Story Notes & Excerpts #1

Below are excerpts from published stories followed by notes, in (more or less) reverse chronological order of publication. The notes from Storylandia 15 originally appeared as a blog post (‘Mandragora Swallows The Moon’) and are reproduced here for the sake of completion.

From The Bones (Storylandia 15: Collected Stories By Julie Travis)

When the detector bleeped, it was due north of the northern circle’s centre. He grabbed the trowel from the bag and dug gently at the wet, peaty soil. He used the detector again, passing it over the small mound of dug soil and then over the hole, where it gave a pleasing, stronger bleep. He dug a little further and there, in the blackness of the soil, was a glimpse of the most precious metal, used for thousands of years to denote status and wealth; gold.

He dropped the metal detector and brushed soil away with his fingers to reveal thin threads of gold twisted over and over to form a solid torc – a neck ring – quite likely from prehistoric times. He reached down to claim the treasure and it was only when he grasped it that he realised that the coldness underneath was not vegetation but well-preserved flesh and that the ancient jewellery still hung around an ancient throat.

As a child many family holidays were spent hunting for fossils on the beaches at Lyme Regis in Dorset. We have evidence of the ancient past all around us but fossils gave me an amazing connection to it. Later on, I became more interested in human history, more specifically the spiritual aspects of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. These days I spend a lot of time at sacred sites and this story came from all of these influences. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with the ethics of digging up bodies and displaying them in museums and suchlike (although I have been to see Lindow Man and other bog bodies in the British Museum); does our demand for knowledge make it acceptable to disturb such places? There is a link here, I think, with our arrogance in extracting oil and minerals from the ground without worrying about the consequences, both for ourselves and for the Earth – to which we’re connected, whether we like it or not.

Grave Goods (SL 15)

Eddy went to the sink and ran cold water over his bloody hand. It was intensely painful but unbelievably good.

“However,” Marlowe continued, “you have a chance that not many people get. You have a little time before you are incapacitated. You have the opportunity to take whatever you want to the Otherworld. You have the chance to meet with your father and let him make amends. I can help you.”

More archaeology! Early burials would leave a few items – or, in the case of a high-status grave, almost a roomful of items – with the deceased, for them to take to the Otherworld. We don’t do that any more (at least in Western European culture) but perhaps we should. It might be of great use to take a few things with us wherever we go. I wanted to write a story that was definitely horror rather than dark fantasy and it was more or less drafted in three days. One of the characters was heavily inspired by Marlow Moss, a Modernist artist who lived in Lamorna, West Cornwall, in the mid 20th century.

Scar Tissue (SL 15)

Marie was different. She had no scars.

Along with Pieces (Urban Occult, 2013), this story’s set in the gay community in Hackney/Stoke Newington in London, a scene I was immersed in for a few years in the 1990s. There were some terribly damaged women out there, mostly as a result of abuse in early life and this is based on some of them. It is not a failure to be mentally ill or damaged, but to use these things as leverage over other people’s lives is, in my view, unforgiveable.

Theophany (SL 15)

He leant back, pushing firmly against the reassuring strength of the White Tower. As promised, it was the only safe place within the Tower’s walls. It was like standing on a cliff edge. Only inches in front of him was nothingness.

One step forward and he would drop all the way to the darkworlds.

This is a continuation, of sorts, of Darkworlds (Premonitions: Causes For Alarm, 2008, see below) but not a ‘part 2’ – each story is completely separate and stands on its own.

Widdershins (SL 15)

Miss M had a photograph. Taken by herself in the mid 1940s, it showed a section of the churchyard, near the lych-gate. A cat, slightly blurred in its black and white stillness, was leaping high in the air.

Except, Miss M said, that it wasn’t leaping. She had photographed it flying over the tombstones. It had begun at one of the old yew trees, circling it several times and, when photographed, was near the end of its journey.

Widdershins has long been my favourite word. What happens when you walk anti-clockwise – ‘the wrong way’ – around a church? What happens when you live an unconventional life? The church and its location are based on St Bega, a small church that stands beside Bassingthwaite Lake in Cumbria. This is the first story I wrote after my mother’s passing. Everything is a time machine.

The Ferocious Night (Storylandia #12)

Geoff, terrified, was now also angry. “I am a man! I have a soul! You cannot compare me to an animal.”

Bellow moved to the window that overlooked the road through the village.

“Brave words,” he muttered, “but foolish. The door is open.”

He raised a hand to his ear, pushing the drooping lobe, disfigured by a large and heavy earring out of the way. “Hark! Do you hear them? The band? The snarling dogs?”

Still cupping his ear, Bellow looked out of the window. Geoff felt a pain in his stomach, the churning and chopping that usually accompanied food poisoning or a stomach bug. He ran to the bathroom and made it just in time, emptying first his bowels then his stomach, although all he had to vomit into were his clasped hands. As he sat there, gasping for breath after the purge, he realised Bellow had also made his way there. The creature ducked his head to get it through the bathroom door.

“The dark days are beginning,” he said, and melted away.

A few years ago I found a seal pup washed up on a beach. It was headless and had been dead for some time; its body was undergoing a transformation. Death was looming large at the time, with two friends newly diagnosed with cancer. I had already begun to realise that death was more about change than a complete ending. I did a reading of part of this story and talked about the reasons I wrote it. A member of the audience said it made her feel better about the death of her brother. It’s probably the biggest compliment I’ll ever get.

The Falling Man (Storylandia #7)

Their devotion was such that, at the age of fifteen, Joseph Gray was hired out to the funerals of anyone prepared to pay. By this time, the images and feelings he absorbed were clear. And he was beginning to suspect that much of the human race was quite cynical. The most brutal man in life – a rapist, an abuser, a destroyer of the human spirit – could in death be absolved of all his terrible sins and walk freely into Heaven on the capacity of Joseph, a total stranger, to absorb them and carry the weight of them as his own.

And if they were cynical in being able to do this, what was God, for allowing it to happen?

The title was taken from the ‘falling man’ photos taken of people jumping from the Twin Towers in NYC after the attacks, to describe someone stepping from one Hell into another. The story is set in all the wonderful cemeteries of London.

No one can carry the weight of the world.

Pieces (Urban Occult)

She woke early the next day and turned over to find Sarir lying wide awake and silent beside her. She looked frightened.

Three more tattoos had appeared across Treve’s back.

They had already arranged to go into the city to see Lew, who had tattooed both of them and they hurried to get ready. As they sat on the bus to Clerkenwell, Treve couldn’t help but feel intrigued. There wasn’t always a rational explanation for things. And in a world where fish fell from the sky and pumas were spotted on the Cornish moors, why couldn’t tattoos spontaneously appear?

Another story set in the multi-cultural Queer community of North London. Many of this community were pierced and tattooed, back when it was outsider culture. The tattoo parlours are based on Sacred Art in Stoke Newington (with thanks for my thumb tattoo) and Into You in Clerkenwell (with thanks for my Helm of Awe/eye piece). The story had just been finished when I heard of Anachron Press’ plans for a horror anthology with a modern urban setting.

Blue (Kzine #1)

Mr Pandemonium had spoken of another person, but it sounded like a whole group of people. There was laughter and excited chatter, interspersed with darker sounds – sobbing, wailing, screaming rage.

Anna saw her then. A woman was moving gracefully between groups of children who were blurred in the act of play. Anna looked her up and down. She wore army boots and a multicoloured sari decorated with golden thread, but it was her head that caught Anna’s attention. It was bald and misshapen, far too large for her body. The woman stopped and allowed Anna to walk around her, standing in silence when Anna gasped in wonder at the sight of a hundred tiny faces moulded into the woman’s head, all identical but with a myriad of expressions. One laughed wildly while another yelled in anger. One looked at her bashfully, another was gripped by grief. Every possible human emotion was captured there. Through gaps in the woman’s sari were a criss-cross of cuts, some old scars, others new wounds. Every time Anna heard a cry of anguish, the newer cuts re-opened and oozed blood. To see so much pain was appalling.

“I am insane,” she murmured. “Nothing here is true, it cannot be.”

Anna backed away from the strange couple, turned and ran. They did not give chase. She was fifty, a hundred yards away, yet when Mr Pandemonium spoke, his words breathed right into her ear.

“What did you think, Anna? That we were here to help you, to save you? To show you the way? We’re here to see you burn.”

Blue tries to capture some of the horrors of mental illness. More and more people in this country are suffering, due to the appalling stresses of life, but ignorance is still rife: yesterday my sister had to get help for a man who had stripped himself naked and was in the main road, shouting for help for his mental health condition. A passer-by simply stood and laughed.

This kind review by Steve Dean for the British Fantasy Society sums the story up pretty well: “Blue by Julie Travis is hard to categorise, slipstream horror maybe (or bloodstream?) It tells the story of a young woman fighting depression, almost literally in this case. It’s very intense, deep, and intelligent. We could do with more stories like this.”

Cross Bound (Aphelion)

All there was was the crushing weight of water. The pressure of it was the world, had been her world for as far back as she could remember and beyond. It was the salt water burning her throat, it was the deep sea crushing every inch of her body, it was the roaring in her ears. She was blind, deaf, mute with it but still not dead, not allowed to die. It was as if what she had suffered had not been punishment enough and there had to be more.

And now this; pulled from the depths, dragged upwards by a colossal force, backwards to the surface. A fleeting glimpse of the outside world, the dry world that she’d longed for over so many years, then upwards again but still in water and finally to rest, high above the Earth, in a damp but solid mist.

Then she remembered the plotting that had taken place in the icy depths of the sea. Plotting driven by pain and anger, unhindered by mere blindness, deafness and the inability to speak. And a chance, now, to put the plot into action.

There will always be witch hunts.

Darkworlds (Premonitions: Causes For Alarm)

The men were standing in the flickering arc of one of the few semi-working lights. One walked to the wall and – for the sake of decency – unzipped his fly and began pissing messily. The Torquis turned slowly. In darkness, her outline was all they could see. And then she stepped into the light. One of the men – the talker, now rendered speechless – tried to grasp the sense of what he was seeing. The second man – the pisser, now dry – put his hand to his mouth, too late to stop the vomit from splattering his shoes.

The Torquis was beautiful. She had skin like porcelain, every feature on her face in perfect proportion. But her beauty – that gorgeous flesh – ended at her jaw line, as if her face were a hastily constructed and unfinished mask. The skin of her neck and throat had been torn away. It looked like a fresh wound; jagged, bloody and raw. As she moved further into the light, the two men saw the hole in her skull, the long hair sitting neatly around it and, inside, her brain, glistening and grey. She raised her hand, the one she’d laid so lovingly on the wall just a minute before, and the second man, still unzipped, realised what he’d thought were rings on her fingers was skin, neatly cut from the fingers and unrolled, resting at the joint. The other man stared at her face, entranced and revolted.

He managed to speak, at last. “I’ll get an ambulance.”

“No need,” said The Torquis. “You’ll be dead long before it arrives.”

Darkworlds began many, many years ago as Darkwor(l)ds, the name of a writing group I was trying to get off the ground. It never really happened, but I kept the name and over time the story began to come to me. I had a vague thought that, if Hell existed, certain people – the sort of go-getters so beloved of Margaret Thatcher – would make money out of it. The story was begun at my last London address in Clapton (now apparently gentrified but back then it was an absolute hell-hole with regular shootings, although the house, which I shared with a lesbian Buddhist and her cats, was an oasis of calm) and finished in Lelant, West Cornwall.

 

All images and text ©Julie Travis unless otherwise stated.

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