In addition, I’ll be offering a detailed review of that tireless US scary fiction editor Ellen Datlow’s most recent anthology, CHRISTMAS AND OTHER HORRORS, which you can find in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s blogpost.
First of all, I quick reminder that my second historical novel for Canelo, BATTLE LORD, the immediate sequel to the first one, USURPER, which will be published on January 8 next year.
As I write this blog, it’s a deep freeze outside. We already have a very snowy December, and that suits the mood of BATTLE LORD well, as it takes us through the English winter of 1066/67, which was also bitterly cold – the slaughter on Christmas Day famously saw the Westminster snow turn ‘searing crimson’. It centres around disinherited Saxon lord, Cerdic of Wulfbury’s fightback against his Norman vanquishers.
And now that part of today’s post that you’ve all doubtless been waiting for. The approach of Christmas and the onset of …
First up, this year, as in other years, I’ll again be publishing a short horror story with a Christmas theme on this blog, though we’ll need to get a little bit closer to the main event before that occurs (it’s still only Advent, after all). Before then, here are a few juicy extracts from some of the many Yuletide horrors I’ve had published over the years.
Where possible, I’ve sought to include links to those stories, so that they can still be enjoyed in full. In addition, I’ll be interspersing them all with a few random but generic ‘festive chiller’ images, none of which – and here’s your WARNING IN ADVANCE – has any actual connection to any of the works of fiction here referenced.
I dumped my bag by the bed and checked 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. Frustrated, I stood up. I couldn’t understand what was keeping Parnell with my phone. I opened the bedroom door.
She was standing outside.
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 …
Without further warning, Hetherington stepped around the corner. “It’s my …”
The figure waiting there startled him for all kinds of horrible reasons, not least its lugubrious frown and lifeless, painted eyes. But mainly because the last time he’d seen it, it had been downstairs. It was the life-size Marley’s Ghost effigy. Not sitting now, but standing upright against the rear wall, its head no longer drooping.
“It’s my …” Hetherington stammered again.
Was this the same marionette? He noted the unstitched tear in the left shoulder of its frockcoat. Had someone carried it up here? Along with his camera? Why in God’s name exert all this effort just to perpetrate a hoax? Or was it a costume?
Can that be it? Was this someone dressed up?
Dazedly, he reached out to touch the thing.
“It’s my, my ...”
His fingers made tentative contact with the figure’s bare, wooden cranium. It was hard, hollow.
“My business …”
Abruptly, its jaw clacked downward, the vivid red gash of its mouth extending all the way to its breastbone.
“BUSINESS!” a distant voice shrieked in the back of his memory.
The next thing Hetherington knew, he was stumbling away across the workshop. Aside from the jaw, he’d never seen the thing move. Not once, not at all. He told himself this over and over. And yet now, even though he could hear sounds behind him – that paint-pot clattering and rolling again, as if something had kicked it while coming in his wake – he refused to look back.
“Oh, I’m sorry …” Capstick stammered, not sure whether to address the man as ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend’. “But, well, this may sound a bit ridiculous …”
“Gentleman of the road, are you?”
“What?” Capstick was startled. Surely, he didn’t look that bad? He brushed self-consciously at his beard. “Erm … no, though I will admit to being lost.”
“So many do at this festive time of year.”
As the vicar wove his way forward through the seats, Capstick saw that he was actually quite old, his face wrinkled and with a yellowish tinge, his eyes rheumy. His hair, which was colourless, was extraordinarily thin; it looked sandy from a distance because he’d greased the few lank strands of it that remained backward over his liver-spotted scalp. His suit, once smart, was dusty and crumpled.
“I’m stuck in town by accident,” Capstick added, slightly distracted by this. “Trying to find some … well, first of all, some accommodation. And secondly, some transport out of here.”
“The first of those we can help you with ... of course we can.” The vicar smiled, his bloodless lips drawn back on brownish pegs, and laced his fingers together. “The second, alas, no …”
“You wanted me to die, and I wanted you to be happy. So, this is the price I paid.”
“What are you talking about?”
Her smile faded. The green eyes lost their lustre and receded into their sockets; her teeth became prominent, skeletal. “You know why my parents never revealed my resting place to you, John? Because suicides can only be buried in unmarked graves.”
“Suicides?” The word struck him like a hammer blow. “But Leticia, you’re no …”
His words petered out. Could she have? Was it possible? It was almost too horrible to contemplate, but suddenly the likelihood seemed immense. Had he – good Lord, no! – had he driven the poor child to such a brink of despair? His eyes filled with tears, which immediately crystalised in his lashes.
“Oh, don’t fret, my love,” she said. “It wasn’t so bad. What are a few extra drams of medicine to an ailing, sickly girl?”
“Leticia, you did not take your own life! Please tell me you didn’t!”
“Why not? This place is a measure of the worthlessness of that life.”
They were now moving around the downstairs of the house. Only Leticia’s unearthly radiance lit the way. He saw endless familiar features. The maroon wallpaper with the white polka dots, which Leticia hadn’t liked but which he had insisted on buying, and which now clad the entire ground floor, where it had sagged into a million damp, frozen crinkles. In a corner of the drawing room, Leticia’s piano stood laden with snow, as though it had only just been brought in from outside. Over the hearth hung the oil painting of themselves they’d commissioned after their wedding; it depicted a young couple whose demeanour was chillier than it should have been. Appropriately, it now dangled with icicles.
Leticia glided through all this decayed memorabilia painlessly, though her naked feet were black with frostbite ...
There was a soft crunch of snow, this directly on the other side of the door, and then a further pause. Was it listening in through the planks as I was listening out? My nerves were taut as cello strings, my hair standing on end. But I quickly broke from this stupor when the doorhandle turned.
I lurched forward and rammed home the upper bolt. Immediately, the handle ceased moving. There was another prolonged silence. I stood rigid, eyes goggling. Then the handle turned again, this time with violence, and there was a long, dull groan as a significant weight was pressed against the door from the other side. I was far from confident the single bolt would hold, especially when the weight was withdrawn and, instead, a heavy blow landed. Followed by another blow and another; loud, echoing reports, increasingly angry, which must have been heard all along our street. The kitchen door was solid oak, but it shook and shook, and I imagined that its screws would flirt from their moorings under such an assault.
It was a sure sign of how enthralled by fear I was that only now did it strike me to drive home the lower bolt as well. At first this was difficult: the assailant was hammering on the woodwork, not just with hands but with feet like iron clubs, and the lower section of the door vibrated so hard that it rarely lined up with the jamb – so hard that I thought it would shatter inward – but at last I managed to slide the bolt into its mount, and then ram my key into the lock and turn that too. All violence without instantly ceased.
The silence that followed this was perhaps the worst part of it, for all I could do was hover there in a state of near-paralysis, unsure whether my unwanted visitor had slunk off into the night, or was still present, contemplating another means of ingress …
They glanced through and saw an arched stone passage with low wooden beams across its ceiling. It ended at a flight of four broad steps, which led up into a living area. A rosy flush of firelight was visible up there, and a pleasant scent struck their nostrils, a combination of oranges and cinnamon, and something else – evergreens. The reason for that soon became obvious. The beams in the entrance hall had been decked for Christmas: alternating strands of ivy and holly had been woven around them. The only sound was a distant crackle of flames.
To Arthur it was extremely welcoming, but Gabby had different ideas.
Oddly, she began to tug on his arm, trying to draw him away. “We should go, Daddy. We should go right now.”
He glanced down at her, puzzled by her worried frown. “What’re you talking about?”
“I bet it’s the furry house,” she said.
“It was in that book you got me. It said that out on the moors, when people are lost, the furry house comes and the people go inside and think they’re safe. And the furry house disappears, and they go with it. And they’re never seen again.”
Arthur chuckled and tapped on the doorjamb with his knuckles. “Darling, this isn’t a fairy house. Look, it’s as solid as you and me.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. They have to look real to trap people.”
Good Lord, were those footsteps I could hear? Was someone coming up behind me?
“I’m right behind you,” a voice said.
Or did it? Was it my fraught imagination?
I went fleetingly hysterical, spinning around to gaze into the frozen blackness. I saw nothing, but still turned back and ran hell-for-leather the remaining ten yards to the doorway – only for a silhouetted figure to step into it and block my path.
I screeched like a trapped animal. Trying to halt, I stumbled, fell, and slid forward on my knees. The figure stared silently down at me. It wasn’t tall, but it was bulky and misshapen with an immense, dome-like head …
“It was grinning. Horribly. It had icicles for teeth, and its eyes were like human eyes – all crossed and bloody, like they’d been gouged out of someone’s head.”
Rick and Graham listened to her, astonished, but by her flowing tears and bubbling nose, she was one hundred percent serious, at least in her own mind. Rick gazed along the driveway ahead of the skew-whiff Datsun. It was covered in rutted snow, but nothing else was visible. “There’s no snowman now,” he said, “unless you flattened it.”
“I swerved to avoid it,” Roni retorted. “That’s why we got stuck in the snowdrift. Oh God, that thing was so hideous!”
As Graham assisted her back towards the house, Rick scanned the surrounding trees. Moonlight shafted through them, cutting the frozen mist into spectral, knife-like forms. The snowy woodland floor bathed everything in eerie but beautiful phosphorescence. Picture perfect. But he pondered what Roni had said about the thing that had supposedly waylaid them – a snowman, for God’s sake. But even if it had only been an optical illusion, or the fantasy of an overwrought brain, it had given her a genuine scare. He wondered how he himself would react if he spotted some white, lumpen monstrosity shuffling through the frosted undergrowth, perhaps circling around to block his route back to the house.
And he beat a hasty retreat.
He turned again, rounding on the statue still standing in the aperture. Was it his imagination, or did it look slightly taller than previously? He approached until he was standing only a foot away. The last time here, he’d torn the ivy off to expose its face. That face now was hidden in shadow, its feature indiscernible. Alec leaned forward slowly until they were almost nose to nose.
It opened its eyes.
They were fiery red, their pupils tiny black beads.
“Shit,” he breathed.
It struck him, lashing out from the ivy it had hidden beneath. The blow caught him in the chest and sent him staggering backward – but not before he was able to point his Glock and get off three quick shots, all of which he was sure were dead on target, yet none of which appeared to have any impact.
The thing sprang out completely from under its cowl of winter foliage.
Alec saw a tall, misshapen form clad in the rags of old robes, its limbs wrapped individually with aged, mummy-like bandaging. He managed to regain his balance just inches before toppling backward into the well, and then they were facing each other again.
Long, ratty hair hung past the thing’s ember eyes. A new smell filled the air: dampness, mildew.
On the far side of the table, Miss Scrivener’s shrunken form still slumped in front of the fire. Phil threw himself through the middle of the feast, knocking aside trays and trenchers, dishes piled with fruit, goblets and tankards. When he reached the diviner, he squatted beside her, placing fingertips on her sweat-damp neck. She moaned and shifted. More sweat beaded her forehead; her hair was a mass of rat-tails. Her eyelids fluttered but remained closed.
“Miss Scrivener,” he coaxed her. “Come on … we’ve got to go, right now.”
“Can’t …” she whimpered. “Can’t move …”
“For God’s sake!” His voice tautened as he heard feet clumping back down the covered stairway. “Get your bloody arse moving!”
This jerked her, if not quite awake, certainly out of her reverie. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he hoisted her to her feet and began pushing/dragging her from the fire. He couldn’t take her over the top of the table, so they had to go around the end of it, but at least it would be the western end, the one opposite the foot of the staircase. No sooner had they reached it, however, than figures emerged into view at the foot of that stair, and as Phil had now rounded the table and was heading back towards the door, they came fully into his eyeline.
He tottered to a halt.
There were shadows in the hall; firelight flickered. Perhaps all this was playing tricks on him. At the very least it blurred the detail of three mouldering, yellow-green forms, initially indistinguishable under the ragged, rancid drapery of what had once been burial clothing, though in two cases at least, age-tarnished plating clunked and clattered, the rusted chain below it hanging hollow and mud-brown on limbs shrivelled to sticks …
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.
Ellen Datlow is one of the most respected anthologists and editors currently working in the field of dark and fantastic fiction today. She won her first major award in 1989 and has clocked up so many more since then that it’s difficult keeping track. She is also famous for discovering numerous horror-writing talents and for flying the flag for short scary fiction at a time when far too many mass market publishers have tried to ignore it.
For this reason, among many others, any new Ellen Datlow anthology is an event, and this latest, Christmas and Other Horrors, a timely event indeed.
Before we dive into the contents, let’s first check out the publishers’ official blurb:
Hugo Award-winning editor, and horror legend Ellen Datlow presents a terrifying and chilling horror anthology of original short stories exploring the endless terrors of winter solstice traditions across the globe, featuring chillers by Tananarive Due, Stephen Graham Jones, Alma Katsu, and many more.
The winter solstice is celebrated as a time of joy around the world – yet the long nights also conjure a darker tradition of ghouls, hauntings, and visitations. This anthology of all-new stories invites you to huddle around the fire and revel in the unholy, the dangerous, the horrific aspects of a time when families and friends come together – for better and for worse.
From the eerie Austrian Schnabelperchten to the skeletal Welsh Mari Lwyd, by way of ravenous golems, uncanny neighbours, and unwelcome visitors, Christmas and Other Horrors captures the heart and horror of the festive season.
Because the weather outside is frightful, but the fire inside is hungry ...
Datlow is already famous for her high-quality horror anthologies; there are almost too many of them out there to count, and she has covered a wide range of central themes, but this year, the festive chiller buffs among us will be delighted to learn that she has opted to put the Christmas season under her microscope.
Of course, Ellen Datlow being Ellen Datlow, you mustn’t come into Christmas and Other Horrors under the impression you’ll be reading about lunatic Santas stalking wayward housewives through their snowbound homes on Christmas Eve, or heralds arriving from their own distant past to warn their misbehaving descendants about the horrors awaiting them in future Christmases if they don’t mend their ways.
There are certainly elements of these to be found in this latest bumper crop of Yuletide terrors, and more than a few contributions that you’d classify as traditional in tone, but Datlow’s books are well-known for having real meat to them, and this one is no exception. These are stories from the literary horror stable, high brow efforts with plenty going on beneath the surface, in addition to which, the editor throws her net far more widely than might usually be the case with Christmas collections in terms of subject matter.
Yes, we do have mythical entities arriving on dark and snowy nights. Yes, we do get references to candy canes, plum puddings, stockings hanging over the fireplace, and other familiarities of the Anglo/American/Germanic festival, but in this book at least we are not solely talking about Christmas. The strapline for Christmas and Other Horrors is ‘A Winter Solstice Anthology’, and that is the key.
The Winter Solstice (which falls on December 21/22), has meaning in other calendars as well as the Christian one. In the Jewish faith, Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, falls between late November and late December, while in many worldwide belief systems now forgotten, the shortest day of the year also had portentous significance. The one unifying factor here of course is that all these holidays were and are grand events, believers gathering to worship, celebrate and enjoy each other’s company, and Datlow clearly sets out to be inclusive on all these fronts.
But even beyond this crossing of boundaries and entwining of cultures, the editor has clearly pressed her authors hard to hatch something deeper than usual when it comes to the meaning of the season.
Don’t be worried, though. While I’d say there’s only one story in this anthology that I consider to be truly terrifying, the vast majority will still, as the popular phrase goes, ‘creep you out’.
I won’t go through the entire Table of Contents (there are eighteen stories in total), because inevitably there are one or two tales in here that didn’t really land for me. But the lion’s share will happily darken any reading-night spent by the winter fireside. I won’t go into too much detail for fear of giving away spoilers.
First of all, I’m always slightly biased towards the traditional. I won’t deny it, and I’m glad to say that, for all the lovely writing and thoughtful subtext that remains on show throughout, Ellen Datlow has still included a whole bunch of rattling good Christmas yarns that you can easily see making it into some future Best Christmas Spook Stories edition.
To start with, in Christopher Golden’s eerie chiller, The Importance of a Tidy Home, two homeless guys are fascinated by a mysterious group of shadowy beings who prowl the snowy Twelfth Night streets wearing plague masks, apparently taking it personally if they visit any house in an untidy state. In a similar tone of home invasion horror, Richard Kadrey’s The Ghost of Christmases Past presents us with a modern suburban woman, who lives in stark fear of the mythical Christmas Eve child-eaters that inhabit so many legends, and who every year, nails her house up, even though it is slowly but surely driving her husband crazy.
In two stories you could certainly classify as ‘warnings from beyond,’ the fear factor goes up several notches. In All the Pretty People, Nadia Bulkin hits us with an annual party, which turns progressively nastier when a guest arrives from the afterlife. This is a particularly strong entry, which benefits from some very neat, tight character-work, though for my money, the best story in the entire anthology – and yes, it’s probably the most traditional of them all – is M. Rickert’s Lord of Misrule, which sees a disturbed teacher haunted each Christmas by the spectre of an uncontrollable child. Not a word is wasted in this ultra-dark bone-chiller, though the concept is broad enough to spin a Christmas horror movie out of it.
Meanwhile, the two entries that are probably most ‘Tales from the Crypt’ in tone are The Ones He Takes, in which Benjamin Percy tells the tale of an abducted child, who returns home one wintry Christmas Eve and stutters out a terrifying story about a Father Christmas that no youngster alive today would recognise, and Nick Mamatas’s The Blessing of the Waters, in which a convict breaks out of jail, desperate to continue the Epiphany sacrifices that he is certain will keep the local goblins at bay.
Of course, the supernatural isn’t the only thing to fear when the end of the year comes around. Even beyond the world of dark fiction, there is a flipside to Christmas. While others are having fun, some very decidedly aren’t. Jollity all round can only enhance the suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves. On top of that, there are strange aspects to Christmastide, which don’t always boast wholesome origins, or necessarily reflect well on those who indulge. Good will to all men is not always at the heart of it.
Ellen Datlow doesn’t skimp here either, adding several of what I’d call psychological horror stories to the line-up.
In Our Recent Unpleasantness by Stephen Graham Jones, a paranoid suburbanite becomes convinced there is a real, malevolent presence in his middle-class neighbourhood, but is it all in his head? Likewise, and this is a very strong entry in the book, in Kaaron Warren’s Gràve of Small Birds, a mean-spirited celebrity chef visits a remote Irish island for a winter solstice festival, but her inner viciousness will be her undoing. And then we have legendary author, Tananarive Due, who in Return to Bear Creek Lodge, once again takes us deep into the heart of a dysfunctional family. In this one, an innocent youngster dreads his annual Christmas trip to the woods to see his grandma in her creaky old house. She’s an aged tyrant (a genuinely horrible one), but the curious creature she keeps company with is even worse.
The last story I want to mention here probably defies categorisation, but it’s so pertinent to the world today, and such an original idea, and so all-round scary, that it could easily get snapped up for a big-budget movie adaptation. I’m talking about Gemma Files’s No Light, No Light, in which eco-terrorists plan to use thermite charges to blow open a semi-dormant volcano and thus reverse the pattern of global warming, but in so doing they release an ancient power.
What you’ve essentially got with Christmas and Other Horrors is a bunch of expertly crafted, adult-in-tone fairy tales set in or around the ‘happiest time of the year’. Please don’t misunderstand; it’s not sad or depressing or in any way negative about or disrespectful of the holiday season. It’s redolent with festive atmosphere, but it’s got lots to say that may not always be comforting (as did Dickens, of course), and it offers a varied range of macabre interest, often of a sort you won’t have encountered in Christmas fiction before, and yet all of which fits perfectly into the seasonal mold.