Sunday, July 08, 2012

Horror 1: Celestial Mechanics and Tidal Forces

Introduction: The task from my Creative Writing class was to write a horror story of 700 words or less. As an additional challenge, or for those lacking inspiration, we could try and use the character we created earlier in the term. So I went away, and thought about what would happen if or when Lady Jane caught up with Heinrich von Schneemann and wrote it. It will make more sense if you read the linked stuff above.

However for these longer pieces only half the class present each lesson, and I was in the second group. Between lessons I had a new idea, wrote that, and decided I would let the others look at the second one. So for the first time ever I present:

Out of His Depth

Heinrich von Schneemann opened the door with difficulty and peered down the dark stairs. He couldn’t see to the bottom, but could hear water whispering. He flicked the switch outside the door and an electric light illuminated the room.

The air was damp with a slight breeze, with a faint hint of the marsh. Small dark shapes scattered across the floor, away from the light. When he reached the bottom the shimmering wet mirror of the floor rippled under his feet. He only just avoided soaking his patent leather shoe in a puddle.

The far side of the room was fully underwater, and the rough stone wall was pierced by a tunnel. Peering through a metal grate he thought he could see the full moon reflected on the river.

 “Good evening Mr von Schneemann. This is a curious room, isn’t it?”

Schneemann whirled around. At the top of the stairs stood Lady Jane. She had changed out of her dinner dress and was now in a sensibly cut dark blue suit with dull black boots. She held a handbag loosely in her hand.

“At high tide the water fills the room up to the top step. At low tide it used to be accessible by water before the tunnel was blocked. The door is, if not concealed, quite discrete. It is also thick and plated with iron on the inside, although that may be to keep rats from gnawing it rather than to muffle any sound. I do believe that General MacTavish’s ancestors may, shockingly, have used this hidden dock for smuggling.”

Her hard eyes belied her casual tone.

“Lady Glenshire. I did not expect to see you here.”

“No, you intended to meet the very foolish Ellen Conquest. She blabbed to her best friend, a slightly more sensible young lady, who is my protégé. It was a simple matter to substitute my note.”

Schneemann started towards the stairs. “Lady Glenshire, there has been a misunderstanding...”

Lady Jane produced from her bag a metallic object that shone in the electric light. “This is the Mark IV Webley revolver I carried during the Boxer Rebellion. As further misunderstandings would be unfortunate, let us simply take it as read that you have flattered, lied and blackmailed yourself into a position to destroy the Conquest family.”

“In my time in London society I have learned many things, my lady. About your husband for example.”

“His affairs are of no concern to me.”

Schneemann exploded. “Gottverdammt Englisch Schweinhund! You don’t know. What those people have done. To my mother. To me!”

“I know that your mother was made a scapegoat and disowned by her guardian, Sir John Conquest. That she fled the country and after some indignities became the mistress of Graf von Schneemann. That instead of being a scion of an influential English or noble German family you have been forced to seek your fortune around the world.

“I also know that in the name of avenging the injustice done to one naive young woman you plan to ruin another innocent young woman. I do not intend to permit that.”
Hearing the tragedy of his life so bluntly explained seemed to drain the energy from Schneemann.

“You have style, Mr von Schneemann, and if you had confined your attention to those responsible for your mother’s disgrace – and perhaps the footwear of ladies with more pairs of boots than sense – I might have been inclined to let events take their course. As it is however, this is goodbye.”

After turning and removing the key from the door Lady Jane stepped over to a rough table to scribble a note. Hearing a noise, she whirled, reaching into her bag.
“Jenkins! What are you doing out here?”

The hulking man servant bowed his head. “Miss Bedford insisted I remain close at hand my lady.”

“How sensible of her. I shall go and reassure her that all is well. Could you find an envelope for this, and put it in the post for Inspector Foxworthy, Scotland Yard?”

“I can go to the telegram office, my lady.”

“No, the morning is soon enough,” said Lady Jane. She walked to the wall and flicked off a switch. “There’s no hurry.”

Technical Notes: This is the version I edited down to 701 words from an original of 809. I have the 2nd draft of 744 words, but I thought I'd go with this one that I've stripped to the bone and polished to a fine sheen - the version I would have presented in class.

There is a problem with this scenario. I really want it to be a spring tide - higher than normal. Spring tides occur at[1] the full moon. For reasons of celestial mechanics and gravitational dynamics, at full moon high tide would be around midnight and noon, with low tide at six in the morning and evening.

The logic of the story means it should take place late at night, probably at midnight. The set up for the room requires that it should be low water when Schneemann enters, with the tide coming in over the next few hours, so he should enter at six in the evening, when everyone will be dressing for dinner, but that doesn't really work, or six in the morning which is kind of late for an Edwardian country weekend.

My solution is to assume that General MacTavish's house is on a river with a large tidal range that eventually has an estuary on the east coast. Such rivers in England have their tides later as the water has to move out of the Atlantic and up the Channel or down the North Sea and all the way upstream. The Thames would probably do, but someone has stuck London where I want a country house set in a lonely marsh.

Character: Schneemann's backstory was always something along these lines. He is not just a shoe obsessed conman, but bent on revenge. His slightly camp, war-comic style German swearing was previously admired by one of the class, whose mother is German, so I put a bit more in here.

The question of what would happen if Lady Jane came up against Heinrich von Schneemann came up as an aside in class. Clearly no one would go home happy. I had in mind a classic superhero meet-fight-team up, but the idea of horror, along with Lady Jane's amorality in True Crime, had her lock him in a flooding room.

Your interpretation of what happens next is as good as mine, but I reckon he doesn't drown, and even with the efficiency of the Edwardian Postal service Lady Jane probably has a good eighteen hours to force her own resolution on the responsible members of the Conquest family. They will not enjoy the experience. After that, Schneemann may go to jail, or it could be that Lady Jane has need of a man of action with a subtle mind dealing with her business interests in China or India...

[1] Or slightly after.
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