Short story (by me): Martyring the Virgins

The séance had not gone well. All the way home Michael had been burning with rage, barely suppressed for the sake of his wife, Angela, who lay like a shipwreck in her corner of the taxi. If the little bitch (meaning the psychic) dares to chase me for the rest of the payment I’ll decorate that hovel with her skin, he thought. The very idea of the séance had been abhorrent to him, and he had sniffed when he saw the dingy flat above the bookmakers’ where the woman lived.

She had worn her hair in a greasy bandanna and from her neck hung a cheap jangling necklace, the costume, he guessed, purposely chosen to exaggerate her age and connection to the gypsy community, when in fact she was just an actress paying her way through school with this scam. He pictured her sitting in that filthy flea-market armchair (in whose bouquet of stuffing her natural consort, the rat, made house) reading the obituaries, those long red nails gathering around a pen once she had found a likely mark. Were the names of Michael and Angela Hughes encircled with red biro in a stashed newspaper somewhere in the flat? Michael knew it. Tomorrow, on his way to work, he’d slip a few quid to those ne’er-do-wells who hung around at the end of her street and really teach her a lesson.

‘I can’t think why she did it’ he said to his wife as he poured her a drink in their living room, though he knew quite well – hook ’em early, reel ’em back. ‘All those terrible things she said, pretending it was Matthew.’ The living room, which Michael avoided when he could, was suffocated by pictures of their late son. His infancy filled the mantelpiece like decorative cherubs, his early school days regimented the piano lid, while his teenage years were scattered about the room on various little tables designed for ashtrays and coasters.

Angela accepted the drink, and Michael stood uneasily by the fireplace, unwilling to lean on it lest he disturb a photograph. His wife, he saw, was borderline comatose, and would have to be forced to drink her whiskey, which looked like it might fall from her grasp at any moment. Seeing his avenue, Michael took advantage of the moment. ‘And another thing, I want all these photographs moved to the conservatory, like I suggested at Easter. Remembrance is one thing, Angie, but we can’t live in the past forever, and I would like to host in here again’.

That seemed to bring his wife back to the present, and she slowly placed her glass on the coffee table, parting the waves of pictures. She made eye contact with her husband, weary more than angry. ‘Why are you so eager to forget our child?’ she asked. Michael bristled and gave her what he hoped was a disapproving, authoritarian stare. ‘I want to do no such thing’ he said, ‘but it’s been a year, Angela, and people are starting to think you’re not right.’

‘So it’s diseased for a mother to be torn apart by the death of her only son, is it?’

‘Don’t put words in my mouth, Angela. It’s not just the… grief. It’s all this nonsense about séances and those ridiculous seer-stones you’ve strewn about our bedroom. Frankly, I regret even beginning to humour you about that stupid woman who took our money just so she could spew filth at us. You were there, you heard her. Aren’t you as offended as I am by what she claimed our son was saying to us?’

Angela looked at him, then sighed and raised herself up from the sofa. She picked up her drink and, to Michael’s surprise, gulped it down. She returned the glass to the hostess trolley and said ‘if you want to move the pictures do it yourself, I’m going to bed.’


Emily Paget couldn’t speak to the dead, didn’t even think that the dead could be spoken to. But she could lighten the hearts of sad women, women who might have done harm to themselves if left alone with their grief and cosmic dread, and with that she justified her psychic side-line. That side-line had begun three years ago, after a housewarming party at which she was a guest, and half-noticed the hostess, a greying middle-aged woman worrying prayer beads through her fingers, watching her. Eventually she gathered the courage to approach Emily, and said without preamble: ‘excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but it’s just that I’ve been noticing you tonight and, well, maybe I’m wrong, but you seem to have an old soul…’ A man in the group Emily was stood with laughed and said, ‘my mother is one of these New Age types. Knows all about crystals and energies and chakras.’

‘Well so long as it’s only my soul that’s old!’ Emily joshed, and they all laughed. The woman smiled, laughed along. ‘I know it sounds silly’ she said, ‘but I really do get these feelings about people, and something about you makes me think that you have what we call “the gift”.’ “The gift”, as Emily learned, was the ability to see beyond the curtain of surface reality, to a deeper, more magical reality where the spirits of dead humans and animals, among other things, walked.

The woman invited her to a meeting of her spiritualists’ circle, which Emily, always game for a laugh, attended, and was startled when her new friend introduced her as a psychic. ‘I wouldn’t say that!’ she had protested, startled and feeling suddenly alone in the draughty church hall. ‘Mrs. Buxton’s gift is for spotting her fellow gifted’ said the group leader, a tall and preposterously thin man in a felt suit, ‘so I am inclined to trust her judgement.’

The circle held a séance that night, and Emily was invited to speak to the ghost of a dead priest, Father Dawlish, who had been the church’s incumbent official before his death five years ago. Emily didn’t ask why a priest should have to linger so long in purgatory. After some initial hesitation she got into the swing of the charade (for that was how she saw it) and began questioning the ghost about his experiences in the afterlife, how many Christian souls he’d escorted to Heaven, and which of the archangels he had spoken to.

Having impressed the circle, Emily was sought by people to whom she had been recommended, people seeking solace about the fate of their beloved dead. Mostly it was old women wanting to make sure their husbands were well and not having affairs in the Elysian Fields. (The notion of an eternity wherein wedding vows still had to be honoured horrified Emily.) Once she had consoled a young man that his childhood sweetheart, who had been killed in a car crash, was waiting for him on the other side. (Personally, Emily would have made a beeline for James Dean and forgotten the drippy mortal she’d shacked up with on Earth, but she kept that to herself.)

These “clients” took for granted that Emily would expect to be paid, and before she had begun her first sitting the old girl who had found her was opening her purse. Emily had moved to London to be an actress after six years waiting tables at her parents’ restaurant. Though a girl of her attractiveness rarely had to pay for drinks, the cost of socialising strained her budget and she couldn’t expect her parents to fund her lifestyle forever, supportive as they were, so this unexpected income was more than welcome. She wouldn’t have to find work in-between acting jobs, which meant she definitely wouldn’t have to waitress again. Her psychic side-line kept her comfortably accommodated in her tiny apartment above a bookmakers’, down a street her grandmother would have called cheap, and she couldn’t see herself doing any harm to anyone; quite the opposite.

Then came the Hughes’s. A middle-class couple, the husband an art dealer, the wife a schoolteacher-turned-homemaker who’d found Emily in The Psychic Directory (a quarterly magazine). She was reluctant to accept the job because this wasn’t just a case of a dead spouse or sweetheart, some grieving lover to whom she could give the usual bland reassurances. Their teenage son had died of cancer the year before, and Mrs. Hughes wanted to speak to him again, to know that his personality survived somewhere, and she would meet it again one day.

Fooling a dotty widow or a love-struck boy was just about acceptable, Emily thought, but exploiting a wracked parent’s torment strayed too close to evil. After the introductory phone call, however, she agreed to meet them in a café near her home, and she could tell almost instantly that this was the wife’s idea. The husband, though superficially polite, regarded and handled her with the disdain one would a discarded condom. Emily wore her characteristic tight red mackintosh – which exposed her long legs – red felt heels, and black plastic necklace. Her rich blond hair was restrained by a red felt band. She saw Mr. Hughes admiring and evaluating her with infinite condescension.

The money he proposed – he was clearly a man who, though disdainful of needless expense, had been rich long enough to have forgotten the worth of many things – was, she feared to confess, the deciding factor. With it she could quit her non-role as Lady Godiva in a seedy, stupid play that was doing the rounds of the nightclubs. She could bid her sleaze-ball director adieu and buy her way into parties where the influential people would be. She could push her dream that one inch closer to fulfilment.

But it had all gone terribly wrong. She had meant to say just that poor little Matthew Hughes was alive and well in the spirit world, walking hand in hand with his guardian angel, all the usual tripe, when she suddenly took on his voice and launched into a schizophrenic torrent of abuse at the boy’s father, sat opposite her. Words she had only heard the cheapest of men and women use gushed from her mouth like water through a split dam. Sickening accusations, insults, threats. A stunned Mrs. Hughes howled in despair, and this was the impetus for her husband to leap up and slap Emily, hard, across the face. She didn’t blame him. If she had been in his position, she thought, the offender would be lucky to have left with nothing broken.

Why did she do it? What, if she could honestly use the word, “possessed” her? She didn’t know, and she was terrified. She knew vaguely of a great aunt who had gone mad and been committed in the Edwardian years, but she had been old, and Emily knew of no genetic predisposition to insanity on either of her parents’ sides. ‘Just bad teeth and rickets’ she joked to herself while shakily clutching a brandy glass – after Mr. Hughes had pulled his wife from the premises – but without much humour.

The next day she was violently mugged within sight of her flat by a gang of street kids, who took her purse and gave her two black eyes. Staggering to her door, she wondered if it was karma.


Angela Hughes happened to be passing Gaia’s Health and Bookshop, a homoeopathic boutique, as the shopkeeper was kissing Emily Paget goodbye. Angela paused and Emily saw her. They didn’t quite make eye contact because Emily was wearing enormous tinted sunglasses, but they recognised each other, and to Emily’s surprise and relief Angela waved her over like an old friend. ‘Well isn’t this is a coincidence!’ cried Angela, and crushed her red Mack in an embrace. Angela, a much taller woman than the diminutive other, bent down to do this. She wore a long brown corduroy coat and cap, the second almost hiding her forehead. ‘Are you busy? Can we have lunch?’

‘I suppose so’ said Emily, too taken aback to lie, ‘The Vineyard?’

‘Absolutely! We’ll call it a homecoming’ laughed Angela, and they returned to the place where they had met, though their table was by the window this time. After they had ordered tea and sandwiches Angela asked ‘was that your boyfriend I saw you with?’ Emily laughed. ‘James? Not a chance. The man’s a fairy. That’s why he does so well in that shop. The women he sells to know that he really is interested in their auras. I even suggested he print business cards calling himself “The Homo Homoeopath”!’ Angela smiled politely at this. A pause ensued, then Emily confessed, ‘I’m surprised you’d want to see me, after what happened…’

Angela glanced about her. The Vineyard was a small café, too sophisticated for its home in a shabby side-street; the tables were clean white plastic, unclothed, and to support the establishment’s name vines were attached to the walls, draped across blackboard menus and generic still-lives of fruit, country kitchens etc. Angela studied these surroundings as if she was collecting strength. Finally, she said ‘I don’t blame you. I don’t think you’re depraved, and I know you’re not a fraud.’ Emily’s heart ached. ‘That was my son’s voice I heard, regardless what he said, whether I’d suspect him of knowing even half those dreadful words, or the import of his accusations…’ She took a tissue from a pocket and wiped her eyes. She looked at Emily’s glasses. ‘I read the papers this morning. I’m dreadfully sorry, and I hope the police catch them. This has been a horrible week for both of us.’ Emily smiled. She flinched and almost knocked her cup when Angela’s hand grasped hers across the table. ‘Come back with me’ she pleaded, ‘you don’t have to worry about Michael, he’s in Germany for the week.’


Propped against the wall in the Hughes’s living room was a portrait of the Catholic Saint Ursula, surrounded by her martyred virgins in a lush medieval bedchamber. The virgins’ heads and headless bodies were scattered, and Ursula, stood just beyond the light pouring in from a barred arch-window, eyes downcast, hands outspread, expression vague, was an angelic ambassador to this scene of mortal horror. Emily observed the portrait while Angela fetched her a drink. She didn’t care for it, could tell it was painted by a man. Men always had a need to impress themselves with blood and vulgarity. A woman would have made the virgins as dignified as the saint, not caught in a grotesque parody of pain and fear, eyes wide open with hair spilt across faces, limbs and in one case a buttock exposed.

‘Good, isn’t it?’ said Angela as she gave Emily her drink. ‘Brilliant’ Emily agreed. ‘Where Michael finds such talented young men I don’t know.’ Angela dropped backwards onto the sofa, feeling at ease with and un-obliged to impress her battered charlatan, she of the gaudy red Mack. Emily sat beside her. ‘Don’t worry’ said Angela, ‘I don’t expect a repeat performance. Nor am I sure I even want one. Isn’t that terrible? That I no longer want to speak to my own child?’

‘I can’t say I blame you’ Emily replied, ‘after all those terrible things I said.’

‘Yes, dear, but you didn’t say them, did you? It was him. Whatever he’s become, he’s not the boy I knew. Matthew was such a sweet child. I loved him more than I ever loved Michael. Now that is terrible! But it’s true, and I can be honest with you, dear. That’s why I wanted to see you again. Maybe that’s the real reason why a lot of people visit you psychics. They can tell them things they’d never dare tell their families.’

‘We’re cheaper than shrinks, anyway.’ Angela laughed. ‘Absolutely! My husband sent me to one of those chaps when Michael died. He’s always one to avoid rumours, but he knew I needed the kind of support he couldn’t provide. He’s not an expressive man. He loved Matthew as much as I, yet he didn’t quite invest as much… Does that make sense?’ Emily sipped her drink. ‘I think so’ she answered. She noticed there were no photographs in the room, just that tacky portrait. The room, in fact, looked exquisitely styled. They sat on a white sofa with a pink-budded yew branch design, and before them was a coffee table framed in polished brass. The fireplace was ornate, absurdly so for its small size, and the carpets held barely an impression of footsteps. The room looked like one you would see in a furniture catalogue.

Angela launched herself up, startling Emily, and walked to the painting. She stared at it for a few moments, then said, ‘I know it’s silly, because how would we have met if you did, but I wish you’d known Matthew. He wasn’t like Michael or I. He was small, even smaller than you, and he loved sports. It broke his heart when had to give all that up. His old football team stayed in touch, though, bless their hearts. I was at his bedside in the hospital one day when four boys in dirty football uniforms came in carrying a ball, and they played catch. He was so pleased, I don’t think I ever saw him happier, and I hugged each of those dear, sweet young men hard enough to put them in the hospital!’

Emily returned her empty glass and stood beside her. ‘Can I ask you a question?’ Angela turned to face her, as if seeing her for the first time. ‘Of course’ she said, smiling. ‘Forgive me, please, it’s really not my place, but… are you and your husband happy? I mean, happy together?’ Angela picked up one of Emily’s hands and held it in both of hers. ‘We women see straight through each other, don’t we? Michael was a sweetheart when we met. He once spent a week’s wages buying me the most absurd, extravagant bouquet you could imagine. Another time he bought me a three thousand pound painting from his auction room just because I said it would look good in our bedroom.’

‘But then he changed’ said Emily, then wondered how she could dare such a remark. Angela still held her hand, caressing it, though she looked elsewhere. ‘He put all his romantic feeling in the acquisition, I suppose, though he was still very generous. And he loved Michael… We conceived him in a B&B on the Essex coast. You could see the sea from our bedroom.’ Emily felt Angela tremble. She placed her free hand on the other three, capturing all four in a sisterly embrace. She had had the kind of premonition which made her wonder if she was a little bit psychic after all. ‘Was he… rough with you?’ Angela closed her eyes. ‘It doesn’t really count, does it? If you’re married, I mean.’

‘Of course it matters, Angela. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean you’re owned.’

‘I was a virgin when he took me. The thing I remember is that he kept saying “don’t be stupid”. “Don’t be stupid, Angie, it’ll all be over soon…”’


The two women had held each other for a long time, then Emily had given Angela her phone number. She may not have wanted to be a part of this particular domestic tragedy, but she was responsible now. She had taken a couple’s money under false pretences and in return desecrated the wife’s memory of their son. The husband knew she was a charlatan as well as she knew it herself, despite how bewildered she was by her actions. But the wife believed, and the wife was a sad, lonely woman who needed a friend, not a psychic.

On the night of her husband’s return Angela Hughes wandered the house in her nightdress, randomly arranging ornaments and cleaning what was already clean. When she finally entered her bedroom she felt suddenly sick and clutched her stomach, bending double. She felt like she’d swallowed a spider, a spider that was now crawling around inside her, playing with her wires. Her brown eyes lightened a shade as her pupils dilated, and just as she thought she was about to be sick the sensation left. She stood erect, her arms hanging limply at her sides, her head at an angle, which she righted. Her eyes were wide open, and she seemed to be surveying the room – large double bed below a portrait of Ophelia, asleep and floating through lily-pads; two enormous wardrobes on either side, like observing doctors – as though she had just returned to it after a long holiday.

For reasons she couldn’t explain her right hand decided to explore her body, starting just beneath the breasts and ending on her crotch, at whose feel she smiled. She heard a key turn in the front door and spun around, eyes narrowing and smile growing predatory. She walked to the head of the stairs and looked down. Michael stood there in a glistening black raincoat and hat. He hung the hat and his umbrella on a stand then, as he started unzipping the coat, saw Angela. He smiled warmly. ‘Well, isn’t this a pleasant surprise? I didn’t think you’d have waited up.’ She walked down the stairs, put a hand on his wet coat shoulder, and stared at him with a faint coquettish smile. ‘Come into the living room’ she said, then walked away.

‘I’m all wet, darling, and the Fosters are stopping by tomorrow. We don’t want to dirty the furniture.’ Angela paused in the doorway and turned. ‘Don’t we?’ she said, then turned back and entered the dark room. Bemused, Michael hung up his coat and followed her. ‘We’re in a funny mood, aren’t we-’ he petrified when he saw her again. Her arm was raised above the portrait of Saint Ursula, an ice-pick from the hostess trolley in hand. It stayed there a moment, then swooped down and tore a gash through the Saint’s serene face. ‘What are you doing?!’ He ran to her, but she turned and slashed his cheek with the pick. He felt flat on his backside, stunned. ‘For God’s sake, Angela, what’s wrong with you?!’ He tried to stand and knock the ice pick from her hand, but she kicked him in the face. He heard a crack. It felt like he’d been hit with a hammer. His nose, he realised, was broken, and blood trickled down his face into his shirt collar. His face was alive with pain, he was almost faint with it and the surprise.

Angela straddled him, and although he was normally several times her weight, he couldn’t shake her off. With the ice pick she tore off each of the little buttons on his shirt, exposing his chest. The pick circled the breastplate guarding his heart. ‘Do you really want him back as much as I do?’ said Angela.

‘What are you talking about?!’

‘Michael. If it was possible, would you bring him back?’

‘I don’t know what you mean-’

‘I mean would you make our dead son alive again?!’

‘Yes, yes! Of course I would! A thousand times over, please…’

Gratified, Angela smiled. She unbuttoned and unzipped his trousers. Using his last burst of energy he lifted his torso and tried to push her away. She head-butted him in the place where his nose had broken, and he screamed. The neighbours, he thought, the neighbours would have to hear something soon… But his wife was too strong. A new and unholy energy burned through the wires in her skin, and she subdued her well-built, ex-athletic husband with ease. Tears gathered in his eyes, and one fell down his face. She pulled down his pants and grasped him. ‘Please, Angela, I can’t…’ He felt like a girl in the lair of a beast. Then he heard words he had long since forgotten, as his wife removed his belt and pinned him with a weight she couldn’t have possessed. ‘Don’t be stupid, Michael, it’ll all be over soon…’

Book review: The Bridesmaid by Ruth Rendell

Rating: 4 stars out of 4

The Bridesmaid is a dark and suspenseful novel by Ruth Rendell, and according to some critics possibly the best she wrote. It’s a strange and claustrophobic story about passion and insanity, the former justifying the latter for too long in the mind of a mesmerised young man. He is Philip Wardman, an interior decorator in late-1980s England who lives with his sweet-but-scatty mother, and two sisters, Fee and Cheryl. Fee is due to be married, and a distant cousin of the groom will serve as one of her bridesmaids.

She is Senta Pelham, a tiny and intense young woman with silver hair who, to Philip’s astonishment, is the spitting image of Flora, the marble goddess-statue that belonged to his mother. In an almost predatory fashion Senta seduces Philip on the night of his sister’s wedding. But it soon transpires that Senta is a few flowers short of a bouquet, when she starts raving about how she and Philip are reincarnations of Ares and Aphrodite, and that to prove their love for each other they must each murder someone.

Rendell’s prose has a cold and crystalline beauty, pinning down her characters in little astute observations. Rendell started out writing traditional murder mysteries, starring fictional police officer Reginald Wexford, and did so up until she died, possibly because that’s where the money and book deals were. You always got the sense, though, that the psychological thriller was her true domain. Even her Wexfords started tackling darker issues in the 1990s, from latter-day slavery (Simisola), to child abuse (Harm Done), and racism (No Man’s Nightingale).

Her mysteries were as well-plotted as anyone’s, but the psycho-thriller is looser and more character-driven, which let her explore the people trapped by her plots in greater depth. It also gave breathing room to her essentially Gothic sensibility. Many of her books are a fine example of Urban Gothic, and her writing is as textured and impressive as any “literary” novelist’s. The crime writer to whom she’s most comparable is the American Patricia Highsmith, author of the Talented Mr. Ripley novels, whose work also reflected a preoccupation with abnormal psychology and male protagonists (though Rendell’s output was larger and made more concessions to pulp fiction than Highsmith’s).

The portrayals of Philip and Senta are mesmeric. Philip is an absolutely ordinary young man whose only quirk is an excessive disdain for the merest hint of violence. He doesn’t fear it, is just indifferent to and unamused by it, to the extent that, as the novel opens, he changes the channel during a news report about Rebecca Neave, an old classmate of his sister Fee’s who’s gone missing. Senta, on the other hand, for all her beauty and surface charm, is right from the start clearly a few pennies short of a piggy bank.

Rendell doesn’t shy away from the purely erotic aspect of their relationship, and conveys sex better than many writers I’ve read (too often in a novel, especially a novel of suspense, sex comes across as either funny or exploitative). This helps to explain why Philip would stay with Senta after she starts rambling about Ares and Aphrodite, and brings up the murder pact. It might sound cynical, but sex is a powerful drug. I’m reminded of a routine by the comedian Mickey Flanagan: he bemoans that the nice girls in his life have all been frigid, and the horny ones violently insane, so he had to make a choice between regular sex and a girlfriend not trying to kill him.

The choices the characters make in The Bridesmaid are at once awful and painfully believable. Even as we want to scream at Philip to get away from Senta we follow his rationalisations about her with reluctant understanding. He loves and is mesmerised by her, so he tells himself that her delusions of magic and violence are just theatrics (she’s an aspiring actress). Senta lives in a filthy basement below a several-storey hovel owned by her stepmother, and the place is beautifully evoked by Rendell as a sort of modern fairy-tale cave, where the madwoman lurks like a troll, waiting to lure unsuspecting men. Naive, easily manipulated men like Philip.

There’s also a sub-plot about Philip’s teenage sister, Cheryl, and her grief over their late father, which adds a touch of poignancy to this dark tale of romantic obsession. At the centre of the novel, however, are Senta (rhyme unintentional) and her marble doppelgänger, Flora, whose otherworldly detachment, conveyed by Rendell in some truly spectacular passages filled with ancient mystery, is reflected in the deranged Miss. Pelham. The Bridesmaid is a slow-moving but utterly suspenseful, psychological masterpiece.


Short story (by me): The Ivory Nigger

On a mantelpiece in the doctor’s study stood an ivory sculpture of an African tribesman. It had been given to him by his sister while they were both on the continent, he as the volunteer medical consultant for a group of missionaries, she, as always, as his companion. He had been uneasy about his naive, homely sister walking alone through the tribal marketplace, but his fears were laughed at by Reverend Dunning, the group leader. ‘Oh, John, you really should have left your prejudices at home’ he’d said, while smoking a pipe in a dark corner of a bamboo hut, where he’d slept as the guest of a tribal leader, ‘“white man’s burden” is one thing, but these chaps are more civilised than the curs you’ll find in a London nightclub. Would you believe my niece, Daphne, was actually propositioned in the Portobello road by a man looking for a prostitute?’

So the doctor had left his qualms there, and was delighted with his gift, being an admirer of great craftsmanship. She’d bought it at a stall, she said, owned by an emaciated old man in a kind of white cloth nappy. His wares were arranged in military formation, and depicted mostly generic young males. They were carved from the ivory of an elephant’s tusk, which initially unsettled John. He couldn’t help imagining the poor dead creature, her stolen tusks having left what looked, in his fancy, like violated wombs. But his appreciation of the beauty of the object eventually prevailed, and now when he glanced at it while working, it gave him only pleasure.

‘It really is a beautiful piece’, he’d said to Reverend Dunning when they’d returned to England and stood in his study. The lips of the depicted male were large, and looked soft despite their material. He was dressed like the sculptor in just a white nappy, and stood erect as a royal guard, holding a spear. His eyes were wide open but betrayed no particular emotion. In a strange, indescribable way he seemed to suit his surroundings, the small chintzy study with ornate carriage clock, large oak desk, and bay-window facing a well-manicured thumbnail of a garden, which hosted imported carnations. ‘Incredible that an old tribesman could make something so…artistic’ he’d observed aloud to himself, though Dunning stood beside. The reverend smiled. ‘For a medical man, you really can be a fool, John’ he said, resting a hand on his friend’s shoulder and chuckling. ‘Though maybe having spent so long among those tribesmen I’ve become too sensitive to western ignorance.’

With a curt wave John motioned him to an armchair, with a cup of tea steeping on a stool beside it. He slumped into the one opposite. ‘I spent just as much time with them as you did’ he said, ‘or did you forget I was out there as well?’

‘Oh, come now, old sport, I spoke too soon. I respect and of course couldn’t have done without you. None of us could. It was your generosity and intellect that kept us well enough to so much as hand out Bibles, let alone preach the Word. I was just amused by your incredulity that a Negro could challenge our western artists. These people have a boundless capacity for wisdom and wonderment, just as I’m sure the philistines could have taught us much had Samson allowed them their say.’ John studied the reverend, ignoring his own tea. ‘You are an odd duck, vicar’ he said. ‘You seem to be more in tune with the Negroes than one might expect a relatively cloistered country parson to be.’

Dunning chuckled. ‘In 1915 I lost my favourite nephew. My brother’s wife was told he died peacefully, of course, but Harry and I knew the truth. He’d fallen into the bog beside a gangway in the trenches, and drowned. When I think of that dear sweet boy drowning in all that filth my heartbreaks anew. To me those people out there on the continent aren’t just heathen tribes to be converted, their other people’s nephews, nieces, daughters, sons, friends, wives, and so on…’ Dunning looked as though he didn’t know how to continue the thought. John blushed slightly, embarrassed as ever by emotional declarations. Dunning smiled and changed the subject. ‘I hear Colonel Peters will be visiting you?’

John scowled. He’d almost have preferred more declarations than this new subject. Dunning pretended to ignore his friend’s expression and waited for him to speak. ‘I shall indeed have that pleasure… He’s just back from the plantation, beat us by two days. Why I abide him, I don’t know. I served under him in the War, of course, and I suppose our families go back a long way. My grandfather roomed with his at Harrow, or something of the sort. As I’m sure you know, the social season is upon us, and I think one of his daughters is due to “come out”, as is the ridiculous expression. You’d think we’d be beyond that in 1926…’

Dunning sipped his tea while observing John very closely. ‘He’ll be regaling you and Elsie with those stories of his, I suppose…’ John avoided his friend’s eyes, looked instead at those of the ivory figure on the mantelpiece. ‘I suppose so’, he said.


‘An ivory nigger!’ cried Colonel Peters, ‘now I have seen everything!’ John held standard surgery hours in his study throughout the week, and his day wasn’t quite over yet, so when the colonel blundered into his study he was even less prepared to receive him than usual. Still, using the oppressive manners which kept the colonel a semi-regular guest, John called for brandy (he knew Peters would sniff at tea after five in the evening). Peters stared in wonderment at the little statue on the mantelpiece. At university he’d been a fearsome boxer; his physique had run to fat somewhat, but he was by no means an unsightly or slovenly man. Butch, red-faced, blustering, he held court wherever he was invited (or invited himself), though more by his bullish manner than any charm.

The colonel, in fact, was an utterly charmless man, a brute to whom any kind of sensitivity was alien. He tore through the emotional world like a hurricane, oblivious to even the most normal human expressions of distaste at his behaviour, a curled lip or averted face. ‘Do you think they carve them like that – with ivory, I mean’ he said as the maid lay a silver tray across John’s papers, ‘to make them look more like us?’

‘I really couldn’t say’ replied John, pouring their drinks, ‘Elsie bought it for me from a marketplace they had out there.’ Peters snorted and flung himself into an armchair so violently that John’s blotter jogged. Peters’s foot rested roughly against the varnished oak. ‘I don’t suppose you know what’s happened out there’ he said.

‘In Africa?’

‘No, no, man, I mean- well, I suppose I do mean Africa, but specifically my bloody plantation. One of the serving girls I generously employ got herself in the family way.’ John resisted the temptation to say ‘yours, I suppose?’ ‘Silly Negress poked holes in my sheepskin (a tissue-thin sheepskin sock was the Colonel’s contraceptive of choice) thinking she could get money and a home in England out of me. Can you imagine? Me, bringing home a pickaninny to be raised with my children in my ancestral house?!’

John’s lip curled. ‘Appalling’ he replied. ‘Naturally I made her get an abortion, which is trickier out there than in London, I can tell you. Her people had some kind of idiot witch doctor, though, who performed some surgical ritual on her. I’d have paid a white man to do it, but reputations build fast.’ To Peters, that was the end of the story; he’d unburdened himself to a trusted friend (why he considered John such, the latter didn’t know) and now it was time to talk of sports and hobbies. John, however, persisted. ‘What happened to the girl?’

Peters waved a hand and gulped the dregs of his drink. ‘Died. Dare-say she wasn’t supposed to, but I doubt the tools those niggers use are even clean half the time.’ Peters grinned. ‘No doubt she made good fertiliser, though.’ Before John could form a response to that the words ‘Dr. Harrington!’ came in from the hallway, followed closely by Mrs. Davies, a patient, and Elsie, who served as her brother’s secretary. ‘I told her you were busy, John, but apparently it’s an emergency…’

‘Well of course it’s an emergency!’ cried Mrs. Davies, then paused when she saw the drink paraphernalia. Clearly she considered it rude of Dr. John Harrington to be entertaining a guest with liquor during office hours. John placed the tray behind him on the window seat. ‘I suppose it’s your knee again, Mrs. Davies?’ he said.

‘You suppose correctly’ she replied, waiting for the colonel to offer her his seat. He studied his glass in a bored manner. ‘If wouldn’t mind excusing us, George’ said John, ‘I should like to see Mrs. Davies privately…’

‘Hmm? Oh, yes, right, of course’ he plonked the glass down on the desk, stood, winked at Elsie, and moved for the door. ‘I’ll see you and your lovely sibling tonight, at the club. Be grateful, Elsie, my dear; they don’t usually let women in!’ With a short braying laugh he left the room. Elsie rolled her eyes behind Mrs. Davies’ back, then asked her and John if they’d like some tea. Both declined, and Elsie left. Elsie Harrington’s natural sweetness made her pretty. She was short, had a large behind, and today her curly mouse brown hair was festooned with carnations from the garden, a style taught her by the peasant girls of an Italian region. John worried about her when George was here, because although she was mostly beneath his notice, the doctor could imagine the colonel choosing her as a “conquest”. Naturally, she’d refuse him, and then what would happen?

Having dusted with her hand and seated herself in the colonel’s armchair, Mrs. Davies brought her doctor back to the main issue. ‘I don’t care what that son of mine says, this knee is doing me a great disservice, and how is a woman with my social responsibilities supposed to host when she can barely walk?’ John regretted letting Reverend Davies refer his mother to him.


A summer night lengthened on the lawn, but John felt cold in his study, even after the maid got the hearth going. He sat in an armchair drinking tea and staring at the ivory tribesman on the mantelpiece. Previously he’d observed that the subject’s eyes held no expression. Now he wondered if he might be wrong, because those wide-open eyes did seem to contain some trace of emotion. A certain sneering appraisal, like that which Mrs. Davies had given when she saw the brandy that afternoon. The only light in the room came from the hearth, and flame fingers clicked a mesmeric rhythm up and down the little tribesman’s body, never quite reaching his face or the head of his spear. John rung the bell for the maid and begun writing a telegram.

‘A little late for tea and draughts, isn’t it?’ said Reverend Dunning after Elsie had ushered him to the study. ‘It’s never too late for a man of science to best a man of God in a game of wits’ laughed John. The vicar laughed too, and sat down at the arranged board. After twenty minutes of play, midway through a tedious conversation about parish affairs, the salient point was broached. ‘And where is our friend George Peters tonight?’ asked the reverend as he positioned one draught atop another.

‘Still at the club is my guess, unless he’s gone home with one of those girls who congregate on the Edgware Road, which is possible. Elsie and I left after a couple of hours.’

Dunning smiled. ‘Your idea or hers?’

‘A mutual agreement. The whole scene disgusts me. I don’t know how my father stood it, but then he probably only went there for meals and bridge.’

‘We’re too much alike, old sport’ Dunning chuckled, ‘lonely, but disdainful of companionship. Was my prediction concerning Peters and his dramas accurate?’

‘You know it was. This time the play was about some Negro girl he got into trouble, then forced to have a termination. A fatal one, as it transpires.’ Dunning took longer than was strictly necessary to take his turn at the game. ‘What was her name?’ he asked. John sneered. ‘Do you really think he remembered?’ Dunning, his eyes fixed on the draughts-board, smiled. ‘How are you getting on with your book?’ John asked. Dunning was writing a book about the more obscure Christian figures. ‘Oh, it’s coming along’ he replied. ‘At the moment I’m on Elijah Crane, an almost forgotten Christian patriarch.’

‘I don’t think you’ve told me about him, yet.’

‘He had a parish in Norfolk in the 16th and 17th centuries, and was among the first pilgrims to the New World. A straightforward, sensible man for much of his life, he was manlier and worldlier than your average country parson. He didn’t lead a particularly notable life, save for the skill and compassion with which he governed his community, but towards the end, while he was living in what is now Boston, he developed some strange ideas…’

Dunning paused to overtake one of John’s draughts. ‘Not long after the Salem witch trials his town had its own spiritual crisis, involving a local woman who’d allegedly been caught killing a dog in some woodland ritual.’ John’s facial muscles betrayed distaste, but Dunning’s eyes were fixed on the board. ‘Crane was reluctant to punish what he saw as just a pathetic old woman’s delusions, but after evidence surfaced that she’d been responsible for the death of a local boy who’d fallen from a bank and drowned in a river, he was of course obliged.’ John took his turn. He was losing, which he secretly blamed on the distraction of his friend’s narrative.

‘I won’t relate the whole tragedy or its various mysteries tonight, but after it concluded Crane was never quite the same. He’d been a rational man, disdainful of superstition and disgusted by the witch trials, but now, in letters and among his inner circle, he’d talk about the wretched woman in hushed tones, as though she’d actually consorted with the Devil. He was particularly disquieted by a little amateur woodcut found in her grotto. It depicted the face of a woman some presumed to be her late sister, whom she’d doted on before she (the sister) was killed by a lover. He hid the woodcut with some other occult artefacts in a secret portion of his wine cellar.’

Dunning, his turn completed, leaned back in his chair and glanced at the ivory tribesman. ‘Legend says that the face of the dead sister spoiled all the wines in the cellar and poisoned Crane’s guests one evening, though the only fatality was an old man, who’d allegedly abandoned and thus driven his pregnant daughter to suicide…’

‘That reminds me’ said John, taking his turn and finishing the first game, ‘I must give Peters a bottle of Elsie’s home-brewed cider.’ Both men laughed.

The next morning, prepared for the day by all appearances, John nonetheless felt groggy as he walked down the hall towards the study. Hesitating momentarily with his hand on the doorknob, as if he expected to meet a panel of his peers inside, he opened the door, raised his head, and froze.

In a crude bedsheet noose, Colonel George Peters swung from the small glass-and-brass chandelier, which dangled limply from its torn socket. (Ceiling plaster dappled the dead man’s shoulder like dandruff.) Absurdly, John’s first cogent thought was something his late father had told him about executions (he’d served as a prison doctor): ‘dying looks darned clean in the detective stories, but let me warn you, my lad, in case you ever follow my path, it’s a messy business. The poor chap’s bowels release as soon as the rope goes taut.’ The executional stench was, indeed, potent in this nondescript London office. Before John closed the door and raised the alarm, however, he noticed one more thing: pinned to the colonel’s chest was a sheet from his memo pad. On it was written “FORGIVE ME, ADENRELE.”


John insisted on continuing his workday, if only to distract himself. Appointments were held in the morning room, and unless they’d already heard otherwise he told his patients simply that the chandelier was being replaced. If they wondered why such trouble was being taken for a tacky ornament, few displayed it. He and Elsie were interviewed at separate times, then together, by a senior detective, and the domestic staff kept well away. The whole hallway, which also contained Elsie’s bedroom, was roped off, and she spent much of the day recovering her strength in the conservatory. By the end of the workday the hallway was re-opened, and after giving Elsie a sleeping draught John retired to his study to think. The decision, he supposed, was a morbid one, but tragedy or not he enjoyed the room, and a suicide can, after all, happen anywhere.

He and Elsie had naturally been asked who “ADENRELE” was. Neither of them knew, though John had an idea which he kept to himself. Dunning, who’d stayed the night, delayed his appointments (‘a reverend’s calendar tends to be less urgent than a doctor’s’) and spent the day distracting Elsie. (In the end she had gone with her sleeping draught to the vicarage, to be looked after by Dunning’s housekeeper.) Now he sat in the study with John, not playing draughts, not drinking, just staring at the empty hearth, its ashes still unraked from yesterday’s fire. ‘I still can’t see why he did it’ said John, ‘he had more than enough reason to, of course, with what must have been on his conscience, but so far as any of us knew he didn’t have a conscience. Only recently was Davies saying that he’d never met such an insensitive man.’

‘We don’t know that’ said Dunning, quietly, ‘he must have loved his children. And what, after all, did his wife see in him?’ John didn’t reply to that. ‘Is there no way I can persuade you to come back with me? You shouldn’t be alone, old sport.’ John smiled. ‘I’ll live’ he said, ‘after all, I wasn’t his wife. Nor was I his friend, really. Just promise me you’ll keep an eye on Elsie. Death in the best of circumstances upsets her…’ With reluctance Dunning left for his car. John didn’t see him out, preferring to sit and gaze at the empty grate. Eventually his eyes climbed and rested on the ivory tribesman, in whose blank stare, now bereft of the sneering appraisal he thought he’d seen yesterday, John found comfort. Slowly, imperceptibly, his eyes rarely straying from the tribesman, he fell asleep.


The unexpected heat, he supposed, was all that saved his life. Somehow, inexplicably, a fire began. Like a skittish animal it leapt from the clutch of the grate, then danced in little sparks across the brick-top, alighting on the carpet as a chorus line which bloomed into a regiment. The fire that startled Nebuchadnezzar may not have been more thorough, for by the time the doctor woke, his facial muscles twitching at the strange warmth, he was already cut off from the study door. He leapt to his feet and quickly deduced the only egress: the window behind his desk. Flinging it open and clambering through, he faltered on the sill and fell into a bed of carnations. Not caring that he crushed the flowers he made for the grass, then turned to face the devastation as it wended its way through his office, crawling up the bookcase to melt the bindings of a collection arranged more for show than for use.

Among the carnations John stood, barely noticing a neighbour call to him, the houses on both sides stirring as their inhabitants sought help. Through the flaming veil his attention was drawn to the ivory tribesman, who stared at the burning bookcase like a regal overseer, his observation stern and sincere. It was as though he had come from a day before polished-oak Sotheby bookcases, decorative medical tomes, and all the peculiar middle-class relics which keep their possessors from thoughts of life and death. As the neighbours beat down the garden fence, John remembered the name that was attached to the colonel’s chest.

Book review: The Funhouse by Dean Koontz

Rating: 3 stars out of 4

Not until I was well into this book did I realise it’s a novelisation, because that isn’t advertised anywhere on the book’s cover, nor do I suspect it’s mentioned before the author’s afterword. (It was originally published under one of Koontz’s many pseudonyms, Owen West.) Once, I would have resisted reading a novelisation. In my snobbery I assumed that the genre isn’t “real” writing, that it’s just synopses of screenplays knocked out by hack journalists for quick cash.

The novelisation that changed my mind was Halloween II by Dennis Etchison, an actual name in the horror genre and author in his own right. His Halloween II wasn’t just a cracking yarn – drenched in atmosphere and haunted Gothic images, with plentiful use of colour and perspective to create setting – it was actually better than the film it adapted. (John Carpenter’s Halloween II was a weak, flickering shadow of its predecessor, trading that film’s suspense for cheap gore set-pieces, and reducing the heroine, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), to a passive mute.)

Likewise, Dean Koontz’s The Funhouse is better than the 1981 Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) film whose screenplay inspired it. The Funhouse isn’t a bad film. It even received a good review from the late critic Gene Siskel, of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies fame, a man who in the 80s hated slasher films so much he encouraged fans to send Betsy Palmer (Mrs Voorhees in Friday the 13th) letters questioning her choice of role, and with co-critic Roger Ebert hosted a “Women in Danger” special decrying a lot of the then-new slashers as misogynistic, and even anti-feminist. (To be fair to him, the few slashers he recommended, including the one that started the genre, Halloween, had in common their lack of leering at young women who are then brutalised.)

Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, however, is a very basic stalk’n’slash tale. Its best scene is its first, which quotes, borrows, and cobbles together various shots, ideas, and soundtrack snippets from classic horror films to create a humorous, affectionate tribute to the genre. If you watch the film (I watched it for free online) see if you can spot all the references. The rest of the film is fun in the same way an actual funhouse (or ghost train) is: things pop out of the dark, there’s some decent Fangoria-friendly images and special effects, and it’s all tied together with the loosest of narratives.

Dean Koontz takes this straightforward material and weaves a compelling story of revenge and religious fanaticism around it. Koontz is often considered a poor man’s Stephen King, perhaps because he didn’t become famous as rapidly as King did after Carrie, King’s début, and still isn’t quite the household name King is. This, however, is grossly unfair. Koontz is just as capable and talented as King, and probably has a similar good-to-bad, book-by-book batting average. The Funhouse is a credit to its genre because it’s a proper novel, containing rich characterisations and spiritual themes.

Koontz, a Catholic, uses the religion (not once even alluded to in the film) to discuss fate and moral responsibility. The long prologue is set in a carnival trailer, where a young mother debates if God will forgive her for killing her child, a strange, Satanic thing screeching in its crib not several feet away. This prologue is a story in itself, asking you to question the reality and coherence of a God who’ll let such a child into the world, and whether His dogmas are relevant. The woman’s own mother was a religious fanatic who tormented her child with images of Hell that would make Hieronymus Bosch proud. Is she destined for the place Bosch’s paintings described, where demons tear your living corpse apart for all time, or is killing the dark child a Christian duty?

After the prologue we meet our heroine, Amy Harper. In the film, played by Elizabeth Berridge, she was a pale and somewhat listless virgin. In the book, we meet her in her boyfriend’s car, where she’s trying to cajole him into paying for an abortion behind her staunchly Catholic mother’s back. She can’t access her own money because her mother controls it, but while her boyfriend wants the abortion, he doesn’t want to pay for it or even take her to the clinic.

The way Koontz handles this is compelling and suspenseful, especially when we meet Amy’s mother, a haunted drunk who’s described as using religion as a crutch, and drink as another. She’s an austere and hard to like presence, who dominates her husband and terrifies her young son, Joey. In the film these three characters – husband, wife, and son – were afterthoughts, especially the parents. The mother is shown drinking once, a shot Koontz probably took and ran with, needing to add personalities where none existed in the screenplay.

Joey in the film is a classic-horror fan and prankster. Koontz expands on this, and the relationship he develops between Amy and Joey, much more maternal than that between Mrs Harper and Joey (or Mrs Harper and Amy for that matter), is deeply touching. In the film Amy and Joey are antagonistic to each other, Amy responding to her brother’s pranks with threats. In the book they’re playmates who rely on each other for the emotional needs their parents don’t satisfy.

Amy also relies on her best friend, Liz. Liz is one of Koontz’s master-strokes. The film vaguely implies she’s looser and more sexually available than Amy. The book paints her as a libertine who loves sex and is loyal to Amy (in her way). In Koontz’s Catholic worldview, she represents one extreme, opposite to that which Amy’s mother represents. Where Mrs Harper is cold and repressed, Liz is so cheerfully amoral she’d have made Woodstock blush.

Though the book’s worldview is Catholic, it isn’t in any sense dogmatic, and openly questions what things are truly sinful, and why. Is abortion really a mortal sin, when a full term could destroy or even threaten the mother’s life? Are deformed children really punishments from God? Or could they be gifts from Satan? The various threads of the story presented by Amy, Joey, and Mrs Harper meet at the titular funhouse, operated by Conrad Straker, a handsome and charming carny with a deep, dark secret. When Straker’s carnival leaves town, a murder often happens to have taken place nearby…

Koontz’s novel is a terrific rattle-and-screamer, brimming with love, magic, terror, violence, and fear. There’s gore (more than there is in the film, which is oddly discreet for a slasher), some of it nasty and gripping, and an exploration of what forces in the universe guide which events. The Funhouse is, ultimately, an uplifting good-versus-evil tale, where fallen men and women are brought to either grace or damnation by the paths they choose.


Poem: God, Scurrying

If in the darkness now divine
I see Him like a searching light,
not “Him” nor “Her” but “It”,
that strange perfection scurrying,
what would I say? Nothing.
I would not want Its answering.

What could be said or asked or known;
It would not speak (I guess)
but simply be, and are, and is,
like trees upon which men were hung,
or bodies which their tumours wrung.
All by the darkness will be stung.

Poem: An Anglican Ghost

A church of rounded stones
in grey morose tableaux,
but on this hot Epping morning,
a stone’s throw from the dozing woods,
you feel like an Anglican ghost.

You take the Word of Israel,
sung in a pianist’s key,
the fleshless glory of the Christ
up there in coloured glass.

But man always intrudes.
Man made the church, you know,
played the song which sung the Word.
And Christ Himself was flesh,
the glory holding like a stone
in grey morose tableaux.

A mere thought: Not-So-Fantastic Realism

My brother’s started watching fantasy epics, and I must say, they’re the most grey, turgid, humourless things I’ve seen, fiction-wise. Everyone speaks in this low gravel-y voice, in depressing shanty towns that look like modern Mumbai, but mostly with white people, and the dialogue’s all pseudo-portentous nonsense: ‘we must get to Narnia before the sun is up, or else the elders will curse the wibbly-wobs and drive them from their dams…’ ‘Damnit, man, such a venture cannot be undertaken according to the maps and strategies drawn by our most treasured statesman, Wizard Carlyle, and furtherm-‘ *snooze*.

What genius decided that fantasy needed to be “gritty” and “realistic”? Realism is the opposite of fantasy. It’s the Game of Thrones effect. If your story has dragons and men descended from dragons, it’s not realistic. I don’t want to read thousands upon thousands of pages of flat realist prose in a story which is meant to be sweeping and fantastic, nor do I want to watch several hours of a similarly hamstrung TV show.

That’s why I love Clark Ashton Smith and the other “weird fiction” authors who wrote what we today call fantasy; their short stories and novellas are darker and stranger than anything George RR Martin’s taken eight years to finish, because they take you to other worlds and times where modern society means less than one part of an atom. Worlds and times where dragons are dragons, not socio-political problems.

I’ve not seen a second of the TV series Game of Thrones, and read only some of the first book, published way back in 1996, a distant time when one of my heroes, Marilyn Manson, was actually considered a threat, not a cute oddity. (That’s how long ago we’re talking, folks.) The book had some neat ideas, from what I read, and was briskly written for one totalling over 850 pages. I wasn’t moved by or compelled to finish it, however, because it all felt a bit undercooked.

(If any of my articles are ever read, I expect copious fanboys and girls to correct my woeful misunderstanding of their holy book, hopefully without putting me to the sword.) What I read never seemed to leap off the page and envelop me; it stayed put, conveying a hard, prosaic world I wasn’t very interested in. I’m not being namby-pamby. My favourite genre is dark fantasy (a title I prefer to “horror”, which may be closer to what I mean but is today more associated with torture porn and jump scares). The genre’s moral ambiguities and, above all, overwhelming strangeness truly takes you to other realms. (The aforementioned Ahston Smith’s second book with publisher Arkham House – famed for its association with H. P. Lovecraft – was tellingly called Lost Worlds.)

My problem with A Game of Thrones was that it’s too terrestrial, too bound by a flat and gritty approach to Medievalism, which for me doesn’t work in a story with dragons and magic. I may be narrow-minded, but in my opinion a story is either realistic or fantastic. I’ve heard of Magic Realism, but the aim of that genre, based on what I’ve read and seen, is to create or imply a world beyond our own. What stories like Martin’s do is take those worlds beyond and domesticate them, bring them down to our level. There’s no doubt nobility and fine artistic purpose in that, just not for me. I like my worlds beyond just that: beyond.