Two years ago I thought I’d gather together links to a bunch of interesting online horror reads for Halloween — it’ll be a “thing” I do to make my blog stand out, I thought, before doing it again all of twice — but this month I caught a really good ghost story, which is one of my favourite genres, so I thought I’d dust off the old idea and do it again…

Sea Oak

If you want life to be better than death, strip and shake it until something falls off

— by George Saunders

Work goes well. I manage to keep smiling and hide my shaking hands, and my midshift rating is Honeypie. After lunch this older woman comes up and says I look so much like a real Pilot she can hardly stand it.

On her head is a thumbprint. Like Ash Wednesday, only sort of glowing.

I don’t know what to do. Do I just come out and ask if she wants to see my cock? What if she says no? What if I get caught? What if I show her and she doesn’t think it’s worth twenty bucks?



A Kiss Before Dying

Not every ghost story is a total fabrication, but the truth can also be unbelievable

— by Pamela Colloff

According to legend, she would appear at the windows of the school auditorium at midnight—provided that students flashed their headlights three times or honked their horn and called out her name. The real Betty, it was said, had attended Odessa High decades before and had acted in a number of plays on the auditorium’s stage. But the facts of her death had been muddled with time, and each story was as apocryphal as the last: She had fallen off a ladder in the auditorium and broken her neck, students said. She had hanged herself in the theater. Her boyfriend, who was a varsity football player, had shot her onstage during a play.

So many teenagers made the late-night pilgrimage to see Betty that the high school deemed it prudent to paint over the windows of the school auditorium. During a later renovation, its facade was covered with bricks. But the stories about Betty never went away. Students still talk of “a presence” in the auditorium, one that is to blame for a long list of strange occurrences, from flickering lights and noises that cannot be explained to objects that appear to move on their own. Some claim to have seen her pacing the balcony or heard her footsteps behind them, only to find no one there.



Just One Question

A teacher should like all his pupils equally — whether they’re really there or not

— by Jez Patterson

She wasn’t a ghost because she was dressed in a white T-shirt, blue shorts and plimsolls–like the kids wore for physical education, although her t-shirt had no school badge on it. Her arms were pale and hairless, her fingernails short, but not bitten.

And she wasn’t a ghost because the room wasn’t any colder and the kids weren’t running out screaming.

And she wasn’t a ghost because, despite the frown, she didn’t give off those waves of melancholic oppression the dead are famous for exuding.

The seat next to hers had been empty and the next day I asked Milly to sit in it. Milly who did everything to please her teacher either because her parents taught her that was the way to get on in life or because she was one of those needy people who would always do too much. Milly shook her head, begged me not to make her change seats, started crying when I insisted, then wet herself.

That shook me more than any ghost that wasn’t a ghost.



The Victorian Supernatural

Did Darwin and the Industrial Revolution banish the supernatural world, or cause it to thrive?

— by Roger Luckhurst

The 19th century is routinely thought about as the era of secularisation, a period when the disciplines and institutions of modern science were founded and cultural authority shifted from traditional authority of religion to explanation through the scientific exposition of natural laws. The sociologist Max Weber spoke about this process as the disenchantment of the world.

In fact, it is much easier to grasp the religious and scientific strands of the century as closely intertwined. Every scientific and technological advance encouraged a kind of magical thinking and was accompanied by a shadow discourse of the occult. For every disenchantment there was an active re-enchantment of the world. Because the advances in science were so rapid, the natural and the supernatural often became blurred in popular thinking, at least for a time.



The Middle Toe of the Right Foot

the best kind of ghost story: simple, but well-told, with misdirection instead of a twist

— by Ambrose Bierce

To this house, one summer evening, came four men in a wagon. Three of them promptly alighted, and the one who had been driving hitched the team to the only remaining post of what had been a fence. The fourth remained seated in the wagon. ‘Come,’ said one of his companions, approaching him, while the others moved away in the direction of the dwelling – ‘this is the place.’

The man addressed did not move. ‘By God!’ he said harshly, ‘this is a trick, and it looks to me as if you were in it.’

‘Perhaps I am,’ the other said, looking him straight in the face and speaking in a tone which had something of contempt in it.


That was fun. Maybe I’ll do it again in 2018.


COMING SOON – another story, “The Diminishing Returns”

AftermathsMEDThe fall of civilisation may or may not happen overnight. ABSENCES – Two Tales of Impending Apocalypse presented gradual transitions into disaster, slow enough to allow us time to worry and suffer while we wait for the other boot to drop.

Last week I shared a snippet from the first story in my next ebook, AFTERMATHS, in which we meet survivors of a similar decline into an ecologically devastated future – but the second story is very different. Instead of a mistrustful community forever on the verge of falling apart, here we meet one man, picking through the ruins of a world which was brought low in a single stroke. He’s not completely alone, though… not yet.


The Diminishing Returns


The day the dog left ended the best eleven months since the end of the world.

Hugo had known it would be a bad day, had been anticipating it for five months, ever since the last bad day. He wondered if anyone else knew—probably not—and, if not, whether bad luck plagued them anyway but just crept up on them, unaware and unprepared for whatever was about to go down. Probably so. Of course, he didn’t know what misfortune might be lying in wait either, but at least he could brace himself. Though all he could really do was agonise over unknowns out of his control, more and more as the date edged closer. He suspected his way was considerably worse than just being ignorant.

It hadn’t started like a bad day. The cloud cover broke for the first time in months, thin sunlight shining down on them. The dog had been lively, fired up by the sunlight. She bounded in tight circles, eager to be hunting.

Hugo wasn’t fooled. The day was all the more dangerous for wearing a pretty face and inviting excitement. He collected his pack and guns from La Casa, ignoring the stockpile and his hunger. He looked at the hand-drawn calendar on the wall, crossed himself, then it was time to find food.

They prowled the streets of home and the clouds stayed parted. The sun behind the wrecks of the buildings cast bars of no-shadow that slowly dragged across the ground, patterns of broken tarmac, scattered brick and other detritus complicated by unfamiliar contrasts. There were few plants pushing through the rubble that had been the city’s centre—a patch of grasses, the occasional weak treeling—and Hugo knew them all. They had their route, scouting the feeble hints of green for any brave herbivores, watching for rats or other prey.

It was nearing noon when they got lucky. It was the dog that spotted it: a breezeless shiver amongst dry grasses. She stilled and Hugo went on one knee, drawing his little air pistol as he watched for the sign, tried to calm his shaking hands. He saw the jerking of a plant as something (small and brown and out of sight) tugged it up to get at the roots.

The dog sprang forward, no barking to tip off the prey or anything else, but the skittering of her claws on the tarmac was enough. Hugo saw a flicker amongst the grass as the thing made a break for the safety of the nearest fallen building, the dog fast after it. His heart sank as it disappeared into the shelter of a collapsed wall, but the dog thrust her head into the gap too, shifting the bricks and old cement as she struggled.

She backed out and paused, nose low, ears pricked… then darted left and dived in again, further this time, up to the hackles. He heard her faint growls, the snap of teeth. Then, bursting from some unseen crevice, the small, dark blur of fur was back in the open.

He aimed fast and fired, no time for finesse, and he swore under his breath as the shot flicked off the ground in front of the fleeing rodent. It jerked and changed direction as Hugo dug blindly into his shot pouch for another wad cutter—but then the dog was on it, snatching at it with her jaws. The prey squeaked once, then with a violent shake of her head the dog broke its back and Hugo hissed victoriously through gritted teeth.

“Buena, chica,” he whispered, and patted his thigh to call her back. The dog looked at him for a moment, their first fresh meat for weeks dangling limp from her mouth, then she trotted over and released it into his hand. He rubbed her head. “Buena, guapa. Buena.”

Abruptly the dog pulled back from him and turned away to stare across the street. Then she was off and running again, back to the ruined building. She ignored the holes where her kill had hidden and bounded up the slope of debris, climbing over slabs of fallen brickwork and crumbling plaster. She jumped through a half-doorway silhouetted against the sun-lit grey on the crest of the mound and vanished.

“Guapa?” he called, as loud as he dared, his voice a strangled husk. “Chica!” He heard sliding stone, a little avalanche beyond the crest, then nothing.

Then something. Barking. He heard her bark, for the very first time.

Hugo swallowed back his nerves and scuttled to the building, bent almost double. He climbed awkwardly, one-handed, unwilling to sling his weapon. As he neared the top he crawled on his belly until he could peak over the edge.

The breadth of the main street stretched away before him. The dog was already distant, running away from him.

Toward scavengers.

There were four of them—no, five, another emerging from the back of the caravan which the others pulled. He heard their calls as they spotted her coming, they spread out from the cart, guns appearing—he waited for the sound of gunshots as they turned her into a meal. She dodged between them—what was she doing, and why?

As she circled the caravan, the fifth scavenger snared her with a lasso. She twisted and jumped as she was reeled in, her barking turned frantic, mixed with snarls and yips and the others closed around her. They dragged her into the cart.

He saw and heard her no more.

As he trudged toward home, Hugo felt a dog-shaped hole open up in his life. He thought about the rodent, safely stashed in his pack. It would feed him twice now. He tried to tell himself that this was a good thing, a stroke of luck.

But he knew the date. February 13th, 2024.

Tuesday the 13th. Nothing lucky could come of it.

You thought Friday the 13th was bad? When you descend from two superstitious cultures, your bad days can be doubled… and Hugo’s life gets much, much worse than this in Aftermaths: Two Post-Apocalyptic Tales – out this Thursday, on pre-order now.

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COMING SOON – “The Seeding”

AftermathsMEDThe last thirty or forty days have been pretty apocalyptic for me, what with essays on classic intrapocalyptic literature and films (The Birds and The Death of Grass, to be specific), analyses of the different ways societies might respond to the hypothetical end of days (Sweatily, Cozily, and via Escapism, in case you were wondering), and the release of my last ebook, ABSENCES – Two Tales of Impending Apocalypse.

Sadly for my straining vocabulary, the coming week will be no less so. The new Dark Matters title, AFTERMATHS, comes out one week from now, exploring what life after the fall may be like. Just like the pitiful dregs of humanity left to sift through the rubble and battle with each other over the last scraps of sustenance, I’ve brought this suffering on myself…

But misery loves company, as they say, and I don’t want to face the future alone, so here’s an excerpt from the first story – in which a farmer whose lands are surprisingly fertile has crossed a blistered landscape to pay a visit on one of his neighbours: the man who guards their community against invaders from across a hostile frontier…


The Seeding


Thought I’d see you shortly,” Argabrite said as he came up from the barrier. One of his grandsons led Ruggier’s horse into the cool shadow of the watchmen’s longhouse, for water drawn from their spring-fed reservoir. The two men only shook hands when they were out of the accidental view of whoever might be around—barrier volunteers came from every corner and could be related to friend or foe—but it was a heartless greeting.

The Argabrite family’s huge log cabin was filled with furniture as incongruous as the precious solar panels currently lashed to the corrugated steel roof that overhung it to the ground on all sides. The old man lowered himself into one of two cracked leather chairs, both as old as the smooth, dark hardwood table between them, waving Ruggier into the other.

“You’re leaving it late,” he observed. His sagging chops never smiled, but there was hard humour in his eyes. “Thought you’d decided to weather the storm.”

“The cart is on its way,” Ruggier said, “but you’re a fool for waiting on it. Why’ve you no trust in me after all this time?”

Argabrite shrugged one shoulder. “Nothing grows faster than a debt, and no harvest is harder to bring in than a payment. I’m not here to show trust. I’m here to put a bullet in whatever threatens this piss-poor way of life. The other farms, all those folks in that board-fronted joke of a town, they don’t get our service for free. Neither do you.”

Ruggier leaned back into his chair, scowling. “Well, it’s coming.”

“We’ll get fed either way. That plus the visiting whores is enough for the likes of us. But position is what you worry over. All those people, needing you. Your sweet land, your sweet, soft, tasty crops, and none of it that would hold up under a single dose.” Argabrite’s whiskery lips twitched. “Maybe it’s time for a change. Farmory and Coplyn, they still bring in enough to sell at market, enough to pay us here. Maybe not a huge, fine harvest like yours, but tough enough to take what nature throws.”

Ruggier slapped the table, out of his seat with a face like thunder. “I said they’re coming! Here, and to your cousin’s camp!” The old man raised placatory palms, then flicked one hand toward something at his guest’s back. When Ruggier turned there was only the empty doorway to the next room, but he heard a creaking board as someone moved away behind the wall.

“Settle, Mr. Ruggier, settle.” Ruggier looked back into a face as expressionless as a pig-leather mask. “We’re here to serve best interests, now as always. Town convinced my father it was best interest to keep newcomers on the far side of these mountains, and now I do that service and take your payment on the quarter, right along with everyone else’s.

“And your father, he convinced me it’s best interest for the Ruggier farm to flourish. More food for all, and healthy commerce means a healthy society.” Sincerity in the voice, but mockery in the eyes. “So you keep me convinced, and I’ll do what I can.”

There was nothing for him to do except say thank you and collect his horse. The grandson was sealing off their underground reservoir and diverting the spring stream down to the valleys, and as they set off Ruggier found himself keeping pace as it trickled back along its dry, familiar path. He didn’t pass the cycle-cart while descending. Argabrite had the sense to hide his surplus bounty from idle view; it would be unloaded in some hidden twist of the mountains.

It was mid-afternoon when a flurry of deep booms echoed from the peaks. Ruggier twisted in the saddle to look, but saw no more than a faint haze in the blue. As he left the freeway for the last leg of his journey they sounded again, this time far off to the south and fainter, the sharp edge softened but not fooling his ear. He wondered if they reached Coplyn’s ears, or Farmory’s, or all the way to the town; and, if they did, whether they sounded any more like thunder with distance and ignorance.

He gulped down food and water standing in the yard, tired and dirty from the road, eyes on the sky. Clouds lurked at the horizon now, preparing to spill over the mountain line, but only where Argabrite and his cousin had seeded them, drawing moisture away from the centre. When they finally did come rolling down, they flowed well wide of his turf.

Ruggier spent the evening drinking on his balcony, watching the rain fall safely in the distance until it was too dark to see. Strong winds to the north drove the clouds past quickly, but in the south they lingered, and his bottle emptied itself long before they did.

What kind of farmer doesn’t want the rain to fall on his land? To find out, you’re going to have to buy Aftermaths: Two Post-Apocalyptic Tales – published Thursday, May 7th, on pre-order now.

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Next Monday comes a teaser from the second story, The Diminishing Returns