Monday, July 30, 2012

The Grave Artist by Paula Lynn Johnson: Guest Post & Excerpt

16-year-old Clare can't stop drawing the bizarre, winged skulls she calls "Sammies". Her psychiatrist assumes the compulsive drawings are just expressions of Clare's grief over her father abandoning her. But then Clare discovers that her Sammies are exact matches for the Death's Head on the grave of Samantha Forsythe, a teen who reportedly fell to her death over two centuries ago.

Before long, Clare's drawings morph into cryptic writings that urge her to uncover the truth behind Samantha's death. Together with Neil -- the friend she might be falling for -- Clare scours the local history for clues. She finds that, although Samantha was engaged to a wealthy landowner, there were whispered rumors of her involvement with a younger, biracial man.

Soon, Clare is haunted by disturbing dream images -- a mysterious eye, a broken chain -- that point to someone Samantha called her "Dearest". But who is Dearest? And why does Samantha need Clare to find him so badly?

Isolated and carrying hidden scars of her own, Clare fears her obsession with Samantha will threaten her sanity and safety. But it seems she has no choice in the matter . . .

The Grave Artist is a compelling paranormal murder mystery and a poignant story about loss and what it means thrive in a less-than-perfect reality.

The sale ends, and Gollum and I grab some late fast food. Afterwards, I head back home to a dark house. Lauren and Mom are asleep. I climb the stairs and go straight to bed, too tired to wash up. I’m out almost as soon as I hit the pillow.

And then, the strangest of dreams.

Flashes of naked limbs and scattered leaves.  A world painted brown and gray.

It’s a forest in winter, and I’m running through it.

Thick trees block my path.  Spiny branches tear at my clothes.   I’m crying – choking sobs that hardly let me catch my breath. But still, I run, my breath frosting the air.

I round a bend and stumble against a mound of moss-covered rocks. They’re stacked like a totem – a stone god with a blank face. I push against them, propelling myself forward.

I’m gasping, now.  Something thorny strafes my ankle.  A shrieking bird flies above.

And then I break through the woods, cross a narrow pathway, and stop short.

My toes curl tight over the edge of a precipice.  I rear forward, then back, regaining my balance.  A swooping in my stomach as I register the void below, a dark cavity. My pulse beats in my ears, behind my eyes.

Hoof beats. At first, I can’t distinguish them from my pounding heart. But then they grow louder, more deliberate.

 I turn and look. A rider approaches from the woods, on horseback. He has no face, just a vague smear of features. But I can make out the broad span of his shoulders, the width of his hands clutching the reigns.  I can sense his strength.

Panic floods me.

The rider draws closer and dismounts.  For a horrible moment, he stands frozen. Then he paces towards me, slow and menacing.

Terrified, I shuffle backwards, towards the edge. My lungs slow, filtering just enough air for me to remain conscious. Not nearly enough to scream.

The rider is upon me now.  The wind catches his cloak and unfurls it behind him in a deadly fantail.  I cower down, spinal cord humming, sensing the drop.  Above me, he’s become all darkness – a gathering storm cloud.

A terrible crack, like a bone snapping in two.  Then staggering pain in my head.

I’m hurtling through the void, spinning and spinning . . .

And then I’m awake, clawing at my throat with my fingernails.

It only lasts a few seconds, until I realize who and where I am. But when my hands calm, I feel something warm clotting on my skin. Dazed, I go to the bathroom and find angry scratches swelling around my neck, circling it like a choker.  With my finger, I wipe a bead of blood from my throat and stare at it, horrified.

Oh, my God, it wasn’t just a random dream.  The popping sound my skull made as it fractured.  That terrible, endless fall.  I know who I was, where I was.  And how it felt to die.

My body goes limp with fear.  I stumble forward and clutch the sink for balance.  And then the urge floods me, washing away all thoughts except one.

Draw, O coward.

I clean the one scratch, the bloody one, wincing at the soap’s sting. Then I return to my room.  In the dark, my neck throbs and gives off heat. I turn on my desk lamp and sit, rummaging for a pencil and sheet of paper. Then mechanically, I sketch an almond shape, not much bigger than my thumb. I shade in a dark center, flecked with light, with thick strokes around the rim.  It’s only as I’m adding a series of fine lines to the outer edge that I realize what I’ve drawn.

It’s an eye.  And the way it seems to stare right through me scares the living hell out of me.

Suddenly, all energy drains from me.  I’ve never felt heavier, more leaden.  I turn the sketch face-down, then tumble into bed, exhausted.

The next morning, I blink awake. Groggily, I take in the Kandinsky poster I’ve pinned to the far wall of my room, the abstract pattern on my comforter. It’s like there’s a wet towel jammed inside my skull.  As I lift my head from my pillow, I feel an ache in the crease of my neck.  I touch my fingertips to the spot and trace a rough line of torn skin. Now I remember.

I force myself out of bed.  My gut cinches up when I see the sheet of paper lying flat on my desk top.  My hand trembling, I pick it up by the corner and flip it over.

 The eye freezes me.  Its gaze is still penetrating, unnerving.  But plaintive, too, like it’s asking for help.  Asking me for help.

I stand there, stupefied, almost levitating with panic.  Get a grip, Clare.  Somehow you’ve got to deal with this.  Then I reach across my desk for my cell and dial Gollum.

It’s four rings before he picks up.  “Yeah?” he says, sleepily.  I glance down at my cell for the time: great, I woke the guy before eight.

“Gollum, it’s me.  Can you meet me at the diner this morning?”

A pause.  “I think so,” he says, more awake now.  “Why? What’s up?”

“I – I made another drawing last night, and I don’t know what to do.  I think you should see it in person.”

“So something’s messing with you again” he says, more a statement than a question.

“Not just something,” I say.  Samantha.”

It’s All In The Eyes
In The Grave Artist, certain images keep appearing to my heroine, Clare -- skulls, crescent moons, broken chains, and especially eyes.  In fact, in the grip of a trance, Clare obsessively sketches a single, disembodied eye.  This eye turns out to match a similar sketch she finds in an antique locket that belonged to Samantha Forsythe, a girl who fell to her death over two centuries ago.  Before long, Clare is compelled to find out: whose eye is it?  And why is the owner’s identity hidden in the first place?  Did Samantha need to hide him?
I based Clare’s antique locket on a type of antique jewelry known as Lover’s Eyes.  These were popular in England during the late 18th/early 19th centuries, although less so in America.  Typically, Lover’s Eyes were brooches that featured a miniature painting on ivory of a single eye, belonging to the wearer’s beloved.  They were beautiful tokens of secret romances and hidden love affairs.  They also served as mourning pieces, to remember a departed loved one.
I find Lover’s Eyes to be breathtakingly gorgeous and mysterious.  The best almost have a surreal quality to them, like a Dali painting.  Unfortunately, they’re not cheap, with genuine Lover’s Eyes selling in the thousands of dollars.  Still, some talented modern jewelers and artists are putting their own, more affordable spin on the form.  When I finished The Grave Artist, I celebrated by buying my very own Lover’s Eye from Etsy seller Mercury’s Moon.   She does fabulous work, hand-painting tiny portraits and framing them in genuine Victorian settings.  They are to die for!
What do you think, readers?  Is there someone special in your life you’d like to remember in a Lover’s Eye?

I'm a California girl, currently living in New Jersey (but I can assure you I'm nothing like Snookie). I work with my husband at the family law practice and sell antiques on the side for fun. We have boy-girl twins who just turned eleven. It's a nice age because they haven't quite figured out that their Mom's a huge dork, but I'm counting the days until that happens. I love writing, reading, and old, splashy MGM musicals. I play the piano pretty well and the guitar pretty badly. And I'm a terrible cook!

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Giveaway ends August 18th 11:59 PM CDT.


laura thomas said...

A new author to follow. Thanks so much and thanks for the giveaway. Heard good things about this book and hope I win!

PuttPutt1198Eve said...

Eyes have long been considered the "windows to the soul." The explanation of Lovers' Eyes makes the statement seem even more true. I found that very interesting.

M. Thayer-Berlyn said...

Most intriguing! I liked the title right away. Great excerpt.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful cover. Can't wait!!!