When the swirl caused by the change of reality ceased, I found myself in a kind of clearing with short sparse vegetation, besides some distant trees which had twisted branches and no leaves. It was a dark misty cold night and sudden winds made a strong drizzle twirl.
I looked at myself and felt surprised. I was wearing a long coat, large worn out jeans, boots, a hat and the most surprising: A belt with two guns in its holsters.
I made a shell shape with my hands, took them to my mouth and blew them, trying to warm them up a little. To the side, there was a muddy road marked by deep furrows that made me think of cart wheels. I sighed and moved on, dodging the puddles, trying to find something; maybe a city, maybe a village.
I hadn’t walked more than fifty meters and then stopped surprised by what was before my eyes. There was a ravine and, moving my eyes down it, besides the drizzle and the mist, I saw what seemed like uncountable houses. The land full of hillocks displayed a bizarre city. There were houses of all types and sizes, buildings with few floors… all in spots which were at times higher, at times lower and zigzagged by streets and narrow lanes that went up and down accordingly to the rough terrain.
At the end of the ravine a steep promontory went up. In it, lighted caves, all connected by corridors built with logs that made a puzzly mosaic full of passages.
There were hundreds of lamps in the houses and buildings, streets and lanes. And in the steep as well. They were spread around the corridors and the caves. All of them together produced a dim glimmering light that discomposed to the slightest breeze.
I took my hands to my face to remove the excess of water a puff had thrown against me. Before moving on, I saw a boy. A short distance away, beside the muddy path, looking at me with a hollow face. I tried to make out who he was and what he was doing there and, mainly, if he could help me somehow, but before I could do anything he disappeared in thin air, leaving a sudden void where he once was, soon filled by the drizzle.
I tried not to worry about that. Maybe it was a vision, maybe a ghost, maybe a kind of distortion of the reality. I looked at the ravine once again and shouldered. If Mark Charan Newton was down there, then that was where I would head for.
Puddles were many and any attempt to avoid them was showing to be useless. I heard some muffled conversations. Among the muddy terraced buildings there was a saloon. In front of it, under the rain, two pairs of horses wagged their tails impatiently.
The streets were so narrow that I would have to drive the horses away or go under them if I wanted to pass through them. The houses were made of wood, were built so close together that they pressed against one another making its edges twist and its wood crack. Doors and windows were closed but cracks on the walls let their dim lighting out.
I went on the terrace of the Saloon, knocked my boots to get rid of some of the mud and pushed the doors coming in.
There weren’t more than twelve men inside. Two were on the counter and the others were sitting by the tables, either playing cards or drinking and talking. They turned as soon as I got in, they shut for a moment and studied me, quite surprised. Then they went back to their own business, ignoring me.
I came near the counter. The barman approached somehow diffident and asked me what I wanted to drink. I put one of my hands in the coat and found some coins amidst a bunch of bullets. I put one of them on the counter and ordered for a scotch. The barman shifted his gaze from the coin to me, and then to the coin again. I got the message. I put another coin together with the first and then he served me the drink. I took the glass and turned around to look for whom I was searching. But Mark wasn’t there.
I drank it all in one gulp as tough men do. I breathed fire, my very soul burning due to the low quality whiskey.
“D’you know where I can find Mark Charan Newton?” I asked the barman.
For the second time all the voices silenced in the saloon. The men turned my way perplexed and scared. The barman opened his eyes wide and almost let the glass he was holding fall down. Then he moved away nervously towards the other side of the bar. The man by my side approached and said in between teeth.
“No one looks for him, never. No one wants to see him. No one knows about him. Everyone fears him. He can never be found, but he always finds those he wants to, whenever he wants to.”
“There’s an interview scheduled. I need to find him.”
Laughter thundered in the room. Some men gagged with the drink. The barman gave me a furtive look and smiled disguisedly.
“An interview with the devil himself, huh?” asked the man, nudging me on my ribs. “You’re obviously a foreigner. Only a complete fool would go out there looking for him. He ain’t a man, you see? He ain’t a creature made of divine mud. It’s not about flesh and bones, but darkness and anguish. Do you get it?”
“I guess we’re not talking about the same person,” I said a bit confused with that talk. “Mark Charan Newton is a writer.”
“Hmmmm… for some he’s this, for others he’s that. He attracts flies to his web in many different ways. If he’s a writer to you, fine. Go and look for him. But you should pray and deliver your soul to God first so it won’t get lost and end up somewhere cursed.”
The man moved away. The others went back to their stuff. I saw myself with no other alternative but to go and look for whom I came to interview. Was it a man or any other thing. I knew the mechanism of my quantic watch well enough to know I would never leave that place before the last question was made. Already accustomed to the danger those encounters used to bring already, I took a deep breath and went into the misty night of intense drizzle and treacherous winds.
I paddled around some lanes. At some places I could touch opposite walls only by stretching my arms. Suddenly, I slipped on a slope skating on the mud. I careened to the left trying to keep my balance, but it was no good. Before falling down sitting on a puddle, I saw the same boy by the threshold of a door, leaning on it, staring at me with the same empty look.
When I stood up he had already vanished. I cursed my bad luck, feeling part of my bottom all wet. The other part had been protected by the coat. My hat sat crooked on my head. When I tried to fix it a shot made it fly away in swirls. I shouted in astonishment, my heart beating fast. I turned around and saw him.
There was a man about twenty meters away, protected by the shadow he himself seemed to produce. Not even the nearby sconces had enough strength to light him.
I stooped down cautiously to fetch my hat, not taking the man out of my sight. He was still armed, pointing his gun towards me. It couldn’t be Mark Charan Newton. Or could it?
“You’re looking for me?” he asked, his voice guttural.
“Are you Mark Charan Newton?” I asked, while putting my hat on.
The man seemed to reflect for a few seconds, then span his gun on his hand and put it away in the holster in a fast move.
“You’ve got questions and I’ve got a job to do. We can try to solve both things at a time can’t we?”
“As you wish,” I said, trying to figure out what he meant by “a job to do”.
“Then, ask the first question… and run!” His voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, since he had just disappeared right before my eyes.
Apparently, the disappearing joke was common practice in that city. I cleared my throat, looking at all sides, especially up, as if he was hovering over me. I asked the first question.
‘In an old Interview I read, you said New Weird is dead. Define this affirmative better and explain us what the relation between your work and the weird universe is, since you recognize the influence that China Miéville has in your work’
I waited for an answer. But I only heard the cracking of the old wood and the wind that made the lamps sway. For a short while. Then I heard a shot. The peephole of a door to my right opened, the wood splintered. Then a second shot scratched the shoulder of my coat. A third one hit in between my boots and a fourth made my hat spin on my head.
I quickly understood what he meant by “ask and run”.
I dashed down the lanes, sticking my feet into loads of mud, I ran down many small streets, trying to find a place to hide. But wherever I went I heard the noise of bullets passing me by, so close that they didn’t take my skin off only for very little. It was a game and I soon noticed he hadn’t hit me yet because he wanted to have fun first. In a last endeavor I threw myself inside a house, diving through the window. I fell down rolling and retracted by the wall, near a fireplace which had no wood or burnt logs. I looked around the house and it felt as if no one had ever lived there before.
Mark’s voice echoed as if it transpired through the walls.
“The New Weird was – in publishing circles – a movement of a couple of authors. Perhaps it was used to define their work as notably different, but I believe it came to represent an aesthetic that only ever sold for those few authors several years ago. When you mention New Weird to publishers they’ll likely not want to buy such a manuscript – the worlds or techniques are just too outré. Publishers were/are looking for something more obviously commercial and therefore conservative. But it’s not to say that the New Weird had little impact – I think we’re starting to see a new generation of authors who were influenced heavily by writers such as Miéville.”
While he spoke, I drew my gun and checked for ammunition. I wasn’t going to give in without a fight. My pockets were full of bullets. The only thing I was concerned about was what to shoot, since I didn’t know where he was.
“I think what that movement helped do was define a darker and more surreal taxonomical branch of what is, by and large, a conservative genre – it’s a continuation of a line that stretches from William Hope Hodgson to Mervyn Peake to M John Harrison to China Miéville. I like to think that my work will sit on that side of the genre, which is something more obvious the further I get into my series, because those writers are the kinds who interest me the most.”
He stopped answering at the same time I heard hurried steps walking round the house down the terrace. I tried to guess the position of the unwary walker and, not giving a damn if it was about a citizen or Mark Charan Newton, pointed the gun towards where I judged he was and pulled the trigger, opening a whole of half an inch on the wall. I heard no moaning. I creeped down the window and looked. Nothing outside but bad weather.
I couldn’t hide all my life, so I went to the door and opened it rapidly, hiding behind the door post. After a few seconds I went out, holding my gun on the level of my eyes, both hands firm on it, pointing to a side and another, ready to shoot if necessary.
I then saw a shadow running on the roof, skipping parapets, making the wood tremble dangerously. Not thinking much, I pointed the gun towards the figure and pulled the trigger. I heard the stumps of the heavy steps moving away. I had missed the shot. Then I started chasing the figure, following the echoes that got to me. I penetrated more and more the forest of squeezed houses at every curve I made, feeling more and more lost and tired.
Some shots against me put me alert once more though. One of them took my hat off again, which this time, disappeared among the confusion of thresholds. Another shot took a piece of my left ear away. I screamed in pain and anger, throwing myself against a wall, protected by the roof of one of the many porches around.
“Damn you!” I yelled, feeling the blood run down my neck. “Miserable!”
“Questions! Ask the questions,” said Mark.
I pressed my teeth trying to ignore the great pain in my ear and endeavored to focus on the interview.
“Nights of Villjamur is a noir fantasy and is set in a time far away from ours. Where did you get the inspiration and how much time did you spend writing it? Explain to us, broadly, the philosophy – or the social denunciation, eventually – that is behind the trilogy – in case you use the literature as a means for political and social contemporary reality reflection.”
I sighed swallowing the pain and discomfort. Much more irritated with the quantic watch which was putting me into extremely dangerous situations than with Mark Charan Newton, who lived an adventure in a parallel reality that had apparently stolen his conscience.
“The real genesis of the series came from reading a little-known British SF author called Michael Coney. His novel, Hello Summer, Goodbye, ended more or less with a culture retreating into itself, and I thought “What if that was just the start of things?” That inspired me to create a city where people were fleeing to, in the face of extreme weather… “
I heard the answer trying to guess where it was coming from. From my left or from my right. Maybe from the other side of the street. Perhaps from the roofs. A light click behind me made me jump in a 180 degrees twist. Pointed gun, finger on the trigger, trembling, almost shooting. Luckily, I held myself. It was the boy. The same unexpressive eyes, same impaired look, arms fallen beside his body, head lightly bent to the side. Lips softly closed.
“God damned brat…” I started complaining when he just vanished in thin air.
“That was the starting point, but on top of that I wished it to be a reflection of our own cultures – albeit greatly exaggerated. As the series continues, it’s more obvious that I’m commenting on the real world. I wanted to write a fantasy that addressed minorities fairly – homosexual lead characters who are not simple accessories…”
A crack made me shoot against the roof above me. I heard a fun cry and hurried steps. Mark was moving atop the houses like a cat. I ran after him, trying to chase him, but it was difficult to trespass the infinity of obstacles that crappy village had. When I turned on a sudden corner, I found pieces of wood and loose joist. I tripped and fell on the garbage dump, spreading litter all around. I heard a not very distant laughter.
“I do this because I believe fantasy literature can be powerful – a writer can literally do anything he or she wishes to. To be honest, no matter how weird something is, I will nearly always have been inspired by a real world example. The real world can seem very strange when looked at closely.”
I had the impression I felt a certain ironic tone in the end of his answer. He was right. Writers could do anything. Even build imaginary scenarios and try to kill their peers in it. But he was not going to make it. I was smarter than I looked. I crawled out the trash and sat against a wall. I couldn’t even stretch my legs properly without hitting the opposite wall. I studied the barrel of the gun, threw away the empty cartridges and took some bullets from my pocket, filling it. I took a deep breath looking for the necessary balance, practicing the “Chi-Kung”. I soon felt rebalanced, with a conscience of the surroundings no human, post human or alien could have.
I stood up, totally focused. My muscles were tightened, my fingers firm on the handle of the gun. I then gave a quick step behind and Mark’s shot hit nothing but a loose piece of wood on the ground. I turned around and dodged another shot. The third was heading straight to my head, but I wasn’t there yet when the bullet passed.
“Well, look at that,” he cried in astonishment. “A worthy opponent, finally.”
I didn’t bother to answer, turned my wrist without changing my position and pulled the trigger making the bullet pass so near my healthy ear I could even feel its heat. The bullet went through wet boards and hit the target. I heard a cry of pain and surprise, followed by a hurried limp in flee.
“Your first novel was Reef. Before publishing it, what was your interaction inside the British fandom? Did you use to write and publish short-stories on the net or in anthologies? Who was, literally, Mark Charan Newton yesterday, and who will he be tomorrow?”
I asked the question retaking the path down the main street that was very little different from the vicinal ones. My perception went beyond the physical, pervading the metaphysical. I could hear him breathe. I could hear the dripping of the blood running down his hurt leg. I knew exactly where he was. It was just a matter of a few minutes before I told him myself what he would be tomorrow: A corpse.
“I worked as an editor for the publisher Solaris, and before that I worked in bookselling – I ran the SF and Fantasy section in my store! Those jobs were a lot of fun, and I got to go to conventions and chat with authors I greatly admired. I was a fan of the genre – I’m a geek – and it was a wonderful time… “
His words were forced, cut down by panting. He was more than hurt. He was scared. Very scared.
“I don’t tend to write much short fiction – I prefer the broad canvas of the novel – so I would simply go home from my editorial work each night and write my own thing. I got an agent when I was quite young, 23 years old, but it was a few years before I got the lucky break.”
I drew the other gun and walked with calculated steps, keeping them firm in my hands, as if I was just about to pull the trigger. I could hear him move away from me at the same measure I moved forward. He dragged one of his legs, the left one to be more precise, and couldn’t run the roofs as fast and accurately as he did before. I soon saw myself beside the Saloon which was mysteriously quiet. The horses tied in front of it weren’t there as well. I ignored Mark for a while and went down to the door. I peeped inside and was not surprised to find there were no tables or drinks. Nor people or anything indicating the place had been attended in the last 10 years.
It was a ghost city, of course. Inhabited by specters. Maybe Mark was one of them. No. Of course not. Specters don’t get hurt or bleed.
“One of the most common jokes in the editorial market – at least here in Brazil – says that editors are fed up with trilogies and that they ask the writers to bury any projects like these. We know very well that there is a bottom of truth in every joke. Despite having written and managed to publish one, don’t you think that there are trilogy projects in excess – Tolkien inheritance – and very few real quality works? Don’t you reckon new writers should worry only about smaller projects, and engage themselves in larger ones only after they obtain the experience needed to do so?”
I wasn’t expecting him to answer my question quickly. I thought he was going to keep silent in a useless attempt to prevent me from finding him through the sound of his voice. But the practice of “Chi-Kung” allowed me to realize the world with such a clarity and perception that was beyond the comprehension of those not initiated. But he surprised me, giving me an almost immediate answer at the end of the question.
“It’s hard to say. Some of the most successful fantasies in the US and the UK are series fantasies. Steven Erikson is one of the most popular in the UK, and his series is ten books long! But I would not think that series are bad, though – it’s a very difficult art to write a number of connected novels, since there are so many plates to keep spinning, so many things to remember. And some stories do indeed require many novels to tell. I approached a series with a different attitude in mind: I wanted each novel to feel as though it could standalone, and the story – to some extent – be self-contained. I think I managed this with books two and three. That’s the challenge for me – I don’t want to feel as though I’ve short-changed readers. Each novel should leave the reader satisfied.”
I put myself in the middle of the street. At its end, after ups and downs, after a hillock the steep went up. In it the caves, countless, interconnected by corridors and lit by lamps which little light meant very little or nothing. Edging the street, houses and small one or two-storey constructions, huddled on each other, swished by the rain that started to get worse. The wind howled, making the village tremble.
I lifted both guns slowly, pointing them towards the same place to my left, about fourty meters away, on a bent roof; hidden behind an old cracked wooden rampart was Mark, his hurt leg pulsing in waves of pain.
“Short stories, small novels, large novels, series of novels – they are all very different art forms, and to my knowledge, writers all have different preferences. I’m not sure how good a short story writer I could be, though I do admire the discipline of the form. I don’t think one could state that any of these forms are better than the other. There are good and bad short stories, just as there are good and bad trilogies. Writing lots of short fiction can make you a very good short story writer – but it does not necessarily make you a good novelist, and vice versa.”
As soon as his last word was said, I pulled both triggers. The shots occurred simultaneously and met the target without the slightest chance of mistake. I heard a groan, a body roll and then fall from the roof, with his back against the muddy ground. He was stretched, still. I approached him and observed him carefully. His hat covered his face. After a while he moved. He turned his head, his mat eyes looked for me and mumbled something I couldn’t understand. I kneeled so I could hear him better. I approached my ear to his mouth.
‘”Chi-Kung”’ he whispered. “You find yourself smart, but this ain’t your territory… it’s mine. Die, you damned!”
I then heard a cock. I raised my head and saw the boy right in front of me. He had a teethy smile and a demoniac look of satisfaction. Mark Charan Newton still held my throat, with a prehensile hand, squeezing me with such strength that drove me stunned.
I ran one of my hands to the button on the watch, pushing it, at the same time I heard a shot. A tongue of fire hit me throwing me into the most absolute unconsciousness.
I woke up at home, fallen on my living room, hours later. I still suffer splintering headaches. It gives me the creeps to think I could have pressed the button a little second later. This time, I got away for very little.