The Countess de Mar

The Countess drops her glass and grasps her throat as the poison tracks spidery lines through the veins on her face.

As you rise from the floor you see the Countess clutching her stomach, blood from the knife wound puckering between her fingers.

You are paralysed as the abysmal mist passes over the Countess, withering her hands to the bone, powdering her chalk-white face into dust.

The Countess de Mar will die on the 13th of February, 1899. It is marked on her calendar. Across the decade that you have been her lady in waiting, she has mentioned it a number of times.

“Yes, I have known since I was a little girl. A woman read it on my cards.” You remember her saying this while you combed out her hair one evening. She was not looking at you as you watched her red mouth in the mirror.

“A most unlucky day, particularly for me.” She said this upon finding out that February the 13th was the date of her brother-in-law’s birth. She has wondered on several occasions if this meant he was to be related to her death in some way, but eventually decided that no gentleman would be so brutish as to murder someone on his birthday.

“I just want to get out… today, of all days.” This is what she told you this morning, looking at you knowingly. You called around all the travel companies on her behalf, looking for something leaving before noon. There was a private cabin available on a steam train going north.

You unload her bags from the carriage and follow her, running your free hand along the gleaming green exterior of the train as you board. The porter is dressed in the little blue hat and jacket of a Great Northern Railway employee. He leads her to your cabin, and you trail after them.

With one foot on the leather seating, you sling the Countess’ bag onto the overhead rack. The luggage shelf collapses, and the bag falls and strikes the Countess’ head.

You store the luggage above your seat. She is looking out of the window, the sunlight bringing out bright whorls of purple on her crushed velvet dress. You braided and pinned her hair yourself, and now it sits in place behind her head like a wheel of licorice. She turns to you, her face warm.

“Daphne, could you fetch my book?”

You nod and drag the luggage back down. As you search for the book, the door opens and another smartly dressed Steward steps in, holding a green bottle and several glasses.

“Madam, some newlyweds have offered a glass of champagne to everyone else in the carriage. May I interest you in one?”

The Countess de Mar’s roulette wheel spins. In this life, you do not fix your mouth over hers, hoping to suck the poison from her system. Nor are the events to follow complicated by a perfectly ordinary glass of champagne rendering the Countess inebriated.

She nods towards the book in your hand. “I get quite the headache when I read while drinking,” she says.

“Very well, ma’am,” the man says, and withdraws from your cabin.

In the lives where she survives thus far, the Countess de Mar usually wins herself half an hour of blissful peace between the intrusion of the Steward and his reappearance to summon the pair of you to lunch in the dining car. She reads her book, and looks out of the window at the sunny countryside. You read yours, but mostly watch her until the time comes to leave paradise.

In some of her lives, the Countess de Mar is one of two siblings, and her death would make her sister the sole inheritor of the de Mar fortune. And in an unfortunately high number of his lives, the Countess de Mar’s brother-in-law is indeed brutal enough to murder someone on his birthday.

Sometimes, he attempts to do the dirty work himself, either by sending the Countess the poisoned wine or by stabbing her in the dining car. A handful of times, his brutality is matched only by his short-sightedness, and the man he has hired to kill the Countess misses the train. In this life, the Countess de Mar’s younger brother survives childhood, and nobody is waiting to attempt to or succeed at skewering her with a bread knife over lunch.

In this life, your misfortune instead crosses paths with the misfortune of Professor Robert Henry Ward, an archaeologist returning to the north with a mysterious crown he unearthed in the great bog near Kilmartin. In some lives, it is merely a crown. In others, the apparition possessing it is a run-of-the-mill ghoul. In this life, it is not.

The steward leads you to a seat in the middle of the dining car, with a good view of the window. You appear to pore over the menu meticulously. You are waiting for the Countess to order first, so that you can order the same. At around the time she decides to order the potato and leek soup, a thin white mist begins to emerge from the crown, creeping between the slats of the wooden crate housing it in the luggage car. At around the time the waiter delivers your order to the kitchen, it has reached third class.

By the time it reaches second class, the blue-uniformed staff are barricading the door to the luggage car. You watch them do it. A white-haired man sitting further down the carriage, unknown to you as Robert Henry Ward, stands to question them. As the waiter begins to bring your soup, the mist begins to seep through the doors. You put your hand on your lady’s arm and tell her to run. There is no life in which she doesn’t listen to you.

She runs for the far door, and you follow her. As you reach it, you turn to look. A wall of wisps shimmer forward, and the white-haired man cries out as he crumples to the floor. His gibbering disintegrates as the mist crosses his torso and into his lungs. His mouth hangs stiff in silent shock, and you know he will never scream again. Your heart sinks as you watch, shadowed by the feelings of other lives.

The lives where Professor Robert Henry Ward sat with the two of you in the dining car and you struck up a friendship – where he accompanied you on the rest of the day – where he witnessed the Countess’ deaths with you. The life where you made it all the way to Lossiemouth only to lose her on the pier, struck down by the Count’s man in the rain. The lives where, after the tragedy of the day, he took you on as his assistant and became like a father to you. In this life, he dies without you knowing his name, but your heart drags all the same until your fear blocks out all other feelings.

The driver’s car is already locked. There is nowhere further for you to take her. Instead, you duck into one of the first class cabins and lock the door. The Countess seems oddly calm. You shove luggage against the gap under the door, hoping that will slow it down. You go to the window and try to open it, but it’s bolted shut.

The mist creeps into the booth, and you feel your limbs begin to seize as it drifts toward the pair of you, towards her.

But you will not allow it. You throw your stiff arm against the glass, beating it, beating it, spider-web cracks snaking out from where you strike. You will not allow it. She does not move, as the glass shatters. The mist is coming.

As you feel your legs begin to give out from under you, you push her out the window and watch her beautiful neck snap against the tracks.

As you feel your legs begin to give out from under you, you drag yourself half-through the fragmented portal.

“Take my hand,” you say. And she does. You jump together and roll across the dirt. Where her neck hit the metal at an angle, now strikes your head. For a moment, your world is colours and pain. As the fog clears, you see that she is already running. You stagger to your feet and run after her. As she hears your footsteps she turns in alarm, but slows as she realises it’s just you. Her face is white.

“I thought you…” she begins.

“Not quite,” you finish.

She takes your hand, and you carry on through the field. Hot, thick blood trickles from your nose. The tall grass comes up to your waist, and your skirt snags and releases, snags and releases as you run. Before you, the grass gives way to rows and rows of blueberry plants just as tall but with space apart for you to run through. The Countess leads you on. You hear a distant call, but can’t make it out. Then a bang.

In the lives where she survives until the end of the day, the Countess de Mar dies of heart failure at one minute to midnight, precisely. Here is where she dies today. James Donaldson, a farmer, has been losing whole plants to thieving youths from the surrounding villages for weeks. Today, he has decided he will not tolerate any more trespassers.

The Countess de Mar’s shoulder explodes in vibrant red, spattering the green leaves, the blueberries, her purple crushed velvet dress. She falls to her knees, frantic but lucid, screeching like an animal.

You try to crawl across the floor to her, but the hired thug knocks you away with a backhand.

You hold a handful of her dust in your fingers as the ends of your body start to feel cold and vague.

Strikes her head, killing her instantly.

The train carries on, leaving her broken body lying on the rails, alone.

You crawl to her and take her hand, as a shot intended for you misses. You hold her head, and meet her tearful eyes. Your vision is beginning to swirl, and her black hair has fallen from where it is pinned, cascading over her sticky wound.

She will die a thousand times in a thousand lives today.

In this one, you will get to tell her that you love her.

The Countess de Mar was first published in 2016 in Temporal Discombobulations, an anthology produced for the University of Surrey’s Time and the Gothic conference. It was later reprinted in Volume 7.4 of LampLight magazine.

Watch me reading Countess de Mar at Romancing the Gothic.

2020 Publication Roundup

It’s finally almost the end of 2020 – here’s what I’ve published this year and where you can find it.

My first publication of the year was in Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology from Nyx Publishing. I was very happy to be a part of this anthology, and had a lot of fun meeting queer lit lovers at book groups and through doing the blog tour.

My story in this anthology is Lady of Letters, a mid-2000s twist on the epistolary gothic in which a teenage girl begins to receive mysterious messages after creating a fake MySpace profile.

You can pick up a copy of Unspeakable from Nyx Publishing – and while you’re there you can have a look at the amazing queer novellas they’re publishing next year.

My next publication was in Flotation Device, a COVID-19 charity anthology put together by the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle. At the time of writing, the anthology had managed to raise £500 to split between Simon Community, The Trussel Trust and Doctors Without Borders. The anthology is available directly from the editor to avoid giving Amazon a cut of the donations.

My story in this one is Amaranth, a story about a Sailor Moon-style magical girl who tries to solve her depression by staying transformed.

And finally, I had a story released in the Kickstarter-backed Moonlight, an anthology of queer werewolf stories.

My story in this one is a short piece of slice-of-life titled Lesbian Werewolf Goes To IKEA, which is about exactly what you would expect.

At the time of writing, this anthology is only available to people who backed the original Kickstarter – I will update this page if that changes.

It’s been a surprisingly productive year for me publication-wise, even if circumstances mean that I’ve not produced as much new writing as I did last year. If you’re reading this, I wish you all the best in your own endeavours into 2021.

Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology

I’m happy to share that Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology has now been published. I’m really excited to be a part of this anthology of eighteen gothic stories by queer creators.

A copy of Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology. The cover is a drawing of a skull wearing a crown of flowers against a rainbow background.
Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology, cover art by Jenni Coutts and Charlie Bramald.

My own story in the anthology is Lady of Letters; or, the Twenty-First Century Homunculus, the title being a riff on the original publication title of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. I’d been toying with the idea of a story about instant messaging and early social media for a while, but it wasn’t until I saw the call for submissions for this anthology that everything clicked into place.

If you’d like to read a story about having MSN arguments with your terrible online boyfriend and fake MySpace profiles with a mind of their own, as well as seventeen other stories, you can order Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology in print or as an e-book at the Nyx Publishing website.

2019 Publication Roundup

It’s the last month of 2019 – here’s what I’ve published this year and where you can find it.

A copy of We Were Always Here. The cover is in pink leopard print.

My first publication of the year was Projector, a story about queer cinema that appeared in We Were Always Here: A Queer Words Anthology from 404 Ink.

We Were Always Here is the largest publication I’ve been involved in to date – I had a great time being involved in talks and launch events for it around Glasgow, and seeing it stocked in local libraries and queer bookshops.

You can find We Were Always Here at 404 Ink’s website here.

A copy of an issue of LampLight Magazine. The cover is a black-and-white photograph of an electric street lamp.

Over the summer, I had a reprint of Countess de Mar, a queer gothic time loop story, featured in LampLight Volume 7, Issue 4.

Countess was my first professional sale back in 2016, and the anthology it was featured in is now out of print, so I was excited to see it reach more readers.

You can find LampLight Volume 7, Issue 4 here.

Lastly, if you’re a British Fantasy Society member, you’ll find my story Greenwoman, about a woman who wants to be a plant, in the December issue of members magazine BFS Horizons.

This was also the year when I started running Glasgow Fanfiction Open Mic Nights, which have been a great experience in reuniting me with writing purely for fun. If you’re reading this and would like to set up a similar event near you, I’m happy to answer questions and give advice on what I’ve learned so far, so please feel free to get in touch on Twitter or through the contact form on my homepage.

I’m proud of all of the work I’ve had printed this year, and I’m looking forward to what 2020 will bring – the start of the year will already be bringing the queer werewolf anthology I’ve been involved with for a few years, and I have one other anthology feature that I’ll be announcing once everything is signed off. You can check back here, or on my social media (in between all of the shitposts and pictures of cows) for more details.

Fantasycon 2019 Roundup

It’s been a couple of days since Fantasycon 2019 came to a close, so “while I’m recovering from con crud” seemed like the best time to reflect on the weekend! I had an excellent time hanging out with old writing pals, and meeting new ones.

A black-and-white photo of four people sitting behind a table.
Shona Kinsella, Allen Stroud, Heather Valentine and David Tallerman discuss Scotland on Screen

This weekend was the first time I’ve been on panels at a writing convention, and it was a great experience – thank you to my fellow panellists and open mic readers, and to everyone who popped in to one of the panels or the fanfiction open mic night. It was lovely to present for such knowledgeable, engaged audiences and I hope you came away with something interesting to think about.

Four books lying in a square.
Jack of Thorns by A.K. Faulkner, Resurrection Men by David Craig, The Trans Space Octopus Congregation by Bogi Takács, and The Forgotten and The Fantastical 5, edited by Teika Bellamy.

Fantasycon is, obviously, about books, so I picked up some small press offerings from the dealer’s room. Faulkner was (a) incredibly fun at Friday night karaoke and (b) writing queer X-Men style fantasy adventures, and Resurrection Men came about after I complained, in the Scotland on Screen panel, that speculative representations of Scotland often gloss over its involvement in colonialism, and I was afterwards recommended Craig’s book as a piece of grimy Scottish Victoriana. I’d already had my eyes on The Trans Space Octopus Congregation from reading Takács’ non-fiction work, so I’m excited to crack open their fiction collection, and I was intrigued by Teika Bellamy’s fairytale collections after seeing her speak at a panel on running a small press.

I was also fortunate enough to get a seat at the British Fantasy Awards – congratulations to all of the shortlisted and winners, but particularly to Ruth EJ Booth for her nonfiction win – Ruth is a keenly supportive and talented figure in the Glasgow speculative fiction writing scene, and it’s lovely to see her receive recognition for her essays in Shoreline of Infinity.

FantasyCon 2019 Programming

The programme for FantasyCon Glasgow 2019 has gone live! I will be appearing on a few panels and running an open mic, so please drop in and see me if you’ll be around! I will be at:

  • Scotland on Screen, Friday 7pm
  • Alien: 40 Years Later, Saturday 2pm
  • Fanfic to Profic, Saturday 6pm
  • FantasyCon Fanfic Open Mic Night, Saturday 7pm

The full programme for all three days can be found below:

The logo for the British Fantasy Society, which consists of the letters "BFS" surrounded by a stylised dragon

Moonlight Anthology Kickstarter goes live

The Kickstarter for Moonlight: A Queer Werewolf Anthology has gone live! The comic + short story anthology is projected for a January 2020 release, and includes my slice-of-life story, “Lesbian Werewolf Goes to IKEA”, which is about… a lesbian werewolf going to IKEA, surprisingly enough.

Check out full details of all the amazing artists involved, and consider backing us, here:

The logo for "Moonlight: A Queer Werewolf Anthology", which features a pack of wolves howling in front of a rainbow