The Gorbals Vampire

September 23rd, 1954. PC Alex Deeprose of the Glasgow Police responds to a call of a disturbance at the Southern Necropolis – a cemetery in one of the city’s poorest areas. What he finds shocks and stuns him. As steelworks to the East and South bellow smoke and flame into the night air, they lace the breeze with a strong scent of sulphur. And before him, he watches gangs of children scour the graves and headstones. The youngest couldn’t have been older than four, whilst the leaders were in their early teens. Most were armed – with crude, homemade weapons including crosses, crucifixes, and more deadly knives, axes, and shivs.

In the dense fog and smoke-filled cemetery, they cast distorted, otherworldly shadows among the tombs and headstones. Yet they move with purpose, and as their gleeful cries and whoops reveal, they are on the hunt. 

Cornering the nearest group, PC Deeprose discovers their intended target. The man with the iron teeth, also known as the Gorbals vampire. A seven-foot monster that has supposedly kidnapped and devoured two of their own.

Only the intervention of a local headmaster, and some timely Glaswegian weather, finally persuade the children to disperse. But they return for the next two nights, determined to catch the monster.

Parental Concerns

Soon after, parents and schoolteachers were asking police if there could be any truth to the tale. After all, how and why would so many children be motivated en masse to take the law into their own hands. For them, the stakes (if you’ll forgive the pun) couldn’t be higher. They had set off into the night to confront a metallic-fanged, seven-foot-tall, child-eating monster. Not the lightest of undertakings.

The story spread as quickly as the fear. It reached the National Press and even parliament. Ultimately, it impacted and changed British law.

But was there any truth to the Gorbals vampire? Its legacy, legend, and legal consequences have certainly lingered.

The Southern Necropolis, Glasgow.

Playground Rumours

It appears that the story of the vampire sprung up very quickly – on the day of the first hunt. Ronnie Sanderson was eight years old at the time and was informed of the simple plan in the playground. 

“The word was, there was a vampire, and everyone was going to head out there after school. At three o’clock, the school emptied, and everyone made a beeline for it. We sat there for ages on the wall, waiting and waiting. I wouldn’t go in because it was a bit scary for me. I think someone saw somebody wandering about and the cry went up: the vampire was there!”

Kenny Hughes, another of the vampire hunters, said their terror built up quickly, to the point they would only move in on the cemetery together.

A third boy, Tommy Smith, suggested the fog, and fire from the steelworks, only added to the eeriness. 

“The red light and smoke would flare up and make the shadows leap among the gravestones. You could see figures walking about at the back, all lined in red light.”

On seeing a bonfire burning brightly close to the cemetery, it even began to be feared that the monster was burning the remains of those it had already killed. Yet, two nights later, it was almost forgotten – at least in the minds of the children. But uproar was to come in the aftermath.

I’ve included a link to interviews with Tommy and other witnesses to the events below.

Fangless Facts and Other Iron-Fanged Monsters

The facts show no children were reported missing, and there are no child murder cases that line up with the period. However, the Gorbals vampire was not the first monster to haunt Glasgow, and it wasn’t even the first to sport iron teeth.

Tommy Smith – mentioned above, suggested tales of the ‘iron man’, were used by parents to keep children in line. This was no Marvel superhero, but a bad-tempered ogre inclined to snack on schoolchildren. 

Before him, in the 1800s, ‘Jenny wi’ the Airn (iron) Teeth’, stalked Glasgow Green. This hideous hag shares her name with another folklore favourite – Jenny (or Ginny) Greenteeth, known for dragging children to a watery grave. Although undoubtedly based on this watery witch, especially living so close to the banks of the Clyde, Glasgow’s Jenny was differentiated by her mouth of metal. She also got her own poem.

Jenny wi’ the Airn Teeth

Come an tak’ the bairn

Tak’ him to your den

Where the bowgie bides

But first put baith your big teeth

In his wee plump sides

A bairn is a baby, and a bowgie is an old-fashioned spelling of another well-known British faerie – a bogie, or boggart.

It would appear, that Gorbals’ school-aged children had a few potential spurs to the imagination to choose from, if they wanted to think on iron-fanged monsters. But it’s still unclear why so many were suddenly motivated on one day, or how rumours spread from school to school in a matter of hours.

Iron and Steel

Two metallic monstrosities dominate the story. The first is the iron teeth of the vampire, and the second is the steel industry and its impact. The area was heavily laden with air, noise, and light pollution. The work itself was dangerous and those not in the factories, were still subject to their fumes and imposing presence. The foundries were active 24/7 and constantly backlit the night sky with hellish plumes of orange and billowing smoke. It wouldn’t take much to imagine a demonic denizen dwelled nearby.

Gorbals was also an area stricken by poverty. As a home for heavy industry, it attracted significant numbers of immigrants, not just from the surrounding Highlands, but also Irish Catholics, Jewish, and Italian communities. A huge amount of people (up to an estimated 90,000 by the late 1930s), were crammed into a little over a square mile. Gorbals was known for a high crime rate, and its equally high infant mortality rate. Perhaps these factors made it the perfect place to inspire a story about a monster with iron teeth that killed children.

After all, it’s not hard to imagine this story was a personification of the hazards faced by the residents and workers crammed into Gorbals. And nearly a century before, in 1867, Karl Marx alluded to the similarities between industrial capitalism and vampires.

“Capitalism is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour…”

Karl Marx, Capital

To me, as an amateur with an interest in the strange and monsters especially, this makes sense. We now know that a cultural knee-jerk response to tragedy is to make monsters. Whether it’s Japan’s post-Hiroshima Godzilla, or America’s post 9/11 Cloverfield, they usually aren’t far behind disaster and difficulty.

But a scapegoat would help avoid the accountability implied by over industrialisation and the impoverishing of society.

A Comic Craze?

By the time the story reached parliament, a plausible yet convenient culprit was firmly in the sights of the outraged public. American horror comics, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, were polluting young minds and driving them to such madness.

A 1953 issue of Dark Mysteries was especially cited, after featuring a story titled ‘The Vampire with the Iron Teeth’.

The labour MP for Gorbals, Alice Cullen, led a debate in the House of Commons, backed by a coalition of teachers, Christians, and communists – the latter joining the fight on terms of limiting the influence of American culture. For everyone else though, the accusation was that these stories inflamed imaginations with graphic images of monsters and mayhem. The result was the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955, which banned the sale of ‘repulsive or horrible’ reading matter to children. It is still in place today as ‘active’ legislation. 

Monsters, Mass Hysteria, and ‘Magination

So, it was back to The Beano for Gorbals’ monster-hunting school kids. But in hindsight, there are several issues with placing the blame on the comics. First and foremost, it seems none of the children involved had access, or had even seen such American comics. Experts suggest they were more likely to have gotten hold of the Crown Jewels than one of these – which had very limited circulation and availability anywhere in the UK, let alone Gorbals. 

As for that conveniently titled story in Dark Mysteries, research suggests this was published in December 1953, over three months after the events in Gorbals, and notably, also after the story had been heavily featured in the National Press.

As Bob Hamilton, and several of the monster hunters admitted, they had no idea what a vampire was. They were just swept up in the idea of a monster hunt and joined in with everyone else.

The Southern Necropolis is a graveyard for over 250,000 Glaswegians. But in the early 1950s, for the children of Gorbals, it was ‘the gravy’ – and a playground. Swapping trees for tombstones, and nursery rhymes for scary stories, it’s not hard to imagine their thoughts were haunted by the macabre. 

It’s not the first time that mass hysteria among children has led to a monster hunt. It’s not even the first time it happened in Glasgow. In the 1870s, the Cowcaddens area saw a hunt for hobgoblins. In the early 20th century, spring-heeled jack became their quarry. In 1964, Liverpool saw a lively hunt for leprechauns. More recently, and with more tragic consequences, the slender man stabbing in 2014 showed the dire consequences of believing such stories, and the international reach of the phenomena. 

And as cases such as the Highgate Vampire and the Cardiff Giant show, adults are not immune either. 

I was first introduced to the Gorbals vampire when I visited Glasgow for a friend’s wedding and stayed in a hotel opposite the mural depicting the legend. In more recent times, the monster has been the subject of a locally staged play and many works of art and sculpture.

I am left with two thoughts. The first, that it’s not entirely implausible, despite the lack of record, that a dishevelled, down-and-out steelworker fabricated himself a pair of metal teeth and got his kicks by scaring children in the graveyard. The second is, seventy years on, the only slaying a teenager is likely to do is via Call of Duty. But back in the day, they heard about a monster, believed it, and made killing it their first order of business. One thing is clear; don’t mess with the kids from Gorbals. 

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The Curse of Portlock – An Alaskan Killer Bigfoot

There’s a forest in Alaska that sits on a remote, hard to get to peninsula. If you were to visit today, you’d never know that seventy years ago, a small town thrived there, built upon a booming salmon fishing industry.

Portlock, also known as Port Chatham, has been the subject of numerous documentaries, stories, and investigations. The intrigue is real. The legend, perhaps equally so.

In 1785, a Captain Nathaniel Portlock landed in a secluded bay, on the Kenai peninsula of Alaska. Whilst surveying, they found the remnants of an abandoned native village. Nobody could fathom why they would have left such a prime area, full of untouched game, fish, and shellfish. But, as members of his party grew sick and scared, they began to beg their captain to depart. Little did they know, just six years before, Spanish explorers had trodden the same soil as them. But they too had fallen sick. Some even died, and those that lived, lived in fear. Fear of what had driven the original native settlers to leave too. Horrible, morose cries would be heard in the night, edging down the mountains towards them. As with the Spanish before them, Captain Portlock’s party begged him to leave, and so they did, only leaving his name to bear on what they saw as cursed ground.

The sickness felt by the explorers could be attributed to infrasound – a low-pitched frequency that can’t be heard by humans, but the effects of which most certainly can. Several mammals use it for communication, including elephants, whales, and rhinos. Tigers though, use it to stun and disorientate their prey when they roar. Exposure to infrasound can cause inner ear imbalances, vertigo, nausea, vomiting, and bowel spasms. It can even cause resonances in inner organs, such as the heart. And it’s also been attributed to a creature of legend.

But the story really begins in 1867. A new community of nomadic Sugpiaq set up a camp in the bay of what was to become Portlock. They were amazed by the abundance and size of the clams and other bounty they found on the shoreline. No doubt, it signalled to them that this was a place they could spend the winter and never be without food. But their joy was short lived. Within a month, they were attacked. What they described as cannibal giants began to raid the village, almost nightly at times. They fought with an animalistic savagery the Sugpiaq have never encountered before, and they named the giants Nantiinaq – or the hairy man. At first, the people fought and were unwilling to give up their new home. But as the months turned into years, the attacks did not stop. Whenever game became scarce, the cannibals came. And they showed no mercy. The San Francisco Chronicle famously reported on the events, stating ‘the giants rip people to shreds in the streets every time they need a square meal’. In 1905, the village is abandoned, and the Sugpiaq leave.

Then, in 1921, a small community of Russian-Alutiiq are attracted to the bay for the same reasons as the Sugpiaq. But this time they have 20th century industry with them. They build a cannery to process the salmon, a post office, and a school. But they very quickly implement strict rules. There is a curfew at night. Armed guards patrol the streets, and especially the school and entrances to the cannery. And nobody, ever, ever goes out in the fog or into the forest. It seems that they know… the forest belongs to Nantinaq, and in the fog, it will stalk the streets of town too.

Cannery at Cordova

The rules worked… for a while. But as the community grew bigger and more successful, perhaps they became overconfident and let their guard down. Whatever happened, in 1931, a man named Andrew Kamluck, ventured out into the forest to log some trees. They found him with his head caved in. It was said a piece of equipment, heavy enough to have been hauled there by Kamluck’s dogs, had been the murder weapon. The dogs too were found torn to ribbons.

After that, the rules weren’t enough to save Portlock. First, a few gold prospectors disappeared. Then the Dall sheep and bear hunters. Each time, a little closer to town. Something was moving in on them. They all felt it. Occasionally, a body would wash up in the bay with strange bite and claw marks, or worse, beyond recognition. Twice, on the foggiest of nights, something broke into the cannery. On the second occasion, it caused enough chaos and damage for it to burn to the ground. One day, they found a man that had been missing for months. His body had been swept down the mountain by the Spring rains and into the lagoon. The remains were torn and dismembered in a way no bear was capable of. Official reports list fifteen people as having gone missing during that time, but the Alutiiq say it’s far higher. The community describe themselves as being terrorised by the creatures, and in 1950, almost overnight, they finally abandoned the town.

And it doesn’t end there. In 1968, a goat hunter is stalked and chased by a creature making horrendous screams as it followed him through the woods. Then, in 1973, three hunters take shelter in the remnants of the village during a storm. All night, their camp is circled by something that growls at them and utters unintelligible, threatening sounds. Each swears it walked on two feet. More recently, in 1989, a native paramedic attends an elderly man who has suffered a heart attack after returning from a walk in the woods. The native is an Alutiiq, and he knows the legends. He asks the old man if he saw it, if it bothered him. The old man nods, looking terror stricken towards the treeline. He dies in the paramedic’s arms. And until this day, the Alutiiq know to stay away from the forest, and to never go out in the fog.

Meet the Sabretooths

Warning – potential book spoilers ahead

I like to keep a lot of visual references and trinkets of inspiration around me when I write. Dotted around my workspace are various Schleich dinosaurs – Carnotaurus and T. Rex have prominent places (what can I say, I like predators!); and a selection of plush toys including a sabretooth, Nessie, and a black jaguar cub. Then, there are black jaguar and black leopard models, slightly overshadowed by the huge ‘stray cat’ Smilodon from Rebor.

On my desk is a selection of teeth and claws. Some are real, whilst others are museum replicas. I have megalodon, great white, and mako teeth that are all the genuine article, as well as two other fossil shark teeth I’ve never been able to identify 100% (found on a beach on the Isle of Sheppey). Incidentally, the great white tooth was found on a beach in La Jolla, California.

My desk collection of modern and prehistoric shark teeth.

Among the replicas is the tooth you see in the picture below. It’s a cast of a canine from Homotherium. Also known as the scimitar-toothed cat, this was one of the most widely distributed sabre-toothed predators to have existed, having roamed North and South America, Eurasia, and Africa. 

Sabretooths are featured in my books, and I’m often asked why I didn’t choose Homotherium as the species that ultimately plays a major role in the ongoing storyline. There’s a couple of reasons, but first, did you know how many different sabretooths there are to (hypothetically) choose from?

Homotherium belonged to the Machairodontinae (meaning daggertooth) sub-family within the Felidae (true cat) family of mammalian carnivores. Like all in this sub-family, they are most known for their enlarged maxillary canines. In almost all cases, these protruded from the mouth on either side of the jaw and were visible even when the mouth was closed. But, in the case of Homotherium, it’s likely that despite having relatively large canines, they would have been hidden by the upper lips and lower gum tissues, just like in modern big cats. This was just one reason Homotherium didn’t make the cut. I needed a sabretooth that could be recognised for what it is – despite Homotherium’s convenient European fossil record.

A museum replica of Homotherium, alongside a skeletal reconstruction.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Homotherium didn’t pack a punch though. They were about the size of a male African lion. And not only were its teeth designed for slashing, but also a powerful gripping bite capable of delivering deep puncture wounds.

Joining Homotherium in the Machairodontinae is also Amphimachairodus (thought to be some of the earliest sabretooths to inhabit Europe); Lokotunjailurus (think a long-legged, more gracile lioness) was known from the Miocene epoch across Kenya and Chad; Nimravides – a tiger-sized sabretooth that appeared in the late Miocene and has been found exclusively in North America; and Xenosmilus. 

If you’ve read my books, you’ll know why I’ve paused there. Xenosmilus was big, even for a sabretooth. In fact, only Smilodon (who’ll we’ll come to later) was noticeably larger in terms of mass. Yet it stands out among others in the sub-family for other reasons.

Before Xenosmilus was discovered, sabretooths fell relatively neatly into two categories. Scimitar-toothed cats, like Homotherium, had mildly elongated canines and long legs. Dirk toothed cats, like Smilodon, had long upper canines and stout legs. Xenosmilus broke the mould. It had short, muscular legs and a robust body – yet its canines weren’t as pronounced. And those teeth were different in other ways too. All of Xenosmilus’ teeth were serrated, and its top teeth aligned with the bottom in a way that enabled it to concentrate its bite force on two teeth at a time. This is where Xenosmilus gets its name – which means ‘strange smile’. The unique way that its canines and incisors operated together in biting, also led to the moniker, ‘the cookie-cutter cat’. 

The skull of Xenosmilus also features a pronounced and significant sagittal crest compared to others in the family. This meant it had phenomenal jaw strength and bite force, thanks to the muscles that would have been attached here. Together, these features have led to the theory that Xenosmilus adopted a bite and retreat hunting strategy. It would use its formidable teeth to inflict a deep wound, then wait until the prey was incapacitated. The peccary bones found close to the two type specimens indicate not only a liking for pork, but also that the species may have hunted collaboratively. 

It was these unique features that led to Xenosmilus playing the role it does in my stories. But we’re only halfway through the very top layers of the sabretooth family tree.

Xenosmilus skeletal reconstruction on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

A smaller, sub-group are the Machairodontini, made up of; Machairodus – meaning ‘knife tooth’ and who gives this little clan their name; Hemimachairodus – known from finds in Java and Indonesia; and Miomachairodus, known from finds in China and Turkey. They were large cats, similar in size to the smaller subspecies of modern-day tigers.

The Metailurini include Metailurus – a cat we know from only partial remains, but its elongated rear legs mean that it was probably an accomplished jumper. Others in the group include Adelphailurus, Stenailurus, and Yoshi – a species proposed to be quite cheetah like in behaviour. Because these species have only been identified from small finds, what we know about them is limited, but new details are being published regularly with study. 

The exception in this group is one of my favourites – Dinofelis, whose name means ‘terrible cat’. There’s some argument that Dinofelis belongs to the Smilodon sub-family, but for now, they lie here. These jaguar-sized cats were powerfully built with prominent sabres and extremely robust front limbs. They were also widespread, with fossils found across the North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, from between 5 and 1.2 million years ago. It has also been proposed that Dinofelis preferred forest habitat and may have had a spotted or striped coat – like the modern day clouded leopard and ocelot. 

Finally, we come to the best known of the sabretooths – the Smilodontini. These include the three sub-species of Smilodon, but also the family groups of Rhizosmilodon, Promegantereon, Paramachairodus, and another favourite – Megantereon. The latter may have been a direct ancestor of Smilodon and was jaguar-sized, but even heavier set with lion-like forelimbs. Despite this, they are thought to have been able to climb relatively well and take down prey as large as a horse. And unlike its relative Smilodon, who was limited to North America, Megantereon was found in Eurasia and Africa too.

Homotherium skull

Smilodon is not only one of the most well-known sabretooths, but also one of the most easily recognised prehistoric mammals ever discovered, thanks in part to hundreds of fossils retrieved from the La Brea tar pits. Its name means scalpel, or ‘two-edged knife tooth’. Its teeth are easily the most impressive of all sabres in terms of size and were tools used for precision kills. However, these formidable upper canines were relatively weak and fragile. They had stocky, bear-like bodies and are thought to have been ambush predators that preferred thick forest and vegetation as habitat. Again, we’re not sure if they were co-operative hunters – but it is thought likely that they lived in small family groups. 

All the above sabretooths are part of the Felidae family – making them true cats. But they weren’t the only sabretooths out there. There are others, most of which fall under what are known as false sabre-toothed cats – including the nimravidae and barbourfelidae. These animals are part of the Feliformia sub-order. Again, if you’ve read my books, you’ll be familiar with that name in terms of hyenas and their fossil relatives. But it also includes animals like the Madagascan fossa, the binturong of Asia, as well as civets, mongoose, and meerkats. Cats too are part of this sub-order, and the false sabre-toothed cats are obviously more closely related than these others – but are still different from true cats.

As for sabretooths and their modern-day cat relatives, it’s thought that they shared a common ancestor from about 18 million years ago. But the family ties between the sabretooths themselves are quite strained too. For instance, Homotherium and Smilodon are probably more distantly related from each other than your typical house cat is to a tiger. But genetically, we can still forge that connection to modern day big cats like lions and tigers from studies carried out on fossil mitochondrial DNA. It’s more direct in species related to Homotherium, which is another reason Xenosmilus was a good fit on paper. It had the strength and size of Smilodon but benefited from being part of the larger sabretooth family, with more of a genetic tie (however slight) to modern big cats.

Xenosmilus skull – its name means “strange smile”.

As for would a modern-day big cat, like a jaguar, be able to breed with a sabretooth like Xenosmilus… we obviously don’t know. My conjecture is that as true cats, it’s technically possible and viable. There would no doubt be many unknown evolutionary and biological barriers to overcome, but, as a favourite fictional character facing similar concerns famously once said… “life finds a way”. 

And whereas we’ll never be able to bring back a dinosaur from its DNA to find out what it might conveniently splice with, don’t be so sure when it comes to prehistoric cats. Their DNA – from cave lions to Smilodon, has been found and identified, and in some cases, even mapped. Maybe in the near future, just like in my books, we’ll be able to visit something akin to a Pleistocene Park!

If you can’t wait until then, you can discover how these cats and others play a role in my books here.

The Best (And Worst) of 2022

As a writer, I consume a lot of material – either in the name of research, as a way of switching off, or whilst working. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best things that I’ve read, seen, and listened to, over the last twelve months. I thought it may be of interest to you, dear reader, where I’ve found some of my inspiration and what stirs my interest outside of monsters. I also know the podcasts I listen to have sparked genuine interest when I’ve mentioned them, or in the case of a few here, have been lucky enough to appear on.

Unlike what I’ve caught at the cinema, the books I’ve read aren’t necessarily specific to 2022 releases. As tends to be the case with books, I have discovered them as and when, often by spending too long in bookshops – second-hand or otherwise. 

So, without further ado, here’s my favourites of the year. With books and podcasts, you won’t find any ‘worst’ picks, as I genuinely didn’t read any books I didn’t enjoy, and my podcast choices are all personal favourites. But there were a few stinkers on the big screen that I wanted to mention from a story-telling perspective. 

Books

Beast: Werewolves, Serial Killers, and Man-Eaters – Gustav Sanchez Romero.

This is a book that explores the history and legends surrounding the ‘Beast of Gevaudan’, a seemingly unstoppable killer wolf, (or wolf-like creature), that plagued a province of rural, pre-revolutionary France. I have always wanted to visit the region and investigate this real-life monster story, but Gustav Sanchez Romero has done a very comprehensive job, saving me the trouble, or spoiling my fun depending on your point of view.

In the foothills and plains of the Margeride mountains, France, between 1764 and 1767, it is estimated between 130 to over 200 men, women, and especially children – were killed by a marauding animal. Its identity has never been known for sure, but its rampage is a matter of record. Its story has seeped into novels, movies, and folklore. This book tries to uncover the facts shrouded by fiction, and sets out the case in a logical, linear series of investigation and explanations.

A Richness of Martens – Polly Pullar

This is one of the books I discovered by accident, taking my purchases to the counter in a bookshop, and seeing this being put aside for another customer. They say never judge a book by its cover, but that’s exactly what I did. Pine martens are one of my favourite animals and I was smitten at first sight.

It didn’t take long to feel whisked away to the Ardnamurchen peninsula with author Polly Pullar, whose descriptive language and wildlife-filled stories enchanted me from the very go. The book reveals how citizen science helped provide new insights into marten behaviour and the complex relationships they form – shooting down many preconceptions more so-called established naturalists had presumed for decades. 

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

This short memoir is simple, beautiful, romantic writing that paints a stunning picture of the Cairngorms, their people, and its wildlife. It simply made me want to disappear into the hills and breathe in what I’d been reading. You can probably pick up on my draw to Scotland in some of these choices! 

Honourable Mention – Jack Carr’s James Reece novels, State Monsters series – David Weatherly

Sometimes, you need fast-paced fiction to help escape work or just the real-world in general. Look no further than Jack Carr’s James Reece novels – the first of which (The Terminal List) is now also a series on Prime Video, starring Chris Pratt. Somewhat in the mould of Jack Reacher, these books follow a Navy Seal commander who is betrayed by the government, and then sets out on a mission of revenge. What I really like about the books is that there is a genuine character arc, including redemption, challenge, and growth.

David Weatherly is a workaholic author. He is nothing but prolific. I think I’ve read three of his books that have hit the shelves this year, making it impossible to single out just one. If, like me, you have an interest in monsters and folklore, these books will satiate your appetite. Weatherly has dedicated each volume to a single state – and I have torn my way through Utah, Indiana, and North Carolina in recent memory, and I’m sure there were a few others. Weatherly’s journalistic approach and dedicated research is clear on every page, delivering the facts and letting you draw your own conclusions. 

Films

Best

Top Gun: Maverick

There simply isn’t another choice. I saw Top Gun: Maverick more than once at the cinema, and a lot more once it became part of my film collection. This movie aced its storytelling, simply by not trying to be anything else. It didn’t try to ‘buy’ itself into an audience, end with a third-act CGI slugfest, or divert from its narrative to impose an opinion. It stuck to character-driven story, with a clear layout of the perils, the promise, and the payoffs we would get. As this YouTube video explains, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. 

One liners, slick action, clearly defined stakes, and a character we root for because we understand his flaws, all turned a sequel we didn’t think we needed into the blockbuster of the year.

Honourable Mentions: Jaws, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

It says a lot about the state of cinema, when two of the surprise hits (and certainly my favourites), were films between 40 and 50 years old, released either in a new format (IMAX and 3D in the case of Jaws), or celebrating its 40th anniversary (Wrath of Khan). However, the chance of seeing them on the big screen was incredibly welcome, not to say special. 

Jaws has always had me wanting to write a UK-based story in the same ilk, which may be coming sooner than you think. This is the film that established the summer blockbuster and Spielberg’s status as a Hollywood heavyweight, not to mention a universal fear of the water. 

Khan could be seen as a little hammy, but it’s a film that saved a franchise, and watching a brilliant stage actor like Ricardo Montalban savagely chew the scenery with Shatner is a delight to this day.  

Documentaries

Small Town Monsters has delivered another incredible year of investigations into the unexplained. All of their documentary films can be purchased directly from the website, or can be found on Prime Video and Vimeo. American Werewolves was a standout for me, alongside the addictively good Bigfoot: Beyond the Trail series on YouTube.

Panthera Britannia has shot to the top of the list of documentaries covering big cats in Britain. With compelling footage, stoic investigation, startling evidence, and expert commentary, a better case for the ongoing presence of big cats in the UK is yet to be presented. It is also now available on Prime Video.

Worst

Thor: Love and Thunder

Marvel has certainly been less than marvellous since the end of the Infinity saga, but Thor: Love and Thunder was an insulting mess that lacked story, respect, and appeal (for me). In the character of Thor, we’ve explored complex storylines and issues, like mental health, betrayal, revenge, and love. And whereas I felt the balance between comedy and story was right in Ragnarök, Love and Thunder played only for laughs – and cheap ones at that. Thor became a clown that played second fiddle to other characters like Korg, Valkyrie, and Jane Foster. And somebody, please tell Russel Crowe that he cannot do accents. Ever. 

Where the Crawdads Sing

Loved the book. Loved David Strathrain’s performance. Didn’t care for much else. It left huge parts of the story out, including essential scenes that would have showed us the character of Kya and who she was. The book delivers in so many ways that the film fell short of. I’d still like to live in Kya’s cabin though.

TV

Yellowstone

I don’t binge watch much, but let’s just say I discovered Yellowstone late in the year, and I’m completely up to date. I am hooked and practically addicted. What I love about the storytelling is, primarily, these are not nice people. You’re not rooting for heroes. Almost all the characters have done horrible, unforgiveable things. Yet, they abide by personal codes of right and wrong that we understand and completely buy into.

Kevin Costner, Kelly Reilley, and Cole Hauser play standout characters in John Dutton, Beth, and Rip respectively. Together, they defend their ranch, family, and way of life through murder, savagery, and brutal payback to any slur. Yet, they’ll defend the weak, stand up to bullies, stop to help you change a tyre, and won’t break their word. But they’ll gun you down without hesitation if they need to. It makes for compelling viewing.

I’m yet to catch the prequel series’ of 1883 and 1923, but with the likes of Sam Elliott, Harrison Ford, and Helen Mirren starring, I’m sure they’ll be just as good.

Podcasts

All of the podcasts should be available on your podcatcher of choice but are definitely available on iOS Podcasts and Spotify.

Big Cat Conversations

Big Cat Conversations is hosted by Rick Minter, an author and researcher based in Gloucestershire – one of the UK’s hotspots for big cat sightings and activity. The podcast acknowledges that sightings of big cats have been recorded across the UK for decades and gives witnesses and the topic a much-needed voice. From exploring the implications of living alongside apex predators for the first time in millennia, to sharing incredible encounters, the podcast is a steadfast and grounded approach to the phenomena.

Honey + the Hex

Honey + the Hex is a podcast hosted by sister-duo Tatum Karmen Swithenbank and Tansie Swithenbank. Their fascination for folklore and spirituality oozes out of every episode as they discuss magick, traditions, myths, rituals, and realms less travelled today. 

Monsters & Mysteries

Monsters & Mysteries brings you weekly interviews from across the Fortean field, from authors and researchers to fellow podcasters and devotees. I am always impressed with host Paul Bestall’s dedicated research and genuine interest that always comes across. 

Into the Fray

Into the Fray is a riveting ride into the world of cryptids and strange phenomena. Each week sees eyewitnesses to UFOs, bigfoot, the paranormal, and more, discuss their encounters with host Shannon LeGro. A staple of my working week is tuning in to Into the Fray.

WIP Wednesday – Rogue: Chapter Six

Hello everyone. I thought I’d share a new chapter with you, as U have very nearly completed the first draft of Rogue, and am hoping to have it with you in early Spring 2023. In this preview, we meet a young soldier about to take part in his first “wookie patrol”.

CHAPTER SIX

There was a southerly breeze that brought hints of the warmth back home to Second-Lieutenant Wade Garric as he looked out at the darkening Washington sky. Over 2,000 miles away in New Orleans, the sky would be painted molten shades of pink, gold and scarlet red. Here though, less than 150 miles from the Canadian border, the sunset was cloaked in mauves, indigo and swirling black, all too ready to descend. He waited at the gate, knowing he was a few minutes early. A foot patrol crossed the yard, the two soldiers moving quickly, purposefully, and silently. 

A side door in the gate tower he was standing next to opened, and a figure emerged, the silhouette made visible by the ghostly glow of the halogen wall lamp in the stairwell behind. The man was stocky and well built, and was wearing an army cap. As he stepped towards Wade, he recognised the man as Major Clarke. Clarke was a professional soldier with significant notches from America’s recent military history on his belt, and years of experience under it. He was known for being tough but fair, and Wade felt a slight swell of relief as the Major stopped beside him. 

“All ready for tonight?” Clarke asked. 

“Yes sir,” Wade snapped in reply, knowing it wasn’t really a question. 

“Hope you enjoyed your dinner, as you’re gonna be seeing it again real soon when that smell hits you,” came a cackle from behind. 

Wade didn’t need to turn around to know Master-Sergeant Amos Dugas had joined them. The two had been friends since they’d first arrived at Fort Skookum, both being New Orleans born and raised. Despite his loud and unsubtle demeanour, he was glad the skinny blonde Cajun would be on the patrol with him. He was still bothered by Clarke’s presence though. No regular patrol he’d ever been on required a senior officer to tag along. He wondered how true the rumours were, what he might see out there. He tried not to think about it. 

Garric turned as he heard the rumbling engine of the approaching vehicle. The Humvee drew up alongside them and stopped. Clarke climbed into the front passenger seat, nodding to the driver as he did so. 

“The Second-Lieutenant will take it from here, son,” the Major commanded. 

The Private behind the wheel nodded, even seemed relieved as he climbed out and left the door open. As Wade got behind the wheel, he stowed the M4 rifle to his side. This also aroused his suspicions further. As the driver, he would be the last to get to his gun. So, if an initiation or prank of some kind was being planned, the guy with perhaps the only gun clipped with live ammunition wouldn’t accidentally maim or kill anyone else. 

“Keep that handy,” Amos chided him. “I guarantee you’ll need it.”

“Up top, Dugas,” Clarke ordered, his impatience showing. 

Wade smiled as Amos snapped to and threw open the hatch, giving him access to the Humvee’s Browning M2 50-caliber machine gun. He swivelled it left and right on its mount to check its movement wasn’t restricted in any way. He thumped the roof to signal all was good. 

“Sir, if you don’t mind me asking, what exactly are we going to be encountering that requires a 50-cal machine gun?” Wade asked. 

“Maybe nothing,” Clarke replied. But I have an OP coming up that might require a few good men, and I’ve had my eye on you two for a while. Let’s just say this is an opportunity for me to see how you cope when things get hairy. As you may have gauged, this isn’t Dugas’s first Wookie patrol. But when I said I was looking for someone else, he mentioned you. Don’t let me, or your friend down son.” 

“No, sir,” Wade replied. 

He’d heard the others talk about the so-called Wookie patrols. The word Skookum, after which the fort was named, was a Chinook word that meant ‘evil god of the forest’. He knew what to expect. They’d go out, complete their rounds, then at some point, they’d be attacked by a group of Marines in gillie suits, a type of camouflage material that had the appearance of long strands of matted hair. It made anyone wearing it very difficult to see in the undergrowth, and at night, there was almost no chance of detecting them. Wade would go through the motions of being surprised when it happened, at least at first. He knew the drill. 

As he pressed down on the gas and passed under the large gate between the two guard towers at the front of the fort, he looked left and right. For some reason, he looked over at the fence that hugged the boundary. 10,000 volts of electricity ran through it, constantly. One click out, another fence, intersected by just the front and rear gates, encompassed the entire fort and surrounding forest. It too was electrified and patrolled under guard. He’d never thought about it before, but tonight, the setup bothered him. He’d never come across anything like it on any base he’d been stationed on previously. As a special forces training facility, it wasn’t unusual for there to be a slightly less orthodox layout. But he still couldn’t help wondering. What are they trying to keep out? He thought.

Clarke indicated for him to turn left, and he found himself driving through a gully bordered by the fort on one side, and the forest on the other. The bushes and underbrush began to intensify, and Wade eased off the gas a little. Clarke’s eyes were fixed on the treeline, and he seemed to be acutely listening to the night’s sounds. A little further on, the gulley swept right, away from the fort. The lights of the buildings and the hum of the fence faded quickly, disappearing altogether within a few seconds. 

“I think we’ve got company sir,” Dugas yelled down into the Humvee’s interior. 

Wade stifled the grin that wanted to spread across his face. They still weren’t too far from the fort, but were out of sight. This was the perfect place to launch the ambush. He was resolved to play along, even if he did feel slightly disappointed they weren’t going to wait until they were further round to stage the performance. 

Clarke banged the dashboard, and Wade instantly brought the vehicle to a stop.

“Whatever you do son, don’t turn the engine off. You just sit here idling, understood?”

Wade nodded. 

“Three bogies, approximately eighty yards to the east,” Dugas whispered. 

It was then that Wade heard Dugas pull back the slide of the 50.cal, and he caught the gleam of the brass, chain-linked cartridges in the magazine. The bullets were real. This time, he couldn’t quite repress the shudder that rippled down his spine. If this was a set-up, they were trying real hard to convince him otherwise. Nobody was inclined to take chances with that kind of fire-power. His eyes snapped to the treeline. 

For nearly a minute, there was nothing but the sound of boughs and branches creaking gently in the wind. Then, from within the darkness, the booming hoot of a great horned owl pierced the night. Wade was just beginning to feel the edge of the adrenalin wearing off, when a deliberate, decisive crack emanated from nearby. As he peered into the black, he thought he saw movement, a blurred shadow moving between the trees. A second later, a good-sized branch smacked into the side of the Humvee, and dropped to the floor. Wade heard Amos swing the Browning in the same direction. 

Wade didn’t know why, but he felt a certain urge to check the rear-view mirror. He glanced up, and froze. Glimpsing past Amos’s legs, out in the gloom, he saw two amber dots low to the ground, and appearing to edge closer. He recognised them instantly as eye-shine. 

“Sir, directly behind us, about thirty yards out. Potential tango,” Wade reported, not taking his eyes off the mirror. 

“Sneaky sons o’bitches ain’t they,” declared Amos, swivelling the gun around. 

With the windows cracked open, there was no escaping the sudden, seeping stink that crept into the cabin. It was like a skunk, rolled in dog shit, had died in the back seat and been left to rot there for a few days. It took all his self-control to force down the vomit that wanted to fly out of his throat as it filled his nostrils. 

“Jesus H. Christ, that’s one unhappy monkey,” Amos declared under his breath, wiping at his streaming eyes. 

“Throw a flashbang Corporal, let him know we’ve seen him,” Clarke ordered. 

Amos picked a canister up from the seat below and pulled the pin, tossing it gently behind the Humvee. Wade instinctively covered his eyes as he saw the others do the same. Above the sound of his thumping heartbeat, he distinctly heard the thuds of heavy steps coming towards the vehicle. Then he heard the fizz, pop, and crack of the flashbang, and the dazzling blaze of light projected onto his closed eyelids. Something behind the truck was screaming in rage and pain, moving away at high speed. Something else on Clarke’s side was roaring, but also moving away. The noise seemed to penetrate every fibre of his being, resonating in his chest. At one point, it was so loud he almost couldn’t hear anything at all. As the glare from the flashbang faded, he opened his eyes wide in terror, unsure of what he would see. In the rear-view mirror, all he could see was Amos’s grin. And to the front, the reach of the headlights showed only the trees. 

“They don’t like bright light,” Clarke explained. “You may want to remember that.” 

“They sir?” Wade asked. 

“I’m not rightly qualified to tell you exactly what they are,” Clarke replied. “But tonight, and on the op, they are your enemy. Let’s move on.”

As Wade shifted the Humvee into gear and pressed down on the gas, he heard something large thrashing its way through the scrub on his right. Through the open window to his left, something there too was mirroring their movement. It agitated him. There was little cover there, he would expect to be able to see it. He kept glancing out into the shadows as he drove, trying to get a fix on what he was listening to. 

“Maybe time to roll up the windows, bud,” Amos suggested. 

“Not a chance, I want to hear them coming,” Wade replied. “Plus, I’m not sure how much good a pane of glass will do against the thing that threw that tree branch. That pitch must have been from over a hundred feet, and if it hadn’t hit the truck, it would’ve been out of the ball park.”

“Maybe when we catch up, you can try signing them up to the Mariners,” Amos laughed. 

“They certainly need all the help they can get this season,” Clarke replied. 

Wade wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but the Seattle Mariners were pretty much the only Major League team in Washington state, and they got game tickets every now and again. It was more about hot dogs, beer, and buddies for him though. 

Wade felt rather than heard the impact of something hitting the ground, again somewhere to his left. He came off the gas, letting the Humvee roll along as he reached for the M4. Clarke was watching him out of the corner of his eye, but said nothing. The thing, whatever it was, was too close. He didn’t have time to say anything or warn the others. He slammed on the brakes, whipped up the rifle and thrust it out of the open window. He closed his eyes, registering the slight crumple of grass underfoot a few feet away, almost parallel to him. He eased the barrel an inch to the right, slipped the safety, and fired. 

There was a sucking sound, like an inhalation of breath taken in surprise. Then a low, guttural, curdle of a growl started somewhere in the darkness. It built in resonance and pitch. The sound exploded into a series of shrieks, whoops and utterances that when heard together, almost had the same rhythm and pace of language. For a moment, he felt like he was being scolded. As he heard Amos swing the big Browning round, Wade caught the flash of something white, loping off into the darkness. He realised it was a set of long, yellowish fangs, being bared in his direction. It barely registered with him that they were eight feet off the ground. 

“Well, look at you, shooting down range on your first Wookie-patrol,” Amos declared, grinning. 

“Tell me straight sir, I didn’t just shoot a Marine in a gillie suit, did I?” Wade asked, disturbed and confused by what had just happened. 

“No son, you didn’t.”

“So, what did I shoot then, and shouldn’t we be going after it?” 

“As to what it was, you’ll find out soon enough,” Clarke replied, meeting his gaze. “And in terms of going after it, no point. Even at that range, that rifle’s basically as effective as a pea shooter.”

Clarke shrugged, ending the conversation, but he looked Wade up and down for a moment, as if sizing him up.

 “Welcome to the Skookum squad,” he finally said. “Report to the briefing at 07 hundred. But in the meantime, get us the hell out of Dodge.”

Wade felt a chill as they drove back to the safety of the main fort. He looked once again at the perimeter wall and electric fencing, fighting the shudder that came with the realisation that they were designed to keep something in, not out. 

Gobble Gobble

A little bit of fun for Christmas.

A short story by Luke Phillips.

I sat at the head of the feast and looked around at my gathered brethren. So many of us together, in one place. It was enough to be truly thankful for. Long ago, before the peace, before the feast became a symbol of what we had achieved, gathering in large numbers like this would have risked attack. Our enemies would have surrounded us, called in by our merriment, and found us here ready for the slaughter. Now, they were a part of our story. It was the reason we celebrated.

It was a far cry from the times of old. The elders still occasionally told stories about that part of our legacy. Camps where the sun was never seen. Where the dead were left where they fell on the floor, and those captured milled around them, knowing in their hearts the same fate awaited. The air was punctuated by the stench of death, always. But now, we were free of such imprisonment. Perhaps in some, such freedom and the knowledge of our past brought out a certain wildness still. But that too was part of our history, and to be embraced.

The corn was shared around ceremoniously. Even as mature adults, we knew and respected the unofficial ritual of saving the best to last. Some of us considered this to be pumpkin pie, but the more educated of us simply saw that as the spoils of war. It was the meat that satiated our hunger in ways we could never have imagined. Our respect for the hunter-gatherers had grown tenfold when we discovered the thrill of the chase, and kill, for ourselves. We knew it was their land – their territory. But it was ours too. We had to live, survive, and die together. It was the only way.

When something is important, or we want to cut though the stuff that isn’t, we talk about ‘the meat of the matter’. Not the corn, the greens, or even the pie, nice though as all that is. The meat. That’s where the sustenance is. There is talk in the North of a creature called the Wendigo. The hunter-gatherers fear it. They say it was once one of their own, but ate of their own flesh. But now, as we had become meat eaters, we perhaps understood the power that came with the consumption of any flesh. It had helped us grow stronger. It was said that the pursuit of meat is what had enabled us to walk taller. It wasn’t just an important symbol for us, on this day of the feast. It was important for all our kind.

Of course, not all felt that way. Some still preferred a simpler life. They lived on what could be grown and foraged, as they always had done. There was a gentleness to that life that we all respected. But in our hearts, those of us gathered here and now, knew there was no turning back. We hunted to live, but we also lived to hunt in many ways. Our new lives, perhaps even our futures depended on it. 

There was still an element of danger in any hunt. We had to find the right group of animals, few in number, isolated from others, preferably with their kin, and not disturbed by our presence . A scout would be sent out to find and survey them. Even now, occasionally, the scout would not return. But more often than not, they did. And the more times they came back, the better we got at what came next. The hunt. The kill. It was waiting for the right moment to strike. We would stay poised until they had settled, ready to eat and drink. They spread themselves out on the ground, facing inward towards each other, protected from the ground by thick, warm skins. It was then that they were most at ease, complete disarmed and relaxed.

We had learnt to strike fast. Our unsheathed spurs sought out the points where blood would flow freely. Our sharpest points found their softest parts. We knew our size and power startled them and was enough to hold them in our gaze long enough to strike. And strike we did, with heavy beats of our outstretched limbs. With enough of us, it didn’t take long if we had the element of surprise. And we always had the element of surprise. Not long after the deed was done, we would gather around our fallen prey. We would give thanks, and then we would eat. Both them, and what they had brought with them. For some reason, their corn, their greens – they always tasted better than what we could procure ourselves. And pie had always been beyond us. We picnicked in the wild, just as we always had – and as our prey had intended to.

There was of course one thing they brought with them that we didn’t consume. The sacrifice we called it. Perhaps the fear of the hunter-gatherers’ Wendigo lived in us too. Whatever it was, and despite the strength and power we had found through the consuming of flesh, we couldn’t eat our own – just as it was abhorrent to the hunter-gatherers, the people to eat their own kind. They ate us, and we eat them, but not each other. Just so you understand though, it’s about respect, not fear. After all, we’re turkeys, not chicken. 

WIP Wednesday: If God will send his angels – Chapter One.

The title itself may end up being a work in progress, but for today’s WIP Wednesday, I’m introducing you to a story currently called “If God will send his Angels”. It follows a corrupt evangelical media mogul who is suddenly challenged to do good when an angel intervenes in his life. I’ve always pictured it as something like Highway to Heaven meets the Avengers – but this is one that has firmly been on the back burner for a while now.

As always, I’d be interested to hear what you think!

CHAPTER ONE

Aidan Anderson sat behind the custom-made oak desk in his glass walled office. He picked up and lit the hand-rolled Cuban cigar with a gas lighter. His actions were leisurely, the confident movement of a man who was sure of both himself and his place in the world. He let his gaze wander to his left down the hall to the private upper lounge of his club. The twenty-something starlet stood surrounded by photographers and members of the press, as well as a few select adoring fans from his circle of friends. Her latest television role, depicting the life of a high-end London call girl, along with the public knowledge that she called herself a Christian had caused public interest that Aidan had been quick to manipulate and use to the Church’s advantage. It was a perfect opportunity to speak on the issues of prostitution and further the Church’s impact in both the public spotlight and the immediate community.

Aidan had long been a welcome bringer of fame and fortune to his church, and its associated organisation. The Freedom Frontier Churches were a modern evangelical movement. Concentrated in London, but spread across the globe, it was a well-equipped and powerful organisation. He had learned early on that it, as well as he, was as susceptible to the normal corruptions of the world. He resisted most as it happened. He rarely lied, had never stolen. There were no rapes or murders to burden his conscience. But still, temptation happened. He used to fight it, but he had come to the conclusion that you could only fight for so long. He gazed again at the starlet, her eyes catching his for a moment. He already knew she would be spending the night with him. His provision of publicity wouldn’t harm her career either.

He decided he was bored, and he pushed his chair back and stood up. He took the cigar with him, pocketing the lighter. He turned to the right, walking away from the photographers and the young girl. He made his way down the stairs, nodding goodnight to the doormen on the ground floor. He took a swift glance towards the steel cased double glass doors at the front entrance, and gave another knowing nod to the girl’s driver, the only reassurance he needed that he knew where to drop her. He then headed to the garage underneath.

He opened the heavy fire door, and swung it open, taking one large final savouring mouthful of cigar smoke before letting it fall to the floor and extinguishing it under his heel. He walked towards the gunmetal grey Bentley Supersports coupe, taking the keys from his coat pocket and blipping the remote. He stopped suddenly. He blinked slowly as he tried to focus, but his vision was becoming blurred. He swayed slightly, feeling off balance. He looked down at his feet and saw that a thick, dark red liquid had just crept over his shoe and was now forming a pool on the floor. He had heard nothing, but as he fell to his knees he realised that he had been shot. He blinked again, and then felt himself topple over, unable to stop himself. He was still surprised that he couldn’t feel any pain. He knew that was bad. As he closed his eyes, he was dimly aware of a silhouetted figure standing behind him.

“Dad says hi”, it said, and then there was nothing.

WIP Wednesday – Dark Tides: Chapter Two

gerald-schombs-8DO2XXCoB0Q-unsplashPhoto by Gerald Schömbs on Unsplash

As the ever popular Shark Week returns to Discovery in the US this week, I thought this week’s WIP (Work in Progress) Wednesday should be a follow on from last week’s – in the form of the second chapter of Dark Tides.

If you follow my writing, you’ll know that conservation is integral to my story telling. Real-life issues are focused upon and exposed in both of my books to date, from poaching to the impact of terrorism and the bushmeat trade on animal behaviour. It is therefore important for me to state that I do not see sharks as villains. On average there are 74 shark attacks each year worldwide, with the average number of fatalities being just 4. In contrast, we kill between 75 and 90 million of them for their fins.

In Dark Tides, the strange behaviour of the animals is unnatural and the result of influences unknown…for now! In any case, I hope you enjoy the second chapter

CHAPTER TWO

From his booth at the beachhead’s car park, Tory had an almost perfect view of the girls as they stretched out on their beach towels. The small town of Binalong Bay was one of Tasmania’s most beautiful stretches of coastline, with crystal blue waters and diamond white sand, but even he got bored of that view after a while. That was not the case today. He had let them park for free, their flirtatious smiles and pleadings not lost on him for long. A blonde, brunette and a redhead all in one jeep, it was as if his fantasies were all coming true. And now he was getting his reward. The sand was hot and it hadn’t taken them long to get uncomfortable. The good thing about the hard, quartz crystals was that they really did get everywhere. The coarse granules quickly became unwelcome distractions to the warm sunshine and the sound of breakers. The bikini tops had soon be loosened and then finally discarded one by one. He was fairly sure the redhead was giving him a show as she leaned her head back, her frizzy hair falling over her shoulders. Now whenever she laughed or moved, the white flesh of her chest flashed pleasingly in his direction. The salty air had made her nipples hard and erect. This was definitely more his idea of a view.

If only the damn seal would shut up, he thought. At its eastern-most peninsula, the beach ended in a rocky outcrop. It went some way out to sea, but it met both the beach and the car park along its perimeter. The day before, a lone bull southern elephant seal had hauled itself out onto the shore and was now bellowing regularly and very loudly, much to his annoyance. There was a breeding colony on Macquarie Island, but they were rare visitors here. And the bull was an unwelcome one as far as Tory was concerned. He returned to watching the girls.

~

The elephant seal stopped his bellows, rising up onto his rear. As he flopped down, he swivelled back towards the water, his gaze fixed on its surface with a quiet focus. The bull shuffled forward, dragging its bulk over the rocks with a blubbery wriggle. It dipped its head again towards the water, as if listening. The seal let his weight pull him forward and plunged head first into the cool water. The transformation from unbalanced, lumbering land animal to lithe and graceful sea creature was instantaneous with the mere touch of the waves. The bull eased forward with a few flicks of his hind flipper-like feet, propelling his 7,300lb bulk through the water with lazy ease. He drifted motionless with the current as he focused on the dark silhouette approaching out of the deeper water.

The great white shark was a female, just less than twenty feet in length. She was cruising sedately and made her way past the motionless elephant seal in a slow sweep. Her great mouth was open as she swam, her gleaming and deadly dentition on show. Each triangular tooth was just over two inches long and had several replacements growing within the jaw behind them. She sank deeper, hugging the reef line and seeking the darkness where her svelte shape wouldn’t be seen.

~

Tory smiled as the girls threw back their towels and playfully kicked sand at each other as they made their way into the breakers. They touched the water with joyful, gentle caresses of their fingertips, rubbing it over their skin to free them of the gritty residue of the sand and the scorching kisses of the sun. Soon they stood in water up to their midriffs, laughing together and enjoying the coolness.

The redhead was the first to break away, pushing herself off into deeper water. Tory’s disappointment at the girl’s bare chest slipping beneath the surface was made up for as he caught a momentary glimpse of her curved behind, porpoising above the waves as she kicked and thrashed her way through the water. The others were soon chasing after her. Tory leaned back in his chair, putting his feet up onto the narrow counter of the booth as he waited for their glorious return from the water, and the slow, inevitable walk back up the beach to their towels. It would be worth the wait. He didn’t notice the absent bellows of the elephant seal now.

~

The great white turned in the water in an arc that seemed benign but was cloaked in speed and purpose. Her powerful tail moved her out from the sheltered corridors of the reef with a few quick beats that thrust her forward into open water. She dipped her snout and curved her spine as her powerful senses became flooded by the electrical impulses resonating towards her through the water. Minuscule elements of blood and urine teased at her olfactory tract and the static discharge of three pumping hearts sounded out both the path and distance to her prey. She accelerated, her dorsal fin just cutting a fine spray above the water as she swam towards the source.

~

Tory noticed the streak of greenish black as the triangular fin momentarily rose above the surface from the corner of his eye. He sat bolt upright, watching the water for a further sign of movement or for a shape to take form. He lifted his binoculars to his eyes and scanned back and forth over the water. He stopped when he came to the girls, who were looking curiously towards where he thought he’d seen the movement too. They were obviously bothered by it, as they seemed to be making their way back out of the water. He focused his gaze on the surf, holding his breath as he did. Something in his gut told him something just wasn’t right. Suddenly, the redhead jerked sideways and disappeared beneath the water. As Tory watched in horror, a red slick began to colour the churning waves to a pinkish hue. He grabbed the first aid pack from the shelf and sprang out of the door in a sprint towards the beach.

~

The great fish rolled onto her side as she swallowed the leg, cut through just below the knee and circled round again towards the girl it had just attacked. The redhead resurfaced, screaming in terror at her friends as they swam away in panic. As adrenalin flooded into her system, she became silent as her body went into shock. She felt no pain as her trembling fingers searched for the wound beneath the red veil of her own blood clouding the water. She screamed again as she tried to kick out with her left leg, only to find her hand brushing against the soft stump and trailing, tattered flesh the shark had left behind. She closed her eyes as the three foot high conical fin surfaced beside her and cruised past. When she opened them again, she watched it streak away as it headed for the other two girls.

~

Tory stopped in his tracks as he watched the blonde rise up out of the ocean, the shark hitting her from beneath, so her legs straddled either side of its open mouth. She writhed, opening her mouth to release a horrible and unnatural high-pitched scream. The sound stopped abruptly as the fish closed its terrible jaws, severing the girl’s legs and midriff from her torso, as its shot-glass sized teeth came together like scissor blades. A thrash of its tail propelled it beneath the waves again as it took the blonde’s upper half into its maw, gulping in quick muscular spasms to coax the remains down its throat. As its eyes rolled back from their protective sheaths, it accelerated forward again, closing on the brunette with vicious and devastating speed.

~

Tory was knee deep in the surf as his arms stretched out for the brunette as he began to wade towards her. His fingertips just touched hers for a brief moment, before she was jerked backwards with such force that she fell across the green-tipped snout of the shark, its jaws closed on her flailing right leg just above the ankle. As the fish caught the scent of the blood in the water, it was spurred instinctively into action, its throat muscles working hard to compress and suck the prey into its mouth. The girl had already stopped screaming before she disappeared below the surf.

Tory stumbled backwards, falling out of the water onto the moist sand. He glanced to his left further down the beach where he saw something in the water. As he realised what it was, he pulled himself up again, fighting off the wave of panic that threatened to consume him. He half-stumbled, half ran, as he splashed through the breakers to drag the unconscious redhead from the water. He trembled as he stepped back onto the beach, watching the greenish grey fin cut back and forth through the waves only ten feet or so from the sand. He quickly pulled the pale girl further up the beach, with the help of her blonde friend, who sobbed uncontrollably. Without hesitating he flung open the first aid pack and grabbed a cravat bandage, folding it into a bandana-like strip. He quickly tied it in an overhand knot above the severed leg and fished out a marker pen, securing it with another loop. He began to twist it in ever tightening turns to make a tourniquet. As the bleeding began to slow and finally stop, he grabbed more bandages and wrapped them round the makeshift dressing to hold it in place. It was then that he saw movement out of the corner of his eye.

Tory spun round to see the lumbering, flopping form of the bull elephant seal coming out of the sea straight towards him and the unconscious girl. It bellowed furiously and rose up on its hindquarters in a defensive posture. Tory scooped up the girl in his arms and stumbled his way towards the sloping path that led to the car park and his booth. He could hear the shuffling and surprisingly fast progress of the seal as it followed them. He made it to the top of the path panting and out of breath, and he almost fell through the open doorway of the booth as he reached it. His strength stayed with him long enough to put the girl down in the seat and lift what was left of her left leg onto the narrow counter. He picked up the phone on the wall and punched in 000 for the emergency services. Then he heard it.

The blubbery slap of the elephant seal’s stomach against the hard concrete was almost comical, as was the gargled, flatulent sounding grunts it made as it covered the ground. Tory instinctively slammed the door to the booth shut and bolted it, just as the whole structure quivered as it received a glancing blow from the animal. Tory peered out of the window, only to find himself meeting the maddened gaze of the bull through the glass. Its bloodshot eyes shone like large black marbles, and in them he saw its rage and fury. It slammed its chest and muzzle against the glass, shattering it and showering Tory with the shards. But although the seal could just about lift its head up and over the window frame lip, Tory had retreated far enough inside to be out of reach.

The bull made a huffing sound as it turned away and fell back onto its stomach. It shuffled away, only to stop beside the open top jeep the girls had arrived in. A low growl rumbled in its throat as it rose up and slammed itself down onto the bonnet of the car. It slithered off, revealing the dents and welts its 7,300lb bulk had left. Another slam smashed the headlight, followed by another that buckled the radiator. Tory watched mystified as the bull used its bulk like a sledgehammer against the car, not even pausing when blood began to pour from open wounds on its bulbous trunk. As the front suspension gave way, the seal at last seemed satisfied and shuffled off back down the path. As Tory heard the sirens of the nearing ambulance, he watched the bull slip back into the surf and disappear into the waves. He had no knowledge of the whale that had breached the banks of the Thames the day before, and he had no idea of what was yet to come.

 

WIP Wednesday – Dark Tides: Chapter One

For this Work In Progress Wednesday, I’m introducing you to a science fiction story I’ve had on the back burner for some time. Set in the oceans, it explores the backlash of nature against humans, driven by an unseen, unknown force.

CHAPTER ONE

A shuddering, violent exhale of breath burst from the blow hole of the bull, as his great back breached the surface and rolled under again. Close to exhaustion, he drifted a few yards and stilled his tired body. The water around him was colder, darker, and much shallower than his usual paths and harbours. The pain in his head had driven him far beyond his familiar haunts, into dark lonely seas.

The sound of the small boats above and behind him stirred him into laboured movement again. He slowly arched his back and raised his tail into the air, smashing it down onto the water’s surface to vent his frustration at their presence and efforts. Although the pulse in his head was much more subdued in these colder, eastern waters, he still had to fight the aggressive urges that swept over him. In the sixty-five years he had lived, he had been lucky to have never been hunted, although he had witnessed the pursuit once as a calf. His memories of the water turning red, his father’s screams as his side had exploded, and the thrashing slaps of his flippers as he writhed in agony had long been buried. But recently, they had surfaced again, tearing through his consciousness with renewed intensity and purpose.

Since the death of his father, whenever he had heard the mournful, grieving song his mother and aunts had sung that day, he had known to turn away and seek new seas. His new memories of humans had been good ones. They were of small boats like the ones surrounding him now, filled with people that coaxed him closer with gentle sounds, or divers drifting with him in warm blue water. He bore them no grudge.

The bull rolled onto his side, letting his flipper tower out of the water. Residual streams ran down its surface before it splashed back down. He righted himself and moved off again with deliberate flicks of his flukes. He ignored the purr from the boat motors, his echolocation telling him he was unable to go much further now. Although invisible to him in the dark murky water, he could sense the banks of the river rising out of the bed of the estuary and closing in on him. He could taste the mixture of salt and fresh water, the salinity dwindling with every move forward. The physical toll of his journey, and the extra effort needed to keep his mass buoyant in the waters of the river was draining the last of his strength. He knew he wouldn’t live much longer. He hadn’t fed during his lonely swim to the east and south.

~

Sergeant John Mitchell of the Metropolitan River Policing Unit circled the immense whale again, frustrated by its stubborn passage along the Thames. The small boats he had commandeered to try and force the animal back were not having the desired effect, and as he looked up, he saw that several recognisable silhouettes of the London skyline were coming into view. Largest and closest was the London Eye, the giant Catherine-wheeled tourist attraction whose elevated pods gave views stretching across the capital. But today, all eyes were looking down.

The tide was at its highest right now, but in five hours’ time, the mighty Thames would be at its lowest point. The whale would be in serious danger of becoming stranded in the shallows or even on the banks.

He glanced at the helicopters beginning to gather in the sky. The stubborn cetacean was the only news story for Londoners today. Humpback whales followed strict migration routes between the polar seas and the Caribbean. Although they were known to spend several months off the coast of southern Ireland and even western Scotland, it was a very rare and strange occurrence to see them in the North Sea or English Channel. One had never been reported in the Thames before.

The whole spectacle sickened Mitchell. If the whale was to die, which he now suspected was its reason for wandering into the estuary in the first place, the city would be able to watch it on the breakfast news, just another momentary spectacle in an otherwise boring and stagnant world. He grabbed the radio.

“Is the net ready? Over.” He spoke so quietly it was as if he was asking only himself.

There was only a second’s pause before the crackled reply came.

“Yes sir, it won’t get beyond Waterloo Bridge. We’re all set here. Over”

He replaced the radio back on the wheel column of the Targa 31 Fast Patrol Vessel he was piloting. He wondered what the whale would do when it reached the dead end. He knew his commanders were talking to authorities around the world as to why this creature was even here, in his river. Some were saying climate change. Others were saying illegal whalers had chased him there. The only thing that seemed clear was that nobody really knew.

~

The bull now knew his purpose. At first, it had been to simply keep moving, hoping the pain in his head would dull. His enormous brain, the size of a small car, had recognised the link between his aggressive desires and the pulsing agony. It was as he had prepared to attack and sink a small vessel in sheltered waters that he had noticed the sudden subduing of the pain. He had turned away from the boat in angry confusion, driving himself away. He was used to parasites – the crustaceans that clung to his flippers and flukes, or the remoras that sucked onto his belly. He now recognised the violent urges that swelled up in him as the alien intrusions of such organisms. He fought the unnatural desires with his wavering will-power, seeking out and trying to communicate to the animals he felt compelled to destroy. Now stripped of his strength, there was little more he could do. It was then that he began to sense the net.

~

Sergeant Mitchell felt the swell underneath as the whale’s giant tail rose out of the water in front of the boat. The animal was putting on a sudden burst of speed, heading straight down the middle of the river. Waterloo Bridge was in full view to the small boats following in its wake, and as Mitchell looked to his left, he could see large crowds gathering on the embankment.

The enormous rippled spine broke the surface of the water. There were cheers and shouts from both sides of the river. The great black head surged through the froth, creating a bow wave as the whale put on more speed. Whistles and camera flashes began to ripple along the banks of the river on both sides. Fathers held their children on their shoulders, pointing and smiling. The cheer rose as one, as an enormous snort thundered out of the blowhole, followed by a jet of mist that rose seven feet into the air. Then it disappeared below the water’s surface.

~

The bull spread out its flippers wide as it tilted its body and glided into a graceful turn. He sang a last and pitiful song knowing there would be no answer. The very edge of one fin gently stroked against the muddy bottom of the river as he propelled himself upwards with powerful thrusts of his tail. With a final and well-timed flick of his flukes, he shot into the air. His head burst from the water, his body rigid and working hard to gain height and momentum. Then gravity turned against him and his mass, slowing his ascent to the point he seemed to hang in mid-air. He began to twist and fall backwards.

~

The crowd had little time to react to the enormous creature as its shadow fell across them. They hadn’t expected it to breach so close to the embankment. They watched, unable to move as its great eye moved over the crowd. Those closest felt a wave of sadness sweep over them as they understood its action. The whale crashed down over the concrete rail, rolling forward through the snack and souvenir stand at the entrance to the London Eye. Water streamed down the sides of its body. Its own weight was already killing it, crushing the heart and lungs that would usually be protected from its bulk suspended in water.

~

As Sergeant Mitchell circled close to the bank, children on the shoulders of their fathers cried. The crowd surged backwards as wonder turned to horror. They turned away from the spectacle they had turned out to see, hurt and embittered by an event they could have never imagined. As families comforted each other, little did they know it would be a poignant yet unheeded warning.

WIP Wednesday – Blues Hound

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I got to keep moving….and the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail…

 Robert Johnson, 1937

The above lyrics were written by Robert Johnson, an American blues guitarist, singer and songwriter. He was known for being somewhat ordinary in most regards, except for his musical talent. His undeterred commitment to the road – travelling in all seasons and weathers saw him travel all over the Mississippi delta, playing in Memphis, Helena and smaller towns across the region. He died at the age of 27, of unknown causes. But legend tells of a deal done with the devil at the crossroads, perhaps explaining both his seemingly supernatural skill, and need to keep moving on.

This popular, enduring legend has sat with me for some time, and today’s ‘Work in Progress Wednesday’ is Blues Hound – a story that I hope you find devilishly good!

CHAPTER ONE

Isaac sighed as he placed the trumpet back inside its battered case. The red velvet lining was beginning to look worn and had torn in a few places. He once imagined it covered in stickers of exotic locations and visa tags, but now, the only thing it was coated in was the beer some drunk had knocked over as he passed by. He cleaned and buffed away until the liquid and the smell had gone. He sighed again as he shut the case and locked it.

Three of the bulbs around his dressing room mirror had blown and never been replaced. It made his strong, dark face look drawn – grey almost. Strange shadows fell down from his brow. His salt and pepper stubble and matching buzz crop hair made him look younger than he was, but the crows-feet and eyes themselves never lied. He was old and tired.

He took his old trilby hat from the stand and placed it on his head. He looked in the mirror and let out a third and final deep sigh. At least black never went out of fashion. The hat, shirt and suit were the only clothes he owned, but he had never needed more. He opened the door of the dressing room and turned out the lights as he left.

He crossed the dark bar in silence, giving a simple nod of the head to Bubba – the big, mean looking, but actually kindly owner who was stacking the tables and chairs. In a few short steps he was out into the early morning air.

Honestly, what do I expect? he thought. He looked around. He was playing in a swamp, on the outskirts of a town even Louisiana considered distinctly back-water. This is how he would end his days, playing in an out-of-town bar surrounded by nothing but swamp, gators and cottonmouths. He shuffled along the dirt track to the crossroads where he would wait for his grandson. He set down the trumpet case, disturbing the dust a little so that it was picked up and carried a little in the wind.

It wasn’t cold out, but he felt a sudden chill in the air. As he looked up, he watched as the stars seemed to go out one by one. He checked his watch to see if he was early, only to notice the second hand slowly shudder and then stop. He heard the wind pick up, then suddenly, it was rushing along the road, howling like an express train, and, as he looked, he caught the thick tendrils of a twister as it touched down a little way from the crossroads. As his breath caught in his chest, it seemed to suddenly change size and velocity, passing him by in a cyclone of brown tainted air and tumbleweed. He realised it was just a dust devil, but he felt unnerved and on edge.

He looked back up the road and saw a pair of headlights steadily approaching him. He smiled with relief, grateful for his grandson’s timely appearance. But as the car drew near, he realised it wasn’t his grandson in his dishevelled Volkswagen bus. It was a sleek, black, 1955 Cadillac Coupe de Ville in immaculate condition. It looked like it had just driven off the production line. It slowly trundled to a halt beside him, the big V8 four-stroke engine burbling and rumbling its displeasure of the low spluttered revs as it idled. The blacked-out window now opposite him slithered downwards with an electric hum. A silver-haired, handsome – but older white man, met his gaze with steely blue eyes and a smile that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a crocodile.

“You must be the Isaac I’ve heard so much about,” grinned the man.

At that, the driver’s door opened and a very large black man, wearing an expensive and tight fitting pinstripe suit stepped out. He had a huge barrel chest and he seemed to ripple as he walked. Isaac had seen Cassius Clay and Doug Jones fight at Madison Square Gardens in 1963, and he felt sure this man would have been able to hold his own against either of them, or perhaps even both at the same time. As it was, he appeared to be the man in the car’s valet, as he opened the door for him.

The man wore a perfectly tailored, dark grey pinstripe suit, with a claret red tie and a white silk shirt underneath. As he stepped from the car, he put on a matching grey pinstripe fedora with a claret silk band. Isaac had always liked the look and feel of a hat and found himself warming to the man unintentionally.

“Who have you heard about me from?” Isaac asked, wondering if he could be a talent scout maybe.

“Oh word gets around,” smiled the man. “Smokey Bo Benson mentioned you, wanted me to check you out.”

“Really? Thought that boy died a long time ago,” Isaac smiled.

“Bluesmen don’t die, they just improvise,” grinned the man.

“You play?” Isaac asked.

“I’ve been known to play a mean fiddle from time to time,” the man quipped with a grin. “Why don’t we talk about getting you out of this dump and into the limelight Isaac? Come sit with me whilst you wait for your grandson.”

Isaac took a step towards the car. After all, what do I have to lose he thought.