Short Stories

The Key to Eternity

My longish short story “The Key to Eternity” was published in Cthulhu Deep Down Under Volume 3 (edited by Steve Proposch, Christopher Sequeira and Bryce Stevens) by IFWG Publishing Australia under their premier Dark Phases imprint. This is the third and final volume in the fantastic Cthulhu Deep Down Under anthology series.

This story takes place on the docks and waterfront of Darling Harbour and Millers Point in 1925, after a Norwegian sailor named Gustaf Johansen (from H. P. Lovecraft’s 1928 short story “The Call of Cthulhu”) arrives in Sydney with a mysterious artefact. He is the sole suvivor on a ship named The Alert, a disabled island trader that is brought into port after being shot to pieces.

Why?

I wrote this tiny story for the They Are Us exhibition, another collaboration between Ballarat Words Out Loud and the Soldiers Hill Artist Collective (SHAC). Once again, the exhibition was curated by writers Jason Nahrung and Kirstyn McDermott, except this time it is a reversed ekphrastic process where the writers wrote their pieces first and the artists responded to the prose and poetry in a variety of media, including painting, photography, woodwork, weaving and sculpture.

My story, the “Why” was represented with artwork by artist Helmut Stenzel, who works in a diverse range of creative media, with a strong interest in typography and the process of traditional Letterpress printing. Pictured here at the exhibtion in the Lounge Gallery at Billy’s Bar and Bistro, Mercure Ballarat Hotel and Convention Centre, is Helmut with his artwork and my story (photo courtesy of Jason Nahrung).

Yellow Palms

My flash fiction short story, “Yellow Palms”, was published the Weathering the Future exhibition, a collaboration between Ballarat Words Out Loud, the Soldiers Hill Artist Collective (SHAC), and communication design students from Federation University’s Arts Academy. The exhibition was curated and convened by writers Jason Nahrung and Kirstyn McDermott.

The project was a dual ekphrastic process in which the artists of SHAC responded to the theme of “Weathering the Future”, looking at the hurdles and innovations we face at the beginning of the Anthropocene. The exhibition was open from the 6th to 23rd of December, 2018 at the Ballarat Backspace Gallery. My story, the artwork for it by artist Lorraine Huddle, the poster by Bridget O’Brien from the Federation University’s Arts Academy, and an audio of my reading of the story are available online here.

Fixed in Time

When I was a child we had to walk down a long, narrow lane to reach our primary school. There was a house on the corner of that lane which had been empty and derelict for years, and rumours of murder and ghosts abounded in the schoolyard. Once, when I was about seven or eight years old, I went up the path and looked in the open front door…and then ran away.

It was a scary place. It was the inspiration for the haunted house in this story. But the house may not be the only antagonist here. Perhaps the main character, Phil, is more than an observer. I can’t help wondering if he has some sort of connection to the building and his being there somehow enables or breathes life—so to speak—into the house… This is an ekphrastic story, based on Shaun Tan’s “Distorted Room” frontispiece. So his illustration, too, breathed life into the house. This tale is original to my award-winning short story collection Shadows on the Wall, published on the 15th January, 2019.

The Wine Cellar

There was a time in my life, when I worked in the corporate IT world, and I knew people just like Rick and Sue, the protagonists in this ghost story. Yuppies, some might call them. They were people who worked hard and played hard, had no children and plenty of disposable income. They lived a life of restaurants and fine wine; indeed, aside from sex and travel, it was pretty much their existence outside of the long hours at the office. I wondered what would happen if a couple of these IT people, who are typically highly intelligent and motivated, came face to face with ghostly entities haunting not a house, per se, but objects left behind in the house…

This tale is original to my award-winning short story collection Shadows on the Wall, published on the 15th January, 2019.

The Black Diamond of the Elephant God

I love India: the people, the culture, the food, the land, the history… I think I might have lived there in another life, if such a thing is possible. I first visited India in my early twenties and have been there numerous times since. And although each time has been a new experience, the sounds, tastes and smells are always familiar.

I was reading an obscure nineteenth century travel narrative titled Travels in India by Captain Leopold von Orlich—which I purchased in a lovely two-volume hardback edition from Asian Educational Services on the outskirts of Delhi—when I began to chew over an idea for a Cthulhu Mythos novelette. I ended up creating a kind of mash-up where my story and threads of von Orlich’s non-fiction account are woven together to make something new.

I wrote much of the story in India. I finished the first draft on a houseboat cruising about the brackish lagoons and lakes of the Kerala backwaters in South India. But it was Varanasi that brought the story to life. The Cthulhu Mythos seems to sit well in the dusty back alleys of that city. According to Hindu legend, Varanasi is more than 5,000 years old and is believed by some to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. This tale is original to my award-winning short story collection Shadows on the Wall, published 15th January, 2019.

Harold the Hero and the Talking Sword (with Jack Dann)

and-then-vol-1-front-coverJack Dann and I had been talking for a while about doing a project together when the opportunity to write a story for the Clan Destine Press And Then… anthology came up. He showed his story “The Talking Sword” to Lindy Cameron and she loved it, but suggested it be expanded because the theme of the anthology was for stories with two protagonists, and the demon sword held sway over his “sidekick” in Jack’s original tale.

As Jack and I talked about it, we soon found ourselves brainstorming the further adventures of not just the time-travelling sword, but having his unlikely wielder, Harold the Hero, come to the fore. We took our inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, and asked ourselves what would happen if the sword somehow lost its powers. The result was “Harold the Hero and the Talking Sword”. It was great fun to write and hopefully great fun to read.

  • And Then… Volume 2 (ed. Ruth Wykes and Kylie Fox), Clan Destine Press, Australia, 2017.

Christmas Morning

hells-bellsThis little story was written for an Australian Horror Writers Association flash fiction anthology. The brief was to write a Christmas ghost story in 500 words or less. I tried to think of the most frightening thing that could happen at Christmas time and this was the result.

  • Hell’s Bells: Stories of Festive Fear by members of the Australian Horror Writers Association (edited by the AHWA Committee), AHWA, 2016.

Two Tomorrow and Logic Loop

paroxysm-100-lightnings-e1475825801846These are anthology reprints of a couple of my most popular flash fictions stories. “Two Tomorrow” was originally published in Eidolon and is now one of my most reprinted stories. It’s very short, weighing in at a mere 650 words, but to my mind it punches well above its weight. “Logic Loop” was originally published by Peter McNamara in Aphelion and has now been reprinted in books in Australia, Canada and Spain.

  • 100 Lightnings (edited by Stephen Studach), Paroxysm Press, 2016.

Pest Control

cthulhu-ddu_thumbThis is a story based on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, but set in an Australian suburban setting. Isobelle Carmody said the story “evokes the void through the domestic, making it as horrifying as if we had looked into a plug hole to see an eye peering back at us”. I set out to leverage a common pulp fiction technique used by H. P. Lovecraft and others of his contemporaries writing stories in the golden era of Weird Tales. That of a lone narrator facing unspeakable horrors. But I wanted it to raise the form above its somewhat hackneyed pulp history by applying modern sensibilities. The story mechanics of using only a single character make it difficult to develop conflict, but I think I achieved a good balance between the old and the new.

  • Cthulhu: Deep Down Under (Horror Australis), edited by Steve Proposch, Christopher Sequeira and Bryce Stevens, 2015.

Severing Ties (with Maurice Xanthos)

short_and_twisted_2009_cover

A flash fiction pun story written with my old friend Maurice Xanthos, who unfortunately writes all too infrequently these days. The action takes place in the marital bedroom where things come to a grisly end.

  • Short and Twisted 2009 (Celapene Press), edited by Kathryn Duncan, 2009.

Ma Rung

dann__webb_-_dreaming_down-under_coverartA ghost story that has received as much praise for its portrayal of the Vietnam jungle and the men who fought there as it has for its supernatural thrills. From the introduction Jack Dann writes: “Paulsen takes us back to the horrors of Vietnam where those walking point sometimes see more than just the Viet Cong in the heat of battle.”

  • Dreaming Down-Under (HarperCollins Australia), edited by Jack Dann & Janeen Webb, 1998.
  • Dreaming Down-Under – Book One (HarperCollins Australia), edited by Jack Dann & Janeen Webb, 1999.
  • Dreaming Down-Under (TOR, USA), edited by Jack Dann & Janeen Webb, 2000. (Hardcover).

The Sorcerer’s Looking Glass

fantastic-worldsThe “Sorcerer’s Looking Glass” is a young adult fantasy story with a touch of horror. Some people believe that mirrors are doorways to alternate worlds or different dimensions. Others believe they are not so much doorways as traps or prisons. But if that’s so, who holds the keys? This is a tale of obsession that will make you look twice at mirrors in the future.

  • Fantastic Worlds (HarperCollins Australia), edited by Paul Collins, 1997.

In the Light of the Lamp

This tale is a contemporary Cthulhu Mythos horror story drawing on H. P. Lovecraft’s poem “The Lamp of Alhazred” for inspiration. I wrote it for Leigh Blackmore’s ground-breaking Terror Australis anthology. Blackmore kindly described it as “one of the few Mythos tales of real quality written in the last decade”. It was picked up by Robert M. Price and reprinted in the Chaosium anthology The Cthulhu Cycle which won the 1996 Origins Award for Best Game-Related Fiction. I was pleased as punch to have an extract from my story on the back cover alongside an extract from “the Call of Cthulhu” by Lovecraft himself. It was also published in French and Spanish translations.

  • Terror Australis (ed. Leigh Blackmore), Hodder & Stoughton, 1993.
  • The Cthulhu Cycle (ed. Robert M Price), Chaosium, USA, 1996.
  • Le Cycle de Cthulhu (ed. Robert M Price, translated by Eric Holweck), Oriflam, France, 1998.
  • La Saga de Cthulhu (ed. Robert M Price, translated by Eric Holweck), La Factoria de Ideas, Spain, 2006.

pcuser_thumbGreater Garbo

In 1992 I was thinking about garbage and the environment, and I was thinking about a news story I has seen about a young man marrying an elderly woman. This humorous high-tech SF story combines these two ideas with unexpected results.

  • Australian & NZ PC User Magazine, edited by Geoff Ebbs, October 1992.

Stray Cat

eod7_thumbThe original short story as written for adults which later became my spooky children’s book The Stray Cat. It was written for Chris Masters’ Esoteric Order of Dagon magazine.

  • EOD Magazine #7, September 1992

Two Tomorrow

A futuristic SF story where population control laws force families into making terrible choices (read this story online at Eidolon.net). This tale is close to my heart. It brought tears to my eyes when I wrote it and it has proved to be one of the most popular stories I have written.

  • Eidolon #3 (ed. Jeremy G. Byrne, Jonathan Strahan, et al), Spring 1990.
  • Beyond Fantasy & Science Fiction (ed. David Riley), UK, June/July 1995.
  • 100 Lightnings (ed. Stephen Studach), Paroxysm Press, 2016.
  • The ampersand #2 (ed Julie Collins), djprojects, 2021

Old Wood

“Old Wood” is a ghost story about haunted timber. It came about as I watched a shipwright build a unique pergola for a friend. Fortunately the old wood they used came from a different source. When I wrote it, I was what is known as a “discovery writer” rather than a “planner”. I usually started with a character or a situation, maybe some idea of how it would end, and I would start writing to see what happened. As a result of this technique, I often had false starts and ended up with stories that went nowhere. But with “Old Wood”, all these individual ideas came together as a whole and resulted not only in a finished story, but one that has been very popular.

It was originally published in Terror Australis magazine before being reprinted in the Penguin anthology Strange Fruit edited by Paul Collins. In her review of that book in Meanjin, the popular crime writer Kerry Greenwood described the story as one of “the best ones” in the anthology.

  • Terror Australis #2, edited by Leigh Blackmore, Christopher Sequeira and Bryce J. Stevens, July 1990.
  • Strange Fruit, edited by Paul Collins, Penguin Books, 1995.

Talisman

“Talisman” is another ghost story, this time set in the steamy jungle of Vietnam. The story was judged by Bruce Pascoe as the best local submission, and it later became the basis of my popular story “Ma Rung”.

  • Eastern Regional Libraries Short Story Competition Winners Booklet, ERL, 1990

The Place

terroraustralis1_thumbThis little story distressed me when I wrote it (and still makes me uncomfortable today). So why did I write it? I wrote it in response to a spate of family murder/suicides and child murders that were reported in the news that shook me to the core. What drives a mother to drown her babies? Why would a father throw his daughter off a bridge? I don’t understand how any parent can kill a child. There is no possible reason or excuse and yet people do it. Mental illness, I hear some people say. It makes me want to weep, so I guess this story was an attempt to exorcise the pain.

  • Terror Australis #1, edited by Leigh Blackmore, Christopher Sequeira and Bryce J. Stevens, April 1988.

Logic Loop

A micro-fiction story that is literally a logic loop. A popular little story published in two anthologies alongside big names such as Robert Heinlein, Frederick Forsyth, H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury among others.

  • Aphelion #5, Summer 86/87.
  • Worlds in Small (Cacanadadada Books), edited by John Robert Colombo, 1992.
  • Grandes Minicuentos Fantasticos (Alfaguara), edited by Benito Arias Garcia (Spanish translation).
  • 100 Lightnings (edited by Stephen Studach), Paroxysm Press, 2016.

Errand Run

Another micro-fiction story from the same issue of Aphelion SF Magazine edited by Peter McNamara.

Art Critic

This was my first published short story. A humorous SF piece that was inspired by the Sydney Art Biennale and asks questions about what constitutes good art. If you think the art in this story is weird just have a look at the real thing.

  • The Cygnus Chronicler, Volume 4 No 3, June 1982.
  • The Melbourne Report, July 1989