I'm not a big fan of making your Christmas preparations early - some houses in Wigan have been sporting fairy lights and glowing Nativity figures on their roofs since as early as November 7th. Can you believe that? But I understand why the retailers have to do it. This is their main selling season, and as so often these days, it's a selling season I'm hoping to participate in myself.
Don't worry, I'm not going to hit you with a load of advertising pap. I just want to say a few words about a piece of writing I completed in 2010, which probably still ranks as my personal favourite work, and though it's a Gothic / horror / supernatural / adventure / romance (try saying that when you've been on the festive sherry), it's also a Christmas story, possibly the most Christmassy Christmas story I've ever written -SPARROWHAWK.
(But before I get into all that ... at the foot of this column, you'll find my hopefully timely review of Jonathan Aycliffe's amazingly frightening supernatural novel, NAOMI’S ROOM. So if SPARROWHAWK doesn't ring your Christmas bells, that one definitely ought to).
SPARROWHAWK is a novella rather than a novel or short story - it clocks in at just over 40,000 words, and it was written over the long, white winter of 2009/2010.
People living up here in the North of England will remember that one, I'm sure. How on something like December 21, after days of sloppy sleet, the temperature suddenly dropped by seven degrees in one hour. How, when the snow started tumbling that night it barely stopped until well into the New Year. How our towns and cities came to resemble images from Christmas cards, or scenes from A Christmas Carol. How no cars could move, so we brought our last-minute Christmas shopping home from the supermarket on sledges.
How on Christmas Eve itself we were able to chill all the beer for our annual party by standing it in the snow on the back terrace.
How entire families got snowed in together, and like or loath it, ended up celebrating one big Yuletide party, which went on for days and days after the main event.
I mean, how could I not spend that most spectacular season of goodwill penning a brand new Christmas story?
Was it any surprise - certainly not to me, on reflection - that I still think it one of the best things I've ever written?
SPARROWHAWK, which is set in Dickensian London and follows the fortunes (though mainly they are misfortunes) of Captain John Sparrowhawk, an Afghan War veteran, and an embittered loner and widower, who in the year 1843 is released from the Debtors' Prison by the beautiful but enigmatic Miss Evangeline when she pays what he owes and hires him for a difficult but mysterious job - keeping watch on a London house for the duration of a very cold and snowy December.
I said earlier that SPARROWHAWK was a Gothic / horror / supernatural / adventure / romance, and I wasn't joking. It's a wide-ranging tale, emotionally and spiritually as well as geographically, and I strove strenuously for it to tick all those boxes. It's certainly not just a Victorian ghost story, as it has sometimes been described, though there are plenty of ghosts in there too.
What I tried to do with SPARROWHAWK was take a broken soul at the lowest ebb of his life and send him on a magical but eerie journey through a time of year we're all very much in love with but also wary of, because we know it has a flip-side.
While the middle-classes of Bloomsbury and Little Chelsea pull crackers, sing carols and play parlour games, the homeless of Southwark, Eastcheap and Petticoat Lane shiver under icicle-clad bridges. While the Christmas spirit pushes some to acts of great generosity, others remain unaffected, driving darkly on down their dangerous roads, oblivious to the chains they wear, their personal notion of misrule a horror to all those in their power.
While some Christmas elves are a delight, capering and full of good cheer, others are more like goblins, lurking in the evergreens and enjoying the warmth of our homes but all the time plotting against us.
I wanted to touch on all these things with SPARROWHAWK. I also wanted to give him love, or at least a taste of it - because though this is a failed husband, a reluctant father and a thoroughly undeserving specimen, all men should catch at least a glimpse of light and happiness at Christmas time. For those who enjoy my Heck novels, there's a bit of action in there too. Sparrowhawk is a warrior. He fought heroically if hopelessly in the British Empire's first great Afghan War. Now he must fight at home, in London - on the frozen back-streets, in the dank, empty warehouses, on the ice of the River Thames - against a series of foes who will challenge his sanity and his soul as well as his physical flesh.
Anyway, no more blurbing. You either like the sound of this one or you don't. But just in case you want the teeniest bit more, here are three extracts, which hint at different aspects of the Christmas of 1843 that Captain John Sparrowhawk finds himself confronted with:
All newcomers were checked on a list before being issued with a seating card and given the option of sherry or champagne, of which Sparrowhawk chose the latter and was subsequently treated to several flutes. When the assembly was complete, a bagpiper played them through an arched, whitewashed tunnel into a great, candle-lit eating hall. At one end there was a roaring fire, its mantel decked with Christmas brocade, though the bulk of the décor in the room was military, comprising countless emblems and battle standards, both home-grown and captured on the field. The dining tables were arranged around the edges of the hall, aside from the head-table, where the banquet’s host and his special guests would be seated. Down the centre, a very long table groaned beneath the weight of a festive feast. Every type of culinary luxury was on display: roast turkeys stuffed with figs and hazelnuts, saddles of pork glazed with sweet sauce, platters of salmon garnished with oysters, roast duckling, roast quail, beef and ale pies, chicken pies, mutton pies, venison pies, lamb shanks, trays of German sausage, bowls of steamed and minted vegetables. There were also cakes, puddings, tarts, plates of biscuits and great wedges of cheese filled with cranberries, apricots and other rich, spiced fruit.
When General Pollock appeared, there were roars of appreciation. He was every inch the figure of legend: a great, bluff, hearty fellow, broad of shoulder, barrel of chest, and sparkling in his artilleryman’s dress-uniform of cocked hat and blue tunic with scarlet collar, gold cord loops and white belt. His hair was an immense, tawny mane, which extended onto his cheeks and top lip in the largest pair of mutton-chop whiskers Sparrowhawk had ever seen. When he greeted each guest personally, his grip was strong, almost overpowering. His large, penetrating eyes were as gold as sunburned savannah grass. Yet, when he came face-to-face with Sparrowhawk, having initially looked dismayed to see civilian garb, he broke into the warmest and toothiest of smiles.
“Captain Sparrowhawk!” he boomed.
Sparrowhawk clicked his heels and bowed slightly. It didn’t feel right to make a formal salute when he was no longer in the service. “I’m honoured, my lord. And exceedingly grateful for your invitation.”
“The honour is mine, captain. You’ll note from our seating arrangements that you’ve been placed alongside me at the head-table?”
Sparrowhawk was astounded, and said so.
“Not a bit of it, dear chap,” General Pollock replied. “There’ll always be room at my table for heroes of a genuine ilk.”
Pictured above is the horrendous last stand at Gundamuck, of which Sparrowhawk is the only survivor. Of course in a tale like this the good cheer of a Christmas military reunion is never going to last. There are many layers of life in Victorian London, and it's Sparrowhawk's fate to sample them all:
At this early hour of the day, only a handful of ruffians and painted doxies were present. Some were asleep in corners. Others were bleary eyed and brutally hungover. The landlord and his skivvies were doing what they could to clean the place up, replacing the coals in the hearth, laying fresh straw, bringing in new barrels from the storehouse at the rear. Sparrowhawk, still in his working garb and looking haggard and unshaven from his long watch, fitted in comfortably. No questions were asked when he ordered a mug of rum and a flagon of beer, and retired to the corner where he’d first located Willoughby.
Only a few minutes passed before someone else sat at his table. It was one of the women. She wore a pretty bonnet with dyed-pink ostrich plumes, but this served to accentuate the drabness of the rest of her attire. Her dress was also pink, and formerly had been a mass of frills and lace, but now was faded and ragged, revealing the stained chemise beneath. Her bodice had been patched several times, but was still missing buttons. Her face, though dabbled with blusher and rouge, was extraordinarily handsome – which seemed strange given the life these impoverished creatures lived. But then Sparrowhawk smelled rose and jasmine, and he understood.
“I almost didn’t recognise you,” he said.
Miss Evangeline placed his letter on the table. “So you’ve resigned again?”
He drank more beer. “I have.”
“You realise what this means?”
“I’m quite prepared for it. If you’ve been able to find me already, I expect the bailiffs will have no trouble arresting me by this afternoon.”
“On what grounds can the bailiffs arrest you? Your debt has been paid.”
“You said you’d bill my bail back to the court.”
“A little white lie. As I told you when we first met, we didn’t make you a loan. You owe us nothing.”
Sparrowhawk was puzzled. “You’re not concerned that your man will be unprotected for this final week?”
“Not at all. Because he won’t be. I have no intention of allowing you to resign.”
Miss Evangeline has a touch of the 'other' about her. In the nicest possible way, of course. The same could be said for certain other individuals Sparrowhawk will encounter during this deep-frozen Christmas, except that they won't be so nice:
With stiff jerks of its strings, it again raised its arms. Then it raised its left leg, and brought it down hard. It did the same with its right, and suddenly it was dancing a wild, maniacal jig; at first in front of him, then to his right, and then to his rear. With piercing squeals of laughter, it cavorted around him like a dervish. Sparrowhawk stood rigid, closing his eyes, trying to shut out the horror. But the frenzied laughter grew in volume and shrillness until it was almost ear-shatter
"Enough!" he finally roared.
He ripped out his sabre and, with three deft strokes, severed the dancing devil's strings. It crashed to the floor, again nothing more than a heap of lifeless disjointed wood.
THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...
An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I've recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything about these pieces of work in advance of reading them, then this part of the blog may not be for you. Don't say you haven't been warned.
NAOMI’S ROOM by Jonathan Aycliffe (1991)
Cambridge professor, Charles Hillenbrand’s life comes to a crashing halt one snowy Christmas Eve when his four-year-old daughter, Naomi, is abducted during a shopping trip to Hamleys. When her mutilated body turns up a few days later in Spitalfields, his world ends.
Inconsolable, Charles and his wife, Laura, will never be the same again. They must now eke out a miserable, blame-filled existence in their once handsome townhouse, their formerly close relationship doomed, their careers on hold. But is Naomi really gone? Because the next thing they know, a haunting has commenced – initially little more than bumps in the night, though it soon escalates into far more terrifying phenomena: footsteps in the attic; strange faces peering from windows when no-one is supposed to be home; Naomi’s toys moving around apparently of their own volition. However, it is only when a troubled press photographer called Lewis presents Hillenbrand with a series of snapshots in which curious half-seen figures are visible in constant attendance on the family that it becomes apparent something more is at work here than the spirit of a happy child who doesn’t yet realise she is dead …
As a lifelong fan of supernatural fiction, I always knew that at some point I’d have to check out Jonathan Aycliffe, aka Denis MacEoin’s spine-chilling classic, Naomi’s Room, and for some inexplicable reason it’s taken me this long to do it. However, I got there in the end and I was not disappointed.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot, because basically there is a mystery to be solved here, and a very frightening one – which Hillenbrand, our tortured protagonist, must get to the bottom of (and then survive the horror of its shocking revelation!), or he’ll never find peace of mind again. Okay, that may sound familiar in a cosy ‘English ghost story’ sort of way. But it all really worked for me. The tone of Naomi’s Room is exactly the sort I like when it comes to spooky fiction. There is something of the Gothic about it, something of M.R. James. Hip young academics though they are, the Hillenbrands still live apart from the rest of us, cosseted in the elitist, hermetically-sealed world of Cambridge academia. But as with M.R. James’s best stories, ultimately that provides no protection against the insidious threat of some decidedly malevolent spirits, whose cruel intent becomes more and more apparent the further on you read.
Unlike many stories in this traditional vein, there is quite a bit of gore in this one, while the basic premise concerns the torture and murder of children – and the author makes no effort to conceal those details from us – so it’s a bit more disturbing than the norm. But don’t let that put you off, because if you’re here to be scared, you’re in the right place. By the latter stages of this novel, the atmosphere of dread is immense, the sense of helplessness in the face of the maleficent ‘other world’ overpowering.
Even with its dollops of grue, it may still sound a tad safe and conventional to some of you. I wouldn’t totally deny that, but it’s really an excellent chiller with full potential to keep you awake at night, and so is well deserving of the fine reputation it has gained for itself over the many years of its publication.
Once again, purely as a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Naomi’s Room were ever to make it to the screen. I think it would make a particularly good 'ghost story for Christmas' type drama, if the Beeb ever get around to doing more of them. (I believe it is currently under option somewhere, but then what isn’t?):
Charles Hillenbrand – David Tennant
Laura Hillenbrand – Lenora Crichlow
Lewis – Rhys IfansDetective Superintendent Ruthven – Sean Harris