I’ve been thinking about prologues recently – a topic that often arises in discussions about historical fiction. Are they useful? Do they just get in the way?
Personally, I never start out writing a prologue. I often add them further down the line when I start to worry my starting chapter does not have enough punch. With Queen of Bedlam, I jumped in time to show Charlotte and George toward the end of their lives in the prologue, before hopping back to the beginning of their marriage and finally to the ‘present.’ While I enjoyed writing the prologue for that book, I’ve come to think that it was probably a mistake. The jerk through time proved confusing and the prologue didn’t really add to the story. What I should have done was just focused on rewriting the opening chapter to make it more exciting. Oh well, we live and learn!
However, prologues can be useful, especially when they are in the voice of someone we will not hear from for the rest of the narrative. I have two examples of good prologues I can call to mind. Firstly, Karen Maitland’s The Gallow’s Curse. Not only is it shocking, pacey and well-written, it explains how the curse of the title comes about. The curse will later impact upon the main characters, but not in a way that they can investigate and ‘reveal’ to the reader. Therefore the prologue is essential for our information, even though the main characters may never find out about the events it shows.
My second example is from a wonderful book called The Ballroom by Anna Hope. I have to admit, when I first read it, I thought it was a bit redundant. Why is this prologue there? I thought. Surely it’s given away the ending? But no – what it had actually done was set me up to believe the book was going to end one way, when in fact something quite different was going on. It was a clever device and I was completely fooled.
In my latest book, The Silent Companions, I added a prologue in the third or fourth draft. My reasoning was that horror stories often start with a shocking death, to compensate for a slow build up of creeping dread in the opening chapters before the true action starts. As I had a character that was dead when the book began, I thought a prologue was a perfect opportunity to ‘kill’ him on the page. But actually, I didn’t need it. I started to doubt its purpose and my agent allayed my fears by telling me the opening was strong enough without it. So off the prologue went into the deleted scenes folder… And I think the book is better without it.
However, just for fun, I’d like to share the deleted prologue with you. It is not a spoiler in any way. This character is dead when the book begins – although he now dies in a very different way to the one shown below. The companions have also changed – they no longer have the plant-like creepers that chase poor Rupert. Although the story is now different, I hope this little snippet will whet your appetite for the book when it comes out
He thought he would have more time.
His pocket watch showed a minute to midnight. Already they stirred above him; creaking, whining, hissing. Rupert rubbed his eyes with his good hand, chasing the sleep away. Time enough for sleep soon.
A dying fire touched his surroundings with orange streaks. He must have dozed in the chair, for they had been there: the marks of them were all over the room. A pile of dead leaves and thistles rose to his ankles. His hand stung like the devil and yes – the wound was open, oozing, threaded with fresh splinters. He shuddered, imagining them peering over him while he slept. They could have taken him, easily. But that was not their method. They wanted him awake.
Rising to his feet, he waded through the leaves toward the bureau. The equipment was all there: the two bottles and his last cigar. Glass clanked as he put the bottles in his pockets. They felt like leaden weights. He closed his eyes, trying to steady his breath. The moment had come. He had to do this right – for Elsie’s sake.
He took the cigar and the stub of his candle and lit them in the embers of the fire. Tears filled his eyes, making an orange, smoky blur. Only a couple of flames remained; the light was fading fast.
Creeping to the door, he pushed it open a fraction. Listened. The relentless hiss that haunted his dreams floated down the corridor, raising gooseflesh on his arms. They were above him, without a doubt. Rupert placed one eye to the gap between the door and the jamb. The corridor lay in darkness. He had to go now.
His slippers moved across the sawdust on the landing. He had taken the room next to the nursery on purpose – it was the closest to the servants’ stairs. Jamming the cigar in his mouth, he held up his candle and opened the baize door with his bad hand. It was excruciating. A thousand needles burnt up his wrist. His fingers were heavy, stiff, creaking at the joints. If this was what one touch did, he did not want to know the agony of their embrace.
As Rupert spiralled down shallow, winding steps his candle sent shadows capering up the walls. The stairwell amplified the hiss; it was all around him, vibrating in the very air he breathed. How did the servants sleep?
He stumbled into the kitchen, exhaling a cloud of smoke. For a moment, his courage failed. The housekeeper had heard it, hadn’t she? Perhaps it was not as he feared, perhaps it was not the tricks of his own mind. But then he looked at the mangled mess of his hand and remembered.
He pushed on into the larder, trying not to think of his parents, but their images rose out of the darkness. Poor Mama, raving on the bed, her ankle splintered and torn just like his hand. Then the bandage on Father’s arm, days before he fell so tragically from the second floor. Fell. His heart reached out, down the years, finally understanding: it was no accident. Father did what needed to be done. He saw the madness coming and saved the family’s reputation.
Setting the candle down, he rattled the bottles out of his pockets. They glimmered weirdly in the low light. He’d taken all the precautions he could: complaining of stomach aches, ordering laudanum for his wound. They could trace poison now – he had to throw the coroner off the scent. If they didn’t rule his death as accidental, Elsie would lose everything.
He opened the bottle of laudanum awkwardly with one hand. Its vapid, bitter scent mingled with the cigar smoke. Then he uncorked the second bottle containing tiny arsenic grains and tipped them into the laudanum. He expected something – a fizz, a reaction. The liquid just stared back at him, dull and reddish brown.
His shoulders trembled. How had it come to this? All those years he had lived, never suspecting that a curse lurked deep down inside of him. It must be hereditary – a fever of the brain, passed on through blood. It had demented his mother, consumed his father; he never stood a chance.
He removed the cigar from his mouth and laid it on the table. This was the time to prove himself. Could he do it? As he picked up the bottle, his nostrils filled with its sharp, deadly aroma. Everything in him recoiled. He wanted life, he wanted to be with Elsie.
The glass rim touched his lip. He could taste the vapours, their dizzying pull. Still he hesitated. Her beautiful face swam before his eyes. He did not know how he would disgrace her less: as a suicide, or as a mad man.
He could get better. There were medicines, these days. Better treatment than his mother ever –
A bolt of pain shot up his leg, jolting him forward. His fingers slipped and nearly dropped the bottle. Hot blood oozed between his toes. He looked down.
A thick creeper wound through the open door and around his ankle, bristling with thorns. Its pointed end pierced right through his slipper, through his foot, pinning it to the ground. He went giddy. Shadows concealed the worst of the gore but he could hear his flesh, squelching and sucking as the creeper moved.
The pain. The pain. There was no time for second thoughts. In one desperate slug he forced his toxic drink down.
He grabbed the empty bottles and his cigar. It was too late to follow his plan and fill the laudanum bottle with black tea – he would have to take his chances. Gritting his teeth, he yanked his foot from the floor. The sound was worse than the agony – a sickly rip as he forced himself out of the larder and into the passage that led to the kitchen.
Barely conscious, he pulled up the loose stone in the floor and hid his empty bottles under it. That would have to do. It was bad enough there would be blood in the larder – he couldn’t risk the bottles being found.
The creeper slithered after him.
Hell and damnation. It was all going wrong. He couldn’t leave a trail of blood, he would have to clean his foot up. Limping into the kitchen, he found a muslin for boiling puddings and wrapped it around his blood-caked slipper, adding a sack on top for good measure. As he tied it he heard them creaking, creaking ever closer. Time had nearly run out.
He stubbed out his cigar. The candle was still in the larder – he would have to go back up in the dark. The idea should terrify him but he was warm, lightheaded. It would not be long before the drugs pulled him under.
He climbed the servant’s stairs as if he were treading water. His feet were heavy, too slow. Now and then he felt the creeper teasing at his heels. It could go faster if it wanted, but it liked the chase.
Just as he reached the top of the staircase, a white hot fist squeezed his gut. He gasped. That would be the arsenic. Only a little farther . . .
Hobbling across the landing, he saw their silhouettes waiting in the shadows. He swallowed the vomit that rose in his throat. They wanted him to look into their dead eyes and feel fear, but he would not do it. Soon he would never have to see them again.
He crashed into the bedroom. The spluttering fire showed a hoard of them gathered by the window. Despite their vile faces, he laughed.
‘Better . . . luck . . . next . . . time.’
Somehow he hauled himself into bed. A low whine signalled their approach. Come on, come on. He was too tired for fear, too tired for anything, but he willed the poison on with the last ounce of his strength.
Elsie . . . He wished he had written to her properly. If he’d known it would be tonight, he could have prepared. But perhaps it was best this way. She’d never know of the brain fever that took his mother, that forced his father to . . . He only prayed she’d stay away from this cursed house.
God, how it burned. But he would brave it out. The muscle spasms, the sweat pouring from his skin – they were his victory over them.
Through fading eyes he looked up and saw it blurred beside his bed: the figure of the little girl. Close, very close. But the warmth was flowing in now, a tide of comfort and sleep. He tried to smile – his lips would not move.
Too late. He wanted to crow, but he could only think the words as the wooden face loomed up before him. Too late.
He had won.