Character Agency – October 2020 Competition Results, Adjudication by James Fuller

This month’s competition had our members tackling horror/suspense in recognition of the haunting Halloween season October brings. A fun challenge for those who took part.

James Fuller, author of fantasy, dark fiction, horror, dystopian, paranormal erotica, thrill and drama, was our adjudicator for our October Competition. The brief this month was:

In 300 words: Write a haunted house story, maximising character agency of the house as the protagonist.

And the winners are:

First Place – Jena Brown with Forever Mine

Second Place – Matt Gorgans with Claws in the Roots

Third Place – Natalie Morant with Haunted House

Highly Commended – Graham Steed for Beast

James’ adjudication process

James read all stories a couple of times taking into consideration typical stand out features of a writer employing good use of character agency, such as:

  • The house’s ability to do things such as,
    • make decisions from one conflict to another positive or negative which drive the story onward
    • take action
    • make choices with consequences
  • Ensure readers care about the main character, which in this situation should be the house.

First Place: Forever Mine by Jena Brown

This was what I expected to see more of in this competition, but this was truly the only one of its kind in the entries. It was dark, playful, intriguing, and made you want more, and could easily be turned into a much longer story.

You walk through the rooms, adrift in grief. Whispers haunting us both. They say I’m defective. Decrepit. That there’s something wrong with me. But you don’t listen. 

You never did.

I open the flue, and when the fire catches it flares to life. These winter nights are cold and you’re not eating like you should. The warmth pulls you into the room and you relax.

It’s easier to talk now. Just the two of us.

Your marriage wasn’t bad. I know that. But you were never happy. Not like you should have been. Perhaps it’s arrogant to say that. But it’s true.

You were distracted when we met. Toddlers wrapped around your feet, a wife demanding attention. But there was no mistaking the way your eyes lit up when you saw me. Even now they soften. You’ve always loved me. Your reassuring words kept me alive. Patiently waiting for this moment.

There were others. Before. Families I’ve nurtured. People I’ve loved. I was empty a long time when you came. I’ll be empty longer after you’re gone.

Though she hated me, I was merciful, letting warm water and invisible gas wrap her in an eternal embrace. You let them rip apart my walls, look for faulty pipes. But they didn’t find anything. They never will. It hurt. It hurts now, as you rip through floorboards. But for you, I endure, allowing only the faintest of gasps to escape through the walls. You muffle a scream at the desiccated bones you find. But they were before. And you are now. And now it’s too late.

With a happy sigh, I wrap my arms around you, cocooning you in wood. I repair the damage, silencing your sobs. We’re together now. Forever. The fire dies, and I sleep, waiting to love again.


Second Place: Claws in the Roots by Matt Gorgans

This was close to the direction I thought more would look like. It was creepy, dark, enticing and a twisted read. The premise of this story could easily be made into a full-length novel and, if cast and directed well, an amazing movie.

Ivan stumbled through the forest, each ragged breath like ice piercing his lungs. A strangled cry escaped his throat when he reached a clearing, finding a cottage surrounded by a low white fence.

Ivan dragged himself forward, clasping a bloody hand around a fencepost. He dropped his head to the snowy earth so his breaths could even.

Until he looked up and found his stare returned by the empty sockets of a skull. 

This wasn’t a fence at all. It was a boundary of spines and skulls, slack jaws frozen in agonized cries.

“Almost claimed by the woods, dearie?” An old woman’s voice questioned.

Ivan jumped, screaming in pain when his arm refused to budge from the fence. It was the bones. An energy pulsed from them, holding him in place.

“Best not to fight it,” the woman said, striding into view. She brushed snow from her cloak, meeting Ivan’s gaze with a hungry expression.

A crow crossed the moon, causing the pair to look skyward.

“Ah, right on time,” the woman snarled.

Raising her arms, the woman pulled the crow as if on a string. She reached for the cottage next, curling her gnarled fingers until the wooden boards rattled and broke free, soaring into the air.

The wind howled until Ivan, too, joined the frenzy of wooden boards and feathers whipping around him.

Then came the sound of cracking wood, of cracking bones. A painful merging. A swelling sensation. 

Transformation.

Ivan felt his new claws digging into the earth, rooted to the foundation: the crow, the house, his body—they were one now. He took a breath, causing his floorboards to creak in desperation.

“Why should Baba Yaga guard her house when her house can guard itself?” The woman climbed Ivan’s stairs like a grotesque lolling tongue.

Third Place: Haunted House by Natalie Morant

This was a fun story, building a sense of not a sinister nature from the house, but from the passed owner buried within, tormenting the spirit of the house itself. Flushed out and a little longer and this would have the makings of a solid novella.

The House creaked. After years of neglect, a huge effort was required to attract the attention of the visitors stood on the path.

The House needed them inside. As the clouds parted, it used a cracked window pane to focus rays of sunlight. For many months, tiny fragments of paper and fabric had been corralled by draughts into the hearth. Now, a chance to ignite them.

A glow expanded into a tentative flame and soon, wisps of smoke trailed upwards. 

“It’s haunted, of course.” Laughter.

If only, thought the house, that was something to laugh at. But having endured the screaming and shrieking of the mistress for so long, it was exhausted and desperate.

“I’d need to have a proper look with the builders before making a decision.”

Please! A proper look is exactly what’s needed. The house yearned for feet tramping across its wooden floorboards again. Tramping, pattering, skipping. Anything but the measured tread of the master who’d lived here before. 

“Look – smoke!”

The two men approached, stepping over fallen roof tiles. Early attempts to attract attention, but no one wanted to investigate banging doors or falling masonry or strange shadows.

The House froze in anticipation as the men climbed the steps and unlocked the door. 

They entered the back room and put out the flames. The smell of musty curtains mingled with the smoke. Laboriously, the House contracted its walls. Plaster crumbled from a crack beside the mantlepiece. The shorter man frowned and pushed a finger into the plaster. Then rapped the wall with his knuckles, testing the damage. Suddenly, a clod of plaster sheared off and shattered on the dusty floor. Now there was a substantial hole and the men stepped back, brushing dust from their trousers.

“There’s something in there.”

The shorter man peered in again. Initially, it was too dark to see anything, but abruptly he stepped back again.

“Call the police.”

Highly Commended: Beast by Graham Steed

This was a fun take on the idea and also likely a hidden insight on the author who wrote it – more attuned with solving problems than running from them I would suspect. Though the story didn’t give much in way of the ‘house’ but more to the determination of the new owner in not losing it, it was enjoyable and made longer would be a fun comedy/horror.

The estate agent rang: ‘a characterful Victorian cottage in a highly sought-after village, skilfully modernised by developers’ and sold to them by the family of the previous occupant who’d died of heart failure- a snip, he thought, at 200 grand. So I bought it. No creepy cellar, no creaky staircase, no chard-ridden hearth: bright, clean, and modern throughout – though I couldn’t resist a visit to the local museum. The curator said the village was caught up in the agricultural riots of the 1830s caused by Enclosure. One of those executed for the destruction of threshing machines and cattle-maiming was found by the militia hiding in my cottage… 

* * *

 Two days after I moved in, I noticed a reddish discolouration on the walls. I asked my solicitor to check on the building guarantee. He rang back to say the builders had gone out of business. The discoloration continued to spread. A local surveyor said it was most likely water, but he was puzzled by the plaster’s red ooziness. He scraped off a sample promising to let me know, but never did.

I asked next door. The woman said her dad told her there was once a gibbet on the site, but she laughed it off, as ‘he was fond of his stories.’

I was woken that night by a commotion in the attic: sharp commands, heavy marching steps, yells, screams. I called the police. They said my house had a ‘reputation’…

* * *

I called the estate agent. He thought the red ooziness was sticky, ‘like blood’. In its present state, only a developer might buy the house, and that for a song. So, I’ve gone on the offensive. I painted the walls Post Office Red to match the bloody oozings. I called an exorcist priest to rid the house of demons. I bought a crucifix and earplugs. A doctor has upped my medication. I’m treating my house as a beast, so, first, I must tame it…

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