The 2021 July Short Story Challenge – Day by Day

For starters, Smashwords is currently having its annual summer sale, where you can get plenty of e-books at reduced prices or for free, including several of mine.

In other news, blogging will be light this month and the remaining two Loki reviews may be delayed, because I’m currently doing the July Short Story Challenge again.

What is the July Short Story Challenge, you ask? Well, in July 2015, Dean Wesley Smith announced that he was planning to write a brand new short story every day during the month of July. The original post seems to be gone now, but the Wayback Machine has a copy here. At the time, several people announced that they would play along, so I decided to give it a try as well. And then I did it again the following year. And the next. And the next. If you want to read my post-mortems of the previous July short story challenges, here are the posts for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.

Because I’ve already done the July short story challenge six years in a row now and always found the experience very rewarding, I’m aiming for a repeat this year. Though for now, I’m only committing to doing this for a week, which is already half over. If things are going well, I’ll keep going.

In previous years, I’ve always done a post-mortem post about the July Short Story Challenge in August. In 2019, I also started keeping a running tally of all stories written to date right here on this blog to hold myself accountable. It worked well and so I did it again in 2020. I will do it again this year as well and will update this post with every new story. This tally will be very basic, listing just the date, title, word count, genre, series, if any, and maybe a one or two sentence summary/comment.

Most of these stories will become longer in editing. Many will eventually change their titles and some may never see the light of day at all.

If you want to follow along with the challenge, bookmark this post. And if you want to play along or cheer me on, feel free to do so in the comments.

And now, let’s take a look at the stories:

July 1, 2021: I Deal in Death: Confessions of a Death Dealer, sword and sorcery, 1825 words

Once, Malaroc of Grim Valley was just a farmboy, chasing adventure and glory on the battlefield. Now, he is the royal executioner, known only as the Death Dealer. But Malaroc isn’t happy with his job and has hopes and dreams that are quite different…

This one was inspired by Frank Frazetta’s famous painting “Death Dealer”. I wondered who the man with the bloody axe and the horned helmet was and had the idea to write a “True Confessions” type story from his POV. It was initially supposed to be a humor piece, but turned out a lot more earnest in the end, as my take on this character is someone who’s deeply conflicted about staying in a job he doesn’t like, but that pays well and that he’d good at, or following his dreams.

July 2, 2021: The Thing in the Sewer, horror, 3882 words

During the summer after finishing school and before starting university, Nina takes a job as a newspaper delivery girl in a deceptively quiet suburban neighbourhood.

But then, cats and dogs start vanishing in the neighbourhood. And Nina begins to hear strange sounds from the sewers.

This one was inspired by my daily morning walks. Pretty much everything in this story is real… except for the monster in the sewers.

July 3, 2021: The Wrong Dragonslayer, fantasy, 2909 words

Khulan was never supposed to be the one who kills the dread dragon Shirasemur. But the knights of the realm are bloody useless, her friend Saranta is about to be sacrificed to the dragon and someone had to do it.

But Khulan’s troubles only begin once she has slain the dragon. For the knights of the realm are not only useless, they’re also treacherous…

This is another story that was inspired by a piece of fantasy art, namely this one by Brock Grossman.

July 4, 2021: Desolation Rock (The Day the Saucers Came…), alien invasion, 3895 words

It’s June 9, 1956, also known as the day the saucers came. Maggie is eighteen and helps out at KGTV Radio in Desolation Rock, a radio station that her family has operated for thirty years now.

However, Maggie is troubled, because her father, who hasn’t been quite right in the head since he came back from the war, has taken a turn for the worse and is babbling about mysterious alien signals, glowing discs and little green men from outer space. Luckily, there’s also Billy Ray, the new discjockey with the easy smile who plays all the latest rock ‘n roll records.

Then one night, the universe proves Maggie’s father right, when a flying saucer appears in the sky over Desolation Rock…

This story was inspired by another piece of SFF art, namely this one by Alben Tan. When I saw it, I thought, “That looks like a The Day the Saucers Came… story.” So I wrote a story about a rural radio station, two young rock ‘n roll fans and the only person in the entire series who isn’t surprised when the saucers arrive. We also learn that the saucers have been here before.

July 5, 2021: Devil’s Moor, horror, 3118 words

The runestone has been standing at the edge of Devil’s Moor for centuries, protecting the village from the things that dwell on the moors.

Rieke is a village girl from the moors and knows all the old legends, but she doesn’t really believe them. After all, she went to school in the city. And so, when Dr. Johansen, curator of the local museum and anthropology student Michael, who’s doing his internship at the museum, ask Rieke to show them the runestone, she’s only to happy to oblige.

However, there is more than a kernel of truth to the old legends…

The initial inspiration for this story was this piece of fantasy art by Nele Diehl. The setting, Devil’s Moor, is a real place just north of Bremen, where my parents had a holiday cabin, when I was a kid. It does have bogholes and old legends, but no runestones nor things that dwell on the moors.

For some reason, this story wound up being set in the 1970s, probably because the real Devil’s Moor region was still quite backwards at the time, though that was changing fast. Still perfect for a story that’s about a clash between the modern and the ancient world.

July 6, 2021: Village of the Unavenged Dead, dark fantasy, 1853 words

Thirty years ago, the village of Taichar at the foot of the Tenegri mountains rose in revolt against the cruel Emperor Gemur. When the imperial troops retook the village, the Emperor’s vengeance was swift and he ordered every single man, woman and child in the village put to death.

But one man escaped the slaughter, Khubidek, apprentice to a local wizard. Khubidek fled and wandered the world, accumulating magical knowledge.

And now, thirty years later, Khubidek is back. Now a powerful necromancer, he’s still hellbent on vengenance and if he has to raise the unavenged dead of Taichar, then so be it…

This story was inspired by this piece of fantasy art by Nele Diehl. The result feels a bit Clark Ashton Smith like.

In general, this year’s July short story challenge tends to yield dark and gloomy stories and well as a surprising amount of horror stories. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Weird Tales or maybe it’s just the general mood. On the other hand, I finally seem to have figured out how to write horror, which is a good thing.

July 7, 2021: Free to a Good Home, science fiction, 1663 words

Naoko is a single Mom and space freighter captain. During a stop on the planet Yerxa, her daughter Mika spots a sign saying “Free to a good home” next to a native creature. And Mika would very much like a pet.

There’s only one problem. The native creature in question is a Yerxanian hybrid hell pig and it’s huge and ugly…

This story grew from a mix of inspirations. One was this piece of SFF art by Nikolai Lockertsen. The other was a news report about radioactive hybrid pigs terrorising the Fukushima exclusion zone. The result was a rather sweet story (and the only one without a body count so far) about a little girl, her mom, an aged miner and a good-natured alien monster pig.

This story is rather short, because I have to get up early tomorrow. The review of this week’s episode of Loki may be a bit late for the same reason.

July 8, 2021: The Vault with the Nine Sigils, dark fantasy, 1653 words

Deep in the jungle of Teyapan, there stands a ruined city that is not on any maps. And at the heart of this city stands a mighty temple, under which there is a sealed vault marked with nine glowing sigils and the following inscription:

“Beware Traveller. Three sigils to seal the vault. Three sigils to open it. Three sigils to doom. Choose wisely, Traveller, and be on your way.”

One day, the bandits Zeferi Santos and Alaric Gazul stumble upon the lost city and the vault under the temple. Hoping for treasure, they attempt to open the vault. Alaric perishes, but Zeferi spends months trying to open the vault, never once wondering whether that’s even a good idea…

This is another short one. I got my first covid shot today and am pretty tired and the penultimate Loki review took up time as well.

This is another rather grim story that feels a little Clark Ashton Smith like. No idea why my mind keeps turning out gloomy short stories. The actual inspiration was this piece of SFF art by Nele Diehl.

July 9, 2021: The Inn at the Foot of the Accursed Mountains, horror, 2513 words

On the border of the kingdom, there stands a mountain range known as the Accursed Mountains, because travellers keep vanishing in those mountains. Eventually, only the clueless, the desperate or the foolhardy will dare to cross the Accursed Mountains.

A young scholar on a mission to deliver an important letter to the far side of the mountains is desperate enough to attempt the crossing. But by the time he reached the Accursed Mountains, night has fallen, so the inn at the foot of those mountains seems like a safe haven.

But maybe it’s not the mountains that are accursed. Maybe it’s the inn…

This is another rather gloomy horror story. Every year during this challenge, I find that there is one kind of story that my mind is able to churn out even when I’m tired. This year, my mind seems to be determined to churn out gloomy horror stories.

The initial inspiration for this story was another piece of fantasy art by Nele Diehl. Further influences were The Spessart Inn, From Dusk Till Dawn and yet another Nele Diehl illustration.

July 10, 2021: The Frozen Sword, historical fantasy, 1396 words

Far up north in the frozen wastelands, where the ice never melts, there stands a tower of grey granite, covered over and over in runic inscriptions. Near that tower, a sword stricks out of the ice. When a young archaeology student unwisely attempts to pull the sword out of the ice, he suddenly gets a very vivid glimpse of the distant past.

I had a busy day today and am also still experiencing some mild fatigue due to getting my first covid shot on Thursday, so this is another very short story. The inspiration was this piece of fantasy art.

July 11, 2021: The Allies of Red Isabella, historical fantasy, 1983 words

Isabella Jimenez a.k.a. Red Isabella is the most notorious pirate of the Spanish Main. But her glorious career seems destined to end on the gallows, when Captain Robert Kennard of the Royal Navy frigate Relentless lays a trap for Isabella, sinks her ship, slaughters her crew and captures Isabella to take her to Port Royal for trial and execution.

But Isabella still has an ace up her sleeve. For she is allied with the sea itself and all its creatures…

This story was inspired by this piece of fantasy art by Odin Dwarfi. But pirates, particularly female pirates, have been on my mind of late, whether it’s Valeria of the Red Brotherhood from “Red Nails”, the last Conan story Robert E. Howard wrote during his lifetime, which I’m currently rereading, or a pirate subplot in a smartphone game I sometimes play to relax.  So I guess my mind was simply primed to spin a pirate tale. Besides, I happen to like pirate stories, though it’s been a while since I wrote one.

I really like the protagonist, Red Isabella, the pirate captain who can talk with the animals of the sea (and her parrot Buckshot), and wouldn’t be surprised if she pops up again eventually.

July 12, 2021: Canned Food, fantasy, 712 words

American tourist Joe Mackintosh wants to visit the homeland of his ancestors and decides to explore the Scottish Highlands while going way too fast in a rented sportscar, anooying sheep and almost running over a capercaillie.

Joe is an accident waiting to happen and it’s just pure luck that he hasn’t killed anybody yet. But eventually his luck runs out and he crashes his rented sportscar into Loch Ness and meets its most famous inhabitant. Too bad that Nessie is a carnivore… and hungry…

This is the shortest July challenge to date, but not because I ran out of time, but simply because it didn’t need to be any longer. The inspiration was a discussion about American tourists renting overpowered cars, while in Europe, and causing accidents and near misses.

This one could theoretically be science fiction as well, depending on whether you believe that the Loch Ness Monster exists, but I’m going with fantasy here, because the story also has multiple talking animals and is largely told from their POV.

July 13, 2021: The Healing Tree, historical fantasy, 955 words

In the French Alps, there is a monastery where a magical tree grows. A single leaf of this tree can cure any illness and even bring back people from the brink of death. However, there is a price. For anybody who plucks a leaf from the healing tree will lose their most cherished memory.

One day a student named Rathier visits the monastery to pluck a leaf from the healing tree to cure a woman with whom he’d fallen in love at first sight…

Another very short flash piece, but then I had a busy day today and it’s not yet over, cause I still have a reading in two hours.

This started out as one of those vignette style pieces about strange fantasy locations that I occasionally turn out, but then it actually developed a plot. The inspiration was this piece of fantasy art.

July 14, 2o21: Hotel of Hell, horror, 1727 words

College student Joe Cummings tries to summon a minor demon, using a grimoire he found in the university library. Unfortunately, the deserted house he’s chosen for this purpose has a dark history, for it was here that seriel killer Henry William Webster killed twenty-two guests of the boarding house he operated.

Due to the dark energy pervading, the spell is a lot more powerful than Joe expects and summons not a demon, but a Great Old One. Luckily, Elijah Blackstone, sworn enemy of evil and hunter of monsters, is on the case.

I wasn’t really expecting to write an occult detective story, but it seems I have. The initial inspiration was this piece of fantasy art by Erikas Perl. The story of 19th century serial killer H.H. Holmes and his “murder castle” also played a part.

July 15, 2021: The Bog of the Damned, horror, 1916 words

Jutland, 152 BC

Germanic Chieftain Holmgeir has the perfect plan to get rid of his rival Hakon and his unwanted wife Katla by having them executed for adultery and thrown into the bog at the edge of the village. But Hakon and Katla swear vengeance, either in this life or the next.

Jutland, 1958

Linette has been crowned the May Queen at the May Day dance in her Danish village. However, the mayor Arnold Svenningsen believes that his office also gives him certain rights with regard to the May Queen.

Linette manages to escape him and runs off into the moor, but Svenningsen pursues her. But the ghosts of Hakon and Katla are still waiting, biding their time to have their vengeance…

The initial inspiration for this story was this piece of fantasy art by Erikas Perl. Somehow, it turned into a story about vengeance, bog bodies and reincarnation.

July 16, 2021: Lady in Waiting, fantasy, 1765 words

Every day, Princess Iolithia stands by the great window of the palace, waiting for her beloved Floribert to return from the quest on which her father King Ranulf sent him.

However, Iolithia does not know that Floribert will never come back, because her tyrannical father sent a squad of assassins after him to kill him. Once she finds out, things turn ugly…

I had a nasty headache today and so it took me a long time to come up with an idea for today’s story. What finally sparked one was this piece of fantasy art by Nele Diehl.

July 17, 2021: The Tear of Chronos (Kurval), sword and sorcery, 7374 words

It’s the day of Kurval’s official coronation, after he took the throne of Azakoria. And as part of the festivities, Kurval is required to ask the Tear of Chronos, a magical jewel kept at the temple of the moon goddess Ashvarya for a vision of his future.

But there are those who want nothing more than to see Kurval gone, so they can take the throne for themselves. Furthermore, Kurval’s meditation in the inner sanctum is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a flesh and blood woman who’s not only the spitting image of the goddess, but who also wears the Tear of Chronos around her neck…

This is the longest July story challenges to date, just below the novelette line (and it will likely cross that line in edits). It was also a lot of fun, because it teams up Kurval with one of my oldest characters, Stella, a sorceress with a magical jewel who can travel through time and space, which means she can pop up anywhere. This time around, Stella wanted to guest star in a Kurval story and dress up like a woman from a Margaret Brundage Weird Tales cover, so who am I to deny her?

This story is also quite meta, because Stella very much knows that she has landed in a sword and sorcery story.

July 18, 2021: Santa Maria, crime fiction, 1483 words

It was supposed to be a two week all inclusive holiday on the Caribbean island of Santa Maria, dalliances with local women included. But for one man, his dream holiday quickly turns into a nightmare, when his relationship with a local woman named Sharisha goes disastrously wrong…

I normally write quite a few crime shorts during the July Short Story Challenge, but this is the first one I’ve written this year. The inspiration came from a Twitter conversation, wherein the German pop song “Santa Maria” by Roland Kaiser was mentioned, which for some reason is considered a Christmas song in the Netherlands, even though it’s actually a song about a guy on holiday on some tropical island, where he deflowers a local girl on the beach, before jetting off home again.

Now “Santa Maria” is a terrible song and with terribly cliched and borderline creepy lyrics. Singer Roland Kaiser supposedly wrote the lyrics as a parody of German pop song clichés, after the record company rejected his original lyrics, and was shocked that the record company actually liked that nonsense.

Since the song was not only stuck in my head now and but also is already pretty creepy, I had the idea to turn it into a crime story, where the sexual encounter on the snow-white beach goes disastrously bad. The woman is no sweet innocent virgin here, but a thief, and the guy is worse.

July 19, 2021: Conversation with a Demon, urban fantasy, 1844 words

Katherine, a devoutly religious college student, suddenly finds herself possessed by a demon and considers an exorcism. Her friend and roomate Saffron is vehemently opposed to this idea. Instead, she proposes asking the demon what precisely it wants…

The inspiration for this one was that in The Exorcist and similar horror movies and novels, the premise is always that demons possessing someone is a bad thing and that the demon must be removed by all means possible. However, no one ever bothers to find out what the demon wants and if it’s possible to find a compromise. So I wrote a story where the characters just ask the demon what it wants.

This was originally intended as a humor piece, but I realised that I couldn’t write it, unless I took Katherine’s belief in and fear of demons seriously. It’s also another example of my favourite approach to dealing with the supernatural, namely figure out what it wants.

July 20, 2021: The Crypt of the Damned, historical horror, 1398 words

1566 AD. The French aristocrat Guillaume de Saint-Yves is an alchemist and dabbles in black magic. One day, the grimoire of an executed sorcerer falls into his hands. The grimoire is full of exciting spells Guillaume is eager to try out, including a spell that promises to summon a Great Old One from the depths of the Earth to smite one’s enemies. There is no way that is a good idea…

The inspiration for this story was this drawing by Spanish artist Raúlo Cáceres, which I found in a review of his Lovecraftian graphic novel Insania Tenebris at Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein.

July 21, 2021: The Isle of the Dragon, historical fantasy, 928 words

High up in the North Atlantic, there is an small island surrounded by steep cliffs. On this island, there is a mountain topped by curious structures which look like the skeleton of a dragon.

For once, this island was inhabited by the fire-breathing dragon Nildredir who terrorised all ships that dared to come too close to the island. Until the viking Hallgrim Hardbeinsson and his East Roman friend Gaius Cantilius Dannicus come up with a plan to kill the dragon…

I was planning to write something else today, but it was a busy day, so all I could manage was this flash piece. The inspiration was this piece of fantasy art by Dmitry Dubinsky.

July 22, 2021: Out of Work, science fiction, 1069 words

Jirghogugur, Jirg for short, is a bug-eyed monster, who’s out of work after the death of the science fiction pulps has killed off the demand for bug-eyed monster cover models. So he heads to an employment agency to find a new job.

But what job can possibly by suitable for a slimy alien with a dozen eyestalks and countless tentacles?

The inspiration for this story was a conversation on Twitter about vintage pulp covers and how readers tended to complain about the lurid covers. In particular, a reader wrote a letter to Planet Stories, saying that if not for Planet Stories covers, all of those poor bug-eyed monsters would be out of work.

So the idea was born to write a story about an unemployed bug-eyed monster at an employment agency.

July 23, 2021: The Witchfinder’s Apprentice, historical horror, 2528 words

Matthew Goodson is apprenticed to the witchfinders Gideon Jacobs and Caine Hopkins and their torturer/executioner Fear-God Moody. Together, they travel from village to village and town to town in 17th century New England, always on the hunt for witches, eager to do God’s work and stamp out evil.

But Matthew has his doubts about his trade and whether they are truly doing good. And these doubts come to a head, when Matthew is ordered to executed a young witch with his own hands…

The inspiration for this story was this post by Grady Hendrix at Tor.com, wherein Hendrix talks about the depiction of criminal profilers in popular culture and how it has next to nothing to do with reality. Hendrix writes:

Profilers were dedicated men (or mostly men) with strong convictions who went to small towns where evil had been done. They examined the scene of the crime, years of training allowing them to see evidence invisible to the untrained eye, trying to stop these godless monsters before they struck again. They had very little in common with actual FBI profilers who spent most of their time in offices typing reports, but they did have a lot in common with 17th-century witch hunters. Like profilers, witch hunters were men on a mission who arrived in small towns armed with nothing more than extensive training and faith in their infallibility. They visited crime scenes and conducted interrogations to discover the identities of secret evildoers who lurked undetected in the midst of their neighbors, trying to stop them before they struck again. Both serial killers and witches were viewed as nothing more than pure, Satanic evil—so anything you did to capture and/or kill them was totally justified.

The comparison of criminal profilers, as depicted in popular culture, and 17th century witch hunters sparked an idea to write a story that’s basically Criminal Minds with Puritan witch hunters. The witchfinder team is loosely based on members of the Criminal Minds team. I may eventually expand this to novelette length, because it has potential.

July 24, 2021: The Frozen Citadel (Kurval), sword and sorcery, 4153 words

During his days as a mercenary, Kurval and his friend Tsabo head for the Citadel of Harjula in the frozen north of the kingdom of Simola to take service there. But when they finally get there, no one answers their calls and the citadel is seemingly deserted. Inside, they find the soldiers frozen where they stoof, encased in solid blocks of ice. And whatever attacked them is still inside the fortress…

This story was inspired partly by a throwaway line in one of the other Kurval stories about the monsters he fought in the part and partly several pieces of fantasy art, namely this one, this one and this one, all by Nele Diel.

July 25, 2021: The Fairy Ring of Misty Meadows (Hallowind Cove), cozy fantasy, 2184 words

On one of the rare clear days in the permanently fog-shrouded seaside town of Hallowind Cove, a fairy ring appears on the playground of Misty Meadows.

Hallowind Cove is known as the Harbour of the Weird for good reasons and so the locals know that fairy rings are bad news. Unfortunately, the Hutchinson family, who have only just recently moved to Hallowind Cove, decide to take their little daughter Emma to the playground on just that day. And since the Hutchinsons don’t believe in fairies, they certainly don’t pay attention to fairy circles either…

The inspiration for this story was this tweet by Catherynne M. Valente with a photo of a fairy ring on a playground. It sparked an idea about fairies snatching children from a playground.

When I started to write, I called my fairy-haunted playground “Misty Meadows” and thought, “Wait a minute, that sounds like someplace in Hallowind Cove.” And so the idea to turn the story into a Hallowind Cove tale was born. It also made the writing easier, because Hallowind Cove already has an established cast of characters. And so the Hutchinsons from The Standarounds of Twilight Gardens are back as are Paul MacQuarie and Rachel Hammersmith (whose baking skills save the day again) and of course, Hugo the raven.

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1 Response to The 2021 July Short Story Challenge – Day by Day

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