Sunday, 21 December 2014

Another year, another bunch of evil killers

Well … there’s all sorts to talk about as we close out 2014, which has been yet another year I won’t forget easily. But I’m aware that it’s almost Christmas and you’ll have lots of other more important things to do than sit here dreaming alongside me, so I’ll try and make this quick.

First of all, check out the image on the left – that’s the final cover for HUNTED, which is my next novel in the DS Heckenburg series. After Heck’s forced isolation in the wilds of a wintry Lake District during DEAD MAN WALKING, fans may be relieved to know that in this next book he’s back on the Serial Crimes Unit beat, looking into another series of weird deaths, now in the less rugged but somehow no less dangerous environs of genteel Surrey. HUNTED is published on May 7 next year, but is available for pre-order now if you’re dead keen.

Here is the official blurb from the back of the book …

Across the south of England, a series of bizarre but fatal accidents are taking place. So when a local businessman survives a near-drowning but is found burnt alive in his car just weeks later, DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is brought in to investigate.

Soon it appears that other recent deaths might be linked: two thieves that were bitten to death by poisonous spiders, and a driver impaled through the chest with scaffolding.

Accidents do happen but as the body count rises it’s clear that something far more sinister is at play here, and it may have Heck in its sights next …

On the subject of Heck and new covers, here is the next cover in the German series, published by PIPER as SPURENSAMMLER. These are really marvellous editions – my German is unfortunately poor, but I know a damn nice book when I get one in my hand. And how about that title? Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? This of course is Heck 3, as many people are now referring to it. Over here it was published as THE KILLING CLUB, but I’m reliably informed by my German pals that this German title translates as CLUE HUNTER. Interesting stuff. Works well for me.

Still on the subject of new covers, we now have the next in the series of WHOLE STORY AUDIOBOOKS spoken-word adaptations taken from my collection of 2013, DON’T READ ALONE. This is GRENDEL’S LAIR, which is possibly the darkest story in the book, and is likely to be the one that will appeal most to Heck fans, as it’s a cop story with a very grim and murderous subtext. As usual, it is read by Jonathan Keeble, who’s done an amazing job so far with the previous tales from the book – THE OLD NORTH ROAD and THE POPPET. Follow the link to find a brief snippet, as read by Mr. Keeble. Below is the short official blurb:

Gordon Grimwood, a suspected murderer, leads a bunch of cops into a network of derelict air-raid shelters to find a missing child – where a hideous evil awaits them!

And now for something not entirely disconnected to this.

Earlier in December I was interviewed by the MASS MOVEMENT website ("bringing madness to the masses since 1998"), on the subject of the inspiration behind my career choices and ultimately my writing. Given that it focusses largely on pop type interests – books, graphic novels, movies, music, TV and so on, I use the opportunity to chat about my lifelong interest in hard rock, and how that’s helped me focus on the material I’ve since brought to the written page. If so inclined, follow the link to read the full article.  

2014 has also been a damn good year for the TERROR TALES series – the regionally-themed horror anthologies that I’ve been editing for GRAY FRIAR PRESS. This year, the authors John Llewellyn Probert, Priya Sharma, Alison Littlewood and Rosalie Parker join a growing list of distinguished wordsmiths whose tales – from TERROR TALES OF WALES (in the first two cases) and TERROR TALES OF YORKSHIRE (in the latter two) have been selected for reprint in BEST BRITISH HORROR (pictured above), edited by the indefatigable Johnny Mains, with maybe more to come from other annual Year’s Best anthologies. 

Prior to this, Year’s Best reprints have also been awarded to Simon Bestwick for his contribution to TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, Simon Kurt Unsworth for his story in TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS, Mark Valentine for his story in TERROR TALES OF EAST ANGLIA, Anna Taborska, Nina Allan, Marie O’Regan and Mark Morris for their stories in TERROR TALES OF LONDON, and Stephen Volk for his story in TERROR TALES OF THE SEASIDE

Yep, that’s correct, given the two honours heaped upon us this year, every volume of the TERROR TALES series has so far seen material chosen for republication under the banner of Year’s Best.

That makes me a very satisfied man indeed. On which subject, I hope 2014 has been great to all you guys. Now, all the best for a merry Christmas and a very happy New Year. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Dark promise of 'A Christmas Yet To Come'

Well, the calendar has rolled around again - and that most wonderful time of the year is imminent. Of course, it isn't wonderful for everyone. Christmas is also seen as the occasion on which we should stand back and take stock of our lives, looking at our personal past, particularly our failures - which won't always be pretty, and then gazing ahead to the future to see if there is any way we can get it right the next time - which won't always be possible, or desirable (depending on who we are).  It's those 'hopes and fears of all the years', as the great carol says. 
     Supernatural fiction has often aided in this. Excellent festive horror stories have been written over the centuries, always seeking to be instructive as well as entertaining - and yet often in the most imaginatively chilling and ghoulish ways. 
     Though I've assessed it a number of times, not least in this blog, I've never fully understand this apparent need we have to be scared out of our wits at Christmas time. But I've never objected to it either. In fact, every year now I try to do my own small bit. I've long been a lover of the festive ghost story, and have tried my hand at it many, many times. It's a become something of an annual event - at least for me - posting one of them on this blog every year around this time. So if you'll excuse me, here we go again.      
     This time around, it's a story of mine, A CHRISTMAS YET TO COME, which first saw light of day on a spoken-word anthology called HAUNTED HOUSES way back in 1996, when it was read, rather superbly, by Ross Kemp. It's been reprinted several times in anthologies since then. I'm sure some of you will have read it before - so sorry about that, but with luck there will be plenty more to whom it's pretty new. So there we are. If you've got a few spare minutes, please feel free to indulge yourself in this ... 


It all began on a balmy August evening, when Mike joined two police constables in breaking into his father’s little terraced house.
     The neighbours hadn’t heard the old man for some while, apparently. Did Mike know if he was alright?  He wasn’t sure, he reflected, as they jemmied the front door and finally broke it down the musty smell that spread out over them was sickening. Mike led them in, wading through a ton of bills and free newspapers. The house was curtained and standing in darkness. With the ongoing heatwave it was also stifling, which made the stink even worse.
     It also made the Christmas decorations rather incongruous. Dried-up sticks of holly hung over the kitchen door. In the lounge, the small spruce fir in the bucket by the fire had shed its needles in a crisp, brown carpet, though plastic baubles and tinfoil stars still hung from its skeletal branches, attached by grubby lumps of Blue-tack. The sparse collection of greetings cards had largely fallen from the mantelpiece, but those left were furred with dust.
     However, the old man looked pretty much the way he had last Christmas: seated in his armchair facing the now ash-filled hearth, clad in cardigan, trousers and slippers. A little browner perhaps, a little more shrivelled, one shrunken claw resting on the telephone beside him. Of course, when Mike and the constables went in, disturbing the air currents, he changed pretty quickly sort of caved in on himself in a great plume of dust.
     Mike still had time to formally identify him first. Not that the police were too impressed. He could tell that from the hard, wooden expressions on their faces as they went through the motions of reporting the incident. Well – so what? It was not as if they’d cared or even known about the old git while he was alive. They certainly wouldn’t have known what a grumpy old pest he could be.
     Still, if they were going to take this attitude, Mike thought it best not to mention the fact that he’d probably been the last person to speak to his father. Last Christmas Eve in fact, around tea-time. It had only been a quick chat; a courtesy phone call. He’d wanted to tell the old man not to bother catching the bus up to their place that year as he and Chrissie had decided to go to the Bahamas for the season. They’d be there until well into the New Year. Ta-ra!
     Well? Weren’t they allowed a holiday now and then? Who were the cops to deny them that? He supposed he ought to have checked on the old fella a bit sooner than this, but well – his father had always been the one to call first. Why break the habit of a lifetime?
     A few hours later, as they took the remains out in a black bag, a scowling police sergeant told Mike something about there having to be an inquest and maybe a postmortem, though it was unlikely there’d be much to go on. Unless they found clear evidence of foul play. Course, there wasn’t much chance of that. There were ways of murdering people without even going near them, weren’t there!
     Mike nodded dumbly but wasn’t actually listening. He’d just noticed a sole package standing under the desiccated frame of the Christmas tree. Surely someone hadn’t sent the old geezer a present? When the police had finally left him to lock up, he examined it. It was a present alright but not to his father. In fact it was from the old man to Mike. The scribbled tag wished him happy Christmas. Mike snorted. It had been the first in a while. He turned the gift over in his hands. It was squarish and wrapped in faded blue paper with mugshots of Rudolph all over it now all stiff and crackly of course. Probably in that state when he bought it, Mike thought. Stingy old bastard! He’d open it afterwards.
     He stopped once in the doorway and looked back. It seemed morbid to leave the place like this a crumbling grotto to a Christmas long past, now curtained off, boarded up and mouldering slowly away in the sweltering August heat. But there’d probably have to be some legal proceedings or other before he could clean the junk out and sell the place. No rush, he supposed.
     He drove home that evening via the scenic route on the town’s outskirts, passing endless parched hayfields. The sun was low on the horizon but still giving off an intense warmth, and he sweated copiously. It had been like this since June, and the entire district was living under a hosepipe ban with the threat of further cuts impending. Mike was a summer bird, and he loved it.
     However, as he drove down the curving road onto the suburban estate where he and his wife lived in their neat little semi, he passed a bizarre figure. At first he didn’t give it a second glance; then he suddenly jammed his brakes on and looked back. The road and pavement behind were now empty. It seemed ludicrous, but he could have sworn that he’d just driven past someone dressed as Father Christmas. He’d only seen them from behind, but had clearly noticed a figure in a scarlet hood and cloak, trimmed with white fur, shuffling along under the weight of a bulging sack.
     Mike tried to laugh at the absurdity of it, but the laugh dried in his throat. He reversed a little. The quiet suburban road was still bare of life. So where had the figure gone to?  Not far behind him, a narrow shady footpath cut away from the main drag and led across the estate. Mike continued to reverse until he was on level with it, but the passage bent quickly away so he was unable to look down its full length. In any case, it branched several times. In fact, it came out at one point on the cul-de-sac where his own house was.
     Actually, that was its first port of call.
     Mike got his foot down hard.
     He reached his front drive in record time, and saw Chrissie waiting by the door with a look of concern on her face. His heart was banging as he leaped from the car; but then it transpired that she was worried about what the police had said, not some out-of-season Santa wandering about. Later, when he tentatively mentioned it to her, she said she hadn’t seen anyone like that. 
     By the time he got to bed, he’d decided he’d imagined it. But a couple of hours later, he awoke again, his teeth chattering. He sat up sharply, hugging himself. Thanks to the heatwave, they’d been in the habit of sleeping on top of the coverlet, with the windows wide open. Clearly, the weather had now changed. Another chill breeze surged in and Mike, clad only in shorts, swore loudly. It was literally freezing.
     He thought about Chrissie, lying naked beside him, and couldn’t believe that she hadn’t woken up too. Briefly, he was too confused to do anything. He realised that he was goose-pimpled all over; his fingers and toes were aching. This was ludicrous it was like the dead of winter. He scrambled to his feet, and gasped at how cold the carpet was. He blundered over it to the windows. Another icy draft cut across him like a sword. God, it was almost unbearable it must have been subzero!
     He made it to the first window, hopping from one foot to the other, and reached for the bar to dislodge it, when he saw that the glass panes were thick with frost. He stared at them in disbelief, and reached out with his fingers to touch. It was real real frost, hard and slippery and numbingly cold. Mike stood there, stupefied, his breath smoking. That was when he noticed that snowflakes were blowing into his face.
     Half an hour later Chrissie came round, hardly able to breathe. For some reason all the windows had been closed. “God almighty,” she groaned, rising wearily to her feet and stumbling over to them. “It’s like a steam-bath in here.”
     The windows swung open again but offered no real relief. Birds were twittering in the eaves, insects droning, a tropical sun rising on the horizon. When she got back to bed she found Mike still asleep – but shivering. He was beaded with sweat from head to foot, and when Chrissie touched his forehead, he moaned deliriously.


As severe a case of flu as the doctor had ever seen was the curt diagnosis later that day. Not as unusual in summer as people might think, but still rare. The best thing for it was several days of complete rest, preferably in bed. Under normal circumstances, the GP would have advised warm clothing and lots of hot drinks, but in this weather there was probably no need, though he did caution Mike about walking around the house wet after a shower for example.
     The patient listened glumly from his pillow. The doctor needn’t worry, he thought. He had no intention of walking around the house at all. He felt absolutely awful. Not least because he could still vividly recall the snowbound conditions he’d awakened to find his bedroom in, and was totally at a loss to explain it.
     Inevitably though, as the days passed, the memory faded and he was soon able to write it off as a fevered nightmare. In any case, he had more pressing things to worry about. The police sergeant who’d attended his father’s house came round to see him, to ask some hard questions about why Mike and his wife hadn’t been in touch with the old man sooner. Mike found it an uncomfortable experience, but knew he was in no real danger. After all, he’d committed no crime. His father had been old but in reasonably good health it was not as if he’d been abandoned without care. And if, as the Coroner had now decided, he had died last Christmas Eve probably from heart-failure there was nothing Mike could have done to help him anyway. All he was really guilty of was failing to discover a dead body.
     The policeman left grumpily, and Mike went back to bed, still feeling weak. Chrissie wouldn’t be back from work until five not that this was anything to look forward to. She found it trying having an invalid in the house, and did nothing to hide it.
     That was when he heard the sleigh bells.
     He sat up from the pillow and looked slowly round at the window. It was open, and beyond it he saw the azure sky of late summer, the rich green leaves on the trees opposite. He heard children playing still on holiday from school; the sound of someone mowing their lawn. He smelled chopped grass and barbecue coals being stoked up for another glorious evening.
     Yet sleigh-bells were approaching gaily, along with crisp, clip-clopping hooves.
     They came to a halt right under his bedroom window. Mike felt his hair prickling, but was unable to move to look. The children were still playing, the lawnmower still revving over the turf. At any second he expected a hearty knock at the door. But the next thing he heard was a foot on the stair. Then another. Stealthy, padding footfalls as though someone was coming up uncertainly, or painfully. A silvery bell tingled. Mike imagined that shabby, stumbling Father Christmas holding out a little Yuletide bell, ringing it before him to bring in custom, just like one of those old men paid to stand outside department stores in December.  The footsteps were now on the landing, the tingling bell right outside Mike’s bedroom door. It was not closed properly and someone slowly pushed it open ...
     Then Mrs. Barnard from next door walked in.
     When she saw that he was awake she looked relieved. She hadn’t wanted to disturb him, she said. But she felt she had to return the house-keys Chrissie had given her while they’d been away on holiday last July. She held them up in a bunch, and they tingled together – just like bells.
     Mike swore hysterically at her for nearly a full minute before she turned and fled in rivers of tears. When Chrissie returned from work that evening, she was ambushed by the distraught woman before she could even get into the house, and finally came upstairs in a vexed mood. Mike was still lying in bed, and his wife gave him a good four minutes of her time before she even began to get changed.
     It was no use him taking things out on her and the neighbours! Just because he wasn’t feeling so good! They had cause to get annoyed with him if they felt like it!
     But by the time she’d finished, Mike was no longer listening. He was too busy staring out through the bedroom door at the scattered white globules on the landing carpet. They steadily dissipated as he watched them. It was the sort of thing you saw in deepest winter, when somebody had come in with snowy boots on.


Things didn’t improve for Mike, even with time. He never seemed to recover fully from the flu, feeling always tired and on the verge of a headache. It didn’t do much for his social life, or his love life, and Chrissie had never been one to forego those two pleasures.
     He finally went back to work in mid-September, not feeling remotely fit enough, but glad at least that the searing temperatures of summer had now levelled off. As he walked unsteadily back to his desk, people clapped him in apparently Chrissie, embarrassed that he’d only had flu, had put the story out that it was pneumonia and the MD’s PA (who was also his wife) came heftily forward and presented him with a card. Signed by the whole office, she said, with her usual disingenuous smile.

     Mike nodded and looked down at it. At first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, then everything swam into focus: a Victorian coach tracking through a snowy forest towards a church with windows smeared gold by firelight; cherubs in the top corners, singing from carol-sheets; evergreens, pine-cones ...
    “You damn bitch!” he shouted. “Are you trying to be funny!”
     The gathered crowd fell into stunned silence. Mike looked back at the card it showed a summery meadow with rabbits and kittens and a big ‘Welcome Back’ slogan.
     He was given three more weeks of sick leave. Even at the end of that he felt ropy, but knew that he had to go in sooner or later. Chrissie was now past commenting, and had taken to going out and socialising with her friends again. Mike wondered if she’d kept such late hours with him, but he was not particularly bothered.
     His second return to work was less auspicious than the first, most of his colleagues preferring to mumble their greetings and the MD’s wife simply sniffing and ignoring him. The MD himself was colder than he had been in previous times. The first thing he said to Mike that morning was that he’d been planning some changes on the office floor. However, he didn’t specify what they were, which, as Mike was Systems Manager, seemed ominous.
     As a situation, it was clearly not going to last. Another couple of weeks went by things going fairly smoothly on the operational front but then, around mid-morning one day, Mike was buzzed up to see his boss. The MD was an imposing, heavy-set man who had the ability to fill rooms from wall to wall and floor to ceiling when he wanted to. In this particular instance, he was seated stiffly behind his desk, his face like thunder. He wanted to know what all these late arrivals were due to. Getting in at ten every single day, with no explanation ever offered, was hardly acceptable. He respected Mike’s work, but couldn’t ignore something like this indefinitely.
     Mike apologised profusely but said that he kept on getting stuck in the snow. He’d been shovelling for what seemed like an hour that morning alone. He was surprised nobody else had been affected. The MD gazed at him blankly for a moment or two, then swivelled round in his chair to look at the mellow autumn day outside the window. The leaves were just starting to turn yellow.
    Yet, later on, as Mike cleared his desk, he glanced down at his hands. As he’d known they would be, they were still blue with the cold and covered in chilblains.
     That night Chrissie caused a scene, and for the first time he slapped her. It was a good, hard, well-deserved slap too, he thought. It could have been that she’d called him a “raving loony who’d finally, totally gone”, but more likely it was the long silk stocking he’d found crumpled up beside the bed. Why was she still trying to make out that it was Christmas, he’d screamed! Getting stockings out to hang them up as soon as he wasn’t looking! It had never occurred to him that she’d simply dropped it from the laundry basket. Likewise, it had never occurred to him how odd it was that she’d suddenly taken to wearing such exotic lingerie. She never had before.
     It was the next day when she told him she was leaving. She couldn’t help it, but she needed a life as well and she’d now found somebody whose company was more rewarding. She was sorry, but they couldn’t go on like this. She hoped he’d forgive her and find someone else when he got better. Mike watched her indifferently, not even following her to the door. He only ran outside when he heard the vehicle that was carrying her away it had sleigh bells, and it clopped on the tarmac like reindeer hooves. When he got to the drive though, only an old Ford Escort was swinging around the corner. Even then, just for one minute, he could have sworn the driver was stooped over and wearing a red hood.
     After a moment, starting to feel the cold, he went back inside. That cold was to become an increasing problem over the next few weeks. Mike burned fuel vigorously, both gas and electricity, doing his damnedest to keep warm. Then they cut his supplies off. With no wage coming in and therefore no direct debits going out, he hadn’t paid his bills. The next day he went down to the bank and building society but found that Chrissie had beaten him to it and drained both their joint-accounts.
     And of course, now it was really getting cold. He wasn’t sure exactly what the date was, but rain was falling in freezing torrents and the heatwave was a distant memory. It went dark earlier and the trees across the road were soon wet, black skeletons. Chill drafts penetrated the building everywhere. He thought about moving the electric fire and starting to burn wood and old clothes in the grate, but realised that this would leave the chimney open and that was not an option.
     The solution was to wrap up warm and stay in bed, and continue to eat his way through what food supplies were still in the house, though most of these were now stale and dry. He grew progressively weaker and found himself flopping around in clothes that were suddenly too baggy. At least he hadn’t been having any more hallucinations, though he was now besieged on all sides by what seemed to be real Christmas regalia; it glittered in neighbours’ front rooms or the back windows of taxi-cabs. Even the weather turned seasonal, the fog and drizzle giving way to frost and flurries of snow.
     To make things worse, the day came when the cupboards were finally empty. Mike scavenged around the house for a while, chewing on apple pips or the hard crumbs of biscuits, but he knew he couldn’t survive that way. It was now blizzarding snow outside and seemed to be getting dark already even though he’d only just got up, but he had to go out and get food somehow. Under the stair he still had an old battery-operated transistor radio, which he thought might tell him how long the severe weather was expected to last.
     It didn’t, but it did, through a fanfare of trumpets and bells, reveal that it was Christmas Eve.
     After that, the battery died.
     Mike was sitting alone in his armchair, the wind howling in the rafters, darkness gathering steadily around him. Hunger was gnawing his insides out. Then, across the room, he noticed a remarkable thing. Sitting on a shelf in an open cupboard was the present his father had wrapped for him almost exactly a year before. Mike had never got round to opening it.
     He took it from the shelf, sat down again and tore off the wrapping. Inside, there was a small cardboard box, and inside that a gaudy Christmas toy, typically for his father, cheap and meaningless. It was one of those old-fashioned ‘snowstorms’ a water-filled crystal sphere, with figures inside and white flakes that swam around when you shook it. This particular one was gloomier than most. In it, a figure in a threadbare coat and scarf stood alone outside a dilapidated house, the snow swirling around him.
     In the last seconds before daylight faded altogether, Mike picked up the tag which his father had scrawled on.
     ‘Happy Christmas, Mike. Love, Dad,’ was its simple message. Underneath it there was a postscript. ‘PS,’ it read. ‘See you tonight.’

The above image comes to us courtesy of Chrissie Demant, who first produced it to illustrate this same story in the VAULT OF EVIL Advent Calendar for 2013. The pic of the nasty Christmas tree at the top was in the act of being garnished by the Crypt-Keeper in HBO's Tales From The Crypt when I purloined it. If you've enjoyed this seasonal chiller, you might also be interested in IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, a collection of five more of my scary festive tales.