Blind Abbot

Another Flash Fiction written for a terribleminds prompt. In this case the prompt was a list of cocktail names, and I randomly drew Blind Abbot. I’m not sure how well this works as a story, but I like the Blind Abbot character.

Trigger warning: implied child abuse.

Gary caught his foot in one of the tree roots bulging up through the cracked and twisted flagstones. He staggered forward, clutching at a branch to stop himself plunging face first. A cloud shifted, and moonlight illuminated the old, decrepit stone mansion. Turrets twisted up into the sky and bats flittered from the shadows beneath stone eaves.

Think of Alice.

An imposing door loomed out of the shadows: dark, weathered wood punctuated with the muted gleam of iron. Gary wiped the sweat from his forehead with one hand and used the other to grab the snarling gargoyle knocker and hammer out his arrival. The knocks reverberated through the old wood and dust showered down. Gary wiped his forehead again. Nobody had been here for a long time.

Seconds ticked by, turning to minutes. Gary shifted from foot to foot, staring at the rage-filled face of the gargoyle. A chisel had been taken to it, leaving a stony scar where the gargoyle’s eyes should be. Another minute ticked by. Gary lifted the knocker again just as the door wrenched open with a screech of rusted hinges.

A robot, made entirely of mahogany, every joint a carefully constructed wooden ball socket, stood before him. Gary looked into the blankly polished sheen where a face should have been and forced the words out, his throat still raw from the outburst he had indulged in last night. “I’m here to see the Blind Abbot.”

The robot glided into the hallway. Gary followed, taking in a confusion of jumbled objects piled up against the walls: a huge copper disk, tarnished green; coiled rugs, bright with golden threads. He picked his way through a collection of marble statues, each with a missing limb or two.  A slender women wept over her missing hands. A man leaned sideways, gazing in slumped horror at the jagged stone where a foot should have been. Gary pulled his gaze away and found himself staring at an oil painting of a young girl, her hand held out as though to clutch at the hand of an adult. No hand claimed hers, and Gary blinked away tears.

The robot continued to glide along the hallway. Gary dashed the tears away with his knuckles and jogged to catch up. They ended up in a library, shelves filled with leathery tomes; wreathed in shadow and dust. Embers smouldered in the fireplace, the dull red glow the only light. A massive wing-back chair faced the fire. Gary took a step toward it.

“Come no closer.” The voice rich and clear, each syllable oiling into place.

“Blind Abbot?”

“So they call me.”

“They say you can find things. Things that are lost.”

“My price is high.”

“I would give anything in my power.”

Silence from the chair.

“It’s my daughter, Alice.” Gary felt the shiver of grief in the back of his throat and paused to take a ragged breath. “She’s been gone three weeks. The police… they just aren’t getting anywhere. I have to know where she is. If she’s been taken, or-“ He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Or killed. You must understand I can only find. I cannot intervene or change what has happened.”

“I understand. But I have to know.”

“Do you have something of hers?”

Gary fumbled in his pocket and brought out the silver daisy-chain bracelet Alice had liked to wear.

“Give it to the robot.”

Gary held the bracelet out and the robot took it in polished wooden fingers. Gary felt his heart clench as the robot carried it to the chair and the bit of silver — all that remained of his daughter — disappeared behind the imposing leathery surface.

The chain clinked as the Abbot held it. Gary closed his eyes and wondered what creature sat in the chair, what claws-or-tentacles-or-decaying-flesh played with the bracelet. His mother had told him the fairy-tale; the ancient story of a creature nobody had ever seen, a creature blind to the darkness and ruin it lived in and yet capable of seeing everything in the world.

The tale always changed in the telling, but the central motif remained the same. Somebody lost something precious and went to the Abbot to ask him to find it. The Abbot warned them the price would be high and located the missing object. Several days later they had to give payment. Almost always the Abbot took something the person wished to give up even less than the object that had been lost in the first place. Family heirlooms were found, but the family taken. Runaway pets returned home, but the home torn away.

Gary could not imagine anything in the world he would prefer to his daughter, returned safe.

“She lives,” the Abbot said.

Gary sagged with relief. Tears sprang to his eyes. “Thank God! But where?”

“With her mother.”

“Her mother?”


She lay curled up on the bed, sound asleep despite everything, her hand interlocked with Gary’s. Gary sat by her, stroking her blond hair. They had found her drinking water from the dog bowl. Her mother had taken a knife to one of the police officers.

A clunk at the window.

I’ll never let her take you again, Gary promised her. I’ll keep you safe, no matter what.

Clunk. Harder this time.

Gary gently unwrapped Alice’s fingers from his own and stood up.

Clunk. No doubting the knock’s urgency now. The next one would smash the window. Gary hurried over to the window and pulled the curtain back.

The blank, polished wooden head of the Blind Abbot’s robot stared back at him.

Gary pulled the window open. The robot held out an envelope in those slender mahogany fingers. Sweat collected in the hollow of his back.

He opened the envelope with shaking fingers. The letter inside simply said PAYMENT DUE in red capitals.

“What do I have to do?” Gary asked the robot. It tipped its head to one side, raised its hand and made a beckoning motion.

“I can’t leave her alone.”

The robot beckoned again.

“Alright. Give me… give me fifteen minutes.”

Gary pulled the curtain back across and checked Alice still slept. Closing the door softly behind him, he went into the hallway and called his neighbour, Penelope. A good sort, and the only one who knew he’d been to visit the Blind Abbot.

“Pen? I’m sorry for calling so late, but I need your help. Will you come and watch Alice for me?”

Penelope turned up five minutes later, wrapped in a dressing gown and wearing an enormous pair of fuzzy pink slippers. Gary let her in, glad the robot stayed out of sight. He didn’t want to scare her.

She gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze as she came in the house. Gary pulled on his coat and stepped outside. The night air carried a bitter chill.

The robot glided smoothly around the corner of the house. Gary followed it, jogging to keep up. Dark houses lined deserted streets. Gary already knew where their destination, so it did not surprise him when they left the town behind and struck out into the dark countryside towards the Abbot’s crumbling stone mansion. Up the shadowy path, through the hallway cluttered with broken artworks, and into the library. Once again Gary’s gaze flicked to the ancient books, but the dust stood so thickly along the spines he could not read the titles.

“Your payment is due,” the Blind Abbot said.

“I know.” Gary wiped the sweat from his forehead. “What will you take?”


Gary fumbled the key in the lock, and felt relief sweep through him when he stepped across the threshold. Home at last. Shrugging off his jacket he went into the kitchen and grabbed a can of coke out of the fridge. He popped the tab and took a swallow when he heard someone walking across the hallway.

“What the hell?” Gary grabbed the first thing to hand, a rolling pin — a rolling pin? Since when had he owned a rolling pin? — and stole forward to apprehend the intruder.

“Gary?”

Penny, his neighbour, blinked at him in confusion. She wore a dressing gown and slippers. Had he invited her to spend the night? Gary felt the start of a headache form behind his eyes.

“Penny? What are you doing here?”

“You asked me here to watch Alice, remember?”

“Alice? Who’s Alice?”

The lure of The End

Here’s the thing about the apocalypse: it makes you free.

Here’s the thing about zombies: all you have to worry about is the zombies.

In this shitty world, this world overflowing with food that people can’t afford to buy, this world overflowing with medicine and kids dying of dirty water, this world that houses dolls that cost as much as some people earn in a month – well, there’s a whole bunch to worry about.

Here’s the thing about the end of civilisation: who the fuck wants civilisation.

Give me the zombies and I’ll sharpen my axe. Give me the werewolves and I’ll polish my silver. Give me the monsters in the dark and I will light the campfire.

But I can’t kill the grinding necessity of earning enough to rent a patch of someone else’s land to rest. The office politics and the boring meetings. The car repairs and the traffic at 9.30am. Matching socks and fear of failure. The restless urge to chuck it in, to go where the water meets the land and the sky. The endless circle of conversation: how’re you? I’m good, how’re you? I’m good, how’re you? I’m good, how’re you? I’m good.

My eyes are buggered, and my shoulders are hunched, and the flickering world beyond the screen is always just beyond reach and the world on this side is so desperately mundane. Text alerts from your bank to let you know you’ve dropped below a certain limit. Spam in your inbox. Meme’s of cats and doge. Kicking up the dry dust of arguments long since parched of meaning.

The photographs of starving children come through your mailbox, and petitions clamour for attention and the Government sells out another group of people and the Daily Mail sings of blood and fury.

Here’s the thing about the end of the world: clean slate.

100 novels: The Tale of Genji

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Tale of Genji

I wanted to love this book.

It is, reputedly, the first novel ever written. Written in the 11th century by Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, it is a book that is incredibly important for its impact on novel writing as we know it today. It is important in what it tells us about court life in Japan in the 11th century.

Initially I quite enjoyed it. It read more like fan-fiction than anything else, with Genji the ultimate in fantasy men, as he falls in love with various court women and eventually marries someone who is – according to literary scholars – a stand-in for Murasaki herself.

I will confess, I abandoned the story before this marriage.

The problem is not that it isn’t good; it is a deserved classic. The problem is that taking on a sprawling novel set in an ancient Japan is quite a challenge. It is a novel about domestic intrigue and power-play in a world so utterly different from the one I live in that it becomes almost impossible to relate. The characters communicate with each other by writing poetry, a form of writing I find difficult at the best of times. There is no plot, it is simply a musing on human relationships.

It is hard for me to write a fair review of this book. Many people will love it; many already do. But for me it was simply a step too far from my comfort zone.

 

100 Novels: Midnight’s Children

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

Midnight’s Children


I actually read Midnight’s Children last year, so I didn’t need to re-read it. I was glad to see it pop up on the 100 novels list, however, because it was one of those books I absolutely loved.

First some background. Midnight’s Children falls into that genre known as magic realism. The novel is set against an historical background, which is India’s move away from British Colonialism towards independence. However, the writing is full of fancy, with supernatural acts and the whole novel really symbolism layered over symbolism.

The narrative is complex, being an story of his life that the central character, Saleem, is telling to his wife-to-be Padma. His story is unreliable, based on his memory and full of digressions, foreshadowings, flashbacks and commentary with the result that much of the book is left open to interpretation.

To me, the book is about how people and history are one and the same thing. That where and when a person lives will impact on who they are, but equally they shape history and become a part of the changing face of our world. Saleem considers himself a chosen child ‘handcuffed to history’, but in truth there are a thousand and one others like him — the ‘midnight’s children’ of the title, all born at the exact moment that India became independent — and in truth his story does not climax in an act of any great significance; Saleem finishes his life as a chutney maker and prophesies that he will fall into dust in the very near future. In some respects, Saleem is India, he represents her, but in other respects he no more represents india than any of the other characters he comes into contact with. India is more than one person, far greater in depth and complexity than even the most significant and noteworthy of human lives. Yet equally, India is only the sum of all the human experiences that make her up, without human perspectives and human lives there would be no such thing as a country or history.

The book is a masterful creation; with details within details. You could discuss the meaning of the characters and the scenes endlessly, and it would be a brilliant book for a book club because of the controversial themes and ideas that run through the novel.

But unlike many ‘classics’ this one is joyful. There is a sheer love for storytelling that comes through, and the nod towards an oral storytelling tradition only deepens the enjoyment. I can easily see myself coming back to this novel again and again, thanks to the beautiful writing, and the complex themes that run through it. It’s the kind of big, bold book that make you love reading and shows you what a masterful writer can really do.

Have you read it? What did you think?

The Lord of the Rings

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. The Lord of the Rings is number 100. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Lord of the Rings


I first read The Lord of the Rings in my mid-teens and I will be honest: I hated it. It was long, boring, and over-written. The characters were cut-outs, and worse, the story was drearily predictable. High/Mythic Fantasy has never been a genre I’ve enjoyed (with a few notable exceptions), and LotR is pretty much the height of what I hate about that genre.

As a result: when I saw that LotR was the first book I needed to read to start the challenge I was tempted to say: I’ve already read that, write a rant about how much I hated it, and move on. However, I am now no longer in my mid-teens, and ten years is a long time. So I gritted my teeth, borrowed my Dad’s dog-eared doorstop version of the book, and dived back into Middle Earth.

The first thing I thought: 1954? That was a long time ago. It’s good to remember the context of a book, to try and take it on its own terms. So yes; the book is over-written, but so were many books back then. The language is mythic, over-wrought, descriptive to a fault, and the last book The Return of the King is almost biblical in tone. We see the characters distantly, through the way Tolkein describes them. With the exception of Sam we get very little insight into what the characters are actually thinking, and take on faith that when Gimli announces his love for Galadriel he is telling the truth, or that Faramir can win over Eowyn in about ten sentences. There is a sense of fate at work, that the characters are just spinning along a pre-set path and none can really step out of line.

And that, of course, is where Tolkein and I have a falling out. Because Tolkein writes of a world in which the good are good and the evil are evil. A world where corruption comes from outside influences: evil is an entity, a physical, tangible force in the world, represented by race (orcs and goblins), physical manifestation (the Ring Wraiths have become monsters, as has Gollum) and inanimate objects (the Ring). Where Kings are Kings because their character has been set long ago, carried down a blood-line that auto-magically means they are heroic, noble and worthy.

This is much of the reason I hate High Fantasy – it crudely aligns itself with old superstitions that have allowed aristocrats to dominate and persecute other people for hundreds of years. The same ‘blood will tell’ argument has been used to uphold racist and classist viewpoints. It has been used to keep cruel, in-bred lunatics in power in many different countries. It has even been used to persecute women; because when the most important thing to worry about is the legitimacy of your heir, women become chattels and female adultery a terrible crime (whilst male adultery is less penalised).

On my second read-through, I still found myself bumping up against this problem. However, the book does have one saving grace: Sam.

Sam is the only character we get inside the head of. He is a servant, yet his heroism swiftly outstrips most of the rest of the team. He manages to wear the ring without becoming corrupted, he fights and badly damages Shelob and by the end of the novel he is more or less carrying Frodo. If this were a modern novel, Sam would be the hero, no questions asked.

Lego Shelob attacking Sam and Frodo

Alas, one of the positive character traits that Tolkien imparts to Sam is that of ‘knowing his place’. Sam views Frodo as a God-like figure. His declarations of love are all too often couched in the tones of a servant addressing a master. He repeatedly says that he is stupid and humble, and that Frodo is Masterful and wonderful.

After the quest, Sam goes back to gardening and a marriage, whilst most of the Fellowship acquire new titles and new positions of status. Even Merry and Pippin acquire a certain presence in the Shire, arrayed as they are in princely armour and carrying swords. Tolkien does not write this in a way that ‘hurts’ Sam, we have no sense that Sam desires anything more than a nice dinner, a loving wife, a Master to serve, and a healthy garden. But that, of course, is part of the problem. The ‘noble’ characters are all allowed to level up, to gain wisdom and standing and greater responsibility. Sam is just a servant, he can never want or amount to more than that, and his heroism and love is no more than what any good servant would give to a master.

Samwise Gamgee

The everyone-in-his-place attitude grates consistently throughout the novel, and is the main reason I will never ‘enjoy’ this book. To me, everyone has the ability and right to move forward in life, to gain wisdom and responsibility. In fact, it’s a key part of a person’s happiness and satisfaction. Life-long learning, coupled with professional recognition? Why should that be limited to certain jobs? If everyone felt inspired and motivated to improve we would have made many more advancements, and work would be a lot less soul-destroying that it can be.

The problem with ‘world-building’

Of course, from a technical perspective, LotR has one major plus point. The world-building is incredible. The amount of work Tolkein put into every detail of Middle-Earth is probably unequalled since. He invented languages, penned epic histories, worked out all the legends of such a world. The characters are frequently just mouthpieces for one fact or another, and entire pages are given over to songs written in unreadable languages.

I, for one, don’t give a crap about any of that.

Look: if you are writing a Fantasy novel, world-building helps. No doubt about it. Attention to detail helps the reader immerse themselves in the story and really believe in the story you are telling. But details should be sparingly added; like spices to a nice meal. A touch of legend here, a couple of made-up words here – to impart flavour and give the meat of your story a bit of zing. But if your dinner contains more pepper than beef? There is, I’m afraid, a problem.

lord-of-the-rings-river-landscape

Of course, Tolkien’s world has gone on to inspire countless new stories. Most of them, I will say, are probably better than LotR. Like many readers, I skipped vast chunks of unnecessary detail. The inclusion of Tom Bombadil left me confused and irritated. What is his purpose? Why is he there? He’s obviously important – Gandalf states at the end he intends to spend some time chatting with him – yet his purpose in the story is to provide no more than a brief deus-ex-machina styled rescue, give the hobbits some food, and then send them on their way. He is immune to the ring, and yet is unable to carry it to the Mountain of Doom because… he needs to get home to his wife.

There are many interludes like this. The fact that all the Elves and Ring Bearers are going across the Sea? A mystery never explained or given any focus. What’s the point? Who cares? The story is about the epic quest and the battle against evil, not about the Elves and their confused decision to abandon Middle Earth and allow the ‘Age of Men’ to start.

Now, many people will disagree with me. LotR has thousands of dedicated fans. It is the second best-selling novel of all time. The good in the story obviously outweighs the bad for most people. But for me? I find it rambling, disjointed and I disagree with the fundamental principles that underpin Tolkien’s world view. It was never going to work for me.

Buy a copy of Smokey Days: The Rising Wind

Magic was the way forward. Oro could not balance forever on this knife-edge of survival. Tabbi knew disaster approached. The suicides, the slow ceding of control to the Ludd corporation, and that nameless dread that lurked in everyone if you dug deep enough. The Gheists were the key. Would save them from themselves. Would save Denise.

Djullanar: Red Scourge of the ocean

Another terribleminds flash fiction challenge. 1000 words. A choice of five settings. I picked: On the battlefield during a war between two races of mythological creature.

Lan thrust the trident into the serpents tail and sending up a froth of blood and bubbles. The serpent screamed, sending out a spray of venom that darkened the water to a poisonous purple. Lan, already darting upwards, felt the acid sting as droplets splashed across her tail. Continue reading Djullanar: Red Scourge of the ocean

Cursed

Written for the ‘Something Amazing’ flash-fiction contest at Janet Reid. The contest was to write a 100 word story featuring these words: countdown, truck, fringe, argo, and rens.

Believe it or not, a truck is actually a part of a ship, plus I’m English so I can say fringe instead of bangs. Win.

Cursed

She pushed her fringe out of her eyes, peering through the salt-spray towards Rens, the small island ahead. Argo was a good ship, but the curse sat on the wooden frame like a shroud, a countdown towards death for all aboard. Could they reach the island in time?

Beside her elbow, the fairy winked into existence, her little face twisted into a grin, and pointed to the flagpole.

Lightening bolted from the sky and shattered the truck at the top of the flagpole. The flag burst into flame. She closed her eyes. Too far from land. They were doomed.