In A Deep, Dark December
reviewed by William Brown
My girlfriend doesn’t get Christmas horror. My partner in the macabre for the rest of the year, our tastes diverge dramatically during the festive season; I have to tolerate repeated screenings of Elf, The Santa Clause, and It’s A Wonderful Life. Hell, I even have a bit of a soft spot for Love, Actually. But my year-round craving for horror only seems to increase once the nights draw in and the decorations go up. Give me Better Watch Out, Krampus, Dead End. I’d have Black Christmas playing while we ate Christmas dinner if I was allowed… I mean, doesn’t snow just look so much better when it’s sprayed with blood?
Paul Finch shares my proclivity. He’s an author after my own heart: “I seem to have written an awful lot of Christmas scare-fare over the years”, he wrote on his Walking in the Dark blog last Christmas, gifting another snow-encrusted and blood-soaked seasonal horror tale to his fans. “I’m not sure why I so love this combination of Christmas joy and ghostly chiller… But suffice to say that this is a sacred time of year.” He speaks of “the mysterious Yuletide aura” – a quality that In A Deep, Dark December, his latest collection of “five festive chillers”, possesses in spades.
This is gourmet Christmas horror, as lovingly crafted as the toys Santa used to make before he sold his soul to the tech giants. Each story perfectly nails the conflicts inherent in the season: between the glamour of the lights twinkling within every home and the icy darkness swirling without; between the modern Christmas promulgated by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the darker, pre-Christian beliefs and rituals underlying it.
There are no weak stories here, but these are my picks:
‘The Christmas Tales’ is a gleeful, darkly comic little opener with a plot reminiscent of Home Alone, as two hapless burglars attempt to strike a particularly bountiful-looking house on Christmas Eve. Like Hank and Marv, they get more than they bargained for – but there’s something a whole lot more sinister than a prepubescent Macaulay Culkin waiting for them inside.
‘Midnight Service’ is my favourite in the collection. A man (and it’s invariably men that come a cropper in Finch’s stories, it has to be said) is stranded on Christmas Eve in an unknown town. Stumbling into the local church to ask for directions, the vicar – creepier than Reverend Henry Kane in Poltergeist II – offers him a bed for the night. All he has to do in return is play the role of the “Derby Ram” in the church’s annual miracle play, which is to be performed that very night before an audience of – as his sinister host puts it – “the orphans”. Again, the denouement is no great surprise, but the climax is guaranteed to make your flesh crawl. It put me in mind of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood: it’s that damn good.
Finch saves the thriller-chiller novella ‘The Killing Ground’ for last. Husband and wife Ruth and Alec Whitchurch (former police officers now working as a private investigative duo) are hired by Hollywood megastar Mark Duvalier to investigate the “one hell of a ghost story” attached to Killingly Hall, the Herefordshire country house where he intends to spend Christmas with his glamorous wife and wilful daughter. Fans of Finch will be aware of his fascination with Britain’s dark histories and lore; he’s in his element here and weaves – with an attention to detail reminiscent of M. R. James – the story of the 900-year-old curse of Baroness Morgana, a La Llorona-esque demon who preys upon children. It’s a thrilling read, and there are moments of bloodcurdling terror as Ruth and Alec increasingly fear for the young daughter’s safety.
Finch writes exceedingly good horror. He writes Christmas exceptionally well, too. It seems a strange thing to say of a collection of horror stories, but this book helped me find my festive cheer this year. Glowing within these tales are Christmas scenes as resplendent as any Marks and Spencer or John Lewis advert, sans the cloying musical accompaniment. “It looked charmingly festive: snow coating its roof and the encircling fir trees; icicles hanging over its windows, lamplight spilling warmly from the diamond-paned side-panel next to the front door” – descriptions like this are as warming as a generous glass of Dooleys.
But don’t be deceived. The snow that falls in Finch’s stories buries and isolates; the delectable feasts seduce and intoxicate; and the decorations are, in two of the stories at least, deadly.