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Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Writing - more branches from the ideas tree (2)

This is an afterword for my second collection of science fiction, horror, fantasy and ghost short stories, Nourish a Blind Life. The printing history of these tales range from 1975-2013.
I’m against ghost story collections because sometimes you want the fact that the character is a ghost to be a surprise – and you can’t do that with an avowed ghost collection. Here, there are some surprise ghost stories though for at least one it’s clear the character’s a ghost from the outset.
There are several downbeat endings but if there’s a thread running through these supernatural stories, it’s the power of love and the triumph of good over evil; plus I’m a sucker for a bad pun or a twist ending.
Genre short stories tend to be relatively low in the word-count, some markets wanting only 1,000 words, and therefore they don’t have the scope for deep literary characterisation. Still, character can be gleaned from action. Generally, for these stories, every word has to count; there’s little room for introspection or in-depth scene-setting. As these stories span a writing career of over forty years, it has been a long learning curve, and it never ceases; I’ve resisted the temptation to ‘improve’ the older tales!
Here, then, is the background to the stories in this second collection.
Cassandra Anthology was a popular magazine produced for love and not profit, as are many Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy small press publications. It was good value for money but the increases in paper costs and printing spelled its doom. One young writer who honed his skill there went on to success as a popular children’s author. At a Cassandra workshop attended by Ian Watson and Garry Kilworth, the story A SENSE OF WONDERMENT received plenty of praise; they particularly liked the ‘mortally punctured rail ticket’, but that went in the rewrite. Unfortunately, the story never seemed to fit into any magazine’s format; it’s still one of my favourites – a time-travel love-story, sort of, subconsciously echoing a tale I’d read years previously.
IF WE SHADOWS HAVE OFFENDED gestated for over twenty years until I felt ready to do the idea justice; I sent it out on Shakespeare’s anniversary but the few magazines available didn’t respond. I still think it’s a pretty good story, so have included it here.
OUTCAST was commissioned for a Christmas edition of the in-house company magazine and has a simple message.
THE PETITIONER began as a response to publicity at the time regarding traffic deaths.
WORKS WONDERS was inspired by the fantasy quest novel Wings of the Overlord I co-wrote with Gordon Faulkner and was a little piece of whimsy. However, I liked it so much that I included it in the finished novel.
THE LIGHTS IN THE SKY is observational around its time of publication; there was a cairn and its silhouette just looked like a highwayman or footpad – unfortunately when it was printed, ‘footpad’ was put in as ‘footpath’ which lost the meaning entirely!
Over the years I’ve always been fascinated by time travel stories, particularly where time paradoxes are concerned. REMORSELESS TIME and WITH MALICE AFORETHOUGHT are variations on that theme. FROM THE MEMORY A ROOTED SORROW resulted from my studies of psychology with the Open University, but has a time aspect too. BID TIME RETURN re-uses a very common title; it was a nod to H Rider Haggard adventures, with a fantasy element included.
NOURISH A BLIND LIFE was a fictional treatment of a real person’s life and also a prize-winning story. The judge said: ‘I read a lot and like to think that I’m fairly hardened to the human experience. Your story, however, moved me enormously. With a powerful understanding you avoided any mawkish melodrama. The ending, although sad, gave satisfaction knowing the narrator was soon to be free! Thank you.’ – Eve Blizzard, judge of the competition for the Livinia Hammond Cup.
Ghost stories are always popular, but I wanted to treat the theme differently. One has humour – PHANTOM WITHDRAWALS while the other – TIERS OF SORROW – is quite poignant.
I like my villains to get their comeuppance and this is what SEWER RATS’ ROUT is about. I was surprised how much research went into sewers for this quite short piece!
For TALENT QUEST I created a unique predicament for the female protagonist and wanted to say something about loneliness and exclusion.
THE RELUCTANT KILLER evolved as an exercise in writing a story as a brief report; the ending, I found, was satisfying and even uplifting.
THE HOUSE OF AUNTY BERENICE emerged from my early novel writing days (1960s), researching New York. This story seemed to appear fully formed; Alann Swan was one of the heroes of that (unpublished) novel. He survived, and became Alan Swann in the Tana Standish psychic spy series.
The two stories WITH SONGS BEGUILE YOUR PILGRIMAGE and NOT TO COUNT THE COST feature the crime-fighting nun Sister Rose. The novel that tells her story was published as Pain Wears No Mask, now republished as The Bread of Tears. She was a cop in Newcastle upon Tyne and suffered such severe trauma that she was put in a hospital run by nuns; eventually, she decided to take the veil. But her past had a knack of catching up to her, even when she moved to London. The tagline reads: ‘When she was a cop, crooks had problems; now she’s a nun, God help them.’ Anyway, a novella featuring Sister Rose – Silenced in Darkness – was a finalist in the 1995 World One-day Novel competition and received glowing comments from judges Terry Pratchett – ‘I was very impressed’ and Kathy Lette, who remarked, ‘The nun’s story was great. I kept wanting to turn the pages, and it’s an original idea!’ These two stories happen before the start of the novel and touch on mystical events rather than crime. NOT TO COUNT THE COST also won a short story award, adjudicated by playwright David Compton, who commented that ‘it has character, action, and that extra dimension which brought a familiar theme up to date, showing what can be done within the limitations of the 1,000 word story.’
ALWAYS THE INNOCENT was inspired by the story of Sarajevo, the two lovers shot on the bridge. It’s still one of my favourites.
I decided to end with a story offering hope for the future, albeit a radically altered future: THE END IS NIGH.

Nourish a Blind Life - Collected short stories volume 2

Paperback and e-book available from Amazon here

Other books in this series:

Gifts from a Dead Race – Collected stories vol.1 (science fiction, horror, fantasy, ghost)
Visitors – Collected stories vol.3 (westerns)
Codename Gaby – Collected stories vol.4 (historical)
I Celebrate Myself – Collected stories vol.5 (crime and adventure)

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