Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Time for another tale of Christmas terror

Okay, it’s that time of year again. 

Evergreens on the mantelpiece, logs crackling in the hearth, frost on the window panes. And spooky stories.

Ah yes … always the spooky stories.

How I love them. Especially those with a festive flavour.

As you may know, each year for the last few years, as Christmas approaches, I’ve posted one of my own seasonal chillers on this blog. And this year will be no exception. But first you’ll have to indulge me for half a minute or so as I wax lyrical about the history of this unusual custom.

In actual fact, I’ve recently re-educated myself on the matter. It’s long been my conjecture that the tradition of the Christmas ghost story predates Christmas itself, and descends to us from prehistoric times, when pagan man, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, lived in mortal fear of the dark, dead days of midwinter, and sought to commune with his gods and the spirits of his ancestors for their intercession. It’s my belief that a version of this continued even into early Christian times, when winter – with the harvest collected and no further ploughing or sewing possible until the spring thaw – saw rural populations (which was basically everyone!), unable to do anything but sit around the long-house fire, trying to ignore the frozen darkness outside, and telling each other fantastical tales.

Of course, that’s all a long time ago now, and like many other village Yuletide practices, it was always my guess that this past-time faded with the social changes following the transformation of the Middle Ages into the Early Modern Age – only to be reawakened centuries later by Victorian traditionalists like Charles Dickens.

Well, not a bit of it. I’ve now uncovered evidence that when 
Dickens penned such festive ghostly classics as A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843) and THE SIGNALMAN (1866), he was only adding to a canon that was still very much alive. For example, when Shakespeare wrote A WINTER’S TALE in 1610, he utters the throwaway line: “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one. Of sprites and goblins.” Likewise, in 1589, in THE JEW OF MALTA, Christopher Marlowe says: 

“Now I remember those old women’s words,
Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales,
And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.”

And so there we go, (with many thanks to A GOTHIC 
CURIOSITY CABINET). History lesson over, self-justification given. Not that I think we need too much justification to post a new spooky story, do we? Either way, enough of my drivel. Hopefully, you’ll all enjoy …


THE UNREAL

Hetherington had been told to approach the building through its side-gate and knock on the fire-exit door behind the row of dustbins. He did so, and waited, breath pluming in the frozen evening air. No lights showed on this side, but that was probably because there were no windows. The Ambridge Theatre towered above him, an edifice of grimy, Victorian-age brick. But he’d been assured that if he was here for seven pm, someone would eventually admit him. As the wait dragged on, Hetherington shivering in the snow-filled yard, a muffled clamour of revelry drifted from the direction of the town centre, the product of loutish gangs stumbling drunkenly from one glitzy, Christmas-bedecked bar to the next.
There was a clunk on the other side of the door and it cracked open, warm light spilling out. “Alan Hetherington?” a voice with a soft northern accent enquired.
Hetherington nodded.
The man standing there was somewhere in his mid-sixties and rather paunchy. He wore a flowery shirt and bow-tie, and a sheepskin coat. His thinning white hair was scraped back and tied at his nape in a small ponytail. He offered a plump, pink hand.
“Ted Lampwick … Theatre Secretary.”
Hetherington shook it and entered, finding himself in the theatre’s lobby. It was opulent in the traditional style, bright light from a large chandelier embossing gilt paintwork and crimson brocade. On his immediate right, a staircase led up into gloom. Beyond that, a pair of double-doors stood closed, though a brass plaque above them illustrated the seating arrangements in the auditorium. On the other side of that there was a service counter, its queuing area marked out by brass poles and red velvet ropes. Overhead, swags of glistening evergreen hung in loops along the curtain rails. In the farthest corner, a tall, frost-white Christmas tree towered half way to the ceiling, dangling with gold and scarlet baubles. Clusters of tinsel glimmered from behind the framed black-and-white stills adorning the walls, each one depicting a past production. Ted Lampwick, in varying stages of youth and middle-age, featured in several of them.
Lampwick closed the fire-exit door, but only after glancing curiously around outside. “Alone, are you?” he asked, sounding surprised.
“That’s how I normally do it,” Hetherington replied.
“Seriously?”
Hetherington was amused by his host’s startled tone.
“Pays dividends, trust me. Surely you’ve watched some of these TV ghost-hunting shows … where there’re umpteen people running around the building? The viewers are focused on the main presenter, so they never know where any of the others are. They hear knocks, bumps, the creaking of overhead floorboards, and are seriously asked to believe it’s spirit activity when the reality is it could be anyone. None of that for me and my internet audience. When I do these, I fly solo. I hold my vigils alone in otherwise empty buildings. If I do hear something, I can investigate in the full knowledge I’m the only living presence there.”
Lampwick didn’t look any less unnerved by that. “Well … you’re braver than me.”
“It’s not about being brave, Mr Lampwick, it’s about being rational. You’d be amazed at some of the simple explanations I’ve found for so-called ghosts. Wind in faulty chimneys, joists expanding through temperature change …”
“And you’re happy to spend Christmas Eve doing that?”
Hetherington smiled as he pulled his gloves off and tucked them inside his parka. “I’m an atheist, Mr Lampwick. I don’t believe in God, therefore I don’t believe in Christmas. Is that wrong of me?”
Lampwick shrugged, leading him across the lobby to the double-doors. En route they passed a poster-board bearing images of the theatre’s last production, which apparently had been some kind of larger-than-life puppet show:


A Christmas Carol


     Beneath the ornate heading, a piece of extravagant artwork depicted Scrooge cowering before a meagre fire in a grate, while the huge, shadowy form of the Spirit of Christmas Yet-To-Come, garbed all in black, with scythe in hand, lowered over him. Beneath that there were stills from the actual production, life-size marionettes interacting with real actors. Hetherington had heard about this beforehand; ingenious no doubt, but it all sounded very art-house, and of course there was that irritating Christmas aspect. 
“It seems to me that, doing this tonight of all nights, you’re depriving yourself a bit,” Lampwick said, opening the double-doors. “Don’t you have a party to go to?”
“Why celebrate something I don’t believe in?”
“You don’t have a family?”
“I have a family, but no-one in our house believes in God.”
Lampwick regarded him coolly, perhaps wondering if this was a true description of life in the Hetherington household or a stipulation for it.
Hetherington returned the gaze blankly.
He was a tall man, spare of physique, with a mop of copper-red hair and pale features seemingly much younger than his forty-four years. It was a gawky, boyish look, which Hetherington didn’t care for much, but he always made up for it with his direct manner and forthright views. Not that he saw any point in antagonising people needlessly. He didn’t bother adding that his feelings went much further than he’d admitted to; it actually empowered him, not celebrating Christmas. To most people the once-holy feast was nothing more now than a piss-up anyway, but they still embraced it with ludicrous, ritualistic motions, not to mention indulging in lavish spending they could ill afford.
None of that for him. He wasn’t dancing to anyone’s tune, especially not some big, imaginary sky-fairy.
Beyond the double doors, Lampwick led him down the auditorium’s left-hand aisle. This room might be the heart of the theatre, but it wasn’t enormous, with sufficient seating perhaps for one hundred and fifty people and maybe eighty more on the balcony upstairs. The closest Hetherington normally got to theatres was seeing them on TV talent shows, so he’d been expecting something much more spacious, perhaps with elaborate cornicing along the edges of its vast ceiling, and another chandelier, a truly colossal thing, suspended in the middle. But in fact, the “house lights”, as Lampwick referred to them, were shaded bulbs located at regular intervals on the auditorium walls, while the stage was only raised three feet from the floor and no more than thirty yards across from one wing to the other. At present, the curtain was drawn back, and the stage was bare except for a single solitary figure standing just to the right, head drooped. Hetherington made a double-take before he realised that this was one of the marionettes. By the looks of its threadbare dressing-gown and nightshirt, and the lank white hair protruding from under its nightcap, this was Scrooge.
It was an ugly thing, hanging there stiff and motionless, the barely-visible wires trailing up to some dim, indefinable place high above the stage. But it was comical too – in a juvenile kind of way. Why go to all this trouble, and it must have been a lot of trouble, to have puppets interacting with real actors? Why not just use a fully live cast? Hetherington supposed it wove a kind of magical festive aura for the little ones, but for any adults unfortunate enough to get roped into sitting here, it must have been a yawn.
A bit like the entire money-spinning con that is Christmas itself …
Behind the marionette, meanwhile, the stage’s rear wall was masked by painted scenery representing a London skyline from long ago: rookeries, chimney pots and the unmistakable dome of St. Paul’s cathedral.
A Christmas Carol,” Lampwick explained somewhat unnecessarily. They halted midway down the aisle to appraise the stage. “A festive special, I suppose you’d call it. Not part of our normal roster. A travelling roadshow put it on. We’ll be striking this set on Boxing Day, and starting work on the Panto. That opens in mid-January. We’re doing Rumplestiltskin. Should be fun … it’s our own version of course, full of ghosts as well as the main goblin.”
“Spooks seem to be a running theme in this place,” Hetherington said, unable to keep a hint of disdain from his voice.
Lampwick glanced sidelong at him. “Presumably they are for you too?”
“Disproving their existence is my thing.”
“Even so, for someone who definitely doesn’t believe in the afterlife … to spend all your time holding ghost-watch vigils …?”
“There’s no contradiction there,” Hetherington said. “My investigations are based entirely on science.”
“Ah yes … wind in chimneys and such.”
“If the unexpected occurs and I do uncover something bearing further examination, I confidently expect it to fall well within the laws of physics.”
Lampwick pondered that, shrugged, and then crossed the front of the stage and took a stairway down, providing further commentary as he did, explaining that he wanted to show Hetherington the entire place before leaving him here alone.
They descended the stair to a small ante-room with doors leading left, right and straight ahead. Go right, according to Lampwick, and you entered the backstage area. Straight ahead was the coffee bar, and left was the entrance to the main theatre bar. Lampwick headed backstage first. This was a cramped rabbit warren of twisting passages and tiny, damp-smelling rooms: changing rooms for the most part, but also props and costume storage, and then the Green Room, which was a much larger area lying directly beneath the stage.
The Green Room was littered with the detritus of the recent production: top hats on tables, a row of wall-pegs hung with shawls and double-caped greatcoats, bags of fluffy white polystyrene balls that had been used as fake snow, a crutch without an owner – and the Marley’s Ghost marionette. This latter was slumped on a bench at the far end of the room, a smallish, grey-faced figure clad in once dandified but now shabby Regency-era clothing. The left shoulder of its frockcoat was noticeably frayed and torn, which may or may not have been deliberate, but it added to the effect, as did the gleaming chain with which its upper torso was wrapped, and the dirty bandage bound around its head as though in support of its lower jaw. In the middle of its bald scalp and the backs of its hands, there were tiny metal hooks through which the puppeteers’ wires would be threaded.
Just to satisfy his curiosity, Hetherington approached the slouched figure, reached down and rapped on the back of its head. It was made of wood and sounded hollow.
“Creepy things, if you ask me,” Lampwick said.
Hetherington stepped back and adjusted his pack, which was now getting heavy on his back, its straps digging into his shoulders. “People often say that about dummies and effigies. The answer lies in our subconscious. Some deep instinct says ‘these things look like us, but they actually aren’t us … so it’s a kind of camouflage, and that has to be bad’. You see, it’s all about understanding the science.”
“If you say so.” Lampwick continued with the tour, showing Hetherington up a shorter flight of narrow steps to a single door. “This was once the rear stage-door,” he said. “But we built an extension on the other side.” And indeed, beyond that there was a more modern area, a black steel stairway leading up to what apparently were new rehearsal rooms and, directly ahead, a straight corridor with a tiled floor diminishing into complete darkness. “It looks menacing, but there’s another fire-exit down there,” Lampwick added. “Takes you straight out onto the road at the back.”
“Good,” Hetherington replied. “I parked my Subaru out back. Will it be okay overnight?”
Lampwick looked uncertain. “I suppose so … it’s cold, snowy. Can’t think there’ll be too many bad ’uns about.”
Hetherington wasn’t totally encouraged by that, but he had no choice in the matter. His hotel was a good twenty-minute drive away, which would be a fifty-minute walk carrying a heavy backpack, while taxis were prohibitively expensive on Christmas Eve and notoriously unavailable. He followed Lampwick back through the backstage area to the ante-room, and down into the theatre’s basement bar. This was a large, open-plan chamber. It possessed a faint smell of sour beer, but everything else was in good order; it was neatly carpeted, with leather seating and polished pub tables and yet more theatrical photographs cladding the tastefully papered walls. The bar-top had been polished until it shone, rows of optics glinting in the shadows behind it.
“As we agreed before, the bar itself will need to stay locked,” Lampwick said, as they walked past it to a narrow passage on the left, where there was another fire-door and a wall-to-ceiling cupboard fastened with a shiny padlock. “We’re not making assumptions about your character, Mr Hetherington, but it would be more than the Bar Manager’s job is worth to allow someone he didn’t know uncontrolled access to that area.”
“I understand.” Hetherington waited while Lampwick produced a key and unlocked the cupboard. An array of junction boxes and electrical cables was revealed.
Lampwick glanced around. He seemed less nervous than earlier, but in the dimness of the bar’s low-key lighting, his eyes were limpid and grey. “I understand you requested the power be turned off?”
“That’s correct.”
“You’re absolutely sure about that? It’ll turn the central heating off too.”
“I’m well wrapped, so I’ll happily sacrifice the warmth to get rid of the light. I don’t want any lights at all, not even the emergency lights.”
“Well …” Lampwick indicated a row of breaker switches. “This is how you do it. It’ll be very dark, though. The whole purpose of theatres is to insulate their audiences against the world of the real.”
“I want complete darkness,” Hetherington confirmed.
“You’ll get that down here especially – almost no natural light penetrates to the basement area. But …” Briefly, Lampwick looked amused. “Is it really necessary? I mean, do ghosts need it to be dark in order to come out? And if there’s no such thing as ghosts, why bother turning any lights off?”
“It doesn’t matter to me personally whether it’s dark or light,” Hetherington replied, mildly irked by the question. “But my internet show has a big audience, and they have expectations.”
“Ah … yes, so it’s about entertainment as well as science.”
“Something has to pay the bills.”
“Yes, of course. Well …” Lampwick sighed, as if he’d tried to warn the visitor against this folly, “… turn this lot off, and you’ll have what you want. It will also de-activate the alarm, which won’t matter so much while you’re in here of course, but the security cameras will be turned off too.”
“That’s okay. I have my own cameras.” Hetherington tapped his backpack. “Any footage I shoot needs to be copyrighted to me anyway, so it’s best if no-one else films.”
That’s bollocks of course, Lampwick, Hetherington thought to himself, but the truth is I don’t want someone else making copies of this event, and then doctoring their own videos to show things that never happened.
“As you like …” Lampwick clapped his hands together. “Okay, I’ll leave you to it.”
Hetherington followed him through a lower section of bar, and up a different stairway from earlier, an even steeper, narrower one, which connected directly with the theatre lobby. Here, the Secretary halted to pull on a pair of suede driving gloves.
“I wonder,” he said. “Was it worth it?”
“Worth what?” Hetherington asked.
“I can see you’re a principled man, Mr Hetherington. But are those principles worth what happened to Roger Shelburn?”
Ahhh … here we go.
“Roger Shelburn took his own life,” Hetherington said.
Suddenly Lampwick was being very meticulous about donning and adjusting his gloves. He pointedly wouldn’t meet Hetherington’s gaze. “Surely that was because his career had been ruined?”
“His career as a fraud, you mean?”
“I’ve often wondered … is it really fraud? You tell people their deceased loved ones are happy in the afterlife, and those people go away reassured. Does it really matter if you don’t have a clue whether the afterlife exists or not? You still make people happy.”
“Once or twice it’s probably no big deal. But Roger Shelburn made a career out of it. He had his own TV show.”
“So?”
Hetherington had to suppress a snort at such gullibility. “But if it’s all untrue ...?”
“Again, does it matter … if it makes these bereaved people more content?”
“Shelburn was a charlatan,” Hetherington declared. “That’s all I’ll say on the matter.”
And you, Mr Ted Lampwick, can like it or lump it.
“Well, I don’t have particular views on this, if I’m honest,” Lampwick said, almost as though he’d read Hetherington’s mind. “I have to say, I’ve never really thought the Ambridge haunted myself, and I’ve been a member over forty years. There are no specific stories; it’s just an eerie old building I guess. If there’s any spirit here at present …” he glanced at the lobby’s festive brocade, “… I’d say it was the spirit of the season. Not that this is always a good thing.”
“It isn’t?” Hetherington asked, puzzled by that.
“Well, they say Christmas is what you make it … that you get the Christmas you deserve, and all that.”
“Good job I don’t do Christmas.”
Lampwick headed to the fire-door, muttering something in response that sounded like “Let’s hope it doesn’t do you.”
“I’m sorry?” Hetherington asked. “Missed that.”
Lampwick opened the door, and a waft of icy air blew in. “I said good luck to you.”
“Okay … thanks.”
“One last thing,” Lampwick said. “When are you planning on leaving tomorrow?”
“First light … half past eight, nine-ish.”
“If you throw the breakers back on first, and whichever door you leave through, make sure you close it after you. I’ll be popping in mid-morning on my way to my daughter’s for Christmas lunch, to check everything’s okay. And I’ll put the alarms back on.” Lampwick halted in the doorway. “You’re absolutely sure you want to do this?”
Here we go again.
“I’m sure. And thanks for your concern, but I’ve done it many times before.”
     “Not here.”
“No, not here,” Hetherington agreed. “But then you don’t believe this place is haunted either.”
“No, but then I’ve never stayed here overnight, not on my own.”
In the dark, when there’s nobody else here … eh, Mr Lampwick?
Lampwick smiled, again as if he’d just read Hetherington’s inner thoughts. Then he departed into the blackness and the snow, shutting the fire-exit door behind him.
“Cute,” Hetherington said aloud, walking back across the lobby. “A last-ditch attempt to unsettle me. Gotta give you credit, Lampwick. Once an actor, and all that …”

*

Hetherington emptied his backpack and unfolded his tripods, and spent the next half hour deploying his devices: his heat monitors, his motion-sensitive cameras, his audio recording instruments, all the usual kit that no self-respecting ghost hunter could be without. When every part of the building was covered, he headed back down into the lower bar area, glancing at his watch. It was just on nine.
Excellent. Always start at nine if you can.
He hit the row of breaker switches, plunging himself into ultimate darkness.
Almost no natural light penetrates to the basement area …
“Not a problem.” Hetherington switched on his night-vision goggles, bringing everything into fuzzy green relief, and activated his goggles-cam and mic. He made his formal introduction to the subscription-paying audience who at some point soon – preferably before New Year – would be tuning in to Fear Itself, his regular internet show, and walked back upstairs to the auditorium and down its left-hand aisle.



    So here we are, he said, clambering up onto the stage while addressing his as-yet nonexistent viewers. This is going to be a long, loney Christmas Eve, but hey ... these are the sacrifices I make for you guys.
To stage-right, access to the wings was gained by a curved brick archway, a huge chunk of authentic Victoriana. This was an actual part of the theatre’s fabric, and no doubt had been worked into the sets for many plays in the past. It would be particularly useful for A Christmas Carol, he supposed. More useful to Hetherington, though, was the chair he’d seen sitting in the back of it. He brought the chair out, and positioned it in the very middle of the stage, facing the auditorium. This was where he intended to keep his vigil, with occasional patrols around the rest of the building to break the monotony (it was a good thing his shows never went out live – they’d prove a big switch-off if they did).
Before sitting and making himself comfortable, Hetherington scrutinised the life-size Scrooge puppet standing up close. Less detail was visible in the night-vision’s green mist. With head drooped, its face was completely indistinguishable aside from its long, tapering nose. In terms of shape, the figure was bone-thin – almost emaciated; like a suspended corpse. The fact it would be hanging just behind and to his left was added unpleasantness.
Determined to push such nonsense from his mind, he shoved his chair backwards a few feet, so that at least it hung in his eye-line. Then he settled down.
The chair, which was hard and stiff-backed, was uncomfortable, but that was good – the last thing he wanted was to drop off to sleep. Murmuring these thoughts to his viewers, he appraised the auditorium as it stood empty in front of him. Night-vision wasn’t perfect; but at least he could distinguish its basic dimensions; the rows of seating, and the two downstairs aisles. It was only when he glanced up to the balcony that he glimpsed what he thought was a person.
Hetherington blinked once, twice – then stood up and walked to the front of the stage.
He had to be mistaken. Perhaps the fogginess of his vision was playing tricks on him? But it definitely looked as if someone was sitting in one of the seats up there. In the extreme right-hand block, three rows up from the front barrier.
“Hello?” he called hesitantly. “Mr Lampwick?”
But it surely couldn’t be Lampwick. He’d left, and the whole place was locked up. And there was nobody else here, or there wasn’t supposed to be. The shape on the balcony didn’t respond, or even move, but the more Hetherington stared up at it, the more it resembled a seated figure, possibly wearing a heavy overcoat.
“Hello!” he shouted again, more belligerently, his voice echoing to the high ceiling.
Still the figure sat motionless.
“Okay,” Hetherington said under his breath, jumping down from the stage.
Every challenge has to be met. That’s the way of it on Fear Itself.
He walked briskly up the left-hand aisle, passed through the double-doors into the lobby, and turned at the upward staircase. When he got to the top, he halted. There was an open space on this first level, with comfortable armchairs and sofas, probably for audience members to enjoy coffee during intervals in performances. There were also two brass-handled single doors, one on the left and one on the right. No doubt these corresponded with the two aisles leading down through the balcony seating. From below the figure had been on the right, so it would now be on the left. Hetherington went straight to that door, only to realise that his brow was greased with sweat – which surprised him. He’d been in similar situations before, but something about this one felt slightly different, and he didn’t know why.
Odd how that figure didn’t move at all. Not so much as an inch.
One thing was sure, he couldn’t afford to falter. His goggles-cam always provided the best footage. It enabled his audience to see exactly what he saw. They’d tolerate some degree of editing of course, but if there was a break in the action now, when they’d expect him to go bravely through this door and confront his fear, it wouldn’t look good.
He swung the door wide and tramped boldly down the stepped aisle, already able to see the seated shape from behind: it had broad shoulders, and a mass of unruly hair, on top of which an immense rather ridiculous looking hat was perched. It was only when Hetherington got alongside it that he realised his mistake.
No hat, but a holly wreath; no overcoat but a set of fur-trimmed winter robes.
Not the delicate, vaguely camp Ted Lampwick, but the big, robust frame of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
By its obvious wig and fake beard, and its garish face-paint, not to mention its slack-angled head and the flat wooden hand on the armrest next to it, in the middle of which another tiny metal hook was visible, it was obviously one of the marionettes. But just to be sure – because his audience would expect that – Hetherington sidled along the row. Once in reach of the figure, he toed at it warily, and pushed it. It was solid, but jointed and light, probably balsa wood under all that festive regalia. It slumped sideways.
“Someone had nothing better to do today, putting that thing up here,” Hetherington intoned, edging back to the aisle. “Possibly our friend, Mr Lampwick, Theatre Secretary. I suspect he thought he saw us coming.” Hetherington always referred to himself in the plural during his show commentaries, as though whatever he did or said, his viewers would unquestionably be on his side. Before leaving, he glanced back down at the stage; he could make out his chair and the Scrooge figure. Everything was as he’d left it, except …
He advanced down the aisle to the railing.
Had the Scrooge figure turned slightly?
It was difficult to be sure from this distance, but it now seemed to be facing the chair rather than standing side-on to it.
It was suspended of course, so the air currents Hetherington had caused when leaving the stage might have accounted for that. It barely felt worth bringing it to the attention of his viewers, but Hetherington did so anyway as he re-ascended the aisle, pushing out onto the first level and descending the stair to the lobby.
The next problem came when reached the double-doors to the auditorium.
They were closed, as he’d expected; apparently they were on swing-hinges to ensure they couldn’t be left open during performances. But when he pulled them, they wouldn’t budge. Thinking he was supposed to push, he tried that – but there was no give.
“What the hell …?” He pulled again, hard, yanking at the handles, putting his back into it. This time the doors moved slightly, which indicated they hadn’t accidentally locked themselves when he’d gone through them before. Instead, it felt as if – it seemed ridiculous, but it felt as if someone was holding them on the other side.
“This is beyond a joke, okay!” he shouted through the gap. “I mean the puppet upstairs is one thing, but this is infringing on the terms of the contract I signed with your Chairman. I was supposed to have full access to all areas except the bar and the office. I should also remind you I’ve got cameras everywhere. You and your mates will look a bit foolish capering around in the dark like schoolkids.”
There was no sound from the other side, not a hint of movement. Hetherington tugged at the two handles again, to no avail.
“Sod this!” he said under his breath.
He took the downward stair connecting with the basement bar, crossing its lower area first, seeing and hearing nothing untoward. But in the upper bar, he halted in his tracks.
In its furthest recess, another figure was seated.
At one of the bar tables.
Dressed all in white.
Fresh sweat prickled Hetherington’s brow.
After calling out, and the figure remaining motionless, he ventured forward. It seemed a safe bet that this was another of the marionettes. The Ghost of Christmas Past perhaps.
When he got close, it was decked in a white silk gown, a white silk cape with a peaked hood, and an oval white mask, featureless except for symmetrical holes cut for the eyes. Only when he pushed at it did it shift position, clacking as its wooden parts jostled together. As he’d suspected, and hardly a problem – except that it hadn’t been here when he’d come through earlier. Okay, Hetherington couldn’t swear to that, but surely when all the lights had been switched on, he’d have noticed it?
“I’m now even more suspicious that someone is playing games here,” he said, backing away. “If not, I apologise to the Ambridge Theatre membership. If they are, however … well, we might play some games of our own before the end of tonight.”
So thinking, he entered the ante-room, but instead of going back up to the auditorium, took the door to the backstage area. He moved from one narrow section to the next, always aware of the deep darkness filling the spaces behind him. He couldn’t help admitting that if there was someone here, they were doing a damn good job of lying low. In the Green Room, Marley’s Ghost was seated on the bench, as before, head bowed. Everything else appeared normal too.
Hetherington re-ascended to the stage by its steep back-stair, sidled around the scenery and slumped into his chair. As an afterthought, he glanced at the figure of Scrooge. It was indeed turned in his direction, as he’d seen from the balcony. In addition, it seemed a little closer than it had been previously. When he’d first arrived here, he’d placed his chair about six or seven feet away from the hanging shape. Now it looked more like four or five. But again, maybe this was due to a disturbance in the air. He glanced overhead. Even with night-vision goggles, nothing was visible up there, just an indistinguishable mass of wood, metalwork and cables, a gantry no doubt for the puppeteers, plus runners, wheels, pulleys. All movements of hanging puppets were explainable. But he couldn’t help wondering if Lampwick might be lurking up there too. Well, let him; the static cams would catch him at some point. There was one thing Hetherington would take great pleasure in – in the morning he’d inform Lampwick exactly why he’d come here; not because the Ambridge Theatre was a famous hotspot on the paranormal investigation trail, not because it was famous for anything in fact, at least nowhere outside this unimportant little post-industrial dump of a Lancashire town. But because he’d been dared to.
He deactivated the goggles-cam, before filching the phone from his pocket and running back through his messages. He found the relevant one straight away, and cheerfully played it back to himself.
“You know … Mr Hetherington,” a harsh female voice said, quaking with anger. “All my Roger ever did was offer people hope in a difficult world.”
She was another one of course, he thought scornfully. Stella Shelburn, or Stella Mordrake to use her professional name. Apparently she was a stage witch or magician, or some such nonsense. Maybe her act was now in trouble as well; guilt by association and all that. Hetherington hoped so.
“I’m not denying that Roger made money out of his medium tours,” the enraged voice added. “Of course he did … he was a showman. That was his career. But no-one forced those people to attend, no-one tore the cash out of their pockets. You didn’t need to run that big exposure on him on your website …”  
It was a miracle no one had exposed the conman before, Hetherington reflected. It hadn’t been difficult to catch him. A few plants in the audience to make it look as if the spirits really were telling him personal secrets – easy enough to identify those goons. A not especially advanced hologram show to create the illusion that spirits were trying to materialise …
“If you’re so hot on disproving the existence of the other realm, you ought to take a real plunge, Hetherington! Don’t be going to old castles that have now become visitor centres, where you’ve got all the mod cons you need. Or stately homes where there’s always an attendant in case you run into trouble. Try a real leap in the dark, Mr Alan bloody Hetherington! Try the little-known Ambridge Theatre …”
Hetherington snapped the phone off.
“And yadda yadda,” he said. “Well, here we are, Ms Mordrake. Not only in the theatre, but on the stage itself. You’d better hope this show, when it finally starts, is worth my while … because if not, I’m going to give it and you a going-over online that’ll make what I did to your husband look like a patta-cake session. What do you say, Ebenezer?” He spun in his chair to face the marionette.
To find that it was less than a foot away from him.
Hetherington leapt to his feet, knocking the chair over in his haste. Involuntarily, he backed away a couple of yards.
“Lampwick? … LAMPWICK!
He glanced overhead, still seeing nothing, and somehow knowing that this was because there was nobody up there.
Yet when he looked at Scrooge again, it was even closer. Still hanging limply on semi-visible wires. But its head was now upright. Its soulless eyes, which were little more than black dots on white greasepaint patches with beetling, bushy brows pasted over the top, had fixed intently on him. For a hair-raising second, that thing that happened with skillfully made and manipulated puppets – that weird illusion that they were actually alive – overtook Hetherington. He half-expected the effigy’s hinged jaw to start clacking up and down as a stream of seasonal invective issued out: “Humbug! Humbug, I say! Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!”
But of course that didn’t happen.
It just hung there, silent, watching him from close up.
Hetherington stared again into the darkened recesses above, craning his neck backwards to try and focus on something, anything, distinguishable. Seconds passed, but there was no movement up there. Surely if someone was lurking on a gantry, he’d at least hear them? A shuffling … a dull creak of metal?
“Well,” he said aloud, belatedly remembering that he had an audience. “It is possible that we’re being hoaxed here. It wouldn’t be the first time, as you folks are aware. But it’s also worth considering that these marionettes are actually nothing to do with Ted Lampwick and the Ambridge Theatre. They’re owned by an outside company. And while it’s possible that Mr Lampwick may be hanging around in the vicinity, I’ve seen no sign that anyone else is. And on reflection, I somehow can’t picture old Ted – who must be sixty-five easily – climbing up into that roof-space. So we may also have to consider that this could be a mechanical fault. Perhaps … if the puppet’s on runners, if it’s all cogs and wheels up there, and the rig hasn’t been disassembled yet, this weirdness could be happening by accident. A stiff breeze through a fault in the roof? A gear that keeps slipping?” He paused. “Either way, if I want to establish an explanation I need to get up there myself.”
He stepped around the Scrooge figure, giving it wider berth than perhaps was really necessary, and headed to the wings at stage-right. As he went, he glanced backwards, half-expecting the marionette to have turned again, its ghoulish painted eyes still fixed on him. But it remained as it had been, facing the knocked-over chair.
“Okay, here we …” Hetherington sidled around the edge of an upright section of flat scenery that was painted with a wintry Dickensian street scene.
Behind it, a narrow path dwindled away between a black brick wall and the rear of several additional flats. The greenish gloom cast by Hetherington’s goggles perhaps rendered this thoroughfare spookier than it needed to be. But this wasn’t the reason he hesitated – or so he told himself; he wanted to listen out again. But aside from the faint, shrill moan of wind in the high rafters, there was no other sound in the building. He imagined the snow fluttering relentlessly down outside, blanketing the old industrial-era premises, blotting out the surrounding streets and their rows of dingy terraced houses.
All very Christmassy … if you believe in that claptrap.
For the first time now, as he ventured behind the flats, he noticed his breath smoking. As Lampwick had said, with the power turned off, the central heating would also be deactivated – and it hadn’t taken long for the effect of that to make itself known. Despite Hetherington’s earlier bravado when this was mentioned, it would certainly make things uncomfortable. He was well padded, though, and he had a flask of hot coffee in his pack. Even so, he pulled his gloves back on. They were old-fashioned skiing gauntlets, and were nice and thick – which would be all the better if this ladder, when he finally found it, proved to be rusty. Not that there was any sign of it. There were lots of ropes back here, either hanging down in front or him or tied off on steel hooks in the wall, but nothing else. It was bare and basic behind the scenery, the air reeking of sawdust and fresh paint. How often that magical theatrical fantasy was shattered when you poked your nose round the back and saw how functional the reality was.  
He progressed along the passage until he reached the top of another back-stair, which descended into murk. There was no point going under the stage again, but from this position he was able to see past the rearmost gap in the flats and across to the far wings. The ladder might be over there – but then a shadowy form flitted past a space between two opposing bits of scenery
It was a brief second. No more than flicker of movement, and then it was gone. But it was all Hetherington needed.
“Ah … hah.” He felt both irritated and elated. “Caught you.”
He held his breath for several heartbeats. Nothing else happened, but it didn’t matter – he knew what he’d seen. Sliding quickly out along the wall painted with the image of Old London Town, he broke into a run as he crossed the stage, not just adrenalized by the scent of a foe but by the prospect of what a chase and catch would do to his viewing figures. The excited rasp of his breath and scuffing of his feet could no doubt be heard throughout the theatre, but speed was all. He was onto something big here. This one might even travel beyond the confines of the internet. A TV slot, perhaps the local news …


Ghost hunter busts festive pranksters


… would be just the shot in the arm that Fear Itself needed.
He reached stage-left and slotted himself through the gap between the flats. Again, he was in a cramped world of props, ropes and sawdust.
“I know you’re here!” he said loudly, blundering towards the stage-front.
But now there was no sign of anyone.
The Victorian arch appeared on his left, while on his right there was a large pair of double doors. They were painted black, which might explain why he hadn’t noticed them when making his earlier round-trip with Lampwick. They were also heavy and crude; they looked more like barn doors, though a notice on the left one read:


Workshop


Hetherington barged at the doors with his shoulder. As expected, they held firm. Something else he’d be taking up with his host in the morning. “All parts of the theatre except the bar and the office!” he growled. “That was the deal!”
He glanced through the arch onto the stage. Nothing out there had changed; the hanging figure of Scrooge was exactly as he’d left it, although … was it possible it had pivoted around again? From its previous angle it should have been shoulder-on, but as always seemed to be the case now, it was facing him. However, this time he wasn’t concerned, not now that he knew there was somebody else here.
With a slow, dull creak, what sounded like a door opened behind him …
Briefly, Hetherington froze. For the first time in his many years of ghost hunts and expos├ęs, the proverbial chill ran up his spine. Then he spun.
The ‘barn doors’ stood ajar.
“That’s impossible,” he said under his breath, momentarily breaking one of his own cardinal rules by lending credence to the illogical. “I tried those doors. They were locked.” Despite the deepening chill, he mopped more sweat from his brow. “Unless, of course,” he licked his lips, which conversely were bone-dry, “these doors were locked from the other side … by someone who must still be in there.”
And yet now, for some reason, has unlocked them again?
Though this was an invitation he surely couldn’t refuse – in fact mustn’t, given what his audience would think – he actually wondered if he should. Fleetingly, he wondered what he was even doing in this cold, dark, tomb-like building when he could have been at home in the warmth, kicking back on the sofa with Marsha.
“Because we’re here to unravel what’s real from what’s unreal,” he said, forcefully answering his own question. “We are here to undermine the phonies and the frauds, and tonight perhaps we’re going to nab the biggest fish of all – the annual fallacious farce that is Christmas.”
He reached out and pushed at the workshop doors.
They swung in onto a surprisingly cavernous interior, though it was also cluttered with awkward-sharped objects: work-benches, trestle-tables, tools, bits of timber and hardboard. On all sides there were more flats, decked with garish imagery, either lying in stacks or leaning against the walls. And then there was something else.
Right in the middle of the room, on the floor, was his hi-tech Acorn Trail-Cam. A hundred quid’s worth of motion-sensitive night vision. Now in several pieces.
Hetherington strode forward and gazed down at it dumbly. In the green twilight, it was difficult to tell whether it had been disassembled or smashed. But the mere fact it had been removed from where he’d positioned it below-stairs, and brought up here …
Another chill crept through his bones. “I … I …”
The inside of his mouth was as dry as his lips. He couldn’t give voice to what he felt.
People always try to pull the wool over my eyes, but this is the first time anyone’s attacked my stuff …
He turned stiffly, almost indignantly scanning the room. Again, there was no sign that anyone was in here. There wasn’t even a place where a person could hide.
Except for in the farthest corner, maybe twenty yards away, where yet another stack of flats had been propped against the north-facing wall, leaving a shadow-filled gap between itself and the east-facing wall. It was only a narrow gap, the depth and breadth of a coffin – but still sufficient to conceal someone.
He walked over there with a slow, deliberate tread, accidentally kicking over a tin of paint, which clattered as it rolled, splurging a green puddle across the bare floorboards.
“Shit!” he hissed, though it was hardly a disaster. As he’d already seen, it was a utilitarian world back here. Besides, they owed him a camera.
The corner of the flats stood right in front of him, the black recess behind them just out of sight. “It’s your last chance to come clean,” he said. “Fail to do that, and you’ll be outed … to the whole world.”
Still there was no sound
“Despite what you’ve done to my gear, there’s nothing personal in this. If we can make good on the cost of that, there’ll be no hard feelings.”
Still no response.
“I warn you, exposing frauds is my trade. My reason to live.”
Still nothing.
Without further warning, Hetherington stepped around the corner. “It’s my …”
The figure waiting there startled him for all kinds of horrible reasons, not least its lugubrious frown and lifeless, painted eyes. But mainly because the last time he’d seen it, it had been downstairs. It was Marley’s Ghost. Not sitting now, but standing upright against the rear wall, its head no longer drooping and the bandage that had supported its jaw now absent.
“It’s my …” Hetherington stammered again.
Was this the same marionette? He noted the unstitched tear in the left shoulder of its frockcoat. Had someone carried it up here? Along with his camera? Why in God’s name exert all this effort just to perpetrate a hoax? Or was it a costume?
Can that be it? Is this someone dressed up?
Dazedly, he reached out to touch the thing.
“It’s my, my ...”
His fingers made tentative contact with the figure’s bare, wooden cranium. It was hard, hollow.
“My business …”
Abruptly, its jaw clacked downward, the vivid red gash of its mouth extending all the way to its breastbone.
“BUSINESS!” a distant voice shrieked in the back of his memory.
The next thing Hetherington knew he was stumbling away across the workshop. Aside from the jaw, he’d never seen the thing move. Not once, not at all. He told himself this over and over. And yet now, even though he could hear sounds behind him – that paint-pot clattering and rolling again, as if something had kicked it while coming after him – he refused to look back.
“There’ll be an explanation,” he chuntered. “There always is. It’s a trick, a charade.”
The barn doors swam into view, and beyond those the Victorian arch. But now another figure was standing there, blocking it. It wore a nightcap and dressing gown, and its luminous eyes peered at him from under bristly tufts of eyebrow.
Hetherington screamed.
It was the first time he’d made this sound in adulthood. He made it again a second later, involuntarily, as he blundered towards the rear of the wings. There was another door back there somewhere; he’d seen it earlier – but where? Dear God, the sense of pursuit was intolerable. Then the door slammed into him with a stunning blow, both body and face. Refusing to yield to dizziness, he yanked it open and all but leapt down the back-stair beyond, fighting his way through the maze of backstage passages, sending another of his stationary cameras crashing to the floor but ignoring it, scrabbling madly this way and that until, more by accident than design, he reached the basement bar.
“What the hell are you running for?” he raved at himself as he dashed across it. “They’re puppets, that’s all. Bloody puppets!
Even so, he didn’t risk a glance into the far corner where the puppet of the Ghost of Christmas Past had been seated – despite a distinct impression gained through his peripheral vision that a figure in white was no longer sitting over here, but standing.
He all but flew the remaining distance to the fire-exit door next to the electrics cupboard, only to open it and find himself blinded by swirling flakes, and when they briefly cleared, gazing up a flight of snow-carpeted steps to a tall, wrought-iron gate now bound closed with a length of heavy chain.
A chain?
That damn horror in the workshop! I knew there was something missing!
It didn’t matter. Ducking back inside, Hetherington crossed the lower section of bar to the foot of the stair leading up to the lobby. But he’d only half ascended this when he saw that yet another figure was waiting at the top, an immense shape in heavy winter robes, with a wig and fake beard, and a holly wreath on its head.
Sweating and whimpering, he tottered back the way he’d come. It would mean chancing the upper bar again, which he did, at breakneck speed, again refusing to glance into the far corner, though the white form he’d glimpsed over there was much closer, before crashing shoulder-first through the ante-room and then back through the backstage area, still declining to look left or right, turning corner after corner, at any second expecting some horrific, limbering form to manifest from the gloom and wrap its wooden arms around him, but instead colliding with more of his own equipment, an ultra-expensive EMF monitor exploding as it was hammered to the floor.
So bloody what?
At last reaching the short upward stair, Hetherington staggered through the old stage-door and into the tiled exit passage leading to the rear of the building.
He was still wearing his night-vision goggles, but that opaque patch of blackness at the far end of his escape route remained unchanged.
“It looks menacing,” Lampwick said. Too bloody right it does!
But it was the only way out, and anyway, a growing sense that something again was close behind was the final spur. Yelling incoherently, the ghost hunter charged down the passage, rushing headlong into the blackness at its farthest extremity.
Initially, he assumed the fabric that swirled around him was a curtain or drape, perhaps a draft-excluder at the outer door. But good God, there was so much of it, and it was so black and heavy, and it smelled so foul. And holy Jesus, Mary and Joseph, there was something else in here alongside him. Something hiding. Or maybe not hiding, waiting.
As it been waiting all along.
Inside this colossal costume … 
     “Jesus God in Heaven! Hetherington shrieked as an object shimmered into view in front of his face, a glinting crescent of steel; the cold, curved perfection of a razor-edged scythe.

*

“Quite a bit of expensive kit in there,” said the lad in jumper and jeans, as he brought another of the marionettes outside. “Some of it looks damaged, mind.”
“Damaged?” Lampwick enquired, chugging on one of the fat King Edward cigars his granddaughter had given him for Christmas. He presumed the lad was referring to all those cameras and monitors and such. He hadn’t noticed that any of it was broken, though he hadn’t looked too closely. It was certainly all over the place.
“Only a couple of pieces,” the lad said. “Most of it’s alright. There’s even a pair of night-vision goggles. Reckon they cost a bit.”

“The bloke who left it behind left that too.” Lampwick nodded down the snowy street at the rear of the theatre. At its far end, a day and two nights’ worth of soft white flakes were heaped on the roof and bonnet of a parked Subaru Impreza. “He was supposed to take it all away on Christmas morning, but when I got here, he’d gone without it.”
The lad threw the puppet into the back of the colourfully illustrated van. This was the one dressed as Scrooge. Up close, in the bright white snow-light of a Boxing Day morning, it was easier to see how plain it actually was: with its wires removed, it was a jointed wooden mannequin, nothing more, and now that its greasepaint and make-up had been smeared away, it was grey in colour, almost featureless.
“Wouldn’t fancy leaving a motor like that around here … no offence,” the lad said as he headed back into the building.
“None taken.” Lampwick puffed on his cigar. “This corner of town’s not quite what it was. But you’re right; he was obviously a more casual sort than I thought. He didn’t even put the power back on before he left. I’ve no idea where he is at present.”
“Probably sleeping off a hangover, eh?” the lad said, reappearing with another marionette under his arm. This one was clad as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Again, it looked like nothing in broad daylight, Lampwick thought. It was amazing what this Ms Mordrake and her Magic Puppet Theatre could do.
“I doubt that, somehow,” he said. “Anyway, he’ll show up. So … Ms Mordrake didn’t fancy coming to collect the stuff herself?”
“Nah. Pays an oik like me to do that.” The lad headed back inside. “I don’t mind. I’m on double-time today.”
Lampwick glanced through the open doors at the back of the van, and saw four of the figures that had entertained the local children so royally during December – Scrooge and the three Spirits of the Season, nothing more now than a heap of disorderly wooden parts, their costumes just messy rags. No doubt, once they got home they’d be stripped down and cleaned, maybe dressed as pirates or angels or pantomime characters, or who knew what at this time of year. At the far end of the vehicle’s interior, a fifth dusty figure was propped against the wheel-arch. Lampwick couldn’t see much of it, just an outline – but this one hadn’t even been dressed in a costume. He extricated his cigar and leaned forward, gazing into the dim interior. Surely there was something about it? But then the lad asked him to mind out, and threw in the last of the marionettes, Marley’s Ghost. It struck the figure by the wheel-arch with a clack, causing it to shift lifelessly and its left arm to flop into the daylight.
It was nothing, Lampwick realised. Wood, like all the others.
Not real.  



(Many thanks to Chrissie Demant, who first created the above image for this same story on the awesome VAULT OF EVIL website this time last year, and to the BBC, from whom I cheekily borrowed the topmost image of the phantom figure who terrorised a lonely railway employee in the 1976 GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, THE SIGNAL-MAN).

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Admit it, you're all just dying for Christmas


I don’t know about you, but whenever we get to December, I start thinking scary. I’m sure it’s as much to do with the short days, long dark nights and desolate, frozen landscapes as it is our midwinter tradition of telling ghost stories, though in truth, I don’t think any of us really need a reason. I now automatically associate the waning of the year, especially the days leading up to Christmas, with genuinely creepy tales – no nursery stuff about elves and pixies in this neck of the woods. 

In that spirit, I’m this week reviewing an especially frightening horror novel, which also happens to be set in the depths of winter, in fact one of the darkest, coldest winters you could imagine: Michelle Paver’s thoroughly terrifying DARK MATTERHowever, before we get to that - as usual, youll find a full review and discussion of that novel towards the lower end of this post - a word or two about my own ‘ghost story for Christmas’ output ...

Some of you may be aware that around this time each year, I’m in the habit of posting one of my own Christmas terror tales right here on this blog. There’ll be no exception to that rule this year, though as it’s not quite Christmas yet, you’ll need to tune in for a that a little later in the month. I've got no actual date for it yet, but it will be in a couple of weeks’ time and before December 24.

This year’s offering will be THE UNREAL, which features a ghost-hunter holding a solo vigil in a supposedly haunted theatre on a very cold and lonely Christmas Eve.

Before then, I’m going to make use of the time of year to unashamedly pimp some of my other Christmas stories - so apologies for this in advance. All have been published in the relatively recent past, but they may well have skipped your attention as they only tend to appear on readers’ radars between October and December.

The most obvious one that springs to mind is my novella of 2010, SPARROWHAWK, which has been reviewed in the following terms;

A supernatural feast in more ways than one.

The author superbly captures the atmosphere of 19th century London; the plot is gripping from the outset.

A Christmas tale with a twist that is captivating.


SPARROWHAWK is one of my favourite novellas, as it contains what I still consider to be some of my best writing. It follows the fortunes of Captain John Sparrowhawk, a veteran of the Afghan War of the early 1840s, who on surviving a campaign which saw all his men killed, returns home shell-shocked to find that his depressed wife has died during his absence. Resigning his commission and falling into drink and gambling, he soon runs up debts, which finally see him incarcerated in the terrible Fleet Prison.

This is where the story actually opens; with Sparrowhawk at his wits’ end after one whole year on Debtors’ Row, and no apparent way to purchase his liberty – until, very unexpectedly, and just as a bitterly cold December descends on London, the beautiful and enigmatic Miss Evangeline offers to pay his debts on the condition he will do a job for her: protect an unnamed middle class family against an unspecified foe for the duration of the Christmas period.

With nothing to lose, Sparrowhawk takes the job, but soon finds himself pitted against a very dangerous opponent – a supernatural entity with many and varied forms, which quickly takes advantage of the thick frost, freezing fog and heavy Yuletide snow, and wastes no time in using fragments of Sparrowhawks own tragic past to torture him.

Here’s a quick extract:

Sparrowhawk advanced a few yards into the park. As always, the moonlight reflected brilliantly from the snow, and at first he saw nothing. But then, gradually, he became aware of a heavy-set figure about thirty yards to the left of the bandstand. It stood perfectly still and watched him. He continued to advance, steadily. If this fellow was nothing more than a curious passer-by, the shotgun would involve some awkward explanations, but Sparrowhawk was playing for high stakes here, and he kept the weapon levelled.
A few yards more, however, and he relaxed again.
The figure was a snowman.
Some children must have built it during the day, though when he circled it, it struck him as odder than usual. It had no features – no lumps of coal for eyes, no traditional carrot for a nose, yet someone had stuck a cigar where its mouth should be – a full-sized Cuban cheroot of the sort Sparrowhawk favoured but couldn’t afford. Likewise, the evening coat and top-hat, the former of which was velvet, the latter silk, made for expensive adornments. Even though the figure had no eyes, he felt as though it was looking straight at him. He contemplated knocking the thing down and trampling it, but decided that this would be cruel on the children who’d built it. At the very least he could take the cheroot, though it occurred to him that maybe the cheroot had been left here specifically for that purpose and that it might have been tainted in some way. On reflection, that seemed a little ridiculous, though of course stranger things had so far happened. 
Sparrowhawk resumed his patrol, ignoring the snowman further. The rest of his shift was uneventful, and in the morning he went back to his residence. When he returned the following evening, he noticed that the snowman had gone. He wandered around, but there was no trace of it. There wasn’t even a clump of messy snow where it had stood. The surface was smooth, unbroken – even though there hadn’t been another snow shower for the last couple of days.

SPARROWHAWK is a special case really, as on penning it, I didn’t set out with the sole intention of writing a horror story. If I say so myself, I think it’s a lot bigger than that, hence it’s length – at 40,000 words it’s a novella rather than a short. There is horror in there – ghosts, monsters and festive frights – but I think it’s more a tale of self-discovery than anything else, with lots of romance as well, some Dickensian-era social drama, and lashings of the traditional Victorian Christmas. 

If you’re looking for some more typical seasonal terror, I’m still rather proud of IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, which was first published in November 2014 (and republished this year in Germany, both electronically and in paperback, as DAS GESPENST VON KILLINGLY HALL) and which collects five of my Christmas horror stories. In this case, it’s exactly what it says on the tin: a bunch of seasonal chillers designed to make your hair stand on end. Here are some tasters and some short extracts:


THE CHRISTMAS TOYS

Two burglars target an ordinary suburban house one Christmas Eve, only to awaken the dark side of the festive spirit …

… it appeared to be an entire representation of Bethlehem in miniature. Fleetingly, Tookey was touched by long ago memories of his infant school days, when the hopes and fears of all the years had seemed to apply to him as much as all the other kids. The flat-roofed houses were brown or beige, as if moulded from mud-brick, the glow of mellow lamplight visible from each interior, donkeys and camels yoked outside. In the very centre, on a raised mound, there was a stable, its frontage removed, revealing a baby in a manger and toy soldier-sized figures of Mary and Joseph kneeling one to either side. Above them, a single star was suspended. Somewhere on the floor one of the wires to the fallen Christmas trees sparked, and the star began to shine with a pale, silvery luminescence. At the same time figures started moving in the town. Tookey watched in fascination as three or four men – again no more than toy soldier size – but distinctly sinister in hoods and cloaks, and with curved daggers, roved up and down the narrow streets, moving along electric runners which he hadn’t noticed previously. One by one they visited each house, the internal light to which would then turn blood-red – to the accompaniment of tinny shrieks.
“What the …?” Tookey breathed. He had some vague memory of a school lesson during which he’d been told about that bad-tempered bastard – wasn’t his name ‘Herod’? – having all the babies killed to try and get to Jesus.


MIDNIGHT SERVICE

A stranded traveller in a desolate town one snowy Christmas Eve. Where can he find shelter? The former workhouse, of course …

… it was ludicrously dark. There didn’t seem to be any windows down there, not even small ones. On one hand this shouldn’t surprise him: he knew all about the old workhouses and how they’d been designed to be as uncomfortable as possible, to deter all but the most desperate poor; but on the other hand, if someone insisted on re-adapting one of those aged buildings for more modern use, was it asking too much that they update it a little? At the bottom of the stairs, he blundered into a damp, musty hanging – and only when he struggled past that did he at last see light: Christmas firelight shimmering around what looked like tall sections of flat, theatrical scenery. He shrugged his ram’s costume onto his shoulders as he sidled his way through. Somewhere ahead, he could hear whispers and titters of anticipation. It seemed the audience was in place.
Then a woman stepped into his path.
He recognised her as the woman he’d seen earlier. Her costume was rustic Victorian – that ground-length skirt, that shawl, that coal-scuttle bonnet from beneath which wisps of stringy, metal-gray hair protruded. But like Reverend What’s-His-Name, she was incredibly old, her face wizened as desiccated leather, her mouth a toothless, crumpled maw, her eyes milky, sightless orbs.


THE FAERIE

Timid husband Arthur snatches his young daughter and flees his angry wife across the wintry moors, finally seeking sanctuary in a mysterious snowbound house …

The house was now directly above them. Thanks to the flurrying flakes, much of it was still hidden, but his first guess looked to have been correct. It was about the size of an old barn, but its windows – in particular the two bay windows at the front – though mullioned, were almost certainly a recent installation. The mellow light that flooded out of them was extremely comforting.
“Come on,” he said, unfastening his seatbelt and zipping his anorak up.
He switched the engine off, and they climbed out of the car together. Initially the wind took their breath away; it had a sword’s edge, and a sword straight from the Pole. Snowflakes fluttered in their faces like moths as they fought their way up a tall flight of steps, which, thanks to each tread being several inches deep, were highly treacherous.
At the top, they advanced along a short path – only visible as a linear and slightly sunken section of snow – until they saw the front door. It was impressively tall and wide, with a carved pediment over the lintel; it looked like a symbol of the sun with a tree growing against it. The door itself was of solid oak with a big brass knocker.


    “It’s a grand-looking place,” Arthur said. “Can’t think what it’s doing all the way out here in the wilds of Derbyshire.”
He reached for the knocker, but the door creaked open as soon as he touched it.
    They glanced through, and saw an arched stone passage with low wooden beams across its ceiling. It ended at a flight of four broad steps, which led up into a living area. A rosy flush of firelight was visible up there, and a pleasant scent struck their nostrils, a combination of oranges and cinnamon, and something else – evergreens.


THE MUMMERS

Two men plot an elaborate Christmas Eve revenge by summoning a pantomime from Hell …

Phil glanced around at a gilt-framed portrait propped in a corner. It was done in dark oils and had been varnished in order to preserve it. Much of the varnish was now dirty and yellowed, but through it the deeply-troubled visage of Hugh Holker was still visible; an elderly man with sagging jowls, a heavily furrowed brow and thick grey tufts for sideburns. Phil had been in to look at the picture several times already, and still found it compelling. The artist had depicted Holker leaning forward on his fist, in a posture of dignified contemplation, but had etched despair and even fear into the final composition. The old industrialist’s eyes bore a stark quality, as if some ghastly apparition had just materialised before him. In the background meanwhile there were indistinct mist-forms, swirls and eddies of smoke or fog, which might have had more to do with the picture’s age than the artist’s intent, but which were ominously obscure all the same.
“… to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray,” sang Perry.
With a pang of unease, Phil was reminded of his purpose here. He glanced at his watch – it read seven-thirty; time was ticking away quickly. Almost too quickly. He shivered – trepidation, anxiety, fear, all mixed in one; but then he heard again the raucous, gluttonous shouts filling the room behind him, and his nerves settled.
What was it Eric had said? That this was an experiment?
Yes, and Phil too was keen to see the result.


THE KILLING GROUND

During an atmospheric English Christmas, man and wife security experts are hired to protect a film stars family from the cannibal woman said to haunt their new country estate …

“Ruth, this is like the biggest load of crap in the history of humanity.”
Alec zipped up his fleece jacket and stood shivering in the snow. It was ankle-deep, and flakes were falling steadily. They both stared up at the window to Claudette Duvalier’s bedroom.
“Are you telling me someone couldn’t climb up there?” Ruth said.
The window was some twenty feet up, but ten feet below it a kitchen-annex abutted outwards four yards or so. In keeping with the general architecture this too was castellated, but that wouldn’t present a major obstacle. To prove her point, Ruth clambered lithely up the drainpipe beside the kitchen window, scrambled over the mock-battlements, and then had only ten feet of sheer wall to scale. That might have been more difficult had it not been densely clad with ivy. She only had to ascend a few feet to prove it would easily hold someone of her weight. She jumped back down and stood next to her husband, beating fragments of leaf from her gloved hands.
“Satisfied?”
“No I’m not,” he said. “You’re wearing sweats and trainers. We’re talking about a woman in a long dress.”
“Rags. Not exactly a long dress.”
“Okay, you’re in peak physical condition. We’re talking about a woman who’s been dead nearly nine-hundred years.”

More recently, last Christmas in fact, DARK WINTER TALES was published. While this didn’t specifically include tales of horror associated with the Christmas season, it was published last December because my publishers at Avon (HarperCollins) were interested to see how well a collection of dark and spooky tales would sell at this time of year. There are only one or two supernatural stories in here, but all were selected (hopefully) because they are dark and suitably nightmarish in tone. Anyway, as above here are a few tasters and extracts:


THE INCIDENT AT NORTH SHORE

A policewoman is summoned by her secret lover to an illicit tryst in an abandoned theme park. Unfortunately, it’s the same night that a homicidal maniac has escaped from the nearby asylum.

Sharon stood by the barrier and phoned him again. Still it went to voice-mail. “Geoff!” she said under her breath. And then, because frankly she couldn’t take much more of this: “Geoff, where the hell are you?”
A voice replied. At first she thought it was another echo, though on this occasion it sounded as if it had come from inside the Haunted Palace. She ducked under the barrier and stood at the foot of the access ramp, on which only eroded metal stubs remained of the rail-car system. The door at the top stood ajar.
Finally, she ascended. It had definitely sounded as if the voice had called her by name. So it was Geoff. But if so, why didn’t he come out? She approached the door, the glare of her torch penetrating the gaunt passage beyond but revealing very little. When she entered, it stank of mildew. The ghostly murals that once adorned the fake brick walls had mouldered to the point where they were unrecognisable. She ventured on, turning a sharp corner – no doubt one of those hairpin bends where, for their own entertainment, everyone inside the car would be thrown violently to one side – and stopped in her tracks.
A tall figure stood in the dimness, just beyond the reach of her torchlight.
“Geoff?” she said, in the sort of querulous tone the general public would never associate with a police officer on duty.
The figure remained motionless; made no reply.
“Geoff?”
Still no reply; no movement. She advanced a couple more steps, the light spearing ahead of her. And then a couple more, and finally, relieved, she strode forward boldly.
It was a department store mannequin, albeit in a hideous state: burned, mutilated, covered with spray-paint. Up close, its face had been scarred and slashed frenziedly; for some reason, she imagined a pair of scissors …


CHILDREN DON’T PLAY HERE ANYMORE

A retired detective can’t give up on his last unsolved case. Who killed the young boy in the quiet stretch of woodland? A final clue reveals a horrible truth.

As I perambulate downhill, it strikes me as immensely sad how modern children are denied the youth of wild adventure that Geoff and others like him enjoyed. A wood like the one at the bottom of the Dell should not be silent and filled with undisturbed shadows; courting couples sneaking off into its undergrowth should not go unspied-upon; tadpole-filled ponds like the one deep in the middle here should not remain unplundered.
But that is the way of it these days. And with good reason.
The murder of Andrew Conroy was really quite horrible. More so from my point of view, perhaps, because I knew the kid personally. He was a contemporary of Geoff’s … went to the same school and scout troop, was a member of the same swimming club. Don’t ever believe it if someone tells you that police detectives get hardened to the slaughter of the innocents.
Especially don’t believe it if those police detectives happen to work in their home town …


TOK

A series of strangulation murders are apparently committed by someone with non-human qualities. Bernadette suspects the weird stuffed creature in her in-laws’ gloomy old house.

The Bannerwood wasn’t by any means a problem housing estate, being privately owned and suburban in character. But it was vast and sprawling, and on first being built it was occupied mainly by young families, which soon meant there were lots of children gambolling around – so many children, as Miriam Presswick would complain. Children in gangs, children running, children shouting, children screaming – and children encroaching, always encroaching, finding ever more reasons to trespass on her property: in summer chasing footballs or playing hide and seek among her trees, in autumn trick-or-treating or throwing fireworks onto her lawn.
Berni didn’t know whether such persecutions had actually taken place or were purely imaginary, but given Miriam’s personal history it was no surprise that her sense of embattlement had finally become so acute that she’d had the outer wall erected, cutting herself off completely from the busy world that had suddenly encircled her. Despite that, but not atypically of psychological breakdown (not to mention advancing senility), even this security measure had in due course proved insufficient. In the last year alone, Miriam had contacted her son on average once a week to complain that people were trying to climb over the wall, were scratching on her doors, tapping on her windows. Nonsense, of course. Utter nonsense. Though Don had not admitted that. He would never have the guts to be so abrupt with his mother. He’d tried to calm her, tried to reassure her that she was imagining it – to no avail.
And then, this last week, the murders had started.


GOD’S FIST

When a disgraced cop allows the violence of modern life to explode in his mind, an odd experience in a church confessional sends him on a mission to clean things up.

As a former cop, Skelton knew John Pizer of old; at least he knew about him. He knew for instance that Pizer – who’d begun his illustrious career offering protection to hotdog vendors outside football stadiums, but who then served time for GBH and later progressed as muscle for larger, wealthier outfits – now dabbled in smack, Ecstasy and illegal steroids, and ran sections of the red-light district, providing outlets where the hardest of hardcore porn was available, and controlling the dozens of goodtime girls who waited in the salons and parlours, or if they were drabber, skinnier and more visibly damaged by the life, in the roach-ridden alleys and backstreets where only the most desperate punters would seek them out. Pizer had now attained that relatively secure underworld status where he continued to reap the rewards but rarely got his own hands dirty, instead having numerous fall guys, or in his case girls, to take the rap.
“Hey, John!”
Pizer halted. It was just after eight, and he was taking his normal morning walk with his young pit-bull, Ivan. He was dressed in a snazzy designer running suit and flash trainers, but, as always, was distinctive with his gold-encased hands and his pink, shaven dome. Even so, he hadn’t expected to meet anyone he knew. He was cutting through a narrow ginnel to the park when he heard the voice. He turned – a tall, heavily built man, wearing jeans and a denim jacket, with a shock of black hair and dense black sideburns, was approaching.
“Who are you?” Pizer asked.
Beside him, Ivan started to growl.
Skelton smiled. “Got a message for you.”
“Yeah?”
“From God.”
Pizer looked puzzled. “Uh?”
Skelton jerked his right arm forward, the monkey wrench shooting out from his denim sleeve, landing neatly in his right palm. “But this white-trash ornament gets it first.”
He smashed the heavy tool down on the pit-bull’s head …


WHAT’S BEHIND YOU?

Art students think it’ll be a hoot to walk one-by-one through the supposedly haunted rectory. But it’s unnerving to be told that whatever they hear behind them, they must never look round.

There have been shipwrecks on that coast throughout history,” he said in his melodious Welsh voice. “And it’s entirely possible the injured and dying were brought ashore at Rhossili Bay and perhaps spent their final minutes in Rhossili Rectory, a remote structure at the foot of Rhossili Down, and at one time the only habitation in the vicinity. There were also stories that this Rectory was built on the site of a Dark Age monastery, sacked by the Danes and later buried in sand during a tempest.”
I remember that he watched us all closely as he spoke, smiling like a cat. He had a thick, red/grey brush of a beard and moustache, and round spectacles. His eyes, which were very green, twinkled like jewels beneath the rim of his fedora.
“However,” he added ominously, “none of these potentially dramatic events can really explain the true depths of fear and despair this unholy presence has caused. You see, gentlemen … you must never turn and look. That is what they say.” We exchanged baffled glances, and he chuckled in that hearty way of his. “Rhossili Rectory is now ruined and empty, and according to the story, an evil spirit haunts it. One can only surmise that it may be connected to the historical events I have mentioned. But whatever its origins, the locals don’t take this as a joke. You’ll notice that when we arrive. The Rectory is far along the beach from Rhossili village and the boarding house where we’ll be staying. It’s very isolated – people do not go there.”
“What form does this spirit take?” Flickwood asked, sounding nervous.
“Oh, Mr. Flickwood … you walk through that ruined building on your own, day or night, and you will find out. I guarantee it.”


THOSE THEY LEFT BEHIND

The mother of the last man in England hanged becomes obsessed with the plastic head she sees on the market. When she learns it was part of a hangman’s dummy, she knows she has to have it.

Out of professional necessity, Shirley had already researched the events surrounding Tommy Dawkins’s execution. He’d been found guilty of murdering a girl called Mary Stillwell, who’d lived next door. Apparently he’d also mutilated her, quite horribly. No-one had really understood why he’d done it. Had there been something going on between them? Had Mary Stillwell resisted a sexual advance maybe? No answers were ever provided. But this had happened in 1965, and the twenty-year-old was subsequently tried, and, as he’d already confessed, was convicted and sentenced to death; a sentence carried out swiftly – only a few days before the passing of the Murder Act, which effectively abolished capital punishment in Great Britain.
He’d been one of the very last men to hang. Whether this in itself was a sore point with Elsie, Shirley didn’t know. But it couldn’t have helped.
Strangely, though the bereaved woman had proclaimed her son’s innocence at the time, and had tried to claim that his penalty was an injustice, she’d afterwards come to accept it with surprising speed and dignity. There’d been no histrionics in the following months, no letters to the newspapers or the Home Secretary. When, over the next few years, the policeman who’d arrested Tommy – Shirley thought he was called Mackeson – had occasionally come to visit Elsie, she’d maintained a cold but proud silence. Of course, Elsie was part of that steely World War II generation, who kept their grief and rage buried deep inside, only allowing it to surface now and then – like when her local church, previously a source of strength during her difficult years as a young widow, had refused even to acknowledge that there might be hope for her son in the afterlife.


HAG FOLD

When a run-down inner city district is terrorised by a sex-killer, a brutal firearms cop is brought in. He knows this area well. He grew up here. It left its mark on him as surely as it did on the killer.

There’d already been numerous replacements at the top, senior investigators having been sacked, sidelined or forced through overwork into early retirement. A catalogue of errors, initially caused by a preponderance of evidence so vast it literally overwhelmed the pre-computer age intelligence system, had received glaring press attention and had been referred too scornfully in the House of Commons. We’d had the usual barrel-load of hoaxes, some obvious, some not so obvious, but all of which had had to be investigated, which had soaked up yet more time and manpower. Experts from Scotland Yard had been called in, but had failed to make an impact. Even the FBI had been contacted; they’d provided GMP detectives with a detailed profile of the killer, but that too had failed to get results. There’d been door-to-door questionings, traffic spot-checks, random stop-and-searches, follow-up interviews based on all vehicle registrations spotted in the district – still nothing. There’d even been widespread blooding for DNA, though that hadn’t been much use as the Strangler always took care to wear a condom when he raped. It’s probably fair to say that as much as was humanly possible was being done, but as long as the maniac was at liberty to strike, that wasn’t going to be enough. By the time I transferred to GMP, we had ‘Men Off The Streets’ marches to contend with, ‘Reinstate The Death Penalty’ protests, ‘public vigilance committees’ – basically gangs of drunken hooligans who got off on harassing strangers once the pubs had chucked-out, and a constant stream of well-meaning cranks, who poured into police stations armed with everything from crystal balls to divining rods.
I avoided all this for as long as I could, putting in for one training course after another, sitting my sergeant’s exam, even volunteering to work Firearms at the airport. It might not sound very public-spirited of me, but let me tell you there is nothing even vaguely romantic about wandering the backstreets all night dressed as a tramp, or going house-to-house all day with an artist’s impression so vague it could be your own uncle and you wouldn’t recognise him. But after the Beverly Jones murder – she was the yummy mummy dragged from her own back garden – the shit really hit the fan. There was wholesale panic: police stations were besieged; patrol cars got jeered at; chief superintendents ran amok in their own offices ...


I hope all that was of interest. Sorry again ... there was quite a bit of self-pimpery there, but people often ask me these days what other books of mine can they read?, so I guess it’s only fair to post the details here. And as I say, at this time of year, it makes a kind of sense to focus those earlier publications that were specifically tailored for this dark and wintry time of year. Of course, as I mentioned at the top, it isn’t just me who prefers his horror to be a dish served ice-cold.

Now at last - I'm sure some of you must be thinking that - we reach that part of the programme where we talk about a different writer ...


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS ...

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.


by Michelle Paver (2011)

It is London in 1937, and young Jack Miller is something of a lost soul. He was raised in the middle-class, but now has no family or partner, he lives in a cheap, dreary apartment, and despite being a qualified physicist, his career prospects look bleak. He’s also quite clearly suffering from depression, though this isn’t the kind of thing you can talk about in these days of stiff-upper-lips, much less seek treatment for.

As such, Miller finds life a struggle. In fact, it’s damaged him. He’s become a misanthrope who doesn’t like or trust anybody, especially those he associates with the ruling class – which hardly helps when he volunteers to join a scientific expedition to the High Arctic, and in his first meeting with the organisers, finds them a well-heeled bunch, ex-public school boys who reek of old money.

Personality-wise, they aren’t an entirely bad lot. Expedition leader, Gus Balfour, is a traditional square-jawed hero, an Oxford Blue, a man’s man and all that – but he’s a genuinely friendly chap and is tackling the mission with an air of stolid professionalism. Algernon ‘Algie’ Carlisle is less attractive; pudgy, pompous and inclined to casual cruelty where animals are concerned. Miller initially despises Algie, but eventually weighs things up, and decides that anything must be better than lingering on alone in a bleak, fog-shrouded London, and so he grudgingly joins the trip, the destination of which is Gruhuken, on a remote stretch of the Spitsbergen coast.

When they arrive in Gruhuken the following autumn, it is a beautiful, pristine wilderness, but of course the intense cold here is likely to prove a real challenge, especially with the long darkness of the polar winter rapidly encroaching. Quickly and efficiently, the team set their equipment up, organise their cabin and then explore a little. There is nobody else here now, though there are signs that others have been present in the past: trappers, miners and the like. None of these appear to have lasted long, while hoary old Norwegian skipper, Erikkson, in charge of the team’s transport ship, doesn’t even like it that Gus Balfour’s team have turned up.

Erikkson won’t be specific about his fears, but strongly implies that something dwells on this coast which doesn’t like interlopers. And indeed, Jack Miller also starts to feel this, several times spotting what he thinks is an odd, distorted figure lurking in the vicinity of the camp. At first he is reluctant to let this trouble him, because for quite some time he is almost neurotically obsessed with how much he doesn’t like his expedition comrades, not even Gus Balfour – whom he has an increasing if (earlier on at least) unspoken attraction towards. Equally irrationally, he dislikes their pack of sled-dogs, even the youngest of the huskies, the frolicsome Isaak, who shows a clear disposition to be affectionate towards him.

However, Miller soon comes to learn the value of friends, as, one by one, through illness, injury and bereavement, they are forced to return home. The rapidly diminishing party feels increasingly marooned and ever more embattled by the worsening wintry elements: heavy snow, shrieking wind and deep sub-zero temperatures make for very cold comfort. When Gus Balfour collapses with an appendicitis, it looks as if the mission will end prematurely – because someone needs to escort the patient back to civilisation, which will leave only one person to man the base, and this just as the 24-hour ‘blackout’ of the Arctic Night is finally falling.

Defiantly, Miller – because even now feeling encumbered by his ‘ugly duckling’ status, he is keen to assert himself – volunteers for this task. It is only likely to be for a few weeks before the others return, but no-one thinks this is a good idea, especially not Erikkson. However, Miller insists, so in due course he is left behind at Gruhuken, with the nearest human being two days’ sail away across the ice-clogged Barents Sea, and now facing the winter darkness entirely on his own.

Or so he would like to think. Because the stranded loner is very soon reminded that someone or something else is close at hand, watching his every move, growing steadily bolder as it senses his isolation.

Miller, a methodical sort who has many duties to attend, is bent on working his way through this ordeal by following a tight schedule that is designed to keep him busy. But slowly, his unease about the thing outside becomes full-blown fear, and eventually, with pitch-darkness covering the frozen land, terror. He now knows that he is not alone here. Something truly awful is prowling his perimeter; he hears it regularly, and glimpses it through the flurrying snow.

Can it enter the cabin? He prays to God not.

It’s possible that the dogs might dissuade this entity from drawing any closer, but then the dogs disappear too. Still, Miller holds on, expecting his companions to return imminently, only to receive another very grave shock: the sea is freezing over. Which means, not only that no boat can dock here and so the others may not be able to return to Gruhuken until spring, but that he can no longer leave even if he suddenly decides that he can’t stand it any longer.

Miller may be stuck here, facing this horror alone, for the entire duration of the Arctic winter …

One thing needs to be clearly understood from the outset with Dark Matter: this is a ghost story. That may be something you’d immediately infer from the teaser outline I’ve posted above, but you must to be under no illusion that this is what you’re dealing with. This is not a psychological thriller, or a tale of polar espionage, or a boy’s own mystery – this is an out-and-out ghost story very much in the tradition of M.R. James, and it’s a pretty terrifying one at that.

But that doesn’t mean to say this novel isn’t also multi-layered. There are all kinds of things going on here. To begin with, a number of different spectres haunt these eerie pages.

The spectre of World War Two is just around the corner; all the players on-stage are acutely aware of this, even if they rarely discuss it – their madcap mission is in some ways an attempt to run away from all that, because these young, able-bodied men are exactly the sort who, like their fathers before them, will be expected to enlist. Even the distant lands of the Arctic provide no real refuge from this sad reality, because, as we are we reminded several times, the mission itself has been underwritten by both the Admiralty and the War Office, who are looking to gather vital meteorological data.

In addition, we have the spectre of Miller’s latent and yet – at least as far as he’s concerned – unknown homosexuality. It informs his character throughout. He pathologically opposes almost everything the handsome Gus stands for, and so can’t understand his attraction to the guy. This in itself becomes an intangible form of torture for him.

And then of course there is the spectre of class division. Jack Miller doesn’t hail from the lowest stratum of society. He’s a middle-class boy, but he isn’t upper-class, and back in the 1930s – at least to young Miller’s immature mind – this is a big issue. After all, this is the age of the British Empire, an era when the rich weren’t idle, but saw it as their ancestral duty to go out and conquer the world, and if they couldn’t do that, go out and at the very least explore and civilise it. That is Gus Balfour all over, while Miller, in contrast, is part of the ‘nation of shopkeepers’, the everyday folk who, while not exactly poor, have no such hifalutin aspirations, and yet feel unmanned by this limitation of their lives to the eternally mundane.

Michelle Paver showcases this final spectre very neatly indeed, even to the point where it becomes irritating, we 21st century readers, who don’t experience this kind of thing, finally getting fed up with Miller and saying: “For God’s sake, Jack … these blokes are okay! Just do your job and man up!”

Man up, Jack!

Just what the author intends us to say, and exactly the kind of thing the posh boys of the 1930s would have said, had they used such parlance.

As well being a clever piece of work, Dark Matter is also exquisitely written. Michelle Paver, an Arctic traveller in her own right, paints a striking picture of the far, far north, which is all the more remarkable because she rarely references colour: everything up there is either white or grey, and yet the Arctic atmosphere is vividly communicated, as is its air of utter isolation. Early on in the book, this loneliness at the top of the world is exhilarating – we’re deep in the one of the last great wildernesses, a picturesque realm barely hinting at the existence of man. We can see it, feel it, smell it; it’s almost visceral – you literally shiver at the awesomeness of it.

But later on, of course, with the group decimated and the terrible threat of four months of complete and frozen darkness about to fall, everything changes. What was scenic becomes desolate, what was wild and untamed becomes life-threatening, what was merely unsettling becomes nerve-shredding.

Which brings me onto the ghostliness of Dark Matter; the real ghostliness that is – the malevolent thing that actively haunts Gruhuken.

As I mentioned previously, we are in solid M.R. James territory here. Okay, we aren’t talking cathedral cloisters or misty graveyards, we’re in the High Arctic and there is only one person present, but this is every inch a Jamesian-style horror story.

The undead force menacing Jack Miller is real and deadly. It’s also relentless, and the atmosphere this creates, particularly in the later stages of the book, with Miller trapped in the claustrophobic confines of the cabin, struggling just to keep a single light burning, almost suffering a coronary at every undue sound (not an easy predicament with the polar wind screeching through chinks and snowflakes rattling the window-panes), is quite literally hair-raising.

But the author doesn’t just go full-bloodedly for this. From early in the text, she employs many crafty, low-key devices to disturb her readers: Isaak whimpering, his ears flattening whenever he senses evil approaching; a gruesome bear-hunting post seeming to move around of its own ability; Miller suffering a series of progressively more lurid and horrible nightmares.

Oddly, Michelle Paver has drawn some criticism for her use of these time-honoured methods. One or two critics aren’t impressed that Dark Matter is set in the ‘old world’, the actual time of M.R. James in fact, or that its basic concept is the isolation of an already stressed and nervous character in a terrible environment where the fear-factor will inevitably then crank itself up to an eventual crescendo from which only madness can result. There have been dark mutterings about Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black or Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House, but as a reader who knew that he was acquiring a ghost story – because it said so on the cover – this is exactly what I wanted.

I have some sympathy with the more measured criticism that Dark Matter, though superbly written and intensely frightening, doesn’t do anything to progress the supernatural horror genre. But again, I suppose it all depends what you are reading it for. If you’re not looking for the cutting edge, and simply want to be terrified out of your wits by some good, old-fashioned scare-fare then this is undoubtedly a book for you.

Usually at the end of these reviews, I like to indulge in some fantasy casting, selecting the actors I myself would recruit if the narrative in question was ever to hit the screens (and this one would make a perfect ‘ghost story for Christmas’ of the sort the BBC used to do so well in the days before they became too sophisticated for all that). This is possibly the first in the series where we’ve not had to look for any ladies, but such is the nature of this particular beast. Anyway, here we go:

Jack Miller – Aiden Turner
Gus Balfour – Tom Bateman
Algernon Carlisle – Tom Hollander
Erikkson – Vladimir Kulich