Best Ghost Story Ever Written (so far)?

So: Halloween is almost here. What´s your favourite ghost story?

Mine is The Monkey´s Paw by WW Jacobs.


Written in 1902 and included in a short story collection called The Lady Of The Barge, I doubt many people haven´t heard of  the story, or seen or read some variation on it. Ever since it´s publication it´s been popular with the public and has seen many adaptations on radio, TV and film. Pet Sematary by Stephen King doffs it´s cap at the story and it´s even been referenced on The Simpsons.

The tale still stands up: a fine lesson in being careful for what you wish for and the vaguaries of fate´s influence on our lives. It´s interesting that Jacobs was primarily known during his lifetime as a writer of humorous, often sea-based stories but perhaps even here there is a link to The Monkey´s Paw. The story, in construct and execution, has the structure of a good joke: a sense of place immediately established, a far-fetched but interesting series of developments and a pay-off or punchline.

If you haven´t read the story in a while I´d recommend revisiting Mr and Mrs White´s humble house during that fateful stormy night when Sergeant-Major Morris arrives, weary from his Indian experiences, with the fakir´s gift. Can´t you see Mr White and Herbest poised over their game of chess as the rain rattles the thin old windows?

“Hark at the wind,” Mr White says, eyeing the chessboard glumly. Little could he know what it was blowing into his life…



New review: Have you read Heart of Winter yet?

From Susan Loves Books, posted today:

“HEART OF WINTER is a very quick read but it is a very interesting story. Enid is driven to a boarding school out in the middle of nowhere, during a storm, by a couple who are not her parents. While this couple are meeting with the headmaster, Enid finds herself in a big mess of trouble. She finds a book and all sorts of strange things start to happen.

HEART OF WINTER isn’t my usual genre, but I will admit to being captivated by this strange little girl and with the descriptive way that James Hartley writes, I had no problem reading with a vision in my head. It was all very creepy and perfect for this time of year. Halloween is a few days away. James Hartley pulled me right in with the storm and creepy little Enid.
Well done!!”

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The Kids Are All Right: The publishing landscape today

Last night the winner of the Man Booker Prize was announced: Paul Beatty triumphed with The Sellout. The author won fifty thousand pounds, decent publicity and guaranteed future sales, and his publishers took home prestige and bragging rights.

The literary pages of the broadsheets have something to write about. Like the gossip rags they look down up, they can now generate a few days-worth of articles and debate about the decision, manufacture a bit of controversy, keep the thing going, and everyone will be happy.

But my question is: in the real world, especially in the world of publishing which exists now, the living world of writers and readers, which I have seen with mine own eyes: who really gives a toss?

Of course, it´s every authors dream – every artist´s dream, really – to find themselves standing on a platform in front of an adoring audience, humbling thanking their nearest and dearest for supporting them, taking in the applause and, hopefully, finding it plugs that strange, empty space they have in their souls which needs recognition. Others would happily take simply being published, or noticed – anywhere! But what do these ceremonies mean in relative terms? Do they deserve the attention they receive or are the press being lazy? Are they simply lapping up another ready-made story and ignoring the real story? Can they see the worlds that exist beyond the Guildhall or their next wine and cheese book launch?

The publishing landscape is changing radically. New worlds are being created and discovered daily. The old country still exists, populated by the same old faces – the aristocracy, if you will – but there is a shocking amount of activity going on almost in secret. A democratic, mass action is underway among writers and readers and both worlds seem almost independent, even ignorant, of each other.

This is not news to anyone under the age of, let´s say, twenty-five (or the more well-informed or inquisitive among you). I am forty-something: it´s big, take-off-your glasses, eye-rubbing news. Platforms like Wattpad and the extent of the world of indie publishing have come as a total surprise to me. Not that they exist but that they exist in such quantity and that there is so much activity going on. I feel like I´ve been wandering through a forest, looking up at the ivory towers on the hill, hoping to one day live there, or even be invited, when I have suddenly noticed ants – insects – for the first time in my life; whole civilisations at my feet, bustling about, oblivious to me, ignorant of me, ignoring me, working on even if I try to stamp them out or ignore them.

The numbers are worth a quick peruse. Book sales figures, like Hollywood actor´s salaries, are fairly difficult to pin down and that, of course, is for a reason. The book industry, like Hollywood, relies on smoke and mirrors; marketing. This is understandable and, like it or not, is how business works. Fine. But just how skewed are the stats?

The Sellout, on, has, at the time of writing, between 250 and 300 reviews. One can only guess at its sales but up to ten thousand copies wouldn´t be bad. Twenty thousand would be fantastic (many prize winners sell in the low hundreds). Fair enough, it´s a niche book, a “literary” novel, but we´re told it´s important, it receives press coverage, it is debated and talked about. Now on Wattpad, the most shared story – yes, it´s a story – is, today, called The Girl He Never Noticed by Neilani Alejandrino. It has been looked at, or viewed, more than a hundred and thirteen million times. It is the favourite story of almost three million people.

Just have a think about that.

Sneer, by all means. Say I´m comparing different things, by all means. But digest the numbers and think about it. Have a look for yourself. There is a world of readers out there, and writers, which is thriving apart from the traditional world. And it´s not all rubbish. It´s not all sword and sorcery or bondage (not that there´s anything wrong with those genres, but they are the most sneered at). Much of it is well-produced; the covers are decent, the editing is often well-done, the ebooks are technologically advanced.

My point is, there are whole communities out there beyond the castle walls: in the fields, on the islands, under the sea, in the air, which are worth looking into. They have their own support networks and reviewers. By and large they are not in competition: they help each other. They are communities of literate people, of literature, and they are being largely ignored or sneered at.

What a waste of energy!

So, to any author in that horrible scrum outside the castle gates, desperately holding up your wares, hoping you´ll be noticed and let into the Lord´s market place to peddle your goods, I say, turn around and look about you. That’s your market. That´s your world. And it´s a new world and well worth visiting.


Heart of Winter – Creepy short story for Halloween



FREE on Smashwords

99p (or equivalent) on Amazon (all profits to International Rescue Committee)

On Good Reads


This creepy winter story is about a young girl, Enid Waters, who arrives at St Francis´ School in the middle of a violent storm. Welcomed by the headmaster, Enid soon finds that the school in the middle of nowhere contains eerie, powerful forces. Instead of feeling afraid, the young girl feels at home for the first time in her life. And so does the magic which resides in the old buildings.

Heart of Winter is a short story which introduces you to the world of St Francis´ School, scene of an upcoming series of Young Adult Books by James Hartley. It forms the prequel to The Invisible Hand,  to be published by Lodestar Books in February 2017.

This disquieting, gothic tale is for readers who have a taste for the macabre.

Look closely at the School in the cover. Do you see yourself there? Or Enid, perhaps? Waiting for you…


EDITOR – J. Appleton, BHS.

when a book is your best friend

I was ill recently. Not anything life-threatening, but enough to put me down and keep me there, to change the world and leave me out of it.

Stuck in the house, in bed, I felt as though I were living in a parallel world and nothing I usually did seemed to make sense. I wondered how everyone else could carry on, shouting and running about, when I was aching so much and felt so useless. I couldn´t believe how much I´d taken my good health for granted.

When I couldn´t sleep I reached for the books I´d been reading up to that day and rejected them. They were for when I was well. No, I needed something different. Some comfort reading, perhaps, but not necessarily an easy read. Just a dependable one. An old friend.

This time I reached for Paul Theroux´s book about travelling the shores of the Mediterranean, The Pillars of Hercules. I have all of Theroux´s travel books on a special shelf at home, close at hand, in battered old copies which have criss-crossed the world and relationships with me.

I don´t know what it is about these books, why they comfort me, but I think it has something to do with the time I suffered a shocking bereavement, over ten years ago now. Nobody could console me then, no words or drink or actions: nothing but reading. That time it was The Happy Isles of Oceana, by Theroux, and I still have the same copy that I buried myself in, or swam in, or canoed in, all those years back. That book got me through a vile time.


I´m not sure about other people – about you, because I´d love to know if you have books like these – but these special books which we keep with us, keep handy, fall into a different class than the ones we think are great or odd. These are like mementoes, like gateways to times past in more ways than one. They are good, old friends, always the same and always different each time we meet them.

Now, getting better, I salute them.

La malmuerta: a poem


This is the Malmuerta Tower in Cordoba, Spain. It has a grisly legend attached to it, which the following poem describes.



When the Duchess came home

Her husband was there

Face scorched with fury

Green hate in his stare.

“What be this, sir?”

Asked the duchess

Keeping face with a grin

For arriving she´d noted

Their servants within.


Yelling oaths and accusations

The Duke seized her mount,

And yanking hard on the reigns

Threw his wife to the ground.

He stood spitting above her

Watchers silent and awed –

A flash of steel caught the sun –

As the Duke drew his sword.




The staff in the kitchens

Gasped in horror as twice

The Duke thrust his blade

T´ward his struggling wife.


Before any could reach her –

The sun lighting the scene –

There was a gristly crunch

And the Lady´s last scream

Fell to silence.


The bloodied arm clattered down

The lady´s mare backed away

The gabled doorways spilled bodies

The Duke´s countenance changed

From anger to pity

Through sorrow and shame,

From release and relief

To anguish and pain.

¡La Señora!” cried a footman

With rheumy, wet eyes

And the crowd turned as one

To where the Duchess had sighed.

Then did fall on the company

A reverent hush

As the lady´s red fingers

Traced a sign of the cross.



The dying man blinked

With very real fright

As smoke seeped from the wall

And imitated life.

¡Hija mia! Be it you?”

The old soldier cried

Rising on his grey pillows

And widening his eyes.


The spectre held out its arms

But before the embrace

The image of the Duchess

Faded gently away.


“She´s with us now, as you are,”

A voice whispered aloud

While the curtains trailed arcs

As though breathing themselves.


“Who speaks there! Who is it?

Be it Marta my wife?”

“´tis I,” came the answer

And the room became light.




Under the palms by the river

The Duke was trailed by a mob

His face deathly pale

As he petitioned the Lord.

Yes, the devil had won

But now one thing was clear:

All Cordóba would know

What he´d suffered for years.

How he´d lived with a demon

Which´d begged to be pleased

And would take aught but a life

As its tariff to leave.

Now that price duly paid

So the creature had gone

Thus the Duke was aware

Of a dispersing fog

Which took the cancerous crust

From his poor tortured soul

And left it Glittering and Holy,

Pristine and Whole.

So lifting his head –

Liberated and light –

The Duke raised his eyes

And looked up for a sign

From San Rafael or the Virgin

The Holy Spirit or the Son

But saw only sky darkening

And black clouds blind the sun.


In a high passing window

Three faces he saw:

His dear wife, her dead mother

And his father-in-law.



The King had been ill

For three days laid low

In no mood to receive

The grim tidings now told

By a red-cheeked young runner

Who´d arrived just before

The cries of the mob

Had rattled the court.

“Bring him in,” barked His Majesty

And the Duke came prostrate

His tears soaking the carpet,

His lips trembling and grey.

He kept his nose to the stones

As he confessed his guilt:

Begged not for mercy but justice:

Said he longed to be killed.


The King lowered his sword

To the Duke´s trembling, bare neck

But as he pressed on the blade

A flash drew him back.

The Duchess he´d spied

In an unfolding light

Face serenely attractive  –

Smooth sea by moon light –


Still weak from the  tragedy

She spoke unto the King:


“No more killing, gracious Majesty,

Hear the judgement of mine:

Let Life be his punishment

Let his confessor be Time.

Let his shackles be sorrow

Let his body be walls.

Let his Conscience be God´s voice

And his  Repentance be all.

Let the heat of the Right Path

Thaw his violent, cold heart,

Pray give him time to repent

Afore he departs!”


The King replied unto his vision

In words prayer-like and sad

As his court watched in silence

Thinking His Majesty mad.




The Royal Planner viewed this

From his spot by the throne

With the ramparts and passageways

He´d personally drawn

Rolled out on the table

And by paperweights held

(In each orb a Moor´s finger

Perfectly preserved).

The planner had lived without passion

Throughout his dull life

And had done well for himself,

His children and wife.

He would speak of this later

As their servants brought wine

And they´d giggle at the foolishness

Of their monarch divine –

“Now Rise!” roared the King

And the Planner and Court

Jumped to their feet

With fear´s full force.

An orb shattered violently –

A Moor´s finger rolled out –

But the King did not notice

(The Duke´s sobs drowned it out).

For a moment there was silence

As the King leant to speak

To the Duke once so virulent

Now broken and weak.

The Duke´s a cad and bully

The Royal Planner did think

Bitter as mouldy lemons

            Marinated in drink.

He´d worked for the brute

Built his palacio in town:

The Duchess a joy

He a bad-tempered clown:

Never once with a kind word

Never pleased with his lot –

Yet blessed with a fine bride

That´s what old money got!

No justice in this world –

            But, wait, sir! But wait!

            Look where he´s ended up, ha!

            See his pitiful state!

A smile split the Planner´s beard

But froze into a crack

When his eyes, quickly focussing

Saw his King´s staring back.

“The papers!” cried his monarch

Jabbing sharp the royal hand:

The Planner leapt into action

And swept up all his plans

Then hovered to the royal shoulder

His lackey´s face bowed

While the poor pitiful Duke

Wept in gratitude aloud.


The wretch, the King decreed

Would a new tower build!

Where the south wall lay in ruins

The space would be filled

By fresh fortification

With walls strong, wide and deep

By the Duke´s own hands built

So all Cordóba might sleep

Safe through the jewelled nights

And stand firmer by day:

In this the Duke would be busy

For the rest of his days..


They knew not then, the Court,

That the tower would later find fame

Not as the dead Duchess´s tower

Or by some sweet, flowery name

But as the Tower of Bad Death

Known to all by that name.




The new tower grew quickly

Snaking upwards and staunch

The pauper Duke unrecognisable

Stooped and with paunch.

He toiled steady every day

And long into each night

Through sun, rain and fiestas,

In plain public sight.


For the first years a target

But then largely ignored

He accepted the insults

Til the people grew bored.

He worked steady on his tombstone

Bricking up his own grave

And tho´ monotony sent him senile

Still blindly he stayed

Heaving square stones into place

Slapping trowel-loads in holes

Mumbling, white-eyed and toothless

Bearded, trembling and old.

When it came to the innards

The Duke worked on half blind

Til he collapsed on the dank slabs

One midwinter´s night.


No-one noticed til a soldier

The night of January the fifth

Climbed the tower from the outside

To offer the old man a drink

The tipsy ´tenant did spy

In a room carpeted with mud

Rats gnawing flesh poking

From the Duke´s leather boots.



Did any fate move you, reader

As you scanned these short lines?

That of our pretty slain Duchess

Or the Duke´s devil inside?

Felt you pity at all?

Fear, empathy or nought

For a man led by jealousy

To kill the one thing he loved?

Was the King right in his sentence?

Should a life have been spared?

Was the Duchess truly in the Throne Room?

Do the dead live on somewhere?



If the future should ever find you

In sweet Cordóba town

I beg the first passer by

You´ll politely flag down

To ask the kind denizen

Where La Malmuerta may be

Then follow their directions

Til afore you, you see

Our grey-grim totem

Rising up from the streets.


Buried deep in the vaults

Are the old bones of the Duke

With the skeleton of another

A young maiden named Ju.

She was a servant in the courtyard

The day the Duke slew his wife

Carrying his baby which she lost then

With the shock of the sight.

When the old man was forgotten

She´d gone back to his side

And lived out her last days

As his common-law wife.






The Beatles: Eight days a week


I´m from Liverpool so if I´m ever anywhere that isn´t Liverpool people will always ask me about The Beatles. I conform nicely to the stereotype because I love football and I love The Beatles but I didn´t get into the group until I was about 10  years old when I saw a documentary at school in Oman. The doc was called The Compleat Beatles (yep, that spelling) and told the story that anyone who knows anything about the band is familiar with. But it hit home and hooked me and ever since I´ve been a Beatlehead. So there was never any doubt that I wouldn´t go and see the new Ron Howard documentary about the Beatles´ touring years.

And it´s not a bad film. It retells the story we all know. It has new interviews from a doddery Paul and a still youthful-ish Ringo, but there´s not a lot they can add that we haven´t seen or known before. It´s interesting to see the story told from a mainly American angle and nice to see The Beatles standing against segregation, but there´s too much fluff here for me. Eddie Izzard as a talking head doesn´t do much for me. The narrative works well until they decide to stop touring, and while we´ve been given a rundown of each album, stats etc, suddenly that all gets rushed along when John and co.  decide “That´s it!” after Candlestick Park in ´66. The film ends abruptly and, for me, isn´t satisfying. It feels half-cooked and unbalanced, interesting as it is to hear the story.

However, once the credits roll we get a restored full-on version of the Shea Stadium show in August, 1965. At the time this was the biggest pop show ever staged and what we hear this year – 50 years after the concert – sounds nothing like The Beatles or anyone else in the stadium heard. Back then it was piped through the tinny PA, but now we get great booming sound and mostly crystal-clear images. And it fricken rocks.

The set-list is a joke in itself: they open with Twist and Shout, laughing and joking and generally having a ball. Lennon later said he saw the top of the mountain that evening and you can see them all thinking, “we really have made it to the toppermost of the poppermost here, la”. We get I Feel Fine, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Ticket to Ride, Can´t Buy Me Love – piss-takingly introduced by Lennon – “er, I think this is on – what album is this on? Beatles six or something?” – but all well played. You get the charm, you get the character and you get the beat. You get what all the screaming was about: how they gave the world joy.

Baby´s In Black – “a waltz, remember that?”, A Hard Day´s Night, Act Naturally and Help! lead up to a manic Hamburgy finale of I´m Down with Paul going full-on Little Richard and John on the keyboards giving sweeps with his elbow and trying to make George crack up as he´s doing his backing vocals. It´s just brilliant fun and a relief, after the stodge before it, to get to see the animals in their natural habitat.

End of: well worth going, The Beatles are ace, stick around for the concert, even if you think you´re not going to into it after almost two hours of the doc. You will. beatles-shea-03