Welcome to The Interactive Novel, the novel that allows you the reader to decide what happens during the novel. The Interactive Novel follows fifteen-year-old Nigel Briggs, apprentice to Professor Ashcroft, as they investigate supernatural occurrences in Victorian Britain.
At the end of each weekly instalment there will be at least one poll where you will decide what happens next. Whatever option receives the most votes decides what happens. To take part, read the instalment below and then make your vote or catch up with the story with the previous Instalments of the Interactive Novel
Voting closes for the Latest Instalment on Monday the 2oth April 9am BST
The road wound its way down the hill to a small village nestled in the valley. The stone houses and workshops huddled round the river in its centre. A stone humpback bridge just wide enough for a carriage was the only crossing point. On the bank of the river a water mill churned away, smoke and the sound of a hammer against anvil came from the blacksmiths, and a young boy led an old nag along the potholed road. The rest of the activity in the small village was gathered around the churchyard. Towering over the houses was the steep spired church complete with grinning gargoyles, their grotesque stone faces leering at the mourners below.
With the undertaker’s cart blocking the road, their carriage pulled up outside the village’s only pub. A sign with the chipped and faded picture of a hook beaked crow swung above the door. Given instruction to stow their bags inside Nigel pushed open the door. With its small windows the pub was gloomy, added light was cast by candles and a smouldering fire. The dark oak bar with twisting symbols carved into the wood only added to the gloom. Against the far wall several tables were pushed together. A young girl laying the tables looked up.
“Is the landlord in?” Nigel asked.
“He’s gone to the funeral with most of the village. He will be back later for the wake.”
“I’m with Mr Berwick from Moonhurst Hall. He told me to leave our bags here.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “Mr Berwick, you say?”
“Yes, he is just outside. I can get him if you want.”
“No, you had better put them down by the door. I’ll put them somewhere safe.”
Nigel placed the three bags by the door and when he had straightened up the girl had disappeared into a back room. He wondered why the sudden mention of Mr Berwick’s name had made her so compliant.
By the time Nigel stepped back outside the coach was gone. Without muttering a word to him Berwick and the Professor set off towards the church. Nigel chased after them.
“Busy funeral,” the Professor remarked looking at the crowd of over hundred men and women congregated outside of the church. Half a dozen men were gathered beside the undertaker’s cart. A short plumb man stood beside them giving the final instructions to the pallbearers.
“He was a popular fellow,” Berwick said. “Mr Gates will have allowed most of the staff from the hall to attend the service. There will also be people from the village and local farms. Every year we hold a summer fete at the hall, just a bit of fun to give something back to the local community. The late Mr Neville used to organise the games. Mr Gates will be able to tell you more. Ah talk of the devil, there is Mr Gates now.”
A man in his late fifties was heading towards them. He was a cold looking man with a square face and heavy jaw. He walked with a rigid posture, his back straight, as if he had a pole strapped to his torso. He was impeccably dressed in a long trench coat, a top hat and black leather gloves.
“Good afternoon, sir,” Mr Gates said tipping his hat towards Mr Berwick. “I trust you have had a safe journey?”
“It was pleasant enough,” Berwick said. Speaking to Gates the nervous quiver in his voice had vanished replaced with a brisk sternness. “This is my good friend Professor Arthur Ashcroft and his assistant Master Nigel Briggs.”
Mr Gate made a brief glimpse at Nigel before tipping his hat at the Professor. “It is good to meet you, sir. I hear you are an expert in the supernatural.”
“Debunker of the supernatural,” the Professor corrected. “I assure you there is nothing that cannot be explained with the latest scientific thinking. I will soon have a perfectly rational explanation for what has been happening at Moonhurst Hall.”
“Splendid sir. This poppycock about witchcraft is beginning to interfere with the running of the household. I have already been forced to carry out disciplinary measures due to staff refusing to carry out orders. It needs nipping in the bud. Just let me know whatever you need during your stay at Moonhurst Hall.”
“I will do my good man. After the funeral I will need to have a more in-depth discussion about what has been happening.”
“However, I can be of assistance,” Mr Gates glanced over his shoulder. The pallbearers were removing the coffin from the back of the cart. “I beg your pardon, sir, but we had better get to our places. Mr Berwick you will be at the front with me. Unfortunately, Professor you and your lad will have to find a place at the back of the church.”
“Wait one moment,” Nigel called out. The three men turned to him. “One of our companions is walking to the hall. If you are here who will be there to greet her?”
Mr Gates turned to Professor Ashcroft as if seeking permission whether to answer or ignore Nigel. The Professor pressed a hand to his forehead.
“Of course, Miss Stubbs. I forgot all about her. One of my associates will be working in your household and has been instructed to report to you on arrival. My apprentice here is worried that left to her own devices she will get into trouble.”
“She will be shown to my office to wait. I will be returning to the hall along with all the staff directly after the service. I will make it my first duty on return to seek Miss Stubbs out.”
He gave a curt nod and led Mr Berwick away. They passed the cart and walked into the churchyard. Nigel and the Professor waited out on the road as the pallbearers carried the coffin through the gates and for the mourners to fall into line behind.
“I want you on your best behaviour,” the Professor said. “Remember this is somebody’s funeral. I expect you to show respect, keep quiet, and do not draw attention to yourself. Also keep an eye out for anyone acting in a suspicious manner. Our hoaxer might be here.”
Nigel and the Professor waited until the last of the attendees had entered the church before stepping inside. The church was full. People were crammed into every pew and a small group stood at the back. Above the alter was a stained-glass window depicting the crucifixion, an organ sat beside the pulpit, and large wooden beams supported the steep roof. The plain coffin was laid before the pulpit. The vicar, a jolly looking man, stood beside the lectern waited patiently until the last of the mourners had taken their seats.
“We all are gathered here today, with grief in our hearts to remember Mr Philip Neville,” said the vicar in a booming voice. While he spoke, a young boy handed out orders of service. Nigel opened the folded page where the hymns had been handwritten in spiralling text that made it hard to decipher the words.
Nigel scanned the crowd. At the front of the church was the family. The deceased’s widow and fully grown children sat on the left-hand side of the church. Mr Berwick and the senior staff of the hall and estate sat on the right. Around the church most of the attendees were men outnumbering the women by six to four. Except for Mr Berwick and the Professor, they were all from the lower classes. The cut of their suits gave them away. Many wore faded jackets that had been patched in the past. This was a rural community built round sheep farming, coal fields, and lead mining.
The congregation rose on mass. The organ began to bellow out a sombre tune. Led by the vicar the congregation began to sing as one. Nigel looked down at the order of service in his hand. He tried the first verse but struggling to keep in tune with the others fell silent. Beside him the Professor sang with gusto, unconcerned that he sang like a howling hound. Keeping his mouth moving but not uttering any sound, if anybody looked in his direction then they would think he was singing quietly along, Nigel lifted his head up from the pamphlet. He looked at the congregation, a lot of the mourners had their heads down singing quietly. There was certainly nobody acting suspicious. He found his eyes drifting to the ceiling high above. Where the cross beams of the roofing struts met were hideous carvings of monstrous faces that looked more bestial than man. Frowning he looked back down at the pulpit. The bible was in a box chained to the lectern in the shape of an eagle with the bible resting on the birds back. Yet the brass eagle had been poorly made as if the sculptor had never seen a bird. The head was elongated more like a serpent and the wings lacked the definition of feathers making them look more like the wings of a bat
Turning away he caught a sudden moment out of the corner of his eye. He turned to the foot of the lectern. There was nothing there. For a second, he could have sworn something small and brown had darted across the front of the church. He looked at the congregation. Nobody else had noticed it. Singing the final verse of the hymn everybody else was looking down at the words.
Nigel was about to dismiss it as his imagination and lack of sleep when he spotted a long pink worm vanishing round the corner of the nearest pew. He leaned forward. A hand fell on his shoulder. He turned to the see the disproval of the Professor.
“Sorry, sir” he mouthed and straightened up.
The hymn came to an end.
“Please be seated,” the vicar commanded. As one the congregation lowered themselves into their seats.
A man started to scream. He jumped from his pew frantically brushing himself off. Those beside him looked startled at his sudden outburst, then they were scrambling to their feet in horror. The vicar fell silent as all eyes turned to the sudden commotion in the middle of the eighth pew.
“Rats!” a woman screamed from the third pew on the right.
All around the church people were climbing on top of the pews desperate to get off the floor. There was screams as people swatted at their legs and patted manically at their clothes as they scrambled out of the pews towards the doors.
Nigel pushed his way against the fleeing people to the nearest row of pews. In the aisle of each pew was a small gridded vent to allow warm air to be pumped through the church. The vent had burst open and out poured scores of brown mangy rats. With matted fur and long worm like tails the vermin writhed over each other.
“Calm down,” the vicar called. “There is no need to…” He broke into a scream as a scabby rat fell from the ceiling on top of him.
Nigel looked up. Rats were scurrying across the oak cross beams. Squirming over each other the smaller rats were knocked from the beams falling on to the heads of those below. The aisle in the middle of the church was a squirming mass of furry bodies as more and more rats poured out of the vents. The rodents were everywhere. The organ began blowing notes as rats crawled over the keys. Rats scurried over the coffin, the pulpit, and a large vicious looking rodent with a malicious twinkle in its eye sat perched on top of the brass eagle head on the lectern.
The congregation broke into a mad panic desperate to escape. They climbed over the pews rather than walk upon the floor. The way the men and women scrambled over each other they were little better than the writhing mass of vermin.
Nigel felt sharp claws pricking against his legs. He looked down to see a filthy rat climbing up his thigh. Screaming with disgust he swatted the body away. He was pushed aside by a burly man rushing for the door. He barely acknowledged it. There were more rats crawling around his feet. He kicked out at the furry bodies as they scurried over his shoes.
Having seen enough Nigel pushed his way into the crowd fighting to get out of the church. Men pressed against him crushing his arms against his sides. He tried to shove his elbows out to make room, but he couldn’t move the bodies around him. Rats continued to drop from the ceiling adding to the panic. In the crush he was helpless. It was like being caught in a current as he was pushed and shoved by the crowd funnelling through the doors. He hoped nobody fell, if so they would be trampled in the hysteria. Approaching the doors, the pressure increased against him. He couldn’t breathe. A flailing limb smashed painfully into his chest. He stumbled forward and fearing he was about to fall, hit the back of the man in front of him. He was propped up and pushed out through the doors.
He felt the warm sun on his skin and the bright light in his eyes as he was carried out into the churchyard. Immediately the pressure of the crowd disappeared as they fanned out. Wheezing for breath Nigel staggered for the gates. His body was aching and throbbing from the crush at the doors. Around him men and women were frantically swatting at themselves. Some were in a state of undress as they tried to rid the rats that had climbed into their clothes. Others were rolling on the floor trying to dislodge the rodents that clung to them. The fallen rodents darted over shoes and around legs before disappearing into the graveyard.
The Professor stood by the gates chomping furiously on his pipe as watched the chaos in front of him. He stepped aside as a group of crying women ran from the churchyard. Nigel knew he would be struggling to explain what had just happened. The service had been just interrupted by hundreds of brown rats; how could he explain it. He hated being confronted by anything he didn’t understand.
“Are you ok sir?” Nigel asked. The Professor didn’t answer. He was watching a shaken Mr Berwick emerge from the hall alongside Mr Gates who appeared oblivious to the large rat swinging by its teeth from his top hat. “I have never seen so many rats. They will have to call the Pied Piper.”
The Professor rounded on him. Nigel shrunk back.
“Now is not the time for your feeble humour,” the Professor growled through gritted teeth. “Make yourself useful and suggest how this could happen.”
Nigel felt silent. The one suggestion he could make would not be appreciated. But how else to explain it. It had to be witchcraft.
What happens next is up to You!
The choices with the most votes will decides what happens next, so choose wisely.
From between the open gates Gertie watched as the carriage turned a bend in the road. She stared after it for a few moments wishing it would come back. She was not prone to second thoughts, she tended to jump before thinking, but finding herself alone at the edge of road she found her thoughts drifting back to the previous day.
At first, she had been too excited by the thought of adventure to consider what she was getting involved in. Moments after Nigel had told her to pack, she had hurried up to the Professor’ study on the pretence of seeing if he had finished his breakfast. Unable to contain herself she tapped on the door, opened it without invite, and caught the Professor with a mouthful of boiled egg as he flicked through the morning paper. He looked furious at the interruption, but with his impeccable manors could not bring himself to speak with his mouthful.
“Sorry sir,” she said.
The Professor swallowed. “Miss Stubbs what is the nature of this interruption?”
“I came to see if you needed anything?”
“Since when have you waited on me? If I wanted anything I would have rung. Now off with you and leave me in peace,” he looked down at the paper.
Gertie reached for the door.
“Wait,” he abruptly barked. “We need to have a talk.”
She grimaced internally. She had blown it in her over eagerness. He was bound to tell her he had reconsidered, and she would be staying in London after all.
The Professor gestured to the stool in front of him. She lowered herself down on to it. Nigel was right. It was uncomfortable. The hard seat was too small to begin with.
“How long have you been in my service?” he asked.
“Just over six months.”
“And we have not had chance to speak before?”
Gertie shook her head. She had little contact with the Professor. When in the house he was usually locked up in his study or his laboratory and only Nigel or Mrs Copper were permitted to answer his calls.
“What do you know of my work?” the Professor asked.
“You investigate ghosts and ghouls and prove they don’t exist, sir.”
“And what about you Miss Stubbs. Do you believe in the supernatural?”
“Of course not, sir,” she said immediately. The question had been a test. She had heard Nigel moan enough times about how the Professor would not consider the supernatural existing, to know the answer he expected. She intended to tell him whatever he needed to hear.
“Exactly, the supernatural or the paranormal are either the imagination of the gullible, fraudulent claims, or ploys performed by skilled hoaxers. Rather naively Nigel still holds on to his belief in the supernatural. It makes him a rather frustrating assistant at times. It is reassuring that on this case there will be two of us with a level head.”
The Professor stopped to have a sip of his tea. He placed the cup down and continued. “Now both Mrs Cooper and Master Briggs talk highly of you and we would not be having this conversation without their trust in your abilities. Many of my contemporaries do not believe it is the place for women in intellectual pursuit. I disagree. In my experience one’s gender does not define the strengths or limitations of one’s character. However, due to the nature of my work and the risk involved it is only prudent that I ask for your approval.”
“No need sir. You can rely on me.”
He frowned at her eagerness. “I have not even told you what I intend. I have been invited to investigate unexplained phenomena at a friend’s home. A young maid has been accused of witchcraft. It has put me in a bit of predicament. Accusations of witchcraft are targeted at women. These are circles that neither myself or Nigel can operate in. I fear as men we would be instantly mistrusted. That is why we need your help. I would like you to take a position in the house and befriend the maid. Then working together, we will clear her name from the vile accusations against her.”
“Should be easy sir. After all there is no such thing as witchcraft,” she lied. She felt hypercritical after berating Nigel for not insisting on the existence of the supernatural, but she did not want to say anything that ruined her chances of being involved in the investigation.
“Before you say yes, you must understand the risks involved. You will be there to gather information to point me in the right direction, but I will not be able to guarantee your safety. There has been a death, possibly a murder, we might be looking for a killer as well as a hoaxer.”
For Gertie, the element of danger had been the final selling point. She had hastily agreed and only now standing on a hill listening to the faint toiling of a bell from the village below was having doubts. The bell would be the church summoning the mourners to attend. It was a reminder that there had been a suspicious death, most likely a murder, caused by witchcraft.
For all her confidence, and although she hated to admit it, Gertie feared what she would find at Moonhurst Hall. She was certain witchcraft existed. She had even visited a witch for help during Nigel’s first investigation in the Potteries. That witch had been kind and helpful. Without her advice they would never have defeated the wraith that had stalked them. But she knew enough of human nature to know that there would be those who would use witchcraft for nefarious purposes.
She picked up the kitbag at her feet and turned to the drive. The stunted trees on either side of the drive were twisted specimens full of dead branches. The brown and shrivelled leaves were plucked by the faint breeze that rustled the long brown grass. The beauty of the country was waning. She suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable. The solitude and the vast openness around her were an alien feeling to her. She had grown up under the chimney stacks of the industrial Potteries, a place where people crowded and lived in squalid conditions. She had then moved to London. And although the Professor’s large house was in a wealthy borough there was still the feeling that people were always nearby. You could hear the city and see people upon the streets. Up in these hills there was nobody around for miles. She was alone, nobody to come to aid if anything happened.
A boulder in the grass to her left shifted. Startled by the sudden movement she stopped in mid stride. She tensed herself, ready to flee as the boulder rose into the air.
She laughed aloud. It was a dirty sheep its fleece grey with grime. She had left Nigel’s worries worm their way into her mind and was now jumping at sheep.
The sheep stared at her chewing on its cud. She thought there was accusation in the look in its eyes as if blaming her for trespassing on its land. Looking around she spotted other scrawny sheep picking their way through the grass. Perhaps she wasn’t so alone after all.
She followed the drive around a bend and was greeted with her first look of Moonhurst Hall. The house was a large sprawling gothic mansion. Built from heavy grey stone the building looked more like a fort than a home with small windows, thick walls, and a cylindrical turret on each corner. Off to the right was the stable house and a large walled garden made from red brick that conflicted with the hall nearby. Between Gertie and the hall was a stream running down from the top of the hill towards the valley below.
Eager to be back around people she hurried down the drive. A stone bridge crossed the knee-deep stream. Reaching the bridge, she paused. To her left was a footpath, or perhaps a sheep track following the stream to a coppice of trees in the valley below. She did not know why the path had caught her attention; it was just a narrow muddy track. She couldn’t explain it, her gut feeling mad no sense, but she knew she would find something important by following it.
She looked at the hall in two minds. She was supposed to report to Mr Gates. That was the Professor’s instructions. She had promised Nigel she wouldn’t do anything rash. She should do as she had been told and not go wandering off down sheep trails. Yet she didn’t move. There was something drawing her to the path, a strange siren call she couldn’t ignore. Nigel and the Professor would be at the funeral for a few hours. She had plenty of time to follow the path, satisfy her curiosity, get back to the hall, and nobody would be the wiser. She took a step off the bridge. The little voice inside her told her to fight the temptation. It warned that the path would only lead to trouble.
It was just Nigel’s worries surfacing in her. He had been coddling her since London like a mother hen. What gave him the right to lecture her about how dangerous this could be? Was it just because she was a girl? Well, he forgot she too had been chased by reanimated corpses and hunted by a murderous wraith. She would be careful, and she knew how to look after herself, something that she could not say the same about Nigel. With him bumbling about he was more like to be targeted by the witch than her. He would get in trouble and it would be her coming to his rescue again.
The sudden spark of fury shocked her. Where had that come from? She hesitated and in doing so realised she had been walking down the sheep trail. She didn’t even remember leaving the drive. She turned to look at the bridge several hundred yards up the hill and found herself rotating in a full circle to face the coppice. There was something pulling her onward. Without resisting she succumbed to the temptation to keep walking.
The stream bubbled beside her as it splashed against smooth rocks. The long grass shed its seeds as the hem of her dress brushed past. The trail became narrower, the mud slippery underfoot. She reached the trees, a clump of hawthorns growing in twisted tangle of branches and trunks covered in cruel thorns, their leaves brown and withered. The path headed away from the stream and into the coppice. The voice told her to turn away. That she would find nothing good in those trees.
She entered the coppice. There was no wind, no sound of animals just an eerie stillness as if she were walking through a painting. The path reached a folk. She instinctively took the left path. The branches of the trees grew into an arch that reached over her head creating a dark tunnel. There was light ahead. Feeling she was reaching her destination she sped up, the overwhelming desire to continue smothering the worm of fear in her belly.
The trees opened into a clearing in the middle of the coppice. A dozen jagged stones each the height of a man marked out a circle in the centre of the clearing. A different symbol had been carved into each granite monolith. Long grass and samplings grew between the stone marked circle and the trees, but within the circumference of the circle the ground was barren dust.
Despite the warm sun Gertie had goosebumps. The stillness was oppressive. The uncomfortable feeling that she was not alone, that something was watching her, crept over her. She wanted to turn back. The worm of fear was now a snake writhing inside her. Every instinct told her to run, but she could not turn away. Compelled she strode towards the circle. The grass on the perimeter was shrivelled and black as if burnt before turning to dust.
She stepped into the dusty circle. A sudden breeze played with her hair. Gertie tensed. She could feel the breeze nowhere else on her. It was like an invisible hand lifting her hair and letting it drop. The breeze blew again. It sounded like a wheezing breath an animal would make. Then a gust buffeted against her back pushing her towards the centre of the circle. Outside the circle the grass and trees remained still, yet the gust shoved her forward. The wind plucked at her dress, tugged at her hair, and slapped her face as if thousands of little hands were pulling at her.
Terrified she pushed against the wind, fighting to free herself. The wheezing on the wind sounded like the chanting of a guttural language. She stumbled to the ground biting her tongue. She tasted the warm bitterness of her blood. She could hear laughter as if something was enjoying her fear. Frantically she crawled through the dust. Lower to the ground the wind buffeted her less. Her hands reached hold of the grass at the edge of the circle. The wind was pulling at her legs trying to drag her back into the circle. She spat out a mouthful of blood and screaming with the effort pulled herself free from the circle.
The wind died instantly. She scrambled to her feet. The oppressive stillness had returned. She was being watched. She knew it. She could feel hungry eyes studying her. Terrified she fled the glade with a deep laugh ringing in her ears.
What happens next is up to You!
The choices with the most votes will decides what happens next, so choose wisely.