Updated: Jan 12, 2021
While plotting the next installments in the Ghostland trilogy, I've been finishing off a complete rewrite of a novel I first wrote back in 2012. This was technically my first completed novel. What writers often call a "trunk novel." The original manuscript is collecting dust in a box in my closet and will hopefully never see the light of day. (Unless someone Go Set a Watchmans me after I'm dead, which is frankly unlikely given that I am no Harper Lee.)
The Midwives was an idea that came to me around the same time I was tinkering with some of the ideas for my debut collection, Gristle & Bone. I was still writing mostly screenplays and a friend suggested I try writing a novel. I hadn't worked on a novel for a few years by then - the previous attempt in 2008 was a directionless mess I may return to at some point - but I thought it would be good to try again, particularly since the friend would be reading it in installments, which as it turned out was pretty good motivation.
The image that drew me to the concept was a teenage girl carrying a newborn down a dark and lonely country road. Someone is chasing her. Finally, she's surrounded by a circle of menacing old women.
One of them claims to be the child's mother, but she's old enough to be the girl's grandmother.
The image gnawed at me. I couldn't let it go. Who was this girl? Who were these old women? I tried to write it as a screenplay. I tried writing it as a short story, which became the prologue to the eventual novel. And even after having spent 7 years gathering dust, it still begged to be rewritten. It was the characters calling to me. Needing their story to be told, and told right.
I'll admit, this novel is very different. It's far closer in tone and structure to Salvage (my first novel) than to Ghostland (my latest). It's part crime novel, part folk horror, part family drama. I hope the individual parts have coalesced well. I'll let you be the judge.
Until then, here's the official cover and synopsis reveal of THE MIDWIVES, coming in Feb 2020!
A killer on the loose.
A writer on the run.
A town plagued by an ancient evil.
On tour with his latest book, true crime writer Martin Savage discovers one of his most-dangerous subjects has escaped. The so-called "Witch Hunter," a delusional murderer of women and their unborn children, holds a deadly grudge. He'll stop at nothing to get his revenge, and destroy everything Martin cares about.
With nowhere to run, Martin and forensic psychologist Sheila Tanner flee to the town he left when he was a boy, after his mother was locked away in a psychiatric facility. A town hidden deep in his past, where no one would think to look for them.
But things are not what they seem in Barrows Bay. The idyllic island holds terrible secrets. An ancient evil lived here long before the first Irish settlers crashed upon its shores in a coffin ship. An evil wearing the innocent faces of elderly midwives who've delivered every child in the Bay for two hundred and fifty years.
Martin and Sheila think they’re safe in his childhood home. But his mother has plans for them. Plans that require sacrifice.
And sacrifice requires blood.
What do you think? Sound intriguing? Or not your cup of tea?
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!
Before you decide, here's the whole damn prologue!
Barrows Bay, 1978
The girl left a trail of blood behind her, glistening as she passed under streetlamps lighting her apparently aimless trek. Blood flattened the blonde hairs on her slender legs and pooled in between her toes. Her bare right foot tattooed red on the ragged pavement over and over, like a stamped signature fallng back into dark oblivion.
Sunken within bruised pits of flesh, her green eyes stared frantically ahead through tangles of wet and straggly hair as she wept. Fresh blood dribbled from a rope of purplish flesh dangling below her pink nightgown, soaked through the crotch with a wet, black stain.
In the distance, the black ocean sound beat against the shore. Here, on this lonely stretch of island road closed in by skeletal black pines, a baby cried joylessly.
Closer by the second, the old women stalked her.
She felt their invisible presence in the darkness surrounding her. They had yet to show themselves since she'd dashed from the house with the baby in her arms, but she knew they were close behind. She heard the intermittent scuttle of their feet out there in the dark.
My name is Rosalee, she'd told the old woman, and the old woman had nodded and said, We know who you are, dear child.
She could have hidden from them in the woods, if not for the boy. It would be impossible to keep him quiet. His cries were much louder than they had any right to be, considering his size.
He was premature. Purple and slimy and fresh from the womb, his wriggling limbs so small and frail. She held him away from her body, as if in offering to a nameless god watching from the darkness.
Up ahead the county road sign, a single 8 in a white shield, rose out of the dark like a glimmering beacon.
From there the road forked three ways. One road gave way to gravel and eventually plain dirt the further west you traveled. The other widened as it led east toward town. Both weaved through pine and spruce and cuts of sheer granite on either side, pitch black under the starless sky.
Eventually, both led to the ocean, as did most roads on the island.
County Road 8 continued its northbound path until it reached the ferry docks. The last ferry was her only chance to escape. If she could just flag down a passing car. She didn't know how late it was, if the ferry was even still running. But she had to try.
A knife-wound throb between her legs doubled her over. She caught her breath, focusing on her breathing.
Not on the pain.
Not the old women gaining on her every moment she wasted standing still.
She knew they would tear little Stephen from her arms. She couldn't let them.
Everyone knew what happened when a young girl got pregnant in Barrows Bay. Hadn't they all heard the rumors? Hadn't they witnessed firsthand how much Yolanda Macken changed when she returned from her birthing? Yo was a cheerleader before Kenny Simms knocked her up in the bed of his Chevy during the Hallowe'en dance last year. After the birthing, she no longer had any use for cheers, for the school or herself.
The baby, a pretty girl like her mother, was being raised by her grandmother in Narragansett while Yolanda finished school, though there didn't seem to be any point in it. She was depressive, lethargic, her beautiful blonde hair, often compared to Farrah Fawcett, now stringy and falling out in clumps. She barely scraped by with a D average. And the parents of Barrows Bay did not ascribe to "the cult of pharmaceuticals and psychiatry the rest of the country does," at least according to Rosalee's father.
Rosalee's right foot painted the yellow line red. As Stephen continued his plaintive wail, she pulled him close to her small breasts and shook him lightly in her arms.
"Hush little baby, don't you cry," she sang tonelessly. "Shhh. Shhh. 'Cause Grandpa loves you and so do I. Shhhhh."
A sharp snick! of metal against metal stopped her under the blazing yellow light of a streetlamp. Night bugs flitted on its cover, drawn by the light.
She peered out into the blackness. Heart racing, pumping blood that maintained its steady course down her legs.
She knew the sound. Everyone in Barrows Bay knew that terrible sound by heart.
The knitting needles.
An elderly woman's laughter. Echoed by a second.
She whirled, concrete biting into the soft pads of her heels. Her wide, tear-rimmed eyes chased the sound as she whipped herself round and round, the dizziness barely noticeable above the pain between her legs and the creeping dread.
Squinting into the darkness, she finally saw it. Two glints of light in the black. A hungry animal, lured by the smell of blood to prey on her helpless child? Or the cold, murderous eyes of her pursuers?
The light became wider, brighter. She heard the engine. Not eyes, but headlights. A car up ahead on the road—coming this way!
She laughed, joyful laughter for what might be the first time since she saw the dark brown ring on the in-home pregnancy test she asked Auntie Jean to purchase on her behalf, so as not to alert her father.
As she waved her free arm, the headlights caught her for a moment like an actor on a stage. Blood a stark contrast to her ghostly pale skin.
The truck swerved. It was still far enough away it seemed not to be caused by her being in the road but something else. One of them?
She waved frantically. "Please! Please help me!"
The engine grew louder, close enough she could hear the crunch of gravel under its tires.
In those few seconds as the truck passed by, Rosalee recognized the look of sheer terror in the driver's eyes and knew, she knew, he wouldn't stop.
She was right.
Rosalee screamed after him, a desperate scream of fear and frustration. Having never let up his cries, Stephen became her chorus.
Laughter filled the silence left by the retreating vehicle, coming from all around her, several voices at once, filling her ears and entering her mind, a cackling chorus echoing between her ears.
She pulled Stephen close to her bosom, his tiny presence like a talisman against evil. She was afraid she was losing her mind.
"You can't have him!" she shouted at the darkness. "He's mine!"
A woman's voice, thick and gruff, called out, "You're wrong, sister! He belongs to the Mother!"
"I'm his goddamn mother!"
The heavy clunk! of wood on asphalt made her turn.
A figure in a white hooded cloak stepped out of the darkness into the circle of streetlight, materializing as if from the black void of a distant galaxy. A face made entirely of darkness and little glints of light in the eyes was bathed within the hood's shadow.
Another clunk! of the cane—Rosalee knew it by its actual name, shillelagh, because her grandfather had one much like it held up by nails on the wall by the front door. The cloaked figure held it clenched in one withered, spider-veined hand.
When she spoke, her voice was much different from the first woman's, soothing and very Irish. The others had called her Mother, as if they were her daughters, though they all appeared to be the same age.
"Give us the boy and all will be forgiven," Mother said. "You belong with us, dear child. You'll catch your death out here."
Rosalee hugged Stephen tighter. His wails grew more desperate, as if sensing the danger they were in. "No. Please. This is unfair! Can't you see this isn't fair?"
"Fair's got nothin to do with it, girl!" the gruff woman barked.
A shrill voice this time: "Hand over the boy!"
More figures emerged from the shadows. Five in all, dressed in the same pristine white cloaks. Rosalee thought she could make out more in the darkness beyond, closing in around her.
Dozens more. Maybe hundreds.
She was surrounded. Trapped.
In her desperation a pet phrase of her father's came back to her: If you're short on options, go with the flow. He said it when the stomach cancer finally took her mother back to Jesus. He said it again when Rosalee finally admitted her predicament to him. Being Catholic, the "flow" dictated she carry the baby to term.
Seven months ago, she would've given anything to get rid of the alien presence growing inside her. She'd thought of it as an annoyance, something like the tumor that ended her mother's life and possibly worse—it was a farting, kicking, living thing that would end her life as surely as the tumor ended her mother's.
During those seven months she hadn't felt a single twinge of what her aunt called the "mothering instinct."
It wasn't until the old women lifted Stephen from the birthing pool, a wriggling little creature struggling for air, that she found herself understanding everything Auntie Jean said about having a child of her own.
This baby was hers. His name was Stephen and she was his mother—not this old hag. She would protect him with her life.
Go with the flow.
Those words again. Ringing in her ears as the old women circled her.
It took a moment for their meaning to sink in. She was no use to Stephen dead. Alive, she could plead with her father to get a lawyer, to fight these evil bitches and win him back. In her confusion and terror and all of the other emotions currently swirling around in her mind, it seemed like the most reasonable choice.
If these women—these hags—wanted Stephen, she would give him to them. They would take care of him, as they took care of several children whose mothers had abandoned them or died, according to rumor. Offered them to good families on the mainland who gave them a better life.
By the time she was finally able to win him back, she'd be an appropriate age for motherhood.
Suddenly this plan seemed more than reasonable. It was the most mature, rational decision she'd ever made in her life.
Go with the flow, baby girl.
She could almost feel her father's voice in her ear, prickling the hairs on the back of her neck. The image of the coiled black snake lunging at her from the pulsating stones came to her bright and clear, like a movie flashing before her eyes.
The shock of pain.
The terror and confusion.
The blood—so much blood.
She whimpered. The memory of the standing stones made her decision easier.
With great care, she held out the boy, still tethered by the fleshy umbilical cord which had nurtured him into being.
The ancient woman whose face Rosalee had yet to see, even during the birthing ceremony—always in shadow, ever watchful—tucked the shillelagh under her arm and snatched the boy up in her crepe-paper hands.
"Please don't hurt him," Rosalee said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
"You know what must be done," the ancient woman said.
And she did. She supposed she'd always known, just as every living soul in Barrows Bay must, in their hearts.
She knew what must be done.
For the good of the people. For the good of the town.
Stephen wouldn't be given a good home. He'd be sacrificed. A profane ritual older than the town itself. A gift of blood to appease the caretakers of this godless island.
"Please," she said. "Please, just do it quick. Don't make it hurt him."
The lady to the old woman's left removed her hood. Beneath was a gorgeous mound of beehive gray hair that had gone out of style before Rosalee was born, set atop a pleasant, rosy-cheeked face with penciled-in eyebrows. She could easily have been a grocery store clerk or a secretarial temp. The others had called her Helen.
She removed something from her purse. A knife with a wavy blade, a green medallion in its shaft. Greener than Rosalee's eyes, which widened as they caught its reflection. It twinkled with a glint of streetlight.
"No..." she said. "Not now, please not now. I don't wanna see…"
"How would you have us remove the cord, dear child?" the ancient woman with the shillelagh asked. "Shall we gnash it with our teeth?"
She demonstrated, clacking her ancient silver-stained teeth together horrifyingly: clack-clack-clack-clack-clack! They gleamed in the unnatural light, the rest of her face still awash in darkness. All but those terrible, ancient eyes.
The other women laughed hysterically.
Rosalee joined them, startled into it, bullied into it, looking around at all their laughing faces and wondering why she was laughing with them when she was terrified to her bones.
Helen reached out and pinched the umbilical cord with one hand, carving with the dagger. Dark fluid oozed out onto her Mary Janes. "Yech!" She stepped out of the dribble.
"Hush, you ninny!" the ancient woman said, holding Stephen under his tiny arms, her bony fingers encircling his narrow chest.
With a final cut, the cord snapped against the blade.
"About blessed time," the ancient one said. She passed the boy into a gray blanket held by another. This woman swaddled him in it, folding it like origami with her dainty white gloves. Military-style, the way Rosalee's father made his bed. At the birthing, the others had called her Geraldine.
Finally, mercifully, little Stephen stopped crying.
It was only then that Rosalee realized how eerily quiet the night was. Not a croak of a frog, a chirp of a bat, nor the mournful howl of a loon to be heard. As if the animals themselves were afraid to make a sound in the presence of these hags.
And how cold it suddenly was, as though it wasn't midsummer at all but the dead of winter.
"There," the ancient one said. "Safe and swaddled. Isn't that better, child?"
Shivering and uncertain, Rosalee still managed a nod.
Snick! She turned at the sound. The awful sound. The deadly sound.
A fourth woman approached, holding a pair of silvery knitting needles like weapons. She was ruddy-faced and plump, her eyes full of mischievous glee. During the birthing, she'd been wearing a fancy hat. They called her Mavis.
The ancient woman said, "Deal with her."
Helpless, Rosalee backed away. She tripped. Her legs tangled in the umbilical cord still spooling from her insides. She landed on her butt with a startled exhale.
Baby Stephen resumed his cries.
Rosalee looked back over her shoulder, watching the ancient woman's white robe recede with her child into the darkness. Clarity returned. Sanity. She couldn't let them take him—how did she let them take him?
"No, please! Please! Don't hurt him! Don't you hurt my Stephen!"
Swollen, weeping from the pain and the loss of her son, knowing she would soon lose her own life, Rosalee turned to face her adversaries.
Eight menacing eyes fell upon her, their lined and wrinkled faces scarcely visible under the hoods. Each woman scraped a knitting needle over and under the other like sharpening knives as they approached.
Rosalee crawled backwards on her hands and feet. The slippery, veined umbilical cord dragging along beneath her, slithering like a snake, chasing her like the memory of the thing that ravaged her among the stones.
Someone grabbed her by the hair. Her scream echoed. A white-gloved hand covered her mouth, smothering her cries. Baby powder-scented silk against her lips. She struggled, kicking out at them with what little strength remained.
No use. Despite their age, they were far stronger.
"Hold on, kiddo," Helen said in her ear. "This is gonna hurt like hell."
A knitting needle swished out in the gloved woman's hand, glinting as it caught the light.
Rosalee's pretty green eyes—eyes her father described as "perfectly Irish"—widened in sheer terror. The needle pierced the soft tissue of her left temple, gouged through bone and into the tender meat of her brain.
She slumped sideways on the asphalt. Blood trickled down her cheek into her Irish eyes, the left bulging against the pressure of the needle.
Rosalee looked up with her remaining eye, not at her killers but past them, past the insects flitting against the streetlamp to the dark cosmos beyond.
Blinking blood from her good eye, she searched the heavens for any sign of the God children who grew up in Barrows Bay knew had turned a blind eye toward them.
All she saw was an endless galaxy of lifeless, indifferent stars.
As her vision waned along with the last of her breath, the Midwives broke the circle, vanishing into the chilly midsummer night.
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