Thursday, 2 January 2020

Early yet but the schedule is already rolling

So, what am I going to be doing this year? 

I suppose that’s something we’re all asking ourselves now that Christmas has passed and it’s suddenly January again. But in my case it mainly applies to the writing game. In other words, what am I going to be writing this year? What are my plans? What is due for publication, etc?

Well, in today’s blog, the first of 2020 – so Happy New Year, by the way! – I’ll endeavour to answer that question, though I’m sure you’ll understand if at this stage I can only give a thumbnail sketch of my schedule, which even then is likely to be full of holes because all kinds of opportunities may arise between now and next December; there are several irons in the fire that could flare to life at any moment – as soon as next week, even! – but let’s not get too excited about things that may also never happen.

In addition today, in keeping with the time of year – brrr! – I’ll be offering another of my detailed book reviews and discussions, focussing this week on Georges Simenon’s strange, bleak wartime crime novel, THE SNOW WAS DIRTY. This is not Maigret in case you were wondering, but a stand-alone and something of a classic, though it was very controversial at the time.

If you’re only here for the Simenon review, then by all means pop straight down to the Thrillers, Chillers section, which, as always, you’ll find at the lower end of today’s blogpost, and get stuck into it straight away. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in my writing exploits too, then stick around at this end for a bit.

2020 schedule

First off – in fact, very first off because, in truth, this one should have gone in at the end of last year rather than the start of this one – I’m making a short story appearance in the Michael Wood-edited, US-published crime anthology, TROUBLE AND STRIFE (see the image at the top).

This is a slightly unusual project considering that it has come from an American stable in that it focusses on Cockney rhyming slang. Every contributing author took a piece of that unique lingo and had to work a chilling story out of it. Mine was ‘Mr Kipper’, which of course is Cockney slang for ‘Jack the Ripper’. Needless to say, the whole thing completely caught my imagination, mainly because I saw in it an opportunity to write something that wasn’t just crime, but was also horror-ish, if such a word exists.

I always like to push my stories to the darkest edge permissible, and the idea I had for this one gave me a chance to try and evoke the unique atmosphere of Thriller. You may recall that wonderful British TV series of the early 1970s. It was helmed by television legend, the late, great Brian Clemens, and adopted an anthology format, each week presenting a different terrifying tale, and yet, as its title indicated, it didn’t go straight for the horror jugular – most of its episodes were concerned crime, though crime of the most murderous and chilling variety.

But I won’t say anymore on this front at present. As usual, if you want know about TROUBLE AND STRIFE in detail, there’s only one thing to do ...

With that publication done and dusted, the rest of January is mercifully free of major events – thank Heaven. It’s always nice to have a fallow period now and then.

February and March are also unassigned, though already we’re far enough into the future for me to put question-marks against that assertion, because, as I’ve already mentioned, you never know what unforeseen opportunities may arise.

This brings us to April, at which point everything starts kicking off big time.

To start with, I’ll be at STOKERCON in Scarborough, April 16-19. For the uninitiated, this is a huge international horror convention, which usually is located in the States, though it’s over here this year, and as it hosts the annual Bram Stoker Awards, is the main social event of the year for the Horror Writers Association. Anyone attending – and you don’t have to be a practitioner, you can also be a fan – can look forward to a packed weekend of panel discussions, interviews, workshops, book launches, readings, and of course the colossal horror bazaar that is the dealers’ room.

Hopefully, I won’t just be there as a punter. I may find my way onto a panel or two, plus a new short story of mine, What Did You See?, is included in the ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS #2, which will be one of many new titles launched at the grand event. Occasions like this only visit British shores rarely, so no one who’s into the horror genre can afford to pass this one up.

May is a free month thus far, but the same warning applies as before. Who knows what may crop up before then? (May is invariably a busy time in the industry, so it’s impossible to imagine that something won’t come along to fill this gap).

Things then get going again in June, for what’s looking like it will be a frenetic summer.

June 4-7, I’ll be at the international crime fiction convention, CRIMEFEST, in Bristol, ‘where the pen is bloodier than the sword’, where I’m on a panel and will be rubbing shoulders with a host of crime and thriller writers both great and small (over 100 guarantee to attend so far!). There will be at least 40 panels, the usual wide range of workshops, and the ever-popular ‘pitch an agent’ session, plus a welter of bar-side activity. This is one of the key events in the crime-writing game, and another opportunity that all hopefuls should grasp with both hands.

Come July, we’re still on the crime-writing front, and this is a truly massive one.

The THEAKSTON OLD PECULIER CRIME WRITING FESTIVAL, now in its 17th year, again returns to the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, July 23-26. I’ll be there, as always, enjoying and hopefully participating usefully in what is now a regular event in the literary calendar, and a convention that celebrates the very best in crime fiction. 

As always, it will boast an incredible array of special guests (though near enough all those writers who regularly attend have impressive back-catalogues and big sales, so it’s a must-visit for readers who simply want their books signed) and a line-up of panels that should wow any crime fan. Seriously, this one is worth going to just for the action in the beer tent (which, for anyone in doubt, is where I’ll be found most of the time).

This brings us to August, which will be by far the biggest month of 2020 for me personally.

It will see the publication of my first novel from Orion. I’m still not in a position where I can talk much about it. For example, I can’t tell you the title yet, or the actual date when it hits the shelves, though I can let it out that it’s a freestanding hardboiled cop thriller set in the south of England, in a deceptively leafy corner of the country where what initially looks like a simple road-crash leads to a explosion of underworld violence and retribution and the unearthing of a conspiracy that has the potential to rock the Metropolitan Police, and maybe the entire country, to its foundations.

But more about that soon, when the publicity embargo is lifted. On top of all that, any plans we devise to have a launch party will be posted on here at the first opportunity.

This brings us onto September, and next autumn, so now we’re seriously getting ahead of ourselves in terms of certainties. 

There are two more major literary events that month. BLOODY SCOTLAND, which is Scotland’s International Crime Writing Festival, held annually in the grand old city of Stirling, is likely the first. I have no actual dates for this one yet, though doubtless they’ll be announced imminently. Additionally, there is FANTASYCON, the annual convention of the British Fantasy Society, which this year is in Holloway, North London, from September 25-27. Sadly, I can’t guarantee that I’ll be at either of these exciting events just yet. I mean, there are lots and lots of reasons for crime, thriller, horror and fantasy readers to attend both of them whether I’m there or not (and I am hoping to be!), but both are a little far into the future for me to give any guarantees at this point.

The same applies in October to CAPITAL CRIME, which is held at the Grand Connaught Rooms, London, from Oct 1-3. This is a relatively new event – 2020 will be only its third year – but it has already proved a big draw for some of the world’s leading crime and thriller authors and filmmakers. Make no mistake, this is already an impressive and large-scale event, and it’s getting bigger each year. I am strongly hopeful that I’ll be attending this one. 

After all this, I’d like to say that November and December will be quiet, but even this early in the year, I have big plans for the last two months of 2020. Basically – and this is an ambition rather than a promise, though I think it’s a realistic one – I intend to bring out three Christmas books in time for the festive season. Partly, this is due to the remarkable response to my short story THE MERRY MAKERS, which I posted on this blog on December 17, and which was read an incredible 800+ times in the first few days (so, thanks to everyone for that).

It’s certainly made me realise that there’s an appetite for Christmas spookiness in the weeks leading up to the big day.

Clearly, I need to get as many of my Christmas ghost and horror stories out there as I can. I’ll thus be publishing re-releases of IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, my e-collection of festive chillers, and SPARROWHAWK, my Victorian era Christmas e-novella, but this time in paperback and (hopefully) Audible format as well. In addition to that, I intend to bring out a band-new festive ghost story collection, THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE, with any luck both electronically and in paperback.

As I say, these November/December plans are aspirations at this point rather than absolute certainties, but with a bit of luck, I see no reason why we can’t make them real.

Not that I expect anyone to be awaiting next Christmas with bated breath just yet – not in January. We’ve all got lots of other stuff to get through first. Just remember that as soon as I have updates about any of these plans, or any others I may hatch in the days and weeks ahead, you’ll find them on here first.   


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

THE SNOW WAS DIRTY by Georges Simenon (1948)

Occupied Europe in the 1940s during a bitter winter.

Well … I say occupied Europe, but in truth none of that is actually specified. All we know – all we ever know – is that we are in a Northern European city somewhere, living under the heel of a brutal military power. We could be somewhere in France or Belgium under the Nazi yoke, or perhaps the author is pre-empting the events shortly due in East Germany, where the Soviet Bloc would establish the German Democratic Republic (Frank Friedmaier is certainly a German-sounding name, as are several others in here, while the Gestapo-like methods employed by the occupiers would be just as believable in the hands of the Soviets and their lackeys).

Either way, the central character in this tale is Frank. A sociopathic teenager, aimless, immoral and utterly without conscience. He’s a petty criminal, we see that from the outset, but he’s more an opportunist than an out-and-out predator, and his motivations are often difficult to fathom.

He lives in a brothel, which is run by his mother, Lotte, who, along with the girls who work for her, pampers him ridiculously. Because this house of ill repute specifically services officers from the occupying force, fuel and food rationing don’t exist for the Freidmaiers – Frank even secures an ‘access all areas’ green card for himself – which is one extra reason for everyone in the outside world, particularly in the soulless apartment block where it is located, to despise them even more. But Frank and his mother don’t care.

Frank particularly doesn’t, at least on the surface. Only two things in life interest him: Sissy, the attractive but innocent daughter of a hardworking, upstanding neighbour, Gerhardt Holst, and his mission to impress a local small-time gangster and murderer called Kromer.

When Kromer, who views Frank as a promising up-and-comer, and someone whose connections through the brothel might be useful, lends the youngster a knife, Frank, almost on a whim, lies in wait for a member of the occupying force, and for no real reason – other than that he wants to know what it is like (and to see if he can live with himself afterwards) – stabs him to death. It turns out to be easy and straightforward, and even though the fatal act is witnessed by Holst, Frank is not worried. Such is his steely arrogance (and the immense privilege he has always enjoyed, which he has never earned) that he feels bulletproof in this wintry, downtrodden city, where the controlling authority seems distant and omnipotent, where the ordinary folk are tired, hungry and dispirited, and where the black-marketeers wield godlike powers. His response to those who don’t like his mother – those like Holst, he imagines, though Holst never speaks to him or to Lotte – is to challenge them with this brazenly lawless and unconcerned attitude.

Once again, Holst neither says nor does anything, and Frank continues on his reckless way, committing one criminal act after another, murdering for a second time during a robbery, and regularly handling stolen goods. Meanwhile, his fascination with Holst grows. Why did the guy not snitch on him? Why does Holst never even register Frank’s existence in the building where they live together?

It’s not just the case that Frank feels slighted by this … he is unconsciously cowed by it. Maybe there is something in Holst – his conscientious, industrious nature, his law-abiding attitude, his stolid response to the occupation of his homeland – that Frank secretly admires. Is Holst the father figure Frank has always needed? Is he the positive male role-model that Frank never had? Either way, Frank resents this, but because he can’t bring himself to actually confront Holst, he switches his attention to Holst’s daughter, Sissy.

A sweet child, she has long had a crush on Frank, and when he shows interest in her, she is amazed and flattered. They go on a couple of dates, during which, though they become amorous – Frank is very aroused and Sissy very compliant – they never actually consummate things, and the girl remains a virgin.

This, Frank realises, is something he can use to get back at Holst. To get back at the whole world, which, though he constantly flashes his money and his green card to it, seems hellbent on either treating him like a rodent, or worst still, ignoring him.

So, Frank makes a plan for Sissy.

A very nasty plan indeed. And though he is certain that he will get away with it, even though he’ll make no attempt in the process to cover up his own involvement, he has no clue that it will be the catalyst to a series of events that will bring down his odious little world in the most dreadful and complete way imaginable …

Even by the standards of Georges Simenon’s other romans durs, or ‘tough novels’, The Snow Was Dirty is something of a curiosity. You may recall that Belgian author, Simenon, was most famous for his series of Maigret stories, which were very much police procedurals set in post-war Paris. In short, these were intelligent, excellently (and sparsely) written, tightly-plotted good v evil capers of the old school, which were so satisfying to crime buffs that they are still widely read today and regularly adapted for television. In contrast, the romans durs were significantly darker forays into European Noir, in which much more ambiguous protagonists wend their way through grimy, crime-infested cities where justice does not always prevail.

But as I say, even in this company, The Snow Was Dirty is a notably disconcerting tale.

I’ve read it twice now, and though I’m still not certain it merits its ‘absolute classic’ status, I still find it disturbing and thought-provoking.

Everything about this new version, which has been very ably translated into English by Howard Curtis, initially appears to be straightforward. We’re immediately among people who are up to no good – the criminal classes of a city under occupation. We meet one criminal antihero in particular, Frank, who’s main aspiration – seemingly – is to win over the local gang-bosses with his daredevil approach to villainy.

So far so good. Looks like we’re in for a traditional urban thriller, perhaps with a wartime background to add flavour. But that doesn’t last for long.

Meanwhile, other things are going on just below the surface. To start with, Simenon’s succinct style is deceptively simple.

The authentic squalor of the post-war city is all there, even if the author doesn’t spend a great deal of time describing it, while the weary, hungry and impoverished wreckage of the town’s populace are completely visible to us, and feel very real indeed, even though we don’t meet many of them. There is huge skill in that alone.

Likewise, we don’t see much in the way of violence. Simenon purposely keeps it off the page, even though it happens all the time: early on, when local hoodlums (like Frank) commit atrocities seemingly at a whim, and particularly near the end, when one firing squad after another dispatches suspects of every hue. And yet, even though we rarely witness it, we completely buy into the conceit that, since the occupying force took over, the criminals are not only seedier now, but deadlier than they ever were before; it really doesn’t pay to get caught in the act or snitched on in this world, and so killing anyone who looks at you the wrong way is usually the preferred action. At the same time, of course, the victorious enemy (who remain unnamed right to the end of the book) are the ultimate bad guys, so completely in charge that they can mete out the most brutal punishments merely on suspicion and won’t bat an eyelid in the process.

In truth, this is hardly the environment in which you’d expect to find an angry young man. In the late 1950s, the likes of Jimmy Porter and Arthur Seaton were much safer thumbing their noses at the conventions of western capitalism than Frank Friedmaier is at the iron fist of a military dictatorship. Nevertheless, that is the vibe we get here, our central character a sulky, egocentric loner whose spirit refuses to be broken as he throws out one rash challenge after another, and yet who is surely smart enough to know that at some point this recklessness will result in his destruction.

You’re some distance into the book before you realise that it’s this weird psychology that Georges Simenon is actually examining rather than the crime story, which in itself is rather banal and low-key. But even then, his conclusions, such as they are, are the opposite of uplifting.

Frank is an amoral killer, but at the heart of it, he’s also a silly child. The naughty boy at the back of the class who’d rather do bad things and get in trouble than be ignored. He hates the fact that people are unimpressed by his green card. He hates the fact that his ‘daring’ criminality has flown under the radar for so long. He hates the fact that Holst responds to the abuse of his daughter by pointedly ignoring him, the perpetrator. And his loyalties and soaring self-confidence are absurdly illogical, to the point of being dangerous – even Timo, the fence, recognises this and eventually takes against Frank. Later on, when faced with the ‘Old Man’ – a prototype Gestapo interrogator, who clearly has all the time in the world – the cocky youngster treats it as a bizarre kind of game, certain that at some point he’ll have proved so problematic that he’ll be taken to the very top floor (or is he certain of this?; is it yet more bravado? … and there’s another question: where does arrogance end and self-loathing begin?). 

But I won’t say too much more about this compelling and consciously disheartening subtext for fear of spoiling the book, which as it only runs to a lean 290 pages is a trip that all literary types should take at some point (you’ll not find it a happy read, but you’ll still be engrossed).

Suffice to say that Georges Simenon wrote The Snow Was Dirty not as a form of entertainment but as an observation. It’s been called ‘a study of the human condition’. I would argue that it’s actually a study of a certain kind of human condition, one which the rest of us, if we value a functioning society, should discourage at every opportunity.

I can’t work out whether or not The Snow Was Dirty has ever been adapted on film. It’s certainly never been adapted in English, and so, as usual at the end of one of my reviews, I’m now going to seek to put that right. Here are the cast I would choose should it ever get the celluloid treatment. Just a bit of fun this, of course, though casting directors should ignore my advice at their peril:

Frank Friedmaier – Alex Pettyfer
Holst – Timothy West
Sissy – Georgie Henley
Lotte – Michelle Fairley
Kromer – Alfred Molina
The Old Man – Timothy Dalton

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Tis the season to be scared out of your wits

Well, happy Christmas to everyone. Here we are again in the season of holly and ivy. As always in these festive kalends of the year, it’s my intent to bestow a present on all those who read this column. Hence, I’ve penned a brand-new Christmas horror story called THE MERRY MAKERS. You’ll find that a little further down (it’s completely free to read, in case you were wondering).

It’s becoming an annual tradition for me, this. But it’s a labour of love too. I seem to have written an awful lot of Christmas scare-fare over the years. Several such stories were first published here on my blog, though there are plenty others that have never yet appeared here, usually because they were published somewhere else first (and though I use reprints on occasion, it’s not my preferred option).

I’m not sure why I so love this combination of Christmas joy and ghostly chiller, but it’s not just me of course. I won’t go into another of those rambling essays that I seem to post this time every year, detailing the origins of the tradition and listing the many other authors who’ve also followed this path. But suffice to say that this is a sacred time of year - not just to Christians, but to other groups as well; the majority of us seem to feel a sense of elation and a closer connection to each other late in December. Clearly, we are all moved by this strange spirit of the season, which it would be plain boring to write off as a simple product of the glitz and glamour driven by consumerism.

Of course, there are many folk out there who are quite content to dismiss the mysterious Yuletide aura as myth and make-believe – as fake news! – and hey, that’s their call. Who am to try to convince anyone of anything? But personally, I prefer the alternative explanation.

Whatever your position, have a great Christmas, and enjoy the story. 


THE MERRY MAKERS

I was somewhere in the West Country. That was all I really knew. Part way between Bournemouth and Bristol. I’m aware that sounds vague if not a tad ridiculous. Bournemouth and Bristol are 130 miles apart. I could have been almost anywhere. Or so it felt.
     Especially when I had the misfortune to call at Mistletoe Hall.

*

My plan had seemed like a good one initially.
     All-day meetings in Bournemouth on December 23, followed by a night in the local Premiere Inn. The following morning, hotfoot it up the M27 and A34 to the M4, and I’d easily make Bristol in time for my afternoon meeting, which, if it ended early, as I was optimistic it would, that day being Christmas Eve, I’d be back on the M4 by teatime, from where it was only 120 miles to London. With luck, I’d be home and celebrating the season by 7pm.
     And then it had snowed.
     Not heavily. Just enough to put down a light covering on the woods and fields of Hampshire. It shouldn’t have been a problem, but of course the UK is a country where autumn leaves stop trains, where, even though we have on-and-off rainfall for much of the year, heavy bursts can still overwhelm our Victorian drainage systems and leave streets flooded. Even then, I didn’t anticipate too much trouble. Town centres would be gridlocked as people vacated their offices early in a dash to get home before they were snowed in (by two inches!). But I’d be out in the countryside at that point. I ought to have a clear run. And at first it looked as if I would. Okay, the roads were under snow, but it was paper-thin, so I knew that with a little prudence I could handle it.
     Unfortunately, few others adopted the same approach.
     Just south of Whitchurch, I found my side of the A34 blocked by a lorry that had skidded and jammed itself crosswise across both carriageways. I doubled back and sought out the A303, only to mire myself in more slow-moving traffic because other inconsiderate drivers had caused similar accidents. By now, of course, my schedule was slipping. But things only went badly awry when I pulled off the main road, seeking passage via the network of narrow country lanes for which this rural corner of England is so famous. My blithe assumption was that at some point soon the sat-nav system would pick me up again and show me another easily navigable route. Stubbornly though, it continued to try to send me back to the A34. I was furious by now. My 1pm meeting had been and gone and all I could do was plough resolutely on in what I felt certain was the right direction, though I had no way to substantiate this (in the age of the sat-nav, so many of us have foolishly discarded our road maps). And now, of course, I was driving recklessly myself, taking turns at random, getting my foot down along straight stretches even though they were mostly single-track lanes.
     I saw no other vehicles, no people. I passed lone farmhouses rather than villages, though even these petered out after a while. Those crossroads I came to were either unmarked, or displayed place names I didn’t recognise. And all the while, the calm, measured voice of my sat-nav advised that I turn around when possible.
     “Bloody thing!” I snapped, wrenching it from my windscreen, only to drop it into the foot-space beneath my feet.
     I reached down for it before it got trapped under my pedals, and fleetingly took my eye off the white ribbon of the road. It couldn’t have been for more than a second, but when I looked up, that ribbon had curved to the right and suddenly my nearside wheels were thundering through tangles of frozen vegetation. I panicked, fighting the wheel. Snow exploded onto my windscreen as bushes went down under my engine, the left flank of my Hyundai grinding and tearing along the low rock wall, and with an air of grim finality, something crunching underneath me.
     After I’d come to a stop, I sat numbed, the engine ticking as it cooled.
     My windscreen was opaque with snow and shredded greenery. When I turned the key, the only response was a clatter of broken parts. I checked my own extremities to ensure they were intact, and scrambled out, flinching at the biting chill.
     Pulling my suit jacket on, I checked the car’s front end. There was much damage, none of which I was qualified to diagnose. In addition, my vehicle’s front nearside was buried not just in snowy, skeletal undergrowth but in the semi-demolished rock wall, where it looked to have wedged itself in place.
     I dug my phone out, though that would be no use unless I knew exactly where I was.
     I had no clue what I was going to do next. And when I opted to call Laura, simply to pass on the news, I found that I had no signal. I wasn’t as horror-stricken by this as you might expect. Generally, when marooned in a cellphone black spot, one usually needs to move a short distance to correct it. I donned my fleece and zipped it up, only to wonder if maybe it would be better to wait with the car. It surely couldn’t be long before someone else appeared.
     But this was not a given.
     On all sides, snow-clad meadows rolled to indistinct horizons. There were no roofs; there was no smoke from any chimneys. I didn’t even see farm animals. Save for the hiss of the glacial wind, it was completely silent.
     More problematic yet, it was turning dark.
     My phone told me that it was just after three. Which meant that full nightfall was maybe an hour away at most. Suddenly, waiting didn’t seem like an option.
     Collecting my overnight bag, I commenced walking. With luck, it wouldn’t just help me find a phone signal. Though I had my fleece on, underneath it I wore only a light suit and a thin shirt. The exercise ought to help me keep warm and should not have posed a problem – I was thirty years old and in good health – but my leather, lace-up loafers were hardly ideal. Only two inches of snow carpeted the road, but it seemed softer and more treacherous now that I was treading on it. Several times, I slipped and fell. Meanwhile, the sky darkened, and the temperature tumbled. Shuddering, I checked my phone again and again, but with no luck.
     For the first time I began to wonder if this might be more than simply inconvenient.
     And then I saw a light.
     It was a mere pinpoint, far away to my left across open land, its source concealed in the deepening dusk. But it was continuous and bright. I hurried along the road, assuming that at some point there’d be a connecting lane. However, when the light came on level with me, and I still hadn’t seen a turn-off, I became worried again. Should I climb the wall and head across country? Not wanting to trespass, I trudged doggedly on. But soon the light was falling behind me. I stopped again, now riven with cold, joints aching, chest wheezing. I checked my phone and was appalled to see that not only was I still minus a signal, the battery was on the verge of expiring.
     That decided it.
     I clambered over the wall and plodded for several minutes across snow-covered pasture. When I came to a bulwark of darkling trees, I lost the light. Alarmed, I staggered left, and spotted it again, twinkling though leafless, spidery branches. I threaded into a smallish wood.  There was less snow in there, though I’d soon reached a narrow road – a driveway, I guessed – which again was covered by an unbroken sheet of white, suggesting that it wasn’t used very often. I followed it, anyway, finally entering open space.
     Mistletoe Hall stood in front of me.

*

I knew that was its name because there was a tall brick post from which an iron bar protruded. Hung from this bar was an oaken plaque. The words inscribed on it were crabbed and mossy, but I was able to discern them thanks to the light, which shone from a downstairs window where the curtain hadn’t been closed properly.
     Had I not been so relieved, it might have struck me that the house had seen better days. All I remember on first arriving was that it was an ugly, hulking structure built from dark brick, with shelves of snow on its turrets and roofs. It had many windows, but all save the one I’d seen were heavily draped. None of this mattered, as I blundered to its massive front door, hoping against hope that the absence of vehicles and tyre-tracks didn’t signify that the occupiers were away. There was no bell, just a heavy knocker, which resounded eerily through a vast, hollow interior.
     When there was no response, I struck with the knocker again. More deep reverberations sounded, along with something else: the sudden, muffled thud of an internal door. I hung my head with relief as bolts and chains were withdrawn. The door opened a couple of inches and a white face peered out.
     It was a woman of uncertain age, though she was plain-featured and wore her dark hair scraped back and tied into a severe bun. She looked vaguely startled.
      “I … I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I hope you don’t mind …” She tried to close the door, and I thrust my foot into the gap. “Please … I’ve had an accident. And I’m lost.”
     She regarded me strangely, as if trying to understand what I was saying.
     “Is there any chance I can come in?” The cold gnawed at my very bones.
     “For Heaven’s sake, Agnes!” came a chiding voice.
     Another figure appeared and a hand pushed the door open several more inches. The newcomer was male, and older than the woman by a couple of decades. He was short and tubby, balding on top but with lengthy white hair around the sides, a curled white moustache and white goatee beard.
     “What happened to charity and kindness?” he asked gently. The woman stepped aside as he opened the door properly. “Please,” he said, “come in.”
     I tottered inside. “Thanks …”
     My first thoughts on entering what appeared to be a kind of lengthy reception passage was that there was no discernible difference in the temperature; my breath still smoked, and the only light, which was a pale yellow colour, was some distance ahead of me. The passage itself was bare; I glimpsed wood-panelled walls, a plaster ceiling, a stone-flagged floor. But I was still grateful to be indoors.
     “My name’s Tom Kelsey,” I said.
     My hosts exchanged inscrutable glances, but the man remained affable, shaking hands with me. “James Parnell. This is my sister, Agnes.”
     The woman regarded me blankly.
     “You guys are real life-savers,” I said. “But I won’t keep you too long. I know you’ll be busy on Christmas Eve.”
     “Oh no … no, no,” James Parnell replied. Rather hastily, I thought. “We don’t celebrate Christmas here. It’s nothing to us.”
     “If I can just use your phone,” I said. “I’ll obviously pay for it. I need to call a pick-up truck or something. Then I need to call my wife …”
     My words tailed off because Parnell, rather solemnly, was shaking his head. “I’m afraid we don’t have a phone.”
     “You don’t?”
     “We lead simple lives out here. We’ve no call for a phone.”
     Briefly, and for reasons I couldn’t pin down, I felt as if I’d transgressed simply asking for one. “Well, look …” I swung my bag to my hip and unzipped it. “I have my own charger cable. My own phone’s dead, but if I could plug it in with this, I’ll be able to place a call. I’ll pay for any power I use.”
     He regarded me confusedly, not as if what I’d said had bewildered him, but as though he was trying to come up with an adequate response. Then, abruptly, he smiled. “I’m sure that’ll be fine.” He offered his palm. “I’ll take it to the kitchen.”
     I handed the device and the cable over. “It won’t use much … I promise.”
     He ambled away. “Agnes, show Mr Kelsey into the parlour. I’ll be with you shortly.”
     I turned to the woman, who, instead of leading me down the passage towards the light, pushed open the door to a side-room. For the first time, she smiled. Rather sweetly – she wasn’t as plain as I’d initially thought – but there was a curious degree of firmness there.
     The room she showed me into, the so-called parlour, was as bare as the corridor, wood-panelled, with a flagstone floor, a single light bulb overhead, which gave off a dull glow, and heavy, dust-laden curtains on the windows, though one pair were open by a couple of inches, indicating that this was probably the room I’d seen from outside. At least it was warm; there was a small fire burning in the grate, no more than a heap of embers really, but that was adequate because the room wasn’t large. There were no furnishings aside from a wooden table in one corner, with two rude benches placed one to either side of it. Before I could pass comment, the door behind me closed.
     I turned in surprise, thinking it rather abrupt of her, but then decided that her off-hand manner, along with her lack of speech, might be due to some kind of learning difficulty.
     At least, as I say, it was warm. So, I sat down to thankfully thaw out.
     And to wait … and wait.
     When the door finally opened again, Agnes returned. Previously, she’d been wearing a scruffy old house-robe, as had her brother, but now she’d changed into a floor-length grey skirt, a grey, button-up tunic and a black shawl. To my surprise, she was carrying a tray on which there was food. She set it down, and I saw a bowl of what looked like vegetable broth, two slices of buttered bread, a mug of milk, a folded napkin and a spoon.
     I glanced up at her. She nodded, implying that it was for me.
     I hadn’t eaten all day, plus it would have seemed rude not to. I tucked in, though it was a little disconcerting that my hostess then sat down opposite me, watching closely. As such, I minded my manners, taking only small spoonfuls, dabbing at my mouth with the napkin. Parnell now came in, closing the door and sitting alongside his sister. He too had changed into plain, dark clothes: black trousers, a black tunic, a grey shirt underneath.
     “Is the food to your liking?” he asked.
     I nodded. “Just what the doctor ordered.”
     “Excellent. Nothing fancy, of course. Nothing excessive. Just good solid nourishment.”
     I didn’t mention that it could have done with a bit of seasoning, though it wasn’t unpleasant even without that.
     “When you’ve eaten,” he said, “I’ll show you to your room.”
     “My room?” I lowered my spoon. “I was hoping to make a phone-call.”
     Parnell frowned. “I understood your phone was not working?”
     “Well … if you’ve plugged it in, it should be recharged soon. Sufficiently for me to make a call, at least.”
     He considered this. “I’ll check in a minute. Fortunately, we always keep a guest room prepared. Even though this is a remote area, you never know who’s going to turn up.”
     “I doubt you’ll need to go to that much trouble,” I said. “If I can make a call, it’s highly likely someone will come and get me.”
     “Of course. Just so long as you know that if they don’t, there is room for you here.”
     “That’s very kind.” I continued eating. “Thanks.”
     They nodded and smiled and continued to watch me, and I felt vaguely irritated that he still wasn’t going to check on my phone.
     “So …” I ventured, “people do come around here occasionally?”
     Parnell nodded. “Mainly at this time of year. I think it’s to do with this house. You’ll have noticed the name?”
     “Oh, yes, Mistletoe Hall. That’s rather …”
     “I expect they think they’ll find feasting here,” he interrupted. “Or some other form of papist idolatry.” He sensed my bewilderment. “You must forgive us, Mr Kelsey. We’re rather set in our ways. Our beliefs do not hold with Christmas as a religious feast. In scripture, no holy days save the Sabbath are recognised, while December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth is completely ahistorical.”
     I still didn’t know how to respond. “Each to their own, I suppose.”
     “You don’t share these opinions?”
     “I’m, erm … I’m irreligious, I’m afraid.” For the first time in my life, I felt awkward admitting this. The twosome watched me, intrigued. “If the signpost’s a problem for you,” I said, looking to change the subject, “why not just take it down?”
     Parnell sighed. “Too late. Agnes and I are well known hereabouts as the occupants of Mistletoe Hall. Even if we rename it, it will always be thus. But sometimes it attracts the right kind of people.  Your good self, for example.”
     He nodded and smiled. Rather knowingly. Which seemed odd.
     “I must confess,” I said, “I didn’t come here because this is Mistletoe Hall.”
     “That’s what you may say.” There was a twinkle in his eye.
     “It is what I say,” I replied.
     “So few in that noisy, decadent world are masters of their own fate, wouldn’t you agree?”
     I laid my spoon down. “Look, I’m sorry … but, while I appreciate the offer of a bed here, and I certainly appreciate this meal, I’d really like to get home tonight. There isn’t somewhere close by where you could drive me, is there? A village where there might be a railway station or a bus stop? Even if it’s quite a distance, I’ll pay for the petrol.”
     As before, Parnell gave a sombre shake of his head. “Alas, we have no car.”
     Immediate other questions piled in the back of my mind.
     Surely you travel out occasionally? How do you get your supplies in? What if one of you was taken ill? No phone, no car?
     But to voice all this would have seemed unnecessarily impolite. Particularly as I would shortly have my phone back. I finished my food and sat back expectantly.
     Parnell sighed. “Well, I hope you don’t mind, Mr Kelsey, but Agnes and I retire early.”
     “Not a problem,” I said. “But if I could just have my phone? I’m sure there must be a speck of power in it by now, and I really do need to let people know that I’m safe.”
     He stood. “I’ll bring it for you. In the meantime, Agnes show Mr Kelsey to his room.”
     They seemed quite adamant that I was to spend the night, which maybe wasn’t a bad thing. If the worst came to the worst, and Laura wasn’t able to come and get me, at least I had a bed. So, I picked up my bag and allowed the Parnells to lead me out into the corridor, which was now completely dark; whatever faint light I’d seen earlier, it had been switched off.
     Parnell melted away into the gloom, and I found myself stumbling in pursuit of Agnes, who walked stiffly and primly, hands folded in front of her. We rounded several corners and mounted a staircase, this too in darkness, turning twice at small switchback landings, though as we arrived on the second one, a light activated overhead. When we reached the top, it showed an upper floor that was also bare of décor. Everything was spotless but the aura was bleak. The glow of a single light bulb dwindled as Agnes led me a merry dance along more corridors. There were so many rooms, all with closed doors, that it was difficult to know how she picked one out for me specifically, but she did, suddenly stopping, opening a door on her right, going inside and flipping a light-switch.
     I followed her, entering a room as plain and unadorned as every other part of this place, though it had what looked like a clean bed, a four-poster no less (though minus a canopy), and a single table with a jug and a cup on it. In addition, unlike the landing, it was warm.
     “This is great,” I said. “But I really don’t think I’ll need to put you out like this.”
     She nodded again, as if she knew better, and retreated, closing the door.
     I stood bewildered and not a little bit aggravated. At length, I dumped my bag by the bed and checking out my new surroundings. Beyond the curtain, the window looked down on the forecourt, which thanks to the risen moon, lay shimmering and frigid under its mantle of white. I discovered that the room was warm thanks to a single radiator pipe passing along the skirting board. The jug, as I’d expected, contained water, which smelled and looked fresh. It was almost as if the Parnells had been expecting me. Or someone. But then I remembered that they claimed to regularly have callers on Christmas Eve.
     “Some Christmas Eve.” I sat on the bed and rooted in my bag.
     There wasn’t much in there. Some spare toiletries and the essentials I’d needed for the meeting I hadn’t managed to make. There was also a dog-eared paperback. I don’t read much, myself, but I’d inherited a box of books from my late father and had grabbed one off the top as I’d left, just in case I’d have some time to kill. As this one was an anthology called In A Deep, Dark December, which promised to be A collection of Christmas hauntings, it was the last thing I fancied. Frustrated, I stood up. I couldn’t understand what was keeping Parnell with my phone. I opened the bedroom door.
     She was standing outside.
     Agnes.
     Facing me from a couple of inches away.
     As if she’d been there all the time, staring at the door.
     She fixed me with a steady, waxen smile. And made no effort to move out of my way.
     “I, erm … I’m sorry,” I stuttered. “I was just wondering about my phone.”
     “There’s no power yet,” came the voice of James Parnell, standing somewhere out in the corridor. The lights had been turned off, so I couldn’t see him. “It’s still dead, I’m afraid.”
     “It’s okay …” I was semi-hypnotised by Agnes Parnell’s pale, rigid smile. “Perhaps I can get it later?”
     “Of course,” Parnell said. “Or if not later, tomorrow.”
     “Tomorrow … yes.” And I closed the door again.
     The hell with tomorrow! I’d give them an hour, let them get to bed, and then I’d retrieve the phone myself. This whole thing was beyond weird. If there’d been a lock, I’d have turned it. The mere thought of that woman standing sentry outside, gazing blankly at the door, was the most unnerving thing I’d ever known. As it was, though, all I could do was sit on the bed and watch the door from the other side.
     As the time rolled by, I became sluggish, torpid. The room was indeed warm, and the stress and anxiety of the day had no doubt taken a toll. I lifted my legs and laid back against the pillow, still watching the door as I counted down the seconds. Another few minutes, I told myself, and I’d go out there and start mooching around.
     I’ve no idea at what point my eyelids began to droop.

*

I snapped awake, and several questions hit me at once.
     Firstly, how did I ever fall asleep in this predicament?
     Secondly, how long had I actually been asleep?
     And thirdly, why was my bedroom in pitch darkness?
     I sat up abruptly and went dizzy. Fumbling out, I braced myself on the nearest bedpost. Was it possible that I’d been drugged? My memory of the evening’s events was reasonably clear, and I recalled the broth they’d given me. But it seemed like paranoid nonsense – I’d had an exhausting day, after all. But then I wondered again how the light came to be off; it had been on when I’d settled on this bed. That meant that someone had come in here without my permission.
     An even more unpalatable thought struck me. Suppose I wasn’t alone in here even now?
     I listened. There was no sound … not from anywhere in the house, but that didn’t mean a thing.    The woman, Agnes, had been right outside my door and I hadn’t known about it.
     I don’t think I’d ever been as disoriented as I was at that moment.
     “Is someone … here?” I whispered.
     Again, no response. Nothing in the slightest.
     I was alone surely, but the only way to be certain was to find the light-switch. Not that I could remember precisely where it was. Presumably on the wall near the door, but where was the door? In panic, I jumped to my feet – and went groggy again, swaying where I stood.
     A second or so later, I’d recovered enough to scan the blackness, and at last fixed on a square of it that was slightly paler than the rest. I groped my way over there, constantly wondering if I was about to trip over a crouching figure. When I reached the window, I grappled with the dusty curtain, yanking it aside. Below me, the snow-covered forecourt lay sparkling and still. When I turned, the snow-light was sufficient to show me that I was alone. It wouldn’t be hard finding the light-switch now. But then I spotted movement down on the forecourt.
     It was no more than a fleeting glimpse, but I was suddenly certain that I’d just seen what had looked like an animal disappearing around the side of the building.
     I tried to tell myself that I’d been mistaken, but in my mind’s eye I could still picture it.
     It had been furry and four-legged, and literally in the act of vanishing around a corner. I didn’t know what colour it was, I couldn’t even be sure what size – somewhere between a large dog and a donkey – but the strangest thing of all was that it hadn’t appeared to be walking. I know that sounds ridiculous, but though it had been moving at walking speed, its hindquarters had not been in motion.
     It had glided out of view.
     Letting the curtain fall back, I stumbled to the bed, and sat there, cold.
     I quite clearly could not spend the rest of the night here. If nothing else, I had to contact Laura. She’d be out of her mind by now. I crossed my room again, this time on tiptoes, harbouring the unavoidable fear that Agnes Parnell might still outside my door. When I reached it, I took a few seconds to compose myself before opening again.
     Only the empty darkness of the landing greeted me.
     The deep silence that seemed to fill this entire house reigned on.
     I was half-minded to locate the bedroom light-switch, and give myself something to navigate by, but I resisted. Stealth now felt like the most sensible course. I stole out, heading in the direction where I thought the stairs had been. But before I got to the top of them, I halted, listening. From some indeterminate place, I thought I’d heard a faint metallic squeak, repeated several times in succession – though already it had faded to nothing.
     I found the stairs and proceeded down them, stepping lightly. Just as I reached the lower switchback, I heard that squeaking sound again. Repeating itself over and over, this time coming nearer. I stood rigid, one hand gripping the banister like a claw.
     It was so dark down there that I couldn’t distinguish the vaguest outline of anything, and yet those squeaks were suddenly so loud that I fancied something was moving just below me. Sweat beaded my face as I waited, the breath tight in my chest. Whatever it was, though, it passed me by, receding again as it headed off to some other part of the house.
     Finally, it fell silent.
     I had no clue what I’d just heard. But I waited a little longer – several minutes in fact – before continuing down to the ground floor.
     Where I went from there was anyone’s guess. On first arriving, I’d barely registered the layout of the place. So, I had no option but to explore – and I could only do this by working my way to the nearest wall and groping along it. I’ve no idea how many doorways I passed or corners I turned. I could only marvel at the size of the building. It was a literal rabbit warren, and still so dark that at no stage could I even see a hand in front of my face.
     At which point I heard that metallic squeaking again.
     On this occasion it was behind me. Close behind me. I didn’t wait, but took a passage on the left, walking quickly. And never even saw the door that I strode headlong into. Fortunately, it was ajar, so it swung open easily, though there was a still a shuddering impact, and, it might have been my imagination, but I could have sworn that the squeaking sound behind me briefly halted. Before speeding up.
     This next room was equally black, but it was warmer than the passageways, and, more perplexing yet, there was a smell of cooking. And I don’t mean that plain vegetable broth. I was hit by a glorious array of odours: cooked meats, pastries, all kinds of Christmas spices, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger. When I collided with the edge of a table, my hands encountered what felt like pies and tarts. I put a fingertip to my mouth, and tasted icing sugar, raisins, jam. Then I struck some kind of candelabra, which duly fell over. I snatched out, just catching it before it hit the floor. In the process, another item was dislodged. This did fall, but it only landed lightly. When I reached down and scrabbled around, I found a box of matches.
     Behind me, meanwhile, the door creaked open, and the squeaking thing entered.
     I lurched on, meeting a bare brick wall with my hands, which I slid along until I came to another door that was partly ajar. Assuming it a closet or scullery, I opened it and stepped through – and fell full-length down a steep, stone stairway.
     The fact it was stone was, on one hand, good: when flesh strikes stone it makes no sound. But on the other, I was viciously pummelled before I reached the bottom.
     However, even as I lay down there in a battered heap, my ears were attuned to the room above. Was it my imagination, or did the squeaking sound come to a halt at that upper door? I held my breath, now hearing nothing. Then it occurred to me that whoever or whatever it was needed only to reach for a light-switch, and I’d be lying in full view.
     Worm-like, using only my hands, I tried to ease myself away from the foot of the stair. Still, no light came on up there. At length, I’d travelled ten yards or so, following a curving path into what felt like an adjacent chamber. Only there did I stop – and heard a dull clunk of woodwork.
     Had the upper the door just closed?
     A muffled squeaking receded across what I assumed was the kitchen.
     Even then I waited. What seemed like ages passed before I allowed myself to sit up. I hurt all over, but nothing felt broken. As I got to my feet, my foot touched something that rattled, and I recognised the box of matches.
     Desperate for some light, I extracted one match and struck it.
     At first, its bright yellow spurt threw a huge area into view. It quickly dwindled, but not before showing me several piles of gaily wrapped Christmas presents. I was so stunned by this that I had to strike another match. Damp brick walls indicated that I was in a cellar area, much of which was indeed occupied by stacks of well-wrapped presents.
     And they were all enormous. I swear, any one of them could have contained a bicycle or go-kart or an extra large doll’s house.
     But how did this tie in with a family who never celebrated Christmas?
     I struck more matches, the fifth and last one guiding me back to the foot of the stair and subsequently throwing light into a deeper, dingier recess, which revealed yet more over sized presents, this batch clearly older as they were layered with dust and cobwebs.
     Baffled as well as frightened, I ascended the stair and listened behind the door at the top.
     When I pushed it open, the warmth of the kitchen again flooded over me, along with all the aromas of Yuletide. I worked my way around the table to the other door. Stepping out into the passage, I listened again and heard nothing, and reasoning that kitchens were usually at the rear of houses, guessed that I had to be close to a back exit. I went right, moving progressively more quickly as I fancied there was a hint of colder air ahead. Rounding a corner, I saw a smudge of pale grey light. Moonlight reflected from the snow and penetrating a frosted glass panel. But before I was halfway there, that abominable squeaking started up again, now directly in front and coming towards me. I even saw the cause, a dark humped shape rapidly advancing.
     I turned and fled, still blind, taking corners at random.
     And slammed headlong into another door. This one was firmly closed, and I rebounded from it, my nose stinging, blood on my lips and down the back of my throat.
     I coughed and spluttered, the squeaking sound coming up behind me. Almost shrieking, I scrabbled for a handle, found and depressed it. The door opened and I hurled myself through, banging it closed behind me, bracing my shoulder against the wood. As soon as I’d done this, the blackness in this next room evaporated in a massive glare of light. First it exuded from a fire roaring into existence on a hearth to my right, and then from a succession of candles on all the other sides of me, which also flared to life of their own accord.
     I stood blinking.
     It wasn’t a large room. More a reception chamber of some sort, but compared to the rest of this austere building, it was sumptuously furnished and decked for the season in the most eye-catching manner. My gaze roved bewildered across glistening evergreens, polished woodwork, carved Germanic toys. A Christmas tree stood in a corner, frosted white and hung with scarlet baubles. I even heard carols playing. James Parnell, meanwhile, stood by the crackling fire, in the process of lighting a clay pipe with a lengthy taper.
     Gone were his drab, black and grey garments. Instead, he wore green trousers and a green doublet, a golden shirt, crimson stockings, black buckled shoes and ruffled lace at his throat. When he turned to face me, he wore makeup, and not a subtle amount, his features powdered white, his lips deepest ruby, ruby orbs on his cheeks, charcoal streaks where his eyebrows had been.
     “Why, Mr Kelsey!” he said, “welcome!” For good measure, he added a hearty “Ho ho ho!”

*

“Holly logs provide the ideal fuel in deepest midwinter, wouldn’t you say?” Parnell moved to a sideboard, where an immense silver bowl stood alongside a row of crystal goblets. “Or perhaps you’ll warm yourself the more traditional way. Brandy punch?”
     I could hardly think straight. “You … you think I’ll take a drink from you? After you drugged me earlier?”
     “We should have granted you free license? Is that what you’re saying? I see you’re every bit as entitled as your wretched Roundhead namesake.”
     “Parnell, what in God’s name is going on here?”
     He chuckled through his pipe-smoke. “Your sort always calls on the Divine when caught in knavery.”
     “Knavery?”
     “Snooping around our family home. Spying on us.”
     “I was looking for my phone …”
     “Which would have been restored to you on the morrow, had you proved true.”
     “On the morrow? Had I proved …?” Suddenly, the archaic turn of phrase became intolerable.    “What the hell is this?
     He spread his arms. “This is what you came to see, is it not? What you always suspected? What your kind always suspect … simply because we live where we do.”
     “This has to be some kind of game.”
     “Game?” His laughter faded. He scowled. “What would you know about that? Something else our soulless Lord Protector has banned. We have games aplenty, as you can see. And food. And drink. Merry making is our forte. Which of course is what you suspected. Which is why you came here in the first place. An accident indeed.”
     I turned, unable to take any more of his lunacy. But before I could launch myself along the corridor, now as well-lit as the room behind me, something emerged from my right, simply rolled into my path. It was the squeaking thing, the cause of which sound was the four wheels it travelled on.
     Had I not already glimpsed it from my bedroom window, I’d have goggled in disbelief.
     The only way I could think of it was as a toy horse – set on wheels, as I’ve said – and yet, while not life-size, much bigger than a normal toy would be, perhaps three and a half feet at the shoulder, with an extra foot added for the wheels, which were rusty and old as if they’d once belonged to a thrown-away pram, and now were held in place by leather straps around the fetlocks.
     It was an odious, moth-eaten thing, purple in colour but patched and darned. It would have looked comical, something from a pantomime, with its floppy, mismatched ears, baubles with beads in them for eyes, and a tail of genuine horsehair, had it not been for the stitched-back lips and the long, yellow, peg-like teeth, which looked distinctly real.
     My mouth sagged open as the ghastly beast lifted and flicked its right rear leg, the wheel swinging upright and locking into place, so that it was able to balance on that hoof, which I realised belatedly was a human foot. It then did the same thing on the left, rising up on two legs before turning around to look at me. I don’t know what shocked me more: the face of Agnes Parnell, beaming excitedly through an oval hole cut in the creature’s throat, or her athletic female form, concealed by her drab, puritanical garb earlier but now outlined snugly in ragged, tight-fitting fur.
     “The Hooden Horse,” Parnell said, his garish features appearing at my left shoulder.
     I jumped away, but in my efforts to also avoid the madwoman in the horse-costume, tripped over my own feet and fell onto my backside. Before I could get up again, Parnell was pointing an antique firelock pistol down at my face. With relish, he thumbed back its hefty hammer.
     “The Hooden Horse is an import from our home county of Kent, where the custom has sadly died,” he explained. “An emotional beast who runs wild with anticipation on the eve of our Saviour’s birthday. A beast who must be restrained or havoc will ensue.”
     As though in full approbation, the horsewoman clashed her front wheels together.
     “Parnell!” I shouted. “This is sheer madness …”
     “Havoc, Thomas Kelsey! The one thing an arch controller like yourself should fear more than anything else. On your feet, sir.”
     I had no option. I got up, and was marched at gunpoint back into the reception room. But if I’d thought that was festively clad, I was in for a shock. There was a door on the other side of it, and when I was pushed through this, I realised that it had only been an antechamber to a much larger compartment.
     Amazed, I entered Mistletoe Hall itself.
     Clearly, this had once been the beating heart of the gloomy pile that the Parnells had somehow come into possession of. If there’d ever been a medieval structure here, I suspected this was all that remained of it. The walls were stone, but hung with sumptuous, brightly-coloured tapestries. The roof, far overhead, was vaulted, supported by great oaken hammer-beams, and now crisscrossed with swags of evergreen. At the far end towered a colossal Christmas tree, perhaps twenty-five feet tall; I imagined that it had been hewn down in some frosty Norwegian forest and brought over here especially. It reached as high as a stained-glass skylight in a slanted section of ceiling, and was hung with ribbons and ornaments, and glowed with myriad electric lights. Down the centre of the room lay a vast banquet table laid with all kinds of festive delicacies. My eyes skated perplexedly over yet more pies, puddings and pastries, over roasted fowl and baked fish, over dates, sweet meats and fat German sausages. 
     More important than any of this, there were guests. Guests the like of which I had never seen; eight seated one side of the table, eight on the other. Life size effigies, I realised, my blood chilling, lumpen papier-mâché monstrosities clad in gaudy robes. As Parnell prodded me down to the far end of the room, I was able to identify some of them.
     Sinterklass in his bishop’s garb and mitre, a crozier clamped in his gloved, beringed hand. Krampus, with his humped back and shaggy goat’s head. Belsnickel, with his bearskin cloak and cap, his Mr Punch features, and his vicious, many-tailed whip.
     “As you can see, we’re in august company tonight,” Parnell said. “Nevertheless, for you we’ve reserved a place of honour.”
     A carved wooden throne sat in front of the tree. It was huge and stiff-backed, and engraved all over with images of animals and foliage. But fixed onto each of its armrests there was an open steel clamp.
     “Sit!” he commanded.
     I did so, and he kicked a lever at the side of the chair, the clamps snapping closed on my wrists.
     He stepped back, surveying his work. Behind him, his sister rode down the hall on all fours, using her right foot to propel herself, her wheels squeaking.
     “The irony,” Parnell said. “General Cromwell has provided us with our very own Lord of Misrule.”
     He placed the pistol on the table, took something else up and, stepping forward, put it on my head. I couldn’t see it at the time, but from the feel of it and the jingle of its bells, I gauged that it was a paper coxcomb. It felt like the final indignity, or it might have done, had I not feared that worse was now to follow. How the Parnells thought we could resolve this thing without the pair of them facing time either in prison or a facility for the unhinged, I couldn’t imagine. But then, as Parnell commenced some rambling, ludicrous speech about the joy and sanctity of a loyalist Christmas – his sister seated cross-legged, clashing her front wheels together like symbols, his other guests sitting lifeless and twisted – I spotted something to my right that literally set my heart pounding.
     It was another of those huge, gaily-wrapped packages that I’d seen in the cellar. But this one’s lid was open, revealing that it was in fact a sturdy box. Covered in wrapping paper but made from plywood. More to the point, it was empty. Thus far. 
     I peered at it, sweat-soaked. So distracted that at first I didn’t that realise that Parnell had turned his attention back to me.
     “You see how we treat our prisoners of note.” He was offering me a cup. “We don’t behead them. We honour them. Treat them as noble guests, bid them drink and be merry. This won’t entirely be to your liking, of course, but such is the price of principle, Kelsey. A fine old wassail to us is a heinous offence to a Fifth Monarchist.” He chuckled. “We call it Smoking Pope.”
     I gazed at him, uncomprehending.
     “Port wine,” he explained, “roasted lemons, cloves, brown sugar from the Indies and best Burgundy.” A mischievous wink. “And a couple of special ingredients of our own.”
     Special ingredients of their own.
     Close behind him, Agnes Parnell had got to her feet again. She cradled the firelock as she watched with an excitement that verged on the sexual. I glanced at the cup, a large, silver chalice. Whatever brew it contained, it certainly smoked.
     More so than any mulled wine I’d ever seen.
     Open wide,” he coaxed, leaning towards me, a demonic painted puppet. “The wider the mouth, the much better for you.”
     My wrists were manacled, but my legs were free. So, I kicked out with my left. My foot caught his bulky guts hard, my knee the underside of the wassail cup, which flew from his grasp.
     Parnell lurched away, semi-doubled over.
     Shrieking, his sister took immediate two-handed aim at me and fired. There were only feet between us, the ancient gun booming and flaring, and just to the side of my head, a heavy ball smashed a fist-sized whole through the throne’s backrest. The force of it tipped me over, the backrest splintering, the entire antique structure of the chair coming apart at the joints.
     The next thing my hands were free, though I still tumbled backward, head over heels. I got to my feet as quickly as I was able, but my path was already blocked. Parnell had straightened up, while his sister had produced a second firelock.
     I turned and ran at the Christmas tree.
     It felt like a mad, desperate gamble. The tree was huge, something you’d normally find in a town square. But I’d no clue whether it was sturdy or not, and if I got to the top, there was no guarantee I’d be able to smash my way out through stained glass skylight.
     I took the chance, anyway, throwing myself up into its lower branches.
     As I climbed, it proved a solid structure, but the boughs were flexible and prickly with needles. They jabbed my face and poked my throat. Soon I was smeared with sap, draped in tinsel. Baubles fell and smashed. And then a large one blew apart before I’d even dislodged it. I looked down. Parnell was handing the smoking firelock back to his sister, who in her turn, handed him the other.
     He took aim again, barrel resting on forearm. And discharged, this second shot demolishing a crystal Nativity.
     “Christ’s sake, Parnell!” I shouted down. ‘Have you lost your mind!’
     He gave a mirthful ‘Ho ho!’, and his sister handed him the first weapon back, now reloaded. I clambered frantically, but still he fired, striking the heel of my left shoe, tearing it away, stinging the whole foot. Up I went, regardless, the tree shuddering, creaking.
     A fourth shot zipped through the foliage.
     “Damnation!” Parnell shouted, though he didn’t sound distressed; more as if he was amused, as if this was all great sport. “So much time since Edgehill, since Marston Moor. My aim has diminished. Ahh … this should do the trick!
     I couldn’t resist looking back again, just as the horsewoman, her tail twitching as though it actually lived, presented him with a much larger, much heavier weapon.
      An honest-to-goodness blunderbuss.
     “The Major-General’s time is up!” he declared, as he put it to his shoulder.
     I hung there helpless, branches sliding through my sweat-moist hands. When he fired, it was a cannon blast, smoke and flame bursting forth. But the recoil tottered him, and because of this his aim was off, nails and screws scything the lower section of the tree, ripping through the foliage, shattering the thick, fibrous trunk.
     I clung on all the harder as I tilted forward, the tree slowly keeling. Ornaments rained down, the tearing of green timber filled my ears. When I hit the table, I was thrown the full length of it, scattering food and flaming candlesticks. Only on reaching the end, did the falling tree engulf me, meshing me in more branches, more strands of popping, fizzing lights.
     For stunned seconds, I lay sprawled and tangled in wreckage. It was the cloying reek of gunpowder, making breathing difficult, that dragged me back to wakefulness. Coughing, I fought free of the tree and slid down to my feet. On my right stood a hostess trolley on the top of which sat a richly basted turkey, an ivory-handled carving knife buried to its hilt. Behind that stood the open door. Still groggy, I glanced the other way. Smoke and dust obscured much of the great hall, but I could see enough to deduce that the upper two thirds of the tree had fallen. And with tremendous impact, because the far end of the table, having been struck by a greater spread of branches and heftier weight of trunk, had collapsed.
     I pushed the trolley out of my way. Waiting, listening. Hearing only the distant strains of the carol concert. Still nothing moved, which made the motionless papier-mâché figures even eerier. The four closest to me had survived and continued to regard each other across the table.
     Until the closest one, Belsnickel, twisted in his seat. Rose up. And faced me.
     I stood nose-to-nose with a leering, garish horror that perfectly matched the Tyrolean nightmare from which it had been conjured.
     All I could do was scream.
     And more by instinct than design, reach out, snatch the ivory-hilted knife, and swing it.
     Belsnickel’s head came off with a single blow. But the crudely made torso stayed upright and lurched towards me. I hacked and slashed, paper and cotton wool guts spilling out.
     As quickly as it had come to life, it died again.
     And was cast aside, a primitive, broken toy.
     Agnes Parnell, the horsewoman of Mistletoe Hall, rose up from behind it. She had survived the fallen tree, and advanced on me underneath the table. I threatened her with the blade as I retreated. She watched me levelly, her waxen features dotted with sweat, her teeth set in a grimace that was easily as fiendish as that of the Hooden Horse itself. I spun out into the antechamber, halting only to grab the bowl of brandy punch and hurl it at the blazing hearth. Flames ballooned, igniting the stockings dangling from the mantel, roaring up the swags of evergreen, travelling at speed across the rich pile rug, the smaller Christmas tree erupting in a blinding sheet of flame.
     The horsewoman had now come to the door, but a fiery barrier lay between us.
     Taking my chance, I fled again.
     The whole house was now illuminated, a sure sign that Parnell had thrown some kind of central switch to bring his maniacal Christmas party to life in one swoop. The austere part of it was lit by dim, brownish bulbs, but I needed turn only a couple of corners before finding the passage to the front door. When I reached it, inevitably, it wasn’t just bolted but locked. And with no key sight.
     Then I heard it again, that damnable squeaking.
     Blundering left into the room they’d called the parlour, I lugged the curtains aside, finding sash-windows, but on fitting my fingers underneath the closest, could only lift it a couple of inches. The same applied to the next one, and now I could hear those wheels in the corridor outside. I tried to lift the nearest bench but found that it had been screwed to the floorboards.
     The door to the parlour crashed open. Bright light, intense heat and a foul stink poured in.
     I ran at the window myself, using the bench as a springboard, arms around my head. The glass exploded outward, the impact all but knocking me senseless. I landed on hard, snowy ground, jangling shards falling around me. Streaming blood, weakened by shock, I stumbled across the forecourt, vaguely aware that the room behind me was filled with smoke and fire.
     My heart hammered as I plunged into the trees. I was whipped and torn by branches, and certain that all the way an immense fireball followed me, igniting everything it touched, its hellish, blazing wheels squeaking … squeaking …
     I lost all sense of direction and when I fought my way to the drive, took a gamble that heading left would not lead me back to the house. My luck held, better than I could have hoped. When I reached the road, the snow still lay firm and crisp, untrammelled by tyres. Nothing had been along here for hours. But now a horn howled, and a pair of headlights dazzled my world. The HGV slid thirty yards before its brakes locked, hitting a standstill only inches short of me.
     Gasping, I worked my way around to the passenger door and clambered up.
     “Lord almighty!” came the voice inside.
     I threw a glance behind, and through leafless trees, saw flames rising ferociously, turning the whole of that sacred night a livid molten red.

*

Laura and I are no longer together.
     It’s not just that I don’t do Christmas anymore. Laura was always a caring girl, and if that was all it was, I feel sure she’d have come to tolerate it. She’d have coped with the fear factor too, though that would have challenged her more. I admit that I don’t travel much these days, especially when the end of the year approaches and the nights fall early and the leaves turn crisp with frost, but there is rhyme and reason to this.
     It’s an overused phrase, ‘burned to the ground’, but that’s what Bethlehem Hall did. Thanks to the DIY gas-lines that fed its many fireplaces and even some of its candles, an astounding conflagration left only a blackened heap of ash and char.
     And bones, of course. The older bones in boxes, and the newer bones – which, as it happened, came from only one person.
     Perhaps you’ll understand therefore, why any sound that could now be construed as metallic squeaking unnerves me. Or why the faintest scent of burn – bacon too long in the pan, or the pungent aroma when a candle is snuffed out – has me looking behind doors, scanning every street and passage.
     Even so, as I say, Laura could have dealt with that; I feel certain.
     What ultimately did for us was the suspicion. Even now people whisper and cast me strange glances. And why not? It wasn’t just that when I emerged from that raging crematorium, I was battered, bruised and bleeding as if I’d been in a hard fight. Or that later on, the story I’d told and the insanity I’d described seemed too preposterous to be true. It wasn’t even that I’d shrieked hysterically at my lorry-driving rescuer to get us away, and that when he grabbed his phone to contact the emergency services, I tried to wrench it off him and shrieked into his face again. It was more the words I used.
     ‘Let them burn … let them burn! Good God man … all heretics should burn!’

***

The pictures used in today’s blog have, as usual, been pillaged from the internet. Most, I just found floating around unconnected to any info relating to the original photographer or artist. As always, credit will immediately be given if any such person wants to come forward and name themselves, or the pics can be taken down if so required. The two images I was able to trace are as follows: The evil elf at the top of the blog is from Creepy Collection (Halloween & Haunted House Props), while the sinister doll-like smile half way down comes from the 1989 movie, Death Doll.