(blurb) In the rolling Cheshire countryside surrounding Alderley, scarred by the mansions of celebs and footballers, something buried for millenia is stirring.
A dark energy disturbs psychic Claire Varnavi, compelling her to visit the archaeological dig on the supposedly cursed estate of Skendleby Hall, now set to be turned into a sprawling commercial development.
Blinded by greed, the Hall's new owners and political cronies are blissfully unaware of the evil that lies beneath the surface and only Claire, who no one will believe, can see it coming.
The tenacious psychic and her accomplice - a local self-loathing agnostic vicar Ed Joyce - stand in the way of a force that could disturb the fabric of existence. Feuding, violence, a plague of crows, and an unnaturally harsh winter herald terrifying demonic possessions. Devil's Mound should not have been opened. They were warned.
I'm relishing this as I knew I would....
Prelude - The Cheshire Plain 2500BC.
A woman her tribe and shaman believe to be possessed by a demon is mutilated and immured in a burial chamber.
Psychic Claire Varnavi is having nightmares of that very brutal event so long ago. Meanwhile, a dysfunctional group of archeologists have discovered the remains of an old settlement and are being pressured to hurry up so that development can begin. The leader of the group is Giles, a self-pitying man who finds solace in drink since his wife left him. His deputy Steve seems to be a bit of a playboy. Fellow archaeologist Rose decides she wants the credit for this find she's sure is there, and manipulates both men into letting her direct and continue the dig. Despite it being October, the weather is summer-like.
While Steve and Jan (another female member) are excavating, the Rev. Edmund Joyce ("call me Ed") shows up, offering to bless the site at the request of the older villagers. He's sent off with the proverbial flea in his ear, although relieved not to have to conduct the blessing.
We follow Ed back home to the rectory, where we learn his hobby is researching the history of one of his predecessors, The Rev. Montague Heatly-Smythe, with a view to publishing a book. He's rudely interrupted by Councillor Richardson, who demands spiritual help for his adult daughter, who's "not herself". Despite this, she apparently can still function as a press photographer for the local Journal.
Back at the dig, Rose and others are being watched by something horrible "Funeral black like a rotting grave winding, distorted and elongated and above it the hideous mockery of a corpse white face that she couldn't bear to look at". Rose knows it's trying to warn her and stop her, but it's too late. she feels compelled by the thing in the mound. The apparition comes towards her, jerkily and loosely-jointed. The next thing she knows, she's tossed in the air "to land broken and bleeding in the bottom of the trench". She's carted away by paramedics to spend a few months recovering.
Ed's wife gives him a packet of old documents, amongst them a series of unsent letters by Healy-Smythe from 1776. It seems he too disturbed the site, and was haunted afterwards by "that which stands and watches". Claire tries to contact Giles to insist he not open the Devil's Mound, and is considered mad for her pains.
The day of the opening arrives, and the local reported Jim, along with Lisa, are in attendance. Unsurprisingly, it does not go well.
The minute it's opened, a violent wind appears from inside, whipping dust and debris into people's eyes. Lisa rushes inside where she has some kind of psychodelic trip "In the frenzy of the dance, she saw her dark haired summoner approaching. They dance towards each other, danced into each other, merged, became one". Steve is helped away as the dust and debris have temporarily blinded him. Claire berates Giles with the time-honoured phrase "You fool, do you know what you've done?" Most of the crowd have wisely left already or soon do so. Claire encounters Lisa after Giles has found and led her out. "As she passed Claire she stopped and stood for a moment staring fixedly, the trace of a malicious and knowing smile on her lips. But it was the eyes that held Claire paralysed; they were triumphant but ancient and unspeakably evil".
Giles goes home to his lonely uncared for house, and experiences weird phenomena. Odd sounds from his practice disc cd (as well as a liking for T.S. Elliot, he plays in a less than popular part-time band), bathroom taps turning on by themselves. He phones Claire for help and flees to her place. She decides he needs a good sleep so gives him some "herbal tea" and puts him to bed. No, she doesn't join him, although later on in the book, who knows?
Reporter Jim is obliged to attend one of Councillor Richardson's "pretentious affairs with people he didn't know or like but to whom he had to be polite". Lisa is there and decides to use him as her personal stripper pole (she doesn't actually strip, although she is scantily clad). Humiliated before the crowd, he doesn't complain when Richardson demands he drive her home. She does something to one of his ears that causes a severe pain and bleeding. "Think yourself lucky, that's just a token. You got off lightly 'cos you're harmless".
Soon after, his car slips on the ice and comes to rest against the old bridge, where he finds himself watched by "a figure standing at the fringe of the woods". Does he do the smart thing and drive straight home? Of course not. He drives towards the excavation site. "An insubstantial dark figure was perambulating across the fields towards it moving with a type of gait that seemed to defy the natural laws of movement. A peculiar process was propelling the figure without it taking anything recognizable as a step. Watching it filled Jim with a sense of terror he'd never experienced in his life, not even in his worst nightmares. Then, as he feared it would, the figure stopped and slowly, deliberately, turned its head; Jim stood rooted to the ground, time stalled. An awful white face fixed it's gaze upon him and Jim comprehended it knew him. The face was hideously distorted but the expression of gleeful malevolence was stark and Jim felt it like a blow. Then, in a curiously disarticulated gesture, it slowly raised one of it's arms and pointed an unnaturally long white finger at him. He was cursed, marked for death or damnation. It hit him like a blow, short curcuiting his nervous system. it was this spasm of horror that released him from the spot and sent him stumbling and gasping through the woods towards the lights of his car. He drove way; tonight he'd been served a warning and he was going to heed it". Yeah, right....
That's the first 42% taken care of; great stuff! Some online reviewers dislike the Hammer Horror movie style plot, others (like myself) enjoy it for that very reason.
Tim Thompson, conducts a site review with Giles and Steve. The latter usually love to "take the mick" out of Tim, who seems to consciously dress like a stereotypical academic; glasses, beard and elbow patches. But this time they're not in the mood. Tim explains that there's been a history of suicides going as far back as 1283 around Devil's Mound, despite people avoiding living or going very close to the place. Montague Heatly-Smythe apparently returned to Oriel, his old college, with tales of hauntings and the Devil. Then he most likely committed suicide. Steve's long hair continues to turn white after the shock of the opening, and Giles referrences M. R. James' Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You" Giles is obliged to attend a meeting chaired by the unpleasant Councillor Richardson, who humiliates him (again) and rides rough-shod over any hopes of delaying/stopping the proposed construction.
Chapter 14 - The Shadow from the Past
Claire is freaked out by what she hears on Giles' disc, and seeks help from Gwen, her old mentor in Oswestry. It seems Claire couldn't cope with her "gift" as a child/teen, and became, shall we say, impossible to handle. Gwen introduces her to Marcus Wolf, who was broken after a failed exorcism he tried to conduct. What goes around comes around, as Marcus berates Claire "I wish you had never brought this abomination to me. You have no idea how foolish you were to accept this disc or how dangerous it is. Someone let it out and you've spread it. Didn't you realize it was looking for you?" Despite this, he feels obliged to help, since he's been "dragged into" the whole incident. Another James' reference or two, either in this or the next chapter, or both.
Chapter 15 - Ritual, Theories and Warnings
Steve and Jan find another body at the dig. Steve tries to rationalize what happened. Tim shows Giles a very creepy short video accidentally taken by Lisa inside the mound, showing her and a dark-haired somebody who shouldn't/couldn't have been there. Claire calls Giles and invites him over to discuss the disc; at a stop off at a pub (The Hanged Man) Jim tells Giles that Lisa's behaviour has gotten worse, he wants no more to do with the whole thing and that his chief crime reporter has plotted the various incidents (including at least one murder) run in a straight line from the university to Skendelby.
Chapter 16 - Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes
Rev. Ed goes to talk to Squire Nigel Davenport, aristocratic former owner of Skendleby Hall, now sold to Si Carver, a rude and ruthless nouveau riche. Nige basically tells Ed to just forget about all the disturbing incidents and the Heatly-Smythe letters. On his way home Ed has the bad luck to encounter said Si, he of the "bald and shiny head" that reminds Ed of Mussolini. He stops his expensive car (a Merc? a Range Rover? I forget) to rudely and aggressively berate Ed for the disturbances he's been encountering and seeing; strange lights, strange people ("that tramp who hangs around the graveyard by our boundary wall") and lots of dead animals. He warns the Rev. that he'd better get all this sorted as he wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of him.
Ed arrives home to find his wife out again (I was surprised but pleased that Ed was (more or less happily) married) where some tranquilizers and deep breathing do no good to calm him down. I feel sorry for poor Ed, he left "the problems of Birmingham" in hopes of finding a nice quiet country parish, only for this to happen! After a call from Richardson telling him Lisa's disappeared, he sees something "dark and ragged disengage itself from the shadows". He runs outside in a panic, literally bumping into Nigel D.
Chapter 17 - Une Nuit En Enfer (A Night in Hell)
Nigel brings Ed back to the rectory & pours himself and Ed stiff whiskys. He tells him "my ancestors have held (the Hall) in fief to the Crown since the fourteenth century. He's never seen anything while living there, but felt a presence as a boy. The family tradition holds that they're supposed to watch it. But of course the upkeep is too expensive, so when brash Si Carver, very full of himself, came along wanting to buy the Hall, Nige happily lets him. "If anyone deserves what the Hall conceals, it's him". I couldn't agree more. How could I forget, somebody wants to run a pipeline through the dig area; I guess that's just one part of the commercial development. Nigel once again encourages Ed to take a long holiday, or find a more urban parish, preferably both.
Wife Mary returns, and eventually Ed goes to bed. But is his bad day going to end there? Of course not; at 11;45 that damned Lisa calls, accompanied by various odd creaks and white noise. She taunts Ed for "looking up her skirt" while she was leaving the party. In return he tells her her dad is worried. He hears remote chanting and other sounds, then Lisa threatens to visit him when he's alone at night.The chanting gets louder before abruptly cutting off. Ed has another whisky and in the morning, his wife finds him huddled in a chair rocking back and forth begging God to "deliver us from evil"
Chapter 18 - Something Wicked
Giles arrives at Claire's house with a bottle of overpriced wine. Claire tells him he has to bring Lisa to meet Marcus. Giles informs her of the weird video (("Oh God, what have you done?" again. Give the guy a break, Claire!). After spending the night together, Giles heads for the university after a brief stop at home, where he finds the kitchen tap and all the lights on, a horrible stain and a bad smell. Maybe that's how he always leaves his home, but I doubt it. At the Unit he finds Steve, Jan, and even Leonie (another member, who left in a panic around the time of the Mound's opening, and rightly so). She tries to get Steve to believe that something evil is going on, and accuses him of hanging around the house after dark. I guess poor Leonie didn't leave quite early enough. Steve rudely denies stalking her and walks off.
Leonie shows Giles the 2 sacrificial remains found at the dig, the man killed a millennia after the woman. The middle fingers have been removed "only" about 500 years ago. Weird, huh? Giles does some paperwork, tells Steve to go easy on Leonie, and heads off to another town hall meeting. Giles wanders around the Christmas market, buys Claire some roses (aww, isn't he sweet?) and just catches "the packed 6:15 to Wilmslow". On his walk to Lindow (as in Lindow Man) where Claire lives, he decides to take a short cut and follow the footpath across the Moss. Really? I'm losing whatever sympathy I had (not much) for Giles at this point. It's foggy, he gets lost, this is a bad time to recall being told by a friendly council officer a few hours ago that he's on Carver's radar and if he causes him grief he's got psychos on his payroll who'll break his legs or worse. Now things get really Jamesian; he gets spooked, runs, drops the roses (darn it) and....I won't spoil the rest.
Chapter 19 - This Way Comes
Sophie, Unit secretary, gets a call from somebody asking for Steve regarding the photos for the next day's feature. Rushing off to meet a lawyer from an internet dating site, she tells him Steve can usually be found at the Royal Oak after work. But she forgets to ask who he is. Steve's had a bad day, his latest girlfriend Anna has dumped him, and he feels he's just drifting downhill. He's consoling himself with a second pint when "a striking blonde in a long black coat and boots, wearing bright red lipstick" shows up and asks to join him. Needless to say, Steve happily agrees. No points for guessing it's our Lisa. She flatters him shamelessly, then inveigles him into a night-time photo shoot by the tomb 'a kind of male tomb raider". As they get closer to the dig, Steve beings to feel apprehensive, as well he might, especially when he notices Lisa has no camera. Lisa quickly suggests they, shall we say, "consecrate" the mound and then she'll take a few photos with her phone. As you've no doubt guessed, things don't exactly go the way Steve wants them to.
Chapter 20 - A Very Ancient Evil
Giles is helped up by a man out walking his dog. He returns to Claire's and later meets Marcus and Gwen. They repeat that he and his colleagues have let an ancient evil loose, that it's now inside Lisa, and that "the first recipient of that malice will be whoever opened the tomb". Giles tells him there's no need to worry about Steve, "he's sceptical.... and probably never spends a night alone". Marcus wants to contact the present Vicar, who attended the same college as him, and has read up on Ed's cv and asked around. Marcus can't reach Ed because the line's busy, and Giles doesn't feel right leaving a voice mail on Steve's phone. Giles decides to spend the night and they open another bottle.
Ed was on the line with Si again, who demands he "get rid of the dossers", pronto, or he'll sort them and Ed out. Ed calls Davenport who agrees to go with him to his old estate. Nigel has craftily kept a key to let themselves in. Of course Si shows up, complaining that they didn't use the front door, demanding Ed get the churchyard cleaned up by Christmas eve for a house warming "in style, know what I mean; quality, celebs, footballers and wags, only the best". He further informs Ed that he's had his last warning. Suddenly, they hear a distorted screeching voice and "see a wild figure, long coat billowing behind, moving at a speed no runner could match". Si wants to know what the eff that was; Ed tells him it must be Lisa, and he and Nigel go running after her. Si runs back home as fast as his legs can carry him.
Chapter 21 - In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
Ed and Nigel have no luck finding Lisa; Nigel suggests Ed return home while he goes to the Mound to see if anyone's there. Ed gets a call from Marcus, who explains who he is and that he thinks Ed is in danger. Ed agrees to meet him the next day. Meanwhile, Pc Wilson and WPC Dixon witness a lorry clipipng a 'wild figure" who was zigzagging across the carriageway.Gemma and "Ges" rush towards the prone figure, only to have it grin evilly at them and hurl itself at Gemma. She's knocked over and radios for assistance while Ges struggles with the horrible figure. He begs for help and she somehow finds the courage to do something. They wait for assistance.
Davenport meanwhile is in an ambulance with a badly mutilated Steve. They arrive at the hospital where Nigel gives a statement to a policeman, who's uncle worked on his estate. They meet Dixon who explains what happened to them and that they must have encountered the same being. Then he's driven home.
Chapter 22 - The Anatomy of A Ghost
Marcus tells Giles and Claire some details of the failed exorcism. He suggests they exorcise Lisa so the evil will be forced back to the Mound, after which they would seal it up as it was before. Giles is sceptical.
Chapter 23 - The Calm Before
Marcus, Gwen, Giles, Nigel and his cousin Richard meet at the vicarage. Giles gets a call explaining what happened to Steve, and Nigel tells the others of their night. Giles leaves to visit Steve, picking up Jan on the way. Steve has aged 30 years and all his hair is now white. He leaves Jan with Steve to pay Rose a pity visit. He's shocked to find her like a wild creature, snapping and yelping. She tells him he woke the dead and must pay the price. Outside, Jim and Richardson show up; Richardson very upset having seen his daughter and blames Giles for his daughter's condition. So does Jim, who tells Giles he hopes he can "put all this together" and warns him to take care, as does Steve who passes the message on through Jan. Jan decides to go and stay with her dad in Glasgow.
Chapter 24 - No Escape
Giles and Claire go out for dinner; Claire insists Giles has to get Steve back to the Mound and they seal it up as it was, after she's got the evil out of Lisa. They go home to find something very disturbing has happened at her home.
Chapter 25 - The Dark Church
Marcus demands Ed conduct the ritual, as the holy man of the place. Then he needs to conduct a second ritual, burying one of the bones under the church. When? On Dec. 21st of course, the winter solstice. They leave and return to the vicarage, where Mary points out an unkindness of - I mean a murder of - ok, a very large flock of ravens, crows and rooks around the Hall.
Chapter 27 - Term's End (there's no Chapter 26 but let's not read anything into that)
Giles takes the remaining staff out for a Christmas lunch. Most leave as quickly as possible, not to return until early January. Tim stays around, telling Giles more about Heatly-Smythe's terror when last seen at dinner with a college don. He raves about an unseen pursuer, before running out never to be seen again. Then Tim says he thought he saw someone staring at them from behind a screen. Lately he's had that feeling a lot, which started while looking at the Davenport papers about Heatly-Smythe. To relax he's off to Venice for 10 days, although he's made arrangements to view yet more Davenport papers which happen to be stored there. Giles returns to the Unit, decides to leave shortly after, when he's confronted by the "apparition" of Steve, who now "looks like something fresh out of Hell". They talk, Steve cries, Giles invites him to stay with him and Claire.
Chapter 28 - The View from Room One7B
Weird things are happening in the hospital where Lisa is staying. The temperature keeps changing, patients see things that aren't there, etc. An elderly patient claims an unfamiliar nurse tried to take our her stitches in the night. Of course she isn't believed, and her son is persuaded to make his mom stay. She's later found sitting upright, rigid with fear, and dead. Soon the fears spread to the staff, causing Lisa to be moved to a more remote room. Her room also alternates from being warm and cold (but always damp) Sometimes Lisa is found crawling along the ceiling or half-way up a wall, but mostly she just lies on her bed with a "smile" on her face. Not surprisingly, most staff refuse to serve her or call in sick.
Her dad and Jim come to visit. A "soft but harsh" voice telsl them "They know what you've done and it's time you paid" amongst other things. They quickly leave, and agree not to return. PC Barford shows up to see if Lisa can give a statement. He runs out screaming that his throat was attacked from inside, and Lisa is moved to a secure unit.
Chapter 29 - A Murder of Crows
The fuzz show up at Nigel's door, saying Si Carver has made a complaint against him and Ed, believing they've hired vagrants or local youths to frighten him away. Of course Nigel denies it, as does Ed when they go over to his place. Some of Si's staff have quit, and of course all those birds flying around are a nuisance. Even the police see that Nigel and Ed can't be blamed for any of it, and take their leave.
Derek Richardson leaves a note to Si saying they've brought "this" down on themselves and that he hopes "it'll be worse for you. You deserve it". He goes out, leaving his wife drinking gin in front of the wide-screen tv, and drives to the woods near Devil's Mount. Armed with a rope, he chooses a suitable tree....
Chapter 30 - A Curtain On The Dark
Ed, Steve, Marcus, Giles et all share dinner before planing the next day. Claire, Gwen and Marcus would drive up to Lisa in her secure unit, while Giles, Steve and Ed would later re-seal the tomb and ritual pit, ahving first stolen the bones from the Unit's lab. Marcus would phone them to tell them when the time was right, and Nigel would be around because it was part of his legacy.
Claire, Gwen and Marcus are allowed into Lisa's room, where Marcus loses faith in himself after seeing her as she now is. Gwen pushes Marcus outside, somehow leaving Claire locked inside and alone! She merges with Lisa's mind or more correctly of course with the entity that's taken over Lisa's mind. After help is summoned to cut the door open, it opens by itself. Despite their expertise, Gwen and Marcus don't seem to realize that the entity is now inside Claire as they head for the Devil's Mound.
Chapter 31 - Winter Solstice
Steve and Giles move the prehistoric remains and the carvings of eyes into a minibus and transport it to the Mound site. They rebury the remains and Ed conducts a ritual. Things get very grim for awhile, before success is or seems to be achieved. Everybody leaves together, except for Nigel who decides to meet his destiny in the form of the watcher.
Envoi Christmas Eve
Steve goes to Scotland. Ed visits Nigel who's had a stroke. we learn that Si's party will soon be crashed by "something dark" which "began to move disconnectedly but at unnatural speed across the brightly lit, frost-covered lawns towards the Hall. Yay! It ends with the typical sort of ending for this type of book, which is ok by me.