Previously, on “Scary Tales to Tell in the Dark”:

  • Merry Goblins
  • Any Folklore Will Do As Long As It Sounds Vaguely Scottish
  • Werewolf Concerto
  • Ghost Bus-ters
  • Crystal Bollocks

Let’s just try and get this one over with, shall we?

Number Nine

Rob’s parents have just divorced, so he and his dad have moved into a tiny new house. Rob started hearing footsteps in the kitchen, and now he’s hearing them on the stairs too. The steps get louder and louder as they approach Rob’s room, then they stop. Rob is curious about this but doesn’t tell his dad, who (he thinks) wouldn’t take him seriously. His dad is an alcoholic and usually out at the pub, so hasn’t noticed anything strange. Eventually Rob starts to hear the sound of stones being thrown at his window too. He decides this is serious enough to tell his dad about, but Dad clearly isn’t listening.

Rob is woken by the sound of stones one night, and looks out the window to see three ghosts on his lawn. They’re all men dressed in clothing from times past. Two of them are carrying the third, who is a young boy that’s unconscious and bleeding profusely. His name is Jem. The men tell Rob that they’re the crew of a ship that was wrecked in a storm, and when they came up on the beach, they were attacked by “excisemen” who hurt Jem. I have no idea what an exciseman is and I am too lazy to Google it, so you’re on your own.

The men demand that Rob help them. Rob tries to explain that his father’s asleep. The men believe Rob’s father is Tom Tallen (he’s not) and that Rob is someone called Silas; but Rob doesn’t try to correct them. He lets the ghosts use his room, and gives them an old T-shirt for Jem’s wounds. Jem is bleeding all over the bed even though he’s a ghost. The men leave Jem with Rob while they go to fetch a doctor, and tell Rob not to let anyone in. Rob knows they’re not just talking about the “excisemen.” He presses for details and finally one of the men gives in.

He is Jem’s father, and was in a mutually abusive relationship with Jem’s mother Nell. She knows that their boat was wrecked, and that Tom Tallen’s house is the first place they’d go. She will be coming to look for them shortly, or rather not look – her husband blinded her by throwing hot fat in her eyes. The men leave and warn Rob not to let Nell in. Jem wakes, and Rob tries to reassure him. Jem insists Nell will kill him if she reaches the house. She has been blind for two years and can feel her way around the village like no other. Finally, Nell’s ghost shows up on the lawn. Rob is horrified to see that her eyes are just blank gaping sockets.

Nell lets herself into the house, and calls out for Jem. For some reason Jem actually tells her where he is. She comes up the stairs, pulls out a knife, and announces her intention to put him out of his misery. Rob tells her to fuck off: she’s a few hundred years too late, he is not Silas, and this is not Silas’s house. Nell ignores him and advances on Jem. Rob tries to get between them but can’t, because they are ghosts and he is unable to touch them. Just when he thinks he’s going to have to watch her slaughter Jem, two ghostly excisemen come in (all right, I’ve looked it up now. They’re customs officials) and restrain Nell. Jem’s father and the other man then return with the ghost doctor. It must be like Noel’s House Party in there.

Mr Blobby's ghost thankfully not invited.

Mr Blobby’s ghost thankfully not invited.

The ghosts grow fainter, but Jem looks more real and solid. He says that he’s about to die again. Rob points out that Nell can’t hurt anyone now. Jem explains that’s not what happened; he was shot when his father used him as a human shield to keep from being arrested for smuggling. He says goodbye to “Silas.” Rob says that he’s Rob, and he and Jem hold hands before Jem is killed. Then the ghosts disappear and Rob is left in an empty room, the smell of sea water all around him.

It’s sort of implied that Rob and his dad are reincarnations of Silas and Tom: everyone certainly thinks Rob looks like Silas, and it’s mentioned that Tom was a drunk just like Rob’s dad. The time-slip idea is a bit hackneyed, and the idea of a bunch of ghosts crowding into a kid’s bedroom is rather silly, but somehow it all works. The story is quite atmospheric and the ending genuinely sad. This manages to be the best entry in the book so far, although that’s not saying much.

The Green Man

Lyn and her family are campaigning to save the local wood from being bulldozed by property developer Mr Jackson. He wants to tear the whole thing down and stick up some cheap houses OH NOES can you tell I’m not much of an environmentalist? TL;DR Jackson laughs in Lyn’s face when she begs him to save the wood. All the trees come to life and trap Jackson, Lyn and her brother Gary. Then the “Green Man”, who’s some kind of forest deity, arrives. Jackson promises to call off the building development and sell the wood to the conservation project. The Green Man warns that if Jackson doesn’t keep his promise, he’ll be turned into a “blasted oak” – a dead oak tree that has been struck by lightning.

In the present day, Lyn tells her friends that Jackson disappeared shortly afterwards on his way to a meeting with the building contractors. She doesn’t know what could have happened to him, but there is now a blasted oak standing in the forest.

This story is so pointless I don’t have words for it. For the sake of my sanity I will just move on to

Time Trip

Rik lives in Moscow, because “Soul Sucker” was so epic that we NEEDED another Anthony Masters story set in Russia. Rik likes to swim in the open-air pool near the Kremlin. I didn’t know there was one, but yes, there is! It’s called the Moskva Pool, and from 1958 to 1995 it was the largest open-air swimming pool in the world. Here’s a picture:

Don't you dare say this blog isn't educational. Don’t you dare say this blog isn’t educational.

One day, Rik finds himself in the pool with the ghost of an old priest. The ghost crumbles away into dust, leaving behind a patch of icy water with the words HELP ME etched into it. Is that in Russian or English? After this, Rik is reluctant to go back to the pool again. His mother knows something’s wrong, and he finally agrees to go swimming with her so she won’t get suspicious. Rik’s mother gets out of the pool, and as soon as she leaves, the ghost shows up again. He briefly transforms into Rik’s late father – you would expect this to be going somewhere, but don’t worry, it’s not. Then he turns back into the priest. The priest insists that Rik was sent to help him do something, and has no choice but to comply.

The priest leads Rik into a ghostly world where the events of the past play out. Rik asks how long ago this happened, and the priest just says “a very long time ago.” It emerges that the priest presided over a village whose residents were all to be executed because one of them sheltered an “an enemy of the state.” The priest tried to help them escape into the woods via a secret underground tunnel, but they were all caught and massacred by soldiers. There is a legitimately heart-pounding and well-written moment here: Rik is caught by a ghost soldier who kicks him to the ground and threatens him with a gun. He is too scared to move, and when he finally dares to get up, he’s surrounded by dead bodies; including the priest, who is cradling a child. I can’t make fun of this bit.

The scene changes, and now Rik’s alone in the tunnel with a boy of his own age. Rik explains that “the soldiers came”, but the boy is resigned to this and was expecting it. He knew the priest would not be able to keep his promise to protect everyone. The boy introduces himself as Alexis, and he has a plan: they need to find the exit into the woods. They can’t go back to the church, because soldiers will be waiting. Rik asks Alexis what year it is, and Alexis says it’s 1917 – that’s the Russian Revolutions, in case history isn’t your strong point. The tunnel starts filling with smoke, and the boys realise the soldiers set it alight to kill any survivors. Alexis grabs Rik and drags him down the tunnel, which surprises Rik, who didn’t think a ghost would be able to touch him. Rik notices that Alexis feels as warm and real as a living person.

They find the exit and get out. The boys are about to run into the forest, but then Alexis gets shot. Rik wants to stay with him but Alexis tells Rik to run, or he’ll get shot too. Rik thinks this might be plausible: if a ghost can drag him down a tunnel, they could probably shoot him. Which is just plain confusing because … a ghost soldier pointed a gun in his face but didn’t shoot him despite everyone else being killed? Some soldiers arrive, but the ghosts are beginning to fade away, and Rik can’t do anything to intervene. The soldiers agree they won’t kill a child. They plan to take Alexis to a doctor.

Rik realises he’s back at the pool. He sees the words “Thank you” engraved in some ice. He gets out of the water and goes to join his mother, who’s looking rather flustered. A Russian man approached her and told her that his father had a message for Rik: thank you, because Alexis survived. Rik is intensely happy. He rushes back to the pool, where the priest is waiting. The priest thanks Rik for helping him save just one person; then vanishes forever.

In itself, this is a pretty good story. It may take a few historical liberties (in the real world, I doubt Alexis’s tender age would have saved him) but there you go. As I’ve mentioned, there’s one passage in particular that’s very effective and well-written. There’s just one problem with it: the premise is too similar to “Number Nine.” In a book as short as this, it becomes repetitive. Horror Stories to Tell in the Dark has a similar problem. Why couldn’t “Time Trip” have been in that book and “Rats” in this one?

The Haunted Gondola

Alison’s on holiday in Venice with her friend Gina. For crying out loud! This is supposed to be horror, not travel writing. This book has taken us on a whistle-stop tour of Scotland, Bulgaria, the US, Russia, and now Italy! We’re not even at the end yet!

One day, the girls are walking home and cross the bridge near Gina’s home. It’s covered in statues of children playing games. Alison sees an old couple climbing into a gondola, and she doesn’t think anything of it; but suddenly all the child statutes come to life. The statues seem to be pointing at something, and Alison realises it’s the gondola. She rushes to catch up with it and is surprised to see that it now contains two small children. She and Gina chase the gondola, and witness the kids climbing out and going to play in a nearby playground. Eventually the gondolier orders them back into the boat, and takes them back across the river, which turns them into old people again. The old people go inside a building marked “Chapel of Rest” and disappear.

The two stalkers, Alison and Gina, discuss what this might mean. They believe the gondolier can somehow bring the dead back to life to have a last moment of joy as children again. The gondolier walks past them and goes into the chapel. After some deliberation, the girls decide to follow. They see the bodies of the old couple lying peacefully in coffins together. Alison wants to ask the gondolier about his “services”, on the pretext of having had a death in the family; but Gina has a better idea. She’ll just ask if he can make her old instead! Why not. Why bloody not. Alison points out that Gina might be stuck as an old person, but Gina doesn’t care.

The gondolier comes in, having conveniently overheard the whole conversation. And of course he speaks English. He says he’s only ever done old to young, not the other way around. Gina begs him to try, and he agrees, despite Alison’s protests that this is a crap idea. She notices that the gondolier himself seems to be getting younger by the minute. Gina climbs into the gondola and changes into an old lady, with the statues on the bridge laughing and pointing at her. Gina goes to the playground, but when she returns, she’s still old. The gondolier is now a little boy. Alison yells at him to change her back but he can’t. Gina makes Alison help her up the steps to the “Chapel of Rest”, where Gina climbs into an empty coffin and dies.

The creator of that video has sadly not read this book.

The creator of that video has sadly not read this book.

Alison tells her friends at the party that this happened on the last day of her visit, so she never saw the gondolier again. She was forced to lie that Gina fell in the canal. She was never implicated in Gina’s disappearance, and the body at the chapel was never identified as Gina. I’m glad the author wrapped that up for us, at least.

Despite the inaccurate title (the gondola isn’t haunted; more like cursed) this story isn’t too bad either. It belongs in a better book, and would have fitted nicely into one of the “Thirteen” collections from the Point Horror series.

The Vampire

WE’RE IN IRELAND NOW oh I give up.

Abby’s parents have gone on holiday and left her with her Uncle Sean, who runs a petrol station in the arse-end of nowhere. He has a grand total of one regular customer: a chauffeur who comes to fill up his limo. There is always a young disabled boy sitting in the back with his wheelchair folded in next to him. Uncle Sean fills Abby in: the boy’s name is Larn, and he lives in a mansion with his rich, reclusive parents. They are never seen outside of the house, but Larn goes to the petrol station every day. He has a mysterious “wasting disease” (is that like the equivalent of plot-convenient TB in Victorian novels?) Abby notices Larn smiling at her, but thinks it’s strange that he doesn’t open his lips when he smiles. She also notices how pale and drawn he looks. One day, Larn opens the window and gives her a note.

Abby falls for Larn’s “Help me! You MUST come over to my house and save me! My EVIL DRIVER killed my parents and now he’s starving me to death so he can get his hands on my inheritance!” trick. Turns out Larn’s a vampire. He was very ill, but when his fangs started to grow in, he realised he just needed to drink some blood. He drank his parents dry, and now he’s done the same to the driver, but it’s not enough. He wants blood from a young person, someone like, oh, I don’t know, ABBY!

Abby runs down into the cellar, but stops when she realises it’s full of rats. Now she’s trapped. There’s a vampire with her, the cellar’s full of rats (of course they eat flesh. This is a horror story!) and the house is on a cliff so she’ll fall to her death if she tries to escape out the window. Then the cellar catches fire because Larn dropped his oil lamp. Apparently vampires don’t do electricity. Abby manages to drag Larn up the steps out of the cellar, but collapses from smoke inhalation. Larn takes the opportunity to try to bite her. She shoves him into the fire and he goes up in flames. We’re told in one anticlimactic sentence that she “managed to find her way out” of the house and stood around watching it burn down.

Me and Dre stood next to a burnt-down house with a can full of gas and a hand full of matches, and still weren't found out.

Me and Dre stood next to a burnt-down house with a can full of gas and a hand full of matches, and still weren’t found out.

The book ends abruptly as someone’s dad comes in and the kids all pretend to be asleep.

This book is a definite step down in quality from the previous, and even that one wasn’t exactly great art. This time there’s more of a bent towards fantasy creatures and ghosts, unlike Horror Stories to Tell in the Dark which was a bit more slash-’em-up (a man unleashes flesh-eating rats on a town, an old lady decapitates an annoying child, etc.) The first four stories, in particular, were incredibly mind-numbing and an absolute chore to get through.

I’m still not wild about the framing device of kids narrating these stories as true events. It’s implied the stories are all true; Lucy still has the cover of Nanny Morris’s book, and the kids all act traumatised and say they’ve never been able to tell anyone else about what happened to them. But come on. If all of these things really happened, these children should be in therapy. They’d have PTSD. They’d be suicidal! They should at the very least be getting some professional help, not hanging out exchanging morbid stories with other kids who just happen to have had similar experiences with the supernatural.

Body Count: Nanny Morris – Melted when Lucy set fire to the Dark Directory.

Peter – Killed by the old witch

PC Rivers – Crumbled into dust

Mr Jackson – Turned into a dead tree

Gina – Rapid aging via magical gondola

Larn – Burned alive

The body count goes up if we take into account the ghosts in “Number Nine” and “Time Trip”, in which case we can add the entire population of a small Russian village to the list. But since they’re ghosts, they were already dead and in my opinion shouldn’t be included.

Questionable Parenting: There’s a lot of it in this book. Hiring a witch/goblin-type-thing to look after your child, and letting your child swim in an outdoor pool that’s freezing over, are good examples. But the prize has to go to “Number Nine.” One of Jem’s parents tries to kill him with a knife, the other uses him as a human shield in an attempt to avoid arrest. Rob’s dad blatantly ignores his son’s problems, drinks heavily, and spends all night in the pub leaving Rob alone at home. That one cuts just a bit too close to the real world.

Questionable Vampirism: Larn messily cut the throats of his parents and driver in order to drink from them. Which is fine and dandy, but he expressly says he didn’t know he was a vampire until his fangs started growing in. What does he think those fangs are for, I wonder?

You Do the Math: PC Rivers was trapped in Madame Orion’s magic mirror in 1956. By 1992, he’d have been ninety-six years old. This means he was sixty on the night he arrested Madame Orion. Isn’t that a bit old to still be working as a beat cop?

Wait, What?: But that night I went home alone on the 92. Except it wasn’t really the 92. It was the 77.

Unintentionally Homoerotic Moment: A ghost standing on my shoulders? And yet when he did I could feel his weight, hear him panting …

Out of Context Theatre: “Dad, did you hear the Martians have landed?” I said suddenly.

“Yeah.”

“And they’re stealing people’s souls.”

“Uh-huh.”

“There’s one of them after yours.”

“Mm.” He turned a page. “Get a move on, son, or you’ll be late for school.”

Up next: Since this book ended with a vampire, we’ll move on to “Vampire Stories to Tell in the Dark.”

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