A Box Full Of Ashes – The Trouble With Vampires

A lot of writers talk about process, and mine goes like this – SHUT UP AND WRITE. I seldom talk about what I’m working on as I find it kills my desire to get the thing finished; it’s like I’ve already got my storytelling jollies by telling it and then there’s no more satisfaction to be had in writing it out.

This also explains why I am not really very good at blogging.

I only feel really safe talking about things when they are very, very nearly done, and even then I feel slightly guilty about it, like when someone tells you that you can open your present before Christmas or your birthday and you do it, but it doesn’t feel right. Not really.

Anyway, remember a few years ago when absolutely everything was vampires and there were vampires on TV and vampires in the bookshops and some of them sparkled and others just had abs and were Alexander Skarsgard and Lindsay Lohan took selfies wearing fangs and everyone got really, really sick of vampires?

Well, shortly after that my brain decided it might be a good time to write a vampire novel.

There were a couple of problems with this. One was that everyone was so tired of vampires that it wasn’t even funny, and the other was that I don’t even like vampires. I enjoyed Anne Rice books when I was a teenager, but I’ve never managed to get through one as an adult. I like Dracula and I think Salem’s Lot is one of the best things Stephen King has ever written, but I have no patience for a bunch of undead mopes whining around the place talking about how hard it is to be beautiful, irresistible, basically immortal and (on more than one infamous occasion) sparkly.

Good fictional characters should change and develop, which is why vampires are at a disadvantage from the start; they’re basically frozen. They never age and never really need to fear death all that much. In fact some of the worst ones just sit about moaning about the fact that they’re never going to die (yes, you at the back with the widescreen forehead) and don’t even have the decency to try and off themselves properly. Seriously, just order some garlic bread and hop on a tanning bed for half an hour. Do the world a favour.

Anne Rice did a groundbreaking thing when she turned the vampire – the monster – into the point of view character. The trouble these days is that it’s been done to death and back, and I thought maybe it was time to take the vampires back to what they used to be; straight up monsters who want to eat you.

The other thing I knew I didn’t want was the kind of urban fantasy where there are vampires wandering around just because.  I wanted something where vampires – impossible, mythical, storybook things – invade the real world. Dracula does this very well, with newspaper clippings and diaries. Salem’s Lot – which uses Dracula as a jumping off point – probably does this even better, with Stephen King effortlessly folding horror into realism as only he can. Another inspiration was Ultraviolet, the sadly short-lived Channel 4 vampire series starring Idris Elba, Jack Davenport and Vampire Beeehl back before his True Blood days. I liked the hard science edge of Ultraviolet and I thought I could do something similar with some characters who have been knocking around in my head in various forms for over twenty years now.

So that’s kind of how I ended up with a mental patient, a slacker magician and an underemployed pathologist up to their eyeballs in a series of extraordinary events that start when a goth spontaneously combusts in a quiet Devon churchyard. Now, I don’t know how far you can be said to be writing ‘urban fantasy’ when part of the action takes place in Sidmouth, but if there’s one thing I’ve always been good at it’s giving myself marketing headaches.

ashes

Read beneath the tag for a first nibble. This takes place when the main characters meet for the first time in the graveyard where a goth named Deborah Messinger goes up in flames. What Francis doesn’t know at this point is that Deborah’s partially cooked corpse is missing, having seemingly walked out of the morgue on her own steam the night before her autopsy.

The doctor had baby-wipes in her bag. She handed a couple over for Francis to clean the soot off his hands. No wedding ring. No indentation or tan line to suggest she’d recently removed such an item.

The bright sunshine lit up a few white threads in her wavy, black-brown hair, which she wore in a sloppy knot at the nape of her neck. Her lazy hairstyle perversely lent a kind of gravity to her face that would have been lost with a modern cut, giving her the pale, heavy-browed profile of a pre-Raphaelite Persephone.

Not an unattractive woman, by any stretch of the imagination. He wondered what exactly it was that was wrong with her.

“I don’t think I should be talking to anyone about this,” she said.

“Why?” asked Francis. “Patient confidentiality?”

“Um…among other things, yeah.”

“But aren’t you curious? You must be. You’re here, after all.”

She shifted from foot to foot and looked down at the burned grass. “Maybe we should have this conversation somewhere else,” she said. “This feels…weird.”

“Right. Because we’re standing -”

“– right where it happened. Yeah.”

Camilla O’Hare pressed her lips together and stood stiffly, her arms folded tightly across her chest. The untidy hairstyle, black-frame glasses and the 2005 jeans were starting to make sense now; this was not a woman who was comfortable in her own skin.

“Why don’t we get some tea?” said Francis, gesturing to the tearoom across the street.

He could see her thinking about it; that sadly inevitable wariness of all women, borne largely out of the bad behaviour of his half of the species. But it was over in a flash.

“God, yes,” she said, as if she’d only just remembered she was thirsty.

“Rough morning?”

“You have no idea,” she said, as they walked down the steps to the street.

“You’re right. I don’t. I mean, you’ve probably seen far worse things than me.”

She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, here we go.”

“What?”

“No, this is what happens. It’s always the same thing with me. Everyone finds out what I do and everyone wants to know the gory details. They all think it’s like Silent Witness or something.”

“And it’s not?” said Francis, trying not to sound too disappointed as he held open the door for her.

She took a seat away from the window and unbuttoned her jacket, revealing an emerald green sweater with a v-neckline. The tearoom was all lilac and cream and pale yellow, and against this delicately feminine palette Camilla O’Hare looked bright and dark and defiantly messy. “Pathology is technically the study of disease,” she said. “It’s not all dead bodies. And it’s definitely not solving crimes, sleeping with suspects and staring meaningfully into the middle-distance. Most of the times it’s biopsies, cytology and slides. Very boring.”

A waitress came and they ordered tea and allowed themselves to be talked into cakes – macaroons and Victoria sponge. It didn’t take much persuasion on the waitress’s part; the smell of home baking perfumed the little cafe and Francis had slept too late to catch breakfast at his hotel in Plymouth.

“What made you go for Pathology in the first place?” he asked, when the waitress had gone.

Camilla O’Hare let out a short laugh. “Honestly? Death.”

“Death?”

She nodded. “There’s one way into this world. Two, if you want to be really pedantic and count c-sections. But there are infinite and interesting ways to leave it.”

“I’ve never really looked at it that way before.”

She shrugged. “Death is interesting. Dying is the most interesting thing that some people ever do with their lives.”

Francis winced. “I wouldn’t want to be that guy.”

“Yeah. You’re wearing purple shoes,” she said. “I don’t think you’re in any danger.”

“They’re boots,” he said, warming to her. “And they’re Prada.”

“Nice. Not the kind of footwear I’d usually associate with churchyards in Devon.”

He laughed. Something about her reminded him of Christopher. “You’re not what I expected,” he said.

“Why? What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know. I suppose I was expecting someone a bit more horsey. Posh. Forgive me for saying so, but Camilla is kind of an uppercrust name.”

“Says you,” she said. “Francis. Mum’s a Classics nerd; I only just escaped being named Minerva. What’s your excuse?”

“Terminally posh, I’m afraid,” he said. “I was either named for my grandfather or Sir Francis Drake, depending on which parent you ask. Father’s a historian, Mother’s a criminal genius. Specialities include making other people think her good ideas were all their own and shaking people down for money until their gold fillings fall out.”

That got him a laugh. The waitress bought their tea and cakes – macaroons for her, a thick wedge of sponge cake for him.

“I was wondering,” Francis said, peering inside the tea pot and jiggling the bag around on its string. “Are you able to talk about the incident in Plymouth? At the hospital?”

Camilla shook her head. “I shouldn’t. Not really. I shouldn’t really be here either.”

“But here you are. What happened?”

She peeled the rice paper from the bottom of a macaroon and sighed. “I don’t know,” she said. “Let’s just say I got a little bit sick of always doing as I’m told.”

“I won’t tell if you won’t.”

He’d lost her and he knew it. She peered across the cafe and through the window. There were people milling about in the graveyard – two women, both in black. One was wearing a corset.

“Goths,” said Francis.

Camilla poured herself a cup of tea. “Goths in a graveyard,” she said. “How unusual.”

“They’re probably here in solidarity.”

She blinked over the rim of her cup. Her eyes were a curious shade – much lighter than he would have expected from a woman with her colouring. “With who?”

“Their fallen comrade-in-eyeliner,” he said. She still looked clueless. “Didn’t you know? Deborah Messinger was a goth.”

“Yeah,” said Camilla. “It wasn’t on the autopsy notes.”

“It wasn’t?”

“No,” she said. “Oddly enough we don’t usually note the deceased’s fashion sense. If you walked out of here and got hit by a bus do you seriously think we’d make extensive notes on what you were wearing?”

“Um, hello? Prada.” He took a bite of sponge cake to hide just how much this information had disturbed him.

“What are you thinking?” asked Camilla. “That goths are somehow more prone to spontaneous human combustion?”

“Well, you wouldn’t want to light a match too close to Robert Smith, would you?”

“If there’s a match involved then it’s not spontaneous; you have an obvious source of ignition.”

“I’m just trying to build up a picture of the victim,” said Francis. “She may have had a hairspray habit and she was a…larger lady.”

“So? What does that have to do with anything?” she said, glancing out of the window as the goths meandered down towards the esplanade.

“Fuel to the fire, perhaps.”

“Right,” said Camilla, catching on. “The wick effect. The fire feeds on adipose tissue like a candle does wax.”

“It’s been documented.”

“Yeah,” she said, filling her cup again. “But you’re talking about cases that are the classic pop culture picture of SHC – obese lonely smoker is discovered in a pile of ashes. Guy in an armchair strokes out with a cigarette in his hand and there you go – nothing spontaneous about it. You’ve got your…smoking gun, if you pardon the expression. This is a completely different situation. A woman burst into flames in broad daylight. Same as Plymouth.”

Francis exhaled. He had to tread carefully here. He wanted to know about the Plymouth incident, but at the same time he didn’t want to antagonise her. He’d expected a doctor to be bright, but he hadn’t counted on her being this sharp; she’d obviously been reading up on the subject matter.

“What about the Cornwall case?” he asked.

“Don’t know. Outside our jurisdiction. That one was more typical; guy was an alcoholic. Again, probably passed out drunk with a cigarette and went up like that guy in Bleak House.”

“Of course. Nineteenth century urban legend. Drink enough bad gin and you’ll make yourself flammable. What about acetone?”

“Acetone?”

“Let’s say Deborah realised there was only so long you could go on testing the limits of black as a slimming colour and decided to drop a few pounds with a no-carb diet.”

Camilla smiled, one step ahead. “Ketosis.”

“You like?”

“I do. Very creative.”

“Is it possible?”

“No. Sorry. If you were somehow producing flammable levels of acetone then you’d have way bigger medical problems than the random possibility of bursting into flames.” She took a mouthful of tea and eyed him suspiciously. “Are you going to write about this?”

“I don’t know. It depends if there’s anything to write about.”

She frowned. “Can I ask what it is you think you’re looking for?”

“Proof,” said Francis. “Or evidence of a hoax.”

Her frown deepened. “Why would anyone perpetrate a hoax like this? I can understand why people might want to believe in ghosts or fairies or even the Loch Ness Monster, but this? It makes no sense.”

“I know,” he said. “Isn’t it interesting?”

She shook her head but said nothing for a moment. The churchyard was empty again and the sky was starting to turn a golden, glowing shade that echoed the loveliest colours of the autumn leaves.

“You’re going to write about it,” she said, as if thinking aloud. “You’re a writer. It’s what you do.”

“I write,” said Francis. “But it’s not what I really am.”

Camilla sat back in her chair. “Really. So what are you?”

“A magician.”

She laughed. He was used to it.

“No, I’m serious,” he said. “I’m a magician.”

“What? You pull rabbits out of hats and things?”

“No,” said Francis. “Never. I can’t stand the creatures. Skittish, kicky things. The only rabbit I ever truly loved was served with a mustard sauce. I much prefer card tricks.”

She shook her head. “That doesn’t explain why you’re here.”

“Actually it does,” he said. “I’m here in the service of a long tradition.” He took out a pack of cards from his pocket and she stared incredulously at him.

“You have the nerve,” she said, laughing. “To make fun of goths?”

He shuffled the deck. “Laugh it up. You’ll love this.”

She covered her face with her hands. “Oh my God.”

“Pick a card.”

“Are you serious?”

“Go on. Pick one.”

Camilla sighed and did as she was told.

“Memorise it,” he said. “Don’t show it to me. Put it back in the deck.”

She replaced the card. “You picked the wrong nerd to try to impress,” she said. “I know how this is done; it’s the rising card routine.”

He grinned and threw in a fancy cut; there was nothing like a little showmanship. “Pick another. Remember it. Put it back.”

“Fine,” she said. “But it’s the same principle. You’re just doing it twice.”

“Again,” he said, offering the deck. “Remember the cards. Remember them in sequence.”

She huffed and puffed but she did it three more times. “Okay,” she said. “And now what? You open the teapot and the cards are in there?”

“Nope,” he said, raising his left hand and producing the Queen of Diamonds. Camilla sat up straight and stared as he produced the next card in the sequence, followed by all five of her cards – apparently out of thin air.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s one of those tricks that don’t need any extra flair – so long as you perform it well.”

“Okay,” she said. “I get how you did the first part, but how did you…?”

“Five finger backpalm,” said Francis. “First card trick I ever saw performed, by a lady who was eighty years my senior and claimed to have performed the very same Howard Thurston routine for Harry Houdini in 1924.”

“Wow. Two degrees of separation from Houdini.”

He nodded. “My narrow claim to fame. I don’t know how much you know about him, but in the years leading up to his death he spent a lot of time and money going after fraudulent psychics and spirit photographers.”

“I think I heard something about that,” she said. “Didn’t he have some public spat with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle after he endorsed those photographs of fairies?”

Francis shook his head. “No, it was much more personal. And uglier. It came to a head after a séance in Atlantic City in 1922, where Lady Doyle – who coincidentally became a medium when her husband got into Spiritualism – claimed to be communicating with Harry Houdini’s mother.”

“Oh dear,” said Camilla. “I think I can see where this gets messy.”

“It did. She sat there in a trance writing sheet after sheet of uninspiring boilerplate about how beautiful the afterlife was and how happy she was and so on. All in perfect English and all headed with a cross at the top of each page. That was a bit of a giveaway, seeing as Harry Houdini’s father had been a rabbi and his mother every bit as Jewish.”

“Oops.”

“And she hadn’t been able to write English. She came to America from Budapest. Spoke several languages but English was not one of them. After that the whole thing unravelled pretty much as you’d expect. Doyle – the true believer – wanted Houdini to be convinced. Houdini was less than impressed but had to tread very carefully with his accusations of fraud because obviously -”

“- Doyle was married to the medium. Gotcha.”

“It was the final insult, really,” said Francis. “Through all the years of their friendship Doyle had insisted that Harry Houdini really did have psychic powers. He used to beg Houdini to tell him the secrets of the ‘spirits’ who helped him out of steamer trunks and straightjackets and milk cans. Which pissed Harry off no end, as you can probably imagine. Years of rehearsal and risking his life and Doyle thought a bunch of non-existent spirits deserved all the credit.”

Camilla peered at him for a moment. “This is all very interesting,” she said. “But what does it have to do with goths catching fire in graveyards?”

He pocketed the deck of cards again, grateful for the way she pulled him back to the subject in question. Maybe that was what it was that reminded him of Christopher. “The point is,” he said. “That almost all magicians are sceptics. We can’t be anything else; we simply know too much about the art of deception. Whatever is going on here, I want to get to the bottom of it.”

“Okay. But why?”

“The usual reasons,” said Francis. “I was a very lonely child and I watched far too much Scooby Doo. Now, would you like some more tea, or shall we take the opportunity to have a look around and find out some more about Deborah Messinger?”

“Find out what?” asked Camilla.

“I don’t know,” he said, waving to the waitress. “Like what happened to her cat.”

“Her cat? How do you know she had a cat?”

“I don’t. I’m guessing. Coming?”

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3 responses to “A Box Full Of Ashes – The Trouble With Vampires

  1. Okay, I’m in. When’s your release date?

    • Another week or so? Lots of formatting to do and I’m busy planning the end of another HUGE project – four 70k+ novels. I will let you know as soon as I’m done. Somehow I knew you’d go for spontaneously combusting goths. Call it a hunch. :)

  2. You had me at “clever people discussing Houdini over macaroons against a background of exploding goths”.

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