Happy Accidents and The Gift of Writer’s Block

“If you love something, let it go…”

 

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In all my years of writing, I never experienced writer’s block. In fact, I used to poo-poo the very idea of writer’s block. But, as with any force of nature that is refused, like the Evil Fairy in Sleeping Beauty, it comes after you.

As far as the writing goes, I had big plans for 2015. But the projects I was striving wrap up in 2014, kept falling into chaos. I simply wanted to write something short, and the stories found more twists and turns, the characters  more to say,  and they would not be contained. On April Fools Day, my computer crashed, and in May, I had to get a real job — the first full-time job I’d had in years. This job had the added benefit of a 90 minute commute in both directions. On the weekends I had to catch up on chores. I had to give writing a rest.

 

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Visited by the Dreaded Blockage

In late October 2014, I published The Shadows. I was very excited about this book. It has great series potential.  I really planned to have the second Poppy Farrell Mystery out in Spring of 2015, and was working very hard on it, when I hit a plot sng. I still have not resolved this.

The problem seems to be that, in The Shadows, Poppy was the driving force, backed up by her roommate, Clair. In Taller Than Our Souls, the sequel, she and Clair are joined by Tom and Rupert who they met at the Halloween Party in The Shadows. Poppy needs to carry the weight of the story because it is her series, but now the others need POV’s as well. The story also has more layers. I am sure this tangle will be straightened out, but for now the book simmers on the back burner being stirred by the Muses, or maybe the Furies…

Happy Accidents

 Taller Than Our Souls boils down, as does the Prequel to The Lady in Yellow that I promised readers last winter. I planned for this book,  Sovay, to be a shorter work, a novella, for fans of The Lady in Yellow, but it got long. While working on this book, I was also dealing with recovery from an accident, and getting to know the most wonderful man on the planet who cheered me up so much that I was whisked away from the dark mood of the book into Munchkinland, or something. Since Sovay is a horror story, the climactic scene must be horrific. I was unable to go there.  Nor did I want to    🙂

I had the same problem with Dark Reliquary. I am sure I will able to get back into the rightful morbid state soon enough, but in a different way….in a better way too, I think.

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The other happy accident Has to do with Morna.

I had a book cover designed for Morna, but the story I was writing was about Lady Rowan. Morna, her daughter,  did not appear until the second half of this book, and I had planned a sequel about her. This Celtic Tale of the Selkies, is quite literary, (which I have learned means that it probably won’t sell very well, even if it a a bit Game of Thrones in tone and the tragic trajectory of the plot) so I wondered if a sequel was even a good idea. I tried to get a good cover made for this book with the Selkie on the cover and was not happy with any of the results. People loved the Morna cover, however, so I thought I’d just use it anyway, even if Morna came in during the second act.

Then it struck me! Change Lady Rowan’s name to Morna and Morna’s to something else. The effect on the story was amazing! The early pages of the book began shimmer darkly, various elements of description and character grew moody and poetic,  the clash between reality and fantasy, good and evil, were heightened. Changing the protagonist’s name vastly improved the book! This is not the first time I have experienced the power of naming. In fact the entire story of The Shadows came to after I found all the names!

If I hadn’t had writer’s block, and cover-art block, I would never have had this lightning bolt of inspiration.

This book is in the polishing stage, by the way. So it won’t be long!

The Long Tale

So much in Indie writing and publishing is about speed of production because,  more stock on the virtual shelf, means more visibility, which means more sales, which means more money. I can’t do it. I tried, but I am not a workaholic. I love to write, but there is nothing I love so much that I want to be chained to it 24-7.

When my computer crashed, I was able to stop listening to all the mega successful who only intimidated me, and the Indie Author gurus whose sole definition of success is how much money you make. I was able to get off the bandwagon and get back to writing the way I want to write: focusing on depth, layering of story, strongly motivated characters, imagination and language. My stuff is too literary to be mega-popular anyway, so what the Hey? I cannot write at the level I desire at top speed, or by taking speed to stay up all nigh while burning my brain out.

Do I want a career?

Yes!

But I also want a life. 🙂

 

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Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow by Thomas de Quincy

On of my readers, Alessandra from Italy, writes to me all the time about Gothic books she is interetsed in or discoveries she has made. I have found some amazing things through her. She knows more than i do, that’s for sure!

One of the stories she found was this short piece by Thomas de Quincy (1785-1859) The themes in his short story Levana and Our Ladie sof Sorrow, was a surprise and a revelation to me. In developing the plot for the second Poppy Farrell Mystery, Taller Thna Our Souls, I was inspired by Dario Argento’s film Inferno, the second of his Dark Mothers Trilogy. The first of these Suspiria, influenced The Shadows quite a bit, so there’s some underlying continuity of theme. Though I can’t stand Argento’s graphic, almost cartoonish violence fests, I find the premis of these stories fascinating. I also found Argento’s inspiration In Levana.

So here it is:

Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow

 

INFERNO

 

OFTENTIMES at Oxford I saw Levana in my dreams. I knew her by her Roman symbols. Who is Levana? Reader, that do not pretend to have much leisure for very much scholarship, you will not be angry with me for telling you. Levana was the Roman goddess that performed for the new-born infant the earliest office of ennobling kindness,—typical, by its mode, of that grandeur which belongs to man everywhere, and of that benignity in powers invisible which even in pagan worlds sometimes descends to sustain it. At the very moment of birth, just as the infant tasted for the first time the atmosphere of our troubled planet, it was laid on the ground. But immediately, lest so grand a creature should grovel there for more than one instant, either the paternal hand, as proxy for the goddess Levana, or some near kinsman, as proxy for the father, raised it upright, bade it look erect as the king of all this world, and presented its åforehead to the stars, saying, perhaps, in his heart, “Behold what is greater than yourselves!” This symbolic act represented the function of Levana. And that mysterious lady, who never revealed her face (except to me in dreams), but always acted by delegation, had her name from the Latin verb (as still it is the Italian verb) levare, to raise aloft.
  This is the explanation of Levana, and hence it has arisen that some people have understood by Levana the tutelary power that controls the education of the nursery. She, that would not suffer at his birth even a prefigurative or mimic degradation for her awful ward, far less could be supposed to suffer the real degradation attaching to the non-development of his powers. She therefore watches over human education. Now the word educo, with the penultimate short, was derived (by a process often exemplified in the crystallisation of languages) from the word educo, with the penultimate long. Whatever educes, or develops, educates. By the education of Levana, therefore, is meant,—not the poor machinery that moves by spelling-books and grammars, but by that mighty system of central forces hidden in the deep bosom of human life, which by passion, by strife, by temptation, by the energies of resistance, works for ever upon children,—resting not night or day, any more than the mighty wheel of day and night themselves, whose moments, like restless spokes, are glimmering for ever as they revolve.
  If, then, these are the ministries by which Levana works, how profoundly must she reverence the agencies of grief. But you, reader! think,—that children are not liable to such grief as mine. There are two senses in the word generally—the sense of Euclid, where it means universally (or in the whole extent of the genus), and in a foolish sense of this word, where it means usually. Now, I am far from saying that children universally are capable of grief like mine. But there are more than you ever heard of who die of grief in this island of ours. I will tell you a common case. The rules of Eton require that a boy on the foundation should be there twelve years: he is superannuated at eighteen, consequently he must come at six. Children torn away from mothers and sisters at that age not unfrequently die. I speak of what I know. The complaint is not entered by the registrar as grief; but that it is. Grief of that sort, and at that age, has killed more than have ever been counted amongst its martyrs. tmc08
  Therefore it is that Levana often communes with the powers that shake a man’s heart: therefore it is that she dotes on grief. “These ladies,” said I softly to myself, on seeing the ministers with whom Levana was conversing, “these are the Sorrows; and they are three in number, as the Graces are three, who dress man’s life with beauty; the Parcoeœ are three, who weave the dark arras of man’s life in their mysterious loom, always with colours sad in part, sometimes angry with tragic crimson and black; the Furies are three, who visit with retribution called from the other side of the grave offences that walk upon this; and once even the Muses were but three, who fit the harp, the trumpet, or the lute, to the great burdens of man’s impassioned creations. These are the Sorrows, all three of whom I know.”
  The last words I say now; but in Oxford I said, “One of whom I know, and the others too surely I shall know.” For already, in my fervent youth, I saw (dimly relieved upon the dark background of my dreams) the imperfect lineaments of the awful sisters. These sisters—by what name shall we call them? If I say simply, “The Sorrows,” there will be a chance of mistaking the term; it might be understood of individual sorrow,—separate cases of sorrow,—whereas I want a term expressing the mighty abstractions that incarnate themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart; and I wish to have these abstractions presented as impersonations, that is, as clothed with human attributes of life, and with functions pointing to flesh. Let us call them, therefore, Our Ladies of Sorrow. I know them thoroughly, and have walked in all their kingdoms. Three sisters they are, of one mysterious household; and their paths are wide apart; but of their dominion there is no end. Them I saw often conversing with Levana, and sometimes about myself. Do they talk, then? O, no! mighty phantoms like these disdain the infirmities of language. They may utter voices through the organs of man when they dwell in human hearts, but amongst themselves there is no voice nor sound; eternal silence reigns in their kingdoms. They spoke not, as they talked with Levana; they whispered not; they sang not; though oftentimes methought they might have sung, for I upon earth had heard their mysteries oftentimes deciphered by harp and timbrel, by dulcimer and organ. Like God, whose servants they are, they utter their pleasure, not by sounds that perish, or by words that go astray, but by signs in heaven, by changes on earth, by pulses in secret rivers, heraldries painted on darkness, and hieroglyphics written on the tablets of the brain. They wheeled in mazes; I spelled the steps. They telegraphed from afar; I read the signals. They conspired together; and on the mirrors of darkness my eye traced the plots. Theirs were the symbols; mine are the words.

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  What is it the sisters are? What is it that they do? Let me describe their form, and their presence: if form it were that still fluctuated in its outline, or presence it were that for ever advanced to the front, or for ever receded amongst shades.
  The eldest of the three is named Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears. She it is that night and day raves and moans, calling for vanished faces. She stood in Rama, where a voice was heard of lamentation,—Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted. She it was that stood in Bethlehem on the night when Herod’s sword swept its nurseries of Innocents, and the little feet were stiffened for ever, which, heard at times as they tottered along floors overhead, woke pulses of love in household hearts that were not unmarked in heaven.
  Her eyes are sweet and subtle, wild and sleepy, by turns; oftentimes rising to the clouds, oftentimes challenging the heavens. She wears a diadem round her head. And I knew by childish memories that she could go abroad upon the winds, when she heard the sobbing of litanies or the thundering of organs, and when she beheld the mustering of summer clouds. This sister, the eldest, it is that carries keys more than papal at her girdle, which open every cottage and every palace. She, to my knowledge, sat all last summer by the bedside of the blind beggar, him that so often and so gladly I talked with, whose pious daughter, eight years old, with the sunny countenance, resisted the temptations of play and village mirth to travel all day long on dusty roads with her afflicted father. For this did God send her a great reward. In the spring-time of the year, and whilst yet her own Spring was budding, he recalled her to himself. But her blind father mourns for ever over her; still he dreams at midnight that the little guiding hand is locked within his own; and still he wakens to a darkness that is now within a second and a deeper darkness. This Mater Lachrymarum has also been sitting all this winter of 1844–5 within the bed-chamber of the Czar, bringing before his eyes a daughter (not less pious) that vanished to God not less suddenly, and left behind her a darkness not less profound. By the power of the keys it is that Our Lady of tears glides a ghostly intruder into the chambers of sleepless men, sleepless women, sleepless children, from Ganges to Nile, from Nile to Mississippi. And her, because she is the first-born of her house, and has the widest empire, let us honour with the title of “Madonna!”

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  The second sister is called Mater Suspiriorum—Our Lady of Sighs. She never scales the clouds, nor walks abroad upon the winds. She wears no diadem. And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story; they would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium. But she raises not her eyes; her head, on which sits a dilapidated turban, droops for ever, for ever fastens on the dust. She weeps not. She groans not. But she sighs inaudibly at intervals. Her sister, Madonna, is oftentimes stormy and frantic, raging in the highest against heaven, and demanding back her darlings. But Our Lady of Sighs never clamours, never defies, dreams not of rebellious aspirations. She is humble to abjectness. Hers is the meekness that belongs to the hopeless. Murmur she may, but it is in her sleep. Whisper she may, but it is to herself in the twilight; Mutter she does at times, but it is in solitary places that are desolate as she is desolate, in ruined cities, and when the sun has gone down to his rest. This sister is the visitor of the Pariah, of the Jew, of the bondsman to the oar in the Mediterranean galleys; and of the English criminal in Norfolk Island, blotted out from the books of remembrance in sweet far-off England; of the baffled penitent reverting his eyes for ever upon a solitary grave, which to him seems the altar overthrown of some past and bloody sacrifice, on which altar no oblations can now be availing, whether towards pardon that he might implore, or towards reparation that he might attempt. Every slave that at noonday looks up to the tropical sun with timid reproach, as he points with one hand to the earth, our general mother, but for him a stepmother,—as he points with the other hand to the Bible, our general teacher, but against him sealed and sequestered;—every woman sitting in darkness, without love to shelter her head, or hope to illumine her solitude, because the heaven-born instincts kindling in her nature germs of holy affections which God implanted in her womanly bosom, having been stifled by social necessities, now burn sullenly to waste, like sepulchral lamps amongst the ancients; every nun defrauded of her unreturning May-time by wicked kinsman, whom God will judge; every captive in every dungeon; all that are betrayed and all that are rejected outcasts by traditionary law, and children of hereditary disgrace,—all these walk with Our Lady of Sighs. She also carries a key; but she needs it little. For her kingdom is chiefly amongst the tents of Shem, and the houseless vagrant of every clime. Yet in the very highest walks of man she finds chapels of her own; and even in glorious England there are some that, to the world, carry their heads as proudly as the reindeer, who yet secretly have received her mark upon their foreheads. But the third sister, who is also the youngest——! Hush, whisper whilst we talk of her! Her kingdom is not large, or else no flesh should live; but within that kingdom all power is hers. Her head, turreted like that of Cybele, rises almost beyond the reach of sight. She droops not; and her eyes rising so high might be hidden by distance; but, being what they are, they cannot be hidden; through the treble veil of crape which she wears, the fierce light of a blazing misery, that rests not for matins or for vespers, for noon of day or noon of night, for ebbing or for flowing tide, may be read from the very ground. She is the defier of God. She is also the mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides. Deep lie the roots of her power; but narrow is the nation that she rules. For she can approach only those in whom a profound nature has been upheaved by central convulsions; in whom the heart trembles, and the brain rocks under conspiracies of tempest from without and tempest from within. Madonna moves with uncertain steps, fast or slow, but still with tragic grace. Our Lady of Sighs creeps timidly and stealthily. But this youngest sister moves with incalculable motions, bounding, and with tiger’s leaps. She carries no key; for, though coming rarely amongst men, she storms all doors at which she is permitted to enter at all. And her name is Mater Tenebrarum—Our Lady of Darkness.

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  These were the Semnai Theai, or Sublime Goddesses, these were the Eumenides, or Gracious Ladies (so called by antiquity in shuddering propitiation), of my Oxford dreams. Madonna spoke. She spoke by her mysterious hand. Touching my head, she said to Our Lady of Sighs; and what she spoke, translated out of the signs which (except in dreams) no man reads, was this:—
  “Lo! here is he, whom in childhood I dedicated to my altars. This is he that once I made my darling. Him I led astray, him I beguiled, and from heaven I stole away his young heart to mine. Through me did he become idolatrous; and through me it was, by languishing desires, that he worshipped the worm, and prayed to the wormy grave. Holy was the grave to him; lovely was its darkness; saintly its corruption. Him, this young idolater, I have seasoned for thee, dear gentle Sister of Sighs! Do thou take him now to thy heart, and season him for our dreadful sister. And thou,”—turning to the Mater Tenebrarum, she said,—“wicked sister, that temptest and hatest, do thou take him from her. See that thy sceptre lie heavy on his head. Suffer not woman and her tenderness to sit near him in his darkness. Banish the frailties of hope, wither the relenting of love, scorch the fountain of tears, curse him as only thou canst curse. So shall he be accomplished in the furnace, so shall he see the things that ought not to be seen, sights that are abominable, and secrets that are unutterable. So shall he read elder truths, sad truths, grand truths, fearful truths. So shall he rise again before he dies, and so shall our commission be accomplished which from God we had,—to plague his heart until we had unfolded the capacities of his spirit.”
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Halloween is Coming and Witchcraft is Afoot…

The Shadows is LIVE for pre-order on Amazon Kindle!

At 99 cents from October 12- November 2, 2014—how can you resist?

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This novel of Gothic Paranormal Suspense is suitable for YA and Old A. It is fast-paced, thrilling and full of menacing shadows. In other words, it’s just right for Halloween!

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This book grew out of a screenplay inspired by a friend I met in England who went to a boarding school way out in the countryside. Her stories about her time there, especially the bit about the Shadows: senior (British Sixth Form)  girls assigned to freshman (Year 7) girls to mentor them through their first year of school, really got my imagination churning. She also felt the place was haunted and was always ill at ease there, and full of foreboding.

One night my friend, (then a film student living in San Francisco) and I got on the phone and started talking about a screenplay based on her boarding school experience and its rather odd traditions and eerie atmosphere. I needed a way into the story and found it by brainstroming character names with her. This was the first time I’d experienced the true power of names to give birth to things—it was almost Biblical in the power of naming something to bring it to life.

As an aside, I have found that once named, characters don’t change easily. In The Lady in Yellow, my editor kept wanting me to change Mrs. Twig to Mrs. Twigge and it just didn’t work. The spirit seems to be in the name to a very great degree.

 

The Innocence of Childhood, the Encounter with Darkness

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Many of protagonists are young in my books. This isn’t an attempt to capture the YA market, it is to create a crisis of consciousness. We all begin innocent and full of trust. For better or worse, part of growing up, whether from child to adult, or from naivete to wisdom, it is the harsh, sometimes cruel confrontaion with the dark side that hauls us into maturity. This was the realization behind William Blake’s poems, Songs of Innocence and Experience. This is where the clash between good and evili is most intense.

At 14 years old, Poppy Farrell is a late-comer to Blight’s Academy. Most girls begin boarding school at 11, but I needed my characters to have their wits about them, to have enough life experience to be able to suss things out. Being a teenager determined to prove her independence, Poppy travel toward the future on her own. Once out of the city, she questions her headstrong nature, for she can’t handle the woods. yet even when a terrified girl comes out of the woods to the train platform warning Poppy: “Don’t go to Blight’s Academy!” Poppy’s pride and stubborness prevail, and she continues on her way.

Blight’s Academy, Founded by Lady Aurora Blight as a residential school for girls

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Poppy and her roommate, the sensitive, psychic Clair Montague, are quickly aware that there is something untoward going on at Blight’s. They befriend Georgie Summerville, a girl whose roommate never arrived, and whose glorious operatic singing voice incites the jealousy of the vain, eccentric Mrs. Sibyl Wick, headmistress of Blight’s. Miss Grimshaw, Mrs. Wick’s assistant runs the school, keeping the girls in line with an iron hand.

Then there are The Shadows: the sexy serpent Vanessa Stevens, assigned to Clair, the plain, sneering Isabelle Lilly, assigned to Poppy who can’t stand having a Shadow in the first place, never mind a horrible girl like Isabelle. The quasi-somnabulistic Goth, Hermione Ashe, is assigned to Georgie. They stick close, especially after Poppy finds evidence of possible murder in the woods.

This is a fun, fast-paced novel with all of our favorite Gothic tropes. Though not romantic lke some of my others, it is atmospheric and intense. Think of Stephen King’s Carrie meeting Dario Argento’s Suspiria without the graphic violence. (I don’t like graphic violence and almost never find it necessary.)

It even has a creepy music box….

The Shadows: Get it Now!

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The Shadows: A Paranormal Thriller, Available in Time for Halloween!

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In Chapter 2, Poppy arrives at Blight’s Academy:

The scarlet letters of Blight’s Academy were framed in fancy curlicues along the top of the gate. A great square lock in the center, where the two wings of the gate joined in the middle, was bound with a chain.
Poppy peered through the bars at a long, long drive.
She moaned with weariness. Though she’d arrived at Blight’s, her destination still seemed so far away.
She shook the gate. Of course no one was here to let her in. It was after 9 o’clock.
Poppy took out her phone and opened it. The light was out. Dead. Her phone was dead. But how could it be? Temper flaring, she almost threw it on the ground.
The cold was beginning to penetrate. She wrapped her arms around herself and jumped up and down to get her circulation going. What was she to do?
There was a caretaker’s cottage under a clump of trees just inside the gate. A large bell hung from the gatepost with a long rope attached. Poppy gave up feeling guilty about the lateness of the hour, and pulled the rope.
Clang… clang…. clang echoed loudly in the darkness.
Out of the cottage, into the chill and damp, came an old man carrying a lantern. He held the light up and squinted into Poppy’s face.
“Well?” he said.
“My train was late. I missed the shuttle. I’m a new student here.”
“I suppose you expect me to believe that. I suppose you expect me to let you in.”
“Please do, sir. It’s very miserable out here. I’ve come such a long way.”
Poppy held her satchel with its badge of Blight’s Academy under the old ma’s light.
The old man squinted and set his lantern down. He made a great show of producing a key ring, looking through his keys, and fiddling with them before he undid the chain and pulled it through the bars. Then, with a long, black key, he stabbed the great lock, turned it with a squeal of iron, and pulled the gate open.
“I suppose you’re all right,” he muttered, moving aside to let Poppy in.
“Thank you, sir.”
“We’ll see how much you’ll be thanking me a week from now.”
“What do you mean?”
The gatekeeper ignored Poppy, looping his arm through the key ring and picking up his lamp.
This stonewalling made Poppy more nervous than she already was. “What do you mean, sir?”
“You run along now. Don’t pay me no mind. Just scurry along.”
Poppy felt depressed. The long drive went between rows of trees and intervals of lawn, lit only by misty globes of light. The school building must be very far away because she couldn’t see it. The girl’s voice played in her head. Don’t go! Don’t go to Blight’s Academy! Turn back!
Thunder rolled like a great wind in the sky. Lightning flashed.
What if the girl on the platform was right? What if Poppy were making a terrible mistake to continue toward Blight’s?
Still, she’d come so far. She had no choice but to move on. She grabbed the handle of her suitcase and her satchel and started up the drive.
“Pretty red hair you’ve got there,” the gatekeeper called out. “Take my advice and mind your Ps and Qs.”
Poppy felt a wave of apprehension. Minding her Ps and Qs was not her strong suit.
As she watched the old man limp back to his house, a rustling sound drew her attention to the clump of trees behind it.
The old man waved his lantern toward the sound. “Get off you two. I won’t have you playing your tricks around here.”
Poppy stared woodenly at the dark hollows of the trees, wondering who was there. The thud of the cottage door closing, told her to get moving. It was late.
Hefting the now leaden satchel onto her shoulder, Poppy trudged warily toward the school. Her feet dragged uncertainly. Glancing at a mist-filled holly tree standing alone on the lawn, she couldn’t help thinking how ghostly it looked in the moonlight.
Goosebumps traveled up her arms. Maybe she should go home.
There was movement, the whisper of feet over grass. Peering into the gloom, she saw the shadows of two small boys running to hide behind the holly tree. She stopped and waited to see if they would come out and speak to her. When they didn’t, she left her bags and went to look behind the tree.
There was no one there, only a length of red worsted yarn woven like a cat’s cradle over the holly leaves.
What strange little boys. Was this one of their tricks?
Unsettled, Poppy backed away and returned to her bags on the drive.
There was a slight dip in the drive, then a rise and finally, there, up ahead, was the vast, Neo-Gothic facade of Blight’s Academy. It’s gables, turrets and chimney pots, battlements, tall, dark windows and grand entrance gave Blight’s the dual air of a stately home and a prison for the insane.

 

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The Shadows: A Paranormal Thriller Avaliable for Pre-Order!

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Read the first chapter here! This is a work in progress.

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The Shadows

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Poppy Farrell knew she should have turned back at the start. One delay followed another, but having settled into a window seat on the third late train, she felt she had no choice but to continue on. The train was taking her toward Surrey, to one of the most prestigious all girls’ boarding schools in England, Blight’s Academy. At Poppy’s old school, one of the boys had set fire to the rubbish bins, catching a puddle of petrol alight. That was enough to send Mum on a campaign to get her into Blight’s.

Traveling into the countryside, woods grew close against the tracks. Poppy could see them through the windows on both sides of the train, trunks close together, branches arching over like a tunnel. Poppy didn’t like woods. She was a city girl, a London girl. She didn’t trust trees.

She had to change trains again at East Grinstead. She’d hoped it was a proper town. Instead, she was left alone on an isolated platform. Behind her was a station house as grey and closed and empty as if it hadn’t been serviced in a hundred years. And encroaching all around, leaves rustling in the wind, were the woods.

For some reason, a boy setting the school on fire wasn’t half as frightening as being out here alone. Why did the trees seem to be watching? Perhaps the bits of sky looking through the leaves gave her this impression. She was just being silly.

A gust of wind rushed up her back. She shivered with a sudden chill.

It was already twilight. The air was heavy, as if it was going to rain. If she hadn’t missed her connections, she would have gotten to Blight’s in time for supper. She let go the handle of her suitcase, set down her satchel, with its Blight’s Academy logo of a school building inside a ring of black thorns on the flap, and checked the time on her mobile phone. The light flashed up like a signal. It was almost 7:00!

Where had the time gone?

“Ridiculous!” she mumbled, annoyed at how long this trip was taking.

She put the phone back into the pocket of her brown corduroy jacket, pulled her long, layered auburn hair off her neck, and pulled the collar up. Her feet in their little tan cowboy boots, skinny jeans tucked in, felt firm, planted, the rest of her at sea.

There was a bench under the eaves of the station house, but Poppy felt too uneasy to sit down. Besides, she was reluctant to step back from the sight of the tracks and their promise of the next train. Across the tracks, and a little further down, was another deserted platform, and more woods.

It was so quiet. Poppy wasn’t used to quiet. As if by magic, a single light came on under the eaves of the station house, lighting up a schedule posted by the shuttered window. Taking out her phone again to check the time, Poppy strolled over to look at it.

“Next train… 7:45… It’s so late!”

The trees across the tracks went still, and seemed to stare. Poppy scanned the area for signs of human life, then worried about who might show up. She was all alone out here. What if some gang-bangers came along? Or…

If Poppy allowed it, her imagination would get the better of her. She’d read too many mysteries and crime novels. Watched too many horror films. Her mum never understood how such a young girl could be interested in all that morbid stuff. But for Poppy it wasn’t morbid. She just liked to puzzle things out, solve things, such as how to get to her first day at a new boarding school on her own. She didn’t know the train would drop her off in the woods, and she’d have to wait for ages by herself. It reminded her of that old film, The Blair Witch Project.

Now she wished she’d let Mum drive her.

You’re always so headstrong, Poppy…

Mum’s constant litany.

What am I going to do with you?

Her younger sister Daisy, chiming in: You always have to have your own way!

But she was fourteen. It was time to be independent. She was an Aries, after all.

She needed to talk to her mother, so punched in her phone number at home. Mum would probably throw a wobbly knowing Poppy was out here alone in the wilderness, but what could she do? The phone rang and rang. The answer phone came on.

You’ve reached the Farrell residence. Please leave a message.

“Not!” Poppy fumed and hung up.

From somewhere came a screech. Heart hammering, Poppy hoped it was a train coming. She looked up and down the tracks both ways, but saw no light. Another screech came, this time she could tell it was coming from behind her, in the woods at the back of the station house.

It must have been an animal.

A high, shrill cry echoed up through the trees. Ah! Ah! Ah!

Perhaps it was an owl. They had owls in London. In the back garden,

A splat of rain hit her face.

Thunder rolled, long and loud, then fading off.

Poppy buttoned the top button of her jacket, tugged her collar close again, and headed for the awning of the station house. The bench was coated with a thin layer of moss. Looking for a bare patch of whitewashed board so as not to ruin her jeans, she sat down.

Eeeeeeeeee!!!!!!

Where was that train?

Sounds of breaking branches and strange noises coming from the woods sent her rocketing to her feet. Shaking with raw panic, she inched her way out to the platform, into the rain, and stared at the darkness between the trunks of the trees.

The single light from the station house shone on something white coming through the woods. Two hands appeared, pushing the branches apart. The scratched face of a girl came through, and then her whole body followed.

Her long blonde hair hung in hanks; her dress was torn. She was shaking as bad as Poppy was who just stood there, gobsmacked.

“Who are you?” Poppy shouted over the thunder that crashed. A sheen of lighting blanched all color from the frightened girl’s face.

The girl’s eyes slid from Poppy to the satchel still sitting on the platform. The girl opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

“What? What’s the matter?” Poppy grabbed her suitcase and satchel and took them under the awning. “Are you all right?”

The girl jumped, then looked back at the woods, the leaves now pattering in the rain. She stretched her hand out toward Poppy, pointing her finger at the satchel.

“Don’t go there,” she said. “Don’t go to Blight’s Academy.”

“What?” Poppy couldn’t believe her ears. Blight’s was a highly regarded boarding school. Mum said so.

“Don’t go there. Please, don’t go to Blight’s Academy! Go back! Go home!”

“But, why?”

The wind blew the girl’s long, straight hair over her face and seemed to blow her words away, for though her mouth was moving, Poppy heard nothing.

A loud whistle and a beam of light on the tracks heralded the train. It was going in Poppy’s direction.

“The train’s coming,” Poppy cried over the din, running to get her suitcase and satchel.

“Don’t go!” the girl shouted. “Please, listen to me!”

The train pulled up with a loud screech. Poppy opened a door in the last car and shoved her bags inside. She had one foot on the steps when thunder banged like a china cabinet falling over. The girl’s face went livid white, her eyes so black, and her lips so red, she looked ghastly.

“What are you going to do?” Poppy shouted. “I’m leaving.” She shut the door.

The train jerked and squealed and began to go. Poppy grabbed a seat and watched the girl through the window. She was running around on the platform, waving her arms around, when a dazzling streak of lightning came down. The train was too far down the track to see what happened next, but Poppy thought she heard a horrible, gut-wrenching scream.

“Oh my God,” Poppy murmured. She put her hands over her heart to stop it hammering. How awful for that girl. It was like she was mad or something.

Poppy got up to stash her suitcase in the luggage rack, and realized her legs felt like overcooked pasta. She just got it stowed, and was slipping into a seat with her satchel, when the door at the end of the car slid open.

A tall, burly fare collector came in, hand out for her ticket. He had a little ticket- selling box hanging on the front of his blue uniform making Poppy think of a toy wind-up monkey.

“Got your ticket, miss?” he asked.

“Yes.” Poppy pulled the ticket she’d bought at Victoria Station out of her jacket pocket, and handed it to him.

“Where you getting off?” he asked.

“Blight’s Academy,” she said. A moment ago, she’d have been proud to say those words, but that girl coming out of the woods and acting crazy had shaken her confidence.

The fare collector frowned and nodded. “Of course. It won’t be long now.”

“Sir, did something bad happen there? I mean—-I met a girl on the platform—-”

“I don’t know,” the fare collector said, lifting his nose as if to avoid a bad smell. “I haven’t heard a thing.”

Poppy studied the man as he slid back out through the door from whence he came. He’d say that to anyone. Even of he had heard something bad, he wouldn’t say what it was.

Poppy slouched down in her seat. Occasionally she looked out the dark, rain-spattered window, back toward the platform where that poor girl had been raving and hopping around, wondering what had sent her ’round the twist. Hopefully, someone at the school would tell her what was going on. Perhaps the girl had been expelled, or something.

The lights flicked on overhead. Poppy sat up and looked around. She was the only passenger in the car. The dark zipped past the windows, and once in a while, a patch of clear, moonlit sky whizzed past.

She opened her satchel and took out a book she’d bought on the internet with her allowance money: The Biggest Secret by David Icke. This was her biggest secret: Poppy adored conspiracy theories. These were the best mysteries of all. They made her think.

As she closed the satchel, the logo of Blight’s Academy stared up at her: a ring of black thorns around a red-brown school building that looked like a castle. For the first time she noticed, just above the door, a tiny five-pointed star.

The logo was a bit scary, she supposed, with the thorns and the star. But weren’t most hedgerows full of thorns? Hadn’t she heard they were meant to keep intruders out?

That girl back there was off her rocker. That was all.

There was a theory at the back of Poppy’s mind, about the Web of Wyrd. She’d heard about it in a film and then looked it up on the Internet. It suggested that all events in the world were connected, especially evil ones; that certain people were thrown together along the strands of the web, and tragic events played out. Poppy hoped she hadn’t been caught on the same strand as that girl back there.

David Icke had a theory that the royals practiced black magic and had done so for thousands of years, that maybe, they’d created the Web of Wyrd to run the world their way. Was that a conspiracy theory, or what?

She sighed. How her friends would laugh if they knew what went on in her head! There were no conspiracies, really, but the coincidences were amazing.

The woods were pressing against the train on her side of the car, branches sliding against the windows. Poppy flinched away. Why did the woods frighten her so much, but not horror films, or these conspiracy things? It was only nature. It wasn’t like the woods really were full of witches or something.

When were they going to get to Blight’s? Would she find her way in the dark? Would the shuttle be waiting at the next station to pick her up? She checked her mobile phone for the time.

8:20.

God, she was late! Would they even let her in?

She thought back to the first delay in London: some drunk hurling themselves off the platform in front of a train at Camden Town tube station had held everything up. Why would anyone leap in front of a train? It had to be painful as hell, and besides, if someone wanted to kill their self it seemed damned rude to cause everyone to be late.

Then there was that girl on the platform back there.

What happened to her?

Was it a coincidence that, on a single journey, two people had fallen off the platform? Or was it the Web of Wyrd?

Whistle blaring, the train lurched around a bend, knocking Poppy over on her seat.

Oh my God!

Poppy covered her ears at the memory of the girl’s scream. She wondered if the girl had been struck by lightning, and was lying dead on the tracks. Hopefully, she’d made it across to get the train going the other way.

Poppy groaned. She was sick worrying about it.

The train blasted its whistle again, and slowed.

A bell was ringing.

“Blighton-Moss Station! Alight here for Blight’s Academy shuttle service.”

Poppy stuffed her book back into her satchel, then hurried to retrieve her suitcase. She was waiting at the door when the train screeched to a halt.

 

 

 

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