I’d like to thank the folks at JKS Communications for introducing J.H. and I; a Creative Collective opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise have happened. Horror has always been a second genre and calling of mine, and it’s that darkness (and fear and wonder) in which J.H. has spent her life dredging for secrets. First, as a journalist, then as a spinner of the macabre. They say the scariest stories come from real life experiences, in which case, J.H. has seen some terrifying shit, and I’m never going on vacation with her, ever, no matter how glamorous the destination. Having just read ‘The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave,’ I’ve also burned all of my teddy bears.
The excerpt below is from the first of J.H.’s latest books: City of Ghosts and Girl Who Talks to Ghosts. It’s a slow, creepy simmer, and I know it’s going to end up somewhere gruesome. Which is how horror should be in the end: jarring, under-your-skin. What’s the point of a suspense story that doesn’t get your heart-rate up? That’s what Murder She Wrote is for. Moncrieff’s characters are irregularly-formed: messy, imperfect people. And I like those, since I am one. No one makes it through a nightmare–as I’m hoping these two characters will–without losing a few screws from their heads.
Enough of my chatter-boxing, have a read yourself. When you’re done, check out the links above and below for more of Moncrieff’s work. Swing by her social media haunts, maybe write her a dazzling review for that great book of hers you just finished; because authors can be a bit like ghosts–vanishing–without the care and support of readers.
CITY OF GHOSTS
It was easier than I thought.
All I had to do was bide my time in one of the less popular temples, crouching behind a weird-ass statue while the guides checked for stragglers. Thankfully, they didn’t do a thorough search, just popped their bobbed heads in and glanced around before returning to their cozy cruise ships.
Guess I couldn’t blame them. It seemed like it was always pissing down rain in this part of the country—at least, it had been since we’d been here—and even though it was mid-September, it was freaking cold.
As I stepped over the temple’s sacred threshold and hurried to the place I’d chosen to camp for the night, I grinned, unable to resist pumping my fist in the air. I’d done it. What would the group say when they realized I wasn’t on the ship?
Only the terminally stupid got left behind on a tour, so they’d probably figure I was hung over again, and in that, they’d be partially right. It takes skill to get a decent buzz on the watery crap they call beer in China, which is why I switched to the rice wine. Doesn’t take much to feel it, but you pay for it the following day.
It was only six o’clock, but the sun was already setting. Flipping up the hood of my jacket against the drizzling rain, I whistled to keep myself company, careful not to slip on the wet path. The place where I’d decided to spend the night was perfect. Even though it had fallen into ruin, this particular temple still had a bit of roof left, so I’d be able to get dry. Since it was open to the air, I wouldn’t have to worry about my campfire burning it down. There was enough junk in there to keep a decent fire going—not that I was worried.
It wasn’t like I believed in ghosts.
China has plenty of ghost cities, but I’d gone for the most infamous. The locals believe spirits actually live here. Now that Hensu was empty of tourists, with their incessant questions and stupid umbrellas hitting me in the head every time I turned around, it had an abandoned feel that was more than a little creepy.
A figure loomed out of the darkness, brandishing a sword at my skull, and I jumped before realizing it was another statue. In the daylight, with its pig-like face and coating of moss, it had been comical. I wasn’t laughing now. Why the Chinese decided to fill their ghost city with fake ghosts was beyond me. If they really believed spirits lived here, the statues were overkill.
I dug a flashlight out of my daypack and clicked it on, but that just made things worse. It cast an eerie blue glow that danced in the statues’ eyes, turning their grins into leers.
“Chill, Jacks,” I muttered to myself. “They’re rocks, and you don’t believe in this supernatural shit, remember?”
There was no way I was gonna drain my phone battery to see where I was going, no matter how much the blue light spooked me. What the hell was wrong with me? Why had I regressed to the age of ten? Gotta be the hangover. I had to lay off the booze. Who knew what was in that Chinese stuff? I’d probably pickled my brain.
It took me about ten minutes to scrounge enough wood for a decent fire. By then my fingers were numb with cold and my stomach was growling. There hadn’t been time to grab breakfast on the ship, and I’d forfeited lunch when I’d ditched the tour. The sooner I could get a hot meal in me, the better. Maybe then I wouldn’t be so damn jumpy.
A flicker of movement outside the shelter made me look up. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled.
Wait…was that statue closer than before?
It had been a lot farther away when I’d set up camp. I was sure of it.
That’s ridiculous. Statues don’t move.
Still, the way the light danced in the sculpture’s eyes was unnerving. A log cracked in the fire, startling me so much I laughed out loud.
There was definitely something out there, and it was getting closer.
Probably just a dog.
That didn’t make me feel much better. Any dog out here would be hungry. Not to mention ill tempered. Of course the one thing I hadn’t brought was a weapon. Against a ravenous animal, my Swiss Army knife would be useless.
The sound was louder now, and worse, it felt intentional. Peering into the darkness beyond the fire, I couldn’t see a thing. My legs began to tremble, and I really had to piss.
Get a grip, Jackson. It’s probably a frog. Or a mouse. Just a wee rodent, not some gargoyle from the Chinese underworld coming to get you.
I didn’t believe it. Not for a second. For one thing, that sound was too deliberate, too sneaky. I’d lived in a dorm for four years, for Christ’s sake. I knew what it sounded like when someone tried to sneak up on me.
My tour group had returned, spotted my campsite, and now a few of the guys were having some fun at my expense. No doubt they hoped I’d scream like an idiot so they could record it for posterity on their phones and broadcast my humiliation all over social media.
I leapt to my feet. “Stop fooling around, guys. I know you’re out there. Show yourselves, or I’ll come out there and get you.”
The rustling stopped.
Clutching a plank of wood, I tried to seem somewhat intimidating.
Water dripped from the ravaged roof in a slow and monotonous trickle. It was enough to drive me insane, but at least the rain had stopped.
Then I heard another sound—one that wasn’t as easy to dismiss.
The crunch of footsteps on the path, gradually getting louder.
Maybe it was a dog.
A rabid dog.
Something out of Stephen King’s nightmares.
I shone the flashlight down the path, squinting into the dark.
Still the footsteps moved closer.
“Who’s there?” I yelled, grateful my voice remained steady. My hands were another matter, causing the light to waver. “Hello?”
The path was empty—until it wasn’t.
There was a glimmer of white, and a pale face emerged from the darkness. I stumbled backward, nearly impaling myself on what was left of the firewood. Retreating until I hit one of the posts that held the shelter upright, I willed whoever it was to go away. I hadn’t signed up for this.
It was a prank, just a stupid prank to make some cash.
The air in the shelter changed, becoming heavier and heavier, weighing on my lungs and pulling them down, down, down.
My breath escaped with a tiny squeak.
A young woman stood outside the remains of the temple, staring at me with huge, dark eyes. She wore a coat that was three sizes too big for her and her feet were bare.
Sagging with relief, I pressed my hand against my chest as if I could will my heart to slow down. “You scared the crap out of me, girl. Where did you come from?”
The girl continued to stare at me without speaking. I was getting that prickling feeling on the back of my neck again, and I didn’t like it.
“Were you with a group?”
What happened to her shoes? If she’d planned to spend the night, she certainly hadn’t put much thought into it.
There was no hint of recognition at my words, no indication she intended to reply. Her expression was as blank as it had been before I spoke. And then it dawned on me.
She doesn’t understand a word I’ve said.
Traveling would be so much easier if everyone spoke the same language. Squirming, I was wondering how I was going to get rid of her when she responded.
“I live here.”
“You speak English?”
There was an unbearable pause while she studied me in silence. Finally, I couldn’t take the awkwardness any longer.
“What do you mean, you live here? I thought this place was abandoned.” Then it occurred to me she might be homeless. Hensu would make an ideal hideaway for the down and out. No one came around at night, and during the day, she could blend in with the hordes of tourists. She’d need some shoes, though.
“Yeah, right. Where, in the pagoda?”
In the middle of the town square was a pagoda thousands of years old. The ground underneath was so saturated with moisture that the pagoda could disappear into a hole in the earth at any moment. I knew I was being a jerk, but I was tired of playing games. Being alone in the ghost city had been creepy, but stumbling through this clumsy small talk was much worse.
“My house is down there.” She indicated the hill our group had climbed to reach the ruins of the abandoned city. At the bottom, there was a dock where small boats deposited their cargo of wide-eyed tourists and their cameras.
Sure. Sure it is.
Then it dawned on me.
“Let me guess—you’re one of the actors, right?”
Dozens of costumed performers wandered the site during visiting hours, posing as judges of the underworld. No doubt there had been a few ghosts flitting around as well. This girl, with her pale face and bare feet, would be a natural.
“I’m not an actor. I’m a musician.”
“What do you play?” I asked, though I couldn’t have cared less what this strange girl did for kicks. I wanted to get back to my project, and there was no way a ghost was gonna drop in with all this chitchatting going on.
“I’m a violinist.”
“Do you have it here? Your violin, I mean?”
I liked the idea of hearing some strings. From the look of her hands, I was willing to bet she could play something beautiful. Maybe even Vivaldi.
Best of all, we wouldn’t have to talk.
She lowered her head, dark hair closing over her face like shutters. “It was destroyed. In the flood. Along with everything else.”
Then I got what she’d been trying to say. Her tense was off—understandable, considering English wasn’t her first language. What she’d meant was, she’d lived here. Before the flood waters came and her village was evacuated.
“Why don’t you sit down and warm your feet? They must be freezing.” Realizing I was still gripping my pathetic weapon, I tossed the plank of wood on the fire, which sent up a torrent of protesting sparks. She didn’t move, only continued to stand at the entrance of the temple, watching me.
“I wasn’t invited.”
“Well, you’re invited now. Come on in.” I hunkered down next to the fire and stretched my chilled hands toward its warmth. As she hesitated, I waved her in. “C’mon, sit. I don’t bite. Seriously, get closer to the fire. You look cold.”
“I’m always cold.” She finally took a seat on an old floor beam across from me, watching me as if I might, in fact, bite.
“Said every woman ever.” Now that she was talking instead of dissecting me with her eyes, I appreciated the company. One thing our tour lacked was any opportunity for meaningful interaction with the locals. Hopefully having someone to shoot the shit with would make the night go faster, because it was obvious nothing supernatural was going to happen. In order for my book to be a best seller, I’d have to make shit up, but that was okay. Writers did it all the time. I’d call it…I know, narrative non-fiction. “Would you like a Coke? It’s lukewarm, but at least it’s something.”
“No, thank you.”
My mouth was dry—probably from the many times I’d rammed both feet into it—so I drank what was left in my can. As I slurped the flat, syrupy sweetness, I could feel her staring at me again. It took everything I had not to squirm.
“That sucks about your violin. Wasn’t there enough warning to pack your stuff?”
With my excitement over the tour and seeing an abandoned city for the first time, I hadn’t given a thought to the people, the ones who used to call this village home. What they had gone through; what they had suffered? Some of those families had probably lived here for generations, and having to leave everything behind must have been painful.
She stared at me like I was the stupidest guy who’d ever crossed her path, and I was definitely feeling like it. “Pack my stuff?” she repeated with excruciating slowness, as if she were speaking to a mentally challenged child.
“Sorry…gather your belongings? Were you able to gather your belongings?”
“You weren’t given any warning?” Her story was giving me chills. Of course I’d heard of people losing everything in a flood, but this particular flood was manmade, the result of rerouting the Yangtze River through a new dam.
Her brow furrowed in confusion. When she wasn’t wearing that you’re-an-idiot expression, she was quite pretty. Not exactly babe material, but she had potential. Too young for me, though. I guessed she was in her early twenties. “Warning? For what would I need warning?”
“To gather your belongings. Your violin and everything. So you could take it with you when you left.”
She sighed. It was the longest, most exasperated sigh I’d ever heard. It seemed to come from her toes and work its way upward, deflating her. “I don’t understand your questions. I never moved. I’ve never gone anywhere.”
Either she didn’t comprehend English, in spite of her ability to speak it, or she was disturbed. Neither scenario was ideal. Time to change the subject.
“So… have you seen any ghosts around here? I’m writing an article about the Hensu hauntings.” With all the stealth I could manage, I nudged my recorder closer to her. If she had a good story, I wanted to capture every word.
“Ghosts?” She raised an eyebrow at me, and fluttered her hands at the nearest statue, the one that gave me the creeps. “Ghosts are everywhere.”
Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this writing stuff, especially if I had to interview the locals. Getting paid to travel was cool, but I could always harvest rice crops or haul garbage out of the ocean. At this point, that seemed preferable.
“Yeah, I saw those, but I’m not talking about statues. I’m talking about the real thing.” When she continued to stare at me without speaking, I exhaled a sigh of my own. Turning on my phone, I checked the time. It was just ten thirty—how was that possible? Ordinarily you wouldn’t catch me going to bed before two in the morning, but it had been an exhausting day, and the after-effects of the previous evening’s rice wine were haunting me. Behind my right eye, my brain throbbed.
Piling the fire high with the last logs and bits of kindling, I glanced over at her. She was still watching me, her face as expressionless as a mask. I wanted to ask her to stop, to look somewhere else, but how do you say that without being offensive?
I regretted asking her to stay. Having her around was beginning to feel worse than being alone.
She cocked her head to one side, as if she were an entomologist and I were some freakish species of bug that had crawled onto her microscope. “You are reporter?”
It took me a minute to get her meaning. “Not really. I’m more of a…creative writer, I guess you’d say.”
My aptitude for bullshit knows no bounds. That counts as creative, right?
“But you write. You tell stories.” An insistent tone crept into her voice, like she was accusing me of lying.
I was getting that hinky feeling again. Even though every pitiful instinct I had was screaming at me to deny it, I chalked up the paranoia to exhaustion and the last of yesterday’s rice wine torturing my beleaguered liver.
“Sure, I guess.” Leaning forward, I stirred the embers with a stick, feeling her eyes burning into me.
“I look for someone to tell my story. You—you could tell my story.”
Oh shit, here it comes. “Maybe. It depends. What’s your story?” At least it’ll help kill a few minutes.
I expected her to launch into an autobiographical tale, or perhaps start talking about her music. Instead, she appraised me through the firelight, her eyes large enough to swallow her face.
Her scrutiny was unnerving.
“The world must know my story, but I am not sure you are the right person to tell it.”
Wow. Keep your old story, then. “Okay.” I shrugged, wondering why she’d brought it up in the first place. “Fair enough. But my tour group is only here until tomorrow. Then our Yangtze cruise ends and we’ll be traveling by bus again.”
Her lips curved in a smirk that seemed to mock me. “Do not worry. I will find you.”
ABOUT J.H. MONCRIEFF
J.H. Moncrieff’s work has been described as early Gillian Flynn with a little Ray Bradbury and Stephen King thrown in for good measure.
She won Harlequin’s search for the next Gillian Flynn in 2016. Her first published novella, The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave, was featured in Samhain’s Childhood Fears collection and stayed on its horror bestsellers list for over a year. The first two novels of her new GhostWriters series, City of Ghosts and The Girl Who Talks to Ghosts, will be released on May 16, 2017.
When not writing, J.H. loves visiting the world’s most haunted places, advocating for animal rights, and summoning her inner ninja in muay thai class.
To get free ebooks and a new spooky story each week, check out her Hidden Library.