Back in the Spring of 2016, David Shakes tweeted that he wanted contributions to a horror anthology called The Infernal Clock. The premise was simple: the action of each story would take place in one hour. There would be 24 tales, covering one hellish day. David invited writers to bagsy specific hours. I put my virtual hand up for the midday-to-one-o’clock slot straight away.
I don’t know much about horror fiction. I’ve seen lots of horror films and am a particular fan of classic Japanese films such as the Ring series and The Grudge, but I have read few modern horror novels. When I volunteered for The Infernal Clock, I didn’t consider my lack of knowledge of the genre a disadvantage. Much of my writing has a nightmarish quality and I unconsciously default to the monstrous, so I felt equal to the task of creating something weird, unsettling, frightening.
I asked for the noon slot because I wanted to create horror out of light and heat, rather than the more usual darkness and cold. My story would begin at noon in the height of summer, on a particularly hot day. When I was 14 I had a paper round. Once a week, I would deliver unsolicited free copies of the local rag to all the houses and flats in a couple of streets. I tended to start the round at about five o’clock in the afternoon. However, on one occasion in the summer holidays I covered for someone who was ill and so delivered to a different street, full of affluent houses. I started the extra round in the late morning of a very hot day, and at around midday I walked up the pathway towards an imposing house, painted brilliant white. It’s no exaggeration to say that I had to squint as I approached the whitewashed facade, which reflected the sun at me aggressively. The combination of dazzling light and unpleasant heat made me sluggish, nauseous. It made everything seem unreal. The whiteness of the house was inimical, poisonous. That memory came back to me as soon as I decided to write a story exploring the horrors of daylight, and it informed the narrative itself, even supplying the title: White.
I also knew that my story would be about a mirror, and someone seeing something in the mirror and as a result experiencing a crisis. I keep coming back to mirrors in my work.
Writing the thing was not so straightforward. My first attempt was telegrammatic in style, but lacked momentum. The protagonist was a little boy. This excerpt gives a flavour:
Outside, everything is too bright, too solid. Sounds have a hard quality. The world is amplified. He hears the scuttling of beetles in the flower beds, the drone of bees, birdsong, his own breathing.
He runs around on the lawn and the gravel pathways, but soon he’s exhausted. He sits down and looks up at the house. Something in him wants to go back to the bathroom, to look in the mirror again. He doesn’t know why.
Above the house, there is a cloud that looks like a skull.
It just didn’t feel right for The Infernal Clock. Really, I was writing a fragment for my novel, which is about a boy entering puberty amidst the silence and strangeness of a new home. So I started again. This time, the protagonist was a grown man:
So he went up to the bathroom. The village church bell rang twelve as he opened the door. The beginning of the afternoon. He stood in front of the basin, put the plug in and turned on the cold tap. He was looking forward to the feeling of the water on his face and the sight of it on his face when he looked in the mirror.
When the basin was half full, he turned off the tap, stooped to bring his face closer to the water, cupped his hands together in the water, closed his eyes and splashed his face. The water was like a slap, icy blue. His face tingled. The summer sun had been quenched.
He straightened up and opened his eyes.
Initially, he didn’t see the other man. He was looking at the mirror, enjoying the sight of the droplets of water running down his face. He felt refreshed, awake.
But after a few seconds he thought, That isn’t me. The man in the mirror is someone else.
Now I had a scenario that could work, but the writing was dull dull dull. I had thought that by presenting the story as simply and unemotively as possible, I would enable the reader to experience fully the uncanniness of the situation described. I hadn’t anticipated the results being so stilted. I realised that the first attempt, for all its faults, was better, partly because it benefitted from the immediacy and intensity of the present tense.
Attempt number three was the one that ended up in The Infernal Clock. I kept the storyline of attempt two, but wrote it again from scratch, as an unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness, narrated by the protagonist himself. This time, the words came intuitively, organising themselves in the final section into lines of free verse. Here’s a taster, from the beginning:
starting at noon at midday twelve o’clock exactly this story if it is that this event more accurate that has left me doubting my own mind wondering if I’m right in the head doubting even the facts as I remember them if they are facts in the absence of any means of verifying them no one else having been there no witnesses to any part of what happened to me is happening to me the sequence of events starting at midday when I closed the bathroom door behind me wiped out exhausted by the white slab of sunshine outside the whiteness of everything white walls white gravel white roses wiped out slightly dizzy dots appearing and disappearing before my eyes from the hot white day desperate to feel cold water on my face in my mouth down my throat anxious not just to obtain that relief the relief of the feeling of the cold water but also wanting to see the droplets of water on my parched face see them running down my baked face seeing is believing seeing would reinforce the existence of the water make it more real appealing to more than just the sense of touch the sense of sight being more powerful anyway sights swaying us all the time images making up minds I wanted my mind made by that image that vision of little droplets of water running down my face a spectacle a miniature piece of theatre not possible downstairs in the kitchen where there is a sink but no mirror possible only upstairs in the bathroom
I am proud to be part of The Infernal Clock. There is an impressive variety of storytelling in the book, and the venture as a whole is ambitious. Hats off to David Shakes and Stephanie Ellis for their editorial work, and to Tamara Rogers for her striking cover design. I urge you to get a copy and savour every horrible hour!