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

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.