Counting Down [Flash Fiction]

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I remember how incredibly bright the August moon was as I strangled the old lady.  Vinnie and Greg were ransacking the bedrooms, looking for her stash of jewels and bonds.  I had knocked her almost unconscious but she was a tough bird and fought back mightily. She grasped my hand which was clutched round her throat, and the blood trickled down from her fingers unto mine.  She croaked in a whisper, “Pointless….pointless…for you’ll be dead by the next full moon…” I squeezed harder to stop that whisper because as soon as she uttered it, I knew with a grim certainty that she was right.  Her eyes blazed for a moment and then went glassy still.  It’s a look I’ve had occasion to see before.

 

I didn’t tell Vinnie or Greg; I didn’t even know if it was true for them.  I only knew it was true for me.  After we fenced the goods, I was set up pretty well.  Except for the fact that I’d be dead in a month.  I started to watch the moon wane every night, though I struggled not to. I thought I’d eat, drink, and be merry, the educated word for whoring, I believe. But the liquor tasted like bitterness and the food was as dust. Any woman I looked at, I only thought of what she would look like when she was dead.  Lecherous skeletons in postures of macabre seduction, offering obscene, bony kisses.  “What’s wrong, honey?  Don’t you like wimmen?” 

 

So the party was over. I left Vinnie’s calls unanswered.  I started to sleep during the day, so that I could moon watch at night.  I didn’t bother to look at a calendar, I had only to watch the moon as it turned crescent and then started to grow. I remembered a lot of things during those nights.  My childhood.  My awful dad.  The beatings.  I took my money to a mission for street kids – for the kid that I once used to be.  I took it in a sack and saw the slack-jawed administrator look puzzled and alarmed, as if he didn’t want to touch it.  He tried to ask me questions but I hightailed it out of there. I don’t need that money anymore.  Let it do some good.  I don’t eat much now and who cares about the rent.  I can see it now, outside the curtains, daring me to pull them back and gaze at my demise.  The September full moon, in a sky of burnt darkness…..

Minnie [Flash Fiction]

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There is a dream Minnie has that recurs throughout her life.  She is standing in front of a dilapidated farmhouse.  Half the fence is down and old machinery rusts in the yard.  An old mangle lies on its side.  It’s a small, two story 1800s house with a round attic window that is smashed in.  Bits of ornate Victorian gingerbread still cling to the eaves, dressed with windswept cobwebs.  Rain soaked curtains flutter from the open windows. She’s afraid to go in, yet she goes in every time, drained of resistance and willpower.

She walks up the worn, creaking porch stairs, with the weeds poking through the cracks and pushes open the unlocked front door.  There’s only the sound of angry bees drinking from the weedy flowers outside.  Their incessant hum seems to grow louder and more mechanical as she reaches the foot of the main staircase and looks up.  She knows there is something up there, something bad…yet she must go up because she always goes up.  Because her whole life is about going up there. She can see her hand on the broken balustrade as she walks up: it is trembling.  But she also feels strangely calm.  As if something is finally going to happen that will end these dreams forever. 

She ignores the second floor with the damp, stained mattresses and the mouldy smell along with the rodent droppings.  She heads deliberately for the narrow attic stairs.  The chipped door at the top of these stairs beckons her and she hesitates a moment before pushing it open.  There, amidst the torn wallpaper and exposed wooden frame, stands the one-eyed doll. The doll’s long, frilly Victorian dress is ragged and filthy.  Its hair is wild and uncombed, as if it had been dancing in a frenzy the moment before the door opened.  It stands like a marionette about to be cut from its strings.  The doll is waiting, and appears resigned.  The menace of the empty eye socket in the cracked face takes Minnie’s breath away.  A looming shadow suddenly falls over both of them.  The doll reeks of death.  Imminent death.  Minnie’s death. She always awakes at this point, bathed in sweat.  Only this is no longer a dream.  This is finally real.  Her skin tingles. She pants in her excitement. 

She had arrived in the remote country town this morning.  She had yelled at the real estate agent to stop the car the moment they drove by the house from her dreams.  She had been unable to run away from the mystery.  It must mean something.  And it must be inevitable. The doll peers at her, its head to one side, sad and helpless.  A shadow falls over the vacant eye. Minnie feels the breath of the agent behind her, hot and moist, as he pulls out a knife from his black coat while saying, “has anyone told you that you’re a pretty, pretty lady….”

 

 

Madeline Usher

Roderick for the past six months has turned away from me, his twin sister, almost completely.  I sometime see him staring at me, in a somber and dark way, but he says nothing and shuts himself off in his rooms.  I hear his sad music drifting through the hallways.  We have ceased to dine together so I find myself eating a solitary meal every night in the great hall.

Roderick and I, who were once so close we couldn’t imagine being apart, who played together incessantly as children, are now no better than strangers.

I remember how wretched I was when he was briefly sent away to school.  I at least had my governess and my parents then, though soon after both mater and pater died.  Roderick came home from school then, permanently, and he was such a comfort to me.  We sat together for hours and he told me of his adventures in what seemed to me, who had never strayed from the House of Usher, magical tales of a far off land.  He spoke of one particular friend: how grand, how great this fellow was!  How they larked about and sat under willow trees between classes.  I wanted so to meet this friend and I even ventured to entertain some girlish romantic ideas that he would come to visit and would find both brother and sister equally worthy.

I think back now with wonder.  How happy I was, comparative to now.  Yet variety and sunlight and travel did not fall to my share.  Yet how I relished everyday and felt animated and alive.  Now that I am so wretched, so forgotten, so ill, I wish that I had once had a stronger drive to leave my family home and seek my fortune elsewhere.

For now I am oppressed by many things.  I am ill, there can be no denial.  I cannot keep most foods down and when I do eat, the dishes always taste so strange and metallic.  I have withered and shrunk.  I am now more shadow than woman.

I am tired most of the day and I can only find the strength to wander at dawn and dusk, slowly and I am ready to rest at a moment’s notice.  My brother, perhaps, has distanced himself because he sees me wasting away both in body and spirit.  Perhaps he loves me too well for that.

He is a solicitous as a good brother should be, of course.  He had brought in two doctors: one from the town and another, Dr. Strong, from someplace farther.  I must confess, though I do not complain openly, that I do not like Dr. Strong. He looks at me so strangely and piercingly.  Invariably, I always worsen when he visits so that now I shrink from the mere mention of his name.

Roderick, poor fellow, is really no better than me.  Perhaps he sickens out of sympathy.  I wish I could be sure.  I wish he would talk frankly to me once again, instead of just saying “poor, poor Madeline” under his breath, as if I were already dead.

But no, I am ungrateful.  If he cannot be a solace to me as I would wish, I must not complain.  I have not long, I fear.  Roderick has finally written to his school boy friend but I fear, alas, my days of romance are over.  I, a pale reflection of myself, older than 100 years in weary spirit, will never taste of that kind of companionship.  I await only the chilly embrace of Death.  Perhaps in the next world I will understand why I was here and why I led such a singularly narrow, pointless life.

Roderick has been to see me and he has brought me a special elixir to drink.  It has a bitter taste but I consume it all because he actually sits beside my bed and pats my hair sadly.  Ah, his touch!  His eyes are more  feverish than usual tonight and there is the strangest gleam of a smile about this lips that I cannot account for but which chills me.

“My friend is here, Madeline.  Perhaps you can come to greet him in my rooms when you feel stronger.  He has a great desire to see you, my dear sister.”

I cannot answer him as I feel a strange numbness and lethargy spread over me.  What was in that elixir?  The swift effect and Roderick’s unholy, lingering smile makes me suddenly frightened.  Roderick leans in to plant a chaste kiss on my forehead and thus he leaves quickly.

I have not the energy to follow and question him.  To speak my fears to him.  I feel the room sway and I concentrate as much as I can on staying awake.  I must tell someone.  What a fool I’ve been!

But it is too late. Too late but to name my slayer before I perish.

I know not how but I stand.  I go slowly, like a sleepwalker, to the window and open the shutters.  The cool night air revives me somewhat.  Holding onto the wall for support, I find I can walk and I head towards Roderick’s bedroom.  But more and more, I feel detached from my surroundings. More and more I feel I am walking the path to the next world.  I see Roderick’s bed and his tapestries.  I am aware of the hot fire to my left, but my sight has dimmed and I have no will left but to go back to my bed, to lay and sleep the endless sleep.  For what good is vengeance to me now…

Darkness.

I dream that Roderick’s friend stands above me, admiring my beauty.  But he is sad.  So sad.

I am aware of the soreness of my back and of strange smells: cloying and close.  I think I open my eyes but it is so completely dark that I must still have them shut.

Dear God!  My eyes are open…am I blind?  I reach out only to rudely bang my knuckles on a ceiling but a few inches above me.  The bed I lay on is as hard as rock.  I shift but find I have not the room to sit up.  What on earth has happened?  why am I close confined?  In the darkness I map out the small space, my fingers find a latch and crevices: I push with all of my might but the lid is too firmly screwed down.

Horrors!  He has buried me alive!

I scream and the sounds echo sharply and pain my ears but I do not stop.  I kick and pound and I feel wet blood flow and I hear the cracking of my bones.

No. No.   It cannot be.  He cannot have done this.  To me, his sister, why?  I shriek the word “why” to the heavens. I feel the fissure in the wall of the mansion shudder.

Roderick, who can hear the smallest mouse scurrying in the kitchen, can hear me, I know.

Yet hours pass and then more.  The pain of thirst begins to assail me, my tongue swells till I can scream no more but still I pound.

Roderick has killed me, killed me all along.  I was never ill.  Dr. Strong, the false man he sent for after my own doctor asked too many questions.  Dr. Strong did your dirty work, you wicked man, but why?  You loved me once, of that I am sure.

Broken, bruised, bewildered, I felt a surge of energy from deep inside me, from some wild part of my being I never knew existed.  I drank in my rage and felt renewed.

I laughed and once I laughed, I could not leave off laughing.

Roderick, you pathetic fool, so afraid of life, so afraid of me.  Roderick who fancied himself akin to the house: who waited for some terrible event to happen to him, to make him feel fully alive, to answer  the ecstasy of fear he allowed himself to fall into.

Roderick could wait no longer for the horrors to consume him.  Roderick made that horror happen and I was the sacrifice on the altar of his obsession.  Was ever man so completely without pity?  The most horrible deed will have been done by him, finally, and he thought to free himself of his madness by it.

But still I go on and still he can hear me.  He begins to suspect that he has only increased the fear and not eradicated it.  That he has doubled and re-doubled it, much as the tarn reflects the house and makes it hideous.

I hope he hears me.  I hope he hears his own fate.

After day six, and no weakening of my limbs, I have just about pushed the lid up: only one more mighty push and it will fall off.  I think of his smile: that last smile and with inhuman glee I shove the lid to go crashing and breaking on the floor. 

Oh, he heard that all right.  I am coming, brother, dear, dear brother.  I shall end your suffering, like a good sister should…..

Roderick…Roderick……

 

Persuasion by Jane Austen

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I’m currently re-reading this favourite novel. I can’t quite decide if I like Persuasion or Mansfield Park the best. They are two of Austen’s finest novels. Sense and Sensibility come third and Pride and Prejudice fourth. Emma comes dead last. I realize I order the books thusly because of the heroines – I like Anne and Fanny. I’m not a huge fan of Elizabeth because she’s just a little too self-assured and Emma is an annoying snot (perhaps I also can’t get Gwyneth Paltrow out of my mind when I think of Emma…) Anne and Fanny are much more sympathetic and that’s why I enjoy the stories more.

Anne Elliot has to be, hands-down, the saddest and the most sympathetic Austen character. She’s detested by her own family and really only truly understood and loved by the man she rejected years earlier, at the behest of her father and a family friend.

Anne is barely able to control her bitter feelings of regret and of possibilities lost in the first half of the novel and so the tone is so much more sombre than that of Pride and Prejudice. There’s much less witty banter in Persuasion, for example.

But the emotional tug is stronger, I believe. Anne’s circumstances are much nastier than Elizabeth’s, the latter of whom at least has a sympathetic sister to confide in. Captain Wentworth is a less dashing hero and a more sober man than Darcy, and therefore much more likeable, imo.

The novel is short, so much shorter than Mansfield Park. It’s a delightful, atmospheric, and highly satisfying read.    

The Cult of Me

AfricanMaskThe fabulous website, The Cult of Me, run by Michael Brookes, has a monthly writing contest that I have but lately discovered.  One writes a 500 words story about a picture.  As soon as I saw the first picture, I was immediately inspired.  This is a fabulous writing exercise/opportunity.  If you love writing, check it out!

http://thecultofme.blogspot.ca/2014/03/march-short-fiction-contest-winners.html?showComment=1396184475142#c3512778170819741366

The Birds by Daphne du Maurier

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Brilliant story and one I regularly recommend to friends. I can’t imagine anyone not thinking it’s cool.

I think critics are quite right is calling this a cold war parable – if only because of the description of the nuclear winter landscape and that bitter East wind.

I love the fact that no one has the slightest explanation for why nature would suddenly turn against mankind in such a deadly and unforgiving way. du Maurier cuts her characters off in such a brutal and claustrophobic fashion that I defy anyone not to sympathise with the wily protagonist as he struggles without help to save his family.

I like to speculate about what happens after the end of the story. How ironic that mankind may be turned into permanent scavengers living on the edge, just as we have turned so many wild creatures into just that.

A Rose for Emily

roseA memorable story about repression and social construction.  I can’t help thinking that it would be an interesting literary exercise to write Miss Emily’s and to provide her point of view of everything that happens in the story.  I view her as a woman who ultimately gets what she desires – so in a strange way, she is triumphant.

Review of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories

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Wow, reading through some reviews of this collection, I’m astonished to see so much negative criticism.  A lot of that criticism seems to focus on Lovecraft’s use of arcane language.  Should I be worried that I don’t find it arcane at all?

What Lovecraft does so brilliantly is to attempt to describe a truly alien horror – not like Star Trek aliens who are only men with knobby foreheads, but forces which do not reference the human at all.  That’s not a easy task, but Lovecraft, along with Blackwood (“The Willows”) tries to do the impossible and does it very well, imo. The freaky geometry and almost obscene language of the world of Cthulhu speak of another dimension.

Upon retiring, he had had an unprecedented dream of great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror. Hieroglyphics had covered the walls and pillars, and from some undetermined point below had come a voice that was not a voice; a chaotic sensation which only fancy could transmute into sound, but which he attempted to render by the almost unpronounceable jumble of letters, “Cthulhu fhtagn”.

As you can probably tell, “The Call of Cthulhu” is one of my favourite stories in this collection.  My second favourite is “Rats in the Walls”.  Lovecraft is dated in that he writes in the style of the “gentleman scholars” of the 1930s – men like James and Blackwood and Onions and Benson.  Yes, these do seem like highly repressed individuals, but that was probably more common in those days. I find it charming. “Rats” does not contain the same cosmic horror as the other stories, but a more human, ancient one.  I’ve read this story many, many times and there is something so palpably, gelatinously horrifying about the underground city discovered by the protagonist.

Lovecraft was a misanthrope and so perhaps it is fellow misanthropes who can most properly appreciate his message and style.  He despaired at any attempt at human enlightenment and believed we were a race destined to be crushed by immensities we were incapable of understanding.

Review of Dracula by Bram Stoker

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When I first tried reading Dracula, I got frustrated.  I thought it needed editing and I didn’t like the way it jumped from one narrative perspective to another.  I’ve since changed my mind and I now regard this novel as one of the best ever written.

The fractured narrative stems from the fact that the novel is really a collection of documents: someone has put together all the evidence regarding Dracula.  The documents are in chronological order and we hear many voices throughout.  One narrative voice confirms and adds to another voice: we end up with a chorus.

The story, though very melodramatic (as befits a good Victorian novel) is actually quite gripping and I don’t think anyone has written a more exciting ending in fiction.  I’ve now re-read this novel twenty or more times, and I find myself more and more moved by the writing and the characters.  I once detested Lucy but now I find her story and her fate very sad.  The sequence where she describes her dream while under the Vampire spell is beautifully and tragically poetic.

In fact, the writing is amazingly lush in many parts – just sample the sequence about the attempted seduction of Jonathon by the Vampire Brides.

All in all, this is a thoroughly exquisite, exciting, and touching novel.