WIP – A Darkling Moor 2

The next instalment of my first horror tale, find the first page here.

 

The days that followed my finding of the book became a voyage of discovery, I spent hours in the evening combing websites and making notes on little tabs that I stuck over key pages until the book looked more like one of my old school revision guides than a piece of literature. In addition, having discovered a collection of gruesome tales not included in my book, I made the decision to purchase a detailed map of Dartmoor and pinned it to the wall in my kitchen. There I charted out Lady Howard’s skeletal journey, Cutty Dyer’s lair, and every other story or legend I could sniff out.

I can admit now that it turned quickly from interest to obsession, that the creeping fingers of irrationality were clawing through my brain. I lived and breathed Dartmoor, even my sleep suffered as my dreams turned to dark nightmares filled with fog and black hounds baying at my heels. At the time it made sense to simply sleep less, to stumble through my days then spend my nights huddled in bed with my dog at my feet and a cold sweat seeping through my nightclothes.

I became wraith-like in appearance, make-up no longer thick enough to hide the red rims and dark circles under my eyes. After a lifetime of struggling to lose weight I finally found myself unable to stomach more than strong coffee and the occasional piece of toast, my clothes became baggy and ill-fitting, my hair brittle and dull. I began to avoid social events, in the beginning by sending apologetic messages but later I simply ignored them all until my usual weekend cohort stopped bothering to include me. And whilst I can’t pinpoint when my family first noticed the changes wrought in me, it was my mother who finally commented about my drawn appearance and her worry about the dramatic changes to my figure.

The concern about my weight shook me most I think; for the longest time she had, well-meaning but often cruelly, told me how much more attractive I’d be if only a dropped a dress size or two. To hear her tell me that I seemed a little on the skinny side was sufficient to wake me up for an instant, my mind clearing just long enough to sense I was in trouble. But I couldn’t speak up. I tried for a moment, tried to confess the insidious desire squatting in my body. Instead I heard platitudes spill from my lips, lies about diet and exercise and stresses at work that she nodded along to despite the strain in her smile.

Once, a long time ago, I watched a documentary about a church where people believed they were overcome by the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues, chanting and writhing without thought or control. Until that moment I’d found it ridiculous, but as I listened to the thin excuses I spewed I felt like a power I couldn’t understand was moving through me. It was gnawing and covetous in nature, as if the moor had taken root in my soul.

I suppose I can admit now that I’d made the space it filled, carved it with loneliness and my bitter fears of an empty future and abandoned dreams. Perhaps the power I sensed was simply my desperation to have something wholly mine. I wanted to feel my blood pound at the sight of phantoms, to become part of the legends, to have my own story to tell like a banner of heroism and purpose.

Whatever the case, from the moment when I first experienced the presence within me the direction of my obsession changed. I was no longer content with books and websites, nothing now would do but to take to Dartmoor on journey of my own design.

 

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WIP -A Darkling Moor

The first time I visited Dartmoor I was nine years old and on one of the cheap and cheerful British summer holidays that characterised my childhood until I was twelve; when a promotion at work meant my parents had enough money for shabby hotels in Spain, where we were never allowed to drink the water. The bed and breakfast we stayed in was no different than any other I’d seen in the past and I have little memory of it other than the oddly musty smell of the thick floral bedspread on the pull out bed my sister and I shared.

The moor on the other hand has stayed with me ever since.

Looking back, I think it was an act more of despair at the ceaselessly poor weather than planning on my parent’s part that meant the holiday was made up of trips to the many unusual local sites rather than days lounging on a beach. And my sister and I must have driven them half mad at first, stone circles and old ruins in the rain weren’t particularly entertaining for a nine and fourteen year old.

But, fortunately, at a little gift shop in the Okehampton Castle ruins we came across a local author selling self-published copies of a book of Dartmoor legends which had been illustrated with strange black and white prints of various ghostly creatures. Avid readers, my sister and I both begged for a copy and were finally bought one to share, my sister reading it aloud in the back of the car as we travelled from one mystery location to the next.

It was transformative; days of rain coats and ruins became journeys through ghostly hauntings, devils bargains and fairy magic. It seemed to me that Dartmoor was as perilous as it was mysterious, a place where people met gristly endings and their spirits roamed in the company of bloody giants and black dogs for all eternity. I remember constantly asking my dad if he’d felt the ‘hairy hands’ try to wrest control of car and my sister and I watching the mist for signs of headless horsemen.

In many ways that week in Dartmoor shaped how I would look at the world around me for the rest of my life; listening for footsteps as I walked past willow trees, turning a sock inside out if I was lost. I don’t pretend to be particularly serious about these superstitions, but on stormy evenings there’s a small part of me that’s still a child listening to scary stories in the back seat of a car and hiding under the bedclothes at night.

In any case, luckily, or perhaps not as my tale goes, I came across that same book a few months ago while clearing boxes from my parent’s house. It was a little worse for wear, and looked as if it had been tucked under the corner of an old bookcase in the loft for years. The cover was torn and so thick with dust I hardly recognized it at first, but curiosity got the better of me and I rubbed the dust away. I can’t say that it struck me as particularly interesting at first but I flicked through the drawings, the lines a little clumsier than I recalled, until I reached a map of the moor which was spotted with markers for every tale and I was filled with a near compulsion to start reading, so read I did.

I sat just long enough, propped amongst the boxes and spider webs, for my legs to numb but I read it from cover to cover and back again. I think I’d forgotten how rich the legends were, how deep an impression the moor made upon me. And it felt like a fire had been kindled, after years living the stagnant death of office drudgery and urban boredom I was desperate to breathe the rich wild air again.

Despite what was to come, I can’t say I regret that moment.

 

***

This is the first part in a first person horror tale and a first draft too, please enjoy!

A woman by any other name

I often struggle to connect with female protagonists and it’s a challenge as both a reader and a writer that interests me enormously. There is little, in my opinion, as disappointing as a book with a wonderful plot but poorly relatable characters and I think I’ve found the cause. Emotionalism.

With an ever growing demand for strong female leads, good character development seems in some cases to have been replaced with either a near lack of emotion or psychosis levels of emotional overload.

The former I find most commonly where the author is male, and is characterised by a fragile appearance juxtaposed against a tough attitude. The character is either permitted to experience only simple emotions and must feel one at a time (most commonly anger, lust and guilt; usually in that order) or almost none at all. I call them the numb ones; characters where the writing is so emotionally unavailable that I’m unable to suspend reality and spend a few hours sharing their experiences. For me it’s like a bad first date; filled with the desperate desire to enjoy yourself whilst ignoring a growing sense of dissatisfaction.

By contrast the later type of character is a whirlwind. In the real world she would be the crazy ex to end all crazy exes; leaving a devastated trail of deeply troubled but strangely attractive men (or women) in her wake. These appear more often as the curse of the woman author, and may well start their story as a sarcastic but caring individual who is likely to be hard working with an atypical body type. In essence, the Mary Sue. That imperfect perfection the author most desires to be, whose weaknesses must also be strengths and whose rapid decline into potential mental illness passes unnoticed by the supporting cast of characters.

Much like the numb ones they also often only experience simple emotions, however these characters feel them all at once in a maelstrom of irrationality that has been marketed to read as ‘no nonsense strong woman’ but instead leaves a deep sense of confusion. Here too the connection doesn’t happen, because while the character is emotionally available it’s at a level I find totally frustrating. I’d compare it to a child having a temper tantrum, but kids aren’t required to make sense.

So, to me, emotion is undoubtedly key to good female character development, because it should be a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow a phrase) that plots may change but people do not. And while I’ve read a lot of debate about what makes writing ‘good’, the dry discussion regarding technicalities of prose fundamentally fail to address personal connection and identification as a measure of success.

One of my favourite authors; Terry Pratchett wrote people in a way that was reminiscent of Charles Dickens (the artfulness of Dodger and his character Charlie are a wonderful homage to an author whose work his so resembles). Furthermore he wrote strong female leads in a genre typically constrained by male protagonists long before the advent of social desire to read about women as a main character and not as the romantic interest on the side. These characters weren’t defined by their gender or made great by it, they were just people.

So that’s what I’m aiming to write too; people. Wish me luck.

Tadhana

In response to Word High July the snippet below is inspired by the Filipino word ‘tadhana’ or ‘an invisible force that makes thing happen beyond the control of mortals’. It’s part of a series charting the impact of the discovery of intelligent life in space on five ordinary people over the course of a month. Enjoy!

Image taken from Buzzfeed: “36 Of The Most Beautiful Words In The Philippine Language”. All credits goes to them.

***

The morning sunlight was warm and soothing, it calmed the roiling coffee in Jo’s empty belly as he sat and observed the world. The energy that had filled his every waking moment for the past month seemed strangely absent after the events of the previous day. Instead Jo was filled with calm satisfaction.

“Well, that’s the look of a man who’s achieved something. I’ve worn it myself a time or two,” his father announced, limping onto the patio. “And not underserved, to hear Irene tell last night.”

Jo smiled and felt the smile stretch until it split into a wide grin. He lent back as far as his chair would tilt and took a deep breath, holding the chilled air in his lungs for a moment then expelling it with loud sigh.

“I keep telling myself that we haven’t made it yet, Dad. There’s a lot of clever people out in the world working on it, some of the stuff we saw yesterday was pretty amazing,” he said. “But I can’t help this little bit of hope, it’s like a voice at the back of my head saying that we’ve won, that we’ll breeze through the rest of the heats. Can you imagine? My work might be the first used to speak to life across the universe!”

His father chuckled and sat heavily, wincing a little, and waved for Jo to hand him the coffee.

“You and I, we like to see things to believe them Jo. Science, mathematics; I spent my life depending on the truth of those pillars and I taught you to do the same,” he said, sipping at a steaming mug. “Your mother though, she was a woman of faith, and I have to say that at times like these I tend to think she’d be better placed to help you. She used to tell me that sometimes it was important to just believe; to know that there was something greater than all of us out there. Maybe she was right, not some man up in the clouds right of course, but about a-a wider purpose of some kind, a guiding force?”

The old man fell silent for a moment, staring out over the garden.

“You know,” he continued, “I’ve wondered myself if there’s a reason we’re alive right now. Things lost their shine a bit after your mother died and then all this trouble with my hips and back, but I’ve thought a lot about it all recently. And I think this is it, I think perhaps I believe, a bit, that you and Irene have that greater purpose and I get to live to see it.”

Jo felt strangely comforted by his father’s words and reached to grip his hand tight. He’d been shaped by the hero worship he’d lavished on his father as a child, but as he’d aged he’d come to see a man and later, sometimes, a burden. It had been a guilty thought at times, the worry and frustration of dealing with an aging and infirm parent. But Jo couldn’t imagine a world where he wouldn’t have shared this moment with his father, and maybe that was a higher power, fate, God or whatever people wanted to call it.

“Sometimes Dad, you know just what to say. And I couldn’t have done this without you, you’re as much a part of it as either me or Irene,” Jo said.

His father tightened his grip on Jo’s hand briefly and took another short sip of coffee. It was, Jo thought, a perfect morning.

Gigil

In response to Word High July the snippet below is inspired by the Filipino word ‘gigil’ or ‘uncontrollable urge to pinch or squeeze someone’. It’s part of a series charting the impact of the discovery of intelligent life in space on five ordinary people over the course of a month. Enjoy!

Image taken from Buzzfeed: “36 Of The Most Beautiful Words In The Philippine Language”. All credits goes to them.

***

“Ow! Stop with the – the pinching thing! You’re a grown woman!”

“Oh have some fun Jo!” Irene laughed and prodded him again, the younger man squeaked pleasingly and Irene decided that she liked the sound very much. “Besides, this is exciting! My first trip to England and for a science seminar of all things!”

Jo tutted and dodged Irene’s questing fingers at the last minute. She huffed at the disappointment and tried to calm her heart a little. It was strange to be so excited, but the life she’d promised to start leading again was a strange road filled with new opportunities. It bubbled under her skin until she itched with energy from the soles of her feet and up to the tips of her fingers, where it emerged in the urge to nip and tickle.

“Get away! Look, it’s not far now to the Science Museum, just keep your hands to yourself until then. Deal?” Jo asked.

She nodded and tucked her hands into her pockets. The weather in London was surprisingly warm, Irene had expected dreary rain and packed accordingly but her sweater was a touch too thick. The greenery was a surprise too, the park they’d cut across was beautiful and the trees reminded her of her mountain home just enough for a spike of apprehension to sneak through her excitement.

“Tell me again what’s happening today? Den got really excited when I told him where I was going but I haven’t followed it all that closely if I’m honest,” she said, hurrying to match Jo’s stride.

“It’s the first review of the UK submissions for the response signal,” he explained. “The contest won’t close globally until next year, but there’s such a massive response rate that they decided to start thinning the numbers out by holding national heats.”

“Well, I guess its sink or swim time then,” Irene said, and, unable to resist, snuck another quick pinch.

“Ow! Irene!”

“Sorry Jo, I just can’t seem to resist. Its nerves, I feel terrible,” she apologised and tried to cover the insincerity in her voice by tucking her hands away once more. Jo was just so damned pinch-able.

“Whatever, we’re here anyway,” Jo pointed to an enormous building with a queue that stretched half way down the street. He stopped and unhooked his backpack, fishing inside for something. “Here we, invitations. Let’s see if these work as a queue jump, if not we might not make it inside in time!”

He handed Irene a thick piece of card with her name typed in fine black copperplate lettering and hurried towards a very official looking security guard. Irene followed a little slower, admiring the building and enjoying the buzz of people chattering. There was so much life in the city; there was in the bush too but she felt like she was reclaiming a piece of herself she’d forgotten when Adam passed. And there it was, there first time in nearly a day since she’d thought about Adam at all.

“I’m choosing life, Adam. I hope that’s ok, but even if it isn’t; I’m doing it.”

Halakhak

In response to Word High July the snippet below is inspired by the Filipino word ‘halakhak’ or ‘loud, uninhibited laughter’. It’s part of a series charting the impact of the discovery of intelligent life in space on five ordinary people over the course of a month. Enjoy!

Image taken from Buzzfeed: “36 Of The Most Beautiful Words In The Philippine Language”. All credits goes to them.

***

The fine sheen of sweat on Yuna’s body dried slowly, bringing a comforting chill as her heartbeat slowed. Shima peppered soft kisses across the top of her shoulder, shorting panting breaths deepening as he too recovered. Her bedroom was a mess, the bed sheets tangled around them, pillows strewn far and wide with a trail of clothing lay scattered across the floor; a treasure trail leading from the living room where Shima had finally made his move.

She traced a hand over Shima’s belly and up to his chest, tapping in time to the heavy rhythm of his heart pound under her fingers and felt a broad smile split her face.

“You’re looking very satisfied all of a sudden, I think that should be my job!” Shima huffed, adding a nip of teeth to his next kiss.

It startled a half giggle from Yuna and it was as if a dam had broken on the cautious joy she’d held back over the past weeks. The giggle changed to a loud, happy laugh and she pounced on Shima, running her fingers along his sides until he was laughing too.

“Ah! Yuna!” he yelped as she found a spot that appeared particularly sensitive. “I knew there was a wild side lurking somewhere but I didn’t expect – ah! Not there! – I didn’t expect this!”

Collapsing against him, Yuna buried her face in Shima’s neck.

“I think I may be truly happy,” she admitted. The words felt like an acknowledgment of the truth that had been lurking on the tip of her tongue since answering the door that evening. A hollow place she hadn’t even really known existed felt a little fuller, and it was as exhilarating as it was terrifying.

“Hey, it’s very demoralising as a man when a woman laughs after sex you know!” Shima said, poking her in the side. There was a smile in his voice and she nipped at his earlobe, revelling in the way he shuddered at the sensation. “Ah! Starting me up again, you’ll be worn out for that big meeting tomorrow.”

“I don’t care about work or meetings right now,” she replied and realised it was the truth. “And I’ll laugh whenever I want.”

Shima rolled, pinning Yuna beneath him. His smile answered her own and he lay propped on one arm, eyes surveying her in a way that might have once left her feeling uncomfortable or exposed.

“You’re right, you should absolutely laugh whenever you want but especially when you’re with me,” he said and laid a gentle kiss on her forehead.

It was a revelation that laughter could be free and joyful and Yuna felt that, no matter what the future held, that moment of happiness would live with her for the rest of her life.

Yugto

In response to Word High July the snippet below is inspired by the Filipino word ‘yugto’ or ‘fundamental transition or development’. It’s part of a series charting the impact of the discovery of intelligent life in space on five ordinary people over the course of a month. Enjoy!

Image taken from Buzzfeed: “36 Of The Most Beautiful Words In The Philippine Language”. All credits goes to them.

***

There were voices coming from the lounge when Luke walked through the door and he frowned, Momma hadn’t mentioned plans for anyone to visit and he was a sweaty mess from practice.

“Luke? That you baby?” his momma called from the sitting room.

“Yeah Momma, just gonna go wash up,” he replied, starting for the stairs.

“Never mind that now, come here.”

Frown deepening, Luke did as he was told. Momma always insisted he clean up before he spoke to company. And when he stepped through the doorway he wished he’d headed straight upstairs, Dr Strass was waiting with one of the scientists who’d been at dinner the other evening. Both were dressed casually, but there was a whole pile of paperwork laid out on the coffee table that looked pretty formal.

“Sit down son, Dr Hamil and I have some information we’d like to discuss with you and your momma,” Dr Strass said.

Luke did as he was told, conscious that he was sitting in dirty track pants on Momma’s clean chair. He caught her eye carefully to gauge her reaction but Momma just beamed at him, some papers in her hand.

“Luke, I was very impressed by you and by the information Dr Strass shared with me about your potential and your interests,” Hamil said, his voice sincere. “You mentioned the other night that there weren’t many courses right now on astrobiology, and that’s true, but the University I represent runs one of the best and is a top five in the US for space studies overall. With the signal and the work being done to advance our understanding of potentially intelligent extra-terrestrial life there’s a lot of talk of expanding the program we offer. And I’d like you to consider joining it, in fact I’d go so far as to say we’re looking at offering you a place.”

It felt like Luke’s stomach had hit the floor, his mouth filled with cotton and he coughed a little, unable to speak.

“Dr Hamil’s been showing me the documents, it’s a full ride and to one of the best colleges out there but it’s up to you baby,” Momma said, patting Luke on his knee.

“I-I mean…” words just wouldn’t come no matter how hard Luke tried and he looked at Dr Strass in mute distress.

“I think it’s a big decision and a good opportunity, so it needs some thinking time. Lukey-boy’s home and you’ve sprung a whole lot of news on him, let’s give him a couple of days,” Dr Strass advised, rising from his chair.

Hamil nodded and shuffled the papers into a tidy pile.

“This may not be the only offer you’re looking for, so I understand if the answer is no. There’s a lot of future for you out there but I believe we can provide you with a great foundation,” he held a slip of paper out to Luke, who took it with trembling fingers. “Here’s my card, you give me a call when you’ve made up your mind.”

The two professors shook hands with Luke’s momma, who thanked them although Luke could feel her eyes on him. They were at the door by the time he managed to get his lips and tongue working together once again.

“Wait, I-I want to. I mean, it’s exactly the offer I wanted and I’d very much like to look over those papers with you, Dr Hamil!” he called out.

Hamil turned, face lit in a bright grin.

“Well alright then, Luke. Let’s get down to the details.”