There are just three weeks to go until Halloween. In order to get you in the mood, I thought I’d bring you an excerpt from one of my ghostly tales.
If you’re interested in reading more, check out my Halloween anthology Trickier & Treatier, or else one of my stand-alone haunting tales such as The Black Book, The Haunting of Annie Nicol, or Hangingstone, or else one of my beastly horror novels: Sharkways, Paint this town Red, or Bully.
Today, I thought I’d revisit Bully, which was published by Wild Wolf way back in 2010. Here’s the synopsis: They say you should never go back. But sometimes you don’t have a choice.
After Gary Bull’s miraculous survival from an explosion in Afghanistan, he is compelled to return to the small town where he grew up, a place that he thought he would never set his eyes upon again. Memories of a past long buried come back to him and he finds himself forced to face the horror of what he did when he was young. It started with the bullying…
Newton Mills appears normal enough on the surface, but scratch the surface and there is something far more sinister.
It has more than its fair share of graveyards and the skeletons are liable to walk right out of the closet.
Newton Mills is the scene of a despicable crime.
No one gets out alive.
“Newton Mills was built in the bottom of this deep gorge. That’s how it got its name in the old days, on account of the river which ran through it and powered the massive cotton mills. Grange Heights overlooked all of this, and stood in judgement of the factories and the industrial estates which had started to spring up. The town was intersected by a railway; on the one side was the new town with its garish red brick, but on the other was the town I knew. In the old town, most of the houses were built from the local stone and when it rained, seemed to take on the water and darkened from light grey to almost black.
Now, Newton Mills was shadowed by threatening clouds and the place looked depressing; lifeless even. But I knew that life teemed within it; within the small dome of the school library which glistened with wetness and the corrugated metal sides of the new leisure centre and the main street and its countless pubs.
But more than anything else, what this aerial picture of Newton Mills showed me was the graveyards. Hell, even the damn taxi driver would have spotted the fact that there was a graveyard at the end of virtually every street. There were scores of them; grey gravestones pebbledashed the town. I remember when I first came up here and I felt this slight chill creeping up the back of my neck when I tried to count them all.
I don’t know when I first noticed it. As a kid, you don’t really go around comparing and contrasting towns. Measuring the number of shops or restaurants or houses and then coming to some kind of conclusion about the nature of the town was not really anything any of us ever paid any mind to. Newton Mills was simply home to us, and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was a known quantity, a given. Even when changes occurred, such as when a shop came under new ownership or new houses were built, we never thought of it as change. It was on the periphery of our vision, and as long as the shop that changed hands wasn’t Burt’s sweet shop, and as long as the new residents of the new garish redbrick houses across the tracks were not going to be introduced into our classes and clubs, we simply didn’t care.
But one day the understanding had washed over me. I suppose it was as though I’d finally given voice to that silent knowledge which I’d always known, deep down. Newton Mills had an unnatural amount of graveyards. And I mean there were a lot; miles more than such a town that size should have had.
‘The Graveyards of Newton Mills’ was the first school project that I ever aced. It was the first that I’d ever tried in. I suppose I was morbidly fascinated by them. I put together this lever-arch file full of photographs and maps, pencil rubbings of some of the gravestones. I even tried to draw some conclusions about why there were so many graveyards.
My dad loved that I was getting interested in history, and helped me out at the local library. We dug out loads of old books and newspapers. Gradually, he edged me towards his own conclusion about the graveyards. He suggested that working on the mills was a terrible, life-sucking existence and that most of the folk would die young. But because the farming industry was doing so badly, people kept coming into the town from the surrounding countryside, looking for work. He suggested, in his fiery working class hero way, that the mills were doing more than manufacturing cotton. They were cleansing the local area of the undesirables. They were processing the workers; depositing them straight into the graveyards at the end of the shift.
I stared out over the town and remembered. I remembered my dad and the way that he’d been a little obsessed with the graveyards; after my project, the teacher invited him in to talk to the class about them. Later, my friends gave me no end of crap for having a loony-tune dad. Nobody but nobody ever wanted their parents to come to the school, let alone if they came in and ‘talked to the class.’ That was the lowest of the low. But despite my embarrassment, I had found myself becoming interested in what my dad had to say. He was talking about the amount of different burial sites; there were some for the Protestants, some for the Catholics, some for the rich, and some for the poor. There were some that weren’t affiliated to any church. In fact, he said, only two of the graveyards in the whole town came with your traditional church spire in the scene too. I’ll always remember what he said at the end of that talk. It was like he’d shaped that voice in my head even further. He’d let me see the light.
‘Newton Mills,’ he said, ‘is a town which has always been surrounded by an awareness of death. We’re comfortable with it, even. But we shouldn’t be. We don’t have to allow ourselves to simply sleep our way along the conveyor belt and succumb to our fate.’
Suddenly, I remembered the taxi driver that had dropped me off at the airstrip in the desert in Afghanistan. I remembered what he’d said about the ‘awareness of death.’ I also remembered that I now knew what death and pain really were, in the end. Involuntarily, I shuddered.
Dad wasn’t invited back to the school again after the talk. I think the teacher thought that it wasn’t his place to rant about stuff like that and put ideas like that in children’s heads. The teacher was from out of town though, and probably hadn’t grasped the fact that Newton Mills life was exactly how dad said it was. Most of us were surrounded by an awareness of death. We saw it in the heavy grey stone of the suffering houses. We saw it in the faces of the men and women that had grown up in the town.
As I stared out, I picked out some of the graveyards that I knew. And we did know some of the graveyards fairly well. Unconsciously, all of the lads I grew up with spent times in the graveyards. We were a little scared of them, of course, but what kids don’t like doing things that are a little dangerous; a little close to the bone?
What we really liked were the old abandoned ones, like the one off Dye Lane, which I could pick out as it scarred across the land, running parallel to the river. Back then, we knew that we could play in the graveyards to our hearts’ content and no adults would come asking questions or telling us to shove off. They were kind of like secret gardens or something. I didn’t tell anyone, but I thought of them as magical places, like the plateau in The Lost World. I thought that time stood still in those places and that lurking in the dense bushes would be prehistoric creatures and mythical demons and the like.”
AJ KIRBY’S HORROR LIBRARY: