Hometown Horror. No, I’m not talking about my own personal experiences with blackout drinking sessions, crap weather, muggings, or my own crippling social anxiety, but things which are altogther more fantastical. Namely, the upcoming release of my Liverpool-set horror, Heathens.
Since I started writing, I have always fixated on setting my stories in the US of A, most likely because all the movies, books, and TV which impressed itself on my largely insular life whilst growing up came from this very source. It might also go some way to explaining why I never felt really at home in Liverpool, always burdened by the sensation of being an outcast. Or maybe I’m just an arsehole. Either way, after writing a number of books set in New York, or small fictional U.S. towns, I thought it was time to give Liverpool a fair shake, after all, I have spent my entire life feeling ill at ease in this place. Plus, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell did their due diligence by setting some of their works in Liverpool.
Heathens has nothing to do with any embellished events in my personal life – because frankly I’m not that interesting – but certain locations which the novel touches on have been the settings of some big parts of my childhood. And my rooftop hosts a nightly pigeon and cat-athon due to my pigeon-keeping neighbour, the ensuing bumps and thuds of which led me to devise some of the horrors in Heathens. No, nobody is getting attacked by pigeons. That just seems like a mild irritant more than anything else, but there are threats of an ugly and warped avian variety, among other things. But pigeon-keeping neighbours were only my “in” to developing the story, as before long I was pondering about the strong druid heritage of this city, the strange subterranean tunnels, and the volatile and combative class wars of Liverpool’s origins (much of which can be found in BLOODY BRITISH HISTORY: LIVERPOOL by Ken Pye). All fascinating stuff in their own rights, but during my research stage, I knew I wanted to mix it all together into a fast-moving and contemporary horror novel about a decimated druid sect fighting (and mostly losing) an ancient war against a monstrous (and monstrously mutated) aristocratic family. I’m talking a tale of axes and molotovs against teeth and claws, with a pinch of arcane magic to spice things up.
The book cover is currently slated for completion for the end of October by the excellent Streetlight Graphics, who designed the wonderful cover for my novel Fable. Check them out here: https://www.streetlightgraphics.com/contact/
Sadly, it won’t be ready in time for Halloween, but a November release is the next best thing.
If this sounds right up your alley, please read the opening chapter below. Thanks!
The shotgun lay heavy in Keith Fletcher’s hands, his blood soaking into the wool of his gloves. Or maybe it was somebody else’s blood. There’d been enough of it shed down here in these cold, dark tunnels. A lot of blood, and a lot of screams.
He had led them all to a slaughter.
He stumbled on, half-blinded by the blood leaking into his eyes, pooling in his ashen beard like coppery syrup. The scratches on his scalp were deep, flaps of flesh hanging like a grotesque toupee. Keith popped open the double barrel of his shotgun and shook out the empty shells, his shaky fingers searching for new double-aught buckshot. Would it save him? He tried not to think about it, tried not to think about seeing the sun again, of breathing fresh air to cleanse the damp miasma of piled corpses and animal stink, the aroma of a feeding den thick enough to chew like cud. He didn’t care about his own survival, all he wanted was for Mary to make her escape. Just thinking the name of his beloved was like a vice across his chest.
He dared a glimpse over his shoulder. The darkness ruled in this section of the old tunnel, but he knew it was still on his trail, making a sport of its wounded and terrified prey. Patting down his coat pockets, his bloody gloves made an urgent drumbeat as he double- and then triple-checked the deep pouches. He was out of shells. The shotgun would be a pretty decent club in some circumstances, but this wasn’t it. He drew his hand axe out from under his coat, apt for limb removal. Still, Keith knew he might as well be empty-handed.
There were too many of the things down here.
They had blundered right into a damn nest of them. He tortured himself with possibilities: how close had they been to the Sheltons’ home? If they had made it there, could they have accomplished what centuries of their forebears had strived and failed to do? To clip the Shelton bloodline, retrieve the Drest Stones, and finally end all of this.
Dammit O’Hara. She wasn’t to blame, but he needed to curse at something in his pained anguish. It always was a risk relying on her clairvoyant ability, her visions more often than not obscured by dark forces.
Panting, sweating, his scalp a furnace of pain, Keith tried not to think about what had just happened to them. But even half-blinded by darkness and his own dripping blood, he couldn’t shake loose the image of what he had witnessed back there. Such a sight didn’t require eyes, it lived forever in the mind, lurking between the dark spaces between more pleasant thoughts, waiting to slink out in the middle of the night when you were at your most vulnerable. The scene had been of a vast high-ceilinged chamber of time-worn brick and mortar, calling to mind a silo or the bottom of a giant well, lit by small mountain-pass arrangements of candles, each stick resembling a melting rib broken and protruding upright from its bony cage. And the remains. Human and rodent, but mainly the former, in all stages of decay across the black rainbow of mortality and decomposition.
Fifteen minutes prior, Keith had watched the twisted things alight, pluck, gouge and rake out the eyes and guts of the twenty-some raiding party — his clan — their screams and pleas overlapping like a blood-gurgling brook. Some were eviscerated up amongst the high iron perches around the walls of that gloomy coop, others were taken apart right there on the filthy stone floor, thrashing limbs kicking and slapping amidst the piles of old bones and corpses of more recent kills. Keith hadn’t seen Mary amongst this number though, or else he would have made his last stand right there with her, charged straight into that abattoir blasting and swinging until they plucked his life and soul from his body. He had unloaded both barrels into the long pick-axe beaked head of the tall creature which had tried to ambush him from behind. The bone and dirt-crusted feathers of its long flat skull erupted easily enough, but they had numbers and a killer’s grace. The thing died headless, but not before a slashing talon had opened Keith’s scalp like tissue paper. With the blood pouring into his eyes, he had stumbled over a rotting pelvis, fiercely wiped his vision clear and scrabbled back to his feet, blind again, hearing the pecking and tearing, the whimpering of pain too severe to be processed. The living morsels of food seemed to understand that their exhausted calls for mercy had become nothing more than involuntary spasms of tongue, teeth and lips. Some of them, men and women Keith had known for decades and cared for deeply, seemed to know their miseries in split flesh were almost done, and occupied some distant plane of consciousness.
Calling out Mary’s name, he had staggered out of that feeding vault, literal blind luck guiding him into one of the off-shoot tunnels flowing deep beneath the many acres of park and farmland. He never heard her voice, no matter how hard he screamed her name.
The honking noise came again, bouncing off the cold, wet brick arcades to scrape his nerves. It was the chilling call of his pursuer, the malformed raptor-man coming to end him here in darkness and futility.
A quiet traitor lived in Keith’s head, conspiring with his heart and soul to simply cease his escape attempt and get this over with, calmly arguing its case: he was wounded, lost, outmatched, and worst of all, Mary could still be alive down here. She’s gone, a second, nasty little voice chimed in. They’re all gone. You were the wise one, the leader, and you led them all to a worthless death. No! Anger flared up inside him like a struck match stick, there’s still hope.
He stumbled on tiredly for a few more paces, his barely visible boots kicking a few chunks of broken brick and tiles, the inhaled dust invisible in the darkness. He wanted to scream a futile challenge at the thing behind him, hoping the aggressive roar might give it pause. He knew it wouldn’t though. These beasts didn’t give a damn about their food shouting and cursing. After a few more steps he noticed slivers of weak light luring him on, shining through cracks in the ceiling brick, just enough to tease help and salvation. It wasn’t sunlight filtering through the high ceiling though. It was the weak and milky electric glow from another tunnel above.
The honking call came again, so loud it made Keith flinch. It had covered the distance with frightening speed, a predator’s swiftness. A heavy rustling noise owned the space behind Keith as shadow-stolen wings, black as midnight oil, engulfed the wide tunnel, the tall and skinny frightener gliding over the rubble-dotted floor to seize him.
Keith wasn’t able to lash out with his old Celtic axe. A white-hot slash of pain raced across his back, the long pelican-like beak tearing through labour-built muscle, a trench two inches deep. Gasping, Keith stumbled helplessly, his gloved hands still holding tight to his axe and the club of his shotgun, but the agony thwarted any comeback, and all he accomplished was a deep inhalation of dust and grit which coated his tongue with the taste of too many lost generations.
A pointless, taunting image of Mary being similarly butchered elsewhere in these unchartered caverns bobbed weakly in the dark sludge of his dying brain. The image might have been scolding him, telling him that it was a mistake for his kind, the lineage of this old town’s first settlers — the sect of Merseyside Druids — to have once more raised arms against the Shelton family. Wrong for them to have marched down here into this cold subterranean hell to try and slay them on their turf. The horror continued cutting him up, pecking and chipping away at his spine as his legs went cold and insensate.
He lied to himself as his blood pooled all about him, sweet beautiful fictions of Mary getting out of here and laying down her axe, of going into hiding where the Sheltons couldn’t locate her. He sprinkled some extra gold dust across this fantasy, imagining how it might have been if they had both done that: living as a simple man and wife, young and vital. A man and wife, and their new born child, a vessel for hope of new beginnings, far removed from clan warfare. His body had grown numb to all sensation but the regret burned in his cowed soul.
The huge beak clamped around Keith’s exposed spine, but he couldn’t feel it. The last thing he was aware of was a fleeting sense of motion in the pit of his blood-drunk stomach as he was dragged upwards through a dark vertical shaft hidden deep in the earth.
Deeper than any sane man would want to go.
Deep enough for a mass burial of secrets and bodies.