Selected Writing

Byron’s Darkness

1836. Harland Shiels is the owner of a company that produces pantomime in Newcastle’s new Grainger Town. He runs comedy half the week, has a devout wife, and two children away at boarding school in London. But he’s been having bad dreams… One night, tossing and turning, he hears the clatter of horses’ hooves, trumpets, then great fires burning, screams, the splutters of children with plague. Greta, his wife, wakes him to a day that will not break. Darkness has come to England.

Greta fears the apocalypse, and is anxious to leave Newcastle immediately for London to be with their children. Harland resists. He’s eager to find a rational explanation for the darkness, and the pastor of his church has convinced him to stay in the city to stage his new comedy for the increasingly frightened population. Hearsay continues to stream in to the city: someone claims to have seen all the stars fall from the sky, there are rumours of flooding, and one report describes the eruption of a massive volcano in China. Harland consults a scientist friend of his at the new University of Durham, who turns out to have gone completely insane. The man says he knows what has caused the darkness, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Harland asks him if the Rapture has really come. “In a sense,” the scholar replies, and nearly knocks himself out laughing. He urges Sheils to “make light of the situation” before it’s too late.

Arriving back in Newcastle, he arrives at the first showing of his play only to find it has been canceled at the last minute by the church. His pastor explains that they caved into pressure from the local government, Whigs concerned about the play’s comic subject: King William IV. Riots break out and Harland flees to his home, where his Catholic footman claims he heard the clattering hooves of four horsemen through the city the night before, blaring trumpets exactly as in his dream. Feeling shaken and betrayed, he caves to an almost hysterical Greta, and the couple set off for London. As they leave, Willam, one of the players in his show, tries to change his mind: the play was cancelled because news has just arrived that King William is gravely ill; they need him; the town needs him. But Harland rides on, abandoning the disintegrating Newcastle so their family might be together while the world finishes going mad.

This is part one of Byron’s Darkness, a 13-part radio series about what happens when you’re only able to see the world in a serious light.