I'm a real fiction mood, all of a sudden. I'm reading the ghost stories of M.R. James and I have a few other books of stories lined up to read.
I've also enjoyed going through my old fiction, and hope it's not too self-indulgent posting some of it here.
I decided to do something even more self-indulgent, and post the last chapter of a novel I wrote a few years back, titled The Snowman: A Horror Story. The idea for the book swam into my head as I was waiting in the optician's to get an eye test.
The story so far, drastically shortened:
A nondescript Dublin suburb called Higginstown has been taken over by an entity called The Snowman. This entity is in fact an extra-terrestrial being who was summoned by a dying child's wish for snow. (Non-Irish readers should understand that snow is a rarity here.) The Snowman has tried to create a Paradise, but a child's idea of Paradise; all laws and rules are suspended, comfort food appears magically in fridges (the only technology that still works), all injuries heal, death itself is only temporary, and it snows endlessly. The outside world has disappeared.
Soon, Higginstown is ruled by thugs and gangs and turns into a savage free-for-all, where ordinary people go into hiding and keep their heads down. Our hero, Brendan-- who has simply drifted through life until now-- becomes the leader of a small, secret resistance called the Chess Club. Their resistance seems futile at first, but soon they notice that the Snowman's powers seem to be weakening. The world he has created starts to come apart at the seams, injuries don't heal, the comfort food stops appearing, and the dead stay dead.
In their last confrontation with the Snowman, the entity reveals that he is, in fact, dying. Higginstown will not be returned to the outside world but trapped in its current limbo forever. (The inhabitants, however, have discovered that huge amounts of virgin country lies outside its borders, which they had not been able to bypass until the Snowman began to weaken.)
This leaves Brendan in a pickle, as a group of thugs whose leader he killed have promised revenge upon him. The final scene is set in Brendan's old school, which the Snowman used as his HQ, and features the dying Snowman, Brendan and Sarah-- another member of the Chess Club, for whom Brendan has unrequited romantic feelings. They've taken pity on the Snowman in his dying moments and agreed to remain with him.
The air of the yard was delicious after the stench of death in the corridor. Brendan had removed his helmet now, too, and the feeling of the wind against his face was more than refreshing. It almost felt like rebirth. Dawn had given way to the first full light of morning. The sky blazed white as snow.
“God, I hated this yard so much”, said Sarah. “Even more than the sixth year classroom.”
It was nothing more than a large square of tarmac, edged on three sides by narrow fields, and surrounded by metal railings. The Snowman had turned the railings to a wall of ice.
Brendan’s memory of the yard were no more affectionate than Sarah’s. He would stand in one corner, beside the bushes, with his one or two friends, making their would-be cynical comments about teachers, other kids, and life in general.
Sometimes they would get hassle from the more obnoxious students. It was Brendan in particular who seemed to draw them. Back then, he had wondered if there was something about the very way he walked and talked that antagonised bullies. He had spent a lot of time thinking about that.
The memory made him think of Lee, Dean’s brother. He had entirely forgotten about him for the last hour or so. For all his grief for Willy and the others, he had begun to believe that he had come through this whole nightmare. Now, with a sickening lurch of his stomach, he remembered that a sentence of death still hung over his head.
“I’ve just remembered”, he said to Sarah, who was gazing at the huge clouds drifting across the horizon. “I have my fan club to deal with when we go back.”
“Fan club?”, asked Sarah, looking towards him, as though she had just remembered he was there.
“Lee and his friends”, said Brendan. “They’ve sworn to kill me, remember?”
WHY DON’T YOU KILL THEM FIRST?
Sarah and Brendan looked towards the red eyes that were hovering a few feet above them. The outline of the Snowman was growing fainter all the time, but his eyes were as bright as ever.
“I’m not sure how I’d go about that”, said Brendan, with a bitter laugh.
REALLY?, asked the Snowman. I THINK THAT YOU’RE DISTINGUISHED BY A REMARKABLE CAPACITY OF INVENTION AND IMPROVISATION.
“Thanks”, said Brendan. The compliment took a little of the sting from the self-praise he had subconciously put into Toffee’s mouth.
“You talk like a college professor”, said Sarah, looking up at the Snowman. “Are you old? Are you young?”
There was a moment of silence. Brendan could no longer feel the emotions of the Snowman. He thought that, perhaps, the entity-—whatever it was-— had resigned itself to its own end.
I DO NOT KNOW, it said, eventually. I AM HUNDREDS OF YEARS OLDER THAN YOU, ANYWAY. BUT I REMEMBER SO LITTLE OF IT.
“What do you...what do you think will happen to you when you die?”, asked Sarah. If she felt pity for the Snowman, none of it showed on her face. There was nothing in her expression but friendly interest.
Probably nothing could have satisfied the Snowman more, Brendan thought, looking at her.
For the first time, in this morning light, he saw that she had faint freckles on her cheeks.
I THINK...I THINK I HAVE DIED BEFORE, said the Snowman. I REMEMBER A LONG, LONG PERIOD OF SOMETHING LIKE SLEEP. SLEEP, WITH ONLY THE FAINTEST OF DREAMS. CENTURIES OF IT.
There was no doubting the consternation in the Snowman’s words. He feared this dissolution as much as any man or woman had ever feared death.
“Do you have any idea what you are?”, asked Brendan.
The eyes did not move, but somehow he felt them looking at him now, rather than Sarah.
NOT MUCH, it said. I AM A SERVANT. MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE, I FEEL THE URGE TO SERVE. TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY.
Neither Brendan nor Sarah replied to that. The irony was too grim, too lacerating for words.
“Maybe you’ll do better next time”, said Sarah, looking up into its eyes. “Maybe you’ll learn from this.”
IT WAS NOT MY FAILURE, said the Snowman. THE FAILURE WAS IN YOUR PEOPLE. YOU HATE HAPPINESS.
“Well, maybe”—- began Brendan, suddenly angry. But Sarah shot a look of such cold disapproval at him that his words choked in his throat.
There was silence, while the snow whirled in the air, and the wind rustled through the bare branches in the fields beyond the school.
I THANK YOU FOR REMAINING WITH ME, BRENDAN AND SARAH, said the Snowman. The words came with the faintest undercurrent of gratitude. Perhaps even of contrition.
“Don’t mention it”, said Sarah, with a sweet smile.
I WISH THERE WAS SOMEHOW I COULD REPAY YOU. There was no doubting the emotion in those words, Brendan thought. The Snowman’s diamond-hard pride was injured at accepting a favour, even in the face of death.
“Maybe you could send Lee and his cronies to Mars”, said Brendan, with a hollow laugh. He kept picturing the way Lee had run his finger along his throat, the way he had stared into Brendan’s eyes. The sheer hatred of his stare.
I’M AFRAID NOT, said the Snowman.
But the suggestion, despite being nothing more than a bad joke, had planted an idea in Brendan’s head. Something that had not occurred to him until this moment.
“Snowman...”, he began, and then he paused. “What is your name, Snowman?”
HEART OF FLAME, said the Snowman, and Brendan knew, from the pleasure in the words, that he had done well to ask.
“Well, Heart of Flame”, said Brendan, “you told us you can’t take us back to our own world. But what about another world? You said there were myriads. Can you send me to one of those?”
The Snowman—- Heart of Flame—- was silent for a moment.
YES, it said, eventually. THOUGH THE EFFORT WOULD UNDOUBTEDLY KILL ME AS SOON AS YOU STEPPED THROUGH.
After a moment’s awkward pause, Brendan asked: “Will you?”
I LIVED TO SERVE, said Heart of Flame. I AM READY TO DIE IN THE SAME MANNER.
“Thank you”, said Brendan, feeling even more awkward now. Had anybody, in all the histories of the myriad worlds the Snowman spoke about, found themselves in a social situation exactly like this? “What world are you going to send me to?”
YOU CAN CHOOSE THAT FOR YOURSELF, said Heart of Flame. I WILL SHOW YOU A FEW. BUT DON’T HESITATE TOO LONG OVER THE CHOICE. WE DON’T HAVE VERY MUCH TIME LEFT.
“Sarah”, said Brendan, turning towards the girl he had been fantasising about making his own just moments before. “Will you tell Eleanor something, when you go back?”
Sarah just stared back at him, with those impossible-to-read eyes the colour of a winter’s dawn.
“What makes you think I am going back?”, she asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“Why should you get to go to a new world, and not me? There’s nothing keeping me here. I’ve seen as much of this bubble world as I want to see.”
“But…”, said Brendan, despite the joyful hope rising in his heart, “what about...the frontier? The green fields?”
“I don’t want to be a farmer’s wife”, said Sarah, with the ghost of a smile. “Or a farmer. I’m not a pioneer. I like civilisation.”
The joy of this unexpected companionship was still hot in Brendan’s heart, but there was a shadow on his sudden happiness.
“But Eleanor”, he began, imagining his sister’s face. He had found a sister, just as he had found a father, in the last few weeks. And now he was losing her again. “I need to leave a message for Eleanor.”
Sarah looked at him, but didn’t reply. Then she turned around, and walked towards the school.
WHAT’S SHE DOING?, asked Heart of Flame.
“No idea”, said Brendan.
Sarah was looking in a window. Whatever she was looking for, she didn’t find, because she moved towards the next.
YOU WANT HER SO BADLY, said Heart of Flame.
“I certainly do”, said Brendan. “Are you reading my mind?”
NO, said the Snowman.
At the fourth window Sarah came to, she stopped. She stepped backwards, and then she astonished Brendan by lifting her leg and kicking the pane in. It took four or five kicks for her to clear most of the glass.
She climbed into through the window, and a few moments later she came out holding something. When she reached Brendan, she extended her arm towards him. She was holding a fat marker.
“Write it out for her”, she said.
“Where?”, asked Brendan.
“On the wall. On the ground. Anywhere. I’m sure they’ll come here looking.”
He looked around the yard. The wall of the school itself was made of a rough, porous brick. The ground was tarmac.
But there was a sign that read No Trespassing, just inside the railings, beside where Brendan and his friends used to exchange juvenile cynicisms. People often leaped over the railings to avoid the longer way around the schoool.
“The sign”, said Brendan, making towards it.
HURRY UP, said Heart of Flame. WE DON’T HAVE MUCH TIME LEFT.
He walked towards the sign. He could see the reverse side from here. It was smooth, finely-grained wood.
When he tried writing on it, the marker took to the surface perfectly. The first word was easy: Eleanor.
He paused, then. But only for a moment. We don’t have much time left.
Anything would do, he thought. As long as she knew. That was the only thing that mattered. He wrote rapidly.
I’m going to another world. Via the Snowman. This isn’t a joke. I love you, sister. I’ll never forget you. Please be happy. Brendan.
Then he threw the marker away, to stop himself from writing more, and turned back towards the others. Tears stung his eyes.
“She’ll see it”, said Sarah, watching his face, as he approached them. “Don’t worry. She’ll see it, Brendan. She’ll be OK. Eleanor is tough.”
“I suppose she will”, said Brendan. “I suppose she is.”
COME ON, said the Snowman, and now his words were heavy with urgency. TIME IS SLIPPING AWAY. LOOK.
The snow in front of them, Brendan saw, was darkening. It was turning grey, and then almost black. A large oval shape, perhaps ten foot high and five feet across at its broadest, was forming in the air.
And then, suddenly, it became a window. A window without a frame, simply an oval hole in the air, looking out onto another world.
HOW ABOUT THIS PLACE?, asked the Snowman.
It was hot, Brendan saw. Its sky was a deeper blue than he had ever seen, except in advertisements for package holidays. That was what it did look like, actually. A brilliant blue sea was littered with sandy islands, and a boat with rainbow sails moved from one to the other. They might have been gazing down on it from a hot air balloon.
“I don’t like that at all,” said Brendan.
“Me neither”, said Sarah.
IT’S YOUR PEOPLES’ CLASSIC IMAGE OF A PARADISE, said the Snowman, a little huffily, Brendan thought. He guessed that Heart of Flame was distracting himself from his impending demise by this final task.
“Not ours”, said Sarah, and Brendan thrilled at how she used the word ours. He was frightened she might decide on a different world to him, if Heart of Flame permitted her.
Right now his heart was beating as hard as it had ever beaten before. These are the moments that decide a life, he thought.
THIS ONE, THEN, said Heart of Flame, and a cityscape of gleaming skyscrapers appeared in the door.
“Anything but that”, he said.
The Snowman showed them world after world, becoming more impatient at each one they rejected. One was a sandy town of golden domes. One, it seemed, was a civilisation entirely built upon water, with enormous ships serving as buildings, and little boats as houses. One seemed to be entirely underground; there was no glimpse of sky, only enormous caverns lit by glowing balls, and people moving about their business below, tiny as ants.
“Something more like our world”, said Sarah.
YOU HAVE NO SENSE OF ADVENTURE, said Heart of Flame, sullenly. HOW ABOUT THIS?
As soon as he saw it, Brendan knew that it was the one. The sky was the darkest blue he could imagine, on the very edge of black. It was a winter’s night. A cobbled town centre lay below them, and spires rose into the night sky. Horse-drawn carriages moved through the narrow streets.
And it was snowing. Heavily. A thick blanket of snow lay on the ground, and snow crusted the spires and roofs.
“That’s the one”, said Brendan. “That has to be one. Sarah?”
He looked at her, and his heart froze as he saw the meditative look on her face. She was considering it, he saw. His fate hung in the air.
“Are there cinemas?”, she asked, to his complete surprise.
Brendan felt something like a weary sigh coming from Heart of Flame, and he said: “NOT YET. BUT SOON. THIS WORLD IS ONLY THREE OR FOUR YEARS FROM DEVELOPING CINEMA.”
Sarah’s eyes widened, and Brendan’s heart soared. He knew the thing had been decided now.
“Nickelodeons”, she said, softly. “Silents. Picture Palaces. The first talkies. I’ll see it all. I’ll be there at the dawn.”
Brendan reached down, and took her gloved hand in his own. She looked up at him, the hint of a reproach in her eyes.
“Brother and sister”, she said, a little sternly. “We go as brother and sister.”
“Brother and sister, then”, said Brendan, with his best gentlemanly smile. But something in her voice, something in the way she met his eyes, gave him hope. Something more than hope, perhaps.
FAREWELL, SARAH AND BRENDAN, said Heart of Flame.
Brendan turned to say goodbye to the Snowman, wondering what words he would find for this strange being’s very last moments.
But the Snowman was gone. Higginstown Comprehensive School was gone. Higginstown itself was gone.
And the snow, instead of whirling in a frenzied dance, was falling gently.
They were standing on a hill, Brendan saw. Tall pines rose to their left, filling the air with their gorgeous scent. The stars blazed clear overhead, and beneath them lay the very town they had been looking at through the magic door. It was further away now, so small that it looked like a toy-town.
He looked at Sarah, and started.
She was dressed differently. She was wearing a heavy black cape over a thick, bottle-green woolen dress. A black bonnet stood atop her hair, which was cascaded down her shoulders in curls. She looked beautiful in an entirely new, unsuspected way.
“You look quite the swell, Brendan”, she said, smiling at him in amusement.
He looked down. He was wearing a navy greatcoat. His hands were clad in brown sheepskin gloves. And he could feel a stiff hat on his head. He reached up and took it off.
“A top hat”, he said. “I always wanted to wear one.”
“Have you any money?”, asked Sarah.
He put his hat back on his head, and reached into his coat pocket. His gloved fingers felt coins, but something else, too. There was a wallet in his pocket.
He pulled it out. It was made of black leather, and a coat of arms—- a meteorite and fish of some kind—- was embossed on the front.
“Open it up”, said Sarah, eagerly.
He did as she suggested. He heard the rustle of banknotes, but the first thing that struck his eye was a cream-coloured business card.
The coat-of-arms that had been embossed upon his wallet was reproduced here, in blue ink. And beneath it was written:
Professor of Folklore
And underneath, an address:
34, Sorcerer Street
“Marven”, he said, thrusting the wallet back into the coat. “That’s the name of this town. And I have a house. We have a house. If you like, that is.”
“Where else have I go to go?”, asked Sarah, smiling. She reached her hand towards him again. “Let’s go see if you have any servants.”
He took her hand, and walked down the snowy hill, towards the town that shone beneath them, and towards whatever life lay before them.