The trees of the forest sigh as they move in the breeze. They appear to whisper to you as the branches rustle against each other creating a sinister susurration that sends a shiver down your spine. A twig snaps somewhere deep within the forest as you slowly become aware of a presence surrounding you. Terror begins to mount inside you as you become more and more disoriented as the darkness falls. Why, why did you have to stop the car to have a wee in the woods at this hour? You knew, just knew, that having that second glass of Pepsi Max was a bad idea. You spin around as you swear that you hear a voice behind you. But there is no one there. Where is the car? You have no idea from which direction you came in from now; everywhere looks exactly the same; the shapes and shadows blurring into one. Suddenly you hear a tapping.
tap. tap. tap. taptap. tap.
What the hell is that? Where is it coming from? It sounds like it is coming from behind you. No, now it’s ahead of you… no, to your left… is it getting closer?
tap. tap. tap. taptap. tap.
Now it is clear and coming from all around you. You begin to panic, all thoughts of your wee-wee are gone (as is the wee as it travels down your leg), as you race through the trees, the branches swiping at your face, stinging your cheeks, getting caught on your clothes. Still the tapping continues, closer than ever, keeping up with your retreat.
Finally you burst out of the trees and onto the road. Your car sits a few metres up the road. Your relief is short lived though for as you approach your car you notice that it has been vandalised. The windscreen is shattered, the wipers are broken and the seats inside are all torn and ripped apart. Standing back you notice that the car is covered in scratches. Still reeling with fear, and with sodden trousers, you stand and stare aghast at the damage. Then you notice something odd. There is something familiar about those scratches.
You stand further back and stare at the markings on your car.
They appear to form words.
They appear to form… a blurb:
On Christmas Eve in 1988, seven-year-old Alfie Marsden vanished in the dark Wentshire Forest Pass, when his father, Sorrel, stopped the car to investigate a mysterious knocking sound. No trace of the child, nor his remains, have ever been found. Alfie Marsden was declared officially dead in 1995.
Elusive online journalist, Scott King, whose ‘Six Stories’ podcasts have become an internet sensation, investigates the disappearance, interviewing six witnesses, including Sorrel and his ex-partner, to try to find out what really happened that fateful night. Journeying through the trees of the Wentshire Forest – a place synonymous with strange sightings, and tales of hidden folk who dwell there, he talks to a company that tried and failed to build a development in the forest, and a psychic who claims to know what happened to the little boy…
When I first read “Six Stories” I was pretty much blown away. In fact, if I hadn’t been wearing my particularly heavy double gusseted underpants, and had eaten a large dinner, I probably would have been. The premise was superb, but it wasn’t just the story that was great, it was the way the narrative was structured that was the stroke of genius. You see, the book is written in the style of a weekly podcast. This podcast, named “Six Stories” sees the mysterious and elusive investigative journalist Scott King take on a cold case, something that has been unsatisfactorily left unsolved for one reason or another – laziness; lack of evidence; their dinner was going cold; they had left the oven on; they were waiting in for a delivery, that sort of thing I imagine – and look at it over the course of six episodes spread over six weeks. Each episode usually focuses on one individual who is in some way connected to the crime at hand, and Scott attempts to unravel the mystery, or at the very least try to shed some more light on it – often by replacing the bulb with one of a higher wattage. Of course not, this is radio and that would just be silly.
The idea is genius. The premise is based loosely on an actual crime podcast called Serial. I had never heard of this before Six Stories, but it has a great reputation and a large fan following. You can read all about it in this handy wee linklet here.
In Six Stories, each chapter is an episode of the podcast, often with linking segments in between, that look into different aspects of the crimes from six different perspectives. The structure works beautifully and as such you fairly race through this book as you strive to ‘listen’ to the next episode.
But this isn’t a review of Six Stories, so if you want to know more about that particular book I strongly suggest, nay, I demand that you check it out. Seriously, you will not be disappointed.
After the success of Six Stories, Matt Wesolowski, being the clever bastard that he clearly is, didn’t rest on his laurels and sit looking smugly at everyone going “bloody hell, I’m a clever bastard ain’t I? I think I’ll retire now.”
No. He went ahead and wrote another one.
Hydra was another Six Stories story and a prequel of sorts. This time it looked into the tragic case of Arla MacLeod who bludgeoned her mother, father and young sister to death with a hammer. Once more, over six episodes, Scott interviewed those closest to the tragedy to try to understand what may have provoked Arla to commit this terrible crime unprovoked.
But this isn’t a review of Hydra. So, you know what to do…. off you toddle and get you copy from your preferred book seller of choice. Once again you will thank me later (I like chocolate buttons, Texas BBQ Pringles and red wine, please and thank you).
So, what is this review about then? Well, if you’ve read this far and are still not aware of what book I’m about to talk about then A) what the hell? and 2) you need to scroll back to the top of this ramble and remind yourself.
Done that? Good.
We are of course here to talk about Changeling, the third instalment in the Six Stories series. With Changeling, Matt has once again demonstrated how jammy a sod he really is and has skilfully and masterfully crafted yet another tale of deceit, suspense and hitherto unexplained disappearance and/or death.
Changeling is the terrifying story of the disappearance of seven year old Alfie Marsden in 1988. Alfie disappeared without trace from his father Sorrel’s car one night and was never found. He was officially declared dead in 1995 and his case was closed. As in “Six Stories” and “Hydra” before it, Scott King returns to investigate, interview, inveigle and inter himself into the case and those associated with it. But this time there is a slight difference in that Scott has been asked to look into the case via a mysterious letter sent to him by an elderly lady called Anna, imploring him to take on the case. Scott is reluctant, but he can’t quite put his finger on why. There’s something about the case of Alfie Marsden, the disappearance of whom is well known and documented, that doesn’t sit right with Scott. But at the same time he is intrigued enough to answer the letter and thus the ball starts to roll.
One of those things that is bothering Scott is where Alfie went missing – the infamous, purportedly haunted and all round terrifying Wentshire Forest.
In all of the Six Stories books so far there has been a strong vein of horror underpinning the central tale. In “Six Stories” it was Scarclaw Fell and the legend of Nanna Wrack. In Hydra we were introduced to the Black Eyed Kids, or BEKs as they were known. Both of these are terrifying urban legends dismissed by many but believed by the few convinced that they had a part to play in the crimes.
In Changeling, Wentshire Forest has its own fair share of legends and stories; unexplained occurrences and sightings that have made the forest a place that many fear to go. Although the forest is now in the hands of the Ministry of Defence, and houses the Wentshire Air Force Base, its legend prevails. The most infamous of the forest’s inhabitants is the Wentshire Witch:
“Extract from ‘The Wentshire Witch’, Border tales: New Versions by Felicity Kilbracken (Ellie Hill Publishing, 1981)
And thereupon, the traveller heard such beautiful singing, which drifted out to him between the trees. He heard lyres and lutes and the sound of breath in wooden pipes, all of these sounds swirling and whirling and dancing in his mind. He was sure he could smell roasted meat, and his mouth began to water as, in his mind’s eye, he could see a merry camp of folk all laughing and singing. The thought stirred his heart, as well as his nose and stomach. The traveller quite forgot his journey, he even forgot his horse, and found himself walking into the trees, his feet barely touching the ground as the music guided him deeper and deeper into the forest. From the folds of her hollow oak tree, black and dead at the centre of the forest, and on which no leaves grew, the Wentshire Witch kept calling, kept singing her song, rubbing her belly and smacking her lips as she heard the traveller approach. She would not go hungry today…”
Well, she sounds very pleasant, doesn’t she? Doesn’t she know that you can’t go around eating people willy nilly; it just isn’t the done thing. I hope that she saw the error of her ways and quit that malarkey once and for all. But was Alfie Marsden taken by the Witch? Did he end up as Alfie burgers? Alfie kebabs? Alfie Bolognese? Alf-au-vents? Did she dine Alf-fresco on his tiny bones? Was the poor sod baked in a pie with four and twenty blackbirds and served with new potatoes, petit pois and some nice carrots? Maybe a nice meaty gravy poured on top? Possibly followed by spotted dick and custard? I very much doubt it, nobody eats spotted dick these days, more’s the pity, but Scott decides to take on the case and investigate further (not about the Wentshire Witch’s decidedly dodgy foody preferences, obviously).
One of the people he interviews during the course of the series is Callum Wright, a labourer who was working on a development within Wentshire Forest not long before Alfie went missing. His story is a truly scary and frightening one where he tells of strange knockings on the buildings and within the woods, and of voices and odd sightings amongst the trees. Was this the Wentshire Witch trying to lure him in for her supper? Or was it just the fevered over imagination of an easily influenced man? Was the Wentshire Witch responsible for Alfie’s disappearance later on?
As with the previous two books, the horror in Changeling is wonderfully realised. It is never too graphic or in your face, but is just enough to make you believe that something else may be going on underneath the surface. In Wentshire Forest, Matt has created a location that feels utterly real. I actually Googled it just to be sure that it wasn’t in fact a genuine place. You can feel Callum’s terror at the things he experiences there, and Matt’s writing conjures up the atmosphere within the trees very vividly.
But why Changelings? What are they? According to the ever faithful Wikipedia a changeling “… was believed to be a fairy child that had been left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies“.
Well, I don’t know what you are thinking, but I think that is just pain rude. Not to mention disrespectful and bang out of order. We are led to believe as children that fairies are sweet, beautiful creatures that flutter about at the end of the garden, living under mushrooms and generally trying to avoid being photographed. They never tell you about the child abduction, do they? I don’t recall anyone ever saying to me on misbehaving, “you better watch out or the fairies will take you away and swap you for one of their children!” Now, my mum used to say some bloody daft things, she still does, but even she never came up with that one. She did, however, tell me once that a volcano could erupt under our house at any time. That gave me a few sleepless nights, I can tell you. But at least I was safe from the thieving fairies.
When you delve deeper into faerie folklore, the reasons for them wanting to swap their children like unwanted trading cards are pretty varied; it appears that they’re a fickle and weird lot, but seeing as this book takes place partly in Wales (Sorrel lives there whilst Sonia, Alfie’s mum, lives in England), let’s look at their reasoning:
“In Wales the changeling child (plentyn cael (sing.), plant cael (pl.)) initially resembles the human it substitutes, but gradually grows uglier in appearance and behaviour: ill-featured, malformed, ill-tempered, given to screaming and biting. It may be of less than usual intelligence, but again is identified by its more than childlike wisdom and cunning.”
Yikes, if all of their children are like that no wonder they want shot of the thing; it sounds like a truly delightful child indeed.
How all this fits into the story of Alfie Marsden is one you’ll have to discover for yourself. As I’ve mentioned before, Matt cleverly weaves these urban myths, local folklores and superstitions into his narrative so well that they feel completely and utterly part of the story; they’re not just tacked on to fit a genre or to make the story more exciting. You totally forget that this is all from Matt’s creative imagination and these places and personal accounts of the bizarre goings on haven’t actually happened. I challenge you to read this book, or any of the Six Stories books, and not go off and Google the events to see if Matt is just regurgitating real events.
As I’ve already mentioned, the podcast structure of Changeling is a masterstroke of narrative genius. It really does allow you to get behind the events of Alfie’s disappearance. Matt’s skilful writing means that each new character has their own unique voice and you never lose sight of who is talking and to which side of the story you are listening to. Quite how he manages to keep track himself as to who is saying what and when is a tad baffling, but he does and in the process has created a brilliant, believable and compelling narrative that just pulls you along as if you were tied to the rear of a particularly fast and impressive locomotive, maybe with Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing on the footplate pulling faces and poking his tongue out, and not letting you go until the very last page. Even then it never truly lets you go as the events of this book will stay in your mind long after you close the book.
There are other themes that Matt explores in Changeling that are far, far more frightening than any supernatural force; these are real life dangers. Now, I’m coy about revealing too much here as they could lead you to make assumptions about the story and characters that could be construed (ooh, ‘construed’ – now there’s a lovely word) as a spoiler. You really, really, really don’t want this book ruined for you by some beardy bollox telling you something that makes you go, “ahh, I knew that that would be the case because I read the Beardy Book Blogger’s review and he mentioned [spoiler redacted]. What a total bastard!” 🤬 So I’m not going to say anymore here. You see that little photo of Matt down there? You do? Excellent, well, skip past that and get to my recap to find out if this book is worth your time and money (SPOILER: Of course it fucking well is. Why do you think I’ve just spent the last 2470 words waffling on about it? But, I put it more concisely and elegantly than that just down there 😉).
Matt Wesolowski’s ‘Changeling’ is a novel of outstanding originality, superb characterisation, clever and thorough plotting and brilliant storytelling. The brilliantly unique podcast narrative pulls you into the story in a way that few others can and you truly do forget that you are reading a work of fiction and not the transcript of an actual show. Once again, as with Six Stories and Hydra before it, Changeling takes on another cold case from six different perspectives, and explores not only the supernatural forces that may or may not have been involved, but also delves into the very human forces that are far more scary, more frightening and much more disturbing than anything paranormal.
Do yourself a HUGE favour and read this book. You don’t need to have read any of the other Six Stories books to enjoy this; they all stand alone, but you would be as crazy as a bag of rabid camels in woollen onesies on a very hot day to not do so. Matt is currently beavering away on the 4th book in the series, so now is a very good time to be a Six Stories fan. Come on, join in!
Changeling is out NOW and you can buy it from these lovely people or from any good booksellers:
My eternal thanks to Karen Sullivan, Matt Wesolowski and to Anne Cater for allowing me on to this tour. I would thank them for my copy of Changeling, but I bought my own copy, so, ner 😉😘
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 story 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 WH Smith Fresh Talent pick, and TV rights were sold to a major Hollywood studio. A prequel, Hydra, was published in 2018 and became an international bestseller.
The Blog Tour rumbles on so I demand that you have a shufty and see what all these other brilliant bloggers have to say about Changeling. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended.