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 ...


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:


     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.”
     “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:


     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).


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).


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.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Blood, violence, love and mayhem - for 98p

 Here’s something that may be of interest to fans of medieval action/fantasy. My 2012 novel, DARK NORTH, published by Abaddon Books, will be available (in its ebook incarnation) at the one-day-only price of 98p on Wednesday December 11.

DARK NORTH was originally commissioned as part of the MALORY'S KNIGHTS OF ALBION series, the aim of which was to tell grand tales about the adventures of King Arthur’s lesser known knights. In my case, I focussed on Sir Lucan, the Black Wolf of the North, a fearsome, at times pitiless warrior, who held Arthur’s northern frontier, where all kinds of battles were required to be fought against Picts, bandits and of course those countless cthonic monsters, who, driven out of the heart of the kingdom, had now found a home in the forests and mountains of its wild fringes. Indeed, the book opens with Lucan’s hunt for the infamous Penharrow Worm – a colossal serpent that has been eating sheep, cattle, villagers, you name it – which gruesome scene hopefully sets the tone for what is to come.

Of course, it isn’t just monsters that Lucan has to deal with. Thanks to his upbringing at the knee of his father, Duke Corneus, a terrifying, facially-scarred figure, who ruled these lands as cruel tyrant in the days of Uther Pendragon, the young Warden of the March is now in a constant struggle with his own inner demons. He is a fearless soldier in the cause of Camelot, but a dark inner-personality always lurks close at hand. For much of the time this is kept in check by the fine example and wise counsel of his king, his squire, Alaric, his brother, Sir Bedivere, and his beautiful wife, Trelawna. The ordinary folk living in his thrall thus trust him, and his own knights are resolutely loyal. But when the newly reinvigorated Roman Empire, under the control of the outwardly charismatic but secretly insane Emperor Lucius, looks to win back the lands of the British, an epic war commences.

Lucan is called up to fight, as are all the Knights of the Round Table, but for him the conflict soon becomes very personal – when his beloved Trelawna, tired of her husband’s dark and dangerous moods, flees to the arms of her lover, a Roman officer in Lucius’s gigantic army. Lucan, deeply humiliated, gives full vent to his wrath. Not only will he slay his way to his treacherous former love, and punish all those responsible for her seduction, he will punish her as well – possibly to the ultimate extent. And yet this won’t be easy, because the aristocratic family Trelawna has now attached herself to are the dreaded Malconi clan – renowned for their powers of sorcery. At the same time, Lucan's best friend, Alaric, who has always loved Trelawna from a distance, has determined that, whatever happens, however deceitful she has been, she will never die by her own husband's sword ...

As I say, DARK NORTH can be yours (the e-version, and for one day only) for just 98p, on December 11.

(The book was originally available under both the images shown here, but only for a brief time. The one at the top was finally settled on as the preferred cover).

Monday, 2 December 2013

Change in Heck plans: Nice Guys to return

Two big items of news on the Heck front this week. First of all, check out the picture on the left. This is the cover the first Heck novel, STALKERS, will be released under in Germany, having been translated by Johannes Sabinski.

Its German title is MADCHENJAGER, and it will be published by PIPER VERLAG on April 14, next year, a date I now can't wait for. (Watch this space for news on other foreign language releases. STALKERS has also sold to Poland, Hungary and Turkey. More info on those as soon as I get it).

Now for the second item of news, and this one really is a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT with regard to the Heck novels here in the UK. The Heck title scheduled to be published third in the series over here was HUNTED. Originally this was slated for launch in February next year. However, those who follow the link will notice, and possibly be confused to see, that the publication date for HUNTED has now been delayed until 2015.

First of all, if you've already pre-ordered this book, don't fret. All pre-orders will still be fulfilled - but in 2015, not next year as was originally planned. If you think that's a long time to wait for the next in the series, don't worry on that score either. Two more Heck novels will still be published next year. The first of these, THE KILLING CLUB will be released next May.

The reason for this is simple. THE KILLING CLUB, originally scheduled to be fifth in the series, features round two between Heck and the Nice Guys. There was such demand for this among readers of the first two novels that a decision was recently reached on the top floor at HarperCollins to fast-track the next Nice Guys installment to the front of the queue.

So there you are. There is nothing more sinister in it than that. But just for clarity:

HUNTED will still be published, but in May 2015, and all pre-orders will be honoured then. In the meantime, the next book in the series, THE KILLING CLUB - in which the mass kidnappers/rapists/murderers known as the Nice Guys return to torment Mark Heckenburg all over again - will be published in its place, in May 2014.


On a much sadder note now, I'd like to pay my respects to the very fine writer and editor, JOEL LANE, who died last week at the tragically young age of 50.

Joel was a personal friend of mine, but also a valued colleague, and without doubt one of the finest authors of his generation. He specialised in telling bleakly poetic urban horror stories, yet his fiction was most noteworthy for its warm heart and social conscience. Only this year he won the World Fantasy Award for his incredible collection of tales, WHERE FURNACES BURN. Joel taught me much about the business of writing. As an editor, he chose several of my earlier stories for inclusion in his anthologies, while as an editor myself, I had the honour to feature Joel's masterful chiller, The Silent Dance, in my 2012 anthology, TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS.

Joel's untimely death has shocked an awful lot of people and torn a huge hole in Britain's dark fiction community, which, if I'm honest, may never be repaired. Though I don't think he'd want us to view it that way.

Thanks for all your help and friendship over the years, Joel, and for your own wonderful, disturbing and yet ultimately uplifting contributions to the genre. Thankfully they are many, so we'll always have those to remember you by. But we will miss you, mate ... in a big, big way. 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Horrors of war meet the horrors of winter

In the midst of all this recent chatter about novels, novellas, TV series and themed anthologies, here's a little bit of info from the slightly less glamorous (though equally dear to my heart) world of the short story. It's a bit belated, in actual fact - both these bits of info have being doing the rounds for the last couple of weeks, but I've now at last made space to mention them.

First of all, I should offer my congratulations to US editor, Danel Olson, for the incredible success enjoyed by his anthology EXOTIC GOTHIC 4, which won the World Fantasy Award for 2013 in the capacity of Best Anthology at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton two weeks last Saturday. Danel is a smashing bloke and a thorough and meticulous editor, and this award couldn't have found a more deserving winner.

I'm also pleased about this news, because a story of mine features in EXOTIC GOTHIC 4, from PS PUBLISHINGOeschart is a tale of mystical and supernatural terror set just to the rear of the Allied front-line during the Passchendaele advance in 1917. Of course, the book contains a host of other cracking stories as well. Check out some of these names - Adam Nevill, Robert Hood, Steve Rasnic Tem, Terry Dowling, Anna Taborska, Simon Kurt Unsworth, Reggie Oliver and Stephen Volk - and they are not by any means alone in there. Well worth taking a chance on, this antho, trust me. And in fact, the more of you who go for it, the more chance there is Danel will be persuaded to do EG6 and maybe EG7. Who knows? EXOTIC GOTHIC 5 is already out, in two volumes no less.

In other short story news, but still on the subject of wartime horror, I'm happy to brag that another short story of mine, Reign Of Hell, has been published in the e-anthology, WORLD WAR TWO CTHULHU from games company Cubicle 7 this last month, and edited by living legend Jonathan Oliver (the book is pictured above right). As you can imagine, these are Lovecraftian mythos tales, but each one with an authentic World War Two setting. My own tale is set in Peloponnese, when fascist forces were terrorising the Greek populace. But the entire panorama of WWII is covered. Among a variety of other stories, we get glowing efforts from such luminaries of the pen as James Lovegrove, Weston Ochse and Lavie Tidhar. Again, get in there. If you like short, terrifying tales, you won't be disappointed.


For those still toying with the idea of buying the e-version of my Victorian Christmas novella of 2011, SPARROWHAWK, it is available for only 99p for another four days. At midnight on Sunday 24th November, it reverts to its normal price of £2.07. If nothing else, it it ought to get you in the mood for the festive season, especially if you like your Yuletide ghost stories. But don’t take my word for that. Online reviewers have thus far called it “a paradox from history, beautifully crafted” and “a perfect Christmas read”.

Here are a couple more excerpts, today with less of a Christmassy feel and more of the ghoulish (after all, SPARROWHAWK is also a tale of love, hate, war and, hopefully, redemption):

LETICIA turned to face him. She smiled again, but it was a wintry smile. “This is my lot, John. My eternity. But it consoles me that I earned it in your service.”
     “My service? I … I don’t understand.”
     “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.”

HE STRUGGLED violently and gibbered for mercy as he was wrestled onto the trapdoor. Up close, for Sparrowhawk and Miss Evangeline had managed to get a good position, Keggs was rather simple looking, with a low-slung brow, buckteeth and jug ears. He croaked in despair, his terrified eyes flirting left and right as the white hood was pulled down over his head. The executioner fixed the noose in place and, as the tolling bell ceased, stepped back and pulled the lever. The baying of the mob rose to a crescendo as the trapdoor swung down and the prisoner dropped.
     He tilted sideways as he descended, smashing his face against the edge of the trap, before spinning down to the end of the rope and jerking to a halt – he twisted and gurgled for several minutes, the front of his white hood turning slowly crimson, but eventually hung still.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Putting the spirit into the season of chills!

From 8 o’clock tomorrow morning, the e-version of my 2011 Christmas ghost novella, SPARROWHAWK, will be available at the one-week-only price of 99p. The truth is, it isn’t hugely expensive now at £2.07, but it only seems fair, with Christmas at last in the offing, that we try to make it even more affordable – if only for a relatively brief time.

For those not in the know, SPARROWHAWK tells the tale of damaged Afghan War veteran, John Sparrowhawk, who returns to London in 1843, to find his wife dead of a broken heart and his bank accounts empty. Struggling with shellshock and tortured by regret, lonely soul Sparrowhawk attempts to make good, but is soon incarcerated in the debtor’s prison, from where there appears to be no escape. His life is all but over, until December arrives, and he is visited in jail by the beautiful and enigmatic Miss Evangeline, who offers to pay his debt in return for an unusual favour – he must stand guard over a house in Bloomsbury for the duration of the Christmas period, and yet at no stage alert the family living there to his presence.

Sparrowhawk undertakes the odd but seemingly simple work, until it becomes apparent that a unseen foe is slowly encroaching on the address in question. As the coldest Christmas in living memory descends on London, Sparrowhawk finds himself pitted against a deadly and relentless enemy, who apparently has supernatural forces as his beck and call, and will not hesitate to use the most personal methods by which to torment and persecute his opponents.

That’s enough for now. No more spoilers, but expect angels and demons, ghosts and goblins, monsters and murderers – all wrapped up in festive Victorian packaging.

As I say, the SPARROWHAWK ebook (some 40,000 words in length, so hopefully you’ll feel you’re getting your money’s worth) will be available at 99p from tomorrow morning at 8am, for one week only.

Here are a couple of snippets:

SPARROWHAWK returned to his rooms, closing and locking the door behind him. He wondered briefly about the assailant in the bathhouse and how strange it was that he too had vanished without trace. And then he spotted the large bold message, which, in his brief absence downstairs, had been inscribed on the wall above his fireplace. He approached it slowly, eyes goggling – before going around the rest of his rooms like a whirlwind, searching every nook and cranny but finding nothing. He checked all his windows, but they too were locked. Outside, the streets were deserted. Scarcely a track – either of man, animal or cartwheel – was visible in the crisp new blanket of snow.
     On legs so shaky they could barely support him, Sparrowhawk moved back to the fireplace. The message had been made by a finger dipped in ordure or blood, or a foul mixture of both …

A MARBLE font, filled with ice, was clasped in the hands of a life-size marble angel. Both objects were scabrous with age, riddled with fissures. The angel, who, by her shapely form, was intended to be female, had suffered the most. 
     Her face was black and had crumbled to the point where it was unrecognisable – though, just fleetingly, Sparrowhawk fancied there was something familiar in it. He shook his head, baffled by the illusion. In the cathedral meanwhile, the choir had switched to another carol:

God rest you merry Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay;
Remember Christ our Saviour,
Was born on Christmas-day …

(PS: If anyone hasn't guessed, the image of the two zombie snowmen at the top is in no way connected to SPARROWHAWK, though the book does have a demonic snowman sequence in it).

Saturday, 9 November 2013

So who's gonna play Heck on the screen?

Here is something that may amuse a few people, particularly those who've become regular correspondents on the subject of my two crime novels, STALKERS and SACRIFICE, published earlier this year.

On and off since those novels hit the shelves, I’ve been approached by readers about whether there will be a TV or movie adaptation, and in that event, who I would like to see cast in the lead roles of Detective Sergeant Mark Heckenburg and Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, former boyfriend and girlfriend, now turned fire and water as they work together in the Serial Crimes Unit, an elite Scotland Yard division charged with pursuing repeat violent offenders across all the police force areas of England and Wales.

Well, I must stress that to date there is no screen adaptation in the works. There have been whispers at a semi-official level, but as we speak there is no development money on the table and nobody as yet is talking about whether it would even be possible, never mind who we’d like to see in the roles of the two lead characters. So this is nothing more than a bit of FUN. It’s just me casting my eye over the various names suggested to me by readers, and my own thoughts on the matter.

For Heck …

Damien Molony is best known for his recent roles in BEING HUMAN and RIPPER STREET. He’d be a good choice in my view. It has been pointed out to me that Damien is only 29, whereas Heck is 37. Could we age him a little? Could we rough him up sufficiently? I think so. Damien isn’t the biggest guy, but I’ve never envisaged Heck as a brawny bruiser. To me he’s more an everyman figure, who gets knocked around at least as much as the bad guys do, but as Damien showed in BEING HUMAN, he can do ‘deadly’ when he wants to.

Tom Hardy is an actor I have a great fondness for, particularly as he was approached to play a character of mine in a low-budget horror movie called VOODOO DAWN, which was on the brink of preproduction a couple of years ago, only to fall by the wayside for various insurmountable reasons. On top of all that, age-wise, he’s bang-on. The trouble is that Tom’s a big name these days, having appeared in numerous Hollywood movies, and we couldn’t possibly afford him for a TV production. How would I feel if we could? I’d be over the moon. Some have said he’s a touch on the 'brawny bruiser' side, but with an actor like this, who’d complain?

Thomas Barrow is best known for his appearances in CORONATION STREET and DOWNTON ABBEY – neither could be further from the in-yer-face antics of Heck. But you know what – good call! The right age, the right look, the right place of origin (the northwest of England). After the Machiavellian but sedate goings-on in Downton, this would be a big change of pace for Tom Barrow, but I reckon he’d do it. Anyone fancy asking him?

For Gemma …

Melissa George is an Aussie screen siren of high-standing across the movie-making world. She’s the right age, and has exactly the right look. She can also act, and would easily be able to handle the English accent; she can do the action stuff too – as she has proved in umpteen movie and TV horrors and thrillers. Whether we can afford her would be another matter, but quite simply, I’d be over the moon if Melissa signed on the dotted line.

Kym Marsh is the former pop singer turned soap star. But she also hails from my home town of Wigan, which is already massively in her favour, plus she’d be exactly the right age, and boy, would she have the right no-nonsense attitude. Could she convince us all that she’s a senior police detective running one of Scotland Yard’s most elite but also most rumbustious special investigation units. I’d be happy to give her the chance (course, were it to actually happen, it wouldn’t ultimately be my choice).

Rhona Mitra can currently be seen in the explosive military action series, STRIKE BACK, in which she plays a real tough cookie and a highly organised spec-ops supervisor who can never be outwitted. Well, on that basis what is there not to like? That is Gemma all over, especially as Rhona is a native Londoner (like Gemma) and is exactly the same age (37). A big thumbs-up for me on this choice.

Various other suggestions have been made, but none of them really work for me. For Heck: Phil Glenister (too old, too associated with Life On Mars), and Ken Stott (way too old!). For Gemma, Gwyneth Paltrow (sorry guys, but Gemma Piper is working-class Cockney, not Los Angeles high society. “Yes of course, Gwyneth, we’d love for you to be in this new series. Would we mind if you played it as an American? Anything for you, dear.” Not on my watch … of course, I can afford to be so harsh with one of the best and sexiest actresses on the planet because I know there isn’t a cat in Hell’s chance of her ever wanting to appear in a role like this, mainly because it’s only ever likely to appear on British television. In the unlikely event she did, I’d snatch her bloody hand off).

(By the way, the amazing image at the top, the one in the subway, obviously and in no way represents any Heck movie or TV series. Unfortunately, I can't even offer a credit for it as I have no idea where it originates from. Needless to say, if its owner has an issue with it appearing here, he or she need only let me know and I'll take it down).


On a slightly different matter, another question folk keep asking me is which of my pieces of written work most gives me satisfaction. The answer is always the same: SPARROWHAWK, my ghostly Christmas novella of 2011.

I'm not going to give you the outline, because you can find that all over the internet, but suffice to say that it's a tale of love and war, angels and demons, ghosts and goblins, all of which, I hope, are flavoured by the Yuletide aura. It was born from my childlike love of Christmas, my lifelong interest in the Victorian era, and my fascination with the human condition in relation to the afterlife, religious and non-religious beliefs and our mysteriously universal notions about right and wrong. And hell, I'd be lying if I didn't also mention that it also stems from my utter adoration of the traditional Christmas ghost story.

Okay ... I can already hear a couple of you muttering that you've already read SPARROWHAWK and know what it's about, and that I've endlessly plugged it in this column. Well, sorry guys, but you're going to have to indulge me just a little bit longer, because I'm now about to take advantage of a new promotional deal with Amazon, and from 8am on the morning of Monday November 18, the  e-version of the book will be available at the one-week-only price of 99p (though it's not uber-expensive now at £2.07)..

Even if I say so myself, if anyone hasn't yet sampled SPARROWHAWK, I think you'll enjoy it, especially now, with the season of good cheer just around the corner. Here're a couple of teensey snippets to hopefully set the atmosphere:

CHRISTMAS WEEK was approaching, of course, and London was dressing itself properly for the occasion. The markets and bazaars, particularly around Soho Square and the Pantheon, were decked with evergreens and crepe paper, and laden with wares of even more questionable quality than usual – from the feathers of rare birds to artificial flowers, from second-hand books to alabaster ornaments, from hand-me-down trinkets to hand-me-down clothes. On the great shopping boulevards like Oxford Street and Bond Street, a higher standard of commodity was on offer; the perfumeries boasting an array of exotic oils and creams; the tobacconists replacing their commonplace clay pipes with cigar cases, meerschaums and snuff boxes; the milliners, the lace sellers, the glovers, the hosiers, the drapers all displaying their most sumptuous finery. 
William Hamley’s toy shop, the famous Noah’s Ark of High Holborn, was a particular wonder to behold, its candle-lit windows filled with ornate figurines formed from sugar and candy and wrapped with colourful foil, or made from wood and clockwork and painted in the Germanic fashion – all drawn from myth, magic and pantomime: soldiers, wizards, fairy queens, harlequins, ogres, witches. Numerous small children, buried in fur and velvet, their caps and bonnets pulled around their frost-nipped ears, their mittened hands clasped tightly by parent or governess, gazed pink-faced in wonder through the mullioned glass ...

THE ELF made no move, and when he got close he saw why. It wasn’t a real man, but a marionette. It was life-size, but its face and hands were carved from jointed wood and had been crudely painted. Its body and limbs were suspended by strings, which rose towards the ceiling but were there lost in dimness. It was also – and this was perhaps the most disquieting thing of all – a close representation of his father.
     It seemed that Doctor Joseph Sparrowhawk, the one-time academic, philosopher, publisher and pamphleteer – was now little more than a comic mannequin. Its head lay to one side; its eyes were glass baubles containing beads designed to roll crazily around. Its chin and nose were exaggerated – Punch-like, in the tradition of the season – but the lank white hair was the same, the white side-whiskers were the same, the prominent brow, the small, firm mouth …