Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Little Midnight Reading by Jess Harris

The man’s muscles rippled under olive-skin that glistened in the moonlight. Helen’s gaze bonded to his Adonis-worthy physique, covered by only sandals and a short exomis. He extended his hand, and Helen accepted it. He led her through the front doorway toward a narrow boat, which (as can only happen in a dream) was anchored in shallow water just outside her house where her street should have been. Her close-cropped grass was now a beach of pebbles, worn round and smooth by the patient sea.
His eyes drew her toward him, into the water.

Helen faltered when the waves touched her feet. The man tugged gently for a moment, then released her and continued alone. A soundless wind filled the sails and the vessel gave a low groan before slipping away from shore. His continued to face her, bearing a remorseful though not quite pleading expression, as he shrank into the night.

Helen plunged into the icy tide and cried out, “Wait!”

“Wait!” Helen woke from the sound of her own voice, sitting bolt upright, sheets a jumble, cold sweat beading on her face.

She’d had this dream before. She loved, and hated it. Mostly, she resented the way it interrupted her sleep.

Warm milk and a bit of midnight reading usually returned her to a comfortable drowse, so she shuffled groggily toward the kitchen.

As she passed the glass patio doors, where only a few hours before she’d enjoyed a glass of amorgiano and a few chapters of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, she saw an open book on the table outside.

In all these years alone in her house, Helen had never, to the best of her formidable memory, left a book outdoors unattended. Yet there it was amongst pine straw and beech leaves on her otherwise gleaming glass-topped patio table.

Bad enough that this absurd dream roused me in the middle of the night, now I have to worry whether I’m losing my mind.

The microwave clock read twelve-seventeen as she placed a cup of milk inside. Two and a half minutes would warm it nicely.

But first she would have to retrieve her book and clean the patio table – Helen could no more abide messy nature remnants on her furnishings than she could leave a beloved book exposed to the elements, once she was aware of either.

As she made her way toward the patio, she paused to straighten a hardcover book on the end table.

Northanger Abbey.

Helen froze.

If Northanger Abbey was here, then what book was on the patio table?

Her arms prickled with gooseflesh as the more important question, who put it there? occurred to her.

She put her hand over the soft flesh of her throat which was puling with the beat of her heart.
An intruder.

Helen laid one arm protectively across her bosom and wished she was wearing more than a nightshirt.

911, call 911… Helen reached for the telephone, lifted the receiver, then put it back down.
And tell them what, that I’ve left my book outside, and would they please retrieve it for me?

Old Mrs. Bergren next door would have a jolly laugh at that.

No police; Helen was on her own.

She lifted her umbrella from its rack by the door and crept down the hall to the bedroom.
A screeching sound pierced the air and Helen jumped, hitting the wall, then felt foolish when she realized that it was only the timer alarm of the microwave.

Helen understood that her thumping had cost her the element of surprise, yet composed herself and continued, cat-quiet, ears perked for even the slightest sound. She pressed her back against the wall as she approached the threshold to her bedroom, then took a long, slow breath. She threw herself inside, umbrella aloft like a samurai’s kitana.


She probed the air, thrusting the umbrella into her closets and under her bed. Satisfied that her boudoir – the most private sanctum of her very private life – was free of outsiders, she donned a robe and continued her search.

She skulked from room to room, sweat dripping from her brow as she grew increasingly certain that, even though she had not yet found the invader, she was not alone.

Helen came last of all to the place she should have suspected foremost, given the sign that had first alerted her. She entered her study.

It appeared perfectly normal at first glance, but something was out of place. She ran her fingers across the rows of books on the wall-to-wall shelves, starting in reference, working through the popular titles, on to the classics…

There – between The Theban poems and The Odyssey, where The Iliad should have been slumbering – a gap.

Her fear turned to rage as she ran through the house and flung open the patio door.

She scanned the small yard, umbrella before her as both sword and shield. The high privacy fence and sparse shrubbery provided a clear view and little concealment.

The yard was empty.

She cocked her head, hands on her hips.

What an odd intrusion.

She had not so much as looked at Homer in months, so there could be no mistaking it; someone had been in her home. They had removed only one item – a thing of no great monetary value – and did not even take it away, but merely left it on the...

Right beneath her gaze, a page turned in the breathless night.

She blinked, squinted, stared at the empty chair.

“Who are you?”

It was a curious thing that now, after the fierce arousal of the previous minutes, Helen felt remarkably un-fearful. She was more than a little irritated, but not in the least afraid. She felt…anticipation? Dare she say even hopefulness?

“Who are you?” She demanded of the nothingness before her.

A head appeared first, flickering like a trick of moonlight. Then she saw freckled arms emerging from a blue shirt. The man – ordinary, middle-aged, with graying brown hair – solidified somewhat as he turned toward her.

Helen’s heartbeat fell from the gallop of confrontation to the familiar shuffle of disappointment.

“You’re not my dream man.”

The ghost looked up, left eyebrow raised in a quizzical arch. Pages flipped, stopping at a woodcut illustration. A diaphanous finger touched the image of the face that launched a thousand ships.

His head tilted upward with a sardonic grin.

“OK, I’m no Helen of Troy either.”

She became aware that her robe had slipped open in her haste. She pulled it shut and said, “I should change into something more appropriate.”

The ghost shrugged and returned his attention to Homer.

“I suppose this is going to be a purely platonic relationship.”

The ghost nodded without glancing away from the book.

Helen huffed.

She returned to the kitchen, silenced the microwave, and tested her milk. She gave it another thirty seconds, sampled it a second time, and was satisfied.

She retrieved Northanger Abbey from the end table before returning to the patio. As she sat next to the once-again invisible reader, she noticed that the pine straw and leaves were missing from the table.

“Where did the nature mess go?”

The reader in the blue polo shirt glimmered back into translucency, and thrust a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the yard next door.

“Well,” Helen said, “you have some usefulness.”

She sipped her milk and settled in for a little midnight reading.

* * * *

Jess Harris is an internationally published writer who is not quite ready to give up his day job as a US Army officer. 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; mysteries where anyone, including the lead detective, might wind up dead; humorous horror; and “literary crime fiction” (whatever that means.) His biggest challenge is often deciding what genre a particular piece falls into.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

I’ve a sweet tooth for Sandra Sookoo’s writing, so when I heard she’d started working on SF, with a strong romantic twist, my interest was sufficiently piqued to pick up a copy of one of her latest titles―Damaged Cargo.

What more could a gal ask for: a strong-willed female pirate captain with a penchant for corsetry; a man with a mission to rid a planet of an evil dictator; and a strong-willed crew of misfits, all tumbled together on the Wraith Orchid?

Captain Emma Gardine keeps everyone at arm’s length as she travels the galaxy, always ready to take advantage of an opportunity for a tidy profit or a quick steal. For her, men are merely a means to an end, a way to satisfy her physical urges. Hiding her vulnerability, she goes about her daily business with a tough-as-nails exterior. That is, until she meets Tarik Vertouth, who works his way on board her ship with ulterior motives – hostile takeover. Tarik needs the Wraith Orchid to fulfil his mission: to kill his despotic father, the ruler of the planet Nazulara.

Today Toad welcomes Sandra to her corner for a cuppa tea and a chat about her novel.

I’ve heard you mention on some of your blogs that this one’s very much geared toward Firefly fans. Care to elaborate?

Well, I hadn’t really thrown my hat in the ring with writing SF, so after watching Serenity and not liking it, I bought the Firefly DVDs. I ended up really loving them, which gave me an idea. My husband had been nagging me to write another SF book so I took inspiration from the ship and the costuming of Firefly. Instead of cowboys, I made my crew pirates and had a great time doing it.

Why name the ship the Wraith Orchid?

Now that was interesting. I needed a name for my ship. I’m totally bad at it so I had help from my husband, who is a total sci-fi geek. I chose “orchid” because these plants are rare and varied, kinda like the crew and “wraith” because they slip through galaxies, stealing and generally making trouble. Even though it’s a cargo ship, it needed a grand name.

If you had to pick lead actors for your two main characters, who would be top on your list?

Oh, wow, I’ve never thought about that. I actually based Emma off one of my close friends. This gal has held her own in bar disagreements, neighbor fights and all kinds of stuff, and she does it in heels with a “take no prisoners” attitude. I suppose, if I had to choose, Angelina Jolie would be good, because let’s face it, she looks good with guns strapped to her, LOL. As for Tarik, hmm, maybe Russell Crowe. He does well with serious roles and can be nasty when he needs to.

You offer a social “return” to Victorian norms in your futuristic setting. Why is this? Why would people look back to that era for their styling?

I liked the idea of this because things were simpler then. There was very much a set of rigid rules and norms in place to control society—at least on the surface. In my fictional world, I instituted that as an additional constraint and a breeding ground for pirates. You can’t buck the system if there isn’t a tough one in place. I also adore historical writing so it was only natural to combine the two in this story.

You’ve left some untied threads near the end. Is there a sequel in the pipelines?

You bet. I didn’t think there would be, but somehow, sci-fi is now in my blood and I can’t walk away. This spring I’ll be starting work on the follow-up novel. This will be Tomis’s story as well as one of Tarik’s sisters. I’m excited to begin work on it since the notes are quite expansive and very complicated. Will the Wraith Orchid be back? On the fringes I think. It won’t be about them as much.

Thank you for dropping by at Toad's Corner, Sandra. We hope to have you visit again soon!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Title: The Spectrum Collection
Publisher: Dark Continents Publishing
Authors: Simon Kurt Unsworth, John Irvine, Sylvia Shults, Tracie McBride, Adrian Chamberlin, Carsin Buckinham, Maureen Irvine, David M Youngquist, Serenity J Banks and John Prescott.

If a collection of well-realised horror is your cup of tea, then The Spectrum Collection won’t disappoint. Tightly edited and engaging, these stories and poems are slivers of horror offering glimpses into other worlds readers can enter knowing that things can end very badly, in all the right ways.

First up is The Elms, Morecambe by Simon Kurt Unsworth. The author sets about weaving his story in a manner that isn’t often as successful as this example: a story told within a story. We learn about Wisher, a haunted man, who tells his story to Nakata, whom I assume to be a journalist of some stripe in an eatery. Although slow-moving, the story nonetheless conveys the sense of a great sadness and a mystery that is never quiet explained. No great denouements here but still thought-provoking.

The direction of Wild Goat Curry by John Irvine became very clear early on in the story and although the concept of a hunter getting his just deserts is an old, dear one, I feel this story misses the mark slightly. It’s well written but the plot needed just that little extra push to give it a stronger twist, because I wasn’t all that surprised or horrified at the ending.

Wicked Appetites by Sylvia Shults takes a playful nod at the current fascination with vampires in contemporary fiction, and elicited a few chuckles on my part although I had a good inkling as to how wrong the tale would go. Once again, I feel the ending could have been stronger but overall Shults delivers an entertaining tale.

Although I’m no fan of poetry, The Tooth Fairy by Tracie McBride is deliciously nasty for my tastes. I was suitably moved to read it out to my partner, and we shared a quiet chuckle.

Adrian Camberlain’s The Bodymen is on my shortlist for one of my favourites in this collection. Offering a nod to classic splatterpunk and Stephen King, and although by no means unique in its subject matter, this little yarn tells the grim tale of an unfortunate series of events surrounding a pet crematorium. To say any more would lead to spoilers.

Another story about just deserts, Lemminaid by Carson Buckinham is quite vivid when it comes to evoking the setting but it was another where I could see the twist coming from a mile away. Still, the end is suitably inevitable for the main character and Buckinham provides some fine, sold writing.

Lost by Maureen Irvine, although offering me the enjoyment of seeing typical husband-and-wife interchanges, didn’t work for me. One of the major issues I had with it was the omniscient point of view, of head-hopping between the wife and the husband. The obvious horror element also didn’t do much to scare me or build tension. Other than that, it’s still an evocative piece.

Archi’s Story by David M Youngquist hit all the right spots for me. Maybe it’s because I’m a big fan of the Rodriguez brothers’ films, or just that zombies are the “it” thing at the moment. This is a novel masquerading as a short story, so in the shorts stakes, it’s not a classic fit for the vehicle. However, Youngquist has created a compelling tale with characters I immediately loved. This is begging for treatment into a longer format or, dare I say it, a screenplay. This one also hits my favourites list.

Maureen Irvine’s Gift from a Vampire is pretty. As far as poetry goes, I’m a poor judge but I did like this piece.

With the current literary trend showing preference for end times-themed stories, The End, by Serenity J Banks, addresses all the issues plaguing modern culture. This is not so much a post-apocalyptic tale of horror as an examination of the futility of human existence in the light of absolute finality. Thoroughly depressing, this tale is not for the squeamish. Well done, Serenity. You’ve got a winner here.

Lest We Forget by Tracie McBride is also on my short list for the hits from this collection. Stark, the tale hints at the horrors of a twisted Orwellian future at the hand of a mysterious dictatorship, it examines the emotions of people who have accepted their lot. There are many subtle undercurrents in this story, which begs a second read.

My Sister Doesn’t Live There Anymore by John Irvine is a haunting mood piece. While it doesn’t have a heavy horror element, the story did offer a somewhat poignant illustration of sorrow.

The End of Leonard Bangston by John Prescott didn’t quite work for me. Perhaps the shades of a Roald Dahl story were too fresh in my mind, but I saw the ending’s shape very early in the piece. Also, while I applaud the visceral detail the author gives in describing the house, I almost felt there was too much style and not enough substance to the tale. Nonetheless, visceral is possibly the right word to go with the story.

Overall, this is a pleasing collection of short stories and, in my opinion, well worth the investment. It reads quickly and, in general, the tales are suitably grim, grisly and dark, as one would expect from a good horror anthology. Go buy this and read it on a rainy night, at your own peril!

* * * *

Have a novel in the F/SF/H genres you'd like reviewed. Email with "Toad's Corner" in the subject.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Rhune: Dawn of Twilight

Toad welcomes Jason Sonia to her corner today. While the focus of this blog has been on genre fiction, thus far, role-playing games are often popular with readers of genre fiction. Jason's achievement has been the release of his own setting, Rhune: Dawn of Twilight, which offers gamers his vision of a Stormpunk setting. Even better, the primer is available as a free download.

Which role-playing games got you started, and what do you gain from the activity?

I discovered role-playing games (RPGs) through comic books in my early teens, so naturally I was exposed to a lot of material by TSR. The first game I remember playing was a game called Marvel Superheroes. As a fan of the X-Men, I easily absorbed the material and the concept of being a hero. At the time, I was really into Wolverine and I wanted to build a variation of his character so I could join the X-Men. The desire to fight Sentinals and stop dark, government conspiracies appealed greatly to me. Unfortunately, at the time, only one of my friends really liked the game. So, we took turns running each other through battles and that was the extent of my experience as a superhero. Later that summer, another friend suggested we try Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (2nd Edition). We put a small group together and the rest was history. I was hooked.

Unlike comics, RPGs allowed me an opportunity to really explore character concepts that I resonated with. I wasn't a passive participant. I could really get in there and get my hands dirty. As a young teen, this was a wonderful way to explore a number of concepts that a great deal of my peers weren't forced to deal with. There were moral dilemmas, social issues, and a number of themes that demanded I look beyond the surface and try to figure out what was going on - at its heart, the spirit of creativity and investigation snagged me. Moreover, it was something that really excited me with its endless potential. It was a never-ending novel in which I was one of the key stars. It definitely appealed to my ego!

Today, RPGs continue to serve as an outlet of exploration. However, as an adult, it's a much more relaxed journey. Most of the gamers I know enjoy blowing off steam with some dice and a chance to beat down the bad guys (which, sadly, doesn't happen that often in reality). I tend to run a lot of games, so I find a definite enjoyment in telling stories. I especially like when the characters in those stories have complex (dare I say devious) reasons for adventuring. I find RPGs both emotionally and intellectually satisfying - much in the same way a great film draws you away - except they require you to be active. They require you to be involved. There's a certain interconnectedness about an RPG group that you don't see everyday. That, and gamers have a quirky, weird sense of humor. I like that, too.
Tell me more about Pathfinder.

The Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is an elegant revision of the 3.5 edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game. When Wizards of the Coast (WoTC) announced in fall of 2007 that they were going to release the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons, a huge cross section of the 3.5 community started to look for other alternatives. Luckily, the people over at Paizo Publishing, LLC (who had developed both Dungeon Magazine and Dragon Magazine under license for WoTC) had taken steps to develop their own version of the game and Pathfinder was born. I'm sure there's a lot more to it, but they'd really have to step up and speak. I'm not the man for the job (yet).

People interested should definitely check them out, though. should get you there.
Where does Rhune originate? What is Stormpunk?
Rhune: Dawn of Twilight was born in the spring of 2006 in a little coffee shop called Aghora in Houston, Texas. Having evacuated from New Orleans, La for Hurricane Katrina, I was one of many New Houstonians trying to make sense of what I was doing and where I was going. I spent a lot of time reading, doodling, and talking with my friend Tom about what made heroes really potent figures. Naturally, we spoke at length about Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces, the Star Wars movies, and everything Tolkien. It was long before we started to look a little deeper and I started to study Norse myth (which, ironically, I had never had much of a connection with - I tend to favor Mediterranean myth). I started to read more about Ragnarök, Heimdallr, and Odin's Sacrifice.

At the same time, I was starting to submit material to Dungeon and Dragon magazines. I wasn't having much luck and when I voiced this, Tom simply asked me, "If you have these strong ideas about a particular setting, why not write them down and create it yourself." At the time, I scoffed at the immensity of the work and shrugged my shoulders. I simply didn't have the time or resources.

Years later, after I moved to Kuwait for work, I found I had both. So, I wrote Rhune: Dawn of Twilight.
Was it difficult creating your world?
Building the outline wasn't hard. I've been gaming for over 17 years and I know what sort of material makes it into splat books. I know you need to build enough to keep people engaged, but open enough so that anyone can tell their particular story in that setting. Designing a world means details, but only to a point. I kept this in mind when I was building the outline. Once I had what I felt was a strong starting point, I just moved forward.

Then I wrote, designed, revised, wrote, revised, wrote, and wrote some more. Luckily for me, I had a lot of practice with Wolfgang Baur's Open Design ( ).

After a while, I started looking for artists (and this is where things got expensive). I discovered I had to communicate with them on a much different level, but once I achieved that, the product really started to come together. All in all, I think I built Rhune: Dawn of Twilight in about 8 months. Obviously, I've been holding it close to my heart a lot longer than that, but that's really what it took in terms of production. I know that since Rhune: Dawn of Twilight released at Gen Con, we've had to make several small revisions, Currently, though, I think it's a strong product that really syncs with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game system.

Stormpunk is a term I coined to describe what happens when you merge traditional steampunk with Norse myth, Ragnarök, and planar travel. At its heart, Rhune has a wild-eyed, cold as hell, kind of feel to it. It has technology, but it also has the gritty issues the come along with industrialization. It's supposed to leave the player feeling a little small and a little dirty.

What does Rhune offer players?
I'm a big fan of the old material that White Wolf put out in the 1990s. I lovedVampire: The Masquarade, Mage: The Ascension, and the whole World of Darkness. What I think made that venue so successful wasn't necessarily its ties to the supernatural (although I'd be a fool to ignore those elements), but it's clear and concise adaptation of character archetypes in its various games. You had personas that were believable - and therefor easily playable - because they were based from a reality we saw daily. I loved that idea (and it's not new - Joseph Campbell and Carl G Jung both covered the concepts) and wanted to take it further. So, I focused on letting ideas become driving forces for the people of Rhune: Dawn of Twilight. I looked at racial boundaries, national boundaries, and what sorts of groups would drive what sorts of ideas. I wanted it to mirror reality a little, too. So, I gave people less concrete to stand on and forced different groups to try and explain Ragnarök in their own ways. Alongside the rampant spread of industrialization, this got interesting...

I believe Rhune: Dawn of Twilight offers players an opportunity to play characters that step outside of the traditional fantasy genre by giving them a world that isn't much different then their own, at least socially. The people of Midgard face a complex problem (Ragnarök - effectively the end of the world) and everyone has a different idea about what should be done. Some want to stop it. Some believe its divine justice. Some believe its just another conflict to be won. Some people are rushing towards it. Some people think it's a big lie. Some people simply don't care.

If you were to be a character from Rhune, what would you be?
I think I'd play a witch. They have a connection to something alien that most people in Rhune: Dawn of Twilight simply don't get. They're not necessarily good OR bad, but they are definitely different. They definitely scare people. After that, I'd have to switch gears and play a dwarves cleric - for much the same reasons I'd play a witch. They're a concrete class that has little room for doubt. They know (or so they think) the gods, their Will, and what must happen at Ragnarök. I think that sort of blind devotion would be a blast. To never question? To never doubt? Yeah,I think I could ham that up a little.

Where can people find Rhune?

People interested in Rhune: Dawn of Twilight can download the primer from Rhune's website:

There's also maps and adventure suggestions. The best part? It's all free.