Retro Review: “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” by E.F. Benson

Weird Tales August 1929
“The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” is a short story by E.F. Benson, which was first published in the December 1928 issue of the magazine Britannia and reprinted in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

This story is another one which caught my eye via Hugh Rankin’s striking interior art under his Doak pseudonym (Doak was Rankin’s middle name). For some reason, Rankin did several drawings of hangings and executions under the Doak name, such as the interior art for “In a Dead Man’s Shoes”, which I reviewed recently. As before, Rankin also supplied to striking Art Deco cover art for this issue, illustrating the The Inn of Terror by Gaston LeRoux.

Hugh Rankin's interior art for "The Hanging of Alfred Wadham"

Though the standout story in this issue is not the cover story, but “The Shadow Kingdom” by Robert E. Howard, the story which introduced Kull of Atlantis as well as the Serpent Men to the world and is widely considered to be the first sword and sorcery story. I should probably do a Retro Review of that story eventually, especially since it’s also a very good story.

Many authors who published in the pulps are completely forgotten these days and we know little to nothing about them. I feared this might be the case with E.F. Benson, but on the contrary, Benson was actually a very well-known British writer from a family of well-known people. His father was the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of his brothers wrote the words to “Land of Hope and Glory”, another brother was also a writer as well as a priest and his sister was a writer and Egyptologist. To make matters even more impressive, E.F. Benson was a member of the Order of the British Empire. He was also gay and by necessity, given the time during which he lived, closeted.

E.F. BensonBenson’s most famous work is the Mapp and Lucia series, a series of satirical novels about upper class people in a small town and their petty rivalries. I have to admit that I have never heard of those books, even though they spawned several sequels by other authors, two TV-adaptations, including one as late as 2014, and a lobster dish.

In addition to satirical novels about upper class people being jerks, Benson also wrote a lot of ghost stories and this is what brought him to the attention of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote admiringly about Benson’s work in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, and finally to Weird Tales.

But enough about the man. Let’s talk about the story.

Warning! Spoilers beyond this point! Continue reading

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Non-Fiction Spotlight: A Haunted History of Invisible Women – True Stories of America’s Ghosts by Leanna Renee Hieber and Andrea Janes

After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.

For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.

One of the greatest things about this project has been discovering the huge range of SFF-related non-fiction that is out there, which belies claims that there is not enough SFF-related non-fiction published in a year to fill a Hugo category. Over the course of this project I have featured books on cosplay, manga, videogames, movies and TV shows, cartoons, speculative fiction in translation, speculative fiction from Africa, interview and essay collections, biographies, etc… And today, I have a book about ghosts, hauntings and gender for you.

Therefore, I am pleased to welcome Leanna Renee Hieber and Andrea Janes, authors of A Haunted History of Invisible Women – True Stories of America’s Ghosts, to my blog today.

A Haunted History of Invisible Women - True Stories of America's Ghosts by Leanna Renee Hieber and Andrea JanesTell us a little bit about yourself.

Leanna: I’ve been writing since I was a kid and didn’t consider pursuing it professionally until my first job out of college. I had gotten a BFA in theatre performance with a focus study in the Victorian Era. I worked in the professional regional theatre circuit for a few years before moving to New York City and ended up at a Broadway callback where all I could think about was the book that would end up becoming my debut Gothic, Gaslamp Fantasy series, Strangely Beautiful. I stopped auditioning and solely focused on my novel about a girl who sees, talks with, and helps ghosts. Spectral subjects have been part of my creative process since childhood. I got my NYC tour guide’s license my first years in New York as I knew I wanted to incorporate real history into my fiction and eventually write non-fiction. Being a tour guide is a great way to make history second-nature. I feel like A Haunted History of Invisible Women is the culmination of everything that’s ever been important to me.

Andrea: I’m a writer and a New York City tour guide. I founded my own walking tour company, Boroughs of the Dead, in 2013.

What prompted you to write/edit this book?

Leanna: I was giving a ghost tour when an editor familiar with my fiction suggested I write a non-fiction book about ghosts. I knew from that first moment that I wanted to bring my colleague into the process, as I was Andrea’s first hire at Boroughs of the Dead, and the way she built the company informs so much of how I give a ghost tour, so there was never a moment’s hesitation about involving her, and it’s been an incredible process of discovery. Our interests, combined with our editor Liz May’s interests, hit upon the importance of discussing the ways in which we talk about women, alive or dead.

Andrea: I’ve long had an interest in both women’s history and ghost stories, and this book was the perfect intersection of them both.

Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?

Leanna: We do deep dives on trope; which are some of the building blocks of fiction analysis. We discuss the ways in which Gothic fiction and the long history of telling fictional ghost stories inform how we tell ghost stories about real people. We involve important literary figures in our process; whether it’s discussing how Poe was one of the first true crime writers to including a piece from the great poet, speculative and horror fiction author Linda D. Addison as our Afterword. Because we are both also genre fiction writers, talking about storytelling from the perspective of tour guides committed to real history is a shift in perspective I’m sure any genre writer can appreciate.

Andrea: Anyone with an interest in the ways the speculative and otherworldly collide with our lived realities will have an interest in this book.

Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?

Leanna: There’s a wonderful statue of Mary Becker Greene, “Ma” Greene, that I didn’t get a chance to photograph or present to the art department before the book came out. Mary was the first woman to obtain her Steamboat Pilot’s License in this country in 1892, opening doors for other women pilots to follow. Her chapter is one of my favorites in the book! Mary’s statue and plaque stand just across the bank from Cincinnati, in a Covington, KY park along the riverside, situated along the Ohio river she traveled and navigated so expertly.

Leanna Renee Hieber with a statue of Ma Greene.

Leanna Renee Hieber with the statue of steamboat pilot Ma Greene in Covington, KY

Andrea: We tried to put the best stuff in the book! But I did enjoy researching the story of the ghost of Melrose Hall in Brooklyn, as well as several ghost stories featuring women who lived in wild places such as caves, who still haunt those locales. These will (hopefully) go in volume 2!

SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?

Leanna: It’s really all about discussion; one has to be able to analyze the elements of story regardless of genre. Non-fiction can truly deconstruct all the elements that go into fiction and so much of fiction needs to be researched via non-fiction. So much of my inspiration and underpinnings as a historical fantasy author has come from discussions of fantastical and supernatural history as explained in non-fiction works.

Andrea: I think it’s important because fiction writers are obviously inspired by real life and well – researched non-fiction on speculative topics is a treasure trove for information as well as a way to reflect deeply on these matters.

Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?

Leanna: Tiya Miles’ Tales from the Haunted South was a particularly vital resource for our book, as was Colin Dickey’s Ghostland, and I think Leila Taylor’s Darkly is a profoundly important work. I’ve been really thrilled to be a part of Amanda Woomer’s great journal of The Feminine Macabre which seeks to lift up women’s voices in paranormal related fields.

Andrea: I’ve enjoyed the non-fiction books of Lisa Morton, who writes about ghosts, seances, and Halloween.

Where can people buy your book?

Anywhere fine books are sold! https://linktr.ee/ahauntedhistory

Where can people find you?

Across most social media and via

http://leannareneehieber.com

https://linktr.ee/leannareneehieber

https://boroughsofthedead.com/

https://andreajanes.com/

Thank you, Leanna and Andrea, for stopping and answering my questions. Do check out A Haunted History of Invisible Women – True Stories of America’s Ghosts, if you’re interested in true life ghost stories, gender and spooky fiction.

About A Haunted History of Invisible Women – True Stories of America’s Ghosts:

From the notorious Lizzie Borden to the innumerable, haunted rooms of Sarah Winchester’s mysterious mansion, this offbeat, insightful, first-ever book of its kind explores the history behind America’s female ghosts, the stereotypes, myths, and paranormal tales that swirl around them, what their stories reveal about us—and why they haunt us…

Sorrowful widows, vengeful jezebels, innocent maidens, wronged lovers, former slaves, even the occasional axe-murderess—America’s female ghosts differ widely in background, class, and circumstance. Yet one thing unites them: their ability to instill fascination and fear, long after their deaths. Here are the full stories behind some of the best-known among them, as well as the lesser-known—though no less powerful.

Tales whispered in darkness often divulge more about the teller than the subject. America’s most famous female ghosts, from from ‘Mrs. Spencer’ who haunted Joan Rivers’ New York apartment to Bridget Bishop, the first person executed during the Salem witchcraft trials, mirror each era’s fears and prejudices. Yet through urban legends and campfire stories, even ghosts like the nameless hard-working women lost in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire —achieve a measure of power and agency in death, in ways unavailable to them as living women.

Riveting for skeptics and believers alike, with humor, curiosity, and expertise, A Haunted History of Invisible Women offers a unique lens on the significant role these ghostly legends play both within the spook-seeking corners of our minds and in the consciousness of a nation.

About Leanna Renee Hieber and Andrea Janes:

Actress, playwright and author Leanna Renee Hieber is the award-winning, bestselling writer of gothic Victorian fantasy novels for adults and teens. Her novels such as the Strangely Beautiful saga, and the Eterna Files series have garnered numerous regional genre awards, including four Prism awards, and have been selected as “Indie Next” and national book club picks. She lives in New York City where she is a licensed ghost tour guide and has been featured in film and television shows like Boardwalk Empire. Follow her on Twitter@leannarenee, or visit www.leannareneehieber.com.

Andrea Janes is the Founder and owner of Boroughs of the Dead, New York City’s premier ghost tour company, which has been featured on NPR.org, The New York Times, Jezebel, TODAY, The Huffington Post, Gothamist,The Travel Channel, CondeNast Traveler, Mashable, among others. Andrea is also the author of the YA novel Glamour, and several short horror stories, and a fiction horror novel Boroughs of the Dead, the inspiration for her company. More at www.boroughsofthedead.com.

***

Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

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Fancast Spotlight: Tales from the Trunk

After the Hugos is before the Hugos, so here is another Fancast Spotlight for your consideration. For more about the Fanzine/Fancast Spotlight project, go here. You can also check out the other great fanzines and fancasts featured by clicking here.

Today’s featured fancast is Tales from the Trunk, a podcast where SFF writers talks about their trunk stories, i.e. stories that failed to sell. And trust me, we all have some of those.

So I’m very pleased to welcome Hilary B. Bisenieks of Tales from the Trunk to my blog today:

Tales from the Trunk logo

Tell us about your podcast or channel.

Tales from the Trunk is a podcast about the stories that we, as writers, have had to give up on for one reason or another. Every episode, an author comes on to read a story out of their trunk, or in the case of book tour episodes to read an excerpt from a new or forthcoming release, and chat about the writing life, the reasons that some stories just don’t make it, and why every word you write is its own victory. Episodes come out on the first and third Friday of every month.

Who are the people behind your podcast or channel?

Tales from the Trunk is hosted and produced by author Hilary B. Bisenieks (that’s me). I’m joined each episode by a guest author who works in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and beyond.

Why did you decide to start your podcast or channel?

Originally, I’d been thinking about a somewhat different show—one where authors would come on and read their juvenalia—but Sarah Gailey pointed out that, especially as someone not really known in the podcasting space, that would probably be a hard pitch for me. They did say, though, that if I had a show where I invited folks on to read stories out of their trunks, they’d be very interested in being a guest. That was probably mid-January of 2019, and by that March, I had the first three episodes of the show recorded, talking with Sarahs Gailey and Hollowell and my childhood friend, author R.K. Duncan. Ultimately, I decided to start this podcast, even after changing the format from what I’d initially envisioned, because it was the sort of show that I would have really liked to listen to back in the mid-to-late aughts, when I first became a Podcast Fan™ and thought that it would probably resonate with other folks.

What format do you use for your podcast or channel and why did you choose this format?

Trunkcast is an interview show, and ultimately it’s a cozy chat between friends. I’ve been listening to podcasts for more than 15 years at this point, and public radio interview shows like Fresh Air and The World Cafe for quite a while before that, which really influenced how I think about radio and radio-like things. I knew that the centerpiece of the show, in some ways, would be the reading, but also that the reading was a jumping-off point into the real meat of the show. I have a basic format: introduction, reading, conversation, and the “time machine,” that I’ve been using for all my main-line episodes since the show began, and when I started doing book tour episodes around the start of 2021, I came up with an abbreviated format for those shows that I’ve hewed to pretty closely, too, so I have an idea of the shape of each episode from the jump, but I never really plan on what we’ll talk about beyond that outline.

Hilary B. Bisenieks

The fan categories at the Hugos were there at the very beginning, but they are also the categories which consistently gets the lowest number of votes and nominations. So why do you think fanzines, fancasts and other fan projects are important?

I grew up in fandom, and some of my earliest memories are of being a child-in-tow at Worldcons. My dad has written for various fanzines since he was in his twenties and maintains subscriptions to a few of the remaining print zines to this day. All of this is to say that I can’t picture fandom without fan-works. The barrier to entry is so low, and the output is so vital to the field as a whole. I don’t think anything exemplifies how important fan-works are more than the fact that AO3 won a Hugo. For me, making a podcast is a way that I can contribute something to the massive conversation that is fandom and bring a lot of warmth, encouragement, and camaraderie to all the writers out there with us in the trenches of the submission grind.

In the past twenty years, fanzines have increasingly moved online and fancasts have sprung up. What do you think the future of fan media looks like?

I work in technology and have watched science fiction try and mostly fail to predict the future for decades, so I’m not even going to pretend to guess at what kind of new media fandom might move the conversation into. I will say, though, that video is probably going to occupy a larger role in fan media. We’re already seeing that a little bit with the first booktube channel being nominated for best fancast a few years back, and the only reason I can see for that to slow down is if the platforms that we rely on push further and further away from archival discoverability and more and more towards ephemeral content. I’ve been on TikTok since a couple months into the pandemic, and while I do see booktok content in my feed on the regular, that platform isn’t really conducive to sustained conversation or long-term discoverability of older content.

I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see a bit of a renaissance in print zines, or variations on the theme for people who don’t want to bother with printers and postage. We’re seeing this in the indie tabletop roleplaying space right now, with some creators offering printings of their games or making it easy for players to print out zines of the games themselves. There’s something very pleasing about a tactile artefact, and I would certainly love to see the fanzine space move back towards that even a little bit.

The four fan categories of the Hugos (best fanzine, fan writer, fan artist and fancast) tend to get less attention than the fiction and dramatic presentation categories. Are there any awesome fanzines, fancasts, fan writers and fan artists you’d like to recommend?

Almost all of my fancast faves are on some level of hiatus, but I can’t not give a shout-out to the excellent Be The Serpent. Likewise, We Make Books is a lovely show that I think deserves more attention. The Hugos tend to favor SFF to the detriment of the H, but for folks who like horror films, Rank and Vile is well worth your time. Finally, in the fancast space, A More Civilized Age: A Star Wars Podcast is one of my favorite shows around, and their current (as of this writing) series of companion episodes to season one of Andor provides a ton of additional material to chew on long after the end credits of the show have finished rolling.

For fan writing, Elsa Sjunneson, Sarah Gailey, and Jason Sanford are doing amazing work, and on the fan artist side, a lot of people are sleeping on the amazing work being done by Miri Baker, who created Fran Wilde’s Hugo dress this year and previously created a capelet for Amal El-Mohtar inspired by This is How You Lose the Time War that is just stunning.

Where can people find you?

For as long as it’s still standing, I’m easiest to find on Twitter at @HBBisenieks, and Tales from the Trunk is at @Trunkcast. Failing that, I can be found, utterly unhinged, on Tumblr, also as HBBisenieks (and as trunkcast, hinges still firmly intact). You can find links to all my work at hilarybisenieks.com, and you can listen to every episode of Tales from the Trunk at talesfromthetrunk.com or wherever fine podcasts are sold.

Thank you, Hilary, for stopping by and answering my questions.

Do check out Tales from the Trunk, cause it’s an excellent podcast.

***

Do you have a Hugo eligible fanzine/-site or fancast or a semiprozine and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

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Retro Review: “In a Dead Man’s Shoes” by Harold Markham

Weird Tales April 1929“In a Dead Man’s Shoes” is a historical short story by Harold Markham, which was first published in the April 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

I came across this story via the striking interior artwork (see below) of an eighteenth century hanging by prolific Weird Tales interior and cover artist Hugh Rankin under his pseudonym Doak (Doak was Rankin’s middle name), which intrigued me enough to read the story itself. Rankin also supplied the striking Art Deco cover, illustrating a Seabury Quinn Jules de Grandin story, for this issue of Weird Tales, by the way.

Harold Markham is one of the many pulp era authors about whom we know next to nothing. ISFDB lists only six stories by him, published between 1928 and 1936. Three of those stories were published in British horror anthologies, which leads me to believe that Markham may have been British. The remaining three appeared in Weird Tales.

The Fiction Mags Index lists a few non-fiction pieces by Markham that appeared in Boys’ Life and Boy’s Own Paper. Several of these non-fiction articles are about amateur theatre and indeed Harold Markham published a manual for staging amateur theatre productions in 1931. There also is a Harold Markham who ran a coconut plantation in the Solomon Islands from the 1930s into the 1960s and was a prolific letter writer and diarist, though it’s not clear whether he is the Harold Markham who wrote “In a Dead Man’s Shoes”.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following. Continue reading

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Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre: “Pig Invasion”

It’s time for another Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre photo story. The name “Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre” was coined by Kevin Beckett at the Whetstone Discord server. You can check out all the Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre Photo Stories here.

I have had some new arrivals today. The first is a second Eternian Royal Guard, so King Randor now has two soldiers to guard him. I would have preferred even more Royal Guards, but since they were exclusive to some US-only store, they’re quite pricey in Germany, so two will have to suffice.

The other new arrival is Pig-Head, archenemy of Sun-Man. Now Sun-Man and his supporting cast were not part of the Masters of the Universe line originally, but part of the toyline Rulers of the Sun, which was created to offer Masters of the Universe type figures with some much needed diversity added, since Masters of the Universe was almost all-white in the 1980s with only one black character each in the He-Man and She-Ra lines as well as two Asian characters, both villains. So a black mother, who was frustrated that her young son couldn’t find any Masters of the Universe figures that looked like him (Clamp-Champ, the lone black Masters of the Universe character, only came out in 1987, towards the end of the line), took matters in her own hand and created Sun-Man and the Rulers of the Sun. There’s a lot more background on Sun-Man, the Rulers of the Sun line and its creation here and here.

The Rulers of the Sun toys were never sold in Germany, so I am entirely unfamiliar with these characters and their backstory and have no nostalgic attachment to them. Therefore, I buy them on a case by case basis, depending on whether I like the figure and whether I can get it for a good price. Now I have a soft spot for pigs in general and the villain Pig-Head is a delightfully goofy character, a pig with a Samurai-style helmet in the most mid 1980s colour scheme ever. So once I spotted him for a good price, I bought him.

Since I like taking photos of new arrivals, I made a short photo story to post on Twitter before Twitter goes belly-up altogether, something which is looking increasingly likely.

So let’s see what happens when Pig-Head invades Eternia.

In the throne room in Eternos palace:

Teela reports to King Randor.

Though I now have two Royal Guards, there’s only one guard in the picture, because the second guard is currently on another shelf and forgot to fetch him.

“Your report, Captain Teela?”

“The Royal Guards are currently practicing aerial manoeuvres on their Sky Sleds, Sire. And the outer perimeter is secure. Prince Adam and I made sure of that ourselves.”

“Ah, so that’s why Adam was late for lunch… again. Still, my son’s recent dedication to duty is certainly admirable. You’re a good influence on him, Captain”

“Thank you, Sire. Adam is… ahem… very enthusiastic. About protecting the realm, I mean.”

“Snicker.”

“I’m glad to hear it, Captain.”

BOOM!

Pig-Head invades the throne room.

I didn’t kid about the very mid-1980s colour scheme of blue, pink and neon green.

“By Zoar, what now? Is Skeletor attacking again!”

“Surrender, King Randor, and give up the throne to Pig-Head, Lord of the Swine.”

“Sigh, Skeletor is really scraping the bottom of the barrel with regard to henchmen these days, is he? What’s the matter? Were Stinkor and Clawful too busy that he had to send you?”

“Skeletor? Pig-Head works for neither man nor skeleton. Pig-Head only works for himself. And you will surrender to Pig-Head or face the consequences.”

Teela fights Pig-Head, while King Randor and a Guard look on.

Those boots look like something I might have worn in appoximately 1984.

“Whoever you work for, it doesn’t matter. Captain Teela, would you please remove this overgrown porkchop from my throne room?”

“With pleasure, Sire.”

“A girl? You truly think a girl can beat the Lord of the Swine? Don’t insult Pig-Head and summon your champion, He-Man.”

“Not a girl, but the Captain of the Guard. And I don’t need He-Man to deal with the likes of you, Pig-Man.”

“Pig-Head, insolent female. The name is Pig-Head.”

TWACK!

Teela has knocked down Pig-Head.

“And now you’re just pulled pork. What? Adam isn’t the only one who makes silly puns.”

“Thank you for dealing with this porcine nuissance, Captain.”

“My pleasure, Sire.”

“Pig-Head shall not forget this. Pig-Head shall contemplate his revenge.”

“Well, you’ll have all the time in the world to contemplate… in the palace dungeons. Corporal, take this joint of ham away and lock him up.”

“Of course, Captain.”

***

And that’s it for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed this Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre Photo Story. There will be more stories coming in the future, because I’m having a lot of fun doing these as well as plenty of ideas. Besides, finally having a King Randor figure makes a lot of stories possible that I couldn’t do before, including the secret origin of Skeletor.

Disclaimer: I don’t own any of these characters, I just bought some toys, took photos of them and wrote little scenes to go with those photos. All characters are copyright and trademark their respective owners.

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Small Press – Big Stories: Some of Cora’s Favourite Small Press SFF Books of 2022

So what is “Small Press – Big Stories”?

It’s an initiative started by the excellent SFF blog Runalong the Shelves to celebrate great SFF books (and great books period) published by small presses. Because small presses don’t have the clout and marketing budget of the Big 5, their offerings are often overlooked by readers and during awards season. So Womble of Runalong the Shelves had the idea to highlight great small press books that might otherwise be overlooked during the month of November and invited a bunch of friends and fellow bloggers to join in. You can read more about the project here.

So here is an overview of some of my favourite small press SFF books of 2022 and why you should check them out. The books are listed by author/editor in alphabetical order. Links go to the respective publisher page.

This is only a snap shot of all the great small press SFF books out there, so I encourage you to check out the other blogs participating for more recommendations.

Mage of Fools by Eugen Bacon

African-Australian writer Eugen Bacon is clearly a rising star in our genre. Yet the first time I heard of her was, when I was asked to feature her novel Claiming T-Mo, published by Meerkat Press, at the Speculative Fiction Showcase back in 2019.

Eugen Bacon’s latest release is Mage of Fools, also published by the good folks of Meerkat Press. Mage of Fools is a unique science fantasy tale set in the dystopian world of Mafinga, a polluted hellhole where books, reading and imagination are forbidden by law. Protagonist Jasmin is a widowed mother of two young children as well as the owner of a forbidden story machine. Possessing such a machine is punishable by death and when Jasmin’s story machine is discovered, she faces execution. However, she gets a temporary reprieve… for a terrible price. Because the queen of Mafinga, who cannot have children of her own, wants Jasmin’s children…

Mage of Fools is a great SFF novel, that manages to be both grim and hopeful at the same time. And since Eugen Bacon is also a poet, the novel is beautifully written as well.

***

From future dystopias to the distant past:

Arminius: Bane of Eagles by Adrian ColeArminius: Bane of Eagles by Adrian Cole

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy. British author Adrian Cole is one of the writers who have been holding up the sword and sorcery flag, even when the subgenre was considered hopelessly outdated and dead.

I enjoyed Adrian Cole’s continuation of Henry Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis series. So when I saw that DMR Books, a small press specialising in reprints of classic sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy as well as new works in the spirit of the old, was publishing a new historical fantasy/alternate history novel by Adrian Cole featuring Arminius, chieftain of the Cherusci and the man who drove the Romans back beyond the Limes, I of course had to snap it up.

Now I grew up with the story of Arminius – or Hermann, as he is still known around here – and the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, because it happened in my backyard… quite literally.  The Hermann Monument near Detmold was a popular destination for outings and school trips during my childhood. This was also when I first learned a simplified and idealised version of Arminus/Hermann’s story.

As a kid, I was always happy to visit Hermann, because how can you not love a 25-meter-tall bronze statue of a barbarian chieftain with a horned helme and a seven meter long sword who stands around on his pedestal on top of a mountain in the Teutoburg Forest holding his sword aloft in the classic He-Man “I have the power” pose (a fact that was not lost on little Cora). And I still love the Hermann Monument, even though it tells us more about the time during which it was built than it tells us about Arminius and his fight against the Romans.

For as I grew older, I learned that pretty much everything I thought I knew about Hermann was wrong, starting with the fact that he wasn’t actually called Hermann but Arminius, that he had Roman military training and used their own tactics against them. Poor Hermann was even in the wrong place, because the actual Varus battle, as it’s now known, took place not in the Teutoburg Forest but roughly 100 kilometres to the North in Kalkriese near Osnabrück. The Kalkriese site was discovered in 1987, when I was in high school, and caused a lot of excitement. Because by this point, it was clear that the battle had not happened in the Teutoburg Forest, but until a farmer unearthed several Roman artefacts in Kalkriese, no one quite knew where it was. I clearly remember the excitement when the Kalkriese finds became known, because might this really be it?

So given my geographic connection to Arminius, I of course had to buy Adrian Cole’s take on the story of Arminius. Now Arminius: Bane of Eagles is alternate history, so Cole’s Arminius is not the Arminius of history, though he is still closer to him than Hermann, the bronze barbarian in the forest. Plus, there are plenty of battles, intrigues and even elder gods. Whether you like sword and sorcery or alternate history about Imperial Rome or just want a suitable read for a trip to the Kalkriese museum and/or the Hermann Monument, check out Arminius: Bane of Eagles by Adrian Cole.

***

From Rome and Kalkriese in 9 AD to contemporary Minneapolis:

Last Car to Annwn Station by Michael MerriamLast Car to Annwn Station by Michael Merriam 

Last Car to Annwn Station by Michael Merriam, published by Queen of Swords Press, is another of those books where the description alone makes you take note. Child protective services attorney Maeve is trying to save a little girl from her abusive but powerful family. The legal system won’t help, but luckily Maeve gets help from her librarian love interest Jill, a bunch of fae and the ghosts of the defunct streetcar network of Minneapolis.

Urban fantasy is another subgenre I’ve always enjoyed. Just as with sword and sorcery, the Big 5 publishers near killed off the subgenre due to overproduction approx. ten to fifteen years ago. Except for a few big name authors with ongoing series, urban fantasy is now the province of small presses and indie authors. Hereby, particularly the small presses have published interesting books that go beyond the clichés associated with the subgenre.

One aspect of urban fantasy that was very common in the early days of the subgenre in the 1930s and 1940s, long before it had a name, is haunted machinery. Weird Tales, Unknown and other SFF mags of the 1940s are chock-ful of stories about haunted, possessed or self-aware radios, typewriters, printing presses, bulldozers and yes, trains and streetcars. Yet somehow, this side of the subgenre completely vanished (Christine by Stephen King, published in 1983, was probably the last hurray of the haunted machinery trope), when urban fantasy was revived in the 1980s and 1990s and went into overdrive in the early 2000s.

Last Car to Annwn Station brings this aspect of urban fantasy back, because ghostly remnants of Minneapolis’ defunct streetcar system (taken out of service in 1954 according to Wikipedia) play an important role in the novel. And honestly, the haunted streetcars were what originally sold me on the novel, though I’m also always game for a good lesbian love story. Because in Germany, a lot of cities retained their tram and streetcar networks, even as they went away elsewhere, including my hometown of Bremen. As a result, trams and streetcars are an integral part of urbanity for me – to the point that cities not having them feel somehow weird to me. So of course I was going to read an urban fantasy novel featuring ghostly streetcars, a lesbian love story and a kid in danger. And so should you, because Last Car to Annwn Station is a great novel.

***

From urban to secondary world fantasy:

The Gods Awoke by Marie VibbertThe Gods Awoke by Marie Vibbert

Marie Vibbert has long made a name for herself with short fiction published in Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction and other places. Her three novels to date, Galactic Hell Cats, MegaDeath (co-authored with Tony Quinn) and The Gods Awoke, have all been published by small presses

Marie Vibbert is better known for science fiction, but The Gods Awoke, published by Journey Press in August 2022, is fantasy. The novel tells the story of Hitra, high priestess of Revestre, who in addition to the usual political and theological problems she has to deal with, suddenly finds herself faced with the god she serves suddenly manifesting and throwing the city into chaos.

Now I have never been a huge fan of religion in SFF. Religion is a necessary element of worldbuilding, but when a story focusses too much on a fictional or real world religion, my eyes tend to glaze over and the book tends to hit the wall. See my rants about the many scenes in the Foundation TV series that focus on a fictional religion that doesn’t even appear in the books.

So while I like Marie Vibbert’s work, I normally wouldn’t have picked up a novel about a fictional religion. However, Gideon Marcus, publisher of Journey Press, is a friend of mine and also does not much care for religion in SFF. Indeed, we must be the only two people in the universe who intensely dislike Roger Zelazny’s 1963 religion-focussed story “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”.  And if Gideon liked a novel about a fantasy religion enough to publish it, then I was pretty sure I would enjoy it, too.

This brings me to another thing that’s great about small presses. Because small presses tend to focus on a specific niche or subgenre, you often know what to expect. Of the five small press SFF books featured in this post, I personally know four of the publishers and trust them to deliver great books in their specific niche.

So check out The Gods Awoke by Marie Vibbert, if you want to see what would happen when believers suddenly find themselves faced with the actual deity they worship, especially if that deity is angry…

***

From fantasy gods to the zealous Puritanism of 17th century New England:

Seven Dead Sisters by Jen WilliamsSeven Dead Sisters by Jen Williams

Even though she has won the British Fantasy Award, Jen Williams is one of those authors who don’t get nearly enough attention, especially outside the UK. Her name never comes up, when discussing contemporary sword and sorcery authors, even though her Copper Cat trilogy and her Winnowing Flame trilogy are series that sword and sorcery fans would absolutely enjoy.

The novella Seven Dead Sisters, published by PS Publishing‘s Absinthe Books imprint, is not sword and sorcery but horror. However, sword and sorcery and cosmic horror are siblings separated at birth (I wrote a whole essay about that for the 2022 Necronomicon souvenir book) and I could absolutely see Seven Dead Sisters appearing in an issue of Weird Tales next to a Conan, Kull or Jirel of Joiry story.

Seven Dead Sisters is the story of Alizon Grey, a young woman sentenced to death for witchcraft and for murdering her abusive father. She also is absolutely guilty of the latter, because she did murder her father before he could kill her.

We first meet Alizon, as she is driven to her execution in the back of a cart. The cart is attacked by something unseen and monstrous, the guards are killed and Alizon can escape. Now she must flee through horror infested woods before either the men who want to burn her at the stake or the monster can get her. And during her flight, the reader experiences the story of Alizon and her family via flashbacks.

Seven Dead Sisters by Jen Williams will almost certainly be on my Hugo ballot next year and it might be on yours, too. So check it out.

***

As I said above, this is only a snapshot of the many great SFF books published by small presses. All links go to the publisher website, which will lead you to the rest of the respective small press’ catalogue and even more great books to check out.

Also check out the other participating blogs and the hashtag #SmallPressBigStories on Twitter for even more recommendation.

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Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre: “New Look”

It’s time for another Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre photo story. The name “Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre” was coined by Kevin Beckett at the Whetstone Discord server. You can check out all the Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre Photo Stories here.

I have had some new arrivals recently, including the Teela and Zoar two-pack. I mainly bought the two-pack, because I wanted Zoar the Falcon, but I also got a Teela figure with a nice new headsculpt, which is loosely based on the way she looked in the 2002 cartoon, where Teela had a long ponytail instead of her customary upswept hairstyle. And since Teela is my favourite Masters of the Universe character, I’m always happy to have another version of her. Plus, this Teela has a sword, which is the weapon she actually uses most of the time in the various cartoons. The toys mostly only have the snake staff, even though the snake staff only prominently features in the 2002 cartoon – in every other version she uses a sword.

The fact that Teela got a makeover for the two-pack also inspired the following story. Furthermore, I also get to explore the friendship between Teela and Adora that the cartoons never really gave us (so far) some more.

In Teela’s room in Eternos Palace:

She-Ra gives Teela a makeover.“Are you really sure about this,  Adora? Isn’t the gold a bit too bright and too yellow? And won’t my hair get caught somewhere, if I wear it that loose in battle?”

“Oh please. I wear my hair much longer and looser and it never gets caught anywhere.”

“Yes, but you’re She-Ra and have superpowers. I’m just Captain Teela of the Royal Guard.”

“Relax and trust me, Teela. You look gorgeous.”

She-Ra shows Teela her new look in the mirror“There, see. You look stunning.”

“D…do you think Adam will like my new look?”

“Like it? Trust me, Teela, he’ll love it.”

Zoar arrives, as She-Ra gives Teela a makeover.“Squawk.”

“Oh, it’s you. Hello, Zoar. Or mother, I guess…”

“Squawk.”

“Is that falcon really your mother?”

“It’s her… spirit, I guess. Honestly, it’s all very weird.”

“Believe me, I know a thing or two about weird family relationships.”

She-Ra and Teela show off Teela's new look to Zoar.“So, Zoar, what do you think of your daughter’s new look? Stunning, isn’t it?”

“Squawk.”

“Does that mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’?”

“I have no idea. She never says anything else.”

Teela shows off her new sword to She-Ra and Zoar.“Well, time to do my rounds and make sure all my guards are at their assigned positions.”

“Even better, you can show off your new look and… hey, is that a new sword? It looks fabulous.”

“Thank you. My Dad made it for me for my birthday. Those are the perks of being the daughter of Eternia’s greatest weapon smith, I guess. Which reminds me that I should probably drop by Dad’s workshop first to show him my new look.”

“Knock ’em out, girlfriend. Only metaphorically, of course.”

“Squawk.”

***

In Duncan’s workshop:

Duncan is tinkering with his mace while Fisto looks on.“And why exactly are you adding yet more flashing lights to your mace, brother? You’re supposed to conk the bad guys on the head with that mace, not dazzle them with flashing lights.”

“Because I like the lights, okay? They look pretty. And besides, they soothe babies. Teela always loved those flashing lights, when she was a baby, and so did Adam.”

“I don’t see any babies that need soothing around here.”

“Just shut up, Malcolm.”

Teela enters Duncan's workshop.“Hi Dad, Uncle Malcolm.”

“Oh, Teela, just the person I was looking for. Could you help me with soldering these wires? Cause Malcolm’s big paws are way too clumsy for such delicate work.”

“Hey, who you calling clumsy?”

“Uhm, Dad, Uncle Malcolm, don’t you notice anything different about me? Anything new?”

“Oh yes, you’re carrying the new sword I forged for you? How is it? Well balanced, I trust.”

“Yes, the new sword is great. Adora thinks so, too. But that’s not what I mean. Do you really notice nothing different about me?”

“Other than that your mood is particularly foul today, my dearest niece?”

Teela stalks off, angry.“Oh, just shut up, Uncle Malcolm! After all, it’s not as if you ever notice anything other than weapons and machinery anyway. Both of you!”

SLAM!

“Okay, that was… weird. Weirder than usual I mean.”

“Sigh. I wonder what’s wrong with her today. I hope she didn’t quarrel with Adam… again. It always puts both of them in a terrible mood.”

Duncan and Fisto talk and Zoar appears.“You don’t think she’s pregnant, do you? Cause in that case, you might need those soothing lights after all.”

“By the ancients, I hope not. I mean, I hope Adam and Teela would have more sense than that and be careful.”

“Like you were careful, you mean?”

“Shut up, Malcolm!”

Flutter.

“Squawk.”

Duncan and Fisto talk to Zoar.“Oh, what do you want?”

“Squawk.”

“If you know what’s wrong with Teela, why don’t you just say something?”

“Squawk.”

“And no, you don’t get to criticise my parenting. At least, I was there. You weren’t.”

“Squawk.”

“You know, brother, that’s really freaky. Talking to a bird, I mean. But I guess that’s what you get for sleeping with the bird lady.”

“Says the man who sleeps with a human battering ram.”

“At least Krass is human.”

***

In the throne room:

Teela enters the throne room, while King Randor is on his throne, flanked by Clamp Champ and a royal guard.

Unfortunately, I have only one royal guardsman so far. But Clamp Champ is supposed to be King Randor’s personal bodyguard (as well as a childhood friend of Adam’s and Teela’s), so he fits in nicely.

“Your Majesty…”

“Ah, Captain Teela. How go the repair works on the Eastern perimeter wall?”

“Well, Your Majesty. At least, I think so. I was just on my way to oversee the progress.”

“I won’t keep you from your duties then, Captain.”

“Ahem, actually…”

“Is there anything else, Captain? A security issue? Rumours of an attack? Or has Duncan completed a new invention?”

“Your Majesty, don’t you notice anything different about me?”

“Of course, you’ve got a new sword. A a most fine blade it is, too. It seems Duncan has done excellent work, as usual.”

“Cool sword, Teela. Tell your Dad I’ll drop by at his workshop later, because my clamp has been acting up of late.”

Teela stalks off, while King Randor, Clamp Champ and a palace guard look after her in confusion.“So that’s all I am to you. A soldier, a uniform and a sword. But I’m a person, too. Not that I’d expect any of you to understand that. So with your permission, I’ll take my leave, Your Majesty, and find someone who appreciates me as I am.”

“Oh dear, is she quitting again?”

King Randor, Clamp Champ and the guard wonder what's up with Teela.“Captain Teela is a remarkable young woman and she’ll probably be my daughter-in-law one day, provided Adam actually makes a move. But by the ancients, she can be so very irritating. Or do any of you know what’s wrong with her now?”

“Oh, the Captain’s having one of her moods again. Must be that time of the month.”

“I know I wouldn’t even have this job without Teela, but word of advice, Your Majesty, when she’s in that sort of mood, it’s best just to get out of her way, until she snaps out of it. Adam is the only one who can get through to her, when she’s like that, and he’s not here.”

“Where is my son anyway? Probably taking a nap and skipping combat training… again.”

“Considering Captain Teela’s mood, I can’t even blame him.”

***

In the kitchen of Eternos Palace:

Orko is demonstrating a magic trick to Roboto.“And now watch, Roboto, and I shall show you my latest juggling trick. Five eggs, no hands.”

“Are you certain about this, friend Orko? Because Chef Alan said – I quote – ‘Don’t you dare to touch any of the eggs, you clumsy little imp.”

“I’m not clumsy. Also, I’m not touching the eggs, I’m juggling with them. And my magic actually works now…”

CRASH. SPLATTER.

“…well, most of the time.”

Teela enters the palace kitchen.“Orko, Roboto, just the people I was looking for.”

“Hello Sister, how can we be of service?”

“Hi, Teela. Stay and watch my latest magic trick!”

Teela shows off her new look to Orko and Roboto.“I’m sorry, Orko, but I don’t have any time for magic tricks right now. I have to check on the progress of the repair work on the Eastern perimeter wall. But first…”

“You wanted to grab one of Chef Alan’s amazing cinnamon buns.”

“That, too. But Orko, Roboto, do you notice anything different about me?”

“Well… ahem… if you’re wondering who turned your favourite perfume into vinegar, that wasn’t me, honest.”

“I see that you are carrying the new blade Father made for your birthday. I trust you find it well tailored to your specific requirements. I helped Father to make the sword, you know?”

An angry Teela leaves the kitchen.“Sniff, why can’t none of you ever see me as a person? A soldier, a warrior, that’s all I am to you, all I’ve ever been. But I’m a woman, too.”

“Sister, what’s wrong? Is the sword not to your satisfaction?”

“You wouldn’t understand anyway, Roboto. You’re just a machine.”

SLAM!

Orko and Robot look after Teela.“Teela, wait. Maybe one of my tricks will make you feel better.”

“I have to confess that sometimes I do not understand my sister. Uncle Malcolm says that Teela’s hormone levels are to blame, when she is having what he calls one of her moods. But I scanned her hormone levels and though her cortisol and adrenaline levels are elevated, I do not detect any unusual let alone dangerour levels.”

“I just don’t understand why Teela wouldn’t watch one of my magic tricks. Cause normally, my tricks always make her feel better.”

“I shall talk to Father or Prince Adam about this. Maybe they know what is wrong with my sister and how to help her.”

“And who’ll watch my tricks now?”

***

At the Eastern perimeter wall:

Man-e-Faces and Ram-Man are cleaning up rocks.“Say, Manny, why do we always get stuck with clean-up duty, whenever Skeletor trashes the royal palace?”

“Grr, don’t ask me. I’m just an actor who got roped into all this saving Eternia stuff. I’d much rather be on stage playing Hamlet. You know, doing my real job.”

“Maybe it’s because we are the strongest of the Masters. Though come to think of it, He-Man is stronger than you or me.”

“He-Man isn’t here, grrrr. As usual.”

“Right, He-Man never sticks around for clean-up.”

Teela arrives to show off her new look to Man-e-Faces and Ram-Man.“Oh, hi Teela. Cool sword.”

“Hi Krass, hi Manny. How is the clean-up going?”

“Going fine. We cleared up most of the rubble. Once it’s all gone, we can repair the wall.”

“Until Skeletor knocks it down again, you mean?”

“Never mind Manny, Teela. He’s just grumpy, cause we got stuck with clean-up duty… again. Talking of which, you wouldn’t happen to know where He-Man is, would you?”

“Actually, I’m looking for him myself.”

“Sigh, another crisis? Is Skeletor attacking again?”

“No, I just want to show He-Man something. Something special.”

“Oh, I bet. Snicker.”

“Talking of which, do you notice anything different about me?”

“Except for the sword, you mean? Nope, just plain old Teela.”

Teela stalks off angry, while Ram-Man and Man-e-Faces look after her.“Oh, why do I even bother? None of you will ever truly see me, the real me?”

“Uhm, any idea what that was all about?”

“No. Not even my robot brain can analyse what is the matter with Teela.”

“Sigh, I love that girl and she’s practically my niece, but she can be so very frustrating.”

***

In the palace garden:

Teela meets He-Man in the palace garden.“He-Man, oh…”

“Teela! You’re just the person I’m looking for?”

“Really? You were looking for me?”

“Yes, Beast-Man has enslaved the Rock People and is attacking the Widget Fortress. Quick, we must hurry to free them, before they destroy the Fortress and…”

“Is that all?”

“Isn’t Beast-Man enslaving an entire sentient species to attack another sentient species enough of a crisis for you? After all, the fate of the universe can’t hang in the balance every single day.”

“That’s not what I meant. Of course, we must help the Widgets and the Rock People. But don’t you notice anything about me? Anything different?”

“Of course, you’re carrying the new sword Duncan made for you. I told him you’d love it and…”

“Not you, too!”

Teela stalks off, angry, while He-Man looks after her in confusion.“Teela, what’s wrong…?”

“I thought you were different. I thought you cared about me as a person and not just as a warrior. I thought that you of all people would see me, truly see me. But you’re just like the rest of them! Sniff.”

“Teela, wait!”

He-Man goes after Teela and bumps into She-Ra.“Was that Teela I just saw running past me in tears? What did you do to her, Brother?”

“I… I have no idea. She just said that I don’t care about her, that I don’t even see her, and ran off.”

“So what do you think of the makeover I gave her?”

“Makeover?”

“You know, new hairstyle, new uniform… Oh please, don’t tell me you didn’t even notice.”

“Uhm, actually…”

“Sigh, of course you didn’t notice. No wonder Teela’s angry and hurt. You should count yourself lucky that she didn’t deck you.”

“I’m not even sure what I was supposed to notice. I mean, I’d just heard that there was a crisis at the Widget Fortress and I was so glad to see Teela, because there’s no one else I’d rather fight alongside, and then she just went ballistic on me and started crying and I don’t even know why.”

“In short, you did not notice the new hairstyle or the new uniform.”

“Come to think of it, Teela’s hair did look different than usual. And she was carrying the new sword that Duncan made for her birthday.”

“Sigh, of course you did notice the sword.”

“Because I helped. I mean, not really, I’m crap as a smith. But I helped with advice, because we all wanted to make something really special for Teela for her birthday. Anyway, what do I do now?”

“Now you find Teela and apologise to her. And then you’ll admire her new hairstyle and uniform and the sword, too, if you must.”

“But what about Beast-Man and the Rock People and the Widgets?”

“I’ll deal with Beast-Man and you talk to Teela.”

“But Beast-Man is dangerous and he has enslaved a whole tribe of Rock People.”

“And I’m She-Ra, Princess of Power. I have fought Grizzlor and Beast-Man is nothing against him. And if I need help, I’ll simply take one of the other Masters along. After all, the palace is teeming with heroic warriors.”

“Do you even know where the Widget Fortress is?”

“Not really, but there are maps, you know?”

Roboto arrives in the palace garden to look for He-Man and She-Ra.“He-Man, She-Ra. Excuse me, but I am very glad to find you here.”

“Ah, Roboto. Just the man – ahem, robot – I was looking for.”

“As a matter of fact, I was looking for Prince Adam. Something is wrong with my sister. She is upset and I do not understand why. Orko suggested that Prince Adam could help.”

“Yes, we know about Teela.”

“You do? That is a relief.”

“He-Man will talk to Teela. And you’ll come with me to save to Twidgets…”

“Widgets”

“…whatever from Beast-Man.”

She-Ra goes off with Roboto to save the Widgets, while He-Man goes looking for Teela.“But what about Prince Adam? Everybody says that only Prince Adam can calm down Teela when she is having what Uncle Malcolm calls ‘one of her moods’.”

“He-Man will find Prince Adam, if necessary. And now come on, Roboto. The Twidgets…”

“Widgets”

“…need our help.”

***

In the Widget Woods, near the Widget Fortress:

She-Ra and Roboto arrive to free the Rock People from Beast-Man's control.

I probably should have used some random gnome or dwarf figures to stand in for the Widgets.

“So the reason my sister is upset is because I did not comment on changes in her appearance. Is that correct?”

“Exactly, Roboto.”

“I still do not understand. My sister’s appearance changes all the time. Minor changes such as a bruise, a cut, a pimple, a tan, weight fluctuations, hormonal fluctuations, etcetera. Am I supposed to comment on all of them or just certain changes?”

“Changes in hairstyle, clothing, make-up. Best ignore the rest and by all that’s holy, don’t ever comment on pimples, weight or hormone fluctations.”

“Humans can be very strange. Oh, there are Beast-Man and his thralls.”

“Beast-Man, release these Rock People at once and leave the Twidgets…”

“Actually, they are called Widgets.”

“…alone.”

“Get lost, She-Ra! This doesn’t concern you. The Rock People will force the Widgets to mine Corodite for Skeletor and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Rabar, Togar, attack!”

“Uhh, uhhh…”

Robots fights the Rock People while She-Ra fights Beast-Man.“You take the Rock People and I’ll take Beast-Man.”

“Excuse me. I do not wish to harm you, but I am programmed to defend myself and my friends. But if you would just stand down…”

“Uhh, uhh, guhhh!”

“I guess the answer is ‘no’. I am very sorry about this.”

HACK! SLAM!

“Wuuhhh! Oowww!”

“All right, Beast-Man. End of the line. Release the Rock People!”

“Never, She-Ra. Maybe I’ll capture you and take you to Skeletor. Then he’ll reward me and maybe we can have some fun together.”

“Forget it!”

TWACK!

Beast-Man is down and the Rock-People are free.“What… what happened?”

“Don’t worry, Rock People. You’re free now. That mangy Beast-Man can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Free. We are free. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome. Just doing my job here or rather my brother’s. Come on, Roboto. Let’s get back to the palace and see, if He-Man has managed to make up with Teela.”

“And this time, I shall offer compliments on my sister’s change in appearance.”

  ***

He-Man tries to talk to Teela who is still angry.“Hey, Teela…”

“Go away! I want to be alone.”

“Listen, I… I’m sorry. I…”

“Don’t you have to save the Widgets or something?”

“She-Ra went to save the Widgets and the Rock People from Beast-Man.”

“Sigh, she told you to talk to me, didn’t she?”

“Uh-uhm.”

“And she also told you what to say?”

“Yes, sort of. Look, Teela, I’m really sorry that I didn’t say anything about your new hairstyle and outfit earlier. I think you look great.”

“That’s not good enough, Adam. You’re just paroting what Adora told you to say. Without her prompting, would you even have noticed that I wear my hair differently now?”

“Well, I’m noticing the differences now. Your hair is kind of loose – well, looser than before – and your uniform looks somehow brighter.”

Adam tries to comfort Teela.“You’re terrible at this, you know?”

“I know I’m not very good at this, making compliments and saying nice things. Probably something I inherited from my Dad who never had a single nice thing to say about me.”

“Oh, Adam, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… You’re not like your father. Who also completely failed to notice my new look, for that matter.”

“No surprise there. Dad only ever notices something to criticise it. But I don’t want to be like him and I’m trying to do better. And if there’s one thing I know it’s that I love you, no matter what you look like.”

He-Man and Teela hold hands.“I loved you when you fell into the Tar Swamp, when we were kids, and were covered in tar all over. I loved you when you flat out refused to wear that nice gown Mom got you for the royal reception for Chief Carnivus and just showed up in your regular uniform. I loved you when I came back from the dead and you had that really terrible haircut…”

“But you said you liked the haircut.”

“I never said that. I said that I missed you and that you looked more beautiful than I remembered. Even with the terrible haircut.”

“It was practical, okay. Easy to wash, easy to care for, never got caught anywhere. After all, Andra and I were sleeping rough a lot of the time.”

“I noticed. But you were still beautiful to me. Because you’ll always be beautiful to me.”

“Aww, you really know how to make a girl feel wanted. But what about this new look? Do you like it? Better than the short mercenary haircut, I mean.”

“Of course, I like it. I like what Adora has done with your hair and I like the brighter colours on your uniform and how they bring out your eyes. Like I said, you’ll always be beautiful to me, but you look particularly beautiful today.”

He-Man and Teela kiss in the palace garden.“I’m sorry for going all ballistic on you… and everybody else, I guess.”

“Roboto was really worried about you, you know?”

“It’s just that everybody only commented on the new sword and no one noticed my new hairstyle or outfit. Almost as if they all see me only as a soldier and not as a woman.”

“That’s not true, Teela. We see you as a soldier, because you’re a damned good one. As for the sword, your Dad wanted to make something really special for you for your birthday and we all helped. Well, I mean, I only helped with advice, because I’m crap as a smith, but Roboto actually did help with the forging. And that’s why we were all so happy to see you carrying that sword, because it means that you like it.”

“Of course, I like it. It’s a great blade, beautiful and perfectly balanced. Though maybe I didn’t tell Dad – and you and Roboto, of course – enough how much I liked it.”

“You can tell him later.”

“Why not now?”

“Because now I want to kiss you.”

Smooch.

He-Man and Teela kissing in close-up.

***

And that’s it for today, folks. I hope you enjoyed this Masters-of-the-Universe-Piece Theatre Photo Story. There will be more stories coming in the future, because I’m having a lot of fun doing these. Besides, finally having a King Randor figure makes a lot of stories possible that I couldn’t do before, including the secret origin of Skeletor.

Disclaimer: I don’t own any of these characters, I just bought some toys, took photos of them and wrote little scenes to go with those photos. All characters are copyright and trademark their respective owners.

Posted in Toy Photo Stories, TV | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

First Monday Free Fiction: The Thing From the Dread Swamp

The Thing from the Dread Swamp by Cora BuhlertWelcome to the November 2022 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.

November tends to be a gray and dismal month, so here’s a Thurvok sword and sorcery adventure that takes you into a gray and dismal swamp that’s inhabited by a monster, too, a monster known as The Thing from the Dread Swamp.

So follow Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha as they face…

The Thing from the Dread Swamp

The road to the seaport city of Neamene led through the so-called Dread Swamp. And never was a swamp more aptly named, for it was truly a dreadful and dismal patch of land, a wasteland of green and grey, of brackish bogs and stunted trees, trailing vines and deadly creatures, that stretched along the great river Tereine as it made its way to Neamene and the sea.

The road itself was high and dry enough, built long ago by slave labourers, prisoners captured during one of the wars the coastal cities kept waging against each other. But take even one step off the road and you ran the risk of stepping into a boghole. If you were lucky, you’d only sink in to your thighs or waist or even neck and you’d soil your clothes and lose your boots, once you were pulled out. If you were unlucky, the swamp would swallow you whole.

But bogholes were not the only danger that lurked in the Dread Swamp. For the swamp was beset by deadly water snakes and venom-fanged lizards, clouds of bloodsucking insects and dancing ghost lights that lured unwary travellers to their doom. There were also rumours about even worse things living deep in the swamp, but no one had ever seen any of them and lived to tell the tale.

Four travellers, two men and two women, trudged along the lone dry road through the Dread Swamp. One of the men was tall and muscular, with long black hair and the bronze skin of the nomads of the Eastern Steppes. On his hip, he wore a mighty sword. This was Thurvok, the sellsword.

The other man was shorter and lither, wiry rather than muscular. He had black hair and grey eyes, a dashing moustache and a devil may care attitude. His attire was completely black with the only relief offered by a silver amulet at his throat and a silver dagger at his waist. This was Meldom, cutpurse, thief, occasional assassin and habitual adventurer.

One of the women was tall and statuesque. She was swathed in a moss green cloak. Tresses of flame coloured hair escaped from underneath the hood. This was Sharenna the sorceress.

The second woman was slight and almost waifish, with long dark hair and large eyes, which seemed perpetually terrified. She was dressed in men’s clothes and carried a slingshot on her waist. This was Lysha, the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant turned fugitive from justice and Meldom’s beloved besides.

The four of them were travelling to Neamene in search of employment and adventure. And as with all travellers approaching Neamene by land, they first had to cross the Dread Swamp. It had been a weary two day trudge with nothing but the grey, green and brown swamp on either side of the road. Even making camp was difficult, for there was scarcely enough dry land beside the road to build a fire. And even if you could have found a spot for a camp fire, you’d never have found enough dry firewood.

And so all four of them were weary and miserable, but none more so than Thurvok, for the blood sucking swamp flies had taken a liking to his hot barbarian blood. Another one had just landed on his mighty biceps. Thurvok swatted it away, but it was already too late, for the tell-tale itch told him that the fly had already taken its road toll in the form of a droplet of blood.

“Accursed insects,” Thurvok swore, “Give me a dragon or a monster to slay any day. Cause anything is better than these demonic fiends that no blade can harm.”

“You should cover up, my friend,” Meldom, who up to now had remained remarkably unmolested by insects, said, “Those mighty muscles of yours may impress the ladies, but they also attract swamp flies.”

“Or you could rub your skin with my special blend of insect-repelling herbal oil,” Sharenna suggested, “It’s keeping Lysha and me unmolested by swamp flies and other pests.”

“I am a son of the Eastern steppes,” Thurvok growled, “We do not cover our arms nor use perfume like a woman.”

Meldom shrugged. “Have it your way then and suffer.” He turned to Sharenna. “Might I perchance borrow some of that herbal tincture of yours?”

In response, Sharenna dug into her bag and pulled out a small bottle. But before she could give it to Meldom, an obstacle on the road ahead attracted her attention.

“Say, isn’t that the coach that passed us earlier?” she wanted to know.

Meldom squinted into the distance and nodded. “Looks like it. And it seems to have suffered a broken wheel, too.”

“No surprise, considering they were driving as if a flock of demons were after them.” Thurvok swatted away another swamp fly intent on drinking his blood.

Meldom grinned. “Poetic justice, I’d say.”

“Will we help them?” Lysha asked.

“After they nigh drove us off the road and into the swamp?” Meldom countered, “No, they can fix their own damned wheel.”

Thurvok nodded. “I agree.”

“Before rushing to judgment, maybe we should first see what happened,” Sharenna, ever the voice of reason, suggested, “After all, there are many reasons why a wheel might break. Driving like a man possessed by demons is just one of them. Never mind that sometimes, coachmen drive as if possessed by demons, because they actually are possessed by demons.”

As they came closer, they could see that the coach was slumped to one side, for its wheel had fallen victim to a pothole in the road. Three of the four horses were neighing in protest, while the fourth munched contentedly on some swamp grass that grew beside the road.

Next to the coach stood a potbellied man. He was clad in a tunic of fine scarlet silk and obviously in deep distress.

“Fellow travellers, oh praised be the gods,” the man exclaimed, once he spotted the quartet, “Help! I need help.”

“First he nigh drives us off the road and now he suddenly wants our help,” Meldom grumbled, “And isn’t that just typical?”

“Be nice,” Lysha admonished him, “That’s not even the coachman. Most likely, he’s just a passenger.”

By now, they’d reached the visibly agitated man who was standing next to his capsized coach, wringing his pudgy hands in despair. His splendid tunic of scarlet silk was liberally splattered with mud.

“What is the problem, good sir?” Sharenna asked the man, “And how can we help?”

“Problem?” the man wailed, “First, a pothole took the wheel, then the bog took the coachman, the mud took my clothes and now a monster has taken my daughter, my sweet innocent Cerissa. And I’ll be late for the Grand Market of Neamene, too. Oh calamity!”

From the way he talked, it wasn’t clear which of those many strokes of ill luck he considered the worst.

“Wait a moment, did you just say that the bog took your coachman?” Meldom asked.

“And that a monster took your daughter?” Lysha added.

“Yes, yes, and most horrible it was, too,” the man babbled, “But I forget my manners. My name is Polyxo, vendor of the finest silks, velvets and garments along the coast.” He executed a courtly bow, which looked oddly comical, considering he was splattered with mud and standing in the middle of a swamp road.

“So about that monster…?” Sharenna probed.

“Oh yes, it was horrible, most horrible. After we hit the pothole and the wheel broke, my coachman went to get some wood to repair it. He ventured into the swamp — not very far, just over there…” Polyxo pointed at a burbling pool of greenish water beside the road. “…and then he suddenly tumbled in. My daughter Cerissa tried to save him — such a soft heart she has, my dear child — but it was to no avail. He sank before she could reach him. And then the monster came and took her. Oh, how horrible! My poor child, lost so young.”

Sharenna gripped the wailing man by the shoulders.

“What kind of monster?” she asked, “Did you see it? Did you see where it went?”

“I don’t know. One moment, Cerissa was here, crawling through the mud and holding out a branch for the coachman to reach and ruining her lovely new gown of ice blue shatyk silk besides. Then the leaves over there rustled and something emerged, a giant hand with claws instead of fingers. Cerissa screamed and then she was gone. My poor child gone, taken by a fiendish monster.”

“Did you try to go after her?” Meldom demanded.

“Of course I did,” Polyxo said, outraged, “What do you take me for? But the swamp is dangerous, the undergrowth thick and I ruined my tunic. And besides…” His shoulders slumped in resignation. “…I’m no hero.”

“We noticed,” Thurvok said dryly.

“But you, good folks…” Polyxo cast an appealing look from Thurvok to Meldom to Sharenna to Lysha. “…you look like adventurers. Would you go and look for my Cerissa? Just in case the monster hasn’t eaten her yet. I’m willing to pay you, of course.”

He fumbled at his belt and held up a bag heavy with gold coins.

“Well, in that case…” Meldom snatched the bag from Polyxo’s hand.

“…we’d be only too happy to help and rescue your daughter,” Lysha completed and shot an admonishing look at Meldom.

“Can you at least tell us in what direction the monster went with your daughter?” Sharenna asked.

Polyxo nodded and pointed at the dense shrubbery growing behind the pool of bubbling, greenish water. “There. That’s where I last saw my poor Cerissa.”

“So what are we waiting for?” Thurvok exclaimed, “Let’s go and rescue the damsel!”

He drew his sword and strutted off into the swamp, but before he could take only a single step, Sharenna held him back.

“Wait. Or do you want to end up like that coachman?”

Her hands glowed as she called up her magic. Not long after, glowing green splotches appeared in the swamp.

“The areas that glow green should be perfectly safe. Just make sure that you stay on the path.”

“What about the coachman?” Lysha asked, “Shouldn’t we try to rescue him as well?”

Sharenna cast her witchlight onto the boghole. The bog lay still and silent, awaiting another unwary victim.

“I fear it’s too late for him,” she said grimly, “But maybe it’s not yet too late for Cerissa.”

Because she had the magic, Sharenna went ahead, followed by Thurvok and Lysha with Meldom bringing up the rear. And so they ventured into the Dread Swamp, the burbling brackish water reaching up to their ankles.

“All right, so we know where to put our feet thanks to your magic,” Thurvok said, trying to chase away the cloud of swamp flies that was buzzing around his head. “But how do we know where to find the girl?”

“Monsters are on average pretty big,” Meldom replied, “We should just follow the swath it cut through the vegetation. Like there.”

He pointed at a hole in the undergrowth, where the shrubs had been violently crushed and ripped aside.

“Yes, they definitely went that way,” Lysha remarked, as they filed one by one through the hole in the vegetation. She bent down to pick something from a branch. At first, Thurvok thought it was a blossom, but upon closer examination, it was a piece of light blue cloth.

“This is a scrap of Cerissa’s gown.”

“How do you know?” Thurvok asked, swatting at a swamp fly that had landed on his thigh, “It could belong to the coachman or anyone.”

“No, it’s Cerissa’s,” Lysha insisted, “Her father said she was wearing a gown of ice blue shatyk silk and this…” She held up the scrap. “…is ice blue shatyk silk.”

Because Thurvok was still sceptical, she added, “I know a thing or two about fabric. After all, my father was a silk merchant, if of a somewhat higher class than this Polyxo character.”

“So at least we know we’re on the right track,” Sharenna said. She held up her hand and a path lit up in an eerie green glow. “And that’s the way we go on.”

Deeper into the swamp they went, careful to keep to the green glowing patches. Trampled ferns and crushed branches pointed the way.

Then, when they were skirting a pool of foul, burbling water, Meldom suddenly yelped. He jumped and would have fallen in, if Lysha had not caught him at the last moment.

“Something just bit into my foot,” he exclaimed.

Leaning on Lysha for support, he pulled his right foot out of the mud to reveal a mottled green critter clinging to it for dear life. Meldom slammed it against a tree stump to shake it off and then stepped on it for good measure.

“Vile, foul creature,” he exclaimed.

“Relax, that’s just a krawk lizard,” Sharenna said, “Their fangs cause blisters, if they touch the skin…”

“Oh, now you’re telling me.”

“…but otherwise they’re harmless and don’t hunt anything larger than water rats anyway.”

“So I’ll get blisters on my foot.” Meldom jumped around on one leg. “Ugly, pus-filled blisters. And if they get infected, I might lose the foot and…”

“Oh please, the bite didn’t even go through your boot,” Sharenna said.

Onwards they trudged, guided by the green glow of Sharenna’s magic and the crushed foliage left behind by the creature. The further away they moved from the road, the denser the vegetation and the gloomier the swamp got, until Sharenna’s witchlight was the only illumination.

A scream, high and shrill, echoed through the swamp, stirring up a flock of ilyra birds and sending krawk lizards like the one that had bitten Meldom scurrying up mossy tree trunks.

The four adventurers exchanged a look and quickened their steps, their boots splashing through the muddy, brackish water.

The trail ended at tangle of vines and undergrowth too dense to pass. So Thurvok raised his mighty sword and hacked out a path for them. Another scream echoed through the swamp.

Thurvok slashed the final vine and then they all saw it.

The creature was huge, almost twice as tall as Thurvok. It’s skin was a mottled greyish green that melded into the background. It had a pair of stunted leathery wings and four arms with clawed hands, one of which clutched a terrified blonde girl in a shredded dress of blue silk. The creature’s head was misshapen, with pointed ears, sharp fangs and a single, malevolent eye in the middle of its forehead.

The girl screamed and tried to free herself from the monster’s grip, but the thing was too strong for her. It lifted Cerissa upwards, perilously close to its fangs, which were still dripping with the blood of a previous kill.

“Let go of her, fiend,” Sharenna cried and hurled a ball of magical fire at the creature.

The monster ducked and the fireball hit the tree behind the creature, setting the foliage alight.

Undaunted, Sharenna prepared to hurl another fireball, but before she could, the monster emitted a scream of pure rage and launched itself at the young sorceress. It might have struck her, too, if Thurvok had not shoved her aside and launched himself at the creature, sword raised.

With all his might, Thurvok brought his blade down on one of the thing’s four arms. He’d hoped to sever the arm, but his blade struck bone instead. Nonetheless, he’d wounded the thing, rendering the lower left of its four arms useless. Green blood oozed from the wound like pond scum.

In response, the creature cried out in rage and pain. It dropped Cerissa, who landed with a splash in a puddle of brackish water.

Its prey momentarily forgotten, the creature focussed on Thurvok and Sharenna. It lashed out with its clawed hands and only a quick jump backwards saved Thurvok from being gutted.

Sharenna hurled another fireball at the thing and this time, her aim was true. Alas, her fireball exploded harmlessly against the creature’s leathery skin, though the thing did cry out in pain.

Lysha reached for her slingshot and fired a pebble at the thing and then another and another. One of her shots even hit the monster, though the thing barely noticed.

“Let me,” Meldom said and took the slingshot, “You get Cerissa.”

He started pelting the creature with a steady hail of pebbles and pieces of wood. And unlike Lysha, his aim was mostly true. The missiles were too small to hurt the monster, of course, though they did distract it and left it flailing about with its clawed hands.

While the other three kept the monster occupied, Lysha crept to Cerissa’s side and helped the girl to her feet.

“Come quickly. Let’s get away from here.”

Cerissa nodded and the two girls fled to safety, well behind Thurvok, Sharenna and Meldom who were keeping up the assault.

But the thing was stubborn. Though it was grievously wounded by now and bleeding from several wounds, it refused to die. Flight was not an option either, for the monster had blocked the way back to the road. And its skin was impervious to Sharenna’s fireballs.

Cold hard steel, however, could hurt the creature. And so Thurvok danced around the monster, stabbing and slashing whenever he found an opening and ducking and jumping to avoid the creatures counterattacks. Meanwhile, Meldom kept up the steady hail of missiles.

The fight might have gone on for a long time like this, if one of the opponents had not gotten lucky. But eventually, someone did.

Thurvok’s latest attack missed and before he could jump out of range, the creature lashed out and grabbed him, its clawed fingers closing around Thurvok’s well-muscled torso like a vise.

He was lifted into the air, dropping his sword in the process. The blade fell into the water with a splash. Thurvok tried to free himself, desperately trying to pry the fingers of the thing loose. But it was to no avail. The monster was too strong.

Already Thurvok could see its might jaw, its dripping fangs, could smell the stench of the swamp on the thing’s breath, close, too close. He braced himself for the thing’s bite, for those mighty fangs driving themselves deep into his flesh.

“Thurvok, down,” Meldom yelled.

Something flashed past Thurvok’s head, something gleaming and silvery. The creature screamed in pain and frustration, the hilt of Meldom’s dagger protruding from its single eye.

It staggered for a few more heartbeats, its body not quite yet realising that it was dead. Then it went down with a mighty splash, dropping Thurvok in the process.

Once the creature was down, Sharenna and Meldom hastened to Thurvok’s side to help him to his feet.

“Are you all right?” Sharenna asked, while Meldom bent down to retrieve his dagger as well as Thurvok’s lost sword.

Thurvok nodded weakly. “Just a few scratches, that’s all.”

“Once we’re back at the road, I’ll give you some herbal ointment, lest the wounds get infected,” Sharenna said. And it was testament to how weakened Thurvok was that he did not even protest.

Together, they made their way back to the road, guided by Sharenna’s witchlight. Meldom and Sharenna were supporting Thurvok, while Lysha had her arm wrapped around the distraught Cerissa.

“It’s all right,” she said soothingly to the shivering girl, “You’re safe now. We’ll take you back to your father.”

“Balo?” Cerissa wanted to know, “What happened to Balo?”

Since no one had any idea what she was talking about, the girl supplied, “The coachman. He was my friend.”

“I’m sorry,” Lysha said, “But I fear he’s lost. There was nothing we could do for him.”

In response, Cerissa began to sob and Lysha handed her a handkerchief.

They found Polyxo was waiting next to his capsized coached, still wringing his hands and being otherwise completely useless.

The merchant embraced Cerissa, overjoyed to have his daughter back — only to promptly cast a critical eye on the girl’s dishevelled appearance.

“Oh, but what did you do to your nice gown, my dearest? The fine shatyk silk is all dirty and torn. It’s a complete loss…”

“Does it matter?” Cerissa snapped, “Balo is dead and I was kidnapped by a monster — a giant, smelly monster that wanted to eat me — and all you can think about is my gown?”

Thurvok could not suppress a smirk. At least, Cerissa had spirit and seemed a lot more useful than her father. On the other hand, it would have been difficult for any human being to be less useful than Polyxo.

Polyxo, meanwhile, was still wringing his hands in despair. “Your beautiful gown is ruined, the wheel is broken and with no coachman, we’ll never make it to the market in Neamene in time. Oh calamity!”

Cerissa just rolled her eyes.

“We could fix your wheel,” Meldom suggested and cast a questioning glance at Thurvok.

In response, Thurvok got to his feet. He already felt much better, even without Sharenna’s smelly ointment. “Of course, we could.”

“For a price, of course,” Meldom added.

“Oh, would you?” Polyxo exclaimed, “That’s wonderful. And of course, I will pay your price. I…” He checked his bag, counted the contents and blushed. “…I seem to be somewhat short of gold at the moment, I fear.”

Cerissa rolled her eyes once more.

“That’s all right,” Lysha said and snatched the bag from Polyxo’s hands to count its contents herself. “We’ll take this…” She took out some gold coins and returned the much lighter bag to Polyxo. “…as well as five yards each of your best shatyk silk.”

Polyxo looked as if he was about to object, but before he could Cerissa offered Lysha her hand.

“Deal,” she said, “I think the purple would look lovely on you and green for your friend.” She nodded at Sharenna. “As for the gentlemen…”

“Black for Meldom,” Lysha said, “He wears nothing else. Though I hope I can persuade him to try some silver embroidery. As for Thurvok…”

“I am a son of the Eastern steppes,” Thurvok grunted, as he lifted up the carriage, so Meldom could remove the broken wheel, “We do not wear silk like a woman.”

Lysha ignored him. “That dark red, I’d say. The colour of fine wine.”

***

By the time Thurvok and Meldom had finished fixing the wheel and the adventurers had seen the coach off to Neamene, Cerissa perched on the coachman’s box, the reigns in her hands, the sun had sunken low behind the trees, painting the otherwise ugly swamp in a glorious golden hue.

So the four of them made camp by the side of the road. Lysha gathered what firewood she could find. Meldom caught a large turtle, which they roasted over the fire, while Sharenna dressed Thurvok’s wounds, liberally smearing them with a smelly herbal ointment against his objections.

“Sit still,” she said, “Or do you want to catch an infection?”

“I’ve had worse scratches than these as a boy on the Great Eastern Steppes…” Thurvok grunted, “…and I never caught any infections.”

“On the Steppes maybe not,” Sharenna said, “But swamp water is foul and can easily cause diseases.”

“This stuff smells awful,” Thurvok grumbled.

“Try to see the positive side,” Sharenna said, “At least the smell drives the swamp flies away.”

“I’d rather be sucked dry by those bloodthirsty fiends than endure this stench.”

“Oh come on, you big baby, it’s not that bad,” Sharenna said, “There. I’m finished.” She sniffed the air. “And so it seems is dinner.”

Meldom picked up a chunk of turtle flesh with his dagger.

“This is surprisingly good,” he announced, “At least for a beast that lives in the swamp.”

“That was no beast, just a turtle,” Lysha said.

“Yeah, but it was a nasty turtle,” Meldom countered, “It even bit my hand.”

He held up his right hand, which was indeed reddened and bruised.

“Do you want some herbal ointment for that?” Sharenna asked.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Meldom said hastily.

“So we spend another night under the stars,” Lysha said, huddling closer to Meldom.

“Yeah, sorry about that…”

“Oh, there’s no need,” Lysha replied, “After all, we saved the girl and killed the monster — well, you did. Plus, we earned a bag of gold coins as well as twenty yards of fine shatyk silk for our troubles. And you should know by now that I don’t mind sleeping rough.”

She flashed Meldom a quick, private smile.

“Not when you’re beside me.”

The End.

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

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Non-Fiction Spotlight: The Aliens Are Here – Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television by Fraser A. Sherman

After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.

For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.

Today’s featured non-fiction books takes a look at one of science fiction’s most enduring tropes, namely aliens and the way they are depicted on screen.

Therefore, I am pleased to welcome Fraser A. Sherman, author The Aliens Are Here – Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television, to my blog today.

The Aliens Are Here by Fraser A. Sherman
Tell us about your book.

The Aliens Are Here: Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television looks at how movies and TV have portrayed Earth’s encounters with beings from other worlds. Each chapter takes a different topic — alien invaders, aliens as refugees, alien/Terran love stories, UFO abduction films, genre mashups — and looks at related films, themes and tropes. Then I spotlight one to three movies or TV shows relevant to the chapter topic. The alien monsters chapter, for instance, has The Thing From Another World, The Thing and The Andromeda Strain.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born in England to an English Mum and an American father. In 1969, we moved back to the US and settled into the Florida Panhandle.
I graduated college in 1980 with a biology degree but I didn’t fancy either working in the field or attending grad school. I’d started writing a novel so I decided I’d try writing as a profession. The novel didn’t sell but I liked my career choice and stuck with it. I sold my first short story a couple of years later.
In 2000, after a couple of decades as a published but starving writer with various day jobs (bookstore salesclerk was the best), I became a reporter with a local paper. I loved journalism, I was good at it, and I’d probably still be doing it except in 2008, I met a woman from Durham, NC at a Mensa convention in Denver.
I didn’t get contact information — in my defense, I’d had to leave Denver early — but I was delighted when she reached out to me via LinkedIn. I hoped she was flirting (she wasn’t) and did my best to flirt back. For once in my life I flirted well; I moved to Durham in 2010 and we married in 2011. Since then I’ve been a full-time freelancer.

What prompted you to write/edit this book?

My friend M. David Blake tipped me off that a university press editor wanted a writer for a book about alien visitors in pop culture. I’d written four previous film books for McFarland so the editor was delighted when I applied. We’d put together a proposal and a CV to present to the publisher, but before we could submit it, the editor got downsized. He gave me the green light to submit the idea elsewhere if I wanted so I sent it to McFarland. After proposing some changes to the original concept they sent me a contract.

Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?

Aliens coming to Earth, whether to blow us to kingdom come or eat Reese’s Pieces, are a big part of SF, going back to H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (not the first story of alien visitors, but the first that had any lasting impact on the genre). The Aliens Are Here covers the history of alien-visitation stories on screen, and themes that show up in both movies and print fiction:

  • Othering alien invaders (they’re murdering monsters we should wipe out to the last individual!) in ways that don’t play well when writing about human enemies.
  • Our mixed thoughts about whether high intelligence and advanced technology are a good thing.
  • How The X-Files made TV more paranoid.
  • The different ways in which The Thing From Another World, Predator and Independence Day handle masculinity.
  • How films about aliens raping and impregnating Earth women still focus primarily on the men.
  • How fiction about aliens influences and is influenced by real-world UFO beliefs.

For Hugo voters in particular? Well, if you like good SF, some of the movies I cover are excellent. There are the amazing lead performances in Starman, the special effects of The Thing, the way The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 version, of course) conveys the feeling that what’s happening involves the entire world, not just the United States. I think my in-depth analysis of the spotlighted films in the various chapters is excellent, though YMMV, of course.

Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?

Only in the sense that I’d have liked to write in detail about many more films than I had space for. Sidney Poitier’s bleak drama Brother John, Men in Black, the family dynamics of The Space Children and lots of others I could only touch on. Other than that, if the information was cool and relevant to my topic, I included it.

SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?

Good non-fiction about SFF can help us see it in a different way. Foz Meadows blogging about how movies and print fiction portray gender. Peter Biskind’s analysis of left and right-wing themes in 1950s films (both SF and mainstream) in Seeing Is Believing. As the late Bill Warren wrote in his book Keep Watching the Skies, the best criticism doesn’t just tell us what the critic likes, it helps us understand what we like and why.
Plus it’s fun. I enjoy learning about aspects of genre history; working on movie books is an excuse to read up on that stuff and call it work. Though admittedly I wind up reading some bad books with batshit analysis along with the good.

Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?

Shamelessly, I think my previous book, Now and Then We Time Travel is excellent. Warren’s Keep Watching The Skies is an outstanding book on the SF films of the 1950s, as close to perfect as a film reference book is going to get. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh is my go-to reference for TV stuff, even in the age of the Internet. Brad Schwartz’s Broadcast Hysteria does an amazing job writing about Orson Welles’ legendary War of the Worlds broadcast and how the media exaggerated the level of panic among listeners.
From the movies I saw for in my book, I’ll recommend 1960’s Village of the Damned: it’s insanely creepy and Martin Stephens is a chilling child monster. For TV, I was blown away rewatching the original V (1983) and rediscovering how good it is.

Where can people buy your book?

Amazon, Barnes and Noble or straight from my publisher, McFarland.

Where can people find you?

My website is frasersherman.com. I’m on Facebook (I’m old) and @bogatyr5 on Twitter.

Thank you, Fraser, for stopping by and answering my questions. Do check out The Aliens Are Here – Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television for a detailed look at one of science fiction’s most enduring tropes.

About The Aliens Are Here – Extraterrestrial Visitors in American Cinema and Television:

Aliens: They have taken the form of immigrants, invaders, lovers, heroes, cute creatures that want our candy or monsters that want our flesh. For more than a century, movies and television shows have speculated about the form and motives of alien life forms. Movies first dipped their toe into the genre in the 1940s with Superman cartoons and the big screen’s first story of alien invasion (1945’s The Purple Monster Strikes). More aliens landed in the 1950s science fiction movie boom, followed by more television appearances (The Invaders, My Favorite Martian) in the 1960s. Extraterrestrials have been on-screen mainstays ever since.

This book examines various types of the on-screen alien visitor story, featuring a liberal array of alien types, designs and motives. Each chapter spotlights a specific film or TV series, offering comparative analyses and detailing the tropes, themes and cliches and how they have evolved over time. Highlighted subjects include Eternals, War of the Worlds, The X-Files, John Carpenter’s The Thing and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman.

About Fraser A. Sherman:

A former Florida reporter, Fraser A. Sherman has contributed articles to such publications as Newsweek, Boys Life and Movie Marketplace and is the author of four previous film books and more than two dozen published speculative-fiction short stories. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

***

Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.

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Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month for October 2022

Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month
It’s that time of the month again, time for “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”.

So what is “Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month”? It’s a round-up of speculative fiction by indie and small press authors newly published this month, though some September books I missed the last time around snuck in as well. The books are arranged in alphabetical order by author. So far, most links only go to Amazon.com, though I may add other retailers for future editions.

Once again, we have new releases covering the whole broad spectrum of speculative fiction. This month, we have urban fantasy, epic fantasy, historical fantasy, dark fantasy, sword and sorcery, paranormal mystery, space opera, military science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, horror, vampires, dragons, ghosts, orcs, cyclopi, medusae, wars of succession, war in space, alien invasions, haunted houses, crime-busting witches, displaced villains and much more.

Don’t forget that Indie Speculative Fiction of the Month is also crossposted to the Speculative Fiction Showcase, a group blog run by Jessica Rydill and myself, which features new release spotlights, guest posts, interviews and link round-ups regarding all things speculative fiction several times per week.

As always, I know the authors at least vaguely, but I haven’t read all of the books, so Caveat emptor.

And now on to the books without further ado:

Villain by Blythe BakerVillain by Beth Byers:

Not all endings are happy.

Especially when you’re the villain. When the wicked queen uses her magic to flee her realm, she never expected to end up here.

She and her friends—all notorious villains—find themselves in Astoria, Or. Now they’re trying to make their way in a world of taxes, wrinkle creams, and grocery stores. That would be bad enough, but no one is properly afraid.

It might just be time to teach them who they’re dealing with.

The Ghosts of Marsh House by Amy CrossThe Ghosts of Marsh House by Amy Cross:

Marsh House stands abandoned in the heart of an English seaside town. A local ghost tour guide regularly stops in front of the house to tell its grim tale, but no-one has actually set foot in the building for more than forty years. Until now.

Desperate to get away from his troubles in London, Andrew heads to Marsh House and sets about trying to fix it up. Between rotten floorboards and bug infestations, he’s got his work cut out for him. And that’s before he even notices the strange noises in the night, and the fact that a strange presence is watching his every move.

When he invites a new friend to move in with him, everything changes. Andrew might not have paid attention to the darker side of Marsh House, but his new guest quickly realizes that something’s very wrong. Does the ghost of a long-dead woman still haunt the house, cursing anyone who dares to fall in love? And is this malevolent entity somehow also responsible for the death of a local woman whose body was found on the beach?

And by the time he uncovers the shocking truth, will it be too late for Andrew to ever return to his old life?

The Shattered Spire by Ted CrossThe Shattered Spire by Ted Cross:

The magic of the Spire of Peace has banished evil from the Known Lands for more than twelve hundred years. When a dragon destroys the spire and murders the king, the realm is thrown into turmoil. As civil war looms, can the royal Kaldarion family regain control over the kingdom and restore peace?

Livia, 20, is the eldest child of the slain King Varun Kaldarion. Though the wisest and most learned of the surviving family members, tradition says she cannot inherit the throne.

Balmar, 18, is too feeble-minded to rule, but his uncle, Duke Erol, crowns him anyway in order to appoint himself regent.

Darus, 17, was exiled by the spire’s magic due to his bitterness that his father never named him heir. By force of personality and skill at arms, he has risen to command the army of exiles at the fortress of East Gate. Now he plans to invade the realm and take back what he feels is rightfully his by birth.

Imric, 13, was disavowed by his father after his mother died birthing him. Raised by his sister Livia, few in the realm even know he exists. Little more than a pawn in the conflict between Duke Erol and his brother Darus, Imric may hold the key to reuniting the fractured realm.

Eight Ball by M.R. ForbesEight Ball by M.R. Forbes:

When things fell apart, they fell apart fast, leaving Ben to pick up the pieces.

Unwilling to succumb or surrender, he’ll do whatever it takes to ensure the safety of his crew. Already far behind the eight ball, it’s going to take strength, resilience, and fortitude he never knew he had to get back into the fight.

If he doesn’t, everyone he cares about will die.

 

Grendel & Beowulf by C. GockelGrendel & Beowulf by C. Gockel:

Once upon a time, in our ordinary world, there was a grandmother.

She died.

She was reborn as a Vampire in a world of Magick.

The grandmother de-aged. Her ailments healed, her body became strong, and her wrinkles faded.

Her wisdom, however, did not diminish. She knew monsters need monstrous names so they never forget the monsters they are.

She named herself Grendel, after the medieval haunter of borderlands and drinker of warriors’ blood, slain by the hero Beowulf.

The name seems appropriate. Grendel the Grandmother haunts the borderlands and drinks the blood of (mostly) evil warriors.

But in a Magickal world, names don’t just have meanings, they are prophecies.

And a new hero is rising. He has been molded since birth to fight evil, and been given the tools and skills to vanquish the most insidious evil of all: Vampires.

His name is Beowulf, and he’s coming for Grendel.

Bad Day at Casper Creek by Lily Harper HartA Bad Day at Casper Creek by Lily Harper Hart:

Hannah Hickok is looking forward to her first Christmas in Casper Creek. She has plans for cookies, cuddles with her fiancé Cooper Wyatt, and a visit from Chris Kringle. Instead, the man who visits isn’t the one Hannah was inspecting. No, it’s her former fiancé Michael…and he’s arrived with an agenda.

Michael has more attitude than brains and he’s ready to make life difficult for Hannah…right up to the point where his new fiancée is killed and her body goes missing from the morgue. When Michael is also attacked, Hannah has to use her magic to save him…and it doesn’t go as planned.

Cooper hated Michael when he was just a concept. Now that the man is staying at Casper Creek, Cooper downright loathes him. That’s not his biggest concern though. It seems there’s a new paranormal threat on the horizon…and Michael is a target.

Hannah wants to leave her past behind but she’s going to have to risk her life to save Michael before she can do it. This enemy knows her every weakness, and it’s going to be a fight to the finish to embrace the holiday season and make it to the new year.

Strap in, because it’s going to be a holiday catastrophe.

My Evil Eye by A.L. HawkeMy Evil Eye by A.L. Hawke:

Don’t look at me. Just don’t.

My name’s Gorgiana. For decades, I’ve lived a happy, simple life, shelving books at Sunland University’s library in Florida. But my peace ended when I witnessed an assault, bringing back horrors from my past. Or course, I took care of him. His body’s no longer whole. But that revealed my location.

I asked for help from my best friend, Cora, the goddess Persephone, and everything turned out just peachy. More than peachy. I met this real hot guy named Ash that same night. Later he took me out to a nightclub by the beach—next, a movie. All was well, until some thug stuck a gun in my boyfriend’s back. But I took care of him. He’s in pieces now too. But it all puts Medusa in a heap of trouble.

See, my name’s Medusa. Yeah, I’m that monster with the snakes in my hair. I warned you not to look.

Uprising by Joshua JamesUprising by Joshua James:

NOWHERE IS SAFE.

The survivors of Little Creek hope that salvation awaits them at Keystone, but it quickly becomes apparent that things are not as they seem.

As Len, Vera and Guppie grapple with the new reality on the base, Pammy and Cooper join forces with a sympathetic soldier to take the fight to the Clankers.

An unexpected lesson from an unlikely source might be the key to human survival.

But there is a greater enemy than even the Clankers afoot, and it will take all their ingenuity — and a little luck — to survive this time.

And time is running out.

We All Scream by Amanda M. LeeWe All Scream by Amanda M. Lee:

Stormy Morgan has accepted her life as a witch, and is even looking forward to the future. That means training with the most powerful witches in the Midwest. She’s determined to follow through on her destiny. Despite her best intentions though, not everything is going to be as easy as she hoped.

When Stormy steps in and uses her magic following a bus accident, she’s almost killed in the process. Worse than that, it seems the child she risked her life to save might be an ongoing target. At the bottom of a ravine, in a spot where nobody should be, three magical children threaten one innocent child … and only Stormy stands in their way.

Surviving a perilous fall should make Stormy happy. She’s unsettled though, and the magical children that attacked are still out there. Worse than that, they seem to want her. They blame her for thwarting their plans … and they’re coming.

Stormy is brave and loyal, but she’s in over her head. Her boyfriend Hunter Ryan wants to help but he’s out of his depth. Even the Winchester witches can’t figure out what’s going on. That means they’re all going to have to work together to secure Stormy’s future.

Stormy is ready to fight the good fight. With brutal death barreling toward her, however, she might not even get the chance.

Darkness has arrived in Shadow Hills, and there may be no stopping it. Could this be the end?

Only the Grim by Amanda M. LeeOnly the Grim by Amanda M. Lee:

The big finish is finally here.

Izzy Sage, a bruja with a dark past, is dreaming of a bright future with Braden Grimlock. There’s only one thing that stands in her way.

Banished to a different plane for centuries, the god Pan has managed to escape. He has one goal. He wants to take over the world, starting with Detroit. The only thing standing in his way is Izzy and her merry band of misfits and reapers.

Pan set his plan in motion years ago, and it turns out, Izzy plays into it. He can’t win without her. She has no intention of playing the game by his rules, however. Not only is she going to take him down, but she’s also going to put an end to the revenant army that’s been threatening Detroit for the better part of a year.

Izzy knows what she wants. She even knows how to get it. All that’s left is the fight.

War is on the Grimlocks’ doorstep. The only question is who will win.

The end will make Izzy a legend…if she can survive long enough to see it through that is.

Grimnir: Beasts of Waste and Desolation by Scott OdenGrimnir: Beasts of Waste and Desolation by Scott Oden:

This one might be of particular interest for fans of the blog. It’s an Orctober surprise! “Beasts of Waste and Desolation” is a short story from Grimnir’s wandering days. It’s a bit under 5K words, BUT . . . it’s paired with a sneak-peek at the forthcoming Grimnir novel, The Doom of Odin!

All told, we’re looking at 13,772 words of snarling, spitting action featuring our favorite historical orc.

 

Xenia in the Court of the Winds by Scott OdenXenia in the Court of the Winds by Scott Oden:

Sometimes, the monster is just a man…

Painted as the savage man-eating Cyclops in Homer’s masterwork, The Odyssey, Polyphemus comes to life in Scott Oden’s epic tale of duty and obligation. A giant, one-eyed foreigner living on the fringes of Aeolia in Sicily, Polyphemus shuns his neighbors; he scavenges from shipwrecks along the rocky coast, robbing the dead and leaving their bodies to the sea’s embrace — a monstrous breach of the ancient laws of hospitality.

But, when he is himself robbed and blinded by brutal Achaeans journeying home from the War at Troy, Polyphemus is quick to seek justice from those same neighbors. Making his way to the Court of the Winds, where the King of Aeolia holds sway, he befriends a fisherman’s son, young Glaukos son of Lykaon. Together, they seek to answer the question: can a self-professed monster, an outsider who flaunts the Gods and their laws of hospitality, find justice at the Court of the Winds?

Xenia in the Court of the Winds is a mesmerizing descent into the customs and traditions of the ancient Greeks; a beautifully rendered tale where heroes and villains aren’t always what they seem.

The White Lion by Scott OdenThe White Lion by Scott Oden:

Acre, at the close of the 13th century. The last remaining Crusader stronghold, where the ideals of a Kingdom of Heaven – forged by saints and zealots nearly two hundred years ago – now hang by the slenderest of threads. It is a city menaced by Saracen warlords; a city coveted by the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt. It is a city of infidels and sinners, lepers and thieves, seemingly forsaken by God.

Into this bloody crucible comes Tancred of Antioch, a battle-scarred giant of a man known to friend and foe alike as the White Lion. In the streets of Acre, he plies his trade as a sword-for-hire, a merchant of death, always keeping his true allegiances cloaked in mystery. But, when his friend, the gentle and learned apothecary Jawan Khandaq, is murdered and killers alight upon him, as well, the White Lion goes on the hunt.

Now, from the alleys of the Venetian Quarter to the crypts of the Leper King, Tancred of Antioch will reap a bloody harvest among his enemies. And those who seek to chain him, to exploit him, to kill him will learn the truth at the point of his sword: Tancred of Antioch, the White Lion, is not a man to be trifled with.

In The White Lion, Scott Oden does what he does best — he channels the spirit of Robert E. Howard into a tale of treachery and double-cross; a tale set against the last days of the Crusades!

To Stand Defiant by Glynn StewartTo Stand Defiant by Glynn Stewart:

Trapped between warlords
The choice is simple:
Capitulation…or defiance!

From the Solar System itself, Imperator James Calvin Walkingstick prepares the remaining fleets of the Commonwealth for a desperate and brutal campaign to retake their borders and unify humanity once more.

On the other side of the Commonwealth’s seceding star systems, Dictator Kaleb Periklos gathers his fleets to avenge their humiliation. To the mercenary Admirals of the Stellar League, it doesn’t matter whether the worlds they conquer still kneel to Terra.

Caught in-between these two would-be conquerors are Admiral James Tecumseh and the newborn Dakotan Confederacy. Now guardian to a nation, Tecumseh faces enemies on all sides. He’s left with only one answer true to his and his new nation’s principles.

Fight.

Crow Country by Emily V. SullivanCrow Country by Emily V. Sullivan:

“Everyone was, in one night, made basic again. For when the Lord snapped his fingers, the Devil took the stage. What tremendous music he made”.

October Ninth – the day the world went dark. Nearly three decades later, life is different. Slower, sicker, meaner. In Colorado the Old West was reborn, and with it came the Crows, beastly birds with a taste for man. They’ve outgrown Denver, the Crows. Judge sees how they spread, how they hunt and feast on what remains of mankind, and he hates them. The blackout without mercy—already crippled the world. The past twenty-six years only saw survivors shrivel and perish, quietly, pathetically. All because the lights never turned back on. Instead, through death and dark nights, the untamed West came roaring back, and with it the stink, the grime, and the danger of older days. Now bloodthirsty birds flock to finish what the Devil started.

If Judge could butcher them all, he would. Law has other plans. Perhaps by reliving the past, the town of Genesis might find its future. Already it bears vision, purpose, and people; it has guidance under Law and order through Judge. But talk of a machine, after so long of silence, stagnation, and simple living, has made Law a moth to a dangerous flame. He might walk through hell just to see it. He might take his whole town with him. But there are others—the callous, the crazed, the greedy—who stand in their way.

Could be all of them want the train. For power, for protection, or just for the sake of having something no other soul could claim, the rumor has started a race. One Law intends to win. Because the Crows are coming. And what good are walls when the Devil has wings?

Free Systems by James David VictorFree Systems by James David Victor:

When the pressure is the highest, a person’s true character will come out. The same can be said for entire civilizations.

Artemis has rejoined her childhood friend, Max, and they are now on the same assignment: conquer a new world and defend it from attack. In the process, she finds herself in the middle of a conflict she wants no part of, and her loyalties will be tested. If she makes the wrong choice, it could cost Artemis her life. Will she be able to handle the pressure and make the right choice or will she pay the ultimate price for the mistakes of others?

Free Systems is the third book in the Honor Among the Stars series. If you like sci-fi adventures, space battles with complex alien invaders, and unexpected twists in humanities exploration of the stars, you definitely want to know what happens next.

The Man on the Roof at Midnight by Eric M. WoodsThe Man on the Roof at Midnight by Eric M. Woods:

Fall asleep before you hear the footsteps …

Dr. Owen Drake recently suffered a tragedy so painful that he picked up his entire life and ran away from the memories. Now, Owen is in a new city with a new job as a psychology professor at a reputable university.

He also has a new home that sits on a lake, but the area is eerily quiet. The lake is calm. The neighbors are mysterious.

But then there are the nights … and the thundering noises above … that wake him every night at the same time…

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