March Madness: The Splits by MV Clark

In honor of March Madness month, MV Clark has shared with us an excerpt of her novel, The Splits.

Can you keep out The Splits, or is it already inside you?

A global zombie plague known as ‘The Splits’ is kept under fragile control, but nobody feels safe.

Anna, a young journalist, fears she’s infected. She learns all she can about the disease, which brings her to the attention of Lupe – a maverick scientist working on an unconventional cure. As Anna discovers the secrets of the disease, her world begins to fall apart.

Meanwhile, what is going on with Anna’s sister Claire, and her strange little boy Michael?

“[The Splits] does all the things quality horror should do – builds suspense, delivers shocks and distorts everyday reality to great effect. And creates a creeping feeling that something is very very wrong.” Louise – amazon reviewer

“The story started with some grotesque and thrilling scenes, so I expected that it would be a clichéd zombie survival horror at the beginning. But it wasn’t! It was a good mixture of Western and Japanese horror with psychological horror. I enjoyed it so much!” Yuuki, Goodreads reviewer

Enjoy this excerpt from The Splits


2015 – Anna

I have a garden now, and often I sit there and think about how the plague began. The plants change from season to season – in spring there’s a mass of purple alliums, in summer there are dark red roses, in autumn, white anemones riot. But my favourite place is always on the weathered bench by the back wall, where the winter jasmine climbs. I sit and I recall 1969, the year the sickness started.

Patient zero was covered by the US section of the Sunday paper. Nobody realised who he was at the time. Schoolteacher Bites Pupil ran the headline, and the violent attack was given just one paragraph.

I didn’t pay much attention. It was just after my sister had her son Michael and whenever I saw them he was screaming. I was shocked by his perpetual misery and annoyed by Claire’s masochistic dedication. I wasn’t really concentrating on events overseas. I tossed the edition on a pile and forgot about it.

But the following week the paper devoted a whole page to the incident. According to the report, Mr Driscoll had been explaining genetic and chromosomal aberrations to his twelfth grade science class. Over the course of the lesson, an odd rash came up on his left eyelid. Mid-sentence, he tailed off and stared at the class as if he didn’t know where he was.

I did actually go to New York a while back, with Michael of all people, but in 1969 I’d never been. Thus, I tried to imagine what that day must have been like. It was February, so it would have been freezing outside. It might also have been raining – drumming on the glass, sluicing down the sidewalks. One of those dull, dark days when the light is just a tarnished silver trickle. Beautiful in its own way, but not much use when you’re in a school science lab, under that harsh fluorescent lighting so beloved of the education system, which makes everything look plastic.

The victim, a capable student called Tina Beneventi, asked Driscoll if he was okay. He looked frightened, “like he’d seen a ghost,” said students. Something startled him – not Tina – and he raised his arm as if warding off a blow.

But a moment later he lowered it, walked slowly out from behind his desk, and towards her. When he was close he cocked his head strangely. She described seeing ‘a bright light in his eye’.

He reached out and stroked her shoulder, which was bare. She flinched. He smiled, as if to reassure her. There was silence in the classroom.

Then, with the speed and precision of a striking snake, he seized her arm and bit it.

The other students, shocked into action, surged at the pair and pulled Driscoll away. One boy raised his arm ready to land a punch. At that moment, Driscoll’s left eye began to bulge and, to his pupils’ abject horror, the eyeball shot out of its socket, not unlike a champagne cork. It sat on his cheek for a moment, suspended by the optic nerve, then fell to the floor where it rolled under a cabinet.

Curiously, this seemed to snap him out of it. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and, spitting blood, mumbled an apology.

I was captivated, especially by the phrase ‘a bright light in his eye’. I cut the page out, retrieved the shorter piece from the previous week, and put them in a folder. But I won’t go over how I chose each cutting. I know the story so well I prefer to run through it in my own way rather than follow the zigzag of dawning comprehension that was my actual experience.

At first Tina displayed her usual resilience, but within hours she became agitated and took to her bed. Her parents assumed it was shock, a reaction to the trauma of being attacked by a trusted adult. When she complained about hard, numb patches on her hands and feet, they thought it was a side issue.

Driscoll was let out on bail with a bandage over his eye. He hired a prostitute, brought her back to his apartment and attacked her. They made so much noise a neighbour called the cops, but by the time they arrived the woman was dead. Back then the cause of death was considered unusual – he had buried his head in her stomach and eaten her organs. When they broke down the door they saw his head was caked with blood. The bandage was long gone and where the eye had been was just a black pit.

But there was something even grimmer. The infection had spread to the rest of his body and patches of raised, purplish skin were peeling away like bark, leaving angry red lesions. These gashes were weeping vast quantities of fluid – the floor was sticky with it. The rapid dehydration made him gaunt to the point of emaciation, and yet his strength was almost superhuman. It took ten officers to subdue him, two for each limb and two for his head.

There was concern for the state of the officers, but nobody expected the hooker to reanimate and murder a member of the forensics team. She gained entry to another apartment and killed the tenant, tearing out his stomach right in front of his girlfriend. The papers did not even try to explain it. Mystery of Injured Spree-Killer read one headline.

A day later the girlfriend was found feasting on a young intern in a bathroom cubicle at her place of work, the New York Bank of Ambrose. The alarm was raised but it was too late to stop the bizarre syndrome sweeping the building.

The police were first to respond. They quickly discovered nothing could stop the infected except a gunshot to the head. Even this was not completely reliable and often several rounds were required, but using this method they were eventually able to secure the area. By the time the crisis was contained seventy people had been taken away in body bags.

New York grieved for the wound inflicted on its oldest bank. Ambrose offered to fund six months of therapy for surviving staff, and after a while business resumed.

City, state and federal experts worked to determine the cause of the violence. Their initial finding was that it was down to a new kind of infectious illness outside all existing categories. One newsroom launched a serious investigation into the possibility that it came from outer space.

The attacks began again, all over the city now, carried out by the Beneventi family and by the same police and forensic staff that had dealt with Driscoll and the prostitute. This time there were nine separate clusters and that was it – before long there was a fully fledged epidemic. Throughout the summer it spread down the East Coast, through the Carolinas and Georgia and into the South.

I live in London, always have done. At the time I was working for a local newspaper, The Haringey Tribune. I was twenty-three and a senior reporter. I went to court cases, council meetings, road accidents and police briefings. I knocked everywhere from the huge gated mansions of Bishop’s Avenue – Millionaire’s Row as it was known – to the flimsy modular front doors of Broadwater Farm, a high-rise housing estate inspired by utopian ideas about ‘streets in the sky’. I liked the job. My mind was quick and my work was appreciated.

The tiny salary allowed me to rent a studio flat on the ladder roads near Harringay Green Lanes, an area at that time notable for its Greek Cypriots. The room came with a worn-out brown sofa bed, a surprisingly deep and comfortable armchair, also brown, a grimy kitchenette and a shared bathroom. I did my best to beautify it with pot plants and ornaments from jumble sales. I had read somewhere that peacock feathers were bad luck, but I put three in an empty wine bottle and stood them on the sideboard.

The flat was no palace but two things redeemed it. First, its closeness to my sister Claire and her family – just a twenty minute walk.

Second, a big bay window overlooking the tree-lined road as it sloped down to Green Lanes. By late afternoon the sun would be at the perfect angle to throw gold squares on the walls, which shimmered and streamed as if the light had passed through deep waters. I loved to sit in my armchair with my feet up and gaze at the street while the glimmering parallelograms slid slowly across the room. At such moments, even on a cold day, the air in the flat would feel hot and still.

I remember vividly the moment I realised the disease was coming here. It was August and the flat was genuinely hot. I was sitting in the armchair drinking iced lime cordial. It was too early for the streaming squares of light and I’d pulled the blind halfway down to keep the sun out of my eyes. I picked up the newspaper and the front page story was the disappearance of Heathrow-bound BA502, which had crashed in the middle of the Atlantic after a crazed passenger went on the rampage.

It was obvious why the passenger was crazed. And if a sick person could board a plane to the UK once then they could again. Sooner or later the disease would arrive on our tiny, insignificant shores.

We had all seen an infected by then, in photos or on the TV. We knew how the sickness was transmitted and its appalling course. For a while after you were bitten – minutes or even hours – you might act fine, look fine, feel fine. But eventually you began to change. Nobody knew what it felt like from the inside because nobody had recovered to tell the story. There was only one end – a perpetual half-death, your mind gone and your body disintegrating as you hungered for the flesh of the living.

Yet despite months of investigations nobody knew what caused it. No new virus or bacteria had been isolated from any of the bodies.

I remember looking down into the street at the people walking past. An old man with a flat cap. Two girls with secretive smiles on their faces. A young guy with a barely there moustache. I shivered and uttered a silent prayer for them. I hoped they would do the same for me.

After that a restrained panic spread through the population. Sales of gas masks, knives and bludgeoning sticks soared, as did home security enhancements of all kinds. But nobody took to the streets. Nobody went on strike over something that was so obviously an act of God.

Then came a cold winter and the first attack on British soil. It took place at the 29 bus stop in Wood Green, a patch I reported on for The Trib. I wrote the following story:

Flesh-eating OAP Arrested

A woman was bitten on the face and neck as she waited for a bus.

Donald Carey, 72, of Lordship Lane, was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of Katie Logan, 23, of Hewitt Avenue, who is in Chase Farm Hospital in a critical condition.

Charlie Coombes, 18, of Lyndhurst Road, rescued Miss Logan. He said: “I noticed [Carey] because he was swaying in the middle of the pavement and something was dripping down his legs.

“He was staring, then he went for her, making a horrible gargling noise. He was eating her. There was blood everywhere, I got covered in it. He was strong, after we got him off her we had to keep hold or he would have gone for us.”

Police say Miss Logan and Carey are unknown to each other. They are seeking to establish if Carey had recently been in the US. Doctors say Miss Logan will have permanent scars.

For the UK the infection started there, at the 29 bus stop in Wood Green. At first authorities used the vernacular US term for the disease – the Frenzy. Then it was called severe scleroderma desolati – ‘scleroderma’ for hardening of the tissues and ‘desolati’ for melting. Neither term caught on with the general public. In 1982 it was officially named Scott–Lapidot Disease after two US scientists who isolated the particle thought to cause it.

But the name most of us used took its inspiration from the leaking crevices that opened up in the skin as the infection took hold. It was homegrown and informal, and thoroughly British. The Splits.

 


MV Clark grew up in London. She worked in journalism for 18 years. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian newspaper, and Museums Journal and Spirit and Destiny magazines. The Splits is her first novel. She lives in West Sussex with her husband and two children.

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