Friday, January 27, 2012

Story of the Week: Snow Angel

Angel in the snow from St Mary's church yard.
Joanne Galbraith's "Snow Angel" is a ghost story about terror and revenge that comes not from the ghost but from a source that's very much alive. Emma has suffered several losses when the narrative begins. Her parents have died and most recently her husband has died in an automobile accident, wrapping his car around a tree after drinking at a bar with his father. Emma is now left to raise her daughter Marley alone. Dealing with the loss is bad enough, but every night at 1:02 in the morning, Marley wakes Emma to tell her that she has been talking to her father who makes snow angels outside his daughter's window and scratches hearts into the frost on the window pane. At first, Emma assumes her daughter is fantasizing, too young to comprehend the finality of death. But the physical evidence builds and Emma becomes convinced that someone from her past is stalking her, most likely a fellow student from her high school days who harbored an unhealthy obsession over her. Marley tells Emma that Daddy has a message for them.

“Daddy says be careful.” Marley snatched her favorite dolly from the floor beside her and cuddled it, sleep tugging at her eyelids. “He says somebody’s coming to visit.”

“Who’s coming, Marley?” [said Emma.]

“Somebody bad.”

Emma doesn't believe in heaven or the supernatural, nor do her sister or her parents, but when Emma learns that her husband died at 1:02 AM, her worldview begins to crumble and somebody bad does come to pay a visit.

Galbraith tells a suspenseful tale that immediately grabs your attention and holds it. Details, such as the smell of Emma's husband's cologne, create vivid word pictures and turn up again and again to add depth to the narrative.

A tiny voice drew Emma from a dark corner of sleep. She groaned and rubbed her eyes. “It’s your turn, David.” When he didn’t move, she rolled over and patted her hand along his pillow. She found nothing but cold cotton. Blinking in the darkness, she sat up and looked at the clock on his nightstand—1:02 a.m.

Pain tore through her heart.

David would never again crease his pillow or steal the covers as he turned in his sleep. Tears crested her lashes as Emma crawled to his side of the bed and crushed her face against his pillow. His scent lingered, a mixture of Clive Christian cologne and his unique masculine aroma.

The mystery over the identity of the "bad person" is also well done as Galbraith drops clues that fit together at the end. A longer story might have delved more into the antagonist's personality and motivation, but this is Emma's story. The ending masterfully brings together many of the narrative's threads in a powerful, heartwarming denouement without being sentimental.

Joanne Galbraith now writes as Jocelyn Adams. To learn more about her work, check out her blog at

Picture Attribution: Bill Nicholls. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Interview with Kat Heckenbach

Finding Angel
Kat Heckenbach is the author of Finding Angel and a lot of great short stories. For my review of Finding Angel, go here.

Chapman: In some places you provide scientific explanations for the magic that Angel and Gregor perform, describing the transformations at the molecular level. Most writers leave the nuts and bolts of magic a mystery. Why did you take a different route?

Heckenbach: I suppose the obvious answer is that I'm a science geek (I have a B.S in Biology), so I like scientific explanations for things. However, it's never bothered me that most fantasy novels don't include that stuff. Magic is fun, and it doesn't have to follow rules. I wanted mine to be different, though. I wanted magic to be an innate ability which could truly be extrapolated from what humans are capable of. And each of my characters has a Talent that is a magic power stronger than the rest, with each person's being unique to them. I wanted it obviously representative of our unique talents here in the real world, so I wanted magic in general to be "realistic." Oh, and I'll say more on this when we get to question number five :).

Also, I can't help but mention that your question reminded me of what Professor Snape says in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: "There will be no foolish wand-waving or silly incantations in this class...."

Chapman: Finding Angel contains several mini-chapters interspersed with Angel's narrative. These mini-chapters feature conversations between two scientists who are obviously up to no good. What did you hope to add to the story with these chapters?

Heckenbach: Quite simply, a villain presence. For reasons that become obvious at the end of the book, I can't have the villain make a bunch of face-to-face confrontations with my main characters. Finding Angel is as much a mystery as it is a fantasy. But there needs to be a sense of peril--Angel may not know everything that is going on, but the reader can be clued in to some of it.

Chapman: The novel begins with a wall of fire. I'm reminded of a couple of your short stories, "Fire Wall" and "Prism", which also feature walls of fire and trees, respectively. What do these walls mean to you?

Heckenbach: Oh, wow, psychoanalysis. Eep. It's funny you ask, actually, because I've noticed that I use fire in a lot of my stories and I've spent time trying to figure out exactly why. So far, I've not had any success though. I think it must say something about me! I'd love to hear some hypotheses on what that is :).

The wall part may be a little easier to figure out. It's an obstacle--one that blocks the view of what is on the other side. So, the character doesn't necessarily know what he is in for. In both "Fire Wall" and "Prism" there is a belief that what lies beyond the wall is something terrible--and in both cases it's true for some, but not for others. The outcome relies completely on the character's convictions--and one story shows wrong convictions while the other shows right convictions. Same obstacle, different result. Maybe that is related to the fire--it is something that contains incredible power, both positive and negative depending on how it is used.

Chapman: Angel discovers a prophecy about mid-way through the novel that informs the remainder of the story. Did you come up with the story line and fit the prophecy to it or dream up the prophecy and build the story around it?

Heckenbach: That is actually a harder question to answer than you'd think. Yes, some of the prophecy was written to match plot events I'd already planned out. But some plot events seemed to actually develop naturally to fit the prophecy. I remember having moments when I'd write a scene and it would hit me that I'd just "fulfilled" a line in the prophecy without even realizing it while I was writing!

Chapman: Is there an origin story for the magical people, those with gifts? I suspect it's in some of Gregor's history tomes.

Heckenbach: And now we are back to your first question about science and magic. Yes, there is an origin story. It will be told in the second book! :D It's not the main plot of the next book, but Sir Benjamin will be telling one of the characters the story of how it all happened, so I suppose you'll just have to wait and see. If you're not that patient, I'm sure much of it is in some of Gregor's history tomes...if you can find the island and get your hands on them...

Chapman: Dawric is cast out of the Realm Beyond and swallowed by the earth. What makes him so evil that he is undeserving of forgiveness?

Heckenbach: Now normally, I'd shake a finger at you for giving a spoiler, but really everyone knows bad guys get it in the end, and in some ways this particular thing is incidental to the "real" event happening in this scene (of which I won't give spoilers). And this is a really good question, deserving of an answer.

Dawric is not so evil that he is undeserving of forgiveness--no one is. But he has set his mind to refuse it. You cannot force someone to accept forgiveness.

Chapman: Can you give us a preview of what's coming next for Angel? She has a wish to use. Will she be visiting her adoptive parents again?

Heckenbach: Yes, her wish. Of course that is a big part of the second book. Wishes don't always unfold the way we think they will. It's not like rub a lamp, and poof, you're a prince. The timing is not necessarily immediate, nor is what we wish for always what we expect. And, sometimes you get more than you ask for. (What other cliche shall I add to this list?)

And Angel is going to come face-to-face with some of the consequences of her choices in the first book. You don't just run away and everyone you leave behind is hunky-dory. So yes, her foster family will appear again, but Angel is in for a few surprises there.

A couple of new characters are added to the cast in the second book--which, by the way, is titled Seeking Unseen. And the point of view doesn't stay solely Angel's. There will be a shift, and partway through the book the pov will begin toggling back and forth between Angel and another character.

Seeking Unseen is due out the second half of 2012.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Stories of the Week

The Sick Child, Edvard Munch (1907).
Here are three flash stories that caught my imagination from the December 2011 issue of Apollo's Lyre. All address the relationship between parents and their children.

Madeline Mora-Summonte's "Silent Night" tells about a family Christmas palpably silenced by loss. The writing is beautiful and subtle. The running comparison with Christmas past is powerful. Don't read this if you're already feeling depressed. I particularly liked  Mora-Summonte's description of death:

[Death] slunk into her room, the house, our lives. He slithered under her skin and into her blood. He wrapped himself around her small bones, hugged her heart, and squeezed her lungs until she gasped her last breath.

Stephanie M. Lorée's clever science fiction tale "Three Winters" tells of loss and silence in a family separated by light years. She tells her story in three sections, each with a different point-of-view from a different generation. The section headings spell out the oft-used phrase: Home Away From Home.

Shane Gavin's "Climbing ‘til Doomsday" describes a young boy's struggle to escape from the dark. It's at night, when he's in bed, that his parents fight and he can hear the screaming. If he can reach the sky, he believes he can rip it open and release the day hidden behind the blackness. His efforts to reach the sky are comic at first, but then turn tragic. I don't think I'll ever look at the night sky in quite the same way again.

I didn’t hate mom and dad, though, no, I hated the dark--the sky outside that hid the day and brought on the screaming. But the sky outside was broken and punctures in the black shroud revealed glimpses of the day hidden behind it.

For more on these writers and their work, check out their websites:,, and

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Finding Angel: A Review

Finding Angel
The title of Kat Heckenbach's first novel, Finding Angel, is intriguing and becomes more so after you've read the book. One might even argue it's a bit of a misnomer. You expect the story to be about someone looking for Angel and discovering her, a kind of missing person story. But no one is looking for Angel in the story. Angel is the protagonist and point-of-view character. She knows where she is but not necessarily who she is. Gregor is looking for a girl named Anna but finds Angel, who used to be a little girl named Anna. So why isn't this book entitled "Finding Anna" or something else entirely? Finding Angel is Angel's story. She was found wandering a rural road and adopted by the Masons, who also have several other adopted children. Angel's only link with her past is a silver charm bracelet that she was wearing at the time of her discovery. One charm is a heart inscribed with a strange-looking beetle. The other charms are letters: A-N-G-E-L, which the Masons assume spell her name. (We learn later in the story that the E and L charms are out of order.) Gregor takes Angel back to her childhood home on a magical island that is invisible to the rest of the world. She learns that she has magical abilities and that she is a Finder, someone whose most developed magical talent is finding things. But Angel is no longer Anna, not after living with the Mason's for several years. Angel/Anna must discover how she fits into the past and future of her homeland as she forges an identity and finds out who Angel is. Oh, I almost forgot. There is also a homicidal maniac named Dawric who will stop at nothing to find and kill her so he can steal her talent.

Part mystery and part fantasy, puzzles occupy center stage in Finding Angel. The first mystery is Angel's past. She learns that Dawric nearly captured her when she was a young girl but that Gregor used his talent for Gating--creating passages through space to other parts of the world--to send her away from Dawric. Unfortunately, Gregor was not able to follow her through the gate and did not know where he had sent her which is why it took him years to track her down. When Angel returns with Gregor, her parents are gone, looking for her in some other part of the world. The next puzzle is the significance of the charm bracelet, which Gregor tells Angel is a family heirloom that is passed from one generation to the next through the first born. But what is the bracelet's significance? What does it do? Angel finds a vague prophecy in an old book that she believes relates to her as it mentions something about a Finder. Gregor, who is going through a type of Romeo-and-Juliet personal crisis about which he is exceedingly reticent, dismisses her obsession. Casting a shadow over the other mysteries is Dawric, whom Gregor insists is gone, but Angel suspects is closer than Gregor thinks since the prophecy appears to relate to him as well. And finally, there is the jigsaw puzzle that Angel helps Sir Benjamin--a retired professor--assemble in his bookstore.

Magic is commonplace on the island. There are magical items, such as an interpreter lens that renders text in any language. Angel learns to use magic to take care of mundane chores, such as washing the dishes or cleaning up after her puppy. Magic is also put to more dramatic uses, such as Gregor's Gating and Angel's Finding. A professor at the university on the island can make himself invisible while another can tame animals and people. Fantastical creatures abound, including unicorns and various types of dragons which many residents keep as pets. Elves--the Tolkien variety--also inhabit the island.

One of the unique features of Finding Angel is the relationship Heckenbach depicts between magic and science. In most fantasies, magic occurs and is taken for granted. We're not given much explanation of the nuts and bolts of it other then where the power to perform it comes from. Heckenbach delves into the science behind the magic. Gregor alters the appearance of Angel's hair color by "magically adjusting the surface's absorption and reflection of wavelengths" (p. 83). Invisibility comes from bending light rays. When Angel asks Gregor why the left over food on the dishes cannot just disappear, Gregor explains:
"Things don't just disappear. They have to go someplace. First law of conservation of matter. Matter cannot be created or destroyed; it can only change form" (p. 49).
As Heckenbach describes it, magic, like everything else, is answerable to the laws of the physical universe. Magic acts within those laws and uses them, rather than contradicting or stepping outside of them. However, just as Gregor and Angel can magically work within the laws of the universe, those laws can also impinge on their magic. Gregor says that technology interferes with their magic, which is why daily life on the island is so low-tech.
"It's all the waves and particles released by electronic devices. They suppress our magic" (p. 47).
Heckenbach has created a strong cast of characters to complement Angel's story. They have their own concerns and their lives have trajectories independent of Angel. Gregor, for instance, is involved with a young Elven girl named Siophra, whose father has forbidden their marriage. Kalek, Siophra's brother, is caught between his father and Gregor. Angel is more an observer than a participant in Gregor's subplot until Siophra is drawn into the machinations of Dawric and his partner. We even get a sense of Dawric's hopes and dreams although his desires have consumed any sense of morality he may once have possessed and transformed him into a cunning maniac. However, Finding Angel's narrative structure and single point-of-view character limits our exposure to and understanding of some characters. While Angel meets Kalek numerous times, her meeting with Siophra is fleeting. Like Angel, we have to rely on second-hand reports to form an opinion of her. Siophra's father undergoes a transformation from a cruel and unbending patriarch to a damaged and repentant father in the novel's final chapters, but Angel only has contact with him after the transformation.

The story breaks from Angel's point of view in a few mini-chapters that report conversations between an unnamed scientist and an unnamed man whom I assume to be Dawric. I suspect Heckenbach wants to foreshadow the dangers that are encroaching on Angel, but in a fantasy novel, the reader expects danger to be lurking without being told. I would rather see those chapters expanded so that the reader has a lot more information than Angel or cut.

Finding Angel is a good read with a complex story line and enough twists and turns to keep the reader off balance. The final chapter hints at a continuation of Angel's story in a sequel. I'm looking forward to it.

Come back next week for an interview with Kat Heckenbach. While you wait, check out her blog and all things Finding Angel at

Friday, January 13, 2012

Story of the Week: Her Long Hair Shining

If you like historical mysteries about the people history has forgotten, you should read Simon Kewin's "Her Long Hair Shining" at Abyss & Apex. Kewin has penned a ghost story that is poignant and tragic. It's not scary, but it certainly has plenty of creepy imagery. Consider the opening paragraphs:

Water ran down the walls, staining the stonework in triangles of green like a child’s drawing of a Christmas tree. Smith had to step around pools of water on the floor. The place hadn’t been used for years. Decades. Smashed windows let the wind and rain inside. It was colder inside, somehow, than it was out on the streets. The air tasted damp. 
It was, he thought, a lonely place for a ghost to live.

That image of a child's drawing washing away sets the tone of loss that pervades the story. Every character has lost someone.

Smith is wandering through an abandoned textile mill on a mission to save a ghost. That's what he spends his time doing, rescuing ghosts, giving them some closure so they can fade away peacefully. He receives assistance from Tom, whom we later learn is the ghost of Smith's son who died in an automobile accident that may have been Smith's fault. Once they find a ghost, Smith and Tom attempt to gain its trust so they can learn something about it, such as its name or the circumstances of its death. Kewin's ghosts are shy and skittish. Armed with a few scraps of data, Smith heads to the library to track down accounts of the ghost's death and the fate of its survivors: children, spouses, fiances. The ghosts Smith encounters are trapped, struggling to find someone who is no longer there.

The ghost in the mill is a teenager named Sally, a beautiful girl with bright and shining golden hair. She died in a horrible accident at the mill, a victim of its machinery. Her beau was going to ask her to marry him that day. She was to wait for him outside the factory. It appears to be a standard case for Smith and Tom, but Sally proves to be something special.

Kewin's prose is vivid, punctuated with details that bring the dead to life.

A circle of breath bloomed on the inside of the mirror with each word, only to evaporate away immediately. He could see nothing of her save for a quarter of her face, a tangle of golden hair and the corner of her mouth, hidden behind the patches of tarnished silver.

Kewin tells a sad story in "Her Long Hair Shining" with a surprisingly happy ending, all the while avoiding any lapse into sentimentality.

For more about Simon Kewin and his writing, visit his blog at

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Minor Works

Ever heard of The Cricket on the Hearth? It's one of the Christmas books that Charles Dickens wrote following the success of A Christmas Carol. The story is sentimental and features a cricket who acts as a guardian angel and a miser who is transformed by the Christmas season. The novella is divided into "chirps" instead of chapters. Although commercially successful at the time, the story receives little attention from critics today. Most commentators, I suspect, would call it a minor work if they bother to mention it.

Critics often refer to some story or novel in a writer's oeuvre as a minor work. I assume the critic means that the work in question has flaws in execution or concept that render it less satisfying than the author's major works. The minor work is not as important. So minor is a relative term to distinguish great works from less-than-great works. Or maybe it's a nice way of saying this one sucks. Or maybe the ideas presented in the story are no longer relevant to or popular among critics.

From a critic's perspective, it makes sense to distinguish minor and major works. But from a writer's perspective, the idea seems odd. Looking back over my stories, I can admit that some are less successful than others and I can learn from the "failures" maybe more than from the shining successes. However, I never think of any story as a "minor work" while I'm writing it, even if I know the concept is less ambitous. I don't care less about the characters or put less thought into the descriptions of time and place. Orson Scott Card writes in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that a writer must simultaneously believe:

1. The story I am now working on is the greatest work of genius ever written in English.
2. The story I am now working on is worthless drivel (p. 109).

In other words, you have to have enough confidence to send it out and be ruthless enough to edit it. If you think you're writing a minor story, will you ever believe it's worth the risk to submit it? In fact, if you think you're writing a minor story, you should stop working on it. Move on to something else, because it will certainly never rise above minor status and most likely won't rise to any status at all. I suspect that when Dickens finished The Cricket on the Hearth, he thought it the best Christmas story ever written.