Category Archives: Uncategorized

Happy 3rd Anniversary, TDS!

With our third birthday today, I look back at all the wonderful memories.

First, we changed our brand, from being a mag to being a journal. Thus, The Dark Sire Literary Journal was born! Changing the brand also meant changing our appearance – the look and feel of TDS. With this change, we simplified the process to create a sleek cover that depicts the season and content without giving away the content.

Second, we went digital because our readers wanted more ONLINE content. So, we overhauled our blog, The Dark Forest, to house our featured writers, poets, and artists, as well as TDS interviews and articles. We even continued publishing serializations and brought back the 3 original titles: Kyuuketsuki by S.M. Cook, Vampyre Paladin by Brenda Stephens, and The Last Summer by Frances Tate. Though we decided to focus on online content, we still plan to publish paperback collections.

And lastly, we published a great list of exceptionally talented creatives. To name a few of those creatives: Quinn Graham, Lori M. Myers, Anthony Santiago, June Trop, Margaret Roarty, B. L. Tucker, Krista Canterbury Adams, Kaleb Tutt, Rami Ungar, Shaun Power, Jennifer McIntyre, Paul D. Coombs, Natalie Harris-Spencer, Quinn Ponds, Kyla Stan, Jennifer Robbins, P. T. Corwin, Clive Owen Barry, Kerry E.B. Black, M. A. Stevenson, and ShallieD. And let’s not forget about the featured blog content in The Dark Forest, with work from SAMIR SIRK MORATÓ, LISA ROSE, LOGAN MCCONNELL, KEEGAN MILANO, DEE ESPINOZA, ZACHARY TOOMBS, MAUREEN MANCINI AMATURO, DAVID CRERAND, and MARA S. AKRAM. The Dark Forest also included author interviews through The Creative Nook feature, of the above authors but also to include DAN KLEFSTAD, RAMI UNGAR, and SUE M. SWANK, who wrote about her experience as a psychic in our Reality Meets Fiction feature. We’ve done too many things to list it all, and we had fun doing!

And now, here we are, celebrating our 3rd birthday and facing year four down the barrel. What’s to come in 2023? We’re not sure. But one thing is for certain… we’re here to stay! We can’t wait to get to work on the paperback collections, feature more creatives, and publish original serializations on a weekly basis. However, before we do that, we’re taking a break. With the holidays coming up, we want – need – to center on family and mental well-being. That said, we’ll return bright and new in January.

Anyone who wishes to become part of the TDS family and tradition can still submit their work. When we return, we will eagerly read and view your submissions for publication in February. In fact, here’s our next call for submissions:

We want VALENTINE’S DAY horror stories and gothic tales.
Think: Frankenstein and His Bride, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, and Poe’s Hop Frog or Anabel Lee. Heartbreaking, creepy, to die for.
Deadline: January 15, 2023
SUBMIT via the TDS Website

Thanks to all our wonderful writers, poets, artists, and readers for such a great year! With all your support, next year is sure to be even better.

Happy Halloween,

Bre
Editor-in-Chief, TDS

The Creative Nook with Rami Ungar

On June 8, we featured a book review of Rami Ungar’s newly released novel The Pure World Comes. It’s a story about Shirley Dobbins, a lowly housemaid who encounters a huge upgrade in her life when the baronet Sir Joseph Hunting hires her on to be his assistant scientist. Working by his side, she learns of the mysterious Eden Engine, a machine designed to harness the energy of the pure world, an energy Sir Joseph hopes will repair the imperfections of our world. However, the machine also conjures something terrible, putting the lives of everyone in danger. It’s a fine gothic horror novel with plenty of surprising hauntings filling the pages.

Recently I enjoyed the pleasure of interviewing Rami about his new book. We talked about some of his favorite moments in writing the new novel, his inspiration for writing it, and some of the influences that helped create it. Most enjoyable of all was Rami’s reading of the popular haunted toilet bowl scene. This is a chapter that many other readers and reviewers of his book have highlighted. You will get the chance to hear it from the author himself!

Don’t take our word for it, watch the interview now:

https://youtu.be/F925XVd0ej8


Rami Ungar is an author from Columbus, Ohio, specializing in horror and dark fantasy. He has previously published three books and has a new collection, Hannah and Other Stories, being released by BSC Publishing Group. When not writing, Rami enjoys reading, following his many interests, and giving people the impression he’s not entirely human. Want to connect with Rami? You can find him on Twitter (@RamiUngarWriter), Facebook (@RamiUngarWriter), Instagram (@rami_ungar_writer), his website (ramiungarthewriter.com), and his YouTube channel (Rami Ungar the Writer).


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


TDS Serializations: Revamped

TDS has always championed serialized fiction. From Issue 1, the pages of our magazine-turned-journal housed small parts of longer works that spanned over time. So it’s no surprise that we’d update our serialization platform to match the new aesthetic of the TDS brand. But, how does the new branding affect the serializations and, more importantly, what’s changing? The answer is simple: EVERYTHING.

Monthly Release

In the beginning, TDS was a quarterly magazine, which means that serialized stories were only updated every 3 months. Now, however, our serialized fiction will be released monthly, similar to manga-style magazines. On the 9th of every month, readers can visit the serialization section of The Dark Forest to find new chapters of their favorite titles.

Chapters

Now in chapters (rather than parts), authors will write their stories in digestible chunks that not only engage readers but also give them a reason to return the following month. The chapters will be approximately 500-3,000 words, depending solely on story and individual author style.

On-Going Run

Originally, our serializations were limited to 3-4 parts for a short-run of 3-4 issues. Now, however, we are looking for LONGER works to serialize over an ON-GOING amount of time. This means, readers can expect stories to run for months or even years – and for stories to turn into a series filled with multiple well-developed character and story arcs. When a story turns into a series, subsequent sequels will be called seasons.

That said, TDS Serializations will still publish shorter works with limited chapters. No matter the length, TDS wants to publish high-quality serializations. The difference, then, is that we used to exclusively look for short-run fiction, while now, we publish both short-run and long-run serializations.

Completed and In-Progress

We now feature stories that are either completely written or currently in-progress. Before, stories had to be finished, ready for publication in full (beginning to end), but not anymore. TDS now accepts works in-progress; meaning, the author is working on the series as it’s being published. Again, this idea comes from manga-style magazines where editors work with authors on deadline. By accepting both completed and in-progress stories, TDS provides readers high-quality fiction while also supporting the different creative preferences of writers.


What’s Next?

On May 9th, TDS Serializations will officially open! As a celebration of the new platform, we’re bringing back the 3 original serialized stories that appeared in Issues 1 through 7. Each will begin with a prologue, with subsequent chapters released on the 9th of every month. Be sure to visit and bookmark: darksiremag.wordpress.com/serializations.


The 3 original serializations are as follows:

VAMPYRE PALADIN by Brenda Stephens
Matthias Kade is a vampire paladin, a traveling doctor who uses his expertise to heal victims of vampire bites. He and his assistant find an underground blood ring that ensnares young children. Matthias vows to stop the vampires – but to do so, he must face his own past, fears, and demons, which force him down the same path of the fiends he so despises. (First three chapters of novel appeared in The Dark Sire, Issues 1-4 & 7).

KYUUKETSUKI by S.M. Cook
Shizuka, a member of the Senshin Warriors, is a vampire who seeks the Blood Ruby, a weapon that can control the human race. Her mission is to find the Ruby and return it to the vampire council, who will then lock it away from evil hands. But as she gets closer to finding the Ruby, she falls into the twisted underworld, where she must grapple with her past and the reason behind her transformation. (First three chapters of novel appeared in The Dark Sire, Issues 1-6.)

THE LAST SUMMER by Frances Tate
During a long, hot summer, a Tudor vampire meets Mercy, a girl who can manipulate his visions, see through his deceit, and overpower his mind control. He only has three options before his master’s hell breaks lose. It’s a race against the evil if he and Mercy are to survive. (Full story appeared in The Dark Sire, Issues 4-7.)


More serializations are to come, with new titles added when available. Mark your calendar and reserve the 9th of every month for the all-new

TDS SERIALIZATIONS

darksiremag.wordpress.com/serializations


AUTHORS: Do you have a gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism story you’d like published as a TDS Serialization? We want to read it! If it’s completely written, SUBMIT it now. If it’s not completed yet – or is just the idea for a story, email the EIC (darksiremag@gmail.com) with as much info as possible (i.e., synopsis, outline, any already written chapters).


The Creative Nook with Samir Sirk Morató

Samir Sirk Morató’s story STAND NOT AT YOUR GRAVE was featured in The Dark Forest on April 6. I was enthralled from the start by this story’s bleak, harsh atmosphere. The climactic moment was so intimate and disturbing. I wanted to learn more about Mx. Morató’s creative process, influences, and other works, so I requested an interview. Join me as I delve even deeper into the fascinating world of this amazing author.


TDS: Do you remember the particular moment when you realized you wanted to become a writer? Did a particular book or movie inspire you? Or something you experienced or observed?

Samir Sirk Morató: I don’t think I ever had the realization “hey, I want to be a writer.” That desire overtook me the same way boiling water overtakes a frog. I was a voracious reader and scribbler from day one; as a child, I littered countless composition notebooks with plagiarized retellings of stories I had just read. Horror story anthologies, science fiction, and dark swashbucklers – escapist fiction that embraced horrific outcomes without flinching – were lifeboats for me. I wanted to create those for someone else too.

TDS: What attracted you to the Gothic and Horror genres, and what would you say are your favorite books amongst them?

Samir Sirk Morató: Moody atmospheres, monsters, body horror, and the layered decadence of decay all attracted me to the Gothic and Horror genres at an early age, though I was a B-roll creature feature fan before I was anything else. Full disclosure: I prefer short stories to novels. Peter Watts’ “The Things,” Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation,” and Alan Moore’s 1980s “Swamp Thing” are all favorites of mine. If we started getting into my favorite movies we’d be here all day.

TDS: What do you find to be the most difficult task when approaching a new project?

Samir Sirk Morató: Figuring out how to turn ideas and a handful of notes into a fully realized, fleshed out story is always the hardest part for me. Without fail, every time I start a project, I overwhelm myself by imagining all the themes / threads in the final product, then despair over how complicated it seems. The solution to this is always simple: just write the damn rough draft. Worry about editing in finesse later.

TDS: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing?

Samir Sirk Morató: Few pieces of writing, or sentences, are irreplaceable. Learn to let go. Don’t be afraid to reframe or restart if something isn’t working. In ceramics, there’s a tradition of taking failed works outside and shattering them before zealously trying again. That’s the attitude to have here too.

TDS: How do you feel your personal beliefs influence your creative projects? Any fascinating experiences or ideas that become infused in your creative work?

Samir Sirk Morató: For better or worse, who I am permeates my writing. My rural upbringing and longtime fascination with death influence everything. As a nonbinary person who has suffered from Depersonalization/derealization disorder (DPDR), I also have strong feelings – and questions! – about what it means to perceive and inhabit a body. What scares you when you spend every day longing to crawl out of your own skin? What is flesh, really?

My DPDR in particular influences my approach to Gothic and Horror. Mental illness is a staple in both genres. Sometimes its inclusion is compelling; oftentimes, it’s cruel. Disorders that include hallucinations or disconnection from reality tend to be portrayed with malignant ignorance. I’ve become numb to these depictions, but in my own projects, I reject them.

I aim to create horror that viscerally discomforts readers without mocking them. If they feel uncomfortable but understood, that’s even better.

TDS: Do you believe in writer’s block and, if so, what methods do you use to combat it?

Samir Sirk Morató: To me, writer’s block is all too real. Unfortunately, there’s no shortcut to getting around it. If I’m facing writer’s block I’ll designate time to write something, anything, and see if that helps. Sometimes, in severe cases, I abstain from writing and focus on other hobbies to let myself recharge. When I feel rested, I’ll buckle down and try to write again. There’s no point in looking for water in a dry well. You need to let it replenish itself. I remind myself that it’s also impossible to write if I haven’t been consuming new material or absorbing new experiences to write about. There’s a life outside the rough drafts.

TDS: Other than writing short stories, what other creative outlets do you enjoy? What are some of your other interests and hobbies?

Samir Sirk Morató: I love to embroider, create collage art, hike, and send postcards. I’m also a casual birder. That being said, fellow birders, please don’t ask me to identify any bird via calls. If it’s not a Red-winged Blackbird, a Red-tail, or a nuthatch I won’t know it.

TDS: Thank you so much for your time. One last question: What stories have you published since appearing in TDS?

Samir Sirk Morató: I haven’t been too active this year, but I have a forthcoming short story in Cuir Kitchen Brigade’s queer ecology anthology, which I’m thrilled about. Thanks for having me!


Samir Sirk Morató is a scientist and an artist. They draw much of their inspiration from their love of horror movies and their experiences in rural landscapes. Some of Samir’s work can be found in The Hellebore Issue #5, Color Bloq’s RED collection, and Somos En Escrito’s 2021 Extra Fiction Contest honorable mentions. To connect with Samir, visit them on Twitter (@bolivibird) and Instagram (@spicycloaca).


TDS is always seeking talented creatives to uplift and promote. If you craft fiction, poetry, art, or screenplays in the subgenres of gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism, don’t hesitate to SUBMIT to us.


American Southern Gothic

There’s no doubt that the origins of Gothic literature came from England, rich in medieval history. Not surprisingly, then, that American Gothic differs from the old world, especially since it grew from the New England tradition, with its own unique twist on the genre.  When the Gothic genre crossed the ocean and appeared on American shores, it was championed by Edgar Allan Poe, whose Gothic tales of horror set the standard for American authors.  It is interesting to note that Poe’s Gothic tales are virtually all set in New England, the oldest part of America (1850s), with the kind of places that paralleled the dark and haunted places in which the English authors set their Gothic tales.  Hardly anyone stops to think that Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher is actually set in Boston.

But then something happened: The Civil War, and a once grand and pastoral part of America was reduced to ruins, destruction heaped upon it by the conquering Northern Armies.  Plantation houses were abandoned; dark forests reclaimed the land. Places once bright and sunny became grotesque and macabre.  It became the perfect milieu for the birth of a literary sub-genre: AMERICAN SOUTHERN GOTHIC.

Unlike its predecessor, American Southern Gothic uses the tropes of the Gothic not only for the sake of suspense, but also to explore the social issues besetting the country.  There is a realism in the American Southern Gothic that makes it unique.  Disturbing rural communities replace the magnificent plantations of an earlier age. Madness, decay and despair are common themes as is the blurred line between victim and villain.  You find these themes developed in the works of William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote.

The roots of Southern Gothic can be traced back to such authors as Henry Clay Lewis and Mark Twain in portions of their works.  Originally “Southern Gothic” was used as a dismissive way to pan an author’s works.  Many early critics were not fond of the style.  One early critic panned William Faulkner’s novels as being filled with aimless violence and fantastic nightmares.  Obviously, the Nobel Committee did not feel that way when it awarded Faulkner the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949.

In Faulkner, the clash between Old South and New South becomes uniquely Gothic as it explores the suppressed sins of slavery, patriarchy, and class strife. And all this takes place in a landscape of swamps, deep woods, and decaying plantations. Add to this the language of Faulkner’s works, which creates a singularly Gothic sense of uncertainty and alienation.

A perfect example of Faulkner’s Southern Gothic genius is A Rose for Emily. Narrated from multiple viewpoints, the story tells of the spinster Emily Grierson, who after her father’s death scandalizes the community when she takes up with the northern carpetbagger Homer Barron. Homer disappears shortly after Emily has purchased arsenic making her the talk of the town.  Decades later, after living a reclusive life, Emily dies, and when the townspeople break open the door to an upstairs room, they discover a man’s “fleshless” corpse on the bed, the remains of him “rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt.” Next to the corpse is a pillow, with “the indentation of a head” and “a long strand of iron-gray hair.” The story’s themes of necrophilia, sin, repression, revenge, and secrecy mark it as Gothic, yet the locale mark it as uniquely Southern Gothic.

American theater of the 1940s and 1950s was infused with a heavy dose of Southern Gothic thanks to the plays of Tennessee Williams. Characters with varying degrees of illness populate his works, and his own sexual orientation (socially unacceptable at the time) found its way into plays such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.   In other plays, Williams created Gothic spaces in which familiar tropes of the Southern Gothic, such as disintegrating southern families, alienation, loneliness, alcoholism, and physical and psychological violence abounded.

Is Southern Gothic here to stay?  You only have to look at your TV guide or movie selection to discover that Southern Gothic has become a staple of the entertainment industry.  Even in music, Southern Gothic has influenced a genre called Dark Country, which is an acoustic-based alternative rock with songs featuring themes of poverty, criminal behavior, religious imagery, death, ghosts, family, lost love, alcohol, murder, the devil and betrayal.

Yes, I would say that American Southern Gothic is here to stay.


When you are satisfied, share your setting with us in the comments below.  We would love to read about the setting of your next Gothic piece. And, if you turn your setting into a full short story, poem, piece of art, screenplay, or novella, don’t forget to submit it to us by visiting darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

Self-Editing Series: How to Assess World-building

Self-Editing Your Manuscript: How to Assess World-building in short fiction

When most writers hear the term world-building, the first thing that generally comes to mind are sprawling epics, i.e., A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time. However, world-building applies to any type of fiction, even contemporary pieces.

Magic and royalty are just as important as knowing how to ride a subway and how an elevator works in others.

Suspension of disbelief is how well you have suspended, portrayed, and consumed the reader with your story. Do they accept the well-written world and its characters as they are, or have small things snuck into the manuscript that makes them pause within their reading and tilt their heads, questioning “but why?”

This is especially true when writing fantastical fiction with supernatural or paranormal elements where the reader needs to accept the implausible as plausible.

Not everyone believes in ghosts, but in your story they need to be real.

Not everyone believes in magic, but in your story it should be as much the truth as breathing.

For the theme, it is perfectly fine to give the reader a reason to think, a thing to dwell on long after the story has ended. That is valid and intentional. A writer should never want the reader to question if something was necessary to include. Questioning the intention can break the suspension of disbelief or seem outright illogical.

These inconsistencies with world-building can make it look as though the writer didn’t quite have the grasp on their world and their characters.

Real World World-building:

Notice, this was not titled Contemporary World-building, and that’s because our world spans so many things and time periods. It is making sure that you aren’t using a type of car before it was made. It is writing real-world places based on actual maps, or even creating a fictional town and remembering where you put city hall.

For example, your 1920s mafia will not have cell phones. If your character is ever on the phone, you will need to know how early landlines and rotary phones work.

What if you have a character with a snake bite and want to inject them with antivenom? The story should take place from the late 1890s to the present day. There are some exceptions, as present-day may not have access to everything. For example, a dystopian short story may have characters that don’t have access to anti-venom.

If your characters have traveled in your manuscript, to help keep your world-building consistent with your Real World stories, you can use basic tools like Google Maps to physically visit places you may not have access to.

If you are editing a form of a historical piece, it can help to jot down relevant notes on a Google Doc, Word file, or even in a physical notebook so that you can keep to the facts of the time. If you are a plotter, someone who writes things down to varying degrees beforehand, you might do the research before you write. However, a panster, someone who likes the freedom to just write as it comes to them, then jotting down this information can be targeted research after the draft has made it onto paper.

Whatever era you have written in, research is going to be your best friend, and if you aren’t entirely sure how to flesh out this research, reach out to fellow writers. The #writingcommunity on Twitter is fabulously supportive!

Secondary World World-Building:

This is most likely what you think of with world-building. Creating an entire world from scratch, or loosely based on our own, is what many fantasy authors love to do. The religion, the culture, the people… events, days of the week, and maybe a touch of conlanging (creating a new language).

Short fiction, unlike those sprawling epic sagas mentioned above, doesn’t have the time to build up the world to the same degree and dive into all the details. While you can still have a beautifully thought out world, sometimes the little details you can slip into longer pieces don’t have a place in your story.

Any secondary world-building detail needs to be as precise as the other elements, completely owned by the characters and the world without leaving unexplained sections. If the reader has to question the inclusion of any part of the story, particularly with short fiction, then you have not held their suspension of disbelief.

  • Was (this element) necessary to this particular story?

Fantasy is a particular beast on its own, given that the worlds can be entirely made up, and with short fiction we may only explore the smallest parts of it at a time.

It may help you keep your world consistent and be extra fun for your future readers if you dabble in map-making. However, you do not have to be a cartographer to put together a basic map (especially if it’s just for you). You can find easy-to-use tools here at inkarnate, which will let you work as small as a city/town. As a bonus, they have both a free and paid version based on your needs.

https://inkarnate.com/

Helpful Tip!
Even if you only have one planned story in a particular secondary world, it never hurts to write down the world-building information either before you’ve penned the story, or after, so that you can revisit it without making mistakes on your own creation.

Magical Systems (if applicable):

In fantasy worlds, be it on our earth or a secondary one, you may have a magical system in place. Whether your character actually casts spells or uses more intuitive skills, there are some rules it would benefit your manuscript for you to know. The best part about those rules is that you create them.

Magic aspects come in many forms and are sometimes spiritual or energy-based. To see the vast differences in magical systems, compare the differences and similarities in Naruto and their chakra energy and Dragon Ball Zs chi. You can also compare the differences and similarities in Elise Kova’s Air Awakens series and the TV show Avatar the Last Airbender.

The rules that you created for your character’s magic system should answer some very basic questions:

  • What can they do with their abilities?
  • What supplies/feeds their ability?
  • What can’t they do with their abilities?
  • Does this differ from person to person, or is it universal?

When you go through your manuscript to self-edit, make sure that you worked these answers in when applicable. For example, did you have your character using multiple high-energy types of magic and forget to add in the corresponding consequence? Shortness of breath, feeling dizzy or potentially needing to rework a battle so that they had the ability for their climactic hit to the antagonist. Understanding your magic system can help you figure out if you’ve created realistic magic, or if you’ve got Mary Sue/Gary Stu magic running around in a *god-mod mode.

*god-mod mode for anyone unfamiliar with the terminology is when you have essentially removed all consequences and obstacles from your character and they have no true opposition. This is the opposite of what readers want. Readers want someone to cheer for, someone whose journey they are excited to see, because they actually have something to overcome, unlike a god-mod mode character.

Bonus Tip on World-building:
Remember, if it hurts your writer’s heart to cut aspects of world-building that you put so much thought into, you are allowed to write another story in that world where that aspect of the world-building is more relevant to the story! You have that freedom. Go forth and create!

Next Week’s Topic:

We’ll dive into the setting and discuss how your self-edits can create a more immersive experience for future readers!

Self-Editing Series: How to Assess Pacing

Pacing is an important part of a functioning manuscript.

Good prose, great characters, even a working plot can all be in place, but if the story is rushed or too slow… readers will lose attention.

There are two ways to check the pacing of your story. To simplify the process, we are going to use the terms Macro Pacing for the large scale pacing on the manuscript as a whole unit and Micro Pacing for the smaller scale page level edits.


NOTE: Part of today’s self-editing topic requires familiarity with plotting techniques that are heavily used in the process for outliners. However, checking the pacing of your novel does not require you to have one. It merely requires the manuscript.

For your convenience, we have provided worksheets that will make this process easier. You will find them below the next section.


Macro Pacing: 

Do you know where the First Pillar of your story should fall? The Midpoint? And what in the world are pinch points?

It is true that some writers don’t like feeling like their story must fit into a ‘write by numbers’ formula, but this is a guide. It’s meant to help you. It does not exist to stifle your creativity.

For example: If you have Critique Partners or Beta Readers telling you that your story is dragging, or moving so fast they simply couldn’t keep up…etc. the structure is the special key to fix that!

These points mainly apply to writers who are using general narrative formats. While there are many, let’s focus on the most popular style guide for short stories (and western fiction in general): Three-Act Structure. (As a graphic you can save for your referencing ease.)

You can use the above points to check your manuscript’s pacing by applying a few percentages. These percentages are not made up but found from delving into screen-writing and literature to mark the perfect places for the above-mentioned points/moments to fall for impactful stories. There is math involved, but I promise you it’s just plugging stuff into a formula, getting the answer, and then scrolling (if you are on a digital device) through your manuscript.

Act One is the first 25%.

Act Two is 26%-75%.

Act Three is 75%-100%

To check your pacing, simply plug your overall page count (or word count) into the following formula.

If my short story is fifteen pages long, and I need to check that my Act One ends in the proper place, all I have to do is the following:

OverallCount x 0.25 = End of Act One

15 x 0.25 = 3.75

That means my Act One should conclude, meaning that I have everything set up and ready to roll into the next act, on/around page 4 of the manuscript.

If by page 4 everything is set up and my two main points are in place, then I know that Act One’s pacing is good. However, if there is an issue, then I will know what needs my attention.

If the section is too long, I can search back over the elements to see if I have included any superfluous information.

If the section is too short, then I will know that I need to make sure that I have included all necessary information.


Here are the worksheets we have created to make this process easier for you:


Micro Pacing:

In what we are going to call “micro pacing,” we are going to cover a few “small” aspects of a manuscript that can hinder the pacing. Hooks, sentence length, and point-of-view.

Hooks:

Tasty points of intrigue that are intended to have the reader salivating. They are unable to put the story down because they have to know what comes next. These are not things that are contrived or made up; they should already be in the story.

Think of these visually. Have you noticed in TV shows that something intentionally vague or surprising happens before the commercial rolls in? Scriptwriters do this on purpose! You should too. Control your readers’ experiences by planting hooks before your scene breaks. If your scene has ended on a note that feels like a present with a prettily tied bow, the manuscript should be ending.

Dwight Swain, an Oklahoma Writing Hall of Fame inductee, screenwriting documentary pioneer, and author explained the format of a scene as follows: Goal, conflict, disaster.

Goal: The character wants something.

Conflict: Something is pushing back against the character from achieving their goal.

Disaster: Something happens to stop the character from achieving their goal.

Disaster does not mean an apocalypse, or death, per se, but it does mean that if the story hasn’t been resolved the character should still have a need.

Ex: Maybe the protagonists succeeded in getting the silver to stop the werewolves, but all that was available was a silver dagger…and now they’ve got to decide who is going to be the lamb that allows the others a chance at escape.

Without a hook, the pacing, tension, and the story overall can drag because the character wasn’t in a state of ‘need’. If your character is always supplied with everything easily and has no hard choices to make, go back to the lesson on Character to better assess the internal and external conflict.

Bonus Tip:
Giving your story a hook does NOT mean that you should be giving the story over-maxed conflict. There are definitely times that a character should be allowed to breathe, or else, your story may come across as angsty and melodramatic.

Sentence Length:

Beware of purple prose, or excessive detail, where you can wax on a bit too long of the seemingly more poetic aspects of your story. Even if more dramatic language might be serviceable in a particular scene, try to contain it. Use it wisely. The writer can easily, and subconsciously, drag on with consecutive long sentences, and these run-ons can slow the pacing down because they simply take forever to read.

In other words, use varying lengths of sentences, not just long, drug out one. Short sentences are okay; short paragraphs are also a nice way to break up consecutive long ones. By varying your sentence length, you create unique pacing and keep reader interest.

The details may seem pretty, but tightening a story can be one of the hardest parts next to actually writing it. Do you need that adjective, adverb, prepositional phrase? Your pacing of the events themselves may be spot on if you cut unnecessary words, which in turn can create varying lengths of sentences – sometimes, quickening the pace where, otherwise, it was too slow.

Point of view:

How can Point of View hinder your pacing? Easily. It’s actually a concept known as ‘navel gazing’. With this pace-hindering element, the manuscript spends too much time in the narrator’s head and thoughts and feelings.

It is easiest to do this in certain deep POVs such as Third Limited, or First.

If you are using a deep POV, make sure each thought and feeling is necessary and fits with the cause and effect, or the action and reaction of the story. If the internal narration does not advance the plot, cut it.

It is also possible to do the exact opposite of this and forget to include enough detail on the character’s thoughts/feelings to rationalize why they are making certain decisions. This lack of detail can lead to a story that reads as plot-plot-plot with no emotional pull to keep your readers grounded in the story.


Here is a worksheet we have created to help you work through the macro and micro pacing elements in your manuscript.


What’s the Next Topic?

World-building is not just for long epics. It’s for any story you write – in any genre. Place, which is setting and thus world, should have an impact on your characters. However, putting too much (or too little!) can be detrimental to the success of your story. We’ll be covering how to make sure that you haven’t put too many details in your descriptions while ensuring you’ve included enough. See you next week!

Self-Editing Series: How to Assess Your Plot

The plot of your story, boiled down to the basics, is what happens.

If you are a plotter, you may have created a general idea or detailed idea of this in your outlining stage. If you are not a plotter, or you were a plotter who deviated from their outline, now would be the time to create an outline. Not because you need it to write your story, but because it’s a helpful tool for self-editing.


NOTE: Today’s self-editing topic revolves around creating an outline. For those authors who do not use outlines, we have created a worksheet to use instead. Feel free to download the worksheet with our compliments:


And now… let’s get to outlining!

The Post-Outline

This is a helpful tool for a more cohesive story edit because it allows you to see your story at a glance. The one you actually put onto paper. That’s why the idea for this type of post-outline method is relies on what happened/happens.

If you haven’t created this yet, make a note to create your post-outline. With short fiction, this should be fairly simple.

Ideally, this method will work the best if you can break your manuscript down into scenes, the small sections of the overall story. By doing so, you can give yourself a comprehensive self-edit that can save you editing frustrations later on.

Can you already see some issues in either version of the outlines?

What is Your Dramatic Question?

The dramatic question is a way to ask your story’s goal. What did you want to happen in your story? What was the conflict presented that the character had to overcome?

Story Goal Example: Character A must defeat Character B. 

Dramatic Question: Will Character A defeat Character B?

The dramatic question should be present in every scene of a short fiction piece. The reader should not have to ask what the goal of the story is, or why certain parts are there. This spans from chapters to sentences to word-level cuts.

As you work through the outline you made, do you notice any sections of story that don’t serve your dramatic question? If so, time to cut it from the manuscript.

“But I hate cutting my work to pieces!
I worked really hard on that scene/chapter…”

I have a special story for you, completely and utterly from a reader’s perspective. When you cut those sections of the story out… save them. Yes, it’s true, you put a lot of work into those scenes, but sometimes they just don’t have a place in this story. The information may not apply to the overall actions, or there was no real movement forward, or you may write it with the wrong POV Character… so cut them from your story with pride. Then use them as Bonus Scenes that are story-related but separate pieces of the story. These bonus scenes are really fun ways to connect with your readers who adore your universe. You can also revise the scenes to create another part of your world, a continuation or prequel for yet another standalone adventure.

Challenges and Trials: External Conflict

We covered this in our post on 6 Elements of Characterization, but now we are going to step back and look at the external conflicts overall.

Do you have one too many scenes where the character doesn’t have a setback or a breakthrough?

Short stories, unlike longer fiction forms, are an important artform with specific external conflict needs, one that does not allow for long story lulls. A few lackluster pages/scenes in a short story can easily sink the story. That is why, when you are writing them, you are slowly conquering kingdoms to earn your crown in tight and concise stories.

Check through your outline, be as subjective as you can to the plot itself. Ask yourself if the scene/section serves the overall dramatic question. Also, did you notice any overdone conflict, or trials and challenges that have nothing – or very little to do with – the dramatic question of the story? It’s easy to get so focused on creating conflict, you can accidentally over-create. If your plot flows smoothly and your characters are solid, the conflict will write itself.

This is just one of the infinite options for how you can format an outline.
Use whatever works best for you.

Self-Editing Technique: The Backward Plot

You’ve checked it forward – now check it backward. Open a new file on your computer, or get a blank sheet of paper out. We’re going to make sure it functions from end to beginning.

With a backward plot, you start from your last scene. Sometimes, you learn you caught everything in the first check, but other times, you may see added bits of detail missed or things that needed foreshadowing.

Cause and effect are so important to a backward plot, especially since you’ll be reading it as effect and cause. Did everything you wanted to happen have a motivation? Did it have a reason to be there? Or did was an effect/cause desired?

Even if your plot is perfect, this is also an easy and fun way to check your foreshadowing! Break down a ‘big reveal’ in the story like you are an episode of What’s New Scooby-Doo, and the gang is doing a tell-all for the villain they’ve just captured. Did all the subtle, or not-so-subtle, hints make it onto the page?

This only needs to be done in a way that you can read it. Below, I’ve shown a minor example of just a brain-map style that connects the dots in a backward plot. You may do this in your regular plot outline and feel you’ve captured all the points. The backward plot is just another option to see your plot differently.

What’s Next Week’s Topic?

Pacing is huge in short fiction! So huge, in fact, that it will make a story soar high – or burn as it falls from the sky. It’s that important. Next week, we’ll cover the different plotting structures and how knowing those structure can improve your manuscript’s pacing. Don’t miss it!

The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize: A Bad Place to Meat

In September, TDS hosted a writing contest that was named after Professor Jon Meyers, The Jon Meyers Dark Humour Prize for Gothic Literature (a.k.a. The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize). Entries were read in October with the winners – selected by Meyers himself – announced on October 31st, just in time for Halloween. The winners were:

Rose Biggin, Mrs. Pepper’s Ghost (1st Place)
Liam Hogan, Practical Alchemy on a Budget (2nd Place)
Steven Lombardi, To Cross a Vampire (3rd Place)
Mary Sloat, A Bad Place to Meat (Honorable Mention)

Now, over the next two days, all four short stories will be released individually to celebrate Contemporary Gothic Literature. And what better time to release them than December, when the cold bite of snow and ice warrants snuggling into a warm blanket in the dark? These four stories may not be Christmas-related, but they definitely fit into the Gothic tradition of storytelling during the Christmas season.

So without further ado, sit back, snuggle down, and grab your cocoa as you nestle into read…

A Bad Place to Meat
by Mary Sloat

            The ham house was ceilinged with hundreds of hooks and its soot-coated walls, even after fifty years, smelled sweet and burnt. But it was not the scent of summer bonfires on the beach or the warmth of a winter hearth, rather it was the reminder of long-dead animals that even now might be creeping back to the place of their cure.

            How could something from so many years ago linger so strongly in the present?

            Of the six outbuildings on my dad’s property, the ham house alone had haunted my dreams since I was a child. Nothing happened to me inside those smoky walls. Instead, I suffered from the certainty that what lay in wait for me inside was the same thing that pursued me into my dreams.

            Today I felt like a child again as I set about doing one of the most adult things of all—preparing Dad’s farm for sale. Could a forty-year-old be an orphan? Now when the beast visited my dreams and the door bulged with the force of its struggle to escape, I would have only my own strength to rely on. My feet would plant on grass slippery with nighttime dew as my arms strained to hold the door closed. Each morning, I would awake to aching limbs and splinters in my hands. If it ever truly did break free, I no longer had a parent to come to my aid, an extra pair of arms to hold the door closed.

            Not everything about the beast turned my legs to jelly. No, there was one feature alone, a pointed reminder that I was made of meat and sinew and easily punctured. Its tusks.

            My fear of sharp objects was a rational worry with an irrational horror that somehow a passing knife might leap from its owner’s hand and plunge into my gut, my heart, my neck, as if I could draw pain like a magnet. I froze at the sight of a gleaming point, so all the implements in my kitchen were dull. When I was gifted a new set, I threw away the paring knife curved like a claw, unwilling to keep something so obviously meant to maim.      

            Dad would have been pleased by the painters’ work, how the outbuildings shone a gleaming white. Even the ham house. Even the small turret set into its roof, formerly blackened by the smoke that spent years escaping through its slender slits.

            I tied a bandanna over my face against the years of accumulated dust and dirt as I swept, washed, and dusted the interiors of all six buildings. Except the ham house.

            I pulled on an old pair of Dad’s leather gloves, so well-used surely his fingerprints had been worn into the tips. Wearing them felt like he was holding my hand again as I sorted and donated hundreds of tools from all of the buildings. But not from the ham house.

            The old red barn was packed with the wholesome scent of hundreds of hay bales, food for the winter so no animal would go hungry. I retied the trellis of yellow climbing roses by the back door, a gorgeous, scented welcome for any prospective buyer. I knew how much smells created associations. When I smelled lilies, I remembered my grandmother’s garden. When I passed a woman on the street wearing fragrant lotion, I was transported back to London. And when the scent of smoked meat caught me unaware, I trembled.

            A sound reached me on the breeze.

            Mew.

            I’d been all over the farm and seen no kittens. Where was it coming from?

            Mew.

            I followed the sound, stopping when it stopped, waiting for another cry to guide me closer. In front of the ham house door, the sound was louder, insistent.

            Meeew.

            I have to get Dad, I thought, then I caught myself and blinked back tears. Whatever was inside, I would have to face it alone.

            The doorknob was cold in my hand. I cracked the door a few inches and the hinges groaned with a warning as the loathsome smell snaked out and I began to shake.

            “It’s okay,” I whispered gently as if to a small child. “You’re okay.” The door opened wider, but my legs were threatening to disobey any order that didn’t include turning and running.  

            Meeeew.

            The window in the corner allowed streaky sunlight to deepen the shadows. Dad had used the building for storage rather than for smoking meat like the former owners. Mildewed lumber was stacked along one wall. Dingy twinkle lights looped across several hooks in a macabre display of cheer. Old boots lined the back wall as if waiting for someone or something to step into them.

            Meeeeew.

            The sound drew me toward the window where a wooden box sat beneath a coating of smoky dust. Were kittens trapped inside? As a child, I had chosen the box for the lock and key that came with it. My dream diaries were long gone and the lock was broken, dangling loose and rusty, except for a shiny chip like it had recently been struck.

            All I had to do was rescue the kittens and get out, but first I needed to make it to the window. Leaving a trail of footprints across the filthy concrete, I scanned the room, squinting at shadows, taking the last few steps at a run.

            “It’s okay,” I whispered, crouching in front of the box. “You’re okay.”

            I lifted the lid.

            Instead of kittens, grey smoke crept through the opening with the noxious smell of something dying but not yet dead.

            The smoke weaved through the room, thickened and thinned with a pulse swirling at my feet and I forgot I had the option to leave. As I stood frozen with dread, the smoke formed into the shape I knew as well as my own. Red eyes glinted above dirty white tusks. Its wide body was covered with sparse hairs and held up by four improbably thin legs.

            I could move now, but it was too late. It stood between me and the door.

            “Greetings,” it said in a scraped raw voice. It had never spoken in my dreams. “Back for more?” The blood rushed to my skin, preparing for the assault it knew was coming. Those tusks were shiny as if newly sharpened and I had nothing with which to defend myself.

            Looking everywhere but at its flashing red eyes, I tried to speak around the lump in my throat, “I don’t know what you mean.” The back of my shirt was drenched with sweat.

            “But you do,” it snarled. It shook the tiny links of a chain around its neck. “I’ve earned every one,” it said in a voice that grew into a roar. The creature seemed to suck the air from the room to expand to twice its size.

            Backing quickly, I bumped into a sawhorse holding my childhood saddle. A memory of wild joy and abandon flickered through my mind. I was galloping in a field, my pony and I perfectly in sync like we were flying.

            The beast bellowed, swinging its giant head and a sharp point sliced my arm. I cried out in shock and in pain.  It had never hurt me before. In my dream, I always woke up right before it reached me. As blood poured from the cut, the beast shrank back to size, sniffed the air with its blunt snout, and growled, “I know what you’re thinking. In your dream, you always make it out.”

            Wrapping the bandanna around my wound, I discovered something surprising. Because I had been cut, I no longer feared being cut. It was the anticipation of experiencing unbearable pain that had twisted my gut. Now that I had, there was really nothing more of which to be afraid. Or so I reasoned.

            I straightened. Better to be gored in the front than in the back. Better to see what was coming than to be hit from behind. Better to avoid any more pain at all if possible.

            It pawed the ground and snorted.

            “Come on,” I shouted, stomping the floor and sending clouds of black grit into the air.

            It came.

            Leaping into the saddle, I kicked the sawhorse to life. In that moment, I believed it would move and it did. The beast was almost upon me when my mount bucked and I heard the sound of wood striking meat followed by a plaintive squeal. Reining in the sawhorse, I discovered the beast had been flung into the air and caught by one of the hundreds of hooks on the ceiling.

            It hung helpless, legs peddling weakly. I dismounted and wiped my bloody hand on my pants. Upon closer inspection, I observed its jutting brow was beaded with sweat. Experimentally, I touched the point of a tusk. It was dull. Interesting. I pressed harder and still it failed to cut me.

            A feeling of exultation swept over me. It could no longer hurt me. Standing nose-to-snout, I watched as its movements slowed, its eyes dimmed.

            Tearing my eyes from the hanging form, I saw bits of blackness coming loose from the walls. Those bits began to move faster until soon a blizzard of black dust was swirling throughout the room. The smoke house soot swarmed the beast’s hanging form as if remembering its former purpose. This was a dangerous place to be meat. In seconds, the soot had stripped the beast’s skin, leaving only fat and muscle.

            From the door, I watched as what remained of the creature quickly darkened, dried, then shriveled into nothing until only its collar hung from the hook.

            The ham house door closed softly behind me on now-silent hinges.

            I was covered in soot. I had never felt so clean.  


Mary Sloat is a writer who feels most alive when writing twisted tales of magic, horror, and death. She has written short stories and is now working on her debut novel.


This concludes the Jon Meyers Gothic Prize award-winning short fiction series. Be sure to visit The Dark Forest‘s front page to re-read these four amazing stories.
We’ll see you at next year’s Gothic Prize!


The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize: To Cross a Vampire

In September, TDS hosted a writing contest that was named after Professor Jon Meyers, The Jon Meyers Dark Humour Prize for Gothic Literature (a.k.a. The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize). Entries were read in October with the winners – selected by Meyers himself – announced on October 31st, just in time for Halloween. The winners were:

Rose Biggin, Mrs. Pepper’s Ghost (1st Place)
Liam Hogan, Practical Alchemy on a Budget (2nd Place)
Steven Lombardi, To Cross a Vampire (3rd Place)
Mary Sloat, A Bad Place to Meat (Honorable Mention)

Now, over the next two days, all four short stories will be released individually to celebrate Contemporary Gothic Literature. And what better time to release them than December, when the cold bite of snow and ice warrants snuggling into a warm blanket in the dark? These four stories may not be Christmas-related, but they definitely fit into the Gothic tradition of storytelling during the Christmas season.

So without further ado, sit back, snuggle down, and grab your cocoa as you nestle into read…

To Cross a Vampire
by Steven Lombardi

Whitely believed in speaking to the point of pain, and that a raw throat had no better remedy than a bottle of red. He feared God and loved humankind and believed God’s greatest gift to man was not life, but freewill. This, he knew, made us opinionated. And if opinions were part of the Great Plan, then Whitely would no sooner hold his tongue than commit heresy.

“Vampires are poetic creatures,” he declared to the people of the pub. “And like many lovers of poetry, they are sticklers for the language.”

“It makes sense enough to me, sir,” said Whitely’s dearest friend Ted, being the only one paying active attention to the words. Ted had developed a callus for Whitely’s lengthy rants, or as Whitely fondly considered, Ted had fortified his mind to radical insights.

“Because vampires, ya see, claim to have great strengths and weaknesses. They’ve the power of ten Grizzlies yet are killed by harmless things. Garlic. Water. Sunlight? These are undamaging things. But it’s been written, and being lovers of poetry, and sticklers for language, they must honor and obey these weaknesses to the letter of the law for the simple reason that they honor and obey the language!”

Ted scratched the hairs peppering his chin rolls and nodded.

“Then by any means and measures, a person should be able to defeat a vampire using their language solely. Because, again, they are so compliant to the rules that had been created, which have been inscribed using language most beautiful and revered. You see?”

“Of course, sir,” said Ted, who didn’t really see, or understand the rules of vampires, other than a stake through the heart made them dead.

“I say, if I had the gumption, I’d march out to Thinberry Castle with only a flask to free my inhibitions and give that vamp a tongue lashing that would leave him skinless!”

This declaration was followed by silence, which was rare. Silence signaled that one had been listened to, which was all Whitely wanted and seldom received, yet this quiet communicated something more. Something uncomfortable. It came accompanied by a man standing near the entrance, whose brooding presence captured the pub’s drunken attention.

He was tall and dark, with various knives and teeth slung along his waist. He had a glare that could make a man drink, and Whitely did precisely that when their eyes met. The man glided into the seat beside Whitely, perfuming the air with sweat, and in his generous sips of red, Whitely could taste the man’s skin.

“Friend! Drink with us and be merry,” Whitely said, not meaning a word of it. “What brings you to these parts?”

“Work.” The man spoke as if it were a curse word, and a person of inferior conversation skills would have just left it at that.

“Ah, work,” Whitely retorted. “It feeds the stomach, but in more ways, it feeds the soul.”

“If I fail, my eternal soul is forfeited.”

Ted’s many neck rolls wobbled in an attempt to swallow a lump.

“So, you’re a banker?” Whitely ventured with a wink.

“Vampire hunter.”

The man maintained a stare that Whitely had seen in goats. Whether the man could blink, if he had eyelids, Whitely could not say.

“That’s a mighty fine service to the community,” Ted offered. “I’m sure you’ve seen the bulletins around town, then. About the Earl’s daughter Penelope….”

“You know the location of Castle Thinberry.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement. And yes, Whitely knew, it was five acres outside his childhood home. A place he swore he’d never return.

“We go there tonight,” the vampire hunter said.

“I can’t think of a more splendid way to spend my evening, but unfortunately I have a prior engagement that I must attend,” said Whitely.

“Really, sir? Where about?”

“You know, Ted. My plans. That thing.”

The vampire hunter produced a dagger that spun atop the table. He stomped on the floorboard, sending its tip tumbling towards Whitely’s manhood. It landed a foot short, but still Whitely crossed his legs.

“I mean to deliver the girl to the Earl. And I mean to do it tonight.”

Whitely considered the man more carefully. His muscles were lean, all capacity without the cosmetics, and his scarred skin told stories of many battles, some deep, others faded. And the way he retrieved the knife, moving in a blur, like something only possible in a dream.

“You kill vampires,” Whitely said. It wasn’t a question, but a realization. “If we accompany you, will you share the riches?”

“I would.”

They shook hands and left the pub.


Whitely had made good on his word. He marched to Thinberry Castle with only a flask to protect him from the night’s creatures. The moon hid behind blankets of cloud, rendering all things dark, though Whitely knew the land enough to navigate it. These hills were his childhood home. In a time before the creatures appeared, he thought he’d never leave.

But they had come in the night, snatching the wayward traveler from the main road, or seducing their victims out of windows. So Whitely and the other survivors fled to the protection of the cities. However, no place was safe, not truly. A city was like a school of fish, where the only defense was the probability of someone else getting taken. Like the Earl’s darling Penelope. Or people Whitely loved, though he’d rather drink than think about that.

The white wolf pelt over Whitely’s shoulders caught the diffused light and multiplied it. Ted huffed the cool hill air, kicking at rocks with his oversized shoes, while the vampire hunter clung to the darkness, as good as gone.

“Did you mean what you said back there at the pub?” Ted asked with his outdoor voice. “About fighting vampires with your words?”

“Yes, indeed.” Whitely spoke with the deepest conviction, for his father once said that convictions shape the world. “As logophiles, vampires are attracted to rhetorical devices, which are dangerously persuasive things. You will see, good friend. I will persuade them to death.”

“Rhetorical devices? Wow. Good thing I’m traveling with the Connoisseur of Conversation and a full-time vampire hunter. Otherwise a chubby little man like me might be in danger.”

Whitely drank to that. Then he drank some more. Then he tried to quiet the mounting doubt. He thought of his father and the headstone he claimed was his father’s grave, though they never found the body, nor did they look. And he wondered, if the world was truly shaped by those who acted with conviction, then why hadn’t his father fled when the bloodsuckers came from him.

“Would be nice to have treasure, sir. And imagine all the stories you could tell when we get back to the pub.”

From the shadows came a voice that was low and sharp, like a slice to the heel.

“Quiet. Vampires have sensitive hearing.”

Ted’s lips popped as his jaw closed.

“I thought you were polar opposites,” the voice continued. “Now I see you’re both big-mouthed idiots.”

“Oh, we’re opposites,” Ted continued against all sense. “See, I’m short and stout while Whitely’s lanky. My hair’s dark, Whitely’s isn’t. And I talk a lot when I’m about to piss meself with fright, while Whitely stays quiet. According to the laws of magnetism, you see, opposites attract while—”

A low growl stole the words from his mouth.

“We go in silence.”

Thinberry Castle stood atop a hill, cast before a blanket of starless gray sky. The stone looked nothing like how Whitely remembered it. It had decayed to the color of soil, or taken the likeness of old blood. Hills once renowned for their beautiful flowerbeds were brown. Nothing stirred, not even the wind, and the silence left a buzzing in Whitely’s ear that grew steadily unbearable. The vampire hunter walked past him, then blended into the night without a trace, making Whitely regret his fashionably forward white shawl, which now glowed in the dark.

“What’s the plan?” Ted whispered.

Whitely drank some more, then he heard a noise that made him choke. It came from the castle’s barn, the braying of a frightened beast. A horse, no doubt belonging to darling Penelope or stolen for her benefit. All the same, it gave him an idea for a plan, which he whispered into Ted’s ear. Whitely dubbed it the super-secret plan, and had Ted recite it back to him using his indoor voice.

Whitely approached the double doors of the castle alone, where the brooding vampire hunter inspected the entry for traps. The vampire hunter cast a gaze at Whitely, as if to say Where’s your friend?

Whitely gestured in response, as if to say Pissing in the woods.

Although in truth, Ted was carrying out Whitely’s daring plan of rescue, which relied on the element of surprise. For that reason, he felt little need to tell the vampire hunter.

The vampire hunter applied sunflower oil to the hinges, then pulled the door open with great care, slow as to silence the patches of rust and corrosion. The door was not a foot open when he breathed a sigh of relief and slipped in. Whitely followed. With his vision gone to darkness and his other senses heightened, Whitely could sense the sour stench of death in the back of his throat. He drank to refresh his palate, hoping it’d soothe his nerves and douse the anger that burned in his heart.

Had his father entered this place? Was he dragged dead or alive across the threshold, or tempted into the dark chambers of the castle? Whitely couldn’t say anything other than that in his father’s final moments, he experienced a lapse in conviction. Not a total loss, not his father, but a mere slip through which vampire teeth snuck in and sank down. Now was Whitely’s time to pay blood for blood.

He moved blindly through the foyer, imagining he’d collide into suits of armor destined to clatter to the floor. The silence rang in his ears and his heartbeat filled his head, surely attracting the vampires’ attention.

Whitely heard an owl’s hooting when they moved beyond the foyer, followed by a horse’s braying. This had been Ted’s signal, which meant the super-secret plan had worked. Penelope had been rescued. But this alone wasn’t enough.

“Vampires!” Whitely screamed. “Yoo-hoo! We’re in your house!”

A spark erupted in a pall of sulfurous air. The fire sticks burned in the vampire hunter’s hand, lighting the shock on his sunken features.

“You’re a familiar,” he said. He produced a knife and aimed for Whitely’s heart.

“I’m familiar with the art of riveting conversation, if that’s what you mean.”

The vampire hunter stiffened, aware of an unseen presence. Whitely sensed it too, an icy chill carried in by no wind. Red eyes appeared in the darkness beyond the reach of the fire’s light. A frosty breath at the back of Whitely’s neck burned his skin. At the door, their only known exit, Whitely saw the man who presumably killed his father, Marcus Thinberry.

The vampire looked nothing like the romantic stories suggested. The flesh was pale, as the poems described, though it was lined with veins that looked like prongs of corroded lightning. Coagulated blood pooled beneath Marcus’s eyes and between his thin blue smile the decayed gums held no teeth but two, rotted through like pickled wood.

“Welcome, weary travelers, to the Chateau de Thinberry.” The vampire bowed. “Some call my home a sprawling estate of death. I see it as a state of pleasure so fit for the Dieux des Ténèbres.” The chittering of cicadas resounded in the room, and Whitely realized it was vampires advancing, the rattling of their bones. They stepped into the light, dozens of thirsty servants of the night, to challenge the vampire hunter and his lone wooden stake.

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Whitely exclaimed. He took another sip for courage and spoke with conviction: “I always thought hospitality the most flattering feature of a chateau as grand as yours.”

Marcus raised a bony hand that concluded with five pointed edges, sharp enough to peel skin. His minions paused.

“My friend,” said Marcus. “You have trespassed upon my property and, by the laws of the land, your wellbeing is left to our discretion. How else should a master keep his servants safe, happy and sustained if not to dispatch of a threat when given ample opportunity?”

The vampires took another step.

“But colleague, you have been misinformed,” Whitely said. “We are not trespassers, for the wind breaks no laws by entering windows, nor does the stray leaf that flitters into a barn. Your door was open, and being native to these hills, I know this to be as true an invitation as any. Pair that with your earlier words, ‘Welcome, weary travelers,’ and I’d say we’re rightly protected by the customs of a gracious host.”

Whitely winked at the vampire hunter, who now gripped the torch with his teeth and held a cross and stake at the wall of shambling flesh, whose many eyes remained trained on their master, waiting for him to snap his fingers and be done with the charade.

“Sweet darling,” Marcus began. He sucked his tongue, the flesh flapping in his mouth. “Please don’t misconstrue my words or actions, for I am a gracious host of a grand estate whose deeds of hospitality are as numerous as the stars. For I have in my host an army of forty lost souls, who live here under my lease, and whose needs must be met, lest they grow unhappy. And for you, my daring chap, my hillside compatriot, what better gift can I bestow than eternal life? All in exchange for your life’s blood, which you treat so cruelly by infecting it with that dreadful wine.”

Eternal life is a lie,” the vampire hunter said with the torch in his mouth. “All you’ll know is eternal damnation.” He wielded his cross against the horde, beating them back inch by inch, but not without strain. Whitely noted the trembling muscles in vampire hunter’s powerful legs. Every swing was less spirited than the last, and when the hunter gasped for air, Whitely’s own heart rattled.

No, none of that, came the small voice in his mind. Remember, convictions shape the world.

“My love!” Whitely trumpeted. “Surely there are better ways to entertain. In my modest cottage, we served food and drink to our guests, and not, as you’re implying, make food and drink of them. Surely you have various stores of breads, meats and cheeses—”

“Enough,” Marcus said. His slender fingers came together, ready to snap and unleash the full strength of his horde, when the front door opened.

Ted entered, scraping his muddy boots at the entry, always minding his manners, and waving bashfully.

“Hullo, there,” Ted said.

“What… who are you?” Marcus said.

“They call me Ted, sir,” he said, doffing his hat. To Whitely, “I’ve done the super-secret plan.”

“Why’d you return?” Whitely asked. This wasn’t part of the super-secret plan. Ted should be back in town by now, amassing a mob in the event that Whitely’s own conviction should fail. And as Ted answered, the vampires howled within proximity of the cross.

“I wanted to see how this played out,” Ted said.

“That’s simple, my tender plump confidant,” Marcus said. With a snap of his fingers, the cross exploded the vampire hunter’s hand, sending blood and bits of meat around the room for the vampires to lick and chew. “You now fall victim to my gracious hospitality.”

“Not quite!” Whitely said. He threw his arms in the air, made himself look bigger than he actually was. He heard that worked against bears. “As you well know, vampires are harmed by crosses. It renders you defenseless and causes agonizing pain, as has been recorded and followed faithfully by your kind for eons! In fact, the mere mention of a cross makes you feel ill. Your skin grows clammy, though without the warmth of lifeblood, you’re reminded of how cold you truly are, how far from God you’ve drifted, and how the coldness is unbearable.”

“I’ve destroyed your cross,” Marcus said. His voice betrayed confidence and his dead skin turned to gooseflesh. “But for some stakes and knives, you are powerless.”

“False!” Whitely said. “Because although you are unaware, my comrade has freed the Earl’s daughter, placed her on a horse and sent her back to the safety of her father!”

Magnolia white skin paled, and Marcus stooped as if under the weight of a roaring river. The vampire looked at Ted, making calculations and trying to understand if such an unassuming man were capable of such a daring feat.

“It’s true, sirs,” Ted said. “I did a pass around the castle and found the one window that hadn’t been boarded up. So I starts making calls for a cat.” He paused. “Not cat calls, of course, sirs, I’d never. Calls like this: psst, psst, psst. Then Penelope appeared and jumped into my arms. I pulled my hammy, I did! But could the girl talk. In just a breath she told me how Marcus captured her and tried to court her every evening, and how he’d not touch a hair on her head, which I thought a respectable quality. Then zoom, off she went on horseback.”

Marcus contorted backwards, as if taken by an interpretative dance that Whitely lacked the culture to understand. “Your deaths will be agonizing,” he wailed.

“Not so fast,” Whitely yelled. “You see, my courteous host, in this brazen act of defiance, we have rendered ourselves immune to your worse doings, and, in fact, have become very damaging to you! For Ted and I have crossed you!”

Convictions, baby, his mind chattered. Stay strong, for the love of your father.

“It’s the greatest cross of your afterlife. One you can’t explode with your fingers. The simple act of looking at us causes you discomfort. When we come too near, you feel the burn in your skin. So I say, come and get us. I dare you. Take a bite and perish.”

The vampires made no effort to move, mulling over this new information. Brimming with conviction and swimming in liquid confidence, Whitely nearly charged them head on, his own hunger advertised in his eyes. But the castle remained still and silent, except for the handless vampire hunter who sobbed on a blood-soaked Moroccan carpet.

Ted, always a thoughtful chap, offered his chunky forearm for Marcus to bite, and the vampire recoiled.

“Why?” Marcus said. “You took my love from me. My darling Penelope, with blue roses in her eyes.”

“Ya that’s right,” Ted said, driving Marcus further back with his luscious flesh.

Emboldened and surrendering to his primal calls, Whitely rushed at the wall of vampires and watched them scatter into the cracks like roaches.

“What do you reckon we do now?” asked Ted.

Whitely hadn’t thought about an exit strategy. Obviously, the vampires needed killing, and he would love nothing more than to show them the mercy they had shown his father. Though, he would admit, he wasn’t much of a vampire killer. He didn’t like killing bugs, if it could be avoided, and while vampires weren’t much prettier, they were larger and somewhat defensible.

“We let our vampire hunter friend here do the rest,” Whitely decided.

Unfortunately, the vampire hunter seemed too occupied with bleeding out. His stump spurted onto the carpets, which flavored the air in a way that turned the vampires’ eyes to burning coals in the darkness, and some ventured into the light, despite the agony of being crossed.

“This is your fault,” the vampire hunter spat. “I could have dealt with them and left here a whole man. But you…”

Events followed that unfolded too fast, or perhaps Whitely’s mind had slipped for a moment, or perhaps the vampire hunter was something more than he appeared to be. The hand that nursed a bloody stub now held a blade that pressed against the soft space between Whitely’s ribs, aligned with his heart, where a quick puncture would turn Whitely into a fountain. And vampires who, for a time, had an aversion to the two friends were now coming uncomfortably close, wafting in lingering death smells.

“Something’s happened,” Ted observed. He pulled his arm away from Marcus before being bitten.

The knife at Whitely’s chest vanished in a red mist. A second breeze kissed Whitely’s face like frostbite, and then he found the vampire hunter ten feet away with vampires tearing at his flesh. Ted ran to Whitely’s side, and they held each other.

“Esteemed house guests,” Marcus purred. “I must admit, I was deeply concerned for a moment. You nearly had us. But alas, you no longer seem as repulsive as you once were. Dare I say, you actually look mouthwatering.”

“Uh oh,” Ted said. “Seems we were crossed by the vampire hunter.”

“What of it?” Whitely screamed. All sense of conviction failed him.

“Well, sir,” Ted began. He explained it with his fingers. “It seems our cross was met with a double cross. And according to the laws of mathematics, two negatives equal a positive. I’m afraid we’re even Stevens.”

Marcus approached with a steady gait as Whitely’s heart struck his ribs, as he imagined his father’s had. No wonder the old man’s convictions failed him, Whitely’s own fear was seasoning the air and his cries created a flavor that Marcus licked off his lips.

“You know, I’ve been thinking of something, sir,” Ted said.

“Dear friend, I’m glad. It’s never too late to try new tricks!”

“No more talking,” Marcus said. His teeth elongated to his chin, hanging like rusty nails over fresh snow. “Only death.”

“It’s just that you’ve done so much to gain the love of the Earl’s daughter,” Ted said. His words didn’t stop Marcus, but they did slow him. “You risked exposure to the Earl’s army and the attention of vampire hunters around the land.”

“I’d do anything to be with the Earl’s daughter. That includes destroying you and your entire village. Which I intend to do next.”

“But in truth, the Earl’s army is no match for your savagery. And I’m sure you’ve dealt with plenty of vampire hunters,” Ted continued, twisting his cap in his hands. “Though you were never in any physical danger while kidnapping the Earl’s daughter, this undertaking of yours carried a huge risk. It injured you gravely, in fact. The fragility of one’s ego and the torment of rejection. You are a braver man than me, I should say, because by pursuing Penelope’s love, you put your heart at stake.”

Marcus paused.

Whitely cried, “Say it with conviction, man!”

“You put your heart at stake to be with Penelope,” Ted repeated, in a clear, bristling voice. “According to the laws of vampirism, introducing a stake to a vampire’s heart is quite fatal. You should be dead, sir.”

Marcus mulled these words over carefully, then collapsed in a pile of dust, along with the other minions of the night. His sense overwhelmed, Whitely downed the rest of his flask and gave Ted a big, red kiss on the lips.


The Earl’s estate was jeweled and pearled, with lavish furniture and artwork that seemed to sully in the duo’s muddy presence.

The Earl sat upon his chair with his darling Penelope at his side. Her skin was white, though her cheeks blossomed like red amaryllises beneath the blue roses of her eyes. If she gave any indication of recognizing the men, it went unnoticed.

“My liege,” Whitely said. He took a knee. “We are honored to be in your presence.”

With his head nearly touching the floor, Whitely had expected some sort of response, but saw only perplexity in the Earl’s crumpled face. And with three words, the Earl wounded Whitely in a way a vampire couldn’t.

“And you are?”

“Most honorable Earl, we are the heroes who delivered your fair daughter from the grips of her captor, and by way killed the vile vampire known as Marcus Thinberry.”

“Ah.” The Earl punctuated the sound. “And you want…?”

“To be rewarded for our daring?”

The Earl promptly called for his Page, who sprang into the room with her red curls bobbing at her shoulders and scrolls shuffling in her arms. The Earl took one scroll and undid it, reading it aloud.

“The reward goes to whomever should bring me the head of Marcus Thinberry and deliver my daughter to me.”

“That’s right,” Whitely said.

“And my daughter returned to me alone.”

“Well…”

“And I see no head.”

Ted spoke up: “It turned to dust, you see.”

“Then my conditions haven’t been met. Let dust be your reward, for I am a man who lives by the letter of the law, and by what’s written, you have no right to my riches.”

Whitely and Ted retuned to the pub emptyhanded, grumbling about the awful ingrate who denied them their due compensation.

“It goes to show you, dear friend,” Whitely said. “If there’s such a thing that’s worse than a vampire, it’s a stickler for semantics!”

When they recounted their tale, the entire pub clung to Whitely’s every word, which proved to be its own reward. He even used the power of conversation to swindle drinks from the crowd. On a rainy evening, a man dressed in armor approached their table and threw a bag at them. Silvers spilled onto the table which seemed too pure and good to touch. When Whitely asked what this was all about, the man replied, “Vampires. Can the Marquess’s forces employ your services?” Whitely and Ted thought over the prospect for only a short while. Then they answered with conviction.


Steven Lombardi is an award-winning short fiction writer. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Air and Nothingness Press, Ghost Orchid Press, The Common Tongue, 365 Tomorrows, Ab Terra, Theme of Absence and elsewhere. He won The Dark Sire Award for Best Fiction in February 2021. You can find Steven on Twitter (@_sl_) and learn more about his work at: stevenlombardi.nyc.


Be sure to return to read the next short story, A BAD PLACE TO MEAT by Mary Sloat, later this evening. The celebration continues at 7pm (EST).


The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize: Practical Alchemy on a Budget

In September, TDS hosted a writing contest that was named after Professor Jon Meyers, The Jon Meyers Dark Humour Prize for Gothic Literature (a.k.a. The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize). Entries were read in October with the winners – selected by Meyers himself – announced on October 31st, just in time for Halloween. The winners were:

Rose Biggin, Mrs. Pepper’s Ghost (1st Place)
Liam Hogan, Practical Alchemy on a Budget (2nd Place)
Steven Lombardi, To Cross a Vampire (3rd Place)
Mary Sloat, A Bad Place to Meat (Honorable Mention)

Now, over the next two days, all four short stories will be released individually to celebrate Contemporary Gothic Literature. And what better time to release them than December, when the cold bite of snow and ice warrants snuggling into a warm blanket in the dark? These four stories may not be Christmas-related, but they definitely fit into the Gothic tradition of storytelling during the Christmas season.

So without further ado, sit back, snuggle down, and grab your cocoa as you nestle into read…

Practical Alchemy on a Budget
by Liam Hogan

Congratulations on successfully decrypting1 your first alchemical text. In this introductory pamphlet, provided free with your Practical Alchemy for Young Widows of Modest Means2 weekly instalment beginner’s kit, we tackle a thorny problem for all except those with a substantial inheritance.

Alchemy, with its penchant for exotic materials and custom glassware, is alas never going to be a cheap pursuit, even if the knowledge and security it will bring can prove priceless. You will need to become a Grand Mistress3 to even attempt to transmute lead into gold, and so, until that exciting and often explosive day, here are some cost-saving measures you may like to consider.

The rare and expensive Hermetical writings you may be tempted to purchase in your eagerness to embark on the Great Work, were largely scribed by male practitioners towards the senile and embittered ends of their alchemical careers. They are a hodgepodge of over-elaboration and even deliberate obfuscation, such that the excuse for an experiment to fail is often already baked in.

Our home study packs are designed to cut away the frippery, to identify the nuggets of genuine knowledge, and to provide substances with guaranteed potency. You will find following our instructions cheaper and more efficacious than anything available elsewhere.

There are a few things you definitely won’t want to skimp on, whatever their cost. Cloth aprons are far cheaper than leather ones, but after an acid splash or two, you’ll realise you have wasted your money, as well as your skirts and quite possibly your petticoats. The corrosives discussed in lessons two and three will happily eat through most conventional fabrics, and oil of vitriol, if not neutralised, can cause serious burns, and even death4.

Similarly, it is recommended that you conduct your investigations in a well-ventilated space, and not, as you might otherwise be tempted to do, in overlooked and under-utilised attics and cellars. The noxious gases produced in lesson four can overwhelm even the most hardy, and fresh air is the only real defence5.

The creation of panaceas (lessons five, six, and seven) may absorb much of your time and effort, and justly so. But any alchemist worth their cyanide salt should never assume her remedy will work without first conducting trials. Alchemists of old would test particularly effective cures on aged elephants, putting many of these poor beasts of burden out of their lifelong misery, but this is well beyond the means of the average widow. Thankfully, there’s never a shortage of vermin, and rats that are unable to make it back to their lair will reliably indicate a lethal misstep.

Alchemy is a serious endeavour, not to be undertaken lightly. There is great risk, as well as great reward, and you should only proceed if you are certain of your intentions. It will not have escaped you that our introductory advice concentrates as much on the dangers of the chemicals and processes you are about to start experimenting with, as their cost. Necessarily so, for many of these substances are exceedingly toxic, and it behoves you to take careful note of their deleterious effects. This is vital, so that if you are visiting the apothecary or exploring the markets and docks for those harder to source materials, in the company, say, of one of your recently married young female acquaintances, you may diligently warn them of the dangers such powders and potions pose, as well as their alleged benefits. It would be remiss6 of you to fail to do so. Would it not be truly terrible if your enthusiasm was to inspire your distraught and sorely put-upon companion to attempt her own unguided alchemical venture, during which she might absent-mindedly spill a deadly and undetectable concoction into her boorish husband’s nightcap?

If your friend does have the misfortune to become a young widow, just as you are, we offer a generous referral scheme, and are even prepared to waive the usual membership fees, should you and she have inadvertently discovered a new and untraceable peril not previously recorded in our extensive archives. We always feel it is our duty to immediately warn all of our subscribers, so that they and their lady friends might avoid the same tragic consequences, and thus sleep soundly at night7.

Footnotes

1. As you embark on your journey, please remember to encode all research and notes, for reasons we trust will be obvious.

2. It is a sad indictment of today’s society that only widows have both the agency and the independent wealth to pursue this most stimulating of intellectual challenges. Should a widow remarry, she will find her wealth and her passions are legally no longer her own. Thankfully, second marriages are at least an alchemical practitioner’s choice, which is more than many of us had the first time around. Choose wisely.

3. See our Advanced courses.

4. Particularly for those of an elderly or frail constitution.

5. Locked windows, blocked up chimneys, and draft-proofed doors only increase the risk of suffocation.

6. And have possible legal ramifications. 7. If sleep should still prove illusive, and rather than any of the potential cures found in our correspondence, may we humbly suggest camomile?


Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. Follow him on Twitter (@LiamJHogan) and learn more about his work at: http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk


Be sure to return to read the next short story, TO CROSS A VAMPIRE by Steven Lombardi, tomorrow morning. The celebration continues at 11am (EST).


The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize: Mrs. Pepper’s Ghost

In September, TDS hosted a writing contest that was named after Professor Jon Meyers, The Jon Meyers Dark Humour Prize for Gothic Literature (a.k.a. The Jon Meyers Gothic Prize). Entries were read in October with the winners – selected by Meyers himself – announced on October 31st, just in time for Halloween. The winners were:

Rose Biggin, Mrs. Pepper’s Ghost (1st Place)
Liam Hogan, Practical Alchemy on a Budget (2nd Place)
Steven Lombardi, To Cross a Vampire (3rd Place)
Mary Sloat, A Bad Place to Meat (Honorable Mention)

Now, over the next two days, all four short stories will be released individually to celebrate Contemporary Gothic Literature. And what better time to release them than December, when the cold bite of snow and ice warrants snuggling into a warm blanket in the dark? These four stories may not be Christmas-related, but they definitely fit into the Gothic tradition of storytelling during the Christmas season.

So without further ado, sit back, snuggle down, and grab your cocoa as you nestle into read…

Mrs. Pepper’s Ghost
by Rose Biggin

Of all the theatrical ghosts appearing that season in the seaside town of Trippingly-on-the-Tongue, most were in agreement that the spirit hovering about the wings of the Repertory Theatre was fast becoming the biggest nuisance.

It began by appearing very briefly, always shortly before the interval. The more observant theatre-goers took its hint to rise from their seats and get in early at the queue for ice-creams. At this point the ghost seemed harmless enough, even benign.

The proprietor of the Trippingly Rep did not mind the theatre ghost at first, convincing herself a momentary flicker at the end of the first act brought some character to the place. But very quickly this was exactly the problem.

‘Did you see it?’ she would hear the punters asking each other as they left of the theatre. ‘Best thing of the night, I’d say!’

Its appearances became sporadic, unpredictable: ‘It flashed across the stage exactly at the point the detective revealed the murderer! I almost missed who did it.’

Soon it was on stage for whole scenes at a time: ‘My aunt thought it was part of the plot, a character everyone was ignoring.’

And as the snow fell: ‘Was the back half of the horse more see-through than usual to you?’  

This wouldn’t do. Mrs Pepper had successfully navigated the Trippingly Rep through many a disastrous season. There had been the year of the actors’ strike, when she had played many of the parts herself; there had been the heatwave summer, when nobody had wanted to sit in hot darkness and watch a play.(Discounted ices had come to the rescue there.)There had been box-office flops, last-minute replacements, emergency closures and deadly rivalries with other theatres. These Mrs Pepper was particularly proud of seeing off. She had even, with her vivid and varied programme of entertainment, overtaken the town’s most prestigious theatre, the Trippingly Grand in all its gilt-and-velvet splendour, in popularity. She was certainly not about to lose her Rep to so insubstantial a problem as a ghost.

She could not deny that audiences seemed more interested in the ghost than the plays themselves. To counter this, Mrs Pepper decided to put on a very famous play, a classic they would definitely want to pay attention to, and chose the great tragedy Tarquin of Rome. She spent a lengthy tea-time convincing a local legendary actor to leave retirement and play the main role. Rehearsals went well, the rest of the company honoured to be playing alongside such a celebrity and spurred on to do their best, and expectations were high — until opening night, when the ghost appeared during Act One Scene One, in the guise of the legendary actor’s younger self, the first time they had played the role many years ago. He tried to ignore it, but his distraction was clear. In Act Two Scene Four the ghost appeared as the most famous actor to ever play the part, hovering sinisterly as tonight’s Tarquin struggled through the lines, sometimes even speaking over him. The rhapsody of the ghost’s delivery, evoking a performance from nearly a century ago, made the poor fellow on the stage nearly inaudible. For the rest of the play the ghost continued to reappear as various other Tarquins, and Mrs Pepper’s actor spent the whole night navigating through them.

‘We’ll go the other way,’ said Mrs Pepper, who was not to be deterred. ‘If the ghost is bothering my canonical drama, let’s try a crowd-pleaser. It might be a cultural snob.’ And so posters went up announcing the Rep would that night play one of the most popular pieces in its programme, the outrageous farce The Kicked Bouquet, set in an overstretched florist struggling to provide for multiple weddings and the funeral of a man who was faking his death.

But that did not work either. The play moved through its series of misunderstandings, its plot steadily gaining absurdity and speed — and in the second half the ghost appeared, with its vicar’s collar coming loose, running from door to door and back again, ghostly trousers around its ankles, confusing the audience as to what belonged to this farce and what had barged in from anotherfarce entirely. The curtain call was a mixture of applause and confused muttering, and the actors went home glum.

Drastic measures were now called for. The following day, alone in the theatre (more or less), Mrs Pepper unlocked her desk and consulted the faded letter from the previous proprietor of the Rep, recommending a course of action for exactly this emergency. Then she went down to the darkened props store, following the letter’s directions until she found a corner that had not been touched for many many years, and rummaged around until she found the object she was looking for. She held it out before her and examined it.

‘How curious,’ she said. Then she frowned. ‘And oddly familiar.’

Finally, she sent missives to the stage crew to meet her in the theatre that afternoon.

‘I have an answer to our current problem,’ she announced, standing centrestage. She held up a diagram drawn on the back of an old playbill. ‘Can you make me something like this?’

The crew stood in a semicircle around Mrs Pepper. Beside her was a sheet covering a bulky shape: the object she had found hidden in the props store.

‘Shouldn’t be too difficult,’ said the head carpenter, peering at the diagram. ‘What’s that, a mirror? Easy.’

‘Better than that and even simpler,’ said Mrs Pepper. ‘It is a pane of glass. We shall place it beneath the stage, angled to reflect the action above. Strength of the limelight will ensure it acts as a mirror, and then it shall merely be a matter of keeping watch. ’

She looked around the company as the same doom-laden thought settled upon all of them. There was a long pause, and an anxious shuffling of feet.

‘This is to do with getting rid of the g— getting rid of the presence, miss?’ asked one of the more superstitious stagehands, knotting her fingers together over her pinafore.

‘You have it exactly,’ said Mrs Pepper, smiling. ‘And we can ensure our efforts will be successful. By using this.’ She pulled the cloth away, and the assembled stagehands gasped at the sight of the contraption.

It was made from brass and resembled a blunderbuss, with a greater number of pipes than might be expected on a blunderbuss and several valve-like buttons like those on a trumpet. The end of the barrel widened out like a gramophone, or a metallic flower seeking the sun.

‘I’ll be depending on you all to hold your nerve,’ said Mrs Pepper. ‘This will be a true test of our powers of stagecraft.’

‘Sounds like forbidden stagecraft to me,’ and ‘Dangerous business, that’ — mutters of this kind rippled across the company, but Mrs Pepper overrode their reluctance with the promise of a ghost-free existence.

‘Besides,’ she added. ‘I shall be the one operating the device. The rest of you have nothing to fear. Just help me set it up.’

That evening, during the performance of Tarquin of Rome, Mrs Pepper stood beneath the stage balancing the ungainly gun on her hip. Before her, leaning against the far wall of what would have been the orchestra pit, was a pane of glass. One of the carpenters had detached it earlier from a window he hadn’t been using. The theatre itself was a full house, and Mrs Pepper could feel the warmth and energy of hundreds of restless spectators. Her chest butterflied with anticipation.

Up there on the boards, the legendary actor creeped along holding a lantern out before him, exploring a spooky ruined fortress. This was a famous scene: Tarquin’s big monologue.

The theatre ghost appeared, this time looking exactly like the legendary actor when he played this scene a few nights ago. The audience murmured with recognition. The ghost copied how the actor had moved about the stage, going left when the actor, tonight, went right, and making similar gestures slightly out of time. Suddenly the ghost strode forward with determination, which the actor tonight was too alarmed to do, and so the ghost passed right through him. From the balcony came a few cries of alarm at the sight.

‘All right, that’s quite enough of that,’ said Mrs Pepper, and she turned the contraption on.

For several moments nothing visibly happened, but the brass grew warm beneath her hands. The actor continued to totter through the lines up on the stage, followed closely by the pale image of how he had done it previously. Sharp blue electric light emitted from the contraption’s widened end, getting steadily brighter until it shone fully on the pane of glass and made it glow. Mrs Pepper watched the glass carefully until the image of the ghost was there, perfectly reflected from the stage.

The actor said a particularly famous line, and the ghost raised an arm as if in salute. Mrs Pepper flicked the switch.

The entire theatre was bathed in blue light.

Crackles and sparks shot from the blunderbuss, bounced off the glass and made straight for the ghost, who seemed to explode in a shower of shimmers. The light was blinding; everyone in the theatre covered their eyes.

When Mrs Pepper opened hers, the light in the theatre had returned to normal. And the ghost was there before her, trapped within the pane of glass.


‘Hard to imagine it going much better!’ cried the legendary actor, raising his drink at everyone. ‘Thank goodness we got through the rest of the play without any drama.’

Mrs Pepper nodded her agreement, but couldn’t stop herself frowning a little. She hadn’t failed to notice how politely the audience had applauded after the play, how quietly they had filed out of the theatre. She put it down to their being overwhelmed by the spectacle of it all, but couldn’t deny that she’d hoped for a standing ovation.

‘What did you do with the beasty?’ asked one of the younger actors, wearing his cricket whites from the matinee, for fun.

The famous actor raised his eyebrows, still in his laurel wreath from Tarquin. ‘Good point. Where did it go?’

‘Never you mind,’ said Mrs Pepper. ‘Somewhere it will never bother any of us again.’ And the whole company cheered.

That evening, when the actors had gone home and the final stagehand had locked the doors for the night and departed, Mrs Pepper lit a candle in her otherwise darkened office and approached the curtain that newly hung upon the wall. She tugged on the rope and drew the curtain. There hung the pane of glass, with the ghost still trapped inside it.

‘Thought you’d outsmarted me, hadn’t you?’ Mrs Pepper wagged a finger at it. ‘Thought you could interfere with my plays and face no consequence? Well, let’s see how you like it. You’re going to hang there on my wall and see how my theatre flourishes without your meddling.’

The ghost only looked at her through a wavering eye. It did not look squashed, exactly, but it certainly looked like it would prefer its freedom. Feeling triumphant, Mrs Pepper closed the curtain over it and went home for supper.


The Trippingly Rep continued its ghost-free season, putting on a great range of plays, none of which were interrupted by the appearance of spirits to bother the actors or spoil the effects. The theatre continued to play to full houses and receive positive notices in the Trippingly Post. But gradually it became clear that something, somehow, was ever so slightly wrong.

A night of entertainment at the Rep seemed to be losing its lustre. Audiences were becoming more muted: laughter was polite, tension nonexistent, applause hesitant. Mrs Pepper overheard confusion as people left the theatre, asking each other what exactly had happened, or what a particular moment had signified, or noting that they had almost nodded off.

After The Tragedy of Lancelot and Gwenivere of all things had played to indifference, Mrs Pepper stormed into her office, pulled the rope that opened the curtain and angrily faced the ghost.

‘You’ve been doing something to my theatre,’ she said. ‘I don’t know what, but things are different somehow. Worse.’

‘How can I do anything from in here?’ said the ghost. It held its palms up, a picture of innocent helplessness. Disgusted, Mrs Pepper drew the curtains back over the glass and stalked down to see the actors. They were in costume already for Length by Width by Death, a murder mystery set in a quantity surveyors.

‘All right,’ she said, as she faced the cast in the dressing-room. ‘Tonight I want you to give it all you’ve got. Make the Trip Rep proud.’ But something in the words, in her tone, sounded hollow; she felt her platitudes miss the mark, and the actors only stood there wanly, as if stripped of all energy. Their performance that night was dire. It resembled a tired group of exhausted people, going through the motions of something dull, having long forgotten the reason for doing it. The meagre applause hadn’t even died away when Mrs Pepper drew the curtain and spoke to the ghost again.

‘What are you playing at?’ she snarled, as the ghost looked back at her with blurry, wobbling eyes. ‘Why doesn’t anyone seem to know or care what they’re doing anymore?’

‘It’s just like I said. What can I do for you while I’m in here? It’s no surprise to me your audiences are all lost. Without me, there’s nothing to remind them of what they’re watching or why. So they forget; and the actors, too.’

‘Forget what? What do they need to be reminded of?’

‘Why, anything and everything that has gone before, on your stage or any other.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Theatre,’ said the ghost, ‘is a cultural technology of ritual and repetition above all else. When you watch a play, you don’t just watch: you remember. Now you’ve done this to me, how does anyone have the foggiest idea what they’re looking at? No wonder something feels off. You’ve stripped your stage of its past and its potential, and everyone can feel it.’

Mrs Pepper put her hands on her hips. ‘You’re the ghost of history plays in history now, are you? The spirit of pantomimes yet to come? Don’t give me any of that. You’re nothing but a menace, and now you’ve placed us all under some sort of curse. Well, turn it off. My theatre doesn’t need you. My audiences certainly don’t.’

‘If you say so,’ said the ghost. ‘But might I suggest you’d’ve been better off thinking of me as an opportunity?’

‘You’re just trying to trick me into letting you out,’ said Mrs Pepper, closing the curtain. ‘I’ll take you off the wall and throw you into the Tongue before I do that.’

The ghost spoke through the curtain. ‘I can’t get out,’ it said, its voice muffled by the patterned material. ‘There’s no reversing your little procedure. Now we both have to watch the theatre fail.’

That idea sat heavily with Mrs Pepper, a gnawing feeling that grew ever more dreadful. Performances were increasingly lacklustre. The actors mumbled their words before half-empty stalls. They forgot their lines, and the prompt forgot to prompt, leading to long passages of emptiness. The stagehands got the scene changes wrong and nobody noticed, the furniture or backcloth clashing with scenes that were hardly happening anyway. Stragglers dotted about the nearly empty theatre whistled to themselves distractedly and left without applauding, sometimes long before the end. The final straw came when the posters announcing the plays for the following week, which Mrs Pepper had been very firm about and had told the printers repeatedly, were pasted up completely blank.

Mrs Pepper stormed up the stairs into her office and once again faced the ghost.

‘All right,’ she said, her voice weary with defeat. ‘You win. What do you want me to do?’

‘There’s nothing you can do,’ said the ghost, its tone gleeful. ‘If I may be melodramatic for a moment, it’s too late.’

‘So you say?’ Mrs Pepper looked around desperately.

In the corner of the office stood a bucket, which held an ancient set of carpenter’s tools. She picked up the hammer, swinging it slightly to enjoy the weight at the end of her arm. Her eyes were wide. ‘You’ll do no more mischief from in there. I’ll see to that.’  

‘I wouldn’t if I were you.’ The ghost’s eyes on her were mocking, and it made some rude gestures along the flat plane of its thin existence. ‘You won’t fix anything that way.’

‘That’s what you think,’ said Mrs Pepper, reaching back with her arm to get a full, good, clear swing. ‘Watch this — and let’s see what we remember!’ And she took the hammer to the pane of glass.

A giant cracking sound echoed through the theatre like sharp thunder.

In the dressing-rooms, all the mirrors shattered. The lamps along the walls burst with a sudden flare, the smoked glass cracking as it dropped to the floor. In the carpeted foyer all the windows smashed themselves to bits, and in the auditorium the great chandelier splintered into a thousand crystal droplets that showered onto the seats and forever lodged between the stage boards. Onstage, all the pasteboard windows over the scenery flats were wrenched in half and torn like the flimsiest paper until the pieces floated down gently to the ground, and the wine and whisky glasses on the props drinks trolley popped and exploded, and the stage boards themselves were suddenly veined with cracks. The company looked at each other for an alarmed moment — then as one they all raced off the stage, through the theatre, up the stairs, along the corridor until finally they arrived breathlessly into Mrs Pepper’s office to find her there, standing among a thousand smithereens of glass, still holding the hammer, and laughing.


Rose Biggin is a writer and theatre artist based in London, UK. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies by Jurassic London, Abaddon Books, Mango, NewCon Press and Egaeus Press. She’s the author of Immersive Theatre & Audience Experience (Palgrave) and Shakespearean novel Wild Time (Surface Press). You can find Rose on Twitter (@RoseBiggin) and learn more about her work at https://www.rosebiggin.uk/


Be sure to return to read the next short story, PRACTICAL ALCHEMY ON A BUDGET by Liam Hogan, later this evening. The celebration continues at 7pm (EST).


Self-Editing Series: 6 Elements of Characterization

Characters are a pinnacle of storytelling. The way writers can bring them to life on a page is fascinating! They are also one of the hardest parts of storytelling to get right.

Characters are a deep subject that I could go on for multiple posts about, but for this purpose, I’m going to delve into Characters for shorter fiction. When you are writing a novel, you have much more space and time to break down different aspects of characterization to slowly breathe life into your characters. Shorter fiction does not have that luxury or the writer has risked dull characters and with that a dull story.

Our focus will be the protagonist (the main character) of your story. However, feel free to have your extra files with the backstories of your side characters fleshed out in more detail. The more you know your character, the better you can write them!

For teaching purposes, I’m going to be using this short story snippet to help illustrate ways to apply the six elements. Below is the original copy. We’ll take another look at the end to see how all of the changes look on the page.

Please note: There are plenty of other aspects of editing that could be adjusted, but I am only going to be looking at this snippet for elements of Character. 

Original Version: First Draft

6 Elements of Character:

1) Goal

A character without a goal has nothing for the story to grab onto. They simply have no stakes in the story or a purpose if they do not have a want that means something to them. Some may even suggest that, without a goal, you simply have no story.

For self-editing, this comes into play when you look back through each scene.

Did your character have a goal?

If not, the scene may need to be revised or rewritten. All scenes should involve a character trying to achieve a goal on some level.

Does the goal come across strongly?

Short stories have ONE major goal, and the entire story is about reaching it. Every small scene level goal will be a step closer to the major one. If a scene or two seems out of place with the major goal, revise or cut it for a stronger manuscript.

Opening scenes may be an exception depending on the manuscript. Many characters start out with their ‘normal’ world for a reason, with the story catalyst not having happened yet that gives them the story goal.

To see this in action, we’ll take the original first draft at the top of the post and we’ll add notes to help make it stronger.

Below, you may notice the story snippet has gotten a bit longer. Adding in a motivation involved reworking the first chunk of the story to include the ‘why’ and gave the character a definable goal.

2) Strengths and Skills

A character should know how to do things and have a way of handling their environment. There are always exceptions to this, but more often than not, your character will have some type of strength or skill that helps define them. It could be the reason they work in a certain field, or why they are needed for the story.

Does your character have a strength?

Strength is internal. Example characteristics: confident, intelligent, determined or charming.

Did they use it?

They should always use their strength. It is integral to the way a character acts and reacts. A confident character will not approach a situation the same way as an intelligent one.

If your character has more than one strength, the key is in how you write them. A purely confident character may just trust themselves to barge into a situation. However, an intelligent and confident character could break down their adversaries before having a proper plan and then barge into the situation confident that they have the upper hand.

It helps to write out character strengths because it goes hand-in-hand with their flaw.

Does your character have a skill?

They could be good thieves, liars, mages. Or perhaps they have a degree in archeology or mortuary science.

Did they use it?

Sometimes a skill is just to get the character into a certain setting for tone/mood. Maybe you needed someone who could logically get trapped in a zoo at night, or perhaps you needed someone who could fight that monster plaguing the village on the other side of town.

When writing short stories, it’s important that skills apply to the story. We don’t need to know that the protagonist is good at baseball unless those particular skills are going to come into play in the story, or explain why they are in a particular setting.

If you notice you piled on strengths, or gave your character two-too-many talents, cut them down in revisions to only the necessary ones. Relevancy is key!

As you can see in my mark-up below, the character skills weren’t particularly strong, so I’ve made notes to add more in the skills category.

Below is the edited version with a punch given to the protagonist’s skills.

3) Flaws

If the goal is the starting issue with developing characters, I think flaws come in a close second. Most authors don’t have an issue at all with giving their character strengths and skills that can help them. Flaws, however, are more complex and are an important part of creating a relatable character. They are the key to not writing a Mary Sue/Gary Stu typology (aka: bland character).

Readers want to cheer for your characters, but when characters are too perfect (no flaws), there’s isn’t much to cheer about. The character will succeed, and readers won’t have the ‘but what if…’ feeling they get with a successful page turner. Therefore, it’s important to build in natural character flaws for the story.

Does your character have the right flaw?

Do not simply google flaws because you can’t think of where your character falls short and toss them into the story devil-may-care. Their flaw may also be the result of a wound-causing event that happened earlier in their life; though, the full exploration of that is normally found within longer fiction like novellas and novels. If you are writing a short story, it may not be imperative for the reader to know why the character has the flaw that they do, just that it exists.

A proper flaw will compliment your character’s strength. It is a mirror of their strength. Some examples of this tension and conflict in a character are:

Confident → Arrogant or Presumptuous

Intelligent → Lacking Empathy or Patience

Determined → Stubborn or Aggressive

Charming → Manipulative or Non-committal

When reading back over your manuscript, did you stay consistent with your character’s flaw? Humans on the whole have to be pushed to change, and even then, it does not come easy.

An introverted, low confident character does not have to become extroverted and filled with confidence. You can have confident introverts and low-confidence extroverts.

If your character’s flaw properly compliments their strength, that’s great! If not, reassess the strengths you’ve given to your character and find their flaw. Writing it down will help as you go through revisions to be sure you are sticking to your established characterization.

Let’s take another look at our developing snippet for character flaws:

As you can see in the mark up, the character actually had a conflict with her flaw description that needed to be addressed. Let’s see how that looks when her flaw is smoothed out:

4) Internal Conflict

Hand-in-hand with strengths and flaws, the internal conflict your character goes through is how they are going to handle their flaw — and their coming struggles. Character’s handle flaws through one of three ways: Positive, Negative, and Flat.

  • Positive Arc: The character will overcome their flaw within the story time-frame and become a better version of themselves.
  • Negative Arc: The character will not overcome their flaw within the story time-frame and will become a worse version of themselves.
  • Flat Arc: The character will not change within the story time-frame.

Does your character have internal conflict?

Did you capture their struggle on the page? Change is difficult. It requires a lot of self-realization. Sometimes people do not change for the better, and sometimes they don’t change at all. Characters are no different.

Consequences are key here. Your character should have to make hard choices. If a choice is too easy or too simple, you may be missing conflict, or have chosen the wrong one for the story. Therefore, choosing the right flaw that creates conflict is important. The character has to have something to rise against, or succumb to.

If you have written a flat character arc, the conflict will take place outside of the character, with them struggling to understanding their world.

Dig a little deeper into a character’s internal conflict by asking what the character is afraid of. A fear can help drive their internal conflict as much as a flaw can, particularly if they are in a position where they have to overcome it. The reader then gets to see the character fight through that fear on the page and not only will relate to them but will also continue to cheer for them.

Does your character have a fear?

Fears can be negative or positive in nature. For example: fear of the dark and death, or fear of success at work (because they don’t feel deserving of it).

Go back through your manuscript and make sure that you’ve given them chances to both show it overcome it.

Remember: Fears should not be sprinkled on like bad flaws (just for the sake of it). Fears in fiction should be relevant. If your character is afraid of spiders, readers will expect that that fear comes into play in the story; otherwise, there was no reason for it. Whether they are a child who has to pass through empty spider webs, or a burly man about to take on a kaiju-sized arachnid, the fear must be relevant to both the external conflict within the story.

In the example below, after reading through the snippet, there was a huge issue found with characterization. The internal conflict never made it onto the page!

Below you’ll notice that the word count went up again as the character was given some internal struggle to make their journey harder, and drive their character arc forward.

5) External Conflict:

Yes, external conflict is a part of your character and your story. The external conflict needs to challenge your character’s specific strengths and flaws. It needs to dig deep and make the inner conflict come to life.

Do you have external conflict in your manuscript?

Most writers can answer yes to this one. There is almost always something going on around the protagonist. An outside force that acts as a catalyst for change, or a challenge. This may be an event or character. Either way, it is the thing outside your character that they will overcome, or succumb to.

Tip: This may be an actual person, a tornado, or a monster.

Ideally, the external conflict wants the opposite goal of the character, or at least a darker path to achieve the same goal.

To the earlier tip: A tornado doesn’t exactly ‘want’ anything, but its path of destruction could still stand in the protagonist’s way.

Does the external conflict challenge your character’s internal conflict?

For the internal conflict to work, the external conflict needs to challenge and push the character to make hard decisions. Simple choices are just that, easy and lacking in tension.

Tension and conflict, like flaws, should not be randomly selected and sprinkled on. There should be a reason for each external conflict to exist because it’s going to push back against the character in a way that keeps the reader enraptured by the character and their story.

Technically, our snippet had external conflict set up from the start, but let’s look closer to see if there are ways to make that conflict stronger.

After reevaluating, a bird in a tree wasn’t a particularly strong connection to the outside conflict, nor did it set up what could or was going to happen next. Instead, we need to make things harder for the protagonist.

In the sample below, you can see how we knocked her out of the tree.

6) Chemistry

This joyous little factor is about as abstract as they come on the surface level. Chemistry is not just romance. Many times people see the word ‘chemistry’ and automatically think two people must be falling in love, but it’s not. It is the special ‘it’ factor that connects the reader to your characters and the main character to other characters, while also driving the reader to keep reading.

Chemistry is when you are excited for two characters to face off on the page because their interactions are so entertaining or downright horrifying. Maybe they are protagonists/villains, maybe they are best friends. They demand attention when they are in a scene.

It is relatability — not likability — that makes the reader come back to your character.

Special Tip: You can help amp up the chemistry between your character and the reader by not giving the reader a filter or veil they have to dig through to get to the raw emotion of your story. Your character is the catalyst to why the reader stays with them, so be sure you are following the adage of Showing vs Telling (when it applies).

At this point, I’ve already edited out most of the filter words and have the elements a bit stronger than they were at the beginning. Of course, those may change a bit more through the editing process. Editing is what gives you a ‘living’ draft, in that, anything is subject to change while you are bringing it closer to what you want it to be.

Let’s look at the original snippet one more time, just to refresh what we started with. This sample sits at 296 words.

By looking at Elements of character alone (not even addressing deep grammar and line editing) the newest draft of this scene sits at 717 words, and the characterization comes through more clearly than our original.

Character creation?

You’ll note above that I did not mention some elements of character creation, such as appearance or the debate over whether or not to answer questionnaires. If you are in the self-editing stage, creation would have been done already. So it’s not an appropriate editing step.

What’s next week’s topic?

Plot, and thus story, is extremely important to creating a page turner. Plot holes, then, are the ruin of an otherwise interesting story. So how do you find and edit out those sneaky plot holes and story inconsistencies? Find out next week when we dive into Plot. Don’t miss it!

Reality Meets Fiction: Doppelgängers

by Barry Pirro

Almost everyone has heard the term doppelgänger. It’s a German word that means double-walker or double-goer. Basically, a doppelgänger is someone who looks, acts, and sounds exactly like another person.

The following creepy tale isn’t fiction. It comes from a paranormal investigation I conducted at a home in Larchmont, New York. The family had a number of bizarre experiences after the father brought a haunted organ home, but Michael coming face-to-face with his doppelgänger-mother was by far the strangest: 

Michael burst through the backdoor, snow swirling in after him. He slammed the door shut, threw his book bag on the mudroom floor and pried off his snow-caked sneakers, losing one soggy sock in the process. He pulled off the other drenched sock and threw both on top of his book bag, then threw his wet jacket on top of the pile.

Music was blasting in Michael’s headphones as he headed to the kitchen to grab a snack. School was let out early because of the snow, and with more than a foot predicted by morning, it looked like tomorrow would definitely be a snow day. He riffled through the junk food cabinet and settled on something he considered to be highly nutritious – Strawberry Pop-tarts.

He tore open the two-pack of Pop-Tarts, took a bite, headed out into the living room, making for the staircase. When he was half-way across the room he slowed, took another bite of his Pop-Tart, then stopped and looked at the crucifixes that hung on all four walls of the room. He couldn’t help but wonder what his dad got the family into.

Three months earlier, unexplainable things started happening around the house after the father bought an antique pump-organ he saw while doing a job at a house in Larchmont. The man was an electrician, and a musician on the side. So when he saw the organ, he bought it from the guy, even though it came with a warning. The guy told him that the organ was…

Michael shook the thought away and started walking to the staircase when he slowed and eyed the large wooden crucifix that hung above the front door. To the right of the door hung a string of rosary beads and on the door itself was a picture of Jesus, his eyes lifted to heaven. Michael shook his head and turned up the volume on his headphones. Haunted my ass, he thought as he turned the corner and headed upstairs.

Michael was on the third step when he looked up. He quickly pulled the headphones off of his ears and turned off the music. His mother was standing at the top of the stairs. She was looking down at him, and she didn’t seem very happy. Christ, what did I do wrong now?

“Hey mom! I didn’t know you were home. What’s up?” he asked, making his voice sound just a tad too cheerful. His mother just stood there looking at him. Michael smiled up at her and climbed a few more steps until he was just eight steps down from her.

“We got let out early because of the snow. Kelly should be home soon, too. They let the middle school out a half-hour after the high school. I bet we’ll be off tomorrow. We’re supposed to get a foot of snow!”

His mother only stared at him, nothing more.

“Mom? What’s up?” he said as she continued her accusatory glare. “Oh, sorry I didn’t clean my room this morning. I’ll do it now.” He started to climb the rest of the stairs, but she just stood there on the landing at the top of the stairs looking down at him as if she wanted to confront him about something.

She was holding a dish towel, so he guessed she had just come up from the kitchen for something. But what was her problem? She was literally blocking his way, but she wasn’t saying anything, just holding the towel in one hand, twisting it with the other, and staring at him.

Michael was genuinely getting concerned. Maybe his mom had had a stroke? As his concern grew, he continued to look up at his mother. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly, and she shifted the weight off of one foot and took a step back as if she was about to let him pass. But just as Michael started to climb the stairs again, she slowly took a step forward and twisted the towel tighter.

“Mom? What’s the matter? Did I do something wrong? Talk to me!” he yelled. Then, the corners of her mouth slowly turned upward into a big grin, like she had just been playing some kind of a joke on him. He sighed with relief and smiled back at her. He laughed, “Mom, you really had me fooled there for a minute.” From downstairs, he heard someone walk in from the kitchen and through the living room. “There’s Kelly now,” he said. “Her school bus must have just dropped her off.”     

Suddenly, a voice called to him from the bottom of the stairs: “Michael, who are you talking to, Honey? I could hear your voice from all the way in the basement.”

Michael turned around quickly and stared down the stairs in total disbelief. The skin on his scalp crawled, and he began to shake. His mother was standing at the bottom of the stairs, smiling up at him as she held a roll of paper towels in one hand and a spray bottle of cleaner in the other. Michael’s head jerked back to the top of the stairs.

There was no one there, just a twisted dish towel laying limp on the top step.


Stories of doppelgängers have been around for literally thousands of years, and many theories surround these mysterious doubles.

One theory is that a doppelgänger is a duplicate version of ourselves from an alternate reality, or from another dimension. But in their reality, they are living an entirely different life than the one we live in this reality. When both realities line-up, one of us ‘bleeds over’ into the other’s world and we end up seeing each other. The sightings are usually brief, and the doppelgänger usually vanishes when spotted.  

Another theory is that a doppelgänger is our exact double, a cell-for-cell duplicate living in the same reality. Some think that it’s impossible for two of the same person to live in the same reality, so when the two meet up, one of them must die.


Several famous people have reported seeing their doppelgängers, and many of them died soon after.  Abraham Lincoln saw his double in a mirror. He said that the figure appeared to be around three shades paler than him, and that it hovered several inches above his real body. He saw this same figure once again, and a little over a year later, he was assassinated.

The English poet Percy Shelly saw his doppelgänger numerous times. Once, it even spoke to him. Percy’s friend saw the poet’s double walking on the terrace of his house when he wasn’t at home. Percy’s last sighting of his doppelgänger was when he saw it standing on a beach pointing out to sea. When he approached the figure, it vanished. A few weeks later, Percy Shelly died in a boating accident at sea at the age of twenty-nine.


Seeing a doppelgänger can be a terribly frightening experience. I was recently contacted by a woman named Melanie who was desperate for me to run a paranormal investigation at her house. She and her family had just moved in a month earlier, and she was hoping I would be able to get to the bottom of some mysterious happenings in the house, such as odd sounds in the middle of the night and a feeling of being watched. But those experiences paled in comparison to what she and her daughter witnessed.

One night, Melanie woke up a little after midnight for no particular reason. Looking out of her bedroom door, she could see the front foyer, and the staircase that led to the second floor. Coming down the stairs was her 12-year-old daughter, Sarah.

“Sarah, is everything OK?” Melanie called out to the girl, but she didn’t respond. She just kept walking down the stairs. When Sarah was almost to the bottom step, Melanie quickly got out of bed and walked across the room toward the doorway.

Just as she was about to walk into the foyer, she watched in horror as Sarah turned into a silvery mist. The shimmering fog rose up to the ceiling, then vanished.

Melanie was terrified. She raced upstairs to check on the girl, only to find her fast asleep in her bed. She ran downstairs and woke her husband to tell him what had just happened, but he just wrote it off as a bad dream.

Melanie knew that it was no dream, but she didn’t want to frighten the kids, so she didn’t tell them about it.

Three days later, Sarah woke up at around 2 AM after hearing a sound. The hall light was always left on, so her room was well lit, and as she looked around the room, she saw her father standing about eight feet away from her bed. His back was to her, but she knew it was him because he was wearing a t-shirt that he frequently wore, and that she often poked fun of. It was red with a big picture of a race car on the back.

Sarah watched her father, totally puzzled by what he was doing. He was looking at the framed photos of various family members that hung on her wall. As he looked at each one, he leaned in as if to get a better look, then ran his hand over its surface. Then he moved on to the next photo and did the same thing.

After watching him doing this for a few minutes, Sarah said out loud, “Dad, what are you doing? It’s two in the morning?”

As soon as she said this, her father half turned his face toward her, then turned and bolted out of the room. Sarah was frightened and confused. Why would her father be in her room in the middle of the night? Why was he acting this way, and why did he just run away? She bolted downstairs to her parents’ room, but when she got there she found both of them asleep. Her father wasn’t wearing the shirt she had just seen him in.

Sarah was totally unaware that her mother had seen her doppelgänger walking down the stairs three nights earlier, and yet she too saw a phantom double in the house. How could this be? If the house was haunted, why did the ghost look like family members?


I have a theory about doppelgängers, specifically the type that show up in haunted houses. Spirits need energy to manifest, and they often get it from the living. This is why people often report feeling physically drained after seeing a ghost.

I believe that the doppelgänger Melanie saw used her energy to manifest, and in the process, it unintentionally ‘borrowed’ her memories. This was why it appeared as the image of her daughter. It could have resembled anyone that Melanie knew, but Sarah’s image was probably the strongest in her mind when it pilfered her energy. Likewise, Sarah saw her father because the spirit inadvertently absorbed her memories. When it used her energy to manifest, it took on the appearance of her father.

There are more and more reports of doppelgänger sightings these days. I wonder why. Perhaps the veil between realities is becoming thinner. Or maybe an army of doubles is fleeing their dimension because of some cataclysm that made their world uninhabitable, and now they’re jumping over into ours and replacing us. All I know is that the thought of doppelgängers gives a whole new meaning to the phrase: You look exactly like someone I know! Maybe the person doesn’t really look “exactly” like you or maybe, just maybe, they are “an exact copy” of you, after all. No matter, if anyone asks to introduce you to your look-alike, run – don’t walk! Because if the theories are true and your doppelgänger catches you, you might just disappear into oblivion.


UPDATE: Due to lack of reader interest, this is the final Reality Meets Fiction story by Barry Pirro. Thank you so much for reading!

“Reality Meets Fiction” is a series on non-fiction, real-life stories as experienced through personal accounts and investigations conducted by Barry Pirro, a paranormal investigator known as the Connecticut Ghost Hunter. Barry has over a decade of paranormal investigation experience and shared his stories every 4th Friday of the month from June 2021 to November 2021. To learn more about the Ghost Hunter, visit http://www.connecticutghosthunter.com/.

READERS: Have you ever seen a doppelgänger? If so, tell us about it in the comments. Better yet, write your non-fiction story and send it to us: darksiremag@gmail.com (subject: Doppelgängers). Your story may be picked to appear on our blog as a follow up to Barry’s.

WRITERS: Use Barry’s real-life story to inspire your creativity! Write a story using doppelgängers and then submit it to us for publication consideration at: https://www.darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

As always, thanks for supporting THE DARK SIRE! If you’re not following us, please do. We are on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram under @DarkSireMag. And, of course, you can pick up a digital copy of our issues on the TDS website or paperback copies through AmazonThe Bibliophile Bookstore (Dover, Ohio), and now Poe’s New & Used Bookstore (New Berlin, Pennsylvania).

Take care!

Self-Editing Series: The Different Types of Editing

What is the first thing you need to do once you finish your manuscript? Hint: The answer is not to submit it to all the agents and publishers. Yet.

First, congratulate yourself for reaching “The End.” You should always take the time to celebrate that you accomplished something amazing.

Second, take some time away from your manuscript. You’ve probably worked for weeks or months or even years to finish your work of art. So, it’s time to take a breather. Leave the manuscript untouched for at least a week, maybe even a month.

Once you have distanced yourself from your story, it’s now time to… EDIT. That’s right! Editing is a very important part of the writing process. In fact, a manuscript – though it can be rejected due to subject matter or market value – will be rejected solely due to lack of editing. While writing will never be perfect, it’s important that your craft be presented as best as possible to stand out in the crowd. That’s because authors have a level of professionalism to uphold. This standard is what differentiates an unpublished writer from a published writer.

In today’s publishing market, then, it is more important than ever to send in a polished manuscript. The stronger the manuscript is before it gets to an editor, the better your chances of success.

Types of editing

Editing comes in three forms: developmental, line, and copy editing.

All manuscripts, no matter the length, need all three types of editing throughout the editing process. Even those manuscripts that have been beta read, critiqued, and reviewed multiple times (over and over again!) will still need touch-ups. And it is in your best interest to catch them now – before the publisher sees them.

Let’s break the three types of editing down.

Developmental Editing
The overall editing of the manuscript that examines story, plot, and other story-related elements, such as world building, characterization, and even dialogue.

Developmental edits make sure that your story not only has good pacing, but strong plot, purposeful scenes, relatable characters with powerful arcs, consistent world-building, and so on. If you have beautiful, flowery prose, or strong, succinct lines, that’s wonderful, but if the story itself doesn’t flow, has plot holes, or is a structural nightmare, readers will quickly lose interest in reading and then… will put down the story for another one. Developmental Editing, then, is necessary to make sure that your story is functioning and the powerful pillars of storytelling are in place.

Line Editing
The sentence-level form of editing that examines word choice and sentence structure.

Line edits strives for clarity, so that readers not only understand the author’s intention and character’s emotions but also the story’s tone and mood. Do the sentences make sense to a reader? Did you use the right word for that scene’s mood, or does a different one carry better impact? Or, do you need to make sure that you didn’t use overly long sentences in your fast-paced fight scene? Line Editing is where you can really manipulate the sentence to work hard for the mood, feel, tone, and impact of your manuscript. It’s what makes readers feel the story.

Copy Editing
The nitty-gritty of mechanics that examines grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

This is probably what most people think of when they hear the term “editing.” Copy editing is about checking your story for grammar, spelling, and mechanics (punctuation) issues. For example, you’d check to see if you split an infinitive, used the correct dash (or should it be a hyphen?), and spelled words correctly (color versus colour) according to the English system (American, British, Australian) you chose. Copy Editing, then, is the last phase of editing that fixes the grammar-level issues, spelling errors, and punctuation of your manuscript.

So how do I self-edit my manuscript?

Self-editing takes time and practice because you need to learn how to read your manuscript from a new perspective. When you self-edit, you don’t just read the story from an author’s point-of-view, but, rather, a reader’s point-of-view. Which means: You read it as someone who doesn’t know anything about the story, the world, or the characters. As if you are experiencing it for the first time. And that last sentiment is what makes self-editing difficult – but it can be done!

A few tips:

  • Distance yourself from the manuscript. Give yourself 7-30 days away from the script so you can look at it with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
  • Critique chapter by chapter as if reading for another writer. Forget that this is your work and be as honest as you would be with another writer’s work.
  • Ask questions of the author. Yes, you wrote the story but have a conversation with the author nonetheless. Ask them questions about where the story is going, what isn’t explained yet and why, and what may be hard to understand without background information.
  • Examine word choice. Did you use very, as in very tired? That choice could be stronger, so you’d want to consider exhausted. Look at word choice to select the most impactful words for the mood you’re trying to create.
  • Challenge your sentence structure. Is the sentence you’re reading structured the best way? Is it grammatical, spelled correctly, using correct mechanics? If you need to, study punctuation so you can use it more affectively.

If you are preparing your manuscript for publication, you want to catch as many standout errors as you can. The manuscript doesn’t have to be “perfect,” but it does have to flow easily when read – and make sense with no gaps or holes that confuse the reader. So let’s start learning more about self-editing!

Get ready for our new editing series, where we’ll go deep into self-editing tips and tricks over the next several weeks. Headed by our own editor, Courtney Kelly, the series will walk you through all three levels of editing, complete with examples, explanations, and more. By the end, you’ll have all the skills you need to revise your story into a polished manuscript.

What’s next week’s topic?

Next week we’ll start breaking down some elements of Developmental Editing, starting with the pinnacle of storytelling: Characters! If you have any specific questions about characterization, please let us know in the comments so we can cover it in next week’s post.


Get your manuscript ready!
Editing begins next week.

Tips to Help Survive NaNoWriMo

To all of our writers, it is that time of year, so we have to ask. How is NaNo going? Are you hitting your goals? Or scrambling to catch up? Maybe you are somewhere in between and planning a big sprint this weekend? Or is it already feeling hard to hit your daily goals?

NaNo month, even as just a reader, is one of my favorite times because when I finish whatever book I’m reading I know that somewhere out there… someone—possibly you!—is writing a book that will sweep me away that I can add to my Favorites List.

But what can you do when the initial gale of inspiration fizzles from the daily grind? There are a few options!

(1)Take A Break:

I know it may seem counterproductive to meet your goals by not working, but before you dismiss the idea…

If I’m going to be working for a while at my desk, I’ll end up with that moment (moments really) where I’m wanting to work, and needing to, but nothing is happening. Then, before I know it, I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a minute or two, maybe even five.

That would be the moment I know I need to step away from whatever project I’m working on to give my brain and body some space. Yes, your body needs space too! Move around to get your blood flowing again. Jog in place, or just stretch and wiggle all the stiffness out. (Improved blood flow means your brain is working better!) I also like to leave my tumbler (cup) in the kitchen, so I have no option but to move around. Same with snacks!

Need something with a bit more structure? Did you know you can actually improve your writing word count with timed sprints? Write for 15 minutes, take a 15 minute break… and so on for your writing time. Some writers have delved even deeper into this science to find their own personal Sprint times and Ideal Writing Time during the day.

(2)Set Smaller Goals:

But I have to get to 50k, or 30k, or 90k… That IS the goal. But, those are End Goals. If you feel overwhelmed and stressed out when you think about how many words you have left to write… or if you can tell me the exact word count you HAVE to have daily now to meet your goal because you took a few days off…

Breathe. (That’s important for your health too! )

This tip simply means reward yourself for small goals. Don’t only pat yourself on the back for reaching The End at your chosen word count. If it was your best today to write 50 words, celebrate it. If you set goals to write 500 words in one hour, reward yourself! If I get my required hour of work done (sometimes I work in 30-minute intervals for more mentally taxing projects) I reward myself with half that time to either watch an episode of a comfort sitcom, or leisure-read

(3)Give your File an Unprofessional Name:

Yep, that’s actually writing advice. And it’s for… the Perfectionists. Or, just so you don’t have to stare at “WIP” all the time. NaNo is a challenge simply to get your words written, you do not have to come out of NaNo with a ready to publish novel. So shake that stress off and have fun with your titles! I know many authors who don’t even finish a novel during NaNo, they just designate that time to get a sizable chunk of their manuscript written because they adore the community.

If you already have an amazing title picked out and are having trouble getting the words on the page: There can be a ‘too’ official feeling that comes with it that can psych your brain into thinking you must bleed perfection alone onto the paper. Not so! Whip out your throwaway titles.

Terrible First Draft, Fertilizer (Draft), Version 0

If the title you put so much thought about is keeping your fingers stiff—give it its own file in a pretty font and get back to writing! Dead Draft Walking, Dawn of the Draft, Happy Ever Drafter?

(4)Ambiance!

Music, anyone? It’s one of my favorite ways to find a moment of peace when I am ready to gather my fellowship to cast Baby Shark back into the place from whence it came. And, music can be a good way to hone in your focus. (Someone literally designed video Game Soundtracks to keep your attention. I’ll share my favorite below!)

The right song can just change your day. And, it can help you set your writing mood too!

Pre-Made Options:

Dark Classical Music:

Dark Fantasy Music:
https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1JHNMPqpiB9sxCXuka85XT?si=9afad9235356400c 

And I did promise you one of my favorite things to listen to when I need to focus!

The Elder Scrolls V Original Soundtrack:

Youtube has some great ambiance resources as well! From epic fantasy battle music, to cozy library vibes, all you need to do is search ‘writing ambiance’ and many wonderful youtubers have done the work for you. 😉 That way you aren’t so distracted by finding songs that you forget to write.

A ‘Quick’ Playlist of a few Ambiance videos. (There are over 24 hours on this playlist alone!)

(5) Reach out!

You are not alone in your endeavors. While some people may enjoy being alone, even introverts need a level of social interaction. If you are introverted, find someone non-taxing to reach out to so that you aren’t so alone with all of your regular writer struggles while you take on the amazing challenge that is NaNo! If you are a socializer, enjoy how close technology can bring you. Create your own NaNo Team chat on Facebook or Discord so you’ve got a small group of fellow writers to speak with regularly so you don’t go crazy with yourself in a room alone.

Wherever you are in your goals, I need you to stop and read what I have to say next… It doesn’t matter what genre… whether you are writing slasher horror, literary pieces, fantasy, or something else…

Your story came to you for a reason. Maybe you wanted to scare someone, give them a feel-good escape, or craft a world with the depths of Tolkien, or become the next Mary Shelley. Maybe you just simply wanted to entertain someone for a while. Your creative voice, your ideas, and your dreams are worth it. They are worth being told. And YOU are worth telling them.

Bonus:
What happens if you did all that, and you can just feel in your gut that you don’t have the material to reach that 50k and up goal? We firmly believe that ideas should be expressed at their natural length. So our advice is NOT to force it. There are still readers that want your non-novel length fiction – which includes TDS! If you write gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism in the vein of Poe, Shelley, Tolkien, or Dostoevsky: submit 3 chapters of your novel or full novella to TDS Submissions.


How are you doing with NaNoWriMo? Are you meeting your goals?
Let us know in the comments below!


TDS proudly brings you gothic, horror, fantasy, and psychological realism
from talented creatives. You can order past and current issues
from the TDS Store.

Influences of TDS’ Founding Fathers

Since its inception, TDS has followed in the footsteps of our founding fathers: Edgar Allan Poe (Gothic), Mary Shelley (Horror), J. R. R. Tolkien (Fantasy), and Fyordor Dostoevsky (Psychological Realism). If these literary geniuses and genre pioneers influence TDS and our authors…who inspired them?

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”

― Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is, arguably, known as one of the first writers to dabble in what would become known as the short story. But, who influenced Poe on his path as a poet and author? The most notable of Poe’s influences were Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Poe often mimicked the lyricism of British poet, Coleridge. As a young writer, Poe wrote in Byronic style, inspired by the European poet, Lord Byron. The majority of these poems are considered Romanticism and are not immediately identifiable as Poe’s works, even to devout fans.

In addition, Poe had another well-known influence for his writing and she just so happens to be another of our “founding fathers.” None other than Mary Shelley. Her sole popular poem is said by her biographer to be incorporated directly into Poe’s To One in Paradise. Shelley and Poe also shared a muse in Lord Byron.

“The beginning is always today.”

― Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s own life would have served as enough of an influence to pen horror for most writers. To take it a step further, Frankenstein was inspired by a horrible nightmare she had on holiday with her future husband in The Year Without a Summer (1816).

Certainly these things had an effect on Shelley’s writing, but such writers as Lord Byron, John Milton, and her own father, William Godwin, inspired the First Lady of Horror.

Milton, in particular, had quite an effect on Shelley. His works such as The Modern Prometheus and Paradise Lost explored themes of creation and the fall of man. Themes that are incredibly prevalent in Frankenstein.

“Never laugh at live dragons.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of mythology. He studied Germanic, Celtic, Slavic, Greek, and Finnish folklore and mythology, by which he was heavily influenced.

Tolkien was also famously friends with C.S. Lewis. Both authors influenced and supported each other’s work, their faith an underlying theme of their writing.

Some of Tolkein’s other influences were Beowulf, William Morris’ Roots of the Mountains, as well as novelists and poets Andrew Lang and Edith Nesbit.

“The best way to keep a prisoner from escaping is to make sure he never knows he’s in prison.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was himself inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, though he also gleaned much from Charles Dickens, Pushkin, and Nikolai Gogol. Most notably, Gogol’s short story, The Overcoat.

An interesting influence of Dostoevsky’s came when the writer found himself in exile. In the 1840’s, he began attending meetings held by the Petrashevsky Circle. This group of people became known as “social realists.” Eventually, Dostoevsky found the group to be not political enough, and he joined another group called Speshnev’s Secret Revolutionary Society.

In 1849, both of these groups’ members were arrested and held in a maximum security prison in Serbia. During this time, the only literature Dostoevsky was given access to was the Bible. Like any other writer given only one book, he devoured, dissected, and studied it. Unsurprisingly, this heavily influenced his future works.

With a look into the muses of TDS‘ own influences, we hope you’ve found a few more writers to enjoy and inspire your own works. If you’re an author yourself, be sure to submit your works for consideration. If you’re a reader, check out our current and past issues.


TDS proudly brings you gothic, horror, fantasy, and psychological realism
from talented creatives. You can order past and current issues
from the TDS Store.

TDS Turns Two: An Interview with Founder, Bre Stephens

October 31, 2019, The Dark Sire was born! To celebrate our birthday, the new EIC of TDS, J.L. Vampa, sat down for an interview with our founder, Bre Stephens.

Bre has 13 years of experience as a writer, publisher, educator, literary judge, and editor. She has worked as Editor-in-Chief of a TDS and has taught university composition, technical writing, and creative writing. Bre holds an MA in English and Creative Writing, an M.Ed. in ESL, and a BA in Art History. In her spare time, she loves attending Japanese festivals and learning more about world cultures.

“Give a Voice to the Voiceless.”

-Bre Stephens, TDS Founder

TDS: We’re turning two! Congratulations to you, our founder. Can you tell us a little about what led you to begin a literary magazine, now a journal, especially one such as TDS?

Bre Stephens: While studying for my second masters degree, one of my professors asked the class how we would give back to the writing community. At the time, I didn’t think I could. I mean, I was a graduate student who was a writing professor. I didn’t think there was anything left to do other than write my stories. But then, after searching for publication opportunities, I found a major gap in publishing and became aware of all the censorship that magazines employ. The answer to my professor’s question was clear: Start a magazine that specializes in genre fiction and run it without censorship. To this day – 2.5 years after its creation, TDS has provided opportunities for writers that have given them a voice, which is our motto: “Give a Voice to the Voiceless.” 

TDS: You’ve poured your heart and soul into this phenomenal literary magazine. What are some of your favorite memories with TDS over the last two years?

Bre Stephens: There are literally too many to list, but I’ll try to highlight a few. By Issue 2, TDS was an international magazine – in readership and in represented creatives. I was honored to publish some works that were rejected elsewhere due to censorship; authors told me that it took them, at times, years before finding TDS and getting their voices back. The 1st Annual TDS Creative Awards is a special memory to me because I was able to give back to all my authors; we all had fun and everyone loved the skull trophies. And, I will never forget the joy of working with my authors, sometimes with content or editing, and other times with creative consultations. Most of all, though, my ultimate memory is creating a family, where creatives come together, get support, and are uplifted because we are all TDS Family.

“A magazine that specializes in genre fiction and run it without censorship.”

-Bre Stephens, TDS Founder

TDS: So much has changed for TDS since the inception of your idea and the release of Issue One. Even more has changed recently with a new EIC, a fresh, incredible logo, and more. With a new year and a new era descending upon TDS, what are some of the things you’re looking forward to? 

Bre Stephens: Everything! I know the new EIC is going to be amazing. She’s all about aesthetics and sticking to the original TDS brand. She’s the one who crafted the newest cover and TDS logo. If I had to narrow it down, I’m looking forward to seeing the covers for Issues 10-12, the new TDS Book Boxes, new TDS merchandise (mugs, shirts, mousepads), and a brand-new website that will be for a JOURNAL (not magazine). All of those things are just around the corner.

TDS: What would you say is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned on this journey as founder and editor of TDS?

Bre Stephens: This journey has taught me so much about publishing, genre, and craft of writing. When I first started TDS, I didn’t really know much about the industry; I learned by doing – and making mistakes. Now, I’m a professional in the publishing industry, a literary agent, and an even better editor. All these skills, and my career growth, is directly influenced by my work at TDS. I wouldn’t be where I am today had I not undergone this wonderful adventure.

TDS: TDS has distinct roots in our founding fathers, but what would you say are the three books that most influenced you personally, as both Founder/EIC and in your life?

Bre Stephens: Instead of books, per se, let’s talk genre and specific pieces. Poe was a heavy influence on me as a child. I remember writing like him when I was just 8 and 10 years old. By the time I was a teen, I was crafting short fiction daily in the vein of Poe. A few of his works that are my favorites, and still influence me today, are Tell Tale Heart, Hop-Frog, Fall of the House of Usher, and, my favorite poem of all time, Annabel Lee. Also as a teen, I loved Anne Rice. Her Vampire Chronicles was my bloodline. I combined my love of Poe with the vampires of Rice to create a writing style all my own. To this day, I use that style; though, now, it’s more sophisticated. Put these together and you have the major influencers of TDS. Just add Tolkien for high fantasy and Dostoevsky for psychological realism, and you have the major players needed to create a magazine (nee journal!). 

“My ultimate memory is creating a family, where creatives come together, get support, and are uplifted because we are all TDS Family.”

-Bre Stephens, TDS Founder

TDS: You are an author yourself. What originally sparked your love of writing and editing as well as the desire to champion other authors? 

Bre Stephens: The championing of others comes naturally with my personality. However, championing writers, specifically, comes from my professor’s questions of how I was going to give back to the writing community. With my education and natural energy, I easily became an advocate for the writing community. My love of writing started when I was 6 years old, which is when I wrote my first stage play (5 whole pages!). My 1st grade class had read a play – or maybe discussed plays, and I immediately was interested in writing one. Writing stuck with me from that point. As for editing, I’ve always loved grammar and after studying it when I was earning my undergrad degree, I just fell in love with the process of editing. Add some courses for my second masters degree (in English & Creative Writing) and it was just destiny. 

TDS: When did you know this was a career you wanted to pursue? Has it always been a dream of yours to start a literary journal?

Bre Stephens: I never considered a career in creative writing. My writing is for myself, no publication really needed. However, after about 1.5 of running TDS, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue more seriously. It led me to founding a small press (bscpublishinggroup.com), where uplifting authors is the number one governing rule, and to becoming a literary agent. I am now in the best position to advocate for and uplift writers, making their career goals a reality. I didn’t find the career, the career found me – and I’m glad it did.   

“I didn’t find the career, the career found me – and I’m glad it did. “

-Bre Stephens, TDS Founder

TDS: Since the journal’s inception, you’ve handled everything from submissions, to editing, to publication and event planning. What is your favorite part of working on The Dark Sire?

Bre Stephens: Layout!!! Taking the raw stories and editing them to fit the TDS Style Guide; formatting the pages for consistency; inputting settings; planning the artwork to go with the works accepted for the issue, which includes pairing the artwork with a specific story. All of that would go under publication, of course, but specifically, layout is my favorite – and I’m going to miss it. 

Help TDS celebrate our 2nd birthday by sharing on social media and don’t forget to get your copy of our newest issue, which is Issue 9, and available now!


TDS proudly brings you gothic, horror, fantasy, and psychological realism
from talented creatives. You can order past and current issues
from the TDS Store.

Literature’s Effect on Halloween

Halloween has evolved over the centuries, taking on the skin of the culture around it. In some parts of Europe, All Hallow’s Eve is spent around bonfires sending fireworks up into the sky, though many have ceased celebrating anything but Guy Fawkes’ Day. In Mexico, Latin America, and Spain, Dia de los Muertos marks the day beloved deceased ones return to earth until All Souls’ Day, November 2nd. They spend this time in reflection and honor of the dead with celebrations and gatherings. In North America, we continue to celebrate Halloween much the way it has been since its origin in Ireland. 

The Celtics in the British Isles as early as the 9th century began celebrating their New Year on what they called Samhain. This marked halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, and the end of the harvest season. Because their days began and ended at sunset, the celebrations began at nightfall October 31, and went on until sunset November 1. They celebrated with bonfires and feasts and even such things as bobbing for fruit. However, much like in Latin America, the Celts believed that the doorways between worlds grew thin on that eve, and the dead could break through to mingle with the living.

With this fear, the Celts believed they could ward off evil by lighting bonfires, carving scary faces into gourds and pumpkins that they’d carved the center out of and placing a candle inside, and by wearing spooky masks. With the history of Halloween, it’s easy to see where our North American traditions come from. But how has literature affected our ways of celebrating?

We must first begin with the classics. Books like Dracula by Bram Stoker and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as well as the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe are clear influences of our view on Halloween. Anything spooky, horrific, or bone-chilling became something reserved for the scariest night of the year. With such works, we began to associate the macabre with fright night, dressing up as–you guessed it–Dracula and Frankenstein, and decorating with Mr. Poe’s raven.

The gothic aspect of these works drove North America into proverbial fog-laden cemeteries infested with bats and creaking coffins, clanking skeleton bones as their symphony. The Eve no longer held only candy and bobbing for apples, but a deep dive into the macabre. The populace looked for Victor Frankenstein’s monster lurking behind the tombstones, Dracula’s bloodlust haunting them from behind their neighbor’s door, and all the while Poe’s raven would quoth nevermore.

As time progressed, slightly more terrifying works began showing up in literature. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving to name a few. Literature slipped further into the darkness and so did Halloween. With the rise of all-out horror works such as Stephen King’s It, and The Shining, Halloween began incorporating more and more ways to scare ourselves and our friends. Instead of an eve that we scare away the things that go bump in the night, we began to welcome them in.

Many of the aforementioned great works were even made into horror movies now distinctly watched on Halloween. The famed store that haunts your local abandoned warehouse, Spirit Halloween, even boasts a curtained side filled with the terrors that come alive from these books. Clowns with knives, decrepit goblins, bloodied haunting children, and all the goodies to make fright night more eerie such as faux blood, chains, and rusted axes.

We’ve traveled a dark road since the Celts feared the land of the dead would bleed into the land of the living. Certainly there is still a place for that bucket of water with apples bobbing up like the dead, the trick-or-treating, and sweet pumpkin costumes. But there is no denying the effect gothic, horror, and psychological realism literature has had on the way we celebrate Halloween.

Spirit Photography: Hoax or Reality?

Spirit Photography, or the capturing of a spirit on film, first became known in the 1850’s and 60’s with the rise of photography in general. As more individuals gained access to cameras, as well as the means to sit for photographers, the greater chance there was to witness spirits of the dead or supernatural beings captured on film. At least, that’s what photographers like William H. Mumler would wish us to believe.

Mumler was among the first to see spirits lurking in his freshly developed photos. Allegedly, after sitting for a self portrait and developing the film, Mumler noticed an otherworldly image hovering behind him. Assuming it was merely his inattention to detail and the result of not properly cleaning his lens, Mumler sat for the photo again. After development, the figure appeared once more and Mumler claimed it was the spirit of a deceased cousin of his.

With this newfound ability of his, or his camera, Mumler became the first to turn such a gift into a well-oiled, lucrative business, photographing multitudes of people with the spirits of their loves ones. That is, until P.T. Barnum sat for Mumler just after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Lo and behold, the president’s spirit haunted Barnum’s sitting, appearing behind the circus tycoon in his photo. As it turns out, the self-acclaimed trickster of all tricksters simply enjoyed a good humbug and wanted to see if Mr. William H. Mumler and his medium wife were the real deal.

When Mumler was charged with fraud, Barnum was called as a witness as, according to Oxford University Press papers, an expert on “humbuggery.” Upon reciting his encounter with the spirit photographer, Barnum admitted that he saw the process and even examined the glass himself. Nothing was out of the ordinary, and Lincoln’s ghost appeared as soon as the photo was developed in the dark room. Regardless, Barnum claimed it all to be a hoax. Other spiritualists came forward in Mumler’s defense, claiming their deceased loved ones had truly been there and Mumler had captured them. More skeptics came forward claiming to have seen some of the ghosts in Mumler’s stills walking the streets in living color, alive and well. Ultimately, the court found no true evidence of Mumler’s supposed fraud and he was acquitted. However, his career as a Spirit Photographer was over.

Many skeptics claim that spirit photography is simply a trick of the light, or the result of budding photographic techniques of that day and age. Two methods often blamed for hoodwinking the general public are Double Exposure and Stereoscopic Illusion.

Double Exposure. For an explanation of this technique, we must first understand that in the early days of photography, exposure time was 20-40 minutes at the very least. This means the subject(s) had to remain as perfectly still as possible, lest their image appear blurry. Therefore, if a subject, say, rose from their seat and moved to another, their image would appear twice in the final shot, most assuredly a little blurry at the edges and rather translucent. This effect would also occur if someone shrouded in white linens jumped in the frame for a moment and then jumped back out. This effect can also be achieved post-shooting in the dark room. This is a delicate process, but the layman’s gist is that the photographer essentially sandwiches two negatives together and exposes them for longer than a single-negative image. 

In our day and age, it is commonplace to shoot double exposure, or manipulate it easily within moments using editing software like PhotoShop. To show how easily this can be accomplished, I created this graphic in about five minutes’ time.

Another technique often used was stereoscopic illusion. 

Stereoscopic Illusion creates depth in an image by moving the subject ever so slightly. The brain combines the two (or more) images to create depth. Again, anything recorded with movement during a long exposure time would appear transparent and ethereal.

We can all see where the skeptics are coming from now, yes? But let’s take a journey with the believers…

To delve deeper, we must traverse the difference between Spirit Photography and Ghost Photography. Spirit Photography is when an individual, or individuals, sits for a photo, specifically waiting to see the spirit of one of their loved ones. Ghost Photography occurs when a photo is taken without knowledge of a spirit’s presence and that spirit is only visible on the film or digital camera after the fact.

Here are some of the greatest, inexplicable ghost photographs from the ages between Humbuggery and PhotoShop. 

In 1919 Sir Victor Goddard’s RAF squadron encountered a recently deceased air mechanic, Freddy Jackson, who died two days prior.

In 1963, The Spectre of Newby Church absolutely shattered the conceivable. Reverend K.F. Lord was particularly fond of the altar area of his church and snapped a photograph of it, along with several others detailing the interior of the building. Upon developing the film, the reverend was flabbergasted to find a blurred figure ascending the steps.

Many believe this to be a hoax because the figure is somewhat posed. However, as he claims, the reverend was entirely alone in the church when the photograph was taken. No double exposure was used, and, allegedly, the photos were developed by no one with means to tamper with it. When skeptics came forward, the reverend, guarding his reputation, sent the photo off to scientific experts. The report came back stating that, though the figure in the photo was perfectly poised on the steps and looking at the camera, it was nine feet tall and the photo had not, in any way, been tampered with by any means.

On August 17, 1997, a loving granddaughter, Denice Russell, snapped a photo of her grandmother as they visited that afternoon. Prints were made and almost everyone in the family had the photo of Grandma. It wasn’t until they all sat around one Christmas three years later, looking at old photos, that someone noticed a foggy shape of a man behind her head. The family immediately stated it was the exact representation of their grandfather who had died in 1984.

There is also a distinct case that occurred in Manila in the early 2000’s.  Two young girls in the Philippines posed for a photo, not sensing anything out of the ordinary. When the photo popped up on the screen of their digital camera, the ghostly image of a third person could be seen holding onto one of the young women. They have absolutely no explanation for this occurrence.

There are all kinds of theories and camera tricks, but what do you think? Can film truly capture the spirits of the dead, or is it all a hoax? Leave us a comment with your thoughts.


READERS: Do you have a paranormal true story to share with us? We’d love to read it and maybe even publish it on our blog. Send your non-fiction story to: eic.tds@gmail.com (Subject: Non-Fiction Paranormal Story).

CREATIVES: Did this article inspire your paranormal storytelling? Please write that short story, craft that poem, paint that picture, and then submit it to us for publication consideration: https://www.darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

As always, thanks for supporting THE DARK SIRE! If you’re not following us, please do. We are on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram under @darksiremag. And, of course, you can pick up a digital copy of our issues on the TDS website or paperback copies through AmazonThe Bibliophile Bookstore (Dover, Ohio), and now Poe’s New & Used Bookstore (New Berlin, Pennsylvania).