Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Lion & The Aardvark

I'm in print again. This time it's a very short story, Mother Knows Best, in Stone Skin Press' The Lion & the Aardvark. Here's the inside showing a wonderful illustration by Rachel Kahn.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


  I submitted a couple of stories to a short story collection this evening. My track record is fairly good in this regard, in that I've had two stories accepted out of about eight submissions.

  Rejection is not something I particularly worry about. I'm unlikely to have to make a living from writing which is fortunate given the relatively low volume of my output, regardless of the quality of the writing. That said, publication is encouraging and something of a justification for continuing to write.

  I think if I tried harder at submissions I would have more stories in print so perhaps I should put more effort into this end of the business. However, I'm not sure that would make me happier with the quality of my writing so for the more moment I'm going to focus on writing more and better.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Quietly Efficient

One of my earliest stories, and another one about animals. This time round it's wasps.
Quietly efficient by Steve Dempsey

It was a hot afternoon in June. Even the bees were lazily going about their business. I was stretched out on a lounger on the patio, a drink slowly warming next to me in the sun and my book forgotten on the floor. The SupaPlant™ was quietly and efficiently tending the garden.

It had taken some getting used to at first. There are machines that look like machines, car welding robots and the like. They're OK. And they're are those, only still in science fiction, like C3-PO that act just like people, they're OK too. But somewhere in between is Uncanny Valley where there those that are not quite machines and not quite people and are really disturbing. SupaPlant™ was a bit like this. Most of the time it looked like a shiny white lawnmower, and was quite safe. But if need be, it could unfurl these arms from somewhere, stand up to prune trees, peer in at blemishes to diagnose disease.

Creepiest of all, when it was running low on power, it would send a text to the phone asking for the back door to be opened. The first time this happened, I was watching some sport on TV and I wandered out back to find it crouched outside. When I opened the door it blossomed into almost a person, like some Japanese cartoon, with glistening legs, arms and a short stubby head. As I stood back in surprise, it strode past me into the house, plugged into the nearest socket and recharged itself. My wife came in to find me sitting there watching it with a look of disgust on my face. She laughed.
   “Yeah, I did that the first time too,” she said.

It is really good though. It doesn't make cuttings. It squeezes all the moisture out of the grass which is puts back in the garden and produces these bricks of rough paperlike material which go in the recycling bin or somewhere. And it's really quiet. Even when mowing the lawn it hardly makes a noise.

So when this crunching noise came from the back of the garden, I was quiet startled. I sat up and there it was, it's long arms reaching up from the ground, pulling pieces of wood from the back fence. The strangest thing was that this was no panicky madness. Each tug at the back fence was exactly calculated to tear off a piece of wood just large enough to feed in it's mouth. It was even more menacing than had it run amok.

   I shouted down the garden at it, “Er, stop. SupaPlant™ stop!” But it didn't. It just carried on eating the fence. I ran to the house and shouted to my wife, “SupaPlant™'s gone all weird. Where's the remote control?” A few moments later she opened a window upstairs and looked out.
   “That is weird,” she said, “I wonder if it's getting it's nutrients”.

You have to understand that the new machines like the SupaPlant™ aren't just electronic. No, they have a tiny piece of brain matter that helps them make difficult decisions like whether a pretty white flower that it has found in a bed is too nice to be a weed. So once every month or so we have to feed it this brain food gloop.
  “I don't care if it's hungry. It can't eat the fence. Where's the remote?” I asked.
  “I think it's in the shed”, she said and went back to whatever she'd been doing.
I nipped over to the shed and pulled the door open. A few bees flew out. It seems that they'd been keeping out of the sun by building themselves a nest in the roof. They weren't the only ones who'd been busy. Across the back, where the shelves used to be, was a thing I'd never seen before. Like a 4' tall wine rack, but for tiny bottles, entirely made out of rough paper. I peered at it with a shudder. In each little hole, there was a tiny piece of twisted wire, a bit like some kind of insect pupa, each with a small cavity where a brain would go.

The remote! It was lying on the floor. As I bent over to pick it up I saw SupaPlant™ standing behind me. Where was the damn off switch?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


And here's another from our creative writing chap books. This time it was called London Forgotten.

Monkey by Steve Dempsey
Tim in Putney, back against his front door, picked through his keys. He was drunk and so it took him several minutes of fumbling around in the low orange glare of the street light to select the correct one and get into his basement flat. He staggered along the corridor and collapsed through onto the sofa in the living room. Some time later he started. There was a strange earthy bitter smell in the room, like leaves or cabbage. Tim leaned over and switched on the light. It was the latest in Swedish design, like a small umbrella hanging from the ceiling. His mother had given it him but Tim found it annoying.

On the glass table between Tim and the TV, and about the size of a newborn child, was a small monkey. It was sitting hunched over with its knees drawn up. In the indirect light of the lamp, the monkey's beige fur looked almost green and the tufts of white around its black face made its features look even smaller. Its long tail was stretched out across the table and the black tip kept flicking up angrily.

'Shoo,' said Tim, 'Bugger off.' The monkey rolled back on its haunches and stared at him. Its tail swept round into its shadow. It sat there, silently not quite looking at Tim. Tim pressed himself back into the sofa, levered himself up with great effort and scrambled back towards the door. The monkey lifted up its feet and spun round on its bottom on the smooth surface of the table. Feet still up, it bared its teeth, no grinned, at him.
And Tim remembered.

He was only twelve. The school was on a trip to London. Instead of the more fancied, and expensive, Zoo in Regent's Park, they had gone to the small one in Battersea. They had sat round the Peace Pagoda whilst they ate their sandwiches and crisps, throwing conkers at each other and kicking the Autumn leaves into noisy brown clouds. Finally the teachers had ushered them into the zoo. It had cows and sheep. What kind of a zoo had cows? There were cows in the fields all round his provincial home town. This wasn't a proper zoo!

Eventually they found some monkeys. “Green Monkey” the card under the window had said but they hadn't been green at all. Tim pressed his nose against the pane and shouted.

'Oi monkey, want some of this?' He held up a small plastic cup of lime squash, the sort with a foil lid. Now this was proper green, luminous almost. Suddenly the monkey was interested. It dashed over to Tim and pressed the underside of its body against the window. Tim jumped back and his friends laughed at him.

'I show you, bloody monkey. I'll show you green.' Tim held the carton by the window and moved slowly towards the part of the enclosure that was covered in a metal cage. He teased the monkey a few times, hiding the drink under his coat and waiting for it to lose interest before whipping it out again. Finally the monkey could take it no more and started screaming. Tim pulled back the lid of the cup and threw the entire contents over the little creature.

'Now you're green!' he shouted and jumped back. The monkey retreated to a perch and started licking itself but the rest of the troop smelled the sickly sweet drink and came over to investigate. The poor little monkey was deluged by the others, all licking, scratching and biting. When the keeper finally came to see what the fuss was, the monkey had taken quite a beating. When asked what had happened Tim gave the non-committal teenage grunt and shrug and wandered off.
Back in Putney, Tim snapped out of his reverie as he felt a small furry hand coming out of his pocket. The damn monkey had his iPhone. It hopped back on to the table and grinned with excitement holding the phone up in one hand. Tim lunged for it but it flexed its legs and leapt away, up Tim's arm, off his head and onto the light-fitting. It hung there, holding itself almost horizontal with legs and tail, whilst it clutched the iPhone in its paws and chewed at it.

Tim jumped but the monkey just hoisted the phone out of his reach. It had managed to get the back off and the battery dropped to the floor. Tim raced to the kitchen in search of a broom. There was a terrific crash from the front room. He ran back to find the broken lamp in the midst of the shattered table, tiny pieces of glass twinkly in the light from the hallway. With the end of the broom, he manoeuvred the mess out of the way to find the crumpled remains of his phone, the screen cracked, wires poking out of the back and the SIM card bitten in half. Of the monkey, there was no sign.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

How writing works

In my short experience of small press in the UK (and I ignorantly expect the big boys to operate in a similar way, although possibly less so now than in the past), how it works is that authors, publishers and allied trades meet in pubs, introduce friends to publishers, swap business cards and drink. This requires three things:
1. A business card - I should really get one of these.
2. The ability to drink. I managed two half pints today (twice what I usually drink in a month). The swapping of beer for stories is no doubt an old ritual but it still holds good today in England. I'll have to nurse mine for much longer.
3. Friends*. I do have friends. I know gamers on four continents but I'm very new to writing. So I have to make friends and that's much harder. At the Pornokitsch event tonight I knew one person. We had a chat, but I couldn't monopolise his time, even if he wasn't running the show. When it comes to the English, foreigners imagine us as the shy, retiring type. I am not one to disabuse them of that notion. In fact, if I'm their only experience of the English, as was the case in France, they were probably quite surprised when they met my outgoing (well, for English anway) compatriots. So I had to talk to people I didn't know. Preferable without sticking to them like a lost child for the evening. I think I did quite well. I talked to at least seven other people in the two hours I was there and even got someone else's business card. Of course, I have to write a lot more, but I've made a little progress on the social side so I'm happy.

The other thing is cliques. I'm aware of cliques within gaming. As a dilettante gaming writer, I'm not important enough that it matters. And anyway, my stuff is good enough that if I could find the time to write more gaming material, I could probably get it published. In the writing world it's different. I don't know who's who or whether the person I'm talking to is a pariah. Become his or her friend and no one will speak to you at parties, or publish your story.

This probably makes it sound an awful place of back-biting and oneuppersonship and it wasn't. I had a very nice time, talked to some lovely people, had a drink, bought a book. It's just interesting to look at all the other things that were going on at the same time.

*Four of my gaming friends were mentioned tonight, and not by me. So the crossover is there.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Here's another old story that was in London Monsters, a zine put out by our creative writing group.

Snail by Steve Dempsey

We hadn't been long in Chalice Road in Putney when our neighbours, the Sandersons, invited us over to 'meet the gang'. No doubt our credentials would be checked. Perhaps a sly, 'Did you read Polly Toynbee yesterday?' or the more direct 'Do you recycle?' headed over armed with a bottle of Fairtrade Chilean Gewürztraminer and a Tupperware box of home-made gluten-free brownies.

'That should cover all the bases,' said Tony.
We were met at the door by a man and a small boy who was naked from the waist down.

'I don't eat cows,' he said, enunciating each word careful, and hid behind his father.

'Hi. I'm Chris and this is Oscar,' said the man, obviously father to Oscar. 'Say hello Oscar.' But Oscar just hid his face and ran back into the house. We introduced ourselves and Chris lead us through into the hall and out towards the kitchen. I was just giving him our gifts when Tony interrupted.

'Good god! What is that, that thing.' He pointed past my ear and out into the garden. I looked up. Beyond the decking, stretching from one side of the lawn to the other, and a clear thirty feet high was an undulating green wall of flesh, dripping with clear ooze and pierced with a loose lipped maw. It reared up over the flower beds, trampoline, outdoor furniture from Ikea and children.

'Oh, don't mind that,' said Chris, 'It's just the snail.'

We took sometime to calm down. We would have left there and then but manners, you know. The snail, Chris referred to it as 'he' although each time he did, Oscar would solemnly correct him, 'they are hermaphrodites, Dad', the snail had just appeared one day leaving a trail of slime twelve feet wide across all the back gardens on this side of the street. Nobody knew where he had come from but he ate all the garden waste and the children just loved climbing all over it. He just got a bit lairy sometimes if they drank beer outside. Otherwise it was no trouble. The council had tried to make a fuss but Chris, a lawyer, pointed out that it was a protected species and so they'd had to leave it alone.

Eventually the conversation turned to other things, work, holidays, the colour of sunsets in Tuscany. Jane cornered me in the kitchen and told me where you could get good help round here, and a tame midwife if we were thinking of starting a family. It started to grow dark, perhaps a little early.

'Looks like rain,' said Jane and called out to Oscar to come in. I looked out, Oscar, Chris and Tony all piled into the kitchen. There seemed to be blue sky everywhere and yet it was still getting darker. In any case, the snail didn't seem to like it and suddenly withdrew into its, his, shell rasping back across the lawn, tearing up great sods of turf, all of it expertly folded back into the elephantine mottled brown and green shell. It really was dark, and quiet too. Even the birds had stopped singing, like during an eclipse. And then two great yellow pincers, like one of those special cranes for unloading container ships, plunged down on either side of the shell and hoisted it up. A shriek filled the air, like a jumbo jet calling to its mate. Furniture and toys shot across the decking and thudded into the window. It wobbled dangerously but held. An eye peered in, filling the entire pane: a great dark spot in the middle of milky yellow sea. It flashed left and right, assessing us for edibility. With another thundering screech it left into the air, throwing slates from the roof and flattening the shed. And calm returned.

'Oh well,' said Chris and sighed. 'Shall we try the Gewürztraminer?' There was a cry from the garden.

'Dad, Dad! Look!' It was Oscar. He was struggling up the steps to the decking. Clutched to his chest, both arms wrapped around it was a large pearlescent ball, like a pale space hopper, inside it a shadow, curling and uncurling.

'Can I keep it, Dad? Can I?' he said.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Writing credits

I've written several published pieces now so I thought I'd make a list. I'm not counting any reports for work (such as the one on the cost to the DWP of the UK changing currency from Sterling to Euro).


101 Lifeforms (a couple of creatures in this BITS publication)
Cugel's Compendium of Indispensable Advantages (A few bits and pieces, Pelgrane Press)
The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game (the map and much background research, Pelgrane Press)
The Excellent Prismatic Spray (Volume 1, Number 4/5) (a scenario part ii, Pelgrane Press)
The Excellent Prismatic Spray (Volume 1, Number 6) (a scenario part iii, Pelgrane Press)
Several short scenarios for Dying Earth published on their website (marked small PDF, Pelgrane Press)
Magnus Liber Rerum (Vol. 1 - 2004) (a scenario Trumpton Riots, The Unspoken Word)
Cold City (a scenario, Contested Ground Studios)
Bookhounds of London (a piece on The Book of the Smoke, Pelgrane Press)
Twisted 50s (a campaign frame for Mortal Coil, my first solo piece, Galileo Games)
Trail of Cthulhu Demo Game (Pelgrane Press)
The Armitage Files (a piece on improvised gaming, Pelgrane Press)
The Book of the Smoke (the prologue, one location and one character, Pelgrane Press)
More Things in Heaven and Earth: A Campaign Frame Compilation (reprint of Twisted 50s, Galileo Games)
I was the editor of Places to Go, People to Be, an Aussie webzine for some years and contributed many pieces.
I've also done some small pieces of translation notably in Critical Miss (Issue 11 - Autumn 2011)


I've had two stories published so far:
Breaking Through in Shotguns v. Cthulhu (Stone Skin Press)
Mother knows best in The Lion and The Aardvark (Stone Skin Press)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Straight Up

Here's another short piece. This time it's the start of something longer.

Straight Up by Steve Dempsey

I shove past the woman with the push-chair and cross the road, my road.

“I've got a kiddy here, you fuck,” she screams after me. Yes, you do have a kiddy there, you worthless piece of human flotsam, and another on the way by the look of your distended poorly faked Versace hoodie. And I see from the shrivelled roll-up between the nicotine-stained fingers and the bottle of White Lightning in the plastic bag hanging from the handlebars, that you are passing on the misery to the next generation. You stand there caterwauling, with your faded Girl Power t-shirt, helpless, pointless and useless to me.

A brown BMW tries to cut in front of me but I keep going. The driver rolls down his window to complain but I point to my ear-buds and he throws his hands up in disgust. The car behind him sounds its horn impatiently. I'm not listening to any music. I just wear these so I can ignore people. The miserable, the angry, the whiny with their boo-hoo-hoo, the powerless. They don't mean anything. They gave up any power for a vapid life, settling for the easy road of mediocrity. I haven't. I took my chance, I own this place.

And here's something more to my liking, a woman well into her seventies getting on to the bus. She heaves at her tartan shopping trolley as youngsters crowd past her.

“Would you like a hand with that?” I ask.

“That would be lovely. You are such a nice young man,” she responds. Her mistake, she never asked my price. I never do anything for free. It's one of the rules. I take two years of her life. Not from her future life, those years will be arid, devoid of the spark that interests me. No, I take 1953 and 1954. The Coronation and Hilary on top of Everest certainly, but there's more meat to those bones. Frankie Laine at the Palladium in '54 when the old woman, Dora, was 19. Screaming with all the other girls and then a quick fumble in Argyll Street on the way back to the tube with Gerald, just about to go off on his National Service. They necked all the way back to Parsons Green but Dora got cold feet and went home giddy, heart pounding, juices flowing for Gerald, but still a nice girl. Oh yes, plenty for me to use.

I get to Starbucks and grab a seat in the window, opposite Amanda. She doesn't look up from her Financial Times.

“I saw what you did there,” she says, not liking it one little bit.

“Man's gotta eat,” I say, “We don't all get our buzz from misprints in the newspapers. The FT? Isn't that a little dry for you? I thought the Grauniad was more your cup of typos.”

“Bloody spell checkers. It used to be so easy but even the Guardian has upped its game. Thank heavens for the grocer's apostrophe. It'll be a sad day when that becomes good grammar.” A tall macchiato appears on the table in front of me.

“Ah, thanks Słoneczko!” I beam at the barista, who waves and retreats behind the coffee bar.

“When did you learn Polish?” asks Amanda. She folds up the paper and drops it onto the pile on the floor.

“You have to know how to talk to people. I've never paid for anything in here.”

Amanda pulls a face, “Fuck off. Do you think I do?”

It sounds as if she's about to get serious so before we have all three baristas jumping through hoops and balancing blueberry muffins on their noses, I say, “Of course not. Now, can we get down to business?”

I take a sip of my coffee and sit back. Amanda is rather old school. She has a sense of decency that stems from her strict Jamaican schooling. She got sent back there for her junior years and then came back to the UK for university. Or at least that was the plan, but somewhere along the way she picked up this eye for details. When she finds a mistake--it has to be accidental, she can't just scrawl out bad spellings on any old piece of paper--she can take that, correct it and apply it to something else. Her bank account for example. So she's never short of a bob or two; it's real Armani for Amanda.

Today she's slumming it a bit with me in Lordship Lane. This is my territory, East Dulwich, hers is Dulwich Village. Of course any suburb of London calling itself a village is nice, in a not-much-change-out-of-two-million-quid­-for-a-small-house kind of way. It's not that East Dulwich isn't fine too. It poshed itself up no end in the last property boom when the Yuppies were all looking for the next Islington or Clapham. But it's still only got one generation of slap and won't be invited to any of the swanky parties yet.

So down to business. We have a boundary dispute. Between galderes, that's Anglo-Saxon for singers, callers or enchanters, home turf is a serious matter. You have to have it clear of other influences for the galdor, that's a spell, to work properly. We can do minor things anywhere but the for the bigger stuff, you need clear space between you and the next guy. You might think the post code areas in London are rather random but they're not. There's exactly one of us in each of them. I'm SE22 and Amanda is SE21. SE24, Herne Hill, is this black dog thing that we tend to avoid. Brixton, SE9 is a tree. I'm not going to do the whole list. You get the idea. The trouble is, every now and then the bloody government or the local authority moves the borders and it can serious mess with a galdere's head when he or she is busy with a galdor. Amanda must have something big on at the moment or she wouldn't be bothering with me, so I can probably make some capital out of this.

“So you remember that time, when I totally pulled your arse out of the fire?” she says, so then again perhaps it's not my lucky day after all.

“Er, no.” I reply, because I truly don't remember it at all.

“I thought this might happen, so I had you write this.”

She hands me a piece of paper, written in my handwriting and signed by me. It simply says, “Amanda saved you. You owe her one.” There is nothing on the back. The paper does not smell funny, nor does it appear to have been changed. I have a close look because Amanda's not so trustworthy when it comes to writing, but it seems kosher.

“And you're not going to tell me what this is about?”


“Why's that?”

“Can't say.”

I think about this for a while, have some more coffee.

“Fuck it,” I say, “What do you want me to do?”

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Abandoned, False

Here's a story which wasn't accepted for publication. It's rather disjointed, purposefully, but probably too much, and the schtick is very creative writing class. But hey, I enjoyed the process, if not the outcome.

Abandoned, False by Steve Dempsey
The Doppler effect is the change in length of a wave for an observer moving relative to its source; it shortens and increases in pitch as the source approaches, lengthens as the wave recedes.

Christian leans back from the window and coughs into his handkerchief; on the platform, Mathilde his wife of thirteen years is quietly drying her eyes as the governess leads the quiet children away.

That the Vienna Academy should have sided with the vindictive Petzval, in spite of the evidence, is beyond Doppler's comprehension; he coughs again and fights for breath, blood spots on his chin.

As the train passes through Carinthian meadows scattered with early snows, the ringing cowbells rise and fall in pitch, a constant reminder of the failure of Doppler's appeal to the Academy.

Back in Vienna, Mathilde tells the boys that they must pray for their father's good health to return whilst Thilde, the eldest child, diligently practises her scales on the piano.

The train approaches Venice, puffing across the recently built railway viaduct, over the grey waters of the lagoon and past the abandoned island of San Seconda to St Luca.

As Christian disembarks all the bells of all the churches in the city ring in a great mocking cacophony of sound; he nearly gets back on the train.

The porter unloads Christian's two trunks from the train and they are transferred to a gondola which soon moves off into the traffic on the Grand Canal.

It is a grey morning but women hang out washing on poles, gondoliers sing and call to each other: Venice is alive and awash with sound.

Now off the main canal and into smaller and smaller waterways, the slap of the wake against the buildings echoes as if in a cavern.

Doppler sits under the felze, his winter coat drawn close, exhausted by the days of constant travel, the rocking of the boat no comfort.

Out again in the broad canal, a river of gold in the evening sunlight, Christian imagines he is being ferried up to heaven.

As the night draws in, they pull past the Piazza San Marco and along side his hotel on the Riva degli Schiavoni

Servants are summoned and between them they carry the exhausted Doppler up the steps, into the hotel and to his bed.

Some days later Christian is sitting up in bed writing a long letter, lit by a shaft of pale sunlight.

Mathilde, you must go see Unger, he is on my side, and I must know who still supports me.”

I will continue the work, the mathematics is correct so experimental proof is just a matter of time”

He blots the ink and all the small spots of blood which have appeared on the paper.

Christian looks at the letter then adds, “Love, always, to you and to our dear children.”

He dates it Christmas Eighteen Fifty Two and gives it to the servant to post.

When the letter arrives in Vienna, Mathilde, scared, immediately boards a train to Venice.

Christian's health has declined over the winter; he has not worked since Advent.

His face, always narrow, is now gaunt; a deep shock to Mathilde.

She nurses and strives to distract him from his recent disappointments.

Christian will only talk about the Academia and their pigheadedness.

He sees himself on trial, over and over again.

Mathilde gently cradles his head in her arms.

My brave man, my love,” she says.

He bows his head and smiles.

He is calmer now, accepting.

The academy passes judgement.

Opinion is unanimous.

Abandoned, False.”

Saved, True”

Christian eyes open.

Everything is obvious now.

Christian is free at last.

His spirit expands, encompassing the room.

It swells out of the hotel window.

The canals, the boats, the people all succumb.

Nothing of this earth can hold it back now.

It shoots out over the lagoon and across the viaduct.

The entire Austrian Empire now belongs to Christian, the Academy too.

Petty quarrels, human preoccupations mean nothing to Christian now; he is everything.

The unconfined spirit is an ever deepening base note, far beyond human perception.

It joins with the sound of the universe, echoing back and forth in time.

It is there in every endeavour, a truth proven by experiment, for ever and ever.