Short Story: ‘Bloodsport’

One of my older pieces, ‘Bloodsport’, has found a home in ReadFinReadFin is the final journal to come out of Melbourne Polytechnic’s Writing and Publishing degree, from which I graduated in 2014.

I wrote this piece a few years ago but still vividly remember agonising over the sword fighting choreography. I sought out feedback about it and even watched a few shogun samurai movies on YouTube for reference. It was a fun exercise.

ReadFin received a limited print run, but a digital copy can be found here. Note that the editor has incorrectly credited me as ‘Tim O’Connell’, which is pretty disappointing. I’d hoped they would bring more care and attention to their final issue, but what can you do?

Issuu doesn’t like web browsers very much, so I’m also reproducing the story in text here. I hope you enjoy it.


 

Bloodsport

 

I’m at the meeting point: a narrow cliff-edge. Waves crash onto rocks that jut from the ocean like jagged teeth. Countless samurais have died here coveting clan honour. A wrong step preludes a 300-foot drop. I hear a squawk that seems to echo my name. A lone opportunistic gull rides an updraft, a late-afternoon snack its only concern.

Sensing a presence, I turn. Miguel appears across the way, bathed in the light of the setting sun.

‘Fifteen minutes I’ve waited.’

‘Impatience,’ Miguel says, ‘is the folly of youth.’

I smirk. ‘Is that what this is? A lesson in patience?’

Miguel advances until we stand a sword-length apart at the cliff’s edge. Death, like the gull, is opportunistic, and could wing its way from any direction.

Miguel warns that my insolence will cost me. Unperturbed, I grin, disarming him with false confidence. I’m less experienced, but Miguel’s victory is anything but assured.

White-knuckled, we draw our swords. Our robes ripple in the wind. Miguel adopts our clan’s traditional stance; I fall into my variation of it.

Right legs leading, we lock eyes, each daring the other to strike first.

Miguel takes a quarter-step back. His weight shifts to his back foot. I follow his cue, my heel digging into the soft earth. My flesh is goose-pimpled, my muscles taut. Miguel, expressionless, wholly inhabits this moment.

The distant seabird screeches, her cry puncturing the silence.

I lunge forward.

Miguel guards high; I feint and strike low. We clash violently until my blade slips down the length of his. He shunts me off balance and leads me in a quarter-circle, his position a counterweight to my heavy blow. I hang on, enduring the hideous scraping of steel.

We separate explosively. My arm is nicked. I hiss and force it from my mind. Miguel lunges, hoping to capitalise on his modest blow. He is uncannily quick, but I deflect, taking his wrist and forcing him to relent. He leaps back.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘There’s still plenty of fight in me.’

Miguel mocks me with laughter.

The reprieve is short-lived. Our swords collide a dozen more times. We circle continuously. Alternately, we dominate, losing then wresting back control, overpowering and pushing back in increments. But our reserves are low. Miguel knows this. It’s in his eyes. For all our discipline, we are but flesh constructs.

We separate, pirouetting in sync. I toss my robe, my legs shifting free. Then I thrust forward in pre-emptive strike. Miguel is waiting. He always is. He parries then ripostes my blow. Sparks fly. Our clashing blades are deafening.

‘Gyaaaaah!’ My voice scrapes in my throat.

Our swords clash repeatedly. Dusk looms. I grit my teeth, my eyes fixed on my opponent. I lust for an opening. My strength is flagging, my mind clouding. Tiny mistakes accumulate. Miguel’s focus sharpens; his cuts come too close.

I take one last stand. With a two-handed grip, I draw back, enveloped by primal fury. I drive my blade with such ferocity. Miguel defends – barely. His face whitens. I strike again, thrashing and thrashing. He can’t match my intensity. This is the virtue of youth.

Miguel panics. He evades my blows, but the near misses spur me on. Relentless parrying exhausts him. Enraged, I draw back and swing again, but miscalculate and deal a heavy blow to nothing. Miguel creates distance and I feel, overwhelmingly, that a vital opportunity is wasted.

We recover our breath over two long seconds. Then, as if of one mind, we surge forward with declarative war cries. Miguel catches my blade in his. We lock in, our poised body language belying our struggle. We each hope to unnerve the other. Muscles quake. Our composure slips. Sheens of sweat form above our brows.

Miguel swiftly sidesteps and I stagger off-kilter. My balance is again misplaced; I strike a knee into my opponent, but the move is crude and proves my undoing. It happens so fast: I lurch sideways, my feet flirting with the cliff-edge, and—

I feel it before seeing it. It’s a clean hit. Miguel has saved me from a 300-foot drop, only to finish me himself. His blade protrudes from between my shoulders. We remain like this, outside time: Miguel savouring victory, perhaps contemplating the complexities of our relationship, while I am caught in the throes of death.

Miguel is static a long while, his form effortlessly arranged for the execution of his final blow. The light is changing. Dusk is becoming night and I am where I deserve to be: skewered on my brother’s blade.

I’m fading fast, my vision waning. But all’s right: this is the natural order of things. I focus, as if to immortalise the moment, find beauty in death. But the gull’s incessant screeches return and now the sound is frenzied. With the last of my strength, I look to the source, expecting the sky to be blotted with seagulls.

Instead, I see a barmaid from a neighbouring establishment. Her stride is long, her expression unamused. She proceeds to her announcement, a cross-armed harbinger.

‘Daniel! Cody! I’ve been calling for ten minutes! Dinner’s on the table!’

I stand tall, exhaling frustration. The illusion’s ruined: she’s no barmaid. My brother Cody releases his hair from its authentic samurai bun and steps down from the wooden stage-cum-cliff edge.

‘Sorry, Mum.’

His face broadcasts disappointment. I pat between his shoulder blades, in the spot where his character slew mine, and assure him that our rehearsals have not been in vain, that our depiction of cartoon samurais Jack and Miguel are eerie in their accuracy, and that our scheduled display will be the highlight of FantasyCon.

Cody, looking serious, Miguel-esque, casts me a sidelong glance.

Flawless.

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Review: ‘The Girl in the Flammable Skirt’

the-girl-in-the-flammable-skirt smallThis collection, originally published in 1998, was on my to-read list for ages, but my local libraries and bookstores never carried it. Fortunately, with the recent popularisation of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender’s older works have gotten the reissue treatment (slash they’ve made it to backwater Australia in the first place). Even with the reissue, though, this was still a difficult find. I had to grab the LARGE PRINT edition from my local library. Ever read a large-print story about a promiscuous librarian during the morning train commute? Didn’t think so. Don’t scoff.

Fortunately, it was worth the trouble. Although The Girl with the Flammable Skirt feels a bit like the work of a writer still developing their voice, its stories were loaded with entertainment value. Bold, eccentric and dripping with originality, Bender’s short fiction contains highly memorable plots with unconventional subject matters. She trades in the sort of quirky surrealist style associated with writers like Francesca Lia Bloc and Miranda July. A strong sexual undercurrent also permeates these works, further accentuating this comparison.

Still, I enjoyed this way more than Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. Though they’re aesthetically similar, I find July’s writing gratingly cute and too far removed from reality; Flammable Skirt was, oddly, more grounded in real human emotion, thus I connected better to the stories. (I say oddly because, like contemporary fairytales, Bender’s subject matter is pretty out there: an incognito imp, of high school age, makes an unwitting sexual advance while stroking the hair of an incognito teenage mermaid; a woman’s boyfriend, disillusioned with the state of the world, experiences – perhaps initiates – reverse evolution, eventually becoming a salamander; two young women experience the hardships of adolescence – with added elemental burdens: one has an ice hand, one fire.)

Reading these, I was delightfully forced from my comfort zone (realist literary fiction). The stories were often trés silly, but Bender sells them, establishing the parameters quickly and upholding them, honouring them. Universality grounds even the most outlandish story, and so they read like strange fables, cautionary tales. I’m intellectualising what doesn’t need to be: at their core, I must emphasise, these stories are just great fun.

I had several favourites, including: ‘The Ring’, a story about besotted thieves whose stolen ruby ring permanently dyes everything it contacts; ‘Quiet Please’, a story about a grief-stricken librarian who decides to have sex with every man who enters her library; ‘Dreaming in Polish’, a story about a prophetic old couple who dream visions of the future in unison; and ‘What You Left in the Ditch’, a story about a military wife who finds it hard to love her wounded husband after he returns from war without lips.

A couple didn’t quite hit home (the sprawling, overambitious ‘Marzipan’ and the ineffectual ‘Legacy’), but theses don’t tarnish what was an otherwise compelling debut. I’ve no doubt I’ll be reading more of Aimee Bender’s work in the future.

Review: ‘[untitled] Issue Six’

ImageThe sixth issue of Busybird Publishing’s flagship literary journal opens with a question: ‘Where has [untitled] been?’ The journal, which ordinarily sees an annual release, was an unexpected no-show in 2013. According to the editorial, the publisher’s self-imposed deadline repeatedly slipped by as the editors-cum-mad scientists deliberated over their largest assortment of stories yet. Talk about perfectionists! But issue six is here now, and I’m happy to report that [untitled] has come back strong.

The issue opens with one of my favourite stories: Josh Donellan’s ‘The Stench of Adventure’, a charming, fictionalised account of the author’s Cambodian travels. Having been to Thailand, I related to Donellan’s depiction of South-East Asian culture. It’s a sweet story, playful in tone. But also worth noting is that the author nails the shameful way privileged westerners treat lesser-developed countries as their personal playgrounds. This story sums up what [untitled] is all about: smart, well-written, entertaining stories that can be enjoyed by anyone. There was no pretension in ‘The Stench of Adventure’, thus it struck me as the perfect opener.

Another highlight was second story, ‘An Open Book’. This story was vintage Ryan O’Neill: the state of a relationship is revealed through passages, doodles and notations made in the margins of a book. It’s quirky, involves a bit of light detective work and appeals to our base voyeurism. Ryan O’Neill’s relentless cleverness continues to impress.

‘The Crying Space’ was a melancholic account of a man experiencing trauma-induced blindness. Despite how it may sound, I found this refreshingly unsentimental. There are no miraculous recoveries (at least not within the timeframe of the story), and main character Bryce is forced to re-evaluate his perception of the world. Author Peter Farrar excels in his sensory descriptions. It’s deeply affecting and impossible not to project yourself into Bryce’s situation.

Wendy Purcell gave a memorable reading from her story, ‘The Broker’, at issue six’s launch, and I’d been thinking about it since. Purcell subtly implements an intriguing, fantastical concept (a pawn broker removes sellers’ memories of the objects they’re divesting from, Eternal Sunshine style) into an otherwise familiar setting. This closing story was a multi-faceted page-turner, and ended the journal on a perfectly poignant note.

The 2013 [untitled] Short Story Competition

Also included in this issue were the winners of the 2013 [untitled] Short Story Competition. Not sure what was in the water this year, but I found all five of these very impressive.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth’s highly commended ‘Niall’s Edge’, a mournful comment on global warming and our acceptance of fate, was perhaps the most ‘literary’ story in the whole issue. The precision in her descriptions was astounding.

Contrasting this was Venetia Di Pierro’s ‘Rollerbaby Queen’, a buoyant, Fifties-style story about an adolescent friendship. Di Pierro’s story excelled in its rich portrayals of Fifties culture and of authentic teenaged friends growing apart.

Peter R Hill’s ‘She’s All Broken’ was an occasionally funny, sometimes frustrating, always powerful art heist caper. This story’s point of difference was that it starred a disabled protagonist with a fully functioning mind, but communication difficulties. ‘She’s All Broken’ bravely inhabited a minority’s point of view to beautiful effect. Putting the reader inside this character’s skin enables them to experience, first-hand, just how fearful and prejudiced society can be towards the disabled.

Adrienne Tam’s ‘The Human Child’ initially struck me as a moody, atmospheric tale about family dynamics, which it is – but it evolves organically, becoming much more. Tam sucker-punches the reader with a dark late development, transforming the story into a fantastical fable, akin to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Well-executed.

Special mention must go to Luke Thomas’ first-place-winning story, ‘Regatta’, about a fractured married couple’s travels through Africa. Luke Thomas’ ‘Real Estate’ was one of my personal highlights in [untitled] issue five, and, for me, ‘Regatta’ cements the author as one of Australia’s seminal short fiction talents. It’s hard to articulate why this story resonated with me the way it did. Listing its superficial qualities feels insufficient. ‘Regatta’ has intangible magic; it’s a perfect marriage of voice, technique, character and story. Thomas wholly inhabits his protagonist, Tom. The story is no meditation on angst, but Tom’s pain is positively palpable. And still he holds things together, hoping, with grace, restraint and occasional wit. The titular boat race becomes a desperate, metaphorical struggle. More than the sum of its parts, ‘Regatta’ is a delicate, Hemmingway-esque story that will doubtlessly stay with me.

Overall Impressions

Unfortunately, not all of the stories in this issue were direct hits for me – ‘Puppet Fears’ was a bit beyond me, and may require closer re-reads; ‘Tilly’ showed fleeting brilliance, but felt tonally confused; and ‘Pretty Birds’, despite inspiring an excellent cover image, was underwhelming and a bit obvious. I’m fast realising, though, that this is the nature of reading anthologies. Different stories appeal to different people; it’s possible – even likely – that others may rate these as favourites. Overall, the sheer diversity of styles in [untitled] issue six was undeniable and greatly appreciated.

I’m thrilled about [untitled]’s return. It is an excellent celebration of Australia’s diverse literary talent, and issue six maintains the high standard set by previous issues. Reportedly, Busybird are working to get issue seven out by the end of 2014, so hopefully the wait won’t be too long for more short fiction goodness.

Titling Stories: What’s in a Name?

I couldn’t title this post, so was reduced to pilfering third-hand Shakespeare. (More like what’s in a lame, right?) My thanks must then go to the thousand-odd suckers before me who’ve riffed on the romantic old clod’s work and thought themselves clever. Oh, for how, were it not for aping Shakespeare, would we title our movies, blogs, or shitty, small-time newspaper articles? That is the question.

ImageThis admission of flattery-cum-theft, nefarious as it may seem, serves as the perfect introduction: I’m rubbish at titling things. Always have been. To prove it, here are some recent examples: Continue reading

Review: ‘Doorway’

Image‘Doorway’ is a short story about grief. It features faintly supernatural elements, and has great pacing and characterisation.

There are three things in particular that I liked about this story:

  1. That it explored what it’s like to lose your family, or a parental figure. Even as an adult there is consolation in having parents (or aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc) as a safety net. When Google can’t answer my question, my parents are the next logical step. Morbid as it may be, I’ve often wondered (or more aptly, fretted) about what it would be like if this suddenly ceased to exist. Through Amy’s loss of her Aunt Zara, ‘Doorway’ explores this issue in a substantial and satisfying manner.
  2. The surprise developments that occur later on. Just when I thought I had these characters pegged, things started shifting. For a story about loss, there’s a real buoyancy to the narrative. Aunt Zara, in particular, brought a lot of humour.
  3. The economy of the prose. A lot of ground gets covered in this story, but you wouldn’t know it by its brevity. Zigomanis has a talent for implying where others would overstate. The relationships Amy has with her aunt and husband felt truthful and full of nuance.

I heartily recommend ‘Doorway’, and look forward to reading more by Les Zigomanis.

Shameless Self-Promotion

If you cast your mind back to two days ago (I know – those were heady times), you may recall a micro fiction piece I posted entitled ‘The Intervention’.  The piece was one hundred and fifty-five words and written as a response to a visual prompt. Here’s a refresher.

Anyhow, I’ve just found out the piece was judged runner-up for round forty-three of Flash! Friday Fiction’s weekly competition! What this means, effectively, is that my piece was the judge’s second favourite out of nearly a hundred stories! I know: not the biggest achievement in the world but it was a huge boon to me. The news really made what was otherwise a pretty shitty day. I’ve only dabbled in flash fiction for about two months, so the recognition that I’m doing something right – at least in this judge’s eyes – is reassuring.

Here’s what contest judge Kinza Carpenter Shores had to say about the piece:

FIRST RUNNER UP

Tom O’Connell, “The Intervention.” This story was a very close second for me in the running. Often setting up complicated stories involving Science Fiction or fantasy can take up so much space in a 150 word story and leave no room to build up the meat of the story. The introduction, short and to the point, retained the same flow and diction as the bulk of the story, remained relevant and impressively telling. Instead of falling into the very easy trap of telling rather than showing, this story gives you clear images of the characters and the relationship of the story. The dialogue blew me away with how well it was put together, and the characterization– spot on. The flow of action to imagery suited the story well, and it was a refreshing take on the prompt.

Review: ‘The Stonemason and Other Tales’

The Stonemason and Other TalesClocking in at four stories long, Michael McMullen’s The Stonemason and Other Tales is short but sweet, an intriguing sampler of punchy horror yarns. It opens with the title story, an eerie gothic piece that put me in the mind of Poe himself. From there we have ‘Beneath the Falling Stars’, a twisted confessional by a man whose swirling paranoia has him actually anticipating the forthcoming apocalypse. ‘The Gift’ shows how unrequited love is not always as sweet as you might expect, while closer, ‘The Incident at Outpost 51’, proudly wears its main influence, John Carpenter’s The Thing, on its sleeve.

Each story was an intriguing morsel in its own right. McMullen’s is an engaging new voice. Measured and intelligent, he has truly grasped the art of writing suspense. However, I did find myself wishing for more: more depth, more stories, more surprises. I think the middle two worked best because they seemed to focus more on internal character development.

(Good horror – smart horror – requires strong, believable characters with dreams and desires. Neglect this inclusion and you’re merely putting hamsters through their paces.)

‘The Stonemason’ showed incredible promise from the offset, with a marked emphasis on atmosphere and a great premise (reporter drives to a remote location to interview a renowned local stonemason). However, for me, it didn’t go anywhere wholly original; that is to say, the outcome of the story did not live up to the opening’s potential. ‘Outpost 51’, again, conjured great atmosphere. The, err, monster in this story was creepy and original, and the setup kind of put me in the mind of that great Treehouse of Horrors episode where Bart, the boy who cried wolf, is terrorised by a gremlin riding along the outside of the school bus. There’s a strong, underlying tension. However, I just wasn’t invested in the character, or his journey, and so the somewhat conventional outcome left me underwhelmed. That’s not to say it was a bad story or anything; rather, it felt like enjoyable fodder that would’ve been better suited to pad out the middle of a longer, more substantial collection.

So, really, my major issue with this wasn’t to do with the stories, or the writing; it was my craving for more. I think if this were six–seven stories long it might’ve fared better. I also would’ve loved if McMullen could’ve allowed one to two of his stories to really stretch their wings over a dozen or more pages. Having four very brief flash-in-a-pan horror outings compiled like this left the whole feeling like less than the sum. It would’ve been nice to have this rounded out by, for example, a nicely paced longer short that really delved into the character’s psyche over a series of thrilling set pieces – so, perhaps a psychological thriller, or something (something like a longer take on ‘Beneath the Falling Stars’). Such an inclusion would’ve perfectly contrasted these shorter tales and left this collection feeling both more substantial and better-rounded.

Still, as a wonderfully priced introduction to McMullen’s writing, The Stonemason and Other Tales offers terrific value. I can think of no finer way to whittle away that hour train ride to work. It is a fitting love letter (albeit a brief one – a love post-it, perhaps?) to all things horror. I genuinely can’t wait to see what McMullen offers next.