Every fiction writer has a trunk full of broken manuscripts. Most of mine are sad, lifeless things, best left to rot undisturbed. But a few of them are different. Neither dead nor alive, they dwell in purgatory, neither wholly abandoned nor fit to be seen. They are the Undead Manuscripts.
I’d be crazy to publish them on this blog. They’re shambling, hulking things, the walking dead of the literary world. Nevertheless, each of them has a certain look in its eyes. Somewhere deep inside, the promise of life remains, which is why I’ve decided to share just a chapter from each. By bringing the wretched thing at least partway into the light, I might finally be able to decide whether any of them truly deserves to live again.
The first of my Undead Manuscripts is called Panoptikon. Over time, I’ll add more (trust me, I have enough of the things to create an entire zombie army). What follows is the beginning of Chapter Five. There’s a link to the the complete chapter at the bottom of this post.
Panoptikon – Chapter Five
They started in the chapel.
It was a single small room, dank and unimpressive. Bland and empty. There were no seats, no markings or fittings on the walls, no gravestones in the floor and not a hint of a god. The ceiling was low and vaulted with awkward rinds of granite.
Centrally placed, the altar was an unassuming slab of timber, slightly bowed. It looked to Arm like a ship’s bulkhead.
They stood, surrounded by their own condensing breath.
After only a few moments Arm put his coat back on.
‘It gets a lot colder,’ said Victor. He observed Arm’s disappointment before spreading one meaty arm across his shoulder. ‘It doesn’t look much. But don’t let it fool you, Armstrong. A lot of people have come down here promising to educate me about this little room. Every time I’ve been disappointed. Nobody can place it anywhere in the history books.’
‘How old is it?’
‘Nobody knows. It doesn’t fit anywhere. It’s an enigma, but not really a very interesting one. We have dates for some of its component parts but as for the chapel as a whole …’ He shrugged. ‘The timber on that altar, for example. It’s been carbon-dated to 2,250BC. That’s the date fixed by the Old Testament for the Flood, by the way.’
Bigger than it looks
A winding stone passage led from the chapel into a low, cramped cellar. Victorian, explained Victor.
‘The eras get a bit jumbled down here.’
Here were barrels and boxes and stacks of swollen books and rolled-up acres of rotting carpet. Glass cases lay half-buried beneath mountains of mouse-shredded newspaper. Most of them contained preserved animals – everything from stuffed badgers to impaled beetles. One was big enough to hold a grizzly bear, although as far as Arm could see it was empty.
The cellar stank.
‘Forgive the perfume.’ Victor’s expression turned sour. ‘It’s the one place I never get round to. I just keep throwing crap down here and somehow it just keeps on taking it in. My father threw his crap down here too, and his father before him. You get the picture. It’s a lot bigger than it looks though. I guess I abuse the hell out of it so it’s got the right to stink the way it does.’
Arm followed Victor to a heap of books that dwarfed even his prodigious guide. The shadows of the two men ran across the spines like spilled ink.
Victor’s hand found and flipped a switch and the whole stack of books folded into the wall with a long, reluctant creak.
In the space where the books had been was a door.
Arm looked at Victor Falconer and was not surprised to see the big man was grinning again.
‘This is where the fun really starts.’
A field of elephants
The secret passage cut a slowly-descending spiral through the interior of the Pebble.
Down here the years were piled much deeper the junk in the neglected cellar; but at least the air tasted fresh, thanks to a succession of ventilation grilles punctuating the walls at regular intervals.
Glaring bulkhead luminaires, linked by bunches of snaking conduit gave light as clean and cold as the air through which it spilled.
Rooms led off at every turn. Here, beneath a low-domed ceiling, were the Moorish mosaics he’d heard about – the vivid blue of lapis lazuli, the soft and somehow disappointing sheen of true gold. Another room looked like a drained bath-house, in a style that straddled a strange line between Roman and Egyptian. Yet another boasted fine walnut panels and a brass chandelier suspended from a delicate plaster rose; on the far wall was pinned a stag’s head with a dead and penetrating gaze.
Room after room after room.
Sometimes the rough-hewn stone of the corridor walls gave way to thick square-set timbers or crumbling brickwork, inner cores of architecture placed here long ago by ancient hands.
‘I’ll bet this hasn’t been carbon-dated,’ said Arm, peering at a wall of ivory on which a field of elephants had been carved. ‘You haven’t brought your experts this far down, have you?’
Beyond the elephants was a series of smaller ebony panels. Engraved into these were images that looked as though they’d been taken from the Kama Sutra. Oriental men and women folded themselves into each other with intricate ease. Victor brushed his hand against some of them as they moved past.
‘You’re right, of course,’ he said at length. ‘This is my private suite. You’re one of the privileged few, Arm. Count yourself lucky.’
Arm did feel privileged. And he wondered: why bring me?
At length the corridor intersected a steep stone staircase. Arm knew it at once: these were the stairs that ran down from the little vestibule near Panoptikon’s main entrance, the stairs which, if Victor were to be believed, led down to the boiler room.
Despite the flicker of the wall-mounted torches the air felt damp and cold. Moisture beaded on the blue-grey walls and gathered in pools on the steps. Draughts poked through holes in the ceiling. He trod carefully as he followed Victor down the stairs, telling himself it was ridiculous to feel afraid and feeling it anyway.
Halfway down he paused and listened. Nothing but Victor’s receding footsteps and the pop and hiss of the flames and there was a curiosity. The torches intrigued him: they were quaint and self-indulgent but what kept them burning?
‘Gas,’ he muttered. ‘Has to be. He got them from some theme park.’
A close inspection of one of the torches proved inconclusive. There were no gas pipes visible but that didn’t mean they weren’t there somewhere, channelled down the middle of the brands then chased behind the stonework. A difficult job but not impossible.
‘Keep up, Campbell.’ Victor’s voice floated up from the gloom. While Arm had been loitering the big man had become invisible.
Now it really was cold. He huddled into his trench coat, glad of its warmth. Still he could hear nothing but the hiss of the flames, certainly nothing resembling the moaning he had heard – or thought he heard – back on the first day.
By the time Arm caught up, Victor had halted before a gate which barred their way. The gate was secured by a stout padlock which shone out in bright contrast to the rusty swags and curls of the wrought iron.
As far as Arm could see the gate was designed to slide, portcullis-like, up into a recess in the ceiling.
‘There’s another gate like this further up,’ Victor explained, drawing a large bunch of keys from his pocket. ‘In case you were wondering why people don’t just wander down here from the lobby. We came the long way.’
He unfastened the padlock. Then, with a grin, he snatched one of the torches from the wall (thus confounding Arm’s gas-lamp theory) and held it beneath his chin. Underlit and devilish, he let rip with a blood-chilling rumble of laughter.
‘You’ll burn your beard,’ said Arm.
‘Naw,’ said Victor. ‘Press that stone behind you. No, not that one … that one, the one standing proud.’
It took Arm a moment to find it. A single push sent the stone – a little smaller than a normal house brick – gliding back into the wall. Hidden machinery clunked and the gate juddered not upwards but down into a slot in the floor.
‘Quickly,’ said Victor. He replaced the torch and darted through the opening. ‘It resets in ten seconds.’
‘Do we get to come back through it again or are we stuck down there for good?’
Victor’s grin broadened … click to read the rest of Chapter Five of Panoptikon by Graham Edwards.
Panoptikon extract copyright © Graham Edwards 2008