Prologue to a hypothetical fantasy novel

Bébinn Hannigan was the sweetest lady on the block; “sweet as a packet of Bourbons and a cola float”, said Mrs. Moulin, owner of the wine shop, which served Bébinn whenever she hosted one of her dinners. These dinners were the highlight of many a week, for those who were invited into her small but well-stocked dining room. Bébinn would bustle between the hostess trolley and the table, ladling strange and aromatic delicacies onto china plates, their white virginities enlightened by the rich sauces and exquisite textures.

She was the kind of woman other women make both a friend and a confidant of; not externally beautiful – she was homely and un-sexy, more of the dishcloth than the dance-floor – she gave no competition in romantic games, could hold herself aloof and offer an ear to listen, a shoulder to support. She was kind and accepting and tolerant.

At least, that was how the adult world thought about her. Occasionally, a very perceptive child might catch a wink or a smirk, an indefinable something in the manner or the words, which gave away just a hint, just a small, sharp slap to the face by an inner sense, of the bottomless pits of Hell which lay behind those green, velvety eyes.

Because Bébinn Hannigan was a murderer. She didn’t, as you might now be thinking given my former focus on her culinary skills, poison her dishes. Nor did she kill with bludgeon, gun, and any earthly weapon. A vampire of the soul, all she needed to do, at least in the eyes of an observer of her crimes, was place her hands on your shoulders, and look at you, meeting and holding your gaze as her lips spilled pleasant inanities.

This was how I first saw her kill. I was an urchin, in the old-fashioned lingo of witches and wizards: an orphan with an aptitude for magic, an inward sense that attracted the invisible energies and, through the instruments of eyes and mouth, could manipulate matter or create the illusion of it.

Known for her charity, she took me into her home when I was eleven, after my parents went to bed one night and never woke up. A gas leak was blamed (I was staying with a friend that night), and the house where we lived, owned by the local council, was condemned, giving rise to a major scandal which made my lawyer a very rich man. My aunt also didn’t do too badly, though she pleaded “ill-equipped” to finish raising me. My magical heritage avowed by representatives from the pagan community (my parents were gifted magicians), I was placed with Ms. Hannigan, who adopted many an urchin.

The “pagans”, I should give you to understand, were a loose connection of people who embraced their magical abilities, which almost every human is born with. Throughout history, many societies have tried to suppress their kind, considering the embracing of magic an affront to “true” spirituality, or the humbling of the self before a recognised deity and/or government body.

I should observe at this juncture that I wasn’t your conventional “magic” orphan. I’ve never considered myself “the chosen One” of anything (not even my own chaotic life), and I certainly didn’t have an unhappy childhood. My unhappiest time was the year and a half between my parents dying and my liberation from the care of Bébinn Hannigan, at which point I was taken in by a pagan scholar, Dr. Samara, and his daughter, Yuoko.

(He was an Arab, his wife had been Japanese, hence his daughter’s mixed heritage, and I was middle-of-the-road, South London English, so we made a happy melting pot, we three.) I loved my parents dearly when they were alive, but since their passing I could not have asked for a more perfect family than Samara and Yuoko, to whom I still return for comfort, shelter, advice, and the warm table of affection.

But, brief as my year with Bébinn (I spent six months in an orphanage) was in The Grand Scheme, I’m still haunted by our encounter that night, when I first saw her kill. The victim was a fellow urchin, but didn’t know he was, and hadn’t shown up on the pagan community’s radar, which is clear to me now as the reason why he was selected. Bébinn had an assistant, a pinch-faced, stern, and mostly silent young German called Mariele, who’d walk the town at night, and once brought back to the house this urchin, a teenage runaway whose name, I’m ashamed to say, I still don’t know.

He was thin and wore a random assortment of off-brand sports clothes, indicating that he’d recently been the beneficiary of a Salvation Army outreach. Mariele conducted him into the lounge, where Bébinn stood by the hearth in seeming anticipation of him. I, seated at the dining table at the far end of the room, in the presently unlighted dining nook, saw Mariele lead him by the arm and leave again without making eye contact with anyone. She knew her role was as a mere facilitator, I suppose.

‘Oh, my dear, you must be famished’, said Bébinn, moving towards him with awkward, faltering steps, like someone approaching an injured stray cat. I seem to remember that, not being able to sleep, I had come downstairs to practice some rudimentary levitation spells in the dark. When Bébinn first entered the lounge while I was at the table that night, a vinegar pot hovered two feet in the air. Now the urchin had joined us, the condiments were rooted to their stations. ‘I, uh, guess I am hungry’, the boy said.

‘Me too, young man, me too…’ Bébinn put her hands on his shoulders and seemed to be leaning in for a kiss. I’ve learned from the few survivors of her assaults that in these moments she can be the most beautiful woman this side of Heaven. So much so that Helen of Troy would scream in animal jealousy, and call her a stuck-up bitch like a high-school girl.

The boy’s eyes widened at first, as if this beauty was what he was seeing, until they began to flicker, then close, all the time Bébinn talking, her voice lowering to a whisper as his eyes closed. ‘That’s it, my dear, we’ll feed you, you’re starving, I know, beyond hungry. You could eat a horse, a fleet of horses, the entire world and then the known universe…’ Her hands pushed him down and onto the sofa, where he slumped, his head forward, his eyes closed. Bébinn stood upright, straightened her dress, and ever so subtly licked her lips. Her eyes were wide open and unblinking. It was then that I learned, suddenly and absolutely, the spell for invisibility.

I don’t think she would have killed me if she’d seen me watching – I was young and naive, unaware of psychic vampires – but I’m glad I never had to put that theory to the test.

Short Stories #1: Would You Look in on the Children, Dear?

We lived in a big house in a curly suburb, a purgatory of mock-Tudor houses and cold grey cars. It was, as they say, depressingly middle-class. My older sister and I had brown toast and orange juice for breakfast, and mummy drove us to school while daddy stayed home to play the stock market. On our days off we’d sometimes see him walking from his office to the kitchen in his raggedy jeans and grey sweater. Mum ran errands during the day and attended charity events. Even after submitting to the life of a kept woman she had her own interests and sidelines. She spoke out on women’s and environmental issues, her two pet causes, and held an honorary degree from the local university.
Our house, although innocuously expensive and well-maintained from the outside, on the inside was somewhat like a Gothic castle, in that a network of secret passages ran behind the whitewashed modern facade. The house had been in our mother’s family since 1912, when it and one or two others in our street were the only few for a mile around. The passages were installed so that servants could move unobtrusively between rooms, serving coffee here, changing bed-sheets there. (Even though the house was only ever large enough to keep a serving staff of about five, who lived in a small quarters in the back garden which now served as a shed.) The family apparently wanted their servants to be invisible. The passages themselves were rounded at the top like train tunnels, and no wallpaper or carpet covered the bricks and wood.
By the end of the Second World War the family was no longer prosperous enough to keep a serving staff. The secret passages fell into a brief period of disuse, until my grandfather, in the 1950s, re-opened them so that his sister, who served as my mother’s nanny, could look in on her at night. Sometimes granddad liked to look in, too. Whenever mum remembered this, she’d smile to herself in a sad way, trailing off so that she was no longer looking at her audience, but at something only she saw.
Granddad still lived in the house when my sister Jessica and I were growing up. Our grandmother died when mum was a child. She remembered her as an obese, bed-ridden woman, but no-one seemed to remember her intimately except granddad, who never discussed her. He’d since moved into one of the spare bedrooms so my parents could occupy the main. Jessica and I were in mum’s old room. Each bedroom had a door to the secret passages. Mine and Jessica’s was located behind an immense wardrobe. If you pushed the clothes apart on the rail and put your hand through a hole in the back, you’d find a doorknob. Turn the knob and let the door swing open, and you could enter the passage by gently pushing the wardrobe’s back, which would swing on hinges into the newly unoccupied space.
I sometimes have nightmares where I’m sleeping, and yet fully aware that the back of the wardrobe in that room is swinging open, behind its closed doors, a hand pushing apart the clothes on the rail, the man belonging to the hand getting further and further into the room until the doors themselves swing open, slowly, creaking like a rusty gate, and the last thing I see before waking is an old, withered hand, with an old-fashioned camera clasped in it, snaking through the valley forged by the parted clothes, behind which lurk two strange, un-winking eyes…
The first time I had this nightmare, I started screaming and became fully conscious in my mother’s arms as she held me. Jessica was kneeling on her bed, in her nightgown, watching me with a mix of sympathy and fear, as if she wanted to comfort me but was afraid of contagion. ‘Is Brian okay?’ she said in a small voice. ‘He’s fine, darling, just a bad dream. Get back in bed.’ Mum said this while stroking my hair. Dad had come in now, and was looking at the wardrobe, the left door of which was slightly ajar. ‘Do you think he woke your dad?’ he said in a voice that I was too young to interpret, exactly. ‘Don’t be daft, Jim. Dad sleeps like a brick, you know that.’ Dad snorted and left. He and I had barely made eye contact, but then that was par for the course.
The next morning was a Saturday, and after breakfast I stood in the dining room, looking through the glass doors and the conservatory, into the back garden, where granddad was bird-watching, his favourite pastime. Occasionally he’d scribble some notes in an ancient calfskin pad, then take a photograph of a bird which had alighted on the flagstones around the swimming pool. He should take the picture first, I thought, in case the bird flies away. Jessica was in town with mum, and dad, as always, was locked in his office. For some reason, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never seen him make eye contact with granddad, let alone hold a conversation. I felt sorry for granddad. He must be lonely, I thought, as I walked through the conservatory and out into the garden. He didn’t see or hear me until I was almost beside him.
‘Brian, my boy!’ he cried, his usual chipper self. ‘Come to help me catch the pigeon?’ I smiled and said sure. On a little garden table stood a small wooden long-box, clearly intended for photographs. I moved to open it, but granddad caught my wrist. ‘Oh, no no no,’ he said, suddenly all anxiety, ‘don’t look in there, my boy, they’re nowhere near ready.’ I wasn’t raised to contradict adults, so I assumed he knew best and left the matter there.
Over the next two years I had the nightmare several times, enough to be labelled “a nervous child”. Dad grew increasingly impatient, until one day, after walking into me on his journey from the study to the kitchen, he lashed out and slapped me so hard that I almost spun around. Mum ran out of the kitchen, where she’d been making a sandwich, and slashed at dad with the dirty kitchen knife. ‘You get the f— away from him, you b——!’ she screamed. It was the first time that I’d heard an obscenity, let alone two in one sentence. She’d torn through one of dad’s sleeves, and his arm was shedding blood. He fell back against the wall, wide-eyed, legs threatening to give way, then turned and ran back to his office.
And that was the last time I saw dad while growing up. Later in life I searched for and found him, living with a wife twenty-five years his junior. He’d had a baby with her and seemed much more attentive to it than he ever was to Jessica or I. I asked him if he’d seen Jessica at all. He seemed vaguely ashamed and said he hadn’t. I didn’t ask if he knew what had happened.
What had happened was this: a year after dad left, Jessica and I were sent to bed at nine in the evening, and mum came up a few minutes later to kiss us goodnight. We fell into sleep. I woke up around midnight needing to pee, and after I’d returned from the bathroom I noticed that Jessica’s bed was empty and the wardrobe door slightly ajar. Gone off to explore the passages, I supposed. Years had passed since she had, at least to my knowledge, and anticipating a game, I followed in her footsteps. Through the hinged back wall and the hidden door, into the dungeon-like passage, wood warped with age and bricks rotten… It was pitch-black, and I remembered being told that when my aunt and grandfather used these passages, they lit their way with a paraffin lamp like characters in a story. I saw a light then, but a perfect circle of electric light. Jessica had a torch. Tip-toeing, thinking I might scare her for a laugh, I followed the beam. As I neared it, two figures became vaguely distinct, one lying on the floor, one seeming to kneel beside it. The beam illuminated a patch of night-shirt, soaked in red. An old, withered hand held an old-fashioned camera, and suddenly the kneeling figure looked up to reveal itself as Jessica, her hands both occupied, one by a torch and one by a kitchen knife… I screamed and screamed and screamed, and behind the scream I heard a pair of feet running towards us.

Flash Fiction #1: The New Prophetic

The prophet was well-dressed and charismatic, as a modern prophet must be. Gone were the days of men like Moses and Elijah, who raved at foliage and still wore the clothes they were buried in, soiled from the gritty resurrection. In an age of electricity and screens of glass, wherein all the information accrued by, and aspirations of, man are stored, nobody listened to the poor and the insane, the men who came down from the rocks and the plywood temples, being turned inside out by a message utterly unique and selfless. They turned instead to the prophet, well-dressed and charismatic, who rose in a time of deep divisions, promising to cohere the philosophical narrative that had for so long tortured his subjects. One day, he walked on stage to the cheering crowd, reached his podium, recited his prophetic speech – recited over and over again in the years before – to the religious ecstasies of a crowd ripping itself apart in its passion, and smiled. Only after he smiled did anyone realise that their prophet was actually the Devil.

Writerly Widgets #1: The Big ON

I’ve recently been reading a biography of the American novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor, in which it is mentioned that one of those correspondents who would read and critique her works in progress, advised against vague phrasing like “kind of” in the ON, or Omniscient Narration. An Omniscient Narrator is generally a third-person narrative voice which tells the story from a detached, objective POV (point of view). For instance: “Edward walked down the street. Simultaneously, Emily was brushing her hair.” Omniscience, defined as the quality of “knowing everything”* (and not merely thinking you do, a la teenagers and TV chefs), is therefore a prerequisite for the kind of (clearly, this narrator ain’t omniscient!) narrator who can sensibly deliver the previous hypothetical sentence. In other words, only a narrator which knows everything can say for certain that, exactly as Edward was walking down the street, Emily was brushing her hair.

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“Midway through their lovemaking, as Edward realised he had left the stove on, Emily simultaneously realised she was a lesbian.

With this in mind, the idea that such a narrator shouldn’t use phrases like “kind of” is understandable. If someone knows everything there is to know, they don’t need to qualify their observations. To them, something is not “kind of” anything. A sunset is not kind of spectacular. It simply is spectacular.

This connects to a thought I had about Omniscient Narration today while working on a story: that if such a narration shouldn’t qualify its own observations with phrases like “kind of”, maybe it also shouldn’t use contractions, because these indicate informal and therefore human, not omniscient, speech. Like the contraction shouldn’t.

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Okay, MS Paint doodle, I get it. You don’t need to be a dick about it, yeesh…

For me, at least, a totally formalised Omniscient Narration, free from both qualifiers and contractions, removes a lot of uncertainty about which voice I’m writing in and how I should handle it, when I’m not writing from the first-person perspective of a character in the story.

What do you think? How do you turn on your ON, if you turn it on at all when writing? Tell me below.

 

Boob-Tube Archives #1: “Skin of Evil”, Star Trek: The Next Generation, season #1, episode #23

I have a totally unconscious (I assure you) habit of liking most those examples of a canon which others like least. For instance, my favourite episode of the Matt Groening sci-fi sitcom Futurama was once “That’s Loberstainment!”, an episode (starring Dr. Zoidberg in an adventure where he makes a movie with his Charlie Chaplin-esque, “silent-hologram”-star uncle) so despised by fans that, in the DVD commentary, the makers discuss how the fans bashed it on online forums to a point of both ad nauseam and ad hominem.

It was therefore not too shocking to me that one of the episodes I enjoyed the most from Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s awkward, clunky first season (it’s certainly not my favourite episode overall; I’m not that much a misguided hipster geek) is “Skin of Evil”, most noted today as the episode where Lieutenant Tasha Yar was killed off, after actress Denise Crosby had become dissatisfied with her role on the programme. Critics have generally disparaged this episode.

And no, I don’t like it just because Lt. Yar was murdered in it. I honestly really liked that character (another symptom of the misguided hipster geek?). Unlike other examples of the “warrior woman” character in genre fiction, especially genre fiction of this time period, to me Yar felt like an actual, nuanced human being, not just an ultra-aggressive “bull dyke” caricature, beating to a pulp any man who asks her what the time is, because “strong woman” means egocentric psychopath.

She may not have been the best-written female character of all time (superficially, she still fitted the mould of the tomboy with the bowl-cut hair), but she was invested with a compassion and intelligence rarely seen in that more extreme instance of the “strong woman” archetype, where strength comes as much from a woman’s brawn as her soul.

She also provided a useful counterpoint to Counsellor Troi, the more lasting character whose strength did come from her soul, and what was at least implied to be a uniquely feminine understanding of emotions. In fact, this counterpoint is neatly revealed in Yar’s pre-recorded funeral message for her comrades at the end of the episode, where she tells Troi that she helped Yar realise her femininity could be just as much a part of her strength as anything.

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But, on to the plot of the episode, which is what I most enjoyed about “Skin of Evil”. In some ways, this episode is very much a throwback to the visual and scriptural style of The Original Series. This may be due in part to the presence on the production team of Joseph Stefano, who devised the story, then co-wrote the script with Hannah Louise Shearer.

Stefano is best remembered today as the screenwriter for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, adapting it from the pulp horror novel by Robert Bloch. It could be said that Stefano was well suited, then, to a 45-minute piece of television in the action and science-fiction genres.

The story begins with SS Enterprise trying to rendezvous with a shuttle containing Counsellor Troi, back from leave to resume her duties, when the shuttle gets caught in the gravitational pull of a nearby planet and dragged down to the surface. There, it is jealously guarded by what seems like a sentient oil slick, the titular skin of evil, named Armus, which can, as a liquid, change itself to the shape of any container, from a human body to the downed shuttle, and instantly leech the life force from organic beings.

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This concept and the writing used to express it may go a long way towards explaining the negative critical response to “Skin of Evil”. Stefano, a 60s writer if ever there was one (he co-created the Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi show The Outer Limits), brings to his Next Generation effort a distinctly Original Series sensibility.

The dialogue is declarative and sensational (“I am a skin of evil left here by a race of Titans who believed if they rid themselves of me, they would free the bonds of destructiveness”), as opposed to symbolic and introspective, the tone of dialogue more generally associated with Next Generation episodes. To many critics, then, “Skin of Evil” might seem simply anachronistic and silly.

However, I’ve always been a fan of grand theatrics used in the representation of ideas. I enjoy the brutally efficient storytelling of classic genre fiction, where stories were self-contained and therefore more reliant on structure. Earlier Star Treks, at least, couldn’t afford to spend entire episodes hinting at rather than telling larger stories; in other words, they couldn’t afford to be soap operas. Not just every line but every word of dialogue needed to be about something immediately relevant. The grand, theatrical speeches of Armus may seem like cornball, moustache-twirling villainy now, but they relate information in a clear and engaging manner, acquainting the audience with the concept in as little time as possible.

Perhaps less advisably, like many episodes in TNG‘s first season, “Skin of Evil” uses the Original Series technique of rendering an alien sky as just a gradient block of colour, in this case a sort of dirty yellow, presumably chosen to emphasise the planet’s desolate, desert nature. This approach, reminiscent of German Expressionism (distorting reality to convey subjective experience and create emotional effects), was well-suited to the general aesthetic of original Star Trek, a 60s programme which utilised bright colours, and needed Expressionism in a time of more limited special effects.

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Image from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a German Expressionist film:

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Even in late 80s, first season Star Trek, however, it comes across as merely jarring and anachronistic. 20 years had passed since the dawn of the original series, and TNG had already established its own, distinct visual style, with toned-down colours and an at once more minimalist and more detailed approach (less wildly angular sets and eccentric costumes, more attention to gritty, detailed landscapes). Indeed, watching an episode of TOS after several of TNG, you might be struck in the face by the sheer artificial intensity of the colouring and sets.

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As well as by how their “military uniforms” look like PJs

Also, TOS itself had progressed visually, in its movies; the first Star Trek film, though deeply flawed and today considered one of those weak odd-numered entries in the film canon (alongside Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and TNG‘s own Insurrection), was a milestone of sci-fi special effects. By the time “Skin of Evil” was aired, Captain Kirk and co. had already crossed the frontier of what science fiction can depict on screen.

This issue aside, I still think “Skin of Evil” is an underrated episode of first season TNG. It’s anachronistic, and like a lot of its peers in this season the storytelling can be awkward and unsure of itself; it would take a while for the characters (those that remained after Lt. Yar’s departure) to fully solidify and distinguish themselves, but compared to the lowest points of these early TNG stories, this OS-style throwback is a charming bit of pulp.

Rating: 3 neutron phasers (set to stun) out of 4