Friday, 13 December 2013

MIDNIGHT SERVICE: a festive spook story

Well, it's almost that time of year again - only a few shopping days remain but most of us are still stuck in front of computers and can't yet get out there to start cutting evergreens and stocking our Christmas booze, so I thought this a useful moment to post my annual Christmas spook story. 
     This is a tradition I've fallen into over the years, rather than consciously sought out. But what can I say other than I love the festive ghost story? It's one of the highlights of the season for me, so it's a custom I'm going to re-invoke every year, if possible. 
     This Christmas I'm posting a 2012 story of mine called MIDNIGHT SERVICE, which has never been published on the written page - not as yet - but first appeared this time last year on the HarperCollins thrillers blog. It seemed to go down very well at the time. If you didn't get to see it then, and you've got 20 minutes or so to kill, now's your chance. Hope you enjoy ...


It wasn’t snowing heavily but it was sufficient to cover the ground, and Capstick couldn’t suppress an ironic grin. Every December, people hoped and prayed for a white Christmas, yet whenever one happened, the entire infrastructure of the United Kingdom seemed to fall apart. Offices closed early, trains got delayed and now, it seemed, bus journeys were cancelled.
     “It’s more than my job’s worth to continue tonight,” the chubby driver had announced after unexpectedly pulling off the main trunk road somewhere between Derby and Macclesfield, into a town whose name Capstick hadn’t managed to catch. “We can’t possibly risk these surfaces any more, and apparently the weather’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
     Beyond the open entrance to the station garage, flakes fluttered down like dove feathers. Yet the crisp layer they’d formed on the roads and pavements was only carpet deep. God help us if we lived in Canada or Siberia, Capstick thought.
     “Hey, whoa … I know it’s a problem!” the driver added, turning defensively pink at the chorus of groans. “No-one wants this on Christmas Eve. I’m stuck here too. But it’s my backside on the line if we have an accident. The company will do its best to fix you up with lodgings, but this bus can’t go any further tonight.”

     Capstick, now trudging away from the coach station with satchel slung at his shoulder, had not bothered waiting to see what the company managed to come up with. No doubt some soulless motel on a motorway lay-bye, with no bar, no restaurant and next to no staff. It would be just about bearable any other night of the year – and at the end of the day he probably didn’t have a lot of alternative tonight either, but for the moment he was too angry to think straight let alone stand around in that drab waiting-room and make polite conversation with people he didn’t know.
     But whichever town he’d been marooned in, it wasn’t especially prepossessing. He’d expected it to resemble most other provincial towns at ten-thirty on Christmas Eve: hung with garish illuminations, crammed end-to-end with shouting, fighting, vomiting revelers. Well, the decorations were here, but the moronic mob wasn’t. The streets were eerily empty as he prowled them; even the strands of multi-coloured lights zigzagging back and forth overhead and the snow crunching underfoot failed to create an atmosphere of cheer. There was an indelible dinginess about the buildings; they were old, sooty, and of varied shapes and styles, with no apparent thought given to the elegance and order that usually earmarked modern town-planning. Shops, factories and apartment houses stood side by side along every thoroughfare, all closed, all teetering over Capstick’s head as he proceeded up steep, narrow alleys or down flights of winding, icy steps, his breath smoking, his fingers turning numb despite his woolen gloves.
     Nowhere did he see a hotel sign or even a bed-and-breakfast, though God alone knew what any such accommodation would be like in this dump. Not that he’d had a great deal to look forward to anyway, if he was honest. It had been Gretchen’s idea that he go and spend Christmas Day in Manchester, though he didn’t know why she was so adamant about it. His family never had a pleasant thing to say about her, even though they hadn’t once met her. Marlene would give him her usual frosty reception. His kids were now fourteen and sixteen, so it wasn’t as if they needed their daddy present. But even if they did, Tabby was a teen terror whose aggressive selfishness infuriated him after just a few minutes (though Marlene seemed willing to endure any amount of it – which was probably half of the problem), while Tommy was a boorish oaf who had inherited right wing views from somewhere and yet never had any arguments to back them up.
     On the subject of Gretchen, Capstick tried to call her for the third time, but again there was no answer. It wasn’t particularly late – she would still be out with her friends, partying. He couldn’t help feeling sour about that. He’d always known that getting involved with one of his students had the potential to create this kind of situation; her wanting to trip the light fantastic and him preferring to sit in front of the TV. She was no longer a student of course, but that age-gap was still there. An ugly thought occurred to him about why she was so ready to spend Christmas without him, but he shook it from his mind. 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:


     Capstick turned the handle and shoved the door open.
     He was confronted with a long, bare corridor lit by weak electric bulbs. The floor was flagged; the walls and ceiling made from painted plaster, which was much cracked, and festooned in its high corners with clumps of dust-thick cobweb. At the far end, a female figure passed from sight through a half-open door.
     Capstick stayed where he was, snowflakes gusting past him. The woman had been wrapped in a shawl and wearing a floor-length skirt and a coal-scuttle bonnet. Period costume? That seemed odd, though just now it didn’t really matter. He closed the door, blocking out most of the bitter cold, though his breath still puffed in discernible clouds. To his left, there appeared to be a kind of porter’s lodge, its open door exposing a row of empty coat-hooks. A little further along there was another door; warily, he advanced and glanced through it. This room boasted a white-tiled floor, clean metal surfaces and racks of gleaming utensils. He’d never heard of a church having a kitchen before, but maybe this was one of those all-in-one places, church and church-hall together.
     He wandered further along the corridor, passing another entrance on the right, beyond which a dark, narrow stair led upward, and approaching the door at the far end. When he pushed this, it swung open on a much larger room, which again made him think he was in a church-hall. Its peeling plaster walls were covered with dog-eared notices and wads of age-yellowed paperwork. At one end, some kind of stage had been set up: a low wooden platform with a green baize curtain drawn across it. About ten rows of stiff-backed wooden chairs were arranged to face this, none currently occupied, though on a nearby shelf there was an old oil-lantern, possibly having just been deposited there by whoever Capstick had seen enter.
     He ventured forward a few yards.  
     The room had been decorated for the season. Swags of evergreen were looped around the walls at just above head-height. A tall Christmas tree occupied one corner, hung with variously coloured baubles, bits of tinsel and streamers. More clusters of seasonal greenery were draped over the backs of each chair, while a lengthy sideboard down the left-hand side, no doubt a repository for teacups and plates of biscuits on normal occasions, had been laid with a crimson cloth and sported a dignified centre-piece: a large holly wreath sprouting four lighted candles. Pleasant enough, but Capstick couldn’t help thinking it all a little tatty. This stuff had probably been stored in cardboard boxes for the last twelve months, no doubt in some dismal attic. He half-expected a spider or cockroach to emerge from the nearest bunch of mistletoe.
     As he pondered this, the baize curtain twitched.
     “Oh, hello?” he said, edging his way through the chairs towards the stage. “Look, I’m sorry for the intrusion, but I was wondering if you could help me?”
     There was no response, but the curtain twitched again. Someone was definitely there.
     “Hello?” Capstick repeated. Still there was no reply. Cautiously, he reached for the curtain.   
     “Can I help?” came a voice from behind.
     Capstick spun around. A tall, lean figure in a gray suit and clerical collar, with a pale face and short sandy hair, had entered the hall behind him.
     “Oh, I’m sorry …” Capstick stammered, not sure whether to address the man as ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend’. “But, well, this may sound a bit ridiculous …”
     “Gentleman of the road, are you?”
     “What?” Capstick was startled. Surely he didn’t look that bad? He brushed self-consciously at his beard. “Erm … no, though I will admit to being lost.”
     “So many do at this festive time of year.”  
     As the vicar wove his way forward through the seats, Capstick saw that he was actually quite old, his face wrinkled with a yellowish tinge, his eyes rheumy. His hair, which was colourless, was extraordinarily thin; it looked sandy from a distance because he’d greased the few lank strands of it that remained backward over his liver-spotted scalp. His suit, once smart, was dusty and crumpled.
     “I’m stuck in town by accident,” Capstick added, slightly distracted by this. “Trying to find some … well, first of all, some accommodation. And secondly, some transport out of here.”
     “The first of those we can help you with ... of course we can.” The vicar smiled, his bloodless lips drawn back on brownish pegs, and laced his fingers together. “The second, alas, no.”
     “I wasn’t asking for a bed,” Capstick replied hastily. “I’m perfectly willing to pay for a hotel … if you can put me in the right direction to find one.”
     “I’m not sure many of our local hotels will be open at this hour, Mr. … ?”
     “Capstick … Ronald Capstick.”
     The vicar nodded. He didn’t offer his own name.
     “None will be open at all?” Capstick said skeptically.
     “By all means walk around the town and have a look, but we don’t get many visitors here.”
     Can’t imagine why, Capstick thought.
     “As I say,” the vicar added, “we can accommodate you.”
     Capstick glanced across the hall to a row of three tall, arched windows – snowflakes swirled in the black tumult beyond them. This probably wasn’t the sort of offer he should turn down without at least some consideration.
     “For a small indulgence,” the vicar added.
     “Sorry … indulgence?” It immediately struck Capstick how shortsighted he’d been to have mentioned he had cash.
     “I don’t mean money,” the vicar explained, eerily, as if he was a mind-reader. “The fact is you’ve arrived here just in the nick of time, Mr. Capstick. Christmas Eve is the occasion of our annual miracle play. This year, as every year, we’re presenting the tale of the Derby Ram.”
     “Derby Ram?” Capstick was vaguely fazed by the odd turn in the conversation.
     “It’s a local story, so it doesn’t surprise me that you haven’t heard it. Doubtless there are different forms of mummery in your own town?”     
     “Doubtless.” Capstick didn’t know whether there were or weren’t.  
     “The Derby Ram tells the tale of Old Tup, a magical ram, who brought great fortune to a poor farmer and his wife. But we are a little short-handed this year, so if you were to participate …?” The vicar regarded his guest with deep interest, though up close his eyes were so cloudy and jaundiced that it was amazing he could see anything.
     “Excuse me?” Capstick said. “You’re saying you want me to be in your play?”
     “The ram is the easiest part. It has no lines.”
     “You want me to appear as Old … ?”
     “Old Tup, yes. It’s a simple thing, I assure you. All you’ll need do is wander up and down the stage in costume, behaving like, well …” those brown teeth again, “a beast of the field.”
     “And that’s all I have to do?” Capstick meant the question to be ironic.
     “It’s a small thing, but it would mean a great deal to our audience.”
     Capstick glanced at the still-empty rows of seats. “Which will be who?”
     “The orphans, of course.”
     Capstick looked at him askance. He hadn’t realised that words like ‘orphans’ were still in use, but that wasn’t his main source of puzzlement. “It’s almost half past eleven. Isn’t that rather late to be putting on a show for a bunch of children?”
     “Christmas Eve is special, Mr. Capstick. The miracle play is the precursor to our traditional midnight service.”
     “Oh, yes, of course …”
     The vicar’s interlaced hands clenched until they were knots of sinew and bone. His stained eyeballs bulged in their sockets. “I beseech you to consider this. Christmas is all about giving, as they say.”
     “Yes … sorry if I seem hesitant. I haven’t done this sort of thing very often.”
     “Oh dear.”
     “I don’t mean the giving bit. I mean …”
     “I understand.” The vicar’s thin lips worked together. He looked too disappointed for words.
     “But I don’t suppose it can hurt,” Capstick added, thinking he must be mad but asking himself what else he’d be doing with the remainder of his evening; it didn’t seem likely they’d have satellite television here and he’d almost finished his paperback during the bus journey.
     The vicar’s face broke into another brown-toothed grin. “Excellent … truly excellent. You’ll find a bedroom you can use at the top of the stairs. I’ll have your costume sent up.”
     “You’re sure I’ll only have to walk around on stage?”
     “And dance a little.”
     “To amuse the orphans. A dancing animal. A comic thing.”
     Capstick’s thoughts strayed to pantomime cows, pantomime horses – tediously unfunny icons of the annual festive farce. Horrendously embarrassing. But at least his face wouldn’t be seen. He glanced at his watch; it was twenty to twelve. “What time do we start?”
     “In ten minutes.”
     That was a relief. If the show had to wrap up before Midnight Mass, it couldn’t last for very long.
     “I’d better get a move on,” Capstick said.
     “Yes, freshen up, as the saying goes. Oh, and when you come back down, Mr. Capstick, use the back staircase. Wouldn’t want you to come in through the actual audience.”
     “Of course. Any particular reason?”
     “In your costume? Highly unprofessional.”
     Yes, because otherwise they’d think we were in the West End. Not that Capstick particularly wanted to jostle a path through a crowd of unruly urchins.
     “No problem. The back stairs.”
      But the front stairs presented problems enough. They were steep, creaky and unlit. He stumbled a couple of times as he ascended, on one occasion only his splayed hands preventing him landing face-first on the bare timber treads. It was only a little better on the next floor, where dim bulbs revealed another long passage, large patches of naked brick exposed where the plaster had rotted away. He regarded its numerous doorways helplessly; some were closed, some open. None gave any clue as to whether he’d find a bed inside them, though clearly there was someone else up here – because a whistling smack, the sound of a short, sharp impact, sounded from somewhere close by.
     Several more such impacts sounded at regular intervals, and Capstick almost blundered over the edge of another staircase, even narrower, darker and steeper than the first – the ‘back staircase’ he supposed – before he finally traced their source to the door at the landing’s farthest, dimmest end. When he pushed this one open, frigid streetlight filtering through a tall window revealed what looked like a long-disused schoolroom: a blackboard still with faint chalk etchings upon it; several all-in-one desks and chairs; a tall stool in a corner, where dunces once sat. Nothing stirred save a few threads of twisting dust. Thinking he’d made a mistake, Capstick crossed the passage to the door on the other side, but this opened on a more cavernous and yet equally desolate space. The window at its far end was arched and contained fragments of stained glass. Its floorboards were sprung and its central aisle crisscrossed by fallen beams. If there was a faint, rasping snicker from some unseen corner in there, Capstick chose to ignore it.
     He backtracked along the corridor, now seeing that another room stood open and that light shone out from it. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed it before, but when he glanced inside, he saw six iron-framed beds, three ranged to each side. One had been made up with a mattress, pillow and blankets. On inspection, these proved to be fresh, while the room, though basic – bare floorboards, bare plaster – was at least clean.  
     Capstick closed the door, dumped his satchel and crossed to the window. Decades of dead flies lay along its sill, but beyond it billions of flakes danced over the chimneys and black, slanted roofs. Directly below lay another snow-filled yard. A narrow passage led off from it, a barred gate standing at its far end. He half expected to see a coach-and-four trundle by on the other side, but in fact an ordinary Bedford van drove past, reminding him that normal life wasn’t too far away – if he could just get through tonight’s nonsense.
     There was a sound outside his bedroom door: a low whispering. He turned, expecting a knock. Was this his curtain-call?, he wondered without enthusiasm. But no knock followed. Instead there was another of those rasping snickers. Irritated, he strode across the room, but before he reached the door he heard the dull thunder of smallish feet scampering away. When he yanked the door open, there was no-one on the landing. Presumably this meant the orphans had arrived. As he closed the door again, he supposed he ought to be feeling more charitable: homeless kids, abandoned kids – ‘undomiciled’ was probably one of the in-phrases these days – Christmas Eve was bound to be an exciting time for them. A special show and then Midnight Mass. Yeah, great. Perhaps they’d get a tangerine each as a real treat.
     There was a loud knock.
     “Okay, the joke’s over,” he said aggressively, leaping back to the door and lugging it open.
     Again the landing was deserted, but now the door opposite stood ajar, and what looked like a mass of dirty lamb’s wool hung from its handle. When Capstick examined it more closely, he realised this was his costume. The fleece was real, and by the size of it, had come from a fairly hefty animal, but it was also rather repulsive: it smelled of sweat and was odiously stained, while the headpiece was crude and synthetic, a stitched cotton hood onto which additional fragments of fleece had been fixed with heavy staples. The same applied to the twisting plastic horns attached one to either temple. When Capstick tried it on, it was very uncomfortable, the hood tight, the staples pressing hard against his scalp, and the eye-slits too small for him to see out of them clearly. With a grunt, he wrestled it off, and in his efforts, brushed against the half-open door, which now opened all the way.
     Beyond it was a long room, again weakly lit, but with a rack of old clothing hung down its centre. At first Capstick wondered if these were other costumes, before realising that they were more likely give-aways: suits, dresses, jackets and coats, all shabby and rather grubby, though no doubt they’d be dry-cleaned and pressed before being donated. There were also several shelves: the highest was laden with hats, the two lower ones crammed with shoes and boots. And then he saw something else: an old signpost leaning against the wall near the window. It was clearly ancient, its timber uprights rotted clean through, its main placard so blistered by damp and eaten by moss that its flaking letters were almost indecipherable:


     Amazed, he backed out onto the landing – where he found that several of the lights had failed, including those over the main staircase and in the room where he’d be sleeping. At least, he assumed they’d failed. He doubted there was a timer in a forgotten pile like this. Either way, they’d plunged all but his immediate surroundings into blackness. Not that it mattered. He’d already decided there was no way he could spend the night here. Once this fiasco downstairs was done, he’d say his goodbyes and go looking for the nearest police station. If they couldn’t put him in the direction of a motel, no-one could. He groped his way to the top of the back staircase, the ram’s costume bundled under his arm, and, determined not to listen out for any other odd sounds from the derelict chapel, descended as hurriedly as he dared.
     But it was ludicrously dark. There didn’t seem to be any windows down there, not even small ones. On one hand this shouldn’t surprise him: he knew all about the old workhouses and how they’d been designed to be as uncomfortable as possible, to deter all but the most desperate poor; but on the other hand, if someone insisted on re-adapting one of those aged buildings for more modern use, was it asking too much that they update it a little? At the bottom of the stairs, he blundered into a damp, musty hanging – and only when he struggled past that did he at last see light: Christmas firelight shimmering around what looked like tall sections of flat, theatrical scenery. He shrugged his ram’s costume onto his shoulders as he sidled his way through. Somewhere ahead, he could hear whispers and titters of anticipation. It seemed the audience was in place.
     Then a woman stepped into his path.
     He recognised her as the woman he’d seen earlier. Her costume was rustic Victorian – that ground-length skirt, that shawl, that coal-scuttle bonnet from beneath which wisps of stringy, metal-gray hair protruded. But like Reverend What’s-His-Name, she was incredibly old, her face wizened as desiccated leather, her mouth a toothless, crumpled maw, her eyes milky, sightless orbs.
     Capstick didn’t know what else to say. “Erm … hello.”
     She simply stared at him – if she could even see him, which he doubted. He realised that someone else was talking.
     “… the ever popular Christmas Eve custom …” came a muffled voice.
     “Excuse me.” Capstick shouldered past his comatose fellow-thespian, and found himself a position from where he could see onto the stage. The green baize drapes had now been pulled aside and a row of candles – a fire hazard if ever he’d seen one – flickered along the front of the stage. Rev. What’s-His-Name was already out there. He too had donned rustic period attire: a doublet, breeches and heavy boots, with a leather apron worn over the top. He stood with one foot on a block of wood, as he continued his address.
     “… of the Derby Ram.”
     There was no immediate response, and Capstick wondered if this was supposed to be his cue.
     “Of the Derby Ram!” What’s-His-Name said again, with a hint of impatience.
     Hastily, Capstick pulled the odorous hood down over his face, but before he could fix it properly, a firm shove between his shoulder-blades – presumably from the old woman – sent him tottering out onto the stage. Immediately, there were titters and snickers from the auditorium, though Capstick could see almost nothing beyond the immediate pall of dusty candlelight, partly because the mask was so ill-fitting, but also because all the other lights in the hall had been turned off. The audience was present, however – when he looked closely, the candle-flames glinted green and scarlet from a plethora of Christmas baubles and ornaments. He imagined the young hoodlums pillaging the decorations as they came in, using them for necklaces, earrings, hats.
     “Ahhh … and here he is.” What’s-His-Name held out a hand of welcome.
     Capstick moved awkwardly forward. As he did, a dull, squeaky music track commenced: something very folksey, played on an accordion, but clearly an ancient recording as it was fogged by scratches, crackles and a repeating agonised hiss rather like a life-support machine in a hospital.
     What’s-His-Name started to sing in a creaky, warbling tone, telling the tale of a journey to Derby, during which a ram was encountered, “the finest fed on hay”.
     Remembering what he was supposed to be doing, Capstick began a clumsy dance, to which there were renewed titters and chuckles. Thank God no-one here knew him. Otherwise, he’d never live this down. Even so, he capered back and forth across the stage, attempting to stay in time with the music.
      What’s-His-Name continued his nonsense ditty, describing the bovine wonder as standing at least ten yards tall. Capstick still caught only fleeting glimpses of his surroundings, so he didn’t notice that a third person had come onto the stage until he almost barged into her: it was the old woman. She was dancing too, but more elegantly than he was, arms outspread, skirts swirling as she turned delicate pirouettes. She was remarkably lithe given her age, though an explanation for this struck him as he blundered away from her. In fact it was rather obvious. She was in costume too – as the farmer’s wife. That hideous, hag-like visage was almost certainly a mask.
     Meanwhile, What’s-His-Name continued to spin his ludicrous tale, extolling the virtues of a brute whose skull was so broad that a pulpit might be built there from which a parson could preach, and now taking Capstick by the hand and leading him towards the front of the stage. Capstick went meekly, still unsure what he was supposed to do, though cautious of getting too close to the naked flames; he imagined this musty old costume would go up like a Roman candle. As the reverend gentleman went on to describe how the ram, when stood with legs athwart, could cover four whole acres of land, he pressed down on Capstick’s shoulder. Feeling even more foolish, but eager to comply and get this awful experience over, Capstick went down on all fours. It was because he couldn’t see clearly that he head-butted the wooden block on the floor.
     “Damn!” he grunted, and at the same time, from the corner of his eye, spotted the old woman twirling gracefully along the front of the stage towards him with something shiny in hand.
     What’s-His-Name was now singing about a butcher’s boy being drowned in blood.
     But Capstick wasn’t listening. He didn’t at first believe the thing the old woman was carrying was a real knife – and then he saw its edge gleaming, and he reacted in kneejerk fashion, springing up from his supine position and retreating from the pair of them. The music immediately ceased. Hisses and snarls sounded from beyond the curtain of candlelight. There was a rustle of sharp movements; festive baubles glittered.
     Capstick wrenched off the headpiece and hurled the costume on the stage. “What the hell is this?”
     “Why, the tradition of the Derby Ram, Mr. Capstick.” What’s-His-Name’s sickle grin split his face from ear to ear, the palsied flesh wrinkling back as if this too was no more than a clever mask; his brown peg teeth looked inches long. “And its ritual slaughter.”  
     The old woman came on swiftly, the knife, curved and gleaming, raised above her head. Capstick spun and fled towards the wings, to an immediate accompaniment of banging, scraping chairs in the auditorium. Beyond the theatrical flats, he spied a low flight of steps with a door at the bottom. The rumble of dozens of feet on the stage spurred him down towards it. Beyond that lay a warren of dingy brick passages, again only half-lit, caked with dust, strewn with rags and bones. He blundered madly, turning left and right, feeling an icy breeze on his face but uncertain which direction it came from. Another door appeared. He dashed through it into a lengthy wainscoted room where several benches and trestle tables had been laid out as though for dinner, though there was no tablecloth, no napkins – just gnarled wooden surfaces, two-pronged forks and sharp, serrated knives. Fleetingly, Capstick recalled a question he’d unconsciously put to himself upstairs: if the chapel here was derelict, where was the midnight service to be held?
     Now he knew – because it clearly wasn’t going to be a church service.
     With hisses and cackles echoing in the corridors behind, he fled across the room, knocking tables and benches askew. At the far side was yet another door. This one opened on a large entrance hall, its flagged floor wet from the recent passage of multiple feet, snowflakes blowing along it. Glancing right, Capstick saw why: beneath a heavy stone arch, it opened to the outside. Thanking God, he ran in that direction, screaming for help … only to realise, once out there, that he’d made a drastic mistake. 
     Enough star-lit snow crusted the upturned earth, leaning headstones and fallen, ice-crabbed angels to reveal three high walls hemming him in.

     He turned and backed away, half-stumbling, only vaguely aware that he mustn’t fall into any of the muddy cavities yawning on every side. As they milled out from beneath the arch to encircle him, he realised he’d made another mistake. The green and scarlet glints from the auditorium had not denoted candle-flames reflecting from their Christmas baubles – but from their eyes.

Copyright  - Paul Finch (December ) 2012

If you're a fan of short horror fiction, and if you enjoyed this story in particular, I have no hesitation in recommending the various short story collections I've had published over the years. Here's a quick sampling: DON'T READ ALONEENEMIES AT THE DOORONE MONSTER IS NOT ENOUGH, WALKERS IN THE DARKGROANING SHADOWSGHOST REALMSTAINSAFTER SHOCKS and THE EXTREMIST. If you prefer your horror stories to have a historical flavour, you could do worse than check out MEDI-EVIL 1MEDI-EVIL 2 and MEDI-EVIL 3 or if you're a lover of traditional Victorian Christmas chillers you might even fancy my ghostly novella of 2011, SPARROWHAWK.

(The artists behind the images are as follows: the gargoyle comes to us courtesy of Gothking 85, the old stairway from James Charlick, the snowy street from Catching Candid Moments. I'm afraid I was unable to find a name or tag for the skilled lensman who shot the graveyard). 


  1. Spine chilling...!
    Thanks so much for this tale.

  2. Thanks very much, Gad. Glad you enjoyed. There are plenty more where that one came from.

  3. You're welcome, Paul. Generally to me is enough when the protagonist is scared to the bone without losing his life ( as in most of jamesian tales )...but I loved the atmosphere you built here. I could see that building, as if I was there...hear those whispers...and if you obtain such a result with a non english speaker like I am you are, no doubt, a greatly skilled writer. I think my next purchase will be one of your books ;)

  4. Well, thank you Galerius. There are plenty links on this site worth following, but also check my page on Amazon, where the various reviews may provide some insight.

  5. Just bought "After Shocks" in epub edition.
    As for 'real' ( I mean, made of ink and paper ) books, Enemies at the door is tempting. Soon it will be in my library, I think.

  6. All good news to me, G. Hope you enjoy.

  7. Aw, I'm sure I will.
    I envy your childhood "industrial archaeology" playgrounds, btw ;)

  8. interesting story, but I find the picture of the SNOWY GARGOYLE mine... someone took my picture and didn't ask permission or thanked me...

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I apologise for not using your permission, gothking85 - sometimes it's a bit difficult tracing people - but there is a credit at the bottom of the story, in a separate paragraph. I always try to credit the artists I feature on here. If you're not happy about that, I'll happily take it down.

  11. Just had to delete a post on here because it didn't make much sense to me, but also because it carried a link to a bed and breakfast site in Derbyshire - not too far, in fact, from the location where this story is set. Sorry about that, folks, but I don't want to carry ads on here.