Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Northwest Passages

Now that the dust has settled on my forthcoming collection, I'm able to stand back and look at it at something like arm's length. There was a flurry of activity just before I headed off to World Fantasy in Calgary, but now I think that hurry up and wait best sums up the process. In a few weeks I expect I'll be settling down to proof the entire collection, and the prospect fills me with equal parts delight and dread: delight because it will mean the book is that much closer to actually being a book, and dread because I worry about what I'll think when I see ten of my stories one after the other. I'm also not looking forward to the actual proofing process: in part because I've done enough proofing over the years to know how mind-numbingly boring it is, and in part because I've already read each of the stories several times (in addition to having written them), and having to do it again isn't the most exciting prospect in the world. Still, if years of being an editor have taught me nothing else, they've taught me that you can never proofread something enough times; there's never a point where you can afford to think 'Ah well, no need to bother, what could possibly be wrong?'

For those who are interested, here's the line-up of stories; ten in all, two of them (totalling 16,000 words) written for the collection. Original publication for the eight reprints follows the title:

'The Appointed Time' (Supernatural Tales 9, 2005)
'Endless Night' (Exotic Gothic 2, 2008)
'The Palace' (At Ease With the Dead, 2007)
'The Wide, Wide Sea' (Exotic Gothic, 2007)
'The Brink of Eternity' (Poe, 2009)
'Tourist Trap' (Shadows and Silence, 2000)
'Northwest Passage' (Acquainted With the Night, 2004)
'The Hiding Place' (Strange Tales 2, 2007)

The two new stories are 'After', based on a real life murder case in England in 1860, and 'Out and Back', inspired by pictures of an abandoned amusement park. I've seen a preliminary cover design, but there's a still a long way to go on that front before I have an image I can post. The book will be published as a hardcover, with a certain number of deluxe leatherbound copies. I'm due to get sheets for signing for these sometime next summer, which means I have a few months in which to develop a more authoritative and properly authorial scrawl. Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Writing and other diversions

Good news on the writing front: after going great guns early this summer, and getting two long new stories written, I hit a bad case of writer's block, and was beginning to despair of ever getting the final story for my forthcoming collection from Prime Books, Northwest Passages, started, let alone finished. Then inspiration struck, when I was looking at a website of photos taken at a deserted amusement park in Ohio, and the last story—entitled 'Out and Back'—was written, sent to Prime, and accepted. It thus joins another new story—'After', inspired by the Constance Kent murder case which shocked England in 1860—in the collection; the other eight stories are reprints of work that has appeared elsewhere, or which will appear elsewhere between now and next October, when the book comes out.

So that's a weight off my mind, and I can now enjoy the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary, which begins on Wednesday. I'm moderating a panel on 'Sidekicks Who Try To Steal the Show', manning the Ash-Tree dealer's table, participating in the mass signing on Friday night, doing at least one reading, and taking part in the launch for Gaslight Grimoire, to which I contributed a story (see previous posting). I also have two other stories debuting at WFC: 'Back Roads', in the new Ash-Tree anthology Shades of Darkness, and 'Endless Night' in Exotic Gothic 2, edited by Danel Olson for Ash-Tree.

More details on Northwest Passages will be forthcoming as they're available. At this stage, it's all very exciting; and rather strange, to be on this side of the writing/publishing process.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gaslight Grimoire

I've already mentioned Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes, coming in October 2008 from Edge Science Fiction. It ties in with the theme of this year's World Fantasy Convention in Calgary—'Mystery in Horror and Fantasy'—in that it features eleven new stories involving Sherlock Holmes and the supernatural, the uncanny, and the horrifying. Edited by J. R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec, the book has a splendid cover illustration by Timothy Lantz, and interior illustrations by Phil Cornell. It's the first time that I've seen a story of mine illustrated, and Cornell's piece for 'The Things That Shall Come Upon Them' is excellent. There's even a clue, for the keen-eyed among you who know your supernatural films, as to the identity of the character who drives the plot: look at the portrait hanging on the wall and see if you can work it out.

Co-editor Charles Prepolec has produced a book trailer for Gaslight Grimoire, which can be viewed here:

Sunday, June 08, 2008


Every now and again I come across a newsgroup where someone has posted a picture—usually of a cat—with a funny caption superimposed on it. I finally tumbled to the fact that they were known colloquially as 'Lolcats' (or Laugh out Loud cats, for those who don't speak Internet Acronym), and were from a site called (for reasons I've never investigated) I Can Has Cheezburger.

The site is updated with new pictures every day, and they're almost always good for a laugh (not to mention a treat for people who like pictures of cats). Here are some of my favourites:

Humorous Picturescat
more cat pictures

There are hundreds more; when you have a spare minute or two, drop by and have a laugh.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Creative writing

I can't remember when I learned to love words, both reading them and using them. I do know that by the time I was in grade three I was using the weekly spelling assignment—use each of the ten assigned words in a sentence—to write, not a series of disconnected sentences, but a story of several pages, which incorporated the ten words (along with several hundred others); and doubtless there was more juvenilia which spilled from my pen during that time.

As I grew older, I began searching for ways to incorporate the writing of fiction into assignments that would normally have called for a more non-fictional approach. In grade six, when I had to read 'The Speckled Band' and turn in a piece of writing about it, I eschewed the essay format and instead wrote a one-act play entitled The Secret of Sherlock Holmes; in grade nine Geography I chose to create a fictional country called Basholme (from Basil [Rathbone] + Holmes, which gives an indication where my head was at, literary-wise, during those years), complete with cities, towns, rivers, lakes, a detailed (fictional) history, and even a few scraps of the language—Holmesian, of course—in order to create a national anthem, which I recall was 'Basholme lon sonvre' ('Basholme the Free'); and in grade ten, when we had to read John Wyndham's The Chrysalids, I submitted as my work on the story a chapter which continued the original novel beyond the ending Wyndham had set down.

In senior high there was more scope for what was labelled Creative Writing: an elective course which I enthusiastically took in grades eleven and twelve. I recall very little of these efforts, perhaps mercifully; yet the enjoyment which I had writing them, and the enthusiasm of my teachers, made me think that I had at least some talent with words.

I'd like to say that I spent the next fifteen years quietly writing away, filling notebook after notebook with stories and plots and ideas; but life has a habit of getting in the way. Livings must be earned, lives must be lived, and it never occurred to me that writing was something I could, or should, do. An exception came in 1989, when the Bootmakers of Toronto ran a Sherlock Holmes pastiche contest, and I decided to give it the old college try. I read a lot of Sherlockian pastiche at one time—some good, much of it indifferent, a handful actually bad—and while I recognised that I was not a natural hand at intricate plotting, I had a good ear for authentic period dialogue and descriptive passages not a million miles removed from those of Arthur Conan Doyle. Thus was 'The Adventure of the Suspect Servant' born, and I was pleased to hear, in January 1990, that it had won the contest. I thought little more about the story, until Mike Ashley, editor extraordinaire, contacted us in 1995 or thereabouts for help in tracking down some authors of Sherlockian pastiche. He was busy assembling the book which became The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories, and I asked if I might send my own effort along. He said yes, and I did, and thus I made my first professional sale.

I had already written a short ghost story, 'Dead Man's Pears', which had appeared in All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society. When we began Ash-Tree Press, and I began editing All Hallows, I found myself immersed in the world of the ghost story to a greater extent than I had ever imagined, and found my authorial thoughts turning towards more ghost stories. I wrote another tale—'Tourist Trap'—for our anthology Shadows and Silence, and then another ghost story, 'The Appointed Time', which appeared in Supernatural Tales. So far, so small press; and then came the story that changed everything.

'Northwest Passage' was written for our third Ash-Tree anthology, Acquainted With the Night, at the behest of Christopher, who asked if I'd have a story for the antho. I'd been turning over the idea for the story for some time, and this was the spur I needed; the tale was written in three days, and was published in the anthology, and I was pleased that I'd finally been able to let the tale into the world. I really didn't expect much to happen, and was gratified to receive some very positive feedback: one reader in England wrote that he had never been to British Columbia, but when he read the story he could smell the pine needles, which I thought was a wonderful piece of praise. It was with growing astonishment that I saw the story take on a life of its own: a Stoker nomination, an International Horror Guild nomination, and then (unbelievably) a World Fantasy Award nomination. The news came on a sleepy Saturday morning, and I sat staring at the screen for some time, convinced it was a huge practical joke on someone's part ('Hey, she actually fell for it!'). I know there are those who feel that the words 'It's an honour just to be nominated' are somewhat hollow, a cliché trotted out for tired listeners, but in my case they were absolutely true: it was an honour to be nominated. Steven Millhauser, Gene Wolfe, Ursula le Guin, Stephen King, Peter Straub were nominated for World Fantasy Awards; Barbara Roden, of Ashcroft, British Columbia wasn't.

Then word came that the story had been picked up for two 'Year's Best' anthologies, and suddenly I had to face the fact that perhaps I might be a writer after all: not just someone who dabbled at it, but a real writer, someone who wrote stories that other people would ask for, want to publish (maybe even pay money for), and read. My fiction output, which until then had been glacial, sped up. I wrote a story for our fourth Ash-Tree anthology, At Ease With the Dead; I was asked, by editor Danel Olson, to write a story for Exotic Gothic; I had a story accepted for Strange Tales II from Tartarus Press; and other editors were suddenly asking me for tales. I wrote 'Association Copy' for Bound for Evil, and 'The Things That Shall Come Upon Them' for Gaslit Grimoire and 'The Brink of Eternity' for Poe, and was suddenly confronted with the fact that I really was a writer.

The next step, however, was by no means an easy one. I seemed to be gaining some reputation as a writer of short supernatural fiction; but short story collections are notoriously problematic, and there was the slight difficulty of whom to approach with the idea of a collection. One or two friends were encouraging me to pursue the idea, but I had no idea who, if anyone, would be interested. If I wrote straight horror, or science fiction, or fantasy, it would have been easier; but my stories were more in the way of classic supernatural fiction, a genre which doesn't precisely set publishers' hearts afire. One day, perhaps, I might have a body of work that would interest someone; but I didn't see it happening anytime soon.

Thus it was that when Sean Wallace of Prime Books approached me and said that he'd be interested in doing a collection of my tales, I was taken aback, to put it mildly. But he was quite serious; and thus it is that my first collection of short stories, Northwest Passages, will be appearing from Prime in Fall 2009, in an edition of 1500 hardback copies and 150 leatherbound, signed copies. The volume will collect together most of my short fiction to date, and contain some new material, which I must begin work on.

The idea that I will have a collection of fiction out next year is still sinking in. In some ways I can look back on my life, and writing career, and see the progression to this point; in other ways it's still a complete surprise. Not so to my dad, who predicted, twenty or so years ago, that I'd write a book by the time I was forty. All right, he was a little bit off; but what's five years between family members?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Editing, Part Two

We've all had it, I'm sure: that feeling, when reading something, that we've read this before. Sometimes it's a case that the reader has re-discovered a work that he or she initially read many years earlier and had forgotten; sometimes it's an author taking a theme or plot or situation that another writer first thought of and turning it into something new. Authors occasionally do this with their own works: for example, Arthur Conan Doyle used the central plot device of 'The Red-Headed League' three times, in the initial story and later in 'The Stockbroker's Clerk' and 'The Three Garridebs'; M. R. James re-used the plot of 'The Mezzotint' in 'The Haunted Doll's-House'; and Agatha Christie utilised the same setting and basic characters in the novel Evil Under the Sun and the short story 'Triangle at Rhodes', albeit bringing each work to a very different conclusion.

The ghost story world is full of examples of authors who use the work of earlier writers to work their own variations on a theme. H. R. Wakefield's 'He Cometh and He Passeth By!' is an obvious nod to James's 'Casting the Runes'; Frank Belknap Long's 'Second Night Out' is Marion Crawford's 'The Upper Berth' all over again; L. T. C. Rolt admitted that his tale 'New Corner' was inspired by Wakefield's 'The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster'; Edmund Crispin's 'St. Bartholomew's Eve' is James's 'Count Magnus' in another guise (the story also inspired Wakefield's 'The Sepulchre of Jasper Saracen'); E. F. Benson's 'The Bus Conductor' is a spin on Rose Champion de Crespigny's 'The Shears of Atropos' (which itself is based on a well-known 'true' tale told by Lord Dufferin); while Benson (with 'The Step') and Ruskin Bond ('A Face in the Night') are clearly borrowing from Lafcadio Hearn's 'Mujina'.

This leads us to slightly murkier waters. While in all these cases the later writer is clearly riffing off an earlier tale, and making no apologies for it, each author has managed to take the original work and infuse it with something new, something which makes the new story at once a recognisable tribute to an earlier work but something which stands on its own as a fine tale, without ever tipping over into plagiarism. Less clear-cut is another adaptation of Hearn's 'Mujina', which I first encountered in a book aimed at younger readers by Bernhardt J. Hurwood. Chilling Ghost Stories (1973) was presented as a collection of new stories, but one of the tales, 'The Thing', is clearly an unacknowledged swipe of Hearn's tale. And imagine my surprise when I first read Arthur Gray's Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye and realised that although I had never, to the best of my knowledge, read any of Gray's stories, three of them were familiar. A little thought and a brief hunt through the bookshelves supplied the answer. 50 Great Horror Stories, edited by John Canning, purports to be a collection of tales which, according to the introduction, 'have in common the fact that they are either true, have been recorded in contemporary documents as fact, or have become such a prevailing folk myth as to suggest some evidence of actual occurrence'. However, three of the stories—all as by J. Wentworth Day—are retellings of tales written by Gray for Tedious Brief Tales. 'Sung to His Death by Dead Men' is a retelling of Gray's 'The True History of Anthony Fryar'; 'The Dead Killed Him In His Own Grave' is based on 'Thankfull Thomas'; and 'The Man Who Turned Into a Cat' is 'The Necromancer'. In all three cases Day introduces the story in the context of the present day and then gives us Gray's original, more or less verbatim, with no acknowledgement anywhere in the book that he has done so. I've encountered this same situation three times in my reading of stories submitted to All Hallows: works which are not merely tributes, or homages, or nods towards the work of another, but which are plagiarism, pure and simple, in which the author has tried to pass off the work of another as his own.

The first such instance I recall was a tale concerning a man who has the ability, when walking through a cemetery, of looking at the tombstones and seeing written there, beside or beneath the pious sentiments and uplifting remarks concerning the deceased, comments which more accurately—if angrily—reflect the true nature of whoever is buried there. When the man comes to the tombstone marking the grave of his recently deceased love, he reads 'She was cuckolding her fiancé and going to meet her lover when she caught a chill and died'. This is, of course, Guy de Maupassant's 'Was It a Dream?'; it had been rewritten in slightly more contemporary language, and re-set in America, but apart from that there were no changes to the original.

The second instance was a story concerning a man who goes to check over a holiday cottage he's thinking of renting, and encounters mysterious goings-on concerning a snowstorm, a surprise visitor, a car in the garage, a dead body, and a disappearing woman. I hadn't read very far before realising that it was A. J. Alan's 'My Adventure in Norfolk', again re-set in America and updated language-wise, but with none of the charm or humour of Alan's original. The third was a story concerning a man whose ancestral home is haunted by a weeping lady, who appears once a year and cannot be got rid of, until the homeowner hits on the plan of luring her outside into the freezing night, where she turns to ice, after which time she is stored in a refrigerated warehouse for all eternity. 'Ah,' you are all saying, 'it's John Kendrick Bangs's "The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall" all over again.' Yes, indeed it is, but as with the Alan, without any of Bangs's humour; and once more, the story has been re-set in America. I sense a trend here.

In all three cases I wrote back to the author in question—none of whom were known to me—politely pointing out that the stories they had sent in were plagiarisms of quite famous stories. In no case did I receive a reply, which is hardly surprising: what on earth could the author say? But it would have been interesting to get a response, and find out why on earth someone would try something like this. It also makes me wonder if any of the authors tried submitting their stories to more general markets, where the editors were less likely to spot the similarities with the original works.

The bottom line is that there's a very fine divide between homage and plagiarism, and the wary editor has to be on guard. By all means, look to the work of past writers for ideas and inspiration; but when you sit down to write, it's probably best not to have the original work at your elbow as you type.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Box of Delights

You'll find them, I imagine, at auctions and flea markets and in consignment and charity shops: boxes of assorted goods, inexpensively priced, the contents a jumble of items which often have no clear relationship to each other. A silver spoon, a ceramic ornament, a set of coasters, wooden bookends, a pair of candlesticks, a paperweight: all of these things, at some time, meant something to a person who no longer wants or needs them or, more sadly, is no longer here to care what happens to items collected over a lifetime. What a wealth of information they could provide about someone who no longer has a voice; and what a wealth of information is lost because these items no longer have any meaning except as objects in and of themselves.

This morning Tim found a box of delights in the garage, while he was helping Christopher try to make some sense of a bank of shelves on which is stored files relating to our various publications, and multiple dustjackets for almost every book we've published. He proudly carried the box upstairs, and I opened it, and as I pulled each half-forgotten item out of its depths memories were stirred which began clamouring like eager children, each one trying to push to the front, and for a moment all I could do was stand still and let them wash over me before I tried to sort through them.

Here is a silver crown piece from 1890, displayed in a brass stand, and suddenly it is 1983 and I am standing in a tiny shop on Pulteney Bridge in Bath, hoping that I can find one from that magical Sherlockian year of 1895 but deciding that 1890 is close enough. On one side—which I find is called the obverse—is the head of an older Queen Victoria, and on the other—the reverse—is St George slaying the dragon (the coin depicted here isn't mine, but is a lovely view of the design). I have no idea what the coin is now worth, or even what I paid for it; I was simply enchanted with the idea, at age nineteen, of owning my very own crown, a coin which Sherlock Holmes himself might have handled. It probably has a certain monetary value, but to me the value is in the association: with Sherlock Holmes and that magical world of Victorian London, with that wonderful trip to England so many years ago, with the knowledge that it has passed through the hands of so many people.

And now out comes a paperweight, the hand-tinted picture inside faded to a palette of soft blues and greys: the White Tower of the Tower of London, and through the years a name comes swimming back to me, and I know without looking it up that the picture is taken from an illustration made by Wenceslaus Holler. Why has that name stayed with me through more than a quarter of a century, since that first visit to the Tower in 1981 when I was overwhelmed by

the majesty, the history, the beauty of that place? I, a seventeen-year-old from the west coast of Canada, had never in my life seen, or even imagined, anything like the Tower, and I wandered through it for as long as I dared before dashing to the gift shop, scooping up as many books and pamphlets as I could find, and running for the coach waiting to whisk us off to the next stop. That summer I painstakingly compiled a handwritten book about the Tower, culling information from my booklets, and drawing maps and plans and even a word search puzzle, which were carefully glued in place; and even now, so many years later, this fascination with the Tower remains, so that in any film set in London which shows the river around Tower Bridge I am scanning the edges of the shot, looking for the Tower, as anxious that it should still be there as those who clip the wings of the ravens who inhabit its grounds, lest the birds leave and the Tower, and the monarchy, fall.

I plunge in my hand, and out comes a shell, which I know is a cowrie, and with it comes a picture, vivid as if he were standing before me, of my maternal grandfather, John Grant. He and my grandmother used to vacation in Hawaii, on the island of Kauai, for several weeks each winter, and Grandpa would collect cowries from the rocks off the beach near where they stayed, and bury them in the garden, to be collected the following winter. It is a beautiful thing, smooth and sleek, black and brown and cream, and I remember our trip to Kauai in 1978, but most of all I remember Grandpa, his moustache tickling as he kissed me, the little song he would sing when, as a child, I stayed with him and Grandma at their house on Skaha Lake in the Okanagan Valley and we would watch the wind whip the lake: 'Every little wave has its white cap on'. From Grandpa Grant I inherited my love of the Old Country, of history, of tradition, and I miss him still, and wish he could have known Tim. And this leads me on to thoughts of his widow, Glenna Grant, my grandmother, who died two months ago, a week before her 99th birthday, and I remember a picture of her and Grandpa, taken on their wedding day, Grandma looking shy yet lovely, Grandpa pleased and proud, both of them impossibly young to me, who knew them only when they were already well into their fifties. And I look at the letter opener in the holder on the desk in front of me, with its leather handled embossed with the letters 'J. J. G.'—John Jenkins Grant—in Gothic script, and I think that Grandpa would be pleased to know that it is still being used.

Another paperweight, this one with a detail from J. M. W. Turner's 'The Fighting Temeraire'. A print of this painting hangs downstairs, and although the colours in the paperweight—like those of Holler's view of the Tower—are faded, they still retain a sense of Turner's vibrant colour. I first encountered the painting—a different detail of it—on the copy of my Penguin Classics edition of Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, and purchased the print and had it framed on the strength of this acquaintance; yet nothing could prepare me for the shock of seeing it—Turner's actual painting—in the National Gallery in London in 1983. I had known its reproduction, its echo, for so long that seeing it in front of me in all its glory, knowing that Turner himself had touched that canvas, being able to drink it in as the artist had intended, was a revelation. Art became, at one leap, something alive and vital, passionate and dangerous, something that could touch the heart and soul.

And now—but what's this? A slice of something, a rock—no, a slice of brick, yellowed and pitted, and suddenly I am in the churchyard in Lucan, Ontario, for this is a slice of brick from the church where the Black Donnellys are buried, and of a sudden it is a hot late summer day in southern Ontario and I have asked my Uncle George if we can visit Lucan, so that I may see the scene of those terrible events of 1880, when members of the Donnelly clan were murdered by townsfolk who, guided either by righteous indignation or a thirst for blood—depending on whose version of events you choose to accept—sought redress for wrongs either real or imagined; at this distance it is hard to know whose story to believe. I had read two books on the subject, and wanted to see the scene for myself; perhaps I felt that if I visited Lucan I would know on which side the truth lay, but at that remove it was almost impossible to imagine such bloody vengeance in such a peaceful spot. The grave was there, though, as proof that it had happened, and a pile of discarded bricks beside the church demonstrated that life continues: the old must make way for the new, and perhaps it is best that this is so. But I took a brick from the pile, perhaps to ensure that the old was not forgotten, and Uncle George carved a piece from the end of it for me, and there it is, mute testimony to a tragedy.

A crudely carved wooden horse is next; and now we are closer to home than England or Kauai or Ontario, for on the base is written 'Souvenir, Cornwall Lookout'. The name will mean nothing to most people; yet Cornwall Mountain is something which I see every day from the front of our house, and while I cannot see the Lookout from where we live, I can see the cut in the mountain just below it, which as I write is filled with snow, despite the warm temperatures which make us think that Spring is now something more than an abstract concept. The horse was carved by someone who worked at the Lookout, when it was a forestry station manned every summer; the station is, as far as I know, still there, but is now only manned when conditions warrant it, which means that the road leading to the top of Cornwall—treacherous at the best of times, narrow and rutted and rocky—is no longer maintained, and has retreated into something wild, to be attempted only by the hardiest of souls. The view from the top, however, more than repays the trouble of getting there, and even on the hottest summer days it is a cool and tranquil place, carpeted in lush green and the soft colours of wild flowers, so that one almost expects Julie Andrews to appear, arms outspread, and begin singing.

Half-a-dozen disparate items, plucked from the box of delights. Anyone finding them together in a box at an auction would consider them an odd assortment with no rhyme or reason, no obvious clues linking them together. Yet they speak to me, evoke memories, serve as small markers of my life, tell a little about who I am and what I think; so I shall take them out of their box and place them where I can see them, so that they, and the recollections which come crowding on me as I look at them, can live again.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

TCM's 31 Day-o-Ram

This was on the Turner Classic Movies site, and I thought it was wonderful. Apparently it's based on an invention called the Panoram, an early video jukebox which played what were, in essence, the forerunners of music videos. Everything old is new again.

The 31 Day-o-Ram plays an assortment of opening and closing credit sequences, musical numbers, and theme tunes for a number of Oscar-nominated and -winning movies. Along with some obvious ones (the themes from Jaws and The Great Escape) there are some less obvious, but equally deserving, selections: listen to George Delerue's wonderful opening credits music for A Man For All Seasons (and spot a young, or youngish, Leo McKern), and then be dazzled by the exuberance of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor performing the 'Moses Supposes' number from Singin' in the Rain. And you don't even have to put a nickel in the jukebox!

Friday, February 22, 2008

My Brush With Oscar

It's a long and winding road from English novelist R. F. Delderfield to my meeting with an Oscar winner; but bear with me. . . .

In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a brief vogue, on British TV, for adaptations of the works of novelist R. F. Delderfield (1912–72). Several of his novels—typically sprawling epics encompassing several decades—were dramatised, and among these was his A Horseman Riding By trilogy (1978; although only the first two books were used for the TV series). It aired on PBS around 1980, and I was enthralled, so much so that I sought out the books and devoured them, thus beginning an admiration for Delderfield's work that holds strong to this day.

The main character of both book and series is Paul Craddock, played in the TV version by a young British actor—previously unknown to me—named Nigel Havers. In those pre-Internet days it was difficult to learn a good deal about actors, and all I knew, in the months after the series ended, was that Havers was featuring in a British film with the somewhat unpromising title Chariots of Fire. In spring 1981 the film was slated to open in Vancouver, and one rainy night I took my seventeen-year-old self down to the Captiol Six cinema on Granville Street to see it.

The Capitol Six—alas, no longer with us—contained, as the name implies, six cinemas. The main cinema, on the second floor, sat about 1200 people; two cinemas, on the third floor, accommodated about 600 each; and the fourth floor held three cinemas, each with seating for about 400 people. Chariots of Fire was on the third floor; hardly auspicious, but I was not daunted. I arrived while the previous showing was ending, and while I waited in the lobby I got my first taste of Vangelis's score; and it is not overstating the matter to say that I was hooked from that moment.

The film was wonderful, from start to finish. If I was disappointed that Havers's character—the fictitious Lord Andrew Lindsay—did not get the prominence I expected, I do not recall. I simply knew that this was a wonderful film, and over the next few weeks I saw it a half-dozen times. I bought the soundtrack album, and managed to wangle a large display poster for the film out of A&B Sound on Seymour Street when they were finished with it; the poster adorned my bedroom wall for some time, but was lost at some point, probably during a move. I also managed to get the press kit for the film—I still have this, thank goodness—from Golden Age Collectables on Granville Street, one of my regular stops on my trips to Vancouver when I was a teenager. The shop still exists, but is more devoted to comics now; during the 1980s it was a wonderful place to find movie posters, stills, and press kits, and several relics of visits there adorn the walls of our house to this day, including a wonderful three-sheet poster for the 1944 film version of And Then There Were None (in the downstairs hallway) and a lobby card for the 1959 Hound of the Baskervilles ('It's Ten Times The Terror In TECHNICOLOR!') which is to my left as I type.

The press kit—do film companies still produce these?—for Chariots of Fire contained a good deal of information about the film and the artists involved; there were pictures of those behind the camera, as well as in front of it, so I got to know what director Hugh Hudson and producer David Puttnam looked like. On Oscar night 1982 I was on tenterhooks, wondering how many awards Chariots—nominated for seven Oscars—would take home. I had baked a cake—decorated, to the best of my ability, with the Chariots logo—specially for the event, and as the night drew on I became increasinly anxious. Best Costumes, Best Soundtrack, Best Original Screenplay: all very well, but would it win Best Picture? When Warren Beatty won Best Director for Reds things looked a bit iffy; and then came the opening of the envelope: Best Picture, Chariots of Fire. The next few moments are a blur; but I distinctly remember my brother John saying 'Get her some oxygen, she's hyperventilating.' I was as pleased and proud as if I'd written and directed the movie myself; well, I was only eighteen, so perhaps can be excused.

Fast forward a year, to the spring of 1983. I had graduated high school two years earlier, but was tagging along as part of a SETS (Student Educational Travel Services) trip to England, France, and Holland. I had taken the trip in 1981, when I was in grade 12, and was being allowed to participate again largely, I think, because the teachers running it liked me and decided 'Why not?' As I was not one of the students I was allowed a certain amount of freedom, and found myself associating with the adults running the tour, particularly Mr Phillips—principal of a Richmond, B.C. high school—and his wife. On 28 March 1983 the three of us went to the theatre (Key For Two by John Chapman and Dave Freeman, starring Moira Lister, Patrick Cargill, Barbara Murray, and Glyn Houston—who, incidentally had a major role in the TV version of Horseman Riding By—at the Vaudeville Theatre), and afterwards we went to a late dinner at Fortnum's Fountain, the restaurant at Fortnum and Mason, the great shop on Piccadilly.

We were nearing the end of our meal when the door opened and two men walked in. It did not take me long to realise that one of the men was David Puttnam, whom I recognised from the press kit for Chariots of Fire, and whom I had last seen accepting the Best Picture Oscar as producer of that film. The men took their seats a few tables away from us, and for several minutes a war waged within my breast. I knew that David Puttnam, producer of one of my favourite films, was sat not twenty feet away from me: the question was, what to do about it? Should I go up to him and say—what, exactly? Perhaps he would be angry; perhaps he liked his privacy. And the man was eating dinner; he wouldn't want to be disturbed. Canadians are nothing if not polite, and I hesitated to approach him.

And yet—how many times in my life would this opportunity present itself? If I walked out the door without saying anything, would I kick myself for the rest of my life? Thus the battle raged, until Mr and Mrs Phillips indicated that it really was time we left. The decision was made. I stood up and approached the table.

Remember: I was a nineteen year old Canadian girl from the suburbs of Vancouver, in a foreign city, who had never met anyone remotely famous, let alone introduced herself to a stranger in a restaurant. Yet I heard myself saying, as from far away, 'Excuse me, are you David Puttnam?'

He turned and looked at me, and for a moment I thought No, it's a terrible mistake, it's not him at all, ohmigod. . . And then I heard 'Yes,' and I could breathe again, and I said 'I loved Chariots of Fire, I was thrilled when it won the Oscar', and he said kindly 'Yes, I was pleased too,' and I asked him for his autograph. Then an awkward moment ensued, as I realised I had nothing for him to sign, except my London Theatre Guide which I had picked up at at the play earlier that night. Any port in a storm; so I folded it out to a blank spot and he fished for a pen, and as he signed it I said 'I hope you don't mind me disturbing you,' and he laughed and said 'I've been waiting twenty years for this!'

When he had signed ('For Barb, Thank's [sic] for asking, David Puttnam') he motioned to the man sitting opposite him—who had been silent up until then—and said 'You should ask him for his autograph; he's much more famous than me.' By then I was in such a daze I doubt I would have recognised my own mother, and I looked at the man and said 'Hugh Hudson?' They both laughed, and David Puttnam said it was Bill Forsyth, and the other man signed my programme as well ('To Barb, from Bill Forsyth (NOT HUGH!)'), and . . . well, that was it, really, but when I left Fortnum's Fountain I was walking on air, and ever since that date, whenever David Puttnam's name has been mentioned, I say 'Hey, me and Dave, we're like that', and I remember that magical night in London a quarter-century ago (where has the time gone?) when I was this close to Oscar, and realise that if I had left the restaurant without asking I would indeed be kicking myself to this day.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Countdown to Oscar night

The end of the Writers' Guild strike means that the Oscar broadcast will go ahead a week tonight, and for me that's cause for rejoicing. The strike has had no real impact on me—I watch very little television, and what I do watch tends to be fare that's unaffected by a strike, such as news, sports, and whatever's on Turner Classic Movies—but I was worried that it would affect the Oscars, one of the red letter days in my calendar. It's not that I set an awful lot of store by what the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences decide are the 'best' of a given year—this same group named The Greatest Show on Earth Best Picture over High Noon, after all—more that I enjoy seeing movies celebrated for one night of the year, an acknowledgement that this art form I love can throw up moments of heartbreaking sublimity, moments which link people throughout the world, can cause a smile, bring back a memory, make us nod our heads and think 'Yes, I remember' or 'Yes, I can imagine.'

A year ago I wrote the following to a friend, about books vs. movies, and on reflection it says so much about how I feel about films that I feel it's worth repeating here:

'Anyone can watch a movie; then again, anyone can read a book. It's what they're watching/reading, and what they take away from it, that counts, that can be hard, that can make you learn something, look at the world in a different way. There are movies—as there are books—that are as lasting and of as much consequence and nourishment as cotton candy; but then there are films that do what books can do: transport to us to another world, another place, another time, show us people and things we'd never otherwise see. You know how much I love books, and reading, and the written word; but I'd be happy to hold up films as diverse as Stagecoach, Citizen Kane, Brazil, A Man For All Seasons, Young Frankenstein, La Regle de Jeu, Swing Time, Topsy-Turvy, Jaws, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brief Encounter, and The Killing Fields and say "These are all great, important, thought-provoking works in their various way, that tell us about ourselves, our world, and our place in it." I'm not saying watch them instead of read books; watch them as well as read books (although not at the same time, obviously).

'I love to get stuck into a book—any kind of book, fiction, non-fiction, biography, whatever—that lets me see things, and do things (vicariously) that I'll never get to do. I'll never try to trek to the North Pole, or climb Everest; but when I read about those things I'm there, man-hauling a sledge over a pressure ridge, or negotiating the Khumbu Icefall. When I read a great work of fiction—by which I mean a work of fiction I'm enjoying, engrossed in, not necessarily an Approved Classic Of Established Literary Merit—I'm with the characters, feeling for them, cheering them on or watching, appalled (as the case may be). But movies can do that for me too. I can read a book about Sydney Schanberg's time in Cambodia, and his efforts to find his interpreter, Dith Pran, and have my heart in my mouth at the same time that I'm appalled by man's inhumanity to man and overjoyed by the love one person can have for another; and then I can watch the film, and have all those same feelings, and still ponder it afterwards, with the added feature that now I can picture the streets of Phnom Penh, see the bodies in the field as Pran stumbles on his hellish journey, and see the look on the faces of the two men at the end (I can't watch the last ten minutes of that film without it breaking my heart all over again). One experience isn't, I think, better than the other; they're different, but equally valid in their ways.

'Yes, the vast majority of films are simply something with which to pass a few idle hours; but then so are most books, when you get right down to it (although there are probably a few more books around that make you think than there are films, if only because the written word had a couple of thousand years' head start on celluloid). I cry when I finish reading Maurice Pagnol's Le Château de ma mère, and the narrator, now a grown man, reflects on the fates of those he loved ('Such is the life of man. A few joys, quickly obliterated by unforgettable sorrows. There is no need to tell the children so.'), and I cry at the end of It's A Wonderful Life, when George stands on the bridge and pleads to have his life back ('Please, God, let me live again.'). I'd hate to have to say one was better than the other, or choose between them; to me they're both worthy of study and comment, of being cherished.'

The best films, like the best books, allow us to see and experience things which we will never know, but can imagine; which is why, a week from tonight, I will be glued to the Oscar telecast, watching as an art form that I love is celebrated.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Editing, Part One-and-a-half

In 1977, when we moved from Ottawa back to Richmond, B.C., I was somewhat amazed to find that what had been Lansdowne Race Track (as in horse racing) had become, in the four years since we had moved from Richmond, the site of a shopping mall, also named Lansdowne. One of the lynch-pins of the mall was a large branch of Woodwards department store (alas, no longer with us), and among the features of the store was a good-sized book section, overseen by a gracious lady by the name of Ellen Sacré.

It was only a few minutes, by bus, from where I lived, and I quickly became a habitué of the bookshop, spending countless enjoyable hours browsing the stock and talking to Ellen. In those far-off days, the only way to really keep in touch with what books were being published was to browse publishers' catalogues, of which Ellen had an endless supply, and I used to pore over them, noting down titles of interest and placing advance orders for particularly choice titles with Ellen.

In the four or five years that I spent hanging around the bookstore, I came to know Ellen fairly well, and she me; indeed, she used to point me out to customers, saying that I'd gone from reading Agatha Christie to Charles Dickens under her watch, as it were. She was the first grown-up—other than my parents and a couple of teachers—to take my reading seriously; and I remember that one day, when I was about seventeen or thereabouts, she said to me—for no reason that I could discern—'You should be an editor.'

I don't remember any more of the conversation than that: I have no idea what we were talking about that might have prompted such a remark, and in the years since I've occasionally wondered what it was that she saw in me, to inspire those words. So it strikes me, now, as a good time to say thank you, Ellen, for encouraging a book-struck youngster. If only everyone who loved books, and words, had such a mentor!

Editing, Part One

I had occasion, a year or so ago, to travel 30 miles north of Ashcroft and spend the day at David Stoddart Secondary School in Clinton, B.C., where I spent time with four different classes, talking to the students (grades eight through twelve) on various aspects of writing, publishing, and editing, with one class devoted to the discussion of ghost stories in general and 'The Monkey's Paw' in particular.

It was a fascinating day, and in some ways the most interesting class was the one spent with the students who edit the school's newsletter. I took along, by way of exercise, a page from a story that I had accepted for All Hallows and had edited prior to its publication in the journal (for the purposes of the exercise I did not identify the author). I had had to do some work on the tale, so I took along the first page as it was originally submitted, added a few errors of my own, and handed a copy to each student, asking the class to edit as they saw fit; then I went through the page a line at a time, asking what, if anything, anyone had changed on that line and then explaining the reasons behind my own changes.

The teacher told me afterwards that the students had found it very illuminating and helpful. During the class itself I heard from the students that they found editing quite difficult: not so much the actual editing itself, as trying to explain to people who were, after all, their friends and classmates why they had edited their work. They felt a certain amount of embarrassment at having to do this, explaining that the author often felt hurt. I explained, in turn, that an editor's job is to make an author look good, and that their friends, far from being hurt, should be grateful.

There is, of course, more to editing than going through a story and making suggestions as to what an author might do differently, or pointing out errors; there is also the job of getting the stories together in the first place, so that there's something to go through and edit. I currently do this for All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society, and for Ash-Tree Press, usually when Christopher and I decide, in a moment of reckless abandon, that we're going to do another anthology. In this post I'll confine myself to All Hallows, and leave Ash-Tree editing for another time.

All Hallows is an open submissions market, which means that we'll accept stories from anyone who cares to send one in; you don't have to be a member of the GSS to submit. These days most submissions arrive by e-mail, as attachments in Word, which method of submitting is encouraged: partly because I get eight to ten submissions a week, which is not so many that I can't read them on screen, and partly because if I do accept a story it's much easier when I have an electronic file, and don't have to typeset it. As to formatting: as long as it's legible (no strange fonts or graphic embellishments, please) then it's fine.

Most people who submit a story, whether electronically or by mail, attach some kind of cover letter, which I rarely read except in a very cursory manner. If a writer has a few credits in the field, then that's good to know; but I don't need to know what he or she does for a living, or the synopsis of the story (it's amazing how many people feel a need to summarise the story in their cover letter); and if your previous writing credits include non-genre publications then I'm not really interested. The story is what matters.

Here I should say that every story that comes in to All Hallows gets a chance, by which I mean I start to read it with an objective eye and clear mind. However, it soon becomes obvious who hasn't read the guidelines (which are faithfully spelled out on the Ghost Story Society's website). If a story isn't supernatural, or contains a lot of sex or graphic violence, or is about vampires, then I'm not interested, and won't bother finishing it, as there's not much point (and the author was warned).

I reject far more stories than I accept: I'd say that the ratio is about seven or eight rejects to every one accepted, if that. The vast majority of the stories which get rejected aren't necessarily actively bad—although I have seen my share of stories that wouldn't have passed muster for a high school writing assignment—they're simply . . . instantly forgettable. The writing may be—usually is—competent, but the story leaves no lasting impression; there's nothing there that I haven't read a hundred times before. The worst of these are the stories that take a cliché of the genre—the building that the protagonist takes refuge in, but which has disappeared the next day when he or she returns, and turns out to have burned down a hundred years ago—and then does nothing new with it. These stories are usually written by people who are not members of the GSS, whose names I don't recognise from my reading in the genre, and who clearly have very little knowledge of the ghost story.

Occasionally I'll get a story submitted which is fairly predictable, but which I accept, usually because the story is told exceedingly well, contains interesting characters, and is short enough that the predictability doesn't weigh against it. In most cases, though, predictable stories get a polite 'Thanks, but no thanks' letter. I also occasionally get a story which is very good, but which simply isn't suitable (for whatever reason) for All Hallows. In those cases, I'll say this in my reply to the author, and encourage them to try the story with another publication, and will offer suggestions as to where he or she might send it.

And then there are the stories which are good, but which for some reason don't quite work. If I can put my finger on why I think it doesn't work I'll say this to the author, and offer what suggestions I can as to how he or she might make it work. I usually feel a bit awkward making comments of this sort, and qualify them by saying that I do not set myself up as some sort of guru of the ghost story. However, what I do bring to the table is an objective eye, and one that has read a lot of ghost stories over the years. Sometimes an author is too close to a story to be able to see it objectively: she or he knows precisely what was meant, but what's clear in an author's head doesn't always make it onto the printed page, and occasionally an editor can spot an awkward transition or a missing piece of the puzzle, and point this out. When I do this—when I see a story that has promise, but which I feel needs something more—I always make it clear that I'd be happy to see the story again, should the author choose to rework it; and on a gratifyingly large number of occasions I've had stories re-submitted with my suggested changes taken on board, and have accepted the stories. I should also mention that, my reservations about offering suggestions notwithstanding, a large number of authors have expressed their gratitude for my suggestions; so I expect I'm doing something right.

Once I've accepted a story for All Hallows the unspoken agreement is that it doesn't need any rewriting or changes, so when it comes time to edit the story for publication I'm looking to correct mistakes of spelling and grammar, and make the story conform to house style (which means, amongst other things, Canadian spelling and punctuation). Authors whose stories appear in All Hallows always see a proof copy before publication, although by the time I send out a proof I expect the author to do little more than note any errors and perhaps make a tweak here and there. Of the authors who seem to think that the proof stage is a chance to rewrite the tale—and this has happened more than once—I will say nothing, except to note that by the time the story is in proof form I've already spent anywhere up to an hour editing and formatting it, which is why I'm not very happy when you decide to change the main character's name, or rewrite the ending, or add a long section in the middle detailing exactly why the heroine is travelling to York.

My main peeves? Besides plots whose outcome is obvious from the second paragraph, these would be people who obviously have no idea what sort of stories All Hallows publishes; people who clearly haven't done their research (I remember one story in which a character travelled by train from London to Manchester—in 1789; and another in which a character living in Birmingham, England talked of visiting the seaside 'only a few miles away'); and people who clearly have very little idea of basic grammar, or spelling, or word usage. I sometimes read a story which would be a disgrace to a grade ten student and wonder what kind of writer could possibly think that this story was ready to send to an editor for possible publication.

All Hallows is not a paying market; but that doesn't mean it's not a professional one. Stories that have appeared in All Hallows have been chosen for inclusion in 'Year's Best' anthologies; they consistently receive Honourable Mentions in Year's Best Fantasy and Horror; the journal is seen by major editors in the field, and is sent to awards bodies for consideration for genre awards; at least one author has received a book deal because an editor saw a story of his in the journal and liked what he saw; and the magazine itself has won a special Stoker Award, an International Horror Guild Award, and been nominated for a World Fantasy Award. So as markets for ghost stories go, an author could do much worse.

The bottom line, with stories for All Hallows, is that I'm looking for well-written stories that will appeal to some 400 people who have, between them, read thousands upon thousands of ghost stories. I want engaging characters; an interesting plot; clean prose which shows the author is familiar with basic concepts of grammar, spelling, and usage; and that indefinable something which makes the story linger in the memory after the last page has been turned. I can't always put my finger on it; but I know it when I see it, which is why I approach each story submitted for All Hallows with an open mind. Long may those submissions continue; but please—read the guidelines first.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Fiction: The Appointed Time

In 2005 my short story 'The Appointed Time' appeared in Supernatural Tales 9. The tale was originally submitted to the anthology Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores, which was published by DreamHaven Books in 2002 for the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis. The story did not, ultimately, make the cut; undaunted, I sent it to David Longhorn, who immediately accepted it but confessed that it would be some time before it could see print. Knowing what wait times in the small press are like, and knowing the quality of Supernatural Tales, I was more than happy to have found a good home for my tale.

As all issues of Supernatural Tales are sold out, and the story has not appeared elsewhere, I've decided to publish it here. Enjoy!

The Appointed Time

It is night in Lincoln’s Inn—perplexed and troublous valley of the shadow of the law, where suitors generally find but little day—and fat candles are snuffed out in offices, and clerks have rattled down the crazy wooden stairs, and dispersed. The bell that rings at nine o’clock, has ceased its doleful clangor about nothing; the gates are shut; and the night-porter, a solemn warder with a mighty power of sleep, keeps guard in his lodge.

Henry Anderson looked up from his book with a start. A noise had caught his ear; something outside the normal range of sounds that he had, after more than thirty years in the shop, come to know and expect and even, at times—especially lately—welcome. It was a thin, dusty sound, almost a sigh, and Henry glanced behind him, half-expecting to see a figure standing over his shoulder. Impossible; there had not been a customer in the shop for at least an hour, and he was all too aware that the apartment behind was painfully empty.

He kept his head up for another moment, listening. Around him stood row upon row of books, which seemed to be listening, too; holding their collective breath, watching, waiting, as if in anticipation of something which was hovering just outside Henry’s vision. As indeed it was, had Henry only known; had he, as he gazed about him, been able to see beyond the front wall, into the street, where a figure stood, wrapped in evening shadows, its whole attention fixed on the dim light spilling out of the door of the shop.

In the ordinary course of things, Henry would have had the shop closed and locked now, the lights extinguished; but he had become engrossed in his book, and lost track of time. This was by no means unusual with Henry, and on most evenings no harm would have come of it. But this was an evening unlike any other in his life, although he did not yet know it. And so, after assuring himself that all was well inside the shop, his head dipped irresistibly back down towards his book, and the light continued to shine out into the damp streets, a lone beacon in an otherwise dark stretch of shops. And outside the figure, after a moment of hesitation, drew nearer.

This was not the figure’s usual habitat; it was used to more garish surroundings, louder streets. Chance had taken it further afield than usual, and in this unaccustomed environment it was cautious, wary. But cold and hunger and other, darker needs spurred it on, drawing it inexorably, inevitably closer to Henry and his quiet, tidy world.

It is a close night, though the damp cold is searching too; and there is a laggard mist a little way up in the air. It is a fine steaming night to turn the slaughter-houses, the unwholesome trades, the sewerage, bad water, and burial grounds to account, and give the Registrar of Deaths some extra business.

The noise again, louder this time. Henry’s head jerked up, and he cocked it on one side, trying to determine what the sound was and where it came from. It had definitely sounded like a sigh; no mistaking it. It was followed by a silence which sounded expectant, as if awaiting some action on his part at which he could not guess.

Perhaps, thought Henry, it was time to start thinking about selling up and moving on. He had thought about it before; he and Mary had discussed it before she died, but lightly, as something that would not happen for a good many years yet. Then for some time he had not thought about very much of anything, selling the shop least of all. He had kept it going because not keeping it going had seemed unthinkable, another blow to the fabric of his life which would have been unbearable. Mary and the shop had been part of him for so long that to lose both would have been to lose every reason he had for getting up in the morning.

So he had clung to the shop, finding a kind of solace in the ordered rank of books in their neatly labelled sections. It had not always been thus. When he had first bought the shop, it had been little better than a junk-heap, a dispirited shambles of discarded, unwanted books, and he had had to spend a good deal of time patiently weeding out the multiple copies of battered paperbacks, their broken spines and chipped covers an affront to his notion of what books should be. Slowly he had built up a quietly successful bookstore, filled with the sorts of books he liked reading, all lovingly tended, neatly shelved, easily accessible. The shop itself attracted a loyal group of regular and semi-regular customers, who found a safe and companionable haven amongst the shelves and racks, a friendly and knowledgeable proprietor in Henry. ‘It’s Mary’s cookies people come for, really,’ he would say with a smile, and it was true that the plate of cookies put out every morning by the coffee machine had always been empty by day’s end, the crushed cushions on the comfortable armchairs bearing silent witness to those who had found a home there. The cookies were from a box now, but the customers still came.

Outside the rain continued to drizzle, stretching damp fingers along the sidewalk. The figure in the shadows shivered, and gazed greedily at the light from the shop. It drew nearer still, eyes fixed on the door. The sound of a car in a nearby street caused it to hesitate, and draw back from the light momentarily; and that pause bought Henry Anderson a few more moments of life.

‘It is a tainting sort of weather,’ says Mr Snagsby; ‘and I find it sinking to the spirits.’

‘By George! I find it gives me the horrors,’ returns Mr Weevle.

‘Then, you see, you live in a lonesome way, and in a lonesome room, with a black circumstance hanging over it,’ says Mr Snagsby, looking in past the other’s shoulder along the dark passage, and then falling back a step to look up at the house. ‘I couldn’t live in that room alone, as you do, sir. I should get so fidgetty and worried of an evening, sometimes, that I should be driven to come to the door, and stand here, sooner than sit there.’

The sound had become louder, as if uttered by someone—or something—that was gaining strength, rallying for one supreme effort. The cry—for it was a cry, no doubt of it—startled Henry so much that he pulled himself out of his chair with a suddenness that made the bones and joints in his legs and back protest at the effort. He walked around the desk and peered into the depths of the shop, while his mind tried and failed to analyse and define the exact nature of the sound. He was forced back to his first, instinctive thought: a cry, and of pain, too. No; not pain, exactly: the expectation of pain, as of someone who cried out in anticipation of a cruel blow.

He shook his head. Definitely time to start thinking seriously about selling up, moving out, going somewhere warmer and drier. He was getting too old to manage the shop on his own, and the trade was changing too fast for him to keep up. Every day, it seemed, people asked him when he was going to take his stock on-line, and he would shake his head and say ruefully, ‘Ah, well, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ Now, standing in the familiar quiet of the shop, he shook his head again. ‘Old dog?’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Old dinosaur, more like. Hearing things, too. What would Mary say?’

And yet the thought of leaving the shop, turning it over to another person, closing the door behind him forever, was one that he persisted in putting off. There were too many memories bound up within the four walls, jostling for space on the shelves, surrounding every bookcase, each piece of furniture. The armchairs, now; they were not the height of fashion, never had been—‘But Mary, they’re comfortable,’ he had said when he brought them back, and she had surveyed them with a look, half-tolerant, half-exasperated. She had had the same look on her face every time Henry, faced with a need to create more space, had brought back another bookcase, discovered at a sale or in the dusty recesses of a used furniture shop. ‘If your goal was to not have any two bookcases in the shop matching, Henry,’ she had said once, ‘then you’ve certainly succeeded.’ But there was a smile on her face as she said it.

Henry smiled at the memory. Yes, the shop was full of memories, and he could smile at most of them. ‘If these walls—no, if these books could speak,’ he thought, ‘they could certainly tell a tale or two!’

He glanced out the front window, vaguely surprised to see how dark it was. Time to close up for the night; more than time, in fact. Lock the doors, turn out the lights, then go and make some dinner, listen to the news, read for a time. A night like any other. But this was not to be a night like any other.

Had he gone to the door even then, he might have been in time, for the figure outside was still hesitating in the shadows, and the sight of Henry at the door, pulling down the blinds, turning the lock, would have been enough to send it scuttling back into the darkness. But he paused, and stretched, trying to relieve the ache in his back; and he was lost.

‘Seems a Fate in it, don’t there?’ suggests the stationer.

‘There does.’

‘Just so,’ observes the stationer, with his confirmatory cough. ‘Quite a Fate in it. Quite a Fate.’

At the sound of the door opening and shutting, Henry turned so quickly that his back gave a more violent twinge than before, causing him to draw his breath in sharply. A swift glance took in the—no, not customer, this was no customer come late, this was Trouble with a capital T, right here in his shop. Be calm, think, think, think. . . .

‘Yes? What can I do for you?’ He tried to make his voice sound curt, no-nonsense, but Henry was not used to being curt, and his voice wavered slightly. The figure moved forward, and Henry could see it more clearly. A youngish man, unruly dark hair framing a sullen face, a cheap imitation leather jacket zipped up to his chin, one hand visible, the other balled up in a pocket, clutching—what? Henry realised he did not want to know.

‘What can you do for me? What can you do?’ said the other, as if seriously pondering the question. ‘I’ll tell you what you can do, old man—you can give me any money you’ve got, and quick, too, ’cause I don’t like having to ask for things more than once.’

Henry thought quickly, weighing his options. What options? said a voice in his head. Don’t try to be a hero. Give him what he wants and maybe he’ll leave. ‘All right, yes, money, by all means,’ he said, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. ‘I don’t have much, but you can take it all, yes . . .’ He moved to walk around the desk, and the other man stepped forward, closing the distance between them so suddenly that Henry pulled back.

‘No tricks, old man,’ whispered the intruder. ‘See? I don’t like tricks, and neither does my friend.’ He withdrew the hand that had been in his pocket, and Henry saw the gleam of a knife blade as it caught a ray of light from overhead. ‘Just move nice and slow.’

Henry nodded. ‘The cash—I keep it there.’ He gestured towards the desk.

‘Get it, then.’ The intruder’s eyes left Henry for a moment and swept around the shop. ‘Anyone else here?’

‘No. No one. I live by myself,’ said Henry, profoundly grateful—I’m sorry, Mary—that this was true.

‘Great. Get the money, then.’

‘Yes.’ Henry moved around behind the desk to the cash register and fumbled at the keys with fingers which seemed to have grown stiff and useless. How does this thing open . . . please, please . . . let it be all right, oh, let it be all right . . .

‘Come on, old man, stop jerking me around. I don’t have all day.’

‘No . . . yes, yes, I’m trying . . . just be a minute . . .’

‘I don’t have a minute!’ the other exploded, thrusting himself across the desk so that he was inches away from Henry’s trembling frame. ‘Aren’t you listening?’ He moved his hand so that the knife was between them. ‘I want that money now, old man, or I’ll use this!’ He grabbed Henry’s shirt, pulling him halfway across the desk; and Henry, feeling himself losing his balance, flailed his arms, trying to stop himself from falling. One of his hands caught the intruder’s arm; not a blow, not by any stretch, but unexpected, and feeling himself threatened the intruder lashed out, sending Henry reeling backwards, hands to his throat, staring uncomprehending at the redness which was covering them, covering his shirt, covering everything, even his eyes, which were straining into darkness, straining, trying to see, trying—and then there was silence, and Henry Anderson saw and heard no more.

Both sit silent, listening to the metal voices, near and distant, resounding from towers of various heights, in tones more various than their situations. When these at length cease, all seems more mysterious and quiet than before. One disagreeable result of whispering is, that it seems to evoke an atmosphere of silence, haunted by the ghosts of sound—strange cracks and tickings, the rustling of garments that have no substance in them, and the tread of dreadful feet, that would leave no mark on the sea-sand or the winter snow.

The intruder stood stock-still on his side of the desk, his chest heaving as with some great physical effort. He could see part of Henry’s body, lying on its side where it had fallen, and he watched it for any movement, any sign of life. But there was none. The job had been done well. The knife was still in his hand, and he gazed at it dispassionately. A box of tissues stood on a corner of the desk, and he took out a handful and wiped the blade off before placing the knife back in his pocket. He looked at the body again, his mind working as his breath came more easily and he found that he could think with something approaching clarity.

First he moved to the door, locking it and pulling down the blind, unconsciously carrying out the very actions which would have saved Henry’s life. Then he returned to the desk and stood looking round the shop thoughtfully. Various bays formed by the arrangement of bookshelves stretched down both walls, all neatly labelled with signs hanging above them describing the books to be found therein. In the middle of the shop were a few armchairs, surrounding a small table which contained a coffee maker and a plate of cookies. The intruder helped himself to a handful of cookies and made a more thorough survey of the shop.

A door at the back caught his eye, and he made his way towards it, alert and cautious. The old man had said there was no one else there, but you never knew . . . He opened the door carefully, and saw a short hallway leading to what appeared to be a kitchen. A staircase, its upper reaches in darkness, led to the next floor.

He remembered Henry’s words. I live by myself. The old man must have an apartment behind the shop, then! This was getting better and better. He’d be able to get the cash out of the register, have a good look round the apartment—there must be stuff worth taking from there, too—fix himself something to eat and drink, maybe even wait out the rain, before being on his way long before anyone discovered something wrong. What a stroke of luck!

A sound behind him in the shop made him jump, and he whirled around, knife at the ready.


He moved swiftly back towards the desk and looked at Henry. The body had not moved. The intruder turned his attention to the cash register, and in a matter of seconds had it open. He cleared out the contents, stuffing the money into his pockets, then looked to see if there was anything else worth having.

A book lay open on the desk. He flicked it shut and looked at the cover. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The old man wouldn’t be reading that again anytime soon.

Another noise disturbed him; this one came from the back of the shop, and for a moment he thought that someone had come through the door from the apartment, for a shadow seemed to pass lightly into one of the bays. He moved along the shop and peered between the shelves. There was no one there.

More sound; this time from the front of the shop. The intruder whirled around, and again thought he saw a shadow pass into one of the bays, this one near the window. He narrowed his eyes, peering through the dim shop. Was it his imagination, or were the lights getting dimmer?

‘As to dead men, Tony,’ proceeds Mr Guppy, evading this proposal, ‘there have been dead men in most rooms.’

‘I know there have; but in most rooms you let them alone, and—and they let you alone,’ Tony answers.

Of course there was no one there when he reached the front of the shop. The front door was locked tight, and no one could have come in through the door at the back without being seen. The intruder shrugged his shoulders and tried to laugh. Crazy. Imagining things. That’s what it was. All these books, lined up, watching him, waiting . . .

Waiting! That was good. Waiting for what? He shook his head, then went back to the plate of cookies for another handful, as if to prove that he wasn’t afraid, there was nothing to be afraid of, just a dead guy behind the desk and he wasn’t going anywhere, wasn’t going to be calling for any help, there wasn’t even anyone to call except a load of books, and what help could they be? As if to prove his point he moved to the desk (although he was careful not to look too closely at Henry’s body) and picked up the copy of Bleak House, gazing at it with contempt for a moment before flinging it to the back of the shop, where it fell with a flutter and crash.

And, mingled with these sounds, a cry, as of pain.

The intruder’s head swivelled round, trying to locate the source of the cry. It sounded as if—this was crazy—as if it had come from the book. He moved through the shop towards the book, which was lying, face up, on the floor. He moved closer, almost against his will, looking to see if perhaps the book had hit something—a pet of some kind, was there an animal in the shop?—and touched the book gingerly, almost delicately, with his foot. It was just a book.

Mr Guppy takes the light. They go down, more dead than alive, and holding one another, push open the door of the back shop. The cat has retreated close to it, and stands snarling—not at them; at something on the ground, before the fire.

Another sound, behind him. He whirled around, eyes trying to adjust to the dimness—there must be something wrong with the lights—as a figure moved in front of the door and disappeared behind a bookshelf in a curious gliding motion. The intruder stared, heart pounding. The old man had said he was alone. How could anyone else be there? It wasn’t possible. There was no one else in the shop; just him and a dead man, and a load of old books. No one else.

A murmur came from behind him, halfway along the shop, in a bay labelled—he could barely make out the sign, so dark had it become—Literature. There was an answering murmur—or so it seemed to the intruder—from a bay on the other side of the shop, this one labelled Children’s. A dim memory stirred within him, and he was reminded of a time, impossibly long ago in what seemed another life, when he had played hide-and-seek, and had tried to track down those hiding by listening for the tell-tale signs of giggles and whispers. He could almost imagine people hiding behind the bookshelves, breath held, trying not to give themselves away, watching him to see what he would do.

‘Who’s there?’ he called out roughly. ‘Come on out, where I can see you. Come on!’

No answer. But there was movement. He could sense it, rather than see it, as if shadows were massing behind the shelves, dark clouds of movement, full of purpose. His head swivelled from side to side, trying to pin down the danger, define it, attack it. His hand clenched the knife, poised in front of him, ready to strike.

A small sigh behind him, at the back of the shop. He twisted round, every nerve alert, ready to face whoever—whatever—had come in.

They advance slowly, looking at all these things. The cat remains where they found her, still snarling at the something on the ground, before the fire and between the two chairs. What is it? Hold up the light?

It was a boy. The intruder could see little of him, apart from the fact that he looked thin and pale. He was holding something; a funny sort of broom. The old man’s grandkid, come downstairs to see what’s up. A wave of relief flashed through the man. A kid with a broom: pathetic. He could deal with this, no problem. He put the hand with the knife behind his back and adopted a sickly, wheedling tone.

‘Hey, kid, sorry you were bothered, okay? Me and your granddad were just talking about business; you know, business—nothing for you to worry about, so why don’t you just . . .’

The boy wasn’t listening to him; wasn’t even looking at him. He was looking at something else, something behind him. The intruder turned around, and stared in disbelief at the figures moving towards him. It couldn’t be . . . it wasn’t possible . . . it was just him and a dead man and a load of old books, for Christ’s sake . . . nothing else . . .

There was something wrong with them; something which his brain tried to comprehend even as he moved backwards, unaware of the figures advancing towards him from the back of the shop, led by the child with the broom. The clothing—they looked like figures from old movies, or from pictures in books.

Help, help, help! come into this house, for Heaven’s sake!

Plenty will come in, but none can help.

'The Appointed Time'

Original illustration by Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)

for chapter 32 of Bleak House by Charles Dickens