Monday, 9 December 2019

Darkness at the heart of our festive frolics


Okay, it’s now almost the middle of the month. Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, as the popular song says. I’m sure all your preparations for the big event are now well underway. Presents wrapped, decorations hung, turkey stuffed?

Well, on this blog, as you may know, we take a slightly different approach to Christmas. We love it too, but here we’re also interested in the darker side of the season, the mystery, the mythology, the downright creepiness of a time of year when mist lingers, frost forms and daylight is scarce. For that reason, now that December is well on, I thought it’d be fun to borrow from my occasional Gazetteer of Strange and Eerie Places posts, not focussing so much on a geographical location this week, but on the season itself.

So, today, we’ve got GAZETTEER OF STRANGE AND EERIE FESTIVE STORIES: 10 True Life Tales to Chill You at Christmas

In addition to that because, yes, today’s blog is going to be another big ‘un, I’ll be discussing and reviewing in my usual forensic detail Christopher Golden’s epic Yuletide horror anthology, HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM.

If you’re only here for the antho review, no problem at all. Just scoot straight down to the bottom of this post. As always, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, you might be interested in one or two other festive treats first.

Christmas ghosts and winter sprites

Okay, now I promised you some spooky true-life tales connected to this most wonderful time of the year. And don’t worry, you’re going to get them. But before that – very briefly, I promise – you’ll have to put up with me giving a quick spiel concerning my own output for this forthcoming season of goodwill.

Before anything else, here’s a quick heads-up about a brand-new Christmas horror story of mine, THE MERRY MAKERS, which will be posted on this blog, completely free to read, the week before Christmas. So, watch out for that one. 

In truth, there’s quite a bunch of my own Christmas-themed scary stories already out there in the public domain. Some you can buy right now from Amazon, if you so wish. Others, you can find on this blog, again free to read – just scroll back to various Christmases past.

First off, the pay-fors:

SPARROWHAWK is one of those pieces of work I’m prouder of than almost anything else. It’s a 40,000-word novella set in London during the December of 1843, which follows the fortunes of a former soldier, Captain John Sparrowhawk, who is released from the debtors’ prison to protect a middle-class family from a mysterious enemy during the Christmas period. Though Sparrowhawk has served in Afghanistan, even he isn’t prepared for the astonishing cold that year, or for the presence, somewhere out in the ice and mist, of a malign supernatural entity.

Sadly, SPARROWHAWK is now out of-print (though we’re going to correct this next year), but it can still be purchased as an e-book. It’s been described in various reviews as “A creepy Christmas page-turner, full of surprises,” “a great Dickensian style story, brilliantly written”, and “well worth a read on a cold December night”.

Also available in e-book form is IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, a collection of five Christmas stories and novellas penned by me over the years. Unfortunately, it had to be re-uploaded onto Amazon quite recently due to a technical error, which eliminated the 30+ very positive reviews it had accrued since first appearing four or five years ago (and which led to it being translated into German and published in paperback as DAS GESPENST VON KILLINGY HALL).

If I say so myself, you’ll find everything in there from traditional Christmas ghost stories to tales of devilry and the occult (all with a Yuletide twist) to nightmarish pantomimes in which just about aspect of the joyous season is turned on its severed head.

And now the freebies

Yet more Christmas horror stories, mostly written specifically for my annual Christmas blog post, and still available should you wish to check them out.

They are :

THE MAGIC LANTERN SHOW
In a snowy Dickensian town, a police detective investigates a series of strangulations, increasingly convinced that he’s on the tail of a felon drawn from ancient Irish mythology ...

Heck is the only cop on duty one very cold Christmas Eve when a trio of deranged carol singers goes house to house, leaving a trail of bloody carnage …

A ghost-hunting sceptic and devout Christmas-hater opts to spend Christmas Eve alone in a notoriously haunted theatre, midway through the production of A Christmas Carol …

In the deprived years after the close of World War Two, a German child living in Britain is terrorised by nightmarish Nazi version of Father Christmas …

A disillusioned college lecturer spends Christmas Eve marooned in a mysterious and semi-deserted town, where the celebrations are the eeriest he’s ever known …

A neglectful son lets his aged father die one desolate Christmas Eve and thinks he’s unloaded a burden. But as Christmas comes around again his nervousness grows …

Office-worker, Wilton, is increasingly disturbed as the Roman temple in the nearby church crypt is excavated. It’s almost Christmas, and the feast of Saturnalia is looming …

An evil-looking snowman and a book of spells are all that young Jimmy needs to punish his thoughtless dad, but once the means of vengeance is loose, will anyone be safe? …

And now, as promised, some ...

Real life Christmas terrors

We all love spooky stories at Christmas. And there are all kinds of esoteric reasons for this.

In days of yore, deep winter was the season of death – plants and crops simply withered away (along with much livestock and many humans!), so the Kingdom of Shadows seemed that much closer. In the dread, desolate world of the winter-stricken North, early Man sought regular conferences with his gods, and it’s surely no stretch to conclude that such quests to the other side gradually morphed into ghost stories in more modern times. Or could there be a simpler explanation? Could it be that with the harvest gathered and sowing not due till early spring, there was little to do in pre-industrial village communities in December except sit around the longhouse fire and tell fantastical stories?

Personally, I think that bits of all these explanations are relevant. But I reckon the popularity of spook stories at Christmas owes as much as anything to the fact that during the festive season we’re mostly snug, well-fed, in good company and generally happy, which likely mitigates the fear factor to a manageable level.

But you know, Christmas can be a genuinely scary time in its own right.

Mysterious and unnerving things have happened at this delightful time of year. In the distant past, when ghosts were seen as heralds of major events to come, they were reported at Christmas more than any other time of year. In addition, there are the countless pagan origins at the root of so many of our traditional Christmas customs.

For example, evergreens were brought indoors during winter in those long-ago days because it was believed that elves and faeries inhabited them (thus keeping them green), and therefore it would curry favour with these magical folk if they were brought into the warmth and light.

Then there is Santa Claus, or should that be Father Christmas?

While Santa is a family-friendly American portrayal of the ancient spirit of winter, the British Father Christmas is much older and closer to the original, and manifested noticeable pre-Christian traits: he came bearing mistletoe and holly, for instance, both of which played key roles in Nordic and Saturnalian ritual; he was strongly connected to feasting and jollity, which Puritan governments during the 17th century frowned upon; Charles Dickens depicted him as a druid and the Lord of Plenty; while in general terms, the white-bearded traveller across the midwinter skies, bestowing gifts on his friends and punishments on his foes, has direct associations with the vengeful Germanic god, Woden, and his even fiercer Viking counterpart, Odin.

So, you see, there are many strange and even sinister aspects to our traditional Christmas.

Here are 10 more …. 


GAZETTEER OF STRANGE AND EERIE FESTIVE STORIES:
10 True Life Tales to Chill You at Christmas

1. Creepy Carols  (1/2)

We love our Christmas carols. Their joyousness is uplifting, their aura of spiritual warmth a comfort to millions. Yet, many of the carols we know today, while often credited to composers of the 19th and 18th centuries, descend to us from much earlier works: folk songs and medieval ballads about Christmas and winter that didn’t always sound a happy note.

The Coventry Carol, which was popularised after the carpet-bombing of the city by the Luftwaffe in 1940, is one of our most overtly melancholy Christmas songs, and yet the reason for this predates World War Two by many centuries.

It was first performed on the medieval miracle play circuit and particularly featured in Nativities, especially those focussed on the Massacre of the Innocents. For the uninitiated, this was the infanticide of all male babies in Bethlehem on the orders of Herod the Great in his efforts to wipe out the Christ-child. While this atrocity is not established historic fact – some scholars consider it apocryphal, though others argue that it fits with the narrative of Herod’s tyrannous final years – it figured prominently in early Christian teaching, and so The Coventry Carol is essentially a lament for murdered children.

I Saw Three Ships is one of our liveliest, most popular carols, and yet it’s difficult to work out exactly what the song is saying. The assumption has always been that it celebrates the visit to Bethlehem of the Magi, or three kings (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar). But we normally picture these famous dignitaries arriving on camels. After all, there is no harbour at Bethlehem; it’s 45 miles from the sea.

The explanation, or so it’s now believed, is that I Saw Three Ships does not bear witness to the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, but to the arrival of their skulls in Germany in 1162.

Their mortal remains still lie interred in Cologne Cathedral, having been brought there by German knights returning home from the Second Crusade. So ... will we still sing that happy ditty with the same gusto now?


2. The Mistletoe Bride

Of all our ghoulish Christmas legends, the story of the Mistletoe Bride is probably the most quintessentially English. I say this because so many of England’s great halls and country houses lay claim to it. In comparison, in the whole of mainland Europe, there is only one place that claims the story as its own (though perhaps for that reason alone, this one bears closer examination).

The tale tells how one Christmas Eve, the spoilt daughter of a great lord was celebrating her wedding in his stronghold, when, bored with proceedings, she interrupted the feast to announce an impromptu game of hide and seek. The indulgent guests gave her a head start, and watched fondly as, still in her wedding raiment, wearing an evergreen headdress and clasping her mistletoe bouquet, she dashed off to hide. However, if they’d been hoping it would be over quickly, they were to be disappointed. The game commenced and the entire building was searched, along with the outbuildings and all the surrounding localities, but the young bride was not found. When the family called her name, saying that the game was over, she still didn’t appear. Now there was concern in the air. But it made no difference. The bride remained absent, the hours becoming days, weeks, months, years, decades.

In fact, no one heard from the Mistletoe Bride again until several centuries had passed.

Again, it was Christmas Eve, the great hall was being readied for a festive banquet and a huge cleaning operation was in progress. In a dusty corner of an attic, a chest was found; a bridal chest no less, for the containment of handsome gowns and precious jewels. The sort of chest that locked itself automatically when it was closed.

Mystified, a servant opened it and inside found the bones of a young girl in the rags of a bridal dress, adorned with the desiccated remnants of an evergreen headdress and a mistletoe bouquet.

For the record, the great country estates to so far claim this tale are, among others, Skelton Hall in North Yorkshire, Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, Bramshill House in Hampshire (where the spectral bride is still said to walk each Christmas Eve), Brockdish Hall in Norfolk, and Shapwick in Somerset. But as I mentioned earlier, one European venue, Modena Palace in Northern Italy, also claims the bride and this one may have a greater claim than any of those in Britain. Because in Italy, the doomed girl is actually named as Ginerva Orsini, and her fatal Christmas is dated to some time in the 1570s.


3. Dark Stories of the North

Many modern folk have only become aware in recent times that Christmas has a mythical dark side thanks to festive horror movies centred around Krampus, the anti-Santa, the horned, humpbacked goatman who instead of rewarding good children, punishes the bad ones by taking them away in his sack.

The Krampus story comes to us from Bavaria, Austria and other Tyrolean lands, a rugged northern environment filled with mountains and forests, and deep-frozen in winter – exactly the sort of place that seems to specialise in spawning midwinter monsters.

Again, I suspect it all ties into half-remembered tales about Woden and his ferocious pack. The Wild Hunt is one universal term for these hellhounds, but there are many chilling variations: they were the Gabriel Ratchets in the English Midlands, the Yeth Hounds in Cornwall, the Cŵn Annwn in Wales, the Oskoreien in Scandinavia, though all performed the same service, accompanying their monstrous huntsman master through the icy winter realm in his quest to punish non-worshippers.

It’s all a far cry from Santa and his elves (though we should remember that in olden times, elves were considered devious and untrustworthy too). But if Woden/Odin is the progenitor, perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s mainly in the north where these evil alternatives to Father Christmas were mostly born. A quick northern roll call throws up some frightful characters.

In Iceland, for example, we have Jolakotturinn, the Yule Cat, a tiger-like creature who devours children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas (a sure sign of wickedness in that isolated community where new, woollen clothing was highly valued), Gryla, the deformed ogress who boils them in her cooking pot, and her sons, the Yule Lads, a brood of goblin-like tricksters, who will always give gifts, though some of these can be very nasty.

Joulupukki, meanwhile, was a denizen of the German and Swedish forests, and another two-legged goat who would visit remote farming communities to ensure that the festivals of Christmas and Epiphany were both being adequately prepared for – if they weren’t, watch out!

In the Alpine lands, we find Frau Perchta, ‘the Guardian of the Beasts’, another spirit active over Christmas, but in this case female, sometimes a hag but sometimes a snow-white beauty, who would enter homes on Christmas Eve and decide whether the children there deserved a reward of money or to be killed and stuffed with straw and pebbles!

In Poland, we had Turon, who would travel with a mysterious group of carol singers; he was another horned monstrosity, often white-sheeted to conceal the true horror of his form, who would terrorise households that didn’t welcome the festive season.

So, it’s basically your shout. This Christmas, are you going to be naughty or nice?


4. The Sodder Mystery

Less amusing than tales of Krampus and his buddies, but no less mysterious and disturbing is the case of the Sodder Fire Mystery, which occurred in Fayeteville, West Virginia, during Christmas 1945, and has now become an American cause célèbre.

In short, two hard-working Italian immigrants, George Sodder and his wife, Jennie, woke in the early hours of Christmas Day to find their house on fire. Terrified for the nine children currently at home (one was away in the army), they commenced a frantic evacuation, but the house was already blazing and they were only able to get four of the nine youngsters to safety before the smoke and flames drove them outside. George went to fetch a ladder, so that he could scale up to the children’s window, but the ladder was missing from its normal place (and later found in a ravine, 75 yards away!). When he attempted to bring his two trucks to the house so that he could climb on top of them, neither would start, even though they’d both been in perfect working order the previous day.

The family and their neighbours made repeated telephone calls for help, but the operator never answered. When a message was finally delivered to the nearest fire station, which was only two miles away, there was no response until long after sunrise. By this time, the house had burned to the ground, seemingly with all five children still inside it. However, a search of the ashes located no human remains. The case grew even more bewildering when two private investigators whom the family later hired to look for the missing kids also vanished without trace.

Convinced of foul play, the family began to remember curious incidents from the weeks leading up to
Christmas. A couple of times, the Sodder sons had complained that a man had been parked up on Highway 21 watching them as they strolled home from school. That autumn, an itinerant had called at the house looking for part-time work, and while there had indicated two separate fuse-boxes, suggesting that they might cause a fire. George, who’d just had the house rewired, dismissed the idea (for which reason he also dismissed the later police suggestion that the wiring might have been faulty).

Not long after the itinerant’s visit, an insurance salesman had turned up and, when George refused his services, had raged: “Your Goddamn house is going up in smoke. Your children will be destroyed. You’ll be paid for the dirty remarks you’ve been making about Mussolini.”

For the first time, George’s activities back home in Italy came under scrutiny. Was he involved in politics? Was he connected to the Mafia? No one really knew though he had been outspoken about the Fascists when he lived in the States. From here on, the facts of the case become muddled with all kinds of sensational twists and turns that might not all be true: people claiming to have seen the missing children being driven away by kidnappers and, years later, in Europe, when they’d become adults (a photo was sent anonymously, purporting to show one of the missing sons in his twenties); people claiming to have seen mysterious figures firebombing the house that Christmas Eve, though why they didn’t report it at the time, or try to wake the family, was never explained. Others claiming that human bones had been discovered in the ash but that the fire crew on the scene was too inexperienced to identify them.

It remains a singular and chilling Christmas mystery, which has never been explained or resolved to the satisfaction to any of those involved in it.


5 The Anarchic Earl

“For 19 long winters, Christ and his angels slept!”

So opined the Peterborough Chronicle in reference to the period between 1135 and 1153, the so-called English Anarchy, a time of savage civil war in England, when all law and order broke down and banditry was rife.

One of the most ferocious figures of this time was Geoffrey de Mandeville, the Earl of Essex, a man who on one hand embodied the knightly ideal in that he fought heroically in countless battles and apparently cut a real dash in his gleaming mail and flowing, blood-red cloak, but who on the other was a robber baron of the worst order, taking advantage of the lawlessness not just to rebel against King Stephen, but to raid, pillage and slaughter on a grand scale. No one, it was said, could expect mercy from him: neither women, children, nor even the clergy. His cruelties were beyond imagining.

Can you think of anyone better qualified to be one of England’s innumerable Christmas ghosts?

I’ve long been amused that many of our celebrity ghosts, particularly those who offended against the state, appear to have been singled out for exemplary punishment in the afterlife, often seen in blazing carriages, accompanied by headless hounds and pursued by wailing banshees, and, as a sure sign of God’s displeasure with them, usually on the most important religious nights of the year: Easter Eve, Pentecost or Christmas.

De Mandeville, who was killed in 1144 at the battle of Burwell, isn’t quite so dramatically depicted in his ghostly state – he died bravely after all, despite having been excommunicated, and was pardoned at least once by the king during his lifetime – but he is a regular spectral visitor on Christmas Eve, and his appearance is still, by all accounts, one to remember.

His ghost allegedly appears on horseback in full armour, roaring with anger, broadsword drawn, his mount snorting steam as it gallops furiously around Oak Hill Park in East Barnet (apparently because this is believed to be a place where he once hid stolen gold), while it has also been reported riding furiously along an ancient moat in Enfield Chase, formerly a royal forest where De Mandeville regularly hunted the king’s deer.

Both manifestations supposedly occur on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve.


6. And All Through the House

Lunatic Santas have become a staple of modern-day horror fiction, and on this occasion I’m not talking about their olde worlde counterparts, Krampus and his ilk. I’m talking about a Santa Claus or Father Christmas that our kids would recognise today – a genial big guy in a hooded red cloak with white fur trim, with a white beard and a sack of toys on his back – going completely nuts and committing atrocious acts.

Without digging too hard, the earliest example of this I can find is And All Through the House, which first appeared in the EC comic Vault of Horror #35 in 1950, and told the tale of a faithless wife who murders her husband on Christmas Eve, only to then be menaced in her snowbound suburban home by an escaped psycho dressed in a Santa suit, and unable to call the police as they’d discover her own crime.

That comic was a classic of its kind, but most fans will be more familiar with the story from the Freddie Francis 1972 movie version, Tales from the Crypt, which starred Joan Collins as the doomed murderess.

But there’ve been lots of others since then. Just off the top of my head, Christmas Evil (1980), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Santa Claws (1996) were all horror movies in which madmen donned the Santa guise and went on killing sprees. Several ‘bad Santa’ short stories stick in my mind, too: Ramsey Campbell’s The Chimney and Alexander Welch’s The Grotto, to name but a couple.

Unfortunately, though as jaded adults lots of us find something deliciously funny about such a twisted concept, there’ve also been a couple of cases, believe it or not, where this, or something similar, has happened for real.

And trust me, this may be the part of today’s blog where we all stop laughing.

In 2001, a Christmas party for staff and their children was held at one of Denver’s many fire stations. The Merlin family attended and their youngest son was particularly pleased to see Santa Claus arrive and start dishing out presents. When it was the young boy’s turn, Santa had a quiet word with him and left the building. A short while later, the boy also went outside – and vanished. A search of the premises was launched but the child had gone. A police enquiry later discovered that nobody knew who the fake Santa Claus was, as no one would admit to having hired him; his identity was never discovered, and the missing child was never found.

Equally weird and disturbing were the events of Christmas 2007 in Arkansas, when residents in a snowy rural town became concerned about a stranger, again dressed as Santa, moving from house to house and leaving presents on each porch, all wrapped in Christmas paper but labelled for no one in particular. The gaily-clad figure eventually withdrew, but when the presents were opened, all were found to contain broken and useless toys, except for the one left on the stoop of the Frester family home. Their package contained a bundle of old office paperwork, most of it dog-eared and dating back to the 1980s, and one handwritten note, which, in large, childish writing said: ‘I’m sorry for whatever happens to your son.’ Nothing did happen to him until two years had passed, when he was killed in a hit-and-run incident. The car responsible and its driver were never traced. Coincidence or something more sinister?
 
(Both these stories carry a health warning, by the way, as, despite searching online in both the Colorado and Arkansas press, I’ve not been able to verify the details in either case. At the present, therefore, both must be regarded as Christmas urban legends).


7.  Sermon for the Dead

There is no place on any British map today called Derwent Woodlands. Nevertheless, the village did exist once, and was the venue for a Christmas ghost story that has attained legendary status.

The reason Derwent Woodlands appears to have vanished is that what remains of it lies under the Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire. The village was abandoned in 1946 to make way for the damming of the River Ashop. What’s left of it now we can only hazard guesses at, but before the floodwaters rose over it, it was famous for very different reasons.

A certain story holds that in the final years of its existence, a new vicar was appointed to Derwent Woodlands, a very modern-minded man who had no truck whatever with superstition. Because of this, we are told, he fell out with his congregation in various ways, but by far the most serious incident concerned their request that he follow the local tradition of saying a Sermon for the Dead on the final Sunday in December. When he enquired what this was and what it involved, he was told that it was a full service held at midnight, which none of his normal parishioners would attend because the pews had to be kept empty for all those souls expected to depart in the next 12 months.

In other words, he was to preach to an empty church.

The vicar found this idea ridiculous and offensive, and dismissed the whole thing as witchcraft. However, as the date drew near, he felt increasingly compelled to do as his parishioners asked, and on the night in question, though very unnerved, he attended the church alone. Though the venerable old building was decked for Christmas, outside there was howling wind and blizzarding snow, which only added to the air of menace.

When he stood on the altar, lit only by a handful of candles, the rows of empty pews faced him, but he also saw what looked like shadows moving in every corner. As he commenced to preach, he was shocked to hear the bell in the steeple overhead tolling, and then to see these various shadowy forms emerge into the candlelight to take their places. Stumbling over his words, the vicar forged ahead, but as the wraith-like figures took on recognisable forms, he was utterly horrified.

One by one he saw the faces of local folk whom he knew personally. Quite clearly, these people would be dead within the year. It was an awful revelation, but worse was yet to come ...


In the morning, he was found insensible in his pulpit: half-frozen but also feverish. When he was able to speak, he told his rescuers that to witness the souls of known friends and associates was bad enough, but that the last spectral form to enter the church was the most terrifying of all.

Because it was him.

Apparently, no one even tried to dissuade him from the notion that he was shortly to die, and indeed, he didn’t live to see another Christmas.

This is a famous tale, and there are many variations on it, all drawing deeply on the old English belief in soul-watching, wherein village elders would wait at an appointed time and place and see in the spirits of all those due to die in the next year. To be fair, it is not specifically a Christmas custom. In Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, it happens on St Mark’s Eve, April 24, and in Dorset on Midsummer’s Eve.

There is no one living who now remembers why it was a Christmas event in Derwent Woodlands. There are few living who even remember Derwent Woodlands. But legend holds that even now, on the last Sunday night in December, when the wind is not too fierce and the weather not too cold to prevent folk being out and about, the dim tolling of a submerged church bell can still be heard.    


8. What Happened Up There?

The 400-year-old Bear Inn, at Stock village, in Essex, boasts a particularly eerie ghost story all of its own, which began when a prank went disastrously wrong one drunken Christmas Eve.

By all accounts, in the 1890s, a man called Charlie Marshall lived on or near to the premises of The Bear, and worked there as an ostler. By any standards, Marshall seems to have been an odd character. He was a hard worker, but a small man who was described as being tough, wiry and athletic, though he also walked with a curious sideways motion, which earned him the nickname ‘Spider’. Despite this, he was not unpopular, as he would regularly drink with the locals in the bar, and would often be the centre of attention.

Part of this appeal was his strange and rather dangerous party trick, which would see him climb up the taproom chimney and reappear from the fireplace in the main bar, usually begrimed by smoke and soot. Both chimneys were narrow and crooked, and no one else would even consider attempting to clamber up them, so when Spider claimed that he was able to get from one to the other by snaking along an old bacon-curing gallery, which now was long bricked-up and not accessible from any other part of the building, there was no one to doubt him.

One particularly riotous Christmas Eve, Spider was encouraged by a rowdy bunch of revellers to perform his trick. He did so, scaling out of sight up the taproom chimney, but then failing to reappear in the bar. There was much shouting and cajoling, but still he stayed out of sight. The crowd became tetchy and impatient. They demanded that Spider come down, but when he didn’t, someone struck on the bright idea to light a fire and try to smoke him out.

Incredible though it may seem, this is what they did – and it was quite a while before anyone entered the pub who was sobre enough to point out that if Spider had not been in trouble before, perhaps stuck somewhere, he was likely in serious trouble now. Most probably in fact, he’d been smothered to death by the smoke. Annoyance turned to panic, and though no one else could climb up, the fire was damped down and efforts were made to push poles and props up the chimney, maybe to dislodge him. But no obstuction was located and when the would-be rescuers became forecul with the poles, they only succeeded in damaging the building.

Eventually the conclusion was drawn that Charlie ‘Spider’ Marshall was dead. It was certainly the case that he was never seen again, and no one heard anything such as coughing or shouting for help. According to the tradition of the pub, he is still up there, lodged in that tiny space, presumably cured like man-sized bacon.

Myths hold that at night, when everyone is in bed, this blackened effigy comes down and walks around the pub with its strange sideways gait. People in rooms there allege to have heard the dragging of his feet along passages. Though a slightly less grisly ghost story holds that his spirit often appears among drinkers on Christmas Eve, looking normal, even rather dapper, and that only the eagle-eyed might note that his white breeches, pink hunting coat, fur cap and boots are a little out of date.


9. The Christmas Haunting

There have been so many reported cases of haunted houses that most of us could probably recite backwards the types of phenomena we’d expect to encounter. When you think about the most celebrated cases ever – the Amityville house, the Perron house, Borley Rectory, Amherst, Ash Manor and such – almost invariably it’s the same kind of thing: disembodied voices heard, objects flying about, doors opening and closing, weird smells, children and animals reacting to unseen presences etc.

But though ghosts have allegedly been with us forever, the template for this classic type of haunting actually comes to us from Epworth in Lincolnshire in the early years of the 18th century and was witnessed by no less a personage than John Wesley, eventual founder of the Methodist Church.

Even more relevant to our purposes today, the Epworth Rectory Haunting, which became famous all over the country, was also known as ‘the Christmas haunting’.

It seems to have begun in early December, 1716, when John Wesley was a child and living there with his father, the Rev. Samuel Wesley, and the rest of his family. The eldest child, Hetty, began communing with an imaginary friend whom she named ‘Old Jeffrey’. She’d never shown this tendency before, but the family weren’t unduly concerned until they started hearing loud knocks and bangs, which they were never able to discover the cause of and which Hetty said were the work of Old Jeffrey.

The disturbances intensified as Christmas approached, the family now hearing heavy feet running around upstairs when there was nobody there. Sleep proved elusive and everyone was on edge.

Typical poltergeist activity commenced: static objects moving on their own, doors slamming open and closed, strange and frightening images scrawled on the walls. It reached a crescendo that Christmas Day, when the blast of hunting horns was heard all over the property, so loud that Samuel Wesley claimed he was almost deafened by one blast, which sounded right in his ear.

And then, when Christmas passed, it subsided. At first gradually, but after New Year’s Day 1717, there were no further incidents. Visitors came from far and wide, because pamphlets had spread the news, but all were disappointed. The Rectory still stands today, completely peacefully, a museum under the ownership of the British Methodist Church.

No explanations have ever been offered. A building on the same site was burned down in 1709, and it was theorised that someone might have died in the flames, but no proof was found, and that wouldn’t have explained the ghost’s short-lived tenancy anyway. Others have pointed to adolescent Hetty Wesley, and wondered if she was the unwitting creator of a psycho-paranormal pantomime. Still more have claimed that nothing much happened at all, and that the facts were exaggerated by pamphleteers eager for sales.

The Christmas factor remains an unusual aspect of the story. Or does it?

I mean, come on … both Charles Dickens and MR James were happily ploughing a long pre-existing furrow.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good Christmas ghost story?
                 

10. Creepy Carols (2/2)

The Huron Carol is widely believed to have come to us from the Huron people, or the Wyandots, as they were more correctly known, who occupied the Lake Ontario region in the 17th century, though the words were actually composed by a Jesuit priest, Father Jean de Brébeuf, who lived among them.

Whatever you think about the rights or wrongs of spreading the Gospel in ‘heathen’ lands, Father Jean, a stalwart missionary, but a gentle man too, undertook his 1625 assignment to convert the Hurons with a determination to learn their own culture first. His hosts proved receptive to this and made him welcome. The song he wrote for them could only have helped, as it set the Nativity in an animal-skin lodge, and portrayed the Magi as three wise chiefs, who brought the baby Jesus gifts of fox, rabbit and beaver pelts. The darkness in this story only comes later, in 1649, when the Iroquois, rivals of the Hurons, launched an attack on the encampment where Father Jean was living.

Though the priest was taken prisoner rather than killed there and then, his black cassock and white collar didn’t save him, his captors later skinning him alive and dousing him repeatedly with scalding water, an ordeal that only ended when they burned him at the stake.

To French and Canadian Catholics, The Huron Carol honours his martyrdom, though it also serves to veil from the rest of us the sickening details of his death.

Here We Come A-Wassailing is one of the cheeriest and bounciest of our carols, so it is surely no surprise that it dates back to that semi-mythical age known as Merrie England, the late Middle Ages, when at Christmastime the great baronial seats became halls of misrule and the feasting really did go on for 12 days.

The modern-day wassail tradition sees gangs of Christmas Eve revellers process from door to door, offering song, dance and costumed buffoonery in return for drink, food and money. In medieval times they would never have risked doing this at the doors of the nobility, had the nobility not seen the wisdom of keeping the poor folk merry at Christmas and thus invited them to do exactly that. This, it’s believed, is the origin of the custom (and the song): that it was an effort to maintain social order at a riotous time. But there’s a much older origin story too, which takes us to the dawn of the Dark Ages.

At this time, Vortigern was King of the Britons, and in the Venerable Bede’s words, ‘a proud tyrant’
who one Christmas was so struck by the beauty of a peasant girl begging at the door of his long-hall that he invited her in and plied her with drink until she was incapable of resisting when he moved in to ravish her.

So, there you go. It was all about getting the lower orders drunk so that you could do what you wanted to them. Another cheerful notion when you’re supping from the Christmas cup.

And if you thought all that cast the festive season in a grim light, try this for size:


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.

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM 
edited by Christopher Golden (2018)

A Blumhouse Original horror anthology put together specially for the Christmas season last year, but packed with festive-themed chillers, several of which I can safely predict will go on to be reprinted many times throughout the Christmasses yet to come.

Rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll let the publishers give you their own official blurb, which pleasingly hints at the seasonal shivers lying in wait.

Eighteen stories of Christmas horror from bestselling, acclaimed authors including Scott Smith, Seanan McGuire, Josh Malerman, Michael Koryta, Sarah Pinborough, and many more.

That there is darkness at the heart of the Yuletide season should not surprise. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is filled with scenes that are unsettling. Marley untying the bandage that holds his jaws together. The hideous children - Want and Ignorance - beneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The heavy ledgers Marley drags by his chains. In the finest versions of this story, the best parts are the terrifying parts.

Bestselling author and editor Christopher Golden shares his love for Christmas horror stories with this anthology of all-new short fiction from some of the most talented and original writers of horror today.

Christmas-themed horror stories are nothing new these days. In fact, you have to go back quite a few centuries to find a time when they were new, if such a time ever existed at all. Regulars on this blog will know that I’ve waxed lyrical about the festive chiller many times before, dredging up examples from the distant past, not just Dickensian delights, but ancient tales of sprites and goblins as referred to in Shakespeare, and even earlier than that, from the Middle Ages. We won’t get into the history of it again now but suffice to say that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see Christmas-themed anthologies appear on our bookshelves as regular as clockwork when the autumn of each year approaches.

I was particularly delighted to acquire this one towards the end of last year, because its table of contents alone promises so much. Editor Christopher Golden is one of the most respected voices in horror writing and editing on the world stage today, and here he’s in pulled contributions from some of the most popular and successful novelists currently lurking at the darker end of the spectrum: Scott Smith, Josh Malerman, Joe R Lansdale, Sarah Langan, Sarah Lotz, Elizabeth hand, Tim Lebbon and Sarah Pinborough, to name but a few.

Did it hit my Christmas horror spot, though?

Undoubtedly, yes.

Golden clearly made the decision early on that with Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, he was going to forego some of the more tediously familiar festive horror fixtures. For example, axe-wielding Santas make regular appearances in low-budget Christmas horror movies, and even their somewhat more exotic and infinitely scarier cousin, Krampus, is starting to show up with wearying regularity. Likewise, reunions of relatives so appalling that they verge on the deranged are becoming a bit of a cliché, as are horrific presents and Christmas trees decorated with human body-parts. Thankfully, none of those caricatures figure here very much.

Perhaps inevitably, we do have ghosts. Ghosts are such a staple of Christmas fiction that it would be near enough impossible for any editor of a book like this to ignore them. But even here, Golden has opted to select very few of what you might call drawing-room ghost stories.

Anyway, enough of what there isn’t, and now onto what there is.

As I hope I’ve already intimated, this is an eclectic mix of tales, with a refreshingly diverse range of Christmas subjects touched upon. Tim Lebbon’s Home, for example, which shows us Christmas after the apocalypse, is something I for one have never seen before (and which will last long and dark in the memory).

That said, there are a couple of stories here at least that tweak the traditional nerve-string.

Sarah Pinborough, a long-established mistress of the dark fairy tale, spins an elegant yarn in The Hangman’s Bride, which is set in early-Victorian London, and follows the fortunes of a sweep’s boy who climbs the chimney in a big townhouse belonging to a gentleman executioner and finds himself in a labyrinth of brick passages, blinded and choking on soot, and with something horrible lurking just out of sight. At the same time, Seanan McGuire’s Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow lifts us from the realm of the mundane, a suburban family on Christmas Eve, into the dreamy world of Eastern European mythology (managing to be both frightening and sad at the same time). While Joe R Lansdale steps back from his more recognisable ‘Southern Noir’ territory to hit us with The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel, a spine-chilling tale of vengeance from beyond in the decayed environment of an abandoned inn.

Of course, the book isn’t all about ghosts. Golden also finds room for some harder-edged, more typically American-style thrillers, Kelley Armstrong’s Absinthe & Angels telling the tale of a loving twosome cooped up in a snowbound log cabin one wintry Christmas Eve, only to be terrorised by a couple of weirdoes who show up outside, while John McIlveen, in Yankee Swap, depicts a Christmas kidnapping in which a psycho dressed as an elf subjects his hostages to a festive version of Saw.

These two aren’t the most effective stories in the book, for my money, though they’re all a taut read. More intriguing, and perhaps a little more cerebral, are two surrealist contributions from Scott Smith and Elizabeth Hand, both stories – Christmas in Barcelona and Farrow Street, respectively – taking their protagonists to distant cities, Barcelona and London, where adventures in foreign climes rapidly become chilling dislocations from reality.

Equally serious in terms of its undertone, though solidly back on US turf, is Chris Golden’s own story, It’s a Wonderful Knife, which isn’t just a play on the title of the famous movie, but in its telling of a budding actress’s trip to a bigshot Hollywood producer’s Christmas house-party and his subsequent request that she come upstairs so that he can show her a grim relic from one of his early films, casts more than a quick, approving nod in the direction of the #MeToo movement’s campaign against sexual harassment in high places.

In stark contrast, other stories in the book are played almost exclusively for laughs.

Jeff Strand’s Good Deeds introduces us to a guy down on his luck who uncharacteristically does a good deed one Christmas Eve when he buys shoes for a ragamuffin child and afterwards is so startled by the feelings this stirs that he writes a song about the spirit of the season, said song proving so moving that everyone who hears it commits suicide. In Thomas E Sniegoski’s Love Me, meanwhile, a professional burglar comes out of jail looking to fix things with his family in time for Christmas, but, unable to get a job, switches his attention to an old woman who allegedly lives in a nearby apartment full of valuable antiques, and well … as you’ve probably guessed, he should just have tried harder to get a job.

If there’s any brickbat to throw at Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, I’d say that not all the stories in it are specifically about Christmas. Most are, but one or two, such as The Hangman’s Bride and Michael Koryta’s Hiking Through, which concerns itself with a haunted hiking trail in the snowy New England woods, could be set at any time of the winter, but both these stories, and all the others herein are so excellently written, and make for such an enjoyable read overall that no serious editor could refuse them and only the most churlish reader would complain about them.

As with all anthologies, not everything in Hark! The Herald Angels Scream will delight every reader. Like Christmas itself, a season of mixed blessings for so many, the tone won’t always feel right, some won’t get what they’re hoping for, while others won’t buy into any of it from the start. But Hark! The Herald Angels Scream is another very worthy attempt to take a horror angle on the festive time of year, to lighten our mid-winter darkness with plenty of screams and laughs. As such, it gets my strong recommendation.

And now …

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM – the movie.

Just a bit of fun, this part. 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 these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in 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 Yuletide circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they’re all going about their business one eerie and deep-frozen Christmas Eve, while a local DJ – Bill Shatner perhaps – regales his listeners with tales of their progress (as in A Christmas Horror Story); or maybe they first appear as comic-book characters, as read about by young Billy in an eerily quiet New England town (a festive editon of Creepshow, anyone?) – but basically, it’s up to you.

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

Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow (by Seanan McGuire)

Rich but unloving parents can do without their kids on Christmas Eve and go out to party, leaving their young threesome in the care of a new babysitter, Raisa, a beautiful but mysterious Russian girl. She proceeds to tell them the strange and terrible story of Snegurochka, the legendary Russian Snow Maiden …

Raisa – Yuliya Snigir

The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel (by Joe R Lansdale)

Haunted by the memory of a lovely girl who mysteriously vanished during a Christmas Eve party at a riverside hotel many years ago, middle-aged Robert opts to visit the same hotel on Christmas Eve all over again, even though it is now a ruin, in company with the man he suspects of murdering her …

Robert – Steve Buscemi
Kastengate – Hugo Weaving

Not Just for Christmas (by Sarah Lotz)

Unfaithful Jake tries to buy his way back into his wife, Amira’s affections by acquiring a Genpet for the kids for Christmas. The Genpet is a part-cybernetic puppy, which is cuteness itself, and which never poops, never ages, and even talks with its child owners. The problem is that Genpets are very new and there are all kinds of unforeseen quirks in their system. A strange and scary Christmas Eve lies ahead …

Jake – James Marsden
Amira – Sarah Michelle Gellar

Tenets (by Josh Malerman)

Ex-university friends gather at Hank and Anne’s for a Christmas reunion, but their liberal intellectual attitudes fall short when one of their regular crowd, Adam, turns up with an ex-con, Michael, a one-time cult-leader. Michael’s apparent regret about his former life emboldens the other guests to be rude and cruel to him, but little do they know that he isn’t regretful as much as utterly terrified …

Michael – Robert Carlyle

*

Today’s images are as follows, from top to bottom: a touch of dark comedy to kick things off (I have no idea who the original creator was, but if he/she want to get in touch I will happily credit them - as I will in all these cases where an actual author was untraceable); Sparrowhawk; In a Deep, Dark December; Krampus, as seen at an Austrian winter fair (could not work out who the snapper was); the evil snowman from the cover of my 2007 short story collection, Stains; a Christmas fireplace, lifted from Faburous.com; Pieter Brueghel’s Renaissance era-set and yet disturbingly realistic Massacre of the Innocents; Christmas skulls, as found on Paperchase.com; The Mistletoe Bride, as taken from FreakyFolkTales; a traditional image of Woden; the Yule cat, as pinched from WilderUtopia.com; Frau Perchta, as seen on HorrorNewsNetwork; the Sodder mystery; an appropriately insane looking Benito Mussolini; the fearsome Red Knight from Wonderland; the original maniac Santa from And All Through the House, as first seen in EC Comics, 1950; Joan Collins dies at his hands in the movie version, Tales from the Crypt, 1972; another lunatic Santa; yet another; an underwater graveyard in the flooded village of Llyn Celyn, Wales, pic courtesy of the BBC; hooded sculptures at the church of St George in the Czech Republic, photo by Roman Robroek; a supremely Gothic fireplace; smoke ghost; a generic haunted house GIF; demonic graffiti from the movie, Amityville II: The Possession; festive misrule in the great hall; Evil King by Anastasia Andriyanova; Hark! The Herald Angels Scream; Bill Shatner in the movie, A Christmas Horror Story.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

When mist and frost enhance the horror


Okay, it’s early December and winter is here. Not only that, it’s been a cold one so far.  All of which has made me think that, as my GAZETTEER OF STRANGE, EERIE PLACES 4  is just about due, perhaps it would be apt if we this time visited somewhere that’s infamous for its cold and atmospheric winter seasons. As such, today we’re going to the USA for the first time ever in this series, where we’ll be focussing on NEW ENGLAND.

On a not completely dissimilar subject – weird goings-on in hometown America – I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Dean Koontz’s chilling crime/horror novel crossover, WHAT THE NIGHT KNOWS.

If you’re only here for the Koontz review, that’s perfectly fine by me. Head straight on down to the bottom of today’s blog, the usual place where my reviews go, and you’ll find it there. However, if you’ve got a couple of minutes to spare, we have a few other things you might be interested in first.

Still misty out there

If anyone assumes that my autumn publication, SEASON OF MIST, is now dead and buried for 12 months because Halloween and Bonfire Night are over, please think again.

SEASON OF MIST covers the whole autumn quadrant of the year, running from late-August through to mid-December. Its grand finale is set amid snow, with Christmas just around the corner. So, you see, it’s still very very relevant.

Which means that this is the perfect time for me to announce that SEASON OF MIST on AUDIBLE is now up and available to download. It’s narrated, very beautifully I have to say, by actor GREG PATMORE, who completely captures the spirit of the novella.

So, there you go. There is still plenty time to immerse yourself in this autumn/winter tale of murder and horror in Britain during the 1970s. More to the point, Greg’s flawless narration will take you right there without you having to do any work at.

And now we go …

Stateside

Last January, I began a new occasional feature on this blog: Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places.

The first one, on January 9, presented a round-up of my top 20 strange and scary places in BRITAIN AND IRELAND. It gained an immediate positive response from regulars on here, encouraging me to go again. And so, on May 31, my second feature in the series looked at the top 20 strange and scary in WESTERN EUROPE. As before, there was a hugely approving response, which confirmed that I could now run these articles regularly, visiting different locations all over the Earth. You may recall that on July 24 – very appropriately for the time of year – we went down to the MEDITERRANEAN.

Now, with much colder weather looming, and in an effort to keep things appropriate, we’re travelling far across the world, for the first time taking in the US (and a region that has featured prominently in dark and eerie fiction for countless decades).

Episode 4 will assess the horrors and mysteries of NEW ENGLAND.

‘Ancient’ is a very difficult word to apply to the USA. The landmass did have ancient peoples, of course, many of whom have now passed out of history, others living as remnants, only pursuing their traditional cultures in small reserved areas. North America is very much the heart of the modern world. In the early days of settlement, it was referred to simply as the ‘New World’. And from a British perspective, this applied specifically to New England, where the earliest Crown colonies were formed. However, there’s an irony there, because New England isn’t new anymore. The name itself was coined by English adventurer, John Smith, as far back as 1616. It’s also known much violence and atrocity since then, hosting the French and Indian Wars and many of the battles fought during America’s struggles for independence.

So, while it isn’t ancient, New England is certainly old and experienced, and this is reflected today in its many age-old towns, its ivy-clad mansions and crumbling graveyards, not to mention its plethora of mysterious tales and doubtful yarns. And New England doesn’t just rely on homespun folklore to evoke an atmosphere of the strange. In terms of natives and/or residents, it boasts some genuine masters and mistresses of the spooky story, everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Shirley Jackson, from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King.   

Anyway, I won’t keep waffling on. After mentioning the likes of King, Lovecraft and Jackson, I’m sure I don’t need to say much more. Just enjoy (and feel free to comment on) ...


GAZETTEER OF STRANGE, EERIE PLACES 4: 
NEW ENGLAND

1 Cedar Swamp (Massachusetts)


A picturesque zone of historical and archaeological interest in eastern Massachusetts. Quite extensive – 2,600 acres – it primarily comprises marsh and woodland but is well known for its provision of Native American artifacts. It’s also notorious for a Native American legend, specifically one belonging to the Wampanoag tribe, that a race of half-men secretly inhabits these eerie woods, known as the Pukwudgies. It sounds amusing, and the Pukwudgies – who are said to be short and grey-skinned, with black spiky hair, bestial features and the power to work magic – may seem like an American version of our European goblins and trolls, but in truth they are very far from being a joke. Ancient Wampanoag legend tells of the Pukwudgies kidnapping children, burning villages and murdering lone travellers. In modern times, they allegedly confine their behaviour to trickster-type activities, leading lost individuals ever deeper into the swamp, and then throwing sticks, stones and even spears at them. People have been reported missing, and there are stories of others being struck by mysterious missiles and in a couple of cases blinded by them.

2 Downs Road (Connecticut)


A six-mile stretch of dirt road leading through deep woods in coastal Connecticut, which once connected the towns of Hamden and Bethany, but now leads to nowhere from nowhere, and is allegedly the haunt of many mysterious and menacing beings. As far as can be seen, there is no obvious reason why Downs Road has such an evil reputation. It boasts no established history of occult or paranormal activity and seems to have been closed simply because a new bypass was opened nearby and left it redundant. It partly occupies land now owned by the local water company, and you don’t get much more mundane than that. But stories of Downs Road weirdness persist, and they are legion. UFOs have allegedly been sighted hovering overhead, ghosts apparently lurk in the various ruins dotted along its overgrown verge, and at least two monsters are reputed to roam the entire length of it after dark: an albino horse and a shaggy, Bigfoot-type humanoid. The road is supposedly closed to the public at either end, but access is infamously easy, and gangs of boozy teens regularly check it out, which may account for some of the more outlandish tales. However, wiser heads still advise that you should give it wide berth. 

3 Allagash River (Maine)


The sight of a celebrated if made-to-measure UFO abduction story, which later became a subject of controversy. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway cuts through the picturesque North Maine Woods, and is popular with canoeists, anglers, hunters, and wildlife enthusiasts. In August 1976, four men were camping in this isolated locality when they became concerned that they were continually spotting a mysterious bright light in the night sky. On one occasion, when they were out on the water, it came very close. The men panicked, especially as they then found themselves ashore with no memory of how they’d got there, while the fire built earlier had burned out and was stone-cold. Later, after returning home, they began suffering nightmares about undergoing horrific experiments at the hands of aliens. Under hypnosis, they each told a similar terrifying tale, though not all UFO researchers were convinced they were being honest. Later, one of the men retracted the abduction part of the story, saying that it was an invention designed to win financial gain, though the others insisted that it was all true. All four maintain that the weird lights in the sky were real, and later visitors to the area have reported the same.    

4 Montpelier (Vermont)


Vermont is infamous for its bitter winters, and the area around Montpelier, in the north of the state, harbours a particularly strange and macabre legend, which allegedly was attested to by eyewitnesses as recently as 1887. On December 21 that year, a journalist writing in the Montpelier Argus and Patriot described a trip into the hills the previous January, and a visit to a small farming community, wherein he watched a group of elderly and crippled residents – six in total – be drugged, stripped down to their underwear and left outside until they had frozen like logs. The six were then enclosed in straw-packed boxes and again left outside until the snow covered them. This, the journalist was horrified to learn, was to be their resting place until the following spring. More remarkable still, he returned next May, just in time to see all six resuscitated by being laid in warm baths filled with hemlock and then massaged back to wakefulness, with no apparent ill effects.  Needless to say, such a miracle is medically impossible, so no one knows how to take this curious tall tale. As modern-day Vermonters say, these days it’s best just to give the old folks extra thick socks and a nice warm blanket.

5 Fleur-de-Lys Studios (Rhode Island)


In 1928, HP Lovecraft’s seminal novella, The Call of Cthulhu, was published. It was one of the first occasions when the great horror author made a clear and conscious effort to establish the cosmology in which his many monstrous creations – the Great Old Ones – existed, and introduced his readers to Cthulhu himself, a malevolent, octopoid monstrosity, who, while hibernating in the sunken South Pacific city of R’lyeh, became a god to many evil cults existing in all corners of the globe. Lovecraft is not to everyone’s taste in the diversified 21st century, but novels and short stories derived from his mythos are still massively popular among horror, fantasy and sci-fi fans, and Cthulhu’s debut appearance sits at the very heart of that. Which brings us at last to the Fleur-de-Lys Studios in the age-old city of Providence, because they figure prominently in the story, serving as the fictional workplace of Henry Anthony Wilcox, a demented sculptor, who creates an image of Cthulhu after seeing him in a terrifying vision. Rather neatly, the real Studios are a genuine historic art building in the prosperous College Hill district of Providence, and perfectly embody the elegant architectural style so prevalent in Lovecraft’s writings.

6 Dogtown (Massachusetts)


The drear remains of a long-derelict settlement on Cape Ann on the northeast Massachusetts coast, now renowned as a site where ancient curses linger and ghosts walk. Even in the known history of Dogtown, there are mysteries. Though founded in 1693, most of its homes had collapsed by 1800 and it was inhabited mainly by outcasts and feral dogs. There is also the factor of the bizarre messages carved on boulders surrounding the town’s vicinity, which feed into the rumour that witches once lived there, terrorising passers-by with black magic, the residue of which is still believed to afflict the area with an aura of deep menace. On examination, some of these questions have mundane answers. For example, Dogtown obtained its curious name because in the years following the War of Independence the many widows who lived there acquired dogs for companions (the descendants of which became the feral packs that scoured the ruins in later decades), while the town itself was already emptying due to fear of coastal bombardment. However, the witchy stories are true. Dogtown once housed Tammy Younger, Queen of the Witches, who in the 1700s extorted goods from travellers by threatening them with hexes.   

7 Perron House (Rhode Island)


The site of a famous haunting in the early 1970s, made even more famous in 2013 by the horror movie, The Conjuring. The Perron family moved into the isolated 14-room farmhouse in 1971 and claim to have immediately become aware that it was filled with strange, menacing presences. Lots of what we would these days regard as standard haunted house phenomena were reported: bad smells, unexplained noises, doors opening and closing, items being thrown about. Research into the house’s past uncovered a long list of tragic events including fatal accidents, suicides and murders. It also revealed the occupation of the house in the 19th century by Bathsheba Sherman, who was allegedly a Satanist and a suspect in the killing of a child (though this didn’t prevent her being buried in a Baptist cemetery). According to the family, Bathsheba’s spirit was the most dangerous and violent, particularly as it made several attempts to possess individual members. Perhaps the most famous aspect of the case was the involvement of professional demonologists, Ray and Lorraine Warren, though their actual role in the story is still the subject of dispute. Other families who occupied the residence later reported no scary disturbances.

8 Bennington Triangle (Vermont)


Glastenbury Mountain sits at the heart of the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. It is part of the Green Mountains, an area of wild natural beauty. It is also, or so the rumourists insist, the central point of the so-called ‘Bennington Triangle’, which name derives from encircling Bennington County and is an obvious play on other notorious districts where mysteries abound, the Bermuda Triangle or the Bridgewater Triangle. One thing is certain, however: the strangeness here has a dark heart. At least five people have inexplicably vanished in the Bennington Triangle: three in the 1940s and two in 1950. In itself, that might sound like no big deal, but several of these disappearances were very unusual. One person, for example, vanished from a bus while travelling between stops, while another, a child, vanished from his mother’s parked car when her back was briefly turned. Four were never seen again despite wide searches, while one was found dead, though the cause of death was indeterminable. Folklorists point to a Native American myth that an evil monster prowls this region, a shapeless horror that disguises itself as a large rock, absorbing anyone unlucky enough to make contact with it.

9 Smuttynose Island (New Hampshire)


The splendidly named Smuttynose Island is one of the Isles of Shoals, a group of rocky islands located offshore at the border of Maine and New Hampshire. It is also the scene of a true-life horror story. John and Maren Hontvet were a hard-working Norwegian couple, who’d settled on the island in 1868 and started a lucrative fishing business. Generous souls, they offered work to one Louis Wagner, an unemployed German trawlerman who other islanders disliked. All appeared to be well in the group, even when other family members arrived. Wagner eventually sought work elsewhere, but his various ventures failed, and he finished up destitute in Portsmouth. In March 1873, learning that the menfolk among his former employers were away from Smuttynose Island on business, having left the women there alone, Wagner rowed back – a distance of 12 miles, a considerable feat but not impossible – broke into the family home, and murdered Karen and Anethe Christensen with an axe. Unfortunately for Wagner, Maren escaped and named him as the killer. Arrested in Boston, he was taken to Portsmouth, where he survived a lynch mob by the skin of his teeth, only to be hanged at Thomaston State Prison.

10 Freetown-Fall River State Forest (Massachusetts)


A scenic stretch of forest in southern Massachusetts, and the alleged site of much bizarre and chilling mythology. Some 5,000 acres across and a popular spot for hiking, biking and sundry other outdoor pursuits, it nevertheless sits inside another terrifying Triangle. This time it’s the ‘Bridgewater Triangle’, which like its namesakes in Bennington, Bermuda etc, is reputed to be a hotspot of paranormal phenomena, which include UFO incidents, bigfoot sightings, monster legends (giant snakes and birds, even a crazed emu), unexplained murders and weird disappearances. It is these latter cases that concern us most, as unlike much of the other strangeness, these horrors are provable. There were several gruesome killings in the forest during the 1970s and 1980s, claiming both male and female victims, with no successful convictions resulting. Rumours persist that a well-connected Satanic cult was responsible. If that sounds like a familiar and convenient explanation, other seemingly purposeless violence has continued to be perpetrated, with the police unable to bring anyone to justice. These assaults include random beatings, attacks by trained dogs and steel wires stretched at neck-height across cycling trails.     

11 Northfield Pigman (Vermont)


Possibly one of the eeriest mysteries of New England is that concerning the Northfield Pigman. It centres around two small towns in the Green Mountains region of Vermont, in particular along the Devil’s Washbowl Road. Both towns are the epitome of quaint, rural America: white picket fences, apple pie, rocking chairs on the porch. Exactly the kinds of places, in other words, where many classic horror novels and movies have been set. You can picture it: a bunch of Northfield teens enjoying their prom night, when some others, who’ve been sneaking booze outside, dash in, terrified, telling a nightmarish tale of how they were approached by something awful that came from the woods, a towering two-legged figure covered in thick white hair with a pig’s head and cloven hooves. This shocking event allegedly occurred in 1971, but the bizarre Pigman hybrid has reappeared repeatedly since, supposedly seen rooting through trash, running wild in the woods and tapping on the windows of parked cars where couples were making out. Several disappearances, people and animals, have been laid at the monster’s door, as has a sinister pile of gnawed bones found in the woods. But so far there is no actual proof. 

12 Kennebec Arsenal (Maine)


Reputedly one of the most haunted places in the US, the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta, Maine, is at first glance a regal-looking white-stone building, an impressive landmark on the shore of the Kennebec River … until you get up close, and realise that it’s not just abandoned, but fenced off and covered with warning notices that danger lies within. Initially constructed after the War of Independence, it was at first an arsenal and munitions centre – which explains the Regency era style. But in 1901, it ceased operations and became part of the Maine State Hospital, specifically the part of the institution where the mentally ill were incarcerated. Whether the many rumours that, in its early days, the hospital’s inmates were neglected and mistreated are true (a couple of former patients insist that they are), a genuine scandal appears to surround the locations of the graves of the 11,647 unfortunates who died within its walls – because no-one knows where they are. One story holds that they were buried without ceremony in unmarked graves all over the hospital grounds. The many ghost stories are difficult to investigate as the site is now privately owned, and visitors are rarely permitted.

13 Warren Occult Museum (Connecticut)


Until very recently, the house occupied by Ed and Lorraine Warren in Monroe, Connecticut, could be visited for a few dollars, and the Warrens themselves would take you down into the cellar, where a plethora of artifacts collected from their many occult investigations could be viewed in perfect safety. It isn’t just the recent movies that have made the Warrens famous. Founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, they were celebrated ghost-hunters and demon-busters from the 1950s onwards,  and participated, to some extent or other, in a variety of famous cases, from the Amityville Horror to Annabelle, the murderous doll. Claiming to have dealt with 10,000 cases of this sort, the Warrens authored many books and ran lucrative lecture tours. As such, the Museum was a popular attraction for many years. In recent times, sceptics, though stating that they believe the Warrens were well-meaning, have debunked many of their claims and accused them of leading deluded people into even deeper delusion, though Hollywood has done its bit to resurrect interest in the couple. Ed Warren died in 2006 and Lorraine in 2019, and their once famous house/museum is now permanently closed to the public.

14 Lake Bomoseen (Vermont)


West Castleton on the shore of Lake Bomoseen in Vermont is now a ghost town, but once was a hive of activity. In the 19th century, migrants flooded into it to work in the lumber mills and slate quarries. The boom lasted until the 1930s, at which point the demand for slate declined and the town emptied. The place itself is not especially sinister, having become one of several visitor centres in the Lake Bomoseen State Park. However, there is one eerie tale. In the 1850s, there was a tavern on the lake’s opposite shore, which the workers would row over to. The journey there wasn’t especially hazardous, though on the way back, with the men drunk, things were different. On one occasion, three Irishmen disappeared, their boat found empty and adrift the following morning. Extensive searches failed to locate them. Even when the waters were dragged, no trace was found. On dark nights, a spectral rowboat is still said to cross the water, though a greater mystery to many is what happened to the luckless trio, as the question remains unanswered. By the way, I have a suspicion that this photo does not depict Lake Bomoseen, unless its one of the great body of water’s many misty backwaters, but it looks scary, so I’ve used it.

15 Salem (Massachusetts)


The cold wind of witch-hunting madness that swept so many innocents to their deaths in Europe finally reached North America in 1692, specifically in Salem, Massachusetts. There’d been witch trials earlier in New England, though this was the big one. Still a British crown colony at the time, its population descended from Calvinist refugees, Massachusetts Bay, which included Salem, was a particularly fractious settlement where there was much political / religious infighting. Superstition was also rife, as was the deep-rooted Puritan belief that women were susceptible to the wiles of the Devil. All these things combined in a fevered atmosphere, and when a bunch of hysterical children began making accusations (maybe encouraged by their families), the whole disaster commenced. In due course, some 200 people were prosecuted, 19 of them, mostly female, hanged, one pressed to death and five left to perish in prison. The name ‘Salem’ is often evoked these days in hokey tales of witchcraft and other Halloween hi-jinks, but the background to the story is unrelentingly grim. The house pictured, the Witch House, belonged to Jonathon Corwin, one of the judges who sent so many blameless folk to the gallows.  

16 Haynesville Road (Maine)


“It’s a stretch of road up north in Maine that’s never, ever, ever seen a smile.” So opined ex-trucker turned country singer, Dick Curless, in his famous ballad A Tombstone Every Mile. He was referring to Route 2A, which runs through the Haynesville Woods in Northern Maine, and to the vast numbers of fatal road accidents that have occurred along it. There are many reasons why the road is so dangerous, though mainly it’s because in winter it is sheathed with ice and because it includes at least one 90-degree hairpin bend. Thanks to the relatively recent construction of Interstate 95, the route is little-used these days, at least by commercial vehicles, and perhaps this is the reason why so many ghost stories have grown up, the rumourists eager to tell tales worthy of the eerily empty highway and the deep, silent woods on either side. Despite this mundane explanation, the many tales concerning Haynesville Road are exceptionally creepy and there is a thread of consistency running through them, nighttime travellers often reporting similar spectral hitchhikers. Invariably, these are said to be the spirits of road accident fatalities still seeking to reach their destinations, and mostly they are either women or children.   

17 Little People’s Village (Connecticut)


Some spooky tales centre around a derelict model village in the woods near Middlebury, in central Connecticut. If you ever happen to be wandering this area, you may be surprised to encounter the village, as it isn’t signposted or a fixture on any recognised tourist trail – it simply sits there, a intricate clutter of doll-sized houses and shops, all now in a ramshackle state and overgrown by weeds and thorns. One of the stories holds that a man living alone in a nearby shack – of which the ruin still remains – was tormented by voices in his head, the ‘little people’ he believed, demanding that he build them a town. He did so, but the voices continued, finally driving him to suicide. Another tale holds that a man and his wife occupied the shack, and that it was the wife whom the faeries contacted, she then pestering her husband to build the village, the pair of them finally succumbing to insanity together. It’s tempting to think that maybe the shell of this story is true, and that some mentally ill hermit built the village, trying to appease imaginary beings, but most likely it came about as an outlying attraction for the Lake Quassy Amusement Park, a model railway connected to which once ran through these woods.  

18 Taunton State Hospital (Massachusetts)


Taunton State Hospital, or State Lunatic Hospital as it was called, closed in 1975. For a time, it stood as one of those archetypal abandoned ex-medical facilities that horror films are crammed with. It’s no surprise that such places possess auras. The incarceration of so many tortured souls could easily have left a psychic mark. But perhaps the atmosphere at Taunton is more potent than most because among its inmates there were some celebrity felons. Jane Toppan was a beautiful, charismatic nurse who was also a prolific poisoner. Some 31 patients suffered agonising deaths at her hands, and these were no mercy killings. Toppan admitted that she got a sexual thrill from her victims’ suffering. Confined at Taunton in 1902, she died there in 1938. Another (alleged) inmate was suspected axe murderess, Lizzie Borden. In 1892, Borden was accused of murdering her parents with a hatchet at their Fall River home but was later controversially acquitted. If none of that is scary enough, stories persist that staff members were themselves killers and even Satanists, and that they’d take particularly incorrigible inmates down to the cellars, to perform hideous experiments on them, before sacrificing them to Lucifer.

19 Lake Pocomoonshine (Maine)


Pocomoonshine is a particularly scenic lake near Princeton in the extreme west of Maine. A popular holiday destination, it also boasts a plethora of myths concerning the presence of a mysterious monster. There’s no doubt that lake monster stories generally seem a little cheesey, and on the face of it, this one is no real exception. The creature believed to inhabit Lake Pocomoonshine is known as ‘Poco’ and has now become a tourist attraction in his own right. However, the tale is an interesting one because there are some variations to the norm, and the rumours about him go back into Native American history. The location first became famous in the 1880s, when several loggers reporting seeing a 60-ft long water snake, very pale in colour and about four feet in thickness. If true, this would make Poco the biggest snake, not just on Earth, but in all of history. The current record is held by the Asian reticulated python, which has been known to grow to 30 ft in length, while in the Paleocene era, the Titanoboa grew to 48 feet. Poco’s existence is attested to in the legends of both the Algonquin and Mi’kmaq tribes, but aside from some curious trails on the lake shore – he is believed to leave the water – real evidence is scarce.

20 Provincetown (Massachusetts)


The mysterious case of the ‘Black Flash’, which occurred in Provincetown in 1939, is startlingly similar to that of ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’, who terrorised southern England 50 years earlier. Both stories concern the random appearances of a bizarre black-clad figure, very tall, with red eyes, who would jump out of the nighttime shadows to terrify unsuspecting citizens, and then escape by making prodigious leaps over high fences and even rooftops. On both occasions, hysterical laughter was reported, along with fiery breath; both felons supposedly proved immune to gunfire. These similarities have not been lost on US investigators, some of whom have tried to make solid links. For example, was this entity finally driven out of old England and did it cross the Atlantic to seek a new home? Whatever your view, Provincetown doesn’t seem the obvious place. A popular resort on the tip of Cape Cod, it boasts a big summer-time population, but is very quiet for much of the rest of the year. Unlikely theories vary from stranded aliens to elaborate schoolboy pranks to belated panic caused by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds incident the previous year. The reports were real, however, and to date no answer has been supplied.


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.


WHAT THE NIGHT KNOWS 
by Dean Koontz (2010)

John Calvino is a man struggling to reconcile with his past. As a teenager, he was sole survivor when crazed killer, Alton Turner Blackwood, broke into his home and horribly murdered his parents and sisters. In fact, John was the person who brought Blackwood’s reign of terror to an end, returning home just in time to gun the killer down with his father’s pistol.

In all other ways, though, the adult John Calvino now has a good life. It’s 20 years on, and he’s a well-regarded homicide detective (in an unspecified American town), with a beautiful wife, Nicolette, who’s also an excellent and successful artist, and three cute and intelligent kids, Zach, Naomi and Minette. He faces difficult cases daily, but his loving and characterful family are a strong support unit, and in any case, because of the tragedy he suffered in childhood, he sees it as his vocation to bring serious felons to justice.    

However, John’s ordered world starts to unravel when he is drawn to a case that he isn’t officially investigating but which bears worrying similarities to the deaths of his loved ones. Teenager Billy Lucas is in a secure mental ward after slaughtering his own family. He is believed to be schizophrenic, but when John visits him, the cop is alarmed by how much the disturbed youngster seemingly knows about the case two decades ago, and by his behaviour, which seems to veer from predatory and dark-hearted to innocent and frightened in the space of a second.

Afterwards, when John looks more carefully into the Lucas slayings, he finds that they are almost identical to the murders of his own family, even down to the small but significant details of the weird, blood-soaked rituals that Blackwood performed at the crime scene and at three identical crime scenes before it.

Other problems are manifesting too.

Not long after John returns from the asylum, his family begin sensing a presence in their formerly happy home. There are unexplained events: terrifying apparitions and incidents of apparent poltergeist activity, which primarily affect Nicolette and the children, though Nicolette writes her experiences off as a side-effect of the meds she is taking after recent surgery, while the youngsters find their own reasons for keeping quiet about it.

Meanwhile, John himself is badly shaken when he receives a phone-call from Billy Lucas – a guy who supposedly has no access to the outside world – the deranged youngster taunting him about his family’s deaths, even mentioning some of the vile things that Blackwood said to the young version of John Calvino twenty years earlier, which have never been made public.

When John complains to the hospital authorities, he is advised that not only is this impossible because Billy Lucas has no phone, it’s also impossible because the kid has just died from the stress of his condition.

Meanwhile, in a parallel strand to this main thread, and through several entries in a carefully-kept journal, we learn more about the man who would eventually become young John Calvino’s nemesis, the serial killer Alton Turner Blackwood, a deformed giant who came into this world through incest and was raised in the bosom of a patriarchal but amoral and dysfunctional family. It’s no surprise that he soon became a student of evil and a determined destroyer of innocence and beauty (though admittedly it’s a winding, colourful road he takes to get there, filled with all kinds of perverse domestic horror).

Of course, it has long been Calvino’s deepest fear that, somehow or other, this monster would find his way back into the world and return to finish the job he started by eradicating the Calvino seed once and for all. Perhaps inevitably, the cop isn’t far off the mark, though at this early stage he isn’t aware that Blackwood, who has not just been dead but in Hell, has indeed returned, having won brownie points with one particular prince of darkness, the demon, Ruin. But aside from creating a few minor special effects (that wretched poltergeist activity!), the only way Blackwood can really do harm is by possessing the living, and as the particularly sinful are most easily susceptible, we now meet a procession of twisted individuals whom the damned soul – his powers boosted by his infernal benefactor – is literally able to ride and steer as if they are horses.

Reece Salsetto, for example, a drug dealer and small-time gangster, who is driven to attempt to murder his sister’s family. Andy Tane, a corrupt and violent cop, who is galvanised to complete the job (his particular story including one of the scariest and downright most amazing death scenes I’ve witnessed in horror fiction, but no spoilers here). And Melody Lane, an insane child-killer, who is driven to make friends with Naomi, Calvino’s eldest daughter, by pretending to be an emissary from a fantasy fairy-tale world.

While this is happening, John, seeking spiritual guidance, hooks up with a disgraced and defrocked priest and one-time exorcist, Peter Abelard, who though he won’t come to the Calvino’s house because he can’t trust his own appetites for the very young, advises the detective about the terrible foe that he is facing.

Meanwhile, a whole clutch of killers, Melody Lane among them, are now closing in on the Calvino family, driven to behave even more murderously than normal because they are being ridden by the Ruin/Blackwood combo. Even with his new-found knowledge, it seems highly unlikely that John will be able to mount an effective defence …

From what I’ve seen thus far, What the Night Knows has been a very divisive book. Hardcore Dean Koontz fans have sung its praises from the rooftops, lauding its tension and terror, and in particular the nightmarish figure of Alton Turner Blackwood as one of the greatest villains in the author’s extensive canon. But others, less impressed, have criticised it for being repetitive of other earlier Koontz novels, unswervingly reinforcing the author’s Christian beliefs (divine intervention is a key element in this narrative), and hitting us with several plot devices that are simply too unbelievable.

In my own view it’s a rattling good read, very scary and disturbing in parts, a real page-turner. But yes, I did have issues with some aspects of the book so perhaps it’s better if we get those out of the way first.

There’s no argument that we’re in familiar Koontz territory with the Calvino family. This is all-America as it should be: the father a noble cop seemingly undamaged by his terrible childhood experience (he has deep fears, but he’s affable, even-tempered and dependable), the mother talented, beautiful and endlessly strong and patient, the children a real bunch of cutie-pies, intelligent, well-mannered and though precocious, not in an unpleasant way. The whole bunch of them live in a large house in a perfect leafy suburb, with servants at their beck and call (servants who they inevitably treat very well, in fact love almost as family in their own right).

I must be honest, I found all this a bit saccharine, plus I didn’t really buy into the kids’ intellects. Their conversations and thought processes seem too advanced for their ages. Zach, for example, is only 13, but wants to join the Marines so he can defend America against the world’s dictators, the thing he fears most (really?). Minnie is only eight, and yet displays complex emotional understanding of her siblings, and is able to rationalise their moods and relationships in a very adult way. And yet, conversely, we are expected to believe that Naomi, the middle child at 11, is so besotted with fairy tale romance that when a mysterious woman, Melody Lane, intrudes into her life, she is so willing to believe that she’s the ambassador from a magic kingdom that she never once mentions it to her parents.

I also found it difficult to accept the Calvinos’ well-heeled lifestyle. John is a homicide cop, Nicolette an artist who’s had success, but we don’t get the impression that she’s a raging success. They’re both only in their mid-thirties, and yet they live in this huge residence and have staff. It’s even the case that the children are home-schooled, which is expensive, and yet it’s never really explained where the family have accrued so much wealth. Reviewers who’ve been hostile to the book have complained that this is typical Koontz, claiming that he automatically equates good with the conservative world of America’s white upper-middle class.

But, you know, this is Dean Koontz’s novel. This is his story. Ultimately, he can do what he wants with it, and he doesn’t have a duty to promote some other person’s vision of how the world is or should be. And, I have to say, none of this really spoiled it for me. The Calvinos may be an improbably handsome, happy family unit, but they also come over as desperately vulnerable. Despite John’s knowledge and skill as a professional crime-fighter (possibly because we never see much evidence of him doing this), they live such a comfortable life that they are totally unprepared for the evil that’s approaching.

As for the complaint that this is an overly muscular Christian story, well, I guess that depends on your personal viewpoint. It certainly doesn’t bother me. I grew up in the western Christian tradition wherein good is represented by God and evil by the Devil. It’s not as if I’m unused to it, though it is hammered home rather strongly in its depiction of a young, modern-minded Catholic priest, who is hip and liberal in his outlook and therefore no use to the family, whereas the wizened, chain-smoking old-schooler, Peter Abelard, a hardline exorcist who believes that evil is a real thing, is a much greater ally (despite being a convicted child-molester!).

The Devil never actually appears in What the Night Knows, but his minions do: a lesser demon called Ruin, the damned soul of Alton Blackwood, and a whole procession of depraved and corrupted individuals, who, though they haven’t exactly sold their souls to Lucifer, have completely given in to his influence. It’s a tad simplistic, yes. But most horror fiction is. At the end of the day it’s entertainment, so I don’t know if it needs to be looked into more deeply than that.

Overall, What the Night Knows is an enjoyable read. Dean Koontz is already famous for his florid and descriptive style and has long been held the master of the metaphor. But to me at least, this book is a very smooth and accessible read, every event vividly portrayed, the pace rarely flagging, and all the way through hitting us with some spectacularly scary climaxes. I’ve already mentioned the hospital scene, but the scene in the asylum will live long in the memory too, as will Zach’s eerie sojourn into the darkened attic of his own home.

All of these moments, and many others like them, will keep you reading avidly. But Koontz is on top of his game when it comes to character-work as well.

What the Night Knows serves up a range of deliciously nasty villains, of which Melody Lane, a genuinely chilling presence in this novel, is only one. Peter Abelard has a foot in both camps. Okay, in his battle to control his own demons, he won’t even attend the Calvinos’ house because they have two young daughters, Even then, and even though he’s not ‘on camera’ very often, he makes for a mesmeric character: hard, embittered, torn up with self-hatred, living in a gaunt, half-derelict house, where he is consciously smoking himself to death. This is the first time I’ve encountered an author attempting to get into the mind of a sexually abusive cleric, though he is of course redeemed by his antipathy to the satanic netherworld, a potential cop-out that you probably wouldn’t get in a more literary account of this kind of vice. But again, its all very effective. I’d go as far as to say that John Calvino’s first meeting with Peter Abelard is one of the most compelling scenes in the entire book.

At the end of the day, What the Night Knows is a mixed bag. It has its drawbacks, but it’s still a gripping, stylishly written thriller. Koontz himself described it as a ghost story rather than a horror novel. I’m not really with him on that. We’re firmly at war with Satan in this one. It’s the world of possession, though not as we’re so used to seeing it. That said, purists might point to Gregory Hoblit’s 1998, movie, Fallen, in which an FBI agent follows a demon, who jumps from one host to the next, provoking them to kill, and maybe even William Peter Blatty’s1983 novel, Legion, wherein an executed serial killer wins kudos in Hell for his gruesome ways and is allowed to return to Earth to possess the innocent, thus continuing his reign of terror. But at least we’re out of that over-familiar world of bell, book and candle.

Yes, there is some schmaltz in What the Night Knows, but I see no reason why both horror and thriller fans alike won’t enjoy this fun and slightly different excursion into a criminal world revved to feverish proportions by occultic darkness.

And now, as always, probably very ill-advisedly, I’m going to attempt to cast What the Night Knows in the event that it may at some point be adapted for film or TV. As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t happened yet, so I’m good to go, even though this is just a bit of fun.

Detective John Calvino – Chris Pine
Nicolette Calvino – Minka Kelly 
Alton Turner Blackwood – Alexander Ludwig
Melody Lane – Lesley-Ann Brandt
Peter Abelard – Mickey Rourke