Books and freebies

This Saturday I’ll be signing copies of Darklands and Kikimora at Wirksworth Big Book Day. I’ve also got some freebies and goodies to give away, so do come and say hello if you’re in the vicinity.

There’ll be other book stalls, and I am promised a variety of book-themed events going on around town.

Wirksworth is where I went to school many years ago, and is a picturesque little town with bags of character. There is fantastic involvement with and support of the Arts in the town, and its annual Arts Festival in September is deservedly renowned.

If you haven’t visited before, now is an ideal time to acquaint yourself with its charms.

The Book Fair will be in the Memorial Hall on St John’s Street, from 10am until 4pm, Saturday 8th April.

I look forward to seeing you there!

My work in progress, Slinter Wood, is largely set in the late 1980s, mirroring my own school days. I’m currently doing a lot of research to get the right tone and detail for the period.

I’d love it if you could help me!

Tell me in the comments (or via social media) any details you remember about school life, fashions, fads, insults, and pop culture in the late 1980s. If I use your idea in Slinter Wood you’ll get a thank you in the book – and (if it’s really good, and I haven’t already thought of it) a free copy when it’s released! (Don’t hold your breath. Given my usual pace, it’ll be years yet…)

It’s not the big stuff I’m interested in, the world events, the politics, the disasters – that’s easy to research. It’s the small, inconsequential details of life circa 1988. Sometimes we forget how much life has changed, but once you start thinking about it, it was a very different world back then.

What do you remember about those days? I’ve already filled 50+ pages with my notes and memories, and I know it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I’m not looking for cliches and buzzwords from popular memes (Spangles! Boggle! Marathon!), but actual memories – it’s those minute, true details that give a story depth and richness.

Here are some of mine:

  • That stink of stale cigarette smoke every time I walked into any school toilets. Burn marks on the toilet seats, and the unfathomable mystery of the ancient, rusted ‘Bunny Incinerator’* on the wall
  • the breath-taking agony of getting a hockey stick whacked round my ankles on a frosty morning
  • the school bus: a narrow prison of torment, with no escape from those who would shout insults, pull your hair, kick your seat, whisper about you – just loud enough so you knew, even though you couldn’t hear what they were saying. The humiliation if you stumbled when the bus lurched to a halt; the hot, damp horror of all that laughter directed at you
  • watching Threads** in Humanities class at school, and the idea of nuclear war becoming a constant background fear. Waking in the early hours and hearing an aeroplane high overhead, convinced it was about to drop a nuclear bomb
  • owning only three video cassettes, but being a typical obsessive teen and wanting to hoard all my favourite things; having to make the painful decision of which much loved music video or comedy sketch to sacrifice when I needed to record something new.

I could go on, but I think that gives you an idea of what I’m after: snapshots, impressions, details that bring the period vividly back to you. I’d really appreciate it if you’d share any with me.

Thank you.

* Because I think that is going to confuse a lot of you, just as it confused me all those years ago, let me assure you it involves no cruelty to small furry creatures, but turns out to be some old-timey solution to the disposal of feminine hygiene products.

** Having just read the Wikipedia entry, it’s a wonder I ever slept again!

Lake in Shining Cliff Woods

DANGER – DEEP WATER

‘Let’s make a film about revenge. About some kids who’ve had enough of being pushed around, having crap shouted at them. So they kill the guy who’s been picking on them, and make it look like an accident.’

‘How?’

‘I dunno. Poison? Drowning? Torn apart by wild dogs..?’

15 year old Rose accidentally joins her school Film Club. But it isn’t long before Film Club has transformed into Revenge Club, as she and video-obsessed loner, Paul, plot an elaborate trick on the popular kids who make their lives hell.

The trick works better than they could ever have imagined – disastrously so. And now they need to trust each other and work together to outrun the horrifying consequences.

But against her better judgement, Rose is drawn back to the scene of their success – to Slinter Wood, to its ruined cottage and silent lake, to the legend of the witch Mary Slinter, who met her cruel end there 350 years ago…


Slinter Wood marks a change of direction for me on two counts. It’s aimed at an adult, rather than young adult, audience; and rather than fantasy, there is more of a folk-horror vibe.

This new direction is largely the result of taking a year off from novel writing to concentrate on short stories. Every one of the short stories I wrote last year turned out horror themed, and pretty damn grim.

I did alright with the first one, and although I haven’t won any further competitions (yet), I wanted to take this theme through into a longer format. It’s early days, as I’m still working on the first draft, but I’m really excited about it.

I’m thinking Heathers meets The Loney.

Check out Slinter Wood’s Pinterest board for a flavour of what’s to come.

visitmymosqueSunday 5th February 2017 was the third national Visit My Mosque day in the UK.

Visit my Mosque involves ‘over 150 mosques across the UK holding open days and welcoming in their neighbours of all faiths and none.’

Until I read about this on Friday I had no idea there was a mosque just a few minutes walk down the road from where I live. This might seem odd, until you find that it’s a tiny little place, converted from what was once the back room of a pub. No domes, no minarets, no muezzin.

With a participating mosque practically on my doorstep, I had a vague intention to attend. But tbh, in simpler, calmer times I probably would have found a reason not to bother. I’d rather spend my Sunday afternoon going for a long walk, or reading a book, or maybe baking. But these are not calm or simple times, and there are very troubling things happening around the world.

I didn’t manage to go on any of the anti-Trump marches, but this was something I could do – something so simple and easy it would almost be shameful not to do.

But I had concerns. I pictured my partner and I turning up as the only visitors to an embarrassed and disinterested group of strangers who perhaps were merely ticking a box by taking part. Or maybe they’d be like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we’d spend the next hour trying to politely extricate ourselves from an attempted conversion. Or perhaps they’d expect us to have come armed with lots of intelligent questions, and I honestly couldn’t think of any, and we’d go in, say ‘hi,’ turn round, and leave again – like when you go in a gift shop and instantly realise it’s all tat and you’re not interested – but the effusive shop-keeper really wants to talk to you….

As it happens, we turned up half an hour after the start of the open day, and could barely fit in the place. We deposited our shoes behind the front door, and crammed into a game of sardines. The guy at the front was talking about all the areas of overlap between the Bible and Qur’an – things I had no idea about, such as the fact that Muslims believe in Jesus and revere Mary.

We listened to him talk for a little time, about how he set up this mosque originally as somewhere for the local taxi drivers to worship between shifts. There were originally just 5 of them, but it has grown, and is now often full. He invited questions from the many visitors and answered them engagingly, with humour and enthusiasm.

Another guy arrived shortly after us, and introduced himself as a first generation Irish immigrant who arrived in the UK 50-odd years ago, and suffered a great deal of prejudice and racial or religious discrimination. He told the assembled group, ‘I am not religious. I’m an atheist now. But I wanted to come here today because I know what it is to be shunned and treated with distrust. I want to thank you for inviting us here today, and to show you that you’re not alone. We will stand with you.’

This was pretty much exactly what I would have liked to say (apart from the Irish immigrant bit). There was a spontaneous round of applause.

Then there were snacks, mingling, and the opportunity to ask questions, if you wished.

It was very far from the slightly awkward but worthy duty I had thought it might be, and I am so glad we went.

Those who know me know that I don’t have any great opinion of religion generally, and there are certainly aspects of Islam I find particularly problematic. But that’s not what today was about. If I had wanted, no doubt I could have asked some awkward questions, and I think they would have been answered honestly and with respect. But for once, I didn’t want to be the awkward person. I just wanted to accept the hand that was reached out to me, to meet people in my immediate community I normally wouldn’t meet, and experience things I normally wouldn’t experience. To build bridges, not walls.

See also Finding the Familiar.


Thank you so much to everyone who liked and shared this post, which seemed to strike a chord with a lot of you. I ended up featured in The Guardian in their coverage of Visit My Mosque day.

There are many troubling things about Andrea Leadsom’s recent comments on motherhood. In response, I wrote some words, both personal and political.


In a seemingly never-ending series of political storms sweeping the UK this summer, the latest is to do with having ‘a stake in the future.’

Following the surprise referendum vote to take us out of the European Union, our Prime Minister has resigned, handing over responsibility for actually delivering this result to whoever will succeed him. After the initial voting, the remaining contenders for leader of the Conservative party are the more or less equally vile Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom.

So we will soon have a female Prime Minister for only the second time. I take no joy in that fact. When Margaret Thatcher became our first female Prime Minister I was a child, and entirely uninterested in politics, feminism or anything else of that kind. In retrospect, yes it was a significant milestone in gender parity. But that doesn’t alter my opinion of Thatcher or her legacy for this country (clue: I’m not a fan).

So although I had no actual optimism about either of these candidates (both of whom seem about as reasonable, humane and decent as Thatcher herself), it was nevertheless disheartening to find within two days of the race being declared female-only that the big issue is… motherhood.

No, really.

In an interview with the Times, Andrea Leadsom claimed that having children gave her a stronger stake in the future than childless Theresa May.

Mrs Leadsom is very angry at the article, claiming to have been misrepresented – but her words speak for themselves. At best, she has shown naivety in not anticipating how her comments would be received.

You can read a transcript via the BBC.

Mrs Leadsom said:

I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’ because I think that would be really horrible.

But genuinely I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

She possibly has nieces, nephews, lots of people, but I have children, who are going to have children, who will directly be a part of what happens next.

Wow.

The obvious first objection is that these same ‘arguments’ are never used when discussing and comparing the merits of men. When was the last time a male politician was judged on his parental status? When was it even suggested that a father would make a better Prime Minister than a man without children?

That underlying double standard is central to this whole debacle, but there are two specific points in Mrs Leadsom’s statement I would like to explore in more detail:

  1. Women who don’t have children are sad.
  2. Women who don’t have children have no interest in building a strong, successful future.

Mrs Leadsom’s first point is a thorny one – because some of the time it’s true. I speak from experience. I have failed to have children, and I’m sad about it.

I chose my words with care just then. I have failed. You can’t fail unless you tried. Hell, I tried. I only recently admitted defeat and stopped trying.

I am sadder than I can tell you. Sad every day. Sad every time I see someone else’s joy or pride or even frustration in their children. Which, of course, is many times every single day.

But not everyone tries. Many people, for many and various reasons, don’t want to have children. They are not sad about it. They made a decision. Their lives are happy and fulfilled just as they are. Projecting your own values and opinions on those people is arrogant and ignorant.

Like Andrea Leadsom, I know little about Theresa May. I don’t know whether she ever tried to have children. I don’t know whether she’s sad that she didn’t. If she ever was sad, I don’t know whether she still is. Theresa May is 59. Her potentially child-bearing years are long behind her. By the time I’m her age I certainly hope to be over the worst of my disappointment.

Mrs Leadsom’s sympathy (if that’s what it was) is inappropriate and patronising.

But what about that second point? Having children gives Mrs Leadsom a greater stake in the future.

Does it really?

In the immediate sadness of accepting you will never have children there is hopelessness; there is despair. There can be depression, a skewed world view that sees everything going to hell. At the same time a lethargy, because nothing matters. There is a greyness, a blandness, an emptiness lurking behind every ostensible joy.

I’ve been battling with that for the better part of two years now. But it is lifting, slowly, gradually. There are still days I don’t know why I continue getting up in the morning, getting in my car, driving to work, going through the same motions… When all I feel like doing is lying in bed and staring at the wall. But I do keep doing it. I keep putting one foot in front of the other, and moving forwards – and maybe there is some light up ahead. Maybe.

When that darkness recedes, when the light feels attainable, do you know what is my strongest emotion? Determination. Determination that I have to make my life matter some other way. I can’t rely on my genes marching forward into the future, providing a link in an unbroken chain stretching back millions of years and potentially reaching forward for millions more; to determine the fate of our planet, to travel the stars, to colonise new worlds…

I have failed to be a part of that great enterprise.

But what can I do? I can try to influence those who are taking part in that march. I can try to affect the world around me during my lifetime. I can try to leave the world a better place than I found it.

I am acutely aware that any legacy I leave is entirely up to me and my actions and how I influence the world. I have to strive. I have to achieve. I still have something to prove.

If you think I have no stake in the future, you are very wrong.

Theresa May might or might not be anything like me, but my point is broader than that. Being childless can mean many things. It can mean different things to the same person over the course of their lifetime. There is no valid label you can slap on a childless person, male or female, due to that single trait.

In my view, Andrea Leadsom has already failed a test of leadership potential. In a historic contest between two women to be the leader of the UK, almost her first action was to bring the argument down to reproduction, to traditional women’s roles, traditional values – undermining the progress in feminism that has allowed her to achieve the position she has.

Get a proper argument. Compare real achievements, not a thing so personal, so emotive, so dogged by unfair judgement – and so irrelevant.

You can read more (and from more incisive political minds than mine) on the Leadsom/May contest here.

Now that Kikimora is finally published, and the day job is still as hectic as ever, I’m thinking I might concentrate on short stories for a little while, rather than immediately embarking on another novel. I know I got lucky with the first one, and am unlikely to repeat that success right away, but I’m going to give it a try.

This weekend I have submitted my entry to the Guardian Short Horror Story Competition – to be judged by Stephen King, no less! I know there’s going to be stiff competition for this one, so I’m not holding my breath. If you fancy giving it a go (UK only), you have just a couple more days until the deadline.

My entry is a sort of companion piece to Kikimora, since it concerns a woman’s confession to a Rusalka – though much darker in tone than anything in Kikimora.

This line in the Ts & Cs amused me: “(it) must not show inappropriate or dangerous behaviour…”

Er… but a horror story, right?

Needless to say, I have smashed that rule into a thousand glittering pieces and danced on the shards until they are ground to dust.

As a special Christmas treat I will be reading The Big Guy on Radio Free Smedley Street this wednesday. If you miss the program – don’t panic! They have all manner of new-fangled listening methods on their website.

If I don’t check in again before the holidays, I do hope you all have a far merrier christmas than the Big Guy…

Since Christmas is almost upon us, and in case you missed my prize winning christmas zombie story in SFX magazine earlier this year, here’s something to get you feeling festive.

Or not.

The Big Guy by Emma Woodcock

Winner of SFX short zombie story competition

The Big Guy

The sound of bolts snapping back. Hushed voices. A crack of light, thin as a hair, but blinding. It’s been months, I suppose. Time ceases to exist in the darkness.

The first latch flicks back, then the second. The door eases a little, as though drawing a breath. There’s a pause before it’s thrown open, and the light floods in, unbearably bright. I recoil – as far as the restraints allow – seeing nothing but formless, liquid shapes.

“He’s frightened.”

Mila. She’s still here then.

“Nonsense. He always does this. Come on. Wakey wakey.”

And Gustav. Of course. It’s always Gustav. “Up and at ’em, big guy.”

“Should I do the-?”

Gustav makes an impatient gesture, and Mila picks something up from the table, weaving back and forth in front of the light. My eyes are adjusting now, making sense of the figures. More are crowded behind these two, peering forward fearfully.

A small voice from the back, “Is he dangerous?”

Mila presses her lips together, as though to prevent any answer escaping.

“Not if handled correctly,” says Gustav. “Observe the double restraints. They must remain in place until the inhibitor is administered. Mila, if you would?”

She leans closer, touches my arm. Her fingers are warm with sweat. After so long without sensation of any kind, the touch is startling, revelatory.

Please, I want to say, but it comes out an incoherent croak.

She recoils, almost dropping the syringe.

Gustav rolls his eyes. “Shall I do it?”

“Sorry, Sir. No, I can manage. But, are you sure? I mean-”

“We’ve been over this.”

“I know, but seeing him like this-”

“And over.”

“It just doesn’t-”

“And over.”

“Seem right.”

“Objection noted. Please continue.”

She swallows. “Yes, Sir.”

No doubt she tries to be gentle, but to my heightened senses the scratch of the syringe is monstrous.

A heaviness comes to my still bound limbs. But it is an odd effect of the drugs that even as they dull my senses and inhibit my actions, my brain becomes more alert, memories sharper. To Gustav it is a year since we last began this game. To me, no time at all. My thought processes pick up where they left off when he closed the box, 11 months, 30 days ago.

Mila unfastens one strap, and then another. I droop forward, almost collapsing without their support.

“Come on out, then,” says Gustav. “My team have outdone themselves this year. We have Minecraft plushies. We have remote control quad bikes. We have robot dinosaurs that pee their pants. I’m not even kidding. That’s what kids want.”

I curl a hand around the box, steadying myself before I lurch forward with rusty, awkward steps. Gustav stands his ground as the younger ones shrink back.

“No,” I tell him.

“Don’t be like that. We all agreed, this is for the best. Would you leave the poor kiddies disappointed?”

I glance at Mila. She drops her gaze, murmurs, “There are other ways, Sir.”

“Don’t start on about online shops!” he says, anger flaring. “Transactions. Paypal. Postage and Packing! It is not the elf way. We create for the joy of it. We give freely of our skills. I will not sully our traditions with financial exchanges!

Her cheeks flush. “Come and see the team,” she says to me. “That always cheers you up.”

I let her lead me past the cowering others, down a narrow corridor where strings of coloured lights twinkle on the walls. She opens a heavy door, and animal smells surround me: hay and fur and rotting meat. Even here, flashing lights are strung across the stalls.

Reluctantly, I draw closer. “Vixen, old girl.” I lay a stiff hand on the creature’s head. Her ears are cold, ragged. She glances at me, as bone weary as I am. How long has it been now? Since age and ill health claimed me – and the elves, my immortal helpers, my makers, claimed me back again.

“Blitzen.” I move to the next stall. He is in a sorrier state than Vixen. Ribs show through the parchment skin. His eyes droop, seeing nothing. I move on, greeting each of them in turn, looking for some spark of recognition, some remaining spirit.

I reach the final stall. “Rudolph?”

He raises his head just a little. One eye swivels towards me, and the ears come forward. He still knows me, and it breaks what remains of my heart. A beast’s suffering is always nobler than a man’s. A man knows why he is punished, or can guess. He can blame himself for a thousand small mistakes and wrongs – whether they have any bearing on the issue or not. A beast understands nothing but that it is in pain, and it cannot fathom why – or why those it loves do not help.

“It’s almost time,” says Mila. “I’ll fetch your jacket.”

I don’t respond. My fingers stroke Rudolph’s cold, dribbling nose. He shivers, gives a wheezy bark.

“I know, old friend. I want it to end as much as you do.”

I glance at the coloured lights, winking on and off endlessly in preordained patterns.

She has left me alone. She is not supposed to do that. He will be angry with her.

I snatch down the lights, swiftly winding the cable around Rudolph’s scrawny neck. The little bulbs shatter, jagged edges piercing his desiccated hide, and my own. He still has a bit of fight left in him; kicks at the stall, shakes his big head from side to side, working the wire deeper into his flesh.

The commotion brings the others. A twitter of high, anxious voices, and then Gustav barking orders. A syringe is found, and another dose administered. The sense of purpose drains from me, and I allow the little hands to subdue me, steering me away from the thrashing reindeer.

A sudden silence signals Mila’s return. “It was only for a moment!” she says, before he has chance to accuse her. “I thought it would be alright. He seemed so quiet.”

“Just get the jacket on him.”

I allow them to dress me, pulling the huge red coat over my sagging body, fastening the buttons and buckling the belt.

“He doesn’t fill it like he used to.”

They stand guard over me as the skeletal reindeer are led out and harnessed to the sleigh. Last comes Rudolph, staggering, his big head drooping. My swollen hands are ringed with blood where wire and crushed glass has dug in. The little finger is almost severed, hanging at an odd, helpless angle.

“What were you thinking?” Gustav’s voice is soft, like that of a concerned friend. “Strangulation wouldn’t end him. You know that. Don’t you remember when you tried to hang yourself?”

I was aiming to decapitate him, but there is no need to tell him what I know and what I remember. There is always next year. There is always another attempt.

I look up at my team of undead reindeer, my sleigh filled with presents for children who don’t know what it takes to bring them this joy each year.

Mila cranks the handle, and the gramophone starts up. Tinny sleigh bells jingle. I sit up at once, tense, alert. I have tried to fight it. As often as I have tried to end my unendurable existence, and that of the reindeer. But it is impossible. Whatever they have done to me, they have done it well.

Reanimation. Mind control. These things do not contradict the Elf Way.

The piano comes in. Next year, I promise myself. Next year I will escape.

The scratchy voices begin: Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh…

And I am gone. Only Father Christmas remains. He climbs into the sleigh, he takes up the reins, as he is programmed. He waves to the elves as they load the last presents onto the back. He launches into the sky with a hollow, “Ho Ho Ho!”