This month, Titan Books is releasing a new edition of Kim Newman's Jago and we've been provided with an excerpt to share with Daily Dead readers.
Synopsis: "Paul, a young academic composing a thesis about the end of the world, and his girlfriend Hazel, a potter, have come to the tiny English village of Alder for the summer. Their idea of a rural retreat gradually sours as the laws of nature begin to break down around them. The village, swollen by an annual rock festival of cataclysmic proportions, prepares to reap a harvest of horror."
Excerpt from Kim Newman's Jago
Under blood-red clouds, the Reverend Mr Timothy Charles Bannerman touched a lucifer to his sexton’s torch. Flames curled like instantaneous ivy about the pitch-clogged cotton. When Old Jerrold held it up, wind-whipped fire was briefly transparent against the sky.
‘Quickly,’ said Bannerman, ‘before it goes out.’
He pulled his ulster tight against the ice caress of winter, and wished he had thought to save his gloves. A pile of combustibles towered three times a man’s height in the centre of the clearing. Jerrold thrust the torch between dead branches into the straw, cloth and paper heart of the structure. Bales in the middle – good hay which in other years would have lasted until spring – caught easily. Epileptic flickers lit the insides, and dancing black bars of shadow were cast upon the villagers. Deep in the belly of the fire, wood began to crack and spit. The burning heap shook, and settled for the first time.
‘It would be as well, I think, if we all stood a little back.’
Others followed the vicar’s lead, but the heat reached further, unwilling to free them. Bannerman’s hands were pleasantly warm now. He admired the bonfire. The vicarage library was in there. The collected sermons of his predecessors could serve no better use, and there would be little further call for novels, tracts or bound periodicals. His flock had looted their homes, scavenging anything that would burn. Clothes and books were easiest to bring up the hill; but those whose households were equipped with neither had taken axes and split doors, beds, tables, fences. The sparse furniture of a double handful of lives was cast away, leaving souls the purer for the sacrifice.
They had been gathering fuel for some weeks now, with the enthusiasm usually reserved for guy Fawkes’ Night.
Neighbouring villages had mocked over mulled wine and mince pies on the 5th of November. The story had been that the people of Alder proposed to set light to their own houses by way of honouring the failure of gunpowder Treason. There had doubtless been no little measure of disappointment in the taverns and taprooms of Achelzoy and Othery when this had turned out not to be so. Bannerman’s flock had its ambitions set higher than the preservation of Parliament. No effigy in a tall hat perched atop this fire. The clothes crammed into it were Sunday best or workaday sturdy, not worn-through scarecrow castoffs.
‘How the stuff of this world burns, sir,’ said Jerrold. ‘How the things that are dear to men and women are as nothing in the sight of the Lord.’
‘Quite,’ Bannerman replied. ‘Should it be deemed necessary that we pass through the eye of the needle, we shall have no need of Mr Lewis Carroll’s fabulous elixir.’
‘Indeed not, vicar,’ replied the sexton, who (Bannerman at once realized) could have understood but half his allusion, ‘indeed not.’
The faithful of Alder had begun to gather on the hillside in the middle of the afternoon. Now they stood about, uncertain. Most were quiet, some doubtless inwardly afraid, some radiant in prayer. All were wrapped in the solemn business of putting away from themselves everything they had known. Fields had been neglected for days, tools abandoned on the bare earth, bewildered livestock left to wander. Down in the village, a dog was howling for its supper. A few had brought house animals with them. The graham child struggled with an armful of kittens.
Bannerman turned away from the fire. He saw the familiar view as if for the first time, knowing this was his last look at the Somerset levels. The red in the sky spilled across the horizon, staining the wetlands as they had once been stained with the blood of the Monmouth rebels and King’s men who fell at Sedgemoor. Until tonight, that had been the last battle fought on English soil. An older rebellion, Bannerman thought, was about to be put down. Out on the moors, just visible from the clearing, a lone farmer stood with his cattle. Jem Gosmore had chosen to be with his beasts at the last, not his wife and children.
Occasionally, a ripple of talk would run around, as of the crowd clearing its shared throat. But mostly the flock was quiet. Quieter even than they were wont to be of a Sunday morning, during Bannerman’s sermons. He sensed barely suppressed elation among them, but also unconquerable unease. The widow Combs was silently weeping. He could not tell whether her tears were for Geoffrey Combs, dead three weeks too soon to be here, or for her front curtains, reluctantly yielded and just now crumpling in the flames.
He had assumed they would sing hymns, but did not think it ought to fall to him to propose the notion. Bannerman could feel the strength of his congregation’s faith when their voices were raised in ‘He Who Would True Valour See’ or ‘How Amiable Are Thy Tabernacles, O Lord of Hosts!’ Granver Shepherd had brought his fiddle, but seemed undecided whether to play an air on it or pitch it into the fire. Often, after a strenuous bout of bowing, Shepherd remarked wistfully, ‘I don’t know, when the time comes, as I should care to exchange this old instrument even for a harp.’
Shepherd tossed first his bow, then the fiddle itself, on to the fire, and stood back. As the wood buckled and smouldered, the catgut snapped with eerie, high-pitched sounds. Granver backed into the crowd and received the sympathy of those who had likewise surrendered their dearest possessions. Many had given up the tools of their trades, thus their earthly livelihoods. Despite the heat, Bannerman shivered. His first doubt worried gnatlike at him; he hastily brushed it away.
The people of Alder were not wrong. He was not wrong.
There was an outbreak of chattering as the Misses Pym, pretty Alice and prettier grace, arrived, trailed by their father. Tom Pym was bent double under a wicker hamper. Several younger men came forward to relieve him, and, opened, the hamper gave testimony to his daughters’ well-proven talent for the manufacture of cakes, tarts and sundry sweetmeats. In a burst of excitement, suddenly hungry queues assembled, and the Pym girls began to distribute their produce.
Alice came to him, bearing a fat cream horn, and smiled with deliberation. She was trying to show her dimple to its best advantage.
‘Mr Bannerman, would you care...?’
‘Thank you, Alice. I believe I would.’
He took the confection out of politeness, but found it disappeared in three bites. His normal appetites, which he had thought reduced to insignificance by the momentousness of the occasion, were running strong. Of late, he had neglected the trivial necessaries of a life soon to be abandoned. Now he rather regretted his absent-minded abstinence from the honest pleasures of the table. Other abstinences, not quite thought of, bothered him too, but...
Alice fluttered around, inquiring after the cream horn. He rewarded her with a kind word, which he instructed her to halve and share with her sister. When she gave no sign of practising the prescribed generosity, he called grace over and bestowed the demi-compliment in person. Miss Alice shone a little less than previously, and Miss grace’s habitually pert expression shaded microscopically into smugness.
There was no doubt but that the Misses Pym were the local beauties. Attentions, thus far unrewarded, had been paid to them by young men from as far away as three parishes. Had things been otherwise, Bannerman might have been disposed to consider either as a suitable match himself. In addition to his living, he had holdings from his late father. The girls could not find a more marriageable prospect within the county boundaries. Tradition would seem to indicate that he pay his attentions to Alice, the elder Miss Pym, but he suspected that his inclination would be rather towards grace, the younger. But things were not otherwise.
He caught Jerrold frowning disapproval as the Misses Pym pressed more food upon him. The sexton had lived sixty-six years and never married.
The girls let him be, their father having summoned them elsewhere to be praised for a particularly successful jam pastry. Bannerman wiped traces of cream from his moustache with his handkerchief, and threw the balled linen into the flames. It was alight and gone like a mayfly. He tried to think about anything but the Misses Pym, and found it easy. The coming events bulked large in his mind. He could not help but regret in some small way the need totally to abandon the life he had made for himself. He tried to compose himself, to lose the tautness in his throat. He stepped away from the heat that excited his exposed skin and warmed his clothed flesh.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, he consulted the half- hunter his father had presented to him upon his graduation from Lampeter College. ‘Make something of yourself,’ he had exhorted. He snapped the watch shut and pocketed it. From this moment onwards, he would have no more use for his father’s gift, but he did not think to toss it to the fire.
The almanac entry for the day – Tuesday 8th November 1887 – had been proven correct. The sun had gone down at precisely eighteen minutes to five o’clock. The book was in the fire now, never to be right again. By its reckoning, the sun would rise again at fourteen minutes to seven tomorrow morning. In this, Bannerman knew the almanac to be wrong, for tonight was the Last Night of the World.