In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

America wins the Vietnam War. The Watergate scandal is never exposed. Tension between the US and Russia and the looming threat of World War III. History has been changed by the emergence of costumed superheroes . . . but who watches the Watchmen?

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Watchmen is an American comic book series published by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987, created by the British trio of writer Alan Moore, illustrator Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins. Its primary theme, the idea of masked vigilantes into a gritty and realistic world, is something that marketed subsequent superhero fantasies to a more literary, mature crowd. With modern and contemporary fears of the time, such as the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation, Watchmen adds to this grounded layer, grounded superheroes. Superheroes that feel silly in their costumes, that question the very nature of what they do, that stubbornly resist or meekly bend, becoming puppets of the government or being destroyed by the insistence on their values.

In other words, these vigilantes are painfully human. The Watchmen are a former group of costumed vigilantes who have flaws, desires, dreams and fears, who must disband once the United States passes the Keene Act, which prohibits ‘costumed adventuring’. And the only member who can genuinely be considered a superhero is the iconic Dr. Manhattan, who through an accident at a nuclear plant becomes a superhuman blue entity who can control atoms and matter. The rest of the cast have no special abilities as such, but are compelling and memorable characters. Rorschach, Nite-Owl, Silk Spectre, the Comedian, Ozymandias. All play key roles with different views on the state of their world, and what they are prepared to risk to ‘fix’ it.

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There is plenty to like about this collection. Illustrations are detailed, realistic, and the structure is consistent throughout, with each page divided into a nine-panel grid, but for a few select scenes where the drawing takes a page and does the talking. A villain who isn’t hopelessly inept with a morally reprehensible plan that could save the world. A comic within a comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, which are intersected between panels in certain chapters of Watchmen and seemingly provide juxtaposition to events occurring in the real world. Within the panels of the comic there is genuine excitement, suspense, violence and tragedy.

Watchmen was adapted into a live-action film directed by Zack Snyder in 2009, which I admit I haven’t watched. But the comic collection is a classic and absolutely worth your time if you have any interest in graphic novels and the origins of gritty, realistic universes in which superheroes fight to protect.

 

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This image of an old schoolhouse was taken in rural Iowa, by American photographer David Sebben. See more of David’s work here.

Look at me. Standing here under the wintry sun having walked three miles up hill and now me sweating and panting like some herded animal. I should have met him at the house, lord knows he’s passed out drunk somewhere without the slightest recollection of our talk yesterday. He stank of booze then and he’ll stink of booze now. If he were an easier man to pin down I dare say I’d like the old fella. But as it stands I been here nearly a half hour and he’s nowhere to be seen and in my eyes that makes him a drunkard and a layabout and a waste of space and in particular my time. It is beautiful up here though.

Well strike me down lord look look here he comes now, the old man Liles walking on over here I see him. Could only be him. Jesus look at that greasy hair, all tied up under that ranger hat, as battered and worn as he is, the old goat, sweat drenched shirt with stains in the pits, if I wasn’t surrounded by cowpat I think I’d smell him from here, and he’s swaying, one side to the other, what a sight. He’s been drinking all day I guarantee it, and only as a means of continuing from the night previous, hell what a state of a man. Good-natured and mild-mannered by all reports, but I mean unclean, don’t give a damn about his appearance, not slightly, cares even less about what other folk think, but by accounts other than my own he’s just odd, a strange lonely man and being strange weren’t a crime last time I checked. People don’t like dealing with him but he’s done me no harm, folk like rumours and treat rumours as fact. Truth is I think folk are jealous of this lucked son of a bitch, he owns more land in this valley than there is land to own, and no family or woman or child to drain at his resource, all the more for him to spend on whisky and whores. Or whatever he spends it on. Maybe he’s not interested in what women can give him – like I said, I don’t know the man. Maybe he just likes being alone. He’s not a normal fella but he is rich, and I think he would rather have nothing and do without all the prospectors and farmers who pester him every day like flies round shit, but if you own as much land as old Liles does then there will always be folk looking to do business, land is the most valuable thing there is they say, and there’s some beautiful land round here and everyone wants a piece. He’s only selling what he has to, and even then it’s the land furthest from the house, so he don’t get disturbed. Neighbours are the last thing old Liles wants. Well I don’t plan to stay long. I just want my piece, I don’t need much but if I can get what I want I might be able to make a mark. Make something of this life anyway. Here’s the old goat now.

“Morning Liles.” Joe Abbott said as the old man approached.
Samuel Liles waved or swatted a fly. He was half drunk when he woke this morning but that was three hours ago and he’s had more whisky since.
“How’s the day treating you, kindly I hope?” Joe Abbott asked. The old man stopped near the fence a safe distance from the younger man enquiring on the land. Joe Abbott continued.”Was starting to think you weren’t coming.”
“Let’s make this quick.” The voice of Samuel Liles was quiet but it was not weak. As if were being suppressed beneath a pile of gravel and dirt.
“Sure Sam. If that’s what you’re wanting.”
Liles put a hand against the fence to steady himself and looked across the valley. “Everything you can see here is mine.”
“Yes.” Joe Abbott said.
“So point out what you’re wanting.”
Joe Abbott looked at the land for a while, then pointed. “From this stump here to the rise over there. Or whatever you judge to be two-fifty square feet. And don’t you try and stitch me. I’ll be getting it verified by those surveyors in town.”
“Do you want the barn?”
“No need for it. How much you thinking?”
“Fifty dollar. Sixty with the barn.”
“What’s in the barn?”
“Nothing worth having.”
“I’ll leave it then.”
They stood, having established the land and its boundaries, in the long grass and the afternoon was calm and the valley was silent.
“Now what?” Joe Abbott asked.
“The land is yours as soon as I get the fifty dollars. Put it in an envelope and leave it at the house. Leave the forms to me.”
“Don’t I need to sign anything?”
“I’ll send them into town. They’ll be at the post office by the end of the week.”
And with that old Samuel Liles swayed back in the direction of the house.
“Pleasure doing business with you Liles.” Joe Abbott called out to the old man, but the old man did not respond, so he turned back and studied the land he had purchased. He smiled and muttered under his breath. Old goat.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2017.

It’s here!

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The first ever issue of 404 Ink has been released, and my short story, reboot, is published within. I haven’t fully digested the magazine yet, but from what I have seen and read, there is some fantastic work (not just fiction, but essays, poems, even illustrations and comics). It’s also really well put together. Editing, layout, print is all great. It feels ‘proper’.

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I’d encourage you to purchase it – not only to check out my writing, but to support the guys at 404 Ink. They have a lot of talent and passion and it would be great to see them do well. You can buy a printed version, or as an e-book, here. Cheers!

About a year ago I heard about The A3 Review, a monthly contest where writers and illustrators are encouraged to submit work on a particular theme. This can be prose, poetry, graphics, photography, painting – as long as it fits the theme, can fit on an A6 panel and is limited to 150 words. The chosen pieces are then displayed in a neat, folded sheet of A3 that can be opened out. I’ve entered a couple times over the last year (haven’t been successful yet!) without ever actually checking out the Writing Maps, the central focus of the site. 

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Creator Shaun Levin is a writer himself and has taught workshops and classes on creative writing for over 20 years, and his writing maps aim to combat writer’s block. Within each folded map are several ideas for prompts, with hints and guidance on how to expand your writing.

Not only do the maps give informative tips, exercises and examples on several aspects of writing (for example, the map I bought focuses on tone of voice and point of view), it can provide a source of inspiration, a prompt for ideas upon which you can put any new learnings into action. If you’re looking for some extra help and inspiration that comes in a slightly different form – fun and visual and easy to digest – then take a look at the multitude of different maps available on the site.

Visit www.writingmaps.com for more details.

While hunting deer in the Texan desert Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam war veteran, stumbles upon a drug deal gone south, with bullet ridden corpses and abandoned vehicles and a satchel containing two million dollars. In deciding to take the money he knows he has sealed an uncertain fate and changed his life forever. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase as the county police department and drug dealers desperate for their money race to get to Moss first, while Moss himself desperately tries to stay one step ahead of an unfathomable and malevolent hitman who kills mercilessly to get what he needs.

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Stills taken from the theatrical adaptation of McCarthy’s novel.

I mentioned a cat-and-mouse chase, somewhat of a cliched description, but the plot of No Country For Old Men has been done hundreds of times before. Any originality to be found comes instead from the portrayal and viewpoint of the two central characters, and Llewyln Moss is not one of them. This book is about Ed Tom Bell, an ageing county sheriff who struggles to adapt and comprehend to the new brand of violence encroaching on the old West, and Anton Chigurh, a cold blooded and murderous entity whose nihilistic views on fate and choice are terrifyingly final and not up for dispute. The book contains several internal monologues from the point of view of Ed Tom, as he recalls law stories of days past and how it compares to what he sees and hears today. His clear romanticism of the past (Ed Tom recalls an older generation sheriff who never felt the need to even carry a weapon while on duty) and a fear of what he will have to do, and become, to continue to uphold the law in this turbulent and unforgiving climate, becomes all the more powerful when reading about the actions and mindset of Chigurh.

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Javier Bardem as the terrifying Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh is an incredible villain, up there with Judge Holden as an almost demonic entity completely incomprehensible to the poor men and women that find themselves in their path. Chigurh is a hitman, or a bounty hunter, and in No Country For Old Men his role is to reclaim the satchel stolen by Llewyln Moss. Little is known of his origins, his background, his nationality. What makes him terrifying is the way he views himself as a deliverer of fate. Chigurh kills with little remorse but will often deliberate before doing so. After inconsequential small talk with the owner of a gas station, he implores the owner to call on a coin toss, presumably for his life.

You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world. Do you see?

I actually saw the film adaptation (superbly directed by the Coen Brothers) before I read McCarthy’s novel. While extremely faithful to the source material, Ed Tom, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is very much a backing character. The film focuses far more on Chigurh and his relentless pursuit of Moss, which works fantastically well. The film is tense but moments of action are generally few and far between. Yet it remains gripping due to haunting, menacing and inherently violent performance by Javier Bardem as Chigurh.

Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again. I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they’ll know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that.

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Tommy Lee Jones as the overwhelmed Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

No Country For Old Men is a compelling, disturbing thriller, and yet some distance from the peak of McCarthy’s works. I see it as the perfect book to introduce yourself to McCarthy – hidden from the bleak nihilism of The Road, the rambling auto-bio-tragedy of Suttree and the brutal savagery of Blood Meridian.

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This image, taken in an abandoned VEB in Eastern Germany, was taken by Johannes Burkhart. You can see more of Johannes’ work on his Flickr photostream.

The blood trail led him to an opening in the trees and a building emerged from the forested landscape that took him somewhat by surprise. His eyes searching not for static mass but a limping creature with frenzied eyes and fur slick with sweat, instead found this concrete structure.  For some time he watched it then scanned the ground for blood before lowering his rifle to study the structure once more. An old factory or manufacturing plant he guessed. But no sign of blood or disturbances in the undergrowth and no sight of a dead or dying deer. Don’t crawl off and hide somewhere to die friend, he whispered, that way neither of us win. Advancing across fallen leaves he approached the entrance, observing faded graffiti amongst creeping ivy. A crash echoed from inside the building, distant but contained. You are not allowed in there friend, he said, and he crept up the steps and tiptoed through broken glass.

Into an atrium with a tall ceiling and tall windows caked in moss and birdshit. The last of the afternoon sun shone through over obsolete items of degrading furniture and peeling paint and a clock that had once hung now rendered inert. He stepped across patches of rotted carpet and spotted small droplets of blood. Empty beer bottles and used needles wrapped in dirty linen. So you are in here, he said. He saw burnt magazines and papers from another era and in articles and time-dulled images were unfulfilled promised that remained firmly in the past. Smiling faces and shiny automobiles and cheap weaponry. None of this means anything anymore, he thought.

He reacted to movement in his periphery. Against the illumination of a large window the erratic movements of two small silhouettes. Staying low he crept forward through chairs and tables to see two stunted children in tattered rags standing over the now deceased deer. He watched as without warning they fell upon the carcass, hunched over and tearing at it like savages and one, a male, was already skinning the still-wet fur off with a knife, basking in the warmth of the beast. The deer with limp head and loose tongue and glass eyes that only now could understand these ways and these rules lay on the cold concrete slab between them, fate accepted with a primal nobility. The hunter coughed and made his presence known. “That’s my deer.”
The two children jumped back and looked across with fear and dripping hands. A boy and a girl. “Who are you?” The girl asked.
“I’m the owner of the deer you just started to butcher.”
“This is your deer?”
“Yes. Of course it is. How many deers have just walked into the room you are in and died at your feet? Are you really that stupid?”
“But the deer wasn’t dead. We killed it. My brother grabbed it and snapped its neck.”
The hunter observed the boy. He stood tall but there was no power to him, no strength in his shoulders. But the children did look hungry and hunger was a powerful stimulant, the hunter thought.
“Even so – I wounded the deer. With this rifle. I shot it in the thigh, which has made walking incredibly difficult and tiring. I have been following it for hours. I know how tired it must be. It was exhausted and crawled inside this building to die.”
“And this is enough for you to lay claim on the deer?” the girl asked.
“Of course! I tracked the deer, I shot the deer, I chased the deer. Do you think the deer would have entered this place unless it knew it was to die soon? So you see, really, you did not do anything that was not already going to happen.”
The children were silent.
“Now get out of here,” he continued, “I will try to fix the mess you have made.”
Sullen and weak they walked out of the atrium and into the forest. He watched them go before turning his attention back to the deer.

Later the hunter made his way out of the building with the carcass over his shoulders and in the cool evening darkness was falling fast. Exhausted and in need of sleep but unconcerned by the events of the day. He travelled north east towards his parked truck just over three miles away. Halfway there he stumbled blindly and fell into a ditch. His rifle was lost to the night and face down in the damp soil he listened to the carcass as it slid down the bank. It came to a standstill in a slow moving stream far below, and howls rang out through the trees and through his flesh and through his bones. Tearing, snarling, ripping. Moonlight flickered in the eyes and bared teeth of wolves as they set upon the deer, now mutilated beyond any point of recognition, with a ferocity that shocked the hunter as he gasped and retreated back up the hill.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016.

My short story ‘reboot’ is to be a part of the very first issue of new literary magazine, 404 Ink. The theme of the first issue is ERROR, and is available to preorder now for release in November 2017.

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There’s a link to the 404 Ink site, blog included, here, and they also have an active voice on twitter.

Naturally I’m over the moon. My work in print, amongst other experienced and talented writers, is a strange and giddy feeling. It would be incredible if 404 Ink can establish itself and have a successful launch. So if you’re interested, please do visit the site and pre-order the first issue!

Quick update: I haven’t given up, I’m just busy.

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Very busy. By the end of this month I will have submitted work to seven literary magazines, publications, short story competitions, etc, etc. Each with a different piece of work entered. And there’s more to come in October and the rest of 2016. Some stories have been kicking around for a while. Some already existing pieces have been rehashed and reworked into more coherent wholes. Others are completely brand new. Some of it I think is pretty good, some still needs more work, and some of it won’t go anywhere, but I have a bit more choice and perspective over what has worked and what hasn’t.

(I’ve had some good news already but I can’t say more that that right now)

It’s been intense (and a real strain at times) but I am slowly building a small body of work – whereas previously I just had a few nice prompts on a blog. I’ve loved working on the prompts and updating the blog in general; the occasional complimentary comment from readers and the photographers I’ve been inspired by are fucking great to see, and I really appreciate them. But at the same time, they won’t get me anywhere. Where am I trying to get to? I don’t know. But I do like writing stories and if I want to take things more seriously I need to push myself.

So I apologise for the lack of content, now and possibly in the next few months, to the few who do regularly visit my blog, and to myself, because I do enjoy writing here. But I’m doing it for the right reasons.

Also I’m 26 today (fuck!)