Shadowridge Press titles in detail...

Peter Atkins
BIG THUNDER
Trade paperback / 6 x 9 / 308 pages / Publication date / Feb 2017
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A dark avenger from the pages of a 1930s pulp magazine, Strange Thrills materializes in the present day streets of Manhattan. But he is not the only character coming alive in modern New York, and not even his creator's fertile imagination could have prefigured the carnage to come.

HERE'S A PREVIEW OF BIG THUNDER

PROLOGUE

HE FIELDS OF HEAVEN


The way the sky looked wasn’t new to him.
He’d seen this before. Only five or six times in his life, and most of them in childhood, but he’d seen skies like this, seen this perfect summer moment: the sun low in the sky, heavy and full, looking so ready to fall suddenly and rapidly below the horizon that when instead it slid slowly and gently down it seemed like an elegant miracle.
He’d seen before the shadows such suns made, long and deep. Seen the grass that such suns shone on, green and rich. Seen too the light of such suns disseminate across the sky so that blue married gold and half of heaven glowed like a glimpse of vast and distant fires …
But those moments had always been moments. Here it was forever. This perfect day would never end, the sun never fall, the shadows never dwindle, the green unending hills never disappear into darkness.
On those rare occasions when his new friends weren’t keeping him busy with their wine, their laughter, their conversation, he would wonder idly about how long he had rested against this tree, how long this lazy contentment had gone on. But he had no answer. And he never wondered long.
Once, many years ago, he had walked the boulevards of Paris with a friend from student days. He had asked Greg, whose French was better than his, how Champs Élysées would translate. When he was told that champs meant fields and Élysée related to Elysium or Paradise he himself had completed the puzzle. The Fields of Heaven, he’d said, and instantly an image had flashed in his mind. This image. This sky, these gentle hills, this eternal afternoon. So he knew precisely where he was now. He was in the Fields of Heaven and, though his companions were wingless, in the company of angels.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Listen, and I’ll tell you.

There was once a man who came home from the war.

This was in Liverpool. That’s in England. You knew my mother was English, right? No? Doesn’t matter. It was Liverpool and it was 1946. The Japanese had had this man but now he was coming home. His house was at the top of the small terraced street in which my mother lived with her parents. She was still a little girl then.

It was a bright summer afternoon. She and the other children were playing in the back alley behind the street, sent there by the grown-ups. They weren’t to see the man come home. He’ll be very tired, the grown-ups had said, you can all see him tomorrow.

In the street itself, the grown-ups all stood at their front doors. There were no banners. There were no balloons. But it was meant to be a kind of collective welcome anyway. Other men had come back, of course, but he was the last resident of the street to return. Now the war would really be over.

But the man stopped the taxi short of the street. He wanted to walk anonymously up the alley and slip into his house through the back door.

The children were throwing a ball around. My mother had the ball and pitched it at her friend. My mother didn’t understand at first why her friend simply let the ball hit her on the chest and fall unheeded to the uneven grey stone of the alley floor. Then she saw her staring down at what was coming toward them.

All of the children flattened themselves against the walls of the alley. Some turned their face to the cold bricks. One small boy began sobbing in fear. My mother just watched wide-eyed as it walked directly up the centre of the alley looking neither right nor left.

The skeleton was dressed in a brown pin-striped suit and walked with the aid of a stick. The suit flapped distressingly around the absence beneath it and the nub of the stick was grasped by five un-fleshed fingers. The exposed bones of its hands weren’t white and nor was the naked skull. They were more the kind of translucent brown that you see on walls that have accrued twenty years of cigarette smoke. My mother could hear the bones creak against each other as it moved slowly up the alley toward its back door.

Its head swung only once, pivoting loosely to stare into the eyes of my mother and hold her there pinned in one long frozen second. I always asked her how a skeleton could stare if it didn’t have any eyes. It remembered where its eyes were, she always said.

#

‘Yeah, but it wasn’t actually a skeleton,’ her visitor said, reaching up for a cigarette from the bedside table.

Avis turned sharply to stare at him.

‘You calling my mother a liar?’ she said.

He laughed and shook his head as he lit the cigarette. Taking a deep drag, he lay back on the pillow and looked up at her. Sitting up, she had the sheets pinned primly beneath her arms to cover her breasts but the whole curve of her naked back was visible to him. He ran a caressing finger down her spine as he spoke.

‘Of course not,’ he said, ‘but she was a kid. She thought it was a skeleton. He must have been starved in those Japanese camps. The thinnest man she’d ever seen.’

‘That’s not how she told it.’

‘Stories grow in the telling.’

Avis looked at him for a moment, gesturing with her head for him to get her a smoke too. As he reached for it and lit it for her, she repeated in her head the phrase he had just used.

Stories grow in the telling. A truism. A platitude. She’d heard it a hundred times without thought or reaction. Probably used it herself almost as many. So she had no idea why a thrill of wonder and fear had run through her on hearing it said just then. It had suddenly felt unaccountably important to her not for any retroactive light it shed on her mother’s anecdote but in a strange precursive way, like an initial signifier of something as yet unknown that was heading toward an inevitable intersection with her life. She thought about being on the freeway at night. Sometimes you can’t see the traffic on the merging lane until quite late because the roads are at different heights or the shrubbery along the buffer has grown taller than its planters intended and therefore your first indication that another car is about to join the road you’re on is a pool of light in the distance ahead thrown from the other car’s headlights. That’s what this felt like. A light from something unseen but heading her way. She remembered Stacy Brown, a girlfriend from college, telling her that the first time she had heard the name Dale Chandler in a conversation she’d had a strange reaction as if it was a name she knew but couldn’t remember. When they were introduced by mutual friends a week later she’d realized she was wrong and that they’d never met. But now they had two kids and a house on Staten Island.

Avis doubted there were any bridegrooms in her future with the name of Stories Grow In The Telling, but something was out there. She’d just seen the glint of its headlights and soon their roads would merge.

She took a deep drag of the cigarette to clear her mind and smiled at (Oh Christ. Jim? Jack? John? Jeff!) Jeff.

‘Yeah. Whatever,’ she said and settled back down beside him against the propped-up pillows.


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