In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan. And as a bonus, Terry has contributed an essay explaining where the story came from.
"And Satan answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life." Job 2:4
Troublesome priest Eve Clements is exiled from her North London parish to remote St Jude's, miles from the nearest village.
Carrying childhood demons with her, broken relationships and addiction, she becomes an unwilling pawn in a supernatural battle that keeps her confined within the parish grounds, with a congregation that is not what it seems.
Eve must find her purpose if she is to survive, as terrifying apparitions and her own emotional fragility drive her towards breaking point.
My review of "Skin For Skin", based on the one that originally appeared in Parsec magazine, issue 1:
When troubled - and troublesome - priest Eve Clements is exiled from her North London parish, she accepts an offer to minister at St Judes, a small church in deepest Suffolk. Bearing the load of childhood demons and the trauma of a recently ended relationship, she quickly discovers all is not as it seems. St Judes, it quickly transpires, is a focal point of supernatural activity and Eve becomes an unwilling pawn in the centre of an epic battle between good and evil. In order to survive, she must find purpose as terrifying apparitions push her already fragile emotional stability to breaking point.
The novella mostly takes place in and around St Jude’s and Grimwood makes excellent use of the location, situated as it is two miles from the nearest village of Weddon “because of the Black Death”. The narrow roads, ploughed fields, dense hedgerows and hidden copse’s both expand the scope and draw in the claustrophobia, isolating Eve more and more from the reality she’s struggling to deal with. The weather also plays a part, storms locking her in further and reducing visibility until the reader can almost feel the rain striking their skin. The church of St Jude itself is all odd angles and weird stained glass and when we later find out what happened to it in the 18th Century, it’s dislocation makes all the more sense.
Eve’s character is well defined and drawn and opening the novella with a harrowing drugs bust, told entirely from her seven-year-old point of view is a masterstroke, the reader having to fill in the blanks as “The Shouting People” invade her squalid home. It also sets up the course of her life, missing her junkie mother and struggling with New Mum & Dad before entering priesthood, a path we don’t see but encounter when things have already started to go badly wrong. Dedicated to her faith and her flock in the run-down North London parish of St Martin’s, Eve is a thorn in the side of the establishment and when she gets involved with a local mother whose son has died because of drug dealing, it brings her into direct conflict with her bishop. Her growing relationship with local would-be councillor Ruth doesn’t help either. Although we meet the new flock - to say more would give the game away - we only really engage with Angela, the deacon who invited Eve to move and her duplicitous character works well, throwing the reader and Eve off alike, before revealing her true colours in a masterful twist that properly took me by surprise.
Grimwood does a good job, updating and paraphrasing the Job story and although much is made of the religious struggle - both internal and what is actually happening within St Jude’s - this is much more about human relationships and loneliness, especially how people cope with it. It’s never treated sentimentally and never seems manipulative, but being alone and trying to deal with it drives almost all of the characters, from the orphan Eve who has burned every bridge to Ruth, who suffer even when surrounded by supposedly close friends and family. And for those that don’t know (I had to look it up), “skin for skin” comes from Satan doing physical harm to Job, to see if Job will stay faithful to God.
My only gripe is that I didn’t get a real sense of where Eve found her faith that’s strong enough to force her to do things that will, often, only create more agony for her but part of that might be my reading of it (as a long-standing Agnostic).
Told with a decent pace, the twin storylines interweave well and dispense information slowly, giving the reader time to absorb different steps and how they interlink and this is all the better for it. Solidly written, with some wonderful turns of phrase and a keen sense of location and atmosphere, this is a very good read from a writer who gets better with every piece of work. I would very much recommend it.
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Guest blog essay by Terry Grimwood
The Strange Tale of Job, Revisited
So, what’s the story behind my novella Skin For Skin? Is it the product of a fevered imagination? Yes. Are its roots buried deep into my out-in-the-sticks upbringing? Absolutely. Does it owe anything to Hope-Hodgson’s House on the Borderland? You bet it does. And The Book of Job? Most certainly, although not until the story was underway and I began to understand what I was trying to write.
Much of my fiction has a religious undercurrent. My plays, Tattletale Mary, Jar of Flies and The Bayonet all have ministers as key characters. Soul Masque is a somewhat brutal look at the war between God and the Devil. Deadside Revolution features a fallen angel and a conflict in Hell, and my novella, Joe, explores the agony of trying to reconcile sexuality with religious belief.
I come from a long line of Baptists, so religion, by which I mean Western Christianity, has played some part in my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I was a regular at an Anglican Sunday School and was even educated at a Church of England-funded primary school.
At the age of 10 or 11, however, I voluntarily transferred my spiritual obligations to one-service-a-week at the Baptist Chapel my parents attended, because continued Sunday School membership meant joining the church choir. There was no way I was going to wear a dress, frilly collar, and sing in a girl’s voice (no disrespect to girls’ voices, they are beautiful, but I think you know where I’m coming from). Such was my need to escape, I was prepared to endure interminable, ancient hymns, ground out on an equally prehistoric harmonium and hour-long sermons delivered by a regular cycle of thee-and-thou preachers who had stepped straight out of the Edwardian era. I love those old hymns nowadays, by the way. There’s power in their language.
So, the idea of God, Jesus, the Bible, prophets, apostles and all the rest were inculcated into my system from my first awareness. Predictably, I kicked against it when a teenager, embraced it with great fervour in my early twenties, then watched my faith slip like sand from my tightly clenched fist as I entered my thirties.
I still believe, but can no longer subscribe to the organised structures of the faith I once cherished. They are riddled with too many tightly-tangled philosophical conundrums that I cannot simply shove aside. Yet the wonder of it remains. Think about it. A being so vast, ancient and powerful it could create and sustain a universe. The enigmatic references in the early chapters of The Bible to the “Sons of God” who came down to Earth to take human women to wife. Enigmatic characters such as Enoch who simply “walked with God and was not” and yet, looms large over ancient Biblical history. Nimrod the Hunter, who or what was he? A catastrophic global flood, the sun travelling backwards in the sky. Plagues. A sea being ripped part into two towering walls of water to allow safe passage for an entire nation.
Ah, yes, the strange and terrible story of Job.
A rich, devout man, he seems to have caught the attention of Satan, who comes before God to issue a challenge. Take everything from Job, leave him ruined and broken, and he will “curse thee to thy face”. Astonishingly, God gives Satan permission to rip Job’s life apart, which he does with great enthusiasm. Job’s entire family and all his livestock are killed, his home demolished and his crops destroyed. Job, himself, is afflicted with sores and left to rot. It is an act of immense cruelty, a life trampled into the dust simply to settle a dispute.
History or parable, the story of Job portrays God as more concerned with scoring a point than caring about one of His creations. Yes, ultimately Job was rewarded for his steadfastness, but why did the poor guy and his family have to suffer all this in the first place?
Like most of my extended fiction, Skin For Skin evolved from a completely different idea, then found a life of its own. It always feels to me as if stories already exist and it is the writer’s task to uncover them. If that is the case, then this one was buried deep. I found myself being drawn deeper into the heart and soul of the main protagonist, Eve, and realised that she is, in many ways, the personification of my own bruised spirituality.
Unlike me, she is a courageous, difficult and principled person who was born into terrible poverty and neglect. The darkness of her early childhood is the engine for her faith, and passion (if not obsession) for helping those in trouble. Crushed by the enormity of the burden, her own sense of right and wrong and then by the religious establishment who see her as a troublesome priest determined to disrupt the status quo, she is exiled to a remote church, located in a storm-ravaged, otherworldly landscape - the same lonely East Anglian landscapes I walked as a child.
Like Job, Eve’s life is shattered through no fault of her own. She chooses what she sees as the Right Path and ends up broken and cast out. Then, once in exile, she discovers that she is once more to be a used as a pawn in The Game.
I think that the root of my religion-themed writing is anger at the idea that the complex, wondrous entities God has created, beings capable of beautiful art, mind-bending technology and acts of immense compassion, are simply cannon fodder in the war between “good” and “evil” and damned to Hell if they don’t subscribe to this or that point of doctrine. I don’t believe that to be the case. Any God big and powerful enough to create an infinite universe can fight His own battles. We, as the end of Skin For Skin declares, are here for each other.
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Terry Grimwood is a writer, electrician, college lecturer, actor, amateur theatre director and musician, who, in what little spare time he has, has published a number of novels and novellas.
His short fiction has appeared in many anthologies and magazines and has been collected in two volumes, The Exaggerated Man and There Is A Way To Live Forever.
He directed the first performances of his own plays, The Bayonet, Tattletale Mary and Tales From The Nightside, the scripts for which are available from theEXAGGERATEDpress and in addition to fiction, has co-written a number of engineering and electrical installation text books.
He likes to misquote the legendary Football manager Bill Shankley by claiming that writing is not about life and death...it is much more important than that.