An English Ghost Story

In this brand- new novel, ac­claimed Anno Drac­ula au­thor Kim New­man crafts a chill­ing gothic tale with a mod­ern twist

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Books - by Kim New­man

At first the Nare­mores are charmed by their per­fect new home, the Hol­low. But soon the se­crets of the house that brought them to­gether will rip them apart…

Jor­dan saw it all at once, from the road, and was cer­tain. This was the place. It was like her first kiss, Doris Day’s “Que Sera Sera”, the taste of straw­ber­ries, her car ac­ci­dent. In­stant and all- en­com­pass­ing, won­drous and terrifying, a rev­e­la­tion and a se­duc­tion. Zam- Bam, Alla- Ka- Zamm! The strangest thing was she knew her par­ents felt the same. Mum ac­tu­ally turned and smiled at Dad, who let his hand stray to her wrist for the tini­est of in­ti­mate squeezes. Tim looked up from his game, the Elvis lip- curl he’d shown the loser places re­placed by open rap­ture. “Kew- ell,” said Tim. Jor­dan was caught up in the spell. Just this once, noth­ing else mat­tered. Her mind was set­tled in. The shock passed and she got com­fort­able with the feel­ing. It was like com­ing home.

They got out of the hunch­back in a tan­gle and over­whelmed the agent. If he ex­pected city folk to keep their cards to their chest and strike a hard bar­gain, he was sur­prised.

“I love it,” said Mum. The shift was mirac­u­lous: sud­denly, she was re­laxed and open, un­con­trol­lably smil­ing. “I just love it.”

Jor­dan saw she had been wrong. The spotty agent’s smile wasn’t fake. Of course, he had known. He had been wait­ing by the Hol­low for a few min­utes, and he was fa­mil­iar with the prop­erty. He could feel it too. The charm. This was what they needed. A new place, to start all over again, to put the past be­hind them, to build some­thing. Yet an old place, bro­ken in by peo­ple, with mys­ter­ies and chal­lenges, temp­ta­tions and re­wards. They might as well can­cel the re­main­ing view­ing. “I’m Jor­dan,” she imag­ined her­self say­ing to her new friends, “I live in the Hol­low.” No, “I’m from the Hol­low.”

Was the Hol­low the house or the land? The name was mis­lead­ing. Weren’t hol­lows dents in hills or woods? The prop­erty rose a lit­tle above the sur­round­ing moor­fields. An is­land that had come down in the world, it still re­fused to sink into the Som­er­set Lev­els.

Her arms didn’t feel cold. A mil­lion tiny dan­de­lion au­t­o­gy­ros swarmed on warm winds. “Brian Bowker,” said the agent, “from Poul­ton and Wright’s.” His spots were mostly freck­les, though some had white­heads. He looked as if he was blush­ing all the time, per­haps a hand­i­cap in his business. Un­like Rowena Mar­ion, he didn’t try to hide his West Coun­try ac­cent. He didn’t sound like a yokel, though; it was just a way of talk­ing, a burr. Dad shook hands with him. “This is the Hol­low,” said Brian Bowker, stand­ing aside and mak­ing a flour­ish as if sig­nalling stage­hands to haul open the cur­tains.

Tim had to be re­strained from run­ning. Jor­dan did the hon­ours, hug­ging her lit­tle brother with a wrestling hold. Mum and Dad put arms around each other’s waists and a hand each on a child’s shoul­der, as if for a fam­ily por­trait.

“We’re the Nare­mores,” said Dad. “I’m Steven, this is my wife Kirsty, and our chil­dren, Jor­dan and Tim.” “Pleased to meet you all,” said Brian Bowker. “I think this is it,” said Mum, out loud. The agent’s smile be­came a grin. “You ought to look closer; not that I should say that.”

“We will, old man,” said Dad, “but I think Kirst is right. I can feel it. Have you sprin­kled fairy dust about the place?”

For once, Jor­dan wasn’t em­bar­rassed by Dad. She knew what he meant. It wasn’t just the spring- blos­som; the air seemed

to dance. This was the sea­son of the songs, the happy songs about love bloom­ing with the green­ery, not the melan­choly songs of faded flow­ers re­mem­bered in fall.

The house stood in the mid­dle of a roughly square patch of land, bound­aries marked not by hedges or walls but still ditches from which grew bright green rushes. A moat ran along­side the road and the Hol­low had its own bridge, wider than it was long, for ac­cess. Mum, cau­tious after the dispir­it­ing fuss at Clema­tis Cot­tage, had parked on the road. That felt wrong: they should have driven through the gate and across the bridge, up to the barn, which was large enough to garage a fleet of cars.

Ap­ple trees grew in what Jor­dan sup­posed was a de­lib­er­ate pat­tern. The largest lay on the ground, roots ex­posed like a dis­play of sturdy, pet­ri­fied snakes, hol­lowed- out body sprout­ing a thick new trunk, fruit­ing branches stretch­ing up­wards. Tim was en­chanted by this mar­vel, which had been smit­ten but sur­vived. He had to be called away from ex­plor­ing be­fore he dis­ap­peared en­tirely inside the wooden tun­nel of the orig­i­nal trunk. A cou­ple of trees beyond the house, at the far edge of the grounds, were too close to­gether, up­per branches en­tan­gled and en­twined, like gi­ants kiss­ing.

“The prop­erty used to be called Hol­low Farm,” said Brian Bowker, con­sult­ing his clipboard, lead­ing them along a paved path that wound through the trees. “It goes back as far as there are parish records, to the Mid­dle Ages. In the nine­teenth cen­tury, the sur­round­ing fields were sold off to one of the big lo­cal farm­ers and it be­came just the Hol­low. The house­hold­ers kept only this small ap­ple or­chard. You’ll still get all the cook­ers and eaters you need.”

Jor­dan could hear the trees. They moved, very slowly. Each leaf, twig, branch and trunk was rustling or creak­ing, whis­per­ing to her. There were trees all over London, but any sounds they made were too faint to be heard above traf­fic and shout­ing. City trees were fur­ni­ture, but th­ese were liv­ing things; worlds in them­selves, pop­u­lated by in­sects, birds, squir­rels.

“In the barn, there’s a cider- press,” said Brian Bowker, “dis­used since the thir­ties. It’d cost a for­tune to fix, I’m told. A shame. Miss Tea­zle, the last owner, didn’t work it, but liked hav­ing it there.”

The walk was fur­ther and the house big­ger than Jor­dan had thought they would be. The house stood on raised stone foun­da­tions – Dad said some­thing about a high wa­ter ta­ble and flood coun­try – and was an ob­vi­ous patch­work of styles and pe­ri­ods. Matched fol­lies, the tow­ers seen from the road, rose to ei­ther side, above a green­ish thatched roof, topped by hat- like red tile cones with gabled Ra­pun­zel win­dows. Aside from the tow­ers, it was a farm­house built at twice life- size. The or­di­naryscale front door looked tiny. Ivy had been en­cour­aged to grow, per­haps to cover the jig­saw- sec­tions of red brick, white plas­ter and grey stone. Over the cen­turies, parts of the house had been re­placed when they col­lapsed or peo­ple got tired of them. It had grown in­de­pen­dent of any ar­chi­tect’s de­signs or coun­cil’s plan­ning per­mis­sion, evolv­ing to suit its in­hab­i­tants. Brian Bowker un­latched the front door. “You might want to put locks on the ex­te­rior doors,” he said, “though Miss Tea­zle never felt the need.” Dad was hor­ri­fied. “This isn’t ex­actly a high- crime area,” the agent said, “but times have changed since the old girl was a young thing. It won’t be a big job to make the house se­cure.”

Brian Bowker stood aside so they could step into a foyer. A com­bi­na­tion of ve­randa and con­ser­va­tory, it had a pleas­ant, damp straw smell. The ceil­ing was so low Dad banged his head on a dan­gling light- fix­ture – which would be the first thing to go. It took mo­ments for Jor­dan’s eyes to ad­just to the green gloom. Plants were all around, some over­grow­ing their pots, ex­tend­ing ten­drils across the stiff, brushy door­mat. Some­thing like ivy grew inside the foyer, twin­ing around a wrought- iron bootscraper, creep­ing up a trel­lis. A row of brass hooks was ready for a bur­den of coats. Sev­eral pairs of boots were tum­bled to­gether by the door. A bright yel­low pair of wellies looked scarcely worn.

“Miss Tea­zle’s things are still here,” said Brian Bowker. “Her rel­a­tives in Aus­tralia want to throw in fur­ni­ture and bric- a- brac. A lot of char­ity- shop stuff, but there might be trea­sures. She was rich, after all. Now, come on through and see this…”

He touched a sec­tion of the wall. A pair of doors slid open like se­cret pan­els, with a woody scrap­ing sound. Beyond was cool dark­ness and a win­dow­less hall­way. The agent shep­herded them inside and along a cramped cor­ri­dor to another set of doors, which he pushed open.

As one, the fam­ily gasped. To find out what hap­pens next, pick up An English Ghost

Story, out now from Ti­tan Books ( RRP £ 7.99). Ebook also avail­able. www. ti­tan­books. com

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