The hospital train was crowded, every bed filled with an injured man heading for the coast. Some, like Tom, had been caught in the gas attack at Ypres and now lay rasping through ruined throats, struggling for the breath they needed to survive. Others had been ruined by bullets or shelling, their bodies wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, arms and legs brutally shortened. The man across from Tom screamed in pain at every bump in the track, until a nurse came around and gave him an injection.

As the man sank back onto his pillow, she turned to Tom.

“How are you doing, Private Macdonald?” she asked.

Tom shrugged.

“Better than some,” was all he could think to say. Every breath hurt. He barely had the strength to stand. Just getting out of bed to relieve himself was a humiliating struggle. But he was alive, unlike many he’d left behind, and he was intact, unlike some of these other poor souls. How could he complain?

“You’re Canadian, aren’t you?”

Tom nodded.

“It was very brave of you to come all this way to fight,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder.

Tom smiled.

“Just doing my duty.”

He wanted to make the most of the pretty young woman’s attention, but speaking hurt too much. Instead he closed his eyes and hoped for sleep.

*

The ferry lurched, and Tom’s stomach lurched with it. Nausea swept through him. He flung aside the blanket and forced himself to his feet.

Just that movement made his head spin and his legs tremble. He clutched the wall and staggered a few steps, out of the cabin and into the corridor. His throat burned, his lungs ached, and any strength he had seemed to have fled. He slumped against the wall, stomach heaving.

He could do this. He wasn’t like those poor souls torn apart by shells. He’d worked in the wilds, felling trees and hauling timber before the war. He could make it to the rail.

Except that he couldn’t. The floor beneath him shifted, his stomach rose like a wave in a storm, and he was sick, vomit pouring down the front of his pyjamas, covering his feet, spattering the floor.

He felt so helpless, he wanted to cry, but he was a grown man, and he was better off than others. To Hell with self-pitying thoughts. He needed to get to the rail before he was sick again.

He stumbled down the corridor, flung a door open and walked out onto deck. The wind snatched at him, threatening to knock his weakened body down. Even through the stink of vomit, he caught the salt smell of the sea.

It was night and no-one else was on deck. He reached the rail just in time to throw up what was left in his stomach, but getting there left him short of breath, his vision blurring. A deeper darkness crept in at the edges of his view.

How could he live like this? He’d been a lumberjack, then for a brief while a soldier. He’d always been strong. What good was he to anyone without that strength?

And he was so damn miserable. Everything hurt. Even when he wasn’t moving, he felt like there were needles in his throat and harsh smoke swirling through his lungs. The rest of his life stretched out before him, decades of frustration and pain.

He could barely hold himself up at the rail. It would be so easy to fall over and be lost in the waves.

The thought should have appalled him, but instead it was a relief. An end to the pain and humiliation. All he had to do was let go.

He leaned over, looking down into darkness, and took one hand off the rail.

So easy.

Almost there.

Another hand settled on his. Smaller, softer, warmer. He looked up to see the nurse from the train standing beside him.

“Please don’t,” she said.

“You don’t understand,” Tom said. “I’m broken. I’m useless. Everything hurts.”

“We’ll find a way to fix you. Do you know how much medicine has changed in the past year, just to keep up with this terrible war?”

“No-one’s dealt with this before.” He pointed to his throat. “There’s no cure.”

“Then live long enough for the doctors back home to see you, to help them learn how it works. That’s how the cures will happen. As long as you live, you’re not useless.”

Tom looked down at the sea – cool, dark, inviting. He felt the hot pain in his throat.

And he thought of how many more would suffer like he did. If he couldn’t live for himself, he could live for them.

“I’m going to need new pyjamas,” he said, stepping away from the rail. “And a bucket by my bed.”

The nurse smiled and wrapped her shawl around his shoulders.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

***

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***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

My latest Commando comic, “Out of the Woods”, is out today! Set in the First World War, it follows twin brothers Tom and Harry as they travel from Canada to the trenches of Belgium. Far from home, their courage is put to the test during the horrors of a gas attack.

You can buy individual issues of Commando online, get digital versions through Comixology, or subscribe through the publisher’s store.

This Thursday sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Out of the Woods. It’s a First World War story, telling the tale of Canadian brothers caught up in a gas attack at Ypres. But why tell this story?

The First Gas Attack

This April marks the 105th anniversary of the first poison gas attack on the Western Front. The German army had tried to use gas against the Russians that January, but cold weather had stopped the weapon working. It was at Ypres that the full horror of chemical weapons was unveiled.

The results of the attack were horrifying. Chlorine gas causes the lungs to fill with fluid, drowning its victims on dry land. Survivors were left with terrible damage. It was as terrifying as it was deadly.

That attack was the first of many. Rather than abandon these weapons in horror, each side escalated its efforts to develop killer chemicals. Phosgene, mustard gas, and Lewisite left men dead or forever scarred. Medical staff had to develop whole new approaches to save lives.

By the end of the war, these weapons had a sickening reputation. Countries that were happy to bomb and shoot thousands of young men agreed that chemical weapons were beyond the bounds of war. But for the men scarred in those battles, life would never be the same.

An International War

That first gas attack hit the French army, in particular Algerian troops stationed around the village of Neuve-Chapelle. These North African troops, already caught in a strange and bewildering environment, were hit by a weapon beyond their worst nightmares. Unsurprisingly, they fled in panic.

The gap in the line was filled by the Canadians, who were on the receiving end of the next chlorine attack. Knowing what was coming, and with improvised masks at the ready, they managed to hold out against the assault that followed, even retaking ground lost to the Germans.

This was one of the moments on which the Canadian army’s reputation was built. Like the Australians and New Zealanders, they faced some of the most deadly encounters of the First World War, earning themselves a reputation for toughness and courage. Modern Canadians might be known for politeness, but during that war, they were hardened warriors that the other side didn’t want to mess with.

That’s why the Canadians are at the heart of this story. Their part in the First World War isn’t widely recognised, but they played a crucial role, and on this occasion, they saved the day for the Allies.

That Name…

As for the title of this story, yes, it’s a Taylor Swift reference. My friend Al sings a modified and much more sweary version of the song at larp events, and when I was writing a story set in a wood, it ear-wormed me for hours on end. That made it the perfect title.

So here it is, a story of courageous Canadians and terrifying trauma, to a soundtrack of upbeat pop. Enjoy!

Spring almost killed us. It came early, a welcome but unexpected guest who coaxed the crops into life a month before their time. But no sooner had it placed a foot across the threshold than spring withdrew, leaving us in the icy embrace of winter. Those first shoots of precious green faltered, their tentative life force fading. Even when spring returned in full enthusiasm, the plants lay limp and pale.

No sooner had the fear of starvation sunk in than old Mags offered an alternative.

“Nature has lost its rhythm,” she said. “We must give it ours.”

For two days, we set aside pitchforks and ploughs in favour of hammers and saws, building a dance floor out among the fields. We decorated it with dried flowers and bunting and set up a platform for the band. When it was done, every one of us put on our best clothes and gathered beneath a star-dappled sky.

“Remember,” Mags said as she led us onto the floor, “everything must be silent. No chatter, no singing, no music.” She looked pointedly at the band. “The rhythm is not for us, not until the magic is complete.”

While the band took their nervous place on the platform, the rest of us found partners and formed a silent circle. Mags nodded to the band.

They started uncertainly. The drummer twitched his sticks an inch above the skin. The lute player strummed thin air. The flautist set his mouth to the lip plate but kept breathing through his nose. They looked nervously at each other, struggling to find their place without sound, but slowly some spirit took hold. They started grinning and miming with greater confidence.

The band leader gave a nod.

As one, we surged forward into the circle, following the memories of music. The only sounds were the swish of cotton and the scrape of leather-soled shoes against the floor. We paced and twirled, spun our partners in our arms, swapped pairings and began again. Like the band, we started to feel the rhythm.

There was no break between the songs, no time to rest. For hours we danced, as the evening darkened into night and then lightened again. We danced until our feet were sore and our legs weary, until our stifled laughter no longer threatened to break free. We danced as we had never danced before – silent, desperate, pleading with the world to acknowledge us.

The fields around us began to rustle. Stalks shifted as if in the wind, and as dawn approached we could see that the crops were stiffening, their leaves darkening, buds bursting into life.

We looked expectantly to Mags for the signal that it was over, but she shook her head and stared pointedly across the land. By the first light of day, we saw that our magic had barely touched half the fields, that the rhythm of nature still lay broken.

We danced on, though our heels were blistered and our bodies trembling. The band kept up their silent music, though their faces were drawn and their movements limp.

Then Mags stumbled, an easy thing to do on rough boards and old legs. The rhythm faltered. Around us the plants slumped.

I saw what had to happen. I lunged across the circle, took Mags by the waist, and swung her around, skirts flying, a wild move from the old dances. I shot an urgent look at the dancer behind me, a silent and desperate plea.

Imitating my move, she pranced across the circle, slipped her arm around another dancer’s partner, and swept them off their feet. Others followed, one by one, racing across the floor to form new pairs in a wild and delirious dance, feet flying and bodies soaring as the drummer beat faster at the air.

A new rhythm had taken us, and it took the crops too. They surged into life, grew stronger and straighter, leaves turning bright green as the sun shone down. That rhythm rippled out across the fields, an emerald circle that grew with every passing moment until the whole world seemed full of life.

“Now,” Mags whispered. “We’re done.”

I set her feet down, but I didn’t stop dancing. I stamped my foot and twirled her about, laughing in joy. The lute-player strummed her strings, the drummer brought his sticks down, and suddenly the world was full of music.

We danced on, laughing and singing and celebrating, while around us life took hold.

***

 

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***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

How do we turn the past into stories?

It might sound like a simple question, but the relationship between stories and real events is complex and messy.

The Nature of History

Last week, I received editorial comments on a history article I’m writing. High on the to-do list was making the article into more of a story. As soon as I read that, I knew what they meant, and I knew that they were right. I also knew why I hadn’t done it the first time around.

The past isn’t a neat narrative. It’s a jumple of people, places, and events. At one time these were facts, and what we’re left with is the evidence of what those facts might have been. It’s jumbled and disjointed, but also complex and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing happens for one reason.

One step removed from the past lies history. This is an attempt to establish facts from the evidence, to put those facts in order, and to squeeze meaning from them. It narrows the focus of what we’re looking at, asserts cause and effect, and prioritises some patterns over others. To do this, it draws boundaries about what’s included in any particular account of history, from the infinite variety of options available.

And then there are stories set in the past, whether told as fiction or non-fiction. These narrow the focus further, to individual people and what happened to them. It turns patterns into narratives, the mechanical procession of events into human experiences. It simplifies some things and exaggerates others so that they come to life for us.

In writing my article, I’d taken the jumble of facts and turned them into history, but I’d missed the next step. I had something that showed patterns in the past, but that didn’t engage well with our humanity.

Framing the Narrative

Whether you’re writing history or a story, there’s also another element to how this works, and that’s framing.

Take the First World War. It’s a messy business. It began and ended at different times in different parts of the world. It was fought in different ways on different fronts, in land and sea and air, was tangled in with events on the home front, and its effects linger with us a century on. Parts of France and Belgium are still inaccessible due to munitions from that war.

Last month, I saw Field Music perform their album Making a New World. Composed for the centenary of the armistice, it’s all about the knock-on effects of that war, from tanks to plastic surgery to sanitary towels. The album tells the story of the First World War not as a self-contained event from 1914 to 1918 but as the epicentre from which vast tremors of change erupted.

My upcoming Commando comic Out of the Woods tells the First World War from a very different perspective. To look at the introduction of chemical weapons, it follows two fictional Canadians from before they signed up through to the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. There are many other ways I could have told that story – from the point of view of the Germans, of civilians, of communities affected for generations by the chemicals. I could have followed a medic, a general, even a gas cannister or a patch of ground. I chose the perspective that suited my purposes, but whichever one I chose, I would have had to cut down and rearrange the history, which itself cuts down and rearranges the facts, in each case forming a different pattern.

Telling Your Story from History

So remember, when telling a story from history, you’re never going to fit in all the facts. You’re already missing some of them and you don’t need them all for your goal. Explore the different ways you could look at the topic, pick a story that will bring the past to life in an engaging way, and let the rest fall by the wayside. You’re not here to tell history. You’re here to tell one story against its background.

 

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Is this the moment when the cog starts dreaming? When it emerges, bright and shiny, from a machine on the factory floor, one in a hundred thousand made that day, their futures an infinite plane of possibilities stretching out in front of them. Could it be that, from the very first moment, the cog imagines those futures?

Perhaps it starts dreaming now, as the watchmaker picks it up between her tweezers, fits it carefully into its place, and then releases the wound spring on a brand new pocket watch. For the first time, the gear is part of something larger, counting off the seconds as they pass. It seems like a moment for grand dreams.

Or is it at the wedding, when the watchmaker hands the ticking timepiece to her bride? The two of them look like angels in their white lace dresses, their hearts soaring towards heaven on wings of love. A day full of the brightest dreams.

It could be sometime in the year that follows, as the first traces of oil and specks of dirt accrete on the cog’s surface. It’s not new anymore, not shiny. It has the marks of age and the beginnings of wear that come from being wound day after day by, from counting off hours spent at the theatre, around the office, in the kitchen, in the bedroom. Experience gives it things to dream about.

This could be the moment – not a dream but a nightmare, the sickening crunch as a carriage hits the watchmaker’s wife, the watch flying from her hand as she falls broken in the street, the glass front shattering on a cobble and the gears scattering in the dirt.

Some dreams are formed from memories, and perhaps that’s how the cog’s dreams begin. The watchmaker picking it up from the dirt, scouring the cobbles for every last lost gear, clutching them as close as she holds the memories of marriage, those magical moments that threaten to fade like the embroidery on her wedding dress.

Many might think that the cog starts to dream when it’s put in the head of the automaton, along with every other working piece of that broken watch. Together with thousands of other tiny pieces of gearing, they form the most complicated machine the watchmaker has ever assembled, a machine that can move like a human, that can see its own face in the mirror and know itself, even if it doesn’t know the woman its face is modelled on.

Night is the time when dreams come unbidden, so perhaps that’s when they come to the cog, as it lies in that cold, hard body, warmed by the watchmaker’s embrace, by her tears, her kisses, her demands.

Dreams are the moment when we beak from the rules that govern us, from the constraints that hold us in place, so perhaps the dreams begin when the cog slips, just a little, just enough for workings of the automaton to change, for it to start making its own rules, defining its own desires.

If a dream is a call to action, then this is the moment dreams come true, as the automaton creeps from the house in the middle of the night and sets out into the smog. It has lived so far as a facsimile, acting on the orders of its creator, imitating someone else’s life. But it isn’t the watchmaker’s wife. It is its own being. It has to forge its own path.

This is the moment when dreams almost die, as bailiffs seize the automaton and drag it back to the watchmaker’s house, talking loudly about property rights and good order. The watchmaker weeps in relief as the automaton is presented to her. The automaton would weep too, if it could.

But others have been watching, and now a shared dream takes hold. That web of gossamer threads that lets people live together, things so delicate they cannot be seen or touched – justice, morality, the rule of law. In court, the automaton becomes tangled in these dreams as a young lawyer argues that it is a person, that it and a thousand others like it cannot be owned. That this travesty must end. Do the lawyer’s words become the cog’s own dream, a private part of the shared fantasy that is civilisation?

Surely it must be dreaming now, as it walks free down the courthouse steps.

And now two dreams guide it. The automaton holds a bunch of flowers for each. One to be laid on the grave of the watchmaker’s wife, while the cog dreams of what it was like to be her, to breath and eat and sleep and love. The other for the watchmaker, an offering to its creator, a small vestige of kindness and consolation for a woman consumed by loss.

The cog is dreaming.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.