The Kilrankirk Terror

I have a new short story for you today! The following was written to be read out as an ‘entertainment’ at a recent Burns Night Dinner. If you’re not familiar with the tradition of Burns Night, you can read a bit about it here. Suffice to say, it is an annual event to celebrate whiskey, haggis, the poetry of Robert Burns and all things Scottish.

So here’s my take on the tradition – Burns Night via HP Lovecraft!

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Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

“A Scotsman that doesn’t drink whiskey?” they always ask. “And doesn’t eat haggis? A Scotsman that doesn’t celebrate Burns Night at all? Are you sure you’re Scottish?”

They always ask, and I cannot blame them. Even my accent doesn’t show much trace of my heritage any more. I left my village in the Highlands when I was 18, heading south to England to attend medical college. Over the years my accent slipped away, and I made no attempt to get it back. It just seemed easier that way. I still honoured Burns Night in my own way though, right up until I reached the age of thirty.

“Why?” they ask, “what changed? What could you possibly have against Burns Night?” I smile, but the smile never reaches my eyes.

“You can,” I say, “have too much of a good thing.”

I last visited my ancestral home many years ago. I hadn’t been home for several years before that. After my mother had died I’d grown apart from my father. He was always pushing me, always expecting more and more from me, strictly controlling every aspect of my life. Eventually, and probably unintentionally, he simply pushed me away. But now, one January morning on the year of my thirtieth birthday, a letter found its way onto my doormat. It was from my father, inviting me home to Kilrankirk to celebrate Burns Night with him.

Why not? I thought. I hadn’t been home in so long. Maybe time and distance had mellowed my father. My grandfather was getting on in years too, and I decided it would be good to see him again before it was too late. I wrote back saying that I would be there.

A couple of days later I boarded a train at King’s Cross and settled in for a long journey. It was the winter of 1963, and the country was in the icy grip of the worst winter in decades. Hours became days as I changed trains at Edinburgh, then at two other rural stations, followed by a bus ride and at last a hike down snow choked lanes. Having to complete my journey on foot reminded me of the sense of isolation I had always felt about my childhood home. With every footfall that crunched through the snow I felt like I was taking one more step away from civilisation and into my past.

Even under the blanket of snow, I could tell that nothing had changed in the village of Kilrankirk. Welcoming lights twinkled in the windows of the houses nestled in the snowbound valley. Wooded hills reached up to the sky all around. There had never been anything for me here, not really. Kilrankirk’s horizon’s were always too restrictive.

The frozen sky was just turning a deep velvet blue as I knocked on the door of my childhood home. My father answered, the look on his face closer to relief rather than pleasure at seeing his only son home again after so many years.

“What kept you? Why weren’t you here sooner?” he asked. I was a little taken aback, but informed him of the travel delays I’d experienced in the snow, and that surely it didn’t matter, as I had made it in time for the Burns Night celebrations that evening.

After that, my father did seem to relax a little. We drank whiskey together and I swapped news with him and my grandfather. I felt a family bond that I hadn’t in a long time. The low-ceilinged cottage was just as I remembered it when I left, over a decade ago, unchanged in every detail, right down to the heirloom Scottish halberd that hung with pride over the fireplace. The smell of the fire in the hearth and the neeps and tatties cooking in the kitchen bought back a thousand childhood memories. I was questioned over whether a wife and children were an imminent prospect. “No time like the present” my father and grandfather eagerly agreed.

As the night drew on, I couldn’t help notice that my father and grandfather kept glancing nervously at the large clock on the mantle. Not only that, but even though we had drunk and eaten plenty, there was still no sign of any haggis. Eventually I had to ask if they were late for an appointment, or if we were expecting further company tonight. Perhaps a delivery of haggis?

My father and grandfather exchanged a knowing glance. They said there was an ancient Kilrankirk tradition that they wanted to take part in. Afterwards there would be plenty of haggis to eat. What was the tradition? I asked.

In reply they told me the strangest tale I had ever heard.

So it was that some time later that evening I found myself outside in the freezing cold, breath crystallising in the air before my face. The family halberd had been taken down from above the fireplace and was now gripped tightly in my gloved hands. I knew exactly why I was out here, or so I thought. My father had called it a “tradition”, but it was clearly a hazing or re-initiation of sorts. A jovial punishment for having abandoned the village and gone to live in England. I racked my brains, thinking back. Yes, I’m certain I remember something similar being done to a cousin when I was a child.

There was no one on the street with me, just the snow, silence and the silver light of a full moon. The snow had stopped falling for the moment, but it still clung to the village like a thick blanket. A residue of wood smoke hung in the air, but looking from cottage to cottage I could see that everyone had dowsed their fires and hidden their lamps. I was flattered with the effort that was put into this. I hadn’t realised my departure had meant so much to the village, or that they were so keen to welcome me back.

As I waited for something to happen, I inspected the family halberd. Reflecting on my childhood, I suddenly realised how strange it was that my father used to let me play with it. An oddly lax bit of parenting in an otherwise disciplined upbringing. It felt so much smaller in my adult hands now. I had always assumed it was a relatively modern replica, but looking at it in the moonlight, the wood of the shaft looked unspeakably old.

I stood around for what must have been half an hour, waiting for someone to jump out and try and scare me, but nothing happened. The warmth of the whiskey was beginning to wear off now, so I decided to take a walk around the village. Perhaps my father and his friends were sat quietly in the shadows, waiting for me to reach a pre-arranged ambush point?

As I trod carefully through the snow, I reflected on the elaborate tale my father and grandfather had told me. they had told me of the Kilrankirk Terror, a beast that reappeared every 30 years on Burns Night. A beast that, by tradition, those of our bloodline alone were honour-bound to face in battle. A beast that returned again and again every three decades – without fail – whether it was vanquished or not. I wondered what sort of threadbare monster costume my father would be wearing when he inevitably jumped out of the shadows. Probably something with a stag skull for a head I imagined. I kept a loose grip on the halberd. If, against all expectations, they did manage to startle me then I didn’t want to injure anyone with a reflexive response.

I drew to a halt. Still nothing. I slowly looked around. The only light now was coming from the full moon. The rest of the village was shrouded in darkness. I shuddered, and not from the cold. I was stood in the main street, with a view across the base of the valley and up to the pine covered hillside opposite. The snow glowed gently with reflected moonlight. The air was still, as though the wind held its breath in anticipation. My eyes roamed along the edge of the trees on the opposite side of the valley. Was that movement I saw in the shadows? As soon as it started it seemed to vanish, and my eyes struggled to focus in the dark. I heard the echoing snap of wood, the distant sound travelling far in the still night air. I shivered as I thought of the final words of the legend that my father had told me – on Burns Night in Kilrankirk, he had said, either we eat the haggis, or the haggis eats us.

Suddenly I grew annoyed with myself for being nervous, then more annoyed at my father and the other residents of Kilrankirk that this was all taking so long. While in the warm embrace of the whiskey I’d agreed to go along with this because I thought it would be over quickly. Yes, and maybe even because deep down I longed to be reintegrated with my estranged community. But frostbite wasn’t a price I was willing to pay for that privilege.

As I stood in the snow, shifting the halberd from one hand to another, my mood as black as the sky above, I heard a noise. A sheep was bleating – first one, then a second, and a third. It seemed to be coming from the small holding on the edge of the village. Maybe the ambushers had become bored themselves, I reasoned, and suddenly emerged from hiding, startling the sheep in the process. I set off at a jog, as best as I was able in the hard snow. The bleating off the sheep had reached a terrible pitch, and was accompanied by the sound of splintering wood, but I didn’t slow down, so eager was I to bring this matter to a head.

I rounded the corner at the end of the street and beheld a sight that froze my blood colder than the midnight snow. I stopped in my tracks, eyes terror-wide, the halberd slack and forgotten in my hand.

An enormous beast stood in the sheep pen, gulping down the last of the poor animals. It was massive, almost as big as the freeholder’s cottage, it’s shear size threatening to cast my sanity free and trample it into the slush. It’s great maw flexed and undulated as it minced the sheep it was feasting on, row after row of needle-sharp teeth rippling in an unholy manner. A thousand eyes of all sizes swivelled in its head, jet black and glistening in the moonlight like those of an aquatic predator. A nest of probing tentacles writhed on its back. It’s skin was dark brown and dull like ancient leather pulled unevenly over a misshaped barrel.

The Kilrankirk Terror. It wasn’t a prank. It was all true! This was some hideous Highland species unknown to science, and I clearly beheld the chieftain of that race. As I stood there, slack-jawed, one by one the thousand eyes flicked towards where I was standing until at last the largest central eye fixed me with its unblinking gaze.

The beast howled, an insane sound that no mortal man could hear and ever hope to forget. It haunts my dreams still. The beast began to move towards me, slowly picking up speed on its four stubby legs. Clearly it had selected me as its next meal! I stumbled back, mind blank, my gaze fixed firmly on its largest central eye and the hungry glint within. It gained speed, smashing through the sheep pen fence as though it wasn’t even there. I continued to stumble backwards in the snow, making very little progress. It would be on me in moments!

As I looked into that huge eye, an incongruous memory wormed its way into my thoughts. I remembered a patient that I had treated with a shard of metal lodged in his eye. He had lost his sight, that couldn’t be helped, but I remember being amazed that he hadn’t been killed. Another half an inch and the metal would have penetrated into his brain, killing him stone dead.

And with that, a desperate idea formed in my mind. Suddenly I realised the family halberd was still in my hand! My grip on it tightened, my actions driven by shear panic rather than bravery or resolve. The beast loomed over me, rows of teeth undulating in a way that made me nauseous to see. It’s downwashed stink made me gag, the scent of meat and the musk of an apex predator.

I thrust the halberd upwards, spike first, trusting that this unholy creature followed some aspects of natural law; hoping that there would be a hole in the back of its eye socket where the optic nerve entered; praying that this last desperate gambit would be enough.

The weight of the beast’s charge drove it onto my weapon. The spike sunk deep. The creature roared in agony and rage. I set my feet firm, but had no more hope of stopping it than a tree does of halting an avalanche. Miraculously the ancient wood of the halberd shaft held true and I slide back through the snow, holding onto the weapon for dear life.

At last the metal of the spike bit deep enough to strike something vital. The great bulk of the beast spasmed and it’s legs collapsed under it, bringing it down as an undignified pile of hot meat and twitching muscle in the snowy streets of Kilrankirk.

I furiously yanked the halberd back and forth, trying to cause as much damaged as possible, but I needn’t have bothered. The beast had expired. After a desperate minute of stabbing and levering the weapon deeper into the eye socket, I finally sat down in the snow and vomited in terror.

Suddenly the previously dark and silent street was alive with light and noise. The residents of Kilrankirk emerged from hiding, throwing shutters wide to let light out into the street, banging pots and pans together in celebration. Somewhere, someone started playing the bagpipes. This wasn’t a noisy outburst of relief that the beast had been defeated, this was something that they were expecting. As my father and grandfather helped me to my feet and pressed a whiskey into my hand, the other villagers set about the great beast, hacking and dicing great chunks of meat from its flank, retrieving the minced sheep from it’s gullet, chopping and sawing all the while, shovelling it into pre-prepared sheep’s stomachs, preparing a vast store of haggis. Enough to last for years.

“Why?” I asked my father as I cast the whiskey aside, “why didn’t you tell me sooner…?” He fixed me with a steady gaze.

“Why didn’t I tell you of the beast? That only those of our bloodline are tradition-bound to face it on behalf of the village?” he asked, his blue eyes looking like granite in the moonlight, “Would you have believed me? Would you have stayed? Would you have come back this Burns Night?”

I had no answer for him.

The villagers stayed up late into the night, feasting on the fresh haggis, drinking and reciting poetry. They laughed as they ate at great wooden tables in the street, scooping hot chunks of meat into their mouths and savouring the taste. The feast was lit only be burning braziers and the moon. Shadows flickered and danced among the feasters, which when combined with the unholy origin of the meat and the incessant piping, gave the whole celebration the air of demonic banquet. I wanted no part of it, instead retiring to my bed, trying my best to fall asleep and ignore the laughter and music drifting in from outside.

I slipped away the next morning, leaving my father’s house without a word in the grey light of dawn, circling the long way around the village to avoid looking at what was left of the monstrous corpse. Wearily, I began my long trek back to civilization through the snow.

So that is why no haggis or whiskey will ever pass my lips again. The smell and taste are far too potent reminders of that night. I have not answered my father’s letters since, nor have I returned to Kilrankirk. And yet one day I know I must, drawn back there by tradition. The years drift by like snowflakes in the night. I now have a wife and a son. Every time I look at him I know that the day is coming when he too must take up that ancient halberd that I abandoned in the great eye of the Kilrankirk Terror.

Doggerland

The following is another short story that I’ve written as part of the ongoing ‘Write with Chris and Millie’ writing prompt exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, much like a ghoul slinking back to its subterranean home as the dawn breaks, I am once again returning to HP Lovecraft territory.

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 Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

The clock ticked slowly, tauntingly. How long had they been locked in this staring contest? Laurence and Anna sat in the dimly lit cabin, watching the monitors in front of them. Their staring contest was with the ocean abyss below, and although the abyss did not have eyes, Laurence could not shake the feeling that it was staring back. Who would blink first; would the abyss reveal its secrets, or would they grow bored and give up their search?

“Hey!” said Anna sharply, clicking her fingers next to Laurence’s ear in a loud and annoying fashion. “You’ve glazed over again. Are you paying attention?”

Laurence bit back a retort. She was right, he’d been lost in his inner monologue and couldn’t have told Anna what had been on the screen in front of him for the past thirty seconds.

“You just worry about your camera,” said Laurence irritably, “I’m fine.” Anna let out a deep sigh – the breathing equivalent of a raised middle finger – but said nothing else. He could hear Becky the intern squirming uncomfortably on her chair behind them, but he didn’t look back at her.

Did the ‘cabin’ in ‘cabin fever’ refer to a ship’s cabin, or like an isolated wooden cabin high in the mountains? wondered Laurence. Cabin. Cabin. Cabin. Cab-in. Cab In. CABIN! Nope, that word had totally lost all meaning now. He heard Anna grinding her teeth next to him, and realised that he’d let his focus slip again. He blinked a couple of time and rubbed his cheeks with his palms as though he could rub away the stubble there and thus be restored to full wakefulness. The operations room was dimly lit, and the hum of equipment was like white noise in the background. He felt like he was fighting a losing battle with sleep.

“Becky,” said Laurence, swivelling on his chair to finally address the intern, “sorry, I know this is a bit rubbish, but could you get us all some coffees from the mess hall please?”

Laurence hated using interns to run menial errands – it didn’t seem fair when they were here to learn useful skills, not how everyone took their drinks – but right now he didn’t feel like he had a choice.

“No problem!” replied Becky, leaping up. Clearly the atmosphere in here was uncomfortable for everyone. “What sort of coffee?”

“Black Americano please,” he replied.

“Latté,” added Anna, not taking her eyes off her monitor. Laurence didn’t think that she had any strong feelings one way or the other about how the interns spent their time on board the ship.

“And don’t forget to get one for yourself,” added Laurence as Becky scurried out of the door.

Turning back to his monitor, Laurence was once again confronted by the view from camera 2 on the remote submersible that was diving down beneath them and into the North Sea. The miniature unmanned submarine was connected to their ship by a long cable that carried power and data, like the umbilical cord of a newly birthed sea creature. Specks of silt floated by as he watched the camera feed, each tiny particle of mud briefly illuminated by the searchlights before fading into the darkness once more.

“It’s like someone with terminal depression designed a screensaver,” muttered Laurence in exasperation. Anna gave an amused snort; that was funny, the noise seemed to say, but I’m still annoyed at you. You couldn’t spend as long as Laurence and Anna had in close quarters without getting to know a person so well that you understood every single tick, twitch and sigh their body made. After that, you either fell in love or became sick of the sight of each other. Laurence made a quiet amused snort of his own, wondering how things would have panned out if it had gone the other way.

“What’s funny?” asked Anna.

“Oh…nothing,” replied Laurence, his imagination swimming through unexplored depths of possibility. Not unlike their submersible.

The RRS Spring had been travelling the rolling grey waters of the North Sea for two weeks now, and not without purpose. A rare alignment of the sun and moon had brought about the reign of the king tide; the highest and lowest tide of the year. Mesolithic artefacts were dredged up from the bottom of the North Sea from time to time: bones, tools, things like that. Some bright spark had taken the opportunity presented by the low tide – and the lifting and stirring of silt that the dramatic change in water level could bring –  to commission a survey of select areas of the sea bed. What that brain genius had not considered, thought Laurence bitterly, was that the stirring of the slit would mean there was a huge amount of silt actually suspended in the water! Right now the visibility of their remote submersible was reduced to only a few metres.

Nevertheless, a commission was a commission, and they had to make the best of this unique opportunity. Dogger Bank – the massive submerged sandbank that they were currently transversing – was being considered as a potential site for ‘Round 3’ of the UK’s offshore wind program. The comparatively shallow water made it ideal for wind turbine foundations. A consortium of Dutch, German and Danish developers had also expressed an interest in the site for a similar EU project. Whatever prehistoric artefacts were down there were about to be disturbed, one way or another.

“I still find it weird to think that this whole area of the North Sea was all above water eight thousand years ago,” muttered Laurence, more to himself to break the silence than to Anna. Doggerland was what the drowned land was called, named after Dogger Bank. What would the indigenous inhabitants have called it? Laurence wondered. His screen continued to show nothing but murky water.

“Yeah, a land bridge to the Low Countries and Europe,” replied Anna, still fixed on her monitor, “imagine how different history would have been if it had never flooded.” Laurence was genuinely surprised she had engaged with the conversation.

“Don’t forget though, it was only the lowest areas that flooded first; Dogger Bank itself remained an island for another thousand years after that until it was also eventually swallowed by the rising waters. We’re meant to be over the highest point of Dogger Bank right now…”

Anna trailed off into silence. Laurence let out a long sigh. Their submersible could be hovering a few metres above an endless carpet of Mesolithic artefacts and treasures and they wouldn’t have a damn clue in all this murk.

“Imagine being an inhabitant of Dogger Bank island as the waters closed in, year by year,” mused Laurence, breaking the silence again after a few moments, “what must they have thought as their world was swallowed by the waves?”

“They could have left on log boats,” suggested Anna.

“And gone where? Think about it, no other land in sight in living memory. For all you know, you’re the only people in the world,” replied Laurence, “would they have even thought to leave? Who could they have called on for help? Who would have answered…?”

Anna shuddered. “Don’t, you’re creeping me out.”

“Fine. Sorry. I’m just creating a little atmosphere,” laughed Laurence, “let’s talk about something normal. Fun fact, did you know that the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the UK was in 1931 and it was centred on Dogger Bank?”

“Huh, that is kind of interest-shit!

Something grey loomed out of the silt on Anna’s monitor, something large and tilted at an angle like the leg of a massive bipedal creature that was preparing to pounce. Anna had good reflexes, Laurence had to give her that much. She reacted instantly, slamming the remote vehicle’s engines into full reverse. The submarine’s momentum haemorrhaged away until it merely collided with the mysterious object with a gentle bump. Laurence released a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding in.

“What the hell is that?” said Laurence. The object filled their monitors as the cameras struggled to refocus.

“I think…” said Anna as she gently guided the remote submarine backwards, “…I think it might be some sort of standing stone.”

The curtain of silt briefly parted before them, like a carnival magician teasing his audience with glimpses of wonders to come. Poking from the very top of Dogger Bank like rotten teeth from a broken jaw, rows of storm-grey menhirs projected haphazardly from the sand. Together they formed broken lines of stone radiating from a shadowed central point. Then the strange vista was gone, the murky veil descending once more.

“Ho-lee shit,” breathed Laurence. Suddenly he felt doubly guilty for sending Becky away to get coffee and causing her to miss this. Anna was already on the internal radio.

“Bridge, this is submarine operations,” said Anna, “we’ve found something Steve! Something big!” A few moments of silence passed. Anna and Laurence exchanged amazed glances, neither of them really finding the words to discuss what they had seen.

“Now would that be something physically big or a metaphorical ‘big’ discovery?” replied the Captain.

“Both…I think,” said Anna, “what are the chances of holding us steady?”

“Pretty good,” replied Steve, “we’ve only got light chop. The tide’s on its way back up now though, so don’t forget you’re going to lose a bit of range on the seabed.”

“Good point, thanks, keep us here as long as you can, operations out,” Anna was already switching to talk to someone else.

“Winch control, this is submarine operations,” said Anna, “Adrian, how much slack do we have on the remote tether cable?”

Laurence chewed the nail of his thumb and watched the monitor while Anna waited for a reply. The silty curtain remained in place. Clearly the ocean felt they had been tantalised enough.

“About half a klick,” drawled Adrian, “why, how much do you need?”

500 metres thought Laurence, if Anna’s planning to do what I think she is, that should be enough.

“Great, that’s plenty, thanks!” replied Anna.

“Anna don’t push it to the limit, it’s not good for-” began Adrian but Anna was already turning the radio off.

“Yeah yeah…,” she said, as she eased the submarine’s controls forward, steering it carefully around the standing stone.

“Are we aiming for the centre of the stones?” asked Laurence, staring directly at his screen. He wouldn’t have taken his eyes off the monitor to look at Anna now, even if she took all her clothes off.

“Yes, there seemed to be…something in the centre,” confirmed Anna, “but I’m not quite sure what.”

“I saw it too,” agree Laurence.

The dark menhirs loomed out of the murk on either side as Anna expertly piloted the remote submersible between them. Strange currents between the standing stones buffeted the submarine as though someone was trying to swat them away, but she kept their course true. The shaking of the submersible video feed was at odds with the gentle rolling motion of their ship high above, and Laurence was finally forced to look away from the monitor as the conflicting sensory information made his stomach churn.

At last the submarine reached the centre of the standing stones. There, hunched low like a gargantuan crustacean made of black stone, stood a half buried entrance to a passageway into the heart of the sandbank below. Anna paused at the controls, considering her next move. Laurence could read from her body language that she was considering piloting the submersible further still, down into the black unknown.

“Woah,” said Laurence, “I’m not sure it’s worth the risk. Remember how much the robotic submersible costs, and if you trash it then it’s coming out of your pay cheque!” Anna turned to regard him with annoyance.

“We’ve made the discovery,” he added quickly, hoping to pacify her, “our names will definitely be attached to it, but we don’t have to map every inch of it right now,”

“You heard Steve,” she said irritably, “the king tide is beginning to rise again. Who knows how much silt and crap will be dumped back on top of all this in a few hours? You can’t deny that this is a significant find, especially considering the age and number of stones! Come on, let’s take this chance to actually learn something of value about the people of Doggerland!”

Laurence ground his teeth for a few seconds while he thought. Technically Anna was his superior, so if the sub was totalled then it would be her responsibility. And he really did want to know what was down there.

“Ok, fine, you’re the boss,” said Laurence, turning back to the monitors and making a chopping forward motion with his hands.

The waters were calmer here away from the standing stones. Anna inched the submersible down towards the entrance, very slowly and very cautiously. For a horrible moment Laurence thought it wasn’t going to fit. He sucked his gut in and held his breath as though this would somehow help. But he needn’t have worried, as the remote submarine slipped silently through the entrance and was swallowed by the darkness.

Without even the meagre natural light filtering down through the silty water, they were entirely reliant on their submarine’s search lights. Anna and Laurence’s world view was reduced to two bright discs of illuminated stone. At first the stone was uniformly the colour of storm-wracked skies, but as their craft descended deeper they started to see flecks of colour on the walls.

“Anemones?” wondered Laurence out loud.

“I don’t think so…” replied Anna. Laurence glanced over at her, then back at his screen.

“JESUS!” he yelled, scooting back from the monitor as fast as he could. There, filling his monitor, was a bright red human handprint smeared across the rock.

Laurence took several deep breaths, trying to swallow his hammering heart back down into his chest. Beside him, Anna was crying tears of laughter.

“It’s a cave painting,” she chuckled, wiping away the tears, “it’s Mesolithic cave art! What, did you think there are ghosts down here leaving bloody handprints on the walls?”

“I…no, I…it just caught me off guard, that’s all,” said Laurence, his face flushing a similar shade of red to the hand print, “seeing something so human down in this alien world, it was just a bit jarring, that’s all.”

“‘Alien world’”, repeated Anna, rolling her eyes mockingly, “you’re talking about the sea bed. It’s only about 30 metres below us.”

Laurence said nothing and silently wheeled his chair back into position in front of the monitor. He really needed that black coffee right now. Anna finished drying her eyes, and, chuckling away to herself, piloted the submarine further into the cave. As the duel beams of the searchlights swept along opposite walls, they revealed a myriad of paintings. Stylised people and animals engaged in the dance of hunter and prey, the vibrant pigments in the paint all perfectly preserved by millennia entombed in airless silt. Laurence’s eyes flicked down to check the recording button was active on the software interface. It always was by default, but he still wanted to be certain. This find was turning from astounding to unbelievable. This made the cave paintings of Lascaux appear pretty crap by comparison, if he was honest.

As the submarine progressed along the corridor, the tone of the paintings changed. The animals went from bountiful to scarce, and ominous lapping waves began to feature around the edge of the art. Finally the corridor – which had been gently sloping down into the depths of the sand bank – opened out into a small room. On the opposite side lurked another stone portal, abyssal black and seemingly leading to a much steeper incline.

Anna drew the submarine to a halt, gently working the engines to move the submarine in a slow circle. There were no animals left in the cave paintings in this chamber, only people, rising water, and a sense of desperation. It amazed Laurence how much these primitive people had been able to communicate with their art. Their sense of terror was almost palpable as the art showed them constructing this temple on the highest peak of Dogger Bank island almost 7000 years ago.

“But a temple to what…?” Laurence wondered aloud.

“At a guess, ancestor worship,” replied Anna.

“What makes you say that?” asked Laurence, looking at the cave painting of the menhirs with the dark entrance to the temple in its centre.

“He does,” said Anna.

Laurence looked at her monitor and saw the skull-face staring back at him with hollow eyes. The breath caught in his throat. The skull was laying on the floor of the temple near the opposite dark doorway, scattered across the stony ground with a miscellaneous jumble of other bones. Anna had zoomed in so they could clearly see the skull. Millennia may have separated Laurence and Anna for this distant ancestor, but there was nothing to show this. In evolutionary time scales it was still the skull of a modern human. Laurence wondered if Anna was right and this was an ancestor-worshipping grave-site, or whether this poor unfortunate had simply died in the temple as they sought shelter from the rising waves. He knew it was silly, but Laurence found himself staring into the empty eyes of the skull, trying to get some sense of the person who had once lived. Only emptiness stared back, a hollowness that spoke of echoing benighted chambers deep below the earth.

Buried here, died here…or sacrificed here? That was always a possibility too. A final offering from the islanders to a nameless god? Laurence shivered. Suddenly something moved, just on the edge of their vision, right on the threshold of the light cast from the submarine. Right on the very threshold of the deeper stairs.

“Whoa whoa whoa! What was that!?” yelled Laurence. Anna didn’t reply. Tight lipped, her face a mask of concentration, her hands had already shot to the controls to spin the submarine towards the movement. The pool of light they cast slid over a carpet of bones like a funeral shroud being pulled across the dead. The osseous carpet grew thicker and more tangled at the entrance to the steps, and a few of the lighter bones rattle around in a macabre dance as though recently disturbed.

“Haha, just bones caught in the tide,” laughed Anna, although there was an edge to her voice that said she didn’t quite believe that. Was even the pragmatic Anna spooked? wondered Laurence. That creeped him out more than anything else. He wondered again about the desperate paintings and the rising waters and the purpose of this temple. Was it really ancestor worship, or had the ancient people of Dogger Bank island reached out for help from someone or something that should have been left undisturbed? Laurence’s eye strayed to a painting near to the foreboding stairway; a painting of the islanders filing into the temple of menhirs, and of something squatting at its centre, something dark and indistinct and…

Laurence shook his head. What was the matter with him? He was a scientist dammit! Well, a geologist, but still, he shouldn’t be scared of the dark. But what he should be scared of was being complicit in trashing a multi-million pound remote submersible. Even if Anna would take the majority of the blame, the rest of the dive season would still be a write-off, and that meant no pay cheques.

“Shall we see some more wall paintings? Take a look at what’s down these stairs?” said Anna, as though she could see the cloud of dissent forming in Laurence’s mind.

“No, look Anna, we need to get the sub out of there before the cable gets tangled and we lose it – and the whole operational season with it!” exclaimed Laurence.

“We can see a little more without any more risk,” said Anna firmly.

“That’s clearly not true, we have no idea when the returning king tide is going to bury this whole complex again,” exclaimed Laurence, reaching for the radio to turn it back on, “I’m at least calling winch control to see how much slack we-”

Anna forcefully smacked his hand away from the radio.

“No you’re not,” she said, “I’m submersible operations manager and I say we go on.”

Laurence snatched his hand back, and looked at her with a mixture of hurt and disbelief. Could he overpower Anna? Maybe. She looked like she worked out though, and the thought of brawling around all this expensive equipment made him nauseous.

“Anna, this isn’t worth the risk!”

“I say it is.”

“Well, fine, if you won’t let me use the radio I’ll go and speak to winch control myself.”

“Alright, I can’t stop you, but you’re going to miss out.”

Laurence paused, briefly tempted to stay, before finally making his decision and hurrying out of the operations room. Behind him, Anna carefully steered the submarine through the portal into the black abyss, searchlights scanning the walls.

It took Laurence a few minutes to work his way up through the gently pitching ship to reach winch control, where Adrian confirmed that there was about 100 metres of cable remaining. Laurence tried not to let on his concerns, nodding nonchalantly along to what Adrian was saying. But he left again as soon as he could without looking like he was hurrying off. As he descended the steps to bring him back onto the submersible operations level, he began to hear something that wasn’t part of the normal background noise of the ship. When he rounded the final corner he realised what it was. It was screaming.

Laurence doubled his pace and ran through the open doorway into operations. There he beheld a scene of chaos. All the video monitors and remote control equipment for the submarine had been completely destroyed, as though frenziedly beaten with a blunt object. The back-up hard drives had been pulled from the computers too, and stamped flat on the metal deck in a terrible panic, entirely destroying the digital record of everything the submarine had seen that day. As Laurence surveyed the damage in slack-jawed bafflement, he spotted the source of the noise. Anna was curled up in the foetal position in the corner of the room, screaming and screaming and screaming as loud as she could, her eyes screwed tightly shut and her face a contorted mask of pure terror. Becky was there too – the coffees abandoned on the floor – desperately trying to comfort Anna. But the screams would not stop.

Numbly, Laurence reached for the radio to call for help, but before he could transmit he heard an incoming message.

“-erations. Come in submersible operations. This is winch control. What’s going on down there? Is the submarine caught? The cable had gone taut! It’s starting to pull on the ship! Submersible operations, are you there?!”

Wide-eyed, Laurence watched as the abandoned plastic coffee cups began to roll across the floor, trailing spilt coffee as they went. The whole room was tilting subtly to port. Laurence thought he heard a soft groan of metal from several decks below, but it was difficult to tell as Anna’s scream became louder and louder still…

 

Where the Whippoorwills Sing

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.

This week, much like a incautious traveller straying into some half-forgotten New England village just as the sun sets, I’ve wandered back into Lovecraft territory…

***

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Photo by Rosie Fraser on Unsplash

Most people thought the sound of bird song was lovely, but she always felt that it was a portent of impending doom. In particular, Ada had learned to fear the song of the whippoorwills from the tales her grandma told. The two of them had been sat beside her grandpa’s bed, the balcony doors flung open to alleviate the stifling summer heat while the song of the ill-omened birds drifted in from the moonless night.

Grandma had told her that the whippoorwills would gather outside the window and sing in time to the breathing of a dying person, matching it perfectly, biding their time. Ada was a precocious child, level-headed and not given to flights of fancy. She had been raised within the straight lines and known angles of the city, where there were no dark corners and no blank spots on the map. But since her parents had died and she’d come to live here on her grandparents’ Massachusetts country estate, it became a little easier to wonder at what secrets might be hiding just out of sight. Wide-eyed, Ada listened to what her grandma had to say on the secret lore of the fog-wreathed hills and lonely woods.

“Pay yer grandma no mind,” wheezed her grandfather, trying to laugh it off and set Ada at ease. He paused for a moment as his chest heaved rapidly, struggling to catch his breath. The unseen whippoorwills outside momentarily sped up their rhythmic singing, seemingly matching his gasps. “Besides,” the old man added craftily, “they won’t catch me!”

Ada listened with mounting horror as her grandma described what happened when the marked person finally breathed their last.

“The whippoorwills will try an’ catch a departing soul,” said her grandma, talking as though she was describing the most ordinary thing in the world, “if they get it then they’ll flutter off, cackling like daemons at their feast. If the soul escapes their clutches then their singin’ slowly fades to disappointed whistles.”

Ada’s uncle, a thin man named Greer, tutted disapprovingly from the corner of the room without looking up from his newspaper. He was only there grudgingly; the bottle was calling him and it had taken an awful lot of cajoling from Ada’s grandma and threats of withholding his allowance to persuade him to come up to the bedroom. Regardless of whether he wanted to be there or not, it was clear that he didn’t believe in talk of whippoorwills and souls. Ada took her grandpa’s hand, her eyes wet with tears. She silently prayed the old man was right and he would be too fast for the hideous nightjars that sung and trilled in the darkness of the garden, just beyond the light cast by the grand old house.

It wasn’t until nearly two hours later that Ada found out. The end was near, and her grandpa struggled to breath, his breath coming in ragged gasps, the song of the whippoorwills lifting to a crescendo and falling away as they matched his rapid sobs. Ada wanted to get up and throw something at the ghastly birds. But she was a dutiful granddaughter and stayed where she was, holding one of her grandpa’s hands, her grandma holding the other, and her uncle nonchalantly flipping the pages of a motoring magazine in the high-backed corner chair.

With one last heaving intake of air, her grandpa passed away. Ada clutched his hand even tighter and held her breath. Outside, in the oppressive night air, the song of the whippoorwills slowly faded to disappointed whistles and then silence.

“They didn’t get ‘im,” said her grandma, just as if she’d always known they wouldn’t.

From then on the old house seemed a little emptier to Ada. With grandpa gone it was just grandma rattling around the big rooms and long halls, and her uncle skulking around, never too far from the liquor cabinet. As the years passed Ada’s grandma became a little frailer, the house a little more dilapidated and her uncle a little more callous. When it was time for Ada to leave the house and attend a college in the city, her grandma begged her to stay. She told her that she was getting old and slow, and wanted Ada to stay with her until the end. It nearly broke Ada’s heart to pack-up and go; she didn’t leave because she didn’t want to stay with grandma. She went because she wanted to see the world again beyond the crumbling house and the sallow woods with the birds in whose songs she could find no happiness.

A month passed since her leaving, then six, and before Ada knew it she had been apart from her grandma for a year. At first they exchanged letters every week, but as time passed the letters became more infrequent and her grandma’s handwriting slightly less legible, until finally she received a black-bordered envelope. Ada opened the envelope with trembling fingers; the letter inside was from her uncle Greer, curtly informing her that grandma had died and inviting Ada back to the funeral, if she would care to attend.

The funeral was a quiet and solemn affair, for few of grandma’s relatives or friends were left alive to pay their respects. The casket was closed, contrary to the custom of the family and the church, which left Ada saddened that she couldn’t see her grandma’s face one last time. She asked her uncle why this was, but Greer simply shrugged, saying that he felt they’d all seen enough of grandma over the years and a little less would do them all a favour.

“Did the whippoorwills get her?” whispered Ada, blinking back the tears, “Did you hear them cackling when she died?”

Her uncle snorted derisively.

“Ain’t heard a peep out o’ those damn bird in months,” he said as he walked away, leaving Ada alone with her grief and the firmly sealed casket with its big iron nails.

After the begrudgingly offered and poorly attended wake at the old house, Ada found herself returning to the graveyard on the edge of the woods where they had buried her grandmother that morning. Ada hadn’t wanted to linger in in her former home anymore, especially now it was her uncle’s to do with as he pleased. Her train back to the city wasn’t until the following morning, and Ada found that she wanted to spend a bit more time paying her respects. She stood by the graveside, paying the world no heed as the sun began to set, the guilt of not being there at the end a tight knot inside her.

It was only as the sun slipped behind the woods and the long shadows unfurled themselves from the trees that Ada was snapped out of her introspection by the sound of bird song. She looked up at the nearest tree and the whippoorwill nestled in the darkness there. It sang a song like wheezing breaths, shallow and laboured. Other birds took up the song and Ada whirled around, suddenly realising her grandmother’s grave was surrounded by a ring of whippoorwills, sitting in trees and perching on headstones. Together they encircled her, taking up the suffocating, air-starved song, emulating breathing that most definitely did not belong to Ada.

Panic gripped Ada’s limbs and terror lent her speed, and Ada sprinted from the grave side, leaving the birds singing around the freshly dug earth where her grandma had been laid in the ground that morning. As she reached the rusted iron fence at the cemetery’s edge, Ada paused and looked back for a second. The song of the whippoorwills was reaching a final, laboured crescendo. Then suddenly the song stopped, and the birds exploded into daemonic cackling, taking flight from the grave side, vanishing into the night with their prize.

Listen Carefully

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

This week, things get a little bit Lovecraft…

***

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Photo by Math on Unsplash

“Listen carefully,” she said quietly, willing her voice to be as discreet as possible. “How can you not hear it?!” The girl was terrified, paralysed by a consistent, eerie sound; the sound of…

…silence.

To be fair they’d come on this sailing holiday to get away from it all. Just the two of them. In some ways silence was what they wanted.

Her husband looked at her, confused, chewing the last mouthful of dinner, a two-week beard clinging to his chin like seaweed to a hull.

“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” he asked, eyebrow raised, not quite getting it.

Sophie looked at him irritably, stood up and climbed out of the cabin. Josh shrugged and continued to chew.

The sun hung low on the horizon, smouldering red like newly smelted iron in the quartz pink sky. Around their tiny boat, the Mediterranean was still. No wind blew, no waves lapped. The waters seemed almost frozen, like a perfect shard of crystal, their boat a trapped and dirty imperfection.

Sophie walked around the edge of the yacht, checking that everything was ok, her motion rocking the boat and finally disturbing the calm of the sea. The sea anchor was still down, the sails were still lowered, all seemed fine. Yet there was something unsettling about the eerie calm.

Josh finally joined her one deck.

“Oooo, becalmed,” he said in a dramatic voice, looking around.

“It’s not funny,” Sophie scolded him, “it’s creepy.”

“Relax Samuel Coleridge,” said Josh, rolling his eyes, “this isn’t Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we have a little something called an engine.”

The engine, as it happened, had ceased to work.

“Well, that’s a bit of a mystery,” said Josh as he emerged from the engine hatch thirty minutes later, wiping his oily hands on his shorts. He was stripped to his waist and glistening with sweat.

“Should we radio for help?” wondered Sophie, scanning the horizon. They were a long way out, deliberately so. There was no land in sight, and no ships either. She found the latter a little odd. This was the Mediterranean, they weren’t exactly in a backwater.

“Nah,” said Josh, clearly unwilling to be defeated by an inanimate object, “we were going to anchor out here for the night anyway. I’ll take another good look at the engine in the morning. If I still can’t get it to work then we’ll probably have some wind by then anyway and we can sail back to Sicily.”

Josh jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the direction of Sicily.

“Sicily is that way,” said Sophie quietly, indicating the opposite direction. Josh’s brow furrowed for a moment.

“Oh yeah. Well, my point still stands.”

They both paused for a moment, silently reflecting on this new development. The sun was just thinking about dipping its toe in the ocean. High above, a fingernail of a new Moon scratched the velvet shroud of the darkening sky.

“Shall we call it a night?”

Josh had made overtures to her as they lay in the narrow bed, but she wasn’t in the mood. She didn’t want to rock the boat; it seemed like disturbing the Mediterranean in its calm reflections would have been disrespectful.

So now, an hour later, Josh was snoring into the back of her neck as Sophie stared into the darkness. Sleep eluded her, and eventually she gave up the chase. She eased herself out of the bunk. Josh gave a short snort and spread out, filling the space she had vacated like the incoming tide, but he did not wake.

Sophie climbed back up on deck, hoping to feel the gentle breath of the wind against her bare arms, but still all was calm. The stars stared down at her; ancient Polaris, watchful Antares, cunning Sirius.

She was the reason they were there. Sophie was a Classics professor. She had asked for this busman’s holiday, sailing the ports of the Mediterranean. She was right where she wanted to be.

And yet…something felt wrong. It was like the world was on pause. Holding its breath. Was this what the Romans had warned of; why their ancient custom forbade ships to sail out of sight of land on the eve of a new moon? Was this what the Etruscans had whispered fearfully of in the long watches of the night? Was this what the Minoans called the ‘Siren Sea’, when the old gods emerged from their deep homes below the waves and sung songs that were written when the world was young?

Sophie shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the chill of the cloudless night. She was letting her imagination get the better of her. Now that her eyes were adjusting to the dark, she scanned the horizon for the lights of passing ships.

It was then that she saw them, in the middle distance. Was the wind picking up at last, was that anaemic moonlight glittering off tiny waves, stirred to life by a new breath of wind? Or were those lights coming from beneath the ocean? A natural phosphorescence; the bio-luminescence of algae? It had to be that right? Or was it something much less benign?

No, that was silly she told herself. This was the twenty first century. Pagan gods held no sway here. And yet…who was to say what year it was beneath the waves? Who could dare to guess the calendar of elder things who danced and sang beneath the light of a new moon?  What strange rituals did they keep and what antediluvian festivals did they hold sacred?

Sophie knew she should go back into the cabin, close her eyes and pretend she was asleep. That’s definitely what she should have done, but she felt like she was rooted to the spot. Just another few moments, Sophie told herself as the glow grew gently brighter, and the subtle notes of conch shells drifted out of the darkness.

In the morning, Josh awoke to find himself still without an engine, and now also without a wife.

‘The Haunting of Exham Priory’ Postmortem

It’s been just over a week since Rumpus Theatre‘s run of my play, ‘The Haunting of Exham Priory‘, came to an end. I think it’s safe to call it a success; it sold well for a play of its size (completely selling out one venue), and we had some reasonably complimentary reviews.

British Theatre Guide Review

A Younger Theatre Review

“The script is engaging and well thought out.”

“The performances are fantastic.”

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So am I pleased? Absolutely! And I’d definitely like to say a big thank you to Rumpus for bringing my ideas to life and the actors, David Gilbrook and Nicholas Bourne, who gave outstanding performances every single night. But the biggest thank you of all should go to all the HP Lovecraft and Rumpus Theatre fans alike who turned out to see it. Thank you to you all!

Now I’ve had a bit of time to reflect, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on the creative process and take a look look at if there anything I’d have done differently. In terms of major changes, “no” is the short answer. After watching the show for a second time I did wonder if the part about Walter de la Poer’s mysterious letter could have been cut to make the play slightly shorter. But on balance, although it doesn’t directly effect the plot it does add to the overall sense of mystery and provide a nice connection between Delapore and his family history, so I think I’ll retain it for any future runs.

Actually it’s interesting to think how much already got cut from the story. You might imagine that turning a short story of only a few pages into a two act play would mean that every single word had to be retained and used. But a single sentence of first person narration often equates to several lines of natural sounding dialogue, so the page count soon builds up. Many of the little details about the history of the Priory and the de la Poer family didn’t make it into the final draft. Likewise the full list of everything that was discovered in the final scene. That’s not to say they didn’t make it into early drafts, but they just made the play a bit too long and rambling.

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Speaking of the final scene, one question that came up during development was whether or not the final scene should have been staged in full, rather than told via the medium of Delapore’s narration and the sound and lighting effects?

After a lot of thought, I believe our narrative approach was the correct one. Even if we had managed to find a plausible way to stage it in a production of this size, I doubt it would have lived up to people’s imaginations of the spectacular scene described. In fact I doubt even an expensive staging would have achieved this. After all, an important technique in Lovecraft’s work is to hint at horrors rather than spell them out. Imagined horrors are always far worse than the reality.

Another technique that Lovecraft often calls on is [SPOILERS AHEAD] a narrator  retelling the events of the story from a position of insanity, just as happens in the original text of ‘The Rats in the Walls’. I feel it would have been a shame to drop that element entirely. And of course, if we’re not relying on Delapore’s narration then it potentially removed the ambiguity of whether or not he is responsible for the final act, or if it is indeed the rats, as he claims.

So what next? Well I’d certainly love to adapt one more Lovecraft play if I had the chance. I have a shortlist, but I’ll keep it to myself for the moment as I’m likely to change my mind several times. There’s such a rich seam of work to draw on. But I’ve always been partial to Shadows and Horrors.

Of Nyarlathotep and Azathoth

The Haunting of Exham Priory‘, the play that I’ve been working on with Rumpus Theatre Company finally opened on Tuesday of this week. After so much work it was a real thrill to see it all come together. Although I’d been there for the first rehearsals, I hadn’t seen the dress rehearsals so I was seeing it come together for the first time, just like the rest of the audience.14585681_10100469008003010_283630898_o

I’d like to think Lovecraft would have been pleased with what we did, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to cling to his coattails with my cold, cadaverous grasp.

I sat on the back row for the first show, just so I could more easily take in the audience’s reactions. I was pleased to see the light-hearted moments get laughs and the twist in the final scene receive a ripple of shocked muttering, just as I’d hoped. Interestingly though, some parts that I thought would get big laughs just got a murmur, while lines I considered throw-away gags got a big reaction. I sometimes suffer a similar problem with Baby001 – some episodes that I think are the wittiest receive the fewest likes, while the ones I am least happy with get plenty of comments and shares. Talking to the director afterwards, he observed that you never know where and when an audience will laugh at a script, and it’ll vary from performance to performance. I’ll be seeing the show again later in the run, and I’ll be intrigued to see how the response varies again. But for now, I have released it to prosper on its own, like a Night Gaunt flitting away into the dark.

So, to reiterate, I was 100% pleased with how everything turned out on opening night. I was also pleased to be vindicated regarding my concerns over a certain aspect of Lovecraft mythos!
In the original text for ‘The Rats in the Walls’, Nyarlathotep receives a description that is very similar to the description normally reserved for Azathoth, an entirely different deity in the Lovecraft pantheon. This is literally the only time – to my knowledge – that Nyarlathotep is described this way in the canon. So I was left with a choice; preserve the original description and risk some Lovecraft fans believing I’d made a mistake, or change the description which otherwise fits beautifully with the story?
I mused aloud to my wife about this as I was writing. “What? No-one will notice that!” she said after I explained the problem. I wasn’t so certain but decide to preserve the unusual description of Nyarlathotep.

Sure enough, post play, one of the first questions I was asked by a fan was whether I’d got Azathoth and Nyarlathotep confused. I laughed and tried to explain the issue, but it’s not so easy to convey in a busy theatre lobby.

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I think Lovecraft would be pleased with that, too.