Reviews by Christi Nogle and read by Kat Day for The Fiends in the Furrows 2: More Tales of Folk Horror edited by David T. Neal and Christine M. Scott and the Gordon B. White collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Distruptions.
The Slow King
by Tim Major
Campbell’s dad watched him from beyond the cordon, through the gap between catering vans. Reluctantly, Campbell raised his hand – a motionless salute rather than a wave – but his dad’s eyes continued to scan from side to side.
Campbell jammed his hands in the pockets of the padded gilet he had been forced to wear. He surveyed the collection of makeshift tents. Their interiors glowed red with light from large electric bar heaters.
“Excuse me,” he said to a middle-aged woman hurrying in the other direction, “do you know where Laine is?”
“Kid, I don’t know where anyone is.” The woman brandished a folded sheet of paper. “But if I don’t get these new lines to Kier’s trailer in the next few minutes then I’ll be taking a turn up there myself.” She nodded at the two metal cages that hung from the tree at the foot of the hill. They were the shapes of birdcages but each big enough to hold a person. A stepladder had been placed below one of them and a man in a day-glo tabard was testing the metal bars of the cage.
Campbell trudged across the space between tents, where boardwalks with raised treads had been placed over the wet grass. He wondered how long he’d have to stay before he could legitimately return to his dad and say that he hadn’t been needed after all. His dad wouldn’t be happy. This was a big opportunity, he had said.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Campbell turned in the direction of the voice. This woman was young but the lines on her forehead suggested she was a natural worrier. Her wide eyes made Campbell imagine her as a burrowing creature unused to direct light.
“I was looking for Laine,” he replied. “Laine Owen?”
The woman laughed, though not unkindly. “You do realise how in demand he is right now?”
“Sorry,” she said. “Why would you know that? Stupid Ruth. I don’t talk to children often.” She held out her hand. “I’m stupid Ruth.”
“I’m Campbell.” He shook her hand, enjoying the maturity of the action.
She tilted her head. “Really? How appropriate. Anyway, you’ll have your work cut out if you want to speak to Laine – he’s got folks lined up to get his approval on any number of decisions. And directors just love making people wait. It’s all a power trip. What do you need him for? He’s not your dad, is he?”
“He came to my school. Him and a woman, but I don’t know her name. He asked if any of us wanted to be in his film and then he ended up picking me.”
Her face lit up. “Really? That’s pretty cool. I was told I could be in it too, but the only thing on offer was ‘flirtatious wench’ and I told them it just wasn’t me. But I’m hoping I’ll end up at the back of a crowd scene at some point. Is that what you’ll be doing too? Or is it a part part?”
Campbell felt his cheeks glow. “It’ll sound like a big thing when I say it, but it isn’t. I don’t have to speak. I’ve never acted before, except in the school nativity.”
“Apparently I’m going to be the ‘Slow King’.”
Ruth’s wide eyes became even wider. “Serious?”
“That’s what Laine Owen said.”
“You’re the eponymous Slow King?”
Campbell grimaced. His dad used long words like that, then got crabby when Campbell didn’t follow. “What does that mean?”
“Shit. Sorry, I’m just demonstrating my ineptness with kids, aren’t I? And sorry for saying ‘shit’ too. You’re too young for that sort of language.”
“Yeah.” She sucked her cheeks. “’Eponymous’ means giving your name to something. I’m guessing you haven’t been told the title of the film yet?”
“I wasn’t told anything. They got in touch with my parents and my dad sorted it all out.”
“The film’s called The Slow King.”
They looked at each other for a while.
“Don’t go quiet on me, kid,” Ruth said. “You’re my only friend here.”
Campbell blinked. “I was just wondering whether maybe it was the title that got Dad interested. He always says that films are rubbish these days. But ‘slow king’ is sort of our joke because it’s what we call chess.”
“That’s not much of a joke.”
“All right, not a joke. But I called chess ‘slow king’ back when my dad taught me how to play, because the king can only take one step at a time. I was only maybe four, though.”
“He taught you to play chess when you were four?” Ruth said with a smirk.
Campbell nodded and thrust his hands back into his pockets. “Dad thinks it’s important to learn new skills and get really good at them. He says life demands a lot and you have to be prepared.”
The way Ruth was looking at him made him feel uncomfortable. He blew on his hands and folded his arms.
“We’d best announce you,” she said, turning. “Hey! Anita! I present to you the Slow King.”
A woman in a nearby tent, who was sitting on a canvas chair and leafing through a stack of papers, looked up. Her eyes travelled over Ruth and then Campbell without interest. “Didn’t you hear? Everything’s delayed. Laine woke up this morning with a thunderclap of an idea which I’ve no no doubt must be evidence of artistic genius, but which also means everything’s been back-to-front from the off. We’re not doing the Slow King scene ‘til one at the earliest.”
Campbell looked at his watch. It was only half past ten.
Ruth rolled her eyes. She gave the woman a half-hearted thumbs-up, then put an arm around Campbell. “You brought your parents along with you, I suppose?”
“My dad. Even though he said he can’t imagine anything worse than hanging around on a film set.”
“Sounds like a riot, your dad. Let’s go find him.”
When they returned to the cordon, Campbell could see no sign of his dad. The car was gone too.
“Don’t fret,” Ruth said. “He’ll have popped into town, assuming you’d be busy for a while.”
Campbell nodded uncertainly.
“How about you and I hang out while we’re waiting for your big scene?” she said.
“Don’t you have things you need to do?”
Ruth gave a hollow laugh. “Hardly. I’ve been given the grand title of Historical Adviser, but from day one it’s been clear that an accurate depiction of eleventh-century society isn’t precisely what floats Laine’s boat. There are three stunt coordinators on set, for goodness’ sake. The most dramatic sort of event in Yorkshire in 1020 would have been, I don’t know, a fight over a pig. Commoners weren’t all performing parkour in their spare time. Anyway, I’m being paid to hang around on set but I swear nobody’s asked my opinion even once – so a little company is more than welcome, Campbell.”
A thought occurred to him. “Why did you say my name was appropriate, before?”
Ruth grinned. “Come on, Slow King. I’ll show you.”
The metal boardwalks continued beyond the tents and trailers, leading to the foot of the hill. The man in the day-glo tabard was now standing at the foot of the stepladder, holding it steady as another person climbed up. The climber shrugged off his long duffel coat. Underneath he wore only a tattered loincloth and his body was covered in lesions and mud. He hunkered inside the metal birdcage, pulled the door to, shuffled on his haunches a little and then gave a double-thumbs-up to the man standing below.
Further along, Campbell saw the roofs of shacks. As he and Ruth climbed the hill a group of people came into view, standing in the centre of the ring of tumbledown huts. They wore rough, dark outfits and their boots sunk into the thick mud. A cameraperson weaved in and out of the crowd, followed by a gaggle of people wearing wellington boots, thick jackets and woollen hats. A tall man holding a long pole with a microphone attached to its end reached over the heads of the other crew members, glancing down every few seconds to avoid losing his footing.
Ruth pointed at two people in the middle of the group of pretend villagers. “What did I tell you? They’ve both got fucking swords, for pity’s sake. Sorry again for swearing.”
“And that isn’t how it would have been in the year 1020?”
“There’d have been no need for them. Farm tools, yes. Swords? No chance. And I’ve seen those things up close, at the props tent. They both look like Excalibur or the Sword of Grayskull or something. Worth more than everything else in the village combined. Un-bloody-believable.”
But she was grinning, all the same. Campbell decided that he liked her very much.
“Anyway,” she said. “Don’t pop your head up again, otherwise you’ll be in shot and we’ll be in trouble. Over here’s what I wanted to show you.”
Further around the base of the hillock the slope became more pronounced, forming a natural passageway between the hillside and an area of sparse woodland. Campbell wondered whether the cart tracks on the ground had been made naturally, or whether the production team had created them for the film.
“They’ve been using this bit of track for filler scenes of journeys,” Ruth said. She pointed at the side of the path. “There, take a look at that.”
A large shard of stone protruded from the ground, a marker stone for travellers. Campbell bent to read the place names inscribed upon it.
A violent shudder passed through his body.
He reached out a finger to trace the letters. It wasn’t real stone – perhaps fibreglass.
“You okay?” Ruth said. “I thought you’d get a kick out of it.”
Campbell rose. He turned to her but couldn’t speak.
Ruth pointed in the direction from which they had come. “See, that village is modelled after Campbell – or rather, the village that would later be known as Campbell. The sign’s inaccurate because the settlement was so tiny it didn’t even have a name in 1020, though that’s the least of the historical facts that have been ignored on this film. Anyway, so you’ll be Campbell the Slow King, in The Slow King, set in Campbell. Neat.”
“But what about the other place?” Campbell said. His throat was dry and his voice didn’t sound like his own.
Ruth frowned and looked at the two place names written on the fake marker stone. “They only built one of the villages for the film. Coombes is the next town along.”
Campbell shook his head. “But it’s my name.”
Ruth stared at him as though he were an idiot.
Campbell gestured helplessly at the marker stone, indicating the top place name and then the bottom one. “Campbell Coombes. That’s my name.”
Ruth laughed, then stopped abruptly. “Really?”
“That’s… wow. I can’t begin to imagine what the chances might be. You don’t have links with Yorkshire, do you? Ever been to the East Riding, or have any family up there?”
Campbell shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
Ruth exhaled and rubbed her chin. “Weird, huh?”
“You said your dad—”
“Yeah. Maybe my dad knew. Maybe he already told me. I don’t always listen properly. My dad says sometimes it’s like I’m just not there.”
Ruth nudged his elbow. “Hey. You seem all right to me. And nobody listens to everything their parents say. What are you interested in?”
“I play lots of chess, and I’m having piano lessons—”
“That wasn’t what I asked.”
Campbell puffed his cheeks. “I like stories.”
“Let me guess. Your dad doesn’t approve?”
“He buys me information books. How the world works. He says I have to be prepared to be an expert in everything, if I want to make a success of my life. He says if I get myself properly ready there’s nothing to stop me ruling the world.”
“Hmm. What kind of stories?”
“Old ones. Stories about way back. Myths and legends.”
“All right. Now you’re talking my language.”
“But I’ve never heard about the Slow King. Is it real?”
“It’s a real story, which I suppose is what you mean. It’s mentioned in hardly any books, to be fair. That makes these coincidences even stranger…” She trailed off, then shook her head. “My guess is that with this boom in Folk Horror films, they’ll scour the history books for every last superstitious ritual Britain has to offer. Your man Laine thinks he’s the next Piers Haggard.”
Campbell nodded, though he barely understood what she had said. “Then what’s the story?”
Ruth linked arms with him and pointed along the path. “Let’s keep walking. The story of the Slow King is barely anything at all, but compelling all the same. A thousand years ago – it’ll be literally one thousand years next year, when this stupid film will be thrust upon the cinema-going public – the residents of the-village-that-would-be-Campbell and the surrounding settlements suffered what I guess you might call a shared hallucination, a mass hysteria… Sorry, no, that’s my analytical brain speaking. The actual story is that for whatever reason the population believed that one person among them was special – so special and so strange that he shouldn’t be forced to live among them, or even live in the same era as them. They weren’t idiots – they knew that their lives were close to meaningless, little more than basic survival. It seems they couldn’t bear the thought that this special one among them would be forced to eke out the same kind of existence.”
“What was special about the boy?”
Ruth smiled. “You’re way ahead of me. Yes, this person was a boy. And it wasn’t recorded quite what was so unusual about him. There are hints, though my Old English isn’t too hot. I suppose nowadays you’d phrase it as the boy being ahead of his time.”
“And they called him the Slow King.”
“The name came later. Myths are created by the accrual of details and elaborations. The villagers didn’t necessarily call him anything at all, when they conducted the ceremony.”
Something registered in the periphery of Campbell’s vision. He strode ahead, past tall metal poles topped with chunky unlit lamps. A bright yellow JCB blocked the path, the scoop on the end of its long arm lowered towards the hillside. Campbell thought it looked like a brontosaurus grazing.
“The team were way behind schedule digging it out,” Ruth said. “They finished during the night, hence the floodlights.”
Campbell kept walking until he stood facing the hillside where the digger’s scoop touched. It had taken bites out of the earth, creating a hollow that was head height at its outer part, but became lower the further back it went. Campbell crouched but couldn’t see all the way in.
“Is this where they did the ceremony?” he said.
Ruth’s voice seemed to come from far away. “Sure. This is the recreation of the location. You can visit the real thing in the East Riding. I did try to explain that to Laine, but he was taken with the idea of all the location work being in this one spot. Probably there are a ton of financial reasons for that.”
“And they put the boy in here?” Campbell said. Everything seemed to be growing darker, the longer he looked into the hollow. “Why?”
“Because the world wasn’t ready for him yet.”
“Because he was the Slow King.” Campbell swallowed. His throat hurt, as though it was scalded. “What were they hoping would happen?”
“That he would be preserved ready for his right time.”
“He’d get up and walk out of there?”
“It was more convoluted than that. They expressed it in strange ways. It wasn’t so much as him rising, like Jesus after the crucifixion. They said the boy himself would ‘bring him into life’. Does that make sense?”
Campbell didn’t turn from the hollow. “He would make himself alive again, just using his mind?”
Ruth hesitated before replying. “I suspect that this boy – whoever he was – his specialness may have been his ability to describe unusual things. Back then, sages were essentially storytellers. That would explain this assumed ability to simply imagine himself into being, when the time came.”
Seconds passed in silence.
“But Campbell, none of that means— Oh hell.”
Campbell rose and turned. “What? What’s wrong?”
Ruth was staring up at the sky, her hands shielding her eyes. It was only now that Campbell realised that clouds had covered the sky and that it was raining. He shivered.
“The forecast was clear all week,” Ruth said. She groaned. “This’ll set things back. Let’s dash back to the tents and see what the damage to the schedule will be.”
Campbell glanced at the hollow.
Ruth was hopping from foot to foot, her body hunched. Her mousy brown hair had already turned black with wetness.
“You go,” Campbell said. “I’ll be along in a sec. I don’t mind rain.”
She hesitated. “Aren’t I in loco parentis right now, or something? I’m sort of responsible for you.”
Campbell put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “I’ll catch up with you. I promise.”
Ruth frowned at his hand, but nodded slowly. “Okay then. Don’t be an idiot and catch hypothermia, because then they’ll pick another boy to bury.”
With that, she turned and scurried back along the path.
Campbell crouched once more before the hollow and ignored the rain.
He barely remembered the long walk home. His dad’s car hadn’t reappeared. Campbell didn’t have a mobile phone and had never memorised either of his parents’ numbers.
He was shivering from the cold as he trudged into the cul-de-sac. Rainwater made rivers that snuck under his shining gilet, his jeans were stiff with wetness and his feet squelched every time his shoes made contact with the pavement.
Both of his parents’ cars were parked in the driveway to number 12. Even if his dad had been shopping in town, why had he returned here rather than the film set?
He plodded up the steep driveway and onto the doorstep. He tried the handle but the door was locked. He had never been trusted with a key.
He pushed the doorbell. He waited twenty seconds, then pressed it again.
There were lights on in the sitting room.
The rain was too loud for him to hear the chime of the doorbell. Maybe the battery was flat. He rapped on the glass panel of the door, then again, louder.
He padded around the porch and into a narrow flowerbed, then pushed himself onto his tiptoes to peer through the window. His house was at the top of a rise, and from this low angle he could only see lampshades and the top of the wall-mounted flatscreen TV. He jumped into the air and landed with a nauseating slapping sound, his trainers sinking into the soil of the flowerbed.
In that brief glimpse he had seen figures. They were in the conservatory which adjoined the sitting room.
Sighing, he tramped to the wooden gate at the side of the house. It was locked too. With some difficulty he scrambled up the sheer surface, using the hinge brackets as footholds. The upper edge of the gate was rough; splinters dug into his hands. He dropped down on the other side, landing badly and falling to the wet concrete. He tasted blood in his mouth – he had bitten his tongue. Wincing at the stinging sensation in his mouth and in the palms of his hands, he limped along the side of the building.
The back garden was impossible to make out in the growing gloom. Wasn’t it only early afternoon? There must be a storm coming. He should get inside as soon as possible.
The light coming from the conservatory made a yellow halo on the surrounding paving stones. Through the glass walls Campbell could see three figures. His mother stood in the archway that led to the sitting room. Her arms were folded and she was watching two people who were seated opposite one another in wicker chairs, both looking down at a chess board on the coffee table between them.
At the far side was Campbell’s dad. His hands were raised in a prayer pose. His index fingers smoothed his moustache again and again. It was his thinking posture.
Campbell couldn’t tell who the other player might be. From the rear it appeared he was male, with short, fair hair. He was shorter than Campbell’s dad, and leaner. The stranger reached forward and moved one of the chess pieces.
Campbell stumbled forwards. He rapped on the glass just as thunder sounded overhead. Inside the conservatory, the heads of his mum and dad and the stranger all shifted to glance at the roof. Campbell still couldn’t see the stranger’s face.
He knocked again. Nobody inside reacted and he couldn’t hear the sound himself.
He waved his arms, trying to get the attention of his mother and father, both of whom were facing more or less in his direction. Neither responded.
Campbell strode onto the lawn. Now he stood perpendicular to the chess players and directly opposite his mother. The unknown chess player was a child, perhaps around Campbell’s age. His head was bowed to the chess board.
“Mum!” Campbell yelled. But her eyes continued moving between her husband and the boy.
His father tapped his lips twice, reached out to move a chess piece, then sat back in apparent satisfaction.
Campbell squinted at the boy. Was it one of his friends from school? He tried to think who might have called for him. He was shocked to realise that no names came to mind – of anyone in his class, let alone any of his friends. Getting drenched must have made him ill. He should be in bed.
Suddenly he felt very afraid.
He launched himself at the glass wall of the conservatory, battering on it with a fist.
His dad looked up again. Then he turned to Campbell’s mum and said something that Campbell couldn’t hear. His mum nodded and shielded her eyes to stare at the sky, shaking her head.
The boy seemed unaffected. He reached out a thin arm and moved one of the black chess pieces, then plucked one of the white ones from the board. Campbell was surprised to see that only the black king now remained.
Then, without any particular show of satisfaction, the boy turned from the chess board and looked out into the garden.
Where the boy’s face ought to be was only a blurred streak, as though he were staring at Campbell from behind a rushing waterfall.
The woman gripped Campbell’s neck, forcing him to look up at her.
Campbell stopped struggling and allowed her to continue dabbing at his face. She must be nearly finished. If Laine had explained that he would have to undergo all this time in make-up, Campbell would never have agreed to take the part.
The woman hushed him. He had forgotten to ask her name. Like Ruth, she must have been offered a part in the film. Her hair was matted and her face was plastered with fake grime.
He waited for her to finish. “When will it be time for my scene?”
She nodded patiently.
Campbell looked up at the black sky. “It was supposed to be one o’clock. Wasn’t it supposed to be a daytime scene? Wasn’t that what the director wanted?”
The woman only frowned at him.
The canopy that had been erected at the foot of the hillside was doing nothing to keep out the chill wind. Campbell wished that he had been offered one of the padded coats that reached to your feet, or at the very least the silver survival blankets that he seen the principal actors wearing around their shoulders between takes. His ragged shirt and hessian trousers weren’t lined for warmth, and goosebumps had sprung up on every part of his body.
The woman shrugged.
The woman pointed over Campbell’s shoulder. He turned, but the path was in total darkness.
“But I haven’t been told what I should do.”
The woman produced a cup and lifted it to his lips. He realised that he was very thirsty. He took a sip, but immediately spluttered and shook his head wildly until she took the cup away. The liquid wasn’t hot but it had scalded his mouth and throat and left an awful, bitter taste.
He saw movement and looked up to see moving sources of light. What he had taken to be floodlights were actually flaming torches.
The make-up woman backed away into the darkness.
Campbell reached up to touch his face surreptitiously, not wanting to ruin the effect and have to endure the application of make-up all over again. His fingers came away sticky and dark. He rubbed the substance between his fingertips, then raised them to his nose. They smelled like blood.
Figures descended the hillside, stumbling on the slippery grass.
The torches they carried illuminated other people, who surrounded Campbell. How long had they been standing there in silence? They all appeared to be extras – at least, Campbell didn’t see any of the lead actors: not Kier Franklin, who people said was a famous West End actor, and not Janice Eddington, who apparently had had a small part in one of the Harry Potter adaptations. He could see no crew members either, and no cameras.
One man strode forward at the front of the dozen or so new arrivals. He had a tangled beard and he held a heavy-looking wooden staff.
“Is he prepared?” he said in a deep, scratchy voice. Campbell was struck by the odd idea that these weren’t the man’s precise words, but only the sense of them.
“He is ready.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready, though,” Campbell said. “I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do. Nobody’s spoken to me at all.”
“You have spoken and we have listened,” the man replied in his strange flat tone. “That is all that is necessary.”
“But I’m not even a speaking part,” Campbell said, his arms wide. “My dad said all I had to do was show up and be the Slow King. And I think he should probably be here right now, but his car’s gone and I…” A vision came into his mind. He saw himself returning to his house only to find himself replaced with another boy. When had he fallen asleep, to dream that dream? In a quieter voice he said, “I’d like to see Ruth, please. She said something about loco parentis.”
The circle of extras shuffled inwards.
The man with the beard held his flickering torch at arm’s length. It shone on the hollow cut into the steep hillside. Where the JCB had stood was a tall tree. Its bent branches mimicked the arm and scoop of the machine.
The extras continued shuffling. Campbell moved, too, in order to remain in the centre of the ring. The idea of allowing any of them to touch him seemed unbearable.
“Laine Owen came to my school,” Campbell said weakly. “He said I’d be taken care of. My mum and dad wouldn’t have agreed to this if they knew I’d be left here without a… a…” A word he had heard on school trips occurred to him, though he was startled to find that he had no mental image of any school trip in particular, or the school building, or his teachers. “Chaperone.”
The bearded man’s lips parted to reveal filthy-looking teeth. “We do not understand your words, but we will fulfil our duties.”
Campbell’s eyes darted. Was it possible that the cameras were just beyond the circle, just beyond the firelight? Was it possible that this was the Slow King scene, right now? He had heard of filmmakers who sprung scenes on their actors at odd moments, to make the reactions seem less rehearsed.
But even if that was the case, this was surely wrong. He was only twelve years old.
“I shouldn’t be left here alone,” he said.
The man hesitated, then said, “These are your own wishes.”
“I don’t want this.”
“In your tales you spoke of the need for this act. We are your servants.” The man gestured with the torch, casting firelight onto the faces of the assembled people. Their faces were pockmarked. Amid the muck, Campbell saw scars and open wounds.
“We are your servants,” they all said together.
“I shouldn’t be left here alone,” Campbell said again, helplessly.
An idea seemed to occur to the bearded man. “You will not be alone, my lord.”
The words triggered something within Campbell. He began to cry.
The circle of people drew tighter around him.
The man with the tangled beard held up the torch to guide Campbell towards the hollow.
Campbell looked around at the actors. Their faces were harder to discern now, streaked through his tears.
He bowed his head.
He took a step backwards into the hollow, pressing himself against the damp earth. He crouched and then stretched his legs into the narrow part of the opening. His stomach dragged against the soil. He pushed himself into the dark.
The light of the torches diminished as the first handful of earth was thrown into the opening. Campbell heard singing or perhaps moaning.
He dropped his face to the black soil.
He prepared himself for the long wait.
About the Author
Tim Major’s recent books include Hope Island and Snakeskins, short story collection And the House Lights Dim and a non-fiction book about the 1915 silent crime film, Les Vampires. His short stories have appeared in Interzone and Not One of Us, and have been selected for Best of British Science Fiction and Best Horror of the Year.
About the Narrator
Simon Meddings is a freelance writer and scriptwriter, he is also an actor and has recently appeared in the horror film Polterheist directed by David Gilbank. Simon hosts the Waffle On Podcast all about classic television shows and films from around the world. Available on itunes, Stitcher radio and direct at Podbean.