One of my favorite things to do as an author is to take a story, legend, bit of history, or something else very familiar to people, and look for the holes in it. Most history is reported by survivors, for instance, and nearly all of what we think we know of the past is skewed, just like the evening news, in one direction or another. In broad strokes, we can see the outcomes of things that have happened, but the reality of how they happened, well, that's always up for debate.
My first novel is a perfect example of this, I think. The book is titled This is My Blood, and though it's a vampire novel, and a romance novel, it's also historical fiction. What I did was simple. I looked for holes in the story. When the Devil tempted Jesus in the desert, they were there a long time according to the original story. For all that, it only shows a couple of temptations that were offered – and the most important temptation that can be offered to a living man was left out. Woman.
I had Lucifer raise a woman (Mary Magdalene) from among the fallen angels. He offered her, and, when she fell in love with Jesus, rather than tempt him, he cursed her to follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, feeing on the blood of the faithful.
There are other points. Remember in Life of Brian, when Brian stepped on the man who'd sworn a vow of silence? Once something is proclaimed a miracle it is so – and since the Apostles survived, things like the raising of the King's daughter, and Lazarus' return from the dead, were recorded as miracles. What if there was a dark side to each?
There is a lot more in that novel – Lilith, first woman – meets Mary and shares the experience of her love for Adam – and her betrayal. The thing that I did NOT do was change the timeline – the events recorded in the books of The Bible. I did this, in fact, to the point that readers have actually asked –tentatively – where I found the books of Judas in my book – were they really… real? That is probably one of the greatest compliments a writer can receive.
Since then, I've given alternate versions of why Vlad Tepes grew up to impale so many Turks, and why the backup regiment never showed up at Little Big Horn. I love twisting and changing history. One day I hope to write a novel titled "The Scarlet Rose" that puts the magic and romance back into The Scarlet Letter, tells the original story well enough for kids to pass an English class by reading it, at the same time making it a story they don't hate. That is for another time, though.
Just now I'm lost in the life and times of Edgar Allan Poe. The Raven is one of the most famous poems ever written by an American, and yet, we have never been able to explain who it was written for. There is so much loss, despair, and passion in those verses – but in the life of the man himself, no satisfactory answer to the question – who was Lenore?
I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that it was a part of how I structured my newest novel, Nevermore, a Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe. I learned that Poe had visited a certain hotel on the banks of the Intercoastal Waterway near where I live. That Hotel was on the border of The Great Dismal Swamp. The more I researched the history, the more interesting stories I found that could use a bit more detail. All I did was sew them together.
Here's the thing. The events in this novel could have happened without changing the timeline of history, as we know it, even slightly. Poe was at that hotel. Rumor has it that he wrote an early draft of The Raven while staying there. There is a tree in the shape of a woman on the banks of Lake Drummond, and another in the shape of a deer. If you are intrepid, the area is now a North Carolina State park, just this side of the border, and you can wander in and brave the bears to get a glimpse.
So, it makes sense to me that Edgar Allan Poe fell deeply in love at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp, and that he set out on an adventure at that point in time that changed him forever. Certainly his career changed when that poem was published. And would he have written of the Raven – if there was no raven? Would he have written of Lenore, if she didn't exist?
I like to think – not. The next time you are reading something very old, or something historic, look for the cracks in the walls. Try to imagine what might have been. Maybe I'll see you there…
David Niall Wilson
On the banks of Lake Drummond, on the edge of The Great Dismal Swamp, there is a tree in the shape of a woman.
One dark, moonlit night, two artists met at The Lake Drummond Hotel, built directly on the borderline of North Carolina and Virginia. One was a young woman with the ability to see spirits trapped in trees and stone, anchored to the earth beyond their years. Her gift was to draw them, and then to set them free. The other was a dark man, haunted by dreams and visions that brought him stories of sadness and pain, and trapped in a life between the powers he sensed all around him, and a mundane existence attended by failure. They were Eleanore MacReady, Lenore, to her friends, and a young poet named Edgar Allan Poe, who traveled with a crow that was his secret, and almost constant companion, a bird named Grimm for the talented brothers of fairy-tale fame.
Their meeting drew them together in vision, and legend, and pitted their strange powers and quick minds against the depths of the Dismal Swamp itself, ancient legends, and time.
Once, upon a shoreline dreary, there was a tree. This is her story.
The room was low-ceilinged and deep. Smoke wafted from table to table, cigars, pipes, and the pungent aroma of scented candles. Laughter floated out from the bar, separated by a low half-wall from a small dining area, where the bartender regaled the crowd with a particularly bawdy story. In the corners, more private conversations took place, and at the rear, facing the Intercoastal Waterway beyond, the door stood open to the night, letting the slightly cooler air of evening in and the sound and smoke free.
The smoke prevented the illumination from a series of gaslights and lanterns from cutting the gloom properly. Smiles gleamed from shadows and the glint of silver and gunmetal winked like stars. It was a rough crowd, into their drinks and stories, plans and schemes.
Along the back wall, facing a window that looked out over the waterway and the Great Dismal Swamp beyond, a lone figure sat with her back to the room. Her hair was long and light brown, braided back and falling over her shoulder to the center of her back. She was tall and slender with smooth, tanned skin. She was dressed for travel, in a long, floor length dress that covered her legs, while allowing ease of motion. The crowd swirled around her, but none paid her any attention.
She paid no attention to anything but the window. Her gaze was fixed on the point where an intricate pattern of branches and leaves crossed the face of the moon.
There was a sheaf of paper on the table, and she held a bit of chalk loosely between the thumb and index finger of her right hand. She formed the trees, the long strong lines of the trees, the fine mesh of branches and mist. Her fingers moved quickly, etching outlines and shading onto her sketch with practiced ease.
A serving girl wandered over to glance down at the work in progress. She stared at the paper intently, and then glanced up at the window, and the night beyond. She reached down and plucked the empty wine glass from the table.
"What are they?" she asked.
The woman glanced up. Her expression was startled, as if she'd been drawn back from some other place, or out of a trance. She followed the serving girl's gaze to the paper.
Among the branches, formed of limbs and leaves, mist and reflected light, faces gazed out, some at the tavern, some at the swamp, others down along the waterway. They mixed so subtly with the trees themselves that if you were not looking carefully, they seemed to disappear.
"I don't know," the woman said. "Not yet. Spirits, I suppose. Trapped. Tangled."
"You are a crazy woman," the girl said. There was no conviction in her words. She continued to stare at the sketch. Then, very suddenly, she stepped back. She stumbled, and nearly dropped her tray.
The woman glanced up at her sharply.
"That…face." The girl stepped back to the table very slowly, and pointed to the center of the snarl of branches. The tip of her finger brushed along the lines of a square-jawed face. The eyes were dark and the expression was a scowl close to rage.
"I've seen him before," she said. "Last year. He…he was shot."
"Can you tell me?"
The girl shook her head. "Not now. I have to work. If I stand here longer there will be trouble. Later? I must serve until the tavern closes, a few hours…"
The artist held out her hand.
"My Name is Eleanor, Eleanor MacReady, but friends call me Lenore. I'll be here, finishing this drawing, until you close. I know that it will be late, but I am something of a night person. Can we talk then? Maybe in my room?"
The girl nodded. She glanced down at the drawing again and stepped back. Then she stumbled off into the crowded tavern and disappeared. Lenore stared after her for a long moment, brow furrowed, then turned back to the window. The moon had shifted, and the image she'd been drawing was lost. It didn't matter. The faces were locked in her mind, and she turned her attention to her wine glass, and to the paper. The basic design was complete, but there was a lot of shading and detail work remaining. She had to get the faces just right – exactly as she remembered them. Then the real work would begin.
Even as she worked, her mind drifted out toward the swamp, and toward her true destination. She didn't know the exact location of the tree, but she knew it was there, and she knew that she would find it. She didn't always see things in her dreams, but when she did, the visions were always true.
A breeze blew in through the open window, and she shivered.
The face she was working on was that of an older man. He had a sharp, beak of a nose and deep-set shadowed eyes. The expression on his face might have been surprise, or dismay. His hair was formed of strands of gray cloud blended with small twigs and wisps of fog as she carefully entered the details.
There were others. She'd counted five in all, just in that one glimpse of the swamp. She thought she could probably sit right here, at this window, and work for years without capturing them all. How many lives lay buried in the peat moss and murky water? How many had died, or been killed beside the long stretch of the Intercoastal Waterway? She tilted her head and listened. The breeze seemed to carry voices from far away, the sound of firing guns, the screams of the lost and dying.
She worked a woman's features into a knotted joint in one of the tree’s branches. The face was proud. Her lip curled down slightly at the edge, not so much in a frown, as in determination. Purpose. From the strong cheekbones and distinctive lines of the woman's nose, Lenore sensed she'd been an Indian. How had she come here, soul trapped fluttering up through the sticky fingers of the ancient trees?
Around her, the sounds of revelry, arguments of drunken, belligerent men, clink of glasses, full and empty, and the sound of a lone guitar in a far corner surrounded her. She felt cut off – isolated in some odd way from everyone, and everything but the paper beneath her fingers. Now and then she paused, reached out for her glass, and sipped her wine.
No one troubled her and that in and of itself, was odd. A woman – an attractive woman – alone in a place like the Halfway House was an oddity. She should have been a target. She was not. A few men glanced her way, but something about her – the way she bent over her work, the intensity of her focus – kept them away. She worked steadily, and one by one, the others drifted out the doors, some to rooms, others to wander about with bottles and thoughts of their own. Eventually, there were only a few small groups, talking quietly, the bartender, and the girl.
There was nothing more she could do. She had drawn an eerily accurate recreation of the trees over the waterway, and of the five faces she'd found trapped in their branches. She sensed things about them but knew little. She did not need to know. She knew that she had to set them free, to allow them to move on to the next level. Something had bound them – some power, or some part of themselves they were unwilling to release. They did not belong, and though she knew that most of the world either ignored, or did not sense these things at all – she did. All those trapped, helpless beings weighed on her spirit like stones. She was fine until she saw them, but once that happened, she was bound to set them free. It was her gift – her curse? Sometimes the two were too closely aligned to be differentiated.
She rose, drained the last of the wine in her cup, and gathered her pencils. She tucked the drawing into the pocket of a leather portfolio, careful not to smudge it. Soon, it would not matter, but until she'd had a chance to finish her work, it was crucial that nothing be disturbed.
The girl, who had been busy wiping the spilled remnants of ale, wine, and the night from the various tables and the surface of the bar, wandered slowly over.
"I'm in the corner room," Lenore said, smiling. "The one farthest in on the Carolina side."
The girl nodded. She glanced over at the bartender, then turned back.
"I will come as soon as I can." She glanced down at the portfolio. "You have finished?"
Lenore nodded, but only slightly. "I have finished the basic drawing, yes."
"He was a bad man," the girl said. "A very bad man. I have never seen him there – in the trees – before tonight. I don't like that he watches."
"After tonight, he will not," Lenore said, reaching to lay her hand on the girl's shoulder. "But I'd love to know who he is – who he was. I seldom know the faces I've drawn. You saw him – in my drawing, and in the trees. Most see nothing but branches."
"I will come soon," the girl said, turning and hurrying back toward the bar.
Lenore watched her go, frowned slightly, and then turned. She had to exit through the front door and follow a long porch along the side of the building where it turned from the saloon in the center to a line of rooms on the Carolina side. There were similar rooms on the Virginia side, but her business was in the swamp, and the corner room gave her a better view of what lay beyond.
As she made her way to her room, she heard the steady drum of hooves. She stopped, and turned. A carriage had come into view, winding in from the main road that stretched between the states. It was dark, pulled by a pair of even darker horses. She stood still and watched as it came to a halt. Something moved far above, and she glanced up in time to see a dark shape flash across the pale face of the moon. A bird? At night?
She glanced back to the carriage to see it pulling away into the night. A single figure stood, his bag in one hand. He glanced her way, nodded, and then turned toward the main door of the saloon. He was thin, with dark hair and eyes. It was hard to make his features out in the darkness, but somehow she saw into those eyes. They were filled with an odd, melancholy sadness. As he passed inside, it seemed as if his shadow remained, just for a moment, outlined in silvery light. Then it was gone.
Lenore shook her head, turned, and hurried to the door to her room. She fumbled the key from her jacket pocket, jammed it into the lock, and hurried inside. She had no idea why the sight of the man had unnerved her, but it had. And the bird. If she'd woken from a dream, she'd have believed she was meant to set him free…but she was very, very awake, and though her fingers itched to draw – to put his image on paper and tuck it away somewhere safe, she knew she could not. Not now – not yet. There was not much time before dawn, and she still had work to finish – and a story to hear. The stranger, if she ever returned to him, would have to wait.
She lit the oil lamp on the single table in her small room, opened the portfolio, and laid the drawing on the flat surface. There was a small stand nearby, and another bottle of wine rested there. She had two glasses, but had not known at the time why she'd asked for them. Another vision? She poured one for herself, and replaced the cork.
Moments later, there was a soft rap on the door. When she opened it, the girl stood outside, shifting nervously from one foot to the other and looking up and down the long porch as if fearing to be seen.
"Come in," Lenore said.
The girl did so, and Lenore closed the door behind them.
"What shall I call you?" she asked, trying to set the girl at ease. Something had her spooked and it would simply not do to have the girl bolt without spilling her story.
"Anita," the girl said shyly, glancing at Lenore. "I am Anita."
"I'm glad to meet you," Lenore said, "and very curious to hear what you have to say about the man you saw in the trees. I see them all the time, you know. In trees, bushes, sometimes in the water or a stone. It's not very often that I meet another who is aware of them – even less often that I have a chance to hear their stories."
"It is not a good story," Anita said. "He was a very bad man."
Lenore smiled again. "He's not a man any longer, dear, so there is nothing to fear in the telling. Would you like a glass of wine?"
The girl nodded. Lenore poured a second glass from her bottle and handed it over.
"Sit down," she said. "I still have work to do, and I can work as you talk. It will relax me."
"I will tell you," Anita said, perching lightly on the corner of the bed, "but it will not relax you."
"Then it will keep me awake," Lenore said, seating herself at her desk. "You see, I don't just see those who are trapped, I have to undo whatever it is that has them trapped. I won't be finished until I've freed them all."
The girl glanced sharply over, nearly spilling her drink.
"Maybe…maybe it is best if this one stays."
Lenore pulled out her pencils, and a gum eraser.
"We'll leave him for now," she said. "There are four others, and I can only work on one at a time. Tell me your story."
Anita took a sip of her wine, and nodded. "His name is Abraham Thigpen. He died about a year ago but I remember it like today…"
Lenore listened, and worked, rearranging branches, shifting the wood slightly, picking the strong woman's face to release from the pattern first. Anita's voice droned in the background – and she faded into the story, letting it draw her back across the years as she carefully disassembled her drawing, working the faces free.