Book Extract: Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach by Ramsey Campbell

In this week's Big Issue North, horror writer Ramsey Campbell tells us his favourite spooky reads. Here he gives us a taste of his latest one

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For a while Ray watched his family swim in the sea, and then he thought of making sure the cave was safe for the children. As he stepped off the beach a stony chill closed around him, and so did the sound of water. A hollow echo multiplied the lapping of ripples, which sent up light to drift over the ridges of the walls and roof. The seaweed that bordered the rocks underfoot was borrowing restlessness from the waves. The slimy growths gave him yet another reason to take his time, along with the need to keep waiting for his vision to catch up with the dimness so that he could search for footholds on the uneven narrow ridge. He had only started to make headway around the bend when the ridge sloped downwards, vanishing underwater a few yards ahead.

An icy ache raced up his legs and seemed to clench around his stomach. The toes of his sandals scrabbled at the submerged wall, and he couldn’t judge how deep the water might be. He bruised his fingers on the ridge as he lowered himself, not fast but excessively fast. When the water clamped his hips he felt his penis shrivel, and his gasp echoed through the cave. He twisted around in a flurry of water to see if he’d alarmed anyone, only to find that the bend had already blocked his view out of the cave. All the dim light came from reflections on the nervous waves. The loss of his family – even of the sight of them – disconcerted him so much that he didn’t immediately grasp that his feet had found the cave floor.

Beyond the bend the cave grew several times as wide and extended further than he could be sure of. Traces of light almost too feeble for the name fluttered under the roof, and some faint illumination must be reaching the far end of the cavern, if that was the end. Certainly Ray thought he saw movement there, an extensive whitish glimpse that immediately withdrew into the dark. A high-pitched giggle distracted him, a sound that seemed more senile than he wanted ever to be, but of course it was one of the watery echoes that were lending the cave a kind of life. As his vision started to cope with the dark he became aware of a pale shape in the water to his left, against the wall he was following. It was a tangle of vegetation, which meant he needn’t have recoiled, sending dim ripples into the cave. While the clump of pallid weeds did resemble the top half of a scrawny figure with its hands raised, it was stirring only with the movement of the water. As it bobbed up and down it put him in mind of somebody eager to catch a ball.

Sliding his hand along the rough wall, he shuffled inch by inch through the dark water. Such illumination as there was – more like a memory of light than any aid to seeing – fell short of this stretch of the wall. He could have used the flashlight on his mobile, but however waterproof the phone was claimed to be, he didn’t want to test that more than was essential. He groped along the wall and edged his feet over slippery submerged rock. Seaweed fingered his shivering legs, and once a pebbly protrusion sprouted limbs beneath his hand before scuttling down the wall to plop into the water. The object he was trying to discern kept nodding what would have been its head as though to encourage his approach. He’d inched within a few yards of it, and was starting to marvel at how nearly human its shape remained even at this distance, when it spoke his name.

Ray stumbled backwards, and his feet skidded from under him. His fall would break some of his bones, if he didn’t drown from panicking in the dark. He sprawled on his back in the water, which surged into his eyes and filled his nostrils, denying him any breath. He threw out a hand under the water, stubbing his fingers on the jagged wall. He managed to grab the rock despite the throbbing of his fingers and hauled himself to his feet. As he struggled to stand on his tremulous legs while he spat and spluttered and fought for breath, ripples and their giggling echoes swarmed away from him. His ears were so waterlogged that at first he wasn’t sure he heard the voice repeat his name.

The shape had once been much more human, but now it seemed to sum up age and decay

By now he couldn’t mistake his son-in-law, who swam into the larger cavern. Ray peeled open his hip pocket to take out the phone and touch the flashlight icon. While he took care not to swing around too fast the beam trailed across the water. The light grew more concentrated as it glided towards him over the far wall, so that by the time it reached the bobbing object it was a white glare. Ray was loath to aim the beam directly at the object – he thought he’d already seen too much – and then the light caught it. “Good God,” Julian said.

The shape had once been much more human, but now it seemed to sum up age and decay. It looked as withered and contorted as the husk of a spider’s victim. The man’s head was thrown back as if it had been paralysed in the act of uttering a final cry, which had shrunk the lips back from the teeth in a tortured grimace. The hands might have been lifted to fend off or deny his fate, unless a convulsion had raised them. Although Ray had no means of judging how long the corpse had been in the water, perhaps the immersion went some way towards explaining its state, because the flesh that dangled from its bones resembled perished rubber. He was staring at it in helpless dismay – he felt unable to move the light until he or Julian managed to deduce what had happened to the man – when the corpse winked at him.

He saw it take a breath as well. No, the reflections of the ripples that were wagging its hands and nodding its withered head were at play among the shadows of its ribs, enlivening the collapsed bare chest as the beam shook in Ray’s hand. But the drooping eyelid had certainly stirred, although only because a crab had emerged, bearing off a prize. It took Ray some moments and a good deal of resolution to turn his back on the restless corpse, though he’d looked away quickly from the sight of the crab crawling askew down the ravaged pallid face. Julian was treading water where the cave narrowed. “Will you be all right to make your way out,” he said, “while I go and deal with the others?”

Ray switched off the phone and stowed it in his pocket, and was leaving the darkness behind as swiftly as he dared to shuffle through the water when a cluster of ripples caught up with him. The corpse hadn’t made them. The pallid husk wasn’t creeping after him in the dark, teeth bared, hands raised to seize him…

Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach by Ramsey Campbell is available now (PS Publishing, £9.95)

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