Today, we have an annotated excerpt from A. G. Slatter‘s latest gothic fantasy novel, The Path of Thorns. Due to be published by Titan Books tomorrow, here’s the synopsis:
Asher Todd comes to live with the mysterious Morwood family as a governess to their children. Asher knows little about being a governess but she is skilled in botany and herbcraft, and perhaps more than that. And she has secrets of her own, dark and terrible – and Morwood is a house that eats secrets. With a monstrous revenge in mind, Asher plans to make it choke. However, she becomes fond of her charges, of the people of the Tarn, and she begins to wonder if she will be able to execute her plan – and who will suffer most if she does. But as the ghosts of her past become harder to control, Asher realises she has no choice.
From the award-winning author of All the Murmuring Bones, dark magic, retribution and twisted family secrets combine to weave a bewitching and addictive tale.
Now, over to Angela…!
At last, an ending.
Or a beginning.
Who can say?
I had to think long and hard about the above – originally the novel started on the line below, but I knew it wasn’t quite right. I wrote several long (and boring) alternatives. Then it finally came to me: it just needed to be brief and accurate and kind of summing up the spirit of the whole novel. Kerouac said ‘One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple’, and he was right. Once I got those three tiny sentences, I knew it was exactly what I needed.
My previous three weeks have featured a long series of carriages; conveyances of varied age, cleanliness and distinction, much like my fellow passengers. From Whitebarrow to Briarton, from Lelant’s Bridge to Angharad’s Breach, from decaying Lodellan where fires still smoulder to Cwen’s Ruin, from Bellsholm to Ceridwen’s Landing, and all the tiny loveless places in between. A circuitous route, certainly, but then I have my reasons. And this afternoon, the very last of those vehicles finally deposited me at my goal before trundling off to the village of Morwood Tarn with its few remaining travellers – three brittle blondes, sisters, with not a good thing to say about anyone, nor a word addressed to me in several hours – and despatches to deliver.
The names in that list are some that have occurred previously in the Sourdough world stories, so those are nice little touchstones for returning readers (Hello, old friends!), and the new names give me something to play with in future tales. That line ‘decaying Lodellan where fires still smoulder’ is part of a lead-in for the next novel, The Briar Book of the Dead. Lodellan’s been a mainstay of this world and I know exactly what terrible things I’m going to do to it.
Or rather, at the gateway to my goal, and there now remains a rather longer walk than I would have wished at such a late hour and with such luggage as I have. Yet, having waited some considerable while with foolish hope for someone to come collect me, in the end I accept that I’ve no better choice than Shanks’s pony. My steamer case I push beneath bushes just inside the tall black iron gates with the curlicued M at their apex – as if anyone might wander past this remote spot and take it into their heads to rifle through my meagre possessions. The satchel with my notebooks is draped across my back, and the carpet bag with its precious cargo I carry by turns in one hand then the other, for it weighs more than is comfortable. I’m heartily sick of hefting it, but am careful as always, solicitous of the thing that has kept me going for the better part of two years.
The rough and rutted track leads off between trees, oak and yew and ash, so tall and old that they meet above me. I might have appreciated their beauty more had it been earlier in the day, had there been more light, had it been summer rather than autumn and my magenta coat been of thicker fabric, and had my nerves not already been frayed by the tasks before me. And certainly if I’d not, soon after setting off deeper into the estate, begun to hear noises in the undergrowth by the side of the drive.
I wanted Asher to be arriving just on the changing of the season – so much of the book is about some who’s ‘between’ everything in life, so having her come to Morwood when autumn is about to turn into the gateway to winter seemed perfect. And so she can also seem herself like the embodiment of a change.
I do not walk faster, though it almost kills me to maintain the same steady pace. I do not call out in dread, demanding to know who is there. I do, however, pat the deep right-hand pocket of my skirt to check for the long knife. I have walked sufficient darkened streets to know that fear will kill you faster than a blade to the gut or a garrotte to the throat because it will make you foolish, panicky.
Whatever it is has stealth, but somehow I sense it creates just enough noise on purpose that I might be aware of its presence. Occasional snuffles and wuffles that must seem quite benign, but which are not when their source is defiantly out of sight. Some moments I catch a scent on the breeze – a musky rich odour like an animal given to feeding on young meat and sleeping in dens – and that threatens to turn my belly to water. I lift my chin as if the sky beyond the branches is not darkening with storm clouds, as if I am not being stalked, as if my heart is not pounding so hard it almost drowns out the close-rolling thunder. But I keep my steady, steady pace.
I wanted her to be self-possessed but for the reader to know she was still afraid – yet her survival instinct was so strong she’d be prepared to do anything, which is pretty common in my heroines.
Eventually, I step out from beneath the twisting, turning canopied road and get my first sight of the manor house spread out below. I pause and stare, despite the knowledge that something still lurks behind me. I take a deep breath, give a sigh I didn’t know was waiting in me. There is a tremble to it, a quaver I’d not want anyone else to hear.
Courage, Asher. There is no one else to have it for you.
It might have appeared quite simple, the structure, if approached from the front: almost slender-looking, two storeys of pale grey stone – silvery – and an attic, but I’m coming at it on an angle and can see that the building is deeper than it is wide. It digs back into the landscape and I wonder how many rooms there might be. In front are flowering tiered gardens, three, leading up to ten steps and a small porch, and thence to a door of honey-coloured wood set beneath a pointed stone arch. A duck pond lies to the left, and to the right flows a stream, too broad to jump but too narrow to count as a river. I wonder if it ever floods.
Lightning flashes, great white streaks of fire casting themselves across the vault of the world. The crack of it seems to echo in my chest. I blink hard to rid myself of the strange effect it has on my sight. The colours leached to black and white like an engraving in a book are discombobulating.
I wanted this description to have the same filmic effect of a black and white scene, almost like a photo was being taken of this moment – Asher’s arrival, the death of this old tree that’s been a guardian to the house.
Behind the house itself is a smallish structure, dark wood and white plaster, of such a size as might contain four rooms. It has a tall chimney and a waterwheel is attached to the side, fed by the not-quite-stream-not-quite-river.
Once again, the lightning flashes, striking the ground in two places in front of me in quick succession and a third time hitting an old yew not far away. It stands, a lone sentinel by the side of the drive, and it burns so quickly that I’m astonished rather than afraid. I’d stay to watch, too, except the heavens open and thick angry drops fall hard and inescapable; they will extinguish the tree. In spite of everything, I smile. From the undergrowth behind me there comes a definite growl, all trace of sneakery and concealment gone.
Finally, I run.
And then just this particular moment when she does run – not because her nerve’s broken but because she can’t really put it off any longer, and she’s heading towards her ending or her beginning. Who can say?
A. G. Slatter’s The Path of Thorns is out tomorrow, published by Titan Books in North America and in the UK.