Monday, 23 October 2017


That’s where it started. In the darkroom. I’d spent the afternoon taking pictures of a sixteen-year-old with the wholesome teeth and unchallenged confidence of a future beauty queen.

Sarah. That was her name. You know the type. Clear-skinned, bright-eyed, conventional little blonde. Aced her exams, dating the captain of the cricket team, raised on a diet of praise as she swanned her way to adulthood. Almost certainly head prefect material. Pretty, polite, practically perfect for the niche carved out for her. And dull as ditchwater.

What could I do? Pampered little madams like her paid my rent. Picture perfect portraits of good girls that never betrayed the small cruelties they inflicted on the outcasts at school. Studio portraits for the yearbook, doting grandparents, distant aunts and uncles, whatever – that was my bread and butter. After the strikes and shortages of the “Winter of Discontent” the papers had been screaming about, I couldn’t afford to turn good business away, could I?

I’d posed her prettily in front of the backdrop and started shooting. Brushing a hair off her cheek, adjusting her collar, sweet talking her to get the most flattering shots. Snap. Snap, Snap. Now one for grandma, sweetheart. Snap. Snap. Think about David Cassidy. Snap.

Mother sat in the corner, smiling stiffly and watching me like a hawk. No need, of course. Even if I was that kind of sleaze ball, her little princess just wasn’t my type. I decided to butter her up. Massage her ego. Put her mind at rest

“Come on, Mum. Let’s get a nice one of you both together. I can see where she gets her looks from, though you look more like sisters to me.” Snap, snap. Dear god, save me from this tedium.

After the goodbyes and thank yous, I locked the front door and went to the darkroom. Small, cramped, reeking of chemicals, its womb-like familiarity welcomed me like family. The warm glow of the safety light pushed fingers into the corners, shining off the smooth plastic bottles lined up next to the developing trays.

A sudden movement in the corner. I peered into the dark. Nothing but shadow, lurking where the orange glow couldn’t reach. But it seemed to be breathing, in and out in a steady rhythm. My own breath. I held it. The movement stopped. Of course. I shook myself out of foolish imaginings. After all these years, should be used to the weird shapes that form in the dark as I pour and dip, swish and pull prints from their warm baths. Shadows dancing past the lines of smiling faces pegged up in the gloom, hung out like the weekly wash. 

But, as I pinned the final print of Sarah and her mother, grinning like idiots in a washing powder advert, the darkness nudged my arm and reached out a dark finger to stroke the image. I felt nothing, heard nothing. But I knew. It wasn’t just the fumes.

I never did get paid for that studio session. Sarah and her mum never got home, thanks to a driver who’d had a few too many. The local rag used one of my shots with the screaming headline “Star pupil and mother killed in drink-drive horror”. No credit though. So much for the exposure the photo editor said I’d get. I mourned for them, in my way. How could I not? But if I’m honest, I mourned my lost fee more.

I used to do school photos. Spent the day in pale green painted classrooms, trying to organise kids who’d arrived scrubbed and combed to pose in awkward groups of siblings. Class shots too. Not anymore. Not since the shadow stroked my handiwork again. Two weeks before a freak avalanche wiped out most of Class 2B on a school ski trip.

Even then, I didn’t admit the connection. Couldn’t. Those horrible random accidents were just that – random. Nothing to do with the shadow in my darkroom.

But then there was the winner of the Bonny Baby contest who simply stopped breathing one night, in the safety of her cot, for no apparent reason. Every mother’s nightmare. Waking up after an uninterrupted night’s sleep, thankful for the rest, only to discover death staring from their child’s mattress.

And the local rugby star, stabbed in the guts when he got caught up in a pub brawl he had nothing to do with. Three weeks they had him on life support, hooked up to a beeping machine. His big toothy smile replaced by a lifeless drool. His beefy body getting weaker and more useless before someone poor sod had to make the awful decision to pull the plug.

The Victorians used to photograph their dead babies. Did you know that? The ones who could afford it, I mean. Waxy faced toddlers already stiff with rigor mortis posed for immortality, sometimes propped up by bereaved mothers with faces covered by tablecloths. I swear in all those pictures I can see the hand of a shadow man, caught in the folds of the cloth or creeping over the shoulder of the dead child. Like it’s afraid of losing what it already has.

Strange lot, the Victorians. Melodramatic and obsessed with gadgets. We’re far more sensible these day, aren’t we?

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Well, that’s why I stopped doing school photos. Weddings and christenings too. Semi-retired, I suppose. I make just enough to cover my rent and feed myself as the official photographer for the local council. You know the sort of thing. Mayor in his official chain opening some new factory. Shaking hands with visiting businessmen and the like. No sign of the shadow man there. I suppose local dignitaries aren’t his cup of tea. Not mine either, but it’s better than the alternative.

My boy came to see me the other day. Haven’t seen him for years. Not since his mother left all those years ago. Fair enough, she kept in touch, let me know how he’s doing, sent me a snapshot every time he blew out a new lot of birthday cake candles. But they’d moved a way off, up north, and there was never time, money or courage for a visit.

But there he was, large as life, and twice as handsome in the doorway. Decked out in uniform. Royal Military Police, he said. Took me a while to stop seeing the eight-year-old boy in the man in front of me. Stumbled over my guilt and embarrassment for not being the father he’d deserved.

He wanted his photo taken, he said. Surely there were army snappers who could do that? Yes, but he wanted me to do it. He’d never asked anything from me all these years. What’s the point of having a photographer father if you can’t get your picture taken?

I tried to put him off, I really did. But he wouldn’t hear of it. Got to admit, he did look splendid against the sky blue backdrop, with his metal buckle and buttons gleaming in the glare of the lights. Got some grand shots of him. Twice the man I’ve ever been.

He told me he was off for a tour of duty in two days, so could I please send the photos straight to his mum by post? She wanted something for her mantelpiece while he was away. In Belfast.

That night, in the darkroom, he was there again, after all this time. I could feel him. A cold clamminess, waiting in the corner, slowly inching its way across the room. Waiting, hungry, greedy. I watched out of the corner of my eye as I developed the prints. Into the developing solution, then the fixer, then hung out to dry on the line.

The shadow shifted and darted to the workbench. I blocked its way. It would not have my boy.  

....It’s cancer, they say.
Too far gone to do anything except “keep me comfortable”.

I’ve seen the pictures. Lifesize negatives of my skull and what’s in it. A big black shadow leaking across frame, eating me up, blotting out reason some of the time, soon to blot out my life.

The doctors have their theories. Their favourite is all those years of exposure to the fumes in my tiny darkroom. But I know. It wasn’t the chemicals. I’d denied him the sweet bloom of youth, so now he’s taking me. Slowly, painfully, stripping me of my dignity.

But I won. That’s how I see it.

Wherever there is light, there’s shadow. I saw another one this morning, slipping along the wall in the corridor outside the Children’s Ward. Called out to the nurse, a sweet overworked girl with a soft Derry accent. “Ah, it’s just a trick of light” she said and rushed off in a flurry of efficiency and exhaustion.

It’s here. Come for me. Can you see it? Creeping around the walls. Getting closer.

My time is done. I see it now. Closer than ever. Standing right behind you. Can’t you feel its cold fingers on your shoulder?

I swear it’s grinning at me. Smiling for the camera.

* * * * *

This story was one of six featured in the Cast Iron Theatre's 'Dukeanory: Ugly Tales for Beautfiul Souls' on Thursday 19 October 2017, as part of the Brighton Horrorfest.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Inside the mind of a Modern Mental Rebel

Nikos Kapralos, a.k.a. Deejay Nic, buzzes with nervous energy, his eyes constantly dance around restlessly. 

Part of the breed of Greeks caught up in the country’s financial crisis, he is no quitter.

He’s the man behind the decks for Deejay Nic The Band, a genre-breaking group which features a signature Rockstep style combining sampling with live rock and dubstep performance. He’s also one of the leading lights of the Modern Mental Rebels™ (MMR), a non-profit organisation which promotes the independent Greek rock scene.

MMR taps into a rich seam of modern musical talent that does not fit comfortably into the country’s mainstream music scene. It cemented its reputation with its successful staging of the Greek finals of the Global Battle of the Bands (GBOB) in 2015, and again 2016. The MMR concerts started in 2014, and continue today. For each show, 4-5 bands share equal billing, giving audiences a multiple artist experience at an affordable price.

We asked Deejay Nic for his thoughts about MMR, Greece’s independent music scene, and how bands can take control of their own future.

Explain the concept of the Modern Mental Rebellion concerts.
There are no headliners. The bands have equal billing and help make the gigs happen. It’s collaborative, not competitive. We draw on the expertise of MMR volunteers to apply management methods to the organisation and promotion of concerts, and through that joint effort we give bands with a great platform to showcase their music and, hopefully, the audience a night to remember.

Can artists outside the Greek mainstream to make their mark?
Greece is a small market, where most people favour mainstream Greek pop or folk music, Even if you make it “big” here as an alternative band, it won’t be BIG. However, to attract labels or managers from overseas you have to make a buzz in your local market. That’s what our MMR stablemates, Coretheband from Crete, have done through their own efforts and with the support of MMR. They’re now preparing to take their first steps beyond Greek borders. Remember their name. You heard it here first.

How are things going for Deejay Nic the Band? What have been the highlights so far? What are your future plans?
We’ve only be going for a little under two years but we already done a lot. Our first CD, featuring two original tracks, came out recently,and we’re very proud of it. In terms of live performance, our 2016 appearance at the Zeytinli Rock Festivali in Turkey is hard to beat – our first time outside Greece and we played to 130,000 people. This is just the beginning. I always have my eyes open for opportunities for the band. The sky’s the limit!

What advice would you give young people considering a music career?
Being a great musician is not enough to secure success. Promoting yourself is vital. Aim to excel at both.

For more about the Modern Mental Rebels™, go to or

The first in a series of United MMR concerts will be tomorrow, Friday 31 March 2017, at the Crow Club at Sinopis 27, Ambelokipi, Athens. The music starts at 10.30pm and goes on til the early hours of the morning. 

For just 5 you'll enjoy the exprience of four bands live and loud. On 31 March, the line-up is:
Caught Art Delusion
Entropy Devine
Sin By Four

On 28 April, Deejay Nick The Band take the stage, together with Perfect Denial, Smolderhaze and Wash of Sounds.

The 26 May gig will feature Amantes Amentes, COUNTOWN, Ganzi Gun and Termatikos Stathmos.


(Photos by to LensMan-Nick, Nikos Paraskevas)

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A dark tale for a bright season

In the spirit of the season, I’m sharing a story that was included in the ‘Festive Frights’ anthology published by the CW Publishing House last Christmas. If it whets your appetite for more dark Christmas tales, you can order the book here

Seasons’ Greetings
by AJ Millen  

The harsh caw of a rook made Inspector Thomas Crumb look up at the row of beech trees on the horizon, their branches outlined stark against the early morning sky. He should have been home by now, sipping tea and nibbling on toast and marmalade after a quiet night shift at Burbon-on-Lee’s tiny police station.

It was cold outside, but colder yet inside Hathaway Cottage as he stepped across the threshold. The living room was crammed with overstuffed, once grand furniture and a collection of knick-knacks that only a lifetime in the same place could accumulate. A forlorn plastic Christmas tree sat in the corner, its lights blinking feebly. Three stockings hung from hooks on either side of the old cast iron fireplace. One hook lay empty, spoiling the careful symmetry.

A line of cards stood on the mantelpiece, pride of place given to the largest one, an ornate affair which looked like it had been made to order. It depicted a room like the one it sat in, but an picture book version without the dust and discarded crockery.

Crumb approached the armchair facing the now cold fireplace, and looked down. In it sat a man in his 80s, wearing a checked flannel shirt, knitted tie and thick jumper vest. His thinning hair was slicked back against his scalp, stray white hairs jutted out wildly from his eyebrows, his skin stretched across closed eyelids and gaunt cheekbones. His ankles were tied to the legs of the chair, wrists firmly bound in his lap, and something was stuffed tight into his mouth. He was dead. Very, very dead. And it didn’t look like he’d gone peacefully.

“Poor old bugger must have choked on whatever the evil bastards shoved down his throat to keep him quiet,” said Jo from Forensics, taking a large pair of tweezers and carefully pulling the make-shift gag out. “See those broken veins, and the bluish tinge to his skin? Tell-tale signs. Asphyxiation…  what the hell?”

Her eyebrows shot up as she tugged the gag out to reveal a length of colourful fabric with the name ‘Jake’ written in glitter above a cheery appliqued snowman. A Christmas stocking – probably intended for one of the grandchildren expecting for a festive visit.

“Funny thing is,” she continued “although obviously some sadistic git did this, there’s no sign of a break-in. All the doors and windows were locked from the inside. Nothing missing either – not even the box of fifties our boys found at the back of his kitchen cupboard. If it hadn’t been for Elsie Symms letting herself in with the spare key, it would have been days before anyone realised they hadn’t seen old George.”
Marjory Falstaff was hard at work, oblivious to the drama unfolding at the other end of the village. Humming along to the Christmas carols playing in the background, she smiled as she gave added the finishing touches. On the shelf behind her, an old grocer’s scales gave the slightest creak as one side clicked down a fraction, bringing it a degree closer to equilibrium with the weights neatly stacked in the opposite tray.

Admiring the finished greetings card, she added the final detail. Her trademark – the shadow gate seal, three truncated crescent moons intertwined to resemble a spiky flower. She’d been using it ever since that day a year ago when she’d made the deal that gave her one last Christmas with David.

Already well-known in the village for her crafting skills, she’d been unable to do anything but cry after that cold November day when the doctors delivered the news. David wouldn’t last a month, they’d said. The cancer was too far gone. He wouldn’t see Christmas, they’d said.

That’s when she swore she’d do anything for more time together. Promised the unthinkable to things she hardly knew (or dared consider) hiding in the shadows, for the chance to celebrate his favourite holiday one last time.

David confounded the doctors and rallied as the darkest day of the year approached. His bloodshot eyes regained something of their old spark as he watched Marjory place the angel atop the extravagant conifer she’d dragged in from the garden and decorated with the glee of a six-year-old. He’d enjoyed a mince pie washed down with mulled wine as they listened to the Midnight Mass on the radio late on Christmas Eve. He’d even opened his gifts with delight and managed to eat a full plate of turkey with all the trimmings on Christmas Day. He was happy. So was his wife.

That happiness was short-lived. Marjory and David did have their one last Christmas together, but that was all. Boxing Day dawned on his cold corpse lying next to her in the bed they’d shared for more than forty years.

Since then, she’d been adding her mark to every card she sold at the village fete, church bazaars and, in the past two months, online.

And now the time had come for her debt to be paid. 
By ten in the morning, Jo had finished her examination and was watching carefully as George Jenkins’ body was loaded into the ambulance for its trip to the mortuary. It wouldn’t take long to formally determine the cause of his death. It was the why and the how that was a mystery.

Crumb sighed as he thought of the paperwork waiting for him back at the station. But first, he called by Bellamy & Sons – Funeral Directors, to let them know they could expect a new customer once the coroner released the body.

A hush washed over him as he opened the door to undertaker’s parlour. A kind-eyed woman rose at the sound of a visitor entering, carefully arranging her features into an expression of solemn compassion. It was replaced with a tired smile when she recognised the local CID man.

“Morning, Doreen,” said Crumb. “Another chilly one, eh?”

Settling into the chair opposite Doreen Bellamy, he continued: “I’ve just come from George Jenkins’ place. Another customer for you, but I’m afraid he didn’t go naturally so you’ll have to contact the coroner’s office to find out when you can get his body and make the arrangements.”

“Seems it’s high season in our business,” Doreen sighed, pushing a desk calendar showing the next two weeks across the page. Every weekday was marked with names for cremation or burial. “The graveyard at St Swithun’s will be more brown than green by New Year.”

Winter was always a busy time, but this year had brought a bumper crop of freak accidents in addition to the usual cases of pneumonia or dodgy tickers that carried off the old and infirm. A single mother, determined to give her kids a jolly holiday despite her limited budget, electrocuted when trying to fix the ancient wiring on fairy lights found in the attic. A reckless teenage boy, his neck snapped like a twig when he slipped trying to fix a large illuminated Santa to the roof of his family’s home. The aging spinster found frozen solid on the park bench, the remains of seed she used to feed the birds still clinging to the fibres of her woolen glove.  
Time for a break, Marjory told herself. She stood up from her work table, stretched and hobbled painfully to the kitchen. Filling the kettle, she gazed out of the window. Weak winter sun was struggling to break through the clouds, casting patches of warmth and light on her lawn to melt the frost on the grass.

A robin landed on the handle of a spade leaning against the shed. It turned in Marjory’s direction and seemed to look directly at her with its bright eye.

“Hello, sweetheart,” said murmured. The robin redbreast always put her in mind of David, making her feel that he was still keeping an eye on her from… well, beyond whatever it was that separated the living from the dead.

She turned on the radio to listen to the midday news, more out of habit than interest. Terror, conflict and death washed over her like a breeze moving a net curtain, Her ears pricked up at the news of a woman in Vermont trampled by a herd of wild reindeer – an animal never before known in the state. And in Australia, a brand of gourmet Christmas pudding had been withdrawn after a child died of internal bleeding after eating a bowlful laced with broken glass.

The scales on the windowsill moved another inch closer to balancing the books.
Temperatures plummeted in Burbon-on-Lee the night before the winter solstice. An icy wind cut through the streets without bringing a single flake of the snow the children hoped for.

“Too cold for snow” opined Harry, resident amateur meteorologist and barman at the ‘Old Bell’ pub as regulars piled in for something to chase away the chill. The fire in the 16th century inglenook and the crush of pre-Christmas drinkers offered a warm refuge. Outside, long icicles formed on the eaves overhanging the footpath to the car park, trembling slightly with every gust of wind.

The cowbell above the door jangled as Inspector Crumb walked in, seeking a warm meal and company after a long day.

“Evening, Tom,” said Harry, wiping spilled beer from the bar. “What can I get for you?”

“I was thinking of one of Sal’s piping hot meat pies,” said the policeman, settling into the high stool.

“Coming right up,” said the barman, making a note of the order. “And what about a pint while you wait? Or are you still on duty?”

Finished for the day, Crumb decided on something from the pub’s selection of traditional real ales. Home was less than a quarter of a mile away, he could always walk.

“I’m done for the day. Give me a pint of Green Man.”

Taking a sip from the nutty brew, Crumb looked around the bar. Regulars sat around their usual tables, sharing the gossip – no doubt including the demise of old George. A pair of old codgers supped hot toddies over a game of chess. At the far end of the bar, a gaggle of suited twenty-somethings hooted in a fit of pre-Christmas boisterousness.

One pint led to another, as Crumb settled into a comfortable stupour after his hot meal. He didn’t want to go home to the empty house that had felt as personal as an airport hotel room since the day Jane left three years ago. He settled back in his seat, contentedly working on The Times crossword and looking up every now and then to greet familiar faces as they came and went.

The gang of drunks at the far end of the bar were getting louder and more obnoxious. If they carried on, he might need to get official and order them to pipe down.

But no, they’d had enough of the charms of the country pub and were now on their way out. No doubt to some city bar serving champagne cocktails with cranberry spiked swizzle sticks.

None were in a fit state to get behind the wheel - but that wasn’t Crumb’s problem. Just days before Christmas, there would be plenty of officers on the look-out for drunks stupid enough to attempt to drive.

Crumb raised a hand to signal to Harry for a hot toddy before calling it a night. But before the barman could respond, a monstrous gust of wind shook the pub, howling like a wild animal trapped beneath its eaves. A rumble, a crash and a scream smashed through the cacophony outside. Harry looked up, threw the bar door open and dashed out to see what had happened. Driven by his unshakable sense of duty, Crumb followed.

Through the dark peppered with the first wild swirls of snow loomed an unexpected sight. Not a toppled chimney stack, as he had expected, but the largest icicle that had dangled from the eaves had plummeted to the ground. Unfortunately, the head of one of the departing Yuppies had got in the way.

Spread-eagled in a growing pool of blood mingling with smashed ice splinters, the be-suited young man was clearly not breathing. The left side of his face was obliterated and his expensively cut hair matted with gore and bits of brain. A blonde knelt next to him, hysterical, heaving and screeching.  

Crumb watched, paralysed by shock and fatigue. Around him, people were running, screaming, shouting. Harry was yelling into his mobile phone.

Something made Crumb look up and started at a gargoyle-like face grinning down at him from the rooftop. He blinked and looked again. This time, he saw only darkness broken by the approaching flashing blue of the ambulance lights bouncing off the red brick pub wall. Must be seeing things, he thought. Shock, fatigue and too many pints of Green Man could have that effect.
Marjory was desperate. Time was running out, and the scales had still not balanced. Payment was due and if it wasn’t made… well, who knew?

One more, just one more to appease the powers that had granted her those last few days with David, and the promise that they would – one day – be reunited.

She grabbed a card from the pile she had finished that afternoon, and hastily scribbled a greeting inside. She sealed the envelope and wrote “Inspector Thomas Crumb” on the outside, and prepared to leave the house to deliver it to the police station.

She let out a strangled scream as she opened the front door to a man dressed in red. He lowered his fur-trimmed hood to reveal the ruddy, familiar face of David. Her David, healthy and happy, before the cancer.

But her blood turned to ice as his smile twisted into a snaggle-toothed snarl and he raised a filthy-clawed hand holding a white envelope bearing HER name. In the bottom right hand corner, she spied the shadow gate seal, calling to her like a homing signal.

“I’ve brought your card, Marjory,” rasped the figure before her, no longer wearing the face she loved. “It’s your turn now. The balance is paid. Time to go.”

Monday, 31 October 2016

Around The Cauldron - Fallen Angel

Sometimes, the things we fear the most are all too human...

Fallen Angel
by AJ Millen

Grace Bellamy stared at the bundle the midwife thrust into her arms. It was the moment she had so yearned for, and now she felt nothing but dread. 

The newborn infant would have been a thing of beauty and pride for any mother - but all she saw was a monster. An abomination she’d brought into the world as a result of the unholy pact she’d made. Its blue-eyed blink glinted with the promise of a thousand evils it would unleash upon the world, and when it opened its mouth to yawn, she saw a black abyss lined with sharp, teeth-like rocks.

“Well done, my dear. It’s a boy,” said Mrs Duffy, gently wiping a stray strand of sweat-soaked hair from Grace’s forehead. “Now, don’t you worry. This one is a fine young thing, as hale and hearty a bairn as I’ve ever seen.”

Grace stared at the kindly midwife, eyes wide with terror.

“Aye, my dear,” continued the soothing Aberdeenshire lilt. “Mark my words. No only will this one live, he will do great things.”

Eugenia Duffy thought she was reassuring the mother. She’d been at Grace’s side throughout the four births that had produced nothing but limp, lifeless corpses - waxen dolls never destined to live a day. Another two had lived a day, but no more.

She believed she knew Grace Bellamy’s greatest fear.
She was wrong.

In truth, Grace was facing her worst nightmare in the tightly swaddled bundle that Sarah, her trusted maid, gently took and placed in the cradle next to her bed. Mrs Duffy set about cleaning up and straightening the bed covers in preparation for the proud father to meet his son.

Grace let out a scream more piercing that any that had accompanied the agony of her labour. The midwife looked up in shock. Sarah rushed to her mistress. But Grace didn’t see them. She saw sinister horned demons, flashing blood-stained grins at her through a black cloud rising out of the cradle.
She knew what they were and why they were there.
It was all her doing.

When she’d realised she was with child again, her worst fear had been that she’d be planting yet another small, sad coffin in the family plot at St Wilfred’s. She’d grasped at every straw. Endless prayers and promises to the heavens. Countless doctors, both in Harley Street and in the London’s less reputable side-streets, whose patent cures and potions she took religiously. She even visited clairvoyants who claimed to speak to the world beyond this one.

One convinced her she was cursed. But, for a fee, that curse could be broken. They’d visited Highgate Cemetery and stood before the gothic headstone of Maximillian Colbert, illustrious businessman and – according to Madame Petrovna – a devoted follower of the Spiritist Allan Kordec. It was All Saints’ Eve, when the medium claimed the veil dividing the temporal and spiritual worlds could open to those wishing to connect with the ‘Other Side’.

Colbert had been a strong spirit, she had said, and would be able to help Grace produce a son and heir that would not only live, but would “do great things”. She had thrown herself at the headstone and offered her very soul – and that of her unborn child.

It was only when he heard his new born cries that she realised the price to be paid.

Through the dark smoke filling her bed chamber, a figure appeared. At least seven feet tall, black as pitch and with eyes that glowed red through the gloom. “You have done well,” it rasped. “My son is born and now it has begun. My kingdom will come.”

“No, no, no, no.” Grace wailed, thrashing about her bed. “You can’t have him. He’s not yours. I won’t let you.”

Another face emerged from the gloom. Ernest, her loving and long-suffering husband. But somehow, not Ernest.

“Calm yourself, sweet Grace,” he said, gently stroking her cheek. “You’re hysterical, my angel. Everything is as it should be. You’ve done your part. Now sleep.”

He bent to kiss her forehead and tenderly but firmly pressed a sponge dipped in something sweet-smelling against her mouth. The fight left her and she fell into a sleep haunted by visions of pagan monstrosities, apocalyptic battles and a black cloud eating the sun.

The sun was streaming through a chink in the curtains when she awoke the next morning. Sarah was slumped, snoring, in the armchair next to the crib. A blackbird sang in the plum tree outside her window. All that was left of the previous day’s horror was the tinny taste of blood in her mouth. Touching her tongue to her lower lip, she winced in pain. She’d bitten it raw in her hysteria.

A hungry cry rose from the cradle. Sarah grunted, shifted in her chair, and continued snoring. Grace rose from her bed, and walked to the crib.

Calm now. she knew what she had to do. Looking down at the newborn, she wondered at her terror the night before. Now, she was serene, certain. She had a sacred duty to perform. She would not fail.

Gazing into the blue eyes of the child in the cradle, she whispered “He will not take us” and took from the dressing table a long jeweled hairpin she used to hold her heavy locks in place.

“This won’t take long,” she soothed the crying infant - before plunging the hairpin through the lace gown into its tiny cursed heart.

FOOTNOTE: Post-natal psychosis is not a supernatural phenomenon. It is a very real psychiatric emergency and the quicker it is treated, the better. 
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be suffering from it, seek immediate medical assistance. The risk is higher for women who have (or who have a first-degree relative with) a history of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective, and for those who have previously suffered from psychosis. If you fall into the above categories and are planning a pregnancy, do NOT stop taking your prescribed medication. Take folic acid on your obstetrician’s advice and seek a referral to a Preconception Care Clinic. For more, see My Story of Mental Health and Wellbeing Through Pregnancy 

(Photo credit: LensMan Nick, a.k.a. Nikos Paraskevas)

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Around The Cauldron: Guest post - Uncle by Virginia Carraway Stark

Today’s offering from Around The Cauldron is a raw, gory tale from the prolific pen of guest storyteller Virginia Carraway Stark. Prepare to have your gooses bumped!

He reached out towards her, his hands already soaked in the blood of her boyfriend and the other party goers. His face leered at her through the mask that hung loosely on his emaciated face. His teeth were yellow and his breath smelled like rotten meat. 

Moving slowly, as though it were a nightmare he reached out and stroked her chestnut hair. She moaned, it would have been a sob but she didn't dare, she didn't dare flinch from his touch, she didn't dare bat his hand away. Even his brief touch on her hair left gobs of flesh and blood on her hair. She stank like blood and death now. She stank like him. 

Her eyes drifted to his amputated hand that had been replaced with a three pronged gardening tool. He raised it up, he had been left handed before one of his last victims had chopped off his hand and it was this strange weapon that he now lifted against his cheek, prongs pointed out. He was getting ready to slice her.

She relented and let out a deep, sobbing moan of terror. Her eyes were roving, her hands looking for something, anything to use as a weapon. Behind his askance mask she saw his lips snarl into what was, for Matthew, a smile of joy. He had terrorized her mother and been locked up for it, it had been her mother who had taken his hand, her mother whose body she had found clawed to pieces behind the wheel of their Chevy. 

She found a wire coat hanger with her right hand, her left hand was held up in a pathetic warding off gesture. Using all the considerable adrenaline at her disposal she pulled out the hanger and jabbed it into the eye of the mask. It punctured deep, and to Mandy's visible surprise she felt a 'pop' as it entered his eye and he howled and reeled away from where he had her cornered. She was so surprised that it took her a moment to recover but then she kneed him hard in the balls and pushed him over. The hanger was still sticking out of his eye. Mandy pulled out the hanger, the idea that it had had one lucky hit made it a talisman of luck in her mind, his eye came trailing out of the socket and she screamed and popped it off the hanger. Time to run, it was only a few steps from where he had her trapped to the door and possible escape but each step was a lifetime.

Revenge raged in her mind along with the fear. She wasn't going to run. He wasn't going to get locked up again only to come back at her or even or own children one day. That sucker wasn't going to leave the house. 
He was going to die.

Canadian wordsmith Virginia Carraway Stark has a diverse portfolio and has many publications. Over the years she has developed this into a wide range of products from screenplays to novels to articles to blogging to travel journalism. She has been published by many presses from grassroots to Simon and Schuster for her contribution to 'Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible' as seen on ABC.  She has been an honorable mention at Cannes Film Festival for her screenplay, “Blind Eye” and was nominated for an Aurora Award. She also placed in the final top three screenplay shorts in the 'Reel to Reel' Film Festival.

She has written short stories in well over twenty anthologies as well as magazines, novels, poetry, poetry anthologies, blogs, journals and many other venues. She is Editor-in-Chief at StarkLight Press as well as for Outermost: Journal of the Paranormal. She formerly worked writing medical papers into language for the lay person and worked on scientific papers for numerous platforms.

If Virginia's story has whetted your appetite for more dark tales for Hallowe'en, go to Around The Cauldron 

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Around The Cauldron - Hunted

It's that time of year again. There's a chill in the air, leaves are turning, night dominates the day, and we seek the comfort of human warmth and companionship as our thoughts turn to the darker side. Hallowe'en, All Saints' Eve, Samhain, call it what you will, is almost upon us. A time when it's said the membrane between this world and the next is stretched to its thinnest, even to breaking point. So, let's gather around the fire, turn off the lights and share some dark little tales around the cauldron. 

by AJ Millen

I liked it there.
The damp embrace of the soil held me like a lover’s arms. Darkness enfolding me like a cloak, it was where I belonged. And now, after so long, I belonged nowhere else.

It had taken a while. I hadn’t wanted to be there at first. I’d feared it more than anything. Anything but the men with dogs and blazing torches, chasing me through the night, baying for revenge for some imagined hurt and demanding I be fed to the cleansing fire.

The thought of refuge in the casket had given me pause. Black Death had taken Old Man Rivers and his fresh grave lay open, waiting for its covering of soil to insulate the village from the canker that riddled him. Unclean, it was only by virtue of his standing in the church that they’d buried him in holy ground.

There was nothing holy about him when I scrambled, like a hunted animal, into the box with him. The stench of decay rose up like a cloud from his body as my weight pushed him down. It wasn’t the first time his body had been pressed against mine and I’d turned my face away. But this time I was on top, and he was no longer in a state to force himself on me. The old goat.

I’d wriggled myself around to face upwards, ready to emerge from the casket once my pursuers were gone. Waiting for the moment when it would be safe to come out and flee to somewhere no-one knew me, or my reputation.

I lay there, barely daring to breathe, trying to still the heartbeat hammering at my chest. Men’s voices rang out, promising hell fire and brimstone as punishment – but not before they had dealt with me in their own all-too-earthly way. The hounds barked randomly, scratching and snuffling around the graveyard, giving the old man’s plague pit a wide berth.

I must have slept. Wiped out by exhaustion. The next thing I knew, weak sunlight was seeping through the slats in the lid of the box, and I could hear the first birdsong as day broke. I was about to push the lid open when I heard footsteps. Then a tuneless whistle and a scrape of a shovel as it was thrust into the mound of soil next to the grave.

A clod of earth thudded against the coffin. Fingers of darkness crept back in as dirt trickled through the cracks into my eyes and mouth. More thuds followed as the earth was piled back into the hole, enclosing me, holding me. I couldn’t cry out. Moke the gravedigger would surely betray me to the Elders. Anything to get his revenge for the time I’d refused him, sent him packing with scratches across his face like he’d be swiped with a pitchfork. So I waited, listening to the earth covering me like a thick winter blanket and waiting for Moke to finish before I dug my way out.

Until I heard the heavy drag of stone. Pulled over the loose earth and pushed into place, trapping me beneath its bulk. There was no fighting my way up to push it aside. The stone sealed my fate as surely as it sealed Old Man Rivers’ grave. I would die here, pressed against my tormentor, and slowly fade away to nothing more than wormfeed.

But I didn’t.

Days passed. I slept fitfully, losing track of the natural rhythms of the earth. Time was unknown, stretching into weeks, even months. And somehow, I remained alive and strong.
I was also very, very hungry.

A mania took hold of me. I thrust my hands to the side, beating at the wooden slats, pulling at the spaces where they overlapped, pushing through into the surrounding soil to find something, anything, to feed on.

At first just spindly roots and seeds, then I found an earthworm. Soft, yielding, undulating in my hand. I brought it to my cracked lips and bit into it. It continued to squirm as it spilled its gritty innards onto my tongue but I swallowed it greedily. More worms went the same way, as did beetles crawling through the dirt, and a small mole whose velvety hide and sharp claws made me retch and gag.
I had begun to feed.

Centuries passed. I became part of the circle of life beneath the graveyard soil. Old Man Rivers rotted to nothing beneath me, leaving only harmless bones and rotten rags. The damp of the soil ate into his wooden box, devouring it, making it one with itself. My reach extended in my search for food, fingers feeling further every day for sustenance until they broke free of the earth. It was a joyous shock to wiggle my fingers against cool air instead of clammy clods of clay, so I pushed some more.

Inching my way along, I formed a passage from my resting place to the world above.
I emerged from the gap where the soil had sunk beneath the stone now sat skewed at an awkward angle. A clean breeze caressed my cheeks, and I blinked into the evening gloom. Nothing had changed, and yet everything had. Dozens more headstones cluttered the churchyard, and there was a low persistent roar accompanying the sounds of nature around me.

Harsh laughter alerted me and sent me scuttling back to my hole. Looking out, I saw men, not long out of boyhood, drinking from brown bottles. One was beating a headstone with a hammer, cackling with the glee of an imbecile determined to destroy something, anything.

A new thirst awoke within me. I slipped unseen from the earth that had been my home for so many centuries, driven by a new, urgent hunger that would not be denied.

I was transformed. No longer hunted, I was now the huntress.  
And the hunt was on.

(Photo credit: LensMan Nick, a.k.a. Nikos Paraskevas)

There are more spooky stories to come as we gallop like headless horsemen towards Hallowe'en. Watch this space.