Thursday 21 December 2023

Part 2 of THE ICY REALM. Hope you enjoy.

Well, we’re almost there. The big day looms. But before then, if you’ve got time amid all those chaotic last-minute preparations, here is the second and final part of my latest Christmas horror story, THE ICY REALM. If you’re only just tuning in now and aren’t sure what’s what, it’s probably best if you read Part 1 first, which you can find by simply scrolling down to my previous post (December 15).



Alex said nothing on the return drive, but it was a struggle to get things straight in his head. First of all, he’d clearly imagined the business with the two marionettes. There was no other explanation. He’d thought he was locked in there for the holidays. He’d panicked and lost it … not that he was going to tell anyone that. He must already be a diminished figure in Erika’s eyes just for having got stuck in there in the first place.
     But the rest of it was harder to dismiss.
     The damaged books. The fact he’d seemingly been lured into that trap. Surely it wasn’t all just some ugly coincidence? And if not, what did it mean exactly?
     Erika threw curious sidelong glances at him, but increasingly, the weather was distracting them both. It wasn’t just getting dark now, the clouds that had regathered over the afternoon were opening again, progressively larger flakes dancing in their headlights as they wound along the narrow Lake District lanes, now narrowed even further by the snow banked to either side. The already minuscule strip of tarmac along the middle of the road was slowly covering over. Erika fiddled with the radio, to try and get a forecast, but all they heard was lots of fuzz and several broken, disembodied voices. A couple of times though, Alex heard phrases like ‘whiteout conditions …’ and ‘severe disruption …’
     ‘Damn it,’ he muttered.
     ‘Told you,’ Erika replied primly. ‘A white Christmas doesn’t always mean a happy one.’
     ‘Deaths expected …’
     ‘God above,’ he said out loud. ‘You hear that?’
     ‘In the Icy Realm …’
     ‘England has the weirdest weather,’ Erika replied. ‘One week ago, it was raining.’
     ‘Did they really say “deaths expected”?’
     She frowned. ‘Didn’t sound like it.’
     ‘Did to me.’
     ‘Probably because you’re a special case …’
     ‘What the hell!’ he exploded.
     ‘Alex, be careful!’
     He swerved to avoid the snowbank they’d been veering towards. ‘I thought it said …’
     ‘Don’t listen to that. Focus on driving. We want to get home in one piece.’
     It was certainly a relief when they swung through the open gate onto the lengthy driveway leading to the Farm, because the snow was now coming down hard: the track itself was several inches under, the trees enclosing them more like skeletal white outlines.
     The drive went initially left of the lawn, before cutting right past the front of the farmhouse and snaking round to the side. A bright new layer of snow covered everything, untrammelled by tyres or footprints, yet as they went right, their headlights ghosting across the building, Alex spotted something on the doorstep. He drove by, biting his lip. Erika was too busy putting on her gloves and scarf to have noticed.
     They pulled up in their usual place at the side of the house. Alex applied the handbrake but stayed in his seat. He told Erika that he was going to try and fix the radio.
     ‘No probs.’ She jumped out, grabbed her shopping from the rear and headed indoors.
     Once she’d gone, Alex got out, pulling his own gloves on as he stumped round to the front of the house. At the same time, the phone began bleeping in his pocket.
     It was Mike. ‘Dad … I’ve been trying to get you.’
     ‘Yeah … you know what the blackspots are like up here.’
     ‘Dad, this weather …’
     ‘Yeah, I know.’ They’d been expecting this, of course.
     ‘You’ve heard they’ve closed the M6 north of Preston?’ Mike said.
     ‘It might be clear tomorrow.’
     ‘I don’t know, Dad. It’s a big risk on Christmas Day.’
     ‘Don’t worry about it …’ Alex halted at the front door, where, as he’d seen from the car, a square red package, tied with a green ribbon, sat on the step. ‘Sod it,’ he muttered.     
     ‘I’m sorry …’
     ‘Don’t worry, mate. You stay at home. I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure we’ll be here.’
     He cut the call and picked the package up. There were two tags attached. The first one read: For Erika. Merry Xmas. The second one: Don’t wait till the big day. Open now.
     He tore it brutally apart, and a mouldy, fungus-riddled potato dropped into his palm.
     With a strangled cry, he flung it away. Lumbering back round the house, he glanced across the lawn, but so thick were the falling flakes that he couldn’t even see the trees. When he entered the kitchen, Erika was busy wrapping the new presents. They were primarily for Geoff, his younger brother’s children. He threw the book he’d bought onto the sideboard, and stood watching her, tormented. There was no road closure between here and Carlisle, so Geoff and his family could still visit. But could Alex really let that happen without issuing some kind of warning?
     But a warning of what?
     Erika glanced up with a big smile, which rapidly faltered. ‘What now?’
     ‘Mike’s not coming.’
     ‘Oh, right.’ Inevitably, she wasn’t too disappointed. ‘We thought that might happen. You know what I reckon the problem is? He thinks I’m not earning my keep.’
     You mean while you’re only a dance teacher, Alex thought sourly, and not a star of stage and screen?
     ‘Soon as that changes,’ she said, ‘he won’t think I’m leeching off you anymore, will he? Now, go and put the fire on in the lounge. Get yourself a drink. See …’ She held up a glass of Cointreau, ice cubes clinking. ‘I’ve not wasted any time.’
     Alex threaded through the warren of passages, hanging his coat and scarf over the newel post at the foot of the staircase, then walking into the lounge and turning on the real-flame gas fire, which roared to hearty life. His phone rang again.
     ‘You too, Geoff?’ he wondered dully.
     But it wasn’t Geoff.
     ‘Alex … it’s Fiona Havergood.’
     ‘Hello, Fee.’ He was only partly relieved. ‘Thanks for calling me back. To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d left you a message.’
     ‘You were ringing about Jimmy Groober.’
     ‘Yeah, I …’
     ‘Jimmy’s dead.’
     Even with the fire on, Alex went cold. ‘W…what?’
     ‘Fell off his roof late last night. Bit weird. He was nude at the time.’ Considering that Fee had been a good friend of Jimmy’s, she sounded oddly matter-of-fact about it. ‘A neighbour saw him and came out. Apparently, they called up to him, asked what was wrong. He said something about if he’d stayed indoors, it would smell him out. It had sniffed its way after him through every room. That’s what he said, anyway.’
     ‘What would smell him out?’
     ‘There’ll be a name for it, but I’m an old woman now, Alex. I can’t remember. Anyway, it sounds as though he’d just had a shower … trying to get rid of his scent, or something. But of course, it was freezing … so, well, the cold overwhelmed him, and he fell.’
      Alex could scarcely believe it. ‘Fee, Jimmy called me yesterday evening.’
     ‘Trying to warn you, I imagine.’
     ‘Warn me?’ He felt so sick with shock that he was struggling to make sense of any of this.
      ‘Jimmy liked you, Alex … he must have, if warning you was one of the last things he did.’
     Again, it was all dispassionate and matter-of-fact. So much so that Alex genuinely wondered if this was truly the same Fiona Havergood who’d been such a friend of his and Jimmy Groober’s over the years. He couldn’t equate such casual indifference with that fiercely intelligent but rather lovely septuagenarian, whose genteel appearance concealed a vast knowledge of folk and fairy tales gleaned from the five children’s books she’d written on the subject and which made her a shoe-in each winter to direct the panto, a demanding task she’d performed with great diligence and good humour.
     ‘Fiona, what … what do you mean warning me?’
     ‘Oh, Alex! Don’t tell me you’re not aware something’s going on? I mean, surely you’ve heard from him by now?’
     ‘Heard from who?’
     ‘Nils Karlsson.’
     ‘K-Karls …’ Alex found himself stuttering. ‘I thought his name was Carling.’
     ‘Well, you didn’t pay much attention to him, did you. You only had eyes for Erika.’
     ‘What in God’s name are you talking about?’
     ‘I can tell by your voice that something’s not right.’
     ‘Fee, what’re you saying?’ he demanded. ‘That this lad Nils Karlsson’s got some kind of issue with us? All these years later?’
     ‘Nils Karlsson is also dead.’ Again, she spoke unemotionally, as though imparting a simple, unsensational fact. ‘He didn’t commit suicide, though. Not like his father, if that’s what’s worrying you.’
     ‘It isn’t …’
     ‘Died from exposure, apparently. His dad was from Iceland, but he lost everything during their financial crash. After that, his mother, who was English, brought Nils here. She didn’t last long though. Poor health, broken heart and that. Anyway, Nils was left on his own, a stranger in a strange land … bit of an oddball too. You must remember how weird his appearance was. I got the feeling he’d struggle to fit in anywhere …’
     As Alex listened to all this with growing confusion, he drifted to the door and glanced out, just to ensure that Erika wasn’t in earshot. As it happened, she was coming along the passage towards him, only to turn into the dining room, from out of which he heard the pop songs on her Christmas playlist. From the tray she was carrying, which was loaded with festive napkins and such, she was setting out the table for tomorrow. She winked at him and took another sip from her glass of Cointreau.
     Fiona meanwhile was still talking about Nils Karlsson. ‘When he came to the Players, I think he thought he’d found his place. Amateur theatre … always looking for new members, everyone welcome, that sort of thing. But we’ve had a few like that over the years, haven’t we? You know, square pegs who’ll only ever find round holes …’
     ‘Fiona!’ Alex interrupted. ‘Where’s all this going?’
     ‘I’m saying that after his big disappointment with Rumplestiltskin, he went back to Iceland. But I don’t think he knew anyone there. A decade had passed, after all. Seems like he tried to refurbish his old family home, which was out in the wilds. Wasn’t used to the harsh weather, ended up getting caught in a snowstorm …’
     ‘What has this got to do with Jimmy Groober? Or me?’
     ‘And me, Alex,’ she said tersely. ‘Don’t forget me. In case you were wondering, I’m talking to you from the Oakhill Unit at the Infirmary.
     ‘You … what?’ As far as Alex knew, the Oakhill Unit was a psychiatric ward.
     ‘Had a bit of a fright the night before last. Nothing to worry about.’
     But suddenly she sounded tense, her tone brittle.
      ‘Are you …’ he was stuttering again, ‘are you okay?’
     ‘Well, I’m able to talk to you at least. That’s more than poor Jimmy, isn’t it? But Alex, your situation can’t be far removed from mine. By my estimation you’ll be number thirteen. Though … maybe not.’ She lapsed into brief thought. ‘Perhaps Erika will be number thirteen. You’ll be twelve. I certainly imagine that you two will be the final two … the ones they’ll have reserved harshest judgement for.’
     ‘Judgement? What the hell are you saying, Fiona? That before he died, Nils Karlsson set something in motion for us? Some kind of revenge?’
     A tinkling laugh responded. ‘Of course, that’s what I’m saying. But not before he died.’
     ‘Fiona, what the actual fu….?’
     ‘You see, in your two cases, I think it was the sheer immorality of it.’
     ‘Look, Fiona …’ He wrestled himself under control. ‘I’ve got real problems up here, so you need to start making sense …’
     ‘You gave Erika that part of Rumplestiltskin because you fancied her, didn’t you.’
     ‘She was the best at the audition.’
     ‘Yes, but you still fancied her.’
     ‘This is so nuts …’
     ‘Surely, you’re not denying it, Alex?’ She sounded amused again. ‘You’ve spent your entire career among professionals. You know better than anyone that Erika was never that good. That’s why you’ve never got her onto the big stage, isn’t it? You can’t really spin straw into gold, can you?’ That weird, tinkling laugh again. ‘See what I did there? But it worked to get her into your bed, didn’t it. I mean, I know it ended up costing you your marriage, but well, I imagine having a fresh young replacement in your grasp was some kind of compensation. But it was immoral, casting Erika for such a crass reason.’
     ‘This is the biggest load of …’
     ‘Tell that to Polly Willoughby, who on December 17 was arrested for severely beating her own grandchild with a fire-poker. She told the police that she was convinced someone was hiding under her bed. Terrified out of her wits, she dragged them out and attacked. Seems she had no idea why the child, who’d been staying over, was sleeping there. And neither did the child … when it finally regained consciousness. Or Gordon Compton, who on December 15 was taken into hospital to have his stomach pumped, along with all the guests at his Christmas dinner party … because every spoon in his drawer was contaminated with salmonella, even though he insisted that he’d washed them all before preparing the meal.’
     Alex was stumped. ‘Polly Willoughby? Gordon Compton? They were on the Casting Committee.’
     ‘Course they were. It’s everyone who was involved, you see. Thirteen of us in total. And these … entities, they only come on the thirteen days leading up to Christmas. Each one on a different date. And each one brings a special gift to the person in question.’
     ‘A gift? You mean like a potato?’
     ‘Oh no.’ She tittered again. ‘The potato’s only a sign of their displeasure. Mind you, if you accept it, that means the challenge is on …’
     ‘Accept it?’
     ‘You’ve obviously already done that, Alex. Opened the package I mean. No, the real gift, well …’ She became thoughtful. ‘Well … it’s not always a gift. The Yule Lads are typical of these mysterious Christmas visitors you hear about in so many cultures. They may bestow a gift, if you deserve it … but more likely they’ll administer a punishment. Mine’s still going on, I suppose … I spent the whole of December 21 running from one room to the next, seeing a different hideous face at each window.’ 
     She tried to laugh again, but it was forced. ‘I suppose I’m right where I need to be now. I’ve always been nervous at night. Ever since Kenny died. So, it was a severe one in my case, but I was the show’s director, after all … heaven knows what’s going to happen to you and Erika.’
     ‘Fiona,’ he said tightly, ‘you’re the fairy tale expert … tell me.’
     ‘Oh, my dear, there are no experts. That’s likely why Nils Karlsson had to die. You can’t make deals with these people simply by reading books and working rituals, even over so many years … oh yes, doctor?’ Suddenly, she was talking to someone else. ‘Oh, yes. Just a friend … well, if you insist …’
     The line went dead.
     Alex stared at his phone, the firelight flickering in its empty screen.
     Fee Havergood was one of the most stable characters he knew: organised, straightlaced, ridiculously well-educated. In no way a flake. If anyone else had said those things to him, it would have sounded like utter gibberish. Frenziedly, he bashed in another number.
     ‘You’re not dead, Jimbo,’ he said under his breath. ‘You’re just not.’
     No one answered. And now something else was shot-firing inside his head. Something Fiona had said. It had been a throw-away reference, something she’d mentioned almost casually, and yet it was relevant, he was sure, because he’d seen it somewhere before …
     Yule Lads.
     He stiffened.
     Yes … the Yule Lads. Dear God, that book in which Nils Karlsson’s mugshot was inserted.
     Alex galloped through to the kitchen, where the book was still lying on the sideboard, the photograph hanging out of it. He flipped to that page.

Yule Lads

     As he scanned down past the crude image of carved stonework, he was only able to absorb bits and pieces of the text, but each fragment was nerve-jangling in its import.

     Among the most feared beings in the Icy Realm … wild spirits of the frozen mountains and snow-filled forests …

     December 15: Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker), stealer of health …

     December 21: Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper), stealer of privacy …

     December 22: Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer), stealer of scent …

     December 23: Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook), stealer of flesh …

     December 24: Kertasníkir (Candle-Taker), stealer of light …

     No magic can repel them, no hero defeat them. They fear nothing save their own voracious parents, who are always close by, the ogre, Leppalúði, and the hag, Grýla …

      Alex ran back through the house. This was insane, of course. It had to be. Norse mythology, folklore, fairy tales?
     ‘What next?’ he muttered. ‘That dwarf off the Singing fucking Ringing Tree?’
     But just because these entities didn’t exist, that didn’t mean there weren’t lunatics out there who believed they did.
     ‘Erika!’ He lurched into the dining room. ‘We’ve got to …’
     The table was laid with expensive crockery and glassware, but the room was empty. The music now came from the lounge, which meant that Erika had taken her iPod in there. When he entered after her, she was dancing barefoot, in her ski pants and vest, her supple, firelit form twirling and pirouetting with sensual grace.
     She stopped, pink-cheeked, smiling mischievously.
     ‘We’ve got to go,’ he said.
     Her mouth curved downward. ‘Go where?’
     ‘We need to leave the …’ His gaze flirted to the conservatory, where he’d just spied a flicker of movement. This time it wasn’t snowflakes tumbling past the pane.
     He rushed in there. The deluge outside was reminiscent of a Hollywood movie, except that this was real snow, not an inexhaustible supply of goose down. Even so, for a half-second, he glimpsed a tall figure in a heavy coat, with a hood pulled up, walking away across the lawn.
     ‘Bastard!’ Alex dashed back through the downstairs to the kitchen, and then outside.
     Here, he halted. He hadn’t got his coat, gloves or scarf. But there was no time for that. An intangible foe was something to be feared, but when you had them in your sights, you didn’t let them go easily. He scrambled to the first corner of the house, where a three-foot length of rotted iron pipe, a leftover from the restoration work on the guttering last summer, was propped against the wall. He snatched it up. He wasn’t going to hit anyone, he told himself, as he ploughed into the flakes. That wasn’t his aim. But whoever this person was, he’d come all the way from Bannerwood. He’d been stalking them, and that meant he was trouble.
     But even before Alex reached the trees, a mere distance of thirty yards, he knew he’d made a mistake. He was caked in snow. It even slithered down the back of his sweater. He blundered on defiantly. A wall of vegetation reared ahead, the wood’s outer bulwark, composed entirely of privets, so they were meshed together and laden with white.
     He fought his way through. ‘Who are you, you scumbag? What do you want?’
     In the wider spaces beyond the privets, the flakes drove into him like arrows. Already his fingers were numb, his toes tingling inside his socks and trainers. And now the wind was picking up too, adding a sword’s edge. He was still determined that he wasn’t going back. He’d known plenty rough characters in his past, so he’d certainly show this toerag, this unknown enemy, this faceless intruder who’d already killed Jimmy Groober.
     Alex stopped hard, face burning with cold, lungs heaving.
     Killed Jimmy Groober?
     Had he really done that?
     This same person?
     ‘Shit.’ Slowly, common sense worked its way back through thoughts rendered chaotic by anger and fear. With another savage gust, snowflakes whipped into him.
     ‘Okay … I’m out of here. We’re out of here.’
     He blundered round and plunged back the way he’d come … only to rebound from a huge, solid object. Alex tottered away, winded. But when he wiped the flakes from his eyes, he saw that it wasn’t a tree trunk, as he’d thought. It was a figure. Covered in snow, but standing stock-still in the grey/white murk, the face under its pulled-up hood completely wrapped with ragged old scarfs. Alex might have been more horrified had he not now been so pained and exhausted by the chill. The grotesque shape remained motionless, towering over him. If it had been a tallish figure in the shopping mall, it was all that and more now.
     Alex offered the length of pipe as he retreated, showing that, whatever was afoot here, he’d be no soft touch. But when the figure made no move towards him, he turned and ran – and thudded headlong into a second interloper, near enough identical to the first, equally solid. He staggered back, winded again, now caught between the pair of them.
     You two will be the final two … the ones they’ll have reserved harshest judgement for.
     ‘That what you’re planning?’ Alex shouted. ‘Well, go on … bring it on!’
     Neither figure moved, but as Alex was closest to the second, he saw that it was holding something in its gloved left hand. It hung down, but was clearly visible as a large, steel hook.
     Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook), stealer of flesh …
     ‘Oh yes?’ Alex laughed dementedly. ‘That’s for me, is it? You think it’ll be that easy!
     He ended on a shriek as he lurched forward, swinging the pipe two-handed into the figure’s torso.
     There was no give in it. The pipe rebounded and the figure didn’t even flinch. Alex swung again, this time making huge impact on the side of its head. Again, no response. He might have been hitting granite. Briefly, disbelievingly, he wondered if he was … though this second time, the scarfs came partly loose, exposing the top left-hand corner of the figure’s face, which even in the dimness, was quite clearly made from some smooth, pale, porcelain-like substance, with a small black hole where the eye should be.
     Alex raised the pipe again but saw that it had bent double. He flung it at the figure, and turned to run, veering around the first ghastly shape, which didn’t lunge out to grasp him, as he thought it might, plunging into yet more snow-clad evergreens. He burrowed through these, and beyond them, caught the full force of the intensifying blizzard, flakes gushing over him like water. He struggled to breathe as he turned in helpless circles, flailing.
     What was this? Where in God’s name was he?
     The Icy Realm …
     He didn’t even know what those words meant. But he wasn’t in the Lake District anymore. He wasn’t even in England. He knew it from the way the snowfall swamped him, from the wind that blew ever more ferociously as if it travelled down through vast, glacier-gouged canyons, across pack-ice and desolate, frostbitten tundra.
     And then, without warning, a glaring light engulfed him.
     Alex shielded his eyes as a pair of dazzling headlamps slid to a screeching halt.
     A door banged open, and he heard Erika shouting.
     ‘Alex, for God’s sake! What’re you playing at?’
     Halfdead, he tottered towards her, working his way hand over hand along the Jaguar’s body to the passenger door, flopping in through it like a stuffed, sodden dummy. ‘What … what’re you doing here?’ he stammered as she got in as well.
     ‘Are you kidding?’ She’d packed herself into her puffer jacket but was still shivering. She put the car in gear, and it scrunched forward along the drive. ‘You said we have to get away, so we’re getting away. I don’t know why … can’t see where we’d want to drive tonight. I’ve never seen a snowstorm like this.’
     Alex, almost zoning out in the astounding warmth, shook his head weakly. ‘I … I don’t think there’s anything natural about it.’
     ‘What do you mean?’
     ‘Just keep driving.’
     ‘I can’t see a damn thing.’
      ‘Just get us away … anywhere away from here.’
     He glanced back over his shoulder. In the cherry-red glow of the taillights, the driveway was a white tunnel filled with flakes. But there was no sign of anyone following. Erika braked as they approached the gates.
     ‘Don’t slow down!’ he barked.
     ‘God’s sake, Alex … I can’t pull straight out. Where are we going, anyway?’
     She hit the gas as they turned left, the Jag fishtailing.
     ‘What did you mean it’s not natural?’ she said.
     ‘Nothing. Turn of phrase.’ They wallowed on, at no great speed, the road ahead shifting in and out of visibility. ‘Need to go faster than this. Need to go much faster.’
     ‘You try it,’ she retorted. ‘That scraping sound’s the car’s belly dragging along the top of the snow. We’re going as fast as I dare. Besides, I don’t think I should be anywhere near the wheel of a car at present.’
     ‘What’re you talking about?’
     ‘Alex, in case you’d forgotten, I’ve had more than a couple of glasses of Cointreau.’
     He regarded her long and hard. He ought to have realised from her jerky driving, of course, not to mention her slurring voice.
     ‘How far are we going?’ she asked.
     ‘Just get us a bit further away,’ he said. ‘Get us to the M6 junction and I’ll take over.’
     ‘The M6!’ She looked startled. ‘Why are we going there? We’re not going home, are we?’
     He shrugged. ‘Only thing we can do.’
      ‘Hang on!’ Finally, she got angry, pressing the accelerator harder, the Jag bouncing and jolting, the car’s rear end striking the snowbanks both left and right. ‘I’ve not brought any of our stuff …’
     ‘None of that matters.’
     ‘Alex, are you high?’
     ‘Erika …’
     ‘Look, I’m not going all the way home.’ She glared at him as she drove.
     Erika was a compliant partner when it suited her. That was most of the time. But not always. ‘Everything we’ve got’s at the Farm. What’re we going to celebrate Christmas with?’
     ‘Whoa … whoa, ERIKA!’
     She hadn’t seen the sharp curve, or the snow-covered gate directly in front. It was made of steel, but only held by a single loop of chain, so at thirty plus, they crashed clean through it. Erika hit the brakes, screaming, but of course that did nothing. The next thing, they were careering down the steep hillside into Swindale like an out-of-control toboggan, the car turning sideways, every window plastered white.
     By the time they hit something, they’d picked up terrifying speed. The Jag’s engine stove in like an accordion, and both passengers were thrown violently forward. The combination of seatbelt and airbag saved Alex any serious injury, but Erika, drunk, hadn’t bothered with her belt, and as the car struck at an angle, her airbag didn’t prevent her slamming head-first through the side window, into the corner of a drystone wall tangled with barbed wire.
     Even then, it was several minutes before Alex, dazed by the body-blow his belt had dealt him, kicked open his buckled door and fell into what felt like a foot of crisp snow. He crawled painfully away from the steaming, written-off wreck on his hands and knees.
     ‘Alex …’ came a weak, whimpering voice. ‘Alex … help me …’
     What seemed like minutes passed before he could sway to his feet and turn groggily round. He’d only travelled twenty yards or so, but despite the light still shafting from the twisted hulk of his car, it was only barely visible.
      ‘Alex ...’ came Erika’s voice again. To his surprise, her silhouette stumbled into view. ‘Alex, I can’t see. Her tone turned shrill. ‘For God’s sake, I can’t see … I’ve hurt my eyes …’
     She lurched blindly towards him, reaching out on all sides. Dark viscous streaks marked both her cheeks. Alex’s own blood juddered in his veins.
     Kertasníkir, stealer of light …
     He backed away. ‘Erika, you’ve got to stay here, okay? Just stay here while I get help.’
     ‘Alex, my eyes …’ He’d never heard a voice so wretched, so tortured, so anguished.
     ‘Find yourself a tree. Rest against it. I’ll be back as quick as I can.’
     He waded downslope. Ironically, the snowfall now seemed to be easing off. He halted again, looking up and around. The flakes were definitely thinning, the wind slackening.
     ‘Alex, for God’s sake!’ Erika wailed. ‘My eyes … don’t leave me.’
     He continued down. ‘I can’t take you with me.’
     ‘Alex, please …’
     Overhead, what remained of the clouds broke apart, revealing a blaze of winter stars. A silvery light spread across the snowy landscape, and he saw that the ground in front of him was levelling out. He also saw the glinting flat surface of the ice-covered beck. He tottered to a halt on the edge of it. The ice looked sturdy, but he didn’t try to cross, instead heading right, following its course. Which proved the correct decision, because a short distance later, further to his right but on higher ground, he spied the dull, ruddy glow of what looked like a cottage window. He stopped, racked with aches and pains as his adrenaline ebbed, but looking hopefully upward. Who was it lived there?
     The Elwells, of course. Who else?
     Even as he peered up, he saw another light appear, as if the cottage door had opened. They were used to the quiet in this part of the world, so they’d have heard the crash. With luck, they’d also see the lights of the car. He was about to hail them, when …
     ‘Alex … for God’s sake!’
     He twirled, infuriated to see that Erika had tried to follow him. Though of course, she didn’t know which way he’d gone, and now was stepping out onto the beck.
     ‘Erika!’ he croaked.
     She was forty yards away, though; she couldn’t hear him. And in any case, she was already out there, shuffling forward. ‘Alex …?’
    He watched helpless, as, almost in slow motion, she lost her footing and fell heavily onto her front, hitting the frozen surface full-length. And vanishing clean through it, a great slab of ice tilting up next to her, then falling flat again, reinserting itself neatly into the human-shaped hole.

     A second later, only powdery snow moved, blowing in wisps over the white-topped river.
     Alex was so battered and bruised that he couldn’t even totter forward to try and help, not that he’d have been in time. In addition, he was so nauseated by fear and shock that he had little bandwidth left with which even to feel upset. Instead, he swayed there, dazed, before slumping backward into the snow. 
     All he could do was sit and stare over the ice.
     ‘Bastards,’ he breathed again. So thinking, his eyes tracked up the hillside to the road.
     It was no surprise to see two figures up there, framed motionless against the moon.
     ‘Okay, you got her!’ he shouted. ‘All that’s left is me, yeah? So, come on down. Finish what you started. Or are you too scared?’
     To his surprise, neither figure moved. And then the phone pinged in his pocket. Briefly incredulous, wondering if this might be them, he fished it out. And saw a text from Des Hepworth.

Hello, mate … I was going to hang fire with the Heidi Prince write-up, but I promised I’d send you something. I’ve not pasted the whole thing in because … well look, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s one critic’s viewpoint, but I won’t pretend she hasn’t ripped you apart. She’s worried that you’ve been going off the boil for a while, but she thinks this one really doesn’t cut it. Says it’s shallow, superficial. Says there’s no meat on it …

     ‘No meat?’ Alex was speechless at first. Then he laughed out loud. ‘No meat! For real?’
      He gazed up to the ridgeline again. His duo of tormentors remained in place. Black, anthracite outlines. Motionless.
     ‘Is that it?’ he shouted. ‘Surely to God not?’
     But hey, maybe it was. The other deaths had been accidents, hadn’t they? Jimmy … Erika. Not that he hadn’t been punished. He glanced at the text again. ‘My worst fear?’
     Not that it seemed a big deal at present. It would later, of course.
     Behind him, he heard people scrambling down the hillside from the cottage. The Elwells. Hopefully bringing one of those thick plaid blankets they had in their croft. Maybe a thermos of hot coffee too. When he tried to get to his feet, pain rippled through him. He stayed seated, glancing back up to the road again, from where the two figures had clearly retreated because they were no longer in sight.
     ‘Yeah, you’d better run,’ he jeered. ‘Meat-Hook! Scariest thing about you is your name.’ He tried to look round again, but the whiplash hurt too much. ‘I’m down here!’ he called. ‘Jack … Hetty! It’s Alex McQuade. I’m down here.’
     From the grunts they made as they descended the slope it was an effort for them too. And it should be, at their age. No wonder they spent every Christmas down south …
     With their kids and grandkids …
     A new, different kind of chill crept down Alex’s spine.
     When he finally did look round, they were almost upon him. Lurching forward across the snow with unnatural speed.
     The Yule Lads fear nothing … save their own voracious parents.
     Alex had just enough strength left to scream.
     He hadn’t considered how many kinds of meat there actually were.

I hope that was okay for you good people. If you’ve enjoyed this eerie tale, perhaps you’ll be interested in two collections of Christmas-themed ghost and horror stories of mine, published over the last few years: THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER. Or, if you prefer something a little more substantial, you could always opt for SPARROWHAWK, a Christmas-themed novella of mine, set during a very cold winter in the dark depths of Victorian England. In the meantime, have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Friday 15 December 2023

Fancy some festive terror in the Icy Realm?

Well, it’s not quite time to start the festivities yet, but I thought I’d get the ball rolling a few days early with my annual Christmas horror story. I’m not going to go on and on about the tradition of ghost and horror stories at this time of year. We all know the drill by now (and we all love it, don’t we, eh?). Anyway, this is a brand new one. It’s got a wee bit of length on it, so I’m running it in two sections. This is Part 1. If you’re suitably intrigued, tune in for Part 2 this time next week, Friday December 22, when we conclude the tale. Hope you enjoy …



Alex was driving out of the multistorey when he received a call from Jimmy Groober.
     ‘Jimbo?’ he said.
     ‘Alex … mate!’ The caller sounded strained. ‘Just wait …’
     From the grunting and panting, Jimmy was in some kind of kerfuffle. It so distracted Alex that he drove straight into the rush-hour traffic. Horns tooted as he swerved into line. Hurrying pedestrians glanced at him from under their bob-caps.
     ‘Jimmy?’ he said again. ‘What’s the matter, mate?’
     If he was honest, he was tired rather than concerned. He’d had a wearisome day. He didn’t need another problem on his plate right now.
     ‘Alex … listen to me. I’m telling you, you’ve got to listen!’
     ‘Okay, I’m listening.’
     ‘Where are you?’
     ‘Northwestern Station. Just got in from London. I’ve been …’
     ‘When you get home, you’ll find a package waiting.’
     ‘A Christmas present.’
     ‘Okay.’ Alex was mystified. ‘That’s nice.’
     ‘No, it isn’t. It really isn’t. Listen, buddy … whatever you do, don’t open it, okay? Do not open it.’
     ‘Jimmy …?’
     The call ended.
     Alex sat nonplussed as he swung left onto the one-way system. Fleetingly, he saw only the snowflakes driving at his windscreen. Jimmy Groober was the most down-to-Earth bloke he knew. A regular drinking buddy, he was a decade older and calmer than Alex, and as blue-collar as they came. He wasn’t the sort who got upset easily. He wasn’t the sort who got upset at all. Alex thought about calling him back, though he’d look a fool if it turned out to be a wind-up. Jimmy could be a joker when the mood was on him, though this hadn’t sounded like something humorous. He was a good actor, of course. Only at amateur level, though he’d possessed enough talent to go professional if he’d ever bothered trying. Even so, that voice had been desperate, filled with worry and … could it have been fear?
     Alex jammed his brakes on.
     Some idiot of a woman so loaded with brightly-coloured parcels that she couldn’t see where she was going had blundered into his headlights. She waved an apologetic mitten as she stumbled across the road. Alex drove on. It had been partly his own fault; he wasn’t paying adequate attention. Plus, the snowfall, while it wasn’t heavy, was a distraction. He hoped it would ease off before the end of the evening, as they were driving up to the Lake District first thing in the morning.
     When he was away from the town centre and the traffic had thinned, he called Jimmy back. Three times, but on each occasion it went to voicemail. Well, whatever the problem was, he’d find out about it in time. It wasn’t as if he didn’t have difficulties of his own.


The main issue was Dark in the Park, Alex’s new play. It opened at the Young Vic in January, and that afternoon had been the run-through for the press. Alex knew from long experience that a writer wasn’t always the best judge of his own material, but even so, having watched it from the back of the theatre, from the wings, the gods, just about everywhere, he’d been thoroughly dissatisfied. And it hadn’t just been him. After the show, those critics who’d deigned to go into the bar had been lukewarm in their response. Okay, few of them ever gave anything away purposely, but you could usually tell if they’d enjoyed something. Even Heidi Prince from the Guardian, who was generally a fan of his, and a close friend of director Des Hepworth’s, had been noncommittal.
     ‘I’ll need to mull it over, darling,’ she’d said on her way out. ‘Let it percolate.’
     That had hardly been encouraging. But if Alex was honest, his own concerns were foremost in his mind. It had been a polished enough production. The performances were topline, as you’d expect. But it had been the play itself. It simply hadn’t delivered, and he couldn’t understand why this hadn’t struck him previously. He’d written umpteen drafts before it had gone to rehearsal. He’d made constant adjustments, run it through again and again, workshopped it tirelessly, and each time he’d felt that it was getting better and better, until he’d finally been certain he had another hit on his hands.
     And yet now, for reasons he couldn’t fathom, something was lacking.
     Parking at the front of the house, he sat there as the engine cooled. He wondered if he was just worn-out. There’d been much toing and froing to London this last month, which was a four-hundred-mile round trip. Then there’d been all those rewrites and rehearsals.
     Oh, it was all lovely, it was great, it was the best job in the world, but it was draining.
     ‘Yeah.’ He wound his scarf round his neck and climbed from the Jag.
     He was wiped out, plain and simple. Which wasn’t helped when he saw that the house was in darkness, because this meant that Erika wasn’t home yet.
     Sarah wouldn’t only have been home by now, she’d have had all the lights on, including the Christmas decorations, and the first thing he’d smell on entering would be whatever delicious treat she’d prepared for their dinner. He knew it was sexist and old-fashioned of him, but to be fair, Erika taught dance at the local Technical College. She normally finished at five, and it was now after seven and there was still no sign of her. Almost certainly, she’d gone for a drink with friends. He supposed that with it being Christmas Eve tomorrow, it was fair enough. But it did bug him given that she knew he’d been in London all day and still wasn’t here. He crossed the drive to the front door, feet crunching the thin carpet of snow, and only then remembered Jimmy Groober’s odd warning.
     You’ll find a package waiting for you. Whatever you do … do not open it.
     There was no package there. Alex let himself in. A couple of bills had been stuffed through the letter flap, but there was nothing inside either, not even a chitty from a delivery service to inform him that they’d left a parcel in the shed. Damned if he was worrying about it, he went around the house, turning lights on. At least, the central heating had activated. He stumped upstairs to have a shower. If nothing else, the hot spray relaxed him. Which was why he almost jumped out of the cubicle when its misted door was suddenly yanked open, and a hand gripped his privates.
     ‘Bloody hell, Erika!’ he muttered. ‘Didn’t even know you were home.’
     ‘Came in the back way,’ she giggled, sliding naked into the cubicle alongside him.
     She had short spiky blonde hair and a trim but shapely body. When she embraced him face-to-face, he smelled the Cointreau on her breath, but it wasn’t excessive, and he reminded himself again that this was the start of the Christmas holiday.
     ‘Awww … did I scare you?’ She pecked him on the lips.
     He tried not to sulk with her, which wasn’t difficult. It wasn’t as if she’d deliberately sought to surprise him. She usually parked her Juke at the side of the house and came in through the back door, which was why he hadn’t heard her. That was a bit naughty, of course: drinking and driving home, especially at this time of year. It wasn’t the first time, either, and that was something he’d need to admonish her for. Though perhaps not at this moment. Her slim form melded into him as they kissed.
     Erika was thirty now, but over twenty years his junior, and a sylphlike beauty next to his craggy, burly, bearded self. Alex was under no illusion that the advantages of this relationship outweighed the disadvantages.
     Later, when they went downstairs in their dressing gowns, she suggested a takeaway.
     ‘Good shout.’ He settled onto the sofa, fiddling with the TV remote.
     She dug into the top drawer of the bureau. ‘Indian, Chinese, Thai?’
     ‘Any,’ he said.
     ‘That reminds me …’ She opened her laptop to access Just Eat. ‘There was a package for you at the back door. It’s over there.’
     Alex stared across the room at the small, square parcel sitting on the bureau. It was about half the size of a shoebox, wrapped in shiny green paper and tied with a scarlet ribbon.
     ‘Who brought it?’
     ‘Dunno. Shall we do Chinese? Have our usual banquet for two?’
     ‘And it’s definitely for me?’
     ‘Course it’s for you. There’s a tag on it … strange message though.’
     ‘What do you mean?’
     ‘Go and have a look. Won’t bite you.’
     Alex went over. There were actually two tags. The first one read: For Alex. Merry Xmas. The second one: Don’t wait till the big day. Open now.
     Some kind of joke, almost certainly. Something heavy shifted inside.
     ‘Banquet C?’ Erika suggested.
     ‘Yeah, that’s fine. You had any contact with Jimmy Groober recently?’
     ‘Only when you last did. When we were down the Star and Garter.’
     ‘It’s just that, well …’ He mentioned the odd phone-call.
     She arched an eyebrow. Then gave that fetching lop-sided pixie grin of hers. ‘There you go. Just up Jimmy’s street, that. Probably some kind of jack-in-the-box. Boxing glove on a spring. It’ll punch you on the nose when you open it.’
     Alex put the parcel back on the bureau. ‘For which reason, we’ll leave it.’
    ‘Don’t believe in opening them early anyway,’ she said. ‘Sort of thing that brings bad luck.’
    ‘What do you mean?’
     ‘You know, breaks the rules. And we’ve got a long drive tomorrow, and now they’re saying it’s going to snow all night. Everyone says they want a white Christmas, but if you’re not ready for one, it can end in disaster.’
     ‘Good Lord, Erika … let’s not tempt fate.’
     ‘Don’t be silly, I’m only joking.’ With a final tap on the keyboard, she placed their order. ‘We’re spending Christmas at the Farm. You’ll be among friends and loved ones. What could go wrong?’
     ‘What could go wrong is that we’ll be in the middle of nowhere in a winter storm.’
     ‘We’ll be fine. This is England. Not Iceland.’


Alex sat up in the pitch darkness, unsure what had woken him.
     His house was located on a suburban cul-de-sac, so noises late at night weren’t unusual. But all he heard now was dead silence. It was an affluent cul-de-sac of course, which meant the houses were large, detached and set back from the road, and from each other. So, while it might not be completely unusual to hear the neighbours, it wasn’t common either. Besides, though he couldn’t be certain what he’d just heard, he knew instinctively that it hadn’t been outside, but in. He scrabbled on the bedside table to find his glasses, gazing across the room at the digital clock, which read 03.15. Swinging his legs to the floor, he fumbled with his feet for his slippers. Getting up, he grabbed his dressing gown from the armchair.
     ‘What is it?’ Erika mumbled.
     ‘Nothing. Go back to sleep.’
     He took the baseball bat from the side of the bed.
     ‘Alex?’ Erika said, now wide awake.
     There was no concealing it from her. She’d long lived in fear that a celebrity like him might be a target. Alex had advised her a hundred times that he wasn’t a celebrity. Okay, he’d been fêted in the West End, where they’d all been seduced by his work’s ‘roughneck charm and working-class honesty’ (Heidi Prince again), but who in Lancashire knew about that?
     ‘Do you have your phone?’ he asked.
     ‘Yeah. Why?’
     ‘Keep it to hand, okay. Stay here.’
     He padded along the landing to the staircase, the top of which came slowly into view as his eyes
attuned. He listened again but heard nothing.    
     There were all kinds of unwritten rules about what you were supposed to do in situations like this. Stay in your room, barricade the door, call the police. Or maybe turn all the lights on: let the bastards know you’d sussed them; give them a chance to escape before contact was made. Or alternatively, creep down with bat in hand and beat the living shit out of them.
     That was how they’d have handled it in the part of town where he’d grown up, and maybe it was this that started Alex downstairs, but he wasn’t kidding anyone. His street-fighting days were long behind him. The truth was though, that somehow, he knew this wasn’t an intruder. It was far below zero outside. He couldn’t imagine there were many bone-idle scallies who’d put a foot out of bed on a night like this, let alone go on the rob. But it wasn’t just that, it was the silence down there. There was something calm and relaxed about it, no hint of a foreign presence. He stopped to listen again, but now – call it instinct, call it sixth sense, hell, call it ‘spider sense’ – he felt increasingly certain that nothing was amiss.
     He crossed the hall to the open lounge door. It was particularly dark in there because the Christmas tree, which was a massive affair, laden with baubles and streamers, was standing in front of the window. Despite that, a faint silvery light shimmered out, and he fleetingly saw flutters of movement in it. That stopped him in his tracks until he realised it was the snowflakes falling outside.
     He went in, slapping the light on.
     The lounge was empty. He pivoted, scanning every corner.
     And sensed movement.
     A white-faced figure appeared at his shoulder.
     ‘God almighty!’ he yelped.
     ‘It’s me,’ Erika said, tying her dressing gown.
     ‘I told you to stay upstairs.’
     ‘No way, mister.’
     ‘Well … everything’s okay, look.’
     But that wasn’t totally the case. They searched the whole downstairs, finding nothing out of place, but when they came back into the lounge, they this time spotted something. The unopened present on the bureau now lay on the floor. It had been dislodged by a single item that had fallen from the wall. The entirety of the lounge, in fact most of the downstairs of Alex McQuade’s house, was decked with framed promotional posters from his many plays.
     This was one of them.
     ‘That’s all it was?’ Erika said. ‘A loose nail?’
     Alex picked the image up. Its frame had broken, and the glass was cracked, but it was still possible to see the stylised artwork underneath. It depicted a madly capering, goblin-like figure with a rollcall of traditional pantomime caricatures behind it: the Dame, the Principal Boy, Baron Hardup, and so on. Across the top, in snow-capped letters made from what appeared to be twisted-together twigs, it read:


     ‘Jimmy Groober was in that show, wasn’t he?’ Alex said uneasily.
     ‘Think that was his first, wasn’t it?’ Erika replied.
     Alex threw his thoughts back ten years. Rumplestiltskin had seen Jimmy Groober, a natural born comedian and fellow stalwart of the Bannerwood Players, their local amateur dramatics society, make his debut as the pantomime dame, a role in which he’d brought the house down. Ever since then, the annual panto had been the highlight of the Players’ season (this year they’d done Mother Goose, and it had gone down a treat), and Jimmy Groober was one of its regular stars.
     Alex put the picture down and picked up the present. With a vicious rip, he tore it wide open. Under the wrapping was a small cardboard box. He tore that open too. A potato sat inside. Old and rather withered. In fact, from the faint aroma, it was turning rotten.
     Erika giggled. ‘If that isn’t a present from Jimmy Groober, nothing is.’
     Alex didn’t laugh. ‘Jimmy’s pranks are normally funny.’


The journey north was not too difficult. The M6 was busy with Christmas traffic, but the constant flow of vehicles had kept the road surface warm, so while the surrounding moors and hills were blanketed with snow, the carriageway was clear.
     Erika was happy to drive, while Alex sat in the front passenger seat, laptop on his knee, trying to figure out exactly what it was about Dark in the Park that just wasn’t working. At no stage though was he able to establish the problem, or problems, and he suspected the latter. The truth be told, none of his usual creative juices were flowing, his thoughts so awry that he couldn’t come close to interrogating the work the way he normally did when a rewrite was required, not of course that a rewrite would be welcome at this late stage.
     It didn’t help that he was distracted by other things.
     ‘Funny that Jimmy Groober wasn’t in, this morning, wasn’t it?’
     ‘I don’t see why,’ Erika replied.
     They’d been delayed setting out because Alex, having rung Jimmy a couple more times and received no answer, had gone round to see him, only to find his small, terraced house sitting behind closed curtains. No amount of knocking had brought anyone to the door.
     ‘Probably gone to his sister’s,’ she said. ‘Doesn’t he have a sister down in Norfolk?’
     ‘Think so, yeah.’
     It was a viable explanation, Alex supposed. If not his sister, confirmed bachelor Jimmy had a range of other ladies dotted around whom he still had amicable relationships with; sometimes more than that, even at sixty-five.
     Alex didn’t bother saying that this didn’t explain why the guy wasn’t answering his mobile. He called again while they drove, twice, but no answer was forthcoming. He even called Fiona ‘Fee’ Havergood, another mutual friend of theirs, who’d been the original director of Rumplestiltskin, but she wasn’t answering either.
     He closed his laptop. ‘Weird idea for a panto, wasn’t it? Rumplestiltskin.’
     ‘It’s ten years ago,’ Erika said. ‘What’re you moidering about?’
     ‘I’ve never seen it done anywhere else.’
     ‘It was partly Fee Havergood’s idea, wasn’t it? She’s the “well-loved tales” expert. Anyway, think of all the fun me and you would never have had, if we hadn’t done it.’
     Alex mused. A decade ago, the Bannerwood Players were struggling: understaffed, playing to half-full houses, unable to make the rent even on the scruffy old mission hall at the back of St Simeon’s Church. At the request of retired college lecturer, Fiona Havergood, the only other company member who was a professional author, though in her case it was kiddies’ fiction, he’d taken time out of his busy schedule to write Rumplestiltskin for them, and it had worked on all kinds of levels. Not just because he’d presented them with an exclusive and quality piece of work, but because he’d used all his pulling-power with the theatreland press, who’d responded generously, giving it rave notices. Even a couple of the nationals gave it glowing write-ups. Audiences had packed that hall for twenty nights on the bounce, and the Players had never looked back.
     ‘Good job you cast me, eh?’ Erika said, giving him a saucy look.
     ‘I didn’t cast you. It was the Casting Committee who cast you.’
     ‘Anything you say.’
     The Bannerwood Players had never been less than extremely grateful to have a popular playwright like Alex McQuade as a member. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he still exerted influence down there, even though he didn’t participate much in their productions.
     ‘It wasn’t like you weren’t the best at the audition,’ he said. ‘By a country mile.’
     Even now it had been memorable, the shapely young dancer in her fiendish green face-paint, her trim body lithe and flexible in its green leotard, twisting and turning in that sexual yet menacing manner, delivering each line with a catlike hiss.
     ‘There was that other guy too,’ she said. ‘What was his name? Nils something?’
     Again, Alex threw his mind back. He’d been involved with so many shows since then that he struggled to remember. ‘Nils Carling? He was okay. But he wasn’t a patch on you.’
     ‘Really set his heart on getting that part, didn’t he?’
     ‘Wish I had a quid for every actor I’ve seen make that mistake over the years.’
     ‘Didn’t he walk out on the Players afterwards?’
     ‘Wish I had a quid for every time that’s happened too.’
     ‘Anyway, what was weird about it?’ she asked. ‘Rumplestiltskin?’
     ‘Dunno.’ Alex pondered. ‘It’s a creepy story as fairy tales go. Whole new level of goblin nastiness.’
     ‘Goblins are nasty, aren’t they? It’s Enid Blyton who gave them their back garden makeover. You wouldn’t want to know the real ones.’
     ‘Real ones?’
     ‘I meet them all the time,’ she said. ‘Whenever I’m round town. Even in the posh bars. “Any chance of a Christmas kiss, love?” “How about some festive slap and tickle?”’ She glanced sidelong at him. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are, mate. And you still haven’t got me into the big time.’
     ‘I’ve told you …’ Alex gazed ahead. ‘When the right part comes, I’ll push you forward.’
     ‘Doesn’t have to be the right part. Any part will do, so long as it gets me an Equity card.’
     ‘An Equity card isn’t the be-all and end-all. You want to make an impact, it needs to be the right part, trust me.’
     ‘Well, you write the parts. It’s all in your hands.’
     But she didn’t hammer this point too hard. Erika usually knew when enough was enough.
     Ahead of them, the Lake District fells were stark, soaring massifs of rock and snow.


‘Hello, Fee,’ Alex told the answering machine. ‘It’s Alex McQuade. I’ve been trying to get Jimmy Groober, but he’s not answering. I know that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong, but … well, you’ve not had any contact with him, have you? Feel free to call me back. I know it’s Christmas, but I’m always happy to chat.’
     He glanced from the car to where Erika was taking the bags in through the side door. The Farm looked gorgeous in its winter finery. The house itself wasn’t pretty, a sprawling structure of granite with various wings and annexes, multiple chimneys and different-levelled roofs of heavy slate. But it was in a beautiful if remote position, on high wooded ground overlooking Swindale. The expansive lawn at its front and the encircling woods were already deep in snow, the steel blue sky only intensifying its glimmer.
     Alex had bought and renovated the place, making it into his personal weekend retreat, over a decade ago, after the phenomenal success of Witchcradle had ‘catapulted him into the top bracket’, to quote the Sunday Times. This was probably the prettiest he’d ever seen it, and yet he still wasn’t able to relax, and that wasn’t just down to his sudden inability to string two words together, though that was troubling enough. Again, during the last twenty minutes of the journey, he’d delved into his laptop, trying to fix Dark in the Park, but as before, hadn’t been able to pinpoint the problem let alone perform some corrective surgery. Frankly, the last time he’d looked at it, it had been nothing more than a higgledy-piggledy mass of disjointed words and ideas. Oh, it ran smoothly enough when he read it aloud, but where was the meaning, what was the subtext?
     Determined that he wouldn’t look at it again until Christmas was over, he got out of the car and grabbed what remained of their baggage.
     Inside the farmhouse, most of the olde worlde layout remained, so it was a rabbit warren of passages and small rooms. The two largest were the lounge/conservatory, which was at the far side of the house, the view from its glazed annex looking down through a break in the trees, along the length of the immense, picturesque valley that was Swindale, and the kitchen, where the central table could seat sixteen and the huge cast-iron range was an Edwardian original. He’d had storage heaters installed, because the place could be bitterly cold in winter, and was pleased to see that the two caretakers, Jack and Hetty Elwell, who lived in a small croft just down the valley from here, had turned the heaters on in time for their arrival, and had tidied the interior up nicely, hanging it with festive greenery, before heading south to spend Christmas with their children and grandchildren, which they did every year.     
     Erika was in the conservatory, the central feature of which, the hefty spruce fir, was festooned with crackers and tasteful, hand-carved ornaments (many, no doubt, Jack Elwell’s own work). She peered down the valley, which was almost Alpine in its grandeur, Swindale Beck a frozen ribbon meandering along the centre, clumps of pine standing out from the snow here and there, and tucked away high on the northwest flank, the Elwells’ cottage, which was tear-jerkingly reminiscent of so many Christmas miniatures he’d seen over the years.
     ‘As a child, I used to dream of festive seasons like this,’ Erika said.
     He stood behind her. ‘You should’ve been around in the Seventies and Eighties. We had them regularly.’
     ‘I don’t just mean the snow. I mean the setting. It’s magical.’
     ‘Well, a bit of magic can’t hurt now and then.’
     ‘It’s your brother and his family who are coming tomorrow, isn’t it?’
     ‘Yeah,’ he confirmed. ‘They’re only in Carlisle, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for them.’
     ‘In that case, I need to nip into Shapwick to get a couple of last-minute presents.’
     ‘Okay, but we’ve only got about an hour and a half of daylight left.’
     ‘That’s all I’ll need. What about your Michael?’
     Alex shrugged. ‘Manchester’s a bit further. Mike’s not sure if him and his girlfriend are going to be able to make it.’
     ‘Still doesn’t like me, does he?’
     ‘He’s never been rude to you, has he?’
     ‘Not in recent times. Not like when he was a kid. You mentioned goblins on the way here. That was your Michael all over.’
     He put his arms round her. ‘Took his mum’s side, that’s all.
     ‘Sometimes he was a horror.’
     ‘Like you said, goblins are.’


Alex’s main memory of Christmas shopping as a child was an atmosphere of breathless excitement. The shopfronts helped, glittering with evergreens and tinsel, not to mention he fairy lights zigzagging overhead, the Santas ringing bells and calling greetings from bustling street corners, the crib in the town centre, its life-size figures kneeling in straw. But Britain didn’t seem to be that kind of place anymore. Even with snow on the pavements, the atmosphere in Shapwick was drab. There weren’t as many shoppers as there’d used to be because there weren’t as many shops. Too many windows were boarded or filled with dust. The town’s festive lights were up but seemed somehow lacklustre.
     For all that, Erika still had things she wanted to buy, and one of them was a surprise for Alex, so after they’d parked, they split up, having agreed to reunite in forty minutes.
     Alex drifted into Shapwick Mall, where Slade were playing over the tannoy. Again, too many outlets weren’t currently in business. Despite this, his feet followed their usual path to one of the few shops open, the multileveled bookstore at the end of the main concourse. The only person on its ground floor was a young woman with green hair seated behind the till. She was too absorbed in her phone even to glance at him as he trudged upstairs to the first floor. At which point his own phone rang.   
     He dug the device from his pocket. It was Des Hepworth.
     ‘Hi, mate,’ Alex answered.
     ‘Alex … just had a note through from Heidi Prince.’
     ‘She’s going to send us the final draft of her review before she clocks off for Christmas.’
     ‘Okay …?’ Alex waited.
     ‘She didn’t need to do that, of course, but she’s a mate … and I think she’s basically giving us a heads-up.’
     ‘I see.’ A heads-up was rarely a good sign.
     ‘Des sounded awkward. ‘I thought the play was pretty good, myself.’
     ‘You thought?’
     ‘I mean I think.’ In truth, Des sounded as though he didn’t know what he meant.
     ‘Can you copy me in when you get it?’ Alex said.
     ‘Absolutely. Look … it’s only one review. Don’t worry too much.’
     Sure, it’s only one, Alex thought. But like you say, Heidi’s a mate. What about the ones who aren’t?
     Pocketing the phone, he walked across the shop’s first floor, which was bare of both staff and customers. Though he tended to buy crime novels for his personal reading, Alex invariably visited this area first. He thought of it as the Drama Department because there was a whole section here given over to published stage-plays, and that was something you rarely found in high street bookstores. Not that he normally purchased works by other playwrights; he preferred to see them on stage. This was all about massaging his own insecure ego.
     Sarah had always blamed this on his working-class origins. ‘You don’t think you belong in this world,’ she’d told him. ‘You’re sure they’ll find a way to throw you out. But no one gets born to this, Alex. You worked your way in like everyone else.’
     He’d believed that; many artists suffered from imposter syndrome because other shortcomings in their life made them feel unworthy. But you couldn’t rationalise away your deepest fear, not when you walked a constant tightrope between success and failure.
     ‘You’re a damn good writer,’ Sarah had said. ‘And you’ve got more to say than most.’
     On this occasion it felt even more important than usual to remind himself of that.
     The plays occupied several parallel bookcases, with seven shelves each. To the shop’s credit, it had a wide range of titles, but he usually had no problem locating his own. This time, though, as he ran his finger along the appropriate shelf – McLellan, McMorrow, McNally, McPherson – there was an empty gap where his own plays usually were, before it went on to Medoff, Meisl …
     He stood bewildered, then spied two thin booklets, definitely plays, lying on the floor halfway along the aisle. He swooped them up.
Enemies at the Door by Alex McQuade


All the Devils Are Here by Alex McQuade.

     Both were grubby and creased, as if they hadn’t just dropped from the shelf, but had been kicked around. When he opened Devils, the interior was gooey, a greenish slime sticking several pages together. From the next aisle came a guttural chuckle, and then a crude hawking sound and what might have been someone spitting.
     Slowly tensing, Alex walked round the corner. At the far end of that next aisle, a dishevelled figure stood with back turned. He wore a ragged green parka over a red hoodie, the hood of which was pulled up and begrimed with filth. What looked like dirty pyjama trousers were tucked into a pair of ratty, worn-out boots. The figure’s big shoulders heaved as he chuckled again, and once again hawked and spat into something, before tossing it over his shoulder. It skittered face-up along the aisle.
Hunting Season by Alex McQuade

     ‘The hell!’ Alex said aloud, but when he glanced up, Mr Shabby had vanished round the next corner. ‘He hastened in pursuit. ‘What the actual …?’
     There was no one in the next aisle, but here, Witchcradle lay on the floor. This one had been torn down the entire length of its spine. He trembled as he scooped it up. This wasn’t just random vandalism. Surely, this was targeted? At first, he was lost for ideas. He could go downstairs and complain. But what would the girl behind the till be able to do? She could hardly confront the vandal on her own. She could call the police, but would they turn out for a couple of damaged books when they didn’t even bother investigating burglaries anymore?
     Suddenly, suspecting he was being watched, he spun round.
     There was no one there, but his gaze fell on something else curious. On a shelf directly behind him, one particular book was clearly out of place. They were still in the Drama Department, but this was a hardback work of nonfiction. What was more, it had been placed there with its front facing outward.

The Icy Realm

Its cover depicted several rows of what looked like Viking runes carved in stone and covered with frost. More arresting though was the photograph that had clearly been used by someone as a bookmark, the upper part still showing at the top of the book. It was a portrait, but whoever it was, only their eyes were visible.
     Staring directly at Alex.
     Stiffly, he took the book down.
     Its strapline read:

A Compendium of the myths and folklore of the Nordic lands

     That meant nothing to him, but his impulse was still to flip it open on the page where the picture had been inserted as a marker. It was the start of a new chapter. Another image displayed a bunch of semi-distinct figures, humanoid but, as before, etched crudely onto what looked like a Viking runestone.    Across the top, it read:

Yule Lads

     But it was the photo that was the main attraction.
     Alex had to blink several times before he could comprehend what he was seeing there. Because incredibly, unbelievably, it depicted a face he knew.
     Nils … Nils Carling?
     Had that been his name? The guy who’d wanted to play the part of Rumplestiltskin all those years ago. Who’d said he’d been born to play it. And had then lost out because Erika had auditioned so well. But this wasn’t Nils Carling as Alex remembered him. This was a more recent version. Back then, the guy had been young and fresh-faced, with white-blond hair. Here, he was older, heavier, balding, his cheeks pouchier, his features pitted by age.
     ‘Little bastard,’ Alex said under his breath. This settled it. He was being targeted.
     From somewhere close by, he heard another guttural, piglike chuckle.
     He hurried to the end of the aisle and diverted left into the main shop. Again, there was no sign of the dishevelled figure, but another of Alex’s plays lay on the floor. Blind Alleys, the first one to make the professional stage. As before, it had been torn, spat on, kicked. From downstairs, he heard the shop doorbell jangle, as if another customer was entering the premises. Or leaving.
     He raced down. The girl with green hair still sat absorbed in her phone. But she glanced up as he lurched towards the door. ‘Excuse me! That book?’
     ‘What?’ he replied, distracted. He glanced at the book in his hand.
     A Compendium of the myths and folklore of the Nordic lands.
     ‘You are going to pay?’ she asked curtly.
     ‘For Christ’s sake, love … you have a go at me, when there’s been some tramp upstairs ripping books apart. Here!’
     He chucked a crumpled tenner at her and dashed outside.
     He wasn’t entirely sure why he’d kept the book, but surely it was a clue to what was going on. A deliberate clue even, which was equally odd. Out on the concourse, Slade had now been superseded by Wizzard, but the festive anthems still failed to work their magic in that empty place of scuffed linoleum floors and dark, empty windows. Not that this mattered. When he glanced left, he saw a shabby shape in a green coat and a red hoodie walking away down a side corridor.
     Alex didn’t think for one minute that this was Nils Carling. He now remembered the guy properly: he’d been unusually short and squat, a Tolkien dwarf in terms of his stature, in every way perfect to play Rumplestiltskin, had Erika’s approach to the audition not been so captivating. This figure though, was much taller. Over six feet. For that same reason, Alex didn’t run after him. He wasn’t tackling someone like this on his own in a deserted shopping centre. The guy could have a knife, or syringes, or anything. Instead, he followed at a careful pace, his target never more than fifty yards ahead.
     Until he turned abruptly right and entered through a shop door.
     Surprised, Alex hurried forward. Again, the shop appeared to be closed. An empty display stand occupied the window. Overhead, a signpost read: Christmas Shop. One of those charity outlets. They opened around September, selling festive tat, but any business they did would be concluded by this time on December 24.
     Shoving the book he’d bought into his jeans back pocket, Alex pushed tentatively at the door. When it cracked open, he hesitated. This could be construed as looking for trouble, but he knew that he couldn’t go back to the Farm without having investigated. What kind of Christmas would he have if he didn’t at least try to get some kind of answer?
     The interior was small and poky, fragments of tinsel hanging from naked shelves, the floor covered with scraps of wrapping paper and a thin scattering of pine needles. But a door at the back stood ajar. Alex held his ground. That next door had to be where the guy had gone. There was no other hiding place. ‘Hello?’ he called out. ‘Anyone at home?’
     He’d already decided that if the guy reappeared, he’d produce the book of Norse myths and claim that he’d seen him drop it. The photo was still inside, so it would be interesting to see the reaction.
     However, no sound issued from that back room.
     Gritting his teeth, Alex advanced and pushed the next door open. The space beyond lay in extreme dimness, but it had the aura of a stock room. He could sense clutter. Reaching out, he found a switch and threw it. An electric bulb came on, and he was startled to see how much Christmas still lurked in there. Stacks of open boxes overflowing with cheap baubles and plastic evergreens, a whole pile of glitzy fake Christmas trees zip-tied into bundles and propped in a corner. In addition, somewhat classier, a neat row of festive marionettes hung limply along the back wall. Alex pivoted round, scoping out every nook and cranny. As before though, there was nowhere obvious for a fugitive to hide.
     His gaze fell on the marionettes again. There were thirteen of them, and at first glance he’d taken them as representative of the season, but now that he looked closely, while, yes, they were wearing Christmassy type garb – thick boots, warm, colourful clothing with white fur trims, caps with bells on and such – they were remarkably soulless, their expressionless faces made from clean white porcelain, holes where their eyes should be.
     Then the door to the back room closed. And a lock turned.
     Alex spun round. ‘Hey … hey, whoa, wait!’
     He dashed across the room, but now heard the door at the front of the shop closing as well, and then another lock turning.
     ‘Hey … wait! There’s somebody still in here. For God’s sake, wait!
     The lights went out.
     Alex froze for several seconds. When he finally scrabbled at the wall, he found the light-switch and flipped it. But the darkness remained.
     ‘For God’s sake!’ he shouted. ‘What’s the matter with you?
     But only now was the full nightmare of his predicament dawning on him.
     This was a shopping mall, and the lights had probably all gone off automatically. That meant the mall was now closed. And tomorrow was Christmas Day.
     ‘Hello!’ he shouted frantically. ‘There’s still someone in here! Hello!
     He imagined his voice echoing down the empty, darkened walkways. And as such, though it was totally unlike him, he flew into a panic, whirling round amid the heaped boxes and shelves, rebounding from one to another. Things fell. Something broke. He didn’t care.
     ‘For Christ’s sake!’ he yelled.
     And as quickly as the hysteria had come on him, it subsided. He snatched his phone from his pocket. Only a smidgen of juice remained, but that was enough to call Erika.
     But before he did, something moved in the darkness.
     It was only very slight, but he heard it clearly.
     He activated the phone-light, spinning round again, seeing nothing except the disorder he’d caused. And the row of marionettes, in particular the two at the nearest end, whose heads were no longer drooped downward.
     Alex tried to speak but could only make an odd clucking sound.
     Their heads were now upright, as they stared at him with those black holes where their eyes should be. He backed off unsteadily, the marionettes still watching.
     When he turned and ran, he did so blindly, crashing into another door he hadn’t noticed because it was half-hidden behind a curtain of hanging tinsel. Clawing madly at it, he located an escape bar, which he rammed downward. The door burst open, emitting him back into the icy cold. An alarm immediately sounded.
     ‘Alex, for God’s sake!’ Erika said.
     She’d come to a standstill some ten yards away, arms filled with bulging paper bags. They were in the outdoor passage leading to the car park.
     ‘I, erm …’ He was almost as tongue-tied now as he had been when trying to rewrite his play in the car. ‘I … went the wrong way.’
     ‘You’ve set the alarm off.’
     ‘I know, I … it was an accident.’
     ‘We’d better find someone and tell them.’
     ‘No, no … we’ve just got to go.’ He lurched towards her, took her by the elbow and frogmarched her along the passage.
     ‘Alex, are you okay? You’re white as a sheet.’
     ‘It’s fine.’
     ‘What’s the matter?’
     ‘Nothing,’ he said gruffly. ‘Let’s get back before it starts snowing again.’

 (on Dec 22)

(If you are enjoying this spooky tale, perhaps you might be interested in two collections of Christmas-themed ghost and horror stories of mine, published over the last few years: THE CHRISTMAS YOU DESERVE and IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER. Or, if you prefer something a little more substantial, you could always opt for SPARROWHAWK, a Christmas-themed novella of mine, set during a very cold winter in the dark depths of Victorian England).

Monday 4 December 2023

Be afraid: the Ghosting Season has arrived

I’ve always been delighted to write ghost and horror stories set during the festive season. In fact, if anything, there’s no greater pleasure. Though, ironically, it’s often the case that to see these tales actually hit the presses in time for the happy occasion, one needs to write them much earlier in the year. It hasn’t been unusual for me to be penning Christmas scare-fare as early as April or May. As you can imagine, that’s not always the best time to be evoking thoughts of snow, ice, or candy canes dangling from glistening evergreen boughs. But we’ve finally reached that time of year again, so if nothing else, I can present you with a few choice snippets from some of the many Yuletide parables I’ve had published over the years, and perhaps include links to where you can get hold of them.

In addition, I’ll be offering a detailed review of that tireless US scary fiction editor Ellen Datlow’s most recent anthology, CHRISTMAS AND OTHER HORRORS, which you can find in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s blogpost.

First of all, I quick reminder that my second historical novel for Canelo, BATTLE LORD, the immediate sequel to the first one, USURPER, which will be published on January 8 next year.

As I write this blog, it’s a deep freeze outside. We already have a very snowy December, and that suits the mood of BATTLE LORD well, as it takes us through the English winter of 1066/67, which was also bitterly cold – the slaughter on Christmas Day famously saw the Westminster snow turn ‘searing crimson’. It centres around disinherited Saxon lord, Cerdic of Wulfbury’s fightback against his Norman vanquishers.

And now that part of today’s post that you’ve all doubtless been waiting for. The approach of Christmas and the onset of …

The Ghosting Season

First up, this year, as in other years, I’ll again be publishing a short horror story with a Christmas theme on this blog, though we’ll need to get a little bit closer to the main event before that occurs (it’s still only Advent, after all). Before then, here are a few juicy extracts from some of the many Yuletide horrors I’ve had published over the years.

Where possible, I’ve sought to include links to those stories, so that they can still be enjoyed in full. In addition, I’ll be interspersing them all with a few random but generic ‘festive chiller’ images, none of which – and here’s your WARNING IN ADVANCE – has any actual connection to any of the works of fiction here referenced.

I dumped my bag by the bed and checked out my new surroundings. Beyond the curtain, the window looked down on the forecourt, which thanks to the risen moon, lay shimmering and frigid under its mantle of white. I discovered that the room was warm thanks to a single radiator pipe passing along the skirting board. The jug, as I’d expected, contained water, which smelled and looked fresh. It was almost as if the Parnells had been expecting me. Or someone. But then I remembered that they claimed to regularly have callers on Christmas Eve.
     “Some Christmas Eve.” I sat on the bed and rooted in my bag.
     There wasn’t much in there. Some spare toiletries and the essentials I’d needed for the meeting I hadn’t managed to make. Frustrated, I stood up. I couldn’t understand what was keeping Parnell with my phone. I opened the bedroom door.
     She was standing outside.
     Facing me from a couple of inches away.
     As if she’d been there all the time, staring at the door.
     She fixed me with a steady, waxen smile. And made no effort to move out of my way.
     “I, erm … I’m sorry,” I stuttered. “I was just wondering about my phone?”
     “There’s no power yet,” came the voice of James Parnell, standing somewhere out in the corridor. The lights had been turned off, so I couldn’t see him. “It’s still dead, I’m afraid.”
     “It’s okay …” I was semi-hypnotised by Agnes Parnell’s pale, rigid smile. “Perhaps I can get it later?”
      “Of course,” Parnell said. “Or if not later, tomorrow.”
     “Tomorrow … yes.” And I closed the door again.
     The hell with tomorrow! I’d give them an hour, let them get to bed, and then I’d retrieve the phone myself. This whole thing was beyond weird. If there’d been a lock, I’d have turned it …

The flat-roofed houses were brown or beige, as if moulded from mudbrick, the glow of mellow lamplight visible from each interior, donkeys and camels yoked outside. In the very centre, on a raised mound, there was a stable, its front removed, revealing a baby in a manger and toy soldier sized figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling one to either side. Above them, a single star was suspended. Somewhere on the floor one of the wires to the fallen Christmas trees sparked, and the star began to shine with a pale, silvery luminescence. At the same time figures started moving in the town. Tookey watched in fascination as three or four men – again no more than toy soldier size – but distinctly sinister in hoods and cloaks, and with curved daggers, roved up and down the narrow streets, moving along electric runners which he hadn’t noticed previously. One by one they visited each house, the internal light to which would then turn blood-red – to the accompaniment of tinny shrieks.
     “What the …?” Tookey breathed. He had some vague memory of a school lesson during which he’d been told about that bad-tempered bastard – wasn’t his name ‘Herod’? – having all the babies killed to try and get to Jesus. But Christ, you didn’t put something like that in a Christmas decoration!

Gemma was seven years a cop, and near-enough thought she’d seen everything. But a murder victim wrapped up like a Christmas present was something new. She used the light from her phone to examine the figure more closely. The paper covering it was bright red and speckled with holly leaves, but it was immediately evident that an adult person lay underneath. The outlines of arms, legs, feet, shoulders – even breasts, when she looked closely – were recognisable. There was no obvious sign that blood or any other bodily fluid had seeped out, but she couldn’t be certain of that …

“I warn you, exposing frauds is my trade. My reason to live.”
     Still nothing.
     Without further warning, Hetherington stepped around the corner. “It’s my …”
     The figure waiting there startled him for all kinds of horrible reasons, not least its lugubrious frown and lifeless, painted eyes. But mainly because the last time he’d seen it, it had been downstairs. It was the life-size Marley’s Ghost effigy. Not sitting now, but standing upright against the rear wall, its head no longer drooping.
     “It’s my …” Hetherington stammered again.
     Was this the same marionette? He noted the unstitched tear in the left shoulder of its frockcoat. Had someone carried it up here? Along with his camera? Why in God’s name exert all this effort just to perpetrate a hoax? Or was it a costume?
     Can that be it? Was this someone dressed up?
     Dazedly, he reached out to touch the thing.
     “It’s my, my ...”
     His fingers made tentative contact with the figure’s bare, wooden cranium. It was hard, hollow.
     “My business …”
     Abruptly, its jaw clacked downward, the vivid red gash of its mouth extending all the way to its breastbone.
     “BUSINESS!” a distant voice shrieked in the back of his memory.
     The next thing Hetherington knew, he was stumbling away across the workshop. Aside from the jaw, he’d never seen the thing move. Not once, not at all. He told himself this over and over. And yet now, even though he could hear sounds behind him – that paint-pot clattering and rolling again, as if something had kicked it while coming in his wake – he refused to look back.

“Can I help?” came a voice from behind.
     Capstick spun around. A tall, lean figure in a gray suit and clerical collar, with a pale face and short sandy hair, had entered the hall behind him.
     “Oh, I’m sorry …” Capstick stammered, not sure whether to address the man as ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend’. “But, well, this may sound a bit ridiculous …”
     “Gentleman of the road, are you?”
     “What?” Capstick was startled. Surely, he didn’t look that bad? He brushed self-consciously at his beard. “Erm … no, though I will admit to being lost.”
     “So many do at this festive time of year.”
     As the vicar wove his way forward through the seats, Capstick saw that he was actually quite old, his face wrinkled and with a yellowish tinge, his eyes rheumy. His hair, which was colourless, was extraordinarily thin; it looked sandy from a distance because he’d greased the few lank strands of it that remained backward over his liver-spotted scalp. His suit, once smart, was dusty and crumpled.
     “I’m stuck in town by accident,” Capstick added, slightly distracted by this. “Trying to find some … well, first of all, some accommodation. And secondly, some transport out of here.”
     “The first of those we can help you with ... of course we can.” The vicar smiled, his bloodless lips drawn back on brownish pegs, and laced his fingers together. “The second, alas, no …”

“You wanted me to die, and I wanted you to be happy. So, this is the price I paid.”
     “What are you talking about?”
     Her smile faded. The green eyes lost their lustre and receded into their sockets; her teeth became prominent, skeletal. “You know why my parents never revealed my resting place to you, John? Because suicides can only be buried in unmarked graves.”
     “Suicides?” The word struck him like a hammer blow. “But Leticia, you’re no …”
     His words petered out. Could she have? Was it possible? It was almost too horrible to contemplate, but suddenly the likelihood seemed immense. Had he – good Lord, no! – had he driven the poor child to such a brink of despair? His eyes filled with tears, which immediately crystalised in his lashes.
     “Oh, don’t fret, my love,” she said. “It wasn’t so bad. What are a few extra drams of medicine to an ailing, sickly girl?”
     “Leticia, you did not take your own life! Please tell me you didn’t!”
     “Why not? This place is a measure of the worthlessness of that life.”
     They were now moving around the downstairs of the house. Only Leticia’s unearthly radiance lit the way. He saw endless familiar features. The maroon wallpaper with the white polka dots, which Leticia hadn’t liked but which he had insisted on buying, and which now clad the entire ground floor, where it had sagged into a million damp, frozen crinkles. In a corner of the drawing room, Leticia’s piano stood laden with snow, as though it had only just been brought in from outside. Over the hearth hung the oil painting of themselves they’d commissioned after their wedding; it depicted a young couple whose demeanour was chillier than it should have been. Appropriately, it now dangled with icicles.
     Leticia glided through all this decayed memorabilia painlessly, though her naked feet were black with frostbite ...
I stared fixedly at the kitchen door. For a time, there was nothing else in the world but that door – and what I suspected lurked just beyond it. I was unable to move; I didn’t dare move, terrified that if my feet scuffed on the floor they would alert the thing to my presence, even though such thoughts were patently ludicrous – it had followed me all the way home. Even if it hadn’t, it knew where I lived; according to our myths, it knew where every child lived.
     There was a soft crunch of snow, this directly on the other side of the door, and then a further pause. Was it listening in through the planks as I was listening out? My nerves were taut as cello strings, my hair standing on end. But I quickly broke from this stupor when the doorhandle turned.
     I lurched forward and rammed home the upper bolt. Immediately, the handle ceased moving. There was another prolonged silence. I stood rigid, eyes goggling. Then the handle turned again, this time with violence, and there was a long, dull groan as a significant weight was pressed against the door from the other side. I was far from confident the single bolt would hold, especially when the weight was withdrawn and, instead, a heavy blow landed. Followed by another blow and another; loud, echoing reports, increasingly angry, which must have been heard all along our street. The kitchen door was solid oak, but it shook and shook, and I imagined that its screws would flirt from their moorings under such an assault.
      It was a sure sign of how enthralled by fear I was that only now did it strike me to drive home the lower bolt as well. At first this was difficult: the assailant was hammering on the woodwork, not just with hands but with feet like iron clubs, and the lower section of the door vibrated so hard that it rarely lined up with the jamb – so hard that I thought it would shatter inward – but at last I managed to slide the bolt into its mount, and then ram my key into the lock and turn that too. All violence without instantly ceased.
     The silence that followed this was perhaps the worst part of it, for all I could do was hover there in a state of near-paralysis, unsure whether my unwanted visitor had slunk off into the night, or was still present, contemplating another means of ingress …
Krampus, 2015

“It’s a grand-looking place,” Arthur said. “Can’t think what it’s doing all the way out here in the wilds of Derbyshire.”
     He reached for the knocker, but the door creaked open as soon as he touched it.
     They glanced through and saw an arched stone passage with low wooden beams across its ceiling. It ended at a flight of four broad steps, which led up into a living area. A rosy flush of firelight was visible up there, and a pleasant scent struck their nostrils, a combination of oranges and cinnamon, and something else – evergreens. The reason for that soon became obvious. The beams in the entrance hall had been decked for Christmas: alternating strands of ivy and holly had been woven around them. The only sound was a distant crackle of flames.
     To Arthur it was extremely welcoming, but Gabby had different ideas.
     Oddly, she began to tug on his arm, trying to draw him away. “We should go, Daddy. We should go right now.”
     He glanced down at her, puzzled by her worried frown. “What’re you talking about?”
     “I bet it’s the furry house,” she said.
     “It was in that book you got me. It said that out on the moors, when people are lost, the furry house comes and the people go inside and think they’re safe. And the furry house disappears, and they go with it. And they’re never seen again.”
     Arthur chuckled and tapped on the doorjamb with his knuckles. “Darling, this isn’t a fairy house. Look, it’s as solid as you and me.”
     “That doesn’t mean anything. They have to look real to trap people.”

I was walking back towards the colliery forecourt through the screens when I suddenly sensed what I thought might be another presence.
     All my fears and suspicions about this place came back to the fore, and it struck me hard that I was up here alone late at night. Not glancing left or right, I hurried across the hangar-like space, focusing on the dim rectangle of light that was the double doors at its far end. The mere thought of that terrible voice we’d heard the last time we were up here tempted me to run. At first, I resisted – when you run, it brings your enemy out into the open, and I wasn’t sure I could handle another headlong chase. But the icy darkness around me was filled with menace, and what did I have to look forward to when I got outside again? That barren track winding between clutches of skeletal, snow-covered ruins, the opaque mist in the Valley bottom, another scramble through the tangled woods. And of course, these weren’t just irrational fears. Pete’s eviscerated corpse was a vivid memory.
     Good Lord, were those footsteps I could hear? Was someone coming up behind me?
     “I’m right behind you,” a voice said.
     Or did it? Was it my fraught imagination?
     I went fleetingly hysterical, spinning around to gaze into the frozen blackness. I saw nothing, but still turned back and ran hell-for-leather the remaining ten yards to the doorway – only for a silhouetted figure to step into it and block my path.
     I screeched like a trapped animal. Trying to halt, I stumbled, fell, and slid forward on my knees. The figure stared silently down at me. It wasn’t tall, but it was bulky and misshapen with an immense, dome-like head …

Eric had long been a student of the supernatural, but he wasn’t keen on the Holker Hall mystery. After all, this wasn’t some spectral pussy cat with a cute purr, or a thirsty pub ghost who drew himself generous measures after hours and in so doing helped drum up custom. There was little to snigger at in this tale, and those members of the Bradleigh public who knew about it responded accordingly. The myth wasn’t known widely enough for the hall to be shunned; the Groves still played host to adventurous children and picnicking families, especially in summer, while the ornate old building was a source of architectural interest, but that was about it. Few went near the place at night, and none on Christmas Eve. These spooks didn’t just scare you; they signed your death warrant. It was only a story of course, but why take the chance?
     He still wasn’t sure if he believed it, though now, as eight o’clock came and went, then nine and finally ten, he was increasingly distracted from the drunken frolics in the banquet lounge to the opaque winter darkness. He could well imagine the miles and miles of frozen, unlit woodland lying between himself and civilisation. Once or twice, he thought vague forms were cavorting out there, though that was unlikely. It was way too early yet; the mummers were only supposed to emerge from the Groves at midnight. Of course, no-one could say for sure, because allegedly no-one had lived to tell …

“Something … something was in the road,” she stuttered. “It was like a snowman, only the most evil snowman I’ve ever seen.”
     “Come on, Roni,” Graham said, “how can a snowman be evil?”
     “It was grinning. Horribly. It had icicles for teeth, and its eyes were like human eyes – all crossed and bloody, like they’d been gouged out of someone’s head.”
     Rick and Graham listened to her, astonished, but by her flowing tears and bubbling nose, she was one hundred percent serious, at least in her own mind. Rick gazed along the driveway ahead of the skew-whiff Datsun. It was covered in rutted snow, but nothing else was visible. “There’s no snowman now,” he said, “unless you flattened it.”
     “I swerved to avoid it,” Roni retorted. “That’s why we got stuck in the snowdrift. Oh God, that thing was so hideous!”
     As Graham assisted her back towards the house, Rick scanned the surrounding trees. Moonlight shafted through them, cutting the frozen mist into spectral, knife-like forms. The snowy woodland floor bathed everything in eerie but beautiful phosphorescence. Picture perfect. But he pondered what Roni had said about the thing that had supposedly waylaid them – a snowman, for God’s sake. But even if it had only been an optical illusion, or the fantasy of an overwrought brain, it had given her a genuine scare. He wondered how he himself would react if he spotted some white, lumpen monstrosity shuffling through the frosted undergrowth, perhaps circling around to block his route back to the house.
     And he beat a hasty retreat.
The Stain, 2007

Another thought now struck him – an outrageous one.
     He turned again, rounding on the statue still standing in the aperture. Was it his imagination, or did it look slightly taller than previously? He approached until he was standing only a foot away. The last time here, he’d torn the ivy off to expose its face. That face now was hidden in shadow, its feature indiscernible. Alec leaned forward slowly until they were almost nose to nose.
     It opened its eyes.
     They were fiery red, their pupils tiny black beads.
     “Shit,” he breathed.
     It struck him, lashing out from the ivy it had hidden beneath. The blow caught him in the chest and sent him staggering backward – but not before he was able to point his Glock and get off three quick shots, all of which he was sure were dead on target, yet none of which appeared to have any impact.
     The thing sprang out completely from under its cowl of winter foliage.
     Alec saw a tall, misshapen form clad in the rags of old robes, its limbs wrapped individually with aged, mummy-like bandaging. He managed to regain his balance just inches before toppling backward into the well, and then they were facing each other again.
     Long, ratty hair hung past the thing’s ember eyes. A new smell filled the air: dampness, mildew.

On the far side of the table, Miss Scrivener’s shrunken form still slumped in front of the fire. Phil threw himself through the middle of the feast, knocking aside trays and trenchers, dishes piled with fruit, goblets and tankards. When he reached the diviner, he squatted beside her, placing fingertips on her sweat-damp neck. She moaned and shifted. More sweat beaded her forehead; her hair was a mass of rat-tails. Her eyelids fluttered but remained closed.
     “Miss Scrivener,” he coaxed her. “Come on … we’ve got to go, right now.”
     “Can’t …” she whimpered. “Can’t move …”
     “For God’s sake!” His voice tautened as he heard feet clumping back down the covered stairway. “Get your bloody arse moving!”
     This jerked her, if not quite awake, certainly out of her reverie. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he hoisted her to her feet and began pushing/dragging her from the fire. He couldn’t take her over the top of the table, so they had to go around the end of it, but at least it would be the western end, the one opposite the foot of the staircase. No sooner had they reached it, however, than figures emerged into view at the foot of that stair, and as Phil had now rounded the table and was heading back towards the door, they came fully into his eyeline.
     He tottered to a halt.
     There were shadows in the hall; firelight flickered. Perhaps all this was playing tricks on him. At the very least it blurred the detail of three mouldering, yellow-green forms, initially indistinguishable under the ragged, rancid drapery of what had once been burial clothing, though in two cases at least, age-tarnished plating clunked and clattered, the rusted chain below it hanging hollow and mud-brown on limbs shrivelled to sticks …


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 Ellen Datlow (2023)

Ellen Datlow is one of the most respected anthologists and editors currently working in the field of dark and fantastic fiction today. She won her first major award in 1989 and has clocked up so many more since then that it’s difficult keeping track. She is also famous for discovering numerous horror-writing talents and for flying the flag for short scary fiction at a time when far too many mass market publishers have tried to ignore it.

For this reason, among many others, any new Ellen Datlow anthology is an event, and this latest, Christmas and Other Horrors, a timely event indeed.

Before we dive into the contents, let’s first check out the publishers’ official blurb:

Hugo Award-winning editor, and horror legend Ellen Datlow presents a terrifying and chilling horror anthology of original short stories exploring the endless terrors of winter solstice traditions across the globe, featuring chillers by Tananarive Due, Stephen Graham Jones, Alma Katsu, and many more.

The winter solstice is celebrated as a time of joy around the world – yet the long nights also conjure a darker tradition of ghouls, hauntings, and visitations. This anthology of all-new stories invites you to huddle around the fire and revel in the unholy, the dangerous, the horrific aspects of a time when families and friends come together – for better and for worse.

From the eerie Austrian Schnabelperchten to the skeletal Welsh Mari Lwyd, by way of ravenous golems, uncanny neighbours, and unwelcome visitors, Christmas and Other Horrors captures the heart and horror of the festive season.

Because the weather outside is frightful, but the fire inside is hungry ...

Everyone, it seems, loves a good scary story at Christmas. So much so that it baffles me the high street booksellers aren’t crammed with them from October onwards. The explanation for why they mysteriously aren’t is another story entirely, but it should make us all the more grateful that globally renowned editor, Ellen Datlow, is here to save the day.

Datlow is already famous for her high-quality horror anthologies; there are almost too many of them out there to count, and she has covered a wide range of central themes, but this year, the festive chiller buffs among us will be delighted to learn that she has opted to put the Christmas season under her microscope.

Of course, Ellen Datlow being Ellen Datlow, you mustn’t come into Christmas and Other Horrors under the impression you’ll be reading about lunatic Santas stalking wayward housewives through their snowbound homes on Christmas Eve, or heralds arriving from their own distant past to warn their misbehaving descendants about the horrors awaiting them in future Christmases if they don’t mend their ways.

There are certainly elements of these to be found in this latest bumper crop of Yuletide terrors, and more than a few contributions that you’d classify as traditional in tone, but Datlow’s books are well-known for having real meat to them, and this one is no exception. These are stories from the literary horror stable, high brow efforts with plenty going on beneath the surface, in addition to which, the editor throws her net far more widely than might usually be the case with Christmas collections in terms of subject matter.

Yes, we do have mythical entities arriving on dark and snowy nights. Yes, we do get references to candy canes, plum puddings, stockings hanging over the fireplace, and other familiarities of the Anglo/American/Germanic festival, but in this book at least we are not solely talking about Christmas. The strapline for Christmas and Other Horrors is ‘A Winter Solstice Anthology’, and that is the key.

The Winter Solstice (which falls on December 21/22), has meaning in other calendars as well as the Christian one. In the Jewish faith, Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, falls between late November and late December, while in many worldwide belief systems now forgotten, the shortest day of the year also had portentous significance. The one unifying factor here of course is that all these holidays were and are grand events, believers gathering to worship, celebrate and enjoy each other’s company, and Datlow clearly sets out to be inclusive on all these fronts.

But even beyond this crossing of boundaries and entwining of cultures, the editor has clearly pressed her authors hard to hatch something deeper than usual when it comes to the meaning of the season.

Don’t be worried, though. While I’d say there’s only one story in this anthology that I consider to be truly terrifying, the vast majority will still, as the popular phrase goes, ‘creep you out’.

I won’t go through the entire Table of Contents (there are eighteen stories in total), because inevitably there are one or two tales in here that didn’t really land for me. But the lion’s share will happily darken any reading-night spent by the winter fireside. I won’t go into too much detail for fear of giving away spoilers.

First of all, I’m always slightly biased towards the traditional. I won’t deny it, and I’m glad to say that, for all the lovely writing and thoughtful subtext that remains on show throughout, Ellen Datlow has still included a whole bunch of rattling good Christmas yarns that you can easily see making it into some future Best Christmas Spook Stories edition.

To start with, in Christopher Golden’s eerie chiller, The Importance of a Tidy Home, two homeless guys are fascinated by a mysterious group of shadowy beings who prowl the snowy Twelfth Night streets wearing plague masks, apparently taking it personally if they visit any house in an untidy state. In a similar tone of home invasion horror, Richard Kadrey’s The Ghost of Christmases Past presents us with a modern suburban woman, who lives in stark fear of the mythical Christmas Eve child-eaters that inhabit so many legends, and who every year, nails her house up, even though it is slowly but surely driving her husband crazy.

In two stories you could certainly classify as ‘warnings from beyond,’ the fear factor goes up several notches. In All the Pretty People, Nadia Bulkin hits us with an annual party, which turns progressively nastier when a guest arrives from the afterlife. This is a particularly strong entry, which benefits from some very neat, tight character-work, though for my money, the best story in the entire anthology – and yes, it’s probably the most traditional of them all – is M. Rickert’s Lord of Misrule, which sees a disturbed teacher haunted each Christmas by the spectre of an uncontrollable child. Not a word is wasted in this ultra-dark bone-chiller, though the concept is broad enough to spin a Christmas horror movie out of it.

Meanwhile, the two entries that are probably most ‘Tales from the Crypt’ in tone are The Ones He Takes, in which Benjamin Percy tells the tale of an abducted child, who returns home one wintry Christmas Eve and stutters out a terrifying story about a Father Christmas that no youngster alive today would recognise, and Nick Mamatas’s The Blessing of the Waters, in which a convict breaks out of jail, desperate to continue the Epiphany sacrifices that he is certain will keep the local goblins at bay.

Of course, the supernatural isn’t the only thing to fear when the end of the year comes around. Even beyond the world of dark fiction, there is a flipside to Christmas. While others are having fun, some very decidedly aren’t. Jollity all round can only enhance the suffering of those less fortunate than ourselves. On top of that, there are strange aspects to Christmastide, which don’t always boast wholesome origins, or necessarily reflect well on those who indulge. Good will to all men is not always at the heart of it.

Ellen Datlow doesn’t skimp here either, adding several of what I’d call psychological horror stories to the line-up.

In Our Recent Unpleasantness by Stephen Graham Jones, a paranoid suburbanite becomes convinced there is a real, malevolent presence in his middle-class neighbourhood, but is it all in his head? Likewise, and this is a very strong entry in the book, in Kaaron Warren’s Gràve of Small Birds, a mean-spirited celebrity chef visits a remote Irish island for a winter solstice festival, but her inner viciousness will be her undoing. And then we have legendary author, Tananarive Due, who in Return to Bear Creek Lodge, once again takes us deep into the heart of a dysfunctional family. In this one, an innocent youngster dreads his annual Christmas trip to the woods to see his grandma in her creaky old house. She’s an aged tyrant (a genuinely horrible one), but the curious creature she keeps company with is even worse.

The last story I want to mention here probably defies categorisation, but it’s so pertinent to the world today, and such an original idea, and so all-round scary, that it could easily get snapped up for a big-budget movie adaptation. I’m talking about Gemma Files’s No Light, No Light, in which eco-terrorists plan to use thermite charges to blow open a semi-dormant volcano and thus reverse the pattern of global warming, but in so doing they release an ancient power.

What you’ve essentially got with Christmas and Other Horrors is a bunch of expertly crafted, adult-in-tone fairy tales set in or around the ‘happiest time of the year’. Please don’t misunderstand; it’s not sad or depressing or in any way negative about or disrespectful of the holiday season. It’s redolent with festive atmosphere, but it’s got lots to say that may not always be comforting (as did Dickens, of course), and it offers a varied range of macabre interest, often of a sort you won’t have encountered in Christmas fiction before, and yet all of which fits perfectly into the seasonal mold. 

Probably best to get it soon, though. Time is rolling on and the goose is getting fat.

(The wonderful painting of the giant skeletal thingy in the wintry woods is by that master of the grotesque, Boris Groh. The other images were found online with no notice of ownership attached; in any of these cases, if the original artist would like to make him or herself known to me, I will happily add that information to the blog, or if required, take the picture down).