Celebrating 20 E-Books: ‘Frightening’
We all have very different ideas about what frightens us. A few years ago I judged a competition in which we asked first-time writers to produce a piece of fiction about something that genuinely scares them. Fifty years earlier their list might have included fear of poverty, starvation, ghosts, darkness, war, old houses. But now, as the new entries poured in, we saw that the modern list included body dysmorphia, loss of control, peer hatred, disrespect, invisibility, sickness, ageing, cruelty.
I was shocked. Having grown up a shy and timid boy, I feared the dark at the top of the stairs more than any idea of ageing, and the concept of peer hatred didn’t exist. The modern list would have meant very little to the nine year-old me. But tales of the uncanny – as they were once called – are mutable to their times. We used to fear what was outside. Now we fear what’s in ourselves.
If there’s one piece of advice accepted by almost every short story writer, it’s that part of what is displayed must remain hidden. And perhaps that is what we’ve lost, because now everyone tells everyone everything. The currency of information has surpassed the gold standard. What is there left to hide?
You could of course take this as a cynical attitude from one who has been writing short stories for decades and decries the current state of play, but that’s not at all what I intend. I love and respect the short-form story even more than I did as a child, and can still be thrilled by the discovery of a good author I’ve not read. There are dozens of modern writers I admire but typically, they tend to be overlooked by the mainstream. And it’s not as easy to disturb now as it once was. Too many of those ‘nameless things’ have been named, catalogued, monetised.
Which brings me to these stories. As I was planning the release of my novels and short fiction in a series of 20 e-editions, I realised that since my last two volumes of new stories (the huge ‘Red Gloves 1 & 2’, which nobody saw) written to celebrate my first quarter-century in print, I had clocked up another set of tales and had no outlet for them.
So, now that ‘Frightening’ (and the ‘Red Gloves’ books) are e-books, here’s an excerpt from a story in ‘Frightening’ called ‘Spine’.
The rented boat lay dead ahead and was sitting too low in the water. As he drew alongside he instinctively knew that a tragedy had occurred, because there was no sign of life and the boat’s net lay draped on the surface of the water. Calling produced no response, so he brought himself alongside and climbed across. The orange life-raft was still aboard. He found the renter’s body laying face down astern in nearly a foot of water. He was clad only in shorts, and had clearly been lying there overnight. His first thought was that another old-timer had suffered a heart attack trying to reel in something that was too big a strain on him.
When he turned the body over, he had a shock. The dead man’s face, stomach and thighs were covered in crimson welts. At the centre of each cut was an open sore with a yellow core. The Skipper didn’t know what he was looking at, but knew enough to get his feet out of the water and head back to his own craft. Lashing the boat behind his own, he towed it back to the bay and radioed ahead for Doc Carver, but the physician was playing golf somewhere up the coast, so he called an expert of a different kind.
Cody Astin headed down to the dock on his ancient British Triumph, a motorcycle that now leaked as much oil as it consumed. ‘We don’t have no poisonous fish in these waters,’ said the Skipper, greeting him, ‘but it sure looks like he’s been bitten to me.’
He took Cody to the body, which still lay in the boat. Cody opened his kit and pulled on a plastic glove, then reached over and gently squeezed one of the crimson pustules on the dead man’s neck, wiping the sticky emission onto a slide.
‘I can tell you right now, these are stings,’ he said.
The Skipper peered at the slide over Cody’s shoulder. ‘We had a wasp attack out here a couple of years back, remember?’
‘Flying insects don’t leave marks in perfect rows like these. They run in distinct lines over his skin, and only on the submerged part.’
‘So what then? He’s too far out for sea urchins.’
‘You can get Echinoidea from the intertidal line to way out, Skip. But they’re on the ocean floor, and it doesn’t look as if he had any diving gear with him.’
The Skipper’s face, cracked by sun and wind, wrinkled even further. ‘Man, he stinks.’
‘Only the water-side is stung. Those are nematocysts. I’d say they’re from a non-polyp form of phylum Cnidaria,’ said Cody. ‘Jellyfish.’
‘You’re kidding, right? We got no stinging jellyfish around here. I been swimming in the bay for half my life. We got maybe a few moon jellyfish like every other coastal town, but they don’t do no harm. Stingers are tropical, right?’
‘Often, but the warming seas are making it easier for tropical jellies to spread. And overfishing means they don’t have predators. Plus there’s fertilizer in the runoff from the almond farms, which depletes the oxygen in the water. The sea’s getting more acidic. Jellyfish have a low metabolic rate. They eat massive quantities of plankton and their shit produces bacteria, making carbon dioxide. The problem is that the plankton eats all the carbon-rich stuff near the sea’s surface.’
The Skipper had long-ago perfected his ‘I could give a shit’ look on the subject of climate change. ‘So what?’
‘So their waste drops to the ocean floor. Less plankton and more bacteria means even more carbon. The cycle speeds up global warming, which heats the sea faster, which spreads the jellyfish further afield.’
‘That don’t mean they start ganging up on guys who go out fishing,’ said the Skipper indignantly.