Monday, 27 February 2012

A Thrilling Warning to Naughty Ladies

The intrusive tree branches were beating against the windows of the girls’ dormitory at St. Catherine’s, encouraged by the wind that found its way through the cracks of the old building. It was approaching midnight and the girls were not yet ready for sleep. They inched to the edges of their beds, pulled the covers tighter around themselves, and whispered loudly about Alice Cander.

Alice had crept out of the school to meet up with her boyfriend, Ricky Gale. Ricky Gale wore a leather jacket and drove a shimmering shining silver motorbike. None of the girls apart from Alice had spoken to Ricky Gale, but Peggy and Blanche had seen him drop Alice by the back gate last week. When they’d questioned her, Alice hadn’t told them much. Just that Ricky drove a motorbike, that he was so much more mature than any boy she’d ever met, and that he smoked Malboros.

Alice had snuck out after lights out at ten. She should have been back by now, but no one was surprised that she wasn’t. Not when she was out with Ricky Gale.

“Has she kissed him yet?” asked Libby, her teeth wired to the hilt with vindictively elaborate braces. The girls laughed at Libby. Of course she’d kissed him. She’d probably gone all the way. Everyone knew that Alice was like that.

“Who’s on duty tonight?” asked Blanche. She wanted to know how much noise they could get away with making.

“I think it’s the new English teacher, Miss Tindfall. She only arrived tonight, it seems a bit mean,” said Peggy with a grin that told everyone she didn’t think it mean at all. New teachers were always a source of great entertainment.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” said Libby, anxious to regain some ground after demonstrating her naiveté. “Why don’t we tell a ghost story?”

Laughter again. Libby curled herself into a sad little ball in the dark.

“Go on then, Libby. Tell us one we haven’t heard before,” said Blanche.

“Lover’s lane with the hook?” asked Peggy.

“There’s a killer in the backseat?” asked Blanche.

“How about Bloody Mary?” asked Mandy, who had previously been silent for the same awkward, nervous reasons as Libby but had spotted a great opportunity to use her friend as a stepping stone to slighter greater popularity. Libby felt the betrayal slip between her ribs like a knife and it would be many years before she hated anyone with the same sincerity.

“I’ve got a story for you,” said a woman’s voice from the doorway. The girls gasped and turned to look. A figure stood, cast in shadow in front of the light from behind her. As the girls hurried to lie down she stepped into the room. She was a young woman in her twenties, dressed in a long white nightgown, with long brown hair past her shoulders.

“It’s midnight, children. You should be asleep. Instead you are talking and one of you is missing. You needn’t bother protecting her, she has been found.”

“We’re sorry, miss. We were just telling ghost stories, weren’t we?” said Peggy. Everyone, even Libby, murmured agreement.

“Ghost stories, is it?” asked the woman. She stepped inside and softly closed the dormitory door behind her. “I see. If I tell you a ghost story, one that I tell you is absolutely true, will you promise to be good and go to sleep?”

The girls agreed. What choice did they have?

“Very well. Close your eyes and we’ll begin.

These events took place many, many years ago. Did you know that this school used to be a convent? All these buildings in which you sleep and learn, these are extensions to the original place of worship. Only the chapel and its chambers beneath remain. The convent was much admired in its day as a place of great spiritual enlightenment. The women of God who lived here were among the most respected in the country.

And this is why Nathaniel Steerforth packed his daughter Madeline into a carriage with a suitcase of her belongings and brought her halfway across the country to deliver her here. Nathaniel had envisaged a great partnership for his daughter. She was to marry Alastair Granford, the son of Abel Granford, a neighbour and politician whose company Nathaniel aspired to greatly. Alastair was four years younger than Madeline and eager for her love and attention. Madeline was not responsive. To Madeline, Alastair was just a boy. She could in no way envisage a life with him. Madeline had someone else in mind.

She had been seen with Michael Critch, a labourer on the Steerforth property. While Nathaniel did not consider himself unsympathetic to the whims and unbridled passion of young love, Critch had a reputation for drinking, gambling, and carousing that made him the last man a father would want for his daughter. At first Nathaniel simply asked Madeline to break off her relationship with this reprehensible character. When she did not agree, Nathaniel ordered her. When she still did not agree, Nathaniel confined her to her room. When he realised the doors and windows of his house could not hold her, he saw that only one course of action remained.

Madeline was strangely quiet during the journey to St. Catherine’s. Nathaniel had anticipated great rows and fits of rage but she merely sat in silence, watching the changing scenery. At no point did she attempt an escape.

After several days spent travelling they finally arrived at the convent, where they were greeted by Sister Verity. Sister Verity was tall, taller than Nathaniel, and had the figure of a woman who had denied herself every pleasure in service of the Lord. She smiled at Nathaniel and Madeline and told them that they were welcome. Nathaniel thanked her on behalf of himself and his daughter. Madeline did not speak.

St Catherine’s did not look too imposing from the outside. But winding staircases led to endless corridors and underground chambers, many of which had even then been abandoned to the ages, unused. The abbess showed Nathaniel and Madeline to their rooms on the second floor. It had been agreed that Nathaniel would be permitted to stay the night on account of the length of his journey before returning home the next morning.

They ate supper with the nuns that night. A long thick wooden table stretched the length of the dining hall, lined on either side with women in black habits. Madeline ate sparingly before complaining of a headache. Nathaniel, weary himself, permitted her to retire. Madeline said good night to the nuns and thanked them for their hospitality before leaving the room.

When Nathaniel went to say goodbye to his daughter on the next morning, Madeline was not in her bed. The sisters began to search the grounds but they did not search for long. A coat that Nathaniel recognised as belonging to Critch was found in her bedroom, and they quickly reached the conclusion that the young man had taken Madeline away. Heartbroken, Nathaniel finally gave up on his daughter and returned home.

But if they had searched longer they would have uncovered the truth. They would have discovered that Critch had indeed appeared in Madeline’s room, brandishing a bottle of wine and the keys he had stolen from the abbess’ bedroom, and together they had walked the convent until they had found somewhere they were sure to be undisturbed: the crypt. Critch laid the torch carefully on the floor and decided to claim what he had come for. Despite having been willingly coaxed into abandoning her room, even a young woman as sparingly decent as Madeline knew that it was wicked to perform such acts in a house of worship. But Critch did not care. On that night she saw the beast that lurks within men and she silently pledged that, when she escaped, she would commit herself to a life spent in repentance.

When Critch was finished with Madeline the fog that had fallen in front of his eyes lifted. He saw the young woman crying on the cold marble floor and saw the evil he had done. He foresaw the punishment that would befall him were he to be captured in such a place having committed such an act, and he acted quickly. He grabbed the torch from the floor, stepped over Madeline’s prone figure, and closed and locked the door behind him. On hearing the key turn in the lock, Madeline came to her senses and the horror of her situation became clear. Panicking and alone, she was searching for the way out when she tripped and fell, hitting her head.

Too weak to move or even to cry out, Madeline survived for three days in the dark with only the ghosts of the long dead for company. Her body is down there still, waiting to be found.”

And with those words, the woman opened the dormitory door. The girls looked up, startled by the light, and saw Alice standing in the doorway. She didn’t seem to notice the other girls. She stared straight ahead. She was shivering. The woman put her arm around Alice’s shoulders and smiled.

“Alice has had quite a night. But she’s safe now. Come with me, dear. I’ll take care of you.”

She turned to face the girls. Her skin was so pale but her eyes shone.

“Good night, ladies. Be good.”

She turned and led Alice out of the room, closing the door behind her.

The girls shivered in the dark. Blanche was about to speak when the door opened again.

A round woman in her late fifties with black hair done up in a tight little bun peered at the darkness in front of her through thick round glasses.

“Girls, are you awake? I’m terribly sorry to have to tell you this but something awful has happened to Alice Cander.”

“Who…who are you?” whispered Blanche.

“My name is Miss Tindfall. I’m your new English teacher.”


Hello there.

Right, I have been instructed to credit Nia Childs of @nia_loves_films and the Long Good Fridays and Sunday Mornings blog as a co-writer on this short story as she is responsible for the title. I think we were having a discussion about slasher movies which led to Gothic which Nia pointed out generally functioned as a thrilling warning for naughty ladies. So naturally I stole the title and wrote something set in a girls' boarding school.

It's supposed to be set in an undetermined place in an undetermined time which is why characters who clearly should be 1950s American schoolgirls talk like English people. It was initially just going to be a Gothic ghost story, then I wanted the frame so I had to write Phemonena/Suspiria/generic American teen horror movie which was obviously very upsetting to me. It was going to get a lot more Angela Carter in the crypt but I decided against that in the end, for better or worse. Basically it's supposed to be as silly as its title.

Hope you enjoyed it. And yes, the branches are phallic.

Things are progressing in other areas. Slower than I'd like, but that's generally the theme. Editing takes time. If anyone's got other ideas for titles, please let me know! I've really enjoyed writing these.

I'm off to watch the most excellent St. Vincent tonight, so here's one of her songs.


  1. You know, I say this too much, but I really enjoyed this story. Perhaps a bit predictable, but then I think there's an element to that in this type of folk ghost story. And the payoff was deliciously funny. I dunno. I enjoyed it, anyway :P

  2. I can see the confidence in your own originality growing the more you write. Most inspiring! Hx

  3. Thank you, David. I know what you mean about predictability, and I do agree. I'm glad you enjoyed the payoff. And thank you very much, Helen! Inspiring is good if implausible!