Oswald is Watching

Some people ask me how I manage to be as productive as I am. There is a simple reason for my single-minded motivation. Whenever I do turn away from my writing for a brief respite, I realise I’m being watched. This cool, calculated, knowing stare is enough to remind me of my priorities and, whilst he believes that kibble and Cheddars are more important than finishing the current work in progress, he never fails to remind me that I have a job to finish.

Thank you, Oswald, for keeping me focused on the important stuff.

Book Update

The fifth book in the dark tales from Innsmouth is looking like it might be a little longer than its predecessors. Characters from previous stories are taking prominent roles in the story and I’m having too much fun with what’s happening to try and force it into a shorter package.

Consequently, if this ends up being a little delayed for its release date, I apologise now.

And, for anyone wanting to know how it begins…

Graham McLaughlin thought the view from the top of the Randolph Carter Memorial Tower was impressive. It was only a little after sunset but the darkness was already intense. The world around him was enveloped by an inescapable blackness, broken only by occasional splashes of neon illumination.  McLaughlin swung one leg over the waist-high rail that separated the safety of the observation platform from a two hundred foot drop, and stepped out onto the narrow ledge that circled the tower top. He drew a deep breath of the chilly air and tried to savour the excitement of being so close to death.

Nothing came.

Beneath him, two hundred feet down, he could see the sprawl of the Innsmouth University campus. The familiar old buildings of LeGrasse and Thurston, as well as the more modern units of the library, refectory and admin buildings, all looked like something taken from the scaled landscape of a hobbyist’s railway set. He knew, if he jumped or fell from this spot, he would make a substantial hole in the roof of the rotunda at the base of the tower. He also knew such a fall would likely be the last thing he ever did with his miserable life.

And he knew it would be no great loss to the world.

To the west of where he stood, McLaughlin could see the shadowy shape of the kurgan that sat atop the shoreline cliffs. It was an ancient burial site where a colleague of his had recently died.[1] To the north, sitting at the top of the Innsmouth peninsular, with its white walls illuminated by stark security lighting, he could see the imposing structure of Clevedon Manor, standing proud and exclusive in the middle of its own grounds. Clevedon Manor was home to the secretive society that called themselves the Esoteric Order of Dagon, and McLaughlin shuddered a little as he thought about the dangers that the lunatic cult represented. He didn’t dare stare at the building for too long, knowing the sight always fostered dark thoughts of helplessness and despair. Angrily, he wrenched his gaze away and almost lost his footing. The prospect of plummeting down was disquieting, but it did not make his heartrate increase by a single beat per second. He could easily fall to his death without his body showing a single symptom of concern.

A hand reached out from inside the top of the tower and grasped his wrist.

“Professor McLaughlin,” Karl gasped.

McLaughlin studied the student with haunted eyes. He’d had an opportunity to kill Karl several months earlier, but he’d failed to take advantage of the chance. There had been times since then that he’d doubted the wisdom of his kind decision. Even now, knowing that Karl had just saved him from falling to his death from the top of the Randolph Carter Memorial Tower, McLaughlin felt no notion of gratitude.

“You almost fell,” Karl said, concern rich in his tone.

McLaughlin shrugged as he stepped back into the safety of the tower top.  He gestured at the man-bag Karl was carrying and asked, “Did you bring the F17, like I told you?”


[1] Read Kurgan: a dark tale from Innsmouth for full details.

What are you doing in Innsmouth?

by Ashley Lister

This is not a question anyone has asked me, but it is one that needs answering. More importantly, it is a question that needs answering in the language of formal academia, because I like to think I have been pursuing the task of writing these novellas with a level of academic gravitas.

It might be enough to say that I am in the process of writing a series of novellas that are loosely based on locations, characters and ideas originally created by HP Lovecraft. I have given each of my novellas the subtitle: a dark tale from Innsmouth.

By way of introducing Lovecraft, his entry on biography.com says:

H.P. Lovecraft was born in 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. The horror magazine Weird Tales bought some of his stories in 1923. His story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ came out in 1928 in Weird Tales. Elements of this story would reappear in other related tales. In his final years, he took editing and ghost-writing work to try to make ends meet. He died on March 15, 1937, in Providence, Rhode Island.

biography.com

This succinct summary describes the life of one of the twentieth century’s most influential horror writers. As horror writer Stephen King explained to American Heritage magazine, “Now that time has given us some perspective on his work, I think it is beyond doubt that H.P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale” (ibid).

Personally, for this series of novellas, I have taken inspiration from Lovecraft’s Herbert West and the location of Innsmouth and I shall discuss each of those below.

Herbert West is the central character of ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’. This story was written between October 1921 and June 1922. It was first serialized in February through July 1922 in the amateur publication Home Brew (lovecraft.fandom, n/d). The story narrates the career of Herbert West, a medical student, who has a fascination with the concept of restoring life to the recently deceased. Over six instalments, West develops his treatment. This means the story’s main horrific elements come from semantic content, such as death, dead bodies and graverobbing, although much of the narrative tension comes from the worry that West will either fail or be successful.

It is worth noting that Science Fiction-The Early Years calls ‘Herbert West–Reanimator’ “wretched work” and Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi claims that ‘Herbert West–Reanimator’ is “universally acknowledged as Lovecraft’s poorest work” (ibid). However, whilst I feel sure that these detractors have good reason for their scathing assessments, and I understand Lovecraft was unhappy with writing this series to suit the specific demands of his friend and editor George Julian Houtain, and it is acknowledged that writers seldom produce their best work when they are unhappy with the writing process, I find the Herbert West stories to be accessible. They present a satisfying character-driven horror yarn. Further, they have clearly pleased other readers and audiences as evidenced by adaptations such as those that appeared in the 1950’s editions of EC’s Weird Science magazine, the series of films that started with Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), and the serial from Crypt of Cthullu (1989) entitled ‘Herbert West Reanimated’.

The history of Innsmouth is a little less straightforward. Lovecraft first used the name of Innsmouth in a short story, ‘Celephaïs’ (1920), when the location was a fictional village in England. However, in ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth’ (1936), Innsmouth is located in Massachusetts, America. In subsequent references in Lovecraft’s work, Innsmouth remains in Massachusetts and this is how Lovecraft first describes the location:

It was a town of wide extent and dense construction, yet one with a portentous dearth of visible life. From the tangle of chimney-pots scarcely a wisp of smoke came, and the three tall steeples loomed stark and unpainted against the seaward horizon. One of them was crumbling down at the top, and in that and another there were only black gaping holes where clock-dials should have been. The vast huddle of sagging gambrel roofs and peaked gables conveyed with offensive clearness the idea of wormy decay, and as we approached along the now descending road I could see that many roofs had wholly caved in. There were some large square Georgian houses, too, with hipped roofs, cupolas, and railed “widow’s walks”.

Lovecraft, Shadow Over Innsmouth

Despite this grim description, which makes Innsmouth appear like something stricken by entropy and the decay of neglect, the main source of horror in ‘Shadow Over Innsmouth’ comes from the idea that this coastal location is home to a dark and dirty secret. The people of Innsmouth are something other than human. They share physical similarities that show a common heritage and, as the story plays out, we learn that the locals are the progeny of an unholy union. As explained in the summary at bookstldr.com:

The narrator meets Zadok, who explains that an Innsmouth merchant named Obed Marsh discovered a race of fish-like humanoids known as the Deep Ones. When hard times fell on the town, Obed established a cult called the Esoteric Order of Dagon, which offered human sacrifices to the Deep Ones in exchange for wealth in the form of large fish hauls and unique jewelry. When Obed and his followers were arrested, the Deep Ones attacked the town and killed more than half of its population, leaving the survivors with no other choice than to continue Obed’s practices. Male and female inhabitants were forced to breed with the Deep Ones, producing hybrid offspring which have the appearance of normal humans in early life but, in adulthood, slowly transform into Deep Ones themselves and leave the surface to live in ancient undersea cities for eternity. He further explains that these ocean-dwellers have designs on the surface world and have been planning the use of shoggoths to conquer or transform it.

(bookstldr.com, n/d)

Nowadays it is easy to see this story as indicative of Lovecraft’s fears of ethnic diversity and his sanctioning of racial purity. The dangers of wholesome European-Americans breeding with someone from an ‘other’ culture is like a warning to early twentieth century man about what happens when eugenics are ignored. It is also well-documented that racism is overtly foregrounded in his poetry and letters. According to The Atlantic, “This is a man who, in a 1934 letter, described “extra-legal measures such as lynching & intimidation” in Mississippi and Alabama as “ingenious”” (Eil, 2015).

However, the stories I wanted to write sidestepped Lovecraft’s obscene notions of racial purity and focused on the genuinely unsettling content of the two stories. I wanted to write about a Herbert West-esque character who was tampering with human lives, oblivious to the harm and upset he was causing. I also wanted to set the story in a location similar to Innsmouth in that it would be somewhere where the uncanny and the supernatural were commonplace.

TO BE CONTINUED

Bibliography

biography.com (ed), 2020, H.P. Lovecraft Biography, Available at: https://www.biography.com/writer/hp-lovecraft, (Accessed: 24th May 2021)

bookstldr.com (ed), 2021, The Shadow Over Innsmouth Summary, Available at: https://www.bookstldr.com/book/the_shadow_over_innsmouth, (Accessed: 25th May 2021)

Eil, P., 2015, The Unlikely Reanimation of H P Lovecraft, The Atlantic, Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/hp-lovecraft-125/401471/, (Accessed 25th May 2021)

lovecraft.fandom (ed) n/d, Herbert West-Reanimator, Available at: https://lovecraft.fandom.com/wiki/Herbert_West–Reanimator#Plot_summary, (Accessed: 24th May 2021)

Old People Sex

I published my book of poetry late last year. Since then I’ve managed to record it as an audiobook – which is perhaps the way it was intended to be enjoyed. Below is one of the pieces from that collection in print form. And, in the paragraph immediately beneath this one, is a link to the audio version of this piece.

I was asked to speak at an education conference where the theme was respect and tolerance. It’s not often I’m asked to speak at conferences. It’s even rarer that I’m invited to return to a conference (unless it’s to offer an apology). I wrote this poem for that conference because I thought it lampooned the double-standards which are so prominent in the realm of respect and tolerance. Ironically, the person organising the conference did not think it would be suitable for me to share this piece with the delegates.

Advice to the Millennium Generation

1 – Boys. Pull your trousers up. I don’t want to look at your underpants. Or your backsides. It’s a symptom of a sad society when young men have forgotten how to properly operate a pair of trousers.

2 – Girls. Stop being orange. Only oompah loompas, the tango man and Donald Trump are supposed to be orange. If God had wanted you to be that colour you would have been born in Chernobyl.

3 – All students. Bring a pen to the classroom. This is not rocket surgery. You’re in a classroom. There is paper and there might be learning. There’s a strong chance you might need to write something down and – unlike you – a pen might prove useful.

4 – Boys. Don’t mumble. If you’re asking a question I need to hear it before I can answer. That’s the way these vocal exchanges work away from the role playing games on your XBox.

5 – Girls. Don’t mumble. If you’re answering a question the chances are you’re wrong. But at least let me hear what you’re saying so I can laugh about it later and share your inanities with colleagues in the staffroom.

6 – All students. Bathe. Wash. Shower. And don’t just do this once a term. Do it regularly. And do something more than spraying two cans of Lynx Africa at the most pungent parts of your anatomy.

7 – All Students. For the love of God: please don’t breed. Ever since the Baby Boomers, each subsequent generation has been part of humanity’s downward spiral. If the urge to breed does come upon you, either sniff your partner, look at its orange colour, listen to it mumbling, or notice that it’s walking with its pants round its ankles. Surely these observations will be enough to deter you all from breeding.

8 – All Students. Follow the example of your elders and always show respect and tolerance

Copies of Old People Sex (and other highly offensive poems) can be found on Amazon.

Release Day

I’ve not done much to publicise the release of Kurgan.

There are a couple of reasons for this.  Primarily, I’ve been a little under the weather. A sensible approach would have been to delay the launch but I’d promised the book would be out on this date, and I didn’t want to let anyone down, so it’s been released without the usual fanfare.

Secondly, I’m a superstitious idiot and I have never been a huge fan of the number FOUR. With Kurgan being the fourth in the series, I figured I would let this one slip out into the world at its own pace.

This is not to say there’s anything wrong with this title. Kurgan brings back Ellie from Fearless, as well as Sharon and Anjali from Unearthed. It also introduces us to some of the events that are going to feed into the story’s developing ideas, such as the Esoteric order of Dagon and the representatives of the Elder Gods.

This is how the story begins:

Prologue

The Thurston lecture hall lights dimmed. An audience of students, scholars and interested layfolk filled the tiered seats. The murmur of their expectant chatter susurrated from the ceiling and walls. Dr Ellie Green thought it was exceptionally busy for a lecture on an investigation into the roots of Proto-Indo-European language, but she was not surprised by the large numbers. Given the upset and notoriety that had plagued the investigation, Ellie had expected this lecture to be packed with ghouls and the macabrely curious. She recognised the faces of a handful of reporters in the auditorium and inwardly cursed each of them.

“This lot are going to eat us alive,” Anjali muttered in a soft whisper.

“We’ve faced worse,” Ellie reminded her.

Anjali pursed her lips, as though biting back a comment. Clearly she felt as though she didn’t need to be reminded about the worse things they had faced, particularly not now when her anxiety was already at insane levels.

The lecture hall lights dimmed again, a prompt that they were expected to begin and, after checking her watch, Ellie gave a light sigh and said, “I suppose we should make a start.” She stepped away from the shorter woman and went to the podium beside the screen. Her shoulders were back. She stood tall and defiant and ready to face anything. Dressed in a form-fitting suit, predominantly charcoal over a white blouse, and with a gold broach in the shape of an ugly mermaid pinned to her left lapel, she presented an imposing figure. She was tall, redheaded and austerely attractive.

With a click of the mouse she turned on the screen and silence blanketed the hall.

The screen at the front of the lecture hall bore the title: KURGAN. Beneath that were the words, presented by Dr Ellie Green and Dr Anjali Hill. Beneath that were the words: respectfully dedicated to the memory of Dennis Waite, PhD, FHEA, MCIfA. In the bottom right hand corner of the screen was the message: Sponsored by the Esoteric Order of Dagon.

“Good evening,” Ellie began. She spoke with a cool confidence that did not betray any suggestion of nervousness. “It’s a pleasure to see so many faces in the hall this evening,” Ellie said brightly. “I had no idea that the field of archaeolinguistics was enjoying such a vogue of popularity.”

There were a handful of chuckles, but this sound was lost beneath the uncomfortable shuffling of feet from those who clearly had no knowledge about archaeolinguistics or its related disciplines. These feet-shufflers, Ellie knew, were the ghouls who had come to hear a first-hand account of the ill-fated research project, and to see how her version of events married with what they’d read in the tabloids and seen on the viral videos about the Dzhebel Caves Massacre.

“Our project, as you can see, has been given the single word title, Kurgan.”

She pressed the mouse and the next screen appeared. Ellie paused for a moment allowing her audience to read the definitions she had placed there.

KURGAN: noun ARCHAEOLOGY; a prehistoric burial mound of a type found in southern Russia and the Ukraine.

Adjective; relating to the ancient Kurgans.

The words were black over an image of a lush green burial mound that sat beneath a cerulean Ukraine sky. The photograph was one of the many she had taken during the first hours of their investigation and, she realised unhappily, it had been taken before the first of the tragedies had befallen their research group.

There was a short, sharp cough and she saw that someone in the shadows of the hall had their hand in the air. Rolling her eyes, not sure how she was supposed to handle this sort of break with lecture hall protocol, Ellie said, “Is that a question already?”

“I thought the Kurgan was that really tall bloke from the Highlander film.”

Ellie glanced toward Anjali. Without bothering to lower her voice she said, “We’ve really attracted the intellectual elite this evening, haven’t we?”

Anjali cringed.

“If we can save questions, even stupid ones, until after this presentation, it will be much appreciated.” Not waiting for her audience to acknowledge this, Ellie clicked to the next slide which displayed a subtitle: Proving the Proto-Indo-European root.

A voice in the audience gasped.

Ellie grinned. “It sounds like there’s at least one person here who understands the enormity of our discovery. Since we seem to be breaking with protocol this evening, perhaps you’d care to share your insights with the rest of the room?”

“You can’t talk to them like they’re a bunch of first years,” Anjali whispered.

“First years in my classes would have a damned sight more knowledge than this ignorant rabble,” Ellie returned.

Anjali was shaking her head, and looked set to argue, but the figure in the auditorium was standing and clearing his throat. “Proto-Indo-European is the theorized common ancestor of the Indo-European language family,” he began. “It’s the single root of all modern languages.” He spoke with the clear tones of a lecturer and sounded confident in the definition he was supplying. Ellie recognised him as Graham McLaughlin, one of the senior researchers from the Cognitive Science Unit. “Its proposed features have been derived by linguistic reconstruction from documented Indo-European languages,” Graham went on. “But no direct record of Proto-Indo-European is known to man.”

Ellie smiled at him and shook her head slowly. “No direct record of Proto-Indo-European was known to man. But that was before Dr Hill and I made our discovery.”

“Good Lord,” Graham muttered, before settling back down into his seat.

Ellie clicked to the next screen.

Someone in the auditorium screamed.

Kurgan is available as a paperback or for immediate download.

Kurgan

Fearless, Unearthed and Cursed

Dark things are afoot in Innsmouth. There are ghosts. There are cults. The dead are being summoned from their graves and the living are divided into those who suffer from this chaos, and those who encourage it.

Each of these novellas can be read as a standalone title telling a complete story. Together, they’re contributing to a much larger narrative that’s only intended for the bravest souls.

Kurgan, the latest title in this series is now available for pre-order.

An excavation at a newly discovered kurgan, an ancient burial site, in Innsmouth uncovers some disturbing surprises. A senior archaeologist dies. A nefarious cult take advantage of the discoveries to further their own cause. And before long, a team from Innsmouth are travelling halfway around the world to find the relationship between their excavation and a long dead secret that yearns to rise from its grave.

Pre-Order your copy today to learn what happens as soon as the the title is released.

I never promised you a rose garden

I try to keep Monday on this blog free for updates about my writing and books. This week I could tell you that the audiobook version of Old People Sex is now available. That was an absolute joy to record. I could tell you that Kurgan is now available for pre-order and will be released on June 1st. Or I could explain that Cursed will be soon be available as an audiobook, once I’ve sorted out a couple of technical glitches.

But, instead, I thought you’d like to see some random pictures of what I’ve been doing with the garden, and a picture of a dog in a dress.

The reason for the rose photographs is a segue into a cool story about my gardening prowess.  A couple of years ago, because my rose bushes were thriving, I thought it would be a sensible idea to take a cutting of one stem and grow another bush from that.

I consulted Dr Google before proceeding, and found an interesting video where a gentleman took a rose cutting, drilled a hole in a potato, pushed the rose stem in the potato, and then planted the potato in the ground. 

This looked relatively easy, and drilling holes in potatoes looked like fun.  I tried this, and, to cut a long story short, have ended up growing potatoes in the middle of my rose beds.

Below is the promised picture of the dog in the dress.

Something for the Weekend

Have I mentioned how much I love Colin Davies? For those of you who are unfamiliar with the talented author, this is a link to Blood Ink. His work is entertaining and rich in imagination and delightfully unsettling.

However, this isn’t a blog post where I blow smoke up Colin’s arse for his writing. This is a blog post where I blow smoke up Colin’s arse for his cover design. I had previously published Old People Sex (and other highly offensive poems) using one of Amazon’s prêt-à-porter covers. The cover was OK but nothing special – and I think a cover should always try to be a little bit more special than merely OK.

Part of the problem was that it’s difficult to select a cover for a diverse collection of poetry.

Covers for horror stories are relatively simple. Get a shot of a spooky location. Make it either black and white, sepia tinted, or bloodstained, and you’re pretty much there. Erotic stories simply need an image of naked torsos touching and a shot of electric blue or neon pink, and you can soon sign off on the project.

Old People Sex

But Old People Sex (and other highly offensive poems) was a lot more than difficult to sum up with a single image. The collection includes poems about politics. It includes poems about sex. It includes poems about blackmailing hackers. And so much more.

Actually, it contains approximately two hours of poetry (including introductions), and as some of the titles cover subjects as varied as ‘Veet’, ‘Cleveleys’ and ‘One Way Traffic?’ I think it’s fair to say that producing a single image that captures the mood of the text was something way beyond my abilities.

But it wasn’t beyond the abilities of Colin Davies.  This is the new cover of Old People Sex (and other highly offensive poems) and I can’t remember the last time I was so delighted with an image. From the old-fashioned wallpaper to the Evening Primrose lube and abandoned false-teeth (as well as my photograph sitting on a bedside cabinet) it does everything I want in a cover.

Thank you, Colin. You’re a genuine genius.

The Ballad of Poor Simple Dave