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The Creative Nook with Logan McConnell

SHOULD I SCREAM? by Logan McConnell appeared in The Dark Forest on April 13. I loved the exquisite and poignant twist of this story’s climax. Thankfully, Logan was willing to speak with me in a more in-depth interview. I learned so much more about this fascinating and amazing author.


TDS: Do you remember the moment when you wanted to become a writer? Did a particular book, movie, or experience inspire you?

Logan McConnell: I don’t have one specific moment. I loved reading as a kid, and writing my own stories felt natural. There was no particular book or movie; it was the act of reading itself that inspired me to write. In some ways I think of reading and writing as two sides of the same coin.

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

Logan McConnell: Horror takes all the things you were told to avoid in life (murder, violence, death, monsters, danger) and puts those all in one place for you to experience at a safe distance. I think we all have a morbid curiosity, and horror fiction presents these themes in a way to satisfy our curiosity, sometimes with a visceral reaction, without overwhelming us like the real experience would. That is what attracted me to horror.

For books, I’ve always liked the classics: Dracula, Frankenstein, Shirley Jackson, and Edgar Allan Poe. Other contemporary short story horror authors: Thomas Ligotti, Christopher Slatsky, and Philip Fracassi.

Honestly, no horror movies inspire me. I do not enjoy most horror movies. That said, there are movies that are not labeled horror that still terrify me and served as inspiration for my stories. Those include Being John Malkovich, Requiem for a Dream, and anything by David Lynch.

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

Logan McConnell: Logistics. As a writer I enjoy coming up with a premise and a powerful ending, but hammering out the details, such as how the character gets from the start to the end of the story and making sure there are no plot holes, is a challenge. Even having a character walk from one end of a hall to another can be more challenging than writing their abstract thoughts. Writing the stage direction of characters is a weakness I’m still working on improving.

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

Logan McConnell: When you finish a first draft, put it away for a long time, at least 2 weeks for short stories. Then come back to it. You’ll see your own writing with a fresh pair of eyes that helps you polish the story in a way you couldn’t have done immediately after finishing your first draft.

I will also give a shout out to two books that have immensely helped my writing: On Writing, by Stephen King, great for writing any genre of fiction, and Writing in the Dark by Tim Waggoner, essential for any beginning horror writer.

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

Logan McConnell: One belief that drives my writing is to find some universal notion (existential dread, identity crisis, loneliness in a crowd, questioning the existence of God or free will) and turn those abstract experiences into stories that will resonate with people now and in the future. That is the one belief I try to adhere to for every story I write. That is why I will never reference political beliefs (may exclude some readers) or mention pop culture (may not be relatable in the future). We’re all suffering in some way, and I aim to write a story that can touch as many readers as possible.    

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

Logan McConnell: Yes, I very much believe in writer’s block. When I have time to write but can’t decide what, I’ll open a blank word doc and write the first sentence that comes to mind. I never know where the sentence will lead, but if I write four or five beginning sentences with an unusual premise, one is bound to inspire my imagination, and I go where the story takes me. That is how I try to beat writer’s block.

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

Logan McConnell: Running and hiking. Especially hiking in forests. Sometimes when I’m burned out from writing or my day job, I’ll go on a hike with my fiancé to clear my head.

TDS: Thank you so much for your time. One last question: Do you have anything new you’re working on right now? Would you like to give us a teaser? 

Logan McConnell: I always have four to six short stories ready to submit; it’s just a matter of finding a good home for them. I don’t want to give away what they are about, so I’ll just list one word from each story:

                Decapitated. Stalked. Glutton. Shrink. Forever. Dolls.

Also, I can be found on twitter, where I’ll tweet/ celebrate any time a story of mine is accepted and published.


Logan McConnell is a 30-year-old health care worker. He is a lifelong reader but is new to writing fiction. He has upcoming short stories for the webzines Schlock! and Yellow Mama. He is influenced by the works of Mary Shelley, Octavia E. Butler, and Thomas Ligotti. He currently lives with his boyfriend in Tennessee. To connect with Logan McConnell, find him on Twitter (@LMwriter91).


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.


Featured Author: Logan McConnell

The sunrays were so intense they stung the farmer’s eyes, and for moments the daylight was as blinding as pitch black. Long sleeves and a wide brim hat shielded his skin from the brutal sun, growing wet and sticky with sweat by noon. Looking out on land this flat and remote, the farmer felt abandoned and isolated. Nobody to threaten him, nobody to aid him. He toiled alone.

The farmer caught sight of nothing but his home, which was really a large gardening shed, and land that disappeared beyond the horizon, dipped beneath the curvature of the planet. That and haze from suffocating heat that had lingered for days.

Only a week ago, the farmer had collapsed from a heat stroke, later waking up face down in the dirt, stinging with sunburn. He was naked with no memory of removing his clothes. Delirious ramblings had wheezed out through his cracked lips. He used his remaining strength to crawl to the water pump to avoid death. Never again. Never again would he allow that to happen, and he wouldn’t begin farming without being fully hydrated and protected from the sun.

He wiped sweat from his brow and pondered how farming provided a precarious kind of freedom that only seemed glamorous until you tasted it. Until he actually started farming, he couldn’t fathom the crushing hardship of watching his plants wither. Now it’s all he knew. These barley-living plants haunted him night and day.

Dull. That’s what his crops were. Dull green, bordering on brown colored, languishing in the hardening dirt. A few were bright green though, managing to look healthy. He felt a kinship with the vibrant hue, as if nature noticed and appreciated his hard work.

He crouched down to hold one of the few green leaves between his fingers, the reedy texture, so different from the unhealthy flaky crackle of the other plants, could be felt through his thick gardening gloves. The farmer tugged upwards a little on the stem and saw…white. White. That shouldn’t be. He wasn’t growing anything white. He yanked a little harder, lifting up the plant to reveal that the stem and roots were made of something round with firm turgor pressure. This was soft, fresh bone. 

When he pressed a finger on the surface he created an indent that popped back into position. He pulled the plant all the way out of the ground to come face to face with a human-like skull, with the start of a spine growing at the base, three vertebrae long. People were forming under the soil.

He plopped the skull in his hand, brushed off dirt around the eye sockets and teeth, and swished his own tongue around his gums, as if he too had dirt in his mouth. Squeezing the skull again, his stomach churned as he watched the skull squish in his hand. The farmer shut his eyes and shuddered.

Underneath his boots could be others. This field, that he thought held feeble produce, may very well contain hundreds of corpses forming in the earth, ready to be born in graves. Questions swirled in his mind, too quickly for his attention to seize just one, and he became dizzy with dread.

One question finally settled in the forefront of his mind. Not how this happened, or why, but what would these appear as when ripe in the autumn. Skeletons need skin, and there was no guarantee the bones would grow an outer layer of human flesh. Or that the bodies would be adorned by nature with human souls.

The farmer grabbed the nearest leaves and pulled again, revealing a second skull. Then a third. After ten different samples from random spots in the field he feared this was the entirety of the farm. His knees buckled and his body lowered until he stopped himself from sitting on the ground, disgusted by the thought of brushing up against the crowns of these crops.

While the farmer had slept these past summer nights, an evil something must have floated over his farm —his livelihood— and tainted it with a touch of grotesque ingenuity, warping the terrain he thought he had understood so well. That had to be the origin of this nightmare. The farmer slowly stumbled away from the plants, as if the dozens of heads would worm their way out to writhe and mew the second the air hit their faces, biting through his boots in a confused, newborn-like anguish. 

Possible that this was another heat stroke, another assault on his mind from the unforgiving sun and he simply needed shelter. His home was a hundred yards away. So he walked, then jogged, then ran, putting as much distance between himself and the macabre roots as he could.

At the water pump, through slurps of water, he found no clarity as to what was happening. He turned his back on the skulls he had unearthed, still resting right where he left them. After more sips of water, he marched up to his shed, went inside and shut the door behind him.

Finally in shade, he bowed his head, took long, deep breaths, and listened to his speeding heartbeat begin to slow. When he looked back up he gasped, his heart once again pounding in his chest. He saw, through the window, a crowd of people, maybe twenty, walking to his shed. In the heat they undulated like a mirage. They were not. They were very much real, and getting closer.

All the men were bearded and wore identical clothes: white shirts, black pants, and suspenders. The women wore plain dresses with muted colors. They had the same grim expression he possessed in the morning when he began the laborious duties for the day.

These could be the monsters who contaminated his farm with evil for their own, unknown purpose. These could also be helpful strangers, Good Samaritans who have come to aid him. Either way, they were coming to his shed. Escape was impossible. The farmer straightened his back, clenched his hands into fists, and stepped outside to face them.

The horde of people dropped to the ground in terror. Some cried out. Some turned away. Each one cowered at the sight of him, swung their arms up and covered their ears, hands pressed so tight their arms trembled.

“How?” one of the women cried, “how did the mandrake get himself out?”

Mandrake?

“Cover your ears!” yelled a man.

Why?

The crowd slowly backed away, but the farmer walked after them and they froze. He opened his mouth, but no words came out, just garbled gibberish. He hadn’t spoken to a person since… since… he couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember seeing a person before, or what exactly it was that he thought was growing on his farm, or how long he’d been there. Really nothing before the heat stroke when he woke up in a daze.

The farmer wanted to talk to the terrified people but more disjointed grunts came out, his face twisted in frustration. He locked eyes with the husband and wife who led the group.

“You woke up too early,” the husband said, not taking his hands away from his ears. “You’re a mandrake. We grow you and collect your roots. You… you weren’t supposed to wake up yet.”

The farmer looked down and slowly pulled one glove off, peeking at his skin. Brown and course, not soft like the flesh on these frightened faces. Last week there was no heat stroke, that was his birth. All thoughts after that were wishful thinking. Born to be uprooted, killed before a chance to scream. A life seconds long. He was the evil something.

The wife turned to the crowd. “It thinks it’s people.”

But I am. I’m a farmer. 

“It thinks it lives in the tool shed.”

I do. This is my home.

The husband eyed the mandrake. “Can it understand us?”

Stop calling me ‘it’! The mandrake tried to respond but only muttered incoherent murmurs.

Again, everyone pressed their hands to their ears. The wife whispered to her husband, “if it screams…”

The wife didn’t need to finish, the mandrake understood. His screams killed. He covered his bare hand again, and pressed his gloved palms up to his forehead, shaking, now feeling stems where his hair should be.

The husband pulled a knife out from his pocket.

What are you doing? Don’t hurt me!

The husband crept closer, pointing his blade at the mandrake’s throat.

Should I scream?

Other members of the crowd took out weapons.

Don’t make me scream!

The wife clasped her hands together. “Kill it!”

The mandrake tilted his head back, filled his lungs with air and emitted a piercing cry. The echo of his own scream reverberated for miles as bodies struck the ground.


Logan McConnell is a health care worker. He is a lifelong reader and new to writing fiction. He has upcoming short stories for the webzines Schlock! and Yellow Mama. He is influenced by the works of Mary Shelley, Octavia E. Butler, and Thomas Ligotti. He currently lives with his boyfriend in Tennessee. To keep up with Logan, follow him on Twitter.

FEATURED EXTRA!

We loved SHOULD I SCREAM? and had to know more about the story and its creator. So, we asked Logan McConnell some quick questions to learn more about his writing and creative process.

TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?

Logan McConnell: Skulls. I was coming up with ideas for a story premise, and the image of a skull popped into my head. I knew I wanted a story where multiple skulls were featured. 

TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this story?

Logan McConnell: I came up with the first half of this story spontaneously, but I didn’t know the ending when I started Should I Scream? When I got half-way through, I took a break and spent hours thinking of the most obvious/likely endings, then ruling them out. I wanted something unexpected, and eventually came up with an ending I liked. 

TDS: Who influenced you as a writer?

Logan McConnell: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladamir Nabokov are my two favorite authors. I discovered them in high school and have been reading them ever since. They aren’t horror writers, but they do explore the darker side of human nature using creative narratives. 

As far as horror influences, I would list Mary Shelly and Thomas Ligotti. I think Shelly tapped into the relationship of man/monster really well in her writing, and I admire Ligotti’s creative out-of-the-box thinking in crafting stories.


What do you think of Logan McConnell’s story? Let us know in the comments below. And… If you want to learn more about Logan’s writing process and other works, be sure to come back to The Dark Forest on April 16 at 11:00 AM (EST) to read a more extensive interview with him.


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to SUBMIT to us.


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.


Featured Author: Samir Sirk Morató

You have always been close to your youngest sister. Whether that is through love or duty is questionable, but the closeness itself cannot be denied. As the eldest, it was you who pressed balls of pemmican into her maw during the wintertime, you who let her watch the pouring of lead into blinding bullet crucibles during summer, you who cleaved her favorite hound’s skull in half with an ax when he began slavering and staggering in the spring.

            Your mother made Carolina, but make no mistake: you crafted her. Not the plump, melancholic woman who thrust Carolina’s care upon you so she could tend to the six other children and the farm. Not the sow who rolls over for men’s advances between waves of sorrow and deep pits of torpor. Not the soiled damsel who wallpapered your father’s darker skin on you in the womb, then took it as proof you are a caretaker, or a grown thing in a girl-body.

            Though eleven-year-old Carolina lies in a coffin two feet beneath the brittle soil, you tend to her still. Is that not devotion rivaling love?

            You run short of breath as you lug a water pail across the yard. The sunbeams that stroke your sweaty locks and thinning, trembling hands are almost autumnal in their capacity for coolness, for bloodletting life while they pretend to grant it. It’s strange to feel their sucking warmth in early winter, when death has already homed itself in the landscape. Your lungs seize. You set your pail on the frosty mud.

            When you cough into your handkerchief, no pearly molars come this time. No blood—though there is never blood. Despite what your watching mother fears, despite all the moments she spends searching your handkerchiefs for red splotches, no tuberculosis afflicts you. You feel her gaze as you seize the pail again, as you limp another half of the yard before you must begin your coughing anew.

            It takes grace not to smile at your mother with the handful of teeth you have left. You sense her presence in the window of your crooked, creaking miscarriage of a home. Newborn guilt grants you restraint. After all your shared loss, it is difficult to continue despising the woman before you. She cannot escape the purgatory she knows she inhabits. That is a punishment greater than anything you could inflict. Forgiveness still stays difficult. Fondness, too.

            I am not sick, you want to tell her. I am paying penance for my sin of destroying you. You taught me to do that.

            But the doughy figure in the window won’t understand. She and the youthful ghosts of her that live alongside you in the house fear everything beyond death. They creep about the topics like rats clinging to walls. No practicality guides them. Not the way it guides you. You tip your gaunt chin up in pride, heft the pail up a final time, and stagger to the doorstep.

            Take heart! your posture cries, even as your waning skin and waxing skeleton urges terror into your siblings’ hearts. Persist! you cry to your mother, while your waning strength sets her to crying into dinner’s soup. She flees to her slender bedroom. The children finish eating before they scatter into the pine-board shadows.

            It’s a shame that you cannot tell your family what choice you have shouldered for them. Still, in your heart of hearts, you know this is a choice for you, too. The cure for your devotion would be unthinkable: an exhumation of Carolina’s grave, the burning of her heart and liver, a tonic of organ ashes funneled into your esophagus. The conjoining of your bodies even as you lost your sister forever.

            Settler medicine, your father would say. Whether he would help the doctor pry open your jaws or fistfight the man to prevent that, you don’t know. He has gone too. The sole person to return to you is Carolina.

            Maybe out of duty. Maybe out of love.

            She comes at night.

            She always comes at night, ravenous for care. You hear her nails scraping at the clay seams of your room walls. The three children in your room murmur restlessly in their sleep. Darkness adorns every crevice of your room, of the mattress, of the spider and thatch-cluttered ceiling that strains beneath the roof’s tomb of snow. The scratching at the windowsill belongs to this darkness. You gnaw your chapped lip as surprise strikes you alongside tired dread. She came last night. Why has she come again so soon?

            The scratching at the window latch starts inscribing nightmares in your other siblings’ dreams, so you resolve to stop it. “Come in,” you mutter, despite the exhaustion corroding your bones. You are not sure if you speak aloud or not. Your words sound in the paralytic space of the night where sleepwalkers live.

            The window creaks open in sound alone.

            Carolina’s outline scrambles through the window in a flurry of knees, lacerated palms, and torn shifts. No chill accompanies her. Though her outline is not the fat of her, you recognize it. The gaunt, heart face is hers. The knobbly elbows. The twisted back. The coils of black hair, coarse with corpse grease and lack of combing. This sister shade slinks from the windowsill on all fours and clambers to your bedside. She kneads her claws into your quilt. Presses her torn cheek to a paisley drunkard’s path. Her bead pupils devour you.

            “Lucy,” Carolina trills. “I’m cold. Can I sleep with you?”

            Her voice, too, is hers, if choked by curdled blood. It succeeds in closing your throat. She is gone, but you haven’t lost your little sister to eternity. Not the way you lost your father, or how the others lost Carolina. Her presence nearly empties the well of tears inside you.

            “Yes, Lina,” you say. “Come here.”

            She does not wait for your pat on the bedspread to invite herself in. Carolina wiggles into the snarl of covers headfirst, seeking the warmth of your side. The dirty soles of her feet glint at the ceiling. Her leather boots shoe her corpse, but her hungry outline rid itself of them months ago. It doesn’t need them.

            You drive an arm into your covers, pinning a fold of quilt beneath your side. Carolina whines in disappointment when her face does not meet the velvet curve of your armpit. She kicks her feet, settling close, like a dog. You wait for her chin to prick your breast. No pulse tints her veins.

            “You’re back early,” you say. You swallow every fearful second that you behold your sister in the murk, hoping to store this glittery etching of her deep in the cellar of your memories, a place where it can cure with all of Father’s pemmican and recollections of dressing her as a baby. An untouchable store. If you are to feed her, she must also feed you.

            “I got hungry.” Carolina chews at a sprig of yarn on the quilt. Stale blood stains her mouth. Rings her collar. “How’s Mother?”

            “She’s the same. Still sinking in and out of herself. Still messing with men she shouldn’t. She misses you terribly.”

            “Mm,” Carolina says. “That’s good. I’d be devastated if she didn’t. And nôhtâwiy?”

            “Father’s ceased coming around. Grief over giving you his sickness brought him low. Or… tuberculosis has.”

            “Terrible. I’ve missed him.” She sighs.

            Carolina’s breath is rich. A combination of moldering pine needles, fermented lung blood, and moist particles of throat. It twists your innards in remembrance. You hewed the pine boards for her coffin, after all. Emptied her chamber pot of retched blood when Mother couldn’t bear to.

            Your siblings twitch in their cots around you, unaware, distorted larvae in differing stages of growth with some of your features baked into their faces. White maggots that writhed out of your mother’s body. The half-fond leeches in your care. They don’t deserve to see Carolina; it is imperative they don’t. Their need for care kept you from boarding school. They fill you with pitying hatred.

            Carolina’s broken claws tug at your quilt.

            “I’m hungry,” she says.

            “Not yet.” Desperation cleaves you open. Her impatience has doubled. You feign an older sibling’s annoyance, swatting away her decay-softened hand. “I want to talk more.”

            Carolina grunts.

            Concern tightens its snare about your neck. Rage, too. The girl who read you fragments from Father’s English primer, who talked for hours on end until Mother despaired, is fast vanishing into this shimmery, offal gilded sketch. This beast who cannot entreat or jest—only eat. Fury commands you to grab her by the bonnet, to tear out her hair pins and tamp coins into her eye sockets and hurl her onto the yard, mewling, by her scruff and spine. That hungry gaze will bother you no more.

            Yet whenever you look again, you see the sister who clung to your leg as a toddler, who stole your maple syrup candies as a child, taught you to read several letters, declared you her favorite over Father, shared a handful of his words with you. Your heart caves beneath the weight of these memories. Your anger ebbs.

            Carolina runs her tongue across her shattered palisade of teeth. Her skin clothes her skull as dun muslin, fabric that has long forgotten its orange undertones. One of her hands finds yours above the quilt. Her digits have bloated into imitations of your mother’s, but necrosis has hardened her fingers into withered, purple tips. She is, at once, viscera sap and bone. A wispy nightmare. Another draft whistles through the house.

            “What do you want to talk about?” she says.

            “Mother,” you say.

            Carolina’s not-body settles against you.

            “What of her?”

            Carolina’s outline hasn’t reckoned with the devastation rot has brought upon her corpse, but she has changed. Tendrils of rot have spread her preteen body in a mimicry of maturation. Her thighs and arms have thickened, brimming with cities of little live things forbidden to appear in the outline; her belly hangs pregnant with gasses. Death’s doing. He stole her maidenhood in every way possible.

            Though you fed Carolina yesterday, her gums are already receding again, her widow’s peak sharpening, her sinews creaking in anguish.

            “I fear I’m being too hard on her,” you say, pinning your arm over the quilt more tightly as Carolina tries to tug it free. “She’s been plagued by demons most of her life, and they worsened while she carried me. Something about my birth loosened her grip on their collars. I’ve realized this after watching her grieve. She’s incapable of caring for herself. That is why she almost sent me away.”

            Carolina’s knee prods your calf. She gulps in your heartbeat. Fans her filthy hair across your chest in an attempt to hide her impatient wiggling. You dwarf her. The blood between you ties you together less than proximity.

            “Perhaps my hatred of her is misplaced,” you murmur. “Do you think so?”

            Carolina shrugs.

            “You used to voice many, many theories about the source of Mother’s sickness.” You try again, doubt consuming you. Where has Carolina’s passion gone? “You defended her, Lina, even if I didn’t listen. Surely you have something to say now.”

            “Don’t really,” Carolina says. “Mother got eaten by the imps she birthed alongside all of us. Erred and let us suck her brains and happiness out of her breasts. Hate her or love her, it doesn’t matter: she’s gone. Just a shell. The way you’d be if she had sent you to Carlisle.”

            “It’s naught but a school, Lina.”

            “It’s naught but a coffin.”

            “At least if she’d have sent me there,” you say, nauseated by the knowledge in her voice, “I would have known she thought I needed care.”

            “They would’ve cared for you as death did for me.”

Carolina—tender, sharp, unblinking Carolina—tugs at the quilt once more.

            “Hungry,” she gurgles. “Hungry.”

            Despair braids with your resentment. Carolina’s translucent hands snag at your wrist and your bicep. The others roil in their beds, still more your children than your mother’s, and the unfairness of your constant giving wrings you in half. Pain sits copper-heavy in your mouth. Did your mother intend on making a revenant of you too? All the hatred you fend off in the daylight comes easily in the dark. The promise of agency burns your palms.

            “Nisîmis,” you say, “make me a promise.”

            Carolina’s nails pierce the quilt.

            “About what?”

            Her words hiss free from a blend of collapsed lung and loam, though neither weighs her body constellations. Your sister putrefies cleanly. Saline wets the corner of your eyes. It is unfair that you are both half-made things: conqueror and conquered, monster and child, daughter and mother, undead and unalive. No wretched pioneer parent can fix you.

            “Promise me, Lina,” you say, “that you will feed from Mother next time. So she finally nurses you when it matters.”

            Carolina laughs. It is an echo of you. Mother could never laugh like this. Broken pride clutters your chest until you cannot breathe.

            “Anything for you, nimis.” Desire animates Carolina’s dead gaze. “But it’s not next time now. Lucy. Hungry.”

            If you feel guiltless, if you feel nothing at all, have you really committed a transgression? Have you done anything? You are a brittle collection of fifteen years and paltry pounds of muscle when Carolina yanks at the quilt again. Everything begins sliding away from you.

            This detachment must be victory.

            It is duty, not love, that leads you to unbar your arm from the quilt. Carolina burrows into your armpit, hissing in pleasure. The November night clenches your heart. Jagged teeth find the familiar, bruised circle of skin beneath your arm that they love—your witch mark. But you are no foul witch nursing her familiar. You are an eldest daughter committed to the holy practice of tending to your family. This is dutiful and good and natural.

            Carolina’s fingertips graze your ribs. Your jaw clenches.

            Her fangs slice through your nightshirt. They do not touch you at all. You flinch. Life waterfalls out of you into Carolina’s lapping mouth. No blood. There is never blood. Carolina drinks spiritual marrow. Star clusters lace your vision while you stare at the ceiling, paralyzed, skin sallowing, strength fading, muscles weakening. Carolina croons the way she did as a babe. The frost laden grass outside shudders in its casing.

            Two miles away, past chilled fields, barren brier thickets, falling fences, and crisscrosses of rutted dirt roads, Carolina’s cadaver writhes in its coffin. She kicks at the sagging ceiling in joy, reinforcing the earthen crust of armor above her legs. Fresh blood leaks from her pores. She fattens. Seeps. Your calves spasm at the thought of flesh Lina feeding. You washed that body, dressed her, sewed her in a sheet, encased her in wood, put her away. More than ever, she is of you now.

            Carolina imbibes the invisible lining of your liver. You think of your mother weakening in mind and body as she nursed you. Shameful empathy cuts you.

            “Enough!” You gasp, shoving the crown of Carolina’s moldering head away. Your breath comes in rattles. “No more, Lina! Stop!”

            Carolina withdraws. She sits back on her heels and her tattered pile of dress layers. Wipes her mouth. A strand of spit snaps beneath her wrist. She slides that spittle-glossed hand atop your seizing one. Her visage smiles at you in the murk, bright with borrowed life, her eyes sunken, her skin ashen. The children shiver.

            “Kisâkihitin, Lucy,” your sister says.

            The potential that she means it kills you.

            Carolina’s small figure fills your vision as it clambers out the window, heading for the woods that separate your home and her grave: the mistletoe-lumped hickory trees, the frozen ropes of poison oak, the slender grove of chestnuts wheezing beneath blight. A world of beautiful parasites you both learned of together.

            Lina latches the ghost window behind her to prevent other starved things from creeping towards the rotting, weakening Host of your body. Tomorrow, you think, wheezing, she will sup from Mother.

            Maybe out of duty.

            Maybe out of love.


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.

FEATURED EXTRA!

We loved STAND NOT AT YOUR GRAVE so much that we had to interview the talented Samir Sirk Morató to learn more about their inspirations for this story and who has influenced their writing.

TDS: What was your inspiration for writing this piece?

Samir Sirk Morató: “Stand Not At Your Grave” is inspired by Mercy Brown, a teenager whose ritual exhumation was one of the New England vampire panic’s most famous cases. Mercy was a nineteen-year-old who lost her mother and sister to tuberculosis before following in their footsteps, yet due to coincidence, ignorance, and superstition, her town labeled her a vampire. Mercy’s older brother Edgar – the last tuberculosis-afflicted Brown child left – consumed a tonic made of her cremated liver and heart in an effort to break his sister’s purported spell on him. He died two months later.

There’s something terrible and intimate about the concept of consuming a sibling’s organs to survive, especially if you consider the old belief of one’s soul being in their blood, and the vampire’s tendency to pray on their family once reanimated. The questions of what hungry intimacy (or lack thereof) would lead someone to protect their sibling’s remains sparked the creation of this story.

TDS: What was the writing process you used when creating this story?

Samir Sirk Morató: I’m a planner, so I wrote an outline detailing scene breakdowns and emotional beats before going back and filling in details. Then I wrote out any dialogue exchanges and key moments that I could visualize regardless of when they happened in the plot. After I had the rough draft of this story written, I spent time considering its themes and incomplete character interactions, then went back and added in details related to the new development I was thinking of. There was a lot of rinse and repeat here, but it kept me organized, thinking, and excited to finish writing, which is the most I can ask for.

TDS: Who has influenced you as a writer?

Samir Sirk Morató: R.L. Stine, Susan Power, and Dario Argento have all influenced me. I also want to give credit to the scriptwriters of all the schlocky horror movies I consumed as a kid. I would not be the same without having watched Squirm (1976) and The Killer Shrews (1959) at a formative age.


What did you think of Samir Sirk Morató’s story? Let us know in the comments below. And… if you want to learn more about Samir’s writing process and other works, come back to The Dark Forest on April 9 at 11:00 AM (EST) to read a more extensive interview with the author.


As always, if you’d like your gothic, horror, fantasy, or psychological realism work featured, be sure to submit to us: http://darksiremag.com/submissions.html.


Fiona’s Guardians: A Review

Rating: 💀💀💀💀💀

“When she hires you, you’ll wish you were dead” is the tagline for Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad. After following the main character, Daniel, through his day-to-day life as a guardian for the vampire Fiona, the sentiment of the tagline is certainly understandable. Life has changed for vampires in the modern world. Now that modern policing includes far more sophisticated means of detection, vampires can’t so easily hunt down people like they used to. Humans nowadays have become their partners in crime, hired on as guardians to not only protect the vampires they serve, but they also must supply the blood, using an investment portfolio to buy the blood from secret suppliers who steal from hospitals. Fiona is a 250-year-old vampire. She requires 10 pints of blood every night, otherwise she begins to waste away, shriveling into a hideous, monstrous shell of her former self: “…her hair starts to fall out on the second. Then her skin wrinkles and begins to smell, and her eyes harden to the point where I think she’d eat an entire schoolyard of children. I work very hard to make sure I never see that look again” (234).

The one who makes the tremendous commitment as a vampire guardian must be willing to give up any connection with their family and friends and say goodbye to vacations. The plus sides of the job: recreation with the finest wines and Cuban cigars. Oh, and how about a frocking great retirement settlement, somewhere in the realm of 10 million dollars. When we are introduced to Daniel, he is in the process of retiring. He’s given his all to Fiona, even lost an arm in his service to her. Daniel is a man nearly stripped of all his sense of humor; the rosy tint has completely faded from his view of life, and it’s easy to understand why. Enter Wolf, Daniel’s upcoming replacement for the job, who’s ignorant and arrogant, though not necessarily stupid. Daniel hopes to quickly get him trained and hand over the reins for good, though there’s a little complication that gets in the way. Yes, little is an understatement. How about a complication hundreds of years in the making?

Mors Strigae is an order of monks existing within the Catholic church. The full name for this group is a mouthful: “The Prefect for the Sacred Congregation for the Inquiry into all Things Preternatural.” Back in 1900 they battled the vampires, and now they’re on the rise again, also adapting to the modern world with more sophisticated weapons and technology for hunting down vampires, and their devotion to the mission has been deepened by hundreds of years of tradition. Both vampires and guardians alike are being hunted down and executed.

The novel jumps between the point-of-view of those in the vampire clan and those serving within Mors Strigae with quite a balanced approach throughout the narrative, meaning the reader attains a very in-depth understanding of the intentions of both sides. This produces an intriguing effect. It never becomes clear who the good or bad guys are. The reader can easily sympathize with either side for various reasons. The vampires are hell-bent on surviving. Obtaining blood is their only purpose in life, and they will reach to any extreme to attain it. Many of those sired to become vampires become so without a choice. They are victims in the purest sense, damned to their state of endless lust and done so completely against their will. The reader can easily sympathize with this wretched state. Yet, one can easily sympathize with those who serve Mors Strigae. They are the protective force surrounding humans, preventing us from falling to either death by the vampire or the worse state of becoming a vampire. It should be obvious that we root for them. Right? It’s not, because the novel shows the contradictions that exist within Mors Strigae, their own moments of ignorance, moments when their own lust for power destroys them. One of the great strengths of this novel is its ability to explore with depth the contradictions between both sides.

Well-executed dialogue is another strength. The dialogue crackles with life and feels genuine to the characters. One of my favorite passages involves a conversation between Daniel and Wolf during their first meeting:

            I grab my fresh drink. “And how do we pay for all this bloo—”

            “The product?” Daniel’s voice drowns me out, and he
scolds me with a look. “You invest her money.” Then he
swirls the dark, heavy liquid under his nose before sipping
“Lately we’re staying away from tech stocks. New admini-
stration, playing it safe. We’re in toothpaste, deodorant—
stuff people use every day.”

            “So they smell good if we experience a ‘hang-up.’”

            “Very funny.”

            “Tell me: How often will I… disappear people?” (pg. 27)

This exchange between Daniel and Wolf depicts their personalities well. Daniel’s sense of humor is all dried up; he’s all business and knows the serious cost if things aren’t done right. Wolf is ignorant and arrogant; he’s still not sure if he believes any of it or not. The dialogue flows so naturally and reveals so much about the characters. The reader will find that Klefstad’s deft touch with dialogue drives the narrative along. Much of the time the wonderful dialogue keeps the reader turning pages.

The narrative is told in the first-person form, jumping from different characters’ point-of-views. One chapter in particular, titled “Epistles,” utilizes an epistolary method, taking us back to 1900 when the order of monks Mors Strigae first battled the mysterious vampires near a small village called Campoleone. This chapter is pivotal, lending a sense of depth and intrigue to the story as a whole. Letters between Abbot Martinez and Cardinal Soriano tell the story, unveiling much of the folklore surrounding the vampires. We learn of the origins of Mors Strigae as well as the meaning of the vampire name— “striga”—meaning “evil spirit” or “witch.” The vampire hunters come to learn during encounters with the strigae that much of their folklore is debunked. For instance, crucifixes and holy water do nothing but make the vampires angry. Yet silver does have an effect on them, prompting the monks to produce armor made of silver. Also, the old practice of stabbing the heart and removing the head before cremation is unnecessary to those who are victims of a vampire attack, for it takes more than mere exsanguination to transform someone into a vampire. The old conflict between science and religion comes up as well, when Abbot Martinez mentions the continued rise of diarrheal diseases due to the haphazard disposal of waste amongst the men of the camp. The Abbot had been reading scientific journals and realizes better hygiene practices such as providing shovels in the brethren’s travel kits for the purpose of waste disposal could protect the men from the growing plague of dysentery. We well know that the standard-bearer for the vampire genre—Bram Stoker’s Dracula—is suffused with themes about advancing technology prevailing and/or conflicting with age-old superstitions, and that’s the other reason this chapter in the book is so entertaining—it lends depth and intrigue and serves as a homage to Bram Stoker’s vampire tale.

Fiona’s Guardians by Dan Klefstad displays the full entertainment package. Some moments are dark, gritty, and disturbing. Others are lightened by fun, comedic timing. And still other moments are titillating and lustful. All of it resonates with a strong sense of adventure. You will find unexpected plot twists and complex characters wrestling the contradictions within themselves. I strongly recommend reading this book.    

You can find Dan Klefstad’s Fiona’s Guardians on AMAZON.


RATINGS: TDS rates all books based on the dark content and how well the reading experience lends itself. Of course, author craft, storytelling, and mechanics are considered, as well. For this purpose, we use skulls (💀💀💀💀💀). And explanation of the skull system follows.

RATING: 💀 Boring, not dark, not interesting. Do not recommend.

RATING: 💀💀 Fair plot, not too dark, fairly interesting. Read at own risk.

RATING: 💀💀💀 Good plot and mild darkness, good reading experience. Encouraged read.

RATING: 💀💀💀💀 Great reading experience with heaps of dark tone. Strong recommend.

RATING: 💀💀💀💀💀 Excellent prose, tons of dark tone. A MUST READ!


Do you have a short story, piece of art, poem, or screenplay that you think might be a good fit for Dark Sire? If so, visit darksiremag.com/submissions.html.

Self-Editing Your Manuscript Series: How to Line Edit Your Manuscript

Line editing, by nature, requires the structure of your story to be solid and complete. Finish developmental edits first. It is not an efficient use of your time to perfect sentences that you may not need later. We’ve just wrapped up our series on developmental edits of short fiction. You can find them here:

6 Elements of Characterization
How to Assess Your Plot
How to Assess Your Pacing
How to Assess Your World-building
How to Revitalize Your Setting

We defined line editing in our initial post as working on a sentence level. It is digging into your craft to improve the clarity and reception of your manuscript.

These are some of the many questions line editing will ask:

Do the sentences make sense to a reader?

Did you use the right word for that scene’s mood, or does a different one have more impact? Do you need to make sure that you didn’t use overly long sentences in your fast-paced fight scene?

Everyone has a different writing and editing process. Some elements may cross over, but at the end of the day, use whatever method works for you. Let’s start off with some format elements that can benefit your line editing before we dive deeper into the process.

Change the format:

Some may suggest you even print the story out. However, if you are looking for zero cost to low budget ways to elevate your writing you can work around that.

If you have been looking at your manuscript on the standard 8.5in x 11in page that comes with word documents, and 12pt Times New Roman font, it may become difficult for you to start seeing any mistakes. This is specifically because the writer of the manuscript can go story-blind.

Story blindness is when you miss obvious mistakes, or subtle ones, in your own writing because you are overexposed to the material.

Change it up.

Use a smaller page size. Example: 5 in x 8 in.

Use a different font. Georgia, Courier New, even the oft-dreaded Comic Sans can make the manuscript look new.

It may also help to change the page color and font color. 

For example:

When I write I use white font on a black page.

When I edit I use black font on a white page.

Read the story aloud:

This age-old advice comes in handy for a reason. When the material is read to you by another person or a device, you can’t add in the tonal changes to help push your meaning to the reader. And while you may miss a double word, the computer will read it it aloud. Notice the previous sentence used it twice.

If you aren’t comfortable reading aloud or listening to the computer speakers blaring your manuscript, there are options–and they come with headphones.

Microsoft Word and Google Docs both have text-to-speech features that can read your MS to you. There are also online programs such as naturalreaders.com, and ttsreader.com

Common Mistakes (and how to fix them):

While the above is a way to see your manuscript differently, let’s look at some line editing examples and how you can apply that to your own work.

Please note: This list will not be comprehensive. You may or may not come across these depending on the strengths and weaknesses of your own manuscript.

Too many words:

For example, this is the process of using entirely too many words than the manuscript calls for at any given time, in a way that can cause run-ons.

Cut the fluff.

How many ways can you find to rewrite the above sentence? There is no one right or best answer. Use the version that best suits your manuscript and *relevant era.

*Relevant era: Some line editors and copy editors will take the setting into account when marking up a manuscript. Certain time periods have slightly different grammar rules for authenticity.

Pronouns for clarity:

You may have come across a sentence like the following either in your own work or in another’s.

He plunged the stake into his chest, and he screamed as black smoke poured from his gaping maw.

Bare with the lack of imagination, but can you see how the reader may not understand that there is both a vampire and a vampire hunter in this sentence?

Bonus! Did you also notice that this sentence needed to be split? There is simply too much happening…

Hunter plunged the stake into the vampire’s chest. The creature screamed, black smoke poured from his gaping maw.

Gerunds and when they hinder plausibility:

While the advice may be met with staunch resistance, let me show you what editors mean when they say gerunds and past participle phrases.

Action scenes, or when speed is necessary, the past participle phrase seems an easy answer to make things happen quickly.

This is, by far, one of the most common errors I see when working with authors.

Jumping up, he ran down the stairs and flipped the breaker.

Our brains are hardwired to see these as chronological events. First this, then that. However, that is not what has been written. In the above example, the character is running down the stairs while jumping up–something that the author clearly intended to be two separate actions.

A quick fix:

He ran down the stairs and flipped the breaker.

Unless the character’s jumping is relevant, it’s not an important word. The reader will know that in order to run down the stairs he stood in some manner. Keeping or cutting the phrase in the sentence is a matter of personal taste.

Make sure that, if you are using a gerund (an -ing word) to start a sentence, it makes sense.

The right emotional word:

The character and their emotions are how a reader experiences a story. It is true that you can show emotions by describing the way a character feels, and how it affects their body and mind, but you also have to make sure that you have utilized your narration properly. This is not to say that you should be using telling words like “angry,” “happy,” or “sad.” The right emotional word means, to ask yourself “Is this the best descriptor word for my character’s, or my scene’s mood?”.

Which of the following examples sounds more like the creature is dangerous?

Example 1:

Snow crunched under the weight of the creature as he trudged through the ice-laden briar patch. Wispy flakes of magic fell from his scaled skin and swirled in the air like campfire embers.

Example 2:

Snow crunched under the weight of the creature as he trudged through the iced-over thicket. Wispy flakes of magic fell from his scaled skin and swirled in the air like little fairy lights.

We covered some common problems and solutions for line editing, however, you may have a more specific manuscript problem to address. Do you have any specific line editing questions that we missed? Drop them in the comments below.

Next Self-Editing Topic:

Next time we’ll continue our dive into prose and cover the big one everyone thinks about when they hear editing. How do you copy edit your own work?

Self-Editing Series: How to Revitalize Your Setting

Self-Editing Your Manuscript: Revitalizing Your Setting

The setting should be as essential to the manuscript as the character and plot. Without the setting, your characters would meander around an abyss of nothing with no discernible life, just floating people and an occasional pop of something like a dagger in their hands, or even a staircase. Have you noticed that that happens as you read back over your manuscript?

The setting should be intrinsic to the world. If characters appear in a place, there needs to be a reason for it, and if the characters are in a setting they need to interact with it. Otherwise, they have become floating bodies in an abyss of white with nothing to help ground the readers in their reality. The setting is more than what we see with our eyes. It should involve all the senses: sight, touch, sound, taste, and scent. Word count is precious in short fiction; do not let the eyes have it all.

Note: if your character is missing any of these senses, simply skip over it and think of how you can use the others to better let your reader imagine the world as the characters are experiencing it.

As you work through your manuscript, also ask yourself if you are using the right words to describe your character’s senses. A character’s personality and emotion will heavily impact the words used to describe the setting. Imagine coming upon a pond in the forest. That little bit of water is going to have a different description to a group of friends on a nature hike than it would to stranded travelers who are lost and dehydrated. In the same way, it would be different to someone who is afraid of the water as opposed to someone who loves it. The character(s) should help you define the word choice for setting your scenes.

Sight:

This is one not often forgotten when working through a manuscript. Many writers find themselves hacking away the words ‘see’, ‘saw’, and ‘seen’ like thorny brambles around a golden treasure chest. You are free to simply describe things that the characters are observing because it is your description that lets us follow the camera pan of their eyes.

Did you have a quick blanket-style description to start the scene before you focused on the more intricate details? This establishing shot is a quick view to place the main elements of your story so that the reader understands what to imagine. This makes it less confusing when your characters start interacting, as you’ve already established certain things were present.

Touch:

It can be easy to forget to include what things feel like when writing, as most of the feeling goes into the emotions. Rough bark on a tree scratching against someone’s hand, or how hot or cold something is as it touches the skin. That blade may be cold when pressed to your character’s neck by an enemy, or it could still be warm with the previous victim’s blood.

Did you make sure that your character was able to touch/feel things in the physical world of their setting? Patting someone on a shoulder in congratulations will feel different if they’ve freshly bathed, or they’ve just been covered in monster entrails.

This is not always another character, but their surroundings. If they do not interact with where they are, it may be time to consider why they are even in that particular place.

Sound:

Whether hearing the trilling of monsters closing in, the groaning of another character, a babbling brook, or the scratch of pencils on paper… Sound is just another way to breathe more life and immersion into your character’s world.

A note on filters. Heard and hear, while valid at times, do not always need to be used to describe the sound in one’s fiction. Simply being told that a piano played softly, or nails scratched against wood is more than enough for the reader.

Did you incorporate sound into your manuscript, in more than just dialogue?

Taste:

This is where food is always fun to play with in a manuscript, but with short fiction, what if you don’t have a scene where the characters eat? You don’t have to add those kinds of scenes just to fulfill this sensory element.

Maybe you have a character just wanting to get through the story so they can have a delectable piece of pie that they may or may not get by the end. If a character has their face pushed into the dirt, dirt has a taste. The grainy texture can make them overly aware of their tongue, and even bring bile–which also has a taste–to their mouth. Blood can leave a metallic flavor, and there’s a powdery substance on gloves.

Have you included taste in your manuscript, either through action or memory?

Scent:

Much like with taste, it’s not hard to want to toss in every delicious sounding word to describe the way food smells, or even someone–sandalwood is quite popular. However, scent goes beyond food and even people when it comes to setting a scene.

An unused and dusty room can smell musty, or if there is something old and decaying in the cellar, rot and death can choke your character. It is also easy to flip the script, as they say, and include appealing scents, a common one being the cleanliness of lemon, or freshly baked cookies, and have it at war with the scene–more disturbing for your reader.

Bonus Setting Tip: Weather.

One of the easiest ways to set the mood and even speak for a story’s theme is the weather. By nature, humans–readers–take cues from their surroundings. Dark clouds gathering in the distance can be an omen, and a storm with a torrential downpour when you finally enact your vengeance can be a visual theme of washing the old version of the character away. In that same way, your character can have a happy, shining day, with no clouds and blue sky when something tragic happens–the weather helps the irony of the concept of a perfect day hit a bit harder.

How have you used the weather to set the mood in your manuscript? You may notice that you placed everything organically. If you didn’t, consider ways to pull more depth of the world up for the reader. Is there an interesting way to play with the weather of your setting to make the story mood have more impact?

Next Self-Editing Topic:

Next time we’ll start diving into your prose. How can you line edit your own work?

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.

A Brief History of Gothic Literature

At THE DARK SIRE we are incredible fans of the Gothic genre.  Our go to author is Edgar Allan Poe.  Who can deny the dark, eerie settings in stories like The Fall of the House of Usher or The Pit and the Pendulum?  His critics at the time accused him of being too heavily influenced by German authors.  But if that were the case, who influenced the German writers?  Now, for me, all of this begs the question: Where did the Gothic genre come from?  Someone had to write the first story, and succeeding authors had to build on that.  So, I did the research (just in case there were other fans of the genre like me out there) and, with the sources of John Mullan, the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and the other researchers at the British Library, I discovered:

Gothic fiction began as a sophisticated joke. Horace Walpole first applied the word Gothic in The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story, published in 1764.  When he used the word, it meant something like barbarous, having devolved from a word used in the Middle Ages.  Walpole pretended that the story itself was an antique relic – complete with a preface that claims a translator discovered the tale – and was published in Italian in 1529. According to this origin story, the book was discovered “in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England.” The story itself, “founded on truth,” was written three or four centuries earlier still. Some readers were duly deceived by this fiction and aggrieved when it was revealed to be a modern fake.

The novel itself tells a supernatural tale in which Manfred, the gloomy Prince of Otranto, develops an irresistible passion for the beautiful young woman who was to have married his son and heir. The novel opens memorably with this son being crushed to death by the huge helmet from a statue of a previous Prince of Otranto, and throughout the novel the very fabric of the castle comes to supernatural life until villainy is defeated. Walpole, who made his own house at Strawberry Hill into a mock-Gothic building, had discovered a fictional territory that has been exploited ever since. According to Professor Mullan, Gothic involves the supernatural (or the promise of the supernatural), and it often involves the discovery of mysterious elements of antiquity, and it usually takes its protagonists into strange or frightening old buildings. With this imagery in mind, Walpole was trying to recreate the visual and physicality of the Gothic in real life.

In the 1790s, novelists rediscovered the world that Walpole had imagined. The queen of Gothic novelists at that time was Ann Radcliffe.  Her most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) took its title from the name of a fictional Italian castle where much of the action is set.  Like Walpole, she created a brooding aristocratic villain, Montoni, to threaten her resourceful virgin heroine, Emily, with an unspeakable fate.  All of Radcliffe’s other novels are set in foreign lands, often with lengthy descriptions of sublime scenery.  Udolpho is set amongst the dark and looming Apennine Mountains.  Radcliffe was known to derive her settings from travel books.  While other authors of the time chose Gothic for their subtitle, Radcliffe chose a different word to accompany the title on the front cover: Romance. Around this time, Minerva Press was providing reading material to the eager public who was hungry for this new kind of fiction.

Gothic then soon leaned toward natural, if complicated, explanations.  Gothic truly came alive in the thoughts and anxieties of the characters.  Gothic showcased the fear of the supernatural rather than the supernatural itself.  And some authors, like Matthew Lewis, strove to go to the extreme – experimenting the outrageous of the Gothic tale. In his The Monk (1796), Lewis wrote a plethora of supernatural occurrences, including ghosts, demons, and Satan himself.

A second wave of Gothic novels in the 2nd and 3rd decades of the 19th-Century established new conventions.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) gave a scientific form to the supernatural formula. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) featured a Byronic anti-hero who had sold his soul for a prolonged life.  And James Hogg’s elaborately titled The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is the story of a man pursued by his own double.  A character’s sense of encountering a double of him- or herself, also essential to Frankenstein, was established as a powerful new Gothic motif.  Doubles crop up throughout Gothic fiction, the most famous example being the late 19th-Century Gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

This motif is one of the reasons why Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny (or unheimlich, as it is in German) is often applied to Gothic fiction. In his 1919 paper “The Uncanny,” Freud drew his examples from the Gothic tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann in order to account for the special feeling of disquiet – the sense of the uncanny – that they aroused. He argued that the making strange of what should be familiar is essential to this, and that it is disturbing and fascinating because it recalls us to our original infantile separation from our origin in the womb.

And this brings us to our favorite author Edgar Allan Poe.  He used many of the standard properties of Gothic (medieval settings, castles and ancient houses, aristocratic corruption) but turned these into an exploration of extreme psychological states. He was attracted to the genre because he was fascinated by fear.  In his hands Gothic was becoming horror, a term properly applied to the most famous late-Victorian example of Gothic, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  The opening section of Dracula uses some familiar Gothic properties: the castle whose chambers contain the mystery that the protagonist must solve; the sublime scenery that emphasizes his isolation. Stoker learned from the vampire stories that had appeared earlier in the 19th century (notably Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu, who was his friend and collaborator) and exploited the narrative methods of Wilkie Collins’s sensation fiction.  Dracula is written in the form of journal entries and letters by various characters, caught up in the horror of events. The fear and uncertainty on which Gothic had always relied is enacted in the narration.

Meanwhile, Gothic had become so influential that we can detect its elements in much mainstream Victorian fiction. Both Emily and Charlotte Bronte included intimations of the supernatural within narratives that were otherwise attentive to the realities of time, place and material constraint.  In the opening episode of Wuthering Heights, the narrator, Lockwood, has to stay the night at Heathcliff’s house because of heavy snow. He finds Cathy’s diary, written as a child, and nods off while reading it. There follows a powerfully narrated nightmare in which an icy hand reaches to him through the window, and the voice of Catherine Linton calls to be let in. The vision seems to prefigure what he will later discover about the history of Cathy and Heathcliff. Half in jest, Lockwood tells Heathcliff that Wuthering Heights is haunted; the novel, centered as it is on a house, seems to exploit in a new way the Gothic idea that entering an old building means entering the stories of those who have lived in it before.

Two of Charlotte Brontë’s novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, feature old buildings that appear to be haunted.  As in the Gothic fiction of Ann Radliffe, the apparition seen by Jane Eyre in Thornfield Hall, where she is a governess, and the ghostly nun glimpsed by Lucy Snowe in the attic of the old Pensionnat where she teaches, have rational explanations.  But Charlotte Brontë likes to raise the fears of her protagonists as to the presence of the supernatural, as if they were Gothic heroines.  Gothic still provides the vocabulary of apprehensiveness.  Similarly, Wilkie Collins may have introduced into fiction, as Henry James said, “those most mysterious of mysteries, the mysteries which are at our own doors,” but he liked his reminders of traditional Gothic plots.  In The Woman in White, all events turn out to be humanly contrived, yet the sudden appearance to the night-time walker of the figure of “a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments” haunts the reader as it does the narrator.  The Moonstone is a detective story with a scientific explanation, but we never forget the legend that surrounds the diamond of the title, and the curse on those who steal it – a curse that seems to come true.  The final triumph of Gothic is to become, as in these examples, a vital thread within novels that otherwise take pains to convince us of what is probable and rational.

As I pointed out earlier, one really useful term for thinking about Gothic writing is uncanny.  Gothic fiction often strives to reach those uncanny moments in which the reader suddenly recognized somebody who seems unfamiliar and strange or has an identity that the reader already knows but is not quite human. 

Now, this whole concept of the uncanny leads me to examine how American Exceptionalism took the Gothic genre and turned it into something truly unique.  In another blog, I will examine the rise of American Southern Gothic stories.


THE DARK SIRE is always looking for Gothic fiction, art, and screenplays to add to our issues. If you have something that delves into psyche, traverses the dark and twisted, and has the eeriness of Poe, we’re waiting for you to submit to us.

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!


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