A poem about autumn

The autumn's bittersweet for sure, and cold
But capable of so much more:
There is such beauty in decay,
Within the many colours of a leaf
As it nears death and falls away.

It is a grey time, autumn, and a time of death;
Of langour, and a time of fading breath--
But in that dying breath Life's all the more alive,
All the more brimming in the face of that inevitable knife.

And even Love can never be so deep,
As when it's tinged with sorrow, loss, and grief.
Nor can the red and golden leaves shine quite so bright
As when they're contrasted against a grey and fading sky.

Short Story: Ka

For your reading pleasure, here is a short story I wrote earlier in the year:


Ka

Ramesses II stood looking out across his city, the seat of his great kingdom. It vanished somewhere beyond the horizon, stretching farther than any mortal man could see.

In the distant west, Ra’s sun-barque was descending into the Duat, bathing Pi-Ramesses in its fading red and honey-golden light. Soon the God would die, and undertake his twelve-hour journey through the Underworld, only to reemerge anew, reborn, in the east. He would rise once more, and he would cast the vast and boundless kingdom in his glory yet again.

The pharaoh smiled. “King of Kings am I”, he thought, mentally quoting a phrase he’d had inscribed at one of his many monuments. “If anyone would know how great I am, let him surpass one of my works.”

The sun boat vanished into the Duat. Night fell. The great pharaoh turned away.

He froze. A man stood within his bed chamber. He had crept nearly all the way across the floor to Ramesses, a weapon in his hand. There was a tiny, motionless pause, giving the pharaoh just enough time to register that it was a serpent-headed blade, a werhekau commonly used in funeral rites.

A strange weapon for an assassin, he thought, and then the visitor was moving forward, striking Ramesses in the chest before the pharaoh could call out for his guards. He gasped, feeling the weapon pierce his heart.

A slow smile wrinkled his age-weathered face.

The would-be assassin pulled out the blade, his expression unreadable in the room’s dark gloom. Ramesses could just make out his eyes, affixed to the open wound. He looked down himself, smiling with satisfaction as it closed, flesh knitting itself together in the span of a breath. Then he raised his head, and called for the guards.

The assassin turned and rushed for a window on the opposite side of the room. He was already out before the first man had even reached the pharaoh’s side, carried away by the night itself.

Merneptah, Ramesses’ thirteenth-born son and heir, entered behind the guards.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked. ‘Father, are you all right?’

‘An assassin, nothing more.’

Merneptah turned to the guards. ‘Why are you lingering? I want him caught, and the palace secured!’ He turned back. ‘Did he harm you?’

Ramesses merely shook his head. He was Ramesses II, Ozymandias the Great; the eternal ruler of Egypt! Had the man thought that no other assassin had tried what he had in the near century the pharaoh had been alive?

‘No,’ the pharaoh told his seventy-year old son, relishing the short flicker of disappointment in his eyes. ‘He did not make a scratch.’


Sennedjem’s hands trembled as he gently scraped the blood into the large tub. Most of it had come off of the blade, and much of what remained was dried to flakes, but a small quantity of the blood was liquid.

The liquid stuff would probably hold the most potent ka.

When the werhekau was clean, he stepped back, pulling off the cloth he had tied around his head. It was slick with sweat. Hopefully, none of it had gone into the mixture in the tub.

He stared at it for a moment. Wet clay, retrieved from the Nile basin, with a few splotches of red on top. The great God Khnum used the very same silt, the very same clay, to craft humans. Now, Sennedjem intended to make a man of his own.

It was not the sculpting itself that worried Sennedjem. He had long worked with clay and pottery, had practiced making clay figures of men; the small, hot room was filled with his last few attempts. The difficult part would be animating the thing, giving it ka; a soul.

The pharaoh’s ka.

On walls and decorations that Sennedjem had studied, on the inside of tombs, old and new, a pharaoh’s ka was often depicted as a double, a replica of the man. He would need to make a perfect replica. He’d need recreate Ramesses’ ka to bypass his protections. . .

Sennedjem had always heard the myths of the pharaoh’s immortality, even before his armies had rolled over Kadesh. There, Sennedjem’s father’s family had perished; all that they owned burnt to the ground by Ramesses’ armies. His father had fled, barely more than a child, and had vowed revenge.

Now, when his father was long in the grave, and Sennedjem was old and past his prime, and without children of his own. . . that revenge would come.

But Ramesses II was immortal. Unkillable. According to legend, he hadn’t even bothered to put on his corslet before many of his later battles, knowing he could not be harmed.

Of course, such things were said of all the kings of Egypt. Even Sennedjem had doubted it. . . until tonight, when he had driven a sword through the pharaoh’s heart, and the man—the same man who had killed Sennedjem’s father’s father, destroyed everything their family had owned—had smiled and nonchalantly healed his wound.

Sennedjem shuddered, pausing in his work. No, unlike those other kings, Ramesses could not be killed by any other’s hand. Sennedjem had studied these things, had studied magic, first under his father’s tutelage and then his own. He had been to tombs and temples, reading carefully the different spells etched in the walls and coffins; had hoarded every version of the Book of Dead that he could buy or steal.

It had to do with effigies, he thought. Ramesses II had far more sculptures of himself, far more monuments than any king before him. He carved over their images with his own, had obliterated their aged and shallow reliefs, replacing their names with his, driven deep into the stone. He had built or remade temples to his honor, had made monuments greater by far than any built before.

He had eternalized himself in stone, and so long as the stone stood, he was eternal in his flesh as well.

How, then, did one kill such a man—who had made covenants with the Gods, and with the deep rock of the earth itself? Sennedjem doubted that it could be done, not without tearing down every effigy of him that rose out of the ground.

But there had to be a weakness. There had to be a way—some blind spot in the arcane wards. . . like, say, if the Pharaoh was struck down by his own hand. Or by the hand of his own image.

His effigy. His double. His ka.

So Sennedjem worked, throwing all the hours of the night, and all the skill he’d developed over the decades, and all the magic he could muster, into the forming of this clay. The clay that held some of the pharaoh’s blood and essence.

There was so little of it. . . the red droplets of blood were invisible now that he had mixed them in. But they were there, a tiny echo of Ramesses’ ka. Perhaps it’d be enough to fool the protections. It had to be!

When he was done, Sennedjem stood away and stared at the thing he had created. It would have to dry, still, but the cruel features, the sneer of disdainful command, were unmistakably those of Ramesses II. The likeness seemed far greater than even Sennedjem’s skill would allow. Perhaps, he thought, that means the magic is at work already.

It still remained to animate the thing. He wiped his hands and walked over to his collection of tablets and papyrus scrolls; a small fortune in texts, amassed over decades of his life, and his father’s before. He studied them closely, though he knew the rites by heart.

He would use spells from the Book of the Dead, a version of the Opening of the Mouth ritual, meant to enable the dead to take in life and nourishment, and to speak during their judgement. These spells were meant to wake a man, that he may undertake the journey in the Duat; that he may show the Gods his worthiness and live again.

Sennedjem would make this clay man live, though it had never lived before and died. The chances of it working seemed so slim. . .

A dead man had no ka. It was the essence of the living, the shard of magic that had made man’s soul at the creation. And this clay effigy had only a shadow of a ka. Even with the spells from the Book of the Dead it would never live, not without fuel to burn and make into a new life.

With a trembling voice and a pounding heart, Sennedjem began the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth. He had all the tools he needed for it, including the very same ritual werhekau, the snake-head blade, which he had used to retrieve the pharaoh’s blood.

When he was done, he held the weapon in his hands, looking at the carefully carved hilt. He’d made it himself, and yet he had never stopped to consider how well it was made. And the ka-effigy, too, was beautifully crafted, as was the furniture and pottery that filled the room. . . all made by his own hands.

He had made a vow to his father, a vow to pursue his revenge. Yet, in that pursuit, he had developed no small talent for these things. . . had even lived quite comfortably off of his artisan work.

It seemed almost a shame to let it all go. After all, it was not his life that had been destroyed by Ramesses II; certainly not to the extent that his father’s had.

Sennedjem sighed. He gripped the hilt a little tighter, dropping to his knees before the clay likeness of the man he’d dedicated his life to destroying.

In one unnervingly simple motion, he slit his own throat, releasing his ka to fuel the birth of his creation. The last thing he saw was his blood, red as the evening sun, splattered across the pharaoh’s face.


Ramesses II came awake with a start. He had been haunted by nightmares for these past seventy or eighty years—since around the time he’d come to power—but this one had been especially vivid, especially stark. Even seeing the early-day sunlight stream through his windows, his heart continued to beat.

He tried to recall exactly what the dream had been about, but it was slipping away, fast. His dreams were as ethereal as each new year that passed, vanishing quicker than the last.

He sighed, sitting slowly up. Though he had barely aged in all those years, he felt the cramps of ageing creeping up. His back ached terribly these days—no longer was he the proud, straight-backed commander depicted in the statues—and his hands would sometimes clench or shake so bad he couldn’t hold a sword.

It was at its worst in the mornings. He knew that many of these complaints would go away during the day, easing with every hour that the sun shone on his name, carved into the great slabs of stone that were spread across the reaches of his kingdom. He knew that relief would come. . . and yet, in these early hours, it hardly even felt worth rising.

Still, he crawled onto his feet and hobbled to the eastern-facing window, basking in the early light of Ra. The God had been reborn, and would once more invigorate the pharaoh with his blessing.

Ramesses stretched, feeling his ninety-year-old bones pop slowly into place. Perhaps one day, after another century or two, his will would fail, and he’d step freely into the Duat, like Ra did every night.

But not today.

Having made this resolution, the pharaoh smiled. Ozymandias would live and rule another day, and see another sunset and sunrise over his kingdom.

Though he was half-blinded staring at the sun, he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye, and spun.

A man stood, in one of the darker corners of his room, dressed in a very similar—probably the same—hood to the one worn by the last assassin. The only difference was that he carried a long dagger, rather than the ritual werhekau.

Some people just don’t know when to give up, Ramesses thought. He smiled. Perhaps a bit of bloodshed would stimulate him.

‘You’re back,’ he said, as casually as if he’d commented on the weather. The assassin didn’t move.

He was. . . eerily still. Ramesses frowned, still blinking sunlight from his eyes, and squinted at the man. He didn’t seem to move at all; his shoulders did not rise and fall with breath.

But that couldn’t be. . .

Suddenly, Ramesses felt less sure of himself. Keeping his eyes on the man, he sidestepped to the wall, where several swords and other weapons were mounted. He grabbed one, feeling the familiar weight in his palm. How long ago did I last hold a blade?

Still, his old reflexes were there. He gave the sword a playful spin, beckoning the intruder. Finally, the assassin looked up, his hood falling back, and Ramesses froze.

It was like looking at his own reflection—or rather, a strange, younger version of his own reflection, sucked free of all color. The entire face was a uniform shade of beige-brown, even the lips, the brows—the eyes! Like clay, perfectly carved to look like him.

Even at this distance, he could make out tiny, intricate lines and lashes, perfected down to miniscule detail.

‘Guards!’ Ramesses shouted. The duplicate rushed forth, moving at an unexpected speed. Ramesses barely managed to knock aside it’s blow—the force of it sent numbing shockwaves through his hand and arm. He stumbled back, barely keeping his grip around the hilt.

The assassin struck again, tearing a gash across Ramesses’ chest. He felt hot blood gush from it—and to his utter horror, the wound continued to bleed, rather than close up. He took another step back, staring with bewilderment at the thing attacking him. His back hit the wall, knocking into the weapon mountings. Several blades clattered to the floor, cutting his skin.

Beyond the assassin, the guards were rushing into the room, but they were too late. The double’s hand darted out again—the clean part of the blade caught a flash of the morning sunlight still streaming into the window—and Ramesses felt a terrible pain as the weapon clove into his jaw, cutting through bone.

It had been so long since he had felt true pain.

Then the guards were on the assassin, and he fell to the hard floor, shattering into a hundred shards. The living Ramesses fell as well, clutching his jaw.

His ears were ringing, and his vision was already blurring. He could survive this, it was not a lethal wound—but why had he been hurt at all, has Ra abandoned me—and he just had to. . . had to. . .

His son was in the room. Merneptah bent over him, blocking the sun. He met the pharaoh’s eyes.

‘Don’t worry, father,’ he said, his words just legible to Ramesses’ ears. ‘I’ll make sure you are treated, with all the care that you deserve.’ And even as the pharaoh’s vision faded, he could see the glint of a smile in his son’s aged eyes.

The End

On ‘Christmas in Barcelona’ and the Horror of Helplessness

Let’s talk about horror, and the loss of control.

All horror may not necessarily be about the loss of control, but I think it’s fair to say that much of it is just that. We see it, for example, in that trope where the twist reveals that the whole town, even the people you thought would save the day, are in on it–like when the friendly gas station proprietor in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre winds up driving Sally right back to the Sawyer House. Even simply being faced with a killer or a monster that the character cannot fight is a loss of control. That sort of thing is frightening to us–perhaps because most people are used to having some sense of autonomy and control over (at the very least) our own survival. When that is tested, in fiction or in real life, it can be horrifying.

What I have recently begun to notice, however, is that the horror genre carries with it its own, inherent, taking away of control–specifically the reader’s control.

Think about it: the one thing we know when we decide to consume a piece of horror media is that it is horror. The very genre announces to us that something horrific and bad is going to happen; we know this in much the same way that we know a classic tragedy is going to end in, well, tragedy. It is, in a sense, inevitable.

Now, keeping this knowledge constantly at the forefront of our mind can often suck a lot of the tension out of the story, or make reading it feel pointless. So, we suspend our disbelief. We try to ignore that meta-knowledge, and a good horror story will often do its best at helping us ignore it. The author lures us into a false sense of security.

At the same time, a good story will work to make us care for the characters and their fates. This is important. We have to wish for a happy outcome, despite our subconscious dread that tells us we will probably not get one. When I, for instance, read about Jack Torrance’s struggle to stay sober, turn his life around, and do what is best for his family, I find myself rooting for his success–even though I see the way that so many aspects of his situation threaten to destroy his goals.

That is not to say, of course, that a person reading the Shining for the first time (provided they have not had had the ending spoiled by the pop-cultural zeitgeist) knows for certain that everything is going to go badly. It is a horror book, sure, but those can still have bittersweet (or sometimes, even happy) endings. Stephen King has written several.

Even if you know or dread that Jack is doomed to be corrupted by the Overlook, you don’t know how, or what the fate will necessarily be for the other characters. That mystery, along with our sense-of-disbelief-fuelled hope, drags us through the story. And when the inevitable fall comes, it is strengthened by our own internal struggle of meta-knowledge vs hope.

Let me discuss a different example:

I recently read Scott Smith’s short story Christmas in Barcelona. If you can, I’d recommend that you go and read it, because I will be spoiling it in detail in the next few paragraphs. It is a delightful read, and not very long. You can find it in the anthology Hark! The Herald Angels Scream.

(Don’t ask why I’m reading Christmas-themed horror anthologies in the middle of summer because I don’t have a good answer for you).

The story is about a couple who decide to go on a vacation to Barcelona with their few-months-old baby. Now, it could be very easy to dislike them for that (after all, who hasn’t been on a plane with a screaming baby), but Smith has a couple of methods of getting the reader on the main character’s side:

First of all, the story is written in the second person–while an uncommon and often distracting POV, especially in genre fiction, it does a good job of immersing the reader. It is you that is going through this awful vacation; you’re the one doing your best here.

Secondly, the annual Christmas vacation abroad is the couple’s tradition, and anyway, the baby has, until that point, been exceptionally quiet and well behaved. “Such a perfect child. One month in, and he was sleeping through the night.” You can see, at least, why the parents thought that it might be a good idea.

Of course, it isn’t a good idea. The whole trip seems cursed: first the baby won’t stop crying (though there are occasional respites), next their luggage is lost, there are issues with the hotel room, blistered feet after long hours walking in the heat, etc. etc. All very stressful, and very relatable situations (even if you personally haven’t had the misfortune to share in all of them).

The couple is bitter, angry with one another, entirely exhausted and on the verge of a colossal fight. Yet Smith manages to write the story in such a way that you, as the reader, find yourself hoping that they make up. You are in the husband’s shoes, after all, and he wants everything to work out. You can see that they do clearly love each other, despite everything–if only the universe would give them a break, things might be all right.

That break comes. When they finally manage to get a room, things settle down. The baby stops crying and falls asleep in its cradle on the floor of the on-suite bathroom (they were given a very small room). The main characters can finally, after a long and horrible day, eat, rest, and relax. Calmed down, they apologize to one another, and it seems that the worst is over.

The husband goes outside to buy some essentials to replace those lost with the luggage, and while he’s on the way back, near midnight now, he comes across an old woman selling dolls from a nativity scene. As midnight strikes, they come alive by way of Christmas magic, only for the 24 hours of Christmas Day.

The main character is amazed and buys three of these figures: The roman soldier, donkey and ox. He imagines his child growing up with these, and how his wife is going to react. Sure enough, Tess ends up being just as awed as he was. They realize that the vacation, for all its hardships, has nevertheless managed to be (quite literally) magical. And you as the reader are happy for them, and relieved that the storm of the previous day seems to be over.

Yet, you still remember, in the back of your mind, that this is a horror story. It’s a nagging feeling breaking up the magic of the moment. As the story draws to a conclusion, the knowledge bothers you more and more. The couple loses track of the animated roman soldier. Even before Tess asks why there’s a roman soldier in a nativity scene–even before she rushes to the bathroom, the husband still confused–your mind is making connections, and you realize the inevitable, horrible conclusion to the story. You turn the final page, wishing against all odds that you are wrong.

And then that shoe finally drops.

And the horror is all the more potent because you understood what was about to come, and because you had no power to avert it.

As I said, it’s a delightful* story. I wrote this whole post mainly as an excuse to discuss how masterfully Scott Smith played with my emotions. It’s the thing that made me realize just how big a part the reader’s genre-savviness can play in making the reader themselves feel helpless, and in creating truly effective horror.

That’s not the only thing Christmas in Barcelona does well, of course, but it’s a tool that stood out to me as a writer. I plan to experiment with it in my own stories, now that I’ve been made aware with it on a level beyond the subconscious. If you’re a writer, I urge you to play around with this facet of horror as well.

If anyone has any thoughts of their own on this topic, I’d love to discuss it further with you in the comments.

-T.E.S.


* My use of the word delightful might seem like a strange choice to use to describe a story that ends with a baby being killed, but that was my genuine reaction to it. I mean it, I even smiled. This is because I take the same kind of delight in an exceedingly well-crafted horror story as I imagine a musician takes in hearing someone use their instrument in a truly masterful way. There’s also the fact that horror writers, in my experience, all tend to share a certain sadistic streak**, and the ending was nothing if not gleefully sadistic.

**Only in fiction, of course! I wouldn’t want to accuse anyone (least of all myself) of being a psychopath or sadist or anything like that.

New Short Story coming soon.

My story, Beneath the Arctic, is soon to be published in the Black Hare Press anthology DEEP SEA: A Journey into Cosmic Horror. Here’s a pre-order link for the ebook: https://readerlinks.com/l/1052017

Check it out.

-T.E.S.

UPDATE (2020-06-23): The anthology was meant to come out on June 16th. It hasn’t, and the amazon page is currently down. I am still a bit unclear on whether it is entirely cancelled or merely delayed (I think it’s the latter).

To tide you over in the meantime, I have released another of my short stories, Ka, right here on the site. It’s not quite horror but it’s… interesting. Please enjoy.

Update (2020-07-21): Out now!