Monday, 24 December 2012

My favourite short stories (2)

The Shadow-Cage by Philippa Pearce
Philippa Pearce was a children's writer from Cambridgeshire, and she is most famous for her children's novel Tom's Midnight Garden.


 
'The Shadow-Cage' is a supernatural story about witchcraft and I particularly like the rural setting for the story. It obviously has a Cambridgeshire setting, which is similar to the area where I myself grew up in South Lincolnshire. Ned Challis is a farmer, who finds an ancient glass bottle with a stopper when he is ploughing a field. He allows his daughter Lisa to keep the bottle, before remembering only later that he found it near the site of an old witch's house that burnt down. His daughter Lisa takes it to school, where her cousin Kevin wants the bottle and takes it from her. After a day at school, he forgets it and leaves it in the school playground. In the middle of the night Kevin remembers it, and decides to go and fetch it at the stroke of midnight...only to fall into the grasp of old sorcery. When Kevin returns to the playground he encounters the shadow-cage and the mysterious, elusive Whistlers...

The whistlers were in no hurry. The first whistle had come from right across the fields. Then there was a long pause. Then the sound was repeated, equally distantly, from the direction of the river bridges. Later still, another whistle from the direction of the railway line, or somewhere near it.

 
The Room in the Tower by E.F Benson
Edward Frederic Benson was a late 19th-century/early 20th century English author of novels, short stories and biographies. His elder brother Arthur Christopher Benson wrote the lyrics to Edward Elgar's patriotic song "Land of Hope and Glory".  E.F Benson wrote a broad range of material, including numerous horror and supernatural stories of considerable power. One of the best of these is 'The Room in the Tower'.
It begins with the protagonist experiencing a recurring dream of attending an old school friend's gathering at a mysterious mansion. Everyone there sits in silence. The old school friend's name is Jack Stone, and at the end of the tea party, Mrs Stone (the old school friend's mother) announces: “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower.” The protagonist experiences the dream for many years, and curiously the people in it age accordingly over that period of time. After a while, the dreamer understands that Mrs Stone has died, and on that occasion the people attending the party wear black. Yet it is still Mrs Stone's voice who announces "I have given you the room in the tower" and the dreamer sees a gravestone on the lawn: In evil memory of Julia Stone. When the dreamer goes up into the room in the tower, it is darker than normal and he feels a sense of decay. He wakes up screaming.
Then, one fateful day, the protagonist is invited in reality to stay at a house by another friend, John Clinton. He arrives at the house only to discover that it is exactly like the mansion in his sinister dream...he is given the room in the tower where he discovers a portrait hanging:
It represented Mrs Stone as I had seen her last in my dreams: old and withered and white-haired. But in spite of the evident feebleness of body, a dreadful exuberance and vitality shone through the envelope of flesh, an exuberance wholly malign, a vitality that foamed and frothed with unimaginable evil. Evil beamed from the narrow, leering eyes: it laughed in the demonlike mouth. The whole face was instinct with some secret and appalling mirth; the hands, clasped together on the knee, seemed shaking with suppressed and nameless glee.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Thoughts on reading (George R R Martin)


Like his hordes of fans, I'm absorbed in George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series of epic fantasy novels (many people may be more aware of the TV dramatisation Game of Thrones, the title of which is taken from the first book in the series) I have just finished reading Dance of Dragons and like many I will be waiting patiently for the final two novels in the series, Winds of Winter and Dream of Spring. There are a lot of people commenting on these books and publishing their thoughts; I thought I would share some of mine.

The Song of Ice and Fire is epic dark fantasy, with obvious inspiration from varied sources such as Shakespearean tragedy; the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's historical fiction, most notably The White Company; J.R.R Tolkien's work and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels; not to mention Martin's contemporaries such as Raymond E.Feist and Anne McCaffrey. The pseudo-medieval setting and culture is very familiar in fantasy fiction. What makes this series stand out though is the mighty scale and sheer ambition of Martin's imagination. He has created a vast and vivid Fantasy world, a War and Peace of fantasy novels; different continents populated by flawed, complex characters; a world with its own history and religions. The reader finds themselves caring passionately about the main character's gripping adventures and possible fates. The cast includes a lengthy array of sorcerers, priests, soldiers, knights, heirs, Kings, Queens, Lords, servants, sell-swords, skin-changers, warriors, maids, slaves, merchants, pirates, dragons, princes, princesses and numerous aristocratic Houses. Plots and subplots are set against a dark and dangerous backdrop.

The story of A Song of Ice and Fire takes place on the continents Westeros and Essos, with a history of thousands of years. The series is told in the third person by point of view characters, who number over thirty by the fifth novel. Three principle plots become interwoven: the political intrigue and battle (the "Game of Thrones") for control of Westeros by several aristocratic Houses; the rising threat of the previously dormant supernatural and zombie-like Others dwelling beyond an immense wall of ice on Westeros' northern border; and the growing ambition of Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled daughter of a king murdered in a civil war shortly before her birth, to return to Westeros with her fire-breathing dragons and claim her rightful throne.

The scope of Martin's achievement is deeply impressive. He has been working on the series for almost twenty years now. The number of plot threads that he is weaving together and juggling is quite incredible.  As an aspiring author, I admire (and am quite envious of) his ability to keep so many plot threads dangling while the reader continues to be hooked by his epic tale.  Some people have criticised him for the expanding length of the series and killing off major characters- I disagree, I think these aspects are integral to the success and popularity of the books (and the TV series). So many of Martin's characters are interesting because they are damaged- mentally/emotionally or physically, and sometimes both. My favourite character, Tyrion Lannister, is a perfect example of this but this is reflected in other characters: his siblings Cersei and Jaime; Davos Seaworth; Jon Snow; Theon Greyjoy and many others.

I will say very little about the detail of the plots as I see no sense in giving away the story in this article and revealing spoilers- there's absolutely no fun in that, and the beauty of these novels lies in their delicious unexpected plot twists and surprises. There is a real sense of the sinister; of evil and treachery in these books. Martin's world is ravaged; often mysterious and cruel.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Thoughts on reading (Bram Stoker)


Bram Stoker is most famous as the author of Dracula, the Victorian novel which took the vampire myth and centred it within the modern popular consciousness through the medium of literature and cinema. It's a classic obviously- I also own and have read The Jewel of Seven Stars, which is an excellent, spine-tingling supernatural tale by Stoker based around Egyptian mythology. I decided to download and read two lesser known works by Bram Stoker, The Lady of the Shroud and The Lair of the White Worm.

I discovered that they were lesser known for a good reason. The Lady of the Shroud is written in the same epistolary form as Dracula, advancing the narrative from different point-of-view perspectives, but this structure doesn't quite work for this novel.

The mystery of 'The Lady' herself is solved halfway through the novel, and what had begun as an eerie Gothic tale becomes a predictable and cliched 'Boys Own' Victorian adventure, dipping into piracy and Balkan politics, and dripping with sentimentality.

The novel begins and concludes in a dry fashion: the opening is dominated by dry legal affairs and notes which set up the novel's central premise; the hero, Rupert St Leger, inheriting a ruined castle on the Balkan coast. This is livened up only by the observations of the priggish Ernest Melton and his equally insufferable relations. They add some light relief and provide some of the more entertaining elements. The novel concludes with happy-ever-after observations of political ceremony. The climax is dominated by pomp and circumstance as the tale gradually grinds to a halt and outstays its welcome.

The best passages of the novel are its sinister prologue with elusive promise of the supernatural; Rupert's first mysterious encounters with 'The Lady'; and Ernest Melton's humorous passages, yet sadly the novel never quite lives up to its promise.




I also read the shorter novel The Lair of the White Worm, notable for its loose cinematic adaptation starring Hugh Grant and Amanda Donohoe, and directed by Ken Russell. A lurid, unsettling Victorian horror story, at times it is unintentionally absurd and also quaint and dated in its attitudes toward women and race. Although conceptually ridiculous, Stoker's ability to create memorable and sinister characters in the form of Lady Arabella and Edgar Caswell redeem the story somewhat. The ideas of psychic domination and mesmeric power in this novel echoed concepts I found in Aleister Crowley's novel Moonchild.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Writing Update


Apologies for my blog posts and journal entries being so infrequent of late. Over the past year or so I've been exceptionally busy with the process of writing fiction rather than updating social media. I've completed a host of new short stories over the past twelve months. Hopefully all of them will be appearing in some kind of published format in the near future, and beyond into the New Year. I might make a new collection available on Amazon at some point, which is provisionally titled Echoes and Exiles.  I'm holding back on making these stories available for the moment while I wait for publishing outcomes.

I've also finished an entire draft of my second full length novel, Staccato House. Regular readers of my blog, and Twitter/Facebook followers, will know that I originally submitted this work in the form of a novella to Contact Publishing's thriller-writing novella competition, and it was shortlisted in the final ten.  The 40,000 words that I wrote then has since evolved into a 110,000+ word novel- give or take a few extra final tweaks eventually.

I'm attempting to juggle several ongoing writing projects at the moment. I've also been wrestling with my third novel, A Riverside Tale- a book that I have been working on since the latter part of 2011. This one is a little different from what I normally write, at least in terms of theme and genre. It doesn't fall into any of the categories of fantasy, horror, SF or thriller. It's probably more accurately described as a romance/mystery novel, and is set in England during the period of the 1940s-1970s. It needed some research rather than pure invention. I'll be sharing more information about this novel and my other works in progress in due course.

In addition to all of this- see, I told you I was busy, and this isn't even the day job!- I've been re-writing my first novel Copper Moon Rising. Some of you might already know that I self-published this novel, an epic fantasy/SF crossover tale, in 2010. I also created a second edition in 2011 to make a few corrections. This year I've been working on a revised version as it may still have a publication future, and have noticed a few more necessary alterations and edits that needed to be made. I have added to the mid-section of the novel, Moloch's tale in particular- which in hindsight I thought was slightly under-written. However, if you have already bought it or own a copy, I would assure you that I have done very little in terms of substantially changing the narrative and basic plot structure. It's generally  been a case of adding some necessary final polish- clarifying some aspects of the story, expanding particular sections, and filling out one or two of the characters and settings. In some places I felt that the narrative's prose style was uneven, due to earlier drastic rewrites and my own impatience at the time - carelessly rushing ahead with the plot. I'll probably make the new amended version available on Amazon at least, sometime in the near future- unless I can make strides with it elsewhere.


 

Monday, 5 November 2012

A Primer on 'Steampunk' Literature/Litro Magazine

Check out my article on steampunk fiction, published in Litro Magazine. The three books I recommended are a mix, the 'Difference Engine' is heavy-going but seminal; 'The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters' is a lurid, dark rollercoaster adventure and 'Retromancer' by Robert Rankin is a light hearted dip into the genre:
 
 
(Illustration copyright James Davis)
 
Litro is an excellent publication with many other intriguing and enlightening articles about world literature. If you have any interest in fiction and writing then it’s worth having a look at.
 


 
 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Priya Sharma- speculative fiction writer


I'd like to draw attention to the very impressive work of an author whose excellent writing I have recently come across. Priya Sharma is a speculative fiction writer, and she's already been recognised with many of her short stories published in esteemed genre publications such as Dark Tales, On Spec, Black Static, Alt Hist and Interzone magazines.

Check out her website here: Priya Sharma-Bio

You can read several of her amazing short stories online here: Priya Sharma- Read Online

Monday, 24 September 2012

My favourite short stories (1)


I thought that I would start a series of articles discussing my favourite short stories, as the technique of short fiction writing is something that I have been exploring for the past two or three years.

The first short story that I would like to draw attention to is "Sredni Vashtar" by the Edwardian British writer Saki -the pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916)

 



"Sredni Vashtar" by Saki (H.H Munro)

This story is about a young boy, Conradin, who is the unhappy ward of his older female cousin, Mrs De Ropp. Conradin's immersion in a secret world, focusing on the pet animals of which he knows his guardian would disapprove, draws attention to the conflict between the almost pagan-like religion which Conradin invents and values for its sense of escapism, and the conservative values and conventional views of Mrs De Ropp.

I find this story wonderful to read for its psychological insight into the mind and imagination of a child, and particularly a child living in these difficult circumstances. The story is blackly comic, and rich with dark humour. Parallels can be drawn from the content of the story with Saki's own life, as he endured a strict upbringing as the ward of his aunts and grandmother when his mother died and his father was working in Burma.

It's also a fine example of the macabre in a domestic setting, with its sublime depiction of the suppressed fierce resentment of the child-protagonist and the triumphant nature of his spiteful revenge. The tone and themes of this story remind me of Roald Dahl's stories later in the 20th century (speaking of him, I'll talk about a favourite Dahl short story of mine next). All hail Sredni Vashtar, the Great Ferret:


Sredni Vashtar went forth,

His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.

His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.

Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful
.
 


You can read "Sredni Vashtar" for yourself, here:

 

"Man From the South" by Roald Dahl


Another of my favourite short stories is "Man From the South" by Roald Dahl. Dahl is most famous for his children's books, but he was also an accomplished short story and novella writer for adults. Many of his short stories were used as the basis for the TV series Tales of the Unexpected. Dahl was a master of macabre tales and "Man From the South" falls into this category of his fiction. It's a twisted story about a sinister old man. He is a compulsive gambler who sets a particularly grisly high stake upon his bets...and to say any more would be to give the game away.

“Shall we not perhaps make a little bet on dat?”  He smiled at the boy.  “Shall we not make a little bet on whether your lighter lights?”

“Sure, I’ll bet,” the boy said.  “Why not?”

“You like to bet?”

“Sure, I’ll always bet.”

The man paused and examined his cigar, and I must say I didn’t much like the way he was behaving.  It seemed he was already trying to make something out of this, and to embarrass the boy, and at the same time I had the feeling he was relishing a private little secret all his own.


You can read "Man From the South" for yourself, here:

Man from the South by Roald Dahl

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Aspiring Author Online


Another reminder of my 'other' homes on the worldwide web, particularly as I don't always get a chance to update my blog as frequently as my other websites. If you're here and reading this, then obviously you already know about this one. Here, then, are the others which it'd be great if you could find time to look at:


http://www.facebook.com/pages/Steve-Mace/114497238566314
This is my Facebook page, please feel free to check it out and 'like' if you are a Facebook member! I try to update this regularly and post news and offers relating to my books.


http://www.amazon.co.uk/Steven-Mace/e/B005JJLWX6
Here is my Amazon Author Page, which offers Kindle versions of my books. These you can then download to your device. (for the United States version, just add .com into the URL instead of co.uk)



http://twitter.com/#!/MaceBookspace

I'm on Twitter, which I do update quite frequently as I also tend to post links to interesting articles, websites and opinion pieces which I always come across.



http://www.redbubble.com/people/stevemace


I'm also on the Redbubble website, which is an online community for artists primarily, but also for writers. I've posted a lot of material here, some of which duplicates what is here on this blog, but also there are more free stories, journal entries and casual photographs which I've taken over the past few years, and which I didn't want to display on Facebook any more- I'd encourage you to take a look at them here. Redbubble has a fantastic and active online arts community, and some marvellous work from around the world is showcased.

http://runawaywritings.wordpress.com/2012/02/16/steven-mace-bio/
I'm a regular contributor to the Runaway Writings website, run by Rob Richardson, and there are free stories published there, as well as work by other writers and artists in SF, Fantasy and Adventure genres.

Ushna Sardar


Ushna Sardar is a poet, novelist and script writer from Karachi, Pakistan. Please check out Ushna's wonderfully illustrated poetry books, available at Lulu. They are hidden treasures:   http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ushna




Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Author's Craft: Plot Devices


There are numerous plot devices which authors of fiction employ which are known by specific terms, some more light-hearted than others. Here is a discussion of a small selection of these tropes: the Sampo, the Big Dumb Object, the MacGuffin, Alien Space Bats, Chekhov's Gun, the Red Herring, and Deus Ex Machina.

The first of these is the Sampo. The Sampo is a term derived from Finnish mythology, specifically the tale 'Sampo the Magic Mill'. To digress, the tale is about two brothers. Vainamoinen is a musician, and Ilmarinen is a blacksmith. They attempt to court the same woman, Aino- the daughter of the powerful and apparently fiendishly evil Queen Louhi of Pohjala. The two brothers are set magical tasks to win Aino's hand in marriage while the Queen attempts to thwart their plans (because she is evil, obviously).

 Ilmarinen eventually wins Aino's hand in marriage by discovering the magical three words of a giant, a magical formula which allows him to create a Magic Mill. This Mill can make flour, salt and gold out of thin air, and is called the Sampo. Ilmarinen is allowed to marry Aino as the Sampo brings good fortune and prosperity to Queen Louhi and Pohjala (personally I would have ditched Aino and taken the Mill away in the first place, didn't they realise their mother in law was evil?). Sadly, shortly after marrying Ilmarinen, Aino sickens and dies (bad luck). The brothers decide to steal the Mill back from Queen Louhi and bring it to their own lands across the sea. Angered by the theft, Queen Louhi prays to the God Ukko, who listens to her and sends a storm which destroys the brothers' boat and sinks the Sampo to the bottom of the ocean. The brothers are saved (an outcome which they barely deserve after their sentimental stupidity) and the Sampo is stuck at the bottom of the ocean where it is jammed on producing the second product, salt. Hence the reason why to this day the seas and oceans are full of salt.

Essentially, the Sampo is an important artefact or object, usually magical but sometimes not, which is at the centre of a narrative and is the driving force for the actions of the principle characters. Another famous example of this is the 'One Ring' carried by Frodo Baggins in J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Similarly, the more colloquial phrase Big Dumb Object is a term used primarily in regard to science fiction. It is used to describe an artefact or physical object similar to the Sampo which possesses extreme or unusual properties and/or powers, often physically imposing or grandiose in scope. An example of this from fiction/cinema would be the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey which apparently triggers the process of evolution.

The MacGuffin (McGuffin, maguffin) can be an object, or a concept or goal which the protagonists of a plot pursue or ruminate upon. It differs from the Sampo and the BDO in terms of not always being a physical object, and often being a plot device which is mysterious, not fully explained or eventually superfluous to the story. It is used to drive plot and character action, and is not always the focal point of the narrative. The term originated in cinema.

Examples of it include the meaning of the word 'Rosebud' in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and the Rambaldi device in the TV series Alias. In literature, one example of it is the 'Samizdat' entertainment cartridge in David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest.

Alien space bats is another colloquial phrase specific to alternate history fiction. It refers to an event or detail in the plot which creates a point of divergence from real world history. Usually, the term is employed to describe something over-dramatic or implausible in that context. The term was coined by Alison Brooks, who was commenting upon the Nazi Operation Sea Lion plan- the plot to invade the British Isles during the Second World War. Brooks humorously remarked that “the only way it could be successful was if alien space bats helped the Nazis.”

Chekhov's Gun is a term derived from the Russian writer Anton Chekhov, linked to presentiment and foreshadowing. This is a narrative technique whereby authors introduce a seemingly irrelevant or superfluous detail, description or event early in the story. Initially that element appears unimportant, before assuming greater significance and importance later in the narrative. The example Chekhov used would be to describe the presence and location of a gun within a room early on in a story, which later on is used and fired by one of the protagonists.

 It is a neat and sophisticated way to construct a narrative structure and introduce plot twists into the story, which then make plausible sense and fit together with the narrative beforehand. A good example of this technique would be the film Shutter Island directed by Martin Scorsese (based on the novel by Dennis Lehane).

The Red Herring is almost the opposite of Chekhov's Gun (C's G is essentially an apparent insignificant detail which later becomes significant), instead the Red Herring is a plot device which misleads and distracts the reader from the real truth of the plot. The emphasis than an author places on the Red Herring convinces (if done so successfully) that a particular character, event or element is significant when it is, in fact, not. It is often used in crime and mystery fiction to create intrigue and suspense. The term was invented in its present usage by the radical writer William Cobbett.

Deus Ex Machina translates from Latin as 'God from the Machine'. This is a narrative device used  where a problem or situation which seemed unsolvable or unrecoverable is resolved by the contrived intervention of a new event, character, ability or object. It was used often in ancient Greek drama where a crisis was solved by the intervention of an all-powerful God. It is often criticised for being a clumsy method of solving plot holes or perilous situations, and carries the risk of challenging the reader's suspension of disbelief.

Here are plenty of examples of it occurring in fiction!

Saturday, 16 June 2012

The King of Towering Spires (children's story)



There was once an artist named Umberto Collins. His mother had named him after her favourite actor, a handsome Italian star of the silver screen named Umberto Gazzini. Gazzini had acted in many of his mother's favourite movies. Although the artist's name was Umberto, his mother and father had the plain and ordinary names of Edna and Terry Collins. When little Umberto was teased at school for his strange, foreign-sounding first name, he told the other kids to just call him plain old Bert. So it was that at school, his mates always called him Bert or Bertie.



However, when he grew older, the artist decided that he wanted to be called Umberto again, as he thought it made him sound exotic, glamorous and much more sophisticated. He had decided to become an artist at a very young age, as he realised that he had a talent for drawing. He created pictures with pencil, charcoals and ink, and then later he started to paint with watercolours and oils. He created portraits and landscapes, and he even enjoyed making surreal pictures, like Picasso or Salvador Dali once did.



Unfortunately, it was difficult for Umberto to make money from being an artist. Even though he was now a grown man, Umberto was always a very thin and lanky fellow, as he saved his money by skipping meals. Sometimes, he was so busy and engrossed in his art at his studio, that he simply forgot to eat.



His parents wanted him to get a proper job. “You should be an accountant, or a teacher”, his father told him. “You'll never make any money from paintings!” But Umberto was devoted to his hobby, and so he refused to listen. He was passionate about his art, and he wanted to make a success of it.



Umberto's good fortune came to him one day, when he was exhibiting his paintings at a gallery in the city. He was very proud of his work, and on that particular day a very rich lady named Lucinda Rampton visited the exhibition. She was the wife of a successful businessman who had made his money from investments. Mrs Rampton was very taken with Umberto's paintings, and she thought that he was a very talented young fellow. Umberto was pleased to speak to this mature, elegant lady with her short brown curls of hair, pearls and expensive blue Chanel suit, as he could see that she was rich and also genuinely interested in his art. He answered all her questions, and found himself confessing to her that he had little money to support himself, and made even less from his attempts to sell his paintings. “I sold my Seafront View earlier”, he grumbled.“It took me months to finish that painting. And that sale will only be enough to buy me some milk and bread, pay the rent and the electric bill, and buy a new pair of socks!” All of Umberto's socks presently had holes in them, and he had mismatched pairs as some had gone missing.



Having heard this sad tale from Umberto's lips, Mrs Rampton felt so sorry for him. She was appalled that such a talented young artist was forced to live in such restricted circumstances, on the cusp of poverty itself. She offered there and then to become Umberto's patron, which meant that she would financially support him while he produced his works of art, and hopefully make sales and become critically acclaimed. She fully believed that he would succeed.



Umberto was astonished and delighted. He couldn't believe his luck. “Oh thank you, Mrs Rampton!” he exclaimed. Indeed, he could not stop thanking her profusely. He shook her white-gloved hand, not daring to let go. He felt a lump in his throat, and had to fight back tears of joy in order to keep his dignity. “Thank you for this wonderful opportunity you've given me!”



Mrs Rampton told him that, amongst the several houses she and her husband owned, they possessed an old house out in the country. It was a mansion known as 'The Spires'. Umberto was quite welcome to make use of it, she said, as there was no-one in residence at the moment. Indeed, her husband had lost interest, and let the old house begin to crumble. It would be an ideal location for Umberto to paint and work in solitude, she said, and also do the Ramptons a favour by being a caretaker for the old place.



Umberto accepted immediately, and so the next day Mrs Rampton arrived outside his flat in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Umberto was there, with his bewildered landlord Mr Edgar Brown (a man who always had a puzzled, frowning expression, if truth be told). Mrs Rampton paid off Umberto's outstanding rent, and Umberto took great pleasure in saying goodbye to his landlord. Umberto had been sure that Mr Brown had been charging him too much rent anyway. Umberto carried out his few possessions- clothes, cutlery, his artist's tools such as his paintbrushes, pencils, scribes, boards, paper, paints and his easel- and put them in the boot of the Rolls Royce before they set out for his new home, 'The Spires'.



When they arrived at the mansion, Umberto was not at all disappointed. It was just as impressive as he had hoped and expected it would be. There were vast acres of grounds with woodland and lakes, and the mansion itself was Gothic and forbidding with weather-worn grey stone, balustrades and gargoyles, and the towering turrets and pinnacles which had given the building its name. There was a fountain outside, too, by the gravel driveway. As they had driven through the gate and seen the mansion rising up on the hill before them, Umberto had thought that the place did indeed look very ominous and rather spooky.



“You won't have to go to the shops, there will be regular deliveries of food and supplies”, Mrs Rampton told him, which made sense as the house was in a very remote location. “But you will be responsible for repairs and maintenance. You are welcome to set up your things and make yourself at home, just as long as you do the chores. Remember, it's a very big house. This was where my husband Cecil and I brought up our son Victor, until he left home to make his way in the world. It has a lot of history.”



The mansion was huge, indeed. Umberto promised Mrs Rampton that he would not let her down, and as soon as she and the chauffeur left, he set about exploring the place. It was as vast as he had expected, with four floors and two separate wings. Mrs Rampton had given him a skeleton key to open all of the rooms of the house. He spent his first day there opening each one. He thought that many of the rooms hadn't been inhabited or used for several years. Upon inspecting some of the rooms, Umberto noticed that there was some curious and quite drastic damage. Some of the walls had large, irregular and ragged holes in them, with splinters of wood and powdery sawdust on the floors, as if something had burrowed through. Umberto realised that he'd probably have to telephone Mrs Rampton and report the damage, and ask her if she knew about it. It seemed very strange, as most of the house was in such good upkeep and condition. Mrs Rampton had told him that she and Cecil paid people to come in and clean the place once every month, so thankfully the mansion wasn't in that bad a state.



The place had a very desolate feel, and when dusk arrived he started to imagine that it could be haunted. Later that night, his first evening at 'The Spires', he heard rustlings and movement within the walls. The sound made him shiver, but he supposed that it must be mice or rats, rather than ghosts. The atmosphere and the scenery of the place was certainly going to inspire his painting, he thought.



A week passed without incident, apart from the strange sounds that Umberto sometimes heard, and always at night. He slept in a different bedroom every night, just because he could. At the end of his first week, Umberto decided to treat himself to a personal midnight feast in the Spires' great dining hall with its huge overhanging crystal chandelier, to celebrate his good fortune and Mrs Rampton's kind generosity. He had been starving when he was a poor artist, so to mark his change in fortune he was going to eat like a pig. He had tomato soup with bread slices as a starter, followed by platters of chicken and roast potatoes with gravy, bread sauce and cranberry sauce; then for afters, he had treacle sponge with hot custard, followed up by double chocolate gateau. After eating his gargantuan feast, Umberto lay back on his recliner, and belched loudly. He fell asleep surrounded by the remnants of his meal, allowing the rich smells of the food to waft through the air, and penetrate even the deepest, darkest corners of the house.



Umberto began to snore. His chest gradually rose and fell with each sleeping breath.



Somewhere, in the silence of the vast mansion, something stirred. Now it was moving. Round, dark eyes scanned their surroundings and sniffed the air. A shadow passed swiftly down the corridor. Small feet made the sound of soft pitter-patter on the wooden floorboards.



Umberto was not alone.



King was a freak. Even when he had been born, blind and pink and hairless, in his mouse-litter amongst his brothers and sisters, even then- he had been the biggest. He had grown faster than them too, and had always had a greater appetite than they did. While his family dined happily on bread crumbs and wood shavings, King craved tastier and more substantial fare. When he discovered his first cheese slice, it was the greatest moment of his mouse-life so far. Such a tasty morsel! His mouth salivated at the thought of it, as he remembered the delicious scent.



And now, the scent of Umberto's Great Banquet, his midnight feast with cooked meats, and aromatic odours of custard and creamy chocolate gateau, had reached King's furry snout, even deep in the depths of the mansion: the network of mouse-made tunnels that existed within the Spires. So King, a freakish giant amongst his own kind, had crept out from his secret domain and followed his nose to the source of the interesting and appetising scents- the dining room, where Umberto was asleep. There, King discovered a mountainous array of treats and snacks, all laid out for him upon the banqueting table, the remnants of which were his for the taking. Meanwhile, Umberto slept, snoring away and oblivious to it all.



King eyed him nervously for a little while, watching the artist from the shadows with his shifty, beady little eyes. Finally, he decided that Umberto wasn't going to wake up anytime soon. King was truly a unique creature: a mouse who was as big as a fully grown cat, and as big and even bigger than many of his cousins- the rats. He didn't like rats, he thought that they were dirty and sneaky, and he usually enjoyed scaring them away. He leapt up upon the banqueting table, and immediately he was assailed by the delicious smells of all the food on offer. He was spoilt for choice. He nibbled at the bread, and chewed the meats, and licked the gravy- oh, how he wished that he could swim in the gravy! He was so excited by this wondrous discovery that he began to emit little mewls and squeaks.



It must have been these joyous noises which disturbed Umberto. For at that very moment, without warning, he awoke and opened his eyes. He was immediately confronted by the arresting sight of a giant mouse with a metre-long tail on his dining room table, a mouse that was as big as a cat. It was sitting up on its hind legs and scoffing a slice of chicken before it snaffled up some fresh chocolate cream in the bowl next to it. In that precise moment, King suddenly realised that Umberto had stopped snoring, and so King stopped chewing. He saw that Umberto's big scary human eyes were open and looking straight at him.



Umberto stared at the giant mouse and rubbed his eyes. He wondered if he was dreaming, or if he was seeing things. Then he realised that this was very real. The intrepid little monster had stopped eating and was looking at him. There was definitely a mouse that was certainly as big as a cat, sitting on the table, and eating what remained of his food. He opened his mouth to scream, and in the same moment King let out a high-pitched squeal, dropped the chicken leg he had been holding, and leapt off the table. He scuttled away out of the dining hall as fast as his little legs could carry him, dragging his long tail behind him. Umberto shrieked and gibbered, and ran after him. But like all of his kind, King could move very fast and he was good at hiding, and so Umberto couldn't catch him.



*



Umberto was terrified by what he had seen. He could scarcely credit it, but he knew that he had not been dreaming. He wasn't sure if it had been a mouse or a rat. The shape of its head and body had been more like a mouse. He knew that rats could grow to prodigious sizes, but he had never heard of a giant mouse before. He decided that he would have to lay a trap for the beast. It would be tempted to eat again sooner or later, and then he would capture it. Perhaps he would have to kill it, particularly as he suspected that the freakish creature was responsible for the damage he had seen in some of the rooms of 'The Spires'. Maybe there were more like it! The thought made him gulp, and he shuddered at the thought of giant mice running amok within the corridors of the mansion.



How would he catch it though? There was no mousetrap that was big enough to use, and despite the creature's size it had been able to move swiftly. Umberto finally decided that he would leave some cheese out for the giant mouse, and then he would wait in a corner of the vast dining hall. It would be dark and he could hide in the shadows with a rope net which he had managed to find in the cellar. The net was big, and had weights attached to its four corners. Possibly it had been used by poachers at 'The Spires' in the past. When the creature was eating, he would pounce on it.



So, with his plan decided on, Umberto set to work. The following evening he left large slices of cheese upon plates which he set on the dining room floor. He lit several candles on one side of the room, before going to sit and hide in a black corner, waiting for the monstrous over-sized rodent to return.



The hour grew late. Umberto found himself listening to the old grandfather clock ticking in the corridor outside. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. His eyelids grew heavy. His chin began to droop toward his chest. Twice he nearly nodded off, and he awoke with a start, still clutching the rope net in his hands. Until-



A black shadow stirred amid gloomier shadows. There was furtive movement. Small paws pitter-pattered across the wood-panelled floor, a long tail trailing. A twitching whiskered snout sniffed the air, and listened. Umberto held his breath, not daring to move. The giant mouse entered the dining hall, inching forward, and cautiously approached the plates of cheese. Then-



With a small cry, Umberto leapt forward. The giant mouse leapt into the air, startled, and let out a high pitched squeal but it was too late. Umberto had dived on it and covered the creature with the net entirely. He'd caught it. King was now a prisoner. “Hah! Gotcha!” the artist roared.



“Please, guv'nor! Be merciful!”



Umberto could scarcely believe his ears. Was he hallucinating, or imagining things? Because for a moment there, he could have sworn that this giant mouse had actually spoken to him-



“Ow! You're hurting me, pinkface!” it now squeaked.



No, his ears certainly did not deceive him. This freaky mouse was talking. Even as it squirmed and scratched and writhed and chewed at the net, it was pleading for its life. It was an intelligent creature. It was most certainly speaking the English language in a high-pitched voice and a Cockney accent.



“Excuse me, are you talking?” he found himself saying.



“Course I am, guv'nor! It's not every day a pink hairless giant catches me!” the mouse sobbed. “It's not fair, you left the delicious, sweet smelling, irresistible food for me!”



“But...how come you are able to talk?” Umberto asked stupidly, realising that he could not kill this creature now, even though he was even more determined than ever not to let go of the net. “I mean...how did you learn, never mind possess the capacity? Animals aren't supposed to talk, and certainly mice don't! Even mice as big as you! You're not some kind of weird rat, are you?”



“A rat?! Well that isn't a nice thing to say, is it, guv'nor?” the mouse said, almost haughtily. He was obviously extremely offended at being compared to a rat. “I've always been able to talk, even though my little brothers and sisters can't. I learned the speech from the Giant Pinkfaces, the one called Victor and the one called Nanny. The Nanny-Pinkface used to do the readings. Stories. I listened to them speak. They smelled nice, they smelled friendly. Not like you. I couldn't use the speech with my kin, but I used to talk to Giant Pinkface Victor from inside the walls, and he thought I were a ghost. But then later he said he was scared, and then he left and never came back. I went into the Land of the Giant Pinkfaces to try and find him, but it was all so quiet. I been listening. I've always been here. This is my home.”



“Well”, Umberto said. “It's my home now. But you're a very strange and clever mouse, I must say. Are there more like you?”



“No”, the giant mouse replied, and he sounded sad. “I'm the biggest and the cleverest of my kin.”



“So you are a freak?” Umberto asked him.



“Oi!” the giant mouse squeaked, but he was lying still and he had stopped squirming. “Watch who you are calling freak, Giant Pinkface!”



“My name is Umberto” the artist said. “Do you have a name? You must do, as you're so awfully clever and stroppy. Are you male or female?”



“I don't understand you”, the mouse complained. “But my name is King. Victor-Pinkface taught me that word, along with many other words. Now, will you please take this net off me? It really does chafe, and it smells bad.”



“Only if you promise not to run away. I'd like to talk to you some more.”



“Okay, guv'nor. I promise.”



King kept his promise, and he didn't run away. Umberto found that he and the giant mouse got on famously, and they soon became best friends. Umberto taught King many new words, but to the giant mouse Umberto and his kind were always 'The Pinkface Giants'. Umberto shared his food with King and his smaller, normal-sized brethren, on the condition that the mouse did not leave his foul pellets lying around, particularly on the nice carpets. “It's wonderful you can talk but it's a pity you're not house-trained”, Umberto had sighed.



“Seems like a fair deal to me, guv'nor”, King said to him.



“I'd like to paint your portrait”, Umberto said to his rodent friend one day, after he had explained that he was an artist, and told the mouse what an artist does.



“Seems like it could be fun, guv'nor”, King replied, and he agreed to let Umberto paint him. “I can sit still for you. Make sure you get my best side, though.”



“Do mice...have a best side?” Umberto asked, frowning.



“Oi, watch it, Pinkface!”



And so King posed for Umberto, crouched upon a chair with his brown mouse-fur all sleek and groomed, his long tail trailing down, his elongated whiskered snout quivering, his dark eyes shiny and sensitive, and his round ears twitching. Umberto painted him zealously, affording great attention to detail and giving the mouse as flattering a look as might be possible for a rodent, even as large and handsome a rodent as King was.



In the end, both the man and the mouse were pleased with the end result. “Is that really what I look like?” King squeaked. “I look like my brothers and sisters. I always imagined myself looking more...noble.”



“That's you”, Umberto said. “That's my...interpretation of you. I think I captured you perfectly.”



“You have to admit, I am much more handsome than any Pinkface.”



“Now, steady on”, Umberto said with a laugh.



“Truly, you Giant Pinkfaces are the ugliest creatures I have ever seen. Why are your noses so big and pointy? Your eyes are strange, and your ears are tiny. Why are your bodies so long and you walk on your back feet? Why do you cover yourselves with material? And what has happened to your fur? You only have a bit on the top.”



*



Then one day, Mrs Rampton called at the mansion. Umberto saw her Rolls Royce arrive in the driveway from one of the upper windows. He ran down the stairs to the entrance hall so that he could meet her, but when he greeted her on the doorstep he discovered that for some reason she was in floods of tears. “Why, Mrs Rampton!” he exclaimed, greatly distressed to see her weeping. “Whatever is the matter?!”



“Oh, Bertie my dear boy! I am ruined! Ruined!” she wailed.



“What has happened? Do come in, let me make you a cup of tea.”



“Oh, poor Umberto! We can barely spare the milk! We've lost everything! Dear Cecil has lost it all, the silly moose, all our fortune and savings in stocks and shares! They've gone! We've been fleeced! Embezzled! Robbed! The bailiffs are coming in one month to take everything! We will have to sell our properties! Including-”



“Including this place”, Umberto said hollowly. “The Spires, too.”



“Everything! They might bulldoze The Spires to build a health farm! Oh, I'm sorry my dear Bertie”, Mrs Rampton said, dabbing at her eyes with her handkerchief. “I know how much you love the mansion. But I'm afraid it'll have to go along with everything else. Cecil and I took bad advice, and now we are ruined. I don't know what we'll do. Maybe we'll have to go and live with Victor and his wife, that dreadful Gladys. There's no other way out of this!” She burst into floods of tears again.



“Unless...” Umberto murmured. He had an idea.



Mrs Rampton stared at him, her mascara ruined and now streaked across her cheeks. “Unless what?”



*



Two weeks later, a group of art lovers, critics and prospective buyers had gathered at Mrs Rampton's City Art Gallery. They were all eager to see the unveiling of Umberto Collins' latest rumoured masterpiece. Even now, the painting was standing in the middle of the gallery, covered by a cloth and balanced on a stand, waiting to be seen by an impatient and fascinated public.



“Ladies and gentlemen”, Umberto said to the gathered crowd, after clearing his throat. He was dressed smartly in a fine black tuxedo suit, white shirt and bow tie. “I present to you my latest masterpiece, a portrait of a most singular kind. I give you- The King of Towering Spires!”



When Mrs Rampton had asked him: unless what? two weeks before, he had replied: Unless I can sell a painting that will become huge in the art world. Umberto now lifted off the cloth cover to unveil the mouse-portrait that he had painted of King. For the plan to save Mrs Rampton's fortune, her gallery and all of the Ramptons' assets was simple- he had to sell a painting, one that was so unique that someone might be mad enough to pay millions for it. When he had shown Mrs Rampton the painting, she had liked it because the mouse apparently "reminded her of her husband Cecil." Umberto didn't dare tell her that there was a giant intelligent speaking mouse living in her mansion, or indeed that it might have been her son Victor and his cockney-voiced Nanny from the East End that had taught King how to speak English. Umberto had wondered if Victor had ever told his parents that he had heard a mysterious squeaky voice coming from the walls of the mansion. Maybe one day he should ask Mrs Rampton if he could meet Victor. He might even invite Victor to visit the Spires and let Mrs Rampton's son reacquaint himself with King...if The Spires still existed then, of course.



Now that King's portrait was revealed to the waiting public, indeed it was a most singular painting, as Umberto had suggested. Umberto had successfully managed to capture King's best side, as he had promised the mouse. King was depicted with a devilish gleam in his eye, and a leering grin. The fine detail of his bristly whiskered snout, round ears and the texture of his fur had been perfectly captured in Umberto's painting.



However, in the instant that the painting was revealed, not everybody in the gallery took kindly to it. Unfortunately, not every human being cares for the sight of rodents. Several people (mostly, but not exclusively, female) shrieked and fainted as Umberto unveiled the portrait. Umberto saw that many others looked confused, bemused or disappointed. He heard low muttering and whispers, and his heart sank. It appeared that his gamble had failed. The truth was, this was the only painting he had finished because he had been too busy eating and talking with a giant mouse. It seemed that no one liked the mouse-portrait. The Ramptons had lost their fortune, and The Spires might be bought, or bulldozed. They would have to switch to Plan B, which was Umberto's reluctant idea to sell King to a Travelling Circus Freak Show. It was cruel, but it would be better than being crushed in a mansion while it was being bulldozed to pieces. Except-



Suddenly a man started shouting, a gentleman with what sounded like a French accent. “I love it! I love it!” he was yelling. “This is a work of genius! To paint a portrait is one thing! To paint a portrait of a human is what we accept as normality, it is so passé. But this! To paint a portrait of a mouse! The audacity! The originality! It is brilliant! Unique!” He began to applaud, and suddenly everyone else in the gallery was applauding. There were whoops and cheers. Umberto gulped, his heart leapt. Maybe things wouldn't turn out so badly after all. Mrs Rampton came to his side, and she hugged him. “I think you might have saved us, Bertie”, she whispered in his ear.



They didn't do too badly after all. The man who had shouted and changed everyone's mind about the mouse-portrait was the notable French art critic Francois Ledauphin, who was very influential and highly respected in the art world. At the end of the unveiling, he approached Mrs Rampton and Umberto, along with an American oil baron from Texas who went by the handle of Jim Hucklebacker IV, a Bavarian industrialist called Helmut Hamboeck, and a Russian oligarch named Vladimir Vulchkov. These four rich foreign gentlemen each bid for the painting, and eventually Umberto sold it to the Russian billionaire Vulchkov for two million pounds. It was precious money that would go some considerable way to saving the Rampton family and securing the future of The Spires, as well as making Umberto's reputation as a painter.



Vladimir told a delighted Umberto and Mrs Rampton that he absolutely had to own the painting, and he was happy to pay up so much money for it. “It is a beautiful painting. It shall take pride of place on my study wall at my dacha”, he said. “I confess, I have a liking for mice. As an orphan, living on the streets in Soviet Moscow during the communist era, some of them were my best friends. I had the little fellows in the pockets of my jacket and I shared my crumbs of food with them. These were the furry, small and delicate creatures who were my comrades. I shall work soundly in my study, with my dear mousy companion watching over me. I shall be proud to have the King of the Mice upon my wall.”



Little did Vladimir know the secret truth of his words!