports. The breeze flutters the pages and he catches sight of scuffed ink.

Starting quiet he begins to speak the words. Some he learnt in the playground where he stands, others in shadowed temples that smelt of copper and charred bone.

Below his feet the Tarmac glistens the green of compass pricked tattoos. He scuffs the ground again, feeling it start to bulge, reaching out to his words.

Turning his head to the sky, the Captain watches the stars brush the dark as they fall, delighted to hear the words they thought long forgotten. He does not tell the night what he has planned. The night will find out soon enough

Day 11

latter.wept.premises

Council garages always had a feeling of loss to Marty, as if those corrugated steel doors held back grief as well as forgotten engines and mummified rats.

He walked down one side, then back up the other, running his hand over the metal and prefabricated concrete, searching for something that could not be seen or touched, but he felt as a prickle inside his teeth.

At the end of the row there were three units converted into premises for a shadow garage, repairing cars for those who could not afford to pay men in matching overalls. Two ghosts lurked inside. The first was the shadow of something that had hidden here long before people cleared forests from the land, the second a child whose body had turned to yellowed bones between the pebbledash walls and grass bank that rose toward the distant towers.

The latter spirit did not want to be there. There was no vengeance or message to be carried, just confusion and fear. No one had found the body. No one had even noticed the child missing, apart from Marty, looking for one thing and finding something completely different lurking amongst the spilt oil and diesel stains.

Kneeling down on the floor between the two rows of garages, Marty closed his eyes and searched in the shadows for the fear clustered in upon itself, and when he found that bundle of confusion he did what needed to be done; wept and mourned a life lost and a child forgotten until the ghost that still lingered could see the cord and drag itself away from the council garages to somewhere better.

Day 12

reframe.hung.scouted

Faith spent weeks watching the gallery. Scouted out the guards, changing her appearance every day with wigs clothes and padding to alter her body shape. By the end of her preparation she knew where every painting hung, how often it was patrolled and when she could exploit the best window of opportunity to fulfil her client’s order; steal The Condemned Witch, a painting long lost and only recently restored.

On Tuesdays they spent the day on maintenance. Chose one piece of art to reframe. That way there was always a nearly full collection for the visiting public. If she got in before they removed that week’s painting to take it to their workshop, no-one would notice. Administration error would be blamed for long enough that she would be long gone.

On the next Tuesday she lurked around the entrance, Stanley knife hidden in her coat. The painting to be repaired that week wasn’t due to be taken from the wall until after lunch time. She waited and watched.

The opportunity came early, the exact pattern of the curators in the gallery just right to allow her to approach the canvas. She lifted the knife to cut free the painting, reached out, and on the wall the witch’s scarred hand reached out in turn and grabbed Faith’s wrist.

The blade fell from her numb hand, dropping to the floor. With more strength than paper and paint should possess the painting lifted Faith into the air, dragged her over the gold frame and slowly but surely her skin shivered to pigment until there was no sign of Faith expect on unused blade clattering upon the tiles.

Day 13

bubbles.grass.shadows

They caught him by the town ditch, pinning his arms against the crushed grass and thistles.

He tried struggling but there were too many of them, two or three to a limb with far more standing in the shadows.

With bubbles they sealed his eyes, blowing globes of shimmering translucency straight into his sight, then plucked sodden grass from the ground and stitched his mouth to silence.

Reaching into his coat they emptied his pockets until they found proof of his theft, several days clustered against each other, the hours scuffed and barely usable. They stretched them out, laying them on the ground in the hope the heat of the sun would fix them. Return the days to their pristine condition.

After seeing his vandalism compounding his theft, with many hands they carried him into the fields, staked him to the soil using his own bones to hold him in place, and with words first spoken by the now long dead they left him to the crows.

Day 14

pretty.flying.downward

The valley had never been pretty. This was not a place tourists came to take photos, balancing selfie sticks with one hand, their other grasping their loved one’s side. Instead it was a place of concrete and pollution, where any plants that could grow browned and wilted by the effort.

Nathan would try and take any other route into the airport that lay several miles further on, but that morning the choice had not been given to him, the instructions from Air Traffic Control clear, the navigation directions precise.

Flying over the ridge, he dropped the plane down a little, watching plumes rising from grates rusted into the slopes.

An eruption of fumes reached the starboard wing, and instead of just flowing around the engine the gas began to grind its way through the fuselage.

Nathan watched one side of the plane disintegrate, and no matter how much he tried to gain control the plane twisted as it fell downward into the valley where nothing grew.

Flash Fiction Month 2019 Week 1

Every year I set myself a challenge; to write thirty one flash fiction stories and post one a day for the month up to the Winter Solstice. This year I’m using the three word codes from what3words as inspiration (this follows on from my Three Metre Stories project). I post them on my Facebook page each day, but you can find each week’s stories here too.

Day 1

feast.hint.spoke

The hall was full of smoke and magenta dust, choking the diners as they shovelled in food from the feast. Figs in aspic with a hint of saffron sat on silver platters next to quail eggs drowning in truffle sauce, each dish tainted with the settled dirt of centuries.

Malin leant against the door watching the scene play out, the diners repeating the same actions again and again. Behind her the rest of the team waited in the tunnel, trying to avoid the stagnant water dripping between the stones.

“The food looks good,” someone said. The acoustics warped all voices and Malin did not turn to see who spoke.

It did look good. Supplies had run out three days earlier, their progress slowed by the need to stop and vomit poison from their stomachs after surviving on any water they could find.

“We can’t go in,” she said, pressing the meniscus separating them from the food glistening with juice and grease.

Inside the hall a server walked around the table pouring wine straight into the waiting mouths.

Malin heard them running before they got past her and breached the barrier. There was a sucking sound like bone emptied of marrow. Pushed against the algae covered wall she watched one after another of her team enter the hall of dust and feasting, and she watched one after another take their place amongst the never dead, gluttoned on food that anchored them to a place they would never leave.

Day 2

carpets.disclose.mouse

When the landlord showed them around the apartment the accommodation was frozen in a moment of perfection. Everything was freshly cleaned, the carpets dry and free of mildew.

Ben ran his finger through the condensation and drew a moist circle on the buckled floorboards. Of course the landlord didn’t disclose the windows never shut properly, or that the heater leaked carbon monoxide in the bedrooms.

With practiced fingers, Ben knotted the hair into a tight plait and placed it in the centre of the circle. The ant infestation was easy to deal with once they found the rotting food in the cupboard. The cockroaches? Not so much.

From his pocket Ben took out the mummified mouse and laid it on top of the stolen hair. The words were old ones. Family ones. Not his language, but they felt right upon his tongue. The creature that appeared was small and shimmered. Part rodent. Part rot. He leant down and whispered a name to the thing, watched as it chewed the hair, then shuddered through the floor to the landlord’s apartment below.

Sitting in the mould darkened lounge, Ben turned up the stereo and ignored the screams coming up from the floor below.

Day 3

rigid.festivity.down

Callie wasn’t interested in the festivity around her. She sat in the middle of the park as people danced to the bass erupting from the ramshackle sound system.

She wasn’t interested in the spliffs or the spirit paths that circled her, each marking the grass in their own way.
Eyes closed, she watched the people find their steps, find their euphoria, strands of energy glistening like dried fat in a cast iron pan.

The sun went down and the energy went up like they feasted on darkness and noise, but that was wrong. There was only one person feasting in the park.

Callie let her body grow rigid. Let the hunger search out the nourishment and with her unseen jaws chewing the joy from the night air she fed until every part of her was distended, not caring about the effect on those celebrating around her. They were food, nothing more.

Day 4

maybe.gather.moods

Maybe it had been a bad idea to come out. House parties were not Sophie’s thing but Frank had convinced her. She did not like to go where people were, but the house was familiar, as were some of the faces.

Though she didn’t normally go to events, she knew that most people would gather in the kitchen. Not this one. Everyone was out on the pavement, watching the cars race up and down the street.

She sipped her warm lager and watched the drivers reset the race, Frank in one car, and someone she did not know in the other. On some signal Sophie did not see the cars took off, careering down past the houses toward the temporary finish line.

Even at a distance she saw Frank’s car cross the chalk line second. He would be in one of his moods tonight. She took a mouthful of the now sour lager to hide the tremour in her hand and kept on drinking.

Day 5

segments.playback.testing

The room was in complete darkness apart from the glowing screen, segments of images flittering through the light.

Bernard was on his thirteenth cup of coffee, and he was sure by this point that his spirit was pure caffeine. The film was nearly finished but the sequence in front of him was testing his resolve.

He stopped the playback, a moment of explosion held in place. A flower of rubble and fire paused in blooming. He nodded in satisfaction, and let the film run on, picking up his phone and dialling the number.

Of course turning off the CCTV system so he had the only footage meant that the emergency services hadn’t spotted the bomb being placed, but the damage had been minor. Only a couple of casualties. Nothing life threatening. He waited for the call to connect.

“Hello, rolling news? I have some footage you might be interested in.”

Day 6

dunes.metals.blaze

The dunes had long reached from the coast to the city, engulfing rich and poor alike. The sands did not care about wealth as they filled throats and abraded eyes to blindness.

Some thought they could climb the towers and outpace the coming wave. The sand eroded concrete and metals alike, until the tower blocks and tourist hotels fell in lazy spirals to crumble and shatter. Trapped those who strived for air under rubble where they watched the sands accumulate even as the sand of their lives ran out.

For three days and three nights the beach found its way far inland. When the sun blazed in the sky on the fourth morning the city was silent apart from the whistling erosion of bone and building.

Day 7

lake.showed.foremost 

Frank had visited the lake many times but never seen it so shallow. Every trace of the former village showed through the thick cracked mud, shattered windows coated in pondweed and dead fish.

Sitting down he rested his hands on his knees and watched the last of the water evaporate in the rising heat of the day.

He remembered running around the now drowned streets, and the rituals held as the sun set, the songs and screams echoing against the shuttered houses. He remembered the glances at those whose hands still wore the dried blood of those tipped into the graves of others. Foremost he remembered it as a place of secrets where everything was known and nothing was said.

He stared at the cracked mud and hoped the water would rise again soon to drown the empty streets once more.

 

 

 

Recent Publications

Hi. How are you? I’m having a gentle day, easing myself back into work after Worldcon 2019 in Dublin.

This was my first Worldcon, and was enjoyable, inspiring and a lot of fun. Most of this was down to the people, especially the friends I got to spend time with. More of that in a dedicated post.

The past few weeks have been busy for publications.

I wrote an article for Folklore Thursday about how Mad Max within the films can be interpreted as a mythic figure. You can read the piece here and see what you think.

https://folklorethursday.com/creative-corner/mad-max-the-mythic-hero-of-the-wasteland/

Look at this artwork. Isn’t it beautiful?

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This is the cover for the Earth: Giants, Golems, and Gargoyles anthology, the latest in a series of elemental themed collections from editor Rhonda Parrish. I’m very happy that Earth contains my story Kiln Fired. You can pick it up at the usual outlets, such as Amazon (UK/DE/US)

My first article for Kerrang.com is now available to read, looking at the influence of poetry on the bands lyrics.

(www.kerrang.com/features/the-unsung-influence-of-poetry-on-iron-maiden/)

Once the band shared the article it got a lot of traction (I took the screenshot below when it hit the most appropriate number of shares). What surprised me was seeing it shared by both The Poetry Foundation in the US, and The Poetry Society in the UK.

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My latest published piece is for Daily Grail. A couple of weeks ago I watched Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, and started thinking about the parallels with dance in Weimar Germany. Here’s the article if you’d like to read more about my thoughts on the subject.

www.dailygrail.com/2019/08/dances-of-vice-horror-and-ecstasy-suspiria-and-dance-as-a-magical-act-in-weimar-germany/

And that’s me up to date. I have some stuff coming out soon, but can’t say where just yet. More when I can

Transcripts, Cobras and Eagles: Creating My Installation for the Moonique Exhibition

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For the current Moonique exhibition at Dog & Pony I did something a little bit more experimental than usual, and I thought it would be nice to talk a bit about the process.

I knew that I wanted to start with the artefacts of the Apollo 11 mission, and found the transcripts of the audio online.

The next stage was to find a way to alter the texts and process them. During my research I saw a tweet about Jeff Noon‘s Cobralingus system for processing text. Cobralingus is an analogue system which uses 17 FILTER GATES to process a SIGNAL (the original text) and arrive at an OUTLET text. Essentially its a way of mutating text using an analogue version of LOGIC gates.

I used the version outlined at www.story-games.com/forums/discussion/20008/cobralingus-1-game-over

I liked this approach for several reasons. It introduced a certain amount of jeopardy into the writing of each section.  To keep a certain amount of control I ran the process either until the random number generator gave me a SAVE, or I had gone through seventeen iterations.

Cobralingus also, in my mind, replicated a signal breaking down as it was broadcast over long distances, whether that is from the depths of space, the time separating me from the original broadcasts, or just the process of transference between an idea and the final iteration of a piece of work.

I also liked that it was an analogue approach that replicated structures more familiar from digital networks.

AN EXAMPLE

Below is a worked through version used in the installation.

109:53:53 Aldrin:

Now, I’m afraid these materials are going to dusty. The surface material powdery. how good your lens is, but if you can smudges on my gloves very much like a very finely powdered carbon, but really pretty looking.

RANDOMIZE

I’m afraid materials are too dusty. The surface powdery. how good your lens, but if you smudges on my gloves much like a finely powdered carbon, really pretty looking.

DECAY

I’m afraid materia are too dusty. The surf powdery. how god you lens, but I you smudge on my gloes muc like a fin powdered carbon, really petty looking.

INCREASE SENSE

I’m afraid. I’m afraid of this place. Of the erosion. That it will infect me. Wear me away to nothing. Substances in my mouth are too dusty, though my suit seals away the world. The surf in the distance is powdered. How we are gods yawning through the lens. With a gloved fist I smudge the glowing muck. A rising fin of powdered carbon, looking small upon the ground beneath our feet.

DRUG (similiethicone)

I’m afraid like sharks grind their skin against my lungs. I’m afraid of this place. Of the erosion. That it will infect me. Wear me away to nothing. Substances in my mouth are too dusty like mould grows on my teeth, though my suit seals away the world. The surf in the distance is powdered. How we are like gods yawning through the lens. With a gloved fist I smudge the glowing muck. A rising fin of powdered carbon, looking small upon the ground beneath our feet.

GHOST EDIT

We see the bones of long dead predators and breathe through sandpaper lungs. I fear this world. This wearing away. I will be forgotten. Taste my own death in my mouth. Rot. My costume hides me from the world. The tsunami of dirt is in the distance, and the gods are bored. I scrape my eyes to see the ground eroding to nothing beneath the worn soles of my boots.

SAMPLE (109:57:53 Armstrong)

We see the bones of long dead predators and breathe through sandpaper lungs. I fear this world. This wearing away. I will be forgotten. Taste my own death in my mouth. Rot. My costume hides me from the world. The tsunami of dirt is in the distance, and the gods are bored. I scrape my eyes to see the ground eroding to nothing beneath the worn soles of my boots. I don’t want to go into the Sun if I can avoid it.

ENHANCE

We see the discarded bones of long forgotten predators and heave through sandpaper lungs. I fear this world. This wearing away of everything we knew. I will be forgotten I know that now. If I take a moment I can taste my own demise in my mouth. Mildew. My scratched costume hides me from the unforgiving world. The tsunami of human waste and dirt is in the distance. The blind, unspeaking gods are bored. I scrape out my eyes. Stare at the ground that is eroding to nothing. Beneath the worn soles of my torn boots I watch it break away. I don’t want to go into the Sun.

MIX

I don’t want to go into the Sun. If I take a moment I can taste my own demise in my mouth. I scrape out my eyes. The tsunami of human waste and dirt is in the distance. My scratched costume hides me from the unforgiving world. This wearing away of everything we knew. We see the discarded bones of long forgotten predators and heave through sandpaper lungs. I fear this world. I will be forgotten I know that now. Mildew. The blind, unspeaking gods are bored. Stare at the ground that is eroding to nothing. Beneath the worn soles of my torn boots I watch it break away.

PURIFY

I don’t want to go into the Sun. I can taste my own demise in my mouth. I scrape out my eyes. The tsunami of human waste and dirt. My costume hides me from the unforgiving world. This wearing away of everything we knew. We see the discarded bones of long forgotten predators. heave through sandpaper lungs. I fear this world. I will be forgotten I know that now. Mildew. The blind, unspeaking gods are bored. Stare at the ground that is eroding to nothing.

MIX

My costume hides me from the unforgiving world. I scrape out my eyes. The blind, unspeaking gods are bored. I don’t want to go into the Sun. I can taste my own demise in my mouth. The tsunami of human waste and dirt. Heave through sandpaper lungs. I fear this world. I will be forgotten I know that now. Mildew. Stare at the ground that is eroding to nothing. We see the discarded bones of long forgotten predators. This wearing away of everything we knew.

RANDOMIZE

Costume hides from the unforgiving world. I scrape out eyes. The blind, unspeaking gods bored. I want to go to the Sun. I taste my own demise in my mouth. The tsunami of human waste and dirt. Heave sandpaper lungs. I fear this world. I will forgotten I know now. Mildew. Stare at ground that is eroding to nothing. We see discarded bones of long forgotten predators. Wearing away of everything we knew.

SAMPLE (109:27:13 Armstrong)

Costume hides from the unforgiving world. I scrape out eyes. The blind, unspeaking gods bored. I want to go to the Sun. It’s quite dark here in the shadow and a little hard for me to see that I have good footing. I taste my own demise in my mouth. The tsunami of human waste and dirt. Heave sandpaper lungs. I fear this world. I will forgotten I know now. Mildew. Stare at ground that is eroding to nothing. We see discarded bones of long forgotten predators. Wearing away of everything we knew.

OVERLOAD

Tattered silk billowing costumes provide sanctuary from the dripping cruelty of an unforgiving world. With dirty cracked nails I scrape out eyes, one after the other. The blind, unspeaking gods are bored, yawning as they swing around perfumes of larval bees. I want to go to the Sun, let the fires scorch new words into me. It’s too dark here in the shadow of the gods and a hard for me to see if I have good feet, or even anything below my ribcage. With rusted spoons they force-feed me my own demise. The towering tsunami of human shit and sweat and distressed waste skin. Heave sandpaper lungs that send up clouds of white fibres. I cower in the corner from the world. I will be forgotten. I know that now. The mutating mildew. I stare at the ground from empty sockets. Even the land is eroding to nothing. We see discarded bones of long forgotten predators whose names we do not know, but his jaws carry death in every tooth.

SAVE

REASSEMBLY

I chose sections from the transcripts at random to use, mainly looking for phrases that interested me or I thought would develop along interesting vectors. Each one was put through the Cobralingus process, then they were put back into chronological order, replicating the order the original sections appeared in the Apollo 11 transcripts.

This gave each piece a structure, creating new relationships between the different sections. Essentially building transcripts from a shadow world where the mission was off kilter. In total I created three new short transcripts.

RECORDING

Once the created transcripts were finished, I recorded them. This introduced another dimension to the process. Firstly, my source material was a textual rendering of speech, so to return it to speech made sense. Secondly, I was able to use my voice to create intent, emphasis, enhancement and texture to bring another dimension to the words.

At the following link you can listen to one of the final transcript recordings.

 

This was something very different from my usual work which tends to be focused around storytelling, normally in a flash fiction format. I was pleased with how the work came together, creating dissonance and distortion using an analogue approach.

(Thanks to Alexandra Lukaschewitz and Mario Klingemann for their help, and Jeff Noon for putting Cobralingus out into the world.)