This is absolutely amazing and I am SO excited about getting to share this with you today. When Phil said he wanted to do the interview this year, but wanted to do it different, I never, in my wildest dreams, could have expected this. After reading it, I had to go out and share it with my mother (my best friend), who I think enjoyed it a little more than I did.
He pulled up outside the house and put the car into park. His face was bathed with a dull glow as he turned on his phone. He flicked through a couple of screens, eventually finding the address he was after. The last thing he wanted to do was knock on the door of a random stranger and then stumble through why he was in the neighbourhood so late at night.
It had been a long drive, far longer than he had intended with traffic jams and a blown tire to contend with, but he was here now and that was all that mattered. He’d phoned ahead just to make sure, almost hoping that the answer would be “Don’t worry, grab a motel room and we can do it in the morning,” but she had seemed so enthusiastic, and he wasn’t one to disappoint. It was that eagerness to please which had brought him here in the first place. Normally these things would have been done online or by phone but he’d casually dropped in that he had family not too far away and the suggestion they do this face to face had been slipped in ever so subtly and in a way in which he couldn’t really say no.
Thirty minutes, he told himself, or maybe an hour tops and then he could be on the road to go find somewhere to get his head down for the night. He flipped his phone off and tossed it into the glove box without even thinking and made his way towards the front door.
A lot of effort had gone into decorating the house, the usual Halloween paraphernalia put out ahead of the weekend’s celebrations. Tomorrow the streets would be crawling with goblins and ghouls, witches and warlocks, all carrying plastic pumpkins filled to the brim with candy and treats. It was his favourite part of Halloween watching the children all heading out and having so much fun. Tonight, though, was more subdued. The calm before the storm. Fake cobwebs hung from Styrofoam gravestones, with skeletal hands emerging from the ground among a whole crop of carved pumpkins each filled with flickering lights. He smiled as he noticed the Satan Stop Here sign and imagined just what might happen if that particular red suited man were to turn up. At least he would have no problem working out who was naughty or nice.
He pressed the doorbell and waited. A black and white sign reading “Home Sweet Haunted Home” hung to the side of the door. He was almost too distracted by it to notice as the door swung open.
“Phil!” There was an excitement to the greeting.
“Um, hi, yeah,” he said, bumbling his words. “So sorry that I’m late, Meghan, you know, what with the traffic and the flat and everything. I mean, is it still okay? What time is it anyway? Almost midnight?”
Meghan looked up at him and smiled. One of those reassuring ones which makes you feel as if the world will all be just hunky-dory if you simply went with it.
“Of course it’s fine. You’ve come all this way and I wouldn’t want you to have a wasted journey now, would I. So why don’t you come right on in. We can settle down over a nice iced tea and get down to business. Doesn’t that sound great?”
“Yes, I guess it does.” Except he knew he’d only end up sipping at the drink out of politeness, counting the seconds until he could get his head down for some shut eye.
“Wonderful. Now do follow me. Please.”
He did as he was instructed, walking closely behind his hostess towards the inner sanctum of Chateau Hyden.
“You’ve got a lovely place here,” he said turning left and then right as they weaved through a maze of rooms. He was about to take another left when something skittered across his feet.
“Oh, jeez, what the hell was that?”
Meghan turned to face him. “That was Mia.”
“My cat. You might get to meet her later. She’s adorable but she does bring me in all kinds of strays. You do like cats, don’t you? I know some folks can get a bit superstitious around them.”
“Cats? Me. Nah, love them. We’ve got a couple of them back home. Only thing I’m really superstitious about is magpies. You know, where you have to salute them if you see one on their own. Otherwise bad shit will happen.”
He laughed, a little less convincingly than he would have liked.
“Oh, bad stuff can happen anyway, magpies or not,” said Meghan, that thousand-watt smile beaming brightly yet seeming ever so less reassuring now.
“Um, yeah, I guess you’re right.” He rubbed the back of his neck, not quite sure where to look.
Meghan simply continued smiling, the pair of them standing in silence, the sound of a carriage clock ticking away in the distance. For a second he thought he could hear something else too. Something muffled. Almost as if someone were shouting from the bottom of a well or a pond. Possible coming from his left. He turned, still listening, seeing a door with a lock, a large black key poking from the keyhole…the sound was definitely coming from the room beyond…he strained to hear…his hand resting on the doorhandle…
“Through here,” said Meghan.
“We’re through here,” she repeated, taking his arm and guiding him to follow her. Even so, he couldn’t resist one last look back at the door.
The room she led him into was spacious with bookshelves running from floor to ceiling. In the middle of the room was a coffee table with two wicker chairs either side. A tray with a large crystal jug and two tall slim jims, each filled with iced tea, had been placed on the table. Large potted plants added a touch of the exotic to the room.
“Please, do sit.” Meghan pointed to the furthest chair. “Then we can begin.”
He ambled to the chair, pausing to look at the bookshelves. There were so many books; it was wonderful. And here, right here, was the horror section in all its glory. There were the Campbells, Kings, Barkers, Jacksons, and Poes. Oh Poe. He hadn’t realised it was horror when he’d first read those abridged versions in his 1,000 Page Story Book for Children all those years back. How old must he have been? Eight? Nine? He couldn’t really remember. What he did recall was the fascination and atmosphere that those tales by Poe evoked in him. It would be almost a full decade before he properly delved into horror thereafter through Skeleton Crew and the Books of Blood. And here were some of the newer authors. Mauro. Sharma. Linwood Grant. Everington. West. Gardner. Jones. He paused as he recognised some particular books among the works.
“Nice to see a few of my pieces have made it to your shelves.”
“Of course.” That smile again. “We’ve always got a special place for Phil Sloman here. Shall we?”
The chair creaked as he sat down. He made a note to himself to cut down on the late-night cheese binges. Meghan sat opposite and pushed the tray towards him.
“Please, help yourself.”
“Thanks.” He grabbed a glass and took a sip. The taste wasn’t unpleasant but there was a hint of something he couldn’t quite place. “It’s good,” he said, manners kicking in.
“Thank you. My mother made it.”
“Well, do pass on my thanks to her.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be able to do that yourself. In time.”
Time. He glanced at his watch. It was still the right side of midnight but only just. How long before he could be out of here? Before he could be on the road again.
“So, what did you want to know?” he said, eager to proceed.
“The interview. That’s why I’m here, right?”
“Oh, yes, sure. The interview.”
“And?” He was being snippy. He didn’t mean to be; the long drive, the late hour, but he just wished they could start.
“Right,” said Meghan, rising above his ire. “Let me see. Which unsolved murder fascinates you the most?”
“Wow, right in with the big questions. No punches held.”
“I like to be direct.”
“That’s good. I like that. Um, so to your question. I don’t really keep track of unsolved murders. You might think that a bit bizarre given some of my work. Becoming David and The Man Who Fed the Foxes being good examples without giving too much away.” He winked at her then regretted it immediately. He could be such an idiot at times. “But,” he said, recovering himself, “there’s that important divide for me between real life and fiction. You know what I mean?”
“I mean there’s every likelihood that there’s a dead body somewhere in this street and we wouldn’t know about it.”
“Well, that would certainly be exciting, wouldn’t it!”
“I guess it would.” He took another sip of his drink. “Are you going to take any notes?”
“No, it’s fine. I have a great memory. You just keep on talking.”
“Sure. Well, I guess that was it really.” God, why hadn’t he done this by email. At least then he could have taken the time with his answers. “What’s next?”
Meghan leaned forward in her chair, her eyes widening almost with glee as she popped her next question. “Tell me, who’s your favourite serial killer and why?”
“Favourite serial killer? Hmmm, well I guess that’s a bit like the unsolved murders. A bit too real for me. I mean, Dahmer was someone who intrigued me at the time, as I guess he did for most of us, but there’s that worry for me of celebrity status for something so heinous. It’s almost as if we remember the killer and not the victims. It’s weird because I’m happy to write about that stuff as fiction but the real life stuff…” He pulled a face.
“I know what you mean.”
“And it’s always the people you least expect. Those people who come across as so nice, the next-door neighbour who everyone always had time for, who would go out of their way to get the drinks in.”
“Well, everyone likes a nice drink. How’s the iced tea?”
“It’s good.” He took another sip, then placed the glass on the tray. “Are you having any?”
“In a bit. Now, are you ready for the next question.”
He nodded, tugging at his collar as he did so.
“So, which urban legend scares you?”
“Urban legend. Let me think.” His fingers worked at the top button of his shirt. Air, he needed some air. “Urban legend…urban legend.”
“Are you okay?” There was concern in her voice.
“Yes, it’s just getting a little warm in here.”
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed. So, you were saying?”
“Right, legends. Urban legends. Umm, I guess probably that fear Poe had. You know the one where you’re buried alive. So not really an urban legend. Apparently it happened lots back then. You know folks trapped in their coffins, still breathing, somehow, with no one to hear them. Muffled voices shouting…from…the…grave.”
He could feel the blood drain from his face even as he said the words. Dots joining up slowly in a brain which was barely ticking over.
“Could you open a window?”
“In a bit. More iced tea, perhaps?”
He went to reach for his glass. Something so simple. All he needed to do was stretch out his arm and pick up the glass. Except he couldn’t. His arm hung limply by his side.
“Is everything okay?”
“Ye..” He tried to form the word. Just three letters. “Ye..” His tongue felt fat in his mouth, his jaw wouldn’t move. “Y…” He watched as Meghan rose from her seat, coming round to check on him, to give him help. Except she wasn’t. He saw the hand rushing open-palmed towards his face. He knew the contact must have happened except where there should have been a sharp pain, residual tingling, there was nothing.
“Mom, come here. He’s ready.”
Slowly his vision faded, the room becoming hazy, the world around him softening. He was aware of someone else entering the room, a woman, muffled voices talking then hands under his arms, being dragged from his chair. His feet skittered across the hardwood floor. Was that Mia playing around his ankles, dashing back and forth under his legs? He couldn’t tell. And then they were somewhere else. The corridor? That hum of voices. A door opening. The voices louder now. Familiar voices. Ones he had heard speak at conventions on panels, and some, the more famous ones, on television and radio.
“Meghan, honey, I think he’s still awake.”
“It doesn’t matter. He shouldn’t feel a thing. Probably.”
He opened his eyes. The first sensation was that he was underwater. The world blurred around him. Except there were some things he could make out. Shelves filled with large jars. The types you had in high school science labs, usually with some dead rat or alien looking creature suspended in formaldehyde.
“Oh, look, he’s finally awake.”
“About time. Now we know why they call him Slow-man!”
“Nice one, Ramsey.”
“My pleasure, Steve.”
“Who, who’s there?” he said, trying to keep the quiver from his voice. Except something was different. Almost as if he was speaking through melted marshmallow.
“Shut up, all of you. I think I can hear her coming.”
“Yes, Clive. Whatever you say, Clive. I mean what is she going to do that she hasn’t done already?”
“Yes, what sights might she have to show us?”
“Ah, fuck you, guys!”
Light flooded the room.
“Okay, what’s going on in here? I told you all before to keep the noise down. The neighbours have been complaining.”
“Won’t happen again, Meghan.”
“Good. Glad to hear it.” He heard footsteps crossing the room. Then she was there. Her face in front of his. She tapped the glass of the jar, looking at the disembodied head.
“See, I told you we had a special place here for Phil Sloman. Plenty of time for questions. And I do have so many questions. In the meantime, welcome to Meghan’s Haunted House of Books. I hope you enjoy your stay.”
Phil Sloman is a writer of dark psychological fiction. His first story was published in 2014 and he has been writing ever since. In 2017 Phil was shortlisted for British Fantasy Award Best Newcomer for his novella Becoming David, and was part of Imposter Syndrome from Dark Minds Press which was nominated for British Fantasy Award Best Anthology in 2018, and edited the 2020 British Fantasy Award nominated The Woods anthology. Phil regularly appears on several reviewers’ Best of Year lists.
Becoming David —
Richard leads a simple, uncomplicated life in the suburbs of London where anonymity is a virtue. His life has a routine. His cleaner visits twice a week. He works out in his basement, where he occasionally he kills people. Everything is as Richard wants it until David enters his life. What happens next changes his existence in its entirety and the lives of those around him. Is he able to trust anything to be true? And will he be able to escape David or will David take over Richard’s life completely?