A Northern Irish ghost story

 

© Aphelion Webzine

 

In Hog Heaven is my attempt to write a ghost story set in modern-day Northern Ireland – though the ghosts in it date back to a recent and traumatic period in Northern Ireland’s history.  As usual with anything I’ve written that involves the supernatural and / or the macabre, it bears the pseudonym Jim Mountfield.

 

The story is currently available online in the August edition of the web-zine AphelionThis is a link to the issue and this is a link to the story itself.  And the Aphelion staff have very kindly put Mr Mountfield’s name on this month’s cover!

 

A kiss from Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine / Jeani Rector

 

My short story Ae Fond Kiss is among those included in a summer 2018 paperback showcasing the latest fiction and poetry to be featured on the well-known and award-winning web-zine The Horror Zine.  And since it’s a horror story, I have attached my usual horror nom de plume Jim Mountfield to it.

 

The title comes from a wistful romantic song by Robert Burns and, as you’d expect, it’s set in Scotland – next to the Irish Sea on Scotland’s southwestern coast, probably not far from Burns’ birthplace in Alloway.  However, the biggest inspiration for the story was provided by the Musée Mécanique on Pier 45 in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which serves as both a functioning amusement arcade and a museum for more than 200 “coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines in their original working condition.”  A few years ago when I was in San Francisco I spent a delightful hour or two wandering around the place and examining all its vintage and rather magical contraptions.

 

Indeed, several of the Musée’s exhibits are referenced in Ae Fond Kiss, including a turning miniature Ferris Wheel (made by inmates of San Quentin Prison, apparently), a group of marionettes that perform as a barber shop quartet and a device called a motoscope that resembles a what-the-butler-saw machine and shows clips of 1920s movies like On the Beam with Harold Lloyd and Quick on the Trigger with Tom Mix.  I should say, though, that the machine at the heart of the amusement arcade described in my story is a figment of my imagination and has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the Musée Mécanique.

 

The paperback version of The Horror Zine’s summer 2018 anthology can be ordered here, and there’s a kindle edition available here.

 

Oh, and the story has creepy clowns in it too.  What’s not to like?

 

© BBC

 

Worming my way into Aphelion

 

© Aphelion

 

A quick post to say that the latest issue (May 2018) of the science fiction and fantasy webzine Aphelion features a short story of mine called Bookworm, which I wrote under the pen-name Jim Mountfield.  The issue can be accessed here for the next few weeks.

 

Like several things I’ve written, Bookworm is the result of two different ideas I had that, originally, I assumed would lead to two different stories.  They’d been bouncing around inside my head for a long time and I’d never figured out a way of constructing a coherent narrative around either of them.  Then it occurred to me one day that I could combine those two ideas into one story – wildly dissimilar though they were.

 

In Bookworm’s case, one of the ideas was inspired by an art bookshop in Edinburgh that I occasionally worked in thirty years ago.  To be honest, a mate of mine officially worked there, but he wasn’t available on certain afternoons and asked me to fill in for him.  I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I worked there I was paid cash-in-hand.  The bookshop has long since disappeared and its premises are now occupied by a pizzeria, so I think I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.  The shop looked unusual in that it stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, and Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket, slanted together.  Because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it had a strange, tapering, almost triangular shape.  Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass.

 

So I’d always wanted to use that bookshop as the setting for a story – with its odd shape (‘like a slice of pie’, as Bookworm puts it); its glass frontage that meant I spent a lot of time just gazing out onto George IV Bridge, people-watching; and its shelves of big, expensive and beautifully-illustrated artbooks.

 

I must admit that the other idea that powers Bookworm is not an original one.  It was something I encountered as a teenager, when I read a 1947 short story called Cellmate by the science fiction and horror writer Theodore Sturgeon.  I thought the premise for that story was so wonderfully bizarre that I’d always wanted to write a variation on it.  I’ve seen the idea turn up in several places since then – for example, in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi blockbuster Total Recall – so I don’t feel too guilty about nicking it.

 

Theodore Sturgeon was, incidentally, a very interesting character.  I suspect he’s best remembered today not so much for his work (which included scripting a couple of episodes of the original Star Trek TV series in the late 1960s) but for coining the adage known as Sturgeon’s Law, which goes along the lines of: okay, 90% of science fiction is crap but then, 90% of everything is crap.  In his day, though, he was a prolific and popular writer of short stories – he penned about 200 of them and during the 1950s he was said to be the most anthologised short-fiction writer in the English language alive.  And it’s claimed that he was the inspiration for Kilgore Trout, the fictitious sci-fi writer who recurs in the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and becomes their bemused, oddball conscience.  (Sturgeon…  Trout…  Get it?)

 

© Marc Zicree

 

And there you have it.  Long-gone Edinburgh art bookshop + bizarre short story by Theodore Sturgeon = Bookworm.

 

I write about a writer for Write

 

© Write magazine

 

When I write fiction, I try to follow two rules: not to write about drunkards and not to write about writers.

 

The main reason for these rules is to avoid laziness.  If your main character is a drunkard, he or she can make any decision or perform any action no matter how ridiculous or irrational because, well, they’re drunk.  It becomes a cheap ‘n’ easy ploy for authors to sidestep the necessity for logic and reason in their plots.  It’s also cheap ‘n’ easy to have a writer as your main character, though in a different way.  Writers aren’t beholden to the same working conventions as most other people.  They don’t have to be in a specific location for X number of hours each day, starting at Y o’clock and ending at Z o’clock.  So if you’re crafting a plot, your writer-character is available to do anything, anywhere, at any time of the day.  Which again strikes me as a cop-out.

 

I also don’t like stories about writers (and literary-related people) because it just seems so up its own arse.  I still like to moan about the dire state of contemporary English literature back in the days of my youth by holding up, as an example, the shortlist for 1984’s Man Booker Prize.  That year, the novel that should have won the Booker – J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun – was the only one that didn’t have a writer, or a biographer, or a literary scholar, as its main character.  (For the record, the other novels on the shortlist were Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, Anita Desai’s In Custody, Penelope Lively’s The World According to Mark, David Lodge’s Small World and, the eventual winner, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.)  I’m sure such writer-fixated novels were fascinating for the 0.001% of humanity who actually worked in, moved around in and fraternised in the literary world – but were a bit smug and elitist for everyone else.

 

The only author I can forgive for having writers as his main characters is Stephen King, basically because I find his work so damned entertaining no matter whom he writes about.  (Well, as the blurb on his books used to intone: WORDS ARE HIS POWER.)  In The Shining (1977), he even got away with having as a main character a man who was both a writer and a drunkard.  Wow!

 

© Warner Bros / The Producer Circle Company / Peregrine Films

 

Anyway, all this is a preamble to saying that Volume 2, Issue 1 of a new Sri Lankan magazine of poetry, fiction and literary articles called Write has just gone on sale and it includes a short story by me called Holmes, Sherlock.  And guess what?  As I’m a complete and utter hypocrite, I have broken my own rules and betrayed my own principles and made it about a character who’s a writer.  Sorry.  I’m not proud of myself.

 

Incidentally, because the subject matter of Holmes, Sherlock is less dark and macabre than what I usually write about, I haven’t published it under a pseudonym like Jim Mountfield.  It’s attributed to my own, real, very boring name.

 

Available for just 400 Sri Lankan rupees, the new issue of Write can be purchased at the Barefoot Bookshop on Galle Road or at the Sooriya Village Restaurant on Skelton Road.  And here’s a link to the magazine’s Facebook page.

 

Jim Mountfield at the Hellfire Crossroads

 

© Trevor Denyer

 

My horror-fiction-writing alter-ego Jim Mountfield has just had a new story printed in issue 6 of the magazine Hellfire Crossroads, which is available at CreateSpace here, at Amazon UK here and at Amazon US here.

 

This is the third consecutive issue of Hellfire Crossroads in which I’ve had something featured.  I’m particularly pleased to be associated with this magazine, because its tireless editor Trevor Denyer used to be responsible for the magazines Roadworks and Legend and he published some of my earlier work in them – giving me a break at a time when my morale really needed it.  That was back when my horror-fiction nom de plume wasn’t Jim Mountfield but Eoin Henderson.  (I’m superstitious, and when I stop having luck getting stuff published under one pseudonym, as happened to me with Eoin Henderson, I change to another.  But I’ve had a reasonable run of luck with Jim Mountfield, so I expect to be him for a while longer.)

 

The story in Hellfire Crossroads issue 6 is called Amy’s Gift.  I like to think of it as a weird mixture of the TV situation comedy Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995) and the horror movie Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1972).  It’s also set in an alternative universe and it has one of the bleakest endings I’ve ever written for a story.

 

A night with Jim Mountfield

 

© Blood Moon Rising

 

Just a quick announcement that Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror fiction, has a new short story appearing in the spring edition of the magazine / ezine Blood Moon Rising.

 

The story is entitled The Ecosystem, it’s about someone having a bad night after experimenting with some unknown and dodgy drugs – in horror stories, the drugs are always dodgy – and it’s meant to be a nasty hallucinogenic piece of body-horror combining elements of the work of William S. Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker.  (Warning – it might not be quite as good as them.)

 

The magazine’s website is here and, the last time I checked, the story itself is accessible here.

 

Jim Mountfield – 35 years late

 

From youtube.com 

 

Many people who have an idea for a story, painting or song find that the process of turning the idea into reality takes a long time.  But I suspect that the process took longer than most with my short story The Malevolent Aged Grin, which was written under my horror-fiction pseudonym Jim Mountfield and has just appeared in a new hard-copy anthology from the mainly online publication The Horror Zine.

 

In fact, the moment when the original idea came to me and the moment when I finally saw the finished item in print were separated by 35 years.  That’s right.  The notion of The Malevolent Aged Grin first entered my head in 1981, when I was a plooky high-school teenager, during an era when the world seemed a very different place from now.  Back then, the bellicose but befuddled Ronald Reagan had just been elected US president and I was seriously worried that he was going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up.  In 2016, the bellicose and badly-haired Donald Trump stands a good chance of being elected US president and I’m seriously worried that he’s going to start a nuclear war and blow everything up.  So thank heavens that’s all changed.

 

Come to think of it, I could have begun writing the 4500-word story in 1981, composed it at the rate of 130 words every year and still got it finished in 2016.

 

© The Daily Telegraph

 

I remember the first time I thought of writing The Malevolent Grin.  It was during a school English class, under the tutelage of English teacher Iain Jenkins – who later would enter politics and become our constituency’s first representative in the reconvened-after-nearly-300-years Scottish Parliament.  He’d just read to us the poem Pike by the famous Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes.  As well as containing the phrase ‘the malevolent aged grin’, which I decided there and then to pinch and use as the title of a story, the poem had such unforgettable lines as “…silhouette / Of submarine delicacy and horror / A hundred feet long in their world” and “Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards / Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds.”

 

Yes, I know the poem reflected the theme of much of Hughes’ nature poetry, about how the natural world – here embodied in the pike, Britain’s most predatory freshwater fish – has its own scale, perspectives and levels of savagery; totally different from how we, as romanticising, sentimentalising, anthropomorphising human beings, view it.  But for me, the poem just seemed wonderfully macabre and suddenly I wanted to write a story about a pike – a big pike.  A monster pike.  I should say that by this time I’d started writing horror stories and I saw no reason why I shouldn’t become southern Scotland’s answer to Stephen King.

 

For a long time I envisioned the story as being about a pike that’s the size of a rowing boat, has somehow managed to escape being noticed by the human world and lurks in the depths of a remote river or pool.  Somehow, it’s also managed to keep itself fed, on livestock that wander too close to the water’s edge, without the world noticing either.  I even started writing it in a jotter.  The main character was an author – how very Stephen King – who takes his family and pet cat to live in an old converted mill-house next to a river.  He intends to make the most of his quiet, rural surroundings and start work on a new novel.  Needless to say, the pike soon makes its presence felt, beginning by eating the family cat.  I conceived the story as ending with torrential rain, the river flooding and the big bad pike substantially expanding its feeding grounds.

 

© Hamlyn Publishers

 

However, that version of the story never got beyond its first few pages.  Partly I abandoned it because I realised that, even by the standards of adolescent-penned pulp horror, its premise was absurd; but also because one day I discovered in a bookshop that someone had already written a story about a monster pike terrorising the British countryside.  This was the 160-page novel The Pike (1982) by the late Cliff Twemlow, a colourful character who made a living not only as a horror novelist but as a nightclub bouncer in Manchester, as a movie / TV actor and extra and as a composer – one of his country-and-western compositions ended up, briefly, in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978).

 

Twemlow had his pike cruising the waters of Lake Windermere in Cumbria and at one point during the 1980s it looked like the novel was going to be made into a film, with Joan Collins as the star.  I have to say that my resentment about Twemlow getting his pike story into print before I did was lessened by the tantalising prospect of seeing a giant hungry pike take a few bites at the diva-esque Ms Collins.  A 12-foot-long robotic pike was actually built for the project and Joan Collins posed with it in some pre-production publicity photos.  (Cue cruel jokes like “The pike is the one on the left”, or “A terrifying monster – and a pike.”)  But ultimately, alas, this cinematic Pike never came to fruition.

 

https://horrorpedia.com/2014/04/08/the-pike-novel-and-unfinished-feature-film/

http://io9.gizmodo.com/joan-collins-nearly-starred-in-this-movie-about-a-kille-1744451146

 

From io9.gizmodo.com 

 

When I was older and more sensible, it dawned on me that the monster pike in the story didn’t have to be a physical entity.  Hughes’ image of a fanged, grinning and primordially hideous face lurking in the mud, rotted leaves and darkness below the surface of a pool could easily be a metaphor for all the horrible things that lurk deep in the human psyche.  So I began to envision The Malevolent Aged Grin as a psychological horror story.  But I couldn’t figure out how to fit this into a plot.

 

Then a few years ago, I hit on the idea of making the pike supernatural.  It’s an evil, water-dwelling spirit that takes possession of someone when he falls into a pool during a fishing trip.  But still I had to determine where this evil spirit came from, what it was doing there and what it planned to do once it’d possessed its victim.  Gradually, though, I got inspiration from different sources – for example, a quote by William S. Burroughs about how magicians summon up and use demons like mafia dons hiring hitmen; and a story about two feuding magicians in a collection of Sri Lankan horror tales called Water in my Grave (2013).  And I managed to put together a back-story for the pike, or evil spirit as it was now.

 

After I’d written The Malevolent Aged Grin, submitted it and had it accepted for publication by The Horror Zine’s editor, Jeani Rector, my travails weren’t over yet.  I was asked to make revisions.  In the original version, the pike’s back-story is explained when the main character uses the Internet and visits www.themodernantiquarian.com, a website chronicling sites of ancient, mythological and folkloric interest in the British Isles, which in real life was set up by the rock musician and author Julian Cope.  Jeani suggested that I scrap this and have one of the secondary characters recount the back-story as a supposed local legend.  Changing this helped, in that it gave the secondary character much more of a presence (and a function) than he had in the original.  Probably it was also a good thing that I dropped several references I’d made to the Harry Potter stories.  With hindsight, I was being too ironic for my own good.

 

© Jeani Rector / The Horror Zine

 

The anthology containing The Malevolent Aged Grin, three-and-a-half decades in the making, is available at the link below.  I’d like to conclude with a joke about the story being a big fish in a small pool, but it’s a big anthology with a lot of stories.  And they’re all really good.

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Horror-Zine-Magazine-Fall-2016-ebook/dp/B01JKUM6X4

 

A blood moon over Mountfield

 

(c) BBC

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror stories, has had a new piece of fiction published.  It appears in the spring 2016 edition of a magazine called Blood Moon Rising.

 

The story is a short and nasty piece called The Balloon.  However, despite its shortness and nastiness, it’s a good example of the unlikely and random way that different elements of a story can come together and form a single whole.  A bit of the story originates in one place, another bit originates in a different place, and so on.  Thus, the writer ends up like Frankenstein, sewing parts of different bodies together to make a brand new creature.  (And that’s an appropriate analogy when you’re talking about horror stories.)

 

A while back, I read an interview with the Dutch director Tom Six, the man who gave us such yummy movies as The Human Centipede (2009), The Human Centipede II (2011) and – surprise! – The Human Centipede III (2015), which are about stitching people’s mouths to other people’s anuses so that they end up as a crawling, conjoined chain of bodies with a single alimentary tract.  It goes without saying that everyone who isn’t at the front of the human centipede gets a ‘bum’ deal.

 

Asked how he’d come up with such a crazed idea in the first place, Six claims he thought of it after watching a news report about a paedophile.  “His crimes were so awful I asked myself, ‘What’s the most extreme punishment that could be handed out to him?’”  Then Six answered his own question by imagining some highly unsavoury mouth-to-bum surgery.

 

From blogs.indiewire.com

 

This surprised me, by the way.  I’d always assumed Six came up with the idea for The Human Centipede after he’d asked himself: “What’s the grossest thing I can stick in a horror movie, so that blood-and-gore-obsessed teenagers the world over will shell out money to see it and make me a fortune?”

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32656480

 

Anyway, that got me thinking: what’s the most extreme punishment I could give to a paedophile in a story?

 

It also made me remember something.  A decade ago, I’d been travelling in Cambodia and one night in Phnom Penh, having drunk a few beers too many, I wandered into what looked like a nice relaxed beer garden with an outdoor bar in the middle of it.  Gradually, though, I realised that the Cambodian barmaids there seemed a bit too young; while the customers – all Western men – seemed a bit too old.  And leery.

 

I ended up sitting at the bar counter opposite a slightly Lolita-esque barmaid and I started lecturing her about how she ought to pack in her job, get away from these dirty old men, go back to school and get some proper qualifications.  Being rather pissed, I spoke too loudly, and I soon noticed that there were a couple of sleazy-looking British men sitting along the counter from me, muttering at me in disapproval.  But I had the sense to get my beer down me and stride out of that dubious joint before I got into a fight.

 

The next day, I took a boat along the Tonle Sap River to Siem Reap, which is near the crumbling, jungle-overrun but still stunning temple complex at Angkor Wat.   Somehow, those two things, the grotesque punters in that bar in Phnom Penh and the venerable temples of Angkor Wat, got linked in my mind.

 

Then, two years ago in India, I visited a different sort of historical site.  This was the Qutab complex in Delhi, where the massive Qutab Minar minaret built between the 12th and 14th centuries soars above an area of ruins, courtyards, pillars, pavilions, lawns, hedgerows and trees.  There, I saw something else that lodged in my mind.  As I wrote in my notebook at the time: “At least one end of the Qutab site was below the level of the neighbouring road.  There were railings along the roadside and a group of little kids had gathered behind them.  Apparently, they’d been playing with a big red balloon and the balloon had come down on the wrong side of the railings, into the grounds of the site, and landed on top of some medieval masonry a couple of yards below them.  Now they were yelling down through the railings, trying to get the attention of some visitor who’d be kind and brave enough to clamber up onto the masonry and retrieve their balloon for them.”

 

And then all the story elements were in place: temple-ruins half-swallowed by the jungle, like in Angkor Wat; a lost kid’s balloon, like I’d seen at Qutab Minar; and a squalid old tourist who’s in a southern Asian country not to sightsee but because of his unhealthy interest in the country’s youngsters, which was the impression I’d got of those bar-customers in Phnom Penh.  And from this, I managed to write The Balloon.

 

The magazine featuring the story can be accessed online, here:

 

http://www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com/bloodmoonrisingmagazine64.html

 

From www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com

 

And the last time I checked, The Balloon itself was available here.  Read it if you dare.

 

http://www.bloodmoonrisingmagazine.com/shortstory647.html

 

A story of Scotland’s independence referendum: ‘Mither’

 

From www.derekthomas.wordpress.com

From www.sodahead.com

 

Today, September 18th, is the first anniversary of 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence. 

 

That’s right – a year has now passed since the Scottish electorate voted, by a majority of 55% to 45%, in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom.  A year has passed since the circuses of the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns were in full swing, which brought with them all manner of spectacles and happenings: interventions in support of the ‘no’ camp from personages as mighty as Barack Obama, the Pope, the Queen and J.K. Rowling; George Osborne threatening Scots that he wouldn’t let them continue using the pound if they voted ‘yes’; Alex Salmond losing his cool at Nick Robinson and the BBC; Jim Murphy getting struck by that dastardly egg; and the mainstream newspapers assuring us that a ‘yes’ vote would cause the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to gallop across Scotland spreading war, conquest, famine and death.

 

One narrative that the media peddled back then was that Scotland had become a divided country.  Families were in turmoil.  Parents and children, brothers and sisters, who’d previously lived together in harmony, had changed into rabid yes-sers and no-ers who were suddenly at each other’s throats.  For instance, last summer, the journalist Jenny Hjul wrote in the Daily Telegraph: “In Scotland… politics has become deeply personal.  We might have friends who are nationalists but they aren’t speaking to us at the moment…  The coming referendum has rendered such cross-party camaraderie inconceivable and it’s hard to see the day when things will return to normal.”  To be honest, considering the anti-independence poison and bile secreted by Hjul and her husband, the Telegraph’s Scottish editor Alan Cochrane, into their writings over the years, I’m amazed that they ever had nationalist friends in the first place.

 

Anyway, the Scottish-families-divided-by-independence theme inspired me a while ago to write a short story that took the idea to its logical extreme.  And seeing as it’s September 18th again, I thought I’d take this opportunity to post the story here.  So I now give you…  Mither.

 

***

 

I must have dozed while I sat in the office and read the literature that’d landed on our porch floor that morning.  I hadn’t heard her go out.  I only heard the porch door scrape open and shut as she came back.

 

‘Mither,’ I said when she entered the office.  ‘You were outside.’

 

She settled into the armchair with the tartan-patterned cushions that’d been her seat – her throne, we called it – when she ran the business by herself.  Now that I was mostly in charge, I had my own seat in the office but I kept the throne there should she want to use it.  She smoothed her skirt across her knees.  She was a modern-minded woman – at times too modern-minded because she had some ideas you’d expect more in a giddy teenager – but she avoided trousers and stuck to old-fashioned long skirts.  ‘Aye, Norrie.  I’ve been out and about.’

 

I didn’t like the sound of that but before I could quiz her she leaned forward from the throne and took the leaflet out of my hand.  ‘What’s this you’re reading?  Don’t say they’ve shovelled more shite through our door.’

 

It pained me to hear her genteel voice soiled by coarse language.  But I stayed patient.  ‘It’s actually interesting, Mither.  It’s an interview with a normal young couple, a professional young couple, about what might happen if the referendum result is…’  I searched for a word that’d cause minimum offence.  ‘Unexpected.’

 

Mither sighed and her eyes swivelled up in their sockets.

 

‘Now I ken you’re sceptical, Mither.  But they seem decent.  He’s called Kenneth and she’s called Gina.  And they’re worried about the effect independence would have on them.’

 

Mither’s eyes swivelled down again.  Then I saw them twitch from side to side while they scanned the text on the leaflet.

 

I pressed on.  ‘It wouldn’t have a good effect, Mither.  It’d be bad for them.’  Why did my voice tremble?  Why was I afraid?  ‘The financial uncertainty. How would decent hardworking people like them – like me – cope if all the business fled south and the prices shot up?  And the banks…  Why, I read in the paper the other day about an expert who said the bank machines would stop dispensing cash if the vote was yes!’

 

‘Does,’ asked Mither, ‘this say what Kenneth does for a living?’

 

‘And even if we still have cash, Mither, what would our currency be?  We won’t have the pound – George Osborne and Ed Balls down in Westminster won’t allow it!  We’ll have to make do with some banana-republic-type currency.  Or worse, the euro!’

 

From mairnorarochwind.wordpress.com

 

‘Norrie,’ said Mither, ‘calm down.  Does this leaflet actually say what Kenneth’s job is?’

 

‘Aye, of course it does.’  I faltered.  ‘Well, no. Maybe it doesn’t.’

 

She sighed.  ‘It certainly doesn’t, Norrie.  And I’ll tell you why.’  She raised the leaflet so that I could see a picture of Kenneth, Gina and their children on it.  She placed a fingertip against Kenneth.  ‘It’s because he’s Kenneth Braithwaite, who’s one of our local councillors.  One of our Conservative Party councillors.  But that fact isn’t mentioned here.  It pretends that he’s an ordinary unbiased person like you or me.’

 

I chuckled nervously.  ‘Now Mither.  I wouldn’t say you were unbiased.’

 

Mither rose from her throne.  ‘I am unbiased.  My mind’s open to facts and I form opinions and make decisions based on those facts.  Facts, mind you.  Not the propaganda and smears and scaremongering that’s poured out of the political and business and media establishments during the last year.  Not the drivel that’s clogged and befuddled your impressionable young mind!’

 

Before I could reply, she tore the leaflet down the middle and returned it to my hands in two pieces.  Then she hustled out of the office and shut the door behind her with enough force to make a stuffed owl wobble and almost fall off a nearby shelf.  I heard her shoes go clacking up the stairs and then another door slam, presumably the one leading into her room.

 

I seethed.  How I hated, how I loathed this referendum!  Setting family members against one another day after day!  I looked at the leaflet again and realised that by a creepy coincidence Mither had ripped it down the middle of the family-picture.  Now Kenneth and a little boy occupied one half of it while Gina and a little girl were sundered and apart in the other half.

 

And they seemed such a nice family.

 

*

 

I hated the referendum but I couldn’t wait for the day of it, September 18th, to come – and take place and be over with.  The problem was that the time until then seemed to pass very slowly.  And during this time it felt like a war of attrition was being waged against me.  I grew more tired and depressed the longer those separatists raved in the media and on the streets and from the literature they popped through the slot in our porch door.  A rash of yes stickers and posters spread along the windows in the street-fronts of our neighbourhood.  Some of them even appeared on the houses of people I’d thought were decent and sensible.

 

I began to panic.  God, could it happen?  I had visions of the doors padlocked and the windows boarded up on the old family business and Mither and I living in poverty alongside hundreds of thousands of other suddenly-penniless Scots.  While around us, food prices and fuel prices skyrocketed, the banks and financial companies whisked all their offices away to London, the housing market disappeared into a giant hole, the hospitals became like those in the developing world, and terrorist cells congregated in Glasgow and Edinburgh and prepared to attack England across the new border.

 

But worst of all was the madness this referendum campaign inspired in Mither.

 

She sensed when I was worn out.  While I was napping, or dozing off behind the desk in the office, or slumped in a stupor in front of the TV, she’d leave her room and creep down the stairs and do things.

 

These might be wee things.  If I wasn’t in the office, she might use the computer and I’d discover hours later that it was open at frightful separatist websites like Bella Caledonia or National Collective or Wings over Scotland.  The day’s Scottish Daily Mail might disappear from the kitchen table and turn up, scrunched into a ball, in the recycling bin in the corner.  Or if the Mail was left on the table, any photographs in it of Alistair Darling or George Osborne might have shocking words like tosser or bampot graffiti-ed across them in Mither’s curly handwriting.

 

More worrying was her tendency sometimes to sneak outdoors.  It would’ve been bad enough in normal times because she was too old and frail to be wandering the streets alone.  But in these dangerous times – who knew what she was up to and who she was associating with?

 

The evidence disturbed me.  When I visited her room I found a growing collection of things that she could only have acquired during trips outside – little Scottish saltire and lion-rampant flags, booklets of essays and poems written in support of independence, brochures for events with sinister titles like Imagi-Nation and Yestival, posters where the word can’t had the t scrawled out so that they read can instead.  She’d amassed badges, stickers and flyers with the word yes emblazoned on them.  What a disgusting-sounding word yes had become to me.  I’d contemplate Mither and imagine that horrible word spurting from her lips –

 

‘Yes!  Yes!  Yes – !’

 

And she’d argue.  Goodness me, what had got into the woman to make her so bloody-minded?  In between quoting names of people I’d never heard of, but who were undoubtedly up to no good, like Gerry Hassan and David Greig and Lesley Riddoch, she’d taunt me mercilessly.

 

‘So go on.  Tell me.  Explain.  Why can we not be independent?’

 

‘Because… We can’t!  We just can’t!  We’re too… too…’

 

‘Too wee?’

 

‘Aye!  Well, no.  Not that, not only that.  We’re also…’

 

‘Too poor?’

 

‘Aye, that’s true, Scotland’s too poor to be independent.  But the main reason is that we’re…’

 

‘Too stupid?’

 

‘Och stop it, Mither!  Stop!  You’re putting words in my mouth!’

 

‘But you agree with that basic proposition?  Scotland can’t be independent because it’s too small, its economy’s too weak and its people aren’t educated enough?’  She sighed.  ‘That’s what we’re up against.  A mass of our fellow Scots, yourself included, brainwashed by the establishment into believing their own inferiority!’

 

I stormed out of the room at that point.  What horrible people had she been talking to?

 

(c) The Independent

From www.yeshighland.net

 

A few weeks before the referendum-day, her madness reached what I assumed was its peak.  After the last guests had left the premises and after I’d washed and put away the breakfast things, I took the vacuum cleaner into the porch and started on the carpet there.  It took me a minute to notice something odd about the rack on the porch wall where I stored leaflets about local attractions that our guests might be interested in: Rosslyn Chapel, Abbotsford, Traquair House, Melrose Abbey and so on.  The leaflets in the rack had changed.  The tourist ones had disappeared.  In their place were different ones.  Political ones.

 

I put down the vacuum-hose and approached the rack.  Crammed into it now were leaflets I’d seen in her room advertising those sinister-sounding events like Imagi-Nation and Yestival and other ones promoting the unsavoury websites she’d consulted on the computer like National Collective, Bella Caledonia and Wings over Scotland.  Also there were leaflets for organisations with different but strangely-repetitive names: Women for Independence, Liberals for Independence, Polish for Independence, Asians for Independence, English for Independence, Farmers for Independence…  One organisation, whose leaflets were merely sheets of A4 paper that’d been photocopied on and folded, was even called Hoteliers for Independence.

 

I couldn’t help reading that Hoteliers for Independence leaflet.  It ended with the exhortation, ‘Please contact Hoteliers for Independence for more information at…’ and gave an address.  My insides turned cold as I read the address.  I found myself pivoting around inside the porch and facing different internal doors that led to different parts of the guesthouse.  I half-expected one door to have hanging on it a sign that said HOTELIERS FOR INDEPENDENCE – THIS WAY.

 

Then I peered up towards where a certain bedroom was located on the first floor and lamented, ‘Oh, Mither!’

 

*

 

One afternoon, close to September 18th, I woke from an unplanned doze at the desk in the office.  I’d been dreaming.  A voice in the dream had droned about – what else? – that ghastly referendum.  Disconcertingly, back in the conscious world, the voice continued to talk to me.  I realised it came from a shelf above me, where the radio was positioned between a stuffed gull and a stuffed pheasant.  The radio was tuned in to a local station and the voice belonged to a newsreader.  He was explaining that a politician, a Labour Party MP, was visiting our region today.

 

This MP had toured the high streets and town centres of Scotland lately.  To get people’s attention he’d place a crate on the pavement, stand on top of the crate and deliver a speech from it.  He’d speak bravely in favour of Great Britain and the Union of Parliaments and denounce the separatists and their vile foolish notions of independence.  And I’d heard from recent news reports that the separatists hadn’t taken kindly to his tour – well, as bullies, they wouldn’t.  They’d gone to his speaking appearances with the purpose of heckling him and shouting him down.

 

(c) BBC

 

Then the newsreader named the town the MP was due to speak in this afternoon.  It was our town.

 

And immediately I felt uneasy because I realised I hadn’t seen or heard anything of Mither for the past while.  I went upstairs and knocked on her door.  There was no reply.  The guesthouse was empty that afternoon and so I hung the BACK SOON sign in the porch-window, went out and locked the door after me.  Then I headed for the middle of town.

 

It wasn’t hard to find where the Labour MP was speaking because of the hubbub.  The MP seemed to have turned his microphone to maximum volume so that he could drown out the heckling and shouting from the separatists in his audience.  I emerged from a vennel and onto the high street and saw the crowd ahead of me.  It contained fewer people than I’d expected.  Some of them wore no badges and carried no placards – among them, I thought I glimpsed Kenneth and Gina from the brochure that Mither had ripped up – and some had badges and placards saying yes.  Looming above everyone was the MP on his crate.

 

The separatists present were trying to make themselves heard – without success, thanks to the MP’s bellowing voice and the amplification provided by the microphone.  It wasn’t until I reached the edge of the small crowd that I could understand what they were saying.

 

‘Answer the question, Murphy!’

 

‘He won’t answer the question!’

 

‘Quit shouting, man, and answer the question for God’s sake!’

 

Then I saw a figure standing at the back of the crowd a few yards along from me.  The figure wore a long flowing skirt, a woollen cardigan and a lacy Sunday bonnet that obscured its face.  A handbag dangled from one of its elbows and a small egg carton was clasped in its hands.  As I watched, the figure prised the lid off the carton,  lifted one of the six eggs inside and stretched back an arm in readiness to throw it –

 

I rushed at her and shouted, ‘Mither! Oh my God!’

 

(c) STV

 

What happened next is confusing.  I remember reaching her and knocking the carton from her hands so that eggs flew in all directions.  I remember not being able to halt myself in time and crashing into her so that she fell and I fell too, on top of her.  But then, somehow, I found myself lying alone on the ground.  Mither had disappeared.  She must’ve been sprightlier than I’d thought.  She’d gathered herself up and hurried away and left me there.

 

One of the eggs had made its way into my right hand.  Now it was a ruin of flattened broken shell.  Meanwhile, the yolk, white and shell-pieces of other eggs formed a gelatinous mess on the front of my woollen cardigan.

 

Then I was being helped to my feet.  Around me, I heard voices:

 

‘Who is it?’

 

‘Some auld lady.’

 

‘No, wait… Christ!  It’s a man!’

 

‘It’s young Bates.  You ken, Norrie Bates?  Him that runs the Bates Bed and Breakfast?’

 

‘Why’s he togged out like that?’

 

Someone took my arm and led me away.  Behind us, the MP, who seemed not to have noticed the commotion with Mither and me, kept roaring into his microphone.  We turned a corner into a side-street and paused there.  I identified the man steering me as Charlie Massie, who was the proprietor of another B and B in the town, a few streets away from ours.  He’d always seemed a gentle friendly type and it surprised me to see a yes badge stuck to his jacket lapel.

 

Charlie looked perplexed.  He scanned me up and down as if my appearance was a puzzle he wanted to solve.  ‘Norrie,’ he said at last.  ‘I think you need to go home.  As fast as you can manage.’

 

My head ached.  Something was squeezing my skull, which in turn was squeezing my brain.  I raised a hand and found my head enclosed in a lady’s bonnet.  It exuded two ribbons that were knotted under my chin.  In a final gesture of spite Mither must’ve fastened it on my head before she’d escaped.  ‘Aye,’ I whispered.  ‘I’ll go home.’

 

‘By the way,’ added Charlie, who seemed greatly troubled now.  ‘How’s your mither?  I haven’t seen her for a while.’

 

*

 

It was the morning of September 19th.  The radio had disappeared from the office and I guessed it’d travelled upstairs to Mither’s room and informed her of the result.  Still, in case she hadn’t heard, I felt obliged to go to her room and let her know.

 

She looked very small, thin and frail as she huddled there amid the paraphernalia she’d acquired, the flags, placards, badges, posters, leaflets and booklets.  On the floor around her, in a serpentine coil, there even lay a blue-and-white woollen scarf with a pair of knitting needles embedded in one unfinished end of it.  That was another lark she’d been up to.  Knitting for independence.

 

Because she looked so weak and unwell now, I understood that she knew.  The result seemed to have drained the life from her, leaving her a husk.

 

But I repeated the news.  ‘Mither.  It’s a no.’

 

She didn’t answer.  No sound came from her mouth, which was stretched back in a rictus – if I hadn’t known she was grimacing in pain and dismay, I’d have thought she was grinning.  I looked into her eyes, trying to find a glimmer of acknowledgement for me, a spark of recognition that I was standing before her.  But the eyes were blank and gaping, almost like they weren’t eyes at all but two dark holes.

 

And although I was relieved and delighted about the result, I suddenly and inexplicably felt as though a part of me was dead.

 

(c) Paramount

(c) Paramount

(c) Paramount

 

Mountfield, music and revenge from beyond the grave

 

From www.wwcomics.com

 

In the early 1950s American kids didn’t know how lucky they were.  Thanks to the publishing company EC Comics, headed by the visionary William Gaines, they had not one, not two, but three splendidly warped and gruesome horror comics to read, to enjoy, to be inspired by, and to be thoroughly corrupted by.  This trio were Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear.

 

Each comic contained stories of the macabre, morbid and horrible and each had its own sepulchral host to introduce the stories – the Crypt Keeper (Tales), the Vault Keeper (Vault) and the Old Witch (Haunt).  After each story had reached its grisly denouement, the host would invariably reappear and go ‘Heh, heh, heh!” and generally not show much sympathy for the story’s protagonist, who’d just been eaten, dismembered, disembowelled, strangled or drained of blood.  Often populating these tales were weird and eldritch monsters and spectacularly-mouldering zombies, which were drawn with lip-smacking, finger-licking relish by great comic-book artists like Jack Davis and Graham Ingels.

 

Unfortunately, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear were too good to last.  Uptight and up-his-own-arse psychiatrist Dr Fredric Wertham penned two magazine articles in 1948, Horror in the Nursery and The Psychopathology of Comic Books, and then in 1954 a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which claimed that America’s unruly comic-book industry was turning the younger generation into a rabble of lawless, bloodthirsty and sexually-depraved delinquents.  Despite Wertham’s loopiness – he had a particular beef with Wonder Woman, whom he believed promoted lesbianism because she was independent and powerful and didn’t need a man to cling to – his allegations struck a chord in the US Congress in those paranoid McCarthy-ite times.  A new regulatory code for comics – i.e. censorship – was introduced and Gaines was forced to close his three infamous titles.  Needless to say, they’ve been massively influential ever since.  The work of everyone from Stephen King to Steven Spielberg has, at one time or other, shown a little of that old, nasty EC magic.  And I’m sure that if I possessed a few mint-condition copies of Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror or Haunt of Fear, I could sell them on eBay and retire tomorrow on the proceeds.

 

A common trope in the Tales / Vault / Haunt stories was that of revenge from beyond the grave.  An evil scumbag murders someone in order to claim an inheritance or settle a score.  Then at a later date, the cadaver of the victim comes back to life, scrabbles its way out of the ground and goes shuffling off to find the perpetrator of the crime and punish him or her, horribly.  By this point the victim looks pretty yucky.  Decompositional fluids are oozing out, pieces of rotting flesh are falling off and eyeballs are dangling down.  So the murderer gets a bit of a surprise when that victim turns up on his or her doorstep.

 

I’ve just had a short story published under the pseudonym of Jim Mountfield, which is the name I put on my stories when they fall into the ‘horror’ category.  This story was partly inspired by the old EC comics and their common theme of revenge from beyond the grave.  One day I asked myself a question: what crime could possibly be so vile that it’d induce me to return from the dead and wreak vengeance on the perpetrator?

 

After thinking about it, I identified one such atrocity.  It involved music.

 

I imagined my funeral service.  I imagined that I’d left strict instructions about the music I wanted played at the close of my funeral service – about my remains being carried away to the sound of some old blues song, for instance, or a John Barry composition, or for the sake of irony, Highway to Hell by AC/DC.  But out of malice, someone ignored my instructions and played some really crap music instead.  Something really naff, and crass, and nauseating.

 

Angels, say, by Robbie Williams.  Actually, I once read somewhere that Williams’ saccharine anthem really is the song that gets played most at funerals in Great Britain.  This fact makes me feel embarrassed to British.

 

What a horrible thought.  Then the mourners would leave the church saying to one another, “Well, fancy that!  I never knew he was a Robbie Williams fan!”  And that’s how I’d be remembered.  As a lover of Robbie f***ing Williams.  Yes, I think that colossal indignity would be enough to bring me back in zombie form, seeking retribution.

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

And so I had an idea for the beginning of a story.  The funeral of a man who’d spent his life being a John Peel-type music obsessive is taking place.  He’d owned a record collection that ran to tens of thousands of albums.  And he’d asked his best friend to play a few of his very-most favourite songs at the ceremony’s end.  But a spiteful relative intervenes and plays the ghastly Angels instead.  And then there are consequences – supernatural consequences, and nasty ones.

 

This tale of revenge from beyond the grave, and good and bad music, is called The Groove; and it has just appeared in the kindle magazine Hellfire Crossroads, issue 5.  It can be downloaded here:

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/HELLFIRE-CROSSROADS-VOLUME-Horror-Stories-ebook/dp/B013EUMPQE

 

From www.amazon.co.uk