Authors: Eric Brown
A Writer's Life
A Writer’s Life
Mid-list writer Daniel Ellis becomes obsessed with the life and work of novelist Vaughan Edwards, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 1996. Edwards' novels, freighted with foreboding tragedy and a lyrical sense of loss, echo something in Ellis's own life. His investigations lead Ellis ever deeper into the enigma that lies at the heart of Vaughan Edwards' country house, Edgecoombe Hall, and the horror that dwells there.
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© Eric Brown 2001, 2010
Cover © Julian Flynn 2010
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A Writer's Life
was first published by PS Publishing in 2001. My thanks to Peter Crowther.
Electronic version by Baen Books
Also by Eric Brown
Guardians of the Phoenix
New York Dreams
New York Blues
New York Nights
Gilbert and Edgar on Mars
The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne
A Writer's Life
The Fall of Tartarus
(with Keith Brooke)
The Time-Lapsed Man
The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures
(with Mike Ashley)
Edwards, Vaughan, (1930-1996?). English novelist, author of twelve novels and two collections of stories. His first novel,
Winter at the Castle,
(1951), received considerable critical acclaim but, like much of his subsequent output, little widespread popularity. Edwards was very much a writer's writer, eschewing the trappings of sensationalism in his fiction and concentrating instead on his own peculiar and unique vision. In book after book, this singular novelist wrote of a rural England haunted by ghosts of the past—both the spirits of humans and the more metaphorical apparitions of times long gone. The novel considered his finest,
The Miracle at Hazelmere
, (1968), tells, in his customary highly wrought prose, the story of William Grantham, an estranged and embittered artist, and his (perhaps imaginary—it is never revealed) affair with the phantom of a sixteen year-old girl from the Elizabethan period. This novel, in common with the rest of his oeuvre, contains much striking imagery, pathos and a yearning for a long gone era of bucolic certainty. Artists and loners burdened with tragic pasts appear again and again in his writing, and there is speculation that the novels and stories drew much from the author's own life, though, as Edwards was an intensely private person, this has never been confirmed. Critics generally agree that his final novels, the
Secrets of Reality
series, marked the artistic low-point of his career. Though beautifully written, and containing much of ideative interest, the novels, beginning with
Those Amongst Us,
(1990), continuing with
A Several Fear
, (1993), and
The Secret of Rising Dene
, (1996), show an obsessive preoccupation with the arcane, and found only a narrow readership. The series, a projected quartet, was unfinished at the time of the author's mysterious disappearance in the winter of 1996.
Encyclopaedia of Twentieth Century British Novelists
Macmillan, third edition, 1998.
The above entry was the first mention I had ever heard of the writer Vaughan Edwards. I was surprised that I had never happened upon his work, as I have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of British writers of the last century and especially those publishing after the Second World War. The discovery filled me with a wonderful sense of serendipitous anticipation: there was something about the entry that told me I would take to the novels of Vaughan Edwards. The fact that he was relatively unknown now, and little regarded during his lifetime, gave me the sense that I would be performing a service to the memory of the man who had devoted his life, as the entry stated, to 'his own peculiar and unique vision'. Perhaps what gave me a certain empathy with the novelist was that I too was an unsuccessful writer, the author of half a dozen forgotten novels, as well as over fifty short stories buried away in long-defunct small-press magazines and obscure anthologies.
I showed the entry to Mina. For some reason—perhaps subsequent events have branded the very start of the episode on my consciousness—I recall the night well. It had been a grey, misty day in early November; a gale had blown up after dinner, and now a rainstorm lashed the windows of the cottage, instilling in me the romantic notion that we were aboard a storm-tossed galleon upon the high seas.
Mina was reading in her armchair before the blazing fire. Her favourites were the classic Victorians, the Brontës, Eliot and the rest. Now she lay the well-read paperback edition of
upon her lap and blinked up at me, perhaps surprised at the summons back to the present day.
I set the thick tome on the arm of the chair and tapped the page with my forefinger. "Why on earth haven't I come across him before?"
She pushed her reading glasses up her nose, pulled a frown, and read the entry. A minute later she looked up, a characteristic, sarcastic humour lighting her eyes. "Perhaps because he's probably even more obscure and terrible than all those others you go on about."
I leaned over and kissed her forehead. She laughed. The masochist in me found delight in setting myself up as the butt of her disdain.
I relieved her of the volume, sat before the fire and reread the entry.
Why was it that even then I knew, with a stubborn, innate certainty, that I would take to the works of this forgotten writer? There was enough in the entry to convince me that I had stumbled across a fellow romantic, someone obscurely haunted by an inexplicable sense of the tragedy that lies just beneath the veneer of the everyday—or perhaps I was flattering myself with knowledge gained of hindsight.
Mina stretched and yawned. "I'm going to bed. I'm on an early tomorrow. Come up if you want."
Even then, a year into our relationship, I was insecure enough to ascribe to her most innocent statements an ulterior intent. I remained before the fire, staring at the page, the words a blur, and tried to decide if she meant that she wished to sleep alone tonight.
At last, chastising myself for being so paranoid, I joined her in bed. Rain doused the skylight and wind rattled the eaves. I eased myself against her back, my right arm encircling her warm body, and closed my eyes.
Though the novels of Daniel Ellis are founded on a solid bedrock of integrity and honesty, yet they display the flaws of an excessive emotionalism which some might find over-powering.
From Simon Levi's review of the novel
by Daniel Ellis.
But for Mina, I would never have come upon Vaughan Edwards' novel
A Bitter Recollection
. During the month following my discovery of his entry in the encyclopaedia, I wrote to a dozen second-hand bookshops enquiring if they possessed copies of any of his works.
Of the three replies I received, two had never heard of him, and a third informed me that in thirty years of bookdealing he had come across only a handful of Edwards' titles. I made enquiries on the Internet, but to no avail.
I forgot about Vaughan Edwards and busied myself with work. I was writing the novelisation of a children's TV serial at the time, working three hours in the mornings and taking the afternoons off to potter about the garden, read, or, if Mina was not working, drive into the Dales.
It was an uncharacteristically bright, but bitterly cold, day in mid-December when I suggested a trip to York for lunch and a scout around the bookshops.
As I drove, encountering little traffic on the mid-week roads, Mina gave me a running commentary on her week at work.
I listened with feigned attention. The sound of her voice hypnotised me. She had a marked Yorkshire accent that I have always found attractive, and an inability to pronounce the letter r. The word 'horrible', which she used a lot, came out sounding like 'howwible'. Perhaps it was the contradiction of the conjunction between the childishness of some of her phrases, and her stern and unrelenting practicality and pragmatism, which I found so endearing.
She was a State Registered Nurse and worked on the maternity ward of the general hospital in the nearby town of Skipton. In the early days of our relationship I was conscious, perhaps to the point of feeling guilty, of how little I worked in relation to her. I could get away with three or four hours a day at the computer, five days a week, and live in reasonable comfort from my output of one novel and a few stories and articles every year. By contrast Mina worked long, gruelling shifts, looked after her two girls for three and a half days a week, and kept up with the daily household chores. When I met her she was renting a two-bedroom terrace house, which ate up most of her wage, and yet I never heard her complain. She had just walked out on a disastrous marriage that had lasted a little over eight years, and she was too thankful for her new-found freedom to worry about things like poverty and overwork.
Her practical attitude to life amazed me—me, who found it hard to manage my bank balance, who found the mundane chores of daily life too much of a distraction...
She once accused me of having it too easy, of never having to face real hardship, and I had to agree that she was right.
There were times, though, when her pragmatism did her a disservice. She often failed to appreciate the truly wondrous in life: she fought shy of my romanticism as if it were a disease. She could be cutting about my flights of fancy, my wild speculations about life on other worlds, the possibilities of the future. On these occasions she would stare at me, a frown twisting her features, and then give her head that quick irritable, bird-like shake. "But what does all that matter!" she would say—as if all that did matter was a strict and limiting adherence to the banality of the everyday. She had gone through a lot: she was content with her present, when compared to her past. She feared, I thought, the uncertainty of the future.
We never argued about our differences, though. I loved her too much to risk creating a rift.
"Daniel," she said, her sudden sharp tone causing me to flinch. "You're miles away. You haven't been listening to a word... I might as well be talking to myself!"
"I was thinking about a dream I had last night."
Why did I say this? I knew that she hated hearing about my dreams. She didn't dream herself, or if she did then she failed to recall them. It was as if the evidence of my over-active sleeping imagination was something that she could not understand, or therefore control.
I had dreamed of meeting a fellow writer in an ancient library filled with mouldering tomes. I had gestured around us, implying without words the insignificance of our efforts to add our slight fictions to the vast collection.
The writer had smiled, his face thin, hair gun-metal grey—a weathered and experienced face. He replied that the very act of imagining, of creating worlds that had never existed, was the true measure of our humanity.
The dream had ended there, faded from my memory even though I retained the subtle, nagging impression that our conversation had continued. Even stranger was the fact that, when I awoke, I was filled with the notion that my partner in the library had been Vaughan Edwards.
More than anything I wanted to recount my dream to Mina, but I was too wary of her scepticism. I wanted to tell her that to create worlds that had never existed was the true measure of our humanity.
I frequently feel the need to lie about my profession. When people ask what I do, I want to answer anything but that I am a freelance writer. I am sick and tired of repeating the same old clichés in response to the same old questions. When I told Mina this, she was horrified, appalled that I should lie about what I do. Perhaps it's because Mina is so sparing with the details of her personal life that she feels the few she does divulge must be truthful, and cannot imagine anyone else thinking otherwise
From the personal journals of Daniel Ellis.
We parked on the outskirts and walked across the Museum Street bridge and into the city centre. Even on a freezing winter Thursday the narrow streets were packed with tourists, those latter-day disciples of commerce: mainly diminutive, flat-footed Japanese with their incorrigible smiles and impeccable manners. We took in one bookshop before lunch, an expensive antiquarian dealer situated along Petergate. Mina lost herself in the classics section, while I scanned the packed shelves for those forgotten fabulists of the forties, fifties and sixties, De Polnay and Wellard, Standish and Robin Maugham, minor writers who, despite infelicities, spoke to something in my soul. They were absent from the shelves of this exclusive establishment—their third-rate novels neither sufficiently ancient, nor collectable enough, to warrant stocking.
Mina bought a volume of Jane Austen's letters, I an early edition of Poe. We emerged into the ice-cold air and hurried to our favourite tea-room.
Was it a failing in me that I preferred to have Mina to myself—the jealous lover, hoarding his treasure? I could never truly appreciate her when in the company of others. I was always conscious of wanting her attention, of wanting to give her my full attention, without being observed.
One to one we would chat about nothing in particular, the people we knew in town, friends, incidents that had made the news. That day she asked me how the book was going, and I tried to keep the weariness from my tone as I recounted the novelisation's hackneyed storyline.
Early in our relationship I had told her that my writing was just another job, something I did to keep the wolf from the door. I had been writing for almost twenty-five years, and though the act of creating still struck me as edifying and worthwhile, it no longer possessed the thrill I recalled from the first five years. She had said that I must be proud of what I did, and I replied that pride was the last thing I felt.
She had looked at me with that cool, assessing gaze of hers, and said, "Well, I'm proud of you."
Now I ate my salad sandwich and fielded her questions about my next serious novel.
How could I tell her that, for the time being, I had shelved plans for the next book, the yearly novel that would appear under my own name? The last one had sold poorly; my editor had refused to offer an advance for another. My agent had found some hackwork to tide me over, and I had put off thinking about the next Daniel Ellis novel.
I changed the subject, asked her about her sister, Liz, and for the next fifteen minutes lost myself in contemplation of her face: square, large-eyed, attractive in that worn, mid-thirties way that signals experience with fine lines about the eyes. The face of the woman I loved.
We left the tea-room and ambled through the cobbled streets towards the Minster. She took my arm, smiling at the Christmas window displays on either hand.
Then she stopped and tugged at me. "Daniel, look. I don't recall..."
It was a second-hand bookshop crammed into the interstice between a gift shop and an establishment selling a thousand types of tea. The lighted window displayed a promising selection of old first editions. Mina was already dragging me inside.
The interior of the premises opened up like an optical illusion, belying the parsimonious dimensions of its frontage. It diminished in perspective like a tunnel, and narrow wooden stairs gave access to further floors.