Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Hundred Nightmares Halloween Special...."Double Treble" Bill!

OK, since it's the Eve of All Hallows, or Halloween, or Samhain (as we Irish like to call it), I'm going to go a little crazy and have six of my short-short Hundred Nightmares in one post. Including my Halloween-themed one, of course!

I type this in Ballymun as fireworks crack, rumble and ripple outside, without a moment's let-up. Ballymun is the suburb where most of my life has been spent, and it does Halloween in a big way. The massive bonfires I remember from my childhood might be a thing of the past, but I did see the embers of one bonfire in our little housing estate, which pleased me.

I spent the early part of the evening in Clondalkin, the suburb (at the other end of Dublin) where I'm renting at the moment. It has fewer fireworks, but more trick-or-treaters. In fact, no trick-or-treaters came to the door in Ballymun last year. But I had four or five groups come to the door in one hour in Clondalkin, and all the goodies I'd bought were gone. (I'm not saying I didn't have some of the Oreos and Smarties with my own cup of tea...) This greater prevalence of trick-or-treaters might be because Clondalkin is a socio-economic notch above Ballymun. Or maybe not.

But I couldn't miss Halloween in Ballymun, so here I am in my father's house, as the sky erupts with fire-crackers.

Hope you enjoy these nightmares!!


(Note: I said in my introductory post that, since I wrote these tales before I started practicing my faith, some of them are grittier and more explicit than they might have been otherwise. You'll see what I mean by some of today's batch. I don't want to offend anybody, but I thought it was best to leave them as they are. I was in a state of considerable spiritual tension at the time, under the surface, and I think the provocative nature of some of the stories was related to that.)


Nightmare Eleven: A Halloween Story

“I wish I’d said something”, said Alan, tossing a penny into the fountain. It rose in a neat parabola, bounced off the rim of the bowl, and plopped into the water.

“Don’t torture yourself”, said Samantha, clasping his wrist, squeezing it gently. “There’s no point to it now.”

“Waiting too long”, said Alan, shaking his head. He licked his ice-cream again. “I always wait long. A bit like when my mother died—“

Stop”, said Samantha, sitting closer on the bench. “Stop. You do the best you can with the day you have.”

“The problem is that I don’t”, said Alan, and he sighed.

They sat on the bench, licking their ice-creams, watching the devils and the clowns and the vampires passing by. Every few moments, Samantha—- a plump but attractive lady with dark curly hair—- shot Alan a keen look. But he didn’t look around. He stared into the fountain, into the shimmering reflection of the indoor shopping centre’s overhead lights.

She wondered if she’d been wrong to tell him about Caroline. Perhaps she should have told him before now, but Caroline had always forbidden her. And who could have foreseen what had happened? How ironic that Caroline, who avoided cars like they were black cats, should have died in a pile-up.

He just looked so miserable. And Caroline hated it when Alan looked miserable, and she filled with pleasure when he smiled.

She thought that he might be pleased to know that Caroline had feelings for him after all. Or at least, as pleased as a man could be when the woman he loved had died suddenly.

“If I’d said something”, Alan began, every syllable loaded with pain, “then she would have been driving with me, and she never would have—“

Shut up”, said Samantha, sharply.

He looked at her, bewildered. But the was smiling gently, and her eyes were pools of sympathy.

“It’s ridiculous to think like that”, she said, her voice soft now. “Who knows where all the forks in life’s road could have led us? Nobody. Look, I’m going to Miriam’s Halloween party tonight. Why don’t you come? Take your mind off it? Please?”

Alan looked back into the shallow waters of the fountain and shook his head. “No”, he said. “I’m sorry. Not yet. Maybe soon. But not yet.

* *

Walking home through the darkening streets, looking at the glowing plastic pumpkins in the windows, hearing the early rockets, Alan found himself thinking about a book he had on the shelves at home.

He didn’t know where the book had come from. There was nothing very strange in that. There were hundreds of books at home, and some of them had been around since his grandparents’ days. But the book itself was certainly odd.

It was simply called Old Wives’ Tales. There was a picture of a comical owl embossed on the black cloth cover. There was no introduction, no acknowledgement, nothing besides the publisher’s imprint, The Dagda Press, and the year, 1828.

Alan knew that the Dagda was a Celtic mythological figure, but he couldn’t find any reference to the Dagda Press in any list of Irish publishers. And he had searched and searched. The fact that 1828 was well before Celtic revivalism became fashionable made the name even odder.

He had been fascinated with the book for years. It began conventionally enough, with recipes, jokes, and proverbs. Then the weird stuff began.

There were folk cures. There might be nothing weird in the fact that folk cures cropped up in such a book. What was weird was that they actually worked. Alan had tried them. He had got rid of an agonising toothache by burying a splinter of hazel wood in a field the morning after a lightning storm, digging it up three days later, and swallowing it. He had successfully treated a horrendous migraine by taking soil from a child’s grave and mixing it with blood and rainwater.

After the folk cures came the spells. Some were innocuous enough—love-charms and rites to bless the earth—but others were more alarming. There were spells to curse an enemy, spells to make a woman fertile—- or infertile—- and spells to raise the dead. There were spells to strike down your enemies, spells to sicken their cattle, spells to sway a judge or a jury.

And then there was the one that Alan remembered now. The spell to be reunited with a dead loved one, forever, in a “country beyond death”.

There was a long and elaborate list of preparations, but the finale had made him laugh when he first read it. The last step of the spell was to walk into a bonfire on Hallowe’en night and allowing yourself to be “devoured by fire.”

He didn’t feel like laughing now. He stood at his kitchen window, nursing a brandy, watching the glow of bonfires, listening to the endless fireworkers, and thinking. Coming to a decision.
* *

Man Walks Into Fire, Dies. A Dublin man, stilll to be named but believed to be 36 years of age, stunned onlookers by walking into a Hallowen bonfire and allowing himself to burn to death. It was about seven minutes after midnight, in the early morning of Wednesday, November the first.



Nightmare Twelve: Jim Reaper


“What are you saying exactly? That you killed this Declan guy?”

Sinead threw her cigarette on the ground and stamped on it. She wrapped her arms around her torso. It was a cold November morning. Her smile was withering.

“I know it sounds ridiculous”, said Jim. “But look at the facts”.

“You went to a Halloween party and a couple of other people who went to it died”, said Sinead, shrugging. “It’s horrible but it happens.”

“But the pictures, Sinead”, said Jim. “The pictures. They both put them up on their Facebook pages. I was in both of them.”

“And you were dressed as Death”, said Sinead, sardonically. “And that means you killed them?”

“They both died the morning after they put the photos up”, said Jim. “What does that tell you?”

“That you’re hanging out with the wrong crowd”, said Sinead, pulling out her mobile phone and looking at the time on its display. She was on a break from Good on Paper, the newsagents where she worked. “All these junkie college kids. Makes me glad I didn’t go to college.”

“There wasn’t any drugs there”, said Jim. “Least, I don’t think so. But they had a cocktail—Death on the Rocks, they called it—I don’t know what was in it, but I drank gallons. I can barely remember the party...”

“Death on the Rocks”, said Sinead. “Nice. Look, you forget I’m a working girl. I’ve got to flog some more soft porn and true crime magazines. You didn’t kill anybody, Jim. Get over it.”

She slapped him on the shoulder—a slap that just stopped short of hurting--- and disappeared back into the shopping centre.

He felt better after talking to Sinead. She had always made him feel better when his imagination was getting the better of him. He felt a bit foolish, but wasn’t it better to be a fool than a murderer? He shook his head at his own silliness, and started to walk to the bus-stop. He had design class at two.

* * *

His good humour evaporated when Kimberley Crean, who had also been at the party, phoned him up to say that Jessica Jones had died of a brain haemorrhage. That very morning, she had pinned a picture of herself and Jim— herself and the Grim Reaper—to the noticeboard of the DIY shop where both girls worked nights. They were both grinning and giving a thumbs up to the camera. Everybody in the DIY shop had said how brilliant Jim’s costume was, Kimberley added. She was obviously in shock, and talking at random.

“Kimberley”, said Jim. “Listen to me. Where can I get the phone numbers of everybody who went to that party?”

“I don’t know, Jim”, said Kimberley, after a silence of a few moments. “There must have been at least a hundred and fifty there…people were coming and going...I’ll give you Derek’s number. It was his house...”

* * *

He cut all his classes the next day. He phoned partygoer after partygoer, bewildering most of them. He was astonished at how few of them knew about the deaths. Even when he told them, most them didn’t seem too impressed.

“I just think it would be disrespectful”, he told one girl, who asked question after question, apparently fascinated by the whole macabre business. “I think we should respect their memories.”

“Totally”, said the girl. Her name was Mary. Or Miriam. Or something like that.

“So you won’t?”, asked Jim.

“Won’t what?”, asked the girl, after a pause.

“Show anybody any pictures that might...that might have me in them. You know, me dressed as the Grim Reaper.”

You were the guy dressed as the Grim Reaper?”, she squealed. “That was awesome! How did you do that?”

Jim couldn’t remember much about the night, but he remembered that everybody seemed to want a picture taken with him. He’d had his arm around a lot of girls, he remembered that. Many of them assumed they’d given him their phone numbers and forgotten about it. They seemed resentful when he told them his real reason for calling, but one by one, he got their promise. He didn’t make any friends, but hopefully he’d killed the picture for good.

* * *

“Isn’t Sinead in today?”, Jim asked Caroline, the other girl who worked behind the counter at Good on Paper.

“She’s gonna be a bit late”, said Caroline, as she tidied the arrangements of the chocolate bars. “She had to take her little brother to school. Hey, are you and her, like, going out?”

But Jim didn’t answer. He was staring at the front page of the Northside Newsletter, the local freesheet. Underneath the caption A Reap Good Booze-Up!, was a photo of him.

Dressed as the Grim Reaper.

Surrounded by at least fifty people, all of them giving the camera a thumbs-up and grinning.


Nightmare Thirteen: Far Out Man

“George Harrison dying was the beginning of it. Since then…well, it’s just seemed like one long funeral procession. It’s spooky.”

Zak Friars shivered. The weather itself would have been enough to make him shiver, aside from any morbid thoughts. A cold wind was blowing off Lake Magnificent, and the enormous pines that lined it were swaying.

“This is such a beautiful view”, said Bella, looking up from her notes towards the massive sheet of grey that stretched towards the horizon.

“I spend more and more time sitting here”, said Zak, his tones almost singsong. “Just looking out. Do you know what I like best?”

“What?”, asked Bella.

“I like straining my eyes, looking out so far that I can’t tell the sky from the water”, said Zak. “And seeing a figure out there. A man in a boat. He’s out there now. Do you see him?”

Bella stared into the distance. “Just about”, she said. “A neighbour?”

“I don’t know anybody out here”, said Zak, leaning back on his deckchair. “I hardly know anybody anymore. Let’s go on.”

“OK”, said Bella. She cleared her throat. “Let’s talk about The Old Gods.”

Zak Friars laughed wearily, and closed his eyes. He looked like a very tired old man. And why shouldn’t he? He was dying. “Do we have to?”, he asked.

“Well, there’s been rumours flying around about it for forty years”, said Bella.

“Before you were born”, said Zak, and she heard wonder in his soft tones.

“Just a little bit”, she said. “Is it true that you destroyed all the recordings?”

“You make it sound so furtive”, said Zak, opening his eyes again. They were misty grey eyes, in perfect harmony with the day. “The truth is we wiped The Old Gods because it was terrible. We were embarrassed!”

“But some of the stuff Trans made before that...The Seventh Paradise, A Million Years of Silence, One Hand Clapping...well, it makes Revolution Number Nine look like a ditty. You’d already pushed psychedelia beyond anything anybody else had done. How much further out could The Old Gods have been?”

“Even we knew it was just noise”, said Zak. He was gazing towards the horizon again. Bella had the strange feeling that thousands of miles lay between them, rather than two feet. “Even back then”.

“I think the fact that the band broke up immediately afterwards fueled the rumours”, said Bella, wondering if the dying star was even listening to her. “I mean, Bobby and Sandy dying within a few years, and Gail becoming a born again Christian, renouncing all her music, saying that the whole sixties had been a trip into hell...a walk right up to the precipice, she said.”

“I always thought we should have called an album that”, said Zak. “Trip into Hell. We could have slapped some Dante-esque image on the cover...”

“And then there were the stories of the production crew”, said Bella, gently pressing on. “Doug Piers said that The Old Gods was still in the vaults somewhere, then he denied he’d ever said it. Linda Bellamy claimed she heard some of it, that it put her into therapy for years.”

“Dear old Linda”, said Zak. “Anything to get her name in print. Look, the guy is just shimmering between visibility and invisibility. Look.”

Bella looked up, stifling her impatience. The boat was the faintest speck on the distance.

She marshalled her courage, and began again. “I think The Old Gods has survived.”

Now Zak looked back towards her. There was an amused smile on his lips, but his eyes were cold. “Oh yeah? And why’s that?”

“Let me just read you this quote from The Aquarian Times, March 1972”. She looked down at her notes, and read: “Expression isn’t a choice for artists. Good, bad, cosmically screwed up, it doesn’t matter. Awards don’t matter. Critics don’t matter. I mean, it’s amazing to get all the respect and love, but it’s ultimately irrelevant. An artist has to say what he has to say, he has to be heard. It’s just like taking a dump. Or breathing. It’s life.”

She looked back up. The smile had faded from Zak’s lips, but now the light in his eyes was softer. He gazed at her wordlessly for a minute or more, and then said: “I used to believe that. And you know what? Scoop for you, honey. We didn’t wipe The Old Gods. I couldn’t. I kept it in the vaults.”

Bella sat up. She had probably never felt more excited in her life, but she tried not to show it. “Oh yeah?”, she asked. “And where is it now?”

“Now it is gone”, said Zak. His voice trembled. “I threw it into this very lake, on the last day of February, 2007.”

“You’re very specific about the date”, said Bella, suddenly feeling crushed.

“Oh yes”, said Zak. “A few hours later, I found out that I was dying. Look! The man is gone.” He closed his eyes, and lay back in his deckchair. “Over the horizon.”


Nightmare Fourteen: Beware the Dog

Darren was furious. He’d rung four doorbells in a row, and nobody had answered. It was a cold day, and he didn’t want to be standing around.

They’d all had burglar alarms, too. And you could bet that the police would hurry post-haste to a street like this one. Cavendish Road was a shrubby quarter mile of redbrick houses, each standing a respectable distance from its neighbours.

Added to all that, his bag seemed to be getting heavier by the minute. He should have taken half this amount of rugs, he realised. Did he really think he was going to sell so many in one morning? He’d drop half of them off at home, right after he’d tried this next house.

There was a name worked into the wrought-iron gate. Mount Carmel. So they were religious freaks. Darren hated religious freaks. He’d become an altar boy once, for pocket money, but he had to give it up after a few weeks. He felt like he was suffocating in church.

On his last day, he’d stolen the priest’s wallet.

He opened the gate and walked in, past the crab-apple trees and rose bushes in the garden, and rang the bell on the paneled front door. There was an ornate sign above the letter-flap. BEWARE THE DOG. Those signs always filled Darren with rage. They were so smug.

He expected to draw another blank, but after a few moments, the door opened.

A black woman was standing in the hallway. She was wearing a dark blue top, a snowy-white blouse, and a stiff blue skirt. A silver crucifix, complete with Jesus, hung around her neck.

She was astonishingly beautiful. She stared at him, wide-eyed. Behind her, a ribboned shih tzu was frantically barking, or yapping.

“Would you like a rug, love?”, he asked, unzipping the bag that hung around his shoulder. “These would cost you two hundred quid anywhere else.”

The woman shook her head. From the way she looked at him, it was obvious that she couldn’t understand a word he said. And, skulking behind her, the shih tzu’s frantic barking went on.

Maybe it was the dog’s barking, the ridiculous bluff of that poxy sign. Maybe it was the maddening beauty of the woman. Maybe it was just the fact that she’d opened the door so wide, that she had left such an inviting space.

He stepped in, closing the door and slapping his hand over her mouth. He knew, even without thinking about it, that nobody else was home. Why else would she have answered the door? Besides, it was in her look. It was the look of a woman alone. He pushed the front door shut.

The shih tzu’s yapping was as rapid as a hummingbird’s heart now, though it had retreated a few steps. But Darren surprised it. His foot shot out and caught it square on the snout. There was a clicking noise, and it flipped backwards, howling. He laughed with pleasure, and dragged the woman towards the nearest door, assuming it was the living room.

It was. He kicked the door half-shut and looked around.

Oh yes, he thought. The enormous TV was too big to take, of course, but there was a DVD player, a whole shelf of DVDs, and—best of all—in the corner, a computer desk with stacks of computer games lying next to the computer.

They would all fit easily in his bag, even with all the rugs.

But before business, pleasure.

He threw the woman towards the couch. She didn’t scream, like he expected, though her eyes looked like they would pop from her skull.

He went to the TV and switched it on. Using the buttons under the screen, he raised the volume as high almost as high as it would go. The great thing about detached houses was that noisy neighbours were rarely a problem.

He unbuttoned, unzipped, and pulled his trousers down to his knees, enjoying the look of horror on the woman’s face, as Bing Crosby began to sing White Christmas.

He crossed to the couch, but she surprised him. Her fist lashed out at his face. He caught it easily, and laughed again. She was going to make it fun.

* * *

Don was surprised that the TV was so loud, but not that surprised. Bing Crosby was striking the first bars of White Christmas, and Sister Charity was a glutton for musicals.

He smiled as he closed the back door behind him. It was amazing how much fun you could have with someone who didn’t speak a word of your language. He’d been a little nervous when Mr. Steele asked him to watch over his African sister-in-law, while him and his wife toured Spain. And even more nervous when he’d heard she was a nun without a word of English. But it had turned out to be a ball. Charity made him tarts, and lemonade. They went on walks together. But mostly they just watched TV and movies. She was such a sweet lady, he’d found himself looking forward---

“Gabriel!”, Don shouted, as the dog pulled forward, freeing itself from the leash, rushing towards the kitchen door and through it. It was barking like crazy, and the house echoed with its barks. Hiro was howling, too, in the hall, like he was going out of his little mind.

The dogs were the worst part of the deal. He couldn’t even walk them at the same time.

Really, who kept a shi tzu and a bloody great pit-bull in the same house?


Nightmare Fifteen: The Whole Love Thing

Harry had been such a child since Kate had rejected his proposal. She’d expected more of him, but why should she be surprised? The world was full of emotional cripples. No matter how happy-go-lucky and fun-loving a man seemed at first, pretty soon the neediness popped out, like a cloven hoof.

If it kept up, she’d drop him like a dumb-bell. He was just so damned hot.

She liked his floppy fringe, his sky-blue eyes, his perfectly-carved lips. She liked the way he swaggered when he walked. He was one of the few handsome men she knew who never sneaked looks at his reflection in shop windows and mirrored doors. He was too self-assured to be really vain.

She liked that he owned his own business. He could take the entire day off if he wanted, and he did. He’d hardly spent an hour in the office since she’d met him.

Kate was a voice actress, and she worked whenever the hell she liked. There was always work. The whole country knew her sexy tones, even if they didn’t know her face or name. That was just how Kate wanted to keep it.

Harry had sulked for two whole days, but now he was beginning to come round. He was beginning to realise how pointless it was.

They were on a rowboat now, in the grounds of Carrigmorgan Castle. Harry liked her to take her away from her other people as much as possible. Specifically other men. Men’s eyes followed Kate like a poodle following its owner.

“My father used to take me here”, said Kate, enjoying the swish of the oars in the water. Insects buzzed in the summer air.

“You never talk about him”, said Harry. “You never talk about your family at all.”

“What’s there to say?”, asked Kate. “My father was a drunkard. A pious drunkard. I spent my entire teens listening to his lectures.”

Harry stroked her knee, and asked: “What did he do? For a job, like?”

“Oh, he worked in a charity”, said Kate. “African babies. That sort of thing. He set it up, actually.”

“That’s pretty impressive”, said Harry.

“I knew you’d think so, Mr. Forty-Eight Hour Fast”, said Kate.

“Where is he now?”

“Still living in the house where I grew up”, said Kate. “He met a woman after Mum died, but she left him.”

“So he’s all alone now?”, asked Harry, his eyes darkening.

Kate sighed. “You’re going to lecture me, aren’t you?”

Harry shrugged. “It’s just...he’s your father, Kate.”

Kate looked away, into the cloud of insects dancing around them. “Look, save your breath. The whole love thing...I don’t get it. I mean, there’s six billion people in this world. Am I going to get weepy about them all?”

Harry kept rowing, watching her face.

“And why are you so touchy-feely about parents, anyway?”, she asked, her eyes flashing with sudden mirth. “The man whose mother cursed him?”. The last words were almost lost in the explosion of laughter that overtook her, and she shook uncontrollably. The boat rocked.

“I’m glad you find it so funny”, said Harry, struggling to smile. “It wasn’t funny at the time. It was five years of hell.”

“Oh honey”, gasped Kate, grasping his straining forearm. “You’re adorable.”

* * *

Kate stood in the dawn-dim kitchen, reading the note that Harry had left for her in his nervous, twitchy handwriting.

Kate

You have no idea how much you hurt me last night. How could you casually tell me something like that? Did you really think I’d be OK with it?

You’re the crassest, shallowest, most selfish person I’ve ever met. Enjoy your new lover.

As for me, I’m my mother’s son. Harry.

She scrunched up the note and threw it in the pedal-bin. He obviously hadn’t felt too outraged to stay the night. Screw him.

She turned on the radio, looking for the music channels, but her finger paused on the dial as she heard a sombre voice announce: “At least twenty-six people have been killed, and dozens are believed to be injured...”

The voice went on, describing the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Kabul.

To her own amazement, Kate began to weep, and within a minute she was kneeling on the ground, holding her head in her hands, shaking with uncontrollable sobs.

She felt as though she had died herself.

Twenty-six times over.

Kate was learning what the whole love thing was all about.


Nightmare Sixteeen: How the Other Half Lives

It began when Conrad bumped into a man on Montgomery Bridge. He was turning to catch a bus, and he ran straight into him. He didn’t the notice the man at the time, besides the expensive scent of his aftershave. After a few muttered apologies, he was running after his bus. He just missed it.

The weird stuff began a few moments later.

Conrad realised he was seeing two things at once.

As a schoolboy, it had often struck him as strange that he could see one scene with his eyes, and hold another in his mind. This was just like that.

He was looking down the road, keeping an eye out for the number 24 bus, but he was seeing something else, too. He was seeing the suits in Fabrizio’s, the prestigious Dane Street men’s drapers.

He could feel the warmth of the shop, contrasting with the chill of the street. He could smell the fabric of the tweed and woollen coats. He could feel them with his fingers, when the other man reached out to teach them.

But there was no soundtrack. He didn’t know why it should be so—-was the man deaf?—-but he heard none of the sounds that belonged to the sights, smells and other sensations.

It was freaky and astonishing, but by the time a 24 bus arrived—-which, admittedly, wasn’t as short an interval as it might have been—-Conrad was getting used to it.

He learned something else, before the bus reached the suburbs. He could step out of the man’s experiences whenever he wanted. It was like unplugging a television. Two sets of experiences became one in a moment.

But why would he want to do that? The man had some life.

After the draper’s, he went to a classy restaurant. It smelled of money, and more than money—- class. It was the kind of restaurant you didn’t go to unless you moved in the right circles. Just being able to pay the bill wasn’t qualification enough.

Conrad closed his eyes as the bus moved through Brook Road, savouring the red wine and the seafood dish that his newfound twin was putting away. After that, a thick, rich coffee unlike any he had ever tasted. And after that, a walk to his city-centre apartment, which had a pool table and a jukebox.

He enjoyed a bubble bath in a deep, circular tub, much bigger than any tub Conrad had ever sat in. The delicious, hot scent of the bath salts caressed his nostrils, and the sparkling of the multi-coloured tiles seduced his eyes.

He shared none of the man’s thoughts. He’d tried to catch them, but nothing came. He didn’t know if the man—- disturbing idea!—- was experiencing Conrad’s life, in the same way. He shared none of the man’s reactions, emotions, impressions. Just a mass of sensual information, as though it was being broadcast straight to his brain.

But that was enough, Conrad thought as he slipped under the blankets that night. He gave his wife a desultory kiss, closed his eyes, and enjoyed the late night snack—- salmon paste on soda bread—- that his mental Siamese twin was eating at that moment.

He woke up around six a.m., with a cry of pain. He reached out, and felt his smarting chin. It was bleeding.

He stepped back into his counterpart’s mind. The man was standing before his bathroom mirror, an old-fashioned razor in his hand. He’d cut himself shaving, of course. It was only a nick.

Conrad stared at the face reflected in the bathroom mirror. Boy, he was handsome. Handsome like a movie star.

“What’s wrong with you?”, asked Diana, Conrad’s wife, groggily.

“Shut up and go back to sleep”, said Conrad, sitting up. “I’m off to work”.

The man went to work, too. He worked in an office, and looked at sheet after sheet of figures. Conrad switched off for those parts. They were boring. But, since he’d seen Errol’s face—- he’d taken to calling him Errol—-he was feeling excited. As long as he didn’t turn out to be a homo, Conrad was in for some fun, he guessed.

And Errol didn’t turn out to be a homo. Or celibate, either.

Two days later, he had dinner with a beautiful, golden-curled lady that Conrad decided to call Simone. There was a lots of tedious yapping, which Conrad couldn't hear, and didn't much want to hear—-though even looking at Simone yapping was fun-- and then they went home to Errol’s flat and the fun began. Simone was so lady-like in public, but molten lava in private.

And they met every few days. Conrad found himself living more and more through Errol. So much so that-- as he discovered during one of Errol's never-ending business meetings-- he could no longer "unplug" himself from the connection.

But so what? Enduring a bit of boring office work was well worth it, for Simone’s smoking-hot body.

There was no real explanation for what happened two or three months after the whole thing began.

It just seemed like a spat with Simone. A little bit of shouting, but nothing Conrad didn’t go through with his own wife every week. At least.

Errol must have been a sensitive chap, though. He went home to his apartment, locked himself into the bathroom, took out his cut-throat razor, and held it against the carotid artery in his neck.

Desperately, Conrad tried to pull out of this other life. But he was locked in now.

He clenched his eyes shut, and then he felt the blade cutting—

What Movies To Watch for Halloween?

Happy Happy Halloween, Halloween, Halloween....I realize people all over the world will be logging on to this blog to know what movies they should queue in their horror movie marathons.And who am I to disappoint them?

Untold hours of my life spent watching truly horrific (as in, horrifically awful) horror movies comes in handy for once, as I unveil my recommended Halloween playlist.

Most horror movies are terrible. The likelihood of any particular horror movie being any good is much lower than the same likelihood for a comedy, or a drama, or an action film. Even browsing the horror shelf in a DVD shop makes you feel rather soiled and seedy, considering that most of what they contain is simply pornography for sadists.

The idea that a horror film, like any other film, requires a plot, and a theme, and dialogue, and characterization, seems quite foreign to the majority of film-makers.

But there are exceptions, like...

1) The Ring (2002)

This is the American remake, not the Japanese original, which I haven't seen.

Horror can be a vehicle for making deep and complex statements about the human condition and man's place in the universe. Or it can simply be a means of scaring the pants off the audience. The Ring is the latter. The characters are wafer-thin, there seems to be no discernible theme to the story, and visually it is not only uninspired but downright unappealing, as though it has been filmed through a blue filter to make it look cold and alineating. But as an exercise in sheer scarifying, it doesn't get better than this.

The story revolves around a video-tape that causes death within seven days. The tape itself, which is simply a montage of unsettling and banal images, is one of the creepiest things I've ever seen.

This is the last film that seriously scared me. I saw it in the Savoy in O'Connell Street and I remember regretting that I'd gone to see it as I walked out of the cinema. That night, I woke up in the early hours of the morning and the television was on downstairs. Now, my father always falls asleep watching television, so there's nothing odd about that. But considering televisions switching themselves on played a big part in the movie, it creeped the heck out of me.

2) Plague of the Zombies (1966)

I wish I liked Hammer horrors. They're English, old-fashioned, quaint, and everything else that should endear them to me. But...they're awful. They're really and truly awful.

Most of them, anyway. There are a few exceptions, and Plague of the Zombies is one. The plot? A mine owner in Cornwall has found a workforce who never moan...I mean, who always moan...well, you know what I mean.

It's quite simply a competent piece of film-making, which is a rarity in the Hammer canon. It has all the usual strengths of Hammer-- the classy sets, the period atmosphere, the sheer Englishness-- with few of the usual Hammer faults. the And it's dashed spooky. The famous graveyard scene, which you will not forget, established so much of the iconography of the zombie genre. But let's not hold that against it, eh?

3) Carrie (1976)

The best film ever made from a Stephen King book, in my view. It is so dramatically compelling that it is almost painful to watch. I've always been in awe of the elegance of the plot; the whole tragedy flows inexorably from that first unforgettable scene, when Carrie has her first period in the school changing rooms and doesn't realize what is happening. School is probably the most traumatic and terrifying experience any of us ever go through, and Carrie captures the fearfulness of that experience magnificently.

4) From Beyond the Grave

This film is something of a secret handshake amongst horror film fans. If you're not a particular fan of horror films, you're unlikely to have heard of it. If you are, it's likely to be one of your favourites. I don't mean that it's one of that most odious class of motion picture, a "cult movie". All the people I know who love it are ordinary people with respectable haircuts and no particular propensity for black t-shirts. But it sticks in the mind. It's the best of the seventies Amicus anthology horrors, where several stories are linked by a frame narrative. Most of them are pretty good, but this one is head and shoulders the best.

In this case, the frame narrative involves various customers entering an antique shop which is owned by a mysterious old codger played by Peter Cushing. He gives every customer an opportunity to swindle him, but if they do...well, what happens if they do is the subject of each story.

The unpleasant-yet-oddly-pleasant sense of disorientation is what makes this film so memorable. The characters seem to inhabit a deceptively humdrum world where karma is waiting around every corner, and where karma has a macabre sense of humour.

The final segment, which centres around an antique door which opens onto a blue-tinged room inhabited by a Restoration-era occultist, is the peach. But it's all good. Not the easiest to track down, but worth it, if you do.

5) Blacula (1974)

Every horror night needs its comic relief, and Blacula will surely supply it. Not that this is a comedy horror. It's not even one of those "so-bad-it's-good" movies. It's pretty competently made, and not nearly as goofy as the campy title would suggest. It's good enough to be watchable, but silly enough to make you laugh.

Blacula is, as you can guess, and as the trailer (which was included as an extra on my DVD) proclaims, "Dracula's soul brother". He's an African prince who was bitten by Drac himself on a visit to Transylvania. Accidentally released from his coffin in the seventies by two super-camp gay lovers, who think the whole spooky Transylvanian castle is simply too ravishing, he makes a bee-line to America (I forget why) and is soon wowing the denizens of hot night-clubs with his cape and old-world charm. "That is one strange dude!", one "cat" proclaims-- twice.

A black detective begins to suspect something odd and possibly vampiric going on with a string of murders. In one effective scene-- actually, the same scene mentioned above-- the detective and Blacula (out and about under his real name, Mamuwalde) find themselves sitting together in a nightclub. There is one snatch of dialogue which I think is utterly priceless. Since I can't track it on the internet, and my copy of this DVD is on loan to a friend, you'll have to take my word that this is a fair paraphrase:

Detective: Mamuwalde, do you know anything about vampires?

Mamuwalde: All through history, man has believed in strange creatures which lie outside the realm of scientific knowledge.

Detective: You obviously know a great deal about this subject.


But Blacula isn't just one big giggle. For all its risible moments, it's a fairly decent movie with some spooky scenes.

6) The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Subtitled "A Much Underrated Movie". Well, not really, but look for any reviews on the internet and you'll see what I mean.

Roger Moore stars as a straight-as-an-arrow, old-fashioned businessman who, after nearly dying in a car accident, finds that he has a doppelganger who is doing awful things and getting him blamed for them. The doppelganger is soon mounting a hostile take-over bid on our hero's life.

This is a very well-written, well-acted and well-produced supernatural thriller, with considerable depth. But I like it mostly for the business world that it portrays; a rather urbane one of serious-looking moustaches, offices full of artistic bric-a-brac, gentleman's clubs, and oak-panelled board rooms.

7) Scream (1996)

I generally hate slashers films but Scream is in a class of its own. There was never anything like it before and there's never been anything like it since-- especially not the three sequels. (Actually, Scream 4 was quite good but still not a patch on the original.)

I think this film, like The Breakfast Club, succeeds due to the paradox that teenagers are 1) often obnoxious and arrogant and narcissistic, but also 2) vulnerable and endearing and brimming over with life. If adults spoke and behaved like the kids in Scream do, we would hate them, and cheer when they get bumped off. But anyone watching this movie should really be either a teenager himself (or herself), or else remember what it was like to be a teenager. So we forgive them, and feel horrified as the body-count piles up. It's also a plausible explantion for why the characters can be so sassy and cynical, making wisecracks while a serial killer is bumping their schoolfellows off.

And this film is smart. Movies that try to be smart and fail to be smart are just embarrassing. Scream really is smart. It plays with the conventions of the genre, often ironically. "Never, ever say, 'I'll be back'", one character announces, as he explains the rules for surviving a horror movie. "Because you won't be back".

The killer, Ghostface (as he has been dubbed by fans), is a marvellous creation. Although he taunts his victims over the phone, once he appears he never says a word and is utterly focused upon despatching them. His mask is based upon Munch's The Scream, and its contorted features and gaping mouth are truly chilling.

The final scene, where the killer is unmasked and the central character finds herself facing a carefully-engineered fate, is disturbingly realistic and vivid, perhaps because of the believability of the characters. A masterpiece of suburban horror.

That leaves my final two movies, Dead of Night and (da-da-da, the winner!) The Wicker Man. As it happens, I've written reviews of both of them before (one for my workplace newsletter, another for my friend Anna's website) and so I take the liberty of reproducing them here....

8) Dead of Night (1945)

This is one of the the greatest horror films ever made.

Mind you, I think there are only two great horror films—- Dead of Night and The Wicker Man, from 1973.

You might assume from that I’m not a fan of the horror genre, but you’d be dead wrong.

I am a fan of horror films, but I hate admitting it. I know the images that the word “horror film” conjures up for most people. Chainsaws, screaming teenagers, axes, screaming teenagers, hockey masks, innards, screaming teenagers, nipples, blood and screaming teenagers. After all, most horror films are like that. Most horror films are awful beyond words.

Dead of Night is nothing like that. There isn’t a single drop of blood, for a start. There are no chainsaws, no psychopaths, no “jump moments”. The whole thing is terribly English and pleasant—- but far more frightening than any amount of serial killers. This film operates on chills, not spills.

An architect, Walter Craig, is invited to a country house. A small company is gathered there for the weekend. As soon as he lays eyes on them, Craig declares that he’s seen them all in his dreams—- that he’s dreamed about this moment many times before. One of the guests is a psychoanalyst(with, naturally, a heavy Central European accent). He sets out to debunk the architect’s claim- —but, one by one, the other guests tell of their own encounters with the paranormal. As the storytelling progresses, Craig remembers more about his recurring dream....to the point where “my dream becomes a nightmare.”

Dead of Night is a portmanteau film, an anthology film containing several short stories within a framing narrative. The format was used to good effect by the UK’s Amicus and Tigon studios in the seventies, but none of them can equal Dead of Night. There are five stories (including, like many anthology horrors films, one funny story for comic relief). The final story is the most famous, and also the most copied-— a stark tale of a ventriloquist apparently possessed by his dummy.

I can see why this last story is so celebrated, but the climactic ventriloquist tale is actually my least favourite of the stories. It just seems too intense for this very understated film. The four other stories are much more subdued.

There’s the one about the little girl playing hide and seek in a strange house. She finds herself wandering into a bedroom and talking to a rather old-fashioned boy who laments that his sister is horrible to him and wants to kill him. This is pretty much the standard ghost story, told time and again, and its presence in Dead of Night seems entirely appropriate. The classic horror film should contain the classic ghost story, shouldn’t it?

There’s the tale of an injured motor-car racer who looks out his hospital window and sees a hearse parked outside—- the driver smiles at him and announces, “Just room for one more inside, sir"...

There’s the story of a woman who buys her fiancĂ© a mirror (“You know how difficult it is to buy presents for men—- they always seem to have everything they want”). Unbeknownst to her, the mirror previously belonged to a man who murdered his wife—- and, before you can say "Jack-o'-Lantern", her husband-to-be starts seeing funny things in it, and behaving in a most curious and un-English manner.

And there’s the afore-mentioned comic relief story, involving two obsessive golfers who play a match to decide which of them will marry their mutual love. The loser commits suicide by walking into a lake—- but learns on the Other Side that he was cheated, and decides to come back for revenge. This story was cut from the film in America, which is a pity—- it’s genuinely funny, and varies the tone nicely.

What makes Dead of Night such a great movie?

I think it’s the perfect mix of the two elements horror needs—- creepiness and cosiness.

When do people most love to hear ghost stories? On a winter’s night, when the wind might rattle the windowpanes, but everybody is warm and comfortable inside. Most horror doesn’t work because it breaks the one great rule of scary stories— that rule being that less is more. One creaking floorboard at the right moment is spookier than any amount of axe-wielding maniacs.

As for the cosiness, there is no film so very English as this one. It’s as English as Agatha Christie novels, fish and chips, hot water bottles and Toby jugs. The house guests remain unflappable and invincibly cheerful through all the paranormal talk. Lots of drinks are poured. The best line of the film (delivered during the comic relief story) describes Dead of Night’s atmosphere to a tee: “Just because a chap becomes a ghost, surely it doesn’t mean that he ceases to be a gentleman.” (But then again, gentlemen can do some very nasty things...)

9. The Wicker Man (1973)

Horror is the most disappointing of film genres. It could do so much, and yet (most of the time) it does so little. Think about it. A horror film could be about anything. Crime films need criminals, murder mysteries need corpses, romantic comedies need lovers, but there are no requirements when it comes to horror. Life is full of shadows, and absolutely anything can be scary. “Fifteen apparitions have I seen”, wrote Yeats, “the worst a coat upon a coat-hanger”. (Not entirely sure what he meant, but it seems apt here.) And yet horror films usually give us the same thing over and over; maniacs chasing teenagers, depressed vampires, scientific experiments gone wrong, and over-exuberant clowns.

The fraction of horror films that are really great is vanishingly small, but The Wicker Man is prominent amongst them. Released in 1973, it passed unnoticed at first. It has since attained cult status, but don’t hold that against it. You don’t need a goatee beard and a Ramones t-shirt to enjoy this film.

Edward Woodward, playing a fervently Christian police sergeant, receives an anonymous letter from a Scottish island, telling him that a little girl has gone missing. He goes to investigate, but the islanders—- who are all authentic practicing pagans, and as shifty and taciturn a bunch as you could ever hope to meet—- claim never to have heard of the girl.

Nevertheless, Sergeant Howie eventually finds her name in a school attendance ledger, and tells Lord Summerisle, the magistrate of the island (played by Christopher Lee) that “I think Rowan Morrison was murdered, under circumstances of pagan barbarity that I can scarcely bring myself to believe as taking place in the twentieth century.” But what can he do when Lord Summerisle himself is an enthusiastic pagan, and even the child’s mother won’t talk?

There are several things that make The Wicker Man a great horror film. First, the story unfolds from the first moment to the last, unlike so many horror films that are one fifth exposition followed by four-fifths jumping, screaming and slashing.

There is a great performance from Christopher Lee, in his personal favourite from all his films (in fact, he did this one for free).

But the real genius of The Wicker Man is that it takes something which is usually seen as quaint and even cringe-inducing—- that is, British folk tradition—- and makes it eerier than you could have imagined possible.

The sight of Christopher Lee in a woman’s wig doing a sort of Morris dance might sound risible. It’s not. Oh goodness, it's not.

The atmosphere of living, menacing paganism is built up with exquisite little details; bread baked in the shape of John Barleycorn, the spirit of the fields; an “evil eye” symbol painted on a fishing boat; a grotesque fanged face painted on a door-knocker. That most of the film takes place in sunlight, and in homely settings like a pub and a school and a public library, only heightens the sense of realism—- and of weirdness.

Then there is the unforgettable ending—- one of the most chilling and well-contrived in all cinema.

The best horror seduces as much as it horrifies. Our modern lives are so starved for tradition and transcendence and rootedness that the very idea of a pagan community on some Scottish island can’t help stirring our blood. So pop The Wicker Man in your DVD player this Halloween—- and perhaps the monster masks of the local trick-or-treaters might take on a whole new aspect for you...

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lullaby

Surrender, surrender; the day is over
And all of its deeds, for better or worse.
Now find in pillow and sheet and cover
Your universe.

Remember, remember the peace unbounded
You left behind you the day you were born.
Now by infinite dark be surrounded
Until the morn.

Abandon, abandon the self's defences
Oh, yield up the dearly-held citadel.
Now strive no more with the swooning senses;
It will be well.

Relinquish, relinquish the claims of reason
And all of the shackles of "must" and "may".
Now is the spirit's sanest season,
Its deepest day.

Monday, October 28, 2013

I Went to See Ender's Game Today...

...and thought it was a thoroughly enjoyable piece of cinema. The story was extremely far-fetched (I mean, even allowing for all spaceships and aliens) and Harrison Ford hammed it up to the seventh heaven, but I wasn't bored for even a moment of its running time, and the visuals were amazing.

How do people not go to the cinema for years at a time, or at all? I don't understand it. There are not many experiences that can compare with it for intensity, depth, and for arousing that aspect of our humanity that is so unspeakably precious-- our sense of awe.

Though watching a DVD at home has an appeal of its own (and is, to my mind, a lot more romantic than a trip to the cinema, if you have someone there to hug), the cinema experience is unique and irreplaceable and out on its own.

And science fiction films (along with horror and fantasy, but especially science fiction) always have a head-start when it comes to exploiting the potential of the big screen.

A Little Bit of Apologetics

(With apologies to Fr. Brian D'Arcy for my title...)

This being a Bank Holiday in Ireland, I went to Mass this morning. It was the feast day of St. Jude and St. Simon, the apostles.

The priest explained why St. Jude came to be the patron saint of hopeless cases, an explanation which you might know already but I didn't.

The reason is that St. Jude is actually St. Judas. Like Jesus and Joshua, or Mary and Miriam, they are the same name in Hebrew.

Of course, people felt a bit uneasy about invoking the name of Judas. So it happened that people only invoked St. Jude when they had run out of other saints to pray to. (Although a different explanation is given here.)

That's an interesting bit of speculation in itself, but it got me thinking about something else.

Which is this. It's always seemed odd to me that fiction writers (almost) never use the same name for different characters, unless they have some plot-related reason to do so. There's an obvious reason-- you don't want to confuse the reader. But in real life, people have identical given names all the time, so you'd think a desire for verisimilitude would (more often than it does) win over the desire for clarity.

It's just one of the many, many little touches that make me (and, I think, any honest enquirer) feel sure that the Gospels are not fiction. They're not neat enough to be fiction.

Books I'm Surprised Don't Exist #6 and #7

The Bum on the Seat: Recollections of an Avid Movie Goer.

Hoping it Might Be So: An Anthology of Literary Agnosticism.


For those who don't know, the latter is an allusion to Thomas Hardy's haunting poem, The Oxen, which I reproduce below. There have been a couple of books with that title, but neither was an anthology of literary agnosticism (which would, naturally, be an anthology of poems, stories and essays with the general theme of agnosticism.)

The Oxen by Thomas Hardy

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Some Spooky Television Title Sequences

As you can guess if you've read a few of my recent posts, I'm in a mood for spooky things right now. And I don't think this is all that out of place on a Catholic blog.

When I look back at my childhood, I think that the strong presence of horror and heavy metal-- my older brother and cousin were Iron Maiden fanatics- helped to give me a thirst for the spiritual.

I don't think it's all that surprising that Iron Maiden's drummer, Nicko McBrain, became a born again Christian. Though I don't like that phrase, since all Christians should be "born again Christians", as Scripture makes plain (John 3:3.)

It's also interesting that several other famous heavy metallers became Christians, such as Alice Cooper and Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. And apparently Ozzy Osbourne is a practicing Anglican.

I think the Bible is sometimes the spookiest book you could read. The witch of Endor, the writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast, the plagues of Egypt (especially the darkness), the flaming sword guarding Eden, even the burning bush that burns but is not consumed...I always get the impression, reading the Bible, that the sacred is uncanny and troubling (as we feel it should be). Angels in the Bible nearly always preface their speeches by saying "Do not be afraid", and this seems entirely appropriate-- and entirely satisfying, too.

Anyway.

A comment from Antaine made me think of spooky opening credit sequences from television shows. I've linked to a few here. (I hope this is OK, from a copyright point of view-- one of the videos at least was uploaded by the makers, but I don't know about the others. I'm wary of copyright because I don't want to break the seventh commandment. That's why there are so few pictures on this blog, though I'm starting to think this is too scrupulous.)

First and least, the original Outer Limits opening sequence. It's only mildly spooky, and dated in a rather hilarious way. (Things only date badly when they are desperately trying to be modern.) But there is still something unnerving about that steely voice.

Second, the opening sequence for Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible, a horror-spoofing comedy made by Steve Coogan's production company. The makers were obviously horror buffs, with a particular tendresse for Hammer, Amicus and Tigon films. (If you know who Amicus are, you're a British horror fan. If you know who Tigon are, you're a hardcore British horror fan.)

Third, the opening sequence to Tales of the Unexpected, the anthology show of tales with a twist, mostly taken from Roald Dahl short stories. This is less spooky than I remember it, to be honest. But it did give me a particularly nasty nightmare when I was a kid. I dreamed I was watching the sequence, and had come to the part where the tarot cards are spinning on the carousel, when both the cards and the music suddenly stopped dead. Shiver!

Fourth, there's the intro for the eighties version of The Twilight Zone, the one I watched as a kid. I'm actually not much of a Twilight Zone fan-- whether it's the original or the remake. (Although "A Little Peace and Quiet" scared the heck of out of me, and seems to have stuck in lots of peoples' minds.) But this little montage is as spooky and disturbing as anything.

Fifth, we come to the one mentioned by Antaine, the opening titles for Are You Afraid of the Dark?, a horror show from Canada. Though the show was made for kids, it was far from insipid, and the opening sequence is inspired. (The website TV Tropes has a whole page devoted to abandoned and deserted playground, as used for spooky effect. There is something uniquely creepy about that image.)

Finally-- and, in my opinion, spookiest and best of all-- the theme tune for the eighties show, Hammer House of Horror. This anthology show was only mediocre at best, but the opening sequence-- both music and visuals-- are delectably haunting, and even quite beautiful in a Gothic kind of way. Well, have a look and see what you think...

Another Horror Triple Bill

Since it's so close to Halloween, I thought I'd keep 'em coming! Here's some background for those just joining us.

The Thin Grey Line

“There are no such thing as vampires, Ellen”, said Claire, ruffling her daughter’s hazel curls. “Who’s been telling you these stories?”

“Neil Higgins”, said Ellen.

“Don’t listen to him”, said Claire. “In fact, the less you talk to him, the better. Now, go and make your supper.”

Ellen skipped towards the door, her curls bouncing, her slippers flopping on the carpet.

“I’ve never heard of a five-year-old that makes her own supper before”, said Norman.

He was sitting in his favourite armchair, browsing through a thick file of papers, a glass of sherry in his hand. His face was drawn, his eyes hooded with fatigue.

“I want her to grow up independent”, said Claire. “Not a helpless little girly. The world is a tough place, sweetie. I want to give her the gumption to go out and get what she wants.”

“Just like her mother”, said Norman, giving his wife a look that was fond and resentful at once. She didn’t see it.
She was sinking into the armchair before the open fire.

“But, honey, maybe she’s getting a bit too independent. Answering me back. Eavesdropping. Demanding pocket-money.”

“Don’t be so Victorian, sweetie”, said Claire, drowsily. She could feel sleep stealing on her like a slow tide.

“Well, there’s a danger of cramming a young mind with ideas that it can’t understand, isn’t there? We don’t to make her an adult before she’s a child.”

“Are you going to pour me a sherry?”, asked Claire, looking towards the coffee table. “Sweetie, you look so tired.”

Norman took the bottle of sherry, rose sluggishly from the armchair, walked towards the cabinet, and took out a glass. “Work is pretty intense, all right. But..” He looked towards Claire, with a strange shy look on his face.

“Yes, sweets, what is it?”, she asked, dreamily, gazing into the flames.

“It might sound ridiculous after ten years in this line of business, but I’m…well, I’m beginning to have doubts about what I do.”

He crossed towards his wife, a glass of sherry in his outstretched hand. She didn’t look at it as she took it from him. Her eyes were on his face, and they were bright with a keen lustre.

“What do you mean?”, she asked, almost sharply.

“You know what they call people like me”, said Norman, shambling back towards his armchair. “Ambulance-chasers”.

“Jealous people”, said Claire. “And who cares? Journalists are hacks, doctors are quacks...”

“But what if they’re right?”, asked Norman, lowering himself into his chair. It groaned with his weight, though he wasn’t heavy. “I mean, today I was preparing a brief against a shop that didn’t put up a Wet Floor sign. A woman slipped and cracked her skull. Now, that’s OK if it’s a big supermarket. But it’s just a little cornershop, family run. The damages will probably ruin them.”

“And that makes it OK for them to put the public in danger?”, asked Claire. All her sleepiness had gone from her now. “Norman, remember, you serve justice. You make the strongest case you can. The defence makes the strongest case they can. The best case wins.”

“And what about the truth?”, asked Norman, his voice rising a little. “What about fairness? Sometimes I think I’m a monster. A monster.”

There was silence for a moment, except for the crackling of the flames. Claire knew a critical moment when she saw one. She wondered how long this had been brewing, and rebuked herself for missing the signs. She planned her words carefully.

“The truth is a thin grey line”, she said. Her voice was soft but steady. “My mother used to say that. And fairness...don’t talk to me about fairness. Fairness is a word that feckless, irresponsible people like to use when they’ve drank and gambled their lives away. Norman, you’re a good man. A good man.”

She rose from her armchair, strode towards the coffee table, and poured herself another sherry. She could see that Norman was coming around. She’d always known how to handle him.

* * **

They listened to old records after that, and both of them got pleasantly drunk. “You always make me feel better”, Norman whispered in her ear, just before he fell asleep in her arms.

Twenty minutes later, she woke up to screams. Her husband’s screams.

There was blood all over the bed. Ellen was kneeling on Norman’s chest, plunging a steak-knife into his neck, over and over again.

He’s a monster, Mummy”, she cried. “I heard him say so. Daddy’s a monster!”


The Firing Squad


“You have refused the offer of a priest?”, asked the guard.

“That’s right”, said Walter, rising from the bed.

“You’re an atheist?”, asked the guard. He seemed surprised at the idea.

“If there was a God,” said Walter, “do you really think he would have let the world have gone to hell like this?”

The guard didn’t reply to that. He was a young man, perhaps no more than twenty-five. His skin was pale and his eyes were gentle.

“It can’t do any harm”, said the guard, as though disturbed by the thought of Walter going to his death without priestly attention.

“Do you know a Lutheran priest tried to persuade me to enlist?”, asked Walter. “He told me that the real sin was throwing my life away. He told me that the responsibility for my actions would lie with those who commanded me. That a soldier was just a tool, a servant.”

“You should have listened to him”, said the guard. “He was trying to help you.”

Walter laughed. It was more a sorrowful laugh than a bitter one. “Nothing on heaven or earth can convince me that men murdering other men is ever right, ever, under any circumstances. The taking of human life is an absolute evil. I no longer desire to live in this world, my friend. I’m tired of cruelty and pain.”

The guard looked embarrassed. He stared at the wall past Walter. “In that case, and if you have no desire to speak to a priest, it is time to go.”

Walter nodded. The guard opened the cell door, and he trudged out. Outside, there were three more soldiers.

Executions, he thought, were always held at dawn. But the guard’s watch read three o’clock. When they emerged into the yard, the sky was a perfect blue, and the sun was hot on his face.

A line of six soldiers were already standing in front of the wall. They didn’t look at him as he was marched past them. Even as he took up his position against the brick wall—that, too, was warm in the afternoon sun-- they didn’t look at him. They fiddled with their guns, or stared at the stony ground.

An officer read the charges in a bored voice: “Walter Kaisen, you have been found guilty of treason in refusing to bears arms for the Reich. The sentence for treason is death. Soldiers, take aim.”

Six rifles were raised and aimed towards Walter. He pressed his eyes shut, instinctively.

“Fire!”

Walter's stomach lurched. But nothing happened.

He opened his eyes. The execution yard and the firing squad were gone. Somehow, he was somewhere else.

It was no longer a summer afternoon. It was a winter’s morning, but a winter’s morning unlike any that Walter had ever seen. Black clouds filled the sky, enormous black clouds tinged with a volcanic red.

He seemed to be standing on a mountain, a mountain of dark, jagged rock, studded by patches of stubby grass. There were others standing around him, perhaps two or three dozen. They all wore coarse woolen cloth, like that of a medieval friar. There were disheveled, malnourished, and wild-eyed. Many of them leaned against each other for support. Others were slumped on the ground.

“You’re new, aren’t you?”.

He turned. A young woman, whose pretty face bore several deep scars across it, was staring at him. She looked exhausted.

“Where the hell is this?”, he asked.

The young woman gave a wild laugh. “Hell is exactly where it is! Or hell for us, anyway. I suspect that it’s a heaven for them.”

She pointed. A murmur ran through the small crowd. It was the most sickening sound Walter had ever heard; it was horror gone far beyond the point of horror. It was like the groan of a tortured, half-dead dog.

Walter looked in the direction the woman indicated. There were moving figures on the horizon. At first, there were too small and too shadowy against the red light of the sky to make out. But a few moments later, he saw that they were riders. There was perhaps a dozen of them, and some were brandishing swords in the air.

“Who are they?”, he asked.

“Warriors”, said the woman, leaning down to pull an old, barely conscious man to his feet. “They hunt us. They hunt us, and then they slaughter us, and then they hunt us again. This is their Valhalla, I think. This is their happy hunting ground.”

As the band grew closer, and the crew of fugitives began their hopeless flight, Walter wondered why he had never felt the impact of the bullets. Had he passed out? Was all this some kind of terrible dream? The cosmos itself couldn’t be built upon cruelty and violence. Could it?


Crackers

(Note for American readers; the crackers in this story are not Graham crackers, but rather the party toys which I understand are not well known in America. Wikipedia describes them thus: A cracker consists of a cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper, making it resemble an oversized sweet-wrapper. The cracker is pulled by two people, often with arms crossed, and, much in the manner of a wishbone, the cracker splits unevenly. The split is accompanied by a mild bang or snapping sound produced by the effect of friction on a shock-sensitive, chemically-impregnated card strip (similar to that used in a cap gun)". The cracker usually contains items like (dreadful) jokes, paper crowns, and little plastic toys.

Maybe you knew that already. But just in case...)


“Who would have thought it ten years ago?”, asked Mary-Ann, looking across the crowded room at Neville. “Back in colllege?”

“Not me, anyway”, said Derek, taking another swig from his glass of mulled wine. “To be honest, I think it’s damn mag—mag---“

“Magnanimous?”, suggested Mary-Ann, smiling fondly. Derek was drunk on mulled wine. He was dreadfully cute.

“Yeah, that”, said Derek, grinning carelessly. “We were never exactly nice to him, were we?”

“Oh, we were a bunch of enormous snobs”, said Mary-Ann. “We only let him into the club because of his uncle. Let’s be honest. None of us thought he’d make anything of himself. He seemed so...dim.”

“And he achieved more than any of us”, said Derek, looking around the enormous, oak-panelled living room, now bright with expensive Christmas decorations and a crackling fire. “Through a comics website, for crying out loud!”

“It’s hard to believe, alright”, said Mary-Ann, staring across at Neville. The small, unattractive man was enjoying himself, the master of ceremonies. “But nerds obviously have cash, and are willing to part with it.”

Derek giggled. He put his hand on Mary-Ann’s knee. She brushed it off immediately, glancing across the room to Derek’s wife, Sheila. But Sheila was lost in Neville’s photograph albums, along with four or five others. “For God’s sake, Derek”, she whispered. But there was a smile on her lips.

A series of loud raps filled the room. Everybody looked up. Neville was drumming a ladle against the edge of the enormous punch-bowl.

“Time for crackers, everybody”, he announced, his face glowing with pleasure.

There was a murmur of anticipation. Everybody had noticed the crackers, laid out on a table of their own. They were so sumptuously made, with trimmings of silk and velvet, that it seemed a shame to pull them. Each one of them was labelled with two names, engraved in gold ink.

“The Frascatti sisters first,” called Dean, Neville’s lover and business partner.

The Frascatti sisters-- a solicitor and a financial journalist-— squealed in theatrical excitement, and everybody laughed. They each took an end of the cracker that Neville handed to them. The gathering counted down from five, and with a satisfying crack, they pulled it apart. There was a loud cheer.

A packet of Jester cigarettes fell on the thick carpet. The cheers died, and there was silence.

The father of the Frascatti sisters had died of lung cancer, only months before. He was famous for favouring Jesters, a rare brand.

“You bastard”, whispered Helen Frascatti, staring at Neville. Her sister, June, began to cry. “Is this your idea of revenge, Neville?”

Neville stared at her, the colour draining from his face. “I don’t know what...”

He trailed off. They all stood around, staring at the remaining crackers. Nobody seemed to know what to do.

“Oh, sod it”, said Derek, drunkenly. “I’m going to pull mine. Sheila?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Derek”, said Sheila. Her pretty face was paler than usual.

“Let’s play Neville’s game”, he said. “Let’s see what his twisted mind has come up with. Screw him.”

Sheila argued, but Derek was not to be resisted. She took the other end, her face a mask of reluctance. Another tiny explosion rang through the room.

A photograph fell on the carpet, face upwards. Sheila cried out and stamped her foot over it, but everybody had seen the picture of her passionately kissing another woman.

Derek lunged at Nevile, but before he could reach him, his best friend Gary had grabbed him around the waist. Neville had already stepped backwards. He was staring down at the picture, pure bafflement on his face.

“I didn’t...I didn’t...I don’t know...”

“You swine”, spat Gary. His voice trembled. “You think because you’ve made some money, you can insult us? We’re going to crush you, Neville. Three months from now you’ll be answering telephones, or working a cash
register, just like you always should have been. I hope you enjoyed your little moment.”

“I didn’t put any of those things in there!”, wailed Neville. His eyes bulged. “They were gifts ..watches...bracelets...tie-pins! They were gifts!”.

“Hey, there’s a cracker here for you and your lover boy”, said Mary-Ann, her voice taut with fury. “What’s in that, I wonder? Want to show us?”

Dean and Neville looked at each other, their eyes filled with suspicion and doubt. Dean gave a dazed nod, and they gingerly lifted the cracker between them.

In the silence, the miniature explosion echoed through the room.

And a small plastic bag filled with white powder fell onto the carpet.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

I Was Thinking About Going to See the New Movie Ender's Game...

...then I read that various pressure groups are calling for it to be boycotted because Orson Scott Card, the writer of the source novel, is a devout Mormon who has spoken out against same-sex marriage.

Well, now I'm pretty sure I'm going to go see it. I only wish I could do so while munching on some Chick-Fil-A. (And no, this isn't an anti-gay thing. It's an anti-political correctness, anti-Thought-Police thing.)

The Last Chapter of The Snowman: A Horror Story

I'm a real fiction mood, all of a sudden. I'm reading the ghost stories of M.R. James and I have a few other books of stories lined up to read.

I've also enjoyed going through my old fiction, and hope it's not too self-indulgent posting some of it here.

I decided to do something even more self-indulgent, and post the last chapter of a novel I wrote a few years back, titled The Snowman: A Horror Story. The idea for the book swam into my head as I was waiting in the optician's to get an eye test.

The story so far, drastically shortened:

A nondescript Dublin suburb called Higginstown has been taken over by an entity called The Snowman. This entity is in fact an extra-terrestrial being who was summoned by a dying child's wish for snow. (Non-Irish readers should understand that snow is a rarity here.) The Snowman has tried to create a Paradise, but a child's idea of Paradise; all laws and rules are suspended, comfort food appears magically in fridges (the only technology that still works), all injuries heal, death itself is only temporary, and it snows endlessly. The outside world has disappeared.

Soon, Higginstown is ruled by thugs and gangs and turns into a savage free-for-all, where ordinary people go into hiding and keep their heads down. Our hero, Brendan-- who has simply drifted through life until now-- becomes the leader of a small, secret resistance called the Chess Club. Their resistance seems futile at first, but soon they notice that the Snowman's powers seem to be weakening. The world he has created starts to come apart at the seams, injuries don't heal, the comfort food stops appearing, and the dead stay dead.

In their last confrontation with the Snowman, the entity reveals that he is, in fact, dying. Higginstown will not be returned to the outside world but trapped in its current limbo forever. (The inhabitants, however, have discovered that huge amounts of virgin country lies outside its borders, which they had not been able to bypass until the Snowman began to weaken.)

This leaves Brendan in a pickle, as a group of thugs whose leader he killed have promised revenge upon him. The final scene is set in Brendan's old school, which the Snowman used as his HQ, and features the dying Snowman, Brendan and Sarah-- another member of the Chess Club, for whom Brendan has unrequited romantic feelings. They've taken pity on the Snowman in his dying moments and agreed to remain with him.




Chapter Fifty-Three

The air of the yard was delicious after the stench of death in the corridor. Brendan had removed his helmet now, too, and the feeling of the wind against his face was more than refreshing. It almost felt like rebirth. Dawn had given way to the first full light of morning. The sky blazed white as snow.

“God, I hated this yard so much”, said Sarah. “Even more than the sixth year classroom.”

It was nothing more than a large square of tarmac, edged on three sides by narrow fields, and surrounded by metal railings. The Snowman had turned the railings to a wall of ice.

Brendan’s memory of the yard were no more affectionate than Sarah’s. He would stand in one corner, beside the bushes, with his one or two friends, making their would-be cynical comments about teachers, other kids, and life in general.

Sometimes they would get hassle from the more obnoxious students. It was Brendan in particular who seemed to draw them. Back then, he had wondered if there was something about the very way he walked and talked that antagonised bullies. He had spent a lot of time thinking about that.

The memory made him think of Lee, Dean’s brother. He had entirely forgotten about him for the last hour or so. For all his grief for Willy and the others, he had begun to believe that he had come through this whole nightmare. Now, with a sickening lurch of his stomach, he remembered that a sentence of death still hung over his head.

“I’ve just remembered”, he said to Sarah, who was gazing at the huge clouds drifting across the horizon. “I have my fan club to deal with when we go back.”

“Fan club?”, asked Sarah, looking towards him, as though she had just remembered he was there.

“Lee and his friends”, said Brendan. “They’ve sworn to kill me, remember?”

WHY DON’T YOU KILL THEM FIRST?

Sarah and Brendan looked towards the red eyes that were hovering a few feet above them. The outline of the Snowman was growing fainter all the time, but his eyes were as bright as ever.

“I’m not sure how I’d go about that”, said Brendan, with a bitter laugh.

REALLY?, asked the Snowman. I THINK THAT YOU’RE DISTINGUISHED BY A REMARKABLE CAPACITY OF INVENTION AND IMPROVISATION.

“Thanks”, said Brendan. The compliment took a little of the sting from the self-praise he had subconciously put into Toffee’s mouth.

“You talk like a college professor”, said Sarah, looking up at the Snowman. “Are you old? Are you young?”

There was a moment of silence. Brendan could no longer feel the emotions of the Snowman. He thought that, perhaps, the entity-—whatever it was-— had resigned itself to its own end.

I DO NOT KNOW, it said, eventually. I AM HUNDREDS OF YEARS OLDER THAN YOU, ANYWAY. BUT I REMEMBER SO LITTLE OF IT.

“What do you...what do you think will happen to you when you die?”, asked Sarah. If she felt pity for the Snowman, none of it showed on her face. There was nothing in her expression but friendly interest.

Probably nothing could have satisfied the Snowman more, Brendan thought, looking at her.

For the first time, in this morning light, he saw that she had faint freckles on her cheeks.

I THINK...I THINK I HAVE DIED BEFORE, said the Snowman. I REMEMBER A LONG, LONG PERIOD OF SOMETHING LIKE SLEEP. SLEEP, WITH ONLY THE FAINTEST OF DREAMS. CENTURIES OF IT.

There was no doubting the consternation in the Snowman’s words. He feared this dissolution as much as any man or woman had ever feared death.

“Do you have any idea what you are?”, asked Brendan.

The eyes did not move, but somehow he felt them looking at him now, rather than Sarah.

NOT MUCH, it said. I AM A SERVANT. MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, I FEEL THE URGE TO SERVE. TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY.

Neither Brendan nor Sarah replied to that. The irony was too grim, too lacerating for words.

“Maybe you’ll do better next time”, said Sarah, looking up into its eyes. “Maybe you’ll learn from this.”

IT WAS NOT MY FAILURE, said the Snowman. THE FAILURE WAS IN YOUR PEOPLE. YOU HATE HAPPINESS.

“Well, maybe”—- began Brendan, suddenly angry. But Sarah shot a look of such cold disapproval at him that his words choked in his throat.

There was silence, while the snow whirled in the air, and the wind rustled through the bare branches in the fields beyond the school.

I THANK YOU FOR REMAINING WITH ME, BRENDAN AND SARAH, said the Snowman. The words came with the faintest undercurrent of gratitude. Perhaps even of contrition.

“Don’t mention it”, said Sarah, with a sweet smile.

I WISH THERE WAS SOMEHOW I COULD REPAY YOU. There was no doubting the emotion in those words, Brendan thought. The Snowman’s diamond-hard pride was injured at accepting a favour, even in the face of death.

“Maybe you could send Lee and his cronies to Mars”, said Brendan, with a hollow laugh. He kept picturing the way Lee had run his finger along his throat, the way he had stared into Brendan’s eyes. The sheer hatred of his stare.

I’M AFRAID NOT, said the Snowman.

But the suggestion, despite being nothing more than a bad joke, had planted an idea in Brendan’s head. Something that had not occurred to him until this moment.

“Snowman...”, he began, and then he paused. “What is your name, Snowman?”

HEART OF FLAME, said the Snowman, and Brendan knew, from the pleasure in the words, that he had done well to ask.

“Well, Heart of Flame”, said Brendan, “you told us you can’t take us back to our own world. But what about another world? You said there were myriads. Can you send me to one of those?”

The Snowman—- Heart of Flame—- was silent for a moment.

YES, it said, eventually. THOUGH THE EFFORT WOULD UNDOUBTEDLY KILL ME AS SOON AS YOU STEPPED THROUGH.

After a moment’s awkward pause, Brendan asked: “Will you?”

I LIVED TO SERVE, said Heart of Flame. I AM READY TO DIE IN THE SAME MANNER.

“Thank you”, said Brendan, feeling even more awkward now. Had anybody, in all the histories of the myriad worlds the Snowman spoke about, found themselves in a social situation exactly like this? “What world are you going to send me to?”

YOU CAN CHOOSE THAT FOR YOURSELF, said Heart of Flame. I WILL SHOW YOU A FEW. BUT DON’T HESITATE TOO LONG OVER THE CHOICE. WE DON’T HAVE VERY MUCH TIME LEFT.

“Sarah”, said Brendan, turning towards the girl he had been fantasising about making his own just moments before. “Will you tell Eleanor something, when you go back?”

Sarah just stared back at him, with those impossible-to-read eyes the colour of a winter’s dawn.

“What makes you think I am going back?”, she asked him.

“What do you mean?”

“Why should you get to go to a new world, and not me? There’s nothing keeping me here. I’ve seen as much of this bubble world as I want to see.”

“But…”, said Brendan, despite the joyful hope rising in his heart, “what about...the frontier? The green fields?”

“I don’t want to be a farmer’s wife”, said Sarah, with the ghost of a smile. “Or a farmer. I’m not a pioneer. I like civilisation.”

The joy of this unexpected companionship was still hot in Brendan’s heart, but there was a shadow on his sudden happiness.

“But Eleanor”, he began, imagining his sister’s face. He had found a sister, just as he had found a father, in the last few weeks. And now he was losing her again. “I need to leave a message for Eleanor.”

Sarah looked at him, but didn’t reply. Then she turned around, and walked towards the school.

WHAT’S SHE DOING?, asked Heart of Flame.

“No idea”, said Brendan.

Sarah was looking in a window. Whatever she was looking for, she didn’t find, because she moved towards the next.

YOU WANT HER SO BADLY, said Heart of Flame.

“I certainly do”, said Brendan. “Are you reading my mind?”

NO, said the Snowman.

At the fourth window Sarah came to, she stopped. She stepped backwards, and then she astonished Brendan by lifting her leg and kicking the pane in. It took four or five kicks for her to clear most of the glass.

She climbed into through the window, and a few moments later she came out holding something. When she reached Brendan, she extended her arm towards him. She was holding a fat marker.

“Write it out for her”, she said.

“Where?”, asked Brendan.

“On the wall. On the ground. Anywhere. I’m sure they’ll come here looking.”

He looked around the yard. The wall of the school itself was made of a rough, porous brick. The ground was tarmac.

But there was a sign that read No Trespassing, just inside the railings, beside where Brendan and his friends used to exchange juvenile cynicisms. People often leaped over the railings to avoid the longer way around the schoool.

“The sign”, said Brendan, making towards it.

HURRY UP, said Heart of Flame. WE DON’T HAVE MUCH TIME LEFT.

He walked towards the sign. He could see the reverse side from here. It was smooth, finely-grained wood.

When he tried writing on it, the marker took to the surface perfectly. The first word was easy: Eleanor.

He paused, then. But only for a moment. We don’t have much time left.

Anything would do, he thought. As long as she knew. That was the only thing that mattered. He wrote rapidly.

I’m going to another world. Via the Snowman. This isn’t a joke. I love you, sister. I’ll never forget you. Please be happy. Brendan.

Then he threw the marker away, to stop himself from writing more, and turned back towards the others. Tears stung his eyes.

“She’ll see it”, said Sarah, watching his face, as he approached them. “Don’t worry. She’ll see it, Brendan. She’ll be OK. Eleanor is tough.”

“I suppose she will”, said Brendan. “I suppose she is.”

COME ON, said the Snowman, and now his words were heavy with urgency. TIME IS SLIPPING AWAY. LOOK.

The snow in front of them, Brendan saw, was darkening. It was turning grey, and then almost black. A large oval shape, perhaps ten foot high and five feet across at its broadest, was forming in the air.

And then, suddenly, it became a window. A window without a frame, simply an oval hole in the air, looking out onto another world.

HOW ABOUT THIS PLACE?, asked the Snowman.

It was hot, Brendan saw. Its sky was a deeper blue than he had ever seen, except in advertisements for package holidays. That was what it did look like, actually. A brilliant blue sea was littered with sandy islands, and a boat with rainbow sails moved from one to the other. They might have been gazing down on it from a hot air balloon.

“I don’t like that at all,” said Brendan.

“Me neither”, said Sarah.

IT’S YOUR PEOPLES’ CLASSIC IMAGE OF A PARADISE, said the Snowman, a little huffily, Brendan thought. He guessed that Heart of Flame was distracting himself from his impending demise by this final task.

“Not ours”, said Sarah, and Brendan thrilled at how she used the word ours. He was frightened she might decide on a different world to him, if Heart of Flame permitted her.

Right now his heart was beating as hard as it had ever beaten before. These are the moments that decide a life, he thought.

THIS ONE, THEN, said Heart of Flame, and a cityscape of gleaming skyscrapers appeared in the door.

“Anything but that”, he said.

The Snowman showed them world after world, becoming more impatient at each one they rejected. One was a sandy town of golden domes. One, it seemed, was a civilisation entirely built upon water, with enormous ships serving as buildings, and little boats as houses. One seemed to be entirely underground; there was no glimpse of sky, only enormous caverns lit by glowing balls, and people moving about their business below, tiny as ants.

“Something more like our world”, said Sarah.

YOU HAVE NO SENSE OF ADVENTURE, said Heart of Flame, sullenly. HOW ABOUT THIS?

As soon as he saw it, Brendan knew that it was the one. The sky was the darkest blue he could imagine, on the very edge of black. It was a winter’s night. A cobbled town centre lay below them, and spires rose into the night sky. Horse-drawn carriages moved through the narrow streets.

And it was snowing. Heavily. A thick blanket of snow lay on the ground, and snow crusted the spires and roofs.

“That’s the one”, said Brendan. “That has to be one. Sarah?”

He looked at her, and his heart froze as he saw the meditative look on her face. She was considering it, he saw. His fate hung in the air.

“Are there cinemas?”, she asked, to his complete surprise.

Brendan felt something like a weary sigh coming from Heart of Flame, and he said: “NOT YET. BUT SOON. THIS WORLD IS ONLY THREE OR FOUR YEARS FROM DEVELOPING CINEMA.”

Sarah’s eyes widened, and Brendan’s heart soared. He knew the thing had been decided now.

“Nickelodeons”, she said, softly. “Silents. Picture Palaces. The first talkies. I’ll see it all. I’ll be there at the dawn.”

Brendan reached down, and took her gloved hand in his own. She looked up at him, the hint of a reproach in her eyes.

“Brother and sister”, she said, a little sternly. “We go as brother and sister.”

“Brother and sister, then”, said Brendan, with his best gentlemanly smile. But something in her voice, something in the way she met his eyes, gave him hope. Something more than hope, perhaps.

FAREWELL, SARAH AND BRENDAN, said Heart of Flame.

Brendan turned to say goodbye to the Snowman, wondering what words he would find for this strange being’s very last moments.

But the Snowman was gone. Higginstown Comprehensive School was gone. Higginstown itself was gone.

And the snow, instead of whirling in a frenzied dance, was falling gently.

They were standing on a hill, Brendan saw. Tall pines rose to their left, filling the air with their gorgeous scent. The stars blazed clear overhead, and beneath them lay the very town they had been looking at through the magic door. It was further away now, so small that it looked like a toy-town.

He looked at Sarah, and started.

She was dressed differently. She was wearing a heavy black cape over a thick, bottle-green woolen dress. A black bonnet stood atop her hair, which was cascaded down her shoulders in curls. She looked beautiful in an entirely new, unsuspected way.

“You look quite the swell, Brendan”, she said, smiling at him in amusement.

He looked down. He was wearing a navy greatcoat. His hands were clad in brown sheepskin gloves. And he could feel a stiff hat on his head. He reached up and took it off.

“A top hat”, he said. “I always wanted to wear one.”

“Have you any money?”, asked Sarah.

He put his hat back on his head, and reached into his coat pocket. His gloved fingers felt coins, but something else, too. There was a wallet in his pocket.

He pulled it out. It was made of black leather, and a coat of arms—- a meteorite and fish of some kind—- was embossed on the front.

“Open it up”, said Sarah, eagerly.

He did as she suggested. He heard the rustle of banknotes, but the first thing that struck his eye was a cream-coloured business card.

The coat-of-arms that had been embossed upon his wallet was reproduced here, in blue ink. And beneath it was written:

Brand Shivers
Professor of Folklore
Marven University


And underneath, an address:

34, Sorcerer Street
Marven Town


“Marven”, he said, thrusting the wallet back into the coat. “That’s the name of this town. And I have a house. We have a house. If you like, that is.”

“Where else have I go to go?”, asked Sarah, smiling. She reached her hand towards him again. “Let’s go see if you have any servants.”

He took her hand, and walked down the snowy hill, towards the town that shone beneath them, and towards whatever life lay before them.

Turning Back Time

Tonight the clocks go back. I know this because I heard it announced at morning Mass, from my father, and from the radio.

I've always loved this daylight saving business. I like how it brings people together, as only a few other things do; things like general elections and big sporting occasions and extreme weather (or "snow", as we call it in Ireland).

I've always felt that there is something unnatural about urban and suburban life, where we are all fragmented and busy about utterly different things. I think that we all feel a deep yearning to be a part of a more organic community, where happenings happen to us all. (I see some tourist board is promoting Dublin as a "a city of villages". I wonder will anyone be taken in by that?)

Moving the clocks, of course, is a minor thing compared to an election, or Ireland playing in the World Cup. But why should it be? I've never understood why more isn't made of it. People could stay awake for a simple ritual, like the drinking cocoa at the time-change. A particular film or sketch or could be played on television (like the Dinner for One New Year's tradition in Germany). The mayor could turn the clock back in the town square, after a brass band played a tune. Something.

I've always been a sucker for tradition, and I've always felt dissatisfied when potential traditions (or celebrations)are passed up. I remember being most disappointed when Ireland joined the Euro, one day in 2002, and there was no hoop-la whatsoever. (I wasn't in favour of the change, but that's immaterial.)

I remember a book of stories I had in my childhood, which included a few ghost stories. (Any parents reading? Public service announcement: BUY YOUR KIDS BOOKS. And not just "improving books", but books that they'll actually read.)

In one particular ghost story, there was one passage where a boy looks at a new house and feels a chill, then reflects that it will look less spooky with curtains up, since-- as his mother always says-- "curtains make a house a home". The phrase, hardly profound in itself (but new to me, back then) had a powerful effect on my mind, and still does.

If anyone were to ask me to summarize my social philosophy in one phrase (which seems, unfortunately, highly unlikely to happen), I might answer: "Curtains make a house a home". The curtains in question being ceremony, tradition, ritual, convention, chivalry, custom, politeness, taboo, community and all those other intangibles that (to adapt Burke) economists, sophisters, calculators, radicals, revolutionaries,and one-track minds of every sort will never understand.