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Ghost story competition.

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Matthew LichtOn Wednesday 19th March, two of our authors will be doing a reading at the British Institute in Florence, Italy.

charles-lambert-smallCharles Lambert and Matthew Licht will be in the Harold Acton Library from 6pm, for a reading duel (or duet: I suppose it depends how much wine is available) on the theme of memory.

They’re both well worth reading, or listening to, so if you’re in the area, go along and see them!

It’s time to announce the winners of our 2014 Flash Fiction Competition. We had a lot of great entries this year, and putting together the shortlist has been tricky. So tricky, in fact, that we’ve increased the number of finalists from the planned four to six.

This year’s finalists, in no particular order, are:

  • Nik Perring, with ‘Loss Angina’
  • James Collett, with ‘Little Bird Story’
  • Sarah Evans, with ‘Mission to Mars — an A to Z Guide’
  • Dan Purdue, with ‘The Guy in the Bear Suit’
  • Die Booth, with ‘Badass’
  • Cindy George, with ‘Colouring In’

And the overall winner is:

  • Jo Gatford, with ‘Bing Bong’

Thanks again to everybody who took part in our competition this year, and congratulations to the winners!

I’ll be in touch with the winners in the next few days, and all of the above stories will appear in an upcoming Fiction Desk anthology, so keep an eye out for that.

Ghost story competitionToday we’re launching the 2014 edition of our annual ghost story competition.

The first prize this year is £500, with at least five finalists each receiving £100. (This may go up to ten, depending on the entries we receive.)

For more information, see the ghost story competition page in our submissions area. And if you need inspiration (or just fancy a good read), pick up or download a copy of our anthology New Ghost Stories, which includes last year’s winners.

Jason AtkinsonThe winner of the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award for our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories, is… Jason Atkinson, for his story ‘Half Mom’. Congratulations Jason!

The Writer’s Award is voted for by the contributors to the anthology, and along with the acclaim of his peers, Jason receives £100.

‘Half Mom’ is the third story we’ve published by Jason, who made his Fiction Desk debut in our very first anthology, Various Authors, with the story ‘Assassination Scene’. His story ‘Get on Green’ later appeared in All These Little Worlds.

We’ll look forward to featuring more of Jason’s stories in future; in the meantime, why not pick up (or download) a copy of New Ghost Stories and read his winning story for yourself.

Eloise ShepherdHere’s Eloise Shepherd to talk about her story ‘Journeyman’, which features in our anthology New Ghost Stories.

I wanted to write a ghost story about failure. Not high stakes failure, but a long defeat. Boxers carry failure so openly, when a boxer loses it’s written through cuts, gashes and broken bones. To lose a fight is to be taken apart, on a well-lit stage with a crowd baying for your blood. So many boxers in this country (the so called ‘Journeymen’ of the title) go in to lose, and this story started with my fascination with that long, conscious failure.

I have boxed competitively for a few years now. It isn’t my natural world but it has been startling. A quick introduction to the level of violence inside yourself.

The story itself, the initial moment with the bath, came from a boxer I used to train with. He was the king of journeymen, almost every week he went into the ring and lost. He is probably also one of the best boxers I’ve ever worked with (and I have worked with boxers without a defeat on their records and with nice shiny belts on their walls).

New Ghost Stories coverHe was generous enough to let me use that image and I made a different person around that idea of going in and getting beaten up for a living. And the more profound and relatable failure was a man unable to connect to his sons, losing them and himself with fear closing in. But, that whole time, trying really hard. I’m more scared of that than any dead thing.

For this story, all that work boxing for all these years was great research. A little transformation, taking ‘being hit’ into ‘being creative’. Before you go in to box you wrap your hands. You take a few metres of soft, slightly stretchy cloth and encase your knuckles before you even get to putting on gloves. You do this because, physiologically, hands are meant not for hitting, but to hold.

I can’t imagine this will be the last story about boxing I write. It’s a process that takes me to what scares me, in and outside myself.

— Eloise Shepherd

The View from the TowerIf you’re in Rome on 12th February, Fiction Desk regular Charles Lambert will be launching his new novel, The View from the Tower, at the Almost Corner Bookshop.

Charles Lambert is a fine author, and the Almost Corner is a fine bookshop, so it’s well worth going if you can make it. It starts at 18:30, and you’ll find more information on the Wherevent page. There’s more information on The View from the Tower at the publisher’s website here.

(And if you’re in the mood for some Charles Lambert shorts, you’ll find his stories in our anthologies Various Authors and All These Little Worlds.)

Cover proofs for New Ghost Stories

The cover for New Ghost Stories, our sixth anthology, is pretty straightforward, but also a little bit revolutionary — at least by our standards. The covers for the first five volumes were simple photographs, with very little processing. They followed fixed rules: everything had to be in front of the camera, and only paper and the written — or printed — word could be featured in the photograph. New Ghost Stories was originally intended to follow those rules, but ended up breaking them in a last-minute rush to get the files to the printers.

New Ghost Stories planThe original plan was to repeat the cover design from our first anthology, Various Authors, but with gravestones in place of the figures from the original cover.

Where the text on the cover of Various Authors is a rambling mission statement for the series, the text on New Ghost Stories is an equally rambling, stream-of-consciousness ghost story, made up on the spur of the moment to fill the page. (Don’t worry: the cover is the only place in a Fiction Desk anthology where you’re likely to find much in the way of stream-of-consicousness prose.)

New Ghost Stories graves

However, when the gravestones were cut out, they didn’t really work as well as the original figures had: there’s something, well, lifeless about gravestones, even with the addition of the bird from Richard Smyth’s story (er, top left).

New Ghost Stories coverWith a couple of hours to go before the files were due at the printers, there wasn’t time to start a new design from scratch. I ended up flattening the gravestones back down into the paper, and taking various shots of the text. I layered these on the computer with varying levels of opacity, altering the colours and inverting the top layer. There was a brief flirtation with the use of a ribbon to hold the title — see the photo at the top of this post — and the cover went off to the printers with minutes to spare.

It could have wound up as a complete dog’s breakfast, but actually I’m rather pleased with the cover of New Ghost Stories. And breaking the rules once has set a precedent for the future. Anything could happen… now, where’s my scalpel?

Julia Patt’s story ‘At Glenn Dale’ opens our latest anthology, New Ghost Stories. Here, she talks about legend tripping and the real hospital that inspired the story.

Julia PattAbandoned buildings have a kind of gravity.

I don’t mean seriousness—I mean a gravitational pull, not unlike that of a planet. A drawing in. Not everyone notices, but it’s there, something beckoning, saying: ‘Just one look… don’t you want to see?’

The really powerful places are the ones with a lot of history, maybe even a whole mythology around them, some of it true, most of it not. And those sites attract legend trippers: teenagers and young adults daring each other to take one step further inside, just a little closer to the shadows. Those are the places where kids go to prove themselves.

Like Glenn Dale.

Glenn Dale Hospital 1Yes, it’s a real place, it really did serve as a TB hospital during the twentieth century, and it has stood empty for over thirty years. For a while, it seemed like the state was going to knock it down, but so far it has lingered, slowly collapsing of its own accord. I grew up about ten minutes from the hospital grounds, just outside of Washington, DC. As a teenager, I probably frequented Glenn Dale half a dozen times—a total dilettante by my protagonist Danny Fitzer’s standards. But even if you only venture there once, the hospital sticks in your imagination. Not only for what it is now and was then, but for the stories people tell about it, especially the ones that aren’t, strictly speaking, historically accurate. (I’m personally fond of the mental institution yarns.)

Starting this story—eight years ago now—I knew I wanted to write about Glenn Dale, but I never wanted to write about my own experiences with it. Nor did I really want to recount its history; that kind of nonfiction never seems to do the hospital justice. So I went for fiction.

Unsurprisingly, my first attempt fell far short. I’d tried to wedge a story into the setting. By the end of it, Glenn Dale took over the whole affair and completely overshadowed my characters and their concerns. I tossed the draft and wrote other stories for a while.

Then, during a visit home, I returned to the hospital, wandered around the buildings, and narrowly avoided getting scolded by the policeman who patrols the grounds on a daily basis (sorry, sixteen-year-old self). It occurred to me in the middle of walking the corridors and reading the various graffiti that I needed a protagonist who loved Glenn Dale. Who would go back to the hospital again and again, searching out its mysteries. Who did want to see, who would linger in the dark longer than everyone else.

Glenn Dale Hospital 2In other words, I needed Danny Fitzer, who is not one particular boy from high school, but several, many of them legend trippers, all of them wanting to be the bravest and the coolest, which Glenn Dale gave them, in its way. But of course, I thought, that requires danger, real danger.

The earliest version of ‘At Glenn Dale’ began to evolve after that. There was still the matter of my pseudo-antagonist, Mark Dooley, and the hospital itself, which became like a third character in the story, and I spent much of my writing time trying to get the details of the place just right. This became another source of difficulty, as a mentor of mine pointed out: ‘You know, X would be a much stronger detail if it were really Y.’

‘But that’s not how it is,’ I would stubbornly insist.

New Ghost Stories coverWhich is the trouble for all writers when we set out to depict real places, real people, and real events. There is the tension between telling it like it is and telling a good story. Real places are often inconvenient and annoyingly inflexible when it comes to layout and history. And although I had notes and pictures, even my memories and impressions of the hospital were inaccurate. I emailed and called a few of my friends to ask if they remembered such and such room or hallway or building.

They gave me different, sometimes contradictory answers. And the more we talked, the more I understood that my Glenn Dale was not everyone’s Glenn Dale. That all of us remembered the hospital a little differently, remembered even our shared stories differently. And the real often blurred with the legend, what we had heard blending with what we knew.

I stopped fussing over minutiae after that and made changes where it seemed beneficial. Consequently, the Glenn Dale in ‘At Glenn Dale’ belongs not to me or my friends or the historical record, but to Danny Fitzer and the story’s narrators.

And, of course, the ghosts.

Julia Patt

New Ghost Stories is available now in paperback, Kindle, and iTunes formats. You can see more photographs of the real Glenn Dale here.

Here’s S R Mastrantone to tell us about the inspiration behind his short story ‘Something Unfinished’.

S R MastrantoneAs well as being about scepticism, academic pomposity, and the peculiar sort of understanding that can develop in father-and-son relationships, ‘Something Unfinished’ is about memory. So it’s fitting that I nearly forgot about this story after I first came up with it.

I could remember the punch line: an elderly couple literally run out of things to say to one another. But when I told this to a very close friend of mine whose opinion I valued, he said: “It sounds rubbish. That wouldn’t happen.” I agreed, and I couldn’t believe I’d ever thought there was a story in it. Years later, when I was first going out with the amazing woman I recently married, I finally remembered the setup.

In the early days of our courtship, we talked to one another like long-lost friends who had finally been reunited, but only had a day or so to spend together before being separated again. A conversation would begin, and then halfway through it would lead to another equally interesting conversation, the original conversation forgotten about. For example:

“Yes, I eat breakfast too! That’s amazing. I used to really like Weetabix but now I’ve switched to a milkshake and berries.”

“Really? Wow. Did you know they make Weetabix in Kettering? I once went to a talk about Johnny Cash there and I could smell Weetabix all day?”

“That’s amazing. Did you see the episode of Columbo Johnny Cash starred in?”

“Yes, I also like the one with Patrick McGoohan.”

“Patrick McGoohan. Wow, which one, there are a few? I went to a Paddy Gooey film-festival in Portmeirion.”

“Portmeirion! I used to…”

Days later I would suddenly remember that we hadn’t finished the conversation about Breakfast. Or about Kettering. Or even, most importantly, about Columbo. It started me thinking about all those unfinished conversations, floating about miserably in some half-finished-conversation purgatory. And I wondered: could the strength of our relationships with other people be measured by the number of conversations with them that were never finished? The better the friend, the more conversations. Perhaps the incompleteness draws us back to them again and again as we search unconsciously for an end to those discussions.

Because of What HappenedI don’t really believe unfinished conversations are at the heart of our relationships with other people, but the idea that someone might believe this reunited me with my old story idea about the couple who had literally run out of things to say to one another. What would happen once all those conversations floating in limbo are finally completed, as they might over a married lifetime? And, would the silence between the two people be the result of some hitherto undiscovered truth about the universe and the human condition? Or would the silence come from the couple’s shared belief in this strange truth, bringing with it all the baggage and askance glances that strange beliefs do?

What really happened between Ivy and Harry is a mystery to me, although I trust Eric’s reaction at the story’s conclusion. But just in case, when it comes to the relationships I am fond of, to err on the side of caution, I occasionally end discussions before they reach their natural—

(S R Mastrantone)

You can read ‘Something Unfinished’ in the latest Fiction Desk anthology, Because of What Happened, available now in paperback, iTunes, & Kindle formats. His previous story with us, ‘Just Kids’, won the Fiction Desk Writer’s Award. Read about ‘Just Kids’ here.

Here’s Matt Plass on how he came to write his short story ‘Invisible Them’.

Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, the saying goes. ‘Invisible Them’, my short story in Because of What Happened, asks what happens when you prepare for the worst, but the worst is worse than you could have imagined.

Matt PlassThe story comes from a recurring thought I’ve had since I first saw troops boarding planes for the second Gulf war. Whenever the news shows footage of our departing soldiers, I wonder whether the families left behind – particularly the parents, and then particularly the mothers – are able to both hope and prepare, or whether they cling to the former and refuse to entertain the latter.

I can’t imagine how a parent could absorb that level of anxiety. It must be like living in a house built directly over a fault line: constant tremors that rattle the crockery, the occasional quake that pulls down a wall and exposes your world to the street. And if the worst does happen – your son or daughter doesn’t come home – would the months of waiting, hoping, rationalising, begging … would all that conscious (or unconscious) preparation soften or amplify the impact?

Another question. People being what they are – drawn to sadness and easily intoxicated by their own tragedies – would those parents waiting for news find themselves sometimes dwelling on the worst possible outcome? Would they picture themselves bereaved? Rehearse how they’d do grief? Indulge in an imagined descent into alcoholism and rage; some violent and implausible revenge?

Perhaps, but so what? That house on the fault line is stronger than it looks, with foundations cemented in duty and honour and service. If the worst happens, at least those parents can take small consolation from the pride of sacrifice.

Unless…

A recent news item featured portrait photographs of three serving soldiers, their faces pixelated beneath their dress uniform, to disguise (but not to protect) their identity. All three stood charged with the slaughter of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan; they had been discharged from their units, repatriated, and now faced trial back home. It made me think of the parents left behind, and the possibility that while they had prepared for the worst, there was something worse out there that they couldn’t have imagined. Something dishonourable. Something that could destroy the crutch of pride and sacrifice, and in doing so leech sympathy from friends and acquaintances, leaving them ashamed and alone. Could that, perhaps, be worse than the news that their loved one died in combat?

But hold on a minute…

Because of What HappenedThey did something terrible, but at least those boys are alive. And aren’t they victims, too? There’s post-traumatic stress and psychological trauma to be considered. Facts live just below the surface of Google that place the blame firmly elsewhere. More servicemen took their own lives after the Falklands “conflict” than died in the fighting. Today, the emotional and psychological fallout from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan costs countless lives, marriages and friendships. Support from the MoD is pitiful; our service men and women are chewed up and spat out by the military machine. No wonder some of them explode like faulty grenades. Did I mention that those boys are alive? As a parent, you can visit them and you can hold them, even if it is across a prison table.

Who knows what the worst is that can happen? ‘Invisible Them’ ends with bad news about to be delivered to the parents of a serving soldier. I think the real story is what happens next.

Matt Plass

‘Invisible Them’ appears in the latest Fiction Desk anthology, Because of What Happened, available in all good bookshops, on Kindle, and through iTunes.

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