horror

Book Review – The Beholder

The Beholder

The Beholder by Ivan Amberlake

Around the world, people die under mysterious circumstances. Each branded with an arcane sign, they are pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. When more people are missing, with similar signs appearing in and around their homes, Jason, an average New Yorker, realizes the victims are a riddle addressed to him.

He is the final piece.

Emily appears, the most beautiful woman with extraordinary powers and startling amber eyes, and tells Jason that powers dormant within him are about to wake. In the world of Light- and Darksighted, he is the only person who can prevent Darkness from enslaving the world. He is the Beholder whose advent has been awaited for many years.

Setting out on a journey with Emily, Jason discovers many improbable things like Sight, Soulfusion, the Hall of Refuge, but the greatest surprise arrives the moment he realizes he has fallen in love with Emily.

Score: – 3 stars

Breakdown:

Plot – 2

Characters – 2

Writing – 4

I loved the idea of a puzzle created out of murder victims, and when the book started, I was immediately drawn by in my Jason, his friends and his life. I found the voice engaging, and the character believable and likable. The concept of the book was intriguing and the writing style clear and well written. The opening, with a girl being chased is a great draw.

I really liked the fight scenes in this book. They’re complex, but easy to visualize, and feel fresh and original. They definitely show the writer’s strength, and the quality of writing is probably the strongest thing about this book. Whether in Jason’s building, or floating across the Atlantic ocean, they provide a fascinating visage.

The characters started out well for me, but I found as time went by, I cared less for them. Jason is a solid protagonist, and I found my opinion of him didn’t really change. I wished he could have done a bit more towards the plot. I suspect he will in later books, but as he is a new-comer stepping into a very different world, he is mostly led around by others who know more. The side characters, Debbie, Mark, Tyler, I wanted to know more about, but it felt that they were pushed out of the story a bit. The book is fast paced, but this means there isn’t much time for exploring the personal side. Several times things are hinted at, but they never really come to fruition. And example is early on, Mark appears to have a crush on Debbie, but never makes any attempt to gain her affections, and seems utterly  not bothered by her ending up with another man. Tyler is a fascinating character, and I really hope he gets a bigger part in later books, but I couldn’t really bond with him in this one, so any peril fell a bit flat.

The romance felt a bit fast and a bit forced to me. I would have liked to see their relationship blossom more slowly, and then I think I would have engaged with it a bit more. As it was, they didn’t feel properly in love to me, so later events in the book again failed to catch me emotionally. Equally, Jason soulbonds with his friends, which is described as a very powerful thing, the sort of connection that identical twins have, but Debbie and Mark never really felt like more than work colleagues to me.

The book uses a couple of tropes in the plot that need careful handling in an adult book – good vs evil, and a chosen one. I didn’t feel these aspects got the depth they really needed. The war between the light and the dark felt a bit “because it’s always been so”, the stakes of the conflict were not clear enough to me. That said, I did like Pariah as a villain. He was a bit of a stereotype bad guy, but he worked for me.

Towards the middle of the book, while pace of events didn’t drop off, it did feel like it slowed down. There was a lot of description of Energy, what it could do, the light and dark sighted etc. I think I would have rather learned less about Energy and spent more time with the characters. The powers the characters had didn’t ever feel like a deus-ex, but it did feel like certain things happened because it led to cool scenes, like the flying, and being able to control time. There wasn’t really a sense of the scope of the abilities, and new ones appear almost constantly throughout the book.

Overall – this is a well written book, but with too much of the wrong things in to be a great book. However, I do think that with a lot of this down and out the way in book one, the sequels have the potential to be everything this book wasn’t. If the author can engage me with the characters the way I wanted to in the next one, then I can see myself really enjoying it.

Gone Fishing

Bloody bitch! Mike swore in his head as he slammed the car door. Even now, out here, he couldn’t bring himself to say the words out loud. His hand trembled as he tried to force the key into the ignition, and this time he did let one out.

“Shit!”

She was standing at the window, watching him. She wouldn’t come, though. She never came to him. They’d be watching a documentary when she started the argument, something with David Attenborough and oceans, and suddenly Mike was reminded of those fish with the lights that lured their prey out of the dark depths.

That was Cassandra: an angler fish. She exuded a beautiful, warm light that never failed to ensnare him. But then came the needling teeth, telling him he wasn’t good enough, making him feel like he was something she’d trodden in. She was always trying to change him, mould him into something small, palatable. Digestible.

The car roared into life and he burned out the drive, not bothering to change gears until he was halfway down the road. The change in engine noise as he pushed it straight into third was like a sigh of relief.

“Sorry,” he muttered. The car didn’t deserve to be punished for his mistakes. It was his fault. He slammed his hand on the steering wheel. God, I’m starting to believe her. That wasn’t the worst, though. The worst was he knew he’d be back. Maybe not tonight. Or tomorrow. But at some point that light would catch his attention and he’d go swimming right back to his destruction.

He headed away from suburbia, out onto the main road through the woods. There was a housing development planned and in a couple of years they’d be gone, replaced by neat semis filled with women like Cassandra. The thought made Mike sick.

He pulled over, not the wisest plan, but the road was empty. He hadn’t seen another soul on it. The headlights lit a strip up ahead of the car, and either side of it faded grey to black in just a few metres. There was no colour anywhere.

Mike walked round to the passenger side, sucking in deep breaths of cold air. The night was still, calm. He was not. His heart pounded and his hands shook. He wanted a cigarette more than anything, but of course, she’d binned them all ages ago.

Maybe…

Maybe, just maybe, there might be one in the glove-box. The car was the one thing that was still his, and perhaps, if he was very lucky, one might have escaped her grasp. He opened the door and leaned in, rooting around desperately.

“Help me!”

Mike stood up, slamming his head against the door. Unsuccessfully stifling a cry, he turned to see who had spoken. There was a girl, standing at the edge of the trees, looking at him. She looked to be about seven or eight, though Mike wasn’t very good at guessing that sort of thing, wearing a long white dress, probably a nightie.

“Um, are you okay?” he asked, not knowing what you were supposed to say to small girls who approached you at the side of the road in their night clothes. He looked nervously up and down the road, half hoping someone would come along to take the responsibility off his hands.

“Please, help me. It’s my mummy,” she said, pulling at a blonde pigtail. “She’s fallen down and she won’t get up.”

“Okay. Um. Don’t worry. I’ll call for help.” He reached into the car and then swore. His mobile was still sitting on Cassandra’s couch. She was probably going through his text messages right now. “Um. Sorry.”

The girl’s face seemed to crumble, and her wide eyes glistened.

“Oh, God, don’t cry. Please don’t cry,” Mike begged. “Where’s your mummy?”

She took his hand in hers. It was warm, and soft. Somehow he found himself comforted by it. Come on, he told himself. You can do this. Help this kid and show Cassandra you’re not a permanent fuck-up.

The girl led him deeper into the woods. There was no moon tonight and Mike could barely see more than a few steps ahead of him. She moved confidently, though, tugging on his hand as he tripped and stumbled. It was getting colder, though that may have been down to his anger dissipating. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before he was shivering convulsively.

“How much further to your house?” he asked.

“Not much.”

She didn’t sound so scared now, and Mike felt a small glow of pride. He didn’t know what he was going to be able to do for her mother, but at least he had given this little girl some comfort.

“Up here.” She tugged at him, pulling him left and up a slope. Brambles scratched at his ankles, drawing blood. There was a strange sound, like something being dragged ahead of them, but it was too dark to see anything. Mike found his heart beating a bit faster.

“Come on!” Her nails dug into his hand like thorns. “Nearly there!”

It was getting lighter. Mike assumed they were approaching a housing estate, until the emerged in a clearing. Everything was still grey, but the trees and bushes were no longer a black, indistinguishable mass. Something else was visible. He blinked, just to make sure, but his vision remained the same.

There was a woman lying in the centre of the clearing.

“Mummy,” the girl said, pointing. Mike nodded, his throat dry. What was he supposed to do here? He wasn’t a doctor, and the closest he came to first aid was knowing you were supposed to do CPR to the rhythm of Nelly the Elephant. He swallowed, feeling his palms growing slick against hers.

Mike let go of the girl and took a step towards her mother. She was lying with her back to him, her long, black hair loose and spilling onto the forest floor. He tried to speak, but all that came out was a cough. Mike cleared his throat and tried again.

“Ma’am? Can you hear me?”

There was no answer, so he took another step, and then another, until he was kneeling by her side. She did not seem to be breathing.  He put a hand on her shoulder, terrified it would be cold and stiff, but it was soft and giving. It didn’t feel much like flesh. He tugged gently and she rolled over.

Mike felt his heart seize up. Every drop of blood in his veins turned to ice and the air rushed from his lungs in a long hiss. He tried to back away, but his limbs were rubbery and useless.

It wasn’t a woman. He didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t human. Running down her body, from the base of her neck to her belly-button, was a long slit. As Mike watched in horror, it started to widen, and before long he could see long, razor sharp teeth emerging. It pushed itself up, so it was standing crab-wise on hands and feet, and came towards him. The thing’s head twisted to stare at him with dead eyes.

Mike scrabbled against the ground, desperately trying to get to his feet. The thing stalked towards him slowly, unconcerned by his actions. Just as its hand was reaching for him, he managed to push up and stumbled back the way he had come, unable to take his eyes off the thing.

“Mummy! Help my Mummy!”

The girl was laughing, dancing around him. Her features were twisted in a ghoulish smile that made Mike’s stomach clench. He turned to run and fell flat on his face. Mike cried out in pain and fear. Looking over his shoulder, he could see something wrapped around his ankle. There was a cord, almost invisible, and when he followed it he could see one end ran from the girl and the other to her “mother”.

The thing was the mouth was getting closer. He could smell it now, a mixture of spoiled meat and rotting sea-weed. Desperately he clawed at the ground, trying to get purchase, but he could not pull himself to his feet. He screamed, begged, prayed for someone, anyone, find him, until words merged together and he was babbling incoherently.

The long, needle-like teeth of the creature closed on his legs, turning Mike into fishfood.

Book Review – Medieval Minds

Medieval Minds Ebook CoverRS

Medieval Minds by R Holland

What would you do if you were offered a free trip to tour a medieval theme park for the week of Spring Break, and later found out you were going to be paid $1,000 dollars?

Victoria (Tori) Ginsen and her best friend Jasmine are given an offer from a beautiful dark stranger named Elizabeth to tour a place called Medieval Minds before it opens to the general public. Upon their completion of the tour they are going to be paid $1000 each. It’s an offer they can’t refuse.

And just like any high school graduates with nothing to lose and nothing to do for Spring Break, they decide to take the offer. For them $1000 each would really help with some bills. But Tori immediately notice something’s not right. From the night the bus arrives to pick them up, to the group of delinquents that gradually fill the bus, and the passing of drugs around, Tori knows this isn’t the normal vacation. Not to mention the dead girl in the back seat. But when they arrive, the life-like jousting tournaments and the look, feel, and smell of the place allow Tori to relax a little as she realizes this place actually exists. Sadly, the day soon turns sour as two more members of their group mysteriously die, and she’s certain that the death at the jousting tournament was real. Tori and the others soon find out that none of them are going home. Ever!

Insistent upon leaving and going home, a young handsome man named Daniel is able to convince her otherwise. Their love blossoms and their main goal is to keep each other safe. Finally she accepts that escaping is impossible, but trying to keep the rest of her group alive may be the biggest challenge of them all.

Score: 3 stars

Breakdown:

Plot – 2.5

Characters – 2.5

Writing – 3

Victoria is quite a different protagonist as the book starts out. Burying her grandparents, she comments on the fact that she’s grateful that they died now, before they could rack up any more debt. The is a sense of detachment and callowness as she narrates that I found very refreshing. I didn’t exactly like her as a person, but I did find her take on things quite interesting. Sadly, that unique outlook fades as the book goes on and while her voice doesn’t change, she loses the aspect of her narration that set her apart.

The book is a slasher novel for about two thirds. I’m not a big fan of the slasher genre, but the author certainly doesn’t skimp on the death or gore, so if you are, then it will probably appeal to you. There’s a lot of opportunity for death in the pseudo medieval town that Victoria and her friend Jasmine find themselves in, from burning at the stake to being reduced to jalfrezi by landmine. The scene describing the clean up of that particular event was particularly vivid.

While there is a lot of death, I didn’t really care, because there are too many characters to be invested in. I can only remember a handful of names, and I’m not sure I could tell you much about any of them other than the main few. So I was mostly reading to find out who died in what manner, rather than being immersed in the horror of the situation.

About two thirds of the way in, the book takes on a different feel. I read the first two thirds quite slowly, not bored, but not gripped. I read the last third much quicker – most of it in one sitting. But I didn’t like the content as much. I really liked the ending. The epilogue was great, but it came out of almost nowhere. I would have loved to see the book progress from the slasher origins, to that plot, but it’s only really in the last couple of chapters that the direction of Victoria’s character is revealed.

One of Victoria’s companions in the Medieval Minds “attraction” is a boy named Daniel. Up until one point, Victoria thinks he’s cute, but he irritates her. Then he saves her life and suddenly things hot up. I found the romance moved too fast. She hated him one day, and the next he was the most important person to her. It would have been more believable if they’d had more interaction and the build-up was smoother, or if there had simply been an unstated understanding that they were probably doomed anyway, so might as well take some pleasure in each other. I found the second romance in the book completely unbelievable. Grief is resolved far, far too quickly and it almost feels like love is a result of sex. (I’m trying not to spoiler anything, so apologies if this is a little cryptic.) The last part of the book moves very quickly, jumping though months and even years.

The writing was a little basic in places. It was free from typos and grammar issues, but full of caps-lock emphasis and multiple punctuation. I think if it had been tighter, and the pacing and focus had been stronger earlier on, I would have enjoyed the first two-thirds much more than I did. I don’t think the last third is something I’d enjoy without major editing. It just felt rushed and more than a bit silly. Victoria seemed to forget where she was and what had happened in the earlier part of the book thanks to her lover’s strong, warm arms. I’m still not sure what the motivation for the place is, or why Eliza, who has so much power and control in the place doesn’t just take over. This is a fake kingdom, surrounded by mines. I’m not sure who is going to object if the rules of patriarchy are broken.

Overall, I liked many of the ideas in the book. There’s no shortage of horror, both in terms of physical deaths and also the dark pasts of the victims. The setting was an interesting choice, and the protagonist had an interesting outlook, at least early on. There’s plenty enjoy about this book if you’re after a grisly slasher. I just wish there had been a bit more in the last section on how and why everything worked, Eliza’s motivations and Victoria’s transformation, rather than what is actually depicted.

You can buy Medieval Minds on Amazon.

Dead Oak – a short story

I had to face up to it: I was lost. The forest stretched all around me, an identical mosaic of green and brown, as though I was seeing the same photograph on every side. There was no path, no sign of civilisation at all. I might have been the last man alive or the first to visit this God-forsaken place for all I knew. If I didn’t find Siskin, or someone, soon then I was going to be in real trouble.

I do not know what man sees in nature. Give me a pipe, an open fire, and a good measure of aged scotch and I am the happiest man alive. Fresh air causes chills, I’m sure of it. But Siskin had insisted on a “ramble” as he called it, and I did so want to make a good impression, for a number of reasons. So I borrowed his walking shoes and put on a coat and hat too good for the occasion, then followed him out into the great outdoors.

And promptly lost him.

Goodness knows how it happened. One minute we were side by side, discussing some oddity of English law, and the next he was nowhere in sight. I admit I had been watching my feet, rather than him, because I was concerned about the mud. It seemed to me that it would have been terribly rude to spoil a fellow’s shoes, even if they were his second pair. Suddenly there was only silence, broken once by the harsh call of a magpie. I haven’t heard a living soul since.

There wasn’t even anywhere to sit down and bemoan my fate. I wrapped my arms around me, trying not to shiver. The evening was drawing in, and the sun, coloured like a poached egg, was sinking lower in the sky. Siskin had promised we would just be out for an hour or so and would be back before tea was served. His dear, sweet sister, Lucy – one of the reason for wanting to make a good impression – waved us off at the doorstep and called “Watch out for the Witch!” Siskin had laughed it off as a local superstition when I queried her words, and told me not to worry about it.

I think I would rather face a witch than this forest, I thought to myself. At least she could make me some hot eye-of-newt soup! It was such a silly thought, it made me laugh out loud, which was a terrible mistake. My voice sounded harsh and unnatural, and suddenly I was aware that everything would now know where I was. I could feel hundreds of eyes watching me from the undergrowth, which sent a shudder down my spine.

I set off, not really caring which way I went. The sound of my feet in the dead leaves was like whispering, harsh and cruel, and the feeling of being watched only grew stronger. The shadows were growing longer, deeper, reaching for me. I had to stop and give myself a stern talking-to. There had not been wolves or bears in this country for hundreds of years and never anything worse. Still, I crossed myself, just to be sure.

Up ahead, I saw something that gave me heart. It was an old, dead oak tree, standing in the centre of a clearing. This was something new, something I could use to prove I was not simply walking round in circles. How large can this forest be? I wondered. Surely if I walk with my back to the tree I will come across civilization before very long. I found myself walking faster in anticipation of a hot supper.

The oak tree was clearly once a magnificent specimen, even a city man such as myself could see that. I wondered how many years it had stood, how many kings and queens had reigned during its lifetime. It had been struck by lightning, splitting the tree in half right down to just able the height of a man. The branches that remained were bleached white, jutting out like fleshless limbs. There was no moss anywhere on the tree, and nothing grew at all for about fifteen feet around it. The air was still and silent as a graveyard.

Despite the eerie atmosphere of the place, my spirits were raised. I filled my time pondering what would be for supper. I hoped it would be something warm, as the night was almost upon me and there was a distinct nip in the air. Picking up my pace, I thought of Lucy, waiting with concern on the doorstep. Oh, how I longed to see her sweet face again.

And then I stopped.

There, up ahead of me, was a familiar sight. Through the otherwise identical green vegetation I could see the tips of the old, dead oak. It couldn’t be, though, could it? Looking back over my shoulder, I saw only green, but I was certain I had not been turned around. It must surely be another dead tree.

But it was.

Not only was the tree identical, but there on the dark earth, were my footprints. I placed my shoe in one, just to be sure, and it was a perfect match. My heart was starting to pound in my chest and I was shaking like a new-born lamb. Oh, how I wished for a good stiff drink to settle my nerves! I followed my footprints across the clearing to where they disappeared into the forest.

I must have gotten turned around. That was the only explanation. I decided not to try the same thing again, but set off out the exit on the left hand side of the clearing. As I passed, I noticed a strange shadow below one of the lower branches. I couldn’t see what was causing it, but decided not to dwell on the matter. The sun had almost set by now, and the forest was growing steadily darker. In my haste, I tripped repeatedly over roots and fallen branches, catching my clothes and skin on the vicious vegetation. The whole damn forest seemed to be out to get me.

Head down and arms up to protect myself, I ploughed on through the forest, sustaining myself only on thoughts of Lucy. It was almost completely dark, now the sun had set, but every now and then a sliver of moonlight would break free from behind the clouds to grant me a brief moment of illumination. I was exhausted, cold and thoroughly miserable by then. I would have sold my own grandmother for the way home by that point.

There it was again!

I was quite sure I was going mad now. In front of me was that oak tree, pale and menacing, and there were my footprints, criss-crossing across the clearing. My heart was slamming against my breast, trying to break free no doubt. This couldn’t be happening! Tremors wracked my frightened body and I’m sure my eyes were as wide as teacups. Was this my doom? To find myself forever in the shadow of this dead tree?

As I looked up, the dark shape I had noticed the last time seemed sharper, more defined, even in the gloom of night. It was a little way below the branch, and seemed to twist slightly in the air as a watched in growing horror. I thought of Lucy and her telling the story of the witch as we sat talking after dinner yesterday. No, wait, that wasn’t right. She’d mentioned it on the door-step? Hadn’t she?

I clutched at my head, feeling sick with fear. Not only was my direction all twisted up, but my memories seemed to be, too. I was forgetting something. Something important.. With a cry, I took to my heels, running blindly into the depths of the forest. Twigs and thorns snatched at me like grasping fingers. Roots leaped up from the floor, trying to pull me down or break my ankle. I sobbed like a frightened child in a thunderstorm.

What was happening to me? What had I done to deserve such a fate? I had a sudden vision of Lucy, her sweet face contorted in shock. But I would never do anything to hurt her? Why, I had come to the house with the very idea of seeking permission to court her from her brother. Tears ran down my face, and I could scarcely breath for the terror that gripped at my chest.

My foot snagged and spilled onto the ground, my knees sinking into the cold, dark earth. I shut my eyes, for I knew all too well what I would see when I opened them. There was a strange noise, a creaking sound almost, rhythmic. The moon emerged; I could see its milky light from behind the shade of my eyelids. Though my body shook and the tears fell freely, I lifted my head and saw it, swinging above me.

I remembered everything. I remembered broaching the subject of courtship with Siskin, and him laughing at me. When he saw my shock and anger at his reaction, saw that I was serious, he told me there were other suitors lined up for Lucy, and to let the matter lie. I flew into such a rage, demanding to know why I was not good enough, what right he had to judge me so. We quarrelled, loudly and violently, and the dark rage over came me. I pulled out my gun and I shot him dead, just as poor, sweet Lucy walked into the room to see what all the fuss was about. Seeing what I had done to her, I fled the house with one thing on my mind.

There was a body, hanging from a noose on the dead oak tree. And what was more… It was mine.

Fifteen Nightingale Road – Extract 2

The unveiling of the dinosaurs… 

 (Please note this has not been edited.)

Jenna covered Ben’s eyes as she led him down the hallway to his bedroom. Joel and Pete were walking just ahead of them, and she couldn’t help noticing the protective way Pete had his arm round her brother’s shoulder. She missed having someone to do that for her, to be strong when she felt weak.

“You too, Jen,” Joel said, his hand resting on the door handle. “Eyes closed.”

“What?”

“You heard me. If your eyes are open too soon, you’ll spoil the magic.”

“Yeah, Mummy, don’t spoil the magic!” Ben admonished her.

Jenna sighed and rolled her eyes at Joel, but closed them without saying anything further. The murky colours that floated behind her eyelids filled her vision, and she felt a moment of disorientation before someone took her arm and she heard the door being opened.

She felt the grip on her arm lead her into the room and she pushed Ben gently in front of her, hands still over his face. When she had taken four or five stumbling steps, she heard Joel’s voice.

“Okay, stop there! Right, ready? Open your eyes.”

Blinking in the warm light, Jenna found herself face to face with a stegosaurus. It was painted on the back wall, just as Ben had requested, its tail raised as if to attack. Its cold, reptilian eye stared at her, sizing her up.

“Oh wow,” Ben murmured. “Wow!” The last word came out in a long drawn out breath.

“I take it you like it, then?” Joel asked. He was standing behind her, but Jenna could hear the grin in his voice. “It’s not all finished yet, but anything we don’t get done today, I think we can trust your mum to do.”

“If your head swells any more you’re not going to be able to get out the door,” Jenna said drily, but she was impressed. She could handle a pencil or brush reasonably well, but Joel had always been the one with the real talent.

The stegosaurus was not the only inhabitant of the room. There were a pair of velociraptors stalking an ankylosaurus on the wall with the window and on the other wall was a triceratops standing by a nest filled with eggs. There was even a pterodactyl on the ceiling. Not everything was fully coloured in and detailed, but everything had an outline and a face at least.

“What do you say?” she prompted Ben, who was still staring at the room with his mouth open.

“Thanks, Uncle Joel!” Ben threw his arms around Joel’s waist, hugging him so hard he was nearly knocked off his feet. “They’re the best dinosaurs. I don’t even mind that velociraptors wouldn’t have actually hunted ankylosaurus.”

Joel blushed slightly and rubbed the back of his head. “Ah, sorry, Ben. I’m not really much of a dinosaur expert. I just painted the ones I knew. Your mum said I wasn’t allowed to do any of the big scary ones. She didn’t say anything about the little scary ones.” He gave Jenna a wink.

“If either of us has nightmares about being eaten, I’m phoning you in the middle of the night,” Jenna promised.

“I won’t have nightmares, I promised,” Ben said. “And don’t worry, Uncle Joel, I don’t mind a bit. They’re all really cool.”

“I’m glad you like it. Don’t forget to thank Pete, too. He helped lots.”

“I don’t know about lots,” Pete admitted. “I’m not much of an artist. I did the grass, though.”

“It’s very good grass, love,” Joel said, leaning over to kiss his ear.

“Yeah, it’s the best! Thanks, Uncle Pete!” Ben could not stand still. He hopped from foot to foot, his gaze darting around the room, drinking in the sight, taking in every detail. His eyes were the widest Jenna had ever seen them, and his mouth would flap when he spotted something new. A gentle breeze from the open window ruffled his hair occasionally, like a friendly caress.

“Is there anything for lunch, Jen?” Joel asked. “All this excitement is making me hungry.”

“I’m sure I can find something,” she replied. “What about you, Ben?” He said nothing, staring intently at a space near the stegosaurus’ tail. “Ben?”

“I think we’ve lost him to the age of the dinosaurs.” Joel grinned. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and Jenna saw Ben jump and then blink as he had just woken up. “What do you want for lunch, little palaeontologist? Brontosaurus burger?”

“There’s no such thing as a brontosaurus, Uncle Joel. Can I have a cheese sandwich, Mum?”

“That’s the second time I’ve been schooled by a seven year old today,” Joel admitted as they headed downstairs. “I’m just going to stop talking.”

The Mortician’s Boy – Extract 2

Leaving the mortuary, Toby is pursued by a strange creature…

Despite the comforting familiarity of London crowds, Toby decided he did not want to be jostled the entire way. He headed down a side street on a route that was technically longer, but would probably work out quicker.

Within a couple of turns the number of people on the street had dropped dramatically, and within two more they were empty. The air was still and warm, no breeze stirred. It somehow made the city smell worse than normal.

I can rely on London to be constant, Toby thought as he walked. A scrawny tabby crossed his path, stopping to mew at him in a squeaky voice. It was missing most of an ear and its tail had a kink in it about half way down. Toby grinned. Someone who looks more pathetic than me.

“I’m not stroking you,” he commented. “I bet you’re just infested with fleas.”

The cat mewed again, louder this time, then hissed at the sound of a dog barking in the distance. Its mangy fur stood up on end, and its tail expanded to twice its previous size.

“Well, stay safe, little creature,” he muttered, heading off. The dog barked again, somewhere off to Toby’s left. It sounded like quite a big animal, probably a guard dog in one of the nicer town-houses. Toby picked up his pace. The idea of a drink in front of the fire was growing more and more appealing.

There was a howl this time, and it sounded close. Toby had broken into a jog before he realised it. He stopped and forced himself to walk normally. I am fed up with being scared by things. There was no one else on the street. It was narrow, too small to get a carriage or even a pony-trap down. Brick walls stood on either side, windowless and dark. He could see people moving ahead, where it intersected with a busier road.

Something growled.

The sound was low and guttural. It spoke of sharp teeth and jaws that could snap through bone. Toby stopped. It was coming from something in front of him. No matter how hard he peered and squinted, there was nothing in the street ahead of him. He glanced over his shoulder but there was nothing there either. He took another step forward and the sound came again, loud and threatening.

Toby turned and ran.

Holding his hat to his head, he ran, not caring how ridiculous he must have looked. His feet pounded on the cobbles and his heart pounded in his chest, but neither were loud enough to drown out the sound of the thing that was following him. He could he hear the click of claws, the pad of heavy, muscular feet: thud-thud, thud-thud. It let out a howl that reverberated off every nerve in Toby’s body.

Toby ran blindly. The creature seemed to be constantly a few paces behind him, no matter how fast he went or where he turned. He swore that he could smell its foul, foetid breath, though that might have been his fevered imagination. He remembered the bodies in the morgue, cold and stiff with their hearts ripped out. Was that going to be his fate? Would Styles soon be preparing his corpse, Kitty prettying it up one last time? Who would take his memento mori? Who would even look at it?

He knew he could not run much further. Each breath he took felt insufficient to fill his lungs. There was a stabbing pain in his side and his legs felt heavier and heavier with every step. He had made his way back out to the main streets, but this did not seem to deter the creature. Toby could hear and smell it, even feel its presence behind him, chasing him down. He pushed through the people around him, elbowing and shoving as hard as he could. Some people allowed themselves to be rammed aside, through most complained loudly. Toby didn’t care.

He caught his foot on a cobble and he stumbled forwards, arms flailing. As he fell, he felt the cold certainty that this was it: his heart was about to be ripped from his chest right here on the street. Hot breath tickled the back of his neck and he felt something tighten around his throat. Time seemed to slow down, the voices of people around him sounding low and unearthly.

Something caught his arm. Toby cried out and shut his eyes. He did not want the last thing he saw to be this creature.

The Mortician’s Boy – Extract 1

After a bad day, Toby and Kitty head to the pub to unwind. That doesn’t exactly go as planned…

Kitty poked her head around the door. “The Vampire’s left for the day. Styles says he’ll cover for us if you want to knock off?”

“Oh, yes!” Toby said eagerly. He grabbed his coat and hat from the stand by the door and followed Kitty down the stairs.

“Pub?” she suggested. “First round is on you, of course!”

“Why this time?”

“Because you almost broke my nose this morning,” she retorted as they headed out onto the street.

“That was utterly your own fault,” Toby protested. “It’s always me that has to get the first round in, it seems.”

“That’s because you’re always causing me trouble!” Kitty grinned. “Plus you’re a push-over.”

“I am not! Ugh, so much for the idea of a quiet drink and sympathy from a good friend.”

“You should have invited one, if that’s what you wanted. Instead you’re stuck with me.”

She linked her arm with his and propelled him along the street. When they reached the Dancing Fox, their usual retreat, she pushed open the door and shoved him inside. Immediately Toby was hit by a wave of warm air from the room ahead. A vast, homely fire crackled in the fireplace, and thick candles added their light. The air was hazy with tobacco smoke and loud with the voices of the drinkers. Kitty sat down at a table and looked expectantly at him.

With a sigh, Toby headed over to the bar. As their drinks were being poured he looked around, hoping to see some other familiar faces so he could share his tales of woe. His eyes fell on a woman sitting on the far side of the room. She was dressed in a black mourner’s gown, decorated with ebony beads and trimmed with sable. Her hair was raven black, pinned back under an elaborate feathered headdress. She caught his glance and stood up, waving at him with a hand clad in black lace.

Toby tried to look away, to pretend he had not seen her, but it was too late. She was already picking her way through the drinkers towards him. He sighed. What more could today throw at him?

“Mr Tobias Shaw?” she asked as approached.

Trying to mask his annoyance, Toby gave her a quick bow. “Please, call me Toby. What can I do for you, Miss…?”

“Rosetta. Cordelia Alexandria Lucrecia Rosetta,” she replied in a voice that spoke of finishing school and elocution lessons. “I was hoping to speak with you about some photographs.”

Toby wasn’t sure what he had expected her to want from him, but the word photographs surprised him. Not as much as her name, of course. How anyone managed to even move under the weight of such a thing was beyond him. “Why don’t you take a seat and you can tell me more,” he suggested. It was against his better judgement, but he did not want to risk the woman making a scene if he refused. She looked to be the swooning sort.

She nodded gratefully and followed him to the table where Kitty was waiting.

“Who’s the Corpse Bride?” Kitty asked as Toby held out the chair for Cordelia. He rolled his eyes at her.

“Kitty, this is Miss Rosetta. She would like to talk to me about some photographs. Miss Rosetta, this is my former good friend and now constant source of harassment, Kitty Lewis.”

The woman looked between Toby and Kitty for a moment, and then smiled sweetly. “Cordelia Alexandria Lucrecia Rosetta. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“What did you want to speak to me about?” Toby enquired before Kitty could say anything else.

Cordelia produced a few photographs and laid them on the table. “I wanted to ask your professional opinion about ghosts in photography. I thought if anyone would know it would be a mortuary photographer, and your name came up time and again.”

Well, it’s nice to have a reputation that doesn’t make me out to be some sort of monster, Toby thought. He picked up the photographs. “I’m afraid there’s no such thing,” he said. “See this one? Both these men are very much alive. The man behind the chair only looks transparent because he walked in after the plate started developing. It’s probably taken with a dry plate as they need a much longer exposure.” He turned over the next one. “And this one’s a very famous fraud. The photographer drew on the plate after the image was taken to get this ghostly shape.”

Cordelia’s face, which had been a mixture of excitement and optimism, fell. “Oh, I see. So, they’re all fakes?”

Toby smiled kindly. I should have guessed it would be something like this. She needs to stay away from the penny dreadfuls. “I’m afraid so.” He shuffled through the last couple of photographs and stopped. An image stared up at him from stained table and he felt the breath catch in his throat. “Wait! Where did you get this one?”

He tried to pick up the photograph, but his fingers felt numb and useless.

“Toby? What’s wrong?” Kitty said softly. “You look like…Well you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“Where did you get this?” Toby demanded again. “There’s no way you can have this photograph! It’s impossible!”

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Cordelia stammered. “Why is it impossible?”

He looked into her eyes, trying to determine if this was sort of sick joke, but there was nothing there except bewilderment.

“Because they were all burned,” he said. He clutched at the table to try and stop his hands shaking. “My father was developing it and a fire broke out in the darkroom. It almost killed him and did kill another man. The negative and all the photographs were destroyed!”

Apple – Extract 2

Trapped in Cavington Hall, Apple wakes to a strange sound.

I wake in darkness, drenched in sweat and shaking. I must have been thrashing about in my sleep as I am completely tangled up in the blanket. Unwinding it from my ankle, I wrap it round my shoulders. I won’t be able to get back to sleep while I am as tense as this; I’m still trembling from the dream. In the gloom I can make out the shape of my brother on the bed, so I hold his hand to help me calm down.

Thump-thump

My blood runs cold. It is the sound from my dream, I am certain of it! I pinch myself just to make certain and wince quietly from the sharp pain. No solace there.

Thump-thump

There’s no denying it now. I definitely heard that noise and it sounds horribly close. I grip Skye’s hand tightly, silently begging him to wake up and protect me. Still holding on, I wiggle under the bed and lie there, quivering like a mouse. My heart beats faster as I hold my breath, listening. Under the bed is very dusty and I can feel my nose itching. I pray desperately not to sneeze.

Thump-thump

I try to think rationally. Skye said there was no such thing as ghosts, and he was right about the owl in the woods. Surely there were no such things as monsters? It must just be George banging around downstairs, or the doctor doing some work? Right? As hard as I try, in the enveloping darkness of the strange house it is very hard to think rationally.

I think of my father’s ghost stories, of the woman alone in the graveyard and the unseen thing pursuing her. It was scary enough then, wrapped in the blanket with Skye awake and teasing me. Now the very thought of it turns my muscles to jelly. I try to push back the memories, but they rush through, unstoppable, like the cloud of bats that emerges from the forbidden cave in his tales.

Thump-thump

I let out a quiet whimper, unable to suppress it completely. The noise sounds louder now, as if it is right outside the door. I let go of Skye’s hand, and move further under the bed, curling myself up into a tiny ball. If I keep really quiet, really still, maybe it won’t notice me. I wrap my hands around my knees, trying to prevent them from knocking together as they shake. It doesn’t really sound like footsteps, not human ones at least. What creature moves with a sound like that? Nothing normal comes to mind.

Thump-thump

Skye! I realise I have almost forgotten about him. If there is something out there then he is defenceless, lying above me. I force myself to crawl out from under the bed and stand up, holding on to the post. It takes a while for me to be certain my legs won’t give out beneath me. I take his arm and try to pull him off the bed, but he’s very heavy and my hands are slick with sweat. The mattress is old and has a deep indent in the centre where Skye is lying. After a few struggling attempts, I reluctantly give up.

Thump-thump

The sound has not gotten any louder, maybe it has stopped moving? I look at the welcoming darkness under the bed, wanting to hide myself away again. No. I can’t do that. If there is something out there, then I need to be able to protect my brother. It’s my turn to be the strong one. There is no tinder box in the room as George lights the candles in the evening by himself. I pick up the candle-stick though, as it has a reasonable weight for a weapon.

Taking a deep breath I tighten my grip around my weapon.

“Don’t worry, Skye,” I whisper as quietly as I can. “I’ll protect you.”

Being brave for Skye helps me to be brave for myself and I open the bedroom door a crack. Peering out, I can see moonlight flooding in through one window, bathing the corridor with its ethereal light. Nothing moves, not even a spider.

Thump-thump

It’s coming from the nursery across the hall, I realise. I tense, memories of the doctor’s reaction flooding back. I almost turn back. He locked the door; I saw him. If there’s anything in there, it won’t be able to get out. But as well as fear, there is a morbid curiosity that grips at me. What on earth is making that noise?

Slowly, I cross the corridor, my bare feet making almost no sound as I move. The air is bitterly cold out here and I can see my breath coming out in a ghostly cloud. Shivering violently, I bend down and prepare to peer through the keyhole. My traitorously vivid imagination pictures an eyeball staring back at me. I close my eyes for a moment and count to ten.

Thump-thump

I look though. Something moves by the window. I don’t see it so much as I see the change in the pattern of moonlight, but there was definite movement. Something is in there! My whole body tenses, and my heart beats so fast it’s painful. My hand brushes the doorknob and the door moves. The door is not locked. And if I can get in, whatever is inside can get out.

I want to run and get help, but I don’t know where George or the doctor sleep. And if I just shout for them then I will attract the attention of whatever is in there. I want to run. I want to hide. I want my big brother. But I just have me: Apple and the candle-stick against whatever creeping horror lies inside. And I can’t let whatever it is hurt either of us. I take a deep breath, tighten my grip on the weapon in my hand, and think of Skye.

Then I throw open the door.

It slams against the inside wall with a bang and I hold my breath. Inside the room is complete still. The curtains are open and the moonlight paints a silver highlight on all the surfaces. The wooden horse stands proud on its runners, and the chests of toys sit quiet on the floor, their lids open showing off their treasures. There are no monsters, no demons, no things that go thump in the night. As I stand there looking around, I grow braver and eventually summon the courage to throw open the wardrobe and drawers.

Nothing. Not a rat or a mouse or a spider.

I feel relieved, but also somewhat deflated, as all the tension runs out of me. I take a last look at the rocking horse, the moonlight turning the horsehair to liquid silver. In the distance, I hear a sound, like children laughing. My nerves break and I sprint all the way back to Skye’s room, not bothering to shut the nursery door behind me. Let the doctor punish me in the morning. At least he’s made of flesh and blood.

Panting, I throw myself into my nest of blankets. I pull a pillow over my head and sob quietly until sleep overcomes me.

Apple – Extract 1

After leaving home together, Apple and her brother Skye discuss what to do with their lives.

He comes over and ruffles my hair with his big, calloused hand, staring off into the distance as if thinking hard. After a few moments of this I have had enough and punch his arm. He looks down and gives me a grin as he pulls out a coin from his pocket.

“Heads, we try and find our way back. Tails, I’m stuck with you. Deal?”

I nod, slowly.

“You understand, though,” he continues, suddenly serious. “You understand what it will be like? You might have to sleep out in the rain, or go hungry for days. That’s really want you want? To be cold and dirty and hungry?”

I nod again, harder this time. “Yes,” I tell him firmly. “That’s what I want.”

Skye flips the coin and it goes sailing up above our heads, spinning over and over, changing our fate with every turn. It flashes as it rotates, catching the sun, then begins to fall, still turning, heading towards the mulch of the forest floor. Skye snatches it back before it gets close, slaps it on the back of his left hand and clamps the right over it. He turns his face away from me.

“I can’t look!” he announces theatrically to the forest. “Will I be trapped with the wormy Apple for the rest of my days?”

Ignoring his jibes I pry his fingers up and look at the coin that will decide my destiny.

“It’s tails!” I declare, grabbing the penny and putting it in my pocket.

“Is it? Well, I guess we’re stuck with each other then.” He doesn’t sound angry or upset now. In fact, I think he sounds happy. I think that was the option he was hoping for, too. “Do I get my money back?”

“Nope. This one’s special, so I’m going to hang on to it for a while.”

“Is that so?” He raises an eyebrow. “Oh well, better get moving.” He takes my hand and we start walking down the road. “So, what sort of work shall we look for? Head to the sea and enlist on a ship?”

I shake my head. “No, I bet you’ll get sea-sick! And neither of us can swim,” I point out. Neither of us has seen the sea. In fact the largest body of water we have experienced personally is the duck pond in town.

“No boats then. What about joining the circus?”

“That’s a better idea. I could be an acrobat, one of those ones that rides on the back of a horse and does back-flips and things.”

A circus came to town a when I was ten and I can remember it vividly. The whole tent smelled like burnt sugar and paraffin. The ring master wore a scarlet coat with bright brass buttons that shone in the light. He cracked his whip and made a great big bear dance a jig around the ring. There were acrobats and jugglers and a man who walked across a rope suspended high above the ground. Clowns with painted-on faces and shoes three times the size of a normal foot pranced around, playing pranks on each other and unsuspecting members of the audience.

I liked the woman who rode the horse best, though. She was wearing this beautiful flowing dress with skirts of blue gossamer, and her horse was a pale gold colour with a blond mane that matched the rider’s own hair. Her feet were bare and there were little bells around her ankles that jingled every time she moved. As the horse cantered around the ring she turned and flipped and jumped, never once losing her balance.

Skye looks sceptical. “Really? You on a horse? You can’t ride any more than you can swim and besides, you wouldn’t go near Dorothy-Mae until you were ten.”

“Dorothy-Mae is really big and she doesn’t watch where she’s putting her feet,” I protest, scowling as I think of the farm’s great dun work-horse. More than once I’ve had to snatch my toes away from the clumsy animal’s path. “And she’s really, really big. I know: you could be a clown, Skye. Since you’re so funny.”

Skye confessed to me after the circus that he found the clowns really creepy, which is strange because Pa’s most terrifying ghost stories do nothing to scare him.

He doesn’t seem to like that idea, funnily enough. “I could be a knife thrower. I could throw them and skewer apples on your head,” he suggests as an alternative, miming throwing invisible blades at me.

“No!” I shake my head emphatically. “I don’t trust you with sharp objects. In fact, I don’t trust you at all!”

“That’s a bit stupid, given that you’re stuck with me,” he points out. He’s quiet for a moment. “Apple?”

“Yeah?”

“Love you, sis,” he mutters.

“I love you too, Cheese-for-brains! What are you being all soppy for?”

“Cheese-for-brains?” he retorts, pretending to be insulted. “I try to be nice and what do I get in return? I ought to tie you to a tree and leave you for the wolves.”

“Wolves are meat-eaters, Skye,” I explain patiently. “They don’t eat Apples.”

He groans. “One more joke like that and I’ll gag you with your own pigtails,” he threatens. “Maybe then I’ll have some peace.”

“You’ll have to catch me first,” I call, skipping ahead down the road.

FIFTEEN NIGHTINGALE ROAD

Synopsis:

Following the death of her husband, Jenna Winters has been wandering aimlessly though life, too afraid to put down roots in case they ripped up again. When she sees the house on Nightingale road, though, she falls in love with it. The house is perfect for her and her young son, Ben.

It’s home.

But when her brother finds a creepy doll in the attic, and things start moving on their own, it soon becomes clear that the house is harbouring secrets and that not all of the skeletons are in the closet. Something wants her out of the house, permanently. The question is: who. And why?

Status:

Incomplete. On hiatus.

Reviews:

I wasn’t sure at first if I wanted to read this but man the second I read the first chapter I was hooked I couldn’t stop reading I had to stop everything read the whole thing in one go it was sooo good! – Caiusreece, Figment

This is a great story. The characters have life, quirks, personalities and thought processes that make them real. I like the secondary plots that show real life and time still passing. Its beautifully constructed and I’ll def be sticking around til its finished. – Threeslipsofpaper, Figment

Wow, I love this. Especially since I’m really into the paranormal stuff, and reading about a story is so much more interesting. I love your usage of words, and how you arrange them. I’m loving the character progression throughout the story, and how much it makes sense. With Ben coping with his father’s death in a child-like manner (if you know what I mean). And how Jenna is trying to cope with the death of her husband also. When Ben mentioned the little girl in the window, I literally got goose bumps all over!! – Sarah, Figment

Where to read:

Figment – the first draft is available here.