I watched a movie the other day which I won’t name. Almost everything about it was great. The actors were good, the music was awesome, the story was intriguing. The directing was okay – nothing special, but more than enough to execute what might have been a great horror film.

            So what was the problem?

            Well, I don’t want to make a blanket statement like: the main characters weren’t believable. Because they kinda were believable – just not in a good way. And they were also developed, in that they all had unique personalities and weren’t cardboard cut-outs or anything like that.

            My gripe was more specific: the characters were a bunch of helpless victims.

            The structure of the ‘scary’ scenes tended to go the same way each time: the monster did something creepy, and the main characters were creeped out. Then the monster did something scary, and the characters were scared. Then the monster jumped out and did something horrifying… and the main characters quailed in a corner, screaming in a suitably horrified manner.

            This is not the kind of thing that makes me root for the protagonists. It’s more the kind of thing that makes me hope the protagonists dies horribly.

            This is also a good time to point out one of the many important differences between fiction and real life. While the reactions of the characters might have been ‘realistic’ in the sense that ‘real’ people would have acted that way in response to a horrifying monster, realism does not necessarily make a good story. One of the main reasons people read fiction is in fact to get away from reality. After all, no one likes to read dialogue filled with non-sequiters, ums and uhs, and mundane complaints, even though much of real-life dialogue consists of these things. Similarly, people are not interested in reading about (or watching) victims.

The argument against giving your characters a spine in a horror novel is that if you go too far with it, you end up writing an action or a thriller instead of a horror. See, if the main character is too competent, too much of a hero, then you as the reader can’t muster up any fear for them. Imagine trying to be scared on behalf of the terminator. There’s no horror movie you could put him in, right? He’s just too good. Same for James Bond, or Jason Bourne.

            Except… not really. You can put a capable protagonist in a horror story and still make it compelling, and the way you do it is simple: you make the antagonist (the monster) a thousand times more capable. If your hero is smart, the villain is a genius. Whatever power your hero has, the villain has more, plus better resources and further reach.

            Take the original Alien movie. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley wasn’t any kind of victim. She was about as competent as anyone can be – it’s just that the Alien was still a bigger threat. Despite her abilities, Ripley was the underdog, and that’s what makes the battle so compelling.

            Now, allow me to qualify this directive: Just because the characters in a horror story should be capable does not mean that they all need to be ass-kicking action heroes like Ripley or the terminator. There are many dimensions along which a character might be capable. Perhaps they’re incredibly smart, or brave, or driven toward their goal. Or perhaps they just have a very specific set of skills…

            My favourite example of this from recent times can be found in the movie Bone Tomahawk. Every one of the main characters in that story is highly competent, each in their own unique way. But the movie maintains its ‘horror’ element because the cave-people these characters face are so terrifyingly brutal. The result is an incredibly suspenseful horror, steeped in dread, populated by characters that are genuinely sympathetic and emphatically NOT victims.

If I find myself writing weak or helpless characters, it’s often because I haven’t made my ‘monster’ formidable enough. I should also add that I’m only using the word monster as a stand in, since the horror genre can have any number of things that threaten the protagonist.

The rule still applies, however. Some examples of monster-less horror that work well are The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, both of which utilise an undefined ‘evil’ rather than a flesh and blood monster. And in both cases, it is not the weakness of the protagonists that facilitate the horror, it is the terrible power of that evil.

Titles are often skipped over by writers, even by the otherwise skilled and successful. One of the most common tendencies, and a pet hate of mine, is to have a two word title in which the first word is ‘the’. In horror, I think the intended affect is to create a sense of ominous foreboding – for example, a haunted house story titled ‘The House.’ Others might be ‘The Doll’, ‘The Haunting’, ‘The Dead’. I hesitate to criticise Adam Nevill’s latest book, which I loved, but I can’t help but feel that ‘The Reddening’ is not the best title. One of the problems with this habit is that pretty soon everything you do is titled ‘The…’ And your bibliography starts to look like a damn shopping list.

            To combat this, when I first started writing short stories I would simply omit the ‘The’. But looking back, the results weren’t much better: ‘Monster’, ‘Other’, ‘Demon’ were a few of my less imaginative ones. I improved slightly by adding a second word, but still ended up with boring titles like: ‘Quiet Night’, ‘Room for Thought’, and ‘Little Bites’. Still, I would argue, better than: ‘The Quiet Night’ etc.

            My next stroke of genius was to say: hey, if adding one word slightly improved it, what if I added even more words?. I noticed that some of my favourite titles had a lot of words in them. The afore mentioned Adam Nevill had a short story collection (also amazing, by the way) titled ‘Some Will Not Sleep’. Using more words, I figured, forced one to be more creative, and offered more chances for interesting combinations and sentence structures.

            Using this method, my titles improved again, and my most recent stories have the best titles to date, in my opinion: ‘Screams for Stargirl,’ is one I’m proud of, as is the feature story of my upcoming collection: ‘Peeping Eyes and Lipless Mouths’.

            As much as I like those, I think there is still something lacking. I mean, a story’s title should be more than just an interesting collection of words that sounds cool and is related to the content, right? The ideal title, in my mind, as well as being all those things, should also relate directly to the central theme of the story. The best example of this that I’ve come across is one of the greatest horror/thriller stories ever written, even though it regrettably begins with the word ‘The’ (exceptions to every rule, never forget): The Silence of the Lambs. Not only is it an interesting and cool sounding title, but it directly relates to the internal struggle of the book’s protagonist, Clarice Starling, and her desire to silence the screaming lambs of her childhood.

And that brings me to the other quality I think a good title should have: it should read differently before versus after you’ve actually read the story. Stephen King once said that a good book is such that you should be able to read it at least twice and get something different from it each time. A title should follow that directive, too. The Silence of the Lambs is a good title before you read it, but it is an even better title afterward, for different reasons.

But before you start getting the idea that there is a sliding scale from ‘bad title’ to ‘good title’ like the one I’ve outlined, let me draw your attention to the book ‘Clown in a Cornfield’.

It would be a mistake to give that book a more ‘sophisticated’ title. Like, imagine if it was called: ‘Field of the Painted Face’ or something similar. It sounds kinda creepy, sure. More ominous. But the actual book ‘Clown in a Cornfield’ is about (guess) a fucking clown killing some people in a cornfield – it’s not pretending to be some kind of ‘high’ literary fiction, so there’s no point misleading anyone. You read that title and you know you’re in for a fun ride (and you are).

You need to consider what message you send with the title. Not only does the ideal title convey the central theme of the story, but it also indicates the genre in more subtle ways than you would guess. ‘Clown in a Cornfield’ indicates horror clearly enough, but it also indicates a certain kind of horror. It indicates a kind of light-hearted, dark-humoured horror that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  

Ultimately, the information coded into the title of your work amounts to this: The genre, the style, the seriousness or lack thereof, the atmosphere, the underlying theme, and the voice of the author.

Simple, right?

A lot of the articles that come up when you google ‘Nightmares’ revolve around how to cure them or stop them from happening. Most people agree that nightmares are an unpleasant experience, and the fewer of them you have the better.

            On one hand, having too many bad dreams can’t be good – especially if it causes insomnia or somniphobia (fear of sleep). Onnneee, two, Freddy’s comin for youuuu… We’ve all been there, right?

            Personally, though, I find I enjoy nightmares in an odd way. Kind of the same way I enjoy cold showers, really: painful while it’s happening, but the aftermath has its rewards. Since I’m a generally happy and optimistic person, I had a hunch that even though I seem to have more nightmares than most people (one or two a week, I’d say), they were doing me more good than harm. Weird as it sounds, I kinda like them. I like how they make me think about them the next day, how they make me appreciate my life more (thank god I’m not being eaten alive by goblins! Hallelujah!), and how they often force me to think about things I wouldn’t otherwise.

            Plus, I’ve always thought that if books are, as Neil Gaiman says, dreams you hold in your hands, doesn’t that make horror books physical nightmares? And if we assume that the mind in some way needs dreams for its health and function (and all science demonstrates that it does), then it follows that nightmares must serve some purpose, must be good for something.

            One study from the university of Geneva revealed that after experiencing nightmares, the brain areas responsible for controlling emotions responded to fear-inducing situations much more effectively. Another recent study found that people who reported being fans of horror media or had a morbid curiosity were more resilient in the face of adversity.

            To tell the truth, I tend to roll my eyes with this type of stuff – not because I don’t think there’s something to it, but because there’s something broken about needing to justify reading fiction for the purpose of self-improvement. It bothers me. It brings to mind an image of some bright teenager being forced to read The Brothers Karamazov because they’re told that reading fiction develops your mind in such and such a way. Even if it does, is that not the worst way to go about it? What about the love? What about the enjoyment of the activity? Why do so many people go on about how many books they’ve ‘devoured’? as though the number of pages consumed is the goal, instead of their content?

            Aaaaanyway, I digress.

            You know who’s really annoying? Relentlessly ‘positive’ people. But why? Why would consistent positivity be annoying? Because it’s dishonest. If you know someone who always has a wide smile pasted on their face and refuses to acknowledge any kind of negative emotions or feeling no matter what because stay positive! They’re probably suppressing a lot of shit. They might be suicidal.

            I’m joking, but also not. The way I see it, one can’t be happy in a meaningful sense unless one fully acknowledges and comes to terms with darkness and misery. Of course, ignorance is bliss, and one has only to look at a pet dog to see the truth in that. Still, I don’t think blissful ignorance is true happiness, any more than injecting heroin is true happiness. And it’s certainly not the kind of happiness an adult can or should aspire to. One cannot will oneself into ignorance, and trying to do so is an act of suppression.

            None of that shit would have flown back in the hunter gatherer days. Imagine walking the savannah with your tribe and trying to pretend Lions didn’t eat people. The real heroes were the men and women who sat around the fire late at night and told everyone else what they’d seen happen. Better yet, those that wove tales about what could happen, especially if you left the comfort of the fire and entered the dark jungle alone. The first horror writers weren’t writers at all but story tellers, and their purpose was as much to caution as it was to entertain.

            Fear, as any soldier or first responder will tell you, is useful. And with fear comes the knowledge of darkness, of what lies beyond the campfire, and what could lie there, and therefore what you should watch for.

            But Ben! You cry. Maybe that was true back then, when people were getting stalked by lions on a daily basis. But how could a book like IT or Dracula or Frankenstein inform anyone or help anyone? What good would it do me to cross the road to avoid sewer gratings in case there are clowns hiding there?

            Well, first of all, if you think horror no longer serves that kind of purpose, I would draw your attention to Black Mirror. Practically every episode of that show is a cautionary tale regarding the future of technology. How about the transcendent horror film Midsomer? You don’t think that’s something of a warning about the nature of cults and their innate appeal? Have you noticed how practically every modern day zombie movie is actually about a man made virus that spreads through human hosts?

            But I’m cherry picking, aren’t I? Let’s use the initial examples – monster movies like IT or Dracula or Frankenstein, to which you could also add most ghost stories. These are certainly more abstract things, more departed from reality than something like Black Mirror. In these cases, I believe the focus is not so much on the lion as it is on the human in question. In other words, where a show like Black Mirror focuses on the external threat – technology/the lion – IT focuses on the behaviour of the Losers – the seven friends who ultimately defeat Pennywise.

When you tell the horror story of the human being hunted by the lion, there are two sides to the tale. The obvious one is that of the lion itself, but no less significant is that of the human. How does he or she react, and why? What are the results? Many of these kinds of tales often end badly for the human element, in part if not in total. You see? these stories say: if you’re getting hunted by a lion and you react this way, you will be eaten alive!’ And the more terrifying you can make that consequence, the more you turn the listener’s mind towards something good, towards avoiding that outcome as best they can. Aha, they think. I know that story: the lion stalks the man, and he freezes in place and is eaten. Now I know if I’m being stalked, I will run as fast as I can back to the tribe, and so stand a chance of survival.

            To return to the story of IT, in which a killer clown feasts on the town of Derry, Maine, we see the point more clearly. IT is a stand-in for the lion, and the focus of the story, despite its title, is not with IT at all but with the children who ultimately face their fears and walk into the lion’s den to eliminate the threat to their village. Not all of them survive, of course, but that is only true to reality: if you face your fear and slay the beast, you’re unlikely to come out unscathed. However, the effort will be worth it.  

            There is a parallel in psychology: the treatment of various fears and PTSD often consists of Exposure therapy, as outlined in this interesting Time Article. Essentially, exposing the person to what they’re afraid of in small, incrementally increasing amounts. Over time, the person develops a resistance to it almost as they would if exposed to small increasing amounts of snake venom.

            This might explain why books like Survivor Song (Paul Tremblay) have become so popular during the covid pandemic. People are self medicating, seeking to give themselves some exposure therapy so that when they have to put on their mask and step outside they’re a little braver for it, have a little more resistance.

            As a disclaimer, I should probably point out that it’s not a direct cause and effect thing. As the Time article from above mentions, too-frequent nightmares can be signs of trauma and depression rather than mental health. And while having an awareness of the suffering and evil of the world may be valuable, having an obsession about these things can quickly sink one in a mire of depression. The underpaid folks who work as content moderators for social media – or literally anyone who’s spent too much time on liveleak – will attest to that. The key, as always, is balance.

            “No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

 – Carl Jung

Sometimes, writing a book, things slow down to the pace of a slug in tar. You miss a few days of writing, your plot hits a roadblock, and suddenly you can’t see a way forward. Never mind, you say, I’ll take a few days to think about it. I’ll plot and storyboard, I’ll meditate on it, I’ll write out all the character motivations and see where they lead.

Sometimes you find yourself writing something that reads flat and dead, like a fish turning white and flaking in the sun. It’s hard to tell the characters apart, and the scenes seem to have lost their colour and urgency. When you sit down to write it feels like a chore, getting the story from A to B in a logical and necessary manner. You dread writing and wonder where your originality has gone.

Maybe you’re burning out? Maybe you should take a couple of weeks off, or a month, and travel? See or do something knew? Surely the inspiration will return to you, then? Or if you go for long walks and turn your mind to the story – as Charles Dickens so famously did for twenty miles at a stretch – you’ll see the way forward?

I wallowed in a mire of uninspired greyness for some time a few months ago, trying to figure out what had happened to the version of me in 2018, when I wrote my last novel. It seemed every day I’d wake up full of excitement and ideas stretching my skull to breaking point. Maybe it was how much sleep I was getting? No, in fact I was sleep deprived, if anything. Maybe that was it? No, that didn’t help. Going on walks, staring at blank walls, none of the things I was doing seemed to work.

And then, this great realisation: back then, I wasn’t writing every day because I had so many good ideas… I had so many good ideas because I was writing every day.

I had committed the cardinal sin: I had forgotten about Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. The central message, if you haven’t read it, is this: if you build it, they will come.

So I started writing the next book, without only the bare shreds of an idea, knowing that the initial scenes I was writing were not that good and would have to be discarded later. But still I wrote, and before I knew it I had an idea. The first two chapters weren’t interesting at all – it was the third chapter where I should really start. And Character A would be so much better if I just wrote him a little different… and wouldn’t it be cool if…

And I was off to the races. All it took was a few days of putting down words, writing a scene, deleting it and trying again, writing another point of view, and suddenly the ideas were flowing like they always had. Inspiration flowed forth like a flood after a long drought.

If you build it, they will come.

I was listening to Pixar’s Andrew Stanton in a Ted Talk  about a concept of storytelling he called the ‘Two plus Two’ method. If you’re not aware, Pixar pretty much hits it out of the park for every movie they make. Their stories are solid and consistently entertaining, and I believe that the storytelling craft of people like Andrew Stanton is largely responsible for Pixar’s success (not to detract from the hundreds of other talented folks involved in the animation and production, of course).

I bring it up because when I heard him outline the concept of ‘Two Plus Two’ I realised I’d been using it for ages, only the name I had given it myself was The Spoon (I’ll explain in a second). It’s an important idea not just because of it’s value as a storytelling tool, but specifically because of how it applies to horror.

Here’s how it works. The way Stanton describes it in a nutshell is this: The audience wants to work for the story, but they don’t want to know they’re working. Therefore, for maximum impact, don’t give them four, give them two plus two and let them add it up.

That’s it. Those who are well versed in oft-given advice for fiction authors and the like will recognize this rule because it’s basically a re-wording of the old ‘Show, don’t Tell’ mantra. What the latter doesn’t explain, I think, is that there are actually times when you do tell. For example, you have to ‘tell’ two plus two. In the telling of these things, you are showing the four.

If that seems confusing or vague, here’s my Spoon Method for comparison…

Back in school I had a cool English Teacher – we’ll call her Liz. You know the type: wordy, thick glasses, excessively jolly and articulate – the Fun Aunt. She was one for games, Liz: she would make us speak for a minute on Bananas or the colour Yellow without repeating ourselves or saying ‘um’, or she would make us list as many uses for a brick as possible. One game which stuck with me was what she called the Spoon game.

A spoon is just an example – the game could be with any random object. She would pick the object and whisper it to someone, and that someone would have to describe it to the rest of the class until someone guessed what it was. The catch was that Liz would also give the person a list of words or phrases they weren’t allowed to use when describing the object. So, if Spoon was the object, the banned words might be: cutlery, concave, eating, metal, spoon, scoop… And hilarity ensued as people tried their hardest to guess what an excavating device for soft edibles might be.

So how does this apply to writing horror? Well, the spoon is the Terrible Thing, The Monster, and/or The Darkness. You, as the one in charge of getting the message across, already know everything about this Evil. But if you want the reader to be afraid, you can’t just give them all you know. That would be like the student just yelling out ‘It’s a spoon!’ Where’s the fun in that? So don’t show the monster; show the tracks in the mud. Don’t show the teeth; show the bite marks.

In Stephen King’s IT, before we really know anything about the monster, here are the parts King decides to show us: 1. A young boy, Georgie, getting his arm bitten off by a clown in a drain. 2. A series of incidents of little children going missing in a small town. 3. Six phone calls to the main characters, an old friend telling them that ‘It’ has returned and they must go back to the small town. In all cases the characters are terrified, and one even commits suicide rather than face the monster.

Note that in none of these cases are we told about the nature of IT or what it is or anything really about the monster itself. But we are terrified, because what the hell is so bad that someone would rather kill themselves than face it? There-in lies the rub: we have to ask a question, and not only that but it is a question to which we don’t know the answer, and all fear stems from the unknown.

As for how much to show, I think the answer can best be summarised in two words: ‘Just Enough’. First of all, give the reader credit – they can work out quite a lot from a small amount of information. Chances are, you can be more subtle than you think. Remember, the more they have to think, the further they have to reach, the greater the emotional impact when they finally get there.

The most effective things to show, as I mentioned earlier, are those which do not so much illicit a conclusion in the reader’s mind as a question. At it’s core, this question is always the same: ‘What is the horror?’ But it manifests itself in various ways, such as: ‘What kind of monster could do that to a human body?’ ‘What kind of thing would make those tracks in the mud?’ ‘What could someone have seen to make them gauge their own eyes out?’ etc.

So, to conclude: Two plus two equals a spoon. Show the reader just enough to make them ask questions. And finally: don’t show the killer, show the bodies.

  1. The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  2. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  3. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
  4. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  5. The Oddysee – Homer
  6. Sidhartha – Herman Hesse
  7. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
  8. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  9. Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. 1984 – George Orwell



After Dale’s funeral, Brian, Matt, Elyse and Steph met at the foot of the Westlake cliffs, where it all began. Brian came last, and he brought the Book of Worlds with him, held solemnly in both hands, like a priest with his bible. They were silent, sitting in an uncertain semicircle alongside the rock wall. They’d built a stack of kindling and Matt stooped and lit it with a match when he saw Brian approaching.

There were no greetings or smiles, everyone still sick from the funeral, the sight of Dale’s pale faced parents clear in their minds. Brian simply walked up to the sputtering fire, stood for a moment, and tossed the book onto it. A moment later, Steph leaned forward and tossed in the box which contained the ring of keys.

In silence, they watched the flames until there was nothing but ashes and glowing logs. Only then did Brian speak. ‘He was the best of all of us,’ he said. ‘He knew exactly what he was doing when he attacked Jordan. He made himself the sacrifice.’

‘It should have been me,’ Matt said, watching the flames flash and lick at the wood.

‘It was him,’ Brian said simply. Matt said nothing, but put an arm around Steph and pulled her closer.

‘I thought it was a trick, at first,’ Steph said. ‘I thought he had some decoy or something that Jordan was attacking, and he was just screaming to make it realistic. I thought we were going to find some dummy with its stuffing ripped out, and Dale would step out from the bushes, smiling like he used to when he pulled off a really good magic trick.’

‘I remember that smile,’ Elyse said. ‘Like he already knew how good it was, and he would rather die than tell you how he did it.’


They watched the fire burn down, and when it was nothing but cinders they hugged each other and parted ways, Matt and Steph walking back down the lane towards Wayward road, Brian and Elyse to Brian’s house. Before they’d left the park, Brian turned to her and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘Hey.’

‘Uh. Hey?’ She said, smiling.

‘Um.’ He was remembering blades. Skin split, blood leaking from the wounds. Blisters rising from new burns. He was remembering her face lit in ecstasy as he worked a nail into a fresh cut. He forced the thoughts away. He hoped it would get easier with time.

‘Now it’s all over,’ he said, finally. ‘Will you, um, will you go out with me?’

She smiled at him, and the scars across her lips looked prettier than ever.

‘Of course I will, idiot.’

He stopped walking and put an arm around her waist. He pulled her in for a kiss and she hesitated. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, heart thundering in his chest. ‘I won’t bite.’ She let out a sudden laugh, the first in a long time it seemed, and for a few moments he felt like it was all going to be alright. She kissed him then, hard – but not too hard – and it was good.





The Westlake Watcher: Peace Reigns?


After last month’s huge spike in violence in the usually peaceful suburb of Westlake, it seems that people have had enough. The unprecedented violence began with the assault on young Zane Blaire, and culminated in the torture and murder of Frank Silic by his son, Jordan Silic, who still has yet to be found (full story page 4).

Between these two crimes, hundreds of violent cases have been reported this summer, almost all of them apparently impulsive. According to the police (who were themselves accused of excessive force in over fifty percent of their criminal apprehensions during this period), many of the criminals claimed to have had no rational explanation or reason for their attacks. These were all crimes of passion, in other words.

So what was the cause, then, of this strange eruption of violence over the course of two months? Dina Silic, Jordan’s mother and a survivor of his brutal onslaught, claims her son had gone insane and ‘acted like someone I’d never met’. Similar sentiments were expressed by witnesses in Zaine’s attack, and an uncharacteristically large portion of the crimes committed were committed by citizens with no prior convictions. Many were described as normal, friendly people. ‘Wouldn’t hurt a fly’ was a common phrase. Those recently released from prison have apparently gone back to their ordinary lives. The crime rate in Westlake, since November, has dropped to below its long term average. And so the question remains: what are we to conclude?

Many interviewed seem to liken the event to a kind of natural disaster. As though a community can lose its collective mind for a period, cause great destruction, and return to normal, the same way a hurricane hits a town and then fades away. Ask an anthropologist, and it’s a case of over population coupled with a deteriorating economy. Ask a lawyer, and it’s a case of police corruption. Ask a Doctor, and it’s a case of drug and alcohol abuse. Everyone has their theories.

Whatever the cause, Westlake seems to have recovered, for now, and already the new year is looming and full of hope. The previous two months will, most likely, be swept under the rug and forgotten with time. Perhaps, that is how it should be, though Zane Blaire will doubtless remember his summer for the rest of his life, and so too will Dina Silic, both bearing scars that will never fade. Besides them, a staggering one hundred and sixty victims of assault, rape and attempted murder will no doubt be less eager to forgive and forget, and the families of Ray Deakin and Jimmy Lee, along with the relatives of ten other missing Westlake residents (including Jordan Silic), continue to search for answers.

For now, Westlake has very much the atmosphere of those rebuilding after an earthquake: families rally around each other to support those with lost loved ones, people can be seen tentatively stepping out into the streets once again to clean the wreckage left by mindless rioters, and others are beginning to get on with their lives once more. For better or worse, it seems Westlake has weathered the storm.



Matt stood in the clearing, shivering with cold, though the night was warm. The air was thick with the smell of pine needles and fresh grass. He wondered what things he’d miss most of Earth, once he was gone. Would it be friends and family, or simple things: fresh air, blue sky, beaches?

He took out the knife and started cutting one of the unmarked trees, praying he only had to do it once or twice. There had been so many close calls with Steph. I’m so sorry, Steph. Please forgive me.

A leaf crackled, somewhere from back the way he came. What was that? Paranoia. You’re losing it, man. Just get out of here, someplace you can’t get infected, you’ll be alright. He finished the carving of the door and started on the key hole, and then heard a twig snap. He froze, edged his head around the trunk of the tree and stared into the darkness. There was someone there, a large person picking his way through the undergrowth, trying to be quiet. Jordan.

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than Jordan himself stepped forward into the moonlight. His skin was a network of black veins. He wasn’t smiling but his eyes were alight with excitement. The same kind you might see in a cat’s eyes as it crouched, tail slowing flicking one way and the other, watching a mouse.

There was no time to finish the door and jump through, and Matt had no keys for any of the other doors. He stood up. He felt cold as ice.

‘You can run, if you want,’ Jordan said.

He didn’t run; there was nowhere to go – or at least, nowhere he could get to quickly enough. Jordan barely looked like himself any more. Gone was the thick Greek boy with dark circles under his eyes. This was an animal with the mind of a demon, lean muscles, black scarred skin, all seeing eyes and teeth sharp enough to crush stone.

‘You’re a monster,’ Matt said.

Jordan came a little closer and then raked his claws idly down one of the trees. It was the same one Brian and Elyse were inside now, if that world still existed at all. ‘Yeah? I wonder who did that to me?’

‘It’s not our fault. It’s a parasite. Brian had it too. My family have it.’

‘I wonder who gave it to them?’ Jordan said in the same flat voice.

‘No one. It just… came through. You wouldn’t hate us if we gave you a cold or something, would you?’ Why was it so hard to talk, to formulate thoughts? A frantic voice screamed over and over: Think of something! Think of something now!

Jordan’s mouth twitched a little, as if he was about to smile. He stepped over a thick tree root. ‘This,’ he took another step. ‘Is not. A fucking COLD!’

He lunged with the last word, but Matt had known from the first that this was it – that the fight for his life had begun – and he was already rolling over uneven ground, scrambling to get balance, screaming as loud as he could. The neighbourhood was filled with the infected – surely they wouldn’t miss a chance for some pain. He knew, of course, that it was a fifty fifty toss up whether it would be he or Jordan they’d tear to pieces, but they were the best odds he could get.

Six steps, dodging through the trees, hardly able to believe he’d got this far, and two heavy hands came down on his shoulders and wrenched him backwards. His feet flew out in front of him and he hit the ground hard on his back. Jordan’s claws had dug all the way down to his collarbone and there was warmth as blood flowed from the wounds, but no pain yet.

Jordan’s face hovered over Matt’s for a second, his mouth opening wider, wider, the skin stretching around the sides, eyes vanishing in folds of skin along with all the other features as the mouth went on growing. It was the size of his whole face now, just a round black hole with small sharp teeth sticking unevenly out of the gums around the sides. He’s going to bite my whole fucking head off.

Matt’s left arm was numb and immovable, but his right was just fine and he brought it up and gripped Jordan’s throat with everything he had – throwing a punch at that hole was hopeless. Jordan raised his claws, on the point of severing Matt’s arm at the elbow, when there was a scream – one that Matt was sure was familiar – and a flash of spinning light. A dull impact, and Matt lost hold of Jordan’s throat. A torch lay on the ground nearby, it’s light throwing long shadows all over the place, obscuring everything.

Matt got to his feet, disoriented, and tried to see what was going on. Someone was still screaming, and he followed the sound to a thicket of bushes. He saw Jordan there, his back to him, and he was hunched over, holding something, his whole body shifting and moving as if he were struggling with it, his back heaving as though he were vomiting. It’s not what’s coming out, it’s what’s going in.

It was that thought, and the final placement of that familiar scream, that sent Matt over the edge. He threw himself at the great heaving thing, a real monster now, nothing human left in it, and pounded it, bit it, tore at its throat with his hands until he felt his own fingernails snapping back from the force of his scratches.

Jordan twisted round and elbowed him in the chest. Ribs broke, and Matt found himself flying through the air and into a tree. He dropped onto his knees, unable to breathe. He put his right hand up to his chest as though it could ease the pressure there, somehow.

Amidst the pain, he heard Steph speak. He hadn’t even known she was there, but the sound of her voice sent his heart plummeting into the pit of his stomach. Oh, please, not her. Why did you come Steph? But he had not yet processed the words she’d spoken – had barely heard them at all – or just as importantly, where she’d spoken them from.

‘Pick on someone your own size, Shit Hole,’ she said, her voice shaky and afraid, but somehow also triumphant.

Matt stared through the bars of light and shadow, trying to see, the pain like a veil over his eyes. Jordan was standing straight up, unhurt, staring at Steph. She was partially illuminated in some of the torch’s errant light. She was holding a long knife in her left hand and the ring of keys Matt had left at Dale’s door in the other. Her dark hair hung over her scared eyes.

None of it made sense until Matt saw a dark, slender hand with nails like razors reach out of the pool of darkness beside her and take the knife gently from her grasp. Elyse stepped into the light, and Brian came up beside her, but if it weren’t for their eyes Matt would never have recognized them at all.

Brian glanced at him, briefly, though Matt couldn’t be sure he knew who he was. His dark eyes fixed on Jordan a second later, and then he was gone. Perhaps it was Matt’s concussion slowing his perception, but to him it seemed that one second Brian and Elyse were there, side by side like a pair of murderous rotted corpses, and then they had vanished. They moved so quickly it was like the shadows ate them up in one place and spat them out, instantly, in another.

Jordan let out a wild roar, a sound of pure fury that froze Matt’s bones and made him pull in his first deep breath. He turned in time to see Brian and Elyse dragging his great form to the ground, Brian crouching on his shoulders and wrenching his mouth wide open with both hands; Elyse hugging him from behind, pulling him downhill.

They fell in a mess, but it was over from the beginning. Brian was letting out strange, frantic yelps that it took Matt a few seconds to realise were a kind of laughter. Elyse was screeching with something that sounded almost like ecstasy, and Jordan was still shouting, but his cries were taking on a high, frantic quality.

The fight went on, and Matt stayed on his knees and stared into the darkness out of range of the torchlight and listened to it with growing horror. Jordan’s roars became howls, and then screams of pure agony: the screams of a boy now, not a man or a monster.

It went on and on, and Steph stepped up beside Matt and stared with him, and together they heard skin ripping away from muscle. They heard bones crack and ligaments snap. They heard pleading and begging and then whimpers, and then they heard nothing but the smack of raw meat between eager lips. All the while, the smell of blood wafted up to them and settled in the back of their throats. Steph’s hand was tight on his shoulder.

She knows they’re not going to stop. They’re going to come for us next.

‘Steph,’he said.


‘Do you have the keys?’


‘Let’s go. We have to hide in a world. We have to hide until they’re dead or gone. They’re going to kill us, Steph.’

‘What about Dale?’ she said in a small voice.

Matt looked over at the dense patch of bushes. He saw Dale’s blue jeans protruding into the light, and they were soaked in blood. One foot twitched, then was still. ‘He’s dead.’

Steph got an arm under him and helped him to his feet.

‘Hey, wait.’ Brian was standing there on the slope. He looked almost like himself, except for the black veins knotting his face and the skin visible under his tattered clothes like ropes. He was panting, covered in head to toe in blood. It dripped from his fingertips. ‘It’s okay,’ he said. ‘I won’t hurt you.’

Elyse came up beside him. She looked as bad as he did, if not worse. One of her eyes was closed, a gash across it. Something leaked from below her lid. Like Brian, she was covered in blood. She was chewing something, the corner of her mouth turned up in a satisfied half smile.

‘Steph.’ Matt nudged her. They could still make it to one of the doors. Maybe, if they were lucky, one of them could get through. He’d already made up his mind to make sure it was her. He had nothing, after all. There was nothing for him, anymore. She didn’t move.

Brian came forward, one step, two, and all of a sudden it was too late and there was no getting away. ‘It’s okay, now,’ he said. Steph was shaking, and Matt was on the point of throwing himself on Brian – take out his eyes and there might be a chance after all – when he’d closed the distance completely and pulled her into a hug. Before he knew what was happening, Elyse was in front of him, tears in her eyes, and she hugged him too, and he knew, somehow, that it was over.


Dale was still alive, barely. They picked up the torch and Brian and Elyse picked him up out of the bushes and laid him down on his back. Matt saw the gaping wound Jordan had made in Dale’s abdomen. His whole stomach was a mess of organs, some burst and torn, pulled out of place. His intestines almost spilled out of him as they set him down, and Matt could see the bite marks in the pink flesh. His eyes were half closed but bright with reflected moonlight, and he was breathing fast, two or three breaths a second.

‘It’s okay,’ he told them, eyes flicking, from one to the other, blinking. ‘I’ve done this before. It’s not so bad.’ He didn’t say anything after that, and Elyse held him until he died, his eyes fixed on the moon.

They stayed there for a long time afterward, huddled against the cold in a tight circle around their friend, no one speaking, crying in silence. They felt more than ever as though they were in another world. No one had answered their screams during the fight, and the sirens and shouts on the streets were far away. They were alone with their horror and their dead friend, the victors of a battle no one else knew had been fought.

‘The door’s closed now,’ Steph said eventually, looking down at Dale’s horribly slack face. There was no peace in that expression, no relief or grace; only an absence of everything. Death.

Matt almost didn’t dare to speak. He didn’t know what made her say that, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask. She sounded certain, and that was enough. He put an arm around her and one around Elyse, and the four of them huddled closer.

‘You think we’ll go back to normal?’ Brian asked. ‘Will the burn come back?’

‘I don’t know,’ Steph said. ‘We’ll just have to wait.’

And so they did. Hugging each other in the blue dark, crying often and talking in low voices occasionally, they waited for the sun.



‘Pick up, pick up, pick up. Damn.’ Dale redialled. ‘Come on.’

‘Dale?’ Steph answered at last, sounding worried.

‘Yeah, we have to find Matt right now.’

‘Why? What happened?’

‘I found something. I don’t know if it can help us or not but… I dunno, maybe. I was gonna run to Matt’s house but when I opened the front door I found the box of keys. He left them here, Steph, why would he do that?’

‘Oh, no. He’s running away, isn’t he?’

‘Yeah. I can’t get hold of him.’

‘Dale – oh, God, he must have gone to Westlake. That’s where all the other doors are.’

‘That’s what I figured. Listen, we don’t have that much time, I – ’

‘Dale, wait, what did you find out?’


‘What did you find out, why were you trying to get to him?’

‘Oh, yeah. Listen, Steph – it’s a sacrifice. A human sacrifice I think, I don’t know if it has to be innocent, or a child, or just anyone, but I’m sure of it. That kid that died, remember, in the book? That was what closed the door for good, that was the bit that was burned off in the original volumes. Someone has to die to make the door close properly.’

‘Oh, God, are you sure? Dale. Are you sure?’

‘No, not really, but… I dunno, Steph. It seems likely, that’s all.’

The phone crackled as she let out a frustrated breath. ‘We’re wasting time.’

‘Can you meet me there?’

‘Forget meeting, we just have to get to him as quick as possible. Like right now. Dale, if he gets into some other world, he’ll never know, do you realise that? He’ll just run away and never know about us or his family or anything.’

‘Okay, okay, I’m going now. Hurry – and bring a torch or something with you, yeah?’


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