A (Triumphant?) Return; and Two Drabbles

Hello blogosphere, it’s been a while.

When I started this blog, I wanted it to be a regular thing that I kept to. I genuinely thought I could keep it up *and* be a writer *and* do a PhD. And while for some time I was able to do all that, life eventually got in the way. Life, and mental health. It’s surprisingly difficult to keep things together when anxiety becomes a major factor in your life.

I’ve had issues with anxiety and depression for a long time, and have often used my mental health as inspiration for my writings, and if it isn’t inspiration it’s a way of dealing with whatever’s going on in my head that day. Most of them are drabbles that are best forgotten, but some of my favourite stories I’ve written have come out of bad times (if I ever find a home for The Wyrms of Kakhun I will be very happy indeed).

Mental health is a wound, however, and it never really fully heals. There’s always a scab which you have to look after. If you don’t, you just keep picking at it, as you press on with things you feel you have to do to be valid, but ultimately end up making yourself more ill. Eventually, I had to accept facts. I couldn’t do it all, so I had to try and take a step back from writing and reviewing. I had to accept that it was just one too many things, no matter now important to me it was. I could keep things ticking over, but patience was a virtue I needed to learn.

Now, with the end of the PhD in sight, it feels like time to start up again. I write words every day as a researcher, but it’s nice to be able to do this and not feel like I’m wasting important research/career development time.

I’m not sure how long this return will last. I’d like it to be permanent, and I’ll do my best not to put myself under too much pressure this time. But it does feel good to be getting words down again.

With that in mind, here are a couple of the drabbles that I’ve written over the years to wrangle what’s going on in my head. The first was written in the year after I finished my undergrad degree, the second during the second year of my PhD. Both are about other people who helped me, or tried to. Both are my own experience – or how I interpreted it at the time. I guess it’s about time they saw the light of day, no matter how much I cringe at them now.

I can’t promise that the blog will be regular. In all likelihood it will continue to be an intermittent thing until I have more time to devote to it. But it will continue, and that’s the important thing.

 

Cairns

Lawrence Harding

Sometimes I wake up with a heart made of stone. I can feel it my chest: a lumpen, leaden weight dragging my spirit down, down into a mire of despond, where I can feel nothing but fear and anxiety. Every time this happens, I know that it is my truth – and every time I quake at my apathy.

            Yet, every time, an angel descends with a healing smile and calming hands. They gird me round with patience, and they apply poultices of love, and they carve at my breast with a blade of compassion, until their quiet industry removes my heart of stone.

            While my flesh regrows, the angel holds my stone-heart to the light to examine its qualities. Sometimes it is stubborn granite, sometimes querulous sandstone, often it is unfeeling, austere marble or brittle, self-destructive slate. Then they place it in their bag, and smile, and press a hand to my chest, and I feel a flicker of a heartbeat within myself once more.

            Until the next time. And the next time. And the next.

            But, always, the angel is there.

           One night, I asked the angel what they did with the stones. They must need them for something – why else bother with the Sisyphean task of delapifying my heart? The angel just smiled, knowingly, and led me onto a winding path. We walked along it, hand in hand, as it wove its way down a cliffside to a beach. When we got there, they pulled my latest heart-stone from their bag.

            “Come and see,” they said.

            We walked along the beach, round a curve of headland. Beyond it lay a complex of cairns, rising and falling, twisting and twining together in undulating rows. Moonlight danced across them, causing some to glitter, others to gleam, others to cast kaleidoscopic shadows. As I stood, amazed, the angel placed my stone-heart on the nearest cairn.

            “Do you see,” they asked me, “what beauty lay within you, even when you were in the depths of despair? Do you see the strength that you always had? Each of these stones,” they continued, waving an arm across the horizon, “came from a time you conquered sorrow. Each stone makes the pattern stronger, and now the cold waves that threatened to drag you under can scarcely prevail. I think,” they concluded with a smile that kindled fire in my breast, “that the pattern is almost finished.”

            They patted the newest cairn, and I awoke. A heart of flesh beat in my chest. As life flowed through my veins, I felt that the cairns were nearly completed.

Shatterglass

Lawrence Harding

One dark day, I fell to pieces. But that didn’t mean I stopped living. I lugged my brokenness from place to place, chains of shattered shards of glass trailing in my wake. I scraped across the ground wherever I went, I could hear the tortured sounds of my passing. I went close to no one – I did not want them to cut themselves on me, for I was nothing but jagged edges.

          But sometimes, people came close, regardless.

          They approached me, one day, dragging their own shatterglass chains behind them. We sat. We talked. I don’t know for how long, but soon it was dark and we parted ways. We met again, and talked, shared, and every time we parted, somehow the chains dragged less against the ground.

          One day, I noticed that as they sat next to me, they were picking at my chains. I twisted to see what they were doing. As they talked, and I watched, they were picking shatterglass shards from my tangles and gently fitting them back into place on my body. I frowned.

            “When did you start doing that?”

            They looked at their work on the chains, and laughed. “I’ve always been doing it. Ever since we met.” Their fingers kept on weaving deftly. It was hypnotic, beautiful… impossible. The question lay on my tongue, heavy and clumsy, but I had to ask it.

            “How can you fix me when no one else has?”

            They stopped fitting my pieces back together and smiled.

            “Don’t you know that broken people can see the cracks more easily?”

            They leaned closer, and I could see a network of hairline fractures crisscrossing their face. I traced them with my finger before pulling self-consciously away.

            “And who fixed you?”

         They laughed lightly. “Many people. Friends, family… you.” They gestured at themselves. “Just look.” And I looked, and I saw that their chains were shorter, less tangled, less jagged than when I had first seen them. Then they took my hands, and I looked into their eyes, and saw myself reflected in them.

            “What do you think you’ve been doing, all this time we’ve talked?” they asked.

          And then I understood. We sat, talking, and still do, whenever the need takes us. Talking, sharing, caring – and weaving away the shatterglass.

           If you see us, come near. Drag over your chains, join our circle. Weave with us.

 

 

 

(“Cairns” and “Shatterglass”, copyright Lawrence Harding, 2019)

Imagination: Who Does The Thinking?

 

Ideas were never lacking, but their length of treatment belonged to machinery he could not coerce. They were alive; they refused to come to suit mere editors. Midway in a tale that started crystal clear and definite in its original germ, would pour a flood of new impressions that either smothered the first conception, or developed it beyond recognition. Often a short story exfoliated in this bursting way beyond his power to stop it. He began one, never knowing where it would lead him. It was ever an adventure. Like Jack the Giant Killer’s beanstalk it grew secretly in the night, fed by everything he read, saw, felt, or heard. Jones was too impressionable; he received too many impressions, and too easily.

                        The Whisperers, Algernon Blackwood, 1912

I find much to sympathise with Jones, the subject of Blackwood’s ghost-tale (recently republished in the highly recommended anthology, “The Haunted Library”) in which a writer, seeking a distraction-free place to pen his latest work, has the ideas snatched away from him in the night by disembodied spectral whisperers who destroy his own ideas with their external influences. It is a fear all writers share, and have experienced, I am sure – even if it the age-old danger of deciding that the brainwave one has when falling asleep would be better written down in the morning, before it is snatched away by sleep, never to be seen again.

I find it best to pen my ideas down quickly, and in brief. Only today I was telling a fellow writer that I find it difficult to write anything over around 7000 words or so, because the longer I spend on something, the more likely it is that other ideas, often from what I have read or heard that day, will sneak in and overcomplicate the story, until I get so wrapped up in the Gordian knot of world-building that I abandon the project. Things would be simpler, it often seems, if ideas could remain static and fixed.

But, as is often the case, it is the stories that developed of their own accord and added to themselves, and the characters who took on minds of their own that I am most pleased with. Recently on Twitter I have come across writing memes remarking on writers’ block being due to your imaginary friends stopping talking to you, or the task of a writer to have imaginary friends that they are unpleasant to. This struck a chord with me. The characters most fully realised, and who I am most fond of, were not constructed by me with pen and paper. They came to me fully realised, telling me what they were deciding to do, and the story-writing process became less telling a story as being told a story by myself. Such ideas do not “exfoliate”, as Blackwood described it, but rather gestate, for the story has already been realised and I am simply writing it down.

The more that I write, the more that I realise that writing is, first and foremost, a dialogue with yourself. We may choose to personify our ideas as muses, or imaginary friends – for as we write our characters to us they become, to a certain extent, real, just as characters can become real to the reader. They become more than entertainment, but our friends, partners and guides.

Some time ago, I set down my thoughts about this by a sorry attempt at poetry:

 

The mind is an unexplored country, but

                        I know full well who lives there.

They throng thick across the thought-fields,

                        calling, calling, always calling to me.

Friends, all of them, they stand there, old and new

                        – echoes of my past and future –

                        mouthing pleas for my pen.

I listen, I strain with the ears of my soul;

I cannot hear the threads of any tale

                        above the weft and warp of their roar.

Faces stand out – the old ghost who does not

                        know that he is dead, begging

                        to be given life – the wizard hunts

                        for the spell to unlock my word-chest

                        – mothers, fathers, beasts and babes

                                    jostle to be

                        – even the silent hunter raises a voiceless cry

                                    yearning to be heard

his tale half-told, his being half-formed

from the clay of my words; he lacks

the breath of life breathed in by

black scratches on a once-pure page.

They are me, and I am them,

bound

by our words, that we are known without speaking.

A tale is not a tale ’til it is told.

                        The storyteller is naught without a story.

As the pen stains the page, a voice falls silent, satisfied,

only to be replaced by another,

and another;

for the mind is an unexplored country,

                        mapless, roadless, but we all know full well

that treasures dwell within there;

we have only to listen,

                                            and give them life.

 

In exploring my characters’ coming to me fully-formed, I realised more about my own influences. For instance, I suddenly became aware of my predilection for compound words and alliteration that can only be because of my being an Anglo-Saxonist – their poetry and language being swamped with the stuff. And I realised that the more I tried to rigidly plan the more likely ideas were to slip through my fingers.

I suppose the end point of my rambling is this: the more we write, the more we explore ourselves and the world around us, and bring them together on the page to share with others. We owe it to ourselves to listen to the voices within and the voices without, and not to resist the dialogue that wrests our clean ideas from us and bends them into new shapes, but rather to tame it, embrace it and work with it.

 

 

Surface Tension – Sarah Gray – 8/10

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Sarah Gray’s Surface Tension is a fine collection of dark weird and speculative fiction. Across six stories Gray explores the dark things in life, that lie beneath the surface of humanity’s day-to-day existence, and indeed beneath the surface of the veil between worlds. The tensions explored are many – the tensions within relationships, within individuals, within the expectations of society and the realities of the infinite variety of the human experience. She feeds us just enough to keep the reader hooked but consistently managing to pull off her twist – a rare achievement in a debut collection. With a range of themes and styles, there is something for everyone, from the unconventional tale of a house haunted by a mysterious light switch that illuminates the murky past in “Switch”, to the dark and rambling monologue of “Cherry”, to the life-born-anew hope expressed in the titular “Surface Tension”. Loss is explored extensively, especially in “The Pier” and “Last Post”, in both cases to great and emotive effect, with characters we come to genuinely feel for. It is in the final, longest story, however, where Gray shows her greatest skill in her mastery of the sinister. “Bruised” manages to grip the reader in a truly harrowing journey of spousal abuse from beyond the grave. It is a tale that gave me genuine chills, which has become increasingly difficult to do in recent years, and while the other pieces in Surface Tension are all well-accomplished and thought-provoking, it is worth picking up a copy for this tale alone.

The excellence of this debut bodes well for her second upcoming collection, Wooden Heart – certainly one to look out for!

King of the Bastards – B. Keene and S. Shrewsbury – 2/10

Ah, the loveable rogue. The bit-of-a-bastard we love to hate, who we send into every scenario with a twinkle in his eye with a friendly pat on the back as if to say, “Go on, you tosser. You’re a bit of a dick, but I like your style.”

Rogan, the protagonist of Brian Keene and Steven Shrewsbury’s “King of the Bastards”, is not one of these rogues.

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Rogan is a classic Conan-the Barbarian who has raided his way across the known antediluvian world, conquered Albion, got bored and gone off with some Atlanteans to beat his way across America – until a crisis at home beckons him back to defend the throne he left out of boredom from magic-imbued Zimbabwean mercenaries. He is in his late sixties but still a great fighter, and keen to die gloriously and to prove his worth. This has been done before – think of Pratchett’s beloved Cohen – except that unlike these examples Rogan is completely unlikeable. He is the ultimate nihilist, deeming everything worthless if he can’t kill it, eat it, or have sex with it. He complains about gods, family, allies, and enemies. Nothing seems to make him happy except killing and sex.

In many ways Rogan is the ultimate male fantasy, as imagined by two 13-year-olds with penis fixations. Practically every metaphor is sexual. Almost every foe, each of which reads like an obligatory “boss battle of the chapter”, is defeated by some attack on or involves some description of genitalia (the most memorable being giant-scorpian-centaur-woman having her own stinger shoved up her vagina). If he is criticised, his comeback invariably is along the lines of, “Yeah, well, I can still rut like a stud horse.” He is a deeply unlikeable character, and his treatment of female characters always involves either waving his manhood at them or flirting (read “assume they want to have sex with him”). One character, a spirited Amazon, briefly acts as a foil to this, reacting strongly against his mansplaining and misogyny, but even she succumbs to his animal charm and essentially rewards his behaviour. Even these Amazons, the only women not referred to in terms of sex, rape or childbirth, are almost exclusively defined by their single-breastedness. Only men are full characters, and only macho alpha-male sexualisers are not disparaged.

I realise that this is intended to be a pulp novel. It could be argued that I simply don’t like pulp and all the cliches that it brings. But I love cliché. I devour the likes of Gloryhammer and you can’t get much pulpier than zombie unicorns and the Astral Dwarves of Aberdeen. But even good pulp has to be well written. It can’t rely on constant penis-jokes (with visual cues from characters stifling smiles acting like the canned laughter in cheap sitcoms). It has to have decent dialogue, rather than a mixed of modern Americanisms combined with the use, abuse and misuse of ye-olde language. It has to ensure that the words being used are what the authors intend them to mean – a scene in which a sabre-tooth ravishes a man can only be meant to mean ravaged, but results in a very different mental image. There has to be internal logic, for just throwing cool things at a plot quickly succumbs to repetitive structure and a loss of sense of narrative. When people perform physically impossible feats, such as treading shark-infested water while shooting a water-logged bow with pin-point accuracy, this shatters what suspense of disbelief there was and makes the author look less in control of their narrative, as well as too lazy to proof-read and fact-check.

I gather from the unresolved ending that there will be a sequel. Based on other reviews that I have read, this is very much a Marmite book. Needless to say I am firmly in the Dislike camp.