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

Jim Mountfield gets apocalyptic

 

© Rogue Planet Press 

 

A 7000-word story of mine called The Nuclei has just appeared in a new collection called Xenobiology: Stranger Creatures.  Its subtitle describes it as ‘an anthology of international sci-fi, steampunk and urban fantasy short stories.’

 

The contents of the anthology are explained in more detail in its introduction by one of its editors, Michele Dutcher: “Since Xenobiology is not a study of naturally occurring organisms, the stories in this anthology deal with biology that has been artificially produced, or biological creatures that have been produced by genetic material being acted upon by outside sources to produce something new.  Those new organisms can be intriguing when thrown into the mind of an imaginative author.”

 

The Nuclei is classifiable as science fiction but definitely lurks at the horror end of the sci-fi spectrum.  Therefore, in Xenobiology: Stranger Creatures, it’s credited to Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym I use for my macabre fiction.  Basically, it’s a body-horror story set in Edinburgh after an apocalypse.  Now there’s a sentence you don’t get to write too often.

 

Writing a story with a post-apocalyptic setting was an opportunity for me to address some of the misconceptions people have about what would happen after civilisation collapsed, thanks to watching many Hollywood movies on the theme.

 

Firstly, and I say this with regret because I’m a big fan of George Miller’s Mad Max franchise, petrol would soon degrade and become unusable.  Thus, within a few years, no survivors would be able to drive around in motorised vehicles – not even in the giant armoured battle-trucks that featured in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.  So in The Nuclei I have the human protagonists riding about on horses or on bicycles.  The bicycles possess solid wheels made of micro closed-cell polymer resin that allow them to be rode over the debris-strewn, weed-sprouting streets of post-apocalyptic Edinburgh without the risk of incurring punctures.  Also, importantly, when the bicycles aren’t on the road, they’re ‘connected to motors and chargers and used to repower the batteries for essentials like the field radio.’

 

The story also makes references to a few things that seem too mundane to appear in the average post-apocalyptic movie but that would surely be a big thing for survivors of a real-life global meltdown.  For example, scurvy would manifest itself among those survivors if they were suddenly denied access to fruit and vegetables in their diets.  And the danger posed by cuts and infections would be immense after whatever supplies of antibiotics had survived the apocalypse ran out.

 

One crucial point that the story tries to make is that post-apocalypse the remaining humans wouldn’t immediately degenerate into bands of savages hellbent on killing each other.  This departs from the anarchic scenarios depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel The Road and or in just about every zombie-holocaust movie ever made (the latter suggesting that, when it comes down to it, human beings are even worse than any zombies they’re trying to fight off).

 

Actually – as reports from the aftermath of any earthquake, tsunami or other natural disaster will testify – human beings are genetically programmed to cooperate and help one another out.  This is not for any uplifting moral reason but simply because cooperation increases their chances of survival.  Hence, in The Nuclei, you get the members of a loopy post-apocalyptic religious cult joining forces with a militia dedicated to the protection of medical science in order to defeat, or at least diminish, a common foe.

 

And what is that foe?  Well, it’s one of the ‘stranger creatures’ of the collection’s title, the result of genetic tampering.  It’s also the result of me sitting down and attempting to imagine the most revolting monster possible.

 

Xenobiology: Stranger Creatures is currently available from Amazon here.

 

© Rogue Planet Press 

Hello, yellow brick road

 

 

I suspect that the editors and publishers of Colombo’s Write magazine, which features poetry, short fiction and literary articles by Sri Lankan and Sri Lankan-based writers, must have felt cursed recently.

 

Production problems meant that their latest edition, Volume 2 Issue 2, was delayed for over a year.  Then, in March 2020, just as the new edition was about to go on sale, the Covid-19 virus made its unwelcome but inevitable appearance in Sri Lanka.  As a result, the authorities declared a curfew and the outlets that would have sold the magazine were temporarily closed down.  Not that potential customers would have been able to venture out to buy it, anyway.

 

This was a wee bit frustrating for me, as my short story The Yellow Brick Road was due to appear in that issue of Write.  (Well, I am a Sri Lankan-based writer…)

 

Happily, I can now report that the curfew has been eased somewhat and many Sri Lankan workplaces, businesses and retailers have reopened.  This includes the Barefoot Shop at 704 Galle Road, Colombo, which is the best-known outlet where you can pick up a copy of Write.   I popped in there the other day and saw the magazine’s newest issue, containing The Yellow Brick Road, stocked on its shelves.

 

In addition to some 40 general poems and stories, the issue features a section with poignant tributes to the victims of last year’s Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.  It also has articles remembering three major figures in the contemporary Sri Lankan literary and arts worlds who sadly passed away in 2019: the poet and writer Jean Arasanayagam, the theatre director and producer Vinodh Senadeera, and the writer, poet and journalist Carl Muller.  (I was particularly a fan of Muller, whose work, besides being very amusing, served as an invaluable record of the minutiae of traditional life in Sri Lanka’s Burgher community.)

 

The Yellow Brick Road isn’t attributed to my usual nom de plume Jim Mountfield, as it doesn’t contain any of the grim, macabre stuff that Mountfield specialises in – for example, children with worm-like and super-intelligent conjoined twins growing out of their shoulders, or elderly farmers’ wives with Alzheimer’s who are haunted by the ghosts of the husbands they murdered and fed to their pigs 30 years ago, or Tunisian medinas in alternative universes that are inhabited by vampires who inhale blood-fumes out of shishas.  Instead, it’s published under my real, ordinary and boring name, Ian Smith.

 

While it isn’t a horror story, The Yellow Brick Road was slightly inspired by those dark gambling stories that Roald Dahl liked to write, such as Taste (1945), Man from the South (1948) or Dip in the Pool (1952), wherein someone gets involved in a highly unusual wager, with potentially ruinous consequences.  However, unlike Dahl’s protagonists who, if they lose, face marrying off their daughter to a complete creep, or having a finger chopped off, or parting with their entire life savings, the main character here is an unhappy and superstitious man who simply makes a bet with himself – one night when he’s alone on Colombo’s Duplication Road and a little bit the worse for drink.

 

Handsomely printed, and containing some gorgeous colour illustrations, Volume 2 Issue 2 of Write is a bargain at 500 Sri Lankan rupees.  The magazine’s Facebook page can be accessed here.

Jim Mountfield hears the patter of tiny feet

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

Here’s a plug for another short story by Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym I use for works of horror, supernatural and generally dark fiction, which has been published this month.

 

The story’s called The Four-Legged Friend and it’s featured in Volume 16, Issue 5 of Schlock! Webzine.  It’s set in modern-day Bangkok – well, Bangkok until a couple of months ago, when tourists were still able to go there – and is inspired by a visit I once made to an antiquated surgical museum at one of the city’s hospitals.  My horror writer’s antenna started buzzing (and I started thinking, “Hey, I could use this idea in a story!”) when I noticed how little shrines consisting of flowers, pictures, toys and other knickknacks had been set up around some of the exhibits.  These were in honour of the people who’d donated their bodies, or parts of their bodies, that’d become those exhibits.

 

Surgical museums in the Western world are usually clinical, dispassionate affairs.  With its shrines, however, this one in Bangkok seemed to remind its visitors of two things: that the exhibits had human origins and that there was a spiritual aspect to them too.  What you were looking at in those glass cases once belonged to people who’d had souls.  Indeed, depending on your belief system, you might argue that those souls were still present…

 

As well as being inspired by something I saw in a Thai museum, The Four-Legged Friend is influenced by one of the greatest of all ghost story writers, M.R. James, and in particular by the paranoia that James was able to evoke in stories like Casting the Runes (1911) and Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (1904).  James skilfully exploited the basic human fear of being followed.  His characters frequently aren’t just haunted – they’re being hunted.    I should say too that after I finished the story and read it through, I was surprised at how much it reminded me of Daphne du Maurier’s masterly, Venice-set novella Don’t Look Now (1971), with the protagonists being tourists, the presence of a child-like apparition and the references to water – some of the action takes place on board Bangkok’s river ferries.

 

A quick word of warning, however, to manage expectations: my story may not be quite as good as M.R. James or Daphne du Maurier!

 

For the rest of June 2020, The Four-Legged Friend can be accessed here.  The main page of Volume 16, Issue 5 of Schlock! Webzine, in which the story appears, is available here.

Jim Mountfield looks ahead to strange days

 

© Midnight Street Press

 

Jim Mountfield, the name under which I write much of my fiction, has a new short story called New Town Tours featured in Strange Days, a 500-page, 36-author anthology that’s just been published by Midnight Street Press.

 

The writers submitting work to this anthology were asked to consider and build stories around the following theme: “The world is in a mess.  It seems that from a human perspective, we’re pretty well screwed…  Greed, political imperatives, narrow-minded thinking, poverty, ignorance…  we are experiencing very strange days.  There’s a mass extinction happening and it may well include our species.”  Thus, the fiction featured in its pages should “reflect the strange times we are living in and… sum up the precariousness of modern existence.”

 

Ironically, the deadline for submissions to Strange Days at the end of February coincided with the growing international panic over the Covid-19 virus.  It came just before many governments imposed lockdowns and curfews to thwart the virus’s spread.  Thus, the three months between that deadline and the publication of the anthology itself, in late May, have witnessed some strange days indeed.

 

To promote Strange Days, its editor Trevor Denyer has invited the contributors to record themselves introducing and reading extracts from their stories.  The resulting film clips have been placed on a webpage that is accessible here.

 

You can hear me – as Jim Mountfield – talking about how New Town Tours, my dystopian contribution to Strange Days, was based on experiences I had years ago living in Edinburgh.  Scotland’s capital city has always struck me as a perplexing place because it has a famously grand, affluent, historical and cultural city centre but also a periphery of housing schemes “which were built in recent history… suffer from a lot of poverty, from a lot of social problems, and for a lot of the people living on them, they’re not easy places.”  And I point out that Edinburgh was, appropriately enough, “the hometown of Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde… it always seemed to me like a Jekyll and Hyde town.”  I also mention that when I stayed in Edinburgh, I was working on what would be called today a zero-hours contract, I wasn’t a particularly happy bunny at the time and New Town Tours was coloured by the negativity I felt.  It takes a bleak view of humanity and none of the story’s characters, whether they’re from the poor side of the tracks or from the rich side, come out of it well.

 

Midnight Street Anthology 4: Strange Days is now on sale.  It can be purchased from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.

Begin again

 

© Decca Records

 

There was an old man named Michael Finnegan,

He grew whiskers on his chin-e-gan.

Up came the wind and blew them in again,

Poor old Michael Finnegan.

Begin again.

There was an old man named Michael Finnegan…

 

So runs a particularly disturbing children’s rhyme / song I remember from my boyhood.  It’s disturbing because it’s never-ending.  You sing those 27 words about poor old Michael Finnegan and the whiskers on his chin-e-gan, then you say, ‘Begin again’, and off you go again, repeating the same verse into infinity – or until you and / or your listeners go insane.  And I recall kids in the playground at my primary school who had nothing better to do but test their own endurance, and test other people’s endurance, by singing Michael Finnegan for as long as they could.  I even seem to recall the Irish singer Val Doonican, that knitwear and rocking-chair-loving easy-listening troubadour who had his own show on BBC TV from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s and who was much admired by ‘ladies of a certain age’, performing it on television one evening.   Wow.  Val Doonican singing Michael Finnegan over and over again, for all eternity.  That sounds like a very specialised version of hell.

 

Anyway, like Michael Finnegan’s whiskers, I’m afraid this blog has had to begin again.  In recent weeks it had been hacked into a couple of times.  Despite the efforts of the technical support people at the webhosting company, it was no longer possible to restore the site from back-up – too many longstanding files had been infected, leaving the door open for future hacking.  So, reluctantly, I agreed to have the site eviscerated of its files so that I could set it up again with a clean sheet.  That’s why it’s in the highly functional, impersonal-looking state it’s in at the moment, but hopefully I will be able to improve its appearance when I have time.

 

It’s a shame this happened, as the blog had been puffing along fairly happily since 2012 and I had posted over 750 entries, which of course are all down now.  I have, however, saved the majority of those past entries as Word files and I will hopefully repost some of the more interesting ones over the weeks and months to come.  (Obviously, though, there’s no point in reposting many of them as they were strictly ‘of their time’ – my ruminations about Tunisian politics after the revolution of 2011, written while I was living in Tunisia, for example; or my pontifications about Scottish politics in the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.)

 

Meanwhile, to hold the fort, here are some updates on pieces of writing I have recently had published, under my various pseudonyms, with links to where to find them.

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

Published under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield (the name I use for horror fiction and dark stuff generally):

 

  • My short story The Four-Legged Friend should be appearing in the June 2020 edition of Schlock! Webzine. Its home page is here.
  • My short story The Away Day was published in the March 2020 edition of Schlock! Webzine. A kindle edition of this issue can be downloaded here.
  • My short story New Town Tours has been included in the new 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 and reading an excerpt from New Town Tours here.  Yes, I know the clip looks and sounds like it was recorded through a wet towel inside a portaloo, but I’ve been under a Covid-19-inspired curfew for the past two months and I didn’t have access to proper recording equipment.
  • Witch Hazel, a short story I had published in the February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine, can still be accessed here. It also appears in the Spring 2020 hard-copy edition of The Horror Zine, which can be purchased here.
  • The Lights, a longer short story with a Christmas theme, is still available to read on the December 2019 / January 2020 edition of Aphelion webzine, here.

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

Published under the pseudonym Rab Foster (the name I use for fantasy fiction):

 

  • Closing Time at the Speckled Wolf, a short story I had published in Aphelion webzine 14 months ago, was listed in its final edition of 2019 as one of the webzine’s best stories of the year. It can be accessed here.
  • My short story The World Builder was the featured story in the Halloween 2019 edition of Blood Moon Rising magazine and is still available here.

 

And published under my real and very boring name Ian Smith:

 

  • My short story The Yellow Brick Road was published in Volume 2, Issue 2 of the Sri Lankan literary magazine Write. Unfortunate timing meant that the issue went on sale just a few days before the Sri Lankan authorities announced an ongoing curfew in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic.  However, there are signs that the curfew is now being eased slightly, and as far as I know, copies of Write are available at the Barefoot Shop at 704 Galle Road, Colombo, which has definitely been open in recent days.
  • Finally, my flash-fiction story Ferg’s Bike appeared last month on Write’s social media platforms. The first page of it can be accessed on Facebook here and the second page here.

 

© Midnight Street Press

 

And that’s everything for now.  Hopefully, normal service will, as they say, be resumed as soon as possible.