Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Author, Chapter Seventeen: The First Pages

June 10

“Here,” Vic said, pushing a couple of sheets of paper toward Jeff as he placed a plate of sandwiches next to the writer. After his surprising bout of self-disclosure, Victor had returned to his laptop and written as though the devil himself were cracking a whip over him. “Read this,” he said, then went back to his work without even acknowledging the sandwiches.

Jeff picked up the pages, realized there were just two of them. The first page read, Chapter Three: The Catacombs, and a thrill rolled through Jeff's heart. Part of him had reasonably assumed that Stuart would be sharing his work with him, what else would he be handing him from the table where he wrote? But the reality was almost overwhelming.

He sat down across from Stuart, gathering himself as if he were about to lose his virginity.

Chapter Three: The Catacombs

The inside of the church was drier than it had been in the storm outside, and Wilcox gratefully shook the rain from his coat, but the dryness was the only thing about the interior of the church that was welcoming. A vast crucifix, agonizingly realistic, dominated the altar at the head of the church. Somewhere, in the distance, there was a drip, a regular plonk plonk plonk of water. The church was cold and dark. The interior was so tall as to make one feel that it was only a matter of time before the church collapsed in upon itself, taking any hapless attendees with it.

Jeff shivered and read on, as Wilcox met the young priest who was on duty that day, flashed his investigator's ID and then talked the priest into giving him a tour of the famous catacombs beneath the church. The priest had not wanted to cooperate, but eventually Wilcox had won out.

“The catacombs are beneath the water table,” the priest said, guiding them down the stairs, “So be careful on the steps. They are often damp.”

Wilcox was used to the damp, his shoes were studded for just such occasions, but he didn't feel the need to mention it.

“This level is often referred to as the false catacombs,” the priest said. It was constructed in the dark ages, above the original catacombs, which date back to the 8th Century.” His flashlight played across the primitive stonework, decorated with the silhouettes of bones and skulls. “Very few bodies were actually buried here. Rather, the false catacombs were a place of worship and hiding. They were created as an extended entrance to the true catacombs, which are beneath us. We will descend at least another 20 feet, so it will grow quite colder.”

The priest's voice was gentle and soothing and clearly he had often given this tour before. He was surefooted as they moved into a corner niche, which cleverly disguised spiral stairs. They took it down, leaving the false catacombs. The spiral staircase was so tight that Wilcox often lost sight, not only of the priest, but of the light he carried as well. He continued breathing in a relaxed fashion and walked slowly, steadily down the stairs. This wasn't his first rodeo.

“Here we are,” said the priest gently, and when Wilcox took a last turn, he saw that they were in an antechamber. The priest pushed gently on a heavy stone wall, which pivoted on a gimbal and opened into the true catacombs.

“The Catacombs of Alphonse the Broken,” the priest said, by way of introduction. He played his flashlight into the room, the light catching on small pieces of decorative glass that were embedded in the walls and individual resting places, reflecting like the eyes of small, watchful animals. “This is one of the most untouched catacombs in the world,” he continued, still acting the tour guide. “There are examples here of architecture and design that are found nowhere else.”

The priest gave a slight bow and waved his free hand into the large, dark room. “After you.”

Jeff finished and put the pages down and looked at Stuart for several minutes before the author noticed and stopped his typing. When Stuart finally surfaced for air, he picked up one of the sandwiches and began to chew and swallow. Jeff had gone for simple, turkey, Swiss, mustard and mayo. The author didn't appear to be complaining.

“Well?” he asked through a mouthful of food.

“I really appreciate you letting me—“

Stuart shook his head. “That's not what this is about. I need feedback. Keep me going. What did you think of it? And remember what we talked about before.”

Jeff, who had been about to say 'it was really good' was glad of the reminder. “The priest made me uncomfortable,” he said, after some consideration.

“Good, he's supposed to. Why?”

“Well, speaking for myself, I don't trust religious people, I suppose.” The writer nodded, his mouth full. “But his introduction made him, not suspicious, exactly, but, like, hard to trust, I guess.”


“He seems to young for his position?”

“Good. How about the introduction of the catacombs?”

“I li—“ Jeff corrected himself, “The idea of the catacombs being in layers or tiers was very effective. Especially the older ones being more sophisticated. It speaks of lost technology or power as well as, uh, an intentional effort to shield the older or better catacombs from sight. The mention of the false catacombs generates the idea of secrets and discovery.”

Stuart kept nodding and washed down a mouthful of sandwich with some bourbon. “What about the true catacombs?”

“The line about...” Jeff looked through the two pages, “The line about the reflecting glass being like the eyes of small animals was creepy. It really sets the reader on edge for what may come, and then you don't end the chapter with the relief of them entering it, but leave us having to turn the page to find out what happens when Wilcox enters.”

“What do you think happens?”

“I actually expected it to be the end of the chapter, Wilcox entering and then the priest closing the door behind him.”

“Oh, is that what you thought?” Stuart asked, an arch in his eyebrow. It was Jeff's turn to nod. “You got good instincts, kid. It's not exactly what happens, but you don't ever want to describe exactly what the reader expects and any reader of my books or anyone who's ever read a horror novel or seen a scary movie will expect something like that. So you throw them a bit of a rope-a-dope and give them part of what they're expecting and something they're not.”

Stuart handed Jeff another few sheets of paper. Jeff tried not to grab at them in his excitement.

“I won't ask you about those ones until tomorrow,” he said. “Now fuck off, I've got work to do.”

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