A couple of weeks back I headlined the Poetry Happy Hour event at the Troubadour Wine Bar in Minneapolis. I don’t write poetry – at least not good poetry – but as it was right around Halloween the organizers thought that my urban fantasy fiction would fit in just fine. So I read a set from Ipswich, the latest novel in my Guild series. It is currently available from Moonfire Publishing.
I’m one of those readers who likes to be prepared, so I wrote up the whole thing ahead of time. This allows me to edit the text for how I want to do my live reading, and it has the additional benefit of putting my presentation in a format that can be shared on blogs and social media – so here you go!
Welcome to the Troubadour! My name is Scott Michael Stenwick, and this is my urban fantasy novel Ipswich.
In the alternate history of my Guild universe, the Winchester family didn’t die out in 1922. Instead, Sarah Pardee Winchester had a surviving son who carried on the family name and continued to run the Winchester Corporation. She did move to San Jose, California and did build the Winchester Mansion, which in our real history is currently the tourist attraction known as the Winchester Mystery House.
As in our real history, the Winchester Corporation ramped up manufacturing production during the First World War, and afterwards attempted to rebrand itself as a general producer of consumer goods. In the Guild universe this effort was successful. Following the Great Depression, “Winchester Stores” expanded rapidly throughout the country. As of Fall 2012, when Ipswich is set, Winchester is one of the largest retailers in the country in addition to a premier producer of firearms.
In the Fall of 2011, Anne Winchester died mysteriously in Ipswich, Massachusetts while attending a Halloween festival. Anne was the CEO and largest shareholder of the Winchester Corporation and one of the richest women in the world. Her friends and family had no idea why she would want to attend the Ipswich Halloween festival in the first place, which made her death all the more inexplicable.
One year later, our story begins there, in the office of the mayor of Ipswich.
“I think you know why I called you here,” said Mayor Alfred Gibson. “We need to talk.”
“Indeed we do,” replied Shaun Talbot. “I don’t think you’ve fully thought this through.” Talbot dropped into one of the seats before the fine walnut desk. He set a cloth-wrapped bundle on the other chair, with no more acknowledgement of it than an ironic smile.
The most accurate adjective for Talbot’s overall appearance was black. Black hair, black jacket, black vest, black shirt, black pants. The cut of his suit was nearly a century out of date, as if he had stepped out of a silent film.
“Believe me, Shaun, I have.”
“The tourism dollars alone can’t be replaced. I’ve been putting on my séance here in town for ten years. You must approve my permit now.”
The mayor sighed. “I’m aware of the economic ramifications. But last year was a disaster. Another news story like that could ruin us all, and I won’t have it.”
“We already had this discussion nine months ago. Anne Winchester’s death had nothing to do with the séance. It was just a tragic coincidence.”
“Look, I’m not insinuating anything. But you have to admit it’s rather strange. One of the richest women in the world attends your annual séance and an hour later she’s dead. The papers were all over it, the national news networks too. If somebody else happens to die this year, even if it’s an accident, even if it’s days after the show, even if they came to town terminally ill, it won’t matter. The story will be that Ipswich is cursed, or worse.”
“You’re going to sign the permit, Alfred. And you’re going to do it tonight. Otherwise you and I will have a problem.”
“It’s done. There will be no show this year.”
“Then we do have a problem. But that’s okay. I brought the solution.” With a swift, fluid motion he picked up his bundle and unwrapped it with a showman’s flourish. The fabric pulled away to reveal a human skull, darkened with age and covered over with a scrimshaw of twisted runes and characters. As Talbot took the skull between his hands and pointed its perpetual grin in the mayor’s direction, a soft, low vibration began to fill the room. “Take him. NOW.”
Gibson jumped to his feet, his eyes wide. “Please. Don’t!” The air in the room thickened into an unnatural mist. “We can talk about this. I’m sure we can reach some sort of understanding!”
Talbot smiled maliciously. “Too late.” He clutched the skull tighter, and as he did so the vibration in the room intensified.
Gibson sprinted for the door as the fog thickened and pulsated like a living, breathing thing. As he tried to cross the room, the vapor gathered into a roughly human-sized clump. He froze for a moment as the mist soaked into his body, then turned robotically and walked back to his place behind the desk. His eyes stared blankly forward.
“That’s better,” said Talbot.
“What is your command?” asked Gibson, his vocal inflection now completely different than it had been moments before, heavier and tinged with sadness. The voice of the damned.
Upon Anne Winchester’s death, approximately twenty percent of the Winchester Corporation worth billions passed to her only daughter, Sara, who was both devastated and entirely unprepared to take on her new responsibilities.
Sara Winchester was already famous in her own right, and not in a good way. Her drinking and partying amongst the “celebutante” crowd in San Jose provided the tabloids with ample fodder. She was portrayed as rich, spoiled, entitled, and vacuous. She was also blond and pretty, which played right into the stereotype. Nobody ever mentioned that she had graduated from Stanford’s MBA program at the top of her class.
Now in the Guild universe the Winchester family had a secret. The secret was that Sarah Pardee Winchester was a member of a mysterious magical order known as the Guild. The Winchester Mansion was constructed as a magical fortress designed to endure a battle between the Guild and a rival order of black magicians. It had served its purpose while its builder lived, and afterwards went dormant.
As a magical device it needed a magician to activate its powers. The surviving son who took over the Winchester Corporation in 1922 lacked the necessary magical aptitude and the family’s gift was believed by members of the Guild to have died out. Anne wasn’t born with it and neither was Sara.
But then one night, at a party with her friend Daniel Prescott, Sara tries an experimental drug and everything changes. She wakes up in jail the next morning and has a rather unsettling drive home.
Sara followed Interstate 880 to the cloverleaf, took the exit for West Stevens Creek Boulevard, and then turned left on Winchester Boulevard a few moments later. The road led straight to the Winchester Mansion, her home and a San Jose landmark for nearly a hundred years. She looked forward to getting some rest, but as the sprawling house came into view her eyes widened and she quickly pulled over to the side of the road.
The entire mansion was on fire.
She brought her hand reflexively to her ear, realized she was not wearing her Bluetooth earpiece, and then dug frantically through her handbag for her smartphone. She pulled the device out, and then looked back at the house.
The flames were gone.
Sara carefully stared at the outline of the mansion in front of her. She found that by shifting her attention one way the burning walls came back into view – but they were not actually burning. What radiated from them glowed like liquid light, and the hue was all wrong for natural fire, even though whatever it was played along the structure in a similar manner.
She then stared at the building directly and the strange luminance disappeared.
Another damn hallucination. When I’m done having this stroke, I’m totally going to kill Daniel. She pulled the car back onto the street, drove the last few hundred yards, and turned into the mansion’s long driveway.
Following Sara’s arrest her friend Tom Remington, a San Jose police officer, is contacted out of the blue by a woman named Samantha Davis. Sara agrees to meet with her the following morning.
It felt way too early when the annunciator terminal on Sara’s night table rang. She sleepily reached over and dropped her hand onto the button. “What is it?”
“Ms. Samantha Davis to see you, Ms. Winchester. She says it’s important, but shall I tell her to stop back later?”
She’s early, thought Sara, but as her eyes wandered over to the clock she realized that it was already 9 AM. She had overslept and her visitor was right on time. “No, I’ll see her. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
“Very well. I’ll show her into the front living room, then.”
Samantha Davis proved to be an intellectual-looking woman in her thirties, with long brown hair past her shoulders and wire-rimmed glasses.
And like the house the night before, she was on fire.
“Ms. Davis?” said Sara with the best smile she could muster. “I’m Sara Winchester. It’s nice to meet you.” She shook the woman’s hand. Davis’ skin did not burn, precisely, but seemed to impart a mild electric sensation.
“Samantha Davis,” said the visitor with a polite nod. “It’s nice to meet you as well. How are you feeling this morning?” She regarded Sara with a puzzled expression.
“Mostly tired. Still a little off, I suppose.”
Sara noticed her stare. “Is something wrong?”
“Just surprising. I’m curious, Ms. Winchester. What did you see when you walked into the room? Your reaction was unmistakable. You practically jumped when you laid eyes on me.”
“It’s nothing,” said Sara, rubbing her eyes. “I just woke up, that’s all.”
“Please, indulge me.”
Sara seated herself in the overstuffed leather chair next to the sofa. “It’s just that the other night I took this stuff, some kind of drug. The guy who gave it to me called it a ‘cognitive enhancer.’ Ever since I woke up the morning after, I’ve been seeing things – auras, lights, halos, call them whatever.”
“I see. Can you describe these visual effects further?”
“First of all, I should ask why you contacted Tom in the first place, and how you did it so quickly. I don’t know who you are, or what your connection is to all this. Do you know Daniel Prescott? Or anyone else I know?”
She shook her head. “Probably not. Let’s just say that the police report drew my interest. There are certain families in which my organization takes a profound interest; yours is one of them. Anything entered into the legal system related to them gets routed to me or one of my colleagues.”
“It’s nothing like that.”
“I’ll explain shortly – that’s why I’m here. I just need to know a little more about you before I go any further. Now tell me, what do these ‘auras’ of yours look like?”
Intellectually Sara knew that answering this woman’s questions should be a mistake. If word got out that she was having some sort of mental breakdown all hell could break loose with the Board of Directors. Still, somehow she knew that Samantha Davis could be trusted. “When I was driving home from the station and first saw the house, it looked like it was on fire.”
The woman’s eyes widened just a touch. “That’s because it does, of course.”
“What do you mean? The house is fine. I saw the same sort of thing when I came into the room a couple of minutes ago – it looked like you were surrounded by flames too, but only for a second. Then it was gone. Are you saying that you see the same hallucinations as I do?”
Samantha paused thoughtfully for a moment, and then slipped a dozen small pieces of paper bearing line drawings from her folio. She carefully laid them out on the coffee table. “According to your ‘hallucinations,’ which of these diagrams appear to glow?”
“That one,” said Sara immediately, indicating one of the figures. “None of the others.”
“Very good.” She then fished in her pocket and took out a collection of wires that she quickly folded into a pyramid with a tiny hook just below the top point. From the hook she hung a small pendulum, an amethyst on a silver chain.
“Call it a final test. Make it move,” Samantha said. “With your mind, not your hand,” she added as Sara reached for the frame.
Her guest smiled and shrugged. “Maybe. Try it and see.”
Sara stared at the crystal, and then shifted her perception as best she could to the place where she could see the flames. The stone was indeed surrounded by a blaze of light and energy that nearly caused her mind to pull back from its blinding radiance. But she endured, fixing her attention deftly upon it.
And then the pendulum started swinging from side to side. A feeling akin to satisfaction washed through her mind, and her concentration drifted back to normal. She rubbed her eyes, looked back at the pendulum, and saw that it was still moving.
A smile played across Samantha’s face. “You see? You did it.”
As in our history, the Winchester Mansion was built with a séance room that was used for magical ceremonies while Sarah Pardee Winchester was alive. It sits at the very heart of the sprawling mansion in order to concentrate and amplify spiritual and magical energy. With the house now occupied by a magician and therefore waking up, this process begins to work later on that night – with some unexpected results.
The chime rang at midnight.
Sara’s eyes opened instantly as the deep sound of the old bell reverberated throughout the house. She knew what it was, but she had no idea why she was hearing it now. She climbed out of bed, stepped into the hallway, and followed the corridor to the winding switchback staircase that led down to the level below. Past the bottom of the stairs she came to the secret panel that opened into the séance room.
As she opened the panel light streamed out into the hallway. It was not physical light, but rather the same strange luminance that she had seen around both the house and Samantha Davis. The sense of power around her was overwhelming, running through the beams and timbers of the entire mansion. In the center of the space the light formed itself into a whirlwind of colors.
And in the vortex stood her mother, Anne Winchester, dead for almost a year.
Sara’s heart skipped a beat. If this isn’t real, it’s the cruelest hallucination yet. “Mom?”
“It’s me, my darling.” Sara could hear the voice clearly, but it nonetheless sounded as if it were coming from far off. “Help me.”
“How can I help you? Is this even real?”
“It’s far too real, my dear. I’m in Ipswich. I can’t get out. I’m trapped. All of us are.”
“Ipswich? But you’re buried in New Haven with the rest of the family. I made the arrangements. I spoke at the funeral. How could you be anywhere else?”
The figure’s head shook. “When you die in Ipswich you stay in Ipswich. Help me.”
“I… I don’t understand. What happened to you?”
“The letter. Read the letter.” The figure pointed to the séance table, on which an opened envelope sat cocked at an odd angle.
Sara saw that it was addressed to her mother and sent by someone named Shaun Talbot from Ipswich, Massachusetts. She removed it and began to read the neat script, hand-written in a florid style decades out of date despite a postmark from only a year ago.
Dear Mrs. Winchester,
My name is Shaun Talbot. I am a spiritualist, medium, and witch located in Ipswich, Massachusetts. I am the current High Priest of the Talbot Coven, which has been operating here for more than three hundred years. I am proud of my lineage and the esoteric power that it allows me to access.
I am writing you because over the course of the last year I have been in contact with an entity that claims to be your late husband, Jeffrey. He has told me of numerous instances from your past such as the story of your lost diamond necklace that somehow found its way into the grandfather clock, how he proposed to you at an auto show, and how you had a premonition about the aircraft accident that claimed his life the night before it happened and asked him three times to cancel his trip.
Every year for Halloween I put on a large séance with an audience of several hundred people here in Ipswich and I would like you to attend. I believe that I will be able to produce a manifestation of your husband’s spirit at that time, and if not I can arrange for a private session after the show.
“So that’s why you went to Ipswich last Halloween? I couldn’t believe that you were willing to fly in order to go to some ghost show all the way across the country. But it was to talk to Dad?”
The aura around her mother’s figure darkened. “No. And I do not believe your father is here. Talbot was unable to conjure him at the séance. He came to my room after the show and tried again. It seemed like it was starting to work, and then I just died. I don’t know how or why.”
“It was an aneurysm. That’s what the medical examiner said.”
“But you know that’s ridiculous, don’t you.”
“I thought so. I couldn’t believe it. You were healthy.”
The figure nodded. “I’m convinced it had something to do with the spirit that Talbot was in the process of summoning.”
“So a spirit killed you?” questioned Sara. Is that even possible?
After her conversation with her mother, Sara decides to travel to Ipswich and confront Talbot. Tom agrees to join her. The two of them decide to get a bite to eat in town, and encounter Talbot at the restaurant. Sara decides to play ditzy and size him up.
Tom and Sara had just opened their menus when Shaun Talbot walked into the restaurant, accompanied by a young, slim, dark-haired woman dressed all in black. Talbot wore his vintage black suit with a white shirt, giving the couple the appearance of having arrived from another era.
“That’s him,” whispered Sara. “By the door. Talbot!”
Tom slowly turned his head just far enough to see the medium and his companion. “What should we do?”
“Let me lead, and trust me. I think it’s time he met the debutante I’m supposed to be.” She concentrated on Talbot as the hostess led him into the restaurant.
The medium turned his head and noticed her immediately. “I don’t believe it. Aren’t you…”
Sara looked at him blankly, trying for vacuous. “Do I know you?”
“Well, no, but I’ve seen your picture before. Aren’t you Sara Winchester?”
She smiled broadly. “Why, yes I am!”
“I’m Shaun Talbot,” he said with a curt bow. “Ipswich’s resident medium. Did you come here for the séance, by any chance?”
“Yes I did, as a matter of fact!” she exclaimed. “That’s where I’ve seen your picture. I knew you looked familiar! This is my friend Tom. Would you care to join us, Mr. Talbot? You and…”
“This is Jenna,” he said. “And we’d love to. But are you sure? It looks like you two are having a romantic night out. I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
“Nonsense. Half the fun of traveling is meeting new people. Especially since you’re the famous Mr. Talbot.”
He shrugged, feigning modesty. “I suppose I am. Please, call me Shaun.” He pulled out a chair for his date and then moved to sit down at the table himself.
“And you can call me Sara. Now go ahead – have a seat. I’ll treat both of you to dinner. This’ll be fun!”
“I couldn’t possibly…” began the medium.
“Don’t be silly. I own a dozen manufacturing plants, hundreds of retail establishments, an airplane, and a whole lot more. Besides, you know what they say – you should never argue with anybody in the gun business!”
“Wait,” spoke up Jenna, “Winchester. Like the guns and the department stores?”
“The very same,” beamed Sara. “Now what would everyone like? I think some good wine would be in order. How does that sound?”
“Fine,” replied Shaun flatly.
Tom simply looked befuddled. She shot him a quick wink and squeezed his hand, then picked up the wine list and started paging through it. “Let’s see now. How about this one?” She pointed to the most expensive bottle on the menu.
“Maybe something a little less pricey,” suggested the medium.
“Oh, don’t be silly!” Sara exclaimed. “If you’re spending under two hundred a bottle you’re wasting your money. Let’s see – will two bottles do? I might drink one all by myself!”
Over the course of dinner Sara proved insufferable. She downed one expensive glass of wine after the other, ordered multiple rounds for all the patrons at the bar, and gushed about fashion, shoes, and the paranormal. The questions she asked Shaun were maddeningly stupid, like whether dead people could still use the toilet. Every time he and Jenna explained that they should be going, she managed to draw the medium back into another round of senseless questioning. By the time he finally was able to excuse himself and his date from the table, Jenna looked positively pissed. She flounced out the door as he followed behind her, muttering what sounded like awkward excuses.
Once they were safely gone, Sara opened the check with some trepidation. “Yikes.” She looked up at Tom with a smirk. “Now aren’t you glad the tabloids have it all wrong?”
A few days later, Sara and Tom attend Talbot’s séance. They have no idea what to expect, but she knows that the séance must have had something to do with her mother’s death.
The lights began to dim and thick vapor rose around the stage. Music rose, the smoke thickened, and then suddenly it all dispersed as though cast away by an unseen wind.
“Good evening, everyone. I’m Shaun Talbot.” On the table in the center of the stage now sat the skull, glaring at the audience from its empty eye sockets.
“It’s vile,” whispered Sara to Tom.
“The skull. The magick on it is… well, dark and creepy, but it goes way beyond that. It’s repellent.”
“So it’s like…”
“A magical device. That must be how Talbot can cast spells. The power of the thing is practically blinding.”
“I’m here tonight to tell you a story before we begin our journey into the unknown,” said the medium. “It starts in the year 1703 right here in our beautiful little town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. The Salem witch trials from 1692 get a lot of media attention, but there was also a witchcraft trial right here in town eleven years later. Unlike the poor victims in Salem, the accused was a real witch – my ancestor Arthur Talbot. He fled from England to the New World in search of religious freedom, but did not find it.
“After a series of crop failures, the townspeople began looking for someone to blame for their troubles. Suspicion fell upon Arthur. Witnesses came forth who claimed they had seen him performing ‘black magic’ rituals, and that was enough to seal his fate. He was convicted of witchcraft and hung right here on Castle Hill where this mansion now stands.
“After this great injustice the other members of the Talbot coven vowed to take revenge. Arthur’s son Jonathan Talbot set in motion a plan to punish both the judge and all the townspeople who had done nothing to stop the execution. A few weeks after the execution, the remaining witches came upon Nathaniel Maitland, the judge who had sentenced Arthur to hang. Maitland was alone, and the witches overpowered and killed him for his crime. Jonathan Talbot disposed of Maitlands’s body and bound the spirit of the judge into his skull using a mighty amalgam of eldritch rituals.
“Maitland’s soul would thus serve the Talbots for all eternity. As for the townspeople, Jonathan worked into his incantations an even more powerful spell. At the moment of their deaths, all who had supported the execution of Arthur Talbot would likewise be bound to the skull and unable to move on. And so it is up to the present day. This skull you see before you is the skull of Nathaniel Maitland.
“Justice was harsh, my friends, but it was served. And it grants us a unique opportunity to communicate with the spirits of the dead who were originally bound by Jonathan’s spells. That’s why we’re here tonight, for the eleventh annual Talbot séance!”
Applause filled the room.
Shaun lifted the skull and held it in both hands, its empty eye sockets facing the audience. As he closed his eyes and began to concentrate, more vapor formed around it. She could also feel a low vibration starting to permeate the room, rising along with the mist that was condensing around the skull.
The figure of a man stepped out of the smoke.
Sean is unable to summon Anne Winchester at the séance. But he offers to perform a private séance for Sara and Tom, and claims that he and his assistant Laurel will be able to contact Sara’s mother. Sara agrees, even though she also knows that this is exactly how her mother died. She has to know.
Shaun stepped through the door, followed by Laurel. “Ms. Winchester,” he said with a wide smile. “How are you this evening?”
Sara shot back a vapid grin. “I’m doing just fine, thank you. Now Laurel says you’re going to contact my mother. That’s wonderful of you! I really appreciate the extra effort.”
“Trust me,” said the medium as he sat down at the table, “it’s no trouble at all. It’s a calling, if you will, a passion. And I’m happy to share it with anyone who appreciates its mysteries. Now, do you mind if Laurel joins us? Four is a better number than three for a séance, and there’s room at the table.”
“Oh, of course not! She’s been fantastic.” Sara turned to Talbot’s assistant. “Please, have a seat.”
Laurel nodded and sat down in the remaining empty chair. Shaun took the skull from its wrappings and set it in the center of the table facing Sara.
“Is that old skull really necessary?” She tried to sound apprehensive. “I mean, look at those eyes, and the scribbles all over it – they’re creepy. And that story you told at the presentation just makes it sound that much worse.”
“It’s all true, I’m afraid,” said Shaun. “The reason that I can control the spirits with such precision is because I have the skull to help me. Without it I could still try to contact your mother, but my odds of success would be greatly reduced.”
“I don’t have to touch it, do I?”
The medium chuckled. “No, just me. Now I want you all to join hands.”
Sara took Tom’s hand on her right and Laurel’s on her left. Shaun held out his left hand, and with it took both Tom’s right and Laurel’s left. He then rested his free right hand on the skull and began to concentrate.
The same odd vibration Sara had noticed at the presentation filled the room. Just like at the séance, vapor began to form and swirl around the skull. Shaun held his concentration longer than he had at the performance, and as he kept his attention fixed on the manifestation it became more and more dense.
His voice, when he at last spoke, cut through the atmosphere like a knife. “Now!” he commanded. “Take them!”
…and you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next. Thank you very much!