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:
- “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:
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.