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.
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:
- “… 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:
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.