Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Thing in the Shrubbery

I wrote the following short story for Herself to read out (in abridged form) at the Dark Door: Ghost Stories larp this weekend. This is the full version.

The Thing in the Shrubbery

Hailing from Raleigh, N.C., Dorothy van Tassel is a regular contributor to WEIRD TALES magazine. Her published work includes ‘The Toads of Zhered-Na’,  ‘Captives of the Space-Kaiser’ and the popular ‘Brick Ridley, Detective Boxer’ series.

IT was early summer when I moved in to the old Belknap place, having taken a position at the prestigious university across town. The post came with a more than ample salary, affording me the opportunity to forego my customary habit of taking rooms in a lodging house in or near to campus. And so, though my possessions were few and my needs simple, I indulged myself by purchasing a property that was far more suitable to a family or at the very least married couple, with space enough for live-in help.

The Belknap place was a sturdy two-story house built in a style typical of the area some hundred or so years ago. Its wooden shutters and roof shingles showed signs of a little rot and were in need of replacing, and the walls were grimed with the decades-long growth of ivy and moss which had taken virulent hold of the building’s exterior, lending it a curiously organic cast, as if the entire structure had grown out of the hill on which it stood.

But the construction itself was sound enough, and the agent from whom I purchased the property assured me that such repairs as were necessary were no more than superficial. And as soon as I could arrange for electricity and mains water to be installed, I would be living like a country squire of old, up on the hill on the edge of town.

If truth be told, it was not the house that attracted me so much as the grounds in which it stood. The gardens had long since run wild with tall grasses, weeds and young trees, but the ghost of what it had once been was still visible to those with an eye to see. And as a keen amateur horticulturist, I could not help but speculate, even fantasize, as to what transformation I could wreak in my spare hours.

True, it would be long and back-breaking work clearing the scrub, re-laying lawns and trimming back the wild ivy that encroached upon the windows on every side, but the result, visible in my mind’s eye as an homage to nineteenth century design, would be more than worth the effort. The arbor and trelliswork would be restored, the ornamental beds replanted, and that thick, dark mass of shrubbery on the north side would be trimmed back to a more manageable and aesthetically pleasing proportion.

There was something about that shady shrubbery, that impenetrable thicket of thorns and tightly packed bushes, which seemed to suck in the light even in the noonday sun. It was tall too, reaching high above a man’s head, and deep enough to cover a barn-sized patch of the property, like a remnant of some antediluvian vegetation when vast forests covered the surface of the Earth long before Man arose to tame and cultivate the land.

Strangely, though the spring had been mild and summer yet to reach its peak, the shrubbery was in somewhat poor health. Even a cursory glance as I inspected my new surroundings showed its outer foliage to be dry, brittle and spotted brown, as if fall had already arrived, or some parasite taken hold. I resolved, when time permitted, to revive that darksome plot of vegetation to its former glory and made a note to test the quality of the soil and drainage.

Had I only known, had I but sensed by some preternatural power that some claim to possess but which has ever eluded me, that the source of the shrubbery’s ill-kempt condition was something far stranger, far more malevolent, than any mundane plant disease.

* * *

WITHIN a couple of weeks I had moved myself in, occupying the more habitable rooms on the second floor while repairs were made downstairs by two local handymen, brothers by the name of Japhet and Gomer Rudge. They were a taciturn, brutish pair, barely speaking to me from the moment they arrived each morning to their departure as the sun set, and no more than grunting at each other in a debased form of English that I had heard spoken by the older families in the area. Still, the Rudges did a decent enough job of working on the old place, though more skilled tasks like running electrical and telephone wires up the hill and replacing the ancient oil lamps that hung on every wall I would need to leave to specialists, as and when the basic structural repairs were completed.

In the meantime I busied myself at work, getting used to the bustle and thrust of university life, and spent the long summer evenings in my new gardens, hoe or fork in hand, hacking at the overgrowth, trimming back climbers, digging up weeds, and steadily amassing a sizable heap of trimmings which I resolved to burn once it had dried out. I relished the opportunity to use my hands, to make those first crucial steps in recapturing the former beauty of the Belknap place.

The work was as much a restoration as it was a simple gardening project. As I trimmed back the grass on one side of the house, I discovered an old patio, long overgrown and covered by a layer of dirt and old vegetation. When cleared, it proved to be a delightful stone veranda laid in alternating pink and white, where a man might entertain friends for a summer soiree, or sit upon a cane chair and survey his land, pipe in one hand and a glass in the other. Elsewhere I unearthed the edges of long-abandoned rose beds, stumps of once great elms and maples and even a small herb garden, now grown wild and chaotic with errant sweet parsley and dogthyme.

As the grounds were gradually cleared and the accumulated greenery of decades of neglect was uprooted, sawn, pruned and ultimately transferred, barrow by laden barrow, to my ever-growing heap, I began to see ever more vividly what the gardens once had been, and could be again. Neat lawns with ornamental beds of rose, stepped terraces and sun traps, shady arbors and dappled trellises. It would take time, years even for some of the plants I had in mind to truly settle in, but it would be worth it.

Fortunately there appeared to be little or no animal infestation on the property, save insects and other small invertebrates. No molehills were to be found, nor the telltale signs of rat, mouse or other vermin in and around the house and gardens. Indeed there was precious little evidence of birds making the most of the ample roosting opportunities either in the eaves of the neglected roof or even in the boughs of the surviving trees. I thanked my stars that I would not have to contend with pests any larger than greenfly as I labored in my grand endeavor.

If I had but thought more deeply on that seemingly innocent stroke of luck. Had I but examined the curious absence of animal life from the Belknap place!

* * *

BY mid-July, much of the basic garden work had been accomplished, largely by my hand alone. I had on occasion dragooned the terse Rudges into some of the heavier tasks, such as sawing logs, heaving stumps out and holding the ladder steady as I carried out some long overdue lopping of branches, but on the whole they seemed reluctant to spend much time on such outdoor activities, preferring to confine themselves to the immediate environs of the house itself. I put this down to some innate aversion to gardening; perhaps they saw it as woman’s work, or else simply favored laboring on their own rather than mixing with the ‘master of the house’ as I amusingly thought of myself. To be sure, I had noticed they acted ill at ease while assisting me outside, muttering darkly under their breath as they worked and hastening back inside as soon as I had no further need of them.

I also noticed that the brothers trudged up the rutted path to the house with heads held low every morning and fairly hustled back down the selfsame route each evening, though they had been hard at work all day. It was odd that they kept so assiduously to the path, for it wound back and forth several times, the better to accommodate the approach of horse-drawn carriages long since gone. It would have been simpler for them to have cut straight down the north side of the hill to the lane and be on their way home. But for whatever reason, perhaps a respect for the future flower beds and bushes with which I planned to line the slopes, they avoided the more direct route, dominated by the darksome shrub that I had yet to address.

So it was that when the time came to approach the looming shrubbery, shears in hand, I was quite alone. It seemed even taller up close, thick and wiry with years of unrestrained growth. Clearly it had grown far beyond the original owner’s intentions and I resolved to cut it back a good yard or so all round, the better to see in what state the shrubbery as a whole might be, and what could be salvaged from it. I set to work with vigorous intent, pruning carefully at first, then with increasing enthusiasm as I settled into a sort of rhythm, steadily accumulating a great ring of trimmings as I worked around the shrub in a circle. Thorny twigs and stems gathered at my feet, snapping neatly between the shears’ stainless steel blades.

It was a strange plant, one that at first bore a resemblance to some strain of hawthorn or Himalayan cotoneaster, but where one would expect to see tight clusters of small red berries, this instead bore hard, dark brown nutlike pods, as if there hadn’t been enough rain to sufficiently water the plant into fully fruiting.

Yet that could not be the case, for elsewhere in the gardens the weeds grew in lush abundance, there being no shortage of rainfall this year. But here the great shrub seemed, as I had noticed earlier, quite dry and brittle. Even the surrounding earth was hard and cracked, leeched of all moisture. Drainage could have been the culprit, but looking again I saw that the gardens both above and below the shrub were green and well watered. No, there was something else at work. Some yet-to-be identified factor that had sucked the vitality from this sorry patch of land.

Panting with exertion, I stepped back to survey my work, my boots crunching on brittle twigs. The shrub looked neater now, its edges trimmed to a uniform depth, but the revealed growth was if anything less healthy than the outer layer that now lay in heaps on the earth. More twisted, thorny twigs, matted even tighter, and where the outer shoots had a semblance of greenness to them, these had leaves that were more brown than verdant, and bore clusters of those curious nutlike pods that were even more wizened. On closer examination, they caught the sunlight in a such a way as to resemble tiny pea-sized shrunken heads, echoing the savage practices of certain uncivilized tribes of the Amazon. I pocketed a cluster, thinking to show them to a colleague who taught botany at the university. Perhaps he would be able to identify this strange shrub, and could recommend a remedy for whatever ailed it.

I peeled off my thick leather gardening gloves and was about to return to the house for a welcome glass of lemonade when the afternoon sun’s rays shone on the dark thicket. Deep within, far, far out of reach, something caught the light. There was a suggestion of shape, of outline, that did not match the surrounding wiry growth. Something dark and solid. Any more than that I could not tell, even though I leaned in to getter a better look, pushing the stems aside as best I could, unconscious to the tiny pinpricks the thorns were inflicting on my exposed palms.

Pressing into the shrub like this, the sun’s heat diminished almost entirely. I felt a chill along my face and forearms, and my fingers almost prickled with cold even in the height of summer. The shape deep in the heart of the shrub remained an indistinct something far beyond my grasp. I shivered involuntarily, seeing my breath misting before me, and became aware that my hands had gone a little numb. With a heave I righted myself and stepped back out of the shrub, my clothes snagging on the pricks as I withdrew. The lowering sun felt welcome against the exposed skin and I turned gratefully toward it, feeling warmth restore feeling to cheeks and fingers.

I collected the shears and gloves and returned to the house, feeling the icy presence of the shrub at my back, the nape of my neck almost prickling with the chillsome memory.

* * *

I chose to avoid that part of the garden for more than a week, telling myself that I should concentrate on the restoration of the herb garden and rose beds, but in truth the incident had unnerved me more than I cared to admit to myself at the time. Of course I had not shared my experience, not with friends and certainly not with the brutish Rudges, though in hindsight I can believe that they sensed a change in my demeanor; a certain lessening of my enthusiastic zeal for the grand gardening project that even they could not help but notice. I caught them muttering conspiratorially more than once in the days that followed, beetled brows furrowed, thickly muscled necks inclining their heads to that part of the grounds that they so determinedly avoided. I did not think to engage them on the matter, as much a victim of our mutual social gulf as I was reluctant to put into words that which I had experienced, for fear of giving substance to my creeping discomfort.

It was by chance that I wore my old gardening jacket to the university one day, and came across the nut-pods that I had pocketed with a thought to identifying them. My spirits somewhat restored in the intervening period, I sought out my botanist colleague Danvers and showed him the desiccated samples.

“Strange,” he said, squinting at one of the tiny brown pods, his spectacles on his forehead as was his custom, “This appears to be a distant cousin of the hawthorn as you surmised Farley, but these pods are like none I’ve seen growing in these climes. A transplant, no doubt, in all likelihood brought from overseas by the original owners.”

“From where?” I asked my friend, proffering the suggestion that it was some sort of Himalayan strain, perhaps used to higher altitudes and thinner air.

He rubbed his chin, considering, then turned to consult the shelves of botany books behind him. Danvers pulled out a great leather-bound volume from a lower shelf and heaved it onto his desk, scattering term papers. Humming to himself, with me at his shoulder, he quickly leafed back and forth through the old pages, flicking past sketch after sketch of plants, until at length he came across the one he was after.

“There,” he proclaimed, stabbing the page with an ink-stained finger.

I craned closer to look at the drawing of a wiry, thorned stem bearing small nutlike pods, identical to the sample I had showed him. The long-dead artist had even caught the suggestion of shrunken head in those wizened pods, like tiny cartoon faces caught in mid-shriek.

Crataegus monica, also known as Monk’s Hawthorn, among other names,” began Danvers, reading from the text. “It’s extremely uncommon in this region, though some examples are said to survive in areas where the early colonists settled. Presumably they brought them over for some reason, though it doesn’t say here what for. Clearly it wasn’t for fruit, or any medicinal property that I can see. And it certainly wasn’t for its decorative value!”

He laughed at his own joke, but seeing my troubled face, trailed off awkwardly.

I thanked Danvers for his time and promised to bring him over to the Belknap place, once it was in a fit state to receive guests. He asked to keep the samples that I had brought him, so that he might do a little more digging in some of the university’s older texts as time allowed. I was grateful that my friend had showed interest in the curious plant and yet at the same time, the information he had uncovered only served to raise more questions. Why would anyone bother to bring such an unlovely, seemingly purposeless plant over the ocean? Monk’s Hawthorn, he called it. A strange name.

* * *

BY August the house was in a decent enough state that I could entertain, and I wasted no time in inviting a few select acquaintances to join me in a light supper. With fresh floorboards, newly papered walls, thick rugs and worn but comfortable furniture scavenged from a variety of house sales and antique stores, the refurbished dining room, living room and study were all handsomely fitted out and I felt a quiet pride as I welcomed my fellows from the university into the hallway.

The evening passed most pleasantly, with the good food and illicit brandy serving to loosen all our tongues a little more than normal. Frank opinions on absent colleagues flowed, often followed by raucous laughter, and the atmosphere of comradeship filled me with conviviality.

As night fell, my guests made their farewells and departed, leaving just myself and Danvers, lounging in well-worn armchairs. He brought up the subject of the shrub.

“So where’s that damned strange bush of yours, old man? I’d like to get a look at it with my own two eyes.”

Emboldened by the occasion and not a little brandy, I rose to my feet and led him out onto the north side of the house where, flashlight in hand, I indicated the dark mass of the shrub a little downhill from us. Some trace of hesitance lingered though, and I made no move to venture any closer in the twilight. But Danvers paid this no heed and stepped forward, peering into the gloom.

“Come on and bring the flashlight up. I can hardly see a thing.” He gestured to me without looking over his shoulder as he approached the shrub, cursing once as he stumbled slightly on the uneven ground.

Reluctantly, I followed, the carefree mood of my fellow lending me courage, though I dared not admit the unnameable fear I had begun to feel whenever I drew close to this dreary patch.

In the darkness, the shrub was an indistinct mass, its upper and outer edges trailing off into the night so that it occupied my vision entirely. Slowly, I brought the beam of the flashlight up to illuminate the thicket rearing up mere feet before us. The great curve of its shorn stems, trimmed so enthusiastically by myself not so long before, gave it the impression of a mighty wave, frozen in the instant before it would come crashing down upon our heads.

Oblivious to my disquiet, Danvers began to poke about in the nearest part of the shrub, urging me to bring the light in closer. He had an academic’s natural inclination toward lecturing, and I drew close to him, the better catch his muttered commentary.

“Hm, yes, definitely crataegus monica, as we presumed,” He had twisted off a few twigs and was examining the nut-pods and thorns up close. “It’s a hardy, if unlovely, strain. Doesn’t need much in the way of tending, just the bare minimum of sun and water, and really any sort of soil will do, which is just as well. Look at the earth here!”

He stooped to scratch around at the edge of the growth, scooping up a handful of dry chalky dust which he proceeded to rub between his fingers. “Completely barren, not an ounce of nutrients. This shrub is probably the only thing that could grow here, given the poor conditions. But given the size of it, it must have been planted decades again, certainly last century. Hello, what’s that?”

Danvers, still squatting down, peered deeper into the thicket as the beam of my flashlight wavered around. He gestured for me to hold it steady and leaned in, his nose almost brushing the brittle foliage, unconsciously mimicking my selfsame actions from my own first encounter with the shrubbery. I made to hold him back, but my hand hesitated inches from his shoulder, and with some embarrassment I shoved my hand into a pocket to keep it from shaking.

“Farley, there’s something deeper in, can you see? Blasted hard to see without more light.” His hand emerged from the thorns and held it out, palm up, in mute request for the flashlight to be passed to him. I complied and now I was left in darkness as fractured illumination waved around inside the hedged growth.

He had his entire head and shoulders deep in the thorny growth now, the mass of entangled stems quivering and rustling as he used his hands to pry them apart, straining for a clearer view. From my vantage point behind, I could see nothing but Danvers’ rear end, protruding almost comically from the wall of vegetation in the blackness.

“Danvers, perhaps –” I began, my inexplicable disquiet overcoming my usual reticence, but my colleague didn’t hear my soft words, such was the thrashing noise he generated in his efforts to crawl in. His body wriggled further in, leaving only the soles of his shoes clear of the shrub, and then even they disappeared.

“Yes, I can definitely make something out. It’s a few more yards in. Must have been swallowed up as the crataegus grew over the decades.” His voice was muffled now, not just by the sound of his own movement, but as if the plant matter itself was soaking up his voice. He sounded much further off than the scant distance he had crawled in, as evidenced by the fragmentary flashlight flickering inside.

“By God it’s chilly,” he muttered, “when did it get so cold?” Despite my nervous state, the August evening air was quite pleasant where I stood, but I recalled my own sense of chill within the shrub and again my agitation grew.

“Danvers, I really think you should come out now. The thorns are quite sharp. Let’s leave this for the morning.”

“Nonsense,” came the reply as if from far away, “I’m almost there now. It’s probably nothing but an old tree stump or –”

His voice cut off as abruptly as the thrashing of the growth caused by his passage. I felt a wave of cold envelope me, as if it were the outbreath of some frosty spirit. I heard Danvers mutter something indistinctly, though it sounded like a question. Then he screamed.

* * *

I remember little of what took place immediately after that. I think perhaps I must have pulled Danvers out, given the many cuts and scratches over my face and hands and my torn clothing. Somehow I must have overcome the atavistic instinct to flee the second he began that terrible screaming, and had instead thrust myself into the shrub in his wake, guided by his shrieks and the madly careening beam of the flashlight. Though this is all surmise, for in truth I recall precious little until I had dragged his poor form out onto the dusty earth and continued to heave his weight all the way up and into the house, where I collapsed panting and drenched in perspiration.

Danvers lay in a terrible condition on the hallway rug. He was covered in blood from long, deep scratches inflicted by the bush’s thorny stems, much as I myself had received, and looked ghastly pale under his wounds. His skin was cold as ice to the touch and his breath came fast and shallow, misting as he exhaled. But worst of all was his face. Eyes that did not blink bulged fit to pop, and his jaw hung agape in a rictus of utmost horror. He would not speak, nor did he respond to me in any way.

Eventually I summoned the strength to lurch over to the newly installed telephone in the study. I summoned help from the faculty’s physician across town and before long help had arrived to spirit the stricken Danvers and myself away to the university hospital for treatment.

When pressed to explain the source of the calamity, I found myself unable to answer with anything but the vaguest of replies. Perhaps I had been afflicted with a degree of the hysterical muteness that had so struck my poor colleague. A natural reaction to the bloody shock of the evening, perhaps. My feeble response that he had ‘fallen downhill into some bushes’ which I had then pulled him out of hardly did justice to the extent of his injuries, nor did it explain the awful state of shell-shock that had been induced in the botanist. But evidently my own muttered replies and haunted expression were enough to suggest that I was in no fit state to answer any further questions this night, and I was duly given a sedative. Before long I slipped into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

* * *

I was declared fit to leave the hospital the next day, superficially battered but nothing that wouldn’t heal in a week or two, or so the doctor assured me. Danvers however was a different matter. His wounds too had been treated and his severe blood loss addressed, but his underlying state of mind was little better come morning. When they allowed me in to see him, the man appeared to have aged ten years overnight. His face was haggard and sunken, his hair thin and starting to gray. It was as if that damn shrubbery had sucked the life out of him, much as it must have done to the very soil on which it grew.

Mercifully though, he had regained some semblance of his wits, though he still did not speak. His eyes, though retaining that wide haunted stare, at least blinked now, and my friend obviously registered my presence at his side. As I looked on him with dismay, his lips began to move.
I could hear nothing, and had to bend in close.

“Book,” he whispered in my ear, little more than a quavering breath, “fetch… book.”

Listening carefully, I extracted from him the name of some old botany text which I promised to have sent over from his rooms. I hoped that returning to the familiar pages of his beloved subject would give him some peace of mind and so speed his recovery. For my own part, I foresaw no restoration of equanimity until I had dealt with that loathsome shrub on the northern slope of the Belknap place. I would not spend another night there with that malevolent growth squatting on the hillside. I would have it expunged down to its roots.

* * *

THEY took some coaxing, but eventually I was able to engage the Rudges to destroy the shrubbery. At first they flat out refused, then, when I pressed them, they suggested a ridiculous estimate for the work; an estimate which I met, heedless of the cost, much to their surprise. Finally, with the additional offer of a sizeable quantity of alcohol, they grudgingly agreed to the work, on the strict understanding that they would be done and away from my property long before sundown. I shook each of their meaty hands gratefully and led them up the hill to begin immediately.

They worked slowly but steadily, urged on by my constant prodding. I dared not leave the brothers to it for fear of them slacking and leaving the job half-done. I shivered inwardly at the thought of being left alone with that darkling shrub come nightfall. I would well be rid of it, and already began sketching out plans in my head to replace it with a pleasant lawn edged with hardy but decorative native flowers.

As the brutish Rudge brothers continued to hack away at the great bush with saw and axe, I carted away the refuse to the heap of trimmings that had been accumulating all summer. By now it was a great mound of dead vegetation, tinderbox-dry and well suited to my plans to dispose of the wicked thicket once and for all. I deposited load after barrow-load on top, piling it high with twigs and stems from the shrub. In the bright daylight, the lengths of thorns and nut-pods looked quite mundane, little more than old brown twigs. One could almost believe there was nothing strange, nothing malevolent at all about this shrub, this Monk’s Hawthorn. Perhaps I had imagined much of what I had felt, the victim of my own fanciful conjurations. The chill could have been just the coolness of the shade after all, those mischievous faces in the nuts a mere trick of the human mind’s ability to give meaning to the random fruits of nature.

But Danvers’ screams, and his face – no, I could not dismiss those memories so easily. Something foul was at work here, and that shrub was the rotten heart of it. Academic I may be, but a deep primitive sense, such as might have guided our forefathers to shun certain remote places and bolt their doors against queer visitors after dark, told me that I was right; evil had bedded down in the gardens of the Belknap place, and if I was to make it truly my home, then it would have to be torn out, and burnt down to the roots.

As midday moved into afternoon, I saw that the Rudges had done well. The shrub had already lost a good portion of its bulk on one side as they hacked and hewed it down. I realized that at this rate we would have the heart of the damn thing cut down well before evening came, and resolved get the bonfire going at once.

* * *

THE heap crackled merrily, blazing with a glad intensity as it consumed the dead off-cuts. Eagerly, I shoveled more into the flames and marveled at how quickly it ignited, yellow tongues of fire fairly racing along the length of each stem, the nut-pods blackening and popping open with tiny pops of air, the thorns resisting longer but inevitably succumbing to the furnace. I stood back and admired the bonfire with satisfaction, then turned to once more urge the Rudges in their work.

To my dismay, I saw that they had stopped work and were sat down some distance from the remaining shrub, which now looked as if some giant had taken a great bite out of it. They mopped perspiration from their heavy brows, and made it clear in simple terms that refreshment would be welcome about now, as agreed. Irritated by this cessation of their work but powerless to budge them until I complied with the terms of our agreement, I went inside to fetch some cheap bottles of beer from the bottom drawer of my desk in the study. When I returned outside, they fairly snatched the drinks from me, cracked lips smacking with thirst. Slugging back mouthfuls of the stuff, Japhet assured me that he and his brother would now certainly be able to get the job done in time, and the two resumed their chopping with gusto.

As I stepped back inside to refresh myself, I started at an abrupt trilling sound from the study. It was the telephone. So caught up was I in the great undertaking at hand, it had taken me quite by surprise. I snatched it up and answered. It was Danvers.

“Farley, listen quickly, I haven’t much time.” His voice was weak but insistent, and I heard much of my friend’s old self in his tone, though he was clearly agitated.

“Are you out of hospital already?” I inquired, “When I saw you this morning I was sure the doctors would have you confined to bed for at least a week.”

“I’m at the university library. The doctors wouldn’t let me leave but I had to find something out.” There was an energy to his voice, an insistence as he rushed through the words. “Listen, that book you had sent over earlier, it was an old compendium of plants and their uses, dating back centuries, as much folklore as botany. I’d never give it much credence before, but the shrub, what I saw…”

He trailed off, and I could hear another noise on the telephone line, thumping and muffled shouts, as if from behind a door. The thumping mirrored the steady chock-chocking of an axe outside, and I glanced out of the study window to see the Rudges deep within the shrub, great swathes of chopped brush piled behind them. Soon they would have the heart of that bleak bush cut out and piled on the still crackling bonfire.

I didn’t ask Danvers what he saw, fearful of what he might say, but instead pressed him about the book.

“Monk’s Hawthorn, that’s just one of its names. It has other, older names, going back to the middle ages. Names like Witchbinder.”

I didn’t understand.

“The book says that Witchbinder is a poor plant, bearing neither fruit nor flower, save for its hard nut-pods that have faces like old men. But it is a long-lived and sturdy shrub, and its densely packed thorns make it ideal as a sort of hedge-enclosure.”

“For penning livestock, you mean?” I couldn’t see where he was leading with this lecture, but clearly there was a purpose, for he began to speak ever faster. I could hear the banging on the line getting louder, and I was sure I heard voices shouting his name.

“No Farley, you don’t understand. The Witchbinder was planted by folks in the old days to keep out evil. They grew it as a safeguard against… things.” The emphasis on the last word was unmissable, and again I couldn’t help but wonder what it was he had seen last night. “Witches, devils, creatures from the dawn of time – the Witchbinder kept them out. And in some cases…” Again he trailed off with a catch in his voice. I heard something click on the other end of the line. Something metallic, mechanical. “Sometimes they planted it on top of things, Farley, things that couldn’t be killed, only trapped.”

In an instant I understood what Danvers meant. The truth of the shrubbery.

“I worked out the growth rate of the shrub, Farley. They must have planted it over two hundred years ago. Two hundred years it’s been there. The shrub’s not an evil growth, it’s a prison. And the prisoner – it’s been trapped inside all that time – not dead, waiting! Waiting to be freed!”

In horror, I turned my head to look out the study window once again. The Rudges were no longer in view, and the chopping sound had ceased.

“I – I saw it. In there. It looked at me, Farley, looked right at me. My God, what a terrible thing.”

The shouting on the line was a little clearer now. They were calling Danvers’ name, pleading with him to open the door.

“I’m sorry. I can’t keep seeing it in my head. I just can’t,” his voice was so close to the telephone now. “Whatever you do, do not go into that shrub. Leave it alone, leave it alone. Goodbye old man.”

There was a loud crack on the line, followed by a heavy thud. I dropped the receiver.

Stunned, I looked outside. I could see something lying over the great pile of trimmings which had formed the mighty shrub’s bulk, its armor, its shield between the world of men and things that should not be. I realized I was looking at the body of Gomer Rudge. He appeared to be missing his lower half. Of his brother, there was no sign.

Numbly, I saw that the earth by Rudge had been disturbed. It was torn up, as if by something heavy and jagged, and formed a filthy dirt-strewn track or a trail of sorts, leading from the deepest recess of the shrub, across the lawn and over the pink-and-white patio to the house. I let out a shuddering breath. The window pane misted.

There was a scratching at the study door behind me.


Saturday, 24 October 2015

Comic Reviews, October 2015

More very personal and subjective gut feeling reviews of stuff what I've read of late. Long story short: Secret Wars is increasingly disappointing.

Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps

Some Kellys and a Lopez
4 issues

Started off pretty well with a kind of mystery about a ship and a nice touch that none of the flyers know what a star is, but fizzled in the last two issues. Ends with the lady Blackhawks just sort of flying off. A couple too many pilot characters in the main cast to track, with the non-Marvel Modesty Blaise one weirdly jarring. The character of Rhodey from the domain-next-door was pretty much wasted, spending most of his time in the barracks, and the art just wasn't clean enough for a series about sexy aerobatics. A bit disappointing.
Also, I hate the weird bit-of-hair-poking-out-the-top costume.

Planet Hulk

Sam Humphries, Marc Laming, Michael Del Mundo (covers)
5 issues
A great concept - gladiator Cap and his pal Devil Dinosaur trek across gamma wastelands and get into all sorts of scrapes. Decent enough art inside, and rather lovely green-soaked paintings for the cover art. Probably goes on at least one issue too long though, and the weird twist with Doc Green doesn't sit right at all. Good shots of Steve and Devil curled up together for the night, and Devil's letters page in issue 2 is a riot.

Ultimate End

Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley
4 issues (so far)

Not bad. Getting old hands Bendis and Bagley to write the Ultimate Universe's (kinda) swansong was a smart move, and Bendis does what he does best with the dialogue - the Tony & Tony scenes are marvellous with one recovering alcoholic berating his unrepentant alkie counterpart. Only problem is that it's written like a big Earth-616 vs Earth-1610 crossover comic in itself, rather than the weird post-merge bottle story that it actually is. Not the creators fault as such, though this would have been better placed as the genuine 'countdown to Secret Wars' series and released some 9 months ago.

Squadron Sinister

Marc Guggenheim, Carlos Pacheco
3 issues (so far)

Really liked this at first, with naughty old Hyperion, Nighthawk et all waging their war of expansion across Battleworld, but 3 issues in and I'm beginning to tire of seeing them repeatedly snap the necks of beloved characters from obscure old Marvel series, whether it's Captain Savage, Spitfire (she of the Troubleshooters), St George or the Yankee Clipper. Not to mention the sad demise of the Frightful Four. Hypes and Nighty are just too darn powerful and evil. Why doesn't Doom nuke them from on high or drop a couple of dozen Thors on their heads? I really want them to die. Fingers crossed they go down at the hands of Malibu's Ultraverse or even better, Strikeforce Morituri.

Secret Wars

In Battleworld, the Fringe Cosmic is all the rage
Jonathan Hickman, Esad Ribic
6 issues (so far)
My dissatisfaction with the writing style of Jonathan Hickman is a matter of record, so I will add little more here, save to point out once again that he seems incapable of giving anyone but the Spider-Men a personality (see a nice exchange between Pete and Miles in issue #6) - it's like they've parachuted Bendis in just to pen the Spidey scenes. As for Ribic's artwork, it is perfectly reasonable, but there are scenes in issue #6 where it is impossible to tell Sue Storm from her daughter Valeria - same face, same hair, same outfit, and to make matters worse, the dull villain Black Swan is sporting the same heavy blonde fringe. It must be Doom's Will or something.

Why? Why do I keep buying them?

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Comic Reviews, September 2015

Some very personal and subjective gut feeling reviews of stuff what I've read.

The Wicked + The Divine

Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson

Like many Gillen/McKelvie comics (Phonogram, Young Avengers), I read this and just ended up hating fictional 17-year olds just as much as the fictional 17-year olds depicted seem to despise anyone over the age of 30.

The comic is crammed full of the young, the smooth and the symmetrical, with copious pop music shout-outs, the Everyone's Bi trope cranked to the max, and of-the-now references to current social media fads that will quickly date this title.

If I had to encapsulate the comic in a single panel, it would be of a beautiful skinny androgyne posing in a nightclub proclaiming 'MySpace is Dead! SnapChat is Forever!'

Verdict: The Pretty + The Vacant.


Dan Slott, Olivier Coipel

Every Spidey that ever there was, in a bonkers story that spans alternate Earths. You want the Superior Spider-Man? You got him. You want Manga Spidey? Check. You want Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham? He's right here.

Unfortunately you've also got silly old Morlun, a sort of spider-energy vampire in Hellfire Club drag, along with his lamoid family of forgettable psychos. In a comic chock full of guys in red, black and blue webbed costumes, it was the half-dozen Morlunites that I could never keep straight.

Verdict: Amazing Spider-Fanservice


Matt Fraction, David Aja

Nice little series showcasing what Clint Barton gets up to on those days when he's not running around shooting robots with the Avengers, and one that has been rightly praised for many factors. The character interplay, the dog, the sign-language, his neighbours, Barney; it's all good stuff.

I have sympathy for anyone who, like me, had to endure the erratic schedule of this 3-year series though. It's only 22 issues long, yet there was a 6-month gap between issues 20 and 21, and a further 5 months between 21 and the final issue. In a simpler series, that might not have been a problem, but Hawkeye had numerous plot lines and time-jumps, which made picking the story up again near impossible.

One final tip. While I like the Kate Bishop in LA issues, they're a different beast altogether. I'd recommend skipping 'em and sticking to the Clint in New York storyline, then going back for Kate later.

Verdict: A great 17-issue series


Brian K Vaughan, Fiona Staples

Lacks focus. Stick with Y: The Last Man (what if every man on the planet dropped dead?) or Ex Machina (former superhero becomes mayor of New York). Rambles from plotline to plotline. Irritating child's narrated foreshadowing. Arsey central characters.

And the silly, silly aliens. Staples often simply draws regular 21st century humans in contemporary clothes, but with horns or wings. And those TV-head aliens! They visually strike a bum satirical note in a series which is gritty/soapy.

Verdict: Not as good as everyone says it is.


Dark Horse
Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover

Good. Fun. Like it.

Verdict: A welcome upbeat antidote to...

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth

Pantheon Books
Chris Ware

The downbeat saga of a near personality-free nobody and the reunion with his deadbeat dad. Once I'd got to the very useful Story So Far double-page spread about 50 pages in, it made a lot more sense. There are also some nice pictographics throughout.

I liked the flashbacks to Jimmy's grandfather (and confusingly, his double) as a child at the Chicago World's Fair, as well as the funny/sad cartoon on the back cover (the tale of an unloved and unbought copy of this very book). But on the whole this is an exercise in depression and bleakness.

Verdict: Only to be read if you are a stranger to the black dog.

Attack on Titan

Kodansha Comics
Hajime Isayama

Not what I expected (I thought it was a sci-fi space adventure from the title). Quite liked the freaky naked grinny-mouthed giants, but it is quite hard for a Western reader to remember to read the entire thing, including the order of the speech balloons in each panel, from right to left. Very Japanese, with way too much (clumsily translated) dialogue.

Reading tip: spend no more than 3 seconds on each page. Reading it at speed, especially action chapters like volume 2, lends pace even if there are pages and pages of angsting kids shouting oddly at each while Giant Grinny Nudists are eating people outside.

Verdict: Give the animated version a go instead.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Five Batshit Things You Never Knew About Sherlock Holmes

For almost 130 years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective has captured the imagination of audiences in print, on the airwaves and on screen. Presented here are - however improbable - some curious footnotes in the history of Mr Sherlock Holmes.

The Kid

The Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins who made several appearances in Holmes' adventures, were originally inspired by the cheeky hi-jinks of a troupe of child performers in London's music halls. Among them was one Charlie Chaplin, whose costume of rumpled, oversized clothes and clown-like but indefatigable persona were to form the basis of the Irregulars' young leader Wiggins.

It's Good, But It's Not Right

Holmes' catchphrase in response to his associate Dr Watson's exclamations of awe at his deductive prowess went through several versions before settling on 'Elementary, my dear Watson'. Here are a few examples from Conan Doyle's early submissions to The Strand magazine:
  • "Yes it is."
  • "Let's do a deduction!"
  • "I loooves me a mystery."
  • "Let's wait until more suspects have died."
  • "Durrr Watson, you joey."

Gibt es ein Ostwind

Adolf Hitler was purportedly an incurable Holmes fan, going so far as to view reels of Basil Rathbone movies in the private screening room of his Wolf's Lair. When Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror came out with its strong anti-Nazi message, Hitler was incandescent with rage and immediately ordered propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to produce his own Aryan version of Holmes on screen, one which would espouse strong National-Socialist values.

The result, Sherlok Holmes und das Geheimnis des bayerischen Forellen, was screened to Panzer crews before the Battle of the Bulge, but was said to be so laughably bad that it was never shown again, with all existing prints subsequently burnt or else impounded by the Soviets after the war.

The Affair of the Pimlico Pigeon Fancier

In his later years, Conan Doyle struggled to capture the magic of those early Holmes stories, and began experimenting with ever more unlikely scenarios, such as the use of monkey glands in The Adventure of the Creeping Man. An even more improbable tale was The Affair of the Pimlico Pigeon Fancier, where the culprit in a series of seemingly impossible rooftop robberies is found to be a not-so extinct pterodactyl, in an unofficial crossover with the author's own The Lost World.

A staunch believer in metaphysical phenomena such as the Cottingley Fairies, the writer was said to be working an even more fantastical adventure for his most famous character at the time of his death, His Master Stroke, in which the now-retired detective uncovers the incredible truth behind the strange disturbances around his precious beehives.

Adopt, Adapt and Improve

Like any popular work of fiction, Sherlock Holmes has been endlessly revisited, reimagined and spoofed, from early Ellie Norwood to classic Rathbone and Cushing, from the teenaged Rowe to the sepulchral Brett, from two-fisted Downey to the ethereal Cumberbatch. Here are three less well-known adaptations of the consulting detective mythos:
  • Carry On Sleuthing - one of the lesser entries in the Carry On... series, this TV special featured Sid James as a leering 'Sidlock Holmes', Peter Butterworth as his bumbling assistant Doc Whatsup, and Kenneth Williams as a braying Professor Moribundy.
  • Sherlock, Homes - 90s US comedy adventure series transplanting a Latino Sherlock and his posse from Baker Street to Bakersfield, CA. As the script for the pilot puts it:
SHERLOCK: (inhaling deeply) "It's a three pipe problem, ese."
  • Elem-Entry, My Queer Watson - the most notorious example of the burgeoning Holmo-erotica sub-genre that has blossomed in recent years.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Five Batshit Things You Never Knew About Doctor Who

Consider yourself an expert on all matters Gallifreyan? Take a look at these barely credible 'facts of Who-bris'.


When plans were afoot to bring back the malevolent Master during Tom Baker's run, the popularity of the Doctor's robotic companion K-9 prompted the BBC to draw up designs for the villain's own metallic 'pet'! Prime-8 was intended to be 'a sinister robot gorilla, capable of menacing the Doctor and his companions or guarding the Master while he carries out his evil plans'.

A prototype radio-controlled Prime-8 was built but proved too bulky and 'bloody silly-looking' according to one insider, so the idea was shelved. Prime-8 was later sold off to ITV, where he finally made it on to our television screens as Metal Mickey.

Raston McCoy

Like many Who regulars, Sylvester McCoy actually had a small cameo part in an earlier story before securing the role of the Seventh Doctor. In his case, it was the dialogueless but crucial role of the deadly Raston Warrior Robot in The Five Doctors, where McCoy's slender, athletic frame was put to good use, jumping around a quarry and shooting spikes into Cybermen.

The former O-Man Big off of Jigsaw is said to have clinched the part of the Raston, ahead of Wayne Sleep and the man who played Mr Claypole in Rentaghost, by turning up to the audition already clad in his own silver leotard.

Van Der Who?

The Doctor Who team had to act quickly when Jon Pertwee fell victim to a nasty skin rash during the filming of The Curse of Peladon; the infection subsequently attributed to the 'manky old fur coats' that had been used to create the beast Aggedor. With a tight shooting schedule but no Doctor, they scrambled to work around his absence, ultimately resorting to recasting him with lookalike actor Barry 'Van Der Valk' Foster.

Despite Foster's physical resemblance to Pertwee and eagerness to embrace the physical requirements of the role, BBC executives were uneasy with the hastily rewritten script of The Sea Devils, in which the Doctor declares to Jo Grant that a chance neutron discharge from the TARDIS console has caused his facial molecules to 'temporarily freak out', and instead chose to wait until Pertwee was well enough to continue in the role. Unaired footage of the infamous Foster episode of The Sea Devils has never been seen by the public.

The Bill Makers

Staying true to Doctor Who's original historical/educational remit, this First Doctor story was to have landed William Hartnell's timelord and companions Ben and Polly at the court of William III and Mary II of England in the last years of the 17th century.

The main plotline would involve the Doctor being mistaken for a leading Whig pushing to ratify the Bill of Rights, while Ben and Polly would become bound up in the drafting of the Stamp Duty laws and founding of the Bank of England respectively. Produce Verity Lambert took one look at the script, declared it to be 'even duller than Marco Polo', and ordered that it be replaced by 'something with space people'.

Nativity of the Daleks

Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy writer Douglas Adams famously contributed three stories to Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet, City of Death and Shada, the final remaining incomplete due to industrial action. But rumours persist of a secret cache of unseen scripts from the great man, hidden somewhere in Britain but locatable by studying certain hidden clues in his published Who works.

Among them is said to be Nativity of the Daleks, a Christmas-themed story in which the Doctor discovers his perennial nemeses using Skaro's Book of Exterminus to meddle with Earth history in first century Galilee. Having engineered the creation of Dalek Jesus, His Holiness Pope Davros revels in triumph but his plan is ultimately undone when the Doctor travels back in time and bombards the Three Wise Daleks with the reverse-polarity chords he has inserted into Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody.