Happy Hallowe'en 2020


This, as I'm sure you can see, is my Master Painter t-shirt from the inaugural 1987 Golden Demon Awards. Strangely, there exists no photographic evidence of me wearing this prestigious garment, which is probably just as well. I was 17. The word 'gawky' may have been coined especially for the occasion. Nor is there evidence of the miniature with which I won the regional heat that earned me this, but I can picture it clearly: it was a dark-elf archer armed with a crossbow, and I spent bloody HOURS shading those knife-edge cheekbones. Presumably it was fairly decent for the time but compared to what I've seen in the cabinets of Games Workshops today it wouldn't even merit a glance, and that's as it should be. Standards improve. Each new generation raises the bar for the ones that come after.

Look, I know we're only talking about painting gaming miniatures, okay, but like I say, I was 17. It was a big deal. My family had moved to the windswept wastes of the Cumbrian Borders from Australia barely two years earlier and like a lot of nerdy and socially maladjusted teenage males who weren't into sport (or in the case of the Borders, chasing tractors and wrestling highland cattle) gaming was a both an escape and a lifeline.

Which is kind of why getting a story published by the Black Library is also a big deal now that I've blossomed into a nerdy and socially maladjusted middle-aged man. The gawky 17-year old is still inside (believe me, there's room for him, and a few of his mates), and he's currently bug-eyed with happiness.

Have a great Hallowe'en season, everyone.

Skip.



His First Change

 Okay, we're past the dead of the moon. I think it's safe to post this now.

*

Youngest was of age and the time of his change had come upon him, and he was excited but also afraid.

Will it hurt? he asked his mother, and Mother said yes it, will hurt, but you will learn to bear the pain. Eat well and make yourself strong. So he ate well to strengthen his flesh and bones. Will I hurt others? he asked his father, and Father said yes, you will hurt others, but only if you are careless. We have a place, far away from the others, where they know not to go and from which we cannot escape while the change is upon us. His father showed him the place, far beyond the forest on an island in the middle of a fast flowing river. When will it happen? he asked his brothers and sister, for he was Youngest and they had all been through their first change. They said Watch the moon. So he watched the moon as it dipped from the bright glory of its fullness, becoming a little darker each night. When it was three nights away from full dark and nothing more than a claw’s edge slicing the night sky, Father gathered them together and said It is time now for us to hide away from the others that they may be protected from the curse of our affliction.

So for the first time Youngest went with his family far beyond the forest to the island in the middle of the fast flowing river, where they waited as the moon died.

When his change began he thought Oh this isn’t so bad. There was an itching in his limbs that was easily cured by some vigorous scratching, but he found that the scratching took not just the itch but most of his fur with it. Soon it was falling out in clumps on its own until it was entirely gone and he was naked and pale as a worm from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail. I am cold! he howled to his brother Eldest, who just barked a laugh in reply, as naked as himself.

Then his flesh filled with fire and the spasms began, and he screamed. His limbs convulsed as they twisted, sinews snapping, bones elongating with his muscles stretched and spasming along them. His tail retreated and the pads of his paws became long, squirming, grub-like things. His muzzle shrank back into his skull with a horrific grinding of bone and his entire head swelled until he was certain that his brain was about to explode. Through his torment he watched Mother and Father and Sister and his brothers all change, and totter up onto their hind legs to laugh and jabber at each other with their blunt round faces. He tried to stand on his hind legs too, but could not get his balance and fell like a newborn deer, clumsy and wet.

Mother smiled and placed something large and flat and soft and warm over him. He thought it might have been a bear’s hide but he couldn’t smell it to be sure. He could smell virtually nothing! His hearing was muffled too, and he could see little more than shadows in the dark. Blind, deaf, and bereft of the glorious rainbow scents of the world, he whimpered ‘What has happened to me?’

‘It is your change,’ said Mother, using the jabber of her mouth.

‘Let him lie and find his strength,’ said Father. ‘There is work to be done and not much time.’

Youngest lay and and watched them crack stones together and fire flowered. He had only ever seen it in the dry summer storms, and it had terrified him and he had run from it, but here he found its warmth comforting. He watched as his family took long sticks and went into the woods of the island’s interior, and come back later with a deer that they threw down by the fire – but instead of falling upon it with teeth and claws they took it apart with sharp rocks, and he found himself marvelling at their skill. He flexed the long grubs that grew out of his paws – hands, he must remember to call them hands – and wondered if he would be that skilful.

Then Sister passed him a large, flat stone, a smaller and rounder and harder stone that fit comfortably in his hand, and one of the deer’s long bones. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘As long as you’re lying there you might as well make yourself useful. Get the marrow out of that.’

Ordinarily he would have seized it in his powerful jaws and cracked it open with his teeth, but his teeth were just square, blunt pegs, useless for anything like the rest of him – except for those hands. He placed the long bone on the flat stone, took the hammer stone in his fist and brought it down hard. The wet bone splintered with a delicious crunch! and he was rewarded with the ooze of sticky pink marrow. He dipped a fingertip in it and tasted, and his mouth came alive. He laughed and pounded again and again and again, pulverising the bone, crushing it to fragments, loving the sound and the force of his blows vibrating up through his arm.

After the meal his family turned to the work that Father had said they had little time for. Three nights of the dead moon each month was not much with which to make progress on the large structure that they dragged out from the protective cover of leaves and bushes. It looked like a bundle of tree trunks tangled together with twisted vines and he couldn’t understand how such a thing had grown until he saw his family working on it and he realised that it had not grown this way but had been made with the cleverness of hands. Father called it "boat" and told him that when it was finished they would use it to cross the fast flowing river to the wider forest where they would be able to hunt whatever they wished and use their stones to smash the world into shapes that pleased them. They laughed and sang as they worked, and on the second night, when Youngest was feeling stronger and had got his balance, he joined them.

And the wolves of the deep forest, hearing their laughter, cowered deeper in their dens, afraid.





Here's One I Prepared Earlier

Hello, what's this?

(Blows dust off lid, opens it. Hinges creak. Something falls off.)

Cripes, I haven't been in here for a while. Look at the state of this place.

(Clears cobwebs out of the corners. Something small and scuttery scuttles away.)

Sorry about that. Let me offer you something by way of apology for keeping this blog so badly. How about a free scary story for the Hallowe'en season? Here's one I prepared earlier.


Taken from the website: A Hundred Amazing Activities to Put a Spook in Your Hallowe’en!

What you will need: the cardboard tube from inside a toilet roll (microwave it for 30 seconds for hygiene’s sake); a disposable glow stick, the kind you snap and shake to activate; scissors; tape; somewhere to hide your fiendish creation!

How to make it: cut two spooky eye holes in the side of the cardboard tube. Activate a glow stick and put it inside. Seal both ends with tape. Now place it somewhere it is sure to be seen in the dark, such as beneath a bush or, if you don’t have an outside space, under a bed.

Take your Hallowe’en party guests on a tour of your haunted house, telling them to beware of the bloodthirsty creatures lurking in dark corners!

*

Mary shut the back gate behind her and walked up the garden path towards the house, enjoying the damp chill of the October night. Around her the silhouettes of trees and bushes were dimly visible in the streetlight from the alleyway, and scattered amongst them were dozens of slitted, glowing eyes. They gleamed at her from behind the swing set, underneath the decking, and even halfway up the hedge. She chuckled. Jon and the boys really had done an excellent job.

She unlocked the back door and stepped into the kitchen, then stopped, puzzled.

‘Jon?’ she called. ‘Why are all the lights off in here?’

She flicked the lights on, dumped her bag on the breakfast bar and crossed to the sink to fill the kettle.

‘You guys are amazing!’ she called. ‘It looks fantastic! Really spooky out there!’

It had been a late shift at the hospital so she’d left them to get on with it. As a stay-at-home dad, Jon was always good with the boys when it came to craft activities, but this year he had excelled himself. It was odd, though – normally Ed and Tim were throwing themselves at her knees by now. Mary left the kettle to boil and went through into the living room, expecting to find them glued to Paw Patrol, father included.

The lights were off in here too.

Maybe they were upstairs. Still, the standing lamp behind the settee should be on.

‘John?’ she called. ‘Timmy? Ed?’

A small whimpering noise came from the direction of the dining table.

As her eyes adjusted she saw the table covered in loo rolls, packets of glow sticks, scissors and tape. Crouched underneath, safe behind a cage of chair legs, were her husband and sons, their eyes wide with terror. It looked like Jon had a hand clamped over each of their mouths.

Mary laughed. ‘Oh sure, right, nice one. You almost scared me, you lot.’

Jon shook his head violently. ‘Shh!’ he hissed. ‘Keep your voice down! And turn the bloody lights off!’ It was hard to tell, but it looked to her like little Ed was actually crying.

‘This isn’t funny any more,’ she told her husband. ‘You’ve had your fun, made your spooky things, now get out from under the table and stop sodding around.’

‘You don’t understand,’ he whispered hoarsely. ‘We haven’t made them yet.’

Mary ran back into the kitchen and looked through the window again, but the bright glowing eyes – the ones that she had walked straight past only a few moments ago – were gone. The only thing she could see was the reflection of her own fear-stricken face staring back at her, swimming in the dark. Then she heard the cat flap rattle and bang, and They swarmed into the house.

***

PS: You can actually make these. Here's the link. It seems only fair since I nicked their picture.

 

Beneath the Dragon's Mound

I've just stumbled blinking into the light of October, having shut myself away all summer to finish the next book for Titan ('The Bone Harvest', out next May, kiddies!), and I've been able to enjoy a day out - which in my case means wandering about in some underground tunnels. Of course.

About half an hour's drive from my place is a village called Drakelow, which is an Anglo Saxon name meaning the Hill of the Dragon. It's called that because, well, there's a hill there, and like a lot of the old hills around Worcestershire it carries the remains of an Iron Age settlement. I haven't been able to gather a lot about the local folklore, but the remains of the settlement walls are a long curving mound, so maybe the Anglo Saxon newcomers thought there was a dragon buried under it or something.

I don't know about dragons, but there are a hell of a lot of tunnels. Three and a half miles of them.

With the outbreak of World War 2 a series of underground 'Shadow' factories was built, and the complex at Drakelow was designated Rover 1D, the idea being that parts made there would be dispersed to other sites for assembly. The tunnels were dug into the soft sandstone underneath Drakelow hill - sandstone which had already provided natural caves in which people had been living for centuries already. After the war turned Cold it was re-tasked as Regional Seat of Government 9 in the event of a nuclear attack; the workshops were turned into dormitories, armed forces C&C, a hospital, a GPO exchange, and even a BBC broadcasting studio. It was mothballed in '79 and eventually sold off in '94, and in recent years a small group of quintessentially mad English enthusiasts have been volunteering their time and energy to renovate it into a Cold War museum. For this they need money, and for that they sell guided tours. Which is where I come in - my and my mate Dan, a fellow searcher of things under hedgerows and strange lumps in the landscape.

Naturally there are all sorts of stories about paranormal phenomena in the tunnels - ghostly music, spectral monks and whatnot - and to be fair there were some pretty gruesome deaths involved in the construction, including three in a ceiling collapse and two factory workers who were killed when they decided to hitch a ride out of the tunnels on a conveyor belt but couldn't jump off in time and were dragged into the machinery and mangled. I'll be honest, I didn't see anything supernatural. The remnants of the complex's past lives were spooky enough for me. I'm just going to leave a bunch of photos here to speak for themselves.

Speaking Frankly


I don’t get out much. I’ve never been much of a gig-goer (gigger? Giggist?) so when I do it’s a bit of an adventure for me. On Wednesday night I was lucky enough to get to a book launch for an anthology of short stories called ‘Ten-Word Tragedies’ inspired by the lyrics of a song by Frank Turner, who was there to sing a few songs and sign copies of the book. It was a fun event, quite a small audience, I bopped a bit, yelled the words (often wrong) to the songs I knew, and got to meet an artist I admire who signed some of his work for me.

Anyway, the stories in the anthology are based on the lyrics of a song called ‘Mittens’, in which the narrator discovers a box of old postcards where he reads the stories of long-dead strangers and reflects on his own broken love affair. So far, so break-up song. The twist here is that Turner did actually have such a box of postcards and when he was approached about the anthology he sent some of them to the editors who in turn sent them out to the writers for inspiration for the stories.

Now Turner’s latest project is an album called ‘No Man’s Land’ on which the tracks are all true stories of historical women, and he’s getting some grief about it (which you are more than welcome to read if you want to delve into the cesspool of carefully curated outrage that is Twitter), because how dare he, a white dude fronting a band made up of other white dudes, presume to appropriate the stories of marginalised women? How dare he, especially without having first apologised for writing break-up songs in which hurt men say Hurtful Things, because of course we all know that everything a writer puts down on the page is exactly and precisely what they really agree with, and the only way forward is for everyone to continually apologise to each other for having written Hurtful Things and abase ourselves until we’re all crawling around in the mud like worms because then we’ll all be equal, just all in the shit.

And breathe.

It makes me question my own creative decisions – as it should – because I wrote a book called The Hollow Tree (no, this isn’t a stealth promo) about a murdered woman known only as Bella in the Wych Elm. I questioned at the time, and still do now to an extent, what my position was as a white dude trying to write the story of a female victim of male violence. Did I have that right? In the end, the fact that my editor was woman who was not telling me ‘James, you’re a misogynistic bastard, stop it’ made me think that it was probably okay.

Because it’s about ownership. When you start to make pronouncements about who has the ‘right’ to tell another person’s story, you’re making a statement about ownership. You are saying ‘this subject’s story belongs not to your group, but to our group’, and when you start to talk about people as things to be owned you’re on very dodgy moral ground. Surely, isn’t the whole purpose of what we’re trying to do here to stop treating people like objects? Cultural territory to be fought over?

One of my favourite Frank Turner songs is called ‘Rivers’. It’s a lovely celebration of the beauty of the English countryside, but I must confess that I have never once called into question his credentials as a geographer.

The stories in ‘Ten-Word Tragedies’ are also based on fragments of the lives of real people, taken from those postcards. I haven’t seen them, I don’t know what they look like, but presumably there isn’t any information about who the original owners were. What if one of the white male writers inadvertently ended up basing his story on a postcard written by a black woman? Should he have checked? Should a rigorous process of historical research been undertaken to ascertain, as far as possible, the correct ‘ownership’ of that story? If you’re going with the idea of ‘owning’ a story, why do any of those writers have the right to appropriate the fragmentary detail of a real person’s life?

Here’s why.

My father-in-law died in March and I’ve been doing my best to support my wife as she has dealt with not just the emotional fallout but also the mountain of legal and bureaucratic practicalities surrounding his death. I’ve only read the first story in the anthology so far, but it’s called ‘I Am Here’, by Michael Marshall Smith, and it’s about a woman dealing with not just the emotional fallout but also the mountain of legal and bureaucratic practicalities surrounding the death of her mother. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s beautiful and haunting, and it’s gone straight to the heart of a grief which has touched my family closely. If anybody had said ‘No, Mr Marshall Smith, you may not write that story for it does not belong to you’, then it wouldn’t exist, and that small piece of haunting beauty would not be in my world, and my world would be the lesser for it.

I understand the imperative to give marginalised people their voices, but at the end of the day a world with fewer stories in it cannot be a good thing.

(Honestly, I had nothing to do with this project, but it's really good!)




Y Pestis Say Hi!

I wrote this for the blog tour of 'The Plague Stones' but I don't think it got used, and it's good not to waste things, isn't it?

Greetings from your Friendly Neighbourhood Plague

Hello. My name’s Yersinia Pestis and I’ll be your disease for the next few days. You know why they call me that? Well have yersinia doctor recently – because you really should!

Just a little plague humour for you there to take the edge off. I mean if you haven’t got your sense of humour what have you got? I figured that since we’re going to be working very closely together – at least for a while - I’d start by telling you a little bit about myself while you’re still able to concentrate.

I’m a simple, down-to-earth rod-shaped bacterium who likes spreading virulently, killing millions, and destabilising whole civilisations. I’d like to take this opportunity to say how great it is to be inside such a large organism for a change. I’ve been cooped up in that bastard flea for ages, stuck behind a plug of slime in its gut (which is exactly as much fun as it sounds) until it decided to take a bite out of you. Then because it was already full of me it – well, just look at the pavement outside a nightclub in the early hours of a Saturday morning and you’ll get the idea. I reckon that flea must have vomited somewhere between ten to twenty thousand of me into your bloodstream. That’s fleas for you. All class.

Uh, nope, looks like I’m here for good now. Well, not good, obviously. Not unless you’ve got some antibiotics handy. You haven’t? Shame.

And your immune system? I’m sorry but that’s just not going to happen this time. You know how normally when you get an infection you’ve got those immune cells, the macrophages, the ones that envelope and eat foreign organisms like me? Well, no – I’ve got me a type 3 secretion system to take care of them. And you know those other ones that burst open to alert the other immune cells and to stop me from having somewhere to spread, and that’s why you get all inflamed and puffy? I’ve got a hack for that too – a special protein I like to call Yop. All my little yoppies are going to disable your immune cells’ auto-destruct sequences, and they’re going to do precisely nothing except carry me straight to the lymph nodes in your throat, your armpits and your groin.

Where we are going to par-tay.

By the time your immune system has got it together those nodes are going to be up like fuckin' zeppelins. I’ll be in your spleen and liver and you’ll feel like you’ve got the worst case of flu in the world, and if I’m able to get into your bloodstream you can add septicemia, abdominal cramps, vomiting blood, and gangrene in your extremities. The presence of so much of me will cause your system to go batshit crazy, triggering septic shock where your veins and arteries haemorrhage, your blood pressure drops through the floor and your organs die quicker than the characters in A Game of Thrones.

But hey, it’s not all about me. I’m a social animal, really; I just love getting out and meeting new people. I can’t wait to get into your lungs, because then I can go full-on pneumonic and spray myself all over your loved ones every time you cough. Hundred percent fatality rate, baby, that’s what I’m talking about.

In the absence of antibiotics I suppose you could always try some of the old-fashioned remedies like eating crushed emeralds, drinking mercury, or covering yourself in human excrement. If you’re really desperate you could even try praying. Hahahahahaaa!

No, seriously.



Patient Zero

It's been a bit of a busy time recently but I thought I'd just check in to let you know what's happening, in case you're remotely interested.

Obviously the main thing is that 'The Plague Stones' was published this week. It's the third book I've written for Titan, and my sixth over all, and is probably the only one one to date that I actually think of as a horror story. Leastways, nobody disappears into a parallel world this time, which I know some people find weird in a horror novel, but then the thing I find weird is that people think I write horror at all. I mean yes, that's how the other two have been marketed, but I honestly can't see any substantial difference between Hekla's Children and The Narrows, which has ley lines and magical acupuncture in it.

Honestly I love those one- and two-star reviews on Goodreads where readers complain that they don't know what kind of story it's suppose to be. If you're one of those, please don't take this the wrong way, but good. If I wanted to give you everything you expected from to the same formula as everyone else I'd be flipping burgers not making up stories. Actually, take it the wrong way if you want. I'm not the boss of you. Read my stuff any way you like. The Plague Stones is also my most overtly political book so I'm basically asking for it anyway.

It's also the fastest novel I've written. I don't know if that shows. I wouldn't exactly call myself prolific, as I'm currently juggling a day job and any number of work-avoidance hobbies, so my definition of 'quick' is anything less than a year. But my oldest daughter has left home to begin her adventures in software development and my youngest is off studying Eng Lit at university, and I've changed jobs after nearly two decades to work in an establishment where I get my weekends back and hence some semblance of a work-life balance, so there's been a lot more quiet time for writing this year. I thought I'd be a bit more disciplined about it, to be honest, but there you go.

There was a launch party at Foyles in Grand Central, Birmingham, for which I baked biohazard biscuits. To my knowledge, everyone who attended has survived.


So look, all of next week is a Blog Tour, in which different bits and pieces of me will be popping up and down on the 'tweb like a digital whack-a-mole, and I'll be physically hither and yon over the next couple of months, to whit:

June 1st-2nd
Collectormania 26 (Birmingham Film and Comic Con, basically), where I'll be selling ma books.

June 7th-9th
Cymera, Scotland's Festival for Science-Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Writing, where I'll be chatting to Big Jim 'Gingernuts of Horror' McLeod in the company of the awesomely talented Cassandra Khaw.

June 29th
With the Oxford Writing Circle, talking all things bookly.

July 13th
Edge Lit 8, just pretty much lurking.

July 26th-28th
London Film and Comic Con. Allegedly selling books, but probably stalking Gina Torres, if I'm honest.

If you're around, say hi. I can't guarantee it, but there may be biscuits.



Drop The Wires

On Friday last week I finally got to meet my Doctor after nearly 40 years. No, this is not a reference to the grievous state of the NHS – although the way things are going it might not be very far off – just a lame way of saying that I met Tom Baker and got his autograph at London Film and Comic Con.



There are some stories and images from your childhood that haunt you and never leave. Here are a few of mine from Baker’s tenure as Dr Who:


  • The jackal face of Sutekh the Destroyer glaring with glowing eyes through a space-time portal in an Egyptian sarcophagus from his prison on Mars.
  • Mr Sin, the psycopathic killer automaton created by Weng Chiang, lurching towards Leela with his knife upraised, unstoppable even when she buries her own dagger in his throat.
  • The mucoid green mass of a Rutan stealthily sliming its way up the outside of a fog-bound lighthouse to murder everyone inside.
  • A golden goddess with burning eyes turns her cultist acolytes into the shuddering, serpentine beasts of the Fendahl.
  • An alien seed pod breaks open and tendrils whip out to infect a scientist who can do nothing to prevent himself being transformed into a tentacled vegetable monstrosity.


And all this before I was ten. Is it any wonder I write what I do?

I think for me, though, and maybe for a lot of other people, the 4th Doctor’s greatest moment has to be when he is given the opportunity to wipe out the Daleks at the moment of their creation. He kneels with two bare wires in his hands – the fuse for an explosion – and hesitates, torn between his mission to destroy evil and his conscience which tells him that this act, however justified, is morally wrong. I think it’s worth copying in full here:

“Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished. Have I that right? You see, some things could be better with the Daleks. Many future worlds will become allies just because of their fear of the Daleks. But the final responsibility is mine, and mine alone. Listen, if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child? Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that's it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear, in peace, and never even know the word Dalek. But if I kill, wipe out a whole intelligent lifeform, then I become like them. I'd be no better than the Daleks.”



Eventually he is spared from this dilemma by news that Davros has offered to make peace, so he drops the wires and moves on.

The message is pretty obvious – unless you’re ten in which case it’s a mental tac-nuke. The idea that you can commit evil by destroying evil? Or that evil might create good? Or even that what you think is obviously evil might not be evil at all? The missiles are in the air, folks. Kaboom. It was the first time that I was really conscious of thinking (not that I put it in these terms, of course, I was a kid) that the greatest evil of all was not a monster but a sense of righteous absolutism, the idea that your cause is so right, your ideas so pure, so holy, that absolutely any act is justified and sanctified by it.

I say this because for years at London Comic Con I’ve seen countless female Whovians cosplaying as their hitherto male heroes, but for the first time this weekend I saw loads of male fans dressed as Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor. And it was brilliant. She won’t be my Doctor, not like Tom Baker was, but for thousands of ten-year old boys and girls in 2018 she will be theirs, and they will want to emulate her, and that is a wonderful thing.

The problem is that there is a vocal minority of dipshit male Whovians out there - a lot of them from my generation, sadly – who are absolutist in their conviction that a woman can never be the Doctor. If you’re one of them reading this, here’s my message to you: drop the wires, mate. Move on. You’re undermining everything that your Doctor, whoever he was, stood for.

Me, come October I’m going to watch the 13th Doctor and try to remember what it felt like to be ten again.



Hollow Tree Party


Look at how much fun these chaps are having in their big old hollow tree party.

Well, Valentine's Day has been and gone, and Easter is just around the corner, which must mean that it's time for a bit of annual book-pimping.

I've got a new book out, in other words, and this makes me a happy camper.

It's called 'The Hollow Tree', and it's about a woman called Rachel who loses her left hand in an accident but discovers that her hand won't die that easily - despite the fact that it's amputated and incinerated, she can still feel things with it. Not things in the living world as we know it, but things in the shadow realm on the other side; the place where dead things go. More than that, she discovers that she can bring fragments of the umbra through into reality. Just scrap, really - bits of broken glass,  dead leaves, insects and such.

Then, one day while out for a walk with her husband Tom, she finds a large hollow tree in the umbra, and a human hand reaching out for help from the hollow - a hand which grabs onto hers and won't let go.

It's based on a local unsolved murder case called the 'Bella in the Wych Elm' mystery which, if you haven't heard of it, I'll post in more detail about later. All I wanted to say for the moment is that the book's out from 13th March on Amazon, or the 6th if you get it from Foyles, apparently, and that there's a launch party at the Birmingham Grand Central branch of Foyles on Saturday March 17th from 6:30 - 8:30; it's open to the public and you're all invited.

Here's the event link if you're interested.

I guarantee it will be at least as much fun as those guys are having in the photo.

The Eternal Picnic

Hekla’s Children is released next Tuesday, and I’ve already said a lot in various places about the kind of British archaeo-fantasy-horror that has inspired it (Holdstock, Garner, etc), but less about one particular Australian influence, which might seem a bit weird considering how, well, English the whole jolly thing is.

And that’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay. It seems particularly appropriate given that it was published exactly fifty years ago, and with a new TV miniseries currently in production. (Coincidences are not allowed in fiction, despite the fact that they happen to me all the time.)

Bit of a warning here: this article contains spoilers. If you haven’t read Picnic, do it. It’s fab.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, it tells of three students from a well-to-do private girls’ school who disappear whilst on a Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900. It’s fictional, but so compelling is Lindsay’s storytelling that many readers remain convinced of its truth, and there is an apocryphal account of staff at the State Library of Victoria having to turn away amateur researchers looking for old newspaper clippings or records about the incident which don’t exist. Lindsay herself doesn’t seem to have been too interested in dispelling their illusions, and why not? That kind of thing is a publicist’s wet dream.

After her death in 1984, Lindsay’s estate published a final chapter which had previously been edited out of the novel; entitled The Secret of Hanging Rock, it tells something of what happened to the three girls, but the dreamlike and opalescent quality of her prose obscures as much as it reveals. To my mind, the original decision to keep it out of Picnic was the right one – the dark heart of the mystery remains more powerfully the unravelling of prejudice and rationality following the disappearances, rather than where the girls actually went to.

There is a truth here, but it’s deeper than mere historical facts.

It is of course tremendously gothic – from the labyrinthine corridors of Appleyard College, full of shadows and whispers, to the looming volcanic crags and monoliths of the Hanging Rock itself, towering over the plain. Like the Rock, with its craggy buttresses and hidden caves which only reveal their secrets over time (if at all), there is a lot more to this story than a simple gothic tale of mysterious disappearances and repressed passion.

Appleyard College is a place of enforced silence and restriction – where the matriarchal Mrs Appleyard punishes the young women under her care for speaking out of turn, enforces strict rules about appropriate dress and deportment, and even goes so far as to have the unfortunate Sara Wayborne physically strapped down to an exercise bench in the College gymnasium as a remedy for having bad posture. Given the current political climate in which the hard-won rights of anybody who isn’t a white, middle class man are being eroded, Picnic’s continuing relevance cannot be dismissed.

Only one girl returns from the rock: Irma Leopold, a rich heiress. She is rescued by a young and handsome English aristocrat, Michael Fitzhubert, and his groom Albert Crundall. After this it is assumed by everyone that the wealthy young lady and the dashing gentleman will form a romantic liaison – indeed, in the fairy tale world of a gothic narrative this would be the expected and satisfactory outcome. Accordingly, they are thrown together for several weeks after her rescue as she convalesces in the lodge on his parents’ estate, taking many boating trips on the lake, even though she begins to tire of his frequent and fulsome praises of the rough-as-guts Albert. There is an inescapably homoerotic substrata to the relationship between Michael Fitzhubert, described as ‘a slender fair youth’ and Albert, with his thick mop of dark hair and his muscular, tattoed arms. Albert is ultimately rewarded with a cheque for a thousand pounds from Irma’s father – an unimaginable amount of money for a man in his position. He uses this to follow Mike, and they both disappear into the deep north of Queensland.

Irma Leopold’s rescue therefore seems to be of more signficance for how it catalyses other relationships and reveals the latent hysteria in the College. It seems as though once she has been reacted to, her usefulness ends, and she is duly packed away in a carriage to be married off to an unnamed aristocrat and live happily ever after in the margins of the text.

One of the most significant ‘disappearances’ of the novel is that of the indigenous inhabitants of the region - the Wurundjeri tribe of the Kulin nation. There is a handful of references to a ‘black tracker’ assisting in the search for the girls, but that’s about it. Nevertheless, the Wurundjeri dreaming is there, encoded anonymously in the text. At the end, as Mrs Appleyard commits sucide by throwing herself off the monolith and onto the jagged rocks below, she is watched by an eagle and a black spider. The eagle is Bunjil, the Wurundjeri creator spirit, watching over the final resolution of the great ‘pattern’ which was set in motion by the girls’ disappearance.

I find it interesting, though not unsurprising, that the only teacher to disappear is the one who insists most steadfastly on logic, science and mathematics – the dry-as-dust middle-aged Scottish spinster Miss Greta McCraw. She is last seen climbing the rock without her skirt, clad only in her voluminous Victorian knickers, something so scandalous that Edith Norton can only refer to it in shocked, giggling whispers. In the Secret Chapter she changes into a crustacean-like animal in order to better pass through into the Wurundjeri Dreaming – she is in fact the first one to make the journey, with the girls following her lead. So rationality is distorted, transformed, and eventually swallowed by the mystery of the Rock.


Ultimately, everything disappears: truth, time, youth, love, gender, class, race, and reason. All that remains is the power of the land, and our bones in it, and its bones in us. Picnic At Hanging Rock remains for me one of the most evocative explorations of this power, and well worth appreciating anew.