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

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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

One Good Turn – Free on Kindle for two days!

Yup, as the title so succinctly states*, my collection of short crime stories One Good Turn is free on Kindle!

But only for two days.

Because I’m nice, but not that nice.

Click here to get your copy!

Or, to make sure you actually want to read the stories and that they’re not a collection of romantic fiction tales about robots and 80s sitcom characters**, click here for more information.

 

 *I quite like alliteration.

**The robot/80s sitcom character romantic fiction idea is mine.  You heard it here first, folks.

Win a signed copy of my new thriller!

As of today, Goodreads are running a giveaway to win a signed copy of my psychological thriller Victim Mentality!

To be in with a chance of winning click here to enter.

After the closing date (14 June) Goodreads will get in touch with the winner, and I’ll write something hilarious/profound/lame inside the book, then sign it and send it to the lucky person!

 (If you’ve already got the book/couldn’t care less about psychological thrillers, do feel free to share this with anybody else who might want a signed copy.)

 Good luck everyone!

George, OCD and a shot in the dark…

angelo-marcos_george-ocd_brain

Every so often, while either researching something for a novel/short story (or just generally wasting time on the internet), I stumble across an interesting case that I can’t get out of my head.

It happened with Brandon Swanson, it happened with Elisa Lam, and now it’s happened with a man named (by the British Journal of Psychiatry) as George.

George and OCD

At the age of 19, George was depressed.

In fact, that’s an understatement.

George had been plagued with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for years, spending hours every single day washing his hands, taking four-hour showers, checking doors and windows were locked, and checking his wallet for cash. As is common with OCD, he was tortured by intrusive thoughts of horrific scenarios and terrible images – all tailor-made by his own mind to be as disturbing as possible. The subsequent rituals and compulsive behaviours he developed to mitigate the impact of the thoughts soon became their own reward, strengthened over and over again through a lifetime of repetition and a feeling of relief when carrying them out. Operant conditioning in full effect.

As the character Nick in my novel Victim Mentality says:

Giving in to anxiety becomes its own reward, so you become less able to deal with it when it comes.  OCD, in a very real way, feeds off itself.  Imagine having a constant slideshow of trauma in your head, with each personalised scenario more horrific than the next. There’s only so much you can take before you give in and just count the bloody numbers to make it all stop.

(And yes, this was the novel I was researching when I came across this story about poor old George.)

As things continued, they got so bad for George that not only did he drop out of school, he also quit his job. The combination of the intrusive thoughts, the compulsive rituals, the knowledge that he was being completely illogical (as is common with OCD), and now the triple loss of social life, further education, and income, became a perfect storm of conditions that tipped George over the edge.

Falling into the black hole of depression and finding himself irresistibly crushed on all sides by it’s darkness, he told his mum that his life was so “wretched” that he just wanted to die.

Her response – which possibly took her out of the running for Mother of the Decade – was that if his life was so bad, he should just go and shoot himself.

So, one night in 1983, he did.

George, OCD and a Gunshot

Using a .22-caliber rifle, he went down to his mother’s basement, aimed the weapon at his head, and pulled the trigger.

George didn’t die, obviously.  This would be both a very short and very bleak story if he did.

What did happen is that the bullet lodged into his brain – in the left frontal lobe.

He was rushed to hospital and worked on by surgeons, who managed to remove the majority of the bullet but were unable to remove every little piece.

Three weeks later, George – who as we know had been plagued by OCD so severely that he saw no alternative to suicide – was cured.  He was no longer obsessive.  No more compulsive hand-washing, no more four-hour long showers, no more incessant checking and re-checking.  Nothing.

Interestingly, for over a year prior to his suicide attempt, George had been treated on an ongoing basis by psychiatrist Dr Leslie Solymon. He had undergone IQ tests and various other assessments of his mental capacities, which helpfully gave a huge amount of data with which to compare his abilities after the suicide attempt.

Comparing the data, Dr Solymon saw that George hadn’t lost anything, except for his OCD.

George went back to college and excelled in his studies, got a new job, and basically lived the life that he had always wanted to.

George, OCD, a Gunshot and… a cure?

Historically, an extreme treatment for OCD was – and sometimes still is – surgery on the sufferer’s left frontal lobe. (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, possibly in combination with medication, is the preferred treatment for obvious reasons).  Even though the surgery would sometimes be successful, it often came with horrific side effects, such as massive personality changes, paralysis, and cognitive impairment.

For some even unluckier souls, they didn’t survive the surgery at all.

Of the successful cases, the OCD symptoms wouldn’t just disappear either.  In most cases they would be improved after the surgery, and then gradually get better and better over time, which makes George’s total and immediate ‘cure’ even more incredible.

By accidentally aiming at exactly the right spot, at exactly the right time, and with the exact right ‘tool’, George had performed surgery on himself.

He’d given himself an accidental lobotomy.

And it had worked.

(Just to be clear, I’m not advocating self-surgery here, and especially not with, y’know, a gun.)

It’s difficult to know what to make of all this.  If there is a moral to this story it’s hard to know what it could be.  Attempted suicide might help in unexpected ways?  You can cure yourself of OCD?  Sometimes a gun will solve your problem, but only if you aim at yourself?

Realistically, there is probably only one message to take from this story:

Always listen to your mother, kids.

Even if it does sound like she just wants you dead.

Blue

To learn more about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or to get support for yourself or someone else, take a look at OCD Action or OCD-UK 

Blue

 

Victim Mentality is a crime thriller about stand-up comedian Nick and his life with OCD, with comedy audiences, and – worst of all – with a criminal named Gideon Matthias…

Click here to find out more