Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Darkest part of the winter is still to come

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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