Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Take a peek inside DEAD MAN WALKING

The pre-publication reviews for DEAD MAN WALKING have been pretty good so far, I’m happy to report, but the real business starts on Thursday this week, November 20, when the book is officially published. That’s when I suppose I should be getting nervous. It’s always an exciting time, but you’re on edge too – the general public thus far seem happy with my DS Heckenburg novels, so it’s fingers crossed that they’ll continue to be.
For anyone who hasn’t read any of the Heck books yet, and maybe needs a little encouragement, DEAD MAN WALKING wouldn’t be too bad a place to start. The Heck novels concern the investigations of a young but obsessive detective attached to an elite Scotland Yard unit dedicated to catching repeat killers, but though the books run as a series they exist in isolation from each other too. In other words, you won’t need to have read the first three to enjoy this one, which is the fourth.
Anyway, in case you still need some convincing, here, somewhat exclusively, is a chapter lifted freely from DEAD MAN WALKING, and reprinted for your personal delectation (the action takes place in the isolated Lake District village of Cragwood Keld, shortly after local police officers, Heck included, have aired a suspicion that a brutal killer may be on the loose):   

Rather to Hazel’s surprise, the pub drew custom that evening. She’d intended to keep the front door locked, but had told all the locals she’d still be open for business – they needed only to knock.
The first knock came shortly after six; Burt and Mandy Fillingham. This was perhaps expected. Fillingham, as a gossip merchant, would hear a lot less sitting behind locked doors at home than he would in The Witch’s Kettle. Half an hour later, Ted Haveloc showed up. In this case, it was more of a surprise. For a grizzled sixty-two-year-old, Haveloc was the most robust occupant of the Keld, a long-term outdoorsman with the gnarled hands and cracked black fingernails to prove it. But he lived alone of course, so perhaps even he felt more vulnerable than usual on a night like this. The O’Grady sisters, Dulcie and Sally, lived together, socialised together, did almost everything together, and yet they turned up a short time later too, having made the short trip across the green at a scurry and knocking frantically and continually on the pub’s heavy oaken door until Lucy opened it. Half an hour after that, Bella McCarthy and her husband did exactly the same thing. In their ones and twos, the customers settled around the fire, drank alcohol and conversed in quiet, subdued tones.
‘Strength in numbers, I suppose,’ Lucy said, as she and her aunt stood behind the bar.
‘Yep,’ Hazel replied. ‘Do me a favour, Luce. Go upstairs, check all the windows are locked … yeah?’
Lucy nodded and trotted away. Hazel glanced at her watch. It was just after six-thirty.
‘Is there anything to eat, Hazel?’ Ted Haveloc called across the taproom. ‘I haven’t had a meal all day, and I’m famished.’
‘Erm, yeah … sure,’ she said, unable to think of any reason why the normal menu wouldn’t be operating. They had plenty of food in the larder, and neither she nor Lucy would have much else to do for the rest of the evening. ‘Give us a minute, okay?’
She breezed through into the kitchen, turned the ovens on and, as an afterthought, opened the top panel in the window over the sink. It was a relatively small kitchen and would quickly get hot and stuffy when they started cooking.
Then Hazel heard the ululation – the distant, eerie ululation.
Astonished, she turned to the window.
Several seconds passed as she wondered if she’d imagined it. Because it had sounded like no human cry she’d ever heard, and yet some disconcerting inner sense told her that was exactly what it was.
Beyond the window lay the yard where her maroon Renault Laguna was parked, and various crates and barrels awaited collection by the drayman. Even with the gates barred, as they were now, someone could get in there easily enough – the walls were only seven feet high. But briefly, that didn’t matter.
Hazel knew what she’d heard.
She opened the back door and stood on the step, listening. The air was bitter, the fog thick, grimy and fluffy as cotton wool. Was it possible there was some kind of error here? Had someone been fiddling around with the jukebox in the taproom? But now she heard the cry again – this time prolonged for several seconds longer than before. Weird, ululating, so filled with angst and torment that it barely sounded human. Abruptly, it snapped off.
Hazel stood rooted to the spot, deep shivers passing down her spine.
When she finally went back inside, she ensured to lock the door behind her. Almost certainly the rare atmospheric conditions were partly responsible for her hearing that sound. She had no doubt it had travelled a long distance. The normal acoustics in the Cradle would also have assisted. Whenever the drag-hunt was around, she’d hear the yipping of the hounds and the drone of the hunting horn when the pack was way up at the north end of the valley.
Two words formed in her mind – for about the twentieth time that day.
Annie Beckwith.
Hazel seriously doubted that even on a night like this, noises at Fellstead Grange would be audible in Cragwood Keld. But that poor old dear was such a long way from help should she need it, and of course she had no idea she was in danger. Lucy reappeared in the kitchen doorway, so abruptly that Hazel jumped.
‘Ted Haveloc’s still asking if there’s any food on tonight?’
‘Erm, yeah, yeah … sure. Give them the menus. Listen, Lucy …?’
Lucy glanced back in.
‘You’ll have to cook it yourself. That okay?’
Lucky looked briefly puzzled, but then shrugged. ‘No problem.’
While Lucy went back out into the taproom, Hazel crossed the kitchen and retrieved one of the police contact cards. The first number she tried was Heck’s mobile. Predictably, there was no response. Following that, she tried Mary-Ellen. That gained no reply either. She went out into the bar and tried the police station from the landline, but it was the same outcome.
‘Anyone up at Cragwood Keld police office, Ted?’ she asked Ted Haveloc. As he lived closest to the police station, he was the most likely to know.
‘The lights were on when I came out, Hazel, but I didn’t see anyone moving around,’ he replied. ‘The Land Rover’s not there, nor Sergeant Heckenburg’s Citroen. At a guess, the place is still locked up and they’re out and about.’
Cumbria prided itself on the sense of community preserved in its small, close-knit towns and villages. Hazel supposed this had developed naturally in an environment where all occupants were lumped together. Encircled by bleak moors, fathomless forests, and high, wind-riven mountains, there was a sense of embattlement, and of course they had terrible winters here – the worst rain, the worst snow, and now it seemed, the worst fog. Lake District residents needed to get on well together and look out for each other, just to endure.
As such, Hazel wondered when it was that she’d last seen Annie.
A couple of years ago, easily. The old dear had reluctantly come down to the pub to celebrate Ted Haveloc’s sixtieth, and even then she’d been all skin and bone, wearing ragged clothes. Ted, who knew Annie better than anyone because he occasionally went up to help with chores on her run-down farm, might have seen her more recently, but not, as far as Hazel was aware, in the last few months. The water company truck went up there reasonably regularly too, to empty the septic tank, but would its crew have any interaction with the old girl? Would they even know she was there while they were working?
None of this was good enough, Hazel decided. Mark had said they’d get up there at some point, but he hadn’t held out much hope it would be anytime soon, and it probably wouldn’t be because he and Mary-Ellen would have a lot to do. But in the meantime someone had to look out for that nice old lady.
Hazel slipped out around the bar to the foot of the stairs. Nobody noticed; they were all too busy giving Lucy their food orders. Upstairs in the flat, she put on her walking boots and her fleece-lined jacket. She decided that she’d try to persuade Annie to come back down here, offer to put her up for a few nights free of charge. If nothing else, the old lady could have a hot bath, get a proper night’s sleep, and sit out the crisis in relative safety. Failing that – because Hazel knew Annie, and she could be stubborn as an ox – she’d take her some supplies up; some eggs, milk, bread, some packets of tea and dried soup, some chocolate and biscuits. She didn’t know what Annie lived on half the time. She’d once kept cows and pigs. She’d even had a pony for her trap, though said trap was now most likely decaying in some forgotten outbuilding. Ultimately, Annie had become too infirm to tend her stock, though she’d often tell anyone who’d listen that they were her only real friends. Apparently, she still grew her own fruit and vegetables, but in all honesty how easy could it be to eke out your existence like that, especially when you were an OAP?
Feeling guilty at not having done this before, Hazel quickly went back downstairs and straight into the kitchen before anyone could query her. She got everything together, placed it in a wicker basket and covered it with a fresh tablecloth. She also grabbed herself an electric torch.
Then she had another thought.
Perhaps it was a bit silly – maybe an overreaction, maybe a massive overreaction, but Mark had seemed genuinely concerned earlier on. She knew a little bit about his background. He’d been in a few scrapes, to say the least. Surely it would take a lot to discomfort him as much as he’d looked discomforted today? In which case, assuming this menace wasn’t imaginary, she left the basket on one of the kitchen work-tops and trotted back upstairs. As she did, she felt a different kind of guilt – about breaking her word. Before he’d set off on his travels, Mark had strongly advised her to stay in the pub and provide a safe haven for the occupants of Cragwood Keld. Definitely not to go to the far end of the Cradle and up the Track to Annie’s farm. But Mark had only been here two and a half months. He was a good man, but a child of the urban sprawl. He likely had no idea how much they all cared for each other in these rural outlands. Hazel made a mental commitment to teach him that – if he opted to stay with her and give it a go.
And she wasn’t ignoring his concerns either. That was why she was now back up here in the flat, why she was rummaging through the closet among her ex’s old sports gear and fishing tackle. The item she was looking for was right at the back, in a zipped canvas case. She lifted it out. It was old now, not quite an antique, but it had belonged to her father and to her grandfather before him. Slowly and cautiously, she drew the zipper down and extricated the object inside.
It was a double-barrel Purdey shotgun, a twelve-gauge. With its walnut stock, open scroll coin engravings on its sidelock, and blued carbon steel barrels, it was an exquisite piece of craftsmanship, and had been her father’s pride and joy when he’d used to go duck hunting. Even now it was in excellent working condition. Over the years, she’d disassembled and reassembled it several times, oiling it regularly. Both Mark and Mary-Ellen knew she had it in her possession, but while the two cops didn’t exactly approve, they weren’t about to turn her in. Mark would probably do his nut if he knew she kept it in an old cupboard in her lounge, but the truth was she didn’t really have anywhere else.
The one big problem of course, was the absence of ammunition. There was a cartridge box in the closet, on a high shelf. Mark had told her she was supposed to keep the ammunition away from the firearm – but as the box only contained two cartridges it hardly seemed worth the trouble. There’d only been two as long as Hazel could remember. She broke the breech open just to check, then snapped it closed again, slid it back into its case, and shoved the cartridge box into her fleece pocket.
Before descending the stairs, Hazel took off her fleece and draped it over her shoulder, to conceal the weapon. No one in the taproom noticed, but in the kitchen Lucy was now hard at work. She’d already spotted the basket of supplies, and when she saw the shotgun as well her eyebrows arched dramatically.
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ Hazel said. ‘But I’m going up to Fellstead Grange.’
‘Annie Beckwith’s place? Why?’
Hazel didn’t mention the cry she’d heard earlier. She was starting to think that had been nothing significant; an animal or some rare bird. There were plenty to choose from in the heart of the National Park. But the others wouldn’t rationalise it that way. They’d try to stop her going.
‘I don’t like the idea of her being alone up there.’
‘Heck said it wasn’t a good idea,’ Lucy argued.
It’s easy for him to say that,’ Hazel replied. ‘He doesn’t know Annie. To him, she’s just a name.’
‘He knows what he’s talking about. Anyway, M-E said she’d go and look.’
‘Will Mary-Ellen take Annie some spare food? Will she suggest she come down here and stay for a few nights in the pub?’
Lucy had no answer for that.
‘It’s not a problem,’ Hazel added. ‘I’m driving to the Ho, and walking up the Track to Annie’s farm. I’ll be forty minutes, tops. And if anyone tries to mess with me …’ she hefted the shotgun, ‘I’ve got this.’
Lucy looked more than a little sceptical. ‘Have you ever fired that thing?’
‘You point it and pull the trigger. How hard can it be?’
‘In this fog you won’t know who it is until they’re right on top of you.’
‘No one’s going to be on top of me,’ Hazel said with an airy confidence she didn’t feel. She pulled a bob-cap on, zipped her fleece and took her gear to the back door. ‘Close the gate after I’ve gone, and make sure you put the bolt on. Then lock the back door and look after our customers. They’re your responsibility while I’m gone. Like I say, I’ll be forty minutes, max.’
Lucy gave her further arguments, but knew from experience that when her Aunt Hazel’s mind was made up, there was no changing it. Hazel had a disarmingly gentle manner, but for several years she’d survived comfortably in an isolated environment which in winter was as challenging as they came. Many was the time Lucy had seen her carrying piles of firewood through the snow, chipping ice from frozen water pipes, fixing broken roof-tiles and gutters, tasks which didn’t remotely faze her. For all her soft exterior, Hazel was gutsy and independent, and she cared about her neighbours; that latter aspect of her character, in particular, was non-negotiable. So in the end Lucy did as she was asked, closing the back gate straight away after Hazel had reversed out through it in her Laguna, and ramming the bolt home; then going back indoors to cook everyone their tea.
Slowly and cautiously, Hazel’s heavy car rumbled its way around the exterior of the pub, joining Truscott Drive, the single lane that ran upward across the green and through the centre of the village. Very little was visible, even with full headlights, the beams draining ineffectively into impenetrable murk. In some ways it was encouraging, she thought, as she finally reached the top of the Drive and swung left onto Cragwood Road. Because whoever she couldn’t see out there, they presumably couldn’t see her either. Though merely thinking in those terms – that there might be someone out there – was surprisingly unnerving.
‘There’s no one here,’ she assured herself as she coasted north through sheets of opaque mist. Whatever had happened to those girls, it had been way up in the fells. Anyway, the police had already admitted they didn’t know for sure what the incident involved. It could have been an accident.
Hazel had told Lucy she’d be there and back in around forty minutes, but in fact so slow was her progress that it took her over twenty to drive the three miles to Cragwood Ho. She pulled up in the car park at the foot of the Cradle Track, and turned off her engine. She was uncertain how she felt about seeing the police Land Rover sitting there. On one hand, it might mean Mary-Ellen had now gone up the Track herself to check on old Annie, which would be great news. But it could also be that she was still on the other side of the tarn, having not yet returned in the police launch, in which case Hazel was still here alone.
She checked her phone. It was just past seven-twenty; evening was now turning into night. Even so, she sat behind her steering wheel for several minutes longer, listening. The silence was absolute, the vapour shifting past her windows in solid palls. Briefly, she could sense the towering, rock-strewn slopes as they rose inexorably to her left and right, eventually reaching the heights of Pavey Ark and Blea Rigg, though all Hazel could see in the glow of her headlights was the dry-stone wall in front of her. When she switched the lights off, even that vanished.
Several more seconds passed, while she worked up the courage to climb out.
She hadn’t expected to be frightened, but suddenly all that stuff about the fog hiding her as effectively as it might hide someone else seemed like over-optimistic nonsense. Feeling as if she was crossing some kind of Rubicon, Hazel reached into the back seat, slid the shotgun from its case and inserted the two cartridges. Snapping the weapon closed again, she climbed from the car, circled around, took the basket of supplies out from the other side, and shut the door.
The thud of the central locking system echoed in the dimness. She loitered by the vehicle as she listened to it. A few seconds later, she tried both Mark and Mary-Ellen on their mobile phones once more, but again there was no contact. She glanced down across the car park to the other houses. They were only fifty or so yards away, but the blanketing mist concealed all lights. Now that she thought about it, Hazel wondered if she ought to be concerned about the others who lived at this isolated end of the valley as well. Okay, they’d already been given a heads-up by the police, though that was no guarantee Bessie Longhorn would be safe. Hazel made a decision to call at Bessie’s cottage on the way back, and check she was okay. Maybe take her down to the pub for couple of days as well. She might even, if she felt particularly charitable, offer the same option to Bill Ramsdale, though she expected she’d get short shrift on that – which would probably be a good thing. Bessie and Annie would be hard work enough – but wasn’t that what communities were all about?
Hazel switched her torch on and ventured along the wall to the point where the gate and the stile were located. On the other side, the Track snaked uphill into the gloom. It was composed mainly of broken slate, which had deluged from the slopes above, and slithered and cracked underfoot when anyone stepped on it. It closely followed the edge of a barren, rock-filled ravine, and though at this lower level it was broad enough for a narrow-gauge vehicle to pass along it, Hazel didn’t personally know anyone who’d be crazy enough to try that in this weather.
 She slid through the stile and started upward, only now realising how challenging a hike this would be. Fifteen minutes minimum, she reckoned, while all the while the gradient increasing. It wasn’t a straight track, either. It bent and looped. The ravine, which, though it was cloaked from view, lay close on her left and grew progressively deeper, its sides ever more sheer, as she ascended, while the miasma turned steadily thicker. She’d often assumed that, as fog was heavy, the higher up into it you climbed, the thinner it would become. Earlier that day, she’d tried to imagine what this fog would look like from the point of view of a chopper lofting high above the Pikes: bare rocky islands slowly emerging from an oozing grey ocean.
Here and there on her right, clutches of young pine grew amid the jagged piles of slate. She occasionally glimpsed them through the torch-lit vapour, but there was nothing cute or Christmassy about them. Many were fantastically warped and twisted by the wind and cold. Equally unnerving, and for some reason Hazel could never fathom, climbers and fell-walkers traversing this route in the past had chosen particularly hefty shards of slate, some of them three or four feet in length, and had then used smaller pieces to prop them upright on both sides of the path – usually every hundred yards or so. What they were supposed to be – distance-markers, or even some variety of crude outdoor art – she never knew, but the illusion they created was of gravestones. Or, if one of the largest ones – some were maybe as tall as five or six feet – suddenly loomed from the fog, of malformed figures standing close by.
She ignored them as she trudged on, the crunching impacts of her boots resounding loudly. By now she was breathing hard, her knees and ankles aching as she leaned forward with each step, occasionally slipping or skidding. A couple of times she thought she heard movement – a scrape or rattle of pebbles. She would always stop on these occasions, only to be greeted by unearthly stillness. Each time it was entirely possible she’d heard an echo, though it set her nerves on edge. She filched her phone from her fleece pocket to see how long she’d been here, and was dismayed to find it was only a couple of minutes.
Sweat chilling on her body, Hazel dragged herself up the Track, which grew ever more uneven and rugged. Only after what seemed much longer than fifteen minutes, closer to half an hour maybe, did it at last level out again, and diverged into two distinct routes. The left-hand route continued ahead, still rising slowly into the Pikes, but from this point only as the narrowest of footpaths. The right-hand route remained broad enough for vehicle passage, just about, and led beneath the darkly woven branches of several firs, before crossing a low bridge into the rocky corrie where Fellstead Grange was located.
In good weather, this was a stunningly beautiful spot. Fellstead Corrie was a natural amphitheatre in the hillside, its gentle slopes thick with bracken, gorse and springy heather, and ascending on all sides to high, ice-carved ridges. The farmhouse itself stood close to a bubbling pool at the foot of a cataract, which poured from the dizzying heights of High White Stones like a helter-skelter. At its rear there was a network of allotments, greenhouses (mostly dingy with mould and filled with brambles), decrepit barns and sheds which all belonged to Annie, and swathes of overgrown pasture for which there were now no animals to graze upon. The building, which was early eighteenth-century in origin, was large and sprawling, comprising various wings and gables, and built from solid Lakeland stone with a roof of Westmorland slate. Spruced up, it would be magnificent, and in a location like this it would make a superb country house or holiday inn. But in its current state of semi-dereliction, it was an eyesore. Both the walls and roof were crabbed with lichen, the rotted iron gutters stuffed with mosses and bird’s nests. But of course, none of this dilapidation was visible at present. 
With the basket over her left wrist and the shotgun cradled under her right arm, Hazel felt her way across the rickety bridge. Fellstead Beck gurgled past underneath, having circled around the farm from the waterfall plunge-pool. A few dozen yards to her right somewhere, it dropped down a narrow gully into the lower valley, eventually at some point – Hazel wasn’t sure exactly where – flowing into the tarn.
On the other side of the bridge, beyond a pair of moss-clad gateposts, she entered the farmyard proper, her feet clipping on aged paving stones as she approached the darkened structure just vaguely visible in the fog. When she halted again, the only sound was the distant rushing of water. Meanwhile, not a single light shone from the eerie edifice. In the icy murk, it resembled an abandoned Viking long-hall; the remnant of some Nordic nightmare rather than a family home. Disconcertingly, the darkness beyond its windows seemed even darker than the darkness outside. Annie Beckwith had no electricity, no gas … but surely she would keep a fire in her living room? Didn’t she even have candles?
Hazel checked her phone again. It was now after seven-forty. Too early even for Annie Beckwith to go to bed. She approached the front door. If the old lady was sleeping, Hazel didn’t like the idea of disturbing her. But she’d not come all this way to turn back without at least trying to make contact. She knocked several times on the warped, scabby wood. There was no thunderous echo inside; the door was too thick and heavy. Likewise, there was no reply.
Hazel tried again – the same.
She fumbled for the handle, a corroded iron ring, which, when she twisted it, turned easily. There was a clunk as the latch was disengaged on the other side, and the door creaked open an inch. To open it the rest of the way, she had to put her shoulder against it, grating it inward over the stone floor.
This was also a tad discomforting. It wasn’t common practise for folk in this part of the world to keep their doors permanently locked, but surely a lone OAP like Annie would do so at night, especially living all the way out here?
‘Hello!’ Hazel called into the blackness.
Again, there was no response.
She sidled through, unbidden, and was hit with an eye-watering stench, the combined aromas of grime, mildew and decay.
Hazel shone her torch around the room, which was so cluttered with broken and dingy furniture that it was more like a lock-up crammed with rubbish than an actual living space. Dust furred everything, so that colours – the fabrics in the upholstery and lampshades and the many drapes and curtains – were indiscernible, each item a uniform grey-brown. And yet, evidence of the fine old farmhouse this had once been was still there. The fireplace was a broad stone hearth, elaborately carved around its edges with vines and animals, though currently filled with cinders, burnt fragments of feathers and what looked like chicken bones. The mantel above was a huge affair, again constructed from Lakeland stone and heavily corniced, and yet dangling with tendrils of wax from the multiple melted candles on top of it. A mirror was placed above the mantel, so old and tarnished that only cloudy vagueness was reflected there. Ancient sepia photographs hung in cracked, lopsided frames, the faces they depicted lost beneath films of dirt. These added to the house’s melancholy air, but also created the eerie sensation that eyes were upon her. Hazel turned sharply a couple of times, imagining there was someone hidden in a corner whom she hadn’t previously noticed, perhaps peering out through one of those veils of dust-web, eyes bloodshot, yellow peg teeth fixed in a limpid, deranged grin.
‘For God’s sake, woman, what’s the matter with you?’ she said to herself in a tight voice. Her and her bloody imagination. ‘Annie?’ she called out. ‘Annie, it’s Hazel Carter! You know, from The Witch’s Kettle!’
There was no answer, but her voice echoed in various parts of the house. Immediately on her left, an arched doorway led into a passage that Hazel thought connected with the kitchen and dining room, but the blackness down there was so thick it was almost tangible. She ignored it, moving into the centre of the lounge, only to freeze at a skittering, rustling sound. She turned, just as a whip-like tail vanished beneath the web-shrouded hulk of an age-old Welsh dresser.
Hazel had to fight down a pang of revulsion. The place was clearly unfit for human habitation as it was, but if it was crawling with rats as well …
A furry, grey body scuttled along the mantle, casting a huge, amorphous shadow as she followed it with her torch. Stubs of candles went flying to the floor, their ceramic holders shattering. The rat leapt after them and moved in a blur of speed down the passage towards the kitchen.
There was no question, Hazel decided – they had to get the social services onto this. Annie would hate them for it, but what choice did they have?
But this was assuming Annie was still alive.
At least there was no sign of forced entry, or that there’d been any kind of struggle in here. Not, if Hazel was totally honest, that it would be easy to tell.
Hazel glanced at the brown-stained ceiling, realising with a sense of deep oppression that she had yet to check the upstairs. So unwilling that it was difficult to set her legs in motion, she advanced across the room to a square entry in the facing wall which led to other rooms, as well as the foot of the main stair. She approached it and gazed up. Even without fog, the darkness at the top was impermeable. It seemed to absorb the glow of her torch rather than retreat from it. Hazel hesitated before placing the basket of food on a side-table and, with shotgun levelled in one hand and torch extended in the other, slowly ascended. The hair was stiff on her scalp. It was actually a terrible thing she was doing here; she’d entered someone’s home uninvited, and was now processing from one area to the next with a loaded firearm. But she couldn’t leave. She’d called out and no one had responded, and with the house unlocked, implying someone was at home, she knew there was some kind of problem here. The temptation to call again was strong, but now some basic instinct advised her that stealth was a better option.
Hazel reached the top of the staircase. The landing was all cobwebs, bare floorboards and plaster walls, the plaster so damp and dirty that it was falling away in chunks, revealing bone-like lathes underneath. Various doorways opened off it. The doorway to the room that Hazel thought Annie might use as a bedroom was at the end of a short passage on the left. When she directed her torch in that direction, the door was partly open, more blackness lurking on the other side. Someone could easily be waiting in there, watching her, and she wouldn’t see them from here.
Despite this, Hazel trod slowly forward, only halting when she was right in front of it. Even close up, the room was hidden from view. There was insufficient space between the door and its jamb for her torch to illuminate anything beyond. But now there was something else too – a faint but rather fetid smell, like open drains.
Hazel knew she was going to have to say something. It wasn’t the done thing to barge unannounced into someone’s private room, especially with a gun, not even if you were concerned for their wellbeing. Steeling herself in the face of an urge to hurry back downstairs and leave the building, she spoke loudly and clearly.
‘Annie? Are you alright in there? It’s Hazel Carter … you know, from The Witch’s Kettle down in Cragwood Keld.’
Again there was a response, but the silence was beyond creepy. It was intense, weird; a listening silence. Despite every molecule in her body telling her to flee this odious place, Hazel propelled herself forward, pushing against the door, and as it swung open, entered with torch in one hand and shotgun balanced over the top of it.
What she saw in there had her blinking with shock.
And then screeching with horror …


If you want to read any more, I guess you know what you’ve got to do. DEAD MAN WALKING will be available at all the usual outlets from first thing Thursday morning.

On the subject of the new novel, I recently wrote a piece for BLINKBOX (the Tesco retail site, which focusses on movies and books), describing some my own experiences as a police officer and assessing how many of them have made it into my fiction, and it’s now appeared HERE.

BLINKBOX are currently running a competition on their TWITTER page, with the prize a one-off proof copy of the book, in which HarperCollins will have added an extra page, allowing the winner to dedicate it to a person of his/her choice.

A very nice idea, I think - a different kind of Christmas prezzie maybe? Anyway, you've got to be in it to win it, so if you fancy having a go, the competition is still running - it only expires at 5pm on Monday November 24. But as I say, you'll need to do it via the BLINKBOX TWITTER page. Best of luck if you have a go.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Tis nearly the season to be jolly well scared

I’m happy to report that my Christmas e-collection, IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER is now available to purchase. All one needs to do is follow the link.

I put this lot together especially for release this Christmas. It contains five festive terror tales, and to whet your whistles, so to speak - assuming you enjoy the occasional seasonal chiller - here is a sample from each one:

Arrayed along its sill there was snowman jazz band, each figure about a foot tall, all with the usual carrot noses and brass button eyes, but also wearing boaters and striped blazers; one carried a banjo, the other a saxophone, while the third was seated behind a drum kit. It was true, Tookey reflected. Anyone who could afford all this could afford to miss out on a few presents.
 "Tookey, move your arse, yeah!" Spazzer said. Tookey made to go over and join him, but glanced first at the snowman jazz band, all of whose heads were turned towards him. He felt certain they hadn’t been that way a minute ago.
… from The Christmas Toys

Arthur had to slam the brakes on, sending the car into a ten-metre skid (thank God they'd only been crawling). When they stopped, he stared blankly at the road ahead. It appeared to fork. Faintly visible through the swirls of snowflakes, two minor tracks led off in opposite directions. There was no signpost on view.  

Puzzled, he dug into the glove compartment to check the map. But unfortunately it was now too dark inside the car to read the wretched thing. When he put the interior light on, it affected little more than a dull glow, and his eyes weren't up to the rigors of scanning a crumpled, coffee-stained page on which the roads were squiggles and the names of the few settlements in this region printed so small that they'd be difficult to pick out with a magnifying glass. Arthur glanced through the window again. Whiteout conditions persisted, and night was now falling properly.
... from The Faerie

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 …
… from Midnight Service

Much of the varnish was now dirty and yellowed, but through it the deeply-troubled visage of Hugh Holker was still visible; an elderly man with sagging jowls, a heavily furrowed brow and thick grey tufts for sideburns. Phil had been in to look at the picture several times already, and still found it compelling. The artist had depicted Holker leaning forward on his fist, in a posture of dignified contemplation, but had etched despair and even fear into the final composition. The old industrialist’s eyes bore a stark quality, as if some ghastly apparition had just materialised before him. In the background meanwhile there were indistinct mist-forms, swirls and eddies of smoke or fog, which might have had more to do with the picture’s age than the artist’s intent, but which were ominously obscure all the same.
… from The Mummers

... of all the Father Christmases Ruth had ever seen – and some of them had been pretty odious (bored pensioners in cheap department store grottoes, drunks in fancy dress fighting in town centres) – there was something especially sinister about this one: in particular his face, or rather his lack of face. The dense red beard was attached to a papier-mâché mask. Whoever had made it, had tried their best to fulfill the Christmas fantasy: the fat, apple-red cheeks; the large, bent nose; the bushy eyebrows; the broad, grinning mouth. But putting all these together, there was something about it that wasn’t quite right.
 Possibly the eyes.
 These were holes through which the person beneath could look, but to Ruth they were empty sockets, menacing slits with only darkness behind them.
… from The Killing Ground

As long as I’ve been writing scary stories, I’ve put pen to paper around autumn time, as the Christmas spirit began slowly to grow on me, to create what I hoped would be festive spook fare. I now have many such tales in my locker, most of which have already been published in one shape or another, though several others still sit on the drawing board in an as yet undeveloped state – so I’m hopeful there will be more to follow.

This is an old custom, of course, possibly made most famous by MR James (pictured above) during his famous Christmas Eve readings at King’s College, though it predates that considerably. Even in the pre-Christian era, the midwinter festival was traditionally the time for ceremonial gatherings and instructive stories, people grouping nervously around blazing fires as the ice and darkness swallowed the world they knew – not just for safety and company, but for spiritual strength, seeking to commune with their gods and spirits, and interact with deceased ancestors who might bring advice or warnings from beyond.

Many modern horror writers have willingly tapped into the magic and mystery of the Christmas season. I mean, anyone who fancies having a go at this, me included, is in excellent company to say the very least.

Some of my favourite horrific and supernatural tales have been set at this splendid time of year. Robert Bloch’s THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, Stephen Gallagher’s TO DANCE BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, Lanyon Jones’s A DICKENSIAN CHRISTMAS, Anton Chekov’s THE CROOKED MIRROR and Ramsey Campbell’s two unforgettable excursions into yuletide horror, THE CHIMNEY and THE DECORATIONS, are among the very best, while Charles Dickens’s THE SIGNAL-MAN and Sheridan Le Fanu’s SCHALKEN THE PAINTER, while not specifically set at Christmas, are traditionally dusted off each December thanks firstly to the former being first published in the Christmas edition of ALL THE YEAR ROUND in 1866, but mainly to the marvelous BBC television adaptations of these tales as 'Ghost Stories for Christmas' way back in 1976 and 1979 respectively (I purloined the tortured face higher up on the left from the latter).


On a slightly different note, this week I was the happy recipient of DEAD MAN WALKING, the fourth novel in my DS Heckenbug series. These are my own author copies, I have to say … the title still only gets published in its complete form on November 20.

(By the way, pictured just below here, is the cover image of DIE JAGD, which is the German version of a short story of mine, THE CHASE, first published as an ebook by Harper last year).

It’s early days yet of course, but thus far DEAD MAN WALKING has largely acquired five-star reviews on GOODREADS (sorry – just thought I’d drop that in). But just to prove that the work never stops at this end, the next novel in the Heck series, HUNTED (due to be published on May 7th next year), left my keyboard last Friday afternoon, having been written and proofed. It now commences the trek around the HarperCollins copyediting desks. What can I say except that I await its return with baited breath.

The blizzard pic used much further up is by Tony-DarkGrave.