Swimming – An original short horror story.

I wrote this in the middle of the night, after reading this short comic by Fran Krause (The series is called Deep Dark Fears – I strongly recommend it). I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, so I sat and hammered it out. It’s got my usual love of YA and Lovecraftian themes, so pretty standard. I’d like to thank my brother for suggesting the inclusion of the extra bit after the ending… I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! Let me know!


Why is it swimming in PE again? I swear it’s every other week. Just because the school got a stupid grant from the government and built a state-of-the-art pool with the money doesn’t mean I need to be inflicted with the stinging water every week. They put way too much chlorine in it.

They could’ve quite easily used the money to put into the drama department you know. We’re doing this production after half-term of Macbeth – all modernised and set in a boarding school (I know, I helped draft the script, I’m a genius), and I’ve spent the last fortnight spray painting plastic baguettes silver to use a swords. I’m not even sure why the Mrs Lugo has plastic baguettes.

I look at Mary Simons’ legs and feel jealousy flourish inside me – I swear she doesn’t even grow hair on them, they’re so smooth and perfect. I look down at my own, pale and covered in more scabs and scars than Freddy Krueger’s face, and inwardly curse the universe, or fate, or whatever it is that has led to me being forced to stand, cold, damp and ashamed of my entire traitorous body. I’m not huge, I know that – I remind myself most nights, staring into the full-length mirror in my room – but something about my swimming costume highlights every bump and bulge I spend so much energy trying to forget. It’s the fabric equivalent of those big, bright lights they use during police interrogations in the movies – white and stark and revealing – not to mention perfect for making me sweat.

“Okay, everyone in!” Miss Bell shouts. Her voice, tinny and shrill, echoes in the huge pool, making the tiny PE teacher seem even smaller. I close my eyes and step off the bumpy, slimy tile and into the water. For the smallest increment of time it’s like I’m hanging in nothing, suspended in the air against every known law of physics. It’s only a single moment though, and I hit the water, an unpleasant wave of shock rippling through my skin as my body tries to cope with the freezing cold.

I’m not the only one who disagrees with the temperature, and several girls shriek as they drop into the pool.

“Get doing lengths, then! Fastest way to get warm!” the teacher yells, drowned out by the splashing and screaming. Want a group of sixteen year old girls to behave like they’re six? Just add water, apparently.

Cold water is splashed on my face, and I blink rapidly. The pristine Mary Simons is looking at me, her hair slick and sexy even in the water.

“You heard her, Ab-ee-gail,” she sneers at me, elongating every syllable of my name, a distorted mockery of my own accent. “Maybe you can drop a few pounds? Wear a bikini to swim in like a grown up?”

She splashes off in a flash of perfectly bronzed skin and vivid red material, leaving a trail of lazily widening ripples in her wake. I struggle to think of a late comeback.

“Yeah well… Your face,” I mutter into the water.

“Come on Abby, quit daydreaming!” Miss Bell shouts at me, and I realise how insane I must look, wittering under my breath in the pool. I pull myself back against the smooth wall of the pool and take a deep breath, and push off, trying to be a graceful and natural as possible, and start to work towards the deep end in a half-hearted front crawl. I take deep gulps of air as I swim, watching the pale blue tiles on the floor getting darker and darker as the depth of the water builds underneath me. I’m forced to begrudgingly admit that Miss Bell is right – I can already feel the tension in my muscles easing off as they work, warming my limbs with each pull through the water.

“Still would rather be in Starbucks with a hot chocolate, but oh well,” I gasp inbetween strokes, my words blurry and bubbling.

I’m finally settling into the rhythm of the swim, my arms pumping smoothly, my focus on pulling me forward and I let my mind wander. A little too far, in fact, and I slam into the side of the pool painfully. I hear someone laughing – and the large, pulsating paranoia that lives in my brain whispers, telling me that they’re laughing at me and my clumsy stupid existence. I picture it as this big, fat grey slug that feeds off my self-esteem and turns all my happy memories into faded spedia home movies that blur and shimmer. I can’t stand it, the heat embarrassment warming me far more than the exercise did, and so I kick off the side again to escape their snide sniggering. This time, I put my arms out over my head, making an arrowhead with my hands that angles downwards and drives me underwater instead.

The world is abruptly cut off from my senses as I plunge deeper, the water filling in the space where laughter had been just a second ago. I blink my eyes a few times, trying to adjust to the stinging chemicals they pump into the pool, but all I can really see is a wall of blue and the occasional blurry leg in the distance. Being underwater is the only good thing about swimming, I think. Everything is so quiet and peaceful under the surface, and I can just about forget about everything. It’s like how I imagine being in space must feel – isolated, sure, but I’ve felt like that my whole life. I kick in unison, pretending I have a mermaid’s tail driving me along instead of my stupid, messy, pockmarked legs. It can’t last forever though, and I can feel my lungs burning for oxygen as I start to head towards the shrieking, headache-filled world above, as though someone is inflating two balloons in my ribcage. It’s odd, isn’t it – as my air is running out, how it feels as through my chest if filled to bursting?

I break the surface with an almighty gasp, blinking rapidly to clear any water from my eyes. I always like to see how far I’ve managed to get on one breath. One time I managed to get pretty much my own body length away from the side – although I thought my lungs were going to burst afterwards. As my vision clears, my heart stops beating, my blood freezing in my veins.

I’m no longer in Coalington High School’s swimming pool. The shining, brand new chrome and white tile is all gone. I can’t see anything but blue-black inky water for miles. Forever, it seems, from one horizon to horizon. Somehow I’m in the sea, only it doesn’t look like any sea I ever paddled in as a kid. It feels wrong on my skin, thicker and more cloying than proper water should feel. Panic swells in my like a wave, forcing my heart into my throat, until my breathing becomes more like hysterical coughing.

“Hello?!” I scream. The word drifts over the calm, placid sea like a gull, and sails away into the distance. There’s nothing except me and an endless expanse of ocean, black like crude oil. The panic is spreading to my fingers and toes now, making them tingle as adrenalin floods them, begging me to do something, anything, to ensure my survival.

Only there’s nothing I can do – not a damn thing. I can’t swim that far, and there’s nowhere to swim to anyway. I look down, and my stomach lurches. My pale legs are spinning in messy circles, keeping me afloat desperately, and below them is nothing. More nothing than stretches out towards the horizon – the nothing beneath me is just miles of black, getting darker as it goes down. I strain my eyes to see if there’s anything down there, but the idea of all that crushing nothingness makes my head spin. I start to whip myself around, looking frantically at the empty universe I’ve found myself in. The sky is slate grey. Not the kind that’s thick with clouds – but as though all the colour has been drained out of it. I notice suddenly that there’s no wind blowing on my face. My hair hangs in thick, wet ropes around me, but there’s no trace of even the slightest breeze kissing my skin. The air feels as though it’s been untouched for centuries, dry and brittle and smelling faintly musty and rotten. The smell of decay.

“This is impossible…” I whimper, “This is not not NOT happening…”

Something moves in the distance. My heart leaps, hammering into the prison of my ribcage at the thought of rescue, and I squint at the shape cresting the water. At first I think it’s a sail – the sail of some ship emerging from the dark, lightless deep. But then I realise it’s no sail – it’s a fin. A gigantic, pinkish white fin, cutting through the water like a hunting knife cutting through flesh and sinew. For the second time, my heart stops. A white shark peeks from the water, easily big enough that it couldn’t turn around in the school pool. Easily big enough to swallow me whole. I only see it for a fraction of second, but that’s enough time to sear that monster onto my bones until the day I die – which might well be today. Massive, cold black eyes sit on either side of its bullet-shaped head, complete dispassionate and unnervingly calculating. Its mouth is what truly horrifies me though. Instead of rows of jagged teeth, like the sharks I’ve seen on those David Attenbrough programmes, this impossible nightmare has a gaping maw filled to bursting with writhing black tentacles, each one flailing hungry and blind. I feel bile stinging the back of my throat as the creature plunged back beneath the calm, lilting waves, its sleek body so perfectly designed for the water that it barely made a ripple as it sank. It’s almost as if it’s just a figment of my imagination. Until the first coils of a tentacle pulls me under.

Water is filling my mouth, which was open in a silent scream. White bubbles froth around me, obscuring my vision, but somehow I can still sense the shark beneath me, a mix of raw animal power, and cold, otherworldly malice spreading around me like a plume of blood in the water. A sense of despair that wills my muscles to give up, that dulling my survival instincts to little more than a sputtering flame battling against a torrential downpour of utter hopelessness. A second tentacle wraps around my other leg, and the pain of the pressure they’re squeezing with sends black spots popping in and out of my vision. They’re going to tear me apart, and feed each dismembered body part into that hideous creature’s belly. I wonder if they’d noticed me missing from the pool yet. The pull on my legs becomes so strong that my arms stopped struggling without me telling them too. I’m distantly aware, even underwater, that I can hear the popping of my joints being displaced under their powerful grasp. The world starts to fade at the edges as the last of oxygen was used up, my brain becoming sluggish as the cells began to die.

Two hands grasp me under each armpit and hoisted me out of the water. The burning fluorescent lights bleach out all other details, but I feel a hard, bumpy surface underneath my back.

“She’s breathing!” a voice yells. Miss Bell. “Stand back, give her some space you lot! Jessie, got get a bloody lifeguard will you?”

I try to speak, but life is flowing back into my blood slowly, pulling an exhaustion along with it that was so deep that I feel like I could sleep for a decade or more. My eyes start to adjust to the light, and the vibrant colours of the world came back to me. I’m lying on the hard tile of the poolside, Miss Bell’s weather beaten face looking down at me with an odd mixture of concern and annoyance. The school pool seems too sharp and vivid, making my head pound like a drum in time with my frantic heartbeat – the only part of me that doesn’t feel bone-weary.

“What… happened?” I croak finally. My throat is sore and bruised. I don’t want to ask about the infinite void I’d found myself swimming in, nor the impossible shark the colour of old bones that had stalked me through it – they’d skip a trip to the nurse’s office and take me straight to a padded cell. But it had all felt so real.

“Not a clue,” the teacher huffs, “One minute you were swimming just fine, the next you vanished under the water. It was the strangest thing – If I didn’t know better, I’d think one of the other girls pulled you under as a joke. But when you didn’t come straight back up I started to worry. When Marcy said you were lying like a stone on the bottom of the pool, I knew something was wrong – so I went in after you.”

She puts the back of her hand on my forehead and frowns, “Well your temperature’s back up. When I pulled you up you were practically sub-zero, it was the strangest thing – your skin had gone all grey and weird, your eyes were all glassy and white. You gave me quite the shock!”

She gives a little uneasy chuckle, and I try a weak smile to show her I really am okay, but the muscles around my mouth just twitch and falter.

ADDENDUM No. 062


COALINGTON HIGH SCHOOL SWIMMING POOL COLLAPSES

Brand-New State of the Art School Aquatic Centre destroyed

The Government funded swimming pool at Coalington High School collapsed yesterday, shortly before the school was set to open, causing an estimated half a million pounds in damages. Police have said there was no obvious structural damage to the pool floor, but underneath the pool was home to a large number of unusual remains which appear to belong to some kind of humanoid creatures, but which officers have confirmed are not human remains. Detective Stains commented that the bones found were “More fish-like than human, but it’s too early to tell at this stage. Forensics teams are reconstructing as we speak.”

This comes just a week after the pool’s changing rooms were witness to the attack of P.E. Teacher Rebecca Bell, who was the victim of a frenzied attack by a Year 11 student wielding a concealed craft knife. Bell is currently recovering in Friarage General Hospital, and the student – who remains unnamed for legal reasons – has been taken into psychiatric care. It’s believed a severe case of hydrophobia, or fear of water, drove the girl to a psychotic break, although she had exhibited no such fear in the past.


Thanks for reading, if you did! Do hop over to Twitter and let me know what you thought.

Until next time…

D

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The Call by Peadar O’Guilin

When David Fickling Books are publishing a new title, it’s something to take note of. The publishers have released the last two year’s best books for me (The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson, and Unbecoming by Jenny Downham), so I already know that their calibre of YA is pretty high. So when The Call came to me, I was very curious indeed – A YA horror/thriller with deep roots in traditional Irish folklore? I’m in…

The Call

Set in a desolate Dystopian Ireland in a world where all teenagers must survive The Call – 3 minutes and 4 seconds in which they will be transported to the hellish Grey Lands to fight for their lives against the twisted and beautiful Sidhe (pronounced “Shee”) people – the malevolent fairies of legend who where banished there thousands of years ago by the descendants of the modern day people of the Emerald Isle. Time moves differently in the Grey Lands, and 3 minutes becomes 24 hours there, whilst the Sidhe hunt their prey – and if you’re lucky you’ll be transported back at the end unharmed. If you’re lucky they might only kill you. But the Sidhe like to play with their victims if they catch them early enough… Twisting human flesh into grotesque art. If you’re unlucky, what they send back might not resemble anything human at all. Nessa, the story’s main character, is at a training college that educates and prepares the nation’s teenagers for The Call. No-one expects her to survive – there’s no way, not after polio ravaged her legs as a child. She can barely run without the aid of crutches, and the Sidhe won’t let her take anything like that with her. Her death is a certainty, and everyone knows it. Except Nessa – Nessa is going to prove them all wrong…

image

Despite such twisted writing, he seems so nice!

Talk about PACING. I’m a pretty slow reader (it bugs me a lot), but I flew through The Call in about a week, which is not bad going for me. Peadar expertly pulls the story along by using short, punchy chapters, each one ending on just the right hook to pull you into the next one. It’s these choppy chapters, filled with action and mystery which keep the book pounding along through its story, combined with the way he jumps from Nessa’s plot to the short, often violent lives of those Called to the Grey Lands. It’s these little snapshots of the brutality of the Sidhe realm that up the tension for the characters left behind, and as they are Called one by one, the pressure becomes monumental on those who remain. Peadar also uses a Clive Barker-esque feel of horror in his writing, by twisting the familiar to make it unsettling or outright upsetting (in the way all good horror should be), and the punishments and the games of the Sidhe are wonderfully creative and horrifically dark and cruel. The Grey Lands themselves are a suffocating alternate world which the author describes in scant, disturbing slices, but it’s the bleak and ruined Ireland that really feels the darker setting of the two. Only 1 in 10 teenagers survive The Call, making the country a crumbling ruin of what it once was. The adults are strained, hopeless and desperate, and the teenagers range for confident and arrogant to nihilistic, and the clashing this creates makes the characters really stand out – none more so than Nessa. A physically disabled protagonist in a YA novel is virtually unheard of, and one in a fast paced survival horror is even rarer. Nessa might even be the first, to my knowledge. Her resolve and quiet determination are at odds with the usual “strong female character” trope that we see so much in the genre. She has fears and hopes, loves and hates. She isn’t an unstoppable badass – she’s a girl who everyone else has written off already, and the bitterness of a life being told she’s as good as dead quietly weaves its way through her actions.

The Call uses mythology and modern horror ideas to create something really unique and absorbing. As someone with no knowledge of the Sidhe and Irish folklore, I’d love the backstory to be investigated a little more and fleshed out – perhaps in a sequel…? I’ll be the first in line…

Thanks For Reading,

D

Down In The Tube Station at Midnight…

So here’s a short horror story I wrote this afternoon that’s been rattling around in my brain for the last few weeks. I was pretty proud of it, so I thought I’d share!


The tiled walls of the tube station shifted and swirled uneasily as Alicia tried deep breaths to steady her equally swirling stomach. As per usual, the after work “couple of glasses of wine” had become a couple of bottles, and now here she was again, unsteady and nauseous in the stifling stagnant air of Holborn station. Minutes crawled past her, marching steadily towards midnight, and a sense of regret came with them.

She breathed heavily, ‘Future Alicia is going to be super pissed in the morning… Saturday morning a write-off.’ her words echoed off the curved, dirty white walls. She was alone. Fortunately, respite was approaching – or the promise of a seat at least. The pressure change and blowing hot rush of air that indicated the imminent arrival of a train washed over her like a dusty desert wind, accompanied by the steady crescendo roar from down the tunnel. Alicia gathered her bag from where she’d let it slump to the floor, and turned to meet the pulsing of red and white that slowed steadily to allow passengers on and off. As it came to a rest though, it was obvious that inside the train was as empty as the platform. The doors slide open, and she stepped inside, wobbling slightly, but thankful to be able to escape balancing against gravity for ten minutes. So long as she didn’t fall asleep, she was fine. Sitting down, she even started to feel a lot less drunk than she had, and she surveyed the empty tube carriage around her. The light was searingly bright, and intense white that knifed through her skull like lightning, and it felt cramped and uncomfortable, but other than that it was a haven for her throbbing feet. The rows of seats stretched back from her towards the next carriage, but not a single one was occupied, except for a dog-eared newspaper that sat next to her, an unpleasant musty odour coming off it.

‘Solo tube Selfie, methinks’, she concluded after her inspection, noticing her words slurring into each other slightly, like a slow-motion car pileup, ‘what’s the point of being shit on for being a millennial if I don’t get to at least document my debauchery, after all?’

She pulled out her phone, already latched automatically onto the Tube’s Wifi, and opened up the camera. She pulled a suitably ridiculous face, all exaggerated pout and crossed eyes, the empty train carriage seeming endless behind her. It reminded her of when she was little, and she used to open two doors on the bathroom cabinet at the same time, enjoying the strange infinity of the door mirrors reflecting each other back and forth into eternity. She shivered slightly, despite the stuffy warmth of the tube, and took the photo, immediately opening to share it on Twitter.

“Solo Dork Adventures on the Underground” she tapped out, sending the tweet away with a wry smile.

‘Self deprecation is my favourite,’ she muttered to no-one, pushing her headphones in and firing up some music to drown out the toothless roar of the tube as it pulled into the next station. No-one got on. She pulled her phone out of her pocket again, feeling restless, the tiredness of alcohol making her yearn for bed. Her photo had garnered a few likes, as well as a couple of comments of “creepy!” from her followers. Her friend Adrian had replied, “Wow, cool shot! How’d you set that up?” which was an odd question. She told him that she’d just got on the empty tube – that it must have been good luck to get the whole train to herself, before sinking back into her music. She let her eyes droop, shielding her from the harsh buzz of the florescent light, but was careful not to let them drop completely. Last thing she wanted was to fall asleep and end up in Sheffield. After a minute or two, Alicia felt the train slowing down for another station, but it was once again empty, filled with litter and echoes. She checked her phone again. Adrian had replied saying “Haha, very funny – true dedication to the joke” which was even stranger than his first comment. She flicked back up to her original tweet, and felt the blood in her run ice cold. She was sat in the photo on her screen, in the same seat she was sat in now, pulling the ridiculous face she’d pulled earlier. The rows of vomit brown seats stretched away behind her just like she remembered, but sat twenty places or so behind her was a little boy. His black hair hung greasy and dank into his cold, black eyes. He was staring right at her.

Alicia pulled her headphones out and shot to her feet, spinning, her heart hammering double time, to look down the train. It was completely empty. She could see over the seats from standing, and there was no-one hiding behind them.

She called out anyway, ‘Hello? Is someone there-’ she caught herself mid-sentence when she realised she was uttering the dying words from every horror film ever made. Shakily, she held her phone up and took another selfie, her skin clammy and pale, but the alcohol purged from her system by adrenalin and fear. When the picture flashed up on screen, the boy was closer. Only ten or so chairs away this time. His eyes looked back at her through the phone, horrifyingly deep pools of black that sang hunger and sadness. Alicia screamed, and checked behind her again. Nothing was there. The carriage suddenly felt unbearably claustrophobic, the weight of tonnes of rock and London city crushing down on her. The air had gone from a stagnant heat to crackling with malevolent energy. She raised her phone to her face again, terrified of what she’d see when she took another picture, but more terrified of not knowing where the thing that was stalking her even was. When she tapped the shutter button gently, the picture showed just half of her face, cut off by the edge of the camera. There was a pale, mottled grey hand grasping her shoulder in the picture, the fingernails cracked and peeling away. The second she saw the image, she felt the pressure of a tiny but unbelievably powerful grip on her shoulder, sending a spider web of cold pain and abject horror through her. Her legs buckled, but she didn’t quite fall, instead stumbling with a wordless moan of primal fear towards the door of the tube. The train was slowing for another stop – not hers, but there was no way in hell she was going to stay trapped underground with some invisible child-shaped abomination. The slowing wasn’t fast enough, the seconds stretching out impossibly to long minutes of cold terror. Alicia was certain she felt tiny hands grasping at her hair, and jerked this way and that as though spiders where crawling up her body.

Finally, the tube shuddered to a stop, the doors swung open, and Alicia flung herself onto the unmoving concrete of the station floor. As she sucked in lungfuls of dry air, she just caught the glimpse of the boy stood behind the glass of the door behind her. He looked at her with those painfully yearning black holes, his mouth opening impossibly wide in a scream that sounded like a dying cat’s yowling. A thick, inky black fluid spilled out of his mouth in heavy, dripping ropes, and in response to his otherworldly howl, thin arms ending in long, grasping fingers snaked their way out from the dark gap between the train and the platform edge. They snatched blindly at Alicia, the desperation and starving need to have her coming off them with an animal lust. One grabbed her ankle, the fragile looking fingers exerting an impossible pressure on her skin, ice and agony knifing into her bone. It was pulling her towards the dark space beneath the tube as the it began accelerating away from the station again, moving with a heavy certainty that promised a messy death if the hands had their way. Alicia summoned all the strength she had and kicked her free foot at the hand that held her, and connected with enough force to shock it into releasing her. Driven by a pure and thoughtless survival instinct, she ran lopsidedly from the station, her crushed ankle screaming with agony as her broken bones ground against each other beneath the skin. Finally, when she reached the cold, fresh and freeing air of the world above, she allowed herself to collapse into a sobbing wreck, the pain becoming to much for her to bare. She passed out, the echoing black void of the child’s eyes swallowing her consciousness.


So that’s it! Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment if you liked it!

D

Things Going Bump in the Night

So in the last week I’ve moved out on my own. Hurray! Super exciting! Having your own space really is shiny special. However, living alone also comes with its own special set of anxieties, especially for someone with a runaway imagination like me. When I was a kid, every creaking floorboard was a vengeful spirit and every half opened wardrobe a gateway for alien abduction… And that’s never really left me. In the middle of the night, things seem more plausible than they do as a rational grown-up in broad daylight. Magic flows in the dark, and shadows hide horrors. So this is something I cooked up staring at my new kitchen window at two in the morning the other night. Because that’s how I process things – I write about them.


Two thirty three.

Amy stared at the angry green light of her alarm clock as she slowly came to the weary realisation that she wasn’t getting back to sleep. With a sigh, she sat up in bed, pushing her covers aside and surveyed the vague dark shapes that littered her bedroom. She still hadn’t really bothered unpacking, so her whole apartment was a warren of different sized cardboard boxes with her whole life rammed into them. It looked as jumbled and chaotic as it felt.

Three nights in her new flat and all three so far she’d woken up at two am sharp. Stretching out her aching arms, Amy hopped out of bed and pulled her dressing gown around her. She still hadn’t worked out how to put the heating on. The layout of the flat was still unfamiliar to her, but she decided to navigate in the dark anyway to try and force her brain into mapping it out, stalking out into the short hallway. Her familiar furniture loomed strange and threatening in the shadows, reminding her just how much her life had been warped and distorted by the last few weeks. Jason had completely ruined everything he’d come into contact with during the five years she’d put up with his crap for. When she’d finally walked in on him in bed with another woman, her world had shattered into fragments, each one a jagged, harsh truth she’d never wanted to face. She wasn’t sure if she could piece that old life back together any more. Although, if she was honest with herself, she wasn’t sure she wanted to. A brand new one seemed much more refreshing, away from the taste of betrayal, salty and bitter. Away from the crying for hours at a time, until knives of pain needled relentlessly into her skull.

The silence that hung from the walls was deeper and more oppressive than the shadows could be. University had been loud, vibrant and exciting, living with six other girls in a cramped terraced house. Even when the arguments with Jason both drove them into sullen silences, there was still the sense of presence that hung in the air that the flat completely lacked. Amy stood for a few moments, soaking in the sense of unease that had accompanied her last three sleepless nights.

‘You’re a grown woman, for God’s sake’ she whispered. It felt like a transgression, like swearing in church or breaking a mirror. Shivering, she realised that the feeling that was churning in her stomach wasn’t an unease from feeling alone at all. It felt like being watched. She tried to quash the feeling by chastising herself harshly, deliberately breaking the hallowed silence of the night.

‘Amy,’ she hissed, ‘stop letting your imagination play tricks on you. It is all. In. Your. Head.’

Her bare feet slapped softly against the cheap laminate floor as she padded quietly along the hall. Even though she was pretty sure no-one could hear her unless she screamed her lungs raw, she was still paranoid about annoying her new neighbours, and all her day to day movements had been measured and dainty since she moved in. Not that it would last for long – she was definitely the clumsiest person she knew, and sooner or later she’d shatter something in the middle of the night and her neighbours would detest her forever. Maybe. Her mouth felt clammy and tasted sour, the memory of sleep gummed up in the corners, begging for the water to return it to normal. Stumbling, her body still unsure of its surroundings, she squeezed herself into the cramped kitchen. It was one of the few rooms that had been fully unpacked, which her dad would’ve no doubt used as an opportunity to make fun of her weight, just like he always had when she was a teenager. She felt a dull ache in her stomach. She hadn’t spoken to either of her parents since she was sixteen – seven years ago now. In the stillness of sleepless nights, she let her memories bubble to the surface from time to time, and let the arguments and violence echo around her. It reminded her of how far she’d come. Not even Jason could take that from her. A single plain white plate and polka-dot mug sat by the sink, sparkling in the moon, a show of perfectly normal, bland everyday existence. Grabbing a clean glass from the cupboard, Amy let the cold tap run gently, making a tinny rattle of water on metal as it fell into the sink as it cooled, and stared out of the window as she filled her drink. Outside, the world was still and waiting, bathed in a blend of inky deep shadows and harsh orange light that flickered like an angry buzz, desperate to chase the shadows away. Over the top of it all, the pale glow of the moonlight held court, adding its own hue to the frozen, empty stage of the night. She was nestled in a horseshoe shape of identical apartments, pushing in from either side and looming from above, and beyond those was the uniform row of uncaring terraced houses, each an uninspiring grey that was designed, Amy believed, to sap the creativity and aspiration out of the people who lived there. By day, kids kicked balls against them and hurled insults at passing strangers like hyenas defending their territory. She always felt her heart hammer in her chest as she approached them, wondering frantically why they never seemed to be at school. But now everything was still, and staring idly out into the world she tried so hard to shut out, was when she saw the thing.

Amy wasn’t sure how she’d even missed it in the first place. It was a hunched, humanoid looking shape, shimmering a dull grey that perhaps she’d mistaken for the contours on a bin bag, highlighted by the chaos of light and shadow. Now she’d properly noticed it, though, it was obviously not a trick of shadow and sleep deprived eyes, it was definitely something that hadn’t been there when she got home from work, squatting in the centre of the car park all pointed limbs and statuesque stillness. It was as still as the brickwork that surrounded it, but something about the way it held itself emanated otherness. The water topped the rim of the glass, pouring over Amy’s hand and jolting her with an unexpected cold stab. She twitched only slightly, but it was enough for her to loose her grip on the wet glass, which fell with an almighty clatter into the metal kitchen sink. It didn’t break, but the sound reverberated through the perfect stillness like a gunshot in a movie.

Outside, a ripple of angry twitches ran across the creature’s back, and inside Amy was paralysed with fear. It seemed like all the air had been sucked out of the room, the silence becoming a vacuum as deep as the void of space. The creature outside began, with a slow deliberateness, to stretch itself to its full height. Amy watched, her heart tight and painful in her chest, as long arms and legs unfolded, impossibly lithe and thin. She almost thought they must be too weak to support any weight at all, but something about them looked hard and strong – and dangerous. As it unfolded, it became more and more horrifying, standing easily two feet higher that the blue transit van that sat in the car park. Its back was still turned to her, but everything about it screamed danger and Amy could feel a silent scream croaking and dying in her throat. Finally fully unfurled so alien and abhorrent into the everyday normality of the car park, the thing stood still again, like the music had cut out in a game of musical statues. Except the muscles under the pale grey skin twitched away, making the creature seem like it was crackled with electricity. The skin, taught and stretched, reminded Amy of the marble statues from Ancient Greece that she’d seen during a school trip to the British Museum years before. She remembered finding the statue’s featureless staring eyes deeply unsettling, and the memory definitely wasn’t helping make the thing outside her window any less terrifying.

Finally, a whimper escaped her mouth. It seemed like such a small thing that fluttered out into the air panicked and fragile that she was hardly sure if it had happened at all. There was no way the creature outside could’ve heard such a soft noise, she told herself frantically. She was wrong. The monstrous entity cocked its smooth, featureless head as if honing in on the sound Amy had made with ears that simply didn’t exist. In the place a human being would have ears was nothing – simply more uniform marble like skin which glistened as though wet in the various half lights that lit the square. In an uncharacteristic shift in speed, it spun ethereally and effortlessly to face her and finally Amy came face to face with the horror that stood separated from her by a flimsy two sheets of glass. Funny, double glazing had seemed so secure when she moved in. Peering in at her was two rows of six uncaring, dispassionate eyes, each a horrifying black so intense and so deep it made her chest ache. She had no way of knowing where their gaze was trained, but something about the way it had frozen screamed that it was fixated utterly on her. In the middle of the parallel lines of eyes was a large, sharply hooked beak which was the same uniform whitish grey as the rest of the monstrosity’s naked, featureless form.

Amy screamed then, any idea of causing upset in her neighbours utterly fractured. Outside the thing opened its beak, revealing concentric circles of hundreds of tiny viciously sharp looking teeth, and let out a scream in return. The sound was piercing, worse than a thousand nails on a thousand chalkboards. It was the sound, she thought, of hopelessness, and it felt as though her skull buzzed and flexed as the pitch reached crescendo, her vision blurring with it. Around the square, no lights came on. She was utterly alone in the universe.

Falling backwards, the spell of abject terror that had held her so fixed broken, Amy fled the kitchen, turning on each and every light she could find as she tripped and tumbled around her littered possessions, none of which anything that she could use to fight a lithe, loathsome horror that stood twice her height. As she flailed blindly in boxes for something useful, one of the long wicked butcher’s knives perhaps, there was a pounding knock at her front door that echoed in harmony with the hammering of her adrenaline soaked heart. She stopped moving, as if the disturbance of the air her arms made could be picked up on the other side of the door. More knocks made the little chain that kept it secure rattle as if it was made from paper. Then everything fell quiet, the pressure of uncertainty building in the hallway like the heat of a roaring fire. After a few seconds of the air building to an almost unbearable level of threatening possibility, a voice drifted through the cracks around the wood. Her stomach lurched as impossibly familiar patterns of speech crept their way like seeking tendrils into her ears.

“Aaaaaaaaamyyyyyyyyyyy…” rasped Jason’s voice through the door, taunting. It couldn’t possibly be him, she knew. He had no idea where she even lived now, and he definitely didn’t care about catching up with her either. She knew in her bones that the voice was that of the creature that stalked her.

“Amy babe,” the voice crooned to her, a sound so familiar that her body responded to it in a variety of involuntary ways, “I’ve been missing you… I need you to let me in sweetie…”

Her voice shook, “You’re not him… He’s not here. I don’t need him any more.”

“Of course it’s me,” he laughed, “who else would it be? Come on Aims, you’re being fucking mental as per usual.”

“What are you..?” she quivered, a tear rolling down her cheek.

“Amy… Aaaaaaaammmmyyyy…” It was mocking her, using Jason’s voice to confuse her. She had to fight it. Jason wasn’t anything she wanted. She couldn’t open the door to him.

“I don’t need you any more. There’s nothing here for you!” She tried to keep the shake from her voice. Tried to will an ounce of confidence to fight the thing that tried to twist her thoughts.

“Then why was he the very first thing I plucked from your mind?” the Jason voice teased from behind the door. “I don’t just sound like him you know. I can look like him too. I can be the perfect him that you always hoped he would grow into. No more skinny whores or careless drunken fists…”

Amy thought she was going to be sick as memories of black eyes and split lips swam back up into her mind’s eye. “He never meant to… It was an accident.”

The thing on the other side cackled with a laugh that wasn’t quite Jason. It shimmered with a high pitched otherness that spoke of endless horrors.

“Let me in, Amy. I can be everything you ever needed from him…” it purred.

“I don’t want anything from you.”

The voice shifted then, growing deeper, developing a broader accent that Jason’s crisp educated drawl.

“Amy, you ungrateful little bitch, let me in right this second or I swear you’ll regret it” the voice of her father echoed through the years back to her, unseen but malevolent as it had always been.

Amy’s head swam, over a decade of guilt and fear coming surging back along her veins, old terror mixing and congealing with new to create a fizzy mix of blind panic pulsing through her.

“You’re not him you can’t be him he doesn’t know” she babbled.

“Time for pissing around’s done now,” his deep voice was quiet but as always every word was impossible to miss. Her ears still made sure they heard everything to avoid the consequences that came from poor obedience. “Let me in and we’ll forget all about it. You need looking after Amy, look at you. You’re a disgrace, young girl like you living on your own. It’s not proper.”

“I don’t need you. I DON’T NEED YOU EVER AGAIN” Amy shrieked, her voice cracking as she allowed an entire life of hatred fill it and force her words forward with the anger of bullets. Years of being told by her father, by Jason, by so many people how to be a quiet woman who does what she’s told. It all bubbled to the surface as the heat the memories made her blood boil. Charging down the hallway, her fear now evaporated into incandescent bitter rage, as her father’s voice called “You’ll always need me. A little girl always needs her daddy!”

She placed her hand on the chain that locked the world out and separated her new sanctuary from the aggression and judgement of society. Her blind rage was building to eruption, until a sudden voice cried out in her head. Amy looked at her hand, ready to fling the door open so that she could drive the full force of her fury into her father’s chest. Only it wasn’t her father outside, egging her on. She was being manipulated by an unknowable monster whose desires she couldn’t possibly begin to fathom. She allowed the white hot fire drain slowly from her body, feeling her heart still racing as the aggression soured.

“I will not let you in…” she whispered into the wood.

Outside, a shriek of frustration cut so sharply and keenly through the night that it felt as though the very universe would be torn asunder.


 

The end! Feedback is always appreciated.

Thanks for reading. If you did, I mean.

D

Lockwood & Co. – The Hollow Boy by Jonathan Stroud

The third instalment in Stroud’s creeping spectre splashed ghost series is one that I’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for ever since book two, The Whispering Skull, ended with such an explosive cliff-hanger. These books are everything I ever dreamed of reading when I was about nine or ten, and even in my late twenties I devour them eagerly in a few short sittings, staying up into the small hours to try and get as much read as my brain will allow.

I need book four RIGHT NOW.

I need book four RIGHT NOW.

The Hollow Boy picks up a little after the events of The Whispering Skull, and a huge area of Chelsea has been cut off from London, due to an unexplained and deadly outburst of ghosts – hundreds roaming the area, leaving many ghost-touched and leaving London’s biggest and best agencies baffled. There’s no obvious source, so all that can be done is teams of agents sweeping the cordoned off zone on a nightly basis, dealing with the overwhelming number of smaller apparitions. London’s smallest agency, Lockwood & Co., have not been requested however, deemed too small to be of any use, much to the annoyance of brightly talented young Anthony Lockwood and his two assistants Lucy Carlyle and George Cubbins. As they continue trying to deal with the void left in the rest of the city by the other agencies prioritising Chelsea, the strained relationships between the highly talented young agents begin to reach fraying point. Lockwood’s cold distance is becoming increasingly more frustrating for Lucy, who is still trying to work out her rapidly expanding skills with hearing ghosts and spirits. But Lucy doesn’t just hear ghosts and death echoes, she can talk and communicate with the dead, a skill that is entirely unique as far as she knows. Eventually the stresses and pressures of overworking cause shifts in the structure of the tightknit Lockwood & Co., driving the wedge of uncertainty further between Lucy and Lockwood. When they’re finally asked to come into the Chelsea outbreak to help, the team are no longer operating with their usual haphazard synergy, and there’s something lurking underneath Chelsea that feeds on fear and distrust…

I cannot recommend this series enough.

I cannot recommend this series enough.

I think it’s no small thing to say that this might be one of the best series to come out in the MG age bracket since a certain bespectacled boy discovered he was a wizard. That’s right – Lockwood & Co is a series I just compared to Harry Potter. Not just that, but Percy Jackson, Skulduggery Pleasant – Stroud really stands with the big names. Lockwood’s chilly Sherlock-esque unflappable nature, George’s grubby but brilliant mind and Lucy’s emotionally charged narration all work perfectly to create a warm, diverse cast of characters that I genuinely care about so very much. Each book in the series stands alone superbly as a chilling ghost story, as well as a historical mystery, against a brilliantly realised world of paranormal darkness and a Victorian sense of melancholy, and they’re continuing to build a deep sense of history and mythology in The Hollow Boy. I yearn to know more and more about this universe after each chapter, dreaming of rapiers and rawbones. It balances creepy atmosphere with quirky, wry humour and intelligent plots, and this third instalment contains some of the most haunting moments of the series yet (crawling on all fours… *shudders*)

If you’ve got a strong reader with a love of clever, twistingly sophisticated ghost stories rooted around three vibrant characters then I cannot recommend the Lockwood & Co. Stories enough – they really are one of the greats.

Thanks for Reading…

D

Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics

I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions that horror is probably my favourite genre – Ghost Stories more than Zombies – but I tend to find that it’s done badly an awful lot, which upsets me greatly! A good horror should be subtle and building, and full of atmosphere. When I was sent a proof of Amy Lakavic’s debut novel, the people at Simon & Schuster described it as “Little House on the Prairie meets The Excorcist”, and so obviously I was very interested.

UK Cover

UK Cover

 

Last Winter, Amanda saw something in the snow from her family’s tony cabin on the mountainside. Her parents are convinced it was nothing more than the result of intense cabin fever, the six of them cooped up in the winter snow drifts, but Amanda knows that she saw the Devil himself, and his festering evil has never left her soul since. This Winter, with a new sickly baby, her Father decides it’s time for the family to move from the isolated mountain to the flatter, less treacherous prairie. It could be a chance for Amanda to escape the hellish evil that she feels stalking her in the forest. When they arrive at their new cabin, though, they find it covered in stagnant blood. Has Amanda brought something with her, or is there evil everywhere?

US Cover

US Cover

Wow, Daughters Unto Devils gets horror perfectly. It’s character driven, evocative and so powerfully atmospheric and it builds with a slow, deliberate sense of dread. Amanda is a torn, realistically written girl, full of darkness and hope – I love how much more flawed she is than her sister, Emily, and her self-doubts help build her into a character and narrator that we really root for. The strict, overbearing religious parents are also painfully twisted, all pure upfront but with layers of aggressive, hateful misery beneath them.

The atmosphere is where the book really shines, though, with a real sense of bleak isolation and hopelessness. The horror is unfolded gradually, using Amanda’s unease and slow descent into paranoia to build it up to staggering proportions. It twists everyday events and throws in some deeply unsettling one shots – particularly the baby standing in the long grass of the prairie. The final few chapters though are horrifically gripping and I raced through them with wide eyes as the levels of violence and awful, horrific events ramped up to make every page an exploration in dark, twisted imagery that sticks in the reader’s brain.

I also really like that Lukavics explores some really important issues in this book, including the ideas of teen pregnancy, miscarriage and guilt, and I found it so brilliant that it’s a story driven by a decisive, emotionally articulate girl, and her friendship with her sister is so powerful. Like any good Horror story, it’s all about show, not tell, and it uses its character’s psychology to get the creepy feel right into our brains.

Thanks for Reading, as always,

D

P.S. The book does contain some potentially upsetting scenes, and so it definitely requires a Trigger Warning.

Demon Road by Derek Landy

Derek’s Skulduggery Pleasant series is one of the best loved Middle Grade/YA crossover series in the world – brilliantly blending macabre horror with a unique, twisted sense of humour and plenty of twists and turns that have kept readers gripped for over seven years. His new series, purely YA, promises to deliver the same sense of magical horror, wanton violence and sharp, acidic wit, and let me tell you it did NOT disappoint.

SOME SPOILERS LURK BELOW – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED


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Amber is a 16 year old girl. Like many 16 year old girls, she doesn’t have a huge amount of friends, spending her time on message boards for her favourite TV show and working shifts at a local diner, as she waits to graduate high school and inevitably head out into the big wide world. She has a distant and strangely cold relationship with her parents, who have always been vaguely loving but disinterested, until the day they tried to kill her. You see, Amber’s parents are demons. Red skin, tall, resplendent and complete with long, black horns – proper demons. And they and their friends have been extending their demonic lives for hundreds of years by devouring their children when they turn sixteen – and Amber’s next on the menu. The only advantage she has is the she’s also a demon, able to shift from her average human form into a terrible and beautiful red skinned demon, gaining super strength and resilience in the process. Fleeing her home and her parents, Amber makes some unusual friends and begins an epic road trip across America in search of some way to stop her parents and their friends from becoming more powerful by consuming her – including making a bargain for her soul with the Shining Demon that originally granted them their powers, pitting daughter against mother and father in a struggle that goes way past life and death. It turns out though, that Demons are hardly the strangest and most dangerous things on the Black Roads of America…

Whoa, what an absolute RIOT of a book! Demon Road is Derek Landy on top form, and I was so immersed in this story – I’m just gutted that it’s going to be over a year before I can get my paws on book two. Amber is a brilliant lead character, and she works perfectly in the story, pushing her self-loathing to one side and coming out swinging as soon as she discovers her parent’s true nature – she’s a real hardcore girl with a strong survival instinct, and not because she needs to live for someone else, but just because she wants the chance to be her own person. Unlike the Katniss’ of the YA world, she makes a lot of pretty stupid mistakes though, which highlight her trusting, if naïve nature, and her gradual learning and understanding of her demon nature, and the supernatural world around her helps open the hidden world to the reader at the same time, instead of lumping huge amounts of information on them at once. Oh, also Amber has a great sarcastic streak to her that definitely works well with her character, and especially bounces well off Glen. Aaah Glen, the wonderfully doomed and infuriatingly motor-mouthed Irish teen is a brilliant side character for Amber (and hurrah for no damnable romantic subplot!), because the way he nervously rambles and babbles gives the story the humour and dialogue it needs. I’m impressed that Landy managed to make him so endearing, despite how mindlessly he acts and the way he talks first and thinks second – he really adds heart to the story. Finally, Milo is Amber’s stoic, secretive driver on her trip along the Demon Road, and he wordlessly balances out the two teenagers with his patience and effortless skills and knowledge of the darker underworld of the USA. His character arc is beautifully done too, as he starts to view Amber as more than just a job, but as someone he actually wants to protect.

DEREK IS COMING TO MY SHOP!!

DEREK IS COMING TO MY SHOP!!

I love Derek’s writing style in Demon Road… He really does create a strange, almost Summer-y quality to the road trip, but he works in the subtle but creeping horror perfectly, and so much of it is expertly done to be unsettling as opposed to cheap gore soaked frights. Plus, his world feels deep and well thought out – I get the distinct impression that there’s a much richer mythology going on under the surface that we’ll get to peek at in later books in the trilogy. The description is excellent here too, flowing and bouncing intelligently and using really jarring comparisons to help hammer home that sense of unease and dreamlike uncertainty in the reality of what the characters are seeing. Oh, and I love the way the road trip plot ties together some excellent set pieces – almost like mini episodes within an arcing plotline.

Fans of Derek Landy are going to adore Demon Road, and newcomers to his work will find it an excellent starting point to his writing style – dark, unsettling, hilarious and heartfelt, with wonderfully varied characters and more twists and turns than a twisty turny thing.

Thanks for Reading

D

P.S. – Demon Road is out on the 27th of August, but you can Pre-Order your copy here.

P.P.S. – Derek will be signing in my store (Waterstones Durham) from 1pm on the 29th of August! I’d love if you could come along.