WINNER OF THE PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE CANADA
STUDENT AWARD FOR FICTION 2018
I remember a room with yellow striped wallpaper where the walls were
straight and true with no bulges or cracks. The brickwork wasn't
crumbling, and the floorboards weren't rough and creaking. There was no
stink of blocked drains or decaying rubbish, and the gutters weren’t thick
with sewage. I lost count of how many coals the maid Nancy put on the fire,
and how many wax candles we burned. The sitting room had a cabinet full
of books—proper books, with covers and knife-edge pages, and we read
them by blazing gaslight. Jane Eyre was my constant companion, and her
story—even now—I know by heart. Curled up on the window seat, hiding
behind the curtains, I planned my future, and it was just like hers, with a gloomy old mansion in the wild countryside, and my own Mr. Rochester by my side.
In those days my red hair sparked like the brightest part of a flame. My nursemaid brushed sugar-water through it, so it sizzled when she twisted with a pair of hot tongs. “The curls will last longer this way,” she said.
My step-father, Jonathan Swan, was a clockmaker who invented extraordinary things: a silver skull with a watch face grasped between its jaws, and a mantle-clock that sang like a canary on the hour. He had special tools, and spectacles with goggly lenses he wore when fiddling with tiny springs and gears. His young son Ben—who became my brother—tinkered alongside him, though he was too impatient to do the delicate work.
One autumn, when Jonathan had his Christmas orders coming in, he began to make small errors, then larger ones. He squinted, and rubbed his eyes, bringing the parts closer to see them better. He hardly noticed at first, but his creations were not as fine as they once were, and though Ben did what he could, the sales became fewer and his workshop grew quiet. Before long, he couldn't see well enough to fashion any sort of timepiece at all, and every watch hand, gear and tool went off to the pawnshop.
Gradually, my things—all our things—were taken and sold bit by bit. After the family silver went from the cupboards, it was the pastoral paintings from the walls, then the tufted furniture from the sitting room, followed soon after by my soft leather boots; my printed linen frocks and the shining gold ring my step-father had made for me. In the end, I couldn't even keep my beloved copy of Jane Eyre. That loss I felt most keenly, for when it was taken to the bookseller, all my hope went with it. We were a different family back then, in that house. We were happy, and I wish I had torn off a scrap of that yellow striped wallpaper when we left. I’d look at it now to remind me of what we once had—that it wasn't a dream after all.
Then there was London. I first saw it lying on the horizon—a miserable creature: grey, dirty and bloated, with its backbone protruding—all church spires and ships' masts. A smoking dragon with the citizens roasting in its belly. My family and I approached it by carriage and entered through the gaping mouth of it, then settled into its darkest heart: the slums of Seven Dials in the parish of St. Giles, where the crooked streets turn in on themselves, and we are smothered by fog and cloaked in soot.
Corinne Clark has an exceptional gift for vividly setting a scene. In her prose, the reader feels the suffocating bleakness of London and Charlotte’s monotonous, long workdays making clothing for the dead and the bereaved. Charlotte’s family’s own loss is marked by overwhelming blackness, and even Charlotte’s formerly fiery hair has turned muted and dull. Clark’s dreary London, painted with exquisite detail, is the perfect setting for suspense to build. This excerpt is carefully plotted, and the fright creeps in at just the right moments. Corinne Clark has crafted an atmospheric gem in this excerpt of Haunting Charlotte.
Sarah Jackson, Editorial Assistant, Knopf Random House Canada
Corinne Clark takes the $2500 first prize for her gritty and gothic depiction of 19th Century London. Her novel excerpt Haunting Charlotte brings the London of the Industrial Revolution to life with its vivid details. The excerpt you’ll read here will leave you hungry to read the rest of the novel, which I’m sure you’ll have the opportunity to do before very long. The complete version of Haunting Charlotte feels destined for publication.
Lee Gowan Program Director, Creative Writing University of Toronto, School of Continuing Studies
A GHOST STORY
FROM "O HORRID NIGHT: CHILLING HOLIDAY TALES FOR THE BLACK-HEARTED,"
Apparently, the innkeeper was superstitious rather than religious, for the only evidence of the sacred holiday was a bough of scrubby pine placed upon the mantlepiece and the remains of a sherry soaked fruitcake—heavy as a doorstop —still sitting between my ribs.
“When a tall, dark stranger crosses th’ doorstep on Christmas Eve, it means a spirit is coming,” the innkeeper said. His expression was inscrutable; I suspected he was having a laugh at my expense. It was not lost on me that I was approaching six feet tall and had hair black as India ink.
Narrowing my eyes I said: “You made that up just now.”
“I didn’t.” The innkeeper folded his meaty arms across his chest. “A spirit on Christmas Eve brings a death soon after.”
“Rubbish,” I scoffed. “You don’t really believe that, do you?” I looked at the faces of the other men in the room. Clearly, they did. “The idea is ludicrous. I have not brought a spirit of any kind with me, nor will there be one coming along after me. You’ve been reading too much Dickens.”
“If you give us a story,” the innkeeper said, “a convincing one, mind, then I reckon the restless spirits ‘ill think the inn’s haunted already and pass us by.”
“True enough.” Edgar raised his glass as if toasting the innkeeper, then took a generous swallow of his scotch.
“Well, I’m sorry to let you all down,” I said. “But I must push off. My wife’s expecting me home. She’s roasting a quail, promised me a figgy pudding. It’s our first Christmas together as husband and wife, you see.”
None of the men seemed moved by my sentiment. Retrieving my pocket watch I consulted the time: half-past four. Night was falling quickly. Christmas would be upon us in a few hours. I snapped the gold case shut and dropped the watch back into my pocket, just as the innkeeper lifted the curtain at the window. My heart sank. A sinister fog had descended on the countryside, obscuring everything from view.
I thought of Audrey sitting in the window of our cottage, with the gloom swallowing the light from her gas lamp, the darkness creeping in around her. She would have only our old dog Mix for company, his tail thumping on the rug as she scratched behind his ears.
“You can’t go out in this.” The innkeeper inclined his head toward the window.
"I'll set out on foot – a little weather never bothered me."
Edgar raised his woolly eyebrows. "You'll never make it," he said. "You can't see a blasted thing when that fog rolls in off the moors. Not even your own two feet, never mind the road beneath 'em."
"I reckon you'd fall into a ditch, or drown in the river. Freeze to death p’raps. Or go mad wanderin' the heath." Jack waggled his long fingers at me. His voice was a bit too dramatic for my liking.
"No one’s leaving here tonight," the innkeeper said. “I’ll not ‘ave the death of a man on my hands.” He gave me a pointed look. “You’ll have t’ stay put till the morning.”
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Some folk said Uriah Bleakness would do the
devil proud, should the devil ever stoop so low.
Bleakness—Lord Bleakness, he’d grown fond
of calling himself—owned a gloomy curio shop
at the junction of Pinchin Road and Back Church
Lane in the bustling parish of Whitechapel.
The merchandise he sold was of a most
Unextraordinary Character, useless to anyone
but the dustman despite the peeling sign above
the door that read: Everything You Could Ever Want or Need, and squeezed in at the bottom in tiny, dim letters (and on a considerable slant) Quality Garran-teed.
But passersby couldn’t see through the windows no matter how closely they leaned in, for the mullioned glass was dark under a layer of smog and soot—the crud so thick that someone had scratched the word poo in it, though inside the shop it read oop.
Bleakness boasted that he sold outside and inside clothes; second, third, and fourth-hand thingamajigs, and whats-its that were so fine only the Queen had their like. He kept the lamps low when showing things like old petticoats, broken chairs, or cast-off tableware (it isn’t rust, sir, but a rare copper from India. No, no, miss. Not a stain, just part of the lovely pattern).
He took in a small boy, whom he called Boy, to hammer dents out of beaten tankards and teapots; affix tin over holes in buckets and kettles; and embellish brooches, coins, and spoons-and-things with gold paint (which scraped off with the application of a fingernail). Paste jewels glimmered half-heartedly from shadowy boxes, but Bleakness assured the customers they were rare jewels indeed—arrived only a week ago from Java.
“They sparkle brilliantly in the sun,” he oozed. “In fact, the open space at Leicester Square—three miles away—is the best spot to view such precious merchandise.” And he might cough on it, and rub the gem’s surface, pretending it dazzled all the more with that extra bit of care.
Bleakness nipped coins and plucked jewels from their settings to replace with glass. He dismantled candlesticks and sold their parts as “Arabian treasures”; melted down silver stolen by wretched urchins who had come to rely on him for a meagre crust should they deliver an object of especial value.
On a Monday that at first seemed like any other Monday, Bleakness unbolted the shop door and ordered Boy to sweep the stoop. But as Boy emerged from the dim interior of Everything You Could Ever Want or Need, a man in a fine wool coat pushed past him, asking—quite desperately, Bleakness noticed—for a Sneezy-Wipe. Bleakness blinked his damp eyes.
“Why, I’ve many sorts of wipes,” he said, in his smooth voice. “The finest wipes there are.” (He was always laying it on thick with his customers.) “Do you like blue?” The edges of his lips curled halfway up his cheeks.
“The colour doesn’t matter; any Sneezy-Wipe will do.”
“Ah, then allow me.” Bleakness put his hand to a drawer jammed squint-ways in its slot. He pounded it with his fist and wrenched it free, never taking his eyes off the customer’s (for he had learned such a tactic made him appear trustworthy). He riffled through the bric-à-brac, then with the flourish of a stage magician, withdrew a blue handkerchief and gave it a shake to get the dust off. “This is my finest wipe.”