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.”
     “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.
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.”
     “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.

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:


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



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.

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 Jackson’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).

Thursday 15 November 2018

Lucy Clayburn may soon be on the screen

I want to talk a little bit today about my recent change of publisher, and what this will mean for my fictional characters. At the same time, I have some rather exciting, and not unconnected news concerning one of those characters – Lucy Clayburn. And yes, before anyone queries todays headline, it does involve a potential film/television adaptation.

On a similar subject – novels that certainly should be hitting our screens, even if at present there are no plans for that (and in this particular case I don’t know whether there are or aren’t) – I’ll be discussing Peter James’ new, globe-trotting thriller, ABSOLUTE TRUTH, and reviewing it in my usual forensic detail.

This latest Peter James novel has already caused something of a stir, thanks mainly to its astonishing central premise, but if you want to read more about that, as usual you’ll need to venture down to the lower end of today’s blogpost. Be my guest and do it now, if you wish. But if you’ve got a bit more time, you might want to stick around a little longer and hear what I have to say about my own writing plans and the all-new developments where Lucy Clayburn is concerned.

Change is inevitable

I’m not going to harp on about this too much, because while it’s very important to me, it probably won’t matter a lot to you readers out there. But I thought I might as well mention it on my blog just to ensure that the facts are on record.

I’ve now been a novelist with Avon Books, at HarperCollins, since 2013, and when SAVAGES is published in April next year, it will be the tenth book I’ve written under that imprint.

So, it’s certainly been a busy time at Avon, but it’s also been an incredible one, and a life-changing experience in so many ways.

All along, I’ve been guided by expert editors, specifically Helen Huthwaite, who’s managed to turn me from a roguish reveller in dark fiction ranging widely across the interconnected fields of horror, fantasy, sci-fi and thriller, into a disciplined and focussed crime-fiction specialist, and has teased out of me some of my best characters and most nightmarish scenarios.

I can’t thank Avon enough, and Helen in particular, for recognising my potential and turning me into an official best-selling author.

So why, you may ask, am I moving on?

Well, it’s never a simple thing. It’s not as if I’ve fallen out with anyone or felt that I’m being restricted. It’s just that a change of scene is always good, especially when you’ve been in the same place for rather a long time. And when an outfit like Orion Publishing come calling, you have to take them very seriously indeed.

So, after a few meetings between all concerned, including a couple of particularly exciting editorial sessions, a decision was reached, and an amicable parting of the ways agreed between myself and Avon. It’s not as if they’re short of great writers anyway. Check out Cally Taylor, Scott Mariani, Helen Fields, Jacqui Rose, Mel Sherratt, etc.

But all that aside, I’ve still got one book to bring out under the Avon imprint, and I’m working on it with my editor as we speak.

It’s called SAVAGES – at least, that’s the title so far (it could still change) – it pits our Mancunian heroine against a mysterious black van, which travels at night and abducts individuals at random, who knows for what heinous purpose, and again, as I’ve mentioned previously, it’s due for publication next spring.

Now, I’m guessing that one or two people are probably wondering if, because I’ve moved to a different publisher, SAVAGES might be the last we see of Lucy Clayburn? And are maybe asking themselves if KISS OF DEATH, published last August, was the last they’ll see of DS Mark Heckenburg?

No, basically.

I’ve agreed with Orion that I can continue to write for my pre-existing characters under their banner but must add the caveat that the first book they’re looking for will be an original, free-standing thriller, so though you’ll be seeing Heck and Lucy again, it won’t be straight away.

I realise this is not ideal for everyone. KISS OF DEATH ended on something of a cliff-hanger, and I’ve received quite a few letters and notes begging me to get on with the sequel. All I can say is that said sequel is already planned in detail, and will appear in due course – but patience will need to be a virtue.

Lure of the silver screen
On top of that, there’s an even better reason why we need to keep the Lucy Clayburn ship afloat, which is that I’ve now signed a contract with The Shingle Media and Bierton Productions for a screen adaptation of the first three Lucy novels (STRANGERS, SHADOWS and SAVAGES).

Whether for film or television remains to be seen, but how cool is this development?

Of course, it’s only an option at this stage, which means there are still lots of hoops for us all to jump through, but while there’s been interest before from the visual media in both Heck and Lucy, this is the first time that someone has actually come forward and slapped some money on the table.

I can’t say much more about it than that, except that it all feels very positive and exciting. Already, only a couple of days after the ink has dried on the forms, people have been bugging me about who’s going to play the leads.

Even though I’m always saying that this will never be down to me, and that even if it were, it’s far too early to be thinking about stuff like that, I always give my opinion anyway. I think it was Mark Billingham who, quoting personal experience, told me that if you name an actor you’d love to see play your lead-character often enough, word might reach said actor and that might actually make it happen.

So, I’ll say it again. There aren’t many actors I feel would make a better stab at Lucy Clayburn than Michelle Keegan. She started in the soap world, but she’s now become a very fine and respected performer in mainstream television. Plus … she’s from Manchester, as is Lucy, she’s aged in her early 30s, as is Lucy, she’s got a tough, streetwise aura, as has Lucy, and yes, hell, let’s admit it, she’s gorgeous … as is Lucy.

In response to who I’d have playing her villainous father, Frank McCracken, I couldn’t think of a better ‘likeable rogue’ character actor than Rufus Sewell. Again, he’s the right age, he’s got the right look, and he certainly has the acting chops.

But, and I can’t reiterate this strongly enough, I have no official role at all when it comes to casting (assuming we even reach that stage). And why would I have? It’s a 100% certainty that a professional casting director would be vastly better informed than me as to who is available, who is affordable and who has the necessary star-quality to take these roles forward and make any Lucy Clayburn adaptation into a seriously successful piece of film or TV.

But yes, I agree … it’s still fun to talk about it.


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.

by Peter James (2018)

Ross Hunter only learned about the accident that claimed his brother, Ricky’s life when he was working out in the gym several miles away and was suddenly beset with a bizarre vision, which he could never afterwards explain in any rational way.

This doesn’t exactly persuade him that there’s an afterlife, but it certainly leaves him thinking.

After this, the tragedies in Hunter’s life start to come thick and fast. A few years later, while working as a freelance reporter in Afghanistan, his party are ambushed by the Taliban, and though Hunter survives, he is the only one who does, which leaves him doubly mentally scarred by the experience. On top of that, when he returns home, he discovers his wife, Imogen, in bed with someone else. 

Years pass, and though Hunter forgave Imogen’s infidelity, the trust they once shared is no longer quite there, even though she’s now pregnant again. His career, however, is going from strength to strength. Now widely respected as an investigative journalist, he chases only the biggest stories and gets fantastic spreads in the broadsheets. This is the reason why he is one day approached by ex-RAF officer and retired History of Art professor, Harry Cook, who offers him the scoop of a lifetime.

In short, Cook tells Hunter that he’s recently been given absolute proof of God’s existence, and that he needs a well-regarded journo to help him tell the story. He reinforces this remarkable claim by adding that he also has a message for Hunter from his deceased brother.

Hunter and Cook meet, and Hunter is startled at some of the personal information the old man imparts to him. This makes him take the stranger much more seriously, though even Hunter, with all that he’s been through, is stunned when Cook presents him with a manuscript, which he says was dictated to him by God during a séance, and which he says contains three sets of coordinates, each one relating to an item or place of incalculable religious significance, but all of which, when finally brought together, will be hugely beneficial to mankind.

The first of these – and this apparently will be the least difficult to locate – is the Holy Grail itself. When Hunter recovers from the shock of hearing this, he learns that the second is a personal but non-specified item connected to Jesus Christ, and that the third will have great relevance to the actual Second Coming.
If it wasn’t for Cook’s revelations about Ricky, Hunter would likely as not disbelieve him, but his strange experiences have perhaps primed him to undertake this most momentous of investigations. Even then, Cook is unsure whether or not Hunter is the man for the job, and so at this early stage will only direct him to the possible resting place of the Grail. The rest will follow if this first part of the quest is successful. Before departing, however, he gives Hunter a stark warning that, as their ultimate goal is to bring belief back to mankind, and save all our souls, the power of Lucifer will be unleashed in many forms, no matter how foul, to try and intercept them.

Hunter still isn’t sure if he buys all this – and Imogen certainly doesn’t – but he commences his enquiry anyway, more in hope than optimism. He doesn’t stay tight-lipped about it either, and though, initially, there is bemusement and scepticism – radio presenter Sally Hughes is certainly interested, but Bishop Benedict Carmichael considers the whole thing too risky and attempts to dissuade Hunter from continuing – some powers follow his progress for entirely covetous reasons.

Dr Ainsley Bloor, the CEO of pharmaceutical giant, Kerr Kluge, a committed and aggressive atheist – a guy so committed to this cause, in fact, that he is literally using monkeys and typewriters to try and prove that pure chance was the origin of all things rather than Intelligent Design – is keen to get hold of whatever religious items Hunter can locate to try and make use of them in his development and sale of new medicines. Then there is Wesley Wenceslas, a British-based multi-millionaire evangelist and full-time conman, who would also love to have possession of such holy relics.

Neither of these very dangerous and determined men, among various others – fanatics drawn from all the world’s major religions! – will easily be dissuaded from attempting to possess whatever Hunter uncovers. As such, the first person to die, and only after considerable torture, is Harry Cook, with a high possibility that others will follow in short order.

The stage is truly set for a deadly, continent-hopping adventure, which, in due course, may even take Ross Hunter beyond the realms of this mortal world …

It’s a good thing it was Peter James who undertook to write this book, and not someone of lesser quality. Because when you think about it, a quest to prove the existence of God would likely be the greatest, most challenging mission in history, its outcome of interest to every single man and woman on Earth because there is probably no-one living today who hasn’t at one time or other pondered the existence of an overarching deity, or who hasn’t hoped and prayed that the human experience isn’t solely about our time on Earth.

The question is ... did Peter James succeed? In Absolute Proof, did he do justice to this phenomenal concept?

My personal view is that he did. Not just because this is the most massive novel he’s ever written, in both size and concept, (though it is, clocking in at nearly 600 pages!), or because he suddenly veers away from his more familiar territory of murder mysteries set on England’s South Coast (though he does, venturing clear across the globe), or even because it’s one of his best-written pieces to date (and when you consider that it’s Peter James we’re talking about here, that’s really saying something), but because I found the experience of reading it deeply emotionally affecting.

Ross Hunter is a bit of a neutral character by normal James standards. He’s obviously good at his job, but he’s not much of a fighter: he’s terrified during his sojourn to Afghanistan, he readily forgives his wife’s faithlessness and wordlessly tolerates a nagging fear that the child she is carrying is not his. He’s tough, though, and durable, and prepared to go to great lengths to reach his goal – and that’s the crux of it. Because Hunter, even though he’s no super cool hero, commences this journey on all our behalf, and what a journey it proves to be, taking him across the UK, to North Africa and eventually to America, throwing all kinds of obstacles into his route – both physical and spiritual – and yet increasingly he feels, as do we, that he’s on the trail of something truly amazing.

Though Absolute Proof is a big, big book, it’s a very smooth read, and I found myself accelerating through it, enjoying every page at the same time as yearning to reach a profound resolution.

Was my soul uplifted?

As I say, it’s an emotionally charged narrative – especially for those who actively seek answers of this sort – and yes, I want to know if God is out there as much as the next man, and as this book gets closer to answering that question than any other work of fiction I’ve ever encountered, I wasn’t exactly discouraged.

I should add that it’s not all completely plausible. The notion that one man could make so much ground so quickly when pursuing the most complex questions of all time stretches credulity a little, though to be fair, he does apparently get help from high places. But to make an issue of this would be to miss the point. The real story in Absolute Proof – as it can only ever be in a quest for God – centres around faith. Both believers and non-believers possess it (the former in His presence, the latter in His absence), and yet both sides struggle with these prescribed positions, because no-one can be certain that they are right, and probably never will be until the day of their death, which is why the search for absolute, undeniable proof is the ultimate human goal.

Inevitably, not all reviewers have approved, some suggesting that Hunter should be much more sceptical in his enquiry, despite his apparent religious experience concerning the death of his brother, some objecting to James focussing mostly on the Christian tradition, some grumbling that they bought Absolute Proof expecting a thriller and found themselves with an Indian Jones-type fantasy. But for me, none of these criticisms carry real weight.

First of all, Ross Hunter is not a zealot; he’s a hard-headed journalist looking for a great story, and so his motives are, initially at least, entirely selfish. It’s only as the immense reality of what he’s doing washes over him that he’s drawn further and further into the complexity of religious belief. No controversy there, I feel.

With regard to the mainly Christian angle, I can only argue that an author must be true to his or herself. Most of us in the West are probably more influenced by Christianity than any other faith (and if anyone tries to deny that, I’ll just ask them what they'll be doing on December 25 this year!), so I don’t think it’s especially outrageous that Absolute Proof relies mainly on the Christian tradition. In any case, the book’s far more inclusive than that may suggest, the theories and philosophies woven into the plot ranging far and wide across the belief systems of the world, strongly implying that all groups pray to the same God, if in different ways (though don’t think that means this book is a sermon; far from it – Absolute Proof abounds with false prophets, the author deeply mistrustful of those who aggressively and mendaciously promote their own holiness).

So ... how does it stand as a novel?

The subtext is all there, but do the characters work? Is it well-written? Is it a rattling good story? It’s packaged as a thriller, so does it thrill? Is it explosive, suspenseful, exciting?

In answer to the first question, Absolute Proof is a Peter James archetype, even if it contains very different subject matter from his norm. It’s highly accessible, the flawless, non-flowery prose moving the plot at pace, the very short chapters – some no more than a page themselves – keeping the reader hooked throughout. The author’s easy, reader-friendly style belies the narrative’s great length, so at no stage did I feel tired or bog-eyed, and in fact I was surprised when I found that I’d reached the end, it was that swift a read.

The plethora of colourful characters, many of whom I haven’t had the time to mention here, helped with this.

While the aptly-named Hunter is well-cast as the inquisitive everyman searching for his own salvation, other characters are also representatives. To start with, at either end of the spectrum there are dangerous individuals – like Bloor and Wenceslas – who in a bid to use faith as a means of domination have completely lost their humanity. The pair of them are perhaps overly flamboyant villains, certainly by Peter James’ normal very realistic standards, but they serve a key purpose.

In the middle ground, things are different. There is good and evil there too, but it’s by degrees, the vast majority of the middle-grounders at worst frail, frightened and confused. Egyptian sidekick Medhat El-Hadidy seems like a good man but doesn’t offer help when Hunter needs it most. Wife Imogen is untrustworthy from the outset, but that’s because she's self-centred, which is a very human failing. Bishop Carmichael would love to see evidence that God exists but fears the chaos that might ensue.

And then, in sharp contrast, we have the mysterious Michael Henry Delaney, one of the most memorable figures in all of Peter James’ writing. What a character this is, so well-written that his presence and personality literally exude from the pages. I won’t say more about him than that. You’ve simply got to track him down for yourself.

Absolute Proof is a big change from Peter James’ regular crime-fighting chronicles, but it’s not a nod to his occasional supernatural work either. Readers have likened it to Dan Brown and James Rollins, and yes, it’s that kind of international mystery-thriller, painted on a sweeping canvas and with cosmic undertones. If that’s not your thing, and you try to avoid philosophical or religious thinking – though I say it again, this book does NOT preach – then it won’t be for you. But if you’ve got even half an open mind on these celestial matters, I reckon you’ll find this novel an absolute must.

I’m eagerly anticipating some kind of film or TV adaptation of Absolute Proof at some point, though knowing how long this usually takes, I’m now going to do my usual thing, by sticking my personal oar in on the subject of who should play the leads (just a bit of fun, of course):

Ross Hunter – Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Imogen Hunter – Lucy Griffiths
Dr Harry Cook – Terence Stamp
Dr Ainsley Bloor – Ben Daniels
Pastor Wesley Wenceslas – Michael Sheen
Sally Hughes – Florence Pugh
Michael Henry Delaney – John O’Hurley