Twisting and Turning: an update

Hello again. Sorry to abandon the WordPress community for the last couple of months. I knew May and June were going to be busy, but I guess I didn’t realize just how busy! Here’s a quick summary of what’s been going on here before I get into a real post. I’ve promised myself to get some real content flowing again now that my extra-curricular commitments are winding down.

I know I mentioned that I’m coaching soccer and t-ball this year, and it has been a crazy, frustrating, rewarding experience. I’m glad it’s (almost) over now, but I think I’ll sign up to do it again next year unless I have a scheduling conflict. That’s getting harder to predict, though.

I’ve had a bit of a shake up with my career as a writer-for-hire. I’ve done some freelance work over the last seven years or so, and I had a pretty sweet contract that kept me afloat. The industry I work in has been suffering a bit of a slump lately, though, and I’ve been hit twice now with major losses to that contract and it’s gotten to the point now where I need to branch out into something new.

The good news is, the timing is ripe for a project that combines many of my skills and interests, and while I have a lot of work ahead of me, I think I’m going to be able to turn the collapse of one contract into a huge new opportunity. I’ve got some meetings lined up over the summer, and I’ll be crunching some numbers and trying to drum up the financial backing I need to get started. So I’m in that excited/terrified stage of starting a new company where I waver between seeing all the potential, positive and negative, and not knowing where I’ll land. I’m choosing to stay positive, though. I’ll share more as I can!

I haven’t done much in the way of fiction writing over the last two months, as I’ve barely had time to sit down let alone put together a coherent thought. I pretty much crash as soon as I get the kids to sleep these days. However, I have been doing a lot of reading in my spare moments. I can still enjoy other people’s stories when I’m totally drained.

I have been studying some short story writers and hopefully absorbing some of their brilliance. I’ve finished: Skin Folk by Nalo Hopkinson, Roald Dahl’s Book of Ghost Stories, The Garden Party and other stories by Katherine Mansfield, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver, First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan, and The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami. I’m halfway through The Paper Menagerie and other stories by Ken Liu. Eventually, I might put together some thoughts on each of these. I really don’t think there’s a bad book in the bunch, but it’s a pretty eclectic collection of styles, so maybe not for everyone.

Otherwise, I’ve still been waiting to hear back about the third round of NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. A cash prize would be a welcome surprise at this point in career limbo, so keep your fingers crossed for me! I’ll let you know as soon as they announce the winners, even if I don’t make the cut.

July will be an exciting month for me as a writer. I’ve got the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge to look forward to, as well as two opportunities to travel (locally) and do some photo journalism projects, both of which will tie into my BIG SECRET PROJECT. As well as the aforementioned business meetings…

I’ll try to stay a bit more active here, though, as I miss the connection with other writers and people who feel my pain. Check in in the comments section if you’re still out there and reading!

Science Fiction and “Otherness”

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I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.

However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”

It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”

I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”

This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.

What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!

If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!

“Making Suds” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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Note: This is a re-post in order to make my short stories easier to find. You can read the original here.

Once upon a time, when stories flowed like rivers and rivers were never what they seemed, there was a girl. Her name was Suds. It wasn’t her real name, but her parents were soap-makers and they thought themselves very clever.

They were also very sad. Suds’ parents longed for another child. In fact, the soap-makers whispered that they were cursed.

Suds knew that was nonsense. But that was the way of grown-ups, she thought, always wishing for more and forgetting what they’ve got.

Then, when Suds was twelve years old, her mother gave birth to a baby boy. Suds loved her brother. Everyone was very happy.

With her parents so distracted, Suds enjoyed her freedom. She roamed the woods outside their village, picked berries, snared rabbits, chased pheasants, and never once thought about making soap.

The weeks turned into months, and her parents’ infatuation with the new baby grew. The family needed money. But neither the mother nor the father could bear to leave the boy, not for a moment.

“Suds, we need you to go down to the river today,” her mother said one morning. She rocked the baby boy and cooed.

“For what?” Suds asked.

“You must leach the lye and make the soap,” her father explained. “Or soon we will starve.”

“Alone?”

“Your brother needs us,” her parents said. “We need you. Please go to the river today.”
Suds collected her tools and glared at the soap-makers.

“Don’t forget your gloves,” her mother said, looking at the baby. “And don’t talk to the Nixe.”

Down at the river, Suds built up a fire. She hauled the great iron tub up over the coals, filled it with water, and waited for the water to boil.

All the while, a creature watched her from the bank. Suds never looked directly at it. If she did, it was sure to start talking to her. River spirits loved to talk to children, especially children who were not with their parents. The thing crept closer. It smelled of rotting fish.

“What are you doing, child?”

Suds ignored the Nixe and stirred the water in the tub. She hummed quietly to herself and waited for the water to boil.

“Where are the grown ones, girl?”

Suds ignored the Nixe and watched the bubbles begin to rise from the bottom of the iron tub. She hummed quietly to herself and shovelled some ashes into the boiling water.

“Let me try, will you?”

At this, Suds looked up. The Nixe cocked its head. Milk-white eyes rolled in sockets of water-logged flesh. The fish smell was much worse up close. Suds knew better than to make a deal with a river spirit. But she longed to go exploring in the forest.

So Suds showed the Nixe how to keep the fire hot, boil the water, scoop the ashes, and skim the lye. And, most importantly, she showed the creature how to protect its delicate skin from burning with the heavy leather gloves. Soon, the creature was doing all the work for her.

“Delightful!” The spirit’s black tongue flashed out between its lips and it tugged at the gloves. “But this soap-making is giving me an appetite. Let us make a deal. I will do your work for you if you bring me something to eat.”

“I can fish,” Suds replied warily.

“I hate fish. All I eat is fish. Cold and slimy and flip-flopping,” the creature said. “No. Bring me a basket of berries from the forest and I will make fifty bars of soap.”

Fifty bars of soap was twice as many as Suds could make in a day. It was a deal worth taking. So she went off to gather berries and enjoy a day in the forest.

When she returned with the berries, the Nixe bared its sharp teeth in a smile. It gobbled the berries up, presented the pile of soaps, and leapt into the river with a splash. Suds carried the soaps home to her parents.

The soap-makers were thrilled. They hugged Suds and praised her and wondered how they had been blessed with such a wonderful daughter. Suds basked in their love and privately vowed to make a deal with the river spirit again tomorrow.

“I will make one hundred bars of soap for you,” the Nixe said the next morning. “If you bring three plump, juicy rabbits to fill my belly.”

Suds knew her snares were full and she looked forward to another day in the woods. She took that bargain, too. And when she returned, the Nixe had all of her soaps prepared. Again, she returned a hero to her parents. The next day the price was six pheasants. Suds thought herself very lucky.

But on the fourth day, the Nixe was harder to please.

“I am very, very hungry,” the river spirit said. “Today I need something more.”

“What is your price?” asked Suds.

“I will make your soaps for the rest of your life,” the Nixe fluttered its gills and sniffed. “But you must bring me the baby.”

“That,” said Suds, “is something I will not do.”

“You will,” said the Nixe. “Or I will have you instead. I am very, very hungry.”

“No!” Suds lunged at the Nixe, but it was a slippery creature and much wilier than the girl. The river spirit slipped right out of Suds arms and it shoved her into the hot tub of lye.

The Nixe knew just what to do. It pulled on the protective gloves, and stirred the pot. When Suds’ bones had dissolved, it made the broth into soap.

Then, the river spirit drew upon its glamour. It turned itself into a girl, very like Suds, but for the wet hem of its dress and the rumbling of its stomach. And it brought the bars of soap to the grateful mother and father.

And everyone lived happily ever after. Except, of course, the soap-makers.

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“Making Suds” was my submission for Round Two of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Location: a hot tub, Object: a pair of gloves. I placed third overall in my group. The judges feedback is below:

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1651}  This has all of the elements of a classic fairytale. We gets a strong sense of Suds and that she would rather play in the forest than make soaps.  {1597}  I really enjoyed the classic fairy tale structure you used, complete with negligent parents and children who just want to wander in the woods. The kind of Faustian deal with the Nixe was fun to read about. The ending is dark but satisfying.  {1739}  In the beginning, Suds seems to be clever and her deals are basically made in the hopes of her parents’ adoration. The anticipation built as we work toward the payoff is well paced.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1651}  If a creature told you that it was going to eat you, why would you lunge for it? Instinctually, it does not make sense. I also didn’t understand the ending; why did the soapmakers not live happily ever after? For all they know, they still have their two children and all the soaps they can sell.  {1597}  One flag that was raised for me is that since the parents are aware of the Nixe and warn her not to speak to it, they would probably be suspicious when she comes home with 50 perfect soaps on her first day. It seems strange they wouldn’t have suspected and put a stop to it. Also, I wasn’t sure I believed Suds would be reluctant to sacrifice her baby brother. I’m not sure if you need that last line.  {1739}  If the Nixe has the ability to ‘glamour’ why hasn’t it done this already and worked its way into a home? Why would a river sprite be able to live in disguise as a human? Suds doesn’t display any love for her brother. Why wouldn’t she agree to hand him over?

“The Hollow” by S.C. Jensen

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The lifeless eyes hung level with Ginny’s gaze. Blue nylon cord twisted around the thing’s naked body, diving in and out of the flesh like a hungry worm, so that she couldn’t see where it was tied. A mask of blood matted the fur on the tiny face and pooled in its ears. The rest of it was hairless. It looked a bit like a cat, but Ginny couldn’t see a tail.

Behind her, Bea made a sound in her throat almost like a laugh.

“I told you,” Ginny said. “I told you something like this would happen.”

The fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. Bea blew out a cloud of steam in the crisp autumn air. It hung like a ghost between them. “This is bad, Gin.”

The sun sank into the trees behind their house. Rose-gold spears of evening light broke through the remaining leaves of the season and cast an otherworldly glow over the macabre scene.

Ginny reached out a tentative hand and recoiled quickly. The body was still warm. “I don’t what to do anymore, Bea.”

“Well, we can’t tell anyone.” Bea cupped her hands around her mouth and blew into them, trying to stay warm. “That’s for sure.”

“I didn’t do it,” Ginny said. She rubbed her fingers against her pants. A smear of blood stained the denim. “You believe me, don’t you?”

“They’re going to take you away, Ginny. You’re going to celebrate your sixteenth birthday in a straight-jacket.”

Silence fell between the girls until the air quivered with it. Ginny’s body shook with more than the cold; her heart hammered painfully against her chest. Spots swam at the edges of her vision, like ghost-lights. Will-o-the-wisps. An aura of light seemed to swell around her sister’s face. Ginny was afraid she would pass out if Bea didn’t say something soon.

“Go get the shovel.” Bea turned toward the tree. “I’ll cut it down. Mom’s going to be home soon.”

Ginny walked to the garden shed on legs like sandbags. She kicked each step forward, feeling the impossible weight of her body with every step. Bea was right. No one could know about this. They were just waiting for an excuse to lock her up. Voices rose, unbidden, to whisper in her ears. Maladjusted, delusional, unstable…

Her therapists and social workers said they were on her side, but she could hear the excitement in their voices when they talked to her mother. A very unusual case. Like her mental health was a sideshow they could observe from the front row, munching on popcorn and planning their next sabbatical project.

She heard the kids at school, too. Freak, psycho, bitch… Sure, she threatened to cut Bradley Schaeffer’s pecker off with a pair of sewing shears in home-ec. But Bradley had started to look at Bea the way he used to look at her. The way he looked at her before that night. Slut. Ginny wasn’t going to let that happen again. Not to Bea. Bradley would stay away from both of them from now on.

Ginny’s hand pressed against the weather beaten door of the shed. Her coat sleeve fell back to reveal a cross-hatch of raised silver flesh on her wrist. Ginny didn’t like to look at her wrists. Her limbs felt like they belonged to someone else, dull, heavy things she had to lug through life. The ghostly chains of her sins, hanging off of her, dragging her down. She pushed the door open with her hip and stepped into the frigid darkness inside. The shovel was there, just as she’d left it.

The thing was on the ground when Ginny came back. The frayed cord lay in a tangle at Bea’s feet, electric blue and unnaturally vivid against the dead flesh and dead leaves. Bea said, “Give me that.”

The girls trudged through the forest behind their house, single file. Bea held the shovel against her shoulder, like a rifle, and led the way to the Hollow. Ginny dragged the mess of meat and twine behind her. The creature deserved better, but she couldn’t stand to carry the body in her arms. The skinny limbs, red and wet and going cold. It was too much like—

“Here.” Bea stopped abruptly and stuck the blade of the shovel into a patch of churned up earth. “Put it next to the other one.”

Ginny released her grip on the nylon rope and took the spade from her sister. She pressed her foot into the top of the blade until she could feel the edge cutting into her foot through the sole of her shoe. She pressed until it hurt, but the blade wouldn’t pierce the frozen soil.

“Hurry up,” Bea said. “Mom’s going to be home any minute now.”

“I can’t.” Ginny threw all of her weight on top of the shovel. The handle dug into her ribs. “It’s rock hard.”

“Well put it in with the others.” Bea’s exasperated voice burst out in another cloud of steam. “You’re really cutting it close this time.”

Ginny eyed the fallen leaves at their feet. If you didn’t know to look for them, no one would ever know they were there. Little mounds arranged in a pyramid. The original on top and, supporting it—or maybe keeping it company—the tributes. Servants in the afterlife.

“The big one,” Bea said, suddenly. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. “It’s the freshest.”

Ginny’s heartbeat slowed. It struck with the great, anvil-clanging blows of a blacksmith. She forced her eyes to see the other grave. This one was easier to spot, even if you didn’t know to look for it. But after another good wind the raised earth would be completely camouflaged by the last of the leaves. With any luck, it would stay hidden until spring.

“Or do want Mom to find you like this?” Bea whispered. Something like glee tainted her voice. “She’d lose it. You two can be roomies in the nut house.”

Ginny pushed the shovel into the softened soil of the largest mound and flicked it aside. Something had gotten to the body, already, cold as it was. Black holes stared up at her from where the eyes should have been. Greying flesh sunk into the bones beneath the sockets. Teeth smiled up at her, liplessly. Ginny held her breath.

Like she was proving a point, Bea said, “There.”

Bradley Schaeffer’s face, what was left of it, glared up at Ginny accusingly. “I didn’t do it, Bea. I swear I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Bea’s voice dripped with scorn. “You never stand up for yourself, do you? That’s why I’m here.”

Ginny’s limbs began to weigh on her again. It wasn’t possible. Not this. “Bea?”

“Come on,” Bea said. “Tuck it in with him nice and tight.”

As if being moved by something outside herself, Ginny crouched next to the shallow grave. She tugged the mass of meat and twine through the leaves and, lifting it by the rope, lowered the thing onto Bradley’s chest. Bea was right. It suited him. She dropped the twine and the raw, naked body rolled. It caught in the crook of Bradley’s arm, like—

“Just like a baby,” Bea said.

Ginny’s legs began to cramp and she stood slowly. Without taking her eyes off the bodies, she dragged the shovel through the leaves and dirt she’d churned up. She pulled it over the pair like a blanket, gently. Tears stung her eyes and burned her cold cheeks.

“Good.” Bea’s voice cracked like a twig. “Now let’s go. The last thing we need is for mom to see you out here. They’ll put you away for sure, even if they don’t find this mess.”

“Stop saying that!”

“Come on, Gin. Wandering around the forest with a shovel, crying and talking to yourself. You look like a bloody lunatic,” Bea looked pointedly at the stains on Ginny’s clothes. “No pun intended.”

“I’m not crazy! You know I’m not. You’re just trying to upset me.”

“Upset you?” Bea’s mouth twisted into a cruel sneer. “That implies that you were settled in the first place. We both know you’re off your rocker.”

“Don’t you turn on me, too” Ginny whispered. “I need you.”

“I,” Bea said, “am not going anywhere. That’s your problem.”

“Tell them we were just out for a walk,” Ginny begged. “They’ll believe you.”

“Me?” Bea laughed, then. The harsh, joyless bark of sound shook the leaves off the trees. “Who exactly do you think I am?”

Bea’s face flickered in the waning twilight. Ginny had to concentrate to focus on her, like looking through murky water at a mirror. Bea had her dishevelled hair, her tear-streaked cheeks, her blood-stained clothes. They were identical, except for Bea’s cruel smile.

Then the cruel smile softened. Bea reached out and took Ginny’s hand, her damp fingers like ice, and led her back to the house. She said, not unkindly, “You really are crazy, you know.”

Ginny knew.
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This is my piece for the January prompt for 12 Short Stories. The prompt was “No one can know” at 1500 words. “The Hollow” came in just shy at 1498. I don’t technically submit this one until the 30th, so if you leave comments and feedback, I have time to apply it before the official due date! Please do. I am now awaiting my assignment for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition, which will be arriving at midnight EST. I wanted to get this one out of the way so I can focus one NYC Midnight next week. Stay tuned for that one, too! As always, thanks for reading.

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Temporary Tales #1

There was a story draft here, once. But I’m currently reworking it in order to submit to some magazines. Thank you to everyone for your feedback!

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This piece was inspired by the January prompt “Flower” at BlogBattle! Thank you so much to Simon from Planet Simon for the suggestion to try this challenge as well as the others I’ve got going this month. I had a lot of fun with it. Can you tell? What did you think? As always, thanks for reading!

Flash Fiction Friday: “Hagfire” by S.C. Jensen

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The lineup to get into Hominids spilled into the street and curled back onto itself, a coil of black, twitching entrails. The hopeful clubbers huddled together in the cold-air burn, shifting and twisting impatiently as they waited for their turn. The shadowy tower at the core loomed above them; throbbing bass shook the blackened windows. Outside, the queue pulsed in response. Half-clothed and shuffling, dancers let the music move them closer to the centre. Hominids was always worth the wait.

“We’re not getting in.” Min blew smoke through her cupped fists. The streams jettisoned between her fingers in thick tendrils. She leaned into Viki to take another drag. “Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck.” Skanky smelling puffs of air burst above their heads as she cursed.

“We’ll get in.” Viki pulled Min’s icy, bare arms into a tight hug. “I told you we’ll get in. And when we’re in, I’m buying.”

“I need it, Vik.” Min’s body shivered. It wasn’t the cold that shook her. “I shouldn’t have waited this long. I thought I was chill. I’m not fucking chill.”

“Yeah. I know, benni.” The skin around Viki’s drug port crawled up her arm. She kept checking to make sure it wasn’t really moving. “The skad is blacker than I thought it would be.”

“So black.” Min rubbed her arm against the faux-leather straps on her bondage dress, itching. They had planned on hitting the 80s floor. Min loved the goth lounge, Bauhaus Bitch. Synth keyboards blaring and boys in dripping eyeliner. Viki didn’t mind as long as Min still came home with her. “No going back, say?”

“No going back.”

The line-up lurched and shifted closer to the doors as another group of hopefuls were turned away. This better work. Viki’s neck twitched like horseflesh. The bugs were at her now.  Hominids towered upward, a shadow against the starlit sky above them. Green tinged auroras danced with them, flickering in the magnetosphere. Min watched the lights, rocking on her heels. Viki held her close.

The meatsacks at the door thumbed away a group of neon bedazzled ravers ahead of them to a chorus of cursing. They stumbled their way to some other club in the strip, lighting up the night with pink and yellow glowsticks and shooting ecstasy mocks. They’d find a home. Rave-play was all-benni this year. Viki stepped up to take their place on the chopping block, Min tucked under her arm protectively. She flicked the butt of her joint into the gutter.

“Bauhaus is at capacity,” the meat on the left said and made to shove them off.

“Fuck. Knew it.” Min stiffened against her.

“Not Bauhaus,” Viki said. She caught him by the eyeball and held him there. “Hagfire.”

“Where’d a tart like you hear a word like that?” The meat smirked at his partner. “What do you want with Hagfire?”

“None of your fucking business.” Viki snapped her eyes to the other guy. He appraised her, silently. “But we’ve got business.”

An arm shot out from the quiet one.

“Hey!” Fat sausage fingers closed on Viki’s forearm like a vice. She pulled back, but it was like trying to move stone. “What the fuck?”

“Just a civvy?” The man’s voice was low and soft, gentle almost. He inspected the drug port at her wrist, a hack civilian job, but it did the trick. His eyes lingered at the raw, scarlet line inching away from the tube and up her arm.

“Not a fucking soldier, say.”

“How long since she hit?” The meat nodded at Min. She still rocked on her heels and stared at the northern lights, fading fast. Viki felt the fear creeping in. The oh-shit-we-went-too-far fear. Edge-of-the-abyss fear. Blackest skad.

“Night before last.”

“Benni.” He dropped her arm and stood back in his shadow. “Let them in.”

“You know where you’re going?” Other meat pushed open the heavy metal door. Behind them, the crowd stirred. Whispered.

“All-benni.” I think. Viki pulled Min through the door and into the pitch beyond. “You still with me?”

“I’m here.” Min’s voice vibrated, half-pitched and off-kilter. “Where are we?”

Not good.

Viki didn’t bother to reply. She twined her fingers into Min’s and led her into the belly of Hominids. The main floor was always dark and always deserted. Above them, each floor was dedicated to a decade in pop music history. It was kitsch and superficial and wildly popular, the heart of the city. She and Min had worked their way through every floor, every room. Getting in the elevator was like time travel.

Vik wished they were going up.

The only lights on main floor were on the elevator wall. They danced along the chicklet markers that topped each set of doors, blinking and shifting across the floors, ‘M’ through twenty. Five lifts moved constantly, but the sixth lift was lights out. It always was, as long as Viki had been coming to Hominids. A maintenance elevator, she had assumed. The only one with an extra marker. ‘B.’

“I’m cold, benni.” Min tucked into her, eyelids drooping. The port-arm still rubbed against her dress, faster now. It was like all Min’s life and vitality were being pulled into that limb. It flipped and twitched and made Viki’s skin crawl in sympathy.

I’m not that far behind her.

Viki pushed the unlit arrow on the dead lift. Down. Downdowndowndowndown. She watched the lights flitting above the other five elevators. Still nothing on hers. C’mon. All-benni. Work, say?

The doors rocketed open, shakily, like the thing was rusty. The shuddering sound made Viki’s guts lurch, but she stepped inside and pulled Min in with her. The doors hammered closed, shutting off what little light had spilled in from the elevator lounge. The lift was pitched.

Viki blinked away the amoebas that floated in her eyes. Her eyes adjusted and one of the floaters solidified. A soft, green chicklet of light. Phosphorescent green. ‘B’ for benni. All-benni. She pushed the button with a hangnailed finger.

Nothing happened.

Viki jammed it again. And again. Counting. Onetwothreefourfive. Onetwothreefourfive. Fucksake. Work, say? Onetwothreefourfive.

“Easy, say?” A voice crackled overhead. “You chill?”

“Yeah.” Viki talked to the ceiling. “Yeah. I’m chill. For now. But my friend—”

“You’re in the wrong lift, benni.”

“Hag—” Viki’s voice caught and cracked. She coughed and spat. “Hagfire. Please.”

Silence.

“We can pay. I can pay. I have cash.”

Silence.

“She’s not chill, say? She’s not chill and I’m blacking. Fucking Hagfire. Benni, please.”

Silence.

Viki’s stomach hit her throat. The lift dropped so fast she thought they were crashing. But the doors shuddered open and someone grabbed her by the wrist again. Min was wrenched from her grasp. A woman with a cigarette stuck to her lip grinned at her.

“Civvys, yeah?” She checked Min’s pupils and pressed at the now-raw drug port in her twitching arm.

“Yeah.” Viki winced. Min didn’t even register.

“When did you hit?”

“Thirty hours, maybe.”

The woman whistled.

“Who keyed you? Who locked you up?”

“We were chill.” Viki’s arm was doing the twitch thing now, too. The bug were under her skin now. Picking at her.

“All-benni, say? Thirty fucking hours?”

“I have cash.”

The woman turned on her heel and walked down the concrete hallway. Lights buzzed and flickered on the walls. Their yellow glow made the woman’s skin golden brown and her white sleeveless top dirty. Min trailed behind the woman, a sleepwalker. Viki followed, her eyes taking in the narrow waist and muscled back and heavy steps.

Militia, then.

The edge-of-the-abyss fear was back. Viki was teetering, vertigo slamming in her chest like a heart. The woman led them into a room full of people and Viki fell off the edge. Panic kicked her in the ribs and pumped her lungs. The room was full of other women, hard glassy eyes blinking at the newcomers. White tanks and brown slacks and black boots. They sat or sprawled across the ragged chairs and sofas that made up the waiting room. Waiting for what?

“These your freshies, Banks?” A blonde buzz-cut head lifted up. Red lips flashed.

“Shit. I thought you were dead, say?” Viki recognized the woman who’d given them the hit in Bauhaus Bitch two nights ago. Her cold blue eyes knocked over Min and landed on Viki. “You still chill?”

“Black fucking skad, benni. I’m blacking.”

“You’d better be. That one’s gone.” Banks stood up and kicked the boots of the woman next to her. “Hit her before she gets ugly.”

“Round two?”

Banks nodded the other woman led Min into another room.

“Where are you taking her?”

“She’ll be okay.”

“I want to go with her.”

“Do you, say?” Banks held out a vial of crystalline red fluid. Hagfire, she had called it that night. All-benni. Cutting-edge high. And the edge was cutting, alright. Viki felt it in her guts like a knife. She forgot Min. Banks pulled her hand away. “Most people don’t make it past twenty-four hours before they’re knocking on our door.”

“I have cash. Three hundred. For both of us.”

“Thirty fucking hours later, you waltz in. Still chill.”

“Not for long, benni. Please.” Viki thrust the green roll of twenties at the woman.

“Keep your money, say.”

“I need a fucking hit.” Hit’ echoed off the concrete walls. Viki winced. The soldiers were watching her. Blink. Her arm twitched and she rubbed it into her side to kill the bugs.

“You don’t know how true that is, benni.” Banks grabbed her arm and jammed her thumb against the port, opening the little mouth to her veins. Viki ribcage hummed. She couldn’t tear her eyes off the vial as Banks gave her the hit. Half a hit. A fraction of a hit. Just enough that the bugs dropped off her flesh and she could pull herself out of the abyss, back to the safety of the edge.

“Where’s Min?” Banks dropped Viki’s arm and stepped aside. Viki stepped a little closer to the edge. She pushed her way through the women and into the doorway Min had been taken to.

The room had six beds. Four of them were empty. One had the sheet pulled up and over, like a shroud.

One had Min. Pink froth frosted her black painted lips. Her dark green eyeliner left trails where it ran and pooled in her ears.

“Min? Benni?” Viki fell to her knees next to the cot. The fingers on Min’s right hand were sticky and red. A ragged hole in her wrist was all that was left of the drug port. But the blood wasn’t pumping anymore. “No going back, say?”

“No going back.” Banks spoke from the doorway.

“Fuck you!” Viki reeled on the woman. “What the fuck did you do to her?”

“Me, say? I didn’t do anything to her. What did you do?”

“What is this skad? She’s dead. She’s fucking dead, say?”

“The ones who make it to Hagfire are already dead, benni.” Banks wrapped a strong arm around Viki’s shoulders and picked her up off the floor. The shockwave hit her before the heat as the drug fired into her veins. “Right now, it’s the only thing keeping you alive.”

“Why?” Viki could barely move her lips to form the word. She drifted away from the edge, floating above the abyss, invincible.

“Because desperate people make good soldiers.” Banks half-dragged, half-carried Viki back out to the main room. “And we are in desperate need of good soldiers.”

Banks spun Viki into the small, dark-skinned woman who had led Min to the infirmary. Viki blinked her eyes and wrapped her arms around the bundle of clothes the woman pressed to her chest. She watched herself from a distance, feeling full and empty.

“All-benni, girls,” Banks shouted. “Say hello to the new recruit.”

The women stomped their feet in unison and pounded her on the back as Viki float-walked to the back of the room, following her keeper.

“Hagfire!” They shouted when she made it out the other side. “Hagfire!”

“Hagfire,” Viki said, with them. The word fell from her lips and plummeted into the abyss.

SF/Horror Book Review: I am Legend by Richard Matheson

I’m giving this particular edition three stars, because I’m reviewing the book as a whole—not just the iconic titular work. “I am Legend” is, hands down, the best story in this collection. And when I bought this book on Amazon (don’t shoot me) I didn’t realize that it was anything more than Matheson’s famous dystopian novella.

If I was reviewing “I am Legend” alone, this would be a 4 star review, maybe even 4.5. After all, it is the vampire novel that gave birth to zombie fiction!

Wait, what?

No, really. Although Matheson’s tale features the last man alive in a battle for survival against a host of vampires, “I am Legend” is much more akin to the zombie lit that has followed, than what we (or I should say, I) associate with modern vampire fiction. I never really jumped on the zombie bandwagon, but I have always enjoyed a good vampire tale (Anne Rice defined my angsty teenage years), and I think that Matheson succeeds in both genres. What is even more impressive is that “I am Legend” was written in 1954, and has influenced countless contemporary masters of horror and SF since.

Of course, “I am Legend” is not the first vampire novel (novella, in this case), nor is it the first dystopian or plague novel for that matter. Detractors from this work love to point this out as if not being the first somehow negates the work’s influence on popular culture. One gets the feeling that some of these people still believe in “original” art, as if there is such a thing as a completely new idea. Sorry, folks, it’s all been done before. Literature is an evolution of ideas. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again, and done better. That’s the fun of writing, isn’t it? Expressing old ideas in new ways?

“I am Legend” is a moody, self-reflective tale about the end of the world. Robert Neville, the protagonist, battles fear, loneliness, anger, and despair as the last human being untouched by the plague that has turned the rest of the world into vampires. He’s perhaps not a likeable character, he spends a lot of time wallowing in self-pity and drinking himself into a stupor, but that’s not to say that he’s not a believable character. Matheson’s prose is descriptive without being flowery, the repetition of scenes and themes that many found irritating, to me served to build an idea of the necessarily mundane routine of Neville’s life. He is confined to a small area of the city, defined by how far he can go and still make it back to the safety of his house by sundown. His life consists of gathering supplies, maintaining his property, dispatching any vampires he finds and, later on, researching the plague. When something disturbs this routine, such as finding the dog or the woman, the reader is shocked—as Neville is shocked—as much by the disturbance as by how little it takes to make a profound impact on a lonely man’s existence.

The story is only about 170 pages long, so the tedium of Neville’s world doesn’t bog the reader down (or I didn’t find it did). Had it been longer, I think Matheson would have needed to add more action to maintain the pace of the story, but this would have detracted from the intensely moody landscape he’s built. It is the lack of action that is so disturbing in “I am Legend,” and that is what makes the ending so shocking, in contrast. Neville’s perspective shifts so suddenly that it is disorienting, for the reader and for him. The skill with which Matheson delivers the transition of Ben Cortman from antagonist to pitiable victim was gut-wrenching and unexpected. And Neville’s last thought in the novel, the titular phrase “I am Legend,” has chilling implications.

Some people were bothered by Matheson’s “pseudo-science,” finding that his attempts to explain the plague were ham-handed or just silly. But I think they forget that this was written in the mid-1950’s, and that what we recognize as being impossible or implausible today would not necessarily have been so then. I feel it’s an unfair criticism. Even if Matheson should have known better (I have no idea what stage the study of virus and bacteria were at in the ‘50’s) it’s a red herring argument. This is not hard science fiction, the science behind the plague wasn’t important to the story at all. What was important, was seeing a man’s desperate attempt to explain and understand his circumstances. The way that Neville was able to create a sense of normalcy for himself by pursing an answer to the age-old question of why thing happen the way they do. So Matheson’s science is a little far-fetched, I get it. But had it been more plausible, it would have had no effect on the outcome of the story. It was the act of researching that had meaning for Neville, not the answers themselves, in my opinion.

Sadly, the rest of the stories in this collection didn’t really do it for me. I won’t go into them here, as most people who pick up this book are likely only doing so for “I am Legend”, but rate them as follows:

“I am Legend” 4-4.5/5

“Buried Talents” 2/5

“The Near Departed” 1/5

“Prey” 1/5

“Witch War” 1/5

“Dance of the Dead” 3/5

“Dress of White Silk” 2/5

“Mad House” 3/5

“The Funeral” 3/5

“From Shadowed Places” 2/5

“Person to Person” 3.5/5

***A couple of complaints on the edition I bought: Nowhere on the cover, with the exception of some fine print on the back, does this mention that there are other stories than the titular one inside. When I bought it on Amazon (don’t shoot me) I had no idea that this was a collection of short stories. I accidently discovered this when reading a review of “I am Legend” and I realized that the book I was reading was far too thick to be a novella, as the reviewer described it. I guess it’s not a big deal, but I felt kind of deceived…

Worse than this misrepresentation of “I am Legend” as a three-hundred page novel, is the tacky red star on the front of the book proudly proclaiming that the tale is “Now a major motion picture starring Will Smith!”. If they have to do that, why couldn’t it be a sticker? Why print it on there, forever scarring what otherwise was some pretty cool cover art? Especially annoying because the big red star didn’t show up on Amazon’s preview image (not the book’s fault, I guess, but still annoying). Grrr!