Category Archives: short story
By Sam Whitehouse
and how writing changes
One year in high school we had an English exam where we had to write about fear. We had an hour to write a short piece of fiction focusing around what scared us, or what scared a character. I couldn’t think of anything I was scared of worth writing about, so I decided to create a character instead. I can’t remember fully what I wrote, but a few years later I wrote the same–or at least what I could remember– piece again without the time constraint. It turned out to be more flash fiction than short story.
Flash fiction is a good way to get back into writing if you’re not in the mood or come up against writer’s block.
The story below is as I wrote it a few years back. It’s interesting to look back on something you wrote years ago, compare it to how you write now. I used to focus more on description, less on story, pace and character. I learned to play around with sentence structure–use less complex, long sentences. This is also the first time I used present tense–even if it wasn’t a conscious decision.
As I stare into the inky heart of darkness, it stares back at me.
My bare feet are numb against the glacial air and I can no longer feel the sting of the lacerations inflicted by the thorns and shards of rock that jut from the frozen ground like pointed, black teeth. A bitter wind snaps at my fingers and so I bury my hands in my pockets, searching for any last morsels of warmth. There are none. Cold dread permeates everything.
The forest’s yawning maw beckons me closer, seeming to draw me forth with an unnatural pull. But with what little self-control I have left to me I do not move.
I stop. I stand. I stare.
Gnarled roots erupt from the earth, tearing it asunder, making it pulse and writhe; they furl forwards, breaking away from their shadowy retreat, edging towards the last of the light… only to recoil: creatures of the dark.
My eyes watch unblinking, fearing that to avert my gaze will render me vulnerable to her. She is risen from her slumber now and is hungry. I hear her send forth her children: Crows with slicing razor beaks; clicking, hissing insects; thorny vines, creeping and winding. All advance hesitantly; they are wary of the burning light.
I can hear her breath, it echoes from the depths of the trees: stinking, foul and retch-inducing. She is tasting me. She knows I am here but she cannot take me yet. Not while the light keeps her and her voracious brood at bay.
I want to run, to turn and flee the way I came but something holds me here… keeps me paralysed and rooted to the darkening hilltop. What warmth I felt on the back of my neck is fighting a losing battle. For soon the sun will submit to the moon, she who waits impatiently in the first traces of twilight to take his brother’s place, and spread night across the land.
My quickened breath is no longer alone in daring to break the steely hush; there comes the snapping, cracking steps of the forest’s children. And though I cannot see them, I sense their approach; feel their footfalls sending tremors through the earth.
Though I cannot turn, I see the moonlight’s probing fingers stretching ever closer; casting pale, skeletal columns through the forest’s fringes and throwing her bone yard into ghostly relief. The remnants of her victims are suddenly revealed: cloaks and jerkins torn and tattered beyond all recognition, hanging from gnarled branches and shifting in the forest’s breath; shattered lanterns oozing waxy beards of tallow, their once revealing lights long since snuffed out; and the mould-encrusted axe of a man who tried to cut the forest down. But she doesn’t stand for that. No, she won’t let harm come to her servants, her children.
I stand. I stare.
Sharp wind cuts at my exposed flesh. It screams to be covered, concealed, but I never planned on remaining here, I never expected to be this long. I only wanted to look, to see…her.
And now the night is upon me, advancing from the horizon like a line of stampeding black stallions. What little sight I have left to me is occluded and those final hopes of returning to the warmth of home and leaving behind this fearful place are snatched away.
Deep down I knew that escape was never an option, but I held the possibility close, warmed my body against its weak flames. Now… now I know what my fate is to be. In this nightmarish place, where what lives delights in despair and decay.
They will be here soon.
Why did I come here? Why did I want so desperately to see her, see the rotting heart of the forest? I’d heard the people talking – those few who paid such things mind and were old enough to remember when the forest first grew – in furtive tones about what lurks here. And I’d taken their tales to be nothing more than a means to frighten children into behaving. I’d put little stock into their – what I’d assumed to be – whisky-induced ramblings. What reason had I to believe them? But now I see my folly, my ignorance… and I understand the cost of it.
A flicker of movement in the shadows: her children are growing nearer, frolicking in the gloom, liberated now by the swallowed light. They come scuttling, flapping and burrowing their way towards me. For like her they can smell me; smell and sense the fear and despair that oozes from my body. To them it is like tendrils of the most delicious aroma imaginable. My teeth rattle together, vibrating a jarring rhythm in my skull. Shudders flit up and down my spine like cold bolts of lightning.
I can hear them, even closer now, their shrieks and cries and yelps, their rattling breaths: the forest’s orchestra. They arrive at the treeline, lingering in the darkness and watching with gleaming black eyes. Alighting on the branches, clacking their sharp scarred beaks and beating their scraggly wings and stirring the last of the dead leaves that spiral listlessly down and land at my feet…
… And the barrier is broken. No longer is there a wall between her and me, between this world and theirs. And they know it, for now they advance- and I can see them! Wicked, twisted, snarling faces. And now they’re around me, circling, closing in and yet paralysis still holds me in its infuriating grasp. Until something dawns in my mind, a distant door is unlocked and I can suddenly move again. I can turn, I can run… But no, now they are at my feet, biting, clawing, scraping. Teeth like hot needles, claws like daggers, grasps like vices. My arms flail in the darkness, beating them off only for them to bound forward again and sink their fangs still deeper, brace ever tighter. They wrestle me to the floor and my face slams into the dank, stinking earth. I feel myself being pulled, dragged inexorably backwards and away from the winking lights in the windows of the village. Dirt fills my mouth, nose, eyes… obscuring my senses. I splutter and cough, the taste is foul. Screams and pleas for help come, gushing from my open mouth in an incoherent torrent, only to be stifled by the choking mulch and the darkness, so thick and impenetrable. No aid will come tonight!
I dig my fingers into the dirt, grappling at sods of grass and sharp rocks and roots, but her children are stronger, riled into a frenzy by their hunger, and I cannot hold on. The soft earth crumbles away beneath my scrabbling, desperate fingers and my grip is lost. I hear her calling them back, beckoning now for her children to return with their prey. And their claws: terrible, scraping, scratching claws.
Writhing in their grasp I scream for help. But the only replies are the echoing remains of my pleas. The leafless boughs and gnarled branches rush by overhead, like the ribcage of some long dead beast and stabbing through is the harsh moonlight. Between the flashes of illumination my rolling eyes catch sight of the gnashing jaws of my captors; their twisted limbs and wild, hungry eyes. And from the bowels of the forest her slurping, sonorous voice resonates, louder, closer. Beneath my clawing fingers the earth becomes waterlogged. The foul stenches of stagnant bogs, rotten vegetation and something metallic thicken in the air.
Suddenly the jostling, clawing creatures that bore me through the darkness scamper away, shrieking. They gather between the slime rimed trees that girdle the clearing. Hot blood pumps down my legs and arms, but I do not feel the sting of the wounds. For now the marshy floor shudders beneath me and I watch as, with a sucking, guttural roar the ground before me swells. Boiling like the contents of a cauldron, the root-tangled earth heaves upwards. From this lurching mass of dirt and moss and root a form takes shape. Limbs strangled with vines and moss emerge, trembling under the weight of her colossal body.
A scream lodges like a stone in my throat as the forest’s mother turns to face me. From a head of snarled roots, clogging moss and pitted boulders stare two bulbous, glistening eyes. I am held fast in her gaze, my limbs rendered leaden. Her face is suddenly cloven by her parting maw, revealing fangs of boulder and bark. From the depths of her cavernous throat gusts her wet, stinking breath and the sound of bones rattling in her stomach. The thick carapace of her body writhes with insects as she lurches slowly forward. Her children gather at her feet: squealing and grunting impatiently.
As I stare into the darkness it stares back at me: it is the last thing I see as she and her children swarm.
Does anyone else use flash fiction to get back in the mood to write? Or do you do something else? Can anyone see a noticeable change in their writing now and something from years ago?
A ‘found footage’ Short Story
This year for University we had to write a short story related to the environment/nature. To get extra credit we had to play around with genre and style. I didn’t know what to do. I usually write in first or third person, past or present tense. But that wouldn’t be enough to get me the grade I wanted (in the final year, you have to pull out all the stops). I thought about a diary–easy enough, and different from my regular writing style. But I wanted to write something with action, and a diary wouldn’t let me do that–I also never liked writing diaries. Then I remembered how popular found-footage movies are (Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity etc.) and decided to see how translating found footage into a story would work.
Below is what I came up with, and what I submitted for my assignment. Warning: contains bloody horror towards end.
By Sam Whitehouse
PRIVATE LOG 11/10/2014 09:48
This is one of two logs. The first is for the lab, the second is for you, Evie. I know you hated the thought of me being out here. But, Evie, this place… You called it the ass end of nowhere. You should see it. The movies, the prep videos, the books… they don’t do Alaska justice. We’ve been flying for a little while. I caught an air taxi in Talkeetna. Didn’t take us long to reach The Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier. Some of the guys who’d been out to the base before me described it but… words don’t it justice. Guess I’ll try. The glacier itself is vast; white and grey and blue—even black in places. Where its white it looks like dough, folded up; in other places its razor sharp, great sheets of ice striking against each other. And the gorge rises on both sides, walling the ice in, impossibly sheer and stark against the sky. I’m out here to track the storm, but there’s no sign of it yet. Not at all. The sky is blue, for as far as I can see. No clouds—save mist that sits as crowns on the highest reaches of the granite walls. When I can tune out the whir of the airplane, I can actually hear the glacier shifting. A rumbling and cracking that you almost feel. It makes you realise how small you are: the vast sky, the vaster glacier and the sheer granite… It makes you realise there are things a hell of a lot bigger than you.
PRIVATE LOG 11/10/2014 13:35
Watching the plane leave made me feel small again. The pilot looked worried, asked me, “You sure this is right, guy?” For a second, I considered saying, “You know what, I don’t think so. Let’s head back.” But I gave the place another hard look… You’d be crazy not to want to stay. There’s a small town around forty miles away—the closest form of civilization, and someone will come to check on me in a couple days. But stretching in all directions around me is everything but civilization. I keep the base to my back and take it all in. The cloud comes in from nowhere—swelling in as colossal as the mountains it’s smothering. It moves fast, so I’ll describe the view before it’s lost. The mountains circle me on two sides, sheer and sharp-peaked and dark but for the snow. Forest completes the circle, bordering the base to the east and south. It’s as sheer as the mountains, towering Black Spruce, verdant and dense. The trees have all got caps of snow, but what with the cloud rolling in, those caps will be full body armour pretty soon. They’re pretty much the only tree—hell, the only flora—that thrives out here, able to deal with the long winters and the short summers that bring raging fires. There is little undergrowth. The stunted aspen and birch are dwarfed by their spruce neighbours—they only need 20 inches of soil to grow. There’s little in the way of colour too, and will be even less when more snow arrives. But what colour there is is sharp and clear, so much so that you have to squint against it. The snow already lays thick on the ground, up to my knees, the surface crusty, brittle and snapping beneath my boots. I walked a dozen feet from the plane and my legs were burning. The pilot used the river to land. I can barely see it now—it’s frozen solid, covered in snow too, hidden by it. I hear it, faintly, the water rushing beneath the ice. I stand here, the cloud rolling in towards me, a wave, a wall—if I didn’t move, just waited for it to arrive with the snow, it’d hide me too—in seconds. There is a rumble, not as far off as I’d like. It’s not the storm I came here to study, but it’s a storm—an Alaskan storm. I’ll do what you’d yell at me to and head inside.
PRIVATE LOG 11/10/2014 14:58
The base would be small if there were half a dozen other people here. But there’s just me, so it’s not small. It’s set out as a triangle, something like a courtyard in the centre. But it’s filled with snow, and I can barely make out the table and chairs one of my predecessors set up out there. The walls are well-insulated, but that doesn’t stop the wind screaming against them and over the roof. It doesn’t stop it rattling everything, driving the newly-arrived snow into the windows, filling the cabins with a brittle sound like chattering teeth. The living quarters are in the north and east sides of the base. Bedroom, kitchen, bathroom. And something that’s supposed to be a games room but is really just a ten feet by eight feet space with a couple of lumpy armchairs, a TV that might be a microwave and a dartboard. The rest is lab, and equipment I know you wouldn’t want me to waste time describing so I won’t. The bookshelves are filled with tomes as wide as my hand, some with titles I can’t even pronounce. But someone’s tucked some fiction here and there. Dan Brown, one or two Stephen Kings’, the odd Wilbur Smith and three Jack Reacher thrillers. There’s some other reading material—but I swear I won’t look at it.
PRIVATE LOG 11/10/2014 17:58
Made dinner. Made might be exaggerating. I added water to dehydrated carbonara.
PRIVATE LOG 11/10/2014 18:15
It’s a common misconception that the Alaskan winters cover the country in constant darkness or never ending daylight. Neither is true. Far north, in the winter, the sun doesn’t set for months. But here, the night does come. It’s here now. I stand at the window, the wind driving snow into the glass. The last of the silhouettes I could see seconds ago are quickly fading into dark. It’s almost liquid, the way it moves, spilling in from all corners, from the forest; it’s already hidden the mountains, and the clouds cover the moon, making sure there’ll be no silhouettes at all out there. The base lights are off, and I watch the last few feet of landscape disappear. But it doesn’t. Not altogether. The snow is too absolute for the darkness to take full hold. It reflects residual moonlight and bounces it off of every snow-covered surface. Everything glows faintly blue. It’s not whiteout conditions out there yet—yet—but all I can see is the snow blurring the air and then the night beyond. Save the rattle of the snow against the window, there’s no sound. I’m on the opposite side of the base to the lab, so I can’t hear the hum of the refrigerators or the computers. My ears ring. The silence helps me imagine you here, Evie. Standing beside me at the window. But you’re not here and with darkness in all directions I might be the only person on earth.
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 07:12
You’ll have been up for an hour or so now, I guess. I woke up a couple hours ago—or rather the computer monitoring the storm did. They’ve programmed it to alert me with an alarm whenever there’s significant progress. According to the software’s estimates, it’s a day and a half out. I laughed when I saw it. A computer predicting a storm—one of the most unpredictable forces on Earth. And here we are—I am—trying to track it, study it.
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 07:25
Breakfast wasn’t anything dehydrated. Fruit loops and then powdered eggs on defrosted bread. I didn’t even know they made powdered eggs anymore. I’ll be heading out today. As well as the storm, they want me to take some air and temperature readings.
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 08:12
I checked the computer before I left. There’s a small storm on its way in, and I estimated I’ve got a couple hours before it hits the base. I need to be back before then—I will be back, don’t worry.
The snow came up past my knees when I first stepped out of the base, so I headed back and strapped on snowshoes. They keep me on the surface and I start off for the forest. The rise I need to climb is beyond the trees, that’s where I’ll take the air and temperature readings. The sun is out, not far above the mountains, but far enough that it bounces off everything and light hits me from all directions. I pull down my goggles against the glare, squinting for only thirty seconds, enough to start up a headache. There’s no cloud again, so there won’t be any let up until I reach the trees. The equipment isn’t heavy. Neither is the rifle. I debated whether or not to mention it. But you should know I’ve got some protection against bears and wolves and—but they probably won’t come too close. Yes, I know how to use the rifle. Yes, I’m sure. Fourteen hours in all on the range. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry. A shriek sounds behind me, keening and close. I spin in time to see a gyrfalcon; its brown spattered wings spread low against the snow. I didn’t think they came inland. Talons emerge from a belly of soft down, snatch at the snow—not the snow I see an instant later. A small rabbit wriggles in the falcon’s claws—not for long. The bird soars up, beating its wings once, twice to gain height, leaving a scarlet arc in the snow below. I watch until it vanishes into the forest. I follow.
I don’t need the goggles anymore. I slip them off… After the tinted vision everything is sharp.
It’s a different kind of quiet out here. It’s… I don’t know how to explain it… Bigger, maybe. You wouldn’t like it. There’s no traffic noise. No sirens. None of that background noise that you don’t realise exists until you come out here.
Come summer this place will be on fire—literally. The heat gets so intense in places that the forest burns. But the trees survive it. The pinecones rely on the fire to open up and get rid of their seeds. The fire and the breeze carry them and that’s how the forest spreads. The forest needs the fire.
Enough of the discovery channel crap, I know, I know.
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 09:58
Jesus… Just let me… just let… breath back. Shit, maybe I should’ve hit the gym more than the firing range before I came out here. Finally out of the forest, making my way up the mountain. Need to get to higher ground for the air and temperature readings. The pines aren’t gone altogether. But they’re sparse enough that I can see all the way to the peak of the mountain. Almost all the way. Like most of the mountains round here the peaks are covered with mist and cloud. But I’m not going that far. Don’t worry. I take the snow shoes off, clamber up onto the first rock at the foot of the mountains…
The climb would be—shit. Maybe I should’ve put crampons on. The climb would be a hell of a lot harder without the pines. The rock is sheer, save a few places where it levels out into ledges. The pines cling to the spaces in between, adaptable roots taking advantage of the thin layers of dark soil up here. I use the trees to haul myself between ledges. Heights don’t bother me, you know that, so my progress slows every minute or so when I turn and take a look over the forest. Because I can see over it now, right over it and to the frozen river and the forest beyond that and the mountains beyond that… Wait…
I thought the computer said… There’s some cloud coming in. Dark and—thunder. Or the first rumbles of it. But it’s thunder all the same, no matter how distant it sounds… I don’t know if it’s… if it’s the storm. It shouldn’t be, but… I don’t know…
Better work fast.
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 10:31
The wind’s picking up. It throws up the snow that’s settled on the mountain side and drives what’s already falling into my face. I’ve gotta put my mask back on… Can’t see a goddamn… The trees are creaking, bending against the wind, groaning more than I am. I can barely speak… don’t know how clear this is coming through. Every time I open my mouth it fills with snow and cold air, snatching my breath away. The descent is easier. Not easy—not at all. But hell of a lot easier and faster than the climb. I slide most of the way, between trees, ledges. The wind screams down from the peak. Rips boughs from the spruce. Tosses sheets of snow at me. I can’t see over the forest anymore. Can barely see the forest. The cloud’s moving in fast. Don’t know if it’s the storm. Jesus, I hope it’s not. If it is, I don’t know— Shit—
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 11:24
I don’t… I don’t know if this is still working… Not sure if it’s still recording. I don’t want you to hear this. But I don’t want you not to know either. I know what that would do to you, Evie.
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 11:37
I’ve moved maybe fifteen feet since the last time check. My leg’s broken—in more than one place… And the ice cut it up… looks like ground beef. My tourniquet’s for shit. My clothes are freezing up, freezing to me. But it burns… I burn like I fell into fire, not a river. Knew I should’ve put on crampons. Knew I…
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 11:41
Another ten feet. I’m moving fast, but that’s only because… only because the trees are thicker, closer together. I can use them to drag myself along. There’s a trail of blood in my wake. I can see it for so far. Then it vanishes into the snow. It’s near whiteout… not completely… But near. Didn’t lose the compass in the river… managed to keep… so… I should find the base.
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 11:58
So heavy… I don’t think… I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired. Every part of me is… is so heavy, Evie. And the burning’s stopped. I’m just cold now… Every part of me is cold. Every single… part. Heavy…
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 12:09
There are only… few gaps in the spruce foliage… Look up… but might as well be looking in any direction. There’s only white… only snow. Save… save the black strips of the spruce trunks. And they only go so far. Only so far until there’s snow again. So heavy, Evie… Like crawling through syrup.
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 12:28
Can’t feel… leg… legs… Can’t feel much anything… below my waist
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 12:48
No. No. No. Can’t… Shouldn’t sleep. Don’t know how long I… I blacked out for. Time check. Check… time… time… I can barely feel anything, Evie… Evie. I’ll get back. I’m gonna get back to the base… get back, so I can see—
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 12:07
I see the base. For an instant. Only an instant. But I see it… The white boxy structure just a little darker than the white around it… I can make it… heavy, cold… but I can make it. The trees are clearing; enough that the wind hits me full force. I bow my head against it. It slows me. And I’m already heavy…
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 12:14
I’m close enough to touch the base. Brush the foundations with my glove. I can make it. Will make it… It is the storm. Has to be. It’s complete whiteout now… I stretch my arm out in front of me… then the other… crawl. When I do, I can’t see my hands, my wrists… they vanish all the way up to me elbows. Whiteout. Can’t see my legs either. Can’t see them can’t feel them… Lift me head… so heavy. Can’t see the base. But I know it’s there. I make sure I don’t veer right… the base is on my left. I know it’s— I hear it… Can’t hear much of anything save the wind but I hear it now—
A long sound that tapers into the wind, but it is not the wind.
The howl comes again, longer and louder and closer.
There is only one of them. But one is enough.
The base is on my left… I’m close to the door—I don’t know if I am… Don’t know if that’s true, but it has to be… has to be. If it’s not…
So heavy, but not as heavy as before. Adrenaline burns through me, it’s hot and sharp and it gives me speed and strength—
Yes. The steps. I see them. The snow thins for an instant and I see them. The howl comes again. It’s so close. It fills my head more than the roar of the wind. I don’t look back… can’t look back.
I grab the first step. I cannot feel my fingers, so I cannot grip. I use an elbow instead, jam it behind the first tread and lever myself up—growls now: behind me, close. Another elbow behind the second tread… and—shit—heave again. Again. Once more… Face pressed into the door, cold metal burning. Howl this time, transforming to low growls: behind me, closer. I don’t look back. Reaching up—shit, my fingers, goddamn fingers. Can’t… I push myself to my knees. There might be pain—in my leg, the wound from the ice, but I can’t feel it. I don’t look back. I slam my hand down on the handle—shit—too hard, too fast. Again, softer, slower. Door swings in. I fall as it does. Face against the carpet—but no further. I use elbows I can’t feel, try to drag myself across the threshold. But try is all I can do. Not moving—I’m not moving.
I look back.
Red. First and only thing I see. Pouring from my leg, across the steps, and the snow. Staining the wolf.
Evie—I thought you needed to… needed to… needed… to hear this. But you don’t. Evie…
PRIVATE LOG 12/10/2014 12:15 END
It would be good to hear what people think. Does found footage work in story form? Or, like most found footage movies, doesn’t it? What other styles/genres have you tried writing in that aren’t usual? Did they work or not?