Sunday, December 19, 2010

Review: Blaze of Glory

Title: Blaze of Glory
Author: Sheryl Nantus
Publisher: Samhain Publishing, Ltd. 2010

Jo Tanis, better known to millions of viewers around the world as Surf, is a superhero who can control electromagnetic waves to devastating effect. Partnered with Mike, whose hulking robotic suit lends him superhuman strength, they fight against super villains. There’s only one problem. It’s all lies.

Controlled by the sinister Agency, all the supers’ fights are rigged, and when the proverbial paw-paw really hits the fan with the arrival of aliens, humanity is unprepared to deal with the hostile attack. It’s up to Jo and a motley team of B-list supers to get down and dirty and save the day.

Having encountered Nantus before with her novel What God and Cats Know, I looked forward to her latest offering and wasn’t disappointed. Little quirks, like her penchant for the ubiquitous Brown Betty teapots and a fluffy white cat somewhere in the narrative make me smile, but what makes the story is this author’s characterisation.

Jo isn’t some twenty-something waiflet, and certainly has her job cut out for her when she inadvertently takes on the role of wrangling a mismatched group of erstwhile villains, odd couples and individuals. Superheroes many of the cast may be, but Nantus shows us their human side and also their fragility, so I’m happy to report, no Mary Sues or Marty Stus here unless we consider our freaky alien invaders.

If super heroes and witty exchanges are your cup of tea—and be warned, there’s plenty of tea-drinking going on behind the scenes—then I reckon this novel pushes all the right buttons. Oh, after some mention of alien ships resembling giant avocados hovering menacingly above major global cities. This is a fast-paced novel packed full of punches that has a storyline that could probably show some Hollywood producers a thing or two about what constitutes a satisfying superhero tale. Nantus has done good here and I’m keen to see what else she’ll be bringing to the table in the future.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tea with Karen Michelle Nutt

Today Toad welcomes author, Karen Michelle Nutt to her corner for a cuppa tea and a bit of chit-chat.

Welcome, Karen!

Tell us about the first genre fiction novel you read that has made a lasting impression on you... and why.

Baby Island by Carol Ryrie Brink. I read it when I was about nine years old. From page one, I was swept away. Baby Island is the story of two young sisters, Jean and Mary, who were on their way to join their father in Australia, but end up marooned on an island with four babies. How they manage to survive is both fun and charming in this engaging story. It was the first time a book thoroughly captivated me. I couldn’t wait to read another book and enter another world created by an author. My next pick was a paranormal, The Ghost of Dibble Hollow by May Nickerson Wallace and my love for the genre has never waned. I still have these two books on my bookshelf.

Out of all your characters, is there one who is especially dear to you?

I have to choose one? LOL! Okay, it would have to be Dougray from Lost in the Mist of Time. He has a wonderful sense of humor and I love that in a man.

If you could spend a day in his/her company, what would you plan to do?

I would meet Dougray for lunch at the The Long Dock restaurant that overlooks the Cliff of Mohr (Ireland.) I’ll order the fresh quiche and he’ll order the smoked fish. For dessert we’ll have the chocolate and pecan brownies. I’d say we’d share, but Dougray loves his sweets. Heck, what am I saying, so do I. After lunch, we’ll do a little exploring. One can see the Aran Islands, Galway Bay and the mountains in Conemara. The view is spectacular!

What are of your latest release's outstanding qualities and why should people read this story?

Creighton Manor - The story is a spellbinding time travel voyage, filled with passionate seduction, shocking deceit and grand adventure of discovery.

Where did you have your last holiday and did anything outstanding inspire your writing?

How about a virtual holiday? I came across a site for Bodie, a ghost town in California, and it brought back fond memories of my adventures with my cousin there. We did a little behind-the-scenes exploring. At the time, we didn’t realize we shouldn’t be in those areas. Oops, but what a wonderful time we had. The reminiscing had me thinking about a “steampunk” time travel. It’s a WIP right now.

If you were given three wishes, what would they be?

1. Enough time in the day to write would be wonderful.
2. Someone to clean my house. lol
3. The ability to time travel.

Useful links:

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tea with Sonya Clark

Welcome to urban fantasy author Sonya Clark, who graces Toad's Corner this week. Sonya's debut novella, Bring on the Night, introduces readers to her world of vampires in werewolves, but Mojo Queen is coming soon, bringing an intriguing glimpse into the doings of magic practitioners in a contemporary Southern setting. This is an author who pushes all of Toad's buttons, in all the right places. **grins**

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Tell us a bit more about your setting for your debut novella, Bring on the Night, and does this tie in with your novel Mojo Queen in any way?

Bring on the Night is set in a fictional town called Concord. Most of the action takes place in the rougher part of town on the waterfront. What I envisioned was a sort of semi-abandoned industrial area like what you’d find in a city with a failing economy. All the blue-collar middle class jobs are gone, and what’s left is poverty and predators. The setting, along with many other aspects of the story, was very noir-inspired.

Bring on the Night and Mojo Queen are unrelated stories, but they do have something in common: people living outside the bounds of normal society, trying to do the right thing and help others.

Obviously you love vampires. How are yours different from the standard vampiric themes gadding about in the media today?

In Bring on the Night vampire Jessie is not afraid to drink straight from the tap, so to speak. She’s sexy and flirty but she’s there to break heads, not fall in love. With vampire Daniel in Mojo Queen, I made him basically a sidekick just because I wanted a vampire that wasn’t a main character. Usually vamps get the headlining role. Neither of them are broody, love-obsessed, or at all interested in passing themselves off as high school kids. I want to write vampire-free stories too but at some point I know I have to write something where the vampires are evil. Sometimes you just have to let monsters be monsters.

Which one of your characters do you resonate with the most, and why?

In Bring on the Night it would probably be Brandon, the curious journalist who discovers vampires are real and at one point asks Jessie to show him her fangs. I’d probably do something really stupid like that in a similar situation, let curiosity overrule fear and good sense. In Mojo Queen it’s the main character, Roxanne Mathis. Without really thinking it through I gave her my love of music and it changed the character. You look at the world through the lens of what you’re passionate about, because that’s what you’ve studied, even if informally. With a love of music being so much a part of who I am, it’s almost impossible to keep it out of anything I write. So far she’s the character that has been the most informed by that.

What are the top three movies you'd have in your collection and what is it about them that makes you revisit them?

I love Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies – love the intensity of them, love how they took what is really a crazy ridiculous idea (vigilante in a bat suit!) and made it fit with the world we live in now. Especially Dark Knight – the metaphors at work in that movie alone are dissertation-worthy.

The Princess Bride is like an old friend. There are few situations in life that a quote from that movie would not be relevant to.

There’s not been a movie vampire I really loved yet, but I have high hopes for Dark Shadows. I’ve been waiting for Johnny Depp to play a vampire since I was fifteen!

Who is your all-time favourite villain, and why?

I’m having a hard time thinking of a villain that didn’t go through some sort of redemptive story arc. If I can count villains like that, I have to go with Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I always loved how he thoroughly embraced being a vampire, even after he changed from villain to anti-hero.

Care to spill the beans with regard to your works in progress?

My next novel-length work will be a sequel to Mojo Queen, tentatively titled Red House. MQ is set in Nashville, which was hit by catastrophic flooding this past May. In deciding whether or not I wanted to deal with that in a fictional setting, I thought about what it might do to have that kind of energy unleashed through the spiritual plane. People are uprooted when a natural disaster strikes. What happens to the spirits that haunt a place when that place has been smashed by the enormous energy of a flood? I’ve got some ideas about that, and I’m doing some research about ghost stories from this area as well as other major floods, plus some other things.

I always have other projects going on, too, for fun or to experiment. I’ve found that when I challenge myself, even if I fail it somehow manages to push my writing forward. So that’s cool.

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Useful links:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Whispering Bones: an excerpt

Today Toad welcomes horror author Rita Vetere to her corner, to share an excerpt from her recently released Whispering Bones (Lyrical Press). Rita's writing offers the classic retro horror feel evident in such classics as The Omen, Rosemary's Baby and their ilk. Her characters are real, three-dimensional people who go through harrowing experiences. I'm happy to say this is not a book you read late at night when it's storming outside. Or you could... **grins**

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“Let’s get on with it. It’s the last load. I want to get back.”

The men began emptying the cart of its gruesome cargo, jostling her. Terrified, she listened to the sickening thuds as corpses were thrown into the pit, colliding with the bodies already there. Suddenly, shockingly, Isabella was lifted up. “No... No!” She felt herself falling. Then, the blinding pain of impact as she landed among the dead.

The stench, the slimy feel of rotten flesh... Death surrounded her. More bodies landed beside her, on top of her. Panicked, she screamed, “Take me to the Lazaretto... please! It cannot be far, I beg you.”

The cloaked and masked monster towering above the pit said as he grabbed a shovel, “There is no place at the Lazaretto for the sick any longer. It already overflows with the dead and dying. You have been brought to Poveglia.”

Isabella moaned in despair. Poveglia was a disposal site, nothing more.

The other man spoke. “Tomaso... We could try on our way back to the mainland. Perhaps the Lazaretto will take her. She is but a child—”

“Shut up. I’ve no intention of stopping there, only to be turned away. Then what? Return here to do what we should have done in the first place? No. Look at her. She is already dead.”

The cruel words struck Isabella like stones. Although close to death, a smouldering rage began to build inside her. She looked up at the pizzicamorti, leaning on their shovels at the pit’s edge. Her gaze slid back and forth between the two men and came to rest on the dark form of the man who had refused to help her.

In that moment, something happened.

Her delirious mind cleared. For a split second, Isabella perceived her situation with complete lucidity. She could surrender herself to God’s will. Accept her fate, knowing her immortal soul would soon be reunited with Mamma and Papa in the afterlife. Or she could choose another, darker path—one which had opened before her as a result of this outrage. Isabella heard a sinister whisper. Take revenge. The callous man showed no mercy, no remorse for what he was about to do. She could go unforgiving into the darkness, her soul be damned.

Perhaps if the evil man had not chosen that exact moment to fill his spade and send a shower of dirt over her; perhaps if he had not acted at that precise second, Isabella might have followed the path of light. Perhaps. But the man made his choice and Isabella made hers. She opened and allowed the dark entity which had spoken to her to slither inside.

When the earth struck her open sores, Isabella’s rage exploded. A powerful force surged in her, a roiling, dark energy that breathed life into her once again. Lifting her head, she spoke directly to the man, the one called Tomaso, who had condemned her to be buried alive.

“A curse on you...and on your house... You will be made to pay for this deed... With a death worse than that which you have decreed for me... All of you. Until the very last...perishes.”

Isabella fell back onto her deathbed. The knowledge dawned that she had only been a vessel for the dark power which had risen in her, causing her to speak the words. She found she did not care. A cold satisfaction took hold of her when she saw the masked man hesitate before lifting his spade again. For a moment, instead of the stink of corpses surrounding her, she smelled only his fear. Suddenly, spade after spade of earth rained down on her as the man began to rapidly shovel. He carried out his execution, cursing as he buried Isabella alive.

Isabella could no longer move. Layer after layer of dirt covered her. It entered her nostrils when she tried to breath. It covered her open eyes, blinding her. Earth filled her mouth. It tasted like death, but her heart was cold now and she welcomed it.

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tea with John Everson

John and I have known of each other since the mid-naughties (I think that’s what they call that era) and he’s been putting out dark, evocative horror for quite some time. Toad would like to thank John for sparking some time out of his busy schedule to drop by her corner.

Tell us about the day you knew you had to start writing.

I don't think I could narrow it down to a "day"...but I've known since I was in grade school that I was going to be a "writer" of some kind. As a kid, I was a voracious reader (mostly of classic SF and fantasy) and I remember back in 3rd or 4th grade trying to write a "space opera" short story along the lines of Isaac Asimov's galactic foundation. When I went to high school, I worked as an editor of the student newspaper, writing music reviews and an opinions column, as well as news. That paper was where my very first piece of fiction appeared, a short vignette about a man who commits suicide. In hindsight, I wonder if that subject focus worried my teachers! I knew in high school that I was going to major in journalism, which I did at the University of Illinois, and while I was there, I wrote some short fiction for a creative writing class, along with poetry and song lyrics. And I worked almost every day there at the student newspaper--again doing both feature interviews/reviews and news. I always liked the more colorful writing best.

I didn't start trying to sell my fiction until a couple years after I graduated college, but I knew that I'd make my living at writing early on. My first job out of college was at a community newspaper. Later, I went on to pay the mortgage by working as an editor at a music magazine, and then for a medical trade publication. Along the way while working those "dayjobs" I wrote an increasing amount of dark fantasy/horror fiction, and slowly racked up publication credits for short stories until my first book-length collection of short fiction, Cage of Bones & Other Deadly Obsessions, was published by Delirium Books in 2000.

What is your all-time scariest movie, and why?

I think Alien has to rank in the top five there. It has the perfect balance of dark mood and claustrophobia mixed with the terror of a malevolent unknown. The "monster" is both intelligent and deadly and the environment is dark and enclosed, as the crew are all trapped on a spaceship with the creature. The mystery of what the alien wants to do with the bodies of the crew helps make the movie more than simply a cat-and-mouse kill game. It's really one of the best horror films ever made. More recently, I've liked the intensity of French films like High Tension and Martyrs. The endings of both films either resonate or alienate the viewer, but the naked intensity of both keep you gripping the cushions on the couch throughout. Or, at least, they did me!

Do the things you write about scare you and, if so, are there bits of text where you had to sit back and say, "Oh my god, what have I let loose?"

The events that I write about don't scare me per se...because I'm in control of them. So from that perspective, I'm not afraid or threatened by what I write. I don't "freak myself out" because I don't really believe in my heart that a demon is going to come reaching out of the cracks in the wall at any of the hotels I stay in, as one does in my novel Sacrifice. That said, the "themes" that I write about definitely draw from my fears. In my new novel, Siren, which is out this month from Leisure Books, the lead character is a man named Evan, who is an aquaphobe. Evan's back-story is that he was unable to save his son from drowning due to his phobia of the water, and at the start of the novel he is essentially "the walking dead", just going through the motions of life while being eaten alive from the guilt of watching his son die. I am not an aquaphobe--I love the water!--but since I finished my first two novels, Covenant and Sacrifice, I became a parent. And one of the most horrible feelings that I think every parent has is the fear that you can't protect your child from the bad things in the world. That's a "paralysis" of sorts along the same lines as Evan's aquaphobia. You simply can't save your children from everything they are likely to face in their lives. That's one of the most frightening feelings you can have, I think.

Do you have any amusing incidents that have occurred at book signings?

One thing I've learned over the past couple years is that bookstores are frequently frequented by very...interesting...characters! I have done a couple dozen book signings for each of my three previous novels, and in almost every store I end up meeting someone who is memorable...frequently because of the odd things I learn from them. I've had a man in an electric orange jumpsuit scream at me because he had lost relatives to a serial killer (in reaction to my novel Sacrifice) and I've gotten a lecture from a bag lady about sexual abuse and misogyny (in reaction to hearing the premise behind my novel The 13th). I've had a man tell me about how his wife was "hit on" by Adolf Hitler. In Nashville, I met an enlisted man in uniform who produced a Chinese fighting star from a pocket and proceeded to tell me about a number of ways that you could kill a man. And once, in Cincinnati, I had to laugh when a woman's child hit the alarm button on the escalator near my signing table and froze the entire escalator system for a large Barnes & Noble store.

When you write horror, what is the most important factor contributing to an authentic sense of the genre?

The most important factor in horror is to capture the emotion of fear. Regardless of whether the horror story deals with vampires, zombies, werewolves, a serial killer, a malicious demon or a creeping deadly virus...the common thread of them all is the fear that the characters have of the monstrous challenge they need to overcome. Horror is about our fear of the unknown and its potentially terminal impact on us. If you can capture that fear in your character and translate it to the reader effectively, you've written a good horror story.

Tell us more about Siren. Who will enjoy this novel?

I think anyone who's ever felt a deep pain, or been obsessed by desire will appreciate this novel. Siren, as I said, follows Evan, an aquaphobe, who moves from a sort of "living death" to reclaiming his life thanks to the influence of a true Siren. Ligeia, the sexy creature who lures him into the water for the first time in his life and away from his wife, also re-awakens Evan to the pieces left of his life that he still values. But when he comes to his senses and tries to escape from Ligeia's embrace, well...a woman scorned is bad. A Siren scorned is mythologically bad.

Useful links.

I have a website and blog at, where information on all my fiction, artwork and music is available. You can also sign up for my monthly e-newsletter there, at

To order most of my books, take a look at my page on at:

To find some of my rarer small press releases, from e-books of my short fiction collections to some of my rare hardcovers, check out the "John Everson" section at The Horror Mall:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Carol Hone and Edge of Humanity

Edge of Humanity is a very special story. Blending steampunk elements such airships and a fascinating culture of bioengineering, Carol Hone brings a detailed milieu to life. Here quagga (a now not-quite-extinct form of zebra) are useful pack animals, dodos have been domesticated, ghosts can be used for ammunition, and magic and science have fused into some remarkable hybrid technologies. Not quite fantasy and not quite science fiction, Hone’s setting is a plunge into a world where surprises lurk around every turn and nothing is quite what it seems.

Carol, thank you for stopping by Toad’s Corner to share a little of your magic.

Tell us about Kara and the origins of Edge of Humanity.

Edge of Humanity came about because I wanted to use the world I’d already developed in a novella-length story. This world has a curious and possibly lunatic mix of pseudo-sciences like acupuncture and herbology along with ghosts and trinketology—my invented pet favourite. I threw them into a steampunkish background, stirred and stomped on the mixture, then simmered it for a while.

Kara, the female protagonist in Edge of Humanity, was an adventure in writing a character who is not quite who she thinks she is, or it can be hoped, who the reader thinks she is. She became the somewhat unreliable narrator of a story within the story, though these two strands eventually merge into one another. I was drawn to the idea of the mind being a foreign land that no one ever sees in exactly the same light.

Along the rocky path to writing this, I learned a lot about the process of insinuating hints and clues into a story so that they can combine and deliver that “aha!” feeling when the answers click into place. By the time I reached the ending I was very deep into Kara’s character and found it both cathartic and simple to write. A warning here—though I would call this a romance adventure, don’t expect this to be a standard romance. I mostly wanted to have a go at turning the reader’s mind into a pretzel. Pretzels, come to think of it, do a fair imitation of that mind-numbing construction, the Mobius strip. Plus you can eat them.

Your setting borrows not only from fantasy but a healthy dose of SF. How did you realise your biomechanical mages?

I loved the idea of combining a technological device with some organic magic. Hence the biomechanical mages, who I’ve termed trinketologists, can take ingredients such as branches, metal objects, rock, jewels and so on and turn them into a device that will function for the lifetime of the bio-mage who created it. To supply the magical energy required to run these devices they harvest the animus of living things, mostly from animals, like the songster beetle in Edge of Humanity, but also sometimes from plants.

One character in the story has a coveted long gun that is a fusion of metal and plant. This weapon fires the rare gheist ammunition, which is derived from the ectoplasm of ghosts. Being hit by this ammunition either kills in a spectacular fashion, or causes insanity. It also begs the question as to how society would regard and use something this good at killing if it required the use of a ghost that might once have been a close relative. I like that sort of moral question coming up as the result of a world device.

You write about extinct creatures. Why quaggas and dodos? How do you give them the breath of life?

Oh, I had a terribly logical reason for putting them in—because I wanted to. Sorry, but dodos are sorely neglected in adult fiction, and so are those gorgeous zebras, the quaggas. Unfortunately for the dodos they ended up as the equivalent of chickens and so tend to be seen on the end of a kebab stick. The quaggas made a lovely pack animal. The stripes are to die for. I guess I also did have a notion of drawing attention to the tremendous ability of humanity to drive species to extinction.

Describe your writing process. Do you plot or do the words just flow?

I do a combination of both. I plot the major events as much as I seem to need to. I generally have a good idea of the main characters and a visual idea of the finale or a scene close to it in my head. Also I sort out the background and an overlying reason for writing the story, and then I go for it. If I get bogged down at any point I start plotting in more detail. I like to throw in things as I write that have the potential to twist the plot into different directions. Sometimes they get used in the story, other times not.

The fun times are when something links to something else in an unexpected way. Or you get stuck in a cul-de-sac and suddenly one of those weird plot thingies turns into a vital ingredient that sets the plot churning over again.

Who are some of the up-and-coming authors worth looking out for? And your all-time established favourites?

Old favorites range from the very old like Robert Heinlein and Zelazny and TH White to recent YA authors Philip Reeves and Phillip Pullman or the urban fantasies of Karen Chance. I’m also keen on Emma Bull, who I’m reading right now, as War for the Oaks is so yummily well written.

Care to share a bit about your works in progress?

I’ve got a steampunk universe that’s in the early stages. Tentatively titled, Mia, post-apocalyptic and I’d like to plonk it into the middle of the Pangea Ultima map when all the continents get squashed together, though it’s not likely humanity will still be around by then. My favourite quirk with that one should be my frankenstructs, a sort of frankensteinian clone that’s used by one of the nations as either cannon fodder or slaves.

I also have Needle Rain going through the beta reading phase, and it’s set in the same world as Edge of Humanity. It’s of far larger scope and I get to run a lot more of my nifty concepts though the story. Like my Immolators who are elite warriors created by Needle Masters who use a magical type of acupuncture. The bio-mechanical magic makes an appearance, of course, and I play around with the side effects of my female protagonist being over-dosed on needles and thus susceptible to possession by ghosts.

Magience, my first novel where I used the world of Edge of Humanity should, it can be hoped contracted and released within the next year or so, and is currently under consideration with an editor.

Useful links:

The Critters Workshop:

Carol’s website:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tea with Sara-Jayne Townsend

This week Toad had tea with author Sara Townsend, who was happy to share a little about her experiences at writing cons.

Tell us more about some of the conventions you’ve attended.

There’s a difference between ‘conventions’ and ‘conferences’ and I’ve attended enough of both to be able to tell the difference. Conventions usually feature panels, where a group of people discuss a topic. Conferences have talks―one person discusses a topic, and it tends to be a bit more structured. People will often dress up in costumes for conventions―this doesn’t happen at conferences.

Conventions I attend regularly include FantasyCon and EasterCon. FantasyCon is the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society and is usually in September. “Fantasy” in this case tends to embrace the genres of dark fantasy, horror and SF, as well as more traditional fantasy. EasterCon, also known as Odyssey, is another annual con, specialising in SF (film, TV and books) and is generally held somewhere in the UK over the Easter Weekend (hence the name).

This year was my first year attending World Horror Con, which is hosted by the Horror Writers’ Association and is generally in North America, but this year was in Brighton. I also regularly attend the Winchester Writers’ Conference, held in June every year at Winchester University, and the St Hilda’s Crime & Mystery Conference, held in Oxford in the summer. The latter two involve staying in student dorms, which can be quite an adventure in itself―trotting down the corridor in your pyjamas to the toilet block is a whole different experience when you’re over 30, than when you’re an 18-year-old student.

Did you get to see any of your favourite authors? If so, who, and what was especially memorable about their presentations?

As a crime fan, I particularly like the St Hilda’s Conference, because it’s quite a small conference and you get pretty up-close and personal with a lot of crime writers. Val McDermid is a regular speaker at St Hilda’s, and her talks are always very entertaining. She has a lot of time for new writers too.

PD James did a particularly interesting talk at St Hilda’s recently, in which she talked about a writer selling film rights, and the difficulties of converting a book to a film. I got the opportunity to talk to her afterwards, about the film adaptation of her story Children of Men. She felt the film version was very different from her story, but she enjoyed the film, and she said she would rather have a good film that was different from her story, than a bad film that was faithful to the original.

Do you have any amusing anecdotes relating to conventions that you’d like to share?

Not so much amusing but I have a couple of inspiring stories I’d like to share with you.
My contract with Lyrical Press arrived just a couple of days before I left for the St Hilda’s Mystery Conference last year. I was therefore still deciding whether it was the right thing for me. My dreams of publication had always involved print copies of my book and signing sessions, and I knew that signing up with LPI would involve electronic publication with no guarantee of a print book, so I was still considering whether they were the right publisher for me.

That first evening at St Hilda’s I happened to find myself, quite by chance, sitting next to a literary agent at dinner. This particular agent I had met before, and in fact she has rejected two of my novels, including Suffer the Children. But in spite of that she had encouraging things to say about both, and is a lovely person, and I don’t bear her any grudges. Over dinner I told her about the contract I’d been offered and asked her what her professional view was on this. She encouraged me to go for it, relaying her view that e-publishing was going to become big business over the next few years and all publishers were going to have to find a way of working with it, as e-books were here to stay. Encouraged by her opinion, when I returned home from the conference I signed the contract.

I have another story about the first year I attended the Winchester Writer’s Conference. I had arranged to meet with two agents for my one-to-one pitch meetings, and for my third meeting, which had to be with someone other than an agent or editor, I chose Sally Spedding, who as a writer of crime and supernatural novels I thought might be able to offer me some helpful advice.
The two agent appointments were first, and I pitched my recently-finished crime novel to them. Although they both offered helpful comments on how I could improve, they both felt the novel wasn’t yet saleable, and I came away feeling somewhat deflated. But then I had my appointment with Sally, who had read the first chapter of my crime novel, Death Scene, and she said it was the best thing she’d read all weekend, I had talent and I had an idea worth sticking with. My meeting with Sally made my weekend. I have stayed in contact with her since then, and she has continued to be extremely supportive and encouraging. I came out of the agent appointments thinking I should just shelve the book and work on something new, but after meeting Sally I was encouraged to start sending it out again.

I tell these stories because sometimes just one person you meet at a con can change your future.

As an author, what do you think is the most important aspect of attending a convention?

The most important thing is to not be afraid of talking to people. The only way to meet people at conventions is to go up and introduce yourself. People are generally friendly and everyone wears name badges, so it’s easy to spot people that you think you might like to meet. The best place to meet people is in the bar. So don’t be shy. If you see an author whose books you really like, go and tell them so. Another good conversation opener is approaching someone you saw on a panel―perhaps they made a point that you thought was a particularly good one. When you’re an unpublished writer you are sometimes tempted to put successful writers up on pedestals, but in reality all writers are the same, and we all like talking to someone who’s got intelligent or encouraging things to say about our writing.

You should also not be afraid of going by yourself. Plenty of people go to cons alone, and everyone’s looking for someone to talk to. If your worst fear is that you’ll stand all by yourself all evening, find someone else who also looks a bit lost and go and talk to them. Another good place to meet people at cons is at meal times, especially if you’re staying in the con hotel. Some of the most interesting conversations at cons happen over breakfast.

If you’re a writer with a book coming out, make sure you don’t go anywhere convention-related without your business cards or promotional material about your book. Whenever you chat to anyone, you should give them a business card. I learned this the hard way at World Horror Con. We arrived on Friday night, dumped our stuff in the room, and headed out to the bar. I then found myself talking to all manner of interesting people and my business cards were back in the hotel room.

There are usually book launches at cons. Try and get to as many as you can, even if they are for writers you are not familiar with. You never know who else you will meet there, and it’s worth investing in a new author. They might get the opportunity to return the favour one day and buy your book.

Are there any conventions you think fit the bill as “The top conventions to attend before you die?”

It really depends on what you want to get out of them. A convention geared towards your particular genre as a writer, such as World Horror Con for horror writers and Easter Con for SF writers can be invaluable, and everyone writing in the genre should attend at least one.
I would recommend the Winchester Writers’ Conference for anyone starting out in their writing career, or who is beginning to pitch their novel, because it’s the best place to meet agents or editors there. I can’t really speak for any of the US writer-orientated Cons. I know there are a lot of them, but I’ve only attended UK ones.

Some conventions, however, are just geared towards fans, and only geeky fan girls (or boys) will get anything out of them. Personally speaking, as a die-hard Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, I would very much like to attend at least one Buffy Con before I die.
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Sara-Jayne Townsend writes horror and crime fiction. Whichever genre she writes in, somebody always dies in a horrible way. By day, she works as a personal assistant at a medical college. By night, she kills people off in her stories.

She is a UK-based writer, living in Surrey with her guitarist husband and two cats, but spent most of the 1980s living in Canada after her family emigrated there.
Her first novel, Suffer the Children, was released by Lyrical Press, Inc as an e-book this year.

She is founder and chair person of the T Party Writers’ Group, the longest-running writing group in London specialising in genre fiction.

Her website can be found at:

You can also catch up with her ramblings on books, writing and commuting life on her blog, at

Sunday, September 12, 2010

When it Mattered

My eyes opened in the pre-dawn darkness and I reached out, surprised that you weren’t there. Then I remembered.

I felt my way through the house to the back yard and lifted my face to the black sky. I started a deep breath but my throat refused the grit and miasma.

I closed my eyes and stretched my arms wide. I whispered, “I’m ready,” and stood motionless until my shoulders ached and my arms collapsed against my sides.

I went inside, washed with cold water, dressed by candle light, and left for the office.

I lingered in the driveway to watch the sunrise. The same dust that hid the stars now threw the morning’s first light across the horizon in blazing splashes of vibrant orange and red. When the last blush turned gray I hurried off to work. The few vehicles on the freeway were heading the opposite direction, out of the city.

The skyline wasn’t the one you knew. Many buildings were shattered, others stood untouched. Rubble and derelict cars littered the streets. The few people still downtown stared at, then through me, their blank faces and tattered clothes gray with dust.

My building was covered in dust and ash, but intact.

I drove down into the parking garage and felt my way through the dark to the stairwell. When I got to my office I was winded from the long climb. I averted my eyes from the silver frame on my desk to avoid your smile. My fingers glided over my desk and chair, absorbing warmth from the hand-rubbed mahogany, caressing the soft leather. As the familiar furnishings enveloped me, I reflexively touched the computer’s power switch. No hum, no light, no messages to read. But I knew that.

I pulled hard copies from the filing cabinets. I read reports, tallied invoices and cross checked spreadsheets; the company was thriving when the world died.

At 11:30 I took a bottle of water and a peanut butter sandwich from my briefcase and started back toward the stairs, past gray cubicles with black nameplates that stood in rows like headstones.

I descended, guided by the cool railing, until my footsteps echoed off the marble walls of the lobby.

The statue in the parkthe one you liked with the woman and the birdswas still there, but the horse and rider had fallen. I chewed the taste out of my bread, staring without interest at a pile of refuse on a bench until dark eyes peered out. I offered the remainder of my sandwich and water. Two boney hands stretched out, slowly, as if hoping that I would change my mind and take the food away. When I persisted, an irresolute grip enclosed the offering. I waited until muffled sounds of eating seeped out of the newspapers and gray-brown rags. No words expected, none given.

By the time my watch read 12:32 I was back at my desk, pulling hard-copies, reading reports, tallying invoices and cross-checking spreadsheets.

I worked until my vision blurred, then groped my way past the workstation-graveyard down the stairwell to the parking garage. I started my car and checked the fuel: enough to get me home and back for the rest of the week, or perhaps the rest of my life.

On my first day with the company I vowed that someday I would have a top floor office. Sixteen years, two months, and three weeks later I made CFO. Did you count the days too? I think you did, but for different reasons.

I wish I’d missed you when it mattered.

Back in our kitchen, I turned from the missing wall and listened to cereal crackle as water poured over it.

I imagined Rascal dancing on his hind legs. I could see him whirling, eyes sparkling, pink tongue flicking in and out with his happy panting. Then I remembered that his body was with yours somewhere in the rubble that used to be our bedroom.

I never believed that the meteor storms would come. I would have been home with you instead of working late the night our home was cut in half. I wanted the corner office with a view of the park.

I went outside and closed my eyes, stretched my arms wide, whispered, “I’m ready,” and stood motionless until my shoulders ached and my arms collapsed against my sides.

I’m ready.

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Useful links:

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Jess Harris is a writer who is not quite ready to give up his day job as a US Army officer. He’s been published in, among others. He is a member of MinnSpec Writers’ Network, MN8 Novelists’ Retreat, founder of SoFriedSpecFic, and adjunct member (strap-hanger) of SA-based Adamaster Writer’s Guild.

He writes dark science fiction, urban fantasy alternate history, high fantasy with practically no magic, “literary crime fiction” (whatever that means) and humorous horror. His biggest challenge is usually deciding what genre a particular piece falls into.

Go figure.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Pamela Hearon and The Timestone Key

This week Toad welcomes Pamela Hearon, author of The Timestone Key, to her corner for a cuppa tea and a quick chat.

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Tell me about the blinding moment of realization that led to you realizing you wanted to be an author.

Well, when I was three years old…J No kidding, I don’t ever remember not wanting to be an author. My mom still has poems I wrote her as soon as I could write and understood the concept. I’ve always loved words. I love languages and etymology, can be absorbed by a thesaurus or a dictionary. My dad is a bit of a writer, and I believe the passion was in my blood at birth.

What sparked your concept for The Timestone Key and how did you set about writing it?

I’ve read King Arthur stories all my life. I can never get enough of them. So, a few years ago, I planned a trip with my husband during which we would drive around England, going from one Arthurian site to another. An idea germinated in my mind on the first day. By the time we left, I had a full-blown story. When we got home, I started putting it on paper, and six months later, I had a rough draft. It was dreadful, but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought it was fabulous! A gazillion rewrites later, it was ready for publication.

Who will enjoy reading The Timestone Key and what are the underlying themes running through the work?

The underlying themes are “follow your heart”, and “you must be happy with yourself before you can be happy with anyone else”. This story will appeal to readers of romance, fantasy, and lovers of King Arthur stories. But the latter should be forewarned—I give my own twist to the legends!

What is the most challenging thing about being an author?

Hands down, finding time to write. Life doesn’t stop for me to get my ideas down on paper. Sometimes, I find myself snatching bits of time from here and there, but I think about the next scene all the time. My mind is always on point!

Who is your most influential author, which work of theirs do you keep returning to and why?

I know it’s a strange combination, but I idolize Jennifer Crusie and Diana Gabaldon. I try to think out of the box like Crusie (Bet Me) but try to use a flowing, narrative style like Gabaldon when description is called for (Outlander). Another huge influence is my critique partner, Kimberly Lang. She’s taught me things about the romance genre I never picked up as a reader.

Do you have any advice for people considering writing their first novel?

Just do it. Don’t be daunted by rules or word length or getting published. Show yourself you can get that first story down on paper. After that, you’ll either be fed up with it or hooked. Then, on the rewrites, you can worry about the rules, word length, and getting published J

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Pamela Hearon believes in magic. Since childhood, her favorite stories have been those that go beyond what can be explained and plunge her into the world of the inexplicable. But now she doesn’t just enjoy the magical stories of others; now she creates her own. And through the years she’s grown to understand that magic doesn’t limit itself to a stone releasing a sword. It also encompasses a woman’s heart opening to love.

Because nothing could be more magical than a flower growing from a seed or a comet’s tail stretching across the sky, Pamela enjoys gardening by day and star-gazing by night.

A Southern girl at heart, she now lives in the Midwest with her husband, her real-life hero who captivates her with his own special magic.

Visit Pamela on her website at or email her at

The Timestone Key can be found at

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Recommended Read: Steel in the Morning

Toad would like to recommend this excellent free read by author DJ Cockburn, who has mastered the art of story-telling. Yes, it's not quite within the genres she's promoting but reckons this one is just so absolutely fabulous you shouldn't miss it.

In short, this tale takes readers into the mind of an expert sword-master, one Le Méridien. To say anything other than "misty morning duels" is to give far too much away. Toad enjoyed this yarn very much.

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If you'd like to keep up to date with Toad's antics, and would be happy to receive monthly updates, feel free to sign up here:!/group.php?gid=106836496003074&ref=search&sid=623122026.3718746681..1

Otherwise, if you're a genre fiction author who's got a short story, piece of flash fiction, an excerpt, a hankering after an interview, a novel you'd like reviewed, drop Toad's PA an email at and remember to put "Toad's Corner" in the subject line.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Review: Dark God Descending

Title: Dark God Descending

Author: Tony-Paul de Vissage

Publisher: Sam’s Dot Publishing


Dark God Descending is a classic scenario of the conflict when an old world meets the new, offering readers a fresh spin on the vampire mythos that author De Vissage brings vividly to life. It is evident the author spent many long hours researching ancient Mayan history, and it shows, as I could clearly picture the sights, sounds and scents of the hidden city of Nikte-Uaxac.

Semris is of a race of demons and is the divine emperor of Nikte-Uaxac, but his crown does not rest easily on his brow, as he is filled with a deep-rooted restlessness, especially when his twin brother falls in love with a mortal woman, something previously considered impossible. When Semris is kidnapped by a less-than-ethical scientist, he embarks on a misadventure that will change his outlook on eternity forever.

When archaeology student Tuck follows Dr Westcott into the wildest jungles of Central America, he becomes an unwitting accomplice in an act of kidnapping. He redeems himself by realising that the “giant bat” they captured is in fact a person, and their bond of friendship transcends the barriers of human versus non-human.

Deviously conniving Dr Westcott will stop at nothing to gain power, wealth and recognition and, although his actions cause great pain for those he harms, he inadvertently also brings about great change, but I’m not going to give away any spoilers in this review save to say, read it for yourself if the overarching theme presses the right buttons.

Dark God Descending reads like a classic Indiana Jones adventure with a dark and bloody spin, and I had no real idea how the story was going resolve. Semris’s naïveté experiencing 21st-century culture was touching, and I enjoyed watching the unfolding relationships between the various characters. Although the ending is bitter-sweet, suitable justice is meted out.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Short story: Cassandra's Cargo by DJ Cockburn

George Harding lay in his hammock and closed his eyes. He knew that the gloomy room he found himself in was a delusion of the malaria that chilled his blood, but it felt so real he could smell the bodies pressed against his.

Boots echoed on stone and stopped beside him. Rough hands pulled manacles off his ankles and hauled him to his feet. His legs quivered as though unused to carrying him, which was a familiar sensation because George Harding's flaccid muscles often protested at his weight. He looked down to see not the pale paunch that he was accustomed to, but the contours of a muscular African half his age. His head recoiled upward. The rows of prone Africans that he had been pulled out of stretched into the gloom. The sight drove out all thought of a comfortable hammock because he simply couldn't imagine the terror screaming through him.

He wrenched an arm free and drove his elbow into a face, his fist into another, and the hands holding him slackened just enough. Shouts chased him into the gloom, but he was already at a wall at the end of the rows of bodies. A ladder gave him the choice of up or down. He climbed up for no reason that he could name.

Another wall in front of him. He turned and ran between more rows of chained men. A man in trousers swung a staff at him. It was aimed at his face and the joy of ducking under it and hurling the man to the floor was as real as the terror that flung him at the next ladder. There was light shining above it. The light of the sun. The light of hope that caressed his shoulders as he climbed and dazzled his eyes so that he did not see what hit his head and dashed him back to the floor below.

He had no doubt that the boots thudding around him were real, and so was the burning pain they crunched into him. He wrapped his arms around his head, not to protect himself so much as to hide from the nightmare that consumed him. The kicks stopped and it took him a moment to recall the shout that had stopped them. His arms were wrenched away from his head, and he found himself looking upon the most blessed sight he could have dreamed.

A white man.

A white man, who had the authority to give orders. An angelic sight from his tattered shoes to his yellow teeth. The appraising look in the man's eyes belonged less to an angel than to a farmer sizing up cattle at a market. The angel barked an order in a language that George Harding felt he should understand but didn't. Iron fingers prized his mouth open and the angel rolled back his lips and nodded approvingly.

No rescue would come from this man. Manacles clamped George Harding's ankles again, and he was bundled down several ladders to be dragged back into the light. He was not even surprised to find himself shoved into a line of similarly manacled and naked Africans, shuffling out of the fort toward the masts of a ship. Knowing there would be no rescue did not stop him shouting "I am George Harding" over and over again, but his mouth would not form the words so nobody listened.

* * * *


George Harding heard his own voice with relief. There were no manacles, no ships, and his hand was still white and plump when he managed to focus his eyes on it. He was still George Harding, His Britannic Majesty's agent in Bathurst. Still trying not to die of malaria before somebody in Whitehall remembered to give him a pension. His worst tribulation was not that he had been sold into slavery, but the salty taste that told him his throbbing gums were bleeding again. He tried not to think about how much he had paid that surgeon for his new set of teeth, and concentrated on thinking about what he would do to the man with his own tooth extractors when he next saw London. They hurt more than the rotten set they replaced.

He swung himself out of his hammock and yelped at a stab of protest from his ankles. It was only gout, not manacles. Stupid thought. He pulled off his clammy shirt and flung it on the floor for the houseboy to pick up. He opened the drinks cabinet and found a bottle of brandy and a glass. The malaria surprised him with a last tremor, splashing the brandy over the papers strewn across his desk. "Bugger."

He opened another bottle and measured out fifty drops of laudanum. His head stopped spinning, and he could even read the label on the bottle. He could also see how little was left in it, and he formed an almost coherent prayer that the mail packet would arrive soon. The replenishment of laudanum would more than make up for the lack of mail.

He drank brandy from the bottle and grimaced when it was so hot it almost burned his tongue, but it was worth it for the calm that it brought. He'd feel up to looking at some paperwork in a minute.

"Please Massa!" Harding turned round to see the middle-aged houseboy in the doorway. Harding grunted.

"Boat come, Massa."

"Boat? What boat? Packet's not due for another week and the buggers are always late."

The boy's forehead furrowed. "Boat come, Massa."

Why couldn't someone teach these buggers to speak the King's English? Then again, Harding was uncertain that King George himself could understand him through these teeth, whichever King George it was that wore the silk stockings at the moment. He elbowed past the houseboy and stepped outside. The sun flayed at his bare back, and added its share of discomfort to the steam bath of Bathurst in October. The tangle of mangrove surrounded what his documents of appointment called his 'residence' and the garrison officers called 'Harding's Hovel', except where the liquid mud of the River Gambia provided the anchorage that got the navy excited about the place. Then they needed a battery and a dockyard and a poor bloody acting-governor to make sure the Union Jack went up and down the pole every day. Too much to expect the Navy to think about the miasma that would rise up from the swamp and give the poor bloody acting-governor three bouts of malaria for every hoist of the flag.

"Typical bloody Navy," he muttered to himself, as he waddled to the edge of the river.

The boy was wrong. There was not a boat coming in, but two ships. The first was a three-master with the narrow sails of a merchantman. He saw the name Cassandra embossed on her stern as she hove to. The second was coming round Banjul Point, and the rake of her two masts identified her as a man-of-war long before Harding made out the White Ensign. The merchantman was wearing the same ensign, which Harding could not understand until he realized that the smell assailing his nostrils was far more acrid than the usual stink of the swamp. There was only one sort of ship that smelled like that and only one reason why it would be coming into a British port with a Royal Navy flag at her mast. Some busybody had caught a slaver, which would mean that the smell was only the first sighting of a fleet of vexations bearing down on him.

A third vessel appeared from behind the merchantman, under every sail that her single mast could carry. She flew the Fleur-de-Lys of France, which told Harding that his papers would be waiting a little longer. "Bugger."

He trudged back to the residence to throw some water over himself and find a shirt. Wouldn't do to meet whoever was in that cutter without one, even if it was probably some frog pirate.

Armand de Valois's neat frock coat and powdered queue would not have looked out of place in the Tuileries, and Harding wondered how he could look so well groomed when he must have been at sea for weeks in that little cutter. Harding had met de Valois a few times and knew that he made his first fortune from his privateers, which he'd converted into slavers when Bonaparte's exile brought peace. He decided he had been right to expect a frog pirate.

Harding was pleased with his own appearance as he pushed himself to his feet against his desk. He hoped that his uncombed hair and bloodshot eyes would pierce the dapper Frenchman's veneer, but de Valois's smile lost none of its charm as he wrung Harding's hand. "Ah, Governor 'Arding, it is an honor to meet you again."

"Your servant," grunted Harding. He was not a governor because Bathurst was not a colony in its own right, but de Valois could call him one if he pleased. He made the title sound so apt that Harding even forgot to be irritated by the consonant de Valois's accent deducted from his name.

Harding waved a hand at a chair. De Valois settled into the sagging wickerwork as though it was an emperor's throne.

Diplomatic etiquette dictated that Harding, as the host, should open the conversation. Bugger diplomatic etiquette. He glowered at de Valois, who smiled politely back. Harding allowed his eyelids to droop, as though he were falling asleep. De Valois raised his chin with an expression of sudden interest. "Forgive me, Governor 'Arding, but I cannot help but observe your very fine teeth. Surely those dentures must be ivory?"

Last time Harding had seen de Valois, he had still had the rotten remains of the teeth nature gave him, which had not been very pleasant for either him or anyone facing him. Now he had a set that would be as fine as any in London society, if only they had not cost so much that he had been forced to accept a posting nobody else would take to pay them off.

"Not ivory," he said. "Genuine Waterloo teeth."

"Excuse me?"

"Waterloo. The battle. When we sent the crapauds packing." Harding could not resist trying to provoke the Frenchman, but de Valois just nodded with the perfect blend of interest and deference. The man was insufferable.

"I needed new teeth but I didn't want them from some bugger who'd been scraped out of the gutter when he'd died of the French disease. These came from a soldier killed at Waterloo. Proper English teeth, these."

De Valois nodded again. The man was impervious to insult. Whatever he wanted, he wanted it badly.

"I 'ear Waterloo teeth are the talk of London. I congratulate you on acquiring a set," said de Valois. Harding noted de Valois had not known what Waterloo teeth were when he thought describing them would appeal to Harding's self-importance. He grunted to avoid having to say anything polite.

"Governor 'Arding, may I come straight to the point?" said de Valois, now that he had prevaricated for five minutes. Harding grunted again.

"I fear there has been a grave misunderstanding, and I came here aboard my own yacht to rectify it. I am afraid that it may even threaten the peace that your nation and the United States of America have enjoyed these three years."

Harding raised his eyebrows. "The United States?"

A crash shook the bungalow and Harding nearly fell out of his chair. His skull had barely stopped ringing when it echoed with a second crash, and he recognized it as the man-of-war announcing her arrival with a salute. Couldn't the bloody Navy do anything quietly?

The two men regarded each other as the cannonade rolled over Bathurst, de Valois with his polite smile and Harding wincing as the explosions rattled his teeth.

"As I was saying," said de Valois after the last sledge-hammer blow to Harding's mind, "a grave incident has occurred. The captain of that man-of-war has, with intentions that were no doubt excellent, unlawfully seized a merchant ship of the United States."

"You mean that slaver?"

"It is true that the ship was carrying a cargo that your government would not approve of…"


"But as I said, there has been a terrible misunderstanding. Governor 'Arding, we are men of the world and I need not tell you how the best of reasons may seduce a young man into error. The captain of that man-of-war would no doubt have distinguished himself at Trafalgar, but several days ago, his zeal led him to seize that ship in the belief that she was a Frenchman, when in fact she wears the flag of the United States."

De Valois was talking fast and no wonder, thought Harding. The salute announced that the man-of-war had dropped her anchor and her captain was probably stepping into a boat at this very moment. "I presume we're talking about one of your own slavers?"

De Valois gave a look of such mortification that Harding would have had to stifle a laugh if his teeth had not hurt so much. "No, of course not. My ships are registered in France and so the Royal Navy would have every right to seize them if they found slaves aboard, which of course they would not."

"Because France signed the Treaty of Vienna after we got Boney where he couldn't do any more damage."

Harding could not resist the opportunity to rub salt into a wound that must still be fresh.

De Valois showed no sign of bleeding. "Indeed. I was pursuing my entirely legitimate trading interests when I became aware of your countryman's mistake. Naturally, I came here as fast as I could because it is the plain duty of men of good sense, such as ourselves, to avert the consequences of such a misunderstanding. It does, after all, amount to an act of war against the United States and I am sure we can agree that neither of us wants to see the Royal Navy lose any more frigates. "

Harding hid his satisfaction. He must have nettled the frog if he felt the need to mention the poor performance of the Royal Navy against the Americans. De Valois could not know how much Harding detested the Royal Navy. "Your point, Monsieur?"

"I have no doubt that your good sense will prevail when the captain presents his log book, which will presumably say that the ship was wearing a French flag when she was sighted. I assure you that he will be mistaken, which I will prove in time. It is easy to make a mistake when it is dawn and you are looking through a telescope..." de Valois spread his hands in a disgustingly Gallic expression of helplessness.

Tongue enough for two sets of teeth, thought Harding. He scratched his crotch. "What's your proof?"

"You 'ave my word that I will provide it in time. The problem is that we do not have time. The cargo of the ship that has been seized is, shall we say, perishable? It will lose much of its value while we send for the documentation. I entreat you to take my word and release that ship immediately."

"Your word?" Harding didn't try to keep the amusement out of his voice.

"The word of a Frenchman. Naturally, I appreciate that there are certain expenses involved. There are five hundred gold guineas aboard my yacht, and I will gladly place them at your disposal to avert the crisis."

Harding's eyes snapped open. He could pay off his teeth and return to London with five hundred guineas, and the hell with the service. It was not difficult to guess what had happened. De Valois had been using the cutter to make arrangements before he committed the larger merchantman to an anchorage that would leave it trapped by a navy patrol, and he could not be arrested because his yacht carried no slaves. The captain of the slaver had thrown all evidence of French registration over the side before she was taken and de Valois was willing to spend some of his capital to preserve his cargo and his ship.

Harding assumed a contemplative frown. Who really cared where the slaver was registered? Ten years ago, Harding's duty would have been to welcome a slaver as an honored guest and assist him with his legal trade, and damned if he'd see five hundred gold guineas for his trouble. Unfortunate for the slaves of course, but then nobody ever asked Harding if he'd wanted to go to Bathurst.

But he'd never breached his trust before. The odd grease for certain administrative wheels was one thing, but to pretend a French ship was American was something else. Then again, how much was a flag worth in the balance with five hundred gold guineas? He winced as his teeth started throbbing again. "I'll think about it."

He stood up to end the interview, and de Valois stood with him and extended his hand. Etiquette demanded that Harding should offer de Valois a room in the residence, but de Valois said that he would be aboard his cutter before Harding got the chance to pointedly withhold an invitation. He saw de Valois to the door and watched him stroll back to the wharf, as though he were ambling down the Champs Elysée instead of through the ankle-deep mud of Bathurst.

A flock of brown birds burred over his head and landed in a tree. Ha-ha-ha-ha, they babbled. A bomb of fury exploded in Harding's breast. They were laughing at him!

He dashed back to his desk and pulled a pistol out of a drawer. Tears of rage blurred his sight and his shaking hands scattered more powder over his desk than he got into the pan, but eventually he got it loaded and dashed outside. He pointed it at the tree, but the birds had gone.

The pistol sank back to his side, and he waited for his breathing to slow down and his jaw to stop quivering. A chill marched up his spine. Surely he couldn't be about to have another bout of fever so soon after the last one? "Bugger."

* * * *

George Harding was running. He didn't know where he was or where he was going, but the barking dogs behind him left him in no doubt of what he was running from. Branches whipped out of the night and slashed across his body. There was no help for it except keep running on his shredded feet, turning every aching breath of fetid air into a few more paces between him and the plantation.


The question stirred a dispassionate part of his mind. Fever had brought strange visions before, especially since he had discovered how quickly laudanum helped him to recover from them, but they had never been more than disconnected impressions. Now he knew that he was in Jamaica, running from a sugar plantation, far more clearly than he knew that he was shivering in a hammock in Bathurst. He even knew he had had hit a slave-driver, and would be flogged to death if he stopped running.

His legs plunged into warm mud, and he got a mouthful of foul water from a creek he had not seen. He could not see the other side, so he had no chance of swimming to it before the dogs led their handlers to the bank.

There was a light on the water. He blinked mud out of his eyes. It was a fishing lantern in a boat, no more than a stone's throw away. He threw himself forward and swam. He expected the boatman to row away from a fugitive, but the man just watched him approach. He placed his hand on the gunwale, and hands of the same dark shade hauled him over it, pushed him down in the bow and motioned him to silence. He struggled to stifle the breaths tearing at his chest. The sounds of the dogs were no longer muffled by undergrowth, so they had found the place where he fell into the water. He had only seen one boat, so there was only one place where he could be. He closed his eyes and commended his soul to Allah to do with it as He would.

Where had that idea come from? The dispassionate part of George Harding's mind reasserted itself. He was a Presbyterian, damn it! Even if he'd almost forgotten what churches look like from the inside, he didn't go around commending his soul to Allah. He still cowered in the boat when he heard a slave-catcher's voice calling to the boatman.

"I no see 'um, Massa," said the boatman.

Harding had never been to the West Indies, let alone run away from a plantation. All he really knew, as he lay there biting his fist to keep from gagging on the salt clinging to the back of his mouth, was that he wanted the slave-driver to believe the boatman more than he had ever wanted anything in his life.

The boatman said "I no see 'um, Massa" again. This time, the only answer was splashing and curses. There was a gentle creaking and rocking. Whether or not George Harding had been to the West Indies, he had no qualms in silently giving thanks to Allah when he realized the boatman was rowing away while the slave catchers searched the bank. He even savored the pain of his scratches, because noticing them meant that he was no longer running for his life.

The rowing stopped. The change of motion reminded him of the thanks he owed the boatman. He opened his eyes just in time to see an oar slashing toward him. A flash of light, then darkness.

Darkness was an improvement on dogs. Hopefully, it meant that he was coming out of the fever. He could not endure many more dreams like this. He would have to increase the dose of laudanum.

A sensation of cold seized him as though in a claw, and he writhed in a pool of water on a dirt floor. His head felt as if there was an axe in it, and a scythe-fingered demon wrung out his guts until he vomited.

"Ah Christ!"

He looked up to see a man wearing the red coat of the men who carried long guns, and the three stripes on the sleeve belonged to someone who shouted a lot rather than someone who was usually shouted at. The empty bucket in the man's fist told him where the water had come from.

"You'll clean that up if I have to make you lick it up," said the man in a language that George Harding recognized as English. It sounded strange, as though it was a language that he had recently learned.

"Now get up off that floor, Lord Sambo! You ain't the colonel's daughter so you ain't gonna lie there all day."

He could not find a grain of strength in his body, but he still got to his feet when the red man started toward him. Somehow, he had learned what happened when he did not do what men who spoke English told him to.

"That's better. Now come 'ere." The red man waved at a window. More red men stood in lines, with straight backs and their hands straight down by their sides. They stared at a man tied to a wooden triangle while another man whipped him. George Harding had seen many floggings, but his astonishment almost overcame his nausea when he saw that what was left of the skin of the flogged man was white.

"See that, Lord Sambo?" barked the red man into his ear. "Now I don't give five minutes with a poxed sailor's whore what you done. The army paid good money for you, so you do what I tell you and no one will want to know. But you give me any trouble, an' you know how you'll end up, an' I promise you you'll give your black arse to get back wherever you run away from. Now fall in, Private Sambo!"

* * * *

Harding was unsure whether his teeth or his ankles hurt more when he lurched out of the hammock. A hundred drops of laudanum helped, and so did what was left of the brandy. He fingered another bottle, thinking that he should delay opening it in case he ran out before the mail packet arrived, but he knew it would be empty by dawn tomorrow.

"Please Massa?"

Harding didn't take his eyes off the bottle. "Yes boy?"

"Blue-blue man come, Massa."

"Blue-blue man? What the devil d'you mean...oh!" A man in the blue coat of a naval officer was standing behind the houseboy. The officer's fingers drummed on the hilt of his sword. He looked every inch the sort of fighting captain that England had been so besotted with since Nelson toadied his way into that tomb in St. Paul's. Harding disliked him on sight.

"Come in." Harding sank into the chair behind his desk without offering to shake hands.

The officer stepped into the room and removed his hat. "Matthew Cooper, Master and Commander of His Britannic Majesty's brig-sloop Electra, at your service sir."

Not only was he bloody navy, he was a bloody Yorkshireman. Harding raised an eyebrow. "George Harding at yours."

The houseboy scurried in to retrieve the latest shirt that Harding had thrown on the floor. If a succession of dandies insisted on inflicting themselves on him, he could at least make them feel overdressed.

Harding made no move to invite Cooper to sit down, hoping to force him into the gaffe of sitting uninvited. Cooper seemed happy for his broad shoulders to loom over Harding. Harding wanted to pretend to fall asleep, but he could not stop himself looking up at eyes that should have belonged to a leopard deciding whether a mouse was worth the effort of pouncing on.

"Been waiting long?" Harding could play the game no longer.

"About half an hour." Cooper's tone added that it had been half an hour too long.

"Touch of fever." Harding heard the conciliation in his own voice and disliked Cooper even more.

Cooper glanced at the brandy-stained papers and spilt powder on Harding's desk. "I see."

"Won't you sit down, Commander?" A commander carried the courtesy title of captain, and Harding smiled inwardly when Cooper's eyes narrowed with irritation.

"I prefer to stand, sir. May I come straight to the point?"

Harding waved a hand expansively.

"Five days ago, we found that abomination slipping out of the Akokra River." Cooper jerked his head at the wall that hid the Cassandra. "We chased her for three days and it's taken two to get here. The poor souls aboard are starving and some of them already have fever. I request permission to land them immediately, and send them proper food and a surgeon."

Harding hid a smile. Cooper had handed him the perfect excuse to refuse. Best not to say so straight away, especially when he could irritate the man. "You've unchained the poor souls of course?"

Cooper looked satisfyingly uncomfortable. "Well no, of course not..."

Harding raised his eyebrows. "Why on earth not? What the devil do you mean by keeping your poor souls in chains?"

Cooper's knuckles were white as he crumpled his hat. "I couldn't. There are scores of them and they don't know the difference between us and the slavers. They'd tear us apart..."

"How can I explain to them that you rescued them by keeping them in chains?" Now would be a good time to get up and stroll to the window, but Harding was afraid he would pass out if he tried. Not that it really mattered because the anguish in Cooper's eyes showed Harding that he had won the point. Five hundred guineas, he thought.

"I can't land them if they've got fever. Half the garrison is sick as it is, without a new contagion in the middle of Bathurst."

Cooper looked as though he'd been struck. "Sir, five hundred souls are in your hands. I demand that you write an order to land them immediately!"

Harding sighed and folded his hands across his stomach, trying to assume the image of the wisdom of age faced with impetuous youth. He hoped Cooper did not notice the empty bottle rolling on the floor. He stared at the epaulette on Cooper's shoulder, where the veneer of gold had worn off to expose the lead beneath and reveal that Cooper was not a wealthy man. "You fellows get prize money for taking blackbirders, don't you? Quite a lot for a beauty like that, I'd say."

"Prize money be damned!"

Harding cringed back.

"You may throw my share of the prize money into the sea for all I care," barked Cooper, "but I'll not see those poor wretches suffer more than they already have for want of a few strokes of your pen!"

Harding found his voice. "You an abolitionist, Commander?"

Cooper stepped back, pitifully easy to confuse. "Proud to be. What's that got to do with it?"

"You may see it as your duty to chase slavers, but I'd like to remind you that you're a King's officer." The force he put into those last words recoiled into his molars, and he closed his eyes while the pain receded. "While you wear that uniform, you'll remember your oath to the King, which unless I'm very much mistaken, does not include decimating any of his outposts by filling them full of fever."

Cooper turned a delightful shade of red. He looked ready to tear his hat in half. Harding pushed on relentlessly. "Whatever your politics, Commander, no man can serve two masters. Good day to you."

Harding fidgeted with some papers on his desk, trying to get rid of Cooper before he calmed down enough to form an argument. Cooper turned on his heel and walked out. Pity the next defaulter on his ship.

Harding leaned back. Five hundred gold guineas, and a cottage in...Devon? Dorset? Maybe not a cottage, he would be able to afford an inn, which would provide him with as much brandy as he could drink. He took a deep breath, and nearly retched at the smell from the slaver.

Chained to the floor, rolling in excrement, nothing to look forward to but the lash.

Five hundred gold guineas, he told himself firmly. Perhaps his teeth wouldn't ache like this in England. Perhaps that familiar chill wouldn't march up and down his spine. "Oh Christ, not again."

* * * *

Running again. Running faster than his ruined body ever could. Faster than this dream self had run before, because he was on an open field. Nothing to bar his way but a haze of powder smoke that stung his throat. Not looking back because he did not need to see Napoleon's cavalry behind him when the ground quaked and thundered with their hooves. No need to see the forest of lances when his back tingled as though they were already stabbing through his red coat. No desire to look back when the smear of scarlet ahead was made of men in the coats that had once meant imprisonment, but today meant the only hope he had.

The redcoats were in a line two deep, the front row on one knee. Their muskets pointed straight at him. He knew that the muskets were aimed at the cavalry behind him, just as the cavalry's lances were pointed at the infantry in front, but none of that would matter if the cavalry caught him or the muskets fired before he reached that red line of hope.

Close now. So close he could see the grime on the coats and the gritted teeth behind the muskets. Hear the fear in a sergeant's shout. "Wait! Waaaaiiiiit!"

Close enough to meet the eyes of a mounted officer behind the muskets of hope, see the decision in them when the officer saw the color of his face, see his sword drop. See hope vanish behind stabbing flames and more smoke.

George Harding told himself, yet again, that he had not left his hammock, but damn it he felt lead slam into him. He saw iron-shod hooves hammer into the grass around his fragile head. He heard the screams of men and horses and musket balls blend into a diabolic crescendo. He even found himself retreating into memories that weren't his, of the scorching heat of the island where he first put on a red coat; of the endless days of sweating with the Brown Bess muskets that tore the air above him. He remembered the day when the sergeant finally nodded his approval. "Not bad, Private Sambo. We'll make a major of you yet."

He had laughed with the rest of his platoon at the twin absurdities of a Major Sambo, and any officer handling a musket. He drifted away into those memories while mosquitoes whined around his ears, and the future of a foreign continent was decided by in death piling up around him.

Fingers glided across his body. The shooting had stopped, leaving only groans that sounded as though they came from the ground itself. The weight of the purse of coins around his neck was missing. Hands were under his coat now, tugging at the juju belt he wore around his waist. A woman's voice grunted with bemusement when she pulled it free but the hands came back, into his mouth this time. Something pricked his gums. His eyes snapped open to see a woman's smooth face bathed in moonlight. Her hair brushed his cheeks with a silken caress. He was still trying to smile for her when her knife flashed out of his mouth and into his throat.

* * * *

George Harding rolled away from her and fell out of the hammock. He sat up cautiously. His head was clear and he felt no sign of fever. He had not felt this healthy since he arrived in Bathurst. He stood up without any complaint from his gout, and almost felt as though he could do without a drink. Almost.

A man was sitting behind his desk. He blinked and shook his head, but there was still a black man wearing a red coat in his chair. Harding was furious. Whatever reason he might have for being there, he had absolutely no business in Harding's chair. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

The man replied with a tight-lipped frown.

"Boy!" The soldier was wearing an infantryman's coat, although there were only artillerymen and engineers in Bathurst. Not that being a visitor gave him any more right to act as though he owned the place.

"Massa?" The houseboy appeared at the door.

"What's this damned impudence?" He waved a hand at his chair.

"Massa?" The boy looked confused.

Harding made a great effort to speak slowly. "What. Is. This. Man. Doing. In. My. Bloody. Chair. Damn your eyes!"

"What man, Massa?"

Harding's face burned and he felt as though an anchor chain was crushing his chest. He tried to remember if he'd left that pistol loaded. "This bastard! Here! You make game of me, boy, and by God I'll see your black arse flogged off!"

The boy looked at the chair, then back at Harding. His perplexity faded to an understanding that belied the only name that Harding had ever used for him. "I get Massa Chaplain, Massa."

The boy disappeared, leaving Harding's mouth working to form words that would not come.

"He can't see me, you know," said the soldier behind the desk.


"Your boy. He can't see me, so you might as well let him be."

Harding was as startled by the accent as the words. He'd never met an African who could speak more than a few words of pidgin, but this voice belonged on Wapping docks. "Just as well he's gone. You and me got things to talk about."

"What things? I don't know you."

"Not exactly, but we're close acquaintances. You got my word on that." The soldier rolled back his lips to reveal torn, toothless gums.

Harding's teeth unleashed a gale of pain that almost blinded him. "Oh my God!"

The soldier smiled and nodded. Harding sat down heavily. "It's not true. I'm imagining you. You're a fever dream. Just need a stiff drink."

Harding reached for his brandy. The soldier smiled again. "If you could see the state of your liver, you'd see fever's the least of your problems."

Harding's hand flew to his chest, where he thought his liver probably was. He could feel it swelling like a filling wineskin, shoving aside stomach, lungs, heart, anything in the way of its conquest. That was ridiculous, his chest had felt fine all day. It was the only thing that had. "A drink."

"Won't help. Nothing will."

Harding gave up trying to push himself upright. "Is that why you're here?"

The soldier stopped smiling. "Dunno why I'm here. I mean, I know you got my teeth, but I dunno much else."

"Oh God."

"Maybe. I know I weren't very good to Him. I'm sure He knows that slave drivers and sergeants don't let you stop what you're doing to pray, and He knows the army don't give you nothing to drink except rum, but perhaps that just means Muslims should avoid slavers and stay out of the army."

Harding felt a chasm open up inside him. He was used to thinking of death as an end to be delayed for as long as possible, but now the end had come and this man was saying that it wasn't even an end. Saliva ran down his chin, and his nose filled. "What will happen to me?"

The soldier stood and took Harding's hands. There was real compassion in his voice. "I don't know."

Vicars liked to preach about conscience. Perhaps that was what Harding needed now. He rifled through the broken bottles and lost paperwork of his soul, knowing he had hidden from his life's frustrations by bullying others and blinding himself with drunkenness. That gave him no claim to clemency, but there was nothing he could do about it now.

Nothing? He looked up. The soldier helped Harding to stand. Harding took his seat behind his desk, and managed to keep his hand steady enough to write an order to land the Cassandra's slaves, and provide them with whatever food and physic they needed. He looked at the tear-stained paper in front of him and wondered whether it would count for anything in a few minutes time. Still, something in his chest felt a little lighter for writing it. He blew his nose and wrote another letter, commending Commander Cooper for his zeal and humanity for his representation on behalf of the souls he had liberated. That made him feel better too, though two pages of blotted ink were little enough to apologies for a life as miserable as his. He hoped the houseboy would spare him a kind thought when he and the chaplain found him.

The soldier took his hand. "Come on. There's something else we both need to do."

Harding stood unaided, and let the soldier lead him outside. They stood, side by side, with their backs to the setting sun. The soldier knelt and touched his head to the ground. Harding knelt beside him, and he knew he would not be getting up.

* * * *

Read more of DJ Cockburn's writing here:

Under the Hooked Cross, for sale at
Steel in the Morning, free at