Past ghosts and future heroes

The appeal of the Gothic mashup
behind The Book of Thunder and Lightning

Photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash

When creating future heroes for literature, it’s sometimes useful to look to the past. If we dig deeper into history we can see our present realities reflected back to us and this can be furtive ground for writers.

This is what happened to me back in 2021, following the completion of my novella Headcase. With the worst of the pandemic behind us, a short walk to a local neighbourhood in Shoreditch, London took me to a street I had never come across before. Calvert Avenue, with its chic boutiques and quaint cafes lead to Arnold Circus, a small round park with a spired bandstand at its centre. Its elevated position gave you a view of the spider web of broad, orange-bricked avenues fanning out from it. Had I suddenly been transported to another city?, another country? Another time perhaps.

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The Circus by Seb Duncan

The Circus by Seb Duncan

Photo by Daniele Franchi on Unsplash

My grandmother joined the circus.

Exactly when this happened is uncertain, but as a child I had visions of her as I knew her then, five foot tall with grey hair, stiff deportment, walking along a high wire or taming lions.

The crowd would shout and clap in amazement, at the feats of this ninety year old performer.

In fact, in my child’s mind, it was almost as if she was the main attraction.

A poster had been specially designed with her at the centre, sitting inside a cannon and waving, just before being shot out across the crowd.

Curly Victorian typography, above her head would announce:

My parents always referred to her as a bit of a black sheep.

This only made things worse.

Now a motorbike was jumping through a burning hoop driven by a bleating, furry black animal, pearl necklace flying behind her as she landed safely on the other side, albeit with a slightly singed ear.

As I became a teenager, I was soon distracted by teenage things and forgot that my granny had joined the circus.

When she passed away, I forgot to ask my mother about her mother’s curious past.
When my mother died there was no one left to ask about it.

In my maturity, the visions of her have become more vivid.

This time, a beautiful young woman, proudly curtsied, then with head held high,
the crowd applauded, as one more death-defying act had been performed.

My grandmother joined the circus but this is all I really know.


This story was featured in the Autumn edition of GoldDust

Another Dementia

Virtual reality, creativity and dementia care

Photo by Sara Kurig on Unsplash

White wooden porches in front of colonial style houses line up on either side of the street. Rocking chairs, planters and park benches are scattered nearby. Above is an endless expanse of azure blue. A green lawn resembling the topography of a miniature golf course runs the entire length of the central area (the only feature that seems strange at a glance – what’s a golf course doing in the middle of the street?). This isn’t a friendly village in old town America, but an experiment in social care that could pave the way for how all assisted living facilities are designed in the future.

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Snake’s feet and burning eyebrows

The weird and wonderful world of Chinese idioms

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

If your eyebrows are on fire (火烧眉毛), don’t worry. It just means you are in a hurry. Just what is it about Chinese language idioms that are so weird? Certainly one could argue that all idioms are in fact meant to be a bit strange even within a native language, but there is something slightly mysterious when idioms are translated into another language – and this is not least when translating Chinese language idioms into English language ones.

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Rebels, bullies and resistance

The human instinct to support the underdog

As Ukraine faces its darkest hour, the world watches in horror from the sidelines hoping for a quick resolution. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, barely three years in the job, has proved to be more than able to manage, and above all, lead his country through this Russian invasion.

As of writing this article, against all the odds and at great human cost, it looks like the Ukrainian military – and its courageous people – have prevailed, as Russian troops pull back from the north and the west of the country to concentrate on the ‘special operation’ in the south east. Vladimir Putin has vastly underestimated the resolve of his smaller neighbour and its allies, despite the EU and NATO being disunited, and deeply naive about potential geopolitical threats in recent years.

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The Shop

This is the opening chapter from Seb Duncan’s novella Headcase: A Post-truth ghost story.
Fright Night by James Stave
This is the opening chapter from Seb Duncan’s novella Headcase: A post-truth ghost story.

The warrens of tourist shops on Nerudova Street were starting to open for the day. Svetlana yawned as she pulled up the heavy metal shutter covering her small gift shop. She was proud of the business she had built up. It was considered the go-to destination for all things ghoulish and kitsch in the city; Trump and Putin masks jostled for space with gorilla suits and naughty nurse outfits. Everything one would need for a stag or hen weekend was there.

The horror masks were the real draw though, and they took pride of place in a long horizontal line above the front desk of the shop that faced onto the street.

However, something was different this morning. Svetlana couldn’t exactly place it. An almost imperceptible change. Air pressure? temperature? something. She looked up and shook her head. Probably too many Becherovkas last night. Hangovers were becoming more and more intolerable, and she put the feeling of unease down to the fact she had drunk far too much the previous night. She wiped a bead of sweat from her brow and decided to press on with her day.

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Jobfished – welcome to the #metafake

Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

The Tinder Swindler, a Netflix documentary about a douchbag who cheats young girls out of money (after they have been primed with glamorous dates, including private jets and succulent sushi buffets) kicked off a new genre of digital Scamdocs that reveal the joys of 21st digital social interaction. It was fairly riveting.

Similarly a BBC Three documentary, Jobfished frames itself as a serious piece of ‘investigative journalism’ as it follows an equally glamorous brand communications company called Madbird, that has recruited a team of new employees under false pretences – think Fyre Fraud but with nauseating thought leaders. Even though the company’s website is replete with a prestigious client list and profiles of its experienced ‘leadership team’, the company turns out to be, wait for it…NOT REAL!!!!! WOW!!! Amazing!!!! Hashtag, digital ejaculation!!! OMG!!!

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The Spider Who Loved Jazz by Seb Duncan

Photo by Kevin McCutcheon on Unsplash

The tarantula tapped his front leg to the rhythmic scraping of Jimmy Cobb’s brushes. All Blues was his favourite tune on the album. It made his hairs stand on end  – all 1,234,569 of them. Combining the elegant swing of a 3/4 rhythm with the tight beat of the new modal style, it was minimal, hypnotic, easy. Bill Evans’ constant piano rolls reminded him of his mother’s web, shivering and flexing across the branches of the tree in the garden where they used to live. 

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The Fear Index meets Headcase

Photo by Xin on Unsplash

In the novella Headcase – A Post-truth ghost story, a medieval Czech myth collides with a 21st Century political fake news campaign. You never quite know where you are in the book. Is it a ghost story? Is it a political satire?This feeling of uncertainty is made more perplexing by the introduction of a Nick Cage lookalike, in the form of one of the central characters, Inspector Tomáš Novák. Does the character think he looks like the actor or is Mr. Cage actually the character in the story? Throughout the novel’s twists and turns the reader is never sure what will happen next or who or what to believe. The series The Fear Index, on general release this month in the UK, deals with similar themes.

The original book by Robert Harris that the series is based on centres around a high-end brokerage firm based in Switzerland that has developed an algorythm that can detect – and therefore make money from – fear itself. But the kingmakers (Josh Hartnett and Arsher Ali) who created this digital money tree are far from in control; what we have here is an assemblage of Frankestein meets Gordon Gekko (with echoes of the 2008 financial crisis thrown in for good measure). The book – and the series –  also investigates how our digital lives have come to define one’s whole sense of reality, and this element of The Fear Index, is its most most interesting one. Headcase picks up this theme and runs with it around the Prague streets like a headless corpse stuck in a digital echo chamber (in a good way).

In the same way that Don’t Look Up highlights how the trivial – or worse – fake media cycle has hijacked important news reporting, Headcase and The Fear Index present us with the horror of a Post-truth world, in which information is being manipulated to such a degree that human agency is becoming irrelevant. The dog is being wagged by the digital tale – or is that tail?

The Fear Index is out on Now TV and Sky. Headcase – A Post-truth ghost story by Seb Duncan is available on Amazon KDP.

The Bowling Alley by Seb Duncan

Photo by Dalton Smith on Unsplash
This is an excerpt from Seb Duncan’s novella Headcase: A Post-truth ghost story.

The scene was set for the event, as it had now been named by Smutny. Despite its large size, Bowling Celnice’s low ceilings gave it an underground bunker feel that no amount of bright neon lighting or wall colouring could disguise. With 6 lanes and a large canteen, there was enough space for over 300 people at any one time, and the place was already beginning to fill up nicely. Two undercover police, both with discrete earpieces were in place to make sure everything went smoothly. They casually hung about at separate ends of the club, one sipping a giant soft drink from a straw and the other selecting some bowling shoes. As luck would have it, a large coachful of British tourists from the Women’s Institute was booked in for that afternoon. This, Smutny emphasised, would only add to the “authenticity halo” of the event, as the visitors communicated on mass what had happened to friends and relatives directly back home via social media. The discovery of the head was primarily focussed on regional and national media, but any direct international coverage would help to spread the story as far and wide as possible. Continue reading “The Bowling Alley by Seb Duncan”