England’s Screaming, my fictional history of UK horror cinema, is now available to order as a beautifully-produced hardback from PS Publishing.
And its Eurohorror followup, Three Mothers, One Father, is also available from Black Shuck Books, both as a paperback and E-book.
(For more details on the whys and wherefores of writing them, see my earlier post here.)
As I’ve said before, they are a linked pair but you don’t have to have read one to appreciate the other. But if you do feel like treating yourself to both, please don’t let me stop you…
Also, for anyone who’s still wondering what the hell the books actually are, I wrote a new sample vignette (not included in either volume) to help give people the general idea. Hopefully it serves to illustrate something of the overall approach and the sort of playful intertextuality (drawing on films both well-known and obscure) that is such a large part of the books.
(And for anyone who does buy England’s Screaming, you’ll find some overlap with one of the characters featured there.)
So, without any further ado, let me introduce…’Harry’.
Martine Beswick in The Penthouse, 1967
based on the play by C. Scott Forbes
adapted & directed by Peter Collinson
SHE FOUND the two men in one of Whitechapel’s less salubrious drinking establishments; the sort of pub that gave the impression of having crawled into the shadows to die. The atmosphere inside was thick with smoke, flatulence and bad breath, but to her it smelt like home. She supposed that one sign of modern-day progress was that such stink had at least been shifted indoors; in her time the streets and alleys of Whitechapel had been indelibly permeated with it, like the corpse-smell in a mortician’s clothing.
Still, she welcomed the stench. To her it suggested humanity, which in turn suggested life. And where there was life, there was always the unspoken promise of death…
Upon entering, she threw open the door with a loud bang, showering the dark interior with a spray of sunlight. The drinkers sat nearest the doorway recoiled from the sudden glare, insects scuttling back to the underside of their rock. She relished the theatrical manner of her entrance, and the disquiet it caused amongst the pub’s patrons. They stared at her openly; first in annoyance, then in sheer disbelief. Women who looked like her simply did not drink in places like this.
Their eyes followed her all the way to the bar. She knew exactly what they were thinking: about what her body might look like under that coat, and the uses it could be put to. Well, let them look. She recalled looking at herself in the mirror for the first time, all those long decades before. At first, her mouth had gaped wide with horror, but within seconds, she’d begun to see herself as she truly was; beautiful, perfect. Her expression of terror had quickly turned to one of fascination, then outright joy. She remembered pulling open her robe, caressing the soft curves of her newly-formed breasts, where only a short time before there had merely been the undeveloped pectoral muscles of a bookish scientist.
Arriving at the bar, she ordered a double whisky, then sat down to wait in the far corner. She did not have to wait long. Two men emerged from the nicotine haze of the interior, looming over her table like false idols. She supposed they meant to intimidate, to scare her, and her mind flashed back to all those fallen women cowering beneath her blade on those fog-wreathed Whitechapel nights a century ago.
She smiled. Hello boys, she said.
They placed their hands on her table, taking ownership of the space. Strutting males, marking their territory. I’m Tom, the first one said.
And I’m Dick, his companion added, with a leer.
Well, I suppose that makes me Harry, the woman replied.
Funny name for a bird, Dick said.
You’d be surprised. They used to call me Henry, back in the day.
Huh, said Tom. I prefer Harry. He leaned in close, his clammy lips brushing her earlobe. I’m just wild about her, in fact.
And I’m certain she’ll be just wild about you, the woman purred. Now, why don’t you two boys get us all another drink and we’ll have ourselves a nice little chat?
The two men exchanged glances. A chat? About what exactly?
Games, the woman replied, simply.
Back when she’d gone by the name Edwina Hyde, the woman had had little time for games, engaged as she was in a fierce battle for ascendancy and control. The fool Henry Jekyll had given life to Edwina, and then, horrified by what she represented – his repressed, innermost urges, his own loathsome femininity – had almost immediately tried to abort her. How like a man, to try to dominate a woman’s body, heedless of her own wishes! She’d fought him all the way, knowing that she was the stronger-willed of the two. And when a fatal fall appeared to have killed them both, it was in fact only Jekyll that was sent to his grave; poor Jekyll, whose sole abiding obsession had been to cheat death.
With him vanquished, Edwina had finally managed to extricate herself from the hated masculine flesh imprisoning her. It had taken her a full two days to assume her own form, leaving Henry Jekyll’s body a wizened husk in the coffin behind her, but when she eventually emerged from the tomb that bright Sunday morning, naked and new-born, she was at last, truly emancipated.
Without Jekyll’s super-ego holding her in check, she was now free to do precisely as she wished. As a creature of untramelled id, Jekyll had considered Edwina to be nothing but pure evil, but what else could you expect from a so-called Victorian gentleman? Now, all these years later, when the shameless hypocrisy of the age that had birthed her was far better understood, Edwina had no use for such simplistic Manichean dichotomies. As she saw it, she wished only to take pleasure in life, and however sinful Jekyll and his ilk would have once considered a woman’s pleasure to be, he had nevertheless unwittingly bequeathed her the biological means to outlive such strictures.
Nowadays, she took full advantage of the many freedoms Swinging London offered her; she was a devoted patron of the arts, savoring film, theatre, literature and music in equal measure (it was alleged that she had also savored several renowned practitioners of those fields, including such notables of the Sixties demimonde as Warren Beatty and Terence Stamp; some even said that she had been a guest of the Rolling Stones on the night the police raided Keith Richards’ Redlands estate); she kept up with the latest fashions, occasionally modelling herself from time to time; frequented London’s many excellent restaurants, where she cultivated a reputation as something of a gourmande; and was not averse to involving herself in the radical politics of the era, marching in support of the Abortion Act and against the Vietnam War (although those who knew her best said that in actuality she cared little for politics; what she truly craved was violence and civil unrest).
Yes, Edwina (let us call her that for simplicity’s sake, although she never went by that name any longer, preferring to adopt and discard identities as the situation and her whims demanded) lived a rich and full life. Still, whenever she could find the time, she had other, more private, hobbies she was fond of pursuing; or, as she put it, little games she liked to play. Which were all meant in good fun, you understand, and if someone got hurt every now and then – well, the same thing happens whenever children play too rough, and one of life’s early lessons is that everyone simply needs to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get on with it.
It was precisely these games that she wished to discuss with Tom and Dick now. After all, what use was a game without playmates? They listened intently as she spoke, their carnal excitement mounting as she spoke to them of dark, forbidden things; the same things Henry Jekyll had once tried to deny in himself, and her. Men were such malleable creatures, she thought to herself; their endless capacity for lust could so easily be twisted towards violence.
When Edwina finished speaking, the two men were silent for a moment. Finally, Dick looked at her plaintively, a pitbull straining on a leash. I don’t understand, he said. What exactly do you want us to do?
Perhaps it’s better if I just show you, she said.
That evening she took them both to a revival of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. A legendary flop upon its first production, the play was now acclaimed as the writer’s first masterpiece; a seminal demonstration of the ‘comedy of menace’. Tom and Dick sat beside her in a private box, rapt. They had never realised that intimidation and bullying could, in the right hands, be art.
When the curtain fell at the end of the third act, she turned to them and asked, Now do you see?
You want us to do that? They looked quietly awed at the prospect.
Precisely, she said.
They were eager students, relishing the plum roles they had been assigned. The trio undertook a period of intensive rehearsal, with Edwina playing the part of victim. The scenario was always the same; Tom and Dick would pose as meter men looking to take a reading. All they needed to do was gain access to their chosen household; once they were safely inside, the games could begin in earnest. Edwina encouraged them to improvise freely; any useful bits of business or dialogue would be noted down for future use.
Only when Tom or Dick got too carried away would Edwina ever break character; during the first couple of rehearsals they each tried to strip and assault her, but were promptly dissuaded from that course of action when she produced a switchblade and cut them. But we were only acting! Dick complained, nursing his bleeding wound.
For his part, Tom got so involved with the whole process that he even wrote himself a monologue: a long digression on alligators being flushed into sewers. Edwina thought it a little on the nose, but she was happy to encourage her boys’ burgeoning creativity. She took Tom’s scrawled notes home that night and polished them up for him. Presenting him with the finished speech the next morning, she said, I think you’ll find that more playable.
Privately, Edwina saw herself as something of a frustrated artiste. She had always relished the performative aspects of her unusual existence, and in her more fanciful moments, had often toyed with the notion of writing her autobiography (entitled, of course, He Said, She Said). Therefore this new project served as something of a useful creative outlet, although she would refrain from getting too involved at first; she was happy to let the boys play while she observed from the wings, ready to step in and prompt if necessary. That way, if they ever went too far off-book, she would not be caught up in any messy recriminations.
Tom had a somewhat murky background in the estate agent trade; from what Edwina understood, he’d worked for a notoriously crooked lettings agency, until that particular avenue of employment had been cut short after his boss absconded to Spain with the company’s ill-gotten profits. But he still knew some people from the old days — more specifically, the sort of people who weren’t averse to accepting an occasional back-hander in exchange for useful information.
Such as the fact that one of their colleagues was using a property on the agency’s books to conduct an extra-marital affair.
The residence in question was a penthouse flat in a high-rise development designed by the architect Anthony Royal. Royal had long insisted that high-rises were the homes of the future, and was known to be hatching grand designs in that direction; entirely self-contained tower blocks where the inhabitants could live, work and play without ever setting foot outside their home’s four walls.
The particular development Tom, Dick, and the woman they knew only as Harry found themselves standing outside that night was not quite so ambitious in its schematics, but Royal was always better with the bigger picture than the finer details, and as the group were soon to discover, it still suffered from many of the niggling faults that would come to plague the architect’s future projects.
Such as the lack of a working lift.
When they realised they would have to climb twenty floors to the top, Tom and Dick were all for putting it off until another morning and retiring to the nearest pub instead, but Edwina would have none of it. This was their premiere, their big debut. They’d all worked so hard to get to this point; now, they’d finally have the receptive public they deserved.
In the end, Tom and Dick grudgingly assented – they never could refuse her. (Whether that was due to lust or fear, who could say?) Edwina would wait patiently for them below, lest her watchful presence induce stage fright. So the pair slowly struggled to the uppermost floor, wheezing and groaning like old furniture. Awaiting them in the penthouse were Bruce and Barbara; furtive adulterers and unwitting audience both.
Everything went just as they’d rehearsed. Tom gained access to the flat under pretence of reading the meter, and once inside, swiftly asserted his dominance of the battleground. The couple were just out of bed, still only half-awake, and once Tom let Dick into the penthouse, the hapless Bruce was quickly cowed into submission. They tied him up and proceeded to have their fun with Barbara, getting her drunk on scotch and taking turns with her in the bedroom (each of them secretly fantasising it was Harry they were ravishing). Tom even got to deliver his big monologue; he was word-perfect, his timing impeccable, and his only regret was that Harry wasn’t present to see it.
For over twelve hours they terrorised the two lovers, brandishing knives and sadistically insinuating that Bruce and Barbara would never leave the flat alive. In truth, Tom and Dick had little stomach for real violence – the sort that ended with the twin odours of blood and shit mingling in the air. (Although they did not know it, that was more Edwina’s métier.) No, they were simply bullies, opportunists. In time, Edwina thought she might coax them further down that particular road, but was content to let them stumble along at their own pace for now.
So, when they eventually grew tired of their own cruelty, they scuttled back down the many flights of stairs to fetch ‘Harry’ – the closing act on the bill. She swept into the penthouse posing as Tom and Dick’s probation officer, gleefully manipulating the traumatised lovers all over again until her two charges returned to the stage and the charade stood revealed. Edwina delighted in tearing down the couple’s middle-class deceits and obfuscations; ever since Jekyll had treated her as his dirty, shameful secret, she’d loathed the polite hypocrisies of English society and made it her life’s work to trample upon them wherever possible, grinding her country’s genteel pretensions into the dirt with aggressive relish.
Accordingly, although Bruce and Barbara both survived their ordeal that night, Edwina knew they had nevertheless been marked irrevocably by it; their hidden, shameful selves dragged kicking and screaming into the light, much as she herself had once been. And she would be content with that much, for now.
Fully satisfied with their debut performance, the trio retired to plan what they might do for an encore. One night shortly afterwards, Tom had drinks with another estate agent of his acquaintance: the self-styled A.J. Stoker. Tom understood the man to be a casually unscrupulous sort, and after a few ales and a couple of crisp twenties had loosened Stoker’s tongue, the agent duly informed his drinking companion of one particular property on his books: a Shepperton mansion house currently being let to the horror writer Charles Hillyer.
The man’s obviously highly strung, Stoker said. A touch of loose wiring, if you ask me. Well, you’d need to be to write that sort of stuff, wouldn’t you?
Stoker went on to report that, while he certainly wasn’t one to gossip, he believed Hillyer’s wife – a glamorous, younger woman named Alice – was having an illicit affair. He’d spotted another man skulking around the grounds (while the agent just happened to be passing by, of course). Perhaps Tom might be able to put this information to some good use? After all, Stoker hated to think of his properties being used for immoral purposes.
Tom thought he could. He returned to London to tell the fellow members of his troupe the news. Edwina in particular was delighted. Charles Hillyer! she said. I love his books. All those wonderful murders. Perhaps you boys could get him to sign one for me.
But who should we tell him to make it out to, Harry? Tom asked.
She smiled and said nothing.
The following week they all piled into the van and set out for Shepperton. Tom and Dick were like small excitable children, bouncing around in their seats and eagerly anticipating the fun ahead. Edwina watched them giggle and bicker with a fond indulgence that bordered on the maternal. Secretly, she hoped that the game would progress somewhat further this time around – she found that she still had a yen for blood, after all these years.
She was to have her wish granted, but not quite in the manner she’d hoped. Just as before, she stayed behind in the van with a good book (she’d picked out one of Hillyer’s especially for the occasion) while Tom and Dick got the initial introductions out of the way. She was anticipating a long wait, but had only been sitting there for about fifteen minutes when an anguished cry sounded from within the house.
It sounded like Dick, screaming in pain.
Edwina exited the van and strode towards the house, keeping an even, unhurried pace – her long life had instilled in her an unwillingness to rush, irrespective of the circumstances. Drawing the switchblade she carried at all times, she tried the front door, finding it locked. So instead, she quietly made her way round the back of the building, ears pricked for any further cries of distress, but hearing nothing.
Arriving at the patio at the rear of the house, she slowly approached the French windows and peered inside. Lying beyond was a book-lined study, obviously a writer’s den – a typewriter and manuscript were placed on the desk sitting at the centre of the room. A man – not Hillyer, she’d been sure to check the author photo in the back of her book – reclined behind the desk, sipping ruminatively at a glass of scotch. He was darkly handsome and dressed entirely in black, like some pulp hack’s idea of a murderer.
For a murderer he was, that much was apparent. Three lifeless bodies lay sprawled at his feet: a woman – Hillyer’s wife, Edwina assumed – plus Tom and Dick. Her poor boys.
She tried the French windows and found them unlocked. Knife at the ready, she opened them and slipped inside. The man looked up, momentarily startled. But upon seeing Edwina, he began to grin. His eyes were black empty pits, like two freshly-dug graves. For an instant, she saw herself reflected in them.
Whoever this man was, he was just like her. A shadow of the mind; a character that had taken over its author.
The man got to his feet and politely extended a hand. I’m Dominick, he said.
She accepted the handshake. You can call me Edwina, she replied, instinctively offering her original nom de guerre.
Can I offer you a drink, Edwina?
She nodded. As he poured her a scotch, she gazed down at her two murdered playmates. There was a sulky, disappointed look about them. Alas, their fun was over for good, before it had ever properly begun.
Were they with you? Dominick asked, presenting Edwina with her drink.
I’m afraid so, she said.
He gestured helplessly. They intruded at a rather…delicate moment.
So I see. Why did you kill her?
Oh, no reason, really. It’s just the way I’m written.
Edwina thought she understood. She and Dominick were both nothing but dark impulses made flesh, unmindful of anything but their own malign gratification. Encountering another being so like herself sent an electric charge crackling through her body; she felt poised and alert, on the brink of something ineffable.
She studied her counterpart for a moment and wondered: did his hunger extend to anything beyond killing? So, what happens now? she asked.
I was thinking that myself, said the man. You appear to have me at something of a disadvantage. You have a weapon, while I prefer to use my hands.
They gazed at each other for an instant, then Edwina calmly folded up her knife and slipped it into her purse. Can you use your hands for anything else? she enquired slyly.
They went upstairs to the master bedroom. Dominick was a hesitant lover – a virgin of sorts, she supposed – but proved an ardent pupil, his strong, restless fingers caressing and exploring every inch of her body. She could sense him holding back, struggling to resist the implacable urge to fasten his hands around her neck and squeeze. The slowly-building heat of his murderous rage only served to heighten her own pleasure.
So, when he finally climaxed, and, carried away on an irresistible tide of his own pleasure, eagerly surrendered to what Charles Hillyer had made of him, Edwina was ready for it. As his fingers coiled around her neck, she looked up, met his cold gaze, and laughed soundlessly.
Then, pulling him close, she took him into her.
Gasping with a transcendent pleasure, she absorbed his seed, his blood, his flesh, bone, and sinew. The process took only seconds, giving her doomed lover no opportunity to resist or struggle. As he began to dissipate, Dominick stared at her in brief, almost ecstatic wonder, until his eyes shrivelled away in their sockets like unpicked fruit on a vine.
Moments later, there was only a mere scattering of dust and hair where her murderous inamorato had once lain.
Edwina could feel Dominick deep inside her, his black psyche nestling tightly against her own. It had been a long time since she had been so intimate with a man. All of a sudden, she felt replenished, made whole again; the icy absence that had gnawed inside her ever since Jekyll’s death was finally replete.
She got out of bed and slowly dressed, luxuriating in the sensation of the dawn’s warm rays bathing her skin. Still, it would not be a good idea to linger here too long, in case Hillyer’s wife was missed. Not only that, but there was something else she sensed in the house; a feeling of overwhelming enmity even greater than her own, as though the very building itself was watching her like a concealed predator, waiting for its killing moment.
Leaving Tom and Dick where they lay, she exited the house and made her way to the van. As she drove back to London, Edwina began to reconsider her present circumstances. There was nothing tangible to connect her to her two erstwhile cohorts, but perhaps spending some time away from London would be in order all the same. The next day she booked herself a first-class plane ticket to Canada. Killing time at the airport before her flight, she picked up something to read during the journey. A new horror novel by another of her favourites, Edmund Blackstone.
She turned to the back flap and scrutinised Blackstone’s photograph. The man looked frail, haunted; as though his face were a flimsy mask barely holding back the flood of nightmares spewing up from within.
Her eyes moved to the author information printed below, which apprised her that the author lived in Quebec, Canada.
Edwina considered the import of this new coincidence. Perhaps the game need not be over yet. With her particular charms, it would not take long to find another couple of willing playmates. Maybe a more theatrical-looking pair this time, less scruffily quotidian in appearance…
A giant, and a…dwarf? Would that be too outré?
She giggled girlishly at the thought of it. And…what if they all dressed up in costumes? It would make the game even more fun.
This impromptu change of scenery was sounding like a better and better idea all the time. After all, Edwina mused, a change is as good as a rest.
And who could know that better than she?