Hey look… it’s Wednesday again, which means it must be time for another installment of Odds Without Ends. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the first part of a novel called I Vanish, which I started work on a few years back after binging on Jim Butcher’s wonderful Harry Dresden novels. I was keen to try my hand at a similar sort of urban fantasy detective story, but juiced up with a strong injection of horror.
Conceptually, the story has a few influences that I hoped to weld into a single cohesive shape. Its universe is mysterious, uncaring, and largely incomprehensible in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft’s classics tales. I mixed that with an unhealthy dose of perverse mysticism soaked in blood and gore, which owes more to Clive Barker’s sick imagination. Coat those pieces in a surly, sarcastic first-person narrative inspired by Jim Butcher, and you have I Vanish in a nutshell.
I think that’s probably enough setup. Let’s get on with the story, then…
It’s dark out but the air is still hot against my skin, and I’m sticky with sweat. This is the summer from hell. The black asphalt and stone walls, the city’s skin and bones radiate back all the heat they soaked up during the day. The air’s about as thick as gravy, and even without windows, there’s no damned breeze in this place. Not even the hint of one. Miles away, a car alarm sings out its queer little medley, finishes the song and loops back again.
The building we’re in isn’t finished. It’s all rebar and poured concrete. Open door frames and hanging sheets of mylar. The air smells of dust and distant landfill, and the space is so empty, the air so still that I hear every single one of his breaths echo back off the bare walls.
“Why are you doing this?” he asks. His voice is calm, but there’s something in his eyes that surprises me. It’s the look of someone who’s thinking. Functioning. Fully awake.
I ignore it and stick to the script. “I’m here because of people who care about you. They love you, and they miss you. They asked for my help. It’s what I do.”
There’s something else in his eyes now. Recognition.
I’ve got him strapped down to a sturdy wooden chair. He’s trying to hide it, but I see him struggle against the bonds. Slowly. Methodically. He’s testing them, looking for a weak spot.
We have our roles: his is to hide everything, and mine is to put it all on the table. “You won’t find any weaknesses,” I say. “There’s only one way out, and I’d like to help you find it.”
The pretense drops. He bares his teeth and growls as he struggles against the zip-ties, but I’m not lying. There’s no give. The only way out is the one I’m offering.
I lean back against a concrete column, pop a cigarette into my mouth and light it while I watch him. The smoke burns at the back of my throat and fills my lungs with a sliver of sweet satisfaction.
My muscles are on edge. Vibrating. Oscillating. I don’t know why just yet.
His eyes flash and lock on me. There’s something wild and untamed hidden behind them. Something hurt and determined. “I know why you’re doing this,” he says. That’s a new one. “You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t get it.”
“And I never will,” I reply. I take another drag, hold it tight and then let it hiss out my nostrils. The smoke curls in front of my eyes, drifting and unfurling in the stagnant air between us like snakes freed from a crate. “You don’t get it either. You’re being used.”
He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. The sound of it dances all around us. “No, I get it. You think I’m a true believer, but that’s not me. That’s not who I am. I know they’re using me, but it has to be like this. You gotta let me go.”
This is all wrong. They never agree. Never this fast. I try to keep my cool in this damned heat. I stick to the script. “You’re hurting people. Friends. Family. They think the world of you, and you just threw them away.”
The car alarm is getting louder.
Every muscle in his body tenses all at once. He’s fighting. His skin turns red and veins pop out everywhere but the ties won’t give an inch. The chair holds firm. “I’m trying to save people,” he says on the back of labored breaths. There’s a grunt and he looks up at me with wet eyes. “Let me go. Please.”
The script is failing me. Right now, he should be regurgitating the party line. Spitting out pages of ham-handed scripture. Meeting reality with carefully prepared lies. The pleading doesn’t usually come for hours. Sometimes days. I’ve heard the litany a thousand times, and this ain’t it.
Why not humor him a little? I stumble off script. “Give me one good reason to let you go.”
“I can save lives. No one else has to suffer if you just let me do it. Time’s running out, man. Please!”
All new. I’ve never heard anyone go altruistic before. It’s always about choice, freedom and their soul’s deepest desire. It’s never about saving someone else. What’s going on here?
He’s shaking faster now. It’s like a team of horses is pulling him apart and he’s fighting to hold it together. “Please,” he croaks out. “You have to let me go.”
“No I don’t,” I reply calmly. Then I start to feel it too, and for the first time in years I wonder if I might be wrong.
His voice is suddenly deafening. “IT’S COMING!”
I grit my teeth and growl. Every muscle in my body starts to twitch all at once. My cigarette drops to the floor. “What the fuck?”
His eyes are boring into my skull. “It needs a component!” he shouts, slobber spraying from his words. “It’s too late. I can’t stop it!”
The noise is all around us. It’s like the buzz of a hundred thousand locusts turned up to eleven. I thought it was a car alarm before, but now I can hear its sick pounding melody. It’s the grinding of a massive saw against unyielding steel. It’s wailing in agony and getting louder, and I just want to puke.
His shoulders thrust back and he starts to scream. His mouth is a gaping wound with a hundred miles of darkness inside. He screams again and again, his ribcage heaving, and every one of his veins looks like it’s going to explode. He’s a great big blood balloon, ready to pop.
My brain rings. The sound is getting louder, and I lurch forward. My boots pound across the cement floor. I’ve decided too late that I have to let him out, get away from this place and this god damned noise. I don’t know what’s happening, but I suddenly understand one thing clear enough: it’s about to get worse.
I reach out.
His bones press against his skin from the inside.
The asphalt for miles around cries out in one tremulous voice.
The pain is unbearable.
He’s howling like an animal caught in a trap.
The walls shake and twist, threatening to shatter into a billion pieces.
The air solidifies like concrete.
Let’s take a little peek behind the scenes. I used several techniques here that are a somewhat experimental for me. To begin with, I designed this segment as a cold open, which inserts the reader directly into the middle of a scene already in progress. This can engage the audience immediately without bogging them down with exposition, but it requires the writer to leave enough breadcrumbs scattered around to hint at what led up to it. If the reader can’t piece that together, they’ll be left confused and ultimately uninterested.
You’ll also notice I wrote the scene in the present tense. That’s fairly uncommon in fiction (and in fact, the rest of the novel is in the past tense), but it’s a tool I’ve been employing more and more for specific effect. In this case, I used it to not only instill a sense of immediacy, but also of vague discomfort, as if something important is a little askew. Couple that with the narrator’s fragmented, staccato rhythm, and I think it was pretty successful overall. I leave you to judge for yourself, of course.
And that’s enough for today. Join me next week, and we’ll dive into the second chapter of I Vanish.
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