Thursday, 6 December 2018

Old evils wake in the dark depths of winter


Well, it’s a week into December, which means that Christmas is finally looming large on the horizon. So, we’re now well into the winter ghost and horror season, and that means we literally have no option but to continue in that chilling (pun intended) vein.

This week, for the benefit of recent readers, I’m going to resurrect memories of and post free, direct links to the plethora of Christmas spook stories I’ve written in recent years and attached to this blog. I’ll also be seeking to push a few Yuletide terror addicts towards my Christmas ghost story collection, IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, which was first published as an e-book in 2014 (though it also appeared the following year in Germany, as a paperback).

And if that’s not enough for you fans of this most atmospheric part of the scary story calendar, I’ll be reviewing and discussing in some considerable detail Ramsey Campbell’s masterly, winter-set horror novel, THE GRIN OF THE DARK.

If you’re mainly here for the Campbell review, that’s perfectly fine. You’ll find it, as always, at the lower end of today’s blogpost. However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, let me talk a little bit first about some of my own festive horror output.

Spirits of the season

Each year for the last – tell the truth, I’m not sure how many – I’ve celebrated December by posting a new Christmas ghost story on this blog, entirely free to read. It’s my intention to do the same this year, so in the next few weeks keep checking in, and at some point you’ll find my latest contribution to this season’s fearsome frolics.

However, just in case you’re impatient for some immediate festive ghost/horror action – and especially if you’re relatively new to this blog, here are some links to past stories, with a brief snippet in each case to whet your appetite. Feel free to check ’em out at your leisure – just be advised that the first one, Brightly Shone the Moon That Night is a thriller rather than a supernatural horror, but I’m reliably informed that most horror fans have enjoyed it thus far).

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

Jen turned the lock and opened up the narrowest of narrow gaps.
     It was an enormous surprise to see how close the singer was actually standing. He was virtually on the step, his face no more than ten inches from her own.
     ‘Ahhh … good evening, my dear,’ he said, breaking off from his song.
     The immediate odour was of halitosis, followed promptly by stale sweat and nicotine. His garb, though reminiscent of a hundred adaptations of Scrooge – a double-caped greatcoat and muffler, a cravat and a high collar, a tilted topper and Faginesque fingerless gloves – was worn and moth-eaten, a pantomime costume purloined from some forgotten cellar. His face was pudgy and discoloured, with overgrown side-whiskers, brownish teeth, and a left eye milky and rolling independently in its narrowed, unblinking socket.
     Even then, she thought, in some vague way, a wholesomeness might lurk there – that lovely baritone voice! – or might have lurked there once even if now long departed.
     ‘And a merry Christmas to you,’ he said, in a voice rich and resonant.
     It bespoke education and breeding rather than the hardscrabble streets of the East End, which seemed to fit with the impression she had of a gentleman gone to seed.
     She observed the twosome with him.
     They stood to his rear, one partly behind the other. The furthest away loitered in the gap between the gateposts. Despite the deluge of snowflakes, which continued to obscure much, this was clearly a woman. Not especially tall, about five-foot-six – a little shorter than Jen – but also done up in shabby Victorian garb, and clutching a bundle of rags as though it was a baby. She wore a coal-scuttle bonnet and a drab, floor-length dress, much patched, and was huddled into a ragged shawl. The bonnet completely concealed her face because, all the time Jen watched her, the woman stood with head drooped, motionless even as the flakes gathered on her wool-clad shoulders.
     The second of the visitors, the one immediately behind the soloist, was much more alarming.
     From his size and shape, he was clearly male, and he wore a parti-coloured red and green suit, like a harlequin costume, but this too was baggy and threadbare. On his head, there was a red coxcomb hat, which rose to several peaks, all dangling with bells; underneath that, his face was concealed behind a protruding papier-mâché mask, a basic, crudely-made thing whose exaggeratedly moulded and painted features – the axe-blade nose in particular, and the jutting, knifelike chin – denoted the malign visage of Mr Punch. Though perhaps the most disturbing feature of this particular character was the eyes. They were nothing but empty holes, and though real eyes undoubtedly lay behind them, at present they were pits of inscrutable blackness …



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


“I have to say, I’ve never really thought the Ambridge haunted myself, and I’ve been a member over forty years. There are no specific stories; it’s just an eerie old building I guess. If there’s any spirit here at present …” Lampwick glanced at the lobby’s festive brocade, “… I’d say it was the spirit of the season. Not that this is always a good thing.”
     “It isn’t?” Hetherington asked, puzzled by that.
     “Well, they say Christmas is what you make it … that you get the Christmas you deserve, and all that.”
     “Good job I don’t do Christmas.”
     Lampwick headed to the fire-door, muttering something in response that sounded like “Let’s hope it doesn’t do you.”
     “I’m sorry?” Hetherington asked. “Missed that.”
     Lampwick opened the door, and a waft of icy air blew in. “I said good luck to you.”
     “Okay … thanks.”
     “One last thing,” Lampwick said. “When are you planning on leaving tomorrow?”
     “First light … half past eight, nine-ish.”
     “If you throw the breakers back on first, and whichever door you leave through, make sure you close it after you. I’ll be popping in mid-morning on my way to my daughter’s for Christmas lunch, to check everything’s okay. And I’ll put the alarms back on.” Lampwick halted in the doorway. “You’re absolutely sure you want to do this?”
     Here we go again.
     “I’m sure. And thanks for your concern, but I’ve done it many times before.”
     “Not here.”
     “No, not here,” Hetherington agreed. “But then you don’t believe this place is haunted either.”
     “No, but then I’ve never stayed here overnight, not on my own.”
     In the dark, when there’s nobody else here … eh, Mr Lampwick?
     Lampwick smiled, again as if he’d just read Hetherington’s inner thoughts. Then he departed into the blackness and the snow, shutting the fire-exit door behind him …



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

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 …



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


The bigger problem at present was the cold. Never having expected to be outdoors, he was only wearing a lightweight jacket over his shirt. His trainers were already caked with ice crystals, which were fast melting through the rubber and canvas, soaking his socks and feet. It was pure good fortune that he had gloves, but they weren’t much protection in truth. He’d wandered for quite some time by now, and probably wouldn’t even be able to find his way back to the coach station. He glanced around, feeling more than a little concerned, but no fellow pedestrians were abroad to ask. The steadily falling snow muffled all sound, so even if there’d been someone on a nearby street, he wouldn’t necessarily hear them. The occasional car swished by, but they were few and far between.
     Capstick walked on, entering a small square, on the other side of which stood a row of spike-topped railings with an open gate in the middle, giving through to what looked like a yard enclosed by high buildings, though down at the far end of it a light was moving. It was only a glimmer; from this distance it looked like someone carrying a lantern. As Capstick watched, the clotted blackness down there split vertically as more light spilled through an opened door, widened further to admit the outline of a figure, then narrowed again and winked out. A faint thump was heard.
     He approached the railings and peered across the yard. The building at the far end looked vaguely churchlike. It was too dark to see any real detail, but its roof was vaulted and there was a spire of some sort. Before he knew what he was doing, he was walking down towards it. Capstick hadn’t been into a church for as long as he could remember and had no religious beliefs. In fact, there was a time when he’d badmouthed Christianity at every opportunity, calling it “abusive superstition” and preferring to ignore the good things it did, such as the provision of charity and shelter. Not that he was going to ask for either of those things now – good God, he wasn’t that far gone! – but he could use some directions, and it wouldn’t hurt to go indoors and get warm for a few minutes.
     A high stained-glass window on the right implied he was correct about the ecclesiastical purpose of this place, though there was no light behind it, making it look grimy, while several of its panes appeared to be missing. On the left, he passed what looked like a small memorial garden recessed between cliff-faces of brickwork. A central statue grinned at him from beneath a veil of icicles. One stone hand clutched an upright spear; the other extended forward, also covered in snow, but pointing downward.
     When he reached the main entrance door, he saw a slogan painted in black on the whitewashed bricks above its lintel:

GOD IS JUST



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

Mike went back to bed, still feeling weak. Chrissie wouldn’t be back from work until five – not that this was anything to look forward to. She found it trying, having an invalid in the house, and did nothing to hide it.
     That was when he heard the sleigh bells.
     He sat up from the pillow and looked slowly round at the window. It was open, and beyond it he saw the azure sky of late summer, the rich green leaves on the trees opposite. He heard children playing – still on holiday from school; the sound of someone mowing their lawn. He smelled chopped grass and barbecue coals being stoked up for another glorious evening.
     Yet sleigh-bells were approaching gaily, along with crisp, clip-clopping hooves.
     They came to a halt right under his bedroom window. Mike felt his hair prickling but was unable to move to look. The children were still playing, the lawnmower still revving over the turf. At any second, he expected a hearty knock at the door. But the next thing he heard was a foot on the stair. Then another. Stealthy, padding footfalls – as though someone was coming up uncertainly, or painfully. A silvery bell tingled. Mike imagined that shabby, stumbling Father Christmas – holding out a little Yuletide bell, ringing it before him to bring in custom, just like one of those old men paid to stand outside department stores in December. The footsteps were now on the landing, the tingling bell right outside Mike’s bedroom door. It was not closed properly, and someone slowly pushed it open ...
     Then Mrs. Barnard from next door walked in.
     When she saw that he was awake she looked relieved. She hadn’t wanted to disturb him, she said. But she felt she had to return the house-keys Chrissie had given her while they’d been away on holiday last July. She held them up in a bunch, and they tingled together – just like bells.
     Mike swore hysterically at her for nearly a full minute before she turned and fled in rivers of tears. When Chrissie returned from work that evening, she was ambushed by the distraught woman before she could even get into the house, and finally came upstairs in a vexed mood. Mike was still lying in bed, and his wife gave him a good four minutes of her time before she even began to get changed.
     It was no use him taking things out on her and the neighbours! Just because he wasn’t feeling so good! They had cause to get annoyed with him if they felt like it!
     But by the time she’d finished, Mike was no longer listening. He was too busy staring out through the bedroom door at the scattered white globules on the landing carpet. They steadily dissipated as he watched them. It was the sort of thing you saw in deepest winter, when somebody had come in with snowy boots on.



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

It was early afternoon and he was working in his office, when he heard a step on the landing beyond the door. He glanced up sharply. Dowerby and his partner were both away on business, and their secretaries were on Christmas leave, so Wilton should have been the only person in the building.
     Before he knew what he was doing, he was reaching for the telephone. What happened next, however, practically paralysed him. The handle on the door to his office began to turn. But only slowly. Furtively. Wilton felt sweat break on his brow as he watched. His blood went cold.
     There was a grunt on the other side of the door, as though whoever was there could not manage to open it. The handle stopped turning and there was a brief silence. Then, the wooden panelling of the door began to creak from some weight being applied to it. Wilton’s spine was literally crawling. He found his fingers fumbling with the dial on the telephone. For ludicrous seconds, he couldn’t remember the emergency code. Then the intruder seemed to move away.
     Wilton listened to soft but heavy feet, as they padded up the next flight of stairs.
     He stood up, his heart pounding. The whole demeanour of whoever this person was gave him away as a burglar. The outer doors to the Society Chambers were not locked during the day, but a visit like this was not bona fide. Wilton didn’t know what valuables Dowerby and his partner kept in their offices upstairs, but the intruder was clearly on his way to find out. Without hesitation, Wilton called the police. They said they would send someone immediately, but minutes seem to pass and eventually Wilton began to fear that the burglar would leave the premises before they arrived, or even worse try to get into his office again. It was now very quiet upstairs. Wilton strained his ear as he listened against his door. It occurred to him that he was behaving in a rather cowardly fashion. This might be the thing for a young female secretary to do – call for help and then hide. But would he, as a male, not at least be expected to make some approach to the intruder? What would his employers think if he just let the villain walk away again before the police even arrived?
     After a minute of agonised indecision, he stuck his head out through the door.
     The landing was deserted. That was to be expected, whoever it was having gone upstairs. Wilton followed stealthily, praying for the sound of an approaching siren. At the top of the next flight, there was still no sign of anybody, but the door to Dowerby’s office stood ajar. It could have been left that way, but it seemed unlikely.
     Swallowing hard, Wilton advanced towards it. When he pushed it, it swung open. He entered. There was nobody in there. Wilton was now baffled. He had heard somebody coming up here, hadn’t he? He turned to leave – and found his way barred by a hulking man with mad, staring eyes and a gross beard filled with crawling lice.



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

Charlotte wasn’t coming home this Christmas. She spent most of her time at a place called the LSE, but now apparently, was somewhere called Kathmandu and had recently written to her parents, saying that she considered the yuletide feast a corrupt, western opiate and no longer had any time for it.
     Mum had cried, and Dad had gone mad, storming around the house shouting something about “the weed” finally getting to “her great, stupid, empty head!” Jimmy hadn’t got cross with Dad on that occasion because both he and Mum, for once, had seemed to be in agreement on it. But it didn’t make any difference: Charlotte was still away for Christmas and would see them some time in the New Year. Once Jimmy had got used to the idea, it hadn’t bothered him too much because it meant that he could spend the first few days of his school holidays digging around among the various odds and ends in her room.
     That was when he’d found the Tome of Lore.
     The treasure trove of odd-smelling bric-a-brac in Charlotte’s room, stuffed under her bed, littering her desk and dressing table, had proved a novel distraction at first, but not as much as this particular book, which as well as being full of mucky drawings, also had gross but neat pictures of goats’ heads on tables, half-men-half-monster things, people on crosses upside-down, and animals with unreadable names scrawled underneath them. Jimmy was a bright lad and it hadn’t taken him long to work out what it was all about. He vaguely remembered Dad once having a row with Charlotte over the “voodoo crap” he’d found on the toilet shelf when he’d been looking for his football yearbook.
     The thing was, Jimmy hadn’t believed that any of it was for real – not until soon after lunch, when he’d gone out into the back garden again and found the snowman missing …

If all that leaves you wanting more, don’t forget that my Christmas e-collection of 2014,
IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, is still available for purchase. As I mentioned earlier, German readers can acquire it in paperback if they so wish. Just follow DAS GESPENST VON KILLINGLY HALL.

In case you need any more persuading, here is a quick thumbnail outline for each of the five stories contained inside. 

THE CHRISTMAS TOYS: Two burglars target an ordinary suburban house one Christmas Eve, only to awaken the dark side of the festive spirit …

MIDNIGHT SERVICE: A stranded traveller in a desolate town one snowy Christmas Eve. Where can he find shelter? The former workhouse, of course …

THE FAERIE: Timid husband Arthur snatches his young daughter and flees his angry wife across the wintry moors, finally seeking sanctuary in a mysterious snowbound house …

THE MUMMERS: Two men plot an elaborate Christmas Eve revenge by summoning a pantomime from Hell …

THE KILLING GROUND:  During an atmospheric English Christmas, man and wife security experts are hired to protect a film star’s family from the cannibal woman said to haunt their new country estate … (Be advised that The Killing Ground is a novella, so if you decide to cough up the 99p price tag, you’re still getting quit a bit of wordage for you money).


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

THE GRIN OF THE DARK 
by Ramsey Campbell (2007)

London-based northerner, Simon Lester, feels that he’s on the verge of making a breakthrough in his chosen career of film journalism.

He almost managed it once before when he found himself working for the controversial movie magazine, Cineassed – though all of that went belly-up when Simon and his reckless editor, Colin Vernon, got the mag sued for libel. Since then, Simon’s been employed at a petrol station, with nothing to offer his pragmatic fiancée, Natalie Halloran, other than vague guarantees that all will be well eventually.

But yes … now, at last, it seems to have happened.

High-flying academic, and former tutor of Simon’s, Rufus Wall, offers him a commission to write a film studies textbook for London University’s new line, with a £10,000 advance. Simon finally thinks that he’s arrived, but not everyone shares this viewpoint. Natalie will only believe that her beloved’s career is back on track when she sees it, while her parents – Warren and Bebe, who also happen to be Simon’s landlords – remain steadfastly unimpressed, thinking that Simon should get a proper job, and wishing that their daughter was back with her ex, the smooth and moneyed Nicholas (who also happens to be father to her lively young son, Mark).

Of course, Simon, agog with excitement that someone will finally pay him to do what he loves, brushes all this aside in his quest to find a suitable topic for the new book, settling on the career of one Tubby Thackeray, a British music hall clown turned Hollywood silent era comedian, who eventually was blacklisted because his brand of slapstick was so demented that public order situations arose whenever he appeared (some viewers were even said to have lost their minds).

It isn’t perhaps the wisest choice, because Tubby Thackeray really has been expunged from movie history. Encouraged by young Mark, who catches a snippet of Tubby in action and falls in love with the silent era legend – to an inordinate degree, it seems to us, though Simon, typically, doesn’t notice this – he commences his research, but finds it more of a challenge than he expected. Those who allegedly know about Tubby seem reluctant to talk, and the few bits of written information he can find are located at obscure, antiquarian-type events, where he has to leaf through piles of dead newspapers and deal with increasingly strange personalities.

And that’s another thing about this affair … the strangeness.

From the moment, Simon starts looking into Tubby Thackeray, curious events occur. Any useful intel he finds on the internet seems to change from one viewing to the next. He constantly hears deranged cackling from behind apartment doors or on the other sides of bookstacks. In the corners of his vision, he glimpses creepy, grinning, clown-like men, who seem to find his every move – and especially his mistakes – hilarious. When he finally locates some real footage of Tubby, he thinks it radical and inventive for the time, but also dark and disturbing. Was Thackeray really doing comedy, or something much more sinister?

Meanwhile, there are other distractions. Bebe and Warren Halloran are a constant source of discouragement, while the insufferable Nicholas seems to be showing up ever more regularly, which threatens Simon’s relationship with Mark, though even more so his relationship with Natalie, who is turning progressively cooler with him. It’s also an unpleasant development when Rufus Wall foists a new editor on him – Colin Vernon, of Cineassed notoriety – while Simon also makes the mistake of engaging in a chat-room debate with an anonymous but self-proclaimed expert on the silent comedy greats, who goes by the nickname Smilemime. It’s a futile exercise, but Simon finds himself getting drawn in, wasting more and more time arguing with someone he doesn’t even know, and yet who increasingly appears to know him.

At the same time, the people he meets in real life are no less easy to deal with.

Bolshy Manchester man, Charlie Tracy, appears well informed about Tubby Thackeray, but is an awkward and suspicious individual, who no one would want to rely on unless they had to. And when Simon heads to California, to interview Wilhelmina, the granddaughter of Orville Hart, who directed some of Tubby’s movies, he finds her a coked-out porn queen, whose ranch-like home is populated by nubile females of a distinctly weird and predatory nature (and who – and this is Simon’s real concern, given that Natalie is waiting at home – enjoy putting all their conquests on the internet!). 

All this time, meanwhile, Christmas is coming, and Simon feels that a visit home may be necessary, especially when he learns that his native Preston, in Lancashire, once played host to a famous music hall incident, when Tubby Thackery roused the crowd to much more than laughter. But Simon’s home has a cloying atmosphere all of its own, his mother in the early stages of senility and his father unable to cope, while the derelict theatre where they eventually take him is a horror story in its own right.

And all the while, that background strangeness intensifies, the hapless Simon shifting through altered states as he determinedly tries to ignore the phantoms dogging him during his quest to fully expose Tubby Thackeray, a comic genius and an apparent prince of chaos …

A warning from the outset: if you like your horror stories cruel, garish and filled with blood and violence, then don’t bother with The Grin of the Dark. However, if you’re a cerebral scare fan, and you don’t mind a slow-burn atmosphere, you can’t really afford to miss this one.

Not that Campbell is overly subtle. Make no mistake, there is a real horror at the heart of this tale, and it leaks out through the pores as you work your way along. Much of it is intensely psychological, even though there is no question that we are dealing with supernatural forces, and malevolent ones at that. Simon Lester’s mental disintegration is unrelenting, taking us into a surrealist netherworld of obsession and paranoia, where his seemingly harmless quest to research a long-forgotten comedian doesn’t just see him encounter hostility at every turn, much of it disturbingly irrational, but literally awakens demons.

In many ways, The Grin of the Dark is vintage Ramsey Campbell. We’re in a bleak urban environment where, even though we flit back and forth between London and Northwest England, everything is faded and decayed, which is populated by jobsworths and functionaries so unhelpful as to be almost obstructive, and yet, only thinly disguised by this aura of the depressingly mundane, we sense constant, simmering evil, a near-Lovecraftian presence of the bizarre, which we regularly glimpse – or think we glimpse, because, in classic Campbell style, we can never be absolutely sure.

Simon Lester himself is a typical Campbell hero: an essentially well-meaning guy, a workaday everyman, a little introverted and intellectually absorbed, whose pursuits are innocent if niche, but at the same time someone who doesn’t connect easily with others and is therefore mistrusted (and who, on occasion, needs to man up in his confrontations). But he has a good relationship with Mark, his stepson-to-be, while the strong and personable Natalie has seen something in him that she wants to marry, so we are firmly in ‘good guy’ territory. On top of that, you can’t help but root for the bloke when he encounters so much opposition. His soon-to-be in-laws, Warren and Bebe, for example, are frankly hateful, so hostile to their daughter’s choice of boyfriend, so belittling of almost everything he does that it’s no wonder he appears to lack confidence.

We’re also in traditional Campbell country in terms of several classy horror set-pieces.

It’s an absolute staple of this author’s fiction that low-key creepiness will abound, and The Grin of the Dark is completely true to that. But in addition to these lesser but ongoing tortures, we are also plunged into some epic scare situations, including a head-trip sequence in a run-down circus in the heart of wintry London, and most terrifyingly of all – and this scene is Ramsey Campbell at his very best! – an exploration of the derelict Preston theatre, where a sense of fear is palpable from the moment the investigators force entry, but soon becomes utterly overwhelming.

Ramsey Campbell is not regarded as ‘Britain’s Greatest Living Horror Writer’ for nothing, of course. And even in other scenes, where the terror isn’t as full-on, the air of menace stems from an increasing dislocation of reality. For example, a straightforward presentation that Simon makes to a Tubby Thackeray fan-club becomes a nightmarish ordeal. Likewise, his journey to California to interview the hedonistic Wilhemina Hart, which seems to crash head-on into a follow-up trip to Amsterdam, is a triumph of drug and porn-induced disorientation.

Campbell also makes excellent use of a very new kind of monster, the internet troll.

Simon Lester’s ongoing duel with the creepy madman, Smilemime, which he gets into initially for the right reasons because he’s trying to learn everything he can about the elusive Tubby, soon becomes a hellish narrative in its own right. Not every reviewer has favoured this aspect of the novel, calling it unnecessary and protracted, but for me it works perfectly. The smugly arrogant Smilemime is only one facet of the malignancy Simon seems to have disturbed, and it’s a very potent one. This part of the book also serves as a sobering lesson to the rest of us about the futility of engaging online with shallow, nameless narcissists who may demonstrate countless shortcomings – spelling, grammar, etc – and yet who will always win because they are content to spend all day/week/month (as long as it takes) doing nothing other than trying to get the better of their perceived opponents.

All through the book, of course, and this is perhaps the real success of The Grin of the Dark, the evil Tubby lurks close by, constantly on the verge of breaking loose – even though he only physically appears in snippets of crackly film or sepia-toned newspapers. Needless to say, on those few occasions when we do see him, he is a demon lord, seeming to combine every strange and menacing aspect of those heavily made-up, wildly gesticulating comics of the gaslight age, performing antics so outlandish that you can easily imagine it having a damaging effect on audiences not used to such onscreen anarchy.      

I should add that not all reviews of The Grin of the Dark have been hugely positive. Ramsey Campbell has a unique style. He conceals clues which, if you miss them the first time around, may mean that you have to roll back a few chapters to check again. Certain readers haven’t appreciated this, though I think it’s an acceptable and clever device. Likewise, others have expressed impatience with the clown factor, calling it a cliché, and indeed there are clowns aplenty in this book, not just Tubby himself, though – and I stress this – these are no axe-wielding maniac clowns of the modern-day slasher variety. All their manifestations are connected to that golden age of comedy, and, once again, to those extreme and harrowing lengths so many silent era practitioners went to in order to immortalise themselves.

At the end of the day, in an age when horror suffers almost permanently from bad press – so many writing it off as gory, derivative nastiness, Ramsey Campbell is still one of the genre’s great breaths of fresh air. A skilled and intelligent writer, he has the ability to lay out deep, macabre mysteries and to invoke genuine chills from the most everyday situations, plucking at nerves we scarcely knew we had, all the while shedding barely a drop of blood.

The Grin of the Dark is a great example of this, recounting a complex but genuinely frightening tale and setting it in a world that closely resembles ours and yet is increasingly and distressingly off-kilter. If you’re a horror fan and you haven’t yet read this one, you really need to. 

It’s one of the great puzzles to me that Ramsey Campbell’s work – and it constitutes a vast body – has never (to my knowledge) received any kind of film or TV treatment. I’ve constantly told myself that some kind of adaptation must only be around the corner. His short stories in particular scream to occupy a ‘Christmas chiller’ slot, but in the absence of that, for the moment at least, we can only fantasise – which is what I’m going to do now. Here, as usual at the end of one of my reviews, is a personal take on who should make up the cast-list should The Grin of the Dark ever hit the screen.

Simon Lester – Jack O’Connell
Natalie Halloran – Ellen Page
Warren Halloran – Gabriel Byrne
Bebe Halloran – Veronica Cartwright
Charlie Tracy – Stephen Graham
Rufus Wall – Dexter Fletcher
Colin Vernon – Chris O’Dowd
Wilhelmina Hart – Jennifer Love Hewitt
Tubby Thackeray – Bill Skarsgård

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Calling on the darkest spirits of the season


Well, we’re almost there again. Tomorrow is the first day of Advent, the official time of preparation for Christmas. For many, it’s the commencement of a season of light, happiness and religious observance. But for us – at least for the purposes of this blog – it means that we start looking very seriously at spooky fiction.

So today, I’m not just going to talk about SPARROWHAWK, my festive ghostly novella of 2010, I’m also going to post its opening three chapters. The book is 40,000 words in length overall, and the chapters are relatively short, so don’t worry about me giving too much away with that, though hopefully you’ll find that there’s sufficient here to whet your appetite to read the whole thing.

In keeping with the traditional ghost story theme (and just so that today’s blogpost isn’t entirely about me), I’ll also be reviewing and discussing, in my usual forensic detail, THE SILENT COMPANIONS by Laura Purcell, a deliciously creepy and and enjoyable haunted house novel, with a very traditional atmosphere, the sort you can’t help but be inspired by as Christmas approaches.

If you’ve only checked in for the Laura Purcell review, that’s fine. As ever, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s blogpost, so feel free to skip on down there right away and get stuck in. On the other hand, if you’ve got a bit more time available, you might want hang around a little and journey back with me to a bitterly cold December in a time of turmoil and terror …

Mist things

During the ‘deep freeze’ December of 2009, I wrote the novella, SPARROWHAWK, having wanted for some time to pen a Victorian chiller with a Christmas theme. The fact that we had heavy snow that month and icy mist so thick and cold that you’d imagine almost anything could emerge from it, made it seem easy. The words flowed so smoothly that as the story unfolded, it began to escalate in length until it had soon surpassed the usual 20,000 words that you get with a novella, and, finally clocking off at 40,000, was more like a short novel.

As such, the time I’d allowed for this project inevitably ran over, and though I’d started it during the run-up to Christmas, I found myself completing it during a distinctly non-seasonal, in fact rather sun-drenched April (trust me, it ain’t easy writing about Yuletide frolics when you’re surrounded by the remnants of Easter eggs). At least, this meant that it was ready for publication by the following Christmas, which again was tipping down with snow, creating yet another perfect atmosphere.

The paperback edition was published by Pendragon Press, who did a rather spiffing job. We sold a lot of copies straight away, there were some great reviews, and the word got out fast. In 2011, SPARROWHAWK was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award in the capacity of Best Novella but was pipped at the post by my good mate, Simon Clark’s masterly HUMPTY’S BONES.

Later that year, I was approached by a respected film company, who were interested in adapting it as a festive TV fantasy with a darker-than-usual edge, though sadly, thanks to the proposed cost of the project (among many things, it contains an epic battle sequence), it didn’t happen – at least, it hasn’t happened so far.

You may wonder why, when all this occurred nearly 10 years ago, I’m talking about it now. But, to be honest with you, and even if I say so myself, I think SPARROWHAWK is a bit of timeless tale. It’s won praise for being more than just a ghost story. It’s been called a romance, a thriller, a family drama, a historical adventure, and even an adult fairy tale, which has pleased me no end because all of these threads were deliberately woven in at conception stage.

But ultimately, at heart, it remains a Christmas tale, and if that’s not a timeless thing in itself, then I’m not sure what is. Our Great British love affair with the traditional Christmas ghost story is as strong now as it ever was, so I don’t think I’m taking too much of a chance that you guys will still be interested in SPARROWHAWK nearly a decade after it was first published.

Very quickly, it is set in the year 1843, and concerns embittered Afghan War veteran John Sparrowhawk, who is suddenly and inexplicably released from the debtors’ prison by the beautiful and enigmatic Miss Evangeline. Penniless and alone in the world, Sparrowhawk takes employment with his mysterious benefactor, agreeing to stand guard over a house in Bloomsbury for the duration of the Christmas period.

But while London is gripped in the coldest winter in living memory, Sparrowhawk soon comes to realise that both he and the object of his protection are being stalked by a supernatural entity, whose terrifying presence is only partially cloaked by the mist and the snow and the gnawing winter darkness ...

I hope you enjoy these first three chapters sufficiently to go and seek out the rest


SPARROWHAWK (chapters 1 / 2)


Neither day nor night existed in the Fleet Prison for Debtors. Even in the long, deep yards, the sun and moon seldom shone. All light there was grey and dim, all sounds faint, muffled. Supposedly built for exercise and association, these yards were in fact confined spaces of dense shadow and aching silence. A similar gloom pervaded inside the building – deadening the senses, stifling the breath. In the Fleet, time itself was an abstract concept.
     Miss Evangeline went there unwillingly. Debt was not a condition that would ever apply to her, but she derived no pleasure from the trials and tribulations of others. It was a wet and very cold November day when her carriage pulled up on the prison forecourt. She bade her coachman come back in half an hour, then produced her letters of introduction and gazed up at the awesome structure. It was an architectural monstrosity, somewhere between a castle and a warehouse. Its brick walls were black with soot and streaked white and grey by the flocks of dirty pigeons that roosted in its high, rotted gables. The few windows visible were tiny apertures, heavily barred.
     A tall, brutal-looking turnkey passed her through the first gate into a small entry passage, where her papers were examined. To the left was the door to the warden’s house. Miss Evangeline wondered if it might be politic to call there first and explain herself, but then she had second thoughts. Why spoil that sanguine official’s day? In this small domain the warden was king; it seemed a pity to remind him there were infinitely greater powers. She took her papers back, and a second turnkey admitted her through another gate. This second fellow, even burlier and more brutish than the first, was entranced. Miss Evangeline was exceedingly pretty, with violet eyes, rosebud lips, a pert, pixie nose and honey-blonde hair fashioned in ringlets. Her slim figure was gorgeously clad in a pink bustled dress, high bonnet and cashmere shawl.
     The turnkey became ingratiating and asked if she would like to come into their “lodge” for some tea, and maybe see “the portrait room”, where they “sized up the new arrivals”. Miss Evangeline politely declined, and so was shown through into the prison proper.
     Here, a stench assailed her like offal or faeces. The transformation from broad daylight to dungeon-like darkness was briefly blinding. It was a warren of damp passages and dingy rooms, and already she was among prisoners. At first, they were shades: spectral figures drifting aimlessly, heads bowed. But as her eyes attuned, she was able to see them for the miserable, broken wretches they were. Most wore the clothing of gentlefolk gone to seed, though there were also paupers’ rags on view, bare feet, lengths of shin and wrist grown long past the extent of the childhood garb that clad them. Faces were haggard and pale, hair long and ratty, eyes red-rimmed. When Miss Evangeline asked an old man where she could find John Sparrowhawk, she was ignored. When she persisted, the man nodded at a stone stair dropping into darkness.
     “Down there?” she enquired.
     “The Fair, miss,” the man said.
     “The Fair?”
     “Bartholomew Fair,” he added, as if this explained everything.
     Miss Evangeline nodded an understanding she didn’t feel and descended the stair to a tunnel where water dripped incessantly, and strips of dust-thick cobweb hung like pieces of tattered brocade. She glanced through one door after another. Weak candle-flames revealed mouldy straw, black ceilings, walls so damp they’d turned green. When she reached the end room and found the person she was looking for, it was no surprise that she barely recognised him; if anything could change a man it was this hellish place. He was slumped in a corner, for there were no benches or chairs. A face once tanned and neatly chiselled was now pale and drawn, dark with unshaved stubble, framed on either side by a mop of lank hair hanging almost to his shoulders. Eyes formerly hard as jewels had sunk into their sockets. The one-time strong physique, so often resplendent in dress-uniform, was skeletal and attired in a threadbare shirt and trousers caked with grime.
     The first the prisoner knew of his visitor was her scent – a faint floral odour, rose and jasmine perhaps. He stared up at her, bleakly.
     If it seemed strange to him that so decorous a lady, clearly one of status and breeding, had arrived unannounced in this place of the forgotten, he didn’t show it. Perhaps his capacity to feel surprise had been crushed out of him, along with his bearing and his manners – and his ability to suffer cold. The temperature was almost sub-zero, yet, though his skin was pale as ash and there was barely a scrap of meat on his bones, he didn’t even shiver. She realised that his relatively brief incarceration – brief compared to some of his fellow prisoners – had hardened him to a frightening degree. Though of course the North West Frontier might also have played its part.
     “They call this part of the prison ‘Bartholomew Fair’,” Miss Evangeline said.
     “I know.” The prisoner got awkwardly to his feet. “I imagine it’s a kind of irony.”
     “Bartholomew Fair was notorious for its lascivious pleasures.” She looked him over properly now that he was standing. “Have you enjoyed much lascivious pleasure, Captain Sparrowhawk?”
     “Not of late,” he said. “Are you offering some?”
     She didn’t dignify that comment with a reply but surveyed the room. In one corner, a cracked pot served as a latrine. A black beetle clambered out of it.
     “Who are you?” he asked.
     “You may call me ‘Miss Evangeline’.”
     “I may call you something else, miss, if you don’t cease toying with me.”
     She tut-tutted. “How ungentlemanly that would be. If you don’t mind your tongue, sir, I might deign to believe everything they say about you.”
     “Were you a friend of my wife’s?”
     “My relationship with your wife is of no consequence.”
     “So, you were?”
     “I didn’t say that.”
     “Are you another who blames me for her death?”
     She raised a finely-drawn eyebrow. “Did you kill her?”
     “Of course not.”
     “Then why should I?”
     He seemed confused. “Not everyone I know has that clarity of vision. So why are you here?”
     “I have a proposal for you, captain.”
     “Ahhh … the army sent you.”
     Miss Evangeline touched a handkerchief to her nose. The smell of sweat and dirt seemed to get worse the longer she spent in this necropolis. “The army?”
     “As a honeyed lure.”
     “I don’t understand.”
     He chuckled. “Don’t tell me … Lord Ellenborough insists that we retake Kabul, and he needs all the suicidal subalterns he can get his hands on?”
     Miss Evangeline shook her head. “The Afghan War is over. The British recaptured Kabul, and General Pollock’s Army of Retribution laid waste to the Afghan towns and villages on a wide scale, massacring the tribesmen, both friends and enemies alike, as a stern lesson. The army then withdrew to India, wreaking more slaughter on the way and losing countless more of its own.”
     “Bravo to General Pollock. The Duke of Wellington always said the greater problem with Afghanistan was not getting into it but getting out of it.” Sparrowhawk shrugged. “It makes no difference, miss. If your paymasters think I’m going to return to the Colours after kicking my heels for half a year in here …”
     “I’m not trying to recruit you back to the Colours, though I suppose my proposition carries a certain risk.”
     “Why does that not surprise me?”
     “We made a study of your military career before coming to you, captain. It seems your reconnaissance skills as a scout and mapper impressed General Elphinstone no end.”
     If the average man on the street heard a lady talk thus, it would be shocking and baffling to him. But Sparrowhawk had been around army wives all his adult life, and his conviction grew about who had sent this handsome messenger.
     “You were highly valued by all your comrades,” she added.
     “But not so much that any of my brother officers would throw me a credit line when I most needed it.”
     “Ah, well,” she sighed, “that is the way of the world. Fall foul of Soho’s gaming tables, and one is apt to lose friends as quickly as one loses one’s money.”
     “Indeed? Well tell whoever sent you here that it’s too late to buy me now. I owed only two-hundred pounds, yet not a single one of my former comrades came to visit me, or even sent anyone until this moment. And this, I learn, is because they want something.”
     “You’re quite mistaken to think this an army matter,”
     “So why do you keep using my military title? I resigned my commission months ago.”
     “I thought it might flatter you.”
     He chuckled humourlessly. “What a miscalculation.”
     “Yes, I fear so.” She sounded sad. “Perhaps you aren’t the man for us after all.” She moved to the door of the cell but, before leaving, added: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life in here? Because that’s what it looks like. You’ve no income, no family …”
     “No friends.”
     “Captain … the party I represent is offering to pay your debt, and all the interest you’ve accumulated on it. Not make you a loan, mark you, but pay it off in full.”
     Sparrowhawk leaned against a shelf, where his single stub of candle burned. “I served king and country for seventeen years, miss, and this is how they reward me. I don’t want another piece of that cake, thank you very much.”
     “The choice is yours, though I’m surprised. I hear you once tried to escape?”
     “Two months after I was first incarcerated … when I finally realised nobody was even reading my letters, let alone planning to reply to them. I made it onto the roof, but the turnkeys caught me. They beat me black and blue and threw me in the strong-room.”
     “You spent several days in irons, I believe?”
     “It was more like several weeks.”
     “Not a pleasant way to pass your time. A pity if it had to happen again.”
     And she took her leave.
     Sparrowhawk was left staring at an empty doorway, wondering if he’d imagined her final comment. Could he bear to be put back in irons, to be left in pitch-darkness, to be closed in a den so deep and foul that the rats were bold enough to nibble his toes even while he was awake? He had no intention of serving his country again; on that he was final. He had no country, anyway. As far as he was concerned his life was over, even if he was only thirty-four.
     Yet for all that bravado, Sparrowhawk still couldn’t lift himself from the mire of self-pity. During his months of imprisonment, he’d tried not to be resentful. He’d exercised every ounce of will he had to tell himself that this was nobody’s fault but his own, that he had been frivolous, that he’d gambled with foolish extravagance. But then another voice – booming in his ear like cannon-fire – reminded him that he’d played and squandered no more than countless other young gentlemen newly released from war. Of course, unlike his fellow rakes and ne’er-do-wells, Sparrowhawk had had no-one to bail him out. Not that this was the real issue. The real issue was should he even be here? Was it right that a man honoured for gallantry in countless battles on the Sub-Continent, and wounded on the retreat to Jellalabad, should be locked away in this dismal place? On the day of his arrest, he’d asked them this and they’d only sneered, calling him “a legend in his own mind”. He’d fought with the bailiffs, blacking both the tipstaff’s eyes, and they’d threatened to use that against him, saying that if he didn’t come quietly they’d summon the peelers and he’d face a criminal charge.
     He walked to the door and peered along the passage. It was empty. Miss Evangeline had already ascended to the upper levels. Even now, the turnkey on the front gate would be turning the lock for her. With a curse, Sparrowhawk hurried in pursuit. From the top of the stair, Miss Evangeline was visible at the far end of the next passage. Her bright, fashionable clothes stood out in this place where ‘colour’ was a meaningless term.
     “Miss!” Sparrowhawk shouted. If she heard, she didn’t look round. The gate was closing on her back when he reached it. “Miss, wait!”
     Miss Evangeline glanced through the bars.
     “What is this proposition you offer?” he asked.
     She eyed him dubiously. “You’re not quite the man I expected, captain. Are you sure you’re fit for duty?”
     “I thought you said there was no soldiering involved?”
     “I didn’t say that. I said I would not be asking you to rejoin the army.”
     Sparrowhawk clutched at the bars. “Why are you playing games again? Are you here just to torment me?”
     “This is no game, captain, I assure you. I need to know – and mind you tell me the truth now – are you sure you wish to work for us? It will be very dangerous.”
     “Dangerous?” He laughed and sniffed at the tainted air. “You smell that? … it’s the River Fleet. It runs directly below us. If you think it stinks now, wait ’til high summer. In fact, summer is when this place is at its best. It swarms with vermin, the air’s thick with bluebottles. We have outbreaks of cholera, jail fever. Every whore in this place is riddled with pox, but a man has needs, doesn’t he?”
     She didn’t flinch at the ugly notion.
     “We abound with blaggards,” he said. “Every fellow robs another if he can. Many are taken out of here dead, and there is little or no investigation. So, don’t advise me about danger, please.”
     She pursed her lips, before saying: “I can have you out of here in the next couple of days. In the mean time, is there anything you need?”
     “A couple of pounds wouldn’t go amiss.”
     “Not starting where we left off, captain?”
     “My chummage has gone up this month.”
     “Chummage?”
     “It’s what we debtors have to pay for the privilege of being here.” He gave a wry smile. “Believe it or not, we have to pay for the right to lodge. Then of course there’s food and water, candles and coal … which also cost, and at a mark-up. The turnkeys do very nicely, let me tell you.”
     For the first time, Miss Evangeline looked shocked. Sparrowhawk knew what she was thinking: that such a thing wouldn’t be tolerated even in Newgate, where only hardened felons were held.
     “Here.” She pushed a small purse through the bars. “It’s all I have on me.”
     “My thanks.”
     “Thanks for nothing … call it a down-payment. If you succeed in the task we give you, we won’t just pay your debt. There’ll be a significant recompense. But trust me, captain, you’ll have earned it.  I must go now.” Miss Evangeline moved away. “You’ll hear from us very soon.”
     Sparrowhawk opened the purse; it contained four sovereigns, which was much more money than he’d seen in several months. His eyes bulged as he turned such riches over his hands. Then he glanced up and caught the turnkey eyeing them enviously. Clenching his fist, Sparrowhawk made to throw a punch through the bars. The turnkey went for his truncheon, but Sparrowhawk merely laughed, a sound that no-one in that place of lost and hopeless souls could remember when they’d last heard. The other prisoners watched in wonder as he made his way back to his cell, laughing all the way.
I
It was early in the morning, November 30th 1843, when John Sparrowhawk was taken from the Fleet Prison.
     It was a bitterly cold day, the eaves of the surrounding tenements hung with icicles, the muddy gutters of Clerkenwell crackling with frost. The sky was pale grey, dots of snow spiralling down. The coachman was suitably attired: coated, gloved and muffled around his lower face. With his topper pulled down, only his nose was visible. He said nothing but waited patiently. The door to his carriage, which was painted all over with black enamel, stood open on a plush interior.
     Sparrowhawk, who’d emerged from the prison with a small sack of belongings and a blanket wrapped around him, climbed inside. The prison gate clanged shut, and the vehicle sped away. They drove straight to Westminster, halting at the rear of a tall, narrow building, which Sparrowhawk recognised as the hydropathic baths. Here, an attendant was waiting, a big, raw-boned fellow with thick, red whiskers and braces over his linen undershirt. The tattoos on his brawny arms indicated a military background. When he spoke, it was with a Highlands accent.
     “Captain Sparrowhawk, sir,” he said. “My name’s Angus. I’m to look after you today.”
     Sparrowhawk was led inside. He undressed in the changing room and was given a loincloth and robe. He then watched bemusedly as Angus took his ragged prison garb out into the yard and poked it, piece by piece, into a lighted brazier.
     “Filth, sir,” Angus said by way of explanation. “No state of mind or manner of speech sets the poor man apart from the rich man as much as filth. We are like two nations in Britain today, those who are clean and those who are filthy. The sooner we break this barrier, the sooner we break the divide in our society.”
     Sparrowhawk was then sent into the first caldarium, a bare brick chamber with a tiled floor. He took off his robe and sat on a bench. The hot, dry air from the furnaces entered through vents near his feet and swirled around him. It was the first time he’d been properly warm for nearly three months, but the painful tingle in his numbed extremities soon faded and he began to relax, imagining the dirt with which he’d been ingrained running away in trickles of sweat. After ten minutes, he went through to the second caldarium, where the temperature was much higher. Now he sweated feverishly, but it relaxed him even more. Prolonged extremes of heat may be uncomfortable to many, but when you’ve been exposed to gnawing cold for so long – when you’ve slept under threadbare rags in a place where your vaporous breath hangs over you all night like a frozen shroud, when you’ve lived in a room where the damp on the inside walls regularly glistens with ice – you learn that you can never have too much of a good thing.
     The atmosphere in the third caldarium exceeded 160 degrees. Even Sparrowhawk was only able to remain in there for a short time, but now his body was almost cleansed. The pores in his skin could breathe again. His hair, once filled with dust and spider-webs, was a wringing mop. He ran his fingers through it, rubbing his scalp with a scented salve that Angus had given him before entering, the burly Scot having promised that it would “do for all his ticks and lice”.
     After the caldaria came the frigidarium, or cooling room, which contained the plunge pool. Here, he swam naked for a short time, before traipsing into the hammam, which was arched and decorated in the traditional eastern style. He lay face down on a wicker couch.
     Most of the time in the Fleet Prison, there was naught to do but sleep. For many inmates this became pathological – it was simply too agonising to be awake. But in truth you never really slept. You were always half aware of your decayed surroundings, of the vermin scurrying over your prone body, of the vile wretches who might sneak upon you and pillage your paltry wares. You rarely, if ever, woke refreshed, before having to stumble through yet another torturous day in a state of semi-torpor. Now at last, Sparrowhawk did sleep – or at least he was preparing to. When a pair of gentle hands began to manipulate his neck and shoulders, he all but sank into himself. Light, nimble fingers – he imagined they belonged to a woman, though of course such a thing would be most unseemly – worked expertly to loosen his knots of muscle.
     “Miss Evangeline?” he breathed, delighted by the mere thought.
     He pictured her leaning over him, clad only in petticoats and a bodice, the latter unlaced, the former clinging with sweat, her blonde ringlets hanging damp around her pretty face.
     And then she dug her nails in, deeply.
     He winced and grunted, but she dug all the harder, and suddenly there were claws affixed to his shoulders – not hands, but talons, which burrowed through the wasted flesh, rending and tearing at it viciously. Sparrowhawk knew the Turkish massage could be robust, but this was too much. One claw fastened onto the side of his neck and started to squeeze. Again, sharp nails cut into him, clamping his throat, constricting his breath.
     “Good God!” he gasped, twisting where he lay and looking around.
     No shampooer was present. Sparrowhawk lay alone.
     He jumped up from the couch. The hammam was empty. One passage led off towards the smoking area, the other back to the frigidarium, the doorway to which was filled with opaque mist undisturbed by the passage of anyone. A bad dream, he reflected. Surely no surprise after his ordeals of recent times? But when he touched his neck and shoulders, they were aching and bruised. He felt wheals in the skin.
     Angered, he went through into the frigidarium.     
     The plunge pool, the little he could see of it in the rolling vapour, was a glassy sheet; not a ripple broke its surface. There was no sound, save the dripping of condensation on the tiled floor. When he went back into the hammam, Angus had appeared, carrying a sponge thick with lather and a bundle of fluffy towels.
     “Ready for your shampoo, sir?” the Scot asked.
     “I thought I’d already had it,” Sparrowhawk said.
     “Not got around to you yet, sir. I have a couple of other customers to attend to as well.”
     “You have no other shampooers?”
     “None on duty today, sir.”
     “You wouldn’t by any chance employ a woman here?”
     Angus looked shocked. “To work on a gentleman, sir? We’d have the police calling!”
     “There are no women here at all?”
     “Not today, sir. It’s gentlemen only today.”
     Sparrowhawk said nothing more. He allowed himself to be ‘shampooed’, as the owners of these exotic establishments referred to it, this time properly, and if the Scot’s vigorous attentions to his shoulders and neck caused him to flinch, he said nothing about it. 
     When his session was over, he was shown to a private room, where he was able to shave and don a suit of gentleman’s clothes awaiting him on a hanger. In the inside pocket of the green frockcoat, he found a leather wallet containing £30. He was able to tip Angus from this, the overall fee apparently having been paid in advance by someone else.
     Outside, it was snowing heavily and settling even in the midst of London’s swarming traffic. Across the road there was an inn, and in its downstairs window, lit by the ruddy flames of a log fire, Miss Evangeline waited at a private table. 
     “You look much better,” she said when he entered. She indicated that he should sit. He noticed that knives, forks and napkins had been laid out for them both.
     “These clothes are a little big on me,” he said self-consciously.
     “No matter. Your frame will soon fill out now that you’ve returned to normal life.”
     She’d dressed today in purple satin, her bonnet lavishly decorated with bows and ribbons; she looked quite dazzling. Somewhat cowed by this, Sparrowhark removed his topper, and sat, regarding her warily. It all seemed terribly unreal. Two days ago, he was a pauper who couldn’t even afford his own freedom. Yet now he wore new leather shoes and white nankin trousers! His wallet clinked with silver!
     “You’ve done so much for me that I can’t imagine what service you’re expecting in return,” he said.
     “I’ll tell you duly,” she replied. “But first let us eat.”
     Miss Evangeline was a remarkable woman in more ways than one. Despite her looks and youth – she was somewhere close to thirty, yet with the freshness and vitality of a schoolgirl – she was of a strong, independent spirit. Not only was she here in the middle of London without a chaperone (he assumed – a glance around the crowded interior revealed no-one showing interest in them), but she took it on herself to order their meal and, without consulting her male guest, asked also for a jug of mulled wine spiced with orange and cinnamon.
     When the repast was set out, a haunch of venison with a bowl of boiled potatoes and steamed carrots, Sparrowhawk gazed at it uncomprehendingly. For a man who recently had gnawed on black bread and drank melt-water from a cracked pipe, the aroma was almost overpowering. But how had such a change come about?
     He failed to understand, and when he didn’t understand something it frightened him.
     “Miss Evangeline,” he said, “do you know who I actually am?”
     “Of course.” She carved him a portion of meat, ladled it with gravy and added vegetables. “Take some advice, if you would, captain. Though you may strongly be tempted, pray, do not wolf your food – your innards will be weakened by the rubbish you’ve been living on in the Fleet.”
     “Are you sure you know who I am?”
     “I’m fully aware of your history.” She served herself a daintier portion.
     “Miss Evangeline, I’m not just a war veteran and a debtor, I’m …”
     “You’re a widower,” she interrupted, glancing up at him. “Which is a surprise to no-one who knows you. You may not have murdered your wife, captain, but she died because you were an absolute swine to her.” She watched him without blinking. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
     For some unfathomable reason, it didn’t surprise him that she knew so much about him.
     “I neglected her,” he admitted.
     “Oh, I think you did a little more than that.” Miss Evangeline sat back in her chair, still watching him. “Such a sweet girl, Leticia, and so in love with you … to be repaid the way she was.”
     “I didn’t, I never …” How often he’d used this defence, yet even when there was no-one to use it against save himself, it had never sounded genuine. “I never harmed her physically.”
     “No, but you didn’t love her. And you rarely hesitated to show it.”
     He shrugged, indicating that he didn’t feel he was totally to blame. “I’d had no option but to marry her.”
     “You impregnated her, did you not? After the Grand Christmas Ball at Horse Guards.”
     “Marrying her was the honourable thing.”
     “Even though her family, the Frodshams, didn’t want that for her? They disliked you so much as a military dissolute that they’d rather have lived with their daughter’s shame.”
     “They didn’t know me properly.”
     Miss Evangeline considered this. “Sometimes our reputations are not the whole story, I’ll give you that. But what else were they to think, given that your own family had barely spoken to you in nearly two decades? Remind me what happened to the child.”
     “The child?”
     “The reason you married Leticia.”
     “It … he died during birth.”
     “That must have been a blow to you both. Did you try for another?”
     He wondered how she could ask such impertinent questions, much less how he could be answering them like this. And yet there was nothing intense in her gaze – she hadn’t mesmerised him or hypnotised him. But she held him all the same with those lovely violet eyes.
     “We didn’t exactly try,” he said.
     “You weren’t close physically?”
     “Sometimes.” He smiled with distant fondness, recalling his late wife’s excitable manner and the delight in her face after the doctor’s next visit. “Leticia never had a problem getting with child.”
     “No,” Miss Evangeline said. “It was the delivering that was the problem, wasn’t it? Your second child was a girl. I understand that she too died while trying to be born.”
     “Yes.” It surprised Sparrowhawk that he was suddenly blinking away tears. He hadn’t thought there were any tears left in his body to cry.
     “How did you respond to that, captain?”
     “I left.”
     “Left?”
     “I went abroad with my regiment.”
     “Hmm.” Miss Evangeline pondered. “An odd thing for a husband to do with his wife in such a pitiful state.”
     “There was war. I was being deployed to Afghanistan.”
     “Ahhh now … Captain Sparrowhawk, our relationship will not blossom if you lie to me. You weren’t being deployed to Afghanistan, were you? You volunteered.”
     “I had skills that were needed.”
     “Nevertheless, you volunteered. No-one would have thought the less of you if you hadn’t gone.”
     “I had no idea how badly Leticia was hurt.”
     “What did you expect?”
     “She only took ill after I’d left.”
     “Almost straight away after. When it suddenly dawned on her that she would not be seeing you again for a very considerable time.”
     He regarded the victuals on his plate. The meat was cooling, the gravy congealing. For months he’d been gaunt with hunger, watering at the gills just imagining food – but now he had no appetite for anything.
     “If you know all this about me,” he said, “why on Earth are you employing me?”
     “Why indeed? Well … as I said before, Captain Sparrowhawk, you may be a very inadequate man. But on the other hand you were a very good soldier. And it’s the soldier we’re interested in at present.”
     She raised her goblet in toast to him. But she wasn’t smiling. And only now did he fully understand that, whatever she had in mind for him, it would be no jolly holiday.

II
That night, Sparrowhawk suffered another strange occurrence, this one of an even less benign sort – as Miss Evangeline had forecast that he probably would.
     “You must protect someone,” she said during the afternoon, as they drove towards an address in Camden Town that had been rented for him.
     “Who?” he asked.
     “Nobody of significance. Just an ordinary man.”
     “I don’t understand.”
     “He lives in a house in Bloomsbury. It’s not important that you know his name. All that matters is that he’ll need protection during the first three weeks of December.”
     “Only the first three weeks?”
     “Yes. From that point on, others will take charge.”
     Sparrowhawk pondered this. “Who wishes him ill?”
     “Again, I can’t give you a name. But three individuals will attempt to attack him at his home during the hours of darkness.”
     “I still don’t understand.”
     “Three visitants – each of a distinctly unpleasant nature – will come. They will come separately, and each will make one attempt to enter the premises. You must stop them all.”
     “Miss Evangeline, I need to know more if I’m to do a proper job.”
     “I can’t tell you any more at present but take this.” She handed him an envelope. “There are several addresses in here. Inns and eating houses where you might contact me during the course of the mission. There is also a residential address where you might find me quickly should the need arise, though I can’t stress enough that this must only occur if it is absolutely necessary. There is also the address of the man you must protect. Keep vigil at his house every night from tomorrow onward until December 21st, and if he is unharmed by that date your task will be complete.”
      Sparrowhawk opened the envelope. Inside, as she had said, there was a printed card bearing various addresses. The two that interested him most were Miss Evangeline’s ‘residential address’, which was 13, Rislington Row, Eastcheap, a surprisingly seedy district in his opinion, and the address he was to defend: 48, Doughty Street, Bloomsbury.
     “It would help immeasurably if I knew the opposition,” he said.
     “I can only tell you that they will strike hard and in, shall we say, unusual ways. It’s also possible that you won’t see them until they are right upon you, so you must be watchful all the time.”
     He gazed at her. “This is ridiculous. An enemy whose strength and disposition are unknown to me? An enemy I can’t even see…?”
     “How often did you see the Ghilazi tribesmen until they were ready? When you set out from Kabul to Jellalabad with more women and children in your column than fellow soldiers, had you any idea you’d be facing a foe fifty thousand strong?”
     He hesitated to reply as unpleasant memories were stirred. Outside, it was already growing dark.
     Snow fell heavily and steadily, London’s workers thronging through it as they made their way home wrapped in plumes of smoky breath.
     Fleetingly they were wraiths: ragged stick figures trudging through a dark and desolate land. It was the retreat from Kabul all over again, the British army and their dependents straggling for miles along icy, muddy tracks, frozen and starved, incessantly harried by packs of Afghan horsemen, their corpses littering the wayside.
     “If all I have to do is stand guard at night, I can manage that,” he finally said.
     “There is one other thing, captain – this man must not know you are there.”
     “Come again?”
     “He must never be aware of you.”
     “But that makes no sense.”
     “Watch the house. Do not under any circumstance announce yourself. If you do that for any reason – any reason at all – I will bill your bail straight back to the debtors’ court and you will be re-arrested and forced to serve the remainder of your sentence.”
     Sparrowhawk was baffled. “Won’t it help him to know? Give him some reassurance that he’s safe?”
     “He needs no reassurance because he doesn’t know that he is in danger. If you inform him, however, things may alter dramatically and for the worse.”
     Sparrowhawk peered out into the winter gloom.
     At length, he said: “No.”
     She glanced round at him. “Excuse me?”
     “I won’t do it.” He shook his head, quite firmly. “You’re asking too much. Taking me from the frying pan into the fire and expecting me to thank you for it. Miss Evangeline … I’m a soldier, not a night watchman. To give an adequate level of protection, I need intelligence on my enemy. I don’t consider that an unreasonable request, and if you and your masters do, I think I’m better off in the Fleet than serving whatever futile cause you’ve been trusted with.”
     She regarded him carefully and sighed. “The most I can tell you is that this man is engaged in a project on our behalf – very secret and very important. This is why you must guard him. The party I represent would have a difficult time if this project were interrupted.”
     “You said I’d be recompensed. How much?”
     “Your lodgings are paid for in advance – at least until Christmastide is over. Plus, you’ll have living expenses throughout December. A final fee will be paid to you on completion of the work, but that will of course depend on your performance.”
     “No man ever agreed to such a thing.”
     “No man ever was released from the debtors’ prison without having paid a penny of the debt himself.”
     Their carriage trundled beneath a brick arch and arrived in a courtyard surrounded by tall, narrow buildings. Some of the lower windows were broken and boarded. Only a few of those upstairs had lights in them. Sparrowhawk made to climb out, but Miss Evangeline put a hand on his arm.
     “Stay alert, captain. Even during daylight when you’re off duty. Once you’ve been identified as a threat, you too may receive unwanted visitors.”
     “Your concern charms me.” He jumped down into the snow. “I’ll keep an eye open.”
     “Keep both open. This enemy is very clever.”
     “They’ll need to be cleverer than this morning.”
     “This morning?” She sounded puzzled.
     “Some wretch tried to strangle me in the bathhouse. But all they managed to hurt was my pride because I was caught napping.”
     “Then it’s begun already.” She looked troubled, even alarmed.
     “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “Just tell these people – I understand espionage and I refuse to believe you haven’t got a channel of communication to them – that the next one who comes had better be armour-plated. I won’t be caught twice.”
     But later that night it wasn’t quite so simple.
     Sparrowhawk’s quarters were a suite of three drab rooms, which he found at the top of a damp, rickety stair. They were clean enough, but only minimally furnished, with frayed rugs over their bare floorboards. However, there were two fireplaces, both stacked with coal and kindling, and in the bedroom a narrow but comfortable bed, which looked and smelled as if it had been made up with fresh bedding. Alongside it was a dresser, and on this a bowl of water – and if the water had frozen over, which it had, Sparrowhawk didn’t suppose he could really lay the blame for that at the door of his benefactors. There was also a wardrobe containing several changes of clothing. None of these were expensive; in fact, all erred towards the rougher, readier end of the market – which made sense. It would be less easy for a dandy to blend into the city’s dark places.
     The third room was a small scullery. It wasn’t exactly crammed to bursting, but there were pots and pans in there, cutlery and various tinned consumables on its shelves, plus a stack of candles. Some thoughtful soul had also left him a pipe, a wedge of tobacco and a small bottle of French brandy. As promised, there was enough money for him to get by over the next few days.
     He lit a fire in the living room, boiled himself some porridge, pulled the easy chair in front of the flames and set a match to his pipe. His preferred means of smoking was the cigar – in particular the Cuban cheroot – but his funds didn’t run to such luxuries at present. Gradually the room warmed, and he found himself sliding into a snooze.
     The December wind wailed in the chimney, causing the flames to flare in the grate. Beyond the curtained casements, he imagined billions of snowflakes tumbling over the jumbled roofs and chimneys of London. By now, it would be unbearably cold in the bowels of the Fleet. Many of its inmates would not survive these bitter months; each morning they’d be brought out blue in the face, rigid as boards, and tossed like trash into a pauper’s grave. Harsh, unrelenting cold was something he’d become accustomed to during his sojourns along the Khyber Pass, but there was no guarantee that he himself could have avoided such a fate if he’d stayed in prison. His good fortune to be taken from that place of desolation could not be overstated, but then he recalled Miss Evangeline’s concern when he’d told her about the incident in the bathhouse, and he wondered about the nameless foe that alarmed her so much.
     And that was when he heard the first creak on the stair.
     It was nothing, he surmised – a shutter tapping in the blizzard, woodwork contracting with the cold. But then a second creak followed, and a third. They were footfalls.
     Sparrowhawk leapt to his feet.
     The door to his apartment was closed and locked, but so was the door downstairs, the outer door connecting with the courtyard. Nobody could have entered unless they had a key. He briefly relaxed. Miss Evangeline probably – she’d told him that she was the only other key-holder to this property. But now more footfalls ascended. And these weren’t the dainty treads of a lady – they were heavy, uncoordinated clumps, made by more than one pair of feet.
     He grabbed the fire-poker and stood ready.
     That these people, whoever they were, had caught up with him in the Turkish bath didn’t say much for Miss Evangeline’s level of security. But their closing in on his private lodgings, and so quickly, suggested that it was virtually nonexistent. He would have to take that up with her. He moved to the door. Putting his ear to the wood, he now heard only silence on the other side – almost as if whoever was out there was aware that he was listening and had paused – only for them to abruptly proceed again, clumping, stumbling loudly, maybe seven or eight pairs of feet all at the same time.  Sparrowhawk pictured boots, caked not just with ice and snow but with mud and blood, bound with filthy, gangrenous rags.
     Raising the poker to his shoulder, he backed into the room, pushing the chair out of his way to give himself space. It occurred to him that if they were armed – maybe with the new Brunswick rifles – they could shoot clean through the door, so he stepped to one side. But again, the feet, now apparently at the top of the stair, halted.
     A prolonged silence followed.
     Despite the fire, Sparrowhawk felt an eerie, penetrating chill. He hardly dared breathe as he strained his ears. Why were they waiting? Were there more of them yet to come up? He realised that he would have to take the initiative. Whoever they were, they were bottled up on the narrow stair. If he acted now he could meet them one at a time instead of all at once. And the first to be flung back down would take several of the others with him. Sparrowhawk advanced to the door, wiping his moist palms on his waistcoat. He paused one more time to listen – still there was silence on the other side. He couldn’t imagine who they might be. They could be half-dead with cold for all he knew.      Their clumsy ascent had indicated men exhausted or disoriented. As bewildered as he was frightened, he turned the lock and yanked the door open.
     The landing beyond was empty.
     He stepped forward and peered down the stair. It was pitch black down there, but pale light, reflecting from the gas lamp in the snowy courtyard, poked in pencil-thin shafts around the outer door. No skulking or crouching figures blocked it.
     Sparrowhawk’s hair prickled. He knew that he hadn’t imagined those clumping feet. His years of front-line service had allowed him to distinguish between dream and reality. He rushed to his mantel, took a candle, lit it and went back to the stair. The flame cast luminescence all the way to the bottom. There was definitely nobody there, though when he sniffed the air, he fancied there was a vague, unpleasant smell reminiscent of rotting flesh.
     He descended. The outer door rattled as the wind battered it. But this too was locked, and not just by his key. Both the upper and lower bolts were rammed home – exactly as he’d left them earlier. No-one could have entered, and certainly they could not have entered and left again.
     Sparrowhawk returned to his rooms, closing and locking the door behind him. He wondered briefly about the assailant in the bathhouse and how strange it was that he too had vanished without trace. And then he spotted the large bold message, which, in his brief absence downstairs, had been inscribed on the wall above his fireplace. He approached it slowly, eyes goggling – before going around the rest of his rooms like a whirlwind, searching every nook and cranny but finding nothing. He checked all his windows, but they too were locked. Outside, the streets were deserted. Scarcely a track – either of man, animal or cartwheel – was visible in the crisp new blanket of snow.
     On legs so shaky they could barely support him, Sparrowhawk moved back to the fireplace. The message had been made by a finger dipped in ordure or blood, or a foul mixture of both. It read:

SEASON’S GREETINGS


(Okay folks, that’s all. Hope you enjoyed. If you want to read the rest, just follow the links ...)

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THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

THE SILENT COMPANIONS 
by Laura Purcell (2017)

A nightmare tale told in three parallel strands.

In the 1860s, Elsie Bainbridge, a burned, mute and seemingly deranged woman, lies in a secure ward in St Joseph’s, a lunatic asylum deep in the English countryside. Here, the attentive Dr Shepherd provides her with an empty diary and encourages her to jot down the terrible events that led to the destruction of The Bridge, the stately residence she once called home, and her resulting mental collapse. The doctor is certain that only by giving her own twisted account of these incredible events, can Elsie prove to the authorities that she is clinically insane, and thereby evade the gallows. Despite this, Elsie resists for as long as she can, unable to revisit the horrors that have recently ruined her life, but in due course, inevitably, she succumbs.

Thus begins the second strand in the tale, with Elsie Bainbridge, now half a year younger, but pregnant and recently widowed, arriving at The Bridge, her late husband’s neglected country estate, in company with her self-confident younger brother, Jolyon Livingstone, and the cousin of her late husband, Sarah Bainbridge (who is even more grief-stricken than Elsie, as she has now seen everything that once belonged to her family pass into the hands of an in-law).

The Bridge is a drear, decaying edifice in a remote and desolate location, to which all kinds of unedifying legends are attached. The staff, used to having things their own way, are openly hostile and uncooperative, while the local villagers, who live in a permanently impoverished state, dislike everyone at the local manor house and blame them for all their ills, the direct cause of which, they suspect, is witchcraft.

Already traumatised at having lost her husband, and worn out by her pregnancy, Elsie struggles to adapt to this terrible environment. But when Jolyon returns to London to run the family business, the situation worsens as she and the ultra-timid Sarah begin hearing strange sounds at night. They trace these to a locked attic, which no one seems willing or able to open, though when Elsie manages this, she finds that it contains a 17th century diary, and a so-called ‘silent companion’: a flat, lifesize figure made from painted wood, depicting a child that is alarmingly similar in appearance to Elsie, herself, when she was young. 

From here on, the terrors mount. There are more and more eerie noises in the house, while the silent companions, inexplicably, begin to multiply, appearing all over the building, at the ends of corridors or looking down from internal balconies, always, it seems, watching. The increasingly distraught Elsie thinks she recognises some of the persons they represent, while others are complete strangers, yet all are chilling in the intensity of their stares … and could it be Elsie and Sarah’s imagination, or do these horrible figures actually move around the house on their own when no-one is looking?

The 17th century diary, meanwhile (the third strand in our story), tells its own tale of menace, following the declining fortunes of Anne Bainbridge, whose husband, Josiah, is a country gent of minor importance in the years leading up to the Civil War. His one chance to impress comes unexpectedly, when King Charles I opts to visit The Bridge, the ancestral Bainbridge seat. Anne prepares The Bridge thoroughly, as any good chatelaine should, planning to treat her royal guests to a magnificent masque, but she has a dark and guilty secret: her habitual use of rural magic, which as a Christian woman she is certain will bring retribution on her at some point. Anne has called on the dark arts several times in the past to gain advantage, on one occasion to impregnate herself when she’d supposedly turned barren, the result of which was Hetta, her curious young daughter, who has beautiful ‘pixie’ looks, but is mute and distant, makes friends with outcasts and oddballs (like the local gypsies), and seems to possess a detailed, self-taught knowledge of herbal lore.

This is the age of witch-hunting, of course, but though the local villagers harbour suspicions about Anne and her little goblin, Hetta, they won’t dare say anything. More problematic is the attitude of Josiah, a muscular Christian in his own right, who also hates and fears witches. If he has any concerns about his wife and daughter, he keeps them to himself until the time of the king’s visit draws near, at which point he decides that Hetta is an embarrassment and must stay out of the way.

Anne is heartbroken for her daughter, but also fearful that God’s punishment is now looming, especially when Hetta withdraws into herself, becoming surly, truculent, and surrounding herself with an eerie cadre of brand-new friends, the Silent Companions …  

When I consider the traditional English ghost story, it invariably makes me think isolated manors, cold, misty landscapes, a vengeful entity, and, quite often, some nervous, damaged individual, either male or female, lured far from civilisation to meet this nemesis – and all of it set in that ageless if generic Victorian/Edwardian time-loop.

All these criteria are staples of the classic spooky tale, and whether dated or not in the 21st century – and that’s very subjective! – they surely can’t help but infuse a majority of us with a deep sense of foreboding, picking at what appear to be our deepest fears.

If you include yourself in that majority, then The Silent Companions is a book for you. But be warned from the outset, this is a seriously frightening foray into the genre. When Laura Purcell embarked on this novel, there was no intent to produce a ‘Gothic romance’, a ‘period mystery’ or a ‘supernatural thriller’. The Silent Companions is out-and-out horror.

Yes, it might have the trappings of an archetypical ghost story, something you’d expect to read in a firelit drawing room some snowy Christmas Eve (as I did), but the ghastly evil at The Bridge comes at us and our isolated heroine, Elsie, with a malicious brutality reminiscent of the merciless spirit in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the manifestations growing steadily more disturbing (even if the early ones are done ultra-subtly), until it becomes obvious that an appalling crescendo will soon be reached.

Moreover, any suggestion that the malignancy here is perpetrated by a human hand is jettisoned early on by the presence of those awful watching figures, the titular Companions. Though the actual secrets of The Bridge are never given away until the very end of the novel – masterly writing by Laura Purcell, to protract the mystery to that length! – the possibility always remains, mainly due to Elsie’s increasingly unreliable state, that there is a psychological factor here too, the sort found in Shirley Jackon’s The Haunting of Hill House, though readers with faint hearts should take no comfort from this, as it only serves to boost the nightmare.

As a story, The Silent Companions is filled with fascinating characters. No-one here is stock or run-of-the-mill, not even lesser characters like the two maids, Helen and Mabel, who provide realistic portrayals of churlish and impudent ex-workhouse girls, while housekeeper, Edna Holt, instead of being a typical trusty stalwart of the older staff, is another difficult presence, harbouring thinly-veiled resentment of her youthful new mistress.

The book’s three leads are equally well-drawn.

Elsie herself is stronger and grittier than the average Victorian-era heroine, very much a high-handed lady of the period – dressing well, minding her manners and casually ordering her servants around – but also one who is risen from nothing and the daughter of abusive parents. Her father a factory-owner, she grew up amid the smoke and ashes of London’s industrial quarter, an early life from which she bears both mental and physical scars – which, in its turn, has marooned her somewhere between the two worlds of the establishment and the underclass, meaning that she’s able to draw friends and allies from neither. This has toughened her, of course, though not to a silly degree. Elise is a feisty woman by the standards of her time, but when the haunting at The Bridge commences, she wilts like all the rest.

This is all in stark contrast to Sarah Bainbridge, Elsie’s ‘Plain Jane’ cousin-in-law, and a neurotic, self-pitying individual, who, convinced that she has been left on the shelf, cuts a pathetic figure in whose support Elsie simply can’t trust. Of course, as is regularly the case in this novel, the still waters that are Sarah Bainbridge could run deceptively deep. 

Anne Bainbridge meanwhile, the mistress of the house in the 17th century, is a different animal again. A beautiful and respected lady-of-the-manor, she dominates her immediate world with an authority that Elise could only dream of, but nevertheless lives in dread of her even more powerful husband, Josiah, to the point where she can barely raise an objection to his callous mistreatment of their ‘faerie child’, Hetta. She also fears God, certain that he will plunge her into Hell for those dabblings in the dark arts, and perhaps even more so, His servants on Earth – the witchfinders – who will punish her equally severely if her tricks are discovered. Anne, the second most important character in The Silent Companions, is another mother caught between two opposing forces, and another commanding presence who in the end wields such little real command that her world will be consumed by elemental forces beyond her control.

I don’t want to say too much more about The Silent Companions, because this is a book of very well-kept secrets, which will intrigue and enthrall you as much as frighten you, and keep you guessing to the very last page. Suffice to say that the two strands, both the 17th century and the 19th century stories, while running parallel to each other, dovetail repeatedly and perfectly, in the end creating a single narrative which is presented to us in the most sumptuous, readable prose, and filled not just with eeriness, but with moments of spectacular terror.

Overall, one of the most satisfying ghost stories I’ve read in quite a long time.

As always at the end of one of my reviews, I’m going to do my bit to lobby for a TV or film adaptation by nominating the cast I would choose should such a fortunate circumstance arise … and given the dearth of recent Ghost Stories for Christmas productions by the BBC, there ought to be a vacant slot on the horizon soon! So, here we go; feel free to disagree or agree, as the mood takes you.  

Elsie Bainbridge – Tamsin Egerton
Anne Bainbridge – Christina Cole
Sarah Bainbridge – Lily Cole
Josiah Bainbridge – Ben Barnes
Jolyon Livingstone – Freddie Highmore
Dr. Shepherd – Bill Nighy
Edna Holt – Penelope Wilton

One of the most important characters in The Silent Companions is undoubtedly Hetta Bainbridge, but as she’s a very young child, it would be well beyond my ability to find someone adequate for the role. So that’s one part I’ll happily leave to the official Casting Director (he or she will doubtless be glad to know).

(The image at the top comes to us courtesy of the classic Christmas horror movie of 2015, Krampus).