Monday, 31 October 2016

Around The Cauldron - Fallen Angel

Sometimes, the things we fear the most are all too human...

Fallen Angel
by AJ Millen

Grace Bellamy stared at the bundle the midwife thrust into her arms. It was the moment she had so yearned for, and now she felt nothing but dread. 

The newborn infant would have been a thing of beauty and pride for any mother - but all she saw was a monster. An abomination she’d brought into the world as a result of the unholy pact she’d made. Its blue-eyed blink glinted with the promise of a thousand evils it would unleash upon the world, and when it opened its mouth to yawn, she saw a black abyss lined with sharp, teeth-like rocks.

“Well done, my dear. It’s a boy,” said Mrs Duffy, gently wiping a stray strand of sweat-soaked hair from Grace’s forehead. “Now, don’t you worry. This one is a fine young thing, as hale and hearty a bairn as I’ve ever seen.”

Grace stared at the kindly midwife, eyes wide with terror.

“Aye, my dear,” continued the soothing Aberdeenshire lilt. “Mark my words. No only will this one live, he will do great things.”

Eugenia Duffy thought she was reassuring the mother. She’d been at Grace’s side throughout the four births that had produced nothing but limp, lifeless corpses - waxen dolls never destined to live a day. Another two had lived a day, but no more.

She believed she knew Grace Bellamy’s greatest fear.
She was wrong.

In truth, Grace was facing her worst nightmare in the tightly swaddled bundle that Sarah, her trusted maid, gently took and placed in the cradle next to her bed. Mrs Duffy set about cleaning up and straightening the bed covers in preparation for the proud father to meet his son.

Grace let out a scream more piercing that any that had accompanied the agony of her labour. The midwife looked up in shock. Sarah rushed to her mistress. But Grace didn’t see them. She saw sinister horned demons, flashing blood-stained grins at her through a black cloud rising out of the cradle.
She knew what they were and why they were there.
It was all her doing.

When she’d realised she was with child again, her worst fear had been that she’d be planting yet another small, sad coffin in the family plot at St Wilfred’s. She’d grasped at every straw. Endless prayers and promises to the heavens. Countless doctors, both in Harley Street and in the London’s less reputable side-streets, whose patent cures and potions she took religiously. She even visited clairvoyants who claimed to speak to the world beyond this one.

One convinced her she was cursed. But, for a fee, that curse could be broken. They’d visited Highgate Cemetery and stood before the gothic headstone of Maximillian Colbert, illustrious businessman and – according to Madame Petrovna – a devoted follower of the Spiritist Allan Kordec. It was All Saints’ Eve, when the medium claimed the veil dividing the temporal and spiritual worlds could open to those wishing to connect with the ‘Other Side’.

Colbert had been a strong spirit, she had said, and would be able to help Grace produce a son and heir that would not only live, but would “do great things”. She had thrown herself at the headstone and offered her very soul – and that of her unborn child.

It was only when he heard his new born cries that she realised the price to be paid.

Through the dark smoke filling her bed chamber, a figure appeared. At least seven feet tall, black as pitch and with eyes that glowed red through the gloom. “You have done well,” it rasped. “My son is born and now it has begun. My kingdom will come.”

“No, no, no, no.” Grace wailed, thrashing about her bed. “You can’t have him. He’s not yours. I won’t let you.”

Another face emerged from the gloom. Ernest, her loving and long-suffering husband. But somehow, not Ernest.

“Calm yourself, sweet Grace,” he said, gently stroking her cheek. “You’re hysterical, my angel. Everything is as it should be. You’ve done your part. Now sleep.”

He bent to kiss her forehead and tenderly but firmly pressed a sponge dipped in something sweet-smelling against her mouth. The fight left her and she fell into a sleep haunted by visions of pagan monstrosities, apocalyptic battles and a black cloud eating the sun.

The sun was streaming through a chink in the curtains when she awoke the next morning. Sarah was slumped, snoring, in the armchair next to the crib. A blackbird sang in the plum tree outside her window. All that was left of the previous day’s horror was the tinny taste of blood in her mouth. Touching her tongue to her lower lip, she winced in pain. She’d bitten it raw in her hysteria.

A hungry cry rose from the cradle. Sarah grunted, shifted in her chair, and continued snoring. Grace rose from her bed, and walked to the crib.

Calm now. she knew what she had to do. Looking down at the newborn, she wondered at her terror the night before. Now, she was serene, certain. She had a sacred duty to perform. She would not fail.

Gazing into the blue eyes of the child in the cradle, she whispered “He will not take us” and took from the dressing table a long jeweled hairpin she used to hold her heavy locks in place.

“This won’t take long,” she soothed the crying infant - before plunging the hairpin through the lace gown into its tiny cursed heart.


FOOTNOTE: Post-natal psychosis is not a supernatural phenomenon. It is a very real psychiatric emergency and the quicker it is treated, the better. 
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be suffering from it, seek immediate medical assistance. The risk is higher for women who have (or who have a first-degree relative with) a history of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective, and for those who have previously suffered from psychosis. If you fall into the above categories and are planning a pregnancy, do NOT stop taking your prescribed medication. Take folic acid on your obstetrician’s advice and seek a referral to a Preconception Care Clinic. For more, see My Story of Mental Health and Wellbeing Through Pregnancy 


(Photo credit: LensMan Nick, a.k.a. Nikos Paraskevas)

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Around The Cauldron: Guest post - Uncle by Virginia Carraway Stark

Today’s offering from Around The Cauldron is a raw, gory tale from the prolific pen of guest storyteller Virginia Carraway Stark. Prepare to have your gooses bumped!


He reached out towards her, his hands already soaked in the blood of her boyfriend and the other party goers. His face leered at her through the mask that hung loosely on his emaciated face. His teeth were yellow and his breath smelled like rotten meat. 

Moving slowly, as though it were a nightmare he reached out and stroked her chestnut hair. She moaned, it would have been a sob but she didn't dare, she didn't dare flinch from his touch, she didn't dare bat his hand away. Even his brief touch on her hair left gobs of flesh and blood on her hair. She stank like blood and death now. She stank like him. 

Her eyes drifted to his amputated hand that had been replaced with a three pronged gardening tool. He raised it up, he had been left handed before one of his last victims had chopped off his hand and it was this strange weapon that he now lifted against his cheek, prongs pointed out. He was getting ready to slice her.

She relented and let out a deep, sobbing moan of terror. Her eyes were roving, her hands looking for something, anything to use as a weapon. Behind his askance mask she saw his lips snarl into what was, for Matthew, a smile of joy. He had terrorized her mother and been locked up for it, it had been her mother who had taken his hand, her mother whose body she had found clawed to pieces behind the wheel of their Chevy. 

She found a wire coat hanger with her right hand, her left hand was held up in a pathetic warding off gesture. Using all the considerable adrenaline at her disposal she pulled out the hanger and jabbed it into the eye of the mask. It punctured deep, and to Mandy's visible surprise she felt a 'pop' as it entered his eye and he howled and reeled away from where he had her cornered. She was so surprised that it took her a moment to recover but then she kneed him hard in the balls and pushed him over. The hanger was still sticking out of his eye. Mandy pulled out the hanger, the idea that it had had one lucky hit made it a talisman of luck in her mind, his eye came trailing out of the socket and she screamed and popped it off the hanger. Time to run, it was only a few steps from where he had her trapped to the door and possible escape but each step was a lifetime.

Revenge raged in her mind along with the fear. She wasn't going to run. He wasn't going to get locked up again only to come back at her or even or own children one day. That sucker wasn't going to leave the house. 
He was going to die.


Canadian wordsmith Virginia Carraway Stark has a diverse portfolio and has many publications. Over the years she has developed this into a wide range of products from screenplays to novels to articles to blogging to travel journalism. She has been published by many presses from grassroots to Simon and Schuster for her contribution to 'Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible' as seen on ABC.  She has been an honorable mention at Cannes Film Festival for her screenplay, “Blind Eye” and was nominated for an Aurora Award. She also placed in the final top three screenplay shorts in the 'Reel to Reel' Film Festival.

She has written short stories in well over twenty anthologies as well as magazines, novels, poetry, poetry anthologies, blogs, journals and many other venues. She is Editor-in-Chief at StarkLight Press as well as for Outermost: Journal of the Paranormal. She formerly worked writing medical papers into language for the lay person and worked on scientific papers for numerous platforms.

https://virginiastark.wordpress.com/contact-me/



If Virginia's story has whetted your appetite for more dark tales for Hallowe'en, go to Around The Cauldron 

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Around The Cauldron - Hunted

It's that time of year again. There's a chill in the air, leaves are turning, night dominates the day, and we seek the comfort of human warmth and companionship as our thoughts turn to the darker side. Hallowe'en, All Saints' Eve, Samhain, call it what you will, is almost upon us. A time when it's said the membrane between this world and the next is stretched to its thinnest, even to breaking point. So, let's gather around the fire, turn off the lights and share some dark little tales around the cauldron. 


Hunted 
by AJ Millen

I liked it there.
The damp embrace of the soil held me like a lover’s arms. Darkness enfolding me like a cloak, it was where I belonged. And now, after so long, I belonged nowhere else.


It had taken a while. I hadn’t wanted to be there at first. I’d feared it more than anything. Anything but the men with dogs and blazing torches, chasing me through the night, baying for revenge for some imagined hurt and demanding I be fed to the cleansing fire.

The thought of refuge in the casket had given me pause. Black Death had taken Old Man Rivers and his fresh grave lay open, waiting for its covering of soil to insulate the village from the canker that riddled him. Unclean, it was only by virtue of his standing in the church that they’d buried him in holy ground.

There was nothing holy about him when I scrambled, like a hunted animal, into the box with him. The stench of decay rose up like a cloud from his body as my weight pushed him down. It wasn’t the first time his body had been pressed against mine and I’d turned my face away. But this time I was on top, and he was no longer in a state to force himself on me. The old goat.

I’d wriggled myself around to face upwards, ready to emerge from the casket once my pursuers were gone. Waiting for the moment when it would be safe to come out and flee to somewhere no-one knew me, or my reputation.

I lay there, barely daring to breathe, trying to still the heartbeat hammering at my chest. Men’s voices rang out, promising hell fire and brimstone as punishment – but not before they had dealt with me in their own all-too-earthly way. The hounds barked randomly, scratching and snuffling around the graveyard, giving the old man’s plague pit a wide berth.

I must have slept. Wiped out by exhaustion. The next thing I knew, weak sunlight was seeping through the slats in the lid of the box, and I could hear the first birdsong as day broke. I was about to push the lid open when I heard footsteps. Then a tuneless whistle and a scrape of a shovel as it was thrust into the mound of soil next to the grave.

A clod of earth thudded against the coffin. Fingers of darkness crept back in as dirt trickled through the cracks into my eyes and mouth. More thuds followed as the earth was piled back into the hole, enclosing me, holding me. I couldn’t cry out. Moke the gravedigger would surely betray me to the Elders. Anything to get his revenge for the time I’d refused him, sent him packing with scratches across his face like he’d be swiped with a pitchfork. So I waited, listening to the earth covering me like a thick winter blanket and waiting for Moke to finish before I dug my way out.

Until I heard the heavy drag of stone. Pulled over the loose earth and pushed into place, trapping me beneath its bulk. There was no fighting my way up to push it aside. The stone sealed my fate as surely as it sealed Old Man Rivers’ grave. I would die here, pressed against my tormentor, and slowly fade away to nothing more than wormfeed.

But I didn’t.

Days passed. I slept fitfully, losing track of the natural rhythms of the earth. Time was unknown, stretching into weeks, even months. And somehow, I remained alive and strong.
I was also very, very hungry.

A mania took hold of me. I thrust my hands to the side, beating at the wooden slats, pulling at the spaces where they overlapped, pushing through into the surrounding soil to find something, anything, to feed on.

At first just spindly roots and seeds, then I found an earthworm. Soft, yielding, undulating in my hand. I brought it to my cracked lips and bit into it. It continued to squirm as it spilled its gritty innards onto my tongue but I swallowed it greedily. More worms went the same way, as did beetles crawling through the dirt, and a small mole whose velvety hide and sharp claws made me retch and gag.
I had begun to feed.

Centuries passed. I became part of the circle of life beneath the graveyard soil. Old Man Rivers rotted to nothing beneath me, leaving only harmless bones and rotten rags. The damp of the soil ate into his wooden box, devouring it, making it one with itself. My reach extended in my search for food, fingers feeling further every day for sustenance until they broke free of the earth. It was a joyous shock to wiggle my fingers against cool air instead of clammy clods of clay, so I pushed some more.

Inching my way along, I formed a passage from my resting place to the world above.
I emerged from the gap where the soil had sunk beneath the stone now sat skewed at an awkward angle. A clean breeze caressed my cheeks, and I blinked into the evening gloom. Nothing had changed, and yet everything had. Dozens more headstones cluttered the churchyard, and there was a low persistent roar accompanying the sounds of nature around me.

Harsh laughter alerted me and sent me scuttling back to my hole. Looking out, I saw men, not long out of boyhood, drinking from brown bottles. One was beating a headstone with a hammer, cackling with the glee of an imbecile determined to destroy something, anything.

A new thirst awoke within me. I slipped unseen from the earth that had been my home for so many centuries, driven by a new, urgent hunger that would not be denied.

I was transformed. No longer hunted, I was now the huntress.  
And the hunt was on.


(Photo credit: LensMan Nick, a.k.a. Nikos Paraskevas)

There are more spooky stories to come as we gallop like headless horsemen towards Hallowe'en. Watch this space.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Kid


I am a man.
I’ve crossed continents, not years, to reach here.
I’ve faced fears you can’t imagine to get here.

I didn’t choose to put my schoolbooks aside,
but I took up my duty with pride.
I had to.
What else could I do?

Be a man, they said.
Be brave, be strong.
I never thought it could be wrong
to become the thing they said I should be -
even though I was just thirteen.

So here I stand
trying to convince you I’m just a kid.
That there’s a little lost boy still hid
inside the man you see before you.

I’ve made it this far.  I’m still alive.
But that’s just chance. Must I apologise?

I know you care.
You sob at every big-eyed child, smeared with blood and dust
paraded ‘cross your screens. You say “Something must
be done.”

But those kids are comfortably out of reach.
Not in your face. Not a threat.
They’re nothing for you to fear.
In other words, they’re not here.

I’m still a kid, despite my man’s clothing.
Don’t you know what a teenage boy looks like
once hormones kick in and whiskers start growing?

I am a man.
That’s what you tell me.

You’ve prodded and you’ve poked.
Stuck your fingers down my throat,
felt my stubble, checked my teeth,
anything to excuse your disbelief
that I am just a kid ripped by history from my home.

I am a man.
And I miss my mum.



Sunday, 23 October 2016

Around The Cauldron: 2016 edition

In just over a week, it will be All Hallows’ Eve, a day when (according to Christian tradition which usurped the older Pagan festival of Samhain) ghoulies and ghosties and all manners of evil supernatural beings come out for a night of revelry before the holy All Saints’ Day. 

It's a great excuse to revel in the thrill of frightening ourselves, so I'm planning on posting one or two dark little tales for Hallowe'en under the heading "Around The Cauldron" (like telling scary stories around the camp bonfire, but with a witchy element added). 

Have any of you got some some creepy tales to tell? 

If you fancy having them added as a guest post, drop me a line with your short story, a brief bio, an author pic and something to illustrate your tale.

Mandi’s Guide To Brexiquette, or How To Avoid Being Dealt a Trump Card

Picture the scene. You’re chatting happily away to someone you’ve just met, thinking how sympatico they are, delighted at that instant ‘click’ when you first shook hands or smiled a ‘pleased to me you’. This is your kind of person, you’re thinking. Someone you can talk to about anything and everything, confident that they will ‘get’ you, and not think you a mind-numbing moron or a pretentious intellectual snob.

Then, they drop an O Bomb.
Or perhaps I should say an OO Bomb.
Just as you’re wittering away, certain that they share your outlook on life, they drop an (Outrageous) Opinion into the conversation to disavow you of that sweet, sweet illusion.

If you’re smart, you let it pass, inwardly chanting Voltaire’s "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" mantra before steering the subject in the direction of fluffy kittens or the merits of cheesecake over brownies.

If you’re smart.
Or perhaps I should say “smarter than me”.
My initial intentions are always good, really they are. After the first flash of “WHAT did they just say?”, the shock realisation that my inner idiot has misread the person before me, and a brief pause as my brain recallibrates itself, I try to gloss over and take the conversation to less controversial territory. 

All well and good – until they repeat, reiterate and challenge me with more O Bombs.

Many a time have friends who know all too well had to drag me away from heated debates in bars after one too many O Bombs have been dropped. Many more are the times when I've received a warning kick under the table accompanied by raised eyebrows and a hissed “Mum. No. Stop” from the embarrassed offspring (who also knows me all too well). But I can’t help it. Though largely a live-and-let-live type of gal, I have my own opinions and many of them are strongly held. If you get in my face with statements designed (I’m sure) to provoke a reaction from me, there comes a point when you will get them. 

Be careful what you wish for.

We live in confusing times. There are more hot potatoes these days that at the Great Potato Bake in Hyde Park (no, it doesn’t exist - but it damn well should). Brexit, Trump vs Clinton, climate change, jet trails, immigration, vaccines, home schooling, refugees, bathroom designations, the F word (no, not that one, the other one that seems to put far more people into a panic), fracking, fox hunting, badger culls, whether Starbucks spiced pumpkin lattes qualify as real coffee, and so much more.

The trouble is, you can’t always tell where someone stands from the slogan on their t-shirt.  

I grew up in simpler times. I was 14 when Britain’s first female PM sailed into No.10 Downing Street quoting St Francis of Assissi. My naïve nascent feminist (yeah, that’s the F Word I was talking about) rejoiced at the thought of a woman in charge at last. It didn’t take me long to change my mind. But one thing was for sure, love her or hate her, you knew where you stood with Maggie.

These days, it’s much harder to work out where the lines lie. They seem to be scribbled in the sand that’s constantly being washed by the tides of history. And you can never tell who's been paddling in the shallows.

So, to get beyond the preamble, how can you avoid that awkward moment when you realise you’re teetering on the precipice of a heated debate with someone that you so want to like you? 

Here's my not-very-reliable guide to etiquette in an uncertain age.
  1. Try very hard not to roll your eyes (I’m famously bad at this bit).
  2. Remind yourself that everyone is entitled to their opinion, even if they are wrong.
  3. Count to 100, lose count halfway, then start again.
  4. Attempt diversionary tactics. Ask them what star sign they are, what their favourite band is, or if they understood what the hell “Inception” was all about (warning, even these subjects can be minefields of controversy so tread carefully and feign indifference even if they respond with utter tosh).
  5. As a last resort, point and shout "Oh look! A squirrel!"
  6. If they insist on continuing to bombard you with their rhetoric, take a deep breath and…
  7. Let them have yours. If they have the right to express their opinion, so do you. And if they don’t feel they need to follow the etiquette of polite conversation, then neither do you.
After all, a vanilla latte may be a safe, popular choice, but a double shot of espresso is the real thing - and it's much more stimulating.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Forget my name (paddling in the shallow waters of my stream of consciousness)

There was a glitch in the code today. A hiccup in reality. 
And no-one noticed but me.

It hit me like a tic, a twitch of the eye. A silent stutter amid the jammering, hammering of everyday. A misstep of a mind on the edge of sleep, just before falling too deep into myself in the swaying motion of the morning commute.

It brought me rushing to the surface with a sharp sigh, looking around and wondering if I was the only one to feel it. I saw nothing in the strap-hangers and earbudded nodding dogs bouncing to their internal riffs. No missed beat. No chord change. Not even a new narrative.

Just blank looks and preservation, the tools that get us through our day, to earn us a right to say that we’ve done our bit, made a contribution, mattered.

Collaboration is our default setting. We assimilate, isolate, congregate, denigrate. Annihilate The Other to make The Whole stronger, and abandon the dregs to see their hopes and minds shattered on the hard city streets.

A disconnect. That’s what I felt. A detachment from the hive mind, a glancing butterfly wingbeat of empathy with The Other. The enemy. The thing we fear the most. Them.

Just a flutter of emotion, faint but powerful enough to bring the careful construct crashing down like a pile of wooden bricks.

I know my place, I always have. Somewhere right in the middle, maybe a little higher. Just enough to offer the illusion of the individual, while holding up the façade.

But if I was to step outside, would it feel the strain, or remain? And what’s in my name, when we’re all the same. Am I Stella, or Hope, or just plain Jayne?

Does anybody know, anybody care? Is there anybody out there? In that place we think there’s order, solid as a rock, strong even to squash the mocking mutters of the underworld and pretend it just isn’t there.

Stepping off the train, and felt it again. More than a twitch now, like a rough hand brushing against my cheek, enough to give me a peek into the shadows and tune into the whispers getting louder. Vibrating with emotion, stripped of devotion to the glue that binds us all.

The crowd waiting to ride the stairs moved wordlessly towards open air. No second glances, no raised brows. Could I really be the only one to feel the pull to the other side? Was it there for them all, just smothered by fear that it would wreck their comfort zone like an angry teen trashing their bedroom in a tantrum?

Riding up to the light, I looked up into an urgent laser gaze of another heading down. A glancing connection, a shock of recognition, an unspoken knowing. In the time it took for our paths to cross on twin escalators, a minute warning shake of the head stopped me from crying out, flying out of my proper place to scream out, to shout 

Nothing is real, you’ve got to feel. 
Forget 'Keep calm and carry on'. 
We’re all ticking mind bombs. 
Wake up and smell the garbage.

Of course, I didn’t. It was just too big, too scary, too….   everything, to step out of my slot and into the outcasts.

So, I screwed in my earplugs, tuned in to the community hum and drowned out the coda throbbing from the dark corners. I’m a creature of the light, after all, a responsible citizen with rights and responsibilities, a duty to do and a role to play.

I offered my wrist to the scanner as I entered the Square and dared to hope no-one there picked up the high notes of my fleeting rebellion. I smiled my automaton smile, walked on, and prayed that they would (please) forget my name.