Fiction Reboot: Witchwood at Nob’s End–or, ode to revision

Welcome to the Fiction Reboot!

I started my day reading Psalms. I like to sit in the window with my breakfast and read aloud. Because I am a bit of a version control pedant, I often read different translations–everything from the King James version  to other languages, some Greek and plenty French. Today, I noted an interesting difference in Psalm 119: 54. My Anglican Psalter says: “Your statutes have been like songs to me wherever I have lived as a stranger.” But I also have a worn King James (belonged to my grandmother). It says: “Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.” At first, it may not seem a great difference–but notice that “have been like” is replaced by “have been my.” They are not like songs. They are songs. The image that creates in my head is different–the metaphor redraws rule as song. Note, too, the “house of my pilgrimage.” It is archaic and we don’t use it much. The emphasis on “stranger” is easier to grasp, but also more lonesome and more passive. The house of my pilgrimage suggests a kind of ownership, doesn’t it? A kind of agency, a quest. Small differences in words, big differences in mental image.

It just so happens that revision requires a similar kind of break-down: do these words really work? My trouble is this: it makes sense in my head, where the image originates. So I forget to make sure that it resonates in someone else’s head. I overcompensate by using too much description–to make them “see” the way I “see.” But that is not the point. The point it to tip the reader in the right direction and let them create the world their own way. It requires a lighter touch. So, below I have put the first part of Witchwood, Chapter 2. In these few pages (4, I think) I sum up what had been nearly 15 pages of text. In the end, it doesn’t matter what specifically I cut–only that I kept the kernel from which the story will continue to grow. And, interestingly, I do much of this cutting by choosing words carefully–words that build an image and make more complex description unnecessary.

_________________________

Chapter Two: Other People’s Nightmares

It was dark and cold, and Alex suddenly had that horrible feeling of falling in space. His body jerked, heart pounding in his throat, and he awoke with a start. Or did he?

Alex was not tucked in his bed, and not staring at his ceiling fan. No; he was standing in a field of high grass, his hair full of dew and his feet cold and clammy. He felt the squelch beneath his bare feet, and dreams didn’t squelch.

This is not right, Alex thought as panic made a hard knot in his stomach. Nothng looked familiar. No crooked house, no blue sedan. In front was a sloping field and the twinkle of distant house lights. Behind him—something, or someone was waiting. He didn’t see anything, he just knew. A cold prickle was creeping up his neck with the feeling of being watched in the dark. Alex turned his head, but his body moved in ultra slow motion.

At first, it was a pitch black nothing. But slowly, he could make something out. Images, like ashy tree trunks and swaying branches, reached toward him. Was the forest itself was moving? No, there was something else there! Something in the shadows, rustle-rustle thump! The darkness came apart in great black strips, separating and snorting like rabid animals!

“Help! Help!” Alex shouted, and he catapulted forward in a blind run. Over the wet grass he went; over the field, over an exposed bit of rock, and head over heels. He sprawled on the ground, covering his head with his hands. There was a flash of lightning, and Alex saw letters blazoned on the rockface—

And then nothing. He sat up, sweating but safe, in his bed.

It took him a long time to recognize his own room. A storm was passing over their house and it made snarling, pawing sounds against the roof’s cracked tiles. Creepy animals at the wood edge, creepy dreams… Alex took a steadying breath and reached for his desk lamp. In the little pool of light, he could just make out the beady eyes of a mouse.

“You’re perfectly welcome,” he said, feeling that any company was okay at the moment.

And though he didn’t know it, Ezra was awake, too, watching the storm from the housetop like a sailor in a leaky boat. It wracked her little room all night, buffeting the windows and filling the rain bucket to the brim. It lasted almost to dawn, and by then, there was just no point in sleeping. She tossed the comforter aside with a grunt and wandered downstairs to search for bread the mice hadn’t chewed on before stepping outside.

The rain had washed away the dust of August and for the first time there was a telling autumn crispness in the air. It almost tasted good. Ezra stretched her legs, and loped across the dewy lawn. Calf muscle, tendon, hamstring, quad; every muscle was indexed in her brain like an anatomy chart, and that gave her comfort somehow. And, at least she had plenty of room to go running. One teeny plus in a world of minuses.Ezra touched her toes, and looked at the yard behind her—at the long sloping field.

“Wait just a minute…” Ezra felt a shiver raise goose bumps on her arms; like déjà vu, she had seen all of this before.

“Hey Ezra, whatcha doin?” Alex poked his head out of the screen door just as she made her way to the drive.

“Walking,” she said, dismissivly. “It’s how people get from one place to another.”

Alex (who was eating peanut butter) pointed his spoon at her.

“You’re cranky. Er. Than usual.”

“I’m tired. Er. Than usul,” Ezra sighed. Then she made a face. “Are you just eating that straight out of the jar?”

“Uh-huh. It’s good—here,” He scooped up a spoonful and presented it.

“That’s really gross.”

“Not as gross as the basement. You should smell it after the storm last night,” Alex made a face.

“Yeah, well you see the rain bucket in the hall. I was practically in the storm,” Ezra turned back to face the field. “You coming? I need to check something.”

“Sure,” Alex shrugged. “But I still win because my bedroom smells like earthworms. And I had a nightmare. Worms and nightmare beats rain bucket.”

“Mmm,” said Ezra, who was scouting the ground for something and clearly not listening.

“Yes. A nightmare, since you asked. I was being chased by this forest—”

“The western wood.”

“How should I know?”

“It was,” Ezra insisted. Her eyes had narrowed like a hawk’s to its prey, and Alex shrugged.

“Sure, whatever. So anyway, I was running to these houses, but then I tripped on a rock and—”

“Village.”

Alex frowned.

“Do I get to tell this story or—oomph!”

Alex ran into Ezra’s back and almost did a face-plant in the dirt. She’d stopped without any warning.

“What are you doing?” he asked as she dropped to all fours.

“It’s just not possible,” she muttered, scratching in the dirt. Alex watched her as though she’d just lost her good senses.

“Um—are you okay, Ez?”

“Not really No. Look!” she sat back on her heels and pointed to a lump of earth. “Is this what you tripped over in your dream?”

Alex dropped his peanut butter.

It wasn’t a lump of earth at all. It was a large stone, overgrown with moss and weeds, with writing on the side.

“Omigosh—Ezra, I dreamed about that thing!”

“I know. So did I.”

“That’s impossible!”

“That’s what I just said.” Ezra bent down, trying to see the words.  “There was a village right here—and the forest was that one, on the western side. If you stand by the maple tree, it’s the same view.”

“Oh, that is so weird! I mean, we-should-be-on-TV-weird,” Alex breathed. Ezra didn’t seem to notice the increasing level of creepy; she was too busy scrubbing at the rock. When the last piece of lichen peeled away, Alex leaned closer. Chiseled into the surface were the words Jacob’s Green.

“Is this a grave or something??”

“No, it says Jacob’s Green, not Jacob Green. And there’s only one date: 1786.” Ezra stood up and brushed her hands off on her jeans. “I think it’s a foundation stone for the town that used to be here.”

“The village was from 1786? I wonder what happened to it?”

“It burned down.”

“Oh come on, how could you possibly know?” Alex asked, following behind her.

“Because.” Ezra felt a chill run up her spine again. “In my dream, the town was on fire.” […end of p4 in c2]

Eerie Beginnings

Lately, I have been dedicating Wednesday posts to the ongoing Here comes Troubelle series–and I promise, it will resume next week. However, in the spirit of yesterday’s suggested steps 10, 11, 13 and 18, I have been revising my other novel: The Witchwood at Nob’s End. Today, I will provide a teaser in the form of Chapter One. This trilogy (1.75 complete) features a brother-sister duo, Alex and Ezra Kenning, as they battle graves without bodies, wolves without skin, and the hinter-lands of Witchwood, a between-world stuck in time.

_______________

Chapter 1: The House on the Hilltop

Defunct mining operations left scars. Lots of them.

A thirsty road, rutted out by rain and held together by patchy gravel, snaked through abandoned coal company lands. The water was orange, the trees black, and the forest swiss-cheesed with collapsed mines and sinkholes—but that wasn’t the worst of it. Every tangled, overgrown tree was tagged with a yellow PUBLIC HUNTING sign. Ezra Kenning and her brother Alex could see the neon zipping by from the backseat. It didn’t take encyclopedic genius to figure out what a bad idea that was—

“Like people want to fall down a mine shaft with a loaded firearm,” Ezra muttered—loud enough to be heard.

“Be nice, or be quiet,” her mother insisted as she swerved to miss another pot-hole. In the rearview, Ezra bounced sideways into her brother with a whip-lash of unruly black curls.

“Hey!” Alex squished himself against the window. “Watch your pony-tail, would you?”

“I can’t watch it. It’s on the back of my head,” Ezra flipped open her runner’s magazine and stared at it ferociously.

Alex just stared out the window. There was no point in arguing with Ezra, after all. Tall for sixteen, Ezra was brooding, bookish and bony—and almost never nice or quiet. Alex was younger, but fourteen years had taught him a thing or two. Like when it was best to just leave her alone. Which was pretty much always. Alex didn’t like their new home all that much, either. But Ezra—she hated it.

The blue sedan bumped its way up a steep incline. Dark, dismal trees gave way to dark, dismal weeds, and finally to a brush-hogged section of scabby ground. Ezra sighed as the sedan came to a shuddering halt just left of the house—or what passed for one. Most of it was underground, built into the very hillside. The rest, consisting of the front foyer and a teeny attic-like bedroom, peeked over the frost line like a shy marmot. The whole of the place was built from concrete block, shingled with grayish siding, roofed with asbestos tiles and, to all appearances, slouching to one side.

“Home sweet home.” Ezra shut the door with a satisfying slam. We’ll get used to it, their father had said, but she didn’t plan on it. In pretty much the same way she had not gotten over the bankruptcy—or watching everything they owned being auctioned off.

“Dad’s not home yet?” Alex asked, picking up two jugs of bleach (because the bathroom was a shrine to the mold gods).

“Interviews take time,” his mother replied, but her face looked like it had the cramp. Taking time could be a good thing or a bad thing, though it certainly took more time to get a job than to lose one.

“Watch where you put things,” Ezra said dully. She was standing next to the brown kitchen table (by the brown cabinets, brown paneling, and brown linoleum of a whole interior more or less brown). “The mice have left a trail.”

“Right. I’ll put the bread in the fridge,” Alex eyed the scattering of pellets on the counter doubtfully. It had been almost a week, but though the mice had been losing battles, they were winning the war.

Ezra dug around the sacks and stacked the table with enough dry spaghetti to last a month—along with plenty of cheap red sauce.  Dinner was not the highlight of the day for the Kenning family. Not anymore. And it mostly consisted of more things wrong with their backwards, downside up house.

“Property is overgrown on the western edge,” their father said over his dish of watery marinara.

“I noticed,” said their mother, “and the roof shingles are cracking.”

Their voices were strained and singing like the high-tension wires on the back forty. The broken things, the mice, the boxes, the unpacking—it was just a way of not talking about the job their father had not gotten. The only scrap of hope now was the postal service, which was looking for fill-in drivers. Ezra scraped her fork across the plate; better to leave the table before they ran out of topics.

“Come on,” she said, excusing herself and dragging Alex behind her. He followed willingly, but was making his own mental list.

“—and there’s no TV reception,” he said as they passed through the mud room and to the front porch.

“There’s a surprise,” Ezra muttered. It had taken two days to get the electric turned on, another to rewire the living room plug and ages to find the antenna among the boxes of useless crap. It didn’t surprise her at all to find there had been no real point.

“They practically gave this property away,” she sighed, thinking of their pleasant two-story in Philadelphia. “If we don’t get cancer from the high tension wires, we’re bound to get it from the water.”

“Oh you always think you’re gonna die of something,” Alex said, swatting a mosquito as the sun set behind them.

“That’s because eventually, I will. So will you.”

“Ugh,” Alex got up and frowned. “You know, sometimes you could be less—less—you. You don’t like anything!”

“That’s not true,” Ezra corrected, flicking her ponytail like an offended mare. “I like reading—”

“The encyclopedia, maybe.”

“—and I like running—”

“Which is weird.”

“—And I like Frank,” she said, meaning the family dog. “He’ll be here by tomorrow.”

And it was about time, too, in Ezra’s opinion. No one else understood her, really. How could they? She was so far from normal it was painful—and the name didn’t help. Why not something respectable like Elizabeth? She curled her lip. She’d been named after her aunt who, for some strange reason, was named after an Old Testament prophet. A name like that just marked you out for a life of general weirdness. It was one of several things she’d never quite forgiven her parents for.

But it didn’t matter what people thought—and it didn’t matter if they made fun, either. She was over that. And she was stronger, faster, smarter. That’s what mattered.

Or so she told herself pretty often.

But what mattered to Alex—at least, what mattered after he made it back to his room—was his sense of smell. Basements, it turned out, were home to things like mold, mold’s cousin mildew, and all of their creepy-crawly friends. Mice he was prepared to deal with. But water bugs, spiders and millipedes? There was just not enough bleach in the world, though the whole downstairs reeked of it. Too late, he asked to switch with Ezra, who had chosen the little closet on top of the house… above ground where there was air and light. The promise of a black light had done something to improve the situation, but finding out that the latest bad smell was a mouse, dead of chlorine fumes behind the toilet, pretty much killed the warm fuzzy.

“Mom! MOM! I can’t stay in here!” He held up the victim.

“Because of a dead mouse?”

“Because I might be next. I think I’m dying of bleach poisoning.”

“You’ve been listening to Ezra’s cancer theories again,” his mother warned, wagging a finger at him.

“But it’s gross down here!”

“Well, you can’t kick Ezra out of her room.”

“I don’t see why not—she hates everything anyway,” Alex huffed.

“Oh, Alex,” his mother leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “It’s just going to take a while. You’ll see—now throw it outside in the weeds. Something will eat it.”

Alex stared after her. Two horrible ideas at once.

“Gross, gross, gross—gross, gross,” he muttered, carrying the stiff little body up the steps. It had occurred to him briefly that it might be fun to toss it into Ezra’s bed, but that would just mean he’d have to pick it up again later.

“Well, sorry little guy,” he said, giving it a good toss into the thicket. There was a tiny “piff” sound as it disappeared and Alex wiped his hands vigorously against his trousers. Then, a second sound arrested his attention.

Rustle, rustle, thumpety-thump.

Alex felt the hair on his neck prickle up, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn around. Yet. He marched off to the house, in a way he hoped looked manly, and then turned to face the western wood when his hand was on the screen door.

“Er?” He paused and squinted. He’d hoped that the thumpety-thumping creature was eating the dead mouse out of sight. But there something was there. At least, he thought so. An indistinct shape, a ripple of movement in the gathering darkness.

“Ah—” he pushed the screen door open and slipped inside. “Ezra?”

Alex could hear Ezra’s mattress squeak and a minute later she was standing in the mud room and looking over his shoulder.

“What?”

“Look right there—” he pointed, but the something was gone. “Crap. It was right there.”

“It’s too dark to see anyway,” Ezra said, retreating to her bedroom. “Next time, just annoy me the old fashioned way.”

“Be nice. I just had to dump a dead mouse, you know.”

Ezra leaned against the bed post.

“Trapping more furry friends?”

“Uh-uh. It died from bleach poisoning. Oh, that reminds me. Do you wanna change rooms by any chance?”

“No, I don’t want your room of mold and death.” Ezra picked up her encyclopedia. “Actually, mold can cause death—want to hear about S. chartarum? It’s very interesting.”

Alex looked uncomfortable.

“It’s not—cancer or anything, is it??”

There was enough real alarm in his voice to make Ezra ashamed of herself.

“You’re fine. But you ought to hear how this room shudders when you open and close doors.”

Alex cocked his head to one side.

“It does seem to lean a little,” he admitted.

“See? You’re safe in your hole,” Ezra said, trying to sound reassuring—but not doing a very good job. “Anyway”—she shrugged—“It’s where the mice hang out, and they probably know best.”

Alex tried to smile. His sister was much better at sarcasm and bitterness, but at least she was trying.

“Thanks,” he said, shutting her crooked door and heading back downstairs. Unfortunately, no one had left a light on for him, and he had to feel his way down, noticing with a grimace that the wallpaper was slightly gritty in places. Back in his room, the bedside lamp was shining brightly, and he didn’t see anything crawling around anywhere. He could tough it out. He was good at that. Besides, things were okay—mostly because they had to be…even if they weren’t. It was a pretty sound life philosophy, and so Alex settled into bed, pulled the sheets over his chin, and put all the weirdness out of his head.

Or so he thought.

The Life of Writing: Using your Illusion–and other people’s, too.

Every life has moments that are worthy of recording. Mine just tend to be–bizarre.

For last Monday’s Fiction Reboot, I shared a humorous life experience about the trauma of kindergarten. But sometimes, the events that most influence us are not our own, or not only our own. Today I will talk about shared experience.

My YA series The Witchwood at Nob’s End is partly autobiographical in the sense that it takes place 1) in an underground house, 2) in a tangled forest, 3) near a graveyard, 4) on abandoned coal mining lands. Something about living underground next to a graveyard (at the level of your ‘late’ neighbors) fairly ensures an abiding interest in Gothic fiction. But the collective experiences I shared with my family, and particularly with my brother, provided the psychical landscape for the Gothic adventures of Ezra and Alex Kenning. Some of these experiences were quite bizarre, after all: My mother was chased by coyotes… My father heard the screams of hungry bobcats…

And my brother saw a demon.

Old Experience #2: Whole-Dark Awful Red-Eyed Things

I am no expert on demonology, though I expect the Asmodai have better things to do than frighten the wits out of eight-year-olds. All the same, I don’t take the following story lightly. It has certainly left a serious impression, even after the passage of time. Here is the tale:

It was a late spring afternoon, and my brother was outside playing hide-and-seek tag with his best friend. Playing tag at my house was a big deal; we are not talking a couple of yards strung together… we are talking many acres of forest near the Peabody Coal lands. They were close to the house, of course, but that didn’t make the terrain any less wild. Naturally, then, the hide-and-seek part took place in the trees and brush.

My brother was “it.” He had been searching the usual places, no doubt, but finally he wandered into the wood at the furthest edge of our yard. That’s where we piled the branches from last summer’s wood harvest (we heated with a fire-place). By spring, this pile had become trodden down, smashed by snow and ice. However, my brother noticed that it was ‘humped up,’ as though someone were underneath it.

“I got you! I got you!” he cried, and the brush pile moved. But what came out the other side was not his best friend.

The rest of this was told to me from the safety of the living room, after we had calmed him down (and he had stopped screaming). He said that the figure was, at first, the size and shape of an enormous dog. It was black, he said, and had glowing red eyes–not unlike, perhaps, the hound of Baskerville fame.

“It was just a stray dog,” my mother suggested. But he was adamant. It was NOT a dog. It was “whole-dark,” a black of blackest night. It was a nothing, no contour, no shape, no highlight. It was a black hole in the shape of a four-legged animal…except, he reiterated, for the glowing red eyes. It gave him a horrible, shuddering feeling–ice cold, a shiver in the soul. It was more than fear. It was worse than fear.

My father suggested it was a bear. We had bears in the area, after all, and that seemed to fit most of the criteria. We never saw it again, at any rate, and so it was largely forgotten. But not by my little brother, who still doesn’t enjoy talking about it–and not by me. That whole-dark, terrifying shape wafted its way into my brain, traveled like mist across my synapses… and waited for his cue to come back on stage.

Below, I give you two characters of ill-repute. The first is Eurick, the Jackwolfe of the Witchwood. The second is Nemeth, the horse-demon Asmodai of unfortunate memory. Both owe their genesis to the shared experience of an eight-year-old, playing tag in the woods.

EXCERPT: Jackwolfe

“What is that??”

Ezra felt her skin prickle, and Frank started to growl. There was a gap in the curling fog—a gap slowly closing up with bodies. There, before them, was the most horrible creature she had ever seen. It was enormous—the size of an Irish wolfhound at least. It had high ridge-like shoulders, and the whole body was so horribly skinny that muscles stood out like ropes and bones like armor under a short, wiry coat. But worst of all was its head; it didn’t rise above the shoulder, but rather hung hyena-like on its long, downward-arching neck. Two dome-like black eyes with no pupils and no whites stared straight into them, and its jaw—which seemed hinged like a snake’s—had a skeletal, grinning aspect…and in that jaw, just under the snarling folds of tightly-stretched skin, were rows and rows of dagger-like teeth. Alex and Ezra felt frozen as they watched more and more of them step out of the mist.

EXCERPT: Nemeth

[…]An enormous horse—at least she thought it was a horse—was charging up the hill. Its body was so black it was almost a hole in the air, an enormous nothing that no light touched. Its head was emblazoned with a single white streak like a bolt of lightening, and its eyes were sparking like fire. It snorted blue-orange flames as it pounded the dirt, and with a sudden lift it catapulted over Eurick and his pursuers to land nearly on top of Ezra herself.

[…]

“GRK—GRK—GRK!” Nemeth was chucking his almost skeletal head back and forth, and his mouth split wide to show off a double row of tangled fangs.

“Now, just wait,” Ezra choked, “I’ve never done a thing to you!”

Behind her, Sarah was nearly jumping up and down.

“You can’t reason wit’ it! It’s a demon!” she said, and suddenly Nemeth seemed aware of her presence as well. He swung his body around, and Ezra gasped—the spikes on his withers had opened—they had become spidery finger-bones, and stretched between them was the leathery webbing of bat wings.

“EEEEE!” Sarah squealed, and Nemeth opened his wings and his mouth, his neck stretching and stretching…

“RUN!” Ezra shouted at Sarah, and then, taking her own advice, she charged across the court. Sarah had disappeared through the doorway and away from Nemeth’s snapping jaws, but Ezra had lost her cover. The court was wide and empty—there was no place to hide.

Why, why, why??? Ezra demanded of herself. One stupid decision after another! Behind her, Nemeth’s body writhed to the right, and his weirdly jointed legs raked forward. Stone and gravel flew from his claws as he reached for Ezra’s retreating heels. His wings were open, but like a new night moth, they were still too weak for flight. He beat them across his back and wailed in hunger. The sound made Ezra’s legs feel like water, but she kept going. She had run from the jackwolfe. She had run from Jaydeun. But never had she run like this! Hell itself seemed to be following behind her, ready to swallow her up with fire and acid—and in truth, both of these substances were flaming and dripping from the creature’s open maw.

ANNOUNCEMENTS:

Stay tuned this week for the Fiction Reboot’s Author Interview. We will have poet Kim Roberts with us, discussing the power of words and unusual inspiration. We also look forward to a chat with Tessa Harris, author of The Anatomist’s Apprentice.