Tag Archives: dark fiction

Twenty Years!?

I saw a Facebook post recently which reminded me of something. Well, not so much ‘reminded me’ of something, more like hit me over the head with something. It’s been twenty years since I had my first story published. Twenty fucking years. I was going to say it’s been twenty years since I started writing, but that wouldn’t be strictly true. I’ve been writing since I was a kid. My first published story was called Monkey Man, and it came out in a Welsh literature magazine called Cambrensis some time in 1997. It was a different landscape back then. In the late-nineties there was a thriving small press consisting of various genre mags as opposed to a glut of websites. I also had some early success in Raw Nerve, the Asphalt Jungle, Roadworks, Tales of the Grotesque & Arabesque and several others. The thing was, even back then I was very conscious of getting paid for my efforts, and the vast majority of these titles didn’t offer anything except ‘exposure.’ In fact, when you consider materials, printing and postage expenses, in the pre-digital age it actually cost money to submit to publications. It was a two-way street. Being physical entities, it meant these magazines cost money to put together and distribute.

Having flunked all my exams (even English) I was working in a factory at the time for minimum wage. Mostly, I put things in boxes. Soap, shampoo, pills. You name it, I’d put it in a box. I wanted to find some way of generating extra income, so I started submitting feature ideas to newsstand magazines. This was when shows like the X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer were at their peak, and this was manifested in the popularity of paranormal-themed publications like Fortean Times, Enigma and Beyond. I soon found my little niche, and what was more, they paid! They paid pretty well, actually. Sometimes, I would get as much money for one 2000-word feature as I would for an entire week slaving in the factory. My magazine work and general fascination with the weird and fucked-up led to me researching and writing my first book, Into the Dragon’s Lair: A Supernatural History of Wales, which was eventually published by a mid-size Welsh publisher called Gwasg Carreg Gwalch in 2003. Into the Dragon’s Lair set my life on a different path. It was targeted mainly at the tourist trade, and generated a lot of media interest. Several national newspapers did stories about it, and I was a guest on a live Radio Wales programme. It all resulted in a division of the Welsh government giving me a grant to go to university as a mature student.

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I had a choice of two; Carlisle and Southampton. I chose the latter because growing up I was a big Matt Le Tissier fan, who played for Southampton FC. It was that simple. Two weeks later, I was enrolled on a journalism degree and working part time as a barman at the football stadium. I’d hardly left Wales before. In my spare time, I decided to knuckle down and write ‘The Great Welsh Novel,’ a partly autobiographical tale called Rainbow’s End. It took a couple of years, but as soon as it was finished it was snapped up by a new start-up publisher called Flarefont, who promptly went bankrupt. During this time, I also started working on a book about Cardiff City FC, which eventually came out in 2014, again on Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, after another publisher strung me along for about three years until eventually pulling the plug.

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During university, one of the most beneficial things I did, was go on work experience placements at every magazine that would take me (Front, Ice, Maxim, FHM). I learned more during those two-week placements than I did in three years of university, and I managed to form relationships that would serve me well later in my career. After I graduated from university, I freelanced for a year, writing features for Nuts, Record Collector, Rock Sounds, Urban Ink, Chat… It’s Fate, and anyone else who would pay me, before bunking off to China to teach English. I mainly worked at universities, which meant I had a lot of free time during which I continued to freelance, adding China to my list of specialist topics. One freezing Spring Festival in Tianjin, through sheer boredom, I started writing fiction again, a full nine years after my last published effort. Perhaps this explains why some people assume I am relatively ‘new’ to the scene. Nah, mate. Been here a while. Just had a rest. Over the next couple of years I wrote Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story and Dead of Night (both published by Damnation Books), and Devil’s Island (Rainstorm Press), as well as a clutch of short stories, which would appear in Screams of Terror, Gore, Siren’s Call, the Literary Hatchet, Trigger Warning, Deadman’s Tome, and a few anthologies.

Then, in 2012, I had another huge stroke of luck. A Staff Writer job came up at Nuts magazine and I was given a shot at it mainly because the deputy editor had somehow noticed some of my funny quips on social media. I flew back from China and was suddenly zipping around London fraternizing with models and film stars. But times were already hard in the ‘lad mag’ market, and getting progressively harder. I was soon got laid off as the sector went through its death throes. I reinvented myself as a sports journalist, and landed a job on the new-fangled Sports Direct magazine. That, too, went belly-up for entirely different reasons, and was re-launched as Forever Sports (later FS). After a couple of years as Senior Writer I was offered a promotion and a pay rise, and asked to move to another new launch at a different publishing company. It didn’t work out. I butted heads with my new editor for a while, then left to go back to freelance, and the new launch sank like the Titanic. By this time I was beginning to realize that the magazine industry was a ruthless arena with very little in the way of job security.

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Parallel to my magazine career, I took advantage of the rise in self-publishing and put out a steady stream of material. To help keep a degree of separation from my day job(s) I modified by name for fiction. There were some things I wrote while I was in China (including Sker House, and No Man’s Land: Horror in the Trenches) which just needed tweaking, and I also started gathering my previously-published short stories into a series of collections. I’ve lost a lot of faith in publishing companies, so I much prefer to put these things out myself. That way I can maintain complete control over every aspect of the process from the cover art to the contents and pricing. These days, I make a living by maintaining several revenue streams, fiction and magazine work being just two components. It isn’t easy, but it’s the life I chose. The past two decades have been a hell of a ride. I’ve done things I never thought I would do, and seen things I never thought I would see. I’ve met some amazing people, more than a few cunts, and lived in 12 different places, in eight different towns and cities, in three different countries. I’ve come to realize that moving around is a big part of my identity. I get restless if I stay in one place for too long. I need the constant sense of ‘newness.’ It keeps me focused. All things considered, I’ve far exceeded my own expectations, and anything beats working in that factory.

I can’t wait to see what the next twenty brings.

 

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Inside Apartment 14F

My latest novella, Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut), just came out. As the title suggests, it’s a partially re-written and expanded version of an earlier release. The original came out on Damnation Books eight years ago, and truth be told I was never really happy with it. By the time the publisher was absorbed by another company and consequently vanished off the face of the earth a few years later, our contract had expired and all rights reverted back to me. That meant, the story was free for me to do what I wanted with, and I felt a remix was in order.

So here we are.

I wrote the original version of Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story in January/February 2009, when I was living in the industrial city of Tianjin, northern China. Tianjin is like a Chinese Middlesbrough, only with much harsher winters. Yep, it really is that bad. I’d spent the year before in Beijing, where Apartment 14F is set, and had moved to Tianjin to be closer to my then-girlfriend. Obviously, the moment I moved there she dumped me for another dude, leaving me alone and heartbroken doing a job I hated (teaching English at a primary school) in a freezing cold foreign country far too close to Russia with no friends.

Like most teachers, during the Spring Festival period I had a long holiday. It was too cold to go out for any other reason than buying supplies and Chinese TV is a bit shit, so I decided to do something constructive. Though I’d had a few short stories published in the small press when that was a thing years earlier, I’d taken a long sabbatical from writing fiction to focus on feature writing for magazines (the money is better) and was just beginning to get back into the fiction side of things. To me, it’s always been more of a labour of love. I consider any money I make from it a bonus, but it’s so time-consuming and energy-sapping that I feel I have to justify it somehow.

 There’s a different skill-set involved when writing fiction. It’s a bit like opening a door into your mind, and I’m not always entirely sure I want people to see what’s in there. Subconsciously or otherwise, you write about some pretty personal shit. There’s a lot of my early-China experience in Apartment 14F. The sense of isolation, feeling like an imposter, or an alien, feeling strangely detached as lots of weird shit goes on around you. It all added to the loneliness and simmering resentment.

Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story started life as a short story called When Eyes Lie (Did I mention how bitter I was about the girlfriend thing?). I submitted it to Damnation Books, who were then a new start-up and had just put out a submission call. They loved it, but said it was too short and could do with being bulked up. It was good advice. There was a lot more I wanted to say, and I’d rushed through the short story. At over 17,000 words, the second version was almost twice as long as the original.

I’d hate to bite the hand that used to feed (they didn’t feed me much, but a little) but over time Damnation Books developed something of a reputation for being difficult to work with. I heard a lot of horror stories from other writers, and not the good kind. It’s not my place to air other people’s dirty washing. If you are interested, you can Google it. All the negativity came later. At the time, like most writers, I was just happy that someone liked my work enough to publish it.

In the case of Apartment 14F, there were a few things they wanted me to change. It’s not that I’m precious. I’m always open to suggestions from editors. It’s their job. But I don’t like making wholescale changes on the whim of someone who’s probably spent barely a few minutes skimming my manuscript, whereas I’d been working on it for months. I could have argued my case, but if you argue too much you get a reputation for being difficult and the publisher is liable to pull the plug on your book. I learned a long time ago to choose my battles. Some things are worth fighting for, and some things just aren’t.

Two key scenes came from different dreams I had. I had a lot of weird dreams when I was in China. Still do. It’s a fucking trippy place . The first dream I worked into the story is the hair in the bed scene. If you read it, you’ll know the part I mean. The second was the fortune teller with the inventive way of telling your fortune. That was one creepy nocturnal escapade, and luckily for me, the creepiness translated well to the page. I just described it as best as I could remember. The feelings, the sensations, the thoughts that ran through my head. That one scene has probably provoked more discussion than anything else I’ve written. Discounting the time I did an assignment for the sadly departed Nuts magazine and had the pleasure of telling the world what Lucy Pinder’s tits thought of the Southampton FC back four. But that was a different kind of writing in a different world.

Apart from being forced into making changes to the story, the other sticking points I had with Damnation Books were the amount of promotion they did for the book (none) and the price they set. Both the paperback and the ebook were on sale for over $7, that’s a lot for a novella-length work by someone you’ve never heard of.

Despite being overpriced, on it’s initial release Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story did extremely well. When Damnation Books imploded a couple of years later, it was still second in their all-time bestseller list. Okay, I know it’s not like being on the New York Times Bestseller list, but it means something to me. DB released A LOT of books. But like I said, I never really felt comfortable with it. I turned a corner with my writing not long afterwards. Must have been the 10,000-hour rule in effect. I went from being a part time writer to a full-time writer, and started doing a lot more fiction as a kind of release from the day job.

Whenever I went back and read the original version of Apartment 14F, some parts made me cringe. I think I have much more insight now. I lived in china another four years after I wrote the original story. I also like to think I’ve improved a lot as a writer since then, and maybe now I can finally do the idea I had back in ’09 justice. It also has a snazzy new cover…

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As an extra little sweetener, I’m also including a bonus short story, Little Dead Girl, which was first published in a short-lived publication called Unspoken Water (2011) and later in X2: Another Collection of Horror (2015). It’s a story written in a similar vein, ironically based on another deeply disturbing dream I had whilst living in the Middle Kingdom, and also featuring a teacher on the verge of a nervous breakdown as the lead character. You could probably say they are set in the same spooky-ass far eastern universe. The two stories kinda compliment each other well, I think.

This is an edited version of an essay which appears in Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut). Available now on Amazon:

UK LINK

US LINK


The Paperbacks are Here!

The environment won’t be happy about it, but I’ve finally bowed to pressure and released my indie titles which were previously only available as ebooks on paperback. Benefiting from the treatment and now ready for purchase are Out of Time, Sker House, No Man’s Land: Horror in the Trenches and my latest offering, Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut).

The links will take you to the UK Amazon site, but you should be given the option there to click off it and go to whichever Amazon store is most appropriate to your location.

Take it from me, getting these paperbacks to market wasn’t an easy task. Formatting and getting the covers to fit properly represents a whole new level of fuckery. As you can see, I didn’t succeed every time, and the paperback of Apartment 14F (Uncut) now sports a completely new minimalist look. Ho-hum.

My X Book collections won’t be issued in paperback in their current form. I am still a huge ebook advocate and want to have some e-exclusive stuff in my repertoire. Besides, the plan is to put out book 3 early next year, then combine all three into one bumper volume at some point thereafter. That will represent a much meatier proposition, and better value for money.

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No Man’s Land Review

Mallory Heart kindly reviewed my recent novella No Man’s Land: Horror in the Trenches in The Haunted Reading Room.

Review copied below.

No Man's Land
Review: NO MAN’S LAND: HORROR IN THE TRENCHES by C. M. Saunders

Told as a series of continuing vignettes, NO MAN’S LAND relates the experience of Harry Doyle, a young Welsh soldier in the First World War. As terrifying as are the usual horrors of any war, Harry and his cohorts face additional horrors of an implacable nature. Harry is a wonderful protagonist, because he’s not a one-dimensional fearless hero, but rather he is a true human, fearing, loyal, emotional, introspective. NO MAN’S LAND is a literate and vivid narrative of an ugly war, a war which for Harry Doyle and his fellow soldiers extends beyond the boundaries of consensus reality.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Cover Reveal – Apartment 14F (Uncut)

Later this month, I am re-issuing a new version of my 2009 book, Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story. I’ll tell you more about why I re-wrote it and some of the back story another time, but for now I wanted to share the new artwork with you.

When the book was first released it did pretty well, and was nominated for several industry awards. This was mostly thanks to the great cover, which was designed by a very talented lady called Annie Melton.

This is the original:

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As successful as it was, I was never truly happy with Apartment 14F. Long story short (pun intended), I had to make a lot of editorial compromises. So when the rights reverted back to me from the publisher last year, I couldn’t wait to release it the way it was intended.

I contacted Annie and asked if I could use the original artwork. She graciously agreed, but there was some uncertainty about who actually owned the rights and neither of us wanted to get caught in a legal minefield. After a bit of push and shove with the rather unhelpful publisher, I decided the best thing to do was to commission another cover. Annie has now moved on from doing commercial covers, so I called on my old friend and collaborator Greg Chapman, who I’ve worked with several times in the past, most recently on X SAMPLE and No Man’s Land: Horror in the Trenches.

I was interested to see what Greg would come up with. It’s always fascinating to see how other people process and interpret various things. He hasn’t let me down yet, so I gave him a blurb and let him loose. The result is very different from the original cover art, but equally as impressive. 14f

What do you think?

Released on April 14th, Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story (Uncut) is available for pre-order now.

UK LINK

US LINK


Free Read – Monkey Man

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“And they all lived happily ever after.”

Toby’s mother closed the story book and gazed down at her petrified son with a look filled with such compassion only a mother could give it. She knew he was scared. She could feel it. Since the moment he came home from school the fear had been slowly building up inside him, and as the afternoon marched relentlessly on towards night he became a dishevelled shell of a boy.

Toby wouldn’t tell her what the problem was. Throughout the evening she had gently poked and prodded at his defences trying to make him open up, but he remained tight-lipped. He was stubborn, just like his dad.

She leaned in closer to her son and planted a delicate kiss on his forehead. “Okay?” she asked. The boy nodded emphatically. He was tying to hide his fear, probably for her sake. But she knew he was quaking in his boots, she could almost smell the fear coming off him in cloying waves. It was in his voice, his eyes, the atmosphere. The fear was like a dense black cloud that threatened to engulf everything.

As a last resort, she decided on the direct approach. “Toby, tell me what’s wrong, love.” The boy remained silent, but the expression on his face spoke a thousand words.

“Monsters?” she asked, tentatively. “Is it the dark? Bogeymen? Did someone at school say something? What is it?” She fought to keep her voice from rising. Not in anger, but pure frustration. “Do you wanna sleep with the light on? Would that help any? For God’s sake, just tell me what you’re so scared of!”

No answer.

She was getting ready to give up when Toby spoke, quietly and deliberately, as if worried about who or what may be listening. “I’m not scared of the Bogeyman. I’m not a kid, I know its not real. I’m scared of the Monkey Man, because he’s real.”

Toby’s mother was momentarily stunned into silence. What a bizarre thing for a six-year old to say! In all her years, she had never even heard of anything called the Monkey Man but decided that it must be some variation on the Bogeyman theme. Adopting her softest, most understanding tone, she met his eyes and tried to look sincere. “Toby, listen,” she began. “Nothing and nobody is going to hurt you, okay? I promise. Not the Bogeyman, the Monkey Man, or any other kind of man. Do you trust me? Do you trust mummy?”

Toby nodded again, as if he had known all along such creatures didn’t exist, but didn’t look entirely convinced. There was more than a shred of doubt lingering in his mind, and that shred of doubt was causing all the problems. But what more could she do? With a sigh she stood and went to the door, then turned to look back at her son. She didn’t want to leave him alone like this but it was getting late, and surely this was the best way? She remembered reading an article in the Mail on Sunday. He would confront his fears, win the battle, and be all the better for it.

“Remember, Toby,” she said. “Monster’s aren’t real. I promise. They only exist on television and in your mind. So don’t you be afraid, okay?”

“Okay, mum,” Toby’s voice was small and weak.

“Okay, then. I’ll leave the landing light on until you drop off. If you want me, just call out.”

“Okay, mum.”

“Goodnight then, love.”

“G’night, mum.”

Alone in the semi-darkness, Toby lay still, listening. The old terraced house creaked and groaned around him and the muffled voices of his parents drifted up the stairs, but he was oblivious to them. His ears were cocked, his heart thudded in his chest, and every nerve was wound tighter than a spring. The first sign of the Monkey Man, and he was going to run for it.

There was such a thing as a Monkey Man, too. Adam Yates had told him at school. And Adam Yates had a cousin who had actually SEEN it with his own eyes. He said when it was dark, the Monkey Man climbed up the drainpipe of little boy’s houses, quietly opened their bedroom window, crept in and carried the boy off as he slept. Adam said after that, he did unspeakable things to them and they were never seen again. Toby wasn’t exactly sure what unspeakable meant, but it didn’t sound good. He secretly suspected that know-it-all Adam Yates didn’t know what the Monkey Man did to little boys either, and tried to disguise the fact by using words nobody else could understand. It was probably a made-up word, anyway. Suddenly there was a noise outside the window. A faint scrape.

He was coming! The Monkey Man!

Instead of running for it as planned, Toby buried his head beneath the bedsheets. In his mind’s eyes he saw the exterior of the house. A shapeless black mass, barely visible amidst the crawling shadows, clung to the drainpipe just below the upstairs windowsill. For the first time Toby noticed that his parents had kindly fitted his bedroom with rather a large window, easily big enough for the sly Monkey Man to squeeze through.

Mum had left the landing light on! How stupid! She was advertising him like a fresh lamb chop in a butcher’s window. Even worse then that, the beast outside was provided with enough light to enable it to open the window. Did she want him to get taken away and have unspeakable things done on him or what? But why would she want that? He had been good. Well, in the main. He had only been eight for two weeks and already he hated it. There was so much about the world he didn’t know. It was so BIG. And weird! Any thing could happen.

He wanted to get out of bed, run across the landing and turn off the light. Maybe then the Monkey Man would move along down the street in search of another, easier victim. But his body seemed frozen. Besides, this way least he would see the thing coming. Without the light there would be only darkness, and he would be defenceless.

Maybe, if he lay still, the Monkey Man wouldn’t see him. He would climb up the drainpipe, take a sneaky peak through the window and see only an unkempt, unmade bed. The seconds ticked by, agonizingly slowly. Surely, if the Monkey Man planned to come in he would have by now. It had been a long time since he heard that single scrape and he hadn’t heard any other suspicious sounds since. All was quiet now.

After a seemingly impossible amount of time passed, Toby found himself growing weary. His breathing slowed and his eyelids began to droop. Maybe mum was right, after all. Maybe the Monkey Man really isn’t real. She had promised, and mum never broke a promise. She always told him that was naughty. What was more, she would never let anything happen to him. He was safe here.

Adam Yates might have been lying. That was naughty, too. He had been caught lying in school before. He thought telling fibs made him sound clever, or made other people like him more or something. He was a sad case.

Now he was awfully tired. He could barely keep his eyes open. He was surprised to learn that he no longer cared about the Monkey Man. All he cared about was sleep. Glorious, peaceful sleep. He allowed his lids to close over his grainy eyeballs and almost immediately succumbed to the great dark abyss.

Later, the house was completely still. Nothing stirred, and the only sounds to be heard were the soft snores emanating from the master bedroom. Toby was in a different world now, a world of adventure and magnificent dreamscapes.

Nobody heard the strange, stealthy noises coming from just outside; the scrape of boot against brick, or the creak of the drainpipe as it struggled to bear a weight it was never designed for. Nobody heard the soft click as Toby’s bedroom window was tentatively opened.

Monkey Man was inspired by a story I read in a tabloid newspaper. One of those little ‘Strange But True’ fillers. The story was about an area of northern England being terrorized by a man often seen scaling the front’s of houses. It was probably either a peeping Tom or a burglar on the prowl. But maybe it was something worse, which is what my imagination did with the story. In a nod to his dexterity the media dubbed him the Monkey Man and put a cheeky, light-hearted spin on it. I decided to take it and add a dark twist, resisting the urge to place anyone in a gorilla costume.

This was the first thing I ever had published, by a man called Arthur Smith who ran the iconic Welsh fiction magazine Cambrensis. In fact, it was the first piece of fiction I ever submitted, which set me in a falsely confident state of mind until the rejections started piling up. I think the early success had more to do with Arthur feeling sorry for me than any real skill on my part. I remember submitting the whole manuscript in BLOCK CAPITALS on the suggestion of my dad. Dad, you’ve been right about most things in my life, but you were wrong about that. Readers, please don’t submit manuscripts in block capitals. Anyway, Arthur re-typed the whole thing, edited it, and put it out in an edition of Cambrensis in 1997. I was 23. 

Cambrensis was a labour of love for Arthur. I can’t imagine he ever made any money out of his little enterprise. Especially when you take into account that the payment for publication was a lifetime subscription. As it turned out, the ‘lifetime’ in question was poor old Arthur’s, as he died a few years later and Cambrensis died with him. This is a shout out to you, Arthur, wherever you may be. Thanks for believing.

Monkey Man is available in X, my first collection of short stories.

UK LINK

US LINK

© This is a work of fiction, copyright of the author, C.M. Saunders

DISCLAIMER: Picture nicked from Google Images


Fantasia Divinity #6

I’m pleased to report that my short story The sharpest Tool is included in the latest edition of Fantasia Divinity magazine, available to read free online HERE.

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The Sharpest Tool is a bit of a departure for me, and deals with some controversial topics I (and most level-headed writers) prefer to stay well away from. It is set firmly in the real world, rather than utilising any supernatural elements and if I tell you the story was inspired by the infamous Fritzl case, it should provide some clues as to the subject matter. I’ve always been fascinated by real life crime, and why people do the things they do. As an outsider looking in, you can usually see why people commit most crime. Money or revenge are two main motivators. Things like the Fritzl case are much harder to understand, and therefore more interesting.

If I say I hope you enjoy The Sharpest Tool I’d be lying. the truth is I hope it creeps you the fuck out, and maybe makes you think a little.


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