Ramsey Campbell

The February Special Guest Writer is

Ramsey Campbell

Please feel free to visit Ramsey HERE



by Ramsey Campbell


Joe knew he shouldn’t, but he did. When he saw the corner shop on his way home from school he felt glad Mrs Dillard was in hospital. It wasn’t as if he’d said so to anyone; he was alone in the side street except for the murmur of traffic on the motorway behind the houses beyond the shop. He was making for his house, which was diagonally opposite Dillard’s Provisions, when he saw Mrs Dillard watching him. She was pretending to be one of the Halloween masks in the window.

Her face always looked as though it had been squeezed pale and dry – as though someone had gripped it until the wrinkled mouth shrank small and the nose poked out thin and sharp. As Joe told himself she couldn’t know his thoughts he realised he was only seeing one of the masks, which owed some of its pallor to the white glare of the streetlamp on the corner. He forgot about it as he stepped off the pavement into the house.

The narrow hall bisected by the stairs smelled of tonight’s kebab and chips, which his mother would have bought on her way home. As Joe hung his coat from one of the shaky bunch of hooks beside the stairs, his mother came out of the kitchen, extracting ten pounds from her glittery handbag. “Just run across and get some ciggies, Joe. Hurry up so your dinner won’t go cold.”

Joe wished she’d asked before he’d started struggling to free a frayed edge of his coat from the zip, but she misunderstood his hesitation. “Don’t worry, June will sell you them. Mrs D won’t be there.” When he headed for the door his mother cried “Don’t go out without your coat. We don’t want anybody saying I don’t look after you.”

Joe shoved his arms into the lumpy sleeves as he hurried across the road. Presumably someone had bought the mask, since it was no longer in the window. How could Joe have thought it was Mrs Dillard? She would have had to clamber on all fours into the window to poke her face between the stand that held the masks and the one displaying magazines. As he went into the shop the bell above the door pinged like the microwave to which he owed most of his meals at home. June Dillard was behind the counter, talking to a customer. “I’m sorry, June,” the woman said.

“It was a relief as much as anything, Mrs Allen. Right to the end she was hanging on like grim death.”

Joe felt like an intruder. While June’s face – a chubby version of her mother’s, with a nose as long but broader and blunter – was its usual amiable self, the eyes were wetter than he cared for. She dabbed at them and donned a smile for him. “What can I get you, Joe?”

Embarrassment made him blurt “Were you talking about, Mrs Dillard?”

“She left us this morning. Let’s hope she found some peace.” As Joe wondered why June should think otherwise she said “So what’s your pleasure, sir?” like a joke she was sharing with the grown-up customer.

“My mam sent me for cigarettes.”

He saw June glance at the room behind her and remembered her mother telling her off when he’d come on the same errand. The shrill voice had felt like spikes in his ears. Mrs Dillard had disagreed just as much with his calling her daughter by her first name, though June encouraged everyone to do so. In a moment June shook her head at herself and found a pack of Joe’s mother’s brand. “Just be sure and take those straight home to her,” she said.

As soon as Joe handed his mother the cigarettes and change she tore off the cellophane so eagerly that he couldn’t help saying “They said at school those are bad for you, mam.”

“They want to get on with their own job and let the rest of us alone. Have they been up working since four? Maybe if they had to do two jobs to make ends meet they wouldn’t be so keen on telling other people how to relax.” She crumpled the cellophane and tramped just as fiercely on the pedal of the bin before stalking into the back yard to light a cigarette. “But don’t you ever start,” she called through the door.

She was behaving as every adult seemed to, telling him not to do what they did themselves. Had Mrs Dillard treated June that way? One summer night not long before she had been taken into hospital he’d heard her berating her daughter. Even if his bedroom window had been shut he might have been able to make out every word: how June left too many lights on in the shop, how she needed to stay open later because the Pakis up the road did, how she ought to ask the customers what the shop should carry as long as she couldn’t be trusted to choose only items that would sell… “And you couldn’t even get yourself a man,” Joe had heard Mrs Dillard screech, “he’d have looked after both of us,” and despite the distance he’d felt as though her voice was scraping his eardrums. How her daughter must have felt, he didn’t want to think.

When he went up to bed that night he saw that the shop lights were still on, though the sign said Dillard’s was closed. Was June wasting electricity as a declaration of defiance now that she could do as she liked? The idea made him uneasier than he quite understood. Perhaps realising that a grown-up could act that way did. He lay waiting for the traffic on the motorway to lull him to sleep – he always thought it sounded like waves on a seashore, though he’d never been.

The next night all the shop lights were lit when his mother sent him to buy lemonade. The masks in the window watched him cross the road, except they couldn’t without eyes. He didn’t think Mrs Dillard would have approved of them – last year he’d heard her telling June that Halloween was an ungodly evil business – or would she have tolerated them if people bought them? More than one of them looked like rubbery old women, and he could almost have imagined June had them in the shop for company if not to remind her of her mother. “What is it this time, Joe?” she said.

She seemed distracted, glancing into the back room again. “I only want some lemonade,” Joe said.

“You get whichever you like and don’t mind me. Late hours and having to do all the work, not that that’s anything new.” As if she’d said too much she added quickly “Maybe you’d like to give me a hand at the weekend.”

She seemed so anxious that Joe said “I could.”

“There’d be a bit of pocket money in it for you. See what your mother says.”

“You go and help June tomorrow. Don’t ever start thinking women should do all the work,” his mother said, which was one of the reasons she’d fallen out with Joe’s father. As Joe went back to tell June the decision he saw that she hadn’t sold the mask he’d seen yesterday after all; it was on a hook in the darkest corner of the room behind the counter. At least, he thought so until he reached the counter, across which he couldn’t even see a hook on the wall of the room. He must have glimpsed some kind of reflection, and he forgot about it upon seeing how much happier June looked because she wouldn’t be alone in the shop.

At first he didn’t know why. On his way to bed he noticed that the shop was lit, and so was June’s flat above it. They still were when he made his breakfast, his mother having left to clean wards at the hospital hours ago. As he crossed the street the glare of the lamp on the corner seemed to deepen the holes that the masks had for eyes. He was early enough for Dillard’s to be shut, but he’d barely tried the door when June flustered out of the room behind the counter. “Who is it?” she demanded and was visibly grateful to see Joe’s face once it wasn’t hidden by the placard hanging on the glass. “Here’s our new assistant. Let’s see what jobs we can find.”

Of course she wasn’t really discussing him with someone else. She looked as though she hadn’t slept too well, and Joe hadn’t previously observed the traces of grey in her hair. As she turned the placard to show the shop was open it must have caused a draught, because a mask in the window shifted like a head that was starting to waken. “Will you check all the dates for me?” June said. “Find out what’s so old it should be gone.”


“On the tins and in the fridge. I know I should know what’s out of date. One more thing I couldn’t be trusted to look after,” June complained and then clearly wished she’d said less.

The task occupied much of the day. Well before Joe finished taking items to show June that they were past their dates he saw her trying to hide her dismay that the articles were so numerous. She dumped them all in cartons in the back room, and Joe thought she was anxious not to let customers see them, not that too many people came into the shop. Whenever any did he thought he could help June best by pretending he was a customer.

The door kept disturbing a mask in the window. Joe saw its pale reflection shift on the glass as if drawing a breath or stretching to accommodate a face. He didn’t care for the sight, however blurred the features were, and he took to staying well clear of the window, especially whenever June retired upstairs yet again. She was in her flat when he heard movement in the shop.

Had some of the out-of-date produce attracted a mouse or a rat? The scraping on the bare floorboards beyond the sets of shelves between him and the window didn’t sound as he imagined either creature would. He was about to venture to look when a voice so shrill it made him flinch demanded “What is it, Joe?”

June strode past him before he could answer. He heard her gasp, perhaps only with exertion, as she stooped beyond the shelves. She straightened up, crumpling a mask in her fist. “No use to anybody when it’s been down there,” she said more fiercely than Joe understood. “Too grubby to live.” She marched out of the back door, and Joe heard the clang of a bin lid.

Dinnertime was imminent when Joe began to wonder if she meant to keep him in the shop until it shut. Perhaps his face gave his thoughts away, because she said “I’ll see you in the morning. Or do you go to church?” When Joe shook his head she muttered “I don’t suppose it’d do any good.”

His mother had Chinese fish and chips waiting. “How was your first day at work?”

“I liked helping June,” Joe said but wondered how he had.

“So long as it doesn’t get in the way of your schoolwork. You’ll want a better job than that and mine.”

Joe tried to think it was only the shop that kept June up so late. In the middle of the night he stumbled to the bedroom window to see that all her lights were on. At first he hadn’t been able to sleep for the noise of whatever she had on television or the radio, a thin shrill muffled voice. Eyeless faces met his gaze, and he didn’t care to look too closely at them, however many there were. He retreated to bed and did his best to slumber.

When he went over after breakfast the shop was already open. Presumably June didn’t want to risk losing any customers. He wondered which mask she’d thrown in the bin; more than one of those left in the window looked like an old woman. He was more disconcerted to see June, whose face was thinner and increasingly lined, while her greying hair looked as if she’d forgotten to brush it after a restless night. “What can you do for me today, Joe?” she said.

This sounded not so much like musing aloud as a question if not a plea. “Can I help you serve people?” Joe suggested.

 “I shouldn’t really be employing you at all at your age. They could shut me down if they found out. I know,” she added and plainly hoped. “Can you count all the stock on the shelves and write it down for me?”

She found him a clipboard and a chewed ballpoint along with several sheets of paper blank on one side, all of which made Joe feel more like a child given a diversion than an assistant. He started at the window, where he counted a dozen masks. He’d hardly begun listing tins of food on the shelves when he had to ask “Aren’t these some of the ones we took off?”

“I’ve put some back. The dates are just a guide. We can’t afford to throw away that much. Besides, it’s a sin how much some people waste.”

Joe wondered if she was repeating complaints she’d heard from her mother, especially since she was reviving some of that shrillness. By the time he finished his task he suspected that June had returned all the merchandise to the shelves overnight. He would have preferred her not to keep leaving the shop so often today, as if there was something she wanted to find or else to avoid. Being left alone made him feel watched, not least while listing the packets of cigarettes behind the counter. He could have imagined one of the masks was facing him. Of course all the reflections on the window were, and he needn’t look more closely at them.

He saw June consult her watch several times – it kept slipping down her wrist – before she said “I expect you’ll want your dinner. I don’t suppose I’ll see you till the weekend.”

She thanked him for his help and released ten pounds from the till, gazing at the note on the way to handing it to him. When his mother asked about his day Joe said “I think she just wants someone to be there with her.”

“She must be missing her mother.”

Joe wasn’t so sure. Each night when he went to bed, and whenever the thin shrill distant voice made him restless enough to get up, he saw that June had all the lights on. Perhaps she wasn’t being defiant; perhaps she simply didn’t like the dark. He couldn’t bring himself to ask his mother if she’d heard what June was listening to; his mother needed a good night’s sleep – she’d told him often enough. She needed her cigarettes as well, and on Tuesday she sent him over the road.

June’s face was thinner and more lined, and her hair was so unkempt it mightn’t have been brushed for days, although surely it couldn’t be greyer. “Please don’t make a habit of this, Joseph,” she said.

Was she calling him that as an extra rebuke? “I’ll tell my mam,” he said, which sounded too much like a childish threat. “I’ll say June said.”

June’s voice rose higher. “You can tell her Miss Dillard did.”

Joe felt worse than unwelcome. He snatched the packet and blundered out of the shop. Shutting the door disturbed a mask in the window, and he could have thought the scrawny whitish face was making an effort to turn towards him. At least it would soon be Halloween, and then all the masks would be gone from the window. Presumably June would store any unsold ones for next year.

He didn’t like to imagine them lurking somewhere nearby in the dark. He had to look out of his bedroom window to convince himself they weren’t worth any loss of sleep. He was doing his best to count them when someone out of sight behind the display took hold of a mask. It had to be June who was inserting her fingertips into the eyeholes of the sharp pale wizened face and her thumb between the thin lips. Certainly an object was poking the lips apart and squirming from side to side. Joe seemed unable to look away or move, and he couldn’t help thinking that the spectacle was meant just for him. He fell back from the window and huddled in bed, but it took him quite a while to stop seeing the mask.

In the morning he couldn’t tell which mask he’d seen. He was glad his mother didn’t need him to go over to Dillard’s when he came home from school. That night he went to bed without looking out of the window. He wasn’t expecting to sleep too well, but exhaustion caught up with him until a sound roused him. It wasn’t the alarm, although that was imminent. The small harsh noise was somewhere outside. It reminded him of digging, but that wasn’t right; somebody was shuffling across the street, except that the sound was too hollow. Whatever was inching towards him halted close to the house.

His mother had already left for work. Joe stayed away from the front windows while he used the bathroom and got dressed, all the while listening for activity in the street. All he could hear was traffic on the motorway and his own thumping pulse. He managed to hope that the street was deserted, and it almost was. When he ventured out to be dazzled by the lights in Dillard’s, just a face on the pavement was waiting for him.

It was an old woman’s pinched wrinkled face. The streetlamp made it paler and stuffed the eyeholes with shadows that could have been lumps of earth. Though it was just a mask, Joe couldn’t avoid thinking it had crawled across the road like a shell with a denizen underneath, or had it humped grub-like over the kerb onto the pavement outside his house? He needn’t fancy it had any life, although weren’t the contents of the eyeholes a little too lively for shadows? Wasn’t there some movement within the white slit of a mouth? Joe made to lift the mask with his foot, but was daunted by thinking it was like turning over a stone to see what lived underneath. Instead he trampled on it. He wasn’t sure if he felt something inside it give way, but the sensation filled him with such loathing that he kicked the mask into the nearest drain and stamped on it until the last fragment had dropped through the grid.

While he was at school it wouldn’t stay out of his mind. At least when he came home the street was empty. All the masks in Dillard’s window reminded him how many hours of Halloween were left. He was glad his mother was already home, and more grateful that she didn’t send him to the shop. But he was washing up after dinner when she said “Just go over to June’s, will you?”

“I didn’t tell you. She doesn’t like me buying cigarettes.”

“You shouldn’t really. I’ll get them myself in future.”

“That’s not all,” Joe said in desperation. “She isn’t like June any more.”

“It’ll be losing her mother, Joe. We don’t want anyone trying to scare her or trick her tonight, do we? Not when she’s in that state. Go on,” Joe’s mother said when he looked for an excuse to linger. “I’ve had a hard day at work. See how she is and stay with her for a bit if she needs company.”

Joe couldn’t help wondering if June already had some. At least when he trudged out of the house Dillard’s was as bright as it could be. The street was empty, not even a mask to be seen except for the crowd in the window. As he opened the shop door the bell went off like a timer. He just had time to see that the shop was unoccupied before it went dark.

Had the bell fused the lights? Joe wavered on the threshold while his eyes adjusted to the pallid dimness. The streetlamp left too much of the interior unlit, especially the doorway behind the counter. The lights were off in the rest of the premises, then, but why couldn’t he hear any reaction? “June?” he called, not very loud.


The voice was piercing and yet muffled. He couldn’t tell whether the word was a denial or a warning. In a moment a thin figure darted out of the back room, jerking up its hands. It had the face he’d trampled on, as sharp and bloodless as ever. The eyes might have been no more than shadows, but a tongue was struggling to part the pinched lips. As the figure lurched forward through the shadows Joe slammed the door hard enough to crack the pane and fled across the road. “June’s, there’s something wrong with her,” he cried. “Get someone, mam. Call the police. Call an ambulance.”

The emergency services seemed to think the call could be a Halloween prank, especially since Joe was unable to convey what was wrong at the shop. At last his mother persuaded the operator that a woman on her own had experienced some kind of breakdown, and Joe retreated upstairs to watch from the safest distance he could find. He heard worse than a commotion in the shop or in June’s flat – the voice screeching “Go away” and a smash of glass. He didn’t know if he would rather think that June was telling him and any other aid to go away or someone he preferred not to bring to mind.

At last he heard the ambulance. The siren drowned out her cries, though not by any means immediately. The flashing lights came to rest outside Dillard’s, and two paramedics hurried in. The shop lit up almost at once, and soon the upstairs rooms did, which only made the voice rise higher. It was still repeating its plea when the man and woman ushered their charge to the ambulance, and Joe saw the hands jerk up again to drag at the stiff white dried-up face until the attendants recaptured the arms. As the vehicle sped away Joe heard a shriller sound in the midst of the siren. Soon the deserted street grew quiet, but he was left with yet another thought he didn’t want to have: that the glass he’d heard breaking had been a mirror.

The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer”. He has been given more awards than any other writer in the field, including the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association, the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild and the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2015 he was made an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University for outstanding services to literature.

Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside with his wife Jenny. His pleasures include classical music, good food and wine, and whatever’s in that pipe.








































































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