Iron Chamber of Memory

Sneak peak for my beloved readers. Here is the cover art for my next book, due out in two weeks, in electronic edition only from Castalia House. The perfect gift for Candlemas!

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This book is my submission to the field of “supernatural thriller” after the fashion of Charles Williams, Tim Powers or Gene Wolfe. A supernatural thriller is one where the mystery is not who committed the crime, but what is the nature of reality. This tale suggests a strange new answer to an old question of life, dream, myth, death, or older questions of ghosts, recollections, love and sorrow.

The central the conceit is taken unchanged from A HAUNTED WOMAN by David Lindsay, but my answer to the old question is the opposite of his.

Two young lovers, Henry and Laureline, only recall and know their burning love for each other when standing in the mysterious Rose Crystal Chamber of the High House of Wrongerwood on the island of Sark in the English Channel. Outside that one room, they blithely forget their love and all promises made within the Chamber.

And she is betrothed within the month to marry Manfred, who is the master of the High House and the Seigneur of Sark, Lord of the Island and the last of the feudal governments left anywhere in Europe. The local tenants under his rule whisper fearful rumors of the death of the previous Lady of the Isle, and all her near kin, that elevated the new lord so suddenly to his post.

And so far all attempts by Henry and Laureline to remind or warn their amnesia-cursed out-of-doors selves have failed. The time seems ready for more desperate measures, unlawful and unholy …

You see? The spell is very subtle. It not only sponges out memories, it covers them over with false ones. It explains away little inconsistencies. It made you forget this house entirely this last time. Before, you were able to remember the house and the outside of the chamber. It is getting stronger, not weaker. It is an enemy, and a cunning one…

Oddly enough, the setting for this fantastic novel is real.

Sark is a ‘Dark Sky’ Island, where the showing of outdoor lamps at night is forbidden, and no motor vehicles are permitted on the roads. There are abandoned silver mines beneath the island, and tunnels dug by Nazis when they ruled their during the war. The natives speak a dialect which has never been written down.

Sark is the last feudal landhold in Europe. By ancient law, only the Seigneur is permitted to own a hound, or to keep doves.

The High House called La Seigneurie is also real, albeit the author has taken artistic license to assume that its true position, size and shape are never seen by mortal men, nor how deep go its roots.

This book has a special and mysterious place in the author’s heart, because the whole thing from start to finish, all the scenes and much of the dialog, came to me in a dream not long after my conversion, and I spent the whole of the next day writing down before it escaped me. Those notes rested on my desk for  decade. Only now did I have the time to compose them into a novel.

This work was not written according to my own thoughts, ideas, or preconceptions. I offer it to the reader as it was given to me.

Opening below:

I STILL keep open Memory’s chamber: still
Drink from the fount of Youth’s perennial stream.
It may be in old age an idle dream
Of those dear children; but beyond my will
They come again, and dead affections thrill
My pulseless heart, for now once more they seem
To be alive, and wayward fancies teem
In my fond brain, and all my senses fill.

— Lord Rosslyn (1833-1890)

IRON CHAMBER OF MEMORY

 Prologue: The White Boneyard

Standing and frowning in the New York snow, Hal Landfall realized he did not recall the name of the person pushing his mother’s wheelchair toward his father’s grave.

He had been overseas for the last four years, studying. It seemed long ago now that he had last been home. He remembered how his sister Elaine had insisted he go, take the rare opportunity. In less than a year, their father’s health declined like a rapid childhood in reverse: there was a day when his last tooth fell out, a day when he took his last upright step, a day when he spoke his last word.

Elaine vowed she could shoulder all duties their father, for all his life, had so carefully performed, and watch and tend their mother. Hal Landfall could not recall, even among his simplest, earliest memories, a day when his mother was entirely well.

Elaine, it is true, said she recalled the brighter days of older years, when their mother could play with her children, sit on the nursery floor and roll a ball, or clap and sing rhymes, or hold the children and repeat their simple, goodnight prayers.

He recalled little other than the dark bedroom door, frowning at him. He had to reach over his head to touch the knob. Shouts and screams of different voices—but it was always his mother’s voice—would come from the door. Young Hal was forbidden to touch the door, even when nightmares woke him at midnight, and he needed a gentle voice or loving hand. Dad told him to be nice to the woman with the wild and empty eyes, and not upset her. He never told what upset her or why. Hal tried not to complain when she bit him.

Elaine said she recalled custard they once had shared, something actually made by their mother in the kitchen, not bought from a store, not take out. Father never cooked.

As his eyes got bad and his hands shook, Father still prepared the needle for Mom’s injections. He carried her upstairs and downstairs. There was a wheelchair on every floor. He spoon fed her. He carried her to the bathroom. He said she had no weight.

Hal had been in England when it happened. It happened suddenly. He talked to them both. Elaine had passed the telephone to their mother, but Mrs Landfall did not remember who Hal was.

Instead she kept talking about a black dog. “I hate the black dog,” she said, in the voice one might use confiding secret to a chance-met stranger. “Sometimes I see him stand up on the road, under the streetlight outside the window. The black dog howled when Henry went. I think he was laughing at me. I’ll get up in  a moment, as soon as I’ve rested. I have to remember how to walk. I don’t remember what it feels like. ”

Elaine was not at the funeral. His sister was snowed in, trapped in some Midwestern airport until further notice, and, with Hal returning to the British Isles that same day, it had seemed impossible to cancel or delay.

Mounts of white snow were on all the gravestones. The angels wore caps and cloaks of white, as did the spears of the fence. Beyond the fence, Hal could see the East River, and the traffic moving slowly through the gray weather. It seemed unfair that so many people would have so many places to go, families and friends unmarred by tragedy. Hal felt a bitterness in his heart: it was as if the world could tolerate to continue only because it forget the tortures of the world.

After the priest was done saying the words, Hal tucked the hawk-headed walking stick he always carried under one arm, stooped, and reached down and picked up his mother’s ungloved hand. There was neither cap on her head nor scarf at her neck, and the sweater was one he remembered from his youth, a favorite thing of hers to wear in all weather, now torn with holes and no one to patch them.

“Who are you?” she said.

“I am your son. I am Hal,” he said. His eyes were icy, as he glared at the nurse lolling behind the wheelchair with a bored look on her face. The lady was dumpy and potato-shaped. “You don’t seem dressed warmly enough!”

“Henry will take care of me,” said Mom. “He always takes care of me. Did you hear Father O’Brien just now? I don’t know why they made me come out here on a day like today. I might miss my programs!” Mom looked cross. “What is going on? Who died? Was it someone I know? I want to ask Henry about it. He said he would see me.”

Hal did not realize at first what she meant. When her words sank into his soul, they left burn marks. Hal patted her hand, unable to speak. She gave him the look one might give a kindly stranger.

She was shivering violently now, wearing only her old, threadbare sweater and no hat. Snowflakes were landing on her head, and she did not even raise a hand to brush them away.

“If I could remember where I put the door key, I would let years flow in. Rose and silverwhite and iron! And gold beyond that! Old years, green years, and the good ones would wear all white. Oh! How I adore the crowns and the trumpets! So pretty! Henry knows where I put it. He always takes care of me. Where is he? I was talking to him just now.”

Hal straightened up, looked around. There had been other mourners, two veterans from Mr. Landfall’s old unit, his partner and one loyal customer from his days running a bookstore, a student he had tutored, and a neighbor. All had said their farewells earlier, and were drifting away, silent, down the paths out of the little churchyard and back into crowded streets where tall building loomed, indifferent. Hal’s found his eyes continuing to dart left and right, looking to find his sister, despite that she was not coming, could not come.

He was angry. He glared again at the nurse. He had been told her name by Elaine, and give the other details, but it had escaped him. “Where is this place you keep her? Who are you?”

The nurse gave her name and the name of the sanitarium. Saint something or other. Hal asked her to get his mother back into someplace warm, someplace decent.

The fat nurse shrugged, wearing the same serene expression as a cow chewing a cud, and said, “We all want some place more decent, honey. Don’t mind me. I just do what I’m told. They say take her out, I take her out. You say take her back in, I’ll take her back in. No problem, no bother, no worries.”

Hal’s hand tightened on his walking stick, as if, without knowing it, part of him were toying with the idea of bludgeoning the indifferent nurse with it. Was no one talking care of his mother?

Mrs. Landfall must have been following part of the conversation, for her trembling voice broke in, querulous: “When can I go home? Henry will take me home.”

The casket had been closed the whole time. Hal had insisted on that point when Elaine had been making arrangements. Seeing him lying motionless would have been too terrible for the his old and senile mother, a punishment worse than any crime deserved.

The priest, a bent-backed, bald, short man with an odd, sad smile and eyebrows of astounding size and brightness like two albino caterpillars on his forehead, came over. He spoke in a soft, kind voice to Mrs. Landfall. Hal did not hear was the priest said, but the mother’s voice was sharp and clear in the cold air: “I’ll have Henry leave it for you in the black iron moly chamber in the church, so you’ll remember.”

The old priest turned to Hal, put out his hand, “So this is Little Henry?” The priest had to crane his head to look up at Hal, who was quite tall. “Father O’Brien. Your mother has spoken often of you. We hope for great things, heroic things, in the struggles ahead. Keep your sword always by you, and your prayers ready at hand, eh, what? These sorrows, these present sorrows, will melt when this world melts, eh! The last enemy to be conquered is death, but there are others before that. You are deployed to England, I take it?”

Hal spoke in a puzzled voice, “Did Mother tell you I was a soldier or something?”

The little priest’s face fell. “Well, she said, ah…”

Hal said, “I am in England working on my master’s degree. In Saint Magdalene College. Elaine arranged the funeral so I could come during Christmas holiday. Did she think I was in the army? My mother, I mean.”

The little priest looked bewildered. “We serve in the hosts of the light, and you are born of a great warrior. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.”

Hal doubted his hearing. The words were strange, unearthly. He vaguely thought he had heard something like this before, but the memory eluded him. He shook his head sharply, and said, “My father served in the Navy for five years before I was born. She does not remember me. That is what she is thinking of. She does not know me. My own mother.”

“She speaks of you often.”

“We are both named Henry. I am Henry, Junior. I go by Hal.”

“But if you are not kept away by your official duties, why weren’t you here, earlier?  When your mother needed help?”

Later, Hal did not recall what he answered, or even if he answered. They were interrupted by a commotion. In the distance, through the snow, beyond the belt of trees and the low fence of wrought iron surrounding the churchyard, was a city street filled with gray snow and honking cars. Some stray dog, a big, black mutt, was motionless in the intersection, barking at a truck, and the cars had stopped.

At that point, mother became hysterical, and the nurse took her back into the church. The little priest took out a small stoppered bottle of liquid and his prayer beads, and walked toward the fence, toward the noise of the barking. Hal was alone. Only the two gravediggers were left, stony-faced foreign-looking young men, who were cranking the geared wheels to lower the casket into the ground.

Hal stood in the snow. He wanted to follow his mother and comfort her, but he did not move. He shifted his soaked feet in the snow uneasily, his best shoes wetted, a fierce look on his square and simple face, as if he wanted to strike someone or break something.

He wanted some explanation from his sister about this sanitarium where his mother had been abandoned. Why was she not staying at Elaine’s apartment, as they had so often discussed? What kind of  place could it be, run by what kind of venal fools, that negligently or cruelly sent old ladies out to funerals in the snow without a coat?

He wanted to yell at his sister, but her absence cheated him of that release.

More than that, he wanted some explanation from the priest about this world where his mother had been abandoned. Had heaven forgotten mankind? What kind of world was it, that negligently or cruelly allowed a senile woman’s husband to decline so swiftly, and die so suddenly, when he was so loved, and so needed?

But Hal had a taxi to catch, holiday crowds to wrestle, and an airplane to wait in endless lines to board, and a sea to cross. He stalked away with none of his questions answered.

 

 

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