Tuesday, 21 February 2017

I hope everyone wants a piece of this action

Okay, today we’re talking action thrillers: cynical, hardboiled characters embroiled in kill-or-be-killed adventures, often in hellish urban settings, and pitted against foes who are the essence of evil.

Firstly, this is because ASHES TO ASHES, the next Heck novel, will hit the shelves in precisely 45 days’ time, but also because, as I’m increasingly hearing about the sequel (due later this year) to the 1983 movie blockbuster, Blade Runner, I thought I’d go back to its original source, Philip K. Dick’s masterly sci-fi/cop thriller, DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, and offer a detailed review and discussion of it.

This will also, I guess, be a timely occasion for me to reprint a blog I wrote for OFF-THE-SHELF BOOKS back in October last year, when I was asked the question ‘what are your top tips for writing action sequences?’

But before we get to any of that – the Philip K. Dick article and review can be found, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post – I’m going to talk a little bit more about Heck.

ASHES TO ASHES will be published on April 6, and the reviews are starting to come in courtesy of the NetGalley folks. Thankfully, the two I’ve seen so far are both five stars.

NIGELADAMSBOOKWORM talks about the book’s readability, with the following quote:

“It’s one of those books where you keep looking for a point where you can put it down and get on with what you should be doing. In the end, I gave up and just read it straight through.”

Well, that’s certainly fine by me. When you write what you consider to be a high-energy thriller, the last thing you want is a mid-book sag, which sees readers happy to take long breaks between chapters.

The second five-star review has appeared on Goodreads courtesy of Elaine Tomasso, and okay, I’m hoping there’ll be lots of reviews on Goodreads at some point, so I post this one at the risk of seeming a little bit over-excitable. But this one is particularly interesting because it picks out a very different aspect of ASHES TO ASHES:

“Ashes to Ashes is a compulsive read with a bit of everything thrown in – action, violence, cop humour, some of Heck’s backstory and sadness as well.” 

This latter reference to a melancholy backstory was music to my ears because, throughout the Heck novels thus far, we’ve seen that our hero has family issues, and though we’ve explored them superficially, we haven’t yet drilled down into the nitty-gritty.

Well … in this sixth installment, we do.

Heck, you may recall – Detective Sergeant Mark Heckenburg – originally joined the Greater Manchester Police so that he’d only have to travel 15 or so miles to work, his home being in Bradburn, a run-down coal-mining town on the border between Manchester and Lancashire. But in due course he was driven south to the Metropolitan Police in London because his family ostracised him.

At the risk of giving away a slight SPOILER for those who haven’t read any of the Heck books so far, while Heck was still at school, his older brother, Tom, a college drop-out with drugs problems, was framed by a lazy CID unit for a series of violent burglaries and received a life sentence. A month into it, after much abuse in prison, he committed suicide. Perhaps inevitably, the real culprit was apprehended only a couple of weeks later.

It was therefore to the horror of his family, that Heck himself joined the police as soon as he was old enough. Understandably, neither they nor various family friends would speak to him afterwards, eventually causing him to abandon his hometown and seek reassignment at the other end of the country.

All of this became canon in the first Heck novel, STALKERS, but what has never really been revealed, despite the efforts to find out by numerous characters in the follow-up novels, is why Heck would seemingly betray his family in this most crass and inexplicable fashion.

Until now.

Heck is stripped to the bare bones in ASHES TO ASHES – yep, the much-publicised fire in this novel doesn’t just burn the victims of the maniac he pursues! – as everything we need to know about his early home-life is finally laid bare. But unfortunately, because I’m not going to give away SPOILERS for free all day, you’ll need to read the book to find out more.

Elaine also hits the spot with the following quote:

“The big message in the novel is the devastation caused by drugs, not just to the user but their families and to society in general … It makes for difficult reading in parts.”

That comment made me glad too. Quite often in these novels, Heck has hunted serial killers, sexual deviants, torture freaks and other homicidal madmen. But there are all kinds of evil in our modern world, some of them infinitely more subtle than these, and the scourge of drug-addiction is one with which we’re all very familiar – and so ASHES TO ASHES will hopefully strike a chord on that front too.

*

And now, on an only slightly different note, here is the article I penned for OFF-THE-SHELF BOOKS last autumn ...

What are your top tips for when it comes to writing action?

I’m honoured that my crime novels have won praise from reviewers for their action sequences. Flattering terms like ‘vivid’, ‘gut-thumping’ and ‘bone-crunching’ have all been used in recent times, so I can only assume that I’m doing something reasonably right.

It may surprise people to hear this, but one of the tricks to writing good action is to be subtle.

For real?, I hear you ask. ‘Gut-thumping’? ‘Bone-crunching’? What’s subtle about that?

What I mean is that action is most effective when used sparingly. Otherwise you risk your novel turning into a cartoon. Now, that may be what some authors are looking to achieve. But personally, I like to keep things just this side of believable. So I don’t include a fist fight or a car chase on every other page. Likewise, I try to do those other things that are important in novel-writing: evoke some mood, some atmosphere, develop plot and character, examine relationships, etc. And that’s not some attempt to be literary, it’s an attempt to create a more rounded and satisfying experience for the readers, and to prevent them becoming bored, because you can just as easily get bored with too much action as you can with too much kissing, too much chatter, etc.

Another problem with overusing action is that you consistently must raise the stakes, always needing to produce a bigger, louder sequence than the one before. You won’t need me to tell you that it isn’t long before this gets preposterous. You could finish up with the situation you had in the Bond movie, Die Another Day, which included an invisible car, a giant beam of concentrated solar energy fired from a satellite and destroying Earth’s armies, and Bond wind-surfing a tidal wave.

Even trying to keep things grounded sometimes isn’t enough. You only need to look back at some of the 1980s action extravaganzas, the Schwarzenegger and Stallone movies, which were basic cop movies in concept, but often morphed into blizzards of gunfire from beginning to end, with soaring body-counts and heroes who were completely invincible.

And that’s another thing.

Unless you’re setting out to write about superheroes, remember that the more vulnerable your lead character is going to be, the more effective he/she is. To have weaknesses is human – it’s a recognisable and even likeable trait in fiction. So if you portray them walking through storms of bullets without getting hurt, or dispatching every opponent with ridiculous ease … why would anything else your reader sees them encounter be deemed a threat?

How will he/she empathise with them? All tension and suspense is lost.

These are the most important tips I can offer with regard to action sequences. Don’t overuse them and don’t overcook them. Less is always more, and remember that in the real world violence has consequences. Even if your heroes emerge from the battle unscathed, they are not going to be unshaken.

There may also be legal ramifications, especially if your hero is a cop. Okay, it’s a built-in given with police thriller fiction that the central character tends to be on the side of right and therefore, almost whatever he/she does will end up being approved. But I once read a very interesting quote from a senior San Francisco police officer, who, after it was drawn to his attention that in the five Dirty Harry movies, Callahan’s kill-count was somewhere in the 40s or 50s, commented that no serving officer with such a record could expect to keep his job or even his liberty.

Obviously, we’re often dealing with life and death situations in our novels, but the legal structure of the free world is important, so we at least have to pay a degree of lip-service towards that.

All that said, if you use them judiciously, your action sequences can still be among the highlights of your book. For this reason, I myself find them the most demanding scenes to write, because they need to be bang-on.

One case in point was a car chase across South London in my fifth Heckenburg novel, HUNTED. It was described by one reviewer as ‘the mother of all car-chases’, which made me happy, because though it only occupied two pages of the novel, it had taken me two whole weeks to construct it. First of all, I’d wanted to get it correct geographically. This involved plotting it on a map and taking advice from London traffic officers. I also drove the route to see if such a chase was technically possible. And while the actual writing might have been done in a day, it then needed to be very tightly edited. It isn’t a rule of law, but I always find it gives you a quicker read if you use shorter, punchier sentences. So whatever you do, don’t meander – get to the point of each sentence immediately. This will energise the entire passage.

Also, remember that the quality of an action sequence is not just a piece of narrative: ‘he said, she said, this is what happened next …’ It works much better when it’s a genuine assault on the senses. Any kind of pursuit or combat situation can be overwhelming for those involved. You’ve got to think how it looks to be in the midst of this terrible danger, how it sounds, how it smells: a chaos of flickering ‘jumping jack’ images, the mingled stenches of sweat, blood, oil, the crump of splintering metal, the explosion of shattering glass, the deafening bangs as speeding cars rebound from one another, etc.

All of this can make it a vivid experience for your audience, who I try to involve as much as I possibly can. If you can make your reader feel that he/she is the one being put through the mangle, not your hero, then that is one sure way to make them flip through those pages in a blur of speed.

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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. 


DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? 
by Philip K. Dick (1968)

The world of 1992 (or 2021 in later reprints) is a nightmare of ruined cities and desolate wildernesses. In the wake of World War Terminus, Earth has largely been depopulated. Those who weren’t killed in the conflict have either abandoned their homes for colonies off-world or are now slowly dying from the toxic dust that permeates the atmosphere. A parody of the human consumer lifestyle continues, those remaining working normal jobs (though very few of these are high-powered), living in apartment buildings (which otherwise are largely empty) and watching television (even though there is only one channel, run by the megalomaniac oddball, Buster Friendly). Everyone is so depressed that they need their ‘Penfield mood organs’ to try and uplift their spirits.

It is a blighted, despair-laden scene, in which the only light is ‘Mercerism’, the worship of Wilbur Mercer, a semi-mythical Christ-like figure, who when humans commune telepathically by means of their ‘empathy boxes’, they envision ascending a steep, rugged slope, at the top of which he is martyred by being stoned to death, leading all those tuned-in to reach a transcendental state.

Even the ‘specials’ and the ‘chickenheads’ find hope in Mercerism, the former because, having been sterilised by the radioactive fall-out, they are considered useless to the human race and thus are prohibited from emigrating off-world, and the latter because, having suffered brain damage, they can perform only the most menial tasks and are subsequently treated with contempt.

Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter employed by the San Francisco police, often wonders why he hasn’t left Earth by now. His wife, Iran, is more depressed than most – so much so that she can barely even rise in the morning, while Deckard himself struggles with his conscience. The police mainly use him to ‘retire andys’, which in a nutshell means hunt down and, by use of a controversial empathy test, the Voigt-Kampff, identify rogue members of the android slave race developed to aid human expansion into the off-world colonies, and then kill them.

Deckard’s problem is that the androids are in many ways like humans; they were biologically-grown rather than constructed, and though they are short-lived (designed to cease functioning after four years), they are excellent physical specimens, particularly the new, improved model, the Nexus-6. When androids go ‘rogue’ it basically means they have come to Earth, which is strictly forbidden; they don’t necessarily need to have committed a crime. Increasingly Deckard finds it difficult to retire these thinking, reasoning beings, though he does agree that they lack the all-important empathy, which means they have no concept of human kindness, even if they are increasingly adept at concealing this. 

Despite his doubts, Deckard is good at his job and earns decent money. One day he hopes to be able to dispense with his pet electric sheep, and buy a real animal. Because one other aspect of the tragicomic existence mankind has descended into is that, with animals so rare, their ownership has now become a status symbol. Anyone who is anyone owns an animal of some sort, and zealously shows it off, though only at immense cost. In this regard, Deckard’s lucky day finally seems to arrive when he is summoned to police HQ and advised that a senior bounty hunter has been badly injured by a particularly dangerous group of Nexus-6 androids, who are newly arrived on Earth. Their leader is the ruthlessly intelligent Roy Baty, who, unable to stand his servile status any longer, has led a miniature rebellion on Mars, which has cost several human lives. If Deckard can retire all six, it will earn him a fortune. But it soon becomes apparent that this won’t be easy.

To start with, enquiries at the central offices of the Rosen Association in Seattle, the corporation responsible for manufacture of the androids, brings him into contact with the alluring Rachael Rosen, whom he finds incredibly attractive – only for him to apply the empathy test to her, and discover that she too is an andy, which confuses him even more with his chosen role.

Meanwhile, the fugitive Nexus-6 have been blending in on Earth. Some successfully impersonate humans, even Deckard’s fellow cops, while another becomes a beautiful opera singer and gains immediate respectability. At the same time, several of those Deckard has targeted, Roy Baty included, are given refuge by the deluded chickenhead, John Isidore, who is both in awe of their perfection and terrified of their heartlessness.
               
If this doesn’t make it difficult enough for Deckard, he is further hampered by Rachael, who, in a mysterious gesture (though she seems to be genuinely attracted to the lonely, world-weary bounty hunter), offers to help him catch the renegade band. Despite being one herself, Rachael expresses a conviction that there is no place for the Nexus-6 on Earth. But Deckard has been an investigator for a long time, and even though he eventually falls into bed with her – because she is the ultimate femme fatale! – he is never sure that he can trust her …

Almost everyone thinks they know the story of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? because they have seen the epic movie version, Blade Runner, made by Ridley Scott in 1983. In truth, there are significant differences between the two narratives, though overall, the subtexts themselves are not hugely dissimilar.

But first things first; the book.

The late Philip K. Dick, while never a great literary stylist, was regarded throughout his life as one of sci-fi’s great visionaries. Famous for his obsessions with decaying worlds at the mercy of dictatorships and corporations, for the human metaphysical experience, for altered states, theology, drug abuse and insanity, the post-apocalyptic hell-scape he creates in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is really one of the most vivid and terrifying ever envisaged simply because it is literally a land without hope. Everything alive is slowly dying; everything that isn’t alive is turning to ‘kipple’ (rubbish). Even off-world in the colonies, we are told that things are only marginally better.

For all these reasons, this book is a hard read. There are moments of wild comedy, for instance Deckard’s burning aspiration to ascend to a level in society wherein he can actually be the proud owner of a goat. But the tone is always bitter-sweet, and ultimately that’s the atmosphere all the way through. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a tale of loss rather than a cop-thriller. Fans of the movie who have never read the book may be expecting a neo-noir, with the weary, overcoated Deckard working his way along the seamy streets like a latter-day Philip Marlowe, and indulging in regular, furious gun-battles with his near-invincible foes. There is a touch of that, particularly towards the end of the novel, but it isn’t a keystone of the story; for example, at no stage in the book do we encounter the term ‘Blade Runner police’.

Even the androids, who are never referred to as ‘replicants’ or ‘skinjobs’ are nowhere near as deadly as they were in the film. They are not a military caste. Roy Baty, the most dangerous of them, trained as a chemist while on Mars. Though this isn’t to say the menace isn’t present. It very much is, particularly as we approach the climax of the novel – especially when the seductive and intriguing Rachael Rosen injects herself more fully into the story – but again, it was never Dick’s overarching purpose to create an actioner.

Throughout the book, he is more interested in examining issues of individuality, self-perception and what it actually means to be empathetic. For example, the remnants of humanity we encounter all value their individuality, but though it eases their misery, the more they commune with Wilbur Mercer (and each other of course), the less individual they become; they even use technology to impose fake emotions on themselves. At the same time, it doesn’t escape Deckard’s notice that, by the end of the novel, the supposedly soulless androids are empathising with each other, and that he himself has begun to empathise with one of them.

Other issues, which back in 1968 were certainly relevant but must also have seemed like pure science-fiction, are now glaringly current in the 21st century: two examples being Man’s irrational stewardship of the Earth – it’s a deep irony that the bounty hunters are hired to kill relentlessly in a time and place when the real problem is that everything is already dying; and then the whole argument surrounding artificial life, its purpose and development, and the moral (not to mention potentially real-world) ramifications of enslaving it.

While it’s no great piece of literature, this deluge of thought-provoking ideas means that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is these days regarded as a sci-fi masterwork. Some of its essential ingredients are visible in the movie of course, but anyone picking this book up and looking for a ‘novelisation of the film’ is likely to be disappointed.

We regularly end these book reviews with me rather presumptuously selecting the cast I would recruit if the narrative was ever to make it to the TV or cinema. Well … it’s all been done already. Blade Runner may be a very different beast from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but it’s close enough (and a great enough movie, in my view – whichever version of it you prefer) to render any further remakes obsolete. 

Most of the images used in the column today speak for themselves, but I would like to thank Wikipedia for the original DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? first-edition cover as produced by Doubleday. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Human monsters from a world of darkness

Okay, we’re talking serial killers this week – not exactly a new experience for regulars on this blog, I suppose. 

But today we’ll be looking at two particular instances of fictional monsterdom: the indescribably terrifying psychopath who haunts the pages of Helen Fields’s new novel, PERFECT REMAINS, which we’ll be reviewing and discussing in full detail, and also the two-handed trail of slaughter and destruction that a pair of rival madmen wreak in my forthcoming Mark Heckenburg novel, ASHES TO ASHES.

I’ll also be reprinting a blog I wrote for GRAB THIS BOOK back in September last year, when I was posed the seemingly simple question: ‘If you had to meet a serial killer, how would you go about it?’

But, first things first. PERFECT REMAINS is a really excellent addition to the fictional serial killer canon. I strongly suspect that its author, Helen Fields, will pretty soon rank among the superstars of the genre. However, as always, my detailed analysis of the book can be found at the lower end of today’s post. Shoot on down there straight away if you wish. But if you’re interested in hearing stuff about Heck as well, hang around here for a bit first.

The most immediately important thing to day about ASHES TO ASHES is that a free sampler – approximately 29 pages of the final, finished text – is now available on Amazon. The book is published on April 6, but if you just can’t wait that long and you want to get a quick snifter of it without having to pay, then I recommend you call in HERE.

For those who are too impatient even for that, here is a quick outline:

The Serial Crimes Unit is hunting a professional torturer called John Sagan, a man who is literally a
travelling roadshow of atrocity. He cruises the country, taking his mobile torture chamber with him, and for a not inconsiderable fee he will happily introduce it to anyone a client nominates – though for the most part those he lures into his ‘Pain Box’, as he calls it, are underworld figures who have defied their paymasters and thus are being officially punished. As such, it’s taken a long time for word to get out that Sagan even exists. However, once Heck and the rest of SCU are informed, they go after him full-tilt – only for their first attempted interception to end in disaster, especially for one highly valued member of the team.

Now doubly determined to nab the highly-paid sadist, they pick his trail up again, but this time it leads them to the very last place Heck would have expected or wanted: his grimy northern hometown, Bradburn.

(As a quick aside, I’ve been asked several times now if Bradburn is my own hometown, Wigan, which occupies a similar place on the border between Greater Manchester and Lancashire. The answer is a simple and straightforward ‘no’. Bradburn, though fictional, is Bradburn. The fact that that I recently did a special introduction to the book, and a reading of it in Wigan Central Library – and here’s the photographic evidence – is entirely coincidental). 

(On a not-unrelated topic, I'll be doing another of these book events at Blackwells bookshop, Edinburgh, on Wednesday Feb 15, in company with HELEN FIELDS herself, so keep that date in your diary free).

Anyway, Bradburn, a drab, post-industrial blot on the Northwest English landscape, is a town already in a state of terror. A gang war has erupted between local drugs-dealers and a more powerful mob from nearby Manchester, resulting in a succession of tit-for-tat killings. In that regard, it’s probably a natural hunting ground for John Sagan, who will hire himself to the highest bidder but who, as he enjoys inflicting horrific and agonising deaths on his victims almost as much as he enjoys getting paid for it, is a serial killer in all but name.

And the frightened town’s problems don’t end there. The underworld battle has also attracted another nightmarish figure who will slay for pay – an armoured and helmeted maniac whose murder weapon of choice is a flame-thrower, which perhaps explains his nickname: ‘the Incinerator’.

Bradburn has never seen anything like this carnage. In truth, Heck has never seen anything like it. Perhaps they can pull together and face this double-headed challenge side-by-side? 

But then again, perhaps not.

As those who’ve read the Heck books prior to ASHES TO ASHES will know, Heck and his hometown don’t get on. There are deep wounds there. More than once in the past, Heck has commented that he wouldn’t mind if the entire place was reduced to ashes. Well, who knows … this could be that very moment.

*

Since the publication of my last novel, STRANGERS, which pitted a young undercover policewoman, Lucy Clayburn, against that rarest of criminals, a female sex-killer, I was grateful to be invited to participate in a number of crime-writing blogsites, to pen a little essay in each case about a different aspect of my work – the way I approach it, my research methods, and so forth. 

This is always an enjoyable experience, but sometimes it can be a challenge. Take, for example, this question I was asked last September by GRAB THIS BOOK.

If you had to meet a serial killer, how would you go about it?

It’s a fascinating question. Where would you arrange to meet a serial killer, to interview him (or her) if you had the opportunity? Well, assuming you ever wanted to do that, the location is certainly something you’d have to give considerable thought to.

Even meeting such a person in the controlled environment of a prison would be no guarantee of safety. Far from it. 

In the 1980s, Robert Ressler (pictured right) was a senior FBI agent who’d investigated a number of  serial murder cases. Around this time, he began to devise what we know today as Vi-Cap (or the Violent Criminal Apprehension Programme), which required him to get into the minds of repeat violent offenders and attempt to understand their motivations. As part of his mission, he interviewed numerous multiple murderers in US jails. One particularly disturbing story he later told involved an encounter with a 6ft9in convict who’d killed and decapitated ten victims. The interview was going swimmingly, the convict seemingly cooperating. Ressler felt perfectly safe. They were in the heart of a maximum security facility, under full and constant surveillance by the prison staff – and yet they were alone. Ressler later said that he only realised how vulnerable this made him when his interviewee’s mood suddenly changed, and he said: “Do you realise … if I attacked you now, I could twist your head off before anyone even gets in here.”

Ressler later described it as a wake-up call with regard to the kinds of people he was dealing with.

This is the important thing, I suppose. Serial killers are not like the rest of us. In fact, they are not like ordinary criminals either. 

By their nature, psychopaths lack empathy with others. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are violent – as long as they get their own way. However, add other factors. Such as narcissism, which involves a reckless pursuit of self-gratification (and wherein any opposition, whether real or imagined, is deemed intolerable), and maybe sexual sadism disorder (which speaks for itself), and you’ve got the devil’s own brew and a fairly typical blueprint for the average serial killer. 

The other thing to say, of course, is that these people are very plausible.

A genius like Hannibal Lecter would be a rarity in real life, but most serial killers are smart enough to know that it will benefit them to conceal their true personality. You only need to look at the numbers of killers who’ve managed to talk their way into people’s houses or have persuaded strangers to climb into their cars, or have used endless other strategies to charm or lure the innocent and gullible.

So, this gift of the gab is something else we’d need to take heed of. Robert Ressler emerged alive from his interview with his 6ft9in nemesis, but for a couple of minutes – because he’d allowed a pleasant demeanour and a glib tongue to fool him – he’d almost become number 11 on the maniac’s butcher’s bill. 

In light of that, how can we take them at their word? How can believe anything they tell us? Why would we even expect them to be truthful?

Hannibal Lecter is a good case in point here. Thomas Harris created in Hannibal such a deadly adversary that even the most experienced detectives had no option but to converse with him either through shock-proof glass or with him strapped to a gurney and wearing a mouth-guard. That would certainly be an attractive idea for our interview, but I’d query if the killer would even talk to us under such circumstances. 

I’d be surprised if any hardcore criminal, even one who hasn’t committed murder, would be prepared to talk to us about anything unless he or she was getting something in return. Consider that, and then bear in mind that the average incarcerated serial killer is almost certainly facing a full life tariff (and maybe even the death penalty) – and you can see how tough it’s going to be. 

At the very least we’d have to be nice to them. So … no straps, no gurney.

And where exactly does that leave us? A rubber room, where there is nothing nasty the killer can put his/her hands on? Maybe, but the killer can still put his/her hands on us … 

Might they be prepared to talk to us on the phone over a long distance?

Well, in that case we’re back to the old chestnut: it depends how much info we want. I remember hearing about a US journalist who regularly spoke on the phone to a serial killer serving life, asking his assistance in other unsolved murder cases. At first, the journo got the impression the killer was being helpful. But then he realised that the guy was playing games, imparting some information but on the whole offering just enough to make his correspondent come back for more. In other words, these phone-chats made pleasant breaks for the killer from his otherwise mundane life inside, and he wanted as many of them as possible.

After this, there aren’t too many options open to us.

Ultimately, I suppose, this is a question I can’t answer. 

In a novel I’ve got planned for the future, Serial Crimes Unit officer, DS Heckenburg interviews an imprisoned serial killer in a quest for information, but in that one I’m opting for the gentler approach (it all takes place in a ‘soft interview room’, with comfy furniture and pictures on the walls). This female felon is showing contrition, you see, and so she’s deemed by her jailers to be lower risk. But she still wants something in return … and she wants it so badly that Heck has made a judgement call that she won’t try anything stupid.

Will she or won’t she? 

At this stage, who knows. 

I’m suppose I’m just glad this terrible business is something I write about rather than something I actually do.

*

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.

PERFECT REMAINS
by Helen Fields (2017)

When ex-Parisian police detective and Interpol agent, Luc Callanach, transfers to Police Scotland, taking up a detective inspector post with the Major Investigations Team in Edinburgh, he isn’t completely a fish out of water. To begin with, Callanach is half-Scottish as well as half-French. He’s also a real bloodhound of a cop, with great analytical skills and a fearless dedication to the cases he is assigned – though on first arriving, it wouldn’t be true to say that he’s completely comfortable with his new environment.

After his sun-drenched days in the Interpol office at Lyon, he finds the Scottish capital windy, wet and dour, and quickly learns that certain officers at his command – the truculent DS Lively in particular – are irritated by his presence because they perceive him to be an outsider who’s been fast-tracked into a plum job.

Moreover, Callanach doesn’t help himself, because rather than attempting to win friends and influence people, he fights back domineeringly against those who seek to undermine him.

The reason for this is simple. Even without his sudden change-of-world, Luc Callanach is a man under astonishingly intense pressure. Back home, he was accused of raping a petulant beauty called Astrid Borde, whose main objection to Callanach was that he showed no interest in her. He wasnt even charged, never mind convicted – but of course this meant that neither was he able to clear his name, so he left France under such a cloud of suspicion that even his family have now disassociated themselves from him.

He is a good cop who focusses intensely on his job, but even now he agonises over whether he could have handled things better, and as such he is filled with self-doubt, and to a degree, self-loathing. 

Ironically, because he needs to be distracted from all this, it’s the perfect time for him to be handed a particularly difficult investigation – on his very first day no less, when what appears to be the burned remnants of an eminent Edinburgh solicitor are found on a Cairngorm hillside. There isn’t much left of the unfortunate woman, but it’s sufficient to reveal who she was and that she died very violently. Callanach throws himself into the case speedily and professionally, but then another prominent local woman – a vicar, no less – is also kidnapped, her tell-tale relics duly found in a drum of chemicals in a dockside warehouse.

Callanach is a by-the-book man. He doesn’t want to look at potential patterns just yet, but it seems increasingly likely that a serial abductor and murderer is at large, his sights fixed squarely on the successful women of the city. Callanach’s methodical approach then faces a serious challenge from within, when DS Lively – badly affected by the second abduction because he knew the victim personally – takes it on himself to call in renowned profiler Edwin Harris, an expert for sure, but a man more interested in promoting his own theories than in catching the actual killer.

Callanach’s protest that this is a breach of protocol falls on deaf ears, because head of the Major Investigations Team, DCI George Begbie, though sympathetic, is currently cash-strapped and has no option but to accept Harris’s assistance as it is being privately funded. 

All of this hampers Callanach massively, both in terms of the enquiry and in terms of his personal recovery. Though he doesn’t feel quite so isolated when his friendship grows with fellow DI, Ava Turner, who, though she is currently investigating a different case, is very open – not just to cross-enquiry consultation, but also to afterhours socialising. 

Meanwhile, in a parallel thread – and it’s no spoiler to mention this because we are hit hard with this intelligence very early in the novel – a certain Reginald King is hatching a truly heinous scheme. King, a sociopathic loner who work as a lowly admin officer in the Department of Philosophy at Edinburgh University, considers that he’s been at the beck and call of Professor Natasha Forge, Head of School, for quite long enough. In short, King regards himself as a genius and feels that Forge only doesn’t recognise this because she’s a stuck-up bitch. In the long run, he’s going to punish her, but he’s also going to punish lots of other women too. Hence the kidnapping, the imprisonment, the terrible torture and of course the murders.

Problematically for Luc Callanach, Reginald King, despite his lowly status, is a genuinely clever man, whose plan does not just involve a series of revenge killings, but is much, much more wickedly ingenious and twisted than that, and in terms of cruelty, is almost off-the-scale.

There’s one other problem here too, not just for Callanach, but all those who work with him. It’s a coincidence but of course hugely advantageous to the murderer that Natasha Forge’s best friend happens to be DI Ava Turner, another strong, independent woman. So this isn’t going to be any ordinary murder investigation, which all members of the enquiry team can go home from in the evening and relax; as King steadily advances his gruesome grand-plan, things start to get very, very nasty indeed, but also very, very personal …

There are plenty of psycho-thrillers set in contemporary Scotland, and Edinburgh seems to suffer from more than its fair share of fictional serial killers. But Perfect Remains is a very different kind of novel from the norm. Perhaps its most outstanding features are how well constructed it is as a story and how well written as a piece of crime literature. I don’t mean to say that other books of this ilk are not well written, but this one is truly of an exceptional calibre.

As a former barrister, Helen Fields clearly knows her legalities and her procedures inside-out, and yet she weaves them all into this complex and lurid mystery with an effortless, non-fussy style, which informs as much as it entertains, creating a real feel of authenticity but never once cluttering the quick-fire plotline with extraneous detail. In addition to that, her quality descriptive work fully conveys both the time and the place, not to mention the people embroiled in the saga, again without sacrificing any of the novel’s pace. Take one particular scene, for example, when DI Callanach, while stressed out of his mind, finds himself in an amorous clinch with an incidental character called Penny. Penny is little more than a walk-on, and as such could easily be a stock character whom we never think about again, and yet in the space of a page and a half, Fields brings her vividly and sympathetically to life – you almost want to cry for her, she is so unfairly treated by our emotionally distraught hero.

And that was only a member of the supporting cast, so imagine how it is with the leads.

The first thing that strikes me about these more prominent characters is that they are, none of them, free of foibles. 

It’s not unusual in crime fiction for our star detective to be damaged, but Luc Callanach takes this to a whole new level. We are told that he is a good-looking guy and at one time he even worked as a male model, and yet none of this info is used to win our favour. If anything, it paints a picture in the reader’s mind of a man who, perhaps back home in his beloved France – which he endlessly and pointlessly yearns for – was rather spoiled. On arrival in Scotland, his initially brusque and rather snippy attitude only adds to this. It’s also the case that what he’s actually on the run from – a rape accusation, for Heaven’s sake! – is the sort of thing that would blemish any police officer’s record for the rest of his career. And after all that, he doesn’t help himself much – at least from the reader’s POV – with a constant, dogged self-analysis which borders on self-obsessiveness. But again, what we’ve got here is a realistically flawed character who needs to work very hard to win his audience over – and, as you might expect, he eventually does so. Firstly, because he’s willing to learn from his errors in order to correct his behaviour, particularly his people skills, and secondly because he’s an excellent detective who doesn’t miss a trick – it is Callanach’s instinct, and his instinct alone, that manage to refocus the enquiry after Lively and Harris send it barking down a blind alley.

In contrast, DI Ava Turner, though another stranger in a strange land (she’s Scottish, but an English-sounding accent born of a private education puts her at a disadvantage), is much savvier in her day-to-day management style, and in the way she handles suspects. She’s an equally tough cop to Callanach, but she’s never less than even-handed: for instance, when she zealously closes down an extremist Catholic sect for brutalising the underage mothers supposedly in their care, her comment to the press that there is “nothing godly about what was happening here” indicates that it isn’t organised religion she has a problem with, but those who abuse it. 

Like Callanach, Turner is also single and, under the surface, maybe a little lonely, but she’s learned to ride with the blows and during her downtime is able to relax with friends – as such, she leads a happier, more fulfilled life. That said, her bosom buddy, Natasha Forge, is perhaps not quite so generous a spirit, and this provides us with a key link in the story. 

Another confident, professional woman, Forge is pleasant and companionable if she decides she likes you, but terse to the point of being discourteous with office administrator, Reginald King, and okay, while King is without doubt a tad pompous and someone whose academic credentials are at the least dubious, there are times when we as the readers feel that his boss could perhaps be a little warmer towards him.

This of course leads me to King himself, and what I consider to be one of the most powerful pieces of characterisation in the whole novel. For me, Reginald King is so neatly observed and multi-layered an individual that he underpins the entire narrative, and on top of that he must rate as one of the most believable psychopaths I’ve ever encountered in fiction – primarily because, like so many real-life killers, his greatest defence is his total anonymity. King is no drooling Mr. Hyde-type madman, nor is he suave and calculating like Hannibal Lecter. Yes, he is secretly and monstrously narcissistic; he is convinced he is a genius and that the only reason he hasn’t advanced further in life is because those around him are hateful and jealous, and are conspiring in his downfall. But apart from this, he is so, so ordinary. He possesses neither Hyde’s brutish physicality nor Lecter’s sparkly-eyed gaze. He is a simple everyman you could pass in a corridor without batting an eyelid. Incredible though it may sound, there is even an element of pathos in King’s makeup. Because for all the awful things he does – and at times they are truly and torturously awful (and the reader is spared almost none of it) – there are other times when we recognise what a lost soul he is, a guy who, despite attempting civility, can’t even seem to earn the most basic degree of respect from his peers.

Helen Fields has done an all-round amazing job with Perfect Remains. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that it’s her debut novel. A terrific premise is executed to full unforgiving effect in a complex yet pacy procedural, which is peopled by living, breathing characters whom you can easily empathise with (both the heroes and the villains), and which is not only adult in tone but also adult in subtext – there is far more on show here than a simple crime/actioner – but which accelerates during its final quarter to an exhilarating, slam-bang climax.

In short, this is superb stuff – not a whodunit exactly, but an intense and deeply intriguing ‘good vs evil’ thriller, which once you’ve started it is quite impossible to put down. But don’t take my word for it. Just read it. You will not be disappointed – and make a note of the author too, because Helen Fields is a name we’ll be hearing about again and again.

And now, as always, here are my personal thoughts re. casting should Perfect Remains make it to celluloid. It’s just for laughs of course – no-one would listen to me anyway – but this could be a very cool cop series indeed, so it’s got to happen at some point. In the meantime, here are my picks for the leads (as always, with no expense spared):

DI Luc Callanach – Pio Marmai
DI Ava Turner – Gemma Whelan
Reginald King – Gray O’Brien
Natasha Forge – Ruth Millar
DCI George Begbie – Gary Lewis
Astrid Borde – Melanie Laurent
DS Lively – Tommy Flanagan
Edwin Harris – Graham McTavish

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

When terror cuts through to our very souls

Uh-oh … it’s all getting personal this week, as we take a long, hard look at Scottish crime superstar James Oswald’s hit novel THE BOOK OF SOULS – because trust me, that is one investigation that takes his Edinburgh detective, Tony McLean, very close to home. But also, because we’re going to be talking about the cover to my new Heck novel, ASHES TO ASHES, which you can see right here – yep, this is the next cover, revealed in all its glory – and because we’re going to be discussing why this book will also be visiting a private Hell on its central character.

Okay, I’m not sure if any of that makes sense. Never mind, all will be explained soon.

In the meantime, if you’re only here for THE BOOK OF SOULS review, you’ll find that, as usual, at the lower end of today’s post. Feel free to skip on down there right away. If, however, you’re equally interested in Heck and keen to know more about the new book, then stick around at this end of the blog.

It’s always difficult when you’ve got a new novel due out, not knowing exactly how much you can and can’t say about it. You obviously don’t want to reveal too much, because that could spoil all kinds of surprises. But by the same token you want to whet as many appetites as possible.

It’s going to be particularly difficult on this occasion, because this unusual cover is likely to excite a bit of debate. And while I want to shove my own oar in, I don’t want to expose too much of the backroom discourse that has gone into the design of this latest novel of mine. That would feel an awful lot like giving away trade secrets.

It’s certainly the case that, in terms of the Heck novels, this cover is very different from everything that’s gone before it. And yet – and this is the really interesting thing – of all the Heck jackets to date, this is the one that I personally think cuts most quickly to the heart of the story (and not just the story, but what I suppose you’d call the subtext of the story).

And there we go – we’re already at a point where I can’t say too much more. You’ll just have to trust me that this cover is very, very relevant to the events in ASHES TO ASHES.

But, on this occasion I think there’s even a bit more to it than that. After all, an effective cover isn’t just about succinctly conveying the meaning of the book. It’s also got to be demography-aware; in other words, it’s got to recognise and respond to its core market. And markets, as we all know, can change on a regular basis.

What I mean is I’m sure that all we writers have our favourite book covers, and we all of us have clear ideas what we’d like to see on the fronts of our books. The problem is: we can’t always have what we want, especially if the marketeers tell us that a more effective alternative is available.

For example, I’ve made it fairly clear over the last few weeks with various Tweets and Facebook posts that one of the main antagonists in ASHES TO ASHES is a ruthless killer whose weapon of choice is a flamethrower. As such, my immediate thought about what I’d like to see on the jacket was something along those lines: a menacing figure in a visored helmet, wearing fireproof armour, perhaps driving a spear of flame right into our faces.

But you know, that wouldn’t have been massively original.

Imagery of that sort has adorned games, comics and movie posters for decades (like this one on the right, from the third-person shooter game,
Tom Clancy’s The Division).

In addition, it tends to be associated more, I would suggest, with war-themed products, or something in the realms of a horror or sci-fi style Armageddon.

So when I heard that we weren’t going to use any such image on the cover of ASHES TO ASHES I was surprised, but only for a short time – before it occurred to me that it wouldn’t necessarily have made our target audience (the crime thriller crowd) looking twice.

And making you look twice is the key thing these days, especially when so many book covers are first seen online, usually as thumbnails (which also explains the big wording, and perhaps the less startling, less garish imagery than we used to see).

We’ve tried all sorts of tricks in the past to get potential audiences to spot our novels on the shelves: from racy pictures of gun-toting babes in heels and stockings, as inspired by 1960s spy thrillers; to more ghoulish subjects – corpses in sacks, dead hands with flies on them, rotted doll faces etc, as driven by the craze for ‘true crime’ books following on from Truman Capote’s seminal In Cold Blood; to the stark photographic images of masked killers, brutal weapons and captives-in-peril that represented the more realistically violent fashions of the 1990s and 2000s.

Even now, we see a wide variation dependent on the booksellers’ experience. Nordic Noir, for instance, often announces itself by portraying cold, desolate landscapes. British urban noir tends to focus on diminutive figures set against the immense backdrops of nighttime cities. Massive gangland sagas, or crime thrillers concerned with international intrigue often use subtle glamour – female beauty, jewelry, diamonds, casinos and the like.

So where does all that leave the cover for ASHES TO ASHES?

Good question. Heck’s been around a bit for sure. He too has done the diminutive figure and the captive-in-fear thing. But this new cover is quite clearly something else. Very different, as we’ve already said. Eye-catching – I certainly hope so. And maybe – just maybe – a tad domestic in tone?

Domestic?, you ask.

Well, I’ve already said that I can’t reveal too many details about this new novel. But as I’ve also said, it’s a particularly personal story where DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg is concerned, and it cuts very, very close to home. 


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.

THE BOOK OF SOULS 
by James Oswald (2012)

There can be few officers in the Lothian and Borders Police (as they were before ‘Police Scotland’) who’ve had a harder time of it than DI Tony McLean. A veteran homicide investigator whose normal beat is the grimy backstreets of Edinburgh, he thinks he’s seen and done it all, but as this second investigation in the McLean canon opens, the likeable but lonely detective finds himself under intense emotional pressure.

First of all, it’s nearly Christmas, which means the anniversary of the murder of his fiancée, Kirsty Summers, who was the final victim of Donald Anderson, an antiquarian book-dealer by trade and ritual sex-slayer nicknamed ‘the Christmas Killer’ by hobby. Every year for ten years, one of Anderson’s victims – invariably a young female – after being bound and raped in the cellar of Anderson’s shop, was found with her throat cut in one or other of the city’s filthy waterways. Kirsty Summers was only the most recent, and the last girl to die before McLean, then a detective constable, finally put an end to Anderson’s reign of evil. Needless to say, with it now being Christmas again, all the bad memories come rushing back. It’s a minor consolation – of sorts, when McLean learns that Anderson himself has now died in prison, the victim of a brutal attack by a fellow inmate. He even attends the funeral in Aberdeen just to ensure that he’s saying goodbye to bad rubbish.

But then, almost as soon as McLean returns to Edinburgh, another series of murders commences, which is almost identical to the one before: young women abducted, indecently assaulted and deposited in the city’s culverts and streams with throats slashed from ear to ear. To confuse things even more, a couple of occasions follow when McLean thinks he spots the deceased murderer walking the streets of Edinburgh, though of course, despite strenuous efforts, he’s never actually able to lay hands on anyone who looks even vaguely similar.

Despite this, our bewildered hero finds that he has the full confidence of his senior supervisor, Chief Superintendent Jayne McIntyre, but on this occasion he finds resources restricted because the bullish but somewhat empty-headed DCI Charles Duguid, known to his colleagues simply as ‘Dagwood’, has commandeered almost everything as part of the major anti-drugs operation he is running in the city, and deeply resents that McLean is leading a rival investigation.

At the same time, an unknown arsonist has been setting buildings alight all over the place. Most of these are disused industrial units, but then the block of flats in which Tony McLean himself lives is also torched, and several residents die in the process. This, in its turn, reveals that drugs production activity was occurring in McLean’s own building, right under his nose in fact, which is a huge embarrassment for him and deeply frustrates Chief Superintendent McIntyre, who insists that he’s overly stressed and must now attend psychological counselling sessions. This puts McLean in the clutches of irritating police-shrink, Prof. Matthew Hilton, who’s hardly the DI’s favourite person given that he interviewed Donald Anderson on his arrest and later tried to persuade the court that Anderson’s bizarre excuse for his crimes – namely that he was driven to kill by the evil contained in an ancient book – surely proved that he was insane.

In the midst of this seething tension, the copycat killer’s victims pile up, which only adds fuel to the fire in that a local journalist, Joanne Dalgliesh – in her efforts to sell a sensational new book – begins to air suspicions that Donald Anderson, evidently a mentally ill man, was framed by the original investigation team and now has died unjustly.

There will clearly be no rest this festive season for McLean and regular sidekicks like DS ‘Grumpy Bob’ Laird and station archivist John ‘Needy’ Needham. McLean gets some welcome assistance from the attractive DS Kirsty Ritchie, who is drafted in from Grampian Police, but finds he has very little time to devote to the potential new woman in his life, Emma Baird, who works for the police as a crime scene technician, and who, in truth, McLean is not sure he is right for.

It certainly seems as if nothing is going right. Even the glitz of the Christmas season, which is always there in the background, feels far removed from the cold, sterile offices in which McLean and his team must work, or the gloomy, half-empty house of McLean’s lately-dead grandmother, where he now must dwell. To match this mood, the weather switches regularly between snow and rain, constantly and consciously defying the yuletide spirit, creating a near constant aura of winter desolation.

But no evil lasts forever when good guys are on the case. A break finally comes along – but it’s a curious one. McLean first meets elderly cleric, Father Noam Anton, when he arrives at the detective’s door with a bunch of carol singers. But then he receives a second visit on Christmas Day itself, when Anton tells Mclean that he knew Donald Anderson well – the guy was originally a member of his monastic group, the Order of St. Herman, who among other duties, were charged with keeping rare books. Anton claims that Anderson, a tortured individual, stole a number of valuable volumes, including the Liber animorum, or Book of Souls, which legend claims was dictated to a deranged medieval monk by the Devil himself. This, Anton says, became the eventual cause of Anderson’s murderous depravity.

McLean is frustrated by this story – he believes it yet more excuse-making for a sexually degenerate serial killer – especially as there is no trace of the book now. To his mind that probably means it never existed, though an alternative – if somewhat fanciful – explanation could be that the Book of Souls has found its way into someone else’s hands and is now exerting the same malign influence as before, thereby creating another ‘Christmas Killer’.

It’s difficult to say more about the synopsis of The Book of Souls without giving away enormous spoilers, because there are several humungous twists and turns still to come in this complex and alarming tale (including one truly colossal head-spinner right near the end), but suffice to say that, whether he likes it or not, Tony McLean – ever more determined to catch the latest killer, and at the same time prove that he got the right one before – finally opens to the possibility that the answer to this mystery may lie in the occult …

One of the most interesting aspects of the Tony McLean books, at least in my view, is their regular supernatural undertone. Even though these are good, strong police procedurals – and The Book of Souls is no exception to that – you never get the feeling you have strayed very far from ‘the other world’. This intrigues and enthuses me because it’s often been said that horror and crime as rival subgenres simply don’t match, that there can’t be any overlap between the two because the rationale behind both forms of fiction should almost always work to cancel the other out.

If that is your resolute view, then James Oswald is definitely the fly in your ointment, especially when it comes to The Book of Souls. However, at first glance, what we're dealing with here is undeniably a cop thriller.

DI McLean is a little bit of an archetype in that regard: a flawed, tired loner in the midst of a mean city, almost invariably faced by opponents whose depths of wickedness know no bounds. Despite this, he’s an attractive figure; instinctively good at his job and no-one’s fool, but affable with it, trusting of colleagues (at least, those he rates), and yet monstrously unfortunate. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a fictional copper who suffers as much bad luck as Tony McLean does, but he’s very well written too, a weary Scottish everyman, which makes him a character you root for from page one.

So far so familiar, of course. This is solid cop novel territory, especially when McLean and his team get a hint that a copycat murderer is on the loose, leading them a non-too-merry dance from one corner of Edinburgh to the next, and these, it won’t surprise you to learn, are locations distinctly absent from the tourist trail: we’re talking derelict factories, rundown tenements and rubbish-strewn lots where sewer outlets swim with disgusting effluent.

But for all this, we’re aware from an early stage that there’s something curious going on here. McLean’s occasional sightings of the deceased Anderson are an eerie touch, but Oswald handles them most effectively, restricting them to brief glimpses in the thronging city streets. These weird events are so scant that it’s actually quite easy to feed them into Jayne McIntyre’s concerns about McLean’s fragile mental state. Even we, the readers, who are 100% on McLean’s side, might fleetingly wonder if it’s all been a bit too much for him, and if maybe these psychological counselling sessions are actually a good idea – but then of course we dismiss such concerns, because McLean is the hero while police shrink/profiler Matthew Hilton is a pillock of the first order.

So … does this mean that something genuinely strange is happening? Could it conceivably be that what McLean is seeing is Donald Anderson’s ghost? It’s an increasingly unnerving thought given what McLean knows about Anderson’s past: the esoteric bookshop he kept and the foul rituals that happened in its basement. Then add to this the emerging information about the so-called Book of Souls, a demonic tome, which according to Father Anton, does not just possess its owner like an evil spirit, but gradually drains his or her entire soul.

Separate all that stuff from the police procedural, and you are in pure horror story country. But the real strength of this novel is that Oswald doesn’t do that; he splices the two threads together neatly, creating a fast-moving, ultra-dark thriller, which in no way contradicts itself and thoroughly entertains from beginning to end.

Possibly not one to read on a bright, sunny day – I’ll admit that much – but no sooner will the spring and summer be here, than winter will be coming round again in due course, and if you like your crime fiction hard-edged, dark-toned, and you aren’t disaffected by the festive spook story tradition, this could well be one for you.

As always at the end of a review, I’m being cheeky enough to suggest the cast I would choose were this book ever to make it to film or TV. Obviously, as The Book of Souls is number two in the McLean series, it would only be right for the eponymous hero’s previous outing to hit the celluloid first, but this is the bit where we always suspend belief anyway (on that score, wait till you see who I’ve chosen!!!).

DI Tony McLean - Ewan McGregor
Emma Baird - Rose Leslie
DS Kirsty Ritchie - Georgia King
Sgt. John ‘Needy’ Needham - David O’Hara
Father Noam Anton - Peter Mullan
DS ‘Grumpy Bob’ Laird - Tony Curran
DCI Charles Duguid - Peter Capaldi
Ch. Supt. Jayne McIntyre - Tilda Swinton
Donald Anderson – Clive Russell
Joanne Dalgliesh – Zoe Eeles

(Ah, yes … another of those wonderfully expensive cast-lists that only someone of my limitless resources can assemble).

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 exposés, 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).