Flash Fiction: Emotional Labours


Some gothic horror fun for Hallowe’en. Cross posted from Medium. Happy Hallowe’en to everyone who follows this blog.

There are subjects in every family which are not spoken of. In mine, it is my father’s death. Since my father died when I was five, spending time with my family has been a chore. The manner of his death was ridiculous, because my father cannot do anything that is not ridiculous, but also more ridiculous is the pretence his death never happened. Inevitably the whole charade will slip, he’ll walk through a wall without thinking or drip the ectoplasmic remnants of the puddle he died in all over the hall floor and my mother will loose another piece of her favourite china at the kitchen wall.

We have always spoken of my mother’s nerves but really it is my mother’s anger that hangs over us and makes my father’s death an impossibility. I suspect they would both be happier if he were simply allowed to pass in the ordinary way. She has always found him the most infuriating person and her anger has always brought out the worst in him. But I’ve noticed as I get older that people are prone to falling into habits and in time those habits become cages. So it was with my parents.

Those of you who are eldest children will understand there are certain emotional labours which befall us, to which our younger siblings are blithe, if not entirely oblivious.

Unfortunately, my younger brother and sister had invited me to a family get together which I felt obliged to attend.

My sister, Millicent, sent a handcrafted invitation to each of the family, even though most of them are still in residence in the old family home. My brother, Algernon, phoned me to ensure I’d received mine and spent a painful fifteen minutes extracting praise from me which he would pass on to her. She included my partner, Francis, but I refuse to involve him in our ludicrous affairs, having carved out a small niche that is entirely apart from them.

I suspect my siblings have become somewhat deranged over the years, maintaining their blithe spirit.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to fix them for you?” Francis asked, as I picked up my sword cane and made for the door. Outside, the rain poured down in a solid sheet and the taxi driver tapped the steering wheel impatiently.

I stood on the threshold and sucked in a breath. “They’re still my family.”

“Is that not rather the point?” Francis asked. He did away with his own many years ago without a great deal of fuss. The police have still to find any suspects, though they nebulously blame the act on occult practices. He considered me from under his heavy brow and then with a wave of a hand, added, “Well, if you change your mind….”

“Of course,” I said non-commitally. He is wont to fly into a funk if he thinks I’m at all critical of his life choices.

I found some consolation in shutting down all small talk on the taxi ride over. I caught myself sliding the blade from my cane absent-mindedly when it winked at me in the streetlights.

Milly and Algy crowded me as soon as I was through the door of our old pile, deluging me with hugs and kisses which I tolerated for a few moments before setting them both aside.

“Did you like my invitation?” Milly asked. She was dressed as some kind of witch, with her hair teased into a demented fuzz around her head.

I slipped the grey card from my jacket pocket and ran my finger over the real spider she’d trapped there under a plastic coating and the ‘Trick or Treat’ she’d scrawled across the top in someone’s blood. “Charming,” I assured her. “Very inventive.”

“Papa’s in disgrace, again,” Algy confided. He’d favoured a vampiric costume for the evening. “He keeps re-enacting his death. I don’t think he can stop, poor thing. It’s driving Mama wild.”

“Do you think you can fix him?” Milly asked. Francis’s offer ran through my head. Milly meant it in a completely different sense, of course.

“Oh, do try, Gus,” Algy pleaded. “You were always ever so good at that sort of thing.”

I nodded and went through to the sitting room, my cane tapping lightly across the ornate hall tiles. My father lay hovering an inch above the floor, face down in a puddle of blueish-grey fog. He was particularly insubstantial.

His words came back to me from that day. You can drown in a puddle of water, Gus. Only takes a couple of inches.

And of course, I hadn’t believed him. And of course, he had to demonstrate.

I walked over to the centre of the room, where he lay. A spectral chill cooled me to the bone. What had I said?

Nothing. I’d giggled. And then he’d turned blue and my mother had looked up from her roses and seen us. She’d come flying across the lawn.

“What are you doing, stupid man?”

I turned to her now, standing in the doorway. Yes, that’s just what she’d said that day. And then she’d pushed me aside and hauled him up by the back of his tweed jacket. But it was too late, of course.

I knelt down by his side, as I had that damp autumn day, and pressed my palm down on the back of his head. Just so. And she came flying across the room.

Sympathy for the Devil

For Halloween, here’s a little ponder on the dark side.


Gustave Dore, Depiction of Satan (Public Domain).

What media taught me about bad guys is that they often rely on their brains instead of their physical prowess; they trust the wrong people and get burnt by it; they have spiky trauma and other mental health issues which they fail to deal with gracefully; they feel huge emotions not easily contained—their love will claw its way from the grave, their rage will topple nations; if you hurt the people they care about they will have their revenge; they’re sharp dressers; they’re camp or arch, and in other ways their gender and sexuality is unstable, non-standard; physically, they’re sometimes trapped between two states; they rail against social and moral hypocrisy; they’re kinky as hell; they’re often British, or at least European; some of them can’t breathe without a respirator. In short, these are my people.

I don’t know at what age I started rooting for the bad guys. Maybe it was Star Wars, bastion of kink and asthmatic villains, that tipped me over to the dark side. Maybe I gave into my anger because someone blew up my home planet and dropped a house on my sister. Maybe it was the villagers with pitchforks. I just know that increasingly, as I got older, the monsters and villains appealed to me.

Maybe all those subtle little hints that anyone who wasn’t Mr Macho Apple Pie White Guy was not the right kind of people wormed their way into my sense of self. And I stopped rooting for the right kind of people, because I wanted to fight for my side.

I’m not sorry that happened. It’s who I am, woven into my identity as much as any other aspect of my experience. When I see diversity of representation growing in mainstream media, it makes me happy. It’s fantastic that more kids can now see themselves being the heroes (though there’s plenty of room for growth there, clearly). But, while it makes me glad on a logical level, I don’t feel the connection I did with those twisted fuck ups I grew up watching and reading about. The world still feels like a dark and messed up place, and I’m not always sure it’s worth fighting for. With those new heroes, I feel no transgressive thrill as when a villain tips over the pillars of society with gay abandon, while chewing on some scenery and looking darkly fabulous. There’s no edge to it, no danger, no challenge to the status quo. Because, perversely, there’s power in knowing you’re someone’s worst nightmare. Maybe, at heart, I don’t want my people to be the good guys, I just want the bad guys to win.


Love is the Cure Excerpt: The Crow King

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


Free Halloween eBooks and Giveaway


This is a Halloween book promo I’m taking part in. 57 Halloween themed ebooks for free for the next 3 days (you can choose and download whichever you want from Amazon). There are various genres, from horror to paranormal romance, and you can sort them by genre at the top. There’s also a prize draw you can enter for a chance to win a Kindle Fire or Amazon vouchers. Click on image.



Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: Ashley Capes

cover-whisper-of-leavesAuthor and poet Ashley Capes took some time out to talk to me about his ghost story, A Whisper of Leaves.

Tell me about A Whisper of Leaves.

Whisper is a ghost story set in Japan, where an Australian English teacher finds herself being haunted when she takes an old journal home from the forests beneath Mt Fuji. Aokigahara is known, informally as the ‘suicide forest’ but I decided to steer away from that theme for the most part – and instead focus on the creepiness of the place as a setting.

What were your major inspirations for the story?

Aside from the forest itself, I delved into Japanese folklore and spirits – like the shinigami (death spirit) or the use of wards and talismans (omamori) but I also tried to incorporate classic ghost story elements recognisable from any culture, like having a main character alone in a place, questioning whether she’s really experiencing the haunting or whether she’s imagining it all. I think mystery stories have influenced me with this novella too, I like the slow unravelling of a good mystery and wanted to have that aspect here too.

What do you look for in a ghost story?

Usually I want to learn about the history of the ghost(s) – why do they linger? Aside from that, the setting is key. It can be a big old mansion or a howling mountaintop etc, but I think setting is vital to selling the ‘on edge’ feeling I want from a ghost story.

Any recommendations?

Yes! Though I’m guessing most folks would have read these – still, they’re probably my favourite three. First is The Shining (Stephen King) which has it all, from the disturbing hotel to possession to a dark history slowly revealed. Second is The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman) which is probably not a ‘ghost story’ strictly but certainly features them heavily and is heaps of fun. Finally, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol which is a classic, such a wonderful premise (although, I probably saw the Bill Murray film Scrooged before reading the book).

When I was a kid, people used to tell ghost stories about my school and neighbourhood. Did you have the same experience, and if so, do you remember any good ones?

I’m sure we did but my memory is failing me – though I did used to live across the road from the town cemetery, when I was a kid. It was probably only 30 paces from my bedroom window, through the front yard, across the road and to the cemetery fence, but I never found it scary for some reason. I guess it was just part of the routine; get up, have breakfast, walk to the bus stop and pass the cemetery along the way.

Ashley is a poet, novelist and teacher living in Australia. He teaches English, Media and Music Production, has played in a metal band, worked in an art gallery and slaved away at music retail. Aside from reading and writing, Ashley loves volleyball and Studio Ghibli – and Magnum PI, easily one of the greatest television shows ever made.

Blog http://www.cityofmasks.com/blog

Whisper Amazon Link https://www.amazon.com/Whisper-Leaves-Paranormal-Novella-ebook/dp/B00X8TKZ4Q/

Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: Nina Shepardson

nightscript 2 cover.jpgToday for Gothic/Horror Month, I have an interview with writer Nina Shepardson. Nina took some time out to talk to me about her latest story, a literary horror short, “And Elm Do Hate,” which appears in the anthology, Nightscript vol.2.

You recently had a short story, “And Elm Do Hate,” published in Nightscript Vol. 2. Tell me about the story.

“And Elm Do Hate” falls into the classification of literary horror. While there are certainly scenes where characters are trying to rescue themselves or others from immediate peril, the piece’s real focus is on atmosphere and a sense of brooding menace.

What were your inspirations?

The big one is a line of graffiti that started appearing in Worcestershire, England in the 1940s. It asked, “Who put Bella in the wych-elm?” after a group of children found the skeleton of a woman named Bella hidden in the hollow trunk of a tree.

I also drew some inspiration from an old folk saying: “Oak do brood, and elm do hate, but the willow walks if you travel late.”

Do you have any recommendations for short stories, or short story writers that tend towards the dark side of things?

Barbara Roden’s story collection “Northwest Passages” doesn’t get nearly enough love. Pretty much every story in that book is excellent, and they evoke a wonderful sense of pure creepiness. I also highly recommend Emily Carroll’s illustrated collection “Through the Woods” (as well as her online comics, which can be found at emcarroll.com).

Nina Shepardson is a scientist who lives in the north-eastern US with her husband. She’s a staff reader for Spark: A Creative Anthology, and her writing appears or is forthcoming in numerous venues. Her ghost story “Gifts from a Newlywed Husband to his Wife” can be read at Electric Spec: http://www.electricspec.com/Volume11/Issue1/shepardson.feb16.html She also writes book reviews at ninashepardson.wordpress.com

eFestival of Words: Hallowe’en Promo

I mentioned this earlier in the week. All month, there’s an online Hallowe’en themed book festival for indie authors, including horror, gothic and paranormal titles. You can discover new writers in these genres, plus there are free book giveaways to enter. What’s the catch? There isn’t one. This is a way for indie authors to get their names out, and hopefully pick up some interest in their newsletters. Newsletters are a great way for indie authors to keep people informed of new work and promotions.

My gothic novella, Love is the Cure, is the featured book today. You can read an excerpt and  a mini-interview with me about Hallowe’en.


Gothic/Horror Month Guest Interview: What is Gothic Crazysauce?


I invited Jack Swift, my writing group buddy and vamp muse, to talk about gothic crazysauce.

(1) What is gothic crazysauce?

“Gothic crazysauce” is an informal term that was getting thrown around on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. I thought the phrase was a hilarious and apt description of everything I am about.

To me, “gothic crazysauce” describes the ridiculous, melodramatic, yet gloomily atmospheric happenings in certain gothic literature. Not all gothic qualifies.

Keeping a mentally ill wife locked up in an attic a la Jane Eyre is pretty gothic.

Marrying someone you hate, and then abusing her and her child, all just to get revenge on someone else, Heathcliff-style, is approaching crazysauce.

Literally summoning Lucifer to help the man you love enjoy another, as Matilda does in The Monk? That, my friends, is full-blown gothic crazysauce.

Gothic crazysauce is when your characters never experience being happy, sad, angry, or horny—instead they are ecstatic, hysterical, murderous or deranged with lust. Your plot twists are well beyond byzantine. Everything takes place in a mouldering haunted castle, with a double order of bats. Outside is a thunderstorm. There is always a thunderstorm. You flee into it, from the man you both adore and despise, clad only in your diaphanous white nightdress, and lose yourself and your mind on the moors.

Gothic crazysauce is generally used as spice for the dish, rather than as the meat of an entire work of literature. More rarely, brave souls set out to pen entire novels and plays utterly drenched in the crazy. My hat is off to them.

(2)  Do you have some recommendations of this from literature?

I already mentioned the classics Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Monk, in ascending order of crazysauce. The Monk is literally all crazysauce, all the time. Nothing that those characters do really makes sense—unless you are Lord Byron high on laudanum trying to get into the pants of both Percy AND Mary Shelley at the same time.

Speaking of laudanum-fuelled Byron/Shelley orgies, the novelization of the Ken Russell film Gothic, written by Stephen Volk, is another fine example of non-stop crazysauce. I am not going to say it’s actually a good book—but it sure is fun, if you just want to marinate in aesthetically pleasing batshit insanity.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, though they obviously pre-date the gothic movement, have plenty of crazysauce to go around.

King Lear springs readily to mind, especially the scene where Edgar erroneously convinces the blinded Gloucester that he has actually attempted and survived suicide by jumping from a cliff—all without revealing that he is actually his estranged son.

Othello has plenty. (“Blood! Blood! BLOOD!” Sounds exactly like a Christian Death song. Also, if you become so upset that you fall into a “trance” or “epilepsy” from sheer emotion, you are probably staring in some major gothic crazysauce.)

Julius Caesar, my personal favourite Shakespeare play, is a lot more gothic than people give it credit for. In an oft deleted speech, Cassius describes how he “bared [his] bosom to the thunderstone,” daring the gods to strike him down with their lightening. (Trying to be struck by lightning for deity-defying reasons, or indeed for any reason at all, is like the Tabasco of gothic crazysauce—a dependable, classic standby.)

And of course, there’s Titus Andronicus. Crazysauce slathered on your sons, who are baked in a frigging pie.

The delightful play Irma Vep is an extended parody of gothic crazysauce, and as such, hits pretty much every ridiculous note you can imagine. Vampires! Werewolves! Mysterious dead wives who might not be dead but instead locked in the attic! Secret passages! Betrayal! Passion! Murder! You get the picture.

(3) How have you injected gothic crazy sauce into your own work? (feel free to plug anything you’re doing here, including music).

My main work in progress at the moment is a novel called The Conspirators, concerning Cassius and Brutus, the assassins of Julius Caesar. I have been working on this novel in some form or another for more than ten years. Originally it was conceived as “serious historical fiction,” and you’d better believe I did a lot of serious historical research.

But eventually, I admitted to myself that I wanted it to be a gothic novel.

Why a gothic novel? Well, honestly, a lot of the crazy is already there. Plutarch reports very seriously that Brutus conversed with the ghost of the murdered Caesar, on more than one occasion. Brutus’ wife Porcia supposedly committed suicide by swallowing hot coals. You can’t get more gothic than that! Cassius’ greedy mentor Crassus had molten gold poured down his throat after he was beheaded, and his head was used as a prop in a play. The orator Cicero had a hairpin stabbed through his tongue, after he was also beheaded. Brutus’ father-in-law Cato disembowelled himself with his bare hands, after being stitched up from a previous suicide attempt. Not to mention the assassination of Caesar himself! Sixty plus senators converging on one man, who fought like a wild beast up until the very moment that his beloved friend Brutus stabbed him, right in the crotch!

The deaths, as reported by the ancient historians, are just wild. You can’t make this stuff up. It doesn’t just beg for crazysauce. It is crazysauce already—real life, canonical, historical gothic.

Of course, being me, I couldn’t resist pouring even more crazysauce on top of already nutso history. One thing I knew, which will likely drive the Serious Historical Fiction buffs mad if I ever publish, is that I wanted to take the homoerotic tension between the Cassius and Brutus of Shakespeare, and make it explicit. Extremely explicit. And ferociously sadomasochistic, and pathologically intense.

So it was that my Serious Historical Fiction turned into a gothic romance/ghost story/work of erotic horror. Imagine mashing up Shakespeare’s Caesar with The Monk, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Story of O, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of where I am going with this.  I should probably be ashamed, but strangely, I’m not.

One of the biggest challenges of writing extreme gothic crazysauce is maintaining the proper atmosphere and tone. Everything should be dialled up to eleven, at all times. This is probably why the book is still in its first draft.

If you try to write gothic, you will get self-conscious. You will second guess yourself. You’ll think your prose is too purple, your metaphors too dense and ridiculous, and that your characters are acting like Bronte heroines on a bad acid trip. That is as it should be. Write from the heart, the gut, and from your sense of melodrama. Anything that just plain doesn’t work can always be deleted later.

Wow, that’s some good advice.  I should probably take it. And I will.

As soon as I finish up this swooning fit.

(4) Do you think the gothic genre has a place in the modern world, and how would it differ from more traditional gothic?

Really good question.

Of course, “gothic” originally emerged from the Romantic Movement, which came out of a specific moment in history, and was a reaction against the Enlightenment. So it would be easy to assume that no, gothic has no place in the modern world, divorced as we are from that particular place and time.

But let’s dig a little deeper. The Romantic Movement was about breaking away from the overly restrained, intellectual, and reasoned approach of Enlightenment-period art and poetry. Romantic literature was about instinct, emotion, spirit—the heart and the gut, rather than the head. Gothic just takes all of that further, striving to plumb the darkest, nastiest depths of human experience. Gothic is about madness, bliss, extremes of feeling, the sundering of societal taboos, and reaching some visceral, something primitive. I think that impulse will always exist in humanity.

Right now, some people feel alienated from the easy answers of science and materialism and the legacy of the Enlightenment. But many of these alienated souls have no desire to follow the equally pat and easy path of conventional religion. I think a Gothic revival could be upon us—and I am not just referring to the influx of black lace and dark lipsticks to mainstream fashion, although that too is symptomatic and related. There has been a rise in interest in witchcraft and paganism among a certain set of young people, similar to what happened in the 90’s. The Satanic Temple in America has been steadily gaining followers and popularity. Pop stars are aping gothic looks and themes in their songs and music videos—and more importantly, it’s selling like hot cakes. All of these things point to individuals seeking a third path, a dark path, where sentiment, mysticism, intuition, instinct, and desire can be valued.

I might be talking out of my ass a bit now, because of course I love writing gothic fiction and would like to think people will read my books. But honestly, I am convinced that as long as passionate, sensual and imaginative souls exist, gothic will always have an appeal.

So go forth, my friends, and chug that sweet spicy gothic crazysauce, right out of the bottle. Wash it down with absinthe. And then cry.

Jack Swift is a rock musician and wannabe novelist. As Johnny Truant, he fronts The Truants, and plays bass for Cardiac Dream, two deliciously dark San Francisco-based post-punk bands. He is also a queer, trans, polyamorous, polymorphously perverse pervert, general wastrel, and androgynous source of sexual confusion. He resides somewhere in his native San Francisco Bay Area, with his boyfriend and three black cats—Wednesday, Babs and Dorian. Look for his novel Nik’s Revenge Road Trip Mixtape sometime next spring, which isn’t very gothic but does have a ghost in it. Look for his novel The Conspirators sometime in the next hundred years or so (fingers crossed).

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu Board Game

pandemic-cthulhuThe popular cooperative board game, Pandemic, is now out in Mythos form. And I’ve been playing it just in time for Gothic/Horror Month. For those not familiar with Pandemic, the original is a cooperative game where players form a disease prevention team to fight the outbreak of various deadly disease sweeping the world. The set-up for the Reign of Cthulhu version is quite similar, only now the outbreak is cosmic horror, rather than disease. Players fight a growing tide of cosmic evil, trying to prevent Cthulhu awakening to destroy the world.

cthulhu-pandemic-board-2So far, I’ve played the game through three times, and won once, so it’s not an easy win. The game board is smaller in scope to the original Pandemic, and split between four familiar Mythos areas. The smaller scope seems to speed the game up quite a bit, so you need to be on your toes from the start, and working together with other players in a very coordinated way. Occultists and Shoggoth appear across the locations, and every time a Shoggoth reaches a gate, another cosmic horror awakens. There’s something about the appearance of cosmic horror that is much creepier than disease, and a sort of sinking inevitability about the encroaching doom. From that point of view, the theme is spot on.

The board looks lovely, the figures are detailed, and I’ve seen videos of people painting them up online. cthulhu-pandemic-detailMy only real niggle is that occasionally the theme hits a bum note (the main one that drives me nuts is that Yog-Sothoth doesn’t have a gate-based power, another entity does instead.) But other than those minor niggles, it has a great feel to it—eerie, dark and doom-filled, as it should be. And the game play is as good as the original, but speeded up.

If you haven’t played a cooperative game before, I recommend giving them a try. The Pandemic games provide a great tactical challenge, as you fight the encroaching doom of the world, and you need to be able to communicate and cooperate effectively to get the job done. This version is a great addition for Lovecraft fans.