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‘The Horror Writer’

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Fiction | 17 minute read
A horror writer who is low on inspiration - and sales - enters a house rumoured to be haunted to give his novel some colour. Andrew Wilson's short story describes how far a novelist will go for a story

‘I’m afraid I’m not feeling the fear,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry, James.’

He couldn’t bring himself to look Sally in the eye. He continued pulling apart his square of focaccia, coating his fingers in oil. The din from the lunchtime crowd seemed to mock him, the constant rattle of knives and forks and the clash of plates and bowls a contemptuous background to their conversation.

‘And is that what you really think?’ he asked. ‘That you can’t . . . feel the fear?’ He was conscious that he was using a sarcastic tone, sandwiching these three words between quotes, a technique employed by his youngest daughter, Ruth. But he hadn’t heard Ruth’s voice in a while. She was living with Angela, her mother and his third wife, at the cottage by the sea in Suffolk. She didn’t want to speak to him at the moment, she said. Or was it ever again?

He heard Sally sigh, as if the words were being sucked from her. The next sound was the rustle of paper, as she turned over the pages of his manuscript. He felt a light flutter of air play across his face, a welcome relief in the summer heat of the restaurant. He took a sip of wine, his greasy fingers staining the glass, and then risked a quick glance at Sally, hoping that she was still looking down at his pages. He suddenly had a vision of taking up his fork and stabbing it into the side of her fine white neck. That wouldn’t be a nice thing to do. But then when had he been known for being nice? Sally of all people should know that. That had been one of his attractions. His selling point. The critics said his novels were raw and nasty. Or they had been, when his sales were at their peak. For that matter, Sally herself hadn’t been immune to his particular charms. There had been that night at that book fair – where was it, Frankfurt? At the time, she seemed to have enjoyed it.

Sally was still an attractive woman – for her age, of course. He watched as she pushed a strand of honey blonde hair (dyed) behind her ears and adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose. She had been his British editor for twenty years now, responsible for publishing ten James Cornell novels. He was still a valuable commodity. He had earned the firm millions. So what was this crap she was saying?

His starter was placed in front of him, but he pushed the plate away, feeling a little nauseous. He thought the prawns looked too much like well-fed maggots.

‘I know you’ve had your fair share of problems recently, what with Angela, and with Ruth,’ she said.

‘It’s nothing to do with that,’ he snapped. ‘And anyway, I don’t want to talk about them.’

‘No, of course not,’ she said. ‘But listen. And please don’t take this the wrong way. You know your sales have been on the slide for a while now.’

He could nothing but grunt in acceptance.

‘And some of the narrative seems a little . . . hackneyed. I think it needs an injection of new ideas.’ She paused as she studied him. ‘Don’t look so miserable, James. Sorry to be so harsh, but we can work on this together.’

‘What do you suggest?’ he asked.

Sally, who only picked at her food at the best of times, cleared some space and laid his manuscript on the table. He noticed that there was a sliver of a DayGlo-pink Post-it note stuck next to one particular paragraph, annotated in pencil with the damning phrase: ‘Needs more life.’ He bit the corner of his mouth as he listened to her talk about a section of the book in which a young student, Adam, spends the night in a haunted house in the English countryside.

‘I know what you’re trying to do here, playing with the conventions of the genre,’ she said. ‘But I think there should be less humour and much more fear. Real fear. I want to feel what it’s like to be in that house. In the dark. Not knowing what is there. I want to feel the brush of something clammy against my face. I want to smell the dank and the decay. I want to taste Adam’s terror.’ She took a sip of her mineral water and added, ‘I think you told me that it’s based on a house near where you live in Devon, didn’t you?’

‘That’s right,’ he said, as he watched Sally jiggle her pencil. Another thought struck him: what would it be like to stab that pencil right into her eye? He’d always wondered about what sort of damage that could do. What kind of pressure he would have to use?

‘Did you go there?’

‘What? To the house? Of course I didn’t go to the bloody house,’ he said.

‘Why not?’

‘I didn’t need to,’ he said. ‘I don’t need to go to places to write about them. I can imagine what it’s like without going there.’

She smiled as she tried to humour him. ‘Look, we’ve been through rough patches before and we’ve managed to sort things out. Remember all the difficulties we had with . . .’

He didn’t want to think about that last bloody book. He had been writing that when all the trouble with Angela and Ruth had begun. The awful things his wife had said. And then there were the accusations levelled at him from his daughter. Yes, there had been an instant attraction between him and Tanya. Yes, they had spent some time together. And yes, Tanya was pretty well the same age as Ruth. But she was nineteen years old and free to do as she wished, wasn’t she? Don’t get him started on the last year or so. What was wrong with women today? All that assertion and anger . . . and that hashtag . . . whatever it was. He was certain, deep down, there were still women who preferred their men to be real men.

‘So, what do you say?’ asked Sally.

‘Excuse me? Say to what?’

‘To doing a little more work – what about starting with a spot of background research?’

He looked blankly at her. She was talking to him as though he was a new writer, a rookie. Not someone who had had bestsellers on both sides of the Atlantic. The name James Cornell alone has always been enough to guarantee a top spot in the bestseller lists. At least until his last couple of books, anyway.

‘Why don’t you start off with the haunted house section and see how it goes? Luckily, we’ve got some time to play with. I’d like to make this book the very best it can be. And by the way, everyone in marketing and publicity really loves the title.’

‘The title?’

Sally was looking at him a little oddly now. ‘Yes, The Shape of Shadows,’ she said. ‘It’s perfect. Now we just need to make the novel more visceral, more alive . . .’


He waited until it had got dark before he stepped outside. He wrapped his tartan scarf around his neck and tied it in a loose knot at the front so that it lay over the top of his black quilted jacket. A quick pat of his pockets reassured him that he had everything he needed: his phone with its in-built torch, a pair of gloves, a packet of pistachios in case he got peckish and, just to be on the safe side, his Swiss Army knife, given to him by his late mother. He knew it was silly, schoolboy-ish even, to take it, he would never need it. He didn’t believe in ghosts, or vampires, or the living dead – he only wrote about that stuff. He wasn’t that dim, not like some of his readers. God, the letters and emails he had received over the years. Jesus Christ! But there was something about the shape and feel of it lying lightly in his pocket that reassured him.

The cold night air came as something of a relief after the fug of the central heating and the inner warmth that came from two large glasses of whisky. By now he was quite looking forward to his little adventure. He hadn’t done anything like this for years.

To begin with, Sally’s suggestions had irked him: what did she know? But then he’d reasoned to himself that she might have a point. He’d looked at the passage in his manuscript again and conceded that it did feel a little flat. He’d done some more reading online about the house and its history. The bare facts were these:

Staggs Hall was one of those sprawling Edwardian affairs constructed by a self-made millionaire – Richard Staggs’s fortune came from guano – and built by a follower of Lutyens in a Queen Anne style. But – so the legend had it – the house had been built on the site of an old monastery where a nun and a monk had been immured after the pair had been discovered in flagrante. Soon after moving into the house, Staggs and his family reported strange sounds: doors slamming, objects flying across rooms. The usual cliched nonsense. A maid committed suicide after seeing something ‘so horrific and spine-chilling’ that she could not bear to live. But how would anyone know what she had seen? She was dead, for Christ’s sake.

There were other ‘uncanny’ events, according to another source. One of the daughters suffered a miscarriage, the developing foetus born without features and covered entirely in ‘thick black hair’. There were still reports of regular sightings of the ghostly figures of the nun and the monk, who had been bricked up alive in separate wings of the old monastery. No doubt they wanted to do it from beyond the grave. Finally, Staggs lost his fortune and the family had to leave the house. It lay empty for a number of years until the local council took it over and converted it into offices, before they too abandoned it. It now lay boarded up, surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire with notices of ‘DANGER’ placed along its length.

Rumours persisted, mainly fuelled by the teenagers who used it as a place to hang out. There was talk down the pub about how, last Hallowe’en, one boy who had spent the night at the hall had been left so traumatised that he had lost his mind and was still in some kind of institution or hospital. What a load of bullshit, James thought to himself as he walked away from his house and down the lane towards the field. Probably the fool had taken too many ecstasy tablets or whatever chemical rubbish the young shoved down their throats to escape the ‘stresses’ of modern life. The unfortunate darlings of today, who had so much to worry about: which kind of coffee to buy; what gender or sexuality they identified with that day; whether avocados were really vegan.

He climbed the stile and paused for a moment looking up at the sky full of stars. Beyond death there was nothing, he was sure of that. But that cold logic hadn’t stopped him from making a fortune tapping into people’s fears. If his fans wanted to read this rubbish then let them. And he was confident that he could do just what Sally asked of him. After tonight’s experience he would return to his computer and rewrite that scene so that his readers shat their pants. The thought made him laugh, a noise that was echoed by the cry of an owl.

He walked across the damp grass, past a flock of sheep made almost spectral by the light of the moon, and down towards the isolated valley that housed Staggs Hall. It was getting darker, so he switched on the torch on his phone. He circled the wire fence, finding no space through which he could enter and was about to go home and enjoy another drink when he saw what looked like a gap. Perhaps the space cut into the fence had been left over from that group of teenagers, the druggies who had spent the night here last Hallowe’en. James Cornell was not a fat man. In fact, he prided himself that, while many of his contemporaries moved towards late-middle-aged obesity – the sight of their stomachs hanging over their trousers gave them the look of pregnant men, an image that sickened him – he had retained his slim figure. He could slip through this gap. He put on his gloves and, now his hands were protected, eased back the wire. He bent down, put his phone on the ground for a moment, and crawled through.

As he stood up he felt a little dizzy and he steadied himself by reaching out and taking hold of the fence; perhaps he shouldn’t have had that second whisky. After a minute or so he regained his balance and used his torch to guide him through a clutch of trees and into a clearing that looked out towards the hall. From here he could see the perilous state of the building: in places the roof had collapsed entirely, ivy threatened to consume not just the facade but the interiors too, and in one wing it looked as though there must have been a fire. He would have to be careful; he didn’t want to die from being hit on the head by a falling tile. He would look around the place just to get a little atmosphere so he could imagine his characters here, and then he would return home.

He walked towards the front of the house where there had once stood an imposing entrance. James had seen photographs online showing the elaborate carved-stone door that led into the forecourt. But today there was none of that grandeur; instead, the steps up to the door were covered in rubbish, plastic fizzy drink bottles, crisp packets, stuff from everyday life that never died. One corner even looked like it had been used as a toilet.

James briefly covered his mouth with his scarf and pushed through the open doorway and into the reception hall. He knew the plan of the house: it was based on a Palladian three-by-three grid. If he turned left he would find himself in what had been the library. As he edged forwards he heard the floor creak under him as if the house was in pain. It was Grade I listed, apparently, and there was a local group of worthies who wanted to try and save it, even so, why didn’t they knock the whole thing down? But perhaps it would be better if the house remained exactly as it was, at least until the time of publication at the end of next year. The publicity girls in charge of spreading the word of The Shape of Shadows would love it when he told them about the house and its history. Perhaps they could even arrange a photoshoot here – health and safety allowing. Health and safety – now, who invented that? Perhaps the rise of the HSE culture was responsible for the recent boom in horror, he thought. The more mollycoddled people became, the more we sought out the thrills and sensations that came with horror . . .

Just then he heard a sound from – where? He listened again, trying to stop his breathing so he could make out the source of the noise. A moment later he heard it again. Was it coming from the cellar? His first instinct was to get the hell out of there, to run back across the fields, up the lane and into the comfort of his home. But then he thought about what Sally had said to him. She wanted fear, she wanted to feel it there on the page. And here was an opportunity. Most likely it was just a rat or a stray cat. But if he could take a few steps down towards the cellar he would get a taste of the kind of fear Sally was talking about, the terror that his hero, Adam, would feel if he spent a night in this house.

He made his way back across the hall towards a door that looked like it led down to the cellar. A montage spliced from dozens of scary movies flickered through his brain, screaming at him not to go down there. But he was a horror writer. He knew what he was doing.

In his left hand he carried his phone, the beam from the torch illuminating dirty brick steps going down into the shadows, while his right hand automatically slipped into his right pocket. The Swiss Army knife was still there. He took a moment to ease out its blade, running his finger over its sharp edge. He was sure his breathing had quickened. And yes, he could taste a sourness in his mouth, the unmistakable smack of fear. Good.

He eased himself down one step, and then another. Beyond the meagre reach of the torch there was nothing but blackness. He took another step and paused, listening for anything else, a noise that resembled the sound he had heard from upstairs. But no matter how hard he listened, he could make out nothing but a constant drip of water. Then he caught a whiff of something, a smell not of death, but just of bad ventilation and old, decaying drains. He shone his torch onto the walls, their surface spotted with black mould, the paint covered with pustules of damp.

Finally, with one last step, he reached the bottom. Was there a scurrying of something in one of the far corners? He raised his torch, but just then, at that moment, a face – or rather a fragment of a face – appeared in front of him. He stepped away, the beam from the torch reflecting back into his own eyes, blinding him. With each confused blink the face in front of him changed. Was it Adam? Was it the ghost of a monk? Angela? Ruth? Sally? His mother? A younger version of himself?

He let go of his torch, heard it smash on the floor. With his right hand he grabbed his knife. He felt something touch him. His instinct was immediate. He lashed out, feeling a resistance. He slashed again, this time higher. He felt a splash of something warm on his face. He heard a noise, a suppressed cry followed by a half breath, and he hit out again and again. There was fury driving him, anger that he seemed to have stored up over years. Each thrust of the knife was a stab into the heart of those who had crossed or disappointed him: Angela, Ruth, Sally, his mother, himself.

Then something heavy fell by his feet.

He bent down and swept his hands across the floor until he found his phone. The screen had smashed, but the light was still working. His fingers trembled as he picked it up and shone it towards . . .

It was difficult for him to take in. The torch picked out the features not of a spectral monk or any of the people from his life, past or present, but of a stranger. It was a young lad, late teenage, early twenties at the most, dressed in blue jeans, a grey sweater and a black denim jacket. Who was he and what the hell was he doing here?

James’s fingers checked his pulse. He was still alive, but he had been cut up badly. In that moment he came to his senses, as if he had just woken from a bad dream. What had he done? He felt like puking, but he managed to swallow his nausea. As he checked the boy for any serious, deep wounds he felt something in his jacket pocket. It was a notebook, which he put to one side. He checked his phone for reception. There was one bar. He dialled 999 and told the police, as best he could, what had happened. Would the boy live? He was given instructions about how to stem the bleeding, using strips torn from his own shirt. There was nothing more he could do until the paramedics arrived.

As he waited for the emergency services he picked up the notebook and started to read. The book was full of stories, exercises in creative writing. One task the boy had set himself was to spend the night in a haunted house to take in the atmosphere. He saw his own name written there — James Cornell. The boy wanted to be a horror writer.  Some of the ideas were good, very good indeed. Perhaps he could even make use of them . . .

Andrew Wilson’s new book, A Different Kind of Evil, published by Simon & Schuster