The Measure of Sorrow Blog Tour: Time and the deep, black lake: resurrecting a story you’ve given up for dead
Time and the deep, black lake: resurrecting a story you’ve given up for dead
Have you ever written a story you loved so much but just couldn’t get to work? A stack of pages (whether real or metaphorical) you look upon with pangs of regret each time you slide open your (real or metaphorical) desk drawer — that drawer where all the other trunkers lay, forsaken? Do you ever take it out to reconsider with a kind of conflicted longing, as you might think back on a past lover — a lover with whom things were both electric and ill-fated — wishing it would either reveal itself in all its naked glory, or stop calling and let you get on with your life?
Some stories are just like that. And though it may be painful, to set them free we have to let them go. (Let them go, yes — but never, not ever, throw them away.)
I wrote the first draft of the title novella in my short story collection, The Measure of Sorrow, close on ten years ago. I wrote it in a white heat of ideas piling on ideas, of puzzle pieces attracted one to another that just fit, of sustained inspiration that took me deep down, away from the original story seed, and into places I’d never explored before. It was exhilarating. I loved it. But it didn’t work.
I shared sections with the writing group I was part of at the time, always with the caveat, “I know this bit doesn’t work yet, but…” They liked it. They saw its flaws. They assumed, as did I, that I’d be able to fix it in revision — I’d said I would, and I’d done it before. Only, this time, I couldn’t. It was unfixable.
The story, back then, was called The Old Storehouse, and was about a father and son grieving for the loss of, respectively, their wife and mother. On the way home from a semi-disastrous beach holiday, they stop at a farm-stay in rural Australia. Only, at the farm, there is a weird old barn that the father becomes obsessed with, believing his dead wife to be somehow inside. So far, so good. There were other threads, too. The farmer cultivating her own messed-up and possessive relationship with the barn. The adopted son of the farmers’, who has uncovered the barn’s secrets and is committed to destroying it. Extracts from the journal of a past owner of the farm, and something terrible from his past as the (also adopted) son of a prominent Nazi. All these characters, all these angles, made the story complicated. But that wasn’t what made it not work. The problem was the barn.
The whole story hung on the believability of the central supernatural conceit: a vampiric building that fed on the buried emotions of those around it. In the original story it was weirder still. When the building fed, it changed — actually restructuring itself to incorporate memories of the people it fed off. All this led to some cool, unusual set pieces. But I just didn’t believe in it. I couldn’t get past the fact that it made absolutely no sense. I mean, what was the barn’s origin story? How did it get there? Why was it doing this?
And here I got into the tangle — an unresolvable tangle, as it turned out — that led me to give it up as lost. I stuffed it away, in the metaphorical trunk.
Every now and then, though, something would come bubbling up, some new angle I hadn’t considered. Maybe once a year, or every two years, I’d find myself scribbling the notes that would, I believed, save the story and allow me to resurrect it. Only they never went anywhere. They just worked round and around that nubbin of implausibility that I still had no answer for. Eventually, I gave it up for dead. I let it go.
When, some years later, I was pulling together stories for The Measure Of Sorrow, I had no title story. I had a slot at the end of the collection for an unwritten story of the same name, a slot which, over the life of the collection to that date, had held any number of transient ideas vaguely aligned to the theme. None of them really worked. All made for an unsatisfying end. But the pressure was on to find something, some idea new or old, some Lebowski’s rug that would really tie the book together. I cycled through every story and fragment and half-baked idea I’d ever had, holding them up one by one against the title. Only one clicked: the unfinished trunker I’d once called The Old Storehouse.
It was incredible what a new angle on the story did for my inspiration. With a new title, a clearer theme — one that had to both reflect and set the tone for the collection as a whole — the story itself came clearly into view. I knew what had to be cut away, what had to be accentuated, what characters had to go, what needed sharper focus. I shifted character viewpoints, new threads of action. Parts of the story I’d considered essential, inviolable, I let fall away. What I’d seen as the central issue — the question of the barn itself — became irrelevant as the story reshaped itself. Perhaps it had never been the real problem to begin with. What the story needed, it turned out, was not more intervention from me, more worrying around the edges, but for me to go write a whole bunch of other stories, to explore other ideas, to give breathing room and new inspiration to that first idea. Some new, previously unimaginable, element for it to connect with.
Some stories just need time. As writers, we stand on the shore beside the lake of our imaginations, struggling to land the big ideas swimming in those black waters. Some stories, it’s easy. You flick your rod and plop — the idea lands beside you on the shore, fully formed. But others take more work, they’re bigger, heavier, lay there, gasping, half in, half out of the water — if we pull too hard we can break them. And sometimes an idea’s just not ready to emerge, no matter how hard we tug. With those stories, all we can do is cut the line, let go, let the idea swim away from us, back down into the depths. Down there, in the dark, who knows what nourishment it will find, what other ideas it may collide with? Who knows when it will be ready to come back up for air?
There’s an unseen element to the stories we write, some essential part of the creative process veiled in shadow. The bit we can see — what we call ‘the work’ — is all that lays within our control. When a story doesn’t jell, we may try to worry at it, do more work to set it right, and end up breaking it completely in the process. Or we may give it up for dead and abandon it forever, throw it in the (literal or metaphorical) bin. There’s a sweet spot, though, somewhere between these extremes, where we trust to time and that shadow process, the hidden life in the depths where all our unfinished ideas swim and commune — and grow.
THE MEASURE OF SORROW: STORIES by J. Ashley-Smith
RELEASE DATE: June 6, 2023
GENRE: Collection / Dark Fantasy / Horror
Shirley Jackson Award-winning author J. Ashley-Smith’s first collection, The Measure of Sorrow, draws together ten new and previously acclaimed stories of dark speculative fiction. In these pages a black reef holds the secret to an interminable coastal limbo; a father struggles to relate to his estranged children in a post-bushfire wilderness; an artist records her last days in conversation with her unborn child; a brother and sister are abandoned to the manifestations of their uncle’s insanity; a suburban neighborhood succumbs to an indescribable malaise; teenage ravers fall in with an eldritch crowd; a sensitive New Age guy commits a terminal act of passive-aggression; a plane crash opens the door to the Garden of Eden; the new boy in the village falls victim to a fatal ruse; and a husband’s unexpressed grief is embodied in the shadows of a crumbling country barn. Intelligent and emotionally complex, the stories in The Measure of Sorrow elude easy classification, lifting the veil on the wonder and horror of a world just out of true.
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From “The Measure of Sorrow”
The sun was low, like a distant fire on the horizon, as they closed the last few miles to the farm. The amber light withdrew from desolate pastureland, strobed gently through black tangles of eucalyptus. They hadn’t seen another car since the last town, an hour or more behind.
The road twisted, narrow and unforgiving, all tight corners and no turning places. Chris kept one eye on the cracked and dusty tarmac, the other on the odometer, anxious not to miss the entrance.
He tilted the rearview mirror to see if Callum was asleep. The boy had been silent ever since the iPad died, and Chris half-hoped he’d dropped off. But, though he lay still, his head against the window, Callum’s eyes were open, gazing out across the farmland to some place beyond, where only he could look.
Chris almost drove past the sign. He braked sharply, hooked a tight left through a gap in the crumbling stone wall and bumped over a cattle grid. The lights were on up at the farm but he didn’t pull in, followed the gravel drive past the shadowed mass of an old barn, down toward the solitary light of the shearers’ cottage. A dog barked as they passed and shadowed them behind the darkening hedgerow.
Callum was out of his seatbelt and spilling from the car before Chris even pulled the handbrake. “Can I ride my bike now, Dad?”
Chris started to say no but checked himself. “Sure,” he managed. “You must need to stretch your legs. Just don’t go too far. And don’t be long; it’s getting dark.”
He wrestled the bike out from a tangle of occy straps in the boot, set it down beside the boy, turned back to rummage for a helmet. But Callum was already gone, the crunch of wheels on gravel receding behind the cottage. The urge to yell after him welled up in Chris, but he pushed it down. The least he could do was not trample this last moment of freedom. Soon they would be home, back to the relentless cycle of days and weeks, of work and school, and the grief that had no end.
There was a lamp above the front door of the cottage that lit the poky veranda, reflected starkly off the one window, summoned moths and mosquitoes from the encroaching dark. Inside, it was tiny and smelled of soot and old cloth. At one time it would have slept ten or more farmhands; now the cottage felt it would be cozy for just the two of them. There were only three rooms: an outside toilet, walled in to create an entryway; a combined kitchen/living room, with a huge fireplace that took up most of one wall; and a small, neat bedroom, with windows along one side and modern sliding doors along the other. Chris dropped their bags on the bed, slid open the glass doors and stepped out onto the back deck.
It seemed darker now, with the light from the cottage behind him, and very still. The sky had turned slate-blue, smeared with sickly yellow clouds; the trees and the farmhouse were just silhouettes enveloped by the descent of night. A dog barked over at the farm and, somewhere in the darkness, cockatoos bickered. He walked down to the fence line, peered along the snaking drive. The gray gravel phosphoresced. He hoped to see Callum returning, hoped he wasn’t going to have to go and find him, bring the boy back himself.
Going back to lock the car, Chris saw again the barn they had passed driving down. Even from across the yard, the old building loomed — over the farmyard, the desolate wool shed, the derelict pens. It towered over Chris where he stood, a black monolith with a distorted center of gravity, sucking what light remained into its infinite silhouette.
Something compelled him toward it, some dark attraction he mistook for curiosity.
Tires crunched on gravel. Headlight beams and shadow dragged over tufts of grass. A whitish ute pulled up beside him.
“Looking for your boy?”
The driver half-leaned from the window, dim lights from the dashboard outlining her broad, angular physique, the square jut of her chin. Her face was obscured by darkness and the brim of a beaten Akubra, but Chris made out the glint of incongruously fashionable, rimless glasses.
There was a skittering sound in the tray of the ute. The restless shape of a dog pacing out the enclosure.
“He was just down with the alpacas, watched me bring them in. He’ll be on his way back now, I expect.”
“Thanks,” said Chris. “I was just admiring your setup here. It’s a lovely spot.”
She grunted, gave the faintest of nods.
“Brekkie’s up at the farmhouse from eight. There’s a bottle in the fridge. And I brought you some feed, in case the boy wants to get up close to the animals.” She reached across to the passenger seat and passed over a bucket, loaded with pellets.
Chris stepped forward to take it, but she did not let go. The ute growled. The dog scratched in back. Blue-white fluorescence pooled on the ashen gravel. Chris and the driver, half leaning from the window, both gripped the bucket of feed as though frozen in time. He couldn’t see her eyes, but could tell she was looking over his shoulder, up toward the roof of the old barn.
“Um . . .” he began.
She turned back to him as from some distance greater than their outstretched arms could measure, released her grip on the bucket.
“And you best keep that gate closed behind you.” She gestured at the fence surrounding the cottage. “Unless you don’t mind company.”
She popped the ute into gear and moved off up the driveway, the dog still prowling in back. As she pulled away, she gave a little half-wave, touched the brim of her hat with two fingers. Chris stood for a moment, watching the taillights, still clutching the bucket of feed.
Callum broke the spell, skidding in beside his father to drop his bike at the gate. As Chris gathered up the last of their things, carried them into the cottage, Callum walked backward in front of him, just slow enough to be maddening. He wittered on about the big lady and the long-necked creatures and all that he had seen and done on his grand adventure. Chris ground his teeth, biting down the irritation that had been brewing all week.
The boy was still jabbering as Chris stood in the small kitchen, tore open a packet of sausages, poured himself a glass from the complimentary bottle of wine. Chris carried the wine, the meat and a handful of implements out, through the sliding doors of the bedroom, to the veranda. He let the hiss and spit of the griddle drown out the chatter from the bedroom. He watched oversized moths beat themselves against the doors, drank two glasses of the wine.
By the time the sausages were finally done, Callum was laid out on the bed, legs and arms outstretched. Fully clothed. Fast asleep.
That night Chris dreamt of Miriam for the first time since they saw her buried. She was paler than he remembered, and her hair was black and straight as a ribbon. But it was her just the same. He knew her by the ache in his chest, the sensation of falling, of descent without end.
She ran ahead of him through the darkness, her nightdress billowing. Through fields of tall grass wet from the rain, through a maze of black chambers inside the old barn. Then he lost her, and was lost himself, wading through black waters in an underground tunnel, through the smell of mold and stone and decay, calling her name into the dripping echoes. And all around, from within the walls, and behind and above, the grinding of colossal but invisible gears.
Chris woke in wetness, his hand cold on soaked bedsheets.
His first panicked thought was that Callum had a fever and had sweated the sheets through. Then he remembered the boy had fallen asleep fully clothed and hadn’t put on his training pants.
He and Miriam had been so proud when Callum decided, quite by himself, to give up nappies at bedtime. The boy had been three at the time and they — younger, happier, oblivious of what lay ahead — saw in this decision more evidence of his inherent genius, another ray of glory from the wonder they’d created. The night of the funeral, Callum wet the bed for the first time in two years. He’d been unable to get to sleep on his own and had cried until Chris let him into bed. That morning, Chris had stripped the sheets, taken the mattress out onto the balcony to dry, performing the new tasks mechanically. Callum had been embarrassed, and his shame at this thing, so small in the light of everything else, was a weight that Chris carried still, that plummeted every time Chris saw in him all that was left in this world of her. Callum had slept in bed with him every night since the funeral; afraid, perhaps, that without this physical constant, he would wake one morning to find his father gone as well.
Chris rolled out of the bed, leaving Callum spread across the wet mattress like a starfish. The curtains were thin, barely holding back the cold morning light. Chris squinted as he pulled them apart, then yelled, swore, heart tumbling at the sight of two large eyes, just inches from his own.
“What is it, Dad?” Callum sat up, rubbing his face.
“Come and look,” said Chris.
Outside the window, calmly ruminating, holding his gaze with indifference, was a huge caramel alpaca. Two more, dark brown, stooped behind it, bending to munch the grass around the cottage. He had forgotten to close the gate.
It was an ordeal, getting the alpacas out onto the driveway. They seemed quite content where they were, not a bit bothered by the man and boy at the window, entirely resistant to their claps, threats and cajolements. Father and son dressed quickly, stripped the bed, spilled into the cottage’s small garden to oust the stubborn invaders. At last, after much fruitless pushing, Chris remembered the food they’d been given the night before. He sent Callum out beyond the gate, shaking the bucket and calling to them, while he drove from behind.
At last they got them through and closed the gate. Callum stood, laughing, completely surrounded, the alpacas peering down at him as he scooped handfuls of pellets from the bucket.
Chris’s attention was drawn again to the looming barn. In the daylight it seemed even larger, even more out of place. It stood completely apart from the other farm buildings, twice or more the height of the wool shed, built of raw boards blackened with age. The barn seemed ancient, as though hewn from the landscape’s earliest trees, a shelter for its first European settlers. But it was unlike anything Chris recognized from that era; in their long drives through rural towns and old farm country, they had passed nothing to match it, nothing with even the vaguest resemblance. The whole structure was surrounded by a fence of orange and white construction tape, giving it the appearance of a creature penned.
Echoes of the dream came back to him then — the distant whir of machinery and the grinding of hidden gears. And Miriam, at once close and impossibly far away. The darkness blooming and billowing and —
Chris stopped, dazed. He had been walking away from Callum, toward the barn.
“Dad, I’m hungry.”
“Right, let’s . . .” It took Chris a moment to get his bearings. Callum had emptied the bucket of feed onto the ground and the alpacas were stooped around the pile. The boy stood beside them, holding the empty bucket. Chris rubbed his eyes, ran a hand down his face. “Let’s get cleaned up and go for brekkie.”
Callum gave him a strange look, one he found impossible to read. It gnawed at him as they closed the gate behind them and went back into the cottage to get ready. He gathered the bundled sheets, rinsed and wrung them, draped them, still dripping, over the fence. He pulled out the mattress and stood it on the deck — the familiar rhythms and routines, transposed to this unfamiliar setting. Once they were washed and dressed, he and Callum followed the driveway up to the farm.
As they passed the barn, Chris felt his head turning to keep it in sight. It really was exquisitely unusual. He longed to ignore the construction tape, push wide the rotting doors and cloak himself in the darkness and decrepitude that lay beyond. Callum pulled at his hand, urging him forward. The boy kicked at the gravel as they walked, head down.
“I hate this place,” he said. “When are we going home?”