In the office with Jim Mountfield

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror stories, has had a busy couple of months.  Between December 2019 and February 2020, short fiction by him / me has appeared in Aphelion, Schlock! Webzine and The Horror Zine.  I’m pleased to report that a further Mountfield short story, The Away Day, has been included in the new, March 2020 edition of Schlock! Webzine.

 

Many horror stories originate with unhappy experiences suffered in real life by their authors and this is true of The Away Day, which takes place in a modern-day corporate office.  I’ve spent periods working – at times, it felt like being incarcerated – in such environments and much of the story represents me venting my frustration at all the torments that come with them.  These torments include uncooperative desk-booking systems, unappealing team-building activities, patronising line managers, hapless interns, ghastly meaningless jargon and corporate-speak (“Thinking outside the box,” “Taking it to the next level,” etc.), air-conditioning units that don’t work, ID tags that are supposed to open doors but don’t work, photocopier rooms where there’s barely enough space to swing a cat, and so on and so forth.

 

Despite its bland and humdrum setting, the story has woven into it a theme that harks back to a certain much-loved British horror movie of yesteryear.  And there’s also a subtle reference to the second-best novel by Bram Stoker.  I wonder if anyone can identify it.

 

For the rest of this month, you should be able to access The Away Day here, while the main page of Schlock! Webzine’s March edition can be accessed here.

 

Into spring with Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine

 

Two weeks ago I reported here that Witch Hazel, a short story I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, had just appeared online in the February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine.  That story should be available to read for the remainder of February, here.

 

In addition, Witch Hazel is among the contents of the Spring 2020 print edition of the Horror Zine, which is now on sale.  Edited by the tireless Jeani Rector, the collection features a dozen short stories, poetry and some excellent artwork, and can be downloaded onto Kindle here.  Enjoy!

 

On the road with Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine

 

Witch Hazel, a short horror story that I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, is now available to read in the online February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine.  I understand it will also appear in a forthcoming print edition of The Horror Zine for spring 2020, so I will announce details of that when I know them.

 

Witch Hazel is inspired by a recurrent experience I’ve had in my life – though only recently did it occur to me that I could turn it into a story.  For decades, whenever I was staying at my parent’s farm in Scotland, I would make expeditions into Edinburgh, 21 miles to the north.  This meant taking a bus up the A703 road to the city and then taking another bus back, usually after dark.  As my parents’ farm is actually located three-quarters of a mile along a side-road from the A703, the journey back necessitated me getting off at a country bus-stop and then then walking for 10 or 15 minutes along that side-road – usually through pitch darkness and frequently through the worst that the Scottish climate could chuck at me: rain, wind, hail, snow.  So those night-time trudges form the basis for what happens in Witch Hazel.

 

It also, indirectly, pays homage to a famous verse in Coleridge’s epic 1834 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.   The verse goes: “Like one, that on a lonesome road / Doth walk in fear and dread / And, having once turned round, walks on / And turns no more his head / Because he knows a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread…”

 

The publication of Witch Hazel represents a triple whammy for Jim Mountfield – for three of his / my stories are featured in the current editions of three different webzines, today at least and hopefully for a few days more.  The Christmas story The Lights is still accessible in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Aphelion, here.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the story The Path is accessible in this week’s edition of Schlock! Webzine, here.  And for the next month, you can read Witch Hazel in The Horror Zine here.

 

On the path with Jim Mountfield

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

This week I have – or more precisely, my horror-fiction-writing pseudonym Jim Mountfield has – a new short story published in Issue 30, Volume 15 of Schlock! Webzine.  Entitled The Path, it’s an attempt at a sub-genre of horror that I’m particularly fond of, the cosmic horror one.  (It also uses some experiences I had while trekking around Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains for four days last year, which I’ve written about already on this blog, starting with this entry.)

 

Cosmic horror has been described by Vivian Ralickas in the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts as “fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance.”  Or to use a more straightforward definition that appeared recently on bookriot.com, “cosmic horror tales draw upon the power of the sublime to make us feel small, inconsequential, and totally helpless against something vast and natural.”  And small, inconsequential and helpless is how the main protagonist of The Path feels later on in the story.

 

The person most closely associated with cosmic horror is the verbose American writer Howard Phillips (H.P.) Lovecraft, much of whose fiction fitted into what came to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos.  This was a framework built on the idea that the earth was once ruled by a cabal of vast, terrible and all-powerful alien beings called the Great Old Ones, compared with whom humanity is about as significant as a speck of bacteria.  The Great Old Ones are no longer active but, alas, aren’t dead.  They’re merely resting and in the modern world are capable of being summoned back to hideous and malignant life.  To add to the weirdness of the mythos, Lovecraft bestowed some of the least pronounceable names in literature on his alien creations, such as Nyarlathotep and Shub-Niggurath.

 

The source of the cosmic horror in The Path remains anonymous and I don’t name-check any of Lovecraft’s entities.  Also, I make no attempt to replicate Lovecraft’s uniquely wordy prose – some of the worst writing ever, in my opinion, has been perpetrated by up-and-coming writers trying, and failing, to imitate Lovecraft’s style.  But I’d like to think that the story could fit into the above mythos.

 

In this respect, it’s inspired too by a short story I read as a kid, The Voice of the Beach by Ramsey Campbell, in a long-gone fiction magazine called Fantasy Tales (which, coincidentally, was also the first magazine I ever tried submitting a story to).  The Voice of the Beach taught me that you could write a cosmic-horror story in the vein of Lovecraft without referring to his pantheon of tongue-twisting alien deities – who, to be honest, strike me as sounding a bit corny in 2020 – whilst writing it in your own prose-style.  You can evoke those feelings of smallness, inconsequentiality and helplessness that Lovecraft evoked in his stories, and pay homage to those stories*, but also do your own thing.

 

For the next week, Issue 30, Volume 15 of Schlock! Webzine can be accessed here and The Path itself can be accessed here.

 

*For the record, I should add that while I rate Lovecraft greatly as a writer, I don’t rate him as a human being.  It’s been well-documented that even by the standards of the early 20th century world he lived in, the guy was a racist turd.  In appreciating Lovecraft – as I appreciate the oeuvres of, say, Pablo Picasso, Norman Mailer and Roman Polanski – I’m separating the sublimity of the art from the severe personal failings of the artist.

 

A merry Mountfield Christmas

 

© Aphelion Magazine

 

The last short story I had published appeared a few days before Halloween.  I’m pleased to report that a new story of mine has just appeared in print too and has done so in time for the next big event on the festive calendar, Christmas.

 

This is appropriate since the story, called The Lights and attributed to my pseudonym Jim Mountfield, takes place at Christmas.  However, as Jim Mountfield is the name that I put on my horror stories, it won’t surprise you to hear that this is a dark take on Christmas.  In fact, The Lights owes as much to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), The Wicker Man (1973) and the gothic (and often macabre) fiction of Angela Carter as it does to, say, Bing Crosby crooning about treetops glistening and children listening to sleigh-bells in White Christmas (1954).

 

Incidentally, The Lights is set in a small town in the Scottish Borders, the region where I grew up, and involves a character becoming obsessed with an idealised, fantasy version of Christmas that increasingly takes root in his imagination – in contrast to the modest, mundane, small-town Christmas that’s the reality around him.  Ironically, the story appeared in print just as this news report, about Christmas getting a little more modest and mundane in the Scottish Borders, surfaced on the BBC news website.  The Borders’ council, apparently, has admitted that the Christmas trees it provides for the region’s high streets have ‘shrunk by a third compared to previous years’.

 

The Lights is featured in the December 2019 / January 2020 double issue of the webzine Aphelion and can be found here.  During the reformatting process from the original document to the website, I’ve noticed, the spaces around the dashes in the text have disappeared, making them look like hyphens (-) rather than proper dashes ( – ).  However, my partner has read the story and assured me that this didn’t make any difference to her comprehension and enjoyment of it.

 

As an extra bonus, another short story of mine that was published in Aphelion earlier this year, Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf – attributed the pen-name Rab Foster, which I use for my fantasy fiction – has been picked by the webzine’s editors as one of 2019’s best.  It appears again in the same issue as The Lights and can be accessed here.

 

Rab Foster gets antsy

 

© Blood Moon Rising Magazine

 

In the last few years, nearly all the fiction I’ve had published has belonged to one of two genres: horror and fantasy.  The horror stuff has appeared under a pseudonym I use, Jim Mountfield.  The fantasy stuff has borne another pseudonym, Rab Foster.  (I generally use pseudonyms for my writing because ‘Ian Smith’ is one of the most boring names in the world.  Also, it risks me being confused with the white supremacist prime minister of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, who unilaterally declared independence from the UK in 1965, or with the bloke who used to play Harold Bishop in the never-ending Australian soap opera Neighbours.)

 

Well, my new story The World Builder has just been published in the October 2019 edition of the ezine Blood Moon Rising and it’s something of an anomaly.  It’s a horror story inspired by a visit my partner and I made a while back to the historical / cultural site of Polonnaruwa in north central Sri Lanka, where we observed some big, abandoned anthills that looked worryingly… organic.  Blood Moon Rising is a publication that specialises in horror stories and articles about the horror genre, and I’m especially pleased that my story has become available to read just before Halloween.  However, the pseudonym it’s been attributed to isn’t Jim Mountfield, but Rab Foster.

 

This is because when I started to develop the story, which involves a, shall we say, special type of ant, I quickly realised I couldn’t set it in the ‘real’ world.  It would just seem too far-fetched.  And to my mind, a story that strays beyond the boundaries of believability can never be properly scary.  So it made sense to set the story in an ‘unreal’ world, in a fantasy setting where the rules of what’s plausible and implausible are less rigid, and let its horrors unfold there.  Thus, it became a Rab Foster story instead.

 

Actually, in the middle of putting together the story, which as well as featuring super-powerful ants features an Emperor of Games of Thrones-style viciousness, I realised I could link it to another Rab Foster story I’d had published.  That story was called The Water Garden.  It appeared back in 2010 in a now-defunct publication called Sorcerous Signals and was about an evil Emperor cultivating some deadly gardens in which he can discretely get rid of his political rivals.  Part of the inspiration for The Water Garden had come from the bizarre ‘Garden of Death’ that Ernst Stavro Blofeld installs at his hideaway in Japan in the 1964 James Bond novel You Only Live Twice.

 

So I set The World Builder in another quarter of those gardens, adjacent to the one in The Water Garden, and called this new quarter the ‘Earth Garden’.  That makes 2019’s The World Builder a sequel to 2010’s The Water Garden.

 

In fact, the way is now open for two more sequels – stories set in further quarters named after the remaining elements, the Air Garden and the Fire Garden.  Rest assured that Rab Foster will be working on them shortly, as soon as he can figure out what hideous, horrible things to place in those gardens.

 

For the time being, the October 2019 edition of Blood Moon Rising is available here, and The World Builder itself – the issue’s featured story – can be accessed here.

 

Jim Mountfield gets arty

 

© Aphelion Magazine

 

My horror fiction-writing alter ego Jim Mountfield has just had a new story called They Draw You In  published in the July 2019 issue of the webzine Aphelion.

 

They Draw You In came about through a desire to write a scary story set in an art gallery.  Not in a world-famous gallery, like the Louvre or the George Pompidou Centre in Paris, or the National Gallery or Tate Modern in London, or the Guggenheims in New York or Bilbao – all of which I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years – but in a small provincial one.  A gallery where the artists whose work is on display are less well known or not known at all, where the artwork itself is probably variable in quality, and where the overall vibe is unglamorous and unassuming… but also unpredictable, because you just don’t know what you’re going to find there.  One place that inspired the story was an art gallery I explored in the Romanian town of Brasov a few years ago.  The premises were cramped and the visit was brief, but some of the things I saw were memorable – because they were slightly eccentric and odd.

 

 

Because I wanted to make the setting drab and ordinary, but also disorientating and disturbing, I suppose I tried with They Draw You In to emulate the work of the Liverpudlian writer Ramsey Campbell, who’s made a career of taking drab, ordinary settings and characters and doing disorientating and disturbing things with them.  However, while I wrote it, I found myself borrowing ideas too from the life of notorious occultist Aleister Crowley who, as well as being a magician, theologian, drug addict, mountaineer, poet, novelist and self-styled ‘wickedest man in the world’, was – yes! – an artist.

 

I was slightly dismayed after I finished the story to sit down one evening with my better half and watch a new movie on Netflix called Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) – and discover that it too told a horror story set in the world of artists, paintings and galleries.  Would it cover exactly the same ground as They Draw You In?  Well, I don’t think so.  I enjoyed Velvet Buzzsaw and particularly enjoyed its savage ridiculing of pretentious art dealers and art critics, but I found it all over the place in terms of its horror elements.  Things happened in it without rhyme or reason: one character was dismembered by a machine in a modern art installation, another was murdered by a creepy figure from a modern art installation, and another again was swallowed by paint that magically flowed out of a wall mural.  Hopefully, the idea at the heart of They Draw You In is more consistent and coherent.

 

Incidentally, the half-dozen paintings that appear in the story are inspired by real-life ones.  Those real paintings are Fix Your Eyes by Fiona Michie, Journey in a Carriage by Alfred Wierusz Kowalski, The Little Street by Johannes Vermeer, Fishers in the Snow by John Bellany, The Lark by George Henry and (obliquely) The Spell by Sir William Fettes Douglas.  With the exception of Kowalski, who was Polish, and Vermeer, who was Dutch, all those painters were or are Scottish.  So although the Caledonian art scene isn’t usually the first thing that springs to mind in connection with Scotland, it’s clearly had a big influence on the humble horror scribe Jim Mountfield.

 

For the next few weeks at least, They Draw You In can be accessed here and the edition of Aphelion in which it appears can be accessed here.

 

Rab Foster goes to the pub

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(c) Aphelion

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A short story of mine entitled Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf has been published in the March 2019 edition of the webzine Aphelion.  It’s credited to the pseudonym Rab Foster, which I use for stories written in the fantasy genre, and as you might expect from the title it’s largely set in a pub – or to use terminology more appropriate to fantasy fiction, an ‘inn’ or a ‘tavern’.

*

Fantasy stories are riddled with taverns – usually populated by thirsty barbarians, dwarves, hobbits, etc., knocking back tankard after tankard of foaming ale.  Off the top of my head, I can think of the Prancing Pony in the town of Bree in the first of the Lord of the Rings books; the Leaky Cauldron, the Three Broomsticks and the Hog’s Head Inn in the Harry Potter novels; and the Silver Eel Tavern in Fritz Leiber’s witty Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories.  Oh, and let’s not forget the Slaughtered Prince in Neil Gaiman’s novel Stardust (1999).  When Stardust was filmed eight years later, a real-life hostelry called the Briton’s Arms in the picturesque, cobbled district of Elm Hill in Norwich was used as the Slaughtered Prince’s stand-in.  I lived in Norwich in 2008-2009 and the Briton’s Arms was one of my regular hang-outs, but since it’s really a tea and coffee-shop the beverages I consumed there were non-alcoholic ones.

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Anyway, despite the prevalence of taverns in this type of literature, it occurred to me that the hard-working staff in these places – the jolly ruddy-faced innkeepers, the saucy serving wenches (who would invariably get pulled onto some bawdy barbarian’s lap in the course of their duties) and so on – rarely get much attention.  So I thought it would be nice if, for once, there was a fantasy story that put them centre-stage and featured one of them as its hero.  Hence, Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf.

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Incidentally, the layout of the titular Speckled Wolf, with its island bar and high gantry, is inspired by the prestigious Café Royal in Edinburgh.  The idea of the stained-glass windows came from the public bar of the Green Tree Hotel in my hometown of Peebles – though what’s depicted in the Green Tree’s windows is less dramatic than that in the Speckled Wolf’s windows.  And I suspect the general ambience of the place was modelled on that of the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, where I spent many an evening (and afternoon) during the 1980s.  Mind you, an acquaintance recently told me that by the early 2000s the once spare and no-nonsense Machar had acquired a carpet – a gruesome thought.  So its ambience has evidently changed since my day…

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For the next few weeks at least, you can access the March edition of Aphelion here and Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf itself here.

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Jim Mountfield gets on his bike

 

© Blood Moon Rising Magazine

 

That Which Does Not Kill Us, a short horror story I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, has recently been published in issue 74 – the Halloween 2018 edition – of the magazine Blood Moon Rising.  Issue 74 is accessible online here and the story itself here.

 

The story is partly inspired by some cycling trips I made while living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the early 2000s, when I’d get on my bike and head from there up to the Scottish Borders, where my family lived.  This involved a two-day expedition.  I usually stopped off for the night at the youth hostel in the village of Byrness, in the middle of the Kielder Forest and just below the England-Scotland border – a place I mainly remember for being painfully infested with midges.  However, as the title suggests, the story is also inspired by one of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes: That which does not kill us makes us stronger.  Though I’ve heard people often repeat that maxim flippantly in the course of their normal, everyday lives, I wondered if it would actually be any use to you if you found yourself in a truly dire situation.

 

I’ve had a couple of short stories published under the name Jim Mountfield in Blood Moon Rising in the past and it’s interesting that my nastiest, most nihilistic pieces of work seem to end up there.  These include The Balloon, the story of a paedophile who gets his come-uppance from a primordial, flesh-eating blob-monster whilst hunting for children in a South East Asian temple complex…  And The Ecosystem, about a man who ingests some weird hallucinogenic drugs and sees his whole body consumed by and transformed into a weird, alien ecosystem of grotesque flowers, fungi and insects…  Okay, I’ll stop now.  This is starting to sound a bit like Garth Marenghi.

 

© Channel 4

 

The return of Rab Foster

 

© Columbia Pictures

 

I’ve always loved the idea of high fantasy and heroic fantasy fiction.  The two are slightly different, though overlapping, things – for the former, think Lord of the Rings (1954-55), for the latter, think the Conan the Barbarian stories (1932-36).

 

Therefore, I’m talking about literature set in imaginary kingdoms in medieval worlds with a total absence of modern science and technology.  Its pages are populated by kings, queens, princes, princesses, warriors, knights, witches, warlocks, elves, goblins, trolls, dragons and any number of other supernatural and mythical creatures and monsters.  Its landscapes are dotted with castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, walled towns, thatched cottages, riotous taverns, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes and foreboding mountain passes.  And its plots are animated by the casting of spells, the summoning of demons and suchlike magical shenanigans, by epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, by Machiavellian court intrigue set against backgrounds of rebellions, invasions, sieges and battles, and generally by non-stop swordplay, chases, rescues, derring-do and bloodshed.

 

Oh, and maps.  The opening pages of any high or heroic fantasy book have got to contain a map:

 

© Gnome Press / David Kyle

 

The trouble is, there hasn’t been a great deal of this literature that I’ve read and actually liked.  Much of it I’ve found either drearily pompous (e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson) or badly written (e.g. Lin Carter).  I quite like some of the Conan the Barbarian tales written by Robert E. Howard, somebody who knew how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the titular barbarian’s swaggering sexism and the undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

But there are a few items that I’ve unreservedly liked.  There’s the Jirel of Joiry stories, a heroic fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (C. L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes, Howard’s Conan stories.  There’s the Earthsea books (1968-2001) by another woman, Ursula K. Le Guin.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rips the piss out of the genre.  And there’s the Kane novels and short stories (1970-1985) written by the underrated Karl Edward Wagner, which feature an immortal and immoral swordsman roaming a fantasy world, selling his fighting services to mortal but equally-immoral humans and getting involved in all sorts of violent skulduggery.

 

I haven’t read the Game of Thrones books (1996-present) by George R. R. Martin or watched the TV show based on them, but from what I’ve heard about their cynical and nihilistic tone I wouldn’t be surprised if Martin had been influenced by Karl Edward Wagner’s work in his younger days.

 

Over the years I’ve tried my hand at writing high and heroic fantasy short stories, but there never seemed to be many outlets for getting them published.  I got one into the pages of a hard-copy British magazine called Legend in the early 2000s, but that publication, alas, was short-lived; and later another of my stories appeared in an American webzine called Sorcerous Signals, which is no longer on the go, either.  Meanwhile, a folder on my computer hard-drive titled ‘Fantasy Stories’ gradually turned into the literary equivalent of a breaker’s yard, filled with unpublished stories rather than decommissioned ships.

 

Happily, I have managed to dust down one of those fantasy stories, The Trap Master, and get it published this month in the webzine Aphelion.  Although this year already Aphelion has published two stories that I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, The Trap Master sports a different pen-name: Rab Foster, the name I’ve put on my published fantasy output, meagre though it is.  For the next few weeks, the October 2018 edition of Aphelion should be accessible here and the story itself accessible here.

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

Although it belongs to the tradition of high and heroic fantasy, don’t expect The Trap Master to be about royalty or members of the nobility, or indeed, about muscular superhuman swordsmen.  I’ve always enjoyed imagining what it would be like to be an ordinary, unremarkable blue-collar worker in one of these fantasy worlds, and the characters in The Trap Master are representative of that economic sector.

 

Incidentally, the story is inspired too by my interest in mythological and folkloric creatures, something I suspect comes from the Sinbad-the-Sailor movies I watched as an impressionable kid: The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977).  These films were devised as unashamed showcases for legendary special-effects man Ray Harryhausen and his artistry with stop-motion-animation puppets, which still looks impressive today and, unlike slick modern CGI technology, possesses a dreamy unreal charm.

 

Cheerfully ignoring the fact that the literary Sinbad came from Bagdad during the reign of the 8th / 9th century AD Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Harryhausen had the movie version of him dodging creatures drawn from Greek mythology, prehistory and elsewhere: cyclopes, centaurs, dragons, homunculi, minotaurs, sabre-tooth tigers, troglodytes and even a six-armed statue of the Hindu Goddess Kali that’d come to life.

 

At the end of the 1990s, I got a chance to briefly speak to Harryhausen while he was visiting Edinburgh and just after he’d given a talk at the city’s (now sadly defunct) Lumiere Cinema at the back of the National Museum of Scotland.  I mentioned that I was a fan of the Sinbad movies.  He looked me in the eye, chuckled and commented, “You know, son, you look a bit like Sinbad yourself!”

 

Made my year, that did…

 

From godzilla.wiki.com