Sneak Preview Part 2 of Gilbertine & the Exchange[The second part of a SNEAK PREVIEW of the fifth Reggie Stone novel (working title, Gilbertine and the Exchange) due out in late 2019. It’s 1964, and 12-year-old Reggie, now in a new home in southern California, has met another new arrival – a pretty, but rather odd girl from Belgium named Gilbertine, who may or may not be Reggie’s female counterpart. It’s Halloween night (a fairly lengthy part of the novel), and in this portion the two find themselves in the ballroom of a large, mysterious Victorian house, where they encounter children who look like – what else – Victorian post-mortem photographs.
The girls in the featured picture are from one of the better-known Victorian post-mortem photographs – the kind that you’ll see and find discussed in my ebook – as well as in this sneak preview. There’s no question that the standing girl is dead, her body dressed and posed for the photograph. But questions have recently arisen about the girl seated on the couch beside her. She was initially thought to be a living friend or relative, likely the standing girl’s sister. But, her fixed expression and perfect stationary pose (poses often had to be held for three or four minutes while the camera lens remained open, or maintained despite shock from noise and blinding burst of flash powder) were virtually nonexistent when living people posed. Combined, they have now raised questions as to whether she, too, might be dead.]
“They might get out a bit more if they weren’t attached to those frames,” I replied.
“They strike me as keeping a rather tight rein on whatever ability they have to’move about. Must they be attached to them?”
“Not at all,” Gilbertine said. “They can leave them and move around any time they like … it’s just that they generally don’t want to.”
“Why not, for heaven’s sake?”
Gilbertine faced me, wrapping her hands around mine, even as she let out what I took to be a patient, if somewhat dismayed, sigh.
“You have to understand, Reggie dear, that they are posed the way they were for the last photograph – sometimes the only one – that was ever taken of them.”
“You mean after they died…?”
“Oh yes,” she assured me, letting go of my hands as her gestures became more animated. “Once the morticians or the family came and made them look their best, the family brought in a photographer, propped the corpse up in the parlor or the drawing room, and took a proper photo of them, sometimes alone, sometimes living family members posed right alongside. Then, after they were buried in the churchyard, or wherever, the family would place the photograph lovingly on the mantle or a table or such, often making it the centerpiece of a virtual shrine to the departed – and they might well remain that way for decades after they were gone.
“Don’t you see, Reggie? They were so much more loved and appreciated and thought of this way than they ever were when they were alive – I mean, what is a little loss of mobility under those circumstances? Can you blame them for wanting to hold such a pose forever?”
“I suppose not. Do the clowns know they’re performing for dead kids?”
Gilbertine rolled those Keene portrait eyes of hers and shot me a sidelong glance in reply.
“Seriously,” I reiterated, “do they know?”
“They too are dead,” she replied. “Seriously.”
“Rather ambulatory for dead people.”
“Watch them, Reggie darling – see for yourself.”
So I did.
“Say ‘hello,’ Gleebo,” one said.
“Hello Gleebo!” the one called “Gleebo” replied.
“NO! You bovine brain…” said the first, hitting Gleebo in the solar plexus followed by an upper cut to the jaw.
Gleebo responded by pulling out a giant shotgun and blasting a gargantuan hole in his assailant’s mid-section, as the third clown pulled out a Tommy gun and riveted Gleebo with bullets. Gleebo took out an even larger shotgun and chased after the third clown, who turned around and put a pair of capped steel pipes inside the barrel of the gun, holding them with his hands and laughing at Gleebo. But Gleebo started laughing back, and revealed that the barrels were actually two empty light sockets, turning on the electric power as he did so, electrocuting the third clown.
“Thought this house didn’t have electricity,” I whispered.
“It doesn’t,” Gilbertine replied. “They bring a small generator as part of their equipment.”
The third clown’s red nose was still glowing.
Gleebo unscrewed it from his face and ran around holding the glowing “nose,” honking a bicycle horn. The first clown, meanwhile, had jumped on a pogo stick, rising ever higher and higher until he collided violently with the ceiling, turned into a giant anvil and fell on Gleebo’s head, crushing it instantly.
In younger days, I must have laughed a thousand times as I watched cartoons engage in antics just like this. I was at a loss to know whether it was because I was now older, or that I was now watching arguably corporeal beings, not cartoons, doing these things, but instead of making me laugh, it now it made me wince.
I looked over at Gilbertine.
From the look of profound distaste on her face, I knew she, too, was not amused in the least – however much the rest of the audience was laughing.
“Pathetic,” she whispered. “Anyone who’s dead can do what they’re doing, provided they can move a bit and do some rudimentary shape-shifting – and have no sense of shame.”
The other two clowns had set off a box of fireworks, whose contents were now chasing Gleebo — whose head had now recovered — around the ballroom. They produced a long pole, which they used to continually impede Gleebo’s path, making him either vault over it or slide under it as he sought to escape the ever-expanding pyrotechnic display that trailed behind him. They finally produced two poles at once, making it impossible for poor Gleebo to either leap or drop. He dove between them and kept running. Then they produced a third pole, making it impossible for Gleebo to leap, drop or dive.
He responded by producing a large can of gasoline and throwing its contents at the oncoming rockets, pinwheels, sparklers and roman candles. Next moment, a fireball touched the ceiling. I grabbed Gilbertine’s hand, preparing to run, convinced the entire ballroom was going up in flames.
But to my surprise, the fireball instantly subsided; the ballroom and its contents were entirely unscathed. But, all three clowns were completely engulfed in flames and were running about the ballroom screaming.
My companion had had enough.
“Stop it!” she shouted. “Stop it at once! This isn’t funny, it’s disgusting!”
At once, all three fires were extinguished. The clowns stood there – none so much as singed – murderously glaring at the two of us. The “children,” too, turned and stared. Those who had earlier contorted their faces into hideous smiles were now contorting them into something else, equally hideous and quite menacing. Those who hadn’t, to the extent that they were expressing any emotion, weren’t looking friendly in the least.
I drew Gilbertine to me. “I think we may have just worn out our welcome,” I whispered. “Might be time for a quick ‘g’night and thank ye’ and a hasty retreat.”
Some of the “children” were disentangling themselves from their frames.
“Reggie dear,” Gilbertine whispered. Her voice had become tremulous and half an octave higher. “Remember how I said these children could become ambulatory any time they chose? I don’t think we’re going to make it to the front door in time.”
© 2014, 2015, 2016 G. H. McCallum and Duvanian Press, all rights reserved.
Check out my new website at http://g-h-mccallum.com, leave your name and email address at the opt-in box, and you’ll receive my ebook on Victorian post-mortem photography, just in time for Halloween. Definitely a haunting and fascinating experience, especially for the uninitiated.
Come next Tuesday, I’ll be returning to two posts a week, and I’ll be starting with the conclusion to Chapter 5 of Walking Backwards for Christmas. Back to Solihull, on a soaking Christmas Eve Day in 1960. Bethany’s ghost reappears, and leads Reggie and Stan –
“Tune in” Tuesday to find out.
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