This Spring, I’ll be releasing my second novel, The Half Killed, a supernatural murder-mystery set in London at the end of the nineteenth century.
Now, I don’t know when the idea of The Half Killed came to me. It started with a scene. And then another scene. And then another and another, until I had an entire world in front of me and a wider variety of characters than I could have ever anticipated. Of course, once I’d written several thousand words and a few chapters, I realized I needed to slow down and research and make sure I was happy with what I was producing. I didn’t mean to slow down to the point that it would take nearly a decade to finish the book, but there you go.
This little scene was the first thing I wrote. I clearly remember sitting up very late at night (this was pre-marriage and children) and scribbling this whole thing down in a notebook, my hand cramping up as I reached the end of it but not wanting to stop for fear that the words would dribble out of my head before I could get them onto the page.
At this point, my main character didn’t even have a name. (She’s Dorothea Hawes now, but she was simply Spiritualist Girl at the beginning). But from this bit grew another 90,000 words and 24 chapters. And even more stories for these characters to tell.
The hush came quickly, as it always did. Even the coughing ceased, and I knew I had them. They would hold all of it in: the noises, the whispers—even the scratchings were postponed for a time, until the lights came up again and that aura of the mysterious lost its hold.
When the curtain rose, a shudder passed through the crowd, hundreds of bodies moving forward, shifting for a better view. The immediate disappointment was an almost palpable thing. The stage was mostly bare but for a chair, a table, and a few other knick-knacks that wouldn’t serve any purpose as the evening progressed. But Marta insisted on them, claiming that a few baubles were necessary to entertain the eye.
The edge of the curtain was my barrier, my point of no return. Behind the heavy fabric that smelled of dust and age, I tried not to give in to my curiosity, my head bowed as I assured myself that no one out there could hear the erratic palpitations inside my chest. The hiss of the gas jets was something of a comfort, and I exhaled through parted my lips as I closed my eyes and pretended—for a moment, at least—that the performance had already arrived at its end.
The people would stand then, find their way back towards their homes, and I would escape to my room, if Marta allowed it. More often than not, there would be a private audience she would wish for me to entertain, and once again it would be long past midnight before I could stare out my window, until I could allow the voices to fade to a low buzz of whispering inside my head.
My feet were cold. Understandable, since I was not permitted even a thin pair of stockings for protections against the drafts that rattled through the old theater. I had complained to Marta about it, and what had she done? Nothing, as usual. Because it had been her idea in the first place, to send me out only half-dressed, as if I were some kind of nymph, a child of nature, recently caught gamboling with elves and sprites before turning onto Regent Street for a quick show in front of the natives. That is, if the natives arrived at the door with no less than five shillings and an air of respectability about them.
Marta liked to tell me I was made for this, and there were some days when I was inclined to agree with her. She claimed to have seen a promise in the soft lines of my face. Maybe of beauty, or wisdom, but something vague enough to allow people to apply any future they pleased to my unblemished features.
Perhaps that was part of my charm, my lack of age, or of the artifice that generally accompanied a person of advanced years. Every night, when I looked out over the crowd, I saw the need for trust. The people wanted to put their trust in me, because I stood there, the evidence of their second lives in corporeal form.
Marta’s voice reached my ears, her dulcet tones telling the audience what they wished to hear—that their prayers would be answered, all of their skepticism laid to rest. And there were always one or two skeptics in every crowd, usually the sour-faced man or woman leaning back in their seat, eyes narrowed as they hoped to catch a glimpse of the mirror, or the string, or the obvious tool that would transform all of my lauded powers into mere sleight of hand or trickery. Even after afterward, there would always be a few who still refused to believe. But I wasn’t there to convince them. If I’d had any choice, I would n0t have been there at all.
Marta finished speaking, and then she was again at my side, prodding my shoulder with her knuckle.
“Give ‘em a show,” she whispered into my ear, the blast of her breath on my skin raising the hairs on the back of my neck. “You always work too quick. Stretch it out some. It’s the tension they want, the suspense. Make ‘em feel it, and then we’ll see those seats full to bursting through the end of the week.”
The heat was there the moment I stepped out from behind the protection of the curtain, as if I’d deserted one world and walked into another. In this place, I looked out with eyes wide open, unflinching when I observed the look of pain or horror I’d brought to someone’s face.
But there could be joy, as well. Despite my wording, some only heard what they wanted, translating my speech into something more palatable, shaping it into a comfort that would wrap itself around them the next time they closed their eyes to sleep. A few people merely wished for closure, and I was able to offer it to them. But with closure often came the end of hope, a door or window sealed shut, one that might have remained open for years and years.
That was why they came to see me, for the assurance that death was not the end of all things. To them, death was simply another part of life—an often unseemly part, yes—but one that had to be gotten through before they could enjoy the next stage of their existence.
That is what they told themselves, those who believed their spirits would carry on long after their bodies had been lowered into the ground. That there was more life to be had, that their time on earth was but the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things.
And there were those who believed they would return after death, and that others could and did. That the rattling they heard in the attic wasn’t an infestation of squirrels, but rather the restless spirit of their dearly departed mother come back to reveal a great secret that would shake the family’s foundation to its core. Of course, those were the ones who could not be helped. Their beliefs were the most steadfast. Tell them the truth, and they would call me a liar.
The stage was gritty, though I knew it had been thoroughly swept some time in the last few hours. One night, when I moved too quickly, a thin splinter of wood forced itself into the soft flesh near the arch of my foot. A wince at the corners of my eyes, and the audience must have been convinced I had received a vital communication from the spirit world. And all I could think about was finding a warm foot bath and a pair of tweezers.
But the memory of the splinter reminded me of Marta’s constant advice, that I should be more demonstrative with my emotions. I had seen other ones like myself, or the ones who claimed to be like me. And for all I knew, they were the truly gifted while I lived with a controlled sort of madness. I had seen them put on their shows—their demonstrations—and they were all theatrics and light, smoke and mirrors. An evening of diversions and misdirection. Waving one hand to distract the audience while they picked their pockets with the other. And the people adored them.
The woman—and it was almost always a woman—appeared on stage as if that itself, her grand entrance, was enough to steal the very breath from her audience. There were colored lights to dazzle the eye, and a mist of artificial fog that clung to the edges of the stage, settling at eye level with the front row. Many handkerchiefs were drawn from pockets, and the more delicate even admitted to having been overcome by the fumes. Later, I knew that they would claim it was due to having been in the presence of such divine power, their souls stirred into a state of exhilaration their feeble bodies failed to contain.
They worked with the senses, those other intercessors between the living and the dead. The smell of roses was in the air, they said. Of lilacs. Of soured milk. Of coagulated blood. And they would claim to have heard a voice. A wispy voice. Female, more than likely. But occasionally a man’s voice, robust and chagrined all at the same time. Sometimes they would even go so far as to alter their own voice, to mimic a speech pattern so unlike their own there could be little doubt that it must have come from another speaker, a spirit inhabiting their body.
And the show would often be peppered with allusions to art. I once witnessed a well-constructed tableaux vivant, rich with costumes, with colored lights that shimmered from fire pans set at the sides of the stage. And there had even been a few manifestations, always the highlight of a successful performance. A vision of a wandering spirit, lit by white light, the picture gaining opacity as the artist sank more deeply into their trance.
I used none of those tricks. Marta told me that I should, implored me as she counted the takings from the previous week. I could’ve been a sensation. Add a tremble here or there, a kind of high-pitched keening when the pressure of the spirits became too much to bear. Do all that, and I could have found myself putting on a show in the presence of royalty.
The people who crowded into the theater every evening—twice on Saturdays—the easy cadence of their lives was more than enough. To say that I was aware of their entrance into the theater sounded more like what I ought to say than the actual truth. I felt nothing from them, sensed nothing. Standing where I did, just behind the curtain, I was mostly ignorant of the shuffling of feet, the brush of velvet against silk, a scrap of lace torn from the hem of a lady’s skirt. I had only what my imagination could conjure.
But it was what the people brought with them that alerted me to their arrival, the unseen visitors tagging along, clinging like a cloud of smoke, able to penetrate and glide through the most solid of objects. And then it was a cacophony inside my head, like the ringing of church bells. Only there was no such holy connection with what I heard.
I stood in the center of the stage, my eyes closed. The table was to my right, and I put out my hand—for support, I assured myself—and gripped the edge of the wood with knuckles that rapidly lost their color.
In my head, I heard them start. But that wasn’t quite true. They’d been talking for some time, daring to shriek while I used no small amount of strength to subdue them. In front of me, there was silence. No coughing, hardly a sniff despite the cold and the damp that seeped through the building’s framework. And then the crowd gazed up at me, waiting. For a sign. For a revelation. For an evening’s entertainment.
I wanted to tell them all to leave. The instruction danced on the tip of my tongue, quaked in my limbs. The urge to yell and scream, to tear out my hair and rave like a madwoman, spitting obscenities while the sound portion of my mind, what was left of it, recited a prayer.
Dear God, I will give you my life, my soul, if you will free me from this burden, if you will give me some meager amount of peace.
But there was no reply. There never was, no matter how many times I sent those words towards heaven. The communications between the two of us had been demolished years before, and so I was simply speaking to the air, my plea lost amid the terrible, mocking cries that poisoned my every thought.
The audience waited for me. I had to give them their show, no matter how unsatisfactory my performance turned out to be. Some would walk away calling me a fraud, a charlatan, or—if they wished the barb to truly stick—a mere actress. I’d be the topic of conversation over a late supper, and then I’d be forgotten. But not everyone would have that luxury. Others would hear my words, their eyes widening as I painted a picture of torment for them. And they would go away with a pain in their chests, like a fist closing around their heart, and even then, they would experience only a hint of my suffering.
And then, it was time.
I opened my eyes, and there were the faces. I didn’t study any of them, afraid that one of them would be familiar to me, that Marta’s dream would be realized by my acquisition of a following. Even then, I suspected that I’d become a sort of holy personage to a few of them, divine proof of the connection between this world and the world beside their own. A simple nod of my head, and I heard a woman gasp in anticipation of whatever that small movement might come to signify. But it was only a nod, nothing more. A mere welcome to the audience before me. Both seen and unseen.