This week Sam Hurcom gives a taster from his excellent debut novel – a gothic, wonderfully dark tale.
This extract has been taken from my first gothic crime novel, A Shadow on the Lens, published by Orion in 2019. The novel follows Metropolitan police special investigator and forensic photographer, Thomas Bexley. Bexley travels to the village of Dinas Powys in South Wales, (my hometown) to investigate the brutal murder of a young woman, Betsan Tilny. Upon arriving at the town, he finds villagers who are unwilling to co-operate with him, and a crime scene that has clearly been staged.
In this scene, Thomas arrives at the local church, where the Betsan’s body is being held in the cellar. At this stage in the novel, Thomas has begun to feel unwell, though the circumstances surrounding this remain a mystery.
All Saint’s Church – June 18th, 1904
I rubbed my face, felt the heat and sweat on my skin and the throbbing veins in my temples. I looked around; the unbroken blue sky had gone, now shrouded in bright white cloud that weighed upon the air and made it dense and cloggy.
We stood amidst a handful of tiny cottages, all of which had thatched roofs and poorly constructed exteriors. They were rustic, on the verge of collapse, older even than those that surrounded the Twyn at Dinas Powys. Beyond were the farmlands, and Cummings informed me that further north, carrying along the track we had arrived on, was the Old Court Farm and Manor that presided over much of the land.
We pulled up alongside the man Joseph, who was waiting on the road with his cart still fully loaded.
‘You took an age,’ he cackled as we stepped off and began moving the goods back to his cart. ‘Were you lost?’
Neither I nor Cummings answered. When the task was done, Joseph hopped upon his wagon and set off without a word of thanks.
I fetched my case and headed into the grounds of All Saints church. It was a small space, littered with a few crumbling gravestones and memorials. The church itself was of a simple construction, furnished with only a few discreet glass windows and a stout bell tower.
The place was deathly quiet, devoid of bird calls or even light breaths of wind. I stopped in the graveyard and looked behind me, towards the cottages and the wheat fields. It seemed nothing was moving except for Cummings tending to the haycart and his horse.
I heard a voice call my name and turned to see Constable Vaughn emerging from the church, alongside a priest of some standing. Cleric Richmond was tall and well built, with stocky forearms and such deep lines across his face they appeared like cracks in bone-dry masonry. His eyes were heavily deep set, shrouded, in a fixed expression of scolding. His robes seemed dreadfully unbefitting, far too short in the legs and arms.
Both he and Vaughn remained in the arched entrance to the little church. Vaughn greeted me as I approached, and I cleared my throat to introduce myself to Richmond.
‘Bexley,’ I rasped.
He offered his hand with no word of welcome.
‘I hope this has not been too distressing for you and your congregation, Reverend,’ I said in a cordial manner. He only shook his head a little. Vaughn handed me a thin dossier – the report he had completed on the case. I tucked it under my arm as the cleric gestured for us to step inside.
The nave of the church was draped in shadow. What little light crept in through the small and grimy windows was augmented only by a range of beeswax candles spread along the aisles and as far back as the altar. Like its exterior, the church interior was simple and unadorned. Thick cobwebs seemed to hang everywhere, and heavy plumes of dust drifted with each of our steady footfalls. Though it should have been cool, the place was stifling, the air too thick to breathe.
Richmond led us down the aisles. The heady smells of moth-eaten prayer cushions along with the stale air only seemed to worsen my state. The camera case in my hand felt heavy as I looked toward the altar and at the twisted, ill-formed wood carving of Christ upon the cross. As we passed the altar, I saw the dust lie thick upon a copy of the Saint James Bible.
By all appearances, it seemed the church had been abandoned. I knew then that Cummings had not been telling me the whole truth of this place.
Richmond led us through a narrow doorway beside the altar. The light inside his vestibule was even poorer than in the nave. The room was not small, but was so badly cluttered with bookshelves, stacks of plain wooden prayer stools and an oversized writing desk, that it was barely large enough for us. The few lit candles cast a fiery glow upon our faces. Richmond looked devilish in such light.
He pointed toward the corner of the room, and beside a rusty wood stove, a hatch was opened in the floor, revealing a few stone stairs descending into darkness. The hatch was barely wide enough to fit a grown man.
‘How on earth did you get the body down there?’ I exclaimed, taking a few steps toward the hatch.
‘With g-great difficulty, I’m afraid,’ Vaughn replied. ‘It was the best place for her.’
‘I’m not sure any of this has been in the girl’s best interest,’ I replied.
I dropped my case and knelt beside the hatch. The air around it felt colder, though the reek of the girl’s rotting corpse hit me full in the face. I admit I recoiled, caught between such a foul smell and the dry, dusty air of the vestibule. Coughing badly, I managed to stand, though my footing was unsteady. The fever was afflicting me ever more and I asked Richmond for some water. He cast me an irreverent stare and muttered that he would need to fetch some.
‘We shall need all the light you have as well,’ I groaned, rubbing my brow. ‘I require the exposure for the camera. Fetch all the candles you can find.’
‘I’ll fetch them,’ Vaughn chirped before leaving the vestibule. Richmond continued to stare at me whilst I glanced around the room.
‘I understand this may make you uncomfortable, Reverend,’ I said, meeting his gaze for a moment. ‘But as soon as this is done the body can be buried properly.’ I paused then, thinking how best to say: ‘It seems the church has not been used for some time.’
Richmond nodded his head slowly. ‘You’re quite correct.’
‘Would be best to speak to on the matter.’ Whether it was merely the flickering of candlelight across his face or his true displeasure, he seemed to grimace for a brief moment, before leaving the vestibule without another word.
I shook my head in contempt – Cummings had surely been lying to me.
I began making ready, setting my case down upon the writing desk. I removed the camera mount before checking over the plates I had brought. Before Vaughn or Richmond returned, I reached for my Enfield and tucked it in my trouser waistband. Its weight, and the butt of the revolver against my back, were nothing but reassuring.
I walked around the room and took hold of a bronze candelabra with three short candles. Vaughn returned a few moments later, bringing with him a grubby jug of lukewarm water – in which I promptly soaked my handkerchief – and a few short candles.
‘Reverend has g-g-gone to fetch more candles,’ he whispered, glancing over his shoulder.
‘He is a quiet man,’ I replied, striking a match.
‘He is upset by all this.’
I nodded. ‘And Mr Cummings?’
‘Outside, sir. Shall I fetch him?’
‘No, we have more pressing matters at hand. Fetch your handkerchief and soak it here,’ I said, pointing to the jug of water. ‘You will need it for the smell.’
Vaughn turned rigid.
‘You want m-m-m-me down there with you?’ His eyes darted from me to the little hatch in the corner.
‘I’ll need your help,’ I muttered sternly. ‘You can ensure the candlelight is best for exposure.’ I was shaking quite frantically and took a moment to be still, for a wave of nausea and scorching pain spread from the tip of my brow to the muscles around my eyes. I rubbed my face again and dabbed my wet handkerchief around my temples.
‘Our duty is to carry out these unpleasant tasks, Constable.’ I sighed and took the now lit candelabra and handkerchief in each hand. ‘I shall lead us down and you merely need fetch the lights and bring my equipment behind me.’
I said no more, for I could see Vaughn was shaken by the thought alone of heading into the church cellar. As I stepped over to the hatch, I rallied him with a stern word and he moved quickly behind me. With the briefest pause, my grip tightening on the candelabra, I stepped through the hatch into the darkness.