It’s back! The blog advent calendar. I enjoyed last year’s blog theme last year—re-reading twenty-four books of my youth—so much, so this year I’m applying the same approach to short stories, trawling through a myriad bunch of collections and anthologies I’ve read in the last few years.
December 24th: A Lot Of Mince Pies by Robert Swindells
Tell me about your first time: I was an enterprising child, and one Christmas, aged – I think – eight years old, I decided to make a book. I think this was the year after I’d been given a ‘make your own newspaper’ kit, and my ambition had expanded, along with my equipment; I now owned a word processor, and our house had a photocopier. I could also, if asked, spell the word precocious perfectly.
It was to be a Christmas book I decided, and so I set to collating the contents. Carols, and other bits and pieces. And a story. Heedless to copyright law, I got a book of Christmas stories from the library and decided to copy one of them. (When I was searching for this story I was convinced it was a Point Horror collection, but the only listing for this story’s publication I can find is the Oxford Book of Christmas Stories; that cover does look familiar.) The one flaw in my budding career as an editor was that I neglected to read the story beforehand, (presumably basing my choice entirely on the fairly homely sounding title), and so, as I tapped away at my word processor, I became more and more aware as I continued that perhaps this story wasn’t quite going to be appropriate for my conservative Christian family.
And so, round about the line ‘a lot of sharp teeth’ I stopped writing. I wasn’t entirely certain, at eight years old, that I fully understood what was happening at the end of the story, but I do remember being thoroughly discomfited by it. I’m not sure if I finished the story; if you’d asked me before I re-read then I couldn’t tell you what happened afterwards. But there’s something powerful about still remembering an image from something you read as a child years later, and that moment – the mouth full of sharp teeth – is one of them.
I don’t think I ever actually made the book in the end (though it’s odd isn’t it? Eight years old and already *I* was censoring their reading, and not the other way around.) But I do remember that afterwards I tried to write my own Christmas horror story, though I don’t remember much about what it involved other than a river and some snow. But that seems like a perfectly good start…
Sum it up: The final house of the carol-singing round harbours a dark secret…
Give me a quote: “His lips parted, and I saw why he couldn’t talk. His mouth was crammed with spikes. As soon as I saw that mouth I knew what he was, but by then it was too late.”
Second reading: I did worry that if I came back to this story then I’d find it simplistic, prosaic, childish; I thought I’d read it and wonder what I’d been so scared of when I was a kid. But no: this story is still creepy as hell, it turns out. Of course, what’s happening is much clearer to an adult reader than a young child reader (the story never actually says the word vampire, but that’s its only nod to ambiguity) but it’s evocative even in its simplicity, and I found myself completely engrossed.
(Though, slightly jarring, perhaps specifically to my ears, were two lines: ‘I’m a boy. Boys don’t kiss boys’ and ‘He was beautiful. I know that’s a weird word to use about a boy.’ I couldn’t decide how I felt about their presence in the story; you could take it as characterisation, or you could take it as authorial assumption of social values. The story is thirty years old though, so I guess I should be forgiving. Mind you, it did amuse me that it was the vampire teeth, and not the whole boys-kissing-boys bit that made me decide it was inappropriate for my family to read.)
Where can I read it: I’m slightly unclear what book you can find it in, but you can hear it as part of the Night With A Vampire radio series, narrated brilliantly by David Tennant. This isn’t the official place, but some dodgy soul has uploaded it to youtube here.