The final part of the story which I have posted over the past two days, (and thank you for your patience!):
This new room must, I thought, have been towards the back of the house, as it seemed darker and gloomier than the first, and I reached into my jacket for my torch. I switched it on. It flickered, faded and then died as if it too feared what it might reveal. In my frustration I shook it, banging it against my hand as quietly as I could. Still it refused to work. Realising that it was useless I stuffed it back into my pocket and squeezed my eyes tightly hoping that my actions would help me to see more clearly. Once more I was sure that I heard a faint creaking closer to me now than before, but, before I had the chance to say anything, a howl ripped through the house. We jumped as if we were one, none of us knowing quite what to do; my palms cold and clammy as I screwed them up into fists. The creaking sound gradually became louder and I realised that it was coming from the corner of the room that we were now in. I knew that we could all see the same thing – a figure, old and silent, shadowed in the darkness, rocking gently to and fro on a chair. I bit my lip, tasting the metallic tang of the blood in my mouth as my heart pounded. I tried to swallow but my mouth had become dry and sticky. The old man seemed to be staring straight through us, as if we weren’t there. Two small yellow lights appeared to one side of him, flickering with an intense fire. Then two more appeared, and I realised in an instant that they weren’t lights but eyes! In a heartbeat two fiendish hounds were racing towards us. But these were no ordinary dogs. As we stood rooted, too scared to move, we all realised the same thing at the same time – that we could see the wall behind them, as if they were transparent, ghost hounds.
We turned, linked as one through our friendship, and ran. We ran through the first room, ignorant now of the books and animals. We ran, desperate to make our get away. We scrambled out of the still open window and raced across the gravel as if our lives depended on it. We hurtled through the gate without once looking back, flying up the lane and over the field with a speed none of us knew we were capable of. We slipped quickly down the gulley which took us through to the top end of our estate and stopped only when we were under the protection of the streetlamp which illuminated the end of the street where I lived. We, sank down, our hands on our knees, as we tried to catch our breath. I thought that I could hear a faint laugh floating down from the hill, but my heart was beating so fast that I couldn’t be certain. After a couple of minutes, and with our minds still racing, we swore a pact of secrecy, turned and went our separate ways.
Shortly afterwards Brian too left the area. We had not once mentioned what we had seen and heard. Behind the house, at the bottom of the hill, there now stands a modern secondary school. What were the old fields have been turned into sports fields for the school, and there is only one small piece of waste land left; the one over which we made our escape all those years ago. At some point in the future, I am sure, even that will be built upon. The lane has been cleared now and widened but, if ever I walk along it, I can’t help but shiver and increase my pace, when I walk past the old house on the hill.
One day David told us that he and his family were moving to another part of the city soon and that he would be leaving our school. That night we had a small party at his house and, when it was time for us to go, he drew Brian and myself to one side, out of earshot of any lurking adults.
“Before I go,” he said, “I need to find out about the house.”
We both knew, of course, which house he was talking about, and instinctively looked at each other, our faces a mixture of excitement and trepidation. David caught our attention again and explained that he was planning a late-night trip to explore the house and to finally put his mind at rest – after all, once he had moved he would never have the chance again. For a while no-one said anything, but eventually Brian broke the silence and then we both agreed that we would go with him. David’s face looked as serious as I had ever seen as he outlined his plans; we would sneak out of our houses and meet by the park gates at midnight on Friday night.
The week dragged by, but eventually Friday arrived. That evening I stayed in and told my mother that I was going to bed early. My mother was worried that I wasn’t well, but I told her that I was just a little bit tired because school had been busy, which she seemed happy to believe. Once I was safely in my room I made sure that my jacket pockets were full of everything that I thought I might need – a torch, a penknife, my front door key, a small note book and a couple of pencils in case I needed to take notes. I checked the batteries in the torch which, thankfully, seemed to be working well, and, after setting my alarm clock, and stuffing it beneath my pillow in case it woke anybody else, settled down for a couple of hours rest.
At a quarter to twelve I silenced my alarm, quickly and quietly pulled on some clothes, and checked my jacket one last time -m there was no turning back now. Silently I crept out of the front door, slipping my key into the lock and turning it as quietly as I could as I pulled the door to. I raced to the park as quickly as I could, but was the first to arrive, and, for a moment, thought that the others weren’t coming. My fears vanished though as I saw them emerging from the darkness together and heading towards me. We looked at each other and, without saying a word, turned and headed up our lane.
Soon we came to the blackness of the smaller, more mysterious lane; the lane which held the mystery that we were determined to solve. David whispered quietly as if he feared that his ghosts might be listening, and we set off, more slowly now, blaming the darkness rather than our own fears.
I shuddered when we eventually arrived at the blackened gates of the house. It looked, if it were possible, even more terrifying at night, as if it were one enormous, ghastly shadow which was throwing a deathly cloak over everything beneath it. I heard Brian swallow hard. Without speaking we could sense each other’s fears but knew that we had to find a way into the house.
We checked the silent driveway. There was nothing there, no vehicle and no sign of life, and, taking this as a positive sign, we set about climbing the gate. To our surprise, and horror, however, we found that the gate was not padlocked and, as we leaned against it, it swung open, noiselessly, as if it were new. Steadying ourselves we started to walk towards the house. The gravel beneath our feet felt hard and cold, even through our shoes, but made no sound as we tiptoed across it towards the front door. Before we knew it, we were standing directly in front of it. With an unusual show of bravery, I reached out and touched the wood. It felt cold and damp against the palm of my hand and I shivered – I had never touched anything which felt quite like it before. Brian stepped up next to me and leaned his shoulder against the door. He pushed as hard as he could, but we knew that it was locked and wouldn’t budge despite our efforts. Suddenly we heard David hissing at us. The sound, though it came as quiet as a mouse, nearly made me jump. He had discovered a small, unfastened window. Cautiously we pulled ourselves up and through it, our feet feeling tentatively for something solid to rest on. As our eyes became accustomed to the dark we collectively took in our surroundings. We were in a large, dust filled room whose walls were stacked high with books, stuffed animals and collections of mementoes which we couldn’t place.
I stepped forwards to look more closely at the volumes of books that seemed to reach out in every direction. I saw that there were books about witchcraft, the supernatural and ghosts. I turned to show David and Brian, but nearly yelped out as my foot cracked against a stuffed crocodile which had seemed to appear from nowhere and now lay in my path, its gaping mouth baring its teeth at me. Too frightened to speak, but driven on by nervous excitement, we opened the door to a second room. I was sure that I had heard the creaking of floorboards, but said nothing, hoping that my imagination was playing tricks on me. As we entered the next room I could feel my pulse racing through every fibre of my body but nothing could stop us now.
For the next three days I will be posting parts of a short story which I have (for want of a better word) serialised. I hope that you feel the urge to stick with it and enjoy it.
When I was young I used to live, with the rest of my family, in a quiet suburb on the edge of a large, sprawling city, whose streets stretched out like an octopus’s tentacles in every possible direction. It was a peaceful and pleasant area in which to live, far enough away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, but still close enough to allow us to make regular trips to taste the delights of city life. At one end of the street in which our house stood was a large patch of land known to us as ‘The Green’; a place where my friends and I would happily waste away our hours playing football or daydreaming. At the other end of our street a tree-lined lane separated the glut of houses from a park which was large enough to house a miniature golf course but small enough to have no given name, at least not one that I, as a child, had any knowledge of. The park sloped heavily, taking with it a tiny stream which trickled gently down its slope before emptying itself out into a small brook which, in turn, flowed onwards towards the city. Here we spent the long days of summer holidays fishing for stickleback and searching for golf balls and the promise of the pennies they might bring us.
On weekdays we would climb the long winding hill towards our primary school, everyday walking the same streets. We walked past the local shops, up the hill and past the local youth centre which used to show films on a Saturday morning, and into the crowded playground. When the school day was over and our ears were filled with the joyful sound of bells, we would race home as if nothing had happened and nothing had been learned, our minds emptying as quickly as they had been filled. When the weather allowed it we would gather on our beloved Green as if it belonged only to us, a football always at our feet, until our elder brothers and sisters were sent out to round us up like cattle to return to our homes for tea. When the cold, dark nights drew in, and the outside world became a stranger to us, my friends and I would try to spend as many evenings together as we could. We devised an unwritten rota of whose house we would visit on which evenings, always taking with us our respective collections of football or super-hero cards which we had lovingly retrieved from the packets of bubble-gum that had become our sweet of choice.
Sometimes, when the summer evenings were long and hot, we would walk the long way back from our school, across the main road and along the lane which ran above our estate. At the top of the hill fields, overgrown with trees, bushes and unnaturally long grass, stretched out into the distance and it felt, here at least, as if we really were in the countryside. Between two of these fields a second even smaller lane twisted and turned, partially hidden by the undergrowth, and it was down this lane that we would walk on those long, lazy late summer afternoons. We knew, despite its tendency to disappear and reappear from view, that this lane would lead us back to the park where we could re-join the lane which would lead us back to our houses. It was a journey, however, that we never made on cold, dark, wintery days.
About halfway along the lane, and set well back from it, stood a large, grey and imposing house. Its door was made from thick, dark wood, which reminded me of the timbers used to make the hulls of ancient ships, and the windows, dirtied by age, were criss-crossed by a leaden lattice. The house was surrounded by huge trees which, even on a clear summer day, cast eerie shadows across it. The only entrance, the only way past these menacing guards, lay through a pair of forbidding gates, whose wooden panels had begun to rot through lack of care and the passing of time, and which were always kept padlocked. We had never seen anyone near the house or at any of the windows, although, given the heavy coating of dirt that they bore, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to make out a face even if one had appeared. At night, however, we had all heard the howl of dogs as it came floating over our houses from the hill above.
My friend, Brian, who, even in those days, had begun to develop a fascination for chemistry, and was always experimenting with the set that he had had for his birthday, believed that the house was owned by a mad scientist. When we talked together we would imagine a dark and dingy cellar containing Frankenstein’s monster, or the mad scientist himself concocting a potion which would change its drinker into a werewolf or worse. Our friend David thought that the house was haunted and that the howling dogs were actually ghosts. He believed that their wailing was for their now dead master who roamed the house and nearby fields at night unable to rest.
I didn’t know what to believe. My family thought that it was all superstitious nonsense, but I was sure that there was something that was not quite right about the house. I desperately wanted to investigate, to satisfy my curiosity, but deep down I felt too scared to even think about doing anything.
A very short story today taken from the collection of poetry, prose and lyrics: ‘Another Tease’availablevia the links below.
Hope you enjoy this.
I thought of you then, on the day that I left, knowing, despite the words, that we would never meet again. I thought of you as I sat in the darkness, as the Sun dipped like a dying friend beyond the horizon for what might as well have been the last time. I knew that I, like the errant Sun, would rise again, but that neither of us would ever be quite the same: the Sun would burn fractionally less brightly, its gaseous source ever so slightly diminished, and I, with less reason to rise than before, would begin to become a shadow of myself. I thought of you and the words that we had shared wondering if you had ever truly understood my meaning. Had you thought of me as a friend or merely an acquaintance, and had I ever truly understood what lay behind your eyes? I thought of how close I felt that we had become, our shoulders brushing against one another as we shared a joke, our laughter spreading its roots between us connecting us forever, or so I had imagined. But did you leave me behind along with all the other artefacts of work when you closed the door behind you and returned to your home?
I thought of you and wondered whether I had been too obscure, too subtle in my words and looks, for you to see me. And what exactly had I felt? Was this a connection that I felt that I had needed or something that had burst upon me unexpectedly and had opened a new door which whispered quietly for me to go through? Perhaps the moment had come for me, after a life of living at a comfortable distance from the edge, to finally take a chance, a risk. But, of course, caution is a powerful bedfellow, and, by the time I had recognised the chance, if had closed its eye for ever.
I thought of you then and wondered if you had ever lain alone in the dark beneath the Summer’s heat: I wondered if, like me, you had lost yourself to imagination; and I wondered if you had ever found yourself with your hand between your legs, wishing its fingers were mine.
Having just read this book I wanted to share a few thoughts:
The Smell of Cedar is an unsettling and unnerving psychological horror story made all the more believable by its backstory of abuse and control. For me the length is just right, with moments of reflection which help to not only explain the lead character’s past but also move the story along at a good pace.
River’s use of a nonlinear structure is both effective and skillfully employed and his careful use of description allows the reader to create a vivid scene whilst reading the story. At times I was not certain as to whether tense changes worked quite as effectively as they might have, but this is a minor issue and I am being, perhaps, a little pedantic.
I do think, however, that the actions of the character Melanie, to whom we are introduced early on in the story, and which become clearer as the tale develops, add to the chilling (and all too real) possibility of history repeating itself.
If you enjoy short, chilling and disturbing stories, then I would certainly recommend reading this.
The following is an extract from the short story ‘Fragments of a Dream ‘ taken from the collection ‘The Candle Game’.Further details are at the bottom of this post.
A flight of uneven steps, roughly hewn from the rust-red sandstone, cut their way up the mountainside. They wound, snake-like, disappearing every now and then like wisps of cloud in the hot summer’s sky. Beneath my feet they felt smooth and with each step I could sense the years falling away as if I were travelling not only physically but also through history. After a while they opened out onto a wide plateau which had been completely hidden from view until now. When I looked back it was impossible to see from where I had come: the steps had vanished and the landscape become a dusty red ocean of sand. In front of me I could see a group of men sitting cross-legged on the rocky ground. Each one had a shawl wrapped around his body, its colours, which I assumed had once been bright and sharply patterned, now faded and dull. Their heads were covered with white material which had been bound loosely to allow for enough excess to shield their mouths and noses from the dust which swept steadily across the plateau. The men were swaying slowly and gently from side to side, each one in perfect unison with his neighbour, as if in group induced trance. There was no discernable music, no rhythm that they were following, but, as I drew closer, I could hear a low hum emanating from the group. Each movement that they made seemed to reflect the subtle rise and fall of the hum which, as my ears became accustomed to it, I was beginning to detect. Their eyes were closed, turned inward as if they had vanished deep into their sockets. Some had wrapped the wisps of sand- scratched material around their mouths and noses; others wore it loose, letting it hang down across their chests like a symbol of faith. The faces of these men were dark, their skin scorched by exposure to a relentless sun which burned through the dry sky as if it were afraid that, by dulling its heat, it would be admitting its own frailty. Deep lines ran across their skin like rail tracks, merging and splitting over and over again, in constant motion. If one had the time and knowledge it would have been possible to read each passage of their lives now etched in their faces. The men were of indeterminable age, but to me looked as old as the rocks that surrounded them, as if they too had been worn away from the mountainside, resting, as they did, in small gatherings some distance from the now distant cliff face. They were old, but, as I watched the swaying faces, transfixed as I was by their union, I saw the contentment that grew between them. It stretched outwards like a huge, invisible spider’s web, seemingly connecting the thoughts of each individual to create a combined consciousness.
Time for another book review, I think. Today’s book is ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by the very wonderful and gifted Chris Hall.
Chris Hall writes with a style which can only be described as irresistible. From the very opening of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ until the closing sentence I was hooked and, like all of the other stories of hers that I have read, I simply didn’t want to put the book down.
Written with great wit and humour, the story twists and turns, drawing new characters in as it unwinds, each of whom has their role to play. Without wanting to give too much away this is a story that is easy to imagine actually happening; the characters are all very real and three dimensional and some of the coincidences that occur along the way are very believable and, indeed, relatable.
Chris’s descriptions are vivid and clear, and certainly not over-worked, allowing the reader to easily form a visual narrative as they read. Would it help to have a little background knowledge of Britain in the 1980’s? Well, I’m not sure. Being British (and of an age) I found it easy to identify with the setting (even though my knowledge of Liverpool, where the story is set, is very limited), and I found myself chuckling at times at some of the references to which her characters allude: (‘You dancing?’ for example). So, in answer to the question, I would say not, such is the strength of the story.
There are moments within the story where I genuinely took a breath and thought ‘well, I didn’t see that coming’, which, if I’m honest, doesn’t happen that often.
And, of course, there’s a monkey! Who could say no?
This is a story that I know I will re-read over and over and, if you enjoy a good, realistic adventure (with just a hint of mysterious legend) then ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is the book you’ve been searching for.
I hope that my review of ‘Spirit of the Shell Man ‘ by the wonderfully talented Chris Hall encourages you to check it out.
Spirit of the Shell Man is a wonderfully told and difficult to put down sequel to the fantasy/adventure Song of the Sea Goddess. In it, we are re-introduced to the central characters of the prequel, and their personalities continue to be developed with wit, skill and humour. Yes there are many references to the previous story, all of which link perfectly, and with continuity, for anyone who has read ‘Song…’ . What stands out in this story, however, is the quality of writing which ensures that this is not merely a sequel but also stands on its own two feet as a work in its own right. Spirit of the Shell Man is a thrilling and compelling adventure story which combines both action, fantasy and a touch of mythology, and yet is rooted very much in the everyday lives of a group of people living in a small community in South Africa. Chris Hall’s characters are rounded and interesting and her attention to detail in her descriptions allows the reader to fully visualise every scene. There are twists and turns a-plenty here which will keep the reader on their toes and guessing right up until the story’s fulfilling conclusion. Highly recommended.
When they come, as surely they will, they will go first into the kitchen. Despite my protestations, regardless of my words, they will draw back the bright-striped coloured curtain, ignoring its golden, thick-woven braiding, its subtle details, and enter the room. They will brush disdainfully past the plain, polished pine of the door frame, and set their feet against the cool, hard flagstone tiles. Their shoes will, undoubtedly, be practical, solid and uncomplicated; their soles too thick to appreciate the slight unevenness of each slab as it jostles with its neighbours for prime position. Their highly-trained, analytic eyes will scan every aspect of the room, internalising each detail, speculating, deducing and then committing their conclusion to fact. They will see the high polish on the glittering diamond granite worktop as it sweeps in both directions from the multi-ringed range; but they will not be moved by its antiseptic cleanliness, or by the knowing wink as it sparkles in its surface. They will not be drawn by its practicality and sense of purpose as might a chef. No. Instead their minds will be consumed will painting a study, a caricature of me, and a critique of my life.
The sink is unsoiled, clean, empty and disinfected: Only the most detailed of inspections would reveal the most minute of scratches the mar its skin. The drainer too tells a similar story, wiped clean of the residue of water which had ran from crockery and cutlery now neatly stored out of view. Their eyes will not see the pristine espresso machine which occupies its pre-ordained space like an princely heir sitting at the joining of the granite surfaces as they run perpendicular to one another; one reaching out towards the range, the other like a long-fingered branch stretching out over a range of expensively veneered beech drawers and cupboards, an open wine rack stocked with a selection of overly priced bottles, and an integral fridge-freezer. No, their analytical eyes will pass all this by as if it were merely a collection of clues which would lead them with unerring conviction ton their inevitably conclusion.
Instead their eyes will be drawn to you. You, laying prone and exposed on the floor, framed by the expanse of expensive stone tiling. You, suddenly revealed in your true form, as if disturbed by some shadowy intruder. You, as ever, the centre of everybody’s attention. They will see you, asleep on the floor, your right leg raised slightly, bent at the knee; your right arm flaccid, limp against the stone, whilst your left one leads to a hand hopelessly flat against your chest, its fingers clutching desperately to hold on to life. Your eyes are closed, almost in a state of resigned relaxation, and yet there remains something defiant within your face, a determination which has refused to leave you. Somehow you are still clinging on to a belief in yourself, a belief that the universe revolves for you, and that without you we shall all cease to be.
Their eyes will see the ice-white tee-shirt, which, as always, is slightly too small for you, as it clings to the muscled outline of your torso. They will see your strong arms, with their well defined yet now defunct biceps and triceps, and your ruined chest. They will see the scratches and the incisions that have at first driven the cotton into your flesh and then in the same coarse action ripped them free again. These are not the signature of a surgeon’s scars, dealt with purpose, care and precision, delivered with salvation as their goal. These are not like the fading wound which lies on your skin where your appendix once was. The scar that had changed with your mood or the company that you were keeping at the time: The scar that had been the mark of a still born twin, helpless and conjoined, who had sacrificed any hope that it may have had in order to allow you to breath in life. The scar that had been a cancer which had been released, thankfully benign, from your abdomen. The scar that had been left by an assailant’s blade as you had performed one more heroic deed of bravery. No, theses scars had been delivered with anger, passion and a rage that could no longer be contained. There had, quite clearly, been some attempt at precision, an attempt to complete the task as swiftly as was possible, but just as obviously this was not the work of a scalpel wielding surgeon. No, this had been an act which displayed a far deeper connection between victim and perpetrator.
They will look from you and the shape that you make to the floor and the mass of congealing liquid which hugs its rises and falls. It will no longer be the crimson passion that it once was, but will have taken on a new form that of spilled, black treacle, still sticky beneath its now rubbery skin. Experience will have taught them not to be surprised, as I was, by the size of the lake that had spread out across the tiles: This is only a fascination to the uninitiated. Rather they will study the form and shape that the lake has taken, and from this conclude which blows led to which spillages, and in which order they fell. They will make rational the irrational and make impersonal and analytic the impassioned.
Their eyes will see the dropped and discarded length of metal, naked and separated from its compatriots, and realise that this is the only object that is out of place in the kitchen. At the moment it is closer to me than it is to you, but they will not see this. They will see only eight inches of stainless steel, turned and polished and proud of its quality, now lying stark and forlorn against the stone. They will see the globules of sticky, red liquid as the cling to the five inches of ground and sharpened steel. They will see the smeared stains which have taken their shape and appearance from my skin and have impressed themselves on the handle. But they will see no further. The stains will cry out to their audience like tell-tale children, expecting no greater reward than recognition of themselves, and to be smiled upon. They will see all of this and they will know. They will know all of this, and know all that they need to know, but still they will not make me out to be the monster that you made me.
But for now I will leave you. I will let my weary feet take me from the kitchen, from our final encounter, and lead me over warm wooden boards towards the staircase. For a moment I will pause, but I will not turn my head-there is no longer the hold to draw me back-and then I shall slowly climb the stairs, with each one savouring the silence, until at last I reach our room. I will open the door onto the emptiness, step beyond the naked frame and stretch out my hand towards the bed. With a deliberate hand I will carefully draw back the black, patterned quilt which sleeps so easily against the smooth cotton of the freshly pressed sheet, and slide inside. I will lie on my back in our bed and stare into the darkness, and I will enjoy the stillness. Beneath the quilt I will be enveloped in tranquility: My body will finally be at rest from your demands, and I will be sore no more. I will not feel the presence of your body, its insistence, its pressure and its determined persistence. I will not hear the emotionally charged sounds that your mouth makes as both you and I lie in silence, in separate rooms now, only yards apart, but still connected. I will lie here in the bed that you once shared with her, and you will lie with no-one. I will lie and in my own time close my eyes against the darkness. I will lie in the stillness that surrounds us both and have a good night’s sleep for once: And you will lie and have a good night’s sleep for evermore.
This is not something that I would normally do (but who knows what the future holds), but I have just finished reading this wonderful book by Chris Hall and wanted to share my thoughts:
Part fantasy, part adventure and part allegory, Song of the Sea Goddess is an imaginative and eloquently told story about the unfolding of the lives of a group of seemingly unconnected characters following one bizarre event.
Chris Hall develops each character through individual chapters that slowly become interwoven and lead towards an unexpected climax. Particularly enjoyable is how seemingly random events show up which give a wonderful insight into the past lives of several of the characters. Indeed each character comes to life as the story unfolds and, as most of the book is written in the present tense, the reader’s connection with them develops in a sort of ‘real time’.
The chapters themselves are relatively short which works very effectively to help the reader to internalise their understanding of the characters and their relationships.
I don’t want to go into plot detail as each event is important to the overall story and needs to be discovered by the reader, but expect plenty of twists and turns with each page.
So often, I find, story endings can ‘tail off’ a little, but this is far from the case here; Chris’s ending is as strong as her opening and leaves a satisfying feeling on the reader.
I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a fantasy adventure with its feet firmly planted in reality.