Monday, 23 January 2012

The Express Diaries

This is a writing post, not a veterinary post, so those that are turned off by such things may turn away now with a clear conscience (though now I'm a little worried I'm just left with those people who are turned on by such things. Er...hi.).

I wanted to tease you a little now that my latest project, the Express Diaries, is starting to come together. The Express Diaries is a pulpy-action/horror novel set in 1925 on (as the title suggests) the Orient Express. I'm very pleased with how it's going, and even more pleased now that Eric (Smith, Glimbit on Twitter) has agreed to do some artwork for me.

I'd like to share a few piccies with you now, partially to show you why I'm so happy Eric is working with me, and partially to be a tempting appetizer for what is to come...

Sirkeci Station, Istanbul - 1925
Our adventurers confront their fate at the terminus of the Simplon Orient Express

The redoubtable Mrs Betty Sunderland
'Widowed matriarch of the Yorkshire Sunderlands. An unusually enrepreneurial female of the age, having variously been an archaelogist, lecturer, and mother (of four). Currently owns a shop selling items of archaeological and occult interest in the Soho district of London

'I dreamed of a city in flames...on the high city walls, men and women hung from ropes, left to starve and rot in the baking sun'
Extract from the dream diary of Violet Davenport

As a further appetizer (though, I understand if you're a bit full after the piccies. Think of this as pudding), here's an extract from the London chapter, near the start of our story, where Professor Alfonse Moretti makes an expected and grisly discovery in the reading room of the British Museum, whilst investigating a mysterious artifact known as the Sedefkar Simulacrum...

'Personal Journal of Professor Alfonse Moretti (trans. from Italian) October 24th, 1925.

I will not deny that my movements and activities through the years always seem to have attracted more than their fair share of interest by the police or related Government parties[1]. On occasion this has been, shall we say, justified interest. However, I was not expecting a simple research trip to the British Museum Library to cause the furore that it did. Thankfully, I was not responsible, nor even directly involved, in this gruesome incident. I think it is safe to say that I certainly hope not to get any more involved as time goes by.
            I am fortunate enough to hold an invitation for the British Museum Library Reading Room, open for several months, to aid in some research which I have been conducting for a client of mine. This business with the Simulacrum intrigues me – an ancient artefact of which I knew nothing until yesterday evening. An artefact that seems important enough to kill for (assuming, of course, that the colonel is wrong, and were are not merely chasing the ramblings of a doddering old fool).
            After our group’s meeting at Brown’s, the afternoon turned grey, and cold. Rain filled up the streets, but my spirits were lifted at the prospect of a trip across Europe, hopefully even a return home to Milan (provided that certain parties can be avoided, of course).
            It is only a mile or so from the hotel to the museum so I decided to walk, despite the weather. Few others had been of similar mind, as it turned out, because as I entered the reading room (which never fails to impress!) I was alone save for one other person; a thin man, still rudely wearing his heavy overcoat and a trilby, hunched over a document. I took up a seat a few desks away, and began my researches.
            I like to think my skills in the use of libraries as excellent, but after several hours all I had managed to do was confirm the existence of the Simulacrum itself (a passing reference to it in von Juntz’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten), and uncover some hints that there may be more pertinent documents in the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris. A breakthrough of sorts came in a detailed perusal of Barbaro’s Giornale dell'Assedio di Costantinopoli, which suggests that a set of documents known as the Sedefkar Scrolls were present in Constantinople in the mid-fifteenth Century. This may be the ‘information’ that Smith refers to. Further sources suggest that the scrolls may now be located at the Topkapi Museum in that great city.
            Looking back now, my defence would be to say that I was greatly absorbed in these researches, which is why it took me so long to realise that the man in the hat, present since my arrival, had not moved one inch in all the hours I had been there. I cleared my throat rather loudly, but this produced no reaction from the figure. After several minutes of close observation, during which the man remained still as a statue, I called over an attendant and apprised him of the situation. Even then, fixated on my work, the gravity of the situation was not clear to me. The attendant nodded and approached the man, and I returned to my studies. I was given little more time to research, however, because a great shriek then filled the massive dome of the reading room.
            I looked up to see the attendant standing horrified over the man in the coat, who had toppled forward. His arms had spread out over the desk, exposing his hands - or at least, what remained of his hands.
            Even from my seat, it was obvious that the skin had been removed from both of them. Two dark streaks covered the desk where the bloody appendages had smeared across the desk as the body slumped – for there could no doubt now that the man was dead.
            The attendant stood in shock as I approached. ‘Fetch the police,’ I said to him. He looked at me, then back at the body, and rushed towards the door. I approached the body.
            The man’s hat had slipped to one side as he had fallen, and underneath the trilby I caught a glimpse of red flesh. Carefully touching only the large overcoat, I took hold of the corpse’s shoulder and pulled it backwards into the chair. The hat fell off and I did so, and I was greeted with the sight of two wide, staring eyes in the midst of a red mass of muscle, teeth and gore. The overcoat slipped open, and the further horrors within confirmed that the unfortunate had been stripped of all his skin.
            My shock (tempered, fortunately, by similar sights I have seen) was mixed with puzzlement. To remove a man’s skin is no trivial thing. To do it in the reading room of the British Library...?
            I looked from the body to the document the man had been studying – or at least, positioned in such a way as to appear to be. It was a single line of Arabic text, written on a leathery shrivelled sheet, roughly cut around the edges, and one did not need to be a doctor to deduce what it was made from. I shivered.
            Fortunately, my Arabic is as good as my English. Scratched across the grisly parchment was the following message –
            It is somewhat shamefully that I admit my next action was to search the coat of the unfortunate man. In my experience of such situations, time is of the essence, and events usually slow to a crawl when members of the police force become involved. It is often better to find such clues as may be helpful to solving a case without their interference.
            In the pocket of the large coat, I found a small card. Taking it out and examing it, I was surprised to see that it was the business card of our troubled friend, Professor Smith. I inverted the card, and sure enough there was the message which the colonel had discovered. My first thoughts were of fear for the colonel, but then I remembered that Goodenough had returned the card to Smith’s manservant when we visited him in Cheapside.
            The corpse before me was of far too slight a build to be Professor Smith himself, but the build and shape of the body, even the colour of the eyes, now that I had the idea in my mind, perfectly matched those of Beddows.
            Still considering this disturbing find, and the strange message regarding the ‘Skinless One’, I heard hurried footsteps indicating to me that the library assistant was returning. I quickly pocketed the card, although I decided against purloining the document on the table. The original attendant, with two of his colleagues, rushed back into the room.
            I agreed, against my better instincts, to wait with them whilst the police arrived. After twenty minutes, two uniformed men accompanied a small, shabby man, who introduced himself to me as Inspector Pike of Scotland Yard.  One of the men began to calm the now near-hysterical library attendants, whilst the inspector strode over to the gory scene. He examined the body still seated at the desk, making various asides to one of the uniformed men with a notebook beside him.
            ‘Just like the others,’ the inspector commented at one point. The uniformed man wrote it down. After a long time, the inspector turned to me. He at least managed to pronounce my name right, after which he questioned me on what I had seen – which in truth, save for the body itself, had been almost nothing. Quickly realising this, the inspector allowed me to leave, but I would not until my curiosity was sated.
            ‘I am sorry, inspector, but I could not help overhearing something there. Have there been other cases such as this one?’
            The policeman frowned and his eyes narrowed, as if he were trying to work out whether to be annoyed with me or not. ‘Don’t you read the papers? Triple murder, some Turkish fella. Well, three Turkish fellas, all with the same name. Makrit or something.’
            The uniformed man next to the inspector cleared his throat rather loudly. I had read something of this in the morning’s paper, but nothing about the bodies being skinned. I said as much to Pike, whose frown grew deeper.
‘Well, not totally. Not like this poor chap, but they all had patches...’
The policeman cleared his throat again.
‘Oh blast it,’ the inspector said, and a look of comprehension and embarrassment slowly settled upon his face. It was like watching a bulldog gradually realising that it was being scolded by its master. ‘Erm,’ he said. ‘That’ll be all now, thank you, professor. If we have further need of you, we shall be in contact.’
I think this ‘skinless one’ may be safe from the clutches of the law for a while at least.
Upon my return home I re-read the newspaper article. Mehmet Makryat. The name had no meaning for me, and sadly there remains no more time for investigations, for we leave for Dover tomorrow. The incident today weights heavily upon me. I fear we have been drawn into something bigger than any of us expected. I have decided to tell the others nothing of my discovery today save the results of my researches. We will be out of the country before it is mentioned in the papers, and it wouldn’t do at the moment to create unnecessary alarm. Better to let the others think of this as something like a holiday, at least at first. I think that leaving England may be the most sensible thing we can do at the moment, and it would be wise for us to keep our investigations as circumspect as possible.
I hope I have made the correct decision here. Time will tell.'

The Express Diaries will be out later this year, in several different formats including eBook and luxury hardcover edition. Watch this space! (Well, watch the blog, anyway)

In further writing news - my novel from last year, Past Tense, is now available as an an ebook for $5 from - feel free to have a peek, as you can download the first 10% for free!

[1] Attempting to follow Professor Moretti’s web of past associations and dealings is an exercise mired in misdirection, obfuscation, and more often than not, failure. It is probably better, ultimately, just not to know.

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