Book Review – Intensity by Dean Koontz

Intense!

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that I felt merited a full review on my blog, despite the fact that I’ve read a lot since my last blog reviews of The Living Dead by George A Romero and Daniel Krauss and Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel.

It’s a fairly long list:

Coldbrook and The Silence by Tim Lebbon

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

All 3 of the Lockey vs the Apocalypse series by Carl Meadows

I who have never known men by Jacqueline Harpman

The Stopping Place by Helen Slavin

Apocalypse by Hayeley Anderton

While I really enjoyed some of them, notably the Lockey vs the Apocalypse series and The Silence, I just didn’t feel moved to write a long review on any. Of course, I always pop a little review on Amazon, Goodreads and Book Bub for everything I read. As an author I’d feel guilty if I didn’t. But to merit a longer review on my blog a book has to resonate with me in a way that will leave me thinking about it for a long time after I have finished, for one reason or another.

I didn’t think I was going to feel like writing one on Intensity by Dean Koontz either. I wasn’t blown away by it at the start, but by the time I finished I was buzzing!

It’s an unusual book in many ways. It seems a bit naff to describe it as intense, given that that is the title, but that’s the best way to describe it. It is a very intense experience that leaves you exhausted and breathless.

The story follows two main characters over a 48-hour period in a way that is so detailed that it is almost played out “live”. We live through every single second of Chyna’s ordeal at the hands of the evil Vess, apart from a scant few blessed hours when she is either asleep or unconscious.

At first, I found the book irritating. Overly descriptive with long flashbacks and digressions into Chyna’s traumatic childhood memories, and long and detailed accounts of both characters inner thoughts. Some of Chyna’s actions in the face of extreme danger seemed unbelievable and, at times, downright stupid.

However, I soon reached the conclusion that Mr Koontz was playing with the concept of ‘intensity’. The detailed descriptions and digressions contributed to the intensity of the reading experience. Just as Vess craves an intensity of sensation and experience, this is what we are served by Mr Koontz. The book progresses incredibly slowly, creating such an atmosphere of heightened tension and anxiety that at times it was almost unbearable. I didn’t think it was going to work for me but in the end it did – by the bucketload.

Shocking, graphic, violent, terrifying, and agonisingly tense.

Well worth a read but give it time and play along!

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The End of the Apocalypse

How do you end the apocalypse?

*SPOILER ALERT* This article discusses the endings of several zombie apocalypse books, movies, TV series, and games.

Stories and Sequels

It struck me today, on my daily walk when I was listening to the second in the Lockey vs. The Apocalypse series, We Will Rise (An Adrian’s Undead Diary Novel) by Carl Meadows, that in many post-apocalyptic series the first book in the series is often the best. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to say that the other books in the series are any less well constructed or well-written, just that there is something about the early days of an apocalypse that is particularly interesting and engaging.

How, where and when the apocalypse begins; why it happens in the first place; where people are and what they are doing when it starts; how they react; where they go and what they do; what happens to their family and friends; whether they are reunited with them or not;  how the world and society breaks down and changes and the impact of all that; and just the sheer shock and horror of it all, is morbidly fascinating to many people, including me!

As such, the first books in an apocalyptic series, when all that initial stuff usually happens, often resonate with ordinary people more than subsequent books which take place further down the apocalyptic road. People find themselves wondering what they would do when the apocalypse comes to their town; what their world would look like after the fall; whether they would have what it took to survive or not. This can mean that readers are more captivated and engaged by the first books in an apocalyptic series than they are with subsequent books about life when the extraordinary has become the ordinary and a devastated and dangerous world has become the new normal.

This has proved to be true for my own books. My first zompoc book, Wait for Me, far exceeded my expectations in terms of sales, reviews and ratings, and feedback from friends, family and complete strangers. The sequel, Trident Edge, (which I only wrote because I had so many requests to do so) has, by comparison, been a bit of a flop. Yet, I think the second book is far better in terms of plot and writing quality than the first. I did have some reservations and regrets about the cover of Trident Edge, which for me doesn’t have the same impact as the cover of Wait for Me, but I think it’s about more than that.

I asked my best friend, and loyal fan, about what she thought of Trident Edge compared to Wait for Me, and she said that she loved them both but that she enjoyed Wait for Me more. When I dug a bit deeper to try and understand the reasons for this, she said that she enjoyed reading about the early days of the apocalypse and the zombie outbreak and how two ordinary women, Lisa and Anita, managed to survive day by day in a new and terrifying world, more than she did about their lives six months later when they had become hardened and experienced survivors and zombie killers. My case in point.

I loved the Adrian’s Undead Diaries series and I’m loving Lockey vs. The Apocalypse too. They’re great stories. But today I found myself musing, as I wandered down the leafy lanes of Solihull with Lockey, Nate and Particles fighting their way out of yet another zombie encounter and loading wood burners into trucks to prepare for the coming winter, exactly where it was all going and how it was all going to end how. In fact – I asked myself – how and when exactly does an apocalypse end?

A Satisfying Ending?

When I did my Creative Writing Course with the Writers Bureau back in 2018, I submitted a synopsis for Wait for Me for one of my assignments. One of the criticisms I received from my tutor was about the ending.

She said, “This doesn’t provide a satisfying ending to the story. What happens next? How to do the non-zombies eventually get rid of the zombie threat?”

Good question! At the time, I thought that as Lisa’s main objective was to get home and find out whether her husband Neil was ‘waiting for her’ (or not, as the case may be – no spoilers here!), that the outcome of this objective would constitute a satisfactory end to the story. Apparently, I was wrong as so many people requested a sequel.  

Defining an Apocalypse

So how do you end an apocalypse? Can you? Different definitions of an apocalypse exist that vary in their classification depending on how devastating the event has been.

The online Cambridge Dictionary talks about “total destruction and the end of the world” and uses the synonym “annihilation” but also, less pessimistically, about “great destruction and change”. Merriam Webster defines it as “the end or destruction of the world”. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary differentiates between an apocalypse which would cause “very serious damage and destruction”, and the apocalypse which causes the “destruction of the world”.

Most zompoc books and movies talk about the zombie apocalypse and rarely a zombie apocalypse, so – please bear with me here, I’m just having a little fun with the idea – my point is how do you end the end? Of course, you can have new beginnings and people adapting and changing, and maybe even incapacitating or escaping the zombie threat, or destroying the virus that caused it and so on and so on. But which of these would these qualify as the satisfying ending that my course tutor required?

Discuss!

*SPOILER ALERT*

This all got me to thinking – when I should actually have been listening to We Will Rise and had to rewind for about 15 minutes’ worth – about the endings of many of the books I have read, as well as movies and TV series I have watched and games I have played, and whether or not they had satisfying endings to their apocalypses.

Movies

Let’s start with the grandfather of the zombie apocalypse, George A Romero. His first movie, The Night of the Living Dead ends when the main character, Ben, an African American, is mistaken for a zombie and shot and killed. While many people have interpreted this as reflection of socio-political issues at the time, it doesn’t represent the end of the apocalypse. Indeed, Romero went on two make his other two classic movies, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. The original cut of Dawn of the Dead ends badly for all the survivors who are seen to perish in some harrowing found-footage material. Subsequent cuts see Fran and Peter survive but we never find out what happens to them after their escape. Similarly, in Day of the Dead, three characters escape by helicopter to a desert island, but we never find out what happens to them in the long term either.

Another couple of my favourite movies are 28 Days Later and the sequel, 28 Weeks Later. In 28 Days Later, Jim, Selena and Hannah are spotted by a fighter jet but we never know whether anyone comes back to rescue them. The zombie threat clearly continues as in 28 Weeks Later things are as bad as ever. This movie ends with the revelation that the virus has spread to mainland Europe but again, who knows what happens next? I’m still waiting for the making of 28 Months Later to find out.

Finally, World War Z the movie. Now this does have a slightly more satisfying ending that might meet with my tutor’s approval. At the end of this blockbuster, not only has Brad Pitt’s character discovered a vaccine to shield people from rampaging zombies but he and his family are all reunited in a safe zone well out of harm’s way. Aww! Nevertheless, the war against the hordes of undead that have taken over the world continues, but we are led to believe that things are looking good for the living survivors.

TV Shows

Moving on to some of the more popular zompoc TV series, The Walking Dead is apparently close to reaching its conclusion with the second half of Season 11 due on our screens any day now. I’m waiting with bated breath to see what that looks like but it’s already evident from all the spin-offs from that show (Fear the Walking Dead, Tales of the Walking Dead and World Beyond are all out already with yet more to follow), that this apocalypse is far from over.

As for Z Nation and the prequel Black Summer. (I have to admit I never finished Z Nation – it started to get on my nerves.) I believe the end involved Murphy eating Sun Mei’s brain to get the cure to the virus but honestly, I don’t really care. I did enjoy Black Summer on the other hand, but we never really reached a satisfying conclusion to this series as everything went to hell in a handbasket at the end of the Season 2 and so far, it doesn’t look as if there will be a Season 3.

Games

I’ve played a lot of zompoc games, but my favourites are Resident Evil, Dying Light, Days Gone and – my all-time favourite by a country mile – The Last of Us. (Can’t wait for that TV show to come out next year!) Most games end in a kind of satisfying way usually involving defeating the baddie, or “boss” to use gaming terminology. I might be wrong, but I don’t think many “end” as such as the manufacturers always like to leave things open for another day (and another dollar of course).

In The Last of Us Joel chooses to save Ellie over saving the world and the stage is set for The Last of Us 2. The end of The Last of Us 2 is all about the people and their relationships and less about the apocalypse itself. Can Ellie forgive Joel and move on? Can she even forgive Abby? Will she and Dina be reunited? I’m assuming we will get some answers to all of these questions and more in The Last of Us 3. I hope so anyway!

Books

And so, to books. My absolute favourite media! While it is acceptable and almost expected that TV Series and Games, by their very nature, will be unlikely to have a final completely satisfying ending, books, like movies, always should.

World War Z, one of the first zompoc books I ever read, has an ending that I think my tutor would approve of. Ten years after the fall, humanity is winning the war, but the costs have been high. The world has taken a big step back in terms of living standards, life expectancy and quality of life and the planet itself has been forever changed, but there is hope for the future.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey is another favourite of mine. At the end of this book, we are left with the thought that the second generation “hungries” are the future and that it is only a matter of time until all humans are infected, and they are able to take over and rebuild. I kind of like that ending. Especially as Justineau appears to be going to help them prepare for this day.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is essentially a love story. Now this story does a have a proper ending! Basically, love is the cure for the zombie virus and it is highly likely that everyone will live happily ever after! It might be a “proper” ending but honestly, for me, it’s all just a bit naff!

I enjoyed The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. Mary has left the safety of her village to find the ocean and so she does at the end of the book. However, it is not quite what she was expecting and there is no attempt to bring about any sort of conclusion or resolution to the zombie problem. In fact, there are two books which follow The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places. Neither of them live up to the promise of The Forest of Hands and Teeth in my view, and The Dead Tossed Waves ends in a place that compels the reader to go and buy The Dark and Hollow Places to find out what happens next, as it leaves us after Gabry and Catcher escape from the Recruiters and set off on their journey to the Dark City. I suppose the trilogy has a semi-decent ending in terms of it being more about the characters and their relationships than trying to overcome the zombie threat and it all works out for everyone in the end (well more or less).

And so, to Adrian’s Undead Diaries by Chris Philbrook. What a great series! In terms of zompoc series it has to be up there as one of the best. And it does have an ending where the zombies are destroyed! Yay! My tutor would be delighted. After an epic battle between good and evil the “good” living human beings survive. There is still a lot of work to be done to eke out a survival in a devastated world, and there are still conflicts with other groups of survivors to be resolved, but Adrian and his friends are free to get on with that without the threat of being chomped by a zombie as they do so. Great ending!

I could go on but I’m going to stop here. I’m getting a bit bored with the potentially endless list of examples that could be discussed and so I’m sure you are too.

If you have managed to read to the end of this essay, well done and thank you for indulging my ramblings! I’m currently writing my 3rd zompoc novel, Amenti Rising, and this time I think I have come up with a solid and satisfying ending. Well, I hope I have! Only time will tell …

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the best way to end an apocalyptic tale in your opinion and about the some of the best endings to zombie apocalypse stories that you have come across.

Drop me a line or, better still, sign up for my newsletter and keep the conversation going?

THE END …

OR IS IT …?

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Book Review – The Living Dead by George A Romero and Daniel Krauss

Dreadfully Disappointing

George A Romero is the father of the zombie movie. The godfather of the dead. An icon of modern American media, a pioneer of the horror film genre, an outstanding filmmaker, writer and editor and the creator of the image of the zombie in modern culture.

The zombie horror genre is my genre. It has been a personal fascination, bordering on obsession, since I first watched Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead back in the 70’s, followed by Day of the Dead in the 80’s. Since then, I have watched pretty much every zombie movie or TV show that has been made, read every book, and played every game.  I’ve played a zombie in a scare event and was a participant in the reality TV show, I Survived a Zombie Apocalypse. I now write zompoc novels myself. (Wait for Me. Trident Edge).

I don’t fully understand my unusual interest in zombies and the concept of the zombie apocalypse (neither do my friends and family) but I think it’s something to do with humans being the real threat to humans, not just in terms of being flesh-eating monsters, but also in the way that the survivors react and behave towards each other when the world as they know it ends. All illusions of civilisation and humanity rapidly melt away leaving people who are barely distinguishable from animals. It’s shocking how quickly society disintegrates and falls apart.

I’m also intrigued by how strange and unfamiliar familiar places become in an apocalypse of any kind. Busy streets, deserted and quiet. Bustling shopping malls and city centres, empty and silent. Survivors free to explore and scavenge wherever and whatever they want – barring zombie threats of course. Nature reclaiming the land. The end of all the services we rely on and and take for granted like water, power, mobile phones and the internet. An upside down, inside out world that is still the same place as before, but at the same time different and changed for ever.

I don’t have the same affinity for other sci-fi and fantasy monsters like vampires, werewolves and aliens. They just don’t do it for me in the same way as zombies do. Maybe it’s because the living dead seem more realistic to me than these other fantastical beasts and creatures. I know that sounds crazy!

I’ve established that I am a massive fan of Romero and all his work. So, imagine my excitement when I heard that he’d written a book, albeit posthumously completed by Daniel Krauss. Not just a book but a humungous 700-page epic that promised to chart the zombie plague “from the first rising to the fall of humanity … and beyond.” It was showered with amazing reviews from the start: “a horror landmark”; a work of gory genius”; the last word of the living dead”; everything you could have hoped for” …

Imagine my disappointment when it just didn’t live up to my expectations.

The first part of the book told a lot of individual stories from the very start of the apocalypse. It was interesting and I did enjoy the start of the book. But even here, there were some stories I enjoyed and some I didn’t. I liked some characters and absolutely hated others. Some stories particularly grabbed and held my attention, and I was irritated when the narrative jumped to another story. I had to stop myself flicking through the pages to get back to the story that had engaged me.

At some point, some of the stories started to get weird. Very weird in a way that just wasn’t believable. I know, for many people, the zombie apocalypse itself isn’t believable but the behaviours and reactions of the characters usually are. At this stage of the book, I started to lose interest and wonder where the whole thing was going, but I soldiered on. In some ways, it reminded me of Stephen King’s The Stand, and I was expecting the various characters all to come together at some point in a satisfying way. And (SPOILER ALERT), they did, but much, much further down the line in, for me, a very dissatisfying way.

It felt as if we missed out on decades of the lives and experiences of the different characters until we meet them in the final section, battle scarred and changed forever. We are told the stories of these missing years in the form of interviews, but this inevitably resulted in a lot of “tell” rather than “show” and as a result they lacked depth and were completely unengaging. It was almost as of the fast forward button had been pressed and we had skimmed rapidly through a huge chunk of a movie. Sadly, with a few exceptions, by the end of the book I just didn’t care what happened to most of the characters and I just wanted to get the book finished and move on to something more enjoyable. (Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel was calling me from my to-be-read pile.) Some of these fast-forwarded stories of the missing years were frankly absurd. Stories of warring zombies with prosthetic limbs. Fantastical tales of unlikely survival. It just didn’t ring true for me.

The main problem with the book was that it was just far too long. It wasn’t a terrible book; it just wasn’t as good as I hoped and expected it would be. The trouble was that when it did drag on it dragged on for so, so long. God, it felt like a slog at times, and I have never been so happy to finish a book.

All that said, I would recommend it. It was a good read in parts, and it took the zombie apocalypse to a place far away down the line where some sort of ending had finally materialised and there was hope for those survivors that had made it that far. It touched on some interesting and currently very relevant socio-political concepts as “causes” of the apocalypse. It just wasn’t brilliant! Just be warned it’s a long hard read and you’ll need some stamina to make it to the end!

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Book Review – Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

Gloriously satisfying.

I bloody loved this book. I picked it up a few months ago as soon as I knew it had been released and added it to my, very long, post-Christmas to-be-read pile. I’d read Station 11 in 2020 and adored it, so have been waiting excitedly for Sea of Tranquility to arrive. After battling through a very disappointing The Living Dead by George A Romero and Danial Krauss, I was in serious need of a reading treat so surreptitiously moved it to the top of the pile. I’m so glad I did. What an amazing book. Satisfying and delighting in every possible way. I devoured it in two days while on holiday in Devon and found myself lovingly stroking the cover long after I had finished reading.

A beautifully written tale of time travel, mind-boggling meta-physics, wonderful characters, elegant connections and coincidences, love, kindness and humanity, Sea of Tranquillity takes us to the moon and back (literally) and spans a period of 500 years. Emily St. John Mandel is a gifted writer. Her plots are clever. Her writing is pure. Settings and characters sing on the page and yet she is skilfully economical with her words and descriptions. I felt every emotion her characters experienced. I worried for them. I exalted with them. I smiled. I laughed out loud. I cried a little. I had some enormous “Ah!” moments as connections and plot twists gradually revealed themselves.

There were some themes that echoed those of Station 11, namely pandemics and people connected by past encounters and relationships, and material objects. Like Station 11, these connections gradually revealed themselves in heart-warmingly startling ways.

I love the way the subject matter is technically pure sci-fi and yet in reality is totally “ungeeky” and utterly believable and every day. She makes living in a dome on the moon and flying about in supersonic hovercraft and airships seem entirely normal.

One character, a writer called Olive Llewellyn, receives some feedback from a reader to the effect that her book was a confusing collection of narrative strands that never came together. This is not true of Emily St. John Mandel. What begin as an apparently disparate collection of narrative strands, flow comfortably through the book and weave naturally together at the end of the story. There is no confusion. There are no unanswered questions. Just glorious resolution and clarity.

Maybe that’s not entirely true? There is one enormous question that runs under the surface of the book and lingers on at the end, not for the characters who know the answer, but for the reader themselves. But, I’ll leave you to discover and ponder that one for yourself.

Needless to say, I’ve just bought and started reading The Glass Hotel.

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The Lost Virtue

NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022.

You might recall that, in June, I got through to the second round of the NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022. This time, I was in the mix with the remaining 1,770 writers of the original 6793. My challenge for the round was:

Genre: Fairy Tale/Fantasy

Action: Popping a Bubble

Word: Bitter

Completely and utterly out of my comfort zone, I managed to come up with a piece that I was relatively pleased with in The Lost Virtue.

Sadly, I didn’t get through to the next round but I did get some positive and encouraging feedback.

I’d love to know what you think of my effort.

The Lost Virtue

Seven years since Dozumoth had captured the virtues of the realm of Ebruven and Sarander had begun her quest to free them.

Seven bitter years of fear and chaos.

At last, Sarander stood in the high clearing and plucked a thorn from the bush where they dangled in fluid, shimmering bubbles.

Time was short. The sky darkened.

Sarander pierced the first. Prudence. A soft, blue mist blossomed and swirled.

The next. Justice. Green.

Fortitude. Red.

Temperance. Yellow.

Thunder cracked. Lightning flashed. Dozumoth rose.

Sarander reached for the last. Tolerance.

Dozumoth struck. The thorn fell.

Sarander wept dead tears for Ebruven.

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Book Review – Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay

Breathless and Shocking.

This book has been on my ‘to be read’ pile since Christmas. I wish I’d got to it sooner. I devoured it in two sittings.

The story follows two women over a period of just a few hours during an outbreak of a lethal, rapidly spreading rabies-type virus. Natalie, who is eight months pregnant, has been bitten and Ramola, her best friend who is a doctor, is trying to save the lives of Natalie and her unborn child.

Survivor Song is a high-speed roller coaster of trials and disasters, fear and tension, shocking violence, societal breakdown, love and loyalty, pain and loss, desperation and heart wrenching decisions. It’s not a ZA novel but in many ways, it feels and reads as one. It’s not deep or pretentious, just a damned good story.

What I liked.

The pace. The race to save Natalie and her baby never slowed or stopped and neither did I.

The characters. I laughed out loud at Natalie’s scathing sarcasm and dark humour in spite of the terrifying situation she found herself in. I adored Ramola for her unfailing loyalty to her friend that pushed her past terrible limits she could never have imagined.

I really liked the “Bill and Ted” duo they met on their journey with their creatively quirky hydrophobia test.

The book was a well-written easy read.

In certain scenes the style and structure of the book ‘broke with convention’ but this served to create a vivid picture of the extreme shock, fear and confusion the character was experience.

Something I might steal in my own writing!

The echoes of or own recent experience during the pandemic including PPE shortages, overwhelmed healthcare services and unprotected workers were very relatable.

What I didn’t like

… nothing …

I absolutely loved this book and would definitely recommend it if you are into dystopian survival horror – and even if you’re not! I have just bought Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts and can’t wait to get started.

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Wet Paint

NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022

It’s that time of year again. The NYC Midnight challenges for 2022 have begun. This year I’ve only been able to enter one – the 100 word microfiction challenge – as I have too many other things going on when the others take place.

Telling a story in 100 words is harder than you might think and is even harder when you have to write to a set brief under a tight timescale of just 24 hours.

In April, 6,973 writers were divided into 118 groups of around 59 per group and set their first challenge. Mine was:

Genre: Comedy

Action: Waiting for a Train

Word: legal

I was on holiday in Nice at the time and didn’t want to spend too much time sitting indoors on my laptop so I felt a lot of additional pressure with this one, especially as my partner was waiting for me to finish before we could get out and enjoy the French sunshine.

After many more “empty head” minutes than I care to remember, I came up with a little ditty called Wet Paint. I wasn’t particularly happy with it but when I read it to my partner and he laughed out loud at the end I decided just to submit it and hope for the best.

I’m happy to say that Wet Paint squeezed through to Round 2 at number 14 of the top 15 qualifiers in my group! This morning I have been writing my entry for the next stage of the competition. This time 1,770 writers were assigned to 27 groups with approximately 66 writers per group. My challenge for this round was:

Genre: Fairy Tale/Fantasy

Action: Popping a Bubble

Word: Bitter

It’s a little little encouraging that I wrote my first ever fantasy piece last month and it got great feedback from my peers! I’ll let you know how I get on at the end of July.

In the meantime here is Wet Paint for (I hope) your amusement and entertainment.

Wet Paint

The station was a riot of football noise and colour. Edgar’s brand-new England shirt was a white beacon in a sea of blue and white stripes.

He regarded the Greek sign on the empty blue bench. He couldn’t read Greek. His train was in fifteen minutes. He needed to rest.

Edgar removed the sign and sat down. It couldn’t be legal, not to sit on a bench. What was the worst that could happen?

The station was a riot of football noise and colour. Edgar’s brand-new, Greek shirt melted into the sea of blue and white stripes.

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The Dragon Slayer

A High Fantasy Challenge

For each of our JAMS monthly creative writing meetings we all prepare a piece based on a a randomly selected prompt. We take turns to read each others work and, after the meeting, provide each other with a full written critique. It’s the main method that we use to develop and improve our writing skills.

Sometimes the prompt can really test our abilities. This was the case last month when the challenge was to write a High Fantasy story that featured a Dragon Slayer and contained the word “gracious” somewhere in the text.

I was so far out of my comfort zone that I thought, for the first time ever, I was not going to be able to complete the task. However, I persevered and produced a story that I was reasonably happy with. Honestly, I was just delighted that I had managed to come up with something at all.

I was both surprised and delighted when my fellow JAMS members were blown away by my story. If it weren’t for a few typos and sloppy mistakes, I would have been awarded full marks in both of their written critiques.

You can read the story below (with – I hope – all errors and typos corrected). I hope you enjoy my first foray into the realms of High Fantasy as much as my colleagues did!

The Dragon Slayer by J. M. McKenzie

The hamlet of Lemon Arbour has lived under the shadow of the dragon named Qomrirarth for many years. Too many years. The time has come to slay the beast. But what of the fabled dragon slayer? Who is he? Where is he? Why has he left them to fend for themselves for so long?

Engar was two years into his second decade when he first heard talk of seeking the Dragon Slayer. The dragon, who had been the scourge of the small hamlet of Lemon Arbour, in the Vale of Terrador, for as long as Engar could remember, was named Qomrirarth. The name meant, the bright one, on account of the vivid green markings that sparkled like emeralds on his wings, the shimmering of which could be seen from many miles away, forewarning of his next dreadful arrival.

On first sight of green sparkles at the hazy line where land meets sky, the village bells would peal their warning and a flurry of fearful activity would ensue. The frantic gathering of livestock, the anxious recall of children at play, the hurried boarding of cottage doors and windows and the collection of water with which to quench the flames that would inevitably burn in the aftermath of Qomrirarth’s fury.

Engar, had never known a life outwith the shadow of Qomrirarth. Indeed, Jaquard, eldest of elders, had once told him that the dragon had made its first appearance on the very day that Engar celebrated the completion of the first year of his first decade. Back then, the dragon too had been but a young fledgling, probably, Jaquard said, not more than one year since hatching himself. In those early days, he had taken only chickens and newborn lambs or kids, but as he had grown, so had his appetite and his strength and last month he had carried off a fully grown dairy cow from the herd of Daymar Garanthon.

On the day in question, Qomrirarth, had seized his first human prey and thus a line had been crossed for the people of Lemon Arbour. Nerensyth Larendarson, the eldest daughter of Grandal and Heta Larendarson, had been ignoring her mother’s cries to get inside and gathering up a kitten that had wriggled from her grasp as the family hurried for cover. Nerensyth had been trying to coax it from behind a tall, wooden water barrel when Qomrirarth had swooped from the sky in a blur of green and red and carried her away. The kitten survived.

Now the whole village was talking of the Dragon Slayer.

Engar sat at the top of the stairs long after he had been sent to bed and listened to his parents talk. It was a cold night and he had dragged the soft wool comforter from his bed to wrap around his shoulders in an attempt to stop his chattering teeth from revealing his hiding spot. The dying embers of the day’s fire created a slowly decreasing orb of warmth and orange light, which caused his parents to draw their chairs closer and closer to the hearth, making it difficult to hear all their words, but Engar heard enough. They were planning to seek a Dragon Slayer to kill Qomrirarth.

“It is time,” his father was saying. “We have waited too long. We have been foolish. And now it has come to this. None of our children are safe.”

“But we always thought the slayer would come. They always do,” said his mother. “It is their destiny. It is how it is. For every dragon there is a slayer and, when the time is right, they will come together. It is their fate. It has always been this way and it always will.”

“But where is our slayer?” his father cried. “Where is he when we need him? We cannot wait! The time is now. Fate or not. If the slayer will not come to us, we will have to seek him out. We must make haste. Who knows who will be taken next? It could be one of our own! Baby Sarander, little Mesophe or even Engar! No, we must act. We must act now. As is his custom, the beast will be quiet for two score days after his successful excursion. We have time. Tomorrow I will gather a group of good men and we will journey down the vale in search of the slayer.”

Engar couldn’t understand why this conversation disturbed him so. He shivered and pulled his comforter tighter around him as he snuck back up to his room and climbed into his cot. His sisters, Sarander and little Mesophe, slept on the other side of the room, head-to-tail in theirs. He lay awake for a long time after he heard his parents go to bed in the next room and the whole house grew quiet and colder still. Stars twinkled outside in the clear night sky and the waning moon washed the room in a silver light. Engar knew that when sleep eventually claimed him he would dream of Qomrirarth. He always did.

He had always felt a strange connection to the dragon. Of course, he had a healthy fear of the death and destruction the creature wreaked upon them on its monthly visits to the village. Of course, he cowered under the kitchen table with his sisters as its great wings thundered and its fiery breath roared outside. But Engar also saw the beauty in its lithe and powerful form and the brilliant colours and patterns of its scales. Saw the elegance and grace in the rhythmic, rippling of its wings in flight. Heard the melody in its cry and sensed the intelligence in its piercing green eyes.

Engar’s eyes were green too. So green that sometimes the other children in the village teased him about being related to Qomrirarth. That they were brothers. That Engar had not been birthed from his mother’s womb but had hatched from an egg. They called him Qom or Qomo and always made him play the monster in games of tag or hide and seek. They pretended to kill him in their playfights, poking and swiping at him with their stubby wooden swords until he sulked home with his head down and his shoulders slumped, tears welling in his eyes.

But they were right. He did feel a connection with the dragon, and at no time was this stronger than when he closed his eyes each night and entered the world of his dreams.

He first started dreaming of Qomrirarth in the first year of his second decade. He never told anyone about the dreams. Not even his parents. Fearful that by speaking of them that they might fuel the fire of his imagined bond to the beast. Fearful that he would be shunned by his family and rejected by his so-called friends if he revealed any signs that might threaten to transform a childish fantasy into a terrifying reality.

 The dreams had a clear and regular pattern. Each night he would find himself walking out towards Qomrirarth’s lair. In the waking world it was over a day’s walk from Lemon Arbour, at the end of the Vale, beyond the Red Forest, high in the Mountains of Elwyre. But in his dreams, he covered the distance like a wisp, feet skimming over hill and dale like a gazelle, weaving through the forest like a breath of wind, and scaling rocks and boulders as nimbly as a mountain goat.

The strange thing about the dreams was that he never reached the lair, always awakening back in his bed before reaching his goal. But, every year since the dreams had begun, he had got closer and closer before the dream had ended. In the past year he had reached the edge of a deep crater littered with bones and rotting carcasses. From inside a dark cave at the far end of the basin he could hear the deep rumble of Qomrirarth’s breathing, see the wisps of steam and smell the acrid scent of brimstone that drifted from deep within. This night, the night of the eavesdropped conversation about the Dragon Slayer, he got as far as to take his first step down into the hollow before he awakened.

As discussed, the next day, his father and a group of men set out on a journey to seek out a dragon slayer. They returned one score and eighteen days later, dejected, and disappointed. The day after their return Qomrirarth struck again, this time claiming the widow Armthwaite who had been out walking and had taken shelter under the old Sycamore tree at the centre of the high meadow, knowing that she did not have either the speed or succor to make it back to the village in time.

And so, life continued as before. All talk of the Dragon Slayer ceased. Weeks became months and months became years. Qomrirarth came and went as did the seasons. For a time, people and livestock perished in greater numbers than ever, crops and buildings burned, and the entire village lived in a cloud of fear and dread. It was only when they came up with idea of leaving out a sacrificial offering each month that some sort of stalemate was reached. They got into the habit of keeping a single goat, sheep or cow staked to a post at the edge of the village within clear sight of the dragon’s usual approach. After the first few occasions when the beast took both the offering and any additional opportunistic prey he could secure, Qomrirarth gradually began to accept the offering and leave without entering the village. After this, a period of several years passed in state of fragile but seemingly mutually acceptable peace.

In Engar’s dreams he reached the mouth of Qomrirarth’s cave. Secretly he was relieved that for the moment, the need to slay the dragon had been forgotten.

On the first day of Engar’s eighth year of his second decade, Qomrirarth launched an attack on Lemon Arbour the likes of which no one could recall. He appeared without warning, descending with such power and speed from the clouds above that no-one could escape his wrath. Two boys, Frimlar Smeed and Baobub Drax, had been crouched by the edge of the pond skimming stones into the water and didn’t even see him coming. The dragon made it very clear that the unhappy truce was over. Circling overhead with the screaming boys dangling from his talons, he bathed the village in fire, burning the haybarn and the mill keeper’s cottage to the ground and scorching the cornfield to a smoking cinder.

The village was in uproar. Accusations and recriminations flew back and forth. There was much weeping and wailing. Why had they not continued with the quest to find the Dragon Slayer? Why had they been content to accept the false truce? How stupid they had been to think that it would continue? They were not dealing with a reasonable being! They were dealing with a malevolent and evil monster! What were they going to do now? Where was their Dragon Slayer? Where was the one that was fated to slay Qomrirarth? Where was he when they needed him?

Engar, was deeply troubled and plagued with guilt that he had been content that the villagers had not chosen to pursue their goal of destroying the dragon. He sought out the wisdom of Jaquard.

The old man was frail. He eased himself uncomfortably down into the chair by the fire, signaling to Engar to take the other. Engar was nervous. He needed to talk to someone and Jaquard as the only person he could trust. Or so he hoped. He looked at him wondering whether to say what was on his mind. But, above his long white beard, Jaquard’s eyes twinkled with warmth and gracious compassion. Engar relaxed and started to speak.

“Jaquard,” he started. “I need your advice about some dreams and some thoughts I have been having … “

“Yes,” said Jacquard with a knowing smile. “I have been expecting you. I’m surprised it has taken you this long.”

“What do you mean? Do you know … ?”

“About you and Qomrirarth? Of course, I do. You two have been linked from the start.”

“I don’t understand. Linked? Of what do you speak?”

“You know that you and Qomrirarth are one. You know that you dream of him every night. That you admire and respect him. That your destinies are linked. That your fates are bound.”

“No! I don’t! I don’t understand! I don’t know! What does it mean?”

“You will find out in time. When the time is right all will be revealed. But you will not need to wait for much longer, I sense that time is approaching.”

Engar just stared at the ancient man. Afraid to speak and say something he would regret. He was clenching his jaw and his hands were curled into tight fists. He was shaking with anger and frustration. He was furious that Jaquard knew about him and Qomrirarth. Why had he not told him before now? Why had he not helped him? He could have saved him from so much misery and torment. Yet still he did not understand how and why the Dragon and he were bound, and the old man was not going to tell him. He got to his feet and stormed back to the cottage. His parents and sisters were seated at the kitchen table when he burst in through the front door. They looked up at him, startled.

“Engar, what troubles you?” His mother rose and held out a hand to touch him.

He brushed it away and hurried up the stairs.

“Let him be,” said his father. “Today he has become a man and what should have been a day of celebration for him has become a day of great sorrow. He is feeling it. This is all.”

That night, as every night, Engar dreamt of Qomrirarth. But this dream was different. Yes, he moved with the same speed and grace across the vale, through the forest and up the mountain. And yes, he reached the mouth of the cave wherein the dragon lay. But this time, instead of awe and wonder and curiosity, all Engar felt was rage. Rage at what Qomrirarth had done to his village and his people. Rage at the fear and dread he had brought to all their lives for so long. Rage at the pain and suffering the dragon had inflicted on his friends and family. No! However, magnificent, and beautiful Qomrirarth was, it was time for his reign of terror to end. It was time and it was Engar who had to do it.

Engar looked down at his right hand, suddenly aware that in it he held a sword. A heavy Damascan Steel sword. It was a thing of power and beauty with a bright, green, emerald shimmering in the centre of the intricately engraved pommel. It was a sword with which to slay a dragon. The sword with which to slay the bright one. In an instant Engar understood the connection between him and the dragon. They were connected. He did admire and respect the beast. He did appreciate its power and beauty but only because he was the one destined to slay it.

He raised the sword and stepped into the blackness.

The lair was dark and steamy. It smelt of decaying meat and sulfur. It was filled with the sound of the dragon’s breathing. Deep and shuddering and steady. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he gradually made out the shape of the creature against the back wall. Its great bulk was lying in a resting pose. Its glittering scales reflected in a shaft of moonlight that shone in from outside. Its sides rising and falling with every rumbling breath. Qomrirarth was asleep.

Engar approached the creature. He stepped slowly and carefully across the carpet of bones that littered the floor of the cave, lest a crunch of something underfoot should wake the beast. He was tense but he was not afraid. He knew that this was his destiny. He had to see through. He had no other option. Did not want any other option. He had to fulfill his destiny.

As Engar grew near, Qomrirarth opened his bright green eyes, but he did not stir, and his breathing did not alter. As Engar stared deep into these eyes, that were so much like his own, he felt rather than heard Qomrirarth speak to him.

It is time Engar. It is time for us to come together at last. From the day of our birth, we were bonded. Destined for each other. We have lived sperate lives but we are forever joined. We are meant for each other. I am tired of killing and burning. It is time for you to end my reign of fire. It is how it should be. How it must be. Time for us to bond in the way of ways.

When Engar raised his sword to strike, green tears spilled from his eyes.

When Engar awoke in his bed the next morning he felt different. Still in his hand was the Damascan Steel sword, streaked with Qomrirarth’s blood. His feet and hands were caked with mud, his shirt and breeches tattered and torn, and pine needles clung to his hair. Before his sisters stirred, he rose, wiped off the sword, concealed it under his mattress and went to the bathroom to bathe. When he was clean, he looked at himself in the looking glass. His eyes seemed greener than ever. He stretched and yawned and as he opened his mouth a tiny wisp of smoke curled from between his lips. But Engar was not startled. He closed his mouth, smiled, and went back to his cot.

Qomrirarth never visited Lemon Arbour again, as far as they knew.

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Book Review – The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones 

Broodingly terrifying.

I bought this book on the basis of reviews that described it as a “masterpiece”. I’m not sure I agree with that, but it was certainly a dark, disturbing read that I really enjoyed.  

The title is a tragically ironic reference to Theodore Roosevelt’s vile quote “the only good Indians are dead Indians”, and the book is heavy with the prejudice, discrimination, and disadvantage that people of American Indian heritage struggle with on a daily basis in the present-day United States.

The Only Good Indians tells the story of four young American Indian men who massacre a herd of elk. 10 years later they are being stalked by the spirit of one of the animals they killed. The book effectively combines classic horror and suspense with an astute social commentary.

What I liked.

The plot was gripping. It was laden with tension interspersed with abrupt and shocking episodes of bloody violence that you always knew was coming but could never quite predict where and when and to whom.

It was skilfully written – prolonged descriptions of the characters normal lives and backstories were so heavy with suspense that I couldn’t read quick enough for fear of what was going to happen next.

While the supernatural elements were unusual, some might say farfetched, I bought into them one hundred percent. For me, the spirit that hunted the men was merciless and bone chillingly terrifying. I know I will be haunted for some time by the disturbing visual image of the unnatural stalker that the author so vividly creates.

But, as frightened as I was by that spirit, because I understood its motives and its quest, I could not help but feel a strong sense of sorrow and compassion towards it. It was that that evoked a strong emotional response to the book overall. In a sense the “victims” were also the perpetrators, creating a lot of conflict for the reader.

What I didn’t like.

The Only Good Indians was not an easy read. The writing style and the language was hard to understand and required a high level of concentration. I often had to re-read paragraphs or sentences to work out what was going on. Many of the American colloquial references will be lost on an international audience.

I found the lengthy basketball scenes especially challenging and have to admit skimming through some of them.

Overall, a great read that I’d definitely recommend.

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Book Review – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 

Quietly Disturbing

I enjoyed this book, but it didn’t blow me away the way I was hoping and expecting it to. Isn’t it often the way that whenever you have high expectations of a book or a movie, you build it up in a way it can never possibly deliver, leading to an inevitable degree of disappointment?

The premise, of cloning humans for organ donation, is deep, disturbing, and depressing. The book is light, sad, and also extremely depressing.

What I liked.

It is a thoughtful, easy read.

It feels simple and superficial, but it isn’t at all. The plot, the characters, their conversations, and their actions all sit at the top of a bubbling mass of nightmarish complexity and confusion. I’m not at all sure that even the characters themselves understand what they are feeling and why most of the time. Possibly not any of the time.

The book is heavy with sorrowful metaphors and symbolism, not least in Hailsham itself, which is, both literally and physically, the only family that Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth will ever have, and it too is revealed to be less solid than it first appears.

I liked Kathy and Tommy for their loyalty, naivety, and honesty but not nearly as much as I disliked Ruth for her controlling and manipulative exploitation of them.

I liked the way that because the characters lived such small, unnatural, and sheltered lives they were highly sensitive to little things. Tiny interactions were hugely important and meaningful to them. Small conversations and statements were huge and provoked much angst and analysis and yet they never seemed to address the enormous issues that were staring them in the face every minute of every day.

What I didn’t like.

I really didn’t like Ruth.

I was frustrated by the passive resignation of the characters to their fate. I found myself wondering why Kathy and Tommy didn’t just run away. But I think I also understood that they had been raised and conditioned not to expect anything else from life.

The interaction at the end of the book with Madame and Emily was weird. It was confusing and almost contrived in the way it tried to answer many of the questions that ran through the book. It felt awkward and clunky to me and left me with a lot of unanswered questions still remaining.

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