My Writing Prompt – Meeting the Man in Black

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It has been some time since I was able to sit down and get some quality (or not so quality) writing time in. I thought of different ideas for writing prompts, then stumbled upon the above picture, which gave me a couple of ideas. So, my writing project for the day is below. Here goes:

Sean heard the footsteps, slapping against the pavement behind him. He dared not glance back. He could hear two men – no, three men – pushing their way through the crowd on Mayfair. If he hadn’t been paying attention, if he had been absorbed in the open-air market, or the festivities of the harvest festival, he would not have noticed his pursuers until they had pulled him away. That would have been the end of it, of him; if the Reapers had taken him, no one would ever see him again. Not Natalie, the children, or Granny James. He would be only a distant memory.

He passed the livestock stall, the odors of pig, cow, and chicken mingling into a putrid stench that made him heave. No, it mustn’t happen. He was still far enough ahead of the men. If he could make it to the end of the street, There were hansoms passing through all day, eagerly picking up new fares.

Sean moved faster, his jog breaking into a full run. His earlier attempt at blending in abandoned. A gruff voice shouted from behind.  “Oi, He’s running!” Another voice, high-pitched and angry responded. “Quick, boys! Nab him now. Spread out!”

Sean sprinted, weaving his way in and out of the narrow gaps between happy revellers. The occasional gentleman or young woman would shout in surprise, but he paid them no mind. The end of the street was only mere yards away. Freedom was only a few short steps in front of him. Except-

A huge mountain of a man stepped between him and freedom. He recognized the barrel chested creature as Nelson. He worked at the pub. His glowering face, and truncheon in hand-made it clear that he was not standing there to help Sean to safety. The small man whimpered, glanced around the vicinity, and hoped.

Off to the right was an alley. It was narrow, dark, and unpleasant. Much too narrow for Nelson. In an instant, Sean veered to the right, and sprinted with all of his energy into the alley. “With any luck, they will lose me in the crowd.” he thought, his spirits rising.

He passed through the alley, reaching a darkened side street. More of an alley, it ran between the rear of the buildings on either side. But, to his delight, he saw a network of alleys that ran between each building along the stretch. He would be quite safe. As a precaution, he ran past several tenements, removed one of his leather gloves, and dropped it at the entrance.

He continued to run, seeing light at the far end of the street. It should take him back in the direction he came. His pursuers would not expect that. He was safe.

An arm shot out from the alley he as he passed, grabbing him by his collar. The force of the grab yanked Sean back, and he fell to the ground, breathless. He looked around, eyes wild. Finally they landed on…him.

The man stood to his left, dressed in a long, black coat, black gloves and boots, and a black mask. The black mask. The Phantom of the Lower Quarter. Sean wheezed as the man stepped forward.

“Greetings, Mister Mahoney.” The voice was a cheerless rasp. “I was afraid that we would miss each other in the – mob on the street.” The man held a hand out to Sean. Sean trembled, tears forming in his eyes. He had only peeked  at the cards. Not even a real cheat. Why would those goons send this man after him.

The man held his hand out for several seconds before sighing. “Honestly, if you don’t want my help, you can stand on your own. But be quick about it. I haven’t got all day.” The terrified young man sat up, pulling himself onto hands and knees, before reaching a standing position. He stared at the man in black. He had heard stories. The Phantom of the Lower Quarter. He had a habit of finding those down on their luck and  – disposing of them.

This man however, seemed less a monster, and more a frustrated businessman. He seemed annoyed with Sean, rather than filled with murderous rage. Seeing that his prey was standing, The Phantom spoke.

“You know why I am here this afternoon.” It was not a question.

“You have been accused of malfeasance by the establishment known as The Cracked Jug.” Sean nodded, whimpering.

“As you are well aware, the proprietor, a Mister…Levinson, I believe, is a just, moral man.” Sean’s eyebrows raised. “Well, moral for a pub owner with a gambling license.” The man conceded.

“Nonetheless, it falls to me to bestow justice, and punishment for the crime that has been committed.” As he spoke, the man in black unbuttoned his coat, and reached inside. Sean began to cry. a trail of hot, dirty tears streamed down his face as the man in black removed a curved, shining blade.

Sean Mahoney sobbed, realizing the end was near. The man in black took him by the shoulder and guided him to the brick wall of the tenement to the left. He consoled his bounty, as best he could.

“This gives me no pleasure, Mister Mahoney,” he rasped, a sudden sympathetic tone descending. “I promise you, it will be over before you know it.” He turned the young man, so that he faced the wall. “Now, Mister Mahoney…may I call you Sean?”

Through his sobs, Sean managed a tiny “Yes,” and a nod.

“Good,” said the man in black. “Now, Sean, please place both of your hands on the wall in front of you.” The young man did as he was told, his shoulders heaving as he tried to catch his breath.

“I know that this is difficult. But it must be done. All debts must be paid.”

Sean nodded, not hearing a word that was said.

The man raised his blade above his head. He paused, and asked, “We cannot make any exceptions, you know. It wouldn’t do to look weak in front of my employers. Unless…”

Sean turned his head. “Unless?”

The man tilted his head, deep in thought. “Unless, you could be rehabilitated. If you were willing to sign on as my apprentice, I might be able to spare you. I cannot guarantee that you would be allowed to live, but I could try to convince my superiors of your…value.”

Sean wailed. “Yes, anything you want! I’ll be your apprentice. I promise I will never commit a malfeasance again!”

The man chuckled, amused at his bounty’s eagerness. “Very well my young apprentice. Your training will begin in one month.”

Sean couldn’t believe his luck. “A month? of course, but…why so long?”

The man bowed his head. “You will need time to heal.”

“To heal? What do you-”

The man brought the curved blade down with all of his might, severing Sean’s left hand, which caused the young man to collapse to the ground, screaming in agony.

The man calmly produced a cloth from a pocket, and wiped the blood from his blade. He returned the blade to the interior of his coat, and tossed the cloth to Sean. “Bind yourself with that. I will ensure your safe transport to a hospital. There is always a price for malfeasance. Be glad that I was in the need for an apprentice.”

He turned, and walked back into the alley from whence he had appeared.

“Oh,” he said, turning back one final time. “As I am now your employer, I suppose I should introduce myself.  I am Mister Grim.” He disappeared into the alley, leaving his new apprentice. For now.

 

Steampunk and Monsters Part 6: Cthulhu

     For my Halloween  post,  I wanted to finish up my look at monsters in the Steampunk genre with just one more.  Having read up on zombies,  vampires, werewolves,  mummies,  and ghosts,  I sat down and tried to figure out what else I could include.  It struck me that one of the more influential creatures on Steampunk as a whole is one of the newest,  comparatively.  The face of the Great Old Ones, himself.  Cthulhu.
     Lovecraft’s octopus-headed god was never the most powerful of of his creations,  but given the description of his appearance, he became the Lovecraftian monster. And for good reason:

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     Mankind’s fear of the unknown,  coupled with our general lack of knowledge about what lies at the greatest depths of our oceans has long fuelled our love-hate relationship with them.  In some ways we know more about what is going on in outer space than we do about what is going on beneath the waves.
     Lovecraft,  as a writer of horror,  or weird tales,  knew this, and exploited that knowledge to create one of the more memorable monsters in modern horror. A giant creature, with a head resembling an octopus, tentacles flowing about the area of his face where a mouth would be; a massive, scaly body with deadly claws at the end of each limb.  Reptilian and cephalopod combined

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There is something unnerving about the octopus. Especially knowing it can survive outside of the water for brief periods of time.

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     Though many authors tried to expand on Lovecraft’s mythos, not many were able to match his style. His stories were rarely about meeting the monsters. More often than not,  it is the sense of dread, the foreboding feeling that no matter what you do,  no matter how hard you try,  when the Great Old Ones rise again,  there will be no stopping it,  there will be no salvation.
     Steampunk authors,  especially those dealing with more dystopian settings,  frequently reference Lovecraft’s work. It may be in the form of extreme dread and hopelessness,  or more direct use of locations and creatures. Perhaps your hard working police officer is investigating a series of strange disappearances,  and comes to discover the existence of a cult that worships an ancient sea God. 
     A young student from a prominent New England university has discovered an old book in the archives. Upon touching said book,  he sees visions of someone,  something on the ocean floor,  trapped in a sunken city,  waiting. He researches the book,  uncovering it’s use. An ancient holy book,  dedicated to the worship of something called  The Great Old Ones.  His hunt for the truth leads him to the Pacific Ocean,  an airship dropping him on a rickety old trawler.  It is here he learns the ultimate truth,  before losing his mind.
     A young woman is haunted by strange dreams,  of voices in her head, telling her that his slumber will soon be over.  She does not know what it means,  but she knows that it is important, that the world might just end if he wakes up. Her efforts to warn the King of the American Union are in vain.  She goes into hiding,  posing as a boy and working as a Porter aboard a giant luxury airship. During her time in hiding,  her visions become clearer,  more real. Finally,  the high priest of the Great Old Ones arises from the sea during a climactic storm.  As he unleashes the first of his terrible judgements upon the human race, the young woman hears in her head, I am awake. Serve me,  and live forever. I am life. I am death. Come with me,  my child.
    

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I'm coming for YOU!

     What is everyone’s favorite Lovecraftian work? Do you enjoy the aesthetic when combined with steampunk?  As always,  I’d love to hear what you think.

Steampunk and Monsters Part 5: Ghosts

The scene has played out in many Victorian settings. A cast of characters gathers around the table, their hostess instructing them to join hands. The lights dim, everyone closes their eyes. The hostess begins by asking everyone to focus. She begins by asking the spirits for permission to communicate. At first, there is no response; the skeptics in the group chuckle. Clearly, this is all a ruse.

Then, a knocking. The location is unclear, but a loud knocking sound echoes through the entire house. Everyone, including the skeptics, are quiet. Suddenly, the hostess enters a trance. She moans, rocks back and forth. She chants. A voice emanates from her – but it is different. The voice is too deep, it has a different rhythm. She claims to be the Gatekeeper; this spirit allows the dead to interact with the hostess. With its permission, The hostess can communicate with the dead. She opens her eyes, and she points and says, “I have a message for you. It is your husband.”

In the real world, seances are the stuff of badly produced horror movies and a Saturday night out with your friend, the believer. But in the 19th century, the belief, or more likely, the desire to speak with departed loved ones was strong enough that mediums could make a living of the suffering of others. A few well placed props, and even more well-placed employees, could help to make a small-time medium appear legitimate.

Perhaps calling them wasn't such a good idea...

Perhaps calling them wasn’t such a good idea…

As long as humans have understood what death is, we have wondered what happens after we die. Whether it is wondering where the soul goes when we breathe our last, or wondering if reincarnation works, we wonder. From the first loved one that passes on, we wonder what will happen when we, too, pass away.

The idea that the spirit can remain on earth and interact with the living has existed since ancient times.  Hamlet’s father appeared to him as a  ghost, to warn him of his Uncle’s treachery; Stories of haunted houses prisons, and hospitals have been told to scare the younger generations into behaving themselves. Whether a ghost is able to interact with the world, or whether they are just an echo of the past, repeating to the end of time is unclear; but to a true believer, a spirit can haunt a location for centuries.

One of the most common notions about ghosts is that they have died tragically, violently, or before their time. For this reason, their spirits roam the earth, until such time as their demise has been resolved. Perhaps their murderer is still running free, and they wish that person brought to justice; maybe they were to be married, but passed away before their wedding, and want to say goodbye to their one true love; perhaps they were unable to achieve a lifelong dream, and fulfilling that dream will put them to rest.

In a steampunk setting, I could see a story about people using steampunk technologies to track ghosts. Do they hunt them and dispose of them, a la Ghost Busters? Or perhaps their goal is to use the technology they have developed to communicate with the dead. Maybe they can help the dead pass on to whatever awaits them on the other side.

Maybe an ill-intentioned scientist has found a way to harness the spirits of the dead, and can torment the living by setting the ghosts to instill fear into the hearts of the masses. It is up to a band of unprepared individuals to learn how to track and stop the ghosts, before they can do permanent harm to society at large.

I have yet to create any ghosts in any of my stories. While I find the idea interesting, I am not sure I could do them justice. Like Zombies, there have been a number of twists to ghosts, making some of them more frightening than I could ever write them. But, even I can admit that there is nothing quite like a good ghost story. The idea of a being that can enter your home, interact with you or your loved ones without your permission is a scary notion. That is one of the reasons that shows like American Horror Story and films like Crimson Peak have become so popular, or at least discussed.

She is watching you - and there is nothing you can do about it.

She is watching you – and there is nothing you can do about it.

Has anyone read any good ghost stories? Or written any? One of my favorites has always been The Haunting of Hill House for a slightly more modern take, Drawing Blood, by Poppy Z. Brite is an excellent choice (But, fair warning, that is a dark story with some rather graphic violence). I do love a good ghost story, so please, share any novels on your must-read list.

Steampunk and Monsters: Zombies

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The reanimated corpse of a Union soldier advances on a young woman.  She cowers in fear at the well,  a bucket of water lying on its side where she dropped it. She glances around,  looking for an escape route.  She is pinned between the revenant and the well,  with the farmhouse wall to her left,  and a tall fence,  intended to keep the undead out,  to her right.  As the creature approaches,  it’s arms outstretched,  the young woman does the only thing she can think of –  she let’s out an ear-piercing scream…
The paragraph above could be found in any one of hundreds of horror stories available for purchase in your local bookstore or online. The imagery is clear and conveys the terror felt by the young woman,  the hopelessness of her situation. It shows that the very feature that was meant to protect her (the border fence) has her trapped,  and,  quite possibly,  the next meal for the zombie shuffling toward her.
Horror follows a specific set of rules, and in all likelihood the young lady will a. Be eaten,  b.  Turn into a zombie herself,  or c. Be rescued or escape at the last minute. Straight horror offers a small number of outcomes, two of them  bleak.
Supernatural creatures, zombies in particular, have become a staple of the steampunk genre. And somehow,   they usually fit much more believably in the steampunk realities that we get to read,  than they do in straight horror stories. From the strange,  flesh-rot  victims of Cheri Priest’s Clockwork Century series (which I totally need to read again,  FYI) to the creepy steampunk zombie artwork all over the Internet, this particular brand of monster has become a bit cliché in film and television.  But in the steampunk setting,  zombies can,  and often do get a steampunk twist.
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The young woman in this scenario mat employ the use of a piece of steampunk technology,  such as a tiny, high powered pistol, or flame thrower that will destroy the zombie.  An airship arrives on the scene,  dropping a ladder for the young lady to climb.  As the ship flies high above the fenced in outpost, the young lady thanks the dashing young pilot and they fly off toward a new adventure.
     Perhaps your zombie isn’t fully reanimated,  and is simply a shell to some sophisticated clockwork device; or maybe there is a plague that isn’t outright killing people and turning them,  but instead,  the plague causes necrosis, increased strength,  and eventually rage filled attacks on others,  before an eventual horrifying death; or maybe,  there is the use of more folklore-accurate zombies in your story (cue the research potion of my post) :
Once upon a time, a zombie was a part of Haitian folklore. Fear was struck into the hearts of the public at the notion that a bokor, or practitioner of Vodou, would turn their deceased loved ones into zombies. These zombies were not of the flesh eating variety,  rather,  according to the folklore, they were supposedly used as personal slaves to the bokor. They existed somewhere between life and death,  with no free will.  Death was the only release.
Earlier than this,  the ancient people’s around the world told tales of the dead Rising from their graves and feasting upon the flesh of the living. The causes were invariably magical in nature. The person may have been punished by a powerful magician,  or committed evil acts in life.  Ultimately,  they would die,  only to rise from the dead and carry out gory rampages.
The twentieth century saw a decline in humanity’s belief in magic,  so the true belief in zombies dissipated. The Cold War and ensuing nuclear arms race led to the fear that radiation could lead to horrible transformations.  Thus came a series of giant monster movies, and eventually, with George
A.  Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The modern concept of the zombie was introduced.  Gone were the days of cursed souls,  instead radiation and contaminated waste acted as catalysts for the rise of the flesh eating menace. These new zombies showed how modern technologies changed us as people.  We would appear as monsters to our ancestors from thousands of years ago.  These zombies have become the standard: World War Z and The Walking Dead have become the modern face of zombies,  for better or worse. For the writers out there: Do you write zombies into your stories?  If so,  what type of zombie are they?