Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Darkest part of the winter is still to come

In an effort to continue the spooky traditions we hold so close to our hearts at this dreary time of year (and hell, just how dreary can it get in terms of damp, dismal weather!), I have a few new e-book titles out in mid-January, and now, with the Christmas revelries very soon behind us, might be an opportune time to mention them.

Let’s face it, Yuletide will imminently be done and dusted – short and sweet as ever – but winter isn’t going anywhere for at least another two months, so we might as well make the gloom work for us by filling it with ghosts, demons, monsters and psychotic killers, eh?

I may have mentioned at some point before that Avon Books, who publish my Heck novels, have been looking for some time to raid my back-catalogue of horror and thriller stories, with a view to relaunching those they really like on the e-market.

Well, the first batch of seven has now been chosen, and here they are, complete with blurbs, cover-art and brief (hopefully juicy) extracts. DARK WINTER TALES is the collective title, and the e-book in which all seven stories are bundled together, but for those who prefer quick, one-off reads, they are also available individually.

THE INCIDENT AT NORTH SHORE: A lone policewoman seeks a clandestine meeting with her lover in a derelict amusement park on the same night that a mass-murdering maniac escapes from the local asylum …

It comprised a row of clown heads and torsos – minus limbs – mounted on metal poles, each with a gaping mouth to serve as a target. Contestants stood behind a counter and pelted them with hard wooden balls, the idea being to get as many as you could through the open mouth of your particular clown and down into its belly. With each clean hit, the eyes would light up to the accompaniment of bells, whistles and hysterical ‘Daffy Duck’ giggles. Sharon had thought it an odd-looking thing even back then; she’d never been able to shake off an impression that the dummy clowns were screaming – and even now as she walked past the row of de-limbed figures, still sitting motionless under their canvas awning, she fancied their ink-black eyes were following her.

TOK: A young woman is forced to stay with her semi-deranged mother-in-law in a musty old house on the outskirts of a town ravaged by a mysterious strangler who seems able to gain access to homes through the tiniest of gaps …

After they’d hacked and slashed the two bodies for several minutes, they danced on them. The firelight of a dozen torches glittered on their wild, rolling eyes, on their upraised blades, on the blood spattered liberally across the carpet of smoothly mown grass. Their shouts of delight filled the seething night. But when the little girl came out and stood on the veranda, there was a silence like a thunderclap. For a moment she seemed too pure to be in the midst of such mayhem, too angelic – a white-as-snow cherub, who, for all her tears and soiled nightclothes, brought a chill to the muggy forest by her mere presence, brought a hush to the yammering insects, brought the frenzied rage out of her captors like poison from a wound.
If it wasn’t the little girl herself, it was the thing she held by her side.
The thing they knew about by instinct.
The thing they’d seen only in nightmares.

GOD’S FIST: A traumatised ex-cop allows the pain and injustice of modern life to explode in his mind, and sets out on a vigilante rampage to punish those he deems personally responsible – but who is he to judge and how does he choose?

For once though, he didn’t settle down in bed with a Jack Higgins or Robert Ludlum; he settled down with three glossy black-and-white photographs. He looked at them again, hard, letting his mind wander. There were so many injustices in the world that just putting a tiny proportion of them right seemed beyond the combined powers of all the human agencies set up to serve the cause of good. There were so many instances in his own personal experience. More than once, he’d dragged the bloated, rot-riddled corpses of OD victims out from foul, flooded storm-drains, knowing full well that nobody would ever be blamed let alone prosecuted. One freezing winter, he’d broken into an old lady’s home to find the occupant on the kitchen floor, encased in ice; it was anyone’s guess how long she’d been there – only her failure to return library books had finally aroused interest. Then there’d been the turf war where several teen hoodlums had hauled a rival gangbanger up to the top floor of an eight-storey block, thrown him off, and when they’d come out at the bottom and found him still alive, had dragged him back up and done it again. That last incident had occurred in this very neighbourhood, Bagley End. Not surprisingly, no-one had ever been arrested for it, because nobody round Bagley End ever saw or heard anything.

WHAT’S BEHIND YOU?: A chirpy band of 1960s students head to a coastal village in Wales, where a nearby ruin is allegedly haunted by a ghost that creeps up from behind and whispers ‘What’s behind you?’ On no account must you ever look …

Bare boards lay where there had once been a carpet, and the paper on the walls hung only in strips as if someone had been vigorously rending at it; looking closely, the few strips remaining appeared to have been shredded by the claws of an animal. But my biggest shock came after my eyes had attuned properly to the dimness, and I turned to the large fireplace and noted a bath-chair to one side – with what looked like a figure reposed in it.
The impression was so lifelike that I almost turned and fled, though somehow I resisted this and edged a little closer, eyes goggling – before it struck me that the chair contained nothing but a bundle of blankets. Even then I wasn’t completely put at ease. The blankets, which were exceedingly old and dirty, had been dumped in the bath-chair rather than folded and placed there neatly. As such, the corner of one musty old quilt had risen up at the point where a human head would be and drooped forward a little, creating what looked like a peaked hood. It was difficult to believe there’d be sufficient space under there to conceal a human. But even so, I found myself crouching and peeking warily in, half expecting to see some hideous, mouldering visage. Strangely, the empty hollow I saw instead was even more unsettling.

THOSE THEY LEFT BEHIND: The elderly and embittered mother of the last man hanged exists in a world of her own. Her son’s crime was a hideous one, but she misses him terribly. Then, one day she acquires a former hangman’s dummy, and it looks strangely familiar …

He retrieved the head from the shelf, and only now did Elsie notice that, from the neck down, it was attached to what looked like several folds of material – a thick canvas, which might once have been white but was now a dingy yellow. The stallholder shook the material out, and Elsie was shocked to see that it was body-shaped, comprising a broad torso with arms and legs stitched onto it, the proportions roughly accurate to an average-sized man. When he turned it around, she saw that, down its back there were zip-fasteners, one to each limb and one bisecting the middle of its trunk.
“This is where they used to put the sand in,” the stallholder said. “Or the sawdust, depending on what they had available.”
“I don’t understand,” Elsie replied.
“No, didn’t think you did. Look …” Again, he shook out the material. “Hollow, see? And they used to put sand or sawdust in it. A different amount each time, to get the weight right.”
“The weight?”
“Only for practise, of course.”
He offered to hand the head over to her. Elsie recoiled, though her gaze remained fixed on the faded, mournful face. The stallholder laughed.
“I hope the hangman wasn’t as squeamish as you. Otherwise he’d never get to test his apparatus, would he?”
Slowly, Elsie turned to look at him.
He explained. “Old Bob here – that’s what they used to call him – Old Bob got dropped the day before each execution so they could see everything was working right.”

HAG FOLD follows the parallel lives of two badly disturbed individuals: a slum kid turned ultra-violent cop and a savage and relentless serial killer. Steadily, day by day, fate draws them closer and closer together …

I forced entry, expecting the worst.
What I found was worse than the worst.
I gained access by smashing a ground-floor window, but the stench hit me like a sledgehammer as I climbed over the sill. It wasn’t just putrefaction – it was shit as well, vomit, flyblown offal. I’d been in the job several years by this time and had learned to prepare for all eventualities, so I stuffed pieces of cotton wool into my nostrils from the wad I always carried, and was able to continue.
I’d expected a shrunken, mummified thing slumped in an armchair or curled up in some downstairs bed. That was the way you usually found them. Not this time. The lounge looked like a bomb had hit it. Smashed crockery, torn newspapers and shredded upholstery strewed the dirt-clogged carpet. Every item of furniture was overturned, and in the middle of it all lay the old fella, or what was left of him.
He’d been laid bare to the bones. A few scraps of skin and chunks of gristle remained, but virtually all the soft tissue had gone, apart from a couple of lumpy black objects, which I later found out were diseased organs. Even the skull had been cracked open and the brain dug out. Stiff brown bloodstains caked everything.
At first I thought I was looking at the scene of some bizarre ritual killing, and for a second I wanted to go and beat fifty colours out of the junkie next door. Then I heard the snarling – and it all became clear.

CHILDREN DON’T PLAY HERE ANYMORE: A long-retired detective returns again and again to the scene of the only murder he wasn’t able to solve, increasingly and horribly worried that he’s worked out who the killer was …

It was his eleventh birthday, and young Andrew had gone down to the Dell to see if any of his pals were around. That was all anyone really knew about it. His body was discovered seven hours later, under a bush and covered with leaves. He’d been bludgeoned to death with a brick, then sexually interfered-with. We made fingertip searches through those woods for the next three weeks, ran door-to-doors throughout the district, questioned every ‘possible’ in the town, and their families – over and over again. But to no avail. This happened in 1975, still nine years before the first DNA breakthroughs would be made, but even if we’d had that level of crime-busting technology available, it’s unlikely we’d have made progress. The killer was either too clever or too lucky. There was minimal evidence to go on. The murder weapon, which we recovered, had been thrown into the pond and thus was washed clean of fingerprints; it had been a dry summer day – the ground firm, the turf lush and springy, which meant there were no footprints; nobody living in the nearest houses had seen or heard anything untoward; public appeals for information drew a blank. No-one, it seemed, knew a damn thing.  

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The flipside of everything sweet and kind

Okay, it's THAT time of year again. Or at least, it will be in a few days. Mince pies, crackers, glimmering glass baubles and snow-decked evergreens. But there are several alarming things about Christmas. Firstly, that it comes around so often. When I was a youngster, it seemed to take forever to arrive. Now that I'm in my 50s, festive seasons flicker by like speeded-up cine film. Secondly, that it's become such a non-meaningful feast. I'm not going to lecture anyone on this, but I despair at the amount of commercialisation that goes on at this time of year, seemingly minus any kind of understanding about the soul of Christmas (I mean, even our pagan ancestors knew that midwinter had a power and spirit all of its own). And thirdly, and this is the one where I'm both alarmed and excited at the same time, it's our penchant at this time of year for scary stories.

Those who follow this column will know that each year about this time I post one of my own Christmas spook tales right here.Why is that? I don't know for sure, but I wouldn't do it if there wasn't a demand for it. And let's be honest, I'm only following in a grand old tradition.

Who knows what the origins of this are. Why do we enjoy our Christmas ghost stories so much? Possibly it's the fact that winter has closed in and the sun only sheds daylight on our frozen, desolate world for a few hours each day. Or is it just that we're unconsciously aware of the many ancient, pre-Christian customs that are woven into this event - the use of holly and mistletoe, the presence of elves, the conflation of the benign St. Nicholas with the darker druidic figure of Old Father Winter? Could it be that there's something genuinely magical and, dare I say it, supernatural, about Christmas that somehow afflicts all of us? I mean, what other religious festival of the year is partaken in as enthusiastically by so many atheists?

Either way, even if all that is guff, I'm still content to be doing what so many other writers do at this time of year. Ever since Charles Dickens penned A CHRISTMAS CAROL, other maestros of the written word have followed suite. M.R. James obviously - I mean come on (he all but invented the modern Christmas ghost story)! While Ramsey Campbell has made several astonishing contributions to the pantheon of festive fright fare, not least THE CHIMNEY and THE DECORATIONS. Robert Bloch did it with THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, L.P. Hartley with SOMEONE IN THE LIFT, Mary Danby with NURSERY TEA, Charles Birkin with KING OF THE CASTLE.

Compared to these momentous efforts, I feel my own tales may pale by comparison, but hey, I'm more than prepared to let you guys make that judgement for yourself. So here's this year's offering. It's called KRAMPUS, and before anyone complains about that, it was written and published yonks before the new movie of the same name. To be factual, it was first published in the online genre magazine, K-ZINE in the autumn of 2014, and now here it is again, entirely at your disposal:


KRAMPUS

Grandpa Ludwig didn’t usually participate on Christmas Day when we all gathered around the fire after dinner and urged the adults to tell ghost stories. Part of the time it was because he was asleep, but also, I think, it was because he didn’t enjoy such things. We all knew he’d had a difficult time as a child. It’s not everyone who can boast that his father was condemned in absentia to die by the guillotine, even if he did live to tell the tale, but Grandpa Ludwig was of such an age by this time – seventy-five at least – that he surely had no real memories of those dark and deadly days. In addition, his father had been a great storyteller, an author of children’s fiction as famous in Germany at one time as Enid Blyton was in England, so it hardly seemed possible that Grandpa Ludwig had not inherited at least a smidgen of that talent.
     As such, one year, when it was plain that Grandpa Ludwig was wide awake after dinner, laughing uproariously with the other adults, mince pie in hand, paper crown perched at a jaunty angle on his balding pate, we urged him to start off the annual ghost story game by telling us one of his own. Grandpa was very thoughtful for a moment or two. He took a sip of port wine, before nodding gravely and saying that, yes, it was time he told us all his ghost story.
     His choice of phrase quite surprised me. The notion that, all along, he’d possessed a ghost story that was exclusively his own, and that for so many years he’d been withholding it – who knew for what reason? – was an eerie and mysterious concept.
     I remember how we youngsters huddled together on the carpet in front of the fire, legs crossed, and how my mum turned the lights down, as she always did on this occasion, leaving only the faint glow of the candles on the Christmas cake and the orange embers in the hearth to reflect our rapt attention. Grandpa Ludwig took off his spectacles, polished them with his handkerchief, and then pinched the bridge of his nose, a sure sign I would later learn, that the event he was about to recount came from memory, not imagination.
This is what he told us …

*

Most of you will know that my father and his brother, Klaus, were not identical twins, but that they were twins and as children they were so alike that many people could not tell them apart. Of course, in terms of temperament and personality, they could not have been more different.
     My own recollections of Uncle Klaus are that he was more physically imposing than my father; he was tall and athletically built, with shining blond hair and piercing blue eyes. A more idealised Aryan male there could not have been, though I didn’t understand that philosophy at the time. Nor did I really notice how relations between my father and his brother, while not exactly hostile, were never better than cool. At least, that was always the case during my lifetime. Of course I knew nothing about father’s refusal to join the Hitler Youth in 1927, which had meant that my family – Uncle Klaus’s family, more to the point – was regarded with suspicion for a brief time.
     The one thing about Uncle Klaus I didn’t like was the scar on his left cheek. It was not a particularly awful one – little more than a horizontal white line, but even to my childhood eyes, it gave him a colder, crueler aspect. Apparently it had been caused when he’d run into a barbed wire fence while playing outdoors as a toddler, but he was always rather proud of it, or so my father would later say, telling anyone who asked that it was a duelling scar, as if he was the scion of a Prussian aristocrat rather than the son of a small-town Bavarian solicitor. 

     The last time I ever saw Uncle Klaus was in 1939, and though I was still very young, I had some vague notion that Germany was on the eve of war. He was wearing a uniform when he came to see us. Many times in the past he’d been in uniform – uniforms were quite commonplace in those days – but this one was jet black and it sported the SS Sig Runes on its collar and the Totenkopf, or Death’s Head, as they could call it here in England, on its armband. I don’t think Uncle Klaus had come with the express intention of warning my father that he was in imminent danger, but I was sent to my room while the adults discussed matters, and so fierce as the resulting argument that I heard it through the floorboards. Snatches of that dispute still remain in my memory.
     “Will you continue writing fairy stories while the world burns, Eric?” my uncle demanded to know.
     “What does it matter if I do?” my father replied.
     “It matters if they call you ‘traitor’ for it.”
     “Never once have I written or spoken a word of treason.”
     “Nor have you written against it. Is it not the case that, several times now, you have been invited to supply poems, ballads and books in honour of our cause, and have always refused? We stand on the brink of a great destiny, and yet you – a man of widespread influence – seem determined to disapprove of it.”
     “Klaus, I am not a political writer.”
     “Eric, not everyone agrees with that …”
     Before Uncle Klaus finally left, I came to the top of the stairs in tears. I might have been a child, but I was not a fool; I knew the sound of irreparable damage when I heard it. He glanced up as he pulled his hat down over his brow and climbed into his long leather coat; his expression was one of deep regret, but also bitter anger and betrayal. He spoke to me, but I was in too anguished a state at the time to make sense of his words.
     We left our home the very next day, not just our house, but Germany itself. I have almost no memory of that rushed dawn departure as I apparently slept through most of it.

*

Grandpa Ludwig sipped his port.
     The mood had turned rapidly and unexpectedly sombre. His family’s narrow escape from Nazi Germany had never been the easiest topic of conversation. His writer father, though he’d adopted England as his new abode, had been haunted to the end of his days by his inability to reconcile himself with a homeland whose history and culture he had loved but which had been subverted to such a ghastly degree that he no longer knew it when he left. Grandpa Ludwig, of course, had barely experienced Germany. He now had only the faintest discernible accent, and though his early days were undoubtedly difficult – a boy named Weidmann living in postwar Britain! – he soon adapted to his new home and in time became as English as Winston Churchill.
     Perhaps this was why, after another contemplative sip or two, he was able to continue with his narrative. Though his mood was no lighter. Far from it …       

*

We must move forward now, to the Christmas Eve of 1948.
     To an eleven-year-old those pre-war days already seemed a receding memory, but the good times had not yet returned. Britain was a land of food rationing, bombed cities and bereaved families. Ironically, though my family were immigrants, our position was better than some. My father had learned to speak English, but never to a standard where he might write in that tongue, at least not with the same eloquence he’d shown when writing in German. However, he was able to teach, so we had regular money and a reasonably comfortable home in the suburbs. My two best friends at the time were Billy Flynn and Peter Osgood, boys from the same road in which I lived and fellow pupils at the Catholic school I attended. Both their fathers had fought in the war, and survived – one had even been present at the relief of Belsen – so to them any German who’d annoyed the Nazis to the point where they’d driven him into exile was someone to be admired. Hence, they never treated me like an outsider.
     Hard though youngsters may find it to believe now, on the Christmas Eve in question we were required to attend school as if it were any normal day. We had a two-week holiday, but it only commenced the following morning on Christmas Day. For all that, our teachers were kind enough to release us at lunchtime, so Billy, Peter and I took the opportunity to divert through the town centre on our way home. There was a raw, wintry feel that afternoon. The snow that had fallen the previous week had thawed a little, but had later frozen again, and great, dirty mounds of it were now piled at the end of each pavement. The gutters and bus shelters sparkled with icicles; white frost covered every branch and blade of grass. We were well wrapped in our coats and scarves; we had our balaclavas and our woollen mittens. Even so, there is only so much one can do to fend off that depth of cold, but we were determined to endure it because a great treat awaited us.
     The English version our German Saint Nikolaus is of course Father Christmas. They share much in common. Both are fat, jolly men with white curls and white beards. They wear warm winter robes and dispense presents to good children. There are some differences. 


      In Germany, Saint Nikolaus would visit homes on the eve of December 6th, whereas in England, Father Christmas would visit on Christmas Eve itself. While Saint Nikolaus bore ecclesial accoutrements – for instance, he wore a mitre and carried a crosier – the English Father Christmas had a druidic air; there was something in his makeup of the old spirit of winter, which, looking on it as an adult, seems almost pagan to me. But even so, in England, as in Germany, children were taught that this benign figure was a saint, beloved of Christ, so his magical gifts were to be welcomed and adored. As a small side-matter … in Germany, St. Nikolaus had a shadowy other-self, little known and an entirely dissimilar personality. But more about him later.
     The purpose of our diversion into the centre of town that Christmas Eve was concerned neither with Saint Nikolaus nor Father Christmas, but in fact with Santa Claus, their American counterpart, newly introduced to the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the war. Santa Claus, though in many ways indistinguishable from his European brethren, had one very unique attribute: he could actually be spoken to; he would sit children on his knee and they could request their presents face-to-face. I’m talking of course about the famous department store Santa Claus, who had been a fixture in American cities since the turn of the previous century, and now at last had come to Britain.
     The department store in question was Halley & Meredith’s, whose palatial residence was in the very centre of our town, in a space, if I recall correctly, which is now occupied by a wine bar, a Poundstretcher and a kebab shop. At the time we referred to Halley & Meredith’s as ‘posh’, though in truth it would probably have seemed fairly second rate compared to Harrods in London or Kendals in Manchester. But it occupied a great baroque building, and its frontal canopy was hung with international flags. It even had its own taxi rank outside, the implication being that the sort of people who shopped at Halley & Meredith’s could easily afford to take cabs. One entered the premises through revolving doors, assuming that the concierge on duty – a dapper chap with a military air, wearing a shell grey overcoat with gold braid at its shoulders – would permit you access. Under normal circumstances it seemed highly possible that three schoolboys lacking the governance of their parents would be refused, but this was Christmas Eve and everyone was excited and in a good mood, and in any case, Santa Claus was waiting inside. Or was it Father Christmas or Saint Nikolaus? Or someone else?
     Halley & Meredith’s seemed vast and crowded that day; we trekked past Scarves, Gloves And Hats, past Cosmetics, past Haberdashery, past Men’s Tailoring, past Ladies’ Shoes, all locations which, when I’d been present with my mother, had signified hours of tedium. But now, to see them decked with tinsel and boughs of evergreen was almost too much for an eleven-year-old to take – our sense of thrill rose inexorably, and of course we still had the ‘Christmas Grotto’ at the end of it all. We finally found this hallowed place down at the basement level, a venue normally reserved for tools and gardening equipment, though now it had become a magical kingdom.
     In hindsight, it had probably been done quite cheaply, but we walked along a side-aisle which we no longer recognised, passing under arches made of pine branches and hung with multi-coloured Chinese lanterns. Streamers and paper chains were looped across the ceiling. Christmas trees stood on each counter, decked with ornaments and fairy lights. Cotton wool had been laid over racks of goods to imitate snow. In the drab, grey Britain of those immediate post-war years, it was a delightful thing to behold. Even the shop assistants – those straight-backed ladies who always teetered around Halley & Meredith’s in tight skirts and tall heels, looking beautiful but severe – seemed so much more human in green, conical ‘elf’ hats, and also because they were smiling and chattering brightly.
     Santa Claus himself was quite remarkable. A knee-high white picket fence woven with holly had closed off a small area, and he was in the middle of it, seated on a throne-like chair. He wore the traditional crimson robe trimmed with white fur, and it flowed out around him on all sides; it was far too large to be practical – one could never have walked around in such a garment. Beneath it, he wore a bottle-green waistcoat, crimson pantaloons and black boots, again trimmed with white fur. Of course he had a capacious belly and a thick white beard, which fell almost to his belt-buckle. To complete the picture, there were oodles of gift-wrapped presents stacked behind him, as if he was ready right now to load his sleigh and depart on his goodly mission.
     There was a hubbub of excitement from the queueing youngsters, most of whom were there with their mothers and grandmothers, or both. It may seem strange now, three eleven-year-olds waiting to see Santa Claus in a department store, but we weren’t the eldest there. Other older children were also present, patiently waiting their turn, eyes fixed with wonder on the resplendent figure. World War Two, with its prolonged loss of life, property and innocence and then the drudgery and austerity that had followed, was entirely responsible for this – in some ways we were older than our age back then, but in others we were much younger.
    Of course, when Santa’s hearty laughter finally told us our turn had come, we older children didn’t actually sit on the big man’s knee. We advanced through the gate in the wicket fence and stood there politely, hands behind our backs, as he addressed us.
     “And what do we have here?” he said, his blue eyes twinkling. In keeping with the myth that he hailed from some frozen Tyrolean land, he spoke with a central European accent. “Three young men, in whose steady hands the future of the world must reside.”
     Peter, always the boldest among us, answered first when we were asked what we were hoping to obtain at Christmas.
     “I would like a new bicycle, sir,” he said soberly, as if he knew that he really was asking for quite a lot and that such an extravagant gift might be beyond even Santa Claus’s ability to bestow.
     “A new bicycle, hmmm,” our host rumbled. “We’ll have to see about that, but who knows?, anything is possible.” He switched his attention to Billy. “And for you, young sir?”
     “I would like a toy gun and holster, sir,” Billy said. “Like you see on the cowboy films. Maybe a cowboy hat as well?”
     “Hmmm … well, a hat and a gun. Those are quite the sort of items a young man should possess, though you won’t be meeting many Red Indians here in Lancashire, I shouldn’t think.”
     “No, sir,” Billy said in a tone which suggested he’d given this matter weighty consideration but was still set on his course.
     “Hmmm … well, this is all to the good, gentlemen. Such manly gifts will prepare you for the trials of adulthood.”
     This conversation might have seemed a little more protracted than most of those Santa Claus had engaged in up until now, and yet he still didn’t turn to me – and frankly I wasn’t concerned in the least. Because from the moment I’d set eyes upon him up close, I was struck with the kind of horror that even back in the war-ravaged 1940s most people would experience only once in a lifetime.
     It was Uncle Klaus.
     That is all I can say.
     Feel free not to believe me, but I swear to you it is the absolute truth.
     He’d changed enormously. Beneath that thick, white beard and the rosy cheeks – the former of which was clearly real, the latter fake – he was as gaunt as a leper: his skin had a yellowish tinge; his eyes, which were neither as blue nor as twinkly as I’d first thought, were sunken in skullish cavities; his lips were thin and covered with cracks and sores. But there was no mistaking that horizontal scar on his left cheek, even though many other scars had appeared since. And now at last he turned to me, and he pointed with a long, bony finger, the nail at the end of which was sharp and twisting.
     “And for you, Ludwig?” he said, though it wasn’t really a question. “Krampus … ja?”
     “I … I just want to go home,” I stuttered.
     “Nein!” he said harshly, wagging that terrible finger in admonition and fixing me with a stare so malevolent that it was all I could do not to faint. “Krampus!”
     The next thing I knew, we were being ushered away down another aisle by one of the elf-ladies, and Peter and Billy were gossiping excitedly about whether or not they had increased their chances of receiving their much sought-for presents. In their eyes at least nothing unusual had happened, and when I glanced back over my shoulder at the diminishing form of Santa Claus in his golden grotto, a little girl was positioned on his knee, shivering with delight as he cuddled her and crooned a carol, and the queue of other children awaiting their own turn had extended until it snaked down the entire length of the department store’s basement.
     When we emerged outside, it was turning dark and tiny spots of snow were spiralling down. There were many more people about, attending to their last-minute shopping, and the roads were a chaos of vans, wagons and cars. My two friends were still in a state of exhilaration as we commenced the long walk home, so it was difficult broaching the subject of whether or not they’d thought there was something strange about the man masquerading as Santa Claus in Halley & Meredith’s. Clearly, neither had detected anything. Peter did acknowledge that I’d seemed a little tongue-tied when Santa Claus had spoken to me, though he hadn’t noticed the man address me by my own name, and certainly recalled nothing about his use of the term ‘Krampus’.
   
     Not that they would have known what it meant, anyway. Not that anyone in this country would have known. You see, Krampus was the name given to that shadowy other-self of Saint Nikolaus, the one I referred to earlier. Whereas in English-speaking lands, Father Christmas and Santa Claus have always preferred to ignore naughty children, in Germanic countries Krampus actively punishes them. I had seen illustrations of him in children’s books written by my father, and he is truly grotesque; a monster, a deformed devil with horns, hooves and a humped back. The sack he carries is not intended for the provision of gifts, but to abduct those misbehaving youths he encounters on his travels, and to carry them back to his lair where all manner of torments will be inflicted on them. You look shocked. Don’t be. In the days of my youth, children were to be seen and not heard. Parents, while loving, were stern. There was a price to pay for transgression. Bad behaviour was never tolerated.
     Even now, it pains me to recollect that journey home from the shops. I was so distressed by what had happened that I contributed almost nothing to my friends’ joyous jabber. All of a sudden, Christmas – the culmination of so many weeks’ eager anticipation, the date we had ached for since the onset of winter – meant nothing to me. The ruddy glow of Yule candles in passing windows, the falling snow – now a thickening, shimmering cascade – should have rendered a perfect setting. But my thoughts were in turmoil. More than once I glanced over my shoulder, especially after we left the town centre and entered the residential districts, where doors were closed, curtains drawn and fellow pedestrians little more than occasional muffled shadows. Though I never saw anything amiss, I was increasingly certain that someone was keeping pace with us just beyond the range of our vision.
     At last the moment came when we were to go our different ways. We stopped beneath a corner streetlamp, Peter and Billy pumping my hand, clapping my shoulder, wishing me all the best for the season.
     “A little touch of Germany for you tonight, Ludwig,” Peter said.
     “What do you mean?” I demanded, even more unnerved.
     “This!” he said, smiling, indicating the snow. “We get this now and then at Christmas, but in Germany you get it every year, or so I’m told.”
     “Not every year,” I replied, still shaken.
     “Happy Christmas anyway, Ludwig!” they shouted as they walked away, leaving me alone in the lamplight, flakes swirling past. I looked again over my shoulder.

     The street we had just walked along was lined down either side with terraced houses; a perfectly normal street in our part of the world, yet now an increasingly stiff breeze was whipping the snow in eddies – on some occasions I could see as far along it as the coal wagon parked at its distant end, on others no more than thirty yards. I remained there for several minutes, convinced there’d be something to fix on if only I could gaze into the murk hard enough. Intermittently down that street, curtains were only half-drawn, thus allowing rays of soft, warm lamplight to penetrate outward. Without warning, someone passed one of these. I blinked – and they’d gone again, hidden by renewed swirls of flakes. But it was someone headed in my direction. Someone wearing red.
     It could have been any ordinary person walking home; there was absolutely no need to assume the worst. But briefly I was rooted in place. Only slowly, with great difficulty, was I able to retreat to the edge of the pavement, where again I waited. I don’t know why; it makes no sense now – it was as if I had some inner urgent need to know I was in danger rather than simply fear it. But then something happened that leant genuine panic to my heels. I spied the figure again, much closer this time – maybe forty yards away – crossing the street to the side on which I was waiting. It was only a silhouette, half-glimpsed as it passed through another shaft of flake-speckled lamplight, but it was bent forward in ungainly fashion, its back humped, its heavy robes trailing behind it.
     There was no further debate in my mind. I spun around and raced blindly along the next street, and along the one after that, regardless of the treacherous footing. I must have covered half the distance home before I stopped to get my breath. I had seen no-one else that whole way, but likewise no-one was in sight behind me either, and now, the flakes having relented a little, I was able to see a good distance in every direction – and spied nothing but snow-covered road junctions, the red-brick gable walls of houses, the weak palls of light cast by streetlamps. Nothing advanced through them, so I felt a little better, though I had yet to cross Dalewood Brow. That place no longer exists today – a supermarket and offices have been built there instead, but in my childhood it consisted of several hundred yards of derelict colliery land, hummocky and deeply overgrown; a wonderful place for children to play in summer, but in wintry darkness a test of anyone’s nerve. Especially on this occasion.
     I didn’t need to go over the Brow. If I turned left at this point I could just as easily walk around it, making my way home via lamp-lit streets, passing more houses, more cars. Yet that would take much longer – maybe add half an hour to my journey, and all at once I wanted desperately to be home, if for no other reason than my fingers were frozen and my feet turning numb. So I pushed open the creaky gate in the wrought iron fence that ran along the Brow’s edge, and set off hurriedly up its winding, cindery path. Because the Brow was covered with snow, much more of it was visible to me than I’d expected, and somehow that was comforting. All the way I glanced nervously around, able to see a vast expanse of white, broken only by the occasional black skeletons of trees, or protruding twists of frosty underbrush.
     I quickly lost sight of the wrought iron fence, but my confidence was growing that I would soon be home. I was approaching the Hump, as we knew it – a great slagheap with a foot-tunnel driven through it; beyond that I needed only to cross the canal bridge, and ascend a footpath through thickets to the edge of the housing estate on which I lived. That was when I heard the distant creak of the gate.
     Did I actually hear it? Was it possible to hear anything in that situation? The gate was dozens and dozens of yards behind me. My ears were muffled by the balaclava. Even if I had heard it, might it not have been shifted by a gust of wind? I couldn’t see far enough back in this twilit snowy realm to be sure one way or the other, but then I heard something else – the steady crunch of approaching feet.
     I didn’t wait to hear more. I ran on up the remainder of the path and through the foot-tunnel. This in itself – a straight low corridor of damp brick, completely unlit, running for at least fifty yards – would be a nightmare in the modern age, but notions of ‘stranger-danger’ were almost unheard of in that long-ago era. I was nearly home; this foot-tunnel was part of my normal world; I had no fear of it – until this point. Because though I got through to the other side without hindrance, I stopped again, for no good reason I can think of now, and peered back, and to my utmost shock I beheld a figure entering the tunnel from the other side. Again it was nothing more than a silhouette framed on the moon-lit snow, but, as before, it was hunched forward – so much so that I couldn’t see its head, and it moved with a heavy, shambling gait; immense, unwieldy robes dragged behind it. The clomping of its footfalls on the stony ground echoed along the passage towards me; those sounds were like no impacts of shoes or boots that I’d ever heard.
     I simply fled. Raw terror drove me across the canal bridge at reckless speed – it had no safety barriers and was shod with ice, yet I careered over it like a madman. The path beyond led uphill through tangled, snow-clad thickets. There were any number of places where an assailant might lie in wait and leap out, but I bypassed them all without a glance. Even when I left the Brow and ran along the next street to my own, I was pursued by inexorable fear, which only intensified as I rounded the corner onto the final straight – I had a nagging certainty that I’d be grabbed at the death.
     I wasn’t, but worse was to follow.
     With sobs of relief, I kicked open our garden gate and ran up the path. The front door was locked, so I veered left, running down the side alley past our allotment and coal-bunker, to the kitchen door – to my disbelief, this was locked too. I fumbled wildly under the scullery window, found our spare key, and let myself in, slamming the door closed behind me. The next thing I noticed was the cold supper waiting on the kitchen table – some boiled bacon, bread and jam, a mug of milk – with a handwritten letter alongside it. Though the house was luxuriously warm, coals burning in both the kitchen stove and behind the fireguard on the grate in the living room, a new kind of chill struck me.
     My parents were out.
     I knew that before I even snatched up the note and began to read. It was from my father, and it explained that he and my mother had been invited round by neighbours for a Christmas Eve drink. They would only be a couple of hours.
     But which neighbours? He didn’t specify.
     And when had this couple of hours commenced? Was it shortly to expire or did it still stretch before me?
     I yanked off my balaclava, my hair soaked with icy sweat – and heard a distinctive clank as the front gate banged open again. Incredulously, I listened to the progression of heavy, misshapen feet along our snowy front path, and then into the alley beside the house, whereupon they abruptly stopped. I was now listening so intently that I fancied I could hear the whispering of the snowflakes outside, but apart from that there was only silence. Torturous, prolonged silence.
     It is almost impossible to convey the horror and isolation I felt at that moment, even though I was ensconced in my own home. I stared fixedly at the kitchen door. For a time, there was nothing else in the world but that door – and what I suspected lurked just beyond it. I was unable to move; I didn’t dare move, terrified that if my feet scuffed on the floor they would alert the thing to my presence, even though such thoughts were patently ludicrous – it had followed me all the way home. Even if it hadn’t, it knew where I lived; according to our myths, it knew where every child lived.
       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? We had a telephone – I don’t know why it never occurred to me to run and dial 999. I suspect I was simply too mesmerised by events. My nerves were taut as cello strings, my hair standing on end. But I quickly broke from this stupor when the door-handle started to turn.
     I think I may have screamed aloud as I lurched forward and rammed home the upper bolt. Immediately, the handle ceased moving. There was another prolonged silence. I stood rigid, eyes goggling, awaiting the next move. 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. When I suddenly heard a clunk of metal at the front of the house, I shrieked hoarsely and stumbled through into our entrance hall, but not without first taking my mother’s rolling pin from one of the kitchen work-tops. I still remember vividly how that hall seemed to elongate before me, to telescope out to inordinate length as I stood at the kitchen end and peered down it, past the evergreens draped over the stair banister, past the telephone table, past the wooden coat stand, to the front door itself, which, even as I watched, began to open.
     I dashed down there with rolling pin raised, like some fearless warrior, screaming. But I was actually on my last legs, and I tripped on the rug before I got there, and found myself pitching forward – into the arms of my astonished father.
     Neither he nor my mother could speak they were so taken by surprise, but it soon became clear to them from my flow of semi-delirious gibberish that I was not playing some silly game. Despite my pleas that he lock all the doors and call for police assistance, my father went promptly down the side alley to the rear of the house. He found nobody lurking there, but with the aid of a candle, he noted extensive damage to our kitchen door. Afterwards, he listened again to the tale I had to tell him, and I left nothing out – but though he turned a trifle pale at my mention of the department store Santa Claus who’d appeared to know me and looked like Uncle Klaus, I don’t think he really believed that part of it.
     Though I was eleven years old, I spent that Christmas Eve in my parents’ bed, alongside my mother. My father slept in the armchair downstairs, next to the fire, which he stoked up to a good blaze before switching off the lights. Apparently he spent an uncomfortable but undisturbed night, and never once relinquished his grip on the poker. By morning, a fresh snowfall had obliterated all traces of footprints on our property. In a strange way, I was quite glad of that – I had no desire to see the shape of those left by our Christmas Eve intruder.

*

Grandpa Ludwig lapsed into distant memory as he sipped his port wine.
    “Surely there was some kind of investigation?” my dad finally asked. Clearly, this was the first time he’d ever heard this particular story.
     Grandpa Ludwig nodded. “Absolutely. At the first opportunity my father sought out the general manager of Halley & Meredith’s to officially complain that their Santa Claus had frightened me, and that he might well be the same person who had followed me home. Even the police became involved, and the Santa Claus in question – his name was William Harrison, and he was an out-of-work actor – was spoken to at length. Of course, Harrison denied any responsibility, and insisted that he was of good character. Others vouched for him, including fellow staff at Halley & Meredith’s, who also provided an alibi, claiming to have shared a festive tipple with him once their work that Christmas Eve had finished. And indeed, when I was eventually shown a photograph of Harrison, it was a completely different man. This ended police enquiries at the store, for Halley & Meredith’s had no other gentlemen employed in the role of Santa Claus.”
     “That can’t have been the end of the matter?” someone else asked.
     “Far from it.” Grandpa Ludwig shifted to get comfortable in his armchair. “The news had got out, and there was wide concern in our town that someone – nobody knew who – had followed a child home and tried to force entry to his house. The police continued to ask questions for quite some time. It was perhaps two years later when my father finally contacted them to say that he was sorry for all this trouble, but that he felt I had simply fallen asleep while alone in the house on Christmas Eve and had suffered a nightmare.”
     “Did you?” my mum asked gently.
     “Not a bit of it.”
     “So what brought your father to this conclusion?”
     Grandpa Ludwig shrugged. “It’s anyone’s guess, but it was quite a coincidence, I think, that around this time we learned the fate of Uncle Klaus. It seemed he’d been taken as a prisoner of war by the Soviets in 1944, and eventually, when hostilities were over, had been put on trial, accused of leading his unit in the massacres of civilians in Poland and Belarus. He was found guilty as charged, and executed by hanging. I’m not sure of the exact date … but it was some time in December 1948.”
     Even my dad was speechless; evidently he’d never heard this part of the story before either. The snapping and spitting of chestnut shells finally brought us round.
     “Krampus,” my auntie said with distaste. “What a horrible being to conjure up at Christmas time. The flipside of everything that is good and kind and forgiving.”
     Grandpa Ludwig nodded. “As Uncle Klaus said to me.”
     “When did he say that?” my dad asked. “If you never saw him again?”
     Grandpa glanced up, his spectacles glinting with firelight. “Why … that final night before the war, after the argument with his twin brother, when he left our house in Mittenwald. At the time his exact words were lost on me, but since then I’ve remembered. He said: ‘Be warned, Ludwig … there aren’t just good fairies in your father’s stories. There are bad ones too’.”



***

If you've enjoyed this story, which hopefully you have, you might be interested to know that late last year I put several of my Christmas chillers out as an e-collection called IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER. You can still buy it HERE for the non-too-princely sum of 99p. You might also be interested in the 2010 novella of mine, SPARROWHAWK, which is also still available as an e-book, though sadly out of print in paperback. This is probably the most Christmassy of all my Christmas ghost stories, and set right in the heart of the season - in Dickens's London, during the bitterly cold December of 1843. Grab this one HERE, for £2.41.

(The pic at the top is freely lifted from the Dutch festive horror movie, SINT. Check it out - it's well worth it).


Tuesday, 1 December 2015

To fight and die in a tragically fallen world

An author you're going to hear a lot more about in the near future is SIMON BESTWICK. A Cheshire lad by origin, now based in Liverpool, he specialises in novels and short stories that tend to straddle the horror and thriller subgenres. He's also something of an urban poet, determinedly examining every aspect of modern post-industrial life, which, while it's often bleak and unforgiving, in Simon Bestwick's hands is also dark, mysterious, compelling, and thanks to his lyrical descriptive powers, entrancing. Simon also writes with a conscience and a hard-edged political awareness, which elevates his work from the purely entertaining into something far more potent and thought-provoking.

Anyway, that's enough from me. Suffice to say that that Simon's new book, HELL'S DITCH, is published today by Snowbooks, and when the suggestion was made that he use this blog to write a guest blog and blurb his new book any way he saw fit, I thought why the hell not? So here it is, HELL'S DITCH - published today (just follow the link) - in the author's own words:

'"A fallen world" is a phrase a Christian friend of mine used, and while I’m not religious, it does have a certain ring to it. And it does rather describe the world of my new book – published today! – which is called Hell’s Ditch.

'Like pretty much anyone born before the end of the 1970s, I grew up with the threat of nuclear war. It was something that could very easily have happened, and there was stuff about it wherever you looked.

'It wasn’t just a topic of discussion on news and current affairs programmes – there were heavy metal songs (Two Minutes To Midnight) pop songs about it (Enola Gay, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes, 99 Red Balloons), books about it – post-apocalyptic action-adventures like The Survivalist, YA books like Brother In The Land, horror novels like Domain – and there were films about it (Threads, The Day After, Mad Max.) It was everywhere.

'And then the Cold War ended, and the threat just went away.

'Except…

'Well, it hasn’t gone away, not really. Because those weapons are still there, and more worryingly, so are people who might want to use them – we’re not that chummy, even now, with Russia and China, after all. (And even if the button doesn’t get pushed, there are loads of other ways in which our whole civilisation could go west: climate change, resource wars, food shortages, pandemics…)

'I watched Threads for the first time a few years ago – along with a 1960s film called The War Game which seriously competes with it for the title of ‘most bleak, terrifying, doom-laden film of all time’ – and was reminded, starkly, of that childhood fear. I had to do something with that, so it went into shaping a story that was brewing in my head. At the time, it was a radio play called City Of Night. The radio play never happened, but I liked what I’d done enough to carry the story on. It became a series called The Black Road, which begins with Hell’s Ditch.

'So what kind of a world is Hell’s Ditch set in?

'In it, the button has been pushed – twenty years before the book starts, Britain has been hit by a nuclear attack. It hasn’t been as bad as it could have been – for a start, some people are still alive. But the place is a mess. Millions of people have been killed in the War. Freak weather conditions have scattered radioactive fallout across the country in ‘contamination belts’.

'The country’s been split into fifteen Regional Commands (based on the contingency plans that would have prevailed had the Cold War ever turned hot) and is ruled now by a militaristic organisation called the Reapers. Much of the technology is more basic than anything we’re used to today: electronics are a rare and valuable resource as most were destroyed by electromagnetic pulse during the attack. Computers are especially rare, and have to be used sparingly, as no replacement parts are being made.

'There’s no petrol or gas, except perhaps in some parts of the Command that governs the Orkneys and Shetlands. What vehicles are available are steam-powered, running on coal or anything else that can be burnt in their boilers. The weapons used are from an older generation, from caches mothballed in the 1980s or even the 1960s, because the newer guns have worn out and broken. The society of the future is ruled with the weapons of the past: the Sterlings and L1A1 self-loading rifles the Army had during the Cold War, or Sten, Thompson and Lanchester submachine guns from World War Two.

'The Reapers are the government, the police, the security services, the army and the civil service all rolled into one. They control everything, and their primary purpose, as the only order left, is to keep themselves going. Anyone who steps out of line is met with a bullet, and anyone who doesn’t fit into their concept of a renewed Britain is disposed of – usually by the feared shock-troops of their Genetic Renewal division, otherwise known as the Jennywrens.

'There was a rebellion against the Reapers, but five years ago it was brutally smashed: its headquarters were stormed and destroyed, its forces scattered and its leaders killed – or so they thought. One of them survived. And she’s coming back, to overthrow this government.

'But there’s another kind of darkness in this book: a thread of the supernatural. Nearly everyone in this world suffers from ‘ghostlighting’: they see the dead, the people they’ve lost in the War. It could hardly be otherwise – wherever you look, you’re surrounded by reminders of what’s been destroyed and who’s been killed. Whether the ghosts are real or just inside peoples’ heads is a matter of opinion.


'Meanwhile, the Reaper Commander for North-West England – where the story is set – has one ambition: to unite Britain under his rule. To do that, he’s trying to invoke forces that should never be woken. So the stakes are higher than who rules the ruins; they’re whether anything, even ruins, will be left for anyone, anywhere, to rule.

'It’s been great to see this book finally find a home with Snowbooks, after a couple of years thinking it would never see the light of day – and that I’d never get to carry the story on. And while it’s been grim to revisit those childhood fears of mine, it’s actually pretty comforting to come up for air from the fallen world of Hell’s Ditch and remind myself that the world we live in, for all its faults and problems, isn’t in that state.

'At least, not yet.'

So there you go? Seriously, how does that sound? You just know you need to find out more, don't you?

Prior to this, Simon (pictured right) is the author of TIDE OF SOULS, THE FACELESS and BLACK MOUNTAIN. His short fiction has appeared in BLACK STATIC and BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR, and been collected in A HAZY SHADE OF WINTER, PICTURES OF THE DARK, LET'S DRINK TO THE DEAD and THE CONDEMNED. Just to reiterate, HELL'S DITCH, is out today, and is well, well worth checking out.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Frost, snow and other terrors of the season

It's always difficult at this time of year not to get caught up in the whirlwind of pre-Christmas jazz (even though it's still only November, which is rapidly becoming the month that time forgot). But in truth, I can't afford not to.

I'm not a big fan of making your Christmas preparations early - some houses in Wigan have been sporting fairy lights and glowing Nativity figures on their roofs since as early as November 7th. Can you believe that? But I understand why the retailers have to do it. This is their main selling season, and as so often these days, it's a selling season I'm hoping to participate in myself.

Don't worry, I'm not going to hit you with a load of advertising pap. I just want to say a few words about a piece of writing I completed in 2010, which probably still ranks as my personal favourite work, and though it's a Gothic / horror / supernatural / adventure / romance (try saying that when you've been on the festive sherry), it's also a Christmas story, possibly the most Christmassy Christmas story I've ever written -SPARROWHAWK.

(But before I get into all that ... at the foot of this column, you'll find my hopefully timely review of Jonathan Aycliffe's amazingly frightening supernatural novel, NAOMI’S ROOM. So if SPARROWHAWK doesn't ring your Christmas bells, that one definitely ought to).

SPARROWHAWK is a novella rather than a novel or short story - it clocks in at just over 40,000 words, and it was written over the long, white winter of 2009/2010.

People living up here in the North of England will remember that one, I'm sure. How on something like December 21, after days of sloppy sleet, the temperature suddenly dropped by seven degrees in one hour. How, when the snow started tumbling that night it barely stopped until well into the New Year. How our towns and cities came to resemble images from Christmas cards, or scenes from A Christmas Carol. How no cars could move, so we brought our last-minute Christmas shopping home from the supermarket on sledges.

How on Christmas Eve itself we were able to chill all the beer for our annual party by standing it in the snow on the back terrace.

How entire families got snowed in together, and like or loath it, ended up celebrating one big Yuletide party, which went on for days and days after the main event.

I mean, how could I not spend that most spectacular season of goodwill penning a brand new Christmas story?

Was it any surprise - certainly not to me, on reflection - that I still think it one of the best things I've ever written?

SPARROWHAWK, which is set in Dickensian London and follows the fortunes (though mainly they are misfortunes) of Captain John Sparrowhawk, an Afghan War veteran, and an embittered loner and widower, who in the year 1843 is released from the Debtors' Prison by the beautiful but enigmatic Miss Evangeline when she pays what he owes and hires him for a difficult but mysterious job - keeping watch on a London house for the duration of a very cold and snowy December.

I said earlier that SPARROWHAWK was a Gothic / horror / supernatural / adventure / romance, and I wasn't joking. It's a wide-ranging tale, emotionally and spiritually as well as geographically, and I strove strenuously for it to tick all those boxes. It's certainly not just a Victorian ghost story, as it has sometimes been described, though there are plenty of ghosts in there too.

What I tried to do with SPARROWHAWK was take a broken soul at the lowest ebb of his life and send him on a magical but eerie journey through a time of year we're all very much in love with but also wary of, because we know it has a flip-side.

While the middle-classes of Bloomsbury and Little Chelsea pull crackers, sing carols and play parlour games, the homeless of Southwark, Eastcheap and Petticoat Lane shiver under icicle-clad bridges. While the Christmas spirit pushes some to acts of great generosity, others remain unaffected, driving darkly on down their dangerous roads, oblivious to the chains they wear, their personal notion of misrule a horror to all those in their power.

While some Christmas elves are a delight, capering and full of good cheer, others are more like goblins, lurking in the evergreens and enjoying the warmth of our homes but all the time plotting against us.

I wanted to touch on all these things with SPARROWHAWK. I also wanted to give him love, or at least a taste of it - because though this is a failed husband, a reluctant father and a thoroughly undeserving specimen, all men should catch at least a glimpse of light and happiness at Christmas time. For those who enjoy my Heck novels, there's a bit of action in there too. Sparrowhawk is a warrior. He fought heroically if hopelessly in the British Empire's first great Afghan War. Now he must fight at home, in London - on the frozen back-streets, in the dank, empty warehouses, on the ice of the River Thames - against a series of foes who will challenge his sanity and his soul as well as his physical flesh.

Anyway, no more blurbing. You either like the sound of this one or you don't. But just in case you want the teeniest bit more, here are three extracts, which hint at different aspects of the Christmas of 1843 that Captain John Sparrowhawk finds himself confronted with:

All newcomers were checked on a list before being issued with a seating card and given the option of sherry or champagne, of which Sparrowhawk chose the latter and was subsequently treated to several flutes. When the assembly was complete, a bagpiper played them through an arched, whitewashed tunnel into a great, candle-lit eating hall. At one end there was a roaring fire, its mantel decked with Christmas brocade, though the bulk of the d├ęcor in the room was military, comprising countless emblems and battle standards, both home-grown and captured on the field. The dining tables were arranged around the edges of the hall, aside from the head-table, where the banquet’s host and his special guests would be seated. Down the centre, a very long table groaned beneath the weight of a festive feast. Every type of culinary luxury was on display: roast turkeys stuffed with figs and hazelnuts, saddles of pork glazed with sweet sauce, platters of salmon garnished with oysters, roast duckling, roast quail, beef and ale pies, chicken pies, mutton pies, venison pies, lamb shanks, trays of German sausage, bowls of steamed and minted vegetables. There were also cakes, puddings, tarts, plates of biscuits and great wedges of cheese filled with cranberries, apricots and other rich, spiced fruit.
     When General Pollock appeared, there were roars of appreciation. He was every inch the figure of legend: a great, bluff, hearty fellow, broad of shoulder, barrel of chest, and sparkling in his artilleryman’s dress-uniform of cocked hat and blue tunic with scarlet collar, gold cord loops and white belt. His hair was an immense, tawny mane, which extended onto his cheeks and top lip in the largest pair of mutton-chop whiskers Sparrowhawk had ever seen. When he greeted each guest personally, his grip was strong, almost overpowering. His large, penetrating eyes were as gold as sunburned savannah grass. Yet, when he came face-to-face with Sparrowhawk, having initially looked dismayed to see civilian garb, he broke into the warmest and toothiest of smiles.
   
   
     “Captain Sparrowhawk!” he boomed.

     Sparrowhawk clicked his heels and bowed slightly. It didn’t feel right to make a formal salute when he was no longer in the service. “I’m honoured, my lord. And exceedingly grateful for your invitation.”
     “The honour is mine, captain. You’ll note from our seating arrangements that you’ve been placed alongside me at the head-table?”
     Sparrowhawk was astounded, and said so.
     “Not a bit of it, dear chap,” General Pollock replied. “There’ll always be room at my table for heroes of a genuine ilk.”

Pictured above is the horrendous last stand at Gundamuck, of which Sparrowhawk is the only survivor. Of course in a tale like this the good cheer of a Christmas military reunion is never going to last. There are many layers of life in Victorian London, and it's Sparrowhawk's fate to sample them all:

At this early hour of the day, only a handful of ruffians and painted doxies were present. Some were asleep in corners. Others were bleary eyed and brutally hungover. The landlord and his skivvies were doing what they could to clean the place up, replacing the coals in the hearth, laying fresh straw, bringing in new barrels from the storehouse at the rear. Sparrowhawk, still in his working garb and looking haggard and unshaven from his long watch, fitted in comfortably. No questions were asked when he ordered a mug of rum and a flagon of beer, and retired to the corner where he’d first located Willoughby.
     Only a few minutes passed before someone else sat at his table. It was one of the women. She wore a pretty bonnet with dyed-pink ostrich plumes, but this served to accentuate the drabness of the rest of her attire. Her dress was also pink, and formerly had been a mass of frills and lace, but now was faded and ragged, revealing the stained chemise beneath. Her bodice had been patched several times, but was still missing buttons. Her face, though dabbled with blusher and rouge, was extraordinarily handsome – which seemed strange given the life these impoverished creatures lived. But then Sparrowhawk smelled rose and jasmine, and he understood.
     “I almost didn’t recognise you,” he said.
     Miss Evangeline placed his letter on the table. “So you’ve resigned again?”
     He drank more beer. “I have.”
     “You realise what this means?”
     “I’m quite prepared for it. If you’ve been able to find me already, I expect the bailiffs will have no trouble arresting me by this afternoon.”
     “On what grounds can the bailiffs arrest you? Your debt has been paid.”
     “You said you’d bill my bail back to the court.”
     “A little white lie. As I told you when we first met, we didn’t make you a loan. You owe us nothing.”
     Sparrowhawk was puzzled. “You’re not concerned that your man will be unprotected for this final week?”
     “Not at all. Because he won’t be. I have no intention of allowing you to resign.”

Miss Evangeline has a touch of the 'other' about her. In the nicest possible way, of course. The same could be said for certain other individuals Sparrowhawk will encounter during this deep-frozen Christmas, except that they won't be so nice:

The marionette was directly behind him. Its arms were by its sides, but its head had jerked upright, the beads rolling in its bauble eyes. Its hinged jaw dropped to revel a cavernous blood-red mouth, from which a demented squawk issued - the same squawk he had heard on Doughty Street.
     With stiff jerks of its strings, it again raised its arms. Then it raised its left leg, and brought it down hard. It did the same with its right, and suddenly it was dancing a wild, maniacal jig; at first in front of him, then to his right, and then to his rear. With piercing squeals of laughter, it cavorted around him like a dervish. Sparrowhawk stood rigid, closing his eyes, trying to shut out the horror. But the frenzied laughter grew in volume and shrillness until it was almost ear-shatter
     "Enough!" he finally roared.
     He ripped out his sabre and, with three deft strokes, severed the dancing devil's strings. It crashed to the floor, again nothing more than a heap of lifeless disjointed wood.

First published in 2010 by Pendragon Press, SPARROWHAWK is now out of print unfortunately, but can still be bought as an e-novella for the non-too-princely sum of £2.41.

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THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, 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 about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. Don't say you haven't been warned.


NAOMI’S ROOM by Jonathan Aycliffe (1991)

Cambridge professor, Charles Hillenbrand’s life comes to a crashing halt one snowy Christmas Eve when his four-year-old daughter, Naomi, is abducted during a shopping trip to Hamleys. When her mutilated body turns up a few days later in Spitalfields, his world ends.

Inconsolable, Charles and his wife, Laura, will never be the same again. They must now eke out a miserable, blame-filled existence in their once handsome townhouse, their formerly close relationship doomed, their careers on hold. But is Naomi really gone? Because the next thing they know, a haunting has commenced – initially little more than bumps in the night, though it soon escalates into far more terrifying phenomena: footsteps in the attic; strange faces peering from windows when no-one is supposed to be home; Naomi’s toys moving around apparently of their own volition. However, it is only when a troubled press photographer called Lewis presents Hillenbrand with a series of snapshots in which curious half-seen figures are visible in constant attendance on the family that it becomes apparent something more is at work here than the spirit of a happy child who doesn’t yet realise she is dead …

As a lifelong fan of supernatural fiction, I always knew that at some point I’d have to check out Jonathan Aycliffe, aka Denis MacEoin’s spine-chilling classic, Naomi’s Room, and for some inexplicable reason it’s taken me this long to do it. However, I got there in the end and I was not disappointed.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because basically there is a mystery to be solved here, and a very frightening one – which Hillenbrand, our tortured protagonist, must get to the bottom of (and then survive the horror of its shocking revelation!), or he’ll never find peace of mind again. Okay, that may sound familiar in a cosy ‘English ghost story’ sort of way. But it all really worked for me. The tone of Naomi’s Room is exactly the sort I like when it comes to spooky fiction. There is something of the Gothic about it, something of M.R. James. Hip young academics though they are, the Hillenbrands still live apart from the rest of us, cosseted in the elitist, hermetically-sealed world of Cambridge academia. But as with M.R. James’s best stories, ultimately that provides no protection against the insidious threat of some decidedly malevolent spirits, whose cruel intent becomes more and more apparent the further on you read.

Unlike many stories in this traditional vein, there is quite a bit of gore in this one, while the basic premise concerns the torture and murder of children – and the author makes no effort to conceal those details from us – so it’s a bit more disturbing than the norm. But don’t let that put you off, because if you’re here to be scared, you’re in the right place. By the latter stages of this novel, the atmosphere of dread is immense, the sense of helplessness in the face of the maleficent ‘other world’ overpowering.

Even with its dollops of grue, it may still sound a tad safe and conventional to some of you. I wouldn’t totally deny that, but it’s really an excellent chiller with full potential to keep you awake at night, and so is well deserving of the fine reputation it has gained for itself over the many years of its publication.

Once again, purely as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Naomi’s Room were ever to make it to the screen. I think it would make a particularly good 'ghost story for Christmas' type drama, if the Beeb ever get around to doing more of them. (I believe it is currently under option somewhere, but then what isn’t?):

Charles Hillenbrand – David Tennant
Laura Hillenbrand – Lenora Crichlow
Lewis – Rhys Ifans
Detective Superintendent Ruthven – Sean Harris