First Chapter: ‘The Curse Of Snakes’
‘The Curse of Snakes’, my first YA novel in a proposed series of six exploring old myths in a modern world, tanked after a messy edit and a disastrously mismanaged launch (it went through a variety of covers, titles, plans, an abbreviated name for me and eventually no plans at all). As an incorrigible optimist I look for something positive about the experience and do remember that it was an interesting (if frustrating) learning curve.
It was by far my most compromised book. Just because you’re writing for kids (sorry, ‘young adults’) shouldn’t mean you have to use clichés or sound stupid. But almost every time I wrote something unusual it got cut out. The end lines were originally at the start of the chapter but got dropped from the top and were nearly excised – they’re typical of my voice and therefore had to be emasculated. I’m pretty sure you’ll spot the problem immediately.
Here’s the final result;
As the yellow moon rose high and the traffic lights changed to red, it came looking for victims.
It walked alone through the town’s empty streets. The wind in the chestnut trees dropped away, as if in fear of its approach. It glided silently over the wet pavements and roads. A thousand dark shadows twisted in its wake.
It passed the dead houses one by one. Sometimes it stopped to stare and listen, tilting its head to one side. It paused before a house where the TV flickered in the living room, and waited for a moment, sensing life. All the windows were bolted shut, as if people inside had closed them against the presence of something evil. No-one ever saw or heard the creature when it walked, but a few felt it. Parents told their children that there was nothing to be afraid of in the dark, but there was.
Something had been released into the night streets. It moved unnoticed and sucked the life from people. It caused slow painful death, but even those who could sense its presence were too scared to admit it was there.
And now, with quiet deliberation, it was heading for the street where I lived.
A dog barked sharply, then screamed and whimpered, as if it had been hurt. A cat yowled, but the sound was suddenly cut off. A dustbin rolled over on its side with a clang. I was laying on sweat-damp sheets, waiting for the sounds of the city to fade away. The quiet would herald the arrival of a terrible presence. I was expecting it. But I wasn’t ready for it.
Before I could think of what to do, the deep silence fell.
It was so thick that nothing could be heard at all. The rustle of leaves, the noise of the traffic, the low hum of city life, everything became muffled and vanished. It was as if a dense layer of snow had suddenly deadened all sound. Or as if the town had suddenly sunk to the bottom of the sea. No movement anywhere – time itself might as well have stopped.
The creature always walked in a pool of stillness.
It was passing by the window of number 13 Torrington Avenue right now, without a whisper. A shadow crossed the streetlight, moving slowly and steadily.
Up on the first floor, in the front bedroom, I pushed the duvet down from my shoulders and listened. After another minute and a half, the normal noises of the street returned, and it was safe again. I heard a distant car alarm. The faint see-sawing two-note of an ambulance siren. The wind lifted in the trees. The dog was crying in pain, or was it a fox? I couldn’t tell. It was the sound of the city at night, as distinctive as a beating heart.
I sat up in bed and lowered my feet to the floor. I was boiling hot, because I was fully dressed. I pulled my nylon backpack from under the bed and tiptoed to the door. It was dark in the hall, but I could see a light coming from my mother’s bedroom. The middle floorboard always creaked, so I carefully walked on either side of it.
I crept down the stairs and into the hall. Stopping before the stained glass windows in the front door, I held out my hand to see if my fingers were shaking. No, they were steady enough. Let’s finish this tonight, I told myself. Now. Before it’s too late.
Opening the door, I stepped out into the freezing night and pulled the latch shut behind me, but it still made a noise; it always did. I ran lightly down the garden path and out of the gate, stopping to check inside my backpack. At the brow of the road I could see a swirl of dried leaves, an absent shape, like a hole in the air. I knew the creature had just passed from sight. It was in no hurry, because it was scared of nothing. I was sure I could catch up with it – that wasn’t the problem.
The problem was what would happen next.
I knew I might get injured or even die, but I also knew I had to act alone. No-one else could help me, because no-one would ever believe me in a million years. But I still didn’t know what to do.
Ahead I heard the wail of another cat, then a muffled explosion, like the thump of snow sliding from a roof. When I reached the corner, I found Mrs Hill’s mean ginger tom lying on the pavement. It had been turned inside out. Its steaming pink guts were hanging on the nearby hedge, like sausages displayed in a butcher’s shop window.
I’m dealing with something that can explode a cat, I thought.
My world had always been safe, predictable and pretty boring, but now it had been shaken upside down, and I felt that nothing would ever be truly safe again. There was no going back. There was something out there in the dark that lived to kill – and incredibly, I was the only one who could stop it.