Curfewby Phil Rickman
The brilliant debut from an exciting new voice in horror. A New Age millionaire thinks tourists will be drawn to the Welsh town of Crybbe, once a spiritual center, if he restores the standing stones that once surrounded the town. But Crybbe's citizens know that replacing the stones will herald the return of an ancient evil. HC: Putnam.
- Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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- Product dimensions:
- 4.26(w) x 6.80(h) x 1.39(d)
Read an Excerpt
By Phil Rickman
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 1993 Phil Rickman
All rights reserved.
Sometime – and please, God, make it soon – they were going to have to sell this place. And on evenings like this, when the sky sagged and the bricks of the houses across the street were the colour of dried blood, Fay would consider how they'd have to bait the trap.
On a fresh page of the spiral-bound notepad, she wrote:
Bijou cottage in small, historic town amid spectacular Welsh border scenery. Close to all amenities, yet with lovely open views to rear, across pastoral countryside towards Offa's Dyke. Reasonably priced at ...
... what? You couldn't make it too cheap or they'd be suspicious – and with good reason.
She'd suggest to her dad that they place the ad in the Sunday Times or the Observer, under 'rural property'. These were the columns guaranteed to penetrate the London suburbs, where the dreamers lived.
They probably wouldn't have heard of Crybbe. But it did sound appealing, didn't it? Cosy and tucked away. Or, alternatively, rather mysterious, if that was what you were looking for.
Fay found herself glancing at the bookshelves. Full of illusions. She saw the misty green spine of Walking the Welsh Marches. The enigmatic Old Straight Track by Alfred Watkins. And the worst offender: J. M. Powys's The Old Golden Land, which suggested that the border country was full of 'secret doorways', through which you could penetrate 'ancient mysteries'. And lots of pictures taken through lenses coated with Vaseline and wishful thinking.
She would really hate doing this to somebody, selling the house and perpetuating the myth. But not as much as she'd hate having to stay here. And you couldn't let your conscience run away with your life, could you?
Anyway, there were some people – like, say, the Newsomes – who rather deserved what this town was doing to them.
'Off to the pub,' the Canon called merrily from the hall. 'Fay, can you hear me? I said, I'm off to the boozer.'
'Spot of social intercourse.'
'You'll be lucky.' Fay watched him stride past the window towards the town square. The old devil still looked deceptively fit for someone who, ever so slowly, was going mad.
He would put on a wonderful performance for the prospective purchasers, always assuming they caught him on one of his better days. That Santa Claus beard and the matching twinkle. They'd love him. More importantly, they'd trust him, the poor sods.
But before she could unleash this ample bundle of ecclesiastical charm on the punters, there was just one minor difficulty to overcome.
The Canon didn't appear to want to leave Crybbe. Ever.
This was the central problem in Fay's life. This was what kept her awake at night.
Christ, how could he? He didn't tramp the hills, wasn't much interested in peregrine falcons or otters or bog-orchids. How, for God's sake, could he bear to go on living in this no-hope town now that the woman who'd brought him here had been dead for nearly a year?
Other recent settlers kept saying what a little haven it was. Convincing themselves. A handful of retired people – most of them rather younger than the Canon – drifted into the town every year. The kind who told themselves they needed to be closer to nature. But nature, for them, amounted to a nice view. They came here not to die, but to fade out. To sit amid soft greenery until they grew frail and lighter than air and the wind blew them away like dandelion seeds.
What happened in reality was that an ambulance eventually took them off, rattling along the narrow lanes to Hereford General, twenty-five miles away. Taking too long to get there because all the roads were B roads, clogged with tractors and trailer-loads of sheep, whose milky eyes showed that they had no illusions at all about fading into a green heaven.
'Don't do it, Dad,' Fay said, just to create a new sound – three minutes' walk from the so-called town centre and all you could hear was the clock on the mantelpiece and the wheezing of the fridge. 'Don't leave your mind in bloody Crybbe.'
The Canon seemed, perversely, to revel in the misery of the town, to relish the shifty, suspicious stares he encountered in the post office and all the drinks the locals didn't buy him in the pub.
His mind was congealing, like a fried egg on a cold morning. The specialists had confirmed it, and at first Fay had refused to believe them. Although once you knew, the signs were pretty obvious.
Decay was infectious. It spread like yellow fungus in a tree stump. Fay realized she herself had somehow passed that age when you could no longer fool yourself that you were looking younger than you felt.
Especially here. The city – well, that was like part of your make-up, it hid all the signs. Whereas the country spelled it out for you. Every year it withered. Only the country came up green again, and you didn't.
Fay took a deep breath. This was not like her at all.
On the table in front of her lay a small, flat, square box containing fifteen minutes' worth of tape she'd recorded that morning. On the box was written in pencil
Henry Kettle, dowser.
Later, Fay would create from the tape about six minutes of radio. To do this she would draw the curtains, switch on the Anglepoise lamp and the Revox editing machine and forget she was in Crybbe.
It was what kept her sane.
She wondered what kind of reaction she'd get if she told it like it was to the perusers of the property columns.
Fay picked up the pencil and wrote on the pad:
Faded terraced house in godforsaken
backwater, somewhere in damp
no man's land long disowned by both
Wales and England.
Fully modernized – in 1960.
Depressingly close to bunch of run-down shops,
selling nothing in particular.
Backing on to infertile hill country,
full of dour farming types and pompous
retired bank managers from Luton.
No serious offer ignored.
In fact, she added, we'd tear your bloody hand off ...CHAPTER 2
Close up, she was like a dark, crooked finger pushing out of the earth, beckoning him into the brambles.
When he looked back from the entrance to the field, she'd shrivelled into something more sinister: a bent and twisted old woman. A crippled crone.
Or maybe just the broken stump of a fence post. Maybe only that.
She hadn't been visible from here at all until, earlier that day, Mr Kettle had put on his thick gloves and pulled away the brambles, then pruned the hedge around her so that she stood naked, not even a covering of moss.
Now he'd brought Goff to see his discovery, and he should have felt a bit proud, but he didn't. All the time he'd been cutting away the undergrowth something had been pulling at him, saying, Leave it be, Henry, you're doing no good here.
But this was his job, and this stone was what showed he'd earned his money. It made a nonsense of the whole business if he didn't reveal the only real evidence that proved the line was there, falling sure as a shadow across the field, dead straight, between two youngish oak trees and ...
'See that gate?'
'The metal gate?'
'Aye, but he's likely replaced generations of wooden ones,' Mr Kettle said, his voice rolling easy now, like the hills around them. Even without the final proof he'd have been confident of this one. Wonderful feeling it was, when you looked up and everything in the landscape – every hill and every tree, every hedge, every gateway – suddenly smiled at you and nodded and said you were right, you done it again, boy.
Like shaking hands with God.
Happening again, so suddenly like this, everything dovetailing, it had taken his mind off the doubts, and he'd been asking himself: how can there be anything wrong, when it all falls together so neatly.
He indicated the gate again. 'Prob'ly the cattle chose the spot, you following me?'
'Because they'd always go out that way! Out of the field, right?'
'You're learning.' Though it was still warmish, Mr Kettle wore a heavy tweed suit. He carried what once had been a medical bag of scuffed black leather, softened with age. The tools of the trade in there, the forked twigs and the wire rods and the pendulums. But the tools weren't important; they just made the clients feel better about paying good money to a walking old wives' tale like him.
Max Goff had a white suit, a Panama hat and the remains of an Aussie accent. For a long time Mr Kettle had found it hard to take him seriously, all the daft stuff he came out with about wells of sacred power and arteries of healing energy and such.
The New Age – he kept on about that. Mr Kettle had heard it all before. Twenty years ago they were knocking on his door in their Indian kaftans and head-bands, following him out to stone circles, like Mitchell's Fold up in Shropshire, where they'd sit smoking long, bendy cigarettes and having visions, in between pawing each other. Now it was a man in a white suit with a big, powerful motor car, but it was the same old thing.
Many, many times he'd explained to people that what he did was basically about science. Wonderful, yes – even after all these years the thrill was there all right. But it was a natural thing. Nothing psychic about dowsing.
What sun there'd been had all but gone now, leaving a mournful old sky with clouds like a battle-flag torn into muddy, blood-stiffened strips. It hadn't been a good spring and it wouldn't be a good summer.
'Now look up from the gate,' said Mr Kettle.
'Yeah, that ... church steeple, you mean?'
'No, no, before that. Side of that bit of a hedge.'
'Oh ... that thing.'
The old girl was about a hundred yards down the field, separated from the hedge now, blackened against the light, no more than three feet tall. But she was there, that was the point. In the right place.
'Yes,' Mr Kettle said. 'That thing.'
It was no good, he didn't like her. Even if she'd proved him right he didn't like the feeling coming off her, the smell that you could smell from a good distance, although not really.
'Is it a tree stump?' And then, 'Hey, you're kidding, it can't be!' The little eyes suddenly sparking. He'd be ruthless and probably devious in his business, this feller, but he had this enthusiastic innocence about him that you couldn't altogether dislike.
'Jeez,' Goff said. 'I thought they'd all gone!'
'Why don't you go over and have a look at 'er?' Mr Kettle put down his bag and sat on it under the hedge and patted the grass so that Arnold, his dog, would sit down, too. And they both sat and watched this bulky, bearded bloke making his ungainly way across the tufted meadow. Impatient, stumbling, because he'd thought they'd all gone, the old stones of Crybbe.
Mr Kettle, too, had believed they'd all gone, until this morning when they'd finally let him into the field for the first time and he'd located the line and walked slowly along it, letting it talk to him, a low murmur.
And then the tone had altered, strengthened, calling out to him, the way they did. 'I'm here, Henry, the only standing stone left standing within a mile of Crybbe.'
Or vibrations to that effect. As megaliths went, she wasn't impressive, but she hadn't lost her voice. Not a voice he liked, though; he felt it was high and keening and travelled on a thin, dry wind.
But it proved he hadn't lost his capacity to receive. The faculty.
'Still there, then, Arnold. Every time I goes out I reckon it isn't bound to work any more.' He scratched the dog's head. 'But it's still there, boy.'
The only conclusion Mr Kettle could reach about why this stone had survived was that there must've been a wood here and the thing had been buried in brambles. And if they'd noticed her at all, they, like Goff, might have thought it was just an old tree stump.
He could see the figure in the white suit bending over the stone and then walking all around, contemplating the thing from different angles, as if hoping she'd speak to him. Which, of course, she wouldn't because if Goff had possessed the faculty there'd have been no reason to send for Henry Kettle.
An odd customer, this Goff, and no mistake. Most of the people who consulted dowsers – that is, actually paid them – had good practical reasons. Usually farmers looking for a water supply for their stock. Or occasionally people who'd lost something. And now and then those afflicted by rheumatics, or worse, because they'd got a bad spring under the house.
'Why am I still thinking he's trouble then, Arnie?'
The dog considered the question, looked serious.
Well, hell, he didn't want to think that. Not at all, because this Goff was the first person who'd ever paid him to go ley-hunting.
'Mr Kettle,' he'd said, coming straight to the point, which Mr Kettle liked, 'I've been advised that this used to be quite a centre for prehistoric remains, and I wanna know, basically, what happened to them. Can you find out where they used to be? The old stones? The burial mounds? And I'm told you can kind of detect ley-lines, too, yeah?' 'Well,' Mr Kettle had said carefully, 'I know what you mean. It do sometimes seem they fall into straight lines, the old monuments.'
'No need to be coy with me, Mr Kettle. I'm not afraid to call a ley-line a ley-line.'
Now this had, at first, been a joy, taking the old chap back nigh on seventy years. He remembered – a memory like a faded sepia photo – being on a hazy hilltop with his father and other members of the Straight Track Club. Mr Watkins pointing out the little bump on the horizon and showing how the line progressed to it from mound, to stone, to steeple. The others nodding, impressed. The picture frozen there: Mr Watkins, arm outstretched, bit of a smile under his stiff beard.
Now, remarkably – and loath as Mr Kettle had been, at first, to admit it – this Goff had stumbled on something Mr Watkins would, no question, have given his right arm to know about.
So it had proved unexpectedly exciting, this survey, this ley-hunt. Bit of an eye-opener. To say the least.
One morning, knowing there had to have been a stone in a particular place in Big Meadow and then digging about and finding part of it buried near by, Mr Kettle had got a feeling that something about this was not regular. In most areas, old stones were lost gradually, over centuries, plucked out at random, when exasperation at the damage done to a plough or a harrow had finally overcome the farmer's inbred superstition.
But at Crybbe, he was sure, it had been systematic.
Like a purge.
Mr Kettle's excitement was dampened then by a bad feeling that just wouldn't go away. When he dug up the stone he thought he could smell it – something faintly putrid, as if he'd unearthed a dead sheep.
And, as a man who lived by his feelings, he wondered if he ought to say something. About the purge on the stones. About the history of the Court – John Dee, Black Michael and the hangings. And about the legends, which travelled parallel to history and sometimes, if you could decode them, told you far more about what had really happened than the fusty old documents in the county archives.
Mr Kettle, who kept his own records, was getting more and more interested in Crybbe – wishing, though, that he didn't have to be. Wishing he could ignore it. Detecting a problem here, a serious long-term problem, and wishing he could turn his back on it.
But, as the problem was likely to remain long after he'd gone, he'd taken steps to pass on his fears. With a feller like this Max Goff blundering about the place, there should always be somebody who knew about these things – somebody trustworthy – to keep an eye open.
He supposed he ought to warn Goff, but the thought of 'something sinister' would probably only make the place more appealing.
'And, anyway, you can't tell these New Age types anything, can you, Arnold?' Mr Kettle was scratching the dog's head again. 'No, you can't, boy.'
Ten minutes later Goff was back, puffing, the flush in his cheeks making his close-mown beard seem even redder. Excitement coming off him like steam.
'Mr Kettle, let me get this right. According to your calculations, this is line B, right?'
'And by following this line, as you dowsed it, we suddenly come across what could be the only remaining stone in the alignment. Is it exactly where you figured it'd be?'
'Well ...' Mr Kettle got to his feet and picked up his bag. Max Goff eyed it.
Excerpted from Curfew by Phil Rickman. Copyright © 1993 Phil Rickman. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Phil Rickman is the author of the Merrily Watkins Mystery series.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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What? Are you nuts? Phil writes horror with a level of class few people can ever hope to attain. He's is the scribe child of Shirley Jackson and Henry James. This is an incredible depiction of horror because of the pragmatic voice telling the story. He is as surprised as the reader is at what is seemingly going on. Read everything he has written. He tells the perfect ghost story.
The story itself is okay, but the writing style is just not very good. It makes it kind of dull and lifeless. I had a hard time getting and staying into it.
I had really wanted to read a terrifying book. The premise lended itself to that. As the plot thickens you can see that all the pieces are in place to create terror. Unfortunately, when the author is describing a moment of terror he doesn't seem to write in enough detail and you're left feeling he may have 'pulled punches'.