When we received the news that the cancer had returned, Dennis brought me a stack of antique books. A copy of the mysterious 1799 ‘Tales of Terror,’ attributed to ‘Monk’ Lewis, brought particular pleasure with its macabre frontispiece of flesh eating ghouls. Also, its clean pages: cut but unmarked.
Matthew Gregory Lewis was a 18th century novelist who specialises in especially gruesome Gothic horror, notably 'The Monk.' The anthology 'Tales of Terror' probably isn't by him thought it imitates (and even parodies) his blood curdling style. It has a great frontispiece of graveyard ghouls eating corpses (reproduced above).
I began my journey in 2039. It was a Tuesday above the West African coast, with the dazzling arc of the Atlantic turning beneath me. It was an ordinary spacewalk. Micrometeors snapped my safety cable. I watched the shape of International Space Station Opera spinning as it shrank away from me.
Thirty nine minutes of air remained. A crackle of furious coms activity gave way to resignation. As the earth dipped beneath my vision and the haunting starscape replaced it, I recorded farewells to my family. The buzzing voices dimmed. The great silence embraced me.
Airless. Cold. No microbes to chew the flesh from my bones. My body withered inside the bulbous suit, like an ancient pharaoh encased in a tomb painted with arcane symbols: NASA, ESA, TESLA, the Vitruvian Man, flags, futile safety advice. Symbols more vast and inscrutable came into view: the constellations, flung like jewels across the bosom of the night.
My orbit took decades, but on my return from the dark side of the sun, Earth was not waiting. She had moved on, like an abandoned wife. I took my place among the other travelers: the frosty comets and tumbling asteroids that loop around the sun like a child scribbling on the walls of a cathedral. They had made their peace with eternity, but I was restless. Even after death, there is hope.
My orbit took centuries, but Earth was waiting for my return, like the dutiful widow.
I am history now. Scholars send out drones to find me, the tractor beams dragging me home. She’s changed, Earth, my old bride. Rings crisscross her axes. Traffic shuttles from the reshaped continents to the orbital platforms. Tugs and yachts cluster at the fringe of her atmosphere, bound for Mars and the moons of Jupiter. The coms in my suit whine once again with chatter in strange languages, bulletins, retrospectives, the tragedy of ’39, Earth’s lost son returning at last like a mariner from the sea.
They ease me through the clouds, where the austere black changes to dazzling blue. My old friends, the colours, touch my desiccated corpse. Below, fields of green in which to be buried, on the world that my grandchildren knew.
Ghost stories are often love stories and this one is partly a love story to Earth, our old playmate, ogress and fairy bride, and partly - as readers of a certain vintage might have spotted - a love letter to Queen's delightful folk rock ballad "39" from their 'Night at the Opera' album.
My family forbade me to talk to ghosts.
You smile? Perhaps, in the West, there are no ghosts. In Somalia, there are too many. But we are here to talk about different superstitions, about the cutting. For Somali girls, it is sunna, just ‘the Way.’ I learned about it from my sister Yasmiin but I asked eedo, my aunt, if it were true. Then abti, my uncle, beat me, partly for my immodest curiosity and partly for talking to Yasmiin, who had died ten years earlier.
Please do not laugh. We are a haunted people. Eedo grieved for her brother; abti grieved for two sons. A land mine killed my mother. My father was murdered by militants.
How quiet the streets of Europe are. How empty your houses. With ghosts, you are never alone, even when you learn to ignore them, as I did: the girls that al-Shabab kidnapped who wandered the fields shrieking, the disfigured old lady who waited at the water pump, fierce Yasmiin who followed me wherever I went, to the market, to the school, to prayers. But never my father or abti’s sons. The dead are all women, demanding to be heard.
The dead do not leave when you ignore them. You draw more with your silence and your downcast eyes. Ghosts crowded the house. They chattered through the night until I screamed at them to leave. Then eedo, waking, inspected my sheets and saw the blood and declared Wallahii!, no more delay. I would be cut and then married.
How the ghosts complained and pleaded. Once I followed the Way of all women, I would hear them no more. I was relieved at the thought. Then abti paid for a traditional cutter to come to the house.
“You will die,” Yasmiin shouted. “Did I not die? Do you want to join me? Do you?”
The ghosts pressed into the room while the cutter took out his knives. I looked from the man with his knives to my fierce sister. I spoke to the ghosts one last time.
I said “Caawi!” which means ‘Help me.’
They are years and oceans away now. The dead do not speak to me in this country.
So I will speak for them. For I have seen the anger of ghosts and it is a terrible thing.
This one took a while: partly some research into Somalia, and Somali language, but more working out how the ghosts represent the silence in a sometimes-brutal, patriarchal setting. In fact, there's very little ghost lore I could discover in real Somalian folklore and not much in Islam generally. But Somalia is a suffering country that certainly deserves angry ghosts.
“I do not intend to die. Ever.”
How terrible, to toil away in life only to find yourself burdened with a boring job in the afterlife. Qadaffa's name is meant to hint at Egyptian origins but really it's just an echo of 'cadaver'. In a longer version of this story, Jonas believed he had arrived at Qadaffa's office to secure a lucrative contract with him, only slowly realising that he is the one being contracted.
'A Loophole' turned into quite a series on Daily Ghost. Later episodes introduced the Egyptian death goddess Anupet who works to counter Qadaffah's necromantic schemes.
My grandfather worked down the Pit and he took his son, my Dad, down, just like I took my three lads down. I keep their pictures on the mantelpiece: James, smiling, and David, the quiet one, and Malcolm, just a boy, and the big colliery wheel behind them. I’m waiting for them to come home.
The colliery wheel turns and boys go down the Pit and come out old men. Then the man from the Ministry closed the Pit and the wheel stopped turning, 27 years after the big explosion and all the bodies they never found.
The neighbours left but I stayed. I was waiting for my lads to come home.
The letter from the Council told me to go, but I was waiting for my lads to come home.
The waiting got so hard, that I sat in the kitchen, one November night, and wept. Then the latch rattled and in they walked. James, smiling, and David, all quiet, and my boy Malcolm.
Black with soot they were. So I ran the bath, the way Mother used to, and scrubbed them clean. They never spoke, but they put on clean shirts and sat around the kitchen table, waiting.
Nothing in the fridge except a heel of bread. So I ran, to the Chippy, and Hamid was frying up.
“Hello Jack,” he said, “is it fish with chips?”
“Times four,” I said, holding up fingers.
“My lads,” I told him, “they’ve come home.”
They tucked into that fish like they were famished. Then they washed up in silence. They went and sat on the sofa and waited. So I turned on the telly. And they watched it in silence, and I watched them, all evening long.
They went to their room, and I lay in my bed and listened to their breathing. Not sleeping, they were lying there, in their beds, just waiting.
They came down at dawn, wearing the pit clothes I’d cleaned. I’d packed their lunches. I opened the door and out they went, smiling James, quiet David, my boy Malcolm.
“Lads,” I called and they turned to face me. I didn’t have words, but they nodded, James, then David, then Malcolm. Then they left, up the sleeping street, under the shadow of the big colliery wheel, turning one last time.
This one brought a lump to my throat when I wrote it. The destruction of the colliery towns by the closure of the old mines and the real grief of those who lost sons to mining disasters are real enough without ghosts. The supernatural plot is drawn from the medieval ballad The Wife of Ushers Well that Steeleye Span turned into a folk rock classic.
With no Brian, I can sleep in fuzzy stretchpants, eat toast in bed, watch soaps on the iPad. I throw the extra pillows away and enjoy the spacious mattress. I touch myself without shame.
Then the front door clicks in the silence downstairs.
Was that imagined?
No, it was nothing. I roll over with noisy sighs. The selfish moment is spoiled. Stare at the ceiling’s soothing blackness and count down to sleep again: three, two…
A stair creaks.
The stair that always creaks its distinctive complaint under a footstep.
Eyes open now. I reach out and – ‘click’ – the lamp sheds its inattentive light on clock and hairbrush, the bedroom door becomes an oblong of shadow.
It’s stupid to call out because of course there’s no one there.
Courage. My bare feet touch the floor. Three steps to the door. My fingers find the plastic square, the ready switch, and light jumps into the landing and halfway into the staircase. My shadow zig-zags down the steps into the darkness.
I resist the urge to say, “Who’s there?” like a fool.
Because, of course, there’s no one there.
Darkness again, but now the bed is cold and unfamiliar, my breaths loud and laboured. Then slowing. Then softening.
The landing creaks outside my door.
These are the sounds of an old house. Go to sleep.
At the foot of the bed, there is a weighty presence. I am looked upon.
This is the moment: to sit up and shout out, to scream and send an intruder running, defeated by my terror, his footsteps banging down the stairs, pursued by my shouts. The screams that will bring the neighbours and the police.
But my throat is dry and the moment to scream passes.
Tears prick my eyelashes. The one scream left is gone. I listen to the shifting darkness.
The duvet slips from my shoulder.
I demand a scream but my mouth offers nothing. I press my fists to my eyes, draw my knees to my chest, and darkness falls upon me with a dreadful weight.
Suddenly, I’m awake. The friendly clock announces midnight in bars of glowing red.
Jesus, I miss Brian so bad.
Then the front door clicks in the silence downstairs.
Ghost stories are at their best when they are ambiguous. Is she dreaming or fantasing? The original draft was longer and featured more on the death (not just the absence) of Brian and her sexual loneliness. This is one of the stories that perhaps lost too much in editing it to this format?
One reader interpreted the story in another way: 'Brian' is a controlling lover and the narrator is emotionally dominated by him even when he is not present - or after his death.
There is a Draugr under Grima’s Howe.
I love writing in this Heroic Register, with flipped sentence construction and "Lo!" and all that stuff. I think I got it from Marvel Comics! Anyway, it's more bearable to read when it doesn't go on for too long.
The Draugr is an undead monster from Norse mythology, perhaps a ghost, perhaps some sort of vampire. If they're not haunting crypts, they are pestering sailors. A Draugr (the seagoing sort) is the mystical foe in 'Elias and the Draug' (1870) from Jonas Lie's 'The Visionary.'
It’s been a strange day.
First, a report of gunfire in an industrial estate. Us two firearms officers, sweating in Kevlar, and a warehouse full of dead Eastern European gangsters. One still breathing: “Dorota,” he kept saying to the paramedics.
In the middle, not a drop of blood on her, a child’s doll. Faye took it for the evidence bag.
We slung the long arms in the back of the BMW. I took the wheel. We were both quiet, me thinking about that bloodbath, Faye playing with the doll.
“Are you putting that thing in the bag or not?”
“Dorothy,” Faye replied, “her name is Dearest Dorothy.”
We stopped at lights so I turned to her. She hadn’t secured her Glock. I reached for it.
“Don’t you touch her!” she yelled, no, screamed. She’s a pretty girl, Faye, but she wasn’t pretty then, eyes wide, froth on her lips.
“It’s just a damned doll, Faye!”
Then I was looking into the barrel of her Glock-17.
“Stop the car,” she shouted: “Stop the bloody car, Dev!”
I did, nice and slow. She unbuckled, gripping that doll with white knuckles.
“I’m taking Dearest Dorothy and we’re going!”
Then she was out on the pavement, doll in one hand and pistol in the other, with mid-morning shoppers skipping out of her way.
“Don’t touch her!” she screamed at a pointing child. The white-faced mother found herself facing a 9mm semi-automatic.
“Faye, drop the weapon!” Now I was armed, my pistol on her, hers wandering between me, the child and the mother. “Put it down, Faye!”
Faye’s face crumpled with baffled fury, tearful, gulping air. She pressed the doll to her cheek and squeezed her eyes closed. The barrel moved towards her chin.
I took the shot.
The discharge sent pigeons whirring into the air, the boom of the Glock rolling down the shopfronts and surging back to me. Faye lay on the kerb. Dearest Dorothy sat next to a widening puddle of blood. I ran to her.
“Too right, it’s been a strange day,” said the Commander, blinking at the paperwork. He regarded me over the desk with a strange expression. “Are you OK, Dev?” When I nodded he added, “Drop that thing in the evidence bag, will you?”
Before I left, I told him, “Her name is Dorothy.”
I really loved writing this. I had to do a bunch of research on UK firearms officers, their guns and cars and protocols. I wanted it to be longer, with a longer chain of people falling victim to Dearest Dorothy before Dev finally succumbs.
This one spawned a prequel and a sequel, showing a hint of Dorothy's origin and ultimate agenda.
There was a monster under the child’s bed.
The child knew that if he cried really loud, his father would come, angry with sleep, and turn on the light. Monsters hate the light. But his father would scold him, telling him what time of night it was, how old he was now. His father would make good his threat to take away Mister Wally.
The child clutched Mister Wally, stroking his fluffy head and tracing his button eyes.
Under the bed, the monster’s nails scratched and scraped. The child pressed Mister Wally to his cheek, inhaling his comforting scent of soiled fabric.
The monster tugged at the quilt, yanking it towards the floor. The child gripped the quilt, ready for the nightly tussle. The monster released its pull.
The child wrapped the quilt around him like a snailshell, no corner over the mattress. This was how sleep was earned.
Mister Wally had gone.
Not under the pillow. Not inside the quilt. Sleep was impossible without Mister Wally.
The child peered over the edge of the bed. Mister Wally lay half under the bed frame in sliver of street light from where the curtains didn’t quite meet.
The child reached down, fingertips towards the upturned button eyes.
The monster caught his wrist.
The scream brought the child’s father, blinking furious sleep from his eyes. Light pounced on the room.
“Was it another nightmare?” the father asked.
The child sat in bed, his quilt neat, shielding his eyes from the light with a pale hand.
“Not any more,” the child replied.
The father smiled at the child’s mannered tone. He picked up the fluffy doll on the floor.
“Here’s Mister Wally.”
“I don’t want it.”
“You are getting a bit old for Mister Wally.”
He shoved the doll into a drawer. What a helpless expression was in those button eyes. Almost pleading. He slammed the drawer shut.
“Shall I leave the light on for a few minutes?”
“No,” said the child. “I like the dark now.”
The father reached for the light switch but hesitated. Why did he suddenly fear the darkness that would follow, with that still figure sitting in his child’s bed, watching him with unkind eyes?
You just can't go wrong with stories about children in peril. This one owes a lot to Ray Bradbury, who enjoyed making the domestic setting full of alien menace and cosmic significance. I think I'm remembering a story called 'Boys, Raise Giant Mushrooms In YOUR Cellar!'
Reactions to this story surprised me. People didn't like the ambiguity of the ending. Was the child possessed by a spirit or substituted as a changeling? Was he going to attack his father? Readers proposed a better ending where blood ran down the walls and Mr Wally had to be exorcised. Well, I just kept on writing ambiguous endings - even if people hate 'em.
How different Mother’s room looked. The big bed had crowded it. The dusty carpets, the heavy curtains and that hideous wallpaper!
She used to bang her stick on the floor: BANG BANG.
Now there were bare floorboards, bare walls too, open windows: light and air chasing away cigarette ash and the scent of gardenia. That scent! It clung to the walls.
I closed the bedroom door on a weekend’s hard work. With the funeral behind me, the days waited like unopened gifts. Where to go? I was unused to the act of choosing. So many years spent waiting for the summons from Mother’s room.
I stopped. Had I really heard that? The imperious rhythm was unmistakable. I returned, re-opened the door, expecting to find a wounded bird or adventurous cat making this racket. The room was as empty as before, though the scent of gardenia was stronger.
A strong tea calmed my nerves, which were shredded after Mother’s long illness and many demands. It was time to leave, to get out.
I was detained at the front door.
An impossible knocking from upstairs. Surely it was noisy pipes. Subsidence. Shrinking timbers. I set off down the crunching gravel path.
BANG BANG from the upstairs window overlooking the gate. Then again, but with fury:
My keys fumbled in the lock and my feet pounded on the stairs.
BANG BANG from behind the bedroom door.
The bare room waited – sweet air shivering in the growing shadows. The day was slipping away.
The night drew on too soon.
BANG BANG. Roused from half-dreams of Mother’s sobs, her pain, her drugs.
BANG BANG. Hurried from the shower, from the untasted meal, the unread book. The scent of gardenia on my clothes.
They can be demanding, the ill, but we mustn’t grumble. We must not complain. There will be other times to go away. It upsets her, to be left alone, all alone in this house, this empty house.
Phone off the hook. Letters unopened. Food untasted.
Waiting for the summons from Mother’s room.
I wrote this story while my students completed a test. It was fun to read aloud to them with the BANG BANG effects. One student wondered if the narrator was going to commit suicide. I think being confined to your home, at the beck and call of a tyrannical ghost invalid, is more upsetting.