Delighted to announce the publication of my third novel CONJURE HOUSE (DarkFuse). Here is the creepy prologue to whet appetites. If you like what you read, take it further and buy a copy in paperback or ebook (links below).
“Mum, I’m bored,” said Anthony, fiddling with the lace of his left shoe. He’d hooked both thumbs inside the loops and was tugging uselessly at the knot.
“Already?” Mum replied as she put away crockery from their meal this evening. “But you’ve only just started your half-term holiday. Can’t you go and play with something like Simon is doing?”
Anthony’s younger brother sat across from him at the kitchen table. Earlier he’d brought in a bucket of clay from the nearby lakeside to work on his model of an elephant. His hands dexterously shaped the trunk, which looked in danger of falling off. It wasn’t even a school project—what was the point?
“That seems like an age ago!” said Anthony, thinking of his classroom mates. He wasn’t a keen scholar, but did like science—fun with experiments, figuring stuff out. He liked hanging around with other people, too. He wondered whether his friends in the grove were about, and what they were up to.
“You won’t be saying that when you’re older, Ant,” said Dad while entering from the lounge, presumably with a cup of tea in mind after a hard day at the factory. “Time goes quickly at our age, doesn’t it, Dawn?”
“It certainly does,” Mum replied, accepting Dad’s empty mug and switching on the kettle. As they embraced tentatively, Mum turned to address the boys. “Now, why don’t you both go outside before it gets too dark? Enjoy yourselves. We only live once, after all.”
“Not everyone does,” said Simon.
There was an awkward pause, during which a wind blew against the bungalow from the barren moors beyond the building. If a sharper noise was caught up in this, it was more a low-key howl than a whistle. It sounded like a living creature rather than any element, but what could be so shrill?
This tense moment was broken when, with a stern tone, Dad asked, “Have you been watching them old horror movies in bed again when you should be asleep, Simon?”
“Last night’s was good,” said Simon, unconcerned about punishment. “It was about a magician from the past who tried to gain eternal life and—”
“I’m not sure that kind of stuff is good for you,” Mum interrupted, trying to defuse the situation by hurrying her sons along, despite appearing more panicky than the episode warranted. “You can finish your model when you get in later, Simon.”
Anthony was unsure about whether he agreed with Mum. If, having learned them from a horror film, a seven-year-old boy could use words like “magician” and phrases such as “eternal life,” wasn’t that good?
Simon stood, washed his hands in the sink, and then joined Anthony in the hallway. Before they strayed together for the front door, Anthony had time to examine his parents’ faces. They’d just exchanged a concerned expression, which worried him into rapid speech.
“Come on, Simon. Let’s go see if anyone is playing out.”
Moments later, they stepped outside. Their parents probably just had boring adult things to talk about, despite looking eager to avoid serious issues altogether.
The grove stood before them, an offshoot from the main road running through this small village on the margins of the Yorkshire Dales. With the autumn sun declining, hills enveloping the area possessed a purplish hue, punctuated at regular intervals by shadowy rocks. The houses were tiny by comparison with all this rolling land.
The only people outdoors were three children at the head of the cul-de-sac, sitting together on the curb and talking.
“There they are,” said Anthony, attempting to cheer his brother, who’d lapsed into a sulk. “Hey, what’s up?”
“Dad’s always moaning at me,” Simon said with a hint of bitterness, using his thumbs to claw his face as if he wore a mask and was sick of it. “He didn’t even say anything about my model. And Mum never sticks up for me. How come?”
As Anthony led his little brother across the road, he summoned all twelve years of his experience to reply.
“They’re both old. Dad works in a factory and doesn’t understand anything else. And they’re married, so they’ve got to, like, protect each other.”
Anthony was unsure what he’d meant by this—the knowledge existed more as an impression than a fact—but it soon didn’t matter, because they’d reached their friends.
“Hi, Peggy Sue!” said Paul after glancing up, adding a lilt to the comment as if it were a lyric from one of the pop songs he listened to all the time. He’d used a girl’s name because Simon tried hard at school and Paul reckoned that was unsuitable behaviour for a boy. “Had any more nightmares lately?”
“Leave him alone!” Lisa interrupted, bending the spine of one of her beloved horror anthologies. It was so ruptured that the pages were splayed open, like the radiating lines of a mathematical protractor. Then she added, “Hi, Ant.”
Even though the girl’s greeting was intended as affectionate, Anthony often thought of himself as an insect whenever anyone truncated his name. He heard another gust of wind hurry across the moors, but on this occasion there was no accompanying cry. He peered in that direction.
“Nice view, isn’t it?” asked Andy, who was good at art in class, but who tended to express this gift only in terms of graffiti. His dad was a bit mad, always shouting and ready with his fists…At least Anthony and Simon’s parents never hit them.
Anthony regretted telling their friends about the bad dreams his brother had been suffering. They’d had an argument a few weeks ago and that had been Simon’s punishment. Once secrets got out, however, they took on a life of their own…Intent on moving the conversation along, Anthony asked his friends, “What’re you all doing out here, anyway?”
“We were listening to Lisa tell us a story,” Paul explained, drumming his fingers on the waistband of his jeans in a jaunty rhythm. “But it didn’t scare me.”
“Oh, sure,” Andy said, making a square with his hands and gazing through as if it were a camera lens. “I wish I had a photo of your face when the ghost turned up—you were as white as a virgin’s soul!”
“Where do you pick up such phrases?” asked Lisa, as if wishing she had a pen to jot this one down.
“Nowhere. I just see images in my head and use words to describe them.”
“And then I lick a riff around them!” added Paul, mimicking a screeching guitar, which resembled the cry from the countryside before the brothers had ventured outside.
“You’re all mad,” Anthony concluded with an expert’s certainty, but was secretly mindful of Simon. “Anyway, there’s no such thing as ghosts.”
To his surprise, however, his brother said, “Yes, there are! And time travel. And immortality. And monsters.”
“That’s just little kids’ stuff,” Paul replied. He was the same age as Anthony, as were the other two. Simon was the youngest.
“I believe in the soul,” Lisa told them. Her grandma had died recently and the girl had been close to her. The wrinkly woman had been one of the oldest people in the village, had lived here all her life, and had told some marvellous stories about aged ancestors. Maybe that was why her granddaughter was so interested in fiction.
Anthony decided it was time to take control of the situation; he found he could extend their discussion into less unsettling territory without ruining it. “What about life on other planets?” he asked.
“Yes, that as well!” his brother replied with haste. “But it wasn’t always there. Aliens once lived on Earth and had to leave because human beings did some dark spells and got rid of them. But they’re all still out there…waiting to return.”
It was Andy’s turn to mock Simon; unfortunately, he did so in a similar way to what the boy had suffered indoors. “You’ve been watching too many late-night films, mate!” After laughing loudly, he added, “Or tell me, what drugs are you taking at the moment?”
But that wasn’t funny. Lately in the village, there’d been a bunch of thugs roaming the area, tripping on pills and smashing things up. A policeman, who worked in the small station beside the library, had never been so busy. Children had been advised to stay close to their homes at night in case this group got out of control.
It was almost dark now.
Simon said, “Okay, if you’re so convinced that the supernatural is rubbish, why don’t you ever go in The Conjurer’s House?”
Anthony had a moment to reflect again on how advanced his brother’s vocabulary had grown before they all turned as one and addressed the property standing at the mouth of the grove.
It was a derelict dwelling, stone-built, and at least as old as many other buildings in Deepvale. A recent school project had taught them that most of the village property dated back to the 1400s, the mysterious Middle Ages. Someone, possibly Anthony’s mum, had once told him and Simon that this house was a “listed building,” which meant nobody could knock it down or alter it in any way. And so obviously nobody had ever bothered with it. The place was rumoured to have belonged to a mad old man in the nineteenth century referred to by local people as “The Conjurer.” He’d apparently done some terrible things, but that was probably just gossip. His former home was certainly creepy, all hooded windows and a large gaping doorway like a dry, hungry throat. Few people acknowledged its presence, and when grown-ups spoke of it, they quickly fell silent if kids were around.
Paul, who’d claimed not to be scared by Lisa’s story earlier, spoke rapidly, possibly to eliminate a stutter in his voice. “I’ve heard some weird music coming from inside—sometimes when I can’t sleep, I listen to it.”
“Perhaps those thugs that keep causing trouble are, like, squatting there,” added Andy, keen to seek a reasonable explanation for this disturbance. “It’s such an ugly place.”
Anthony was about to say it was time to go home—a splatter of moisture had just caught his cheek, implying rainfall or a wind scudding across the small lake beside the old house—when he noticed his brother striding along the pavement, his frame a squat silhouette in the gathering gloom.
“Hey, Simon, what’re you doing?”
The black-haired boy twisted round, but continued moving forwards. “If everybody reckons spooky stuff doesn’t exist, they have nothing to be scared of, do they?”
Lisa, who’d developed a reputation for telling ghostly tales, soon followed. “Yeah, come on, guys. If a seven-year-old and a girl dare go near it, surely three hard-men like you can, too!”
That did the trick. It wasn’t because they fancied Lisa, despite her being pretty and slim and with long blonde hair. It was more a question of their developing male egos. Anthony had been attracted to this concept during a school lesson in which the teacher had talked about why great men achieved what they did. It wasn’t always to benefit the world; it was just as much about gaining praise from other people. He guessed this was why his dad often looked unhappy after work: he printed newspapers all day, and anyone could do that.
The gang had moved forwards, and after joining their unexpected leader in the form of Simon, they were all under the watchful gaze—cracked glass like an old man’s eyes—of The Conjurer’s House.
“Right, so who’s coming in?”
Anthony grabbed his brother’s right arm with one hand, his thumb digging into his flesh. “Don’t,” he instructed.
But the boy pulled away. “I’m sick of being the youngest,” he said, his hands clenched at his sides. “Now who’s coming with me?”
There were no immediate volunteers, but soon Lisa said, “What if Andy’s right? What if there are murderers or psychos in there? The real world is often scarier than fiction.”
Then Paul remembered something. “Hey, I once heard this story about a load of kids who went missing in the village. It happened about a hundred years ago, and I think The Conjurer was involved. Someone said something about an experiment he did on them. Apparently he cut off all their—”
“Do we have to make this worse than it is?” Anthony intervened. He stared at his brother, who stood near the house’s rickety gate, which penned in a garden full of weeds and stunted bushes. “Let’s go home, Simon. I’ll help you finish your model.”
“I’m going in,” the younger boy replied, his pale face resolute and all the paler beneath his fringe of dark hair. He had a dark mole on his upper lip. Perhaps this was another reason he was unhappy. Kids at school picked on him because of it: “Wart Boy,” they called him, or “Black Spot” after the curse in Treasure Island. Or sometimes they even chanted, “Moles Live In Holes, And That’s What Your Head Is: Empty.” People could certainly be cruel; there was no use inviting trouble…
Anthony tried again, this time with more discipline. “Well, I’m going home now. If you don’t come with me, that’s your problem.”
“Fair enough,” said his brother, and turned to head for the house’s entrance.
Anthony felt his hands twitch as Simon disappeared inside the dark, doorless opening. He thought his response must be instinct, which made him want to charge forwards and pluck his brother back with firm fingertips…But he didn’t dare. He simply stood with his friends, staring up at the building’s looming face, its expression blank and neutral. Indifferent, he heard a teacher say in his mind, and then not only that word.
The bulky edifice had blotted out a field of stars, which had formed too quickly in the vast sky. It was probably just an effect of tilting back his neck that caused the visual illusion. For a moment, Anthony imagined streaks of light tearing down from the heavens and coalescing in the building’s sturdy roof. The house’s interior flashed, and then more streams shot out through its greasy windows. He was blinded for a minute, just like when blood ran to his head after getting up too quickly from the floor. After regaining focus, he saw Paul, Lisa and Andy also blinking, their hands snatching in front of them as if to ward off what was about to emerge from the dark property up ahead…
But there was little there. Just a shriek like children crying, or the loudest, sweetest, most hideously indescribable music in the universe.
Then there was nothing at all.
And Anthony never saw his brother again.