Christmas Day! Enjoy a story on us.

SOOT

K.A. Laity

She hated London.

The grind, the grime, the grit—and that wasn’t even mentioning the basement flat. Lucky, she had been lucky to get it, everyone said so at the lab—and for the price! It was unheard of. Chance connections: her aunty Barbara who knew this woman from secretarial school back in the day—back when they had things like secretarial schools. This strange woman Mrs Cuttle who only rented to people after examining her crystal ball for the truth. The ball was not clear like glass but a smoky quartz—or so she said. What did Diana know about things like that? Hooey. That’s what her dad would have said but he was five years gone. With mum gone this summer in the slow free-fall of cancer, she was alone alone alone in this big city. Her first Christmas in London and she was on her own.

Diana was so low on Christmas spirit that when the fella in the shop around the corner wished her ‘Happy holidays!’ she very nearly snarled, ‘Bah humbug!’ Yet she found reading Dickens soothing. Not that one of course. She picked up a copy of Dombey and Son in Skoob Books, and read it on the bus, enjoying the characters’ suffering. Unmoved by little Dombey’s pathetic death scene, Diana did find some spark of interest in Alice’s plans for revenge. Revenge was an emotion she could nourish. Pity there was no one to aim it towards. You can’t kill death.

The habitual need to invest in holiday cheer would die hard though. Diana stirred herself to buy some baubles to hang around the room to try to make it look festive, though it looked more bedraggled than ever. The light was wrong. Perhaps it was the angle. The windows were small and because it was a basement flat you only saw feet, endless feet. Maybe it was the strobing effect: there really ought to be a warning for the flat like they have at the start of films: May cause seizures.

 

Foot parade until suddenly there weren’t any feet because it was the end of the working day. Single pedestrians wandered. It was worse because you heard each step distinctly on the pavement. There weren’t many: it was a cul de sac and there was no pub down the street to draw them, not even a café to get latté-drinkers. Diana found it mesmerising: the tap of shoes out of sight, getting louder, passing by, then fading away. She couldn’t tune it out. The only street light was a distance away so depending upon which direction the person walked from their elongated shadow would either fall before you saw the feet or linger afterward like some kind of ghostly presence.

Then there was the coal stove with its ash pit drawer. Mrs Cuttle made much of it as a feature of the flat. ‘Antique and very valuable! Why if I sold them off I could probably buy the house next door, too. Incredible iron works!’

‘So why don’t you?’ Diana asked, mystified.

Mrs Cuttle stared at her. ‘What would I do with two houses?’ Rapacious London capitalism seemed to have passed entirely by her notice.

The coal stove didn’t supply the heat, thank goodness. There was an entirely modern and efficient boiler set with hot water and heat so the little flat was snug and warm. Too warm at times, so she would open the doors on the coal stove. There was a little cool air that came in where once the coal burned or the ashes fell. It made Diana feel a little less suffocated by the subterranean rooms.

She must have been dreaming that night, of course. Or it was the lingering effects of her mother’s death. Grief ebbs and flows unpredictably: a tempest one moment, a puddle splash the next. Diana awoke to the sound of her mother’s laboured breathing and then wondered where she was. There was no hospital beep. As she stared off into the strange gloom she saw eyes glow golden.

Not her mother’s eyes. She caught her breath and then stayed silent. Some childhood memory persisted, warning that silence and stillness would protect you from whatever assailed you in the dark. For a few moments Diana clutched the covers of her bed and listened. The whole of London seemed to have disappeared in the night and there was only she and the eyes that watched her.

Then a blink and they were gone.

Diana heard a clicking noise and then only her own breath and wondered if perhaps it, too had been a dream. She lay back down, intending to sleep, tossing and turning and checking her phone for the time every forty minutes or so until it was nearly time to get up and only then falling asleep. Her alarm jarred her awake with its jaunty steel drums far too soon.

The whole day she felt out of step. She went to the lab although Dr Abbott had shooed them away until after the first of the year. Diana did not need to be there. She could have been anywhere: in Bruges, in Bucharest, in Brigadoon. No one needed her. Her aunty Barbara invited her to come back home and share the holidays with the endless brood of sons, daughters, children and grandchildren and the other foundlings that made their way to her door, their sad stories told and retold until they lost all meaning.

Diana did not want to be one of the foundlings. Better to be alone. Mrs Cuttle didn’t believe that. She invited Diana up for a rousing cuppa or to make gingerbread or toffee. Sometimes Diana found it too exhausting to fight against the constant cheer and submitted, drinking the milky tea and eating whatever was proffered, allowing the stream of running commentary to run over her like a cool breeze. Mrs Cuttle seldom required a response, so secure was she in her knowledge of the world. Whether she was talking about the man who came to dinner and surprised her with his scheme for renewable energy that required only a small investment on her part, or delineating the gremlins known to affect the baking of breads in the winter months and how to allow for their influence without altering the taste of the loaf, Mrs Cuttle was up to the challenge.

‘You don’t mind the stove?’ she said abruptly, startling Diana with a direct question.

‘Mind it? No.’ Why should she mind it?

‘Generally its good to have a source of iron in the place as it keeps ‘em away.’

Diana was confused. ‘Keeps who away?’

‘Why, the Gentry of course!’ Mrs Cuttle was off and running on the topic with such enthusiasm and a sure sense that her listener shared its familiarity, that it was some time before Diana figured out that by the ‘gentry’ the older woman did not mean people in DeBrett’s but those in the Sidhe.

 

Away with the fairies suddenly made so much sense: Mrs Cuttle and her crystal ball that wasn’t and her peculiar habits. Lucky, she was, lucky to get this flat, Diana reminded herself when she finally managed to extricate herself from the too-warm kitchen, the gingerbread and the elderberry wine—‘just a little, for your health!’

If her mum had lived it might have all been very funny to tell her about over their long phone calls but there was no one who might have been amused by it. Nursing someone over a long illness tended to cut down on your social life. Aunty Barbara remained steadfast but few others did. Mum’s bridge club sent baskets. But the day to day trudge made Diana wish for the umpteenth time that she had not been an only child.

‘You should get a pet!’ Mrs Cuttle had cried earlier. ‘What a comfort Fifi is to me.’ She turned to pat the old dog on the chair where it lay snoring. This indeterminate ball of fur woke long enough to snort, as it was perpetually short of breath, and fart noisily before lapsing back into its murmuring dreams. Diana blanched. She could not imagine anything less comforting than that smelly creature.

Yet lying wide-eyed in the dark later she wondered if there were not something in the idea. Without the lab to go to her days hung long and limp, waiting to be filled with something. Even Dickens was letting her down. Her eyes glazed over poor Florence’s fretting. She kept losing her place. Maybe she ought to have picked up something cheerier—Wodehouse or Heyer—but she could not bear the thought of such sparkling happy folk. Perhaps something fun but with a little suffering too: Trollope? Pym.

Contemplating possible novels finally allowed her to drift into troubled sleep until she woke with a start of fear. She could not breathe. A heavy weight lay on her chest. I’m dying. It’s a heart attack. A sliver of light shot across the room to illuminate the black shape that hovered upon her chest.

Diana cried out and the black shadow floated up and away in silence, disappearing into the darkness or perhaps the coal stove. For a moment all she could hear was the tell-tale beat of her heart—assuring her it was very much working—and her own ragged breath.

Was it a dream? The shaft of light had hit the shape with an uncanny accuracy. The room was dark once more. Diana took a deep breath and then shot out of bed, crossing the room in a bound to close the door to the coal stove, not daring to look inside. She had to kneel down to reach the ash pit door, so she dared a look inside. Golden eyes glowed back at her and she yelped, slamming the door shut.

She hopped back into the bed, tucking all her limbs in safely. A childhood belief that inside the covers was inviolable stuck with her. I’ll never get back to sleep now! Yet in what seemed like a twinkling Diana blinked awake in dappled sunlight interrupted by the legs of the morning commuters and shoppers.

Throwing back the covers she gave a cry of dismay: her hands, the blanket, the sheets all bore the blackness of coal, as if the creature had bled grim death upon them. Shaking Diana hastened to wash it off her hands. The coal dust swirled down the sink as if it were heading back to the pit.

What happened? Maybe it was a dream. Maybe she had imagined it all and had gone to the stove to slam the door—which was certainly closed now, both of them. There had been no weight, no golden eyes, no weird creature from her imagination and certainly no ray of light from the window with pinpointed accuracy like the lantern in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ of course.

Diana sat down at the little table in the kitchen area and rubbed her face. Some coal dust appeared on her fingers so she went back to the sink and looked at the mirror she normally avoided and grimaced. There was black on her neck and chin, doubtless from the bedding. She would have to do some laundry today.

Moving like an automaton, Diana stripped the bed and stuffed everything into the little washing machine, throwing her nightshirt in, too. I really need to get out. She took a quick shower, shivering because the washer monopolised the hot water. Throwing on random clothes, Diana shoved Dombey in her bag and headed out the door, locking it behind her and wondering if she was locking anything in there.

For a moment she stood on the pavement uncertain, allowing people to stream around her like a current. It was Christmas Eve. Where could she go? Maybe the British Museum was open at least for a little while. It gave purpose to her stride, yet when she got there it was shut. Diana wandered through some of the nearby shops, pretending to browse. Her eyes glazed, staring through windows as if to find answers—or at least to resist thinking a little longer.

In the window of Atlantic, her gaze fell upon a vintage book promising to reveal the secrets of the fairy folk and her heart leapt up. But then Diana caught herself and turned away from the colourful shop window. Are you mad?

After a beat, she thought what if I am?

Diana wandered along intending to buy something if only as a distraction. You need food, she scolded remembering nothing much would be open the next day. Diana treated herself to the upscale grocery store and even bought a bottle of wine and some cheese before losing the will to shop any more. As she came out the back entrance she spied that Skoob was indeed open that day and descended with gratitude into its depths. Books would never lose their allure. Definitely Trollope or Pym—funny but sad—or perhaps a Brontë to remind her what feelings were.

Diana reached up for a Pym on the new arrivals shelf and instead grabbed a book on the history of fairy folk. She set it down as if it were on fire. Her vision clouded with black soot for a moment, then she fled the shop.

‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ Mrs Cuttle cried as they passed in the foyer. Diana tried to smile though she could feel only her teeth. ‘Come round tomorrow midday for sherry and mince pies, do. It’s a tradition here!’

Diana escaped to her flat. The winter light shone weakly, catching stray motes in the air. She put the groceries in the wee fridge and got the bedclothes out of the washer. Would they have time to dry before the night? No matter. She could curl up in the comfy chair. Maybe she would sleep better.

Fishing Dombey from the depths of her bag, Diana sat down to read. Five minutes later she still stared at the same page. Maybe some television. She reached for the remote and clicked it on.

‘…about the fairy tradition in Cornwall.’ Click.

This is madness. When you start connecting coincidence you might as well get your own crystal ball. Diana stood up, took a deep breath and strode over to the coal stove. One, two, the doors were open. Fine: there was nothing there. Let’s be really sure.

Diana grabbed her phone and tapped on the torch app. The light glared with a savage fury. The iron guts of the stove were black with old fire and burnt coal. The chimney pipe disappeared into the house above. Diana knelt to look through the ash pit. Like the stove above it the walls were black from the past burnings and a layer of ash coated the bottom. It seemed to be angled down. Where did the ashes go? Perhaps there was an exit door.

In any case, there was nothing in the stove.

All at once Diana felt exhausted. She washed the ash off her hands, turned on the television to some quiz show and sat in the comfy chair until she nodded off. When she woke it was dark. Everything felt wrong.

It took an effort but she got up, sliced some cheese and put it on a plate, poured a glass of wine and sat down again. There was some brash holiday show on now. Diana chewed the food and sipped the wine and tasted nothing. She considered another glass of wine but fell asleep before she could fetch one.

Something brushed her leg. She gave a startled yelp and her hand clanked against the empty plate on the little table. A documentary about some kind of factory was playing on the television. Her hand reached for the remote and snapped it off.

There was something in the room. She could hear it over her own breath. Or she imagined it. Had she left the stove open? Diana couldn’t remember. Her eye adjusted to the light. The drying sheets loomed in the darkness like an abandoned circus tent. Then they billowed as something moved behind them.

Fury more than fear propelled her from the chair. Diana snatched at the sheets and the rack clattered to the tiles. Out of the corner of her eye some vague black shape slipped away into the darkness leaving her all alone.

Diana wrapped the sheets around her like a shroud and curled up on the bed, willing herself to sleep.

She woke at dawn, exhausted, and made the bed properly. Her mother’s edict: if you make your bed you begin the day right. Happy Christmas, mum. I miss you. She sat down on the bed and cried. When she had cried enough, Diana forced herself to get up, shower and dress. After a few cups of tea she had the will to face the day.

Unable to manage reading, she watched mindless holiday television programmes until it was time to go to Mrs Cuttle’s little do. There were only a few people there yet the hubbub suggested a party three times the size. Music blared from tinny speakers whilst the television competed for attention. Everyone talked at the same time.

‘You made it! Have some sherry. Watch out for the mistletoe. There are mince pies on the table and chocolate and some kind of nut thing that Mr Cosmo brought.’ Mrs Cuttle had already downed a lot of sherry. Everyone had. Diana wondered how they would manage dinner later. Perhaps they didn’t.

She was the youngest there by decades. Miss Lastima, the Spanish boarder as Mrs Cuttle always called her, was probably nearest in age. She looked like a model, taut and impeccable, probably fifty though she looked a careful forty in her Prada jacket.

‘I think something’s got into the flue of the coal stove,’ Diana shouted to Mrs Cuttle when she could think of nothing else to do or say to these people.

She only nodded and bellowed back, ‘Mr Cosmo hears singing in his.’

‘Singing? In his coal stove?’

‘Yes, or maybe it was the bathroom vent. It’s not you, is it? No, I suppose not. Too far up.’ Mr Cosmo had the flat at the top of the flat with a view of Tavistock Park she claimed, though Diana suspected that was only if you were to hang out the window an squint a bit.

Mr Cosmo was conferring with three men in hats who looked as if they might be part of some secret government organization or perhaps some remnant of the Golden Dawn still haunting Bloomsbury. Diana decided it was not worth quizzing him on something so ephemeral.

‘I have a message for you,’ Mrs Cuttle said absently, as if it had just come to her then, though she added that it had come via the crystal ball. ‘Carpe diem, the spirits say. You must seize the day!’

Pithy as a mass-produced fortune cookie. ‘Oh yes, I see.’

‘Ah ha, a Sagittarian no doubt!’ Mrs Cuttle wandered off to pour more sherry all around and Diana helped herself to some cheese sticks and sausages before slipping out to head down to her flat.

The desultory baubles looked especially bereft now. There was no tree, there were no presents. Just Dombey waiting on the kitchen table. She could not stomach Florence just now. Diana poured a glass of wine and watched television until her head nodded again. Too early to go to bed, the winter light protested weakly. I’m the boss of me, Diana reflected. She put on an oversized t-shirt and got in bed.

She woke once more in a panic, a heavy weight on her chest. I’m dying!

With an effort, she shouted, ‘Get away!’ In a flash the black shadow leapt off her chest and bolted for the coal stove. Diana hopped out of bed and flicked on the lights. Black soot covered her chest and left a trail across the floor. She grabbed her phone and put on the torch. She drew a breath and crouched down to look into the stove.

It was a cat.

For a moment she just stared open-mouthed while its bright eyes took her in with panic. Then she laughed so loud that Mr Cosmo must have heard it through his sherry stupor four floors away. The black cat tried to flatten itself to the floor of the stove then started scrabbling up the flue.

‘No, come back!’ Diana cried. Thinking quickly she grabbed a bowl and poured the last of her cream into it. Cats liked cream or else cartoons lied. She put it in the stove near the door. ‘Here puss, puss, puss.’

Nothing.

Diana sat there for an hour, alternately calling the cat and babbling about all the stupid things she had imagined, the coincidences that she had weaved into magic and fairy tales. Finally she saw the green eyes peek out at her. Slowly the cat dropped from the flue and stared at her. Its eyes dropped to the bowl and then flashed back at Diana.

‘It’s all right now. The scary part is over,’ Diana said and cried because that’s what her mum always said after the Ghost of Christmas Past had gone.

The cat crept up to the bowl and started to lick at the cream. Droplets appeared at the end of the black whiskers. ‘I’m sorry if I scared you. I thought you were a nightmare. Maybe I should call you Nightmare. Or Night.’ Diana laughed. The cat seemed less spooked now.

It took another half hour to coax it out of the stove, but when it came out—warily sweeping the flat with its gaze—it crossed over to where Diana sat cross-legged. ‘Curiosity always, eh?’ She held out a hand to see if it would allow her. The cat sniffed her fingers and then brushed lightly against the hand. Diana ran one finger along its spine. It came away black.

‘If you don’t belong to someone already, I think I’ll call you Soot,’ Diana said with a laugh as the cat circled around her, fearless now.

Neither of them noticed the pair of golden eyes that blinked twice from the ash pit before disappearing into the black.

~THE END~

Snippet Sunday : Respectable Horror

Respectable Horror front cover

As part of women in horror month we are having horror snippets all month. Here is something from Respectable Horror, edited by K.A. Laity.

Respectable Horror front cover
By S.L. Johnson

The Feet On The Roof
Anjana Basu

Mrs Sinha Roy walked on the softest cushions of feet imaginable. The toes were well formed, the big and first toes of an even height, with the others slanting away, each in perfect proportion to the other. The arch under the foot was as high as a ballet dancer’s or, as she preferred to say, as a Maharani’s, even though many Maharanis were known to have carried their dignity on the flattest of flat feet. The high arch ended in two cushioned pads of flesh on either side, equally perfectly proportioned. People stopped to admire her footprints in the dust on the stone flags of a thakurdalan, or among a mash of marigold petals and milk left over from the puja. As if the goddess Lakshmi had stepped out of her lotus flower and condescended to bless those mundane steps. No wonder, people said, that she had been so blessed in her life. The possessor of footprints like those was bound to lead a fortunate existence.
Fortune – it had overflowed like the pan of milk that had been set on the fire as she stepped over the threshold in a flare of red and gold brocade . Good fortune had overflowed from the three storeyed roof into the green curve of the garden that held the house in its embrace. Good fortune had covered Mrs Roy’s plump white and black bordered person, giving her a creamy gloss well into her widowhood. She had three creamy white daughters and an equally creamy son. The son looked far too like the daughters to be considered perfectly masculine, but when he grew older, a small moustache and crinkled waves of hair put him into the mould of the god Kartik and gave him distinction. Yes, Mrs Roy was fortunate. She inhabited three acres of prime property in the heart of Calcutta and sat idly at her exquisite ivory inlaid desk while the city’s promoters vied with themselves in promising her crores of rupees . Everyone agreed that she would need many crores to compensate for the discomfort of moving out of her twenty room house into a flat.

Women in Horror: The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley JacksonI would probably vote Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House the finest American novel if I were the kind of person who believed those sort of hierarchies mattered. All that matters is that this book is enormously good. Jackson was a stunningly skilfull writer who wove a kind of magic that retains all its astonishing power half a century later. There are ghost stories long before it, and of course many after, but there aren’t many I’d mention in the same breath. Jackson would be remembered forever just for writing ‘The Lottery’, a short story that still packs a wallop, but she didn’t stop there.

She wrote several novels that shine with a rare genius for dislocating reality just enough to make you trip over your assumptions. Sometimes I think We Have Always Lived in the Castle is just as brilliant as THHH but then I think who cares? They’re both brilliant. And then there’s Hangsaman and The Bird Nest — and all the humour, too. Horror and humour both require impeccable timing.

There’s something indelible about the experience of wandering through Hill House. I’ve taught it before and each time I have had students become firm fans of Jackson. I can’t read the opening lines without shivering:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The book wraps you in that same mantel of unease. You can’t trust what you’re told and you’re right not to trust it, but Jackson is so meticulously precise like those firm floors and neat bricks that you start to believe and then just as suddenly you’re lost. And alone. Most of the story is filtered through the hapless Nell — Eleanor Vance. Freed from the shackles of her late mother’s sick room, and her sister and brother-in-law’s suffocating paternalism, she’s at first elated by the opportunity to be on her own with no one to tell her what to do. She’s thirty-two but finds herself on the side of the little girl who refuses to drink her milk in a roadside cafe because she doesn’t have her ‘cup of stars’:

…insist on your cup of stars; once they have trapped you into being like everyone else you will never see your cup of stars again; don’t do it.

It’s impossible not to sympathise with Eleanor and her fragile newfound freedom as she joins Doctor Montague’s psychic experiment crew which he hopes will prove the reality of spectral phenomena in the legendary house. The bohemian artist Theo offers a sharp contrast with her confidence and sophistication, alternately befriending Nell then growing impatient with her neediness. My students are always dead certain that Jackson tells us Theo is a lesbian, but being asked to prove how they know that brings them up against Jackson’s primary skill: leading the reader where she wants them to go without their realising how they got there.

Even now I find myself re-reading passages to figure out how she does what she does and the magic is often elusive.

It’s somewhat puzzling that Netflix has greenlit a series based on the book. Perhaps they will eschew the novel and invent a backstory. It’s hard to imagine a visual adaptation better than the 1963 film directed by Robert Wise with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom along with the irrepressible Russ Tamblyn. When I’ve taught it in my horror film course, students who sniff at B&W films end up breathlessly rapt during the ‘knocking’ scene. There’s nothing much in the way of special effects: the knocking on the walls, Harris and Bloom terrified, and a door that almost seems to breathe. But when Nell whispers, ‘Whose hand was I holding…?’

Shivers.

Out Now: Respectable Horror

Respectable Horror front cover

Respectable Horror front cover

Get your hands on this beauty! Respectable Horror is out in the wilds and ready to be lured to your home. Miss Poppy (our cover model designed by S. L. Johnson) will lead the way to a spectral crew of authors who are just dying to give you spine-tingling chills. This new collection offers names both familiar and new, writers who believe that it’s possible to terrify without more than a few drops of blood. The wind in the trees, the creak in the floor board, an innocent knock on the door: they’ll all take on a more sinister cast as you turn the pages of this book.

Introduction by K. A. Laity
The Estate of Edward Moorehouse by Ian Burdon
The Feet on the Roof by Anjana Basu
Spooky Girl by Maura McHugh
Recovery by H. V. Chao
The Holy Hour by C. A. Yates
Malefactor by Alan C. Moore
A Splash of Crimson by Catherine Lundoff
In These Rooms by Jonathan Oliver
A Framework by Richard Farren Barber
Running a Few Errands by Su Haddrell
Miss Metcalfe by Ivan Kershner
The Little Beast by Octavia Cade
The Well Wisher by Matthew Pegg
Where Daemons Don’t Tread by Suzanne J. Willis
Full Tote Gods by D. C. White
Those Who Can’t by Rosalind Mosis
The Astartic Arcanum by Carol Borden

Description:

Do serial killers, glistening viscera, oceans of gore and sadistic twists make you yawn behind a polite hand? Are you looking for something a little more interesting than a body count? These are tales that astonish and horrify, bring shivers and leave you breathless. You may be too terrified to find out what happens next – but you won’t be able to resist turning the page. We’ll make you keep the lights on. For a very long time.

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Respectable Horror: C. A. Yates

Respectable Horror front cover

Respectable Horror front cover
The author of ‘The Holy Hour’ may perhaps be better known for tales of another type:

With regard to my story ‘The Holy Hour’ soon to be presented to you under the auspices of Respectable Horror:

Respectable, you say? Well now, it’s a good job you came to me, my dears, for it is well known about these parts that I am the very embodiment of the well-turned heel of etiquette, the nine-time retriever of Lady Windermere’s Fanny, the epitome of Respectability. Its goddamned quintessence, I say. Yes, indeed, I am all about the corsetry and manners, my sweetest hearts, the decadently clad dandy wilt throw no shade on me. My writings, for the most part, are not that of some rabidly cussing blood-crazed termagant, it’s not all effing and bloody jeffing, with dismembered limbs akimbo and boiling pans of severed heads on the stove – I mean, I once wrote a story about a Sub-Aquatic Opera Company, for goodness’ sake. That’s a positively cultural orgasm of respectability right there, a full on lah-di-dah rigour of protocol and decorum.

Don’t listen to today’s rabble, my loves! Theirs is the voice of indignity and ignorance.

Free yourself from the restraints of the heathenism of modern hedonism and run with me into an old-fashioned gothic phantasmagoria that will chill your spine and … well, actually, I feel quite foolish now, because there aren’t any creaking old houses, or sinister mazes, or spinster phantoms plaguing ruthless rakes in the night. No tastefully bosom-heaving heroines or gargantuous-foreheaded uncles with their eye on their innocent ward’s prize, no creatures that will cause the blood to run slow in your veins, and there are most certainly no books that will twist you into folly itself. There’s a wife; she’s alone and she’s sad. She might be me one day. I hope not, but I fear it.

Wait! There’s a church, they are très respectable, aren’t they? Well, it might be a church, or it might not now I come to think about it, I’m not a believer myself, at least I don’t think I am… there’s definitely a dog. Everyone likes dogs, all respectable households have one.

And no one – I repeat NO ONE – gets eaten.

Respectable? Fucking A.

Oh.

C.A. Yates.

P.S. Blame The Cure. I do.

Respectable Horror: Anjana Basu

Respectable Horror front cover

There was a white mansion hidden behind wrought iron gates across the road from the school. I knew it was white because the daughters came to school to be chivvied by the nuns through their classes and their brother studied at Xavier’s  several streets away. Occasionally I met their stately mother at my mother’s tea parties and greeted her with a demure, “Hello Aunty” before vanishing into my room.

After school we all went our different ways, so I forgot all about the daughters, though I would continue to meet their mother at various social gatherings, turning greyer and statelier with each passing year.

Then one year I heard a whisper that a body had been found on the roof of the mansion. Well, a body that had been charred to the point of recognition except for a pair of feet. One of the daughters it was said had crept upstairs during the afternoon siesta and killed herself. The sleeping house had not heard a thing and the body was not found until the police were called in.

The possibility of murder was frequently hinted at over martinis for a while – mother and son had apparently colluded to do away with the inconvenient girl who was refusing to let them sell the house. Then the whole story died down with no arrests made.

From there came my story of the ghostly footprints.

 Anjana Basu has to date published 7 novels and 2 books of poetry. The has BBC broadcast one of her short stories. Her byline has appeared in Vogue India and Conde Nast Traveller. 

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Respectable Horror: Matthew Pegg

MR James Ghost StoriesHaunted Objects.

Sometimes it can be quite hard to put your finger on exactly where a story came from or what inspired it, because so much of writing happens in the subconscious. I usually start out with a snippet of a plot, or a character or an idea, but once I start writing other things accrue and attach themselves to it; events occur that I wasn’t expecting, characters pop up and demand to take part, the story takes on a life of its own.

But I can put my finger on some of the influences on The Well Wisher.

I’ve always liked classic horror and ghost stories, ever since reading my grandparent’s copy of A Century of Thrillers: From Poe to Arlen, which sat on their small and only bookshelf, along with The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith. (I’ve still got the book and the bookshelf.) A Century of Thrillers is a chunky volume, published by The Daily Express newspaper in the 1930s. Its a great collection of classic tales and well worth tracking down.

I wanted to write a story in that vein and thought it would be interesting to write about a haunted object. M.R. James’s The Mezzotint, A Candle in Her Room, (a terrifying children’s book by Ruth M. Arthur,) and Stephen King’s Christine all tackle this concept in quite different ways.

James’s haunted engraving replays a horrific incident from the past but doesn’t offer any real threat to its observers. You could argue that the true horror of the tale lies in the fact that the protagonist is powerless to influence the events he sees slowly unfolding in the picture.

In A Candle in Her Room the wooden doll Dido exerts a malign influence over three generations of the same family. It is the way that possession of the doll changes its owner that is frightening.

The Witch DollChristine, the 1950s Plymouth Fury, is the most concrete haunted object of the three, quite capable of killing you on its own. But like Dido, possession of Christine changes its owner. I like the way King turns the classic 1950s car, a symbol of the American Dream, into something evil. I also like the detail, missing from the film, that Christine’s milometer runs backwards: the more you drive it the newer the car gets. When thugs trash the car, owner Arnie pushes it round the block all night, putting his back out in the process, until the car repairs itself. There’s something satisfying about the physicality of that action.

I had a feeling that if you’re going to write about a haunted object then it should be a functional object, and if its normal function can become threatening in some way then that seemed to me to be satisfyingly neat. Of the three examples of haunted objects above, I think only in Christine do you get a sense of what has caused an inanimate object to turn nasty: Christine has been created by the human hatred of its previous owner, rather than any supernatural force. So its progenitors are Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde rather than Dracula: we create the monster and we become the monster, rather than the monster being a threat from elsewhere.

I like structure in stories. I find it satisfying when things have some kind of internal logic. So I wanted to know why my haunted object behaved the way it did. And that ‘why’ had to also be something to do with it’s function. That was what I was trying to achieve and I hope it works.

I’m being a bit coy about revealing too much about The Well Wisher because I hope you’ll read it and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Miss Andrews, the central character, evolved all on her own to become a troubled, clever, kind, brave, flawed person. And I can’t claim to have planned any of that, it just happened. I do know that one influence on her was Jane Eyre. I’d recently seen a theatre version of the story and it was rattling round in my brain, especially Jane’s orphan status and poverty, which define the choices she can make in life.

For an unmarried Victorian woman, educated but not wealthy, being a governess was one of the few options available. Charlotte and Anne Bronte did this in real life and that experience is reflected in both Jane Eyre and Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey.

I felt that the Victorian governess was in a rather uneasy position, not quite one of the servants, but not truly a member of the family either. I liked that sense of isolation, unease and insecurity.

So Miss Andrews became a governess, sometimes too forthright for her own good but worried about her future, and much braver than me. I would like to know what happens to her next.

But as I said at the start, a lot of any story emerges from the subconscious. So when I was reading the proof copy of Respectable Horror, I was struck by how much of The Well Wisher seemed quite unfamiliar. “Where did that come from,” I wondered, “And that?”

I can’t even claim credit for the double meaning in the title….
 
Matthew Pegg is a writer based in Leicestershire in the UK. Most of his writing has been for theatre and includes work for puppet companies, youth theatres, community plays and a script designed to be performed during a medieval banquet. His most recent theatre work was Escaping Alice, a love story with chains and handcuffs, for York Theatre Royal. He’s also completed a community radio play based on the life of Wordsworth and has been commissioned to create a puppet play to tour to care homes for people suffering from dementia. In 2012 he completed an MA in Creative Writing, and since then he has been working on a novel, and placing short fiction with a variety of publishers. Website: http://www.mpegg.co.uk 

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Respectable Horror: Ian Burdon

Polin seaside

We’ve got a scintillating new collection of stories coming: Respectable Horror. As you might guess from the title it’s a return to creepy spooky unsettling tales — think Shirley Jackson and M.R. James. Here’s one of our writers telling you about how he came to write his story:

Polin seasideIan Burdon

I used to write.

I used to start things, then abandon them because they were crap. That isn’t false modesty, I still have some of them on floppy disk, or even typewritten with copious Tippex corrections (yes kids, that’s how old I am). I keep meaning to destroy them, but somehow can’t; so sometimes I take them out and read them, and they’re still crap.

Eventually I stopped writing fiction; not for any real reason, just the usual job and family things that took up my time. And I wrote stuff for work, which sublimated the urge to make things up (though I was a civil servant, so…).

I even got published.

Then one day my wife and I were on a remote single-track road in the Highlands, and, as we rounded a blind corner, a spume of characters and ideas blew in through the open car window and into my notebook. I started plotting a novel, somewhat inspired by my first degree (Theology) and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, but set in Caithness, with characters who might or might not exist, depending on your point of view. I knew two things straight away: I wanted to write that story, and I didn’t have the skills to do it. So I wrote lots of practice pieces to try and develop, sharing my efforts with friends in similar circumstances.

Eventually, after lots of words, and lots of deletions, I produced a couple of scenes that I knew were qualitatively better than previous efforts, and promptly went on holiday.

This time, we were walking on a remote Sutherland beach [photo above!] where I was reminded of Jonathan Miller’s classic 1968 adaptation of Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad. Gosh, I thought, we’re walking through the middle of an MR James story. Out came the notebook. Not long after, the first draft of “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” was complete.

I didn’t write it with publication in mind, and I didn’t expect to write anything in the horror genre, respectable or not; it’s not what I normally read. Authors whom I’d like to emulate in one way or another include Muriel Spark, Edna O’Brien, Dorothy Dunnett, George MacKay Brown, M John Harrison and Christopher Priest.

Since Edward Moorehouse, I’ve completed several stand-alone stories and a 105K word collection of linked short stories—that began when I found myself inadvertently writing a vampire story and knew I didn’t want to write any such thing. I’m currently working on a sequel to that. And I still have that other novel to write, and the one about sex workers in post-war Edinburgh, and by the way did I tell you about the monk who talked to lizards, and the boy who rode trains with his coyote, and…

 

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Five on Friday: Alternative Xmas

Put the X in Xmas! Tired of the kid friendly films? And you’ve already watched Hans Gruber fall this season? Here’s five holiday films that won’t overload the saccharine and might just give you a reason to smile.

THE THIN MAN: Thinly veiled portrait of Hammett and Hellman’s own hijinks. If you don’t love Myrna Loy and William Powell after this you have no soul!

THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER: Speaking of thinly veiled, allegedly a portrait of the cantankerous Alexander Woolcott with the fabulous Bette Davis and a great cast.

THE APARTMENT: Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, romance without schmaltz.

BRAZIL: We’re all in this together. You might want to get used to the world of this film; we’re hurtling toward it.

IN BRUGES: Maybe you like to go on holiday abroad (while you still can). Martin McDonogh and the boys want you to have a real good time. If you like darkness, guilt and violence, this is the film for you, assuming you’ve already enjoyed THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT which I said I wasn’t going to bring up this time because I always mention it.

P.S. Buy our books.

What I Learned from Cult TV: Friendship is Magic

Me and Executive Princess

Cult TV show My Little Pony

This is about my My Little Pony epiphany. I have sighed my way through a lot of bad entertainment consumption with the Executive Princess, much of it day-glo and glittery. I think the bottom of the barrel might be Barbie’s Life in the Dream House but it could also apply to the endless package openings on YouTube where that woman with the grating voice goes into orgasmic raptures in that sing-song way over every product that she’s paid to drool over.

If you do not know her, be grateful.

So I expected no less of MLP, which originally kicked off in the 80s with a film promoting a toy line (the horror of that 80s animation! If you have seen that travesty, you know of what I speak: believe me, anything that Madeline Kahn cannot rescue is irredeemable). Sure, I had heard of Bronies and other cutesy appropriations as every pony knows, but considering the unearned fanaticism that makes some folks fawn over that saccharine Speilbergian horror, Goonies, I didn’t pay much attention. I figured it was another ‘I love it because I grew up with it’ phenomenon (I grew up with war pictures and Westerns: I do not generally love either). I really didn’t think MLP would be any different from, say, those interminable Strawberry Shortcake episodes (scarring, I assure you).

I certainly never expected to fight off tears watching MLP’s Rainbow Rocks.

Somehow a bunch of things collided in my head last summer while I first got immersed in Ponyville. I was also reading some Megan Abbott (Fever and then later The End of Everything) and also noticing stories like the Slenderman stabbing. They stirred up a lot of the best and worst of girlhood. There’s a darkness in it that no one much likes to admit; it can be a very claustrophobic world.

Girls lives are circumscribed by society. Much as we like to think we are free and liberal (all current evidence to the contrary), the truth remains that girls lives are tightly bound. At the far end of the spectrum, they’re literally locked away until handed over to a husband or some other patriarchal organisation; at the more lenient end, they’re hemmed in by social constructions that breed fear into their very skin. They’re both disparaged and protected. They don’t have a choice. So what happens?

Girls expand to fill the spaces allowed them.

It may be very little, it may be a little bit more. But it’s almost always less: less than they want, less than they need, leaving a permanent curvature to their psyches like bound feet. In countless ways they are encouraged to be girly: ‘you look so pretty!’ ‘isn’t she adorable?’ ‘just like a little lady.’

Yet ‘girly’ is usually a slur. I know, I’m still dealing with that one, being a former tomboy now step-monster to a quintessentially girly girl. Do you know how much glitter there is in this house? Everything seems to sparkle. It makes me feel like Lou Grant sometimes, because this girl: she’s got spunk and there is not enough pink in the world for her. She has lots of princess dresses and I don’t know how many Elsa dolls. She’s better at applying makeup and not even six. It’s not my thing: and she sighs at my mostly black clothes. She paints my nails. There’s a part of me that finds rebellion in that. Because girly gets sneers. What’s more derided in pop culture than girls and their selfies? Could it be because selfies allow girls to choose how they’re represented?

Me and Executive Princess

Because girls are never right: if they’re girly, they’re denying themselves—if they’re not girly, they’re denying everyone else (‘Can’t you wear a dress at least once in a while?’). I hear parents who claim they raise their boys and girls the same; I also hear them say things to the girls they would never say to the boys. That’s because I remember too well not being allowed to do things my brothers were allowed. Seldom said ‘because you’re a girl’ but I knew that was why.

Everything girly is tainted: pop stars, for example. Is there anyone more despised than the floppy-haired pop stars girls scream for? Cultural disdain for them is one of the few things seemingly everyone can get away with. Girls like those safe, sexless, moronic pop stars, you say. No, girls are allowed them. They channel all the passion that frightens their parents into cute and inoffensive stars. Look at all the audiences at Beatle concerts: the tears, the ecstatic expressions, the clenched fists and contorted bodies. Where else do girls get to show that? Read Abbott’s books: she’s great at revealing how girls’ desires terrify their parents — and often themselves.

One of the keys to surviving girlhood is friendship, but that’s problematic, too. Friendship when it’s manly is the stuff of Oscars and literary prizes: important. For girls it’s rivals and mean girls and frenemies, at least that’s what popular culture tells us. For girls friendship is both safety and danger. When Lauren Faust worked on MLP to demonstrate Friendship is Magic she delved into one of the most rich veins of human existence: the compressed world of girls’ power.

I’ll admit it: the MLP world is girly as girly can be: Twilight Sparkle, the solitary and bookish young royal, gets sent to Ponyville to understand the power of friendship. She hooks up with Flutter Shy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Apple Jack and Rarity to discover this strange thing just in time to deal with a real crisis—the return of Nightmare Moon! Okay, if you’re still with me, this is a lot more charming than the cutesy names indicate (which were chosen by marketers after all). The dialogue of the show is often clever and there’s loads of winking references and homages (especially in the music and the music is often really good).

The essence of MLP’s world is the elements of harmony: everyone is valued for their unique abilities. The 1984/Harrison Bergeron-esque episode ‘The Cutie Map’ makes this point well. The ponies go to the mysterious village and discover its chilling appropriation of the equality sign in an attempt to make everyone in the village the same. Blah blah blah libertarian blah: the more interesting aspect comes out when our heroines start bickering over how to deal with the situation. One of the villagers asks them with alarm if their friendship is ending. The ponies are surprised because they bicker all the time: they’re all so different after all. For the villagers, however, difference = danger.

The episode hits at the fear wrapped up in girls’ friendships: that tension between wanting to be safe and trusted versus the knowledge that they have power over someone and want to test it. Girls have power over so little. The nice thing about MLP is that they demonstrate all the ways that friendships can be stressed by these differences—the anger and the frustration—but they also show the rewards of bringing those differences together to celebrate their community. Not just each other: their community, their town Ponyville and all of Equestria. But it’s never easy.

You see, the thing I hadn’t anticipated was how dark MLP gets. One of the monsters they fight is a creature called Discord. His chief evil is turning all the friends against each other. Of course they need to come together to fight him and he’s vanquished by being turned into stone, yet the discord between the friends causes them a great deal of pain. Like Queen Chrysalis of the Changelings or Lord Tirek, antagonists are often removed or neutralized, but sometimes they’re brought back and rehabilitated. One of the foundational myths of Equestria is that Princess Luna is the restored Nightmare Moon. Even Discord’s magic is believed to have its uses. No one is doomed to being evil.

Rainbow Rocks

In the Equestria Girls narratives (where the ponies become girls in an alternate world no there’s no time to explain, just roll with it) this idea of reclaiming those who would abuse power is key. In the first EG film Sunset Shimmer tries to steal Equestrian magic for her own self-aggrandizement. The girls stop her selfish use of power with their collective cooperation, which Twilight Sparkle spends most of the story building because in this world, the friendships had soured. Despite the anger and hurt from misunderstandings,  that cooperation is something they all yearn for—and its power. Power for yourself alone is bad. There’s nothing wrong with competition (ask Rainbow Dash!) but when you think the world revolves around you, the girls will stop you.

Even more interesting is the follow-up Equestria Girls adventure, my fave Rainbow Rocks. You know I’m a sucker for a battle of the bands. The songs are seriously good pop songs. Part of the appeal of the story is that Sunset Shimmer spends most of the story being cold-shouldered for her past mistakes, even when she tries to help make things better. Twilight Sparkle insists on her being part of the gang, but the others find it difficult to get over her previous bad behaviour. Her outsider status allows her to see the clashes that begin to crack up their tight relationships, though of course no one wants to listen to her.

As their rivals, the magically powered Dazzlings, gain power—all for the glory of Adagio Dazzle (‘We Will Be Adored’)—the girls bicker bitterly with each other, trapped below the stage for the finale. Escaping by luck, they almost succeed in the supernatural fight, but the Dazzlings are too powerful what with their magic amulets. It’s only when the Equestria Girls realise they need to truly welcome Sunset Shimmer—not just tolerate her presence—that they have the power to stand up to the magical assault from the Dazzlings (also thanks to DJ Pon-3’s cool mobile DJ station–the unsung heroine!).

It may not sound like much, but it chokes me up every time. There’s just something about the exile being welcomed at last, the outsider invited in. Maybe all the scorned hope for understanding. We may only get it in fiction, yet it’s incredibly powerful.

I’m lucky: I have a secret cabal of powerful, creative, magical women in my corner (though literally around the world). It didn’t happen over night and there are always some bumps along the road. I know how important it is to tend that garden (she says mixing metaphors like assorted nuts). It’s essential to have that kind of support. We need to be there to call bullshit on those negative messages women all hear just because we’re female. There’s an incredible power in testifying, ‘No, it’s not just you’—that many of us have been in the same situation–especially when all the other voices of experience avalanche like candy from a piñata.

I’m hoping the that uphill battle is changing. While it’s a bit hard to believe as we inhale the last poisonous gasp of truly toxic misogyny, I’m hanging on for tomorrow. Largely because there’s this Executive Princess here. I want to see what she’s becoming. I’ve got a feeling it will be something amazing. When the generation of girls who bellow along with ‘Let It Go!’ come to power, we all better hang on to our hats.

I don’t care / what they’re going to say / let the storm rage on / the cold never bothered me anyway. [door slam]

Elsa slams door