Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Slide Left

“Slide left.”

His father’s voice. It didn’t belong here and it didn’t hang around.

The door to the basement slammed and Michael opened his eyes. Whatever was down there with him shifted its weight and sighed. Michael pushed himself across the wet dirt floor back towards the cellar steps. The door would be locked. He knew it. He'd heard the metal screech of a dead-bolt. He was trapped down here. In the dark, with this rotten smell and with whatever this thing was.

He found a wall and pressed himself against it. Some impulse told him to set about looking for a weapon but what would be down here? Where would he find something to protect him from whatever had made his captors cackle as they pushed him down the steps? He tried desperately to make sense of what had happened.

His car had broken down in the rain. That was it. That was how it had started. The battery had died and he was looking for a phone so he could get some help because his bloody phone battery was as dead as the one in his car. He was only looking for help. He should have known. He should have guessed by the smiles on these people’s faces that they weren’t quite right. The house had looked normal from the outside. The man and the woman, both tall, she had lots of blonde hair and he had hardly any. They invited him in. Said they knew the number for the services. It all looked…normal. He could smell their dinner cooking in the oven. Heard some crooner on the radio. It had all been fine.

Then he had seen through to the living room. There was a girl lying on the floor, not moving, a pool of blood circling her head. He’d rushed over to help. He’d been trying to help. He’d had a hand on her shoulder and was shouting and then he'd heard laughter. And a scream. And everything had gone black.

“Hello,” said a woman’s voice. “You shouldn’t be down here.”

Michael looked up with a start, his heart pounding deafening blood, peering into the darkness. Whoever had spoken was hidden but the voice didn’t sound unkind. It sounded apologetic.

“I know,” he said stupidly, “I don’t know what happened…I think...something hit me on the head and I fell down. There was a girl. What…who are these people?”

The sigh again. It was less sinister now, sadder. Michael leaned forward.

“Don’t you know? They’re killers. They take people like you and me and they put us down here and then they wait.”

“Wait for what?” asked Michael. He knew he didn’t want an answer but he couldn’t help himself. He didn't have to wait long for it.

“They wait for us to stop. They wait for us to stop fighting, to stop trying, to stop hoping. Then we stop breathing.”

A hammering sound from upstairs. Fists on the door, a mocking wailing, and finally laughter. Michael closed his eyes.

“How long have you been down here?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I was seventeen when I first woke up. How old do I sound?”

Michael thought the voice coming from the darkness was that of a young woman. He inched along the wall towards her. If only he could see who he was talking to. If they could work together, they could find a way out, and he told her so.

“You can’t get out of here. There’s not an out.” The girl was resigned.

Michael was not going to listen to this. There was a way out. There had to be. There was a way in so there was a way out. The two freaks upstairs couldn’t keep him locked down here for ever. And this girl, the one down here, she needed his help. No matter how scared he was, he had responsibilities. So he took a deep breath. And he told her about what his father used to tell him about bad situations.

“He used to tell me that when the worst thing in the world is coming towards you like a fucking lorry, just slide left. That’s all you need to do. No matter how hopeless, how inevitable it seems, there’s always another way out, another way around. You don’t need the perfect solution, it doesn’t have to be a work of genius, but that’s all you need sometimes. To just…slide left. To get out of the way.”

“It’s not always as simple as that,” the voice came back. There was less sorrow, more determination. How long had she been down here? Maybe she really believed there was no way out.

“It can be. There’s always a way.”

Then a thought made him stop cold.

“Wait…you said ‘us’. Have there been others?”

“Of course,” returned the voice. “Some have gone. One or two are still here.”

Michael stopped cold. If there was a group, why had they not mounted an escape? Even teenagers like this girl should surely be capable of taking on the two upstairs. He blinked again and was relieved that his vision was starting to improve.

“Who else is here? Why aren’t they talking?”

“Patrick can’t. Millie’s shy.”

He looked around the room, willing his eyes to adjust to the darkness even faster. Why couldn’t he see further than a few inches?

“Tell them not to worry. I’m going to get us out of here.” He needed to believe it. Because he could do this. He could get out. He could get them all out, whoever the hell was down here. They’d all get out together.
The sigh again.

“We’re not worried. Millie says thank you for trying to help. She appreciated the gesture but you should never have come. The rest of us feel the same. We don't like you coming down here and talking about a way out. Like it was easy. Like it was something we hadn't thought of. Patrick can’t talk to you because they took his tongue. There’s a boy called Dominic around here somewhere but he doesn’t like anyone to see him since they took his skin.”

Michael couldn’t breathe. He could barely speak. But he had to.

“What did they take from you?”

“Everything. They took everything from me, Michael. And then they took my heart.

A face thrust in front of him, skin a torn mass of white and red, blood running down from her mouth over shattered teeth, sickly eyes rolled up towards the ceiling and a guttural voice coming from a bottomless well of agony.

“Do you want to see my way out, Michael? Are you ready to escape, you arrogant piece of shit?”

Michael opened his mouth to scream.

“If only I'd tried sliding left, you stupid fucking moron.”


Hi there.

First of all, sorry about the delay in getting new fiction up. I've ended up being very busy with non-fictional things, some of which have been good, some of which have been bad, all of which have taken time. Anyway. Here's a short story. Kind of a companion piece to This Bitter Family Tree, except I couldn't do it in 500 words so I had to settle for 1000. The title comes from @Daanando and it's not quite what I had in mind for it originally, but I couldn't quite figure out what to do with that story. It was also going to be a lot more mournful but suddenly she was angry and I liked that a lot more.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

This Bitter Family Tree

Michael Thurlston trudged through the dark woods towards the house. The howling wind masked the crunching of his boots on the snow. In his bag he carried only what he needed to survive the journey there. There would be no journey back.

The house looked out over a small lake. His family had once owned all the surrounding land but it had been sold off, piece by piece, until only the house remained. The house was all that was required.

He climbed the frosted wooden steps and took the key from his bag. The key was an ancient thing but the lock offered no resistance. The moonlight streaming through the windows made the candles Michael had brought with him unnecessary. He lit them anyway. He’d been told that ceremony was important.

The walls were lined with dusty portraits. Generations of Thurlston men stared out at the skinny, bearded 30 year-old who lay his coat carefully by the door. Michael took a moment to examine his forefathers. The resemblance was clear, occasionally uncanny. A proud line dating back hundreds of years. A family with a strict tradition. Not one of them was smiling. Michael understood.

Several feet above him, close to the ceiling, the long-dead men in the photographs had gathered to watch the ceremony below them unfold. The spirits chattered away, safe in the knowledge that they could not be heard. The tone was one of approval. “It’s time. He’s come of his own accord, as he should.” Murmurs of agreement echoed in their private realm ten feet in the air.

One spirit stood apart from the others. Matthew Thurlston watched, weeping, as Michael went to his bag, took out a small package and began to unwrap it. As his fingers wrapped around the shiny pistol it was all too much for Matthew. He snapped and howled for Michael to stop.

Below him, Michael looked up. He could have sworn he heard a man’s voice. One that was strangely familiar. But that was impossible. There was no one here to distract him from what had to be done.

Matthew was quickly surrounded by angry spirits, Thurlston men with their dark eyes, Roman noses and widow’s peaks, speaking in unison. “You cannot interfere. He must take his life. From generation to generation it comes to pass. We all did it, you did it. Now it is his turn.”

Matthew begged, pleaded for his son’s life. Finally he asked the question each had once asked. “Why can’t we let him go? Why tell him to do this?”

“Spite” said the assembled voices. “Inherited bitterness. One went first. Then the next. Now we go on. Thirty years to start a family, produce an heir, then his time is done.”

“Not my boy,” cried Matthew, and raced down through the air. He hovered next to Michael and screamed a warning in his ear. Just in time for the bullet to pass through it. Shaking, Matthew dried his eyes and waited to greet his son.


Hello there. 

You may have noticed that this title is not in the list of suggested titles. You may have also noticed that this story is a good 2,500 words shorter than the ones I usually put up on here. Well, the story behind this was that I forgot to write a story for a short story competition. The word count was 500 words, and once I realised that I'd missed the deadline I thought I'd try to write the story in 500 words anyway, and not let myself go over even by 1 word. It was a fun little challenge, actually. Resisting the urge to introduce the patriarch who instigated the tradition who would gravely intone the Thurlston rules, I just had them recited in en masse. Rather than give Michael any character of his own, you just assume he has a son because of the rules. I had two ideas for stories, the other one would hopefully be a lot scarier and I will try and get that written this week too.

It might not work at all. I wrote it quite quickly but I did a lot of fiddling with it, making sure the wording was just right. I'm glad I wrote it as it was a nice reminder about how important the words are. Which is an obvious point, really, but when you get used to waffling on it's easy to forget. With a story this short there's no room for skimming. It has to be precise, which is a style I went for in my novel (and the in-progress follow-up, which is moving forward slowly). And I like that. I hope you enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Hatfull of Horror Halloween Special!

Hello there. This year's Halloween special is a sequel to last year's "Let the Jack-o'-Lanterns Light Your Way Home" While it's not essential to read the previous one, it won't hurt if you'd like to. Just a quick reminder that the voice is supposed to be an English person reading an American story. Right, let's get going...


Dr Francis Tallow had been treating Bobby Fitch for a year and the boy’s version of the events of that night hadn’t changed once. One year ago, on Halloween night, the then-eight year old child had been found wandering the streets of his neighbourhood with his baby sister. When a concerned family out trick or treating had asked him where his parents were, he had directed them to a house that should have been empty. Instead, it contained the bloodied, mangled remains of Mr and Mrs Fitch. They had been torn to pieces by God knows what. When he had arrived on the scene Sheriff Abbott had taken one look inside and told Bobby that he and his sister should go with him to the station. Bobby had cheerily agreed. Abbott had given him a cup of hot chocolate and asked if he knew what had happened to his parents, Bobby had said yes. He told him the monsters did it.

In the year since the respected, even revered, Dr Tallow had made no progress in breaking through the wall that Bobby’s psyche had set up to protect itself. In most respects, Bobby had seemed to be a remarkably balanced little boy. He’d never shown any of the usual reactions a child displays to witnessing such horrendous trauma. The only evidence that he even needed regular psychiatric treatment was in this fiction that Bobby had created for himself. He claimed that he had come across his parents committing a terrible act, and that five of his neighbours had arrived to rescue him. The five neighbours had been two well-dressed British vampires (“Barbara and Peter”) and three witches (“Rebecca, and the twins Emily and Katharine”), two of whom had naturally been twins. These five supernatural beings had rescued him and his baby sister from the monsters that had been his parents.

Elements of the boy’s story had since been substantiated. The bodies of three murdered children had been found in the house’s basement, and it didn’t take the police long to prove that Bobby’s parents had indeed been the culprits. Subsequent investigation that had used the two as suspects had shown that they were behind many cases of missing children in the area. Bodies were found in the house they had lived in with their children, while those of other victims remained undiscovered. There was little doubt that the boy’s parents had been monsters in the truest sense, some of the worst criminals in the history of the country, let alone Illinois. However, the houses on Maple Lane that Bobby claimed had been inhabited by these witches and vampires had been unoccupied for months and there had been no indication that anybody had been there since. Precisely what had killed Bobby’s parents had remained a mystery. The popular theory was that one of their victims had fought back and disappeared but Tallow didn’t care to hazard a guess.

The child psychologist was impressed at how much they had managed to keep from Bobby. He claimed to have enjoyed a very happy childhood and that he had only discovered the truth on that fateful night one year ago. His teachers had all told him that he was a happy, well-adjusted boy. Then again, these were the same teachers who told him that Bobby’s parents seemed like a lovely friendly couple.

But while Bobby had appeared to be remarkably balanced, all this had changed one week ago with the boy complaining of terrifying nightmares that he believed were premonitions. Dr Tallow supposed he really should have seen it coming. The one year anniversary of the terrible incident would of course bring up some unpleasant memories. But there was a conviction to the boy’s fears that unsettled him. He told his doctor that his parents were returning from the grave to claim him and his sister. His foster family, a kind elderly couple who had looked after Bobby and Baby Lauren for nearly eight months now, had contacted Tallow seven days ago to say that they couldn’t wait for the bi-weekly check-up. He’d seen Bobby every day this week and he was only getting worse.

It was the end of a crisp, clear Halloween afternoon. Tallow sat opposite the nine year old patient. His blonde hair was longer than he’d sometimes seen it, but he’d never been heavier than skinny. However, Bobby was clearly suffering from a lack of sleep. His fingers worried at the sleeves of his bright red jumper, and his eyes kept glancing at the clock on the wall. Tallow leaned back in his chair.

“How are you feeling today, Bobby?”

“OK,” came the non-committal response.

“Mr and Mrs Stowe tell me that you didn’t sleep a wink last night. Is that true?” Bobby nodded without looking at his doctor. “Bobby, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this but lack of sleep is only going to make these fears of yours worse. Now, these dreams you’ve been having, I know you know that they’re not real. I understand that they’re frightening but they’re impossible.”

“They’re coming back,” said Bobby. “They’re coming back tonight, for me and Lauren.”  Tallow sighed.

“Bobby, listen to me. Your parents are not coming back for you. I want you to remember everything we’ve talked about in our sessions. I want you to remember that nothing that happened that night was your fault. Your parents were bad people but that does not mean you are too. You have people who care about you, who are worried about you. And they’re worried about the way that you’re acting.”

Bobby turned away from the window to look at Tallow, the beginnings of tears forming in his eyes. “I know that Mr and Mrs Stowe care about me. But it won’t make any difference. Because they’re coming back and they’re going to take us.”

Tallow stood up and walked around to place a hand on his patient’s shoulder. “No they’re not. Because they are dead and there is no coming back from that. I know it’s Halloween but there are no monsters out there tonight. It’s all make-believe, Bobby. You must understand that.”

Bobby shook his head, his blonde hair waving from side to side. “The people who helped me last year were monsters. They killed my parents and they saved me and Lauren. If they exist, my parents can too.”

Tallow fought to keep his temper. A year had passed and he had not been able to dent the boy’s conviction in the slightest. If he couldn’t convince Bobby that he hadn’t been rescued by monsters, how could he convince him that monsters weren’t coming to get him? He was an old man now. He’d seen his fair share of patients and he knew when he was losing them. He took a deep breath and restored calm to his voice. “Look, just listen to me. It’s not real, Bobby. I don’t know who saved you that night but they weren’t monsters. There is no such thing. And this is why you will be safe tonight. Because the dead cannot rise from the damn grave.”

He walked back round to his side of the table. He hated that he had nearly lost his temper but he had to get through to this child. Robert Fitch had been through so much already. He went to the window and watched the setting sun through the autumn leaves. It was such a lovely time of year and it was a source of great joy for so many. He hoped that one day Bobby would be able to enjoy it. “So, Bobby, will you be going trick or treating this evening?”

Before he got an answer the door was opened and a young male orderly hurried in, out of breath but determined to speak.

“Doctor Tallow, there’s a telephone call for you. It’s urgent.”

Tallow switched his phone off as a matter of principle during his sessions. He followed the orderly down the hall to the nurses’ station where he found a gaggle of grave-looking hospital staff standing around the telephone. “Yes, alright, everyone, I’m here now,” he told them as he picked up the receiver. “Doctor Tallow speaking.”

“Tallow,” came the cracked voice from the other end of the line. “Finally. This is Sheriff Abbott. For God’s sake, Tallow, I’ve been trying…I’m over at the Stowe place. It’s a mess over here, Tallow. Is the boy with you?”

Tallow struggled to keep up with the Sheriff. “Yes, Robert’s here. Sheriff, what’s going on?”

There was a pause on the end of the line. “Doc, the Stowes are dead. Listen, we could barely tell it’s them. It’s taken some time to make sure but Lauren is gone. Whoever did this took the kid with them. Are you sure you’ve got Robert safe?”

Tallow stood stunned for a moment. Then he understood that he was needed. “Hang on; I’ll call you on my cell. I’m going to check on the boy now.”

He hung up and ran back as fast as he could. He could have cried when he saw that Bobby was sitting where he had left him. “Bobby’s, thank God. Right, we’re going to have to stay here for a little while, is that OK?” Bobby nodded and Tallow smiled. He turned his cell phone on and dialled the number for Abbott. “Sheriff, Robert’s fine. What…what are we going to do?”

“Alright, you stay with him. We’re heading over to the hospital now. Don’t let him out of your sight. I’ve alerted the security staff there but for now the most important thing is that we get Bobby someplace safe.”

“OK. I understand.” Tallow took a seat next to Bobby and did his best to keep the fear out of his voice. “Sorry about this, Bobby. The Sheriff is coming over and he’s going to take you to the police station for Halloween, he’s got something fun planned for you.”

Bobby stared up at him. “This is what they said would happen, in my dream. Mom and Dad told me that they’d get Lauren first, then they’d come find me. They said the police would try and stop them but it wouldn’t do any good.” There was no fear, no excitement in his voice. This was just something that he knew would happen.

The room suddenly seemed a lot darker to Tallow. The sun had set and he went over to switch the light on. “No one is coming to find you, Bobby,” he told him as he crossed the room. “The only person who’s coming for you is the Sheriff, because he wants to help look after you. We’re all going to go down the station together. There’s nothing to worry about.”

“Mr and Mrs Stowe are dead, aren’t they?” asked Bobby and for a moment Tallow couldn’t think of an answer. He flicked the light switch, filling the room with a cold fluorescent glow. But only for a moment. The lights went out. Not just in that room, but the hallway too. Tallow opened the door and looked down the corridor. Pitch black.

“Don’t worry, Bobby, I’m sure this is just a temporary…” Tallow began, before there was a squawk of the PA system being turned on. Then the sound of a woman crying came over the intercom.

“Bobby…” said the woman’s voice. Tallow recognised it as Nurse Freemont, the head nurse. She was the toughest member of staff in the entire hospital, she’d seen more than anyone. But her voice was choked through her tears. “Bobby, your mom and dad want you to know that they love you very much. They want you to know that they’re here now. They’ve come to pick you up. They’ve…”

The words stopped with a brief cry and gruesome snapping sound. Then another voice came on, barely a voice at all. A low gurgle. “Hi, baby. Mommy and Daddy have been in the waiting area. But now we’re coming to find you.” There were a few seconds of guttural laughter and another screech of feedback as the PA cut off. Tallow dialled the Sheriff’s number again.

“Abbott, where the hell are you?” he hissed.

“Five minutes away, what’s going on?” barked the Sheriff over the sound of the sirens.

Tallow felt his gut drop. “You’ll be too late.”

“Yes, they will,” said a woman’s voice from behind him. Tallow dropped the phone and span round. A man and woman stood in the doorway, concealed by the darkness. Tallow backed away towards Bobby. Good god, he thought, this isn’t possible. He heard the sound of a scraping chair as Bobby leapt to his feet.

“Barbara!” he cried and ran over to greet them.

“Hello, sweetheart. It’s time to go.” The couple stepped into the room and in the moonlight Tallow could see that they were immaculately dressed in beautiful Halloween costumes. Both had black hair, his combed neatly back and hers hanging down to near her waist. Tall, skinny, and beautiful, they could have been models. Models dressed up like…were those fangs? “Who’s this?” asked the woman, in an accent that Tallow could have sworn was British.

“This is my friend, Dr Tallow,” Bobby replied.

“Dr Tallow,” said the man, stepping forward with an outstretched hand. Stunned, Tallow shook it. The man frowned as he looked around the room. “My name is Peter, this is my wife Barbara. I assume Bobby has told you what we are. Now, you have a choice. You can either wait here for Bobby’s parents to arrive, or you can leave via the window with us.”

“We’re five stories up,” said Tallow. Peter grinned.

“We have our ways. What’s the answer?”

A scream came from the other end of the corridor accompanied by a wet noise that Tallow didn’t want to think too much about. “Window,” he answered.

“Excellent choice. Come on, everyone.” Barbara swept Bobby up in her arms and Peter took Tallow into a fierce bear hug. “Trust me,” he told him, and leapt through the window, taking Tallow with him in a shower of broken glass. For a moment the doctor felt the cold wind rushing past his face and then he was simply standing in the hospital car park. Before he could attempt to fathom it Peter took his arm and dragged him over to a grey van a few feet away. The van’s side door was opened from the inside and Tallow was pushed in.

Sitting opposite him were three dark-haired women. He would have guessed that two identical twins were in their early twenties, while the third was in her late fifties. The eldest grinned at him. Barbara helped Bobby in beside Tallow as Peter clambered in the front and turned the keys in the ignition.

“These are the witches, Dr Tallow,” said Bobby, who could only smile politely. “Where are we going, Barbara?”

Barbara had climbed into the front to ride shotgun by her husband. She looked up at the rear-view mirror and Tallow felt giddy when he realised that he couldn’t see her in it. “We have to take you back to the house Bobby. We need to go back to where it happened, I’m afraid. They’re vulnerable in that spot. Outside of that house, nothing could kill them. I’m sure the security staff at the hospital wasted a few bullets figuring that out. But inside, we’ve got a good chance of sending them back.”

“I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions, Doctor, but it’s actually fairly simple,” said the eldest witch flaunting that grin. “We killed Bobby’s parents a year ago. We thought we’d purged the evil. Well, that particular evil, anyway. But there’s always a risk when you send away something bad on Halloween that it’ll come right back again. Lots of closed doors find a way to open; lots of things that should be chained up find a way to get free. It’s their night after all.”

“Luckily for Bobby,” said Barbara, turning back with a grin, “it’s our night too.”

Tallow glanced at the boy. He looked more relaxed than Tallow had seen him in the entire year that he had been treating him; indeed, he looked up with a grin.

“I told you they were real, Doctor. I told you that the witches and the vampires saved me.”

A ripple of laughter went around the van.

“You can’t blame the doctor for not believing you, Bobby,” said Peter as he slowed the van for a traffic light. “You’re a very lucky boy, you came across us and you’re still alive. There aren’t many people like you, not in the whole world. We’re not exactly known for being friendly.”

“Why…why did you spare Bobby?” asked Tallow. The twins, Emily and Katharine, he remembered their names were, looked up at him; their expressions worryingly close to angry.

“Because we like him. He’s adorable. It’s not his fault his parents are monsters.” They spoke in unison, which Tallow found deeply unnerving but somehow not surprising.

“But aren’t you all…?” he asked, not wanting to finish his sentence and offend them further.

“Well, yes,” said Barbara. “But there are monsters and there are monsters.”

“That’s what you told my parents last year!” said Bobby, giggling. Tallow decided that perhaps it would be best to just stay quiet.

It wasn’t long at all before the van was stopped and everyone piled out into the street. Tallow realised where they were. Maple Lane. This was where Sheriff Abbott had found Bobby and Baby Lauren, dazed but miraculously unharmed. Jack-o’-lanterns had lined the street that night and people in fancy dress had crowded the crime scene, desperate for a glimpse at what had happened. Now, one year later, and the street was empty. Nobody would dare to trick or treat here. Tallow watched as his companions took their bags from the van and walked up to the house. Once inside, the witches immediately started unpacking while the vampires directed Bobby to the sofa.

“What’s the plan then? Are you going to, what, drink their blood?” asked Tallow.

“Not an option, I’m afraid,” said Barbara gravely. “We can’t drink the blood of reanimated corpses and even if we could drain them, it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. They’re driven by something stronger than blood, hard though that might be to believe. We have two options available to us and we’re going to try both. The witches will attempt to remove the souls from the bodies, before sending the souls back to wherever it is that they came from. My husband and I will be taking a more direct approach: dismemberment.”

Rebecca, the elder witch looked up from the symbol she was drawing in chalk on the floor. “Dismembering them won’t achieve anything in the long run. There’s no guarantee that they won’t come back. Even if you burn the pieces.”

“Yes well, we can think about the long run once we get rid of them, can’t we?” said Peter, who reached into the cupboard under the stairs and produced a large axe, which he began to wield decisively. The witches clucked their tongues and got on with unpacking.

“Can I do anything to help?” asked Tallow. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to but felt that it was only right to ask.

“Look after the child,” said the younger witches without looking up from their work. Tallow sat down on the sofa next to Bobby. It did look as though the young boy was starting to lose some of the confidence he’d found. When he looked up at Tallow the doctor could see the fear in his eyes and sympathised.

“Do you think they’ll bring Lauren with them, when they come?” he asked quietly. Tallow didn’t have an answer for him but he knew he had to produce one.

“I don’t know, Bobby. I don’t think they’d hurt Lauren. She’s still their daughter. I think we just need to wait and let your friends do their thing.”

Bobby nodded and the two of them sat there, watching the monsters in front of them prepare themselves. The three witches had created some kind of pentagram on the floor and huddled over it, muttering words in a language that Tallow didn’t know. The vampire Peter had found another axe somewhere and had given it to Barbara, and now the two of them were testing the blades and practising strokes. After a minute or two everything went quiet It seemed that the monsters were ready.

When silence fell nobody broke it. It was as if everyone agreed that quiet was important. Tallow wondered if they were scared. It seemed like an awful lot of trouble to go to if they were confident.

There was a thud at the front door followed by a squelching sound. Peter nodded at Barbara and carefully walked around the witches’ symbol to open the door. “It’s a pumpkin,” he called back to the company. “Oh…and here they are now.” Peter walked slowly back into the room, lifting the axe in readiness. Tallow could hear the horrible laughter from outside.

“Trick or treat, trick or treat, give us something good to eat.” The voices outside sang in unison, before the man spoke up. “We remember you. You must remember us. You tore us to bloody chunks; you took us away from our children. Well, we’ve come back.” There was something so ridiculous about their words that a part of Tallow’s brain fought to ignore it. It was impossible. All of this was impossible.

“Bobby’s in there with you, isn’t he?” The woman’s voice this time. Bobby shrank against Tallow. “Bobby, sweetie, it’s Mommy and Daddy! Come on out, that’s a good boy!” Tallow could feel Bobby trembling but he didn’t move. After a moment of silence from outside a groan was clearly audible. “Fine. We’ll just have to come in and get you then.”

There was a collective intake of breath from the room as everyone prepared. Tallow felt his jaw drop as he saw what entered the house.

The naked, shredded corpses of Bobby’s parents had been reassembled. There didn’t seem to be anything holding them together except perhaps whatever force had brought them back in the first place. Hunks of flesh jostled against each other and some dangled perilously. Teeth hung from their gums by roots gone brown. Eyeballs wobbled loosely in their sockets. The stink of rotted flesh filled the room. These two nightmares looked at Tallow and the boy next to him, and Tallow stifled the scream that came to his throat.

“It’s time to come home, son,” said Bobby’s father, stretching a ravaged arm out towards his boy. As he did so three voices began to chant. The ghouls turned to face the source and saw the witches sat on the floor, holding hands, eyes closed. They started to laugh and move towards the women before stopping abruptly.

“What…Is this magic?” asked Bobby’s mother. She pushed hard against whatever was holding her back. “Won’t last,” she laughed. “We’re magic too, now. I can feel it in my pieces. Let’s see who’s stronger.” Indeed, it appeared that the parents were making headway as they struggled. Tallow saw the elder witch open one eye and a jolt of fear flash across her face. He realised it would only be a matter of moments before the creatures got through.

“Enough, ladies,” said Barbara, and the chanting stopped. As it did, the two vampires raised their axes and brought them down cleanly. Two severed heads dropped to the floor, followed by the rest of the bodies. “I told you our way would be more effective,” she told the witches.

“Oh, Jesus, look,” muttered Tallow, pointing at the heads. The eyes were still moving. Their jaws flapped. Somehow, they were trying to talk.

“Smaller pieces needed, clearly,” said Peter. He raised his left foot and brought it down on the father’s head. The head collapsed under the weight, creating a gory mush under his shoe.

“For God’s sake, Peter, wait!” cried Barbara. “We need to know where Bobby’s sister is!” Peter looked up guiltily, muttering apologies about how he’d got carried away. The remaining head smiled as the jaw moved up and down like it was trying to laugh. “Don’t worry,” Barbara said to Bobby. “The head might not be able to talk but our friends here have ways of finding out what they want to know.”

The witches picked up Bobby’s mother’s severed head and took it into the kitchen, as Barbara and Peter set to work rendering the rest of the father’s body into a paste which could surely never reconstruct itself. After a few minutes, the witches returned without the head. “You can start work on the mother,” said Rebecca. “Lauren is outside in the bushes. They’d planned to grab Bobby too, then…well, not in front of the boy.”

“We found out just in time,” said Emily and Katharine. “The head started to liquidise. It was disgusting.”

Bobby ran outside and Tallow followed. And praise be, there she was. Under the bushes sat two-year-old Lauren, looking furious that she had been forgotten. Barbara came out to join them. “I think it’s best if you and Doctor Tallow leave now, Bobby. We’ll take care of the rest of this. And if you need our help again, we’ll come back.”

Tallow looked back up at the house and saw Peter, Rebecca, Emily and Katharine standing in the doorway looking out at him. “Look after Robert and Lauren, Doctor,” said Barbara. “We’ll see you soon.” The doctor nodded as he took Lauren in his arms and put a hand on Bobby’s shoulder. “Oh, and Doctor Tallow? Happy Halloween.”

And with that, Tallow, Bobby and Lauren walked down Maple Lane towards the approaching sirens.


Hello again, thanks for reading this year's Halloween tale, I really hope you enjoyed it. This one's a bit bigger and madder than last year's but I hope you think it's fun. It kind of gets a bit madcap in the second half but I wanted the monsters to come back and rescue Bobby and the only solemn way I could think to do that would be basically a repeat of last year's ending. And it's a Halloween story, there's room for silliness. Well, I hope you agree. And yeah, Dr Tallow is basically Dr Loomis under a different name. Last year's story was heavily influenced by the film Trick 'r Treat, and this year I put a bit of Halloween in there too.

The next story on the blog will be....well, I'm not sure yet but there's a strong chance it will be Slide Left, if the idea I have for it works out.

Happy Halloween!

Friday, 26 October 2012

Film review pushing: You should really see Excision

I know Skyfall's out this weekend but horror fans should really take note of Excision, which is showing at the Prince Charles Cinema in London from Sunday 28th for about a week before arriving on DVD on the 12th of November. It's the story of a teen outcast (AnnaLynne McCord) with neon sex-and-death fantasies and a passion for surgery. The film boasts a cast of cult icons including Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise, Traci Lords and the great John Waters and excellent character actors like Roger Bart and Marlee Matlin. It's gruesome and hilarious, touching and mad, and the lead actress is superb.

You can read my full gushing review here at Cinetalk and Londoners looking for a darkly comic treat this Halloween should definitely check it out. I know it's playing at some horror festivals over Halloween, including the FrighFest all nighter on Saturday and Celluloid Screams on Sunday, so do be sure to see it, and catch it when it comes to DVD. As an aside, I know I've gone on about American Mary a lot already but these two films really are such a welcome reminder of how important a interesting, complex female lead is. Actually, just an interesting, complex lead. To be honest, it's just great to see funny, daring horror.

Oh and my Skyfall review is up at Cinetalk, if you're interested, as are my London Film Festival reviews of the grubbily gripping Simon Killer, the lovingly trashy Kiss of the Damned, the skin-crawling true story Compliance, the the funny but slightly disappointing Seven Psychopaths, the absolutely hilarious Sightseers and actually very good Argo among others. There's a lot more but I'm running out of descriptions so I'll just let you browse Cinetalk for our team's coverage if you're so inclined.

Right, so, back to fiction. The Halloween Special story will be up in a day or two. I'm putting your title suggestions to one side for one story only. Sorry, but I want to write a sequel to last year's Halloween story: Let the Jack O'Lanterns Light Your Way Home. Because who doesn't love a sequel? What were we talking about? Ah yes, good original horror. Here's the trailer for Excision. Go and see it at the Prince Charles Cinema!

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Samurai Surprise

Hello there. The title for this short story comes from @lafemmeflaneuse . I hope you enjoy it.


You want to know how he got to be like that, that’s it, isn’t it? Now, I don’t mind telling you I did it. That’s fine. But I want to explain how it was that I came to be there, why I did what I did. You don’t have to believe me. I don’t expect you to. But you are going to sit here and listen to what I have to tell you.

You know my record. You know what I was in for; you’ve got my bloody file there in front of you. You can see I did six years for hitting that bloke. It wasn’t my fault he died; I didn’t know he had that condition, whatever it was. I didn’t even know he did die until they caught up with me at the pub two hours later. And obviously I’m not the first man ever to give up on boxing and get paid to hit people outside of the ring. But that’s not important. That time I was away, that’s not important either. The important thing came when I got out. I needed to find a job. I needed to pay my way, but I had nothing and nobody would give me the time of day. Not my parents. Not my old friends. And I couldn’t call Liz; she’d told me to leave her be. She didn’t want the boy to get confused. So I was alone.

I was living on the few quid I’d saved before I got put away but it was running out faster than I’d hoped. The day I met him I was sitting in Gina’s café drinking a cup of shit tea and feeling sorry for myself. Then in he walked. Sat down opposite me, grinned at me like he knew me. The stink of his aftershave wafted over the table. White hair slicked back over his scalp, wrinkles so deep you could hide things in them. Teeth yellow and cracked like old boiled sweets.

“Hello, Jimmy,” he said. “How are you doing, son?” I gave him a nod and told him I was doing alright. I thought he was mental, I thought maybe he’d just go away. But he leaned over the table with that grin. “I heard you got out, Jimmy, and I thought I’d pay you a visit. Now, don’t look at me like that, that won’t do. It’s good news, Jimmy. I want to help you. I want to give you a job.”

Of course, that was the magic word, that was. He might be a nutter, I thought, but if he’s got some cash to throw my way I can put up with a nutter for a bit. So I asked him how he knew my name.

“Oh, I know all about you. I know about that thing that they charged you for. I heard all about that. We’ve got friends in common, you and me. You know Mikey Brinch? Your old mate Mikey? He told me that you got out the other day and I know what that’s like. I know that it can be difficult to lay your hands on some money. And as luck would have it, I need someone handy. I’ve got something that you might be interested in. I’ve got a job and I’ve got a place for you to stay, rent-free. Now, tell me you’re not interested in that, eh?”

There was something about his grin; I just couldn’t keep eye contact with him. But the way he talked, the sentences running into each other, I couldn’t interrupt him. I had to wait till he’d finished before I could answer.

“I don’t know what Mikey told you about me but I’m not interested in anything…” I let the words tail off but he knew what I meant.

“Oh, don’t worry, Jimmy, I’m not going to ask you to rob a bank or anything. Jesus! Look, I’ve got a shop on Old Fork Road and I’ve had some trouble recently. Nothing too drastic but I could do with someone around the place who can handle himself if anyone takes it upon themselves to come round and start some trouble. And sadly, old bastard that I am, I’m not exactly up to it myself these days.”

Protection. That was what he was asking me for. Looking at him, I was pretty sure he could handle himself. He might have been old but there was a look in his eye that told me that he would definitely be capable of picked up a piece of cutlery and ramming it into my eye if he thought I was going to nick his wallet. He patted the table and stood up.

“Look, why don’t you just come round and have a look at the shop with me. I’ll show you the room and I’ll tell you exactly what I need from you. You can tell me what you think is a fair price for your services and if we agree, you can move in right away. If not, we’ll go our separate ways? How’s that?”

I didn’t like him. I didn’t trust him. But I wasn’t in a situation where I could be choosy about who I liked and trust wasn’t a luxury I’d had in a long time. So I agreed. He thrust out his hand. “The name’s Ayres.”

Old Fork Road was a twenty minute walk from Gina’s. Ayres prattled on the whole way about this and that. The changing face of London. The effect that global warming was having on the weather. The fact that his doctor wouldn’t let him eat bacon any more. All sorts of bollocks. I walked along with him and nodded at the right moments and was bloody relieved when we finally got there.

He unlocked the front door and took down the “Back in 10 minutes sign”. God knows how long he’d actually been away for. His shop was a newsagent, basically. You’ve been round there tonight, you’ve seen it. Magazines, fags, sweets, stationery, key cutting, all that stuff. Whatever you need when you can’t be arsed to walk to the supermarket. There’s so much stuff there that there’s barely room to swing a cat. He had one of those “5 children allowed at one time” signs up in the window, but I don’t think any kids ever came in. They were probably scared of him and that grin of his. Once he’d given me the tour of the shop he took me through to the back. On the right was a small stockroom, with another door which went down the basement (“Where the stuff I can’t shift lives”), and directly ahead was a flight of scabbily-carpeted stairs which curled sharply round to the left.

There were four rooms upstairs: his bedroom, a living room which doubled as a kitchen, a windowless bathroom, and a second bedroom. He opened the door with a grand sweep and laughed. “All this could be yours,” he told me. It was nothing special. A single bed, a bookcase, a small radiator and a large window looking out onto the street. I hadn’t expected anything better and I’d been scared of something worse.

We went through to the sitting room, where he took a seat in an armchair and directed me towards the sofa.

“What’s this trouble, then?” I asked. He shrugged.

“Hard to say, really, Jimmy. It’s difficult to know what to expect. Might be nothing at all, might be something serious. But, like I said, I hear you can handle yourself, so I’d like you here in case of emergency.”

“So no one’s made any specific threats?”

“No, not specifically. Like I said, there’s been a bit of trouble recently and I’m scared of a reoccurrence.” He shifted forward in his armchair. “Look, tell you what. I’ll pay you for a week, right now. During this week you can leave whenever you want if you don’t like it. I think you’ll see very quickly whether it’s for you or not, and I won’t judge you if you want to leave.”

He was making it very difficult for me to say no to him. He made it even more difficult when he put a grand in cash in my hands. “For the week, mind. We can discuss your fees again as and when you decide you want to continue.”

What choice did I have? I said yes. I went straight over to my hostel and grabbed my things from the locker. I went round my mum’s and posted a note through the door with the address of Ayres’ shop, in case she needed to find me. Then I was back, unpacking the few things I had. Once I’d finished I went back down into the shop. Ayres was standing behind the counter reading the paper. He glanced up as I came in and nodded. “You get squared away alright?” he asked. I told him I had and asked if there was anything I could do. “You’re doing it, son. Read the papers or magazines if you want, we close at nine.”

The day went slowly. Ayres had about three customers an hour until six o’clock and I’d guess about twenty people came in. I had no idea how he was making money. Finally nine o’clock came and he locked the door, flipped the sign, and we went upstairs. He heated up two of those ready-made chicken tikkas, the supermarket ones, and then we settled down in front of the telly. He flicked through the channels until he came across a black and white film with subtitles. I’ve never had much time for films but when I do I normally go for comedies. But Ayres got all excited when he saw this film was on. “Have you seen Seven Samurai before?” he asked. I shook my head. “You’re in for a treat, my son, watch this.” So I moved a little closer to the edge of my seat so I could read the subtitles, and I got involved.

It was a long fucking film. But I could see why Ayres was so excited about it. When it was over he clapped his hands and looked at me, grinning away. “Bloody masterpiece, that is. I love that film. What did you think?” When I told him I agreed he clapped me on the shoulder. “Good, good. See, you’re getting more than money out of this arrangement, Jim. You’re getting an education in classic cinema. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow. Let me know if you have any problems during the night.” I was going to ask him what he meant by problems but he was gone before I could. I put it down to his general strangeness and went off to bed.

I never slept well inside and it’s not a habit I’ve been able to shake. I wake up every hour or so then drift back to sleep. Any little noise will wake me up. So when there was the sound of something small falling to the floor in the shop below, I was out of bed like a shot. This was what I was being paid for. If someone was downstairs, I was going to get them out.

I don’t like violence at all. I never enjoyed hurting people, but I got paid to do it. It was as simple as that. Ayres’ had hired me and I was going to deliver. I’m not trying to big myself up but I can handle myself, and as I went downstairs but I knew that I could handle a confrontation if there was one. But it wasn’t a simple confrontation I had to deal with.

I peered round the bottom of the stairs to try and see what was what. Through the racks and shelves I could clearly see a figure by the door. Someone was inside, trespassing, so there was no need to play it quiet. I barged in, making as much noise as possible, shouting for whoever it was to get the fuck out now or I would beat the living shit out of them. The figure turned and I stopped shouting.

Standing in front of me, ready for a fight, was a bloody samurai. I am not making this up. There could be no doubt about it. Toshiro Mifune, or Kikuchiyo, I remember he was called, stood by the pick and mix at the counter. That’s not all. Not only was there a samurai standing there, he was in black and white and his edges were flickering. Obviously this wasn’t possible. It was a dream. I rubbed my eyes and this slightly grainy figure was still standing about six feet from me. A voice inside my head was telling me that there was no way a black and white samurai was there, but instinct made me duck as this monochrome fucking fictional character took his sword out from its sheath and ran at me.

I rolled behind the counter and reached for the bat that I’d seen stashed there earlier. The samurai’s sword crashed down above me, smashing the RSPCA change tin and sending copper change flying. I darted back out and swung the bat at his legs. I heard his left shin crack and he cried out in Japanese. As he went stumbling backwards his feet skidded on the coin and he tipped backwards, dropping his sword with a clatter on the floor. That same instinct that had saved my neck earlier told me to drop the bat and pick up the sword. As the samurai regained his balance I drove the point of his sword into his chest. The samurai staggered and fell without a word. I prodded him with my bare foot. He was dead.

I stood there staring at him for roughly five minutes. Then I woke up Ayres and dragged him, muttering, downstairs. I pointed at the samurai lying dead on his shop floor. He rubbed his eyes.

“Toshiro Mifune. That’s a first. Come upstairs, I’ll make us a drink. Leave him; he’ll be gone in a minute.”

Up in the living room, Ayres poured me a large whiskey and sat me down. My hands were still shaking and I still wasn’t convinced that I was actually awake.

“Right, how best to explain this…This is what I’m paying you for” he told me. “This…incident is an example of the trouble I was talking about. You see, Jimmy, I’ve recently discovered I have a remarkable gift. Everyone wishes their dreams would come true. Well, mine do. They…what’s the word, they manifest. Physically. But it’s not exactly a blessing. The dreams, these figures that are made real, they’re violent, they’re murderous. The first time it happened I woke up and my best friend from school had his hands around my throat. I assume Toshiro attacked you, rather than the other way around, right? I can’t explain why this is happening; I only know that it is. Maybe it’s punishment for something. I’ve done a lot of things in my life that I’m not proud of. Maybe it’s a freak fucking accident. But I need protection. I can’t handle them by myself. I need you.”

I let him talk. I let him explain, as much as he could. It was obvious that there was a lot he didn’t know. There was one question I had that was particularly pressing.

“Am I replacing anyone?” I asked. “I mean, have you had someone doing this for you before?”

“Oh, plenty,” he said. “Most left after a week or two, they couldn’t handle it. And sadly a couple of them have died.”

So there was my answer.

“You can still walk away, Jim. You can keep the thousand. I’m not short of cash, I’m sure you’ve realised the shop isn’t my…main source of income. It’s up to you. If you stay, I’ll knock it up to five.”

So I stayed.

He didn’t dream every night. Those quiet nights were the worst somehow, trying to guess what would come storming out of his imagination that I would have to beat to death. Like I said, I’m not a violent man, but there was something about the challenge that a part of me found exciting. And it was consequence free. These things weren’t real. About half an hour after their death they would simply vanish into thin air.

I can see by the look on your faces that you don’t believe me but in all my years in the ring I never had fights like these. I fought a man twice my size and I won. I fought boxers from the telly and took a beating but by God I caved their heads in. Mostly they were people I didn’t recognise, people I assume were from Ayres’ past, but that was none of my business. I beat them all. We only had one more film star after the samurai. I can say that I knocked the gun out of John Wayne’s hand before he could use it. And it was all staged like a fight, the way they would always come in that front door. Part of me wished that I’d had a crowd to see it. Not the killing, obviously, but the fight itself. I’ve never fought as well as I did fighting those things, whatever they were doing there. I had about two months of fighting at the top of my game.

Yesterday morning I was making a cup of tea in the back and I heard Ayres’ voice calling me. It didn’t sound urgent so I took my time. When I came through to the shop carrying my mug I saw Ayres chatting happily away to my wife and son.

I wasn’t prepared in the slightest. I hadn’t seen Liz since she’d visited me the first week I was inside when she told me that she wouldn’t be coming back. And my boy…I’d never met him. Mum had sent me pictures in the card she sent every year. She wouldn’t talk to me, Mum, but she’d still send me a card at Christmas. Anyway, I couldn’t speak. Ayres made his excuses and went upstairs, leaving me with these two people who felt like strangers. Liz smiled at me, the kind of smile that people make when they actually want to cry.

“How are you, Jimmy?” she asked. I told her I was fine. “I went round your Mum’s,” she said, “to see how you were doing. She said she hadn’t seen you but she knew you were working. She said you were staying out of trouble. Is that true?” What do you say to that? I told her it was, that I was keeping my nose clean and working hard. She wiped a tear from her eye and put a hand on the boy’s head. “This is Oscar. I wanted him to see his dad, and I wanted you to see him too.”

“Hello, Oscar.” I said. He hid behind his mum. I didn’t blame him but it hurt.

“Look,” she said. “I’m not promising anything but I wanted you to know that we’re still here, Jimmy. We haven’t gone anywhere and we’re not going to. But we need to know that you’re alright, that you can stick to this. If you can, I think we can maybe give it another go.”

I don’t remember much of what she said after that. She left about a minute later and I just remember feeling…happy. Like something good was going to happen. Something good was finally going to happen to me. I could have a normal life. I spent the rest of the day on cloud bloody nine. I’m sure things must have happened but I don’t recall. All I remember is going to sleep with a smile on my face for the first time in more than six years.

Obviously I wasn’t surprised when I heard a noise from downstairs. I grabbed the bat from its new home under my bed and went downstairs. Whatever it was, I hoped it was nothing too fierce. I was in too good a mood for a nasty scrap.

It wasn’t just one thing standing in the shop waiting for me. It was two. One was smaller than the other. They were holding hands. And as they stepped into the light I screamed. I screamed for the first time since I’d started fighting Ayres’ dreams. I screamed as my wife and son screamed back and attacked me.

When I’d finished I lay their bodies next to each other and tried to clean them up as best I could. I knew they would disappear soon enough but I couldn’t bear to see them looking like that. I’d tried to make it as quick as possible but a bat isn’t a clean weapon. It had taken a lot to make them stop. They were barely recognisable. This wasn’t just Ayres’ nightmare, it was mine.

Obviously you can’t control what you dream about. But no one should have to go through what I did. So, while I know you don’t believe me, this is the reason why I took the baseball bat, went up to Ayres’ bedroom and caved his head in. He won’t be dreaming any more. And I’m bloody praying that I won’t be either. 


Hope you enjoyed this one. I'm not quite sure the voice is convincing but hopefully the story's fun. As I said, this title comes from @lafemmeflaneuse and I'm very grateful for it. Oh, I have a list of titles that lovely Twitter folks have provided me with. Here goes:

....and the wind blew and they stayed like it (@jpwtweet)
Yesterday's Shoes (@nolanzebra3)
She Wore Stripes (@Merazad)
The Mystery of the Pomegranates (@mant_a_tangi)
An Empty Space on the Bookshelf (@andylonsdale21)
The Lesser Evil (@SFXPennyD)
Slide Left (@Daanando)
The Night My Heart Exploded (@DavidHayes4)
The Unexpected Samurai (martang66)

There's some great stuff here, please keep them coming, either on Twitter or in the comments section!

Thanks again for reading.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Classic Horror Campaign Double Feature: Carnival of Souls and The Blood on Satan's Claw

Right, a rare film-related post on the Hatfull blog, but given the time of year I thought it might be appropriate. Having been busy with London Film Festival coverage (find it all at Cinetalk!) over the past month I haven’t had a lot of time to watch as much horror as is typical for October, so I was very glad that, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I was able to duck into the Roxy Bar and Screen for The Classic Horror Campaign’s double bill of Carnival of Souls and The Blood on Satan’s Claw hosted by Richard Gladman (@cyberschizoid) and Dr Karen Oughton (@drkarenoughton). While I had seen the latter film before, I was very excited to see Carnival of Souls for the first time. It was a film that I’d heard referred to as a classic so many times and yet I’d never got around to watching it. It was also my first time at one of the Classic Horror Campaign’s events but I will certainly return.

“You’re gonna need me in the evening, you just don’t know it yet.”

First up was Carnival of Souls, directed by Herk Harvey and released in 1962. Candace Hillgoss stars as Mary Henry, the sole survivor of a drag race gone wrong who moves to Utah to take a job as a church organist. But she hasn’t even arrived at her destination before she starts being haunted by a ghostly pale figure that appears out of nowhere in impossible places. Mary does her best to settle into her new job and her boarding house but the apparition won’t leave her be. Whether she’s alone or in the middle of a crowd, Mary can’t shake whatever it is that’s following her.

The film is designed to keep as unsure of what's happening as the lead character. The dialogue’s occasionally clunky and some of the performances are both over-eager and awkward, but somehow all this contributes to Carnival of Souls’ strange charm. Mary’s landlady (Frances Feist) seems to be participating in her conversations with her tenant via satellite. There’s some wonderful editing that pushes Mary from one place to another with unnatural speed (the man at the gas station points in the direction of the boarding house, and she’s suddenly there). Mary herself veers between composure and hysteria as she is only able to comfortably interact with other people for short periods of time. Her church-bound occupation doesn’t provide any spiritual comfort as she’s not religious. She’s a woman who’s happiest by herself for whom a job is just a job, but this self-imposed isolation makes her an easy target for the spectre and his growing army of pale zombies who leaves her with no place to hide. A modern girl with no attachments is an easy target for a haunting.

Mary realises that she needs to be with other people in order to keep her tormentor at bay, and so agrees to a date with her sleazy, booze-soaked neighbour John Linden (Sidney Berger). But despite Linden's insistent lusting even he backs away when he sees that she’s terrified of something he doesn’t understand. Interestingly, ghoul aside, Linden is the only predatory figure in Carnival of Souls. Everyone else simply wants to help Mary but she’s incapable of reaching out until it’s too late. There are some great scares that obviously had a big influence on John Carpenter (in particular, In the Mouth of Madness and Halloween) and the image of the spirits rising from the water is one that will stick with you for some time. While it is undeniably clunky at times I can’t help but feel that somehow adds to the atmosphere, and for the most part it is a highly effective piece of landmark horror. It’s a chilling, unnerving and wonderfully atmospheric experience.

“Art thou ready to give thy skin tonight?”

Carnival of Souls was followed by something rather more garish: 1971’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw. Directed by Piers Haggard, it’s the story of a small English village that falls under the influence of Satanism after well-meaning but persistently blundering farmer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) accidentally unearths a mysterious skeleton that looks human and yet has fur.

It’s certainly of its time but there’s a lot to enjoy in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, which is probably the best known of Tigon’s productions along with Witchfinder General. While it doesn’t boast any of the more famous horror stars of the period there’s a full-blooded turn from Patrick Wymark (Repulsion, Witchfinder General) as the sceptical judge who must return to put a stop to the evil, and Linda Hayden (Taste the Blood of Dracula) has great fun as the scheming saucy sorceress Angel Blake. After a good start in which something terrible is waiting under the floorboards for the local squire’s fiancée, the plot can’t settle on a lead character, making the whole film feel quite choppy. You’d expect the squire to be the central figure, but when he disappears he’s never really replaced. Ralph does his best but is generally ineffectual and the judge is far too venal to be heroic. The townsfolk are all too eager to murder and burn to rid the town of its evil, creating a world in which we may as well root for the dark forces as they're much more fun.

But while it’s uneven there’s an enjoyable sense of malevolence about the film as the young people of the village all either fall under Satan’s spell or knife. Mark Gatiss applauded the film in his BBC documentary A History of Horror for its unnerving whistled theme, the surprisingly sexualised attack on young Cathy Vespers, and the wonderfully nasty conceit of Satan harvesting the skin of children. When the dark lord does finally appear he's inevitably underwhelming but this remains an entertaining if uneven bit of period British horror.

The Classic Horror Campaign returns on Sunday 4th of November with a double bill of the Vincent Price House on Haunted Hill and The Legacy, starring Katharine Ross and Sam Elliott. You can find details here and you can find them on Twitter @horrorcampaign

Normal fiction service will resume tomorrow. Oh, one last thing, I discovered the other day that my review of the Soska sisters' superb horror American Mary for Cinetalk was quoted on a trade ad for the film in The Hollywood Reporter at the TIFF. I got a little bit excited as it’s my first quote, and you can see the slightly illegible proof here:

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Widow and the Tree House

Eddie had one more signature still to get. One more, then he could go back to the office and tell Grace to shut her stupid anorexic face because he’d got fifty signatures pledging to vote to keep Clive Adamson MP in his seat. Grace had got forty yesterday and had come back to the office at seven minutes to five to gales of applause from the idiots who thought she was brilliant because she tall, blonde, and his superiors struggled to look her in the eye. But he knew that it wasn’t about looks. They’d get you so far, yeah, but it was about character. Image, appearance wasn’t everything. He could turn on the smile if he had to, but it wasn’t about that. It was about convincing the voters that their man was the right man for the job. Because he had something that Grace didn’t have. He believed in what he was doing. You don’t just believe in the party, you believe in yourself. Now he just had to get one more.

He pulled over to the side of the road and looked at the house opposite. Looked OK from the outside. No obvious commitment to any party. Which meant that they were fair game. He straightened his tie (party colours, obviously), checked his hair in the rear view mirror, and spat his half-finished polo mint into the ashtray. Couldn’t be seen to be eating in front of the voters. He checked his jacket pockets and his clipboard to be sure he had all the correct literature with him and walked briskly (but not hurriedly) across the road and up to the front door.

He pressed the doorbell once, holding it for as close to a second as he could make it. You didn’t want to seem insistent but you didn’t want it to seem like you were just going to go away either. Which is why he waited for thirty seconds and then pressed it for a further second. He heard footsteps approaching and readied his best smile.

What were they bothering her with this time? She never had anything to give these people, these people who came to the door and gave her grief about God or Jesus or bloody make-up. She supposed she should just let them ring the bell until they got sick of it and went away but Terence would never have stood for it. Terence would fling wide the door and tell them to stop bloody bothering them, to leave them alone and never come back. She didn’t have the nerve to do that. She could tell them that she wasn’t interested though. Tommy would be wanting his dinner soon and she hadn’t got anything ready.

She pulled the net curtain open just a little, which was a mistake as the chap saw her. He knew she was in. Gave a grin that Terence would have called shit-eating, though she wouldn’t have used such language, not in front of strangers anyway. Then again, she hadn’t talked to anyone at all really, not for a few years now. Oh well. Might as well see what this grinning loon wants. The sooner she did the sooner she’d be rid of him.

He saw the net curtain flicker and he flashed his teeth at her. Sure enough, the front door opened, just like he knew it would. The woman standing before him couldn’t have had many years past forty but she seemed much older somehow. She was hunched to the point where her eyes seemed to be nearly level with her shoulders. Her hand shook on the door. Her greying dark hair was decidedly unkempt. Eddie suddenly registered all the closed curtains, matched by the musty smell that wafted out of the house like it was trying to escape. This woman was clearly a shut-in. Someone who wouldn’t leave the house if it was on fire. Someone like this wouldn’t get out of the house to vote. There was a moment of self-doubt, but only a moment. What a story this would make, if he could get this agoraphobic lunatic to vote. Anyway, even she didn’t get out, he thought, that’s what the postal ballot is for.

“Hello, Madam,” he began before she could ask what he wanted, “my name is Edward Clackett and I’m out here today on behalf of Clive Adamson, your local MP. Can I ask, have you decided how you’re going to vote in the election next week?”

As he suspected, the woman looked utterly confused. He knew she was going to say no before her mouth started trying to form a word.

“Could I possibly come in? I have some literature here that might help you decide one way or the other.”

And with a gentle but forceful push, he was inside. You don’t want to seem threatening when you’re making your way into someone’s house but you want them to know that you are going to get into their living room so they might as well put the kettle on.

What was he doing? What was he talking about? She hadn’t voted in years, not since Terence died. After he passed there didn’t seem to be any point to it. So what was the oily, grinning man-child doing forcing his way into her home? She didn’t like this. She didn’t like this at all.

She looked skittish, which worried Eddie. It had been easy enough to get inside but if she started panicking it was game over. And then the story wouldn’t be about how he convinced a mad shut-in that voting for Clive Adamson MP was the right thing to do, it would be how he terrified a helpless old (but she wasn’t that old, not that they’d care) woman who probably wasn’t in full possession of her faculties. And that would be very bad indeed. So he needed to smooth things over. He needed to correct the atmosphere, get her sitting down and get her calm.

“Is it alright if I take a seat?” he asked. He didn’t want to presume to do anything now; he needed permission with someone this jumpy. There was an awkward pause but finally she gave a tiny tremulous nod and he smiled and took a seat in a white armchair which gave a quiet moan as he put his weight on it. There was a further awkward pause during which it looked like she might not sit down and just stand there staring at him, but finally she sat on the faded green sofa opposite and stared at him from there. He needed an ice breaker. He looked around the room for something banal and comforting to comment on. There it was. A family photo. Her, apparently a hundred years ago, a man slightly older than she was, and a young boy, about five years old.

“Is that your family?” he asked. Stupid question, but stupid was often the best way to start with these ones. She shifted in her seat, her top lip started to wobble. Bollocks, he thought, maybe this wasn’t the best way to start.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s me and my husband Terence, and our son Thomas. Terence…passed. Some years back.”

A grieving shut-in. He assumed his most contrite expression and leant forward. Just far enough to make it clear that he wanted to comfort her but not far enough to make her worried that he was actually going to touch her. She looked like she didn’t want to be touched. A hand on the knee might draw screams.

“I’m so sorry,” he told her. “It’s truly tragic to suffer a loss like that.” Truly tragic. He couldn’t tell if that was good or bad but there was no room for backtracking. He needed to be confident. Sincere. He paused a moment before asking what he knew was a risky bloody question. “And your son?” He held his breath and prayed that Tommy hadn’t been killed in some terrible fire with his father.

What did he want? What was he asking about her husband for, about Tommy? Slimy little shit. She needed to get rid of him before Tommy came in for his dinner. She still had to get it ready, he wouldn’t be at all happy if he came in to find nothing to eat and this salesman on the sofa. Asking about voting, indeed. She’d just have to give him what he wanted and get him out of here.

“Tommy’s living at home now,” she told him. He gave what he hoped was a comforting grin.

“That’s partly what I’m talking about, Mrs…” he left a pause for her to fill in her last name but she didn’t say a word. That didn’t matter; she could put it on the form when she signed the bloody thing. For now he would just carry on with his patter. “The youth of today need to be sent the right message. They need to know that there is someone who is looking out for them. In these uncertain economic times a young man’s future can seem awfully desperate, awfully unclear. Too many young people are simply drifting into a depressing void at the moment, moving home and wondering what they can possibly do with themselves. What Mr Adamson stands for is providing our young people with a strong work ethic and the opportunity to put it to good use.”

He inched a little closer to the edge of his seat, warming to his theme now.

“Because we know, our party that is, we know that things haven’t been easy over the last few years. But we’re determined that we can create a brighter future for the all of us here in the UK. And that’s what’s really important, isn’t it? A brighter future for kids like your Thomas. Our party is committed to your children and giving them the lives they deserve. Tell me, madam. Who did you vote for in the last election?”

He could certainly jabber on, this strange little man. He’d even started sweating when he really got going. She’d seen little flecks of spit flying from between his too-white teeth as he’d hit the word ‘people’ and the ‘s’ in ‘Adamson’. But she didn’t have time for his rambling. She had things to do, things to get ready. She didn’t have time for this man at all.

“What is it you want from me?” she asked, hoping that this would cut right to the point. But he just shook his head and leaned back in Terence’s armchair.

“It’s not what we want from you, Madam. It’s what we can give you. Not just a brighter future for your children but a brighter present for yourself too. Clive Adamson is working tirelessly to help put an end to this terrible state of affairs we’re in at the moment and if you would just sign our…” She nearly leapt to her feet here, hoping for the opportunity to something, anything to get rid of him, but instead he reached into his jacket and took out some leaflets.

“I have some literature here, if you’d care to read it. Just some information and some testimonials about Mr Adamson if you’d like to…”

“Give them here,” she told him. He was surprised to see her so anxious to read them but he didn’t question it. He handed them over and leaned back in his chair. He thought about carrying on talking but thought maybe a bit of quiet would be good, to let the importance of what she was reading really sink in. He turned his head to his left and looked out of the window. He was too committed now. A signature wasn’t going to be enough. He wasn’t going to be fobbed off with some ink on a piece of paper. He wanted this woman convinced. He wanted her to be a real party member. He wanted a fucking sticker in her window for when the papers came so everyone could see just what he’d accomplished.

Not that a sticker would be much use on this back window. The garden was much nicer than he’d expected given the state of the house. A good-sized patch of grass, bordered on all sides with well-kept flowerbeds, a small greenhouse, and what he would have guessed was an oak tree standing tall near the end of the garden. And there, up in the oak tree, was a good-sized tree house. Eddie had longed for a tree house growing up and hadn’t seen one in years. He had assumed the tradition had been lost when pre-teens had started getting iPhones for their birthdays. But here was one, in the heart of his community, in the home of this brave widowed woman who was preparing to commit herself to the right honourable candidate. His candidate. It was perfect. Except…

There was a glow coming from the oak tree that had nothing to do with the sunset. He could see a small but definite flow of black smoke coming from the window of the tree house. He got to his feet and hurried to the window. Yes, there was definitely smoke. The tree house was on fire. He turned to the woman who was flicking quickly through the descriptions of where you could find the party on social media. She hadn’t noticed the fire. If he sorted this out the widow would have no choice but to give them her vote, on account of his heroics. Perhaps even a story in the paper.

“Mrs… your tree house, it’s on fire!” he shouted, and ran to the back door, taking off his jacket and flinging the door open in one fluid movement. He could hear her shouting, probably telling him not to risk himself, or maybe asking him to hurry, it didn’t matter. He was going to put this fire out and win her allegiance.

She told him to stop. He didn’t listen. Going running off to the tree house Terence had built when they’d first been expecting. She didn’t go up there anymore.

Eddie scaled the oak tree with an ease that surprised him, given how little he’d been able to get to the gym recently. He was soon at the tree house door and ducked inside. Sure enough, a small pile of paper had been set alight. Probably some neighbourhood kids messing about, using the tree house without permission, kids that should have been in school. He stamped out the fire; his shoe could take the hit for the story. When he felt a sharp pain he assumed it was the heat, and lifted his foot clear. As he did so, he looked down and saw that his heel had been slashed. His foot stayed where it was, for the most part. Blood gushed from a savage tear in his navy sock. He screamed and fell backwards.

Eddie fell through the opening to the tree house and down to the ground, about twelve feet, landing on his back. As he looked up he saw a dark shape emerge from the tree house, jump, and land on its feet beside him. He wanted to scream but the air had been knocked out of him by the fall. As it knelt down and brought its face closer to Eddie’s, he saw who it was. The boy from the photo. A few years older, yes, and his face blackened by smoke, but definitely him. He grinned. The teeth had been sharpened into yellow points. Eddie now managed a scream, and the boy grabbed his hair and dragged him over the grass back towards the house.

The back door was still open. As Eddie was pulled inside his heel caught on the doorstep, twisting and tearing, sending another jet of pain up his leg. The boy pulled harder and got him inside, slamming the door behind him.

There was Tommy now. And he’d got the stupid man. She didn’t enjoy what Tommy did and she’d tried explaining that he shouldn’t do it. But if she was being honest, she wasn’t sorry to hear that man scream.

He was starting to lose awareness of what was happening to him. He was in the kitchen; his head had bounced off a hob and was now resting on a linoleum floor. He heard the slam of a drawer being yanked open and a clattering of silverware. He heard the boy laughing. Then he wasn’t aware of anything except the pain in his stomach.

So that was what he was doing for dinner then. She needn’t have worried.

It took some effort but Eddie managed to lift his head off the floor too look at what exactly this boy was doing to him. All he could see was a mess of hair above a widening patch of red around his belly. As his mouth dropped open, the boy lifted his head to look back at Eddie. His face was glistening with dark red goo. He flashed those sharpened teeth again. And between those teeth lay a rope of his intestines, skewered on the boy’s fangs, which he was working furiously back and forth. The boy’s grin widened as their eyes met, before he plunged his head back into the messy soup of Eddie’s stomach. Eddie felt his reason depart as the slurping started and let his head drop backwards.

Such a mess. Getting it everywhere. What a mess, what a terrible mess.

Eddie’s head fell to the right. Everything was becoming terribly blurry. But he could still make out the slippered feet of the widow hurrying over, and see Clive Adamson’s campaign literature used to move his blood and a few chunks of what he assumed were his viscera into one neat puddle on the lino by his nose, before he felt a hand reach up and under his ribcage and everything stopped.


Hello there. I hope you enjoyed this story. I hoped to have it up a bit sooner but things have been pretty hectic with the London Film Festival, which I'm covering for Cinetalk (find our coverage there).

This short story title comes from @scottywrotem and I really like it, I was buzzing with ideas as soon as he suggested it, so thank you very much to him for that.

So, I don't really have a lot to say about this story beyond the fact that I didn't want to do another ghost story (at least, not yet), and I wanted to write something that ended messily. I wanted to write something that wasn't subtle at all. So the humour's about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but I enjoyed writing it and I hope you enjoyed reading it. Oh and I promise I will stop ripping off Jack Ketchum soon. Other stories are under-way but please give me your titles! Thanks for reading.