Friday, 27 November 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: The Desert Cold & The War of the Rats

I suppose the main thing I have to say about The Desert Cold is that it was my first ever professional sale, almost seven years ago now, and to the then fairly new web-zine Flash Fiction Online.  Needless to say, I was still finding my way in those days, perhaps a little blindly, and this slender tale came together by a long and awkward route: it began as a vignette, more of a scene-setting exercise that a story, that would become the core of the first two thirds of the finished piece.  Strangely, though, I think that benefited it, ultimately; it still basically ended up being a mood piece, but one with a nasty little sting in its tail.

As for the The War of the Rats, the one new story in the collection and the longest, it came directly out of the research for my recently finished novel To End All Wars, and my frustration at the fact that there was so much I wanted to say about its subject, the First World War, that I knew I wasn't going to be able to find a place for.  Principally, I didn't have an outlet within the novel for all the anger and revulsion I felt at reading so many stories of lives cut short and disfigured, or for the sheer grotesqueness of much of what I'd come across.  It was ideal fare for a horror story, but not so much so for a science-fiction novel set largely away from the trenches.

So all of that got poured into The War of the Rats, a novelette that dived deeply into the most hellish aspects of WW1 and found there, to my surprise, a love story of sorts.  I think the responsibility for that came from one particular book that I was reading at the time, the memoirs of a soldier named Harold Chapin, released as One Man's War.  Which, thinking about it, also led to one of my greatest fears in writing both novel and novelette, which was that I'd inadvertently end up trivialising the whole subject.  The conclusion I came to was accepting how to an extent that's unavoidable; the more you research, the more the awfulness of the First World War defies imagination, and any work intended as entertainment is going to be trivial by comparison.  All I can say is, I did my best.  And on the plus side, I can guarantee that nothing I wrote is more repellent than the reality - which given how repellent things get is saying something.  It's certainly fair to say that The War of the Rats is the closest the collection comes to pure, unadulterated horror.

On that note, here's an extract:
A rat.  A rat!  The word chimed in my mind.  It was all the sense I could make of the situation.  There is a rat, my hysterical thoughts protested uselessly, crawling up my leg.  Yet behind that immediate, enormous fear - so huge that it seemed to eclipse even the possibility of sensible thought - there lay another, deeper terror.  I just couldn't, wouldn't admit it to myself.
The motion stopped.  The whiskers gave a slow, exploratory twitch.  I knew what it had found; what it had been seeking all along.  Oh god ... I'd have given anything for the strength to just kick my leg.  Here was that profoundest fear, which I'd been unable even to acknowledge until then.  For he was at my bandage.  Sniffing.  Nuzzling. 
I've seen the way they get at dead men, Emily.  A wound to them is nothing but an entrance to somewhere warm and safe, or else a place to eat.  That was the terror I could hardly let myself think of.  Whenever I'd seen rats scurrying about the dead I'd gone profoundly cold, averted my eyes and clammed up for a while, sinking into a sort of stupor.  I'd always counted myself lucky it had gone unnoticed.
Now there was no hiding.  No stupor would protect me.  I heard his teeth before I felt anything, a tender chatter interspersed with pauses that seemed almost thoughtful.  As he continued to work, however, I could feel the pressure of his head, as when a dog pushes for attention.  He toiled with steady determination.  He knew what he was looking for, and knew that with patience he'd have it.

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