Sunday 29 November 2015

Some Gambit suggestions

I first became a fan of the X-Men in the early nineties. Along with a lot of you, it was because of the cartoon and the fantastic runs at the time by Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell. And because of the timing, there were two characters I particularly liked. Wolverine and Gambit. And while Wolverine was the one that became the biggest character in the Marvel Universe, Remy LeBeau always stayed my favourite.

I honestly believe that Gambit is potentially one of the most interesting and complex characters in the Marvel universe. For a whole bunch of reasons. And while the last few attempts to launch Gambit as a solo title have involved concentrating on the adventurous side of his persona, with heists a-plenty, I think there’s a lot that hasn't been tapped into for years. In fact, I think it’s money left on the table.

So I thought I’d outline my thoughts on the character – why I find him interesting and why I think it could make for good stories. And also a defence for some of the most loathed aspects of the Gambit back-story that I think could be the basis for an enormously fun run.

The guilty hero

More than any other characters in the same universe, Remy hates himself. That’s absolutely key to his entire personality, and it dates back for decades by this point. And he pushes everyone else to hate him as well.

He’s been raised as a thief. He killed his wife’s brother in self defence. He unknowingly helped cause a massacre. He spent a long time aware that people thought he’d betray his closest friends. And he became Apocalypse’s horseman, Death.

Remy carries around an enormous amount of guilt. And it’s not deeply buried either. He’s constantly aware of it. As far as he’s concerned, he’s beyond redemption.

And yet… he still tries.  Still tries to do the right thing. Still tries to use what power he has to be a hero. In spite of the fact he knows, deep down, he can never atone.

On top of all of that, he’s a character who gets things wrong. He doesn’t just make mistakes, he’s always one moment of selfishness away from ruining everything. He’s completely, constantly, self-sabotaging, because he can’t deal with being happy. Because he doesn’t believe he deserves it.

His superpower is like a reverse Midas touch. He is capable of literally destroying anything he touches. Every relationship he has leads to people hating him – and if they don’t, he’ll do something that makes them stop trusting him.

But here’s the bit I really like. He doesn't realise any of this. Because, along with all of the guilt, he also has an enormous ego. He’s a show-off. And sometimes, he thinks he deserves more than he’s capable of. He looks at others who are loved with jealousy, and he feels the need to outdo them.
His ego veers wildly between non-existent and out of control. Moments of a need to be the centre of attention and moments where he can’t bear to be around anyone who knows him.

For me, this has some mental health connotations, and they’re part of what I think makes his character so rich and interesting. Whether he’s going through highs or lows, the person he’s damaging the most is himself, and his relationships with others.

If I was writing him, there’s something else I’d want to introduce as well. Gambit’s an addict, as far as I'm concerned. He’s a (former) smoker, and we've seen him go out of his way to drink in the past as well. He’s been enough of a flirt and a womaniser that the idea that he might be a sex addict doesn't seem unreasonable. And he’s absolutely an adrenaline junkie – he’s performed heists out of boredom before. And finally, of course, he’s a gambler.

If you could get away with it, I’d take it a step further. Have some substance addiction problems in the background. He’s got enough guilt tearing away at him already – why not have had him hit rock bottom a couple of times in the past? He’s managed to give it up, but by replacing it with other addictions. And this is all part of the reason nobody trusts him.

Remy’s lived. He’s been through it all, and he’s experienced highs and lows well beyond his years. He’s held down by his past, his weaknesses and his guilt. But even if he doesn’t believe redemption exists at the end of his path, he’s going to do his best to be a hero while he’s still here. And he’s good enough at what he does that he can do it with a huge amount of flair.

This is a character I want to read. This is a character I want to get to know. Hell, obviously, it’s a character I want to write. But I've only embellished on what’s been on the pages in the past a little – the vast majority of what I'm talking about here is text, not subtext. But we’re talking about a hugely conflicted, unpredictable character. One that I think could really be a lot more valuable to Marvel than they seem to believe at times.

The New Orleans War

Another millstone that’s perceived as being around Gambit’s neck is his background. And it’s easy to see why. He’s a very nineties character in a lot of ways. All trench-coat, long hair and stubble (and this informed far more of my nineties fashion choices than I’d like to admit). But even worse than that… the guilds.

If you’re not familiar with the background of the character, Gambit was an orphan, taken in by one of the criminal guilds that runs the underworld of New Orleans. Specifically, the thieves guild – the other being the assassins clan. He was due to marry the daughter of a major family in the clan, but he killed her brother in self-defence, pretty much guaranteeing the two families would continue to be at war.

It’s complicated, but nor has it been particularly fleshed out. It’s not attractive to new readers, and it’s separate to just about every other character.

But that doesn't mean it can’t be turned into a positive.

Two major criminal groups vying for control of the criminal underworld? That’s something that can be fleshed out. Each of them have their own traditions and histories? And there are families within that are battling as well?

I think there’s plenty of mileage in this. Game of Thrones that shit up. Let’s learn a little bit about who these families are, and let’s trust the readers to keep up. Because the point here is that the more complicated it is, and the more at each others throats everyone is, the more in the middle of the whole thing Remy is. And that’s before you get into how the upbringing has affected him.

Finely balanced battles can be fascinating – just look at the power struggles in shows like Breaking Bad. Make it very clear that the slightest advantage on either side can lead to utter destruction of the other.  Take it from a cold war to full-on hostilities. And in the middle of the whole thing, against his will, is Gambit. Having to play everyone against everyone, without getting himself killed.

But I’d go a step further. I’d introduce other groups in New Orleans – other clans and guilds that are struggling for power. Make sure that Gambit has to step carefully at all times.

And if you really want to shake things up? Bring in an outside element.

How about this? You have a truce meeting agreed between the clans and guilds. For the first time since Gambit’s marriage, there’s the opportunity of real peace in the area. Some of the higher-ups meet together in an hotel.

And then the hotel blows up. We don’t know who did it yet. But the clans and guilds blame each other, and it causes chaos. And in the middle of all of this, there’s a hostile group trying to take over. Wilson Fisk has seen the anarchy in New Orleans, and he sees an opportunity.

So, now, you have a situation where you have multiple factions and groups all against each other. Outright war in New Orleans. And right in the middle of all of it, you have Gambit – both in debt to everyone, but also playing everyone against everyone else, and just desperately trying to keep as many people alive as possible. When he fails, he deals with it badly.

But when he succeeds, when he plays people the right way, manipulating and chancing his way into forcing the right things to happen… he uses all of his darkest elements to show the hero that he can be.

What are your thoughts? Is Gambit a character that could be a player in the Marvel Universe? Do you have favourite Gambit moments? Would you be interested in my take on the character? Or do you think I've missed the mark? Let me know in comments or on twitter.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Black Mass review

Black Mass has been hyped quite a lot, not least as a return to form for Jonny Depp. But it’s also a story about one of Boston’s most notorious crimelords, and one within living memory at that – James “Whitey” Bulger only went on the run in 1995, after all.

So, to start with the biggest selling point – Jonny Depp is a magnetic presence throughout. But you never quite forget that you’re watching Jonny Depp. And that’s a problem. It’s as mannered a performance as he’s given in many other films, but usually, that matches the film better. Here, it’s Depp playing a real person, and that real person never convinces.

There’s a scene where he’s sitting at the kitchen table with Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Whitey’s Senator brother), and this shows the difference between the two. Cumberbatch comes across as far more natural and believable. Depp is far more mannered and far less believable. 

However… you watch Depp. Your eyes are drawn to him. While it may not be great acting, it’s a hell of a performance.

That’s indicative of a larger problem with the film. It’s ultimately shallow. It’s very much “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened”, and rarely slows down to find out what that means to anyone.

The best performance in the film by a country mile is Julianne Nicholson’s, and it’s squandered. She plays the wife of an FBI agent (Joel Edgerton) who grew up with Bulger, who sees the effects of the corruption of her husband. She plays it well and subtly, and was the only character in the movie that I ended up caring about. But she’s in about five scenes, and her story is played out in shorthand. It never feels like her story either – it’s there to enhance the men’s stories only.

This is what separates it from achieving the sort of connection that Goodfellas made. In that, the stories felt real and felt like they had real impact. We were made to care about the characters more, so as the degradation hits them, it matters to us.

In Black Mass, the film is so concerned about showing us what happened that it skips over taking the time to make us care about why it’s happening. That’s a scripting issue, and it may be one that’s occurred because it’s been hamstrung by having to keep close to what actually happened.

There’s an example of this in the opening, actually. The opening focuses on Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, who you may remember as the creepy Todd from Breaking Bad) turning informant on Bulger. As a result, the first ten minutes are all about him, which make you think that the film is going to focus on him more throughout… but it’s not his story. He’s a background player in the film. But he’s a background player that took a large real life action, so he has to be there. In a film more removed from the recent past, he’d probably have been combined with another character (likely W Earl Brown’s portrayal of John Martorano), and the film probably would have been better for that.

All this said, the film’s actually pretty good. It’s brilliantly shot throughout – every fifth shot looks like it could have been the movie poster. And while I have issues with the plotting, almost every individual scene is fairly strong and giving some more-than-capable actors plenty to do.

The problem is that this could have been this generation’s Goodfellas, and clearly wants to be. But it falls short. It’s worth your time, absolutely, but I doubt it’ll stick in your mind years later.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Dentophobia - Fear of Dentists - #OctoboPhobia short story

The light is glaring into my eyes as I sit back in the chair, my mouth open, while the dentist prods and checks through my mouth.

“Okay, you’ve got a bit of an infection,” he says. “Just here…” He touches the end of the small metallic stick against it and a jolt of pain jumps through my mouth like electricity.

“Ah!” I say, involuntarily.

“You’re going to need a root canal,” he says, pulling his fingers away from my mouth and angling the light away from my face.

I’m relieved at the light being moved, but immediately apprehensive about the root canal. “I’ve heard they’re painful,” I tell him.

“They used to be” he says, looking at my x-rays. “Now, though, we can kill the infection before we extract the root, so it’s not as bad. Back in the day, they used to go ahead with it when it was at its most painful.”

“Oh,” I say, stupidly. I’m still nervous, the hairs on my arms rising.

I’m getting married next month, which is why I’m here. I promised her that I’d come and get the full check-up. Even though I’ve not been to the dentist since I was 16. I avoid them.

It’s easy enough to avoid, most of the time. For the most part, tooth pain doesn’t last. It’s more an irritating twinge, without serious pain. Even when it gets properly painful, a mixture of painkillers and alcohol not only usually helped, but they also meant that nights out were fun.

But I promised. We want the wedding photos to be perfect and she wants me – for just one day – to be perfect as well. So I’m here, proving just how much I love her.

Before I met her, I was a mess. Drinking every night to get through to the next day, and just going out of my head at the weekends on anything I could get my hands on.

And the women. I never thought I’d be able to be satisfied with one woman. Every night, if I wasn’t drinking, I was doing my best to make sure I woke up in someone else’s bed.  Most nights, I failed, but every now and then, I’d reach one of the few times I didn’t utterly loathe myself. Some I saw more than once, but most I never saw again. I just treated them like bodies. Warm bodies, with presumably some past and home life, but not ones I ever cared about.

But then her. The one least likely, with the quiet demeanour, the brain I could never match and even the daughter that I loved just as much. The one who made me change everything. Eventually. I’d strayed once or twice, but even that had fallen by the wayside. A few problems here or there, but I’d decided to make it work.

And eventually, that brought me here. I’d been given a family, and even if I didn’t want to come to the dentist, if Sarah asked me to, I did it.  

“How do you kill the infection?”

“It’s just an injection,” he said, picking up a syringe and readying it.

I tried not to think too much about it. My fear of needles was not playing well with the idea, but it was outperformed by my fear of a painful root canal.

“Then we do the root canal?”

`“No, that’ll need to be in a few days, while this takes hold. It’ll be fine though – you won’t even notice.”

“Okay,” I said, thinking of Sarah.

I open my mouth and look up at the ceiling, not looking at him hulking over me, reaching down into my mouth and pushing the needle into my gum, then pressing down on the plunger.

I know that the needle is something I should barely feel, although it pushes against the root of my tooth. I know that, but I feel the hardness of it, pushing unnaturally into my mouth.

“It won’t take long,” he says. And then he chuckles. A deep, dark chuckle.

I feel a prickling sensation spread across my face and I pass out.

I wake up, my head pounding. I try to move it, but I can’t. I can feel something against my chin and forehead keeping it still.

I’m sat down. I can feel that. I try to move my hands up to my head, but they are prevented by a large, thick leather strap on either armrest. It’s the same with my ankles.

As I struggle against them, I realise that there’s another strap – a larger one – wrapped across my waist.

“What the hell?” I try to say, but my words come out wrong. Like I can’t form letters, my tongue too big and clumsy for my mouth. “Whu hu hehh?”

“You really don’t remember me, do you?” He says from somewhere behind me. I try to turn, my eyes still taking in my grimy, dark surroundings.

“Iduhd….I duhndnuh…”

The wall is covered in something that look like egg containers, but black. Lots of them, covering from floor to ceiling.

“No reason you should, I suppose,” he says. His tone is conversational. He could be describing what’s gone wrong in the engine of his car.

“Wuh… wuh…”

“To you, I suppose, she was just a one night stand in some hotel somewhere. A one night willing fuck that wouldn’t leave you alone.”

“I… I duhn….”

“I wonder if that’s why you chose her. From watching you over the last few months, you have enough going on in your own house, with Sarah and little Lizzie. You don’t need another relationship, do you?”

“I.. inevuh….”

I can hear something metallic behind me, grinding against something else.

“I mean it’s all good for you, obviously. You get to have your fun and then walk away from it all.”

He walks in front of me, across to another table, but doesn’t make any eye contact with me. 

“Pluh….” I say.

“Maybe she told you her real name. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. Because she left me.”

“I dih… dihn” He starts rummaging around the table and the drawers next to it.

“But I found her again. And I made sure that she’d never do it again.”

“Nuh! Nuh! Pluhs!”

“And that just meant that I had to find you. This took a long time, you know.”

With his back to me, he makes a low, deep noise. I realise he is laughing.

I try to speak, and try to shout, but all I can make is grunting, incoherent noises.

He turns to me, the dental drill whirring.

“You’re underground. I had this room soundproofed, just waiting for you.”

He laughs again, it becoming more high pitched as he moves towards me, or maybe that’s just the whine of the drill.

“Don’t be afraid to scream.”

He moves the head of the drill against my tooth, and pushes down slowly. The vibration in my skull is as deep as the noise is high.

Somewhere I am screaming. Somewhere he is laughing. But the whine of the drill is all I can hear.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Decidophobia (fear of making decisions) - #Octobophobia short story

The announcement has been overdue for months.

“You’ve tested the radio,” The daughter says to her father.

“I’m testing it again,” The father replies.

The noise is irritating her and setting her off. “There hasn’t been anything for weeks. It’s broken.”

“The system’s down, that’s all. “

“It’s broken,” she says and walks away from the room.

The whirring of the generator and the static of the radio are too much for her. She goes to the area of the bunker that’s been cordoned off to give her some privacy and lays down on the campbed. She tries to think of somewhere else.

Anywhere else. Anywhere on the other side of the door.

She tries to sleep.

The father tinkers with the radio still and tries not to think about his wife. Tries not to think about everybody else.

The food won’t last forever. They both know that, but he has a more realistic idea of how much is left. He knows how quickly it will realistically work out. He hates to see her hungry, but if there’s one thing he can do while they’re stuck down here, it’s to keep her alive.

They don’t have much privacy or space, but they have some. They have some dividers for their own spaces, but they can always hear each other.  That’s the bit he finds the most difficult. They’re cut off from everyone else, but they are never entirely by themselves either. Instead, he knows that he irritates her now more than any human being ever has, even while he knows that she loves him.

He tries not to think of the door.

Slowly, he goes through every frequency on the radio, testing both ways. He repeats the phrases as he does and waits for responses.

Like he does every day. For months now.

The daughter eventually stands up and walks to the bunker door.

“What are you doing?” The father says to her.

“The radio’s broken,” she says. “We’ll go crazy if we’re down here.”

“What if it isn’t safe?” He says.

“Then we’ll… we’ll…”

“This is why we wait for the announcement.”

“What if the announcement never comes?”

The father doesn’t say anything. All his answers have fallen apart. They’ve been down here too long.

“We need to leave,” the daughter says, weeks later.

“We can’t,” the father replies.

“What do we have if we stay here?”

“What if it isn’t safe?”

“We don’t have a choice,” she says. “We’re running out of food.”

“No, we’re not,” he says. “There’s still enough.”

“We’re running out of options, then.”

“Then that’s enough to keep us alive.”

She nods. “Keep us alive, yes. But this isn’t living. This is just waiting. We don’t have a choice. We need to go outside and find out.”

“We might die if we do.”

“We will die if we don’t.”

She looks at the door. “It won’t take long,” she says.

“We cant,” says the father.

She walks up to the door. “We don’t have a choice.”

“Of course we do.”

“We don’t know how bad it is out there.”

She smiles sadly. “We may never know.”

The father pulls back, nervously.  He watches her for a moment, then sits at the table where they’ve been eating the same four meals for days.

“I know,” he says.

The daughter stops. Her hand just in front of the door handle. “Really?”

“Yes,” he says. “But if we go out… if the radiation is bad…”

“Wouldn’t you rather know?”

“…we can fix the radio.”

The daughter shouts now. “We’ve tried fixing the radio! We’ve been trying for weeks to fix the radio! There’s nothing!”

He hangs his head. “We should wait. We don’t have a choice.”

“There’s always a choice,” she says.

“But taking it may kill us,” the father responds.

She steels herself and then places her hand onto the door handle. The metal, like the door, like the walls, like the table, like the campbed, is cold.

“Don’t do it!”, the father shouts.

She holds her hand on the handle. All she needs to do is push down and then pull.

That’s all she needs to do.

But she hesitates.

OPENING (#Octobophobia Decidophobia ending)

She feels the heat first. The clouds are dark and heavy, with only the smallest fragments of daylight making it through.

“Come back in,” the father pleads.

She ignores him and takes some shaky steps forward. The air is acrid and thick. The ground feels hot underneath her feet.

He feels the heat now behind her. “Is it… is it… okay?”  He moves towards the door.

She looks around her, trying to see in the darkness. The air is hurting her eyes, burning like chlorine.
“I… I don’t know,” she says.

Her eyes slowly, painfully adjust.

She can see for miles. Rubble, dust and death is all that there is.

Bringing her hand to her eyes, she rubs them. It helps with the stinging a little bit.

“Is there anyone there?” the father asks.

“No,” she says. “There’s nothing.”

She begins to walk.

Waiting (#Octobophobia Decidophobia ending)

She takes her hand off the handle and crumbles to her knees. It is the last burst of momentum that she had and she knows it.

The father puts his hand on her shoulder. “We’re better waiting,” he says. She believes him.

The announcement will come, surely.

But it never does.

They wait for months, but eventually the generator fails. Without it, the air filtration stops working.  

It takes time.

Slow, painful time.

Thursday 15 October 2015

When things you love stop being yours...

It’s a strange feeling when something stops being yours.

Superhero comics and wrestling have been two hobbies that have been mine since the early 90s. I’ve been obsessed with both for decades.

When I started watching, both were aimed fairly firmly at me. Boy hobbies very much aimed at boys. And as I grew up, my tastes in both matured, and they continued to be aimed at me, with the (relatively) clean cut Bret Hart and Batman replaced by the stubblier and more violent Wolverine, Gambit and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Aimed squarely at me and people like me.

And recently, this has changed. Because they’re no longer aimed at me. I have a fairly major and specific complaint about this. They’re aimed at girls. Not even women. Girls.

That’s not the complaint. Let me give some context first.

The latest issue of Ms Marvel came out yesterday. Now, Ms Marvel, if you haven’t heard, is a superhero. She’s also a teenage Muslim girl named Kamala Khan, who has to juggle saving people with hoping that her strict family don’t find out. It is one of the best comics Marvel have put out in years, and one of the best comic books of the last decade. It’s funny, heartfelt and smart.

And Kamala has created a fandom that’s brand new. Just look at this letter (left) in the latest issue from a little girl called Charlotte.

This, believe me, is not the usual level of letters that you see in comics. Absolute adoration for a great character by a little girl. And treated in response warmly and without mocking.

This isn’t my complaint. I’m getting to it though.

Wait. Let me explain with some wrestling stuff. I’ve written before about problems with racism and homophobia in wrestling, and at some point, I’ll address sexism, but this is a bit different.

This is Bayley. She is the NXT (WWE’s smaller league feeder division) women’s champion. Unlike the past ways women have been treated in wrestling, she’s been main eventing. And she’s been having a series of great matches. She’s also wholesome, cute, wears headbands and shirts with ‘I’m a hugger’, which sell enormous amounts already.

She's throwing a hug to the audience. And because they love her, theyre throwing it right back.

This is Izzy. She’s Bayley’s biggest fan and comes to lots of the events dressed as her.

Again, it’s fair to say that this is not your typical wrestling fan.

Izzy gets emotionally into it to a huge degree. She’s young enough that this is real for her, and Bayley is her absolute hero. When Bayley was fighting Sasha Banks (an arrogant ‘heel’) in one of the best matches of the year, Sasha started teasing Izzy.

Now that's a heel.

She even stole her headband, reducing Izzy to tears.

The most horrible thing to ever happen in wrestling.

Bayley fought back, finally celebrating. Izzy’s reactions throughout the match told the story almost as well as the women in the ring.

Twitter and Tumblr may have got a bit emotional.

And the following day, she forgave Sasha (who also gave her the flowers in the background).

I have never seen anything like this in wrestling before.

Nor in comics.

And this is my complaint.

What the hell took so long?

There’s nothing to gain by limiting your audience. Nothing. When you look at anything – be it movies, books, horror, wrestling, comics, or (and yes, this is a big one) videogames – the longer that it’s purely aimed at young (and, in my case, not so young) men, the longer it becomes a defensive monoculture.

A monoculture that gets defensive and sarcastic, in places like wrestling forums I’ve seen, where Bayley’s repeatedly criticised for not being attractive enough. Because a lot of fans still think that it should just be for them.

A monoculture that ends up just like Gamergate. One that will abuse people for not liking things the right way. Not allowing them to even be fans in their own way.

I can understand wanting to keep part of a culture to yourself. There’s a level of ownership, which can give a sense of control – a control that can often feel lacking in other parts of life. Sometimes, this can be a positive, but the longer it goes on unchecked, it can go from affirmation to a strange “I am special because I like this” approach. It becomes exclusion rather than expansion.

When I look at Izzy and Charlotte, fans of things that I love at an age that’s younger than I ever got into it, I’ve found myself oddly emotional. There’s something rather wonderful about this, and about seeing some of the things that I love opening up to new audiences – ones that couldn’t be much further away from me.

This isn’t mine any more.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

Monday 12 October 2015

Cynophobia - Fear of Dogs - #Octobophobia Short Story

My mother was a cancer. An absolute cancer on my life. I’m glad she’s dead.  Or I was, anyway.

I maintain she’s why I never married. Every man I ever got close to always suddenly had second thoughts about the relationship after they had to spend time with her. And every one of them pretended it wasn’t anything to do with her constant undermining, constant passive-aggression and constant neediness. And then she’d make constant comments about me being single again.

She was the worst of all worlds. And she took up my entire world. Phone calls, visits, texts. Just constant bloody attention.

And when I didn’t answer for more than a week or two, she’d get ill. Every time. And it’d be one thing if she was faking it, but she never was. And it was always either serious or had the potential to be serious.

So I’d have to give up time to look after her again. I’d have to move in again and cook for her, clean for her, and – depending on the level of severity – clean her. And she’d take it all with a clear sense of disdain, making it obvious that she considered that she as the one doing me the favour

She’d just sit there, or lie there, like a bloated, poisonous toad. And she’d ignore me and put all of her attention on that bloody dog.

I haven’t mentioned the dog yet, have I?

It was a small, black, wiry, oily, unpleasant little thing. It would follow her around like a malevolent shadow, and she would dote on it with all of the love that she never showed me. “Bluebell”, she called the thing.

It hated me, obviously. Any other visitors, which were few and far between, would be treated as a new best friend. But me… it would sit and watch me warily the entire time. The only noises it made were either high pitched whines or low, petulant growls.

A little ball of hatred, carried around by a woman filled with hate. Like a colostomy bag for bitterness.

Somewhere along the lines, I stopped helping and started encouraging her to die. Somewhere, when she started trying to improve her health, I’d push her towards the unhealthier options. Reminding her how much she loved drinking and smoking. Reminding her how much she loved red meat and rich food.

Somewhere, I started hoping she would die, as I spent every day cleaning up after her, wiping up after her, and avoiding the sullen stares of the dog.

And one day, when she’d shouted at me, abused me and been as ungrateful as she ever had been, I watched her die. She slipped in the bath while I was sat on the edge. She was trying to grasp and get her balance, trying to lift her head above the water.

All I needed to do to save my mother was to reach. With one hand, even. Just enough to grasp her hand and allow her to right herself.

But I didn’t. While the dog clawed at the bathroom door, I just sat and watched. Watched her try to lift herself, but not able to. Watched her panic and desperately try to breathe, but having the water fill her mouth, throat and lungs instead.

I waited. Eventually, I walked out of the room. The dog ran in frantically through my legs and jumped and barked at the bath.

I gave it a while before I called the police.

I tried to get rid of the dog. I did. Of course I did.  

But it didn’t work. I opened the door and found her on the pathway outside. I asked all of my mother’s friends if anyone wanted to take the small, black demon, but none of them did.

So I left it be. I let it just be outside, and went away to work. But by the time I came back, the mutt was still sat there, whining and growling at me.

I couldn’t not feed it. I may have allowed someone I hated to die, but despite my loathing, it was just a dog. And I couldn’t bring myself to let it starve.

It wolfed down any food I brought it at first, but as it regained its strength, it appeared to regain its hatred of me and would snap at me as I brought its food near.

I appealed online, making the dog sound friendly, and it worked. For a week. And then the dog turned up on the path again.

I keep seeing the dog in my head, no matter where I was. Just looking at me with those wide open eyes and the same slight tilt to the head. It always takes me a little time to work out if it’s real or not.

It would be comical if it weren’t for the sheer malevolence. The sheer hatred. It shits wherever it can – not because of a lack of training, but just to make the point which of us is tolerating the other.

I can’t kill it because it’s my responsibility, sitting there and watching me. Nobody else would take it (for good reason). And no matter what I try, it refuses to do anything other than glare, whine or bark.

I may have killed my mother, but the dog looks at me and it knows what I did.  And really, that’s why 
I have to put up with it, however many years it has left.

It knows what I did.

But I can outwait it.

I waited for my mother to die.

I can wait another few years for Bluebell.

And until then, I will feed her and tend to her and clean after her, while she subjects me to whines and growls and hatred.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Coulrophobia (fear of clowns) - #OctoboPhobia short story

The clown turned up at my door at midnight. He stood in the rain, although his colourful makeup stayed put. And he watched me.

I watched him for a while. Watched him watching me. And when I walked through to the kitchen, I knew that, within a few minutes, he’d turn up at the window. Not being aggressive. Not saying anything. Just watching.

And I knew why he was here.

When I was five years old, I was taken to the circus for the first time. I remember the noises and the lights and the colours. I remember the animals – bears, lions and elephants (although, looking back, I cant help but wonder how they were treated). I remember the acrobats, defying gravity with every move.

But most of all, I remember the clowns.

Two of them came out, with overexaggerated movements and ludicrous outfits. They went through a routine and the audience laughed hysterically throughout. Except for me. I was repulsed by them immediately.

My mom hugged me and told me it was okay, and they were just playing and in outfit, but I didn’t believe her. I didn’t trust her. And I certainly didn’t trust them.

In old pulp novels, the clown is almost always on the run. Hiding in disguise, while it turns out that they held up a bank or a shop or something, and something went wrong and they shot someone, and they went into hiding somewhere that was always on the move, and somewhere they could keep their face hidden the entire time.

In real life, they’re far worse.

Have you ever heard of John Wayne Gacy? Google him and give yourself nightmares for the next week. If the round, demented clown face isn’t enough, Gacy killed dozens of young men and teenagers.

And then he’d put that face paint on for local events. Look at the pictures and look at his eyes and that smile… not the painted ones. The real ones underneath. Look at them, and tell me that you’re really, honestly, truly surprised that he was capable of that.

As human beings, we use our sense of sight (assuming that we have one) to help us know whether or not to trust people. We see their faces when they talk to us and we communicate by expression as much as by voice. 

Just look at emojis. We had to find a way to put basic facial expressions into text once we started using it as an immediate method of communication. We didn’t feel the need to do that with letters, because letters removed the immediacy. But when you’re talking to someone online, using text alone, emojis are useful ways to get a little bit of that extra level of communication. After all, we all need to know when something’s being said with a smile and a wink, don’t we? Deadpan really doesn’t come across well when it’s typed.

We need that extra element of expression, because otherwise, when someone comes at you brandishing a knife, you need to be able to tell whether they’re friendly or angry.

So think about the importance of expression, and now wonder what kind of person feels the need to paint an expression over their own. A permanent expression that constantly makes a point of telling people that they’re smiling. That they’re happy. And that there’s nothing to worry about, because just look at them with their painted smiles and eyes and colourful hair and outfits.

Think about what kind of person goes to those lengths to convince people that they’re friendly. That they’re not a threat. And that they definitely don’t have a knife.

So, my mom and I were sat near the front, and I was crying by this point. And one of them must have noticed, because they involved us in their next trick.

I was brought into the pit in front of everyone, a shaking, terrified mess. I never really forgave my mom for that, and I never really will. I think, charitably, she was under the impression that I’d enjoy the attention and forget how scared I was.

It probably only went on for minutes, but it felt like it went on for hours. They kept doing things that seemed like they were going to be unbelievably dangerous, before it was revealed they switched it out for something safe. Like an oversized wooden mallet, swung for my head. The measuring up for the shot, like a batter winding up to knock it out the park. The swing… the practice swing… and then he brought the mallet back over his head, like he was going to do one of those tests of strength in fairs, and then all of the weight of the mallet suddenly returned and made him fall over backwards.

The crowd laughed as I wet myself, absolutely convinced they’d just been about to kill me. And as he struggled with the mallet, the other clown laughed and laughed and laughed in my face.

And then they got the bucket, which they proved to everyone was full of water. And before they poured it over my head (which was in my hands as I prayed for it all to stop), it somehow turned into confetti.

I didn’t care. I felt the water hit my head and run down me, and when I opened my eyes and looked through the tears, everything was red. Blood poured down my body and seeped through my clothes.

I screamed. I looked down at myself and screamed and everybody laughed because they could only see confetti and they thought I was just overreacting. They couldn’t see me covered in dark, red, cold blood.

But I could see it. And from the smiles on their faces, they could see it too. I could see, underneath the grease paint, utter malevolence. For the first time since the routine had begun, I could see they were really smiling.

And one of them knelt in to me and whispered – and even through the noise of the crowd laughing, I heard him clearly – “You’ll be one of us now. One day, we’ll come for you.”

I pretended not to see him at first. He’s not the first one to turn up recently. Always at midnight. Always a different clown.

There’s been a different one every night. And they just watch.

But he was the first one that managed to get into the house.

I thought that I’d locked the back door. I maintain, looking back, that I locked the back door. But maybe that didn’t matter. I’d gone to bed and eventually, fitfully, slept.

I woke up to find him at the foot of the bed.

Watching me.

He had green hair, this one. Green hair and a hat. And clean, black-and-white makeup.

He held out his hands.

One of them held a knife. The other held a makeup box.

I watched him for a while, with his open smile etched onto his face.

I knew what they were for.

He walked with me into the bathroom and he let me talk while I slowly took the box, and looked in the mirror and began to apply the paint.

The smell of greasepaint is one that sticks with you. It gets into your throat and sinuses and the hairs in your nose, and it doesn’t go away.

I painted my face with a smile and comically large eyebrows, with big red bags underneath my eyes.  It was simple, but there were flourishes.

He beckoned at me to open my mouth and I wished that they’d never picked me. I opened it, and he grabbed my tongue between his fingers, and then pushed the knife into, and then with no small effort through it. He hacked at it and sawed for minutes.

Somewhere, I was screaming and screaming, until I felt the blood pouring down my front and my throat, and suddenly, I remembered what it had felt like when they’d poured the bucket over me.

What it had looked like to everyone else. And then I thought about how funny it would be to see their reaction right now, as the clown tore through the last parts of my tongue, severing it completely.

And as much pain as I was in, all I could think of was how funny everyone’s faces would be if they knew what was really happening that night.

At some point, the screams turned into laughter. Hysterical, deep, overwhelming laughter.

I looked into the mirror at my new blood-smeared, gore-splattered face.

And I laughed. And laughed. And laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Claustrophobia - #OctoboPobia short story

Nobody pays much attention to Calloway. At the end of the day, as it turns dark, he walks around the graveyard. He locks the gate with a chain and padlock, and then walks around every path, picking up litter, collecting the dead flowers that have withered too much to be left, and making sure everything is clean.

Most people don’t want to see anyone there while they’re visiting. It’s a private time and they want to be left alone. So he’s used to staying out of the way, and used to people not paying attention to him.

He likes it. It suits him.

He’s old and quiet and his slight build belies a surprising strength. He isn’t the only one that digs graves, preparing them for funerals, but he does it more than anyone else.  It’s hard work, but he does it regularly. At other times, he can be found in the shed, drinking tea from a thermos and eating sandwiches. There’s a kettle there now, and a microwave, but old habits die hard, and he likes the way the thermos feels.

As caretaker, he’s a council employee, although nobody on the council really knows him. Nobody really measures the work he does. If they don’t have to go there, people don’t really like graveyards.

Well, most people don’t.

Teenagers, on the other hand. Some of them love graveyards. Some of them see them as somewhere to drink cheap alcohol, smoke poorly made joints and some of them have awkward, fumbling sex.

There’s a couple right now, on the other side of the graveyard. Can’t be much more than eighteen.

They’ve been furtively coming in here once every few weeks, and from a safe distance, Calloway has watched her take off her knickers, lie down on the stone slab and spread her legs as her boyfriend frantically pushes into her.

They always take their time when they’re not screwing. Drinking between their thrillseeking passions, then starting again. Calloway remembers when he was young and virile enough to do it multiple times like that, but he has other passions these days. Over the months, he’s got to know their patterns. And they’ve never even realised he was there.

He walks to the caretaker’s shed, opens the door and takes the shovel in his hand.

The teenager wakes up. He breathes, his head pounding and dripping blood, and it takes him a while to realise why the air is so musty and thick.

He tries to move, but he can barely lift his arms. He’s pinned by wood above him and to his sides. He scrabbles against the darkness, feeling sharp, broken pieces of bone underneath him.

He can’t get any leverage at all. He tries shifting his weight, seeing if he can bring his hands up to his chest by twisting, to give himself more space. He can now see the skull by the side of his own head, and he tries not to panic (although he’s aware that the air is getting thinner and thinner). He manages to bring a hand up, and tries to push the lid properly, but it won’t budge. He scratches frantically, until his fingertips start to bleed. He realises this approach isn’t doing anything.

He manages, slowly and painfully, to turn onto his side, and then his front. He doesn’t have the
strength to push with his hands, but if he arches his back…. Pushes with it…. He might just be able to shift the coffin lid.

He doesn’t think about the skeleton that he’s now facing. He doesn’t think of the fact that he can’t hear anything other than soil falling, muffled, onto the top of the coffin.

He pushes and pushes. And when that doesn’t work, he screams as much as the air will let him.

He no longer has the strength to turn.  And besides, there was hardly space.

Instead, he lies down in the remains of the first owner of this coffin and can’t find the strength to move any more.

Before long, he can’t find the strength to breathe, either.

As the teenager struggles and screams, Calloway slowly and calmly shovels dirt on top of the coffin. 

He doesn’t rush. There’s no need. There’s nobody around.

He knows what he’s doing. He’s done this dozens of times.

When the screaming stops, he keeps piling the earth in. Keeps filling the grave, adding weight to the lid of the coffin.

Nobody ever notices that the graves have been turned, as long as he relays the grass fairly carefully.
People expect a certain level of upkeep.

And when people come here secretly, in singles or in pairs, they tend not to tell others where they’re going. They might be missed, but nobody knew they were here in the first place. And Calloway knows how to spot the ones that will be less missed.

Because he doesn’t just keep out of the way.

He watches. And waits, and plans, and then fills the coffins with extra passengers.

Once he’s done, he looks down at the next grave. The funeral taking place in the morning will provide more cover than anything else could do. She lies there, her skull caved in, blood and brains spilled over the soil feet further down than the grave needs to be. Once he’s dumped enough soil over her, the coffin will be able to be lowered slowly down on top, and nobody will ever know.

During the funeral, he will stay out of the way, watching without the smirk that he feels inside.
Looking at the grave and knowing that there’s one victim underneath, and then just a few feet away, one that died screaming in a box only barely bigger than he was.

He’ll know all of that is there, but nobody else will have the slightest clue. And he’ll sit in the shed, and he’ll smile to himself thinking of those lying there, and the ones he left in there alive.

Once he finishes filling in the graves, he continues to clean up around. Then he locks up the cemetery and goes home.  The next day, he’ll come back and he’ll wait for an opportunity to do it again.

He’ll pick someone and he’ll wait until the right time. And it will come and it will happen.

Nobody pays much attention to Calloway, after all.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Chronophobia (fear of colors) - #Octobophobia short story

Great cinema is black and white. This is, as far as I’m concerned, indisputable. The use of light and dark to signify everything. Shadows and subtleties that screaming colour can never live up to.

A double bill of Les Yeux Sans Visage and The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Neither one a favourite of mine, but I couldn’t help but smile at the pairing. Schlock and sublime shock together. I only wish that it was the supposed lost cut of the latter – if it ever existed.

I sat in the projection booth and watch. So many cinemas now have digital, it felt like a privilege to work with well-maintained vintage film cameras. And as venues go, I loved working in this place. 

It’s culty and silly enough not to be fully arthouse, but there’s a genuine love of film seeping through every pore.

It’s after those films that I first noticed the colour.

I was sat in the pub with some colleagues and closed my eyes after looking at the menu and there were  lines and shapes dancing around behind my eyelids. Nothing unusual, of course. But they were a more vivid and sharp than they normally are.

I wear glasses, due to short sightedness, and I’m fully aware that I’m at risk of further sight loss as I get older. I get floaters in my vision fairly regularly, but I don’t worry too much about it.

What surprised me about the colour behind my eyelids was that it didn’t feel quite as natural. It…shone. It was like a burst of neon colour lit across the inside, and after it flared, it had gone.

It was, I thought, probably something outside. Someone had taken a photograph and the lens flash had taken me by surprise. I’d looked at something just as it went off, and it burned an after-effect into my vision.

The next morning, I woke up to it when my son came into the room, shouting that he was late for school. A vibrant, glowing river of colour behind my eyelids. It didn’t last long. Just enough to wake me up in a panic, utterly confused and disorientated.

It lasted a bit longer this time. It hung around for a couple of minutes, bright against my eyelids, burning them. When I opened my eyes, I could still see brief lines and shapes, like looking at the outline of a magic eye painting. But they faded quickly.

Driving carefully, I took him to school. I can’t remember the last time I drove with my foot hovering over the brake so gingerly.

That night, as I became more tired, helping him with his homework, the lights returned when I closed my eyes.  This time, it went on for long minutes, burning each time. Bright reds, yellows, scalding greens and blues. Shimmering crystal razor blades against my eyes each time. I tried to keep my eyes open, but each time I blinked, it was like having a shotgun go off in front of me.

By the time it stopped, I was in agony. My eyes felt scalded and sore. When I looked into the mirror, they were bloodshot.

My son looked at me, scared.

When it stopped, I did the obvious thing. I googled. I looked for symptoms, and after convincing myself it wasn’t meningitis, I decided it would be worth going to the doctor. This could be a stroke or similar.

I called the following morning. But by the time my appointment came round a few days later, I was in the hospital, sedated and in bed.

Unconsciousness was the only place that I could escape from the colours. Which were just getting brighter and more vivid each time. And it was going for longer and longer.

I would occasionally get a small bit of relief, and it would stop, and I’d be able to focus for a while on other things. But then it would return, even stronger than before.

They ran tests. They looked for eye damage, brain damage, tumours, blood diseases… nothing. Every eye test they could run, they ran. But they could see from the darkening colour of my eyes that something was happening.

The only time I had a prolonged period of relief was when my eyes were held open and moisturised with drops during some of the tests. While it was uncomfortable, it wasn’t the blinding lights that I saw when I closed my eyes.

And the colours were getting brighter and brighter still. Coalescing into the purest white.

Every time I closed my eyes, it was like staring at the sun. Even for a second, it hurt.

My son didn't understand, but I didn’t want him to hear my screams. He was staying with my ex for a while, and even she burst into tears when she visited and heard me.

I thought about his face. But each time I’d tried to look at him, a blink had led to fierce, stabbing pain. I thought of the movies, those pristine lines, and all I could see was the light from the projection booth. Harsh. Unforgiving.

This went on for weeks, until I could finally take no more.

In the middle of the night, while the hospital was at its quietest, I pushed my fingers into my eyes. 
Both at once. I tried not to think about the pain as I tore into them.

One of them ripped and tore, blood and liquid pouring down my face, as I held the remains in my hand. The other one came out whole, and I ripped at the fleshy connections to the back of my eye socket.

With no small effort, it ripped away, and for a moment, I knelt and laughed in relief. The pain was almost overwhelming, but not as much as that sense of freedom.

The blood and liquid dripped over my top and lap (which I could feel, each drop hotter than I’d expected). I laughed. In hope. In freedom. In pain.

And then I closed my eyes.

Whiteness blinded me once again. Intense, shining, glaring whiteness.

Like staring into the sun. Into death.

I could still see.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Chaetophobia - #OctoboPhobia short story

It starts like a joke. A hair in my soup. Thick country vegetable soup, just out of the can and heated up. No waiter to send it back to the kitchen. Just me on a Sunday afternoon. And I’m halfway through the soup when I find it.

The hair I find is long. I don’t have long hair. There’s nobody else in the flat (and there hasn’t been anyone else in the flat in some time). It must have happened in the factory.

If it was worth it, I’d send a letter of complaint, or take a picture and tweet it. But for a single hair, it’s probably not.

Despite my revulsion, I pick it up with the spoon and dump it in the bin.

And then I find another one, polluting the soup.

And another.

And another.

Sickened, I can’t eat any more of the soup, and I pour it out. A thick clump of matted hair comes with it, and I struggle not to throw up.

I leave it and try not to think about it, other than rethinking any ideas of pictures and complaints. A letter. That’ll do the job. An actual letter rather than an email. Maybe threatening to go to the papers. 

I take some photos of the soup in the bin, and the bowl, which still has some stray hairs. While trying not to concentrate too much on what I’m doing, I pick up the matted hair with a fork and take pictures of it.

It’s not until later that evening that I realise the mild tickle I’ve felt in my throat for hours isn’t psychological, but is actually one of the hairs. I must have half-swallowed it in that first half of the soup.

I can feel it in my throat, harshly stuck well behind my tongue. I don’t like the idea of swallowing it, so I try to cough to dislodge it.

It doesn’t move, so I cough harder, and then hard enough that it chafes my throat a little, but the hair doesn’t move its position, other than in a mildly tickling way.

Going into the kitchen, I retrieve a glass from the cupboard and run the tap. I may not like to swallow the hair, but it’s better than leaving it there. I let the water run until it’s colder, then fill the glass and take a few sips.

Nothing. The hair doesn’t move at all, although I feel the water going down against it. I drink a few proper gulps, some running down my chin a little bit, but still it remains.

Something solid. That’ll do the trick. I turn to the counter and open the breadbin. There’s half a loaf of multigrain, which I tear a chunk of, chew and swallow. When that doesn’t work, I try a few more chunks.

With every mouthful, I feel the hair moving. It really should have dislodged, but it hasn’t. I try more water to help the bread down, which has stuck in my glottis a little, but the hair doesn’t move with it.

It feels thick and wiry, and while I know that the more tense I feel, the less likely it is to shift, I can’t help it. What I should do, I know, is to try not to think about it, and at some point it will just shift, whereas the more I allow it to irritate me, the more it’ll physically irritate me. The more my throat is likely to swell slightly inside and become inflamed.

But I can’t help it. I try to bring the hair up a little instead, using the muscles in my throat to squeeze and push, somewhere between a glottal stop and a retch. This means that I feel the hair touching both sides of my throat, but it also seems to work. Not much, but there’s a bit movement and it tickles against my tonsils.

I feel comically like a bird regurgitating its food as I keep tensing and moving the muscles in my throat in an attempt to shift the hair, but it’s definitely beginning to work.

The hair works its way up a little, almost within reach of my tongue, if I curl the base of my tongue back. It’s harsh against my throat, and feels as if it’s longer than I realised – while the tip of the hair has definitely moved up, I can still feel the hair in the middle of my throat as well.

I have to stop for a moment, as I almost throw up – my body has got confused by the constant mild retching and thinks I’m trying to vomit. But a few gasps of air help, even though every one of them makes the hair tip move and tickle.

Eventually, the tip of the hair gets to the point where I can just about feel it if I pull my tongue towards the back of my throat as much as I can – it’s annoyingly out of reach at first, and it’s frustrating because my throat is now beginning to hurt,  but the hair is almost at the point where my tongue should be able to get some real purchase on it.

I push the back of my tongue to the back of the roof of my mouth, and try to pull the hair out with it. 

Each time I do it, it moves the hair up just a tiny bit. It feels like a wire going down my throat, because I still haven’t brought the other end up. It must be long, as it’s still in my throat as it was when I first noticed it.

I’d thought this would have brought the whole thing up by now, especially as the hair tip moves up the roof of my mouth, creating a straight line that pushes against my tonsils.

Instead, I reach into my mouth with my fingers, grabbing the tip between the end of my first and second fingers. I’m very careful, because I’m having to reach quite far and I don’t want to unintentionally gag, but I want this damn hair gone.

I pull it slowly but surely, and it’s tight, but it comes. I have it out to around my teeth.

This thing is long. I can still feel it lodged in my throat.

But I have it now, and I have a proper grip between my thumb and first finger, and I pull harder.

It still comes. Right out of my mouth, but still the other end is somewhere in my throat.

I pull harder, and I feel it slicing into my throat and tongue and tonsils as I do so, but no matter how much they’re irritating, I want this damn thing out of me. I’ll deal with the sore throat, I’ll deal with the stinging. But I cannot deal with this hair.

But it keeps coming, without the other end appearing. I pull it and have it out the entire length of the width of my palm, and pull with my other hand.

Now it’s slick with blood, and I can feel the blood in my mouth, but I still pull.

When I stop, the pain of my throat getting too much to keep relentlessly pulling, the hair is now hanging out of my mouth down to my chest. I spit the blood that’s collected into my mouth into the sink. It’s thick and red and mixed with saliva.

After a few deep breaths, each one like a razor blade against my throat, I pull again, harder. More comes out, more blood, more bile.

And it keeps on coming. Further and further.

I have it wound around my hand multiple times, but I can still feel it scraping the inside of my throat, which is now raw and painful, and every now and then, I have to stop and cough and spit up more blood, and each time there’s more blood than there was last time, which I have spattered down my chin and front. My hands are covered in blood, some of it now dried.

I pull and pull again, until eventually, I feel something new.

Deep inside my gut, I can feel the hair is attached to something. Something at the base of my stomach.

When I pull it, I can feel it pulling up my insides.

I tense. Each time I pull, it’s painful, but I have feet and feet of this hair now wrapped around my gore-crusted hands.

If I pull it, will it break? Or will it pull up something inside, tearing?

I can’t have it in me.

I pull one more time.