Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Tis the season to be scared out of your wits

Well, happy Christmas to everyone. Here we are again in the season of holly and ivy. As always in these festive kalends of the year, it’s my intent to bestow a present on all those who read this column. Hence, I’ve penned a brand-new Christmas horror story called THE MERRY MAKERS. You’ll find that a little further down (it’s completely free to read, in case you were wondering).

It’s becoming an annual tradition for me, this. But it’s a labour of love too. I seem to have written an awful lot of Christmas scare-fare over the years. Several such stories were first published here on my blog, though there are plenty others that have never yet appeared here, usually because they were published somewhere else first (and though I use reprints on occasion, it’s not my preferred option).

I’m not sure why I so love this combination of Christmas joy and ghostly chiller, but it’s not just me of course. I won’t go into another of those rambling essays that I seem to post this time every year, detailing the origins of the tradition and listing the many other authors who’ve also followed this path. But suffice to say that this is a sacred time of year - not just to Christians, but to other groups as well; the majority of us seem to feel a sense of elation and a closer connection to each other late in December. Clearly, we are all moved by this strange spirit of the season, which it would be plain boring to write off as a simple product of the glitz and glamour driven by consumerism.

Of course, there are many folk out there who are quite content to dismiss the mysterious Yuletide aura as myth and make-believe – as fake news! – and hey, that’s their call. Who am to try to convince anyone of anything? But personally, I prefer the alternative explanation.

Whatever your position, have a great Christmas, and enjoy the story. 


THE MERRY MAKERS

I was somewhere in the West Country. That was all I really knew. Part way between Bournemouth and Bristol. I’m aware that sounds vague if not a tad ridiculous. Bournemouth and Bristol are 130 miles apart. I could have been almost anywhere. Or so it felt.
     Especially when I had the misfortune to call at Mistletoe Hall.

*

My plan had seemed like a good one initially.
     All-day meetings in Bournemouth on December 23, followed by a night in the local Premiere Inn. The following morning, hotfoot it up the M27 and A34 to the M4, and I’d easily make Bristol in time for my afternoon meeting, which, if it ended early, as I was optimistic it would, that day being Christmas Eve, I’d be back on the M4 by teatime, from where it was only 120 miles to London. With luck, I’d be home and celebrating the season by 7pm.
     And then it had snowed.
     Not heavily. Just enough to put down a light covering on the woods and fields of Hampshire. It shouldn’t have been a problem, but of course the UK is a country where autumn leaves stop trains, where, even though we have on-and-off rainfall for much of the year, heavy bursts can still overwhelm our Victorian drainage systems and leave streets flooded. Even then, I didn’t anticipate too much trouble. Town centres would be gridlocked as people vacated their offices early in a dash to get home before they were snowed in (by two inches!). But I’d be out in the countryside at that point. I ought to have a clear run. And at first it looked as if I would. Okay, the roads were under snow, but it was paper-thin, so I knew that with a little prudence I could handle it.
     Unfortunately, few others adopted the same approach.
     Just south of Whitchurch, I found my side of the A34 blocked by a lorry that had skidded and jammed itself crosswise across both carriageways. I doubled back and sought out the A303, only to mire myself in more slow-moving traffic because other inconsiderate drivers had caused similar accidents. By now, of course, my schedule was slipping. But things only went badly awry when I pulled off the main road, seeking passage via the network of narrow country lanes for which this rural corner of England is so famous. My blithe assumption was that at some point soon the sat-nav system would pick me up again and show me another easily navigable route. Stubbornly though, it continued to try to send me back to the A34. I was furious by now. My 1pm meeting had been and gone and all I could do was plough resolutely on in what I felt certain was the right direction, though I had no way to substantiate this (in the age of the sat-nav, so many of us have foolishly discarded our road maps). And now, of course, I was driving recklessly myself, taking turns at random, getting my foot down along straight stretches even though they were mostly single-track lanes.
     I saw no other vehicles, no people. I passed lone farmhouses rather than villages, though even these petered out after a while. Those crossroads I came to were either unmarked, or displayed place names I didn’t recognise. And all the while, the calm, measured voice of my sat-nav advised that I turn around when possible.
     “Bloody thing!” I snapped, wrenching it from my windscreen, only to drop it into the foot-space beneath my feet.
     I reached down for it before it got trapped under my pedals, and fleetingly took my eye off the white ribbon of the road. It couldn’t have been for more than a second, but when I looked up, that ribbon had curved to the right and suddenly my nearside wheels were thundering through tangles of frozen vegetation. I panicked, fighting the wheel. Snow exploded onto my windscreen as bushes went down under my engine, the left flank of my Hyundai grinding and tearing along the low rock wall, and with an air of grim finality, something crunching underneath me.
     After I’d come to a stop, I sat numbed, the engine ticking as it cooled.
     My windscreen was opaque with snow and shredded greenery. When I turned the key, the only response was a clatter of broken parts. I checked my own extremities to ensure they were intact, and scrambled out, flinching at the biting chill.
     Pulling my suit jacket on, I checked the car’s front end. There was much damage, none of which I was qualified to diagnose. In addition, my vehicle’s front nearside was buried not just in snowy, skeletal undergrowth but in the semi-demolished rock wall, where it looked to have wedged itself in place.
     I dug my phone out, though that would be no use unless I knew exactly where I was.
     I had no clue what I was going to do next. And when I opted to call Laura, simply to pass on the news, I found that I had no signal. I wasn’t as horror-stricken by this as you might expect. Generally, when marooned in a cellphone black spot, one usually needs to move a short distance to correct it. I donned my fleece and zipped it up, only to wonder if maybe it would be better to wait with the car. It surely couldn’t be long before someone else appeared.
     But this was not a given.
     On all sides, snow-clad meadows rolled to indistinct horizons. There were no roofs; there was no smoke from any chimneys. I didn’t even see farm animals. Save for the hiss of the glacial wind, it was completely silent.
     More problematic yet, it was turning dark.
     My phone told me that it was just after three. Which meant that full nightfall was maybe an hour away at most. Suddenly, waiting didn’t seem like an option.
     Collecting my overnight bag, I commenced walking. With luck, it wouldn’t just help me find a phone signal. Though I had my fleece on, underneath it I wore only a light suit and a thin shirt. The exercise ought to help me keep warm and should not have posed a problem – I was thirty years old and in good health – but my leather, lace-up loafers were hardly ideal. Only two inches of snow carpeted the road, but it seemed softer and more treacherous now that I was treading on it. Several times, I slipped and fell. Meanwhile, the sky darkened, and the temperature tumbled. Shuddering, I checked my phone again and again, but with no luck.
     For the first time I began to wonder if this might be more than simply inconvenient.
     And then I saw a light.
     It was a mere pinpoint, far away to my left across open land, its source concealed in the deepening dusk. But it was continuous and bright. I hurried along the road, assuming that at some point there’d be a connecting lane. However, when the light came on level with me, and I still hadn’t seen a turn-off, I became worried again. Should I climb the wall and head across country? Not wanting to trespass, I trudged doggedly on. But soon the light was falling behind me. I stopped again, now riven with cold, joints aching, chest wheezing. I checked my phone and was appalled to see that not only was I still minus a signal, the battery was on the verge of expiring.
     That decided it.
     I clambered over the wall and plodded for several minutes across snow-covered pasture. When I came to a bulwark of darkling trees, I lost the light. Alarmed, I staggered left, and spotted it again, twinkling though leafless, spidery branches. I threaded into a smallish wood.  There was less snow in there, though I’d soon reached a narrow road – a driveway, I guessed – which again was covered by an unbroken sheet of white, suggesting that it wasn’t used very often. I followed it, anyway, finally entering open space.
     Mistletoe Hall stood in front of me.

*

I knew that was its name because there was a tall brick post from which an iron bar protruded. Hung from this bar was an oaken plaque. The words inscribed on it were crabbed and mossy, but I was able to discern them thanks to the light, which shone from a downstairs window where the curtain hadn’t been closed properly.
     Had I not been so relieved, it might have struck me that the house had seen better days. All I remember on first arriving was that it was an ugly, hulking structure built from dark brick, with shelves of snow on its turrets and roofs. It had many windows, but all save the one I’d seen were heavily draped. None of this mattered, as I blundered to its massive front door, hoping against hope that the absence of vehicles and tyre-tracks didn’t signify that the occupiers were away. There was no bell, just a heavy knocker, which resounded eerily through a vast, hollow interior.
     When there was no response, I struck with the knocker again. More deep reverberations sounded, along with something else: the sudden, muffled thud of an internal door. I hung my head with relief as bolts and chains were withdrawn. The door opened a couple of inches and a white face peered out.
     It was a woman of uncertain age, though she was plain-featured and wore her dark hair scraped back and tied into a severe bun. She looked vaguely startled.
      “I … I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I hope you don’t mind …” She tried to close the door, and I thrust my foot into the gap. “Please … I’ve had an accident. And I’m lost.”
     She regarded me strangely, as if trying to understand what I was saying.
     “Is there any chance I can come in?” The cold gnawed at my very bones.
     “For Heaven’s sake, Agnes!” came a chiding voice.
     Another figure appeared and a hand pushed the door open several more inches. The newcomer was male, and older than the woman by a couple of decades. He was short and tubby, balding on top but with lengthy white hair around the sides, a curled white moustache and white goatee beard.
     “What happened to charity and kindness?” he asked gently. The woman stepped aside as he opened the door properly. “Please,” he said, “come in.”
     I tottered inside. “Thanks …”
     My first thoughts on entering what appeared to be a kind of lengthy reception passage was that there was no discernible difference in the temperature; my breath still smoked, and the only light, which was a pale yellow colour, was some distance ahead of me. The passage itself was bare; I glimpsed wood-panelled walls, a plaster ceiling, a stone-flagged floor. But I was still grateful to be indoors.
     “My name’s Tom Kelsey,” I said.
     My hosts exchanged inscrutable glances, but the man remained affable, shaking hands with me. “James Parnell. This is my sister, Agnes.”
     The woman regarded me blankly.
     “You guys are real life-savers,” I said. “But I won’t keep you too long. I know you’ll be busy on Christmas Eve.”
     “Oh no … no, no,” James Parnell replied. Rather hastily, I thought. “We don’t celebrate Christmas here. It’s nothing to us.”
     “If I can just use your phone,” I said. “I’ll obviously pay for it. I need to call a pick-up truck or something. Then I need to call my wife …”
     My words tailed off because Parnell, rather solemnly, was shaking his head. “I’m afraid we don’t have a phone.”
     “You don’t?”
     “We lead simple lives out here. We’ve no call for a phone.”
     Briefly, and for reasons I couldn’t pin down, I felt as if I’d transgressed simply asking for one. “Well, look …” I swung my bag to my hip and unzipped it. “I have my own charger cable. My own phone’s dead, but if I could plug it in with this, I’ll be able to place a call. I’ll pay for any power I use.”
     He regarded me confusedly, not as if what I’d said had bewildered him, but as though he was trying to come up with an adequate response. Then, abruptly, he smiled. “I’m sure that’ll be fine.” He offered his palm. “I’ll take it to the kitchen.”
     I handed the device and the cable over. “It won’t use much … I promise.”
     He ambled away. “Agnes, show Mr Kelsey into the parlour. I’ll be with you shortly.”
     I turned to the woman, who, instead of leading me down the passage towards the light, pushed open the door to a side-room. For the first time, she smiled. Rather sweetly – she wasn’t as plain as I’d initially thought – but there was a curious degree of firmness there.
     The room she showed me into, the so-called parlour, was as bare as the corridor, wood-panelled, with a flagstone floor, a single light bulb overhead, which gave off a dull glow, and heavy, dust-laden curtains on the windows, though one pair were open by a couple of inches, indicating that this was probably the room I’d seen from outside. At least it was warm; there was a small fire burning in the grate, no more than a heap of embers really, but that was adequate because the room wasn’t large. There were no furnishings aside from a wooden table in one corner, with two rude benches placed one to either side of it. Before I could pass comment, the door behind me closed.
     I turned in surprise, thinking it rather abrupt of her, but then decided that her off-hand manner, along with her lack of speech, might be due to some kind of learning difficulty.
     At least, as I say, it was warm. So, I sat down to thankfully thaw out.
     And to wait … and wait.
     When the door finally opened again, Agnes returned. Previously, she’d been wearing a scruffy old house-robe, as had her brother, but now she’d changed into a floor-length grey skirt, a grey, button-up tunic and a black shawl. To my surprise, she was carrying a tray on which there was food. She set it down, and I saw a bowl of what looked like vegetable broth, two slices of buttered bread, a mug of milk, a folded napkin and a spoon.
     I glanced up at her. She nodded, implying that it was for me.
     I hadn’t eaten all day, plus it would have seemed rude not to. I tucked in, though it was a little disconcerting that my hostess then sat down opposite me, watching closely. As such, I minded my manners, taking only small spoonfuls, dabbing at my mouth with the napkin. Parnell now came in, closing the door and sitting alongside his sister. He too had changed into plain, dark clothes: black trousers, a black tunic, a grey shirt underneath.
     “Is the food to your liking?” he asked.
     I nodded. “Just what the doctor ordered.”
     “Excellent. Nothing fancy, of course. Nothing excessive. Just good solid nourishment.”
     I didn’t mention that it could have done with a bit of seasoning, though it wasn’t unpleasant even without that.
     “When you’ve eaten,” he said, “I’ll show you to your room.”
     “My room?” I lowered my spoon. “I was hoping to make a phone-call.”
     Parnell frowned. “I understood your phone was not working?”
     “Well … if you’ve plugged it in, it should be recharged soon. Sufficiently for me to make a call, at least.”
     He considered this. “I’ll check in a minute. Fortunately, we always keep a guest room prepared. Even though this is a remote area, you never know who’s going to turn up.”
     “I doubt you’ll need to go to that much trouble,” I said. “If I can make a call, it’s highly likely someone will come and get me.”
     “Of course. Just so long as you know that if they don’t, there is room for you here.”
     “That’s very kind.” I continued eating. “Thanks.”
     They nodded and smiled and continued to watch me, and I felt vaguely irritated that he still wasn’t going to check on my phone.
     “So …” I ventured, “people do come around here occasionally?”
     Parnell nodded. “Mainly at this time of year. I think it’s to do with this house. You’ll have noticed the name?”
     “Oh, yes, Mistletoe Hall. That’s rather …”
     “I expect they think they’ll find feasting here,” he interrupted. “Or some other form of papist idolatry.” He sensed my bewilderment. “You must forgive us, Mr Kelsey. We’re rather set in our ways. Our beliefs do not hold with Christmas as a religious feast. In scripture, no holy days save the Sabbath are recognised, while December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth is completely ahistorical.”
     I still didn’t know how to respond. “Each to their own, I suppose.”
     “You don’t share these opinions?”
     “I’m, erm … I’m irreligious, I’m afraid.” For the first time in my life, I felt awkward admitting this. The twosome watched me, intrigued. “If the signpost’s a problem for you,” I said, looking to change the subject, “why not just take it down?”
     Parnell sighed. “Too late. Agnes and I are well known hereabouts as the occupants of Mistletoe Hall. Even if we rename it, it will always be thus. But sometimes it attracts the right kind of people.  Your good self, for example.”
     He nodded and smiled. Rather knowingly. Which seemed odd.
     “I must confess,” I said, “I didn’t come here because this is Mistletoe Hall.”
     “That’s what you may say.” There was a twinkle in his eye.
     “It is what I say,” I replied.
     “So few in that noisy, decadent world are masters of their own fate, wouldn’t you agree?”
     I laid my spoon down. “Look, I’m sorry … but, while I appreciate the offer of a bed here, and I certainly appreciate this meal, I’d really like to get home tonight. There isn’t somewhere close by where you could drive me, is there? A village where there might be a railway station or a bus stop? Even if it’s quite a distance, I’ll pay for the petrol.”
     As before, Parnell gave a sombre shake of his head. “Alas, we have no car.”
     Immediate other questions piled in the back of my mind.
     Surely you travel out occasionally? How do you get your supplies in? What if one of you was taken ill? No phone, no car?
     But to voice all this would have seemed unnecessarily impolite. Particularly as I would shortly have my phone back. I finished my food and sat back expectantly.
     Parnell sighed. “Well, I hope you don’t mind, Mr Kelsey, but Agnes and I retire early.”
     “Not a problem,” I said. “But if I could just have my phone? I’m sure there must be a speck of power in it by now, and I really do need to let people know that I’m safe.”
     He stood. “I’ll bring it for you. In the meantime, Agnes show Mr Kelsey to his room.”
     They seemed quite adamant that I was to spend the night, which maybe wasn’t a bad thing. If the worst came to the worst, and Laura wasn’t able to come and get me, at least I had a bed. So, I picked up my bag and allowed the Parnells to lead me out into the corridor, which was now completely dark; whatever faint light I’d seen earlier, it had been switched off.
     Parnell melted away into the gloom, and I found myself stumbling in pursuit of Agnes, who walked stiffly and primly, hands folded in front of her. We rounded several corners and mounted a staircase, this too in darkness, turning twice at small switchback landings, though as we arrived on the second one, a light activated overhead. When we reached the top, it showed an upper floor that was also bare of décor. Everything was spotless but the aura was bleak. The glow of a single light bulb dwindled as Agnes led me a merry dance along more corridors. There were so many rooms, all with closed doors, that it was difficult to know how she picked one out for me specifically, but she did, suddenly stopping, opening a door on her right, going inside and flipping a light-switch.
     I followed her, entering a room as plain and unadorned as every other part of this place, though it had what looked like a clean bed, a four-poster no less (though minus a canopy), and a single table with a jug and a cup on it. In addition, unlike the landing, it was warm.
     “This is great,” I said. “But I really don’t think I’ll need to put you out like this.”
     She nodded again, as if she knew better, and retreated, closing the door.
     I stood bewildered and not a little bit aggravated. At length, I dumped my bag by the bed and checking out my new surroundings. Beyond the curtain, the window looked down on the forecourt, which thanks to the risen moon, lay shimmering and frigid under its mantle of white. I discovered that the room was warm thanks to a single radiator pipe passing along the skirting board. The jug, as I’d expected, contained water, which smelled and looked fresh. It was almost as if the Parnells had been expecting me. Or someone. But then I remembered that they claimed to regularly have callers on Christmas Eve.
     “Some Christmas Eve.” I sat on the bed and rooted in my bag.
     There wasn’t much in there. Some spare toiletries and the essentials I’d needed for the meeting I hadn’t managed to make. There was also a dog-eared paperback. I don’t read much, myself, but I’d inherited a box of books from my late father and had grabbed one off the top as I’d left, just in case I’d have some time to kill. As this one was an anthology called In A Deep, Dark December, which promised to be A collection of Christmas hauntings, it was the last thing I fancied. Frustrated, I stood up. I couldn’t understand what was keeping Parnell with my phone. I opened the bedroom door.
     She was standing outside.
     Agnes.
     Facing me from a couple of inches away.
     As if she’d been there all the time, staring at the door.
     She fixed me with a steady, waxen smile. And made no effort to move out of my way.
     “I, erm … I’m sorry,” I stuttered. “I was just wondering about my phone.”
     “There’s no power yet,” came the voice of James Parnell, standing somewhere out in the corridor. The lights had been turned off, so I couldn’t see him. “It’s still dead, I’m afraid.”
     “It’s okay …” I was semi-hypnotised by Agnes Parnell’s pale, rigid smile. “Perhaps I can get it later?”
     “Of course,” Parnell said. “Or if not later, tomorrow.”
     “Tomorrow … yes.” And I closed the door again.
     The hell with tomorrow! I’d give them an hour, let them get to bed, and then I’d retrieve the phone myself. This whole thing was beyond weird. If there’d been a lock, I’d have turned it. The mere thought of that woman standing sentry outside, gazing blankly at the door, was the most unnerving thing I’d ever known. As it was, though, all I could do was sit on the bed and watch the door from the other side.
     As the time rolled by, I became sluggish, torpid. The room was indeed warm, and the stress and anxiety of the day had no doubt taken a toll. I lifted my legs and laid back against the pillow, still watching the door as I counted down the seconds. Another few minutes, I told myself, and I’d go out there and start mooching around.
     I’ve no idea at what point my eyelids began to droop.

*

I snapped awake, and several questions hit me at once.
     Firstly, how did I ever fall asleep in this predicament?
     Secondly, how long had I actually been asleep?
     And thirdly, why was my bedroom in pitch darkness?
     I sat up abruptly and went dizzy. Fumbling out, I braced myself on the nearest bedpost. Was it possible that I’d been drugged? My memory of the evening’s events was reasonably clear, and I recalled the broth they’d given me. But it seemed like paranoid nonsense – I’d had an exhausting day, after all. But then I wondered again how the light came to be off; it had been on when I’d settled on this bed. That meant that someone had come in here without my permission.
     An even more unpalatable thought struck me. Suppose I wasn’t alone in here even now?
     I listened. There was no sound … not from anywhere in the house, but that didn’t mean a thing.    The woman, Agnes, had been right outside my door and I hadn’t known about it.
     I don’t think I’d ever been as disoriented as I was at that moment.
     “Is someone … here?” I whispered.
     Again, no response. Nothing in the slightest.
     I was alone surely, but the only way to be certain was to find the light-switch. Not that I could remember precisely where it was. Presumably on the wall near the door, but where was the door? In panic, I jumped to my feet – and went groggy again, swaying where I stood.
     A second or so later, I’d recovered enough to scan the blackness, and at last fixed on a square of it that was slightly paler than the rest. I groped my way over there, constantly wondering if I was about to trip over a crouching figure. When I reached the window, I grappled with the dusty curtain, yanking it aside. Below me, the snow-covered forecourt lay sparkling and still. When I turned, the snow-light was sufficient to show me that I was alone. It wouldn’t be hard finding the light-switch now. But then I spotted movement down on the forecourt.
     It was no more than a fleeting glimpse, but I was suddenly certain that I’d just seen what had looked like an animal disappearing around the side of the building.
     I tried to tell myself that I’d been mistaken, but in my mind’s eye I could still picture it.
     It had been furry and four-legged, and literally in the act of vanishing around a corner. I didn’t know what colour it was, I couldn’t even be sure what size – somewhere between a large dog and a donkey – but the strangest thing of all was that it hadn’t appeared to be walking. I know that sounds ridiculous, but though it had been moving at walking speed, its hindquarters had not been in motion.
     It had glided out of view.
     Letting the curtain fall back, I stumbled to the bed, and sat there, cold.
     I quite clearly could not spend the rest of the night here. If nothing else, I had to contact Laura. She’d be out of her mind by now. I crossed my room again, this time on tiptoes, harbouring the unavoidable fear that Agnes Parnell might still outside my door. When I reached it, I took a few seconds to compose myself before opening again.
     Only the empty darkness of the landing greeted me.
     The deep silence that seemed to fill this entire house reigned on.
     I was half-minded to locate the bedroom light-switch, and give myself something to navigate by, but I resisted. Stealth now felt like the most sensible course. I stole out, heading in the direction where I thought the stairs had been. But before I got to the top of them, I halted, listening. From some indeterminate place, I thought I’d heard a faint metallic squeak, repeated several times in succession – though already it had faded to nothing.
     I found the stairs and proceeded down them, stepping lightly. Just as I reached the lower switchback, I heard that squeaking sound again. Repeating itself over and over, this time coming nearer. I stood rigid, one hand gripping the banister like a claw.
     It was so dark down there that I couldn’t distinguish the vaguest outline of anything, and yet those squeaks were suddenly so loud that I fancied something was moving just below me. Sweat beaded my face as I waited, the breath tight in my chest. Whatever it was, though, it passed me by, receding again as it headed off to some other part of the house.
     Finally, it fell silent.
     I had no clue what I’d just heard. But I waited a little longer – several minutes in fact – before continuing down to the ground floor.
     Where I went from there was anyone’s guess. On first arriving, I’d barely registered the layout of the place. So, I had no option but to explore – and I could only do this by working my way to the nearest wall and groping along it. I’ve no idea how many doorways I passed or corners I turned. I could only marvel at the size of the building. It was a literal rabbit warren, and still so dark that at no stage could I even see a hand in front of my face.
     At which point I heard that metallic squeaking again.
     On this occasion it was behind me. Close behind me. I didn’t wait, but took a passage on the left, walking quickly. And never even saw the door that I strode headlong into. Fortunately, it was ajar, so it swung open easily, though there was a still a shuddering impact, and, it might have been my imagination, but I could have sworn that the squeaking sound behind me briefly halted. Before speeding up.
     This next room was equally black, but it was warmer than the passageways, and, more perplexing yet, there was a smell of cooking. And I don’t mean that plain vegetable broth. I was hit by a glorious array of odours: cooked meats, pastries, all kinds of Christmas spices, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger. When I collided with the edge of a table, my hands encountered what felt like pies and tarts. I put a fingertip to my mouth, and tasted icing sugar, raisins, jam. Then I struck some kind of candelabra, which duly fell over. I snatched out, just catching it before it hit the floor. In the process, another item was dislodged. This did fall, but it only landed lightly. When I reached down and scrabbled around, I found a box of matches.
     Behind me, meanwhile, the door creaked open, and the squeaking thing entered.
     I lurched on, meeting a bare brick wall with my hands, which I slid along until I came to another door that was partly ajar. Assuming it a closet or scullery, I opened it and stepped through – and fell full-length down a steep, stone stairway.
     The fact it was stone was, on one hand, good: when flesh strikes stone it makes no sound. But on the other, I was viciously pummelled before I reached the bottom.
     However, even as I lay down there in a battered heap, my ears were attuned to the room above. Was it my imagination, or did the squeaking sound come to a halt at that upper door? I held my breath, now hearing nothing. Then it occurred to me that whoever or whatever it was needed only to reach for a light-switch, and I’d be lying in full view.
     Worm-like, using only my hands, I tried to ease myself away from the foot of the stair. Still, no light came on up there. At length, I’d travelled ten yards or so, following a curving path into what felt like an adjacent chamber. Only there did I stop – and heard a dull clunk of woodwork.
     Had the upper the door just closed?
     A muffled squeaking receded across what I assumed was the kitchen.
     Even then I waited. What seemed like ages passed before I allowed myself to sit up. I hurt all over, but nothing felt broken. As I got to my feet, my foot touched something that rattled, and I recognised the box of matches.
     Desperate for some light, I extracted one match and struck it.
     At first, its bright yellow spurt threw a huge area into view. It quickly dwindled, but not before showing me several piles of gaily wrapped Christmas presents. I was so stunned by this that I had to strike another match. Damp brick walls indicated that I was in a cellar area, much of which was indeed occupied by stacks of well-wrapped presents.
     And they were all enormous. I swear, any one of them could have contained a bicycle or go-kart or an extra large doll’s house.
     But how did this tie in with a family who never celebrated Christmas?
     I struck more matches, the fifth and last one guiding me back to the foot of the stair and subsequently throwing light into a deeper, dingier recess, which revealed yet more over sized presents, this batch clearly older as they were layered with dust and cobwebs.
     Baffled as well as frightened, I ascended the stair and listened behind the door at the top.
     When I pushed it open, the warmth of the kitchen again flooded over me, along with all the aromas of Yuletide. I worked my way around the table to the other door. Stepping out into the passage, I listened again and heard nothing, and reasoning that kitchens were usually at the rear of houses, guessed that I had to be close to a back exit. I went right, moving progressively more quickly as I fancied there was a hint of colder air ahead. Rounding a corner, I saw a smudge of pale grey light. Moonlight reflected from the snow and penetrating a frosted glass panel. But before I was halfway there, that abominable squeaking started up again, now directly in front and coming towards me. I even saw the cause, a dark humped shape rapidly advancing.
     I turned and fled, still blind, taking corners at random.
     And slammed headlong into another door. This one was firmly closed, and I rebounded from it, my nose stinging, blood on my lips and down the back of my throat.
     I coughed and spluttered, the squeaking sound coming up behind me. Almost shrieking, I scrabbled for a handle, found and depressed it. The door opened and I hurled myself through, banging it closed behind me, bracing my shoulder against the wood. As soon as I’d done this, the blackness in this next room evaporated in a massive glare of light. First it exuded from a fire roaring into existence on a hearth to my right, and then from a succession of candles on all the other sides of me, which also flared to life of their own accord.
     I stood blinking.
     It wasn’t a large room. More a reception chamber of some sort, but compared to the rest of this austere building, it was sumptuously furnished and decked for the season in the most eye-catching manner. My gaze roved bewildered across glistening evergreens, polished woodwork, carved Germanic toys. A Christmas tree stood in a corner, frosted white and hung with scarlet baubles. I even heard carols playing. James Parnell, meanwhile, stood by the crackling fire, in the process of lighting a clay pipe with a lengthy taper.
     Gone were his drab, black and grey garments. Instead, he wore green trousers and a green doublet, a golden shirt, crimson stockings, black buckled shoes and ruffled lace at his throat. When he turned to face me, he wore makeup, and not a subtle amount, his features powdered white, his lips deepest ruby, ruby orbs on his cheeks, charcoal streaks where his eyebrows had been.
     “Why, Mr Kelsey!” he said, “welcome!” For good measure, he added a hearty “Ho ho ho!”

*

“Holly logs provide the ideal fuel in deepest midwinter, wouldn’t you say?” Parnell moved to a sideboard, where an immense silver bowl stood alongside a row of crystal goblets. “Or perhaps you’ll warm yourself the more traditional way. Brandy punch?”
     I could hardly think straight. “You … you think I’ll take a drink from you? After you drugged me earlier?”
     “We should have granted you free license? Is that what you’re saying? I see you’re every bit as entitled as your wretched Roundhead namesake.”
     “Parnell, what in God’s name is going on here?”
     He chuckled through his pipe-smoke. “Your sort always calls on the Divine when caught in knavery.”
     “Knavery?”
     “Snooping around our family home. Spying on us.”
     “I was looking for my phone …”
     “Which would have been restored to you on the morrow, had you proved true.”
     “On the morrow? Had I proved …?” Suddenly, the archaic turn of phrase became intolerable.    “What the hell is this?
     He spread his arms. “This is what you came to see, is it not? What you always suspected? What your kind always suspect … simply because we live where we do.”
     “This has to be some kind of game.”
     “Game?” His laughter faded. He scowled. “What would you know about that? Something else our soulless Lord Protector has banned. We have games aplenty, as you can see. And food. And drink. Merry making is our forte. Which of course is what you suspected. Which is why you came here in the first place. An accident indeed.”
     I turned, unable to take any more of his lunacy. But before I could launch myself along the corridor, now as well-lit as the room behind me, something emerged from my right, simply rolled into my path. It was the squeaking thing, the cause of which sound was the four wheels it travelled on.
     Had I not already glimpsed it from my bedroom window, I’d have goggled in disbelief.
     The only way I could think of it was as a toy horse – set on wheels, as I’ve said – and yet, while not life-size, much bigger than a normal toy would be, perhaps three and a half feet at the shoulder, with an extra foot added for the wheels, which were rusty and old as if they’d once belonged to a thrown-away pram, and now were held in place by leather straps around the fetlocks.
     It was an odious, moth-eaten thing, purple in colour but patched and darned. It would have looked comical, something from a pantomime, with its floppy, mismatched ears, baubles with beads in them for eyes, and a tail of genuine horsehair, had it not been for the stitched-back lips and the long, yellow, peg-like teeth, which looked distinctly real.
     My mouth sagged open as the ghastly beast lifted and flicked its right rear leg, the wheel swinging upright and locking into place, so that it was able to balance on that hoof, which I realised belatedly was a human foot. It then did the same thing on the left, rising up on two legs before turning around to look at me. I don’t know what shocked me more: the face of Agnes Parnell, beaming excitedly through an oval hole cut in the creature’s throat, or her athletic female form, concealed by her drab, puritanical garb earlier but now outlined snugly in ragged, tight-fitting fur.
     “The Hooden Horse,” Parnell said, his garish features appearing at my left shoulder.
     I jumped away, but in my efforts to also avoid the madwoman in the horse-costume, tripped over my own feet and fell onto my backside. Before I could get up again, Parnell was pointing an antique firelock pistol down at my face. With relish, he thumbed back its hefty hammer.
     “The Hooden Horse is an import from our home county of Kent, where the custom has sadly died,” he explained. “An emotional beast who runs wild with anticipation on the eve of our Saviour’s birthday. A beast who must be restrained or havoc will ensue.”
     As though in full approbation, the horsewoman clashed her front wheels together.
     “Parnell!” I shouted. “This is sheer madness …”
     “Havoc, Thomas Kelsey! The one thing an arch controller like yourself should fear more than anything else. On your feet, sir.”
     I had no option. I got up, and was marched at gunpoint back into the reception room. But if I’d thought that was festively clad, I was in for a shock. There was a door on the other side of it, and when I was pushed through this, I realised that it had only been an antechamber to a much larger compartment.
     Amazed, I entered Mistletoe Hall itself.
     Clearly, this had once been the beating heart of the gloomy pile that the Parnells had somehow come into possession of. If there’d ever been a medieval structure here, I suspected this was all that remained of it. The walls were stone, but hung with sumptuous, brightly-coloured tapestries. The roof, far overhead, was vaulted, supported by great oaken hammer-beams, and now crisscrossed with swags of evergreen. At the far end towered a colossal Christmas tree, perhaps twenty-five feet tall; I imagined that it had been hewn down in some frosty Norwegian forest and brought over here especially. It reached as high as a stained-glass skylight in a slanted section of ceiling, and was hung with ribbons and ornaments, and glowed with myriad electric lights. Down the centre of the room lay a vast banquet table laid with all kinds of festive delicacies. My eyes skated perplexedly over yet more pies, puddings and pastries, over roasted fowl and baked fish, over dates, sweet meats and fat German sausages. 
     More important than any of this, there were guests. Guests the like of which I had never seen; eight seated one side of the table, eight on the other. Life size effigies, I realised, my blood chilling, lumpen papier-mâché monstrosities clad in gaudy robes. As Parnell prodded me down to the far end of the room, I was able to identify some of them.
     Sinterklass in his bishop’s garb and mitre, a crozier clamped in his gloved, beringed hand. Krampus, with his humped back and shaggy goat’s head. Belsnickel, with his bearskin cloak and cap, his Mr Punch features, and his vicious, many-tailed whip.
     “As you can see, we’re in august company tonight,” Parnell said. “Nevertheless, for you we’ve reserved a place of honour.”
     A carved wooden throne sat in front of the tree. It was huge and stiff-backed, and engraved all over with images of animals and foliage. But fixed onto each of its armrests there was an open steel clamp.
     “Sit!” he commanded.
     I did so, and he kicked a lever at the side of the chair, the clamps snapping closed on my wrists.
     He stepped back, surveying his work. Behind him, his sister rode down the hall on all fours, using her right foot to propel herself, her wheels squeaking.
     “The irony,” Parnell said. “General Cromwell has provided us with our very own Lord of Misrule.”
     He placed the pistol on the table, took something else up and, stepping forward, put it on my head. I couldn’t see it at the time, but from the feel of it and the jingle of its bells, I gauged that it was a paper coxcomb. It felt like the final indignity, or it might have done, had I not feared that worse was now to follow. How the Parnells thought we could resolve this thing without the pair of them facing time either in prison or a facility for the unhinged, I couldn’t imagine. But then, as Parnell commenced some rambling, ludicrous speech about the joy and sanctity of a loyalist Christmas – his sister seated cross-legged, clashing her front wheels together like symbols, his other guests sitting lifeless and twisted – I spotted something to my right that literally set my heart pounding.
     It was another of those huge, gaily-wrapped packages that I’d seen in the cellar. But this one’s lid was open, revealing that it was in fact a sturdy box. Covered in wrapping paper but made from plywood. More to the point, it was empty. Thus far. 
     I peered at it, sweat-soaked. So distracted that at first I didn’t that realise that Parnell had turned his attention back to me.
     “You see how we treat our prisoners of note.” He was offering me a cup. “We don’t behead them. We honour them. Treat them as noble guests, bid them drink and be merry. This won’t entirely be to your liking, of course, but such is the price of principle, Kelsey. A fine old wassail to us is a heinous offence to a Fifth Monarchist.” He chuckled. “We call it Smoking Pope.”
     I gazed at him, uncomprehending.
     “Port wine,” he explained, “roasted lemons, cloves, brown sugar from the Indies and best Burgundy.” A mischievous wink. “And a couple of special ingredients of our own.”
     Special ingredients of their own.
     Close behind him, Agnes Parnell had got to her feet again. She cradled the firelock as she watched with an excitement that verged on the sexual. I glanced at the cup, a large, silver chalice. Whatever brew it contained, it certainly smoked.
     More so than any mulled wine I’d ever seen.
     Open wide,” he coaxed, leaning towards me, a demonic painted puppet. “The wider the mouth, the much better for you.”
     My wrists were manacled, but my legs were free. So, I kicked out with my left. My foot caught his bulky guts hard, my knee the underside of the wassail cup, which flew from his grasp.
     Parnell lurched away, semi-doubled over.
     Shrieking, his sister took immediate two-handed aim at me and fired. There were only feet between us, the ancient gun booming and flaring, and just to the side of my head, a heavy ball smashed a fist-sized whole through the throne’s backrest. The force of it tipped me over, the backrest splintering, the entire antique structure of the chair coming apart at the joints.
     The next thing my hands were free, though I still tumbled backward, head over heels. I got to my feet as quickly as I was able, but my path was already blocked. Parnell had straightened up, while his sister had produced a second firelock.
     I turned and ran at the Christmas tree.
     It felt like a mad, desperate gamble. The tree was huge, something you’d normally find in a town square. But I’d no clue whether it was sturdy or not, and if I got to the top, there was no guarantee I’d be able to smash my way out through stained glass skylight.
     I took the chance, anyway, throwing myself up into its lower branches.
     As I climbed, it proved a solid structure, but the boughs were flexible and prickly with needles. They jabbed my face and poked my throat. Soon I was smeared with sap, draped in tinsel. Baubles fell and smashed. And then a large one blew apart before I’d even dislodged it. I looked down. Parnell was handing the smoking firelock back to his sister, who in her turn, handed him the other.
     He took aim again, barrel resting on forearm. And discharged, this second shot demolishing a crystal Nativity.
     “Christ’s sake, Parnell!” I shouted down. ‘Have you lost your mind!’
     He gave a mirthful ‘Ho ho!’, and his sister handed him the first weapon back, now reloaded. I clambered frantically, but still he fired, striking the heel of my left shoe, tearing it away, stinging the whole foot. Up I went, regardless, the tree shuddering, creaking.
     A fourth shot zipped through the foliage.
     “Damnation!” Parnell shouted, though he didn’t sound distressed; more as if he was amused, as if this was all great sport. “So much time since Edgehill, since Marston Moor. My aim has diminished. Ahh … this should do the trick!
     I couldn’t resist looking back again, just as the horsewoman, her tail twitching as though it actually lived, presented him with a much larger, much heavier weapon.
      An honest-to-goodness blunderbuss.
     “The Major-General’s time is up!” he declared, as he put it to his shoulder.
     I hung there helpless, branches sliding through my sweat-moist hands. When he fired, it was a cannon blast, smoke and flame bursting forth. But the recoil tottered him, and because of this his aim was off, nails and screws scything the lower section of the tree, ripping through the foliage, shattering the thick, fibrous trunk.
     I clung on all the harder as I tilted forward, the tree slowly keeling. Ornaments rained down, the tearing of green timber filled my ears. When I hit the table, I was thrown the full length of it, scattering food and flaming candlesticks. Only on reaching the end, did the falling tree engulf me, meshing me in more branches, more strands of popping, fizzing lights.
     For stunned seconds, I lay sprawled and tangled in wreckage. It was the cloying reek of gunpowder, making breathing difficult, that dragged me back to wakefulness. Coughing, I fought free of the tree and slid down to my feet. On my right stood a hostess trolley on the top of which sat a richly basted turkey, an ivory-handled carving knife buried to its hilt. Behind that stood the open door. Still groggy, I glanced the other way. Smoke and dust obscured much of the great hall, but I could see enough to deduce that the upper two thirds of the tree had fallen. And with tremendous impact, because the far end of the table, having been struck by a greater spread of branches and heftier weight of trunk, had collapsed.
     I pushed the trolley out of my way. Waiting, listening. Hearing only the distant strains of the carol concert. Still nothing moved, which made the motionless papier-mâché figures even eerier. The four closest to me had survived and continued to regard each other across the table.
     Until the closest one, Belsnickel, twisted in his seat. Rose up. And faced me.
     I stood nose-to-nose with a leering, garish horror that perfectly matched the Tyrolean nightmare from which it had been conjured.
     All I could do was scream.
     And more by instinct than design, reach out, snatch the ivory-hilted knife, and swing it.
     Belsnickel’s head came off with a single blow. But the crudely made torso stayed upright and lurched towards me. I hacked and slashed, paper and cotton wool guts spilling out.
     As quickly as it had come to life, it died again.
     And was cast aside, a primitive, broken toy.
     Agnes Parnell, the horsewoman of Mistletoe Hall, rose up from behind it. She had survived the fallen tree, and advanced on me underneath the table. I threatened her with the blade as I retreated. She watched me levelly, her waxen features dotted with sweat, her teeth set in a grimace that was easily as fiendish as that of the Hooden Horse itself. I spun out into the antechamber, halting only to grab the bowl of brandy punch and hurl it at the blazing hearth. Flames ballooned, igniting the stockings dangling from the mantel, roaring up the swags of evergreen, travelling at speed across the rich pile rug, the smaller Christmas tree erupting in a blinding sheet of flame.
     The horsewoman had now come to the door, but a fiery barrier lay between us.
     Taking my chance, I fled again.
     The whole house was now illuminated, a sure sign that Parnell had thrown some kind of central switch to bring his maniacal Christmas party to life in one swoop. The austere part of it was lit by dim, brownish bulbs, but I needed turn only a couple of corners before finding the passage to the front door. When I reached it, inevitably, it wasn’t just bolted but locked. And with no key sight.
     Then I heard it again, that damnable squeaking.
     Blundering left into the room they’d called the parlour, I lugged the curtains aside, finding sash-windows, but on fitting my fingers underneath the closest, could only lift it a couple of inches. The same applied to the next one, and now I could hear those wheels in the corridor outside. I tried to lift the nearest bench but found that it had been screwed to the floorboards.
     The door to the parlour crashed open. Bright light, intense heat and a foul stink poured in.
     I ran at the window myself, using the bench as a springboard, arms around my head. The glass exploded outward, the impact all but knocking me senseless. I landed on hard, snowy ground, jangling shards falling around me. Streaming blood, weakened by shock, I stumbled across the forecourt, vaguely aware that the room behind me was filled with smoke and fire.
     My heart hammered as I plunged into the trees. I was whipped and torn by branches, and certain that all the way an immense fireball followed me, igniting everything it touched, its hellish, blazing wheels squeaking … squeaking …
     I lost all sense of direction and when I fought my way to the drive, took a gamble that heading left would not lead me back to the house. My luck held, better than I could have hoped. When I reached the road, the snow still lay firm and crisp, untrammelled by tyres. Nothing had been along here for hours. But now a horn howled, and a pair of headlights dazzled my world. The HGV slid thirty yards before its brakes locked, hitting a standstill only inches short of me.
     Gasping, I worked my way around to the passenger door and clambered up.
     “Lord almighty!” came the voice inside.
     I threw a glance behind, and through leafless trees, saw flames rising ferociously, turning the whole of that sacred night a livid molten red.

*

Laura and I are no longer together.
     It’s not just that I don’t do Christmas anymore. Laura was always a caring girl, and if that was all it was, I feel sure she’d have come to tolerate it. She’d have coped with the fear factor too, though that would have challenged her more. I admit that I don’t travel much these days, especially when the end of the year approaches and the nights fall early and the leaves turn crisp with frost, but there is rhyme and reason to this.
     It’s an overused phrase, ‘burned to the ground’, but that’s what Bethlehem Hall did. Thanks to the DIY gas-lines that fed its many fireplaces and even some of its candles, an astounding conflagration left only a blackened heap of ash and char.
     And bones, of course. The older bones in boxes, and the newer bones – which, as it happened, came from only one person.
     Perhaps you’ll understand therefore, why any sound that could now be construed as metallic squeaking unnerves me. Or why the faintest scent of burn – bacon too long in the pan, or the pungent aroma when a candle is snuffed out – has me looking behind doors, scanning every street and passage.
     Even so, as I say, Laura could have dealt with that; I feel certain.
     What ultimately did for us was the suspicion. Even now people whisper and cast me strange glances. And why not? It wasn’t just that when I emerged from that raging crematorium, I was battered, bruised and bleeding as if I’d been in a hard fight. Or that later on, the story I’d told and the insanity I’d described seemed too preposterous to be true. It wasn’t even that I’d shrieked hysterically at my lorry-driving rescuer to get us away, and that when he grabbed his phone to contact the emergency services, I tried to wrench it off him and shrieked into his face again. It was more the words I used.
     ‘Let them burn … let them burn! Good God man … all heretics should burn!’

***

The pictures used in today’s blog have, as usual, been pillaged from the internet. Most, I just found floating around unconnected to any info relating to the original photographer or artist. As always, credit will immediately be given if any such person wants to come forward and name themselves, or the pics can be taken down if so required. The two images I was able to trace are as follows: The evil elf at the top of the blog is from Creepy Collection (Halloween & Haunted House Props), while the sinister doll-like smile half way down comes from the 1989 movie, Death Doll. 

Monday, 9 December 2019

Darkness at the heart of our festive frolics


Okay, it’s now almost the middle of the month. Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, as the popular song says. I’m sure all your preparations for the big event are now well underway. Presents wrapped, decorations hung, turkey stuffed?

Well, on this blog, as you may know, we take a slightly different approach to Christmas. We love it too, but here we’re also interested in the darker side of the season, the mystery, the mythology, the downright creepiness of a time of year when mist lingers, frost forms and daylight is scarce. For that reason, now that December is well on, I thought it’d be fun to borrow from my occasional Gazetteer of Strange and Eerie Places posts, not focussing so much on a geographical location this week, but on the season itself.

So, today, we’ve got GAZETTEER OF STRANGE AND EERIE FESTIVE STORIES: 10 True Life Tales to Chill You at Christmas

In addition to that because, yes, today’s blog is going to be another big ‘un, I’ll be discussing and reviewing in my usual forensic detail Christopher Golden’s epic Yuletide horror anthology, HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM.

If you’re only here for the antho review, no problem at all. Just scoot straight down to the bottom of this post. As always, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section. However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, you might be interested in one or two other festive treats first.

Christmas ghosts and winter sprites

Okay, now I promised you some spooky true-life tales connected to this most wonderful time of the year. And don’t worry, you’re going to get them. But before that – very briefly, I promise – you’ll have to put up with me giving a quick spiel concerning my own output for this forthcoming season of goodwill.

Before anything else, here’s a quick heads-up about a brand-new Christmas horror story of mine, THE MERRY MAKERS, which will be posted on this blog, completely free to read, the week before Christmas. So, watch out for that one. 

In truth, there’s quite a bunch of my own Christmas-themed scary stories already out there in the public domain. Some you can buy right now from Amazon, if you so wish. Others, you can find on this blog, again free to read – just scroll back to various Christmases past.

First off, the pay-fors:

SPARROWHAWK is one of those pieces of work I’m prouder of than almost anything else. It’s a 40,000-word novella set in London during the December of 1843, which follows the fortunes of a former soldier, Captain John Sparrowhawk, who is released from the debtors’ prison to protect a middle-class family from a mysterious enemy during the Christmas period. Though Sparrowhawk has served in Afghanistan, even he isn’t prepared for the astonishing cold that year, or for the presence, somewhere out in the ice and mist, of a malign supernatural entity.

Sadly, SPARROWHAWK is now out of-print (though we’re going to correct this next year), but it can still be purchased as an e-book. It’s been described in various reviews as “A creepy Christmas page-turner, full of surprises,” “a great Dickensian style story, brilliantly written”, and “well worth a read on a cold December night”.

Also available in e-book form is IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, a collection of five Christmas stories and novellas penned by me over the years. Unfortunately, it had to be re-uploaded onto Amazon quite recently due to a technical error, which eliminated the 30+ very positive reviews it had accrued since first appearing four or five years ago (and which led to it being translated into German and published in paperback as DAS GESPENST VON KILLINGY HALL).

If I say so myself, you’ll find everything in there from traditional Christmas ghost stories to tales of devilry and the occult (all with a Yuletide twist) to nightmarish pantomimes in which just about aspect of the joyous season is turned on its severed head.

And now the freebies

Yet more Christmas horror stories, mostly written specifically for my annual Christmas blog post, and still available should you wish to check them out.

They are :

THE MAGIC LANTERN SHOW
In a snowy Dickensian town, a police detective investigates a series of strangulations, increasingly convinced that he’s on the tail of a felon drawn from ancient Irish mythology ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, as promised, some ...

Real life Christmas terrors

We all love spooky stories at Christmas. And there are all kinds of esoteric reasons for this.

In days of yore, deep winter was the season of death – plants and crops simply withered away (along with much livestock and many humans!), so the Kingdom of Shadows seemed that much closer. In the dread, desolate world of the winter-stricken North, early Man sought regular conferences with his gods, and it’s surely no stretch to conclude that such quests to the other side gradually morphed into ghost stories in more modern times. Or could there be a simpler explanation? Could it be that with the harvest gathered and sowing not due till early spring, there was little to do in pre-industrial village communities in December except sit around the longhouse fire and tell fantastical stories?

Personally, I think that bits of all these explanations are relevant. But I reckon the popularity of spook stories at Christmas owes as much as anything to the fact that during the festive season we’re mostly snug, well-fed, in good company and generally happy, which likely mitigates the fear factor to a manageable level.

But you know, Christmas can be a genuinely scary time in its own right.

Mysterious and unnerving things have happened at this delightful time of year. In the distant past, when ghosts were seen as heralds of major events to come, they were reported at Christmas more than any other time of year. In addition, there are the countless pagan origins at the root of so many of our traditional Christmas customs.

For example, evergreens were brought indoors during winter in those long-ago days because it was believed that elves and faeries inhabited them (thus keeping them green), and therefore it would curry favour with these magical folk if they were brought into the warmth and light.

Then there is Santa Claus, or should that be Father Christmas?

While Santa is a family-friendly American portrayal of the ancient spirit of winter, the British Father Christmas is much older and closer to the original, and manifested noticeable pre-Christian traits: he came bearing mistletoe and holly, for instance, both of which played key roles in Nordic and Saturnalian ritual; he was strongly connected to feasting and jollity, which Puritan governments during the 17th century frowned upon; Charles Dickens depicted him as a druid and the Lord of Plenty; while in general terms, the white-bearded traveller across the midwinter skies, bestowing gifts on his friends and punishments on his foes, has direct associations with the vengeful Germanic god, Woden, and his even fiercer Viking counterpart, Odin.

So, you see, there are many strange and even sinister aspects to our traditional Christmas.

Here are 10 more …. 


GAZETTEER OF STRANGE AND EERIE FESTIVE STORIES:
10 True Life Tales to Chill You at Christmas

1. Creepy Carols  (1/2)

We love our Christmas carols. Their joyousness is uplifting, their aura of spiritual warmth a comfort to millions. Yet, many of the carols we know today, while often credited to composers of the 19th and 18th centuries, descend to us from much earlier works: folk songs and medieval ballads about Christmas and winter that didn’t always sound a happy note.

The Coventry Carol, which was popularised after the carpet-bombing of the city by the Luftwaffe in 1940, is one of our most overtly melancholy Christmas songs, and yet the reason for this predates World War Two by many centuries.

It was first performed on the medieval miracle play circuit and particularly featured in Nativities, especially those focussed on the Massacre of the Innocents. For the uninitiated, this was the infanticide of all male babies in Bethlehem on the orders of Herod the Great in his efforts to wipe out the Christ-child. While this atrocity is not established historic fact – some scholars consider it apocryphal, though others argue that it fits with the narrative of Herod’s tyrannous final years – it figured prominently in early Christian teaching, and so The Coventry Carol is essentially a lament for murdered children.

I Saw Three Ships is one of our liveliest, most popular carols, and yet it’s difficult to work out exactly what the song is saying. The assumption has always been that it celebrates the visit to Bethlehem of the Magi, or three kings (Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar). But we normally picture these famous dignitaries arriving on camels. After all, there is no harbour at Bethlehem; it’s 45 miles from the sea.

The explanation, or so it’s now believed, is that I Saw Three Ships does not bear witness to the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem, but to the arrival of their skulls in Germany in 1162.

Their mortal remains still lie interred in Cologne Cathedral, having been brought there by German knights returning home from the Second Crusade. So ... will we still sing that happy ditty with the same gusto now?


2. The Mistletoe Bride

Of all our ghoulish Christmas legends, the story of the Mistletoe Bride is probably the most quintessentially English. I say this because so many of England’s great halls and country houses lay claim to it. In comparison, in the whole of mainland Europe, there is only one place that claims the story as its own (though perhaps for that reason alone, this one bears closer examination).

The tale tells how one Christmas Eve, the spoilt daughter of a great lord was celebrating her wedding in his stronghold, when, bored with proceedings, she interrupted the feast to announce an impromptu game of hide and seek. The indulgent guests gave her a head start, and watched fondly as, still in her wedding raiment, wearing an evergreen headdress and clasping her mistletoe bouquet, she dashed off to hide. However, if they’d been hoping it would be over quickly, they were to be disappointed. The game commenced and the entire building was searched, along with the outbuildings and all the surrounding localities, but the young bride was not found. When the family called her name, saying that the game was over, she still didn’t appear. Now there was concern in the air. But it made no difference. The bride remained absent, the hours becoming days, weeks, months, years, decades.

In fact, no one heard from the Mistletoe Bride again until several centuries had passed.

Again, it was Christmas Eve, the great hall was being readied for a festive banquet and a huge cleaning operation was in progress. In a dusty corner of an attic, a chest was found; a bridal chest no less, for the containment of handsome gowns and precious jewels. The sort of chest that locked itself automatically when it was closed.

Mystified, a servant opened it and inside found the bones of a young girl in the rags of a bridal dress, adorned with the desiccated remnants of an evergreen headdress and a mistletoe bouquet.

For the record, the great country estates to so far claim this tale are, among others, Skelton Hall in North Yorkshire, Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, Bramshill House in Hampshire (where the spectral bride is still said to walk each Christmas Eve), Brockdish Hall in Norfolk, and Shapwick in Somerset. But as I mentioned earlier, one European venue, Modena Palace in Northern Italy, also claims the bride and this one may have a greater claim than any of those in Britain. Because in Italy, the doomed girl is actually named as Ginerva Orsini, and her fatal Christmas is dated to some time in the 1570s.


3. Dark Stories of the North

Many modern folk have only become aware in recent times that Christmas has a mythical dark side thanks to festive horror movies centred around Krampus, the anti-Santa, the horned, humpbacked goatman who instead of rewarding good children, punishes the bad ones by taking them away in his sack.

The Krampus story comes to us from Bavaria, Austria and other Tyrolean lands, a rugged northern environment filled with mountains and forests, and deep-frozen in winter – exactly the sort of place that seems to specialise in spawning midwinter monsters.

Again, I suspect it all ties into half-remembered tales about Woden and his ferocious pack. The Wild Hunt is one universal term for these hellhounds, but there are many chilling variations: they were the Gabriel Ratchets in the English Midlands, the Yeth Hounds in Cornwall, the Cŵn Annwn in Wales, the Oskoreien in Scandinavia, though all performed the same service, accompanying their monstrous huntsman master through the icy winter realm in his quest to punish non-worshippers.

It’s all a far cry from Santa and his elves (though we should remember that in olden times, elves were considered devious and untrustworthy too). But if Woden/Odin is the progenitor, perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s mainly in the north where these evil alternatives to Father Christmas were mostly born. A quick northern roll call throws up some frightful characters.

In Iceland, for example, we have Jolakotturinn, the Yule Cat, a tiger-like creature who devours children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas (a sure sign of wickedness in that isolated community where new, woollen clothing was highly valued), Gryla, the deformed ogress who boils them in her cooking pot, and her sons, the Yule Lads, a brood of goblin-like tricksters, who will always give gifts, though some of these can be very nasty.

Joulupukki, meanwhile, was a denizen of the German and Swedish forests, and another two-legged goat who would visit remote farming communities to ensure that the festivals of Christmas and Epiphany were both being adequately prepared for – if they weren’t, watch out!

In the Alpine lands, we find Frau Perchta, ‘the Guardian of the Beasts’, another spirit active over Christmas, but in this case female, sometimes a hag but sometimes a snow-white beauty, who would enter homes on Christmas Eve and decide whether the children there deserved a reward of money or to be killed and stuffed with straw and pebbles!

In Poland, we had Turon, who would travel with a mysterious group of carol singers; he was another horned monstrosity, often white-sheeted to conceal the true horror of his form, who would terrorise households that didn’t welcome the festive season.

So, it’s basically your shout. This Christmas, are you going to be naughty or nice?


4. The Sodder Mystery

Less amusing than tales of Krampus and his buddies, but no less mysterious and disturbing is the case of the Sodder Fire Mystery, which occurred in Fayeteville, West Virginia, during Christmas 1945, and has now become an American cause célèbre.

In short, two hard-working Italian immigrants, George Sodder and his wife, Jennie, woke in the early hours of Christmas Day to find their house on fire. Terrified for the nine children currently at home (one was away in the army), they commenced a frantic evacuation, but the house was already blazing and they were only able to get four of the nine youngsters to safety before the smoke and flames drove them outside. George went to fetch a ladder, so that he could scale up to the children’s window, but the ladder was missing from its normal place (and later found in a ravine, 75 yards away!). When he attempted to bring his two trucks to the house so that he could climb on top of them, neither would start, even though they’d both been in perfect working order the previous day.

The family and their neighbours made repeated telephone calls for help, but the operator never answered. When a message was finally delivered to the nearest fire station, which was only two miles away, there was no response until long after sunrise. By this time, the house had burned to the ground, seemingly with all five children still inside it. However, a search of the ashes located no human remains. The case grew even more bewildering when two private investigators whom the family later hired to look for the missing kids also vanished without trace.

Convinced of foul play, the family began to remember curious incidents from the weeks leading up to
Christmas. A couple of times, the Sodder sons had complained that a man had been parked up on Highway 21 watching them as they strolled home from school. That autumn, an itinerant had called at the house looking for part-time work, and while there had indicated two separate fuse-boxes, suggesting that they might cause a fire. George, who’d just had the house rewired, dismissed the idea (for which reason he also dismissed the later police suggestion that the wiring might have been faulty).

Not long after the itinerant’s visit, an insurance salesman had turned up and, when George refused his services, had raged: “Your Goddamn house is going up in smoke. Your children will be destroyed. You’ll be paid for the dirty remarks you’ve been making about Mussolini.”

For the first time, George’s activities back home in Italy came under scrutiny. Was he involved in politics? Was he connected to the Mafia? No one really knew though he had been outspoken about the Fascists when he lived in the States. From here on, the facts of the case become muddled with all kinds of sensational twists and turns that might not all be true: people claiming to have seen the missing children being driven away by kidnappers and, years later, in Europe, when they’d become adults (a photo was sent anonymously, purporting to show one of the missing sons in his twenties); people claiming to have seen mysterious figures firebombing the house that Christmas Eve, though why they didn’t report it at the time, or try to wake the family, was never explained. Others claiming that human bones had been discovered in the ash but that the fire crew on the scene was too inexperienced to identify them.

It remains a singular and chilling Christmas mystery, which has never been explained or resolved to the satisfaction to any of those involved in it.


5 The Anarchic Earl

“For 19 long winters, Christ and his angels slept!”

So opined the Peterborough Chronicle in reference to the period between 1135 and 1153, the so-called English Anarchy, a time of savage civil war in England, when all law and order broke down and banditry was rife.

One of the most ferocious figures of this time was Geoffrey de Mandeville, the Earl of Essex, a man who on one hand embodied the knightly ideal in that he fought heroically in countless battles and apparently cut a real dash in his gleaming mail and flowing, blood-red cloak, but who on the other was a robber baron of the worst order, taking advantage of the lawlessness not just to rebel against King Stephen, but to raid, pillage and slaughter on a grand scale. No one, it was said, could expect mercy from him: neither women, children, nor even the clergy. His cruelties were beyond imagining.

Can you think of anyone better qualified to be one of England’s innumerable Christmas ghosts?

I’ve long been amused that many of our celebrity ghosts, particularly those who offended against the state, appear to have been singled out for exemplary punishment in the afterlife, often seen in blazing carriages, accompanied by headless hounds and pursued by wailing banshees, and, as a sure sign of God’s displeasure with them, usually on the most important religious nights of the year: Easter Eve, Pentecost or Christmas.

De Mandeville, who was killed in 1144 at the battle of Burwell, isn’t quite so dramatically depicted in his ghostly state – he died bravely after all, despite having been excommunicated, and was pardoned at least once by the king during his lifetime – but he is a regular spectral visitor on Christmas Eve, and his appearance is still, by all accounts, one to remember.

His ghost allegedly appears on horseback in full armour, roaring with anger, broadsword drawn, his mount snorting steam as it gallops furiously around Oak Hill Park in East Barnet (apparently because this is believed to be a place where he once hid stolen gold), while it has also been reported riding furiously along an ancient moat in Enfield Chase, formerly a royal forest where De Mandeville regularly hunted the king’s deer.

Both manifestations supposedly occur on the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve.


6. And All Through the House

Lunatic Santas have become a staple of modern-day horror fiction, and on this occasion I’m not talking about their olde worlde counterparts, Krampus and his ilk. I’m talking about a Santa Claus or Father Christmas that our kids would recognise today – a genial big guy in a hooded red cloak with white fur trim, with a white beard and a sack of toys on his back – going completely nuts and committing atrocious acts.

Without digging too hard, the earliest example of this I can find is And All Through the House, which first appeared in the EC comic Vault of Horror #35 in 1950, and told the tale of a faithless wife who murders her husband on Christmas Eve, only to then be menaced in her snowbound suburban home by an escaped psycho dressed in a Santa suit, and unable to call the police as they’d discover her own crime.

That comic was a classic of its kind, but most fans will be more familiar with the story from the Freddie Francis 1972 movie version, Tales from the Crypt, which starred Joan Collins as the doomed murderess.

But there’ve been lots of others since then. Just off the top of my head, Christmas Evil (1980), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Santa Claws (1996) were all horror movies in which madmen donned the Santa guise and went on killing sprees. Several ‘bad Santa’ short stories stick in my mind, too: Ramsey Campbell’s The Chimney and Alexander Welch’s The Grotto, to name but a couple.

Unfortunately, though as jaded adults lots of us find something deliciously funny about such a twisted concept, there’ve also been a couple of cases, believe it or not, where this, or something similar, has happened for real.

And trust me, this may be the part of today’s blog where we all stop laughing.

In 2001, a Christmas party for staff and their children was held at one of Denver’s many fire stations. The Merlin family attended and their youngest son was particularly pleased to see Santa Claus arrive and start dishing out presents. When it was the young boy’s turn, Santa had a quiet word with him and left the building. A short while later, the boy also went outside – and vanished. A search of the premises was launched but the child had gone. A police enquiry later discovered that nobody knew who the fake Santa Claus was, as no one would admit to having hired him; his identity was never discovered, and the missing child was never found.

Equally weird and disturbing were the events of Christmas 2007 in Arkansas, when residents in a snowy rural town became concerned about a stranger, again dressed as Santa, moving from house to house and leaving presents on each porch, all wrapped in Christmas paper but labelled for no one in particular. The gaily-clad figure eventually withdrew, but when the presents were opened, all were found to contain broken and useless toys, except for the one left on the stoop of the Frester family home. Their package contained a bundle of old office paperwork, most of it dog-eared and dating back to the 1980s, and one handwritten note, which, in large, childish writing said: ‘I’m sorry for whatever happens to your son.’ Nothing did happen to him until two years had passed, when he was killed in a hit-and-run incident. The car responsible and its driver were never traced. Coincidence or something more sinister?
 
(Both these stories carry a health warning, by the way, as, despite searching online in both the Colorado and Arkansas press, I’ve not been able to verify the details in either case. At the present, therefore, both must be regarded as Christmas urban legends).


7.  Sermon for the Dead

There is no place on any British map today called Derwent Woodlands. Nevertheless, the village did exist once, and was the venue for a Christmas ghost story that has attained legendary status.

The reason Derwent Woodlands appears to have vanished is that what remains of it lies under the Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire. The village was abandoned in 1946 to make way for the damming of the River Ashop. What’s left of it now we can only hazard guesses at, but before the floodwaters rose over it, it was famous for very different reasons.

A certain story holds that in the final years of its existence, a new vicar was appointed to Derwent Woodlands, a very modern-minded man who had no truck whatever with superstition. Because of this, we are told, he fell out with his congregation in various ways, but by far the most serious incident concerned their request that he follow the local tradition of saying a Sermon for the Dead on the final Sunday in December. When he enquired what this was and what it involved, he was told that it was a full service held at midnight, which none of his normal parishioners would attend because the pews had to be kept empty for all those souls expected to depart in the next 12 months.

In other words, he was to preach to an empty church.

The vicar found this idea ridiculous and offensive, and dismissed the whole thing as witchcraft. However, as the date drew near, he felt increasingly compelled to do as his parishioners asked, and on the night in question, though very unnerved, he attended the church alone. Though the venerable old building was decked for Christmas, outside there was howling wind and blizzarding snow, which only added to the air of menace.

When he stood on the altar, lit only by a handful of candles, the rows of empty pews faced him, but he also saw what looked like shadows moving in every corner. As he commenced to preach, he was shocked to hear the bell in the steeple overhead tolling, and then to see these various shadowy forms emerge into the candlelight to take their places. Stumbling over his words, the vicar forged ahead, but as the wraith-like figures took on recognisable forms, he was utterly horrified.

One by one he saw the faces of local folk whom he knew personally. Quite clearly, these people would be dead within the year. It was an awful revelation, but worse was yet to come ...


In the morning, he was found insensible in his pulpit: half-frozen but also feverish. When he was able to speak, he told his rescuers that to witness the souls of known friends and associates was bad enough, but that the last spectral form to enter the church was the most terrifying of all.

Because it was him.

Apparently, no one even tried to dissuade him from the notion that he was shortly to die, and indeed, he didn’t live to see another Christmas.

This is a famous tale, and there are many variations on it, all drawing deeply on the old English belief in soul-watching, wherein village elders would wait at an appointed time and place and see in the spirits of all those due to die in the next year. To be fair, it is not specifically a Christmas custom. In Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, it happens on St Mark’s Eve, April 24, and in Dorset on Midsummer’s Eve.

There is no one living who now remembers why it was a Christmas event in Derwent Woodlands. There are few living who even remember Derwent Woodlands. But legend holds that even now, on the last Sunday night in December, when the wind is not too fierce and the weather not too cold to prevent folk being out and about, the dim tolling of a submerged church bell can still be heard.    


8. What Happened Up There?

The 400-year-old Bear Inn, at Stock village, in Essex, boasts a particularly eerie ghost story all of its own, which began when a prank went disastrously wrong one drunken Christmas Eve.

By all accounts, in the 1890s, a man called Charlie Marshall lived on or near to the premises of The Bear, and worked there as an ostler. By any standards, Marshall seems to have been an odd character. He was a hard worker, but a small man who was described as being tough, wiry and athletic, though he also walked with a curious sideways motion, which earned him the nickname ‘Spider’. Despite this, he was not unpopular, as he would regularly drink with the locals in the bar, and would often be the centre of attention.

Part of this appeal was his strange and rather dangerous party trick, which would see him climb up the taproom chimney and reappear from the fireplace in the main bar, usually begrimed by smoke and soot. Both chimneys were narrow and crooked, and no one else would even consider attempting to clamber up them, so when Spider claimed that he was able to get from one to the other by snaking along an old bacon-curing gallery, which now was long bricked-up and not accessible from any other part of the building, there was no one to doubt him.

One particularly riotous Christmas Eve, Spider was encouraged by a rowdy bunch of revellers to perform his trick. He did so, scaling out of sight up the taproom chimney, but then failing to reappear in the bar. There was much shouting and cajoling, but still he stayed out of sight. The crowd became tetchy and impatient. They demanded that Spider come down, but when he didn’t, someone struck on the bright idea to light a fire and try to smoke him out.

Incredible though it may seem, this is what they did – and it was quite a while before anyone entered the pub who was sobre enough to point out that if Spider had not been in trouble before, perhaps stuck somewhere, he was likely in serious trouble now. Most probably in fact, he’d been smothered to death by the smoke. Annoyance turned to panic, and though no one else could climb up, the fire was damped down and efforts were made to push poles and props up the chimney, maybe to dislodge him. But no obstuction was located and when the would-be rescuers became forecul with the poles, they only succeeded in damaging the building.

Eventually the conclusion was drawn that Charlie ‘Spider’ Marshall was dead. It was certainly the case that he was never seen again, and no one heard anything such as coughing or shouting for help. According to the tradition of the pub, he is still up there, lodged in that tiny space, presumably cured like man-sized bacon.

Myths hold that at night, when everyone is in bed, this blackened effigy comes down and walks around the pub with its strange sideways gait. People in rooms there allege to have heard the dragging of his feet along passages. Though a slightly less grisly ghost story holds that his spirit often appears among drinkers on Christmas Eve, looking normal, even rather dapper, and that only the eagle-eyed might note that his white breeches, pink hunting coat, fur cap and boots are a little out of date.


9. The Christmas Haunting

There have been so many reported cases of haunted houses that most of us could probably recite backwards the types of phenomena we’d expect to encounter. When you think about the most celebrated cases ever – the Amityville house, the Perron house, Borley Rectory, Amherst, Ash Manor and such – almost invariably it’s the same kind of thing: disembodied voices heard, objects flying about, doors opening and closing, weird smells, children and animals reacting to unseen presences etc.

But though ghosts have allegedly been with us forever, the template for this classic type of haunting actually comes to us from Epworth in Lincolnshire in the early years of the 18th century and was witnessed by no less a personage than John Wesley, eventual founder of the Methodist Church.

Even more relevant to our purposes today, the Epworth Rectory Haunting, which became famous all over the country, was also known as ‘the Christmas haunting’.

It seems to have begun in early December, 1716, when John Wesley was a child and living there with his father, the Rev. Samuel Wesley, and the rest of his family. The eldest child, Hetty, began communing with an imaginary friend whom she named ‘Old Jeffrey’. She’d never shown this tendency before, but the family weren’t unduly concerned until they started hearing loud knocks and bangs, which they were never able to discover the cause of and which Hetty said were the work of Old Jeffrey.

The disturbances intensified as Christmas approached, the family now hearing heavy feet running around upstairs when there was nobody there. Sleep proved elusive and everyone was on edge.

Typical poltergeist activity commenced: static objects moving on their own, doors slamming open and closed, strange and frightening images scrawled on the walls. It reached a crescendo that Christmas Day, when the blast of hunting horns was heard all over the property, so loud that Samuel Wesley claimed he was almost deafened by one blast, which sounded right in his ear.

And then, when Christmas passed, it subsided. At first gradually, but after New Year’s Day 1717, there were no further incidents. Visitors came from far and wide, because pamphlets had spread the news, but all were disappointed. The Rectory still stands today, completely peacefully, a museum under the ownership of the British Methodist Church.

No explanations have ever been offered. A building on the same site was burned down in 1709, and it was theorised that someone might have died in the flames, but no proof was found, and that wouldn’t have explained the ghost’s short-lived tenancy anyway. Others have pointed to adolescent Hetty Wesley, and wondered if she was the unwitting creator of a psycho-paranormal pantomime. Still more have claimed that nothing much happened at all, and that the facts were exaggerated by pamphleteers eager for sales.

The Christmas factor remains an unusual aspect of the story. Or does it?

I mean, come on … both Charles Dickens and MR James were happily ploughing a long pre-existing furrow.

Who doesn’t enjoy a good Christmas ghost story?
                 

10. Creepy Carols (2/2)

The Huron Carol is widely believed to have come to us from the Huron people, or the Wyandots, as they were more correctly known, who occupied the Lake Ontario region in the 17th century, though the words were actually composed by a Jesuit priest, Father Jean de Brébeuf, who lived among them.

Whatever you think about the rights or wrongs of spreading the Gospel in ‘heathen’ lands, Father Jean, a stalwart missionary, but a gentle man too, undertook his 1625 assignment to convert the Hurons with a determination to learn their own culture first. His hosts proved receptive to this and made him welcome. The song he wrote for them could only have helped, as it set the Nativity in an animal-skin lodge, and portrayed the Magi as three wise chiefs, who brought the baby Jesus gifts of fox, rabbit and beaver pelts. The darkness in this story only comes later, in 1649, when the Iroquois, rivals of the Hurons, launched an attack on the encampment where Father Jean was living.

Though the priest was taken prisoner rather than killed there and then, his black cassock and white collar didn’t save him, his captors later skinning him alive and dousing him repeatedly with scalding water, an ordeal that only ended when they burned him at the stake.

To French and Canadian Catholics, The Huron Carol honours his martyrdom, though it also serves to veil from the rest of us the sickening details of his death.

Here We Come A-Wassailing is one of the cheeriest and bounciest of our carols, so it is surely no surprise that it dates back to that semi-mythical age known as Merrie England, the late Middle Ages, when at Christmastime the great baronial seats became halls of misrule and the feasting really did go on for 12 days.

The modern-day wassail tradition sees gangs of Christmas Eve revellers process from door to door, offering song, dance and costumed buffoonery in return for drink, food and money. In medieval times they would never have risked doing this at the doors of the nobility, had the nobility not seen the wisdom of keeping the poor folk merry at Christmas and thus invited them to do exactly that. This, it’s believed, is the origin of the custom (and the song): that it was an effort to maintain social order at a riotous time. But there’s a much older origin story too, which takes us to the dawn of the Dark Ages.

At this time, Vortigern was King of the Britons, and in the Venerable Bede’s words, ‘a proud tyrant’
who one Christmas was so struck by the beauty of a peasant girl begging at the door of his long-hall that he invited her in and plied her with drink until she was incapable of resisting when he moved in to ravish her.

So, there you go. It was all about getting the lower orders drunk so that you could do what you wanted to them. Another cheerful notion when you’re supping from the Christmas cup.

And if you thought all that cast the festive season in a grim light, try this for size:


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

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

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM 
edited by Christopher Golden (2018)

A Blumhouse Original horror anthology put together specially for the Christmas season last year, but packed with festive-themed chillers, several of which I can safely predict will go on to be reprinted many times throughout the Christmasses yet to come.

Rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll let the publishers give you their own official blurb, which pleasingly hints at the seasonal shivers lying in wait.

Eighteen stories of Christmas horror from bestselling, acclaimed authors including Scott Smith, Seanan McGuire, Josh Malerman, Michael Koryta, Sarah Pinborough, and many more.

That there is darkness at the heart of the Yuletide season should not surprise. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is filled with scenes that are unsettling. Marley untying the bandage that holds his jaws together. The hideous children - Want and Ignorance - beneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present. The heavy ledgers Marley drags by his chains. In the finest versions of this story, the best parts are the terrifying parts.

Bestselling author and editor Christopher Golden shares his love for Christmas horror stories with this anthology of all-new short fiction from some of the most talented and original writers of horror today.

Christmas-themed horror stories are nothing new these days. In fact, you have to go back quite a few centuries to find a time when they were new, if such a time ever existed at all. Regulars on this blog will know that I’ve waxed lyrical about the festive chiller many times before, dredging up examples from the distant past, not just Dickensian delights, but ancient tales of sprites and goblins as referred to in Shakespeare, and even earlier than that, from the Middle Ages. We won’t get into the history of it again now but suffice to say that it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see Christmas-themed anthologies appear on our bookshelves as regular as clockwork when the autumn of each year approaches.

I was particularly delighted to acquire this one towards the end of last year, because its table of contents alone promises so much. Editor Christopher Golden is one of the most respected voices in horror writing and editing on the world stage today, and here he’s in pulled contributions from some of the most popular and successful novelists currently lurking at the darker end of the spectrum: Scott Smith, Josh Malerman, Joe R Lansdale, Sarah Langan, Sarah Lotz, Elizabeth hand, Tim Lebbon and Sarah Pinborough, to name but a few.

Did it hit my Christmas horror spot, though?

Undoubtedly, yes.

Golden clearly made the decision early on that with Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, he was going to forego some of the more tediously familiar festive horror fixtures. For example, axe-wielding Santas make regular appearances in low-budget Christmas horror movies, and even their somewhat more exotic and infinitely scarier cousin, Krampus, is starting to show up with wearying regularity. Likewise, reunions of relatives so appalling that they verge on the deranged are becoming a bit of a cliché, as are horrific presents and Christmas trees decorated with human body-parts. Thankfully, none of those caricatures figure here very much.

Perhaps inevitably, we do have ghosts. Ghosts are such a staple of Christmas fiction that it would be near enough impossible for any editor of a book like this to ignore them. But even here, Golden has opted to select very few of what you might call drawing-room ghost stories.

Anyway, enough of what there isn’t, and now onto what there is.

As I hope I’ve already intimated, this is an eclectic mix of tales, with a refreshingly diverse range of Christmas subjects touched upon. Tim Lebbon’s Home, for example, which shows us Christmas after the apocalypse, is something I for one have never seen before (and which will last long and dark in the memory).

That said, there are a couple of stories here at least that tweak the traditional nerve-string.

Sarah Pinborough, a long-established mistress of the dark fairy tale, spins an elegant yarn in The Hangman’s Bride, which is set in early-Victorian London, and follows the fortunes of a sweep’s boy who climbs the chimney in a big townhouse belonging to a gentleman executioner and finds himself in a labyrinth of brick passages, blinded and choking on soot, and with something horrible lurking just out of sight. At the same time, Seanan McGuire’s Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow lifts us from the realm of the mundane, a suburban family on Christmas Eve, into the dreamy world of Eastern European mythology (managing to be both frightening and sad at the same time). While Joe R Lansdale steps back from his more recognisable ‘Southern Noir’ territory to hit us with The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel, a spine-chilling tale of vengeance from beyond in the decayed environment of an abandoned inn.

Of course, the book isn’t all about ghosts. Golden also finds room for some harder-edged, more typically American-style thrillers, Kelley Armstrong’s Absinthe & Angels telling the tale of a loving twosome cooped up in a snowbound log cabin one wintry Christmas Eve, only to be terrorised by a couple of weirdoes who show up outside, while John McIlveen, in Yankee Swap, depicts a Christmas kidnapping in which a psycho dressed as an elf subjects his hostages to a festive version of Saw.

These two aren’t the most effective stories in the book, for my money, though they’re all a taut read. More intriguing, and perhaps a little more cerebral, are two surrealist contributions from Scott Smith and Elizabeth Hand, both stories – Christmas in Barcelona and Farrow Street, respectively – taking their protagonists to distant cities, Barcelona and London, where adventures in foreign climes rapidly become chilling dislocations from reality.

Equally serious in terms of its undertone, though solidly back on US turf, is Chris Golden’s own story, It’s a Wonderful Knife, which isn’t just a play on the title of the famous movie, but in its telling of a budding actress’s trip to a bigshot Hollywood producer’s Christmas house-party and his subsequent request that she come upstairs so that he can show her a grim relic from one of his early films, casts more than a quick, approving nod in the direction of the #MeToo movement’s campaign against sexual harassment in high places.

In stark contrast, other stories in the book are played almost exclusively for laughs.

Jeff Strand’s Good Deeds introduces us to a guy down on his luck who uncharacteristically does a good deed one Christmas Eve when he buys shoes for a ragamuffin child and afterwards is so startled by the feelings this stirs that he writes a song about the spirit of the season, said song proving so moving that everyone who hears it commits suicide. In Thomas E Sniegoski’s Love Me, meanwhile, a professional burglar comes out of jail looking to fix things with his family in time for Christmas, but, unable to get a job, switches his attention to an old woman who allegedly lives in a nearby apartment full of valuable antiques, and well … as you’ve probably guessed, he should just have tried harder to get a job.

If there’s any brickbat to throw at Hark! The Herald Angels Scream, I’d say that not all the stories in it are specifically about Christmas. Most are, but one or two, such as The Hangman’s Bride and Michael Koryta’s Hiking Through, which concerns itself with a haunted hiking trail in the snowy New England woods, could be set at any time of the winter, but both these stories, and all the others herein are so excellently written, and make for such an enjoyable read overall that no serious editor could refuse them and only the most churlish reader would complain about them.

As with all anthologies, not everything in Hark! The Herald Angels Scream will delight every reader. Like Christmas itself, a season of mixed blessings for so many, the tone won’t always feel right, some won’t get what they’re hoping for, while others won’t buy into any of it from the start. But Hark! The Herald Angels Scream is another very worthy attempt to take a horror angle on the festive time of year, to lighten our mid-winter darkness with plenty of screams and laughs. As such, it gets my strong recommendation.

And now …

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SCREAM – the movie.

Just a bit of fun, this part. No film-maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), but here are my thoughts on how they should proceed if they do.

Note: these four stories are NOT the ones I necessarily consider to be the best in the book, but these are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for adaptation in a compendium horror. Of course, no such horror film can happen without a central thread, and this is where you guys, the audience, come in. Just accept that four strangers have been thrown together in unusual Yuletide circumstances, which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that they’re all going about their business one eerie and deep-frozen Christmas Eve, while a local DJ – Bill Shatner perhaps – regales his listeners with tales of their progress (as in A Christmas Horror Story); or maybe they first appear as comic-book characters, as read about by young Billy in an eerily quiet New England town (a festive editon of Creepshow, anyone?) – but basically, it’s up to you.

Without further messing about, here are the stories and the casts I would choose:

Fresh as the New-Fallen Snow (by Seanan McGuire)

Rich but unloving parents can do without their kids on Christmas Eve and go out to party, leaving their young threesome in the care of a new babysitter, Raisa, a beautiful but mysterious Russian girl. She proceeds to tell them the strange and terrible story of Snegurochka, the legendary Russian Snow Maiden …

Raisa – Yuliya Snigir

The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel (by Joe R Lansdale)

Haunted by the memory of a lovely girl who mysteriously vanished during a Christmas Eve party at a riverside hotel many years ago, middle-aged Robert opts to visit the same hotel on Christmas Eve all over again, even though it is now a ruin, in company with the man he suspects of murdering her …

Robert – Steve Buscemi
Kastengate – Hugo Weaving

Not Just for Christmas (by Sarah Lotz)

Unfaithful Jake tries to buy his way back into his wife, Amira’s affections by acquiring a Genpet for the kids for Christmas. The Genpet is a part-cybernetic puppy, which is cuteness itself, and which never poops, never ages, and even talks with its child owners. The problem is that Genpets are very new and there are all kinds of unforeseen quirks in their system. A strange and scary Christmas Eve lies ahead …

Jake – James Marsden
Amira – Sarah Michelle Gellar

Tenets (by Josh Malerman)

Ex-university friends gather at Hank and Anne’s for a Christmas reunion, but their liberal intellectual attitudes fall short when one of their regular crowd, Adam, turns up with an ex-con, Michael, a one-time cult-leader. Michael’s apparent regret about his former life emboldens the other guests to be rude and cruel to him, but little do they know that he isn’t regretful as much as utterly terrified …

Michael – Robert Carlyle

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Today’s images are as follows, from top to bottom: a touch of dark comedy to kick things off (I have no idea who the original creator was, but if he/she want to get in touch I will happily credit them - as I will in all these cases where an actual author was untraceable); Sparrowhawk; In a Deep, Dark December; Krampus, as seen at an Austrian winter fair (could not work out who the snapper was); the evil snowman from the cover of my 2007 short story collection, Stains; a Christmas fireplace, lifted from Faburous.com; Pieter Brueghel’s Renaissance era-set and yet disturbingly realistic Massacre of the Innocents; Christmas skulls, as found on Paperchase.com; The Mistletoe Bride, as taken from FreakyFolkTales; a traditional image of Woden; the Yule cat, as pinched from WilderUtopia.com; Frau Perchta, as seen on HorrorNewsNetwork; the Sodder mystery; an appropriately insane looking Benito Mussolini; the fearsome Red Knight from Wonderland; the original maniac Santa from And All Through the House, as first seen in EC Comics, 1950; Joan Collins dies at his hands in the movie version, Tales from the Crypt, 1972; another lunatic Santa; yet another; an underwater graveyard in the flooded village of Llyn Celyn, Wales, pic courtesy of the BBC; hooded sculptures at the church of St George in the Czech Republic, photo by Roman Robroek; a supremely Gothic fireplace; smoke ghost; a generic haunted house GIF; demonic graffiti from the movie, Amityville II: The Possession; festive misrule in the great hall; Evil King by Anastasia Andriyanova; Hark! The Herald Angels Scream; Bill Shatner in the movie, A Christmas Horror Story.