The Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy

This is a story about a lighthouse, which might make it sound quite tame.

It isn’t.

As someone who writes psychological thrillers, I find it fascinating to read about true crime and unexplained mysteries – everything from people disappearing into thin air to being found dead in seemingly impossible circumstances. This story isn’t any of those things – none of it is unexplained and technically no crime was committed (as far as we know).

But it’s still a horror tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.

Prologue aside, let’s get into the story of Thomas Howell, Thomas Griffith, and the tragedy of Smalls Lighthouse.

The Smalls Lighthouse

The Smalls lighthouse was built in 1776, on a collection of rocks about twenty miles off the coast of Wales (known as The Smalls).

Back then, lighthouses weren’t the solid, cylindrical structures that we see today, shooting up into the sky and towering over their domain.  The Smalls Lighthouse was essentially a rickety little hut, suspended above the ground on massive stalks which jutted out menacingly like the legs of a gargantuan spider.

The ceiling of the lighthouse hut – the body of the huge arachnid – had a trapdoor leading up to the lamp, which gave the keepers easy access without having to go outside and brave the elements. There was also a short shelf running around the perimeter of the hut – surrounded by railings – which allowed the keepers to undertake any repair work on the exterior when necessary. It was all very self-contained, mitigating the need for the keepers to go outside in heavy storms.

The original spider legs were quickly found to be too weak, so work was done to reinforce them.  The massive arachnid now had a suit of armour.

If only the lighthouse keepers had been as protected.

Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith

The only thing Thomas’ Howell and Griffith had in common was their first name.

Once installed as lighthouse keepers, they immediately took a dislike to each other, spending hours arguing and fighting. Physical altercations and scuffles soon followed, often in public houses where other patrons would hastily make their escape to avoid the scene. The two men couldn’t agree on anything, clashing on even the most mundane and inconsequential of topics. The animosity was clear to everyone.

Which is why, when Thomas Griffith died in the lighthouse one night (either in a freak accident or through illness – the records are unclear), Thomas Howell knew he would immediately be under suspicion of murder. The whole world knew they hated each other – Howell could already hear the accusations flying that a fight had gone too far and he had killed his colleague.

His solution?

Keep the body in the lighthouse so that when he was eventually rescued – storms howled around the lighthouse by this time so it was impossible for him to simply leave – it would be clear from examining the body that there had been no foul play. If he disposed of the body into the sea or by some other means, there’d be no way of proving his innocence.

So, Howell decided to live with the corpse of Griffith, which from the records we have was a very short lived solution. And, without getting too descriptive, how could it be anything else?

Sharing a cramped hut with a person you hate is one thing, but sharing it with a rapidly decomposing body is quite another…

The Corpse Problem

Howell needed a different solution.  After considering his options, he devised a plan worthy of MacGyver.

Howell was a cooper, which meant he was accustomed to building huge wooden barrels and manipulating the material to fit a specific shape. So he collected various pieces of wood from around the hut and managed to build a makeshift coffin for his former colleague.

Once it was finished, he hefted his former colleague inside – Griffith had not been a small man – and then dragged the wooden box onto the lighthouse shelf. Once there, he secured it to the railings so as to ensure the heavy winds would not result in the very occurrence he was trying to prevent – the body disappearing into the sea and Howell’s innocence being disputed.

Satisfied with his ingenuity and craftsmanship, he hoisted up a distress signal, knowing it was only a matter of time before a rescue boat would arrive.

In the meantime, with the coffin was securely affixed to the railings, Howell got back to work.  He toiled to keep the lighthouse functioning as best he could, essentially doing the work of two men.  He scurried up and down the trapdoor to the lamp, maintaining it and ensuring that it continued to light the way for mariners so as to avoid any disasters.

The plan worked. It worked perfectly.

Until it spectacularly didn’t.

The storms ratcheted up in intensity and ferocity, battering the lighthouse and totally decimating the wood of the coffin.  The hastily-constructed box couldn’t was no match for the elements, and in no time splintered planks were scattered into the sea and dashed onto the rocks. At first Howell must have been terrified that Griffith’s body would be swept away too – the only proof of his innocence blown into the ether. Perversely though, this fear would have turned to relief and then immediately back to fear as he saw that the corpse didn’t go anywhere. The wood had been destroyed, but the ropes between the railings had somehow twisted tight around Griffith, holding him fast to the railings on the outside shelf.

The hut’s window suddenly became a widescreen television showing a decaying corpse in real time.

To add to the horror, the body was positioned in such a way that every so often the howling wind would catch one of the arms, making it look as though Griffith was waving to his old sparring partner.

This went on for a while. And by ‘a while’, I mean four months.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

That amount of time would take the body through the ‘fresh’ and ‘bloat’ stages of decomposition, and well into the ‘active decay’ stage. I’m not going to describe any of those stages – mainly because researching them has made me feel pretty sick – but the names of them should give you a good idea as to what Thomas Howell would have been looking at for sixteen weeks.

Imagine being trapped inside a rickety hut tenuously perched on battered wooden spider-legs as the storms raged just outside.

Now imagine the same thing, but with the inclusion of a decaying corpse which you couldn’t avoid looking at – both directly and peripherally – from every angle of your prison.

And don’t think that closing your eyes would help either. Just because you weren’t looking at the body, doesn’t mean that the body wasn’t looking at you…

Why did nobody try to find Howell and Griffith?

This question has a pretty simple answer. They did.

Attempts were made by teams on numerous occasions to get to the lighthouse and find out just why the distress signal had been hoisted.

The problem was that every time the boats approached the lighthouse – in raging storms, let’s not forget – they would see the same thing. The lamp was lit as it should be, there were no signs of boat wreckage or other indicators of any incident, and everything looked as though it was in perfect order.

Oh, and all the potential rescuers mentioned another thing which made them think all was fine. Every time they got close, they saw the silhouette of a man resting on the outer shelf. In fact, every so often, they saw him give a cheerful wave.

What happened to Thomas Howell?

After finally being rescued, unsurprisingly Thomas Howell was not himself. Close friends who saw him after the incident apparently failed to recognise him. You can understand somebody looking a bit different, or maybe appearing slightly anxious or stressed, but Thomas Howell looked and acted like a completely different person. Such was the physical and emotional damage that had been inflicted upon him.

Now, it is here that my psychological thriller writer instinct kicks in, and asks a question that has been suspiciously absent from the records of this event.

What if Howell did kill Griffith?

What if they did have one final argument which went too far? Or – as records show that Griffith was the bigger of the two men – what if Howell poisoned his colleague? How hard would it be to add non-edible items to food in close quarters?

Sawdust, mould spores, lamp oil…?

History tells us that Howell was decimated by the events that followed Griffith’s death, but what if Howell was guilty of that death?

Maybe this isn’t a horror story after all, maybe it’s a crime story where the killer got immediate, terrible justice?

We’ll never know.

And in the absence of further evidence it’s probably kinder to assume that poor Thomas Howell was an undeserving victim of horrific circumstance.

But does that make this real-life horror story better, or worse?

Sleep No More is a psychological thriller about a young woman whose vivid nightmares begin leaching into reality, causing her to doubt her own mind…

Click here to find out more

Advertisements

Wait… I’m my OWN target audience..?

Got this email from Amazon this morning:

Apparently, Amazon’s algorithms have identified me as the target audience for my own book.

I mean, technically I guess that must be true – I wouldn’t write something that I wouldn’t want to read – but it’s still a bit, well, weird.

This either means:

a) Sales are so good they’ve run out of other people to sell to!

b) Sales are so bad that I’m the only person they think might want a copy anymore

SPOILER ALERT: It’s not a)

So on that note, if you enjoy reading amazing crime stories featuring memorable characters, great locations (one is a party boat in Mexico for crying out loud!) and the dark side of human nature, then go get a copy!

Five thrilling worlds for the price of an ice-cream – and it’ll last longer too (although if you eat as fast as me, anything lasts longer than that…)

“a collection of thought provoking short stories. Dark and at times challenging, Angelo Marcos… forces us to explore the darker side of human nature.” Amazon reviewer

 

Crime Fiction Lovers: An investigation…

I’ve loved reading psychological thrillers and crime fiction (and crime non-fiction, but that’s a post for another day) for as long as I can remember.

I’m pretty sure it started with Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs – specifically the character of Hannibal Lecter and his almost supernatural ability to read other people (and expertly use that information against them). There’s a reason the film did so well, and it’s not just because of that weird noise Anthony Hopkins made.

And I’m definitely not alone in this. That perfect combination of murder, mystery and suspense are gifts for crime fiction lovers all over the world.

But, why? How come so many ‘nice’ people love reading about human depravity and breaking the law?

I think there are five broad reasons for this.

1. Crime fiction lovers can vicariously experience extreme situations

You know that whole cliché about people slowing down on the road to stare at an accident? The mangled cars, the ambulance, the poor souls who may or may not be injured? Well, people absolutely do this, and I think crime fiction taps into a similar instinct.

Take the central relationship between the main characters in Gone Girl (an almost literal car crash relationship), or the horrific crimes committed by Jeffrey Deaver’s Bone Collector. Through reading, we get to simultaneously witness and experience these extreme relationships and events, and allow ourselves to think about how we could avoid them in real life.

There may even be an element of trying to work out what we would do if we ever found ourselves in those situations.  How would we escape?  Would we get untied in time?

Would we – could we – kill to get free?

Crime fiction – especially when written in the first person – allows us to experience these horrors as if they were our own lives.

And speaking of horror…

2. Psychological thrillers: Exciting, terrifying, and… um… safe

There’s a reason that people (other people, definitely not me) spend so much money on roller-coaster rides and extreme sports. It’s a way to allow fear to grab us by the adrenal glands and squeeze them until our bodies are flooded with fight-or-flight juice. But, and this a very important but (stop laughing, I didn’t say ‘butt’), it’s perfectly safe.

And, more importantly, we know that it’s perfectly safe.

In the same way, we can read about the mind of a serial killer, or the machinations of some psychopathic villain, or the wanton violence of a cornered criminal, and we can allow ourselves to feel fear knowing that, ultimately, we’re completely safe.

For some weird reason, as human beings we want to experience fear – albeit only if we know there’s no actual threat. It’s the difference between watching a documentary about shark attacks, and jumping into a pool with one.

3. Thrillers are neater than reality

I completely agree with those who say that life is stranger than fiction.

(Judging by recent world events, this is a very difficult proposition to argue against.)

Fictional stories generally have a defined beginning, middle and end. On the other hand, real life isn’t constrained by anything. There are plenty of true stories that, if they were featured in a work of fiction, would be considered too unbelievable to be plausible.

There’s a criminal case – Dudley v Stephens – which I studied during my law degree. Dudley and Stephens were shipwrecked with a man named Richard Parker, who quickly fell into a coma.  Dudley and Stephens decided to eat Richard to stay alive. Long-story-short, they survived, got back to land and were subsequently tried for (and convicted of) murder.

The unbelievable part of all this is that Edgar Allen Poe had written this very same incident into a novel fifty years earlier. Even the name of the unfortunate victim was the same – Richard Parker.

Can you imagine reading a book where a very specific set of events occur, and then later in the book a character discovers that someone wrote the exact same scenario half a century earlier, and that the victim had the same name?  You’d think it was stretching credulity just a bit too far.

And as well as being neater than reality, crime fiction also seems more ‘just’. The end of most thrillers is that the ‘goodies’ win and the ‘baddies’ lose, which is more satisfying than what we often see in reality.

Again, if you want to proof of this just take a look at world events.  No wonder we want to read stories where the bad people get their comeuppance, and the good people ride off into the sunset.

4. Crime fiction is interesting and, yes, educational

Police procedurals and detective stories are huge, with millions of readers buying them each year. We love reading about the inner workings of law enforcement departments and peeking behind the curtain of criminal investigations. I do anyway, which is why I love the books of Ian Rankin and Michael Connelly – both experts in this genre.

Similarly, psychological thrillers show us the psyche of seemingly unfathomable killers, or help us to understand the circumstances which might result in a ‘normal’ individual being pushed too far and committing murder.

Yes, it’s fictional, but isn’t the most effective crime fiction grounded in reality?  My crime novel The Artist may be a work of fiction, but it’s based on my own experiences as an actor combined with my study of forensic psychology.  There’s nothing in the book that couldn’t happen, even though – as far as I know (and hope) – it hasn’t occurred in reality.

Also, what better way to understand another’s point of view in the real world than stepping into their shoes through fiction?

Which leads us nicely to the last point…

5. Prison break!

Crime fiction and psychological thrillers allow us to escape our reality for a little while.

Arguably, this is why any art form exists – for both the creator and the audience.

After a long day at work, or during a seemingly endless commute, or in the twenty minutes that you know – hope! – the baby will actually stay asleep, you get to escape into another world. Admittedly the world in which you escape with crime fiction isn’t always the most pleasant, but as we said above, you know it’s perfectly safe.

So you can experience the dark side of a city you’ve never visited,  learn about the intricacies of crime investigation, spend time with the most depraved killers, and have a million other experiences you would never otherwise be exposed to.

And you get to do it all without leaving your chair or, y’know, having to actually investigate – or commit – a crime.  Not bad for the price of a coffee, is it?

So what do you think? Why do YOU enjoy crime fiction and psychological thrillers?

For a limited time you can download a FREE copy of short crime story Killing Time.

Click here to find out more

New novel – Available now!

My new psychological thriller is now officially available!

(Cue blurb…)

Life isn’t funny anymore for stand-up comedian Nick. His support group doesn’t like him, his girlfriend doesn’t like him, and his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder definitely doesn’t like him.

Wanting to be taken seriously as an actor, Nick lands a role in a film and meets up with an incarcerated criminal in order to get into character.

Enter Gideon Matthias.

Gideon is a force of nature possessing brawn, brains, and an almost preternatural gift of perception. A man who beats a fellow inmate to death while describing the emotions they’re feeling.

Nick finds Gideon both dangerous and fascinating, and is deeply affected by his philosophy that everyone is a victim of their own minds.

As Nick contends against the invisible enemies in his mind, Gideon contends against the very much visible enemies in the jail – one of which he has crossed too many times.

The two men fight to survive in their respective arenas until Gideon decides to take action. He seeks out his new friend, and their paths cross as Gideon seeks revenge for the past.

A past that Nick wasn’t even aware of…

 

Victim Mentality is available at the introductory price of £1.99/$2.99 (ebook only, paperback to follow).

So, y’know, buy it!  Then I can afford to write the next one!

Click here to get your copy!

Involuntary actions

SleepWalking blog post 2

One night in 1987, Kenneth Parks drove fifteen miles to his in-laws’ house.

He parked his car outside, walked up to the house, and broke in through a window. He then seriously assaulted his father-in-law, and fatally stabbed his mother-in-law. After this attack, he got back in his car, drove to a police station, and confessed to what he had done.  He was subsequently charged with both murder and attempted murder, and, after a lengthy trial, was acquitted on all counts.

He wasn’t found guilty for one simple reason – he was asleep at the time of the attack.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too when I first came across this case. That Parks was using the ‘I was asleep, guv’ defence which would turn out to be nothing but a desperate attempt to get away with murder. However, as it turned out, no less than five neurological experts testified that they believed he was asleep at the time of the attack.

Let me rephrase that, five separate experts, who spend their lives investigating neurological problems, issues and phenomena, swore under oath – essentially staking not only their reputations but also their liberty (perjury, anyone?) – that they believed Kenneth Parks was asleep at the time of the assault and killing.

And as if that wasn’t strange enough, Kenneth Parks’ defence – automatism – had already been used before this case, and has also been used since.

Automatism

The automatism defence essentially states that a person accused of a crime was not aware of their actions at the time of the incident. Their actions are deemed to have been involuntary, which then means they cannot be culpable.

There are even two different types of automatism; the first is called ‘insane automatism’ which is considered to be caused by a ‘disease of the mind’. Committing crimes while asleep falls under this category.

Then there is ‘non-insane automatism’, which is considered to be caused by external factors, so for instance through mixing certain medications with alcohol which then cause the person to act involuntarily.

Automatism cases are thankfully very rare, and plenty of people have tried and failed to use this as a defence for crimes they have committed, but there have certainly been some strange cases which do appear to be genuine.

Tragedy

Another tragic case is that of Brian Thomas, who for fifty years suffered from horrific night terrors. One night he dreamt that he and his wife were being attacked and that he had to fight to save her. In actual fact he wasn’t saving his wife, he was strangling her as she slept. He woke up to find his wife dead, and came to the horrific conclusion that he had been the one that killed her. Just like Kenneth Parks, Thomas was cleared of murder, although I imagine this was little consolation to either of these poor men.

Then there’s the case of Jules Lowe, who beat his 83 year old father to death, inflicting over 85 injuries. Again, he claimed to have been asleep at the time of the incident, and again, this was met with the initial disbelief that you would expect. However, the court accepted the automatism defence, concluding that he had been sleepwalking at the time and so was not aware of what he was doing.

And this isn’t just a recent affliction either.

In the 19th century, a French detective named Robert Ledru was tasked with investigating the murder of a man named Andre Monet, who had been shot and killed on a beach at Le Havre. There were only two real pieces of evidence to use – the killer’s footprints, and the type of bullet he used.

The footprints were very distinctive, as the killer was missing the big toe on his right foot. Ledru found this information incredible, as he himself also suffered from this same affliction. Thinking back to the morning after Monet died, Ledru also realised that he had woken up with strangely wet socks.

(I’m sure you can see where this is going…)

Ledru also discovered that the killer used the same types of bullets as he himself used. Putting the evidence together, he could come to only one conclusion – that he had killed Monet, while asleep.

His colleagues were sceptical – to say the least – and decided to carry out an experiment. They kept Ledru in a cell overnight so as to observe whether he would sleepwalk. As it turns out, he did, although this obviously didn’t prove he was capable of murder.

So the next day, the police officers placed a gun in his cell, and then observed him again. That night, Ledru fell asleep, walked around the cell, then picked up the gun and started firing at the officers.

(I imagine at this point the officers were wondering why they thought it was necessary to actually load the gun…)

It was eventually decided that even though it appeared Ledru had killed Andre Monet, he couldn’t be considered responsible for the death. So instead of being imprisoned, he was exiled to the country. He lived there for the rest of his life, albeit in the company of both guards and nurses. Who presumably either slept during the day, or wore Kevlar every night.

Comedy

There are also less tragic and – let’s give it a name – actually pretty funny cases.

One guy repeatedly gets up in the middle of the night and starts painting in his sleep. He does this so regularly and prolifically that he’s even been given a nickname – ‘Kipasso’.

Another guy once woke up in the early hours of the morning and found himself in his garden, having just mowed his entire lawn.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was completely naked at the time too.

Then there’s the lady who gets out of bed in the middle of the night and sleep-gorges on both food and, well, non-food (Vaseline, paint, washing powder). She also regularly cooks in her sleep using her gas oven and hobs. So this one is kind of funny, but also potentially kind of horrific…

One of the strangest of the ‘funny’ cases is that of the nurse who, one night in January 2003, left her house wearing only her nightshirt, crashed her car, urinated in the street, and then got into a fight with the police officers who, some might say unsurprisingly, took exception to her behaviour. In her case the prosecutors only partly accepted the automatism defence though, and she eventually pleaded guilty to a highly reduced charge of careless driving.

So what is going on?

Ordinarily, our brains paralyse our bodies as we sleep so as to prevent us from acting out our dreams/nightmares. This paralysis can itself go wrong at times however, so as bad as acting out your dreams/nightmares is, waking up and not being able to move or breathe properly is pretty horrific too (as anyone who has suffered sleep paralysis – myself included – can attest to). Generally speaking though, the fact that our brains stop us acting out our dreams as we sleep is usually a good thing, and helps to keep both us and other people in the room/property/world safe.

The current view on this is that this type of sleepwalking happens when the brain tries to transition from a certain type of sleep (known as deep non-REM slow wave sleep) to full wakefulness. What happens is that the brain gets caught up between the sleep state and the wake state, and then – to coin a phrase – ‘hilarity ensues’.

The explanation for sleep paralysis is actually quite similar in that the current understanding is that the brain gets ‘stuck’ between two states, and causes the sleeper to not be fully awake but not be fully asleep either. So it’s a similar problem but causes a very different outcome.

What all these cases undoubtedly show is that our brains are both amazing and amazingly complex, with even the smallest deviation in our sleep processes causing things to go from ‘normal’ to ‘odd’ to ‘potentially criminal’ in mere seconds. Poor old Ledru – and, I guess, even poorer old Monet – are testament to that.

The really scary part is, if any of us are ever afflicted by this phenomenon, we won’t actually know about it until we wake up again. At which point we may well find ourselves either handcuffed in the back of a police car, or breaking into a DIY store looking for some paint to eat…

Sleep No More is my psychological thriller about a young woman whose vivid nightmares begin leaching into reality. Sleep deprived and desperate, she begins to doubt her own mind – and finds herself in a deadly race against time…

Click here to find out more