My first 100% horror novel was published last month, just in time for Halloween. My editor and I went through several huge revisions to get the book exactly the way we wanted it. There were so many revisions, there are only three scenes left from first draft I turned in! That UNCANNY was a very different novel than the one that was published. It has a different set of characters–only the hero and the villain remained the same–and the POV was 3rd person. Here’s the opening scene, written in 2013, warts and all. Take a look at it and the opening chapter of UNCANNY and compare.
In Danvers Massachusetts, where they hanged witches once upon a time, there was a place called The Burying Place. It opened in the year of our lord sixteen and thirty-seven, and it would be just like any old New England cemetery—overgrown and neglected and forgotten by the modern age—if not for the people who were buried there. Outside the cemetery, on an iron gate that surrounds the cemetery, there was a deteriorating sign that listed the names of the famous people they had stuck in the ground centuries before, including John Hathorne Of The Witchcraft Court and The Hanging Man, Also Of The Court.
John Hathorne was a very bad man, for several reasons, the biggest of which is that he presided over the witch trials. But the Hanging Man, oh, the Hanging Man was also much worse than Hathorne. He alone took the lives of forty-seven innocents in the span of a few months time. The querulous people of Salem Village came to believe that he was evil incarnate, although in fact, he was not a man at all and not the demon that many later claimed.
Imagine the rotting sign and the rusty iron gate it hung on. Picture an old woman with a craggy face, wearing a plain bonnet and a black, formless wool dress. Watch her walked toward the gate, a liver-spotted hand carrying an oil lantern. It’s light shone on the line of tourists behind her. When the line reached the gate, the old woman stopped suddenly, then turned and held the lantern up as high as she could, so that the oil light washed her face is heat and light.
“The tools of the witch hunter are few,” she said, her voice sharp and loud but with that tremor that ladies her age all seem to have. “A pricking wand to divine the Devils Mark, a set of thumb screws for sussing out a confession, a spectral detector for spotting a witch’s Familiar. The most important tool, though, is a quick wit and a level head for keeping one step ahead of the heretics and naysayers who seek to undermine the work of those who will not suffer a witch to live.”
The old woman waited for the murmurs of fear and delight that always followed that line. Then satisfied, she continued.
“It was a quick wit that served so well Malleus Maleficentia,” she said, “the Hammer of Evil, the greatest witch hunter of the Elizabethan Age, who personally condemned the lives of six hundred and sixty five witches in the Old World. “
The old woman turned to the crowd and held a lantern to her craggy face. “The story of Malleus’ downfall will be only one of the tragic tales I’ll impart to you if you take the Graveyard tour. Only seven bucks and starting in ten minutes by the gate of the Burying Point.”
Then she cackled and blew out the light of the lantern, leaving the gathered crowd of tourists cloaked in darkness near the entrance to the Burying Point Cemetery. For a few seconds, the crowd stood still, then moved like a flock to a ticket booth beneath a canopy of half-bare trees. Wind whipped the branches, pulling the leaves to the ground. They tumbled along a gravel road and through an iron gate and stopped at the feet of three teenager girls, the Weyward sisters, who had ridden a bus from bus that afternoon after skipping the last half of the school day at Mattapan High.
The tallest and oldest sister was Filia, age eighteen and the most conservatively dressed. She wore a knee-length black dress with a sheer patterned black cover up and black tights with ankle boots. Her shoulder length hair was dyed the color of India ink, and she wore stark white face powder and outlined her lips in blood red lip pencil.
The middle sister, Vyna, was petite with dyed hair the color of Filia’s lips worn in a short pixie cut. She wore a shirt T-shirt with a steel gray skull applique and the sleeves chopped out, black short shorts, and a pair of knee boots fastened with steel safety pins. She wore chain bracelets on both arms and a large cross around her neck. Her face had no makeup except for a black circle under her left eye that looked like someone had given her a shiner.
The youngest and almost as tall as her oldest sister, Ruta, was a freshman with long naturally black hair that almost reached her butt. She wore a leather bustier, though she was almost flat chested, a plaid highland skirt fishnet hose, and stacked hell boots up to her knees.
“Seven bucks?” Ruta said, cupping her hands to light a cigarette as she and her two sisters drifted away from the crowd. They had business in the cemetery, but it nothing to do with visiting tourist traps like the rest of these sheep. They had come to do mischief and get rewarded for it, too. “To see a bunch of crumbling headstones? What a fricking rip-off. Whyn’t they just get a gun? It’d be more honest.”
“You’re breaking my heart.” Her older sister, Filia, took the cigarette from her hand and took a long drag. “You’re too young to smoke, Rue. And pull up your hoodie, huh? It’s protects your face.”
“Protects my face from what?”
“From being seen, you moron,” her other sister, Vyna, said and tossed a hoodie into Ruta’s face. “Put this on.” Even though Vyna was only a year older than Ruta, she acted like the boss, even though everybody knew Filia was in charge. “We can’t take you nowhere.”
Ruta pushed Vyna back. “Hands off.”
“Oh yeah?” Vyna said, pulling on a hoodie and raising her fists. “What’re doing to do about it?”
“Shut it,” Filia said, taking a drag of the cigarette. It burned like a hot coal in the cold autumn night. She handed Ruta a twenty, then slipped her own hoodie on. “Go get the tickets. The old lady’s coming back.”
Even with her face hidden by a hood and darkness, Ruta could tell Filia was giving her a look sharp enough to cut glass. “Because I told you to.”
“Okay, okay.” Ruta took the money and queued up at the end of the line. A minute later, as the old woman unchained the iron gate to the cemetery, she handed the tickets to her sisters.
Old people gave Rue the creeps. Maybe it was because after their mother died and their father left them with his eight-year-old mother so he could work an oilrig down in the Gulf of Mexico, they were stuck taking care of the old bat more than she took care of them. She was blind in one eye and needed glasses for the other one. Her ears were gone to shit, and her skin hung from her arms like the roof liner of a thirty year old Chevy. Every night, she went to bed at eight, which left the Weyward girls with time on their hands, which they spent getting done up and going to raves most nights, usually at Club Phantom, which is where they met a twenty-something witch named Melinoë, who told them about a certain crypt in the Burying Point, one that would bring them power that they couldn’t even imagine.
“This way, please,” the old woman said, holding the lantern close to her face again. The yellow light cast shadows in the deep craggy lines of her face. “Mind the path. It can get bumpy.”
“Jeez,” Ruta said as they took last place in the line behind the light of the swinging lantern. She decided that when they got the power Melinoë had promised, she was going to use it to quit school. Massachusetts’s compulsory attendance law said she had to go til she was sixteen, but with power, she could change that. “The old bat looks like a witch herself, huh?”
Filia pulled her hood up and nodded for her sister to do the same. Ruta lit a cigarette, cupping the match to shield it from the quickening wind, which swirled deadfall leaves around their feet. The smoke drifted to the front of the line, and the old woman stopped abruptly to raise her chisel-sharp voice.
“No smoking on the grounds, young ladies,” she said, and she by God meant it the way a Sister Margaret meant it when she took a ruler to my knuckles in third grade for asking her why Jesus let babies die. That’s me, the one who always asks the hard questions.
“Stick it in your pie hole, granny,” Ruta called, which earned her a smack in the head from Filia.
“Don’t give the nice lady no lip,” Filia said. “Put ’em out.”
Ruta let the cigarette dangle on her lip, the paper sticking to her skin. “But it’s my last one.”
“Put ‘em out,” Filia plucked the cancer stick and dropped it on the ground, where her heel ground it into the gravel. “We come here for the tour, not to cause mischief.”
“We didn’t? But—“
Vyna smacked her in the belly, cutting of the sentence. “What’re you, mush in the head? Use your brain for once.”
“No use hitting me. I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
Filia grabbed Ruta’s shoulder and pulled her ahead. “Come on, let’s catch up with the tour.”
Twenty yards ahead, the guide stopped next to a large gravestone. The light from her lantern revealed an ornate marker engraved with a faded name and decorated with a skull and wings.
“Here lies John Hathorne,” the old woman began. Her voice shook as if from the cold, but with the practice of a muse who had told the tale so many times, it was part of her. “Hathorne, as many of you know from reading The Crucible in school, was the judge who sat over the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. He was both one of the most respected and feared men in the village. Over the years, his reputation has not held up so well. Even his descendent, Nathaniel Hawthorne, changed the spelling of his last name to avoid the stigma of the judge’s tainted surname.”
“Yeah,” Vyna said, “killing lots of innocent women on the word of a couple horny teenagers will do that for you.”
As one, the crowd turned to face Vyna, who stared at them from under the hoodie, the shadows making her chalk white face and black lipstick even more menacing than she could’ve hoped for. With a collective start, they looked away from her face, unnerved to be standing in a cemetery on a dark night with a girl who looked fresh from the grave herself.
“What?” Vyna said, holding out both hands, which were stuffed in the pockets of her hoodie. “I’m just sayin’ what Miller implied in The Crucible, which is that repressed sexuality was the underlying cause of the hysteria that struck the colony at the time. The fact that the victims of witch trials were traditionally teenaged girls and independent women who ever either unmarried or widowed speaks to the trials being a way to oppose females using hysteria and religious zealotry.”
“I believe that the guests paid to hear me, not you,” the old woman said and shook the lantern accusingly at her. Clearly, the last thing she wanted to hear was a treatise on the lack of rights of Pilgrim women when her tired legs were throbbing and somewhere in her kitchen, there was a kettle and a couple tea bags with her name on them to chase away the night’s chill. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you will follow me, over to the right is the grave of one of the original passengers of the Mayflower.”
Filia stepped toward the front of the line, cutting off the guide’s path. “Excuse me?” she said in a passably earnest voice. “Before we go, can you tell me who was buried in that crypt over there?”
The color drained out of the woman’s sagging face as she pointed. The crowd turned as she did and followed the imaginary line to a rough-hewn stone crypt under a towering, but dead, tree. Its inches-thick slab was stained and covered with a thick carpet of shaggy moss, as no one had tended to it in decades, maybe centuries, forgotten by the ages.
“It’s nothing,” the guide whispered.
“Nothing?” Filia said, looking down into at the old woman, her face like a mask of lantern light, close to hers. “That crypt’s frigging massive. Look how think the stone is. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to bury nothing, right?”
The woman drew up her back and took a deep breath, regaining her composure. “That, young lady, is the crypt of the Hanging Man, the executioner of the Witch Trials. Reportedly, he was the man who piled stones upon Goodman Corey, and when man cried for more weight, she himself stood on the pressing door and crushed the poor man to death.”
“Cool!” Ruta said. She had always heard the story of Giles Corey and wondered what kind of cruel evil bastard would drop a rock on him. It thrilled her to no end that the bastard in question was buried in the very crypt that they had come to Danvers to open.
“You would not have thought it was so cool if you’d met him in 1692.” The guide’s voice shook with sudden anger. “He was the court’s witch hunter. He gathered spectral evidence by stabbing the accused with a needle he kept against his heart. And not only did he execute the poor souls who were convicted, he collected their thumbs as trophies.”
“’By the pricking of my thumbs,’” Ruta said, quoting Macbeth, “’something wicked this way comes.’”
Filia grabbed her sister by the arm and pulled her close enough to whisper in her ear. “All right, smartass, quit showing off. We all know you’re the brains of the family, even if you’re flunking every freaking class. Just shut up, okay? You’re drawing too much attention to yourself.”
“Who cares?” Ruta said, pulling free. “At midnight tonight, I won’t need school anymore, and there’s nothing nobody’s going to be able to do about it.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Filia said as they tailed the crowd to the crypt, which the guide tried to steer away to no success. “We got nothing till that crypt gets opened. Now shut your pie hole until the tour’s over, and I won’t have to shut it for you.”
“Don’t be such a bully,” Ruta said. “You’re sounding more and more like Dad.”
“That’s a bad thing, Rue?” Vyna asked
“Yeah,” she said with a stricken look that shut Vyna’s pie hole tight. “Yeah, it is, and you of all people know why.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the old woman said, spreading her arms wide, the black shawl she wore spread wide like a crow’s wings. “There really is nothing to see here. If we could return to tour.”
Vyna rubbed her hand over the stone. “Can’t see nothing for the moss. What was this Hanging Man’s name?”
“We don’t speak his real name,” she replied. “We call him Malleus, for fear that he will awaken in her grave and rise from the dead.”
A tourist laughed, and the woman wheeled on her. Her face was fixed in a grimace, her eyes bloodshot with fear. “This is no laughing matter! The Hanging Man was one of the most reviled men in Salem Village. He left a stain of blood that time cannot erase!”
“Sorry,” the man said meekly, clearly overwhelmed by the woman’s intensity, which came in the form of bulging eyes and spittle flying from her mouth. “Didn’t mean to upset you. Thought you were just trying to get a fright out of us.”
The woman took a deep breath and regained her composure enough to force a smile. “It’s all right. Under the circumstances, I would think the same thing. It’s getting late, and we have several graves to visit. Come along, please. Now.”
The crowd dutifully obeyed, except for the Weyward sisters, who hung back, sizing up the crypt. Vyna pushed on the stone. It didn’t give at all.
“Think we can handle it?” Vyna said. “The capstone’s friggin heavy.”
“Knowing what’s waiting inside for us?” Filia said. “We’ll find a way.”
“Young ladies!” the old woman called from the Mayflower grave. “No loitering, please. No one is allowed in the cemetery unescorted.”
Filia pushed Ruta toward the path. “You heard the lady, let’s go. It’s getting late, and we want Granny tucked in her bed and not out here bothering us.”
“Why?” Vyna called back. “Is the boogey man going to grab ‘em and string ‘em up?”
“After we’re done,” Rue said softly, “that might be exactly what happens.”