The Offing

The waiter was a young man with high cheekbones, a half-mask of light stubble and a tattoo in burgundy and ochre that peeked out from the rolled-up sleeve of his shirt. He kept yawning and rubbing his eyes. Her mother allowed Fearne a diluted glass of the white Burgundy she was washing her bivalves down with. Each time she heard a boot gritting on the pavement she lifted her head in case it was Dad, but he didn’t appear. Her mother flirted with the waiter, her chin slicked with butter. Fearne wanted to be in her room listening to music through her headphones, reading her book, anything else.

‘Do you live around here?’ her mother asked the waiter. Fearne turned her face away.

‘Yeah, just up the road in Mapleton. But I’m aching to get out. I’m busting a nut. I don’t trust the power station. I don’t trust the sea. This place is a ghost town and nobody here realises that yet.’

‘What’s wrong with the sea?’ Fearne asked. Her mother arched her eyebrow, evidently amused that she’d engaged with another human being, and a boy at that.

‘It’s like a tsunami, only in super slow motion. Tide goes out. Comes back with interest. I don’t want to be around come that reckoning.’

‘Oh don’t be so apocalyptic,’ Mum said. ‘Guy your age. You shouldn’t be worrying about stuff.’

‘Yeah well,’ he said, ‘I’ve been here all my life. I’m not just a tourist.’ He seemed about to say more but he pressed his lips together and collected plates instead. ‘How was the meal?’

‘Lovely,’ Fearne said. ‘What’s wrong with the power station?’

‘Nothing,’ said the waiter. ‘Guy my age? I shouldn’t be worrying about stuff.’

‘People around here,’ her mum continued (Fearne recognised the drawl that alcohol lent her voice), ‘and I’ve heard them, still talk about the sea as if it should be placated. As if we should be sacrificing our first-born sons or daughters. Flinging them piecemeal into the waves, like rubby-dubby. Like chum. What do you think of that?’

‘You don’t have to worry,’ he said, smiling at Fearne. She felt her cheeks burn. ‘Your daughter is no child.’

‘She’s my little girl,’ her mum said, tartly. ‘She always will be. My baby.’

For a moment Fearne thought her mother might cry, but she cut it off with another gulp from her wine glass. Thirteen years old. On the cusp. Like this place. Her hips were becoming wider, like the bay. Her breasts were swelling, like the ocean. She felt something like the tide pulling at her insides. Childhood was something she had wanted to escape for so long, but now that time was here, she feared it. She wanted infancy back. The comfort and simplicity. The lack of confusion and doubt.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 14.46.30My story, The Offing, which originally appeared in Terror Tales of the Ocean (ed. Paul Finch, Gray Friar Press) is to be reprinted in Best New Horror 27 which will appear later this year from PS Publishing.

OMOHO

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Marathon Man

Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the RainBabelDreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.

Alan Burns

Alan Burns

So this class. I remember he was talking about the OMOHO. The dread of the OMOHO. The impossibility of it. One Man On His Own. He was arguing that you can’t have it in fiction. It does not exist. It should not exist. You try to write a novel containing just one character and you are dead in the water. You need obstacles, you need opposition. You need an ally. You need an antagonist. He referred to Europe After the Rain, in the embryonic stages of which he had created a character moving through a post-war terrain. The idea for the book wouldn’t form. What was his protagonist doing? And then Alan realised, he was looking for his sister. Now he had a story. OMOHO is no story.
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That was over twenty years ago. The OMOHO stayed in my thoughts, nagged at it. I wanted to to have a crack, to prove Alan Burns wrong. I wrote short stories about single men in dreary urban dwellings struggling with relationships while the supernatural loomed. Was it any surprise that I would be lumped in with the other glass half-empty slipstream writers that came to be known as the Miserablists in the early 1990s? I even toyed with using OMOHO as the title of a novel. I decided, when I wrote my post-apocalyptic novel One, that I would try writing an OMOHO. But Alan was right. You just can’t get along without other people, even when most of the people are dead. I ended up introducing survivors, until the novel was populated by quite a healthy cast list. So much for OMOHO. I couldn’t even manage it in a world depleted by a catastrophic natural disaster…
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In Dust and Desire, Sonata of the Dead and (coming in November 2016) Hell is Empty, I’ve reached a compromise. Of course Joel Sorrell, my PI, is not One Man On His Own. He lives in London for Pete’s sake. But in many ways, he’s completely isolated. His wife is dead. His daughter has deserted him. He couldn’t hack it in the police force and got out, not without rubbing plenty of people up the wrong way, people he now needs to get on side if he’s going to get anywhere with his MisPer cases. Even his own cat treats him with contempt.
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I’ve always liked the lone wolf, in both literature and film. Put me in front of any number of 1970s paranoia thrillers and I’m a happy boy. The main characters in these films are not strictly OMOHOs… But… they kind of are. That’s the point of them. Who can they trust? Nobody. Three Days of the Condor (Robert Redford, OMOHO by lunchtime), The Parallax View (Warren Beatty, OMOHO on a bomb-laden airliner), Marathon Man (Dustin Hoffman, OMOHO jogging through NYC), The Conversation (Gene Hackman, OMOHO bugger). And on the page too I prefer the mavericks, rather than the police procedurals. Especially the unnamed Detective Sergeant from Derek Raymond’s Factory novels. Yes, he works in the Force, but he’s in limbo, stuck at his rank because of his obstinacy; out on a limb working at A14: Unexplained Deaths.
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I like the romance of the loner. The helpless introspection and attendant self doubt. The vulnerability. I like to see them skating on thin ice and sailing close to the wind. The desperation. I like how the rogue element will push the boundaries of what’s legal in order to make a breakthrough. Not for me the conventional interrogation with a tape recorder and an officer keeping tabs. Good cop, bad cop? No thanks. I prefer questions on the lam, and actual harm if the answers don’t pass muster. Search warrant? No time for that. Rough justice rather than a by-the-rulebook prosecution. My boy isn’t in it for the collars and the kudos. It’s personal for him. He’s in it for the result. The permanent solution. Dead men can’t get off on a technicality. Sometimes you really are on your own.

Dead Letters Teaser #17

And We, Spectators Always, Everywhere, Kirsten Kaschock

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When they finally come back to the playground, the boy is in pain. He does not say so, but affects a slight limp. His left foot makes less viable connection with the balance beam than the right. She holds his hand, failing to register this new asymmetry. The boy’s gait is his first test for her and she fails. The mother clearly prides herself on attention to minutiae – so says the unnatural lift of her brow. The boy has a bruise on his heel, but it might be bone cancer. After the initial fever, polio can look like this, in other boys. In other times and countries.

Distraction is written all over. The blue sky scrawls with plane sign, and worms are fingering bottle caps and butts near the exposed roots at my feet, covered in boot. My book, soaked through days before, is illegible – each page polluted with the next, warped, stuck, tearing if turned. A buzz emanates from the mother’s purse. She checks it, smiles, and puts him down. She is no longer beside him. She is somewhere else.

Dead Letters Teaser #15

Change Management, Angela Slatter

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What would it be like to be loved, to be wooed, by someone like Lucy?

Dangerous. Uncertain. Different. Oh, so exciting. There would be no ordinariness, nothing banal or commonplace – no status quo, only constant change. The idea threw a frisson down Eva’s spine that was part terror, part elation. What on earth was happening to her?

She examined the last page, with the red-brown dots – the reason, Eva was certain, the woman wanted the letter. Little stains that, when sniffed, touched to her tongue, smelled and tasted ever so faintly of old iron.

Blood.

Dead Letters Teaser #14

L0ND0N, Nicholas Royle

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I wasn’t questioning my view about the likability or otherwise of characters, but I was concerned about what I might be getting into. A widely held opinion is that it is a mistake to conflate narrator and author, yet a convergence of Ian and his narrator was precisely what I feared.

What if Ian was like his narrator? Did it even matter? Well, yes, I tended to believe it did. Not in general, but in this particular case. I kept a Wankers Shelf – a section of my library reserved for authors so narcissistic they asked their publisher to stick their author photo on the front cover of their book, or they wrote a piece for publication constructed around extracts from their fan mail; for authors so convinced of their own greatness they refused to ‘get out of bed for less than a grand’ when invited to contribute to an anthology; for authors who were just wankers – wankers to their editors, wankers to their publicists, wankers to booksellers, wankers to their readers. Just wankers.

Dead Letters Teaser #13

The Hungry Hotel, Lisa Tuttle

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Soon I was treating him as if we’d met for the first time that day. I ‘made conversation’, asking him about the band, their touring schedule, and he obliged with answers and anecdotes. He tried to take my hand, and I flinched.

We had a late, heavy lunch in an ostentatiously German restaurant, and talked about food, our favourite dishes, the fact that neither of us knew how to cook. Then we talked about recent movies we had seen.

Driving back to the city, the sun going down behind us, we were silent, exhausted by the effort of working through every possible subject for conversation. I noticed, as we drove through the practically deserted back road leading into town, that there was a new development on this western outskirt. In addition to the houses, town-homes and a shopping mall still under construction there was a brand new hotel, towering over the landscape from its hilltop perch, its multitude of windows glittering like faceted gems in the last rays of the sun.

Dead Letters Teaser #12

The Days of Our Lives, Adam LG Nevill

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Inside her vinyl, crab-coloured handbag the ticking was near idle, not so persistent, but far below the pier, in the water, I was distracted by a large, dark shape that might have been a cloud shadow. It appeared to flow beneath the water before disappearing under the pier, and for a moment I could smell the briny wet wood under the café and hear the slop of thick waves against the uprights. A swift episode of vertigo followed and I remembered a Christmas tree on red and green carpet that reminded me of chameleons, and a lace cloth on a wooden coffee table with pointy legs similar to the fins on old American cars, and a wooden bowl of nuts and raisins, a glass of sherry, and a babysitter’s long shins in sheer, dark tights that had a wet sheen by the light of a gas fire. Legs that I couldn’t stop peeking at, even at that age, and I must have been around four years old. I’d tried to use the babysitter’s shiny legs as a bridge for a Matchbox car to pass under, so that I could get my face closer. The babysitter’s pale skin was freckled under her tights. And right up close her legs smelled of a woman’s underwear drawer and the material of her tights was just lots of little fabric squares that transformed into a smooth, second skin as I moved my face away again. One thing then another thing. So many ways to see everything. One skin and then another skin. It had made me squirm and squirt.