“Her body refused to turn around; something was holding her there in the bedroom doorway. But she wasn’t dreaming. You don’t feel pain in dreams.“
It is no secret that I am a fan of weird and wonderful short stories (and occasionally enjoy getting my quill out to write some of my own), and the joy of stumbling across a collection which is as good as this one is almost indescribable.
Things We Lost In The Fire is…there’s no other word for it, it’s terrifying. These are modern day, gothic horror stories set in the slums of Buenos Aires. Each is fast-paced, twisting and turning with terror building with each line.
I tend to judge the success of horror stories by the weirdness of my dreams after reading – and based on the disturbed sleep I had, this collection is a winner.
One of my favourites was The Neighbor’s Courtyard, a terrifically creepy yarn which reminded me, with its obsession, of The Yellow Wallpaper. But all of the stories are very good, and all very different.
You know that excitement when you read a book you love, will remember forever, and that you know you won’t stop recommending to people, probably ever? Yep. This is one of them. I’m sad that I can’t experience the joy of reading it for the first time again.
You can find Things We Lost In The Fire here and the book tracker bookmarks here.
Blood appears black in the moonlight. Don’t ask me how I know that. There are many things I’ve done and many things I’ve seen that I’d prefer not to tell you. But I suppose, now I’m here, that I should share.
It is freeing, in a way, to be able to tell you anything. To feel like I can tell you anything. I trust you. I haven’t trusted many people in my life, but you – I feel like we have a connection. Don’t you?
So, where to begin? I suppose you want to know everything, don’t you? Perhaps I should start with my childhood. How little there is to tell about that though. I was a loner – I imagine you guessed that already, from how I am now. An only child, distant parents. I can’t pretend that my difficulties, the trials and tribulations I’ve felt during my life, haven’t stemmed from then. In fact, until I found you, I was drifting. I had no anchor, despite my wealth. Oh, how I do now!
No, don’t worry, my parents weren’t cruel. But I can’t say that they showed me love either. They were busy, I felt like an afterthought. I found my own ways to entertain myself. I won’t bore you with them, ordinary childhood things that they were. Games.
I went to University a year early. I always was bright, but numbers come naturally to me. I was confused by how others struggled in those lessons, perhaps that goes some way to explain my lack of friends. I hoped things would be different at Oxford University. Surely there, there would be people like me?
As you know, I was disappointed. They had all of the benefits of a socialised childhood and they gathered in groups that I couldn’t infiltrate. I just didn’t know how – they weren’t like me. Instead, I went from lecture to lecture, head down, books in hand, talking to no one. I was invisible. I kept my eyes on the ground and studied in my room. I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me and that was that.
This may sound like I want your pity. I don’t. You know that since then, my life has become an apparent success. I have friends, fans even. My money. Status. But I’ve always wanted more. I’ve always been hungry for more. Now that we’re together, I’m content. You have changed that side of me, at least.
Yes, I know why we are here, having this conversation. Yes, I can tell what that expression on your face means. You want more. Well. I don’t know whether delving any deeper would be helpful. You already seem disappointed in me. What can I do? It is more difficult than it seems, peeling back the layers. As painful as removing a layer of skin. I’ll try. I’m flattered that you want to learn more about me. I feel there is something I’m missing though, something urgent that you want. You are tense. But you feel as though you can’t ask. Ok, that’s fine. I want you to believe in me.
A heart is like an apple, you know. When it’s healthy and happy it is fresh and juicy and red – filled to bursting. Have you ever bitten into an apple and left it on the side? Straight away it starts to wilt, brown, rot. There’s no healing it. That’s my experience, anyway. Give it an hour or two and there’s nothing you can do to save it, you may as well just toss it in the bin.
You could say that’s been my life’s work.
You don’t get the connection? You look confused, but trust me, it is a good metaphor. I can see your micro expressions now, flitting across your face, you are struggling to understand. It will become clear. I want what you want – I want the two of us to be happy and I want you to know me. I know that’s important for us to move forward.
Shall we move on to your reservations about me? I can see that you have them. People have had reservations about since I was a child. Perhaps it’s something about the way I hold myself. I’m so used to being alone that others sense that they are unnecessary around me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I need you as much as you need me. I’m sorry that I can’t be different.
Perhaps talking about my career will help. You know that I’m successful and – well, you’ve seen my office. You perhaps don’t know quite how hard I had to work to build my company. From the ground up. Starting with nothing – no loans, just a computer in my bedroom. Am I proud of what I’ve achieved? Yes, of course I am. Wouldn’t you be? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to undermine your own career. I know you work hard. But yes, to get to the bottom of what you want to know, I did trample on people on my way up. To be a success, you have to. Kind people don’t get anywhere in this life. Oh, I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but you understand – to make millions, to become a someone, you have to stand on top of a pile of bodies. Excuse my crude phrasing. It was harder for me than those Eton boys with their connections readymade. I had to rely on pure talent and guts. You think I’m cold, and I don’t deny it. But you can see why I would be, with a life like mine.
Now I’m confused because you still seem to want more from me. There are no more relevant things that I can share about my life. I said it was freeing to be able to tell you anything and I stand by that, but your reaction is frankly quite disappointing. You have a strange look on your face. What is that look? If you came closer to me, maybe I would be able to decipher it. As it is, I am drawn to your glinting eyes in this gloomy room.
I see what you want. I understand now. You want to know about my past relationships. Are you alright? I noticed a subtle change in you. This is what you were waiting for. Well, I’m afraid there’s really nothing to tell you. I have never been much of a one for long relationships. They don’t tend to work for me.
I know that’s not the answer you wanted to hear.
Interview adjourned at 13.49. The accused remains unwilling to disclose the locations of the other bodies.
The rain started in February. I remember well because it was my birthday. We had enjoyed a week of those crisp, bright days with beaming clean sunshine and, with the forecast claiming it was set to continue, I arranged a walk up a mountain with my friends to celebrate. I anticipated snow at the top, but how could anyone have guessed what would really happen?
The day started gloriously, with those snaking rays of dancing light illuminating frost. The ground crunched underfoot- it was cold, oh yes it was cold. The sky was a haze, cushioning its glowing orb. Not a breath of wind. The perfect day for walking.
We set off early in a caravan of cars, parked up and readied ourselves for our stroll. We joked about the smell of egg and cress sandwiches and Maisie discovered that her flask was leaking. After the shortest of delays, we began. My remaining memories of that first part of the walk are the sun glittering on water dripping from the trees, a dog barking, my friends laughing. It was when we got through the initial woods and high enough to see the horizon that our light mood gradually began to change.
The packed ice and snow was clearly visible, despite the distance we still had to go, but that was not the issue. No, what made us on edge was the heavy black cloud coming in from the west. It was many miles away, but something about its density weighed on our minds. We made some jokes, zipped up our coats and carried on, but the cloud was there. I looked at it so often that I could not have said whether it was getting closer or further away, until we had reached the point of no return and the cloud was upon us.
Snow was under our feet now, no one was around and the cloud above blocked out the sun so abruptly it was as though someone had switched off the lights. We all stopped and looked up. There were eight of us, at that point. Of course I am used to it now, but back then I had never seen a cloud like it before. It was – there is no other word for it – evil. We just didn’t know what to do, and there wasn’t enough time to make a decision.
When it began, we stopped being a group and started being individuals. Survival was the only thing that mattered. The thunder was first, the mountain actually shook. I crouched, hands over my head. It was instinct – I didn’t know what I expected. I stayed like that when the thunder ceased and the rain came. Torrential is too weak a word. I was drowning, gasping, clinging to the ground in despair as a newly formed river churned around me.
I had to move, I half-walked half-swam to the left, towards a shadow I hoped was a clump of bushes or rocks. I could barely see, the rain poured into my eyes, mixed with my tears. How I made it, I don’t know, but I was there, hunched behind rocks, protected a little from the deluge.
Gradually, after who knows how long, the rain eased – it didn’t stop, not even close, but the air cleared slightly and I could breathe. Looking around, I could see no one. I shouted to no avail, finally decided that they had descended the mountain without me. With that in mind, and with the rain lighter, I decided to climb down myself.
It was a journey I would rather forget. I have never been more fearful. Had, I should say. I cried when I got back to the car park. What happened next shames me, but I wonder if you would have done the same. You see, my friends’ cars were still there, beginning to flood. I ignored them. Blind to them, as the rain got heavier and I imagined roads blocked with rushing water, I got in my car and backed away.
The crash is how I got here. The rain was so violent that my wipers did nothing, but in my desperation I kept going, unseeingly, down the country roads. It didn’t last long. I blacked out in the crash, woke up in a comfortable bed with two concerned faces peering down at me. I was in a wooden room; it was dark and had a pleasurable musky smell.
‘He’s awake!’ A hand was on my forehead. I looked closely at the two faces. A man and a woman of indeterminate age, both wearing bright raincoats – his red, hers yellow. Their faces were weather worn and friendly.
‘Where am I?’ I raised myself onto my elbows to look around more easily.
They exchanged a glance. I noticed that I was swaying, lay back down and put a hand to my head.
‘You were in a crash. With us.’ The woman said quickly. She glanced at the man. ‘Do you remember the rain?’
I nodded. How could one forget?
‘We were travelling…the thing is…’ the woman trailed off. The man shrugged.
‘What is it? Where am I?’ I was alert now.
The man sighed. ‘Can you stand?’ He offered a hand. I took it, stood, stumbled and noticed a throbbing pain in my head. The man took my arm and led me out of the low-ceilinged, wood-walled room. Through a narrow door and down a dark hallway with many doors to each side and strange noises coming from the rooms behind them. I shivered, swayed again.
At the final door at the end of the corridor, the man stopped and turned to me. His face was serious. ‘Are you ready?’ He asked.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he grimly eased the door open outwards against howling wind and battering rain. It hadn’t, stopped then. He took hold of a chain from the wall and motioned that I should do the same, then followed the chain outside, hand after hand. Curiosity piqued, I followed him. The storm was just as violent as before and although I struggled to see, it was obvious. We were at sea. We were on an enormous wooden boat on a tempestuous body of water. Why had they brought me here? I turned and fled indoors, the man close on my tail. He shut the door behind him.
‘What are you doing with me?’ I took the man’s shoulders and shook him. He looked afraid. As he should. I was taller, stronger and he couldn’t hurt me.
‘Please, come and sit.’ The woman spoke from behind me. I turned and she gestured to a room to my left which hosted a table and chairs. Seeing no other option, I followed her into the room and sat in one of the rickety chairs.
‘My name is Niamh. This is Neil.’ Neil smiled and held out his hand for me to shake. I ignored it.
‘Tell me why I’m here.’
Neil sighed. ‘We saved you. Just remember that.’ He exchanged a glance with Niamh before he carried on. ‘When we crashed, we were on our way to safety. We had this boat, you see. We own a small petting zoo, and we had to shelter the animals from the rain, so we put them on the boat and we were driving to somewhere safer. In the crash, both of our cars were ruined and you were unconscious. We decided we would get you onto the boat, out of the rain for a while. You were unconscious for a long time…’
‘More than a day!’ Niamh interjected.
‘…and in that time, the boat broke free from the trailer. We didn’t know what was happening at first, it’s so hard to see out there, but eventually we realised. The flooding was so severe that we had begun to float. And you see, the rain hasn’t stopped. We’re still floating. The thing is…’ another of those irritating glances between them.
‘The thing is what?’ I snapped.
‘We haven’t seen dry land since. We’ve floated for miles and…’
I broke him off with a harsh laugh. ‘Are you seriously trying to trick me into thinking that you rescued me from some biblical flood? Do you really expect me to believe that? Listen, I don’t know why you’ve brought me here but you need to dock this boat and let me off, now.’
Neil sighed and shrugged. ‘Listen, we saved you. You don’t have to thank us, but we did. You’re welcome to share our food for as long as it lasts. But we can’t dock this boat. Radios are down, internet, everything. Niamh and I think…we don’t think there are any docks left.’
I was fed up with talking to them, sick of the lies. I didn’t answer, instead strode back to the room I had woken up in. I stayed there for many days. Niamh and Neil did not bother me, but they left me food and water outside the door each morning. It was bland food – porridge and water, and some fruit to start with though this dwindled to nothing. I was in a rage, and the longer we remained at sea the more my rage grew. Where were they taking me? America? And why?
There was a small, circular window high up in my room. I spent hours, days, staring through it at the relentless rain, impossible to separate from the splashes from waves. I ate my pitiful porridge when I was starving and dreamed of fat steaks and juicy chicken.
Oh, I can’t describe the hunger. I pray that you are never in this position. But until, and unless, you are, you cannot judge. What would a person do for survival? What would you do?
The sound of the animals taunted me. I held out for weeks. Four or five or six, who knows. But the hunger got to me in the end. No more tasteless porridge. I stepped out of my room for the first time in so many days and peered around. No sign of Niamh and Neil. I crept down the corridor and tried each door. The first one to open contained chickens. Ah, chickens! I was beside myself. The hunger, you see. When Niamh and Neil arrived, presumably drawn by the squawking of the birds, I expect it did look bad – a blood bath perhaps. But the hunger! You wouldn’t understand it with your privilege.
They stood aghast in the doorway. The chickens were all dead at this point. Their faces were ashen, Niamh even began crying, cradling one of the birds.
‘What have you done?’ Neil asked, the words dropping like stones. He leaned against the doorway, propping himself up. ‘Forty days, we’ve been sailing, and now…now the chickens too…’
‘Too?’ I asked, wiping blood from my lips. Neil frowned at me, as though trying to work something out. My captors looked disgusted.
‘We would prefer it if you went back to your room.’ Niamh said, wiping away her tears.
‘Fine.’ I sighed, and stood. ‘But they’re only chickens. What do you expect me to do? You can’t let me starve.’
‘You said that last time.’ Neil said, that frown still on his face. He must be going quite mad. I let him escort me back to my room, expected to hear a key turn in a lock, but it didn’t happen.
You don’t understand how difficult it is to be aboard a boat with two maniacs. They kidnapped me and took me to sea against my will. We all have a survival instinct. We are animals, deep down. And when you are in a position like this, perhaps you will act the same. But then – and only then – will you be able to judge me.
Later that day, I was staring out of my window when I got quite a shock. Blue! A glimpse of blue, rather than endless grey! I ran from my room, down the corridor and onto the deck. It was true! The rain had stopped! A glimmer of sunshine through the gap in the clouds bathed my face and I shouted in joy. There, what was that? A bird! A dove, carrying a branch. The first time I had seen a bird since this all started. And there – in the distance- was that land? I shouted again, got no response. Of course I didn’t. You have to understand, they were my captors and they had starved me. And that was why I slit their throats.
I don’t know about you, but there’s something about these editions that just sings to me. Flame Tree Publishing have created a range of short stories collections, and they are not only fascinating but also highly aesthetically pleasing.
I have these three so far, but I hope to expand my collection soon!
These Canterbury Classics Word Cloud editions have swiftly become a #bookstagram favourite. Not are they beautifully designed, but they’re also very affordable. Win win! There are many books available in the range, but here are the ones I own:
“We’re just two souls in a fishbowl, bouncing off the side,” he cried, as he leapt and he died.
The silence thrummed, like a drum. A pounding beat, like blood in a skull.
It had been ten days since the key was lost. Then the ground fell away, and our lives took off. It began as nothing, as an inconvenience, a novelty. Then it grew to a beast, something with a mind of its own.
Where to start. With the key, I suppose. I had recurring nightmares that left me thrashing, unable to breathe. Claustrophobia is a terrible thing. They happened night after night, I’d wake in a sweat. I couldn’t comprehend the horror inside. Work fell away – I passed through days in a daze. And night after night, the key came to me.
Keys might mean security, protection or adventure. A key to a safe, to a door, to a new world. But not for me – oh no, not for me. For me they creaked in locks, to trap me in a box. The key in my dream rusted in place, parts fell away and time lurched past. I struggled and screamed and cried, but still in my dark musty box I’d abide. I tried to break free, I did. But the box was strong and the lock was eager, it wouldn’t very well abandon its role. So this was how my nights were spent.
The days were worse. Acrid coffee scorching my tongue, anything to keep the shadows at bay. Eyes bruised with exhaustion and body slumping forwards, I saw my life through a sheen of fog. Everything tasted foul, ash in my mouth, no pleasure in anything. He felt it too – I saw it in his eyes. The key haunted him also, just buried deep inside.
He was gentle and kind, in his way. He covered me in blankets when I gave way to the key. Led me blindly through days and made sure that I ate. He muffled my screams in the dark, late at night. It felt like love, that’s it. It did.
But fog. Fog. Fog is a dangerous thing. It is forceful, in a quiet, disobedient way. It does as it likes, it hides what it likes. And suddenly, or perhaps gradually, you feel less like a normal person anymore. You don’t notice until it has happened, and when it has happened, you’re too far from the shore to row your way back. What is there to do, but float?
So that’s what I was doing. Floating by day, bowing to the key at night. Groundhog Day, they say, don’t they. But that’s not what it was – each day of floating was a little further from land, and each night the key grew, monstrous and grand.
Who can say how much time passed? When you are in the wilderness, time is not your friend. But be it months, or years, or decades – who knows – there was one moment when everything changed. A click, a tap, a crunch, a grind. The sound. I was in my box, in the dark, nowhere to hide. But the key was moving – slowly, so slowly, its grandeur was fading.
Inch by inch, the giant key moved. This was new. What to do? I was statue-still, eyes fixed on the lock. That I could not see, the dark enveloped me. It crunched as it turned. A click and then…ringing clear through the fog, it fell to the ground.
I was desperate and scared so for some time I didn’t move. Then, my courage surged. On all fours I crawled to the door; peered through the keyhole, the key was there no more. Gently, I placed my hand on steel. Held my breath and pushed. Movement, freedom! The fear was enormous, pressing on my lungs. What could be out there? Perhaps, perhaps, the key was my protector after all.
Breathe, breathe. Slow, slow. Breathe, breathe, slow, slow. Breathe. Ok.
I pushed a little harder, froze as the door emitted a skull-splitting creak.
I pushed again. The door was open, I was free. The darkness and fog closed in but, my God, I ran. I ran and I ran, the fresh cold air burning my skin. My bare feet revelled in the sharp stinging pain. My mouth curled into an unfamiliar smile.
That morning, I was brand new. I awoke refreshed to a bright, clear sunrise. The curtains were open, the covers kicked away. He lay beside me, frown flickering. I revelled in a stretch, clawed sleep from my eyes. I showered and smiled. New days. New skies.
So that is how the key was lost. Ah, I look back now and cry. I thought it was the start, the beginning. But what was set free from that box?
He was pleased to see the change, that day. His face relaxed at my wide, easy grin – I kissed him, I twirled, set off on my way. Said no to coffee, laughed through my tasks, filled full with energy, I could do anything at last.
I could dance. I could sing. Have you seen the sky, through the fog? It’s a wonderful thing.
I came home that night, a new spring in my step. But one look at his face and my hope fell away. The key – it had him, deep within, I could tell. His brow was furrowed, the shadows were there. I stared into his eyes, begged the key to leave. Shouted and screamed. I lifted my hands and…
The crash threw us to the floor. The first crash, I should say, for there were many more.
We lurched to the side, I rolled away from a falling mirror. Everything crashed, all we owned.
And as soon as that happened, another crash, we were thrown in the other direction. I screamed and hid my head my hands; a glimpse through my fingers showed me he did the same. We stayed in a foetal position until the ground steadied. Everything around us was gone, thrown asunder. The things we had loved, all crushed and cracked. The carefully positioned belongings damaged, all moved. The sofa’s arm rested through the broken screen of the TV.
We exchanged a glance, arose, like new born lambs. Legs shaking eyes darting we extended our arms – help me, we shouted, help me, I cried.
I leaned from the window, saw what I could see. The earth had quaked, we had risen. Our home was anchorless, blowing away. Ripped from our chains, we left solid ground. The key had gone and we were free, swept up and away into the bright night sky.
First the house swayed gently in the breeze before gaining traction, soaring and spiriting away. We gazed from the windows, helpless as babes. Our town became smaller, streetlights hazing and fading, cars became ants and soon everything was gone. Mist obscured our view – we had reached the clouds – and that’s when the soaring slowed to a floating, steady and gentle, onward and onward.
For days we drifted. We were content to begin with, until we realised. Without the key, there was no fog. Without the fog, there was nowhere to hide.
And with nowhere to hide, our anger grew. We argued about blame, about who it belonged to. We argued about fury, and who should have most. We argued about love, and why it had died.
We were trapped in our gliding prison, two bodies at war. Until, that day, he fell from the side.
“I assumed everything bad in the world could happen, because everything bad in the world already did happen.”
I bought this book for two reasons. Firstly, when I’d mentioned that I enjoyed American Psycho to a friend, they recommended this to me and secondly, the big red sticker on the front which says ‘from the author of Gone Girl’.
I have not actually read Gone Girl yet (is it good? Let me know!) but I have seen the film and thought it was entertaining.
This book was actually a real slog to read. I was reading a few pages every evening and not really enjoying it. Whereas American Psycho is a clever slasher novel where you are constantly left questioning what has come before, Dark Places is very different in style. There is plenty of slashing, don’t get me wrong, but the plot is nowhere near as clever. The twists and red herrings were not placed gently, they were shoe horned in with a heavy touch.
I was disappointed. I had such high hopes, but I couldn’t warm to the main character (although I don’t think you are supposed to) and although the story feels real, it also feels grimy in a way.
I realised what the issue was. I had enjoyed the glamour of American Psycho. There is no glamour in Dark Places. Quite the opposite.
Perhaps if you begin the novel with different expectations to the ones I had, you may enjoy it more.
“As if one killed by calculation! A person kills only from an impulse that springs from his blood and sinews, from the vestiges of ancient struggles, from the need to live and the joy of being strong.”
If you haven’t read any Zola, you must! His characters are always flawed, gritty and real, forcing their way through life with the odds against them. Rather than focusing on the privileged and rich, Zola’s lens is on the underbelly of society – the poor, the ones whose struggles are more desperate and difficult.
In La Bete Humaine, Zola offers a character with a hereditary madness – at many points during the book, Lantier heads out with the intention of murdering a woman. Zola perfectly depicts the all consuming desire Lantier feels.
This is not all, though – Lantier, filled with rage and passion, is not the only character with a ‘beast within’; he is far from the only one in the book with murderous intentions. The other characters, rather than being ‘mad’, are selfish, jealous and grasping, trampling over others to achieve their goals.
This is not a cheerful story. None of Zola’s are. But it is a work of art; passionate and brutal.
This is part two of my list of 30 books to read before you’re 30 (the big day is coming around all too quickly for me…). If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here. So, without further delay, here are numbers 16 – 30:
16. The Old Man and The Sea – Ernest Hemingway
This is a beautiful, calming story which really put my life and petty worries into perspective. A joy of a book.
This book is here – not only because I love everything by the Brontes – but also because it taught me how I didn’t want to behave in a relationship. I saw Jane as a pushover, and knew I could never act that way – though even so the ending makes my knees weak!
My favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, this is rife with action, exciting characters (who doesn’t know about Lade Macbeth or the witches?) and plenty of memorable quotes. Everyone should read at least one Shakespeare play, and this is the best.
This book is not just here for the story – it’s also for the political and social outrage and change words can cause. Banned in many countries, it eventually led the way to a societal shift on how sex and adultery were understood.
With my 30th birthday looming soon, I’ve compiled a list of the books I think are important to read before you’re 30. Some are on the list for the intellectual development they provide, some simply for the pure joy of their entertainment. In no particular order, here is part one…(part two here)
1. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams
Laugh out loud funny! This is one of those books I finished and went straight back to the beginning. I read it as an angst filled teenage whilst listening to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin – perfection.
I spent a lot of time during my poor early twenties wishing for a lottery win. I thought it would solve all of my problems – I wouldn’t believe anyone who said any different. This was the book which made me realise life with money isn’t automatically better.