Flash Frontier: Congratulations on your new collection, launching at the Queenstown Literary Festival mid-November. These are dark stories – and you admit to sensing a ‘very English gothic aesthetic’ in your work. Can you tell us more about that – where the inspirations come from, how you arrived at the idea of creating a set of gothic stories?
Bethany Rogers: I grew up in Newcastle, a city in the northeast of England. It’s right on the coast. There are ancient monasteries, the ‘new’ castle – that has a bloody 800-year history – and of course, Hadrian’s Wall which has its own myths and legends.
More recently, it was a shipbuilding and coal-mining community; both industries are fraught with deadly accidents that tore families apart. These days it’s quite arty and modern, but there’s a rich history there of tragic stories, myths and legends that I’ve always soaked up. As a child, my bedtime stories were often about tragic workplace accidents or epic tales of overcoming adversity. I grew up surrounded by this dark sense of humour and gothic storytelling that really reflects life and work in the northeast of England.
I never set out to write gothic tales, but as I’ve shared my stories over the years, the feedback kept coming back: That’s a bit dark. Where do you get these grim ideas? How do you sleep at night? I didn’t intend to be gothic, but I think life has shaped me that way and the stories are a reflection of what I find interesting and entertaining. I didn’t set out to give people nightmares, honest!
FF: Do you think such an approach to short story writing is something that holds weight, particularly, in the times we are currently living in?
BR: I love the short story format. I think the format suits our modern, hard-hitting, not-enough-time lifestyles. Short stories lure you into another universe for 20 minutes and then spit you back out again, in time to do the dishes and check your emails before bed. When times are tough, time is our most precious resource and short stories protect that. The short story format is an opportunity to explore big, horrible ideas in small, manageable chunks. And I find that anything gothic or dark fantasy walks the line between being realistic enough to have meaning, but strange enough to offer escapism, an antidote to the hard times.
FF: You had a mentorship through the NZSA mentor programme, and worked with Majella Cullinane. Can you share more about the process of honing and shaping your work — not just an individual story, but the whole set? Do you see a longer narrative arc or themes that connect these stories?
BR: I feel so grateful and lucky to have had the mentorship and the opportunity to work with Majella. It was a fantastic experience. With the mentorship, we had a set number of hours to use in whichever way would be most beneficial to the project. Majella and I decided a manuscript review would be a good first step. I’d already written most of the stories and had 12 in mind that I thought would make a good collection. At that stage, I’d simply picked my favourites out of the many stories I’d written, the ones I was most eager to share with the world. Majella gave me feedback on the stories and highlighted a few that didn’t quite fit and we talked a lot about why and how the stories behaved both individually and as a group. She helped me identify and define the common themes and ideas in the collection – I found that difficult to do by myself, I was so close to the stories.
Over the course of the year, I removed some of the stories, did some serious re-working of a few (‘The Runner’ caused me a lot of trouble) and wrote a couple of new ones that were inspired by the ‘feel’ of the rest of the collection. Most of the stories are connected by the gothic theme, but many of them are connected in other ways too – one supporting character demanded her own story, and several of the characters have a fatal addition to reading fairy tales and children’s books.
FF: What do you hope readers will take away from reading this collection?
BR: A lovely writing friend of mine runs a haunted house in Queenstown. She described Edgar Allan Poe’s stories as ‘something to send a delicious shiver down your spine’ and I thought: yes! That’s what I aspire to do too. There are some big themes in there: climate change, crime and punishment, social dysfunction… but I’d be happiest if I knew it gave people some escapism from life – because that’s why I love to read dark short stories. I’d love it if people were left feeling a bit creeped out, delightfully disgusted, a delicious shiver down the spine.
About the book
Kaleidoscopes in the Dark
By B. G. Rogers
Short. Readable. Disturbing. The eleven stories in Kaleidoscopes in the Dark paint the more sinister elements of the psyche in technicolour. The collection writhes with black humour, remnants of fairytales and gothic themes.
A child carefully crawls through a world of plastic waste in search of water but knows she won’t make it if the blood-drinking gulls catch a glimpse of her. A young woman plots her way onto the latest reality TV programme, where murderers are publicly executed in a manner that mirrors their crimes. Mice conspire with a seamstress to bring her dead fiancé back to life using an old English tradition.
With a distinct English gothic flavour, B.G. Rogers’ short stories touch on a range of topics from climate change to reality TV. Written to fit in our modern fast-paced world, each story pulls the reader into a vivid microcosm that’s not too unlike our own…
An excerpt from the book: Tiger Food
She grabs the crumpled letter from the waste paper basket when she thinks that no one is watching. She grabs her coat, her red hat and her reading folder (or she’ll get detention again). Before she swings her bag, one-shouldered onto her back (it’s pink, with 101 Dalmatians on it… although she’s not really counted), she hides the letter in the secret side pocket that’s reserved for special things. As she walks, a spoon drums against her lunch box. She’s walking fast on short legs into the corridor and into the yard. The spoon beats the beat with each stone step stepped upon and the girls skip ropes while the boys play ball.
Crack, crack, crack.
The ropes. Boom, boom, the bass of the ball. And the slap-slap-slap of loose rubber sole shoes on concrete slabs. And really, there’s a thousand heartbeats but they’re all rolled into one.
But the spoon beats faster, playing out of time. She feels everyone’s eyes on her, but all she sees are buckled shoes and gum-freckled concrete and the odd lonely little stone in the distance. It’s just outside of the school gates that she runs into Frank. She would have kept on running but there’s something about giant, orange tiger paws that stand out among the Clarks lace-ups and the Buckle-My-Shoes.
‘Grrroood afternoon, and who might you be?’
‘Baranina… wh-wh-what’s your name?’
Baranina is quick to notice Frank’s Blue Peter badge. She’s not afraid, you can never be afraid of anyone who has a Blue Peter badge. When she’s older, she’ll work on Blue Peter and have a gold Blue Peter badge.
‘What’s the matter, Barrranina?’ Frank looks directly into her red, wet face.
‘I-I-I’mmm in trouble a-a-a-gain. M-m-mrs Huller told me off-f-f f-for daydreaming.’
There’s salty water everywhere and her nose runs freely into her mouth which pipes it back up to her eyes. Now that he’s noticed, it suddenly seems perfectly acceptable for her to make a mess of herself. So she does. If she blinks, the water makes little drop-shaped badges on her pinafore. These are not Blue Peter badges; these are nothing to be proud of.
‘Here, mop yourrr face clean.’ (Frank has an old-fashioned cotton hankie.)
A green bubble begins to blossom from her nose before Baranina can capture it with the handkerchief. It grows and grows and grows until it’s so big, it falls from her face and drops gently towards the ground. A gust of wind catches it, and it floats up and up and up towards the tops of lampposts and it climbs the sky until it’s higher than the chimneys and the broken roof tiles. It floats away from the school, hovering above the estate for a moment before turning East, and heading off towards Africa, or maybe China to see the panda bears.
‘That letter, little Barrranina…’
‘Oh, how-how do you know?’
‘I saw that nasty owl deliverrr it. I just thought I’d warrrn you, you shouldn’t accept letters off strangerrrs, whether they’re fluffy snowy owls orr not.’
‘I-i-it says that I’m special, that I could go to a magical school for people just like m-me… but Mrs Huller says I’ve made it all up, that I’m daydreaming again.’
‘Indeed! She sounds like a rude woman.’
‘Sh-she is! She is!’
‘Howeverrr, Is it really wise to go off to some strrrange school that a ruddy owl invited you to? Would it not be wiserr to finish your SATs exams first, at least?’
She starts to walk home, and Frank pads along beside her in big, long strides. No one else seems to notice Frank, apart from the sparrows who shriek and hide in the bushes. She thinks it would be polite to talk, he does seem like a really clever tiger, aaand he doesn’t think she made the owl and the letter up.
‘Wh-wh-where do you live?’ She’s not seen Frank before.
He probably lives in a different estate.
‘Oh’, Baranina has not heard of that estate, they’re usually named after women writers around here, ‘Do you have a long way to walk, then?’
‘It’s quite farrr’, He smiles, a simple, line-drawn smile. ‘I shall have to stop to eat something on the way.’
‘Would you like to come for tea?’
‘Sounds delightful, little Barrranina!’
Baranina loves to have friends over for tea. Mum and Dad won’t be home for a while, so they have time to take the pretty route home through the park. They follow the tree-lined street where heavy-leafed chestnuts bow to the pavement and black-glossed railings proudly point to the skies. Baranina becomes more cheerful and starts to tell Frank all about home. Her house is full of books just for her. Books line the walls and spill from the coffee table. Long-neglected house plants are used as bookends and there’s half-drunk cups of tea and spare reading glasses on any remaining horizontal surface. Baranina’s Mum and Dad work in publishing and sometimes they bring home books that you can’t even find in the bookshops yet.
Baranina has grown up on a steady diet of literature.
‘And arrrre you sure that’s good for you?’ Frank looked at her with wise eyes.
‘Mum and Dad say reading is important for a healthy imagination.’
‘And do you exercise? Keep active?’
‘I have a pogo stick. And I like to climb trees.’
‘Hmmm. Verrry good.’
They’re nearly at the park when on the street corner she finds a curious-looking table. On it, someone has left a coke bottle, and a half-eaten ham sandwich. On the bottle, tied with a red ribbon is a label that reads: drink me.
So she picks up the bottle and unscrews the screwy lid. She’s about to have just a tiiiny taste, when…
‘Don’t, Barrranina. You don’t know how long that’s been therrrre.’
‘Oooh, but look what it says, Frank!’
She places the bottle back down and re-screws the screwy lid to stop flies from dropping in. She has to stand on tippie-toes to see what else is on the table. Beside the ham sandwich is its plastic wrapper which reads: eat me. So Baranina reaches over and…
‘Same applies, Barrranina. Don’t touch it. You don’t know wherre it’s been.’
‘Shall we go into the parrrk and chase the birrds?’
The sandwich is quickly forgotten and they skip into the park where Frank chases the birds whilst Baranina tries to talk to them. She spots a little robin sitting by a large, rusty key. She chirps, and talks, and coaxes and he hops and flits his tail and twitters:
I am a
Who never stops to chat,
Because if I stop and chat
You’ll know just where I’m at.
And if you know that I’m not home
I know what you’ll have for tea
You evil piece of murdering scum,
You’ll eat my eggs up, one by one.
Apparently, Frank’s not popular with the birds around here. The robin flies off to his secret nest and the park is suddenly empty apart from Baranina, Frank and a strange little boy dressed in delicate skeleton leaves. He isn’t shy, and he leaps forward to introduce himself to Baranina.
‘Hello, pretty girl. My name is Peter, what should I call you?’
‘Baranina… P-p-peter? I-I-I don’t know you from school, wwhere are you from?’
‘Far, far away.’
‘F-Far, far away?’
‘Yes, take the second star to the right, and go straight on until morning. I can take you there if you like. It’s a beautiful place, you’d love to see it.’
Frank is growling in a low voice, but Baranina ignores him. Peter tells her all about his home far, far away in a voice that no girl can resist. He tells her that he has no parents to look after him and Baranina feels at once that she is in the presence of a tragedy.
Ignoring Frank’s warning looks, she gives the boy a hug.
‘I can fly.’
‘Yes, want me to teach you?’
Perhaps you have heard of Peter, who hides in the park picking up children who aren’t being watched over by their nurses and taking them to a faraway place, where there are treehouses and pirates and everlasting youth.
‘I can teach you to fly, Baranina. Why walk home when you might be flying about with me saying funny things to the stars? And, Baranina, there are mermaids.’
‘Mermaids with tails?’ Baranina’s eyes become big and sparkly.
Peter’s smiling sweetly and gnashing his little white pearls. He holds out his hand to Baranina. Frank growls louder and louder and flicks his tail like a big angry cat.
‘Come with me, Baranina, and you could live forever.’
Baranina hesitates so Peter grabs her arm, hard. All of a sudden, Baranina doesn’t feel safe anymore. She stumbles backwards and Peter leaps forward to grab her. So she runs. She runs and runs and the spoon in her lunchbox rattles like a warning drum. She runs until she gets home, and all the way beside her is Frank, leaping at the strange little boy with his big paws and big claws, until eventually Peter is gone, and it’s just the two of them by her front gate. Baranina breathes heavily and leans on the wooden fence post.
‘Phew,’ she says.
‘Do you see what I mean about not trusting strrrange creatures you’ve just met?’
‘Come in, I’ll make you some food,’ Baranina says, without turning around.
The garden is filled with white peony roses, threatening to bloom. Baranina finds the key under an empty plant pot by the door. She unlocks the front door and pushes against its peeling mint-green paint. She steps into the hallway and drops her schoolbag on a pile of books.
She stops to breathe in the smell of dusty paper books and the familiar sweet smell of imagination mingling with the late afternoon sunshine. Frank sees his chance. He’s a cat after all and he has an instinct that tells him when to stop playing and when to kill. Her neck is so small the bones crush easily and his teeth grind together in a way that sends a shiver down his spine. She won’t be enough, so he’ll wait in the kitchen for her Mum and Dad.
B. G. Rogers is a short story writer and poet from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (UK). She currently lives in Queenstown, Aotearoa New Zealand with a ginormous house rabbit called Oscar Wilde. Her work has been published internationally and commended by Aesthetica Magazine, shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize and longlisted in the New Zealand Flash Fiction Day competition.In 2021 she was selected for the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc) Mentor Programme for emerging writers. She’s a founding trustee of the Queenstown Writers Festival and a member and organiser of the Queenstown Creative Writing Group. Kaleidoscopes in the Dark is her first short story collection.