The Lunatic's Curseby F. E. Higgins
The town of Opum Oppidulum is home to the freezing Lake Beluarum and its rumored monster. On an island at the center of the lake is an asylum; no one has ever escaped it. So how will Rex, whose father, Ambrose Grammaticus, has been imprisoned there under false pretenses, prove that Ambrose is not insane? And if Rex can free his father, will his evil stepmother… See more details below
The town of Opum Oppidulum is home to the freezing Lake Beluarum and its rumored monster. On an island at the center of the lake is an asylum; no one has ever escaped it. So how will Rex, whose father, Ambrose Grammaticus, has been imprisoned there under false pretenses, prove that Ambrose is not insane? And if Rex can free his father, will his evil stepmother drive them both to madness?
Higgins' fans will devour The Lunatic's Curse, a deliciously scary tale and "polyquel" to her previous books, all of which can be read singly or together. But not in the dark . . .
More luridly gothic deeds and schemes, set near the locales of the author'sEyeball Collector(2009),Bone Magician(2008) andBlack Book of Secrets(2007).
The prosperous town of Oppum Oppidulum, the deep and cold adjacent Lake Beluarum and the Asylum for the Peculiar and Bizarre that sits on an island in said lake all hold horrifying secrets. Young Rex discovers this when his father is confined to the Asylum after suddenly going mad and eating his own hand—to the open glee of Rex's sinister new stepmother Acantha Grammaticus. Higgins trots Rex himself out to the misty island, where he is befriended by a deaf, young freak-show contortionist, nearly falls under the spell of a hypnotic con artist out to harvest the diamonds scattered thickly on the lake's bottom and uncovers a number of hideous secrets on the way to a climax that brings just deserts for some and tragic twists of fate for others. Strewing her narrative with dark hints, obscure clues, assorted lunatics and, in particular, both macabre cuisine and a panoply of noxious or tantalizingly evocative odors, the author contrives a highly atmospheric experience.
Readers with strong stomachs and a taste for melodramatic narratives bedizened with words like "tenebrous" and "mephitic" will devour this yarn with relish. So to speak.(Gothic fantasy. 11-13)
“The Lunatic's Curse has a large cast of twisted characters and a winding plot that will keep readers delightfully immersed in macabre adventure.” School Library Journal
“This series is shaping up into an enticing, shadowy den where scary-story addicts can get their fix.” BCCB
“Readers may find this a tempting, if slightly more serious, treat to follow Lemony Snicket.” Booklist
“Readers with strong stomachs and a taste for melodramatic narratives bedizened with words like ‘tenebrous' and ‘mephitic' will devour this yarn with relish. So to speak.” Kirkus Reviews
“Ultimately, this story is about not letting oneself sink to the level of one's enemies, but readers will be most taken by the delightfully dense atmospherics fairly dripping off the pages. Readers need not be familiar with Higgins' other books, but the hints dropped in to tie the world together will likely send them hunting for more while awaiting the next. A hyperquel, perhaps?” Booklist on The Eyeball Collector
“Readers with a taste for lurid prose, macabre twists, riddles, exotic poisons, high-society caricatures, murderous schemes and scenes of stomach-churning degeneracy will find some or all of these in every chapter, and though the author trots in multiple characters and references from previous episodes, this one stands sturdily on its own.” Kirkus Reviews on The Eyeball Collector
“It is a dark and diabolical story, set in an alternative universe that is distinctly Dickensian and peopled with Higgins's creepiest cast yet. …Higgins's clever and intricate plot moves along swiftly. Her dark atmosphere is well drawn, with stunning graphic images that are not for the faint of heart. Riddles are laced throughout the novel, with answers appended. …This 'polyquel' will appeal to mature readers who enjoy highly imagined dark stories.” School Library Journal on The Eyeball Collector
“As in companion books The Black Book of Secrets (rev. 1/08) and The Bone Magician, oddities checker the plot; coincidences drive the narrative; threads from previous stories emerge and are rewoven into the fabric. Here the gothic tension is ratcheted even higher... In the end, Hector must choose between his desire for revenge and his father's advice not to become like those who wronged him--but his choice doesn't prevent the climactic orgy of macabre circumstances that will leave readers shivering with pleasurable horror.” The Horn Book Review on The Eyeball Collector
“Higgins has a marvelous flair for the macabre, and her deft pacing escalates to a satisfying crescendo of shivers.... Readers who appreciate the grotesqueries of Cirque du Freaks--but packaged with fine writing and a well-conceived plot--will want to add this to their collection.” BCCB on The Eyeball Collector
“Higgins is a mastermind at creating a creepy world where children still maintain some sense of hope.” VOYA on The Bone Magician
“The cast of unusual characters and their interrelated stories carry readers along swiftly to an ending that begs for a sequel. Budding fans of Poe or Dickens will be entranced by this atmospheric novel.” School Library Journal on The Bone Magician
“This 'paraquel'--meaning it takes place in the same world, but follows a different thread--to Higgins' excellent Black Book of Secrets (2007) drips with the same lightly fantastical, heavily Dickensian atmosphere...there is still no end of picaresque charms, creepy turns, and beguiling cast members...” Booklist on The Bone Magician
“In this standalone companion novel to The Black Book of Secrets, British author Higgins deftly balances the exceedingly harsh circumstances with wry humor, sly commentary on class issues, and a protagonist who has enough wisdom to recognize the fact that his optimism is perhaps misguided but who manages to retain it anyway.” The Bulletin of The Center for Children's Books on The Bone Magician
“Set in Urbs Umida, where 'merely to be born was considered the first step towards dying', The Bone Magician . . . is a deliciously dark Gothic thriller-cum-Holmesian-whodunit, the writing so atmospheric that the fumes from the noxious River Foedus, where the murder victims end up, seem to seep off the page and swirl round the reader.” The Telegraph, UK on The Bone Magician
“Young readers with a taste for the macabre will find it deliciously scary.” The Guardian, UK on The Bone Magician
“Loosely linked by references and cameos to The Black Book of Secrets (2007), this 'paraquel' spins its wheels through the muck-encrusted streets of Urbs Umida, dropping both corpses and more Dickensian-style characters into the mix. Hired by an undertaker for eerie nighttime vigils, young Pin is amazed to see a cadaver supposedly reanimated by magician Benedict Pantagus and his herbalist assistant, Juno. When heavily contrived circumstances throw Pin and Juno together, Pin becomes as determined to discover her secrets as he is to clear the name of his vanished father, who is accused of murder.” Kirkus on The Bone Magician
“The story's vaguely Dickensian atmosphere is exquisite . . . a smart, peculiarly thrilling book that is sure to appeal to readers ready to sidestep the goody-goody Harry Potters of adventure fiction.” Booklist, starred review on The Black Book of Secrets
“The Black Book of Secrets has it all: danger, adventure, theft, murder, body snatching, poisonings, a touch of humor, and enough mystery to keep you guessing until the very end. . . . An enjoyable story that begs for a sequel.” PW Children's Bookshelf, "Galley Talk" on The Black Book of Secrets
“Higgins creates a fascinating novel peopled with colorful characters and imbued with clever plot twists . . . and the novel's climax is both excellent and surprising.” VOYA on The Black Book of Secrets
“Wonderful. Anyone looking for the next big thing has come to the right place. Higgins has created a uniquely grim fantasy world that more than holds its own with Dickens or Peake. Her characters are brilliantly realised and the story grabs at the reader with hooked talons.” Eoin Colfer on The Black Book of Secrets
“A fantastic debut . . . don't let this book remain a secret!” John Webb, Waterstones Children's Fiction Buyer on The Black Book of Secrets
A fantastic debut . . . don't let this book remain a secret!
Read an Excerpt
A Room with a View
With a heavy heart Rex made his way up to the schoolroom at the top of the house. As he passed along the narrow corridors and climbed the stairs, his steps falling in time with the ten chimes of the clock, he paused on the half-landings of the mazelike house. He was reminded at every turn of his absent father. Ambrose had built the house from the ground up, and his character and talent were to be found in every nook and cranny and arch and window. Framed scrolls and certificates on the walls testified to the genius of Ambrose Grammaticus, to his imagination, his skills, and his creativity. Rex’s father had won almost every prize in the field of engineering. He was hailed as a hero here in Opum Oppidulum, his hometown, and far beyond. And beside the scrolls were sketches and paintings and ink drawings of the buildings he had designed, and articles from the Hebdomadal celebrating years of his success.
Rex entered the schoolroom deep in thought. Much as he loved this house, this was his least favorite room. He was good with numbers, but he was not a natural language scholar. His father insisted that to be truly creative he needed a rounded education, not just technical skills, so he had engaged the tutor. But Rex struggled with the classics; it had taken him a whole week to translate a simple story of a slave into Latin.
To make the schoolroom more palatable, Rex had filled it with his own creations; delicate models of every shape and size and manifestation. Birds and creatures and vehicles. Many of them only existed within these walls; it would be decades, centuries even, before they would be seen on city streets. They hung on thin threads from the ceiling and rested on the mantel over the fireplace and balanced precariously on the edges of the bookshelves, taking up every available surface. Rex had designed and built them all, with his father’s guidance, and they reminded him that there had once been better times.
The tutor had not yet arrived, and from habit, Rex went to the window and looked out. From up here, the fourth floor, he could see the snow on the mountain peaks that surrounded the Devil’s Porridge Bowl, a huge natural dip in the Moiraean Mountains, the center of which was filled by the dark waters of Lake Beluarum. Rex liked to say its name, to roll it around his tongue: “Bel-warr-oom.” It was Latin in origin; he thought it meant “the lake of beastly creatures,” but he could not be certain.
The town of Opum Oppidulum, where Rex had lived his whole life, sat tightly packed on the upper edge of the steep pebbled shore of Lake Beluarum. No one knew for certain how deep the lake was, but around the time of the full moon, there was a noticeable rise in the water level—Madman’s Tide they called it—and in winter it could be quite stormy, almost like a sea. None swam in its waters either; they were too cold and, of course, every local child was warned of the monster that lurked beneath the glassy surface, just waiting to swallow up anyone who might be fool enough to enter the lake.
Rex reached up to open the window, and his cuff slipped down to reveal the crescent-shaped scar on his wrist. It was fading but he could feel it. In the cold it would tighten and ache and remind him again of that dreadful night.…
Things seemed to happen very quickly after Acantha struck his father with the water jug. Mr. Cadmus Chapelizod turned up as if from nowhere, with two red-badged gray-uniformed men. Only moments behind him was Mr. Alvar Stradigund, the family solicitor. Chapelizod immediately took control of the situation. With the help of his assistants, he quickly and expertly strapped Ambrose into some sort of medical shirt, which prevented his using his arms. Then the burly helpers lifted him onto a stretcher and secured him with more straps.
Mr. Stradigund led Rex from the room and they sat in the hall. “Let’s have a look at that wrist,” he said gently, and took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and began to wrap it around the wound. “Don’t worry, Rex,” he said as he tied the corners. “Chapelizod will take care of your father. He’s an expert in these matters.”
“What matters?” asked Rex. He knew Mr. Stradigund well; the old man was often at the house, even more so since the marriage.
Stradigund looked at him with sad, knowing eyes. “Madness,” he said. Before Rex could reply the door opened and Chapelizod and his men marched past with Ambrose, still unconscious, out to the waiting carriage on the street. Rex tried to stand but he felt odd; his heart was racing and his head was spinning. Mr. Stradigund supported him by his good hand.
“You know what to do, men,” called Mr. Chapelizod from the top of the steps, and seconds later the carriage took off. The sound of galloping hooves faded quickly in the night. Chapelizod shut the door and nodded to Stradigund who stood up.
“Where are they taking him?” asked Rex in a panic.
“Somewhere he’ll be safe,” said Mr. Stradigund. “I’ll let you know as soon as I find anything out, I promise.” Then he left Rex with Acantha, and he and Chapelizod went off to Ambrose’s study.
Acantha looked at Rex. “You should be in bed,” was all she said, and followed the men. In a daze, too confused to argue, Rex turned toward the stairs. As he passed the study, he glanced in to see Mr. Stradigund seated behind his father’s desk with a quill in hand. Mr. Chapelizod handed him a document of some sort. Stradigund looked up and saw Rex and smiled, oddly, but then Acantha, with a face like stone, closed the door and he heard the key in the lock.
As if in a dream Rex went up to his room. He lay on the bed, but he didn’t sleep until the early hours. He couldn’t understand what had happened, but he was certain Mr. Stradigund would sort it out. He had promised, hadn’t he? A solicitor didn’t break promises. Eventually weariness got the better of him and his heavy lids closed. But the face that haunted him that night wasn’t that of his tortured father; it was Acantha’s. He had seen the look on her face as Ambrose lost his mind, a look that he was never able to put into words. But he knew.
She had wanted this to happen.
* * *
Alvar Stradigund had come to the house almost every day at first. He and Mr. Chapelizod and Acantha met in Ambrose’s study and spoke in low voices.
Rex hung around anxiously, waiting for Stradigund to emerge. “Any news of my father?” he would ask.
And Stradigund patted him on the shoulder and smiled in a distant way, his worn face creasing up like soft paper, and said, “He is doing well, Rex. Soon he will be home.”
Rex still believed him; and as long as he did, he could endure Acantha, for he was certain that when his father returned, she would have to go. She treated him with open contempt now, as if he were a noisome irritant, a fly ripe for swatting. But the Madman’s Tide had come and gone three times since that bloody supper and a fourth was rising. Stradigund came less and less often, and if Rex tried to talk to Mr. Chapelizod, he would not answer his questions. Rex’s hope was turning to suspicion and fear.
Close to tears, Rex gazed out across the lake. The mist had lifted, and he could see straight across to Droprock Island. Legend had it that it was just that: a large boulder carelessly dropped by a passing giant. The island was small and steep. It had no beaches, and there was nowhere to land a boat except one small natural rocky pier on this side. The rest of the island was unassailable, being sheer cliff. On its highest point, exposed to the ravages of the weather, Rex could see Cadmus Chapelizod’s grim domain: the Opum Oppidulum Asylum for the Peculiar and Bizarre.
The somber gray edifice had been there for centuries, but recently for Rex it had taken on a whole new significance. Day and night it was a constant reminder to him of his father; for since his moment of madness at the supper table, Ambrose Oswald Grammaticus had been confined within the cheerless walls of that very same asylum.
So near and yet so far, thought Rex. He liked to think that the light he could see flickering high up in the asylum at night might be his father’s light. He put his hand up to shade his eyes from the low sun. Was there something in the water? Perhaps it was his imagination, but a huge dark shape seemed to be moving slowly across the lake, just under the surface. His heart jumped. There was something! He was sure of it now. A shadow, a giant shadow …
“Good morning, Rex.”
Rex started at the sound of his tutor’s voice, and he turned to see the young man of no more than five and twenty years enter the room.
“Good morning, Robert,” he replied. Acantha had insisted that Rex call him “Sir” and that in turn the tutor address Rex as “Master Rex,” but in the privacy of the schoolroom, each dropped the formalities and used first names.
Robert held a pile of books under one arm and paper and quills under the other. “How are you today?” he asked and then shook his head slightly. “Still looking out of the window, I see.” He came over to join him. “Droprock Asylum,” he said, “built over three hundred years ago for the poor and confused of Opum Oppidulum. Did you know, because the island is so small and rocky, there’s nowhere to bury the dead so they constructed a maze of tunnels beneath the asylum, the famous labyrinthine catacombs where all the bodies are laid? Apparently there’s an underground lake too.”
Rex smiled wryly. The shadow was gone—if it had ever been there; perhaps it was just a cloud—and the asylum stared back at him, its dark windows like soulless eyes. His heart burned to think that his father was over there, unable to leave, but there was nothing he could do.
“Mr. Stradigund only says that Father is doing well, but he will not say when he is to return.”
“Rex,” said Robert, and there was hesitation in his voice. “You know that I have the greatest respect for your father.…”
“But I fear that he will not be back for some time yet.” Robert closed the window. The autumn air was chilling. He looked at Rex with worried eyes. “I know nothing for certain, but there is talk among the servants that your father is very ill, much worse than anyone thought, and that Mr. Chapelizod has no plans to release him.”
Rex turned sharply and went to sit down at his desk. He brought his fist down on the wooden surface. “It’s just not fair,” he muttered. “It’s not right. You weren’t there, Robert. You didn’t see what happened. You didn’t see how Acantha did nothing! It’s all her fault, I know it. But with Father in the asylum how can I prove it?”
Robert looked worried. “Rex,” he cautioned, “I know you are not on the best terms with Acantha, but as long as your father is on Droprock Island, you must play a careful game. Acantha holds all the cards. And, with Stradigund and Chapelizod working for her, she is very powerful.”
Rex clenched and unclenched his jaw. Rex and Robert spoke freely. There was a friendship between them that went deeper than teacher and pupil, and in these uncertain times Rex considered him the only person in the house he could talk to frankly. Rex suspected now that Robert shared his concerns about Acantha. “What do you mean, working for her?”
Robert lowered his voice. “I only know what I hear, both in the house and beyond its confines. Recently I have heard talk of an old law, Lex Dierum Centarum—”
“Huh,” snorted Rex, “more Latin!”
Robert laughed softly. “It means ‘the Law of a Hundred Days’, and although I am not familiar with it, it seems that it might have some bearing on your father’s illness. If you like, I can find out more about it.”
Rex grabbed Robert by the sleeve, and for a moment the boy looked almost as mad as his father had on that fateful night. “Oh, please do,” he urged. “I am becoming desperate. Acantha hates me and wants to get rid of me. As for Stradigund … I thought he was a loyal friend to us all … but I am no longer sure of him either.”
“Rex, you must be very careful in whom you place your trust,” said Robert, and then his face froze, and he stood up quickly. “Now,” he said with authority, “tell me the meaning of the term boustrophedon.”
“What?” Rex was confused at the rapid change of subject.
“Now,” said Robert meaningfully. “Right now!”
Rex stood and began. “Er, well, it’s something to do with plowing. The word bous in Greek means ‘cow’ and…”
A sound behind him caused Rex to stop and look over his shoulder. Acantha was standing at the door. Rex looked at her solid figure and red face. She rarely came up here; the stairs were becoming too much for her.
“Robert,” she snapped. “I wish to see you after.”
Robert smiled obsequiously. “Of course,” he said.
With a contemptuous snort, Acantha turned on her flattened heel and left.
Copyright © 2010 by F. E. Higgins
Meet the Author
F. E. Higgins' other books are THE BLACK BOOK OF SECRETS, THE BONE MAGICIAN, and THE EYEBALL COLLECTOR, all available from Square Fish. She lives in Kent, England, with her family.
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