Saturday 30 September 2023

Book review: Ramsey Campbell, Certainly edited by S. T. Joshi



Edited by S. T. Joshi

Published by Drugstore Indian Press, an imprint of PS Publishing Ltd 2021

Over the years Ramsey Campbell has written knowledgeably, often humorously, but always with sincerity on a range of subjects from other authors, artists, films, books and, quite honestly, about anything and everything to do with weird literature and beyond.

This book includes those written over a fifteen-year period from 2002 till 2017. I was pleased to see it included the article I commissioned for The Fantastical Art of Jim Pitts which I published in 2017 under my Parallel Universe Publications imprint.

Included in this collection of articles and essays are reminiscences of many important genre people. One is about the American literary agent Kirby McCauley who was partly responsible for creating and organising the first World Fantasy Convention and its awards. Though I never met him, he did provide me with my first American sale (to issue one of Whispers magazine). This had a double benefit for me as, when Whispers won a World Fantasy Award that year my story from issue four was included in the hardcover book produced to commemorate the event, edited by Gahan Wilson, who designed the famous award caricaturing Lovecraft’s head. Other reminiscences include such legendary figures as Fritz Leiber, Nigel Kneale, Manly Wade Wellman and Richard Matheson, as well as contemporary writers too, such as David Case, Gary Fry, Mark Samuels, Thana Niveau, Joe Hill and Joe R. Lansdale amongst quite a few others.

Campbell will always be associated with H. P. Lovecraft and there are five articles about the master himself: ‘Lovecraft Analysed’, ‘Lovecraft in Retrospect, in Retrospect’, ‘Influences’, ‘He Was Providence’, ‘Glimpses in the Dark’, and ‘Lovecraft’s Monster’, all of them brimming with insights. 

As anyone who follows Campbell on Facebook will know, over the years he often catches the attention of any number of cranks, trolls, and other miscreants that prowl the internet, though woe on those who mislead themselves into thinking they can get the better. Nor is he adverse to taking on those he believes have taken a step too far in attacking writers whose work he admires. Here we have two articles, ‘Plagued by Plagiarism parts 1 and 2’, in which he takes to task his old adversary Chris Barker over accusations against M. R. James in a booklet titled ‘Plagiarism and Pederasty: Skeletons in the Jamesian Closet’. Campbell is succinctly impressive in the way in which he playfully yet factually debunks Barker’s ill-informed contentions, which give the impression he fired them off in a scattergun attempt to at least hit the target once. Thanks to Ramsey’s critique he fails completely. Both articles are not only critically observant but a joy to read.

There is, in fact, a great deal to enjoy in this book, which covers an entertainingly wide number of subjects. The good news, of course, is there’s a six year gap since the last article published in this book and now, so there must already be quite a few new ones for another book.




Book Review: The Children of Red Peak by Craig DiLouie



Craig DiLouie

Published by Redhook. 384 pages. 2021

Available in paperback, kindle and audio.

Religious Doomsday cults are always fascinating – though God forbid anyone reading this review should ever be unlucky or foolish enough to join one. Sometimes, however, there isn’t a choice. especially if a child’s parents are drawn into one. That’s sheer bad luck.

As it is with “the children” of Red Peak, whose parents are attracted to what is at first an easy-going, almost paradisical cult intent on returning to a simpler life in a farming community of like-minded individuals, safe from the stresses of modern life.  

They have a hierarchy of elders – Shepherds – under the guidance of a Moses-like figure, the Reverend Peale, whose gentle understanding helps to temper the sometimes more hard-line attitudes of those under him. But it is this same leader who eventually turns the group onto a path that takes them to self-destruction, after he temporarily takes a leave of absence to go on a pilgrimage of personal enlightenment – and sees God.

It is this eye-opening event on the heights of Red Peak, an isolated mountain range some distance from where they live, that changes everything. When their leader returns he informs the group that God has told him the End Times are about to take place and they have been selected to be part of the elite that will ascend to Heaven when this happens. To be saved, though, they must abandon their pastoral paradise and journey with him to Red Peak, where he saw and spoke with God. There they will establish a new community to await their salvation.

All of this is told in retrospect through the four surviving children who decades later meet at the funeral of the only other child to have lived through the terrible final weeks of the cult. Unable to bear her memories of what happened any longer, the suicides, murders and self-mutilations that occurred that day, she has ended her life.  Which brings the suppressed memories of all the traumas the others suffered back to the surface, as well as questions they have struggled to deal with over the years: What really happened that day? Why did the loving, kind-hearted Reverend persuade their parents and everyone else to kill themselves – or to kill those who were unwilling to do it themselves? Was it really God the Reverend saw? If so, what kind of “God” was it?

Worse still, no amount of searching by the authorities had ever been able to find any trace of those who died, as if their bodies really did ascend to heaven, leaving a mystery behind that people still talk about with awe.

Now grown into adults, the survivors have built careers for themselves, though their choices appear in some ways not much more than desperate attempts to block from their minds what they glimpsed, suspected, or worried happened, unable to move from beneath the shadow of that awful event during which they not only lost their parents but most of their friends too. It is the violence of what took place that haunts them, as some of the parents murdered their own children to “save” them, and, during the days before the apocalypse, cult members tried to exculpate whatever sins they thought they had committed through acts of self-mutilation. One mother, who had become convinced she was too fond of talking, cut out her tongue, while another, because she was vain about her looks, savaged her own face. The compulsion to carry out bloody acts against themselves, is yet another trauma with which the survivors have had to deal.    

Their reunion at the funeral acts as a catalyst towards what happens next – because they know that whatever drew their parents to Red Peak is still there, if not in reality at least in their minds. Is it God? Does the mountain really hold a path towards heaven? Is there still time in which to seek their own redemption for everything that happened? Or to find out what really took place there – and why?

This is a fascinating tale, told from the viewpoints of the four survivors who decide their only hope to move on with their lives is to return to Red Peak to try and find answers to their questions. It is a decision that will awaken more than just memories, though, and their determination to clear up the horrors of the past, when their childhoods came to a hideous end, builds towards a chilling climax of what is a brilliantly visualised and illuminating tale.


Wednesday 27 September 2023

My story Swan Song Triggers Numpties

Unbelievably some numpties online got triggered that my story Swan Song, originally published in the Black Books of Horror, was reprinted recently. What the poor deluded cancel culture extremists never seem to have realised was that this story involves a group of aging right wing fascists who take it out on their opponents with physical attacks. Hardly an endorsement of them, I might add, as they are described very negatively. Now why would that upset anyone?

For your entertainment and enlightment I am reprinting below the entire story as it was published so you can judge for yourself: 



David A. Riley

Bennett shuddered with revulsion.

Sat on the park bench like a pair of old scarecrows rescued from a refuse dump, the couple made his flesh crawl. They were old, filthy, dressed in clothes that were dropping to pieces. Tramps. That was what we used to call them, Bennett thought. In the good old days when you could still call a spade a spade. What did they call them now, with all their PC crap? Bag people? Still too close to the truth probably. Homeless? Bennett hated that word. It sounded like someone should pity them, not despise or hate.

Bennett grimaced. He could smell them from here, still yards away from them. People like that shouldn’t be allowed in the park, polluting it with their vile presence. Why didn’t the council recruit guards to keep scum like these two out so that proper people, decent people, could enjoy it in peace?

Bennett glared. Somewhere inside their rags he knew they would have bottles of alcohol hidden away. A man and what passed, he supposed, for a woman, both of them getting on, like a pair of geriatric mummies, all skin and bone. Neither of them looked as if they had washed in years; ingrained filth dulled their skin.

Bennett thrust his hands deep inside his overcoat pockets as if he wanted to keep as much of his flesh protected from contamination as possible. His fingers itched. In a properly organised society scum like these would be shot. In his imagination he could visualise doing it. Two headshots, that’s all it would take, before their carcasses were carted off to some kind of communal grave to be sown with quicklime and covered in dirt.

Bennett had a vivid imagination.

Though divorced, childless, a self-confessed misogynist, he never felt lonely. A group of cronies at the pub in which he spent most of his nights looked on at him in admiration. They admired the erudite tone of his wit with an awe that tickled his vanity. Once, years ago, he had been a schoolteacher. He had been forced, though, to take early retirement. He had been a good teacher too, even if he did ruffle a few feathers. Not like these namby-pambies nowadays who let their pupils do whatever they liked, leaving school with no more idea of good grammar than some Johnny-come-lately from Wogga-Woggaland. Bennett had known how to keep discipline. There had been no slouchers in his classes. No fidgetters. No cheek.

Bennett’s eyes bored into the couple. He expected they would stay transfixed to that bench till they’d guzzled whatever they’d brought with them, then sneak away to buy some more – or steal it.

With an effort of will, Bennett walked past.

With any luck they would be gone tomorrow, and he could enjoy his stroll through the park in peace.

The next day, though, they were there again. This time they had brought a flask and a plastic box of sandwiches, lying between them on the bench as if they were having a God damned picnic. Now and then one of them threw a handful of crumbs across the tarmacadammed path for the birds. A flock of pigeons were already pecking at them.

Bennett grimaced. Pigeons were another of his pet hates. They were no better than rats. Feathered vermin. Typical that the old couple should be feeding them.

“Excuse me,” Bennett said. He stopped in front of them, regimentally ramrod. The steel ferrule of his rolled umbrella tapped the ground for emphasis. “There’s a by-law against doing that.” He flicked his hand at the crumbs scattered across the path. “No feeding. You could be fined,” he said.

For a moment there was a look of incomprehension in the old couples’ faces as they stared up at him. The man’s mouth, purple with some kind of growth, like a rope of vein running under his lips, part hidden in stubble, moved into a smile. Bennett felt unsure about it. Was it a half-witted threat or an attempt to placate him?

Unused to uncertainty, Bennett nodded his head in an affirmative gesture. “They take it seriously,” he said. “There are notices all around the park.” Somehow, he realised, he sounded defensive, as if he needed to justify his admonition, even though neither of the old couple had said anything yet. Just that stupid smile from the man, that meant what? Anything? Nothing? Bennett would have preferred a straightforward argument. That he could cope with. That he would have relished. That he knew he would have won. What he could not deal with was this incomprehensible smile. He felt intimidated by it, though he failed to understand why.

“Just be warned,” Bennett said after a moment’s silence, abhorring himself for it, knowing that he would run over what he had said – or failed to say – the rest of the day, dissatisfied with it. It was something he was not used to experiencing. Inadequacy was anathema. It showed weakness, lack of moral backbone, and cowardice. Things he despised.

He was still seething when he reached the Red Pheasant, a public house across from the main gates into the park. Although he didn’t normally drink so early in the day, he felt the need for one now. A stiff brandy to steady his nerves. That was the ticket. Something to take his mind of those scumbags.

“Make it a large one, landlord.” He rested his arms on the well-polished bar.

“You look as if you need it.” The landlord’s world-weary sack of a face looked as if had seen too many late nights and not enough sleep.

Bennett growled. “It angers me when people abuse our parks.”

“Vandals? I hadn’t heard of any trouble.”

Bennett shook his head. “A couple of old tramps. Sat like the King and Queen of Sheba. You’d think they owned the place.” Bennett frowned; he could feel the landlord’s eyes stare at him as he handed him his brandy.

“Wouldn’t be a man and a woman?”

Bennett bridled at the man’s hushed tone.

“As it happens, yes. Customers of yours?”

The man shook his head, laughing. “You wouldn’t find them here, oh no. Not that I’d want them.”

“Of course not,” Bennett said, wondering. He could sniff the landlord had more to say. Bennett had a nose for nuances, developed over years of dealing with two-faced, duplicitous children. “What do you know about them?”

The landlord leaned over the bar with a conspiratorial air, even though the only other customers were sitting around a table at the far end of the room, too far away to hear.  “They’re not what you think.” The man tapped the side of his nose. “Some say they’re worth a friggin’ fortune. I wouldn’t know about that. But they’re well off, that’s for sure. How rich?” He shrugged in a gesture that reminded Bennett of a Jewish comedian. “They live in one of those Edwardian villas down Maple Road. It used to belong to the old man’s father. In a bit of a state now, I believe.”

Bennett frowned. “They’re rich?” Somehow this made him dislike the couple even more. They had less reason to be as they were. What kind of degenerates were they? Drop-outs? Hippies?

“I’ll have another brandy, landlord.” Bennett passed him his glass. He felt he might need lubrication to get the brain cells working on what he’d heard. “Have one yourself,” Bennett said. There was a smile on his lips that was foxy and cruel. Might as well see what the landlord had to say about that pair. The more he knew about them the better.

An hour later, Bennett left the pub. He knew he had drunk too many brandies and would suffer later. But it had been worth it.

“They used to be great philanthropists, you know,” the landlord had said. “Caused a bit of a kafuffle, though, which brought it to an end. That was when they ran a refuge of sorts for homeless people.”

“Appropriate enough,” Bennett said. “They dress like a pair of vagabonds.”

The landlord laughed, perhaps dutifully. “That was before I took over this pub. I didn’t live round here then, so I only know all this from hearsay. It was around the time I moved here that there was a bit of a scandal.” He leaned closer, his breath a tad too close to Bennett’s face, but for once he ignored this. “They used to take some of these homeless back to their house, give them a bed to sleep in, fed and clothed them, then sent them on their way with enough money to start a new life. That’s what they claimed. Word was, though, that some of these buggers were never heard of again.” The landlord shrugged. “You could say why should they? Most of them probably slipped to their old ways again. End of story.  Trouble was one of their progenies was different. He wasn’t a dropout who’d made a mess of his life or been kicked out by his parents. He came from a good family, had gone to university and almost completed his degree when he had a nervous breakdown. Went right off the rails. Abandoned university and disappeared. His parents were frantic to find him. Thought something bad must have happened to him. The police had photos of him on TV. There were articles in the papers. His parents even hired private detectives to track him down. He was finally traced here. He wrote home to his parents. Just a postcard, if I remember right, to say he’d met some people who were helping him.” The landlord winked. “You can guess who.”

Bennett nodded his head as expected, wondering when the blasted man would cut to the chase.

“Anyway, the lad’s parents contacted the couple and asked about their son. Left weeks ago, they were told. Have no idea where he is now. That’s what they said. Trouble was, no one had heard or seen him since that postcard. Well, that was it. A proper shit storm erupted, if you’ll pardon the French. The police got a search warrant and for days the house was screened off as they went through it like a dose. Dug up the garden. Made a right proper mess of it, they did. I heard tell every floorboard inside was lifted. Even walls were knocked through in case there were hidden chambers.”

“And?” Bennett asked when the landlord paused to replenish their drinks.

“Not a sausage. No trace anywhere. No trace of anything suspicious at all. Red faces all round.” The landlord smirked. “Not that this did the couple much good. Gossip was they might have buried the lad’s body on the moors somewhere. Too much about their odd lifestyle came out in the press. No one had known till then they’d been into the occult. That all came out, with photos of statues and stuff in their house they’d bought from all over the place. Leaks about some of the books they had on Black Magic and stuff like that didn’t help, of course. There were all sorts of rumours suddenly, most of them probably a load of old bollocks, but shit sticks, doesn’t it?”

Purposefully Bennett strode towards the park. By the time he reached the bench they’d occupied earlier the couple had gone. Back to their villa, no doubt, resenting the idea that they could live in the kind of grandeur he’d had described while all he could afford, after a bad divorce and a reduced pension from the Education Authority, was a maisonette. Life was so bloody unjust. If there was a God, He was a fickle, hard-hearted bastard, unfair and perverse. Otherwise degenerate scum like the Huntingtons would never be allowed to live in a house like that. Work all your life, scrimp and save, slave to pound what knowledge you could into ungrateful minds week after miserable week, and what was your reward? The answer gnawed at Bennett’s bowels like an incurable cancer; he felt tears of frustration in the corners of his eyes.

It just wasn’t fair.

It wasn’t fair at all.


Bennett spent a sleepless night, vexed by thoughts of the couple, as a result of which he was late getting up in the morning. His head ached from the brandies he’d drunk in the Red Pheasant – and from more he’d drunk back home, staring at the bars of his electric fire. The crisp air helped to clear his head when he ventured out. If nothing else he had his health. He could still do a brisk walk around the better parts of town. Whether it helped his peace of mind to gaze at houses he could no longer afford, he was not sure, though it did him good to feel as if he belonged amongst them, not the one-bedroom rabbit hutch he rented. His divorce had left a few thousand in the bank, but nowhere near enough to buy a house of his own. What money he had would see him out if he took care. Though, damn it, he knew this just wasn’t really good enough. He had worked all his life and should have been able to spend his remaining years with enough money to splash out on luxuries if he wanted to. The only pleasure left was the occasional Martell he would buy at the supermarket along with his groceries. And the four or five nights he spent each week at the pub.

Although Bennett knew he should have avoided going there, he could not help it. Walking past the end of the park, he carried on towards Maple Road, with its large, stone-built Edwardian villas, erected during an era of ostentation. Bennett loved buildings from that period. He could have lived during those golden years before the First World War with equanimity. It was his ideal time - before socialism spoilt it all.

His heart grew heavy as anger rose in his throat. Bennett stopped in disbelief at the large, sandstone gabled house, knowing it had to be the one that belonged to the couple. From the weathered varnish on its otherwise splendid door and window frames to the dilapidated shrubs that filled the surrounding garden, it stood out from its neighbours. Sun bleached curtains were drawn at most of the windows and it looked abandoned, an eyesore compared to the rest of the houses here.

The filthy scum! How could they?

Bennett felt the injustice more keenly still.

As he stood at the rusting cast-iron gate he could hear music. Old pop music, sixties stuff, just what he would have expected. A Wagnerian, Bennett still recognised it. Nights in White Satin. Overrated, degenerate trash, just perfect for a pair of ancient hippies, high on drugs.

Now that he had seen the house Bennett returned home, his feelings in turmoil. They were still in that state when he went to the pub that night. The Foxhill was quiet but at least “Pinky” Pinkerton and Sam Nedwell were already there. Bennett took his whisky and water to their table.

A retired accountant, Pinky was treasurer for his local Conservative Party Association and a staunch admirer of Bennett’s wit. His sallow face and downturned mouth would twist like rubber whenever he chuckled at one of Bennett’s blistering comments. The stem of a pipe stuck out of the top pocket of his sports jacket. A self-made businessman, who Bennett knew had never been quite as successful as he tried to make out, Sam Nedwell was red faced and portly. Sporting a pale cream Armani suit too many years out of date, it was already starting to look a tad grubby at the cuffs. Bennett had known both men since their schooldays.

“What’s troubling you?” Sam asked in his blunt no nonsense way.

Bennett downed half his whisky and pulled his face. He told them about the tramps in the park.

“Down-and-outers, eh?” Pinky said with a knowing nod.

“Bloody no good fucking dropouts,” Sam retorted.

The three men shook their heads.

“But rich.” Bennett looked at his friends in turn. “Filthy rich.”


“All inherited,” Bennett said, dismissively. “Never earned a penny of it themselves. Had it left to them by the old man’s father, who’s probably turning in his grave right now.”

“Spinning, more like” Sam said. “It’s stuff like this makes me glad I’ve no sprogs to squander what’s left of my money when I pop my clogs,” though Bennett and Pinky knew to the contrary. Sam had sown more than his fair share of wild oats in the distant past. In his younger days he had been a bit of a lady’s man, not that anyone looking at the broken veins littering the cratered knob of his drinker’s nose would think that now.

“If they keep feeding those pigeons, you should report them,” Pinky said.

Sam shook his head. “They’d get nothing worse than a warning. What good’s that?”

“Not good enough, that’s what. I want to do more than that,” Bennett said. “They’re a disease.”

“You know what you have to do about them.” Sam’s watery pale blue eyes stared into his. “Diseases, I mean, old man.” he added the grunt of a laugh more pig-like than human.

Pinky frowned. “Inoculate against them?”

Even Bennett laughed this time, having caught Sam’s gist. “Eradicate them.”

“Like that advert on TV,” Sam said. “You know the one? It’s got those blasted germs all wallowing around in the toilet bowl. In goes the bloody cleaning stuff, whatever it is, and they burst apart, bloody well killed, the lot of ‘em.” He leaned back, laughing.

“My wife wouldn’t watch any channel but the BBC,” Pinky said. “I still don’t. Haven’t seen an advert in years.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing.” Sam wiped tears from his eyes. “Better than the programs half the time.”

“Perhaps that’s why Pinky’s wife would only watch the beeb,” Bennett said.

Pinky laughed, his jaundiced face contorting with delight. “Got you there, Sam. Scotched you, you old reprobate.”

Sam snorted. “You’re probably right. Might be why I spend more time here.” He raised his beer in mock salute.

“What do we do about the tramps?” Pinky said, cocking an eye at Bennett.

“What do you mean do?” Sam’s face became serious again. “It’s years since we did anything like that, if that’s what you mean.”

“Ten years at least,” Bennett said. He didn’t need to say more. Starting in their mid twenties, Bennett and Pinky fresh from university, Sam on his way to his first fortune, ducking and diving, they had been drawn into radical politics “so far to the right even Attila the Hun was out of sight” Bennett used to phrase it. The spark was when Sam had broken a picket line and an angry mob of strikers had beaten him. He was making a huge profit supplying a firm with raw materials to help blacklegs keep production going. Lorry drivers had refused to pass the pickets, but Sam owned his own vehicle and had been offered umpteen times the going rate for what he was taking in. The three friends had always been close at school, ganging up on anyone who tried to pick on them. Bennett, rubbed raw at being forced to join a teacher’s union, had been the most vociferous in Sam’s defence. Pinky had already gone through half a dozen right wing parties by this time, most of which would have got him barred from membership of the Conservatives for life. It had not taken much to persuade the three to retaliate against the men who attacked Sam, finding out where they lived and paying each of them a late-night visit. Balaclava clad and armed with baseball bats they had broken several arms and legs and cracked a few heads before lying low. They had been careful to make sure they left no clues as to whom they were and no one, even to this day, had ever pointed a finger at any of them.

Encouraged by their success, they had carried out other “commando raids” over the years, targeting anyone who made life hard for any of them. It had worked well. Difficult colleagues at school had been reduced to physical and psychological wrecks, sometimes quitting the profession. Sam’s business rivals had found life less than rosy if they infringed too much, while Pinky enjoyed it for what it was, an opportunity to wreak violence, safe in the knowledge they were all too clever to get caught - and too respectable to be suspected. Pinky had an edginess that would have shocked his clients, none of whom would have ever imagined that their sallow-faced accountant had such a streak of sadism in him: it was sometimes so severe, in fact, the others had to rein him in, even though they were almost as bad themselves. If they hadn’t, though, they would have had more than four deaths on their hands by now.

“You’re not going soft on us, Pinky?” Sam said, breaking the silence.

Pinky had large fists, which he rested on the table. They would have made him a formidable boxer if he had gone in the ring, but that was not what interested him. Broken knuckles bore testament to the faces he had enjoyed reducing to bloody ruins, far beyond what any pugilist would have been allowed to go even in his day.

“The spirit’s willing,” Pinky said with a sigh of regret. “I’m not so sure about the flesh.”

“Don’t I know it?” Sam grimaced. “The quack’s told me to watch my blood pressure. It’s sky high. Says I should take it easy; cut back on alcohol, would you believe!” He emptied his glass with a flourish of contempt at the thought.

“We’re none of us getting any younger,” Bennett said. “The days of taking on all and sundry at the dead of night have long since passed.”

“I’ll drink to that. Or will when I get a refill.” Sam glanced at Pinky, whose round it was.

Bennett drew them in over the table. “Perhaps we should end with a swan song.” He smiled at his friends.

“The tramps?” Sam grinned with appreciation. “Degenerate old bastards, ripe for the picking. They’d deserve what they get.”

“Why not?” Pinky said. He grinned too, and Bennett wondered if his friend was thinking how far they would let him go this time.

This last time.

Satisfied at the outcome, Bennett said, “I’ll reconnoitre the place. See what’s what.”

“Why bother?” Sam asked. “If they’re like you’ve described, let’s just go in and deal with them.”

Pinky nodded his agreement.

Bennett sighed, though he was pleased at their enthusiasm.


It was dark when they set out. Fog blurred the light from the streetlamps, suiting their purpose. Bennett preferred to be seen by as few people as possible. Midweek, there were not many late-night revellers as they walked past the edge of the park, its gates locked hours ago. They hurried by. Bennett could feel the frost in the air seep through his coat. Not much further now, though. Already he could see the turning to Maple Road.

A car drove past, gone within seconds. Bennett knew its occupants would hardly have noticed them; even if they did, they wouldn’t remember.

Soon he was standing outside number twelve, its shambolic garden unmistakeable in the gloom. There were lights behind the downstairs curtains and, standing at the gate once more, Bennett could again hear music inside. More sixties trash, as distinctive as joss sticks or the sickly stink of marihuana. He told Pinky and Sam to wait till he had gained access.

As his friends stepped back into the darkness of the privets, holding their balaclavas, Bennett gripped the top of the garden gate and swung it open. Striding to the door he grabbed hold of the brass knocker and pounded it hard. Echoes bounced back at him.

Moments later the music dimmed inside, and he heard a muffled conversation. A light came on behind the door before its locks were turned. The door opened and a thin, querulous-looking face peered out; hair hung in a halo on either side of it.

“We spoke yesterday.” Bennett’s voice sounded oily even to him. “I thought I’d call to apologise.” He put on his best smile. “I think I spoke harsher than I should.”

The man smiled at him as he let the door swing open.

“Alicia, we have a visitor.”

Bennett was shocked at the old man’s voice. It was a dismal whisper that made him shiver with revulsion. Worse, the smell inside the vestibule was a rank mixture of vegetable decay, dead rodent and dust. There was a disturbing sweetness mingled with it, reminding Bennett of dry rot. This was so intense that he began to worry how safe the building was. Again he noticed the purplish red vein below the old man’s mouth, though it seemed lower this time. The skin around it looked raw as if it had been bleeding. Bennett curled his lip in disgust.

“Come in, come in.” The old man wafted Bennett to enter. He wore a threadbare cardigan that hung full of holes from his scrawny shoulders. As his hand urged Bennett in, it was as if his cardigan was woven out of spiders’ webs and was ready to fall to pieces.

Bennett slid past, trying to avoid any physical contact. The man revolted him even more inside the thick atmosphere of the house, and for a moment Bennett wondered whether he had made a mistake in coming here, for all he despised the repulsive couple and hated what they had done to this house.

Beyond the vestibule there was little light inside the hallway. Dust and cobwebs snuffed out most of what was radiated by the solitary bulb still working in the chandelier hung from the ceiling. Bennett had more of an impression of what the place looked like than a clear, distinctive view. Shadows clung to its corners, filling them like piles of dust. The carpet was unidentifiable, probably more grime than fibres. He could feel his nostrils cloying with dust.

The old lady appeared from an open doorway. Music resonated from the room behind her. There was a smell of incense. Though normally Bennett despised such stuff he welcomed it now; it overpowered other odours, smells that were almost bad enough to make him nauseous. Perhaps that was why they burned joss sticks, dozens of which were scattered on shelves around the room. Books, mainly leather-bound editions, crinkly with age, shared space with them.

“You were at the park,” the old lady said. Her voice had the same breathless whisper - which didn’t surprise Bennett. What else could you expect in the kind of stale, dusty atmosphere of the house? It was a wonder they didn’t asphyxiate. God alone knew what viruses were rampant here.

“He’s come to apologise for what he said to us,” the old man said. His hand, no more substantial than a bundle of dead leaves, pressed light against Bennett’s shoulder, urging him into the room.

The old lady wore a floor length dress in a style Bennett recognised from the late sixties or early seventies. A hippy dress. Its colours had been dulled by time and dirt into monochrome. The old lady’s arms were wrinkled sticks of bare flesh. Lead-coloured bangles hung from her wrists.

Both were bare-footed, Bennett realised. Purple blotches, like diseased flesh, were the only colour. Their toenails were thick, like poorly preserved ivory, yellowed with age.

He swallowed back the bile that burned in his throat as he turned to face the old man, ready to tug the door open so his friends could enter.

Something, though, restrained him.

It wasn’t compassion. Or fear of the consequences. By the time anyone found the old couple their bodies would have decomposed so much no trace of the men’s presence would remain. Besides, they had no intention of leaving any evidence here.

“Would you care for a drink?” the old lady said.

Bennett stared at her. Now was the time to strike. He felt a burning outrage against them both, undiminished by meeting and talking to them. They epitomised everything that he hated.

Coming to a decision, Bennett turned to face the door when something heavy struck his head.


Hours later he awoke to the worst headache he had had in years. Worse than any hangover he had ever had too; he felt sick, uncomfortable, unable to move, and with a pulsing light inside his head that came with regular waves of pain.

Bennett’s memories of what happened were vague. He could recall walking to the old couple’s house. He could even remember stepping inside, and the smells and dust. The smells were still there, clogging his nostrils like rotting dough. Disgusted, Bennett opened his eyes; they were gritty with mucus and for a moment he could barely see anything other than the vague impression some distance away of a curtained window. Grunting, Bennett struggled to sit up, even though the pain inside his head worsened. He realised that his hands had been tied together. The coarse rope had already worn layers of skin from his wrists and hurt.

His ankles had been tied as well.

Sitting on a kind of low couch like a chaise longue, its upholstered seat was hard to his buttocks and uncomfortable. Finally, after a few minutes, Bennett managed to swivel round till his feet touched the carpet. By now he could make out more of his surroundings. The light came from a naked bulb hung from a plaster rose in the ceiling. Though large, the room was empty apart from the couch. A dim expanse of dull carpet lay between him and the window and he could hear an occasional scuffle inside the walls, either rats or mice. Other than this, the only sound was music, that infernal bloody sixties trash he had heard before, dimmed by distance.

As his mind grew clearer Bennett wondered if the couple had realised something was going on, though he could not imagine what could have warned them. What had happened to his friends? Even if he hadn’t opened the door to them, they wouldn’t have waited long before bursting in.

As if in answer he heard someone scream. It was a man, crying out in pain. The scream was stifled almost at once as if gagged.

Bennett raised his hands to his mouth and gnawed at the rope. He still had all his own teeth and they were strong and sharp; it did not take long before the rope’s fibres parted beneath them, even though he hated the taste of oil and dust in which they had been smothered. It made him feel nauseous.

There was a series of loud bumps, and someone laughed. It was neither Pinky nor Sam; perhaps the old man, he thought. Bennett tore away another mouthful of fibres from his bonds, spitting them out. He’d soon have the bastard laughing a different tune when he was free. His teeth dug into the rope once more, tearing at it in anger now.

Spurred on by more bumps, Bennett soon managed to weaken the rope till he could tear it apart. Throwing it onto the floor, he bent to unfasten the rope around his ankles. Seconds later he threw that away as well.

Taking a few deep breaths to calm his nerves, Bennett massaged his wrists to restore their circulation, then heaved himself off the couch, searching for anything he could use as a weapon. He pulled back the curtains from the window. Its old square panes were coated in layers of grime, though he could still see through them onto the back garden - an untidy jungle of overgrown evergreen bushes, most of them rhododendron black as grottoes. It stretched out for what had to be a hundred feet, possibly more.

Realising he was on the first floor, Bennett wondered how the old man and his wife had managed to haul him all the way upstairs; they had to be a lot stronger than either of them looked to move his weight. Frowning, Bennett returned to the couch. He tipped it over onto its side and started to work on one of its heavily carved wooden legs, forcing it back and forth to wrench it free. It was curved, narrowing to an ornate foot. The wood was heavy and hard. Finally he hefted the leg in one hand and took a couple of swings. It was no baseball bat but he knew it would be effective enough.

Breathing heavily, Bennett approached the door. It was locked, as he’d expected. Belts and braces, Bennett thought. He tightened his grip on the couch leg. Much good their precautions would do once he was face to face with them and it would take more than a locked bedroom door to keep him here.

There were more bumps, louder this time. Putting his ear to the door Bennett could tell they came from further down the passage outside. With a grunt, he stepped back from the door, pounding into it as hard as he could with his shoulder. His breath exploded from his lungs, and he winced in pain. The door was stronger than it looked. Like the old couple, he thought. Stepping back, he kicked as hard as he could with the sole of his shoe. The door shuddered and he heard something give. A splinter sprang from the doorframe next to its lock. He kicked it again, feeling the tendons inside his calf stretch painfully. He was getting too old for tricks like this, too old and too stiff. But this time, though, he could tell he had almost succeeded. He grabbed hold of the door handle and gave it a tug. There was a mournful creak and the door burst open. Bennett stepped outside in time to catch sight of the old man who had started down the passage from a door several yards away. Bennett ran towards him, brandishing the makeshift club. With a yelp, the old man ducked into the nearest room, but was too slow shutting the door against him. Bennett shouldered it open, gratified to hear the man fall across the floor behind it.

Sam lay inside the room on a bed, gagged and bound. The old lady was knelt over him. Something long and red, like an intravenous drip, hung from just below her mouth. It dangled on Sam’s neck, and Bennett was disgusted to see what looked like a mouth at the very end of it open and shut as if it was trying to suck itself to his friend’s skin.

Grunting with the exertion, Bennett swung the couch leg across the back of the old lady’s head, felling her. He strode into the room, turned, saw the old man trying to scramble to his feet, nursing what looked like a broken arm; Bennett gave him no chance. Once, twice he swung the weapon, crushing his skull with resounding thuds. He felt something give at the second blow. A third followed, but by now the old man was on the floor, his legs twitching as if he was having a fit. Which, Bennett thought, debating whether to hit him again, he probably was. The bloody red vein beneath his mouth had been dislodged and lay on his collar. Something dark oozed from it.

Bennett turned to the man’s wife. The single blow to her head seemed to have killed her. This didn’t surprise him. It had been a hard one, delivered with all his weight behind it.

Throwing his weapon to one side, Bennett untied Sam’s hands. Released, Sam tugged out the lump of cloth that had been bunged into his mouth.

“They’ve got Pinky in another room,” he said, looking sick. “They started on him first. Did you hear the poor bastard?”

Bennett had had no idea which of them screamed. The sounds had been too wretched to tell.

Saying nothing, Bennett helped Sam up, then hurried into the room from which the old man had fled. Pinky was lying there, fastened like Sam on a bed. As soon as they saw their friend’s face, though, they knew they were too late. Just as they could tell that Pinky had died in terror; it was transfixed on what was left of his features. Part of his face, though, had gone, as if a powerful acid had eaten it away to leave a gaping blood-soaked hole.

“The fucking bastards killed him,” Sam muttered, though that was what they had come here to do to the couple.

Still struggling to understand how the couple had managed to overwhelm them, Bennett grunted. It just didn’t seem possible. Just as it didn’t seem possible that the old man had been responsible for the damage to Pinky’s face.

“Did you see the thing hanging from the old woman when she was leaning over you? What the hell was it?”

Sam shuddered, gritting his teeth. “It was obscene.” He looked as if he was going to be sick. “It couldn’t have been real.”

Bennett wasn’t so sure. It had looked real to him, too bloody real.

            They searched the room. There was little furniture inside it, a set of drawers and a cheap plywood wardrobe dating from sometime in the 1950s. They contained nothing more than a few sheets. No sign of any acid or anything else corrosive - or anything that might have been used to carve Pinky’s face.

            “What happened to the bits that are missing?” Bennett said.

            Reluctantly, Sam looked again at their friend’s body. Most of Pinky’s nose and the whole of one side of his face had gone, as if scooped away.

            “It must be somewhere,” Bennett said.

            But where? And why had the man done it?

            “You don’t think he ate it?”

            “Ate it?” Bennett seriously wondered if his friend had been unhinged by what had happened.

            Sam frowned. “Makes you wonder if they might have killed that lad the landlord told you about.”

            “If they did, why did they? And what did they do with the body?”

            Sam shrugged. “Questions no one will answer now.”

            “I suppose not. We better get out of here.”

            “And Pinky?”

            “Leave him here. It’ll be ages before anyone investigates this place.”

            Already Bennett was working out what he and Sam would do once they left. They would return to his house, have a drink or two to relax their nerves, then make sure they had the same story. The less said the better.

            Bennett grunted to himself. At least there’d be no more tramps sitting in the park. Having little empathy, even for his friends, he was not bothered by what had happened to Pinky. He was just one less person he could share his time with at the pub. Beyond that he knew he would barely miss him.

            “What was that noise?”

            There was a quaver in Sam’s voice. Nerves, Bennett thought. He was always the weakest, always the one most ready to cut and run.

            Annoyed, Bennett stopped and listened though.

            Despite his scepticism, he could hear something too. Not loud, more a rustling, like stiff rushes.

            They returned to the room in which Sam had been held. The old man’s legs were still twitching. There were other movements too further up his body, beneath the cardigan on his chest. For the first time Bennett began to feel afraid. He could tell that these movements were wrong. There was no sense to them.

            “What the hell is it?” Sam said, echoing his fears.

            It was as if something – perhaps a lot of somethings, all small and spindly – were moving under the old man’s clothes. Bennett snatched up the couch leg from where he had discarded it. He edged nearer the old man even though he wanted nothing more than to turn round and run.

            “Don’t.” Sam whispered. “Leave it be.”

            But he couldn’t. He couldn’t just leave it. He had to see. With a certainty of movement that belied his fear, Bennett pressed the couch leg against the bottom of the old man’s cardigan, using it to push the garment further up his chest. The wool caught on a splinter, making the task easier, till Bennett saw what he was exposing. Neither hard and straight like an insect’s legs nor bonelessly muscular as in an octopus, the thick red tendrils writhed in the open air. They were long – longer than he had expected, with mouth-like suckers at their ends. One unexpectedly whipped out at him with uncanny accuracy, and he flinched away from it, dropping the couch leg.

            “Get out of here.” Sam tugged his arm. As they turned, one of the tendrils sprang and coiled like a rusty bedspring around Sam’s wrist, clenching tight. He cried out in pain and grabbed at it with his free hand, trying to take hold of it and tear it free, but his fingers could not get a grip on it.

            “Help me,” Sam cried. His face filled with terror. A second tendril whipped out at him.

            Bennett recoiled. Already he could see them climbing free of the old man’s chest like a nest of spiders, all legs and no body. A deep cavity lay where they had been. He could see the old man’s ribs inside it.

            “Help me,” Sam pleaded. He tugged at the tendrils, but more of them were fastening themselves to him all the time. They were ridiculously long, as thick as a man’s middle fingers, and tough, covered in a kind of carapace. Bennett looked for something other than the couch leg with which to defend himself, but there was nothing.

            “I’ll get something downstairs,” Bennett said, “a knife.”

            Ignoring Sam’s pleas Bennett fled from the room; the air quivered behind him. Tendrils snatched only inches from the back of his neck, trying to grasp him. Sam shouted, begging for him to stop but Bennett slammed the door shut. He ran to the stairs, stumbling down umpteen steps at a time till he reached the hallway. He did not stop till he had left the house and run on, staggering, past the park. Almost blind to everything around him he continued to the town centre, bumping past what few pedestrians there were and almost getting himself run over as he recklessly crossed road after road till he reached his home. Slamming and locking the door behind him, he leaned against it, gasping for breath. His chest hurt and he knew he had pushed himself to the brink of a heart attack. All but falling into his living room he poured himself a large brandy and gulped it down. It burned his throat but helped. He drank a second, more slowly this time as he sank onto the sofa, his hands still shaking. He could not to believe what had happened. It was like a nightmare. He shut his eyes, unable to remove the sight of those hideous tendrils. He could see them lashing themselves round Sam’s arms.

            It was nearly an hour later as Bennett poured himself a fifth brandy when someone knocked on the door.

            Spilling most of the alcohol on his lap, Bennett leapt to his feet.

            Bennett, you bastard, open this fucking door!

            It was Sam, his voice furious.

            “You double crossing cowardly bastard. Open this door or I’ll kick it in.”

            Bennett scowled. No one had spoken to him like this for years.

            Slamming his glass on the table Bennett strode to the door. What relief he felt at his friend having escaped was tempered by the man’s anger. What right had he to accuse Bennett of anything?

            Bennett swung the door open. Sam stood, dishevelled, his coat stained with blood.

            “God, man, you look like you murdered someone. Get off the street, for heaven’s sake. You’ll get us arrested.”

            “Good of you to think of that.” Sam’s voice was sour. He pushed his way in and glanced at Bennett’s brandy by the sofa. “See you wasted no time.”

            “Have one yourself. You look like you need it.” Feeling his anger fade, Bennett followed him in.

            Slumping onto an armchair, Sam reached for the brandy and poured it into an empty glass. His hands shook so much most of it slopped onto the carpet. Sam looked down at it and smiled. “Sorry about that, old man. It’s been a trying night.”

            Bennett sat on the sofa.

“How did you escape?”

            “Escape?” Sam grimaced as if the brandy tasted bad and put it down.

            Bennett tensed, feeling uneasy as he studied his friend. Sam’s coat was still dripping. The front of it was soaked with blood.

Sam glanced across at him and reached for the buttons down his coat. His fingers were red.

            “It won’t make much difference,” Sam said as if this explained everything. “We can still continue just like before, only better, stronger.”

            Bennett’s face drained of colour. He darted a look at the door into the kitchen. He had knives in there, carving knives. If he reached them he could kill Sam with ease.

            His friend grinned at him.

            He pulled his coat open, popping buttons. Coiled like a bundle of dark red brambles, nesting tight against his chest, the creature stirred.

            “Those old hippies were hard for them to work with,” Sam said. “They had to be pushed and threatened, forced to kill. It went against their principles, you see, the soft old bastards. Damn near starved these creatures to death.”

            Bennett rose to his feet.

            “It’ll be easier with us. We don’t mind killing, do we? We love it, in fact.” Sam grinned. “There are benefits,” he added. “Those hippy bastards were over a hundred years old, you know. You wouldn’t have guessed it, would you? They were, though. It’s quid pro quo, don’t you see? There’s a payoff. Benefits. Benefits in kind, I suppose. Things work both ways. No more aches and pains. No more muscles creaking with old age. No more bones turning fragile as the years pass by. We’d feel young again, Bennett. Young and strong.”

            Bennett looked at his friend’s chest. The blood was already beginning to clot. There was barely any sign of what hid inside other than a vein pulsing across his chin.

            Bennett stared at the creature on Sam’s blood-soaked lap. It was already starting to straighten its legs.

Sam’s grin broadened.