Authors: Peter James
‘A well-paced thriller that delivers maximum emotional torture’
‘Grippingly intriguing from start to finish’
‘Too many horror stories go over the top into fantasy land, but
is set in the recognisable world … I guarantee you more than a frisson of fear’
‘A thought-provoking menacer that’s completely technological and genuinely frightening about the power of future communications’
‘This compulsive story is a tale of the search for immortality … I cannot remember when I last read a novel I enjoyed so much’
‘Gripping … plotting is ingenious … in its evocation of how a glossy cocoon of wordly success can be unravelled by one bad decision it reminds me of Tom Wolfe’s
Bonfire of the Vanities
‘Peter James, Britain’s closest equivalent to Stephen King’
‘The suspense holds on every page, right to the end …’ S
Peter James was educated at Charterhouse and then at film school. He lived in North America for a number of years, working as a screen writer and film producer (his projects included the award-winning
Dead of Night
) before returning to England. His previous novels, including the number-one bestseller
, have been translated into twenty-six languages. All his novels reflect his deep interest in medicine, science and the paranormal. He has recently produced several films including the BAFTA-nominated
The Merchant of Venice,
starring Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons and Joseph Fiennes, and
The Bridge of San Luis Rey,
starring Robert De Niro, Kathy Bates and Harvey Keitel. He also co-created the hit Channel 4 series
which was nominated for a Rose d’Or. Peter James lives near Brighton in Sussex. Visit his website at
Research is essential to my novels and there are many people who in the writing of
generously gave me much more of their time and their knowledge than I ever asked of them. They include Eleanor O’Keeffe of the Society for Psychical Research, David and Anne Anderson who so kindly and enthusiastically allowed their beautiful home to be the model for Elmwood Mill, Jan Newton, David Venables and Bill McBryde of the Official Solicitor’s Office, Simon Fraser of Fraser & Fraser, Vicki and Polar Lahaise, Mick Harris of Brighton Police, Ren Harris, Marie Helene Roussel, Linden Hardisty (who improved my tennis too!), Canon Dominic Walker OGS, The Venerable Michael Perry of ‘The Christian Parapsychologist’, Dr Duncan Stewart, Robert and Felicity Beard, Ian Wilson of Dean-Wilson, Sarina LaRive, Sue Ansell, Jill Bremer, Dr S. Domoney who successfully churned my stomach, Veronica Keen, and many more.
A special mention is due to my unflagging secretary, Peggy Fletcher, and my equally unflagging agent, Jon Thurley, and editor Joanna Goldsworthy. And to my mother, and to my sister, Genevieve for their constant support, and to my wife, Georgina, who redefined the boundaries of patience.
‘I prithee, sweetheart, canst thou tell me
Whether thou dost know
The bailiff’s daughter of Islington?’
‘She’s dead, sir, long ago.’
The dog scampered under the rotting gates.
‘Peregrine!’ the woman called. ‘Peregrine! Come back at once!’
No one ever went in there, except for a few local tradesmen who privately admitted it gave them the creeps. Not even her dog, which was nosy and inquisitive and was always going in places he shouldn’t, had ever gone in there before.
‘Good boy! Come back!’
But her voice was drowned by the weir below. She waited a moment. ‘Come on!’ she called once more. ‘Peregrine!’
Most of the days of her life she walked the dog down the lane, across the iron footbridge and up into the woods, always speeding her pace a little past the property and rarely even looking down at the derelict mill below, with the garden and house beyond with its strange old recluse.
She pushed open one of the tall gates and peered down the drive. Her Yorkshire terrier was running up the steps to the house. Without stopping at the top he nosed his way in through the front door, which was ajar.
‘Peregrine!’ she bellowed, appalled. ‘Come back here! Peregrine!’ She hurried down the drive.
The roar of water from the weir made the silence of
the house all the more menacing, and the gravel that scrunched under her feet felt as if it must have been put there to make a silent approach impossible. She stopped at the bottom of the steps, perspiring from the heat of the late summer morning. The house seemed larger from here, rising up the bank above her.
‘Peregrine!’ her voice was more conciliatory now. ‘Peregrine!’
The terrier was barking inside the house, a steady insistent yapping, and she sensed eyes watching her from behind one of the dark mullioned windows; the eyes of the old woman with the hideously burned face.
She climbed the steps and stopped at the top to catch her breath. The dog yapped away inside. ‘Peregrine!’ she hissed, peering past the oak door into the gloomy hallway.
Then she noticed the milk stacked on the doorstep — five bottles, and a carton of eggs. Newspapers and letters were scattered over the floor inside the door. The house seemed still, felt still. She pressed the bell, but heard nothing; she tried again but it was dead. She rapped the brass hoop of the tarnished knocker, gently at first then harder, the full thud echoing, the dog’s barking becoming even more insistent.
She pushed the door open wider with difficulty, the perished draught excluder jamming on the mountain of post, mostly junk mail, that had built up on the oak floor. She stepped in.
The hallway was small, dark, with a low ceiling and stone walls, and smelled unpleasant, of something that had gone off. There was a staircase ahead with a passageway beside it, and doors to the left and right of her. A sinister winged bust stood on an ornately carved table, and her reflection stared back through the dust on a spangled mirror on the wall. The dog was in the gloom at the end of the passageway; she could hear him
barking, but could not see him.
‘Hello?’ she called up the stairs. ‘Hello?’
She glanced around, seeking movement, a shadow, and noticed the framed photographs covering the walls. Photographs of elegant women in fine dresses. Except their faces had been carefully burned away, leaving their elegantly coiffed hair, forties and fifties styles, around charred holes. She looked closer, startled. Horrible; the old woman was even barmier than she’d thought.
They gaped down at her, the walls of the passageway solid with them, all faceless. The terrier was pawing and scratching at the door at the end.
‘Come here, damn you!’ she whispered.
He turned to her, whined, then pawed again at the door. She knelt, grabbed his collar furiously, then felt a shadow fall over her shoulder. She spun round, but it was just the front door moving restlessly in the breeze. The smell was stronger here, vile. The dog whined again and tugged, as if it were trying to tell her something. She wanted to go, to get out of here, but the dog’s insistence bothered her. She let go of him and knocked on the door with her knuckles. The dog yapped furiously.
She turned the handle, the door opened and the terrier bolted through. The smell rushed out. Strong, pungently strong. A stench of sour milk, unflushed lavatory and meat that had gone badly off.
‘Struth.’ She pinched her nose with her fingers. She heard flies buzzing and saw a whole haze of them as she walked in, and heard another sound, too, a faint rustling like expensive silk.
The room felt alive, yet at first there did not seem to be anyone in here. An old drying rack hung above the Aga; an ashtray filled with lipsticky butts lay on the table; an open tin of stew with hair growing out of it sat on the draining board. The fridge door was ajar. That explained the smell, she thought, relieved.
Then she saw the old woman’s legs.
At first she thought that she was breathing. She was lying face down through the doorway into what looked like a boiler room. The muscles of her legs were moving, and her mouth and left eye, which was the one she could see, were moving too. So were her hands. Her neck rippled like a wheatfield in the wind.
She staggered backwards in shock and retched, but the horror held her throat so tightly nothing came out. The dog stood in front of the corpse barking excitedly. She slammed into the doorway in her panic, then ran down the passage, out through the front door and down the steps.
She could feel them on her own flesh, feel them rippling, chewing, as she hurried back up the drive, brushed them off her thighs, off her wrists, millions of imaginery white wriggling maggots tumbling on to the gravel as she hurried home to the telephone, gulping down the air, trying to flush out her lungs, hurrying because she could see in her mind the old woman staggering out through the door after her, maggots writhing, dropping from her eye sockets, her cheeks, her hands, like white rain, and could hear her screeching, ‘Leave me alone! Let them be. Let them eat. It’s only my body, my foul scarred body. My prison. They’re freeing me. Can’t you see, you old cow? They’re freeing me!’