Running on Empty

In some ways I’ve missed the big old black dog, but he always reappears to sit on my chest sooner or later. I’ve been trying to ignore him. That said, the flat greyness has been gathering the last month or two, taking fuel from anything that might seem to reinforce my general low opinion of myself.

Today I wasn’t working, and if I’m proud of anything it’s that I didn’t head down the pub, or binge eat; I didn’t hide in bed, and I didn’t do anything stupid to damage my health or general body integrity.

What I did do was get some rest, got up and dressed, washed and did grocery shopping. I distracted myself with the XBox; I doodled in a big sketch pad, and I read for a bit. I bought things for Easter, and a birthday present and card for somebody. Then, when Lady M got home, I cooked a meal and we watched Fantastic Beasts on Blu-Ray.

I’m proud that I’ve managed to do all that, because I don’t feel much of anything at the moment. I’m running on empty. I’m too tired and remote to even feel worried about it; and intellectually​ I know I should be quite concerned about that.

Playing Fair

One of the pitfalls I have to keep swerving around is the temptation to write stories based specifically around people I know, or situations that have annoyed me – we’ll be leaving aside the Uncle Ranty blog posts a moment here, as they’re a special exception for sort of acerbically comedic effect.

Oh, like every other writer I ransack the features, mannerisms and behaviours of the people around me. I’m not talking about the blender through which I put people so that I can cherry-pick elements to ornament my characters. What I feel is unhelpful is when I’m tempted to write something unkind, or to use my writing as a passive aggressive catharsis.

A big part of my reasoning here is that I’ve had a number of conversations where someone has said they identify with one or more characters that I’ve written. Almost universally my response has been to bite my tongue and stop myself from asking what they are talking about. That’s because, by and large, it’s been about positive associations that people have had with characters when reading about them. It makes me happy when different people identify with the same character, because it shows that I’ve written something that resonates, or rings true, with people.

With that in mind, if people identify with characters and situations even when I’ve had no one in mind, how many people will read themselves into angry or negative pieces? My experience suggests an awful lot of us will assume the worst when we read an unfocused angry piece by someone we know even peripherally. There’s easily a half dozen people reading this right now who are probably wondering if even this blog article has something to do with them; and each of them will likely be able to think of something that they can convince themselves has triggered me to write about this.

Stop it.

This isn’t about you or anything you’ve done or not done or said or not said. This is a musing on my own writing process and an awareness I’ve come to about why I write in certain ways about different topics. I thought it would be interesting to think it through here, and will be interested in any comments or counter arguments you may bring in response.

Right, back to the stories…

Short Story: What Are The Odds Of That?

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Where we rely on that reaction, we find that incredibly useful. Cars move, electricity is generated, and our lives are enriched. The same is true when we can’t see the immediate result of our actions. If we didn’t read, we wouldn’t accumulate the knowledge to deal with situations or work out the solutions to the challenges before us.

We also spend a lot of energy trying to deflect or offset those reactions: like exercising and dieting if our activity levels don’t offset the calories we consume and we aren’t prepared to put up with weight gain and health issues.

The same holds true when it comes to more esoteric pursuits. When you try to impose your will, beliefs, or obsessions on the universe make no mistake it will push back. Don’t believe me? When you will the traffic lights to change, fervently praying they will stay in your favour, have you not noticed how the traffic is suddenly unexpectedly heavier than usual?

That’s why I was not at all surprised to find that some arsehole had removed the planks I’d carefully laid across the gap between the terraced houses just as I needed to make a quick escape.

With a hellhound literally snapping at my heels, there was no time for finesse, merely an adrenaline and fairydust- boosted leap over the edge, away from venom-flecked fangs. Fairydust has a price too, and I don’t just mean the price of a Disney holiday. Every time I have to use it, I get a bit more mundane, and the magic gets harder.

On the plus side it did give me quite a shove, and therefore a much better headstart on my pursuer who had to stop and make a concerted run-up to clear the same gap. Then the push-back on the leap hit me, and the roof tiles beneath my feet began to slide loose.

Now the real trick with all this is that the karmic push and pull of magic can occasionally be loopholed, and bad things twisted to have good outcomes. The hellhound was still in its arc across the gap between the houses and was headed for a spot just next to me.

I scrabbled to my feet, looked those fierce hate-filled eyes head on, and stamped my foot on the already unstable roof. A whole cascade of roof tiles began to avalanche away, pulling me with it and exposing the broken beam end I’d just splintered into a makeshift stake.

I know stakes are meant to be used against vampires, but believe me: a three hundred pound canine-ish lump of muscle impales itself pretty effectively when it’s in flight. Physics: not just a good mortal idea, it’s the law. Well, mostly.

I landed on the roof of a car parked conveniently below, bounced off and kept running before the inhabitants could get their doors open. The Seelie Courts needed to know what I’d just seen.

Short Story: Slumbering Knowledge

Shelf upon shelf of books lay slumbering in the candle-lit evening, as if daring the lambent illumination to disturb them. Harald moved between them, tidying up after departed students and pausing every now and then to survey his domain.

The weight of the accumulated knowledge and fancy here sometimes felt enough to make the walls bow as much as the shelves did. The sturdy dark oak beams lent a sense of solidity and structure to the room – Harald sometimes found he likened it to a strong ribcage supporting the skin of the library, with the books as the internal organs without which it would have no life.

He didn’t dare mention this to his students of course, they had enough excuse to quietly mock their tutor without throwing fanciful imagery into the mix. Cadaverously thin with piercing blue eyes, he carried his nickname of ‘Mort’ with perverse pride and knew when to play to the image when correcting a student or instilling discipline. Books were rarely loaned out, but they were even more rarely returned later than agreed.

The candle light glinted off the silver quill pin symbol of office on his collar as he listened to the quiet. There were the faint noises of the building settling, joists creaking as the room cooled now there were fewer people here. He sighed, as much in relaxation as anything,

There were times when he felt as though his role was as much a relic as the books and palimpsets in his charge. Many did not see the value in picking through the voices from the past when there were so many demands in the day; and his students sometimes had a lot of unlearning to do before they could start to take the time to read and understand what was before them.

And yet, those who graduated were among the most ardent in sending new students to him. The hierarchies outside these walls were no barrier to knowledge and the techniques he taught. He felt a pride in that which sustained him in those moments when he had to make his own candles.

Harald finished his rounds, and carefully extinguished the candles on his final circuit of the room. At last he stopped near the door and looked back at the room. It was now illuminated by the starlight from the portholes overlooking the generation ship’s prow. He nodded in satisfaction. He would soon need to appoint his replacement, but for now his charges were safe. The literature of Old Earth lived on.

The TBR pile March 2017

I have many, many, many, many books. Some of them are digital, most are not. At any one time I may be reading about three books properly, with others that I dip into.

So: here’s what’s on my bedside table, cued up for reading:

“Revenger” by Alastair Reynolds – basically pirates in outer space. I’ve loved pretty much all his gothic space opera before now, so while I have no idea what I’m in for, it looks fun.

“The Name of the Wind” by Patrick Rothfuss – a high fantasy with a dry sense of humour so far.

“Fellside” by M.R. Carey – a thriller that looks like it’s going to some dark places.

“Alice” by Christina Henry – madness and an escape from the asylum with all sort of Alice in Wonderland trappings on the cover

“A Cornelius Calendar” by Michael Moorcock – continuing my rampage through all the collected Moorcock characters

“The Whispering Swarm” by Michael Moorcock – which looks like a fascinating alternate London story

“Indexing” by Seanan McGuire – fighting back against stories, or memetic incursions, where fairytales try to play out in the modern world.

Should keep me busy. On the Kindle I also just started reading Flex by Ferrett Steinmetz – which hits all sorts of buttons in the realms of madness, magic and karmic balances.

I’ll not read all of them in a month, but it should keep me busy… I’ll post in a while about what I’ve finished recently too.

Short Story: Regrouping

We regrouped at a distinctly grotty pub just across the road from the flats to take stock. Boris reluctantly got a round of drinks in while I grabbed a semi-private table in the corner furthest from the toilets. This wasn’t due to concerns about people hearing us as they went by, the toilets just smelled awful.

Dyson hovered nearby briefly. Once he saw Boris gainfully employed, he drew up a chair and sat with his back to the wall and an eye on the door. We didn’t say anything to each other until the drinks arrived. Some behaviours can survive anything, and few things are as strong as the near reverence of the approach of the first drink of a session.

The first sip of what turned out to be a piss-poor fizzy lager was still conducted in silence, and then i pushed my pint aside. Boris and Dyson were united for a moment in appreciation of their own drinks at least.

“Well, that didn’t go to plan, did it?” I said. Boris’ face flushed with what I took to be anger. Dyson was still looking confused, but then we were well outside his comfort zone here. In some ways that was good. The longer he was off balance, the longer it should take him to remember that technically I was under arrest and that therefore he should be doing something about it.

“What happened to her?” Boris said. “There’s burn marks but no body.” He prodded at the tabletop with each word, presumably for emphasis.

“My best guess?” I paused a moment to make eye contact with each of them. “Your little helper has a new home from home.”

“What?” asked Dyson. The drink seemed to have settled his nerves a bit – at least enough that he wasn’t scratching at the bloodstains on his clothing so much. “I don’t understand.”

“Boris and his girlfriend have been very naughty people, quite aside from anything criminal you may have been investigating, haven’t you?”

“We broke no law.” His accent thickened, but he did look abashed.”

“Well, that’s a matter of debate. It was an unusual weapon but the intent was pretty straightforward wasn’t it?” I was trying to rattle Boris; I was reasonably certain he’d never been the brains of the operation.

“We…” He began to answer before self preservation kicked in and he remembered who Dyers was. For his part the detective was watching us both over his pint. He seemed a lot more composed suddenly and I remembered my previous feeling that he was a lot smarter than he appeared. Judging books by their covers again, I thought.

“They’ve been using magic to eliminate rivals.” I said. Part of that was our party-crasher, who you’re still wearing bits of by the way.” I gestured to the rips and stains he was trying to conceal. Boris was looking slightly ill. “When you did that, the thing they called up got pulled back to where it started, but you weren’t expecting anything like that were you?”

“I wasn’t there, she called it herself this time as I was busy looking for you!” He sounded sulky.

“She was over-confident and didn’t wait, stepped out of the protection, so when your pet demon or whatever it is got hauled back on a spiritual bungee cord it slapped straight into her. That’s what happened!”

Dyson looked at me as if I’d grown a second head. Boris looked aghast. “Really?” He rasped.

“Well, it’s just a guess, but I’m pretty good at those, and from what I’ve seen so far you’ve both been sloppy enough to be as big a danger to yourselves as anyone else. How the hell, pardon the pun, you got this far without it blowing up is anyone’s guess.”

“We had a book.” He said quietly.

“And this is why I should have become a librarian,” I said, “it always comes down to a book.”

Games Roundup

I get bored very easily, and am always looking for some form of mental stimulation. Alongside the reading, TV, doodling, and writing, I also throw myself into games so I like to try and do a roundup every now and then on what is keeping my attention

At the moment, the bulk of my time is being spent is on the Skyrim remaster for the XBox One, and on Fallen London on any browser I care to use.

Skyrim has always been a favourite, but Lady M ran with it when we had it in the PlayStation, demolishing it while I worked on articles. Rather than retread her adventures with it so fresh out the corner of my eye, waiting for the relaunch has allowed me to take a different approach with a controller scheme I’m more familiar with. It’s therefore a comforting mass of epic entertainment that doesn’t require too much thought.
The writing of Fallen London has always attracted me, and with both Mre B and Lady G taking up the game recently it’s been fun to re-engage with it and in a more socially-based version of play. With its slow-burn play-style it fits well around everything else I’m doing.

Other games recently started but sort of in abeyance until I cycle back round to them include Titanfall 2 and Watchdogs 2; while I still have Dishonoured 2 in its packaging, and a download of Evolve that I got free as a Gold bonus the other day. Halo5 is still regularly uploaded, and it’s been a while since I played any of Overwatch or Doom, or Fallout 4, or Witcher 3, or Forza Horizons 3. You get the idea…

Oh, and I do also work and pretend to be sociable in there somewhere too.

TV Binging

We have a lot of TV shows we’re following – and so far we seem to be managing a sort of sane balance between catching shows, playing games, working, and very occasionally pretending to be sociable.

This week we’re working our way through Iron Fist. We like it. It’s an origin story about identity and choice, and has eschewed wirework wushu for its fight scenes.

Controversial, I know.

It has totally overtaken our interest in the rampant barminess of the CW Arrow/Flash/Legends/Supergirl stable. It fills a nice gap before the return of iZombie. 

I’ll think more on why I like it, but I think a big part is that more of it is well lit, breaking away from the noir streetlife of Daredevil and Luke Cage, and even the stylised colour schemes of Jessica Jones. There are scenes taking place in bright sunlight where people smile! I know, it sounds stupid to fix on that.

There’s some smart storytelling here. It’s not without flaws, but the same is true of all the Netflix Marvel shows, especially when it comes to pacing. Still, I’m enjoying it, and am rather bemused by all the hate I’ve seen in some quarters for it.

Short Story: Threat Neutralisation

If there’s one thing guaranteed to unite a bunch of fractious siblings, it’s a common enemy. You can see it in warring sisters who will round together in anyone who dares join in. You can see it in brothers closing ranks and suppressing all sign of dissent to the outside world in glowering unity.

If you want to extend the concept of siblings further, look at how members of an institution like teachers, firemen, armed forces, churches, or police present a cliff-face of passive resistance to external influences.

It’s tribalism in a small focused group, and the principle scales remarkably well. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s part of the social glue if you like, that enabled humanity to build it’s civilisation in the first place. An external threat, like refugees, immigrants, virulent illnesses, supply teachers, aliens that hatch from eggs and gestate inside living human hosts, or that new kid who keeps trying to get into the secret treehouse, all provoke visceral defensive reactions and a desire to club together to deny them a foothold.

So that’s why the Mulvaney brothers, or as the long-suffering parents in Riverhampton called them: “The Usual Suspects”, were so determined to beat their new childminder when she unveiled a game of Monopoly. Without even needing to say anything they all came to the simultaneous decision that they could fight it out later, as long as Karla Gabbis was first to be eliminated from the board. She would be forced to retire: broken and bankrupt, any properties to be picked over later as spoils.

In fairly short order, they achieved their goal, and crowed as Karla graciously retreated to let them carry on while she did the washing up. Then she sat down with a big bar of chocolate, a glass of red wine, and Netflix to enjoy the quiet.

Short Story: Echoes

Graffiti covered concrete walls beneath the thrumming motorway and a sky the colour of a decayed mushroom; Jules strides through the cavernous space with hands deep in pockets and hood pulled forward. Caricatures of faces and locations nearby stare down; some are bright and cheerful, others defiant or defied.

A few have lines across their faces, hastily scrawled defacements that echo feuds between the artists or the people depicted. It is a form of sympathetic magic akin to sticking pins in voodoo dolls and carrying as much effectiveness for anyone not intimately involved in the community..

The slap of running footsteps ahead alerts Jules to company, but the only response is a lengthened stride and bowed head to avoid eye contact. A drift closer to one side of the underpass provides even more room to avoid contact. The owner of the feet gives Jules a wide berth as they pass, so perhaps the only view of them that Jules sees is their trainers. They are here and gone in a moment, their identity never to be known.

As their echoes fade, Jules looks up to scan the way ahead. It is clear, not even dust dancing in the airflows whipping erratically through the opening. Jules keeps going, and is soon round the corner and out of sight. After a moment, the air seems to sigh, and I see Jules reappear back at the other end of the tunnel.

I don’t know why Jules’ ghost keeps making this journey, caught in this loop. Perhaps the invisible runner is key to it all; but in all the times I’ve been here, drawn by morbid curiosity, I’ve never seen more than this or heard any exchange between them. I’ve sat here on the floor with my back to the concrete and memorised every detail over the years. Every now and then someone else comes along who can see Jules, and we sit together in silent fascination.

Jules just disappeared off the face of the planet that day. This was the last time anyone saw them that we know. I don’t even know if Jules died, or lives on happily somewhere far from here. This recording of this moment seems to be the only memory left anywhere – and I wonder in the quiet if my own memorial will seem just as unremarkable to those who chance upon it.