Author and Scriptwriter

'Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.' -Ramsey Campbell

Free Story

So here's a new regular feature: every Friday I'll be putting a free story up on the blog. It'll be available until next Friday, when it'll be replaced by the next one.

This tale first appeared in a small press anthology called Impossible Spaces, which has some very fine stories in it, and which you can still buy here (or here in the US.) I kept meaning to write more stories, maybe a novel, in Steel City, but never did. Maybe one day. In the meantime, here's...
The dawn seeped like blood through the room’s thin curtains.  Jess woke and stared at the cracked ceiling.  It’d be easy to stay in bed all day, to keep promising herself she’d rise shortly, till it was dark again-
She rose. 
She sat, giddy for an instant, then swung her legs out and stood staring at the patterns on the curtains: you could stare at them all day, get lost in them if you -
She pulled the curtains wide.
Outside, the wide and murky Schleine glowed red, a mirror of the dawn.  Along it, steelmills and munitions factories poured smoke skywards. Trains thundered over viaducts and under aqueducts, and a barge lumbered round the river’s bend-
She turned away.
In the greasy, dust-dappled mirror she saw herself- a thin high-yellow girl, gaunt-faced, matted-haired, in a grimy shift.  She wouldn’t look at her forearms, or the needle marks there.  She told herself she was still pretty, kept doing so, in unequal battle with the truth-
She peeled the shift off over her head.
Kralheim Square lay beneath an intersection of railway viaducts; below the terminus spread a complex of stockyards, from which slaughtered cattle swarmed out across the nation, and the big bazaar of Kralheim Market, one of the few parts of Steel City not dedicated to the making of guns.  Here you could buy joints of meat, fresh or cured or smoked, straight out of the slaughterhouses, though the pick of it either went out on the trains, or was collected from the other side of the stockyards from Kralheim Square by coaches supplying the fine houses of Traubischer. There were fish from the river, fattened on the drowned and toxic with waste; there were clothes and knick-knacks from foreign lands, sold by sailors to dockside traders for drinking and whoring money.
There was more besides for sale in Kralheim Market, but not on the stalls.
A Stahlhelm squad marched through the square, bootheels beating time to their NCO’s barked commands.  Sunlight glinted off helmets, breastplates, gauntlets, pistols.  Hard faces, eyes with the same metallic glint as the rest.
Jess had staked her claim to a spot beneath one of the viaducts, in the shadow of an alcove that could do double duty as a coupling-place, if the man was not choosy.  And after all, to take her, he hardly could be.
Other girls stood at the mouths of alleys or the doorways of tenements.  Jess’s landlady would never tolerate her bringing her custom home, but here it was a different story; a girl with a room commanded more and better trade than one who could only offer a stinking alleyway, or the non-privacy of an alcove beneath a viaduct.  But the rent for such a place was more than Jess could pay.
She’d done her best.  She wore a pretty dress she’d kept clean as she could.  On her last beat, she’d fixed up a make-do shelter from packing crates and an old mattress in the alley; it gave the men at least some privacy.  But a pimp from the Cuttingham district had installed one of his girls there, threatening Jess’s face with his razor.  He hadn’t even offered to take her into his stable.  Not that she’d’ve accepted, but that wasn’t the point.  She was bright and could be enterprising; the little shelter had been a good idea.  But no, she wasn’t fit for his little harem.
Or any other, if she was honest.  But she’d tried.  Bootblacking had given her hair a shine; blusher and lipstick hid her pallor.  A drop of belladonna put a shine in her eyes.  She just wished for a little kocaine to give her an edge.  Or a shot so’s she wouldn’t care.  But if wishes were horses, like Momma used to say, back before the Rising…  She made herself stand straight. 
Rail-thin and lost-looking, she didn’t look like a girl with any steel in her, but men had learned the hard way that wasn’t so.  So hard a way, that few had lived to profit by the knowledge.  For all that, steel wears down, and nowhere faster than in Steel City.
So when the black carriage clipclopped to a halt beneath the viaduct and the steps folded down, a part of her knew there might be danger but she found she didn’t care.  If she lived, she might have money for a fix; if not, she’d never have to worry about another.  Either way, that ache’d stop.  And death was a permanent ending; that might even make it more attractive.
The coachman leant out, pale, flabby and chinless.  “How much?”
“For what, baby?” she asked.
His voice had the rough accent of Cuttingham, but he tried to clip and aspirate his words in the Traubischer manner, marking him out as a rich man’s errand boy.  “My employer wishes the pleasure of a lady’s company for the evening.”
She doubted it was for real, but still couldn’t seem to care.  “Twenty dollars.”
“Take it or leave it.”  It was like watching another person, hearing another voice.  She heard herself speaking with a defiance she didn’t feel.
The coachman shrugged.  “OK.  If you would, mam?”
She boarded the coach.  The door shut.  Inside was a bottle of wine in a bucket of ice.  It stood open, a glass at hand, a whole roast chicken beside.  She hesitated a moment, then shrugged.  She rarely felt hunger nowadays, but now her stomach growled.  She tore the chicken apart with thin, dirty fingers, stuffed hunks of it in her mouth.
The cab rattled through cobbled streets and mounted the Brandlmeier Bridge. From the bridge she saw, barring the rivermouth, two gunboats; there were always at least that many on patrol.
The Brandlmeier Valley was a dead place now, ever since the Rising, but once it’d been the place to live; an unspoilt haven, in its day. The Krast, tributary of the Schleine, ran through it into Lake Voss.  Mansions dotted the hillsides flanking the Krast as the carriage bumped over the potholed road.  Gutted and empty, some burned out, others rotted to shells.  Her breath caught at the sight of one; she was sure she’d seen lights burn inside.
The Risen had stormed Brandlmeier, and then been penned up in there.  Those of its former occupants who’d survived the Rising now lived mostly in the suburbs of Traubischer, away from the city.  Stahlhelm patrols ensured they stayed safe and well-preserved.
The Valley had contained a dozen little townships, mostly dotted round Lake Voss.  Now they were deserted, pavements and roadways cracked, the buildings empty, rotting shells whose shadows you didn’t inspect in case you saw too much movement there.  Five years on from the Rising, craters, still not fully overgrown, dotted the remains of arcades and promenades, parks and boating lakes. Blackened stone, molten metal, glass warped into strange new shapes.
Only when the coach finally climbed the road leading over Suettler’s Hill, the ridge that closed the Valley off, did she breathe easy.
The hillcrest still bristled with the heavy guns the Stahlhelm had mounted there during the Rising. Most of the surviving Risen still lurked in the Valley, venturing out when hunger drove them. How long must the Stahlhelm have waited for a day like that, with their training camps and torchlit rallies, all to make ready for some great cataclysm they could save the city from?  Well, it had come, and they’d risen admirably to the occasion, even saved lives; the downside was the power they’d gained since.
No-one living passed through Brandlmeier for any good purpose.  For all that, the Stahlhelm patrolling the ridge showed no hostility.  Doubtless, they recognised the family crest on the carriage.  Their officer exchanged a few brief words with the coachman and shot Jess a casual glance so cold it burned.  Then he slapped the side of the coach and it rattled on. 
The coach passed over Suettler’s Hill into Rattinglea, the buffer zone of worker’s housing filling the gap between dead Brandlmeier and living Traubischer.  They passed rows of dilapidated tenements not unlike Jess’s own, till these gave way to rows of terraces. The better part of Rattinglea; close to Traubischer, for the better-paid workers.
The coach pulled down a sidestreet and stopped outside a narrow house with boarded-up windows.  The coachman opened the door and Jess stepped down, weaving slightly from the wine.
The house door opened.  The man in the doorway was bald on top, eyes bright and hard above a broken nose and drooping moustache.  He wore canvas trousers, military boots and a leather apron. Bare arms; shoulders heavy with muscle.
“Schengen,” he said.
“Hinter,” said the coachman.  “Another for you.”
Hinter smiled.  His teeth were brown and broken, discoloured and askew.  “Do come in.”
Now Jess knew something was wrong, and despite her earlier apathy, she found she cared.  She stepped back.  Hinter’s smile broadened; he took a step forward.  She tried to run, but Schengen, moving back, had drawn a small, nickel-plated .32 revolver.
“Do as you’re told, lady.”  He pursed his lips.  “Move.”
Hinter caught her arm and bundled her in through the door.  Just before he moved to blot out the view of the street, she saw Schengen put the gun away.
“See you later,” she heard him call.
Hinter back-heeled the door shut.  “Move.”
When she wasn’t fast enough, he grabbed her hair in one hand and arm in the other, manhandled her to a doorway and forced her face-up against the wall.  She heard him fumbling in his clothing and feared sodomy for an instant, but he was only finding a key.  He unlocked the door, booted it wide, hurled her through.
She hit the floor; the door slammed behind her.  Shapes moved in the gloom; only thin light filtered through the boarded window.  She looked up, gulping breath, and saw two other women in the bright but tattered clothes common to their profession.  One was high-yellow like her, with a scarred cheek; the other was thin, pale and yellow-haired, red round the nostrils from too much kocaine.
“Shit,” said the scarred girl.
The yellow-haired girl ignored her.  “You OK?” she asked Jess.
Jess stood, grimaced at pain from a bruised hip.  “I’ll live.”
The scarred girl let out a short, bitter laugh.
“Keisha!” said the yellow-haired girl, and offered Jess her hand.  “Name’s Lily.”
“Jess.”  Jess warmed to few people, but took a shine to Lily on sight.  It was the height and poise, the near-mannish self-assurance.  Like Rose had been.  Jess blinked fast; she hadn’t thought of Rose in a long time, and to do so stung her now.
“Don’t go to pieces, girl,” said Keisha.
 “Don’t mind Keisha,” Lily said.  “She’s just scared.  We all are.”
“What’s going on?” asked Jess.
Keisha laughed.  “Don’t you know anything?  This is a butch-club.”
Butch for butcher; weakness seeped through Jess’s legs.
“We don’t know that,” Lily said.
Outside they heard the clipclop of the carriage going.  “Think three whores’ll be enough for them?” Keisha asked, suddenly subdued.  “Or he gonna get more?”
Lily knotted thin, bony fingers in a weave.  “I think we’re all they need.”
At one point Keisha tried screaming for help, but Hinter simply stormed in and punched her in the stomach- so’s not to mark the face- till she’d vomited.  Now that sour reek was added to that of sweat.  Pointless in any case; the houses either side, and indeed half the street, were empty.
After that, Jess’s spasm of concern for her fate seemed to have passed; now she rested, head in Lily’s lap.  Lily sang quietly.  The fight had bled out of them horribly fast; all that seemed left was quelling the rising panic as death approached.
Jess closed her eyes, dreamt of Rose.  Her big sister had raised her after Momma and Poppa died.  Rose and Thibodeaux, the musician she’d took up with.  Jess’d liked Thibodeaux; the three of them’d been happy, in their tenement not far from Brandlmeier Bridge.  Before the Rising.
Thibodeaux sat on the back step, head bowed over his guitar as he played.  Rose sat in the yard, in a rocker, head bowed over her sewing.  The guitar strings broke as Thibodeaux plucked a difficult chord, and the thread of Rose’s sewing tangled and unravelled.  They both looked up; their faces were mottled dry and grey.  Their eyes red.  Their mouths wide, drooling, full of teeth.  Hungry; ravening.  They stood and advanced.  Jess woke.
“Hush there.”  Lily stroked her brow.
“Bad dream,” whispered Jess.
“The Rising, right?”  Lily smiled sadly.  “I’ve had that dream too.”
Jess looked away.  “Where’d you live?”
“Narrellton.  Got out just in time.  Before the Stahlhelm sealed it off and…”  Lily didn’t finish the sentence; both women could remember Narrellton.  For all she’d gone through at the time and young as she’d been, Jess recalled the pyre that district had become.
“You lose anyone in that?”  Jess asked softly.
Lily shook her head.  “Came to Steel City on my own.  Didn’t have anyone to lose.  Best way.”
Jess nodded amen to that.
“Just gettin’ outta Narrellton without gettin’ ate was bad enough.”  She caught Jess’s eye and touched her cheek lightly, frowning.  “You did, huh?”
Rose and Thibodeaux.  Jess nodded.  For the first time, she wanted to tell.  “My folks came back.  Momma and Poppa.  They- came home.  My sister and her husband, they… I was the only one got out.”
She heard a strangling in her voice.  Lily stroked her hair.  “Easy.”
“What’re we gonna do?”  whispered Jess.  The fear was back, but she’d still no idea of how to use it, to make it go away.
“I don’t know, honey,” Lily said.
Keisha huddled in the far corner, rocking.
“She OK?”
“Strung out is all.”
Jess licked her lips.  Had Lily seen the marks on her arms?  The long-sleeved dress might’ve hid them.  Keisha let out a moan; Jess shivered.  Me soon, she thought.  Unless death intervened to prevent it.  Once again, she wondered if it might not be welcome.
Jess was shaking in the early stages of withdrawal when the clatter of hooves sounded outside the house.
The only sound in the room was Keisha’s moaning, Jess’s whimpers as the slow, killing boneache, the sweats and the nausea, sank in, and the soft croon of Lily’s singing. 
Lily fell silent, holding Jess’s hand; Jess felt her fingers tighten and squeezed back.
A banging on the door.  Voices; Hinter’s rumble, Schengen’s clipped tones, and new voices- young and sharp and braying.
The door flew open and Hinter entered, lamp in hand.  Jess squinted in the dark, and Lily’s hand rose to her face.  Only Keisha didn’t seem to notice, rocking and moaning.
“Take your pick,” said Hinter.
One of the three young men who’d entered with him smiled and rubbed his chin.  “Spoilt for choice, huh?”
“We’ve got all night,” said another, a pallid boy whose white-blonde hair seemed to glisten in the light.
The first boy was tall, powerfully built- looked the kind who’d have his pick of girls.  But then, he was from a good family; any girls he’d know would be nice ones.  Probably started going with whores young and then… Jess gave up trying to work it out.  She’d had more than her share of strange men in her time, guys who wanted things she’d never understand, baffled as to how they could give pleasure.  Normally she’d shrug; some of the weird ones could be pretty harmless, less work than the regulars, but then you got the ones like this who could only spend if they saw blood.  Drew it.  In fatal quantities.  No point trying to understand what kinked a man to do that.  Least of all now.
The tall boy was still rubbing his chin.  The third was small and fat, bouncing from the ball of one foot to the other; the joke of the group, the clown.  There was always one.  “Whaddaya say, guys?  Which one d’ya wanna start with?”
“Shut up, Adam.”  The tall one’s eyes trekked round the room with lazy cruelty.  For a guilty moment, Jess felt relief as she saw them aimed above her, at Lily- the other girl’s fingers tightened again- but then rolled down to focus on her.  She couldn’t even whimper, she was too afraid.  She just watched the smile spread on the tall boy’s face, saw the pink tongue-tip stroke his red lips, saw them part to speak her death sentence.
Their eyes flicked away from her, towards Keisha in the corner.  Dead silence dropped; Adam, who’d been breathily sniggering throughout, fell silent.
Keisha carried on.  Jess doubted she even knew the boys were there; most likely she was heaping abuse on the head of some long ago enemy, but it didn’t matter.  “Motherfuckers.  Two-bit peckerwood piece a shit trash.  Dicks like goddamn maggots. Limpdicks, limpdicks.”  Her laugh was sudden and loud and jagged as broken glass; she waggled a little finger in imitation of a flaccid prick.
“Shut up,” Jess heard Lily whisper, and gripped the other girl’s hand hard to quiet her.  Awful, guilty relief, to feel the killing focus shift from you to another.
All three boys were watching, silent, as Keisha laughed and cursed.  Hinter’s face was blank in the flickering lantern’s glare; behind the boys, out of the shadows in the hall, Schengen’s face leapt out as he lit a cigarette.
“Whaddaya think?”  Adam’s voice tremored with excitement; his first time, perhaps.  “Huh?  Huh?  Tony?  George?  Whaddaya think?”  He turned to the tall boy again.  “Tony?”
“Shut up, Adam.”  Tony sighed.  His gaze never left Keisha.  She was looking at him now, face twitching.  Tony smiled and pointed.  “Her.”
Hinter nodded, headed forward, caught Keisha by the hair.  She was already squirming backward, coming back to the real world just in time to leave it for good, and began to scream and beg as he hauled her up.
George tutted, sighed, and shook his head.  “Thought she’d have a little more spunk in her than that.”
“Hey, don’t worry, George,” Adam cackled.  “She soon will.  Huh?  Huh?”
“Shut up, Adam.”
With a last, wailing scream, Keisha was dragged out by Hinter.  The three boys followed and the door slammed.
The key turned in the lock, and feet thumped upstairs.  Keisha’s voice, wailing and begging, receded with them.
A long silence.
Then, directly over their heads, a new kind of screaming began.
After a time, something that wasn’t water started dripping from the ceiling onto the bare, stained floor.
At long last, the screams began to fade.  Jess damned herself again by silently begging them to find a new lease of life; the longer Keisha suffered, the longer till it was her turn.  Except of course that the longer it took to kill one…
Keisha’s moans abruptly stopped.  There was another silence, then a round of laughter.
Tony shouted Hinter and Schengen.  Their feet climbed the stairs.  There was the sound of something heavy being dragged away, bumping down the staircase to a back room.  A mumbled conversation, and then Hinter’s footsteps began to descend.
All ambiguity fled; I want to live, Jess realised.  “Help me,” she whispered.  “Help me, help me-”
Lily’s hand tightened further still on hers.  The door flew open and Hinter stepped through.  He grinned and started towards them.
Take Lily take Lily take L-
There was a scuffling sound beneath the floorboards.
Hinter looked down.  So did Lily, despite her fear.  Jess didn’t.  She knew.
Sounded like rats, only too big to be them.
Hinter looked back up and was about to step forward when the scuttling and the scuffling began again.  It moved across the floor, and rose, into the wall behind him.  But it was still too big to be a rat.
Hinter turned slowly to face the wall, something like fear in his eyes.
He was just turning away when the wall split open and a gaunt figure in tattered clothes, face mottled and grey, eyes glowing red, reached out long taloned hands to claim him.
Hinter screamed, but only once; it caught him and its mouth yawned open, glowing dull red inside like embers, closing on his face.
Lily scrambled away with a short, muffled shriek.
Scratching sounds in the hall, rising above- up to the room overhead where the laughter and chatter of the three boys had stopped.
Stone and wood and plaster splintered, and the screams began.
Schengen ran in, gun in hand.  The Risen clutching Hinter let the big man drop; Hinter fell thrashing to the floorboards, trying to scream without a face.
The Risen turned, still chewing slowly, as Schengen raised the gun and fired.  It advanced on him.  The .32 barked again and again.  Fool, thought Jess, don’t you know you can’t kill the dead?  Only fire’d stopped the Rising, fire and bombs.  Turn the Risen to ashes, or blow them into pieces so small they could do nothing.
The floor split, clawed hands smashing out through the floorboards to grab Hinter.  A last attempted scream and the boards under him collapsed; he vanished into the dark.
Schengen’s pistol clicking empty.  The Risen fell upon him, the collision carrying them both out into the hallway.  A scream, a tearing of flesh, a breaking of bone- then silence.
The Risen returned.  It held Schengen’s head in one hand, by the hair, dragged the body by the collar with the other. With a shrugging motion, it flung both down the hole in the floor.
Screams from upstairs.  Feet thundered down the staircase.  The Risen turned.  Jess caught a glimpse of Adam, clad only in a shirt, shit smeared down the backs of his bare legs, trying to run for the door- and then the Risen leapt.  People thought of the Risen as lumbering and slow, with no knowledge of their former lives, but that was just how they were when newborn- Jess knew, firsthand, how fast they could move.
It seized Adam and held him, swung him high as it returned.  Adam kept screaming helplessly.  With a snarl, the Risen swung him forward, launched him into the hole.  Adam’s screams reached a crescendo as much of unbelief as agony- from one of the favoured children to meat for the dead in seconds- and then ceased among sounds of rending and breakage.
There was a crash out back, where Keisha’s body had been dumped.
The Risen advanced on Lily and Jess.  Up above, something came down the stairs, with the sound of heavy objects being dragged.
The Risen loomed over her.  Its red eyes found hers.
“Jessss,” it said, thickly, at last.
“Thibodeaux,” she managed.
Lily was staring at her.
“You are alright?” The Risen asked.
She nodded.
“You left it late to call us.”
“Forgot.  Was so scared.”
The Risen shook its head.  “You know you want to join us,” it said.  “You were too slow, that day, trying to escape.  Death got into you that day.  Been in you ever since.  Why you keep shooting dope.  Get away from the living.”
The dragging footsteps were at the bottom of the stairs.
“Rose misses you,” it said.
“I miss her.”
“Then come with us.”
Thibodeaux sighed.  It was like wind in the mouth of an open grave.  “As you choose.”  Another sigh, as she shivered before it.  “I know what you need, child.”  A clawed hand slipped into the remains of its jacket.  “You know you don’t hunger for that stuff in the grave.”
“I know it.”
A small packet of brown dust hit the boards at her feet.  “Payment.”
“You made a deal with us,” Thibodeaux said.  “Don’t tell me you don’t need this.”
Hinter trying to scream with no face.  Another packet fell; Schengen’s severed head.  Another; Keisha, raving.  Three more: Adam, Tony, George. 
“Wh..?”  whispered Lily.  “Wh… Wh..?”
Red eyes flickered to her.  “Who is this?”
“Thibodeaux, this is Lily,” said Jess, fighting a mad urge to laugh.  “Lily, Thibodeaux.”
Lily whimpered, hand tight on Jess’s.  The six shiny packets winked in the light at her feet.
Dusk in Steel City looks so much like the dawn: it comes blood-coloured, the red fading into darkness instead of light.
The sun rose over the Schleine as seen from Jess’s room, and set behind her; it was almost black outside when she stumbled in through the door and collapsed on the bed, lamplighters moving down the streets, leaving gaslights burning in their wake.
She let her composure go and sobbed to let out the day’s pent-up fright and grief and shame.  Finally she straightened up and peeled off the dress, cast it aside.  Found her shift, pulled it back on.
She felt dirtied by the house in Rattinglea, and would’ve dearly loved a shower to lose the grime and sweat, but there’d be no hot water left by now.  Still, she had something better.  She lit a candle, filled a spoon with water from the ewer, tipped cinnamon-brown dust from the first packet into the mix, the needle held ready for it to liquefy.
When it did, the needle slid into a vein; she pressed the plunger down.  A warm liquid rush filled her and she lazed back on the bed.  Her fingers stroked the other six packets, and she waited for the dope to make it all go away, all the things she did and had done to see another dawn, the knowledge of the Risen’s secret ways beneath the city, the thrashing knot inside her of the urge to live and the wish to return to her family’s embrace; she waited for that, and Lily’s face, to fade.

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