Twelve Minutes to Midnightby Christopher Edge
Penelope Tredwell, author, editor, and sole proprietor of The Penny Dreadful, Victorian London's bestselling magazine, is called on to solve the mystery of a strange phenomenon occurring in a madhouse.
Gr 4–7—In Twelve Minutes to Midnight, readers meet Penelope Tredwell, the 13-year-old newspaper heiress and ghostwriter who pens tales of horror and mystery as Montgomery Flinch. She must keep her true identity secret, going so far as to hire an actor to play Montgomery at public appearances. In Shadows of the Silver Screen, a filmmaker wants to transform Penelope's stories into a motion picture. The protagonist soon finds that her terrifying tales are bleeding into reality. An atmospheric and spine-tingling series for middle graders who love old-fashioned mysteries.
As 1899 draws to a close, a savvy young writer of gothic tales becomes embroiled in a perplexing mystery in this first volume of a proposed trilogy. Since inheriting the Penny Dreadful, 13-year-old orphan Penelope Tredwell has "single-handedly acted as the magazine's editor, lead author, and publisher," though she hides her true identity behind the pseudonym Montgomery Flinch. Now the "most celebrated author in Britain," Penelope hires an actor to impersonate Flinch to promote sales. Receiving an urgent plea from the superintendent of Bedlam, the lunatic asylum, for Flinch's assistance, Penelope sees the potential for her next horror story. Masquerading as Flinch's niece, Penelope investigates, intrigued by accounts of patients arising in a trance at 12 minutes to midnight each night to compulsively write delirious, prophetic ramblings. Penelope's investigation leads her to reclusive Lady Cambridge, aka the Spider Lady of South Kensington, whose diabolical plot to control the future threatens to plunge London into madness. Bold and intelligent beyond her years, Penelope pursues Lady Cambridge into London's darkest places, facing gothic horrors greater than any she has written. Edge successfully delivers his own penny dreadful in the riveting style of a Victorian mystery. Original, chilling, atmospheric mystery with a heroine of remarkable mettle. (Historical mystery. 8-12)
". . . the descriptions of Victorian London are vivid without being overwhelming, and the storytelling has a direct, focused clip, making this a possible candidate for readers just delving into historical mysteries." The Bulletin of The Center for Children's Books, April 2014
"Edge successfully delivers his own penny dreadful in the riveting style of a Victorian mystery. Original, chilling, atmospheric mystery with a heroine of remarkable mettle." Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2014
"Debut author Edge has created an excellent mystery in a league with Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus, Philip Pullman's Sally Lockhart, and Eleanor Updale's Montgomery series." Starred Review, Booklist, February 15, 2014
Read an Excerpt
Twelve Minutes to Midnight
By Christopher Edge
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2012 Christopher Edge
All rights reserved.
Montgomery Flinch gripped the sides of the reading lectern, his knuckles whitening as he stared out into the darkness of the auditorium. His bristling eyebrows arched and the gleam of his dark eyes seemed to dart across the faces of each audience member in turn. A mesmerized silence hung over the stage as if the theatre itself were holding its breath as it waited for the conclusion to his latest spine-chilling tale. The expectant hush seemed to deepen as Flinch finally began to speak.
"And when he turned and looked into the mirror, his trembling visage a cracked alabaster in the moonlight, he saw the dread face of Dr. Cameron staring back at him, the man that he had murdered some seven years before."
The dimmed gaslights lining the walls of the theatre flickered faintly as a shocked gasp rippled through the audience.
Flinch's face twisted into a grotesque grimace, his voice now a guttural rasp that echoed around the auditorium.
"'I'm back,' the face in the mirror snarled. The man shrank in fear as Cameron's gnarled fingers reached through the glass. Stumbling backward, he dashed the lamp from the table, darkness shrouding the violent scene as the two men struggled, until only one figure was left standing." Montgomery Flinch paused, his dark hooded eyes looking up from the last page of the manuscript stacked on the lectern in front of him. A low whimper was audible from the back of the stalls as the audience shivered in their seats. Flinch began to read again, his voice trembling slightly as though fearful of what it was about to reveal. "Reaching out, a wizened hand righted the lamp and, as its warm pool of light spilled across the room, the hunched form of Dr. Cameron stepped toward the ornate mirror. Imprisoned there behind the glass, his murderer raised his hands in a desperate plea of pity.
"'I'm sorry,' he cried, the ghosts of his words whispering behind the glass. 'Please, I beg of you—'
"With a hiss of satisfaction, Dr. Cameron raised his stout walking stick high, its brass-tipped ferrule glinting in the lamplight, and with an unnatural strength far beyond the capabilities of his frail form, he brought the cane crashing down with a whip crack."
Flinch brought his palm down on the lectern with a thunderous report.
"The mirror shattered into a thousand pieces, and, for a moment, in every single shard, the face of the last Earl of Pomeroy could be glimpsed, his mouth stretched in an endless scream as his dark and murderous deeds were finally avenged."
In the front row, three young women fainted dead away, their consorts frantically ransacking the previously unexplored hinterlands of beaded purses in search of smelling salts to revive their swooning spouses. Farther back in the stalls, an elderly gentleman in a navy-blue frock coat clutched at his chest, his drink-mottled cheeks wheezing as a paroxysm of fear overwhelmed him. But around them, the audience rose to its feet as one, thunderous applause filling the auditorium as Montgomery Flinch bowed deeply.
The evening was a resounding success. This rare appearance by the reclusive Master of the Macabre and sneak preview of his latest story would have hordes of eager readers queuing in the streets tomorrow for its exclusive appearance in the pages of the Penny Dreadful. And to think, nobody had even heard of the name Montgomery Flinch a mere twelve months before when the Penny Dreadful was a fourth-rate magazine scraping by with a readership counted in the dozens. Now, ever since the appearance of Montgomery Flinch's fictions in its pages, the Penny Dreadful had a circulation close to half a million, the magazine flying off the bookstands every month as the readers devoured Flinch's dread tales. In the fading days of the nineteenth century, the fame of the man himself even threatened to eclipse that of Dickens, Kipling, and Doyle—the literary world astounded by his meteoric rise to stardom.
As Montgomery Flinch stood there in the spotlight, his hands raised in false modesty as he soaked up the applause, the pinched face of the theatre manager nervously peered around the crimson drapes at the side of the stage. With a shuffling gait, the black-suited impresario inched his way across the stage as the house lights were raised until finally he was standing by the author's side, the ovation still ringing out across the theatre. He nodded toward Flinch with an obsequious bow and then, turning back to the audience, held out his hands to gesture for silence.
Reluctantly, the applause faded away into a smattering of handclaps, the theatregoers returning to their seats as the manager began to speak.
"May I once again extend the heartfelt thanks of the Lyceum Theatre to the illustrious Montgomery Flinch for finally breaking his silence and sharing this exclusive performance of his Christmas tale of terror with us," he fawned. "This story will be published tomorrow in the December issue of the Penny Dreadful, available from all good booksellers."
Another round of applause broke over the stage again, the audience sharing their thanks in the only way they knew how.
Reaching inside his frock coat, the theatre manager pulled out his pocket watch and glanced down at its face, nervously twisting its chain with his other hand.
"And as the performance appears to have finished slightly ahead of schedule," he continued, "I'd like to throw open the stage to any questions from the audience. I'm sure Mr. Flinch would welcome this unique opportunity to talk directly with the devotees of his most remarkable fictions."
The impresario turned back toward Montgomery Flinch, whose face had cracked in horror. Flinch drew back from the lectern, his dark eyes flashing with fear.
"I really don't know if I can—"
A forest of hands reached up from every corner of the theatre. Questions fired toward the stage in an excited hubbub of voices.
"Mr. Flinch! Why are your stories so scary?"
"Where do you get your ideas from?"
"Monty! What's your next story going to be about?"
"Ladies and gentlemen," the theatre manager struggled to make his voice heard above the sudden din, "one at a time, please."
From the middle of the front row, a man's booming voice hushed the crowd as his question rang out as clear as a bell.
"What's the big secret, Flinch?"
There was a sharp intake of breath as the audience craned to see the face of the questioner. The voice belonged to a tall, thin man in a pinstriped suit who leaned forward in his seat toward the light spilling off the stage. His neatly trimmed moustache gave his lean, pockmarked face the appearance of someone trying to look older than their meager years. In his hand, he held an open notebook, pen poised above the paper as he waited for Montgomery Flinch's reply.
The author's broad shoulders sagged as he reached forward and grasped hold of the lectern's edge.
"Wh-wh-what do you mean?" he stuttered, his face suddenly pale beneath the spotlight. A single bead of sweat slicked down his forehead and poised suspended from the end of his long nose before falling silently onto the manuscript pages below.
"You're the most celebrated author in Britain, but nobody knows the first thing about you," the young journalist continued, his voice echoing around the now hushed theatre. "Other authors toil for years in obscurity, but here you are, an overnight star." His eyes glittered mischievously. "I'll ask you again, what exactly is your secret?"
"There's no secret," Flinch blustered, waving his hands dismissively at the question. "I'm just lucky I suppose ..."
The journalist frowned, his eyes narrowing as he opened his mouth to speak again, but before the words could escape his lips, a shrill cry echoed across the theatre.
"That's not true!"
The eyes of the audience swiveled to the far end of the front row. There, a young girl in a fashionable red dress had risen to her feet, her outstretched finger pointing straight at the stage. Her long dark hair was pulled back from her face and her pretty green eyes sparkled with indignation.
"I've read every single one of your stories, Mr. Flinch," she said, her voice rising in protest. "It isn't luck that has made your name, but sheer dazzling talent. Nobody else could have dreamed up such nightmarish visions, created such mesmerizing characters or crafted your spine-chilling tales. We don't need to know your secret—just give thanks that you are willing to share your stories with us." Still standing in the spotlight, Montgomery Flinch's face flushed with relief. Reaching into his pocket for a handkerchief, he dabbed at his brow as yet another peal of applause rang out from the audience to acclaim the young girl's words. In the front row, the journalist was still struggling to make himself heard. He glared at the girl, a gleam of recognition in his gaze, but his voice was lost in the tumultuous ovation.
"That's very kind of you to say," Flinch finally replied as the applause gradually dimmed. "And now I really must bid you all good night, but I'd be most honored, Miss, if you could join me backstage so that I can present you with a signed copy of my latest tale."
Stepping out from behind the lectern, he held out his right hand toward the girl and the audience's applause redoubled at this unexpected act of kindness. The dark-haired girl slowly climbed the steps at the front of the stage until finally she was standing in front of the author. Then, with a final bow to the audience, the two of them exited stage left, disappearing behind the heavy crimson drapes.
As stamps and cheers shook the stage, the author led the way through the maze of corridors backstage. His broad frame brushed past discarded pieces of painted scenery and forgotten props, clothes rails filled with musty costumes, the smell of greasepaint heavy in the air. The two of them walked in silence until they reached the dressing rooms, stopping outside a door with a fading star nailed to the peeling green paint. Montgomery Flinch unlocked his dressing room and ushered the girl inside.
The poky room was dominated by a large mirror surrounded by lights. This sat on a solitary table overflowing with vases of flowers, empty glasses, and crumpled sheets of paper. Around the room, more brightly colored costumes hung from rails amid the decapitated bodies of mannequins, ghostly relics of the actors who had gone before.
With a heavy sigh, Montgomery Flinch slumped into the chair in front of his dressing-room table. He reached toward a crystal decanter filled with a dark amber liquid and, with a shaking hand, poured a generous measure into the nearest empty glass.
Closing the door behind her, the dark-haired girl turned toward the author, her pale face now wreathed in fury.
"What in the blazes do you think you are doing?"CHAPTER 2
"I hired you to give a reading of Montgomery Flinch's latest story, not to start answering questions from every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the theatre!"
The girl's emerald eyes blazed angrily as she jabbed her finger at the author, who cowered in his chair, gulping his drink down greedily as though he hoped he could disappear into the bottom of the glass.
"And why on earth did you say that your success was down to luck? This is the very first glimpse the world has of the legendary Montgomery Flinch, a man shrouded in mystery whose every printed word is dissected by the critics, and you make him sound like some Grub Street hack!"
"But, Penelope," the man interrupted, "that pinstriped fiend with the notebook, I thought he knew—"
"He knows nothing," the girl snapped. She drew herself up as tall as her thirteen years would allow. "That journalist has been sniffing around the offices of the Penny Dreadful for weeks now, trying to wheedle an interview with the elusive Montgomery Flinch, but I've always managed to keep him at bay. That's the reason I hired you, Mr. Maples, to give a carefully stage-managed appearance from Montgomery Flinch to promote the Christmas edition of the Penny Dreadful, keep the reading public happy, and get the press off our backs."
Penelope shook her head as she watched the actor refill his glass, the crystal decanter now half empty.
"If I hadn't jumped in when I did, Lord knows what you'd have said next. Your résumé stated that you were the finest actor not currently employed on the London stage, an extraordinary performer who can bring a whole cast of characters alive." She fished a tattered piece of paper out of her purse. "And I quote, 'With his superb command of the stage, Monty Maples gives you an entire theatrical company under one hat.'" The young girl snapped her purse shut with a frown. "But if the chaotic end to tonight's performance is anything to go by, I may have to rethink our arrangement."
Monty Maples seemed to shrink in his chair like a scolded puppy.
"You didn't like my performance?"
Penelope pursed her lips, the fire that had blazed in her eyes since she'd entered the dressing room slowly fading as she met the actor's gaze. Monty's eyes blinked owlishly as if he was about to cry.
"I didn't say I didn't like your performance," she replied, her voice softening. "It's just that when you go off script like that ... We need to improvise more—make sure you're ready for every eventuality. It's important that nobody has any doubt that you really are Montgomery Flinch."
Monty took another sip from his glass, lowering his gaze beneath his bristling eyebrows, but a trace of self-pity lingered in his eyes.
"The reading of the story itself," Penelope continued, "that was rather good."
The actor sprang forward in his chair, dregs of amber liquid spilling from his glass.
"Did you see how I had them in the palm of my hand?" he declared, his face gripped by passion as his voice boomed out with the same force as it had on the stage. "Did you hear the squeals when I described how he dragged the doctor's body into the depths of the moor, the blood falling from his fingers like flakes of crimson snow?"
Penelope nodded, a small smile creeping across her lips. "I knew that scene would get them when I wrote it," she admitted.
"Oh, and it did," Monty proclaimed, beaming magnanimously. "And what an ending, I swear I could hear the tread of a mouse as the audience waited for me to read the very last lines."
Penelope blushed, a crimson stain creeping up her cheeks.
"They did seem to like it, didn't they?"
"Like it?" Monty boomed. "They were absolutely petrified! Why I've never known such a reaction since my performance of the Scottish—" A knock at the dressing-room door cut Monty's sentence short. The two of them looked at each other, a momentary flash of panic passing in front of their eyes. There was a second loud knock, followed by two quieter raps, and then the final thud of a fist against the door.
Penelope's slender shoulders sagged with relief and she quickly turned to open the door. Outside, a tall, silver-haired man dressed in a gray worsted twill coat stood waiting with his top hat carried under his arm. He peered down at her with a hawkish stare.
"Miss Tredwell." The elderly man gave a curt nod as he stepped into the cramped dressing room. "Mr. Maples."
Monty quickly straightened in his seat, pushing his now empty glass behind a vase of flowers on his dressing-room table. Behind the silver-haired gentleman a scruffy-looking boy staggered into the room, his white shirt splattered with a web of ink stains. He carried a stack of what looked like large paperback books, which he spilled onto the dressing-room table before turning to Penelope with a broad grin.
"Here you are, Penny—hot off the presses!"
"Thanks, Alfie," Penelope replied with a smile as she stepped forward to inspect the latest edition of the Penny Dreadful.
Alfie pulled off his cap to reveal a tousled mop of blond hair and turned to Monty, who was now perched pensively in his chair.
"And your performance tonight, Mr. Maples ..." He whistled. "What a showstopper! I thought some of those old dears in there were going to keel right over when you read the part where the doctor was pushed into the cider press."
Monty's reddening face broke into a relieved smile. "Why, thank you, dear boy," he replied graciously. He flicked his hair from his face, the self-conscious gesture reflected in the brightly lit mirror. "It was like capturing lightning in a bottle. I knew that if I could just convey the power of Flinch's words then—"
"Ah, yes," the bloodless tones of the silver-haired man cut across Monty's self-regarding bluster, "if we could first discuss your performance tonight, Mr. Maples?"
Monty glanced up fearfully, the smile quickly fading from his face.
Excerpted from Twelve Minutes to Midnight by Christopher Edge. Copyright © 2012 Christopher Edge. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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