cover

Contents

Cover
About the Book
Title Page
Introduction by Joanne Harris
Introduction by Christopher Fowler
Zygomaticus
Red Gloves Vol. 1
The Rulebook
Dead Ground Zero
Locked
Lantern Jack
An Injustice
The Adventure Of Lucifer’s Footprints
Down
The Stretch
The Deceivers
Killing The Cook
Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside
Enjoy
Red Gloves Vol. 2
Unheimlich
The Eleventh Day
Piano Man
The Girl On Mount Olympus
Halloween Dog
Poison Pen
The Conspirators
The Boy Thug
The Velocity of Blame
Arkangel
The Mistake At The Monsoon Palace
Beautiful Men
Read on for an extract from Full Dark House
About the Author
Also by Christopher Fowler
Copyright

Red Gloves Vols. 1 & 2

Christopher Fowler

Introduction by Joanne Harris

I was first introduced to Christopher Fowler’s books over twenty-five years ago, via the horror section of my local library. Roofworld was my first: a tale of secret communities on the rooftops of London, invisible from the ground, their inhabitants moving from building to building on a series of zip lines. To a country-dweller such as I, it was so intensely visual that even now, whenever I’m in London, I find myself looking at rooftops more often than at the city streets.

After that I looked for more novels by the same author. I soon realized that his work was not easy to categorize. Few of his books sit comfortably in the horror section. Red Bride is a classic femme fatale tale, Spanky a hip retelling of Faust. Psychoville is a suburban Natural Born Killers; Soho Black is at the same time a zombie fable and a barbed satire on the film industry. Plastic is a version of Bridget Jones’s Diary reimagined by Quentin Tarantino; Calabash is both an extended metaphor of adolescent alienation and a portal to Narnia, with subterranean echoes of Gormenghast.

Fowler’s masterly short fiction reflects an even broader spectrum of influences. Film and literary references abound, as do references to popular culture, comics and the media. As we see in his memoir, Paperboy, much of his work reveals an enduring love of literature and the cinema, as well as a keen sense of humour, an eye for period detail and a boundless enthusiasm for anecdotes, eclectic facts, strange occurrences, unsolved mysteries, bizarre customs, macabre crimes, and tales of the unexpected.

London looms large in the landscape, of course: a London of many faces, reflecting the many faces of the human psyche. Victorian London rubs shoulders with the nightclubs and cafés of Soho; the homeless and the marginalized watch passers-by from the alleyways. Wealth and misery, pleasure and fear, horror and farce co-exist in close proximity to each other, divided by the finest of membranes. In Fowler’s London, the worlds of film noir and Ealing comedy are never very far apart, and even in the most ordinary of settings – a launderette, a shopping mall, a neat little suburban house – everyday horrors are lurking, awaiting their chance to slip out from the shadows.

In Fowler’s world, reality and fantasy are always dangerously close. Executives make secret pacts with demons, lonely adolescents plot to blow up their neighbourhoods, and prim suburban housewives are subject to creeping neurological meltdowns that culminate in orgies of violence among the cupcakes and tea-towels. In Fowler’s world, the illusion of sanity is a pair of net curtains that conceals an ominous reality. No one is ever completely safe; no one is entirely stable. Everyday things can suddenly take a turn for the sinister, and all it takes is a tiny twist – a chance meeting, a thoughtless mistake – for a life to be thrown out of balance and for the darkness to emerge.

All this is combined with an unfailing eye for detail, a dry and satirical sense of humour, an insight into human nature that seems close to uncanny, and is delivered with a style and panache that sometimes seem almost effortless – but don’t be fooled. It takes real skill to sound this good, and the lightness of the author’s touch conceals an underlying narrative of alienation, of urban unrest, of social satire, of psychological unease, and of the darkness that hides in plain sight, along the façades of the mundane.

Perhaps this deceptive lightness of touch is why the author, in spite of having won countless genre awards, has never received the mainstream literary acclaim he so deserves. Perhaps it is the mercurial quality of his writing that has kept him from settling comfortably into a niche. Perhaps it is the sheer scope and variety of his output that continue to defy categorization. Now more internationally known for his Bryant & May detective series – the seemingly nostalgic exploits of a pair of elderly sleuths, filled with disquieting details and dark, subversive humour – he continues to alarm and entertain his readers, while also creating some of the most accomplished and intricate set-pieces in the whole of the mystery genre.

I’m delighted to see that the author’s earlier novels (and indeed his entire short-story oeuvre) are now being made available in ebook. They are still as fresh and topical as they were when they first appeared – and it’s interesting to note that, though originally written as speculative fiction, many of them now seem uncomfortably prescient in the light of current events. If you are already familiar with the work of Christopher Fowler, then you’re probably already celebrating this re-release of his backlist. If not, I almost envy you: you have something wonderful in store. But be warned, once you have entered Fowler’s world, you may never look at your own in quite the same way again …

Joanne Harris, December 2015

Introduction by Christopher Fowler

Horror stories were always my drug of choice. I could never keep away from them. To celebrate my 25th year in the field, I created this hefty volume featuring brand-new tales of unease.

The first half contains London stories, where deceptively ordinary events like an evening in a pub or a night on the town have surprising consequences. Here you’ll find hauntings, revenges, murders, monstrosities, redemptions, and the dark hands of the urban night reaching out to seize the unwary.

The second half contains world stories, where innocent travellers are beset with accidents, tragedies, murders, nightmares and epiphanies as they wander far – maybe too far – from home.

This was probably my favourite overall collection to write, mainly because its range was far wider than anything I’d previously attempted, and several of the stories went on to win awards. In the London half I worked through most of the key horror tropes, tackling everything from zombies to ghosts, killers, detectives (Sherlock Holmes!), ventriloquist’s dummies and hallucinations. I also returned to the theme of women going mad – possibly because I know so many of them, but I could equally have filled a book with madmen.

In the World half of the collection there are hauntings, demons, revenges, bizarre murders and even a wild west tale. One of the stories, ‘The Mistake at the Monsoon Palace’, was written after I explored an abandoned and supposedly haunted city in Northern India. Some of the stories were designed to be read aloud, and I found myself performing them at festivals. Artist Graham Humphries produced two startling covers for the original double-edition, which could be turned upside down and read from either end.

By now it was becoming hard to get short fiction volumes published, and ‘Red Gloves’ went to a small press publishing house. Consequently, it’s the book that’s been least discovered by readers. I’m pleased that it can finally reach a wider readership in e-format. As for the red gloves of the title, blame it on my love of giallo

Christopher Fowler, 2016

Zygomaticus

‘If Death Was Something Money Could Buy, The Rich Would Live, The Poor Would Die.’

I’ve always had trouble with titles. My last collection, ‘Old Devil Moon’, borrowed the title of a beautiful but forgotten song from a peculiarly whimsical sixties musical about racism, socialism, drugs and, er, leprechauns, called ‘Finian’s Rainbow’. Originally I was going to call this volume ‘The Horrors’, a phrase often associated with wartime and panic, a sudden overwhelming sense of the weight of the world. Put another way, a rush of awareness. My mother still speaks of having ‘an attack of the horrors’. But I realized that the title would prove misleading to anyone expecting the frisson of revulsion you get from exposure to blood and guts – these are tales that step into areas of unease rather than the abbatoir.

‘Red Gloves’ suggests to me that no-one is innocent, and carries all sorts of interesting connotations, from Macbeth to Giallo. The hand stained with blood is a mark of lost innocence.

At the start of each collection, I outline some of the press reports that have provoked me during the writing of the stories, and use them as a sort of timeline running beside the production of the book. The remit of journalism is to make the important interesting, but there are often times when it does the reverse; press releases are now routinely recycled as substitutes for real news. The absurdities of life we all face have a way of turning a genuine smile into a forced one, hence the title of this foreword. Zygomaticus refers to the muscle that makes the difference between two types of smile.

As I came to write the stories, I realized they were falling into two distinct groups – ones that were primarily set in London, and ones set in the rest of the world. I love to travel and I love my home town, so it seemed a good idea to create two volumes for this, my twenty fifth year of writing such tales. The stories in this volume all take place in London – I count Sherlock Holmes because he’s a Londoner, and there’s a seaside tale because it’s a London day trip that’s familiar to everyone who lives in the city.

And so to the writing of the stories themselves, and the press items I was reading that often seemed to me more outrageous than anything I could devise from my imagination.

As I started the second volume’s New Orleans-set tale ‘Piano Man’, a devastating cyclone killed thousands in Burma and left many more without shelter, food, water or electricity, facing the ravages of disease. The Burmese militia responded to this by banning emergency aid imports and handing out DVD players to homeless villagers who had no food or power.

During the writing of the next story, the fifth most read item on the internet was the crash of world stocks. But the most-read story was someone getting voted off the reality TV show ‘Big Brother’ for spitting. As the credit crisis deepened, columns about collapsing banks finally took the lead over tales of exploding hamsters or supermodel Naomi Campbell’s latest screaming fit.

Meanwhile, it was revealed that Sarah Palin, the gun-toting cartoon-brought-to-life former running mate of Senator John McCain, once asked her librarian how to go about getting books banned, as there were some she didn’t like. Oil-worshipping Sarah was Alaska’s biggest polluter, but promised to give everyone in her state a $2,000 cheque in return for destroying it.

Before he went, George Bush reneged on his few climate change promises and bade farewell to a disastrous G8 summit meeting with the words ‘Goodbye from the world’s biggest polluter’. He then punched the air and grinned as the French and British prime ministers looked on in shock. The scene is still on the internet – a total jaw-dropper.

On the subject of the environment, ministers announced that ‘Plan A’ (carbon reduction) had failed and that ‘Plan B’ (invent something fast) was now the only remaining solution. But planet management never gets easier. On the island of Macquarie, between Australia and Antarctica, cats left by ships got rid of the mice but preyed on rare flightless birds, so conservationists culled them, only to watch horrified as the rabbit population exploded and stripped the island of its vegetation, causing a landslip that wiped out a rare penguin colony. The chain of events is an example of ‘trophic cascade’ leading to ‘ecosystem meltdown’.

In the last week before he quit the white house, George Bush declared his intention to exploit the vast oil and mineral wealth hidden below the Arctic circle by extending America’s sovereign rights over the seabed. As he bowed out, I was reminded of his quote about books. ‘One of the great things about books is sometimes there are some fantastic pictures’. In the broadsheets, as is traditional during times of regime change, his apologists began his immediate rehabilitation.

Three months after I wrote a story called ‘The Conspirators’, the fiction found a peculiar parallel in real life when a millionaire hotel owner was charged with the murder of a Middle Eastern pop star in Dubai. The emerging details were, once again, stranger than anything I had created.

Meanwhile, the Czech artist David Cerny was paid £350,000 to commission artworks forming a huge sculpture of 27 nations for the atrium of the European Council, but admitted hoaxing the EU by knocking it up with his pals. Officials began to smell a rat when they noticed that Romania was represented by a Dracula theme park and Bulgaria by a Turkish lavatory, but in a typical state of indecision they went ahead with the opening anyway. Britain was represented on the sculpture as a blank space.

Mexico’s long border with the US, the world’s main drugs consumer, became the site of more killings than Iraq. The chances of kidnap became so high that we heard about microchip tracking devices being implanted into the arms of wealthy schoolchildren.

On a lighter note, Adam Deeley, 34, a mature British student, choked to death in an impromptu challenge to see who could eat the most fairy cakes at the Monkey Cafe, Swansea. He managed five at once. Or rather, he didn’t. Paging Mr Darwin.

In Britain 1 in 10 children now lives in a mixed-race family, with mixed-race relationships so common that traditionally distinct ethnic groups have started to disappear. Not in the royal family, however, after Prince Harry was rebuked for using the term ‘Paki’ and Prince Charles admitted to calling an Asian friend ‘Sooty’. Hating to miss out on any publicity, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter Carol publicly called the handsome and talented French-Congolese tennis champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga a ‘golliwog’.

In Washington, a Christian group called Pray At The Pump started gathering around petrol pumps and praying to the Lord to lower prices. ‘If we keep this up,’ says its leader Rocky Twyman, ‘we can bring down prices to less than $2 a gallon.’

Thanks to rising oil and food prices, the production of a new food staple was stepped up in Haiti as mud cakes soared in popularity; the baked grey discs of dirt apparently taste like – well, dirt with margarine in, but stop stomachs from feeling empty. If the starving weren’t prevented from leaving by US coastguard patrols, they could have gone to stare through shop windows at the Hermes ‘Birkin’ handbag, which went on sale in New York for $37,000. At the time of the stock market crash, it was still selling well. And in case that’s not enough, Louis Vuiton started selling custom-made travel caviar sets, for all your urgent caviar-on-the-go needs. And spa treatment centres started including a ‘caviar face pack’ for old vultures with too much time and money on their claw-like hands.

As the credit crunch hit home, an article appeared in The Observer about hot new fashion scents; Wode, which sprays the wearer blue (sadly the effect quickly wears off), and ‘the very first internet perfume’, called ‘Violence’, a scent based on old photographs of skinheads hitting each other. The makers say it smells of ‘sweat, boot polish, Indian food and warm bricks’, although if it’s based on old photos it should surely smell of developing fluid. Harvey Nichols announced their own best-selling scent, ‘Molecule’, which according to their advertising smells vaguely of something, and then of nothing. I guess it makes a change from most scents, which smell of either roses or lemons.

Advertising got even more slippery. The film ‘Sex And The City’ had – unsurprisingly – 95 brands cunningly dotted through its running time. Shane Meadows’ neo-realist film ‘Somers Town’ went one better and had the entire film sponsored by Eurostar trains. But it was in black and white and he’s an auteur, so that’s all right.

The ‘Big Brother’ show finally faded to the faintest of radar blips and was binned, but not before its producers burrowed below the ground zero of bad taste. In a twist of Jacobean grotesquery, they informed reality TV star Jade Goody that she had cervical cancer in the Big Brother house, India, so that her tearful reaction could be captured live. Goody undermined the media leeches feeding on her by inviting camera crews in to film her wedding to a convicted felon, then remained in the spotlight as the press gloatingly ticked down the days to her death. Goody, from a deprived, abusive working class background, ultimately attained grace by confounding the critics who harped on about her intelligence; she behaved intelligently.

As Channel 4 and other inept, failing TV networks scrabbled around for viewers, channel director Michael Grade announced that televised fiction was dead because we all prefer talent shows and documentaries about fat people.

Arnold Schwarzenegger championed gay marriage in California. This is largely the same legislation we have in the UK, undermined in the US by fears that appropriation of the word ‘marriage’ would somehow diminish its mythical strength. Mormon-backed Proposition 8 promptly banned it again, leaving the 18,000 couples who got hitched in the four and a half month period when it was legal stranded and exposed to the proposers’ next attempt – to retroactively annul the marriages. The California Supreme Court upheld the proposition but invoked a grandfather clause allowing the existing marriages to stand.

It transpired that Tanzanian albinos were living in fear of their lives because people were seeking their body parts for witchcraft. There are over 200,000 albinos in the country, and with over 30 murders in 10 months, many were frightened they would be skinned alive and partially dismembered. Meanwhile, Southern Australia held a ‘Sorry Ranga’ day to celebrate its ginger-haired population, Ranga being short for Orangatangs.

Channel 4 aired a ‘child reality show’ in which 20 primary school children were left without adult supervision for a fortnight. Unsurprisingly, this led to cries of abuse and an outcry from psychologists, as the parents used their own children as leverage for fame. The show flopped.

As economists announced the financial end of the world and climatologists paced up their doomsday scenarios, a social networking site provided the world with the conversational equivalent of polystyrene when Twitter’s bitter chatter spread to celebrities. Exchanges between singer Lily Allen and tagalong webfan Perez Hilton descended – not that it had anywhere to descend to – into hurled abuse, reminding us yet again how far the Hilton brand has fallen since the 1950s.

The Jade Goody (1981–2009) Official Tribute Issue of OK! Magazine appeared, featuring her final words and bearing the banner ‘In Loving Memory’. There was only one problem; Ms Goody was still technically alive at the time. Magazine lead-times were apparently to blame.

Google street-mapping arrived in the UK. Across the country, a million cries went up: ‘Why did they have to film our street while the scaffolding was up at number 57?’

A German couple abandoned their three children in an Italian pizzeria because they had run out of money on holiday. They thought the authorities would probably figure out where they lived and send them home. Luckily, money is just something poor people have to worry about. On the same day, a Thai jewellery designer displayed a $4.2 million dog tiara at a canine fashion show.

The massive expenses scandal engulfed MPs from both sides of Parliament, as Tory MP Douglas Hogg revealed he spent £2,000 of taxpayers’ money getting his moat cleaned. Another was caught having a duck-house built from public cash, and complained that the ducks had never really enjoyed using it anyway. Best of all was Tory MP Anthony Steen, who shoved the inspection of five hundred trees on expenses and had this to say about being caught out.; “I think I have behaved impeccably. You know what it’s about? Jealousy. I have got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral, but it’s a merchant’s house from the 19th century. It was this government that introduced the Freedom of Information Act and it is this government that insisted on the things which caught me on the wrong foot.”


As decades of financial abuse come to an end, MPs screamed like stuck pigs. Weirdly, some were defended in the national press by kowtowing members of the public who clearly relished the prospect of returning to a feudal system. The exposure of MPs’ expenses threw up some wonderfully odd claims; Conservative leader David Cameron claimed almost seven hundred pounds on ‘burning oil’ (presumably for his Aga cooker). Others claimed for biscuits, jellied eels, a wig, orchids and a hedge trimmer for a helipad.

Susan Boyle, a middle-aged woman with a pleasant singing voice and a face that could send a dog under a table, became one of the most-viewed internet sensations of all time, but failed to win a television talent contest. Her overnight ‘career’, from rise to fall, ended with a breakdown and her admittance to The Priory clinic – a microlife that eclipsed even Jade Goody’s.

Amidst global financial hardship, Turkey’s £1 billion Mardan Palace opened its doors with the biggest Beluga and Bollinger party in history. Sharon Stone, attending with other fading stars like Richard Gere, Mariah Carey and, with grim inevitability, Paris Hilton, said it was a ‘moment of potential profundity. We have come together to make the world a better place.’ That’s the beauty of celebrities; they’ll say or do absolutely anything. The Russians found a way to punish their most rebellious oligarch hotel owner for spending his cash overseas; they closed down his revenue source, a vast Moscow market full of smuggled Chinese goods.

The line between PR and reality vanished with a staged tiff between Sacha Baron-Cohen and Eminem at the MTV Awards (Cohen was dropped into Eminem’s face dressed as a half-nude gay angel and the rapper called him a faggot before storming out) Both were selling new products, and later confirmed the ‘accident’ as a publicity stunt. ‘This is very exciting television,’ said the show’s presenter.

AEG, the promoters of the O2 concerts which were to feature Michael Jackson’s record-breaking forty-plus appearances, came up with a great way to save on refunds. Punters were offered replacement memorial souvenir tickets somehow ‘inspired and designed’ by the dead singer. Meanwhile, Jackson’s death sparked a massive internet campaign of hoax celebrity death reports that included Jeff Goldblum falling off a cliff and George Clooney crashing a plane.

Oh, and Prince Charles gave the planet just 96 months left to survive.

But if the world ends, that’s okay too, because it turns out there’s an afterlife. The August 3rd issue of The Sun ran a front page headline announcing that Jade Goody, once so used to speaking through the medium of television, was now speaking through a television medium – from beyond the grave.

The title ‘Red Gloves’ suggests, on one level, that like the woman who put the cat in the bin, we are all to some extent guilty. But don’t think you can flee the city and live a life of pastoral tranquility, because the world has a way of catching up with you. As I hope these two volumes will show, whether you choose to stay behind or go abroad – you’re fucked.

The Rulebook

Every house has a rulebook. It’s not an actual book, but it has rules you’re not supposed to break. In our house the rulebook appeared after my Dad went away. Here are some of the rules:

Put the lid down on the toilet seat when you’ve finished.

If you want to get something down from the top shelf don’t stack the furniture to reach it. Your cousin Freddie died like that.

Don’t touch the boiler in the kitchen, you’ll burn yourself.

Reading under the bedsheets with a torch will hurt your eyes.

The internet does not replace real friends.

Don’t say Bollocks even though your Grandad says it all the time.

Just because everyone else has got one doesn’t mean that you should have one too.

When you ask for seconds and can’t finish them, remember there are people starving in Africa.

Television doesn’t go on until you’ve finished your homework.

Pressing 6 on the speed-dial will call Auntie Pauline in Australia, she has verbal diarrhoea and it will come out of your pocket money.

Every time you blaspheme, an angel gets a nosebleed.

Don’t touch the cat’s tray without washing your hands afterwards.

Don’t ever put a lightbulb in the microwave again.

When we went on holiday, there was another set of rules:

Don’t go in the sea until an hour after you’ve eaten.

Always keep an eye on the tide.

Only go into an amusement arcade if you’re prepared to lose money.

A stick of rock can pull your fillings out.

If you feel carsick tell Mum at once, don’t leave it too late and do it down the window.

There’s no need to drop a brick on a jellyfish. It can still feel pain even though it hasn’t got a face.

Soon I made up my own rulebook. These were rules I just seemed to know by instinct, or felt were probably true. Here are some of them:

If you don’t reach the bottom of the stairs before the toilet finishes flushing, the Thing That Lives In The Landing Cupboard will come after you.

You can ruin next door’s telly reception by throwing balls of silver foil at their satellite dish.

Every time you squash an insect, God makes a mark in his book against you.

If you die at home while your Mum is away there will be nobody to feed the cat, and it will eat your eyes.

There is a horror film that can make you go mad if you watch it.

And:

Dad is still checking up on you, even though he isn’t here.

Then, in the winter of my twelfth birthday, I learned a new rule.

Don’t tell the neighbours that Mr Hill murdered his wife.

It was a game, really. I don’t think I believed that Mr Hill had really murdered his wife, but I hated him because he had a dead grey eye like the guy in ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ and had painted all his flowerpots in Arsenal stripes and he kept my football whenever it went over his fence. He probably had footballs enough to open a branch of JD Sports.

On Bonfire Night Mr Hill had a huge row with his wife. I heard her in the hall, yelling ‘Do you know how painful this is, or what it’s doing to me? I’m not going to stay in this house another minute.’ Then she left. She dragged a huge suitcase out to the front step and climbed into a waiting taxi, and he slammed the door behind her. Two months before this I had heard a lot of banging and crashing in their house one night, so I figured they had been fighting for a long time.

I was the only one who saw her leave. When I told my best friend Andy about the row, I exaggerated the story a little bit. I told him that I had seen Mr Hill hit his wife with a shovel before burying her in the back garden while everyone else was watching the fireworks.

I told Andy not to tell anyone else, so by nightfall everyone in the street had heard the story, and as the days went on it became even more exaggerated to include all kinds of gross stuff. He’d cut off his wife’s hands and buried them in his Arsenal pots, he’d used her spleen to decorate his Christmas tree, he kept her head on a stick in his shed and cast a spell on it to make it predict the football results.

I saw Mr Hill staring through his kitchen window with laser-vision that could have melted a hole in the glass, and I knew the story had reached him, so I stayed out of his way after that. I thought he might kill me as well, because by now I believed my own story.

‘You mustn’t go around telling people lies about Mr Hill,’ said my Mum one day. ‘His wife left him and he’s very upset about that, without you making things worse by telling everyone he’s a murderer.’

There had always been a damp patch on my bedroom wall near the ceiling. It was dark grey and furry, and shaped like the Isle Of Wight. One day there was an amazing storm. The rain fell sideways. Water came in through the back door and all our gutters overflowed, soaking my ceiling. The grey furry patch grew to the size of France and then part of the ceiling fell down, so my Mum called a company called AA-1 Roofs. They were called AA-1 so they would be the first people listed in the alphabetical telephone directory under Roof Repairs, but now that everyone used Google they weren’t at the top of the list anymore, so they were really cheap.

They came in to do the work, but told me and Mum to move out for Christmas because the air was unhealthy and the house needed to dry out for a bit.

‘The good news,’ said my Mum, ‘is that Mr Hill has to go into hospital, and says we can stay there.’

‘Why is he going to hospital?’ I asked.

‘He’s having something done to his bladder.’

‘Gross. Can’t we stay in a hotel?’ I asked.

‘No, too expensive.’

‘Bugger.’

‘Mind your language.’ My Mum collected the keys, and on Friday evening we went next door.

How can I describe Mr Hill’s house?

The hall was as dark as a tunnel to the centre of the earth. There was a framed photo on the wall of a really old man that turned out to be a picture of Mr Hill’s grandmother. The living room smelled of wet dogs. It was full of little china ornaments of poodles, dalmations, bulldogs, every kind of dog. There were piles of magazines about dogs and dog shows, and there were long brown dog hairs everywhere, but get this, he didn’t own a dog. I could see why Mrs Hill had run away from him.

Every room was painted in a different shade of brown paint. Either he was colour-blind or couldn’t be bothered to match up the tins. There was a clock in the hall that ticked very slowly, like someone hobbling painfully towards the grave. In the hall cupboard I found my footballs. He had let the air out of them and folded them on a shelf like pairs of pants. Weird.

Mr Hill had a son who had grown up and left home, and now that he lived alone he didn’t bother cleaning up anymore. My Mum saw this as a challenge, and decided to give the place a spring-clean. I think she actually looked forward to our weekend of living next door, charging around with a mop and bucket.

‘Think of this as a Christmas treat,’ she told me, but Christmas is getting a RoboWarrior, not getting covered in dog hairs in someone else’s smelly, creepy house.

‘You can play wherever you like,’ she said, ‘except in the room at the end of the upstairs hall. Mr Hill says you’re not allowed to go in there under any circumstances. It’s one of his rules.’ So Mr Hill had a rulebook too.

I went out into the garden and stayed there, but there was nothing to do. Weirdly the garden was the opposite of the house, so perfectly kept that there weren’t even any insects in it. Eventually it was time to go to bed. There were three rooms upstairs. The smallest was Mr Hill’s son’s room, which was now mine. Then came Mr Hill’s room, which was where my Mum would sleep. Finally there was the big double room at the front of the house which nobody ever used and I wasn’t allowed to go into Under Any Circumstances.

I stood outside this door and sniffed the keyhole. The dog-smell was coming from inside. I put my ear against the door and listened. I could hear faint breathing – in, gurgle, out, in, gurgle, out – like someone with a very bad cold and no tissues. I called Mum up and made her listen but she couldn’t hear anything.

‘Nothing at all?’ I said, shocked. ‘You really can’t hear anything?’

‘No,’ she said.

‘You wait till you want me to hear something.’ Disgusted, I went to my room.

Mr Hill’s son must have been about five when he left home to get a job, because his bedroom was full of stupid fluffy rabbits and realistic-looking puppies. I washed and got into my PJs and listened to the house. It creaked and clicked and rattled in the wind, so I couldn’t get to sleep. My duffel coat on the door looked like a hunchbacked monster in the dark, and even though I knew it was just my coat, it bothered me. I must have drifted off for a few minutes, because I remember running through a jungle. Some kind of animal was after me. I heard claws scratching at the door.

At 11:45pm my Mum looked in and said ‘Why are you still awake?’ I don’t know how she knew; she’s sort of psychic like that.

‘I can’t sleep,’ I told her. ‘Listen to all the noise.’

She cocked an ear. ‘That’s just the rain falling on the dustbins.’

‘It doesn’t sound like that on our dustbins.’

She gave me a funny look. ‘You okay?’

‘I think I had a bad dream,’ I told her. ‘I was being chased.’

She came and sat on the edge of the bed. ‘It’s because you’re in a strange house. Was my little soldier afraid?’

‘No, I was fine.’

‘Okay, I’ll let you get some rest.’

‘Can we put up Christmas decorations?’

‘Mr Hill doesn’t want pinholes.’

‘I hate it here.’

‘Give me a break, Paul. It’s just for two nights. Go to sleep.’

The rest of the night I lay wide awake, watching the bedroom door. Finally I buried myself deep in bed with the pillows pulled up around my ears.

At seven o’clock it was supposed to get light, but it didn’t. The rain had turned to thick wet fog. You could usually hear traffic outside but today there was complete silence. The fog had blinded and deafened the house, like someone had thrown a blanket over it. The street looked like it was made of mud, and someone on the radio was singing ‘White Christmas’.

I checked the door for scratch-marks. Nothing. I got dressed when I smelled Mum burning the toast. Mr Hill’s kitchen was bright yellow because it was the room where he smoked, and all the nicotine had stained the ceiling. I wondered what it made his food taste like.

Mum had tried to poach eggs in Mr Hill’s microwave and they had exploded. She said ‘You know I’ve never been good at breakfast. It’s a horrible day. You’ll be better off staying indoors.’

There was no way I was going to do that. I spent almost the whole day outside on my bike, but by the evening it was bucketing down with rain again, and thunder rolled in the distance. We ate beans on toast and watched some rubbish dancing show my Mum liked. The storm was getting closer because I counted the gaps between the flash and the bang, and they were shorter each time.

My Mum’s mobile rang. It was Mr Hill. He needed some bathroom stuff to be brought to the hospital, so my Mum agreed to take it to him on her scooter. ‘I don’t want you coming with me,’ she said, ‘it’s raining too hard. Do you want to stay up until I’m back? You’ve got your computer games.’

This was very good news, as it was already late. ‘Drive slowly. Don’t rush back,’ I told her. ‘I’ll be fine.’

‘Don’t open the door to anyone, okay? And stay out of the end room. I know what you’re like.’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’ I tried to look innocent.

‘Yeah, right. Butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth.’

After an hour by myself, I got tired of blasting monsters on my game – actually I was stuck at the first boss and was fed up with repeating the same level over and over. So I went upstairs and had a nose in a few drawers. Mr Hill had a dressing table full of really good stuff, including a red penknife with about a million attachments, a huge ring of keys, some really weird comics in plastic bags called ‘Out Of This World’, several watches and a tobacco tin full of old metal puzzles.

I wanted to look in the room at the end of the hall, because I knew it would take an act of bravery to do so. My Dad used to say ‘Are you a man or a mouse? Squeak up.’ We’d laugh a lot about that one. When he told me not to do something, I didn’t do it. With Mum it was different. Sometimes I deliberately did the opposite of what she asked.

Tonight was one of those occasions.

I wasn’t scared, even though I was sure I could hear something breathing behind the door. Even though it smelled like something had died in the room. I stood outside the brown-painted door for a long time, listening to the falling rain, listening for the in-gurgle-out breathing. I made a list in my head of all the terrible things that could be inside, so that I’d be prepared for the worst when I opened the door. I decided it could be any one of the following:

Mrs Hill had come back to the house to beg his forgiveness for leaving, and her husband had pretended to forgive her before locking her up in a cage and feeding her dogfood.

Mr Hill kept a pack of starving dogs in the room, and if I opened the door they would spring out and tear me to pieces.

Mr Hill had created a human being out of bits of dog, sewing all the parts together and bringing his creature to life with electricity. He had to keep it locked up because it was really angry all the time.

None of these situations were very likely, but they were all I could come up with. What else breathed and smelled like dead animals?

Finally I decided there was only one way to find out. Wrapping my fingers around the handle, I pushed down on it.

The door didn’t budge. It was locked.

Then I remembered the keys in Mr Hill’s desk. I went to the drawer and took out the great ring. Returning to the door, I tried each one in turn.

I tried the coolest-looking keys first, but none fit. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. The tenth key was the smallest, and worked. The lock wasn’t very big. Maybe there wasn’t something trying to get out of the room after all. As I pushed open the door and tried to find the light switch, the animal smell overpowered me and I heard the breathing more loudly.

Then I saw it, a huge hair-covered outline against the rainy window. It had a bristly snout and pointed ears like an Alsatian. In the light from the streetlamp outside I could see the raised arms, the long curved claws, the great tongue that hung out from between yellow teeth. I knew the truth then;

Mr Hill was a werewolf.

He hadn’t gone to hospital, he had tricked my Mum and lured her away, leaving me alone with him. He knew I would come to the room. He was going to catch me and suck the meat from my bones.

Then I found the light switch. The lampshade in the middle of the ceiling glowed orange, removing the dark from the room.

Mr Hill wasn’t a werewolf after all.

The room was full of dead animals, and there was a huge book on his desk called ‘TAXIDERMY FOR BEGINNERS’.

Mr Hill had a secret hobby. He stuffed dead animals. Lots of people used to do it. The noise I had mistaken for breathing was the hiss of a cooling unit which was breathing cold air over his creations.

I opened the book and began to read.

‘Taxidermy Specimens – Preservation and Mounting. The taxidermist must remove the skin of the dead animal, then tan it and treat it. The animal’s bones and muscles are posed in place with wires. The body is molded in plaster to make a cast, then re-covered with skin. Artificial eyes are then added as real ones would rot.’

I put down the book and looked around the room. A dozen dogs, a badger, four cats, some bats and foxes stared back at me with shining marble eyes. There was also an owl with no eyes and a duck without a beak. The big creature I saw by the window was a moulting brown bear, mounted on its back legs and frozen in mid-roar. There was another flash of lightning.

In jars by the window were some of the creatures’ pink innards. No wonder Mr Hill didn’t tell anyone about what he was doing.

Just then, there was a huge bang of thunder and all the lights in the street went out.

I watched in horror as the great head of the bear slowly turned its head toward me, its black eyes glittering with life. Its jaw slowly widened and it drooled saliva. I dropped the ring of keys.

A new sound took over from the hissing of the cooling unit. This time it really was breathing. A lot of breathing. I looked down and saw a bat creeping toward me on the tips of its wings. I jumped backwards in fright. A half-finished dog was coming up behind me, although it had difficulty walking because its legs were only wire and bone, and screwed-up newspapers stuck out from the gap in its stomach.

A huge centipede curled and stretched by my hand. Several rats dropped onto the desktop and scampered around me into the hall. Little patches of dried fur were falling off the bear as it lumbered toward me, shoving all the other creatures out of the way. A cat yowled in pain as he stood on its foot. The dogs whimpered. The foxes cried like babies. All these animals were hurting.

There was a crash as the stand that had been propping up the great bear fell over. All the animals were on the move. I could smell their stale breath, the sawdust and balls of newspaper that had taken the place of their entrails. I could feel their pain. They were creeping, hopping, staggering in terrible angry pain.

I stumbled backwards as the bear lunged for the door.

The house was in total darkness. I ran along the hall but caught the banister against my hip and fell onto my knees. I could hear the creatures coming out of the front bedroom. I heard scratching, scampering, thumping, whimpering, growling. They were coming closer every second. A perfectly preserved tarantula threw itself onto my back. I could feel its hairy legs pattering against the nape of my neck.

Knowing that I could not reach the stairs in time, I climbed to my feet and ran back to my room, but the animals were very close now. I dived inside and shoved the door shut, just as the bear wrapped its great clawed paw around the jamb and tried to push its way inside. He was forcing it open to let all the smaller creatures in. I kicked the door hard on his paw until he withdrew it with a great roar. And there I stayed, pushed against the door, until eventually the scratching and clawing stopped, and it sounded like they went away.

I didn’t know what to do. Should I risk opening the door? I knew I’d be anxious until I had checked, so I slowly opened it and looked out.

The hall was empty. The door to the front bedroom was still unlocked, and the big ring of keys was on the floor, exactly where I had dropped it. But I hadn’t imagined the stuffed animals. They filled the room, crouching or standing on every surface, and they still smelled bad. The bear was facing back to the window now, where it had been to start with. But there was something floating in the air – sawdust settling, like they had only just got back into position before I opened the door.

I went to the landing window and stared down into the street, or rather the nearest part of it, as the rest had completely disappeared in the fog.

As I stood watching, a figure slowly came into view and opened the front garden gate, but it wasn’t my Mum. Whoever it was seemed to be having trouble walking, like they had sprained their ankle. A few moments later I heard the front door open and shut. Someone was climbing the stairs. I heard feet thumping and dragged on the stairs, coming nearer, and a strange crick-crack noise.

Mrs Hill was standing at the end of the hall in a green rain hat and Wellingtons. Her head was down. I couldn’t see her eyes.

‘I saw your mother go out, Paul,’ she said. ‘I want to talk to you for a minute.’ Her voice was dry and whispery, as though her vocal chords had rusted.

As she walked toward me she dripped rain everywhere. She took off her hat and scratched her fingers through her hair. Mrs Hill was paler and bonier than I remembered, like she’d been dieting and hiding indoors for months. She stopped about three feet in front of me.

She smelled like mildew, like something that had been left past its sell-by date at the back of the fridge, and there was another smell too, the same dog smell about her like the bear, but I figured it was because her hair was wet. I couldn’t move any further back, because the room of stuffed animals was behind me.

I didn’t know what to do so I asked her if she wanted a cup of tea.

Slowly she raised her head. Her skin was as yellow and dry as an old newspaper. I looked in her eyes and saw glittering blue marbles, like a doll’s. The left one was cracked. It had turned up and rolled in a little, so that I could see the damp blackness inside her socket.

‘What have you been telling people about me?’

‘Nothing,’ I lied. ‘It was a mistake.’

‘You told the street that my husband killed me with a shovel on Bonfire Night and buried me in the garden. Don’t lie to me.’

‘No, I only told Andy, no-one else. As for the thing about your head being cut off and stuck on a pole in the shed, the story just got sort of stretched as it went around.’

She fumbled blindly with her handbag, snapping it open to dig out a handkerchief. Mopping the rain from her face, she smeared paint from her lips. ‘You saw me leave on Bonfire Night. I didn’t come back.’

‘Okay.’ I wasn’t interested in what they got up to. Anything to make her go. Reaching down, she placed a hand on my shoulder and gripped it tightly. Her fingers were so bony that it felt like being pinched by crab claws. I was sure there was nothing in her that was still alive, no beating heart, no pulsing blood, just cold leathery flesh.

‘Mr Hill saved me. Two months before Bonfire Night I had an accident. I fell down the stairs and nearly broke my neck, and he looked after me, even though things weren’t good between us. I don’t want to see him hurt. Do you understand?’

‘I understand.’

Suddenly she bent down close to me. ‘No more lies, Paul. That’s one of my rules. No more lies or I will come back and find you. I will take out your guts and fill the space with straw and sawdust.’ She stretched open her mouth and I saw right inside. There was newspaper at the back of it, sticking up out of her throat.

She released her bruising grip and turned to leave, her knees crick-cracking. When she went to put on her rain hat I saw the stitches, a neat dark row of them behind each ear.

She walked as if she was in great pain. As she slowly went down the stairs I noticed the uneven seams that ran down the backs of her legs. As she gripped the stair-rail with long red nails, I knew there were wires poking out of her fingertips. Her skin seemed to have been sewn back too tightly, like a cover on a sofa that didn’t quite fit.

The front door opened and closed. I watched her hobble sadly down the empty street and disappear piece by piece into the fog.

The sawdust settled. The house was silent once more, as if wild things had returned to sleeping death. As I sat in the kitchen waiting for Mum to come back, I looked out into the foggy front garden, fearful of what I might now be able to see. I’d rather been hoping for a visit from Santa Claus, but now I didn’t want to think what might come down the chimney.

When Mum came home I told her what had happened, but she didn’t seem surprised. ‘That Mrs Hill,’ she sniffed. ‘She’s had a bit of work done if you ask me. And you – you’ve got too much imagination.’

But I knew the truth. The world has a rulebook. One of the rules is:

The dead can’t be brought back to life.

Sometimes the rulebook is wrong.

Dead Ground Zero