For this holiday season, here we have a tale submitted to us anonymously for the Christmas annual, but we have a sneaking suspicion that it could be someone we know…. anyway, I would like to appeal for them to come forward and announce themselves as the author of this thoroughly scurrilously tongue-in-cheek story (featuring as it does Spectral Press luminaries and others)! Who do YOU think it might be?
A Spectral Affair
It was the day of the Spectral Press Xmas party and Simon Marshall-Jones, its stalwart proprietor, was worried. He wondered how many genre luminaries would show up. Had he advertised and promoted it enough?
In the last month, Simon had mentioned the party 347 times on Facebook; 232 times on Twitter; and – just on the off chance of anyone using it – twice on MySpace.
Simon hoped to attract many of the hottest new writers in the field, guys and gals breathing new life into the genre, with muscular prose and bruising imaginations. And Gary McMahon.
Simon would also be revealing his publication schedule from 2013 to 2028. He had BIG PLANS and wanted to whet appetites. He was excited. He’d bought in eight bottles of fine red wine and a crate of Belgian beer. Everyone else would have to remain sober.
As the day drew on, he grew increasingly excited. Spectral Towers – the party venue – wasn’t really a tower and had nothing spectral about it. It was a suburban property in Milton Keynes, but Simon had rejected Neil Williams’ first attempt at a company logo – a small house with a drainage problem – as insufficiently creepy. “Besides,” Simon had legitimately reasoned, “how can an independent press be semi-detached?”
“Fair point,” Neil had replied, pressing his body against the shower curtain. “Now please leave my bathroom. I’m trying to get clean.”
But something about this image had appealed to Simon, and a corporate image was born.
“Oh, I do hope it’s a good turn-out,” Simon said an hour before the party was due to begin. There was now no wine left, but that was okay. Belgian beer was easier to drink while circulating.
He was most excited to be announcing a novella by a newcomer, an anonymous submitter who’d promised to attend the party and reveal his or her identity. The novella – Spectral Visions 57 – was due to be published in 2028, owing to a backlog of acceptances. The author had seemed a little disgruntled at this news, but had eventually signed a contract by email.
Simon felt wary, because the novella – a powerful piece in which all its victims were hoist with their own petards – had a black, impenetrable, mordant, sinister, creepy air of the darkest occult practices about it, the kind that haunts the heads of even the hardest horror hound. The manuscript had been submitted in Comic Sans font.
Only the mysterious death of Simon’s cat that same night had prevented him from reading it in one sitting.
“Oh, please let’s have a full house,” Simon said, looking around his empty pad. All his other pets had also died recently, but there was no need to suspect foul play, not at all.
Lord John Probert, fifth in line to the throne, bashed on the locked bathroom door and shouted, “Hey, hurry up. There’s a queue out here!”
The four guys in front of him nodded, silently applauding his no-nonsense manner.
Probert Towers, much talked about online, was actually a one-bedroom flat at the arse-end of Bristol. And all the velvet jackets and silk cravats? Stolen from Debenhams.
John wasn’t a surgeon; he didn’t even know where the hospital was. He faced-up paint cans at B&Q.
Nevertheless, he got lots of writing done and his new novella – Chin, Chin: Tales of After-dinner Violence – was due to be published in 2013. He’d attend the Spectral Xmas party this evening . . . if he could just change into his ill-acquired garments.
It was Lady P who insisted on all the fancy get-up. John was happier in T-shirts and trackie bottoms. But as she’d dressed in gown and corset, he thought he should make an effort.
“Hey, if you’d bought all this stuff in the shop, what would be its price?” Lady Probert asked in her strong American accent.
Price, thought John, and immediately had a short story in mind.
When he slipped on his stolen shoes, Lady P said, “Those looked comfortable, giving the heels plenty of cushion.”
But her accent pronounced the last word cushing, and gadzooks, if John didn’t have a whole novella planned now.
Once John was ready, Lady P said, “I don’t even know where Milton Keynes is. So you direct, and I’ll play follow my lea- . . .”
“Stop with the inspirations!” John snapped back, trying to suppress the word Lee . . . but it was too late.
The unholy trinity had been invoked.
The council estate double-act – Lord and Lady P – had prepared a film-inspired performance for the Spectral party, but then three real spectral ghouls – Price, Cushing and Lee – gave them an acting lesson they’d never forget, with bits falling off their bodies as they enunciated.
One of these legends wasn’t even dead yet.
Gary McMahon emerged from his fine house in Leeds. Although his new book – his 48th that year, and entitled Everyone’s a Bastard, Even Mickey Rourke – would be announced for publication in 2014, he was annoyed. The ****ing front door annoyed him with its ****ing annoying handle and its ****ing ****ing lock. Then he’d got in the ****ing car, programmed his ****ing sat-nav system for Milton Keynes, and then started the mother****ing engine. Three chavs collapsed in the backspurt from the exhaust pipe. Gary smiled and then ****ing hated that, too.
He hated everything today, even the concept of hate. “Which ****,” he asked himself, “could come up with such a ****ing stupid concept? I ****ing hate that ****.”
Moments later, he hit two chavs in a stolen Astra, forcing them off the road in a shower of fuel and flame. Gary smiled. There were worst things than hate, he supposed. Like chavs, for example. The ****ing ****s.
Just then, however, the thin plastic figures in his backseats reared up, bearing stitched-on ears and pigs’ eyeballs. With fingernails embedded in their gums, they grinned wider than Gary could ever manage.
“Don’t kill me!” Gary protested. “I’ll write you a short story . . . a novella . . . a novel!”
But none of these options appealed to the creatures, these fevered, filthy refugees from a council estate nightmare.
And although Gary tried one last time – “Okay, a trilogy, then . . . ?” – the beasts were soon upon him.
Tim Lebbon had planned to run from Wales to Milton Keynes. If mountains were in the way, so what? He’d leap over them. If he chanced upon rivers and lakes, that was not a problem. He could swim like a fish. Better than a fish, if truth be told. He couldn’t fly yet, but he was working on it.
At the Spectral Press Xmas party, Tim would have his 14,513,783rd book announced, a novella called Nature’s a Bitch but Good to Run Through due to be published in 2015. He was very excited. The buzz of publication never wore off. It wasn’t quite the buzz of running around the moon without oxygen or non-gravity weights – which he’d done twice – but it was close enough.
He got up that day feeling bright and fresh, ready to take on the world . . . Then he felt a slight burning sensation in his chest. Heart, he wondered? He’d heard of super-healthy people just keeling over and dying.
With precaution in mind, Tim ran to the local hospital, to get checked out. It was a mere eight miles and he made it in 43 seconds.
The news was bad, however. After getting inspected by a specialist, the verdict was delivered: Tim had minutes to live.
Before collapsing with agony, he had time to write only 37 new short stories and three novels. Then he was put in a body bag with a label attached to one toe:
“The worst case of jogger’s nipple this doctor has ever encountered.”
Meanwhile in Whitby, artificial doctor and junk food guru Gary Fry was getting ready to travel to the Spectral Press party. He was excited. His new novella – Boring Themes Represented by Some Weird Shit – was going to be announced for publication in 2016.
He had his rail ticket, his MP3 player, and an emergency burger tucked into his jacket. As the crow flew, Milton Keynes was 300 miles from Whitby, but to reach anywhere from that coastal town was not so simple. Gary had to travel 3,412 miles that day, with a change north at Darlington, a journey across the country to Liverpool, then north again to Glasgow (and a quick Highland fling), back on the train to Bristol, now inland to Birmingham and all that entails (police visit, retrieval of wallet), east a bit to Ipswich (sex with distant aunt), and then, the last leg, a multi-platform race around London.
Luckily, Gary had something light and relaxing to listen to – an audiobook of Hegel’s Really Fucking Hard Book about Dialectical Bollocks – and when he emerged from Milton Keynes railway station . . . it was morning again.
“How can this be?” Gary asked himself, and then reached for the most obvious solution.
Conventional time and space had been fundamentally transformed, jettisoning his embodied identity from the social and cultural swim of everyday life.
Then a monster came along and ate him.
Stephen Volk slammed down the telephone, clearly furious. Fucking TV executives had altered his shopping list. He’d accidentally left the list of groceries and other essentials at the BBC last week, and now the producer he’d been working with on a new script wanted some changes.
“Can we get fewer carrots and more potatoes?” the man had asked, infuriating Stephen, who’d worked on the list for over 20 minutes. “And do we really need so many tins of beans? I was thinking maybe we could replace them with tomatoes. They’re a bit sweeter and appeal to a wider demographic.”
Stephen had tried to argue that the foodstuff was intended for a specific audience – himself and his wife – but the producer had continued meddling anyway, until Stephen barely recognised the list as his own and decided to consult a solicitor to disown it.
“Jesus!” he said, while getting ready for the Spectral Press Xmas party. “Can’t those guys leave anything alone?”
At least Stephen had the comfort of knowing that his new novella – Nothing at all Like Ghostwatch, so Give Me a Sodding Break – would this evening be announced for publication in 2017. He dressed in the most hideous shirt in Wiltshire (quite an achievement given the competition) and then headed out for Milton Keynes.
Before exiting the house, however, he heard a noise from upstairs. Just pipes, he imagined, but then hurried to his drinks cabinet to pour a quick glass of Dutch courage. He had a wide selection of spirits, but was unable to decide which to take . . . but then one chose him. He necked the neat vodka and quickly returned to the front door. That was when he heard another sound, this time from his cellar.
Just cats, he decided, trying to forget about that show, the one he’d written that had distinguished Mike Smith and Sarah Greene’s otherwise sanitised careers.
But then he heard a low grumbling, like human vocal chords unable to remain quiet. This was joined a moment later by erratic screeches that almost sounded like . . . no, that couldn’t be. No animal noise could possess a Scouse drawl.
Moments later, however, the truth was revealed. Michael Parkinson and Craig Charles emerged from the back of the house, interviewing profusely and acting all giddy in turn. Both had clearly been dead for years.
And they were seeking a new companion.
Paul Finch was a Wigan lad, proud and true. He liked ale, pies and rugby. He also spent every minute of every day writing horror stories. Mathematicians, experts in the concept of infinity, had employed a room-filling mainframe computer to calculate how many tales Paul had written, but it had blown a gasket after the first 7 years . . . 7 years during which Paul had added considerably more stories to his back catalogue.
At one stage in 2012, the horror market was unable to cope with Paul’s output and he’d had to seek out new outlets: gardening magazines, science journals, knitting anthologies, sex bulletins, smokers’ gazettes, baby periodicals, student rags, DIY serials, the local newspaper, national newspapers, international newspapers, NASA’s journal, and many more. He even started translating his fiction into innumerable different languages, to maximise his exposure to foreign publications. But still there weren’t enough markets to contain his work. In one issue of the Lancet in 2009, Paul’s fiction had replaced every medical article, filling the volume from cover to cover. The printers had added a supplement to the issue by necessity; this had also contained a story by Paul.
In short, Paul’s output was getting unmanageable.
He was now ready to travel to Milton Keynes for the Spectral Press hoolie. “I hope they have ale,” he said to himself, flattening out his rugby T-shirt. “I hope they have pies.” He was a northern lad, proud and true, and if anyone had a problem with that, well, that was OK. He was also the nicest man in England.
When he tried making for the doorway out, however, he got trapped along a corridor of paper. Unsubmitted fiction was piled high to each side, forming a passageway through his home. He always had to tread carefully to pass from one room to another. Of course his latest novella – Monsters of Olde England, Monsters, Monsters, and a Little Bit of Kink for the Boys – would this evening be announced for publication in 2018 and he could now dispose of the manuscript, but even so, that made little difference to the bulk. He was stuck solid.
He screamed and gasped, but nothing worked. He tried using ellipses in an idiosyncratic manner … with a space on either side of them … but that didn’t help either. He was doomed. Doomed as a man who’d ventured into some old part of England and chanced upon an ancient, nefarious myth. Doomed.
Alison Littlewood knew she’d had a lucky break. A few years ago, she’d been just starting out as a small press writer, and now she had the likes of Richard and Judy knocking on her door.
As she got ready for the Spectral Press party, Alison wished Richard and Judy would stop knocking on her door. They’d been there for days now, trying to leech on her success. Having not worked for years (following Richard’s ill-advised Ali G impersonation), Richard and Judy were keen to be associated with any form of celebrity.
Alison was a lovely lady, fully deserving of her success, but even she had her limits. This was supposed to be a good day, with announcement of her new novella – Just Send it in, You Never Know – for publication by Spectral Press in 2019. But as she emerged from her house to head for Milton Keynes, she found Richard and Judy begging her for an interview.
“I’ve already given you one,” Alison replied, trying to fend off Richard and Judy’s fierce attention. “Maybe I can arrange to speak to you again when the new book’s out, but not yet, I’m afraid.”
“But . . . but . . .” Richard and Judy protested, but Alison was having none of it.
“Oh, just leave me alone!” she shrieked, and ran past Richard and Judy to the railway station.
There, Clive Anderson, Clive James, Terry Wogan, Russell Harty, Michael Parkinson, Graham Norton, and Frank Skinner ambushed her. They sat her on the train and interviewed her until she went mad. Her final thought, before leaping out of the window, was simple: Why didn’t I just submit my first novel to Spectral Press?
Simon Bestwick was a garrulous chap. He liked to chatter. He talked quickly and with a staccato rhythm. That was the way he wrote, too. He’d written tons of fiction. All of it scary. He couldn’t be arsed putting a space before his dashes, and so a lot of his prose looked this- which annoyed editors. But did Simon care? Nah, he had other fish to fry.
He liked to keep his dialogue spare, without said-isms. That was how he experienced life. He was a socialist and couldn’t stand waste. So when Simon Marshall-Jones had called to invite him to the Spectral Xmas party, Simon Bestwick kept it brief.
“Yes, I’ll come, mate.”
“Great. See you then.”
“Looking forward to it.”
“Excellent! By the way, I’m also accepting your new novella, I Love Cate, She’s Lovely.”
“Brilliant news, mate. Thanks for that.”
“I’d like to publish it in 2020.”
And that – except for another four hours of chatter, during which the head honcho of Spectral Press considered suicide at least three times – was the end of the conversation.
Simon was well-pleased (Bestwick, that was; Marshall-Jones had returned to tranquillisers to aid sleep). He prepared for the journey to Milton Keynes with a happy dance. He’d pick up his ever-reigning lover on the way. Yes, after heading out from Salford, Liverpool was in completely the opposite direction, but since love had arrived chez Bestwick, up was down and left was right.
“Left was right,” Simon mused, wondering whether paradigm-shifting experiences could fundamentally alter one’s politics, too. He looked in the mirror . . . and was horrified to find himself performing a Nazi salute! Moments later, he started cursing all the vile, spineless, feckless scroungers in society and wanted to vote Tory at the next election. Then he exploded.
Many other writers had similar experiences.
Mark Morris, early for the party, called into a Milton Keynes pub and soon found himself defending the latest episode of Dr Who from abuse by a gang of skinheads who hadn’t cared for its plot arc and character development. Mark was beaten to death with baseball bats, which was a shame because his new novella They’re Making a Film out of This, so it’s a Tie-in Before its Time was due to be published in 2021.
Simon Kurt Unsworth had agreed to attend the Spectral Xmas hoolie despite a latest disappointment in his writing career. Stephen Jones had recently suggested that he might do a follow-up to the Best of Best New Horror and call it The Best of the Best of Best New Horror, and that he was thinking of choosing ‘The Church on the Island’ as the best story ever published in the series. But the publisher had refused to publish a book with just one story in it, and so the proposal had been scrapped. “But I’m the best of the best of the best,” Simon had protested, and had even gone further. “And I’m even better now than I was then, which makes me the best of the best of the best of the best.” But the book wasn’t going to happen. However, Simon’s new novella, Christ, I’m Good, due out in 2022 from Spectral Press, would go some way towards compensating for this disappointment. “It’s the best novella ever written,” he said, travelling down to Milton Keynes on the train. “Until my next one, anyway . . .” But that was when the train was derailed as the driver was blinded by Simon’s garish shirt and took a wrong turn at Birmingham and ended up in Joel Lane’s back garden, where Simon was kicked to death by the vicious homeowner bearing swastikas and a signed photo of David Cameron over which he masturbated daily.
Paul Kane had run out of luminaries to solicit plaudits from, and had slipped into a deep depression. Soon after getting a nice commendation from Stephen King, he’d been caught desecrating the graves of both Edgar Allan Poe and H P Lovecraft, saying, “I can reanimate them! I need them to say something nice about my stories!” His final novella, the posthumous My Real Name isn’t Scary, was due to be published in 2023.
Ramsey Campbell, whose new novella The Fin of the Shark was due for publication in 2024, took a short-cut to Milton Keynes down the Mersey and got nibbled by piranhas. When he came ashore, thinner yet no less dogged, he was assaulted by several psychotic slasher movie characters, and even though he protested, “This is not the kind of horror I write!” that didn’t trouble the monster emerging from the dock, which looked like Godzilla and wanted to know only one thing: “Where’s the best place to dine around here?” Ramsey offered the creature many suggestions, covering Greek, Indian, Thai, Italian, Mexican, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Turkish, Indonesian, Czech, Persian, Venezuelan, Ethiopian, Canadian, French, German, South African, Swiss, Spanish, Iraqi, Swedish, Croatian, Norwegian, Irish, Korean (north and south), Welsh, Siberian, Paraguayan, Scottish, Brazilian, Zimbabwean, Argentine, Peruvian, Icelandic, Polish, Nigerian, North American, and British restaurants . . . But the monster wasn’t interested in any of them. And then ate Ramsey.
Pete Atkins had died during the flight across the Atlantic from sunny Los Angeles. Cenobites had opened up a gateway to hell in one side of the plane, and even Pinhead was surprised when he was sucked out of the vehicle, shrieking, “I can’t think of anything sinister and catchy. Er, screaming is a waste of good . . . er . . . We have such sights to . . .” Then his voice had lost its deep timbre and reverted to Doug Bradley’s gentle English tones. “Oh shit, this is going to hurt, isn’t it?” Pete Atkins had agreed, before exploding upon impact with Milton Keynes. His novella, Hullraiser: A Tale of Horror in the Docks, was due to be published in 2025.
Robert Shearman’s new novella was about Roald Dahl’s involvement with the Superman screenplay, particularly the villainous parts: in an attempt to get away from his association with Dr Who, it was called Dahl Lex and was due to be published in 2026. Unfortunately, however, Robert was exterminated on the night of the Spectral Press Xmas party when he used a sonic screwdriver to put up a new bookshelf and obliterated himself and a whole town.
Rhys Hughes had agreed to attend the party on one condition: that he could sit in a room on his own and shout abuse through a crack in the wall. Simon, an amicable chap, had agreed, but had suggested that when Rhys’ new novella – Nobody Will Buy This Because it’s too Witty and Clever for Meatheads – was announced for publication in 2027, he should at least put in an appearance. But Rhys had protested. “Did Aristotle ever put in an appearance?” he cried. “Was Borges ever expected to put in an appearance?” Then he added, “An appearance is a banana bobbing in a sea of Vimto, anyway, so there’s no need for one!” At the end of each one-liner, he even held up a sign bearing an exclamation mark, just to get across the ironic, elusive, clever, philosophical and deliberately untruthful way he was telling Simon to go fuck himself . . . But that was when Rhys remembered that he lived in Swansea, and that, despite a few palm trees in Gower, this wasn’t central America. And then he killed himself . . . very wittily; with “words” rearranged as a “sword”, because a pen is mightier!!! He was still laughing as blood ran down the drain. All witnesses looked nonplussed.
These and other guests failed to show up, and Simon Marshall-Jones was forlorn. The Belgian beer was now gone, of course, but he’d been hoping to share water with lots of authors, folk he’d supported in the hope of building Spectral Press into a MAJOR NEW FORCE IN DARK LITERATURE. But it was not to be.
However . . . was that true?
No, he was right the first time: it was not to be.
Simon slumped in one corner of his home, feeling miserable. Were they all dead – everyone whose work he’d selected for publication until 2028?
It appeared so. News travelled fast in a contrived story full of plot-holes, and Simon had heard what had happened in ways it is unnecessary to go into.
Just then, however, something creaked outside his house.
Simon stood and looked out through his front window.
A shadowy figure was heading up his path, clutching a manuscript.
Of course, thought Simon, suddenly excited again. He belched a heady stench of vino and biere de Belgique, and then headed for his front door.
The anonymous submitter had arrived. The one whose novella had been scheduled for publication in 2028 – a novella so real and frightening that . . . Simon had had the impression that its events had been based on actual experience.
After escaping from the obligatory, cheesy horror-story italicised section, Simon thought for a moment . . . (Oh damn, he thought; here he went again.)
Everyone in that novella had been hoist with their own petards, falling victim to accidents and disasters that characterised their own fiction and literary experiences. Did it follow that . . . that the novella written by the anonymous submitter was real? And did it have the power to eliminate other authors standing between it and publication?
Simon’s heart was hammering in his chest. He edited that experience, however, cannily realising that the phrase “in his chest” was redundant, because where else would a heart be? And so with his heart hammering, he reached out for the front door.
He could hear someone breathing behind the door, the heavy gasps of a . . . man, was it? Or maybe a large woman?
He didn’t know . . . but realised there was only one way of finding out.
He tugged open his front door.
And found himself looking at . . .
[Owing to a rare printing error, this manuscript is incomplete. Spectral Press apologises for the inconvenience and hopes you’ll nonetheless consider subscribing to its Facebook page and its quarterly chapbooks, buy its regular novellas and Xmas anthologies, and engage in many other exciting events coming very soon: https://spectralpress.wordpress.com/]