Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Checking out those spooky rites of spring

One question I was asked a lot after the second novel in my DS Heckenburg series - SACRIFICE - was published last year, was why, of all four seasons, I opted to set it in the spring. Surely autumn and winter, with their creeping mist and long dark nights would provide a more suitable backdrop for a tale of kidnap, torture and human sacrifice?

Well ... there's no escaping the bright sunshine and flowery meadow stuff when it comes to spring. But the truth is that, as SACRIFICE followed Heck's investigation into a series of grotesquely theatrical murders, each one seemingly designed to commemorate (or mock!) some special feast-day in the calendar, the earlier part of the year gave us a much more varied choice of occasions.

I mean okay, I cheated a little bit by commencing the horror on Christmas morning, which can hardly be classified as spring, but of course the killers got to work fast, and as the weeks rolled by, with the cops getting no nearer, the body count rose and the blood ran red among the daffodils and crocuses.

While researching all this, I was literally spoiled for choice by my range of spring options. As we're now into that time of year again, I thought it might be of interest to assess a few of these with the advantage of hindsight.

Lenten feasts like Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, or special saints' days like St. Patrick's Day (March 17) and St. George's Day (April 23) are all well-known of course - being mainly of religious origin - and the history behind them doesn't really need explaining (though the killers in SACRIFICE tend to make their own distinctly irreligious interpretation of each and every feast). But that isn't the whole story.

Did you know, for example, that Valentine's Day (February 14), while ostensibly a celebration of the early Christian martyr, St. Valentine, also draws many of its traditions from the Roman feast of Lupercalia, at which time men would parade the city dressed as wolves, carrying whips and howling, seeking to drive away the evil spirits of winter; at the same time, girls and women hoping to improve their fertility would stand outdoors and demand a whipping (!!!), which most of them, I'd imagine, received. Or how about All Fools Day (April 1), which is only one of several medieval festivals of fools, though this particular date is believed to have been fixed upon due to a mistranslation of Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale, a mock epic filled with satirical fallacies (the horror potential of this oddball holiday has already been explored several times in the movies).

And then there are those lesser known spring feasts, such as Candlemas (February 2), Beltane (April 30) and Royal Oak Day (May 29). The first of these concerns itself with the presentation of the Baby Jesus at the Temple, but is also a Christianisation of Imbolc, a pagan Celtic celebration of the goddess, Brighid, a benign but powerful figure, who was believed to visit the homes of worshippers on this date, and had to be greeted with gifts of food, drink and bedding (or else?) - this was a popular occasion for corn dollies, divination and the like. The second of course, is the big Gaelic and Wiccan May Day festival - the blood-letting potential of which has been hugely exaggerated by horror writers and film-makers over the years (though it seems likely the maniacs in SACRIFICE had watched The Wicker Man at least once). And the third honoured the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, and featured as part of its 'fun and frolics' the tying up with nettles and pelting with rotten eggs of any person deemed to have Republican sympathies or even found without a sprig of oak leaves on his or her person.

We all know about the Ides of March (March 15) on which Julius Caesar was famously assassinated, but have you ever heard about the Ides of May (either May 13 or 15, depending which piece of fiction you are reading), when the Romans celebrated Lemuralia, a festival in which the terrifying Lemures - or 'unsettled dead' - would grant boons from beyond in return for a ritual slaying (usual of the human variety, but only if said victim was very important, like a captured prince or general).

Interesting stuff, eh? Well, if you haven't read SACRIFICE yet ... I know, sorry, this sounds so like a shameless plug for the book, but there actually is an awful lot of stuff there relevant to this kind of thing. So if you're interested in the many and varied (and sometimes quite spooky and gruesome) rites of spring, now wouldn't be a bad time to check it out ... especially with blossoms outside the window and bluebells in the woods, and mysterious energies just waiting to burst out from the rich, re-energised and blood-sodden earth.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

More journeys into darkness, but what fun

 A rarity to kick off with this week - details of a new short story shortly due to be published.

For a long time I've been an avid short story fan, both as writer and reader. It used to be the case that I wasn't happy if I didn't see at least one of my short stories published every month. The demands of the Heck novels and various film and TV projects I'm developing mean that I haven't got anything like sufficient time to pen so much short fiction these days, but now and then it is nice when a gap in the schedule comes along and I can quickly jot down another short trip to terror, though it's often the case that I have to target my market carefully, or maybe respond to a specific invitation.

I was very happy therefore, when Trevor Denyer - a very busy editor back in the 1990s (the much lauded 'Golden Age of the British Small Press'), and the master of all he surveyed at ground-breaking horror magazines like Roadworks and Midnight Street - asked me if I'd be interested in writing something for a new anthology he was putting together.

The finished book, which is due for publication in the very near future, is MIDNIGHT STREET: JOURNEYS INTO DARKNESS, pictured above, which looks as though it will be a very fine collection indeed (it'll be out both in print and e-format). I don't have a full table of contents for it yet, but these are the contributors and their stories that I do know about (in no particular order):

After The Party by Gary Couzens; Again by Ramsey Campbell; Amen by Simon Clark; Dead Man's Handle by Stephen Gallagher; Lapland, Or Film Noir by Peter Straub; The Spoils by Joel Lane; When They Come For You, They'll Look Normal by Ralph Robert Moore; En Saga by Nina Allan; The Return Of The Pikart Posse by Rosanne Rabinowitz; No Such Thing As Sin by Paul Finch; Traffic by Elliot Smith; Creeping Blue by Allen Ashley.

I have it on Trevor's authority that more names will join this list in due course. My own contribution, No Such Thing As Sin, is a brand new piece concerning weird events at a lonely house on the outskirts of Atherton, one of the most desolate corners of Greater Manchester. I'll post publications details as as soon as possible, so keep an eye open for those.

In other news, I had a marvellous couple of days last week in the company of Lars Schafft and Silke Wronkowski from the KRIMI-DOUCH.DE website in Germany, a massive operation catering mainly to the European thriller and crime fiction market. The back-story to this is pretty simple. The first of my Mark Heckenburg novels, STALKERS, will be published in Germany by Piper next month, under the title MADCHENJAGER. The Heck series has also been sold to Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Japan, but Germany is currently the scene of most overseas activity - apparently there is a lot of interest and pre-sales have been very good. So much so that the guys from KRIMI-DOUCH.DE came all the way over to Lancashire to see me. We were together two days and I gave them several interviews on video (see above), which of course I will post links to as soon as they are available.

As always, I was shamed by my German visitors' faultless knowledge of English when my own German is so poor (not to say non-existent). But In addition, Karl and Silke were great company and hugely knowledgeable - not just about the crime and thriller scene, but about my own work, which was fascinating and flattering at the same time. Personally, I can't wait to see the interviews once they've all been edited together, and I'm hoping to meet Karl and Silke again in the near future.

Last week was fun for all kinds of reasons. I also attended a literary lunch at the Caledonian Club in West London, at the invitation of THE LADY magazine whose very attentive audience was keen to know all about my crime-writing. This was an amazing experience: the environment was sumptuous, the food exquisite, and the company convivial. I said beforehand that I never expected the grim investigations of Detective Sergeant Mark 'Heck' Heckenburg to attract the interest of a cultured mag like THE LADY, with its very refined readership, but I was wrong. I gave my spiel, which seemed to go down well, and then participated in a lively question and answer session.

My thanks go to all the staff of THE LADY and the Caledonian Club (two of whom quietly told me they'd read my stuff and enjoyed it - result!), to ANNABEL GILES, who was my charming hostess for the day, and to D.E. MEREDITH and ANNA HOPE, my fellow writers and guests at the event.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

A literary lunch with some special ladies

To anyone popping onto this blog regularly, I can only apologise for the lack of posts in recent weeks. I've been astoundingly busy.

Not only did I surrender my Christmas break to dive into TALES OF TRENZALORE, the new Dr Who epic from BBC Digital, but I had to deal with a structural edit for THE KILLING CLUB, the third outing in my new series of Heck novels (published on May 22 this year), then I had to outline the fourth in the series - as yet untitled - and, after that, write a first draft screenplay based on a new fantasy/horror idea of mine that has recently caught the interest of a major Hollywood producer.

If all that sounds tremendously exciting, you're right ... it is. But it's also been massively time-consuming and has left almost no space on the schedule for twice-weekly or even bi-weekly bloggage.

However, I think it's vital to take time out to report on events now and then, so here we go ...

With the worst of the winter weather (hopefully) falling behind us, I'm shortly about to embark on the conference and convention trail for 2014, and will be starting out in March with an event that marks a real first for me.

I'm hugely flattered and honoured to have been invited as a guest to a literary luncheon hosted by THE LADY magazine at The Caledonian Club in London. This is going to be a lot of fun, I can sense it already, though I don't really know what form it will take - a brief presentation between courses, followed by questions and answers, I imagine.

Previously I'd have thought THE LADY, Britain's oldest weekly women's magazine, would be a universe away from the violent streets and blood-spattered urban passageways prowled by Detective Sergeant Mark Heckenburg, but I'll actually be one of three guests on the day, and one of the other two, D.E. MEREDITH, (pictured left) author of the compelling Hatton & Roumande series, is also a thriller and mystery writer, so I guess that could be one of the themes of the event. The other guest, meanwhile, is ANNA HOPE, an actress well known for her startling appearance in Dr Who (as pictured at the top, and without the special FX make-up below right), but whose debut novel, Wake, tells a very different story from that in which she was famously feline - it's an emotional and beguiling tale about the painful aftermath of war.

I'm not sure what the attendance situation is, but anyone interested in going can investigate ticket availability HERE. Hopefully I'll see some of you there.

On other matters this week, I've a few bits and bobs of interesting news to report.

First of all, my congratulations go to writer NINA ALLAN, whose amazing and terrifying story, The Tiger, which first appeared in TERROR TALES OF LONDON last year, will appear in Ellen Datlow's BEST HORROR OF THE YEAR #6. I remember being hugely impressed by that story the first time I read it in my capacity as editor ... I don't think I'd ever felt so affected by a sense of decadent evil and immorality. Anyway, I'm really glad to see Nina get this nod of approval. Thus far that brings Year's Best selections from last year's Terror Tales books to five, as Anna Taborska, Marie O'Regan, Mark Morris and Stephen Volk will all be going into other volumes, with The Bloody Tower, Someone To Watch Over You, The Red Door and The Magician Kelso Dennett respectively (and the contents of other 'Best Of' volumes are still to be announced).

On this same subject, those who follow this series will be interested to know that the next edition, TERROR TALES OF WALES, has now been delivered for typesetting. Such is the tightness of schedules these days, that it won't be available for pre-order for a few weeks yet - most likely it will be published in mid-April - but I think I can safely predict it'll be worth the wait.

Lastly, I mentioned TALES OF TRENZALORE at the top of this column. Well, I've had quite a bit of mail about that. It's due for release on 27th of this month, and it includes brand new Who novellas by Mark Morris, Justin Richards, George Mann and myself, but if you want any more info before then, you might be interested in an interview on the subject I did with THE TIME WARRIORS website. That can be found HERE.

Thanks for bobbing in, as always. More updates soon.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Ice-cold terror as the Autons march again

I’m over the moon to report that I’ve renewed my association with the greatest long-running British television show of all time.

DR WHO, has gone from strength to strength to strength in the last decade – which still seems like a miracle to yours truly, who watched and worshipped the show all through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and then was horrified and bamboozled when it suddenly got the chop – and now in 2014, only 25 years later (a matter of heartbeats to a Time Lord), there appears to be no limit. With each new twist and turn in the never-ending story, there seem to be all manner of fascinating spin-offs, creating adventure on adventure for that mysterious traveller in time and space known only (still known only, it would seem) as The Doctor.

I, for one, could not be happier, and as such over the last few years have been honoured and proud (and more delighted than I can say) to add my own chapters to the saga in the form of short stories, novels and full-blown, full-cast audio dramas.

Now I’m going piling in again with a novella, as part of a truly fascinating project. Here’s the back-story:

It was shortly before Christmas when I was approached by BBC Digital and asked if I’d be interested in participating in a new collection of four e-novellas entitled TALES OF TRENZALORE: THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR'S LAST STAND, the central feature of which would be the Matt Smith Doctor’s 900-year battle on the desolate ice-world of Trenzalore, defending the isolated town of Christmas against the collected scum of all the galaxies, each novella to concentrate on his clash with a different deadly enemy.
  
And this was the trick – these enemies had to be genuinely DEADLY, as in major-league opponents from the Doctor’s past, hard-hitting foes who previously had pushed him to the absolute limit.

I mean seriously, what more could a writer ask for? It was an invitation I accepted straight away, especially on learning that my fellow contributors would be MARK MORRIS, JUSTIN RICHARDS and GEORGE MANN, a legendary crew in their own right, whom no fan of Dr Who, sci-fi, fantasy or horror fiction would be unfamiliar with.

Even though the festive season was right upon us, we all got to it pretty quickly. Justin was the first guy to lay claim to a beastie, if I remember rightly – opting for the Ice Warriors, while George followed quickly with the Krynoids. When Mark put his ticket in for the Mara, this still left a wide range of choices for me, including the Who enemy I found most nightmarish of all; not just the first time I first saw them in 1970, when they broke out of shop windows in the guise of showroom dummies, but the second time in 1971, when they dressed as holiday camp mascots and wielded murderous plastic flowers, and perhaps most memorably of all when they provided the first opponent for the all-new 9th Doctor in 2005.

Yep … it was the Autons, the murderous plastic mannequins manipulated by that indefinable alien force, the Nestene Consciousness.

And … well, that’s about as much as I’m really allowed to say, because it wouldn’t serve any purpose to give away too many spoilers at this stage would it? Suffice to say, the finished Table of Contents reads as follows:

Let it Snow - by Justin Richards
An Apple a Day - by George Mann
Strangers in the Outland - by Paul Finch
The Dreaming - by Mark Morris

And here’s the official online blurb:

As it had been foretold, the armies of the Universe gathered at Trenzalore. Only one thing stood between the planet and destruction – the Doctor. For nine hundred years, he defended the planet, and the tiny town of Christmas, against the forces that would destroy it.

He never knew how long he could keep the peace. He never knew what creatures would emerge from the snowy night to threaten him next. He knew only that at the end he would die on Trenzalore.

Some of what happened during those terrible years is well documented. But most of it remains shrouded in mystery and darkness.

Until now.

This is a glimpse of just some of the terrors the people faced, the monstrous threats the Doctor defeated. These are the tales of the monsters who found themselves afraid – and of the one man who was not.

TALES OF TRENZALORE: THE ELEVENTH DOCTOR'S LAST STAND is released on 27th February this year, initially as an e-book only, though it is entirely possible a print edition may follow at a later date. I shall keep you informed as and when that story unfolds. But you’ll need to keep checking back here. So it’s all in your hands … 


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Old enemies return in THE KILLING CLUB

Just time for a last bit of quick news before we all slack off for the Christmas holidays ("yeah, some chance!", I can hear you saying - don't worry, I know that feeling too).

Anyway, just to cheer you all up, here is an early draft of the cover for the next Heck novel, which will be published in May 2014.

As mentioned, THE KILLING CLUB details the return to Britain of the most vicious gang Heck has tangled with to date - the Nice Guys, a ultra-ruthless bunch of one-time mercenaries and kidnappers, whose main source of income is the international rape club they operate. For the right price, a client can have any woman he wants - and do anything he wants to her - and the Nice Guys will clean up the mess afterwards.

Those who follow this series, published by Avon Books (HarperCollins), will know that Scotland Yard-based Detective Sergeant Mark 'Heck' Heckenburg first encountered these felons in STALKERS, and though there was something of a sort-out, as we say up here in the Northwest, their firm wasn't completely broken.

It was always my plan to bring the Nice Guys back again - how could I not? - but while this novel was originally scheduled to come fifth in the series, there was such demand from readers and reviewers to see 'round two' between Heck and these reprobates that a decision was taken on the top floor at Avon to fast-track it forward - and hopefully it won't disappoint. THE KILLING CLUB is now written and working its way through the editing stage. But I think I can honestly say, hand on heart, that this is the most action-led of all the Heck novels to date, with a exceptionally high body-count. As usual, the action takes us from one end of the country to another, and takes in a variety of real life locations. In some ways, it's more of a revenge thriller than a police procedural, but obviously I don't want to say too much about that yet for giving away too many spoilers. Perhaps I'd better shut up and let the back-cover blurb do the talking:

Take the most memorable detective since Luther, the dark wit of Stuart MacBride and the action of Lee Child. Add brutal, vicious murders, and brace yourself as you turn the pages of a living nightmare. Welcome to The Killing Club.

Stalkers ended in a bloodbath. Countless people were dead; DS Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg was seriously wounded. And whilst the ringleader of The Nice Guys – the kidnap and rape gang he’d been pursuing – is behind bars, Heck knows that this depraved organisation stretches far beyond UK shores.

It’s time for Heck to end this once and for all. When brutal murders start happening across the country, Heck knows the Nice Guys are at work again. But having been so close to the case the first time, Heck’s life is now in serious danger and he is put into protective custody for his own safety. However, soon weary of watching from the sidelines, Heck breaks out.

He goes after the Nice Guys, hunting them down in his own inimitable ‘lone wolf’ way, either killing or arresting them. But even greater forces are at work here, as Heck is about to find out …

Just in case you're wondering, the publication of the novel originally slated to be third - HUNTED - has only been delayed, not cancelled. HUNTED, which has already been written, will now be released in 2015, not 2014. Those who've already pre-ordered it, please don't be concerned. Your orders will still be fulfilled.

Okay, that's it for now. I'm very pleased to be able to share the artwork we have thus far. Please feel free to spread it far and wide, and keep checking back here for updates and progress reports.

In the meantime, if I don't reappear on here before next week, have a merry Christmas and a very happy New Year.

Friday, 13 December 2013

MIDNIGHT SERVICE: a festive spook story

Well, it's almost that time of year again - only a few shopping days remain but most of us are still stuck in front of computers and can't yet get out there to start cutting evergreens and stocking our Christmas booze, so I thought this a useful moment to post my annual Christmas spook story. 
     This is a tradition I've fallen into over the years, rather than consciously sought out. But what can I say other than I love the festive ghost story? It's one of the highlights of the season for me, so it's a custom I'm going to re-invoke every year, if possible. 
     This Christmas I'm posting a 2012 story of mine called MIDNIGHT SERVICE, which has never been published on the written page - not as yet - but first appeared this time last year on the HarperCollins thrillers blog. It seemed to go down very well at the time. If you didn't get to see it then, and you've got 20 minutes or so to kill, now's your chance. Hope you enjoy ...


MIDNIGHT SERVICE

It wasn’t snowing heavily but it was sufficient to cover the ground, and Capstick couldn’t suppress an ironic grin. Every December, people hoped and prayed for a white Christmas, yet whenever one happened, the entire infrastructure of the United Kingdom seemed to fall apart. Offices closed early, trains got delayed and now, it seemed, bus journeys were cancelled.
     “It’s more than my job’s worth to continue tonight,” the chubby driver had announced after unexpectedly pulling off the main trunk road somewhere between Derby and Macclesfield, into a town whose name Capstick hadn’t managed to catch. “We can’t possibly risk these surfaces any more, and apparently the weather’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
     Beyond the open entrance to the station garage, flakes fluttered down like dove feathers. Yet the crisp layer they’d formed on the roads and pavements was only carpet deep. God help us if we lived in Canada or Siberia, Capstick thought.
     “Hey, whoa … I know it’s a problem!” the driver added, turning defensively pink at the chorus of groans. “No-one wants this on Christmas Eve. I’m stuck here too. But it’s my backside on the line if we have an accident. The company will do its best to fix you up with lodgings, but this bus can’t go any further tonight.”

     Capstick, now trudging away from the coach station with satchel slung at his shoulder, had not bothered waiting to see what the company managed to come up with. No doubt some soulless motel on a motorway lay-bye, with no bar, no restaurant and next to no staff. It would be just about bearable any other night of the year – and at the end of the day he probably didn’t have a lot of alternative tonight either, but for the moment he was too angry to think straight let alone stand around in that drab waiting-room and make polite conversation with people he didn’t know.
     But whichever town he’d been marooned in, it wasn’t especially prepossessing. He’d expected it to resemble most other provincial towns at ten-thirty on Christmas Eve: hung with garish illuminations, crammed end-to-end with shouting, fighting, vomiting revelers. Well, the decorations were here, but the moronic mob wasn’t. The streets were eerily empty as he prowled them; even the strands of multi-coloured lights zigzagging back and forth overhead and the snow crunching underfoot failed to create an atmosphere of cheer. There was an indelible dinginess about the buildings; they were old, sooty, and of varied shapes and styles, with no apparent thought given to the elegance and order that usually earmarked modern town-planning. Shops, factories and apartment houses stood side by side along every thoroughfare, all closed, all teetering over Capstick’s head as he proceeded up steep, narrow alleys or down flights of winding, icy steps, his breath smoking, his fingers turning numb despite his woolen gloves.
     Nowhere did he see a hotel sign or even a bed-and-breakfast, though God alone knew what any such accommodation would be like in this dump. Not that he’d had a great deal to look forward to anyway, if he was honest. It had been Gretchen’s idea that he go and spend Christmas Day in Manchester, though he didn’t know why she was so adamant about it. His family never had a pleasant thing to say about her, even though they hadn’t once met her. Marlene would give him her usual frosty reception. His kids were now fourteen and sixteen, so it wasn’t as if they needed their daddy present. But even if they did, Tabby was a teen terror whose aggressive selfishness infuriated him after just a few minutes (though Marlene seemed willing to endure any amount of it – which was probably half of the problem), while Tommy was a boorish oaf who had inherited right wing views from somewhere and yet never had any arguments to back them up.
     On the subject of Gretchen, Capstick tried to call her for the third time, but again there was no answer. It wasn’t particularly late – she would still be out with her friends, partying. He couldn’t help feeling sour about that. He’d always known that getting involved with one of his students had the potential to create this kind of situation; her wanting to trip the light fantastic and him preferring to sit in front of the TV. She was no longer a student of course, but that age-gap was still there. An ugly thought occurred to him about why she was so ready to spend Christmas without him, but he shook it from his mind. The bigger problem at present was the cold. Never having expected to be outdoors, he was only wearing a lightweight jacket over his shirt. His trainers were already caked with ice crystals, which were fast melting through the rubber and canvas, soaking his socks and feet. It was pure good fortune that he had gloves, but they weren’t much protection in truth. He’d wandered for quite some time by now, and probably wouldn’t even be able to find his way back to the coach station. He glanced around, feeling more than a little concerned, but no fellow pedestrians were abroad to ask. The steadily falling snow muffled all sound, so even if there’d been someone on a nearby street, he wouldn’t necessarily hear them. The occasional car swished by, but they were few and far between.
     Capstick walked on, entering a small square, on the other side of which stood a row of spike-topped railings with an open gate in the middle, giving through to what looked like a yard enclosed by high buildings, though down at the far end of it a light was moving. It was only a glimmer; from this distance it looked like someone carrying a lantern. As Capstick watched, the clotted blackness down there split vertically as more light spilled through an opened door, widened further to admit the outline of a figure, then narrowed again and winked out. A faint thump was heard.
     He approached the railings and peered across the yard. The building at the far end looked vaguely churchlike. It was too dark to see any real detail, but its roof was vaulted and there was a spire of some sort. Before he knew what he was doing, he was walking down towards it. Capstick hadn’t been into a church for as long as he could remember, and had no religious beliefs. In fact, there was a time when he’d badmouthed Christianity at every opportunity, calling it “abusive superstition” and preferring to ignore the good things it did, such as the provision of charity and shelter. Not that he was going to ask for either of those things now – good God, he wasn’t that far gone! – but he could use some directions, and it wouldn’t hurt to go indoors and get warm for a few minutes.
     A high stained glass window on the right implied he was correct about the ecclesiastical purpose of this place, though there was no light behind it, making it look grimy, while several of its panes appeared to be missing. On the left, he passed what looked like a small memorial garden recessed between cliff-faces of brickwork. A central statue grinned at him from beneath a veil of icicles. One stone hand clutched an upright spear; the other extended forward, also covered in snow, but pointing downward.
     When he reached the main entrance door, he saw a slogan painted in black on the whitewashed bricks above its lintel:

GOD IS JUST

     Capstick turned the handle and shoved the door open.
     He was confronted with a long, bare corridor lit by weak electric bulbs. The floor was flagged; the walls and ceiling made from painted plaster, which was much cracked, and festooned in its high corners with clumps of dust-thick cobweb. At the far end, a female figure passed from sight through a half-open door.
     Capstick stayed where he was, snowflakes gusting past him. The woman had been wrapped in a shawl and wearing a floor-length skirt and a coal-scuttle bonnet. Period costume? That seemed odd, though just now it didn’t really matter. He closed the door, blocking out most of the bitter cold, though his breath still puffed in discernible clouds. To his left, there appeared to be a kind of porter’s lodge, its open door exposing a row of empty coat-hooks. A little further along there was another door; warily, he advanced and glanced through it. This room boasted a white-tiled floor, clean metal surfaces and racks of gleaming utensils. He’d never heard of a church having a kitchen before, but maybe this was one of those all-in-one places, church and church-hall together.
     He wandered further along the corridor, passing another entrance on the right, beyond which a dark, narrow stair led upward, and approaching the door at the far end. When he pushed this, it swung open on a much larger room, which again made him think he was in a church-hall. Its peeling plaster walls were covered with dog-eared notices and wads of age-yellowed paperwork. At one end, some kind of stage had been set up: a low wooden platform with a green baize curtain drawn across it. About ten rows of stiff-backed wooden chairs were arranged to face this, none currently occupied, though on a nearby shelf there was an old oil-lantern, possibly having just been deposited there by whoever Capstick had seen enter.
     He ventured forward a few yards.  
     The room had been decorated for the season. Swags of evergreen were looped around the walls at just above head-height. A tall Christmas tree occupied one corner, hung with variously coloured baubles, bits of tinsel and streamers. More clusters of seasonal greenery were draped over the backs of each chair, while a lengthy sideboard down the left-hand side, no doubt a repository for teacups and plates of biscuits on normal occasions, had been laid with a crimson cloth and sported a dignified centre-piece: a large holly wreath sprouting four lighted candles. Pleasant enough, but Capstick couldn’t help thinking it all a little tatty. This stuff had probably been stored in cardboard boxes for the last twelve months, no doubt in some dismal attic. He half-expected a spider or cockroach to emerge from the nearest bunch of mistletoe.
     As he pondered this, the baize curtain twitched.
     “Oh, hello?” he said, edging his way through the chairs towards the stage. “Look, I’m sorry for the intrusion, but I was wondering if you could help me?”
     There was no response, but the curtain twitched again. Someone was definitely there.
     “Hello?” Capstick repeated. Still there was no reply. Cautiously, he reached for the curtain.   
     “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 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.”
     “I wasn’t asking for a bed,” Capstick replied hastily. “I’m perfectly willing to pay for a hotel … if you can put me in the right direction to find one.”
     “I’m not sure many of our local hotels will be open at this hour, Mr. … ?”
     “Capstick … Ronald Capstick.”
     The vicar nodded. He didn’t offer his own name.
     “None will be open at all?” Capstick said skeptically.
     “By all means walk around the town and have a look, but we don’t get many visitors here.”
     Can’t imagine why, Capstick thought.
     “As I say,” the vicar added, “we can accommodate you.”
     Capstick glanced across the hall to a row of three tall, arched windows – snowflakes swirled in the black tumult beyond them. This probably wasn’t the sort of offer he should turn down without at least some consideration.
     “For a small indulgence,” the vicar added.
     “Sorry … indulgence?” It immediately struck Capstick how shortsighted he’d been to have mentioned he had cash.
     “I don’t mean money,” the vicar explained, eerily, as if he was a mind-reader. “The fact is you’ve arrived here just in the nick of time, Mr. Capstick. Christmas Eve is the occasion of our annual miracle play. This year, as every year, we’re presenting the tale of the Derby Ram.”
     “Derby Ram?” Capstick was vaguely fazed by the odd turn in the conversation.
     “It’s a local story, so it doesn’t surprise me that you haven’t heard it. Doubtless there are different forms of mummery in your own town?”     
     “Doubtless.” Capstick didn’t know whether there were or weren’t.  
     “The Derby Ram tells the tale of Old Tup, a magical ram, who brought great fortune to a poor farmer and his wife. But we are a little short-handed this year, so if you were to participate …?” The vicar regarded his guest with deep interest, though up close his eyes were so cloudy and jaundiced that it was amazing he could see anything.
     “Excuse me?” Capstick said. “You’re saying you want me to be in your play?”
     “The ram is the easiest part. It has no lines.”
     “You want me to appear as Old … ?”
     “Old Tup, yes. It’s a simple thing, I assure you. All you’ll need do is wander up and down the stage in costume, behaving like, well …” those brown teeth again, “a beast of the field.”
     “And that’s all I have to do?” Capstick meant the question to be ironic.
     “It’s a small thing, but it would mean a great deal to our audience.”
     Capstick glanced at the still-empty rows of seats. “Which will be who?”
     “The orphans, of course.”
     Capstick looked at him askance. He hadn’t realised that words like ‘orphans’ were still in use, but that wasn’t his main source of puzzlement. “It’s almost half past eleven. Isn’t that rather late to be putting on a show for a bunch of children?”
     “Christmas Eve is special, Mr. Capstick. The miracle play is the precursor to our traditional midnight service.”
     “Oh, yes, of course …”
     The vicar’s interlaced hands clenched until they were knots of sinew and bone. His stained eyeballs bulged in their sockets. “I beseech you to consider this. Christmas is all about giving, as they say.”
     “Yes … sorry if I seem hesitant. I haven’t done this sort of thing very often.”
     “Oh dear.”
     “I don’t mean the giving bit. I mean …”
     “I understand.” The vicar’s thin lips worked together. He looked too disappointed for words.
     “But I don’t suppose it can hurt,” Capstick added, thinking he must be mad but asking himself what else he’d be doing with the remainder of his evening; it didn’t seem likely they’d have satellite television here and he’d almost finished his paperback during the bus journey.
     The vicar’s face broke into another brown-toothed grin. “Excellent … truly excellent. You’ll find a bedroom you can use at the top of the stairs. I’ll have your costume sent up.”
     “You’re sure I’ll only have to walk around on stage?”
     “And dance a little.”
     “Dance?”
     “To amuse the orphans. A dancing animal. A comic thing.”
     Capstick’s thoughts strayed to pantomime cows, pantomime horses – tediously unfunny icons of the annual festive farce. Horrendously embarrassing. But at least his face wouldn’t be seen. He glanced at his watch; it was twenty to twelve. “What time do we start?”
     “In ten minutes.”
     That was a relief. If the show had to wrap up before Midnight Mass, it couldn’t last for very long.
     “I’d better get a move on,” Capstick said.
     “Yes, freshen up, as the saying goes. Oh, and when you come back down, Mr. Capstick, use the back staircase. Wouldn’t want you to come in through the actual audience.”
     “Of course. Any particular reason?”
     “In your costume? Highly unprofessional.”
     Yes, because otherwise they’d think we were in the West End. Not that Capstick particularly wanted to jostle a path through a crowd of unruly urchins.
     “No problem. The back stairs.”
   
      But the front stairs presented problems enough. They were steep, creaky and unlit. He stumbled a couple of times as he ascended, on one occasion only his splayed hands preventing him landing face-first on the bare timber treads. It was only a little better on the next floor, where dim bulbs revealed another long passage, large patches of naked brick exposed where the plaster had rotted away. He regarded its numerous doorways helplessly; some were closed, some open. None gave any clue as to whether he’d find a bed inside them, though clearly there was someone else up here – because a whistling smack, the sound of a short, sharp impact, sounded from somewhere close by.
     Several more such impacts sounded at regular intervals, and Capstick almost blundered over the edge of another staircase, even narrower, darker and steeper than the first – the ‘back staircase’ he supposed – before he finally traced their source to the door at the landing’s farthest, dimmest end. When he pushed this one open, frigid streetlight filtering through a tall window revealed what looked like a long-disused schoolroom: a blackboard still with faint chalk etchings upon it; several all-in-one desks and chairs; a tall stool in a corner, where dunces once sat. Nothing stirred save a few threads of twisting dust. Thinking he’d made a mistake, Capstick crossed the passage to the door on the other side, but this opened on a more cavernous and yet equally desolate space. The window at its far end was arched and contained fragments of stained glass. Its floorboards were sprung and its central aisle crisscrossed by fallen beams. If there was a faint, rasping snicker from some unseen corner in there, Capstick chose to ignore it.
     He backtracked along the corridor, now seeing that another room stood open and that light shone out from it. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed it before, but when he glanced inside, he saw six iron-framed beds, three ranged to each side. One had been made up with a mattress, pillow and blankets. On inspection, these proved to be fresh, while the room, though basic – bare floorboards, bare plaster – was at least clean.  
     Capstick closed the door, dumped his satchel and crossed to the window. Decades of dead flies lay along its sill, but beyond it billions of flakes danced over the chimneys and black, slanted roofs. Directly below lay another snow-filled yard. A narrow passage led off from it, a barred gate standing at its far end. He half expected to see a coach-and-four trundle by on the other side, but in fact an ordinary Bedford van drove past, reminding him that normal life wasn’t too far away – if he could just get through tonight’s nonsense.
     There was a sound outside his bedroom door: a low whispering. He turned, expecting a knock. Was this his curtain-call?, he wondered without enthusiasm. But no knock followed. Instead there was another of those rasping snickers. Irritated, he strode across the room, but before he reached the door he heard the dull thunder of smallish feet scampering away. When he yanked the door open, there was no-one on the landing. Presumably this meant the orphans had arrived. As he closed the door again, he supposed he ought to be feeling more charitable: homeless kids, abandoned kids – ‘undomiciled’ was probably one of the in-phrases these days – Christmas Eve was bound to be an exciting time for them. A special show and then Midnight Mass. Yeah, great. Perhaps they’d get a tangerine each as a real treat.
     There was a loud knock.
     “Okay, the joke’s over,” he said aggressively, leaping back to the door and lugging it open.
     Again the landing was deserted, but now the door opposite stood ajar, and what looked like a mass of dirty lamb’s wool hung from its handle. When Capstick examined it more closely, he realised this was his costume. The fleece was real, and by the size of it, had come from a fairly hefty animal, but it was also rather repulsive: it smelled of sweat and was odiously stained, while the headpiece was crude and synthetic, a stitched cotton hood onto which additional fragments of fleece had been fixed with heavy staples. The same applied to the twisting plastic horns attached one to either temple. When Capstick tried it on, it was very uncomfortable, the hood tight, the staples pressing hard against his scalp, and the eye-slits too small for him to see out of them clearly. With a grunt, he wrestled it off, and in his efforts, brushed against the half-open door, which now opened all the way.
     Beyond it was a long room, again weakly lit, but with a rack of old clothing hung down its centre. At first Capstick wondered if these were other costumes, before realising that they were more likely give-aways: suits, dresses, jackets and coats, all shabby and rather grubby, though no doubt they’d be dry-cleaned and pressed before being donated. There were also several shelves: the highest was laden with hats, the two lower ones crammed with shoes and boots. And then he saw something else: an old signpost leaning against the wall near the window. It was clearly ancient, its timber uprights rotted clean through, its main placard so blistered by damp and eaten by moss that its flaking letters were almost indecipherable:

    CK  RTH GREEN
UN ON
WORKHOU E

     Amazed, he backed out onto the landing – where he found that several of the lights had failed, including those over the main staircase and in the room where he’d be sleeping. At least, he assumed they’d failed. He doubted there was a timer in a forgotten pile like this. Either way, they’d plunged all but his immediate surroundings into blackness. Not that it mattered. He’d already decided there was no way he could spend the night here. Once this fiasco downstairs was done, he’d say his goodbyes and go looking for the nearest police station. If they couldn’t put him in the direction of a motel, no-one could. He groped his way to the top of the back staircase, the ram’s costume bundled under his arm, and, determined not to listen out for any other odd sounds from the derelict chapel, descended as hurriedly as he dared.
     But it was ludicrously dark. There didn’t seem to be any windows down there, not even small ones. On one hand this shouldn’t surprise him: he knew all about the old workhouses and how they’d been designed to be as uncomfortable as possible, to deter all but the most desperate poor; but on the other hand, if someone insisted on re-adapting one of those aged buildings for more modern use, was it asking too much that they update it a little? At the bottom of the stairs, he blundered into a damp, musty hanging – and only when he struggled past that did he at last see light: Christmas firelight shimmering around what looked like tall sections of flat, theatrical scenery. He shrugged his ram’s costume onto his shoulders as he sidled his way through. Somewhere ahead, he could hear whispers and titters of anticipation. It seemed the audience was in place.
     Then a woman stepped into his path.
     He recognised her as the woman he’d seen earlier. Her costume was rustic Victorian – that ground-length skirt, that shawl, that coal-scuttle bonnet from beneath which wisps of stringy, metal-gray hair protruded. But like Reverend What’s-His-Name, she was incredibly old, her face wizened as desiccated leather, her mouth a toothless, crumpled maw, her eyes milky, sightless orbs.
     Capstick didn’t know what else to say. “Erm … hello.”
     She simply stared at him – if she could even see him, which he doubted. He realised that someone else was talking.
     “… the ever popular Christmas Eve custom …” came a muffled voice.
     “Excuse me.” Capstick shouldered past his comatose fellow-thespian, and found himself a position from where he could see onto the stage. The green baize drapes had now been pulled aside and a row of candles – a fire hazard if ever he’d seen one – flickered along the front of the stage. Rev. What’s-His-Name was already out there. He too had donned rustic period attire: a doublet, breeches and heavy boots, with a leather apron worn over the top. He stood with one foot on a block of wood, as he continued his address.
     “… of the Derby Ram.”
     There was no immediate response, and Capstick wondered if this was supposed to be his cue.
     “Of the Derby Ram!” What’s-His-Name said again, with a hint of impatience.
     Hastily, Capstick pulled the odorous hood down over his face, but before he could fix it properly, a firm shove between his shoulder-blades – presumably from the old woman – sent him tottering out onto the stage. Immediately, there were titters and snickers from the auditorium, though Capstick could see almost nothing beyond the immediate pall of dusty candlelight, partly because the mask was so ill-fitting, but also because all the other lights in the hall had been turned off. The audience was present, however – when he looked closely, the candle-flames glinted green and scarlet from a plethora of Christmas baubles and ornaments. He imagined the young hoodlums pillaging the decorations as they came in, using them for necklaces, earrings, hats.
     “Ahhh … and here he is.” What’s-His-Name held out a hand of welcome.
     Capstick moved awkwardly forward. As he did, a dull, squeaky music track commenced: something very folksey, played on an accordion, but clearly an ancient recording as it was fogged by scratches, crackles and a repeating agonised hiss rather like a life-support machine in a hospital.
     What’s-His-Name started to sing in a creaky, warbling tone, telling the tale of a journey to Derby, during which a ram was encountered, “the finest fed on hay”.
     Remembering what he was supposed to be doing, Capstick began a clumsy dance, to which there were renewed titters and chuckles. Thank God no-one here knew him. Otherwise, he’d never live this down. Even so, he capered back and forth across the stage, attempting to stay in time with the music.
      What’s-His-Name continued his nonsense ditty, describing the bovine wonder as standing at least ten yards tall. Capstick still caught only fleeting glimpses of his surroundings, so he didn’t notice that a third person had come onto the stage until he almost barged into her: it was the old woman. She was dancing too, but more elegantly than he was, arms outspread, skirts swirling as she turned delicate pirouettes. She was remarkably lithe given her age, though an explanation for this struck him as he blundered away from her. In fact it was rather obvious. She was in costume too – as the farmer’s wife. That hideous, hag-like visage was almost certainly a mask.
     Meanwhile, What’s-His-Name continued to spin his ludicrous tale, extolling the virtues of a brute whose skull was so broad that a pulpit might be built there from which a parson could preach, and now taking Capstick by the hand and leading him towards the front of the stage. Capstick went meekly, still unsure what he was supposed to do, though cautious of getting too close to the naked flames; he imagined this musty old costume would go up like a Roman candle. As the reverend gentleman went on to describe how the ram, when stood with legs athwart, could cover four whole acres of land, he pressed down on Capstick’s shoulder. Feeling even more foolish, but eager to comply and get this awful experience over, Capstick went down on all fours. It was because he couldn’t see clearly that he head-butted the wooden block on the floor.
     “Damn!” he grunted, and at the same time, from the corner of his eye, spotted the old woman twirling gracefully along the front of the stage towards him with something shiny in hand.
     What’s-His-Name was now singing about a butcher’s boy being drowned in blood.
     But Capstick wasn’t listening. He didn’t at first believe the thing the old woman was carrying was a real knife – and then he saw its edge gleaming, and he reacted in kneejerk fashion, springing up from his supine position and retreating from the pair of them. The music immediately ceased. Hisses and snarls sounded from beyond the curtain of candlelight. There was a rustle of sharp movements; festive baubles glittered.
     Capstick wrenched off the headpiece and hurled the costume on the stage. “What the hell is this?”
     “Why, the tradition of the Derby Ram, Mr. Capstick.” What’s-His-Name’s sickle grin split his face from ear to ear, the palsied flesh wrinkling back as if this too was no more than a clever mask; his brown peg teeth looked inches long. “And its ritual slaughter.”  
     The old woman came on swiftly, the knife, curved and gleaming, raised above her head. Capstick spun and fled towards the wings, to an immediate accompaniment of banging, scraping chairs in the auditorium. Beyond the theatrical flats, he spied a low flight of steps with a door at the bottom. The rumble of dozens of feet on the stage spurred him down towards it. Beyond that lay a warren of dingy brick passages, again only half-lit, caked with dust, strewn with rags and bones. He blundered madly, turning left and right, feeling an icy breeze on his face but uncertain which direction it came from. Another door appeared. He dashed through it into a lengthy wainscoted room where several benches and trestle tables had been laid out as though for dinner, though there was no tablecloth, no napkins – just gnarled wooden surfaces, two-pronged forks and sharp, serrated knives. Fleetingly, Capstick recalled a question he’d unconsciously put to himself upstairs: if the chapel here was derelict, where was the midnight service to be held?
     Now he knew – because it clearly wasn’t going to be a church service.
     With hisses and cackles echoing in the corridors behind, he fled across the room, knocking tables and benches askew. At the far side was yet another door. This one opened on a large entrance hall, its flagged floor wet from the recent passage of multiple feet, snowflakes blowing along it. Glancing right, Capstick saw why: beneath a heavy stone arch, it opened to the outside. Thanking God, he ran in that direction, screaming for help … only to realise, once out there, that he’d made a drastic mistake. 
     Enough star-lit snow crusted the upturned earth, leaning headstones and fallen, ice-crabbed angels to reveal three high walls hemming him in.

     He turned and backed away, half-stumbling, only vaguely aware that he mustn’t fall into any of the muddy cavities yawning on every side. As they milled out from beneath the arch to encircle him, he realised he’d made another mistake. The green and scarlet glints from the auditorium had not denoted candle-flames reflecting from their Christmas baubles – but from their eyes.

Copyright  - Paul Finch (December ) 2012

If you're a fan of short horror fiction, and if you enjoyed this story in particular, I have no hesitation in recommending the various short story collections I've had published over the years. Here's a quick sampling: DON'T READ ALONEENEMIES AT THE DOORONE MONSTER IS NOT ENOUGH, WALKERS IN THE DARKGROANING SHADOWSGHOST REALMSTAINSAFTER SHOCKS and THE EXTREMIST. If you prefer your horror stories to have a historical flavour, you could do worse than check out MEDI-EVIL 1MEDI-EVIL 2 and MEDI-EVIL 3 or if you're a lover of traditional Victorian Christmas chillers you might even fancy my ghostly novella of 2011, SPARROWHAWK.

(The artists behind the images are as follows: the gargoyle comes to us courtesy of Gothking 85, the old stairway from James Charlick, the snowy street from Catching Candid Moments. I'm afraid I was unable to find a name or tag for the skilled lensman who shot the graveyard). 

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Sample the terror this Christmas morning

If anyone still hasn’t done their Christmas shopping and they know a loved one who prefers his/her festive treats served up with a real dose of genuine chills, there is every possibility the TERROR TALES series I’ve edited for GRAY FRIAR PRESS in the last few years might well be of interest.

Here’s a quick round-up of the sort of stuff we’re offering. As you’ll see, we’re not just talking run-of-the-mill ghosts and goblins.

Check some of these out ...

In TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, you’ll find deranged clowns, murderous dolls, maniac innkeepers, dancing fiends, winged monstrosities and invisible horrors pursuing lone travellers along perilous cliff-tops. (Authors include Ramsey Campbell, Adam Nevill, Simon Clark, Reggie Oliver, Carole Johnstone and Peter Crowther). 

In TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS, you’ll find restless gods, pitchfork murderers, troglodyte cults, hunchbacked revenants, human sacrifices and phantom rapists who aren’t particularly partial which gender they pursue. (Authors include Alison Littlewood, Gary McMahon, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Ramsey Campbell, John Llewellyn Probert and the late Joel Lane). 

In TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA, you’ll find walking dead men, killer gargoyles, immigrant werewolves, scheming witch-finders, shape-shifting eel-folk, and feral dogs with a taste for human meat. (Authors include Reggie Oliver, Roger Johnson, Alison Littlewood, Steve Duffy, Gary Fry and Mark Valentine). 

In TERROR TALES OF LONDON, you’ll find doors to darkness, plague-ridden spectres, fallen angels, unholy rituals, movies that induce madness and formless things in dismal, airless garrets. (Authors include Christopher Fowler, Nicholas Royle, Nina Allan, Adam Nevill, Mark Morris, Barbara Roden and Anna Taborska). 

In TERROR TALES OF THE SEASIDE, you’ll find voracious sea-beasts, cannibal hordes, demons drawn in sand, homicidal kids, detachable faces and rotted, hellish hostels filled with souls of the damned. (Authors include Stephen Laws, Stephen Volk, Sam Stone, Ramsey Campbell, Gary Fry and Simon Kurt Unsworth).

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Just in case medieval action-fantasy is your thing rather than contemporary horror, don't forget that my 2012 novel, DARK NORTH - concerning the emotionally torturous quest of King Arthur's most vengeful knight, Sir Lucan, the infamous Black Wolf of the North - will retail in ebook form for only 98p for the entire duration of tomorrow (December 11).

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Also, for future reference, keep checking this blog in the days that come between now and Christmas. I'll be posting a festive horror story of mine, MIDNIGHT SERVICE, which made its debut (and its one and only appearance to date) on the HarperCollins thriller website this time last year. Anyone interested who missed it last time, this will be a quick chance to catch it again.