Tuesday 20 August 2019

Back from the grave: a brood of aged tales

Something a little different this week. I’m going to talk about a bunch of short stories I wrote for Telstar Records back in the early 1990s, when the word ‘audible’ didn’t exist and we called it ‘spoken word’ instead.

True to form, they were all horrors and thrillers. Yes, some things never change. But in truth, it was almost 30 years ago, and so imagine my surprise when I recently came across quite a few of them, repackaged and for sale online.

It was a surprise, to be honest, but something of a delight too. There are a couple of interesting anecdotes I can share about this long-ago project – so bear with me.

On a not dissimilar subject – short, dark fiction – I’ll also be reviewing in today’s post Tom Cox’s very interesting collection of rural weirdness, HELP THE WITCH.

If you’re only here for the Tom Cox discussion and review, that’s perfectly fine. Head on down to the bottom of this blog, which is where all my reviews usually go. You’ll find it there under the ‘Thrillers, Chillers’ section. However, if you’ve got a bit more time on your hands, let’s chat a little about …

Past treasures unearthed

Okay … that might sound a little conceited, to assume that any of the short stories I wrote during my earliest days of professional authorship could ever be construed ‘past treasures’. But it was a while ago and it was an interesting time.

In the early 1990s, my police days were behind me and I was working as a journalist in Wigan, primarily, or so it seems, covering sport. I was learning my craft at the time. I hadn’t even moved over to Manchester at this stage.  One area, however, where I like to think I was fairly well advanced was in short story writing.

Having been raised on a diet of short, sharp horror fiction – the likes of the Pan and Fontana Horror anthologies but also the writings of such classic age scare-meisters as MR James, HP Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood – I’d long been writing spooky stories in my spare time. Even when I was a cop, though in those very earliest days, out of necessity I’d been using a pseudonym: Robert Eastland.

Of course, way back then, my score rate was fairly low. I still remember the euphoric feeling when I received my first ever short story acceptance. It seems an awful long time ago now, but it was on a Saturday morning and I was lying in the bath when the post arrived downstairs. Oh yes, there was no Internet back then … in those days, a visit from the postman could actually mean something.

It was only a small thing, if I remember rightly. A thousand and a half words accepted for a short-lived, small-circulation British small press mag, but I was elated.

This was around 1990, but you know, it’s amazing how quickly you can hone your craft – any craft in truth – if you’re prepared to work hard on it and learn the lessons of rejection. Soon, as what was then referred to as ‘the Golden Age of the British Inde Press’ truly began to flower, providing endless opportunities for new young writers (many of whom are big names today), I was fortunate enough to sell more and more stories, and at the same time, because of my police background, to blag my way onto The Bill. It was this latter that secured me a literary agent, and from that point on, everything changed.

Spoken word

For example, not long after signing with my new agent, which was around 1993, I was asked into the office concerning an offer that had just come in from Telstar Records. In short, they were looking for writers who specialised in ghost, horror and crime stories, said writers – or writer (as in singular) – to produce a whole series of chilling tales for a new ‘spoken word’ series they were planning.

Yes, that was a brand-new thing back then. It was called ‘spoken word’ – in other words, actors reading fiction on tape (it wasn’t even on CD at this stage) and it was a truly fledgling form of entertainment.

Even so, who was I to turn down such an offer? I got to it industriously. I seem to remember writing something like one short story every two or three days for the best part of two months. Almost all of them were accepted by Telstar, who planned to kick off the series with an antho called From the Graveyard (see at the top), and who, when it came to the actual recording, attached some phenomenal actors. People like Hannah Gordon, Joss Ackland, Honor Blackman, Colin Baker, Ross Kemp, Dennis Waterman, Peter Bowles, James Bolam, Roger Daltrey and others.

My brief encounter with Roger Daltrey was particularly amusing as he was selected to read a story of mine called Fancy Dress Night, which concerns a murderous misanthrope who attends a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party dressed as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but with a tank of fuel concealed in his hump, which he intends to slowly discharge all over the crowded dance-floor. Before the night is over, of course, he will ignite it, and then flee the scene. But the best-laid evil plans rarely work out … am I right?

Anyway, Roger seemed to like the story, and suggested one slight change – which I approved of. But we had this discussion when he rang me at the Wigan Observer editorial office. I found him very amiable and chatty, and we were on the phone for a good ten minutes. When he hung up, I turned around and the entire office was standing behind me, ear-wigging.

Word that Roger Daltrey was on the line had got around fast.

In the end he did a great job for me, but so did most of the other readers. Bill Oddie, then known mainly as a comedian, read a tale called The Ogre of the Scraggs, which told the story of a group of kids taking their scrambler bikes over an extensive area of spoil-land and slagheap, and meeting something very unpleasant during the process. He literally could not have done a better job (despite being a naturalised Brummie, he got the Wigan accent bang-on).

The late, great Jon Pertwee also graced me with a reading. In fact, someone told me once that they thought A Glitch in Time, which centred around a series of nightmarishly problematic time-travel experiments at a secretive US Airforce base was the last piece of professional work he ever did, which, if true, would have been an honour beyond my wildest dreams given that Mr Pertwee was, and still is in my view, the quintessential Dr Who.

The list goes on, basically. Rula Lenska was equally superb in her reading of Skeleton Crew, which focussed on an understrength police station in a rough inner-city area on the night a deadly and vengeful cop-killer gets loose from jail. For those interested, this tale went down so well that I was later able to enlarge it, develop it, hack it, chop it, change it etc, into an episode of The Bill called Protect and Survive, which I wrote sometime in the early 2000s.

I could go on like this for a while, but I don’t want to get too boring about it. I’ll just reiterate that the spoken word versions of quite a few of these stories – maybe all, I honestly don’t know! – seem to have been repackaged again during the early 2000s (even though I only discovered them quite recently; they’ve been repackaged more than once since they were first put out, I suspect – I sold the audio rights at the time, so there was no necessity that I be kept in the loop). But their latest incarnations appears to be these collections, the jackets to which I’ve posted throughout this blog.

Sorry, but for all the reasons laid out, I don’t actually know the tables of contents and should point out at this stage that not all the stories collected in them are mine (or Robert Eastland’s, who, as I say, is also me). Other writers did contribute, though I think I provided the lion’s share. It’s probably also worth mentioning that quite a few of these tales will have appeared in print format since then, so be warned, there’s a possibility, if you go for them, that you might double up.

Anyway, that’s it on the subject of these. On the subject on another older story soon to be unearthed, a 40K-word novella of mine, Season of Mist, which originally appeared in the Ash-Tree Press collection, Walkers in the Dark in 2010, will shortly be republished, both electronically and in print (and maybe via Audible too) hopefully in time for this autumn. If you’re interested, keep watching this space.


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

by Tom Cox (2018)

The debut collection of stories from a highly accomplished novelist, journalist and essay writer, who previously has written profoundly and entertainingly about animals and the countryside, but also about music and sport. This is his first collection of supernatural(ish) fiction, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s strongly flavoured with folklore.

Initially, rather than simply list all the stories contained here and tell you what happens in each one of them, I’ll let Unbound’s official online blurb do the talking as it strongly hints at the spooky stuff lurking inside:

Inspired by our native landscapes, saturated by the shadows beneath trees and behind doors, listening to the run of water and half-heard voices, Tom Cox’s first collection of short stories is a series of evocative and unsettling trips into worlds previously visited by the likes of M. R. James and E. F. Benson.

Railway tunnels, the lanes and hills of the Peak District, family homes, old stones, shreds fluttering on barbed wire, night drawing in, something that might be an animal shifting on the other side of a hedge: Tom has drawn on his life-long love of weird fiction, folklore and nature s unregarded corners to write a collection of stories that will delight fans old and new and leave them very uneasy about turning the reading lamp off.

After all that, the main problem with Help the Witch is going to come if readers tune in expecting a bunch of traditional rural or folk-themed horror stories, because if they do that, they are almost certain to be disappointed. The blurb above describes Tom Cox as a kind of heir-apparent to MR James and EF Benson, but in my opinion that’s a little misleading.

Of course, both James and Benson were a lot more than simple ghost story writers, the former a medievalist scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, the latter a famed novelist, biographer and archaeologist. But everything about Help the Witch, from its jacket art, to the splendid illustrations inside, to the blurb on the book’s inner sleeve implies that what we’re in for here is a collection of stories cut from the cloth of the uncanny.

That isn’t solely the case, though I don’t mean to say that Cox – who’s a truly excellent writer – doesn’t delve more than a little bit into that eerie world. Two stories in particular, the titular Help the Witch and Just Good Friends (of which more about later), are both exquisite chillers centred around real characters with complex emotions, and hauntings (of a kind) which come at us very subtly and genuinely frighteningly (even though Cox is not aiming for anything like the degree of terror that James and Benson routinely achieved).

Also classifiable as ghost and/or horror stories are Listings, an account of a weird haunting as relayed through a succession of news reports, magazine items etc running far into the future, and The Pool, wherein the turning seasons cause the malignant energy lurking beneath a woodland pool – an intriguingly unknowable entity – to wax and wane in terms of its power. Both comprise top quality wordsmithery by Cox, though the first tale is almost experimental in terms of its narrative style, while the second is a detailed and very lyrical study of the natural environment of the English woodlands rather than an actual scary story. (Again, more about these two later).

Beyond that, though, I’m not sure that every piece in Help the Witch did it for me. Perhaps I just didn’t think deeply enough, but contributions like Seance and Nine Tiny Stories About Houses seemed like existential oddities, even though the former is quite amusing, while another one, Robot, had the air of something that had been penned quickly and without a great deal of purpose.

I reiterate, however, that Tom Cox is a fine writer. Even those stories that didn’t endear themselves to me as chillers are skilled and poetic in their execution. But overall, it wasn’t quite what I felt I’d been led to expect. Folk-horror is a subgenre of supernatural fiction already well populated by established masters and mistresses of the form – Reggie Oliver, Steve Duffy, Helen Grant, Adam Nevill, Sarah Singleton, to name but a few – and that would be stiff competition for anyone.

But ultimately, it’s in the eye of the beholder. I can only say what I personally felt, and even I, who am not 100% sold on Help the Witch, consider that at least half the book, if not more, is well worth the price I paid for it. So, go on … grab a copy, yourself, and see what you think. There is a bit of something here for everyone.

 And now …

HELP THE WITCH – the movie.

Just a bit of fun, this. 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 they are the four I perceive as most filmic and most right for 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 circumstances which require them to relate spooky stories. 

It could be that all find themselves in an idyllic country home, where a nervous renovator needs reassurance about his various nightmares (al la Dead of Night) or are the subjects of unsolved paranormal cases handed by one retired and decrepit investigator to a young up-n-comer (al la Ghost Stories) – but basically, it’s up to you.

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

Just Good Friends: Helen, a beautiful 30-something, is unlucky in love until she meets the gentle, enigmatic Peter, who she is strongly attracted to despite their relationship remaining platonic. Things are finally warming up between them when Peter inexplicably claims that he’s always known her and has been following her since she was young. Unnerved by such weirdness, Helen breaks the relationship off and gets a new boyfriend, only to develop an urge to return to her native Cornwall to see her ailing mother, Alice, and investigate the mysterious old seaside house that she increasingly remembers from childhood …

Helen – Claire Foy
Peter – William Moseley

Listings: The story of a bad place on the edge of the Somerset marshes. A human habitation, but a spot where various houses, pubs and the like have all been troubled by a mysterious, malevolent entity who may or may not be Tunk, the fearsome, sheep-headed goblin of local West Country myth …

(It’s up to the screenwriter to come up with a cast-list for this one, as no individual of significance stands out in the original short story).

The Pool: A scenic woodland pool with a mysterious, anonymous something lurking in its opaque depths exerts a subtle evil influence over all those who venture near it, no matter how fun-loving they are or innocent their motives. ...

(Again, it’s up to the screenwriter to come up with a cast-list for this one, as no specific character provides a focus for the tale).

Help the Witch: Jeff, an academic on the run from an irrevocably broken relationship, heads north into the Derbyshire Peaks, where he takes a primitive cottage high on a valley edge just in time to get snowed in by a terrible winter. It is probably not the best time to discover that the cottage is haunted by a spirit still lingering after the ghastly carnage of the plague era …

Jeff – Ben Whishaw
Catherine (voice only) – Lena Headey