In November 2000, I started writing the first novel of what would become the Herbert West Series. This November, I have set myself a goal to finish writing a collection of stories I intend to publish in 2020. Call it my own version of NaNoWriMo. So, I’ve scheduled posts for the next four weeks featuring each of the four books of the series. Oh, and November 7th was Herbert West’s 133rd birthday!
The third book in the series is Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure
Abandoned and abused, young Herbert West resorts to drastic measures to survive. At Miskatonic University, he becomes a scientist who commits crimes and creates monstrosities. Decades later, haunted by his past, he finds safety as Dr. Francis Dexter of Bellefleur Island, but his divided nature threatens those he loves and forces him to face the truth about his healing powers.
I intended Islands of the Gulf to be a single novel, but it was so long, I split it into two. This part is narrated by Herbert West/Francis Dexter himself, the only time in the entire series he gets to tell his own story. The first half covers his childhood and early years, the second his time on Bellefleur Island. He’s not an entirely reliable narrator, though, so the reader has to consider where the truth may have been shaped by his experiences.
In this scene from Chapter 3, Herbert is questioned by his father, Hiram West.
In his office, Hiram took his place behind the desk and waved me to the usual chair in front of it. “So, Herbert,” he said, “from what I hear, you’re spending a lot of time in the North End these days.”
As recently as a year before, and certainly in my mother’s time, I would have responded to such a remark with floods of self-justification, or a sullen, guilt-admitting silence. Now I let his words reverberate in the air around us for a second or two before I responded.
“What is it that you hear?” I asked.
“I hear that a kid who looks a lot like you has been running with a bunch of little punks that call themselves the Raiders. The North End Raiders. Small-time thieves – specialize in stealing from little old ladies, it seems.”
If this was a strategy intended to provoke me into a self-incriminating defence of the Raiders, it failed.
“Is that all?” I asked.
“Isn’t it enough? Come on, Herbert, ‘fess up. What have you been up to? Believe me, I’m not interested in paying Collins a fat salary just to have you wind up arrested for stealing apples with a bunch of third-rate twerps. So start talking.”
“Excuse me, Father, but I must question your initial premise. You’ve heard that someone that looks like me has been seen in the North End. Well, that’s quite possible. But I must ask you – who said this? And when, and under what circumstances did he see this person? Without knowing these things I don’t believe I can give you an answer.”
Hiram looked at me hard, as though I had sprouted wings or developed a third eye.
“Well, well, well, what do we have here? Twelve years old and talking like a professor to his old man! So this is what Collins has been teaching you. ‘Initial premise,’ indeed. Geez, boy, you’re going to be a lawyer, if you don’t watch out.” He grinned broadly, a grin I didn’t often see aimed at me.
“Okay, here’s the goods – a while ago, I asked someone (no one important, believe me) to keep an eye on you. I know what boys are like, and I got an idea you weren’t always in the house on Collins’s nights off. So this fellow told me he’d seen you (yeah, he was sure it was you) running around the streets by the Haymarket. Two Fridays ago, this was, and he said he spotted you again last week. He asked around about the kids you were with, and people told him they call themselves the North End Raiders. Just a gang of boys, they said. Minor mischief, that’s all. But no one seemed to know who you were, just ‘some other kid that hangs around with those guys.’ Okay, Professor, is that good enough? Now it’s your turn to do some talking, so get busy.”
I had been busy thinking already, so when he finished I promptly produced a fabrication. I had heard a lot about the North End of Boston from Mrs. Petrucci and her grandchildren, who, I reminded Hiram, had been guests at my ninth birthday party, more than three years ago…
“Yeah, I remember,” he said, making a face. “Regular fuss you kicked up about that birthday of yours. Go on.”
I figured I was old enough to go places on my own, I said, and was tired of the museums, art galleries, concerts and church services that Mr. Collins took me to, so I decided one Saturday to take a walk around this other part of the city, which was not so distant in miles, but socially might as well have been another planet.
“It was like a field trip,” I said. “I was walking along, just looking at things, when I saw this little kid crying on the sidewalk. He told me that some other kids had knocked him down. I asked him where he lived and took him home. His mother and sisters were glad to see him back and thanked me. They asked me to come and visit again, so I did. I guess that’s when that fellow saw me.”
He’d been watching me narrowly while I talked. Now he said, “I dunno, Herbert. The way I heard it you were with a bunch of other boys. Running around, not calling on young ladies. So what about these sisters? You been seeing a lot of them? Don’t tell me you’re getting ideas like that at age twelve, for God’s sake!”
“Ideas like what?” I was genuinely puzzled. “When I went back to visit, I met some other kids and we got friendly. A couple of times they… showed me around the neighbourhood. It was interesting. That’s all.”
“That’s all, eh?” Hiram stood, went over to the window and looked out long enough that I almost went over to have a look myself, thinking something interesting was happening. He turned quickly and came back to the desk, resuming his seat and leaning forward, close enough that I could see the pores on his nose.
“I’m thinking you need an extra lesson or two,” he said. “Things Collins can’t teach you because his head’s full of Greeks and Romans and fancy notions. So let’s start right now. Number one – don’t get mixed up in things before you understand what’s really going on. Now, who are these pals of yours in the North End? What are their names?”
“They’re just kids!” I protested. “What do their names matter?”
He slammed his open palm down on the desk, startling me. “Answer my question! Names?”
“Angelo, Lou, Mike, Joe, Pete – ”
“No last names? Come on, Herbert – stop playing games and spit it out!” No smile now, not even a smirk. His face was a block of stone.
“I don’t know their last names,” I said, almost truthfully. “They didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask.”
Hiram blew out his cheeks. “Sheesh, you kids. So one of them’s called Angelo? Are they all Eyeties?”
“Italians? I suppose so.”
“You suppose so. All right, Professor – what’s your name?”
“You know my name, Father – Herbert West.”
Hiram laughed, a harsh laugh with a note of derision in it. “Right, but I mean what’s your name when you’re with your gang? What do they call you?”
I was afraid to hesitate too long and provoke him, but my inventive skills had left me. “Frank,” I said, reluctantly.
“Just Frank? Come on, Herbert, I don’t have all day.”
“Franco Petrucci,” I muttered.
He laughed again. “Oh boy, does Mrs. P. know she’s got another kid? Why an Eyetie name?”
“Well, I thought… I wanted to fit in.” What I really wanted was to get away from him. Trying to avoid the gaze of his narrowed eyes, I looked at the floor, hating myself for letting him put me in this supplicant position.
“Okay, Herbert,” he said. “Lesson two. There’s Back Bay and Beacon Hill and then there’s everywhere else. You can’t take short cuts in between, and you can’t sit on the fence. Not unless you know what you’re doing, and I don’t think you do. So let’s make a deal. Go ahead and play with your Eyetie friends, but keep your eyes and ears open while you’re at it. Find out your friends’ dads’ names – their last names – and who they work for. And remember – I’ll hear all about it if you make any wrong moves. So will your pals. Okay, kid, that’s enough for now.”
Relieved, I made for the door, but he called me back. “One last question, Herbert. Everything you told me just now, was it true?”
I pretended to think for a moment. “Most of it,” I said.
He laughed again. “Oh boy, you’re coming along! Just remember your old man’s advice and you’ll be fine.”
As my hand touched the doorknob, he spoke again. “Okay, I lied. One more question. What were you really doing in the North End?”
I knew he was playing a game with me and began to feel angry. “I was looking for my mother,” I said, realizing too late that I was telling a painful truth.
“Now that’s a complete waste of time,” he answered, his voice going flat and hard again, all traces of hilarity and false camaraderie gone. “Don’t bother yourself about her, Herbert. She’s gone.”
“Where has she gone?” I asked. “Do you know where she is?” It took a lot of resolve to ask these questions, and my voice came out gaspy and breathless.
“No,” he said. “I don’t. She made her choices and no doubt she’s taking the consequences, somewhere. I don’t think about her and I don’t talk about her. Now get out!” He picked up some papers from his desk and began looking at them. He didn’t look at me. After a moment, I left.
What readers have said:
- “… it is beautifully written, with descriptive passages that are a joy to read. Some of the paranormal passages are particularly memorable. ”
- “I love character driven stories and I found book 3 incredibly satisfying. It’s not often that all the parts of an over-arching story are equally good. These are. Very good.”
- “The adult Herbert explores love and experiences loss and learns to see beauty. I came to care for him so much that he will stay with me many years I’m sure.”
Islands of the Gulf Volume 2, The Treasure is available from:
Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.