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Staccato House completion and preview

Coffee and energy drinks have been a valuable aid in helping me to finish my third novel this week. I am still basking in the warm glow of reaching 102,000 words after my latest editing and re-drafting. The final version has been entered into Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel competition in time for the opening of submissions this week so I will wait and see how it does in that.

I had a vague idea for “Staccato House” back in 2001 when it began life as a short story concept; it eventually evolved after a considerable passing of time into a novella of 40,000 words length which was entered into a competition last year and did reasonably well; I’ve been working on extending the novella into a novel for the past eight or nine months. I am really pleased with it from the perspective that the finished book matches the originally conceived idea and themes that I had at the beginning and I think I have made progress with my prose style. There were none of the painful processes that blighted “Copper Moon Rising” while I was attempting to batter that first book into shape- none of the drastic re-writes, editing, disposing and awkward blending of genre that I associate with that book.

“Staccato House” is not a straightforward genre novel- I claim to be a horror, fantasy and SF writer but it does not fit into any of those categories. It began life as a paranoid conspiracy thriller but it’s not fast-paced; it’s become a more ‘literary’ affair; I might classify it as a surreal psychological thriller: a literary novel of suspense and intrigue. Nathan Carr, a freelance investigative journalist, becomes over-involved in one of his cases to the point where he finds that he is drawn into a nightmare which is impossible to escape from.

There are seven (numerology is also important within the book) primary stylistic and thematic influences upon the novel : the films of Alfred Hitchcock; the novel The Magus by John Fowles; the novels of Thomas Pynchon, particularly V; the life and writings of Aleister Crowley; the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ directed by Frank Darabont (and of course as its source material, the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King); the film ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ directed by Stanley Kubrick; and finally the work of David Lynch, in particular his television series Twin Peaks.

If you read my blog regularly or know me well personally, you will know that these figures and fiction sources- both prose fiction and television/film- form some of my favourite pre-occupations. I suppose you could say that I have placed all of these influences into a cauldron, stirred them around, and hopefully in the process invented a new kind of Magic (or Magick, as Aleister Crowley might have it). The intention was not to extract anything wholesale but extend some of the ideas and apply a little of the mood, feel and atmosphere of these disparate works. I wanted the book to have an odd, dream-like quality where real life has taken a surrealistic and occasionally frightening turn. I also refer to some conspiracy theories which may have entered urban myth and popular culture, in particular those regarding the Freemasons; the Illuminati (but not in a sensationalist Dan Brown way) the Kabbalah; Scientology and also the controversies regarding the Denver International Airport. I’ve been researching conspiracy theories and the occult for the past two or three years and I wanted to attempt to subtly weave these concepts into the novel.

I include some choice extracts here from the current unpublished manuscript of the novel, a sneak preview if you will:

In reflection, I do not think there was one single moment when things suddenly changed. It was a process of deterioration in the relationship that was far more gradual, and poignant in the nature of its decay. The fire of our passions slowly extinguished, as the drizzle of uncaring time poured ice-cold water steadily upon it. Life simply became mundane and emptier. The electricity between us dulled, flowing emotions became static; the excitement and pleasure we had felt upon seeing each other and interacting with each other slowly evaporated. We had been supposed to love each other for better or worse, for richer or poorer, but suddenly we were wondering what had driven us to want to be together in the first place. We had married young: was there some resentment, particularly on her part? Was there some dawning realisation that she had sacrificed something vital for me, some aspect of her life- her necessary freedoms and desired experiences? As she had believed me worthy of such a sacrifice at the time we had met, before slowly understanding that it had been a temporary illusion, the sad deceptive folly of youth.

That was the tragedy of self-delusion: the time when cracks in the marriage produced jagged splinters, pieces of our broken hearts that when shattering could easily injure any unfortunate innocent bystanders. It was a blessing that no children were involved, only two disappointed sets of families at seeing the disintegration of what had promised to be a steady, solid marriage between a beloved son and daughter. Some were ready to point the finger and play the blame game, but we both knew that neither of us was particularly at fault for what had happened. We had believed in the ideals of love and marriage, who could blame us? We had both hoped for better, but such was the nature of life. It could not be helped.

We were married for seven years: two years of bliss, three of contentment, and two of slow, dawning understanding that our relationship had become dysfunctional. Had I become too distant? Had I been working too hard? Journalism demanded long, irregular hours from me. Occasionally, when I was at home, I had caught that disquieting look in her eyes: a distant look, a sense of disapproval perhaps, or more alarmingly, discontent. A look that was indicative of that growing, malignant sense of resentment. It was becoming reflected in her tone and expression, poisoning the once clear sparkling waters of the well of our marriage. Now, at the very end, that spring of love was a stagnant pool. There is an internal decline, manifesting itself in avoidance. Perhaps there is still the desire to see a loving smile, and feel a tender embrace, but now there is only cold awkwardness and uncomfortable silences. We move from clear blue skies into a darker, unknown twilight world. There was no sun shining on the day we signed the divorce papers, only the dreary, depressing gloom of a cloudy sky that eventually ceded into a gloomy evening. Only in the darkness of the night did the clouds break, and the moon shone down with her fiendish pale smile; a sick twisted smirk of evil triumph that taunted me while the stars beckoned me closer, to wallow in my sadness but also consider the vast, empty future before me. (Staccato House)

Even as I stood there, it seemed as if my elbows were caught by the masses of revellers and partygoers who suddenly surrounded me, and I was drawn deeper into the labyrinth of the house, swept along like flotsam and jetsam by the fierce flow of people who were well-lubricated with alcohol and speaking loudly in cheerful voices, occasionally braying laughter, their faces half-hidden or sometimes completely obscured by their Venetian masks. I saw masks which fully covered the faces of guests like white porcelain, with cut-out sockets for the eyes. I saw someone wearing a silver mask which was designed to be piratical, with a black tricorn hat as a head-piece. There were guests wearing curious hats: one gentleman, with what would have been a top hat if it were not for the square, horizontal platform balanced at the top: upon which were several stuffed animals, the work of a taxidermist. Still life on a platter. Another guest was a man in full evening dress regalia: a charcoal-grey suit and waistcoat complete with pocket-watch, walking on stilts and wearing a mask encrusted with expensive-looking gems: a giant weeping tears of diamonds. A woman was wearing a mask which looked like a golden rabbit’s head; while another worn by a female guest was gold in colour with a matching pointed queenly crown. One man wore a mask painted and designed like a court jester. There were simply a multitude of masks of various designs and colours and meanwhile I was caught within the sea of bodies, the outsider without a mask. (Staccato House)

I drove to a location I knew well, an old abandoned warehouse out on the Isle of Dogs. It was a grey, bleak afternoon. The run-down streets, the dilapidated and disused buildings and canals of this area were desolate, and a feeling of depressive gloom seemed to descend upon me. I felt as if I had entered a forgotten section of London, a part of the city left behind when the mayor and the city councils took upon themselves the difficult task of regenerating the city’s urban landscape. Instead, this place remained as it had always been since the industrial revolution- a fragment of the old London, now derelict and decaying in comparison with modern progress. It was haunted by ghosts: the apparitions of the Victorian age; the phantoms of old industry and once-thriving docklands; the dark spectre of the war years and further back. I could almost imagine the ghostly spirit of a child chimney sweep, taking to the street barefoot and clad in rags, clambering up a chimney and returning black with soot: the filth and churning pollution of the monstrous factories, these dark satanic mills.

Where once there had been mechanical and industrial forces here, apparatus that sacrificed human energy and lives beneath the steady relentless march of lumbering steel feet, there was now a vacancy: a void, occupied only by the silence of the deteriorating landscape, and a quiet yearning for what had been lost: a profitable animated mechanism that sent minds and bodies to work, leaving only the ugly scars of its declining presence behind, upon the permanently altered environment of the urban wilderness.

In such a place of fragmented vestiges, it seemed appropriate to me that I had come here, to this remote location, in order to meet a man that I considered to be a relic: a true wraith of old London, yet one who, conversely, still haunted the modern city. His power, strangely, waxed rather than waned. The criminal underworld trembled at the mention of his name.

I parked the car in an empty yard where myriad pools of stagnant, dirty water coagulated in various concrete depressions, gutters and drains. I got out of my vehicle, locked it behind me and stepped across the yard. A chill breeze blew back the fringe from my forehead and ruffled the hair on my scalp. I was glad that I was wearing my raincoat. It was a cold afternoon, and typical of late autumn. The temperature was cold and the skies above were a murky grey, threatening to unload their cargo of water at any moment.

There was a corrugated metal door built into the side of the brick warehouse that I was approaching. Once, there was a lock fixed to this door, but at some point in the recent past it had been broken to allow access to the interior of the warehouse. Now the corrugated door was open, and hung ajar like an invitation. When the weather was bad and the wind was strong, the door swung to and fro on its rusty hinges, squealing like a banshee at the heart of a monstrous storm. Even now, as I reached the door and pushed it open, the hinges screeched insidiously and faithfully announced my presence to the man who I knew waited for me inside. Instinctively, I touched the solid bulge in my coat pocket for reassurance, confirming the presence of the revolver that I illegally carried there, just in case of emergency.

I stepped into the apparent emptiness of the warehouse interior. It was a vast echoing space that to the untrained eye might appear completely vacant: the hard concrete floor extended, uninterrupted, to the opposite wall, aside from a few shattered tiles which had fallen from the roof during inclement weather. Yet I knew there were dark hidden corners within this building, secret nooks and crannies where a person might hide: perhaps far to the space on my right, where encroaching shadows obscured my full view of the interior of this gloomy warehouse space. Small pools of water had formed on the floor inside here too, where rain had penetrated. Even now, I could distinctly hear the steady dripping of water emanating at various points, as if from numerous taps. Birds that had roosted in the rafters of the damaged roof suddenly fluttered their wings, startling me. I realised that I could hear the cooing of pigeons.

“Cohen!” I cried out. My voice seemed impossibly loud, enormous and echoing in this vast empty space. The echoes of my voice rebounded back to me, almost in mocking fashion. “Cohen, are you here? Where are you?”

Wings were a-flutter in the roof again, agitated birds who had been disturbed and alarmed by my unceremonious shouting, and after I had crept timidly into the building at first, too. I waited patiently for several more moments- a long pause that seemed to stretch out for hours. I had almost given up, and was on the verge of turning around and leaving, assuming that he had not kept our arranged appointment, when finally he spoke. (Staccato House)

…there was the familiar knock at the cell door: the escort through the myriad, claustrophobic grey echoing corridors of the prison, though not by Wilkins this time, but by two prison wardens unknown to me. The route we took was different too: not along the familiar direction toward that cradle of human contact with the outside world, the visitor’s hall: instead I was led to the hub of prison operations- the governor’s office. If the prison were a living, breathing organism, a creature of mammalian proportions, then the blocks of cells were its body, and the wardens the tools of its circulation, keeping the functions of the institution controlled and regular, like a steady pulse. Yet here I was, escorted to a location to which few occupants of the prison cells in the heart of the building were allowed to enter- the command centre, the brain, the focal point of control over the procedures and mechanisms of the prison. Here, where the laws were ordained that all here must follow.

The governor stood beyond her desk, looking out of her office window at a view on the other side of the glass which afforded her a view of the drab courtyards and the towering building structures of Thornwood, her prison. She stood there, framed in the dimming light of the dying embers of the day. I had seen her once before, when I’d been brought to the prison for the first time and stripped of material things like my clothes and possessions, and also my individuality, along with my freedoms. I’d recognised her gaze as cold and merciless. Here, she was mistress of her domain, and I was a powerless subject. The prison system was her tool for rehabilitation, the undeniable hand of justice, which touched all. Yet my hope for that course had been unlikely. I was a murderer on a double life sentence. I had been sent here to protect the public, destined to spend the rest of my life in prison if my appeals were unsuccessful. I was a dangerous man, and needed to be treated as such. The governor’s stern face was not judgmental. Judgement had already been passed. But it was icy, inhumane, efficient, assessing. She was the face of the machine, representative of a systematic approach to justice.

So she stood before me now, silhouetted in her office window, and it struck me now that she looked elegant and watchful, like a classical statue: a Goddess in repose. She turned her face to mine, and frowned, and abruptly the spell was broken. She was the face of cold feminine authority once more. (Staccato House)

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