A shorter tale of nightshade

THE WRITER’S LIFE | HORROR FICTION

Most of my short stories nowadays tend toward the longer end of that definition (4-6000 words), but I’ve written shorter ones, right down to flash fiction of 500-1000 words. I wrote many of the latter when I was homeless, writing whenever, and for as long as I could: In hospital waiting rooms, beneath street lamps, or by candle light. The story below was written in a doctor’s surgery.

My exposure with novels is limited to those who can afford them (although I make my books available by request through public libraries too), and with the time to read them. The latter isn’t such an issue with short stories, 25 of which are in my anthology. I continue to write short stories for magazines and web zines, and I’m planning a second collection of 17 longer stories for publication next year. This is the title story from the first, and it’s only 1760 words.

Like most of my writing, there are analogies, parallels and subtexts in The perpetuity of memory. It’s been said by others that many of my stories stand up to repeat reading, often revealing details which weren’t apparent previously. Like all good writers of short fiction, I try to carry maximum meaning and context with minimal words. If that all sounds a bit elitist, just think of this one in the context it was written: Waiting to be seen by a doctor, for ongoing mental health issues, while of no fixed abode. Other patients in the waiting room, all looking better than I felt, and no doubt returning later to a hot meal in a family home.

Living street homeless will leave scars on anyone.

Leg 3D tattoo

The perpetuity of memory

When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective. Each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. A gift from an admirer.”

The invitation to be part of a rare commission by Dom Pablo Solanas was a work of art in itself: exquisitely crafted by the artist and a future priceless piece. This alone was a luxurious gift, even to someone of Christiana Kunsak’s means, yet it was merely an invitation to a private audience with Solanas himself. A box, carved from a single piece each of ebony and rare boxwood, interlocked to form a puzzle. The piece is entitled La armonia. The accompanying notes state that the name only exists for as long as the puzzle is in its unsolved form: once the puzzle is solved and the two pieces separated, a mechanism inside the piece ensures that they cannot be re-joined. Once the puzzle is complete, La armonia ceases to exist and the work becomes La ansiedad.

La armonia was a rare and beautiful thing. It also held a secret: an invitation to meet with Dom Pablo Solanas. The nature of that meeting was unknown and therein lay a form of gamble; a wager with oneself: La armonia was unique and intricately crafted; its aesthetics were unquestionable in that initial state. Further value must be added for the simple fact that the piece contains a secret. If that secret is revealed, it may reduce the value of the work. The invitation will be spent. La ansiedad may not be as pleasing to the eye as La armonia and it is the permanent replacement, with La armonia destroyed forever. Conversely, the construction of the work is so fine and detailed as to invite curiosity, more of what it might become than what it is: should that beauty be left as potential, or revealed? Is it something which may be left to a subsequent benefactor? What might they find inside La armonia? Christiana could not deny herself a pleasure which someone else might yet have, and which she may never see.

As soon as the first link clicked audibly out of place somewhere inside the box, La armonia was no longer. There were no instructions on how to create La ansiedad: it was a work to be created by a new artist from the original. Only when the puzzle was complete would it reveal its secret and until then, it was nameless and in flux.

Held in both hands, the wooden box – around the size of a large cigar box – felt as heavy as it should, carved from solid wood and not hollowed out. It was slightly heavier at one end than the other. The seamless interlocking of the ebony and boxwood formed variously alternate, interlocking and enclosing patterns of dark and light. Aside from the initial click, no amount of tilting, pressing, pulling, twisting and pushing of the device produced any change. Christiana alone had been privy to that first movement, so to anyone other than her, La armonia still existed. But she wanted to create and to see La ansiedad.

The box remained unaffected by manipulation, until Christiana’s housemaid picked it up to clean around it. Snatching the box from the maid’s hand, Christiana heard another click from the device and almost immediately noticed a change: the box remained a cuboid but the dimensions and patterns had altered. Closer examination of the new patterns revealed some to have assumed shapes which suggested movement: swirls, series of dots and even directional arrows. The introduction of a third party had revealed a form of instruction.

Over a period of around four weeks, the wooden box became a collaborative project, with guests to Christiana’s apartment invited to examine the puzzle and attempt to solve it. During that time, the box took on many geometric forms: pyramid, cone, octahedron and latterly, a perfect cube, with opposite ebony and boxwood faces: it was more perfect in form that it had ever been but it still harboured something inside.

The geometrically perfect cube would let up no further information and remained static for a number of days, until the housemaid picked it up once more while she was cleaning. The top half separated from the bottom, the base now a half-cube on the table. The surfaces of the half cubes where they’d separated were a chequerboard design: a game of miniature chess could be played on each ebony and boxwood surface, the size of drinks coasters.

Christiana placed the two halves back together and a perfect cube once again sat upon the table, for a while. After around five seconds, the cube began to make a whirring sound, as though a clockwork mechanism had been invisibly wound inside. Slowly and with a smoothness suggesting the most intricate mechanical construction, the individual tiles on top of the cube folded back from the centre to the edges, eventually forming a five-sided cube with a chequered interior. It was seemingly the lack of any further outside intervention which allowed the wooden device to complete a long transformation by self-re-assembly and after a while, the device resembled a chequered wooden hand. A slot opened in the palm and a card was offered between the forefinger and thumb: a card roughly the size of a visiting card and folded with such accuracy as to disguise the fact that it was anything other. Yet unfurled, it was an octavo sheet: eight leaves. The reverse of the flat sheet was blank but the eight pages to view on the face were images of art.

Oil and watercolour paintings; portraits, landscapes, sill life and abstract; cubist, surrealist and classical. Wooden, metal and glass sculptures; pieces made using prefabricated materials, notably shop window mannequins, plastic dolls, action men and tin soldiers. Body art as well: tattoos drawn in such a way as to give them a third dimension: an arm with skin pulled back to reveal muscle and bone beneath by way of a zip; a human chest splayed open to reveal a metallic cyborg beneath: living art made from human flesh, these two suggesting something beneath the skin visible only with the benefit of intimacy with the bearer. Another tattoo made the wearer’s right leg appear as though the limb were an intricate sculpture made from wood: one organic material transformed into another, which can be transformed in a way that the material it’s made from cannot, to create the illusion of just such a thing. All of these things had been made by the hands of Dom Pablo Solanas. All were arresting at first sight and invited closer inspection. Even as facsimiles and at such small sizes, the works of Solanas were breathtaking. At the bottom of the sheet was a phone number: apparently a direct line to Dom Pablo himself.

La ansiedad quietly whirred into motion again, the mechanical fingers retracting into the wooden flesh of the hand until the sculpture was briefly a chequered ovoid, before flipping open like a clam shell. It continued to change form, seemingly with perpetuity.

Dom Pablo arrived promptly and attired in a fashion exhibited in many public portraits of him: conflicting primary colours which somehow worked, on a man who also wore a fedora hat at all times, and who sported a perfectly manicured handlebar moustache.

Ms. Kunsak. A pleasure to meet you.”

Please sir: Christiana. Likewise, Mr Solanas.” Christiana offered her hand, which Solanas held firmly.

As you wish. And please, call me Dom Pablo.” His voice was deep and relaxed. “Christiana: what is it that you’d like to do today?”

I already have a great gift before me. This is a chance for me to turn your natural gift into something I can share. I have everything I could need around me, but this is an opportunity to own something which is so treasured, I may not wish to leave this apartment again.”

Indeed. That is one of the rules I apply to my arts. Just as I turn my raw materials into others – like flesh into wood – so I wish to allow others to use me as a creative tool, so that what I create is their own. My subjects and prefabricated materials are artworks in themselves but together, we make unique pieces. By allowing a subject to commission me, I am subverting the art and holding a mirror to the process.

You will of course have an idea of who the giver of this gift is. Association with such a person is to be in the membership of a society which respects certain things, like privacy. Therefore, I never discuss the details of a commission with the subject. It is highly unlikely that anyone should wish to attract attention to anyone outside of a certain group, that they have been a part of my work. All of my pieces are unique and personal.”

It is those very people, those within my inner circles, that I have in mind as I enter into this: it was within my closest circles that I came to receive this, and only those of a certain standing will have access. Dom Pablo: I should like to carry your work with me in those circles; I would like you to use me as a canvas and make me a living work of art.”

A truly beautiful idea. Although the canvas is living, I must render it inanimate so that I may work. As such, I shall administer a general anaesthetic, so that you feel no discomfort. I don’t like to talk when I work. When you awake, we will have new art and the Dom Pablo art changes lives. You will enter an even more exclusive, innermost circle of my very own. Excited? Sleep now…

“…When you see what Dom Pablo has done, at first you may recoil. But Dom’s art is personal and subjective; each work is unique and creates another life for the owner. My art remains with you, just as the motion of La ansiedad is perpetual. This latest work is entitled The perpetuity of memory.

Christiana stared into the mirror and a wooden tailor’s doll looked back: her face, neck, chest, arms and legs had been tattooed and the illusion of carved wood from human flesh was utterly convincing.

It would take a level of intimacy permitted to very few, to see the original raw material beneath the artwork, made by Dom Pablo.

© Steve Laker, 2016.

My books are available on Amazon.

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On lucid dreaming and the quantum human soul

What life after this is like and how to get there

ESSAY | SCIENCE | THE WRITER’S LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING

There’s a very simple answer to life, the universe and everything. In a funny way, it is 42 for me. Because just as Deep Thought took 7.5 million years to work it out in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it took me 42 years. And I’m part of the computer which Deep Thought designed: Earth 2.0. But this isn’t science fiction. This is scientific fact. This is how I can quite reasonably explain what this life is all about, what comes after it, and how to get there. This is not a religious text. I’ve been asked to clarify my politics, religion, and my overall outlook on life in the past. This is an anarchist atheist blog entry.

Universe background

I did not have an epiphany. This is not a sudden realisation. It’s something I’ve formulated over the last 3-4 years. If anything, being homeless for three years was what convinced me there was no God. Not because I felt somehow deserving and forsaken. What happened to me couldn’t be the work of any god: I did it myself. No, it was because I had time to think, to question, read and learn. I did this by spending many long days in Tonbridge Library. I’d spend my allotted hour of computer time typing up this blog, then I’d retire to the reference section and I’d borrow books from the lending section. Regarding what follows, further reading shouldn’t be necessary but I’d certainly recommend learning more. Firstly, let’s get my atheism and anarchism into some context:

I’m an atheist, in that I deny ‘God’ in man’s image. I don’t deny that the earth may have been visited by a greater intelligence, many thousands of years ago. I would be a fool – given all that I believe – to assume that there was no other life in the universe. I certainly believe (hope) that there are many, far superior races out there. The sheer size of space makes it a paradox, and upon that is built both scientific research and blind faith. The curious explorers who want to learn more, and those who prefer to accept what’s fed to them. I’ll come back to personal utopian and dystopian worlds later, as well as how to get there. For now, my atheism is rooted in a desire to question and discover, not to accept as fact, that which is unproven. I don’t consider my scientific views to be in any way blind faith.

Anarchism next though: In the 80s, I was a punk. It was more than the music: It was a movement and a way of life, just as Bowie became my life guide throughout, and my musical roots go back to Kingston and the birth of Ska, and all that true Two Tone represents. But when I was a punk, I wore white laces in my D.Ms. At the time, that stood for Anarchy, Peace and Freedom, where red laces were Anarchy and Chaos. But far from the stereotypes of either portrayed in the media, there is a deeper humanitarian nature to true anarchy, as defined by Noam Chomsky and Ross Ulbricht. A self-governing society can work, provided a balance is collectively maintained. True and pure anarchy is a redistribution of power, where power is returned to the people.

Add the atheism, the anarchism and some weed together, and you have a mind which can question the greater things. Being pretty extreme left wing (in the relatively simplistic sphere of geopolitics when compared to the universe), I seek to reconcile what I say with all who might object, if they’re prepared to have a debate and not to fight. We may agree to differ, but by having that conversation, at least the two parties are better able to understand one another. Only by continuing to talk do we increase our understanding.

So what of life, the universe and everything? I’m limited by words, just as ancient scribes were when they recorded the events of whatever it was which happened 2000 years ago. Religion packaged it and monetised it, but the ancient scrolls and scripts are so open to interpretation that it requires a leap of faith to accept any theory. All religion did was package one version and sell it. I don’t believe we know who or what any creator might have been, how we got here, or where we came from. It is perhaps for comfort that I choose to believe there are other races out there in the virtual infinity of space. Consider the size, and consider the Drake equation, and you get an idea of how it’s a paradox requiring some faith, but no more than religion, and not packaged, other than by those who label us conspiracy theorists. As such, we explore and we question. We can be wrong. We desire debate from a wider conversation, but while that label is applied, we’re the freaky geeks, the nerds, the computer programmers and hackers. In any case, most of us wear white hats, which means the same as those boot laces in the 80s. But at the end of any debate, I would seek to reconcile religion with science, in the exact way Carl Sagan did in Contact. That book and film left both sides open, for further debate, none with a definitive answer. Contact contains one of my favourite quotes, about humanity:

You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”

And that fits in with my greater outlook on life, the universe, and everything. And of course, Stephen Hawking:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”

Arthur C. Clarke:

Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

And finally, David Bowie:

Knowledge comes with death’s release.”

Four great minds. Four thinkers. Four visionaries. Together, those words and the other works of those individuals and others, are the background for the formulation of what I like to think is a unifying theory. I have my own philosophy:

Imagine you are in an empty room, with no visible means of exit. How do you get out? You could stop imagining. Or you could use your imagination.”

Clearly, I chose the latter path. I think a lot, and I try to make sense of those thoughts in my writing. I do believe knowledge comes with death’s release, I share Clarke’s fear, and I believe in communication, at all levels. That only breaks down if I’m dealing with someone who lacks basic human instincts through pure ignorance of their own making and perpetuating. Well, in my theory (And backed up by scientific thought), those people are destined to an eternal hell of their own making (see below).

A quick digression: one of the causes I follow closely is that of nonhuman rights. Just like (most of) us, animals are sentient beings: They know they’re alive. They sleep, and they know that there was something before and after that; a yesterday and tomorrow, past and future. Like humans, animals are self-determining creatures: They are aware of actions and reactions. They have a conscience. It’s that conscience – in both humans and nonhumans – which I believe can exist separately from the physical body. It is the soul. I believe that the human body is just a physical vessel for that soul during this life. I believe that life as we understand it, is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we can’t yet comprehend. And I believe that once our physical bodies age and die, our souls continue to live (and I just said ‘arseholes’).

A good analogy is a TV: when it’s switched off, it’s just a physical box which does nothing, unless it’s switched on. Switch a TV on, and it will show various broadcasts from the many available TV channels: Pictures, sounds; an intangible thing. It’s no longer just a physical box; it has a life of sorts. And the human body can be thought of in exactly the same way: a device for giving the broadcast the means of expression, except the intangible thing in this case is the human consciousness. Just because you switch a TV off, doesn’t mean those broadcasts stop; they’re still there, but the TV needs to be on to see them. And so, when the physical human body dies, the consciousness – the soul – continues to live, albeit in a different physical form. Some say that’s what ghosts are, and based on the evidence supporting the eternal human soul model, it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. So ghosts do exist. The dead really are able to visit us, because they’re still around. Some people find that comforting.

And of course, there are always caveats and paradoxes. Because ‘ghosts’ or whatever we want to call the form we take in the afterlife, exist in a form which is generally invisible and undetectable to us. It’s a simple scientific fact that there are forces of nature and physics which challenge even the finest minds (supersolids being one example). But for me, it’s an easy and comfortable thing to accept as fact: That when I die, my consciousness will continue to live. In an attempt to explain how that might manifest itself to us when we actually experience it (come the time), I need to briefly cover quantum mechanics. For that, we need to return to the choosing of paths from above.

Imagine you’re on a path and the path splits in two. You now have two options: the right or left path. As I’m left-handed and left-wing, let’s say I choose the path on the left. Assume that the paths are enclosed, by walls, trees, or whatever. So I’m walking along the left path and I can’t see outside it. Does the other path still exist? Like the tree which falls silently in the woods and makes no sound, this is a paradox. But it’s one designed to make one think. If we think logically, of course that other path is still there: we saw it. But was the act of seeing it, the very thing which brought it into existence? This is what quantum theory is all about: Everything exists in many parallel states, only taking final form with some sort of catalyst. Erwin Schrödinger demonstrated this with his thought experiment, Schrödinger’s cat: Essentially, a box contains a cat, which may be either dead or alive. Until the box is opened, the cat exists in both states (alive and dead). The opening of the box is the catalyst: It makes one think.

A real-life example of the quantum world is the 512-Qubit D-Wave II quantum computer, currently running in British Columbia, Canada. A traditional computer, however complex and whatever device hosts it, is a binary machine: Boil a computer down to its raw operating code and it’s all ones and zeros: either one or the other; binary. A binary bit is always either a 1 or a 0. A quantum bit exists in both states simultaneously, until it is called into operation by a computational command. The potential power of a quantum computer is truly mind-boggling. In the quantum universe, everything exists in parallel states, until it’s called into existence by a catalyst. At that point, all of the alternate states – which weren’t brought into existence – continue to exist. Got that? Because that’s the biggest mind hurdle, accepting such a weird fact.

There are quantum mechanics at work in our daily lives. Every time we make a decision – consciously or unconsciously – we call a scenario (a universe) into existence. In the quantum world, all of the potential universes which would have been called into existence if there was a different catalyst, still exist. When we die, a universe is created in which our dead physical body exists, and where some may mourn and others celebrate. But at the same time, alternatives exist. At the point of death, unable to continue the path of the physical body, our consciousness will find itself in a different universe: One which existed at the moment of death, but which couldn’t be occupied by the physical body we just lost. It’s a simple matter of (and as easy to imagine as) one set of options being switched off. Scientific fact: Life doesn’t just end. This is not just a comforting thought to combat that of eternal nothingness; it’s science. We only know all this now, because we’re able to observe things at a sub-atomic level (and it wasn’t long ago that the holy grail was splitting the atom).

So when we die, we take on a different physical form: Think of it as some sort of ethereal, spiritual thing, because that’s the easiest way. In that non-physical form, we are free to move around, without limits or borders. And free of our frail human bodies, we are also free from the ravages of time, and what that can do to age a physical thing. We (our consciousness, or our soul), are effectively immortal. And this is where I’m able to posit a unifying theory on heaven and hell, because quantum theory proves that consciousness moves to another universe after death (other links, here).

I write not of the biblical heaven and hell, but of personal ones. We can now appreciate, that after death, we continue to exist. In that form, we have freedom of movement and time. Roughly translated, there is an entire universe to explore, and an eternity in which to do it. Faced with that, how might some of us react? I’d suggest that the open-minded and curious would find themselves in a personal utopia (I know I would). But to anyone conditioned, blinkered, limited by belief, or just dumb and ignorant, faced with all that potential knowledge, it could be overwhelming: A personal hell; fear of the unknown for eternity. You only have to think of the people you know, to be fairly sure of who’s going where. It’s not wholly down to them being a good or bad person; it’s down to how their mind deals with such a huge thing. It takes a level of intelligence and an open mind to accept these things, but not much.

Ancient aliens from distant galaxies aside, there’s no white haired, bearded old man; there’s just all of knowledge. Personally, although I fear the process of death itself, I don’t fear what comes after.

So now we have multiple quantum universes, hanging in limbo, all around, just waiting to be called into existence. All that aren’t, still exist, in the past and present. We just can’t see them. We’re not aware of many of them in our current physical form. So how do we go exploring? We now move onto lucid dreaming. A lucid dream is a dream during which the dreamer is aware of dreaming. During lucid dreaming, the dreamer may be able to exert some degree of control over the dream characters, narrative, and environment.

At some point before reading this, you’ll have woken from sleep today. You remember being awake yesterday, because you’re a sentient, self-determining being. You remember that you’ve slept and what you remember of that, is down to your ability to dream and recall those dreams. And every day, we remember waking from sleep, and being awake before that. The part we never remember, is that actual moment of transit: Passing from wakefulness into sleep. As soon as you wake, you know you’ve been asleep, and you remember being awake before you slept. But you cannot remember falling asleep. That’s where we go to catch dreams, and there’s a way to do it, but it takes a lot of practice.

Lucidity is a sort of semi-conscious state, somewhere between conscious and unconscious, but where the subject is aware of their surroundings. Lucid dreaming is simply taking control of one’s dreams. It involves being able to recognise, in sleep, when one is actually asleep. It’s quite literally, being in a dream and being able to say to oneself, ‘I am dreaming’. The trick is not waking yourself up.

There are many books on the subject, and most teach the methods (mind control) which help to achieve lucidity. There are many suggested ways, and the one which eventually worked for me was this (and Exploring the World of Lucid Dreams, by Stephen LaBerge Ph.D and Howard Rheingold):

As you lay in bed at night, become aware of your surroundings. Concentrate on your thoughts, and keep telling yourself that you’re falling asleep. Eventually and naturally, you will. And like most people, most of the time, you’ll miss that moment when you pass over and actually fall asleep. The next thing you may be aware of, is that you’re dreaming. It’s a fact, that the last thing on your mind as you fall asleep will remain there. With a lot of practice (it took me about six months), you’ll eventually have a eureka moment: A moment when you realise – in your sleep – that you are dreaming. You are now lucid. As such, you are free to move around as you please, as you are no longer constrained by your body (it’s asleep, like the TV set). The first time it happened to me, I looked from the bed where I lay, at the sofa in my living room, which was up a short flight of steps. I don’t know if steps are called a ‘flight’ and the bit at the top, the ‘landing’ for this reason, but taking it literally, I decided to fly up the steps to my sofa. And so, in my dream, I stood, Superman-like, and thrust my fist out ahead of me. And I flew. And I got so excited that I woke up. This went on for several weeks.

Eventually, after almost a year in total, I was generally able to lucid dream at will. For a while, I resisted the urge to fly, as I didn’t want the euphoria to wake me. A bit of a warning here: You may find yourself (as I did), living a life which seems like a long day which never ends. Because being awake and asleep become so alike (apart from being able to do anything and everything in the latter state), it can sometimes feel like you’re never sleeping. It doesn’t get physically exhausting, because you are sleeping, or at least your physical body is. But it can get disconcerting. It is a completely new way of living, after all.

Once you’re in control of your dreams, the limit is quite literally your imagination. And that dreamscape you’re exploring can be the universe. So, every night, you’re experiencing a little of what it’ll be like when you’re finally freed of your physical body. For now, you can only do it when you’re asleep. In that place, time and space act differently. There are other dimensions. It’s a lot to take on board and you can see why it would take an eternity to discover it all. But even if you can’t visit through lucidity in your dreams, it’s lucidity which awaits. And that’s a comforting thought, based on science but which doesn’t exclude religion.

Knowledge comes with death’s release.

So that’s how I live my life. People asked, so I told: I’m a writer. That’s me, and that’s the way I am.

My first novel, The Paradoxicon, was a semi-autobiographical story of a man seeking answers through lucid dreaming, while battling his own demons in the space between wakefulness and sleep. My latest novel, Cyrus Song, gives a more humorous skew on things (with talking animals), but nevertheless answers the ultimate question: That of life, the universe and everything. There really is an even simpler answer.

How to get published and make a lot of money*

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The joy of writing is in the act of writing itself. To have words appear before you, working together to gradually tell a story, is indeed a pleasure. To be the author of those words, more so. None of us get into it for the money.

o-steampunk-writer-facebook

When I got into writing – like others – I bought a load of books (some would call them ‘self-help’), with titles like that of this blog post. Truth is, it’s a rare person indeed who manages to sell enough books to make anything like a lot of money. One book I’ve treasured is I’d Rather be Writing, by Marcia Golub: It’s a humorous ‘in-joke’, about all those things writers find to do to avoid writing. What we seek is a world free of distractions, for as long as possible, so that we may write. But the world is full of distractions, keeping you away from the thing you long to do, including a very entertaining book about exactly that.

As with the rest of the arts, there will be very few who become wealthy from writing. It’s galling when that’s someone who writes little better than an early-learning student (not mentioning any names, but rhymes with ‘Ban Drown’) and they grow rich from work which is mediocre at best, when there are so many superior writers who hardly get a look in to a crowded market, where luck seems to play a big part.

Of course, the big change has been self-publishing. There was a time when it was considered purely a demonstration of vanity (it was ‘vanity publishing’). Although it was true that many authors did – and still do – self-publish for their own vanity (and it’s a label which some people still apply indiscriminately to self-publishing writers), that’s no longer the case. Quite simply, digital printing has democratised the publishing world, and mainstream agents and publishers now increasingly look to the ranks of self-published authors for their next big name. Unfortunately, there are very many of those. Unfortunate for the writers, as it places them in a crowded market. Fortunate for readers though, as there is a lot of talent in literature which wouldn’t have found its way to them before the digital revolution. Those writers don’t fit the mainstream publishing model, which still works on a populist model for the greatest short-term financial return. The problem for the reader, is finding those authors, and for the writers, being found.

I myself have been compared to some truly great writers, for my writing in different genres. Most recently, I was compared with King, Lovecraft, Kafka and Poe (not some sort of twisted Teletubbies) in an Amazon review of my anthology. A national magazine critic compared my writing with that of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and the Brontës: writers, “…with a heart in their writing, that captivated the reader.” That was for A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie: My children’s book, dealing with life’s changes. For some of my more thoughtful long short stories, I’ve been compared to Paul Auster; for my twisted tales, with Roald Dahl; and most recently, I’ve been complimented by Douglas Adams fans on Cyrus Song. I have documented proof of this.

So, I’ve written the books, and I’m writing more. But how do I sell them? That’s where not having a mainstream agent or publisher can be the problem. But again – and it’s confirmed by the professional press – those people are scouting the self-publishing shelves, and those are crammed full of good books. So in a rather wonderfully natural way, it all comes down to organics: For one person to buy a book, to like it and talk about it. From there, the growth is natural. And that relies on the power of the people, a little anarchy. Buy my books and vive la révolution, or something.

I’m not alone of course, and it’s not just writers. There are famously unheard-of struggling bands, thrashing away in bedrooms and garages. There are artists, desperate and deserving of fame, wondering how to get noticed. I don’t find it difficult to imagine, being a horror writer, some twisted scenario where an artist has tried all that they know to achieve fame, before resorting to the ultimate sacrifice and taking their own life as a martyr to their cause.

With so many voices competing to be heard, shouting the loudest isn’t the best way: Being interesting and original only goes so far. It gets frustrating. I almost wish I could brainwash people, or inject my words into them. Actually, as a horror writer, I’ve done that at least once in a short story. For now, I need people to take a £10 leap of faith. I’m confident enough of my books that I’d offer a money back guarantee.

Whatever happens, my published writing will be here long after me. So even if I’m wrong with my whole quantum belief system, it’ll be true in a way: My soul will live on. It’s writing which keeps it alive in this life.

Unless I suddenly find myself in the right place at the right time, or start writing for a lower common denominator, it’s not going to change. And that’s fine. I’ve done what I can and I’ll keep doing it. If this were an advice post, that would be my advice, but based only on my personal experience.

*You probably won’t. But never give up.

Smoking reefers with ghosts

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Last night, I sat up talking to a dead person. It would be a good opening line for a story, but it’s fact. I don’t know if my friend heard me, but I like to think she did. I may be branded a loony (I’m pretty much medically diagnosed as one anyway) but I got something from that meeting, as though I’d heard something. This is not a religious epiphany.

Carl Sagan

I’ll confess that I’d been smoking a bit of weed, but no-one should judge that until they’ve tried it themselves. My friend smoked too. For her, it was pain relief from sickle cell disease, which took her from us last year. It’s her birthday today, so we kind of sat up, passing a reefer between us. For me, cannabis relieves my anxiety, relaxes me and opens my mind. It’s a very agreeable self-prescribed therapy. But just because I was a bit stoned, doesn’t mean I was tripping, or out of it. Like pretty much all weed smokers, I’m compos mentis (despite the medical diagnoses) when I’m on it, more chatty, articulate and enquiring. I get clarity of deeper thought, and I’m able to interrogate my own brain, which has allowed us to become good friends.

As an atheist, I deny God in man’s image. I don’t deny that there could be superior or technically advanced beings in the universe. I believe it may be possible that our planet was visited by ancient aliens, and that these events were recorded by scribes in the terms which they understood. My objection is to the white-haired man created by Christianity, in its own image, and religion based on worshipping an idol. But I accept that for some, it’s a belief system and a comfort.

I have my own set of beliefs. Having got my head around quantum mechanics a couple of years ago, I believe that life as we know it is merely one part of an ongoing existence, the greatness of which we don’t yet understand. And of course, like Christianity, my belief has to be based on a faith that I’m right. But my beliefs do at least have a grounding in science. Put simply, I believe that the soul continues to live, after the physical body has broken. Then, we take on a different physical form, which gives us freedom from the restraints of the living human body. Some may think of ghosts or spirits, and that’s perhaps what those phenomena are.

My short story, Cardboard Sky, explains the various kinds of ghosts:

The ‘Crisis Apparition’ is normally a one-time event for those experiencing it. It’s when a ghost is seen at the time of it’s predecessor’s passing, as a way of saying farewell to family and friends. It would be like going about your daily business, then suddenly seeing your mum outside of normal contexts. Minutes later, you receive a call to tell you that she’s passed away. With practice, the deceased may be able to visit you more than once, to reassure you. If they do that, you might have a guardian angel. In my case, a fallen one with broken wings.

‘The reluctant dead’ are ghosts who are unaware they’re deceased. They go about their lives as if they were still living, oblivious to their passing. This innocence (or denial), can be so severe that the ghost can’t see the living but can nonetheless feel their presence: A kind of role reversal. This can be stressful, for both the haunter and the haunted. In films, it’s usually someone moving into the home of a recently deceased person. Perhaps they lived and died alone in their twilight years. To them, the living might be invaders. These are not ghosts which need to be exorcised: Simply talking to them about their death can help them to cross over and leave your home.

Then there are ghosts who are trapped or lost: They know they’re dead but for one reason or another, they can’t cross over yet. Cross over into what? Some may fear moving on because of the person they were in life, or they might fear leaving what’s familiar to them.

There are ghosts with ‘unfinished business”’broadly split into two categories: A parent might return to make sure their children are okay. Or a lover might hang around, making sure their partner finds happiness and moves on. But there’s also the ‘vengeful ghost’; perhaps a murder victim, back to haunt their killer.

‘Residual ghosts’ usually live out their final hours over and over again. They often show no intelligence or self-awareness, and will walk straight by (or through) you. Many think that these types of ghosts left an imprint or a recording of themselves in our space time.

Finally, the ‘intelligent ghost’: Where the entity interacts with the living and shows a form of intelligence. I certainly wanted to communicate with George. In fact, to lesser and greater extents, I fitted parts of the descriptions of all types of ghosts. I’d not long been dead and already I had a multiple personality disorder…”

That was fiction. But in fact, I do believe in ghosts I suppose.

By extension to all of this, I can see how heaven and hell might exist, in a personal sense. When the time comes for my calling, I imagine I’ll be faced with an entire universe to explore, perhaps for eternity. To my mind, that would be a personal utopia: All the answers I’ve always sought. ‘Knowledge comes with death’s release’ (David Bowie). But to others, knowledge represents fear. So faced with a universal knowledge of all things, some people may be terrified, and find themselves in a personal hell. Intelligence and ignorance may experience an eternal karma on the other side.

I believe that as we continue to exist and move freely after our physical death, we can visit the living. It may be that they don’t know we’re there, but I’m comforted by a belief that the dead still walk among us. In death, the world is without borders. I have written and I believe, that if we speak to the dead, if they’re listening, sometimes they may hear us. I imagine a sleeping soul being stirred from slumber, because someone is thinking of them. I believe that our thoughts can be heard: An ethereal, telepathic connection, with an afterlife without physical form, replaces the audible speech we’d have had with them in this life.

It wasn’t a long conversation. I told my friend that everyone said hi, including my kids, who went to school with her son. I asked her how it was out there, and how I imagine it was nice to escape the pain of her illness. But of course, she had to leave a family behind. I shared with her, my belief that she can hear me, and others who think of her. I wished there was a way she could have told me everything’s okay, and that she could hear us. Even though that’s down to my own atheist scientific faith, I felt at ease. I was relaxed, of course: we were smoking a joint. But it was a comforting feeling I had. The kind I get when I’ve just finished a story I’ve written while I’ve been a bit mind-expanded, and knowing it’s good. I read her the poem I wrote for her after she’d left us. To Catford’s sleeping Queenie:

A wave from a plane

If you’re ever stuck;
If you ever wonder;
It’s the simple things,
that make a life:

Sunday roast: Jerk chicken
Sandy coast: Jamaica
Bonfire nights, Christmas lights
All these things

Birthday gifts, healing rifts
Friendly smile, extra mile
All these things
remind me

City walks; Kids’ school
Family talks; Black and white
London years, happy tears
All these things

Moonlit night; Security lights
Morning haze; Happy days
All these things
remind me

Dogs and rats; Welcome mats
Catford: Life rhymes with that
Dancing queen, evergreen
All these things

All these things are true

50 Cent makes music
while Dana sings:
“All kinds of everything
remind me of you.”

It’s good to talk. Talk to the dead, if you believe they can hear you. I believe that it’s nice for someone out there to know that they’re being remembered.

I hope people still talk to me when I’m gone.

valdin

Valdin Millette (1983 – 2016)

Sometimes, I hear Bob Geldof

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve never really got the hang of Mondays, so I often use them as transitory days, to clear a few things out of the way before moving on to the next thing or week. This is one such Monday. Sometimes though, when every day is almost the same, any day can be Monday. Everything’s good, but for the constant nagging knowledge that there’s bad news on the way in the post, even when there isn’t any.

Hello Monday

My latest book (Cyrus Song) is at a bit of a limbo stage, being as it’s only recently published. It’s sold a few copies and now I have to be as patient as I was with test readers, waiting for people to finish it. If they then feel moved to review the book, or even just talk about it, then others might read it too and do the same. I’m still confident the book will market itself, organically, with the odd bit of spam here and there from me. There was an early review on Amazon, from a test reader who read the final book as well:

Loved it!

I just finished this, after three days of solid reading. It is a very clever book.

I loved the central characters: The chemistry was one of the most complex and believable relationships I’ve seen in a long time, only mired slightly in our protagonist’s mind by the main supporting character: A reluctant marriage of convenience and amusing tension.

It’s a story which develops slowly, but with varied pace moving the narrative along. It was only part way in that I realised there are so many tributes to people, living and dead, in the many passing characters of the people and animals passing through Doctor Hannah Jones’ animal hospital. There are some fascinating animal and nature facts sprinkled through the book and told in a QI style: It’s informative.

This book is deep. It has sad moments but it’s funny. It ends in a way as original as the rest of the story: Somewhat unusual, not entirely unexpected and very satisfying. It’s a book which doesn’t take itself, nor life, the universe and everything, too seriously.

It’s an engrossing and entertaining read. And a special mention must go to Charles (the rabbit) and Captain Mamba. (5/5 stars).

I also got an email from someone else who’s just finished the book, including this:

Even at microscopic size, Captain Mamba is the most irritable, sarcastic, venomous anti-hero I’ve ever fallen in love with.

I am proud of that character. I’m proud of the whole book but as characters go, Captain Mamba certainly is one. Just as Douglas Adams wrote a companion story to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Young Zaphod Plays it Safe), I may do the same with my captain. Certainly, there will be a sequel novel, if the first one does well enough.

Meanwhile, I’ve started plotting and researching my next book, Quietly Through the Garden of England (on the Book shelf page of this blog). It’s taking the shape of a part-fiction / part-fact (‘factional’?) local history book: Two characters, based on real people, moving through historical settings, each with their own stories and with lots of factual information therein. And all tied up into a ‘story’, only insomuch as the book has a narrator to guide visitors through that story: Me, the writer.

There was a rather nice review posted just recently on Amazon, for The Perpetuity of Memory. My anthology already had one five star review, which are always nice to receive. But to get a four star review from someone who clearly knows their subject, is just as gratifying, especially when I’m compared to peers whom I admire:

endings (perhaps it’s a genre/age/technology thing) but I have enjoyed the writing style very much.

I cannot pretend to understand all the endings (perhaps it’s a genre/age/technology thing) but I have enjoyed the writing style very much. Do I detect the influence of H.P Lovecraft, Kafka, Stephen King and of course…Edgar Allen Poe? Would certainly recommend ‘The Perpetuity of Memory’. Steve Laker is a writer to watch out for. (4/5 stars).

I’m four stories (of 17) into writing my second collection of shorts, more of which should start appearing soon while I work on the next book in the background. So that’s this week sorted, and probably every week between now and Christmas.

Every day is good. It’s been like that since I was first brave enough to call myself a writer. But depression and anxiety make other days feel like Monday. And every Monday, I have to get the hang of it all over again.

I predict a period of civil disobedience

POLITICS | OPINION

I like to think that my liberal and social mindset transcends politics, certainly insofar as no UK political party represents all of my views, which is pretty much social liberal anarchism (as opposed to communism): I think a lot. But even someone with a polar position to mine (at least one who was prepared to listen and debate), would see the truths in the post below, and maybe begin to question as much as I always do.Henry David Thoreau

While I’m stuck with contemporary liberal socialism, the Labour Party is the one I support in UK politics. Having said that I wouldn’t politicise this blog, it is my blog nonetheless and it represents me. And while the UK parliament has been on Summer recess, and most people have put everything which went before to the backs of their minds, I’ve still been ferreting around, reading and thinking.

I’m a member of The Labour Party and as such, I get emails about campaigns: I know that the party hasn’t rested during the Summer break. Meanwhile, the Tories will continue the path of destruction they started before they all went on holiday and many of us didn’t. But even putting my hard left stance aside, a recent post on Facebook by Chris Renwick, before the last general election – even though he’s a Labour supporter – ought to strike a note with left and right alike, seeing is it is essentially the truth. Here’s the post in full:

Here’s what I’m really struggling to understand. All I’ve ever heard from people, for years, is:

“Bloody bankers and their bonuses”
“Bloody rich and their offshore tax havens “
“Bloody politicians with their lying and second homes”
“Bloody corporations paying less tax than me”
“Bloody Establishment, they’re all in it together”
“It’ll never change, there’s no point in voting”

And quite rightly so, I said all the same things. But then someone comes along that’s different. He upsets the bankers and the rich. The Tory politicians hate him along with most of the labour politicians. The corporations throw more money at the politicians to keep him quiet. And the Establishment is visibly shaken. I’ve never seen the Establishment so genuinely scared of a single person.

So the media arm of the establishment gets involved. Theresa phones Rupert asking what he can do, and he tells her to keep her mouth shut, don’t do the live debate, he’ll sort this out. So the media goes into overdrive with:

“She’s strong and stable”
“He’s a clown”
“He’s not a leader”
“Look he can’t even control his own party”
“He’ll ruin the economy”
“How’s he gonna pay for it all?!”
“He’s a terrorist sympathiser, burn him, burn the terrorist sympathiser”

And what do we do? We’ve waited forever for an honest politician to come along but instead of getting behind him we bow to the establishment like good little workers. They whistle and we do a little dance for them. We run around like hypnotised robots repeating headlines we’ve read, all nodding and agreeing. Feeling really proud of ourselves because we think we’ve come up with our very own first political opinion. But we haven’t, we haven’t come up with anything. This is how you tell. No matter where someone lives in the country, they’re repeating the same headlines, word for word. From Cornwall to Newcastle people are saying:

“He’s a clown”
“He’s a threat to the country”
“She’s strong and stable”
“He’ll take us back to the 70s”

And there’s nothing else, there’s no further opinion. There’s no evidence apart from one radio 5 interview that isn’t even concrete evidence, he actually condemns the violence of both sides in the interview. There’s no data or studies or official reports to back anything up. Try and think really hard why you think he’s a clown, other than the fact he looks like a geography teacher (no offence geography teachers) because he hasn’t done anything clownish from what I’ve seen.

And you’re not on this planet if you think the establishment and the media aren’t all in it together.

You think Richard Branson, who’s quietly winning NHS contracts, wants Corbyn in?
You think Rupert Murdoch, who’s currently trying to widen his media monopoly by buying sky outright, wants Jeremy in?
You think the Barclay brothers, with their offshore residencies, want him in?
You think Philip Green, who stole all the pensions from BHS workers and claims his wife owns Top Shop because she lives in Monaco, wants Corbyn in?
You think the politicians, both Labour and Tory, with their second homes and alcohol paid for by us, want him in?
You think Starbucks, paying near zero tax, wants him in?
You think bankers, with their multi million pound bonuses, want him in?

And do you think they don’t have contact with May? Or with the media? You honestly think that these millionaires and billionaires are the sort of people that go “ah well, easy come easy go, it was nice while it lasted”?? I wouldn’t be if my personal fortune was at risk, I’d be straight on the phone to Theresa May or Rupert Murdoch demanding this gets sorted immediately.

Because here’s a man, a politician that doesn’t lie and can’t lie. He could have said whatever would get him votes anytime he wanted but he hasn’t. He lives in a normal house like us and uses the bus just like us. He’s fought for justice and peace for nearly 40 years. He has no career ambitions. And his seat is untouchable. That’s one of the greatest testimonies. No one comes close to removing him from his constituency, election after election.

His Manifesto is fully costed. It all adds up, yes there’s some borrowing but that’s just to renationalise the railway, you know we already subsidise them and they make profit yeah? One more time… WE subsidise the railway companies and they walk away with a profit, just try and grasp the level of piss taking going on there.

Unlike the Tory manifesto with a £9 billion hole, their figures don’t even add up. And it benefits all of us, young, old, working, disabled, everyone. The only people it hurts are the establishment, the rich, the bankers, the top 5% highest earners.

Good, screw them, it’s long overdue. #VoteLabour #ForTheManyNotTheFew!

Couldn’t have put it much differently myself. I read The Guardian, the only truly independent UK newspaper. I’ve said before that at first, I didn’t trust Corbyn: Because I didn’t see him as a politician. But then I realised I’d been conditioned to what a politician was and that Corbyn was just different. I can relate to that. He’s a long-game thinker, like me; he sees a bigger picture, a future vision.

When parliament returns from Summer recess, I predict the further meltdown of the Tory party in its own cauldron. I see Kim-Jong May walking away from the EU with no deal. I hope I continue to see the lifting of the national veil I saw a couple of months ago, where the public realise they’ve been lied to. And then, if there isn’t a leadership challenge or some other trigger for a general election, I predict civil unrest: We’ve already seen it, as this country has begun to sunk.

And the only way I see to make things better, is to vote Corbyn into No10. To get there, I hope Chris Renwick’s Facebook rant resonates with as big an audience as possible. Then we might see the disruption this country needs before it sinks.

(I also predict that in a second parliamentary term, a Labour government would legalise the recreational use of cannabis, correctly licensed and taxed).

If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.”
Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and Other Essays

Elk arse vet and more fun with words

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Words are my trade, of course. I use them to inform, scare, amuse and confuse. Cross words and crosswords. Long before I was a writer though, words have always held a fascination for me: palindromes and anagrams especially, and playing around with words for cryptic crossword clues, have always been sources of casual amusement. Obscure word meanings too.

Power of Words

Elk arse vet is of course an anagram of my name, and it’s a rather splendid one at that. Anagrams are one of the many tools of the crossword compiler.

There are a few conventions a good compiler will observe:

  • Cryptic crosswords are typically 15 x 15 grids; concise puzzles 13 x 13 in size.

  • The grid should be rotationally symmetrical along at least one diagonal axis, preferably both.

  • It’s considered bad form to have too many unconnected ‘lights’: a light is a white square – to be filled in – and more than two consecutive orphan lights is generally thought unfair to the solver.

  • Often puzzles have an additional feature or aim, achievable upon completion of the puzzle.

My speciality was always cryptic puzzles and I’d incorporate a little ‘Easter egg,’ in the form of a pun or play on words in the initial two, three or four clues. The title of the puzzle would furthermore hold a clue to the keywords / theme.

Once a grid is filled with words (the solution), the most fun for the compiler is to be had in compiling the clues. Some of my all time favourites (answers to follow):

1. MIX (5,8)
2. GSGE (9,4)
3. (4,3,3,1,4)
4. Powered flight (9)

I still do the odd commissioned or themed puzzle for freelance clients, but fewer of my own. Nevertheless, it’s still fun to play with words when I’m out: I see a word and encrypt it, such is the way of my mind. For example (and any solver of cryptic crosswords will know the conventions, so the compiling rationale doesn’t require explanation):

Original thoughts

5. Five in Christmas story (5)
6. Thoughts confused in aside (5)
7. Authors, pens and pencils (7)
8. Own hospital at end of short road (4)

(There’s at least one anagram in there).

One of the main characters in my latest book (which contains at least two Easter Eggs) has a palindromic name: Hannah. Other, longer palindromes are available, but probably not anyone’s names:

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama! (probably the most well known).
Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.
A santa lived as a devil at NASA
Dammit, I’m mad.
Was it a rat I saw?
Do geese see God?
Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas.

(That last one is a personal favourite).

A few literary devices aside, I don’t seek to confuse with my fiction writing. I’m not an elitist who uses obscure words for the sake of it, when a more accessible one will do. There are rare occasions though, where a word’s meaning is so specific that there’s no better alternative. In those instances, I’ll explain the word within the context of the story. I’ve yet to use them yet, but these have been a few favourites I’ve discovered recently:

Morosoph: A learned fool. Type of: fool, muggins, sap, saphead, tomfool. A person who lacks good judgement (e.g. Boris Johnson).

Epeolatry: An over-fondness for words.

Lalochezia: Relief derived from swearing.

These are some of the things I do, besides actually writing. I read, I learn, and I write, especially when I’m clearing my mind between books. And today I’m starting to plot the next one: The journey of two quiet and otherwise unknown people, who made a real difference to a lot of others.

Cyrus Song is available now.

Solutions:

1. Roman numerals
2. Scrambled eggs
3. Have not got a clue
4. Escalator

5. Novel
6. Ideas
7. Writers
8. Have