Sleepwalk City - Read the first chapter free

Following on from last week's peek at the first chapter of Blood on the Motorway, I thought I’d give you a taste of the sequel, Sleepwalk City, so here’s the first chapter. In it, we meet a brand new character, Lydia, and find out her tale of the storm. Both Sleepwalk City and its predecessor, Blood on the Motorway, are on sale until the end of March, only 99p/99c each for the ebooks, available from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and more. The print version of Sleepwalk City is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $15.99 from Amazon.com.

Chapter One

Given to the Rising

Lydia arched her back and tried to find a comfortable position. The hard plastic chair of Dublin Airport’s unglamorous food court resisted her efforts. A half-eaten Burger King super-sized meal lay on the equally hard plastic table in front of her, losing its appeal with every passing second, the cheese congealing on the cold chips.

She slipped off her shoe and worked her thumb over the sole of her foot.

This had been her reward for making it through the day, a plastic dinner in an airport fast-food outlet. Lonely, tired and missing her kids, she figured it was the least her company owed her for sending her all the way to Ireland for a meeting she hadn’t really needed to be at.

She bit into the burger, savouring both the taste and its accompanying guilt. The diet had stayed well and truly back in England. She’d enjoyed falling off the wagon for this trip, if nothing else. Nice dinners, cooked breakfasts, a hefty lunch, and now a burger. The full gamut of bad food behaviour.

Regretfully swallowing the last mouthful, she slipped her shoes back on and checked the board. Her flight listing had a gate number next to it, so she wheeled her little suitcase round, picked up the laptop bag she’d failed to open once in the last forty-eight hours and headed off to the endless run of travellators which separated her from her flight, and, finally, home.

The plane was going to be full. People were already herding themselves into an orderly queue, despite nobody staffing the gate to let them on-board, and yet the waiting room seats were full, too. She wished she could sneak out for a cheeky puff on her e-cig. At least two others were chuffing on their own. She chanced it. Nobody official looked fussed by this brazen flaunting of The Rules.

The seats by the gate were filled with businessmen staring at their laptops. Occasionally they looked up and around to check the world hadn’t moved on radically without them.

There were a few non-business types scattered about, including a Muslim family who had probably had a much harder time getting through customs. Even Lydia, with her Mediterranean tone and dark hair, often got more glances at her passport. She could only imagine what it was like trying to get through with a headscarf.

The children of the Muslim couple were careening in and out of the seats, while both parents stared at the boarding gate screen – willing time to move quicker, Lydia supposed. It was a look she recognised. She smiled at the kids as they tore past, and secretly hoped that when they got on board they weren’t sat anywhere near her.

She parked up her suitcase, dropping her laptop bag on top and pulling out her phone. She punched Dev’s name and waited for it ring.

‘Hey, love,’ her harassed-sounding husband answered. 

In the background, the bedlam of wild children echoed in her ear, including one high-pitched scream that would have chilled the blood of anyone who didn’t have their own little noise generators.

‘Hey,’ Lydia replied. ‘I’m just at my gate, how’s it going?’

‘Oh, you know,’ Dev chuckled. ‘You need me to come pick you up at the airport?’

‘Doesn’t Cassie have karate tonight?’

‘Balls, yes. You okay to taxi it?’

‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘Company can pay for it.’

‘Good point. Okay, well, got to go; I’m cooking tea. Have a safe flight, honey.’

‘See you soon,’ she said. Dev had moved the phone away and started shouting at the children before the line cut out.

She shook her head and clicked the Facebook app to check out what she’d missed in the last forty-eight hours. Before she found anything interesting, the herd started moving through the gate. She pocketed the phone and picked up her bags.

Twenty minutes of tedious onward progress later, a disinterested steward pointed Lydia towards her seat. She hated flying, especially on the piece-of-crap budget airline which was all her company was willing to fork out for. She lived in constant fear she’d get stuck by the window, struggling not to lose her shit altogether on take-off and landing.

At least I’m on the aisle.

A rotund, profusely sweating businessman had commandeered both the armrest and half of her leg room, displaying his crown jewels to the world. She settled into her seat and tried to nudge him out of her space, but all she got in return was a greasy smile. Did he think she was flirting with him? 

She gave up the tussle. At least the flight was only forty-five minutes.

She toyed with the idea of opening her laptop and trying to clear some emails to take her mind off her creeping dread. But all the emails in the world couldn’t change the fact she was about to entrust her life to a company more famed for their budgetary creativity than their safety record, in an aircraft which predated her parents’ stereo system. She opted to fish out her phone and stick on a podcast, closing her eyes to try to block out the rest of the world. 

Her heart skipped a beat as the plane started to taxi, and when the pilot applied the throttle she had to swallow a cry of terror. The roar of the engines drowned out the sound of wittering coming from her headphones.

‘Not a fan of flying?’ the businessman asked, jovially, as she removed them. 

She flashed him a terse grimace that she hoped adequately conveyed the message of ‘Please kindly fuck off because you’re not making this any easier,’ which a mix of civility and terror were unable to let her vocalise.

Eventually the plane levelled out. Lydia had been gripping the one armrest she had access to so tightly it hurt to let go. She looked at the businessman, whose attention had moved away from her. He now invaded the space of a timid-looking boy in the window seat so he could look outside. The boy had the same approach to civility she had. His expression said he was going to completely ignore the invasion of his personal space in the hope it might magically go away. Lydia tried to relax.

‘We’re back over England,’ the businessman said to nobody in particular.

She closed her eyes again and tried to distract herself with work thoughts, running through the meeting that morning, trying to compose a narrative she could take back to her boss tomorrow without sounding like a complete idiot. It worked for a while, until a hushed ‘woah’ brought her back to her surroundings.

The businessman still craned to see out the window, but so too did the boy next to him. All around, people's faces pressed up against the windows, blocking the view so effectively she had no clue what they were staring at.

A strange light danced through the cabin and across the faces peering through the windows. Blue and green hues danced over the ceiling, whilst the cabin staff tried to hustle about without looking worried.

The fasten seatbelt sign came back on, which some people took to mean the opposite, exiting their seats to try and get a better look.

‘What’s going on?’ Lydia asked the sweaty, broad back of the businessman.

‘Sorry, love,’ he said, moving aside to let her look.

Outside was the strangest sight she’d ever seen. They were above the clouds, which had turned from their trademark fluffy whiteness into a dense, solid mass, throbbing with what looked like shifting veins of electrical energy. A cavalcade of colours came from the aurora, rising from the cloud like steam, blue and green and pink mists enveloped the plane. It was quite breath-taking.

‘What is it?’ Lydia asked. 

The businessman shrugged. The kid stared out of the window, the colour draining from his face.

A bolt of lightning arced up from the cloud, and there was a brief ‘ooh’ from some of her fellow passengers, until it arched in the air and slammed into the wing. 

The wing splintered and burst into flame. 

‘The ooh’s turned into screams and the plane lurched to the left. Inquisitive interest turned to panic around her before the lightning bolt had even faded from her retinas.

Another bolt hit, and the lights went out.

Lydia sat back in her seat, trying to wedge herself into safety. She put on her seatbelt as fast as her trembling hands would allow. 

The businessman tried to push past her to the aisle, before thinking better of it.

She couldn’t bring herself to look out the window again, but the lights outside were becoming more and more intense. The plane started to lurch downward and sideways. 

Tears streamed down her cheeks. She chanced a look outside, which did nothing to calm her. They were falling through the storm, electricity dancing around them. She looked down at her hands, gripping the armrest. Tiny arcs of light danced between her fingers.

The spin became more pronounced, the G-force starting to take hold. Lydia fought to hold down the contents of her stomach. Dampness spread between her legs.

The last bolt to hit blew a hole in the right side of the plane. The cabin depressurised. Screams of terror mingled with the whooshing air. Two people flew, screaming, out of the hole and into the night, plucked out by some unseen hand.

I am going to die.

My babies.

The businessman had passed out, an ugly smear of red running from his nose. The boy also had the same, and Lydia’s hand rose to her own face. 

Blood.

Her head pounded, and everything started to go dark. 

At least I won’t live to see what happens when we hit the ground.

Everything went black.

* * * * *

She sat bolt upright, struggling to breathe, clawing at her clothes and unsure of her surroundings, until it all came flooding back. She wasn’t at the crash site any more. That was, what, three months ago?

Three months since she’d woken, still strapped to a single aeroplane seat in the middle of a decimated forest. The sole survivor of flight 272 from Dublin to Leeds Bradford, which had come down in thick woodland not twenty miles from its intended destination.

Getting out of bed, she rubbed her mittened hands together. It was still bloody cold. She stretched, and threw off the thick blankets. Not a hideously uncomfortable bed as these things went, but she wished she’d managed to find a cottage which retained the heat from the previous night’s fire a little better. She’d not dared to have it lit for long, worried that light in the windows, and smoke from the chimney, would pique the interests of whatever unsavoury elements might be lurking in these parts. She was pretty deep into farmland here, but you never could tell.

If the last three months had taught her anything, it was that.

She went to the window and looked out at the frost-bitten dawn scene, the nightmare she’d lived through still at the front of her mind. When she’d woken that first morning, somehow unscathed amongst the death and wreckage, she’d had no idea that the carnage extended beyond the hundred or so of her fellow passengers. Their scattered corpses had been torn apart by the savage storm and the impact. To this day, she had no idea how she’d survived. None of the other bodies even resembled people, and yet there she had been, the only damage a deep but non-life-threatening cut along her arm, which had already stopped bleeding by the time she came to.

The smoke had still been rising from the wreckage when she woke, the air thick with the smell of fuel, so much so that she’d choked on it as she scrabbled out of her seat.

But her wonder at her own survival was nothing compared to her horror at what lay beyond. She’d waited for hours, sure that sirens and help wouldn’t be far away, that she shouldn’t leave the scene. She’d tried her phone, but it was dead. All the phones she could find were blank, useless boxes. She pictured Dev glued to the news, wondering what he was going to tell the children.

It was the thought of her children that had stirred her into action – that and the realisation in the fading light that nobody was coming to help her. She’d left the crash site and walked until she found a main road. She had followed the signs for Leeds through the night, in total and terrifying darkness, trying to block out the sounds of wildlife in the shadows.

When she’d come across the first car wreck, in the pre-dawn light, the corpses had had the same smear of red from their noses as her travelling companions, and she’d realised her crash had been only a small part of the puzzle. Her pace quickened until she finally found her way home.

Home.

Coming back to herself in the present, she pushed the thought down. One scab was enough to pick at. She walked downstairs and headed into the tiny kitchen. This must have been a holiday cottage once upon a time. It was well decorated and clean, but save for half a jar of coffee in the cupboard there were no signs anyone had lived here since the storm. She pulled her backpack up onto the counter, fished out a tin of children’s spaghetti hoops, and set it on the side.

She stared at it. The image of Cassie, her daughter, slurping at a bowl full of spaghetti hoops, stole into her mind.

So this is a morning for picking scabs?

When she’d finally made it home she’d not seen another living soul, so she’d known the odds of finding her family waiting with outstretched arms were slim, but none of her fears on that long walk could have prepared her for the sight of her husband’s corpse on the sofa, the bodies of both their children in his arms. The curtains were closed. Had little Nico been scared by the storm and got his dad to close the curtains, or had it been Cassie?

It had taken her a long time to leave the house. When she had, she was not the same Lydia who had entered. 

And now she was the Lydia staring at a tin of spaghetti hoops with a mix of anger and remorse. She wiped the tears from her eyes and opened the tin. She pulled out a fork from a drawer; tried the taps, but there was no water. The hob didn’t work.

The old systems are finally collapsing. 

Plunging the fork into the cold can, she began emptying her pack out onto the counter to check her belongings. A raincoat, sleeping bag, one thick jumper, and five pairs of woollen socks, as well as some knickers. She was down to five tins, which was a worry. Toiletries bag, a hairbrush, a kid’s book on wilderness survival she’d stolen from Nico’s room, some cigarettes, candles, and a tin opener. She examined the cottage’s own tin opener and found it to be superior to her own in its robustness, so she swapped them.

Lastly, she examined her weapons. She checked the magazine of the small pistol and her bow and arrow. She still had a pretty decent quiver of arrows, but there were only five bullets in the pistol’s magazine. She couldn’t shoot the bow worth a shit, so never seemed to lose her arrows to anything. She was getting better though.

She repacked the bag and slung it over her shoulder, put the gun in her waistband and pulled her jumper over it, and hung the bow and quiver from the strap of the bag. She caught sight of herself in the ornamental mirror by the front door and chuckled.

Pretty badass.

Outside the cottage the last of the snow still clung on, supplemented by the morning frost. At least she’d be able to see any footprints not her own, but the chill in the air went straight through her thick jumper.

Whatever had caused that storm, and she’d heard her share of rumours over the months, had it also broken the whole world? Were they set for some kind of eternal winter, as the Earth tried to rid itself of its human infestation? 

She hoped not.

Leaving the cottage, she hiked the bag up and appraised her options. Where to go today? She looked one way down the path, and the other, and decided to take the road not yet travelled.

* * * * *

If you've enjoyed this sample chapter, Sleepwalk City is on sale throughout March for only 99p/99c in ebook available from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and more. The print version of Sleepwalk City is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $15.99 from Amazon.com.

Sleepwalk City - Now available in print!

‘So,’ a few people have asked me recently, ‘when’s the print version of Sleepwalk City out?’

Well, now.

It looks rather splendid. Lookit! It's all sexy matte finish, and looks particularly fetching on a shelf next to the print version of Blood on the Motorway.

It’s available now for Amazon UK for £9.99, and from Amazon.com for $14.99.

Or, if you’d like the ebook, both Blood on the Motorway and Sleepwalk City are available for only 99p/99c until the end of March.

Exclusive: Read the first chapter of apocalyptic horror Blood on the Motorway

Here is the opening chapter of my debut novel Blood on the Motorway, currently on sale for only 99p/99c in ebook from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Scribd and more. The print version of the book is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $14.99 from Amazon.com. If you like what you read, please feel free to treat yourself.

Chapter One

The Beginning and the End

Tom ran his fingers over a cracked wine glass, staring out of the kitchen window, his hands frozen from the bowl of icy water. Had he known the world was about to end he might not have bothered with the washing up.

While Leon sat outside oblivious to the cold, Tom had resorted to putting on every available article of clothing he had. Three pairs of socks and he still couldn't feel his toes. Leon, on the other hand, sat out on the crumbling patio with nothing more than jeans, a T-shirt and a bottle of supermarket own-brand bourbon to fend off the arctic conditions. It made for a ridiculous spectacle, but Tom still half-admired him for it.

Four of them had come to the seaside city of Sunderland some seven years previous, all fresh-faced and innocently prepared for three years of hard work. The plan was to toil earnestly in their mid-level academic institution, then beat a quick exit to the working world. The best part of a decade later, all they had to show for it were perpetual hangovers, short-term memory loss, decimated credit ratings, and piss-poor degrees in irrelevant subjects. Now they were stuck, eternally trying to live the student life on ever decreasing means.

The city itself had proved to have a limitless supply of two things: cheap alcohol and a North Sea breeze that could flatten a man. All you could do once winter came was stock up on the former, crank up the heat and stay indoors.

Unfortunately for Tom and the other residents of the house on Riversdale Terrace, it had been five days since the gas, along with all the other amenities, had been cut off. The house now creaked constantly as it adjusted to the lack of heat, and Tom was concerned the next major event in his life would be dealing with a burst water pipe. There had been portentous rumblings from deep within the walls.

Earlier, Tom had heard Danny banging about against those walls, presumably in an attempt to keep warm. The noise had stopped as abruptly as it had started; Tom guessed his housemate had either given up or knocked himself out.

Their final housemate was a housemate no more. That morning, Adam had collapsed in a sobbing heap after phoning his parents to come and rescue him, then sat on the stairs in silence until they arrived. His father had been so shocked at the conditions his son had been living in, as though he'd walked into some BBC Four documentary on Northern drug dens. They’d left most of Adam's belongings behind in their haste to escape. Tom had taken to housework to combat the cold, the boredom, and the embarrassment he'd felt when he’d seen the look on Adam's father's face. He'd tidied the communal areas as best he could, then turned his attention to the tower of washing up, a task made near impossible by the lack of hot water.

Throughout all this he’d kept thinking. He needed to get out of this house. This house was where all dreams came to die. 

Thinking about how much his life sucked made his head hurt, and the cold water made his hands ache, so he abandoned both tasks.

Since he had arrived in Sunderland he had become a distant echo of his earlier, hungrier self, and nothing at all like the man he’d once thought he would be. All ambition had drained away, eroded by endless nights of excess and days of tedium and daytime television.

He caught sight of Leon again, looking serene on his mouldy plastic sun lounger, dressed in baggy jeans and a faded T-shirt with an ironic vintage computer game logo, just as always. Not that Tom could claim to be any more sartorially developed; his own wardrobe was full of black T-shirts covered with indecipherable heavy metal band names and rude words.

Tom slid open the French doors and entered the terrace.

'Leon?'

'Thomas,' Leon replied, somewhat slurred.

'I thought black guys did better in the heat. Aren't you cold?'

'Fucking frozen.'

'Well come inside then, you berk,' Tom said. 'You'll end up a fucking icicle out here.'

Leon shrugged.

'No, I like it. It's refreshing, and it doesn't smell like feet out here.'

Tom shook his head and turned to go back into the house.

'Have some generic supermarket own-brand bourbon, it helps immensely,' Leon called to him. He offered the half bottle to Tom. Tom turned back, took it and swigged, enjoying the sting as it hit the back of his throat, then the creeping warmth that flowed through him.

He pulled up the chair of crates they had fashioned as a second seat and considered the crumbling exterior of the house. Moss attacked the pipes, and vines had penetrated the brickwork to the extent that the wall now sagged. A month or so ago, they had confronted their landlord over the matter, but he had raised the topic of rent unpaid, and they had beaten a hasty retreat.

'Adam's gone,' Tom said, remembering Leon had missed the action. 'I think he had a bit of a breakdown actually. His dad looked at the house like he'd just walked into Gomorrah before bundling Adam into his Range Rover.'

Leon laughed. 'I don't blame him. Anyway, we don't need his TV now we don't have any electricity.'

'That's true,' Tom replied, taking another deep swig.

Distant storm clouds darkened the night sky, bruising swathes of it a deep purple. They watched them in silence. The buzz from the bourbon diffused the anxiety that had sat in the pit of Tom's stomach all day.

'I think it's time I left too,' he said.

'Maybe you're right,' Leon replied. 'It's stopped being fun, hasn't it?' He motioned for Tom to return the bottle. Overhead an angry rumble issued from the sky.

'It has,' Tom replied.

'Hey, maybe we should do something together.'

'Like what?'

'Well I've spent the day putting together a very vague plan.'

'And here's me thinking you were just getting drunk.' He laughed.

'The two aren't mutually exclusive, you know.'

'So what was the plan?'

'Road trip.'

Tom waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't.

'Road trip?' Tom asked. 'What, around England? That'd be a pretty fucking short trip. Devon and back. We'd be home again in a week.' He took the bottle.

'Beats sitting around in this shithole though, doesn't it?'

He had a point. For the past few weeks, Tom's main source of personal achievement had come from a crossword puzzle which had taken him over a day to complete.

'What do we do on this road trip?' Tom asked.

Leon shrugged. 'I thought I'd leave that part of the plan to you, since you're the brains of the operation.'

'Okay. Why not? Road trip. Makes perfect sense.' He stood, and shivered. 'You coming in for a smoke?'

'Nah,' Leon replied.

Tom went back in. A road trip had merits, he supposed. He could write, get the inspiration for a novel, pick up some freelance work here and there. He sure as shit wasn't doing any writing here. It would make sense for Leon, too. Tom's best friend, since their first day of University, had always struggled with being one of the few black faces in a predominately white northern town, and he'd spoken more than once about wanting to escape. He was an artist, or at least he had been. The painting of Buffy on the wall of Tom's bedroom that had been a Christmas present some years back was probably the last thing his friend had actually painted, but being an art student still served as an admirable chat up line in the pubs and clubs of Sunderland.

He was a good friend though, despite his flaws. Or maybe Leon's flaws just complemented his own. If he was going to leave, he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather do it with.

Tom went back to the lounge and pulled out a little baggie of weed, some skins and tobacco, from a drawer, and set about rolling a joint. He felt the old familiar pang of guilt at not being able to pay the electricity bills, but somehow always managing to find money for weed, then buried it where he normally did.

He lit it, took a deep drag, watched the acrid smoke fill the cold room and thought about leaving. There was nothing tying him here; no work, no family, and few remaining friends. Countless acquaintances maybe, but what good were they? Since the house had fallen into its current state, there wasn't much to separate him from being de facto homeless.

Sinking into the broken sofa, his eyes fell on the dead television, the collection of games consoles, and the towers of DVDs gathering dust. Even his beloved smart phone was now an uncharged brick of useless technology. Maybe the landlord would find all this junk and accept it as rent owed.

A low rumble issued from the sky, barely perceptible at first, but then back it grew louder. Tom took a deep drag of the spliff and walked to the back door. Lights were flickering against the windows so he went back onto the terrace.

Something was wrong. The hairs on his arms stood in rapt attention. Outside, the volume trebled, thunder rolling on and on.

Leon stood up, staring at the storm clouds, mouth agape. Tom looked up. Heavy black clouds covered the sky, spidery arcs of light dancing through them.

'It's warm,' Leon said.

He was right. Tom's permanent goose bumps were gone.

Tom handed Leon the spliff. 'It's not raining either.' Despite the constant rumble and the thick black clouds there was no moisture in the air.

His ears popped. The volume grew again: loud cracking sounds and the sounds of metal expanding and contracting, like old pipes called into action. Tom heard a whistling sound too; although he couldn't tell if it was just in his head. The light show intensified, veins of electricity dancing through the cloud, growing thicker and changing colour.

'Can you hear that?' Leon shouted, but Tom could barely hear him over the din.

As if someone had turned up a dial, pressure filled the air; dropping like a brick on Tom's chest. His legs buckled, everything went dark, and he fell to the ground.

* * * * *

His eyes opened to daylight. A stab of pain rocketed up his left side to greet the day. The rough edges of a dream played at the edge of his memory, something about a weird storm, but then realised he was lying not on his hard bed but on the cold concrete of the terrace. He tried to move, but it hurt. His cheek was wet, his hand too. With a rising panic he brought it up to his eye line, expecting blood.

Drool. That was one less panic, then. His tongue felt like a hard, dry sock, and his ears were ringing. With all the energy he could summon, he dragged himself up, his joints protesting at every small exertion.

Leon slept next to him on the concrete, his chest rising and falling. Tom saw the half-smoked spliff on the floor and picked it up, his hands groping for a lighter, glad it hadn’t burnt itself out. He wondered if this was the right response to waking up like this, but his head was a fog of noise and confusion and his nerves were shot to hell.

He lit up, breathing deep and greeting the warm wave of intoxication. The clouds had gone and taken the warmth of the storm with them. The air felt crisp and clean. Purified.

The ground was bone dry. There had been no rain. The only moisture was his own puddle of saliva. He listened for sounds, but aside from birdsong there was nothing.

Leon started to wake, then shot bolt upright, his face full of confusion and fear. 'What the fuck?' he shouted, his voice raspy and hoarse.

'Don't look at me,' Tom said, his own voice husky and cracked. 'I've only just woken up. Spliff?'

Leon stood and took the nearly-dead joint.

'Fucking hell,' was all he could muster. He looked up at the house. 'We should go and see if Danny saw the storm.'

Tom hadn't even thought about their third housemate. Danny barely registered when he stood in front of him. He surfaced from his room only occasionally, generally to plunder the fridge. Since the power died, sightings had become rarer still. Tom had wondered how he was even passing the time now he couldn't play World of Warcraft for eighteen hours a day.

Back in the house, Tom pulled on another jumper, then he and Leon headed up the stairs. They passed Leon's room. Tom glimpsed inside and saw it was immaculate as ever. For one of the laziest people Tom had ever known, Leon was fastidious when it came to his own space. It was the communal areas he didn't give a shit about.

Danny's door was covered in stickers from countless nights out, remnants of a time before he'd discovered massively-multiplayer online games and became a warlock, or whatever the fuck it was.

Tom knocked. No answer. He tried again. He looked at Leon, who shrugged and started pounding on the door with his fists.

'Danny,' he bellowed, 'let us in, you miserable fucker!'

Still no response.

Tom tried the handle. Locked. Danny was the only one in the house who had a lock, the result of smoke-induced paranoia. 

'Maybe we should kick it in?' Tom asked.

'Danny, we're going to break down the door!' Leon shouted. They gave it ten seconds or so, then Leon shrugged.

Tom threw his weight against the door. It gave at the first attempt, swinging inward. Before Leon could congratulate him, they saw Danny's body. He lay on the bedroom floor, eyes open in a terrified stare, blood smeared across his face, mouth open in a silent scream.

Leon stepped back. 'Holy fuck!'

They both stared through the doorway for a moment, then entered the room slowly, unable to take their eyes off the contorted corpse. Neither said a word. Danny lay in an awkward position. One leg rested up on the bed, the other tucked behind itself. The blood appeared to have come from his mouth and nose, but other than that Tom could see no visible reason for him to be lying dead on the floor.

'Danny?' Leon asked.

Tom's mind ran through every police procedural show he'd ever seen and wondered how this would look to a homicide detective. The house one step removed from a crack den. The broken door. The dead housemate. His stomach dipped in fear. 'We should call the police.'

'Okay.'

Tom left the room, careful to give the body a wide berth. He looked back at Leon, who was fumbling for a cigarette.

He ran downstairs, his mind racing. Hands shaking, he picked up the house phone and punched in nine-nine-nine, but there was no dial tone. His eyes drifted to the collection of burned-out candles on the mantelpiece. It was a miracle the whole place hadn't burned down in the night.

His mobile phone hadn't worked in days. He tried turning it on to see if it would give him enough juice for one call, but it refused to give him so much as a flicker. Tom flung it against the wall. It didn't even have the good grace to shatter in a satisfying manner, instead falling to the floor with a thud. He remembered the pay phone across the street. He could call the Police from there, if it wasn't already kicked into oblivion by the feral youth of Sunderland. He pulled on his coat and headed for the door.

Halfway down the steps, he stopped.

The smell, burning meat mingled with the heavy stench of petrol, caught at the back of his throat before his eyes could register the devastation before him. Max's Newsagent – good old Max's – was gone, burnt to the ground as though a large fiery thumb had come from the sky and stubbed it out. Corpses lay all over the street. Some were burnt, their limbs curled into themselves from the heat. Some were crushed, entangled in one of several car wrecks that dotted the road. Limbs, torsos and heads were strewn haphazardly in their wake. Some were just dead, lying there oblivious to the carnage that surrounded them.

Dozens of corpses. Old corpses. Young corpses. Bodies, and dead, and bodies again, to the end of the street and beyond. It was more than he could process. Tom stopped, sank onto the step with a thud, and wept.

* * * * *

If you've enjoyed this sample chapterBlood on the Motorway is on sale throughout March for only 99p/99c in ebook from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Scribd and more. The print version of the book is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $14.99 from Amazon.com.

Interview: Michael Hodges, author of Invasive and Black Friday

Michael Hodges is one of horror writing’s most exciting up and coming writers. His latest book, Black Friday, charted straight at the top of the horror charts, and he's building a track record in Hollywood, with his novel The Puller optioned for Hollywood adaptation, and other potential deals in the works. He also seems like a pretty decent fella, and has decent taste in music to boot. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk to him about horror, music, and photography.

PS: What was the first thing that got you interested in horror?

MH: It had to be the woods at night. I spent a lot of time in the Northwoods of Michigan and Wisconsin. My grandmother, when driving back to the cabin at night, would sing spooky songs to goof on us kids. I wondered what was out there, beyond the penumbra.

PS: Do you consider yourself primarily a horror author?

MH: Good question. If I had to take a step back and examine my genre, I’m more of a hybrid. My stuff doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. For example, my novels will always be filled with research and science, which makes them lean towards the Michael Crichton side of things. But at the same time, my novels are typically darker and more violent than his. If anything, I’d classify myself as a writer of science fiction/horror.

PS: We connected on Twitter through a shared love of the band Crippled Black Phoenix, who we’ve both used as an inspiration to our writing. Do you always write while listening to music, and what other bands or artists provide the score for your books?

MH: Ha, that’s funny, because I’m listening to Crippled Black Phoenix as I type this. I always write with music. Certain songs are attached to characters and scenes. I’m writing a novel called “The Last Colossus”, and the song “You Take the Devil Out of Me” by CPB is integral to the creative process.

As far as other bands, I have a top five “all time”:  Pink Floyd, Grandaddy, M83, The Flaming Lips, and Radiohead.

PS: Who is your favourite horror writer, and why?

MH: Cormac McCarthy. The Road is perhaps the bleakest thing ever crafted, even bleaker than Pet Sematary. Cormac not only writes great characters, but he also does “landscape as character” better than any writer I’ve ever read. I’ve incorporated these elements into my own work, like The Puller, where the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is essentially another character.

I read too many new novels where it’s just a guy walking around the same old boring landscape, and I’ll stop reading. There’s more to life than just a person’s basic actions from path to path. There’s a wider swath of self-awareness of entire ecosystems that should be explored on the page.

PS: What first prompted you to write?

MH: It just chose me.

PS: Your most recent novel, Black Friday, has rocketed to the top of the horror charts on release, so congratulations for that. What can you tell us about it?

MH: A kleptomaniac, unemployed IT guy, a shopaholic, and a meth dealer are trapped inside a Chicago supermall on Black Friday by alien forces.

It’s a return to the more psychological style of The Puller, in a suburban landscape.  My first three novels all focus on “trapped” themes, and how these characters organically extract themselves form their predicament.

PS: What’s your favourite horror film of all time?

MH: Probably The Thing. I love everything about it, especially the cool analog synths . I’m kind of a synth-head.

PS: You are also a prolific photographer, specifically of the nature in your part of the United States. What made you get into that?

MH: I’ve always been into nature, so photographing the world around us was a way for me to express myself, and to raise my self-awareness. I want to know more about the living things around me, more than work to strip mall to bed to work. What makes the world tick? What is this cool little creature that lives near me? How did these things come to be, and what is their significance in the big picture on this floating ball of rock we call home?

In a developing, overpopulated world, I see wildlife as under siege, and this theme is reflected in the core of my work.

PS: Do you consider your photography to be an escape from your writing, or vice versa?

MH: I see them as complimentary. I enjoy spending a week camping in Glacier National Park, and incorporating that experience organically into my work, to create richer, more rewarding environments on the page.

Also, tracking grizzly bears is helpful when you’re writing a novel about grizzly bears.

PS: Black Friday is your third novel, and you also have a collection of short horror and sci-fi stories available. What can you tell us about those?

MH: I have a new short story collection out called The Gloaming. It reflects first-contact and apocalyptic themes. A couple blurbs:

Hydra: A top scientist discovers a way to extend the human life span by decades, but grapples with the reality humans will be the only species left on the planet if implemented.

Uncommon Ally: After meteors wipe out most of mankind, the meteors that crashed into the ocean infect the seas with invasive species. A young rebel snipes the invasive's from shore, and finds an uncommon ally in the great white shark.

PS: Lastly, where can my readers find you?

MH: I love hearing from readers. They can hit me up at:

https://www.facebook.com/MichaelHodgesAuthor/

or my official website:

http://michaelhodgesfiction.com/

March Madness

March is my favourite month. The weather starts to turn, the doldrums of winter are left behind, and then, quite randomly, people seem to give me presents in pity of my increasing age somewhere around the middle of the month. So, given how much I chuffing love March, I thought it might be nice to share my joy with all of you, dear readers.

So, for the whole month, I am lowering the price of ALL THREE of my books to 99p, or 99c if you’re living under a fascist state. That’s right — Blood on the Motorway is only 99p on ebook. Sleepwalk City is only 99p on ebook. Welcome to Discovery Park is only… you get the idea.

Of course, the main reason I’m doing this has nothing to do with altruism, or benevolence. What I’m really trying to do is ape the adage of the manager of the budget superstore I used to work at — ‘Pile that shit high, and sell that shit cheap,’ he said to me, his beard full of crumbs of stolen chocolate from his own confectionary stand. What I’m really trying to do is to get some bums on seats, and people hooked on the deliciously addictive tales of apocalypse and musical woe that I am pedalling.

So, if you’ve yet to sample the apocalyptic horror of Blood on the Motorway, why not give it a punt? If you’ve not got round to picking up its sequel, Sleepwalk City, why not grab yourself a bargain? If you’re not sure if you want to read the musical odyssey contained within Welcome To Discovery Park, well it’s not going to break the bank to give it a whirl. In fact, you could pick up all three books for about the price of a really bad coffee from a chain coffee shop. I can guarantee it will taste a lot better.

If you’ve already picked up one or more of these books, and you enjoyed the shit out of it (because, why wouldn’t you?), could I please ask you to do me a favour? Shout about this sale to the rafters to your friends, your family, your priest… Maybe not your priest. Share this on Facebook and Twitter, start a rabid cult to my works, or just whisper it to your cat, if that’s the best you can do. It would really help me out. Well, maybe not the cat thing.

But, why should you pick up these books, even if the price is LUDICROUSLY cheap? Well, here's some nice things people have said about the books.

Blood on the Motorway

"Great read - the end of the world AND a sadistic mass murderer - what more could anyone want? Starts with a bang and keeps the tension ratcheting up right to the end." - Amazon UK Review

“A totally compelling story. Lots of twists, turns and cliffhangers. With a mixture of likeable characters and some you really wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. A recommended read. ” — Amazon UK Review

The final few chapters made my jaw drop - definitely wanted to yell at my kindle. Totally worth a read, especially if you love post-apocalyptic fiction as much as I do.” — Amazon UK Review

Sleepwalk City

"I am not a great fan of the apocalypse (it seems all too imminent at the moment) but this one certainly gripped me. It has characters you can root for, and plenty of action. A cracking good read. I look forward to the next instalment." — Amazon UK Review

Welcome to Discovery Park

"I devoured this book with a mixture of glee and pity, in addition to genuine concern over the mental health and life choices of the author. It has however been an excellent read. I feel the author took a bullet for everyone, so we don't have to be tempted to do such an act of self harm. Instead of myself getting annoyed at Rolling Stone, Paul has allowed me to laugh at the ludicrous nature of this list and I applaud him for not rage quitting as I may have done. Buy this book!" - Amazon UK Review

So, what are you waiting for? Get buying. Buy into the madness. Cheers, all. And happy March to all of you.

Location, Location

“Unfortunately for Tom and the other residents of the house on Riversdale Terrace, it had been five days since the gas, along with all the other amenities, had been cut off. The house now creaked constantly as it adjusted to the lack of heat, and Tom was concerned the next major event in his life would be dealing with a burst water pipe. There had been portentous rumblings from deep within the walls.”

This, from the first pages of Blood on the Motorway, is something that I’d imagine speaks very directly to a specific group of people — namely those poor souls who shared the house on Riversdale Terrace with me, in the fair city of Sunderland, around the turn of the century. It really was quite the dive. Living up to every cliche of student living you could imagine, the house had seven bedrooms, a layer of grime that had turned the net curtains an ashen grey, and a revolving door of occupants of which I was the last to enter.

I have such good memories of that house, where I spent my immediate post-university life in a haze of music, drink, and cigarette smoke with a group of housemates who ranged from dealers to bassists to vinyl obsessives. While there I entertained long term careers as both Superstar Rock DJ and Rock Star, neither of which was to be, in the end. My prized possessions were my stacks of CDs, the veritable wall of VHS videos, and the faded, torn posters I’d lugged from house to house for the previous decade.

The lounge, with its mould-ridden sofas and single cathode-ray television, was the communal hub of the house, its walls thick with tar. It was while hoovering the burnt and pitted carpet that I watched the horror of 9/11 unfold. It was on those sofas that I watched Arsenal best Liverpool in the FA Cup Final sat next to a Liverpool fan, still my favourite game of football ever. It was in that house that I entertained my only ever stint on the dole, setting my alarm at 1.45pm each day in order to wake up to watch Neighbours on BBC1.

When it came to write a novel set at the end of the world, I thought it would be interesting to start the story there, in that house, because quite honestly, if the world had ended during my years there, I probably wouldn’t have noticed for half a day at least. Location is so key as a writer, and for my debut novel there’s only a handful of places in the book that aren’t torn right from the pages of my own life. ‘Write what you know,’ the old adage goes, and while I don’t know much about killer storms and serial killers beyond what I’ve seen on a screen, I do know the places, the world from which my characters are so violently ripped.

Of course, there’s only so many places I’ve been in my life, and if I want to keep writing books, I can’t keep setting them in my dingy, post-university accommodation. Sleepwalk City, the sequel to Blood on the Motorway, ventures to Birmingham, Scarborough, and Dalby Forest, places I’ve been, but to which I can’t claim a huge personal connection to. This is where Google Street View and Wikipedia become invaluable tools.

Now, I’m writing a Sci-Fi horror, set upon a spaceship I have definitely not set foot on personally, and an ice moon that I’ve only seen pictures of, for obvious reasons. I’m moving further and further away from the comforting embrace of the world I know. Hopefully I can still take my readers there as well as I can put them in that living room, with its pitted carpet, and its mould-ridden sofas.

Blood on the Motorway – An apocalyptic tale of murder and stale sandwiches, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and more besides. The sequel, Sleepwalk City, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and many more.

If you want to know more about me or my books, you can follow me on Twitter, like the Facebook page, or follow me on Instagram. For news, offers, and special content, sign up for the mailing list.

Writing Hope

These are dark days. Perhaps you’ve noticed, it’s been in the news. From the never ending shitshow that is the rise of the Far Right in America, to the rise of the Far Right in Europe, or, um, the rise of the Far Right here at home, it’s easy to stare into theinternet and just become despondent. This morning I woke up and spent the first ten minutes of my day filling up with news so grave and toxic that it’s amazing that I even managed to make it out of the covers. Thankfully there’s two tiny people in my house who could give a monkey’s toss about what’s happening in the world — they wanted breakfast, and dressing, and taking to school. So I couldn’t mope.

But really, what does moping get any of us? Where is the good in despondency? All I see on my feeds these days is darkness, wailing, pointing, and howling about the terrible things the bad people are doing. And hey, that’s completely understandable, because they are indeed bad people, and they are indeed doing terrible things, but the worst part of this is that we, the people, seem to be doing this alone. In this country, especially, with a Brexit shitshow looming, there is no opposition. There is no voice of hope.

Hope is important. In the wake of George Bush and Iraq, it took Barack Obama’s message of hope to wrest power away. Throughout the Thatcher years, Labour were the indignant opposition, howling at the unfairness, the disparity, the cruelty of the government. It wasn’t until Blair brought a message of hope, that things could get better, that Labour were able to take back power, before pissing away all that hope to the point we we barely dare to have any more.

This is, of course, a drastic oversimplification. But hey, this is a blog post on the internet, and what would that be without a touch of oversimplification? Still, the point remains that with the Dems in America in disarray, and Labour under Corbyn being as effective as a wet fart into your suit before a job interview, that there’s a distinct lack of voices espousing hope out there right now.

All of which makes me question my place in all this as *whisper it quietly* an artist. In times of trouble and woe, the artist is supposed to be one of the voices of opposition. Laugh it off as ‘moaning celebs’ all you like, but how many of us, especially in our formative years, form our political beliefs off the back of the art that changes our world? How much of my liberal ideology, my belief in progress, comes from Harper Lee, Douglas Coupland, Bill Hicks, Eddie Vedder, and a hundred others? I’d wager a fair chunk of it. 

One quote that’s been rattling around my head a lot these last few months is one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo. "So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

What am I going to do with the time given to me? Well, I am a writer. As a writer, even one of niche horror nonsense, do I have a responsibility to be a peddler of hope? I’d like to think so, even in my books about the world’s end. 

Blood on the Motorway may be about a serial killer using the end of the world as the justification for his actions, but it’s also about people finding hope in the dark places, in each other. It’s about how building communities is better than trying to deal with things alone. Sleepwalk City sees the forces who would take control upping their game, but being matched by the efforts of good people, those willing to stand up. In the final book of the series, you’ll see that same message — that opposition, hope, and the goodness of people can shine through in adversity. Or, at least, that’s what I hope you’ll get from it, amidst the gore, the violence, and the stale sandwiches.

Blood on the Motorway – An apocalyptic tale of murder and stale sandwiches, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and more besides. The sequel, Sleepwalk City, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and many more.

If you want to know more about me or my books, you can follow me on Twitter, like the Facebook page, or follow me on Instagram. For news, offers, and special content, sign up for the mailing list.

What's my age again?

The hardest part about launching a new novel — alongside the troubling piffles of writing the damn thing, redrafting it, editing it, feeling like you want to set fire to it, the terror of showing it to people, hiring an editor, hoping they like it, sorting out the cover design, compiling the ebooks, formatting the print versions, wanting to die, and writing the blurbs — is choosing what categories to put the damn thing into.

Choosing the right genres, keywords, and subsections for online retailers like Amazon can have a profound impact on how your book performs. Choose the right keyword, and your book can find its way relatively easily into a niche that has a rabid fanbase who’ll be willing to check you out. Get it wrong, and you’re consigned to the dustbin of terrible sales numbers. But whenever it comes to making these decisions, there’s an additional factor the budding publisher needs to consider — the age of their readers.

When I was a wee slip of a lad, I loved reading. I was really into Enid Blyton, the Just William books, Roald Dahl, and all the sorts of things that a growing boy or girl needs to enrich their view of the world. I loved reading, a love instilled by my parents, who have always devoured thrillers at a ridiculous pace.

But it was an english teacher at a provincial boarding school in Kent who would take what was a nascent love of stories, and turn it into something more. A charming english gent who looked like those pictures of J.R.R. Tolkien as an old man, he used to gruffly stick a different book under my nose every week, something completely off-syllabus, something he did with a handful of the kids in my class, those he’d seen with their noses buried in some childish tome.

The Day of the Triffids, To Kill a Mockingbird, Empire of the Sun, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Carrie, these books ranged from political thrillers to established classics and popcorn pulp, but they were all united by a single theme — these were not kids books.

I didn’t like all of them, but I liked a hell of a lot of them, and I don’t think it’d be a stretch to say that those battered, well-thumbed paperbacks changed my life every bit as much as the cassette of Guns ’n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction didaround the same time. 

I was probably about the same age then that my daughter is now. She, too, is a voracious reader, and I can’t begin to describe the thrill I get when I discover that she’s under the covers reading by torchlight an hour after her lights have been turned out for the night, begging to get to the end of her chapter. But there’s a huge difference between the books she reads now, and the books I was reading then. The publishing world has seen a colossal boom in the intervening years for books for her age range, books for young adults, books for new adults.

My daughter’s generation are catered to so brilliantly by a publishing world that realises they’re a perpetual money machine, a slot machine that pays out with a much higher regularity than the fickle adults. Which is not to say that the books my daughter reads are bad, far from it. I devoured the Harry Potter series like pretty much everyone else on the planet, but when I look at the Wimpy Kid books, the Series of Unfortunate Events books, and The School For Good and Evil, they’re all brilliantly written, insightful, thought provoking books.

Except, there’s a nagging thought in my mind that wonders if I should be playing the same role in my daughter’s reading education that Mr Gatherum played in my own. Should I be pressing well-worn ‘grown-up’ books into her palms? Almost certainly not, since I doubt she’d have the same receptiveness that I had. Back then I didn’t have the wealth of age-appropriate brilliance to move onto, or if I did, I didn’t have someone to show it to me. She’s perfectly happy reading books that speak directly to her, and why wouldn’t she?

Which brings me back to my own books. If I’m being brutally honest, I’m always writing for one person — me. And not the jaded, bearded hipster that’s clacking these words into the keyboard of his overpriced laptop, but the same boy who devoured Stephen King and John Wyndham and Harper Lee with a fervour bordering on religious ecstasy. Because those were the days when books were my everything, and I always feel like if I could make that little boy with the bad skin and terrible taste in clothes happy, then I’m probably doing alright. And if the things that made him happy — horror, blood, gore, politics, great characters, snappy dialogue, and a sense of a world I could only begin to imagine — are present in my own writing, well then I’m doing okay.

And yet, these are most definitely not kids books. There’s no way I’d be putting Blood on the Motorway (available to buy now, fact fans) into my daughter’s hands. But in a few years? I’d have no problem with her reading it, in the same way that I have no problem having her sit up to watch more grown up films with her Mum and I from time to time. The most exciting parts of growing up are those moments when the curtain to the world of grown ups is pulled back, giving just a glimpse at the world beyond.

So, no, I didn’t list my books as Young Adult, or even New Adult. But I’ll admit there was a moment every time when my hand wavered over the button, remembering that dorky little kid who I hope would have loved to read them.

Blood on the Motorway – An apocalyptic tale of murder and stale sandwiches, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and more besides. The sequel, Sleepwalk City, is available on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and many more.

If you want to know more about me or my books, you can follow me on Twitter, like the Facebook page, or follow me on Instagram. For news, offers, and special content, sign up for the mailing list.

Welcome to Discovery Park – the chronicle of my increasingly frustrated attempt to listen to every album on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of all-time list, is available now on Amazon Uk, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, and many more.