ALMOST 90 blood curdling stories to read. That's a lot of horror for any man.
Luckily, our very own master of the monstrous, city novelist Ramsay Campbell, is made of strong stuff and, faced with the task of judging a writing contest organised by Liverpool's Writing On The Wall festival, that was soon whittled down to a longlist of 20.
Then last night, those numbers were slashed to just 10 – and the word slashed IS used advisedly.
Writing On The Wall festival continues to delight and inform throughout May and one of the highlights is its annual Flash Fiction competition, where budding authors get to do their best – or their worst – in just 500 words of thought provoking prose.
This year the subject was “A Flash In The Dark” and the call went out for stories that would scare the wits out of its organisers and everyone who came across them.
“This year the standard was higher than ever,” says WoW Festival Director Madeline Heneghan, “and we had a really tough time coming up with a shortlist of just 10.”
But they did and the winner turned out to be Karl Russell for the second year. Proving that where flash fiction is concerned, he is no flash in the pan.
"The submissions proved that it is possible to really build a strong, compelling narrative in just 500 words and the entries all displayed skill with some fantastic plot twists.
"Congratulations to Karl and big thanks to all who made it so special."
Flash Fiction finalists turning up last night to the Rodewald Suite at the Philharmonic Hall were requested to read their pieces out loud. “One or two of them were terrified, but not as terrified as the audience who had to listen to them,” added Madeline.
Here is the winning work. We will be publishing one or two more entries over the next couple of weeks while the festival continues.
Don't forget, there are still plenty of exciting rebel rants, book launches and more from Brian Reade, Melvyn Bragg Howard Marks, Penny Feeny, Helen Walsh and Niall Griffiths to name but a few. see the full programme and book tickets here - and show everyone how well read you are.
'Ellie's crying,' Shirley whispered.
Mark struggled to rise from the bed, muttering drowsily, senses bound by sleep as he shuffled to the kids' room. He reached for the light then stopped, thinking of how Tommy would react to being woken.
He held his breath, listening intently to Ellie's soft mewling whimper, and beneath that, his son's slow, laboured breathing; Tommy was still asleep.
Finding his way across the room by muscle memory, Mark bent towards the cot and stroked his daughter's face. She fell silent, her breath hitching as her sobs subsided, grabbing at his strong, warm fingers.
Slipping his free hand beneath the thin sheets he felt for her comforter and found it had slipped beneath her. He pulled it loose, held it where her tiny hands could greedily find it.
'There's Blankie. Hush now baby.'
He listened for the soft, familiar susurration as she nuzzled the silky lining, settling herself, then slipped from the room.
Closing his eyes, he sank into the deeper darkness for just an instant before Shirley nudged him awake again.
'Is that the door?'
He rose more quickly this time, slipping out of bed and reaching for the cricket bat which nestled beneath it. Stealing down the stairs, the bat raised, he quietly checked all three locks, old and new, peering through the frosted glass at the empty street.
He eased the lounge door open, saw the tell tale standby lights which stared unblinking from the replacement TV and laptop, then crept through to the kitchen. He checked the back door, nestled snug, inviolate in the new frame. The smell of gloss paint was fading, but still caught at his throat.
The windows were naked, lidless eyes forever watching the dark garden. Mark watched too, looking up into the great empty sky before pulling his gaze back to scan the nearby roofs, the high surrounding fences.
The oven clock blinked green, eternally, 3:12. Not long now.
'It's all quiet.'
Shirley mumbled distantly, the duvet wrapped tight around her. Mark pulled a little loose, stretching it across his shoulders as he lay with his back to her, drifting.
'It’s time,' she whispered, 'last one.'
He shook her away, curling deeper into himself, hiding, but there was nowhere to go.
Tommy’s scream tore the darkness, ripped him from the bed and sent him racing across the landing, tripping over charity shop bags, scattering photo albums bare as winter trees. He clutched the boy to his chest, smothering his cries before he woke Ellie. Tommy kicked and shook, railing again against the men who crept into his darkened house a month ago to steal away his mother.
'It's alright, they're not coming back.'
Mark finally soothed him, laid him down once more and returned to his own too big, too empty bed.
Lying sleepless in the early light, he wished, as he had every night since, that it had been his turn to check.
Now it always would be.
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