paranormal fiction

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:

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  • “… 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 #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.

Vampires, Heavy Metal and — Marionettes? : C Harrison’s We Are Toten Herzen and The One Rule of Magic

The explosion of books by indie authors has created an embarrassment of riches for readers. There’s no reason not to venture out of one’s comfort genre and read something unfamiliar. I’m not a fan of rock music, and haven’t been too taken by vampires in fiction either, but Chris Harrison’s blog, The Opening Sentence, opened the way to an interesting reading experience. His Smashwords interview is also worth reading.

we-are-toten-herzen

Harrison has written several books about the mysterious heavy metal band called Toten Herzen. The first in the series is We Are Toten Herzen. Here is the plot summary:

In 1977 all four members of the rock band Toten Herzen were murdered. Thirty five years later an investigation by British music journalist Rob Wallet led him to discover the band still alive in a remote village in southern Germany. He persuaded them to make a comeback. Hoax or strange reality? Find out in the only official account of Toten Herzen’s long awaited reappearance.

Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Well, it isn’t. The narrative swirls from place to place and decade to decade. A scene in which the reader is closeted with the band members (three formidable women and one understated guy), is followed by a flurry of tweets and news reports. Twenty-first century music biz honchos have to work out a modus operandi with folks from the 1970s who are pretty touchy about criticism and have their own ways of getting things done — ways that aren’t always pretty. Then there are flashbacks to the band members’ origins and the forces that created Toten Herzen. Rumors abound and tension builds as the first concert of the comeback tour approaches.

Harrison creates memorable scenes with masterly prose and what seems to be a thorough knowledge of the music business. I have to say, I didn’t find the characters terribly likable (they’re definitely not “sparkly” vampires), but they are certainly not cardboard cutouts. Rob Wallet, sometime journalist and general hanger-on, is an odd duck. He has clearly thrown in his lot with the band, but isn’t really “of” them. For the reader, he serves as a point of view character, furnishing “insider” views of the secretive, night-loving band. At times I found myself thinking he was a fictional version of the author, making an appearance in his own book the way Alfred Hitchcock used to show up in his movies. (But I may be wrong).

the-one-rule-of-magic

Curiouser and (to me) more entertaining, is The One Rule of Magic, a book whose main character has something in common with the members of Toten Herzen, and inhabits the same world (she’s a friend of Rob Wallet’s), but is engaged in a different sort of comeback.

Here is the plot summary:

Frieda Schoenhofer is dead, murdered in Rotterdam. For her grief-stricken parents the true story of their daughter’s life is about to begin.

Her father, slowly demolishing the world around him, tries to eradicate painful memories by throwing out his lifelong collection of film memorabilia. Her mother is convinced Frieda has been reincarnated as a new born foal.

But Frieda isn’t dead. She is travelling Europe hoping to rescue her father’s discarded collection. A journey of redemption that takes her to Nice, Prague, Turin and Vienna, where she meets a crooked dealer in antique silverware, joins a funeral party full of mourners who can’t stop laughing, falls in love with a beautiful marionette, and discovers a plan to destroy the legacy of Mozart.

The One Rule of Magic explores Frieda’s attempts to make amends for the crimes of her old life, come to terms with what she has become, and prepare her parents for the bizarre truth surrounding their daughter’s disappearance.

The book is charming as well as bizarre. Frieda’s quest for her father’s film memorabilia takes her to a variety of places and situations, some of them dire and others just weird. I found it a bit odd that anyone should pursue relentlessly things like hats, overalls and model skeletons, but of course it’s obsession that drives the serious collector, or, in this case, the collector-by-proxy. The items had all appeared in well-known movies, and were unique. Frieda’s odyssey started to intrigue me; by the time she hit Prague I had warmed up to her and sympathized with her mission. A surprise twist near the end provided extra payoff for reading this book.