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|The cover artwork for The Splendour of Shadows: "Fear No More" by Janne Olkkonen|
After Copper Moon Rising, Beyond Twilight, and The Pirate Princess were published in 2010, I had plenty of ideas for a new collection of short stories, entitled The Splendour of Shadows. All of the stories in this collection were written between 2010 and 2011, with the exception of 'Bloodlines', which I had an earlier draft for, but rewrote in this period. Many of the stories in The Splendour of Shadows were almost mini-novellas rather than standard modern short stories, with lengths ranging between 10,000 and 25,000 words.
'Vortex' is my favourite story out of everything I have written so far, and is pure metaphysical/speculative fiction/fantasy. It's as original as anything I have attempted to write, but it has obvious influences such as demonic possession fiction; Clive Barker's metaphysical horror fantasies; and an important comic series which ran in the comic 2000AD during the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was called Indigo Prime, and was written by John Smith. Indigo Prime is really the starting point for the characters of Peregrine Lascombe and Victor Phalange, then I took it all in my own direction. I see 'Vortex' as part of a broader Cycle of stories, entitled the Arcadian Chronicles. These are about a universe where an organisation known as the Arcadian Vortex exist, controlled by a female triad with god-like powers known as 'The Matriarchy'. These include several stories published in this collection- most notably 'The Silent Path' and 'Bloodlines'- and many more still to be revealed in publication.
It was illustrated by A Mana, and her artwork captured the eerie feel of the story:
'Vortex' was published in Diabolique Magazine's Exhumation Collection in January 2014.
The Planet of the Dead
Zombies are now a very familiar theme in SF and Horror, and in recent years this trope/genre has been done to death if you'll excuse the pun, similarly so with vampires before it. Originally I had a video game-style concept in mind for this story which was written back in 2010- hence the entire premise for a planet full of zombies which need to be killed, the retrieval of a mysterious artefact, etc. The main opportunity for me in this story though was to revisit the Mortius Vendaker space salvager agency, who originally appeared in the short story 'Red', in Beyond Twilight. This particular story concerns a space salvager named Johnny Volta, a mysterious and precious artefact and...a planet full of flesh-eating zombies. I mean, what more could you want? It's all good fun in an exciting SF adventure tale with nasty surprises.
Derelict seaside towns are a setting which fascinate me, I'm attracted to the whole ambience and feel of bleak places which have seen better days; which seem to hibernate for half of the year and only come alive in tourist season. There is a contrast there, which you can imagine being like a fairground clown's mask which hides an unspeakable truth; or garish fresh paint applied to the chipped, worn wood of a guesthouse sign which has stood for decades. These towns seem like places ripe for stories: involving nostalgia, hidden secrets, romantic relationships, personal frustrations, reclusive natures. 'The Promenade' can best be summarised as a realist delve into melodrama and nostalgia. It's about a homeless girl and is a tale of unrequited love and tragedy.
I had an idea for a story about some kind of conspiracy in a residential home for retired elderly people, tinged with dark humour. Then I started to think about whether the conspiracy existed at all, or if an elderly man's mind was playing tricks on him. There was a certain poignancy to that, and so the story is a blend of that sadness and black comedy. The central character in this story is an elderly man named Walter. His busy daughter can no longer cope with looking after him, so he has to move into a nursing home. There he succumbs to his demons of loneliness, paranoia and sadness while being treated dismissively by the staff. I wanted to write a story about how poorly our Western society sometimes treats elderly people, and this was my attempt at a sympathetic treatment.
I'm going all Guy Ritchie with this one, for want of a better description. It's Layer Cake meets Revolver I suppose, with a little bit of Stephen King influence. There were a couple of stories in King's Nightmares and Dreamscapes collection, 'The Fifth Quarter' and 'My Pretty Pony', which were on my mind. I wanted to explore the character of a hitman through the story's first person narrator: his childhood and beginnings, his introduction to the world of organised crime and aspects of his psychopathic personality. He is assigned to one last job before his retirement. He thinks back on his life and the series of events that have led him to that particular moment. Essentially it's the study of a psychopath on the verge of a breakdown, with a macabre twist.
The Goddess Tree
A monk must go on a search, both physical and metaphysical, to retrieve the elixir that will cure the terminal illness of his superior. The appeal of this story for me, which still lingers, is not the actual quest but the fantasy world it evokes. The Brothers at the Monastery of Sacred Truth and Destiny are religious, but their Earth Mother-style religion is not one we as readers are familiar with. There were lots of interesting little details in the story which I felt editors overlooked whenever I attempted to have the story published: for instance, the mysterious Book of Divine Providence (every religion has a sacred text); the Goddess herself, whom 'some called Aywah or Maia'; the haunted Forbidden Levels of the monastery; the nature of the substance called The Messenger and the visions the monks receive. It's a deceptively simple story rich with mysteries, which is why I am very proud of it, and although it was never taken by an editor I think it's superior to many other stories I have had published.
The Splendour of Shadows
I wanted to write a horror story in a late nineteenth century/early twentieth colonial imperialist setting, something with the flavour of H.Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling. This story was the culmination of that ambition. It's the tale of Robert Clifton, an English explorer, who leads an expedition into the African jungles and finds something strange and evil lurking there ... I think I have written before on this blog that this story was influenced by, firstly, Robert Silverberg's novel Lord of Darkness, set in Angola during the Elizabethan period; but mainly I was thinking of H.P Lovecraft in terms of theme, if not style. 'The Splendour of Shadows' has a definite Lovecraftian feel, but relocated to colonial Africa rather than New England. There is a sense of hideous evil lurking in the darkest, deepest depths of the jungle. The concept is also similar to another one of my stories, 'City by the Sea' (in Beyond Twilight).
The Bell Tower
A fantasy tale based on ancient mythology, as two young men from a tribe of nomads journey across the plains of their homelands to a remote mysterious tower and encounter supernatural creatures and evil magicians while attempting to unlock its mysteries. It is best described as an exotic fantasy tale of magic and strangeness, another Arabian Nights/classical myth-influenced story.
This story could be described as The Lost Boys meets Club 18-30 holidays, Crete Uncovered or something like that. Vampires have become very familiar in horror fiction in recent times, but I just wanted to get back to the idea of them being dangerous, sinister and evil with this story. I prefer that portrayal rather than them being romantic, tortured figures (Twilight series of books/films) or harmless sidekicks like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I wanted to update the myth to a very modern kind of setting: teenagers on holiday in the Med. I've often gone to nightclubs and seen a social phenomenon: girls on the dance floor with their friends, dancing round their handbags and men standing around, sometimes in the shadows, pint in hand, watching them... often just watching. Perhaps waiting until they have taken on enough Dutch Courage to approach them, or making sure there are no boyfriends lurking nearby. It's a very predatory scenario that is familiar to most people. These male suitors at your local 'meat market' remind me of vampires. Maybe that was the inspiration for this tale set on a Greek island. There are lots of gruesome moments in this one.
The Silent Path
This story connects to the first tale in the collection, 'Vortex'. The reader meets Anthony Nexus, who is mentioned in 'Vortex', and several other characters that had first appeared in that story. 'The Silent Path' is another of the 'Arcadian Chronicles'. Nexus is a dimensional agent turned rogue...and he is walking a lonely and dangerous path, with powerful enemies in pursuit.
An SF story involving time travel, time paradoxes and amnesia. Taylor Vector is a sexy heroine and the story takes some twists and turns before a macabre ending ...she is one of two time travellers on a special mission, who start to become affected by the horrific effects of excessive time travel.
A Special Boy
This is a grim, macabre and somewhat grotesque story about a boy who begins to suspect that his half-brother is a type of demonic creature, fathered by a mysterious individual who was having a relationship with his mother. The sinister turn of events is told through a child's eyes, much like 'The Fenland Witches' in Beyond Twilight.
The third of the Arcadian Tales in this collection, although that is not made clear until the end with a tenuous link to the previous two. An early version of this idea was planned around the idea of genetic engineering and technological 'enhancement', but then I had an idea about introducing quasi-religious themes. The premise for this story is that scientists in the future discover Jesus Christ's 'genetic code'. I am interested in religious concepts within a science fiction setting.
This paranoid horror story focuses on a strange mental patient who speaks of being watched by mysterious beings who have compelled him to commit crimes. Although his claims are bizarre and he is considered insane, eventually his psychiatrist uncovers the truth...I didn't realise at the time, although I know it now, that this story is also part of my Arcadian Cycle.
'The Visitor' was published in SNM Horror Magazine (August Asylums issue 2013)
The Secret Summoner
This may not be the best short story I've written, but for some reason this is the one that unsettles me the most. I'm not sure why, but I think it's largely because of what is left unsaid in the narrative, rather than what is said explicitly. Also, it's mainly because even I'm still not sure who, or what, Daniel is. I don't know whether he was genuinely evil, or whether he was being used by something alien and terrible, or whether he attracted something that was dark, strange and powerful to him because of his abnormal supernatural gifts. As you will see, meeting Daniel has dark unpleasant consequences for those involved. The setting for this tale makes it a university campus-story, and so at first the tone is very similar to a previous story of mine, 'The Book of Witchcraft' in Beyond Twilight. In hindsight, the style and narrative structure of this story isn't quite right. I'm planning to rewrite this story as a novel and perhaps do it better justice in the process.
A common basic theme which binds the stories in this book together and makes their inclusion appropriate for the collection is the concept of Shadow, creeping into each narrative. Darkness and Doubles. The presence of Shadow, the sinister threat of Shadow, the lingering traces of Shadow where anything can hide. Shadow as physical darkness; shadow in the form of a presence; shadow manifested as some dark and malevolent double. Hence, the splendour of shadows, a vast collection of shades, lurking in the dark corners of our imagination.