A Special Pain and Wonder Sneak Preview


Now Available from Penguin-Putnam (Roc)

Click here to order Threshold now.

Chapter Four


        Sadie Jasper stalks down the steep hill leading away from The Plaza, away from Deacon, her pointy black boots clock-clock-clocking loud on the asphalt and never mind the sidewalk, half-overgrown with kudzu, anyway, so she’s walking down the middle of the road; if anyone runs her down that’s their problem, a dent in their fender, their cracked windshield, an explanation they’ll have to come up with for the police. She imagines her body lying limp and broken beside the road, bloody rag doll held inside chalkwhite lines, imagines little hairy bits of her scalp caught beneath the wiper blades of some asshole’s Saab or BMW and that almost makes her smile. She kicks at an empty plastic bottle that once held brake fluid and it bounces on ahead of her, finally comes to rest against the curb.
        No good pretending that Deacon would really give a shit. Hey, buddy, someone just ran over your girlfriend and now she’s dead, now she’s fucking road pizza, and Sadie knows precisely the way he’d rub at his eyes for a moment or two, the dull and calculated squint towards the ceiling of that shitty little bar, before he’d shake his head and order a shot of whiskey. Something almost expensive, in her memory. One alcoholic tear for poor, crumpled Sadie, if she was lucky, and so she glances around for something else to kick, something else that can’t kick back.
        The steep road intersecting with Twenty-First Street and she turns right, turns north towards home, the tiny apartment she shares with Deacon, and spots an old Diet Coke can, discarded and waiting for her, red and white and already dented; she starts to kick it, then pictures Chance Matthews’ face printed across the aluminum and stomps it hard instead. Much more satisfying to feel the soft metal fold and flatten out beneath the heel of her boot, delicious, ruined, scrunchy sound as she grinds it back and forth against the blacktop. And then a car rushes past, shinyblack blur and tires squealing, horn like a fucking banshee on crack, and some guy yelling at her to get out of the middle of the goddamn road, Get out of the middle of the road you fucking freak; sudden swoosh of air and exhaust fumes and Sadie watches the car speed away, then stares down at the squashed Diet Coke can and it doesn’t really look anything like Chance Matthews anymore.
        “Fucker,” she whispers and kicks it, sends it skittering and skipping away after the car that almost ran her down, and Sadie Jasper decides that maybe the sidewalk isn’t such a bad idea after all.

        Another block to the bank where she usually manages to keep just enough in checking that they don’t cancel her account or charge her fees for letting it sit empty. The cashier smiles politely, requisite, insincere smile, and takes away the candygreen slip of paper with her mother’s signature, the deposit slip scarred by her own sprawling, unsteady handwriting, and gives her back a hundred and fifty in cash; the rest tucked away safe for now, and Sadie counts the money twice before slipping it into the Bad Badtz-Maru billfold inside her coffin purse. “Thank you, Ms. Jasper. You have a nice day now,” the cashier says, but Sadie knows she doesn’t mean it any more than she means the plastic smile, that she’s probably only thinking about all the customers standing impatiently behind Sadie, or wondering how anyone could walk around in public dressed like something from The Addams Family; Sadie takes an extra few seconds to return her billfold to her purse, another second to snap the purse shut again, and then she glares at the cashier, not a smile but the distressed sort of face she might make if someone told her that she’d stepped in dog shit, maybe, and “You’re welcome,” she says.
        She leaves the bank, leaves the air conditioning and carpetsmelling air, crosses Twentieth Street to the dusty secondhand bookshop squeezed between a hardware store and a place that repairs bicycles. Cowbell jingle when she opens the door and no air conditioner here, just a couple of huge ceiling fans that must have been around at least since Eisenhower was president, rusty steel blades to move the stale, bookscented heat around and around and the old man behind the counter smiles at her. But this is a genuine smile, his white beard that always makes Sadie think of the grandfathers she never knew, white eyebrows and “Good afternoon, Sadie,” the old man says.
        “Good afternoon, Jerome,” she says, returning the smile in her hard, uneasy way, and “I think I might have something for you today,” he says, reaches beneath the counter and his hand comes back with a book, clothbound cover the color of antique ivory, title and author stamped in faded gold and Art Deco letters. Best Ghost Stories by Algernon Blackwood and she lifts it carefully off the woodpolished counter, picks it up the way someone else might lift a diamond necklace or a sick kitten and opens the book to the frontispiece and title page, black and white photo of the author in a dapper suit, sadkind eyes and his bow tie just a little crooked.
        “It’s an ex-library copy, I’m afraid,” Jerome says, and Sadie’s eyes drift from the author’s portrait to the word DISCARD stamped crimson and blockylarge just below the title, and Property of Newburgh Public Library, Newburgh, New York, stamped underneath that in ink the color of blackberry juice. She sighs loud, frowns, something almost violent about marking a book that way, disrespectful and indelible inkbruises on paper gone yellowbrown around the edges.
        “I know,” Jerome says, “But it is the 1938 edition,” and “You just saw me leaving the bank, didn’t you?” she asks the old man. He shrugs a guilty, unrepentant shrug while she flips carefully through the pages, past “The Willows” and “The Wendigo” and “Accessory Before the Fact,” thinks about the cheap, dogeared Dover paperback she’s had for years, a rubber band around it so the loose pages don’t get lost.
        “Twelve-fifty,” Jerome says, “Because it’s a discard, and because I know you’ll give it a good home.”
        Sadie closes the book and lays it gently on the counter, already nodding her head, no point pretending she’s going to leave the shop without the Blackwood and she doesn’t have the heart to haggle with Jerome when she knows he’s hardly making enough these days to keep the power bills paid; all his business swallowed up years ago by strip mall megastores and now people buying their books off the internet, so she smiles for him again and Jerome says he’ll hold onto it if she wants to browse around a while. And that’s all she ever intended to do, of course, browse the shelves for an hour or two until she stopped feeling so pissed at Deke, crisp money in her purse but she knows how to be a good girl and Jerome never fusses if she hangs around all day without buying anything.
        “How’s Deke these days?” Jerome asks, “Haven’t seen him around in weeks,” putting the book into a small, brown paper bag, now, folding the bag neatly closed.
        “Maybe you better ask me that again a little later,” she says, smile fading and Sadie slips away into the history section, past towering, overcrowded Civil War shelves, shelves for ancient Rome and Greece, shortest cut to the one narrow shelf labeled “Spiritualism and The Occult,” stuck way off by itself in the very back of the shop. Nothing too heavy or too spooky, a few beat-up, spinebroken copies of Aleister Crowley and Eden Gray, Edgar Cayce and the prognostications of Nostradamus, various, interchangeable manuals for the Tarot and I Ching; she’s halfway through Yeats’ A Vision, hoping that no one buys it before she’s finished. Her place marked with a movie ticket stub from her purse, and Sadie finds a wobbly stool, one leg an inch too short, finds the copy of Yeats still waiting where she left it tucked safe and secret behind a copy of The Book of Mormon. There’s a tin of Altoids in her purse because Jerome won’t let her smoke in the shop, and she digs it out, puts one of the powderwhite peppermints under her tongue, slides a coverless, waterdamaged Witchcraft in Old and New England under the crippled stool, and in a moment she’s lost in the soothing flow of words, concentration and focus to let her forget the argument with Deacon for a while.

         Almost three months since the first night that Sadie Jasper slept with Deacon Silvey, and the first time that’s all it was. She slept in his bed, lay very still and listened to his uneven breathing, the desperate sounds that people lost in nightmares make. Smelled his sweat and watched the restless flutter of his eyelids, wishing she could see, could know the images rolling wild through his head. She held him because that’s all he asked her to do, Hold me, Sadie, just fucking hold me tonight, okay? and somewhere near dawn he awoke suddenly, sat up straight, gulping air like a junky with a syringe full of adrenaline pouring into his heart, gasping like a drowned man coming back to life. Sadie groggy, confused, trying to force herself awake, and What’s wrong, Deke? What’s wrong? but he was already out of bed, already across the room and the bathroom door squeaking open. Deacon? and no answer but the water gurgling from the faucet into the ruststained sink, staccato lampcord click and then a white, white light like rubbing alcohol in her eyes.
        Stumbling across the bedroom, stubborn shadows and her eyes trying to adjust to the light spilling out of the bathroom and she stubbed a toe against the edge of his chest-of-drawers. And then she was standing beside him, his face in the medicine cabinet mirror above the sink, face so pale, sickpale, scaredpale, cold water dripping from his chin and the end of his nose, dripping from his hair. No idea what to say to a face like that, what would comfort or console and so she didn’t say anything at all. Stood silent beside him and waited while he stared into his own frightened eyes, his own green eyes gone mad, madman’s intensity in that stare, and “Fuck,” he whispered, “Fuck me, fuck me,” and when she touched his arm he flinched.
         “It’s just me, Deke,” but no sign that he understood, that he’d even heard her and he turned away from the mirror, turned and stared at the big cast iron bathtub, stared into the tub and by then Sadie was staring, too, straining to see whatever could drain the last, stingy bit of color from Deacon’s face, bitterhard Deacon Silvey who never showed anything he didn’t want you to see. A sound from his lips a lost child might make and he sank to his knees beside the bathtub and began to cry.
         “It’s Elise, isn’t it?” she whispered, fearful, tentative whisper, and for an answer he slammed both fists into the side of the tub, furious blows that should have shattered his knuckles, but only left his hands bruised and bleeding.
         “Get away from me, Sadie,” he growled. “Get the hell away from me right this goddamned minute,” and she shook her head no, reached instead for his injured hands and turned her back on the bathtub. Whatever it was he saw in there nothing meant for her, probably nothing meant for anyone anymore. His skin so cold, dead man’s hands and she rubbed them, friction to bring him back, kicking and screaming if that’s the way it had to be.
         “Was it a dream, Deke? Did you have a dream about Elise or . . .” and pausing then because she knew how dangerous the words would be, how thin the ice beneath them, between them, was becoming.
         “Was it a dream, or is she here?”
         And his face like crystalperfect condemnation for a moment, crazy, burning face like a holy man confronted with some blasphemy too terrible to forgive and there could be only punishment. He’s going to kill me, she thought, no other way she could imagine an end to that expression, release from that rage, and then he closed his eyes and squeezed her hands tight, squeezed so hard it hurt and he was shaking his head, the fire gone from his face as quickly as it had come. But she knew that he had let nothing go, had only pulled it all back inside himself somehow.
         And before the moment was gone, before he’d smothered the last sparking embers, she asked the question again, the fury on his face all the proof she needed that it had been the right question; a hiss through Deacon’s clenched teeth like steam, then, demon breath to scald, and he slowly opened his eyes, fresh tears escaping and rolling down his stubbled cheeks.
         “You really think there’s any goddamned difference?” he asked. “You really think that matters?”
         And “No,” she said, pulling him closer to her, arms around him now, circle of her arms to bind him and keep him safe. “I don’t think there’s really any difference at all,” she said.

        For almost two months Sadie has been trying to write a novel; not a very good novel, she knows that much, of that much she’s absolutely certain, but something inside her that wants out. No matter that it’s nothing anyone will ever want to read, that when she finally finds the place where the story ends all the pages will go into a box and the box will go under her bed or onto the top shelf of a closet because she has no intention of ever letting anyone read it, no delusions of agents or publishers, no fantasies of an audience.
        This makes it her book, and if she’s deluded herself about anything it’s that this fact somehow makes the writing of it more pure, more genuine, unsullied by the things that other people might want to read, or might not want to read.
        Pecking it all out on a temperamental old Macintosh SE II that she found in a dumpster behind an accounting firm on Morris Avenue, actually found the thing; no mouse in the dumpster but it wasn’t that hard to shoplift one. So she sits in the cold, whitegray light of the computer screen and pecks with two fingers, left and right index fingers because she never learned to type, and the Mac hums and sometimes it makes angryrude R2D2 noises for no apparent reason. Plugged into an outlet in one corner of Deke’s bedroom, sitting on the floor between the bed and a stack of the science fiction novels he reads; and that’s where she writes, legs crossed, slouched like a vulture over the keyboard and Deacon keeps telling her she’s going to wind up with a pinched nerve or carpaltunnel syndrome, some office monkey yuppie shit like that if she doesn’t move the Mac to the kitchen table and sit in a chair while she writes. But Deacon’s kitchen smells too much like his refrigerator, like the ancient gas stove, so she’s content with her nappy patch of carpet.
        No printer, of course, so every single word stored on the hard drive and one black back-up diskette that Deke made her buy at Kinko’s, “Just in case,” he said, because the building’s wiring has seen better days and how much can you trust a computer you found in a garbage dumpster, anyway?  She makes herself write at least two whole pages every night, four or five on a really good night, writes while Deke lies on the bed reading Ben Bova or Robert Heinlein, sipping his cheap gin or Thunderbird, and the sound of her two fingers dancing slowly, uncertainly, over the plastic alphabet keys. Making a story from the messy thoughts and half-thoughts in her head, building a world and lives and taking them apart again, fitting the pieces together another way until it feels right, as right as she can make it feel.
        “When you gonna let me read it?” Deacon asks her once a week, the question like clockwork, and sometimes she shrugs and sometimes it makes her angry and she tells him he can read it when there’s an ice rink in Hell. Always the same mock hurt from Deke, the same pretend affront or indignity, and she likes the way he looks when he isn’t really sulking.
        “Well, you can at least tell me what it’s about,” and she tells him that’s even worse than asking if he can read it. An insult, the assumption that what she’s doing can be reduced to a convenient synopsis, and “That’s what’s wrong with you,” she says, “You’re a goddamn reductionist.”
        “Whoa, girl. Who’s been teaching you all these big fucking words?” and she flings a copy of Dune or Again, Dangerous Visions at him, something thick with some weight, with some gravity. She rarely ever actually hits him; there’s a jumbled pile of paperbacks on her side of the bed, books that have missed Deke’s head by inches.
        “That’s okay,” he says, or “Whatever,” smiles and takes a sip from his jelly glass of liquor, bottle of wine the color of an eggplant or nothing at all. “It’s probably just some of that trashy Lovecraft shit you read. ‘The Moldering Big Toe of Dagon’ or ‘The Whisperer from Behind the Laundry Hamper,’ something like that,” and so she has to throw another book at him.
        “You haven’t even read Lovecraft, dumb ass,” and he always rolls his eyes and mutters something condescending — “When you were still watching goddamn Sesame Street, kiddo, when you were still into Mr. Rodgers and King Friday, Mr. fucking Greenjeans, kiddo.”
        “You know, I always thought Mr. Moose was especially creepy, didn’t you?” and “Now you’re trying to change the subject.,” he says. Never exactly like that, but never very different, either. Comfortable little ritual, something almost approaching domestic, as close as they’ll probably ever get to domestic. And maybe she will let him read it one day, when she’s done. When she’s finished the last sentence, transferred the last muddy thought from her head to the screen, and it’s all there to speak for itself.
        Maybe that would prove that she loves him, that it’s not just the sex or a weakness for irredeemable losers, the romance of a life of poverty with an alcoholic of questionable sanity and dubious hygiene. Not just that they saw a ghost together one night a long time ago, saw something in a warehouse once that might have been a ghost, or that they both like Charlie Parker and Joy Division. That would be showing him a part of her soul, a part of her mind, that she’s never risked showing anyone. The raw and squirming part that indifferent high-school counselors were always prying at, the part therapists tried to trick her into showing them for free, the part her parents hated her for. The light and the darkness behind her eyes, the soft places.
        But it would also mean admitting how much of what she’s writing is about him, the patchwork bits and pieces she’s learned about him, about Elise’s suicide and why he can’t ever stop loving Chance Matthews. It would mean confessing her own resentment in words more honest than she’s ever had the nerve to say to his face.
        And then there are her own bad dreams, the dreams about the mountain, the secret places below the mountain, and perhaps that would be the worst of all.

        “It’s starting to rain,” Jerome says and Sadie glances up from the Yeats and the old man’s pointing towards the high and shadowy ceiling of the book shop. “Just thought you might want to know, since I ain’t never seen you carrying an umbrella.” And “Thanks,” she says, her head still lost in Yeats’ cyclical theories of history, marking her place with the ticket stub and returning the book to its hiding place behind The Book of Mormon.
       “I got an extra one you can borrow, though, if you want it,” Jerome says, and Sadie glances at her Sanrio wristwatch, trying to figure out how it got so late so fast, and “Sure,” she says. “Thanks.”
        She follows him back to the register, pays the twelve-fifty, plus tax, for the book of ghost stories and he’s wrapped it in a second bag, plastic grocery bag from the Piggly Wiggly, so it won’t get wet, hands her the umbrella and she thanks him again. Big umbrella the color of overripe bananas, the color of a banana popsicle, but at least it’ll keep her dry. The door jingles shut behind her and she stands for a moment beneath the raggedy book shop awning, green and white canvas stripes, looking out at the stormslick street, up at the sky gone dark as silt and ashes, and the falling rain makes an incongruous sound, like eggs frying in a skillet. Sadie opens the umbrella and sighs when she sees that there’s a giant smiley face printed on the underside, smirking happy cartoon face to leer down at her while she splashes through the puddles.
        “Yeah, well fuck you too,” she says to the smiley face and glances over her shoulder. Jerome’s watching her from his chair behind the counter; he nods his head once, waves good-bye and she waves back, tucks the twice-wrapped book beneath one arm and crosses Twentieth Street.

        Back home, the dank and mildewstinking halls of Quinlan Castle, and she pauses on the concrete front steps to shake the rain off Jerome’s happy yellow umbrella, flaps it open and closed, open and closed, making a furious noise like the death throes of a giant bat or a pterodactyl, spraying a thousand droplets across the steps and the sidewalk. The storm has almost passed, just a sickly drizzle now and the thunder fading away, distant, muffled cacophony done with Birmingham and taking its wrath elsewhere.
        On the way upstairs, she passes Mrs. Schmidt who lives across the hall, elderly Mrs. Schmidt who hears voices if she forgets to take her medication, who has an ugly little dog of no discernible breed named Tinkle and once she brought Sadie and Deke a plate of hot oatmeal cookies that tasted faintly of fish. Sadie smiles at her, says hello and the old woman smiles back, her no-denture smile, healthy pink gums but no teeth, and she lightly touches Sadie’s arm and “I told her to come back when you or Deacon were at home,” she says.
        “Who?” Sadie asks, groaning inside because this is probably just something Mrs. Schmidt got into her head half way through General Hospital, something crazy and Sadie doesn’t have the patience for it today.
        “The albino girl,” Mrs. Schmidt replies, her trembling fingers still resting on Sadie’s forearm, age spots and skin like wrinkled silk, and “Oh, her eyes were so pink, just like a white Easter rabbit’s.”
        “There was an albino girl looking for us?”
        “Yes,” Mrs. Schmidt says, leaning closer now, and she smells like menthol and violets. “She was sitting in front of your door eating a bag of gumdrops and when I asked her what she was doing there she said waiting. Just waiting. And I told her that she should come back when you were home.”
        “Did you remember to take your pills this morning, Mrs. Schmidt?” Sadie asks, trying not to sound annoyed or patronizing. “The green ones?” Puzzled squint from the old woman for a second and then she blinks and smiles again. “Yes, dear,” she says, laughs softly and “She wasn’t that sort of a girl at all.”
        “Well, I just wanted to be sure. You know, just in case,” Sadie says, still not certain whether to believe Mrs. Schmidt or not. “It isn’t good for you to miss your pills.”
        “Thank you, dear. It’s very nice of you to worry about me. But she said that she would find you,” and then the old woman says good-bye and is toddling unsteadily away towards the row of mailboxes by the front door. Sadie watches her go, and she’s pretty sure she doesn’t believe that there was an albino sitting at their front door eating gumdrops.
        She takes the stairs two or three at a time, out of breath and her heart racing when she reaches the third floor and the musty smell is worse up here because the landlords refuse to fix a seeping, rotten patch of ceiling at the far end of the hallway. The plaster like soft and molded cheese down there, a couple of places where it’s fallen away completely and you can see the lathe, can look straight up into the attic darkness showing between the timegray wood slats. So, the perpetual stench of rotten ceiling, and if it rains long enough, small pinkwhite mushrooms sprout from the carpet below the hole. The mushrooms seem to make Deacon nervous, though she’s never asked him why, and he doesn’t ever walk down to that end of the hall alone.
        Digging through her purse for the door key, the ring with a toothy, rubber vampire bat on it and keys to places she hasn’t lived for years, keys to her parents’ house, keys to a car she wrecked last summer, and of course it’s hiding at the bottom under all the other purse junk. As usual, the lock sticks and she’s wrestling with it when she notices the mound of black gumdrops on the threshold, neat and sugared pile of discarded candy, and so the troublesome door forgotten for the moment, the rubber bat left dangling from the lock, as she bends down for a closer look. Black gumdrops, eight of them, and Sadie picks one up and looks at it like she’s never seen one before, glances across the hall to Mrs. Schmidt’s door. Certainly not impossible that the old woman put them there herself, like the time she drew big X’s and O’s in blue chalk on every door in the building; Sadie sets the gumdrop back on top of the pile and opens the door, thinking that she’ll just leave them there and let Deke figure out what to do about it, probably best to forget the whole thing anyway, and that’s when she sees the folded sheet of paper that someone’s slid under the door.

        The first bad dream about a week after she moved in with Deke, right before she found the computer in the dumpster and if Sadie told him that he might start talking about synchronicity and meaningful coincidence. But she hasn’t told him. Hasn’t told anyone, admitting the nightmares to nobody but herself and the Mac, confidence kept between her and the squat box of microchips and cybergreen circuit board. The black and waterdripping dreams, wandering someplace beneath the city and she’s never alone but never quite sure who’s with her, their voices always indistinct, their faces lost in the darkness. A strangling smell like stagnant water and something dead, something drowned, and the moldy hallway stench magnified a thousandfold. Walking and listening to the voices up ahead, wondering if she should call out, if she’s lost, if they’re all lost and searching for a way out, but she’s never said a word. Hugs herself against the damp and cold, against the deadwetdecay smells, and the rocks beneath her feet are slick with slime and mud, with whatever can grow without ever being touched by the sun.
        And at first these strange dreams like déjà vu, maddeningly familiar but a fleeting, intangible sort of familiarity, always fading with her first cup of coffee, her first cigarette of the morning. Then one night she was bored and channel surfing on Deke’s crappy Salvation Army television and she flipped past a PBS documentary, Nova or Nature, something about bats or caves, and suddenly the pieces fit together, dot-to-dot revelation, and Sadie remembered when she was ten years old and she had other dreams of being lost underground, nightmares that lasted for a whole month after her parents took her to Kentucky to see Mammoth Cave.
        The trip a present for her tenth birthday and the three of them following a guide who explained about stalagmites and stalactites as he led them deeper and deeper underground, farther from the light, farther from the day. Travertine flowstone formations like monsters hulking in the shadows, waiting until no one was looking so they could reach out and drag her screaming into the forever night of the caverns. They passed bottomless reflecting pools where pale, eyeless salamanders and crayfish lived, lingered before fantastic gardens of calcite and quartz. And at some point all the lights were turned out, sixty blindperfect seconds so that everyone would know how dark the cave really was, how absolute and complete that blackness, and she held desperately onto her mother, feeling dank and insubstantial teeth sink straight through her skin, all the way to her bones.
        And these new nightmares stitching now to then, these dreams to those, and sometimes the two bleed together and she’s ten again, lost under Birmingham and trying to find her parents or the way back to the world above, trying to catch up with the mumbling voices ahead of her. So close she should be able to reach out and touch whoever it is that’s talking, but if she holds her hands out there’s only the chilly underground air and the dark between her fingertips. Except for once, and most of the time she’d rather pretend that isn’t actually part of the dreams; a figment of her imagination’s daystarved imagination, a dream’s insane dream, and in that subterranean place she did not reach out with urgent, imploring fingers and brush the shoulder of a dead girl. Did not feel that skin like ice, but Sadie Jasper’s never been a very good liar, even when she’s only lying to herself, and in that one dream the lights finally did come back on, and she saw that the grand cathedral theater of Mammoth Cave had become a narrow tunnel, purposeful mine shaft sort of tunnel, so maybe she’d wandered away from her parents, away from the guide. Maybe all she had to do was stop and retrace her steps. But the dead girl turned around, instead, and Sadie knew that face, even though the hungry worms and beetles had been at it for days and days, even though she never met Elise Alden, no eyes left but she knew that face and she saw the blackred gashes that ran from the girl’s wrists to the bends of her elbows. And the girl smiled for her like a polar night sky where every star has died.

        A single white sheet of paper, folded twice, and her name and Deacon’s scribbled across the front in pencil, scribbled like someone in a hurry or maybe just someone with shitty handwriting, ugly cursive, and Sadie carries the note to the couch and sits down. The door left wide open, and she sets her purse, the book and the yellow umbrella down on the floor at her feet. Unfolds the sheet of paper and there’s more of the same tight scrawl, all the words tilting sharply to the left and You do not know me yet it says at the very top. You do not know me yet, but there is not much time left. I waited all day long and now the woman with the dog says I should go and I am afraid she’ll call the police so I am writing you this note instead.
        “Instead of what,” Sadie whispers, frowning at the piece of paper, the sticky gumdrop fingerprints at the edges, and the handwriting is getting worse as it goes along and she has to hold the note closer to her face and squint.
        I will tell you why I am and then something that’s been scratched out, violentsudden graphite scratches to obliterate a mistake, three or four words written down and then taken back, thought better of, and I need to talk to you both very soon. You know a girl named Chance who lives in a big house on the mountain and I have already talked to her. I have not told her why, but when I do she will not believe me but I know that you both will. I am sorry I had to leave a note like this. I am not a bad person, and then printed much more legibly below the last line, Dancy Flammarion.
        “Your door is open,” and Sadie looks up from the note and there’s Mrs. Schmidt standing in the doorway, clutching a fat wad of junk mail in her left hand. She’s stepped on the little pile of gumdrops, one of her blue bedroom slippers squashing them flat. “You really shouldn’t leave your door standing open like that, Sadie. It’s not a good neighborhood anymore.”
        “I know,” Sadie says and then she glances back down at the note, that last line before the signature.
         I am not a bad person.
        “There are all sorts of people wandering about that don’t belong here. Let me close the door for you, Sadie,” and Sadie looks up at the old woman, the deep worry lines on Mrs. Schmidt’s creased face even deeper than usual.
        “Thank you, Mrs. Schmidt,” Sadie says and when the door is shut and she’s alone again, she reads the note over from the beginning.

Copyright © 2000 by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Used by permission.


Caitlín talks about Threshold

A short interview by Constance Lynn

P&W: Isn't it sort of an aphorism in writing that the second novel is always much, much more difficult to write than the first? Was Threshold harder for you to write than Silk?

CRK: Yes, that's something I'd always been told. The second novel will be a lot harder than the first. But, you see, Threshold isn't technically my second novel. Technically, Threshold is my third novel, because I wrote The Five of Cups in 1992. And even though it was never published, TFoC did sell, so I thought, well, hey, Silk wasn't as hard as all that, so the maxim about second novels is hooey and I'm free and clear. But it turns out I was very, very, very wrong. Threshold almost killed me. People will think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. It was a nightmare, from start to finish. I began the book in August 1998 and thought I'd be finished with it in a matter of months. As it turned out, I finished the first draft in May 2000! My agent was beginning to get worried that I never would finish it.

P&W: Why do you think it was so hard to finish? Was it, in part, because Silk was so well-received?

CRK: Well, several things. First, I think the saying about second novels, well, what's at issue isn't really whether or not the book in question is literally your second novel, but whether or not it will be perceived as your second novel. Which is exactly the situation with Threshold. And yes, the success of Silk became a major factor during the writing of Threshold. When I was writing Silk, there was very little pressure. I mean, I wasn't making my living as a writer then, and no one expected anything in particular from a Caitlín Kiernan novel. I didn't have people wondering if I could do it twice. But after the IHG and Barnes and Noble awards, the reviews and all that, everything changed. I felt like it was no longer simply an issue of writing a good novel, but of writing a novel that would be better than Silk, that would - how should I put it? - realize the promise of my first novel. Something like that. I had to write better than me, which, I can tell you, is a hell of a lot harder than writing better than someone else. I'm still not sure what it was about Silk that worked in the first place and for months I was spending all this time trying to figure that out, so I could make it happen again. That was stupendously dumb, of course, and I finally started yelling at myself to get over it and just write the damned thing. Either it would be good or it wouldn't. Either people would like it or they wouldn't. By that time I'd probably been working on the manuscript for well over a year. At one point I had four or five chapters and I tossed them out and started over again. It was a seriously difficult time. I'm pretty sure several people were thinking it might be easier to kill me than have to endure another day of me trying to write Threshold. My work on The Dreaming was another big factor, though. Meeting that monthly deadline and having time left for the novel. And expending the creative energy that The Dreaming required often meant if I did find the time to work on the book, I was too wiped out from The Dreaming to make much use of it.

P&W: What can you tell us about Threshold? This is the book where you write about paleontology, right?

CRK: Yes, it is. The main character, Chance Matthews, is a graduate student in vertebrate paleontology, and her grandmother was a paleontologist who studied trilobites. So it's very much a book concerned with the things that paleontology is concerned with. Actually, that's a better way to explain it than to say, "This is a book about paleontology." It isn't that, at all. But it shares the fascination with deep time that paleontology is built upon.

P&W: What is "deep time"?

CRK: I'm not quite sure how to explain it. Time before time. Or, better yet, the way we think of space. We all use the phrase "deep space." Generally that means we aren't talking about the moon or even the outer limits of our own solar system, but something that's really, really out there, interstellar and intergalactic distances, the Horsehead Nebula or Antares. Deep space. That's how deep time works, only with time, instead of light years. Geological time, which has to be thought about a little differently than we tend to think of time, even the entire span of human history. Not just thousands of years, or millions of years, but hundreds and hundreds of millions of years. Billions of years. Paleontologists and geologists seem to have an instinctive grasp of these vast, near inconceivable gulfs of time, and I think we tend to take that understanding for granted and think most everyone else does, as well.

P&W: I've seen, in other interviews, where you said Threshold was inspired by the Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf.

CRK: For a long time, I've wanted to write a novel that would be a contemporary retelling of Beowulf. I'd intended Threshold to be that book, but it isn't, exactly. Sometimes stories seem to have ideas of their own. I've called it the Stubborn Shopping Cart Model of Fiction. Everyone's experienced the Stubborn Shopping Cart Phenomenon, the buggy that has one goofy wheel so whenever you push it the thing swerves this way or that and you wind up knocking over a display of tomato soup cans. The same thing happens to me with fiction, and it happened in a big way with Threshold. Maybe I wanted it to be a retelling of the Beowulf story, but it had other plans altogether. And, of course, it had the final say. That's one of the things that took so long writing it, that it was so hard for me to realize this wasn't going to be the book I'd intended. It was going to be this other book instead, whether I liked it or not. But there are elements of Beowulf there. People who are familiar with Beowulf will see them, and Threshold's very much concerned with monsters and heroism and destiny sort of the way that Beowulf is, I think. So, at least there are vestiges of my original intention peppered about in there.

P&W: So, how does Threshold differ from Silk? What do they have in common?

CRK: They are very different sorts of novels. Silk was more a book about personal demons, horror from within, and Threshold is dealing more with the sort of thing that Lovecraft called cosmic, the nasty things that could be way out there somewhere. The way that Silk was partly about my love affair with rock music and goth culture, this novel is partly an expression of my love affair with authors like Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood and M. R. James. It's a much more fantastic novel, and doesn't shy away from its weirdness the way that Silk did in places. And I'll confess that isn't something I'm entirely comfortable with. I firmly believe that in the best dark fantasy the weird may be heard and felt and even glimpsed, but it should almost never be seen very clearly. Suggestion is the most powerful tool an author of dark fantasy has at his or her disposal, not explicitness. So Threshold is an experiment for me in that sense, because, in many ways, the supernatural is more overt this time around. Ironically, though, there might be some people who will read it as science fiction, which is fine. And Threshold is a more personal novel, for me, than Silk, if that's possible. But there are a lot of similarities between Silk and Threshold, as well. Threshold is set in Birmingham and a couple of minor characters from Silk are mentioned. There's a stronger connection, really, between it and my short story collection, Tales of Pain and Wonder. Deacon Silvey, the reluctant psychic from "Anamorphosis" and "The Long Hall on the Top Floor" is a main character, and my story "In The Water Works" was a sort of loose prequel to Threshold. Sadie Jasper, from "The Long Hall on the Top Floor," is also an important character in the new novel.

Note: The rest of this interview retains the original title of CRK's new novel, Trilobite (the reasons why should soon become obvious).

P&W: Having read "In the Water Works," I think I can begin to imagine how it connects with a book titled Trilobite.

CRK: Well, the tunnel that's being constructed in that story is a very important element - the focal point, I guess - of the novel. The water works tunnel is a very good example of how I often stumble upon important elements of a story, especially the  settings. The tunnel's real, and it was built in 1888 to bring water to Birmingham from the Cahaba River to the south of the city. So, here's this tunnel bored straight through limestone and iron ore, through the middle of Red Mountain, and it's been there for one hundred and twelve years, guarded by nothing much but an iron gate, a chain, and a padlock. The first time I saw it, which was many, many years ago, it gave me the creeps. It's the sort of place that makes you think, "Anything, anything at all, could be waiting in there." The old blockhouse built around the tunnel's northern entrance even gives it the appearance of having eyes.

P&W: What is a trilobite and how are they important to the novel?

CRK: The trilobites were a very successful group of arthropods that dominated most marine environments for much of the Paleozoic Era, from about 500 million until about 250 million years ago, when the last of the group were killed off in the terminal Permian extinction event. They're very distant relatives of horseshoe crabs and were the first animals to evolve complex eyes. Trilobites may have been the first animals to see the world. They were really these incredibly weird, beautiful things. As for the novel, trilobites are important much the same way that spider webs, spider silk, was important to Silk, as metaphor, as the symbolic strands that tie it all together. But just as there were real spiders in Silk, there are real trilobites in Trilobite, though perhaps not quite the way people might expect. They're an important element in a mystery that the characters spend much of the novel trying to unravel, or just begin to grasp. But it isn't a book about trilobites any more than Silk was a book about spiders.

P&W: After Silk, what do you most hope will be different about the way that Trilobite is received by readers?

CRK: Okay, I've heard a lot of annoying and frustrating comments about Silk, but I think my favorite, which is to say the one that drives me absolutely nuts, is when someone says, "But what about the war in Heaven and the angels and all that?" It's like there are people who go into Silk with the impression that it's going to be some sort of Biblical fantasy, like the Prophecy films, and instead of seeing that Spyder Baxter's story about the grail and fallen angels is subtext, is an allegory that she concocts to try and save her sanity and the family that she's managed to put together, they get to the end and feel cheated because we never have a resolution to that story. Which, I think, is sort of like reading Poe's "The Purloined Letter" and getting angry at the end because we never learn what's in the letter. Or reading Ulysses and being disappointed because Joyce doesn't set a single scene in ancient Greece. So, what I'm saying is that I hope that people will read the book, and base their conclusions on the book, not on their first or second impression of what they think Trilobite is going to be, based on the title or the prologue or this interview. That, and perhaps the hope that everyone will feel irresistibly compelled to buy two or three extra copies. I could live with that.

Copyright © 2000 by Constance Lynn. Used by permission.


A Guide to the Eight Orders of Trilobites

The World's Biggest Trilobite

Trilobite Cookies! (Paleozoic confections, yum)

Beowulf (the Harvard Classics translation)

The Electronic Beowulf Project

Legends: An Online Beowulf Resource

"Water Works" photograph by Caitlín R. Kiernan, Copyright © 2000; used by permission.
Threshold cover design: Ray Lundgren, Copyright © 2001 by Penguin-Putnam, used by permission.