FICTION: John the Squinter  by David Oakley

Palu: Sulawesi

July 12th. 2006

                                                                                                                              Early morning.

I found the boy yesterday. Even now, still jet-lagged, listening to the seabirds chanting their raucous aubade as the tired tropical sun heaves its bulk out of the horizon – even now, I can hardly comprehend it. Perhaps his recollection was embellished by a desire to please, but you must believe me when I say he is reliable. There were three, the boy, the guide and the doctor. The guide has disappeared. It is rumoured that he was consumed by cannibals in Papua. And the doctor died last year, but there will be records. They say the doctor was meticulous.

I will find them soon, these records, and then I will be able to put the matter to rest. Sitting and scribbling here, on this dismal terrace, in the dull haze of sunrise over the oily flat lagoon and the distant sea, I can no longer think of any reason to move on.

I need to speak with him again. I call him the boy, though now, more than a decade later than the disturbing events I am trying to clarify, he is a young man, of vigorous appearance despite a broken tooth. He said It was his job to look after the hut, cook for the man and woman. I asked him about the guide, but he simply repeated the atrocious rumour. He had gone, but the boy assumed I wished to follow in the man’s fateful footsteps. He could take me whenever I was ready. What rarity did I want to tick off; the rapturous Milky Stork, the hermetic Snoring Rail? He was at my disposal. I played him along to loosen his tongue. I will repeat myself. The boy is reliable.

Listen carefully, I must write it down while it is still fresh in my memory. The boy said that the man was delirious, that he was swatting at imaginary insects, that he was twitching (an ironic detail that miraculously survived translation). He was barely conscious when the helicopter came. The boy was sure he would die. The woman heard the throbbing of the rotors and told him to wait outside the hut. They were not to be disturbed until the doctor came, did he understand? No one was to enter the room, not even the guide. From outside the room, he heard her play the recording of the bird, Very loud, sir. Many many times.  All this, I believe to be true.

***

It is my intention to be honest. There can be no reason to doubt the authenticity of my recall, even though I must now crawl back forty years to the genteel London suburb of Woking. Oh yes, I remember it all. If anyone should ever read this journal they should make what they will of the facts recorded. To me, the interpretation is singular.

***

It was on 2nd August 1966 (a Tuesday) that I first met, or should I say encountered, John the Squinter. I was returning from an illuminating talk on the migratory habits of arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) and the street was bathed in the pale grey light of a full moon. I was reflecting on how no creatures on earth enjoy more daylight hours than these restless birds when I noticed a figure, crouching and straining forward, in the shadow of a hibiscus bush. Barefoot, he was peering through an expensive pair of Leica overhead-prism binoculars in the direction of an opulent maisonette on the far side of the street. He appeared to be clad only in a heliotrope dressing gown that did little to conceal his erection which, though still significant, was starting to flag, intermittently horizontal, as if transmitting some odious message in phallic semaphore. It would have been impossible to say, based on that particular encounter, whether he had a squint or not because he never lowered his binoculars, but now, as I write nearly forty years later, I can state quite categorically that he did not. I walked deliberately close to Orthoptic John and coughed to advertise my presence.

‘Strix aluco,’ he said, eyes glued to the lenses.

His observation was correct. A male tawny owl was indeed twhitting from some adjacent lime tree and a female was twhooing in response. To many people his comment might have seemed a feeble attempt to divert attention from some disgraceful act of voyeurism, but I was in no doubt that the owls were indeed the object of his vigil. I might go so far as to say I was intrigued. It is certainly a pleasant diversion to observe a tawny owl, but it would take a bird watcher of some substance for this to provoke such a state of arousal. Thus, on fateful impulse, I turned into a convenient side road and watched him from a distance. Shortly thereafter he lowered his binoculars, walked a few paces and entered a comfortable modern house. I noted the light switched on in an upstairs room and, through the coy opalescence of a lacy curtain, I believed, though it may have been the product of a corrupt imagination, I could make out the silhouette of two upright figures in a sensuous embrace.

That might have been the end of it, had not my curiosity prompted me, the following morning, to pay the house a visit. I should explain that the house John the Squinter had entered the previous night was situated just a short distance from mine, on the opposite side of the street. The fact that this was the first time our paths had crossed can only be attributed to a certain attitude of insularity prevalent in our mellow corner of suburbia. There was, indeed, a clear line of sight between the two dwellings, now accessed by my powerful spotting telescope horizontally poised on a sturdy tripod, and the immediate agent of a fevered sleepless night.

Furnished with some random leaflets, I rang the door chime which soon opened to reveal a young woman, barefoot and wearing a familiar dressing gown. She had a calm manner and her voice was free from harshness. The contour of her neck was classical, and her skin was of an exquisite pallor. She exhibited no trace of discomfort as I explained my mission.

‘I’m sorry if I have disturbed you,’ I said. ‘I am the secretary of the local ornithology society and we’re organizing a petition against the council’s proposal to drain the marshland behind the supermarket. Did you know that two rare birds tried to nest there last year?’

‘Yes, I did. Cetti’s warblers, weren’t they?’ she said, her head tilted slightly to one side and the trace of a smile on her lips. ‘My husband is a bird watcher too, you see. Would you like a coffee? Sorry I’m not dressed yet. It’s my day for the book club’.

Writing these words now, I fail to understand why hosting a literary soiree should delay the process of clothing oneself, but at the time the anomaly passed me by since I had unhesitatingly entered a higher realm. It is pointless to deny that within an augenblick I was utterly bewitched and, to save further inconsequential speculation, this abstraction persists even as I write, here in Palu where the seabirds and the claxons vie in their ululation to the rising sun.

‘Your husband should join our group. We meet the first Tuesday of the month,’ I said.

‘He would not do that, I’m afraid. John- my husband – is a creature of habit and he’s busy on Tuesdays, but he goes to the Quiet Woman between 8.30 and 9.45 on a Wednesday evening.  I’m sure he’d love to chat about birds over a pint and a game of darts. Why don’t you drop in tonight, if you’re not busy that is?  He’ll be wearing a bright green watchstrap. He has a different colour for each day of the week. Wednesday is green.’ She gave a small laugh as if to excuse her husband’s quirky habit, and in that laugh did I detect an echo of airless afternoons In a Mediterranean orchard and the liquid cadence of the golden oriole?

She signed the petition.

***

I was a little late arriving at the pub. John was standing in the glare of a bright light whose principle purpose was to illuminate the darts board. He had a small neat moustache, clear blue eyes, a wrist watch with a green strap, and corduroy trousers. He was holding a pint of bitter in a pewter tankard engraved with his initials and was waiting for his turn to play. I introduced myself and offered him a drink.

‘Just a half, thank you.’

His conversation, like his dress was precise, prosaic and well organised. We talked exclusively about birds. I explained that my job in publishing permitted me to travel widely, with obvious benefits. We both agreed that bird spotting was addictive. He expressed interest in a publication I had recently purchased in which every species of bird in the world was recorded in phylogenetic order.

At the weekend, having observed John drive off on some errand, I went to his house on the pretext of showing him my life-list. It was early, but Martha, (for that was her name), was fully dressed. Her attire was in no way flamboyant, nor was it overtly modish, but she wore it with a casual grace that was breath-taking. Her eyes were grey.

‘No book club today?’ I said, with an imperceptible tone of disappointment. ‘I’ve brought some papers John wanted to borrow. Bird stuff.’

‘You’ve just missed him,’ Martha said, ‘he should be back soon. He said to show you these.’

She handed me a folder. John had created two lists, both typed. The first was his life-list. The second was headed ‘Birds observed copulating in the Southern Hemisphere on Tuesdays.’ Underneath he had typed the word, ‘None.’

‘Has John been birdwatching in South Africa or Australia?’

‘No. Just England and a holiday in Europe. Why do you ask?’

‘It’s nothing.’

Martha hoped I would keep up our Wednesday meetings, ‘He doesn’t have many friends,’ she confided.

I said it would be a pleasure and would be there next week, though not even Martha could have predicted the outcome of that second encounter.

She thanked me and, getting up from her chair, put her right hand gently round my shoulder, picked up some car keys with her left, and guided me to the door.

‘Shopping,’ she said with a glorious smile.

And so it was that the following Wednesday, over a pint and a half in The Quiet Woman, John the Squinter informed me he had decided to embark on the absurd enterprise of observing and ticking off every species of bird in the world. I watched him closely, but he did not give the impression that this was some idle badinage. In fact, he exuded an air of unconditional resolve. I gulped down half my beer before expressing the opinion that this was an impossibility to which he made the memorable response:

‘Why not? They have all been seen by someone. We know where they live. It’s just a matter of time and organisation. I am a well organised person.’

I pointed out all sorts of objections. There would need to be rules. It would cost a fortune. It would take a long time. He dealt with them, in order.

‘These are the rules,’ he said. ‘I will exclude endemics to war zones and no-go areas. I will permit a positive identification by voice, provided I get a view, however imperfect and fleeting, of the bird itself. I have a legacy. By my calculations it will take twenty-nine and a half years.’

‘Good luck.’ I said. It seemed an inadequate response, but words did not come easily as I lasciviously digested the consequences of his odyssey.

***

John, as always, was right. It took him just over twenty-nine years. Much could be written about those interminable decades which now constitute my incoherent past. I have no time or desire to chronicle them all and, anyway, my task is alleviated by the emergence of certain recurrent patterns and relationships, an outline of which will be sufficient.

Except for one or two early expeditions John travelled alone. I do not need to expound on the myriad opportunities this afforded to nurture Martha’s approbation. I visited her with increasing frequency when John was away, and to say that we became good friends is no self-deception. It seemed only a matter of time before our relationship took on a more intimate timbre.

With each passing expedition, John and Martha changed in observable ways. I first became aware of this in the third year when, during one of my cosy visits, Martha stretched out her arm to pick up a cup of tea. A small area of her left shoulder was transiently exposed and revealed, to my astonishment, a jewel-like hummingbird, perfectly wrought by a gifted tattoo artist. It would have been indelicate of me to mention it, but in the ensuing weeks I pondered deeply on its meaning.

The returning John, by contrast, exhibited a subtle physical decline which was to continue inexorably in the ensuing years. His skin had already developed a faintly yellow tinge which he attributed to some pills prescribed for a tropical infection. His breath smelled strangely sweet, and he was constantly visiting the pub toilet.

It was in the pub, one night (not with John), that the barman, a large jovial man with a boyish face, invited me to join the darts team for a match the following Tuesday against a squad from The Roaring Donkey. He always spoke in a loud, high pitched voice, and his conversation was noteworthy for its cheerful lack of inhibition, the legacy of a botched operation on his pituitary gland. Modesty compelled me to point out that John was the better player, at which the barman, emulating the rival institution’s clamorous herbivore, roared with laughter and announced that Tuesdays were set aside by John and Martha for the consummation of marital relations, a procedure which could only be interrupted by one of the Four Riders of the Apocalypse (or the call of a tawny owl, I retrospectively appreciated). I begged him to lower his voice and queried the integrity of this confidence.

‘Oh, it’s certainly true, John,’ he said – I have forgotten to mention that we share the same given name – ‘I got it straight from the horse’s mouth. A cacophonous hen night that got a bit out of hand. You could have heard them in Guildford. Common knowledge, old boy. So what about the darts?’

‘Sorry. I’m busy that night too.’ I said.

***

I soon became adept at following Martha’s movement without drawing attention to myself. I believed our relationship was progressing, but it was painstakingly slow. I needed to understand everything. She continued to visit the tattoo artist regularly, though I detected no further adornments during my visits. In fact, she was at pains to wear clothing of considerable modesty. During tea, I would position myself at the optimal angle and even drop things on the floor, but I was destined to see that perilous bird only one more time.

Whilst John pursued two extended visits to Central and South America on the trail of tyrant flycatchers, Martha made excursions to an exclusive plastic surgery clinic. She must have convinced the surgeon to exercise an admirable restraint, because the nasal remodelling and breast augmentation were the subtlest of improvements, if that was indeed possible. Only in the process of lip collagen injections did he get marginally carried away.

John, on his return from the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica, replete with hummingbirds, walked with a limp. He showed me the withered relic of his calf muscle, where the velvet skinned pit-eye had sunk her fangs. They gave him Bothrops antivenom and he had survived.

During John’s voyage to the Southern Ocean in search of penguins and albatrosses (from which trip he returned with a frostbite amputation involving the tips of the middle two fingers of his right hand), Martha started a series of visits to a discrete depilatory service. It was, of course, impossible for me to glean any details and I detected no change in her appearance so, in anticipation of that climacteric evening of which I cannot avoid speaking, as I intend to tomorrow, I was obliged to let my agitated mind mull over the possibilities until liberated by a restless sleep.

It was unfortunate that the crucial task of tracking Martha’s movements resulted in my dismissal from employment on the grounds of poor time keeping. Life for me became progressively frugal, though I hardly noticed it, nor did I care.

Now it is time to put down my pencil and leave these disjointed recollections until another day. Tomorrow morning, armed with fake documents, I will go to the Health Centre and ask for the records.

***

July 13th. 2006 PM.

I have them. There was no problem, except that the doctor had written his notes in French. The translator has promised to bring them to me this evening.

***

I must relate one further incident. There seemed little doubt to me that, under the stress of his prolonged absences, the thread of affection and respect which stretched between John and Martha was attenuating. I detected numerous small signs of progress. On a walk, she would let me take her hand, but only when navigating an obstacle such as a style. On one occasion, I noticed that a wedding photograph, which stood on the piano, had been turned to face the wall (though, on a subsequent visit, it had been realigned). She kept a single perfect iris I had plucked from my garden several days after it had started to flag! But I craved some omen, more concrete than these meagre scraps, that Martha had grown weary of unravelling her tapestry. Now with the utmost humility, I can assure you that, after twenty-six cruel years, this was granted to me.

Tuesday 10th November 1992 was another of those moonlit nights such as the one when I first met him, but now wintry, with wind-blown clouds. I was on the point of retiring but decided to take one last peep through the telescope. As I watched through the angled eyepiece, the light in her room extinguished and the curtain drew back about half way, framing a figure as if standing between two tall pillars. A heavy cloud nullified the power of my ‘scope. I could make out no detail even though the obscure apparition filled my complete field of view. I knew that Martha was looking straight at me with her clear eyes. That was all I could see. A shadow, a contour, dark grey. She showed no sign of moving. I became aware of a strange vibration in my neck and my throat seemed to be pulsating irregularly. I was unable to control my cramping fingers on the zoom. I struggled to breathe.

It was then, precisely then, by the intervention of some merciful deity, that a reveller’s Jaguar struck a speed bump and the twin focused xenon beams reared into the air. Her entire torso was emblazoned with tattoos, every square inch. The frame, like the border of a fabulous Persian carpet, formed a riotous entanglement of hummingbirds hovering in every conceivable attitude, their long bills probing at felonious crevices for nectar. Woodstars, sunangels, blossomcrowns below her neck, her flanks branded with emeralds and brilliants and coquettes, whilst sabrewings, sylphs and coronets fanned her bosom. Woodnymphs and mountaingems hovered around her thighs. Within this exuberant garland there perched a solitary Wilson’s Bird of Paradise, its iridescent turquoise nape buried between her breasts. Crimson wings encompassed her abdomen and the extrovert spirals of its tail feathers, like a Mousquetaire’s vibrissae, recolonised the area so recently vacated by her pubic hair. Across the whole tableau, a scroll with gothic writing meandered, a forest river, the greatest convexity of which, like an upper-case omega, was on the cusp of forming an oxbow lake about her umbilicus. In the total darkness of the receding car my right eye was consumed by fumes of quicksilver as the daguerreotype burnt deep into my retina, forever protected by its translucent vitreous cloak.

(The prosaic reader will doubtless question my ability to identify such a plethora of avifauna, and its disposition, in the half second or so in which this apparition was manifest. In so doing, he attributes little credit to the power of the imagination and the durability of the image.)

After two and a half days I had recovered sufficiently to visit the tattoo artist. You will understand, I had to know what was written on that scroll. It was, sadly, something of an anti-climax, for on it, with nothing more than a nod to the surreal, was written ‘This is not a Bird of Paradise’.

***

John’s trips became shorter, but more frequent. He had broken the back of his endeavour and now, in his own words, he was dotting the is and crossing the ts. But the finishing line proved to be elusive, a retreating mirage, and his health continued to deteriorate. For the first time, I detected signs of mental decline. After a brief winter trip to Uruguay (Olrog’s gull) he tried to pay for his pint with a twenty-centavo piece and became quite animated when the barman refused to accept it, his irritation paradoxically inflamed by the offer of a pint ‘on the house’. I took the opportunity of his disquiet to turn the subject towards the prodigious family of hummingbirds. Had he ticked them all?

John’s sunken eyes were aflame. ‘Yes. All of them. They drove me mad.’

‘But do they drive you wild?’ I would have added, if I had not already known the answer.

***

John developed his squint ten years ago. He has the barman to thank for his soubriquet, bestowed on his return from that baleful expedition to Sulawesi. The one whose course I am now following, unravelling. I have already guessed what happened, but it must be confirmed. So much is at stake. I demand certitude.

It was planned as a short trip to Japan where he would complete his mission. Every eligible bird would be ticked, the most extraordinary feat of birdwatching ever attempted. He was so frail, it seemed probable that he would perish in the undertaking. Autumn had arrived early in 1996 and it was on a cold windy day, two weeks before he left, that I played my final card. The three of us were having tea in their kitchen.

‘Have you ticked the Satanic Nightjar?’ I said, with a degree of indifference bordering on the supercilious.

‘Doesn’t count. Not seen since the thirties. Probably extinct.’

‘There has been a sighting reported in Sulawesi, Lore Lindu National Park. Quite definite, photos, recordings.’

John looked desperately tired. ‘You’re not joking, are you.’ It was not a question. He said nothing more, but in the silence that followed we both knew that he was reformulating his itinerary.

It was Martha who eventually spoke: ‘I’m coming with you,’ she said. Then she caught my eye. ‘Why the gothic name?’

‘The bird is named after it’s call,’ I said, ‘It makes a squelchy plopping sound. According to local legend it comes at night and sucks out your eyeball. That’s the diabolical noise it makes.’

‘What a ridiculous idea,’ she said.

‘A famous bird photographer once lost an eye to an owl,’ chipped in John.

‘And goatsuckers do fly around with their mouths gaping open,’ I said, ‘there’s often an element of truth lying behind these folk stories.’

Martha smiled. ‘You’re just trying to wind me up.’

***

That was a decade ago now. On his return, John said nothing about his trip and for some reason I felt incapable of interrogating him. It should have been his moment of triumph. He had achieved the impossible. I should have been helping him write articles, books. He could have been a celebrity, but he had lost interest, deflated, and there was a vast silence between us. Only the barman commented on his squint, his right eye drooping inwards, a lagging yellow moon.

We played darts on Wednesdays. His health improved slightly. I told him of a new hornbill in Tanzania, but he showed no concern. He took a part time job doing the accounts for a local charity. He spent Tuesday evenings at home. I returned to my ‘scope, time after time.

In all respects it appeared that John had resumed his humdrum existence, but I knew better.  I became convinced that, finally, Martha no longer cared for the skeletal husk that used to be her husband and that they were going through the motions of normal life for the sole sake of respectability. My time was drawing ever closer, I was sure of it. One Wednesday,  emboldened by these convictions, I confronted John in the inhospitable glare of the darts light.

‘Eurostopodus diabolicus. Did you see it? I want you to tell me.’ My voice was urgent.

‘I heard it,’ said John, ‘I was not well.’

‘Yes, but remember the rules. Did you see it? The Satanic nightjar? Even a fleeting glance?’

John pinned me to the wall with his forked gaze. I saw, as plump-lipped Martha must have seen, the double twenty of his arched brow, the snug little valley of his nasal fold, the soft cushion of his cheek-bone and the cheerful lines of his crow’s feet, like wires radiating from two concentric circles.

He drew close. The pub was noisy and his voice was weak. I sensed the torpid heat of the jungle, Martha kneeling by him on the hut floor, her semi-transparent shirt drenched in salty perspiration.

‘I must have done,’ he said.

***

                                                                                                                                                                  July 13th. Nearly midnight.

John was always precise in his use of language. His response echoed in my head. For months, years, it has taunted me to sleep and greeted my waking. It was his choice of those four words which brought me to this calamitous place, which made me question the boy a second time today, which compelled me to open the envelope, lying on the food-stained table where I write, this evening.

The boy said this. They went out every dusk. The guide didn’t want to go. The man was terribly ill, but he insisted. They must find the bird or he wouldn’t pay. It was the guide who radioed for help.

The boy leant across this very table, where I am writing. ‘It came to the hut, sir, when they were out, about half an hour before the helicopter,’ he whispered. ‘The bird came. It sat on a branch and the woman saw it. I saw it too. It was dark, but I saw it. The bird called, quite clearly. “Get the sound equipment” she said, and she made the recording. It was as near as you are to me. I saw it close its eye, just for a second, then it flew away. Very rare bird, sir. Maybe the last one in the world.’

What possible reason could the boy have to lie? John never saw the nightjar and was too ill to carry on. He had failed. That is the stark truth.  It would have completed his list, but he did not see it. In my mind’s eye I follow Martha’s gaze, I feel the darkness like a heavy weight, and within it, the Satanic nightjar, a greater darkness, receding to an ink-black point of unfathomable obscurity.

___

Medical Report. 29th August 1996.

History: Military air ambulance called to Lore Lindu national park, Sulawesi at 1850 hrs. Arrived 1945 hrs. Radio description of distressed Western male. Met on arrival by Guide and Hut Boy.

The patient was attended by a Western female, later identified as his wife. She stated that the guide had carried the patient into the hut and laid him on the earth floor.

On examination. Emaciated. Pale/anaemic. Clammy. Moderate jaundice. Barely conscious. Does not respond to commands. Intermittent generalised convulsions. Doubly incontinent.

There was an enucleation of his right optic globe with extensive bruising and haemorrhage from a tear in the medial rectus muscle. Optic nerve appeared intact.

Rapid respiration. Pulse 160. Blood pressure, unrecordable.

Diagnosis. 1. Febrile shock. Dehydration. Possible Dengue fever.

  1. Traumatic luxation of the right eyeball.

Treatment. 1. Intravenous access secured. Saline infusion.

  1. The right eyelid was retracted manually and, taking care to handle it by the sclera, the eyeball was relocated in its socket.
  2. Immediate hospital transfer by air ambulance.

NOTE: The unusual traumatic picture was attributed by the woman to an attack by a bird (? Owl).

***

                                                   July 14th 2006. PM

There, I have stuck the report in my journal. The doctor has said all that is needed. Read it, a hundred times if you must, until you understand. There is nowhere left for me to go. I am with John, jerking in the dust. With him, in his ravings, I hear the relentless recording.  Quick-thinking Martha exhales and moistens her lips. I contemplate in horror the impregnable bond of love that sustained this obscenity.

Now I can put my journal to rest. At last I have my certainty and it is time for a long swim in the lagoon. Sitting here as the sea birds chant their raucous nocturne to the dusty sun, slumping down into the tangled forest, and the darkness and the insects and the claxons, I have nothing left but my thoughts –  of the Boy, the Guide and the Doctor, of John the Squinter on the edge of oblivion, the shadows on a curtain, a Bird of Paradise. I think of a woman, standing at a window, her neck as white as the milky stork.

***

glasses

David Oakley

David Oakley has a background in mathematics and has just completed an MA in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University. He has had stories published previously in Storgy, Bandit Fiction and Making Writing Matter. Current projects include bashing his first novel, A Question of Angles, into shape,[ and short stories about a stamp collector in love with Audrey Hepburn, a man whose cellar turns into a coral reef, and a woman who gets off on octopi]. He writes about emotionally incompetent people, obsessions, tattoos, and the bewilderment of being a man nowadays. He lives with his wife and cat in the north of England.

You can read David’s previously published short story below:

Gloire de Dijon

If you enjoyed ‘John The Squinter’ leave a comment and let David know.

You can find and follow David at:

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