Halloween has always been one of my favourite times of the year. In fact, I love the end of summer, the arrival of autumn and the creep towards Christmas. I enjoy the colder skies, the auburn leaves and the woodsmoke in the air.
Over this last month of October I have spent a lot of my free time writing creatively on a project I have had in mind for a year or so. It’s a modern-day take on the gothic novel – a ghost story, inspired by the likes of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and the works of Susan Hill (author of “The Woman In Black”).
I have always had a fascination with the eeriness of Christmastime. While to most it’s simply a time of joy and mirth, the history of the season, twinned with the bleakness of winter and the various folklore and religious traditions attached to it, have always inspired me creatively too. I see it as a wonderful time of year – but there’s a ghostly, darker edge to it as well as a happy one.
“A Christmas Carol” – one of English literature’s most beloved Christmas stories – is haunting. It’s about death and ghosts and redemption, and it paints Christmas Eve as a magical yet frightening night of the year. And I have taken inspiration from it in writing this latest story – a ghost tale for Christmas.
As it is Halloween, I’ve decided to publish an excerpt from it, and I aim to have the entire story competed in time for a full release in December – the time of year at which it is set. I’m not adding any context to the below, nor am I giving away the name of my story just yet. But as a “first look” I thought All Hallow’s Eve – the night belonging to the dead – was the perfect time to tease this morsel of the story…
The old man on the doorstep stared at Verity, his eyes examining her face carefully.
“If you’d like, perhaps you’d be interested in some of my other items,” he suggested, slowly gesturing to the lane beyond the cottage gates.
Verity looked in the direction he was pointing, and noticed a small wooden cart – a little like a wheelbarrow, but that one pulls rather than pushes. It was filled with various cuttings of ivy, boughs of fir, pine cones, bunches of seasonal flowers and berries.
“I have things to decorate your cottage with,” the man said. “I have a garland for the staircase. And plenty of other things. A sprig of mistletoe, to ensure a kiss on Christmas Day…”
Verity found his last remark to be somewhat obscure – almost as if he knew that she and Oscar could easily go through that Christmas without another kiss. But still she smiled at the man and said: “I’d love to buy some of your things, yes.”
He smiled thinly and suggested she take her pick from the cart while he finished hanging the wreath to the front door. She left him to his task and perused the selection, all the while considering how difficult this elderly man of apparent ill health must have found it to pull his cart along the rickety lanes of Rooks’ Cradle. Consequently, she was sure to pick several of his goods, more than enough for the house – an amount that would be sure to lighten his load. She had a £50 note in her purse, which she offered to him, telling him she would also take some firewood, as they were bound to run out.
He didn’t argue with her, and was clearly glad of her generosity, helping her with the various garlands and sprigs of greenery that she selected, as well as a few logs for the fire, before giving one final glance at the wreath he had hung and thanking her.
“Season’s greetings to you and your husband,” he said with a nod as he turned from Verity and hobbled back up the garden path to his cart.
Then he stopped. Abruptly.
Verity didn’t speak, but watched from the doorway.
Slowly, the man turned around to face her again. He was smiling – but there was something much colder about this smile. It was more of a grin; really rather sinister. His eyes were dark all of a sudden, and stared at her with a macabre fascination. It was enough to prompt Verity to place a hand on the door in an attempt at support or comfort.
After a moment, the old man spoke.
“You killed her.”
He said it with a form of distorted pleasure; he was almost joyful in his tone. It was enough to prompt a look of distress on Verity’s face, clearly visible to the man stood before her.
His face didn’t soften, but he spoke again with a kinder tone.
“Don’t fret. You were right to kill her.”
Those words: “kill her”. They rang in Verity’s ears like a spiteful wasp, buzzing around her head. This phrase, although accurate in some ways, was wicked. And how could this man – this stranger – possibly know about it. About “her”?
So dumbfounded by this sudden turn in both the man’s character and the topic of conversation, Verity remained frozen in place on the step, glad to be holding on to the doorframe. She clutched it tightly, her hand gripping onto the oak.
The man frowned at Verity – a look of concern; not for her wellbeing, but as a response to her shock. It was as if he was troubled that she didn’t appear to agree with his words: “You were right to kill her”.
So, he turned and walked off, up the path, back to his cart.
Verity closed her eyes. She felt hot, despite the cold December air on her face. She inhaled, slowly; processing what had just been said to her and the sudden forced reflection she had been made to experience.
When she opened her eyes, however, the man and his cart were gone.