Flash fiction challenge – Night Terror (middle of the story written by Dave)

A couple of weeks ago I took part in a flash fiction challenge hosted at terribleminds. I wrote the first part of a story. Somebody else was supposed to finish it. In the meantime rules got changed and the next person had to write the middle part instead of the end. Here’s my beginning, followed by Dave’s middle part. Next week we should know how the story ends. In case rules don’t change again, that is.

Night Terror – Part I (the beginning, by Delia)

The noise came again, and this time there could be no mistake: somebody was in the house. Worse, somebody was in my bedroom. I strained to hear, holding my breath, hoping that what I heard was just something from outside on the street, a drunk perhaps, a stray dog going through the garbage bins, but no. It was faint but unmistakably closer. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, trying to see in the dark without moving. It was there, a scratching sound on the wooden floor, like something scrabbling frantically in the same spot. Perhaps a rat, I thought as I lay, face up, cursing silently the fact that I stayed up late, trying to finish that damn book – the one with rats on the cover. No wonder I was imagining things.

The noise had stopped and nothing else could be heard, except for the occasional car going down the street but even that faded away and the fear began to loosen its grip on me. My eyes grew heavy, my body relaxed. Then it came again, closer, the scratching, and in my mind I saw a huge rat, as big as a cat, its teeth sharp and hungry for meat, the beady eyes glistening in the dark. I considered my options. Option one, pretend nothing happened, it was a nightmare (a persistent one at that) and try to go back to sleep. Option two, stretch out my hand over to the nightstand and turn on the light. Perhaps it was a small mouse and the light will frighten it. Or perhaps the light would scare it right into my bed.
I began to shiver under the blanket. I tried to move my hand as quietly as possible but the thing must have heard me and it stopped. I breathed slowly, trying to give myself courage. Now this is truly stupid, there is no rat, it was all in my head. I shifted slightly to the left, reaching out with my hand.

The noise began again, and this time it was so close it made my skin crawl and my heart beat like a war drum. It must be under the bed now, whatever it was. Perhaps I could use my pillow, swat it away. Or my tube of hair spray, or the chunky volume of ghost stories. All on my nightstand, if I could just reach over and turn on that light.
I inched closer, my fingers stretched to find the switch of the reading lamp. I knocked over an empty glass, and it tumbled to the floor, rolling, before coming to an abrupt stop. I cursed silently, and in the next instant I heard the scratching on the floor, followed by a soft thud. It was on the bed now, whatever it was. I bit my lip and swallowed the scream that threatened to spill out; I felt the blanket slipping from my body, slowly, cold air on my skin, my blood turning to ice…

Part II (middle of the story, by Dave)

Suddenly a giggle and a look of confusion washed over my face. It giggled again as it crawled closer to my face. Fumbling for the light and twisting the switch, I turned back into the face of a child.

The little boy smiled, “found you!” he squealed.

Her heart was still racing but the fear had all but disappeared. It wasn’t a woman eating rat a child, who wasn’t hers, right in front of her as if it was no big deal.

“Hi there little guy. How’d you get in here?” she asked in as soothing high pitch voice as she could muster.

“Mommy said I should go play hide and seek. So that’s what I did. I found you. You weren’t really hiding very well.”

I tried to recall who in the building had a child but nobody came to mind. Recovering and throwing a big smile, I asked where mommy was.

“She’s at home.” he replied as he sat on the bed, crossing his legs as if he’s ready for a story.

“Where’s that?”

“Hmm, I don’t know. At school we are learning where we live to help us.”

Great she thought. This kids probably 5 or so, doesn’t know where he lives and somehow got into my locked apartment.

“Well, why don’t we go into the kitchen and get something to eat. We can figure out where you live and take you home. Does that sound good?”

“Yeah, I guess. But mommy said to stay out until the sun comes up. And the sun isn’t up yet.”

She started moving off the bed, reaching for her robe and the boy followed. Walking down the hallway she finally asked the odd question.

“That’s a long time from now. Why did she want you to stay out so long?”

“She always says I should go explore at night. Because I feel better when I do. She’s right. I don’t feel good when the sun is up. Mommy says it’s a condition I have. I don’t remember what it is but she told me. I know she did.”

“How does some cereal sound?”

“Does it have marshmallows?” his face brightening.

“Sorry, no marshmallows.”

“Aww, man.” he said with defeat.

“But it’s got sugar” trying to cheer him back up.

“I guess. It’s not as good without the marshmallows.”

“Yeah, I agree”

They sat at her small table, the boy scarfing down the cereal and sipped some tea herself. He was pumping his legs back and forth while humming and chewing.

She started asking a series of questions that he might be able to answer, helping her narrow down where he lived.

“Do you live in this building?”

“No”

“One nearby?”

“No”

“Where do you live?”

“In the woods”

The woods she thought? She lived in the heart of a small town, the woods are a few miles away. Something wasn’t right and she went to grab the phone, something she should have done minutes ago.

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Flash fiction challenge – finishing somebody else’s story, sort of

Last week’s challenge over at terribleminds was to finish a story begun by somebody else. But this week Chuck’s gone and changed the rules, saying that this had to be the middle part of the story and not the end. On top of that, the limit is 500 words. Well, I have no problem with the first rule, as the story can be continued after my contribution (and I even have an idea about how to keep going) but I’m going to break the second rule and write more than the allowed number of words. So here’s the first part, courtesy of Kriti.

*

It was a dark and stormy night, the night that I was born. My mother gave birth without help because the villagers thought her cursed and dangerous. My father was absent, as always when the moon was dark.
Next day as she slept, my father’s servant came and slipped a bag of gold and jewels beneath her pillow; it wasn’t a gift from my father, but Renwick had a soft heart and had been fond of my mother. He also left a note, I still have it. It simply says that my father had left for England and that he might see me when he returned, but he never came back. He came to a bad end near Whitby; the English having proved to be less cowardly than the good folk of Transylvania.
As soon as she could get out of bed my mother slipped away, with me wrapped close to her body. She travelled east because her people came from beyond the mountains. I think her people were gypsies because she was a raven-haired beauty with a fiery temper. We never found her family, but I don’t think we’d have been welcome anyway.
The years of my childhood were years of constant travel; we’d stay a few months somewhere, my mother would prostitute herself to make money and sometimes she would sell a jewel. She never stayed long anywhere because she knew I would eventually give us away. I had my father’s taste for blood and I would scream constantly until my needs were met.
When I was about ten years old we met an elderly monk travelling the same hills as us. We camped together and he talked all night with my mother. The next day instead of heading to the large town in the valley we accompanied the monk on his journey home.
At his monastery I was drugged and bound while my mother sobbed. When I awoke my mouth was pure agony. My lips were swollen and I had no teeth.
The monk came to see me.
‘Your poor mother has suffered long for her sins. We have taken you so that she can be free to live with ordinary people. You will not see her again; however we will love and care for you. We will teach you how to live a good life.’
The first years were terrible. The monks’ diet was vegetarian, but it did me no good to scream or threaten. They would smile, pray and put me in solitary confinement for a day or two. The same cycle would repeat until I was willing to eat their food. I still do not like rice but I learned that it fills the belly. Discipline was strict but they didn’t make me take part in their worship, instead I was allowed to read or draw. Some months later, as they knew I would, I asked to join them in the temple. I began to be a Buddhist.
A life of tranquil peace and study was mine until the day the armies came.

********************** My contribution***************************

One morning, the field in front of the temple was empty, the next, it was black with soldiers, some on horseback, most of them walking, the noise of their armor piercing the quiet like sharp spears driven through the flesh.
The monks gathered in the meditation area, a room without walls, the roof supported by great pillars of stone, unadorned. No one knew who the armies belonged to and no one seemed to concern themselves with that.

‘We cannot interfere, the monks told me, but we will take care of the wounded after the battle is over.’

I nodded my assent, but inside my blood stirred, and for the first time in months I felt the pangs of a familiar hunger.
The battle began the same day, and I watched from my small room as the field was soaked in the blood of the fallen and the air carried the shouts of the dying to my window; I grew restless, like a caged animal.
Visions of blood greeted my mornings and haunted my dreams at night. And for the first time since the day my mother left, my teeth began to grow again. White, strong teeth, the incisors sharp and long, and I drew blood every time I ran my tongue over them. And with them came pain, and I didn’t know which was worse, my teeth growing or my unnatural hunger.

The monks saw, and wanted to restrain me, but the head monk didn’t let them.
‘Now is the time, he said, when temptation is hardest. You must fight this, for if you give in, all is lost. Think of all these years you lived here with us, of the quiet life you have, of what you have accomplished.’
I didn’t say anything. He didn’t know how hard it was to live like this, didn’t know how close I’d come to losing my mind that day when one of the monks had cut himself with a kitchen knife while cooking. I can still see the bright red blood on the blade, and the smell nearly drove me insane. The monk saw me and turned away quickly. No one would turn away now, the field was red with blood day after day.

Then the nightmares came. A dark figure cloaked in black, with fiery red eyes staring at me. He would point to the field outside my window and say, ‘Drink, my son, this is for you.’ But he was dead, wasn’t he? Renwick had written to my mother years ago of his death and I had accepted it, although I sometimes wondered what kind of man my father was and why my mother never spoke of him.
I tried to forget about it and spent my days and nights avoiding sleep, hunched over ancient books and even more ancient scrolls in the library. The candle light threw a sickly yellow shade on the texts, and for small stretches of time I was able to forget about my hunger, although the pain still beat a rhythm in my head. The food had no taste for me anymore. The monks’ rice and boiled vegetables were tasteless anyway, and the one spice we were permitted, salt, made me thirsty beyond belief.

Then one night I went out to the fields. The battle had been more vicious that day, and corpses littered the ground. Flies were already at work on the bodies, and I could hear their buzz and see them crawling in the faint moonlight. I drank in the rich coppery smell of blood, and felt it coursing through my body. For a moment, a spell of dizziness came upon me and I swayed on my feet. It passed.
I touched one of the dead. He was still warm but lifeless, a deep gash in his neck already black with flies. I turned away in disgust and breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe I had learned to control my hunger, I thought. Maybe the years spent among the monks have finally paid off. As I turned to leave, movement caught my eye – a white sleeve, a small hand. I turned and walked towards it, and waves of hunger crashed over me with each and every step. It was a woman in a white dress stained with blood, and she was crying over one of the fallen, a hand on his bearded face. She didn’t see me as I came from behind and wrapped my hands around her slender neck.

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Deliver Us from Evil (2014) – movie review

Deliver us from evil Demons. Possession. Exorcism. Death. Faith or lack thereof. Just a few words that would be perfect to describe this movie. A New York police officer (Eric Bana) and his partner (Joel McHale) become entangled in a series of weird cases. They are helped by a Catholic priest (Edgar Ramirez) to get to the source of the evil that seems to connect the cases they’re working on.

I’ve been waiting for this movie, thinking it would be perfect for R.I.P.. I even bought a ticket for seat number 13. The left armrest was broken, and halfway through the movie the white cloth on the headrest two chairs over flapped gently in the breeze of the air-conditioning. There was one other person sitting at the end of the row, far away from me, so that was a bit ghost-like. It made me smile.

The movie itself is neither better nor worse than your average horror movie. It even has a couple of funny moments, but what I found the most interesting was the reference to a song by The Doors, which played an important part in the overall plot of the movie. The imagery was disturbing and quite well done, still, I found sounds and half covered faces a lot more sinister than the blood.
I liked that the exorcism scene wasn’t over the top, like the one they filmed in jail, where a demon had taken over the body of a woman. That was a bit too overdone and it lost some of the creepy potential. The contorted face and noises almost made me laugh. This one, however, was just enough to get the point across and quite convincing.
Another bonus point goes to the characters played by Ramirez and Bana – the priest has his sins, and so does the cop, and in confessing them they are stripped of the aura of perfection. They might be heroes, but they are flawed nevertheless.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, there are scratching noises on the floor and under the bed, and considering I’ve seen this movie the day after writing the beginning of a story with plenty of scratching noises, I try to tell myself that this is just a silly coincidence.
Overall, this is a good movie. Definitely not as grim as Silent Hill for example, but with a mix of elements that work well together. As for the horror factor, it falls somewhat in the middle. Not too soft but not that scary either.

My rating: 7/10

Posted in Challenges, Movies | 6 Comments

Flash fiction challenge – Night Terror

It’s been almost two years since I wrote a flash fiction challenge. The first time it was a 100 word challenge called The Heart. Today’s challenge: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/09/05/flash-fiction-challenge-the-first-half-of-a-story-only/
I cannot end it, but if you want to, feel free and let me know so I can come over and see if she lives…or not…

*

The noise came again, and this time there could be no mistake: somebody was in the house. Worse, somebody was in my bedroom. I strained to hear, holding my breath, hoping that what I heard was just something from outside on the street, a drunk perhaps, a stray dog going through the garbage bins, but no. It was faint but unmistakably closer. I squeezed my eyes shut and opened them again, trying to see in the dark without moving. It was there, a scratching sound on the wooden floor, like something scrabbling frantically in the same spot. Perhaps a rat, I thought as I lay, face up, cursing silently the fact that I stayed up late, trying to finish that damn book – the one with rats on the cover. No wonder I was imagining things.

The noise had stopped and nothing else could be heard, except for the occasional car going down the street but even that faded away and the fear began to loosen its grip on me. My eyes grew heavy, my body relaxed. Then it came again, closer, the scratching, and in my mind I saw a huge rat, as big as a cat, its teeth sharp and hungry for meat, the beady eyes glistening in the dark. I considered my options. Option one, pretend nothing happened, it was a nightmare (a persistent one at that) and try to go back to sleep. Option two, stretch out my hand over to the nightstand and turn on the light. Perhaps it was a small mouse and the light will frighten it. Or perhaps the light would scare it right into my bed.
I began to shiver under the blanket. I tried to move my hand as quietly as possible but the thing must have heard me and it stopped. I breathed slowly, trying to give myself courage. Now this is truly stupid, there is no rat, it was all in my head. I shifted slightly to the left, reaching out with my hand.

The noise began again, and this time it was so close it made my skin crawl and my heart beat like a war drum. It must be under the bed now, whatever it was. Perhaps I could use my pillow, swat it away. Or my tube of hair spray, or the chunky volume of ghost stories. All on my nightstand, if I could just reach over and turn on that light.
I inched closer, my fingers stretched to find the switch of the reading lamp. I knocked over an empty glass, and it tumbled to the floor, rolling, before coming to an abrupt stop. I cursed silently, and in the next instant I heard the scratching on the floor, followed by a soft thud. It was on the bed now, whatever it was. I bit my lip and swallowed the scream that threatened to spill out; I felt the blanket slipping from my body, slowly, cold air on my skin, my blood turning to ice…

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The Unpierced Heart or The Whores’ Asylum – Katy Darby

RIP 9 badge Last weekend I went to a second hand bookstore to sell some of the books I’ve had for a long time. They had been exiled to a box for many years, for lack of space (and interest, I admit, though not all) – their pages turning brown and spotty with humidity – as newer or more desirable copies have been slowly filling my two bookcases. Unless I win the lottery and buy a villa with a capacious library, I must, from time to time, exchange the old for the new.
I went there with a list of books I wanted to read, by Robert McCammon, James Herbert and Shirley Jackson, but was unable to find them. What I got was something I hadn’t been looking for, and as it turned out, a very nice surprise.

The name of the book and its author are new to me, but the blurb at the back and the first few pages that I read made me fall for it on the spot. I spent two days reading it, in a kind of half-awake state that only a good book can give, the kind where you wish time could stop until you got to the end.

The Unpierced Heart Described as a “Gothic romance”, it begins with the story of Edward Fraser who, fearing his death is near, is writing to his son, Stephen. He has a tragic tale to write, that of Stephen’s mother and of his dear friend Stephen Chapman, after whom his son is named. Told mostly from his perspective, it is a tale fraught with tragedy and poisoned by evilness. In true Victorian style, it has an array of characters ranging from fallen women and brutal, vicious men, to artists, doctors and university students; ambitions are shattered, lives destroyed by sickness and revenge, and above all, a great love story.

Edward and Stephen were students at Oxford in 1887 when they met and formed a lasting friendship that was unbroken even in death. They made an interesting pair, a Sherlock meets Watson type of camaraderie founded on common interests such as debating various topics – Edward was studying to be a clergyman or possibly a professor, while Stephen was an exceptional medical student dedicated to the field of obstetrics. When Stephen was offered the opportunity to work at a shelter for reforming fallen women, he was able to bring his passion for his work to the aid of those unfortunate and shunned by society.
That is how he met Diana, a young woman whose beauty had shattered lives and left behind nothing but sorrow. Edward knew about Diana’s disreputable past and warned his friend, but Stephen was too in love to care. But all was not well when the lies Diana had told in the past came back to haunt her present, and the truth became difficult to see behind their tangled web. Was Diana the unscrupulous woman Edward thought her to be, a femme-fatale bent on ensnaring the young and unsuspecting for a respectable place in society, or was there something more to the story?

The book is divided into five parts, with each part dedicated to a character, four men and a woman, their stories connected. Edward is the main narrator, but Stephen and Diana get to tell their own version as well in the form of letters, which gives the whole story an intimate feeling. The language is true to the period, the turns and flourishes making for a perfect immersion in the Victorian era.

I liked this book very much. There are no ghosts here but there’s a dungeon, a half-mad villain, death, and star-crossed lovers. The pace is quick, the mysteries abound, and the end, tragic. I liked the characters, the two friends most of all, and admired Stephen for his strength and for never giving up on his friend. He made his own mistakes along the way but tried to atone for them as best he could. I also liked the references to mythology in the explanation of how the young woman came to be named Diana (not her real name). If you’re a fan of novels set in Victorian times, this is a great choice.

Although I had many other books lined up for R.I.P IX, this goes to show, and not for the first time either, that plans can change out of the blue. The Unpierced Heart fits in perfectly with the requirements for this reading challenge – mystery, thriller, gothic.

Some of my favorite passages:

“Chapman confessed to me once that he believed in neither salvation nor damnation, unless it was upon this earth, in our hearts; in this life. Once, I thought this meant he could not be saved. I am no longer that blind an unyielding man – but even when I was, I should gladly have swapped places with him. I imagined that my spotless soul would descend and his rise, and perhaps, when we passed, there would be a moment of recognition; no more. And now I wonder whether he was not right, after all; for I can imagine no damnation more absolute and no Hell bleaker than a world without love in it.”

“It is through you that my life has gained purpose and sweetness. These are words fathers do not say to their sons, nor husbands to their wives, yet they should be said, and often; for love is the pearl beyond price, the divine gift, which raises us above our weak and imperfect selves and burns with a hard, astonishing flame against death’s darkness. The grave is cold and silent enough, and soon enough in coming. We ought not to be cold and silent too.”

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in August-September, 2014

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R.I.P. IX – intro post

RIP 9 badge My love, she sleeps! Oh, may her sleep
As it is lasting, so be deep!
Soft may the worms about her creep!
Far in the forest, dim and old,
For her may some tall vault unfold-
Some vault that oft has flung its black
And winged panels fluttering back,
Triumphant, o’er the crested palls,
Of her grand family funerals-
Some sepulchre, remote, alone,
Against whose portal she hath thrown,
In childhood, many an idle stone-
Some tomb from out whose sounding door
She ne’er shall force an echo more,
Thrilling to think, poor child of sin!
It was the dead who groaned within.

(Edgar Allan Poe – excerpt from “The Sleeper”)

I’ve been waiting for this event to start for months now, but when I saw Carl’s post this rainy morning I still could not believe it. Surely, it’s not September yet, I said to myself and rushed to check the calendar. It may not be September but this doesn’t mean we can’t start early. This makes me very, very happy, because I’ve been choosing my books all year and watched them lovingly, wondering which I should read first. So I sat down to write this post to the sound of Sister of Night by Depeche Mode which is a dark, dark song, and perfect for the occasion.

If you’re new to this, R.I.P. is short for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, a reading event which takes place every year from September 1st to October 31st. During this time you can read anything from these categories:

Mystery.
Suspense.
Thriller.
Dark Fantasy.
Gothic.
Horror.
Supernatural.

You can also watch movies that fall into these categories and there’s even a read-along of “The Haunting of Hill House” by Shirley Jackson hosted by The Estella Society. I’m hoping to join if I find a copy of the book this weekend.
Many thanks to Carl for hosting this event – in its 9th year now, and may it go on for many more – and to Abigail Larson, the artist who created the gorgeous badges.

These are the books I would like to read, plus Frankenstein by Mary Shelley which I found on projectguttenberg.com and so I’ll be reading it on my tablet. I’m probably not going to be able to read them all, considering that two of them are short story collections (and quite chunky, too) but one can only hope.
Now, the question is, which should be first? Any suggestions?
Are you taking part in R.I.P. this year? What are you planning to read?

RIP pic 1

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On the Holloway Road – Andrew Blackman

After reading A Virtual Love last year, I made it one of my New Year’s resolutions to read On the Holloway Road, Andrew Blackman’s first novel who won the Luke Bitmead Award in 2008.

Because it was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, I was a little worried that I might miss something important if I don’t read that one first, but decided to go ahead and read it anyway. Perhaps I’ll read Kerouac’s book one day, but I’m in no hurry.

On the Holloway Road The story follows Jack and Neil, two young men in their twenties who strike a friendship one night in London, on the Holloway Road. Jack lives with his mother and dreams of one day finishing his novel, a complicated story that he had been trying to complete for a while with no success. Neil is a drifter, a free spirit who takes things as they come, whose exuberance and joy for living are mixed with a carefree attitude and little thought to consequences. Neil lives in the now. Jack lives in the shadow of it. Both of them are united by a lack or purpose, of a tangible goal, until they decide to take a road trip in Jack’s car, follow the road, have adventures, see what might happen. But their dream of embracing the spontaneity of the unknown doesn’t quite fit with the regulations of the present. There are rules to be obeyed, and before long Jack breaks a few, which makes him constantly worry about having his driver’s license revoked.

Neil is exciting to be with. His brash actions, loud mouth and exuberant attitude make Jack feel like a pale copy of who he thinks he should be. Neil is the spark, the adventure, the unknown. He is a shooting star, a meteorite burning brightly before crashing to the earth, the flame that burns the moths attracted to its light. He wants something new, something fascinating, something that’s never been tried before, while Jack is just content to tag along in the hope that some of his friend’s enthusiasm for life will rub off on him. He admires Neil but he’s also a little afraid of him. Although he would like to be more excited about things going on around him, he feels he can’t. In a way, it felt like something was holding him back, what that was, I don’t know. Fear perhaps, of standing out too much, of breaking the rules, while trying in his quiet way small acts of rebellion against the system – not owning a cell phone or holding a job.
Over the course of their trip they discuss friendship, work, and that ever present issue, the purpose of life.

As I was reading I was wandering what will happen in the end, how long will the trip last, what revelation will they come to. Will they find a purpose, a solution, a conclusion, a job, maybe Jack will finally catch a break and finish that novel, perhaps even become famous, and will Neil finally quench that anger that seems to be burning inside him, making him restless and volatile? In a way, I dreaded the ending, because I knew my expectations were unrealistic, but I was unable to let go of hope, of something better for the protagonists after their modern day trials. I was not disappointed. The end came crashing, and it was fitting, even though I had hoped for something less heart wrenching. I had hoped that Jack would finally be able to shake that feeling of gloom and do something, anything that would lift him from the pit he seemed to be descending into day by day. I even think he managed to climb up halfway at least when he met Neil, but it didn’t last long. In the end, he was down even deeper.

On the Holloway Road is the perfect name for this adventure of self discovery, not only because that is the way the two protagonists take to get out of the city, but because even though the journey brings about some self discoveries, in the end I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all like the name of the road, hollow.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014

Posted in The Book on The Nightstand | 5 Comments

Candide and Other Writings – Voltaire

Candide I’ve wanted to read this book for ages, and when I saw a copy at a library book sale I immediately grabbed it and added it to my TBR shelf. And because lately I’ve been reading a lot of slim books, I finally picked this one up and started reading. This book contains three stories: Candide, Zadig, and Micromegas, and also an interesting summary on the life and works of Voltaire (real name Francois Marie Arouet), whose rebellious nature and radical philosophical ideas made him famous.

“He never hesitated to use his personal fame to convince, provoke, and inflame where he thought necessary. He contributed greatly to the creation of modern forum of political/moral debate by fostering an environment of inquiry and interpellation at a time when it was extremely dangerous to do so.”

Denounce, without being able to be accused of being an informer; bite, without cruelty; trample, without malice; kill, while maintaining the appearance of the most angelic innocence.

*

The first is the story of Candide, an innocent, well-mannered young man who lives in the castle of the noble Baron of Thundertentrunk in Westphalia and studies philosophy under the tutelage of Pangloss, who used to teach “the science of metaphysico-theologo-cosmologo-noodleology”. That is, he was a firm believer in the idea that there is no effect without a cause and that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds. This idea will follow Candide in all his many adventures, as he is rudely kicked out of the castle for inappropriate behavior towards beautiful miss Cunegund and travels across continents in the hope that one day he will be reunited with her.
Those adventures include a very painful encounter with the Bulgarians, natural disasters, finding unlikely friends in odd places, and killing in the name of love.

While the descriptions and some of those adventures may sound quite brutal, there’s an underlying layer of mockery that prevents the reader from taking things too seriously. Voltaire uses his great talent for satire to talk about religion, war, love, friendship, slavery, and the greed for money, among other things. He places Candide in the most brutal and uncomfortable situations, his only defense and ally his ideas instilled in him by his tutor, Pangloss. There were times when I didn’t know if I should laugh, cry, or be outraged, but it is clear that in this story Voltaire pokes fun at the injustice and corruption of the times.

Candide is just a simple man, neither exceptionally witty nor knowledgeable about the world, and sometimes wonderfully idealistic especially when it comes to love and placing his trust in his friends. The idea that drives him, to be reunited with his love, doesn’t turn out like he expected; in fact, in a vicious twist of fate, the very qualities he admired the most in miss Cunegund are lost and our hero is faced with an uncomfortable decision. But because he is such a positive character, he does what he thinks is honorable and finds contentment in living a simple life.

The whole story has a feeling of Arabian Nights about it, not only because of the astonishing reversals of luck and incredible adventures, but also because of the chapter titles that give a clear idea of what is going to happen. This feeling is even more prevalent in the next story, Zadig, which takes place in Babylon.

Zadig is a rich young man, wise and educated, kind-hearted and good looking, possessor of an array of fine qualities that make him respected and envied by his fellow men. In spite of all his many attributes, he finds himself in some very sticky situations, whether by the hand of envious people or trapped by his own beliefs. He is in turn the adviser of a king, slave, champion of the oppressed, and umpire of philosophical as well as commercial disputes. Still, his great talents are put to the test when he falls in love with queen Astarte, wife of the king, and he is forced to leave the castle for fear of being killed.

Once again Voltaire explores what it means to be human, and how a gifted man whose only purpose is to help others is in turn punished, almost killed, and in the end forced to run for his life. His tribulations seem never ending but one thing Zadig never does is to try and change his nature. In spite of his many misfortunes, he remains true to his own character, even if that almost always seem to turn out badly for him. This is a story similar to that of Candide, but also different. While it follows the same pattern of trials and tribulations the main character has to go through, Zadig is wise and lucky enough to recognize people’s intentions and to save his skin. The ending is a bit brighter this time as well, but the happily ever after doesn’t come easily. From all three stories, this is the most fairy-tale like.

Micromegas, the third and last story, was quite a surprise. Gone are the fairy tale/Arabian Nights influences that seem to heavily influence the first two stories, to be replaced by space. Using science fiction as a background, Voltaire tells the story of two beings – Micromegas, who lives on a planet that revolves around the star Sirius, and a native of Saturn, the Saturnian. They are huge beings by our standards and posses a much longer life span. In their conversations, they explore topics like the senses, colors, and time. They decide to travel together to see other places and they arrive on Earth.

Voltaire describes our planet as seen by the two travel companions. They judge its size and appearance, find it “ill-constructed” and “irregular” and decide that no “people of sense would wish to occupy such a dwelling”. They look for signs of life and can’t seem to find any at first, but when they try harder they discover a ship and try to communicate with the people on board, some of which are philosophers. The exchange that ensues is quite funny.

Under the shelter of philosophy, Voltaire explores once again universal issues – the passage of time, knowledge, wars over the possession of land, the nature of human soul, religion. Man is never satisfied with how much time he has, or how much land he has, or how much knowledge he has, but then neither are the two visitors. In spite their difference in size and life style, the visitors are astonished to discover they have quite a few things in common with the inhabitants of the strange shaped planet. But perhaps the most astonishing thing happens when Micromegas promises to gift them with a rare book that contains “all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things”. I confess I was curious when I got to this part and couldn’t wait to see what was in the book. It was opened in Paris, at the Academy of Sciences, but if you really want to find out what was in it you will have to read the story. All I can say is that it made perfect sense, and the story couldn’t have had a better ending.

This is my first encounter with Voltaire’s work. Behind references to famous philosophers – Locke, Leibnitz, Aristotle, and Malebranche, some of which I knew and some new to me, his work is made accessible by the universal themes he explores. His tone is in turn sarcastic and funny and sometimes biting. He’s not afraid to expose an injustice, punish an evil or poke fun at sensitive topics. His characters are not perfect but their nature, be it simple or wise, is tested to the limits. He sparks witty dialogues that underneath their academic knowledge hide social and political issues valid to this day. He made me wonder. He made me nod in agreement. And he made me realize that time has done nothing to the nature of man, that issues that were discussed and dissected more than two hundred years ago are still fresh today.

I leave you with some of my favorite passages:

“We have more matter than we need,” said he, “the cause of much evil, if evil proceeds from matter; and we have too much mind, if evil proceeds from the mind. Are you aware, for instance, that at this very moment while I am speaking to you, there are a hundred thousand fools of our species who wear hats, slaying a hundred thousand fellow creatures who wear turbans, or being massacred by them, and that over all the earth such practices have been going on from time immemorial?”

*

“How long do you people live?” asked the Sirian.
“Ah! a very short time,” replied the little man of Saturn.
“That is just the way with us,” said the Sirian; “we are always complaining of the shortness of life. This must be a universal law of nature.”

*

…“you see how it is our fate to die almost as soon as we are born; our existence is a point, our duration an instant, our globe an atom. Scarcely have we begun to acquire a little information when death arrives before we can put it to use. For my part, I do not venture to lay any schemes; I feel myself like a drop of water in a boundless ocean. I am ashamed, especially before you, of the absurd figure I make in this universe.”

*

“I have seen mortals far below us, and others as greatly superior; but I have seen none who have not more desires than real wants, and more wants than they can satisfy. I shall some day, perhaps, reach the country where there is lack of nothing, but hitherto no one has been able to give me any positive information about it.”

*

“The dogs, monkeys, and parrots are a thousand times less wretched than we are. The Dutch fetishes who have converted me tell me every Sunday that we are all the children of Adam, blacks and whites alike. I am no genealogist; but, if those preachers say what is true, we are all second cousins. In that case you must admit that relations could not be treated in a more horrible way.”

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in August, 2014

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The Time Keeper – Mitch Albom

The Time Keeper It’s been years since I read Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, but I still remember the book as one of the best memoirs I have come across. Its message of love, life, and acceptance in the face of death had left me in a state of melancholy for days, and having seen his latest novel, The Time Keeper, at a library book sale, I immediately grabbed it and began reading the first pages on the spot. But I didn’t finish it that day. I kept it, like a little treasure, to be savored later, after a chunky book perhaps. Weeks later I picked it up again and this time it didn’t take me long to go through it.

Mixing fantasy with religious elements and real life situations, the novel tells the story of Dor, the first man who began to measure time ever since he was young. From hours to days and months and then years, measuring time with sticks, then water, Dor becomes obsessed, and what started as a hobby slowly takes over his life. When his wife dies, Dor is punished to live his life in solitude, in a cave, haunted by the words of the people who, having perfected the measurement of time, complain of having too much or too little of it. After many lifetimes spent inside the cave, where time has stopped, Dor is sent back among the people to find and save two souls as a way to better understand his creation.

How do you save two people, one who wants to die because of a broken heart, and the other who thinks the future holds the key to a longer life span? How do you tell them that time is precious, that it can’t be turned back, that you have to make the most of it now? How do you tell them that broken hearts can mend and that money can buy so many things but never time? Will Dor succeed in his mission? Will he be able to make two people truly understand the meaning of time and in doing so, understand it himself? Or will he forever be punished to listen to the tormented voices complaining about something they can’t control?

Once again, Albom has tried to explore human emotions in a tale that seems magical and real at the same time. Fast paced, told in snippets that alternate between stories without getting confusing or losing focus, this is a story of time and a reminder that no matter what we do, time will run its course and it can’t be stopped.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in August, 2014

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A writing project, a new favorite author, and The Rats

I have been busy these past couple of months. I finished my first novel (started last year during NaNoWriMo), which made me very happy. The ending eluded me for quite some time but when it came it was perfect and worth the wait. Some things cannot be rushed, but they can’t be left unfinished forever, either. And with November just around the corner, I’m already thinking about novel number two.

I still managed to find enough time to read, even if only for a few minutes every night, though to be honest those minutes ran into an hour or more and there were many times when I looked at my watch to discover with astonishment that midnight had already come and gone. So I became great friends with instant coffee – a double edged sword, because while it served to wake me up in the morning, it also kept me up at night. But I’m not complaining, because I got to read some amazing books. I was planning to wait until September and read them as part of R.I.P., a challenge hosted by Carl from Stainlesssteeldroppings, but then they looked too tempting to wait that long. So I didn’t.

Speaks the Nightbird – Robert McCammon

A historical fiction novel placed in 1699 in The Carolinas, Speaks the Nightbird is a mystery that kept me turning all of its nearly 800 pages in quite a hurry. Matthew Corbett is a young clerk working for Magistrate Woodward. He is twenty years old, sharp of mind, and curious, a trait that will often land him into trouble. But these qualities are essential, for the work that needs to be done in Fount Royal, the town he and Woodward are traveling to, requires a mind able to untangle a case of witchcraft.

Speaks the Nightbird1

Rachel Howarth is a young widow accused of using the dark arts to kill two men, one of them her husband. Witnesses swear to having seen her perform unnatural acts, and the founder of the town wants nothing more than to see her burn at the stake. But in spite of the damning testimonies – as witnesses confess to all having seen the same thing – Matthew finds there’s more to the whole story and he starts investigating on his own, as Woodward falls ill and fights for his life.

The most intriguing part in the book was reading about the people of Fount Royal. It seems that the colonies, with their promise of a new life, had attracted a fair share of people who hoped that by leaving behind their old life, they could hide and forge a new one. The local teacher, the doctor, the traveling preacher and the rat catcher, a young actor, a servant, the smith, they all have their own secrets to protect and as Matthew begins to stir things up and makes connections, he is able to get to the heart of what is truly haunting the fledgling town. He finds treasure in an unexpected place, befriends a slave, travels through dangerous territory and barely escapes with his life on more than one occasion. He meets Indians, is attacked by a giant bear, and learns that truth requires the highest price, which he is willing to pay.
What made him an interesting character was not only his curiosity, but also his need to expose the truth. An orphan, Matthew grew up in an orphanage, and had very few friends. Magistrate Woodward chose him as his apprentice, and the two men had a relationship close to that between a father and a son. Woodward had his secrets, too, and Matthew heard snippets of them at night, when the magistrate was tormented by nightmares.

This was my first Robert McCammon book, and I loved it so much that when I finished reading it I went out and bought the second one. It’s the first in the Matthew Corbett series, with a total of five books released so far, out of the ten book series planned by the author. Two books down, three more to go, and as for the rest I’ll just have to wait patiently. If you’re curious, here’s an excerpt from the author’s website.

Speaks the Nightbird The second book in the series, The Queen of Bedlam, starts in 1702, three years after the first one. Matthew is now working in New York, a town in its infancy, and his employer is Magistrate Powers, a friend of Matthew’s old mentor, Magistrate Woodward.

Murder is haunting the streets of New York, claiming the lives of three respectable citizens: a doctor, a successful businessman, and Matthew’s old enemy, Eben Ausley, the manager of the orphanage where Matthew grew up. Eben’s murder piques Matthew’s curiosity, and once he sets his mind to discover the connection between the victims, there is nothing left to do but get to the truth.

Details from the first book come back now and then, but even so, I think it’s safe to say that you can well enjoy this book even if you haven’t read the first one.
The Masker – as the killer is named – proves to be quite a mystery, but Matthew is up for the challenge. With the help of a few friends, among them Marmaduke Grigsby – the owner of the local newspaper, and his granddaughter, Berry – an ambitious artist in the making, Matthew gets to work. His curiosity attracts the attention of a few notable people, one of them his future employer, Mrs Herrald, who runs an agency specialized in “problem solving”. It’s not long before Matthew discovers that the assignment he’s working on, establishing the identity of a mysterious elderly woman nicknamed “the Queen of Bedlam”, is connected with the Masker’s murders, and once again he’s right in the middle of things. Danger is not far off, and Matthew is yet again forced to use all his wits in order to escape alive.

As in the previous book, McCammon succeeds in setting up an interesting case quite early in the book, and then proceeds to throw doubt upon a few of the characters. Everybody has secrets, and as they slowly surface, it feels like a well constructed web with astonishing ramifications. Who is the woman nicknamed “The Queen”, and why does she always ask for the “King’s reply”? Why is the local reverend standing in front of Madam Polly Blossom’s whorehouse at night, crying? And why is a young and successful lawyer living his life as if in a hurry to get to the end of it? As Matthew begins to understand, he uncovers a plot of astonishing proportions, and makes a deadly enemy. The blood card, a white card with a bloody fingerprint, is left for him at his house, and Matthew knows what that means: a death vow given by Professor Fell, the person whose plans he has managed to ruin in his quest for the truth. And he also knows that the Professor’s threat is the reason why he can’t let people get too close, for fear they might be killed because of him.

I had to admit I liked Speaks the Nightbird better because of its setting and also the shadow of witchcraft under which the events took place. For the longest time I was not sure what to believe, and when the ending was revealed it was so unexpected and at the same time perfectly reasonable.
The Queen of Bedlam felt more like a Sherlock Holmes mystery, which is also fine, but it didn’t have the same impact on me. I would still recommend the both of them. I’m happy to say that Robert McCammon has just become a new favorite author and I’m eager to read more of his books.

The Rats – James Herbert

My first James Herbert novel was The Secret of Crickley Hall, a great story of a haunted house, and since then I’ve made a mental note to read more of Herbert’s work. After seeing this 2014 edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, I decided it was about time to get reacquainted with Herbert’s work.

The Rats
“The Rats” was James Herbert’s first novel, published in 1974. This novel is followed by two sequels, Lair and Domain, and I’m looking forward to reading both of them sometime in the future.

Reading “The Rats” reminded me of the time when I was reading Stephen King’s The Shining. Not since then have I felt so scared, but Herbert’s novel went further and made my skin crawl. The imagery is quite graphic, with detailed descriptions of people being eaten alive by a new species of rats, faster, bigger and apparently more intelligent than their ordinary cousins, the sewer rats. Herbert gives enough details about each of the victims to make them sympathetic to the reader, but after a few gruesome deaths I started to wonder if this was ever going to be more than an endless description of rat feast.

Enters Harris, a young teacher at a local high school, who takes one of his students to the hospital after the boy gets bitten by a rat. The boy dies the next day, and as more victims arrive at the hospital and then die a painful death, the city officials try to get to the source of the problem. Harris becomes involved in the operation, and gets to see the huge rats for himself while trying to protect the students from a rat invasion. It all sounds awful, doesn’t it? At just under 200 pages, the book is packed with enough action and detail to satisfy the appetite of any horror fan. I loved it.

The ending is a promise of more gruesome things to come, and I look forward to discovering them. My only regret is that there wasn’t a book with all three novels in it. That would have made me one very happy horror fan.

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