Writer of action-packed historical fiction series, The Bernicia Chronicles, Matthew Harffy, in addition to letting our members in on some writing tips and secrets of series writing, he kindly agreed to adjudicate our competition.
The competition brief was:
An object uncovered in a dark alleyway turns out to be a bloody knife…
Write 300 words filled with drama and intrigue on the grisly discovery and/or aftermath.
The standard of writing was great in all the entries, making judging very difficult. It made me realise how incredibly hard it is to select winners in what is largely a subjective medium. After all, how one reacts to a piece of writing says as much, or even more, about the reader and their tastes, as about the writer and the quality of their work.
The selection of short pieces covered all kinds of genre, including horror, thriller, fantasy and science fiction. The pieces I have selected are all very different, but have a couple of things in common. Firstly, they all left me wanting to read more, to find out what happened next. The second thing they all have is perhaps the single most difficult achievement in writing: a distinct and assured voice, that puts the reader at ease and almost whispers, “Relax, I’ve got this”.
And the winners are…
First Place: Howard Teece with The Sound of Music
Peter Duncan with The Sign
Sam Christie with Fever Dreams
First Place: The Sound of Music by Howard Teece
This piece stood out from the others because of its quirky style and its great use of dialogue. It reads almost like a screenplay, but manages to convey a lot of world-building into the wonderfully written conversation. In very few words, it creates a couple of moments of revelation and ends with a funny twist and a cliff-hanger. If this was the opening page of a novel, I’d read the whole thing.
Even in the dark of the tunnel, you could see the knife glinting at his feet. He picked it up.
‘Is that…?’ I asked.
‘Blood? There is a high certainty.’
‘What else do you know?’
‘You mean make of knife? Fingerprints? Type of blood? Whose blood?’
‘Yeah, that sort of thing.’
‘Do I have a lab jammed up my ass?’
‘Well, no, not exactly.’ I scratched the top of my head. ‘But.’
He gave me a stare, then turned his attention to the knife. He wiped a finger along it, collecting the blood. Then he held the finger to his nose, sniffed and sucked it clean.
‘Deer. Fallow. Mature female. Three hours exposed to the air.’
‘Three hours exposed. But yes, from a living animal, not a bottle.’
‘Where the hell do you get one of those? They’ve been extinct for over 100 years.’
‘This is not my problem,’ the android CSI said.
‘No, that one’s on me.’ I walked back to my vehicle, trying to understand where someone could have got hold of an extinct animal, and why they’d have sliced into it.
At the door to my transport, I turned to watch the mechanised tech examine the scene. The small light at the base of his neck glowed red to show recording was in progress.
‘Hey, Robbo,’ I called.
He turned toward me, and the light went out.
‘I don’t need to see you test poop; we clear?’
‘It tastes like- ‘
‘Yeah. La la la. La la la.’
In the transport, I instructed the pilot to head back to base, then put a call through to my L1.
‘It’s a doe. A deer. A female deer,’ I said, explaining what we’d found, knowing we had a problem.
Guess who’s back in town.
Highly Commended: The Sign by Peter Duncan
The sense of place is palpable in this piece. It feels like there is real meat on the bones of the characters and location, which is a feat in so few words. There is a real confidence in the archaic tone of the prose that makes the reader feel as if they are peeking into a moment of a longer story set in a richly-imagined world.
The bloodied knife was found lying in the shadows of God Forsook Alley by Jeremiah Dobson, night soil man. Later, some pondered whether different circumstances might have prevented the events that unfolded thereafter, and which had left the town in such a parlous state. What if the knife had been found by Watkin the beadle, or not discovered in an alley named God Forsook? What if it had actually lain beside a mortally injured body as by rights it should have?
But fate had decreed that the certifiable fool Dobson should clap eyes on the lone blade, ‘dripping live with blood’ as he later testified, and carry it directly to the house of Reverend Doctor Wilfred Fairfax, who proclaimed to the astonished night soil man that the knife was a sign from our Creator Himself.
‘Moreover,’ Doctor Fairfax declared to the assembled populace from the town hall steps the following noonday, ‘it is a sign long foreshadowed.’ He produced a leather-bound book and commenced reading. ‘In a Year of Our Lord close at hand,’ he intoned solemnly, ‘a bleeding knife will be found in the place God has foresaken, a portent of calamitous events such as will shake this wretched town to its very foundations.’
A clamour arose amongst the assembled. ‘What events? Tell us, Doctor Fairfax. What calamities?’
The Doctor descended the steps without another word, making all speed for his residence. In his library he replaced the volume of Dryden on the shelf at exactly the spot from which it had earlier been removed. The knife lay on his desk, blood- perhaps it really was blood- nicely congealed now. He wondered for a few moments how it had actually found its way to God Forsook. Then he turned his full attention to the careful planning of extortion.
Highly Commended: Fever Dreams by Sam Christie
This piece has a fabulous, conversational style. It is immediate and relatable. While the prose is direct and clean, there are a couple of great metaphors used that elevate the writing.
Jane called them fever dreams. She always implied that I had them because of a guilty conscience. I mean I wouldn’t call myself a bad person, but there aren’t many people that don’t have the odd skeleton in the cupboard; so I suppose that could have been it.
In truth I dreaded having one. I’d wake up in the morning panting and clawing at the covers, my mind circling like a plane waiting to land. I’d come down eventually after a few seconds, but I was in that holding pattern of horror for long enough to put my day out of whack.
There was a plus side: I got the flood of relief knowing that I hadn’t hidden a body and that the police weren’t coming to get me. The details in the dream were abstract and surreal of course, but that dread, that sense that if the cops got on my scent then my life was over, drew out a mixture of guilt and a desire to reset back to a trouble free life.
The nasty part of the dream was that I’d already done the deed. I couldn’t go back. Once you kill a person you can’t undo it and saying sorry is inadequate for obvious reasons. No, you kill a person and you have only one direction of travel.
I usually had these dreams after a night out, my mind confused by boozing. This dream was no exception. I could remember nothing of the night. While I was brewing coffee and enjoying that solace after the storm there was a knock at the door. Loud.
“Detective Sergeant Jones. We found a knife nearby in an alleyway. An acquaintance of yours is missing.” I looked to the left of the door and saw my coat covered in blood.