An Old Short Story

Back in the heady days of yore, ghost hunting shows were pretty popular. Filmed largely in glorious green night-vision, they usually featured people running around, pointing weird-looking things at shadows, and rattling off inane ghost-babble about spirits and the unknown rules that guided them. Knock on some tables, shout out some names, beg the invisible spirit to talk to you. It was like a Zoom conference before Zoom conferences were cool.

In the end, there was never any definitive proof. But there was a lot of cool-looking chicanery going on, so they were usually fun to watch. I gather the real paranormal investigation and elimination experts are much more down to Earth and far less likely to wear too-tight polo shirts and an overabundance of jewelry.

The one thing I always thought would be fun to see is if one of those shows actually did find something terrifyingly tangible and it bit ’em on the ass. Imagine the serious-looking beefcake prattling on about this, that, or the other thing and whatever they were searching for just flat-out mopped the floor with them.

Ratings gold, Jerry. Ratings gold.

Anyway, that thought turned into a short story about a guy who kills his wife and then uses her spirit as a kind of home security system because he’s a right bastard and the kind of guy who does stuff like that. Years later, a television ghost-hunting team shows up to his mansion and finds out the hard way she’s still kicking around. This story was originally published in Kyanite Press’s Halloween Spooktacular a few years ago. Kyanite, unfortunately, has gone the way of the dodo and a sane Republican party, so the story has been lost to ages. Since it’s already been published, most ‘zines won’t touch it. Also, I realized recently that I think I’m the only writer on the planet who hasn’t posted any his own fiction on his blog. Bad jokes, grammatical errors, and random babblings, sure. But never a short story.

Here’s a fun fact about Security System: It was the prototype for what ultimately became Roadside Attractions. People who’ve read both will recognize a few names here and there. Even though the short story is different from the book, this is Roadside’s DNA.

Security System – by Eric Lahti

“I command you to show yourself!” he said in his best serious voice. “Talk to me. Tell me what happened to make you stay.”

Vincent Kindig wore a too tight polo shirt with the collar popped up and the buttons undone to show off his necklace collection. He closed his eyes and raised his hands up as if beseeching the dark room to talk to him. “Please,” he cried out. “Show yourself.”

A faint humming sound slowly filled the room. Vincent clenched his fists. A hint of a smile flashed across his lips before he remembered where he was and his serious face dropped back into place. “Hello, Lindy,” he said. “Tell us why you’re here.”

The light, already low in the old mansion, flicked off. The silver light pouring through the window, illuminated Vincent’s angular features. He held his stance, but frowned. One eye opened and looked around. His hands dropped like rocks and he growled under his breath.

“We’re working on it, Vincent,” a voice said from the darkness.

Vincent closed his eyes, inhaled deeply, and slowly let it out. He counted to ten, skipping seven because he felt the number seven was unlucky. When he opened his eyes, the lights were still out.

“Guys!” he said. “Come on!”

“Sorry, Vincent,” a woman replied. “We still trying to figure out what happened.”

“Get the lights back on,” Vincent said. “We are on the clock and the studio is already pissed off that we haven’t found a ghost.”

“There was that thing in Tulsa,” a man said. “I’ve got footage of the chairs moving around. How was that not a ghost?”

“Fred, come on. Any idiot with a computer could have cobbled that footage together. The studio wants something tangible. They want something indisputable. They want a real ghost.”

“It was a real ghost,” Fred started. He looked around the room and rolled his eyes. “It was a real ghost. That’s all I’m saying. It was there.”

“I know it was there, Fred,” Vincent said. “I saw it, too. We’ve all been around paranormal activities and ghosts and the odd demon before, but guess what, kids; studying doesn’t pay the bills. We need the studio to be happy or we can all kiss it goodbye and go back to living in a van.”

“Down by the river,” the woman said in a sing-song voice.

“Charlotte, now is not the time,” Vincent said. “We need to get this going. Now. You’re the technical whiz, make this stuff work.”

Charlotte and Fred busied themselves crawling around, following the tangled mass of cables that ran in like piles of spaghetti along the floor. Vincent sighed and fingered the heavy necklaces around his neck. The rings on his fingers–a mixture of various occult symbols and skulls–were the studio’s idea, but each of the necklaces had significance to him. He found them in each town where things had…happened. Tulsa, Portales, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Denver, Mesa. Each time he touched the spectral world, someone left him a gift on his nightstand.

The room they were set up in was a dilapidated mess at best. The wallpaper was curled on the edges, pulled away from the wall and yellowed like old leaves. If houses had seasons, this one was in the dead of winter. He wanted to yell at Fred and Charlotte, but they were the best in the business and the wiring in this house was a total wreck. The fact that they managed to make it work at all was a miracle.

The studio guys, hired hands from some union or another, put down their boom mics and walked out the door, smoking and laughing. Vincent recognized them as a necessary evil, even if they were total dicks.

“Found it, Vincent,” Charlotte called out. “A line burned out. Let me splice some things together and get a fuse on this line before the whole house goes up in flames. Give me five minutes.”

“Thanks, Char. Take your time. Those union guys are on one of their mandated thirty-minute breaks they have to take every hour. Might as well slow down and be sure.”

Charlotte shook her head slowly. “You got it, boss.”

She scampered out to the van to collect some magic from her big box of tricks. Vincent watched her go thoughtfully. It was so much easier when it was just the three of them living in the van and hunting down everything that went bump in the night. Sure, it was tedious and they often had to beg for food, but they didn’t have to worry about appeasing guys in suits; all they had to do was find the ghosts and document them.

“Think there’s something here, Vincent?” Fred asked from the shadows.

Vincent shook his head. “I don’t know. Some studio bigwig picked this place out because of its history and a connection to some rich old guy back in the early 1900s. It doesn’t feel like anything’s here, but who knows? Half this damned country is haunted. There’s no reason this place isn’t, too.”

Fred fumbled for his flashlight. When he turned it on and shone it around the room, Vincent had to admit the place looked like a classic haunted house. Everything was shot to hell, but it was obvious this mansion had been worth a pretty penny back in the days of robber barons and cars that went, “Ah oogah” when they honked. Now it was a mass of rot and broken furniture.

“Shithole,” Fred mumbled. “Just once I’d like to investigate a place with a big TV, a hot tub, and a bikini team.”

“No kidding,” Vincent agreed. “A haunted steak house with an expansive menu of whisky would be nice, too.”

“Why the hell didn’t they fix this place up?”

Vincent shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe no one thought it was worth the effort. Or maybe the ghost scared them off.”

The lights came back on with an audible pop a few moments before Charlotte bounced into the room. She took a look around, nodded, and struck a dance pose. “Ta da!”

Fred hugged her and planted a sloppy, wet kiss on the side of her face. “You’re a genius, my love.”

Vincent smiled, even as he felt empty inside. His team was happy and that was all that mattered, even if he did pine away for someone to care for. “Call the studio guys back and let’s get this rolling. All this talk of steaks has made me hungry.”

*****

“It amazes me that in the Year of Our Lord, 1917, there are still people out there who feel the law should be applied equally to all. Obviously, there are those of us who must do what we must do to ensure the smooth running of this fine country of ours. War or no war, this is the modern age and antiquated notions such as justice and freedom must be weighed on a spectrum. The only important trait that could – and should – influence that spectrum is success. By that weight alone, we can determine a fellow’s worth. Everything else is shoddy bookkeeping.”

“Yes, sir,” Ernest Fodor said. “I agree wholeheartedly. The mere idea that a pauper on the streets should have the same rights as myself – or worse, yourself – is antithetical to functioning of Democracy.”

Mr. Oldenfold, Kurt to his mother and only his mother, leaned forward and tapped an ivory-handled cane gently on the floor. He wasn’t an old man, but five decades of relentless hunting and hoarding of wealth had left him desiccated and soulless. “Quite right,” he said, waving one hand around the room, “This paranormal, supernatural mumbo-jumbo is quite outside my realm of expertise, but I have been known to consult with a psychic from time to time. She has proven correct more times than science can account for and I, therefore, trust her skills. Your first advice to my problem was accurate, so it would seem money must change hands and it will be time for phase two.”

Ernest Fodor paled. He looked around his office and took in the hastily scrawled notes and fuzzy pictures of spirits that obscured his walls. His was a working office and, while the images on the walls helped to seduce customers, all his work was out in the open for all to see.

It was all true, too. Every last note, every last picture, every last newspaper clipping. He had seen them all, but he lacked the funding for proper research. For that, he would need a wealthy patron. A patron like Mr. Kurt Oldenfold. The mining magnate was reputed to be worth millions. If he could solve Mr. Oldenfold’s problem, it might mean getting a grant to continue.

Unfortunately, the price was looking steeper and steeper with each passing moment.

“Then…then it worked?” Fodor whispered.

“Quite well, my boy,” Oldenfold replied. The corner of his lip curled up slightly and Fodor hoped the man didn’t just sprain a facial muscle attempting to smile. “Your trap was fiendishly clever in its simplicity. It worked like a charm.”

“May I ask the details, sir?” Fodor asked, hoping against hope that this was all a joke.

Oldenfold snapped his fingers and a manservant in a severe black suit placed a case on Fodor’s desk. Inside the case, nestled in silk, was an empty crystal glass jar with a candle in it. Fodor stared at the jar. “May I?” he asked, motioning at the jar.

The smug look returned to Oldenfold’s face. “Of course.”

Fodor gently picked up the jar with hands slick with sweat. Inside was nothing more than melted wax and the dark remains of a wick. He prayed to a god he swore he’d never trust and peered closely. As he twisted the jar around, it hit a stray bit of sunlight and his heart stopped.

She was in there. Oldenfold had really done it. A tiny spark of light repeatedly threw itself at the wall of the jar. It was like watching a lightning bug bouncing off a window.

“My poor wife died last night from poison,” Oldenfold said with obviously fake sorrow. “I had the constabulary take in two of my servants. They never got along with my wife and, well, you know how the Irish can be. Needless to say, I am heartbroken.”

“Of course,” Fodor replied distantly. “She was the love of your life.”

“The very reason for me to go on living.”

It was all lies. Pretty lies, but lies nonetheless. There was no doubt in Fodor’s mind that Oldenfold had killed his wife last night, but it would be improper and possibly dangerous to discuss it. That the old man had killed his wife was bad enough, but that he managed to catch his dead wife’s spirit before it could escape was nothing short of malignant.

Fodor was in no position to turn down clients, even ones as despicable as Mr. Kurt Oldenfold. Even if had the wealth to turn down Oldenfold’s request, there were other issues at play that would ensure Fodor’s cooperation. He choked back the bile rising in his throat and gently set the jar back on the table. “Are you certain you want to continue, sir?” he asked.

Oldenfold sat ramrod straight in his seat and tapped his cane twice on the floor. He flashed an evil grin that would have been right at home on the face of Satan himself. “Mr. Fodor,” he said quietly, “I did not get to my position in life by quitting when I was ahead.”

Fodor shook his head. Words wouldn’t come to him. He watched the light dejectedly bouncing off the jar and wondered if his place in Hell would be similar. “Of course not, sir,” he replied.

“Excellent,” Oldenfold continued. “You shall ply your trade and I shall continue to ply mine. In other words, you work your magic and I continue to pay you. Now, what do you need from me?”

“Nothing more, sir,” Fodor replied. His eyes were locked on the jar.

“One more thing,” Oldenfold said. “I trust she will be miserable, yes?”

Fodor nodded sadly. “I imagine so, sir.”

“Good. She tends to cry when she’s miserable. It’s a terribly irritating sound. Will I be able to hear it or is there any way you can mute it? I need my rest and have no desire to hear my ex-wife complaining.”

“No, sir,” Fodor said, shaking his head sadly. “The living cannot hear the dead.”

“But she’ll be able to do what I require of her, right?”

“Of course. If they’ve got access to energy sources like candles, ghosts can be quite capable of causing a tremendous amount of damage.”

“Wonderful news,” Oldenfold replied.

Oldenfold stood and snapped his fingers. His manservant appeared silent as the night and draped a greatcoat over Oldenfold’s stooped shoulders. “Do your best work, Mr. Fodor and no one has to know about your indiscretions, least of all that pretty wife of yours. But, I do believe in paying for services, so if you can make phase two work, you will be rewarded generously. Good day, Mr. Fodor.”

Fodor watched the door close and listened for the tell-tale rumble of the elevator before putting his head in his arms and sobbing. Through tear-stained eyes, he watched the little light smash against her impenetrable jail. Her future home would be larger, but it would still be a jail for eternity.

Love, and the sudden, treasonous loss of it, can people to move mountains in their quest for revenge.

*****

Vincent closed his eyes and ignored the snickers from his team as he got himself back into character. When he opened his eyes, the light felt like someone poked him in the eye with a pencil. He muttered something to himself and blinked rapidly. When he was ready, he fixed the camera with his best serious stare.

For someone with no formal training in acting, Vincent was a natural, even as he felt ashamed. It wasn’t like paranormal investigators had the best reputation in the world and by acting out a role on T.V., he felt like he was hurting his brethren. But the show had to go on and his team had to eat.

“In this house, a little over a hundred years ago, a woman was poisoned by her husband, the odious Mr. Kurt Oldenfold.”

He paused briefly to give the post production guys a chance to splice in a picture of a young woman in her wedding dress. Her back was perfectly straight – whether due to her corset or the nature of people in the early 1900s, Vincent couldn’t say. She had medium brown hair that fell over her shoulders in a wave and a mischievous glint in her eyes. When he first saw the pictures of Lindy Oldenfold, Vincent’s first thought was she’d have been a handful for any guy in the 1910s. She looked free and self-determined; two traits that were frowned upon by the men of the time.

“Rumors around the town said that Lindy had an affair,” Vincent continued. “No one knew who with or, at least, they weren’t talking about it. That tight-lipped secrecy must have infuriated Kurt Oldenfold to no end. Infuriated him so much that he poisoned his wife and blamed the deed on a pair of servants. To their dying day, they pleaded their innocence to no avail.

“Everyone already knew Kurt Oldenfold had her killed, but he had the money and the power to avoid prison. Kurt lived to a ripe old age of eighty-five and passed away peacefully in his slumber.”

Vincent fixed the camera with his serious gaze. “Lindy Oldenfold is said to haunt this very house.”

A door creaked open and Vincent almost looked before he caught himself and kept focused on the camera. It was probably just a draft or the house settling after being abandoned for so long. He focused on the task at hand and the promise of dinner when the shoot was through.

He walked around the room, pointing at things and improvising stories about them. Most of the footage wouldn’t make it into the final cut, but it was nice to have choices during editing. The furniture was barely worth mentioning, but a massive bookcase held the promise of all manner of spooky stories.

“In 1917, a library like this was the purview of the extremely wealthy. Books were common, but leather-bound editions like these were a rarity. Legend has it that Lindy herself picked out this bookcase and all the books on it.”

He motioned to the tattered remains of an old chaise lounge and, just for an instant, saw a young woman stretched out reading a book. She looked directly at him and winked. Vincent shook his head and blinked his eyes.

“You alright, J?” Charlotte called from the darkness.

“Yeah,” Fred added, “you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

When Vincent looked back at the chaise lounge, it was empty. “Just getting hungry,” he called out. “We need to wrap this up so we can chow down.”

He took a moment to get back into character and continued. “If the bookcase was Lindy’s, and most people agree Kurt Oldenfold wasn’t a reader, it would explain why the rest of the house is trashed, but the books are still in remarkable condition.”

His fingers brushed the redwood case as he pretended to look at the titles. There was nothing there worth worrying about, save for a broken jar and a picture of Lindy reading a book in the chaise lounge right next to him. That had to be it, he subconsciously saw the picture and projected her image.

“If Lindy does still haunt this mansion, she obviously still has a fondness for her books,” Vincent told the camera, “But what of Kurt Oldenfold? While it’s true that he died in his sleep, Oldenfold spent the remainder of his life complaining about the Irish and trying to convince people his wife’s death wasn’t his fault. He eventually became a recluse.”

Vincent started to wrap up his opening monologue, anxious to get down to the part where he and his team set up their tools and engaged in witty banter about ghosts and ghost hunting. Most of the audience would think it was fake, but every story they told was real. Humans have an amazing capacity to ignore evidence that runs contrary to their world view.

Charlotte was desperately signaling him to go on, to keep talking. Normally, Vincent didn’t have any problem talking about a haunted place or a ghost, but the vision of Lindy smiling and winking at him had rattled his nerves. He’d run into ghosts before, but nothing that seemed as real as her.

He reached into his mind, trying to remember the little factoids about the house that he’d read even before they set foot in Oldenfold Manor. Vincent shook his head to dislodge the vision of Lindy.

“The house itself has a grisly history,” Vincent continued. “It was built in the late 1800s by an eccentric architect by the name Niko Grosser. Grosser had a fascination with the esoteric and the paranormal. It was his dream to build a house that no ghost could enter. To that end, he lined the walls with copper mesh and crystals. The mansion has eleven bedrooms, four bathrooms – plus one for the staff – two dining rooms, this library, and a kitchen.

“It’s also the scene, or suspected scene, of half a dozen unsolved murders. After Oldenfold became a recluse, some criminals tried to break in. None of them were ever heard from again and the house’s reputation as a Death House made.

“A murderous ghost. That’s what we’re here to look for tonight.”

*****

“He never loved her, he only wanted to possess her. Now he wants to punish her for all eternity. But I’m going to turn the tables,” Fodor told his assistant.

The assistant, a young man by the name of Felix, adjusted his round spectacles and nodded slowly. “Do you think it’s wise to double cross a man like Mr. Oldenfold?”

“Kurt, Felix,” Fodor said. “Call him Kurt. He hates it, but it makes him more human. He’s not a god, he’s just a man with far too much money.”

“Kurt,” Felix whispered to himself, as if by saying the name out loud he’d call down the wrath of the dreaded Mr. Oldenfold.

“Out loud, Felix. Just try it out.”

“Kurt,” Felix said again, this time a little louder. He nervously looked around the room while Fodor chuckled.

“Waiting for the lightning to strike or the constables to break down the door?”

Felix looked around again and said, “No, sir. It’s just. Well, I’ve never heard anyone say Mr. Oldenfold’s first name. I didn’t even know he had one. When I was a little boy, I assumed his first name was Mister.”

Fodor laughed out loud and Felix shrunk in his seat. “I’m sorry, Felix. I’m not laughing at you; I’m laughing at all of us. We give these guys too much power and they think money makes them immune to retribution. Kurt thinks he can get away with murder and pin the death of his wife on two innocent men. The system lets that happen because the men are Irish. Kurt didn’t just kill his wife, he destroyed two other lives to cover up his crime.”

“And that…light in the jar is her, isn’t it?” Felix asked. He peered closely at the jar on the work table. “I can sometimes make out her shape. I expected her to be bigger, though. Aren’t ghosts supposed to be the same size as people?”

A sad look crossed Fodor’s face. “That was a trick I taught him. If I’d known he intended to trap his own wife’s spirit, I never would have agreed to it. I would have taught him some phony trick from India or China. She’d still be dead, but she’d be free.”

“How does it work?” Felix asked.

Fodor didn’t want to talk about it, but the young man deserved an explanation if he was going to continue investigating the paranormal. People didn’t like to admit it, but a large amount of science went into ghost hunting.

“Ghosts are pure energy. I haven’t been able to conclusively prove that they’re souls, but I do know they’re nothing more than energy and they need to find ways to regenerate that energy, just like we eat food to keep ourselves alive. One way is to not do much. An idle ghost can go years without replenishing their energy. Another way, and the one they usually resort to, is to suck energy out of the air around them. That’s why it gets so cold when a ghost is nearby; they’re pulling the energy out of the air. Usually when that happens, they’re about to do something terrible.”

Felix flipped open his notebook and rapidly started writing. “I’m sorry, sir, I really am paying attention to you; I just don’t want to forget this information. It’s not like…well, there are no schools or quality books for what we do.”

“It’s okay, Felix. You’re correct, we do need to compile this information for the future. Now, where was I?”

“Pulling energy out of the air.”

“Right!” Fodor said, snapping his fingers. “Ghosts need energy to manifest and they have to get it from somewhere. It’s been my experience that they’re inextricably drawn to most forms of energy. A simple candle, Felix. Fire gives off energy and ghosts soak it up. Put a candle in a crystal jar and your ghost will not be able to resist the flame. All that energy. All that warmth. They have trouble moving through crystal, though, so it’s the perfect trap. Did you know that Felix?”

“About the crystal, sir. No, sir, I did not.”

Fodor smiled to himself, pleased with his protégé’s desire to absorb information. In his business, Fodor had found an insatiable appetite for knowledge was necessary to not only thrive, but sometimes just to survive. “It’s true. I discovered that secret in a chamber in China. They had rows of crystal jars, each with its own tiny ball of energy flitting back and forth. But, I digress. All Oldenfold would have to do was find any piece of sealable crystal and place a candle in it. His wife’s spirit would head straight for the flame. Then, put the lid on and the ghost is secure.”

Felix reached a hand out to touch the crystal jar with the spirit of Oldenfold’s wife in it, but pulled his hands back at the last moment. “She’s really in there?”

“She’s really in there,” Fodor replied. “And when she gets out she is going to be none too happy.”

“Why would Mr. Oldenfold even want to capture his wife’s ghost? It seems despicable, if you ask me.”

“Despicable,” Fodor replied. “That’s an excellent word for describing Kurt Oldenfold. Despicable. He is a loathsome, offensive being and he has performed the most odious action I have ever heard of for the most selfish of reasons.”

Felix waited for Fodor to continue, finally resorting to motioning with his hand that the story could go on.

“Kurt Oldenfold wants to use her to guard his house and he wants me to make sure it happens correctly,” Fodor said with a sigh. “And I will do it for him.”

“Why?” Felix pleaded. “Why go on with this? Why not refuse to do the work or simply knock the jar over and let her go? Surely jars get knocked over all the time.”

Ernest Fodor’s shoulders slumped. He sank in on himself in pity and shame. “I have done a terrible thing, Felix. If you want to learn from me, learn this: never do terrible things where those with power can see. People with power will use any advantage they have to get more power. I am Kurt Oldenfold’s tool.”

“What did you do?” Felix asked, mesmerized.

“Nothing much,” Fodor replied breezily. “Just consigned my soul to Hell and created a special Hell for Lindy to exist in forever.”

Felix shook his head. “No, before that. Why does Mister, er, Kurt Oldenfold have power over you?”

“I am but a man, Felix. With a man’s needs and a man’s desires. You should learn that, too. All men are slaves to their desires.”

“You were caught with another man’s wife, weren’t you?”

Fodor nodded and put his head in his hands. “The Senator’s wife. He’s a good man, she’s a good woman. Oldenfold threatened to go to the papers. The scandal would destroy the Senator’s career and his wife’s life.”

Felix slumped back in his chair whistling softly.

“Indeed,” Fodor replied. “She was quite taken with my research. Her station in life means she can never pursue it herself, which is a pity; she’d make an amazing researcher. I tried to let her live vicariously through mine, give her some measure of the life she wanted.”

“Things lead to each other,” Felix said quietly.

“More than once,” Fodor said with a sad smile. “And now dear Lindy Oldenfold is paying the price for my sins.”

Felix listened attentively, soaking in this side of his boss that he’d never seen before. “It’s not your fault,” he said.

“Oh, but it is, dear Felix,” Fodor replied. “But I have a plan. A wonderful, terrible plan. Oldenfold wants his wife to be a security system for his house and I can make that happen. It will be forever, unfortunately, but Kurt Oldenfold won’t get away completely clean like he always does.”

“Are you going to the police?”

Fodor reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a gem necklace. “This is a ward I found in Bombay. It keeps the spirit world from seeing you. Ghosts are notoriously territorial and can be fiercely violent beings when their territory is threatened or when they find something they want. Lindy will likely be even more so due to the nature of her demise. She’ll make a truly terrifying security system; one that has no qualms about killing. As long as Oldenfold is wearing or holding this necklace, she won’t be able to see him. It will be even worse for her, knowing something is out there, but not being able to see it, but that little trick won’t work forever.”

“How do you mean?”

Fodor grinned and all the powers of Hell flashed through his eyes. “The necklace will protect him while he’s wearing it, but he won’t be wearing it when he’s dead. Whatever you’re holding when you die comes across with you. There’s no way Oldenfold will be gripping that necklace when he dies, he’ll think wearing it is enough, but it has to be in your hands when you die or it gets left behind. Once he dies, the necklace stays behind and Lindy finds his spirit, she’ll pounce on him and hold him with her forever. Kurt Oldenfold might have gotten away with murder, but he’ll never get away from Lindy.”

*****

The lights went out again, suddenly bathing the room in darkness. Vincent swore under his breath before forcing himself to calm down. “Charlotte, can you check the lines again?”

“Already on it, boss,” came the fading reply.

“Next time, we’re bringing our own power supply,” Fred said. “This is ridiculous.”

Vincent snorted. “Remember that time in Santa Fe? That ghost that always turned out the lights?”

“You think we’ve got one of those?” Fred asked.

As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Vincent picked out Fred’s form. The man was tinkering with some equipment, probably replacing a motherboard by touch alone. Fred could be caustic, but he knew his electronics better than almost anyone else.

“Dunno,” Vincent mumbled. “These old places had terrible wiring. They were meant to run desk lamps and AM radios.”

Vincent looked back to find Fred’s shadow standing perfectly still. “What’s wrong?”

Fred held up a hand and quietly shushed him. “I heard a thump.

“Wow, a thump,” Vincent said. “I hope you got it on tape.”

“Shhh,” Fred hissed. “Someone’s coming and it doesn’t sound like Char.”

Vincent tip-toed across the room and stood directly in front of Fred. Together, they strained their ears for any sign of Charlotte. There it was, a faint shuffling step coming closer to the library. “See,” Vincent said, “It’s just Charlotte.”

The faint step resolved into a cacophony of louder, faster steps. Vincent tensed. Ghosts didn’t charge often – it took too much energy – so when they did bad things tended to follow. “Remember Flagstaff?” Vincent whispered.

“How could I forget?” Fred whispered back, barely audible over the pounding steps. “I thought we were going to finally have conclusive evidence that we’d never be able to share with the living.”

A light bobbed and danced in the hallway, growing brighter as the footsteps got closer. The light looked…off…somehow, as if it was coming from everywhere and nowhere. Vincent took a step back and saw Fred take a hesitant step forward. He cursed himself for being a coward. After everything he’d seen and done, it wasn’t like him to worry like this. Fred was doing the right thing, trying to protect Charlotte as Vincent tried to protect his own skin.

Vincent absently rubbed the goosebumps forming on his skin. No matter how many ghosts he’d been around, there was something inherently terrifying about them. All around them the air felt electrified. It crackled and popped like a switching station after a rain storm, as if all the energy in the room wanted to go home and it didn’t care who it had to go through to get there.

“Char?” Fred called out. He looked at Vincent pleadingly.

Vincent shrugged. His stomach clenched and rumbled. He wanted to run far away from this place and bury himself in tightly tucked-in blankets until the world died down.

He choked down his sense of doom and said, “It’s almost here.”

The thundering echo of footfalls reverberated around the dilapidated house. The air grew colder, raising goosebumps on Vincent’s arms. They set out to look for a ghost and one found them, something the likes of which Vincent had never felt before.

The light grew to blinding levels. Vincent covered his eyes and looked away, wondering if this was going to be his last moment. Ghosts that could kill were rare, but not unheard of.

“Lot of mirrors in that hallway. The power’s fixable,” Charlotte said, “but that’s not the cool thing. She’s here! She’s really here!”

“Char?” Fred asked.

Charlotte flicked off the light on her head and mumbled, “Sorry, guys, forgot about the light. But we need to get a camera downstairs. I just saw her clear as day. Lindy’s here! She’s here. She’s…”

She stopped and pointed. “Char, are you okay?” Fred asked.

“Oh, shit,” Charlotte mumbled. “Vincent, she’s right behind you and she looks pissed.”

******

Kurt Oldenfold’s fingers gripped the ruby-red amulet around his neck. Whatever magic that Fodor fellow had created had worked. Lindy couldn’t see him, but he’d seen her plenty of times. She prowled the house scowling and looking for a way out. But the doors and windows wouldn’t open to her touch and she couldn’t push through the walls of the house.

Oldenfold went about his life as if nothing had happened. He accepted the flowers and letters and condolences from people he barely tolerated with a sad smile and nod of his head. Never the most popular of people to begin with, no one noticed his slow retreat from the world. His wealth grew, his power grew, and his disdain for the world grew along with them. As far as most people were concerned, Kurt Oldenfold carried on just like someone who had lost his wife.

The truth was, though, that no one cared one whit about Kurt Oldenfold’s feelings. They were sad for Lindy. She was the one thing about him that made his presence tolerable. Everyone knew she had cheated on him and no one could blame her. Just like everyone knew the Irish servants were innocent, but no one could prove it.

Wealth and power had once again conspired to get away with murder and Kurt Oldenfold couldn’t be happier. He had proven his might once again by not only killing his wife, but by continuing to punish her forever.

Lindy was far from happy. Oldenfold sometimes watched her ghost throw itself repeatedly against the walls and doors before it collapsed in a silently sobbing heap on the floor. Her sorrow gave way to frustration, which eventually evolved into full-on anger.

Over time, her rage became palpable. Her inability to interact with the house caused her no end of grief. For a time, Oldenfold thought it was poetic justice. She had no right to cheat on him, let alone with a commoner, and an eternity stuck in a house that he’d had built for her seemed appropriate. Lindy always loved her little library, even if all she ever wanted to read was poetry or some such drivel. Books and poems were more interesting to her than he was and Oldenfold chuckled to himself when he saw her ghost desperately trying and failing to pull a book from the shelves.

Her mind, whatever that meant for a ghost, was cracking bit by bit. She would vanish for weeks on end, only to appear at the foot of his bed at three o’clock in the morning. A sad smile played on her lips while rage burned in her eyes. Ghosts, it would seem, could maintain multiple emotions at the same time. Or maybe they were just better at showing them.

For decades Oldenfold and Lindy’s ghost were the only people in the mansion. His naturally caustic personality drove people away and he wasn’t given to throwing elaborate parties. So, it was twenty years after her death that Lindy finally saw another person.

Crime’s dirty eyes had finally landed on the Oldenfold Estate. A pair of young men, driven to desperate acts by poverty, had watched Kurt Oldenfold’s comings and goings with interest for weeks. It was just the old man in there. Easy pickings and a mansion probably full of gold.

Oldenfold was drifting in his reading chair when he heard glass break on the front door. His heart pounded in his chest. He reached for a fire poker and rose on shaky legs. No matter who had dared to enter his sanctum, they would pay dearly for the trespass. What was his was his. He had earned it and no one had the right to take it away from him.

Lindy found them first. Oldenfold found her ghost standing over their corpses. He couldn’t tell how she did it, but their faces were frozen in terror and pain. With a flick of her head, she disappeared through a wall, leaving Oldenfold to deal with the two men. Anyone else would have had trouble dealing with two bodies, but all he had to do was grease the right palms and point out the intruders were Hispanic and everything was taken care of.

*****

Vincent spun in place and found Lindy’s ghost glaring at him. She wasn’t that different from her photo, but something in her eyes made her look like a changed woman, like she’d been alone too long and had realized something terrible about herself. He held up both his hands and said, “Hello.”

Lindy wavered in place, flickering like a neon light that was running out of gas. She slowly drifted toward him, eyes locked on his. Vincent wanted desperately to back up, but he didn’t want to seem afraid even though his heart was pounding in his chest.

“Lindy,” Vincent said, “a terrible wrong was done to you. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to make it right, but I’m willing to try.”

Her angry face wavered. She cocked her head to the side like a dog that didn’t understand. Her mouth moved, but no words came out. Her glowing, flickering image looked like a hologram from a bad science fiction movie.

“I can’t hear you, Lindy,” Vincent said. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t.”

Lindy’s face darkened. She clenched her fists and screamed silently. Her ethereal body shook with rage, flickering and wavering. The temperature in the room plummeted as she sucked all the energy out of the air. When her rage passed, she looked at Vincent and licked her lips.

He’d seen the same look on the living before, usually just before someone broke a beer bottle and tried to stab someone with it. For decades Lindy had been all alone in a house that was crumbling around her and it had pushed her to the brink. With a final sly look, she disappeared.

“What just happened?” Char asked.

Vincent shook his head like he couldn’t believe what had just happened. He spun and pointed a finger at Fred. “Tell me we had a camera running for that.”

Fred’s grin was enough of an answer. “The power was out for the mains, but you know me; I always have a backup handy.” He patted an aging, boxy camera and grinned. “I always keep this baby’s batteries charged. After Flagstaff, it just seems safer.”

*****

People like Kurt Oldenfold didn’t die. Dying was for poor people, commoners, those on whom no newspaper would waste ink on. They entered the world, passed through without making a mark, and left without a trace, forever forgotten by all but a tenacious few.

Important people “passed on” or “shuffled off the mortal coil”. They did not do anything so plebeian as dying.

The night Oldenfold slipped free the boundaries of mortality was, appropriately, dark and stormy. Rain pelted the windows and wind shook the trees. In his mind, the rain was the tears of the world crying about his passing and the wind was a mournful wail.

He’d been sick for weeks, slowly wasting away as some rare and important disease ravaged his body. The doctor gave him laudanum. Even though the stuff made Oldenfold hallucinate, it took the pain away and replaced it with a warm sense of well-being.

Wasting away, all alone in the house that Lindy wanted, would have been torture were it not for the laudanum. With it, he saw things and experienced thoughts so profound he wanted to tell them to someone. Anyone would do. He told Lindy the things he thought about, but she never responded. Her ghost stood and stared at the bed with a sly grin on her face.

“I forgive you,” he said in a voice slurred by opium and degradation.

Lindy stared at the bed like she knew something was about to happen.

Oldenfold’s fingers slipped off his amulet as the world flickered around him. His psychic had told him the world would seem to stop when he died and not to worry about it, it was perfectly normal. It took time for his spirit to sync up with the real world. The world wasn’t what worried Oldenfold, though. Nor did the threat of judgment at the end. What worried Oldenfold was Lindy. He knew though, that as long as he had the amulet he’d be fine. Whatever world lay beyond life, it would be just another place to take over. He’d leave her behind, but that was okay; he’d grown tired of his cheating wife and could rest easy knowing she’d be stuck in this Hell for all eternity.

He took a deep breath and the world stopped. Oldenfold felt the pain of the world slip away and he sat up in bed. Lindy’s eye locked on his. He reached for the amulet around his neck and found nothing. He turned in the bed and found his mortal body wrapped in silk sheets and slowly growing colder. The amulet was still on his chest. He reached for the amulet but his spectral fingers passed through empty air.

Lindy’s chuckle brought him back to the here and now. Where was the portal? There was supposed to be a portal to the other side. Where was it? He looked back at Lindy’s ghost and found malice in her eyes. If he still had a spine, her expression would have sent chills through it.

“Hello, husband,” she said. “I’ve missed you.”

*****

“Guys,” Char said. “Is it just me or is it getting colder in here?”

Vincent was elated, almost bouncing-off-the-walls level excited. “She probably used up all the energy in the room to appear to us like that. Keep that camera running.”

Fred nodded and watched the world through the viewfinder of his old camera as Vincent paced around the room muttering to himself. Finally, Vincent stopped and walked purposefully to the bookshelf. Most of the books were in sad shape, but they’d been neatly stored and safe from water. His fingers traced the top row until he found what he wanted.

Vincent glanced at the camera. Still running. He gathered his thoughts, closed his eyes, and focused. In many ways, he was just an actor playing a part, but Vincent didn’t do anything by halves. He held the book out in front of him and stepped back into his role as host.

“Lindy Oldenfold was here not five minutes ago. She floated right there, right in front of her precious books. I’ve seen a lot of ghosts in my time, but hers was the brightest, the one that felt most solid. She’s not a happy spirit, but she won’t leave.” He flipped open the book of poetry and scanned a page with his finger. “Lindy, I hope you’re listening.”

As he read the temperature dipped until goosebumps rose on Vincent’s skin, but he hoped reading her favorite poetry would call Lindy back. The lights flicked out again. Vincent stood still with his finger on the book and sighed. “Char, is there anything you can do to keep the lights going?”

No one answered. A sense of dread fell over the room and Vincent wondered if the stories of the vengeful spirit were true. Sometimes ghosts turned malignant and hauntings turned violent.

“Char?” he called again. “Fred?”

The room was totally silent. When the power went out it took all the whirring gears and flickering lights with it. Someone back there should be turning on a flashlight or at least fumbling around in the dark for one. There should be some noise, even if it was just someone breathing.

“Anyone?” Vincent called out. “Come on, guys. This isn’t funny. We’ve got to finish filming this episode or the network’s gonna have our hides. We’ve got a winner here, let’s get it done and in the can.”

No one answered. There wasn’t even the faint creak of wood from someone shifting or the tell-tale sounds of fabric rustling. The room felt empty, even the air felt dead.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark room, Vincent peered at the back of the room where his crew was supposed to be. He could see their silhouettes, still as the air in the room. He took a cautious step toward them. Instinct told him to be silent, to move slowly and not draw attention to himself lest the predators that lurk in the night find him.

“Hello,” Vincent whispered. “Not funny, guys.”

A dim blue glow faded in so slowly Vincent barely noticed it. As it glowed brighter and brighter, he knew Lindy was back, but morbid curiosity kept him focused on his team. They should be pointing cameras at the source of the glow. Microphones should be adjusting to capture every bit of noise in the room. Char’s gadgets should be pinging away, happily recording the world around them.

But there was nothing. The team was still there. They stood motionless as statues, each captured in a singular moment. Char was leaning over one of her creations, peering at some signal only she understood. Fred had a hand on his camera, but was pointing with the other, a look of horror on his face. The network guys were holding boom mics and staring off into space.

Behind Vincent, the glow got brighter. A spectral hand rested on his shoulder. He could feel it, it had weight and presence. He turned to find Lindy staring at him. A broken shell of a man stood behind her, collared and leashed.

Lindy pointed at the book in Vincent’s hands. “Keep reading,” she said.

Read Me Shrugging

I’ve got a master’s degree in speech communication with an emphasis on rhetoric and persuasion. Basically, this means I spent a lot of time and money learning how to analyze you while you’re talking and figure out the best way to warp you into doing what I want. What can I say, my college offered a degree in functional supervillainy and I took ’em up on it. Although, if I were to be truthful, I’d have to admit I had no idea what to study and the communication department gave me a scholarship for speech and debate, so why not speech comm?

Oddly, it’s proven to be a useful degree, largely due to the supervillain-level tips and tactics for interaction and manipulation. So, if you’re still trying to figure out what you want to study, it’s a good degree to have because even though I’m a programmer and author, I still deal with people regularly and getting an understanding of how they communicate has been a nice tool to have.

It’s been said, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it”. People pay far more attention to the nonverbal cues than you’d think. The way a person stands or how much eye contact they give or whether they’re wringing their hands can tell you volumes more than what they’re actually saying. Those nonverbal cues can also completely override the verbal message or at least drastically change its meaning. I’ve told people no one likes them and since I had a smile on my face at the time, they thought I was joking and we were now best buddies. Narrator Voice: No one, in fact, liked that person.

That’s our good buddy nonverbal communication coming to visit. And the people who like point out how something was said are absolutely correct to make note of that. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 70% and 93% of communication is nonverbal. I’m not sure how anyone arrived at these numbers – especially the strangely precise 93% – but there are people who get paid to study these things and I don’t really have any good reason to doubt them. Maybe I could find a YouTube video put out by some huckster that supports my viewpoint, but I’m lazy and most of the hucksters on YouTube are busy putting out videos trying to prove Covid is a liberal hoax and Donald Trump won the election. When you’re working that hard to promote that level of complete bullshit, there’s very little time left to conquer nonverbal communication statistics. That and, frankly, no one cares that nonverbal communication is a Chinese hoax perpetrated by the liberals to, uh, do stuff. Bad stuff. Very, very bad stuff. Trust us, we have mountains of evidence.

So, non-existing propaganda aside, we send a huge amount of communication through our nonverbal channels. The cock of the head, a wink, a raised eyebrow, a subtle cough, a red face, a finger shaking with rage. These things color the verbal message and, in many cases, completely override the verbal message. Image a man, red faced and shaking, his right eye twitching and he stabs his finger in your face over and over while yelling, “YES! I AGREE WITH YOU! FRIED OREOS ARE GREAT!” Narrator Voice: Fried Oreos are, in fact, great.

The verbal message is one of total agreement: Fried Oreos are great. Taken on its own, this describes a person who you could probably hang out with, happily munching on fried Oreos until the saturated fats clogged your arteries and shut down your hearts. Maybe in the afterlife fried Oreos will be waiting for you. Unless you wind up the bad afterlife where all you have fried knock-off Oreos that are far inferior to the real thing and you have to enjoy them while discussing the finer points of international banking with doddering idiot who keeps stealing all the cookies for himself.

Put yourself in the position and think about what you’re seeing. That verbal message about the Oreos will be completely overridden by the angry guy stabbing his finger at you. The takeaway is he’s pissed as hell and is right on the edge of going physical with it. He could be shouting nonsense. “MAN! WOMAN! PERSON! TV! CAMERA!” and it wouldn’t matter one bit because the part you’re going to focus on is whether or not it’s a good idea to just drop that fool right then and there before things get out of hand.

Nonverbal communication is the ultimate representation of that age-old writing adage of “show, don’t tell” because no one is going to shout “I’m very angry right now” without getting laughed at. And, let’s face it, stating the obvious is major boring shit. For instance:

  • “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!” he shouted angrily.
  • He was angry. “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!”

Booorrring.

But let’s toss our good buddy nonverbal communication into the mix:

Jacob’s finger shook inches away from my nose. His eyes, beady under the best of circumstances, twitched and pirouetted above his beet-red face. Sunlight danced on the flecks of spittle erupting from his mouth. “I agree with you! Fried Oreos are great!”

The takeaway? Never once mentioned anger or rage, but it’s obvious from the context. Jacob agrees with me, but he hates himself for it. And let me just say, self-loathing is an apt feeling after a couple of deep-fried Oreos.

Nonverbal cues aren’t rocket surgery to write. Some things – cadence, for instance – can be tough to put into words, but describing what an angry person or lust-filled Medusa or even nervous people who’ve been tapped to have sex with lust-filled Medusas is easy. Watch people for a while. Next time you’re in a conversation pay close, conscious attention to what their body is doing while they talk to you. Some people have grandiose hand gestures that come out when they’re excited. Others scrunch into a little ball and mumble when called on in Zoom meetings. Some people pound tables, others click ballpoint pens frantically. Everyone has a tick, all you have to do is remember it and apply it to a character.

Or you could just, you know, state the obvious, he said, sad that no one paid attention.

Comments, as always, are welcome and appreciated. Especially if they come with fried Oreos. Narrator Voice: Please do not send fried Oreos.

Petrichor, Potvalor, Sapid. #vss365

I play some of the Twitter writing prompts every day. There are dozens of them out there. Some are good, some not so good, and some go through bouts of greatness followed by pits of despair. One of the biggest and longest running prompts is #vss365, short for very short stories 365 days a year. It’s big enough that there’s no chance in hell you’re going to read them all on a given day. Well, unless you have significantly more free time than I do.

The way these prompts work is someone posts a word and you can either dig through your existing works or write something new that uses the word. The idea is to use the word in some creative fashion. With some words, like machine which was the theme word for both #scififri and #satsplat today, it’s relatively easy. Machine can mean a lot of things from a physical machine to a metaphorical machine to Sharky’s Machine. There’s a lot of room to play with the theme word.

Then there are some of the words that have popped up on #vss365 lately: Potvalor, petrichor, and sapid. Among other things. Personally, I think it’s telling that Brave’s spell check is telling me all those words are spelled wrong, but because they’re so rare almost no one ever uses them. It’s like fustian or polyglot; outside of certain realms of communication those words simply don’t exist.

So, for those of you scratching your heads and wondering just what the hell potvalor, petrichor, and sapid mean:

  • Potvalor: Courage or bravery from resulting from drunkenness
  • Petrichor: That pleasant smell after a good rainstorm
  • Sapid: Having a strong, pleasant taste

There, now you can use your potvalor and describe your sapid drink and the petrichor next time you’re trying to seduce some hot little number at a party. You’re welcome.

Aside from the sensuous art of verbal seduction, what’s the good of trying to shoehorn potvalor, petrichor, and sapid into writing? Especially when you consider most writing should fall into about the sixth grade reading level. Well, here are two things to keep in mind: If you want to get good at something, do it a lot and if you want to get better at something, push yourself.

As with anything else, writing is a skill and skills can and should be developed and nurtured. You don’t hear about pro athletes saying they’re just naturally so good they don’t bother to train. Want to get better at punching? Punch something. Want to get better at cycling, get a bike and go ride. And each time you do that thing, pay attention and focus on getting better. If you want to get better at writing, write. And just like the athlete that pushes his or her boundaries, break out of your skill set. Write a different genre of story or a different style. If you’re an action writer, try your hand at writing a romance and vice versa. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but the act itself will illuminate things you’d never thought of before. For instance if you’re gonna try your hand at erotica, you’ll be amazed at how many euphemisms there are. Also, writing the word “cock” over and over gets boring. Dig deeper. Tease out those other words. Penetrate your own style. Trust me, the explosion at the end will be worth it.

Now, of course, none of this is to say I didn’t take a few cheap potshots at the #vss365 theme words here and there.

But ultimately, I like to think I rose to the challenge. Words like petrichor, sapid, and potvalor aren’t easy to incorporate, especially if you want them to be interesting and feel natural.

It’s all too easy to grouse at the challenges, but those challenges are what make you better. So, next time someone says, “Work fustian into a sentence without sounding like a pompous ass” you can do it. After you look it up, of course.

In fact, go do that and drop a line in the comments.

Guest Post – Guillaume Sauvé

How to Become a Storyteller Without Writing a Single Word

Did you know that 90% of people want to write a book? It’s true. Unfortunately, most people never even write the first word. Of those brave enough to begin, less than half actually finish. Then comes the scariest part: Submitting the manuscript to agents and publishers. Not only is it a painful process that makes you feel like a total and utter fraud, but your odds of landing a contract are about as good as you winning the lottery. And, if by some miracle you actually get your book published, you’re unlikely to sell more than a handful of copies.

No wonder most people never take the plunge.

Luckily, the days where the above-described scenario was the only option have come and gone. The rise of self-publishing has revolutionized the publishing industry. While better than the mahogany desk approach of old, self-publishing still has many pitfalls. Not only must you pay for all the expenses—editing, proofreading, cover design, etc.—out of your own pocket, but you must master the skills necessary for a successful career as an author. That means learning how to create a website, how to run a newsletter, and how to promote your books because the days where you could just throw a book up on Amazon and watch the sales roll in have long since past. All in all, self-publishing requires hundreds of hours of training and thousands of dollars in expenses.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Why the hell would anyone choose to be a writer?”

I feel you. Unfortunately, writing isn’t something you choose to do. It’s a calling. I’ve always known I wanted to be an author, but I denied it for many years. It wasn’t until I had a near-death experience that I decided to go for it. Since then, I’ve spent thousands of hours honing my craft and invested over $15,000 into my passion. While I don’t regret it, I know it’s not something most people are willing to do. But I also know how incredibly gratifying it is to hit the “Publish” button on your very first book, so I started brainstorming ways to help aspiring writers fulfill their lifelong dream of becoming a published author. It took a while, but I finally came up with the perfect solution.

Storytellers Unite!

The concept came to me when I stopped thinking as an author and started thinking as a reader. I remembered how popular Choose Your Own Adventure books were back in the ‘80s and ‘90s and realized I could do the same thing. Only, instead of writing a book with predefined paths for readers to follow, I would let them vote on what happened next as I wrote it. Not only would it allow aspiring authors to contribute to the creation of a novel, but it would make my job easier—and way more fun.

I won’t bore you with the details, so here is a quick overview of how it works:

Each week, I write one new chapter and provide three possible options for what could happen next. All you must do is vote for your favourite and watch as the story comes to life.

Intrigued? Good. Here’s a short description for our current collaborative project:

The Memory Thief

There’s a thief on the loose. A memory thief. No one is safe, not even the thief. The main character awakes to a blank mind. He doesn’t know who he is, but the note in his pocket claims he’s the only one who knows the thief’s true identity. At least, he did until his memories were stolen. Now, he must find the clues he left behind and reclaim his stolen memories in time to unravel the mystery and stop the thief once and for all. Will he succeed? Help me find out.

Want to know more? Great! Here’s Chapter 1:

Chapter 1

The world slowly came into focus. Blurry mountains gave way to rundown houses. Fuzzy shapes turned into pedestrians hurrying along dirt roads. Glowing spots of pure light became streetlamps, lighting up the city. Piece by piece, my surroundings emerged from the endless void that was my life.

An aura of hardship infused the landscape, like a scene from an old steampunk novel. The pedestrians walked around with slumped shoulders and grim faces. The buildings—if you can call them that—were pieced together in giant patchworks of metal and wood. Trash littered the streets. Mangy mutts scurried about amid the rat-infested landscape, looking for their next meal.

Where am I? I wondered, scanning my immediate surroundings. To my left stood a sharp drop to a lower level of the rundown city. A makeshift park lay to my right, empty but for a few filthy children playing in the mud. Directly in front stood a statue of a young man. His jaw was square and his gaze piercing. Worn by time and abuse, the sculpture was missing an arm, and a middle finger had been carved into its metallic surface. Whoever this man was, he was despised.

Continuing my study, I focused on the house that lay behind me. Mediocre in both design and craftsmanship, it seemed on the verge of collapse. I’m surprised the pressure of my body pressed against it didn’t finish the job time had begun long ago.

The patch of hard-packed earth upon which I sat was bare but for a few discarded objects. The occasional blur of movement told me I wasn’t alone, but whatever vermin was hiding in the shadows chose not to antagonize me.

The final detail I took into account was the starless sky that hovered high above. Vast and devoid of colour, the expanse hung over the city, like a giant raincloud heavy with impending doom.

Now that my first question had been answered, I moved on to the next obvious one.

“Who am I?” I asked, this time aloud. The rumble of my voice sounded foreign, just like everything else in this strange world.

Ignoring my rising sense of panic, I scanned my body for clues. My clothes were torn and stained to the point where determining the exact colour of the fabric was impossible. My feet were bare and calloused from years of navigating this strange landscape. My hands were covered in scars. My stomach was flat, though I couldn’t tell if it was the result of malnutrition or frequent exercise. My facial features remained shrouded in mystery, but a few quick touches revealed my jaw was square, and a subtle scruff had begun to invade the lower half of my face. The jaggedness of my nose seemed to indicate it had been broken—on more than one occasion—and three of my teeth were missing. The final detail I noticed was the triangle that had been carved into my left forearm. Fresh, the wound was red and swollen.

“Who am I?” I repeated, worry once more rising within me. I scoured my memories in search of a hint, but all I found was emptiness. As impossible as it seemed, I had no recollection of my life before now.

Now more terrified than worried, I leapt to my feet and once more scanned my surroundings. I studied every detail, hoping to jog my memory, but the desolate scene that stretched all around remained unhelpful. As were the worn faces of the pedestrians. It wasn’t until I patted my body for hidden objects that I finally found my first hint.

A balled-up wad of paper had been stuffed into one of my pockets. Crisp and white, the note seemed out of place among the surrounding filth. Hands trembling, I smoothed out the square sheet and read the words written upon it.

Find the clues and solve the mystery. The fate of the entire city rests on your shoulders.

I re-read the note twice more before returning it to my pocket. Though far from helpful, the enigmatic message filled me with hope. Whoever wrote it knew what happened to me. Finding them would mean unravelling the mystery that was my life. Unfortunately, I had no clue where to begin. Fortunately, the burden of choice was taken from me when a dark shape emerged from my right.

I turned to find…

Option 1: …a massive, snarling beast.

Option 2: …an odd-looking robot.

Option 3: …a little girl with tear-stained cheeks and a headless doll clutched in her hands.

I hope you enjoyed the start of The Memory Thief. Click Here to keep reading and become a Storyteller.

—G. Sauvé

NOTE: You DON’T have to join my newsletter to read The Memory Thief, but only subscribers can vote, and you get a FREE book for joining.

Guest Post – Athabascan Languages and Legends by Daniella Shepard

“The Headless Ravine? You mean up Chitistone Gorge? That’s just a legend.”

“Yeah, the Athabascans didn’t name it that for nothing, kid.”

Myths and Legends of all cultures have fascinated me since I was a little girl. One of my favorites is that of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of the Mojave Desert (near Death Valley). They tell of early times, when the Coyote Spirit carried the First People into the Living Valley (what the Europeans would later name Death Valley) in a basket. He fell asleep, and the people crept out and populated the world. This took place at the Wosa, now known as Ubehebe Crater, a large extinct crater shaped like a basket in the National Park. I always liked to picture the coyote sleeping under the multitude of desert stars, while the curious people wandered away.

As I grew older, my brother, cousin and I would sit around and tell darker stories. Those of the of the Yucca Man and Skin Walkers. The southwest like every region of the world has its own tales of creatures that stalk the empty, uninhabited spaces of the land.

Native Legends

Navajo Legends

Yucca Man

Athabascan Language Groups

When I moved to Alaska in 2007, I became fascinated with the differences and similarities between the legends I grew up with and the ones I encountered in my new home. Something that I didn’t know, and others may be surprised to learn, is that Alaska Natives First Peoples of the interior of Alaska, called the Northern Athabascans, are actually related to the Apache-Navajo tribes of the American Southwest. The Apache Navajo are considered to be Southern Athabascan (also spelled Athapascan). The language structure, verb usage and words are similar, though the two groups live more than 3000 miles apart and have had no contact for many millennia. Some words have become obsolete over time and distance as the languages have evolved, but they have found that if they bring members from the different groups together, they are able to understand each other with some difficulty. I have included some links below that talk in more detail about the Athabascan Languages, relationships, dialects and origins.

Athabaskan Peoples Languages

http://qenaga.org/relationships.html

http://athabascanvoice.blogspot.com/2013/05/athabaskan-languages.html

Of the 31 dialects of Athabascan in Alaska, my particular story, The Dark Land is derived from legend of tailed creatures in the interior of Alaska in the region of the Ahtna (referring to the Upper Ahtna). The Dene, Han, Upper Tanana and other tribes have similar stories and legends revolving around evil creatures in the Alaska-Yukon wilderness, the most complete version resides in the book, Tatl’ahwt’aenn Nenn’ or The Headwater’s People’s Country, transcribed and edited by James Kari.

Cet’aenn Nal’aen’de (When the Tailed Ones Were Seen), is a chilling account of the Upper Ahtna’s encounter with the Cet’aenn (pronounced: Ket-ANN) detailed in the aforementioned book. It described evil, monkey-like creatures* that would come out of the ground at night and watch from the hills. The story describes how the Ahtna vanquished the creatures in the particular area known as Roasted Salmon Place (Batzulnetas), but the implication is that they didn’t eliminate them entirely.

*English translation-no word for monkey in Dena’ina/Ahtna.

Talking with some of my other friends who are more closely related to the Tanacross/Tanana tribes, this oral story/legend is not familiar to them. But they are very familiar with what is known as the Bush Men (Ts’el’eni or Kol’eni) or “Wild Men of the Tundra.” According to legend these men are known for kidnapping women and children and waging war against the First Peoples. There is also fervent belief in “The Hairy Man,” or the Wood Man (Nuhu’anh) what we would call Big Foot or Sasquatch.

http://www.native-languages.org/ahtna-legends.htm

No matter where you go, the theme of something sinister lurking in the woods beyond the shadows of the campfire prevails. No matter what our differences, tales of things waiting to devour those that stay too far from the path permeate every culture. Blending these tales into my own brand of fiction was a fun adventure, at the same time I wanted to share the inspiration. I also wanted to share the reason why I will definitely think twice before investigating the strange noise outside my cabin in the darkness.

Thanks for reading. If you want to read about legendary bloodthirsty creatures stalking the frozen trails of Alaska, you can find The Dark Land on Amazon.

You can also check out more of my blog posts about my Alaska adventures on my website:

http://dmshepard.com/blog/

Daniella’s book, The Dark Land, a wonderful mix of romance, terror, and action will be released May 4th. Yes, I’ve read it. Yes, it’s a lot of fun. Check back on May 4, 2020 for a full review.

You can also find Daniella on Twitter.

It’s All Just Fiction, Right? Right?

A conversation popped up on Twitter not too long ago that left me thinking. Thinking isn’t a common occurrence for me, so my first worry was I have a brain aneurysm. That was followed up almost immediately by me wondering if I’d been a total dick and hadn’t realized it.

Normally I eschew political correctness. Not because I necessarily have anything against it, but because I feel it’s better to subscribe to the “Don’t Be A Dick” philosophy of living. That way when someone pulls a tweet years down the line, I can honestly say, “No, you’re the asshole! Very unfair!”

Just kidding. If someone pulls a tweet of mine years down the road and says, “Hey! This guy was being a dick!”, I can honestly say, “I’m really sorry. At the time, that wasn’t a thing, but I do apologize to anyone who I was a dick to.” And mean it. I really don’t go out of my way to be an asshole.

Anyway, I’m not going to reprint the discussion here, but I am going to reprint the tweet without a link so we can all start from the same page.

“When the walls are falling and the world is singing songs of doom and the record is skipping and everything’s about to go totally to shit, steal that kiss. Because that might be the last time you ever get the chance to.”

It was paraphrased from a short story I was working on. For the most part, people seemed unperturbed by it. There was one negative reaction, though. Fortunately, no one jumped on her for her response and everything moved along civilly. After a little back and forth, she apologized and I apologized and everyone went away happy.

The general gist of her complaint was stealing a kiss was wrong. To be honest, I can’t argue with her. Don’t go kissin’ folks that don’t want kissin’. Ain’t exactly rocket surgery. Just ask Greta Zimmer Friedman.

But it got me thinking about a couple of things. One is you can never be sure how your audience will react to your words. In communication theory we used a model called the Triangle of Reference to describe the phenomenon that different people will have different reactions to things based on past experiences. Think about this way: If you got scratched by a cat and the cut got infected and you nearly lost your arm and wound up with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills and a hook for a hand, you’re probably going to have a negative view of cats. You also probably got treated in America.

Bottom line on that is words have meaning and it’s not always the meaning you think it is. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to control that. Even if it’s only fiction, words can have an effect you didn’t expect.

Which leads to the second thing. If we can’t control how people interpret our words, should we strive for avoiding all potentially controversial topics knowing full well we could be poking a bear? In other words, should fiction be safe? Or is it better to write with iron fists and damn the consequences?

I know what I think, but I’m interested in hearing what other think. Drop me a comment.

The Art and Science of Selling Out

Earlier in the year, some of my Twitter writing community friends and I were trying to pull a guy back from the ledge. We’ll call him Gunther because, for some reason or another, that name popped into my mind.

Gunther, it seemed, had a problem. His prose was weighty. Dense like a collapsed star, and about as fun to read as stereo instructions. His reviews were coming back with things like “Reading this was like wading through rancid molasses” and “This was so bad, I think it gave me cancer”. Note: not actual reviews, but those were the general gist.

Now, as every writer knows, reviews can be important things. They can help drive sales, but they can also give you an indication of what’s working and what’s not working. I got one a couple of years ago about head-hopping in a story. For the uninitiated, head-hopping is the process of switching back and forth between viewpoints in narrative. It’s part of the third person omniscient style of telling a story and, done correctly, it can be a useful tool because it lets the reader get into each character’s head. The problem is, done poorly, it can be jarring and leave a reader wondering which character was thinking what at the time. That leads to confused readers and the number one rule of writing is never confuse your reader.

Guess which way I did it.

Actually, when you get down to it, that’s really the only rule of writing. You can do anything you want in a story as long as it doesn’t leave the reader scratching their head and wondering where you scored the crack before you started writing. Tell an entire story without punctuation? Sure. Charlie Huston did it in his Joe Pitt books. (Fun fact: Charlie Huston is kind of my hero). Tell a story while you’re hopped up on every drug known to man and drunk as a skunk to boot? Go check out Hunter S. Thompson. (Also my hero). Make liberal use of the word “fuck”? Guilty.

Point is: Huston and Thompson and every other successful writer out there knew how to tell a story without confusing their readers, no matter what other weird chicanery they may have pulled. Gunther lacked that skill. So, not only was his prose dense as fuck, it was confusing to boot. Think of it as a weightier version of Sean Penn’s abysmal writing without the star power to drive sales.

While a handful of us were imploring Gunther to just, you know, change his style to something that people would want to read, he was busy complaining that he couldn’t change his style. And moping about it. And whining.

That was about the part where I checked out. When you’ve got a handful of people giving you some advice, you don’t immediately discard it because “you can’t change”. Advice is like a live-action review and woe unto the person who ignores the review that says a book was so bad it gave them cancer.

Here’s the deal: any writer worth their salt is going to be able to adapt. There’s nothing wrong with adaptation. Like the U.S. Marines like to say: Improvise, adapt, and overcome.

You can call it selling out if you’d like. You can even call that a bad thing if it makes you happy, but what’s worse: Writing exactly like you want and having no one read it or adapting and still getting your words out?

My grandfather used to love to say, “A piece of information is only good if you have a use for it”. Thomas Edison’s middle name was Alva and the Battle of Hastings was in 1066? Unless you’re really into history, that’s useless information. Knowing Edison was an inventor who’s credited with a short ton of inventions is useful. Knowing he was vicious bastard who happily stole inventions from other people and called them is own (*cough Tesla cough*) can be useful. Knowing his middle name? Who cares.

Writing’s kind of like that. You can either be the bit of information out there, all alone and screaming into the void, or you can be the thing that changes the way people look at the world. Gunther, if you happen to come across this post at some point, consider at least trying to do things differently. Trust me, you can do it. You can improvise, you can adapt, and you can overcome. Or you can be Alva. Your call.

Blurbing. Again.

Ask any author and they’ll tell you the most hated part of writing is the damned blurb. Something about condensing down 100k words into a few sentences is breathtakingly terrifying. Spend a year or so writing and editing and then cut that sucker down to something slightly longer than the TV Guide entry for Star Trek V. And don’t forget to make it exciting.

In the latest installment of the epic space series, the crew sets out to find God.

I usually don’t agonize over words in the book, but writing a blurb is a different kind of writing. It has to tell enough of the story that the reader knows what they’re getting, but it has obscure enough of the details that people want to read it to find out what happens. And it had better be coherent.

I’m not usually one to back away from a challenge, though. In order to get a little better at it, I’ve been writing imaginary blurbs in my head, trying to make the most mundane subjects sound dynamic and exciting. My old drama teacher used to say we don’t write plays about people brushing their teeth, but that’s not to say we can’t write a blurb about it.

In the harsh white light of the bathroom, Jake Hughes found a version of himself staring bleary-eyed from the mirror. He didn’t know how he got there or where he was going, but he had a brush in one hand and a tube of something in the other. Would he be able to solve the riddle in time or was his washed-out reflection right when it told him the woman he woke up with was about to burst in and shoo him out?

Jake Hughes was a legend in the cutthroat world of competitive solitaire until a string of harsh losses dimmed his star and left him deep in debt to the mob. He was about to play his last card when a hand with red fingernails stopped him. Now, to get back in the game, he has to learn how handle the cards and the woman who saved his life before the mafia shuffles his deck forever. In the process, he might just learn that even though it’s called solitaire, it doesn’t have to be played alone.

Jessica Hayha has felt the universe’s whiplash smile more than once. Down on her luck and running late for an interview, she feels the cruel hand of fate slapping her again. Of all the socks in her drawer, there’s not a single matching pair. Now, with time running out and the smoky voices of half-caf double-decaf lattes taunting her, she’s got one last shot at redemption before she resigns herself to being a barista forever. Find a matching pair or whither away like so many of her friends.

Anyway. Not perfect, but one of those things I like to do when I need to take a break from programming. And you know what they say, if you want to get better at something, do it a lot.

↓7↑8

We’ve watched Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive To Survive recently. Let me say it introduced me to two things about Formual 1. First, those drivers are fucking amazing. Anyone who can thread a needle when they’re strapped into a massive engine on wheels going 200+ MPH is incredible. Second, F1 has some spectacular wrecks. There were scenes of guys hitting a wall at 195 MPH, or flying upside down over other cars, rolling several times, and skidding to a halt in something that only barely resembled a car.

wreck2

Robert Kubica’s crash in 2007. He survived.

The truly amazing thing was after those crashes, the drivers not only walked away, but got back in a car the next day and kept racing. I was in a car in a friend back in the early 90s when a truck shoved us off the road. To this day, I’m leery of being next to big rigs. And not just because I’m worried that they’re a bunch of cross-dressing pill-hounds hopped up on every goofball imaginable.

Fear is a natural thing. It’s what keeps us alive. The first time you burn yourself you realize fire is a bad thing to play with. The first time you get kicked in the teeth, you learn to keep your guard up. It’s a natural survival mechanism and something to be respected. No one likes to be hurt, so we avoid things that will cause pain. Simple.

The problem is, any F1 driver would probably tell you that crashes are a natural thing in car racing. Just like anyone will tell you fire has some valid uses and any fighter will tell you sometimes you have to take a blow to get in position to land a better shot. Being completely risk-averse will land you a nice position on your couch, surrounded by all manner of security mechanisms, watching the world pass you by while you slowly turn into a non-entity getting more and more entrenched in your ways until all that’s left for you to do is squawk about how thing should be.

In other words, survival mechanisms can keep you alive, but they can also keep you from living. Change is inevitable. Shit happens. Whatever. Pick your aphorism.

Sometimes things kick you square in the balls and steal your wallet. At that point, you can lie there holding your nuts and grumbling about how there’s never a cop around when you need one or you can get up, kick out your mugger’s kneecap and steal his wallet.

rock-dog

This has nothing to do with the text, I just think it’s funny.

Which leads – in a roundabout, profanity-laden way – to the point. I’ve written about how Twitter has become a haven for writers before. For the most part, that still rings true. Sure, there are some dicks out there, but that’s true of everywhere and most of the writers on Twiter are decent folk. They’re happy to listen, dispense advice, and generally be supportive. To a point, anyway.

There’s always that one person who’s going through a crisis of faith in their writing. It happens. You wake up at 3am, convinced you’re a no-talent hack. If you’re like most of us, you fret about it for a bit and then remember there are plenty of no-talent hacks doing all manner of things successfully and go back to sleep. Some people perseverate to the point that it becomes all-consuming and there are only so many times you can say, “Let it go, everyone goes through this” before it gets to be too much work and you go back to looking up dog videos. Especially, when the problem is painfully obvious. For instance, if there’s a fundamental disconnect with your writing style – say, you only want to write in Mayan Haiku – then you either need to change it or accept that your audience is going to be limited.

I get it. It sucks hearing something you poured your heart and soul into isn’t working. It’s the 200mph smack into the wall or the fist in the teeth. It hurts. But if you really want to do something, there are going to be times when you have to work at it. And that means you have to dust yourself off, get back in the game, and learn to get better at it.

truckflip

Got an interesting story (that doesn’t name names), tell it in the comments…

Roadside Attractions – Blurb Hell

Roadside Attractions has been picked up for publication by Kyanite Press. It should come out sometime in 2020 or thereabouts. In addition to the text and the cover (both of which are undergoing modifications), I have to come up with a damned blurb.

Blurbs are one of those things that you have to deal with. I’ve written about how to do them a few times on this blog, but like a lot of things, they’re easier to write about than to actually write. I think I’ve got a decent one, but any input would be welcome.

A piece of Hell exists in a tiny town in southern Arizona.
During a not-so-routine investigation into a haunting, a pair of ghost hunters get a strange text message beckoning them to Dragoon, Arizona. The message promises them a ghost unlike any they’ve ever met and riches galore for investigating the entity. They find the ghost, but more sinister forces are lurking in the town and soon the ghost-hunters – and the ghost they were sent to hunt – find themselves caught between a renegade devil and the hitwoman sent from Hell to stop him. With time running out and no one to turn to, they’ll have to dig deep into science, magic, and themselves to stop a great evil from awakening or the world will suffer an eternity of darkness.

Comments? Thoughts? More rotten fruit tossed at me while an angry mob chants at me to give writing and go back to whatever rock I crawled out from under?

Also, is this a dope-ass cover or what?

RoadsideAttractionsR4Small