Reading

The Herbert West Series blog header, blue, purple, and pink with Mercurius symbol

November Novel #4

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 final book in the series is Hunting the Phoenix.

Journalist Alma Halsey chases the story of a lifetime to Providence, Rhode Island and finds more than she expected – an old lover, Charles Milburn, and an old adversary, renegade physician Herbert West, living under the name Francis Dexter. Fire throws her into proximity with them both, rekindling romance and completing a great transformation.

In writing The Friendship of Mortals, I wasn’t sure what to do with Charles Milburn’s girlfriend, Alma. I sent her off to be an ambulance driver in the Great War, after which she became a journalist in Boston and New York City. To compensate, I decided she would be the narrator of Hunting the Phoenix, in which Herbert West/Francis Dexter’s story ends. Before that, Alma rediscovers her poetic talents as well as shocking things about Charles, Herbert, and herself.
In this final book, the theme of alchemy as a symbol of transformation is evident, both in the titles of the five parts and in the narrative itself.

This scene is from the section titled “Calcination.” It’s followed by one of Alma’s poems.


I woke up so suddenly that the dream I was dreaming came with me. I had to save my brother Danforth from taking off in his homemade flying machine and falling to his death. To do that, I had to figure out the plans for it that he’d left in his room. I had to read them aloud to the wind, so the wind would know how to help him. There were so many papers! They kept re-shuffling themselves as I scrabbled through them. I would catch a glimpse of the drawing I needed – the machine drawn in blue ink and Dan’s neat block capitals labelling the parts. My fingers grasped it as it flipped past, and I began to slide it out from the other papers. But to my horror, the ink was crumbling, shifting into other shapes that meant nothing. If I couldn’t preserve it, I couldn’t read it, and Dan would die. I strained my eyes. “Aileron,” I stammered. “Flange. Wing control lever. Strut.”

“Strut,” I muttered, coming awake. The word hung in the air as the urgency of the dream faded, to be replaced with the beginnings of relief. But instead of sliding back into sleep, I came fully awake, slowly becoming aware that something was different. Something was wrong.

There was a smell of smoke. Sometimes Jim Priddy would light a wood fire in one of the fireplaces, as a treat on a cold evening. But he hadn’t done that tonight. “No damn wood left,” he’d said. Donna Maria burned garbage in a metal drum in the back yard every few weeks. But never at night.

There was a flicker of orange light under my door. I thought I heard people shouting, far away.

I scrambled out of bed and ran to the door. The doorknob was warm and the floor was warm too, pleasantly warm to my feet. And smoke was thick around me.

Panicked, I pulled open the door. As though they had been waiting for my summons, flames leaped and rushed into my room from the inferno of the stairwell. Closing the door was impossible. I jumped back, but not quickly enough, heard an intense crackling and smelled my own hair burning. Heat enveloped me. I beat at the flames with my hands and arms. Fire seared my skin, pain shrieked through my body. The window! The window!

Rushing over to it, I fumbled with the catch. It was stuck. No use. Break the glass! Grabbing a shoe from the floor, I pounded the glass with the heel. A star of cracks appeared, but it held. Frantically, I pounded harder. The glass shattered and my hand came down on a jagged shard. Hot blood steamed in the icy air that blasted in, whirling snowflakes over my desk. The shoe fell from my hand, teetered for a second on the outside ledge, was gone. I grabbed a towel from the back of a chair, wrapped my bleeding hand in it and thumped out the remaining shards from the frame.

Behind me flames capered, feeding joyously on the fresh air. Time to go, Alma! Thought fragments whipped through my brain like bullets. Bathrobe? No time. Coat? No time. Slippers? No time. Shoe gone. My notes? My notes! They’re in several piles, all over my desk. I start to gather them up.

Stupid Alma! Stupid!

But I’ve got to –

Go, you fool! Go!

The room is full of fire. There’s no more room for me. Too late – the hem of my nightgown is on fire. Monstrous pain screams up my legs. Clawing frantically at the garment, I tear it off and scramble naked over the desk, scattering papers to the flames. My hand catches on something solid and I clutch it as I push myself through the window, feeling a long tear on my left thigh from an up-pointing glass fragment. The house has teeth, it’s fighting back. But it should bite the fire, not me!

Now I’m on the edge, on the ledge, the very edge, a tiny balcony, just wide enough for me to crouch on. I’m still burning; soon I’ll be a torch. There’s no fire escape. (“Oh, there was a ladder once,” Donna Maria had said, “but it got rotten. I’ll get Jim to make another one in the spring.” Yes, Maria, but I need it now). It’s a long way down, to black and white studded with faces looking up. Their mouths move, yelling things I can’t hear. A siren wails and wails. I know, I know it’s burning! You don’t have to make all that noise!

The fire is done with my room. Now it’s coming for me. No more time, Alma.

I stand up. What a Juliet I am! There’s no Romeo here and this isn’t a nightingale night. Snowflakes swirl around me, turning orange from the flames. Or maybe they’re sparks. Orange flowers in the air. The wind howls. The mouths below me howl. The fire talks to itself, smacking its lips as it eats the house. I’m alone. This is no place to be. I clutch my hands around the only thing I’m taking with me – square, smooth, hard. Is that Charles down there? His face is like a flesh-coloured flower. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I see his lips moving.

Closer to you soon, Charles.

The fire gives me one last shove and I’m in the air, snowflakes all around me, swirling themselves into a net, holding me up. So this is what it’s like inside the star globe! But where’s my unicorn?

A long rush, a hard thud. Then nothing.


Once I built with wood,
Stone, steel, bricks, cement–
Heavy, straight, squared off and carefully measured.
A life for a lifetime, solid and strong
And all my own.
My house of life.

I did not think it could be so easily destroyed,
Corroded by resentment,
Weakened by desires deferred, ambitions unrealized,
Split by ambivalence
And burned, burned, burned.

Rebuild now?
I have no materials,
My tools are gone to rust,
Mud, air, the water of my tears,
The sulfur of solitude,
And the salt of sorrow.

These are my matter,
But I have no formula,
No vessel except myself.
I need a catalyst.
I need magic, a secret fire.

Is there a magician in this house of night?


What readers have said:

double quotation mark open
  • “… the culmination of the final book is exactly what it should be: tragic, but beautiful. I wish there was more, the story was brilliant.”
  • “I absolutely loved this series. Beautifully written and unpredictable. At times both heart pounding and heart breaking.”
  • “I really wish I could give ‘Hunting the Phoenix’ a 10 out of 5 but even my limited math knows that’s impossible. Suffice to say that this book, in fact the whole series, is as close to perfect as a story can get. It joins a relatively short list of books, including Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, that I consider to be exceptional, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants /more/.”
  • “A noteworthy aspect of this book is the author’s skill in evocative description. She really knows how to set a scene and create a mood; furthermore characters appear, take shape, and are molded in front of your very eyes.”

Hunting the Phoenix is available from:

Amazon: US UK CA AU DE

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

This is the last of four posts about the Herbert West novels. Here are links to the first three: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.

The Herbert West Series blog header, blue, purple, and pink with Mercurius symbol

November Novel #3

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:

double quotation mark open
  • “… 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:

Amazon US UK CA AU DE

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

This is the third of four posts about the Herbert West novels. Here are links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.

The Herbert West Series blog header, blue, purple, and pink with Mercurius symbol

November Novel #2

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!

Next comes Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey

Once, he was Herbert West, superlative surgeon and revivifier of the dead. Now he’s lost his reputation, his country and his name. Rebuilding his life as a country doctor on Bellefleur Island, he struggles with doubts, emotional entanglements and terrible memories of the Great War. Above all, he must forge a new relationship with his old adversary – death – and negotiate with a new one – love.

When I finished writing The Friendship of Mortals, I couldn’t let go of the story. As one of the reviews I quoted says, it ends with something like a cliffhanger. I also decided to move the action to my part of the world — the west coast of Canada, specifically the Gulf Islands. I invented a fictional island and people to live on it, and sent Herbert West (under an assumed name) on a long journey to that destination. As other reviews (see below) point out, this novel is about relationships and personal choices, rather than the supernatural.

The novel has two narrators, Andre Boudreau and Margaret Bellgarde. Here is an excerpt from each of them.


I don’t have memories of my childhood. My first memories are of blackness. I came out of blackness. I was a very small thing, a little spark in the blackness. That was all, for a long time.

Then I began to see. Only for short moments, like when there’s lightning at night. Except it was slow lightning. I’d open my eyes and see things, but I didn’t know what they were. Now I think they were the roof of a tent, the inside of a train, the ceiling of some building. A face. Another face. Faces coming and going. Sometimes I heard groans, screams, someone praying in words I couldn’t understand. Maybe it was me. I couldn’t feel anything, though. There was no pain. I wasn’t even cold. Then the darkness again, for I don’t know how long. It wasn’t really me who saw and heard these things, just a little part of me acting like a scout for the rest, which was back in the blackness, waiting for the scout to report so it could decide what to do next.

There was one picture clearer than the rest – I saw the angel of death standing before me. He was beautiful and terrible – all white and silver, with eyes like ice. He looked at me for a long time and said, “No. Not this one. He’s already dead.” So I thought, “There’s no need to hold on anymore,” and let myself slide back into the blackness. As I went I said goodbye to everything – my childhood, family, comrades, my newly hatched young man’s ambitions and lusts. I wasn’t going to go back to New Brunswick after the war to show them how things worked in the big world. Goodbye, everyone. Goodbye Maman, Papa, Nicholas, Michel, Roger, Paulette, Marguerite, sweet little Louise. Goodbye, Grassadoo, goodbye Andre. Short but sweet, it was. Now it’s all gone.

I don’t know how long it lasted. I don’t think I’ll ever know. But it was nothing. There was no “I” any more. It’s like trying to think of what there was, before there was anything. Before God made the world there was nothing, they say. But there was –  No, nothing. My mind can’t think this thing. So I say only: there was nothing.

Then, my first new memory. It was only a feeling. Hot, like fire. Fire was running all through me. I was a man made of fire and heat, my shape burning a hole in the nothing. A red mist swirled through my head and I could feel my heart pumping. No, being pumped, by something outside me. It was like a machine had taken over and was running me, running too hard and hot and jerky. It felt dangerous. It felt wrong. It was worse than dying. I was terribly afraid. Maybe I was in Hell and this would go on forever.

Then I opened my eyes. No, that wasn’t it. My eyes were opened, like somebody pulled a string. Light stabbed into my head, and the pain it made joined the heat in my body. I saw the angel again and thought, “I must be in Heaven. But why does everything hurt, and why am I so afraid?”

He was different now, not like the death angel I saw before. He was white and golden now. There was a brightness behind his head, and his strange bright eyes seemed to look right into my soul. I was still afraid, but I could feel his hands touching me, cooling the heat in my body. Then I was in a river, moving faster and faster. Was I going to drown? I didn’t care any more. It was too much trouble to care. I closed my eyes and gave up. If the angel wanted to, he would save me. If not, it didn’t matter.


The first time I saw him I thought he was my husband. Which was absurd, of course, because by then Richard had been dead for nearly ten years – Richard Bellgarde, the man I married, who brought me to Bellefleur. But the evening before I had seen a perfect little silver crescent moon floating over the house – just like the one over the old London houses the night we met. So an unthinking part of me must have expected to see Richard as well.

That day in April of 1926, when the Captain came back from Victoria, I was on the dock, along with Joe the handyman. A couple of men from the farm were there too, and the usual collection of boys who should have been in school, but had escaped early to hang around the dock in case something interesting happened.

As the launch came closer, I could distinguish the four men aboard – Todd at the wheel as usual, and the Captain close by him. He rarely steered a boat, but was generally ‘on the bridge,’ a hold-over from his seafaring days. A little apart from them were a short, dark-haired fellow and – it’s Richard! I thought, even though I knew that was impossible. But for a moment there was such a resemblance – the way he held his head, his bright hair ruffled by the breeze. Almost I could see the smile in his eyes, the one he saved for me alone.

These notions vanished in the time it took to dock the launch and make her fast. I could see then that any resemblance between Francis Dexter and my dead husband was a fleeting and illusory one. Dexter was rather short, not very much taller than I. As he and the Captain approached me, I thought that he was quite young, not much over thirty. His face had a sculptured fineness that created an impression of youth and delicacy.

But there was nothing delicate about the way he gripped my hand, after a brief awkward moment when it seemed he was about to offer his left but changed quickly to his right. His eyes looked straight into mine for a few seconds that banished forever any idea of a resemblance to Richard. For they were grey eyes, not blue, a strange light colour I found disconcerting, even as I was charmed by the contrast of long dark lashes and finely drawn brows. If he reminded me of anyone, it was my son Alex, who has a way of looking at me sometimes that seems to go beyond the eyes and finds a way straight into my unspoken thoughts. This man had the same sort of gaze.

Feeling uncomfortable, I distracted myself by paying attention to his general appearance while we exchanged the conventional amenities. He wore a tweed suit, old and weathered, but obviously of excellent cut and quality. The buttons, however, were of bone, rather coarse, suggesting that the originals had been replaced for some reason. His boots and hat appeared to have been of the first quality when new, but had been subjected to long, perhaps hard wear.

His voice was rather soft, or perhaps it was only his American accent that made it seem so, to ears more familiar with the King’s English spoken by people anxious to maintain it at all costs in this land so distant from the mother country. At close quarters I could see that he wasn’t as young as I had first thought – nearer forty than thirty, judging by the lines around his mouth and eyes, and the gold-rimmed spectacles he wore.

He struck me as someone who had come down in the world, yet he wasn’t another remittance man, or one more of the marginal types so often attracted to our part of the world. He didn’t have the look. There was something about him that reminded me of the missionaries we sometimes entertained on Bellefleur – a deliberate renunciation of comforts for a greater purpose. But that wasn’t quite it either. I wondered who he was, exactly, and why the Captain had invited him to stay with us. Walking toward the house with them, I made a mental list of things that would have to be done to accommodate this guest, and wondered how long he would stay.

“Are you on holiday, Dr. Dexter?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” he said. “A journey, rather. One without a destination as yet.”


What readers have said:

double quotation mark open
  • “Islands of the Gulf-Part I slipped down like fine sherry … Beware, though, reader, there’s more than a bit of Patricia Highsmith in Ms. Driscoll, and her heroes–like the Talented Mr. Ripley– have a dark side.”
  • “The characters are compelling and the plot is a page-turner!”
  • “Hardcore HPL fans might be disappointed … However, this is a terrific novel in its own right–one of the better works of literary fiction I’ve read. I repeatedly thought of Steinbeck as I read it, specifically “East of Eden”. Like that book, it’s long–sometimes meandering–but it always commands the reader’s interest with its sweeping narrative and gorgeous prose.”
  • “… this one really kept me up at night as the character of Herbert West continued to evolve and /change/. I particularly liked seeing Herbert West aka Francis Dexter through the eyes of Margaret, the narrator of the second half of the book.”

Islands of the Gulf Volume 1, The Journey is available from:

Amazon US UK CA AU DE

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

This is the second of four parts. Here is the link to Part 1

Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.

The Herbert West Series blog header, blue, purple, and pink with Mercurius symbol

November Novel #1

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!

First up, The Friendship of Mortals.

Herbert West can revivify the dead – after a fashion. Miskatonic University librarian Charles Milburn agrees to help him, compromising his principles and his romance with Alma Halsey, daughter of the Dean of Medicine. West’s experiments become increasingly risky, but when he prepares to cross the ultimate border, only Charles can save his life – if his conscience lets him.

The novel was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Don’t ask me why. Something about the premise (scientific reanimation of the dead), the setting (HPL’s fictional Miskatonic University), and the nameless narrator kept niggling at me. I wanted to create something using those elements, with a few of my own added. I gave the narrator a name (Charles Milburn) and a profession (cataloguer at the Miskatonic University Library). In November 2000, those sparks turned into a blaze.

Here is an excerpt from Chapter 3


Alma lived in a curious little apartment at the top of a house on French Hill Street. Although only a short distance from Arkham’s best neighbourhoods, the area was showing signs of decline. Many of the houses had been turned into apartment buildings. Paint had faded and peeled, and efforts to conceal small blights such as ash cans and laundry lines were flagging. It was as though the waterfront slum to the north had thrown out a tentacle and induced a subtle decay.

Alma’s place was furnished in a style which could be described only as eclectic, but the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. No less so was Alma herself, wearing a kind of smock over her skirt and blouse, her hair tied back with a ribbon.

She motioned me to a cushion-laden sofa and went to make tea while I admired the way she had accommodated the comforts of life in the small space at her disposal. Her home resembled a ship’s cabin, afloat on the sea of leaves visible through the windows.

Once she had furnished me with a cup of tea fragrant with honey, Alma lost no time in pressing me for more details about my dinner with Herbert West.

“What did he want from you, anyway?”

“What makes you so sure he wanted something? Besides someone to share a meal with, I mean. He’d just finished exams, he said, and wanted to celebrate.”

“Hmm. From what I know of Mr. West he is not usually given to such spontaneous conviviality.”

“He didn’t seem to want anything much, really, just to talk about… well, his studies and that sort of thing.”

Alma looked unconvinced. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s softening you up for something.”

“What do you have against Herbert West, anyway?” I asked. “It was quite plain to me from the moment we met him at the concert that you don’t care for him.”

“You’re quite right there. I don’t like him. I think he’s unscrupulous and devious. And a real manipulator. Look at the effect he’s had on you, for example.”

“What effect?”

“Well, I think you’re quite impressed. I do admit he is very attractive. But make no mistake, he’s entirely self-centred. And cold as ice.”

I was beginning to think that Alma’s aversion to West was rooted in nothing more than some sort of romantic connection gone wrong. She quickly dispelled this notion, however.

“Oh, don’t think I dislike him because he rejected my charms, or something silly like that. He’s not my type, for one thing. I’ve had very little to do with him, but I’ve heard quite a lot, from Papa and others at the Med. School.”

“So what is it you’ve heard?” I asked.

She looked serious. “That’s why I asked you here, actually, Charles. To tell you what I know about Herbert West so you have something to counterbalance your romantic notions. Because I still think he sought you out with some purpose in mind.”

“Sought me out? But he just happened to be at that concert – ”

“Never mind all that. Just listen.”

I listened.

Herbert West had gained admission to the Miskatonic University Medical School some three years previously, Alma said, having first obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry. In short order he began to make a nuisance of himself by proposing wild theories about the reversibility of death, and worse, carrying out bizarre and unauthorized experiments on animals in the Medical School’s laboratories. It was this latter habit that had caused the college authorities to step in and threaten to restrict his laboratory privileges.

“Why?” I interjected. “Was he breaking the law – stealing people’s pet dogs and cats, for example?”

“Well, no,” Alma answered, “but there was something undisciplined and unstructured about his carryings on. They weren’t part of a program of rational study, which is what first and second year medical students are supposed to be engaged in. They aren’t expected to do original research at that stage, for God’s sake.”

I reflected that for whosever sake West did his experiments, it wasn’t God’s. Aloud I said,

“It sounds to me as though they were out of their depth with him. Did it ever occur to anyone that he might be the medical equivalent of a prodigy? Like that young fellow we heard playing the violin the other night.”

“Oh Charles,” Alma said, shaking her head, “it’s quite obvious that West did a good job of impressing you. I’m probably wasting my breath. But he didn’t stop at cats and dogs, however legitimately acquired.

“He got a dead human body from somewhere. Probably one of his father’s mortuaries. This would have been the fall before last – October or thereabouts. He’d been told to stop his animal experiments by a certain date, or else. So I guess he got desperate and decided to try a human being.” She shook her head again. “Such a waste of his talents. Papa says he’s really very competent at his normal studies.”

I refrained from pointing out that this could be another indication that the good professor-doctors of the Medical School simply didn’t know what to do with the cuckoo in their nest.

“Anyway,” Alma continued, “he got this corpse into the lab somehow, late at night, of course. He’d bribed the night watchman not to report him. First and second year students aren’t allowed into the labs at night, you see.”

West had also smuggled into the lab some sort of apparatus which he had connected to the corpse. He was engaged in pumping a fluid into it when he was discovered.

“It was bizarre and horrible to see, apparently,” said Alma. “It looked as though he’d had an accident with the equipment. A tube had burst, or something. When Papa and Dr. Hobson got there the place looked like a slaughterhouse – blood everywhere – the ‘patient’s’ blood, of course, and all over West too. There he was, blood all over that pretty face of his, but cool as can be, and laughing! That’s what really bothered them.”

I nearly laughed myself, realizing that this description of the scene neither surprised nor shocked me. In fact, it was exactly what I would have expected of the Herbert West I had begun to know. I wondered what had prompted his laughter. The experiment had failed, of course, so it must have been ironic amusement at the outrage of those whom he believed to be willfully ignorant.

“How did your father happen to know that West was in the laboratory that night?” I asked.

She looked uneasy. “I think someone tipped him off. Another student, maybe.” She didn’t go so far as to suggest that West had been watched, but I remembered what he had said about betrayal.

“Anyway, the next day Papa called West on the carpet and told him he had one chance to redeem himself. And he was forbidden to use any laboratory at the Medical School except under close supervision, for his course work only, for the remainder of the year.” She paused. “That seems pretty lenient to me, considering that he was already under threat of suspension. I wouldn’t be surprised if West senior weighed in with the senior college administration to smooth things over for his boy.”

“Yes, what about Hiram West?” I asked. “His son seemed rather ambivalent about him.”

“Really? A point in his favour, there. Hiram’s a typical businessman, in most ways. Into every kind of enterprise, and filthy rich. But none too scrupulous, if what I’ve heard is true. The thing is, he’s the sort of person that could be persuaded to be a major benefactor of Miskatonic. So it’s not really in the interests of the college to discipline his son too harshly. And in your case it’s another reason to be careful.”

“I hardly think I’ll ever pose any threat to Hiram West,” I said. “Really, Alma, you’re taking all this much too seriously. I admit I find West a rather interesting type, but our paths aren’t likely to cross very often, after all.”

“I hope not, for your sake. I have a bad feeling about that young man.”

“And this young man?” I asked, feeling suddenly playful. “What sort of feeling do you have about him?”

She regarded me with her head tilted to one side, a little smile on her lips. “Oh, I think he’s a very nice young man. I quite enjoy his company. Seriously, Charles, I do. I’m glad you came to Miskatonic.”

We went on then to talk about other things, including Alma’s ideas about the ‘new woman.’ She felt very strongly that young women should be encouraged to leave their parents’ homes and support themselves for a while before they married.

“Otherwise the poor things are perfectly helpless, aside from housekeeping and looking after children. And so dull, too.”

“You are surely an example of the other kind of woman, then, Alma. There’s nothing dull about you.”

“I hope not,” she said, looking pleased.

We parted in this mood of friendly bantering. But walking homeward, I knew that my mind was operating on two levels. On one, I was developing a closeness with Alma that I found pleasing and gratifying. On the other, I was ready to throw myself heart and soul into whatever adventures I could find in the proximity of Herbert West. It was as though I stood in a house looking out through two different windows. From one I saw a warm and sunlit meadow, humming with bees, from the other a black sky blazing with unknown stars.


What readers have said:

  • “Herbert West alarmed, enchanted, and terrified me all at once.”
  • “An extremely clever and skillfully written reimagining of Lovecraft’s episodic Herbert West stories.”
  • “Driscoll weaves a believable and intriguing tale, with sympathetic characters despite their skewed moral compass.”
  • “Wordy but good. I thought I’d never get through it, but it was worth it…even though it sets you up with a cliffhanger at the end!”
  • “It starts off slow and builds and builds and builds until it’s a wild affirmation of life and love.”

The Friendship of Mortals is available from:

Amazon: US UK CA AU DE

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

Header image by Audrey Driscoll using Canva. Book cover image by Damonza.

It’s the Reading Experience, Silly!

I can’t seem to shake off the subject of book reviews and ratings, maybe because I deal with it every time I finish reading a book. After my latest thoughts on what I called a “murky business,” I had a light bulb moment.

It’s not the book I’m rating, it’s my experience of reading the book.

That’s why a reader can give the same number of stars to Homer’s Iliad and a cozy mystery. That’s why one reader gives a literary award-winner five stars, while another honestly believes it deserves only one.

Every reader brings different preferences, moods, and expectations to their interactions with books. These of necessity influence their reading experiences — and their ratings.

The comments that go with the rating should explain it, perhaps citing typos and errors, pretentiousness, flat characters, or failure to engage. Or maybe a gripping plot, poetic prose, or characters so real they almost step off the page.

Those of you to whom all this is blindingly obvious may stop laughing now (but do leave a comment).

Images from Pixabay

Launch day for Eternity Began Tomorrow!

Here’s Kevin Brennan’s latest book — topical and timely!

WHAT THE HELL

Eternity Began Tomorrow is now live on Amazon.com and available as a Kindle book for $2.99.

I’ve already told you that this book is quite a departure for me. It’s a political thriller. Or at least that’s the closest category I could find for it, considering that it touches on all kinds of themes and has the sniff of literary fiction about it too.

Once again, I try my hand here at a first-person female protagonist, the indefatigable Mollie “Blazes” Bolan. Usually when I use a female pov, whether first person or third person, it’s because the character really speaks to me somehow, in a voice that can’t be mistaken for a man’s. Almost always they’re idiosyncratic or sui generis enough that people can’t say “he can’t write female characters worth poo!” I write individual characters, so my Blazes Bolan, my Sally Pavlou (Fascination), and my Sarah Phelan…

View original post 524 more words

Book Review: The Selected Poems of K. Morris

As the author’s preface states, the poems in this substantial collection are drawn from six books published between 2013 and 2019. They are grouped into four sections: Time and Mortality, Nature, Love and Sensuality, Progress and Human Nature.

The Time and Mortality section occupies half the book. Clearly, this subject preoccupies the poet as he moves through his days. Images of clocks abound, along with churchyards, repetitive sounds, and episodes of light and shadow. Many of these poems are quite similar to one another, differing only in details, as though their author is carefully examining the theme’s every facet. The tone is one of quiet acceptance that has moved beyond despair. “Death Is Dead” presents an oblique view, suggesting that if we lived forever, we would bore each other to… Oh, I get it! Writers especially may relate to several poems, for example, “Why Do I Write?” and its resolve to make “A light that glimmers / In the dark / Illumining the human heart.”

In Section 2, Nature, an awareness of mortality is also present, but the focus here is a sense of nature’s benign indifference, which is somehow comforting. “Standing Under this Rain Drenched Tree” begins with the poet listening to whispering leaves but ends humorously with a sneeze.

Section 3, Love and Sensuality, moves from fleeting glimpses of beauty in “Ethereal” and “Chiffon,” to the wry humour of “Unrequited” and “Girls In Unsuitable Shoes.” “Birds That Fly” is especially fine, subtle and poignant. Even with these differences in tone, the themes of passing time and the insignificance of individual lives are present. Love and lust, while crucial to individual humans, do not greatly affect the turning of the world.

The poems of Section 4, Progress and Human Nature, display a mixture of cynicism, acceptance, and even appreciation of humanity despite its faults. The final line of “Dark and Light” is interesting. “Mourn not, for there can be no dark without the light.” Some might expect these opposites to be reversed.

The poems are short, rarely more than a page and often only a handful of lines. Rhyme is present in all, deliberately structured and crafted. The rhythms are often choppy, perhaps echoing those ticking clocks.

In his preface, the author says he believes the poems in this collection are his best works. They show how a poet may abstract himself from the whirl of life and view it from a philosophical perspective, and then embody his observations in brief and eloquent verse to share with readers. The book is perfect for the reader who wants to dip in for a few pithy observations on life and death, or simply to admire the poet’s dexterity with words.

This review is based on a copy of the book provided by the author.

Book Reviewing: a Murky Business

Continuing the theme of reading I started a few weeks ago, I decided to revisit the topic of book reviews. They are so important to writers, both for book sales and validation. These thoughts were prompted by other bloggers’ opinions about and experiences with reviewing books. While readers’ comments on books may seem essentially genteel and harmless, book reviews can stir up some visceral emotions. For a couple of examples, just Google “the greek seaman” or “author stalks reviewer.”

Hoping that “if you give, you get” applies to book reviews, I resolved some time ago to write a sincere, thoughtful review of every indie book I read. I would post the reviews on Goodreads, and also on Amazon or Smashwords, depending on where I acquired the book.

I’ve found it’s easier to make this resolution than keep it. Reviews are best written right after finishing a book, but if I’m tired or distracted I don’t do it. Then I start reading something else; days go by, weeks go by and the review is unwritten. Even for books I really liked, that deserve a favourable review. Sometimes those reviews are never written.

Then there’s the DNF book, the one I give up on because it’s poorly written or just doesn’t interest me. My policy is not to review books I haven’t read from start to finish. It’s not always the book’s fault.

That brings us to the star ratings that accompany reviews. So far, I’ve written no one- or two-star reviews. Many think they are unnecessarily harsh and punitive and should be avoided. That leaves only 3, 4, or 5 stars, otherwise known as OK, Good, or Excellent. That’s a pretty narrow range.

I reserve five stars for books I love so much I think it’s likely I’ll read them again. If I want to buy myself a copy, especially a print one, after reading a book from the library or an ebook, that’s definitely a 5-star.

I give 4 stars to books that are reasonably well-written and interesting but fall just short of great because of what I call lumpy writing — awkward sentences and scene transitions or too many typos. Or, for some intangible reason, I just don’t think it’s a great book (subjectivity strikes again).

Three stars are for books I make myself finish only because I’ve committed myself to reading them, constantly checking the number of pages remaining. (Thinking back to comments on a recent post about reading, I might call these “life is too short” books and give up on them. Which means no review.) Three stars also go to books that aren’t bad but pretty much disappear from my conscious mind right after I read the last word. In other words, “Meh.”

And then there’s the question of whether it’s even possible to boil our thoughts about books down to a number. That’s why an actual review is helpful; it’s a place to explain the rating.

Something else that bothers me is too many of the “reviews” I write are just off-the-cuff remarks with little or no structure or planning. I think that’s how most readers write their reviews, although I sometimes see long, detailed, and serious reviews that make me think I ought to do a better job with mine. Which reminds me — a plot summary is not a review. The “blurb” or book description already provides as much of that as the reader needs and you want to avoid spoilers. So just say what you like or dislike about the book.

The hardest review to write is the less-than-enthusiastic one for a book whose author I’m acquainted with, if only through blogging. It’s like telling a friend their book is less than great. I consider some of those bloggers to be friends; the only difference is I don’t have to look them in the eye while delivering the bad news. Depending on the personalities and relationships involved, the best approach might be to send a private email rather than post a public review/rating.

What might happen if no one wrote negative reviews or never tagged books with one or two stars? Three stars might become the default “bad” rating. Come to think of it, some authors get upset at those already. And if the only reviews were positive ones, what would that say about books with no reviews? Some potential readers might dismiss them as no good, while the truth may be that those books were never read by anyone, or their readers were too lazy or preoccupied to bother posting reviews. Innocent books condemned without due process!

Maybe the “positive reviews only” practice is just a cop-out. It’s much easier to say nice things than critical ones. While it is possible to write a thoughtful, helpful, critical review, it does take more work than a positive one. If a reader is too busy/tired/distracted to write a even a positive review, they certainly aren’t going to attempt a negative but helpful one.

The best reviews, in my opinion, are nuanced. Positive but not wildly enthusiastic. Critical but not unqualified condemnations. I’ve actually been motivated to seek out and read certain books because critical reviews of them intrigued me.

Like so many other aspects of writing, book reviewing is complicated and there’s no easy formula. Nevertheless, knowing how important reviews are to authors, I will continue to write and post them.

Your turn, bloggers — what are your thoughts on reviews and ratings?

Image by olekowy from Pixabay

Reading Like a Reader Is More Fun Than Reading Like a Writer

Last week I posted about too many books and too little time. Today’s topic is the reading process itself.

Years ago, when I was young, there were two kinds of reading. The first one was obligatory reading, usually for school, later for college courses. It was done at a table or desk, with notebook and pen nearby. The second was reading for pleasure. Whether I read classics, trashy paperbacks, serious novels, children’s books, or nonfiction, I didn’t need to take notes or write book reports. This kind of reading was an escape from real life.

Now that I’m a writer, reading is complicated. Thanks to all the “how to write right” blog posts I’ve read, my brain is full of rules and admonishments, things writers should do and many they must never do. For example, overuse of dialogue tags other than “said.” I just read a book whose characters murmured, muttered, and growled way too much. Another had way too many backstory info-dumps. It’s hard to enjoy reading a book if I find myself editing it.

Writers notice things like typos and punctuation issues because they’re always fretting about them in their own writings. Casual readers looking for a diversion may ignore minor issues as long as the story (plot, characters, voice) is sufficiently compelling. That could be why some poorly written books get five star ratings and rave reviews. But readers who also write and publish have trained themselves to find misspelled words and awkwardly constructed sentences. Writers notice even minor problems, and not with delight.

So what does this tell writers? The story is more important than its vehicle, but a vehicle that sputters and stops will drive discerning readers away from the story. They are more likely to abandon it rather than get out and push.

Then there’s the matter of reviews. I know how hard it is for self-published authors to accumulate reviews. I read a lot of indie authors, so therefore feel obliged to post reviews of their books, especially the ones I enjoy. But that means I can’t just let the narrative wash over me while I’m reading. If I intend to write a decent review, I have to remember details. Sometimes I even make a few notes. This reading experience looks more like work than escape.

Reviewing like a writer — is that good or bad? Maybe the person that wrote the book would appreciate reviews containing the kind of feedback they get from a critique group or editor. But then again, maybe not. The book has been written and published, after all. At that stage, all its author wants to know is whether readers like it or not. They may not appreciate another writer telling them what characters should have been removed or which darlings needed killing.

Sometimes I wish I could switch off “writer mode” when I’m reading for pleasure. On the other hand, that’s why it’s so important for published writing to be error-free. Writers, let’s give one another a frictionless, snag-free reading experience!

So, fellow bloggers (and writers): do you notice things like typos and other violations of writing rules when you’re reading for fun? Do you take the time to review the books you read? Do you see your TBR list as a source of delight or another job?

Why I’ll Never Be Well-Read

Because there are too many books. Not only the deluge of new books pouring forth from the Big 5 publishers, small presses, and millions of indies, but all the worthwhile books produced since humans began writing. If I take the time to read a really old book (like Homer’s Iliad, for example) I feel like I’m going to miss a lot of new books. Book FOMO — how silly! Actually, I doubt that anyone can keep up with even a fraction of all the new books, or predict which ones will become classics. So I’m resigned to being spottily well-read. Half-decently read, maybe.

Categories of Books

  • Old, even ancient classics, called by some the “literary canon”
  • Current literary award winners: Booker, Giller, Pulitzer, etc.
  • Books “everyone’s talking about,” many of which have been made into movies
  • Obscure trad-pubbed books
  • Indie books (many of which are obscure)
  • Books that simply must be re-read

At present, I read mainly indie authors, some of whom I’ve met through blogging. I’ve discovered some wonderful authors whose books I will likely re-read. (There’s another dilemma — read old favourites again or abandon them in favour of the new and untried?) But quality does vary; despite reader reviews, there’s no guarantee that every book I pick up will be compelling and memorable. Ebooks are cheap and even free; their true cost is the time needed to read them.

There’s no hope I’ll ever be able to get through any literary canon. My plan for however many years I have left with a functioning brain is to stop worrying about being well-read and just read as many good books as I can. The trick is not to waste time on duds* of any sort, including “duty reads.” “It’s an award winner!” “It has a zillion 5-star reviews!” “The movie won an Oscar!” and “The author is a real sweetie,” aren’t reasons enough to keep reading if the first chapter or two (plus flipping ahead) don’t grab my attention or otherwise fail to entice me.

What about you, fellow bloggers? Do you make yourself read to the last page of a book even when your reading self tells you it’s a dud? And how do you pick books to read — anonymous reviews, book bloggers, word-of-mouth recommendations, or serendipity?

*Dud = any book you find repellent, boring, irrelevant, or otherwise not worth your time. A highly subjective assessment.