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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Taste of 'Base Spirits'

Enter the Darkness...

Taking a chance on an Indie author is risky for readers. I get that. I've been burned myself by buying underdeveloped, poorly edited, and just plain badly written books. But here's the thing... it's not all poo. Really! There's gold in them thar hills. I've also discovered some excellent Indie published books: writing rejected by the bean-counters and gatekeepers of traditional publishing. Indie books are also cheap as chips... hours of amazing entertainment for a few measly bucks. Far more often, I have also been burned by paying top dollar for top selling authors published by the Big Six. I don't know about you, but I'd rather chance a new discovery for the price of a specialty coffee than fork out $20 for a crappy bestseller. Still hesitant? Savvy Indies make samples of their books available through Amazon's 'Look Inside!' feature, and even give their books away free from time to time.

I've done that. As a result, I know I reached a wider audience... maybe. Lately, I'm feeling a bit cynical. I think there are a lot of readers out there who are perhaps being trained to think that Indies aren't worth paying for if they can just wait it out and grab freebies by the armload. Will all of these folks read my book? Maybe. Maybe not. I'll bet they have hundreds of e-books downloaded and may not get around to mine for months. I hope some of them read it... review it... and tell a friend about it.

I'm going to be honest. Sure-- it's great that people are scooping up my book whenever I make it free... but guess what? I'm attempting to build a career, and I am aiming to make at least a partial living with my fiction. I think it's a bargain at a mere $3.99. I admit I've been baffled by marketing... so here goes another blog post! Currently, I am writing a new novel In The Bag -the first of a projected series of character-driven crime novels: The Dead Drunks. Meantime, my short story Family Secrets and my first novel Base Spirits are getting excellent reviews.

Now I'd like you to take a chance, dear prospective reader.

Here's the blurb for Base Spirits, followed by a teaser from the opening chapter (Note: the cut and paste into blog form messed the formatting slightly-- the actual book has impeccable formatting and editing). Give it a read. If you like it, please follow this link and download your very own shiny Kindle copy If you are a person who loves the tactile experience of reading an actual book, here is the paperback link: If you like fast-paced ghostly chills wrapped around a fascinating and brutal historical tale (think Possession meets The Shining), this may just float your boat...

‘Murder has took this chamber with full hands And will ne’er out as long as the house stands.’ 
~A Yorkshire Tragedy, Act I, Sc. v 

In 1605, Sir Walter Calverley’s murderous rampage leaves a family shattered. The killer suffers a torturous execution… but is it truly the end? A noble Yorkshire house stands forever tarnished by blood and possessed by anguished spirits. Some crimes are so horrific, they reverberate through the centuries. 
As an unhappy modern couple vacation in the guesthouse at Calverley Old Hall, playwright Clara, and her scholar husband, Scott, unwittingly awaken a dark history. Clara is trapped and forced back in time to bear witness to a family’s bloody saga. Overtaken by the malevolent echoes, Scott is pushed over the edge from possessive husband to wholly possessed… Inspired by a true-life drama in Shakespeare’s day, this is itself a play within a play: a supernatural thriller with a historical core. 
Only one player can survive.

York, England, 1605

Sir Thomas Leventhorpe had failed the victims in life. He could not fail them now.

            Though he longed to be anywhere else that August dawn, his choice was irrefutable. The noble family murders had left him as the village of Calverley’s highest-ranking citizen, and he bore a duty to witness the conclusion of its history’s most tragic chapter. It was his sacred charge to stand present for those innocent lives cruelly dispatched by the very man that should have loved them most.

He lingered in the stark main corridor of Clifford’s Tower, waiting to accompany the killer on his final procession. There seemed to be a delay. From what Leventhorpe could gather, the entourage was incomplete. He glanced about the small, silent group and caught the eye of the anxious man standing at his side-- the only other soul afflicted with first-hand knowledge of the horrors that had led them to the Tower. Leventhorpe ventured an encouraging smile at the murderer’s former servant, but John's pale, scarred face was stony. Sir Thomas touched the younger man on the shoulder and felt him quivering like a nervous beast, his arms tightly wrapped about himself in a desperate embrace. The brutal April morning at Calverley Hall had shattered John. Withdrawing his hand, Leventhorpe wondered why the lad had come to this dread place to be reunited with his nemesis. Perhaps in his own way John had no choice but to see the tragedy through to its conclusion. Leventhorpe could offer him no real solace but to share the burden of bearing witness.

In the Tower’s stairwell door, a grizzled magistrate stood lost in thought, tugging gently at his beard. The elderly head gaoler, Master Key, waited outside the prisoner’s cell door. A younger, assistant gaoler tapped his foot loudly against the flagstones and glowered toward the doorway at the opposite end of the corridor, a sneer playing on his lean face. Turning to his superior, he grumbled in a low voice:

“That idiot boy is late again-- and today of all days! I say we have tarried long enough.”

Master Key held up his hand. “Be thou patient, Jack. The magistrate is not yet concerned with the time. Hugh must be present to learn the proper order of how matters proceed.”
Leventhorpe’s skin prickled at the thought. He dreaded having to witness the ‘matter’ in question, and felt pity for the unseen boy who would today be taught the finer details of his trade.  
Footsteps pounded up the outside stairs and-- as if overhearing his cue-- a scrawny lad of no more than twelve skidded into sight. White-faced and out of breath, Hugh blanched still further as the men turned as one and fixed him with expectant looks. Giving an awkward bow of his head by way of apology, he staggered as he took a halberd down from the wall hooks. Jack strode over to collect the apprentice and hauled him into place by the ear. Leventhorpe was close enough to hear the gaoler’s hissed threats.

“Yer in luck, boy. The magistrate himself was late to rise, else ye’d be wishin’ ye could trade places with our esteemed prisoner.”

Master Key shot his underlings a sharp glance from beneath his heavy grey brows and they ceased their disruption. Key unlocked the door, and he and Jack entered the cell. Leventhorpe heard the muted clanking of chains and after a moment, Sir Walter Calverley was led out between the two men.

Leventhorpe’s stomach twisted at the sight of his former friend and neighbour. He caught John by the arm, steadying him as the lad’s knees buckled. Neither had seen Calverley for months-- not since his hellish rampage. Although Calverley was thin and drawn, he held himself with dignity. He wore a fine black doublet, and his lace cuffs and collar gleamed in contrast to the gloom of the corridor. Leventhorpe couldn’t help but think that Calverley was very well dressed for a dead man: he must have set this outfit aside in anticipation of the occasion. Calverley did not so much as glance in their direction.

Master Key cleared his throat and nodded to the magistrate. The procession began its descent into the bowels of the Tower, the close quarters of the stairwell making for an awkward single-file progress. The stately magistrate set a careful pace for those behind. Leventhorpe and John followed next, with Master Key leading Calverley. Jack and Hugh took up the rear to prevent any chance of the prisoner’s escape.  
Time of day carried no meaning as they moved down into the still depths of the Tower. No one spoke: the only sound was the scuffling of heavy-booted feet. Flickering torches from the wall sconces lit the way, casting long, dancing shadows on the muted grey stones. Leventhorpe had the sensation of being buried in the earth as they moved ever deeper. He kept his eyes lowered, mindful of the uneven stairs, eroded by countless footsteps over several lifetimes. Suddenly, a rush of iridescent green-and-black beetles scattered out of the men’s path. Leventhorpe felt a brief flash of delight to see something so lively-- these animated jewels-- existing in such a bleak place.

At the foot of the tightly coiled stone staircase lay a narrow, low-ceilinged passageway. Leventhorpe glanced along a seemingly endless succession of closed doors and gaping antechambers. Today’s method of execution-- ‘peine forte et dure,’ less elegantly known as ‘pressing’-- could take several hours. His throat constricted. Already he found the dank air putrid and hard to breathe. The clammy walls, coated with an orange mildew, gave off a pungent odour. Here and there between the cracks in the stones grew a strangely pretty fungus with pale yellow flowers. Leventhorpe touched a curious finger to a cluster of the petals as he passed by. They disintegrated instantly and left a lurid smear on his fine lace cuff.

Lord, I pray this ends quickly--

At last, the magistrate came to a halt and peered around to catch the eye of Master Key. Jack and Hugh stepped ahead to replace their Master’s hold on the prisoner. Hugh’s hand clearly shook as he tried to get a firm grip on Calverley’s arm, but he was met with no resistance: Calverley kept his manacled hands clasped before him in the manner of a clergyman and focused his dark eyes into the shadows at the far end of the passageway. Leventhorpe was again struck by the man’s poise. Of those present, he seemed the least moved by what was about to take place.
Fumbling at his belt for an oversized key, the old Master slipped to the front of the group to unlock the low, windowless portal. He heaved his stooped shoulder against the recalcitrant door and swung it inwards. The magistrate ducked his head as he entered the chamber, followed by the others. As Key lit the torches in the iron wall sconces, Leventhorpe blinked and looked about the room. A wide plank of coarsely hewn oak leaned against one wall. Beside it was a heap of stones, each roughly the same size-- twelve to fourteen pounds in weight.  Four iron rings were set into the flagstones in the centre of the floor. The room was otherwise barren. Once the condemned man was safely inside, the door was shut and bolted. Leventhorpe felt trapped.

“Make him ready,” said the magistrate.

As placidly as a docile horse, Calverley allowed himself to be taken by his chains and roughly stripped by Jack. The assistant gleefully assessed the clothing as he folded each item. Handing the garments over to Hugh, he winked at the boy’s dumbfounded expression.

“For safe-keepin’, lad. A boon for me. They’re about my size-- and he won’t be needin’ ’em in Hell now, will he?”

Leventhorpe was shocked by the outrageous theft but no one else seemed fazed. It must be routine in such matters, he thought. Perhaps it was considered part of the assistant’s payment.

Calverley was made to stretch out face up on the cold floor. A jagged stone was placed underneath the small of his back. His ribs standing out in sharp relief, he arched his body upward to accommodate the work of Master Key’s calloused hands. The prisoner’s long limbs were pulled into a cruciform position and shackled to the iron rings. At a quick count of three, the two gaolers heaved the plank from where it stood. With a grunt, they laid it over top of Calverley’s naked torso. The strain showed immediately in his breathing.

From where he stood, Leventhorpe had the clearest view. Only the doomed man’s face was visible at the top edge of the plank. Leventhorpe looked closely at his one-time friend. Calverley’s full lips were parted as he gasped from the burden already on his chest-- and the anticipation of what was soon to come. Beads of perspiration dotted his moustache and beard, and sweat soaked the thick waves of his dark hair. Leventhorpe felt sick with pity. For all that Calverley had so brutally performed to visit this fate upon him, his serene determination from the outset to lighten the work of his own executioners gave him the aspect of a martyr.

Perhaps he hath repented. Will he at last speak his mind to the Law?

Leventhorpe could not catch his eyes to ask this silent question. Calverley had disconnected. He fixed his unblinking gaze on the grimy ceiling, entombing any emotion he may have felt deep within and unreachable.

The magistrate stepped forward from the corner, where he’d been absorbed in the examination of loose threads on the hem of his cloak. He had paid little attention to the tasks of the others. Master Key pulled his apprentice out of the way and made him drop the bundle of clothes he’d been hugging to his chest.

“Ye’ll need to keep yer hands free now, son.”

The nervous boy leaned his halberd against the wall, where it slipped along the moisture and clattered to the floor. Already skittish, Leventhorpe and John started at the racket, and John pressed up against his back as if to be shielded from the very Devil. The magistrate clenched his jaw and waited for the echo to subside. He spoke in a strong voice that belied his great age.

“You had your chance to speak before the Assizes. You chose silence. I therefore put it to you here and now for the Crown, and before these good men: Sir Walter Calverley, how do you plead?”

Leventhorpe stood waiting by his friend’s head. John’s nervous breath was hot on his neck.

There came no reply from Calverley but laboured breathing.

“Very well-- ” The magistrate stepped aside and nodded to the gaolers.

“Lay on the weights.”

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An Overnight Success... in Only 25 Years!

This post is all about being in it for the long haul.

Let me tell you about my dear friend Stephen Ayres. (Remember that name. You'll start hearing about him soon, I promise... and not just here on my blog.)

Cheers to Success!

I met Steve in our first year at Trent University in 1986. He was relatively shy compared to my general 'out there' self, but we were in a lot of the same classes and the same residence hall. He came to see me in a terrible play I was in during first term, and we both worked on a production of Othello later in the year: him backstage and me 'out there' as Emilia. We also ended up doing some short films around campus-- just 'cause we wanted to.

Steve was-- and is-- a 'film guy'. He loves movies. He has a quick wit, a great eye, and a way with storytelling. He's always wanted nothing more than to be a part of it all. After earning his BA at Trent, he moved on to Ryerson for film and the shy guy really blossomed.

Jump ahead a few years.

Steve met and married a lovely Australian woman, Kim. They ended up living Down Under in Sydney and have two great kids... now teenagers. Kim works in health, and has become very busy in her career with a cancer foundation and the specialty training of nurses. Steve ended up working in banking and finance for years, and all but put the idea of filmmaking on the back-burner. Where does the time go?

Yes. Where does it go? And what about the idealistic dreams and goals we have in our younger days? Do they ever entirely vanish, even as people build a family and a home, and make all those realistic tough decisions along the way... like getting a 'real' job? Who was that clean-shaven guy in the mirror wearing a suit and heading out everyday to a job he loathed in the core of Sydney's financial district?

So-- a few years ago-- a very unhappy Steve decided to give himself a little time to get back to screenwriting and see what he could do. Kim's job is good, and he took a package from the bank when he left. It was enough to buy some time: not indefinite, but a bit of breathing and writing space.

He sweated over ideas and honed scripts. Pitched to agents and producers. Felt hope. Saw hope dashed. Made his kids' lunches and ironed their school uniforms. Cooked dinner for Kim and did the laundry and the yard work. Soul searched. Nearly gave up but never did. Got into some prestigious Australian screenwriting programs, and inched further ahead toward that elusive dream.

Finally, a couple of years ago, a big producer finally took proper notice of one of his many scripts. Su Armstrong produced a little movie called Good Will Hunting. You may have heard of it.

Wow. Surely this was the proverbial 'it'. Any second now his film would be shot and hit the big time, right?

Not quite.

It still took a lot of back-and-forthing. A lot of pitching to get a director and a cast on board. That meant chasing a lot of dead ends and the heartache of schedule conflicts. Even with the main players falling into place, funding still needed to be secured... and that meant getting an international distributor on board to win the funding bodies' confidence. It's a long, slow state of limbo with no guarantee.

But? He kept that hope alive through some very dark moments.

And we don't get there alone, folks. His family and friends stuck by, and enough people along the way believed in his writing to make it happen. And now a distribution agent is backing the film... and suddenly it's a go!

I am THRILLED to be able to tell you that my pal's screenplay 33 Liberty Lane is going to be shot this summer directed by Peter Hewitt. Yep. That's the Hollywood Reporter carrying the story. And yes, those are the incredible women who are starring in MY old buddy's first produced script! Not too shabby.

I am so, so proud of Steve. For over two decades I've watched-- from up close and at a distance-- as he took baby steps forward and got shoved back time and time again by bad luck and circumstance, and the vagaries of the film industry, and real life and family being more important. Here we are at last!

This story is an example to all of us who struggle to keep that spark of hope alive through the darkest of times. We can do this. We CAN.

Now go follow your own paths, and I'll stop blogging and get back to my novel in progress.