Wednesday, 9 January 2019

My own gazetteer of strange, eerie places


Today, I’m taking advantage of a photo-gallery idea I recently had.

It came from a question someone asked me: what are the most amazing places in Britain that you’ve ever written about? Now, that’s not an easy one to answer. I mean, define ‘amazing’. But it certainly struck me that it would be fun to contemplate the most scary and mysterious places that I’ve ever written about … or more importantly, that I would LOVE to write about but haven’t thus far.

So, that’s what today’s blogpost is all about.

I’m going to take you on a whistle-stop tour of the top ten weirdest/eeriest real-life places in Britain and Ireland that I would love to take my fictional characters to in either my crime-thriller novels or my horror stories. And, as an added bonus – and why the hell not? – I’m also going to show you my top ten weirdest/eeriest real-life places that my fictional characters actually HAVE visited.

Somewhat in keeping with that theme, I’ll also be offering a detailed review and discussion of Rosemary Pardoe’s compelling new anthology, THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR.

If you’re purely interested in the review, fair enough, You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s post. Just scoot on down there right now. However, if first you fancy checking out a few remote corners of Britain and Ireland where folkloric type chills are said to manifest in real life, then stick around for a bit …


British and Irish Top 10 spooky spots where my fictional characters may fear to tread, but where they’re going to tread at some point, like it or not …


The uncanny, ankle-breaking moonscape of the Burren in County Clare, Western Ireland. A glaciated georama, it visually embodies spookiness. Even Oliver Cromwell said of it ‘a country where there is not water enough to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury one’. I’m sure that some thriller/horror writer has dealt with it before, though I haven’t personally, and I’d love to get there at some point.



The Hellfire Caves in the Chiltern Hills near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. A tourist attraction for many years now, they have a genuine arcane history, having played host to Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hellfire Club of the 18th century, which saw drunken reprobates from the local aristocracy indulge in orgies, black magic and even (allegedly) human sacrifice. If I ever do manage to set some fiction there, I’ll be late to the party as Hammer Horror beat me to it years ago, having filmed To the Devil a Daughter there back in 1976.



Possibly the world’s most famous avenue of beech trees, the Dark Hedges, which run along the Bregagh Road near Armoy in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. HBO’s Game of Thrones has immortalised this remarkable sight, making it into a world-famous tourist attraction, which probably renders it useless for my purposes now – it’s only a road at the end of the day, but Hell, what a road! It could so easily be a movie set, but it’s a genuine piece of nature, the trees first planted in 1775.



Now a deceptive one. This is the idyllic Blue Lagoon in the hills near Buxton, Derbyshire. Looks gorgeous, doesn’t it? Fancy a dip on a nice summer’s day? Well … best not to, because the water is only that lush blue colour thanks to being toned blue by toxic chemicals leaching from the surrounding rocks. Plus, it’s not a lagoon or even a lake, it’s a flooded quarry which just beneath the surface is filled with car wrecks, dead animals and human excrement. It has no esoteric history as far as I know, but it’s just so damned nasty that I can’t ignore it forever. (As a footnote, it’s recently been dyed jet-black to stop people swimming).



Back in the world of folklore and fable, the Beetham Fairy Steps, on the border between Lancashire and Cumbria, offer chilling false promises. They’re a natural rock formation, unless you believe the rumours that the faeries carved them. If so, and you venture down, making a wish en route, and manage not to touch the sides before you reach the bottom, your wish will supposedly be granted. But ensure that a so-called shade is not coming up at the same time; a dark form with glowing eyes – encounter this and it means you are doomed to die very soon.



Further south in my home county of Lancashire, we have Pendle Hill, notorious for the 12 female inhabitants of the region accused of causing death by witchcraft in 1612, tried for their lives and then (ten of them, at least) hanged. It’s a bleak, windswept place, undeniably eerie on desolate autumn days, but it’s beautiful too in a wild wilderness kind of way. At least part of its evil reputation stems from visitors venturing up there on dark Halloween nights, losing their way and falling down ditches and into gullies. I’ve written many times about rural Lancashire, but never about Pendle Hill itself. 



There aren’t many places in the British Isles where you can shake hands with an 800-years-old mummy, but the crypt of St Michan’s Church, Dublin, is one. Believe it or not, a legal glitch enables visitors to have physical contact with certain of these dried-out, 11th century corpses, as Church Law only forbade the opening of the caskets, not the touching of their contents – and the caskets have collapsed under their own weight, whereas natural chemicals in the walls are believed to have preserved the bodies. Rumour holds that Bram Stoker was first inspired to write about the undead after visiting this nightmarish place.



High in the Yorkshire Dales lies Trollers Gill, wherein strange deaths have been recorded since the 14th century. The name of the gorge hints at early stories that trolls would lie in wait along the top and throw heavy stones down on anyone passing below – and indeed there are reports of lone travellers who have died under falling rocks. Meanwhile, the Gill is most famous for the Barghest, or ‘hill ghost’, a terrifying demon dog, said by some to have been brought here by the Danes as a mythological weapon of mass destruction. One glance from its fiery eyes is certain death. (The image is by Matt O’Brien).



There’s surely no more picturesque nor more tragic a place in Britain than Glen Coe in the Scottish Highlands. Featured in many movies because it is quite simply beyond beautiful, it’s also the scene of bitter betrayal and foul, bloody murder. Little wonder that when night falls and the mist rolls down the hillsides, the shadowy forms of the massacred MacDonalds – callously slain in 1692 by the same government forces they had recently fed and sheltered –  are said to roam the silent glens. (The image comes to us from Travels with a Kilt).



The spectacularly spooky Mary King’s Close underneath Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Said to be rife with ghosts, this fascinating visitor attraction comprises several streets remaining from the 17th century, which were simply buried under new architecture in the 18th and eventually forgotten. Rumours abound that murder victims and plague sufferers still haunt its claustrophobic confines, while it’s now been proven that the Close once ran alongside the Nor Loch, a mini lake into which the city’s sewers discharged, leaving it so vile and polluted that it gave off poisonous fumes. Surely, no writer on the dark side can resist underground Edinburgh for long? But just in case you think you can, look more closely at the picture. Is that an hallucination caused by foul gas … or an honest to goodness spectre?  (The image comes to us from the Real Mary King’s Close).


British and Irish Top 10 spooky spots where my fictional characters have already trodden … 


No, not the entrance to Mordor, but Castle Crag at the north end of Borrowdale in the Lake District. In my 2014 thriller novel, DEAD MAN WALKING, I transplanted it, cairns and all, to the Langdale Pikes. You may recall that Heck followed it up through thick fog to a ghastly ruin of a house, where something very nasty awaited him. (Picture by Tim Parkin).



Red Sand Towers, a World War II anti-aircraft emplacement still standing in the Thames estuary in Kent. I renamed it Blacksand Tower for my 2013 thriller novel, STALKERS. Anyone who read it may recall that Heck was marooned there at the mercy of a psychotic hitman.



Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. An extensive spread of marsh, broad and reedbed mostly owned by the National Trust. It doesn’t look too scary, but there are many fenland myths attached to it – lantern-men, witches, black dogs, and the fearsome, vampire-like mere-wives. I went all out to make it as scary as possible in my aptly-titled horror story of 2012, Wicken Fen.



The notoriously scary Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor in Devon, in legend the kennels of the nightmarish Yeth Hounds, Satan’s pack, or Odin’s depending on which era of folklore particularly interests you. I hope I managed to capture its demonic aura properly in my horror story of 2009, We, Who Live in the Wood.



Where else but Highgate Cemetery in North London? Okay, I know it’s not really Highgate Cemetery; it’s actually a still from the Weeping Angels on Dr Who, but it appears on so many websites dedicated to London’s most famous and ancient graveyard that I thought I’d try to cheat you all too. I haven’t written anything set in Highgate Cemetery yet … but I am doing in my next-but-one thriller novel, which unfortunately I can’t name at this stage.



Lindisfarne, better known as Holy Island, off the Northumbrian coast. A mystical, majestic place rather than somewhere that’s likely to haunt you, but a wealth of myths are attached to it, while the actual history is bloody enough, the Viking raid of 793 leaving the island’s small population, both monks and lay-folk, slaughtered en masse. There was plenty more violence there in my thriller novel of 2014, THE KILLING CLUB, which saw Heck take refuge on the island while being pursued by a gang of terrorists. (Picture by Swalby).



A pic from the recent past now, because Dreamland, at Margate, has since been revamped and reopened. But when I saw it a few years ago, it was one of several abandoned theme parks in the UK, all of which combine that strange air of melancholy mingled with menace. I was inspired to include one such ruined fun park in my seaside horror story of 2014, The Incident at North Shore.



The one and only Long Meg and Her Daughters site in Cumbria, with me included just to prove that I’ve been there. One of our most spectacular Neolithic henges, some of the stones still displaying visible Bronze Age carvings. Mythology tells how they were witches transformed into rock by an angry saint. But pagan groups still celebrate there – the evidence of rituals is widely to be seen, and I made extensive use of it in my Lovecraftian novella of 2002, Long Meg and Her Daughters.



The fathomless, ever-mysterious Loch Morar, in the Western Highlands of Scotland. Over 1,000 feet in depth, it’s the deepest, darkest freshwater body in the British Isles. Needless to say, it’s got its own monster legend, occasional sightings of a huge, unidentified creature having led to the tale of Morag, ‘the Harbinger of death, the giant swimmer in deep green Morar’, an impressive quote I remember from somewhere but can’t quite put my finger on. Anyway, I visited the loch in my horror story of 2015, The House of the Hag. (The picture is by Andrew Hillhouse).



Back to the Lake District with my final selection, not because the Lodore Falls have got any reputation within folklore, but simply because they are so spectacular and because I was yet again able to transplant them to somewhere else in the Lake District for the sake of dramatic license. In my thriller novel of 2014, DEAD MAN WALKING, I really indulged myself, sending Heck on a frantic downhill boat-race with a serial killer. I used the Lodore Falls as the model, relocating them to the high Langdales and renaming them the Cragwood Race. If you feel this isn’t quite as good a pic as the others, that’s because I took it myself. Sorry about that. 

(I've included photo credits wherever I could find them, though many of these images were simply floating around online. The dramatic picture at the very top comes from Visit Wiltshire. The short stories I reference were first published as follows: Wicken Fen in Terror Tales of East Anglia; We, Who Live in the Wood in Black Static 14; The Incident at North Shore in Terror Tales of Wales; Long Meg and Her Daughters in Children of Cthulhu; The House of the Hag in The 2nd Spectral Book of Horror Stories).


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR 
ed by Rosemary Pardoe (2018)

An enthralling anthology of macabre supernatural tales, some old and some brand new, but all drawing heavily on folklore, primarily of the British variety, and written in the style and tone of MR James.

Initially, rather than outline all the stories contained here, I’ll let the official Sarob Press blurb do the talking, as it nicely pitches the chills and thrills to come.

Sarob Press is delighted to present a superb collection of Jamesian folk horror tales. Ten have been selected from the pages of editor Rosemary Pardoe’s journals Ghosts & Scholars and The Ghosts & Scholars MR James Newsletter – and seven are newly written especially for this volume. The previously published stories date from as early as 1980 and as recently as 2015.

Here, you’ll find folk horror in a variety of expected and unexpected settings, from ancient burial mounds in Wiltshire and East Anglia to a park in Liverpool, by way of ruins in Ireland and the countryside villages of the Lake District, Dorset, Derbyshire and an unspecified southern county. In the new stories the settings range further afield and include Scotland and Greece. In one case, while the setting is Scotland, the folk horror comes terrifyingly from pre-war Germany.

For the uninitiated, Ghosts & Scholars, which Rosemary Pardoe also edits, is a long-running and very informative magazine, which as well as encouraging scholarly research into MR James (a noted academic as well as a famous writer of ghost stories), includes new fiction written in the Jamesian fashion, articles, reviews and atmospheric artwork.

To my mind, there’s always been a correlation between James’ style of writing and the concept of folk horror, a subgenre that has long been with us, but which has returned to the public’s attention in a big way after the release of recent horror movies like The Ritual, Borderlands, Wake Wood, A Field in England etc.

All that said, I don’t think the two forms are necessarily the same thing.

MR James is widely regarded as the architect of the modern English ghost story, focussing on arcane but mainly fictional mysteries, often setting his tales in the world of antiquarians, where scholarly meddlers arouse the ire of supernatural malcontents by seeking out musty treasures of the past. James died in 1936, so invariably the bulk of his stories occur in the first quarter of the 20th century, a period very familiar to traditionalist ghost story fans, and while many modern authors who’ve been influenced by him have set their fiction in our own age, the gentlemanly tone often remains.

James’ stories frequently take us to countryside locations, Lost Hearts and A View from a Hill for example, or isolated stretches of coast, such as in A Warning to the Curious. Though, in my mind this still doesn’t automatically equate with folk horror; sometimes there’s a more occultic feel to his fiction, such as with Casting the Runes or Number 13, or they may be straight tales of vengeance from beyond, like The Mezzotint and, most famously of all, Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

Ultimately, I suppose it depends how you define folk horror, which is also a bit of a conundrum as opinions on that vary widely. To some, it must reverberate with archaic lore and pre-Christian tradition derived from the land and the turning year, whereas to others it’s all things rural, from standing stones and faerie rings to time-honoured village murder mysteries.

To me, it’s simpler still: folk horror is horror fiction derived from recognisable folklore. There needs be nothing more to it than that.

Even then, I can’t see an unavoidable link between folk horror and Jamesian horror. But that’s me being finickity, because, as I also said, they certainly make for very cosy bedfellows, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Rosemary Pardoe has been able to raid the innumerable back-copies of Ghosts & Scholars for reprints and at the same time acquire some quality new fiction from modern Jamesian writers to put together this very effective and chilling anthology.

In some stories, as you’d expect, James’ favorite theme of vengeful revenants is to the fore: in Geoffrey Warburton’s The Lane for example, where a simple grassy path appears to lead into another dimension controlled by an evil force that was summoned in times past, or in Chico Kidd’s Figures in a Landscape, where an investigation of some old Irish ruins leads to near-disaster.

At the same time, in others we’re talking full florid folk horror. Philip Thompson’s Beatrix Paints a Landscape (1884), sees the Lake District’s most famous resident encounter a menacing woodland entity – the polar opposite of the friendly Lakeland creatures she so lovingly wrote about and drew, in Carole Tyrrell’s Lorelei we’re concerned with a village well, the dark goddess dwelling at the bottom of it, and the terrible effect she has on those who hear her call, while in SA Rennnie’s Out of the Water, Out of the Ground, one of several truly excellent stories contained herein, we face the full terror of what it would mean to be at war with the little people.

This of course is a key factor in any work of horror fiction: how highly did it score on the scareometer?

In that regard, The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Folk Horror is pretty satisfactory. As I’ve already mentioned, Out of the Water, Out of the Ground is especially frightening, but Michael Chislett gets us there too with Meeting Mr Ketchum, in which a hot Lammas Day sees two youngsters casually disturb an East Anglian tumulus, which unfortunately for them, is not undefended, while in CE Ward’s The Spinney, a deceptively simple tale, a motorist stranded in the Derbyshire wilds is inexplicably pursued across a desolate landscape by two increasingly menacing figures.

Possibly the two scariest stories in the entire book, however, are traceable back to my native Northwest: Christopher Harman’s genuinely bone-chilling Sisters Rise, which is centred around an eerie megalith on a lonely Lancashire hillside, and Ramsey Campbell’s short but effective The Burning, set in the depths of urban Liverpool on a cold Bonfire Night. Campbell needs no introduction of horror aficionados, of course, but The Burning is a particularly strong entry because, despite its brevity, it examines the brutal origins of November 5th, the mob mentality of sectarian violence and the victimising of the innocent.

It’s no surprise that we get such an intelligent message from Campbell, but there are other entries in the book that are equally thought-provoking.

Gail-Nina Anderson’s intriguing Variant Versions follows the quest to pin down the truth about an obscure rural ballad, the author balancing the scare factor, which is very subtle, with a genuine academic enquiry into the feminist origins of old country tales. In The Walls, meanwhile, by the ever-reliable Terry Lamsley (whose valuable contributions to the genre sadly seem to have ended years ago now), an attempt to investigate an old lead mine invokes a very different and unusual kind of entity, while in The Valley of Achor, Helen Grant takes us to the Perthshire wilderness, where an ancient pagan site has found a unique and disturbing way to reclaim itself from the new religion imposed on it during the Christian conversion.

There are other stories in the book which I haven’t yet mentioned, but that’s basically because we’re out of room. Put it this way, none disappoint. This is a lively and engaging anthology, filled with often gentle and yet hair-raising tales. What it eschews in terms of excessive blood and guts, it more than makes up for in its intelligence and its undoubted style, and of course, in its air of creeping dread. I feel sure that Dr James would have been delighted to get involved.

And now …

THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF FOLK HORROR 
– the movie.

Just a bit of fun. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed, if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but they are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. 

Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. It could be that they’re all held in separate cells in a mental hospital, eager to tell their individual tales to the new house-man (a la Asylum) or find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (as in Dead of Night) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Sisters Rise (by Christopher Harman): A teacher-turned-local historian spends his retirement at the Forest of Bowland Visitor Centre, Lancashire. When a bunch of schoolchildren are terrified on Sisters Rise, where their tree-rubbings reveal faces in the bark, he investigates, but it’s a fearsome task. At the heart of the Rise stands the monstrous sandstone megalith, Tall Maud…

Rodney – Mark Addy
Ann Allan – Emily Beecham
Marjorie – Miranda Richardson

The Burning (by Ramsey Campbell): Recently rendered unemployed, Liverpudlian lad Blake attends the Guy Fawkes celebrations downtown in a sour and angry state. He yearns to punish those who, to his mind at least, are the cause of his redundancy. But he isn’t the only one out that night looking to scapegoat someone else for their troubles …

Blake – Matt Ryan

The Discontent of Familiars (by John Llewellyn Probert): A middle-aged academic inherits big money and uses it to buy a rural cottage, once allegedly the home of a witch whose familiar was a raven. He soon becomes convinced that an evil presence remains, and is increasingly afraid of the woods across the river, which are filled with ravens …

John Wilson – Tobias Menzies
Doctor – Andy Nyman

Out of the Water, Out of the Ground (by SA Rennie): An art-school guy is summoned to an isolated castle in the Cairngorms, where a friend is living in a state of mortal if irrational terror, convinced that recent blasphemies by his late father, the death of his brother in an overseas war and the rape of the land by industry and technology have aroused the ire of the local dwarves …

James – James McArdle
His friend – Will Poulter

Saturday, 29 December 2018

Eerie East Anglia, above and below ground


Well, it’s not quite New Year yet, but this is likely to be the last time I speak to you all before 2019, so it seems an appropriate time to say Happy New Year and to wish you all every success and prosperity in the months ahead.

On the personal front, my next novel, STOLEN, which is book 3 in the Lucy Clayburn saga, will be published on May 16. That’s some way off yet, I know, and as such, I still haven’t got any cover artwork for you. But the official back-cover blurb has now appeared online, and so I’m going to run that today before I do anything else.

Staying on the subject of lady cops, I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Elly Griffiths’ intriguing mystery-thriller, THE CHALK PIT, which sees her female investigator, Dr Ruth Galloway, head into the tunnels underneath Norwich, where something truly odious may be going on.

As usual, you'll find the Elly Griffiths review at the lower end of today’s blogpost. But talking about Norwich and odious, I’m also moved today to muse a little on East Anglia, and the mythical horrors that may lurk amid its flat fields, gentle broads and deceptively pretty woodlands – particularly in regard to an anthology I edited, which was published several years ago, called TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

But more about that later. First up, here’s the latest on the Lucy Clayburn front.

Missing without trace

Regular followers of this column will know that Lucy Clayburn is a young street-cop – a detective now, though she started out in uniform – in the fictional Crowley district of Manchester, and who, though she technically works divisional CID, frequently gets embroiled in much darker and more complex enquiries.

She’s appeared in two of my novels to date: STRANGERS in 2016, and SHADOWS in 2017, and will be hitting the bookshelves again in May next year.

Here, as promised, is the official blurb for the next book:

How do you find the missing when there’s no trail to follow?

DC Lucy Clayburn is having a tough time of it. Not only is her estranged father one of the North West’s toughest gangsters, but she is in the midst of one of the biggest police operations of her life.

Members of the public have started to disappear, taken from the streets as they’re going about their every day lives. But no bodies are appearing – it’s almost as if the victims never existed.

Lucy must chase a trail of dead ends and false starts as the disappearances mount up. But when her father gets caught in the crossfire, the investigation suddenly becomes a whole lot bloodier…

The Sunday Times bestseller returns with his latest nail-shredding thriller – a must for all fans of Happy Valley and M.J. Arlidge.

 A cheerless realm

And now back to East Anglia. But before today’s Thrillers, Chillers section focusses on Norwich-set Gothic crime novel, THE CHALK PIT, I must talk a little about that anthology I edited back in 2012, TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

This was the third volume in my round-the-UK antho series, which I started in 2011. The ethos of the Terror Tales books has always been to mingle local fact with local fiction, with a heavy emphasis on folklore – and of course to terrify readers out of their wits. (This has been the format throughout the series, and the format we’ll continue to use when, next year, my Terror Tales publishers, Telos Publishing, and I, will be going all out to get TERROR TALES OF NORTHWEST ENGLAND ready for an autumn release).

Before I say anything else about the East Anglian anthology (seven years old last September), please allow me to explain why I’m even thinking about it at the end of 2018.

Frankly … it’s because of the time of year.

We’ve got some snow and ice forecast for next month, but at present Britain is a typical dreary scene: drab, leafless woods, grey, gloom-shrouded moorland, skies colourless and cold, any abandoned buildings, follies, disused bridges or railway tunnels, or other curious, unearthly structures standing desolate and alone in a landscape devoid of life.

Doesn’t that start to make you think MR James?

Whether it does or doesn’t, it always starts to make me think of the old ghost story master. Though, maybe this is as much the influence of the many television adaptations as it is the wonderfully frightening stories that he, himself, penned.

Because, though many of his eerie fictions were set at Christmas, or written to be read at Christmas, and in later decades became regarded as ‘Ghost Stories for Christmas’ (the famous BBC adaptations of the 1970s can now be bought together on DVD under that very title), they actually contain very few Christmassy elements. Oh yes, he frequently touches on the religious side of it – Midnight Mass, the Nine Lessons and Carols, etc – but the tales are quite spartan when it comes to festive trappings. We aren’t overly concerned with Christmas trees, or Yule logs, or wassailing, or even that staple of so many Christmas stories – snow.

So, though they are undoubtedly winter tales, they don’t always feel as if Christmas – at least, the Dickensian Christmas that we all know and love – is an essential ingredient, instead depicting the rural landscape of eastern England where so many of them are set (Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex), in the bleakest way imaginable. Okay, I know that’s not the whole story, but that’s very much my personal perception of the archetypal Jamesian backdrop, and that’s why, when we’ve finally worked our way through the festive bun-fight, and found ourselves with the bulk of the winter still stretching ahead, and especially if it’s as snowless and cheerless as this one, I inevitably find myself drawn to the writings of MR James and to the Jamesian school of horror writers.

Which brings me neatly back to TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA.

When I first commissioned a bunch of authors to send me some terrifying tales for this book, I didn’t specify that they needed to be written in the style of MR James, but almost inevitably, links were made, and a Jamesian tone generated.

Its back-cover blurb, which I wrote after selecting the stories, is perhaps a clearer indication of this:

East Anglia – a drear, flat land of fens and broads, lone gibbets and isolated cottages, where demon dogs howl in the night, witches and warlocks lurk at every crossroads, and corpse-candles burn in the marshland mist …

The giggling horror of Dagworth – The wandering torso of Happisburgh – The vile apparitions at Wicken – The slavering beast of Rendlesham – The faceless evil on Wallasea – The killer hounds of Southery – The dark guardian of Wandlebury ...

And so now, to celebrate this for no other reason than the weather being Jamesian and the mood very Jamesian (at least to me), I proudly present …

East Anglian terrors on film

Now, first of all, this is not a real thing. Not by any means. (Not yet, anyway).

But you may recall that, earlier this year, I decided to alter my regular Thrillers, Chillers, Shockers and Killers section by occasionally reviewing and discussing anthologies and single-author collections as well as novels, and each time, of course, selecting four particular stories from the book in question, which I’d love to see incorporated into a single movie, and giving them my usual fantasy cast.

Well … I’ve still got no anthologies ready to review at present, though plenty reside in my to-be-read pile. So, in the meantime, and just for a bit of a laugh, I’m keeping my hand in by doing it with the Terror Tales books. Obviously, I won’t be reviewing them as well, as that would be a bit incestuous (even though they are all brilliant), but at least I can turn each one into a portmanteau horror movie all of my own. You may recall that on May 16, we did it with TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, and on July 4 with TERROR TALES OF CORNWALL. And so, totally keeping up with that theme, here is is …

TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA – the movie

As I say, just a bit of fun. No film-maker has optioned this book yet, or any of the stories inside it, but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed. Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. 

Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. It could be that they visit a series of sideshows in a run-down fair hosted by a mysterious, vaguely demonic showman, (remember Torture Garden?) or force entry to an eerie old wax museum, where each one of them finds his/her reflection in one of several ghastly effigies (Waxwork, anyone?) – but basically, it’s up to you.

So, without further ado, here are the stories and the casts I envisage performing in them:       


The Watchman (by Roger Johnson)

Woolton Minster, a Norman church deep in rural Suffolk, is a nondescript religious building, not particularly handsome, nor especially rich, but it contains some precious vessels and boasts several horrific gargoyles, including one that stands almost ten feet in height. Thomas Drinkhall, a Scrooge-like local merchant, who has recently lost everything through misadventure, is unimpressed by this menacing figure, and as he carries a spare key to the church, resolves to rob the place. Night falls and Drinkhall secretly enters the ancient building, but it isn’t long before he starts to suspect that something else is there, something that moves with heavy, clumping feet …

Tomasina Drinkhall (for the sake of gender diversity) – Kathy Bates


Wicken Fen (by Paul Finch - sorry guys, but I’m never going to pass a chance to put my own work on film)

Middle-aged Londoners, Trevor and Gerry, take a weekend’s break away from their wives, hiring a narrow-boat on the Cambridgeshire broads, at the same time eyeing up girls and drinking lots of beer. But stresses soon emerge in their relationship, Gerry wanting to do more than just oggle the talent, and Trevor soon missing home. However, when they spy two young ladies who think nothing of sunbathing nude, even Trevor’s head is turned. He wants to stay loyal to his wife back home, but this nubile twosome are sexiness personified. Unfortunately, neither man has heard anything about the East Anglian myth of the terrifying mere-wives ...

Trevor English – Hugh Grant
Gerry Axewood – Jason Isaacs


Deep Water (by Christopher Harman)

Musician Peter Belloes might be having an affair with pretty young Elise, but when his wife, Celine, goes missing in their seaside hometown, he gets worried. Celine, a novelist who specialised in adapting East Anglian myths as children’s stories, was investigating the legend of the nightmarish Seagrim, which has clearly been a darker-than-usual project. The oddly odious Detective Sergeant Trench suspects that Celine drowned herself because of her husband’s infidelity, the Seagrim merely a metaphor for this. But Belloes isn’t even sure Celine is dead, especially when he starts to catch glimpses of her dripping-wet figure in various spots around town …

Peter Belloes – Colin Firth
Detective Sergeant Trench – Timothy Spall


Wolferton Hall (by James Doig)

Medievalist, Hugh Terne, is given permission to occupy Throgmorton Hall in the wilds of Norfolk. There are plenty of documents to dig through, but a two-panelled fresco really catches his eye, depicting on one side the funeral of a murder victim and on the other a terrified man being chased by a skeleton. It creates an eerie atmosphere in the lonely manor house, as does the story that the Throgmorton family came into possession of the property after swindling it from a reputed sorcerer, who duly cursed the property. Is the curse still in force? And is there any truth in the rumour that it involves that infamous East Anglian demon, Black Shuck himself … 

Julie Terne (again for the sake of gender diversity) – Nathalie Emmanuel
        

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

THE CHALK PIT 
by Elly Griffiths (2017)

Professor Ruth Galloway is Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. She also works regularly for the local Serious Crimes Unit (and its rugged, adversarial boss, DCI Harry Nelson) as a forensic investigator, but this is rural East Anglia, and as the largest nearby towns are Norwich and King’s Lynn, no one would expect Galloway to find herself on regular secondment to the police. However, that isn’t the case. Over the years, she’s had enough involvement in murder enquiries to consider the cops her colleagues, but on this occasion, it is Galloway herself who sets the ball rolling when she is summoned into the chalk workings underneath Norwich to examine some recently discovered bones.

Ordinarily, she’d expect these to be ancient and therefore of greater interest to the university than the local homicide team, only for her initial examination to show that not only are they relatively recent, but that they’ve been boiled clean – which might indicate that the unfortunate victim was cooked and eaten after he/she was killed.

This is hardly music to the ears of handsome architect Quentin Swan, who, though he is the one who called Galloway in, is looking to develop a subterranean shopping mall and food court, and now realises that he must put his obsessive dream on hold. Harry Nelson, meanwhile, is looking into the disappearance of a homeless woman called Babs. It isn’t a high priority, especially as other members of the local homeless community are proving unwilling to talk. But then he gets word – from an unreliable source, admittedly, but it’s unnerving nonetheless – that Babs has been ‘taken underground’.

No one really knows what this means, but further investigation uncovers rumours that a nameless group is dwelling in the labyrinthine passages beneath the city streets, not just the sewers, cellars and crypts, but in the same chalk workings that Ruth Galloway is investigating.

Galloway and Nelson are unsure what to make of this. It could be just a myth, but these stories won’t go away – and now there is the potential cannibal angle. Is it conceivable, as the scholarly Dr Martin Kellerman suggests, that some mysterious branch of the homeless community have not just become troglodytes, but are now hunting humans as food?

It’s almost too horrible to contemplate, but there are other sinister developments that seem to confirm this suspicion. Two of the homeless men who’ve admitted to knowing Babs and who seem to possess knowledge about what happened to her are found brutally murdered, one on the police station steps. In response, the whole machinery of the law swings into action, the division’s very correct Superintendent Jo Archer, determined that, at the very least, they have a serial killer on their patch who must be stopped.

Of course, fear that it may even be worse than that – namely that the killer is protecting a cannibal clan – preys on all their minds, and this is the kind of distraction that no one in The Chalk Pit needs. Because despite all outward appearances, this is quite a dysfunctional unit.

To start with, Galloway and Nelson once had a fling, during the course of which Galloway became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. This is particularly awkward for Nelson, as he already has a wife, Michelle, who now knows about the affair and its illegitimate offspring, and resignedly accepts it, and two older legitimate daughters as well, who are still unaware that they have a half-sister. Nelson finds himself walking this tightrope every time he and Galloway work together, while his most able underlings – Detective Sergeants Judy Johnson and David ‘Cloughie’ Clough – are the opposite ends of the spectrum politically (Judy’s boyfriend, Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone, is a practising druid while Cloughie likes beer and football!) and are often like fire and water with each other.

And then, as if all this means they haven’t already got enough to deal with, the stakes are raised dramatically, when a young, well-to-do mother vanishes from her own home, and once again rumours start circulating that she has been ‘taken underground’ …

My first thoughts on reading The Chalk Pit was that it doesn’t quite do what it says on the tin. It’s difficult to elaborate on that point without revealing too much of the synopsis. But I’ve said it now, so I’m going to have to offer some kind of explanation.

The blurb for this book provides us with a real hook:

Boiled human bones have been found in Norwich’s web of underground tunnels. When forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway discovers the bones aren’t as old as originally thought, it’s time for DCI Nelson to launch a murder inquiry. What was initially just a medieval curiosity has taken a much more sinister nature …

Local academic Martin Kellerman knows all about the tunnels and their history – but can his assertions of cannibalism and ritual killing possibly be true?

On this basis, it would be very easy to get stuck into this book expecting to find a cannibal tribe lurking under the streets of Norwich. But suffice to say that there isn’t anything like the blood and thunder this might lead you to anticipate. 

Does that mean the book is disappointing?

Well … it all depends on what you were hoping for. Regular readers of the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, and The Chalk Pit comes ninth in that series, will know that they aren’t for the squeamish, but that there is still a degree of cosiness about them. They are solid procedurals, even though the main protagonist is not a copper. And the crimes that Galloway and her police allies investigate, while often grisly, are rarely OTT.

It’s true that the books often come wrapped in jackets adorned with Gothic imagery, which could easily make you think that we’re in supernatural territory. But we aren’t; Elly Griffiths writes crime fiction, not horror. But such imagery isn’t totally misplaced as her books bounce joyously around ancient borough towns like Norwich and King’s Lynn, which are rich in East Anglian history and can boast their fair share of dramatic and violent events – everything from Celtic resistance to the Romans, to Saxon resistance to the Normans, and on into the witch-hunting era (which saw one poor wretch not hanged or burned, but boiled alive!). All of this gives her novels a richly esoteric flavour, and The Chalk Pit is particularly good in this regard. It concerns itself with many contemporary issues, such as child protection, class distinction, homelessness, but there are also hints of the Grand Guignol, with much to do concerning medieval buildings like churches and guildhalls, and of course that eerie network of long-forgotten tunnels snaking beneath the city streets.

Galloway herself is an archaeologist, whose main interest is antiquity and for whom the discovery of a pile of human bones is usually a source of delight rather than despair. Then there are characters like Cathbad, who harks back to the beliefs of those eldritch days predating Christianity. Oh yes, The Chalk Pit, like all of Elly Griffiths’ work, is rammed with local colour and local lore. Just don’t expect it to be gory or terrifying.

That said, the novel’s criminal investigation is deeply intriguing, and a genuine page-turner, particularly after Cloughie’s girlfriend, Cassandra, is kidnapped. I reckon I flew through the final third of the book. But at least half the jeopardy in this narrative doesn’t stem from the police enquiry, so much as from the tense relationships between characters.

This is particularly effective where Galloway and Nelson are concerned, their unrequited love providing the book’s emotional core. The irony here, of course, is that Galloway is a very modern woman. Independent-minded and successful, she doesn’t need a man in her life, but she wants Nelson. He, already married and with two grown-up daughters, is equally tortured, because while he loves Galloway, he dotes on his existing family too. And it’s all nicely understated. There are no outbursts here, no hysterical tears. The duo just gets on with it, working together quietly in that staid, stiff-upper-lip British way, but secretly enjoying the contacts they have with each other.

The rest of the cops – and The Chalk Pit is very much an ensemble piece, rather than exclusively a ‘Ruth Galloway adventure’ – are instantly recognisable as the sort of people you’d meet in any real-life police station.

Judy Johnson, another modern female, is confident, terse, leaning a little towards authoritarianism, and yet somehow just right for the off-the-wall man in her life, Cathbad. Then there is Cloughie, who is much more ‘old school’, and yet whose working-class origins ensure that he gets a rapport going with the many homeless characters they encounter. (On the subject of the homeless, and there are plenty in this book, I feel the author delivers an idealised picture of them. While they are all clearly damaged, few appear deeply troubled, instead spreading good will and happiness wherever they go – which I’m sorry to say I didn’t buy).

That only leaves us with the villains, though I don’t want to talk too much about them for fear of giving vital stuff away. But put it this way: we have an entire array of suspects by the end of this book. They’re all totally believable – none are slotted in as obvious red herrings, and all emerge under their own steam, Griffiths gradually persuading us without actually needing to say it that any one of them could be the killer.

But no more about that now; as I say, no further spoilers here.

Like all good novels, The Chalk Pit is not just about what’s happening on the surface. All through the book there is an interesting if subliminal discussion about the absence of faith in the modern day. Quite a few of the characters are hostile to religion, but as the case progresses, more and more are drawn to reminisce about their religious upbringing when they were young, and while there isn’t any obvious regret that it’s all gone, some of them start to recognise an emptiness in their lives, and increasingly as they suspect they’re up against a horrific evil, they feel less and less equipped to deal with it. It didn’t escape my notice that two of the most contented characters in the book are Cathbad, the druid, and Paul Pritchard, the born again ex-bank robber. And it won’t go unnoticed by anyone that, towards the end of the book, two characters who previously were planning to get hitched in a registry office, change their plans and opt for a church wedding instead.

The Chalk Pit is a great example of a fast, multi-layered (literally) and very well-written British police thriller, the sort you could easily imagine being put on television. A straightforward murder case, but believably presented and built around characters you care about. As long as you aren’t led by the blurb to expect gaudy displays of Dark Ages carnage, you should enjoy this one thoroughly.

As usual now, in the event that Ruth Galloway does end up on TV sometime, I’m going to try and pre-empt everyone by nominating my own cast. Just a bit of fun of course, but here are my picks for who ought to play the leads should The Chalk Pit ever make it to the screen:

Dr Ruth Galloway – Emily Watson
DCI Harry Nelson – Christopher Eccleston
Michelle Nelson – Jessica Hynes
DS Judy Johnson – Katie McGrath
Michael ‘Cathbad’ Malone – Kevin Doyle
Supt. Jo Archer – Helen Baxendale
DS David Clough – Kevin Fletcher
Cassandra Blackstock – Sophia Jayne Myles
Quentin Swan – Jason Hughes
Paul Pritchard – Patrick Baladi
Dr David Kellerman – Jeff Rawle

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

On a dark Christmas Night long, long ago


Okay, we’re there again. That wonderful time of year has returned; the season of good will and ghosts. Holly and horror. Mistletoe and malediction. 

And that’s exactly where we’re going today, as we do at this time of year every year. 

Alas, I was hoping to celebrate Christmas 2018 with you by posting a brand-new ghost story here on my blog. Unfortunately, time didn’t allow for that. I had what I considered a great idea for a new festive chiller, and in fact made plenty of notes, but for various reasons that one will now have to wait until next year.

Instead, I’ve opted to post a slightly older story, which I’m honoured to say won quite a few plaudits at the time of its first publication in 1999, illustrious US horror writer, Brian Hodge, saying of it: “Finch places considerable stock in atmosphere, and builds fear and unease well, with a judicious balance between what is seen, unseen and merely hinted at.” 

It’s been reprinted a couple of times since in anthologies and magazines, and is the opening salvo fired in a themed e-collection of mine, MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES, which first appeared in 2015. But it’s never appeared online before, or free-of-charge.
     
So there you are. If you haven’t read it before, I’m hoping you’re in for a treat. We’re heading back now to Victorian times, the Christmas of 1864 in fact, for a ghostly chiller of the old school. Please enjoy ...



THE MAGIC LANTERN SHOW


In the frosty chill of dawn they came. Down the narrow alleys between the mills. From the sewer pipes and basements. Lifting snowy grates, wheedling out from their black and crowded burrows in the spoil and slag, in the brick chasms between the tall, leaning houses, in the coal-bunkers, the railway sheds, the rubble-cluttered arches where the ice hung in spears.
      Major Craddock watched from astride his horse at the head of Frog Lane, the sturdy animal blowing out steam, pawing the frozen cobbles. The man felt the cold far less than his mount did. Veteran of the Afghan frontier, his topper, scarf and heavy greatcoat with its thick shoulder-cape were enough for him. So he sat comfortably and watched the beggar boys as they crawled from their holes and limped through the snow in ragged, barefoot bands, huddled together in knots yet chattering like apes with the joy of Christmas morning.
     At the turn of the road, a swathe of cindery wasteland around it, stood All Saints workhouse. Its tall windows were aglow with candlelight, yet it was still a dismal place, built from blackened brick, its roofs steep and made from broken slate. Here and there, gutters sagged loose, shreds of dead vegetation hung from clefts in the stonework. A high wall, topped with rusty spikes, hemmed in the structure. A single gate of iron railings was open at the front.
     For two full hours the paupers trooped in, in their ones and twos, some hanging back at first, but all at length succumbing to the festive promise. Eventually, when only stragglers remained, the major urged his animal forward. With slow, clipping hoof-beats he made his way. If his ominous figure was frightening to the urchins, they didn’t show it. Grizzled, filthy, hair sticky and matted and hanging to their shoulders, and in all cases clad in tatters, they might normally be a wary, untrusting bunch, but not so on this occasion. Giggling, screeching, heads filled with hot tea and plum duff, they passed through the gate, oblivious to all else.
      The major reined up to watch the final few, scanning their haggard faces for a certain single youth who maybe was different from the rest. At least a hundred had now entered, but scarcely one differed from another. Pale as ash, withered to the bone, masked in grime, to a one they’d aged years beyond their time.
     Beside the gate, two men were arguing volubly. The first, stocky and red-bearded and bundled in a greatcoat, muffler and bowler, had squared up to a balding man who was much heavier-set, with steel-grey curls on fat jowls and a leather apron over his bottle-green tailcoat. At first, they’d spoken to each other civilly, but now their words were heated. The man in the apron shook his head vehemently, making sweeping gestures with his hands.
     “Problem, Munro?” the major wondered.
     Inspector Munro turned sharply. “Not really, sir. This is Mr. Lensop. Master of the workhouse. He insists the boys be bathed.”
     “Rules is rules, sir,” the man in the apron said. “We always baths them first. Health regulations.”
     Major Craddock didn’t trouble to look at Mr. Lensop. He knew about this petty official; how vocational he felt his position in the parish, how zealously he went about the Lord’s work, how obsessively he believed in the usefulness of whipping. Major Craddock had approved many floggings in his army days, but that had been for hardened combat troops whose negligence had endangered comrades, not frightened orphans whose only crime was hunger. A time might come when he’d have to look a little closer at Mr. Lensop.
     “No baths, Munro,” he said simply, before riding on through the gate.
     Inspector Munro turned back to Lensop.
     The official was bewildered, but still defiant. “I’m sorry, Inspector. We can’t have that. There’s a risk of infection. We run a clean house, here.”
     Munro shrugged. “Like I told you, sir, we need physical evidence. If our man is among this lot, and you wash him down, we’ll lose it all.”
     Lensop shook his head, perplexed. “Really, sir – I can’t see there’s any hope. These children are starved. There’s not one of ’em strong enough to throttle a cat.”
     “That’s not for us to say, is it, sir? We have to turn every stone.”
     Lensop began to bluster. “It won’t do. The Board of Guardians won’t like it. They have strict rules.”
     Munro smiled. “So does Major Craddock. And he’s Chief Officer of Police in Wigan. The Board must take it up with him.”

*

It was not Major Craddock’s preferred way to spend Christmas Day, but since the death of his wife, Abigail, on the malarial plains around Lucknow, the joyous season held little interest for him.
     He’d once read a book by that journalist chap, Dickens. The narrative had been fresh and invigorating. It told of a diseased human soul transformed one Christmas Eve by several ghostly visitations. Much of it, of course, had been a fantasist’s ideal, and Major Craddock didn’t hold with that. Besides, this fellow Dickens was a reputed radical, and in some previous book about a scrounger and thief called Twist had derided the police as bumbling bullies, no better than the villains they fought.
     As far as Craddock was concerned, his men were anything but. Handpicked for the most part, back in 1850 when he’d first taken this post and been charged with reorganising the small, demoralised and often drunken borough police force, the ex-soldier had brought them fresh from one old and traditional uniform service, the 14th Light Dragoons, into this relatively new one, firstly because he knew and trusted them, and secondly because they were the right stuff for it. It went without saying that survivors of the bloody Ferozeshah, Chillianwalla and Goojerat campaigns were tough and resourceful, but the boys he’d chosen had also been noted for their even tempers, fair-mindedness and, above all, quick wits. Civvy Street was not the army, especially in a town like this, where poverty and resentment were written in the millstone grit upon which it was built. Awareness and sensitivity were required, and, up until now, Major Craddock was convinced they’d got it right. The last few months, however, had strained their collective nerve to breaking point.
     He led his horse through the workhouse yard and around to the rear of the old building, where he left it with Constable Coogan, who was waiting there by pre-arrangement. Like most of the other officers on duty that day, Coogan was in plain clothes and armed, a ten-bore shotgun resting by the metal post where he tethered the major’s horse. Craddock checked the six-chambered Smith and Wesson under his coat, then entered the building by a rear door, trotting up a narrow stair to a high gantry that was dark, dusty and hung with webs, but overlooked the main hall. Three more of his men – Butterfield, Duckworth and McDougal – were already there, concealed behind iron stanchions.      Their muskets were at the ready, each one an army issue Brown Bess – old-fashioned in the age of the Springfield rifle, but the best he could do at such short notice.
     Below, the stone-flagged hall was a hive of activity. Numerous trestle-tables were laid out for a knife-and-fork dinner, while the new arrivals, unused to the discipline of the institution, surged around them, clamouring for “vittles”, slamming cutlery on tabletop, ignoring the shouted commands from the matron and her helpers. The occasional crack of hand on face or birch-rod on buttock was lost in the mayhem. Master Lensop bullroared to no avail. The house inmates, a pale, shaven bunch, distinctively clad in shapeless cotton smocks, were ranged around the damp walls on benches, having already dined and now watching the rowdy newcomers with fascination. Such a thing had never been seen in the parish workhouse before; the homeless hooligans of the street – those who had consciously opted for the gutter rather than charity – invited en masse to share in the yuletide repast and the traditional magic lantern show to follow.
      Wild cheering went up as wooden trolleys appeared. There was a sudden smell of cooking, and steam swirled out from the kettles and the cauldrons of potato broth. Major Craddock moved slowly along the gantry, having quiet words with each of his marksmen. Not one had seen anything suspicious yet; not that he’d expected them to from way up here. More likely his ‘spotters’ – other constables, equipped with sidearms, but dressed in the red jackets and charity caps of parish orderlies, and even now stepping cautiously among the urchins – would be the ones to make contact. Thus far there was nothing. But Major Craddock wasn’t unduly worried. There was ample time.
      He turned and glanced through the barred window behind him. The town’s roofline was drawn black on the glacial sky: smoke-pouring stacks, flywheels. Wigan might only be small – eighty-odd thousand at the last census – yet on most days it was teeming, its deep, narrow streets thronged with people and their animals, jostling back and forth with wagons and carts. Three main railways and a network of canals, eternally alive with traffic, fed its raw industrial life.
     For once, though, it was quiet. Usually, the din was stupendous: the shunting-crash of locomotives, the toot of klaxons, the clash of hooves and clog-irons, the bang and screech of falling, dragging crates. But on this special day, with the morning market done and all business closed, scarcely a bird was moving. As the major watched, slate grey clouds drew over and fresh snow began to fall, a pristine mantle forming on the gaggle of streets and courts, on the steep terraced roofs, on the heaped broken slag by the pitheads. Despite this, there was no feeling of Christmas peace. Major Craddock wondered if his quarry was still out there somewhere, or even now among them, feasting with the beggar boys.
     Wigan was never a tranquil place at the best of times. Only one of numerous smoky citadels in the Lancashire heartland, where cotton and coal vied for kingship, it bred social turmoil as a by-product. But now an entirely new shadow lay over it.
     The first murder had occurred in the mud and rain of late October.

*

Every peeler in town knew James O’Hare, the burly, two-fisted Irishman of St. Patrick’s Road, Scholes, the low-rent and lodging house district, the worst slum, in fact, in the entire slum-ridden town.
     O’Hare was a legend even in that neighbourhood, and there were few sorry that sodden morning, when a patrolling constable emerged from a rubble filled alley on the bank of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, to find the dangerous individual floating face down. By the time Craddock arrived, the body, its clothing heavily waterlogged, had been hauled out and now lay on its back on the tow-path. Its brutish face was alabaster white and fixed in a frozen scream, the eyes starting from their sockets. Its hands were rigid claws. Craddock stood by indifferently, drawing his cloak around him in the thrashing rain, while a local doctor, complaining bitterly at having been called from his bed, knelt down to examine the victim.
     “Drunk?” the major asked.
     “Probably,” the doctor replied, water dripping from the brim of his hat. He took off his spectacles and cleaned them. “He usually was.”
     “Slipped off the lock gate on his way home?” the major wondered.
     The doctor knelt back. “More like thrown, I’d say.”
     Craddock glanced at Munro.
     “He was strangled,” the doctor added.
     “James O’Hare, strangled?” Munro hardly believed it.
     “Extremely forcefully.” The doctor yanked open the collar of the Irishman’s shirt. Beneath it, the flesh on his throat was scored and black with bruising.
     The doctor rose to his feet. “His larynx has been crushed. We’ll find cracked vertebrae too.”
     Craddock stared at the body. He was familiar with stranglings; as a young subaltern, his first posting on the Sub-continent had been Bombay, where remnants of the Thuggi cult were still active. He’d seen enough then to conclude that damaged neck bones meant manual strangulation rather than by ligature, which in this case implied great physical strength.
     The doctor blew his nose loudly. “Suppose I shouldn’t say it, but it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow.”
     The major nodded, and turned to Munro. “Secure both canal banks. The whole distance between here and the next set of lock gates.”
     Munro nodded and immediately began delegating to the constables in the alley, huddled under their helmets and capes.
     “And get Sergeant Repton to commence house-to-house enquiries,” Craddock added, indicating the tenements backing up to the tow-path.
     “In hand, sir.”
     “In that case, you can make your way to O’Hare’s lodgings. Inform his next of kin, if he has any. Search it while you’re there. Anything of relevance, I want it preserved for exhibit. Speak to his neighbours as well – let’s get to know him.”
     Munro moved away.
     “Sergeant Rafferty!” Craddock shouted.
     On the far side of the canal, a bulky officer, crammed so tightly into his blue serge uniform that the tunic buttons looked ready to pop off, turned from where he’d been speaking to the lock-keeper, slid his notebook into his breast-pocket, and made his careful way across the slippery timbers of the gate.
     “Major Craddock, sir?” he said, alighting safely. His face was weathered red and fringed by grey mutton-chop whiskers. When he spoke, it was a hard Munster brogue.
     “Line-search, if you please,” the major said. “Both banks. You know what we’re looking for – any odd items, scraps of clothing, boot-prints, a splash of blood. Anything to indicate there was a struggle. Chop chop, sir, the weather’s against us.”
     Rafferty nodded and hastened away.

*
       
It wasn’t the first unlawful killing Major Craddock had investigated in his fourteen years as chief inspector in the town. He’d dealt with fifty at least. However, most had been domestic tragedies: the slaying of wife by drunken husband, or even drunken husband by vengeful wife. There’d been one robbery-stabbing, though the itinerant responsible in that case had been apprehended and hanged within the year, while the rest were mainly manslaughters, the result of pub brawls at night or criminal negligence in the foundries and coal seams.
     This case, he felt, was different. The very fact that James O’Hare had been strangled sent a chill through him. Men shot or bludgeoned each other; if they strangled, it would be a woman or child. Not another man. Certainly not a man like James O’Hare, a raging human buffalo from the backstreets of Dublin.
     He sat back behind his cluttered desk, a cigar between his fingers. Jim Craddock was fifty-five that year, but reasonably robust. His snowy white hair and trim white moustache gave a false impression. Beneath his crisp shirt and silver-flowered waistcoat, his frame was strong, hard-muscled from years of front line duty. His skin, once brown as leather, may long have faded back to an ashy English hue, but it was still tight, still marked here and there by sabre cut or powder burn.
     The cool grey eyes, with which he wore down even the most stubborn suspect in the interview room, were his best asset. They gave little away, neither emotion nor thought. Certainly nothing of the razor-edged intellect behind them. When Craddock had returned to Horse Guards in 1850 and promptly resigned his commission for a post in the recently formed civilian police service, the best they’d said of him was that the premature death of his wife had unhinged him. Others had been less kind: he’d lost his nerve in the savage fighting at Goojerat; he was secretly a coward and now unable to conceal it; he lacked ambition; he was a fool, a traitor, an agitator even – after all, his father, a philanthropist and lay-preacher, had been a great advocate of the reform movement. The truth was, of course, that nobody really knew. They never did where Jim Craddock was concerned. And he never told them. He never told them anything. Not that he was always sure, himself. That dull October afternoon at his desk, he pondered the murder of James O’Hare, and found it perplexing.
     Cigar smoke wafted around him, further browning the low ceiling and the heavy book spines lining the shelves. Outside, the icy downpour continued, thundering on the tiles and window panes, plunging like a cataract into the flooded barracks yard.
     At length, Inspector Munro entered, unbuttoning his coat. He hung his drenched bowler on the rack by the door, and tossed a notebook onto the major’s desk.
     “James O’Hare was not a popular fellow,” he said.
     Craddock nodded. “You do surprise me.”
     Munro dragged up a chair and sat. “Quarrelsome, especially in his cups, which was most of the time. He was also in money disputes with several different firms. Once, he had to be ejected from the premises of Balder & Sons for making a nuisance of himself. Said they owed him wages. They denied it.”
     Craddock considered. “Criminal associates?”
     Munro gave his senior a blank stare. “Surprisingly, none known.”
     Equally blank, the major stared back. “Tell me another one, Jack. He was a carter, for God’s sake. He must at least have had form for handling?”
     Munro shook his head. “None known, as I said. All previous convictions drink-related.”
     “Domestic situation?”
     “Unmarried. Single child. Parents sent him over here with his uncle in 1845. Uncle’s been dead nine years.”
     The major drew on his cigar. “Any intelligence on who he might have been socialising with last night?”
     Munro shrugged. “Still working on that one.”
     “I want names, Jack. Any you don’t like, lock ’em up. We’ll speak to them in here.”
     “Sir. “Munro rose to his feet.
     “And Jack?”
     Munro turned as he opened the door. “Sir?”
     Craddock fixed him with those cool grey eyes. “What does it take to snap a man’s neck?”
     “Brute strength, I suppose.”
     “And?”
     “Skill, maybe.”
     “More skill than the average railway worker or collier?”
     Munro nodded. “Possibly. Couldn’t rule them all out, though. There are some very strong working men in this town. Some of them will have had military training.”
     The major nodded, and then waved his underling away. Much as he’d thought. It wasn’t going to be an easy investigation.
     He was certainly right on that score, because enquiries were still going on a week later – when the killer struck for a second time.

*


Once again the victim had been manually strangled, and with terrifying force. Once again the victim was Irish, and a drinker to boot. Once again the foul deed had been done in the deprived Scholes district, the broken corpse left where it had fallen. There, however, the similarities ended.
     Kathleen McConnolly, to begin with, was female – and when a female died at the hands of a maniac there was usually only one reason for it. By the same token, this slaying had occurred in the early evening, and had been discovered no later than nine o’clock, when many abroad in this district were drink-sodden and dangerous. Not that Major Craddock was convinced by these arguments. In fact, even before he arrived at the crime scene, he had a gut feeling that he’d be surveying the work of the same ruthless hand.
     He made his way there in company with Inspector Munro through a maze of squalid backstreets, some so narrow that two men couldn’t walk abreast. All manner of refuse strewed the muddy footways – waste paper and rags, rotted food, broken bricks, human slops. Everything was caked in soot, while some alleys ran underneath railway lines, becoming pitch-black tunnels alive with rats and cockroaches. On all sides, doorways gave in to dens of misery and degradation. Flickering candles showed damp, tiny rooms, where emaciated children, clad in tatters, huddled together for warmth. In others, men doused in coal dust slapped at their women or slumped at tables, drinking from bottles. Others stood on the step, glaring out. Even in the chill October night, the cloying air stank of coke and sweat and human faeces. It also rang with coarse Irish accents, many in the tongue of their native homeland. Most, it seemed, were swearing, or laughing drunkenly, or sobbing aloud.
     “Why do these people live like this?” Craddock said, pushing with his stick at a ragged shape lying in their path. “Out of the way, or I’ll arrest you for vagrancy!”
     Muttering guttural threats, the drunk hauled himself to his feet and shambled into the shadows.      More laughter came cackling down from above. Munro looked up nervously. Open windows overhung them at many points. At any moment, the contents of chamber pots could hurtle down.
     He didn’t bother to reply to his superior’s question for two reasons:
     Firstly, because they both knew the answer. It was now nearly twenty years since the potato blight had bitten into rural Ireland’s economy, condemning the population to death if they didn’t seek their fortune elsewhere. Thousand upon thousand had taken that desperate option, arriving in England via the port of Liverpool, intending to find ship to America, but eventually being farmed out through their old foe’s industrial north, where there were canals to be dug, pits to be sunk, looms to be worked.
     Secondly, because the senior officer didn’t mean it as harshly as it sounded. Inspector Jack Munro, once Captain John Munro of the 14th Light Dragoons, knew his commander’s temperament well; knew that the major’s ‘Chartist’ upbringing on a modest estate not many miles from another woebegone Lancashire town, Blackburn, had made a deep impression on him; knew that once his wife had died and his purpose in India ceased to be, the much decorated soldier had taken this post as police chief for no other reason than because he felt he could do some good. In many ways, though, Craddock was still a warrior. He sympathised with the struggling and downtrodden, but not with the abject surrender so many of them showed. ‘Fight back’ was his motto.
     “I’m going to enjoy delivering this bastard to the Assizes,” Craddock said, gazing down on the strangled woman.
     The lanterns of two constables cast a wavering glow on her filthied corpse. She was sitting against a wall at a junction of two alleyways, her head hanging at a hideous angle. Her ragged dress was in disarray, her greying hair in matted locks. Once again, the neck was blackened and torn by fingers of steel. The expression on her muddied face was almost too ghastly to look at.
     “Has she been used?” Munro asked of the various constables gathered there. “Has anyone looked?”
     Tough and granite-faced as they were, they shrugged sheepishly. It was easy to understand their dilemma. A multitude stared out and down from the surrounding windows; in all adjoining passages, dark groups of locals were being held back. It wasn’t the done thing for peelers to be caught peeping under a woman’s skirt, even if she had just been slaughtered by some demented person.
     “The doctor can do that when he arrives,” the major said. He knelt beside the body, his face grave. His voice lowered to a monotone. “Gentlemen – there is a monster among us. We must step very carefully from here on in. Inspector Munro, you will cancel all leave until this matter is settled.”
     “Yes sir, of course.”
     “You will also concentrate night-patrols on the Scholes district. I don’t mean to leave other areas unprotected, but this neighbourhood must have particular attention.”
     Munro nodded.
     “Now ...” The major rose to his feet. “We’ll need to speak to as many of these people as we can. We’ll start straight away.”
     “Major Craddock, sir!” came a frantic voice.
     They turned, to find one of the division’s youngest officers scrambling up a narrow ginnel toward them. He was red-faced, his helmet in his hand. “It’s Constable Butterfield, sir!” he shouted. “He’s found a witness!”
     Two minutes later, they’d moved en masse to one of the neighbourhood’s communal yards. Once again, rubble strewed it, much of it spilling from overflowing dustbins. In one corner there was an outhouse, a rickety old structure knocked together from planks and nails. Constable Butterfield, his lantern on the ground, was leaning against it, speaking through a tiny gap.
     “Come on, Roisin, love!” he was saying. “You know who I am. It’s PC Butterfield. I’m always round this neck of the woods. You can trust me.”
     Craddock shouldered his way forward. The constable saw him and drew back. “It’s Roisin Lachlan, sir. She’s Kathleen McConnolly’s drinking partner. Or was. She won’t come out. She’s frightened half to death.”
     “Sure she’s not just relieving herself?” someone wondered, to coarse chuckles.
     “No jokes, please,” Craddock said sternly.
     Butterfield certainly wasn’t laughing. “They’re always out together, them two, sir. On the game, if you want my opinion. Thing is, they sop up gin like rubbing rags.”
     “What’s she saying?” Munro asked.
     The constable scratched his head. “Well, she doesn’t speak English very well, I’m afraid. I can’t really tell.”
     Craddock stepped back. “Alright – break the thing down.”
     The constables went at it as a team, prying the rotted slats apart with their blackthorn staffs. A few moments later, Roisin Lachlan, shrieking hysterically, was hauled out into the lamplight. She was a disgusting sight: gap-toothed, grubby-faced, hair white but filthy, and hung in rat-tails. Her bodice and many layered skirts were heavy with dirt, ripped full of holes.
     “O Dhia, O Dhia …” she screeched. “Nil me ag iarraidh dul leis! Nil me ag iarraidh imeacht leis!
     It took the burly officers several minutes to restrain her, so frantic were her kickings. There were mutters of disbelief from the gathered crowd.
     “Now, now come on Miss Lachlan,” Munro said, trying to be reasonable. When she bellowed right in his face, he staggered backward. “Lord-God almighty … smells like a bloody still!”
     “What happened, Miss Lachlan?” Craddock asked. “What did you see?”
     “Nach dtuigeann sibh? An bhfuil sibh uile as bhur meabhar? Ta muid cailte. Leann se muid. Leann se muid an bhealac ar fad anseo!
     “What in Christ’s name is she gabbling about?” a constable wondered.
     “Bhi a fhois agam gur e a bhi ann. Bhi se beag. Comh beag le paiste. Cheap Caitlin gur paiste a bhi ann. Chuaigh si thar n-ais chuige tar eis a d’imigh muid thairis. Cheap si go raibh se gortaithe. Ansim do leim se … A Thiarna, do leim se mar a dheineadh cat!
     Craddock turned to Munro. “Can any of these people translate for us?”
     “She says he was small, sir,” came a wavering voice from behind. “Like a child.”
     They turned. Sergeant Rafferty stood there, gazing at the fevered woman with odd, haunted eyes.       His normally ruddy face had paled; his brow was beaded with sweat.
     “Like a child?” Munro said, bewildered.
     The big Irish sergeant listened as the woman gibbered on. If anything, he grew paler. “She ... she says that she and Kathleen McConnolly passed him in the alley. They thought he was hurt. Then he attacked them. I think after that she must have fled.”
     “Get her to be more specific, Rafferty,” Craddock said.
     The sergeant nodded, but before he could ask her anything else, the woman sprang savagely at him and had to be held again. Her hair was now a frenzy, her eyes wide enough to burst from their orbits. She jabbed at Rafferty with a dirt-encrusted finger.
     “Tusa! Ta a fhios agat-sa! Ta tu ar n-os muidine! Ta tu mar I gceanna linne! Is duine dar gcuid fein tu! Ta a fhios agat cad e seo! Ta a fhios agat!
     Rafferty never flinched from the tirade, but the sweat dripped from his brow. Only after several seconds did he turn to the major. “She’s just babbling, sir. Not making sense.”
     Craddock nodded. “Alright. Munro … get her to the office. See if you can calm her down.”
     “She’s very drunk, sir,” the inspector said.
     “I don’t give a damn. She’s not going anywhere ’til she’s given us a full statement. Just make sure you don’t let her have anything else.”
     Munro nodded and signalled to various constables, who hustled the terrified woman away.
     “Ta se thar n-ais chugainn!” she screamed, to the awed silence of the crowd. “Ta se linn aris! Togfaidh se muid ar fad leis!

*

It was close on midnight, and Craddock and Munro stood alone in the great Gothic hallway of the Infirmary mortuary. Green tiles arched high over their heads. A dank dimness hung at either end of the long, wide passage. Silence reigned.
     “You know, there was a man guillotined in France five or six years ago,” Munro finally said. “Dumollard, his name was. He’d killed ten women. Bludgeoned them to death one after another, after luring them into a wood.”
     Craddock glanced up. “What are you trying to tell me?”
     “I’m just saying, it’s happened before.”
     The major sniffed. “What did he kill them for? Did anyone bother to find out, before truncating him?”
     “He was a thief, as far as I know. He wanted their clothes.”
     “And you believe that?”
     Munro shrugged. “That was the reason they gave.”
     Craddock strode about, trying to press the creeping chill from his feet. “I doubt our man would get much for the clothes of these victims.”
     Munro nodded. “Just a thought. Course, we don’t even know the same man committed these murders yet.”
     “Oh, I think we do,” put in the house surgeon, appearing at a side door. He was stripped to his waistcoat and watch-chain. His shirt-sleeves were rolled back, his forearms wet and soapy. He mopped them down with a towel. In the fire-lit chamber behind him, a figure lay on a slab, draped in a bloody sheet.
     “Yes indeed, gentlemen,” he added in his cultured Scottish accident. “I think we do. The injuries are virtually identical. Crushed windpipes, shattered neck vertebrae. A very strong person, with a very strong pair of hands.”
     “Sexually molested?” Craddock wondered.
     The doctor shook his head. “Not a trace.”
     “Did he beat her?” Munro asked.
     The doctor mused, and then again shook his head. “A few abrasions and scratches. Nothing that wouldn’t have been caused by her dropping to the ground after he’d finished with her.”
     “Our killer is efficient,” Craddock said.
     “Worryingly so,” the doctor replied. “The James O’Hare death was no fluke, Chief Inspector. In neither case was there a fight. Scarcely a struggle, in fact. Once he’d got a grip on them, it was over.  They didn’t stand a chance.”
     Munro shook his head. “And he’s supposed to be small? Like a child?” He glanced at the major. “Or are we discounting that?”
     Craddock turned sharply, striding from the hall. “We’re not discounting anything yet.”

*

Continued enquiries revealed little of immediate significance.
     James O’Hare, it was suggested, could have been murdered by one of his many enemies. The physical way he had been mastered was difficult to explain, but then he’d been dead-drunk at the time. The only problem with this thesis was that no-one was prepared to name a name, not even in the teeming rat-holes of Scholes, where loyalty could be bought for a few tots of impure alcohol. The same was true of Kathleen McConnolly. Most of the people who had seen her that fateful day reported her as having been inebriated, staggering from one crowded gin house to another, her friend Roisin Lachlan loyally in tow. As with the James O’Hare case, there was no suggestion they had fallen foul of anyone in particular.
     Over a period of days, the woman Lachlan gradually became more coherent, until at last Sergeant Rafferty was able to interview her properly. In mental terms, however, she was in a pitiful state, maintaining that her friend had been attacked by a child, or at least someone of a child’s stature. She herself had been too fuddled with drink to intervene, but not so that she didn’t remember the killer’s odd apparel. This was especially interesting, but also baffling. He’d been dressed like a monk, she said. Hooded – only in Hessian or sackcloth. It had covered his body entirely, but hadn’t encumbered him so that he couldn’t leap at his victim like a tiger.
     “You think nobody else would have noticed someone like that?” the major asked, as he and Rafferty left the lodging house where the petrified witness had buried herself.
     He stopped to wipe his boots on the kerbstone. A passing beggar doffed his ragged cap. The major acknowledged him with a wave of his stick.
     “People don’t notice much in this district, sir,” the sergeant said, standing by. “Too lost in their own misery.”
     “Sympathy, Rafferty?” Craddock said, setting off down a narrow lane between rows of slum terracing.
     The sergeant followed, eyes fixed ahead. “They’re my own people, sir. Brought here on false promises, most of ’em. Expecting jobs, better standards of living. Paid their own way with what few coppers they had, in many cases. Found themselves in – this. Little better than slaves, and that’s the ones who’ve got work.”
     The major lit a cigar and puffed on it. “Emotional words for an Irishman who served in Queen Victoria’s army.”
     “It was King George’s army when I joined up, sir.”
     “That makes a difference?”
     Still Rafferty gazed ahead. “There wasn’t no famine as such then, sir. People were in control of their own survival. If anything, things were worse over here. What with the cotton strikes and Swing riots.”
     Craddock blew out a plume of smoke. “Not quite sure I follow, sergeant.”
     They’d emerged onto Chapel Lane, a busy trunk road, and were forced to step back as passing wagons threw up fountains of mud.
     “What I’m saying, sir, is – when I left Ireland to join the British Army, I wasn’t running away. I wasn’t taking no responsibility – I wasn’t being a traitor to my own kin.”
     Craddock nodded. He hailed a cab, which pulled up, skidding. “And that’s what Roisin Lachlan’s been saying to you?” They climbed in together. “Police barracks, driver! That you’re a traitor?”
     “Not as such, sir, no.”
     “Then what?”
     Rafferty stared out into the traffic. Once again, beads of sweat stood on his brow. “Well – Ireland and Irish folk are sometimes a queer thing for an English gentleman like yourself to understand. If I might be so bold, sir. I think some things are best left unsaid.” He couldn’t seem to meet his superior’s gaze.
     “Nothing to do with the case in hand, I hope?” the major said.
     “Not really, sir. No.”
     “No, Rafferty?”
     After a moment’s thought, the sergeant shook his head forcefully. “No, sir. On my mother’s soul!”

*

Wigan was not the sort of town to be badly distressed by an unsolved double-murder, at least not when winter was drawing near with all its threats of ’flu, whooping cough, diphtheria, frostbite. November brought more heavy rain, flood tides on the River Douglas, cave-ins below ground, then ice, sleet and fog, which, thanks to the borough’s mass coal-burning, was thick and sulphurous.
     The force constables were gradually despatched back to routine duties, while the ongoing investigation made painfully little ground. In fact, other crimes took precedence: a double-death in Wallgate, the town’s main thoroughfare, when a furious driver ran his cart over two children; a serious assault, when a Saturday night clog fight left a rowdy collier with two cracked shinbones; a violent burglary in a pub off the market square.
     In all these cases, Inspector Munro made good progress, securing arrests and convictions. In the background, amid a welter of statements and reports, Major Craddock continued to work on the strangulations. He established that there were no connections between James O’Hare and Kathleen McConnolly. He established that aside from Roisin Lachlan, nobody had seen or heard a thing. He established that no-one suspected anyone. He also established that no-one really cared.
     On the first day of December, he put on his greatcoat and gloves and took his horse out for exercise. The animal would enjoy it even though the early morning wind cut like steel and the cobbled roads were slippery with frost. They left the station at seven sharp, and rode up through the town centre, already lit with braziers and thick with steam from the cellar gratings. Working folk crowded back and forth along the ginnels, mouths smoking, mittened hands banging together. Ice cracked under iron-shod boots.
     The major worked his way through, returning one or two surly ‘good mornings’, then pressed on down the Douglas Valley, crossing an iron bridge and heading through the gloomy rookeries of Scholes. Beyond the roofs and chimneys, the mountainous coal tips were white, almost luminous on the still-black sky. It reminded him of Kashmir and the frozen peaks of the Himalayas.
     As he negotiated the metals of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, his thoughts unavoidably drifted. Sure-footed, his mount picked its way along steep embankments of slag and clinker. To his left, the sprawling mass of mill chimneys, wreathed in shimmering mist as the pale eye of day winked open, gradually fell into unreality.
     He remembered a more merciless sun; a seething, beating sun. He remembered the plains before Goojerat, the battle lines drawing steadily together. He recalled the dense masses of the Sikh army – thirty thousand strong at least, shields and scimitars and jewel-bedecked turbans gleaming in the dust. Then there were the British, perhaps twelve thousand, advancing in stages, step-firing, blowing out huge gaps in the native ranks.
     The din was amazing. Above the crash and scream of cannonade was that frightful wailing so typical of Sub-continental warfare, the brazen pipes and trumpets, the wild clashing of drums and symbols.
     Craddock closed his eyes. It was so romantic when you remembered it in that textbook fashion. But there was no hiding the reality of the aftermath. The stench of blood and bowels and gunpowder. The fields of twisted, broken bodies slowly baking in raging heat, swarming with bloated flies. The major hung his head. In comparison, Wigan, for all its squalor and turmoil, was joyous.
     Then he heard the chuckle. The rasping, papery chuckle.
     Curiously, he turned.
     Behind him, running parallel to the L&Y was a secondary cutting, once used to accommodate a mineral line, the rails and sleepers of which had long been removed. Instead, the gully was now filled with brick rubble, broken planks and dead, frozen vegetation. Thirty yards along it, close to an old footbridge, at a point where a wheeled coal tub lay rusting on its side, a figure was seated on a mound of earth, its back turned.
     Craddock’s spine prickled when he saw it. It was warming itself by a meagre fire built on a heap of white sticks, but it sat completely still, like something dead. Its clothing, he saw, was of old sacking, but heavy, voluminous even, and greenish in colour. On top, the material had been pulled up high into a monk’s pointed cowl.
     More frightening than this, though, the figure was diminutive in stature. The major could tell that even from this distance.
     He felt his heart begin to thump. He cleared his throat to speak, which seemed to take seconds. From the fogged urban landscape behind there was a sudden silence. Wintry gusts blew hard on the snowy slag-heaps.
     “I say, fellow!” he called. “You – what are you doing here?”
     It made no reply; didn’t even move.
     Craddock eased his horse forward and steered it down the slope, broken ground crumbling beneath its hooves. When he reached the bottom, the air was even colder. Rigid wheel-ruts were slick with grey-green ice. He turned to face the hooded shape again. It was still there. The fire flickered beside it.
     “I know you can hear me!” the major said, urging his animal forward. “I’m James Craddock, Chief Inspector of the borough police. You’d best have an answer.”
     Apparently the figure didn’t. It held its posture. Craddock reined up when he was ten feet away.    Whatever this thing was, it was indeed small; probably under three feet. Yet Craddock knew it cared nothing for his presence. He was insignificant to it, an insect, maybe less. His fingers tightened on his riding crop; he sensed his mount growing uneasy, snorting, pawing hard. He thought of black and mangled necks, heads lolling.
     “I’ll arrest you,” he said quietly. “So help me God, I’ll arrest you for nothing if I have to. I’ll make the charges stick. They’ll drop you through that trap like a mealy-bag.”
     And only then did it turn toward him.
     But with infinitesimal slowness.
     Scarcely seeming to move, its hooded form twisted laboriously round, a hint of space appearing under the folds of rancid cloth, a space in which at any moment he’d see a face. God alone knew what kind of face, but a face that would explain all.
     The major’s skin crawled. His horse was now jerking, stamping. The figure was looking up slowly. Any second, any second he’d see it – and then the scream, the colossal, ear-shattering scream, which almost threw Major Craddock from his saddle.
     His horse bolted, throwing itself about, hurling him from side to side, leaping and bucking. It took every inch of his mastery to control it, and all the while, on the tracks above, the Manchester Express blasted thunderously past, whistle shrieking, motion clanking, carriage after carriage roaring along the metals in deafening cacophony.
     And then, just as quickly, it had gone, a swirl of steam behind it.
     Cursing aloud, Craddock yanked back the reins and wheeled his animal about.
     He was alone.
     Of the cowled figure, there was no trace.
     Angrily, the major dismounted and scrambled forward, kicking his way through frosted brambles.  But among the clutter beside the up-ended coal truck, there wasn’t a sign anyone had been there. Except, perhaps, for the remnants of a very old fire – a few sticks of white-charred bone. Whether human or animal, he couldn’t tell, but when he stirred them with his crop, they crumbled away to powder, eddying in the breeze.

*

Two days later, the killer struck again.
     Marion Mary Rourke died in exactly the same manner as James O’Hare and Kathleen McConnolly; strangled with such force that her neck broke. She was found among the snowy headstones in St. Patrick’s churchyard, Scholes. She had clearly been thrown from the adjoining street, because shreds of her skirt and shawl were snagged on the tips of the spiked railings.
     By trade she’d been a pit-brow worker, and thus a sturdy woman. Though reportedly drunk and tottering on the night she was attacked, the evidence suggested that Mrs. Rourke had put up a fight. The fact that one of her clogs was still clutched in her right hand indicated she had been defending herself. Apparently that had not been enough, for the assailant had snapped her right wrist the way a normal person might snap a twig. Perhaps this show of defiance had angered him, hence the hurling of her body over the high churchyard fence.
     Whichever, this third killing in the series differed from the others in that the victim was well known and well liked. The morning the body was discovered by the sexton, a large and unruly crowd began to gather despite the blizzarding snow. There were shouts and jeers when Major Craddock arrived. One constable had his helmet pushed off. Arrests were made. There were scuffles. Despite the parish priest’s attempts to calm them, the local population quickly assumed the dimensions of mob. A local cretin, Simple Saemus, was produced. He was slapped, shoved, pushed over into the slush and straw of the gutter. Someone hit him with an iron bar, splitting his eyebrow. Constables Butterfield and McDougal had to draw their staffs and charge in order to rescue him.
     Bloodied and gibbering, the wretch was led away to safety, but not before he grabbed at Major Craddock’s coat. The police chief turned to look at him.
     “T’wunt me, boss, t’wun’t,” the vagrant stammered. “T’wuz a young un see, t’wuz a young ’un. Saw ’un wi’ me own eyes, did. T’wuz a young ’un.”
     Craddock stared, saying nothing.
     Saemus became frantic. “T’wuz a young ’un! All dressed up, he were, like a monk u’ Benedick. Danced a jig, too. T’wuz a young ’un. Can’t trust young ’uns. Can’t trust any ’un.”
     Slowly, Craddock took the man’s claw and disentangled it from the lapel of his coat. A bloody print remained. The major turned to Constable Duckworth.
     “Take this fellow to the office. Get him some dry clothes and hot tea. And clean his eye up. Keep him there until I get a chance to speak with him.”
     The officer nodded, leading the innocent soul away. Craddock glanced back through the gate into the graveyard. Sergeant Rafferty was standing over the sprawled body of the victim, gazing down with an apparently shocked expression. Close by, Inspector Munro knelt with a sketch pad and charcoal, copying impressions from any boot indentations in the snow. Craddock sidled in, keeping clear of the actual murder scene.
     “On your mother’s soul, eh, Rafferty?” he said, coming to stand beside the sergeant.
     Rafferty stiffened. “Aye, sir. On my mother’s soul.”
     Marion Mary Rourke no longer looked human. She’d already frozen solid, and snowflakes were gathering on the blackened mess of her face. Her head lay virtually at a right angle on her shoulder.
     “Ready to talk to me now?” Craddock wondered. “Now that we’ve got another body on our hands? Perhaps ready to tell me what it was you were too embarrassed to tell me before? About what Roisin Lachlan really said.”
     Rafferty stumbled for the right words. “I’m an Irishman born and bred, sir – but perhaps I’m too long away from the old country. I didn’t believe it when she told me. I couldn’t believe it. No right-thinking man would.”
     “Try me,” the major said.
     The sergeant shrugged. “How long did we serve together in India, sir?”
     “Thirty years or more. Why?”
     “Didn’t we see some strange sights while we were out there? Hear some odd tales?”
     “That we did, Rafferty.”
     “You remember Calcutta market, sir?”
     Craddock nodded.
     “And the fakir – floating in the air while he slept? I mean, we saw that, sir. We all saw it with our own eyes.”
     “That we did.”
    “And the fellow on the bed made from nails? Not a scratch on his back. Not a drop of blood drawn?”
     “Aye.”
     “And you says to me, ‘There’s more goes on in Heaven and Earth than me and you will ever know, Padraig Rafferty’.”
     “I remember that,” the major said.
      Once again, the sergeant wore a haunted look. “Well try this for size, sir.” He cleared his throat, as if not knowing how to start. “There’s an old story – from my own country, sir. One you may have heard, but I doubt it. About the Pooka?”
     Craddock shook his head. “The Pooka?”
     Rafferty nodded. “A mythical creature. A sort of evil faerie. An imp, if you like. Back in Ireland, they never pick blackberries after September because the Pooka will have pissed on them.”
     Craddock looked back to the violated corpse. “We have three unsolved murders, and you think we should be looking for faeries?”
     “Roisin Lachlan does. And she saw what happened.”
     The major pondered this. “Tell me more.”
     “You don’t scoff at our Irish legends, sir?”
     Craddock half-smiled. “My mentor was General Gough, Rafferty. You recall him, I take it? Our commanding officer at Goojerat.”
     “How could I forget him, sir?”
     “He was an Irishman, was he not?”
     “He was indeed.”
     “Did he not win the war?”
     “That he did?”
     “And the peace, bringing the Sikh nation under our banner when all other methods had failed?”
     “Aye.”
      Craddock nodded. “I respect the Irish, Rafferty. So tell me – the Pooka?”
     Again, the sergeant had to think before speaking. “In England you think of the faerie folk as something from a children’s book – pretty woodland spirits doing mischief. In Ireland it’s darker. The Pooka, they used to say, was something to be feared. A bringer of mayhem. A being who existed by his own rules. He especially disliked drunks. He’d prowl at night and if he came across any – he’d strangle them.”
      Major Craddock stiffened, as if a frozen wind had picked up. He managed to suppress it. “As you say, it’s only a legend.”
      Rafferty didn’t seem convinced. “So far only Irish people have been killed.”
     “Your Pooka kills only the Irish?”
     The sergeant shuddered. “My Pooka is punishing his own people because they are disgracing themselves in the face of the enemy – the Saxon.”
     That made sense, Craddock decided, in a tribal, feudalistic kind of way. But looking again at the mangled remains of Marion Mary Rourke, it still seemed harsh.
     “It never occurs to him, Rafferty, that maybe his own people are in this wretched state because of the Saxon? Because Irish landlords, loyal to the Saxon, exploited them? Because profit-making exports came first, before famine relief?”
     The sergeant shook his head sadly. “The Pooka only respects integrity, sir. There can be no excuses.”
     “I’d like to meet him,” Craddock said. 
     “But you don’t believe in him.”
     “No, I don’t. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a madman in this town who does.” Craddock turned back to the street, where further disorder was brewing. “Sergeant Repton, I want these roads cleared! Now, d’you hear! Tell these people this is an unlawful assembly. If they don’t disperse, I’ll have the Riot Act read. I’ll call in the Fusiliers, so help me!” He glanced back to Rafferty. “We need ...”
     His orders tailed off, for the Irishman had fallen to his haunches and was examining something in the snow. Eventually he picked it up, but gingerly, by its corner.
      “A piece of sacking, sir,” he said, holding it out. “Possibly torn off our murderer’s clothes during the fight. And it’s green, sir. It’s emerald green.”

*

It was the Christmas Day of 1850 when Major Craddock finally returned home from the Punjab War. They’d crushed Shere Singh’s supposedly invincible army the previous February, and had spent the next ten months harrying and pursuing the scattered remnants. But that first day of his well-earned leave was a gloomy one. Caked in dust, his red and gold tunic in rags, he’d stood on the deserted verandah and stared through an open door into an empty bungalow. No happy words greeted him; there was no delicious smell of wildfowl broiling in curry. Instead, the whitewashed villa was festooned with black curtains of mourning.
     Abigail, it seemed, had died the previous June – or so he’d eventually found out by questioning a nautch girl in the neighbouring village. Craddock would wonder ever after if the East India Company’s agents had seriously attempted to cable him, or were simply lying to cover their embarrassment. Either way, it had finished him in the military.
     Now, on another Christmas day, fourteen years later, he stood alone again in a pall of uncertainty. Below him, in the workhouse hall, the clamour for food and drink went on, though he neither saw nor heard it. At length, Inspector Munro appeared beside him.
     “As far as we can see, sir, they’re just children.”
     Craddock nodded, but said nothing. He gazed down absently.
     “Sir,” Munro said quietly, “I think we’ve exhausted this line of enquiry. We’ve checked every fair in the county, every circus. There are no dwarfs missing, no midgets behaving oddly. Even if there were, and he was hiding out among the paupers in Wigan, there’s no guarantee he’d come here for his Christmas dinner.”
     Craddock glanced up. “Free food, free drink, free warmth. You think he’d turn that down on a day like this?”
     Munro was clearly in doubt. “Do we even know for sure that he’s a vagrant?”
     The major thought again of the seated figure on the mineral line. At the time he’d been certain of what he’d seen; now that almost a month had passed, he was beginning to wonder. “It was always a long shot, I suppose.”
     “Shall I stand the men down?” Munro asked.
     Craddock bristled at that suggestion. “Not yet.”
     “We’ve been here five hours!”
     “Not yet, Captain Munro!”
     Bored constables glanced around, surprised at the harsh tone.
     Munro leaned closer, and whispered. “Jim – it’s Christmas Day and we have a full shift on. At the moment they’re not doing anything. We all want to catch this lunatic, and we will. But he isn’t here. Let me send the lads home?”
     Craddock took out his watch and glanced at it. “Give it another half-hour, and we’ll talk again.”
     Munro stood back, irritated but unwilling to dispute it further. He had a wife and youngsters of his own, of course. Craddock’s house, meanwhile, would be cold and empty, filled with the desolate gloom of a late December afternoon. The major wondered if he was being overly insensitive with his men, but then he remembered the frozen, twisted bodies, their clawed hands and ghastly faces, and his resolve hardened.
     “I’ve a reason for this, Jack.” He looked at his watch again. “And now is the time for it. Come with me.”
     Munro followed as the major made his way down to the lower levels, and pushed through the mad bustle in the dining area to a separate but adjoining chamber. It was long and low, and overhung with dirty rafters. Various benches and stools were being arranged there by parish orderlies. There were no windows – only a door at the far end, though this was now masked by a white sheet suspended between the walls like a piece of laundry. A strong light had been positioned behind it, so that a figure moving there appeared as a black phantom.
     That figure now peeped around the edge of the sheet. He saw the two officers and came out, promptly stumbling on the uneven paving stones.
     “Gerry Flaherty, sir,” he slurred with a heavy Irish lilt. He offered them a shaking hand. “Sh – showman extraordinaire. And a happy Christmas to you. Glad to be of service to the po-lis.”
     He was stooped and balding, with wisps of grey hair behind his ears, and clad in a tight, chequered suit, worn and patched at its cuffs and elbows. His face, blotched and reddish, revealed his own fondness for a tipple or two.
     “Pleased to have you along, Mr. Flaherty,” Craddock said, shaking his hand. “You recall the modifications we discussed?”
     Flaherty saluted. Then hiccoughed.
     Craddock gave him a dubious stare. “The situation is simple. You will proceed with your show as normal. Ignore our presence as much as is feasibly possible. You won’t even see us unless necessary, which it probably won’t be. There’s nothing else really to tell you.”
     “Right you are, sir,” Flaherty said with a broad smile. His breath was soused with whiskey.
     “Munro,” Craddock said, “have Sergeant Repton search the rest of the building. Tell him to stick his nose in every grid and mousehole. I want the bloody place turned inside out. And get Rafferty and the men to take their positions outside. Join me back here when you’ve finished.”
     With an audible sigh, the inspector walked away.
     The magic lantern show began five minutes later, the vast majority of the paupers having now filed in, in what could only be described as paroxysms of excitement. There were many more of them than there were seats, so a good number were sitting on the floor or in the aisles. A hush fell over them – few had beheld a wonder like this before.
     Craddock stood at the back, as unobtrusively as possible, wrinkling his nostrils at the stench of unwashed hair and bodies. He’d watched them carefully as they’d trooped by. From what he’d seen, there was little argument with Munro’s verdict: the killer was not here. All of these were young children, though some faces were so drawn and haggard that it was often hard to tell. Still, the final test was yet to be made.
     Almost on cue, the shadow puppets began to dance on the big white curtain. At first it was the tale of Aladdin and his wonderful lamp. ‘Oohs’ and ‘aahs’ erupted from the audience as clearly distinguishable Chinamen with pigtails and bandy legs trotted back and forth, bowing to each other against a backdrop of pagodas. Flaherty might have been a drunk, but his skill was undeniable.
Several minutes later, Munro slid in. He took his place beside Craddock. On the curtain, a boyish figure, seated cross-legged on a rock, was polishing a big lamp. 
     “Everything’s in order,” the inspector muttered.
     Craddock nodded, but said nothing. On the curtain, through a billowing mass of smoke, the genie had appeared. The well-loved tale rolled on through its many convolutions, the two officers watching in silence over the rows of heads.
     “I take it there’s a purpose to this?” Munro eventually asked. “It’s almost dark outside. I seriously doubt there’s much more we can do.”
     “Patience, if you please,” the major replied. “We’ve one more card to play.”
     And as he spoke, Flaherty began to play it. On the curtain, the scene abruptly changed. From the emperor’s fabulous palace, the location was suddenly a field somewhere, a couple of withered trees to indicate hard times. As the paupers sat entranced, too unfamiliar with the Aladdin story to realise that a diversion had been made, two bowed figures, struggling to push a plough, appeared. Half way across the screen, they stopped, stood upright and took off their hats as if to pray. It was lost on the audience, but not on Munro. Instantly, he recognised an image of rural Ireland – two peasants had halted in their daily toil to say the Angelus.
     After they had finished, they recommenced their work. Now they seemed terribly tired. One collapsed to his knees. Digging in what was clearly supposed to be earth, he held up only thin and twisted roots.
     Craddock watched the audience closely. Thus far there wasn’t a peep from them. They were so absorbed that not one of them had moved for several minutes.
     On the curtain, meanwhile, the two peasants, now in rags, were crawling to the feet of a tall man in a tailcoat and topper. By his profile, he had a huge jaw, which he held up proudly. Though the two beggars implored him for help, he ignored them, turning and striding away. Huddled together in misery, the two figures slumped down to the earth and lay still – but only for a moment or so. Slowly and jerkily, they rose back to their feet, but now they were no longer men. They were skeletons, walking heaps of bones. Frightened gasps came up from the audience, yet as they watched, more skeletons appeared, standing alongside the first two.
     “I hope he doesn’t overdo it,” Craddock said quietly.
     Munro stared at the curtain, amazed.
     It was filled with skeletons of all shapes and sizes. What was more, many of them were hideous, light shining through narrowed eyes and jagged grins for mouths. As one, like an army almost, they began to advance, growing steadily larger. Beggar children screamed and shouted. Those at the front threw themselves back. Chairs were overturned.
     “Stupid bastard!” Craddock snapped. “This isn’t what I asked him to do!”
     He lunged forward, fighting his way through the packed mass of shrieking, struggling youngsters. On the curtain, the skeletons had assumed demonic proportions, leaning down toward their victims with hooked talons for hands. Munro felt a prickle of fear – no magic lantern man was this talented. With a surge of panic, he hurled himself after the major. Seconds passed before they were able to reach the screen.    Craddock yanked it aside, ready to shout and bawl at the drunken buffoon who had so let him down – only to find a scene of horror.
     Flaherty lay chest down in a heap of stick-and-paper puppets. He had been throttled with such unimaginable force that his head had twisted right round and his face looked up over his back. His eyes were wide and bloodshot, filled with burst vessels. Grey froth still bubbled on his blue, grimacing lips. Clearly, he had been killed only moments earlier. As if to confirm this, beyond the table where the spirit lamp burned, a narrow door hung open on the snow-filled yard.
     “Quickly!” Craddock shouted, dashing through, drawing his revolver.
     Munro followed, but outside there was no-one to see – only Constable Coogan with his shotgun. The constable had been lounging against the far wall, smoking a pipe, which, on seeing his senior officer, he quickly beat out on the bricks.
     “Someone just came out this way,” the major said, hastening toward him.
     Coogan shook his head, startled.
     “Weren’t you awake, constable?” Munro demanded.
     “Sir – no-one came out. I swear.”
     “The bloody door’s wide open!” Craddock roared.
     “It was open all along, sir, honest,” Coogan stammered. “No-one came out!”
     The major and Munro glanced at each other, bewildered. “What the devil is going on here?” the inspector whispered.
     “Devil is right,” Craddock said. “I ...”
     “Sir, look!” Coogan suddenly hissed. “Up there.”
    All three found themselves staring up the high gable wall of the workhouse. To their incredulity, a figure was framed on the darkening sky, balancing along the topmost parapet, perhaps eighty feet above them.
     “He’ll break his bloody neck!” Coogan breathed.
     “I very much doubt it,” Craddock said. “Shoot him down.”
     The constable glanced at his chief in disbelief. “Sir?”
     “Do as I say, man!” the major reiterated. “Shoot the bugger down, now!” He took aim with his own Smith and Wesson, but knowing the weapon wasn’t insufficiently accurate over such a range, refrained from squeezing the trigger.
     Uneasily, Munro tried to intervene. “Sir, I’m not sure we can just ...”
     “Damn it, Munro, look at him!” Craddock snarled. “That’s our man.”
     High above, the figure was still in its precarious position. But now it was capering rather than balancing, prancing back and forth along the narrow ledge in a wild and ludicrous jig. What was more, it was covered in ragged Hessian or sackcloth, green by the looks of it, and pulled over its head in a pointed cowl.
     “That little heathen’s murdered four people,” Craddock shouted. “Shoot him down, Coogan!”
     Despite their horror at what they were seeing, the junior officers were still hesitant to open fire on an unarmed person. Men had hanged for less.
     “Sir, I can’t,” Coogan pleaded. “Look, I’ll try and get him down. I’ll go up. I’ll talk to him ...”
     Then a Brown Bess crashed like thunder in the workhouse yard.
     Involuntarily, all three ducked. When they looked up again, they saw Sergeant Rafferty. He’d appeared silently by the corner of the building. His musket was still to his shoulder, still pointed upward, still smoking at the end of its barrel. He wore a strained, almost hypnotised expression.      Attention switched back to the roof. The jig had ceased. The green-hooded figure hunched slowly over, arms clutched across its belly. Without a word, it fell, plummeting silently to earth. It hit the icy  flagstones with a dull thump, the way a bundle of laundry might.
     Craddock hurried forward, revolver cocked and aimed. Warily, he prodded the pile of rank cloth with his toe. It didn’t move. Slowly, finger tight on the trigger, he hunkered down, reached out, and with trembling hand began drawing back folds of material. Always though, there was more beneath.      Until, at long last, he reached the solid ground.
     Slowly, he rose to his feet. The rest of the men came and stood with him. One after another, they kicked at the heap of green sacking, or thrust their guns through it, seeking at least ash or bones or some sign that a living creature had once dwelt there. None of them were successful.

*

It was a dark and lonely Christmas Night, as they all had been since the death of Abigail.
     Her husband sat alone in the kitchen of his home, a single candle on the table. He smoked a cigar and poured out brandy. The house was still so cold that he hadn’t bothered to remove his greatcoat or muffler. The hot fluid went down in a single gulp.
     Craddock filled his glass again.
     As he did, there was a clatter of metal from the narrow street outside. A bin, fallen over and rolling, he supposed. He glanced at the window. Frosty starlight shone through. In some high part of the house, a draught was moaning. He thought nothing of it, and blew out smoke, drank more brandy – anything to stop him brooding on the events of the day. Outside, meanwhile, the bin continued to roll.
     If it was a bin.
     The major glanced at his brandy. And he wondered. Eventually though, he threw it down and poured himself another. Why worry? There was no Irish blood in his veins. As far as he knew.

***

If you enjoyed The Magic Lantern Show, and I hope you did, it’s probably worth my mentioning again that all the Major Craddock enquiries thus far - and all four of them are full-length novellas rather than short stories - pit him against grotesque, supernatural opponents, and can be found in the e-collection, MAJOR CRADDOCK INVESTIGATES, which you can acquire for the non-too-princely sum of £1.99.

Whatever you opt to do on that front, here’s hoping that everyone checking in here has a great Christmas and a very happy New Year. See you in 2019.

(The image at the top is a superb piece of festive chiller art that I’ve seen floating around online for a while without a credit attached. I have no idea who the original artist is, but if he/she wants to get in touch, I will happily post their name).