So, peril. Preferably mortal peril, of course. A hint, a spice taste of danger to both characters and by extension the reader. The task for the writer is to communicate that coldness, the sharp frisson, those shivers down the spine that the characters feel: to extend to the reader that sense of imminent threat and dread.
Normally, that’s a problem for me. I write what is supposed to be comic fantasy. So even when the characters are in danger, I want the readers to be laughing at them. But recently, I’ve also started to dabble with the closely related genre of horror. The dark side, and their cookies. Here is a piece from my first release, called The Showing. Maybe there’s a hint of fear to be had after all.
The scene: a girl has vanished inside a house, and her boyfriend (Ian Evans) has sought the aid of the last scion of the family who built the house. They have gone to a spiritualist to seek help in finding her. The story is being told in the first person by Mr Jones, the last remaining descendant of the family.
“So, you have a problem. Do you wish to contact the dead?” the medium asked in a voice that combined boredom, sadness and commercial instinct in one tone.
“I hope not,” Ian told her. “You’ve heard about this young girl that’s gone missing?”
“Yes, of course. Are you a relative, young man?”
“No. I was out with her the night she vanished, and Mr Jones here knows something of the place where she went missing.”
“Do you have anything of hers?”
“I’m sorry, no,” Ian admitted. The medium nodded and put her hand in her pocket. She brought Ian’s cash back out.
“Mister Evans, I’m sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything that I can do for you. Without some link to her, I cannot find her spirit amongst those that teem around us.”
Evans looked around as if seeking inspiration. His glance fell on the romance the medium had been reading. “I fell for her, the girl who vanished last night. I fell for her completely.”
The medium gave him a more sympathetic look.
“I can’t explain it, but it matters to me more than I can explain that I find her. I think she could be the one I’ve been looking for, and I don’t want to have to look again.”
The medium half-smiled.
“Are you trying to take the mickey out of me, young man?”
“No.” It was indeed apparent Ian was deadly serious, and the medium’s mood shifted. She became more businesslike. A professional veneer slid across her face and she sat more upright.
“Where did she vanish, then?”
“The place is not far from here. About ten minutes in the car.”
“I’m going to put some stuff in a bag. Meet me back outside the front door in five minutes, and bring another fifty pounds. We’ll do a site visit.”
For the first time, I spoke. “I’m not sure that’s a wise idea.”
“Nor am I,” she replied. “But if this young man has lost his girl, we owe it to her to go and look, don’t we? And see what we may find.”
“That,” I told her, “is what I’m worried about.”
“And why I’m packing a bag with some essentials,” the medium answered, showing us to the door. “Five minutes, right?”
Ian jumped into his car and as soon as I got in we headed off to a cash point.
“Are you sure about this? It is costing you quite a lot of money,” I asked him.
Evans nodded. “I can’t do it. I can’t just let Robin go, not without trying everything,” he said fiercely. He left the engine running outside the bank whilst he withdrew more money from the ATM, did a fast turn in the road and headed back to the medium’s house. When we got there, she was stood outside with a wicker basket in her hand, a cover over the top. She smiled, a little grimly.
“You really are serious,” she said, heaving herself into the back seat.
“Then let’s go see this supposedly haunted house. You wouldn’t believe how many haunted houses I’ve been to which turned out only to be haunted by mice, or rats. And some of the rats were human.” She laughed, and for the first time, I actually liked her a little.
“This time I don’t think you’ll be disappointed,” I said quietly, and she fell silent for the rest of the journey.
Ian turned into Craddock Road, rolled the car to a halt near the gate to the house and cut the engine.
“This the one?” asked the medium. Ian and I nodded.
The medium delved into her bag and pulled out a divining rod and a large bottle of talcum powder. She passed the talc to Ian. “Take the top off the bottle, but be careful not to spill it. If I tell you, throw a handful as directed.”
Ian and I looked at each other, an expressionless glance that yet somehow conveyed a lot of information. The medium set off down the drive and we trailed after her. Twenty paces and she stopped abruptly as the house came into view beyond the trees. She took a deep breath and waited for us to catch up.
“Well, Mister Evans,” she said softly, “you have delivered with this one. This is the real deal. We walk softly now, tread the earth lightly.” With that, she skipped, rather more easily than I would have given her credit for, onto the grass lawn. As she landed, she drew another deep, rattling breath. We followed as best we could to join her.
“Softly, now. This house bears an aura I like not.”
I began to wonder if the vaguely comic lady was in fact the real deal herself, rather than the charlatan I had supposed when first we met. Gently, we walked across the expanse of ill-mown lawn towards the front door. The medium stopped us short of the door and handed me her wicker bag, retaining the divining rod alone. She stepped as gently as she could onto the gravel and approached the front door much as the old news reels show adventurers approaching a sleeping lion. She gingerly stretched the divining rod out until it touched the door, and both Ian and I jumped at the sight of the pulse of energy that coursed through her body. With a cry, she staggered backwards and grabbed us each by an arm.
“In the bag! There is an umbrella. Quickly now, unfurl it and hold it over our heads.” With one powerful movement, she swung us all around and headed up the drive at a steady resolute pace. “I charge you both, if you each value your life and ours, do NOT look behind us.”
Ian, I am sure, had no desire to do so. I was used of old to the rule, to look nowhere but ahead in this one specific situation. The hairs on my neck rose sharply, and the so well-remembered feeling of dread and malice seeped out like an autumn mist from the front door, coalescing on the drive and drifting with evil intent towards us.
Above our heads, the strangely painted paper and rowan wood umbrella crackled with sudden energy. I gripped the handle tightly and felt the wooden handle become first warm then very hot. But I held on grimly. A white mist coiled around our ankles, and on the cusp of hearing whispered a voice, words indistinctly formed, yet dreadful to hear. The sense of ancient malignancy grew so intense it was almost unbearable, and I heard Ian whimper in terror. A fanciful person might have imagined a half face, hooded and cloaked, forming and dispersing continually in the mist – and at this time I could easily have had such a fancy.
“Keep walking,” instructed the medium, holding our arms in a deathly tight grip. We obeyed. Beside me, the mist drifted a little higher. Was that an almost hand forming in the chill moist air? It drifted against my arm but then recoiled alarmingly, as if in shock. The mist around our ankles coiled as if in a frenzy then slipped back into the ground; and the tremendous pressure from the malice unfurled against us by that evil will at last relented, and so, so slowly diminished. I was tempted to quicken my steps, but the medium held us to a steady pace until we were beyond the gate, which she closed firmly, albeit with a shaking hand.
None of us spoke until we were in the car again, and without prompting, Ian operated the central locking to shut us in.
The medium blew out her cheeks with a sudden noise that made us jump.
“Wow!” she cried. “That was exciting!”