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"Craig Spector's solo debut is a riveting marvel: funny, powerful, and wise. Amid aching emotion are insights almost unbearably poignant, truths transcendent. The writing is exquisitely uneasy and holds the reader spellbound in a harrowing opera of loss and hope. This is a complex world where courage is religion and all things burn except faith. Spector has written a stunning novel."--Richard Christian Matheson on To Bury the Dead
"Spector (The Light at the End) is a strong writer who convincingly re-creates the dark, often gruesome world of paramedics and firefighters. Most impressive is his exploration into Paul's character and how ordinary people cope with extraordinary grief and horror. Not for the faint of heart, Spector's latest is for lovers of the best psychological thrillers, along the lines of Ruth Rendell's."--Publishers Weekly
Tuesday, August 26. Stillson Beach, VA. 4:26 p.m.
It began with a word: six letters plucked from the Roman alphabet-two vowels, three consonants, one used twice- that, when combined just so, spelled war.
Justin Van Slyke squinted through gargoyle shades at the heat shimmering off the parking lot as a groundskeeper arrived and quickly prepped roller and pan to erase the vandal's taunt from the neat wooden sign. The word shone black against a field of purest white, jarring graffito under the elegant script that announced WELCOME TO CUSTIS MANOR, and in smaller serif, COURTESY OF THE HISTORICAL PRESERVATION SOCIETY. Justin watched as the offending letters were masked by the first pass of the roller, only to bleed back ghostly gray. The word lingered stubbornly, like it just didn't want to go away.
A lawnmower droned somewhere beyond the treelined drive at the edge of the lot where the shuttle tram waited; a faint breeze wafted, bringing the smell of freshcut grass, mixed with the barest hint of magnolia and dogwood, on the thick summer air. It was heart-attack hot, even for August: the kind of sodden, surly weather that promised thunder but delivered only stinging sweat.
Justin checked his watch. 4:29. It was time to go. As he picked up his pace, he cast one glance back at the workman laboring so diligently. The word was gone. The word was Nigger.
The tour guide looked all of twenty. She was perfectly blond, perfectly Southern and genteel, with perfect teeth, perfect skin, and a perfect aquiline nose. She radiated helpful wholesomeness. A little yellow name tag on her navy blazer read hi, my name is BAMBI!
Of course it is, Justin thought, doubting that an imperfect thought had ever creased her smooth suburban brow. The tram got under way, quiet electric motor carrying it effortlessly past the wrought-iron gates that marked the entrance to the estate grounds. Justin hunched his sixfoot frame into the last row of seats, keeping very much to himself: seeing everything, trying not to be seen, doubting that either was likely. "I'd like to welcome y'all to our last tour of the day," Bambi said with practiced cheerfulness, clutching her mike like a game-show hostess, her voice slightly tinny through the tram's speakers. "Custis Manor is a fine historic landmark and one of the few completely restored antebellum plantations left in this part of the country."
The other tourists nodded and craned necks and autofocus zoom lenses, snapping pictures of the outbuildings coming into view on either side of the drive. The group was a random assortment of blue-haired matrons and Hawaiian-shirted retirees, a sunburnt midwestern family, some Yankee hipster yuppie honeymooners, a gaggle of Japanese exchange students with T-shirts emblazoned Old Dominion University . . . and three young black men, whose somber presence seemed to set Bambi a wee bit on edge.
Justin was not surprised. He knew that the truth about 4 craig spector this place wasn't anywhere in the history books, but with the approach of Greek Week, the tour guide's unease was hardly unwarranted. For years, students from black fraternities across the nation had descended on Stillson Beach to party away the Labor Day weekend. In the last several years, though, this influx of rowdy youth had led to violent clashes between police and partiers, this last year edging into full-scale riot and virtual martial law. Now, in the wake of budget-slashing, social program-gutting measures proposed by Senator Elijah J. "Eli" Custis-and the rabblerousing rhetoric of his eldest son, independent gubernatorial hopeful Daniel "Duke" Custis-things were edgier than ever. Duke's bid to unseat the black incumbent, Governor Raymond Langley, was exceeding all expectations, both in the polls and in mudslinging negative campaigning. Many feared that last year's riots were just a pregame warm-up for the weekend about to unfold. Bambi pressed on, extolling the virtues of the painstaking restoration of this archetypal microcosm of early nineteenth-century Southern life: kitchens, dairies, washhouses, henhouses, smokehouses, gristmills, and drying racks for the tobacco that was once its staple crop. The whitewashed wood structures presented an idyllic 3-D still life and, as Bambi assured all, were second only to Colonial Williamsburg in historical accuracy. With one somewhat glaring omission, Justin thought, as he fingered the long and jagged scar that ran across his cheek. Still, it had changed greatly since the last time he was here. In a way, it was deeply ironic-the very years that had etched their cruel mark into his rugged features had resurrected this place; the two decades that had been sucked into a seemingly inexorable downward spiral of state pens, back rooms, and dank alleys had here rendered new that which was once crumbling and rotted. The last time he was here, it was the darkest of nights.
But now, the sun was shining. Everything was pristine and sanitized.
And no one was screaming.
"And here we are," Bambi said. A collective murmur sounded as the tram rounded the last bend and rolled into a wide traffic circle. Three flagpoles dominated the center of the circle: the center pole reserved for Old Glory, flanked by smaller poles from which hung the rich blue state flag of Virginia, two Confederate regimental battle flags, and that ubiquitous blood red Confederate icon, the Southern Cross. They fluttered lazily in the breeze. A cardinal perched atop the center pole, regarding the tram with quizzical indifference, then flew away.
The big house was stately and serene, tall white Doric columns punctuating a broad-beamed front porch suited to sipping iced tea and surveying domain. The tram hissed to a stop and Bambi ushered the group up the wide stairs. As Justin ascended, he caught a glimpse of the charred stubble of a massive barn at the distant fringe of the estate: the one part of Custis Manor left neglected. In the shadow of the manor, its scorched timbers and roughhewn stone foundation were strangely haunting.
Then they were inside, with the splendid staircases and balustrades that dominated the sprawling entrance. To the left, a magnificent mirrored ballroom. To the right, a voluminous sitting room and library. And directly before them, the great hall, in which the portraits of the family patriarchs hung. There was Senator Elijah, nearest and most recent. There was Elijah's father, Vance, another important statesman, dead now some twenty years. There was Vance's great-grandfather, Emmanuel, the noted Confederate colonel who steered the family fortune through the turbulence of the Civil War and Reconstruction to the Gilded Age at the dawn of the last century.
And at the end of the line, the portrait of Silas Custis: true and founding father of the lineage. It was he who built the manor and the family fortune upon which his heirs had relied. It was his distinctive countenance-high, arching brow, deep-set eyes, gaunt and severe features-that the rest of the clan had genetically replicated. He had been dead for over one hundred and fifty years. But not nearly dead enough.
I'm back, motherfucker, Justin hissed under his breath, staring up at the portrait. The portrait stared back, impassive and imperious. Justin glanced at the three black youths, exchanged a terse nod.
Suddenly, the men sprang into action: two whipping out spray-paint cans and defacing the paintings while the third launched into a fiery tirade. "THIS HOUSE WAS BUILT ON A FOUNDATION OF LIES!" the black man roared, addressing the horrified crowd. "BUILT ON THE BLLOD OF THOUSANDS OF AFRICAN BROTHERS AND SISTERS WHO WERE PLACED IN BONDAGE AND SET HERE TO BE SLAUGHTERED!"
Bambi screamed for Security as the chaos mounted. Two more paintings bit the dust. The black youths continued to rage as a pair of blazered goons entered the room. One grabbed a spray-painting youth by the arm; the kid turned and sprayed him in the face, then kicked him in the crotch. The goon dropped in ruddy blackface, moaning.
Justin looked around. The window of opportunity was fleeting. He quickly slipped to the back of the panicked crowd and raced through the library to the servants' stairway he remembered so well . . .
. . . and for a moment everything seemed as it was twenty years ago: the narrow staircase leading to wide corridors upstairs, flanked by open doorways to many rooms. The shattered furniture had long since been restored or replaced. The huge gilt mirrors were crystal clear and unbroken, reflecting him at every turn as he hastened toward his destination.
On the second floor, at the far end of the east wing, Justin arrived at the master suite. He stepped inside, locking the door behind him, and looked around. No blood. A voice in his head. The last time he was here, there'd been plenty. Heart pounding, he crossed the bedroom to the far doorway that marked the entrance to the bathroom. He entered, locking that as well, then beelined for the pedestal sink, a late-nineteenth-century upgrade courtesy of Emmanuel's reign. A small antique mirror hung over the sink, a larger gilt-framed full-length one off to the side. Justin turned the faucets on and emptied a small black pouch full of herbs into the basin, then produced a small black candle, lit it, and set it on the rim. Then he shoved his hands and arms into the churning pool, ran the water through his hair, dousing his face and soaking his skin. He stood there, dripping, and gazed at his reflection in the smaller mirror.
Now, said the voice in his head. You have to do it now . Justin produced a razor and pulled open his shirt, buttons popping and plinking on the hardwood floor. Taking a deep breath, he began methodically slicing into his chest. Pain blossomed as the blood welled thickly. Justin sliced again, crossing the wound, then again, etching a cryptic pattern into his quivering flesh. Justin turned to the larger glass and, touching his trembling fingertips to the wounds, began to paint a similar pattern on its surface. The air began to charge: a terrible, potent buzz crackling in the closed atmosphere of the room. Outside, the bedroom door crashed open. Justin began to chant low, in the magick's tongue: a language he barely understood, for a ritual he had only recently been trained to perform. As he chanted, other voices seemed to join his, a low, ghostly chorus. It filled the room, but its source came from somewhere behind the mirror.
As he chanted, bodies slammed against the heavy wooden door. Hinges creaked as screws split wood. Justin ignored it, focusing all his attention on the pain and the ritual. He chanted, the sound of his voice droning and hypnotic, the ghostly chorus rising in his head. He felt dizzy, nauseated. Justin focused on his own eyes staring back at him from the mirror, his pupils black and wide.
He watched in amazement as the surface of the glass suddenly rippled, turned black and shimmering as an ocean at night. His reflection went murky, diffuse. Justin bit back his fear, reaching forward with bloodied fingers. His left hand met the surface, touching its shadowy twin . . . then went in. Something began pulling him forward, into the rippling surface of the glass.
Behind him, the guards hit the door again. This time, it gave. Justin turned and saw their faces glowing in the strange light radiating from the mirror. Their expressions were alarmed and horrified. But not surprised.
THEY KNOW! he realized as he pressed forward into the shimmering portal, shuddering against the cold that enveloped him, gripping him from the other side. He sucked one last gasp of air and closed his eyes, submerging fully. For a moment he felt unmoored, floating in a swirling void; the sounds became muffled and indistinct. Justin exhaled and took a desperate breath: the air that filled his lungs was chill and laced with a strange, pungent scent. His body moved languidly, as though underwater. He turned and opened his eyes, saw the room now visible through the portal of the mirror, the daylight surreal and glowing. He drew his left leg in, then his left arm . . .
. . . and suddenly other hands were upon him-hot, living hands, seizing him by the wrist, yanking him back. The guards strained to pull him out; in the strange light of the other side, their fleshy faces were rendered monstrous, grotesque, their mouths ragged gashes, their eyes like black, soulless pits. They pulled on his arm, dragging him back; Justin screamed as the heat of the world washed back over his exposed flesh. For one excruciating moment he was the subject of an interdimensional tug-of-war. The force on the other side of the mirror was pulling him almost fully into the darkness as one of the guards fought to hold him and the other roared into his walkie-talkie. In their struggle, they knocked over the altar. Justin screamed as the portal slammed shut . . .
. . . and in an instant the mirror went solid again, slicing off his right hand just above the wrist. Blood sprayed the faces of his assailants as Justin disappeared into the shadows. The mirror rippled, went clear and hard again. And Justin was gone.
Except for his right hand, which lay, still twitching, on the bathroom floor.
Excerpted from Underground by Craig Spector.
Copyright © 2005 by Craig Spector.
Published in April 2005 by Tom Deherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Posted December 9, 2008
In Stillson Beach, Virginia, Justin Van Slyke is on a tour of historical antebellum Custis Manor, a place where black slaves were slaughtered. A vandalism incident enables Justin to wander off on his own. He reaches his destination and dives through a large mirror though his right hand fails to make it through the portal. It is sliced off and left behind.--- Josh Custis, whose family owns the mansion, sends word to the other three surviving members of the Underground to meet with him in the Church of the Open Door. Caroline Tabb Connolly accompanied by her spouse and daughter, addict Amy Kaplan, and Seth Bryant who left his pregnant wife at home heed Josh's call. Josh explains that Justin went through the portal bringing home the nightmare of what happened in 1983 when seven suburban teens formed the Underground. One of them Simon Baxter tripping on acid tried to slice another Mia Cheever, but Justin stopped him. Mia fell through a mirror portal while Simon bled to death from cuts caused by chards of broken glass. Justin has forced them to act even while the medical examiner cannot understand how a severed hand can have a pulse.--- This haunted house thriller grips the audience from the moment that Justin splits from the tour to enter the mirror and never slows down until the final altercation with the evil on the other side of the portal. The story line is fast-paced, filled with action, and constantly leave readers with goose bumps. Though the magnificent seven are labeled rather than fully developed with a couple of exceptions, ghost story fans will gladly journey through the portal with the UNDERGROUND.--- Harriet Klausner
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Posted April 20, 2009
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