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Devil's Crush was published again in July 2013 by InkTears after being selected as highly commended (basically getting down to the final 6) in their 2012 annual short story competition. InkTears are one of the few competitions out there that accept previously published work.
Below is the story, the write-up it received in Writers' Forum magazine, followed by my comments based on the experiences I’ve had with the competition. Beneath that you’ll find the critique Lorraine Mace provided for the story, which an entrant can request for a fiver. At the bottom of the page you'll find details on the InkTears competition.
The problem with inhabiting a body with legs for thirty-five years is that I became accustomed to having legs. When those limbs were taken from me, I thought my subconscious would catch up quickly, and I’d instinctively regard myself as legless. I was wrong.
It’s been almost two years since my date with the grenade. Yet still I wake up oblivious to the fact that I’m missing limbs. Moments ago I swung myself out of bed, thinking to walk to the kitchen for a drink. With the dexterity of an out of date tin of Spam, I embraced the morning (and the floor) with a thud. I swore, I cursed, I laughed. What else could I do? If I were unable to laugh at the ridiculous broken mess I’ve become, I think I’d deteriorate like Steve. At war he lost an arm, a foot and half his face. Back home he lost his mind. Watching him deteriorate into a lifeless husk was hard. Could I watch my own body wither along with my personality? No. The same will not happen to me.
I struggle into my wheelchair, making a mental note to invest in some sumptuous twenty-five millimetre tufted-twist-pile carpet to make my morning routine less painful, and trundle into the kitchen.
The first thing that strikes me is the stink of fire. I can see no smoke, no blackened furniture, no indication of a blaze. Aside from the smell, the kitchen is exactly as I left it, apart from one small detail. A bottle now rests in the middle of the kitchen table.
I edge my chair forward to look more closely. It’s small and filled with red liquid that dances like fire within the glass. On the front is a label that says, ‘Devil’s Crush.’
Intrigued, I pick the bottle up and almost drop it - I wasn’t expecting it to be hot. But it’s not searing, my fingers can bear the heat. I sniff the bottle, trying to determine if it’s the source of the burning smell. It isn’t. I turn the bottle over. On the back is another label. Underneath some text which is too small to read, it says, ‘Made in Hull.’ Somehow, this seems apt.
As I study the strange liquid, wondering if the ‘u’ in Hull might be a misprint, I hear someone clear their throat behind me. Instantly, I drop the bottle into my lap and swing my chair around. The 9mm Browning L9A1 I keep tucked beneath my chair’s cushion is in my hand without me having to think.
As I take in my surroundings I realise the bottle had captivated my attention so fully that I’d forgotten my training. Questions fill my mind. Why didn’t I clear the room? Why had the bottle intrigued me so? And how could I have failed to notice the demon in the corner?
There are black hoof-prints scorched into the kitchen’s tiled floor. He’s sitting on a chair which appears to be made of iron. It glows beneath his bulk. His presence makes me realise I’m dreaming. At least, I hope I’m dreaming. Either that or I’m French kissing insanity.
I know the demon is a he because he’s naked. He’s a he with the right to be proud of just how much of a ‘he’ he is. His skin is the colour of burnt rust, his body slender yet muscular and he wears a goatee on his chin more like the animal it is named after than a man. His two horns are long and curved like warped blades of molten rock, his hairline a mass of flickering flames and in his eye sockets are two glowing coals which ping and hiss like the embers of a dying fire in the breeze. He is the source of the acrid stench which fills the room.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt at such an ungodly hour,’ he says, his voice as deep as hell’s gong. ‘Put the gun away. It is useless to you.’
I do as he commands, not because I want to, but because I am unable to disobey. There’s a mesmerising quality to his voice which I realise I will have to fight if I want to act of my own free will.
‘You are Sergeant Joshua Purvis?’ he asks.
I’m aware that I’m gawping. I try and say, ‘Yes,’ but all that emanates from my mouth is a kind of slurping mumble. I decide to forget talking for a moment and just nod.
‘Do you know who I am?’
‘Satan?’ I guess, pleased that I manage not to drool as I force the word from my mouth.
He snorts laughter, smoke spiralling from the holes in his face which I assume must be nostrils. ‘No,’ he says. ‘My name is Colin.’
I hear myself snigger.
‘I’ve taken a human name to seem less threatening,’ Colin continues, in a tone that suggests he is only imparting this information so he won’t find it necessary to tear my head off. ‘Names aside, you must concur, my master has excelled with the physical manifestation conjured for my eternal servitude?’
I find myself unable to disagree. Colin rises slowly from his chair and takes a step towards me. His horns score black marks into the ceiling.
‘I’m dreaming,’ I state, rather than asking a question to which I may not like the answer.
‘No,’ says Colin. I can feel my scepticism manifesting itself as a squint about my eyes. Seeing this, Colin moves forward and pinches my arm. I scream in pain, not just from the pinch of the serrated talons which are Colin’s fingertips, but at the impossible heat which emanates from his body.
He takes a step backwards, politely waiting for me to stop swearing, then says, ‘Point taken?’
I nod. At least the pain has helped me to focus. I can think and speak again. ‘Why are you here?’
‘To deliver the Devil’s Crush.’
‘Yes. It’s a gift.’
‘Why is your master sending me gifts?’
‘You possess a skill we wish to employ.’
‘So this isn’t a gift?’
Colin smiles, as if pleased with me, revealing a myriad of teeth like needles. ‘It depends on which way you look at it.’
I pick the bottle back up and watch the fiery liquid writhe within. ‘Am I supposed to drink it?’ I ask.
‘I believe so.’
‘What happens if I don’t?’
‘What happens if I do?’
‘Your legs will grow back.’
Now he has my interest. ‘And what must I give in return?’
Colin subjects me, quite literally, to a burning stare. ‘Oh, you know,’ he says, ‘the usual stuff about the sale of your soul. It’s all in the small print on the back of the bottle.’
Immediately my instincts tell me to say no. I’ve never heard a story where the selling of one’s soul ends well. But I can feel hope prepping to run a marathon inside my mind and I don’t want to stop it. I’ve been to Afghanistan. I came back broken. Living in this body is a lonely misery beyond imagining. I have no doubt there is trickery behind Colin’s offer, but could it be worse than the life I currently endure? I could have my legs back. To me, that sounds more appealing than a sauna full of voluptuous nymphomaniacs. At least with legs I could enter said sauna without fear of humiliation. At the moment I can barely summon the courage to leave my home. Day by day, although I fight it, I increasingly understand the mental spiral that eventually led Steve to take his own life.
‘I must press you for an answer,’ says Colin.
‘Deal,’ I say. Before Colin can say anything else I uncork the bottle and swallow the liquid. It burns, sweet mercy, it burns so badly. I fall from my chair, coughing, gagging. I clutch at my throat and try to scream before my consciousness goes AWOL.
I’m on the floor. My head throbs and my mouth is dry, my tongue swollen. I’m in the kitchen, my chair tipped over on its side. I rub my eyes and look around. The stink of fire is absent from the air. There is no bottle, no scorched footprints on the floor, no Colin.
A mirthless chuckle escapes my lips. These new anti-depressants have some weird hallucinogenic side effects. I struggle to my feet and walk to the bathroom. It isn’t until I’m dropping my trousers that I realise I have legs. Not just any legs, they’re my legs, right down to the scar on my right shin and the two freckles on my left kneecap.
I look at myself in the mirror and fight not to giggle like a madman. The feeling of elation rising in me is frightening. It’s not that I’m scared of the joy this moment holds, I just feel weird because I realise how long it’s been since I’ve felt any happiness.
Pulling up my pants, I run out into the kitchen and smell the stench of burning.
‘Hello, Joshua,’ says Colin. He is as he was before - tall, hot and demonic.
‘Shit,’ I say.
He shrugs, ‘Should have read the small print.’
Then Colin rips my head off.
I have legs and my head is back where it should be. I’m on top of a colossal tower. It’s the tallest edifice in the endless cityscape before me by some order of magnitude. The city is a sprawling mass of twisted buildings, all incredible and hewn from rock the colour of the moon. They look like they’ve been designed by an architect with a dependency on narcotics.
‘Where are we?’ I ask.
‘Helven,’ Colin replies. He’s standing next to me, smouldering.
‘Oh, I get it, a cross between heaven and hell.’
Colin shakes his head, as though I’ve said something stupid, ‘There are no such places. There is only Helven, the city of angels and demons.’
The mention of angels brings back unwanted memories, for I’ve witnessed them dying. It’s how I lost my legs. One second my division were shooting at people who were shooting at us. The next second, a mother and child ran into the line of fire and we were shooting at them. Somehow they made it into the middle of the street without being hit and huddled, confused and scared, dressed in rags. Then I caught site of a grenade in the downward arc of a lob. I ran forward. I still have no idea what I hoped to achieve, they were too far away. I saw the smeared tears on the child’s cheeks. Bang. They were consumed by the explosion and I parted company with my legs.
‘How else do you think we maintain balance?’ Colin continues, ‘Nature doesn’t just rule on Earth. She rules here too. If there were places where only good or evil existed, well, it just wouldn’t work, would it?’ He talks so bluntly, I find myself believing him, although his voice still carries that hypnotic edge.
Hypnosis aside, I’ve never been a big believer in heaven and hell. If I’m honest, I didn’t know what to believe. All I can say with certainty is that whatever I expected, this wasn’t it. Helven is magnificent, but Colin seems to belong here, which gives the place an alien quality I find unsettling.
‘So, what happens now?’ I ask, wanting to think about anything other than the sense of panic building in me.
‘There’s a debate in progress at which your presence is required. The voice of Fire is arguing about cacodemon’s rights with the leader of the opposition. They are very badly treated here, particularly by an extreme rightwing group of sprites.’
‘Yes.’ I nod like I understand, which prompts Colin to motor on, ‘Then there is some argument to be had about volcanic eruptions on Earth - the Fire party feel there are too many humans now and a catastrophe would help restore balance, where as the Light party believe humanity should have another chance to address the problem themselves. Then there’s the manifesto of the murdered, decreeing the laws of vengeance-’
Before my brain cells can join forces with my sanity and organise an escape plan to tunnel out of my skull, I interrupt, ‘So what do I have to do?’
Colin moves over to an opening in the vast roof space. ‘Follow me.’
Moving towards him, I see fairytale stairs spiralling downward. As we descend the stairway widens. Eventually we come out into a gargantuan chamber resonating with the sound of voices in disagreement. To my right is tiered seating carved from sunlight, filled with spirits of purity and beauty. To my left is an abyss of darkness brimming with fire, talons and misshapen abominations.
Astride a monstrous dais in the centre of the chamber two huge beings sit in facing thrones. They exchange arguments, their voices as loud as storms, speaking a language I cannot understand. One is wreathed in light, his eye sockets a mass of lightening, the other is cloaked in night, her face a mask of flame.
Feeling smaller and more insignificant than I ever have before, I look up at Colin.
‘This is the Chamber of Vindication,’ says Colin, his voice just audible above the thundering voices.
‘What am I supposed to do?’ I ask.
‘Do as you will.’
There is a new distance in Colin’s voice. I feel I am on my own, as though something is expected of me, although I know not what. Then I see a flaming ball arcing through the air like a whispering Spitfire. Its trajectory gives no definite idea if the parties of Light or Fire are responsible for throwing it. I feel a sense of déjà vu as I run forward. There is no thought involved, no consideration. I’m simply doing what I must. Unlike the grenade in Kandahar, I see it with time to make a difference. I run towards the dais. Angry voices boom around me. I see the flaming blob fly towards me. It isn’t as big as I first thought, more the size of a melon than a fighter-plane. I throw myself on top of its molten mass. Bang.
I’m on my back, my body aflame with pain. Light and Fire look down upon me. Both are frightening yet magnificent to behold. Colin approaches, drawing their attention.
‘Are you responsible for deploying the Devil’s Crush?’ spits the leader of Fire, no longer using the strange language of their arguments. Colin nods. ‘You do not have the authority.’
‘I did so at the bequest of my master,’ says Colin.
‘Who do you serve that has the right to-’
Colin clears his throat. Twin tongues of fire flicker from his nostrils, ‘Nature.’
The demeanours of both Light and Fire change instantly and they bow.
‘My apologies,’ says Fire.
‘Accepted,’ says Colin.
‘His actions show hope,’ says the leader of the Light, looking back down at me after a moment of contemplation, ‘as I have argued.’
‘They do,’ the leader of Fire concedes. ‘So it is decided.’
The two beings move back to the dais and retake their seats. As my consciousness fades, an announcement is made from the fiery abyss to the left, in that alien language. Both leaders listen to the point and then the thunderous arguments begin once more.
I wake in my bed, glad the nightmare is over. I roll out from under the sheets, remembering I don’t have legs a second too late. Wallop. ‘Tufted-twist-pile, tufted-twist-pile,’ I mutter, hoping it might help me remember.
‘Morning, Joshua,’ Colin’s voice rumbles from the kitchen. So it wasn’t a dream.
I pull myself into my wheelchair and trundle into the kitchen. He’s watching the news, sitting on his iron chair. It’s a story about how a change in seismic activity means Yellowstone’s super-volcano is no longer expected to imminently erupt.
‘I’m alive,’ I say.
He nods, ‘Enjoy.’
‘I have no legs.’
‘How would you explain them if you did?’
I’d never thought of that, but, ‘I’d find a way.’ Colin just shakes his head. ‘What about my soul?’ I ask.
‘What about it?’
‘I was hoping-’
‘Should have read the small print,’ says Colin.
I’m beginning to wish I had. We watch the news report for a while. Scientists seem confused, people seem pleased. ‘Did I act as Nature intended?’ I ask.
‘You did as you did. There was no right or wrong outcome.’ Standing, Colin says, ‘However, your actions have merely postponed disaster. I hope your race is wise enough to do as you did, and make the necessary sacrifices.’
‘What can I do?’ I ask.
I receive Colin’s smouldering stare one last time, ‘What can anyone do?’
Then he, his chair and the stench of flame are gone.
I feel different. It takes me a while to realise it’s nothing physical. My thoughts are positive. What can I do with my life? How can I make a difference? As I put the kettle on, for the first time, I find myself considering how I can best lead a life without legs.
The following words appear here with kind permission from Sue Moorcroft, the Writers’ Forum short story competition judge, and Carl Styants, the magazine’s editor. Each month, Sue examines the stories she has chosen as winners, explaining why they won. The following was written by Sue and appeared in issue 116 of Writers’ Forum magazine along with my story.
A sensory and linguistic feast, plunging protagonist and reader into a hellish fantasy
Our winning story, Devil’s Crush by Christopher Fielden, is the primary definition of fantastic – ‘imaginative, fanciful; remote from reality’. Of course, it’s also ‘extraordinarily good’, the informal and secondary meaning.
By genre, Devil’s Crush is fantasy, because an ordinary person is thrust into an unreal situation. From that point, the writer’s imagination takes over, decreeing how Joshua Purvis will act and react to a demon called Colin in his kitchen duping him, via a demon/human bargain in the best tradition, into taking part in an experiment to determine human nature. Christopher does a good job of creating Colin and, also, Helven, the other world that he moves Colin and Joshua briefly into.
Christopher has to make us accept, for the span of the story, that there really might be a demon called Colin who recruits human lab rats on behalf of his boss, Nature. He has to make the reader suspend disbelief. It’s what we all aspire to, when we make things up and then set about making others believe in them.
Readers’ imaginations hold all kinds of familiar scenarios – supermarkets, offices, mountains, aircraft – and humans, birds, insects and animals to put in them. Unconsciously, they draw on these memories when they read. So to supplant these stock images with something that exists only in the writer’s mind – that takes a particular creativity.
Christopher begins his description of Colin with the smell of burning. To smell someone before you see them is, I understand, part of certain military training, providing subtle character development for an army veteran. The visual description comes later:
I know the demon is a he because he’s naked. He’s a he with the right to be proud of just how much of a ‘he’ he is. His skin is the colour of burnt rust, his body slender yet muscular and he wears a goatee on his chin more like the animal it is named after than a man. His two horns are long and curved, like warped blades of molten rock, his hair line a mass of flickering flames and in his eye sockets are two glowing coals which ping and hiss like the embers of a dying fire in the breeze. He is the source of the acrid stench which fills the room.
After that, the visual hints about Colin are fewer – his horns leave tracks on the ceiling, smoke spirals from his nostrils, he has talons – because that first sketch was powerful enough to create the visual image.
There’s so much about this story that I like: the insight into the stark reality of active military service; physical loss; human nature; and the darkly laconic humour that made me smile, often when I felt as if I shouldn’t.
And the ending brought us hope. I hadn’t really expected hope to round up my trip into the fantastic.
Sue Moorcroft writes romantic novels, short stories, serials, articles, blogs, courses and writing 'how to'. She's a creative writing tutor, head judge for Writers' Forum and a Katie Fforde Bursary Award winner. She works hard to ensure that she doesn't have to get a proper job.
This is a monthly short story competition, with a 3,000 word limit. It offers a first prize of £300, a second prize of £150 and third prize of £100. If you win any of these three prizes, you also receive a free copy of the magazine with your story published in it along with Sue’s comments.
Writers’ Forum offers an excellent introduction into the world of writing competitions as there is so much you can learn from the magazine. I’m a firm advocate of this competition for many reasons.
You can read the critique I received from Lorraine Mace, one of the Writers' Forum judges, below:
Thanks for entering the Writers’ Forum competition.
Presentation: Manuscript layout is generally good, but there are a one or two typos and a few bits of missing punctuation.
Title: Apt for the story, but not intriguing enough. You need a title which does justice to the storyline and makes the reader want to find out more.
Opening: Excellent. This introduces us to the narrator and tells us a great deal about him. It also contains a nice hook with the mention of Steve who didn’t manage to come to terms with his disabilities.
Dialogue: Considering the unreal aspect of the dialogue, this was very well written and believable. It not only aided characterisation, it also helped to drive the story onwards.
Characterisation: You managed to make Colin credible, no easy task. I liked the way you made the narrator react to the various changes in his circumstances. In each case, he behaved in character.
Overall: You have a lovely style and I enjoyed reading your work very much indeed. I’m short-listing this story – congratulations! Should the story move forward to the top three, someone will be in touch to let you know.
Best wishes, Lorraine Mace
Lorraine Mace has had fiction published in various magazines including That’s Life, The Lady, My Weekly and Ireland’s Own. Lorraine, a tutor for Writers Bureau, is also a member of the Freelance Market News appraisal panel for both fiction and non-fiction.
The following comments were received from the InkTears' readers. Overall they scored the story 8.3 out of 10.
When sending the comments to me, Anthony, who runs the competition, said this:
You got a good score! As usual, there were some people with some critical points - hope you find that interesting. We find this with every story we publish. After running this site for several years, I'm beginning to think that if you don't upset a few people with your story then there is something wrong with it!! Having published my own stories on the site, I know that it can be quite painful to read the negative comments (but very nice to read the positive ones), although I have found that if many people have the same comment then it makes me look more closely at my writing.
You had very few negative comments. In fact, the most striking thing about your feedback is that you inspired very short, sharp, succinct comments. Sometimes people write a novel in feedback!
Below are the reader comments:
“Very good build up + foreshadowing”
“Ripping yarn. Loved it. Tinged with overwriting at the edges though.”
“This story is great -- humorous, sad, topical, unbelievable, believable. Would like to read more of this man's work.”
“Clever, several twists on an old theme and an end unexpected but good.”
“Thanks for the story - really enjoyed it and will always read the small print in future.”
“For me the story was humorous, scary, but also had a moral and something of happy ending which is not always necessary.”
“The writer has a good imagination but I think he should make his point more clearly; unfortunately I lost him somewhere in Helven (although that could be because I am not really into this genre of fiction)."
“I love the concept of this story. It was well written and held my attention all the way through.”
“I really enjoyed this - imaginative, unpredictable and thought-provoking. A tiny bit repetitive in parts, but I can forgive that for the quality of the story.”
This type of feedback is very useful to receive. While it can be mixed, you can learn from it. It's always nice to receive praise, but if many negative comments highlight the same issue, you know you have a problem. Once the problem is apparent, you can address it and improve your writing.
This is an anuual short story competition, with a 3,000 word limit. It offers a first prize of £1,000, a runner up prize of £150 and 4 x highly commended prizes of £25. The winner, runner up and highly commended stories are all published on the website. A lovely looking PDF of each story is emailed to all the InkTears members.
Competition administrator, Anthony Howcroft, said this when he emailed me to tell me I'd been selected as an honourable mention:
We had over 500 entries this year, and competition was fierce - it was very close amongst the shortlisted entries. We really liked the unusual theme behind this story, and the humour despite some of the dark aspects of the subject matter.
InkTears also provide all the writers they publish with an author profile on their site (see my InkTears author profile) and write up the competition on the InkTears blog. I have enjoyed being involved with this competition because: