Ex Nihilo


Stephen Volk was born in 1954 in Pontypridd, South Wales. Best known as a screenwriter, his first produced credit was Gothic, directed by Ken Russell, shortly followed by The Kiss, and The Guardian which he co-wrote with William Friedkin for Universal Pictures. In 1992 he wrote the notorious BBCTV Hallowe’en “hoax” programme Ghostwatch starring Michael Parkinson and Sarah Green, which terrified the nation, caused questions to be raised in Parliament and is cited in the British Journal of Medicine as being the first television programme to cause post-traumatic stress disorder in children. Many British and American scripts later (including contributions to the UK TV anthology shows Ghosts and Shockers and unproduced big screen adaptations of The Chrysalids and The Box of Delights), he won a BAFTA for Best Short Film, The Deadness of Dad starring Rhys Ifans. 2003 saw the release of psycho-horror road-movie Octane, from on his original screenplay, starring Madeleine Stowe. More recently he created and was lead writer on ITV’s multi-award-winning and highly acclaimed paranormal series Afterlife, starring Lesley Sharp and Andrew Lincoln. Steve’s current projects include The Interpretation of Ghosts for BBC Films; the psychological science-fiction movie Telepathy (which is in pre-production starring Cillian Murphy); a modern witchcraft story called Burn; and a new TV drama on Jack the Ripper. In 2006 he published his first short story collection, Dark Corners (Gray Friar Press), from which the story “31/10” has been selected for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006, and also recently received nominations for both the Horror Writers’ Association Bram Stoker Award, and the British Fantasy Award. What follows is an exclusive extract from an unpublished novel, still a work-in-progress.



Out of nothing... Out of nothing, locked as I was in abject Darkness, I heard the rumble, though I did not recognise it as that, of a vast stone being rolled away. Or rather felt it, since it was more a deep resonance than perceptible sound, growing in the centre of my chest and spreading to my extremities in one long, great, grinding shudder. No yawn of anguish did I emit, or scream; for, in all truth, I did not at first comprehend my circumstance, which may seem strange, or even where indeed I lay. But slowly something converted numbness to warmth in my cheeks, and I opened my eyes, and felt my eyelashes tickle against the fibres of my shroud.

Slowly my memories returned, of the field, of the crows, of the fever, of the heartache and sickness, and as they did I felt a buzzing, burning tintinnabulation in my heart. Where was I? The growing evidence of my senses conspired to deliver me the inevitable answer. The air in my nostrils stank of aloe vera incense and mould in combating proportions. The bed under my back was cold and unforgiving stone. I could not move my limbs, for not only did cramp pinprick my muscles but I was bound by the chains of tight winding-cloths. As realisation dawned, I would have whimpered, or did, but my jaw was held fast by the chin-strap tied around my head. I sobbed, yes, for myself at least to hear in that place where none had ears but me, but it only produced the merest billowing of the face-cloth against my lips. Then I knew with all certainty and Horror that I lay within my own tomb. I smelt the ritual unguents on my skin, the grim resin of myrrh and labdanum on my bandages, the too-sweet headiness of hyssop and rose-water. Confusion rose like bile. Then, at that very moment, when I felt most consumed by Terror, I heard a faraway voice:

“Lazarus, come forth.”

I knew that whisper. Knew it from a dream. A dream called Living. A distant dream. He used the word Anhistemi, in the Greek; “Awaken.” It repeated and circled in on itself from the stone around me in unending loops of sibilance: “Awaken.”

I tried to move. Desperately. But I felt I had been forced into a bread-oven. My panting breath was as rank as the clamminess that surrounded me. There was hardly any movement to the left and right of me, or above me; only solid rock. For I lay, I knew, within a niche1 four cubits long, six hand-breadths wide, and seven hand-breadths in height. I wriggled and writhed in the terrible confines of that vile charnel-box. The face-cloth would not budge from my poking tongue and my own spitting threatened to stifle me. Mercifully, my wrist-bands loosened first, and by furious movement I broke their manacle-hold. My fingers flexed urgently, semi-dead. I dug my nails into the dry and sticky cloth. I tightened my fists and shook. Thereafter the coil holding my elbows was easier to shed, and gave like an unbuckled belt. Crossing my arms, my bony elbows clashing like swords, I ripped off the vile sudarium2. The first thing to greet my eyes was the hewn stone almost touching my nose, and the spiders and writhy worms upon it racing away into their cracks and crevices. I cried out but I am not sure if the sound escaped my lips. I slid myself out from that narrow grave-hole, feet first, tearing the takhrikhin3 from my arms and the strips that gathered at my ankles.

Immediately my legs gave way and plummeted. I was like an infant not yet able to walk. I clawed up the damp wall, hoisting myself erect once more. The bandages hung from me, looped like rope, smeared with the leaves, herbs and grass, put there during the preparation of the cadaver; MYSELF! Again I fell to the floor. Light mysteriously penetrated the gloom and fell upon me with a sickly lustre. I touched the low bier in the centre of the vault upon which the care and treatment of the corpse had taken place. Here, I realised, many dutiful hands had lately pawed and perfumed my naked flesh, and wept over me. Were they weeping now, I asked myself? Would they weep again this day? Would I?

I breathed in deeply that sweet but stifling smell of prayer. I saw burners which had long since burnt dry. And, succumbing to weakness, sat sobbing within a court six cubits square, with three kokim in each side-wall and two at each end, one of which had been assigned to me for eternity. I regarded now with feeble impunity that prison from which no man escapes. But I had. Even knowing that, its proximity still filled me with dread. Within my reach, too, was the Ossarium, with its mortuary chests containing the collected bones of my family. I had been set amongst the osteophagi, to join them. I had been cast out of the world of the Living. But whence now came the Light?

“Lazarus!” Louder now. “Come forth!”

I felt the air move around me, like an intake of breath sucked in. Shivering, I realised that it was the chill draught of an open door. His voice was louder a second time; now less imploring, more a command. I turned in its direction and saw a Sun, a disc, a growing crescent of light beyond the Ante-chamber. I could not resist but to go towards it. It drew me. I staggered like a half-cripple, stiff-legged, bending to exit through the low opening. As I neared it, the whiteness of the sunlight waiting outside began to burn my eyes so painfully that I turned back and put the discarded face-cloth back over my head. Thus shielded from its rays, I held my meagre grave-cloths about my naked figure, and stepped out.

A huge cheer erupted and shook me so severely I was almost compelled by instinct to return back inside. I felt my stick-legs wobble, I sank, my hand trailed weakly in the sand, my legs bent, my head lolled back. I felt the Sun against the face-cloth. I spilled into the dust, a ball of fright and freedom. But strong hands were under my arms and lifted me back up onto my sapling legs, though they did bend and splay under me. At Christ’s behest a man was engaged in undoing the grave-sleeves and bands. The knot was broken and the linen torn. I was a puppet in their hands. My mouth sucked in the cloth, eager for air. I breathed in. I breathed out. I had come out the mouth of my resting place like a word. Like a heresy.

And I heard Jesus say:

“Remove the cloth from his face.”

And they did so. Immediately the Sun stung my eyes like a myriad bees. And immediately I closed my eyes, tight. I heard someone say: “See how Jesus runs to the mouth of the Sepulchre.” Soon He embraced me like a father, crushing my ribs, His fine hands strong against my back. But it was an embrace I did not desire. I had longed for it; but it was sour instead of sweet. And the sourness was in me and no other. I felt only His oily skin and breath; as on a day when you have had too much Sun and crave only the shade. I did not know what I thought or felt any more. My chin digging into His blessed shoulder, I gulped air like a fish drowning on dry land. I was frightened of this place and part of me wanted to be thrown back to where darkness had become comfort, and fear become safety. My head was not mine own. Then two of the Twelve raised me up, which two I remember not, for they looked much of a muchness, lifting me onto their shoulders. I was hoist up like a carcass on a hook displayed. I was raised aloft, out of His reach, their shoulders my throne, their tousled heads my arm-rests. The Sun on my skin after such cold and unrelenting dark was joyful beyond measure. So why did I not laugh? What had happened to me? I did not yet know what I had left behind, or what I made of it. Was I free? Or newly imprisoned? I wanted someone to explain to me. I was full of so many feelings, and of nothing. I had died and yet returned. That much was clear. Was it? I was Alive, I knew, because they said so. Was I? The air coursed down my throat and I was as a newborn babe swept from a mother’s womb and held aloft in Thanks. “Wake, wake, wake!” Jesus cried, beside me. And I? Nothing. Mine eyes were not yet accustomed to the Light. Nor would they ever be, henceforward, if I did but know it. But that whole history was to unfold. For now, I sailed above the multitude. The throng were kneeling; a sea of hung heads. They were in tears. They were praying. They touched and kissed my pale arm, my thin fingers, my foolish legs.

“Father! My Father! All ye, give thanks!” Jesus proclaimed to the sky. I saw the back of His head as He turned to face them. And He was laughing, a laugh almost wrought of fear, saying: “Bless you, bless you, my brother!”

And Peter, his right-hand man, cried out to the foregathered:

“Where O Death is thy victory? Where O Death is thy sting? Thanks be to God, who giveth us this victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, my Beloved, be steadfast and immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because now you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain!

And Jesus did bathe in loud prolonged cheering, His hands raised to His Heaven, as no small reminder of whence his powers came. And those who spoke the occupying tongue said; “Credo, Credo,” which means, “I believe, I believe.” Many of them bowed down and prostrated themselves, lining the way before us. And I was dizzy with Wonder. From my human carriage I looked back over my shoulder to my illustrious tomb, from whose O-shaped mouth the golet-stone had been rolled back. That mouth did not speak. I left it far behind. The Dead were all around us in their cemetery plots, yet I was the only one of them exalted. I was raised up on high. I picked insects from my teeth and worms from my beard and still they revered me, no less than an Archangel descended to earth in human form.

A woman kissed my hand; and I saw it was Mary.

One kissed the other; and it was Martha.

“Hallelujah!” they sang. Then to the crowd, all round them, also, and the crowd raised their voices singing with them: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” I was a boat on a river of Hallelujahs. They were chanting: “Lazarus! Lazarus! Lazarus!”

Why were they praising me? I had done nothing. I was not noble, brave, high-born, magical or clever. Or even handsome. I was only a man. A man, granted, who had died, and yet lived. But whatever I was, was another’s doing, not my own.

And behind me some of the faithful were collecting handfuls of sand from the threshold of my empty funeral chamber, scooping it into their purses and pockets, mumbling snippets of psalms as they did so in their devotion. They took a little of the day with them, to treasure. And who can blame them? They were entitled to have proof, the better to say to doubters; I was there at the Raising of Lazarus. And I saw also pieces of my shroud-cloth and bandages passed hand over hand through the crowd, ripped, torn up in small squares, kept, kissed and held to hearts. My head hurt. They had torn off parts of me to be their own.

1Jewish thrust-grave, known as a “kukhin” (sometimes called a “kokim” tomb)

2sudarium = chin band

3 bands



(C) Stephen Volk 2007



© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.