Sunday, 15 January 2023

Darkness till June: books to chill your hide


Well, it’s that time of year again. Yes, bleak, dull, cold, wet (or frozen), the sky permanently grey, the landscape desolate, and absolutely zilch to look forward to until Easter in about three months.

It can only be that worst page of the calendar, January. But if nothing else, at least in January we get to look ahead bookwise, to see what treats 2023 might have in store for us. So, that will take up the bulk of today’s post: as I always do at this time of year, I’m going to preview the 10 crime novels, the 10 thriller novels and the 10 horror novels (and anthologies) due to be released between now and the end of June that I am most looking forward to.


However, as always in these blogposts, there are other treats too. For instance, in celebration of the new Amazon supernatural horror series, The Rig (well, not really in celebration of it, but it’s a link of sorts, even if tenuous), I shall be reviewing another ocean-bound oil-platform horror, Paul E Cooley’s THE BLACK.

As usual, you will find that in my Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s column. Before any of that though, how’s about, we go …

Way back

Here’s a quick reminder, courtesy of The Bookseller, that my first novel of the serious historical epic variety, USURPER: Book One of the WULFBURY CHRONICLES, tells the tale of a young Saxon noble, Cerdic Aelfricsson of Wulfbury, who, during the chaos and violence of the Norman Conquest, loses everything that matters to him, his family, his friends, his home, but who is determined that this will not be the end of his line, and that no matter how brutal and terrifying the odds, he will fight back to the last ounce of strength he possesses.

As a huge fan all my life of historical action writers like Ben Kane, Mark Chadbourn/James Wilde, Matthew Harffy, Anthony Riches, David Gilman and Bernard Cornwell, even going back to such long-distant exponents of the art as Henry Treece and Alfred Duggan, it’s long been my ambition to venture back to the Dark Ages myself and pen a few sword-wielding adventures of my own.

Well, as you’re soon going to get bored of seeing me say it on here, my first one, USURPER, can be pre-ordered right now. It will be published electronically and in paperback on April 27.

And now, for something somewhat different. As promised …

DARKNESS TILL JUNE
Thirty new books I’ll need to read with the light on

I’ve already mentioned this in today’s intro, so I won’t go on too much about it. Suffice to say that I’ve been looking online and getting very excited about certain books due for publication between now and the end of June this year. So, I’m going to share with you my picks for the 10 most intriguing forthcoming titles in the following three categories of dark fiction: Crime, Thriller, Horror.

Hope you enjoy (and agree, or, if you disagree, you can always put me right in the comments section). If there’s any book or author I’ve missed out who you really think should be included, I offer humble apologies in advance. It might be an oversight on my part, or it might be that this particular publication hasn’t caught my imagination. If I spent a week on this, I could probably preview a 100 titles in each category, but alas, I haven’t got the time or space for that.

Enough natter, let’s just get on with it. Not having read any of these forthcoming books yet, these obviously aren’t reviews. Instead of that, I’m going to leave it to the publishers to do the talking by featuring the back-cover blurb for each title that I choose …

CRIME

THE DEAD OF WINTER 
by Stuart MacBride 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Feb 16)

It was supposed to be an easy job.

All Detective Constable Edward Reekie had to do was pick up a dying prisoner from HMP Grampian and deliver him somewhere to live out his last few months in peace.

From the outside, Glenfarach looks like a quaint, sleepy, snow-dusted village, nestled deep in the heart of Cairngorms National Park, but things aren’t what they seem. The place is thick with security cameras and there’s a strict nine o'clock curfew, because Glenfarach is the final sanctuary for people who’ve served their sentences but can’t be safely released into the general population.

Edward’s new boss, DI Montgomery-Porter, insists they head back to Aberdeen before the approaching blizzards shut everything down, but when an ex-cop-turned-gangster is discovered tortured to death in his bungalow, someone needs to take charge.

The weather’s closing in, tensions are mounting, and times running out - something nasty has come to Glenfarach, and Edward is standing right in its way ...


DEATH RIDE
by Nick Oldham 
(pub in eb and hb on Mar 7)

An unwelcome face from the past at a local fair leads Henry Christie on a white-knuckled race against time to find a missing girl.

On the third day of the Kendleton Country Fair in Lancashire, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Kirkham goes missing. Retired detective superintendent Henry Christie is there as a volunteer steward, but Charlotte’s sudden disappearance isn’t the only thing troubling him. The man with the burger van looks familiar ... for all the wrong reasons.

Leonard Lennox was jailed for twelve years for abducting a young girl. Henry rescued her, unharmed, and helped put Leonard behind bars. Now he’s out, with his own criminal outfit, old scores to settle, and a son who was last seen talking to Charlotte at the fair. Is history about to repeat itself? Henry is soon drawn into another hair-raising, pulse-pounding race against time, and the stakes couldn’t be higher ...
by Graham Bartlett 
(pub in eb on Feb 16, in hb on Mar 23)

When a night-time firebomb attack at a Brighton travellers’ site kills women and children, Chief Superintendent Jo Howe has strong reason to believe the new, dubiously elected, neo-nazi council leader is behind the murders. Against the direct orders of her chief constable, Jo digs deep into the killings secretly briefing the senior investigating officer of her suspicions.

As she delves further, Jo uncovers an underworld of human trafficking, slavery and euthanasia all leading to a devastating plot which threatens thousands of lives and from which the murderous politician looks sure to walk scott-free. Having narrowly survived a plot to kill her, where another was not so lucky, she realises that only by facing near-certain death once more can she thwart this terrorist outrage.


THE DETECTIVE 
by Ajay Chowdhury 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Apr 13)

Has someone got away with murder?

When a tech entrepreneur from Shoreditch is found dead in a construction site, along with three skeletons which are discovered to be over a hundred years old, Detective Kamil Rahman sets out to prove himself on his first case for the Met Police.


BLACKSTONE FELL 
by Martin Edwards 
(out now, pub in pb on Apr 13)

1930. Nell Fagan is a journalist on the trail of a intriguing and bizarre mystery: in 1606, a man vanished from a locked gatehouse in a remote Yorkshire village, and 300 years later, it happened again. Nell confides in the best sleuth she knows, judge’s daughter Rachel Savernake. Thank goodness she did, because barely a week later Nell disappears, and Rachel is left to put together the pieces of the puzzle.

Looking for answers, Rachel travels to lonely Blackstone Fell in Yorkshire, with its eerie moor and sinister tower. With help from her friend Jacob Flint - who’s determined to expose a fraudulent clairvoyant - Rachel will risk her life to bring an end to the disappearances and bring the truth to light.

A dazzling mystery peopled by clerics and medics; journalists and judges, Blackstone Fell explores the shadowy borderlands between spiritual and scientific; between sanity and madness; and between virtue and deadly sin.


BLOOD RUNS COLD 
by Neil Lancaster 
(pub in eb and hb on Apr 13)

She was taken against her will.

On her fifteenth birthday, trafficking victim Affi Smith goes for a run and never returns. With a new identity and secure home in the Scottish Highlands, she was supposed to be safe ...

She escaped once.

With personal ties to Affi’s case, DS Max Craigie joins the investigation. When he discovers other trafficking victims have disappeared in exactly the same circumstances, he knows one thing for certain – there’s a leak somewhere within law-enforcement.

She won’t outrun them again.

The clock is ticking ... Max must catch Affi’s kidnappers and expose the mole before anyone else goes missing. Even it if means turning suspicions onto his own team…


SIMPLY LIES 
by David Baldacci 
(pub in eb, ab and hb on Apr 13)

No truth

Former Jersey City detective and single mother of two, Mickey Gibson, now works for global investigation company, ProEye, to track down assets of the wealthy who have tried to avoid their creditors. One day she gets a call from a colleague, Arlene Robinson, asking her to visit the home of a notorious arms dealer who has cheated some of ProEye’s clients in the past. Mickey arrives at the mansion to discover the body of a man hidden in a secret room.

No limits

It turns out that nothing is at it seems. The arms dealer did not exist, and nobody at ProEye knew of Arlene Robinson. Mickey had been tricked and now the cops were involved. The body was that of Thomas Lancaster who’d been in Witness Protection having had links with the mob.

No fear

Now begins a cat-and-mouse showdown between hardened ex-cop, Mickey, and a woman with sociopathic tendencies who has no name and a mysterious past. She intends to get what she wants and people who get in her way will die. For Mickey to stop her, she must first discover her true identity and what damaged her all those years ago. And the truth behind why she selected Micky to become her nemesis ...


SMALL MERCIES 
by Dennis Lehane 
(pub in eb and hb on Apr 25)

‘Mrs. Fennessy, please go home.’
‘And do what?’
‘Whatever you do when you're home.’
‘And then what?’
‘Get up the next day and do it again.’
She shakes her head. ‘That's not living.’
‘It is if you can find the small blessings.’
She smiles, but her eyes shine with agony. ‘All my small blessings are gone.’

In the summer of 1974 a heatwave blankets Boston and Mary Pat Fennessey is trying to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors. Mary Pat has lived her entire life in the housing projects of ‘Southie’, the Irish American enclave that stubbornly adheres to old tradition and stands proudly apart.

One night Mary Pat’s teenage daughter Jules stays out late and doesn't come home. That same evening, a young black man is found dead, struck by a subway train under mysterious circumstances.

The two events seem unconnected. But Mary Pat, propelled by a desperate search for her missing daughter, begins turning over stones best left untouched - asking questions that bother Marty Butler, chieftain of the Irish mob, and the men who work for him, men who don’t take kindly to any threat to their business.

Set against the hot, tumultuous months when the city’s desegregation of its public schools exploded in violence, Small Mercies is a superb thriller, a brutal depiction of criminality and power, and an unflinching portrait of the dark heart of American racism.
by Mark Billingham 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on May 25)

Meet Detective Miller: unique, unconventional, and criminally underestimated...

He’s a detective, a dancer, he has no respect for authority ­- and he’s the best hope Blackpool has for keeping criminals off the streets. Meet Detective Declan Miller.

A double murder in a seaside hotel sees a grieving Miller return to work to solve what appears to be a case of mistaken identity. Just why were two completely unconnected men taken out?

Despite a somewhat dubious relationship with both reality and his new partner, can the eccentric, offbeat Miller find answers where his colleagues have found only an impossible puzzle?


ALL THE SINNERS BLEED 
by SA Crosby 
(pub in eb and hb on Jun 6)

After years of working as an FBI agent, Titus Crown returns home to Charon County, land of moonshine and cornbread, fist fights and honeysuckle. Seeing his hometown struggling with a bigoted police force inspires him to run for sheriff. He wins, and becomes the first black sheriff in the history of the county.

Then a year to the day after his election, a young black man is fatally shot by Titus’s deputies.

Titus pledges to follow the truth wherever it leads. But no one expected he would unearth a serial killer who has been hiding in plain sight, haunting the dirt lanes and woodland clearings of Charon.

Now, Titus must pull off the impossible: stay true to his instincts, prevent outright panic, and investigate a shocking crime in a small town where everyone knows everyone yet secrets flourish. All while also breaking up backroads bar fights and being forced to protect racist Confederate pride marchers.

For a black man wearing a police uniform in the American South, that's no easy feat. But Charon is Titus’s home and his heart, and he won’t let the darkness overtake it. Even as it threatens to consume him ...


THRILLER

by Bret Easton Ellis
(pub in eb and hb on Jan 17, in ab on Jan 24)

LA, 1981. Buckley College in heat. 17-year-old Bret is a senior at the exclusive Buckley prep school when a new student arrives with a mysterious past. Robert Mallory is bright, handsome, charismatic, and shielding a secret from Bret and his friends, even as he becomes a part of their tightly knit circle. Bret’s obsession with Mallory is equalled only by his increasingly unsettling preoccupation with The Trawler, a serial killer on the loose who seems to be drawing ever closer to Bret and his friends, taunting them with grotesque threats and horrific, sharply local acts of violence.

Can he trust his friends – or his own mind – to make sense of the danger they appear to be in? Thwarted by the world and by his own innate desires, buffeted by unhealthy fixations, Bret spirals into paranoia and isolation as the relationship between The Trawler and Robert Mallory hurtles inexorably toward a collision.

Gripping, sly, suspenseful, deeply haunting and often darkly funny, The Shards is a mesmerising fusing of fact and fiction that brilliantly explores the emotional fabric of Bret’s life at 17 – sex and jealousy, obsession and murderous rage.


THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD 
by Dean R Koontz
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Jan 24)

In retreat from a devastating loss and crushing injustice, Katie lives alone in a fortresslike stone house on Jacob’s Ladder island. Once a rising star in the art world, she finds refuge in her painting.

The neighboring island of Ringrock houses a secret: a government research facility. And now two agents have arrived on Jacob’s Ladder in search of someone―or something―they refuse to identify. Although an air of menace hangs over these men, an infinitely greater threat has arrived, one so strange even the island animals are in a state of high alarm.

Katie soon finds herself in an epic and terrifying battle with a mysterious enemy. But Katie’s not alone after all: a brave young girl appears out of the violent squall. As Katie and her companion struggle across a dark and eerie landscape, against them is an omnipresent terror that could bring about the end of the world.


LOOK BOTH WAYS 
by Linwood Barclay 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Feb 2, pb on Jun 8)

They think as one. They act as one. They kill as one.

The residents of Garrett Island are part of a visionary experiment. Their cars have been sent to the mainland and for one month, they’ve got self-driving vehicles called Arrivals. With just a voice command, an Arrival will take you where you want to go, and as the cars are all aware of each other, road accidents should be a thing of the past.

As the world’s press arrives for a glimpse of this driverless future, islander and single mom Sandra Montrose preps for the huge media event. She’s ready for this new world. Her husband died when he fell asleep at the wheel, and she’s relieved her two teens, Archie and Katie, may never need driver’s licenses.

But as the day gets underway, there are signs all is not well. A member of the press has vanished. There are rumours of industrial sabotage.

Before long, the sleek driverless cars are no longer taking orders. They’re starting to organize. They’re starting to hunt. And they’ve got the residents of Garrett Island in their sights.


by Zoe Stage 
(pub in ab, eb, hb and pb on Mar 1)

Grace isn’t exactly thrilled when her newly widowed mother, Jackie, asks to move in with her. They’ve never had a great relationship, and Grace likes her space―especially now that she’s stuck at home during a pandemic. Then again, she needs help with the mortgage after losing her job. And maybe it’ll be a chance for them to bond―or at least give each other a hand.

But living with Mother isn’t for everyone. Good intentions turn bad soon after Jackie moves in. Old wounds fester; new ones open. Grace starts having nightmares about her disabled twin sister, who died when they were kids. And Jackie discovers that Grace secretly catfishes people online―a hobby Jackie thinks is unforgivable.

When Jackie makes an earth-shattering accusation against her, Grace sees it as an act of revenge, and it sends her spiraling into a sleep-deprived madness. As the walls close in, the ghosts of Grace’s past collide with a new but familiar threat: Mom.


THE INSTITUTION 
by Helen Fields 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Mar 2)

They’re locked up for your safety.

Now, you’re locked in with them.

Dr Connie Woolwine has five days to catch a killer.

On a locked ward in the world’s highest-security prison hospital, a scream shatters the night. The next morning, a nurse’s body is found and her daughter has been taken. A ransom must be paid, and the clock is ticking.

Forensic profiler Dr Connie Woolwine is renowned for her ability to get inside the mind of a murderer. Now, she must go deep undercover among the most deranged and dangerous men on earth and use her unique skills to find the girl – before it’s too late.

But as the walls close in around her, can Connie get the killer before The Institution gets her?


THE MOTHER 
by TM Logan 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Mar 2)

Framed for murder. Now she’s free ...

A woman attends a funeral, standing in the shadows and watching in agony as her sons grieve. But she is unable to comfort them - or reveal her secret.

A decade earlier, Heather gets her children ready for bed and awaits the return of her husband Liam, little realising that this is the last night they will spend together as a family. Because tomorrow she will be accused of Liam’s murder.

Ten years ago Heather lost everything. Now she will stop at nothing to clear her name - and to get her children back ...


I WILL FIND YOU 
by Harlan Coben 
(pub in ab, eb and hb on Mar 16)

David and Cheryl Burroughs are living the dream - married, a beautiful house in the suburbs, a three year old son named Matthew - when tragedy strikes one night in the worst possible way.

David awakes to find himself covered in blood, but not his own - his son’s. And while he knows he did not murder his son, the overwhelming evidence against him puts him behind bars indefinitely.

Five years into his imprisonment, Cheryl’s sister arrives - and drops a bombshell.

She’s come with a photograph that a friend took on vacation at a theme park. The boy in the background seems familiar - and even though David realizes it can’t be, he knows it is.

It’s Matthew, and he’s still alive.

David plans a harrowing escape from prison, determined to do what seems impossible - save his son, clear his own name, and discover the real story of what happened that devastating night.


by Joe R Lansdale 
(pub in ab and eb on Mar 21, in hb on Apr 13)

Charlie Garner has a bad feeling. His ex-wife, Meg, has been missing for over a week and one quick peek into her home shows all her possessions packed up in boxes. Neighbors claim she’s running from bill collectors, but Charlie suspects something more sinister is afoot. Meg was last seen working at the local donut shop, a business run by a shadow group most refer to as The Saucer People; a space-age, evangelist cult who believe their compound to be the site of an extraterrestrial Second Coming.

Along with his brother, Felix, and beautiful, randy journalist Amelia ‘Scrappy’ Moon, Charlie uncovers strange and frightening details about the compound (read: a massive, doomsday storehouse of weapons, a leashed chimpanzee!) When the body of their key informer is found dead with his arms ripped out of their sockets, Charlie knows he’s in danger but remains dogged in his quest to rescue Meg.

Brimming with colurful characters and Lansdale’s characteristic bounce, this rollicking crime novel examines the insidious rise of fringe groups and those under their sway with black comedy and glints of pathos.


by Will Dean 
(pub on ab, eb and hb on May 11)

My phone has no reception, something we’ve been told to expect from time to time out here, and my stomach feels uneasy. Maybe it's the motion of the waves or maybe it’s the fact that Pete didn’t leave a note or a text. He usually leaves a note with a heart.

I pull on jeans and a jumper and scrunch my hair on top of my head and take my key card and step out into the corridor.

Thirty seconds later it hits me.

All the other cabin doors are wedged open.

Every single one is unoccupied and unlocked.

My heart starts beating harder. I break out into a run. At the end of the long corridor I take a lift down to the Ocean Lobby.

There’s nobody here.

My mouth is dry.

It’s like I’m trapped on a runaway train.

No, this is worse.

The RMS Atlantica is steaming out into the ocean and I am the only person on board.

This was supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime for Cas. Now she just needs to survive.


FEARLESS 
by MW Craven 
(Pub in ab, eb and hb on Jun 29)

Five million reasons why Ben Koenig had to disappear. Only one to bring him back ...

Ben Koenig is a ghost. He doesn’t exist any more.

Six years ago it was Koenig who headed up the US Marshal’s elite Special Ops group. They were the unit who hunted the bad guys - the really bad guys. They did this so no one else had to.

Until the day Koenig disappeared. He told no one why and he left no forwarding address. For six years he became a grey man. Invisible. He drifted from town to town, state to state. He was untraceable. It was as if he had never been.

But now Koenig’s face is on every television screen in the country. Someone from his past is trying to find him and they don’t care how they do it. In the burning heat of the Chihuahuan Desert lies a town called Gauntlet, and there are people in there who have a secret they’ll do anything to protect. They’ve killed before and they will kill again.

Only this time they’ve made a mistake. They’ve dismissed Koenig as just another drifter - but they’re wrong. Because Koenig has a condition, a unique disorder that makes it impossible for him to experience fear. And now they’re about to find out what a truly fearless man is capable of. Because Koenig’s coming for them. And hell’s coming with him ...
by Grady Hendrix 
(Pub in eb on Jan 14, in hb on Jan 17)

When Louise finds out her parents have died, she dreads going home. She doesn’t want to leave her daughter with her ex and fly to Charleston. She doesn’t want to deal with her family home, stuffed to the rafters with the remnants of her father’s academic career and her mother’s lifelong obsession with puppets and dolls. She doesn’t want to learn how to live without the two people who knew and loved her best in the world.

Mostly, she doesn’t want to deal with her brother, Mark, who never left their hometown, gets fired from one job after another, and resents her success. But she’ll need his help to get the house ready for sale because it’ll take more than some new paint on the walls and clearing out a lifetime of memories to get this place on the market.

Some houses don’t want to be sold, and their home has other plans for both of them…


EPISODE THIRTEEN 
by Craig DiLouie 
(Pub in eb, ab and pb on Jan 24)

Fade to Black is the newest hit ghost hunting reality TV show. Led by husband and wife team Matt and Claire Kirklin, it delivers weekly hauntings investigated by a dedicated team of ghost hunting experts.

Episode Thirteen takes them to every ghost hunter’s holy grail: the Paranormal Research Foundation. This brooding, derelict mansion holds secrets and clues about bizarre experiments that took place there in the 1970s. It’s also famously haunted, and the team hopes their scientific techniques and high tech gear will prove it. But as the house begins to reveal itself to them, proof of an afterlife might not be everything Matt dreamed of. A story told in broken pieces, in tapes, journals, and correspondence, this is the story of Episode Thirteen-and how everything went terribly, horribly wrong.


by Steve Duffy 
(Available Jan, in hb)

Where are the monsters? Sometimes they’re right behind you.

In this new collection of six novelettes – three are wholly original to this volume – Steve Duffy invites us to look over our shoulders, and asks us whether we recognise the faces that we see. Some of them are all too human, some are animals, and some are like nothing we’ve ever seen – yet.

In the snowy wastes of the Yukon and the mining country of Appalachia an age-old terror is unwittingly unleashed…

After-hours at the Pacific View diner, meet a glamorous, mysterious film star and uncover a monstrous bargain…

In Streatham or in Ethiopia, you must be careful what you wish for – very careful – or anything might happen…

Christmas is a time for family, and that means dark secrets, desperate desires and occult constructs…

Down at the zoo something is stirring: the animals know, but the warders won’t realise until it’s already too late…

Young love blossoms at the New York World’s Fair, but the future has its own agenda…

The latest collection of stories and novellas from ghost and horror story maestro, Steve Duffy.


by Rosalie Parker
(Pub Jan/Feb in hb)

The humans who inhabit Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories seem des­tined to test the limitations of rational existence. Some have accidentally stray­ed into no-man’s land, such as the narrator of Bipolarity who must decide how to learn to live (or not) with her mental illness; or the protag­onist of Beguiled who may be forced by fam­ily attitudes into social obscurity; or, in School Trip, un­promising June’s un­expected discovery of her own ‘special powers’. Other stories, such as Home Comforts, are more playful, although the uncanny is never far away.

Dream Fox also includes ‘a book within a book’: Mary Belgrove’s Book of Unusual Experiences—containing nine diverse accounts of weird and paranormal happenings written by those who experienced them, compiled and commented upon by the epony­mous Ms Belgrove, whose dying wish is to publish evidence of such events for scientists to study. Who can resist accounts of indestructible mushrooms, a country house party that goes dis­astrously wrong, prehistoric wish-fulfilment magic, or the dream-fuelled psychedelic love story that is View from a Tower?

Dream Fox and Other Strange Stories is Rosalie Parker’s fifth collec­tion of strange tales.

by Johnny Compton 
(Pub in eb and ab on Feb 7,  in hb on Mar 21)

Eric Ross is on the run from a mysterious past with his two daughters in tow. Having left his wife, his house, his whole life behind in Maryland, he’s desperate for money - it’s not easy to find steady, safe work when you can’t provide references, you can’t stay in one place for long, and you’re paranoid that your past is creeping back up on you. 

When he comes across the strange ad for the Masson House in Degener, Texas, Eric thinks they may have finally caught a lucky break. The Masson property, notorious for being one of the most haunted places in Texas, needs a caretaker of sorts. The owner is looking for proof of paranormal activity. All they need to do is stay in the house and keep a detailed record of everything that happens there. Provided the house’s horrors don’t drive them all mad, like the caretakers before them. 

The job calls to Eric, not just because there’s a huge payout if they can make it through, but because he wants to explore the secrets of the spite house. If it is indeed haunted, maybe it’ll help him understand the uncanny power that clings to his family, driving them from town to town, making them afraid to stop running.


BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR 14 
edited by Ellen Datlow 
(Out now, pub in pb on Feb 16)

For more than four decades, Ellen Datlow has been at the centre of horror. Bringing you the most frightening and terrifying stories, Datlow always has her finger on the pulse of what horror readers crave. Now, with the fourteenth volume of the series, Datlow is back again to bring you the stories that will keep you up at night. Encompassed in the pages of The Best Horror of the Year have been such illustrious writers as: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Stephen Graham Jones, Joyce Carol Oates, Laird Barron, Mira Grant, and many others.

With each passing year, science, technology, and the march of time shine light into the craggy corners of the universe, making the fears of an earlier generation seem quaint. But this light creates its own shadows. The Best Horror of the Year chronicles these shifting shadows. It is a catalogue of terror, fear, and unpleasantness as articulated by today’s most challenging and exciting writers.

by Nathan Ballingrud 
(Pub in eb and pb on Mar 21)

Anabelle Crisp is fourteen when the Silence arrives, severing all communication between Earth and her new home on Mars. One evening, while she and her father are closing the diner they run in the colony of New Galveston, they are robbed at gunpoint.

Among the stolen items is a recording of her mother’s voice, taped on the eve of a trip back to Earth, just before the Silence descended. Driven by righteous fury and desperation to lift her father’s broken spirits, Anabelle sets out to confront the thieves and bring back the sole vestige of her mother. Accompanied by her loyal robotic companion, Watson, an outcast spaceship pilot named Joe Reilly, and the hardened outlaw Sally Milkwood, Anabelle must first pass through Dig Town, a derelict mining community where a mineral called the Strange has warped the residents in frightening ways, and then brave the Martian desert.

As she nears the shadowy Peabody Crater––the epicentre of bizarre goings-on in the colonies––Mars is revealed as a vast haunted house, infested with ghosts, alive with malignant intent―and New Galveston, once a safe haven, nothing more than a guttering candle in a dark world.


by V. Castro 
(Pub in hb on Apr 18)

Alejandra no longer knows who she is. To her husband, she is a wife, and to her children, a mother. But they cannot see who Alejandra has become: a woman struggling with a darkness that threatens to consume her. Nor can they see what Alejandra sees. In times of despair, a ghostly vision appears to her, the apparition of a crying woman in a ragged white gown.

When Alejandra visits a therapist, she begins exploring her family’s history, starting with the biological mother she only recently rediscovered. As she goes deeper into the lives of the women in her family, she learns that heartbreak and tragedy are not the only things she has in common with her ancestors.

Because the crying woman was with them, too. She is La Llorona, the vengeful and murderous mother of Mexican legend. And she will not leave until Alejandra follows her grandmother, and all the women who came before her into the darkness.

But Alejandra has inherited more than just pain. She has inherited the strength and the courage of her foremothers―and she will have to summon everything they have given her to banish La Llorona forever.


LOOKING GLASS SOUND 
by Catriona Ward 
(Pub in eb and hb on Apr 20)

In a windswept cottage overlooking the sea, Wilder Harlow begins the last book he will ever write. It is the story of his childhood companions and the killer that stalked their small New England town. Of the body they found, the horror of that discovery echoing down the decades. And of Sky, Wilder’s one-time friend, who stole his unfinished memoir and turned it into a lurid bestselling novel, The Sound and the Dagger.

This book will be Wilder’s revenge on Sky, a man who betrayed his trust and died without ever telling him why. But as he writes, Wilder begins to find notes written in Sky’s signature green ink and events in his manuscript start to chime eerily with the present. Is Sky haunting him? Did Wilder have more to do with Sky’s death than he admits? And who is the woman drowning in the cove, whom no-one else can see?

No longer able to trust his own eyes, Wilder begins to wonder: is he writing the book, or is the book writing him?


THE OTHER SIDE OF NEVER 
edited by Paul Kane and Marie O’Regan 
(Pub in eb and pb on May 9)

Come with me where dreams are born and time is never planned …

A wide range of stories inspired by J.M. Barrie’s classic tale, the faraway Neverland and its beloved characters – such as Wendy, Captain Hook, The Lost Boys, Tinkerbell and of course Peter Pan himself! Masters of fantasy, science-fiction and horror come together to give their unique takes and twists on the mythos.

Featuring stories from: Alison Littlewood, Priya Sharma, Muriel Gray, Rio Youers, Cavan Scott, Guy Adams, Edward Cox, Anna Smith Spark, Paul Finch, Robert Shearman, A.K. Benedict, Premee Mohamed, Lavie Tidhar, Laura Mauro, Seanan McGuire, Kirsty Logan, Claire North, A.C. Wise, Gama Ray Martinez.


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 (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … 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 BLACK 
by Paul E. Cooley (2014)

Outline
When veteran freelance marine engineer, Tom Calhoun, and his team arrive at the exploratory oil platform, Leaguer, far out in the middle of the ocean (the actual location is never specified, but we presume the Pacific because of the depths involved), he expects that they’re about to make a find so colossal they’ll all be able to retire on it.

The rig, under the control of hardnosed rig-chief Martin Vraebel and a team of experienced roughnecks headed up by ace fixer, Steve Gomez, is prepping to drill down into the floor of a hitherto unknown ocean trench lying beneath 30,000 feet of water but which recent geophysical survey suggests contains a reservoir of crude oil larger than all the reserves of Saudi Arabia put together.

It is a fantastical prospect, almost unimaginable, but there are problems from the outset.

Vraebel and his crew don’t take particularly kindly to Calhoun’s team, who they consider to be opportunist outsiders with no interest in the rig’s protocols, and to an extent this is true, the worst offender being Calhoun’s lead-techie, a self-confident but irritatingly proficient nerd called Craig ‘Catfish’ Standlee, who cares mostly for his underwater robots and little for anyone or anything else. Calhoun’s other lieutenant, Shawna Sigler, is more than the usual pretty face: she’s a top geologist, who is here to assess the quality of the crude when samples are finally brought up from the deep, and whose findings will determine whether or not the exploratory platform will shortly be transformed into a full-on excavation rig, but the roughnecks are still unimpressed by what they perceive to be a little girl who looks fresh out of college.

Despite these earlier tensions, the operation goes ahead, and the drill finally strikes the bottom of the trench, a region so previously unknown to the world that it has no official name aside from the code-number M2. And it is now that the team’s problems really begin. Below a thin layer of rock at the sea floor, there is indeed a gargantuan supply of oil, the purest that Shawna Sigler has ever seen, but this is no ordinary oil, or at least what lurks within it isn’t ordinary; it’s very far from being ordinary – and very, very far from being inert.

That it lives and breathes is one baffling fact; that mere contact between this living liquid and any non-metallic substance will sizzle said substance down to foul, reeking vapour is another; but perhaps most frightening of all, the material is sentient. It doesn’t just lie there, it senses its prey and hunts it relentlessly, and with every new organism it absorbs, it grows exponentially in size and aggression.

Almost inevitably, Calhoun and the rest of the crew only come to learn about this horror after samples of the hostile material have already been brought aboard, and by then it’s too late …

Review
If you like good old-fashioned monster movies, then The Black is definitely for you.

I wouldn’t say it’s the most original idea. The author himself, in his afterword, mentions taking inspiration from such cinematic classics as The Blob and The Thing. I would add to that list: Alien, Leviathan, and Fury from the Deep, a famous early story in the Dr Who canon, but most of all the Korean oil rig-based horror movie, Sector 7. But none of that really detracted from my enjoyment as a reader. It’s often been said that there have only ever been seven original stories ever written, and that everything else is a derivation of one or the other … so similarity to something else is hardly an issue.

The main thing about The Black is that, for the most part, it’s carried off with real conviction. I don’t know if Paul E. Cooley has ever actually worked or been resident on an oil platform, but you could certainly be forgiven for thinking that he must have, given the standard of authenticity here. Some reviewers have complained that there is too much technical writing on show, and that our nonstop immersion in convincing engineer-speak and petro-science terminology either lost them on entry or could only mean that an author who has done a lot of detailed research is determined to show off. But for me, while it’s certainly present, it’s non-intrusive and it makes the whole thing seem a lot more real, which only added to my pleasure. In fact, I’m quite jealous of Cooley’s abilities here; he completely and comfortably recreates the world of an exploration rig, bouncing around its many complex, multi-levelled interiors and its harsher exteriors in easy-to-follow fashion, laying out the rules and processes in a clear, straightforward way which underpins the entire narrative.

Okay, there is some roughneck jargon which perhaps bewilders, but this is a world I have never visited in real life, and at no stage did I feel confused or frustrated, so full credit to Paul E. Cooley for that.

Unfortunately, I have one or two minor complaints with regard to the author’s general style.

Characters are frequently called by different names. So, on one page, Calhoun may be referred to as ‘Calhoun’ and on the next it may be ‘Thomas’, and this happens across the roster, with almost every character. It’s a moot-point, but personally, I regard it as an error. For me, there is nothing noticeably repetitive about using the same name again and again; it ensures that the reader knows exactly who you are talking about, and it causes no momentary interruption to the general flow of narrative as time is wasted trying to work out who is who.

I also took issue with some of Cooley’s back-and-forthing between time zones. What I mean is, in a moment of high excitement, Catfish may encounter someone we’ve just been following as they fought their way up to the bridge, but we then roll back in time a few minutes to see how Catfish also fought his way there. This interrupts the momentum of the book, and again, is a device the author uses several times through the narrative. It’s clunky writing for me, which again risks leaving the reader scratching his/her head in bemusement.

But these are really the only problems I had with The Black.

Tom Calhoun makes for a good strong lead despite his old and crusty nature, and is ably supported by his protégés, the petite and level-headed Shawna and the geeky Catfish. None of these characters are whiter than white; all have flaws and can cause annoyance in their own way – which again makes for a realistic read.

The roughneck community on the rig is perhaps a little more thinly drawn. We meet a few of the rig-workers in greater detail near the very end of the book, which I suppose is a bit of a weakness, but they’re pretty much as you’d expect them to be: tough, bluff, blue-collar guys with a no-nonsense attitude. Of those we already know, Martin Vraebel, the permanently stressed rig-chief, is less likeable than Calhoun: no friendlier than he needs to be, narrow-mindedly ambitious, mistrusting of strangers in his domain even when they’re here to help; a fairly typical senior management klutz of the sort we’ve all encountered in real life, so he works well. Less clear-cut is his number two, Steve Gomez, the guy who really makes the Leaguer tick. He’s reliable and ultra-efficient, but we only get to hear about this; we don’t actually see him doing anything notable aside from sneering at Calhoun’s team.

But again, I can forgive that; we have our main leads, and we have our situation, and of course, we have our chthonic monster, which, when it finally attacks, does so with irresistible force and terror, which is another nicely realistic touch. This is one elemental entity that won’t be contained, one primordial being that no amount of science, weaponry or technology can destroy.

I daren’t say more because I don’t want to risk giving away too many spoilers. The minor issues I’ve mentioned aside, The Black is a great romp in that fine old tradition of B-movie creature features. And if that’s your thing, you’re in for a real fun ride.

As you’re no doubt aware, at the end of these book reviews, I like to make a few suggestions about casting, and who I would pick were the novel in question ever to make it to the screen. Today is no exception, and so here – as always, just for the fun of it – are my picks for who should play the lead characters in The Black:

Tom Calhoun – Ed O’Neill
Shawna Sigler – Felicia Day
Craig ‘Catfish’ Standlee – Grey Damon
Martin Vraebel – Lance Reddick
Steve Gomez – Rafael Amaya

Tuesday, 20 December 2022

Check in for my annual festive bone-chiller


We’re very close to Christmas now, which means that it’s time for me to post my annual Christmas spook story. I won’t bore you with the usual intro about how I’m only following in an age-old tradition by doing this. We all know that Charles Dickens and MR James used to regale their friends and colleagues with ghost stories at Christmas, and that even Shakespeare referenced this as a custom in force long before his own time.

Most scholars conclude that it actually dates back to the earliest days of agrarian society, when the harvest had been gathered and stored, and with the land seemingly dead and frozen, people had nothing to do for a couple of months but sit by the roundhouse fire and tell tall tales. I’ll also take a punt and say that the apparent death of Nature – for that was how it must have appeared in those primitive days – would neatly correspond with notions of dark spirits, the evil doings of elves, goblins and other mysterious woodland sprites, and the arrival of heralds from beyond, here to warn us that the deities were taking a dim view of our antics on Earth.

Anyway, that’s that bit done. As promised, a curtailed preamble this year (hope you appreciate that). Today, I’m going to hit you with a relatively new story of mine, WHAT DID YOU SEE?. It was first published in 2020 in the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 2, edited by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards.

Here it is again, for your delectation. Hope you approve ...


WHAT DID YOU SEE?

“Excuse me,” the old woman said, leaning across the table, “I hope you ladies don’t think I’m intruding, but I couldn’t help overhearing that you’re on your way to Norwood Lee?”
     Kay and Marsha were a little surprised. Not least because they’d been speaking together quietly while the old woman had apparently been asleep, but also because, while it might be impossible not to eavesdrop in the close confines of a crowed train compartment, it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d readily admit to.
     As if reading their thoughts, the old woman gave an apologetic smile and raised a shrivelled, jewel-encrusted hand. “It’s just that I live close to Norwood Lee. I know it well, and…” Her words tailed off as she pondered the best way to continue.
     She was in her late seventies and though wizened, with a mop of unruly white hair and far too much make-up, some degree of feminine allure remained. She’d once been a beauty, that much was evident, though as time had taken her looks, perhaps it had taken her wits also. It was warm and cosy inside the carriage, but an overlarge fur coat, a woolly hat and a many-times wrapped-around muffler engulfed the old dear in dramatic and preposterous fashion.
     “Forgive me … you must think me a silly meddlesome old thing. But, and I’m sorry to ask you this … you ladies weren’t by any chance thinking about going to the parish church tonight?”
     The two young women glanced at each other.
     “No … erm.” Kay shrugged. “We … we don’t go to church.”
     “Oh…”

     The old woman seemed a little bemused by that, which perhaps was understandable. By her accent she was local to this region, the Cotswolds, which was largely rural – as the snow-clad landscape rolling by outside, shimmering with moonlight, attested – while, from her age, she belonged to a generation for whom church-going, especially on Christmas Eve, was more or less obligatory. But what she said next surprised them.
     “I fear we misunderstand each other. Looking to attend the Nine Lessons at Norwood Lee tonight would be futile. It’s only a hamlet really, and the church reflects this. We call it a ‘parish church’ but it’s actually rather small, with an even smaller congregation these days, I’m sad to admit. The vicar, Reverend Donaldson, has four other village churches in his care … so tonight the Christmas service will be held at St Margaret’s in Long Hanborough. But that wasn’t what I was referring to anyway.”
     Kay, who, with her honey-blonde hair, schoolgirl looks and petite frame, was always the more approachable of the twosome, leaned forward. “I’m sorry,” she said in her soft Manchester accent, “but you’ve really lost us.”
     “Ah, well … yes.” The old woman sighed. “That will certainly be the case shortly, I fear…”
     “Hey, I hope you don’t mind,” Marsha interrupted, her puzzlement finally giving way to aggravation. “But we’re making our plans for Christmas and we’re kind of busy…”
     The old woman gave her a strange strained look, as if something about this particularly concerned her. “Just so long as those plans don’t involve the Wilcote crypt, my dear.”
     Marsha pulled a face. “I’m sorry?”
     The woman dug under her fur, producing a pair of glasses on a chain, placed them on the end of her nose, and drew a sleeve back to glance at a delicate little watch. “We are ten minutes from Bladon, which is my stop. I may just have enough time to tell you a story…” She arched an inquisitive eyebrow. “If you’ll permit me?”
     Marsha was a tall Brummie, older than Kay by two years, and much more athletic thanks to her hockey and netball. She had a shock of dark hair and attractive feline features, which made her a striking individual to look at, but she was also inclined to surliness when denied her own way. She now looked increasingly disgruntled, only a covert squeeze of the thigh from Kay, which translated into “let’s not make a scene” preventing her giving voice to this.
     “It’s just that you remind me of me and my friend, Miriam,” the old woman said. “We made this exact same journey to Norwood Lee on Christmas Eve some sixty years ago…”
     “I don’t think you quite understand,” Marsha replied tersely. “We’re not going to this parish church of yours. We don’t believe in God.”
     That arched eyebrow again. “And yet you’re making plans for His birthday?”
     Marsha looked flustered at that. “It’s a holiday, okay? We’re going to Norwood Lee for a break … to get away from it all.”
     The woman sat back, her lips pressed together in a curious half-smile. Kay thought she looked sad rather than offended and couldn’t help but feel embarrassed by Marsha’s abruptness. At the same time there’d been something about the urgency with which the old dear had suddenly tried to speak to them that left her uneasy. She and her friend had come this same way sixty years ago? It would have been nice to know what the exact circumstances of that long-ago trip were that made her feel it necessary to pass on a warning.
     On top of that, it could be awkward travelling for the next ten minutes in total silence, face-to-face with someone they’d just reprimanded.
     “What happened sixty years ago?” Kay asked.
     Marsha tensed, sucking in a tight breath.
     “It can’t hurt to know,” Kay said quickly. “After all, we’re strangers in Norwood Lee. We don’t know anything about the place.”
     “Whatever it is, I’ve just made it quite clear that we won’t be going near the parish church,” Marsha retorted.
     “My dear, my dear…” The old woman shook her head gently as if chiding a recalcitrant child. “Norwood Lee is a speck on a map. You can’t go anywhere in the village without being close to the parish church.”
     “And is there a problem with that?” Kay asked. “You mentioned a crypt. Is it dangerous?”
     The woman leaned forward, gazing birdlike from one to the other. Irritably, Marsha scrunched up the plastic cellophane from the packet of sandwiches she’d eaten earlier but couldn’t throw it anywhere and so had to keep it screwed into her fist.
     “The crypt houses the tomb of a knight, Sir Henry Wilcote, and his wife, the Lady Abigail,” the woman said. “It’s fifteenth century but safe enough to visit as it’s been well maintained – at least, that’s my understanding. Personally, I haven’t been down there since December 24, 1958.”
     If nothing else, that impressed Kay.
     The old woman remembered the exact date and had clearly crossed off all the days that had passed since. Whatever had happened, it had obviously been significant.
     “The crypt is easily accessible … or it was,” the woman said. “There are two doors on the church’s south side. The one on the left leads to the vestry, but that one is kept locked when the church is closed as there are some items of value inside. But the one on the right, the old one … that leads down to the crypt. That one is not locked, or it never was in our day. No one went down there, you see. During the Wars of the Roses, Sir Henry fought for the House of Lancaster. It was a bitter struggle, and when it was over he was fortunate to return to his wife, who he was very much in love with. They remained together for the rest of their lives, but later on developed a reputation for dabbling in the dark arts.”
     Marsha muttered under her breath, “For Heaven’s sake…”
     “It was a dangerous time, and this, it was said, was the only thing that spared them the vengeance of Richard III.”
     Kay continued to listen, intrigued despite herself.
     “I’m not saying that people believed it, of course,” the woman added. “Most likely, the dark arts story was untrue, a fable that grew up in later centuries. Otherwise, how could the Wilcotes have been laid to rest on hallowed ground?”
     Marsha muttered again, something about her not being able to care less. Anything relating to religion was of zero interest to her. She tried not to consciously hate it. Hating stuff was no good for you. She just considered it silly and irrelevant.
     “That rumour alone created a sinister atmosphere in the crypt,” the woman said. “The effigies of the knight and his lady were badly eroded. Little more than lumpen monstrosities back in 1958, so Heaven knows what they look like now. After nightfall, no one, not even the most rational man, would wish to go down there.”
     “So how come you went down?” Marsha asked. “I’m assuming that’s what you’re going to tell us? That you and this Miriam went down into the crypt that Christmas Eve.”
     “Yes, it’s true.” The old woman removed her glasses, digging a tissue from her sleeve to clean the lenses. “We both lived in Oxford then. But we’d heard all about the church at Norwood Lee, and the Wilcote crypt. We were children. Grammar schoolgirls. We didn’t believe there was anything particularly ominous about the place but one particular superstition had … well, it’d rather captivated us.”
     She carefully replaced her glasses. They awaited her explanation.
     “It was claimed,” she finally said, “that if one visited the crypt on Christmas Eve one might perform a love divination.”
     “A what?” Marsha said.
     “A simple ritual.” The old woman considered. “These old country ways … they were always simple at heart. I suppose so that simple folk could practice them.”
     “A love divination?” Kay said. “I don’t understand?”
     “On the stroke of midnight, at the very moment of Christmas, one stood at the foot of the slab on which the knight and his lady rested, threw a handful of hemp-seeds over one’s left shoulder, and uttered these words: Hemp-seed I scatter, hemp-seed I sew, He that’s my true love, come after me and mow.” She paused briefly, looking breathless, as if mere recollection of the rhyme had taken something out of her. “The belief was that on completion of this ritual one glanced over one’s shoulder and one would see the image of one’s future spouse. Ahhh…” She registered their bemused expressions. “You look at me as if I’m mad. I can’t blame you. Even we didn’t think it would work. We scoffed at the folly of it, but it would be a lie to say that we weren’t intrigued and … maybe a little hopeful. You must understand, being the era it was, we girls were first and foremost raised to seek out solid dependable husbands…”
     “And you seriously thought we were going to Norwood Lee to do this?” Marsha interrupted, almost openly scornful.
     “In truth, my dear, no.” The old woman removed her glasses again, staring from the train window. “I can see, having spoken to you, that you are spirited, intelligent and independent-minded ladies, who no doubt will make marvellous futures for yourselves without the assistance of any men.”
     You don’t know the half of it, Kay thought, but she kept this to herself.
     The old woman now seemed embarrassed by the story she’d told. “Doubtless, you have no truck with folk tales or other such childish beliefs.”
     “As I say,” Marsha said, “we’re not religious.”
     But then the old woman turned again, unexpectedly, and reaching sharply across the table, seized Kay’s wrists in both her hands.
     “Hey!” Marsha protested, reaching out, herself, to intervene. However, the woman released Kay almost as quickly as she’d grabbed her.
     “Please understand…” The rheumy gaze roved frantically from one to the other. “I made no assumptions about your character or intellect. But when I heard you were headed for Norwood Lee, old memories were stirred. And I couldn’t … well, I couldn’t allow it. Not without warning you first.”
     “Well, so far you haven’t warned us about anything,” Kay said, a little shaken. “What happened in the crypt, Mrs…?”
     “Miss Jenkins. Gertrude Jenkins.”
     “What happened in the crypt, Miss Jenkins?”
     The woman fidgeted with her tissue, shrugging. “We performed the ritual. Obviously we did. When we actually got there it was almost midnight and terribly cold. I wasn’t so sure about it but Miriam was adamant. And very excited. Even as a youngster at school her head had been in the clouds about men and boys. From earliest girlhood she’d dreamed that somewhere a handsome beau was awaiting her. So … after we’d performed the divination, which as I say was very simple, she was the first to look over her shoulder. She was so eager, her eyes bright with candle-fire, cheeks flushed, mouth wide open…”
     She paused, as though struggling to remember, or at least to understand.
     All around them the swaying carriage was crowded with noisier-than-usual folk heading home, having finally finished their last day’s work before Christmas commenced. That good-natured uproar now dwindled to a dull distant monotony as Kay and Marsha waited.
     “And then she screamed,” Gertrude Jenkins said in a distant voice. “Just that. Gave a short, rather terrible scream.”
     “Okay,” Kay said, vaguely alarmed. “So … what did she see?”
     The woman’s expression remained blank as if she’d mulled this matter over many times and had never yet found a satisfactory answer. “A wraith-like figure, apparently. Of a much older heavier-set man than she’d hoped for. A man with a sour face, and an air about of him of violence and cruelty.”
     Kay’s skin prickled. “And did she go on to marry such a person?”
     “I honestly don’t know.” The woman sniffled into her tissue. “I lost contact with Miriam after we left school. And in the half-year before that happened she never spoke about the incident again. Or about very much in fact. All the life seemed to have been sucked out of her, all the gaiety, the hopes, the dreams…”
     “Oh, that’s ridiculous,” Marsha cut in. “Total nonsense. Your friend could have married anyone she wanted. She didn’t have to fall in with a brutish idiot just because of some stupid spell in a church cellar…”
     The woman eyed her with something akin to pity. “My dear, if only it were that simple. I’m sure that, even at your tender years, the pair of you already know many a poor girl who’d never have entertained the man in her life had she known his true nature.”
     “And what did you see?” Kay asked, sensing that there was more to come.
     “Me, my dear?” The woman gave a wintry smile. “Why … I didn’t look. When I saw Miriam’s reaction, I couldn’t bring myself to. And I’ve never looked over my shoulder since. For any reason at all.”
     “Sorry?” Marsha sounded even more sceptical. “You’ve never glanced over your shoulder once in the last sixty years?”
     “I can’t afford to take the chance.”
     The train decelerated as they slid into a station. There was a stirring and shuffling as passengers collected baggage and fastened coats.
     “Ah … this is me,” Gertrude Jenkins said. “Bladon.”
     She pulled a pair of woollen gloves over her thin beringed hands and produced two bags, a shopping bag and a handbag from the small space on the seat beside her.
     The younger women watched her askance. She noted this.
     “I hope I haven’t unduly frightened you?” she said.
     “You’ve never once looked over your shoulder?” Kay was fascinated by the mere thought.
     The train came to a standstill and there was noisy movement all along the carriage. The woman stood up, making to join the slow-moving queue forming in the aisle.
     “It’s not as difficult as it may sound,” she said. “I hear him, you see. From time to time. When it’s quiet. Always close behind, just waiting for me to look.” She regarded them dully. “It’s a terrible sound. Quite horrific. I know just from that noise that I’d be appalled at what I’d behold—”
     Kay couldn’t help herself. “Wait, Miss Jenkins. I mean … not looking? That keeps this thing at bay?”
     “I’ve no idea, child. It has so far, but I’m only seventy-seven next February, and some would say there is still time.” With a weak smile directed at no one in particular she stepped into the aisle and edged towards the doors. “Just heed my advice, ladies. I beg you.”
     Several seconds passed before either of the twosome could speak. Inevitably, it was Marsha.
     “My dad always says that one advantage of rail travel being so expensive these days is that you don’t get as many loonies on trains. Wait till I tell him about this one.”
     Kay stared out onto the platform, which was crowded with people heading for the exits. Gertrude Jenkins was among them, her short distinctive figure still buried in that overlarge fur coat. More by instinct than design, Kay glanced down at the old woman’s booted feet and the tracks they left in the snow, and then at the snow behind her, to see if any other tracks were appearing there. But there were too many other people and it was already churned to slush. So there was no way to tell.

*

Kay Letwin and Marsha Finnegan had met on the very first day of Freshers’ Week at Balliol College, Oxford, when by happy fortune they casually chatted in the Student Bar only to find that they’d both enrolled on the same course to study geography. It was well into that first year of study, during a very drunken Christmas party, when they learned that they’d come to be more to each other than mere friends. But it was almost twelve months after that before their lives and emotions had become so interwoven that they’d begun tentatively to discuss tying some kind of knot.
     Initially, both were hesitant, Marsha wondering if they were getting their priorities wrong and if it would distract from their coursework and interfere with their exams; Kay suspecting that they’d allowed themselves to be seduced by the relative novelty of gay marriage and that they might be rushing into something they hadn’t thought about sufficiently. In addition, neither of their families, with the sole exception of Tom, Kay’s older brother, were aware of their daughters’ sexual orientation, and while neither bunch were especially conservative in their views it would likely come as a shock if the first they heard of it was the day they were invited to a wedding. In light of all this the two friends had taken what they considered to be the very adult decision of isolating themselves for a few days, over the next Christmas period in fact, in a relatively luxurious environment – Tom’s weekend cottage – where they would discuss every aspect of their relationship, weighing up the pros and cons and hopefully reaching the most sensible decision possible.
     Even so, despite the seriousness of this – it was a weighty matter which could impinge on both their lives for decades to come – when they disembarked from the GWR train at Norwood Halt that very chilly Christmas Eve, with backpacks hoisted, scarves, gloves and hats in place, and unbroken snow crunching underfoot, it was impossible not to feel a tingle of holiday excitement.
     Unlike at Bladon, where plenty of people had got off the train, Kay and Marsha were the only ones at Norwood Halt, and it was eerily beautiful. After descending the staircase alone (hanging onto each other for dear life) and passing out through the unmanned entrance hall, they found themselves on high ground overlooking the silent village. 


     As Miss Jenkins had said, it was no more than a hamlet, the narrow lane from the station descending amid wintry trees to a small green, now completely white of course, with what remained of a Saxon cross in the centre and a clutter of thatch-roofed buildings around the edges. For the most part, these were cottages built from Cotswold stone, though there was also a pub, The Countryman, with a black-and-white Jacobean exterior, and a post office/corner shop. Under pristine snow, with warm lamplight leaking from a scatter of curtained windows, and yet all of it cast in a silver hue by a sky now cleared of cloud and ablaze with moon and stars, it looked fantastically festive but also snug and peaceful.
     In most British towns and cities, nine o’clock on Christmas Eve would be riotous, the streets chaotic with drunken revellers. There’d be shouting and fighting, and copious amounts of vomiting. Even Marsha, though she didn’t consider Christmas a holy feast, held the whole irreverent display with total distaste. This place, however, Norwood Lee, was entirely the opposite. As the women came down to the bottom of the lane, again keeping a tight grip on each other’s arms because of the treacherous surface, there were none of those garish outdoor decorations that turned so many suburbs into neon nightmares, though fairy lights and the occasional Christmas tree did sparkle from behind half-drawn curtains. Likewise, there was no rowdy caterwaul from overcrowded bars, their windows fogged with sweat. Music and laughter could be heard from inside The Countryman but it was harmonious and low-key.
     “This is perfect,” Kay said, delighted. “Wouldn’t surprise me if a horse came clopping through, pulling a sleigh.”
     “Yeah, it’s also damn cold,” Marsha replied. “Let’s get indoors, eh? See if your lovely brother’s come through for us.”
     Tom Letwin, who was ten years older than Kay, was an investment banker in the City, but all their lives he’d been her closest buddy and confidante. His cottage in Norwood Lee, “a crash-pad in the sticks”, as he referred to it, was only one of several properties he owned. His pride and joy was a villa in the foothills of the Gascon Pyrenees, which he used in summer for the sun and in winter for the skiing. Kay and Marsha had been invited to join him there now with his wife, Tamara, and their two children, but when she’d said that she wanted some privacy he’d happily handed over the keys to the crash-pad.
     They found it in a narrow mews just behind the post office, one of a row of three. Tom had already warned them that it was small, comprising a single room downstairs with a kitchenette, and a single bedroom upstairs. But they had a real fire, for which there was lots of firewood and kindling stored in the outhouse, and once they lit that, he’d promised that it would be very comfortable. It also boasted a plethora of olde worlde fixtures, including a large stone hearth carved with ancient characters, exposed wooden beams on both floors, and a staircase so steep that it was more like a loft-ladder ascending through a hatch.
     They built up the fire until it was roaring, and when they checked in the kitchenette and the ice-box of a scullery attached to it, they found all the consumables they’d need, from six-packs of lager to boxes of wine, from packets of biscuits and cereal, bread, butter, milk, sugar and eggs, all the basics, to sacks of potatoes, carrots, onions and the like. There were also a few extras, provided generously and unexpectedly by Tom, such as an oven-ready prize turkey, several strings of sausages, a box of mince pies and a tinned Christmas pudding.
     “Good as it gets,” Marsha said a couple of hours later, when they were unpacked and settled. She wriggled her sock-clad toes in front of the fire while using the remote for the big hi-def telly to channel-hop through a procession of atmospheric but for the most part empty-headed festive entertainments.
     Kay muttered a vague response as she wandered – for the third time now – to the window overlooking the back garden. There wasn’t much out there. Again, it was small and blanketed with snow, but beyond the frosty hedge, wooded hills rose into view against the hanging orb of the moon. Silhouetted on its bluish lunar face, amid black tangles of leafless boughs, was the castellated tower of a country church.
     “You really want to go up there, don’t you?” Marsha said, joining her.
     Kay, who’d first spotted the religious edifice outside and had immediately been entranced by it, was taken aback by the question.
     “No,” she said, rather too quickly. “Well … look, I know it’s silly. It’s just … I keep thinking … you know, we’re here to make a big decision. And if we go up there and perform this crazy ritual and when we look over our shoulders, we see each other … well, then we’ll know, won’t we?” She gave a sheepish shrug. “It’ll make everything a lot easier. We can relax and enjoy Christmas without any heavy conversation.”
     “Are you actually serious, babes?” Marsha looked astounded. “It’s an old wife’s tale.”
     “In which case it can’t hurt, can it?”
     Marsha had never been relaxed with that argument: if you didn’t believe in something, where was the harm in indulging it? So often it had been used by religious types in conflict with irreligious types. “If you don’t believe in God you’ve no problem with me going to church, have you, because it doesn’t mean anything anyway?” What that point of view didn’t allow for was the fact you were still being asked to give credibility to something that simply wasn’t real, which was basically asking you to be dishonest. But then again, you also had to consider the give-and-take so essential to successful relationships, and in their particular case, the fact that Kay had long been interested in the odd, the unusual and the uncanny. She had a pile of ghost books back in her room at college, was fascinated by folklore and the occult, and even posted about stuff like that on her blog from time to time.
     “I just thought it would be cool to check it out.” Kay shrugged. “Don’t you think that was an interesting story about the crypt?”
     “I think it was a horrible story, and a load of guff as well, no disrespect to batty old Miss Jenkins. But … as I don’t believe it’ll do anything at all, let alone do any harm, I don’t suppose I mind a late-evening walk. Should be quite invigorating.”
     Kay beamed. “And on a clear night we can see all the Christmas stars.”
     “They’re the same stars as usual, Kay.”
     “Don’t be boring.”
     “I’ll try not to be.” However, as she sat on the sofa pulling her walking-boots back on, Marsha had a thought. “There is one thing. If you genuinely want to perform this ritual, or something similar to it – and frankly, I can’t believe we’re even contemplating such a nonsensical game – you’ve not got everything you need.”
     Kay looked puzzled. “We don’t really need anything.”
     “Hemp-seed,” Marsha said. “Whatever that actually is.”
     “Oh, dear.” Kay looked worried. Before a sly smile crept over her face and she produced from behind her back a sack of “healthy option” granola. “Would you believe, there’s hemp-seed in this?”
     Marsha tried not to laugh. “So … we’re going up that hill to chuck a handful of breakfast cereal over our shoulders and that will confirm the hopes and fears of all our years?”
     Kay’s impish smile faded, as if such mockery was hurtful but perhaps not entirely unjustified. “Like you said, it’s game. We don’t have to do it. I just wanted to check out this spooky crypt at a time when it’s supposed to be at its spookiest.”
     Marsha sighed obligingly. “Well, it’s not far off midnight. If we’re going, we should go now.”

*

They couldn’t initially find the way. There were no signs to it and no one was around to ask. But fortunately the parish church was visible from just about everywhere thanks to its lofty perch, and after circling the green a couple of times they chanced on a narrow passage between two cottages, which initially they’d thought a private entry, and this led to a road on the village outskirts. Evidently the road was used very little because only one or two pairs of runnels from passing vehicles marked the carpet of snow lying across it, but they followed it for thirty yards to a finger-posted junction, and from here another minor road lead uphill in roughly the right direction.
     Breath smoking and backs bent, they trudged up the slippery incline, following a pavement that was all but indistinguishable from the road itself. To either side, thickets of frozen trees crowded against the low, stone walls.
     “Getting spooky,” Marsha observed.
     “Thought you didn’t believe in that stuff,” Kay said.
     “I don’t. And neither do you, remember. It’s just a bit of fun.”
     Some fun, Kay thought, squeezing her gloved hands into fists to prevent the fingers turning numb, grunting as she struggled to keep her footing.
     A short time later, a lychgate appeared on the left. No doubt it would normally stand as an icon of elaborate rusticity, a simple latched gate hung between two wooden posts wound with rose bushes and supporting a tiled roof, the lintel of which was inscribed with Latin lettering. But now that roof was buried under snow and the lintel dangling with icicles.
     “With any luck this’ll be locked, and we can go back to the cottage,” Marsha said.
     But the gate wasn’t locked. They had to force it open, the hinges stiff with frost, but a sufficient gap had soon been made and they sidled quickly through, hoping to avoid precipitating an avalanche from overhead.
     Beyond the lychgate a path that was just about visible meandered through the trees towards a dark distant structure. When they passed a large noticeboard on the right, it was so plastered with flakes that they couldn’t read it.
     “Everyone loves a white Christmas,” Marsha said. “Until one comes along and the sheer impracticality of it kicks in … like, when you can’t even find out what time you’re supposed to go to church.”
     Kay didn’t comment, her eyes fixed on the gaunt building looming ahead.
     The truth was, and she’d only partially admitted this to herself, she really wasn’t sure the route they were currently contemplating was one she wanted; okay, they were both uncertain about it but her fears, she suspected, went much deeper than Marsha’s. She’d never had any partner before coming to university, girl or boy. Oh, there’d been the usual kissing and fumbling at school parties, but none of that had carried an emotional price-tag. In contrast, it had been very different with Marsha. Kay had been strongly attracted to the older student from the moment she’d met her, and now felt deeply connected to her. If there was such a thing as spiritual love then perhaps this was how Kay felt. But increasingly she had reservations. Marsha was taller and sturdier than she was, which gave her a protective aura. Kay couldn’t help wondering if she’d fallen for someone like this because she’d been unconsciously seeking a parent-type ally during those difficult early days at university, when fear and loneliness were issues.
     She wasn’t saying there was anything false about her feelings, but on reflection it still seemed very early – she’d only recently turned twenty – for a commitment like marriage. By modern standards that was astonishingly young.
     And will the parish church of Norwood Lee really help with any of this?
     It now stood directly in front of her and didn’t look much different from other rural churches, except for being older and more weathered than most, and for the snow overhanging its roofs and the spears of ice descending from its eaves. As the leafless trees parted, and they emerged onto flat ground where ancient headstones jutted from the snow like black badly-angled teeth, Kay forcibly reminded herself that this was just a silly old tradition, that her curiosity about it sprang from her interests in the odd and esoteric, that she wasn’t taking it seriously.
     Marsha gazed at the leaning gravestones and then up the towering edifice, its tall stained-glass windows blacked out by the icy darkness behind them. “Where’s a Hammer Horror film crew when you need one?”
     “Didn’t think it was going to be this big,” Kay admitted. “Didn’t Miss Jennings say it was small.”
     “I think she meant it was small by parish church standards, which it probably is.”
     “Why have something like this in a village the size of Norwood Lee?”
     “It was probably paid for by that character who’s lying in the vault … what’s his name?”
     “Henry Wilcote.”
     “Yeah. Speaking of which—” Marsha looked at her phone “—it’s ten to midnight, so if we’re going to do this daft thing we’d better get on with it.”
     A small part of Kay felt a twinge of unease. Perhaps, now that they were actually here, she’d been subconsciously hoping they’d have run out of time, but she nodded all the same.
     They didn’t have a compass but circumnavigated the building on the basis it would have been built facing east, which meant that the main entry doors would be at the western end. From there, it was easy to deduce which side was south, and indeed when they crunched their way around there along a side-path shin-deep in banked-up snow they encountered two doors standing ten yards apart. The one on the left looked like a relatively recent addition, but the one on the right was made from older semi-perished wood filled with flattened nail-heads. What was more, that one stood ajar by a couple of inches.
     “There’s an invitation if ever I’ve seen one,” Marsha said in a voice that was more cheerful than Kay thought the circumstances warranted.
     For some reason, a dead chill now ran through Kay that had nothing to do with the temperature.
     “Five minutes left,” Marsha said. “Are we going down?”
     “Erm, yeah … sure.”
     “Before we do, there is, perhaps … something.”
     Kay glanced up, surprised at the querulous note in Marsha’s voice, and even more surprised to see the moonlight reflecting from a face suddenly taut with foreboding.
     “Supposing,” Marsha said. “Just supposing … well, imagine that this ritual works. And we look round, and each of us … we see someone else? I mean not each other?”
     “Oh.” Kay didn’t want to give away that this was precisely her own fear, but at the same time she didn’t want to dismiss it either, because maybe if they both felt this way it would be easier now to just turn around and walk in the other direction.
     “I’m joking, you dipstick!” Marsha cackled.
     “Oh, right. Yeah … sure.” Kay tried to smile. “What a shock it’d be.”
     Marsha pushed at the door which swung open on silent hinges. Beyond it, when she turned her phone-light on, they saw a stone stairway falling into blackness. “After you,” she said.
     “You know…” Unavoidably, Kay hesitated. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
     Marsha frowned. “You marched me all the way up here and now you want to march me all the way back without us at least setting eyes on this mysterious medieval warlock?”
     “If you just want to look at his tomb we can come back tomorrow.”
     “We’re here now. And it’s nothing to do with what I want. So, after you.”
     Teeth gritted, Kay commenced a slow cautious descent. It was a narrow stairway, very much something she’d have expected from the Middle Ages, the rugged ceiling arching just above her head, the stone walls to either side crumbling and covered with moss. Her vaporous breath filled the tight space, white phantasms curling in the bright glow of her phone-light. When they reached the bottom, Kay at the front, Marsha behind, a gate stood in front of them set with corroded iron bars. And it appeared to be closed.
     “Looks like we can’t go any further,” Kay said.
     Marsha leaned past her, gripped one of the bars and pushed. With a grating and groaning, the gate opened. “That old biddy was right about one thing. This place is completely insecure.”
     With no option, Kay ventured forward, phone held rigidly in front. The floor was paved and dry, but the actual dimensions of the place difficult to judge. 
     Her light didn’t travel far, just sufficiently to show pillars and vaulted arches, but also, some ten yards ahead, a flat slab elevated to about three feet, with two colourless figures lying side-by-side on top of it.
     Kay slithered to a halt. And flinched when Marsha’s hand landed on her shoulder.
     “Bloody hell,” Marsha chuckled. “You’re really jumpy.”
     “I’m just cold…”
     “It’s only another of those crusader tomb-type things. You’ve probably seen one in every cathedral you’ve ever visited.”
     “Yes, but Marsha … we were told not to come here.”
     “By someone who’s three sheets to the wind. Look, babe, you’re the one who wanted…”
     “I know, but isn’t it…?”
     “Hey, we don’t have to do it.” Somewhat belatedly, Marsha had latched onto the fact that Kay was quite nervous. She held up to two flat palms to indicate that they didn’t need to proceed, though the gesture was underscored with amusement implying that she still thought it a load of hogwash. “Won’t it give you a great blogpost, though? Your very own Christmas ghost experience?”
     As if to illustrate, she strode along the left side of the tomb, phone clicking as she took photographs. Encouraged a little by this, and agreeing that yes, it would be an excellent post for her blog on Christmas morning, Kay shuffled closer, though even that slight movement echoed eerily, the mobile-light sources playing visual tricks in the deeper recesses of the undercroft.
     Now that she was right up to him, Sir Henry Wilcote and his wife, Abigail, were much as Miss Jenkins had described them: smooth, featureless travesties of the detailed sculptures they’d once been.
     “Wonder if their actual bones are lying under here?” Kay said, peering at the timeworn faces, only vaguely definable bumps and contours hinting at the eyes, mouths and noses.
     “Presume so,” Marsha replied. “Otherwise, why would this place have any alleged magical power? They kind of lucked in, don’t you think?” She walked around the stone effigies until she was back where she’d started. “They weren’t just together all their lives, they’ve been together ever since. What was it … the Wars of the Roses? That’s nearly five-hundred years, yeah? These two were right for each other at least, even if they mucked about in the black arts to ensure it lasted. Anyway—” she checked the time “—we’ve got one minute, babe. Are we doing this thing, or what?”
     “Suppose so.” Kay tugged off her left glove and stuck her hand into her anorak pocket where she’d stored a fistful of the high-health granola.
     The Wilcotes’ long-lasting fidelity was surely some kind of indication that it was possible for people to remain loyal life-partners from an early age. Even in turbulent times. How old would Abigail Wilcote have been? Back in the Middle Ages didn’t girls get married as young as twelve or thirteen? And yet here she was in 2018, still lying alongside her husband.
     “Let’s just do it,” she said, suddenly feeling energized by that. “After all, it’s better to know than not to know.”
     Marsha held out her gloved palm so that Kay could sprinkle some grains into it, but arched a curious eyebrow. “You’re not really buying into this, are you? I mean, not seriously?”
     “Like you say, let’s just do it.” Kay positioned herself so that they faced each other directly. “Now, do as I do…” And she threw the handful of grain over her left shoulder.
     “Babe, whoa.” If you’re … look, maybe this isn’t such a good…”
     “Please, Marsha!” Now that they’d started Kay was eager to see it through.
     Defeated but bemused, Marsha tossed her own seeds backward.
     Kay remained focussed. “Now repeat after me…”
     “Whoa, you’ve memorised those lines? The old bat only said them once.”
     “I only remember vaguely but I’m sure it’s the thought that counts…”
     “Kay, listen…”
     “‘Hemp-seed I scatter’ – come on, Marsha, you’ve got to say it.”
     Reluctantly, Marsha said, “‘Hemp-seed I scatter.’”
    “‘Hemp-seed I sew’—”
    “Kay, this is—”
     “Come on, please!”
     Marsha shrugged exasperatedly. “‘Hemp-seed I sew.’”
     “‘Let my true love come after me and mow.’”
     “For Christ’s sake!”
     “Marsha!”
     “‘Let my true love come after me and mow.’”
     Kay nodded, compressing her lips into a tight tense smile. Briefly, the silence in the crypt seemed to thunder in their ears. The friends regarded each other fixedly. And then Marsha jolted, her head jerking part-way around as though in surprise.
     “What is it?” Kay asked, her pulse immediately racing. Almost as an afterthought she turned to glance over her own shoulder.
     Marsha had heard something: a hollow wooden thud. Initially it had sounded like a door closing. As she’d glanced around she’d expected to see a priest or vicar, or some other custodian of the church who’d just emerged from another part of the cellar. That would have been difficult enough.
     But this
     Her mouth slackened open, her eyes bugging in a face rapidly draining white.
     “This … it’s a trick…” she said hoarsely, backing away until she collided with Kay, half-knocking her sideways. Kay turned and tried to grapple with her to prevent them both falling over but Marsha was rigid, a virtual stone. “It’s a damn trick!” she hissed again, staring at what to Kay looked like empty darkness.
     “What is it?” Kay attempted to put arms around her. “What did you see?”
     Marsha tore loose and backed frothy-lipped towards the iron gate. She pointed a shaking finger. “You … you had something to do with this. You must have. No one else could’ve—”
     Kay held her hands out. “What is it? Just tell me.”
     “It’s a damn trick! That’s all it can be! And a bloody nasty one!”
     Marsha turned and blundered up the stairway.
     “Wait!” Kay yelled, more confused than frightened, though that confusion lent wings to her heels as she stumbled up the steps in pursuit.
     Marsha was the athlete, of course. When Kay reached the surface world there was already no sign of her friend, but there was only one way she could have run. Increasingly bewildered, Kay hastened along the side of the church. When she reached the end of the building she halted, lungs heaving, sweat chilling on her brow. From the chopped-up snow it appeared that Marsha had descended the hill the same way they’d come up here: down through the graveyard and along the lychgate path.
     As Kay went that way too she spotted her partner’s lurching shape some fifty yards ahead.
     “What in God’s name?” she stuttered as she ran. “Marsha! Marsha, wait!
     She finally got to the sloping road, sliding out through the gate and falling full-length on the pavement. The snow cushioned the impact but from here it was much more difficult: downhill and a smoother surface, her feet repeatedly skating from under her. Marsha was having similar problems and was now only thirty yards ahead. She too fell repeatedly and heavily until by the time she was at the bottom of the hill she was limping.
     “Marsha!” Kay called again. “Wait, please!”
      Marsha at last came down to the little-used road on the outskirts of the village. This area was street-lit, and perhaps feeling she’d returned to some version of civilisation and sanity, she turned around, her face flushed and soaked with sweat, though perhaps soaked with something else too – tears?
     Kay was incredulous, never having once known Marsha to cry.
     “What happened?” she asked, approaching with arms outspread. “For Heaven’s sake!”
     “Don’t come near me, Kay.” Marsha retreated steadily. “If you didn’t know about that … well, it doesn’t matter because I know you didn’t. It know it couldn’t have been you. And if that’s the case I don’t like to think … I can’t even imagine…”
     She stumbled off a kerb that was hidden in snow but continued to backtrack.
     “So, you did see something?” Involuntarily, Kay’s own advance faltered.
     Marsha shook her head, perplexed, baffled, tormented. “I just … I can’t believe it. I turned my head … and it was there. Right behind me. Only for a second, but—”
     “What was there?”
     “It was standing upright. Like a joke, like someone had put it there…” Fresh tears brimmed from Marsha’s eyes. “But I know that nobody did.”
     “What? What was it?”
     “For God’s sake, Kay … I saw a coffin.”
     Kay’s blood iced over as she stopped in her tracks. She was still on the pavement, of course. But Marsha, unwittingly, had retreated into the very middle of that little-used road.
     Little-used, but not unused – as a sudden screech of brakes and squealing of tyres attested. The van, which had come around the corner at reckless speed, went careering out of control, its wheels locking on the frozen surface.
     Kay shouted hysterically but it was too late.
     The impact was shattering, the detonation reverberating across the sleeping village.
     Within a couple of minutes people were emerging from the nearest houses, wearing coats over their pyjamas and wellingtons instead of slippers. A short time later an ambulance arrived, followed almost immediately by a Thames Valley police car. Questions were fired around as people stood dumbfounded in the cold.
     Kay watched it all from a sitting position on the kerbstone, through a bur of tears and clawed fingers. She barely spoke, scarcely aware of the hot tea and blankets offered by concerned villagers. She voiced no opinion, as the van driver, who was incoherent – whether that was through shock or drink or both was unclear – was taken away in handcuffs. She literally lost track of time as the haze of spinning blue lights slowly mesmerised her.
     “Excuse me but I must ask you this … what happened?”
     Kay could barely respond though she was aware the question had come from a police officer, a sergeant by the stripes on the epaulettes on her hi-vis, waterproof overcoat.
     “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are yet,” the policewoman persisted. “But perhaps you can tell me … did you see anything?”
     Kay looked up at that, the policewoman blanching at the depths of horror and misery etched into her face.
     “I’m sorry,” the officer said. “But I need to know … what did you see?”
     Kay directed her gaze back across the road, thoughts straying to that frigid pit beneath the church – but her eyes fixed on the large black bag, heavy and cumbersome and zipped securely up one side, that the undertakers were manhandling into the back of their hearse.
     “Nothing,” she said in a voice of utter bleakness. “I saw nothing at all.”


If you enjoyed this spooky little tale, perhaps you might be interested in two collections of Christmas-themed ghost and horror stories of mine, published over the last few years: THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER.

In the meantime, whatever you choose to do, have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.