Tuesday, 20 December 2011

More festive spirits from the icy darkness!

Here is the second of the two short Christmas stories I promised to post on this blog before we finally reach the big day. This is another early one; it first appeared on a spoken-word anthology from Telstar, called HAUNTED HOUSES, back in 1996, and it was read - rather marvelously - by Peter Barkworth. Enjoy it if you can. And have a great Christmas.


It was to be Wilton’s first Christmas as clerk at the Society Chambers, and he was looking forward to it. The tall narrow building, tucked away at the bottom end of the Parish Church’s dingy rear yard, had an air of Dickens about it. It struck him on his first day there, in September, so he expected it would have an atmosphere all of its own when the icy weather arrived.

It was not that Wilton got particularly excited about Christmas. In fact, he generally spent it alone – he was unmarried and rarely, if ever, saw his parents. But it was impossible to work in the Society Chambers, with their cramped offices and tight winding stairways, not to at least get a sense of Victoriana. And when you looked down from above on the small yard, with its inscribed flagstones and row of dustbins by the church backdoor, or glanced far up to the steeple, where the old bell peeked down at you – the way Scrooge’s had done – the illusion was almost complete. Surely, Wilton thought, the first evening when he came out and found it all grey with fog or glittering in a coat of frost, the true flavour of the season would hit him. For the first time in his life he’d understand the real meaning of the winter solstice.

However, events were to conspire against this. Or so it initially seemed.


The first development to spoil things for Wilton was the appearance of human derelicts in the churchyard. It was not a regular occurrence, but now and then he would stand up from his accounts, stretch his arms and gaze down from the window, only to find one or two tramps drifting around like spectres. On one occasion, a heavily bearded fellow in a voluminous overcoat was staring directly up at him, wearing a hard scowl.

Wilton eventually mentioned it to his employer, Mr Dowerby, who simply shrugged and said that Skid Row men often pestered the parish priest and sometimes ended up in the yard. He didn’t think it anything to worry about. Wilton laughed and assured his boss that it wasn’t worrying him.

The next disturbance came in early November, when some sort of excavation began under the church. At first Wilton was baffled. One moment there was peace during the day, the next bedlam. He noticed that brickwork had been removed from a lower portion of the church’s rear wall, to give access to the foundations, and from that time on saw workmen going in and out – usually the same two or three. He didn’t know what they were doing, but all day long they hammered and banged down there and were always covered in dust when they emerged. Dowerby seemed to recall in passing that the parish authorities had given them written notice some time back about work in the crypt. Hadn’t anyone mentioned it to Wilton? They hadn’t – which seemed a little inconsiderate, as his office was the only one overlooking the yard and therefore the only one within earshot of it. Wilton smiled and said that it didn’t really matter.

The work in the crypt went on into December, and it soon became apparent to Wilton, with the amount of rubble the workmen brought out on a daily basis, that it would continue well into the New Year. So much for his Dickensian Christmas, he thought sourly.


The cold weather arrived on time, with blasts of wind and sleet. Darkness was soon falling by mid-afternoon, which, along with the debris from the excavation, left the yard a precarious place for Wilton to make his way home through. But there was no sense grumbling, he’d tell himself wearily. Doubtless it was a job that had to be done.

However, this resignation to his fate did not last. By the afternoon of December 17th, Wilton had virtually had enough. It was gray and blustery out there, and cold enough for snow, so all the windows were firmly fastened. Even then, he heard what sounded like somebody working in the yard, right under his window. He looked up from his ledger and listened to it in disbelief. It went on: the haphazard clash of steel on steel, and a violent, angry grunting, as though of a man, or men, making strenuous physical efforts. He rose to his feet and moved to the window, hoping someone would see him there and realise they’d disturbed him.

But there was nobody in the yard.

It was completely empty.

The more distant noise of the work in the crypt was still going on, but the other sounds had abruptly ceased. Wilton was surprised but pleased. He went back to his desk. Five minutes later, he heard it again. He stiffened in his chair. As before he listened to the blows of metal on metal, and brutish, breathless grunts. Suddenly it struck him that it didn’t sound like somebody working, so much as somebody fighting!

That was surely the limit! If the place was starting to attract street-gangs! This time he went only cautiously to the window. But again there was no-one. The violent sounds ceased as soon as he glanced down.

The incident occupied Wilton’s thoughts for a day or so, until something even worse happened. It was early afternoon and he was working in his office, when he heard a step on the landing beyond the door. He glanced up sharply. Dowerby and his partner were both away on business, and their secretaries were on Christmas leave, so Wilton should have been the only person in the building.

Before he knew what he was doing, he was reaching for the telephone. What happened next, however, practically paralysed him. The handle on the door to his office began to turn. But only slowly. Furtively. Wilton felt sweat break on his brow as he watched. His blood went cold.

There was a grunt on the other side of the door, as though whoever was there could not manage to open it. The handle stopped turning and there was a brief silence. Then, the wooden panelling of the door began to creak from some weight being applied to it. Wilton’s spine was literally crawling. He found his fingers fumbling with the dial on the telephone. For ludicrous seconds, he couldn’t remember the emergency code. Then the intruder seemed to move away.

Wilton listened to soft but heavy feet, as they padded up the next flight of stairs.

He stood up, his heart pounding. The whole demeanor of whoever this person was gave him away as a burglar. The outer doors to the Society Chambers were not locked during the day, but a visit like this was not bona fide. Wilton didn’t know what valuables Dowerby and his partner kept in their offices upstairs, but the intruder was clearly on his way to find out. Without hesitation, Wilton called the police. They said they would send someone immediately, but minutes seem to pass and eventually Wilton began to fear that the burglar would leave the premises before they arrived, or even worse try to get into his office again. It was now very quiet upstairs. Wilton strained his ear as he listened against his door. It occurred to him that he was behaving in a rather cowardly fashion. This might be the thing for a young female secretary to do – call for help and then hide. But would he, as a male, not at least be expected to make some approach to the intruder? What would his employers think if he just let the villain walk away again before the police even arrived?

After a minute of agonised indecision, he stuck his head out through the door.

The landing was deserted. That was to be expected, whoever it was having gone upstairs. Wilton followed stealthily, praying for the sound of an approaching siren. At the top of the next flight, there was still no sign of anybody, but the door to Dowerby’s office stood ajar. It could have been left that way, but it seemed unlikely.

Swallowing hard, Wilton advanced towards it. When he pushed it, it swung open. He entered. There was nobody in there. Wilton was now baffled. He had heard somebody coming up here, hadn’t he? He turned to leave – and found his way barred by a hulking man with mad, staring eyes and a gross beard filled with crawling lice.

Wilton gave a piercing shriek and staggered backwards.

It was the man from the yard who Wilton had seen glaring up, though now he seemed more confused than dangerous. He swayed where he stood, looking around in a drunken daze, his ragged coat giving off a foul stench.

Eventually the police arrived and hustled him away.

Wilton, who had locked himself into his employer’s office, had been in a state of near-collapse by then, but the officers told him it was all a misunderstanding. The tramp had been looking for the parish priest. He’d simply lost his way and hadn’t meant any harm.

They were grinning cheerfully as they told him this. In fact, they were almost too cheerful – as though they were about to burst out laughing. In fact they did, the moment they left the building. Wilton stared at the door over his handkerchief, listening to their raucous, hysterical laughter as it echoed from wall to wall in the narrow yard.

On his way home that night, as he walked round the front of the church, Wilton saw the parish priest at the presbytery door, talking to several more derelicts. He was a balding, round-faced man with tufts of brown hair behind his ears. The tramps kept touching their caps to him as he gave out alms. Wilton snorted loudly. This was obviously the source of the problem: more misplaced Christian sentiment!


That night he endured a painful dream.

In it, his bed was full of gritty sand and some hot, thick fluid. He was grovelling in it, in agony, and from somewhere in the distance a series of screams came at him, one after another in succession, as though each one was in response to a separate blow. When Wilton finally woke, he felt sick, and, absurdly, even more hostile towards the parish priest and his homeless congregation.

The next afternoon there was another disturbance from the yard, but this was of a different sort. Wilton was making himself some coffee when he heard a wild shouting from below. He moved to the window and saw one of the tramps being attacked by a dog. Wilton gazed down briefly, then went back to the kettle, finished off his drink and brought it back to the window to watch.

It wasn’t any of the tramps he recognised, but the dog – a big black Alsatian – was dragging the man round, first of all by his rags, then by his flesh. The old wretch’s terrified screams grew weaker and weaker as the brute hauled him back and forth across the yard, slashing and tearing at him relentlessly.

Wilton felt his first tremor of excitement. He downed his coffee in one. It scorched his throat, but he ignored it. A minute later he was egging the dog on: at first under his breath, but soon at the top of his voice, shouting out in a frenzy of delight. He had never seen a dog attack a man in that kind of berserk rage before – it was surely unnatural, but he admired and loved the Alsatian all the more because of it.

An hour later, as he stood by his window, watching policemen talk with the parish priest – who’d gone white with shock – he felt mildly guilty. But as the undertakers loaded the body-bag into their van, he decided that it was all the priest’s fault for encouraging the low-lives to come round there in the first place. Why should he be upset? He hoped it would be a salutary lesson to them all.

However, at five o’clock that evening, when he was due to go home, Wilton began to wonder what had happened to the dog. He glanced warily out of the door into the yard. Surely he would hear it snuffling about in the dark if it was still out there? Eventually he stepped out and walked quickly towards the yard-gate – when another sound stopped him. It came from the crypt. Wilton looked over towards it. Scaffolding surrounded the crypt entrance, and plastic sheeting had been tacked over it, but he could still hear something going on in there. He went cautiously over and listened.

It was a dull, repetitive boom – emitting from deep inside. Yet he knew he had seen the workmen leave earlier. He drew back the plastic sheeting. Dense blackness filled the cavity but the sound continued, now more defined. It was a steady and repeated blow – like a hammer on an anvil; an echoing clunk, falling over and over again. It was far inside and must have been deafening at its source.

Wilton retreated slowly, his neck clammy with sweat. The plastic sheeting rustled back into place. The noise continued unabated; in fact it seemed to get louder. Quickly, he turned to walk away – but almost collided with a figure standing directly behind him. The moon shone down onto a hideous, decayed face. It had dull idiot eyes and a gross, lice-infested beard.

The tramp was simply standing there, as bewildered as before. But this time Wilton didn’t cower away. He suddenly longed to bash those lifSeless features into pulp. He looked around for a weapon: a tool, a hunk of rock, anything. There was nothing there, so he turned angrily back to the tramp, fists clenched.

“You’re in the wrong place again, God damn you!” he shouted. “Get the hell away from here, before you infect us all!”

The tramp backed away, eyes wild with fright. Wilton stalked after him. Finally, the tramp turned and blundered clumsily off into the night. Wilton watched him go, feeling pleased with himself, but also puzzled. Never before had he felt so ready for a fight.

Then he realised that down in the crypt the heavy blows had ceased, as if whoever had been causing them had paused to listen.

Unnerved, Wilton hurried in the direction of home.


He did not sleep well that night, beset by images of red-rimmed eyes gazing at him from a place of deep darkness. Ordinarily, such a dream might have terrified him. For some reason, this one didn’t. He was not in his own bedroom for one thing, but in some damp, cold place which reeked of blood. And the eyes, though awesome to behold, were not threatening. They simply watched him.


The next day was Christmas Eve and the town was alive with the festive spirit. The markets and malls – already long decked in evergreens – were now thronging with happy shoppers, the squares playing host to brass bands, the street-corners to roast chestnut and baked-potato vendors. During the morning, a frozen mist came down.

Despite all this, Wilton was at his desk in a grumpy mood – and he couldn’t explain why; especially as Dowerby had been in first thing, wished him the best for the season and told him to knock off at lunchtime. It was a token gesture, of course. It would be the same everywhere. Shortly before eleven, for example, Wilton saw the workmen from the crypt making their way eagerly to the pub across the road, shouting and laughing. Their working day was clearly over.

It was odd but, despite all the disturbance they’d caused him, only then did he begin to wonder what they’d been doing beneath the church. The thought was still with him when he came out into the yard at one o’clock, so he plunged his hands into his overcoat pockets and walked over to the crypt entrance. He stood there warily, his breath smoking, and then drew back the plastic cover. A moment later he was actually inside, stooping as he made his way down a low passage. He noticed that, instead of loose rubble and dirt, the walls and ceiling down here were constructed of smooth stone blocks – he began to wonder how old the church was.

But there were no obvious answers to be found in the crypt. He entered it by ducking under yet more scaffolding. Faint shafts of light came down through the floorboards above, so he could see more than he’d expected, but he still found it a damp hole. The ground was of hard flat rock, while more ancient brickwork rose up at the sides, but only in fragments. Tools of every description were littered all over the place, and the air was thick with dust. At the far end, Wilton saw that two heavy timber beams had fallen down from above, and now lay across each other, barring any further progress.

He looked briefly around, then blundered back up the passage – to find the yard in darkness!

He was numbed with shock.

How long had he been down there?

Surely only minutes?

Was there an eclipse, or something?

Petrified, Wilton hurried through the gate and up alongside the church to the main road. Across it, multi-coloured lights shimmered from the pub. He could hear music and laughter. Suddenly he felt the world swimming around him. He leaned out for support and came up hard against the church wall. Seconds seeped past. All he could hear was the beating of his own heart.

Then somebody asked him if he was alright.

He looked up and found the parish priest there, an expression of genuine concern on his face. Wilton pointed back towards the gate. “The crypt, father,” he whispered. “I think it’s come from the crypt.” The priest looked bewildered. “I’ll show you,” Wilton stammered. “Please ...”

The priest seemed puzzled but nodded, and they went down there together. It looked as it had before, only much colder and darker. But now that he had the clergyman with him, Wilton realised there was nothing to be afraid of. He must have fallen asleep when he’d come down here previously. What other explanation was there?


Later, Wilton called in at the pub. He’d never been in there before, but now seemed like a good time. It was called The Trusty Servant, and it was a grand old place of white plaster and polished woodwork.

With it being Christmas Eve, it was full to bursting. But that didn’t stop Wilton. In fact, he had himself a rare old time. It was stifling in there, filled with cigarette smoke and lit with lurid red lights. Famous Christmas hits belted out from the juke-box and everyone was dancing wildly, Wilton among them. For the first time in his life, he began to really celebrate, pouring beer down his throat, stripping off his tie and jacket.

He didn’t know the crowd in there, but they were a lively bunch. He recognised one or two faces – the workmen from the crypt, Dowerby’s secretary – but there seemed to be a lot of foreigners in as well. Everywhere he looked, he saw swarthy, sun-burned faces: on the far side of the bar; peering at him over other people’s shoulders. The drink still flowed though, the music thumped.

It was by far the most exciting Christmas Eve Wilton could ever remember. Close on midnight he found himself ordering yet another drink and now talking to one of the workmen, a short, tubby man with a ginger beard and friendly face. Wilton introduced himself and asked what they were working on under the church.

The workman, who actually wasn’t a real workman but an archaeologist from the university, gave it some thought. “It’s all pretty intriguing, really. We reckon we’re looking at a Roman temple. Funny how one religious site always seems to get placed on top of another.”

Wilton bought the man a drink. He was fascinated. “What sort of temple?”

“We reckon to Saturn,” the archaeologist said. “Very dark and mysterious figure in Roman mythology. Quite appropriate, though … his feast was December 17th to December 24th. Ended on Christmas Eve.” He chuckled. “Pretty wild around here in those days, I can tell you.”

“What did they do?” Wilton asked.

The archaeologist shrugged. “Usual stuff. Gladiatorial contests ... man against man, man against beast. All that. Up until the last day, when they celebrated with a human sacrifice.”

“Sounds gruesome,” Wilton said.

The archaeologist agreed. “It was. We reckon it was by crucifixion.”

Wilton nodded. That would be right. He thought about the cross-beams in the crypt, now heavily laden. Good job it was so deep underground. Otherwise the hammering might have disturbed someone.


He stepped outside the pub on the stroke of midnight.

The air was now clear and ice-cold. Across the road, he saw one or two tramps wandering about on the church forecourt, perplexed and hugging themselves in their rags. Wilton watched for a moment, then crossed over to them. He’d give them all his change, he decided. It was the least he could do on Christmas Morning.

Horror is (or will be) bursting out all over!

With the weather outside frightful it’s perhaps a pleasing thought to look ahead to the spring, in particular Easter-tide, when the sun will be up, the new leaves will be out and a sense of rebirth will invigorate us all.

What better time could we have chosen for the launch of the second volume in our series of TERROR TALES anthologies?

TERROR TALES OF THE LAKE DISTRICT, my first anthology as editor, was published last October and has now been a huge success – not just for me, but for Gray Friar Press, who I can’t thank enough for having sufficient faith to take it on board in the first place.

It was always my plan to turn this into a whole series of books if I possibly could, and as the autumn months rolled by I dropped lots of mischievous hints on this blog about where the second collection would be set. I knew one thing – I wanted somewhere with the same mysterious atmosphere, colourful history and esoteric aura as the Lake District, but also somewhere that was markedly different.

There were plenty of contenders, but in the end, thinking of the summer months that will stretch ahead of us when this next book is published, picturing sleepy, thatch-roofed hamlets, leafy lanes, rolling hills and a patchwork farmland all basking under a blue sky and mellow sun, a decision was reached with almost indecent haste.

So I can now officially announce that the second volume in our series will be TERROR TALES OF THE COTSWOLDS.

For those who aren’t familiar with that district, it is a handsome swathe of south-central England, lying between Warwick in the north and Bristol in the south, Oxford in the east and Gloucester in the west. It is classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and is famous for its pretty villages, its many ancient monuments and its unique golden-yellow ‘Cotswold stone’. It is also steeped in the major events of English history, and has more than a whiff of the arcane. You won’t believe some of the eerie folklore to emerge from this picturesque region.

But don’t rush off to try and place your orders just yet. We aren’t quite ready. Just keep watching this space for further announcements, and look out for a reproduction of the amazing cover art – which I’ve already seen and have been blown away by – and a Table of Contents that would make any horror editor jealous.

Just to set the scene, pictured at the top is a panoramic view of the Cotswolds at their most scenic (thanks to W.Lloyd MacKenzie). Lower down is the famous Green Man of Worcester Cathedral in the heart of the Cotswolds, which offers sure proof that there are darker than normal undercurrents in this tranquil realm.

But all that is for next year, of course.

In the meantime we still have Christmas to get through, and there can't have been many better ways to commence the final week of work before the festivities commence than by having my attention drawn to two excellent reviews of SPARROWHAWK, my Christmas novella of last year which, thus far, seems to be attracting at least as much attention this year (now available on Kindle HERE).

The first review comes from Geoff Nelder of SCIENCE42FICTION.

I’m not going to print it all out here – you can always pop over there and have a look if you wish, but here are a couple of choice comments:

Four aspects of Paul Finch’s novella drew me in: authenticity of geography and history; the exquisite writing style; personal coincidences; and most of all the grim storyline fascination of apparitional ghouls from the past, and the satisfaction of finally solving the puzzle ...

This novella is unmissable for any aficionado of ghost, horror, and historical fiction ...

Yep, I’m blushing … but not to the extent that I’m self-conscious about drawing your attention to it, or to the next review, which comes from Gef Fox of WAG THE FOX. Once again, if you wish to read it in full, get on over there. But here are a few extracts which left me feeling rather proud:

In a modest 130-or-so pages, Paul builds a rich and memorable story of a tormented man whose torment has not nearly reached its end. London is captured expertly, warts and all, in this story, and the dialogue between John Sparrowhawk and Miss Evangeline is magnetic …

I'm a guy who continues to struggle with appreciating historical fiction, at least the kind that steeps itself in the language of the time … Paul Finch, on the other hand, offers a style of writing that harkens to that time but offers enough of a contemporary feel to make a schlub like me get immersed in the story with little effort ...

Nice, I think. And very timely for sure.

Still on the subject to Christmas, pop back a little later this week, because in a day or so I’ll be posting another of my older Christmas stories to hopefully get folk in the mood for the holiday season fast looming.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Time to relax with the spirits of Christmas

As promised a week or so ago, here's the first of two of my short Christmas tales to get you all in the mood for the festivities ahead. This is quite an early one actually; it was originally published back in December 1998 in UNREAL DREAMS #5. The next will follow in a few days.


Jimmy was sorry. It had only been meant as a joke, he kept telling himself.

He was not a vindictive lad and it was only when he had first completed the spell and found that he didn’t know how to reverse it that he realised he didn’t really hate Dad and certainly didn’t want him ‘despatched by the conjuration of deviles’ – as it had said in Charlotte’s dusty old book.

After all, the events of that morning had not been so unusual. The car had been deeply snowed-in, which happened quite a lot at this time of year. Mum had been irritated because Jimmy was starting to get under her feet, which also usually happened around this time of year. And Dad had been late getting up and even later for work, which happened quite a lot at all times of the year. The result had been the same as usual: Dad red-faced and shouting at everyone before he drove off in a huff, Mum commencing her daily routine of housework with tear-filled eyes. And in the middle of it all the Christmas tree, covered in tinsel and fairy lights, but looking very, very phony. It was on the spur of that desolate moment that Jimmy had decided it was all Dad’s fault and that he was going to do something about it.

On reflection, he now realised that this had been a very silly reaction to a brief moment of sadness in the general joy and excitement that was the Christmas holidays, and it should certainly not have sent him upstairs to his sister’s bedroom and the pile of mysterious books in her bottom drawer. Charlotte wasn’t coming home this Christmas. She spent most of her time at a place called the LSE, but now apparently, was somewhere called Katmandu and had recently written to her parents, saying that she considered the yuletide feast a corrupt, western opiate and no longer had any time for it.

Mum had cried and Dad had gone mad, storming around the house shouting something about ‘the weed’ finally getting to ‘her great, stupid, empty head!’ Jimmy hadn’t got cross with Dad on that occasion because both he and Mum, for once, had seemed to be in agreement on it. But it didn’t make any difference: Charlotte was still away for Christmas and would see them some time in the New Year. Once Jimmy had got used to the idea, it hadn’t bothered him too much because it meant that he could spend the first few days of his school holidays digging around among the various odds and ends in her room.

That was when he’d found the Tome Of Lore.

The treasure trove of odd-smelling bric-a-brac in Charlotte’s room, stuffed under her bed, littering her desk and dressing table, had proved a novel distraction at first, but not as much as this particular book, which as well as being full of mucky drawings, also had gross but neat pictures of goats’ heads on tables, half-men-half-monster things, people on crosses upside-down, and animals with unreadable names scrawled underneath them. Jimmy was a bright lad and it hadn’t taken him long to work out what it was all about. He vaguely remembered Dad once having a row with Charlotte over the ‘voodoo crap’ he’d found on the toilet shelf when he’d been looking for his football yearbook.

The thing was, Jimmy hadn’t believed that any of it was for real – not until soon after lunch, when he’d gone out into the back garden again and found the snowman missing.

At first he’d wandered round and round the garden in a daze, wondering if someone might have knocked it down. It was not as if it was easy to lose: five feet tall and with huge chunks of stone for eyes and buttons. Then the thought had struck him that it might have melted, though the snow was still deep and crisp, the sky an opaque gray, and the air cold enough to freeze your finger to ice if you licked it and held it up. He’d also wondered if somebody might have pinched it, but when he’d looked over both fences into the next door gardens there was no sign of it. He wasn’t even sure if it was possible to steal a snowman anyway, so he hadn’t followed that line of thought for too long.

Only then had it begun to dawn on him that maybe the spell had worked. It had been very simple. All he’d been required to do, according to the book, was ‘constructe a mannequin from natural thinges’. The picture in the book had shown a clay doll, but Jimmy didn’t have any clay. He still had some Plasticine from when he’d been a really little kid, but he wasn’t sure if that was natural or not. Later on in the morning, when his mum had finally had it up to her back teeth with him and ordered him out to build a snowman or something, this new thought had come. As he’d put his bobcap and gloves on, he’d asked her if snow was natural stuff. Distracted, she’d said that it was pretty natural.

So that was that then. There’d been other bits that were slightly more complicated though. For one thing you had to get hold of some clothes of the person you hated, and some of their hair and blood, and put it all on the mannequin. The first bit hadn’t been too bad: Jimmy had got Dad’s Bolton Wanderers scarf out of the closet in the hall, and wound it round the snowman’s neck. The hair and blood had been tougher, but he’d sneaked up to the bathroom and examined one of the razors by the wash-bowl. There’d been plenty of little hairs packed into it, and a blob of dry brown stuff which just had to be blood, because Dad was always cutting himself when he was shaving. Jimmy had scraped it all off with a little piece of paper, then gone out to the garden again, pressed his finger into the snowman’s shoulder to make a hole, pushed the paper inside and covered it up.

After that it had been really easy. He’d had to draw a circle around the mannequin, which he’d done by dragging his booted feet through the snow, then walk round and round it, anti-clockwise, repeating something called an ‘incantation’. The words hadn’t made any sense to Jimmy – he hadn’t even been sure if he was pronouncing them properly – but he’d said them anyway, carrying the book round with him as he walked.

However, when he’d finished nothing had happened. He hadn’t been sure what he’d expected to happen anyway, so he didn’t feel too disappointed. And besides, he wasn’t as cross with Dad by then, so it didn’t matter so much. He’d gone in for his lunch, wondering what he was going to do that afternoon. It was straight afterwards of course, when he’d found the snowman had gone. At first he’d been surprised, then worried, then frightened. And now at last, as he sat by the window waiting for Dad to come home from work – he was sorry!

It had only been a joke, honest.

All afternoon he’d mooched about on the street, sneaking up garden paths, peeking round corners and under people’s cars. There’d been no sign of the snowman, but Jimmy had convinced himself that it was out there somewhere. Just waiting for Dad to get home.

By now, the fun of the Christmas holidays was really wearing thin. By three o’clock it was snowing again, coming down hard, in heavy flakes, and Jimmy stood on the porch marvelling at how quickly it buried the stumps of plants in the front garden and the kerb where the pavement met the road. Soon even the milk bottles were hidden, only their necks visible. Mum was in a better mood and said that it was starting to look really Christmassy, but Jimmy found it ominous. Everything seemed to stop when it snowed this hard. He’d hardly seen anyone all day, and even though this was usually the time when lots of cars were coming back onto the estate, and lights coming on in houses, he hardly heard a sound. Even the rumbling engines from the main road round the corner were muffled almost to nothing. He began to feel as if everyone else had vanished. Then it started to get dark. That worried Jimmy even more. Once it was dark, no-one would be able to spot the snowman moving about. He’d be able to get really close to them.

By the time Dad got home, the sky was completely black. Jimmy hurried out to the porch and for a minute was dazzled by Dad’s headlights as he pulled carefully onto the drive, the car slipping and sliding. Then the lights went off and Dad climbed out, almost unrecognisable under his big overcoat and scarf. He stayed by the car and hissed for Jimmy to come over to him. Jimmy ventured over there, looking nervously around. In this blizzard, he could hardly see anything beyond the garden wall. Dad seemed very excited and asked quietly where Mum was. Jimmy said that she was upstairs having a shower. Dad said that that was great, and crept round to the back of his car, telling Jimmy to give him a hand. Jimmy followed him, but was feeling more and more nervous. The longer they stayed outside, the less he liked it. He was convinced somebody was watching them – and from quite close up.

What was worse, Dad seemed to take forever opening his car boot. Jimmy told him to hurry, as an afterthought adding that he was cold; which was true – his hair was already covered in flakes. Dad told him to hang on. Then Jimmy thought he heard the sound of feet approaching – big feet, crunching deeply in the snow. Getting louder and louder. He looked round sharply, terrified.

Dad started picking large, colourful parcels out of his boot and placing them in Jimmy’s arms. The crunching footsteps were even louder. Jimmy thought he was going to wet his pants. There seemed to be no end to the presents, but Jimmy wasn’t thinking about Christmas at all now. Dad was saying something about making it a really special year for Mum, and not to drop any of them. Then Jimmy realised where the footsteps were coming from: the alley at the side of the house, linking the front drive to the back garden. Whoever owned those gigantic feet was coming down that alley. And now they were almost at the end of it.

Dad was locking the boot and trying to balance a couple of parcels on his knee. Jimmy begged him to hurry. Dad tut-tutted and told him to go inside if he was cold. He suggested they put the presents at the back of the closet. Jimmy said he wasn’t going in without him. He grabbed Dad by the coat and started pulling him towards the front door. Dad told him to be careful, it was slippery. Jimmy didn’t look round as he heard the big feet come crunching out onto the drive, turn left and come straight towards them. Jimmy wanted to scream. Dad was chuckling, saying what great weather it was for Christmas.

Then he closed the front door behind them. The catch caught automatically.

Jimmy didn’t dare look back through the frosted glass, but dragged the curtain across and ran after Dad down the hall. They put all the presents at the back of the closet, piling coats across them. Then Dad said that he was going upstairs to get changed and have a word with Mum. Jimmy wasn’t to say anything to anyone about the presents. Jimmy nodded dumbly. When Dad had gone, he scampered around the house, checking that all the downstairs windows were locked, not to mention the back door and the French windows in the dining room.

Only then did he feel secure.

However, it wasn’t to last. When Mum came down she ordered him upstairs to tidy his room while she made tea. Dad came down behind her, grinning and winking at Jimmy. Worriedly, Jimmy went upstairs. He pulled the curtains back and looked out of his bedroom window, but a dense rime of frost covered the glass, and beyond that the snow was flurrying thickly. He could hardly make anything out at ground-level.

Then something happened which really frightened him. He heard somebody opening the back door. It sounded like Mum, probably taking rubbish out to the bins. For a moment he was frozen with fear, then he charged downstairs into the hall. Through the door to the living room, he could see Dad in the armchair, reading an evening paper. The news was on the television. There was suddenly no sound from the kitchen. Jimmy waited in the hall, breathlessly. Rooted to the carpet. Then he heard Mum coming back in again, and he rushed in to her.

She was blowing on her hands as she closed the back door, saying how bitter it was outside. Jimmy agreed, but he was now wondering how long she’d had that door open for. He looked warily around him. It wasn’t a small house – there were all sorts of hiding places in it. Things looked pretty normal, however, and there were no tell-tale snowy footprints leading across the linoleum floor to give the game away. He’d begun a tentative search, armed with his cricket bat, when Mum told him that tea was ready.

He ate in the lounge with Mum and Dad, constantly looking over his shoulder, wondering where the intruder might be concealed and when he might pounce. That was when he had the idea. He could hardly contain his excitement and relief and, as soon as he’d finished, Jimmy took his cup and plate through into the kitchen. When he was sure that nobody was following him in, he opened the meter cupboard and turned the thermostat onto full. He stood back, hardly daring to breathe. It didn’t seem to have any immediate effect on the temperature, but he knew that within a half-hour the whole house would be baking. Let’s see a snowman try and hide out in this, he thought triumphantly. The only thing now was to ensure that nothing happened before it got too hot for it. Jimmy had always had the gift of the gab, and as soon as he went back into the lounge, he began to engage Dad in long, meandering and ultimately pointless conversations. Dad put up with it at first, but eventually said that did Jimmy mind, but he was trying to watch the local news. Jimmy didn’t mind – as long as it kept Dad in the lounge. Only when the news had finished, and Dad got up, announcing that he was going to go and do the washing up, did Jimmy start chattering again.

Dad talked back for several minutes more, until Mum finally sighed and said from her armchair that if somebody didn’t go and do the washing-up soon, she’d have to do it herself. And would somebody please turn the heating down while they were at it? The house was like an oven! Dad said he’d sort it out. Reluctantly, Jimmy let him pass. He wasn’t sure how long they’d been in the lounge – maybe an hour or more. Surely that was enough?

As Dad went through into the kitchen, Jimmy began another nervous search of the downstairs rooms, at any time expecting to come across a huge wet patch on one of the carpets. It would take some explaining if he found one, but a telling-off was something he could put up with. However, there was no sign of anything wet. The hall and dining room were dry, as was the landing upstairs, all four bedrooms and the bathroom. As Jimmy came back downstairs, he began to wonder if perhaps the intruder hadn’t come in after all. There was no way he could have held out so long in this. It was so hot in the house that Jimmy was sweating hard.

That was why the icy breeze he suddenly felt seemed even colder than it should.

He stopped where he was, shivering. The breeze kept up. It could mean only one thing: somebody had opened a door somewhere. The front door was at the foot of the stairs – he could see it was closed. It had to be either the French windows or the back door. If the snowman was still outside, he might come in now.

Jimmy dashed down. As he scurried past the dining room, he stuck his head in quickly – the French windows were still closed. It was the kitchen then! He charged in without thinking, and saw two things immediately. Firstly, Dad was alright – he was standing by the sink, hands deep in the washing-up; secondly, the back door was wide open, snow billowing inside. Jimmy was baffled, especially as the door had the air of someone having just gone out through it rather than just come in. But then he noticed that another door was open as well – wide open. It was the door in the corner, the door to the deepfreeze, probably the only place in the house where the thermostat would have made no difference to the temperature.

Jimmy stammered something to Dad, but Dad said nothing. He didn’t move either.

And there were other questions: why was Dad was now wearing his Bolton Wanderers scarf? Why did it look so tight?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Devils, witches and festive ghost stories

I have a bit more good news to report on THE DEVIL’S ROCK.

In a week when I officiallly commenced work on the sequel to our wartime horror movie of last summer, the original, which is still out there and still kicking, has sold to new territories in the form of Germany and Switzerland.

Slowly but surely we are conquering.

Fans might also be interested to see some of the new artwork for the movie. Both above and below you see the two different cover designs, both of which will be utilised for the release of THE DEVIL’S ROCK on Blu-Ray in New Zealand. It's also been announced that the movie will screen at the Yubari Fantastic Film Festival in Japan in February next year, with director Paul Campion in attendance.

Even now, with the movie half a year old and travelling the globe in a way that I can only dream I could, there is a strange feeling of unreality - as if it's something I imagined rather than something that actually happened. As I mentioned before, the first development meeting for the as-yet-untitled sequel was held in The Hospital Club in London last week, and even though we started thrashing out the storyline and, during the course of our chat, received phone-calls from different actors to confirm their desire to participate, it still seemed like we were having a bit of fun rather than actually working. That atmosphere doesn't prevail all the way through the process of course - making movies is very far from being a doddle - but it's a still a unique and at times delightful way to earn a living.

On a different note, readers who've been following the development of new TERROR TALES line, may be interested in a brand new novel from the writer Antonia James, who has a story in our next volume (due out next Easter).
THE THUNDERSTONE is a fascinating 'regional horror' set in the Lancashire heartland surrounding notorious Pendle Hill. It's aimed at the older teen market, but is a compelling tale of witchcraft and romance, and is written with a real eye for that bleak and mysterious district. Well worth checking out, though I'm sure you'll be able to judge that for yourselves from the amazing cover.

Again on a different note, it's getting increasingly difficult to ignore the time of year. With flurries of snow outside and holly and ivy adorning most front doors, I thought I might celebrate the season by posting a couple of my older Christmas ghost stories here on the blog in the next couple of weeks. I'm not sure exactly which section they'll appear in, but watch this space for more details.