Fiction Fragments: Paul Tremblay

If you missed last week’s Fiction Fragments, you missed a great interview with Linda D. Addison. Linda has been an inspiration to me since I attended my first World Horror Convention back in 2013, but it was her acceptance speech for her Lifetime Achievement Award at StokerCon in 2018 that made me want to be just like her when I grow up. Do yourself a favor and check out last week’s Fiction Fragments with Linda.

This week, I am super excited to welcome award-winning horror writer Paul Tremblay to Girl Meets Monster. I’ve really enjoyed Paul’s work and look forward to reading more. And, hopefully, I’ll get over my social awkwardness enough to talk to him beyond saying “hello” the next time I see him at an event.

Paul Tremblay has won the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and Massachusetts Book awards and is the author of Survivor SongGrowing Things, The Cabin at the End of the World, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, A Head Full of Ghosts, and the crime novels The Little Sleep and No Sleep Till Wonderland. His essays and short fiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly online, and numerous year’s-best anthologies. He has a master’s degree in mathematics and lives outside Boston with his family.

twitter and instagram: @paulgtremblay
website: www.paultremblay.net
author photo credit: Allan Amato

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Paul. You’ve had a lot of success with your writing, and that success is well-deserved. Back in March, I interviewed Bracken MacLeod, who has also had some success with his work, and I asked him to talk about the concept of impostor syndrome. For many writers, even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing, they still experience feelings of doubt about their writing. As a writer who has won some prestigious awards, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

PT: Thank you for having me here, Michelle.

I never feel like I know what the hell I’m doing in writing, or in life, frankly. The self-doubt, particularly while in the middle of a novel/story, doesn’t go away, and if anything, has intensified, which is more than kind of disheartening/disappointing. While having published books under my belt helps my confidence a little (proof that I have in fact, somehow, finished books before), it only helps a little. I’ve found a more regular writing schedule is more effective at keeping the self-doubts from becoming paralyzing; it’s easier to chalk up a bad day as simply a bad day if there are good or so-so days surrounding it.

Successes (however those might be described, from selling a story to a market or editor you really wanted to work with to signing a book deal) certainly can be a hurdle to the next or new project. For novels, I try to make each one feel different in some way (it could be something as simple as switching up the music I listen to when writing, a new notebook for notes, or even a tweak or change in process or approach) if nothing else to remind me this new book is not the prior one. It is its own thing, for good or bad. When I struggled during the writing of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, my follow up to A Head Full of Ghosts, I emailed my friend/mentor Stewart O’Nan. In the email I whined that this new book wasn’t coming as easily (the lie of memory; all your completed stories or books were easier to write in your memory than in the moment) and while I felt confident about AHFoG, I feared that this new book wasn’t going to be as good, etc. Expecting a pep talk back from Stewart, he instead sent me exactly what I needed to hear. He wrote, “Eh, not everything you write is going to be great.” He was of course correct, and I laughed, released a lot of my self-imposed pressure with an exhale, and grinded out a book of which I’m very proud.

GMM: I enjoyed your fragment. I assume the title is a parody of Shirley Jackson’s novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Based on what you’ve shared, I get the feeling this story is set in a post-apocalyptic amusement park with a fairy tale theme. I’m not 100 percent sure what’s happening, but our narrator is interesting and seems well-informed about the world around him/her. Without giving away too many spoilers, what is the premise of the story and what can you tell us about the narrator?

PT: Yes, it’s definitely a riff on my favorite Shirley Jackson novel and I’m not 100% sure what’s happening either! Heh.

When my two kids were younger, we took them to a regionally famous amusement called Story Land. The park is really geared for kids younger than 10 years old with each ride and attraction based on a fairy tale. During one visit a thunderstorm cropped up and the four of us (along with some other families) holed up inside a giant pumpkin. Well, it was some form of plastic and mortar (maybe?) pumpkin. And as my mind tends to wander to horror/weird scenarios, I imagined what would happen if we had to live at the park, what would drive us to live at the park? Clearly Cinderella’s castle would be the prime real estate if people were going to divvy up the place. The ‘castle’ in my title references Cinderella’s at Story Land. The narrator of this story is more sinister than Merricat Blackwood, but I tried to make him playfully mischievous. There has been some sort of apocalypse and people are living/surviving at the various rides and attractions within the amusement park. An absurdist premise, but one I hoped would play on people’s post-apocalyptic fantasies: the idea that yes of course *you* would be one of the ones to survive. Maybe not on the Polar Coaster though? Our narrator covets and schemes to take over the best place to live in the park, the castle (because of its size and easily defendable location), though as the story progresses his mental state disintegrates.

GMM: Many writers have been affected by the pandemic and the political climate. Some positively. Some negatively. Have changes to expectations around your course delivery as a teacher had an impact on your time? Has your productivity changed? What projects have you been working on that keep you motivated to stay on track?

PT: It has been difficult to focus on writing/creating, difficult to tear myself away from news, particularly online news, and difficult to not perseverate on worries and real-world fears. I’ve been more forgiving of myself for not being as productive (in terms of words written) as I would like. But I do force myself to write at some point as I do have a novel contractually due in May of 2021. As the calendar turns to fall, I’m not sure how going back to school will impact my writing work, and to be honest, I’m not even sure what school is going to look like, even at this late date.

After having a difficult time doing so when stay-at-home began, I have been doing a lot of reading, which, for me, is as important as writing to my work as a writer. My two prior novels, The Cabin at the End of the World and Survivor Song purposefully reflect (I hope) the anxieties of living in Trumplandia. And with Survivor Song in particular, it has been strange releasing a virus/pandemic novel. So, I don’t have any interest in writing about *this* pandemic, at least not directly. The project I am currently working on is a novel, one (thankfully) I had the idea hit me in late fall of 2019, so when I am able to write and sink into the book, it has been a welcomed escape from reality. Though I have noticed our now sneaking in and in unexpected places (given the novel starts in 1988).

Fragment from “We Will Never Live in the Castle”

polar coaster

Mr. Matheson lives over in Heidi’s Hill, we confab every three days in the old mist tent between the World Pavilion and my Slipshod Safari Tour, but today he’s late for our date, he scurries and hurries into the tent, something’s up.

Mr. Matheson says, She took over the Polar Coaster, he says, I don’t know if Kurt just up and left or if she chased him off or killed him but he’s gone and now she’s there.

I thought we’d never be rid of that idiot kid, he used to eat grass and then puke it all up.

I say, Who is she, what’s she look like, does she have a crossbow?

He says, She’s your age of course, medium-size, bigger than my goat anyway, and quiet, I didn’t get a great look at her, but I know she’s there, she wears a black cap, she just won’t talk to me.

Why would she say anything to him, I only talk to him out of necessity, necessity is what rules my life, necessity is one of the secrets to survival, I’ll give other secrets later, maybe when we take the tour.

Mr. Matheson and me have a nice symbiosis thing going, he gets to stay alive and enjoy a minimum base of human contact, he keeps an eye on my Slipshod Safari Tour’s rear flank, last year he saw these two bikers trying to ambush me via Ye Olde Mist Tent, Mr. Matheson gave me that goat’s call of his, he is convincing, I took care of the burly thunderdome bikers, they tried to sneak down the tracks and past the plastic giraffe, the one with a crick in its neck and the missing tail, typical stupid new hampshire rednecks, not that there’s a new hampshire anymore, live free or die bitches, their muscles and tattoos didn’t save them, little old me, all one-hundred-thirty-two pounds of me, me and necessity.

Mr. Matheson is clearly disappointed she won’t talk to him, whoever she is, he’s probably taken stupid risks to his own skin, and by proxy mine, trying to get her attention, it’s so lame and predictable, because of the fleeting sight of a mysterious girl the old man would jeopardize my entire operation here, Mr. Matheson is down to his last goat, the house on Heidi’s Hill is a small one room dollhouse with a mini bed mini table mini chair, no future there, it’s a good place for a geezer with a white beard going yellow, straw on his face, getting ready to die, no place for a girl, she needs space, the Polar Coaster is a decent spot, back when Fairy Tale Land was up and running the Polar Coaster was one of the most popular rides, I never got to work it, they kept me over on the Whirling Whales, a toddler ride.

At the Polar Coaster the fiberglass igloo and icebergs are holding up okay, they make good hidey holes, warmth and shelter in the winter, shade in the summer, some reliable food stores, wild blueberry bushes near the perimeter of its northern fence, birds nest in the tracks, free pickings of eggs and young, small duck pond in the middle of it all and with ample opportunity to trap smaller critters, the Polar Coaster might be the third best spot in the park behind my Slipshod Safari Tour and Cinderella’s Castle, of course, third because it’s a little too out in the open for my tastes, everyone who comes to Fairy Tale Land always goes to the Castle and then the Polar Coaster.

I ask, Do you know her name?

Mr. Matheson says, She won’t talk to me, remember.

Yeah, I remember, but sometimes it’s hard when every day is the same.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: P. D. Cacek

Last week, Girl Meets Monster celebrated it’s 50th Fiction Fragments post and had the pleasure of chatting with horror writer Hailey Piper. We talked about female monsters and the need for more queer voices in horror — writers, editors, characters, etc. If you missed it, go check it out.

This week, I am very pleased to welcome my friend and fellow horror writer, P. D. Cacek. I met her at my first NECON last summer, but got to know her better on a road trip to Haverhill, MA for the Merrimack Vally Halloween Book Festival this past October. Sadly, both events have been canceled this year, which is a shame, because I was looking forward to having more adventures with her. Oh well, next year.

The winner of both a Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award, P.D. Cacek has written over a hundred short stories, seven plays, and six published novels. Her most recent novel, Second Lives, published by Flame Tree Press, is currently available from Amzon.com. The follow-up novel, Second Chances, will be released from Flame Tree Press, November 2020.

Cacek holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English/Creative Writing Option from the University of California at Long Beach and has been a guest lecturer at the Odyssey Writing Camp.

A native Westerner, Cacek now lives Phoenixville, PA. When not writing, she can often been found either with a group of costumed storytellers called THE PATIENT CREATURES, or haunting local cemeteries looking for inspiration.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster! I was really bummed out about not going to NECON this year, but hopefully we’ll be able to see each other next year. I saw that you will be one of the guests of honor for NECON 40, along with the likes of Tananarive Due, Joe R. Lansdale, Victor LaValle and Bracken MacLeod. I’m excited, so I know you must be excited. What is your history with NECON and how you’ve earned the status of Legend?

PDC: It honestly feels like I’ve been going to NECON from the very beginning, but the truth is that I’ve only been going since 1998…and that’s only 22 years. But I’d heard about it long before I’d walked onto the hollowed grounds of Roger Williams University’s dorm row. Other writers not only kept telling me about this wonderful little “family” convention that was more like a summer camp with panels, but told me I HAD to go. I thought it would be fun, but wondered what, if anything, I’d have in common with “real” writers (we all go through this stage). It took a couple more years but I finally got up the courage and went to my first NECON. Of course I still didn’t feel like a “real” writer (my first novel wasn’t coming out until later that year), so I thought I’d just stay in the background and keep out of sight since no one probably knew who I was. Wrong. Not only did people know me, but those who didn’t went out of their way to introduce themselves and make me feel like I belong.

(Although it would have been nice if I’d known the rules (????) of the Damned Game Show BEFORE I was asked to be part of it…Craig.)

As for becoming a NECON Legend…wow…seriously, it is an honor beyond words. As for how I earned it, let’s see, I’ve only missed two NECONs since becoming a “camper,” was Mistress of Ceremonies in 2002 (when I proved Chris Golden is indeed a NECON Whore and managed to keep Dallas Mayr’s [Jack Ketchum] roast under two hours), have been roasted, contributed to a few NECON Books, co-edited Necon’s charity anthology for the Jimmy Fund Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and am currently the Volunteer Coordinator. I loved every minute of it and look forward to more minutes (and revenge) to come.

GMM: Second Chances is the sequel to Second Lives, which my mom loved, by the way. Can you talk about your process for writing a sequel? Did you already have a plan for what would happen in the second book? Did you use an outline, or are you more of a pantser? How did you keep track of your characters, events, etc. from the first novel? What difficulties did you encounter in the writing process? What advice would you give to someone who is working on a sequel or series?

PDC: Thank your mother for me.

Actually, Second Chances is not so much a sequel as it is a follow-up novel. I wrote Second Lives, the previous novel, with the intention of taking my characters’ storylines to a natural end point. Notice I didn’t say ending…the whole motivation for both novels comes from the fact that even as a child I always wondered what happened after “The End” in a story. “What comes next?” is the reason behind both books, however I decided against a sequel because I felt I would only be repeating myself.

But that didn’t mean there weren’t more stories that could be told using the same premise—the transmigration of a wandering soul into a new body (no, not zombies)—and that’s exactly what I did in Second Chances.
Although the novel opens in the same time frame as the first, the majority of Second Chances takes place a few years after the first “Travelers” arrive and deals with the aftermath. A bit darker in tone, the novel follows two families and shows what can happen when people become scared of something they don’t understand.

You asked how I kept track of my characters and I’m afraid my answer is rather old school—I took notes…on a pad of paper and Post’Em notes. Yes, I know I could do that on Notepad or whatever it’s called, but I’m a Luddite…and my desk, since each character had his or her own color sticky note, looked very festive.

The first piece of advice I’d give to anyone writing a sequel or follow up novel is to KEEP NOTES. They don’t have to be handwritten or on Post’Ems but you need to remember events and the outcome of those events. You also need to supply just enough history from your first book(s) to remind your reader of what happened while at the same time not falling into the dreaded “info dump.” After all this, it’s just a matter of taking your established characters on new adventures.

The second is to make an outline…if it works for you. I personally don’t do outlines, although I will jot down a scene or event I plan to write, but for the most part I won’t begin a novel or story until I have thought it out all the way through beginning to end. It might take a few days before I’m happy with the idea, but when I am, I sit down and write the ending—whether it’s one line, a paragraph or a full chapter. When that’s done, I block out the scene I plan to write in my head then sit down and start.

GMM: I know you’ve spent time working and acting in community theatre productions. How has acting, building sets, and other aspects of stagecraft impacted your writing? Have you written plays as well as novels and short fiction? How is that process different?

PDC: If anything, working in community theater—building sets or acting—has helped me with my pacing. On stage, and unless it’s written in the script, a pause that goes on a bit too long is deadly.

And the same thing applies to writing.

If you have a scene that goes on and on and on, describing each and every detail of a world whose glory can only be identified in language so marvelous it practically drips purple because the people that populate this world are so….zzzzzzz.

In stage speak: Pick up the pace.
In writer speak: Edit, edit, edit.

Now, I’m not saying you need to cut your descriptions to the bare bones, but you need to keep your reader interested in what’s going on in the story so pay attention to the pace.

After being in theater for a few years, I thought it might be fun to try my hand at writing a play. I mean, how hard could it be, right? Well, the truth is that I found the process similar to eating potato chips: I couldn’t stop after just one.

It was FUN! I stopped writing fiction for two years and wrote seven plays, won an honorable mention from the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Competition with my very first play, had two plays performed (not a bad record) but never gave serious thought to becoming a professional playwright. The world of writing plays is entirely different than the world of writing fiction.

First, there’s the format.

In fiction it’s an equal blend of description and dialog.

In playwriting it’s dialog, dialog, dialog, etc. (side bar description…maybe). The playwright can offer suggestions as to the setting and prop pieces, but it’s the director that has the final say.

The playwright has little if any say in the matter…sort of like a writer being shown the cover of their new novel.

Another difference is in how one becomes a “professional.”

Author: Write + publish + make money (agent optional) = professional.
Playwright: Write + theatrical agent + legitimate* theater company (* pays actors) + production + production + production + production + reviews + make money + publication = professional.

I may have exaggerated on the number of productions, but that’s basically the process and while I may still write a play or two when the mood or idea strikes me, I’ll stick with being a fiction writer for now.

Write on!

Fragment from Second Chances

Jessie groaned.

“Why did you kill yourself?”

Jessie leaned forward and stared into the man’s eyes. “Because I
watched my friend die and didn’t even try to kill the Traveler that took over her body. I should have done it even if my dad wouldn’t. I owed her that much.”

Grabbing the walker, Jessie pulled the body to its feet and glared down at the man who’d been there from the very beginning and could have stopped it.

“Maybe this is my punishment for not saving Carly’s body from—”

Music filled Jessie’s head.

“Jessie?” Ellison stood up. “What is it? What’s the matter?”

“Shh!”

“What? What do you hear?”

“Shh!”

A single piano began playing, the music soft and familiar. Jessie
recognized it and tears filled his eyes.

“Jessie, what’s wrong?”

The piano was joined by a single female voice. Ellison pushed Jessie back into the chair and moved the walker away.

“Jessie, you’re starting to scare me. What’s going on?”

“Shh. Listen. Isn’t it beautiful?”

“I don’t hear anything. What do you hear?”

Jessie took a deep breath. “Abbie singing. It’s ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables. Have you seen it?”

“Yes. I took my wife to see the movie. She wasn’t impressed.”

“The stage musical’s better.” Abbie’s voice rose pure and steady and when the song ended Jessie heard their father’s voice.

“The one who dwelled within this body is gone and has taken with her a soul that was hers and hers alone. We who are left behind ask that her soul be kept only unto this body and not return. As it was and always shall be, one body, one soul for now and all eternity. One body. One soul. Now and forever. Amen.”

“Jessie, what do you hear?”

“My funeral.”

**

Barney put the envelope back into his coat pocket as he watched the boy walk away, pointedly ignoring the giant dressed in nursing scrubs who hovered at his side.

It was a slow walk, small sliding steps between the wheeled guardrails of the walker. It was an old man’s walk, but that would change once the muscles in the legs regained their strength.

Barney heard Millie’s quick steps a full minute before she reached his side.

“Where’s Jessie headed? I brought a few books.” He turned to watch her pull three paperbacks out of her ever-present bag. “Not sure what Jessie likes, but I thought these might do.”

Barney took the books and smiled. They were all H.G. Wells reprints. Millie’s tastes ran to the classics.

“I think he will,” he said and handed them back and watched them disappear back into the bag.

“Well?”

“Well,” Barney repeated. “I think Jessie was having a hard enough time even before this happened. I’ll ask that a psychological evaluation be done.”

“You’re not going to do it?”

“No, I’d rather it be done by the hospital. He has a certain, shall we say, well-learned prejudice against me. If I tested him and felt there was sufficient evidence of schizophrenia similar to that of the donor, my diagnosis might come under suspicion.”

“You think there might be?”

Barney thought about what had just happened. There might be other answers to what he just saw besides schizophrenia, but none came immediately to mind.

“I don’t know and that’s why I want him evaluated. Schizophrenia is all about brain chemistry, Millie, and we have no idea whether the physical brain changes when a Traveler wakes or if it simply adapts and accommodates the new memories. But I saw him phase out and experience what might have been auditory hallucinations.”

“That poor, poor child.”

“I know, Millie, but let’s not jump the gun. First he has to be tested and then, even if he’s diagnosed, there are antipsychotics that can and will help. Besides, the donor’s parents have agreed to take Jessie in and they already know what to do.”

Millie didn’t look happy, but did look a bit more relieved. “Well, thank God for that. Did you tell him about Ms. Samuels?”

Barney pressed his hand against the front of his coat and shook his head. It was a copy of Georgina Samuels’ obituary, dated a few days after Jessie’s, and listed her death as the result of carbon monoxide poisoning. It wouldn’t do Jessie any good to see it.

Not now, not…

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Sarah Read

Last week, Girl Meets Monster had a great conversation with horror writer, Todd Keisling, about religion in horror fiction and how COVID-19 has impacted his writing. This week, I have the pleasure of talking with Bram Stoker Award winner, Sarah Read.

Sarah ReadSarah Read is a dark fiction writer in the frozen north of Wisconsin. Her short stories can be found in various places, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year vols 10 and 12. A collection of her short fiction called OUT OF WATER is available now from Trepidatio Publishing, as is her debut novel THE BONE WEAVER’S ORCHARD, both nominated for the Bram Stoker Awards. When she’s not staring into the abyss, she knits. You can find her online on Instagram or Twitter @inkwellmonster or on her site at www.inkwellmonster.wordpress.com.

Three Questions

GMM: Hello Sarah. Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and congratulations on winning a Bram Stoker Award for your debut novel, The Bone Weaver’s Orchard. Tell me about how the book came about. What inspired the story, and what motivated you to finish your first novel?

SR: Thank you so much, Michelle! The book came about because I wanted to write a scary book that wedged between the gap of YA horror and adult horror. I had never been entirely satisfied with YA horror as a young reader–it wasn’t scary enough, or dark enough, it lacked honesty, and too often I could see the author pulling punches. I started reading adult horror when I was nine. I liked the scary side of it much better, but the stakes always seemed to hinge on grownup problems that I couldn’t relate to enough to fully sympathize with the characters. From there, I just took my love for Gothic lit and tossed in all my favorite ingredients. I wrote the novel for NaNoWriMo, I think back in 2014. My husband was working nights at the time, as a janitor in a hospital. Once I got our (then only) son in bed, I’d sit in my favorite chair with a notebook and pen and hit my word count for the day. I didn’t quite get that celebratory feeling when finishing it, because my inner editor had been keeping a tally of all the broken pieces I knew I was going to have to go in and fix. Writing “The End” was a moment of, “Oh shit, now the real work starts!” And it did, and lasted for several years.

GMM: Last week, I asked Todd Keisling to talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his writing process. Many writers have shared on social media that they are struggling to focus on their work and haven’t been as productive as they normally would be. How has the pandemic affected your writing process? Has it inspired new stories? What advice would you give other writers who might be struggling to get words on the page?

SR: Oh gosh, my writing has been almost nonexistent for close to eight weeks now. I have two kids at home with me, stuck in the house. My eldest is 12 and has 4-6 hours of virtual classes a day, and my youngest is 5, and has no home schoolwork. My days are spent teaching 6th grade, playing with my youngest, troubleshooting eldest’s tech problems, fixing snacks every ten minutes, and I’m still also working as a librarian from home, doing virtual programs for our patrons. I’m also still freelancing (writing, editing), though I’ve had to cut back a bit on that. My husband is still at work full time. When he gets home and takes over with the kids is when my workday starts, and I’m usually not done until almost midnight. Honestly, though, even if my schedule wasn’t a shitshow, my anxiety would probably polish off any creative energy that might surface. I’ve had a few good writing sessions since this all started, but I’m definitely not anywhere close to my usual output. I’ve been at this level of anxiety once before, when I was pregnant with my second son and he kept trying to die in utero over and over and over. I was on bed rest for seven months. I thought I’d get so much done! But it was a terrifying time, and my creative energy was re-routed to self-preservation. Instead I burned through Netflix and played Age of Empires. Now it’s Animal Crossing, if I can catch a moment. I feel less guilty this time, and more comfortable focusing on taking care of myself and my family.

GMM: Your fragment has a definite fantasy feel to it, with a hint f Shakespearean drama with the death of the family patriarch and what is promising to be a dispute over who will take his place as Lord. Do you feel more at home writing fantasy or horror, or do you typically combine the two genres? Can you give a brief synopsis of The Atropine Tree?

SR: I definitely frolic in dark fantasy, and tend to blend it with horror fairly often, sometimes crossing into the Weird territory altogether. I don’t know that I prefer one style over the others. Each story feels like home while I’m writing it. The Atropine Tree definitely dances along the Weird line. It’s unabashedly paranormal, where I usually tend to keep my ghosties more ambiguous. I’m having a blast working on it, though.

The synopsis:

Alrick’s uncle Tredan has his father’s last breath trapped in a blue bottle in his lab. Which is good, because they’ll need him to weigh in on a matter of succession and the location of the missing will.

Alrick’s father is dead, but the lords and ladies of House Aldane are restless spirits. When Alrick’s half-brother Aemon (bitter and cruel) and his sister Nelda (whose mouth is stained black from poison and who sways on the line between living and dead) show up with a lawyer and a dodgy will, Alrick and his alchemist uncle must turn to some dark arts to harness the voices of their household spirits. They must win witchy Nelda’s loyalty and turn her against the powerful demonic specter of her mother, and learn to swallow her poisons in the process.

Tredan’s army of young urchins rescued from the streets of London—the scratchlings, only half of whom survived his medical administrations—will aid them in their quest to secure the land and title for Alrick.

The Atropine Tree is a weird, Gothic Victorian ghost story about family loyalty and feuds that span generations, both living and dead. They all want a home of their own—and they all want House Aldane. It’s like Downton Abbey set in Hell House with the characters of Oliver Twist and a chaser of nightshade.

The Atropine Tree, Sarah Read

Chapter One

Alrick had arrived in time, but only just. The collar of his shirt strained against his throat, his cuffs pinched his wrists like ropes binding him to his father’s bedside.

Lord Drummond’s chest rose with a sound like chalk on slate, like plough on stone—each exhalation a surrender against the struggle to draw breath.

Alrick’s uncle Tredan leaned in and held a blue orb jar to the old Lord’s slack mouth. The fog of his breath that had clouded the glass only an hour ago now barely reached past the rim.

Tredan stood poised with the lid.

Alrick counted the breaths. Counted the beads of perspiration gathered in his uncle’s beard, counted the coarse ridges of his father’s knuckles that he held between his hands. The Lord’s cold, dry hands seemed to wick the moisture from Alrick’s hot palms. He spun the ring that hung loose on his father’s finger. Those hands had once been thick with callous, rough with half-healed tears, but now the skin draped from his fingerbones like half-drawn curtains. Like the end of an act. The end of everything.

Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. He counted.

He wondered if his school had somehow been frozen in time. If in his six years there, a hundred years had passed at House Aldane.

“Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.” His half-sister, Nelda, counted, too. Whispered, so that the fine veil across her face barely stirred.

“Three. Two.” Nelda’s voice faded.

His father wore at least a hundred years across his brow. The jar pressed into the greying skin, burrowed in thinning whiskers. Covered the lines Alrick had watched as a child, searching for that rare trace of humor. The lines that had faded, erased after his mother died.

The lid of the jar snapped into place—and that was how Alrick Aldane learned that his father, Lord Drummond Aldane, was dead.

Uncle Tredan held the jar up to the candlelight. The mist of Alrick’s father’s last breath stretched like a ghost down the side of the jar.

While Alrick watched the light play over the droplets condensing in Tredan’s bottle, the other eyes in the room watched Alrick.

He had come home to bid his father farewell, but he would not be returning to school.

The gold signet ring stuck at his father’s knuckle. He feared he’d tear the soft crepe skin if he twisted or pulled too hard. Alrick looked to Tredan.

“I’ll take care of it. I’ll have it back to you this evening.” He slid his blue bottle into the pocket of his long coat, and for a moment, Alrick thought the bulge it formed moved as if it were breathing.

Alrick nodded and laid the slack hand on the sheet.

“Best to wait.”

Alrick turned to the voice, to his half-brother Aemon who sat in the far corner beyond the reach of the candlelight, save for its shine off his eyes and teeth.

“And why is that?” asked Alrick. If a hundred years had passed at House Aldane, a thousand had passed since he’d seen his brother. Not since his mother sent Nelda and Aemon away, to live with their mother’s family. Just before she had died. Their return to House Aldane was a special exception. Alrick himself had granted it. Lord Drummond had been their father, too, and now the four of them—Alrick, Aemon, Nelda, and Tredan—were all that remained of the ancient Aldane family.

“Father’s will hasn’t been read, yet.” The shine of Aemon’s smile stretched wide.

“Let’s not speak of such things now,” Tredan said. He waved the housekeeper Merewyn over and she began to see to Lord Drummond, a half-hitch in her breath that stirred Alrick’s own grief.

The powder smell of her apron pulled at his heart like a chain yanking him back to his childhood, to her lap, the soft cushion from which he had learned his home—the whole world. His whole world.

He reached up and ran his fingers over the wood of the wide beam that spanned the low ceiling. It had seemed so high when he was young. How he had leapt, in this very spot, to reach these distant beams. Landed there on the bed where his father now lay.

Fallen. Already sinking through the linens into the straw, as if life itself had buoyancy, and now the Lord was leaden.

Merewyn rolled a bit of blanket under his chin to hold his mouth closed. A sliver of rheumy yellow flashed from beneath his eyelids, the stillness of those soft folds uncanny. It sent cold down the back of Alrick’s neck. No living eyes could ever be so still.

“He’s with Mother, now,” Nelda said.

“With Burgrune.” Aemon put his hand on his sister’s shoulder.

Tredan nodded. “Yes, and Eleanor. He loved them both.”

“I know,” Aemon said, “I saw.”

“So you did,” agreed Tredan. “We should go. Give Merewyn room.”

Three children entered the room. All wore undyed linen smocks, their heads shaved close. Their faces were scarred with the ravages of old pox that left their skin like masks. They were urchins from London—orphans that Tredan claimed and cured.

I’m an orphan. The thought came unbidden to Alrick’s mind.

No, I’m a young man. Not a child. A Lord.

The children set to helping Merewyn—cleaning the room and folding clothes. Alrick almost wished himself in one of those smocks. Something to do. A duty. A place in the world, instead of spinning uncertainty.

Tredan’s hand rested on his shoulder and steered him toward the door. Alrick stole a final glimpse back at his father. His eyelids had slid further back. His pale eyes stared out into the room, each rolling to the opposite side. Perhaps there was a wife at each bedside and he greeted them both. Perhaps one eye looked to the past and one to the future. Or perhaps he was roving, surrounded by devils.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

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