SNEAK PREVIEW of “Gilbertine and the Exchange”

SNEAK PREVIEW (part 1) of Gilbertine and the Exchange

The postings this Thursday and next are excerpts from the fifth novel in the Reggie Stone series (due out in 2019). The working title is: Gilbertine and the Exchange. It’s set in 1964, with 12-year-old Reggie finding himself trying to adjust to a new home in southern California. Reggie’s Brummie speech has disappeared; he now speaks in received pronunciation. How and why is a long story.  It is explained in the third novel “By Good Angels Tenanted,” due out at the end of 2017. Although he’s doing reasonably well, Reggie’s injured during an accident that he can’t remember. After which he begins to have unsettling dreams about a rather pretty, but very odd girl, also about 12.

Then, the girl starts to appear repeatedly, almost out of nowhere, in his waking life, initiating what slowly turns into a friendship. She calls herself “Gilbertine,” claims to have newly arrived from Belgium, and may or may not be Reggie’s female counterpart. This portion of the novel is part of a lengthy Halloween sequence. In this portion, Gilbertine and Reggie find themselves in a rather large, strange Victorian house. They’ve visited parts of it before, by light of day, but now, by night, for the first time, they find themselves in the ballroom, with some creepy “party guests.”

Gilbertine

The featured picture is a shot from the Victorian age of a couple flanking their adolescent daughter.

She looks very real and alive to us; they look like phantoms. Only the daughter’s oversized and exaggerated eyes give the game away. They’re painted on, a common studio effect at the time. The girl is dead, her corpse flanked by her living, grieving parents, and this is an example of Victorian post mortem photography — and of the party guests in this story. For more on getting a copy of my free ebook on Victorian post mortem photography (just in time for Halloween) see the announcement at the end of the post.]

The following room, also illuminated by Rembrandt lighting, appeared to be some kind of nursery or playroom. It was rather evident that, although it was unoccupied at present, the room had quite recently been in use. It held remains of a number of party games strewn about. They were now cast aside with the carefree abandon that children at such parties do when their attention is suddenly directed elsewhere to something they consider even more shiny or exciting.

A small cloakroom, lit by a single candle was immediately adjacent.

Several capes, mantles, coats and cloaks had been strewn randomly atop one single giant shroud. Beyond the cloakroom, the light faded precipitously. I could make out the outline of what I thought might be a stairway about 25 meters in front of us, with a pair of what appeared to be alcoves on either side of it. Whatever might lie to the right was completely shrouded in darkness.

To my immediate left towered a tall, outsized, rather imposing grandfather clock, at least three meters high, another meter wide. It had a deep, sonorous sound as its pendulum marked time. But it was when I looked at the face of the clock that I became apprehensive and unsettled, for its gnarled hands ran backwards, with a face screaming in abject terror depicted behind them.

But the clock itself seemed lost in the cavernous ballroom extending another 40 to 50 meters beyond it, its highly polished floor covered by a succession of oriental rugs, what appeared to the a grand piano at its far end. Between them stood a large marble fireplace, its mantelpiece covered in dead flowers with an enormous jack-o-lantern in its center. What was likely a large mirror framed in gold leaf hung above it, but only the frame was visible. The frame’s interior was draped entirely in black velvet. An arched, vaulted ceiling loomed over the ballroom, completely covered in plates of either copper or brass, it was difficult to tell which in the pale amber light that emanated from the three gilded crystal chandeliers spaced across its distance.

A trio of clowns was performing for a large audience of children and teenagers.

The entire audience was dressed in Victorian style clothing, many of them seated on high-back chairs or sofas. Others lay on sofas, on beds, or on the floor. Still others stood quite still in between the others, almost if posing rather than standing. Then I saw frames supporting some of the ones who were standing – even some of the ones who were sitting down – and I realized that they weren’t children at all, but manikins, much like the ones I’d see in department stores, or down at Farrell’s Yardage.

But they looked more realistic than any manikins I’d ever seen – even more real than any waxworks. Not only that, they laughed at the clowns and called out to them, in a way seeming to indicate that they were responding to what the clowns were doing; some of them even seemed to move slightly. If I were to see this today, I might well have dismissed it as nothing more than a bit of animatronics. Well done, but nothing innovative or state of the art.

And I would have been wrong.

But there was no such sophisticated animatronics back then, and I was too awestruck and amazed to take any prudent concern for my own safety. Leaving Gilbertine behind, I crept closer, hoping to get a better look. Perhaps find some kind of explanation for this enigmatic phenomenon.

What I discovered nearly stopped my heart cold.

They weren’t manikins, and they weren’t animatronics. In addition, they weren’t children – not living ones, in any event. They were corpses. About two-thirds of them appeared to be between the ages of eight and twelve. A fourth between about three through seven. The remainder between thirteen and seventeen. The older ones appeared to be acting as supervisors of the younger ones. None of them appeared to be particularly ambulatory, but the older one’s eyes did dart about the room a great deal, apparently keeping watch over the younger ones, occasionally raising an admonitory finger.

All were perfectly preserved and presented; a few had their eyes closed, but the eyes of the overwhelming majority remained open – fixed, glassy and staring. Most remained stone-faced, even when they laughed, but a substantial minority had twisted their faces into grotesque, caricatured facsimiles of smiles.

My mouth opened as if to gasp, but no sound escaped and the air in my lungs remained as motionless as the “children.” Gilbertine came up beside me and took my hand; I drew her closer.

“They’re all . . . dead,” I managed – just barely – to hoarsely, breathily croak out.

She smiled reassuringly at me. I wondered if she were trying to reassure herself as well, the way that Mum and I often did when we smiled that way.

“Quite,” she murmured calmly, with no hint of irony or sarcasm, “so they really don’t get out much. Tonight’s party is awfully special for them.”

© 2014, 2015, 2016 by 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.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.