Issue 15: Out West

I was once an Eastern greenhorn, a city girl lured to the Rocky Mountain West by the promise of big skies and open ranges, rodeo riding and cowboy culture. I found myself in a small town in a sweeping landscape, where the sense of space expanded inner horizons as much as outer ones. Years later, back in England, I made another westward move (admittedly on a more modest scale), from London to the green hills of the Cotswolds.

The allure of the West, of wild(er)ness and migration, underpins much of Shooter’s Out West issue. Some of the edition’s writers celebrate classic aspects of Western mythology (horses, reinvention, seeking a better life), while others confront its downsides (toxic masculinity, guns, prejudice). Beyond myths conjured by pioneer history and movie lore, the issue sifts through these ideas to explore personal, nuanced elements of the American West. And beyond that fabled frontier, writers examine East/West culture clashes and mind-expanding experiences in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and even Sudan.

One piece that does so with a satisfying dose of humour is Georgia Boon’s opening story, “West Country”, about an actress sent to the south-western corner of England to bond with her equine costar. Horses also feature in “Nice Riding” by Becky Hansen, her memoir about a simple yet potent accolade from a straight-shooting cowboy.

The issue’s other two pieces of fiction explore darker aspects of the theme. Zachary Kellian depicts the toxic masculinity within a group of Nevada desert dowsers in “Set in Stone”, when one of the drill workers is forced to come to terms with his sexuality. Annie Dawid, in “Acts of Nature, Acts of God”, imagines a Wyoming coroner’s struggle following the gun death of a ten-year-old boy.

Travelling abroad gives rise to very different experiences for two of the issue’s non-fiction authors. In “What’s in a Name?”, Parnian Sadeghi writes of the challenge to her identity after moving from Iran to the U.K. For Barbara Tannenbaum, visiting New Zealand from California following a cancer diagnosis leads to an uplifting revelation.

Abundant poetry rounds out the issue’s prose (for the first time featuring an equal number of fiction and non-fiction pieces). Sally St Clair and Callista Markotich take inspiration from history and literature in “Californian Bone Soup” and “Language Lorn, Riding to Mexico”. Dreams of travel infuse Nicholas Hogg’s “Mariner”, while Millie Light conjures a strong sense of place in her two Cornish poems. Sinister elements lace Meghan Kemp-Gee’s “The Fugitive” and Richard Lister’s Darfur-set poem “Apart”. In “The Student with Spurs”, David M Schulz conveys the limitations of the Western dream, while John Laue rounds out the issue with some whimsical yet lucid Californian haiku.

Finally, don’t miss Lynette Creswell’s historical fiction, “Malkin Tower”, winner of the 2022 Shooter Short Story Competition. Inspired by the 1612 witch trials in Pendle, northwest England, Creswell conjures a compelling, suspenseful tale with a vividly murky setting. The story revolves around a young girl forced to testify against her mother and sister, who stand accused of witchcraft. “Malkin Tower” underscores that injustice can occur in any era – or, as other work in this edition shows, at any point on the compass.

Cover art by C R Resetarits

To order a copy of the Out West issue, please visit the Subscriptions page.

The 2022 Poetry Competition is now open to entries, and the theme for the winter 2023 issue will be announced imminently online!

Shooter Flash: “Greed” by James Hancock

At night, a child’s bedroom is a grey gloom of pretty things shrouded in shadow: an assortment of daytime toys waiting quietly as children sleep in the half-light. Maisie and Martin’s room was no different. Normal in every way, except for the faint glow of silver-pink light that floated in from between their bedroom curtains. A soft aura of minuscule powder sparkles and the shape of something small and magical within the light. A fairy.

Butterfly wings worked to a blur, carrying the visitor over to Maisie, where it hovered, and without a sound, gently lifted the girl’s pillow to exchange tooth for coin.

But it was interrupted.

Maisie’s eyes opened and she smiled. The menacing smile of a six-year-old missing her two front teeth.

“Gotcha!” Martin shouted with delight, and as the tooth fairy turned to face the boy in the next bed, he blasted her with a jet of fly spray. The tooth fairy coughed, covered her face with tiny hands, and flew away in retreat. Straight into a box, which Maisie instantly lidded shut. Captured!

“It worked,” Maisie chuckled, and gave the box a shake.

Martin wrung his hands together and grinned. “How much money do you think a tooth fairy carries?” He took the box from his sister and put his ear against it.

Maisie reached under her bed and produced a zip bag of wicked things. “Let’s find out,” she said, pulling a penknife from the bag and passing it to her brother.

Cutting a slit in the lid, Martin brought his lips close. “Listen here, little fairy. Post your coins through that gap. All of them. Or else!”

“Or else we’ll throw the box, and you, on the fire,” Maisie added.

“Please,” came a soft whimper from within.

“Do it!” Martin snapped, then gave the box another shake. “If you want to go free, you better do as you’re told.”

“And hurry up about it,” Maisie added.

A moment of quiet as the dazed prisoner recovered her bearings, then a small gold coin slid out through the gap. Cackling with glee, Maisie snatched it up and examined it. Another coin followed the first. Then another. And another. Coins continued to emerge through the slit in the box lid, instantly grabbed by greedy fingers.

Then the tiny voice came again: “There are no more.”

“You sure?” Martin growled in a threatening tone. “We don’t like tricksters.”

As Martin began counting their stolen treasure, Maisie leaned in to whisper, “We punish them.”

“I promise.” A sniff followed the timid voice. “Please let me go.”

Maisie picked up her penknife and tested the sharpness of its point with a finger. “Well?”

“Thirty-five,” said Martin. “Good enough?”

Maisie thought about it for a moment, clicked the penknife shut, and gave a nod.

Once again, Martin pushed his lips to the lid. “No funny business or we’ll clip your wings. Okay?”

A frightened murmur: “Yes.”

Martin lifted the lid, and the fairy darted out in a flash. A silver-pink blur, then darkness as the fairy disappeared behind the curtains and was gone.

Maisie and Martin laughed triumphantly. They scooped coins, penknife, and fly spray into the bag of wicked things and climbed back into their beds, their fiendish plan a great success.

Come morning, the twins awoke from a night of vivid dreams and peeled their faces from blood-caked pillows. Screams rang out as fingers pawed at deep holes in raw toothless gums.

Another visit had concluded matters, and the greedy children had paid their debt in full.

*

James Hancock is a writer/screenwriter of comedy, thriller, horror, sci-fi, and twisted fairy tales. A few of his short screenplays have been made into films, and he has been published in print magazines, online, and in anthologies. He lives in England with his wife and two daughters. And a bunch of pets he insisted his girls could NOT have.

Witch trials inspire 2022 story comp winner

Lynette Creswell has won the 2022 Shooter Short Story Competition with “Malkin Tower”, a tale inspired by the Pendle witch trials of 1612.

Shooter’s competition readers and judge, editor Melanie White, were quickly caught up by Creswell’s suspenseful storytelling and vivid 17th-century setting. In an email, Creswell wrote, “I felt compelled to write the story after hearing the true events of Jannet Devices, a local nine-year-old girl who in the 17th century sent ten innocent souls to their deaths.”

Creswell, who lives in Lincolnshire, has published several fantasy and romance novels (including Sinners of Magic, the first of a trilogy), as well as a children’s book, Hoglets’ Christmas Magic. Her story “A Slice of Cake” won the Society of Women Writers and Journalists’ short story competition in 2019.

Dean Gessie came runner-up in Shooter’s story competition with “Nobody Knows How Much You Love Him”, a tale about a child’s illness skilfully interwoven with metafictional allusions. Gessie, a Canadian author and poet, has won numerous international awards for his writing, including this year’s Aesthetica Creative Writing Award for poetry. His short story collection, Anthropocene, won an Eyelands Book Award in Greece and the Uncollected Press Prize in Maryland, USA.

One story also earned an honourable mention this year: Jeremy Smith’s “Pulpit Politics”, for its deft handling of topical immigration themes. Smith, a charity administrator who lives in London, has been published recently in Popshot Quarterly.

Both “Malkin Tower” and “Nobody Knows How Much You Love Him” are available to read online, and “Malkin Tower” will also appear in Shooter’s forthcoming Out West issue. Congratulations to this year’s winning writers!

 

Shooter Flash: “The Cleaner” by Sam Szanto

Carys attacks the master bedroom with a Henry hoover, tucks the sheets – ‘hospital corners’, her mother whispers from beyond the grave – and changes the pillowcases, one of which is streaked with what appears to be spray-tan. She also picks up a pair of frilly knickers and worries a stain on the carpet until two pairs of latex gloves are ruined. Then she takes two white towels from the ensuite and folds them into swans to go on the bed; she saw it done in a film about Japan and regards it as her special touch. It eats into her limited time but makes her clients feel special. 

The kitchen is next. Deflating helium balloons bob, including an ‘18’. It must be for the daughter, Isla. She was 13 when Carys first came here. Carys was employed by an agency then called Mrs Mop.

Carys is blitzing the work-surfaces as the client, Morgana, appears. It’s the first time she’s seen her today: Carys was given a key after two years’ weekly service. Morgana is wearing purple Lycra and carrying her iPhone in its glittery purple case. She looks tired, yellow skin under her eyes.

‘I’m making coffee if you’d like one?’ she asks.

Carys has a rule not to accept hot drinks from clients, so declines as she always does. Morgana turns on the coffee machine. Carys brushes away food scraps, takes the plastic and glass recycling to the bins outside, sweeps and bleaches the floor. Morgana drinks her cappuccino and talks about Isla’s party at the weekend. Carys makes appropriate noises in response. Morgana is one of only a few clients who talk to her while she’s working; she suspects the others hide, or pretend to be very busy at their laptops; but she has seen games of solitaire on the screens. Once, at the end of a shift, she passed a café and saw the client whose house she had been cleaning sitting in front of their laptop.  

Kitchen finished, Carys takes her cleaning supplies to the family bathroom. Morgana follows to the threshold.

‘Hey,’ she says, ‘you’re married?’

Carys starts; had she talked about her husband? She had a dream about him the night before and its cobwebs have clung to her all day. Then she follows Morgana’s gaze to her ring finger; her hands are usually concealed by latex gloves but she’d just run out.

‘Yes,’ Carys says, ‘married for fifteen years.’ 

Morgana doesn’t need to know that her husband died three years ago, after the black tentacles of cancer latched onto him.

‘Ahh, quite the stretch.’ 

Morgana wants to hear more; Carys doesn’t want to say more.

After a pause, Morgana starts talking about her husband. Now that the lockdown rules have been lifted, he is in the office almost every day and out a lot in the evenings.

‘It’s like he doesn’t want to spend time with us,’ Morgana moans. ‘I’m sure people aren’t meant to go back to work full-time in offices even now.’

‘I’m sure he’s very busy,’ Carys says meaninglessly.

She removes the plastic bag from the bin, stuffing the tissues that were on the floor into it. Her hands brush against a plastic stick. She shouldn’t look, but she does. There are two pink lines on the stick. It could be a Covid test, but the ones she has used have C and T on them. Morgana is looking at her phone, so hasn’t noticed. Carys wonders whether to tell her about what might be a pregnancy test, but what if it is Morgana’s rather than Isla’s? Despite the amount of time she has spent listening to her client, she doesn’t know how old she is: she could be anywhere between 35 and 45. 

Carys ties the handles of the bag and places it outside the bathroom. She washes her hands for twenty seconds, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice in her head. Then she sweeps up the hair on the floor, sluices water, scrubs sink-grime and tackles shower-mould. Morgana’s phone rings, and she walks away to answer it.

In the hall, Carys feather-dusts photos of Isla at various ages. She sprays glass cleaner on the wedding photo of Morgana and her husband Al. In the photo, Morgana is wearing a surgical-white gown with a sweetheart neckline, which Carys knows was handmade in London, and clutches a bouquet of deep-red roses; Al wears a matching red tie and button-hole rose. Carys and her husband don’t look like that in their one wedding photo. They married on a trip to Scotland, witnessed by two registry office staff, one of whom had taken the photo. She wore a pale blue dress, her husband a checked shirt. Their daughter was born nine months to the day later. Has she ever told Morgana she has a daughter? Clemmie is the same age as Isla; Carys cannot imagine her daughter with a baby.

Carys’s final task is the living room. They have a cat the colour of Morgana’s wedding dress, and Carys lint-rolls its hair off the sofa. She feels a pang as she does it – her fingers are a bit arthritic now.

The four hours (plus ten minutes, which she won’t be paid for) are up. Carys calls to Morgana that she is leaving; Morgana shouts goodbye from upstairs. The cat gives a sad-sounding miaow.

Carys wipes her sweaty face with a piece of kitchen roll, lugs her bucket and brushes to her car, and drives away. One more client to go, and then she can clean her own home. 

As she drives down Morgana’s road, she passes a car parked at the far end. She recognises the man on the driver’s side from the wedding photo she has just dusted, but not the woman. They do not see her.

*

Sam Szanto lives in Durham. Almost 40 of her stories and poems have been published or listed in competitions. In March, she won second prize in the Writer’s Mastermind Story Contest. She was a winner in the Literary Taxidermy awards, won second prize in the Doris Gooderson Competition 2019, and third prize in the Erewash Open Competition 2021. She won the 2020 Charroux Prize for Poetry and the First Writers International Poetry Competition.

Shooter Flash: “Poseur” by Amy Stratton

Annabelle shifted once more upon the bed cushions, while Charlie paused with his brush halfway to the canvas.

“Don’t move,” he said. “You’ve got to keep still.”

“Ok, I’m good now,” she said. “I promise.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, keep going,” said Annabelle, fighting the urge to fidget. Much as she liked the idea of an artist boyfriend, the reality of posing was turning out to be a little less fun. 

Charlie cast quick little glances at her while his brush made light scrapes upon the canvas. They’d been together for a few months; Annabelle had been hoping he’d ask to paint her, and now he was. He’d raved about her beauty: her long dark hair, her milky skin. It was a little odd, the way he was looking at her now, after the early weeks of basking only in his warm, admiring gazes. Now his brow slightly furrowed as he glanced at her, honing in on her clinically, not meeting her eyes. Very different from the look of a lover.

Brushing off the prickle of unease, Annabelle told herself the brief discomfort would be worth it. She wondered if he might submit the picture for the annual show at the portrait gallery. She indulged in a little fantasy of her portrait looming large amid the other canvases, being admired by the crowds. 

Almost an hour and many micro-fidgets later, Annabelle’s neck and lower back were starting to feel royally cricked when Charlie set down his brush on the heavily spattered palette.

“Still needs a bit of touching up, but it’s basically finished,” he said. “Do you want to see it?”

Annabelle yelped with relief and stretched luxuriously, rolling from the bed. She padded over to the easel with a smile and draped herself around Charlie’s shoulders, kissing his cheek, then froze at the sight before her.

The woman on the canvas appeared gaunt, all hard angles and deathly pallor. Her hair hung straight and limp; dark eyes glowered within purple hollows; nose awkwardly bent as if boxer-broken. Annabelle recoiled.

“What do you think?” Charlie asked.

“I just – need the loo,” she said, scurrying out of the room.

In the bathroom, she stared at herself in the mirror. Did he really see her that way? She peered closer, as Charlie had, clinically: Did she actually look that way?

People thought Annabelle was beautiful. She’d always been told so. She took care of herself – had her nails done, her hair blow-dried, her eyebrows waxed. She didn’t leave the house without makeup on, nor would she ever dream of letting Charlie see her without it. What if – she thought with a cold stab of horror –  she didn’t look how she thought she did? Right now, in the mirror, her face did look sharp, her nose pointy. Her makeup had smudged; Annabelle scrubbed at the shadowy patches beneath her eyes, but they wouldn’t come off. Perhaps it was the lighting. She welled up with frustration and snapped off the light.

“You don’t like it then?” Charlie drawled as she returned.

“It’s… good,” Annabelle faltered. “It’s just not very flattering.”

Charlie shrugged. “It’s just my style,” he said, cleaning his brushes and setting them aside. “It looks a bit raw right now, too. I haven’t finished. But I don’t do ‘Insta’ portraits.”

“I know you don’t,” Annabelle said. “But is that really how you see me? I mean – I don’t exactly look very beautiful in it.”

“Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder,” he said with a smirk.

“Right, but – you’re beholding me, and I look like that?”

“I try to capture an essence, not just the literal surface of someone. Come on, Annabelle – it’s art.”

Annabelle felt a deep lava of rage beginning to rise. 

“Well maybe it’s not,” she snapped, “and maybe I’m not okay with it.”

Charlie’s face reddened. “What would you know about it? It’s not quite the same as taking selfies.”

“It’s my face there – it’s my image,” Annabelle pointed at the canvas, “and I’m not happy about it. You’ve made me look ugly. You’ve made me look sick.”

“Well maybe you are sick,” Charlie exploded. “And if it’s not good enough for you, then maybe neither am I.” He strode back to the easel, picked up a tube of paint, and squirted a thick white stream at the picture. Grabbing the largest background brush, he slashed paint across the canvas. After a few rapid strokes Charlie threw down the brush, paint flecking the floorboards, and stalked from the room. Annabelle heard the front door slam.

Shaking, she walked around the easel to view what remained. The still-damp greys and blues beneath had streaked into the strokes of white, but her face was now a blank space, the portrait entirely obscured.

Annabelle poured a large glass of wine and took it with her into the bathroom, where she began to run a hot bath. Charlie may have gone but she felt relieved, more than anything else, now that the portrait had gone too.

While she waited for the bath to fill, she took another sip of wine and set the glass back on the edge of the sink. The mirror had steamed up. She wiped it to take a look at herself, but the surface remained opaque. Irritated, she used the edge of her sleeve, then grabbed a towel to clear it properly.

Yet the mirror was still clouded. Becoming frantic, Annabelle continued to scrub at the slippery surface, but the mirror remained whited out; her reflection was nowhere, as if caught in a blizzard. She dropped the towel and backed away, staring – but all she continued to see in the glass was nothing.

*

Amy Stratton is currently pursuing an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s, University of London, where she lives with her cat Harry and far too many books.

Dark Arts issue conjures black magic, painting mastery, suburban sorcery and political manipulation

When daily news everywhere reeks of self-serving political machinations, it’s enough to make readers wish for a little black magic of their own: What spell could oust a buffoon from Number Ten (though perhaps, frustratingly, simply to be replaced by yet another toad)? What incantation might block an ex-president from the White House forevermore?

Some of the contributors to this winter’s Dark Arts edition have inspiring suggestions, if only in the realm of fantasy. Emma Levin opens the issue with an imaginative reversal of the frog prince myth,  “Moments Recalled in the Seven Minutes Before the Police Arrive”. Capitalists – and anyone who enjoys living on the planet – might do well to take note of the consequences in Judy Birkbeck’s allegorical “The Landowners”. In “Green Beans Are Valid”, Annie Power offers a satirical take on the Orwellian ideology police. Indebted to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Max Marioni follows yearning for belonging through to the bitter end in his tale about a student secret society, “The Laurel Wreath Club”.

Some of the issue’s most compelling work took the theme quite literally, moving away from the realm of enchantment into the world of painterly arts. The artist in Lauren du Plessis’s story, “Entropy”, finds such inspiration in astronomy at her mountaintop fellowship that she becomes her work as much as any painter can. In “The Black Place, 1944”, Robert Herbst channels Georgia O’Keefe’s experience in the New Mexico desert, where she created many of her famous paintings. The title of his story nods to some of O’Keefe’s most mesmerising dark art.

The outcomes of dark arts in war are often less positive, as Greta Hayer shows in her historical fiction “Tusk”, about an elephant handler and his giant charge in battle. Elizabeth Hosang’s malevolent “Fixtures” are much smaller, but no less potent, in the very different setting of a gnome-ridden house in suburban Canada.

To lift the spirits – as well as unsettle them – Lisa Farrell closes the issue with her entertaining piece about a rather too effective magician in her story “The Last Act”. Bewitching verse from Alicia Hilton, Jeff Gallagher, James Hancock, Nina Murray and Ceridwen Hall studs the edition, interspersing the prose with poetry on black magic, feminist revisions, challenging creativity, and the magic of science. The issue’s featured poem, Dominic Baur’s “Status Update” (winner of Shooter’s 2021 Poetry Competition), weaves together layered allusions and linguistic associations to conjure a strong sense of underlying narrative. (Both “Status Update” and runner-up Isabella Mead’s poem “Great Aunt Audrey” are available to read here.)

Also online is a new monthly project, Shooter Flash, for those who enjoy even shorter stories than the ones appearing in the magazine. The competition accepts submissions on a rolling basis, with cash prizes, online publication each month, and an annual anthology of the winning pieces that will go out to all of Shooter’s subscribers at the end of each year. The winning stories have been posted online since the inception of Shooter Flash a few months ago – please enjoy these punchy pieces on the website via the link above and, if you’re a writer of miniature masterpieces, go ahead and send us your work!

To order a copy of the Dark Arts issue or to subscribe to Shooter, please visit the Subscriptions page.