Bring on the Ghosts: Advent Storytelling 2016

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2016, the eighth annual shared storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall, Loren Eaton’s blog about “narrative, genre, and the craft of writing.” For the uninitiated, Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.

Ghost Winter Flower by Henrik Thorn

To learn more about this tradition, read the article here about this “lost tradition.”

This is my fifth year writing for Advent Ghosts. In my first year I pulled some edited lines from a ghost story I wrote about meth addiction. It is called “The Escape.”

In 2012, I decided to try Loren’s model of writing one piece inspired by secular Christmas traditions, and another from sacred texts.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

I again used a sacred story’s inspiration for 2013’s “Vacancy.” I’ve always had a fascination with the innkeeper from Jesus’s birth story. I fantasize about a moment in which the larger narrative clicks for him, as it did for shepherds and kings.

2014 found me writing about the last heartbeat of a last creature. As natural as it would be, the feeling of loneliness in even a non-human animal felt very real to me that year.

I took a break in 2015. Before Loren took the reins over the more graphic content, I was feeling out of place with the tone of some of the pieces.

But this year, I’m back. I love the restriction of the 100 words — no more, no less — and how it pares down the writing to something essential. No frills! Plus, there’s nothing quite like being part of reviving a lost or fading Christmas tradition to get my inner nerd all a-tingle. Charles Dickens, I love you.

Enjoy this year’s submission, which will post not long from now, and if you like creepy little tales be sure to visit Loren’s blog, too! Just when I think I’ve read the most shiver-inducing tale, they get, well, more shivery!

 

Flash Fiction WINNER (There IS Another . . .) : “Not One Stone Upon Another” by Loren Eaton

It is with great excitement that I announce our second winner in the photo prompt flash fiction contest! Congratulations to Loren Eaton for his outstanding story, “Not One Stone Upon Another.”

I will confess, Loren writes a lot of things I don’t understand on the first read. But true to his style and my experience with it, this story snaps into place at the very end in a way that gives you chills and a kind of sudden epiphany that sends you right back to the first sentence to read it all over again, knowing what you know now.

Along with Rob Boone, Loren will receive a gift from Danforth Pewter and my eternal gratitude for sharing his gift with the world on this blog.

Clear your head, take a deep breath, and get ready for how the world ends. I give you Loren Eaton.

“Not One Stone Upon Another”| by Loren Eaton

The vista would’ve made Bosch cringe.

To the south, the smoke of Charleston ascended in a pillar up to heaven. To the north, the horizon writhed with borealis light. Cindered earth stretched west and east in an unbroken plain, the hills thrown down and the valleys thrust up, a zaffre-tinted hue coloring the blasted soil. But here—right here—a 21-acre plot in Sissonville sat untouched by the devastation, its grass green, a loop of road paved with unbroken black, a red-sided barn still standing.

Inside, a trio sat. They didn’t know Bosch from Beethoven or Bart Simpson. Two were deep in animated conversation, and the third was eating.

At least until a fourth joined them.

At the sound of the barn doors creaking open, Lula turned. “I believe we have been discovered.” She tried on a smile.

Tec raised an eyebrow, but continued chewing.

“No, not discovered, we’ve been busted,” Mat laughed.

The fourth figure Had No Name. You could tell by the way The Thing moved. The way light bent around It as though It dimpled the fabric of reality. The way the ribbon of grass upon which it had trod had gone gray.

“See?” Lula said. “That’s exactly what I was arguing. Linguistics is full of subtleties and contradictions. For instance, take—”

this is not the task with which you have been charged.

Had you been there, perhaps you could’ve described the voice. Had you been there, you might’ve said that it tore with the force of cyclonic winds or was as weighty as hadopelagic depths. Had you been there, though, you wouldn’t have been able to. Had you been there, you’d have focused on not going immediately and irrevocably insane.

Tec took another bite. Juices ran down his chin.

“Boss, come on, cut us a little slack.” Matt waved a hand expansively.

“There. Take that word,” Lula said. “‘Boss’ originally designated a protuberance some 700 heliocentric perambulations ago in the sub-continental archipelago of …” She trailed off, brow furrowing. “Rain. Clarified-suet comestibles. Barley and peat and ethane monoxide—”

the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. i personally attended to its reappropriation. An anthracite corona tinged with cobalt bloomed around The Thing That Had No Name. Had you been there, you might’ve described It as seeming irritated and just the tiniest bit self-satisfied.

Tec rolled his eyes and spat a bit of gristle into the dust.

“Yes, England,” Lula continued. “But a few hundred solar circumnavigations later, in this particular supraaquatic land mass it acquired the meaning of … well, what you are.”

it is called the constitutional republic of the United States of America, with which you three were charged and thoroughly briefed. A tendril of smoke began to rise from a nearby bale of straw.

Lula glared. “I know we were. But no one ever explained that ‘boss’ could denote a hump and a—” Here a tangle of syllables rolled off her tongue, and had you been there, you would’ve found that your mouth couldn’t have replicated it. “—and, in that southernmost penal protectorate, a farmer.”

Stamping out the fire, Matt raised a warning eyebrow. “Cool story, brah, but what’s a farmer have to do with the price of tea in, uh, Comoros, no, that’s not right—”

A wind colder than any Arctic blast lashed the barn, whipping up dust motes that writhed in the light striping through board walls. Had you been there, you might said it sounded like a breath huffed out in annoyance. China. but Mathelyous is correct. you have yet to explain your failure to follow the edict ratified by a supermajority of the Harmonious Synarchy, its will be ever praised.

“Its will be ever praised,” the three echoed.

i await your clarification.

Outside, a street sign made a pained squealing, vexed by the vestiges of the wind.

Finally, Lula bowed her head, raised her palms, a gesture of supplication. “Understand, we proceeded according the plan—”

“The most right and true plan, don’t you know,” Matt added.

“We began at the three intercardinal cartographic zones and worked our way here—”

“But then it, like, went all pear shaped.”

“We spoke to one another about what we had seen.”

“For shizzle, boss, like art, civic works, commerce, communications, education.”

i fail to see the relevance.

Tec burped. Then he said, “Culture. Beauty. Creativity. Accomplishments.”

The Thing sighed. No rushing wind, no splitting earth, no kindled flame. Had you been there, you would’ve called it a sigh, plain and simple. they had those things in abundance and yet hardly seemed to acknowledge them.

Tec nodded. Then he held out what he was eating. “Drumstick. Tasty. Want some?”

no. a drumstick comes from the gallus gallus domesticus. which only has four toes.

Tec squinted at the end of the drumstick, lips moving as he counted. When he reached five, he said, “Oh.”

“I told you so,” Lula said.

“Totally grody,” Matt said.

“Shame to waste it,” Tec said.

a shame to waste all of it, The Thing With No Name said. Then It hastily added, but we fulfill whatsoever the Harmonious Synarchy decrees.

“And what has been decreed?” Lula asked.

a trans-galactic conveyance repository.

“You mean, like, an interstellar parking lot?” Matt asked.

yes, a parking lot.

At that, the trio made its way out of the barn. They didn’t look remotely human now. Tec clutched a fan of ribs as if for future consumption. But by the time they reached the road, he seemed to have thought better of it and tossed it aside. The cage of bone struck the sign and snagged on it for a moment. Had you been there, you might’ve described it as some macabre Christmas ornament. Then they fell. And the sign did too. And then the barn. And as the sky turned black as sackcloth, you would’ve been glad you were not there.

Perhaps it was a mercy that no one was.

Flash Fiction WINNER: “Darkness” by Rob Boone

CONGRATULATIONS to Rob Boone, winner of the Esse Diem flash fiction contest to write a great story under 1,000 words about this photograph:

What made Rob’s story the winner?

There are the simple things that anyone who wants to have his writing published anywhere needs to have in place. He followed directions. His work was in on time, in the submission format requested, topical, and within the word limit.

But that’s just enough to not get thrown in the round file. Rob’s story goes well beyond the minimums with a variety of effective narrative techniques.

Rob knows to put the reader right into the thick of things from the beginning, especially when you only have 1,000 words. Who is “she”? We never really know. Neither does the narrator. Maybe. Maybe he does. How do we define who someone is, anyway?

And how about those four caves . . .

How’d she do it, exactly? They seem so young. We know why she did it. She changed his life forever.

Forgoing the quotation marks around dialogue is not something that would work for every story, but it works beautifully here by creating a kind of quiet that supports the setting and overall tone of this narrative.

That’s all I’ll give you for now.Read on and enjoy this terrific spooky, gorgeous tale by Mr. Boone. You won’t forget it.

“Darkness” | by Rob Boone

She always felt more comfortable in the darkness, she said. Said it was more honest than the light.

We spent a lot of time in those woods back then. We relished the freedom of it: no walls, no parents, no rules. We hiked during the day, though- that’s the thing.

We’d converge at the corner of the neighborhood, where the asphalt gave way to the pines. Where the road—and, as far as we cared, the rest of the world—ended, there was a small patch of grass and dirt, about 20 yards square. Just beyond that, the woods opened up into three dirt trails that forked off in different directions, then descended over the hillside that couldn’t be seen unless you walked to its edge.

On the Other Side, there were four caves. These were our destinations, on those days that we chose to have a destination. We named each one: Fisherman’s Cave was the nearest and sat next to a creek bursting with small fish (we didn’t know which kind of fish back then).

Dwarf Cave made everyone feel small; it was cavernous, but dry, which made it a good spot for making out. Angel’s Cave was a hike, and when the sun shone through the trees after a rain, it produced a halo effect just above the cave that you could see if you stood 28 feet northeast of it.

Billy’s Cave was miles out. We’d named it after Billy when he got lost trying to find his way back and was grounded for being out three hours past curfew. By the time he got home, he was covered in mud up to his knees and scratches up to his elbows.

But that was daytime. The few times we ventured into the woods at night was always on a dare. Boys will be boys, we said, but the girls never backed down from the challenge, though they were always the first to give in and head home.

So when she came along, I didn’t know much about darkness. Just that most people didn’t want anything to do with it.

She’d come from Wisconsin, some said, but the guesses were numerous: Alabama, Oregon, Maine. Some even said she was born in Russia but had moved to the States so young that she’d lost all trace of an accent. Her mother was a psychiatrist. No one knew what her father did.

It was June, and I was trying to find my way back to Angel’s Cave. I’d made a rare wrong turn, and was lost.
I heard her before I saw her. Don’t move, she said, and I turned to find her sitting on a lopsided rock with her knees in her chest, a drawing pad resting on her knees.

I didn’t move. Two minutes later, she stood and started towards me, holding out the drawing. She’d been drawing the forest, and since I’d entered the picture, she drew me, too.

Now you’re part of it, she’d said.

We met in the woods every day for the next three months. We met later and later, until one September night when she asked me to meet her at one in the morning.

There’s not a boy alive who would admit to a girl that he’s afraid to go in the woods at night, so I went.
She’d built a fire to help me find my way, and that tiny glimmer of light was my compass. When I reached her, she was laying on a blanket, reading a Nancy Drew novel.

Trying to sound more curious than afraid, I asked her why we were meeting at night.

I like the darkness. I’m comfortable in it. It’s so much more honest than the light, you know? The light makes everything visible, it lays everything bare, but life isn’t like that. Life is mystery, it hides things from us and leaves us to fill in the gaps.

I nodded and muttered, not knowing how to answer.

I’d looked at girls, but had never really seen them. That night by the fire, I saw every movement she made. She moved her hair our of her eyes, tucking it behind her ear, letting the shadows dance on her face. I watched her eyes, normally brown, but yellow by the firelight, move towards the fire, and I found my eyes moving with hers.

The middle of the fire was a slightly darker orange than the ring of light that surrounded it. I inched closer to get a better look. Eventually, my eyes settled on an object in the fire pit: the smouldering bones of a rib cage.

I looked at her with the obvious question in my eyes.

I killed it a few days ago, then skinned it and took it apart, she said. I feel like if you want to know about life, you have to know about death.

We said little before I walked her home. That night, I lied in bed thinking about the fire, about the deer that had been sacrificed in the name of knowledge, and about the shadows dancing on her skin.

We moved the following year, but I still consider that place home. I went back as an adult, fifteen years later, and made it official. My wife, my three kids, and my terrier now call this place home, too.

She left ten years ago, and no one knows where she went. Some say she went home, but I think this is still her home. I think she belongs here.

If one day she does come home, I’ve made sure she feels welcome when she gets to the place where the asphalt gives way to the pines. Dangling from the U-turn sign that marks the end of the road, a ribcage hangs, the darkness made visible.

Rob Boone loves silence, coffee, and great books. He hates small talk, despair, and game shows. He believes that we each have a duty to be a better person than we were yesterday, and he believes that laughter is the most fundamental element of life. Connect with him on his website, http://www.rboone.com, or on Twitter, https://twitter.com/robertsboone. He pretty much rocks.

River Town Holiday #buzznuggets!

Following are some of my favorite moments from the 6 stories that make up the book in which I have some short fiction, River Town. It’s getting some nice word of mouth and social media energy. Any part readers of Esse Diem would like to play in that energy is more than welcome!

Oh. and there’s this. River Town makes a nice holiday gift . . . You can buy it here. And if money is tight, you can follow the authors on Twitter. That’s like gold to us some days, too!

Hayden Lowe may or may not have killed a man out west. No one seems to know why he’s back in River Town, though his friend, Lillian Conley, is keeping a private journal full of clues. Will Captain JD Dawson lose his beloved sternwheeler, the Miss Jayne Marie, in a winner-takes-all bet? Julia Hubbard has a secret project, Andrew Wilson is plotting on the dusty streets of River Town, and what about that strange Dame Roxalana? There is more to Roxie than anyone is willing to say. The men in the coal mines around River Town seem to be developing a mysterious condition that no one can explain, yet everyone is whispering about it. Before all is said and done, each of these characters will intersect in unexpected ways. The resolutions are as suspenseful as they are satisfying. River Town is a collection of short stories set in 1890s West Virginia. The combined work of six different authors, the tales range from adventure to romance, from intrigue to fantasy. Each story stands alone, yet together they take readers to a time along the Kanawha River just after the Civil War when families were still struggling to recover and before the railroad came through the mountains. The river was the center of everything.

Every storyteller has his own style, her own approach, and a unique way of operating a character. To see the same characters driven by different people was like seeing the same person from other perspectives. The characters’ personalities were fuller and better developed. I got to know them better than I could have if they were all written by one author. I was hooked.

— editor/Author Eric Douglas

Rufus had a lot to say, but he’d only say it if he trusted you. That was the way of River Town in general.

— Author Eric Douglas

From “Hayden’s Return” by Katharine Armstrong Herndon (@kaherndon)

Hide in the woods?
For a minute he wondered if the Captain could get him off the boat without being seen. But then he remembered Jack had seen him, and the old woman, and probably someone else he hadn’t even recognized.
It was too late for hiding.

 

From “They Hold Down the Dead” by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher (@ElizGaucher)

The two adventurers walked in silence for a few minutes. Then Hayden said, “You’re brave. I thought you were. I really came up here to find out if you want to see something I found, but it’s not for cowards. Do you want to see it?”
Lillian realized that, no, she really did not want to see something like that, but it was too late now.
“I’m not a coward, she said. “What is it?”

 

From “Racing Miss Jayne Marie” by Eric Douglas (@BooksbyEric)

Glancing up from his log book, JD saw Winthrop, the owner of the Miss Jayne Marie, standing on the dock with his personal secretary, Phiillips . . . “Phillips” was all JD ever heard Winthrop call the man. JD had never heard Phillips speak.

 

From “Being True in River Town” by Jane Siers Wright (@JaneSiersWright)

Dawson nodded. He was in Julia’s debt and it was clear to him she was about to call in the favor.
“I have another such student who needs to reach Parkersburg in order to catch the B&O train to Harper’s Ferry.”
“Why Parkersburg and the B&O? She could go south to Beckley over land to catch a train from there.”
“A southern route would not be the most convenient for this passenger, Captain.”

 

From “Hearing the Past” by Shawna Christos (@ywrite) of James River Writers, “Hearing the Past”

His hands shook as he hunted for the latch. Andrew tried to remember if it had made any sound when he entered ahead of his captor.
He couldn’t remember but it didn’t matter. He had realized there would be no turning back. None for the man his father had hired, and none for Andrew on his present course.

 

From “Wail” by Geoffrey Cameron Fuller (@GeoCamFuller)

At his oak desk in Mr. Winthrop’s house — for the last time, in all likelihood — Francis Treet Phllips swings the ledger closed and runs his palm across the aged leather. A full accounting. The pieces are all arrayed in their places, each and every one. To Mr. Winthrop, the game begins tonight, after the race, but Phillips knows it is already finished.)

 

Enjoy these snippets? Read more here: https://essediemblog.com/2013/08/14/river-town-buzznuggets/

Is any season lonelier than solstice?

From my writing friend, Loren Eaton:

Is any season lonelier than solstice?

The elements shove the sun over the horizon, force the flora into the earth, drive animals deep into their dens. And what of us? We contend with old paths turned treacherous by ice. Well-known tableaus have gone foreign, hills hoary with frost and trees stripped down to bare boughs. Spare a sigh over goldengrove unleaving, just one while rubbing aching knuckles and flexing numb toes, face ruddied to rawness by the cold. Then go home to shelter and faces known — if not always friendly.

We understand why.

The half-full bottle hidden beneath the sink. Bills shoved to one side of the desk. Those hard words muttered in still moments. Breathe in the tired smells of stale coffee, damp cigarettes, and aerosol air freshener. Then pause. The air holds a hint of wood smoke as fire flares up in the hearth. The house creaks, wind whipping around the eaves. Tinsel glitters in the dim light. The person sitting across from you smiles tentatively. Starts to speak. Hesitates. The silence, filled as it is with the ghosts of old arguments, is deep.

What will you say to break it?

Intrigued? Bop over to Loren’s blog, I Saw Lightning Fall, to find out how to be part of this annual 100-word story tradition:

http://isawlightningfall.blogspot.com/2014/12/shared-storytelling-advent-ghosts-2014.html

We have some fun each year. Personally, I go spooky but never gory. Reflecting on my previous offerings, I can see I use a lot of ambiguity to drive an unsettling mystery. Those are the tales I prefer. But the canvas is wide. I hope you will consider joining us this year!

Some of my previous 100 word stories for this event:

2011 The Escape

2012 For Later

2012 Unwanted

2013 Vacancy

2014 . . . Coming December 19!

The World Blanches before Winter: Preparing for Advent Ghosts 2013

Welcome to Advent Ghosts 2013, the fifth annual shared storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall, Loren Eaton’s blog about “narrative, genre, and the craft of writing.” For the uninitiated, Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.

Ghost Winter Flower by Henrik Thorn

To learn more about this tradition, read the article here about this “lost tradition.”

This is my third year writing for Advent Ghosts. In my first year I pulled some edited lines from a ghost story I wrote about meth addiction. It is called “The Escape.”

Last year, I decided to try Loren’s model of writing one piece inspired by secular Christmas traditions, and another from sacred texts.

Unwanted explores the terror we feel when an unexplained and damaged presence penetrates the safety of our families and our homes.

For Later is my take on what I’ve always seen as a poetic and disturbing element in the gifts of the three kings to the baby Jesus.

This year I am again using a sacred story in “Vacancy.” I’m curious to know if you can identify it. Enjoy this year’s submission, which will post on Friday, and if you like creepy little tales be sure to visit Loren’s blog, too! Just when I think I’ve read the most shiver-inducing tale, they get, well, more shivery!

 

River Town #buzznuggets

Concept cover for River Town

Concept cover for River Town

In the brave new world of self-publishing (and even of traditional publishing), writers carry more of the water than ever when it comes to promoting and supporting a book.

If one is shy, or fearful of seeming self-absorbed, this can be a daunting task; fortunately, I am not much of either these days.

Following are some of my favorite moments from the 6 stories that make up the new book in which I have some short fiction, River Town. It’s getting some nice word of mouth and social media energy. Any part readers of Esse Diem would like to play in that energy is more than welcome!

Hayden Lowe may or may not have killed a man out west. No one seems to know why he’s back in River Town, though his friend, Lillian Conley, is keeping a private journal full of clues. Will Captain JD Dawson lose his beloved sternwheeler, the Miss Jayne Marie, in a winner-takes-all bet? Julia Hubbard has a secret project, Andrew Wilson is plotting on the dusty streets of River Town, and what about that strange Dame Roxalana? There is more to Roxie than anyone is willing to say. The men in the coal mines around River Town seem to be developing a mysterious condition that no one can explain, yet everyone is whispering about it. Before all is said and done, each of these characters will intersect in unexpected ways. The resolutions are as suspenseful as they are satisfying. River Town is a collection of short stories set in 1890s West Virginia. The combined work of six different authors, the tales range from adventure to romance, from intrigue to fantasy. Each story stands alone, yet together they take readers to a time along the Kanawha River just after the Civil War when families were still struggling to recover and before the railroad came through the mountains. The river was the center of everything.

From Hayden’s Return by Katharine Armstrong Herndon

“All I hear is splashing,” he said, indicating the paddlewheel.

The Captain stopped at the rail and looked down into the churning darkness below them. “Son,” he said finally, “I know every sound this river makes, and that last splash wasn’t one of my favorites. Now suppose you tell me what sort of trouble you brought onto my boat.”

From They Hold Down the Dead by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher

Hayden never returned to the Conley property, and though Lillian wondered if she would ever see him again she was comfortable with his disappearance. The strange event in the woods had frightened her into trying to forget about the heart stone entirely, and as Hayden was the only witness it was easy to pretend it had never happened.

From Racing Miss Jayne Marie by Eric Douglas

“Mr. Hamrick, I’ll take all the power you can give me now,” JD ordered into the brass tube while keeping a firm hand on the boat’s wheel. “And now for my last trick,” he said under his breath. 

From Being True in River Town by Jane Siers Wright

“It’s just hard — hard and scary — but I hear it. I hear my real life callin’ me . . . ”

From Hearing the Past  by Shawna Christos

Andrew moved restlessly in his chair as he bit his lip to remind his mouth to speak carefully. He knew things were changing, even here in this backwoods. Things were changing, but apparently being able to choose your own path wasn’t one of them.

From Wail by Geoffrey Cameron Fuller

He parts the lace to look across the river and down over River Town. Soon it will be filled with commerce, tugs loaded with coal, gravel, the last of the salt, all of it owned by Phillips and his people, being transported on his ships, and when they get the rail lines extended, a brand new game will be underway, and with the assistance of the Great Dark, that game will be even more lucrative.

(Thanks to Jeff James, Bob Coffield, and as I recall Mark Wolfe for “#buzznuggets.”)