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

 

Another kiss from Jim Mountfield

 

From expedia.com

 

Ae Fond Kiss, my short horror story that managed to be inspired both by a love song by Robert Burns and by the marvellous Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, is featured in the September issue of the webzine The Horror Zine.  The story first appeared in The Horror Zine’s summer 2018 paperback edition and, as usual with my horror fiction, it bears the pseudonym ‘Jim Mountfield’.  (Unfortunately, ‘Ian Smith’ is about the most boring name ever.)  The story can be read here.

 

The Horror Zine requires its contributors to submit mugshots of themselves, so be warned.  You may find the strained, painful-looking selfie that accompanies Ae Fond Kiss more disturbing than anything in the story itself.

 

Also featured in The Horror Zine’s September edition is a story by the prolific, seemingly indefatigable Edinburgh-born author Graham Masterton.  Among the more-than-100 books written by Masterton is 1978’s horror novel Charnel House, which gave me the creeps when I read it as a kid (and which, coincidentally, was set in San Francisco).  However, he’s probably best known for the 1976 novel The Manitou, which was made into a movie two years later with Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Michael Ansara and Burgess Meredith – the film isn’t a classic, but with its enjoyably dated, disco-y 1970s special effects, it’s still good fun.

 

So all in all, I feel honoured to have my work featured this month in the same fiction section as that of the Father of the Manitou.

 

© Sphere Books

 

A Northern Irish ghost story

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

In Hog Heaven is my attempt to write a ghost story set in modern-day Northern Ireland – though the ghosts in it date back to a recent and traumatic period in Northern Ireland’s history.  As usual with anything I’ve written that involves the supernatural and / or the macabre, it bears the pseudonym Jim Mountfield.

 

The story is currently available online in the August edition of the web-zine AphelionThis is a link to the issue and this is a link to the story itself.  And the Aphelion staff have very kindly put Mr Mountfield’s name on this month’s cover!

 

A kiss from Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine / Jeani Rector

 

My short story Ae Fond Kiss is among those included in a summer 2018 paperback showcasing the latest fiction and poetry to be featured on the well-known and award-winning web-zine The Horror Zine.  And since it’s a horror story, I have attached my usual horror nom de plume Jim Mountfield to it.

 

The title comes from a wistful romantic song by Robert Burns and, as you’d expect, it’s set in Scotland – next to the Irish Sea on Scotland’s southwestern coast, probably not far from Burns’ birthplace in Alloway.  However, the biggest inspiration for the story was provided by the Musée Mécanique on Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which serves as both a functioning amusement arcade and a museum for more than 200 “coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition.”  A few years ago when I was in San Francisco I spent a delightful hour or two wandering around the place and examining all its vintage and rather magical contraptions.

 

Indeed, several of the Musée’s exhibits are referenced in Ae Fond Kiss, including a turning miniature Ferris Wheel (made by inmates of San Quentin Prison, apparently), a group of marionettes that perform as a barber shop quartet and a device called a motoscope that resembles a what-the-butler-saw machine and shows clips of 1920s movies like On the Beam with Harold Lloyd and Quick on the Trigger with Tom Mix.  I should say, though, that the machine at the heart of the amusement arcade described in my story is a figment of my imagination and has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the Musée Mécanique.

 

The paperback version of The Horror Zine’s summer 2018 anthology can be ordered here, and there’s a kindle edition available here.

 

Oh, and the story has creepy clowns in it too.  What’s not to like?

 

© BBC

 

Worming my way into Aphelion

 

© Aphelion

 

A quick post to say that the latest issue (May 2018) of the science fiction and fantasy webzine Aphelion features a short story of mine called Bookworm, which I wrote under the pen-name Jim Mountfield.  The issue can be accessed here for the next few weeks.

 

Like several things I’ve written, Bookworm is the result of two different ideas I had that, originally, I assumed would lead to two different stories.  They’d been bouncing around inside my head for a long time and I’d never figured out a way of constructing a coherent narrative around either of them.  Then it occurred to me one day that I could combine those two ideas into one story – wildly dissimilar though they were.

 

In Bookworm’s case, one of the ideas was inspired by an art bookshop in Edinburgh that I occasionally worked in thirty years ago.  To be honest, a mate of mine officially worked there, but he wasn’t available on certain afternoons and asked me to fill in for him.  I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I worked there I was paid cash-in-hand.  The bookshop has long since disappeared and its premises are now occupied by a pizzeria, so I think I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.  The shop looked unusual in that it stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, and Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket, slanted together.  Because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it had a strange, tapering, almost triangular shape.  Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass.

 

So I’d always wanted to use that bookshop as the setting for a story – with its odd shape (‘like a slice of pie’, as Bookworm puts it); its glass frontage that meant I spent a lot of time just gazing out onto George IV Bridge, people-watching; and its shelves of big, expensive and beautifully-illustrated artbooks.

 

I must admit that the other idea that powers Bookworm is not an original one.  It was something I encountered as a teenager, when I read a 1947 short story called Cellmate by the science fiction and horror writer Theodore Sturgeon.  I thought the premise for that story was so wonderfully bizarre that I’d always wanted to write a variation on it.  I’ve seen the idea turn up in several places since then – for example, in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi blockbuster Total Recall – so I don’t feel too guilty about nicking it.

 

Theodore Sturgeon was, incidentally, a very interesting character.  I suspect he’s best remembered today not so much for his work (which included scripting a couple of episodes of the original Star Trek TV series in the late 1960s) but for coining the adage known as Sturgeon’s Law, which goes along the lines of: okay, 90% of science fiction is crap but then, 90% of everything is crap.  In his day, though, he was a prolific and popular writer of short stories – he penned about 200 of them and during the 1950s he was said to be the most anthologised short-fiction writer in the English language alive.  And it’s claimed that he was the inspiration for Kilgore Trout, the fictitious sci-fi writer who recurs in the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and becomes their bemused, oddball conscience.  (Sturgeon…  Trout…  Get it?)

 

© Marc Zicree

 

And there you have it.  Long-gone Edinburgh art bookshop + bizarre short story by Theodore Sturgeon = Bookworm.

 

I write about a writer for Write

 

© Write magazine

 

When I write fiction, I try to follow two rules: not to write about drunkards and not to write about writers.

 

The main reason for these rules is to avoid laziness.  If your main character is a drunkard, he or she can make any decision or perform any action no matter how ridiculous or irrational because, well, they’re drunk.  It becomes a cheap ‘n’ easy ploy for authors to sidestep the necessity for logic and reason in their plots.  It’s also cheap ‘n’ easy to have a writer as your main character, though in a different way.  Writers aren’t beholden to the same working conventions as most other people.  They don’t have to be in a specific location for X number of hours each day, starting at Y o’clock and ending at Z o’clock.  So if you’re crafting a plot, your writer-character is available to do anything, anywhere, at any time of the day.  Which again strikes me as a cop-out.

 

I also don’t like stories about writers (and literary-related people) because it just seems so up its own arse.  I still like to moan about the dire state of contemporary English literature back in the days of my youth by holding up, as an example, the shortlist for 1984’s Man Booker Prize.  That year, the novel that should have won the Booker – J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – was the only one that didn’t have a writer, or a biographer, or a literary scholar, as its main character.  (For the record, the other novels on the shortlist were Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, Anita Desai’s In Custody, Penelope Lively’s The World According to Mark, David Lodge’s Small World and, the eventual winner, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.)  I’m sure such writer-fixated novels were fascinating for the 0.001% of humanity who actually worked in, moved around in and fraternised in the literary world – but were a bit smug and elitist for everyone else.

 

The only author I can forgive for having writers as his main characters is Stephen King, basically because I find his work so damned entertaining no matter whom he writes about.  (Well, as the blurb on his books used to intone: WORDS ARE HIS POWER.)  In The Shining (1977), he even got away with having as a main character a man who was both a writer and a drunkard.  Wow!

 

© Warner Bros / The Producer Circle Company / Peregrine Films

 

Anyway, all this is a preamble to saying that Volume 2, Issue 1 of a new Sri Lankan magazine of poetry, fiction and literary articles called Write has just gone on sale and it includes a short story by me called Holmes, Sherlock.  And guess what?  As I’m a complete and utter hypocrite, I have broken my own rules and betrayed my own principles and made it about a character who’s a writer.  Sorry.  I’m not proud of myself.

 

Incidentally, because the subject matter of Holmes, Sherlock is less dark and macabre than what I usually write about, I haven’t published it under a pseudonym like Jim Mountfield.  It’s attributed to my own, real, very boring name.

 

Available for just 400 Sri Lankan rupees, the new issue of Write can be purchased at the Barefoot Bookshop on Galle Road or at the Sooriya Village Restaurant on Skelton Road.  And here’s a link to the magazine’s Facebook page.

 

Jim Mountfield at the Hellfire Crossroads

 

© Trevor Denyer

 

My horror-fiction-writing alter-ego Jim Mountfield has just had a new story printed in issue 6 of the magazine Hellfire Crossroads, which is available at CreateSpace here, at Amazon UK here and at Amazon US here.

 

This is the third consecutive issue of Hellfire Crossroads in which I’ve had something featured.  I’m particularly pleased to be associated with this magazine, because its tireless editor Trevor Denyer used to be responsible for the magazines Roadworks and Legend and he published some of my earlier work in them – giving me a break at a time when my morale really needed it.  That was back when my horror-fiction nom de plume wasn’t Jim Mountfield but Eoin Henderson.  (I’m superstitious, and when I stop having luck getting stuff published under one pseudonym, as happened to me with Eoin Henderson, I change to another.  But I’ve had a reasonable run of luck with Jim Mountfield, so I expect to be him for a while longer.)

 

The story in Hellfire Crossroads issue 6 is called Amy’s Gift.  I like to think of it as a weird mixture of the TV situation comedy Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995) and the horror movie Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1972).  It’s also set in an alternative universe and it has one of the bleakest endings I’ve ever written for a story.

 

A night with Jim Mountfield

 

© Blood Moon Rising

 

Just a quick announcement that Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror fiction, has a new short story appearing in the spring edition of the magazine / ezine Blood Moon Rising.

 

The story is entitled The Ecosystem, it’s about someone having a bad night after experimenting with some unknown and dodgy drugs – in horror stories, the drugs are always dodgy – and it’s meant to be a nasty hallucinogenic piece of body-horror combining elements of the work of William S. Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker.  (Warning – it might not be quite as good as them.)

 

The magazine’s website is here and, the last time I checked, the story itself is accessible here.

 

Jim Mountfield – 35 years late

 

From youtube.com 

 

Many people who have an idea for a story, painting or song find that the process of turning the idea into reality takes a long time.  But I suspect that the process took longer than most with my short story The Malevolent Aged Grin, which was written under my horror-fiction pseudonym Jim Mountfield and has just appeared in a new hard-copy anthology from the mainly online publication The Horror Zine.

 

In fact, the moment when the original idea came to me and the moment when I finally saw the finished item in print were separated by 35 years.  That’s right.  The notion of The Malevolent Aged Grin first entered my head in 1981, when I was a plooky high-school teenager, during an era when the world seemed a very different place from now.  Back then, the bellicose but befuddled Ronald Reagan had just been elected US president and I was seriously worried that he was going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up.  In 2016, the bellicose and badly-haired Donald Trump stands a good chance of being elected US president and I’m seriously worried that he’s going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up.  So thank heavens that’s all changed.

 

Come to think of it, I could have begun writing the 4500-word story in 1981, composed it at the rate of 130 words every year and still got it finished in 2016.

 

© The Daily Telegraph

 

I remember the first time I thought of writing The Malevolent Grin.  It was during a school English class, under the tutelage of English teacher Iain Jenkins – who later would enter politics and become our constituency’s first representative in the reconvened-after-nearly-300-years Scottish Parliament.  He’d just read to us the poem Pike by the famous Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes.  As well as containing the phrase ‘the malevolent aged grin’, which I decided there and then to pinch and use as the title of a story, the poem had such unforgettable lines as “…silhouette / Of submarine delicacy and horror / A hundred feet long in their world” and “Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards / Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds.”

 

Yes, I know the poem reflected the theme of much of Hughes’ nature poetry, about how the natural world – here embodied in the pike, Britain’s most predatory freshwater fish – has its own scale, perspectives and levels of savagery; totally different from how we, as romanticising, sentimentalising, anthropomorphising human beings, view it.  But for me, the poem just seemed wonderfully macabre and suddenly I wanted to write a story about a pike – a big pike.  A monster pike.  I should say that by this time I’d started writing horror stories and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t become southern Scotland’s answer to Stephen King.

 

For a long time I envisioned the story as being about a pike that’s the size of a rowing boat, has somehow managed to escape being noticed by the human world and lurks in the depths of a remote river or pool.  Somehow, it’s also managed to keep itself fed, on livestock that wander too close to the water’s edge, without the world noticing either.  I even started writing it in a jotter.  The main character was an author – how very Stephen King – who takes his family and pet cat to live in an old converted mill-house next to a river.  He intends to make the most of his quiet, rural surroundings and start work on a new novel.  Needless to say, the pike soon makes its presence felt, beginning by eating the family cat.  I conceived the story as ending with torrential rain, the river flooding and the big bad pike substantially expanding its feeding grounds.

 

© Hamlyn Publishers

 

However, that version of the story never got beyond its first few pages.  Partly I abandoned it because I realised that, even by the standards of adolescent-penned pulp horror, its premise was absurd; but also because one day I discovered in a bookshop that someone had already written a story about a monster pike terrorising the British countryside.  This was the 160-page novel The Pike (1982) by the late Cliff Twemlow, a colourful character who made a living not only as a horror novelist but as a nightclub bouncer in Manchester, as a movie / TV actor and extra and as a composer – one of his country-and-western compositions ended up, briefly, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).

 

Twemlow had his pike cruising the waters of Lake Windermere in Cumbria and at one point during the 1980s it looked like the novel was going to be made into a film, with Joan Collins as the star.  I have to say that my resentment about Twemlow getting his pike story into print before I did was lessened by the tantalising prospect of seeing a giant hungry pike take a few bites at the diva-esque Ms Collins.  A 12-foot-long robotic pike was actually built for the project and Joan Collins posed with it in some pre-production publicity photos.  (Cue cruel jokes like “The pike is the one on the left”, or “A terrifying monster – and a pike.”)  But ultimately, alas, this cinematic Pike never came to fruition.

 

https://horrorpedia.com/2014/04/08/the-pike-novel-and-unfinished-feature-film/

http://io9.gizmodo.com/joan-collins-nearly-starred-in-this-movie-about-a-kille-1744451146

 

From io9.gizmodo.com 

 

When I was older and more sensible, it dawned on me that the monster pike in the story didn’t have to be a physical entity.  Hughes’ image of a fanged, grinning and primordially hideous face lurking in the mud, rotted leaves and darkness below the surface of a pool could easily be a metaphor for all the horrible things that lurk deep in the human psyche.  So I began to envision The Malevolent Aged Grin as a psychological horror story.  But I couldn’t figure out how to fit this into a plot.

 

Then a few years ago, I hit on the idea of making the pike supernatural.  It’s an evil, water-dwelling spirit that takes possession of someone when he falls into a pool during a fishing trip.  But still I had to determine where this evil spirit came from, what it was doing there and what it planned to do once it’d possessed its victim.  Gradually, though, I got inspiration from different sources – for example, a quote by William S. Burroughs about how magicians summon up and use demons like mafia dons hiring hitmen; and a story about two feuding magicians in a collection of Sri Lankan horror tales called Water in my Grave (2013).  And I managed to put together a back-story for the pike, or evil spirit as it was now.

 

After I’d written The Malevolent Aged Grin, submitted it and had it accepted for publication by The Horror Zine’s editor, Jeani Rector, my travails weren’t over yet.  I was asked to make revisions.  In the original version, the pike’s back-story is explained when the main character uses the Internet and visits www.themodernantiquarian.com, a website chronicling sites of ancient, mythological and folkloric interest in the British Isles, which in real life was set up by the rock musician and author Julian Cope.  Jeani suggested that I scrap this and have one of the secondary characters recount the back-story as a supposed local legend.  Changing this helped, in that it gave the secondary character much more of a presence (and a function) than he had in the original.  Probably it was also a good thing that I dropped several references I’d made to the Harry Potter stories.  With hindsight, I was being too ironic for my own good.

 

© Jeani Rector / The Horror Zine

 

The anthology containing The Malevolent Aged Grin, three-and-a-half decades in the making, is available at the link below.  I’d like to conclude with a joke about the story being a big fish in a small pool, but it’s a big anthology with a lot of stories.  And they’re all really good.

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Horror-Zine-Magazine-Fall-2016-ebook/dp/B01JKUM6X4

 

A blood moon over Mountfield

 

(c) BBC

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror stories, has had a new piece of fiction published.  It appears in the spring 2016 edition of a magazine called Blood Moon Rising.

 

The story is a short and nasty piece called The Balloon.  However, despite its shortness and nastiness, it’s a good example of the unlikely and random way that different elements of a story can come together and form a single whole.  A bit of the story originates in one place, another bit originates in a different place, and so on.  Thus, the writer ends up like Frankenstein, sewing parts of different bodies together to make a brand new creature.  (And that’s an appropriate analogy when you’re talking about horror stories.)

 

A while back, I read an interview with the Dutch director Tom Six, the man who gave us such yummy movies as The Human Centipede (2009), The Human Centipede II (2011) and – surprise! – The Human Centipede III (2015), which are about stitching people’s mouths to other people’s anuses so that they end up as a crawling, conjoined chain of bodies with a single alimentary tract.  It goes without saying that everyone who isn’t at the front of the human centipede gets a ‘bum’ deal.

 

Asked how he’d come up with such a crazed idea in the first place, Six claims he thought of it after watching a news report about a paedophile.  “His crimes were so awful I asked myself, ‘What’s the most extreme punishment that could be handed out to him?’”  Then Six answered his own question by imagining some highly unsavoury mouth-to-bum surgery.

 

From blogs.indiewire.com

 

This surprised me, by the way.  I’d always assumed Six came up with the idea for The Human Centipede after he’d asked himself: “What’s the grossest thing I can stick in a horror movie, so that blood-and-gore-obsessed teenagers the world over will shell out money to see it and make me a fortune?”

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32656480

 

Anyway, that got me thinking: what’s the most extreme punishment I could give to a paedophile in a story?

 

It also made me remember something.  A decade ago, I’d been travelling in Cambodia and one night in Phnom Penh, having drunk a few beers too many, I wandered into what looked like a nice relaxed beer garden with an outdoor bar in the middle of it.  Gradually, though, I realised that the Cambodian barmaids there seemed a bit too young; while the customers – all Western men – seemed a bit too old.  And leery.

 

I ended up sitting at the bar counter opposite a slightly Lolita-esque barmaid and I started lecturing her about how she ought to pack in her job, get away from these dirty old men, go back to school and get some proper qualifications.  Being rather pissed, I spoke too loudly, and I soon noticed that there were a couple of sleazy-looking British men sitting along the counter from me, muttering at me in disapproval.  But I had the sense to get my beer down me and stride out of that dubious joint before I got into a fight.

 

The next day, I took a boat along the Tonle Sap River to Siem Reap, which is near the crumbling, jungle-overrun but still stunning temple complex at Angkor Wat.   Somehow, those two things, the grotesque punters in that bar in Phnom Penh and the venerable temples of Angkor Wat, got linked in my mind.

 

Then, two years ago in India, I visited a different sort of historical site.  This was the Qutab complex in Delhi, where the massive Qutab Minar minaret built between the 12th and 14th centuries soars above an area of ruins, courtyards, pillars, pavilions, lawns, hedgerows and trees.  There, I saw something else that lodged in my mind.  As I wrote in my notebook at the time: “At least one end of the Qutab site was below the level of the neighbouring road.  There were railings along the roadside and a group of little kids had gathered behind them.  Apparently, they’d been playing with a big red balloon and the balloon had come down on the wrong side of the railings, into the grounds of the site, and landed on top of some medieval masonry a couple of yards below them.  Now they were yelling down through the railings, trying to get the attention of some visitor who’d be kind and brave enough to clamber up onto the masonry and retrieve their balloon for them.”

 

And then all the story elements were in place: temple-ruins half-swallowed by the jungle, like in Angkor Wat; a lost kid’s balloon, like I’d seen at Qutab Minar; and a squalid old tourist who’s in a southern Asian country not to sightsee but because of his unhealthy interest in the country’s youngsters, which was the impression I’d got of those bar-customers in Phnom Penh.  And from this, I managed to write The Balloon.

 

The magazine featuring the story can be accessed online, here:

 

http://www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com/bloodmoonrisingmagazine64.html

 

From www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com

 

And the last time I checked, The Balloon itself was available here.  Read it if you dare.

 

http://www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com/shortstory647.html