Below you will find an excerpt from my debut horror novel DEEP LEVEL, which was published by darkstroke books 1st October 2020.
It is the story of four friends who stumble upon a secret Victorian underground network beneath the streets of London. They set out to explore it, only to discover that some things are kept secret for a reason.
The idea for the book came to me in a nightmare in which I was being pursued through endless tunnels by a silent, steamless, driverless engine. In another part of the dream I was being hunted by a dark presence with long, spindly limbs and growing eyes. If I let it get too close cobwebs would form over my eyes and I would feel my life force ebbing away.
I woke up excited and thought, “Wow! That would make an AMAZING story!” so I wrote it all down before it faded away, as dreams so often do. And thus, my career as a horror writer was born.
What you are about to read is from chapter one. Rosalind, Syeeda and Ffion have met up at a local cafe to await Rich, who will be picking them up to take them exploring. Enjoy.
It began early one morning and ended later that same day. It was a November morning, cold and dark, and the wind carried a touch of the Arctic. The buildings loomed black and erect like tombstones against the sky, which was a deep cosmic-blue and star-sprinkled.
The lifelessness of Gunnersbury Lane was broken by the huffing and puffing of a lone woman, engaged in a peculiar sort of non-run; arms moving rapidly, legs not so much.
Ffion was late, as usual. You’re like a bloody train, her friends would say. You’ll be late for your own funeral. She wondered what cheeky remarks awaited her in the cafe where two of them were waiting.
It was the shock of bright red hair through the window that first snared Syeeda’s gaze. “Aha! Head’s up,” she said as a rosy-cheeked Ffion slinked in through the door. “The human matchstick has finally arrived!”
“What was it today then?” asked Rosalind, looking back over her shoulder. “Leaves on the line? Wrong kind of snow?”
“Shuddup,” said Ffion with a sheepish grin.
The windows were streaked with condensation as the warm air inside collided with the cold morning frost without. The place smelled of tea and beans.
“Alright, Jase?” asked Ffion of the man in the apron behind the counter. “How about a cuppa then? I’m bloody knobbled.”
“ANYTHING ELSE, LOVE?” boomed Jason. He did not do quiet.
Ffion looked back at her friends. Rosalind had a bacon buttie in front of her and Syeeda was getting stuck into a plate of beans on toast. No butter. She felt a pang in her belly.
“Have whatever you want, Fee,” said Rosalind. “It’s on me.”
“Full English, please, Jase.”
“THAT’S MY GIRL!” Jason bellowed. From behind his steamed-up glasses he ogled Ffion up and down with longing eyes. He had nursed a thing for her since she’d arrived in this particular corner of London (with small child in tow) from the south Wales town where she’d grown up. Unfortunately for him, she had relocated to be with her boyfriend. That was two years and another baby ago.
“HAVE A SEAT THEN, MY DARLING, AND I’LL BRING IT OVER TO YOU!” He hauled his tall, gangly frame off to the kitchen where he proceeded to yell something at an understrapper.
Ffion pulled up a chair and, as she sat down, she gave Rosalind’s hand a little squeeze. “Thanks, Roz,” she said.
“That’s alright,” replied Rosalind. “God knows how long we’re going to be down there for, so you’ve got to get some fuel in you.”
“Well, I hope it’s not going to be too long. Greg’s mam’s coming over later and she said she’d treat us to a Harvester.”
“Can I come?” asked Syeeda.
“No. Bugger off,” chuckled Ffion.
“So what’s the German for breakfast?” Rosalind asked Syeeda.
“And beans on toast?”
“Um. Bean is Bohne so beans must be Bohnen. I don’t know what toast is but bread is Brot.”
“Still at it then?” said Ffion.
“You’re certainly starting to sound more German,” said Rosalind.
“Yeah. I sussed out that in Germany they say their R’s in the back of the throat.”
It was a few weeks spent hiking in the Stubai Alps in Austria with her sister the previous summer that had inspired Syeeda to start learning the lingo. She already spoke two languages and she liked the idea of being truly multilingual.
“So are you still planning on going back?”
“Yeah. We’re looking at maybe next summer.”
“And how is Jas?”
“Great, actually. Up to her eyes in work but that’s how she likes it.”
As Syeeda was talking, Ffion was fishing her mobile phone out of her bag. She placed it on the table in front of her and swiped the screen. Rosalind cleared her throat. Ffion looked up to see Rosalind’s eyes dart down to the phone and then back up to meet hers.
“Oh yeah. Sorry. Forgot.” Ffion put her phone back in her bag.
“She did that to me too,” Syeeda sighed.
Rosalind ran a hand through her short, greying hair. “Have I told you my theory about why the zombie is the bogeyman for the modern age?” she asked, addressing both of her friends.
“And this has what to do with mobiles?” asked Syeeda with an arched eyebrow.
“You’ll see,” Rosalind smirked. “In America in the fifties, it was all flying saucers and aliens. That’s because their biggest fear at that time was the threat of Soviet invasion. So the whole flying saucers thing was a metaphor for invasion. In the eighties it was all body-horror movies, like The Thing and The Fly, because of AIDS. The corruption of the body. Go back about fifteen years or so and that’s when the so-called torture-porn movies started coming out, because America was stomping across the Middle East renditioning people and waterboarding them.”
Ffion was transfixed. Where was Roz going with all this?
“In Japan it was Godzilla and other assorted giant mutated monsters, because of the fear of radiation after the atomic bombs. But the bogeyman for today is the zombie. Everywhere you look, there’s zombies; Walking Dead, World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. You can go and have zombie experiences where actors in make-up will chase you around, for god’s sake. And why? Because of these.”
She pulled her mobile phone out of her pocket and held it up.
Ffion and Syeeda looked at each other blankly.
“Okaaay,” Syeeda eventually said. She sounded unconvinced.
“Yep. Every single day, everywhere you go, all you see are people plodding along, stupefied, phones in hand, not looking where they’re going, mouths hanging open, only half aware. And what do they all look like?”
“Zombies,” said Syeeda and Ffion in unison.
Smugly, Rosalind slipped her mobile back into her pocket.
“But you’ve got a mobile.” Ffion couldn’t help but point it out.
“Yes, but mine’s not a smartphone,” replied Rosalind. “It’s not internet-enabled and I certainly don’t plod around staring at it when my attention should be on what I’m doing. Not that there’s going to be much of a signal where we’re going today.”
“Or any signal at all, for that matter,” added Ffion.
“I would literally die without my phone,” Syeeda stated firmly.
It was at moments like this that Rosalind usually called Syeeda out on her use of the word ‘literally’, but it was still early and right now she simply couldn’t be bothered.
“I have to say,” said Ffion to Rosalind, “I never had you down as the type to go poking around in old tunnels full of rats. I thought you were too posh for all that.”
“Oh, thanks a bunch!” Rosalind gasped, genuinely offended. “Posh indeed!”
Syeeda laughed. Basically, Ffion thought that anyone who had a degree was posh.
“And what about you, Syd?” asked Ffion. “I thought you were supposed to be out on a date today.”
“Well, I was,” Syeeda replied with a curl of the lip, “but I called it off. To be honest, I’d rather be hanging out with you guys, even if it is in some grotty old subway.”
“Aw, bless you,” said Rosalind.
“Yeah, cheers, Syd,” Ffion said with a smile. “So, how’s work going?”
“S’alright,” Syeeda replied with a lazy shrug. “Been on wars this week.”
“What are wars?” Ffion asked.
“Work available reports.”
“Some of the work jargon you come out with absolutely blows my mind,” said Rosalind. “My favourite one is the warm hand-off.”
“What the hell’s a warm hand-off?” Ffion spluttered.
“Transferring a live call to a specialist,” replied Syeeda.
Rosalind shook her head. “I can’t get over the fact that instead of just calling it ‘transferring a call to a specialist’, they called it a ‘warm hand-off’. Jesus.”
“I think it’s amazing, I do,” Ffion beamed. “Any jobs going?”
“Back-end access is another one,” Syeeda continued, ignoring Ffion’s question. “You’ll often hear someone asking someone else if they have back-end access.”
“So what does that one mean?” laughed Rosalind.
“If you have database access.”
“Working in your place sounds like a Carry On film.”
“A what?” Syeeda asked.
“Have you got any more stories for me to read then, Syd, is it or what?” asked Ffion.
In her spare time, Syeeda wrote and illustrated short stories, which she circulated amongst her friends before putting them into a box and then forgetting about them. Ffion was her biggest fan.
“Almost. I’m working on one now about the boy who invented the spitball.”
Ffion’s face lit up. “The boy who invented the spitball? Brilliant. I don’t know how you come up with this stuff. What’s it called?”
“Charles Lippincott Ball.”
“You’re wasted in the civil service, Syd,” said Rosalind. “You should be a writer.”
Syeeda said nothing.
“How’s work with you then, Fee?” asked Rosalind, picking up the slack of the conversation.
“You won’t believe what happened yesterday,” she scowled. “Some woman came in with her two kids, bought them tickets and some popcorn and stuff and then left them there to watch a film. When she came back later there was no sign of them – they’d buggered off early – and she went ballistic. Started blaming us. Went up the wall, mun!”
“So she was using the cinema as a cheap babysitter, basically,” said Rosalind.
“Not that bloody cheap, but yeah. She was really kicking off, so we had to call security on her.”
“How old were they?”
“No. The kids. Did she find them?”
“About ten or twelve, I reckon. And I dunno. Security told her if she didn’t calm down, they’d call the police on her and she’d probably get nicked for neglect as well as threatening behaviour or whatever.”
“What film was it?” asked Syeeda.
“Does that really matter?” Rosalind asked with a wry smile.
“It matters to me.”
“Last Jedi,” said Ffion.
Syeeda rolled her eyes. “No wonder they left early.”
“Mmm,” Ffion agreed.
“HERE YOU GO, MY PRECIOUS!” boomed Jason as he placed a steaming-hot full English breakfast in front of Ffion. “I’VE THROWN A COUPLE OF BLACK PUDDINGS ON THERE AS WELL FOR YOU! ON THE ‘OUSE!”
“Aw, cheers, Jase,” said Ffion, giving him a little wink. “You’re a star, you are.” She was well aware of his feelings for her and could have played him like an Xbox, but she wasn’t that kind of person.
She had started dating her first husband at the age of twenty, back in 2008. Or, as Ffion was someone who measured time by movies, when Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda and Twilight were on release. They were married four years after that, in 2012 (The Avengers, Skyfall), and welcomed their first and only child together, Iwan, a year later (Despicable Me 2, Frozen). In 2014 (Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent) Ffion discovered that her husband was “doing the dirty” on her. The following year (The Force Awakens, Minions) she left her boy with her mam for a week and went on holiday with her Carmarthen friends to Portugal and met her current boyfriend, Greg. Actually, she did more than just meet him, and in 2016 (Rogue One, Deadpool) she gave birth to her second son, Geraint. By this time, she had jacked in her job in Carmarthen and joined Greg in Acton so that they could all be a family together, and so far, so good.
“So,” she said, “what time’s Rich picking us up?”
DEEP LEVEL is available now from Amazon in ebook and paperback formats.