Interview with writer M.D. Neu

Writer M.D. Neu joined me to talk about his upcoming novella, The Reunion, and writing gay fiction.

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You have a novella, The Reunion, coming out later this month – a creepy tale for October. Tell me about your story.

The Reunion came about several years ago based on a larger game some friends and I played.  After the game ended I decided to write a reunion with a majority of the characters coming together one last time. The story takes place twenty years after the events of the game and was only meant to be a final goodbye.

Originally the story started out as a small 3000 word short that I got accepted to TallTaleTV.com (you can hear the short here: http://talltaletv.com/?s=The+Reunion ) but as I played with it over time the story got larger and more detailed.  I continued to work the story expanding and changing the characters.  Also, I added some new elements to round out what happens and make it creepier.  The one thing I never changed was the paranormal and ‘creepy’ aspect. In fact I amped it up. When the novella comes out on Oct 23rd (thank you to NineStar Press for accepting the story) it will be a full 21,000-word short story. You can pre-order it here: https://ninestarpress.com/product/the-reunion/ . I’m proud of the final product and I hope folks enjoy it.

Here is the summary of the story:

It’s been twenty years since the quiet Midwestern town of Lakeview was struck by tragedy.  But every year on the anniversary of the event Teddy returns home for ‘The Reunion’. Lakeview, like Teddy, has secrets and not all mysteries should come to light.

TheReunion cover

You have a passion for speculative and paranormal fiction with gay characters. Is representation a big motivating factor for your writing?

As a gay man who grew up with little queer representation in media I wanted to change that as a writer.  When I was a kid if you saw a gay character on TV or in the movies they were always there for shock value (remember the lesbian kiss on Roseanne, or Ellen coming out on her show, the media and people went nuts) or they were tragic characters (Philadelphia ring any bells) or campy fun.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love campy.  I love over the top gay. I love Drag Queens.  I love, as Harvey Fierstein once said, ‘Sissies’.  And I love the beautiful gays we see on TV now. But that isn’t only who we are.  We’re everyone.  We’re everywhere.  We’re from every walk of life, and I wanted… no I needed to show that in my writing.

In ‘The Reunion’ the main character, Teddy, dresses in drag and he lived with his partner, Lane.  They have a son, Nate, as well. Teddy is also a hairstylist. Did I hit some stereotypes, yes, but what I want people to know is that wasn’t the intent.  Teddy is based on two people from my life, a friend who passed away (hairstylist and drag performer) and my mom who also passed away (she was a hairstylist).  That is where Teddy comes from so he may be a bit of a stereotype, but for me that’s okay because I’m honoring two important people in my life.

Also, in this story I wanted to introduce a trans character. Issues of acceptance are so important these days that I absolutely wanted to include a member of the trans community and I hope I do her justice.

Lastly, why I think representation is so important is I remember reading Anne Rice’s ‘Interview with a Vampire’ in the 80s  (the book came out in the 70s) and for it’s time the gay undertones were very much there.  However, it was never mentioned and it kind of hurt, because I got to see two men raising a daughter.  Sure it was all shades of messed up, but think about it, had anyone every done anything like that before in a high profile wildly successful novel. I don’t think so.

Sorry, I know I got on a bit of soapbox, but your question was important and I wanted to really explain things.

Do you have any recommendations of things you’ve enjoyed reading that have done this well?

I mentioned Interview with a Vampire. I think did a good job for its time.  There is a lot of new stuff coming out that I think approaches the subject well, however, a lot of it is romance and erotica, which is great, but for me I want to read things that aren’t romance or erotica. I want adventure and to be frightened.  I don’t mind aspects of romance, but I don’t want that to be the focus. There is another author I know. JP Jackson’s new book, Daimonion, is excellent. The queer undertones are there and it’s not a romance, which makes it a nice change.  I’m sure there are tons of others, I’m just not thinking of any at the moment.

Like me, you’re a fan of vampires and I think you have a vampire book coming up too. What’s appealing about vampires for you?

Oh, my gosh I love vampires. Yes. My debut novel, The Calling, is all about vampires, as well as a nerdy shy, not very attractive gay man.  It comes out Jan 1st 2018.

For me vampires represent the fringe of society.  Some can pass as ‘normal’, but they don’t fit in and they never will.  Vampires had to learn to work within the confines of society, but because they are different they have to live in the shadows and hide.  Throughout history they’ve always been there, but for most people they have no clue.  Vampires either hide or fit in and hide that way.  You see where I’m going with this, right? Vampires are the perfect metaphor for queer society.  The other thing about vampires I find so appealing is, of course, they are sexy as hell (well at least mine are).

What are your biggest writing influences?

My biggest writing influences, wow I have a lot.  I love Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock, Harvey Fierstein, Anne Rice and Kim Stanley Robinson. All these people have shown us various worlds that I find exciting and appealing.  I can only hope that my works can stand in their company.

Thank you for having me.

M.D. Neu is a LGBTQA Fiction Writer with a love for writing and travel. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley (San Jose, California), he’s always been fascinated with what could be. Growing up in an accepting family as a gay man, he always wondered why there were never stories reflecting who he was. Constantly surrounded by characters that only reflected heterosexual society, M.D. Neu decided he wanted to change that. So, he took to writing, wanting to tell good stories that reflected our diverse world.

 When M.D. Neu isn’t writing, he works for a non-profit and travels with his biggest supporter and his harshest critic, Eric his husband of eighteen plus years.

 Links:

www.mdneu.com

https://twitter.com/Writer_MDNeu

https://www.facebook.com/mdneuauthor

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Queer Book Club: For Real by Alexis Hall

For real cover

Adult BDSM M/M romance. A rare erotic romance review for me. I worry my responses to this genre are pretty personal, so I’m not sure how much use my opinion is to another reader, but I did really enjoy this and think it’s well written, so I thought I’d try a review.

Laurence is 37, and still hurt over a relationship that finished six years ago. The BDSM scene is feeling pretty stale to him, but he struggles to trust anyone enough to get close. Toby is 19, and completely new to the scene. The one thing he knows is he’s dominant. Can Laurence overcome his trust issues, and his misgivings about Toby’s age, enough to be submissive in a relationship again?

The point of view switches between Laurence and Toby, with Toby’s bits written in present tense and Laurence’s in past, to convey their different ages and personalities. I think the style switch works well. The voices of Laurence and Toby are also very distinct.

The main premise, and what makes For Real pretty unique, is the dom is much younger and less experienced than the sub, so there’s a learning curve for both of them, both in terms of each other, and what they want from kink. Laurence’s life is well established—he’s a successful emergency doctor with a nice big house—whereas Toby has lost his way and is stuck working in a greasy cafe for minimum wage. I really like the emotional exploration of what BDSM means to the two characters and how that interacts with the other parts of their lives. I think this is the most successful aspect of the story (aside from the kink scenes, which are very good). Alexis Hall avoids clichés in order to deliver something which feels fresh and unique. If your tastes run to traditional hard-ass alpha doms, this isn’t for you. Toby is pretty fragile, at times, and finding his feet.  But there are also a lot of inventive smut scenes, as Toby finds his way into what he likes and what Laurence likes. There’s even a foody scene which I enjoyed, and I usually get squicked out by that sort of thing.

My only criticism of this book is that, particularly in the second half, I found the emotional rollercoaster a little bumpy and extreme at times (oh my God, everything is perfect, oh no we’ve crashed, it is the very worst…), but it is a huge page turner, with a lot that’s good about it, so the bump didn’t detract too much. The smut is extremely hot (or at least, I found it so). There’s a lovely sweet little bath scene near the start, which I adore. I wish this had been followed up, but only because I like bath scenes. Oh, yes, and 37 isn’t all that ancient! As if my mid-life crisis needed any help.

One of the interesting things about this story, from the point of view of other queer fiction I read, is that the ‘coming out/coming of age’ bit is about kink and not about being queer. I like that Alexis Hall takes this aspect seriously. Read, if you want a responsibly written, hot BDSM novel with a convincing, realistic emotional aspect to the kink.

Queer Book Club: The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan

the-rental-heart-coverA collection of short stories, which vary from fairy tale re-imaginings to original magic realism and steampunk stories. There’s a lot of meat here, to get your teeth into—the sort of short stories that leave you thinking. There’s also a lot of originality and imagination on show.  A good chunk of the stories have queer characters (I especially noticed the bi visibility).

One of the highlights for me is the title story, ‘The Rental Heart’, in which the main character employs technology to have relationships without the risk of a broken heart. I also enjoyed ‘The Coin-Operated Boy’, a tongue-in-cheek steampunk story. (Although I kept getting the Dresden Dolls song of the same name lodged in my head.) ‘Matroyshka’ is an original twist on Cinderella, with a self-involved spoiled princess not getting what she feels she deserves. The settings vary from fantastical to modern day.

The collection includes some of my favourite elements of magic realism, with the magic representing intangible aspects of longing, lust, love and the stand-ins for love. This is definitely an adult collection, as there are a few smuttier bits.

With short story collections, there are always bound to be some I like more than others, but this is a really solid collection with no real low points. I’d definitely give more of Kirsty Logan’s work a look on the strength of this collection.

Queer Classics: Funeral Games by Mary Renault

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The final part of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, Funeral Games begins with Alexander’s death, and concerns the fallout that follows as his people vie for power, and to fill the huge void he leaves.

I found the action of this fascinating—the politics, the way that things fall out, the lengths the different characters will go to in order to achieve their aims, the sheer venality of it all. I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Persian Boy, which is by far my favourite. Funeral Games sees a return to the multiple third person points of view of the first book, and lacks the central driving emotion of that, so it’s my least favourite of the three.

Women, again, come out quite badly, though they get more screen time. Although, to be fair, everyone comes out badly, except Bagoas and Ptolemy. No tool is left unused in the bid for power—murder, manipulation, lies, deceit, the rewriting of history and war are all employed, with disastrous and tragic results. I did lose my temper at one point with Renault when something very silly happens to Eurydike (one of the key players in the power struggle) to thwart her bid for power. I won’t spoil it, but it drove me nuts and left me feeling incredulous.

Reservations aside, it’s still a fascinating study of a power vacuum. Politics don’t get any more vicious than this. Overall, I love the trilogy, but this isn’t the high point for me.

Queer Classics: The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

the-persian-boy-coverSecond in Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, The Persian Boy follows the story of Bagoas, the Persian eunuch who Alexander falls in love with, and is entirely from his point of view, in first person, unlike the other two books in the trilogy.

Oh, my heart. I loved this book. The detail, as Bagoas follows Alexander’s campaigns across the world, is breathtaking. I could have stayed in this world forever. It’s such a huge story, and Bagoas can only tell a small part of it, but I like that his perspective is limited in that way. It makes the story much more personal.

I also loved the main character. It’s quite unusual to have a male lead who is feminine and submissive, and that makes a nice change, especially given the subject matter of the story. It’s such an inspired choice by Renault. Whilst, in the first book, Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion seems to draw strength from the fact Alexander can be his relaxed, private self around Hephaestion, his relationship with Bagoas seems to allow him an outlet for his role as a divine hero, someone who is admired, as well as for his love of Persia. I think Renault shows how the two relationships complement each other, and Bagoas comes to accept that, despite his jealousy of Hephaestion. The relationship also highlights the racial tensions that Alexander faces from his own people, as he embraces the culture of a foreign land.

I hoped, all along, that Bagoas and Hephaestion might come to more of an overt understanding, but they do come to understand each other, in a way that is left unspoken. This is one of the ways that Renault captures the morality and behaviour of the time. In a modern book, the two would have inevitably had a heart to heart, but given the differences in the roles and statuses, and Bagoas’ own conservatism, it makes sense that they don’t.

My only major criticism is that this book doesn’t treat women particularly well, in the small space they’re given. To an extent, it reflects the times, but I think there’s also some prejudice on Renault’s part. Queen Sisygambis, Queen Mother of Darius III, is the only female character who comes out with any real dignity or strength.

So, lovely flexible gender representation on one hand, and not on the other. If you can get past the female characters (as I say, they play a tiny part), it’s an amazing book. I guess it’s going to be a subjective thing whether that’s a deal breaker, or not. While I admire this book a lot, for all the reasons I’ve said, I may not go on to read any more of Renault after this trilogy, because that could get grating. These generally seem to be considered her best, anyway.

Queer Classics: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

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This is the first of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, a fictional account of Alexander’s early years. I’m glad I read this as my first novel of the new year, because it’s excellent. This is a bit of a modern classic, as it was originally written in 1969, but was re-released in 2014 by Virago, with a shiny little intro by Tom Holland (author of Rubicon, my favourite popular history book). This is very much my kind of thing—historical fiction, ancient world, gay relationships. If you enjoyed Miller’s The Song of Achilles, you will probably like this.

The story follows Alexander from boyhood, where Renault charts his messy relationships with his parents, showing him trapped between their mutual enmity, often fought over or used as a weapon against the other. As Holland says in his intro, Renault doesn’t try to make the characters like modern characters—their morality is quite different—but the psychology is well drawn and complex.

As Alexander grows older, he begins a committed relationship with fellow warrior, Hephaestion. He seeks to echo the bond between Achilles and Patroclus he so admires in his favourite story, The Iliad. Their relationship is touching, but also far from simple. Renault gives insights into both their worries and inhibitions by deftly managed head hopping. It’s not a steamy relationship, so don’t expect anything like that. Alexander is unsure of physical love and doesn’t often seem very interested. There’s some ambiguity as to whether this is just his nature, or whether it’s a reaction against his father’s philandering.

I found the story immersive and captivating. From the personal relationships to the complex and often messy politics, and the ways those things intertwine, I was completely gripped from the first to the last page. When I finished, I was sorry to leave Alexander’s world. I’ve already ordered the next two books from my local library.

Gods and Insects: New Gothic Novella

gods-and-insects-cover-9by6-thumbnailMy new gothic horror novella, Gods and Insects, is out today. This is a sequel to Love is the Cure. To celebrate the new release, I’m offering the first book free for 5 days (until next Tuesday).

If you’ve read the first one, this one is a little bit different: it’s all from one point of view, Asher’s, with a more traditional narrative structure, and more than twice as long. Asher is the youngest vampire from the first book. This new book follows his ill-fated attempts to find his place in the vampire world. There’s more horror, freaky blood trips, gay and bi characters, a trans vampire (yay). At its heart, the story is a tragedy, and a fall (in the biblical sense).

Here’s the first chapter of Gods and Insects to whet your appetite. You can buy the ebook on Amazon (and download the first one for free until next Tuesday). There will also be a paperback edition to follow soon. I hope you enjoy the read.

1.

I should have fed before my shift. Now my skin is on fire with the need, my nostrils full of the scent of my co-worker’s blood, as I try to keep my distance in the enclosed space of the coffee shop counter. The tick of the clock on the wall echoes round my head, mocking me. Still forty minutes to go. And then I have to feed somehow. I botched the last one four nights ago; lost control of the guy I was feeding from. I’m no good at mind tricks. He tried to run and I had no choice but to—

The door opens to the night and the swish of tyres through the spring shower. My eyes are drawn to the man who enters. I can tell he’s one of my kind straight away. He has that presence the older ones have, somehow bigger than his physical body, straining against the limits of geometry. And the absence of the animal scent that mortals have, which most people don’t even notice. He joins the queue behind two drunk students and a weary looking woman in surgical scrubs and a coat. My eyes flick to him constantly, as if magnetised.

When it comes to his turn, I’m on my guard. He walks up to the counter and flashes me an amused smile, dark eyes twinkling. His skin is light brown, his black hair short, and he looks a little older than me. He has killer cheekbones. Even in this confined space, he moves like a dancer. He pulls a note from his pocket and that simple gesture is elegant, the rise and fall.

“So it’s true,” he says softly enough that only we can hear.

I’m not sure what to say, but I don’t want to look like a fool. Images of Sebastian and Kerrick flash through my mind, spattering blood across my thoughts. My creator and his other child. I try to push this fear aside, these violent memories. They can’t all be monsters. We can’t all be monsters.

“What?” I ask, trying not to show my nerves.

“One of our kind working in a coffee shop.” He chuckles and I bristle.

“Can I get you something?” The irritation sounds in my voice, but at least it hides my fear.

“Why don’t you choose for me? It doesn’t matter what, after all.” He gives me a conspiratorial grin.

I turn and prepare the machine to pour a double ristretto, the most expensive drink I can make. My tiny piece of revenge. His eyes bore into the back of my neck, as the dark liquid trickles into a cup at an agonising rate.

When it’s finally done, I place the cup in front of him and risk eye contact. His eyes are a rich dark brown. Permanently amused.

“When do you get off?” He slides the note towards me.

I try to read his face for some clue to what he wants from me, but he seems so relaxed. “Half an hour.”

“I’ll wait for you.” He lifts the cup to smell the coffee, eyes full of humour. His amusement doesn’t seem malicious, but I’m pretty sure I’m the joke.

I go through the motions for my last half hour, my eyes constantly flicking to the back of his head, as if I’ll find answers there. Contrasted against the dark of the night outside, the harsh electric lighting seems to spotlight me, picking me out for scrutiny. I wonder if he can see my hunger written across my face, as my co-worker nudges past me to clear the tables. If I could just taste her— I force the image back, though it seems more real to me than my surroundings. I can control this.

He’s sitting in one of the far booths, facing away from me, staring out into the night. That presence he has, I wonder whether I have it too. I’m sure it’s just the older ones. I’ve no intention of returning to Sebastian or Kerrick to ask them for advice. Kerrick offered me this escape from him, this chance to make my own way. At the time, I’d been afraid to be alone, but now I’m determined to make it work. I got this job far away from Spitalfields and Kerrick’s other haunts. Far away from Kensington, and Sebastian’s sphere. Somewhere central and neutral, where I thought no one would ask questions or even notice me. But clearly there’s nowhere to hide.

When I’m done for the night, I untie the apron from my waist, fold it into my satchel, and grab my coat from the back of the shop. The visitor is still waiting for me in the same place, his cup of coffee untouched. He turns as I approach.

“Sit yourself down,” he says, with that same sparkling smile. He gestures to the bench opposite.

It’s getting close to 2am. I work the night shift, of course. The graveyard shift.

“I’m Xavier.” He offers his hand. He has the trace of an accent, though I can’t place it.

His handshake is brisk and business-like and I try to ignore the pang of loneliness that hits me with his touch.

“Asher,” I say, though it’s right there on my badge. I slide into the booth.

He tilts his head to one side, examining me. “You don’t look like an Asher.”

“I changed my name when I left home. It used to be Alex.”

He nods. “You look more like an Alex.”

I stifle a sigh. This again. “You mean, I look Greek.” Kerrick and Sebastian both held fantasies of gods and heroes from ancient times, and somehow I was in them. It seems to be an obsession with these older vampires.

He shrugs. “There are worse things to look. Don’t be sorry for your roots. I’m from that part of the world myself. From Venice, originally.” Venice. That was the accent. “Long time since I was there,” he continues. “But you’re quite new. Who made you?”

I tense at the question. Was this information I should share freely? There were so many rules, and I hadn’t paid enough attention to Kerrick’s lessons. Or, rather, some of them had overshadowed the others.

“You don’t have to tell me,” he says in answer to my silence. “I’m just curious. I heard a rumour one of our kind was working in a coffee shop off Tottenham Court Road. I wondered, how does such a thing happen?”

I’m a rumour. Perhaps other vampires have seen me too; perhaps they were here and I didn’t notice. I feel on display in this glass box with the night pressing in all around. But I force myself to answer. “I needed a job.”

“Alex, this isn’t a job for one of our kind.”

“Asher.” I shouldn’t have told him my old name.

He waves his hand as if it’s nothing. “As you like. Asher, where’s your creator? They should be taking care of you. You should still be by their side.”

“Kerrick,” I say. There’s a flicker of recognition on his face. He has enough mastery of his emotions to hide whatever else he’s thinking, but I can guess. “George Kerrick made me. But I left him.”

“Ah,” he says, and revolves his cup around. “Well, that’s a hefty legacy.”

“You know him, then?”

“Everyone does. I don’t know him well. Just by sight. He keeps his own society.”

Beyond Kerrick, and Sebastian’s little closed, incestuous world, I’ve never met any others of our kind. But the way he talks makes me think there’s a whole lot more of us. I suppose it was just a matter of time that they’d crawl out of the woodwork.

“Maybe I could find you work,” Xavier says.

I shift in my seat, my skin prickling. Why does he want to help me; why the interest? I take a breath to steady myself. “What kind?”

“Something better suited to your nature.”

I’m not sure what that means. All I’ve seen of our nature is violence. Xavier doesn’t seem like the violent type. Then again, neither did Sebastian.

“These are dangerous times, Asher. Ancient powers are on the move. You need the company of your own kind. Do you even have a safe haven?”

 I live in a shared flat in Stratford, above a seedy club. It’s a dive. Barely habitable. I don’t even have my own room. My dad said he would send me money, but it hasn’t arrived. I keep checking the cash machines, hoping the balance finds its way a little further into the black. I don’t want to beg. I want him to think I’m doing okay.

“You need to learn to guard your thoughts, as well,” Xavier says. “Those of us who’ve been around a while, we tend to pick things up if you think so loud. Listen, I’m going to a club. Why don’t you come? I’ll get you in.”

I look at my watch, trying to focus on that and not my heart pounding in my chest. I don’t know how to refuse him, or even if I want to. I don’t even want to think in case he hears me. I stare at the second hand ticking away, paralysed with indecision.

“Plenty of time, yet,” Xavier says smoothly, as if I haven’t just frozen. “Besides, they have rooms if we get stuck at dawn. It’s a special club.”

In the bright light of his smile my worries appear foolish. Those eyes of his warm me through, relaxing me. I want to trust him. I’m sick of being alone, sick of the frail existence I’ve built for myself, so insubstantial I could knock it over with a breath.

“All right,” I say. His smile grows into a satisfied grin.

***

The club is walking distance from work, in Soho, but it’s easily missed. There’s a little gateway in one of the buildings. No signs. It’s been recently painted in black and gold. We walk through the entrance into a small courtyard enclosed on all sides by high buildings. Neat little topiary bushes sit about in pots. A gold plaque by the door says ‘Varney’s’ in a modern italic script.

“Just a little joke.” Xavier gestures to the sign. I must look blank, because he says, “have you never heard of Varney the Vampire? I guess you’re pretty young.”

“Twenty-one,” I say.

“Jesus. You weren’t one for gothic literature in your mortal life, then?”

“I don’t really read much.” I shift awkwardly, my hands in my back pockets. I always end up feeling like a dumb kid around others of my kind.

“Don’t worry,” Xavier says. “I was an ignorant fuck in my mortal days, as well. I just happened to be living in Renaissance Venice, so I couldn’t help but fall into some culture now and then. Cheating, really.”

Ignorant fuck. His words sting. He smirks and this time the joke’s at my expense.

“The owner of this club is one of us. Nathaniel Hook, he’s called. Did your creator explain the rules about young vampires?”

I shake my head.

Xavier brings his thumb and forefinger up to the bridge of his nose and massages it. “All right. Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t really be out without your creator, not among other vampires. I’ll vouch for you tonight, say you’re under my protection. You don’t have any quirks I should know about?”

My mind races for an answer, but in the end I shrug. “I don’t think so.”

“Funny feeding habits? Propensity to fly into violent rages?”

I shake my head. I’m not sure if he’s joking now.

“What are you good at?”

I shrug again. “I’m fast. Strong.” My list falls short.

“You don’t have a bloody clue, do you? Never mind. Perhaps it’s too soon for you to know. Follow my lead. You can trust Hook. Be careful of the others.”

I follow him through the anonymous black door. A bulky bouncer nods to Xavier as we enter. On the other side is a modern looking bar buzzing with people. They all seem to be mortal, including the bouncer. The smell of their blood overwhelms me.

Xavier puts an arm on my shoulder, and pulls me closer. So close I can smell the sharp tang of his cologne, feel his body press against mine. Bolstering me against the pull of that scent. I realise how alone I’ve been.

“This is just the public section. The club is out back,” he whispers hot into my neck.

We pass the bar which stretches the length of the room. It’s carved from golden wood, cut into waves and polished to a shine. A small man leans at the end, watching us approach. He has a long face, with a long nose, and, as I draw near, I realise he’s one of us. That strange trick of space and presence again.

“Hook!” Xavier exclaims. “Good to see you. This is my friend, Asher. I’m showing him the sights.”

Hook smiles at us with his thin lips and looks me up and down. “He seems a little fresh, my friend.”

“I’ll vouch for him.”

“See that you do. Welcome to Varney’s, Asher.”

“Thanks,” I say, and he gives me a brief nod.

We go through a door behind Hook, marked ‘Private’, into a cloakroom dimly lit by a red bulb.

“What does he think I’ll do?” I ask.

“Lose control,” Xavier says. “Act inappropriately with the guests. But I think you’ll be all right, as long as you stick with me. Okay?”

“Yeah.”

“When you meet someone new, just bow your head and keep your eyes on the floor. Don’t address them as you did with Hook. Most of our kind are very concerned with seniority and good manners. Do you understand?”

I nod, a lump rising in my throat. I’m no longer sure I want to meet anyone. I’m not in the mood for bowing and scraping. It sounds like the sort of game Sebastian would enjoy.

We go through a set of double doors. My feet sink into thick carpet. The light is golden, glistening from chandeliers and wall sconces, all electric, but with a muted tone. It shines off the gilt-edged decoration and furniture. I can’t help but think of Sebastian’s beautiful antiques.

The place is nearly empty. A middle-aged woman reclines on a couch in one corner. She wears a colourful patterned robe and a turban, and fingers a long string of beads around her neck. With the other hand she smokes a cigarette in a long holder. Two men lean against a small bar in the corner, regarding us. They’re both smartly dressed in suits, their ages difficult to guess, perhaps somewhere in their forties. They nod at Xavier and I look down as he’s told me. His hand presses against my back, guiding me to a couch on the far wall.

“Good,” he says, his breath against my ear. I crave that closeness. “You’re doing fine. It’s very quiet tonight.”

We sit on the couch. The woman in the corner is watching us with interest. Xavier smiles and nods at her, a respectful gesture of acknowledgement, but he doesn’t seem to want to engage. His focus is all on me.

“Have you fed?” he asks.

I shake my head, ashamed, picturing my last victim running across the park, me driving him down to the ground, before he could escape. He’s not the first I’ve messed up. I’ve tried so hard not to kill like Kerrick. Each victim is etched in my mind, a tally marked across my soul.

He strokes my cheek with his hand. “What did they do to you?”

I meet his eyes. I don’t have the words to tell him my fear and I’m not sure I want to, but I feel the brush of his consciousness against mine. It’s the softest touch, not like Sebastian’s force. I soften and melt towards him. His arm wraps around me and I rest my head on his shoulder.

“Evening, Xavier.” It’s a woman’s voice. I raise my head to see, but it feels heavy; my whole body is like lead. It’s easier not to fight this strange, sleepy feeling, but to release myself to it. My eyelids flutter, allowing me a glimpse of the slender young woman in front of me. She wears a long deep blue satin dress, which drapes over her hips and flows down to the floor like water, pooling at her feet. Blonde hair falls to her waist. I don’t look up to her face.

“Do you have any guests tonight?” he asks.

“Of course,” she says. “Would you like a room?”

“I think that would be better,” he says. He turns to me. “Come on, little sleepy head. We’re going to get you something to eat.”

Somehow I rise. It’s as though I’m floating, pulled by an invisible string. I bob along beside him in the gentle stream he’s made for me. We leave the room, following the woman. The satin of her dress whispers to me, as we move along the corridor. She opens a door for us and ushers us in. The room is modern, a wash of pale cream with touches of red. It has a Japanese feel. There are no windows. A large bed dominates the room.

“We’ll take the room until tomorrow night, if that’s all right?” he says.

“That’s fine. Shall I put it on Mr Sforza’s account?”

“Yes.”

I sink onto the bed, the covers softer than anything I’ve felt. What’s he done to me? I can’t control my body, but my senses are amplified a thousand times. The cream blankness of the ceiling is comforting, as I stare up at it and imagine myself floating up to meld with the nothingness. The woman leaves us. The door hisses across the deep carpet and clunks neatly into place.

“Are you a messy eater?” Xavier asks me. He towers above me. I see Sebastian ripping chunks of flesh away with his teeth, blood pouring down his shirt.

“No,” Xavier says. “You need to stop thinking about that.” His consciousness holds mine a little tighter. “You’re afraid to feed. You must understand you need the vitality to function. Do you want to die?”

Once I did. Now, I’m not sure. Can he see that uncertainty in my mind? I can’t speak. He must know I can’t speak. My throat tightens as my panic rises.

“Shh,” he says. “Stop fighting me.”

I didn’t realise I was. I’m not sure how to control it. I sense him probing my thoughts. I imagine my mind like a flat blank plain, like the ceiling. A vast expanse with no walls. Everything fades bright white around me, until I’m floating in that nothingness.

I remain there for a long time, enjoying the peace of that empty space. The uncomplicated blank. Then there is red, a dribble at first, across the whiteness. It’s hot in my throat, as it blossoms into a bloody flower. I reach out with my mind and touch a petal. It’s soft-fuzzed and delicate. I stroke it, savouring the velvet surface.

Xavier’s voice comes from very far away, calling me back, and I float up into the room. There’s a man kneeling beside the bed, a mortal man. He doesn’t look much older than me. He smiles as I open my eyes. He’s holding his wrist out to me, two clean puncture marks where I’ve fed from him. I pull myself up onto my elbow and lick the wound. It heals.

“Thank you,” Xavier says, from behind me.

The man nods, and stands. He pads out of the room, barefoot. I roll over to find Xavier sitting beside me, leaning back against the bedstead.

“That was very nicely done,” he says. “The flower, and everything. They love that sort of thing.”

“I didn’t—” I begin.

“I controlled your panic, the traumatic responses you’ve learned. But you created the vision and he shared that as you fed from him. These are the things your creator should have taught you.”

“Who was the man?”

“One of the mortals, who visit here. They call them guests. Some people enjoy being fed from. They find it pleasurable. Hook provides a specialist service, in two different senses. A complementary arrangement.”

“They actually enjoy it?”

“Sure. Why not? It can be a rush for some of them. And, of course, there’s the thrill of danger.” His lips draw into a slow smile and I catch the glimpse of his fangs.

“Can we feed here all the time?”

Xavier shakes his head. “Sadly, not. Hook just can’t supply enough. He must be very careful who he invites here, for our security. And it’s not a good idea to depend completely on another for your sustenance. You make yourself a slave to them. Understand?”

I nod. “Just like we can’t feed from each other.”

“Not quite. It’s simply unwise to trust everything to others. That’s all I mean. What you said isn’t quite true. We can feed from one another and it isn’t always bad. There are different bonds we can create with our blood. But you have to be careful. My lover and I, we’re bound to one another. It’s a mutual bond, but created over a long time.”

I feel a pang at the mention of a lover. Stupid. We’ve only just met but I don’t want to share him.

“What did you do to me, before, when I lost control?”

“It’s a mind-trick, baby boy. Did you like it?”

“I’m not sure.” My confusion is real. I know, somewhere at the back of my mind, that I should fear this, but I can’t find my fear. I want to trust him so badly.

“Would you like to spend the day here with me? I’ll keep you safe.”

“Yes,” I blurt out, far too eager.

“Would you like me to teach you?”

I nod, too afraid to speak in case I spoil something. It’s too perfect. He’s too perfect.

“I need to make a phone call, Asher. Perhaps tomorrow night you can come home with me. I need to check. I share my safe haven.”

He slides off the bed and disappears through the door.

 

(c) Ambrose Hall, 2016

Queer Book Club: Guapa by Saleem Haddad

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Guapa follows the life of Rasa, a young translator living in an anonymous Arab city, the day after his grandma finds him and his male lover in bed together. Rasa has never been open about his sexuality outside Guapa, an underground club, and a small group of friends. His lover, Taymour, is due to get married that night, seeking to conform to society’s ideals. As the optimism of the Arab spring turns to violence and oppression, Rasa’s friend, Maj, a drag queen and activist, is arrested.

Although the story is a day in the life of Rasa, there are a lot of flash backs throughout the story, which piece together and make sense of the present. (So, if you don’t like flashbacks, this isn’t for you.) I like the way that these different stages of Rasa’s life contribute to the person he’s become and how he relates to both his sexuality and his culture. The different stages of Rasa’s development really come through. Haddad weaves a complex picture of the conflicting forces of Rasa’s family and culture, Western liberalism, Western racism and Islamophobia, and Rasa’s internalised homophobia and conceptions of masculinity. At times, the whole book feels like one big closet.

Haddad’s nuanced portrayal of the sometimes irreconcilable pressures on Rasa is the strength of this novel for me. Nothing is perfect, everything is a compromise, whether in the personal or the political sphere—Rasa has to decide which compromises he can stomach.

Love is the Cure Excerpt: The Crow King

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Detalle de Sepulcro en el cementeriode High Gate by Carlos Ramos Alar, from  WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0

This is an excerpt from my gothic novella, Love is the Cure. This part is from the point of view of a very ancient vampire, Bren. It’s the most gothic point of view, so the perfect way to celebrate Halloween. You can download the whole ebook for free this weekend. There are 56 other ebooks available for free here as part of the promotion.

The paper dolls dance and play, their consciousnesses tugging at my own by the bond I made with them. My world, dull grey, is peopled with transparencies. They light a thousand candles each night for me, but not one nor a thousand can light this place. My empire of ash. They call this mausoleum my court; they cannot tell a grave from a throne.

It comes, first the scent. Unmistakable. Hot trickling red, thick with heady power. Her force, her essence, running through their veins. The pull, after centuries, is still irresistible.

Mortagne, the parasite who inhabits my shadow endlessly, approaches me. His is a pestilence, an infestation of which I am never rid. Bathsheba too ascends the dais, lurking, sliming, funereal, dragging her mothball scent. I do not recall which chest I pulled her from, so that I may put her back.

Where did they come from, these wraiths that hang from me like so many tattered garments?

“Hic est ignis,” I hiss at them, raising one finger and pointing at the two strangers who have appeared at the bottom of the stone stairs to my vault, and now await official entry. My Latin is not strong, but Mortagne and Bathsheba do not understand my own tongue. It is long dead to them. It does not matter; words are not needed. I have my hooks in their minds. They can feel my will without my voicing it, though they little comprehend my desires.

These two strangers glow with her flame, taking on her substance, her strength, and the scorching fatal colour of her. “Ena,” I mouth, but I will not sully her name by speaking it in the presence of my parasites. I recognise him, the dark one. He is her child. She laid her kiss on him when he ran through the shadowed tunnels under Londinium, and stumbled near her realm. It marks him like a burning brand, drawing me to him.

“Quis sit qui venit?”

“It is George Kerrick, my Lord,” Mortagne says.  “And his get, Sebastian Talbot. You recall, my Lord, that we won Talbot’s soul for you dicing but three nights ago. He is yours by right.”

I let out a low rattle. It is something like a sigh. I care not for their foolish games, or the other one—the soft, preening blond they call Talbot. “Kerrick,” I say, tasting the name, savouring it. He is the one I want.

Mortagne and Bathsheba ooze down the stairs and across the room, but I do not wait for them. I point a finger once more towards Kerrick and beckon him to me. In his shadowed eyes there is understanding. He comprehends my purpose, even before it is known to me. He has come to barter.

(c) Ambrose Hall, 2016

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Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: Ian Andrews

the-pearls-that-were-his-eyes-coverAuthor Ian Andrews took time out to talk to me about his novel, The Pearls That Were His Eyes, the Cthulhu Mythos and the King in Yellow. If you like weird fiction, flooded gothic cities, and cosmic horror, you’re in for a treat.

Tell me about The Pearls That Were His Eyes.

Pearls is at its heart a story about unconventional love, and about the masks we wear. Almost every character in the novel undergoes a journey dictated and coloured by their loves; for some it’s a less pleasant journey than others. Passion isn’t always a positive emotion. I have always been fascinated by the act of wearing a mask and the potential significances that can have; the putting on of a game face to deal with a situation that our truer, naked selves may not want to face.

On the surface of it, it’s a political whodunit set in a mysterious, partly flooded city against a backdrop of upheaval and occult menace. I have heard readers say that they struggle to pin down the genre; there’s elements of clockpunk fantasy, historical thriller, murder mystery and a number of other themes all jostling to be heard.

But at its heart, it’s a love story. A story about the terrible, dreadful things that love can make you do.

It’s also, lest we forget, a story about the unconditional love of a man for his giant albino ape. Bisociation is both big and clever, and complexity is not a vice….

What were your major inspirations for the book?

The story wears its Shakespearean pretensions on its sleeve, though there’s a little mischief-making with the naming conventions too; our Miranda is clearly an Ariel, and Prospero bears more resemblance to the prince of Poe’s story than the Duke of Milan. Carcosa, obviously, is a key inspiration for Cittavecchio; the work of Bierce, Chambers, Wagner and latterly Detwiler and Tynes was foremost in my mind when I was putting together the backstory of the city and its inhabitants. There’s a lot of Venice in there too – predictably – much of the writing of the key sequences was done while in Venice for Carnevale, and I took a lot of late night walks along narrow, foggy canal side paths looking for the war of frogs and mice. But not perhaps as much as one might think to begin with – there’s a lot of old London in there too, especially in the Rookeries, and Amsterdam, and Thomas Ligotti’s City of Bells and Towers.

I have been reading a lot of Borges and Ligotti recently; it’s good brain food and good discipline for a writer.

I’ve always been fascinated with the commedia dell’arte; the almost cultish rituals and secrets that surround it and the idea of mask as character.

But as per the chapter headings, the real inspiration behind it is Eliot’s magnificent, enigmatic Waste Land – trying to recapture the sense of unfocussed background menace that Elio seems to just find lying around in the street. One must be so careful these days.

What is it about The King in Yellow and the Cthulhu Mythos that attracts you?

A deceptively complicated question. The Carcosa mythos appeals to me for many reasons – but if I had to pin down one for sure it’s the ambiguity. The recent upsurge of popularity in old Howard Phillips’ cosmology – especially the roleplaying games that have come out of his work – have led the Cthulhu Mythos, for better or for worse, down a road where there’s little mystery or awe left in it. Encyclopaediae and rulebooks capture, quantify and pin down like butterflies the creatures, mysteries and magic of the Cthulhu Mythos and I wonder if in doing so they have missed its fundamental point.

The Carcosa cycle, the so-called Hastur Mythos, is harder to pin down. It’s impressionistic, almost, in that it is far more open to the reader’s interpretation. It’s not about monsters and agendas and cults and pulp good versus evil – or not just about that anyway, once you scratch the surface. It’s far more about mood, emotions, sensation. When all is said and done, there’s a few fragments of a play, some character names and implicit assumed relationships, an occult threat, a sense of foreboding, a city that may or may not be lost and a handful of locations. The very paucity of detail means it’s easier to hang a story, a sense of menace and ambiguity, onto the skeletal framework. It’s not so tied to a single period as Lovecraft’s work; some of the best Carcosa fiction I have read has been modern.

There is a formality to the structure of the source material; like the commedia there are roles, defined by titles. The Last King. The Phantom of Truth. Cassilda and Camilla. They spark the imagination, encourage you to make your own connections. To wear the masks and try them out for a while.

Back in the Nineties, John Tynes wrote a number of essays (found in the excellent Delta Green: Countdown and elsewhere) about his take on the Hastur Mythos; about it being to do with the concept of entropy as expressed through civilisational and social models rather than Lovecraft’s blind idiot chaos. I find the idea of the King in Yellow as an anthropomorphisation or avatar of a universal principle of entropy expressed in human terms and working on human constructs profoundly more unsettling than any number of tentacle faced kaiju, for all I love them. Things fall apart. The centre cannot hold.

Tell me brother; have you seen the Yellow Sign? If you have not, I lack the words to explain. If you have, I do not need to.

Do you have any recommendations of other modern Carcosa Mythos or Cthulhu Mythos fiction?

It’s impossible not to start with the first season of True Detective. A triumph of storytelling and I admire the restraint of the director and the writer in not feeling it necessary to explain everything. That’s the essence of the Carcosa Mythos right there. There’s a short scene in episode five where the two leads are interviewing an old woman in a nursing home, and Rust Cohle shows her some of his sketches. Her reaction and her little speech is so chilling, so on the nail, that just recalling it now has made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You know Carcosa? You know Carcosa? Him who eats time. Him robes. It’s a wind of invisible voices. Brrr… Civilisational entropy; the rot setting into the soul. It’s all right there.

I’ve referenced John Tynes’ work above; there’s both his work for Delta Green and his writing in the Unspeakable Oath fanzine if you can get hold of it. He also released three chapbooks – Ambrose, Broadalbin and Sosostris – which shaped a lot of my early thinking about the Carcosa Mythos. His sometime writing partner Dennis Detwiler has done a lot of rpg-based work on Carcosa themes too – I’d recommend hunting down Don’t Rest Your Head and Insylum.

Even though it’s not overtly associated with the Carcosa Mythos I have to give a nod to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It’s a difficult book, and a lot of the themes of alienation, loss of perspective grasp and what happens when the horror comes to you fit very well into the overall themes of the mythos. And also, once it has momentum, it’s un-putdownable.

There are some excellent recent collections of short stories on a Carcosa theme – Rehearsals for Oblivion Vol 1 springs immediately to mind – that gather both new takes on old themes and some of the classics like Karl Edward Wagner’s River of Night’s Dreaming and James Blish’s seminal More Light.

Last of all, I’d like to flag a recommendation for an episode of the TV anthology series Masters of Horror. Various luminaries of the horror genre each do an episode – and while some of them are genuinely awful, the episode of the second season written by John Carpenter called Cigarette Burns is well worth a look – the effect of watching his lost film and a lot of the story surrounding it is an elegant updating of Chambers’ lost and banned play.