Source: Review copy
Publication: 6th February from Orenda Books
Elusive online journalist Scott King examines the chilling case of a young vlogger found frozen to death in the legendary local ‘vampire tower’, in another explosive episode of Six Stories…
In the wake of the ‘Beast from the East’ cold snap that ravaged the UK in 2018, a grisly discovery was made in a ruin on the Northumbrian coast. Twenty-four-year-old Vlogger, Elizabeth Barton, had been barricaded inside what locals refer to as ‘The Vampire Tower’, where she was later found frozen to death.
Three young men, part of an alleged ‘cult’, were convicted of this terrible crime, which they described as a ‘prank gone wrong’
However, in the small town of Ergarth, questions have been raised about the nature of Elizabeth Barton’s death and whether the three convicted youths were even responsible.
Elusive online journalist Scott King speaks to six witnesses – people who knew both the victim and the three killers – to peer beneath the surface of the case. He uncovers whispers of a shocking online craze that held the young of Ergarth in its thrall and drove them to escalate a series of pranks in the name of internet fame. He hears of an abattoir on the edge of town, which held more than simple slaughter behind its walls, the tragic and chilling legend of the ‘Ergarth Vampire…
Both a compulsive, taut and terrifying thriller, and a bleak and distressing look at modern society’s desperation for attention, Beast will unveil a darkness from which you may never return…
I’m a fan of the fabulous podcast style Six Stories series. Matt Wesolowski has mined a rich seam of stories in a format that works incredibly well and each successive book has been stronger than its predecessor.
Beast, though, is something else; it is in a class of its own. I’m writing this the day after a young woman has died in very sad circumstances and because of who she was, has been in the news and all over social media. Nothing really prepares you for how vile people can be on social media, or the levels of hypocrisy that such a thing brings to the surface.
Beast deals with the notion of being famous; looks at the culture of celebrity and does so in the context of young people in Ergarth – a grim, disenfranchised town in the North of England; a town that has had the life sucked out of it.
Scott King, our podcast host, is more open now after the revelations of the last podcast investigation in Changeling. Now he is in Ergarth to look into the horrific death of a young vlogger, Elizabeth Barton.
She was taking part in a popular social media challenge known as ‘Dead In Six Days’ in which she must fulfil six challenges supposedly set by the vampire, Vladlena, or by the sixth day she will be dead. Elizabeth, who has steadily been cultivating a substantial social media presence, has seen that effort rewarded by a growing following and the patronage of a number of brands, is vlogging these challenges.
Beast plunges straight in with the first story and immediately I was struck by the contrast between the warm, northern dialect and the chilling stories of the Crimean ship and its vampiric legend. For this is 2018 and for the residents of Ergarth, the Beast from the East has two meanings.
When Scott King enters the story Elizabeth Barton is dead; murdered and decapitated by three men in the local landmark, the Tankerville Tower. It is a black, crumbling ruin with no aesthetic features which is still standing because the Council can’t afford to tear it down. Some locals believe that this tower hosts the Ergarth Vampire or, as local teens know it, ‘The Beast from the East’ in tribute both to the 2018 storm they were experiencing and because the legend has Vladlena coming to Ergarth on a ship from the Crimea.
Wesolowski paints a grim portrait of Ergarth, a town whose industry has long since vanished and which is struggling. Jobs are few and far between and teens have no hope and no ambition. Elizabeth is working in the Orwellian named pet shop but her real chance of escape lies in her vlog. Elizabeth is bucking the trend through her vlogging, aided by her middle class upbringing and parents who are prepared to lavish the best of everything material on her. She is becoming an Ergarth celebrity. Elizabeth is the girl who has it all. She is pretty, kind, increasingly popular, and always has time for the less fortunate. So why has been murdered and what does the legend of the Ergarth Vampire have to do with her death?
This is the subject of Scott King’s podcast. Wesolowski’s chilling story brilliantly marries local folklore and legend with contemporary societal changes – themselves casting a grey gloom over the country and forces us to ask ourselves which we should fear the most.
There’s a cold anger in these comparisons and as I read I could feel myself questioning Elizabeth’s choices and motives; asking myself if it is possible that someone could be so perfect. It is a sad fact of 21st century life that altruism will always be questioned because there is so little of it that we have become inured to thinking the worst of people.
Three men are now in prison, convicted of Elizabeth’s brutal murder, but none of them have ever spoken of that night, other than to admit their guilt. Scott King wants to understand what led to this horrific event and his podcast interviews add depth and layers to a story previously written off as ‘a prank gone wrong’; a story that has never before been told.
In between the interviews with Elizabeth’s friends and family we are treated to excerpts from Also from Elizabeth’s vlog where we see her bubbly personality exhorting us to like and follow and watch the next video. Her sweet smile and wonder as she unboxes her latest brand gift or shows us her most recent cheeky challenge is calculated to draw us into her orbit, to make us want to share in her success and to be part of the charmed life she is leading; a charmed life that no-one else in Ergarth could possibly aspire to.
As Scott will discover, this story has been all about Elizabeth. The three young men who are now imprisoned for her murder have not warranted stories of their own, until now.
Beast is a dark and deeply chilling story and Wesolowoski tells it superbly. In a story that is both tense and spell-binding, he explores the consequences of our excessive consumerism and the ceaseless quest for 15 minutes of fame. He compares and contrasts that with the reality of what is happening in some of our towns, where ambition and hope are absent friends and local services fail to afford or even understand the mental health consequences of living hand to mouth with no nurture.
Verdict: Beast is a towering, exceptionally well plotted and intricately layered book. Creepy and ingenious, it also carries an important message. A message that brings me back to where I began this review. Be kind; be human and learn to listen before you judge. An absolute must read.
Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor for young people in care. Matt started his writing career in horror, and his short horror fiction has been published in numerous UK- an US-based anthologies such as Midnight Movie Creature, Selfies from the End of the World, Cold Iron and many more. His novella, The Black Land, a horror set on the Northumberland coast, was published in 2013. Matt was a winner of the Pitch Perfect competition at Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in 2015. His debut thriller, Six Stories, was an Amazon bestseller in the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia, and a W.H. Smith Fresh Talent pick, and film rights were sold to a major Hollywood studio. A prequel, Hydra, was published in 2018 and became an international bestseller.