Sometimes fortune does smile on us; I’ve been lucky enough that the excellent publishers (Jennifer and Robert Wilson) at Nightscape Press decided to reprint two of my books: The Gentling Box and Deathwatch, and have now further asked me to provide a behind-the-scenes look at both of them for this blog.
THE GENTLING BOX
During what was probably one of the best evenings of my entire life, The Gentling Box garnered The Bram Stoker Award for first novel the same year Stephen King won for Duma Key in 2009. It’s always a heady experience to be nominated or win an award, but in this case it was validation—the culmination, really—of a very protracted span of years when my work was essentially consigned to the realm of oblivion. The Gentling Box had two major NY agents who forwarded a slew of lovely compliments to me from various editors at the big houses, but couldn’t sell it. My mother (to whom I dedicated the book) loved it—along with several enthusiastic friends, but that book (and in my mind, my career as a novelist) seemed dead in the water. Winning the award felt like a wonderful tribute to my mother and to the very small part of me that continued to believe in the book despite numerous rejections and which wanted to keep working.
To this day, people ask me if the hideous surgical procedure of “gentling” is real and if it was practiced by the Hungarian Roms. No comment. Grin.
A brief synopsis:
Imre, a half-gypsy horse trader, is on his deathbed suffering from a hideously disfiguring disease called glanders; though the infection can be passed from horses to people, his antagonist, Anyeta has afflicted him. He knows he can save himself, his wife, his daughter from the sorceress–but only at great personal cost. Narrating the story, he recalls the events that have led up to the terrible choice before him.
Tricked into believing she can save their daughter, his wife, Mimi has cut off her own arm to claim the power of a savage gypsy charm called the hand of the dead. Those who claim it have the power to bring healing; but Anyeta, who is Mimi’s mother, knows that those who own its power are doomed to eternal unrest: They lie awake, aware, paralyzed within their graves, their minds churning endlessly. Anyeta finds a way to escape the torment by possessing the minds and bodies of those she dupes into claiming the hand.
One by one Imre finds his circle of loved ones falling under the sway of the sorceress as Anyeta sets out to destroy them. He learns from Joseph, an aged Lovari gypsy horse trader, and Constantin, a mute cursed by the sorceress, the only way to make an end of Anyeta, to grant her victims peace, is gentling–a crude surgery performed on wild horses in order to tame them. Imre’s most hellish childhood memory is witnessing his father opening the crate-like gentling box and placing wood and leather devices around the heads of the horses. Jutting inward from the circular wooden bands are metal spikes which penetrate the horses’ brains, and Imre cannot forget the sight of the blood or the dimming of the horses’ huge glossy eyes. Though he is a horse trader, he has never gentled a horse–nor can he bring himself to face the fact that ironic as it seems, he can free Anyeta’s victims if he gentles them.
In failing to do so, he sets up the final conflict. His wife is possessed by the sorceress– her mind and personality shattered; his daughter, Lenore, will certainly claim the hand of the dead and suffer similar tortures–unless he can bring himself to intervene. His decision, then, is whether he can summon the courage to heal himself of his disease by claiming the hand of the dead, knowing that once he does so, he must ultimately face the terror and the freedom of the gentling box.
My wife sits in the corner of our caravan, because this morning it is her personality which has come to the fore. Her hands are folded quietly in the lap of her skirt. Just above her left hand is a thick purplish scar that circles her wrist like a hideous bracelet. I don’t want to think about the scar, about how it is the source of the evil afflicting our lives.
If I raise my head from the sweat-soaked pillow I can see her bare feet splayed against the worn floorboards, but it is her face I find myself staring at: small, kitten-shaped, dominated by her huge dark eyes. She has gypsy eyes. They were very bright when we were both younger; now they are ringed by deep gray shadows like bruises and filled with pain. Meeting mine, they beg: Save Lenore.
My wife is right of course, and she is living evidence of what will happen to Lenore, our daughter, if I don’t intervene. But Christ, I think, how can I save her when the foul disease I’ve taken is ravaging through me like a brushfire? I close my eyes and instantly hear the swish of skirts, so I know she has gotten to her feet, she is moving toward the bed. And now I feel her hand tapping my shoulder urgently.
I open my eyes; her face is full of defiance. Her black brows contract angrily and she points at her wrist. Again.
“Yes,” I say, my voice a ragged whisper, “I know.” I know we will die shut up in this stinking grave of a caravan and Lenore will be possessed by the same hungry spirit that has taken my wife’s life, that has killed Joseph and punished me.
No. She shakes her head, and suddenly her thin hands go to her face; her shoulders hitch and great wracking sobs shake her small frame. She is crying, and the wailing voice I hear is the first sound she has made as Mimi, as my wife, in more months than I can count. She speaks when she is Anyeta, I think bitterly, but never as Mimi. Anyeta has taken that from her, too.
She sinks onto the edge of the bed, her long hair falling forward, and I want to comfort her. I sit up but my chest burns. I cough, my throat a column of fire, but it’s so hard to breathe. I make myself cough harder and up comes a wad of greasy yellow phlegm streaked with blood. I manage to hide the clotty mess in a handkerchief before Mimi turns her head and sees it.
I put my arm around her shoulder. Her eyes flick toward my fingers. She whirls around and points at the livid scar on her wrist. I nod. Mimi is reminding me again. She has tried to save Lenore herself, but her powers have fled. I admire her courage. It wasn’t failure.
“Not your fault,” I rasp before the rumbling cough cleaves me again. We both wait until the fit passes. I let my hand rest on her knee.
All at once, Mimi seizes my wrist hard. Her grip is like iron, like steel pincers, and I’m suddenly terrified the change is on her and in a second her eyes will blink and I’ll see Anyeta’s demonic eyes, hear her mocking screams and taunts.
But Mimi throws my hand back at me and runs to the oval mirror. She jerks it from the plastered wall so fiercely the nail pops out with a shriek and she nearly loses her balance. The silvery mirror sways between her hands, she holds it to her chest like a shield, she moves toward the bed. She is making a grunting noise, trying to tell me something. I concentrate on her lips. She is moving them carefully, slowly. Then I have it:
In the mirror I see my features are blurred with thick scabs and crusts. My face is overrun with the red weeping sores and I would weep for the sight except I think she has seen it spreading and nursed me and never shown revulsion or fear.
Mimi thrusts the mirror toward me again and makes a furious sound, shapes the word, “Look!”
She wants me to know that time is short, that I’m dying, that the pustulent blisters will eat through my lungs, completely consume my flesh—
Mimi hurls the mirror to the floor. The sound is deafening inside the caravan. I see her feet moving among the splinters from the shattered mahogany frame, the chunks of broken glass. She squats. Heedless, she clutches a long sharp shard and I see drops of blood welling from her palm and fingers then running down and staining the white filmy sleeve of her blouse. She points at her wrist with the glass knife, then at mine, and pantomimes sawing.
And then, Christ, then I know what she wants. A sick feeling eddies through me, and I feel the vomit rising in my throat. I push it down because Mimi is asking me to be strong, to save Lenore. I look into her dark eyes and I know what she wants. She wants me to claim the hand of the dead.
I get a kick out of people’s responses to both novellas in this collection—with some preferring the Bram Stoker-nominated “Dissolution,” and others just as adamantly standing up for “The Sheila Na Gig.”I rather like them both and am thrilled that “Dissolution” will soon be a feature-length film directed by Paul Leyden.
“Dissolution,” set in upstate New York in the 1890s, is about a young medical student thrown out of his university who travels north thinking he’ll be a tutor to twin girls only to discover that they are conjoined and their father—also a doctor—has hired him because he means to separate them surgically.
Two excellent books that influenced the novella’s winter-bound isolation heavily are ETHAN FROMME by Edith Wharton and GHOST STORY by Peter Straub.
“The Sheila Na Gig,” which bookends the previous novella,and is also set in the past, is about a young man whose grandmother uses witchcraft in Ireland to ensnare him and his whole family. His struggle to escape the horror of dysfunction in the extreme is both harrowing and poignant. A few of my Beta readers noted that parts of the story made them weep.
As Elizabeth Massie wrote in her introduction to the collection, “…pushes us headfirst into nightmarish, claustrophobic worlds where families cling together even as they try to destroy one another.”
I was twenty when I first came to Hyde Park, New York and fell in love with the child who was both woman and ghost. And God help me, it was my infatuation–or obsession–if you prefer, that spawned both her strange shadow life as my bride and–later, much later–her death.
It was December, and the Hudson River was frozen. I hailed from the Carolinas, and after a bleak train ride north, my first, my strongest memory of the region was that solid white mass like a road, of wind blowing and the sight of tight-lipped red faced men hauling blocks of ice on sledges, the horses straining for purchase on the slippery surface.
Their shouts were muffled by the heavy quietfall of snow, even the sound of the train whistling as it left the depot was deadened, and standing on the wooden platform, the chill of the boards penetrating my thin-soled shoes, I thought, I have come to a lonely place. White and cold and deathly still.
“THE SHEILA NA GIG:
“They made Brigantia a saint.”
Tom looked up from the bench where he was polishing his brother Bob’s boots. His grandmother had a wild, faraway look in her brown eyes. She was huddled near the fireplace with a bowl of milk and bread in her lap.
“The stupid Irish, they made Brigantia a saint!” Rose Smith said again.
Tom knew she might go on with this–or another equally meaningless phrase–for hours. He skinned the bristle brush against the leather instep and gave out a sigh.
“Tom,” Cedric said. “Show some respect for the aged.” He rustled in the drift of manuscript pages–most of them halved scraps–that covered his desk. “What does it matter if she prattles a bit? She can’t help it.”
“Right.” He left off shoe blacking and got up. But it did matter, Tom thought, because his father was spouting a lie. Cedric urging tolerance of his grandmother had nothing to do with respect and everything to do with his own motives. Rose was said–not by the family, but by the local farmers and their wives–to be a hag, a witch. Cedric liked to hear her talk because in some way, Tom knew, his father secretly believed she would come out of her mania and empower his failed writing, set right the wreck of his life.
He’s just waiting for a chair to fly across the room so he can put it in his bloody book. Tom didn’t know if Cedric felt his mother leant atmosphere or just spurred a flagging imagination, and he didn’t care. What he did care about was the way the snarly-haired old woman gave him the flits.
Tom glanced at her. Her head was canted sideways, her wrinkled mouth, dripping milk. She was staring at him; then her tongue flicked out and she licked the warm milk from the corner of her mouth. She began to chuckle lightly.