FICTION (January 2019)


Horla launches a new series featuring student-writers at work

We begin with a short story by E.J. Haynes. We profile Liz, a student at Newcastle University, England, who tells how she came to write


by E.J. Haynes

THE owl was on its back, its yellow beak and clawed feet facing upwards, in a cartoonish death pose.

I knelt down on the path to take a closer look.

Its eyes were closed as if sleeping. I reached out to touch the bird, but something made me hesitate. I picked up a stick and poked the creamy white and golden feathers. Its body jerked with the pressure from the stick and its eyes opened.

I had been looking forward to the fishing trip for weeks. The Alba was newly varnished and ready for its first outing of the year. It was a still evening when I took to the river, pushing gently away from the bank and sliding out into the slow-moving water. The pattern of rowing felt soothing and with every reach I began to relax.

The sound of the water lapping against the sides of the wooden boat was always comforting and the delicious hope of catching a trout never failed to lift my spirits. When the sun shone on the water, the river was a magical place – it sparkled. The insects hummed; the birds chattered; you could almost picture Ratty rowing past and Mole searching in the bottom of the boat for the remains of their picnic.

By the time I had chosen my spot, the sun was already sinking and the river was becoming darker. I lifted my anchor and threw it into the water. It disappeared with a satisfying splash. The Alba continued to float downstream for a few more yards until it reached the end of the chain.

The evening call of the curlews in the nearby fields still carried through the air, but other riverside creatures were now silent. I began to fish.

Casting and waiting. Casting and waiting.

I quietly urged the fish below to take the bait, to take the hook.

It was now a beautiful night. The moon had risen and was a full circle of white. The reeds were making shadows on the water like long black fingers reaching towards the boat. I stopped casting my rod and stretched my ears to listen.


I looked behind me – at  the way I had come – and could still see the railway bridge I had passed under illuminated by the moon. Turning to look downstream, I could just make out the willow by the path where I had found the owl that morning. Its bent branches reached into the water and its twisted roots curled along the riverbank.

A knock on the side of the boat drew me unexpectedly from my reverie. I held my breath and kept quite still. This time the knocking sound came from nearer the stern. I gripped the side of the boat, pulling myself closer to the edge and peered at the river. It was black and impenetrable, but I spotted a branch floating its way downstream. I smiled with relief and even managed a little laugh.

How stupid to be frightened. It was a lovely night and who wouldn’t want to be out here with only nature for company? I made myself busy unwrapping some supper I’d brought with me. The noise of my picnic jarred with the stillness of the river.  It was no good. I couldn’t settle. The silence was eating into me; it was suffocating. A nocturnal fishing trip had been a bad idea. It was time to call it a night.

I reached for the anchor chain and pulled.

The Alba began to move, but then stopped abruptly.

I pulled again, trying to suppress the unease rising in my throat. I pulled hard on the chain for the third time. No, it was definitely stuck. I stood up and tried to draw the chain, but it was far too heavy. It wouldn’t give.

I used my oars to change the direction of the boat; I was now facing the railway bridge. I reached again for the chain, but it wouldn’t budge.

Throughout my exertions, clouds had been collecting in the night sky. They now obscured the moon. The bridge was no longer visible. In fact, I could barely see beyond the boat.

I spoke aloud to calm myself.

‘Everything will be fine. Even if I have to stay here all night, I will be fine. It’s a popular place to fish; someone will be along… early… in the morning.’

My words melted in the darkness. Wisps of fog crept around the boat.

‘I’ll be fine. I’ve still got some food and drink. I’ll just have to sit it out.’

I zipped my coat and opened a can of Carling.

The lager tasted sweet and after a few mouthfuls I began to feel a bit better, even though for was now coiling its way along the riverbank and around the boat.

Having to stay out longer than I thought was unfortunate but not the end of the world. I smiled again thinking about the log knocking into the hull. What a fright that had given me… and the panic with the anchor. How silly had I been about that?

The fog continued to thicken.

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Slowly I lost my sense of where I was. Which way was I facing? Should I try to swim to the river bank? I stared into the fog’s whiteness, trying to imagine where the reeds met the steep, muddy bank. The slow-moving water made me feel uneasy. I tried to focus on the bow of the boat which was edged with black. I dropped down on my knees and crawled towards it, making the boat rock. I felt sick. Loneliness swept over me. I gripped the bow of the boat.


My voice shattered the white stillness. My cry hung on the air as I turned in all directions. I shouted tilI I was out of breath.

I stopped to listen and then came a reply – a shriek which made me freeze.

I was losing the ability to think normally.

The shriek came again and this time it was answered by another. The high-pitched shouts came thick and fast from every side. Some fainter and further away; others overwhelmingly close. Suddenly the calls stopped and the only sounds were coming from me – sobs. My chest ached as I drew breath and howled.

‘Help me!’

This time the response was the beating of wings cutting through the thick, damp air. First one bird then hundreds. The tips of their soft wings skimmed my hair without making a sound. The air that they disturbed stroked my face.

Through a haze of cream and golden feathers, I reached again for the anchor chain.

The metal links rattled like so many skeletons as I tried again and again to lift the anchor.

A river in the day is a delight; at night it is desolation. I lay flat on my back in the bottom of the boat staring upwards. My eyes felt tired and dry but I did not dare close them.

Time after time now I saw in my mind white arms reaching into the boat to pull me down to the bottom of the river. The owls were circling around my head, watching me disappear into the weeds and underneath the water.

Eventually I fell asleep.

When I awoke the fog had cleared and the whiteness had been replaced by the grey of early dawn.  The silence of the night had been replaced by songbirds welcoming the morning. Even frogs joined in the chorus and the tiniest glimmer of light in the east brought such a rush of happiness in my veins that momentarily the horrors of the night were forgotten. The railway bridge and the willow tree could be seen again, as could the riverbanks.

Someone was bound to come along soon. I would be fine.

I began to tidy up my half-eaten picnic and pack away my rod and line, left in the bottom of the boat. As I was bending my head, sorting my equipment in the boat, I hadn’t noticed a man walking along the riverbank. He stopped and watched me.

‘What the hell are you doing!?’

The shout across the water made me jump, but the delight at seeing someone made me greet him like a long lost relative.

Smiling broadly, I waved and shouted back,

‘Am I pleased to see you? I’m stuck. My anchor is stuck. I’ve been here all night.’

‘You’ve chosen a night to be on the river. A young gamekeeper has gone missing. The police helicopter’s been up…the dogs out…everything. Did you not hear anything?’

The screams of the owls were still fresh in my memory. ‘Didn’t hear a thing – it was thick fog.’

‘Well, sorry I can’t help you mate. Why don’t you swim to shore?’ The idea seemed to amuse the passer-by, who continued on this way laughing.

In spite of the rising sun, the day was grey and dull. A drizzly mist covered the river.

 I must have been sitting in my boat for another hour before finally the flow of the river changed – another boat was coming.

‘Hey! Stop!’ I stood in my wobbly boat waving, like a child.

‘Here! Stop!’ I shouted, bending down to support myself on the sides of the boat. A small craft with an outboard motor was heading straight for me.

‘What are you doing here? Everyone’s been looking for the young gamekeeper. Have you seen anything?’

I was about to recount my night on the river but changed my mind. ‘Just help with me with this anchor. It’s stuck.’

My would-be rescuer took hold of the anchor and pulled. It didn’t move. There wasn’t enough room for us both to take a proper hold and pull so I lay on my stomach and edged over the bow. When we hauled together the anchor started to give but it was pulling a heavy weight. We pulled and pulled and gradually the anchor started to rise through the water.

And then I saw his face.

Green reeds were wrapped around his neck like a matching scarf for his green jacket. Tucked into the top of his jacket were the remains of a barn owl. Around his waist was a belt of stones.


AFTER working as a journalist on newspapers in Kent and Buckinghamshire, England, Liz Haynes became a teacher for sixteen years at a small village school in Weardale, County Durham, in the north of the country.
Recently, she gave that up to ‘go back to my writing roots’ and is now undertaking a master’s in Creative Writing part-time at Newcastle University.
She lives and work on a hill farm in Weardale.
Liz says: ‘It’s high up in the North Pennines – about 1100ft. It is my partner’s uncle’s farm and has been in the family for three generations.
‘We have about 700 sheep and 40 cows and the usual unruly gang of sheep dogs. It is a beautiful and fairly remote spot and a rich source of inspiration. I’m enjoying trying to weave-in ghostly stories to realistic settings.
‘I’m also interested in drawing on North East folk tales and myths for ideas. I am writing a story about a fantastic goblin from Northumberland called a Redcap – his cap is soaked in the blood of his victims!’
Liz drew inspiration for her tale from Guy de Maupassant and, in particular, his story ‘On The River’.
She says: ‘ I studied Maupassant for A level and the ending of his story has always stayed with me. He is the master of chilling twists!’
*Her picture shows her with a barn owl.  Liz explains:’We had a barn owl nest in a byre  (on the farm) this summer and volunteers came out and tagged the young birds.’
We worked with Liz on some edits of a general tightening and presentation kind. These led to her story losing ten per cent of its length. During this process specifics such as the name of the boat were also changed. 
Further steps –
Horla editor Matthew G. Rees’s appreciation of Laurie Lee’s story ‘A Drink with a Witch’ – in which he highlights Lee’s use of active verbs, as well as Lee’s ability to bring a wealth of information to bear but in a very spare style – might prove useful. 
Liz’s story also raises the question of the pluses and minuses of  ‘re-working’ a subject or story that may have been ‘done’.
In an interview that can be found on Horla, contributing writer Sally Spedding (author of How To Write A Chiller Thriller) stresses the value of originality if, in her opinion, a story is really to make its mark. 
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