Monday, 22 March 2010

THE ART OF BAD WRITING

Steve and the Really Horrible Monster

“Oh my God!” thought Steve to himself, “this is the end! It’s all over for me! I’m finished, done for!” The big black as darkest midnight monster’s foul foetal breath wafted over Steve’s friendly rather attractively freckled face, forcing its way into the unfortunate nostrils of his long somewhat pointed nose. There was no escape. This was like a really horrible dream, a nightmare in fact. But it wasn’t a nightmare. It was real. Too real. All too real. As real as the ageless stout oak and elm trees that he knew dotted the very pretty landscape behind him. Even his best friend John Brown couldn’t have helped Steve now, Steve thought. Even if he had been there. Which he wasn’t. Steve hadn’t seen him for ages. Nobody could. Nothing could. He was indeed done for. It was the end. The terrifying monster growled menacingly and threateningly. He thought back nostalgically to the last time he had seen him.
***
“So, how are you feeling, Steve?” John had inquired in a questioning way. He happened to glance in the mirror, and saw a tall, tanned man, with wavy hair cascading over tough leathery cheeks. He had been an adventurer, before, and travelled all over the Dark continent. His nose was long and strong, and his teeth as white as purest pearl covered in snow. The kind of man you imagined as the gnurled westerner such as John Wayne who always rushed headlong to the rescue at the end of the film, or nearly at the end anyway, except in that film about cancer where he died himself. But not this time. He was over 50, in fact he was 55 years old. He had been married, and his wife’s name had been Jane Rowson – before she married him, of course, when it changed to Brown, which was John’s surname. She had actually been quite pretty and very nice, though perhaps at times a little too fussy.
“Like death warmed up, John,” Steve had glumly answered in response to his friend’s penetrating enquiry. He was also 55 years old but he wasn’t tall and tanned. At all. He was short and pale. But he was John’s best friend. His hair was thin. He was not happy. His tone was bitter, and there wasn’t a brace of a smile on his pale speckled face, which was framed by loosed uncombed strands of hair which was almost blond, although thin. Was he sad because he wasn’t married (though he had a girlfriend called Mary)? No, it was something far worse. John’s next words would rapidly reveal what this was.
“Yes, Steve, it can’t be nice losing a leg as you did five months ago, when you fell asleep drunk on the railway tracks at midnight, or probably a bit before, after leaving the pub on Saturday night in the big town of Dudley, near Birmingham in the Midlands – well, actually nearer Wolverhampton, to be more exact – an area that used to be famous, as you know, for car manufacturing and the auto industry,” sympathised John, a look of caring concern on his suntanned face (because he was worried about the one-legged Steve), as he gazed with genuine pity in his honest rugged eyes at the man who had been his best pal since they had played football together (he in goal, his mate centre-forward, although occasionally he played centre-half) at school in their early teens, forty years before, when they had been four decades younger. Both of them. At one time they had even chased the same girl, a hi-spirited red head called Clare Randyfun who had eventually married a local plumber from the same area called Peter Sykes who was nicknamed Crikey, and had dark short closely chopped hair and liked watching repeats of Bonanza, on the telly, an old cowboy serious which featured four brothers and their dad, but no sisters, one of them called Hoss, played by an actor who had recently died and given up acting, who’s name John can never remember, although Steve can because it reminded him of a pet dog he had once had. (The plumber was nicknamed Crikey not just because it sounded a bit – but not that much, to be honest – like Wykes, but also because when he had first proposed to her, Clare, taken aback by surprise, and what’s more in love with a much older teaching colleague who had actually been to Oxbridge university, had vociferated, “Oh crikey!” because then at that time she didn’t know what a fortune plumbers made – and teachers didn’t – fixing pipes and dealing with water problems, such as broken taps in kitchens and bathrooms and leeks and things like that. Later they both thought this was absolutely hilarious, because they had a keen sense of humour, and looked forward eagerly to having children so that they could tell them the story. They had no children yet.)
Before Steve could produce an answer to John’s earnestly sympathetic observation, the latter preceded:
He said, “So of course I naturally comprehend that you must still be feeling pretty depressed, Steve, but life goes on, you know” (he tacked on encouragingly) “and you have to make the best of it, chortle and bear it, best foot forward, and all that. Oh dear, sorry!” he hastily apologised at once, “no leg, no foot of course! But you might easily have lost both of them, you know. Have you thought of that? That train was heavy, Steve, bloody damned heavy!”

***

For some unknown reason, Steve remembered these words now, as the huge monster, which he somehow knew had been summoned by that squint-eyed black-man manipulating voodoo with a vicious scar down one cheek and a sinister limp, loomed over him like a fiend from the very bowels of deepest hell itself. If he had had both his legs , he could at least try to make a run for it! The wall was so close, less than ten feet away… But with only one leg, having lost the other, and the wheelchair on its side, it might just as well have been ten miles away, on the other side of the town, where the grim depressing tenements faded away to give rise to pretty rolling fields and gurgling placid streams, that sparkled when the sun shone, and were still rather attractive even when it didn’t, which of course often happened in the Midlands, especially on cloudy days, one of which was called the Steam, although no one quite understood why, besides which, he suddenly remembered now, he had first tried to kiss Clare Randyfun (the girl who had married the watery Crikey) on a rainy afternoon. Steve hadn’t expected it to rain, of course, and it was probably this that had dampened Clare’s enthusiasm. Steve guffawed heartily at the unintentional mental pun, before the beast’s cruel merciless fangs snapped closed barely a hare’s breath from his very face and reminded him of the really quite desperately tricky situation he was in.

***

“I know,” he had replied to his friend John in that last conversation (he hadn’t known then it was to be the last conversation, of course and nor for that matter had John), trying to put a brave smile on his pallid face but failing miserably because he still hadn’t really come to terms with losing his leg – it wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t once been a promising footballer, in the centre-forward position, though not all the time – “but you just don’t know what it’s like loosing a leg, John, a whole darn leg. When that happens, you’re left with only one, as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you. Either the left one or the right one, to be exact. It’s hard not to fall into the Slough of This Pond. Bloody hard!” he added with genuinely sincere feeling, voicing what he really felt.
“I observe you’re making an overt illusion to John Bunyan’s Pilgrims’ Progress, written in 1678 by a chap called Bunyan, and never out of print since then,” John remarked learnedly. “You’ll remember that we studied literature together at Leicester university, which is in the Midlands. Not that far from Dudley, where we went to school, as I’m sure you’ll recall, especially as we still live here, and which has a famous zoo, with lots of animals, which quite a lot of people have heard about.” He had been an excellent student, one of those people who seem to excel in everything, and do better than other people. If Steve hadn’t liked him so much, he might have hated him, he sometimes thought.
“Yes, John,” replied Steve in immediate acknowledgement of John’s last comment. “And as you must know the full title was The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come , and it’s been translated into…oh, hundreds of languages. Foreign languages, I mean,” added Steve, had also studied literature at Leicester university, at the same time as John (although of course they had met before when they both went to the same school and played in the same team; football, that is, not cricket) and who had also been an excellent student. He had learned a lot of jolly useful things. But none of these things could help him now, he thought morosely, as the gigantic monster snarled again and opened its monstrous gaping jaws wide…
“But as I was remarking, you must try and keep your chin up, look on the bright side of life, line up the silver clouds,” riposted John, in order to encourage his close old friend. “Mary, your naturally blonde girlfriend with a charming dimple in her cheek, who you started going out with after I ditched her for sleeping around with half the cricket team, still loves you, I’m sure, even though you’ve only got one leg,” he amplified, with the meritorious intention of raising his spirits, “ and your mother too, Mrs Smith, who willy nilly gave up working in the picturesque but now endangered local primary school to help look after you!”
“Yes,” sighed Steve heavily, trying hard to make an inventory of his blessings, “my mother has a heart of gold, bless her, salt of the earth, and I know she worries her heart out about me all the time! And Mary says it doesn’t matter about my leg, even though she knows I only got drunk that night and laid on the trainlines because Sue had ejected my gross unwanted drunken advances after I’d imbibed more than my fill. So I do try to put a brave face on it. I know it could be much worse. But it’s so difficult sometimes, especially when I see football on TV, because it reminds me of when I used to play football myself!”
“…in the school team with me (at Dudley Grammar School, which you may remember was founded in 1562, but no longer exists as such),” John added, “four decades ago.”
“Yes, what you affirm, John, is absolutely correct.”
Before answering his rather depressed friend, John Brown took out his red and white packet of Marlboro from his pocket, removed one king-size cigarette from the eight that were in the packet, leaving the other seven there, closed the pack, slipped it back into the left-hand pocket, where he had taken it from, of his battered anorak which looked as if it had seen better days sometime in the past, put it in his mouth, and following this he lit it, using his right hand, with the lighter he had been given as a birthday present only a few weeks before, by his brother, with the hope, Steve was sure, that he would smoke himself to an early grave. John had never got on with his brother, who was called Bert, and didn’t like John who didn’t like him either in return. He drew hard on the cigarette, then expelled the smoke he had just inhaled which flowed out of his mouth and drifted lazily towards the ceiling which was above them.
Steve coughed because some of the cigarette smoke had drifted towards him, and he had accidently breathed it in. But he didn’t complain because John was his best friend, and he was totally addicted, and hadn’t intended for the smoke to reach him. Taking another deep puff, the tobacco worked its way down his throat, before he expelled it out again.
“Well, I have to go,” interpolated John at this point, looking at his watch, which was on his wrist, “But remember we will always be friends, and if there’s anything I can ever do to help, anything at all… well, you know you can always rely on me. Always. Whatever happens.”
Steve smiled at him gratefully. How wonderful it was to have such a friend, he thought to himself, though he didn’t actually say it.

***

Steve recalled that conversation now. It seemed so long ago it might have been another century, for example, the eighteenth. If only he had known then that within a few months the brakes on his wheelchair were going to fail, and he would crash into the wicked-looking mulatto with the sinister scar and frightening limp, who swore he would have his revenge! But how could he have known? Destiny works in mysterious ways, you never know what’s just round the corner.
And how could he have known he would have that silly stupid argument with John?
Because he had only one leg Steve couldn’t run away from the monster, which was grinning horribly. He felt like he was in a bad movie. He couldn’t even kick it. Well, he could, but he sensed it wouldn’t be a good idea. He was helpless. As helpless as a new-born babe. Why had he decided to take this short cut home late at night, especially so soon after accidentally angering the sinister black man from Haiti, who turned out to be a powerful Bokor? An extremely powerful Bokor!
(A bokor is a voodoo man.)
Now he was helpless.
Or was he??!!
As it happened, Steve had started to lift weights after he had been crippled. His strong arms were like iron bars, with smooth rippling muscles that gleamed in the sunlight. His hands had a grip of steel. Would John let himself be cruelly savaged by an enormous monster? No! And nor would he! No! He would fight back! He would die fighting!

***

An hour or so before this, Mary, a tall blonde girl with the cutest dimples, and Mrs Smith, Steve’s mother, a handsome woman with penetrating pale blue eyes, looked worriedly at each other with concerned expressions on their faces. They were both uneasy. Where was Steve? Why hadn’t he returned? He usually came back from the library by six, and it was now eight o’clock. Well, almost.
“Oh dear,” worried Mrs Smith. “Where can he be?” she wondered aloud.
“He may have gone to the pub,” Mary conjectured helpfully.
“He would never do that without letting me know,” Mrs Smith divulged.
“So what can have happened?” Mary pondered.
“I just don’t know,” pronounced Mrs Smith doubtfully. “And he has lost his mobile.”
There was silence, during which neither of them said anything. But they were both inwardly thinking of Steve’s story of the limping man from Haiti, and his terrible frets of vengeance. Then Mrs Smith announced decisively,
“I’m going to call John!”
“What!” Mary was surprised, and her intonation expressed this.
“I’m going to call John,” reiterated Steve’s mother, using the same words.
“But they haven’t spoken to each other for months!” ejaculated Mary in disagreement.
“I don’t care. If Steve’s in some kind of trouble,” affirmed Mrs Smith, “ then John is the man to get him put of it!”
“But why do you think Steve’s in trouble?” Mary asked Mrs Smith doubtfully.
“Don’t ask me, I can just sense it, “ asseverated Mrs Smith, answering Mary. Well, not completely answering her. She didn’t want to worry her by mentioning the one-eyed swarthy villain from Tahiti that her son had told them about. She didn’t know Mary was thinking of the same thing, and that Mary too hadn’t wanted to worry Mrs Smith by referring to the voodoo man. They were both very considerate women. She then added, “Mother’s instinct, you can call it.”
“But what makes you feel John would be willing to help him after… you know what?” Mary didn’t specify. She knew Mrs Smith knew what she was referring to.
“They were best friends for years and years. They played football together at school”, Steve Smith’s mother explained.
“I know that,” rejoined Mary, shaking her natural blonde hair in irritation, “but…”
She left the sentence unfinished.
Mrs Smith picked up the phone with a determined hand.

***

An hour or so after this, Steve Smith was awaiting the next rush of the hulking great brute. Despite being trapped in the wheelchair, he had fought off the last assault with a solid punch on the beast’s snout! He found he was suddenly calm. If his last moment had come, by God, he was going to die like a man! Like a true Englishman! Like John Brown would if he were in similar circumstances. Scenes of his past life flashed before his eyes. If he had one regret now, it was that he hadn’t been able to make his peace with John Brown. It had been such a stupid argument. The beast growled, deep in the back of its throat.

***

In the morning of the same day that Mary and Mrs Smith had that rather worried conversation, John Brown had got up, and as usual had at once taken a king size cigarette from his purple-and-white Silk Cut cigarette packet, and weighed it ruminatively in his hand. He found he was thinking of Steve Smith, who had been his best friend. Before the quarrel. After the loss of his leg, he had felt even closer to him, more protective. He had always been protective, even at school. When that swaggering brute Gerry Betts had started to bully him, he had leapt to his defence and punched him right on the conk. Bam! He had never picked on his smaller friend again. He picked up his lighter, a Ronson, and held it close to his cigarette, to the front part of it. But he still remembered his strange dream, in which a small mouse was towering in the grass, fringing in fear, while in the sky, above, higher up, a hawk was about to swoop, and somehow (in the dream) he felt it was his duty to help the helpless mouse which was under the rapacious hawk.
When he had woken up, he remembered the dream, and just knew that the mouse represented Steve. Partly because it only had two legs. He knew – just knew – he was in trouble. Or would be. Now, as he lit the cigarette which he had previously removed from the packet, he wondered what he should do. He and Steve hadn’t spoken for six months because of that argument that in introspect seemed plain daft, but he knew he should trust his instinct. He looked up at the thing hanging above the fireplace, a relic from Africa. Somehow, he felt he would soon be needing it again. He felt a completely uncontrollable urge to phone Steve and ass certain what he was up to. Just in case. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. He was a proud man. It ran in the family. His great great grandfather, it was said, had gone to the gallows blowing strawberries at his astonished executioners! His father had committed suicide because he (his father, not John Brown himself) had had a premature ejaculation on his wedding night.
No, he couldn’t phone Steve. He couldn’t do it. Anyway, his presentiment was probably all wrong. Just a dream.
But all day long he felt agitated, and by just after eight o’clock in the evening was seriously wondering whether he should in fact call.
And that was when the phone rang!


***

The beast was still growling, still deep in the back of its throat, when Steve suddenly stopped thinking of John Brown, and thought of Mary. He felt tears in his eyes. Mary, good faithful Mary. Bless her, she hadn’t held his one leg against him. On the contrary, after the accident with the moving train, she had become much more passionate. She always went on top of him, so that he was underneath her, so that he wouldn’t run the risk of rolling off and landing agonizingly on the missing leg. As the stink of the frightening beast’s breath, foul and putrid, gushed over him like the steam from an old-fashioned copper kettle in a Victorian novel by Jane Austen, Steve recalled her breath, so different, so sweet, so fragrant, so nice-smelling! That last night together! Clutching her two generous bouncy and buxom globes like twin moons heated in the microwave in his frantic hands, biting her feverish nipples as red and hard as tiny radishes or minatory napiform carrots , as she thrusted them gloriously and pantingly into his eagerly smug and desirous open mouth, elevating upwards unstoppably his throbbing and pultaceous cock into the incandescent inviting gap between her golden female thighs as she dropped herself on top of him like the bowler hat of a busy City of London businessman leaving late for work, feeling her boiling virginal juices sluicing around his gasping voracious member, as it plunged ever deeper and deeper into the invisible recesses of her delicious enclasping cunt… No more! Never again! This slimy unfeeling monster sent by the man from Haiti would rip open his defenceless throat, and his lifeblood would spurt like orange juice, or maybe more like strawberry juice, all over his recently-ironed (by his mother, Mrs Smith) blue and white checked shirt! Life, Steve mentally cogitated, was so damned unfair!
But what was that? A shout! A yell! A challenge! A voice of thunder casting challenging aspersions and daring the monster to turn round and fight like a man!

***

John Brown had only been speaking to Mrs Smith for five minutes (she had indeed phoned him as she’d said she would) when he flung down the phone, and grabbed the shiny thing hanging over the mantelpiece. He knew just where to go. Stopping only to thrust a fresh packet of cigarettes in his pocket, he headed out into the early night.
But would he arrive in time?

***

Steve could hardly believe either of his two ears. He was actually absolutely flabbergasted and taken a back with surprise. He couldn’t actually see who had shouted with such daring boldness, because the monster’s snarling snout was blocking his view, but he knew that voice like the back of his hand! It was impossible! It couldn’t be! But it was! He was sure! He relocated his head to one side just as the loathsome eyesore’s snarling snout snapped shut hardly the breadth of the eye of a needle from his freckled nostrils! Another inch, and those gleaming fangs would have punctured him like a burst balloon! It was indeed no other than…
…John! John Brown himself, in the flesh! His childhood friend and protector!
Steve heaved a sigh of relief. He was no longer alone. John Wayne had not failed him! The beast turned, peeved and annoyed by the sudden appearance of the man, who was dauntlessly blandishing a sabre in the air. It lunged at the man, and got more than the bloody fiend bargained for when the sabre sliced through the air like a ray of lightening and gorged out one of its six eyes!
The monster didn’t like this. A terrifying roar was emitted from its horrifying jaws as it raised a scaly forearm to strike dead the puny creature who had thusly dared to oppose it.
“Look out!” shouted Steve. He said this because he wanted to warn his long-time friend.
“Don’t worry,” remarked John, cool as a cucumber. “I’ve battled worse than this.” He took a rapid puff of his Marlboro, using his left hand, since the other – the right one – was fielding the deadly sword. His smile was grim. Sardonic. Fearless. He adjusted his body to one side, and the lethal blow of his pitiless adversary fuddled harmlessly into the ground. Before the silly creature could recover, John swung the sabre (which Steve now remembered he had seen on the wall above the fireplace in his old friend’s cosy little two-bedroom flat, which also had a tiny but picturesque terrace) in a deathdealing ark and recapitulated the unwary beast in the twinkle of an eye! The head wobbled unhappily on the serpentine neck for a brief short instant, the four remaining eyes gawping in incredulous disbelief and dismay, and then toppled to the ground as the body slowly and reluctantly did the same, writhing piteously in its death throws.
Steve smiled in relief.
“How did you know I was here?” he inquired curiously.
John took a final puff of his cigarette before tossing it to the ground, where it sizzled in the beast’s streaming hot blood. His righteous anger had now debated.
“I spoke to your mother, Mrs Smith, and Mary, the leggy natural blonde girl you’ve been going out with since I unceremoniously dumped her.” he asseverated in explanation. “Just after eight o’clock. I know it was just after eight,” he expatiated, “because I happened to look at the old clock on the mantelpiece, inherited from my grandfather – my dad’s father, not my mum’s – and it said ten-past-eight. You hadn’t returned from the library. You know I have these hunches, these warning premeditations. I also keep my ear close to the ground. I knew where the voodoo man was staying.” His smile turned grim, like Elric of Melnibon√© when his blood was up. “I had words with him. I persuaded him to tell me what dark beast he had summoned up, and exactly where it was”
Steve smiled. He could just imagine what kind of persuadement his friend had used on the unfortunate savage.
“And here I am,” terminated John.
Steve blessed his lucky stars. With a man like John bye his side, he felt utterly qualmless.
A friend in need, he reflected happily, was a friend indeed.

(The End)

*********

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

WINDFALL
(Extract from The Sex Tourist’s Planetary Guide, 398th Edition.)


Announcements have recently appeared on the Galactiweb extolling the virtues (so to speak) of Anubor, an utterly barren planet, of which ninety-nine per cent of the population are female. We have recently come into possession of a recording which, while forcing us to marvel at the human capacity for survival in the most adverse conditions, at the same time leads us to wonder about the real purpose of the advertisements.

We reproduce below a transcript of part of this recording, made by the Captain of the missionary ship Just Take Our Bloody Word For It, You Heathen!, which was recently found drifting, empty, in space.

*****
Captain: I cannot see how, with no food supply, you are able to survive.

Native Spokeswoman: Before the Enlightenment, it was indeed difficult. The tribes warred incessantly among themselves, battling for the one source of food available – their own bodies. Barbaric, utterly barbaric: eating someone completely unrelated – usually tough and stringy too. Battles would take place at three-day intervals, when everyone had worked up a decent appetite, and usually in the afternoon, so that the victors could then banquet in the relative cool of the evening. Nevertheless, one’s anticipation of a good meal was marred by the reflection that one stood as good a chance of being one as of having one.
But then came the Enlightenment! Ah, that night, so long ago, when the Prophet Roger, a rough untutored warrior, lay sorely wounded and weak from hunger in a cave, while outside, his enemies, flatulent with the more acidic portions of his friends, awaited only the dawn to complete their repast! With him, his infant son, weeping piteously. Lying there, he recalls all the bitter years of war and misery, and can feel sorrow even for his foes outside, some of whom will almost certainly be slain with parts of himself still unexcreted.
And a Vision comes to him. The End of Hunger. The End of War.
He holds his son lovingly in his battle-torn arms, and speaks the words which in time will come to be known throughout the Universe, though often distorted, or hidden and embedded in local cults and myths.
“You,” he murmurs, brushing damp locks from his son’s brow, “are my seed, which must not fall on barren ground. The fruit of my loins. And as man has sown, so verily shall he reap.”
And on the morrow, strengthened by conviction and the flesh and blood of his son, he calmly approaches his enemies; and it is said that a mighty thunderclap heralded his approach, and bushes sprang into flame before him; and his enemies became his disciples and preached his Message over the whole planet. The New Age had begun!

Captain: He ate his own child!

Spokeswoman: Some parts he kept to share with those outside.

Captain: They all ate the little boy!

Spokeswoman: It seems so simple in retrospect, doesn’t it?

Captain: He murdered and devoured his own child, and you call that Enlightenment!

Spokeswoman : What is the whole purpose of reproduction if not to ensure a constant supply of food?

Captain: The purpose of reproduction is to propagate the race.

Spokeswoman: Which means to prevent its extinction through starvation. From constant war, we moved to constant peace, to proud self-sufficiency. What need to fight when food could be peaceably grown in one’s own body? Relationships became more meaningful, with the intense satisfaction of having earned one’s daily bread, first by the sweat of the groin, and then by the sweat of the brow.

Captain: But if you ate all your children, you’d be extinct in one generation.

Spokesman: Quite. The parents don’t eat all of them. Our females are very fecund, bearing five or more children at a time, but each couple is allowed to keep only three. It’s entirely up to them whether they consume all three. Frequently they keep one girl to bring up with tender and loving care, and the relationship is naturally extremely close, since the child is aware that a real sacrifice has been made for her. Of course, this is not to belittle that other equally intimate bond between parent and child – the sacramental union of eater and eaten, the beautiful ultimate return to the womb.

Captain (sotto voce): Or somewhere close to it. (Aloud) And the others?

Spokeswoman: They become common property. They are available to feed those who can’t grow their own food for whatever reason – illness, temporary infertility, old age, and so on. Of course, if a person repeatedly has recourse to the Childpool, they will eventually get eaten themselves.

Captain (triumphantly): Ha! I thought you said it was barbarous to eat each other!

Spokeswoman (patiently): We don’t. That is, we, the adults, don’t eat them. They provide food for the children in the Pool. (Indignantly) The little mites have to eat too, you know! Which is why we are so grateful to you for coming. I honestly don’t know what we’d do without the occasional windfall.
*****
Here the recording abruptly ends, and, while one should not jump to premature conclusions, we feel the advertisements for Anubor should be approached with a certain circumspection.
(This short story was later adapted and incorporated into FISHER OF DEVILS)

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Thank You for your Submission

THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUBMISSION

Dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
Thank you very much for submitting your short story, Battering Brenda, which we have read with great interest. It is not, however, quite what we are looking for at the moment. Might we suggest that you read an issue or two of Desperate Wails, to familiarise yourself with the kind of stories we publish? We enclose details of subscriptions, and writer’s guidelines.

Dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
Thank you very much for your subscription. We enclose the latest issue of Desperate Wails, which we hope you will enjoy reading.

Dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
I apologise for only responding with a form letter before. Your story, Battering Brenda, though excellent, is still not suitable, I’m afraid. You certainly write with unusual passion, but perhaps the story line is just a little bit ‘thin’? But please do not hesitate to try us again.

Dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
Please let me express our gratitude for both your generosity and your faith in Desperate Wails. It is not often that we receive a five-year subscription in advance. We appreciate the support, which will help us to ensure a bigger, better magazine (which, by the way, is called Desperate Wails, not Nails).

However, to answer your rather pointed – indeed, almost belligerent – enquiry, while we do read submissions from our own subscribers with unusual care, a subscription per se does not guarantee publication. Your story, Battering Brenda, does indeed show promise – we were reminded of The Duchess of Malfi, and certain paintings by Bosch – and there is a raw fury to the work which certainly caught our attention. Perhaps if you rewrote it, with a little less gore? The torments suffered by the eponymous Brenda at the moment constitute the whole story, and while extremely imaginative, you do not explain why the aliens should wish to abduct, beat, and torture her for ten days. Also, might we suggest a more varied style? A sentence such as ‘And then they ripped out her tongue and re-implanted it in her anus, and then they turned her nostrils inside out and coated them with her own steaming faeces, and then they pulled out her pubic hairs and threaded them through her nipples with jagged rusty needles, and then they hung her from the ceiling by her nipples, and then ...’, while delightfully colourful, does tend to become a trifle repetitive.

Dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
We liked your joke about our being ‘scoundrels, cads, and bounders’ who need ‘a good horse-whipping’, ha, ha! How the power of the word can bring back the lost charm of a bygone age!
We have read with the utmost interest the revised version of your story. Once again, however, we regretfully feel unable to accept it for publication. Your explanation that the aliens torture Brenda because ‘they didn’t like the way she answered back’, and ‘the nagging shrew deserved all she got’, is original, but not sufficient. And the addition of that last line (‘Now will you remember to put sugar in my tea!’) while providing a certain motivation for the events in Battering Brenda – a kind of inverted Stepford Wives scenario, with aliens thrown in – still fails to remove a certain unnecessary unpleasantness from the story. Neither do we feel that changing the title to Bloodily Battering Brenda is any great improvement.

Dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
I must ask you not to phone the office again. When I returned this afternoon, I found my secretary almost hysterical. We have had to give her the week off.
The reason I did not answer your last two ‘letters’ was because, quite frankly, they were in extremely bad taste. In our business, we expect – indeed, encourage – a certain amount of healthy criticism, but your letters advising me to publish Bloodily Battering Brenda or end up like her, while clearly intended to be slyly humorous, have become a trifle wearing. I have tried to be tactful, but since you push me into it, I have to say that your ‘story’ is obscenely and obsessively misogynous and sadistic, with not a hint of literary merit to redeem it.

Dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
Your subscription is hereby, as you so forcefully requested, returned.
PS We were somewhat puzzled by your inclusion of a reproduction of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Dear Miss Courtly-Pines,
I confess I was rather surprised to receive your letter. I assure you we have nothing whatsoever against your father. I understand your commendable desire to help him, and the lengths to which you are apparently willing to go are a credit to your filial instinct, but regretfully both myself and my co-editor are gay, and so will not be taking up your generous offer.

Dear Mrs. Crinkly-Oaks,
Thank you for your letter, and we hope you enjoy your hundredth birthday next month. We had no idea that your son by your first marriage, Mr. Courtly-Pines, was nearly seventy, and we are sincerely sorry – although not particularly surprised – to hear that his relationship with his wife Brenda is not a particularly happy one.
Yes, your son’s hobby is indeed quite fascinating, and we naturally share your delight that last year he was finally able to complete his collection of amphibian heads with the rare (perhaps the last?) Costa Rican emerald glass frog. As you say, boys will be boys.
It is refreshing – almost comforting – to know that he has taken up a new hobby at this stage of life, and we would like nothing better than to ‘warm an old lady’s heart’, as you put it, and run his story in our magazine, to coincide with your birthday. This, unfortunately, is impossible, as we are very short of staff since the suicide of my secretary, but we enclose a list of magazines which are aimed at a slightly older readership, although, as the list is last year’s, I cannot guarantee that all the editors are still alive.

Dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
Perhaps you have not been informed that we are now in the third millennium, and double-barrelled names of sadistic septuagenarians, thank God, no longer carry any weight. Do you really believe you can frighten me into publishing your senile ravings?

My dear Mr. Courtly-Pines,
That was an excellent joke, ha, ha! about double-barrelled names and double-barrelled shotguns – a nice double meaning, if I may say so! I have always had the greatest admiration for the SAS, to which you inform us you belong. We have taken another look at your father’s quite remarkable story, Battering Brenda, and it is now obvious that we misjudged it terribly the first time. We shall we more than pleased to publish it in our next issue, and so there will be no need for you to pay us, as you so kindly suggested, a midnight visit with your friends.
PS. I have to admit – ha, ha! – that the damp scalp you included with your witty letter gave us quite a fright!

My Dearest Mr. Courtly-Pines,
We will be extremely honoured and delighted to publish your new story, Battering Brenda All Over Again (we especially enjoyed the pun in the title!) in our very next issue – which may well be our last, but not to worry, ha, ha! We find the idea of the protagonist of the first Brenda story being abducted again, one year later, and being subjected to a further series of horrific tortures, an original and fascinating one. By the way, quite a lively lad your son, eh? A real chip off the old block, ha, ha! It is refreshing to find such determined loyalty in a family.

Dear Mrs Crinkly-Oaks,
We were sorry to read that your son has been arrested for the murder and dismemberment of his wife Brenda. We naturally share your opinion that he never really intended to kill her (as is proved by the fact that he chose to dismember her alive) and that his trial is simply the vindictive revenge of the lower, illiterate, classes. We also share your grief that your grandson was cold-bloodedly shot while gallantly attempting a commando-style raid, with biological weapons, on the prison where his father is being held. Our thoughts are with you at this difficult time.
We wonder whether you might have any of your dear son’s other writings – stories, diaries, poems, childhood jottings – anything at all. As you know, Desperate Wails was the first magazine to recognise and encourage his unusual literary talents, and to have the courage to publish the two ground-breaking Brenda stories, half a million copies of which were sold less than a week after his arrest. Perhaps you would like to read through the enclosed contract – don’t worry about the extremely small print, it’s really nothing of any importance – and allow us to help you to manage his literary estate.