Shock Your Body!

Edited by the award-winning Ellen Datlow, with a cover to die for by John Coulthard and a list of authors on the TOC that reads like a Who’s Who of horror, Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror, looks set to be top of everyone’s Hallowe’en shopping list when it comes out in October this year.

Oh, and one of my stories is in it: ‘What I Found in the Shed’, which originally appeared in Supernatural Tales #31, then reappeared with some body-modification of its own in my Omnium Gatherum collection, Last Stop Wellsbourne. Here’s me reading the original version for those who can’t wait until October:

Table of Contents

The Travellers Stay by Ray Cluley                           

Toother by Terry Dowling                                      

Painlessness by Kirstyn McDermott                         

You Go Where It Takes You by Nathan Ballingrud

A Positive  by Kaaron Warren                                  

La Beauté sans verte by Genevieve Valentine          

Subsumption by Lucy Taylor                                                

Spar by Kij Johnson                                      

It Was the Heat by Pat Cadigan                    

Atwater   by Cody Goodfellow                                 

The Transfer by Edward Bryant                    

Welcome to Mengele’s by Simon Bestwick             

Black Neurology: A Love Story by Richard Kadrey  

Cuckoo by Angela Slatter                                         

Cinereous     by Livia Llewellyn                               

The Truth That Lies Under Skin and Meat by Cassandra Khaw

Natural Skin by Alyssa Wong                                               

The Lake by Tananarive Due                                  

I’m Always Here by Richard Christian Matheson   

The Look by Christopher Fowler                              

The Old Women Who Were Skinned by Carmen Maria Machado

Spores by Seanan McGuire                                       

Sweet Subtleties by Lisa L. Hannett                         

Elegy For a Suicide by Caitlín R. Kiernan                

Skin City by Gemma Files                                        

A True Friend by Brian Evenson                             

What I Found in the Shed by Tom Johnstone          

Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma                             

Tissue Ablation and Variant Regeneration: A Case Report by Michael Blumlein

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Home is Where the Horror Is

Cover art © Neil Williams

I’m not in the habit of reviewing anthologies that feature my own fiction. It can be somewhat embarrassing to compare the quality of one’s own contribution to that of the others in a multi-author volume, but I couldn’t help noticing certain similarities between the themes and preoccupations of certain stories in Terror Tales of the Home Counties and my own tale, ‘The Topsy Turvy Ones’.

With its popular image as the stock-broker belt, many of the stories use this apparently placid and leafy setting to tackle head-on the spectre of sharpening class inequalities that haunts this Covid-ridden land. Speaking of which, the only one written and set recently enough to mention the C-word is Stephen J. Dines’s ‘The Gravedigger of Witchfield’. Don’t be deceived by the traditional-sounding title: This is a highly contemporary, provocative and shocking riposte to those who think they are above the public health restrictions they expect the common herd to observe (I’m thinking of a certain now-former special advisor, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Dines has him in his sights too…)

But Dines’s critique of society and its injustices goes deeper than that, and echoes two of the other stories, ‘Monkeys’ by Reggie Oliver and Steve Duffy’s ‘In the English Rain’, in skillfully using the device of the bildungsroman to show a very English youthful rite of passage: the revelation of the dirty, brutal little secrets at the heart of a ruthlessly misogynistic and class-divided society.

Book vs. Film: The Most Dangerous Game – The Motion Pictures

To misquote L.P. Hartley, ‘The ruling class is a different country, they do things differently.’ There is a certain kind of horror story that depicts the rich as profoundly different from most of us in its outlook and pastimes, or even literally a race apart. The Brian Yuzna film Society is an obvious example of the latter. Richard Connell’s story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ is a classic expression of the former. As well as the 1932 adaptation, a recent cinematic variant of this particular trope is Ready or Not.

My own story also plays on this idea too, but also suggests that when it comes to seeing our betters as alien, other, the feeling is mutual. Other stories in the book, such as ‘Monkeys’ and Sam Dawson’s ‘Between’, comment in different ways on how the upper and middle classes define the lower orders as a kind of bestial sub-species. In Dawson’s story, David and Shelley Smith, a middle class couple in the Nineteen Sixties find an almost derelict fixer-upper cottage in a secluded part of Surrey, but the local pub sign disturbs Shelley:

” ‘All those awful dark painted little faces covered in hair and hiding among branches. But I can just about bear that. What I can’t bear is going inside and finding their real-life cousins muttering and playing shove ha’penny and skittles.’ “

This isn’t to suggest that the author shares Mrs Smith’s snobbery. Mr Smith’s attitude to what he discovers when he uses his army training to track the subterranean creatures sharing the woodland around the place is in marked contrast with that of the later inhabitants who breeze into the cottage with twenty first century yuppy arrogance. It could almost serve as a metaphor for the transition from the social democracy of the post-war settlement to the more brutal, confrontational (and the story suggests ultimately self-destructive) class politics of Thatcherism and neo-liberalism. This reading isn’t too much of a stretch, as Dawson’s horror fiction has previously examined class conflict. A good example is ‘Life Expectancy’, which appeared in The Ninth Black Book of Horror.

Another Home Counties terror tale, ‘Love Leaves Last’ by Mick Sims, asks what terrible sacrifices must the rich make to preserve inherited wealth, a question also touched upon in my own contribution to this anthology. In Sims’ case the answer is to be found in the title of a certain bedroom farce. To say which one might be a spoiler, so I’ll let you guess, but it’s an apt metaphor for the demands made upon the owners of a large stately home. On the other hand, the anti-hero of John Llewellyn Probert’s ‘Summer Holiday’ is mainly interested in sacrificing his relatives to get the prize of an inherited fortune. The story uses one of Probert’s favourite devices: elaborate murders recreating grisly deaths from old horror movies, in this case ones filmed in Oakley Court, Berkshire. The result is an entertaining blend of his own Dr Valentine books with Kind Hearts and Coronets.

Oakley Court, nr. Windsor, Berkshire.

For Paul Finch’s own story, he has raided his back catalogue for a reprint from The Sixth Black Book of Horror, ‘The Doom’ a memorably nasty morality tale about the vision of Hell depicted on the wall of a church in a sleepy Surrey village. The terrifying punishments displayed in it is at odds with the vicar’s easy-going morality, but so is the sinister stranger who pulls up in his expensive car one day. Gail-Nina Anderson’s ‘In the Cold, Cold Clay’ is another notably horrid tale suggesting a gruesome side to the cosy world of Home Counties churches, this one in Buckinghamshire. After meditating upon the ‘liminal’ nature of a lych-gate, it goes on to describe a child’s horrifying death in a literal such space, falling into and becoming trapped in the narrow gap between a tree and an old wall, before the narrative uncovers an even more terrible secret concealed in the parish.

But the Home Counties isn’t all country houses and leafy villages built around Norman churches. Other stories have more urban settings. Helen Grant takes us to ‘Chesham’ for her skilful and devastating story, using the device of a rediscovered photograph that turns the finder’s world upside down. (another theme of ‘The Topsy Turvy Ones’ of course — the world not the photo!) There is also terror in tower blocks in Kingston (‘Moses’ by David J. Howe) and Stevenage (Jason Gould’s ‘The Old Man in Apartment Ninety’), while Allen Ashley’s ‘Taking Tusk Mountain’ uses Luton as the setting for its comic-fantasy of a heist gone wrong, part mummy’s curse tale, part caper movie, part The Lion King!

So as you can see, there is something for everyone in this anthology — that’s without even mentioning Paul Finch’s grisly and meticulously-researched snippets of local folklore, history and legend between the literary ones — and I’m proud to have played a part in it.

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Between a Castle Rock and a Hard Place

Supernatural horror is a speculative genre that tends to side-step the need for extensive world-building by situating its other-worldly elements in the real one. There is however a strong tradition in weird fiction of fictional towns and regions with murky reputations, from Lovecraft’s Miskatonic Valley and Charles L. Grant’s Oxrun Station in the USA, to Ramsey Campbell’s Brichester and Joel Lane’s Clayheath in the UK. Stephen King invented the fictional Maine towns of Derry and Castle Rock, which Garry P Flanagan references in this Amazon review of my collection Last Stop Wellsbourne, my own attempt to invoke this tradition and create my own town of terror, linking it to the lore around Brighton’s lost river of the same name. I even included a fictionalised ‘introduction’ by local history expert and Wellsbourne Society founder Dr David Bramwell in which I featured as an apparently doomed figure in my own fiction!

Below is a video of me reading of one of the stories from the collection (though to be fair I believe it’s the version from Supernatural Tales issue 31, before I edited it to shoehorn it into the Wellsbourne ‘concept’, but this version was long-listed for Best Horror of the Year!). If you like it enough to want to buy it, why not buy a copy — preferably direct from the publisher rather than supporting Amazon’s questionable business model!

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Blogvent Calendar Day 25: It’s Christmas!!! Also known as the Eve of St. Stephen’s Day…

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for!

The final blood-chilling episode of my folk horror tale ‘The Cutty Wren’, about a peculiar ritual of Saint Stephen’s Day. Just to recap, in Part One, Professor Jenny Underwood had a weird post-ceilidh experience that put her on the trail of the eponymous bird. In Part Two, she and her associate, the narrator Ian, decipher the clues in a series of riddles, leading them to the place where the ceremony takes place in Part Three. Follow the links on the numbers if you haven’t already seen these episodes. If you have, go straight to the video below!

That’s the last of my Blogvent Calendar posts. Now I’m going to rest and eat too much. Have a lovely Christmas and enjoy the Feast of Stephen tomorrow. Speaking of which…

A Merry Christmas to all of you at home!

Or to put it another way…

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Blogvent Calendar Day 24: A Nightmare Before Christmas

‘The Cameleopard, or a New Hobby’ by William Heath (1794-1840)

I wouldn’t have relished the job of wrapping George IV’s Christmas presents if they were like this. Trying to wrap a giraffe — now that would be a real nightmare before Christmas!

Yet this is precisely what the Pasha of Egypt gave England’s monarch (though not I think at Christmas), commemorated in the above cartoon. And the PDF of my novelette, ‘The Beast in the Palace’, inspired by this and other such satirical drawings from the time, is my penultimate Christmas Eve Blogvent Calendar gift to you, dear reader.

Another strong influence on the story is Sheridan Le Fanu’s masterpiece ‘Schalken the Painter’, beautifully filmed as a BBC Christmas ghost story by Leslie Megahy in 1979: as if an eerie Play for Today had a love-child with John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. I wanted to do for Regency and Georgian cartoonists what Le Fanu did for Dutch Old Masters. A key difference is that my story doesn’t relate its events to the life of any of the artists involved or their work. It does however touch on the theme of the Spectre Bridegroom or Demon Lover, relating it to one of my thematic obsessions: the World Turned Upside Down. The tale first appeared in the excellent horror fiction magazine Black Static #68, and later in my collection Last Stop Wellsbourne. So if you enjoy this free story, why not buy one of these publications?

In the mean time, click on the image below for your free PDF of ‘The Beast in the Palace’ and tune in on Christmas Day for the final part of ‘The Cutty Wren’!


Image © Richard Wagner 2019

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Blogvent Calendar Day 23: John Barleycorn’s Vengeance

…Or to put it another way, here’s the blood-curdling conclusion to the tale of terror I’ve been serialising in this Blogvent Calendar, ‘Jim Bloom’s Van’.

If you enjoyed this story, you may like to read the collection it’s from: Last Stop Wellsbourne (Omnium Gatherum Books, 2019). Although you can read ‘Jim Bloom’s Van’ as a stand-alone story, you may notice references to others in the collection, such as ‘Little Match Stick Girl’ and ‘The Wakeman Recreation’.

As those who read the previous two episodes One and Two will already be aware, Wellsbourne Council gardener, Sam Jordan’s work mates keep dying in horrific gardening accidents, and the works transit van is now stuck in a waterlogged playing field with something unpleasant moving towards him…

Something that whistles.

Jim Bloom’s Van, Part Three

He couldn’t see the face, shrouded in fog and shaded by a battered straw hat with some kind of garland around its wide brim, but he could hear the whistling more distinctly now. It had a hissing, distorted quality, as if the whistler were struggling to force air through a misshapen mouth full of broken teeth.

But he recognised the tune as “John Barleycorn.”

J.B. Jim Bloom. Same initials.

Shivering, Sam put aside all thoughts of asking the stranger for help. It suddenly occurred to him that the figure was coming from the direction of the woods. “He’s after us,” the foreman had said. Had he really meant Bloom? It was impossible. As the figure drew closer to the van, Sam saw the wild flowers adorning the hat brim. The face was now just about visible beneath. He fixed his eyes on the spidery remnants of dried stems, avoiding lowering his gaze to the caved-in mess he’d glimpsed under the hat.

The crazy thought came to him: If it was really Bloom, maybe he just wanted his van back! In that case, he was welcome to the mud-bound vehicle. Opening the door, he breathed in an earthy stench, then leapt from the driving seat and began running, the mud sucking at his boots. He turned, hoping to see the figure climb into the cab in his place.

But it had continued its staggering progress past the van, and was heading slowly, haphazardly, almost drunkenly, towards him, its hand brandishing a pointed implement. With all the fog, he wasn’t sure what it was, only that it was sharp.

But surely it wasn’t Sam he wanted. He’d always tried to be a friend to Bloom, when he felt able. And the song, whose softly whistled melody still drifted over the field, specified three men. Simple Simon had died, then Paul Flock. Surely the other target must be Fred Bone, the ringleader. Not Sam.

Still the figure kept shambling towards him, hat at a jaunty angle.

“But I didn’t do anything!” he called.

Maybe that was the problem.

Dimly, through the alcoholic haze of the Christmas work drink, he remembered seeing the other three, Fred, Paul and Simon, leaving the club together, not long after Bloom. Sam had been standing at the bar trying to pull, so hadn’t taken much notice. It hadn’t gone well. His heart wasn’t really in it, the thought of Rosie’s sweet and trusting face making him falter in his advances, until eventually the woman made her excuses and went back to her friends. Feeling ashamed and dejected and seeing the rest of his group were all gone, he too bumbled out of the place.

The figure was coming closer, the object clutched in its blackened hand looking more and more like the scalpel it was with every step.

“I tried to stop them!” he said, his voice a weak cry.

His recollections from there on were as difficult to picture as the woods through this dank fog. A darkened alley… Three men jumping on a trampoline, playing football… Fred, Paul and Simon, grinning like maniacs… But it wasn’t a trampoline and what they were kicking wasn’t a football… Too much blood for that…

Him calling out to them to stop, but not loud enough for them to hear… It would have taken a lot more force for them even to know he was there, and he didn’t really want them to, fearing they were so fired up they might use any unspent aggression on him… Looking at the broken body under their feet, he told himself it was probably too late now… So he didn’t raise his voice, didn’t repeat his pleas…

He just slunk away, hoping they hadn’t seen him.

“I was scared!” he told the figure, which was now so close the blade almost touched him, but his eyes still couldn’t meet those of his pursuer, probably because there weren’t any, or if there were, they were lost in a mass of fractured bone and swollen flesh, or perhaps just rotted away. Whatever the reason, Sam kept his eyes lowered, barely registering the deep, distant booming noise from behind him. His pleadings hadn’t stopped the figure, perhaps because there wasn’t enough truth in them, apart from the last one, and by then it was too late to sway the thing.

Time to make a break for it if he was going to, but the smell of wild flowers and corpse flesh and freshly disturbed soil was in his nostrils, the sound of whistling from a broken mouth lulling his ears, his eyes closed as he felt a thin hand pinning him against the field’s fence whose barbs dug into his back.

Deep down he’d always known it was no good trying to get away, because Bloom had him already, had done for a long time. He remembered the way his hand seemed to belong to someone else the time he’d accidentally reversed the van, almost hitting the car behind. Now other memories came back to him, like the ones from outside the club he’d buried under layers of dope and alcohol, but different. These recollections weren’t of him watching helplessly as Bone and the others kicked Bloom to death. In these, he watched his own hands, directed by another mind, tampering with the dead man’s handle on the aerator, meddling with the safety features on the bark chipping machine, pouring petrol on the Christmas tree pile…

#

FIREBALL IN PARK AS BIZARRE TRAGEDY WIPES OUT GARDENING TEAM

Wellsbourne today woke up to the devastation left by a blaze in one of its municipal parks, in the latest in a series of horrific freak accidents that have deprived the town of five gardeners. Fire investigators are still sifting through the wreckage for clues as to its origin, though arson hasn’t been ruled out. The inferno ripped through a Christmas tree dump by the grounds maintenance team’s mess room and storage facilities, piled up on top of an underground gas installation.

The explosion, which killed foreman Fred Bone, was the latest in a series of tragedies to befall his team at Wickham Park, which began last year with the brutal murder of senior gardener Jim Bloom, kicked to death by a gang of thugs after becoming separated from his colleagues on a Christmas work night out. Police are still hunting his killers and have released an appeal for information below.

Jim’s death was closely followed by those of Simon Rugby, killed apparently by a faulty aerating machine, and Paul Flock, who became caught in a bark chipper.

Shortly after the gas explosion, a dog walker found the skinned corpse of Sam Jordan on a barbed wire fence at Wakeman Recreation Ground.

#

THE CURSE OF WICKHAM PARK?

By Troy Adamson, the Wise Man of Wellsbourne

Wellsbourne is still reeling from the quintuple tragedy that has left Wickham Park without a grounds maintenance crew. The charred wreckage of the gardeners’ hut, surrounded by blackened vegetation, stands as a poignant memorial to Fred Bone and his team, whose efforts to keep our green spaces that colour will not go unremembered. I for one take my hat off to these mighty men of the mower. No one could ever replace them, and, thanks to the Council’s policy of natural wastage, no one ever will.

Questions still remain about the cause of the fire, which has disturbing echoes of the blaze that killed the Harrow family last November, itself thought to be a copycat of the so-called ‘Little Match Stick Girl’ legend of Wakeman Woods. Far be it from me to impute any blame on Mr Bone, who I’m sure carried out his duties with the utmost care and dedication. But I do wonder about the wisdom of placing a giant tinderbox, in the form of a Christmas tree dump, on top of a system of high pressure gas regulators. Perhaps the foreman was unaware they were concealed under the concrete surface outside his yard.

This week, fire teams investigating the blaze discovered the remains of a petrol jerry can in the wreckage—one missing a lid no less. Again, far be it from me to cast aspersions, but when the disaster struck, it came hot on the heels of his colleague’s death in the most gruesome manner. Anyone in his situation would be greatly distressed, perhaps enough to forget to replace the lid on a jerry can if interrupted in the middle of mixing up fuel. Fred Bone was a smoker too and may well have felt his craving most keenly when under the stress of such an event. One stray spark could have started the conflagration…

But this is all speculation, until the inquest concludes its deliberations on Thursday. And the coroner certainly has his work cut out with these five unfortunates. In the absence of those conclusions, some benighted souls have begun to seek answers in the paranormal. After all, ‘Wickham’ was originally ‘Wicca Ham’ or ‘Witch Ham’, the hill where religious authorities put those found guilty of sorcery to death.

Is Wickham Park cursed then?

Anyone who knows me will know what I think the answer to that one is!

Nevertheless, my own instinctual scepticism aside, it does seem strange that five men from the same workplace all died horribly. The odd one out is of course Bloom. All the others perished at work, three of them due to what appeared to be terrible accidents in the park itself.

Apart from Sam Jordan, apparently stabbed then skinned, up at the Wakeman Recreation Ground, another place with an evil reputation.

And what are we to make of the victim’s missing skin in this case? And what of the story told by a “friend” of the deceased: that she saw him wandering around town, days after the police found his corpse, but he was walking “very strangely.”

And that when she got closer she found she didn’t want to speak to him after all, believing it was someone else wearing a “mask” of Jordan’s face, stretched like a second skin over the imposter’s lumpy, misshapen head.

Well, I don’t deal in ghost stories, so I’ll leave explanations for this peculiar tale to those more credulous than I!

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Blogvent Calendar Day 22: Finch’s Five-Fold Festive Fears!

Paul Finch was kind enough to give me a copy of the Audible version of The Christmas You Deserve, his quintet of festive novella-length terror tales, allowing me the excuse for the above quintuple dose of alliteration worthy of a bombastic music-hall impresario. Aptly enough, a pentagram too appears in one of these tales, along with other devilry, including an appearance by our old friend Krampus in another, which together cement Finch’s reputation as a master of horror, as well as a successful crime writer. In this, he is ably assisted by the voiceover artist Greg Patmore, whose professionalism adds to the feeling conveyed by Finch’s assured prose-style that we are in the hands of someone who knows what he is doing.

We start with ‘The Merry Makers’, an ironic title if ever there was one. When its narrator breaks down in the snow, he takes refuge in the mysterious Mistletoe Hall. There, his host insists he stays the night, while professing his antipathy to Christmas, which he denounces as popish frippery. Later the narrator encounters what appears to be the same man, but dressed rather more flamboyantly. Moreover, far from condemning the season, this doppelganger is himself the soul of festive mirth and merriment, but one whose idea of these things involves weird effigies of various icons of the season, Krampus included. There is a feeling that the strange ordeal suffered by the stranded motorist is somehow connected to his scepticism about religious matters and indeed this particular Christian festival. Sceptics and those of bad faith don’t fare well in Finch’s horror fiction, in this collection and elsewhere. Take the young vicar with his trendy moral relativism in ‘The Doom’ (originally in The Sixth Black Book of Horrors, reprinted this year in Terror Tales of the Home Counties). Not that I think Finch is suggesting we should revert to the grisly punishments depicted in the eponymous ecclesiastical artwork. Similarly ‘The Merry Makers’ doesn’t suggest he holds the Puritan view of Christmas in high regard.

If these are morality tales, there’s more than a hint of A Christmas Carol in them, whether or not they refer to Scrooge as some of them do, or as in one, characters from Dickens’ novella make guest appearances, albeit as over-grown puppets brought creepily to life. This is a device Finch uses very effectively in more than one of these tales, and I seem to remember something similar in his contribution to Ellen Datlow’s 2007 anthology Inferno. In that story, ‘Bethany’s Wood’, I seem to remember, it was some kind of weird art installation on a country estate.

In ‘The Unreal’, we have Dickens’ Christmas curmudgeon and his supernatural tormentors, and a subsequent story, ‘The Tenth Lesson’, offers a giant toy soldier that could have lurched out of The Nutcracker, but with homicidal intent. The nods to A Christmas Carol are no accident, as the protagonists of both these stories, Hetherington and Tregarron, are latter-day Scrooges, but whereas the ghosts offered the original Ebenezer a clear path to redemption, that’s not necessarily the case with Finch’s anti-heroes, who also resemble Jamesian protagonists in the way their intellectual pride comes before a fall.

The social media influencer Hetherington in ‘The Unreal’ certainly fits this profile. As a paranormal investigator with a zeal for puncturing fake supernatural manifestations, there are parallels with the Reverend Somerton in the BBC version of James’ ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, in that both point out the human cost to exposing fraudulent mediums. Finch is perhaps a little more sympathetic towards Tregarron in ‘The Tenth Lesson’, an author of fluffy Christmas fantasies who secretly despises the season even though his public persona requires him to pretend to love it. Ironically, while both Hetherington and Tregarron are Christmaphobes, the latter is himself a literary version of the kind of charlatan in the spiritualist world the former takes such delight in rooting out.

In the manner of Scrooge, Tregarron has fallen out with his sister over this. A self-styled ‘hedge-witch’, during a phone call she bemoans his cynicism, and he launches into a monologue debunking popular notions of the pagan origins of Christmas. He’s certainly got a point and he may be right. That scene certainly had me questioning my own half-baked assumptions about this question, yet just as the psychic investigator is literally right to expose fake clairvoyants but wrong to do this without regard to the feelings of the bereaved offered hope by charlatans, the author’s argument in this context betrays his lack of emotional intelligence, a failing that prepares the ground for the supernatural reckoning he faces. This provides him with the opportunity for the possibility of redemption, but first he has to contend with a freak snow-storm and the aforementioned toy soldier.

The latter reminds me of the one in the 1989 ITV version of The Woman in Black, except that this one doesn’t just stand there looming in the corner, looking creepy: It’s considerably more lively, frighteningly so. There are also echoes of the Susan Hill novel that gave rise to this unforgettably terrifying drama, as well as its literary forefather The Turn of the Screw, in the framing device used in my personal favourite of the collection ‘Krampus’.

Like these two classics, this story takes as its starting point the convention of the competitive fireside Christmas ghost story. This kind of first-person narrator is either recounting a personal experience (as in The Woman in Black) or one that happened to a friend or acquaintance (as in Henry James’ classic novella). Finch opts for the former, and his narrator is a far-from-willing participant in the seasonal ritual of scary tale-telling.

But that’s part and parcel of this convention. Swapping ghost stories around the campfire is supposed to be an evening’s entertainment, a ‘pleasing terror’, as supernatural literature’s other James (M.R.) would put it. In this kind of story, the narrator of the tale that’s supposed to trounce all the others is so traumatised by the experience he or she is recounting that there’s a sense that it’s somehow no longer a fun parlour game eliciting nervous giggles and only comes about because of the teller’s overwhelming need to unburden his or herself.

In Grandpa Ludwig’s case, this reluctance is understandable, as his reminiscence takes place in the context of Nazi Germany, where his father, a famous writer of children’s stories, has fallen out of favour with the regime. It’s his brother, an S.S. officer, who warns him of this as they argue over the author’s unwillingness to write Nazi propaganda. Before long, they have to flee to England, where the young Ludwig has a very unnerving encounter with a department store Santa Claus who looks strangely familiar and far-from avuncular. He also mentions Santa’s monstrous flip-side.

I don’t know how much of my enjoyment this tale was because I’ve written Krampus-themed fiction myself, but naturally I was keen to see how Finch handled the theme. Not only that but there are certain similarities in the backgrounds of the protagonists the Christmas demon persecutes. In mine, the narrator is the grandson of Jewish refugees who fled to England from Austria, while Ludwig is the son of Germans who flee political persecution. So that made it even more interesting to compare the two stories. I also love the way Finch has made Krampus a powerful metaphor for the nature and value of story-telling, as well as displaying his skills in this regard, crafting an excellent example of the tale of terror as bildungsroman and moving effortlessly between the framing fireside scene and the narrator’s reminiscences.

Story-telling is a common theme in the final three stories in the book, just as those of faith, non-belief and bad faith run throughout the collection. The final tryptych enables us to compare the bad faith of the professional Christmas-celebrating author who hates the festival that is the source of his fortune, with Ludwig’s father’s principled refusal to write pro-Nazi fiction. Finally, we have Rick in ‘The Stain’, the struggling screen-writer whose employers always fob him off about payment.

In this novella, the longest of the five, Stafford Wilks, the dodgy, aging film impresario behind a fictitious 1969 cult classic of Gothic exploitation cinema, Daemonia, has persuaded Rick to give up his Christmas holiday and hole up in the mansion where the original shoot took place and brainstorm with him, his ambitious trophy wife Tanya and a couple of hangers on, with a view to developing a remake / reboot / sequel.

As well as exceeding the length of the other stories, ‘The Stain’ is many ways the most entertaining. With its vividly-drawn cast of ill-matched characters thrown together in a possibly haunted house, complete with pentagram and blood-stained sacking in the cellar, Finch fully makes use of the potential for bitching, bickering and generally unhealthy group dynamics that arise from such a hothouse situation. Patmore’s vocal skills come into their own here. There’s something of ‘An Englishman, an Irishwoman, a Scotsman, a Welshman, an American and an Englishwoman walk into a haunted house’ about his throwing in as many accents as he can, but with the array of speaking characters in the story, it makes it easier for the listener to keep track of who’s who, so it works very well.

This image from Satan’s Slave (1976) gives a hint of what a Norman J. Warren-helmed Dennis Wheatley adaptation might have looked like!

Finch also has fun working in the horror movie references, and any reader (or in my case listener) with a knowledge of UK horror cinema in the sixties and seventies will enjoy working them out. The film in question sounds like what would have happened if Tony Tenser had employed Norman J. Warren to make a film of The Devil Rides Out, but as well as being an enjoyable romp, like the more sombre story of ‘Krampus’, in its own irreverent way, it also has a serious point to make about story-telling, both literary and cinematic, because the script of Daemonia took certain liberties with the book it was from, adding outrageous violence and nudity to the source material provided by the staid Dennis Wheatley-esque author, Willis Roxborough. For this reason, one of the highlights of the story for me is Rick’s tirade against the stuffy privilege the upper-class occult novelist represents, pointing out that most authors are struggling to keep body and soul together, unlike either the yuletide literary profiteer Tregarron or the gentleman amateur Roxborough with the luxury of a private income to subside his writing, so I for one can certainly sympathise with his sentiments!

Here’s a link to this thoroughly enjoyable collection, perfect for the season.

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Blogvent Calendar Day 21: Creep into Christmas…

And now, with the winter Solstice upon us, here’s the conclusion of my ghost story, ‘Creeping Forth Upon Their Hands’. If you missed the first one, it’s in the previous post. As you can see there’s a Christmas tree to the side of me, but why ghosts and Christmas? You may ask. It’s supposed to be a time of celebration and cheer, not grim, dark stuff, isn’t it? To which I’d first counter: Any more nightmarish than The Sun photo-shopping Boris Johnson’s face onto Noddy Holder’s spangly top hat?

As I mentioned in my first post on this Blogvent Calendar, Christmas is associated with the ghost story, in this country at least. For some reason, there’s a tradition of telling them at this time of year. Before they were published, M.R. James road-tested them in front of an audience of Etonian students at the ‘Chit-Chat Club’. Perhaps this context and his own background accounts for the shortage of any working class characters in the stories, except for as comic relief, something the 1972 BBC adaptation of ‘A Warning to the Curious’ went some way towards remedying, with not just one but three members of the lower orders, including the main character — and even a female! — and all believable human beings, rather than grotesque caricatures.

The ritual of competitively exchanging supernatural tales around a blazing hearth became the basis of a particular version of the literary convention of a framing device. In this trope, different characters would be in the throes of a contest to frighten each other with their stories, but in the frame narrative, the main story would emerge as the hands-down winner because of the realism of their traumatic, lived experience, as opposed to the gimcrack gimmickry of the other pretenders to the title.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this device is used in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, a radio adaptation of which is playing on Radio 4 Xtra this week, for anyone interested.

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Blogvent Calendar Day 20: Creeping Crawlers…

As you’ve been good and it’s getting closer to Christmas, here’s the first instalment of a brand new ghost story that originally appeared in The Ghastling Book 12, together with a host of other fantastic weird tales! I shall be posting the second and final part shortly, but if you can’t wait to find out what happens, you can always buy a copy!

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Blogvent Calendar Day 19: Grant me a Winter’s Tale.

“When the storm began, it shouldn’t have been unexpected. The clouds had been hovering over the Thames basin for nearly three days, gradually darkening, hiding sun and stars and holding the temperature well below freezing. Puddles froze, breath froze, windows seemed brittle, too fragile to touch; automobiles huffed, steam billowed from grates, lines at the theatres were short and impatient, while lines at the Underground were not short at all.”

Charles L. Grant (1942-2006)

In my post concerning horror featuring snow and other freezing weather conditions, failing to mention Charles L. Grant was a bit of an oversight to say the least. He was reknowned for descriptions of the weather, often opening stories with them, and many of his tales have a wintery theme. ‘Snowman’, from which the above extract comes, is a fine example. ‘White Wolf Calling’ is another.

In that post I mentioned some stories in which wintery weather is the setting and others where it becomes more than that, part of the weird or supernatural menace itself. These examples fall more in the former category, although there’s something of the latter too in that opening to ‘Snowman’, in the way it evokes the merciless extremity of the severe cold and the effect it has on Londoners’ behaviour, setting the scene for the chilly encounter that takes place. He makes the snow and cold minatory in ‘White Wolf Calling’ too, even down to a “snowman with stunted arms and holes for eyes squatting awkwardly beside a solitary spruce”, make the old man at the centre of the story decidedly uneasy.

But anyone expecting ‘Snowman’ to feature such an effigy coming to life and attacking people, or concealing a corpse, will be disappointed. The subject of the eponym is Harry Kinnon, who might be a serial killer or just a lonely wanderer in search of female company. Yet even if the real reason is the second one, there’s something a bit off about him roaming the bitterly cold streets of the capital in search of “the woman of his dreams”. Exactly what the source of that feeling of unease might be, we’re never quite sure, but we fear for the safety of Elizabeth Stanley, the lucky lady he meets somewhere between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, or perhaps some, more indefinable place we begin to suspect, as the sudden blizzard begins to blur the boundaries between life and death, fantasy and reality. Grant’s prose is cool and melancholy, his horror as quiet as a sound-deadening snow-drift.

You can read both of these stories in Stephen Jones’ retrospective Scream Quietly: The Best of Charles L. Grant (Drugstore Indian Press).

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