Wednesday 22 December 2021

Part Three of the festive chiller: STUFFING

With only a couple of days to go, it's time for me to wish all my regulars on here, and even those just making a flying visit, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I hope you’re all getting in the mood by now. If you’re not, maybe this will help? It’s the third and final installment of my festive chiller, STUFFING. 

Before you commence reading, just a quick reminder - this is PART THREE. If you want to start at the beginning, aka PART ONE, and you haven’t done that already, just scroll down to the previous two posts, You’ll find PART ONE on December 8, and PART TWO on December 16.

In addition to that, and because we’re on the subject of short scary stories today, I’ll also be posting a detailed review of last year’s amazing horror anthology, AFTER SUNDOWN, as edited by the indefatigable Mark Morris (I know, I know ... the bloke is everywhere at present). As always, you’ll find that review towards the bottom end of today’s post in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

But that’s for later. Before then, let’s get going with ...


Max inserted an ear-bud and played back what he’d recorded. “What are you talking about?”
     “You can’t seriously be buying all this?” Kerry said.
     “Are you kidding? This is fantastic.”
     “If nothing else, it’ll be a weird and wonderful podcast.”
     “But he talks about that damn bear as if it was some kind of rival.”
     Max shrugged. “In some ways it was, wasn’t it? As Cleghorn’s act waned, the bear grew popular. Think about the era. The Muppets were on telly, Basil Brush, Rod Hull and Emu. But the stand-up guys who’d started on the club circuit were fading …”
     “He talks about it as if it was real. As if it was deliberately trying to undermine him.”
     “Obviously that’s the way it seems to him.”
     “That’s the way it would seem to someone who isn’t right in the head. How long are we staying and listening to this? The last train’s eight-thirty … we can’t afford to miss it.”
     Max sighed. “What time is it now?”
     She glanced at her watch. “Nearly six-thirty.”
     “We’re okay yet. It’s what, eight or nine miles to the station. That’s a fifteen-minute taxi ride. We’ve got bags of time.”
     Cleghorn re-entered the room, carrying a flattish cardboard parcel. Again, Kerry felt surprise. The guy was so far off the grid down here, it was difficult to imagine he could be the recipient of Amazon deliveries and such. He dropped the parcel onto the telephone table, scooped up his glass and headed back to the drinks cabinet.
     “Where were we?” he said, slurring a little. “Oh yeah, the catch. That wretched bear.” He poured himself another generous measure. “Well, they weren’t getting me with that caper, I can tell you. I’d see to the bastard personally.” He plonked himself down. “There was only room for one clown on this stage, and it certainly wasn’t going to be him.”
     Kerry decided that if Max didn’t soon realise they’d got everything useful they could out of this man, she’d announce it publicly. As Max consulted his notes, she stood up, crossed the room and glanced around the curtain – and was stunned to see a winter wonderland.
     Those first few flakes she’d spotted earlier had only been the prelude to a snowfall so heavy that despite the relatively short time since, the front garden was already inches deep. Not only that, snow was still falling, fast and thick, and whipping on a sharp wind. So intense was it that she could barely see the main gates at the end of the drive.
     “Max!” She pushed the curtain open. “We need to call a taxi immediately.”
     Max got to his feet, equally surprised by the outdoor scene, and not a little disappointed.
     Kerry nodded at Cleghorn, who seemed oblivious to the problem. “I’m sure you’ve got enough material now, aren’t you, Max?”
     “Well, I …”
     “Mr Cleghorn? Max and I need to leave before we get snowed in. Thank you for your hospitality. But I’m wondering, may we use your landline?”
     Cleghorn gave an indifferent shrug.
     She walked to the telephone table. “I don’t suppose you know any taxi firm numbers?”
     Again, a shrug. He swilled more booze. Irritated, Kerry dug through a pile of dog-eared paperwork stacked next to the phone, and with fortuitous speed, found a small card.
     She placed the call, glancing at Max, who was standing around looking frustrated. He seemed to be about to raise an objection, when the call was suddenly answered.
     “Eastside Cars,” came a woman’s voice.
     “Can we have a taxi as soon as possible please?” Kerry replied. “We’re going to the railway station.”
     “Where are you, my love?”
     For half a second, Kerry couldn’t remember the address. She grabbed up the cardboard package and turned it over, only to find that it was blank. On both sides.
     She tossed the package onto the sofa, and asked Max. Sulkily, he told her.
     “15, Hockton Mill Lane,” she said.
     “Oh, I’m sorry, love.” The tone had immediately changed. “I can’t send a car down there. Not in this weather.”
     “Are … are you serious?” Kerry stuttered.
     “I’ve never been more serious.”
     “But we can’t be marooned here. It’s Christmas Eve. We have to get home.”
     “I’m sorry, love. I’m not sending cars down that road in this weather. Last time we did that, we had two of them stuck there all night.”
     As if for emphasis, the line went dead.
     Kerry relayed the info to Max, who absorbed it without comment as he buttoned his overcoat. Behind him, meanwhile, Cleghorn seemed nonplussed as he turned the unaddressed package over in his hands. Presumably he hadn’t looked at it properly when picking it up from his doormat.
     “Mr Cleghorn,” Kerry said. “Are there any other taxi companies in town?”
     He gave her a troubled frown. “What’s that?” Before she could answer, he swung to Max. “You didn’t manage to open the shed?”
     “Erm, we … well …” Max looked fazed, “we loosened the wire.”
     Cleghorn’s expression changed: from sudden anxiety to outright fear. He ripped at the package, which came apart with remarkable ease, as if the cardboard was old and rotten.
     “Max!” Kerry said, worried. “What’re we going to do?”
     There was a low but voluble curse. They glanced round and saw Cleghorn backing away from his sofa, staring at the item he’d dumped there, though to their eyes it was no more than a heap of colourful material.
     “Chriiist!” the ex-comedian finally choked. “Good Christ almighty!
     With more energy than either of them had imagined possible, he spun and lurched out of the room. A few seconds later, they heard swift impacts on the staircase.
     “What was that about?” Kerry said. “He disapproves of Christmas presents too?”
     “Maybe he disapproves of guests suddenly walking out mid-conversation.”
     “Max!” She stared at him askance. “Look what’s happening outside!”
     “I see that. But I was making headway. And now suddenly we’re going?” More out of frustration than actual interest, he grabbed up the pile of material Cleghorn had been repulsed by. “I hadn’t even got to the nitty-gritty!”
     “You mean why he stopped being famous?” she said. “For God’s sake, how about he developed a fixation that a puppet was plotting against him? That isn’t revelation enough …?”
     “Jesus!” Max interrupted, having opened the material out.
     It was an archetypical Christmas jumper; you could tell that from the thick woollen knit, from the parallel rows of Christmas trees, skiers and reindeer heads. It was also filthy: impacted with dirt, stinking of mold. But the most noticeable thing was its size. Whichever man wore this, he’d need to be truly massive.
     “This came through the letterbox?” Max asked.
     “I suppose,” Kerry replied. “It’s unaddressed, so I imagine it was delivered by hand.”
     He visibly paled.
     With a thunder of footfalls again belying his age, Bernie Cleghorn descended the staircase and came back into the lounge. He’d donned a heavy mac and a scarf.
     He regarded them stonily. “You were unable to summon a taxi, I gather?”
     Dumbly, Max nodded.
     “In which case, I’ll be glad to drive you.”
     Kerry frowned. “Haven’t you been drinking?”
     Cleghorn gave her a pitying look. “My dear, do you really think any police will be looking to pull motorists over on a night like this?”
     “Well, yes. It’s Christmas Eve.”
     A tremendous bang, a real impact this time, not some hollow thud, sounded from the rear of the house. Cleghorn jerked, but pointedly didn’t look round.
     “I imagine blizzard conditions like these will make it difficult for them to judge who’s been drinking and who is simply struggling in the snow,” he said. “The thing is … I’ve decided to make a festive visit to my sister in Coventry.” He indicated a suitcase out in the passage; from the rags and tags of clothes protruding, it had been hastily packed. “Of course, if you’d rather walk …?”
     “No, no, it’s fine,” Max said, with a sudden, distinct feeling that leaving wasn’t such a bad idea.
     “Good.” Cleghorn went out again, heading into the depths of the house. “Just wait by the car …”
     “Max!” Kerry protested. “The guy’s half-cut.”
     “Like he says, we can always walk.”
     He headed out into the corridor, and she had no option but to follow. At the front door, they drew the bolts back, turned the key, and stepped into a tumult of wind and flakes. Huddled and shivering, they crunched along the front of the building. On rounding the corner to the car port, the whole rear end of the vehicle had already been plastered white.
     “So, the octogenarian driver’s drunk,” Kerry said. “The car’s a wreck and the conditions are horrific. What could go wrong?”
     “Like I say …” Max replied. “Podcast of all time.”
     She turned to him. “Why did that jumper upset you? One minute earlier, you were ready to take your chances with this storm. Now you can’t wait to go.”
     He shook his head, unsure how to phrase it. “It … well, it’s got to be a joke.”
     From the front of the house, the main door banged closed, and a key rattled as it turned. Cleghorn, wearing a flat cap and muffler on top of everything else, stumbled towards them, humping his case.
     “Whoa!” Max shouted.
     “Kerry spun back. “What?”
     He stared past the Humber at the sheet of polythene, which again was flapping and rippling. “Thought … from the corner of my eye, I thought …” He told himself that he’d been mistaken. Or tried to. “Nah, it’s … silly.”
     “Max, what?”
     “Someone on the other side of that sheet. Just a silhouette, but …”
     Cleghorn arrived alongside them, his face pinched and eyes watering. “If you could move that mess off the car, I’ll get it started.” And he sidled around to the vehicle’s driver’s door, unlocked it and folded his lanky body in behind the wheel.
     Max stared at the polythene again, trying hard to think his way through the bizarre events of the last ten minutes. Kerry meanwhile was scraping handfuls of snow off the car’s rear window. When she called to him, he hurried to assist, grabbing boxes, rags and other garbage, and flinging them aside. Neither had really expected the ancient car to start, but they hadn’t realised their host had even been trying when he suddenly stuck his head out again.
     “You! What’s-your-name!”
     Max looked up. “Sorry, me?”
     “Yes, you. Look under the bonnet, will you?”
     “But I don’t know anything about …” The driver’s door clunked closed. “This is ridiculous,” Max grumbled as he slid sideways towards the front. “Maybe we should try walking. If we can get some distance up that valley road, the taxi might meet us half way. What do you think?”
     Kerry didn’t respond, just hugged herself. She was increasingly troubled that time was getting on. It had to be approaching seven now, easily.
     “Bloody hell,” Max groaned. “This isn’t good.”
     “The bonnet’s already open.” He lifted it and, with the aid of his phone light, peered in – at a mishmash of shattered pipes and cylinders. “Shit.” Another kind of chill ran down his back. He straightened up stiffly. “Mr Cleghorn! You need to see this!”
     “What is it?” Kerry asked.
     Max shook his head. “This can’t be real …”
     Cleghorn opened his door again. “What the devil’s the matter now?”
     “I think you’ve been sabotaged.”
     Hurriedly, Cleghorn climbed out and joined Max by the open bonnet. His face registered total dismay. At which point, movement caught Kerry’s eye.
     Behind the hanging polythene.
     In fact, directly behind Max.
     Though it wasn’t so much a shape as something shapeless. A huge, hulking something.
     She screamed and pointed. Cleghorn saw it too. He froze, eyes goggling. Max spun, but already the shape had withdrawn from view. He turned back. “This damage has been done deliberately, Mr Cleghorn. Whoever it was, they broke the bonnet open to get at it ...”
     But the ex-comedian wasn’t looking either at him or the ruined engine. Gaze still locked on the polythene, he was shaking violently.
     “Enough … enough of this!” he stammered. “This ends.” He dug a gloved hand into the pocket of his mac, and pulled out what they both thought was a dummy revolver, some prop from one of his shows. But then he snapped open its cylinder, and they saw that its chambers were loaded with ammunition. He clicked it closed again. “It ends now!
     He turned on them so fiercely that Max backed away along the car.
     “They told me you can’t offset your fate.” Cleghorn’s voice was a snarl, his eyes teary and livid, though he barely seemed to see them. “That you can’t change your destiny once it’s fixed. But you can. I showed them you can. They thought they’d been clever, imposing that thing on me. Only slowly did I realise that was the catch, but once I did, I took the damn thing down … what if I burned my own career in the process? I’m still here, aren’t I? At eighty! And I’ve got miles and miles left yet!”
     Abruptly, he seemed to remember that he had company.
     He frowned. “You two … I’m sorry you’ve been caught in this. I don’t know what the rules are regarding interlopers, but I fancy they’re not good. So you should go.”
     “Mr Cleghorn,” Kerry said, “if there’s someone here who shouldn’t be. Some old enemy, or …”
     “Go! … While you can.”
     And with gun levelled, he fought his way through the hanging sheet.
     “My God …” Kerry shook her head. “Oh my God!”
     Max blundered out onto the drive. “We need to exit stage left … right now.”
     “But there’s clearly someone here who means Cleghorn harm. Someone he may have annoyed on the past …”
     “Kerry, we need to go.” He lurched across the drive.
     She hurried after him, grabbing his arm. “And go where?”
     “Like I say, up the road.”
     “Shouldn’t we call the police?”
     “How? The front door’s locked and I’m not sure I want to go around the back, are you?”
     “Max, I know he’s an old sod … but do we really want to leave him?”
     “Christ’s sake, Kerry, he’s got a gun. He’s better protected than we are.”
     “And what if he does something terrible with that gun?”
     “All the better we’re not here.”
     But they were now blundering up the garden, the deluge of flakes swirling, the wind factor adding a sword’s edge, a combination that almost overwhelmed their senses. Then, from somewhere behind came a muffled but sharp detonation. They stopped and turned. The house was already concealed from view; not just by the snow, but by darkness, for there were no exterior lights.
     “Was that a gunshot?” Kerry said.
     “I don’t know,” Max replied. “Could’ve been something blowing about in the wind.”
     Another noise followed. Again dulled by the blizzard, it nevertheless was hollow and metallic, the sound a car’s bodywork might make if something struck it.
     “Okay, that’s it!” Max took Kerry’s elbow, steering her forward.
     Still half-blinded, they went by pure instinct, tripping and tottering, only for the tall gate to loom up in front of them like a phantom. Max tried to pull it open, but yanked his hand back, yowling. Kerry activated her own phone light.
     Their eyes almost popped.
     The gate had not just been closed, but was fastened in place by long strands of barbed wire woven through its bars and around the gateposts. Without doubt, it was the same wire they’d seen wrapped around the shed, though such was the gnawing cold that the import of this took an age to sink in. When it did, Kerry and Mac twirled round together.
     They saw only gusting, depthless flakes. But both were instinctively certain that someone was approaching. Or in Max’s mind, something.
     He pushed Kerry towards the side of the garden.
     “What are we doing?” she whimpered.
     “There was a break in the perimeter … I saw it when we entered.” In seconds they’d come to a tall boundary wall clustered with ivy, though both brick and leaf were already pasted with snow. “Somewhere round here …”
     Kerry glanced over her shoulder again. “Max, for God’s sake, find it!”
     “Here!” he shouted.
     And indeed, there was a crevice in the wall, as if a huge wedge of aged brickwork had fallen out. They clambered through into flat woodland. The tree trunks were sparsely spread, but there were thickets of undergrowth too, all shrouded in white. No discernible path led through, but they battled forward anyway, lashed by frozen vegetation. Kerry glanced back continually; the break in the wall fell steadily behind until that too was invisible.
     “Max, where are we going?”
     “We must be following the valley road,” he replied. “The river ran parallel to it, and that’s somewhere on our right. As long as we stay between the two, we’re going the right way.”
     From somewhere to their rear came a loud fibrous crackle, as if a sapling had been uprooted or a hefty branch torn down. Kerry threw another backward glance, and some ten yards to their rear, saw twigs threshing violently.
     “Max!” she half-screamed.
     He grabbed her hand and lugged her on. Even in their panic, they realised they should try to veer leftward at some point, to connect with the road again. But the further they progressed, the more steeply the ground to their left rose upward. That had been the way of it, of course. All the way along Hockton Mill Lane, they’d descended ever deeper into this valley.
     With a splintering crack, another bough behind was demolished.
     Closer this time. Much closer.
     They were both out of condition, but fear can drive the human body like a motor, and they crashed on and on, breath billowing. When open ground at last appeared in front, they hadn’t the time to feel relieved, but scrambled on across it for what seemed like an age, until with chests aching and lungs wheezing, they decelerated through utter exhaustion and risked a further glance behind. Nothing obvious was in pursuit.
     Too fatigued to talk, they pressed on, though there was no going left now for the ground on that side had ascended to cliff-like proportions. There had to be a stair of some sort, they reasoned: a path with switchbacks maybe, old stone steps, an access road connecting to one of the derelict factories they’d seen. But they spotted nothing like that, and when they came to the first of those factories, it was no more than a shell, upright sections of jagged, rotted brickwork, heavily shelved along their tops with snow. The corrugated metal fence encircling it had collapsed, allowing them access. But they halted before going in, again scanning the woodland behind.     
     Still nothing visible followed. Equally reassuring, the storm was finally weakening, the wind abating, fewer and fewer flakes descending.
     They proceeded amid the gutted relics of buildings, the black holes of broken doors and windows gaping on all sides. As the clouds overhead cleared, the lying snow reflected spectral blue moonlight. Kerry glanced over her shoulder again. “What happened back there?”
     “Dunno.” Max’s teeth juddered together as the sweat-damp in his clothes turned frigid. “All we need to think about now is getting somewhere warm.”
     “Look!” She pointed between two roofless outbuildings, where a snow-covered track led away at an angle but clearly crossed over the river. “That bridge must lead somewhere.”
     They lumbered forward, initial brief concerns that the bridge might be unsafe diminishing as they crossed. On the other side, an access road, presumably once having serviced the factory, appeared to ascend out of the valley. They followed it eagerly.
     For about two-hundred yards.
     At which point it was blocked off by a tall, steel fence.
     They stood in disbelief, the body-heat steaming off them.
     Max fidgeted with his phone, desperately trying to obtain a signal. While he did that, Kerry peeped along a path beaten through the snow-clad hawthorns on their right. It was certainly well-trodden and, from what she could see, mostly level. She called Max and they ventured along it. It was firm enough underfoot despite the carpet of white. The main problem was that it headed back the way they had come. When Kerry raised a concern about this, Max replied that at least they were on the other side of the river.
     However, the further they followed the new route, the less comfortable they felt. Overhead, the valley side steepened until it became obvious the path was not going to suddenly divert uphill. Instead, it rolled on and on in the same direction, and all the while the excruciating cold reduced their feet to leaden weights, their hands to bloodless lumps.
     “This is a nightmare,” Kerry moaned, unable to fathom how they’d finished up in such a predicament.
     “Wait, look!” Max shouted.
     Not far ahead, down and to the right, they saw Christmas lights.
     “Surely that’s where we came from?” she said.
     “There were no decorations at Cleghorn’s house, remember?”
     That was true, she realised.
     Max started forward, hauling her with him. “There must be another house on this side of the river. With luck, they’ll have a phone. Maybe even a car they can give us a ride in. We might make that last train yet.”
     His enthusiasm infected her and they dashed forward together.
     When the path commenced its descent, it was shallow, so there was no danger of slipping. They ran faster, eager to get back to some kind of sanity. Back on river-level, the route changed direction, cutting hard to the right, scything through snow-deep undergrowth. Any unease Kerry felt was allayed by knowledge that the river still lay in front of them, but then their feet started drumming on snow-covered boards, and they realised they were crossing back over via a footbridge. On the far bank, the path ended at a broken-down gateway.
     Beyond this stood a mass of rhododendron bushes, and on the other side of those, the familiar outline of a garden shed. When they sidled around to the front of it, its door hung from a splintered jamb. Wearily, they turned. The house beyond the weeds was unquestionably Cleghorn’s, though now it glimmered with festive lights, bulbs in every window. A further source of light was its open back door.
     “I really don’t want to go in there,” Max mumbled.
     “I know,” Kerry said, “but we’re literally refrigerating out here.”
     “He doesn’t do Christmas anymore. He told us that. Something’s still wrong.”
     She pondered bleakly. “Suppose we sneak in, grab the phone, call 999? I don’t see we’ve any choice. We’d never make it back to that ruined factory, let alone the main road.”
     She wasn’t exaggerating, and Max knew it. Their extremities felt frost-bitten.
     Stealthily as possible, they proceeded, sliding sideways through the brittle structures of the weeds. At the back door, they waited again and listened. For maybe a whole minute, but the silence in the house was sepulchral. They glanced at each other, nodded, and went in. As with the shed, they immediately noticed that the back door, which, thanks to Kerry, had been held only by a single bolt at the top, had also succumbed to brute force.
     More distracting than this, though, was the state of the kitchen, because a set of old, dingy fairy lights had been draped haphazardly around it. Over its cabinets, across its worktops. It was the same further in: in the warren of dim-lit passages, more strands of coloured bulbs, most thick with dust, hung from the odd nail or were slung across the tops of doors.
     Creeped out beyond belief, they halted at each junction to listen. Still there was no sign that anyone else was present.
     When they reached the part-open door to the lounge, they listened again. Very intently.
     As before, nothing.
     Holding his breath, Max pushed the door.
     Beyond it, the spacious room stood motionless, the rancid Christmas jumper lying where Max had dropped it, the shaggy brown beanbag sitting next to the couch. The obvious main difference was that this room too had now been decked for the season. There were lights along the mantelpiece and over the tops of the curtains, while tinsel glittered from the bookcase. There was even a Christmas tree in the far corner, a scattering of white beads around the base of it to create the illusion of indoor snow. The tree itself was a scruffy, garish thing, reddish in colour, but overly decked with tinsel and crêpe, festooned with baubles, streamers and additional loops of twinkling lights.
     They barely looked at it. On seeing the room was unoccupied, Max made straight for the telephone, Kerry standing guard by the door.
     “Damn it!” he hissed. “The bloody line’s dead.”
     “For God’s sake, it was working earlier!”
     “I know, but there’s been a blizzard since then, hasn’t there!”
     He slammed the receiver on the cradle three times, but it remained lifeless.
     Hastily, he groped along the cable to see if it had come loose from the wall.
     With nothing stirring in the corridor, Kerry crossed the room to the window with the open curtain. The lights in the building painted lurid patterns on the snow outside, but nothing else moved.
     “Max, I think there’s no one …” Any additional words ended in a stupefied croak.
     But it was only after Max discovered the end of the telephone cable, which had not been detached from the wall, but appeared to have been chewed clean through, that he straightened up, ice-cold again, and then saw his other half rigid as a plank, one mittened fist jammed into her mouth as she stared from close range at the Christmas tree.
     Which on more prolonged inspection wasn’t a Christmas tree at all.
     Near the top of it, through gaps in the festive wrappings, the tortured remnants of a human face were visible. The head had angled backward at a ninety degree angle, the mouth gaping around an upwardly protruding pole, which was either an old clothes prop, or maybe just a broken broom handle, though either way the limp form of a man had been impaled on it lengthways and then hefted upright.
     Max and Kerry stood stiff. Aghast. Frozen to the core.
     Unable to look any longer, Kerry averted her gaze to the floor and the scattering of fake snow. The white beads. Which, even through her swirl of horrified thoughts, were clearly not actually intended to be fake snow, but were more likely the innards of some item of furniture, the outer skin of which, all brown and furry, now lay torn in ribbons just to her left. Even then, she was too sickened with horror to make sense of this, or to notice as the great shaggy shape of the beanbag, so ingrained with dirt after all these years that it had now transformed from polar-white to deepest coffee-brown, uncurled itself and rose inexorably to its full seven feet of height.
     They sensed it rather than saw it, and despite that it was almost too late.
     Shrieking, they managed to dash past it, reaching the lounge doorway. Only to find that the door had been backheeled closed, and that two colourful costumes hung there: the slinky uniform of a saucy French maid, and the jester-like garb of the Lord of Misrule.
     The brief halt this brought them too was all the delay the vast shape behind them needed, as it came on apace, its eyes flipping from brightest blue to searing red.


What a finale for our podcast Christmas special … to actually have been made part of the show. We’ve even got costumed up. I mean, you’ve got to get into the spirit of the thing, haven’t you?
     He did. He’s recreated every part of it.
     Even when he came to take Kerry for their routine. Violet-eyed or not, he brought his burlap sack.
     Course, I don’t know what time he’ll be coming to take me. I don’t even know what time it is now, because all I can see through this grimy window with the barbed wire stretched across it is darkness and falling snow. But I assume that Christmas Day is almost over. In which case, I’m not sure where I’ll fit in. Boxing Day? New Year’s Day? Most likely it’ll be Twelfth Night, the last night of the twelve days of Christmas. I’m the Lord of Misrule after all, always the last man standing. By the way, calling me ‘Lord’ is a misnomer. Look how I’m dressed. The Lord of Misrule is actually a clown. The lowest in the pecking order. Especially now. As Bernie used to say, there’s only one clown on this stage … and it isn’t me.
     “But what’s this nonsense?”, I hear you cry. “What are you jabbering about? Clearly, Kerry was right. Cleghorn was a nasty piece of work, a crackpot. He’d been antagonising people for years. Someone had simply come for payback, plucking at the heartstrings of his past to drive him even crazier than he already was.”
     I thought that too, which is why, as I tried to flee that lounge, I saw the old fool’s revolver on the armrest of the sofa. That’s why I grabbed it and cocked it, and punched all five remaining rounds through the centre of that great shaggy barrel chest.
     But there’s the rub, you see. Because even I hadn’t bargained for what came out of it.
     Can you guess?
     Of course you can.


So there we go. Hope you enjoyed STUFFING. If you did, you might be interested that, to date, I've published two collections of festive-themed horror stories in paperback, Audible and on Kindle. They are: IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER and THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE. It’s probably also worth mentioning that my Victorian-era Christmas ghost story / romance, SPARROWHAWK, was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award in the capacity of Best Novella in 2010.

(The image of the stone ruins in the snow-bound forest is a fragment of the masterly painting, Snowy Ruins, by Markus Luotero. Meanwhile, whoever owns the bear image, or any of the images used on here, feel free to give me a shout, and I will happily give you a credit). 


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.

edited by Mark Morris (2020)

For quite a while now, British horror writer, editor and all-round expert, Mark Morris, has been looking for a new base from which to launch an all-new horror anthology series. Something unthemed but clearly inspired by the great anthology series of the past, the Pans and Fontanas, though perhaps with more modern sensibilities and a wider-ranging remit when it comes to the subgenres of horror. There have been a couple of false starts on the way, but now at last, the great man seems to have found a publishing house who are doing this worthy ambition proud.

Flame Tree Press are an imprint of London and New York-based indie publishers, Flame Tree Publishing, and though relatively new (they’ve only been trading since 2018), have already got on board the horror anthology express with Morris, to publish this first in what it is hoped will become an ongoing series of terror-filled collections of short stories.

First of all, rather than simply hit you with a succession of brief short story outlines, I’ll let the publishers give you their own official blurb:

This new anthology celebrates the horror genre with twenty original stories from some of the top names in the field. Chosen by esteemed horror editor Mark Morris, sixteen of the tales were commissioned and four were selected from hundreds of stories sent during an open submission window. Varying in theme and subject matter, you’ll find everything from dark mysticism to killer plants, with some terrifying revenants along the way. There are even some stories so strange that they defy categorisation.

The most obvious thing to say about After Sundown is that it contains a wealth of talent from the world of dark fiction, boasting a most impressive line-up of contributors, a host of big names sitting alongside a smaller group who perhaps are lesser known, though all provide tiptop spooky material.

First off, and this is something I was delighted to see, After Sundown offers us a huge bunch of what I consider to be traditional, near-Gothic horror stories, tales that wouldn’t be out of place in an anthology from the golden age of eerie fiction, though again I reiterate that they are also very modern in tone.

Laura Purcell’s Creeping Ivy, for example, concerns a gold-digging young husband in Victorian England, who marries a wealthy widow, only to learn that she cares more about her plants than him. Likewise, Angela Slatter’s Same Time Next Year follows a forlorn female phantom, who, every year on the same night, relives the events of her own murder.

In We All Come Home by Simon Bestwick, a depressed man returns to the drear stretch of woodland where his friends disappeared when they were young, desperate to find out what happened to them. He was there, but has blotted it all from his memory, and yet he can’t help thinking that it had something to do with their all going underground.

Equally alarming but equally ‘golden age’ in tone is Bokeh by Thana Niveau, in which a single mother is concerned that her daughter, who has struggled to cope since her father ran away, has made friends with a bunch of invisible beings in her back garden whom she is convinced are fairies.

Mark Morris also opts to throw us a few tales that we might also think of as traditional in that they are grim parables of vengeance from beyond, though perhaps in these cases with a harder, darker edge than is usual; in that regard, they wouldn’t be out of place in Tales from the Crypt or one of the old Amicus portmanteaux.

A good example is That’s the Spirit from the ever reliable Sarah Lotz. In this excellent tale, a charlatan medium struggles to convince his sick and ageing partner that he doesn’t have an actual gift, but then, one day, what may be a genuine message comes through to him. Similar paths are taken by Grady Hendrix’s Murder Board and Elana Gomel’s Mine Seven, though these are particularly strong contributions to the book in my view, so more detail about those two later.

Of course, scaring folks is one laudable aim of a book like this, but no modern horror anthology would be complete without it straying a little bit into the realms of the strange and weird as well.

Completely fulfilling that requirement here, but nevertheless disturbingly eerie, we have The Importance of Oral Hygiene from one of the genre’s true masters of unclassifiable darkness, Robert Shearman. In this astonishingly discomforting tale, a respectable Victorian lady embarks on an affair with her attractive but decidedly strange dentist, while at the same time wondering what became of his wife.

Even stranger is Catriona Ward’s A Hotel in Germany, which sees a spoiled and pretentious movie star and her PA pitch up in a hotel in Germany, where the staff are driven slowly mad by a series of absurd and sinister demands.

Swanskin, by Alison Littlewood, also falls into this category, though it overlaps into dark fantasy as well. It follows the fortunes of a young fisherman who lives in a remote community where the women can shapeshift into swans, though their menfolk feel challenged by this and are determined to take action.

Perhaps the strangest story in the entire book is The Naughty Step by Stephen Volk despite its deceptively prosaic urban setting, but it’s also one of the best, so more about this one later too.

One thing I found particularly interesting about After Sundown was the way so many of the stories have been consciously written on a small canvas. This is very much in keeping with the horror story custom – they are so often very personal experiences for their protagonists. But a couple of the stories in After Sundown take the ‘personal’ to a whole new level, giving us introspective tales set in the insular, everyday world of modern suburbanites, which only appears to be mundane.

Two particular masters of the modern horror story, Tim Lebbon and Ramsey Campbell, excel in this department.

The former contributes Research, in which a thriller writer is lured to a basement by the insane couple next door, who trap him there, eager to see what happens when he can’t release his inner darkness onto the written page. The latter gives us Wherever You Look, a tremendous piece which introduces us to another writer, though this one is haunted by a mysterious and menacing being, who initially appears to him in one of his own books.

In The Mirror House, meanwhile, by Jonathan Robbins Leon, we meet Stephanie, who is married to a the bombastic Edgar and though she finds him tolerable, feels that the relationship is ending, until she locates a hidden door, which leads to a drab mirror-image version of their own home.

Perhaps the most curiously personal of all the stories in After Sundown, one which clearly relates to heartfelt experience, comes from old-stager Michael Marshall Smith, who hits us with It Doesn’t Feel Right, in which a self-employed everyman has endless trouble getting his difficult five-year-old ready for school, though even when he notices that other kids in the neighbourhood are misbehaving in similar ways and worse, it still doesn’t occur to him that these might be down to more than mere temperament.

At the opposite end of the scale, a more explosive form of horror fiction can be found in forecasts of the apocalypse. Truly, no anthology of fantastic fiction in the 21st century can be considered complete without at least one mission to the End of the World.

There are several in After Sundown, though all differ from each other widely, each one inventive and disturbing. CJ Tudor leads the way with Butterfly Island, in which, with Earth on the cusp of Armageddon through germ warfare, a bunch of survivors head to an Australian offshore wildlife sanctuary, though there are dangers there too, not least a flock of man-eating butterflies.

A very different tone is struck by Michael Bailey’s Gave, wherein an unspecified pandemic is rapidly depopulating the planet, and one particular citizen, an ageing man who never fathered any children, becomes so obsessed with trying to protect his fellow men that he donates gallons of his own blood. But how much can he afford to give, and will there be anyone left to receive it?

More epic in concept yet is Rick Cross’s Last Rites for the Fourth World, which sees tired firemen fighting colossal forest fires in California and kids witnessing bizarre things while surfing off Hawaii, the world slowly ending through a series of catastrophic anti-miracles.

I haven’t mentioned every story in this book. That’s deliberate; there has to be something here for the reader to discover for his or herself. But hopefully I’ve illustrated just how astonishingly diverse the subject-matter is in this latest high quality horror antho from Mark Morris, which I can’t give a big enough recommendation to. Let’s just hope that its uptake among fans of the genre will be such that his new publishers will have no hesitation in commissioning more from him (as a quick addendum, Beyond the Veil, vol 2 in the series, is on the bookshelves at the time of this writing, which I will be reviewing on here as soon as I get hold of it). Here’s hoping for yearly volumes ad infinitum.

And now …

AFTER SUNDOWN – the movie.

Okay, no film maker has optioned this book yet (as far as I’m aware), and I honestly don’t know how likely it is, but as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my thoughts just in case someone with cash decides that it simply has to be on the big screen.

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 unusual circumstances have arisen that require us viewers to be told four spooky stories. 

It could be that the Crypt-keeper of Tales from the Crypt fame delivers them to us, along with a glut of the usual quips and appalling puns, or maybe, if you feel this one merits a less irreverent atmosphere, perhaps we should visit something similar to the Club of the Damned, as seen in the BBC’s atmospheric antho series of the 1970s, Supernatural.

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

The Naughty Step (by Stephen Volk): A Child Services worker is called to a domestic murder scene, where she must persuade a little boy who witnessed the killing to come away with her. He won’t, however. He can’t leave the so-called ‘Naughty Step’, terrified that if he does, a strange and terrible fate will befall him …

Linda – Lucy Davis
The Boy – Open to ideas, as I don’t know many of Britain’s young starlets.

Mine Seven (by Elana Gomel): An American woman of Russian descent holidays on Spitsbergen during the Arctic winter. When an unexplained blackout plunges the island into darkness and deep freeze, everyone at the hotel is imperilled, but even more so when an ancient evil awakens in a nearby derelict coal mine …

Lena – Rebecca Ferguson

Murder Board (by Grady Hendrix): An aged and embittered musician, who never makes a plan without consulting his battered old Ouija board, receives a message from beyond implying that his trophy wife intends to kill him. But not, he reasons, if he can figure out a way to strike first …

Bill – Alice Cooper
Caroline – Bellamy Young

Branch Line (by Paul Finch … sorry folks but I’m never going to miss the chance to put my own stuff on TV): An odious man recounts a chilling incident from 1973, when he and a schoolfriend made an ill-advised trip to the Branch Line, a derelict stretch of railway infamous locally for a suicide that once happened there and the weird spectre now said to haunt it …

Gates – Jared Harris

Thursday 16 December 2021

Part Two of the festive chiller - STUFFING

Delighted today to present the second installment of my brand new Christmas horror story, STUFFING. Hope you’re enjoying it so far, and exceedingly pleased that you’ve opted to come back for some more. However, before you commence reading, just a quick reminder - this is PART TWO. If you want to start at the beginning, aka PART ONE, and you haven’t done that already, just scroll down to the previous post, which you will find on December 8. (Meanwhile, PART THREE will appear right here on December 23).

One additional thing. Seeing as we’re in short story territory today, I will also be reviewing the latest anthology from Midnight Street, Trevor Denyer’s excellent RAILROAD TALES. From that title, the subject matter probably speaks for itself, but those who know Trevor Denyer know that they won’t just be getting any ordinary antho. You’ll find said review, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post, in the Thrillers, Chillers section.

Before then, though, hope you enjoy ...


Cleghorn hit one light-switch after another as they traversed a succession of tall, drab rooms, most of them unfurnished and connected by spartan passages laid with threadbare carpets. It was warmer than outside at least, though not markedly so, and there was a faint odour of mildew.
     One thing completely notable by its absence was the festive season.
     “You don’t celebrate Christmas anymore, Mr Cleghorn?” Max asked.
     “I had a bellyful of that during the ’70s,” came the curt response.
     “Your Christmas shows are fondly remembered by the Great British public.”
     “Then more fool the Great British public. Though I don’t blame them entirely. Not given the unadulterated shite that passes for British television today.”
     Kerry groaned inwardly. If Cleghorn was one of these nostalgia buffs who firmly believed that TV was always better in the past, then he’d already found common ground with Max, and that was the last thing she wanted. Not that Cleghorn was a particularly warm or welcoming presence. Now that he’d put a few lights on, she could see him properly. As she’d already noted, he didn’t stoop or bend, or walk with an old man’s shuffle, but his age showed in his wizened hands and yellow, cracked fingernails, in his liver-spotted scalp and thin, peevish face. His eyes were rheumy and jaundiced, but seemed alert. His clothing was a suit of scruffy brown Tweed, long unpressed, and underneath that a collar and tie so grubby that it was difficult to tell what colour they were supposed to be.
     In that regard, the past-its-best room he finally led them into fitted him to perfection.
     Kerry presumed it was the lounge, and that it was located at the front of the house, but she could only guess that because though there were two large bay windows, both were screened off by drawn curtains laden with dust. In fact, dust was a common theme. The carpet was so thick with it that in the room’s corners it had curled upward into balls of fluff. It clad the lampshades too and clustered the overhead chandelier with web-like strands. Meanwhile, the furniture, while it wasn’t exactly tatty, was old and worn. Though it comprised one armchair, a sunken sofa, and alongside that, some kind of footrest, an overlarge beanbag or poof, covered with a rather disgusting furry brown material, it didn’t come close to filling the spacious room, but was arranged around a large hearth, which though it was black and sooty, clearly hadn’t been used in a long time. There was no television, Cleghorn’s main form of recreation appearing to reside with newspapers, magazines and periodicals, of which there were great numbers, some on the floor, some scattered on the sofa, some shoved into a rack.
     “Make yourselves at home,” he said, hanging his scarf from a hook above the telephone table, the landline on top of which was so dated that it almost looked Edwardian. “I hope you’re not expecting food and drink?” 
     “Oh … erm, no, not at all,” Max replied.
     “Because I don’t do that sort of thing. I mean, you can have a drink, obviously. You want tea or coffee, it’s in the kitchen. Likewise, if you want something stronger …” He nodded towards an open drinks cabinet containing a range of bottles. “But I don’t wait on people.”
     “We’re good, thanks.”
     Despite her increasing revulsion for Bernie Cleghorn, Kerry couldn’t help being intrigued by him. To date, Max had held face-to-face interviews with at least fifteen individuals who’d formerly been famous. They’d ranged widely: from a Formula 1 ace who’d lost his nerve, to a TV cookery queen who’d been busted twice for drunken driving, on the last occasion having caused an accident that nearly killed someone; from a soap opera star whose domestic violence had seen three different women divorce him, to a footballer’s WAG and aspiring chat show hostess whom it transpired had once been a working prostitute. And yet in none of these cases had there been a hint of the bitterness she sensed here. Some had been indifferent because they were now living new lives; several had been pleased by the opportunity to put their side of the story. But all had seen lucrative lifestyles crash and burn in an instant, and yet none had been as brusque and uncivil as this fellow.
     That said, in nearly all those other cases, they’d brought about their own misfortune, but the origins of Bernie Cleghorn’s trouble were murkier. Perhaps Max’s interest was understandable. What had happened to end the career of ITV’s ‘Lord of Misrule’?
     The man himself had now poured a large brandy, but true to his word, hadn’t offered anything to his guests. Perched at the far end of the sofa, legs crossed, he appeared to have relaxed, but still watched distrustfully as Max, at the other end, checked the batteries and mic on his Dictaphone, and then laid his notebook on his lap.
     Still wearing her anorak and scarf, Kerry sat on the armchair.
     As usual, Max’s first few questions were what he considered to be ‘groundwork’. In other words, he was laying the base for the real conversation to come. They covered the subject’s childhood in post-war Coventry, a city of rationing, bomb damage and fatherless boys (of whom Cleghorn was one). The impromptu comedy shows he put on for the queues at corner shops. His gradual realisation that he had a gift for it: a child like him, an urchin with short pants and dirty knees, able to make impoverished and bereaved families laugh. His first few gigs on the working man’s club circuit of the late 1950s, usually as the warm-up for better-known, better-paid comedians. His breakthrough on radio in the early 1960s, thanks mainly to Tony Hancock and Hattie Jacques, from where the obvious next step was television, though then, as now, it was less an actual step and more a monumental leap.
     Deciding that Max would be in his element listening to personal remembrances of old-time radio and TV, Kerry decided to take Cleghorn up on his offer and to make a brew. She got up and moved to the door.
     “Those were the glory days,” Cleghorn was saying. “When I was young and energetic. But you had to be energetic back then, just to keep working ...”
     Outside the room, even with the lights on, it was more difficult to find the kitchen than she’d expected. The door wasn’t closed behind her, so she could still hear their host talking, now recalling a summer season he’d done on the Central Pier at Blackpool with Ken Dodd and Frankie Howerd. Again, this would be meat and drink to Max and his podcast’s imaginary audience. 
     She let them get on with it, but the first corridor she took led her to the front door, which had several strong locks on it, not to mention a heap of unopened junk mail on its mat.
     She headed back, passing the lounge door again.
     “The amazing thing,” she heard Max say, “is that by 1968 you had Crazy House, your own TV show. For a guy in his late twenties, that was phenomenal. I mean … posh kids who’d been at Oxbridge did it. The well-connected Footlights crowd. But you had no such advantages.”
     “You have to find other ways,” came the terse reply.
      Kerry pressed on, turning left and coming to a junction of passages, all with darkened doorways leading off them. It bewildered her. How big was the place?
     At which point she again heard a loud thud.
     Another thud followed and another. Three in rapid succession.
     Almost like someone demanding admittance.
     Slowly, she headed in the direction she thought the sounds had come from, turning a corner and stepping through into the kitchen. Its worktops and most of its shelves were bare. Only a few basic pots and pans hung on the wall. When she spied the kettle, it was mottled with rust and, by the looks of it, non-electrical; it would be too much hassle making tea with that, she decided.
     There was another thud.
     Very loud.
     Quite clearly from the back door.
     Kerry moved towards it, curious. Did Cleghorn live alone? Did he have a partner, or a lodger? Realising that she at least had to look, she drew back the bolts at the top and bottom, turned the key in the middle, and opened the door. The first thing she noticed was that a breeze had picked up, intensifying the cold; it swept shockingly in on her and sent violent ripples through the ranks of decayed weeds in the garden.
     Hands in her armpits, she stepped outside. “Hello?”
     Her voice was lost in the wind. Thanks to the light from the kitchen, she could see that a few minuscule snowflakes were dancing on it.
     When something flapped and rustled, she spun right – and spied the polythene at the back of the car port. It was bellying fiercely.
     She retreated inside, closed the door and rammed the top bolt home. She backed away, feeling strangely relieved, only for the door to bang in its frame with abrupt and savage force. It was obviously the wind, but she still jumped, and it hastened her journey back, which was a lot easier as all she needed to do this time was follow Cleghorn’s voice.
     “It was getting on telly that enabled me to recruit Trudy Baker,” she heard him say, though his tone now was muffled. “Remember her?”
     “How could I forget the Saucepot?” Max replied.
     Kerry reached the lounge door. One of them had closed it, or the wind had.
     “She was brilliant, if I’m honest.” Cleghorn again. “Funny, sexy, dead busty of course, but lots of them were back then, weren’t they?”
      Kerry shook her head, wondering if those dollybird comediennes of times past might have adopted a different approach had they been given the opportunity. She opened the door and walked through, and found herself in total darkness.
     “What I really want to talk to you about,” Max’s voice said, “for obvious reasons, is Cleghorn’s Christmas Stuffing …”
     Startled, Kerry groped the wall on her left, found a switch and hit it. A dim light came on, revealing a room with bare walls and floorboards, empty except for a freestanding wardrobe.
     “Where did the idea of Huckleberry Manor come from?” Max enquired.
     Still puzzled, Kerry glanced around, and spotted what looked like a square glass panel in the upper corner on the left, though some time in the past it had clearly broken and been replaced with something like card or chipboard. Whatever it was, it didn’t block out sound.
     At least she wasn’t going mad.
     “Bing Crosby,” Cleghorn replied. “He’d been doing something similar for years with his Christmas shows.”
     Kerry saw the Crosby link, she supposed, though she was now distracted by the open wardrobe door and the red and sparkly thing hanging out. The Cleghorn Christmas specials had all been broadcast from a fantasy English mansion called Huckleberry Manor, a studio set obviously, all Tudor beams and mullioned windows looking out into fake snow.
     Despite herself, she ventured across the room.
     Each show had lasted two hours, while a succession of celebrity guests visited, all arriving at the grand front door as prospective carol singers.
    She opened the wardrobe, already suspecting what she was going to find.
     It was an amazing coincidence of course, but there was no doubt what she was looking at: red and gold parti-coloured trousers and tunic, a pair of curly-toed red and gold slippers, a jester’s red coxcomb complete with golden bells. The very same jester’s costume that Cleghorn, as Lord of Misrule, had always worn for Christmas Stuffing. But it was one of two sets of clothes hanging there. She looked at the other and gave a wry smile. Not that Bing Crosby would ever have spent his festive shows deriving mucky humour from a French maid whose main contribution was her wiggly walk and ample cleavage. Because that was the second outfit: a short, black dress with white trim, and a ruffled lace bonnet.
     Something else then caught her attention. She pushed the costumes apart and saw writing on the back wall of the wardrobe. At first, she was shocked. Because it was bright crimson and she wondered if it had been applied in blood. In truth it was probably too bright for that.
     Even so, the letters were inscribed jaggedly, almost brutally:
Fools that will laugh on earth, most weep in hell …
                                                                                           Christopher Marlowe

Kerry stood bewildered.
     She’d studied Marlowe for her A-levels, though that had been a long time ago. The only thing she remembered of his had been Dr Faustus. Not that that was the sort of classical text she’d ever associate with a performer like Bernie Cleghorn.
     A burst of laughter from Max in the next room shook her out of her reverie.
     It surprised her too. Their host was such an embittered presence that it had been difficult believing he could ever have been affable enough to strut his stuff as a comedian. Clearly though, he hadn’t lost the ability to be funny even now. Her gaze then fell on something that proved he had once been very funny. An object on the shelf over the empty fireplace was fluffed with dust, but still recognisable as a rose cast in gold and attached to a plaque. Kerry didn’t need to clean it off to know that it was the much-prized Rose d’Or, or Golden Rose award, which Max told her Cleghorn’s Christmas Stuffing had won in 1974 for one particular slapstick routine, a decorating sketch performed by Cleghorn and his pet polar bear, which, according to Variety, had “rewritten the rules of TV anarchy”.
     And speaking of that …
     “Buckleberry Bear soon became an essential part of Cleghorn’s Christmas Stuffing, didn’t he?” Max said.
     “Not just the Christmas shows,” Cleghorn grunted, sounding sour again. “It was only supposed to be in the second one, but it went down so well, it ended up in all the other shows too. Even Crazy House …”
     Kerry let herself out of the room, turned a couple more corners and found the open door to the lounge. As she went back in, Cleghorn, still seated at the far end of the sofa and nursing a large brandy, evidently a refill, greeted her with a strangely hostile smile.
     “Welcome back, my dear. Find anything interesting in the cupboards?”
     She stopped dead. “I’m sorry?”
     “Any skeletons that prove everything you suspect about me? Namely, that I’m a dirty old git who deserved his fall from grace for being sexist, chauvinist, whatever other ‘ist’ you can think of?”
     “I was looking for the kettle,” Kerry replied tartly. “But I’m not sure we’ve got time for tea, judging from the weather.”
     “In which case we’d better get on,” Max said hurriedly.
    “I can always sense disapproval,” Cleghorn said to no one in particular. “It’s in the body language.”
     Kerry eyed him with distaste as she sat on the armchair.
     “We were talking about Buckleberry Bear,” Max said.
     “Were we?” their host replied. “How unfortunate.”
     “He first appeared on your show at Christmas 1971, if my notes are correct?”
     “Hmm.” Cleghorn became thoughtful. “I’d done one Christmas Stuffing without him. They had me in fancy dress … the Lord of Misrule. Plus we had more celebrity guests than usual. But Granada TV felt we needed something else. Something to connect with the youngsters. I thought the same to be honest. Even though the Cleghorn show was a bit naughty, it wasn’t blue, and research had shown that kids were still watching. They were definitely watching on Christmas Day. So it seemed like a good idea.” He smiled ruefully. “And what do they say the road to hell is paved with?”
     Kerry didn’t bother correcting him that it was ‘good intentions’ rather than ‘good ideas’.
     “Listen!” Suddenly, Cleghorn leaned forward, his expression startlingly intense. “That bloody bear was nothing when I first acquired him! Whatever else you say in your podcast, make sure you mention that … he was nothing!
     “Erm, okay …” Max was taken aback. “I seem to recall that you first appeared with Buckleberry Bear … that wasn’t his name at the time, of course, on a television advert for a breakfast cereal.”
     “Correct.” Cleghorn shook his head at the folly of his youth. “It was a big success for them. And as I say, I was looking for something extra for the show, so I acquired ownership of him full-time …” The words petered out as he glowered into the past.
     “I understand that different people played him?” Max probed, to no response. “Sometimes, if there was dancing to be done, it was a dancer. Once, when you did an ice skating scene, it was a skater. Of course, their identities were always kept secret.”  
     Cleghorn swilled more brandy, still saying nothing. 
     “Because of his size, though, it was mostly a burly stage-hand. Even they’d have to look out through eye-holes in the neck, I suppose. But it wasn’t always difficult for them, was it? Sometimes Buckleberry was only there to be petted by some pretty girl guest. Sometimes, he’d just be clumsy … joining you in violent routines, barroom brawls or sketches in which the set was designed to fall apart. But it usually needed to be someone big and strong. Didn’t he occasionally carry guests off in a burlap sack if they’d offended him?”
     Cleghorn suppressed something that looked like a shudder.
     “It was all in jest, of course,” Max said.
     “You reckon?”
     Even Max was unsure how to respond to that. “Buckleberry getting cross with people became a key part of the comedy, didn’t it?”
     “The comedy?” Cleghorn glanced up at him. “It’s called having an ego, son.”
     “An ego?”
     “You remember he had glowing blue eyes?”
     “Erm, yes.”
     “Well … the original plan was, his eyes would be different colours to show what mood he was in. Most of the time they were blue, because he was happy. They’d flip to violet when Annette came on, because he was supposed to be in love with her. And when he got vexed, they flipped to red. Yeah … I can see you’re nodding as if you remember it. But they soon stopped turning violet, because if there was anyone he loved more than Annette, it was himself. I mean, Jesus … he was a fall-guy, a stage prop. But he didn’t understand that. Not after a while. He thought he was the sodding star.”
     Kerry found herself listening in dull disbelief.
     “But the main problem …” Cleghorn leaned forward again, belligerently, “is illustrated by the fact that even now, you’re clearly more interested in him than me.”
     “I’m …?”
     “Oh, everyone loved him. Yeah, I get that. Course they did. He was loveable. Big, cuddly polar bear. Especially on Christmas Stuffing, when he wore that daft jumper.”
     “Was this …?” Max, who was rarely tongue-tied when it came to his favourite subject, was uncertain how to continue. “Do you mind me asking, Bernie, was this antipathy to Buckleberry Bear always there? Because you wouldn’t have known it. I mean, in 1975 … you and him appeared as the Broker’s Men in Cinderella in the West End. It won all kinds of awards. Twiggy was Cinders, Tommy Steele was Buttons …”
     “And that doesn’t tell you anything?” Cleghorn asked.
     Max couldn’t reply.
     “As early as 1975, we were a double-act!” Cleghorn rubbed at his furrowed brow. “I tried to get him a solo career after that. Licensed him to do Green Cross Code commercials, attend parties in kids’ hospitals.” He shook his head. “Didn’t make any difference. In fact, it made things worse. In 1978, eight years into Stuffing’s domination of the Christmas schedules, this lavish BBC version of Alice in Wonderland was going into production. At the same time, I was one of the biggest stars on telly, especially in the so-called season of goodwill, but when I entered talks to play the Mad Hatter, I got rejected.” He arched a wispy eyebrow. “Rejected! Me! Do you know why?”
     Max shrugged. “Because you were Mr ITV and it would have been incongruous?”
     Cleghorn scowled. “You young cretin!” Despite his age, his voice was a whipcrack. Froth speckled his tight, grey lips. “Because there was no role in it for that sodding bear!
     A metallic clatter sounded out in the passage. Max and Kerry jumped, but their host reacted only casually, levering himself upright, placing his glass on the telephone table and leaving the room.
     Kerry gave Max a long stare. “So, do we call the mental health services now, or after we get home?”


Hope you’re enjoyed STUFFING so far. If so, a quick reminder that PART THREE will appear right here on December 23. If you are having a good time with this material, perhaps you’ll be interested to know that, to date, I’ve published two collections of festive-themed horror stories in paperback, Audible and on Kindle. They are: IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER and THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE. It’s probably also worth mentioning that my Victorian-era Christmas ghost story / romance, SPARROWHAWK, was shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award in the capacity of Best Novella in 2010, and that can still be acquired too.


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.

edited by Trevor Denyer (2021)

The latest anthology from British independent press powerhouse, Midnight Street, a small publishing company that has been around for quite some time now and tends to focus on contemporary horror, often with an everyday setting but invariably with strange and unsettling realities lurking just beneath the surface.

In Railroad Tales, which is surely something of a companion piece to the last Midnight Street antho, Roads Less Travelled, editor and Midnight Street owner, Trevor Denyer, takes railway lines, railway travel and railway folklore as his overarching themes, asks questions of his readers such as have they ever travelled on an empty train at night, or stood alone on a eerie platform wondering if their connection is ever going to come in, and generally (and very successfully) evokes the whole spooky culture of our railway networks: the isolated stations, the windswept junctions, the abandoned signal boxes, the level crossings where catastrophes have occurred.

Railroad Tales contains 23 stories in that vein, most of them supplied by relatively new or unknown authors, but all of them serving the Midnight Street ethos by creating an eclectic range of subject-matter (though that all important detail that it must be eerie and disturbing is never neglected).

To start with, as you’d probably expect, there is more than a handful of traditional ghostly tales in this collection. Most fans of supernatural fiction will probably be well aware how often railway lines and railway workers have featured in genuinely chilling stories, and not just in the distant past such as with Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man (1866) or Perceval Landon’s Railhead (1908). Modern master of the genre, Ramsey Campbell, contributed to the canon in 1973 with his nightmarish The Companion, and many others have done the same since.

Continuing this tradition of hitting us with something genuinely and unambiguously frightening, Railroad Tales gives us, among other stories, The Hoosac Tunnel Legacy by Norm Vigeant, in which a rickety old cargo train breaks down in a New England mountain tunnel on a little-used track in the dead of winter, the two-man crew, one of them an addict, having no choice but to solve the problem on their own … only to then find that they aren’t alone in the icy darkness.

Similarly scarifying is Caboose by Andrew Hook. In this one, a businesswoman acquires an old railway carriage, intent on turning it into a modern diner. However, at this early stage, she knows nothing about the Edwardian-era passengers who perished inside it due to a disastrous fire.

Then we have The Pier Station by George Jacobs, which takes us to a quiet seaside village where, though the railway no longer runs here, a curious young antiquarian finds an old conductor’s badge and is then haunted nightly by a mysterious ghost train.

Ballyshannon Junction by Jim Mountfield, meanwhile, is an out-and-out ghost story though with serious undercurrents, which could easily make an episode in a spooky British TV anthology (were such programmes ever made these days). It’s one of the best in the book, though, so I’ll leave the synopsis for this until a little later on.

It’s the same thing with The Number Nine by James E Coplin. This might be the best story in the entire book, at least for me. This one would make a movie, never mind an episode of TV. Again, it’s such a treat that I’ll leave its outline until a little later on.

From the in-yer-face ghostly now to stories of a more introspective, perhaps slightly deeper ilk, because Railroad Tales has got several of these too.

The first one to mention has got to be Sparrow’s Flight by Nancy Brewka-Clark, which is set in London several years after the events of Oliver Twist have ended. In this unusual tale, Oliver, now a man of business, is convinced that he sees Nancy’s ghost at a busy London railway station. He follows her onto a train, only to discover that it  it isn’t some run-of-the-mill rail service.

Meanwhile, in the sad and thought-provoking tale, The Anniversary, by David Penn, a widow is drawn back by an inexplicable vision to the exact spot on the station platform where her worn-out husband killed himself, while another quite affecting story is Harberry Close by CM Saunders, though I’ll talk a little more about that one later too.

Of course, whatever its basic schematic, no horror anthology would be doing its job if it didn’t hit us with at least a few dollops of psychological terror. And Railroad Tales doesn’t disappoint on that front either.

In Where the Train Stops by Susan York, a disturbed woman undergoes a series of psychiatric regressions, a train journey into her past, to get to the root of her night terrors, and uncovers a ghastly experience.

Equally mysterious, and another strong contender for best story in the book, in The Samovar by AJ Lewis, a man tortured by his past agrees to deliver an important package from Moscow to Vladivostok, but finds the journey lonely and difficult, especially as the demons pursuing him are never far behind.

Though perhaps the most overtly psychological tale in this volume is provided by Gary Couzens with Short Platform. In this one, a drunken secretary is marooned overnight at an unmanned railway station. Exhausted and lonely, she regresses back through her unhappy life.

From the scary uncertainties of psychological horror, it’s probably not too much of a leap to the world of the strange and surreal, and Railroad Tales offers several particularly good examples of this.

First up, we have Across the Vale by Catherine Pugh, which is set in an alternative Britain, where two women ride an armoured train north to Edinburgh. To get there, however, they must first cross the dreaded ‘Vale’.

Then we have Steven Pirie’s Not All Trains Crash, in which we turn this entire subgenre on its head by meeting the ghosts created during a frightful multi-fatality railway accident, and feel their fear and pain as they are forced to move on when their decayed relic of a line is finally torn up.

Lastly in this particular category, we have an effective monster story in The Tracks, by Michael Gore, though once again I’m not going to elaborate on this one at this stage, as I want to talk a bit more about it later on.

There are other stories in this collection, of course, but those you’ll need to experience for yourself. Suffice to say that all the tales in this book stand up for themselves and make a significant impact on the reader. Midnight Street have done it again, producing a very neat and contemporary horror anthology, featuring a host of interesting voices and adding a whole glut of chilling new fiction to the ‘scary railway’ pantheon.

And now …

RAILROAD TALES – the movie.

Thus far, no film or TV producer has optioned this book yet (not as I’m aware), and in the current horror-free zone of British TV at least, it seems unlikely. But you never know. And hell, as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my thoughts just in case someone with loads of cash decides that it simply has to be on the screen.

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 circumstances that require them to relate spooky stories. It could easily be something along the lines of Dr Terrors House of Horrors, a group of passengers cooped up together in a distinctly suburban train, but finding themselves travelling endlessly through a terrifying night, or perhaps they’re all marooned in one of those soulless middle-of-nowhere waiting rooms as their connections fail to arrive and the winter mists come down outside, as in The Ghost Train. The choice is, as always, yours.

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

The Number Nine (by James E Coplin): A free-riding hobo is menaced on a night-time freight train by the ghost of a guard once famous for his use of homicidal violence …

The Hobo – Zach Gilford
Henry Hart – Dave Bautista

Harberry Close (by CM Saunders): A tired office-worker catches the wrong train and is ferried out to a strangely deserted railway station, where he immediately notices signs of brutal violence…

Tim – Timothee Chalamet

The Tracks (by Michael Gore): An outcast girl, ugly and overweight, gets an opportunity to avenge herself on her tormentors when she learns that a weird monster, the product of a curse, lives near a remote railway line and dines on rail-kill …

Clarice – Jada Harris

Ballyshannon Junction (by Jim Mountfield): In Ulster of the 1980s, a peripheral IRA figure turns informer for a local police chief, and then flees a posse of vengeful gunmen. Frightened and conscience-stricken, he arrives at derelict Ballyshannon Junction, where the many ghosts he encounters seem strangely familiar…

Marty – Ruairi O’Connor

Wednesday 8 December 2021

Presenting a new festive chiller: STUFFING

Anyone who regularly reads this blog will hopefully be aware that each December I try to celebrate the Christmas ghost story tradition by posting a festive horror story of my own. In most cases they are brand new, but in all cases they are completely free-to-read.

And this year is no exception. Despite what has clearly been a tough twelve months for everyone for all kinds of reasons, the business of scaring people to death still goes on for us thriller/horror writers, in which spirit I’m delighted to say that, having been determined to come up with an entirely new Christmas terror tale this year, the result - STUFFING - is now here. You can commence reading it right now, as I’ll be posting it in three installments, starting today, and I reiterate that it’s entirely FREE. 

Hopefully it will chill your blood as surely as any frosty morning or raging snowstorm.

In addition, I should add that while we’re on the subject today of spooky stories, I’ll also be reviewing Brit horror star Mark Morris’s remarkable semi-biographical collection of his best stories, WARTS AND ALL. You’ll find that, as usual, in the Thrillers, Chillers section, at the lower end of today’s blog.

Before then, I trust you will stick around long enough to enjoy PART 1 of STUFFING.

(PART 2 will appear right here next week, Thursday December 16, and PART 3, the final installment, on Thursday December 23).

Hope you all enjoy, and best wishes for the season …



Hello, and welcome to Forgotten Heroes, the monthly podcast that takes a deep dive into the popular culture of Britain’s yesteryear, specialising in informal but hopefully informative discussion with people once famous for all kinds of different reasons though now united by an untimely return to anonymity and irrelevance. We focus mainly on their finest moments, but if possible learn about their lesser ones too: the scandals, the gossip, the court cases, maybe even the incidents that terminated their once glittering careers. No subject is out of bounds in Forgotten Heroes; we never shy from asking the awkward questions.
     As always, the show is brought to you by myself, Max Jervis, ably assisted by my lovely sidekick, Kerry Brannigan, and broadcast on Saturday, December 25. And yes of course, that’s an important date by any standards, which we don’t intend to let slip by. For this reason, today’s show is a festive special, the subject of which is that Spirit of Christmas Comedy himself, the one and only Bernie Cleghorn … who we were able to catch up with at his home in the East Midlands yesterday. Those of you who are longer in the tooth, will no doubt remember the stitches Bernie used to have us in on Christmas Day evenings long, long ago, while those who are shorter will have heard fond recollections of his rollickingly funny annual TV romp, Cleghorn’s Christmas Stuffing.
     If you haven’t, why not? The great man dominated the festive schedule for over ten years, each time commanding audiences of twenty-five million plus.
     But if you’re genuinely new to this master of old-time comedy, this ultimate ‘Lord of Misrule’, as he soon became known, never fear. You’re going to learn everything there is to know about him, warts and all, over the next two hours …


When they came out of the railway station, the town, which had a name they’d never heard of until they’d looked it up on Wikipedia, was dressed for the season, and yet was strangely bereft of atmosphere. That was possibly because no snow had fallen yet, though the air was frigid, and the mid-afternoon sky much darker and greyer than it had a right to be even in late December. Most likely it was because the place, like so many other provincial towns in 21st century Britain, had seen better times. Glowing Father Christmases, angels with carol sheets and penguins in cute scarfs and bob-caps adorned every lamppost. Festive lights zigzagged overhead, shimmering translucently as rainbow colours pulsed through them. But even on the main street, many of the shopfronts were boarded, or their windows empty, grubby and pasted with ‘To Let’ notices. Though it was Christmas Eve, it was still a shopping day, the last one before the holiday, and yet the pavements were deserted, only rags of litter skipping on the ice-edged wind.
     “Bit woe-begotten,” Kerry commented.
     “Not especially merry,” Max agreed.
     They walked a short distance, passing under the brick arch of a railway bridge, before locating a taxi rank. A single car sat there, its engine chugging, its exhaust pluming.
      “The address I’ve got,” Max said through the driver’s window, “is 15, Hockton Mill Lane. I’m not sure which part of town that’s in …?”
     The driver, fiftyish, jowly and bearded, and wearing a flat cap under a Parka hood, gave a near imperceptible nod towards the rear of his vehicle. It was reasonably warm in the back, though Max and Kerry huddled together as the car swung from the pavement, cutting into the sparse flow of traffic.
     They drove for several minutes, passing on either side a succession of walled-off mills. It was a grotty scene, with working streetlamps that were intermittent at best. After that, they passed a park, the tall shape of a Christmas tree spangled with fairy lights standing far out in the darkened heart of it, then entered a residential district, more coloured lights visible behind half-curtained windows. Still, there was hardly anyone around.     
     Diverting from the main road, they passed a school, and then took a narrower lane downhill into a valley. The road descended slowly but steadily, trees enclosing it from either side. Occasionally, on the left, they passed entrances to what looked like more industrial sites, though the only buildings they glimpsed amid the leafless branches were unlit and seemingly derelict. This continued for a few more miles, Max sensing that they were now at the edge of the small town and heading out into the sticks, which was no surprise really. The object of today’s exercise was famous for his reclusive nature.
     He caught the driver watching him through his rear-view mirror. The driver averted his gaze back to the wooded lane.
     “You’ve probably realised we’re going to see Bernie Cleghorn,” Max said chattily. “I mean from the address. I run a podcast, you see … about VIPs whose time has gone, and Bernie’s agreed to give me an interview. First time he’ll have spoken in public since the 1980s.”
     The driver said nothing at first, finally grunting: “Who’s that then, mate?”
     “Bernie Cleghorn? The TV personality?”
     Again almost imperceptibly, the driver shrugged.
     Max felt vaguely irritable. It would have been understandable if the guy had been a recent arrival here, an immigrant maybe, but everything about him bespoke local, including his East Midlands accent.
     “Probably before my time,” the driver muttered.
     Kerry nudged Max discreetly, as if to say: “I keep telling you this”.
     As always, Max was frustrated. She’d been on at him for several days that this whole podcast hobby of his was too expensive, that this particular venture was too near Christmas, that they had other things to do, that no one would care. She clearly had no clue what an achievement it had been securing this interview. And it wasn’t as if Bernie Cleghorn had been as much a nobody as some of the others he’d travelled out to speak to. Cleghorn’s Christmas Stuffing had held ITV’s prime time Christmas Day slot for eleven years on the bounce. Eleven years! These days, there were massive online squabbles about which show should or shouldn’t be awarded that honour even for one year, and none of the winners ever seemed to satisfy. Even Dr Who, one of network television’s most expensively produced programmes, had failed to nail itself immovably to the Christmas Day schedule, and yet Cleghorn’s Christmas Stuffing, which, by comparison, had virtually been thrown together, had reigned at the top of that bill, unchallenged, for over a decade.
      And yet this guy didn’t remember it? Seriously?
     “Surely there’s been something about Bernie in the press?” Max persisted. “Some local journo must have written a feature on him? The great comedian who now lives here in retirement? Has he never snipped a ribbon? Never turned on a Christmas light?”
     “Sorry, mate.”
     “Maybe he just wants a quiet life,” Kerry said, attempting to be helpful. “How many of us would want to be pestered all the time about things we’d done decades ago?”
     “You must remember Buckleberry Bear?” Max said, sitting forward.
     “Max, he doesn’t.” Kerry patted his hand. “I told you. Hardly anyone does.”
     “Buckleberry Bear?” the driver said unexpectedly. “That rings a bell.” He frowned. “Great big white thing, wasn’t it? Twice the height of a normal bloke. Whopping big teeth.”
     “That’s right,” Max nodded.
     “Think I remember. I was only a kid, of course. Didn’t it do TV adverts and stuff?”
     “Wore a Christmas jumper?”
     “On the Christmas show, yeah.” Max sat further forward. “Cleghorn’s Christmas Stuffing.”
     The driver shook his head. “Something about that thing I didn’t like. Don’t know what. Didn’t its eyes go red when it got angry?”
     “That was only a gimmick. A joke.”
     The driver drove on. “Well, it didn’t make me laugh.”


“I thought he was worth a fortune,” Kerry said, as the taxi dwindled into the gloom.
     “Supposedly he is.” Max looked through the dead vegetation twined around the rusted bars of the gate.
     The house sat at the other end of a patchy, leaf-strewn lawn. It was a sizeable structure, probably containing several reception rooms downstairs, maybe five or six bedrooms up. It looked Victorian, all dark industrial-age brick, turrets, garrets, teetering chimney stacks. There was even a weather-cock on its topmost spire, though that was unlikely to turn much due to the tall trees on three sides and the fact the house was deep in the river valley.
     “Bernie Cleghorn made a stack of money in his time,” Max said, noting with puzzlement the moss on the house’s brickwork, the nests cluttering its eaves. “He was one of the most famous TV comics of the 1970s. Yeah, he was a creature of his time … he was saucy and sexist, but they all were back then, weren’t they? But it wasn’t just the Christmas show. That’s mainly what he’s remembered for now, but he had his ordinary show too, Cleghorn’s Crazy House, and there were twelve episodes of that each year. I suppose …” he shrugged, “I suppose financial problems could tie in with why he suddenly vanished from the public eye.”
     “You mean he wasted it all?” Kerry said.
     “He was never extravagant, as I recall. Bit eccentric maybe. This place would probably be worth a few bob if he spruced it up.”
     “Or blew it up,” she replied, “and built something completely different.”
     It was hard to argue. Thanks to their not having seen another house for several miles, this one’s aura would have been bleak regardless of its condition.
     “Bernie’s main trouble was that he fell behind the times,” Max said, finding an old bell-push on the left side gatepost. It was only just visible through hanging tendrils of ivy, but when he depressed it, there was no discernible sound. “Do you know what I mean?”
     “What? Oh … erm, yeah, sure.”
     The intense cold was distracting, but Kerry tried to focus. She was only forty, so she didn’t even remember the 1970s. She’d seen snippets of Bernie Cleghorn’s old shows, and had read about him, but all it amounted to really were fleeting images in her mind’s eye: of a television celebrity famous for his ginger ‘Coco the Clown’ hair, his comic songs and sketches, Annette, the sexy French maid who was often on screen with him (whom he referred to as ‘the Saucepot’), and that big horrible polar bear thing the taxi guy had mentioned.
     “I mean, it wasn’t particularly risqué,” Max said. “But then, in the 1980s, the alternative comedians turned up, and TV comedy was ruined for evermore.”
     “Kerry, they weren’t that good, okay? So they hated Margaret Thatcher. Wow! Who didn’t in public? But that was about the only thing they had in common with TV executives. And when she’d gone and they suddenly weren’t students anymore and had mortgages to pay, they had to step up and earn their keep properly. Some of them even ended up being funny. But Bernie Cleghorn could still have performed them under the table.”
     Kerry knew better than to argue. Max was set in his views. He was only five years older than she was, so he barely remembered the 1970s either. But pop culture of the past was his one fascination in life. Anything he hadn’t experienced himself, he’d studied in detail.
     With a clunk, the gate opened an inch.
     At first, Kerry thought it had happened automatically, perhaps someone watching from the house with a button at their fingertips. But then she realised that Max had tried the gate with his hand. There was still no sign of actual life.
     “We sure there’s anyone even here?” she asked.
     “This was the address on his letter.” Max pushed the gate all the way open. “Suppose I could have got the date wrong.”
     “You’re not serious!” She followed him onto the leaf-cluttered drive. “We’ve come all this way, and …”
     “Relax, I’m joking.”
     “Hah hah!”
     “You didn’t have to come.” Max strolled along the drive towards the house. “I said that all along.”
     “Someone has to discipline you. I know what would happen. You’d get yakking with this guy and all of a sudden you’d end up missing the last train, and not having you around until sometime late on Christmas Day would be the point at which this obsession of yours starts getting inconvenient …”
     Max barely listened as he approached the main building. Its grubby front door was colourless and scabby, an unruly veil of ivy straggling down over the top of it. A heap of autumn leaves had blown against the step. As front doors went, this one had the distinct look of an entrance no one used anymore. It was no surprise when the bellpush, which again gave off no audible sound, plus several loud knocks, brought no response.
     “Great.” Kerry huddled into her anorak. One glance upward showed a sky so grey it was almost purple. “So what do we do?”
     “We can’t leave now even if we wanted to.” Max glanced round at her. “I mean, we didn’t ask that taxi driver to come back for us later on, did we? And I’d be amazed if you can get a phone signal down in a valley like this.”
     Kerry looked sufficiently concerned by that to fish her phone out, walk away a few yards and pull a mitten off so that she could prod several numbers.
     “Crap!” she said. “Not even a single bar … and now it’s getting dark.”
     Equally unsuccessful with his own phone, Max slid it back into his overcoat pocket. “All the more reason to talk to Mr Cleghorn. With any luck he’ll have a landline.”
     It seemed pointless knocking again, so, somewhat reluctantly on Kerry’s part, they headed round to the right side of the house. The driveway ended at the entrance to an old car-port, nothing more in truth than a lean-to roof made from wood and plastic, and underneath it a large, dark, heavy vehicle, an old-fashioned automobile, the sort you normally only saw on black and white movies. It was half-buried under boxes, rags and other junk.
     Just to get past the vehicle would have been difficult, as more clutter was stacked to either side of it. At the back was a hanging sheet of polythene turned green and opaque with age.
     “We sure this is a good idea?” Kerry wondered.
     “Our options are kind of limited.” Max stepped forward, trying to sidle past. “We might as well look. A house this size, there could be all sorts going on at the back and you wouldn’t know from the front.” But then he halted, bent down to the nearside bodywork and wiped away the dust coating a tarnished insignia. “Good God. This is an old Humber … a Pullman, if I’m not mistaken.” He straightened up with a minor sense of vindication. “Told you he’d once been successful.”
     “Once being the key-word.”
     “At least if the car’s here, that must mean Cleghorn is too.”
     “You don’t think he still drives this, do you, Max? Look at the state of it.”
     Max had no answer for that. For the first time he felt a pang of unease. He’d been overjoyed to receive the invitation from the one-time comedy legend. So many just ignored his approaches. His enthusiasm had still been bubbling when they’d set off from St Pancras that morning, but finally, perhaps inevitably, it was starting to wane. Because anyone with money who let their grand old house go to rack and ruin like this, not to mention who owned a classic car and basically mothballed it, didn’t even attempt to resell it … well, something had to be wrong.
     Doggedly, he pressed on, pushing past the polythene, which lifted easily enough. Kerry followed, and the rear of the property lay before them.
     What looked as if it had once been an expansive garden was now a jungle of shoulder-high weeds, all brown and frosty in the deepening gloom. Again, there was no sign of life from the house, no light from any of its windows.
     “Christ almighty.” Max couldn’t conceal his disappointment.
     “Sorry, babes …” Kerry made an effort to sound conciliatory. “But you know, Cleghorn wouldn’t be the first of these guys to come to an ignominious end. Look at Benny Hill, Kenneth Williams.”
     Max knew all that of course. He’d once explained to her that it was part of his fascination with entertainers of earlier eras, particularly comedians, that so many of them led strange, miserable lives when they were out of the limelight. But that didn’t mean the guy wouldn’t still be interesting. Far from it. So long as he’d remembered they were coming and hadn’t gone away somewhere for the holiday season.
     “Perhaps we should head back?” she said. “I know it’s a long walk, but at some point we’ll get a signal and then we can call a taxi.”
     Before Max could reply, they heard a loud, hollow thud. He leaned forward, staring across the garden, eyes narrowing on an upright angular shape at the far end of it. Though partly concealed by the desiccated foliage, it looked like an outhouse of some sort.
     Another thud sounded, distinctly from that direction.
     “What the devil?” Max pushed forward into the dead vegetation.
     “Max, what’re you doing?” Kerry followed.
     “I think there’s someone …” he said. “I don’t believe this …”
     Forty yards further on, the weeds came to an end and they were confronted by a garden shed. It was in a dilapidated state, visibly rotted, though sturdy enough to remain standing. A padlock hung on its front door, while in addition to that, somewhat bizarrely, what appeared to be lengthy strands of barbed wire had been wrapped tightly around it. There was a single window at the front, but when they tried to look through, it was so scabrous with filth that nothing inside was visible.
     “Check out the wire,” Max said. “How weird is that?”
     “Max …” Kerry felt distinctly nervous. “Whatever this is, whatever we thought we heard … it’s nothing to do with us. We shouldn’t even be back here.”
     He tested the padlock.
     “What’re you doing?” she hissed.
     “More rust than steel,” he mumbled. “Wouldn’t take much.”
     A rustle of movement sounded inside. He jerked back to the window.
     “Still can’t see anything.”
     “Because there’s nothing to see.”
     He gave her a look. “We have to open it up, Kerry. Suppose it’s Bernie himself? He’s an old fella these days. Eighty-odd. He could have got himself stuck.”
     “Max … that’s ridiculous.”
     The next look he gave her was disconcertingly stern. “And if we walk away, and he dies?”
     She couldn’t respond. He nodded and, locating one end of the wire, carefully and gingerly worked it loose from the knot in the middle.
     “Max, I …” It was nonsensical, she thought. No one got stuck in a shed by accident, not when barbed wire had been used to hitch it closed. Though if that was what had happened here, who would have done it? Why?
     She watched in stiff silence as Max sidled to the left, inch by inch pulling the wire loose from the general entanglement, finally vanishing around the back of the structure. When he reappeared around the other side, the wire loops had noticeably slackened. When he reappeared a second time, they hung limp and loose.
     “I can’t believe you did that,” she breathed.
     “You heard the same thing I did …”
     “Excuse me!” a harsh voice cut in. “What the devil do you think you’re playing at?”
     Max dropped the wire and jumped around. Kerry spun too, just as they were bathed in bright torchlight. They stood gaping, blinking.
     Behind the light, a tall but spindly figure was just about visible.
     “Oh, erm …” Max stuttered. “Mr Cleghorn, is it?”
     “Who’s asking?” The voice remained harsh, the tone highly suspicious.
     Awkwardly, Max introduced himself and Kerry and reminded the householder that they’d had a visit booked for this afternoon. Even more awkwardly, he then tried to explain what had happened with the shed. All through, the only sign of movement from the figure behind the light was the smoky breath leaking out of it. After Max had finished, and after some lengthy appraisal, the torch clicked off and they were able to see their host more clearly. There was no doubt that it was Bernie Cleghorn. Age hadn’t shrivelled him much; he was more of a beanpole than the athletic specimen Max remembered from his knockabout days, while the tufts of red hair behind his ears had long gone, replaced by lifeless white strands, but he stood upright and unbowed, and had met this intrusion onto his property with an air of robust challenge. What he thought of them was anyone’s guess, but it was probably safe to say that with Max’s tubby physique and scraggy grey beard, and Kerry’s glasses and long auburn hair (also running to grey), they didn’t look much like vandals or burglars.
     Despite that, Cleghorn seemed unimpressed.
     “Twenty yards further on back there is the River Soar,” he said. “It’s part-frozen at present, but the ice isn’t thick. The river runs fast and deep at this time of year. The ice keeps breaking and what you heard are chunks of it clunking together. It happens every time we have a cold snap.”
     “I see. Okay, well …” Max shrugged. “Easy mistake to make, I suppose.”
     “So you’re here to interview me?” The ex-comedian didn’t sound enthused.
     “That’s what we agreed, if you remember.”
     “You’ll have to forgive me. My short-term memory isn’t what it was.” Cleghorn didn’t sound as if he was really asking for forgiveness. “I’ve been out for my afternoon stroll. Sorry you were kept waiting.” Likewise, he didn’t sound especially sorry. “You’d better come inside. Apparently, we’re expecting snow.”
     He led them back through the leafage, across a small patio and into the house via a back door. Just before entering, Kerry glanced round towards the shed, now lost from view as the afternoon turned to dusk. Maybe the wind had rattled that flimsy old structure. More likely, there were rats in it. But if those thuds had signified ice breaking on a river, she was Annette the Saucepot.

To be continued (December 16) …


If you have enjoyed this first part of STUFFING, please feel free to check in for the next installment - which youll find free-to-read right here on December 16. But you might also be interested to know that, to date, I have also published two collections of original Christmas-themed horror and ghost stories in ebook, paperback and Audible: IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER and THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE.


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 Mark Morris (2020)

A phenomenally comprehensive collection of short and medium-length stories from one of British horror’s most hard-working, productive and popular authors.

Mark Morris, at least as famous these days for being an editor as he is a writer, is still only mid-way through a career that already spans three decades, and is showing no sign of slowing down. What’s more, from his earliest days, he’s produced dark fiction of such high standard (and we’re talking novels here and scripts, as well as short stories and novellas), that he’s been a regular fixture in the mass-market, his shorter works frequently winning selection for Year’s Best anthologies.

And now, PS Publishing have done that record proud in this huge and beautifully produced hardback retrospective, which for the present time at least has got to be your one-stop shop for Mark Morris at his best.

Before we look at the individual contents, here is the publishers’ official blurb:

Mark Morris describes himself as one of the UK’s most stubborn horror writers. His first novel Toady was published thirty years ago during the genre’s last great boom period. Back then publishers were falling over themselves to find and publish as many exciting new horror writers as they could. It was an exciting time but eventually over-saturation of the market became horror’s downfall. Faced with too much choice, the horror-reading public became more selective, and the majority of horror books lost money. As a result of this advances were slashed, contracts cancelled, and many fledgling careers were nipped in the bud.

Some writers, though, kept going. They stuck doggedly to their guns, or they adapted or changed, as the market demanded. Mark Morris was one of those writers. As the horror market shrank he looked for new outlets, new markets. He wrote tie-in novels, movie novelisations, audio dramas.

But through it all, he never stopped writing horror.

Warts and All is testament to his dedication to the genre. Collected here are thirty stories, arranged in chronological order, which map a course through three decades of horror writing. The stories herein vary wildly in tone and mood, in theme and content, but all have a thread of darkness running through them. They show how versatile the horror genre can be, and how wide are its parameters …

It’s always a joy when you’re able to delve deeply into a writer’s career, especially a writer with so varied an output as Mark Morris, through the medium of a single volume. And that’s exactly what we’ve got here.

While Warts and All doesn’t contain every single short story that Morris has ever written, PS Publishing have gone out of their way to include as wide a selection as possible, incorporating 30 pieces of work, the earliest dating to 1990, the most recent, an entirely original piece, dating to 2019.

And one glimpse of these simmering contents is all you’ll need to understand just how thoroughly diverse Mark Morris’s material can be. That said, it invariably dances to the theme of horror. Whether that be psychological horror, intense physical horror, horror of the supernatural, horror of the surreal, it doesn’t matter; horror fandom has always been Mark Morris’s target audience, and he’s never let it down. He certainly doesn’t in this book.

The other constant in Warts and All is the sheer quality of the writing. I mentioned earlier that Mark Morris hit the big time relatively early in his career (his first mass-market horror novel, Toady, was published when he was only 26!), and that’s because his prose work has never been less than superbly efficient: crisp, concise, easily accessible, his characters vivid, his locations photographically real, his concepts gut-churning. Even his earliest fictional forays read like the handiwork of a seasoned pro.

On a personal note, one of the things I’ve always liked most about Mark Morris’s stories is the lack of snobbery. Morris has always been on the money when it comes to whatever the latest fad in horror happens to be; never to my knowledge has he ever hit his readership with anything that could be termed out-of-date or old-fashioned. But he’s well-read enough in his own right to know there is a vast range of horror subgenres out there, some of which, through no fault of their own, slip out of the public eye from time to time. And yet this has never stopped him trying his hand at each and every one of them.

For example, it’s quite plain from Warts and All that an ultra-strong influence was exerted on this author, probably in his formative years, by the Pan and Fontana horror stories series, which were often notorious for painting a picture of post-war Britain as a grimy, seedy place where veins of perverse nastiness lurked beneath every veneer of wafer-thin respectability.

There are several examples of that style here, most impressively of all in the thrillingly horrible Salad Days, where a businessman is abducted by an OAP with a grudge against him from long ago. Taken back to an everyday townhouse, he at first thinks he can reason with his kidnapper. The old guy even promises that he won’t hurt him. But something else may …

More chilling (and more Pan-esque) yet is Essence, in which an elderly couple are secretly a pair of career serial killers. Hidden behind their genial appearance and apparent all-round decency, they have raped and murdered dozens of girls. Their secret is an MO that is completely foolproof. Or so they think …

Also set deceptively in the depths of genteel suburbia is Green, which for me has long been one of Mark Morris’s strongest and most terrifying stories, but because it’s just so damn good, I’ll revisit this one later and won’t say too much about the synopsis here.

Perhaps the most horrible story in the entire book, though, and definitely a tale that would have found a home for itself in the Fontana series, is the oldest one here reprinted, the titular Warts and All, which sees 15-year-old Jason and his mother, Beth, struggling valiantly but unable to save their declining Yorkshire farm. At the same time, both they, their animals and their entire property, it seems, are succumbing to an unknown disease that is slowly covering them all in revolting growths …

At the other end of the horror spectrum, meanwhile, Morris also dips his toe into the traditionalist supernatural pond, hitting us with a bunch of tales leaning towards the Jamesian school and even, in a couple of cases, towards folk horror and rural mystery.

A good example comes in Down to Earth, in which a young couple move to a house on the edge of the countryside. The husband views it as a lot of work but probably worth it. The wife, however, rather oddly, becomes inordinately interested in the overgrown jungle that is the house’s back garden …

Also set in a world of domestic-bliss-that-might-have-been is Coming Home, in which Jane and Gerry, happily married, recently installed in a new house, and expecting their first child, seemingly have everything to live for. Except that Christmas is approaching and Jane feels too tired to face it. What’s more, she is increasingly troubled by strange sounds in their new home, a grotesque smell and a weird voice on the phone …

Still in the world of the uncanny, an entirely different kind of supernatural threat can be found in We Who Sing Beneath the Ground, in which a dedicated teacher, concerned for an absent pupil, makes an unofficial call at the kid’s home, a ramshackle farm on a weather-beaten Cornish headland. The place is a dump, but neglect and mess are not the only problems here. There’s something much, much worse …

Also set in Cornwall is one of Morris’s very best ghost stories, Fallen Boys, which again I’m going to talk about a little more later on, so suffice to say here that it was rightly hailed as one of the best spooky stories of 2010.

Of course, no one could have learned any aspect of their spec fiction writing trade in the 1990s and not been exposed to the surrealist school, wherein weirdness became as prominent a feature as suspense, though in the hands of an expert like Mark Morris, the work never became any less readable. Quite the opposite.

Warts and All delivers two classic cases in point.

Against the Skin and The Fertilizer Man were both among the oddest stories I’d ever encountered the first time I read them, and yet both were deeply shocking and unsettling, and they’ve lost none of that power even now. For all these reasons I’ll also be talking a bit more about these two stories later. But in the meantime, no less chillingly strange is Waiting for the Bullet, which takes us into the company of a bunch of English students holidaying in an alternative USA, who opt to visit a ‘shootout site,’ one of several scenes of famous Wild West massacres, where, through some quirk of science, bullets from the nineteenth century still fly …

An even more terrifying fracturing of reality occurs in The Other One, in which a mentally unstable man finds himself living in a squalid flat in the midst of an illusory landscape of imaginary enemies and unreal destruction, where all he knows for certain is that someone or something very dangerous is drawing steadily closer …

But perhaps the strangest and most dislocating of all these more idiosyncratic horror stories is Puppies For Sale, in which an everyday family slowly disintegrates under the assault of an evil supernatural force, resulting in what can only be described as their (or anyone’s) worst nightmare. But is it real or is it all in the tortured father’s mind? …

Perhaps the next step on from stories of this sort are those with a subtext, i.e. meaningful forays into fiction where accomplished and mature authors examine personal, social or even political issues that trouble them. Unsurprisingly, Mark Morris has plenty of these in his locker too.

In Progeny, for example, a child-abuser suffers a long and terrible punishment after he is left paralysed by a stroke. Darker still, in Biters, which is set in a dystopian near-future, a class of schoolchildren attend a special clinic where they are taught parental responsibilities by being placed in charge of zombie babies.

Cleverest of all for me, another tale here that is truly one of Morris’s best, is The Red Door, in which, after a torturous year spent watching her mother die in cancer-induced agony, religiously-inclined Chloe finds herself doubting the existence of a benign God. With her overly devout family unable to help, she drifts about London attending to routine matters, and yet increasingly is distracted by the appearance, seemingly everywhere, of a curious red door …

In fiction terms, it is perhaps only a short step from meaningful to melancholy. So many of the issues that trouble us are often the cause or result of deep emotional sadness, and Mark Morris’s ability to convey this through his writing, without being schmaltzy or self-indulgent, is enviable.

Again, Warts and All hits us with several stories of this ilk, though in none of these cases does the author forget that he’s writing horror.

In Sins Like Scarlet, a dying man travels from Canada to England, suffering both physically and emotionally en route, but bent on surviving the trip so that he can make a terrible confession to his ex-wife …

In Nothing Prepares You, perhaps one of the hardest reads in the book in terms of the raw grief it portrays, we meet Martha, a middle-aged housewife terrified by the prospect of her husband’s mortality. When a new psychological facility offers to put her through the experience of bereavement without her actually losing anyone, she readily accepts. But a truly appalling experience follows …

Then we have The Complicit, one of Morris’s darkest tales to date, in which a disturbed man returns home for the funeral of his last parent, only to find the town of his birth secretive, the family home a soulless shell, and the ghost of the wicked brute who abused him as a child and subsequently died in a savage revenge-slaying, waiting to get his own back …

There are many other stories in Warts and All I could mention, but neither time nor space would allow it, and anyway, it was this particular group of tales that really caught my attention, and in terms of subject matter alone, illustrate the versatility of this author in finer fashion than my words ever could.

I don’t know whether there are plans afoot to bring out any other versions of Warts and All. As it currently stands, a big, chunky hardback (its interior beautifully designed by Michael Smith, its jacket splendidly illustrated by Carl Pugh) is bound to set you back a bit. But I reiterate that the contents here are top-notch, and in terms of Mark Morris’s sweeping body of work, this is one of the most all-inclusive collections I could ever have envisaged.

In short, this is an all-round spectacular, and as good an all-in-one snapshot of one writer’s back catalogue as I could have wished for. There should be a place of honour reserved for this one on the shelf of every discerning dark fiction fan.

And now …

WARTS AND ALL – the movie

Thus far, no film or TV producer has optioned this book yet (not as I’m aware), and in the current horror-free zone of British network TV at least, it seems unlikely. But you never know. And hell, as this part of the review is always the fun part, here are my thoughts just in case someone with loads of cash decides that it simply has to be on the screen.

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 circumstances that require them to relate spooky stories. 
It could be that they’re all trapped in a cellar by a broken lift and are awaiting rescue (a la Vault of Horror), or perhaps they’re all connected to various items available in a backstreet trinket shop (as in From Beyond the Grave).

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

Green: A middle-class blowhard is stung by a mysterious plant and develops a sudden and increasingly violent aversion to the colour green, a bizarre mental condition, which his unfortunate family must face alone as a bitterly cold Christmas approaches …

Bob – Philip Glenister
Hilary – Vicky McClure
Claire – Suranne Jones

The Fertilizer Man: Old Tosho loves his allotment, but hates the local yobs who continually steal his vegetables. He defends the plot as best he can, but cannot be there all the time. Then he is approached by a fertilizer salesman, who guarantees that with his new special compound, everything will grow a lot more quickly. The question is, what will grow? …

Tosho – Phil Davis
Deakin – Joe Cole

Fallen Boys: A school party is escorted down a Cornish tin mine where a famous tragedy once played out. But there are stresses and strains within the group, dangerous ones that are likely to cause serious and even life-threatening problems. On top of that, there are grim forces at work down here. Never let it be said that history doesn’t repeat itself …

Tess – Simona Brown

Against the Skin: Hard-drinking poacher, Lee, attempts a late-night pickup, fails and then finds himself on the wrong bus home. Very drunk, he ends up in a part of town he doesn’t know, in an old depot he doesn’t recognise. Lee has slept through the journey and is now the only person on the bus, but that doesn’t mean he is in this place alone …

Lee – Joe Gilgun