Prologue: Christmas Eve

London, 196-

"Uncle Ned's here!" Henry called. He turned back to the window, with its picture-frame of frost. He pressed his nose to the glass, and cupped his hands around his eyes. The pane fogged. He rubbed it clear. He held his breath, and peered into the snowy night.

The van stopped under a street lamp.

Henry smiled when he saw the red letters on the side: THE MAGIC TOYSHOP.

Uncle Ned got out. Running up the walk, he seemed dark and skinny. When Mum opened the door for him and he stepped inside, though, he was tall and smiling, wreathed in bright light. He shook snow out of his brown hair. He smoothed it from his beard. He stamped it off his boots. A dusting of flakes melted into dew all over his caramel leather jacket, tan turtleneck, and brown corduroy trousers.

Henry ran to him, squeezing between Mum and Dad. "Presents!"

"Henry!" Mum grabbed him by the arm. "I'm sorry. He's just excited."

Uncle Ned laughed. "Of course. 'tis the night before Christmas."

Henry frowned, partly because Mum shook him, but mostly because Uncle Ned only brought in a bottle of wine.

Uncle Ned knelt, face-to-face. "Don't worry. There are presents, all right. Yours is special. Big."

"What is it?"

"Henry!" Mum repeated.

But Uncle Ned laughed again. "You want to know? Well, it's a--dollhouse!"

Henry stared at him, too stunned to say anything.

Uncle Ned winked.

"No it's not!" Henry said.

"You won't get any presents at all," Mum said, "if you keep on like that."

"You don't want a dollhouse?" Uncle Ned teased.

Henry pulled a sour face and shook his head.

"We'll see about that. But in the meantime, here's something I know you'll like." Uncle Ned reached into his jacket, and pulled out a brand new horror comic.

"
Vault of Dracula!" Henry accepted it with reverence. On the cover, Dracula wrestled a werewolf in a graveyard. A dead lady, almost naked, lay between them on the ground. Blood ran from her throat. The black outline of a castle loomed on a mountain in the background. "ALONG CAME A WEREWOLF!" was the caption in screaming yellow letters.

"Ugh!" Mum said. "Really, Ned, please, no more." She turned to Dad. "And you--allowing him to watch those horrid Hammer films. It's a bit much, don't you think? Filling his mind with all this ghoulish depravity." She turned again on Uncle Ned. "I mean, look at that picture. What's a boy his age supposed to make of that?"

"Oh Mum," Henry said. "it's just imaginary."

"It's revolting, is what it is. Perfectly revolting. You should fill your mind with nicer things. I hope this present isn't anything more to do with monsters."

Uncle Ned grinned. "It's a dollhouse."

"Stop saying that!" Henry said.

"All right, all right," Mum said. "Put the comic away. It's time to eat."

#

After supper, which they took in the kitchen, Henry wondered if the grownups would ever stop talking. They just sat around the table, and drank and smoked and talked.

Maggie, his little sister, finally got so restless in her high chair that they had to do something. So they moved to the lounge, where she could crawl about on the carpet.

Henry sighed, "Thank you!" The lounge was certainly a step in the right direction, a cozy room where warmth glowed from the electric fireplace. In one corner stood the telly, and across from it, the Christmas tree, with presents piled underneath. He couldn't touch those presents till morning--but he always opened Uncle Ned's on Christmas Eve.

Mum plugged in the lights. They winked all around the tree in red, green, orange, blue, pink, white, and yellow.

"Is it time for presents yet?" Henry asked.

Dad made his cross face. His eyes got big behind his thick-framed glasses. His frown made his chin all bumpy. "We'll tell you when. Not another peep about it, or you're going to your room."

Henry slunk off to a corner to read
Vault of Dracula.

Dad put a record on. He plopped down beside Mum on the couch. Uncle Ned slouched in the armchair. They sat around and drank and smoked and talked some more.

Henry sniffled, but kept it quiet, to himself. He was careful not to let tears drip onto the pages of the comic. It wasn't fair for Mum and Dad to shake him and scold him just because he was excited. How could they blame him? Uncle Ned owned the Magic Toyshop, and always brought the best presents.

Last Christmas, Henry got a figure of the Frankenstein Monster, the one from the old black-and-white movies. The last time he visited the shop, he spotted a matching Wolf Man figure.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was one of his favorite movies, so it only seemed right that he should have both. How many times did he mention how much he loved that movie? He wondered if it was enough. He wondered if Uncle Ned got the hint, and regretted that he hadn't made it clearer what he wanted. Uncle Ned said his present this year was "special" and "big." Henry tried to weigh in his mind whether those words might apply to the Wolf Man figure.

Finally, finally, finally, Uncle Ned stretched, looked at his watch, and said, "I think it's time to see about some presents."

#

Still without a present, Henry waited in the nursery with Mum and Maggie.

Dad and Uncle Ned clunked around somewhere in the house.

Henry heard their voices, and strained to listen.

Dad said, "I suppose his room is the only place for it."

Henry was too uptight by now to concentrate on the comic, so he squeezed himself into a rocking chair that really was too small for him, and anxiously rocked back and forth.

"Careful, you'll tip over," Mum said. She held Maggie on her lap. She'd brought up a plate of iced gingerbread men. She waggled one in front of Maggie and chanted, "Run, run, as fast as you can. You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man!"

Maggie laughed. She cooed and grabbed at the biscuit. Mum let her catch it. "Wouldn't you like one, Henry?" He shook his head. He ate liquorice instead. Uncle Ned always kept a jar of it by the register. To Henry, liquorice was the flavor of the toyshop, of toys, of presents.

There was more clunking around in the house, more footsteps on stairs, more opening and closing of doors, but then, after a period of time that seemed longer than forever, the nursery door opened, and Uncle Ned looked in.

"Oh Maggie, have I got a present for you!"

"Ooh," Mum said, clapping Maggie's hands. "A present! For you!"

Henry stewed in the rocking chair while Mum and Maggie ripped the ribbon and paper off a box. Mum opened it, and lifted out a plush stuffed velveteen frog with a tiny golden crown.

"Look at that!" Mum said. "Ned, it's beautiful."

Maggie squealed. She snatched it and swung it up and down, hitting Mum once in the face.

Uncle Ned smirked. "All right, Henry, are you ready for that dollhouse?"

Henry's stomach sank. He couldn't believe that Uncle Ned would give him a--he couldn't even bring himself to think the word.

"Come along, then." Uncle Ned motioned for him to follow.

"Go on," Dad said. "This is it. Present time."

Henry followed Uncle Ned to his own bedroom door, which was closed. He clutched the horror comic, and reminded himself that at least he got one good thing tonight.

"This may be the best present I ever give you, Henry. There's not another like it in the world."

Henry took a deep breath. He twisted the knob and pushed.

Something dark and enormous dwarfed everything in his room. He stepped closer. It towered over him. With a shock, he recognized it as a snow-covered castle, on a base fashioned after a bleak mountain crag. A forest of briars sprouted from the base and twisted all over and around the castle, hiding it almost entirely from view.

Henry looked for a gap, for a way through to touch the castle, or even just to see it better. The briars seemed to bristle at the attention. They seemed to turn their long, wicked thorns at him.

From what he could make out through the forbidding veil, he'd never seen a gloomier, more terrifying castle. He held up
Vault of Dracula. The castle on the cover had been drawn to look spooky, but it was a cute, silly cartoon compared to this thing looming over him.

Uncle Ned walked up behind him. "So, not bad for a dollhouse, eh?"

Henry couldn't take his eyes off it. He didn't say anything, because what could he say?

"Um, if you don't like it, I'll trade you for the Wolf Man. I know that's what you wanted, and I brought it, just in case."

Henry shook his head.

Dad and Mum came and stood in the doorway.

Mum made a spitting noise of disapproval. "No. It can't stay there. Not in his bedroom. It'll give him nightmares!"

"Where else could we put it?" Dad said. "Not the nursery."

"I'll find a place. But it won't stay there." Mum stalked away.

"Here," Uncle Ned said. "Let's have a better look." He gripped Henry by the waist, and held him up so he could see the castle from above.

Henry peered down through the canopy of briars. Parts of the castle had fallen into ruin, and other parts were smashed as if some battle had raged there. Gruesome red splatters stained the snow in places.

"All right, then." Uncle Ned set him down.

Something shiny gleamed from the base. Henry knelt to examine it. He found a brass plate, riveted into the mountain. He tried to read the engraving, but the words shimmered and swam in the reflected light. They suddenly became distinct, and snapped into clarity for him: SLEEPING BEAUTY.

Henry shivered. The words, oddly, made the castle even scarier.

He pointed at the plate and looked to Uncle Ned. "Why did they call it that?"

"Sleeping Beauty is asleep in there somewhere."

Henry looked back at the castle. He furrowed his brow.

"I mean, not literally," Uncle Ned said. "You're supposed to imagine her in there."

"Hollow inside, I'm sure." Dad stepped closer. "Amazing craftsmanship. Queer to hide it behind all those thorns."

"Well, Sleeping Beauty, you know," Uncle Ned said. "The labyrinth of briars, and all that. We should be glad they aren't strewn with skeletons and body parts, as in the tale." He winked at Henry. "Then your Mum would never let you keep it!"

"I might not, yet," she said, coming up behind them.

Dad stiffened. He adjusted his glasses, the way he always did before a disagreement. "I'm not moving it again tonight, luv."

Mum shrugged. "You were right. There's no place else for it." She shook her head at Uncle Ned and Henry. "It can stay for now, but any bad dreams, and out it goes."

Henry traced his finger over the brass plate. And he realized why the words disturbed him. They lied. As surely as he knew the castle had a story, he knew that "Sleeping Beauty" wasn't it.

15 comments:

emoviolence said...

Hi there,

found yours 'groovy age of horror' just last week.
i read prologue, it's quite interesting, i'm curious to know what lies inside sleeping beauty. =)

Bob Ignizio said...

It's definitely an attention grabber of a prologue. It has a nice old school children's story feel too it, but with hints that it will be heading in a darker direction.

My only bit of criticism is that referring to Henry's parents as "mum and dad" without a possessive (like "Henry's mum") makes it seem like the story is being written in the first person, and everything else about the story would seem to imply it's being told in the third person.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the rest.

Curt said...

Thanks, emoviolence and bob! Looking forward to seeing how you like the rest of it! Keep the comments rolling, people--I'm listening!

Douglas A. Waltz said...

I hate reading hunks of stories. They either suck and get on my nerves or theyre really good and that gets on my nerves. Thankfully you got on my nerves, but not in the sucky way. Good job, dude.

GB said...

So far, so good. Very good indeed. The story’s grabbed my attention and I will definitely stick around for the rest. I especially liked how the narration captured the sense of expectation every kid feels during Christmas Eve. It was very well depicted and I certainly identified with it even though I’m way past my childhood.

I also enjoyed the contrast in roles between the mother and the father, the former being more severe and less understanding of Henry’s taste for the supernatural (and horror comics and Hammer Films,) almost seeing it as a threat. The father, on the other hand, exhibits a more laid back attitude, in a way being an accomplice to Uncle Ned and his encouragement of his nephew’s quirky tastes in entertainment (tastes all of us reading this draft possibly share).

I disagree with the recommendations on how to improve some of your descriptions (I think they were posted by a reader in your other blog). “Dark and skinny” are precise terms and there’s no need to engage in more flowery language. I think, nonetheless, that the whole “tan turtleneck, brown corduroy trousers” part reads more like stage directions and listing what the character is wearing doesn’t seem to serve any practical purpose.

Anyway, English is not my first language so I don’t feel entitled to criticize or comment much more on your writing style. As a genre fan, I’m enjoying what I’ve read so far and all I can say is keep them coming.

Dwana said...

Curt,
I really need this in hard back..lol It can travel with me..instead of me running back and forth. You sucked me right in, with hints of my own love for such things as a kid. Still to this day I get some sort of discounted halloween item from my dad for xmas..and I love it. I'm not complaining here..lol Anyway everytime the phone rang while reading a said several curse words. I really enjoyed, and look forward to more. take care,
Dwana

Curt Purcell said...

Thanks Doug, GB, and Dwana! You're all too kind. I can't wait to see how you like the rest of it!

Anonymous said...

I'm a children's librarian and find your writing to be as gripping as the best writers for young adults, some of my favorite reading. Very nice prologue, reminds me of Droselmeyer, the strange uncle that visits the family at the beginning of The Nutcracker. There are a number of variations on that story that are not so cleaned up as our American ballet versions. Fairytales have always been a bit much for me. The horror of childhood personified in fiction. Hey, I wouldn't want to be a child again. It takes a lot of courage. I look forward to reading Chap. 1 and the rest of your book. Like one of my kids would say, I like all the stuff going on at the same time: Mum, Dad, Uncle, Boy, Baby, etc.

Curt said...

Thanks anonymous! It's very gratifying that you mention Droselmeyer from Hoffmann's masterpiece, since that was a very strong influence on this chapter. The Magic Toyshop, of course, is also a nod to Angela Carter.

Daniel Goffin said...

"Uncle Ned owned the Magic Toyship, and always brought the best presents."

Found a small minor typo somewhere close to the end of the second third. Other than that I don't have anything in constructive criticism to offer. It's written well and start quite innocent for a story that promises a lot more... I will surely read on. Thanks for making it available online.

I must also admit, that I primarily read your blog because of it's cover scans. Some of these pictures are very good from an technical point of view (hell, even from an artistic POV). So thanks for these as well.

Curt Purcell said...

Ah, thanks for catching that Daniel! I just fixed it now. I hope you continue to enjoy it, as well as Groovy Age!

Anonymous said...

i think it was tererible and the writing was that of a 3rd grader. it seems like an essay i would be grading.

soonerorlater_j said...

I just sorta stumbled on this blog by accident, but I gotta say I'm already hooked. I think the prologue is very ingenious in how it hooks the reader and in its use of slightly childlike writing; it makes sense since the story is sort of from Henry's POV. I say keep 'em coming.

Curt Purcell said...

Thanks soonerorlater! I hope you continue to enjoy the following chapters, and I look forward to hearing how you like them! Rest assured, I'm hard at work on the latest!

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