Why does a song or staring up at the stars spark that creative impulse? The urge to create...something. Why do ideas lose energy? Why do we wake up in the middle of the night with a bit of dialog or the solution to a plot point?
Why ask why?
Anyway, I've been working on Ill Met By Moonlight. I'm enjoying it, I'm making progress...it's slow going because it's painstaking work. I have to constantly check my facts (I almost goofed on a Batman reference the other day). And even more important than the facts: getting the right feel, the right mood, the right voice, the right mindset. Historical fiction is a genre that attracts, even breeds pedants. Writers who will sacrifice plot and character for a chance to show off how much they know about buttons or legal procedures in the 1700s. I don't want to be that writer.
So I'm enjoying the work, enjoying the story, I'm immersed in the period...and suddenly, without warning, into my head pops the idea for a short series of spooky, contemporary novellas.
Huh? Where did that come from? I have no notion, but there it is. Four interconnected novellas following the course of one year in a man's life. Spooky and funny. That was my idea -- and it's not so easy to be funny and spooky because humor undercuts spookiness and spooky...well, it's just hard to write genuinely spooky stuff.
The Haunted...Museum. Hm. No. The Haunted Heart.
Yes. That's it. A man inherits the contents of a creepy, oddball museum. It is his job to catalog and sell the items. But not all the items are that easy to catalog -- or get rid of.
So suddenly I'm working on two stories at once. In the morning I'm working on my spooky contemporary. And in the afternoon I'm working on Ill Met By Moonlight.
Here's a taste of the story that came out of nowhere.
The Haunted Heart: Winter
I didn’t see him see until it was too late.
Even if I had seen him, I’m not sure it would have made a difference. My only thought was getting downstairs and out the front door as fast as possible. It turned out the fastest means was crashing headlong into someone bigger, and letting his momentum send us both hurtling down the staircase.
My…er…companion yelled and cursed all the way down the first flight. Well, in fairness it was one long yelp and a prolonged curse. “Yooouuu’ve gotta be fu-uh-uh-uh-uh-cking kid-ding me!”
We landed in a tangle of limbs on the dusty and none-too-plushy carpet. My elbow whanged one final time into the balusters and my head banged down on the floor. I saw stars. Or maybe that was just the dust, which had probably crystallized with age.
“What the hell was that?” moaned someone from the ether.
What the hell had that been? It sure wasn’t a trick of the light. Though I’d done my best to tell myself that’s exactly what it was – and had kept telling myself that right up until the moment the figure in the mirror had tried to reach through the glass and touch me.
“Sorry about that,” I mumbled. His bare foot was planted in my gut, and I couldn’t blame him when he dug his toes in for leverage before lifting off me. “Oof!”
“What do you think you’re doing running down the stairs in the dark, in the middle of the night?”
I groped for the railing and pulled myself painfully into a sitting position. “I…thought someone was in my room.” Lying was second nature to me by now, but that was a stupid lie. I knew it, the instant the words left my mouth.
404-A – What was his name? Something Murdoch – got to his knees and gaped at me in the dingy light. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I am saying so.”
We both turned to stare up at the wide open door leading into my rooms. My lamp-lit and noticeably silent rooms.
We looked at each other.
404-A was older than me, bigger than me, shaggier than me. He had a beard and shoulder length black hair. His eyes were dark and sort of hollow looking – that was probably the lack of sleep. He looked like those old posters for Serpico, but he wasn’t a cop. He was a writer of some kind.
And a lousy guitarist. Then again, I wasn’t anyone’s ideal neighbor either. As indicated by current events.
“You think someone’s up there?” He asked me slowly, skeptically.
I weighed a possible visit from the local fuzz, and opted for resident whacko.
“I did. But…maybe I was wrong.”
“Maybe? Maybe? Why don’t we find out?” He was on his feet now, yanking his red plaid flannel bathrobe shut and retying it with a couple of hard, businesslike tugs that vaguely suggested a wish to throttle something. Without waiting to see if I was following or not, he stomped up the flight of stairs. Guiltily, I noticed he was limping.
It was actually amazing either of us hadn’t been seriously injured or even killed in that fall.
“Coming?” he threw over his shoulder.
He muttered something, and not pausing for an answer, disappeared through the doorway.
I admit I waited.
He couldn’t fail to see the mirror first thing. It was as tall as I was, oval, mounted on an ornate ormolu frame. It stood propped against a Chinese black lacquer curio cabinet. The slight angle created the effect of walking up a slanted floor to peer into its silvered surface.
A draft whispered against the back of my neck. I shivered. This old Victorian monstrosity was full of drafts. Drafts and dust. And shadows and creaks. All of them harmless. I shivered again.
Footsteps squeaked overhead. “You can come in now. There’s nobody up here,” 404-A called at last.
I let out a long breath and jogged up the stairs. The elfin faces carved in the black walnut railing winked and smirked at me as I passed.
I reached the top landing and walked into the jumble sale of my living room. My gaze fell on the mirror first thing, but the surface showed only me, tall and skinny and pale in my Woody Woodpecker boxers. My hair looked like Woody’s too, only blond, not red. Definitely standing on end, whatever the color.
“I guess I dreamed…it,” I said by way of apology.
“First time living alone?” 404-A asked dryly. He was standing right beside the mirror, his own reflection off to the side.
“Ha,” I said. “Hardly.” But come to think of it, he was right. I’d lived at home until college and then after college, I’d lived with Alan. This was my first time completely on my own. “Anyway, sorry about dragging you out of bed and knocking you down the stairs. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine.” He continued to eye me in a way that seemed a bit clinical.
Yeah. I got the message. Maybe I had dreamed it. What a relief to realize it was just a nightmare.
If only I slept.
“Come to think of it, you were already on your way up here,” I remembered.
He said bluntly, “I was going to ask you to stop pacing up and down all night. The floorboards creak.”
“Oh.” My face warmed at this rude but effective reminder that I wasn’t alone in the world. Not even this dusty and dimly lit corner of the world. “Sorry.” To be honest, I forgot he was even in the building most of the time. He was pretty quiet, other than the occasional fit of guitar picking, and it was just the two of us here at
Pitch Pine Lane. It was a big, ramshackle house,
and we were neither of us the sociable type.
I glanced at the mirror again. Just me and the edge of my neighbor’s plaid bathrobe in its shining surface. The reflection of the ceiling chandelier blazed like a sunspot in the center, obliterating most of us and the room we stood in.
I looked more closely. Had something moved in the very back of the reverse room?
404-A glanced down at the mirror and then back at me. He said, “I have to work tomorrow.”
“Sure. I didn’t realize you could hear me.”
He unbent enough to say, “I mostly can’t. Only the floorboards. Mostly at night.”
“I’ll make sure to pace in the other room.”
“Great.” He pushed away from the cabinet and headed for the door. “I’ll let you get back to it.”
His reflection crossed the mirror’s surface, large bare feet, ragged Levi’s beneath the hem of the bathrobe.
“Night,” I said absently. I remembered to ask, “What’s your name again?”
“Murdoch. Kirk Murdoch.”
“Right. Night, Kirk.”
I watched the mirrored reflection of the door closing quietly behind him.