Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Memories of terror both real and imagined

Lots of people have seemed to want to interview me this last couple of weeks, which is rather nice (if a little baffling, knowing me as I do).

However, for those whose interest in my opinion extends beyond the inane ramblings you'll read in this column, please feel free to check in at ARMED WITH PENS, where parts FOUR and FIVE of the rather prolonged chit-chat I had with top man Dan Howarth, can be seen.

In addition, the latest instalment of my new blog on the HarperCollins crime website, KILLER READS, can now be read and assessed. In this latest episode I talk about my journalist days, and how they prepared me to write dark thrillers.

I also drop in a few anecdotes, which may be of interest - covering everything from copycat Ripper murders to comical exploding devices, but I suppose if you want the actual nitty-gritty you'll have to get over THERE.

You may be interested to see the above photograph, which is one of a pair that I dug up specially for my latest piece on KILLER READS. This was taken during my days as a reporter on the Wigan Observer newspaper, some time in the early/mid 1990s.

In actual fact, there's a rather grim story behind it. There'd been a series of prostitute murders in nearby Liverpool - which, as of this time (as far as I'm aware), remain unsolved - and two of the victims, having been abducted from Merseyside, were dumped on wasteland in Wigan borough. They'd both been stabbed and slashed to death in ritual attacks ghoulishly reminiscent of Whitechapel during the days of Jack the Ripper. In the above picture, I'm in the process of going through a file of 19th century newspapers, specifically from that long autumn of 1888, cross-checking the recent details with the accounts of the original murders as written by reporters at the time.

It's all seems a long time ago now, and of course it is. These days I make my living penning imaginary horrors. But occasionally things crop up, as this photograph did, to remind us that reality can be far, far worse.

Now ... on a less gloomy note, I have a very exciting announcement to make in regard to SPECTRAL PRESS, who, if you recall, published my short story KING DEATH last year, helping it to gain selection for the prestigious YEAR'S BEST DARK FANTASY AND HORROR, 2012, edited by Paula Guran, and who, in time for this year's festive season, are putting out the rather marvellous 13 GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS.

It also concerns SPARROWHAWK, my Christmas novella of 2010, which thus far is one of my best ever sellers. In short, this time next year, SPECTRAL PRESS will be publishing a new hardback edition of SPARROWHAWK, specially illustrated. Alas, it's far too early to give you any small details yet - such as prices, publication dates, etc, but rest assured I'll keep you all fully informed if you keep checking in.

For those who've never read SPARROWHAWK, it tells the story of Victorian soldier, Captain John Sparrowhawk, of the 16th Light Dragoons, sole survivor of a brutal massacre in Afghanistan and a man who then returns home to London to find his life in ruins - his wife dead, his property repossessed. Broken and embittered, Sparrowhawk gambles and drinks away the little money he has left and finds himself in the debtors' prison, which is literally the next stop to Hell. Salvation of a sort finally arrives in the shape of the enigmatic and beautiful Miss Evangeline, who bails Sparrowhawk out on the condition he will stand guard over a house in Bloomsbury throughout the month of December. Sparrowhawk undertakes the mission, but it isn't just the ice and snow he must contend with. An unknown entity, a supernatural foe of the most ruthless and unrelenting kind, is soon stalking him. Sparrowhawk has never been one to back down from a challenge, but it seems this adversary has some very nasty (and very personal) Christmas tricks up its sleeve.

Here's a snippet:

He continued to walk around the exterior until he encountered the narrow side-gate that he and his sister, Nan, had used as children. It was made of wood, but had rotted with age. Its lock hung off, so he pushed it open. On the other side lay what had once been the Parsonage’s west lawn, though all he found now was deep, snow-covered bracken. He waded through it to a stone path, which he followed around to the front door. This stood half-open, icy blackness skulking on the other side.

Anyone else might have held back at this point, but Sparrowhawk was too perplexed to think straight. He entered a long, wood-panelled reception hall, which, though cloaked in near darkness, he could have walked blindfolded. A door stood ajar on the left. Through it, lay his father’s old study. Glacial moonlight spilled into this, revealing shelves filled with dust and debris, a desk and floor strewn with torn books and dog-eared papers. Further along the hall, on the right, a door stood open on the old dining room. Sparrowhawk gazed through at a scene of equal desolation. It had once been decked for Christmas, but now evergreen trimmings hung desiccated from the overhead beams. Goblets and wine bottles lay shattered. Bowls of dates, figs and scented candles had once adorned the sideboards, but the candles had long ago dissolved and the fruit was nothing but mulch. On the central table, the festive feast was a malodorous shadow of its former self. Mice, cockroaches and other vermin scuttled amid the odious relics: a goose that was now carrion; steamed vegetables that were cobwebbed husks; an ornate Christmas cake thick with fungal fur. Strangely, there was no fetor, though the temperature might have accounted for that – the few intact panes in the window were rimed with frost both on the inside as well as the out.

Sparrowhawk strode on. Ahead of him, the door to the parlour was closed but, spotting a ruddy light around its edges, he opened it.

The room on the other side had been the cosiest in the house. It looked through French windows onto a garden that in summer was a profusion of flowers and greenery. Its walls had been papered in pastel shades. It had always boasted comfortable furniture. Over the large mantelpiece there had once been an oil painting depicting his parents in their younger, more carefree days. Now the room was a shell: drab walls, bare boards on the floor, furniture shrouded with mildewed sheets. The ruddy light was cast by a few meagre coals glowing in the hearth, though these were sufficient to illuminate the elf figure, which waited for Sparrowhawk in the far corner, its arms raised above its head as if it was about to cast some fairy tale hex.

He approached it, frightened but at the same time fascinated.

The elf made no move, and when he got close he saw why. It wasn’t a real man, but a marionette. It was life-size, but its face and hands were carved from jointed wood and had been crudely painted. Its body and limbs were suspended by strings, which rose towards the ceiling but were there lost in dimness. It was also – and this was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all – a close representation of his father.

It seemed that Doctor Joseph Sparrowhawk, the one-time academic, philosopher, publisher and pamphleteer – was now little more than a comic mannequin. Its head lay to one side; its eyes were glass baubles containing beads designed to roll crazily around. Its chin and nose were exaggerated – Punch-like, in the tradition of the season – but the lank white hair was the same, the white side-whiskers were the same, the prominent brow, the small, firm mouth.

Sparrowhawk prodded at it, wondering how he could have followed this effigy all the way from Doughty Street ...

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