Rab Foster gets perspective

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

I still remember the moment when I discovered Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories and, by extension, the joys of sword-and-sorcery fiction.  I was ten years old and my family had just boarded the ferry at Larne on the east coast of Northern Ireland.  We were heading across the Irish Sea to Stranraer in southwest Scotland, where we planned to spend a week’s holiday.  (In years to come, we would be on that ferry many more times.  However, by then, we’d moved to Scotland permanently and were travelling in the other direction, back to Northern Ireland to visit family and friends.)  Anyway, the ferry-trip took about two-and-a-half hours, which seemed like an eternity to a restless ten-year-old like me.  To escape the prospect of extreme boredom, I went straight to the ferry’s little onboard shop and bought a slim paperback from a bookrack there.

 

The book was Conan the Freebooter (1968), which caught my eye because its cover featured the titular barbarian engaged in a bloody fight with a giant ape.  It contained five short stories about Conan’s exploits in the Hyborian Age, a mythical era of forgotten civilisations, magic, monsters and romance that’d supposedly existed tens of thousands of years ago between the destruction of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history.  Actually, only three stories of the five were proper Conan ones written by Robert E. Howard – Black Colossus (1933), Shadows in the Moonlight (1934) and A Witch Shall Be Born (1934).  The other two, Hawks Over Shem and The Road of the Eagles (both 1955), were actually non-Conan stories by Howard that’d been set in Egypt in 1021 AD and the Ottoman Empire in 1595 respectively.  However, another author, L. Sprague de Camp had sneakily rewritten them years after Howard’s death, resetting them in the Hyborian Age and replacing their original heroes with Conan.

 

Anyway, as I sat on that ferry reading that particular book, my enthusiasm for the sword-and-sorcery wing of fantasy literature was kindled.  Warriors, knights, sorcerers, witches, kings and queens, princes and princesses, goblins, trolls, ogres and dragons, populating castles, fortresses, palaces, citadels, gladiatorial arenas, mysterious forests, mist-shrouded lakes, dark caves and foreboding mountain passes, involved in the casting of spells, the summoning of demons, epic quests to locate mystical objects with fantastical powers, Machiavellian court intrigue, battles, sieges, swordplay, derring-do and much, much bloodshed…  How could the imagination of a ten-year-old not be fired by all that?  Admittedly, I found the busty, lascivious wenches who kept popping up in the Conan stories a bit boring, although needless to say I appreciated their presence more when I was a few years older.

 

Of course, decades have passed since then and my opinions of Robert E. Howard and his oeuvre have changed somewhat.  Yes, I still respect him for knowing how to tell a proper story.  But it’s difficult to read the average Conan story now without wincing at least half-a-dozen times at the barbarian’s swaggering sexism – those aforementioned busty, lascivious wenches had little to do apart from throw themselves adoringly at their hero’s feet – and the general undercurrents of racism and ableism.

 

And there are plenty of other sword-and-sorcery stories by other writers I’ve discovered since then that I prefer.  For example, there are the Jirel of Joiry stories, a swashbuckling fantasy series written both about a woman (Jirel) and by a woman (Catherine L. Moore), which appeared in the 1930s at the same time as the Conan ones, their polar opposite in the sex-war stakes.  There’s Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (1958-1988), which wittily rip 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 swordsman who’s as violent and immoral as Conan but whose adventures are described with considerably more intelligence.

 

Anyway, this is all a preamble to saying that Rab Foster, the alias under which I write my own fantasy fiction, has a new sword-and-sorcery story called Perspectives of the Scorvyrn published in this month’s edition of Schlock! Webzine.  I see it as a back-handed tribute to Robert E. Howard.  The two main characters are opportunistic warriors in the mould of Conan and have a similar swing-your-sword-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude to life.  Unfortunately, their lack of scruples and imagination leads them into serious trouble.  And that’s trouble with a feminist tinge…   Moreover, much of the story is written in the present tense and, as its title suggests, it’s told from multiple perspectives.  That’s a style and approach that I’m sure a writer as traditional and old-school as Howard would have absolutely bloody hated.

 

For now, Perspectives of the Scorvyrn is available to read here, while the homepage of the May 2021 edition of Schlock! Webzine can be reached here.

 

© Lancer Books / John Duillo

Jim Mountfield rides shotgun

 

© Shotgun Honey

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write fiction of a (usually) dark hue, has just had a short story published in the webzine Shotgun Honey, which is dedicated to the ‘crime, hardboiled and noir genres’.

 

The story is called Karaoke and is inspired by the seven years I spent living in Japan – seven years during which, astonishingly, I spent a lot of my free time hanging out in bars.  The majority of those bars were frequented by suited salarymen, staffed by immaculate hostesses and equipped with karaoke machines.  Although I was always too shy to sing at the start of an evening, I’d have somehow overcome my shyness by the end of it – a dozen Kirin beers might have had something to do with it – and I’d be up there warbling into the microphone with the best, or worst, of them.  This was in the 1990s and the English-language selection on the machines was pretty middle-of-the-road and non-raucous – Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Tom Jones, Pat Boone and the early Beatles – which meant I was usually crooning stuff like Fly Me to the Moon or Love Letters in the Sand.  Eek.

 

As Shotgun Honey is about crime, however, the story features yakuza gangsters as well as karaoke-singing.  Incidentally, the three main characters are named after three people I knew in Japan.  Mr Ashikawa and Mr Hiraizumi were both teachers at the high school where I worked for the first two years – Mr Ashikawa was a calligraphy teacher and he’d answer the staffroom phone with a memorably singsong cry of “Ashikawa desu!”  Maybe that’s why I made his fictional namesake a talented singer.

 

The character Umeki, meanwhile, is named after a lovable rogue I had in my classes while I taught at a university in Sapporo, which was my job for the subsequent five years.  Let’s be tactful and just say he wasn’t the hardest working of my students.  A week before I left Japan, the real-life Umeki invited me out for a few drinks and we ended up in one of his haunts, a bar whose interior resembled Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s penthouse in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  I think he was keen to create the impression that he lived the lifestyle of an international playboy, but I can’t help suspecting that today he’s become a grumpy and greying Kacho-San (‘Section Chief’).

 

For now, Karaoke can be read here.  This story comes with a trigger warning for lovers of alcohol, who may be traumatised by the fate that befalls a 21-year-old bottle of Hibiki Whisky.

 

From unsplash.com / © Alex Rainer

Jim Mountfield is away with the fairies

 

© DBND Publishing

 

Jim Mountfield, the penname under which I write horror fiction, has just had a third short story published in 2021.  The story is called When the Land Gets Hold of You and appears in an anthology from editor Nate Vice and DBND Publishing called The Cryptid Chronicles.  As its title indicates, the stories in the collection all concern cryptids, that pseudoscientific category of animals that some people claim to exist but nobody has ever conclusively proven to exist.  Among the more famous examples of cryptids are Chupacabra, the Jersey Devil, Nessie and Sasquatch.

 

In When the Land Gets Hold of You, a storm knocks over an ancient oak tree on a Scottish farm and the hole created by its torn-up root system releases some unfriendly creatures from centuries of hibernation.  The creatures are modelled on the fairies found in Scottish folklore.  And as the story’s main character points out: “Fairies only became domesticated in Shakespeare’s time. He wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which turned them into the Walt Disney beings we know them as today.”  But before Shakespeare: “…humans feared and despised them… you can’t deny what’s in those old legends. Fairies were feared. People were terrified of them.”

 

The creatures in When the Land Gets Hold of You are actually inspired by two types of Scottish fairy.  Firstly, redcaps were supposed to lurk in the peel towers that were built near the southern Scottish border to guard against invading armies from England.  The most notorious redcap is the one associated with the dark, oppressive Hermitage Castle in Roxburghshire. According to legend, William de Soulis, son of the castle’s founder, Sir Nicolas de Soulis, practised the dark arts and employed a creature called Robin Redcap as his familiar.  Robin Redcap was a hideous being. In his book about the mythical beasts of Scotland Not of this World (2002), Maurice Fleming describes him as “a thick-set old man with fierce red eyes, long tangled hair, protruding teeth and fingers like talons.”

 

Also providing inspiration is the brownie, which is actually supposed to be a benevolent fairy because it performed chores around households and farms while the human occupants were asleep.  However, if you visit Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, you’ll see a famous painting by Edward Atkinson Hornel called The Brownie of Blednoch (1889), which portrays the brownie of the title as a grotesque thing with grey-brown skin, pointed ears, a crooked mouth, eyes that resemble poached eggs and a beard that’s as long, swirling and tentacled as an octopus.  That said, even the monstrous-looking brownie in the painting is shown performing a service, which is guarding the local shepherds’ flocks at night-time.

 

In recent years, filmmakers have cottoned on to the notion that fairies and their associated lore provide promising material for horror movies.  Alas, the two horror films I’m thinking of, The Hallow (2015) and The Hole in the Ground (2019), both of which were Irish and used fairies as their ‘monsters’, were disappointing and missed opportunities in my opinion.  Much better are a handful of short stories by the underrated Scottish writer Dorothy K. Haynes. Changeling, Paying Guests and The Bean-Nighe all feature malevolent fairies and appear in her excellent 1949 collection Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch.

 

Offering 199 pages of chilling, cryptid-orientated entertainment, The Cryptid Chronicles can be purchased here.

 

From Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

Riding out with Jim Mountfield

 

© Schlock Webzine

 

In 1970s Britain, it seemed television viewers couldn’t get enough programmes about the strange, dark and macabre.  For scary TV anthology series alone, this decade saw the broadcast of Beasts (1976), Dead of Night (1972), The Frighteners (1972), A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-78), Leap in the Dark (1973-80), Shadows of Fear (1970-73), Supernatural (1977), Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88) and Thriller (1973-76).

 

One thing that’s often overlooked, though, is that there weren’t just plenty of scary programmes aimed at adults.  British children’s television in the 1970s delivered a fair number of chills too, most notably with series that were ostensibly science fiction but weren’t afraid to creep out their young audiences with their dystopian or plain weird scenarios, for example, Sky (1975), The Changes (1975) and – the kids’ show with the freakiest credits sequence everChildren of the Stones (1977).

 

In addition, 1970s kids in the UK – of whom I was one – also got their own supernatural anthology series.  This was Shadows, which ran from 1975 to 1978.  Its standalone episodes were penned by a range of surprisingly illustrious writers, including Joan Aitken, Susan Cooper, P.J. Hammond, Penelope Lively, Trevor Preston and the Mother of the She-Devil herself, Fay Weldon.  Yes, back then, treated to Shadows’ tales of ghosts, witches, timeslips and even folk horror (as essayed in the 1976 episode The Inheritance), we kids didn’t know how lucky we were.

 

I think I was inspired by Shadows and its tales of 1970s kids and teenagers having encounters with the supernatural when I recently wrote a short story called The Stables, which has just been published in the online journal Schlock! Webzine – attributed, as usual with my scary fiction, to the pen-name Jim Mountfield.  What the characters have to endure in The Stables, though, is considerably nastier than what their equivalents experienced in Shadows.

 

As its title suggests, the story also involves horses, which were another popular trope in 1970s British children’s TV shows.  There was, for example, Follyfoot (1971-73), set in a ‘rest-place’ for horses, and The Adventures of Black Beauty (1972-74), inspired by the 1877 book by Anna Sewell.  Both shows are probably best remembered nowadays for their jaunty theme tunes.  The Follyfoot theme was a number called The Lightning Tree, performed by pop-folk band the Settlers.  Meanwhile, the Black Beauty theme, Galloping Home, written by Dennis King and performed by the London String Chorale, is much admired by Alan Partridge (“It’s brilliant!”).

 

The Stables is now available to read in Volume 16, Issue 13 / the February 2021 edition of Schlock! Webzine here, while its homepage can be accessed here.

 

© Thames Television

Hanging around with Jim Mountfield

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

I’ve just had my first short story published in 2021.  Where the Little Boy Drowned, which is attributed to Jim Mountfield, the pen-name I put on my horror fiction, is now featured in the ‘Stories’ section of the online magazine Horrified.

 

The story belongs to a sub-genre that I like to think of as ‘constant jeopardy’.  The main character or characters spend the whole story, or most of it, stuck in a dangerous situation where the odds look stacked against them getting out of it alive.

 

Examples of constant-jeopardy stories include Jack Finney’s Contents of a Dead Man’s Pockets (1956) and Stephen King’s The Ledge (1976), both of which have their protagonist trapped on a narrow ledge high up the side of a towering apartment building.  Two other examples are stories I’ve read by the Spanish writer Vincente Blasco Ibáñez and by Winston Churchill (who very occasionally wrote fiction when he wasn’t politicking) that are both called Man Overboard.  As their shared title suggests, these are about someone falling off a fast-moving ship, into the middle of the ocean, without anyone else noticing that they’ve fallen off.

 

However, the most gruelling constant-jeopardy story I’ve come across is The Viaduct, written by Brian Lumley and first published in 1976.  It’s about two boys who, for a dare, decide to cross the titular viaduct not by going along the top of it but going along underneath it – using 160 rungs, which for some reason the structure’s builders have installed there, as monkey-bars. The viaduct straddles a very deep valley and you can predict that this isn’t going to end well.

 

I don’t want to give too much away about Where the Little Boy Drowned, but one of its key plot elements is a length of rope.  There’s also a supernatural element to it, with a faint nod to Japanese horror films – J-Horror – and particularly to Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 chiller Ju-On: The Grudge.

 

Where the Little Boy Drowned can be read here, while this link will take you to Horrified’s main page.

My 2020 writing round-up

 

© Schlock Webzine

 

I’m sure few people will be sad to see the back of 2020, although towards its end it did provide two glimmers of hope for the future.  These were the development of vaccines against Covid-19, the main reason for the year’s horribleness, and the defeat in the US presidential election of Donald Trump, the Clown-Master General who’s supervised a four-year circus of corruption, cronyism, disinformation, racism, culture wars, environmental destruction, denial of science and pandering to right-wing terrorism in the world’s most powerful nation.

 

On a personal note, 2020 wasn’t so bad for me in one way.  I did get a number of stories published.  These appeared under the pseudonyms Jim Mountfield (which I use for my horror fiction) and Rab Foster (for my fantasy fiction) and, a couple of times, under my real and boring name Ian Smith.  Here’s a round-up of those stories and details of where you can find them.

 

Firstly, as Jim Mountfield:

  • Back in January, The Path, a cosmic horror story inspired by some rainy season trekking I’d done in Sri Lanka’s Knuckles Mountains, appeared in Issue 30, Volume 15 of Schlock! Webzine. The issue can be accessed here.
  • Witch Hazel, a folk-horror story playing on one of humanity’s most basic fears – there’s something following you! – was published in the February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine and can still be accessed here. It also appears in the Spring 2020 hard-copy edition of The Horror Zine, which can be purchased here.
  • March saw a story inspired by the many frustrations of working in an office, The Away Day, appear in Issue 2, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine, a kindle edition of which can be downloaded here. Come to think of it, The Away Day is probably already dated.  Will there be such a thing as an office culture once the Covid-19 pandemic has passed and companies realise it’s cheaper and more practical to have their employees working at home?
  • In spring 2020, just as most countries were waking up to the seriousness of the pandemic, my violent sci-fi story New Town Tours was included in the aptly dystopian collection Midnight Street Anthology 4: Strange Days, published by Midnight Street Press. It can be purchased from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.  Also, you can find a clip of me (as Jim Mountfield) talking about the story and reading an excerpt from it here.  I know, the clip looks and sounds like it was filmed by John Logie Baird in 1926, but I was subject to a Covid-19-inspired curfew at the time, didn’t have access to proper video equipment and had to record it in a dark room at the back of an apartment building.
  • In June, my story The Four-Legged Friend, set in Bangkok, inspired by a visit I once made to a Thai surgical museum and tapping into the same fear as Witch Hazel, appeared in Issue 5, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine. A kindle edition of it can be downloaded here.
  • Having had cosmic horror and folk horror published in 2020, I was pleased to get some body horror published in it too. In September, my story The Nuclei was included in a new collection called Xenobiology: Stranger Creatures.  It’s a sci-fi body-horror story set in Edinburgh after an apocalypse.  Now that’s a sentence you don’t get to write very often.  Xenobiology can be purchased here.
  • Don’t Hook Now, a nasty sci-fi story I wrote about perverts using future virtual-reality technology to interact with saucy scenes from old movies, was published by Horrified Magazine in October 2020 and can be accessed here.
  • My ghost story First Footers, set as its title suggests in Scotland on New Year’s Eve, has been included in a recent collection of spooky tales entitled Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 1): Christmas, again courtesy of Horrified Magazine. Available as a digital eBook, it can be purchased here.

 

 

As Ian Smith:

  • In March, my slightly Roald Dahl-esque story The Yellow Brick Road was published in Volume 2, Issue 2 of the Sri Lankan literary magazine Write. The last time I looked, copies of this issue of Write were still on sale in the Barefoot Shop at 704 Galle Road, Colombo.
  • To keep its contributors motivated during the March-May curfew that the Sri Lankan government imposed in response to Covid-19, Write started putting up stories on its social media platforms. These included my flash-fiction story Ferg’s Bike, which can be accessed here.

 

As Rab Foster:

  • October saw my fantasy-horror story No Man’s Land, inspired by the works of Ambrose Bierce, published in Issue 9, Volume 16 of Schlock! Webzine. Its kindle edition is available here.
  • Finally, my quaintly named story Pockets of the Janostovore is featured in the December 2020-January 2021 edition of Aphelion. It can be read here.  Gratifyingly, it’s been listed as one of Aphelion‘s picks of 2020 for long fiction.

 

So 2020 has been a productive year for me in terms of my writing even if, in most other respects, it’s been as shit for me as it’s been for everybody else.  Let’s hope 2021 sees me retain that productivity, while generally offering a better experience for all of us.

 

Anyway, with fingers crossed, I bid you…  Happy new year!

 

© Midnight Street Press

Out of pocket with Rab Foster

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

I’m pleased to report that a story of mine, the quaintly named Pockets of the Janostovore, has been published in the long-fiction section of the December 2020-January 2021 edition of the webzine Aphelion.  As its title suggests, Pockets of the Janostovore belongs to the fantasy genre and so it’s attributed to Rab Foster, the pseudonym I put on my fantasy writings.

 

When it comes to fantasy literature, perhaps the writer I admire most is the author, poet and artist Mervyn Peake, who penned the trilogy of Gormenghast novels in 1946, 1950 and 1959.  The influence of Peake and Gormenghast seeps through into Pockets of the Janostovore, though there’s one important difference.  The characters in the massive, labyrinthine edifice in Gormenghast are prisoners of centuries of feudal and ritualistic existence.  They’ve been conditioned to follow the same daily ceremonies appropriate to whatever level of the hierarchical society they inhabit.  This includes the aristocrats living at the top of the pile.  However, the inhabitants of the massive, labyrinthine city in Pockets are governed by a different sort of feudalism and hierarchy – one powered by relentless trade and commerce.  Yes, there are aristocrats at the highest tier of this world too but, as the story mentions at one point, they’re mostly nouveau riche who’ve been able to buy their titles.

 

© mervynpeake.org

 

One writer who might appear to have influenced the story, but didn’t, was the American Gene Wolfe, who passed away just last year.  While I worked on the story, I found myself inserting more and more references to those mainstays of the economies of medieval cities, the merchant and craft guilds.  Hence, in Pockets, you get mentions of such obscure groupings as the cutlers (knife-makers), the bowyers (bow-makers) and the girdlers (belt-makers).  After I’d submitted the story to Aphelion at the start of the summer, I then read Wolfe’s excellent 1980 fantasy / sci-fi novel, The Shadow of the Torturer (1980), which turned out to be choc-a-bloc with references to guilds.  It even features a torturers’ guild, to which the title character belongs.  So now somebody will probably accuse me of ripping off Gene Wolfe.  But no, I wrote Pockets before I knew of his novel.  Honest!

 

One thing I definitely did rip off for Pockets was the corny old British sitcom about life in the Roman-era environs of Mount Vesuvius, Up Pompeii (1969-70), which starred the incomparable comedian and comic actor Frankie Howerd.  Specifically, I stole from Up Pompeii one of Howerd’s most memorably groan-inducing jokes.  I wonder if any readers of Pockets will spot it?

 

For the next two months, Pockets of the Janostovore can be read here, while the main page of the December 2020-January 2021 edition of Aphelion can be accessed here.  And incidentally, the long-fiction editor of Aphelion has named Pockets as one of his picks of 2020, which makes its publication extra-pleasing for me.

 

© Arrow Books

Jim Mountfield goes first footing

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

I’m pleased to report that my horror-writing alter ego Jim Mountfield has a short story featured in a new collection of spooky tales entitled Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 1): Christmas.  The collection has been published by the online magazine Horrified and, as its title suggests, its contents are not only concerned with the supernatural and macabre, but mostly take during the festive season.  My contribution is actually a New Year story rather than a Christmas one, set on the night of December 31st / January 1st.  It’s called First Footers.

 

I spent much of my early life in Scotland, where celebrating New Year, or Hogmanay as the Scots called it, was a big thing.  (Cue the hoary old joke: “What do you get if you cross a Scotsman with an Iranian?  The Ayatollah Hogmanay!”)  In recent years, Scottish cities, especially Edinburgh, have cashed in on this tradition by holding huge street parties with firework displays and live music on December 31st, although anyone I know who made it to the Edinburgh Street Party usually whinged afterwards that it was largely ‘attended by Aussie and Kiwi backpackers’.

 

Away from the commercialism and razzmatazz, a lot of Scottish people still claim that the customary thing to do on Hogmanay is go first-footing, i.e., trudge around your neighbours’ houses after midnight and toast the New Year in each house with glasses of whisky.  But to be honest, I think this is an extinct tradition.  I don’t know anybody who’s gone first-footing since the 1980s – which was certainly the last time I attempted it.  Perhaps in the past, when Scottish pubs had very limited opening hours and Scottish society as a whole was much more buttoned-up, going on the razzle after midnight on January 1st with a bottle of whisky might have seemed exciting, but it hardly seems so nowadays when you’re at liberty to party and drink yourself stupid 24/7 if you want.  Or at least, you were before Covid-19 arrived…

 

Plus, does anyone in his or her right mind want to tramp from one neighbour’s house to another through the sort of dire, dreich weather you’re likely to get in Scotland, at night, at the very start of the year?  (If there is a Hogmanay custom in modern Scotland, I suspect it’s for folk to make an appearance in a nice, warm pub in the afternoon or early evening of January 1st and have a few celebratory drinks then, which seems far more sensible.)

 

Anyway, I got the idea for First Footers when it struck me that, in rural Scotland at least, going first-footing on a pitch-black night wasn’t just a physically uncomfortable experience, but possibly a creepy, even scary one too.  This inspired me to write a tale about two young guys who decide to revive the old custom of first-footing one New Year’s Eve and get more than they bargained for.

 

Available as a digital ebook, and priced just £3.99, Horror Stories from Horrified (Volume 1): Christmas can be purchased here.  Meanwhile, the main page for Horrified magazine can be accessed here.

Jim Mountfield is horrified

 

© Horrified Magazine

 

There have been many movies that break the fourth wall, i.e. that have characters turn towards the camera and address the audience directly.  However, I’ve always had a fondness for a rarer breed of movie that breaks the fourth wall the other way, that has people from the real world enter a movie.  The most famous examples of this are probably Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924), in which a projectionist, played by Keaton, falls asleep and dreams that he’s a character in the crime movie he’s in the middle of showing; and Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), in which Depression-era movie fan Mia Farrow and movie character Jeff Daniels have a romance both in the real 1930s on one side of the screen and in the black-and-white Hollywood fabrication on the other side of it; and John McTiernan’s bold but ill-fated The Last Action Hero (1993), in which an action-movie-loving kid gets sucked into the larger and louder-than-life world of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

 

With advances in technology, especially that of virtual reality, I suspect that sooner or later it will be possible for people to take part in scenes from movies that are simulated around them.  This would be great for bona fide film fans.  Wow, imagine being on that rooftop near the end of Blade Runner (1982), beside Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) when he delivers his heart-breaking ‘tears in rain’ monologue, or being at the airport for the climax of Casablanca (1942), when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) says goodbye to Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman)!  Mind you, Woody Allen (him again) has already created a simulation of that Casablanca scene, sort of, in 1972’s Play It Again, Sam.

 

However, human nature being what it is, such wondrous technology would probably end up being used for trivial, if not downright sordid, purposes.

 

And that idea, that in the near-future an app will allow people to take part in virtual-reality simulations of scenes from certain movies, but then will be exploited by lowlifes, sociopaths and perverts in pursuit of their own, base pleasures, is what drives a new story I’ve had published called Don’t Hook Now.  This is currently accessible in the fiction section of Horrified Magazine, which is an online publication featuring articles, reviews and short stories in ‘celebration of British horror’.

 

Don’t Hook Now is attributed to Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym I often use for macabre fiction, and its subject matter is such that Horrified has decided to give it a trigger warning and recommend it only for ‘mature audiences’.   In my opinion, though, the main reason for recommending it to mature readers is because only people of a certain age will be familiar with the masterly 1970s British horror movie that gives the story its grim turn later on…

 

The home page of Horrified is accessible here and Don’t Hook Now itself can be read here.

Into battle with Rab Foster

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

I’m a big fan of the American writer Ambrose Bierce, so I’m delighted to report that my Bierce-inspired short story No Man’s Land has been been published in the October 2020 issue of Schlock! Webzine.

 

During his lifetime, Bierce was best known for his journalism, although today he’s probably remembered most for his short fiction, and for two categories of short fiction in particular: his horror stories and his American Civil War stories.  A good example of Bierce’s work in the former genre is 1893’s The Damned Thing, which has an irresistible premise – something monstrous and hideous is stalking the remote American West but nobody can see it because it’s a colour that exists beyond the spectrum of colours visible to the human eye.  It’s an obvious influence on later writers of the weird and macabre such as H.P. Lovecraft.

 

However, I prefer Bierce’s short stories about the American Civil War, in which, as a young man, he’d fought on the Union side.  They’re packed with unrelentingly grim detail about the conflict – and grim it certainly was, producing the greatest number of wartime deaths in the history of the United States, 620,000 (which is 200,000 more than the American death toll in World War II).  Possibly my favourite of these stories is 1889’s Chickamauga, about a six-year-old child who wanders off from his family home and into a forest, becomes lost, and ends up in the aftermath of battle, where he witnesses all manner of terrible things.

 

Interestingly, perhaps Bierce’s most famous story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890), manages to combine a Civil War setting with psychological (and almost supernatural) horror.  Kurt Vonnegut has praised it as ‘a flawless example of American genius’ and its twist ending has influenced novels, like William Golding’s Pincher Martin (1956), and movies, like Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder (1990), ever since.

 

No Man’s Land grew out of a mad question that occurred to me one day: “What would a vampire story written by Ambrose Bierce have been like?”  When I started writing it, I perversely tried to model it on one of his Civil War stories rather than on one of his horror ones.  What’s interesting is that as the story developed, and as I tried to accommodate the machinations of the plot, and tried to incorporate the vampire element, it moved further and further away from the Civil War and from America itself.  Eventually, it ended up being set on a battlefield in some imaginary kingdom in 19th century Eastern Europe, rather like Ruritania in Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda.  The result was more like a dark fairy tale.  For that reason, the story published in Schlock! Webzine is credited to Rab Foster, the pseudonym I put on my fantasy (as opposed to horror) stories.

 

Because I wanted to focus on the soldiers, and to avoid making the plot too tangled, I refrained from giving the vampires personalities and made them as bestial and mindless as possible.  They’re not the suave, eloquent figures you’d get in, say, the average Anne Rice novel.  That said, I did pay homage to the more traditional school of vampire story-telling at the end of No Man Land, when I lifted (okay, pinched) an idea from Brian Clemens’ 1974 Hammer horror movie Captain KronosVampire Hunter about the reflective properties of sword-blades.

 

Despite the fairy-tale atmosphere of No Man’s Land, I hope that at least some of Bierce’s influence shows through.  I’ve sprinkled the story with details that evoke his Civil War stories – a fleeing, defeated army of injured soldiers stumbling and crawling along, their uninjured and able-bodied comrades having run away from the scene already; a battleground littered with discarded and dropped items, including “blankets, knapsacks, canteens, rifles with broken stocks and bent barrels, hats, waist-belts, bayonets, bugles, cartridge boxes, rations of biscuits and sardines, a scattered set of playing cards”; the air filled with a fog of gun and cannon-smoke; the mud patterned with the criss-crossing footprints and hoof-prints of armies advancing and retreating.

 

No Man’s Land can be read in Schlock! Webzine for the rest of this month.  The main page of the October issue is accessible here and the story itself here.

 

From the Clifton Waller Barret Library of American Literature