A door slammed. I literally just minutes ago read a selection of A Christmas Carol out loud to my Rohan. We're trying to pick a selection for a dramatic reading at our Christmas Eve party, and I was suggesting the bit where Marley's ghost arrives. Which, interestingly enough, includes a terrible moment with Mr. Scrooge hears the cellar door slam, way down below.
Now, reading this bit in Heartless, I wonder if I was unconsciously inspired by A Christmas Carol? I had read it a few times before writing this novel, though not for a while. But it's such a chilling scene! It gives me shivers just to think of it . . . being alone in a house that you know should be empty. Then hearing a door slam below.
It's terrifying. And I think that mood comes across here with poor Una, covered in ash, sitting in the evening-cast shadows of her room, studying her pale features in the glass. All is silence. All is stillness. And then . . . slam!
So perhaps we can count that as a literary nod.
A sad story. So I can never read this selection of Heartless without both grinning and groaning a little bit. You see, I had to write this scene twice.
I was on the third draft of this manuscript when I decided to add in this particular scene of Una fleeing through her own house from the Dragon (we presume). It's one of the more haunting scenes in the book I think because of that play of the familiar against the dreaded unfamiliar. I wanted to capture the true horror of Una's imprisonment, and the ghostly quality of her existence here in what was once her home.
So I wrote it all late one night, by low lamplight. And I had just put the final touches on the scene when . . . .
My computer restarted.
Restarted, and didn't save a dragon-eaten thing.
Having no Rohan in my life at that time to call upon in an hour of technological need, I did what I could, but to no avail. The scene was lost. The door slam. The chase through the house. The descent into the dungeons. The reveal of the Duke. Everything. Gone. All that work! All that suspense!
I retired that night in high dudgeon. And I woke the next day with a raging cold and fever.
Here's the thing: I don't work well with a cold. But I do, oddly enough, work very well with a fever. So I sat around feeling sorry for myself most of the day, trying to decide whether or not life was worth living, whether or not it was worth the bother to recreate the scene, and who was going to read the dragon-blasted thing anyway, and where are the tissues, and life is missrabub (that's how it's pronounced with a cold).
But then, low and behold: my friend Edward wrote to me out of the blue. Edward has been my beta reader (reader of early drafts) for several years now. He is a archive librarian and was just finishing up his studies then. On that particular miserable day, he wrote and told me that he was very interested in reading my manuscript when it was through, and would I be able to send it on soon?
Knowing that at least one reader in the world was interested in seeing how this story played out, I sat down, tissues to the left of me, mug of tea to the right, and began to rewrite the exact same scene I had written the day before. This was already pretty late in the evening, and it was quite dark in my room. I wrote by the light of the computer itself and one low lamp.
Una's Reflection. Pretty soon, I found myself engrossed in the story, in the darkness and the haunting suspense of Una fleeing (for a second time) through the lonely halls of Oriana. The fever raged in my veins and, like I said, oddly filled me with a potency of writing-excitement that counterbalanced the sluggishness of the cold. I was on fire! I was writing the scene far better than I had the night before!
I glanced over my shoulder and screamed.
Yup. That's right. I screamed out loud. Because, you see, in my fevered excitement, I'd gotten so caught up in my work, so unaware of my surroundings, that when I happened to glance to the side and see my own reflection in the mirror, it totally startled the daylights out of me.
So you'll notice that I added the big where Una is startled by her own reflection in honor of that fevered evening.
It's funny how some of the scenes in this novel really stand out to me with clear memories of the original writing. But this novel was such an important event in my life, so it's little wonder, I suppose.
Somewhere overhead, a door slammed. I love the ongoing suspense of someone pursuing Una through the house. For most of this scene, she is completely alone save for her candle and her own reflection. She scurries here and scurries there, and I detail her progress far more thoroughly than I usually do to create a drawn-out sense of flight. It is easy, as in the moment when she enters her father's study, to begin thinking she is alone, that she might even be safe.
But then, the second slamming door, echoing through the empty halls of Oriana, reminds us that she is pursued in the dark. Someone is looking for her.
It's a really creepy scene! Honestly, this might have my vote for the most frightening scene in the book.
Flight in the dark. Una drops her candle on the stairway, and rings and clatters as it falls. Surely, her pursuer must have heard that sound, silent as the rest of Oriana is. Part of me wishes Una had backed up and found somewhere else to hide. She is only dead-ending herself! But I can't imagine I would have done any better than she at this moment. I am so horribly afraid of the dark myself, and I bet a panic attack would have addled my wits! I don't know if Una is as afraid of the dark as I am, but she has breathed a lot of dragon-smoke by this time. So she continues stumbling down in the dark, trying to reach the imagined safety of her father's storerooms.
Assumptions. This scene also plays on our assumptions. Based on the earlier chapter when Una realizes that the Dragon can enter the house and has been inside, we assume that she is pursued by the Dragon now. Somehow, I think it makes it worse to discover that it was Duke Shippening all along! Duke Shippening, who is determined to steal Una and make her his wife. We don't know what plans the Dragon may have for her, but it is a strange relief (a horrible relief) when the Dragon appears on this scene and stops Duke Shippening from taking Una. In this moment, the Dragon acts as hero . . . and thereby becomes so much more hideous a villain!
Una's heartbreak. I believe the information that her brother was killed contributed significantly to Una's deterioration. She continues even after this to cling to the idea that Lionheart will return. But now that she believes her brother dead, what does it even matter?
Comfort. But still, comfort is sent through the smoke and the ash in the form of that single beam of sunlight and the silver song of the wood thrush, singing.
But the poison sinks deeper, and the chapter ends with the Dragon calling Una out to speak to him. To tell him her story . . . .
My Personal Favorite Lines
1. So it was either play cat-and-mouse through the dark halls of Oriana or sit like a rabbit in a trap. (p. 210)
2. Every sound was dreadful to her, even her own breath coming in tiny puffs. (p. 210)
3. This hall also had a row of tall windows, and she turned her face away from them, not liking to see her own pale figure tiptoeing in the reflected world beside her. (p.211)
4. Una paused with her hand on the latch. How she longed to stay there, in the comfort of her father's study! If only she dared crawl into his big chair and curl up there, breathing in his smell. Perhaps it would be enough? Perhaps she didn't dare those dark halls again? (p. 212)
5. As though in a dream, she felt she could not run fast enough; weights pulled her feet back, restraining her. (p. 213)
6. She felt the heat, the horrible heat, emanating from the Dragon's body as she passed him. She proceeded up the long stairs, in an upward journey that seemed an eternity. The Dragon followed soundlessly. (p. 215)
7. With an effort she pushed herself to her feet and crossed her room, kneeling at last in the little circle of light. She tilted her black-smeared face, and tears rolled down her cheeks. She caught them on her hands and watched them trail through the grime. More teras came, and more. She leaned forward, her hair hanging in tangles about her, and sobbed desperate and awful sobs. (p. 216)
8. But as the day wore on, the poison in the air drove thoughts of her brother into deeper recesses of her mind, removing all good memories and leaving only the pain of loss. She shook her head violently, pressing her burned hands against her temples. (p. 217)
Questions on the Text
1. Do you think the door-slamming sequence counts as a literary nod? Or does a literary nod need to be more consciously done than that?
2. Which scene in the book, so far, has your vote for the most frightening? Or, if you've already read to the end, which scene in the entire book is the most frightening to you?
3. What were your favorite lines?