This story is taken from the new short story collection, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, published by Big Finish, and written by Robert Shearman.
His plays have been regularly produced by Alan Ayckbourn, and on BBC Radio by Martin Jarvis. However, he is probably best known as a writer for Doctor Who, reintroducing the Daleks for its BAFTA winning first series, in an episode nominated for a Hugo Award. He has also written many popular audio dramas for the series produced by Big Finish.
His first collection of short stories, Tiny Deaths, was published by Comma Press in 2007. It won the World Fantasy Award for best collection, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and nominated for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. One of the stories from it was selected by the National Library Board of Singapore as part of the annual Read! Singapore campaign. In 2008 his short story project for BBC7, The Chain Gang, won him a Sony Award, and his second series for them concluded Christmas 2009.
He is now at work on a third collection of short stories, and - his wife will be pleased to hear - his first novel. (His wife prefers novels.)
“You might want to sit down for this. Because I’ve got great news! I hope you think it’s great news, we’re all very excited here. Are you sitting down?”
“Yes,” he said, though he wasn’t. He didn’t like sitting down, and tried to do so as little as possible. Sitting down, he felt, undermined his authority, and authority was all he was about. Besides, it wasn’t comfortable, the tail got in the way.
“We read your manuscript,” the voice on the phone went on. “And we love it! And we’re going to publish it, what is it, ‘Love Among the Lobelias’, that’s the one. There you are! Was I right to say you’d be excited? Was I right to tell you to sit down?”
He found he was excited, and he hadn’t been for so, so long. “Thank you,” he said, and meant it, and that felt good, because he hadn’t meant that for so, so long either.
“No problem!” said the voice. “Thank you, for writing such a great novel! Hey,” he said, and a note of alarm crept through the cheer, “is everything okay, is that screaming I hear?”
“Just the TV set,” and he kicked the door to his office shut with a hoof. “I’m going to be a real life author?” he went on. “With my name on the cover and everything? You’ve no idea how long I’ve been trying, the rejection letters I’ve had…” And he decided to shut up, in case he ruined everything.
“Real life author, that’s it,” chuckled the voice. “Now, let’s not kid ourselves, okay? This isn’t going to be a bestseller. Let’s say that from the outset. So there won’t be much money. And the romance genre, it’s not the sort of thing critics like. So there’ll be precious little respect either. But your name on the cover, definitely, Nick, definitely, that, alone, I can guarantee. You don’t mind that I call you Nick?”
“Sure, go ahead,” said the author, who wasn’t called Nick, who wasn’t called anything remotely like Nick. He’d been hiding behind pseudonyms for so long, he only now realised it wouldn’t be his name on the cover after all. But that was okay, it was a name he’d picked for himself, that was the main thing. Not like some of the others, people could be so cruel – especially when they were scared.
The rest of the conversation passed in a whirl. And once it was over, his head full of barely understood chat about cover illustrations and royalty payments and foreign rights, Nick found he couldn’t stop smiling for a good half hour. He hadn’t smiled for a long time, and at first he found the expression somewhat disconcerting, but it grew on him. He opened the doors, gazed out on the whole yawning inferno that was his home, and pointed at the first creature he could find. “You,” he called. “You’ll do. Come into my office a minute.”
“I’m going to be published! I’m going to have a novel out,” and then he added, because it made it seem all so much grander, “ in the shops.”
The demon stood before him, expressionless and dumb, dropping ash and clinker on to the carpet.
“Good, isn’t it?” prompted Nick.
“It,” rumbled the demon, in a voice scraped from the underside of Hell’s bowels, “is good.”
“Do you want to hear what it’s about?”
The demon tilted its head to one side, weighing the options. “Yes,” was the answer he plumped for.
“There’s this boy called Tom,” said Nick, “and there’s this girl called Susan. And they’re just right for each other, you know, just a perfect match. But at the beginning, you see, they don’t realise that! And before they can get together, there are a few obstacles in the way!” The demon said nothing, just licked his lips with a tongue too large for his mouth. The plot seemed remarkably flimsy now Nick had to say it out loud, and seeing the nonplussed reaction from his horned colleague, he remembered why he’d kept the book a secret in the first place. “I don’t know, it’s sweet,” he concluded, and the demon nodded.
Post for Hell was delivered to a P.O. Box in Croydon; a goblin collected it on Thursdays. When his author’s copies arrived, Nick ripped open the cardboard box, held the books up for inspection. The covers were nice and shiny, and, making sure the door was closed, he couldn’t help but stroke his cheeks with them. When his cheeks had been given as much stroking as they could take, he at last put all five copies on to the shelf. Nick didn’t own many books – his job didn’t allow much time for reading – but he had a Bible, it was good to see what the opposition were up to. Besides this massive tome his paperback volumes looked dwarfed and pathetic. But then he remembered that the Bible was a whole compendium of books, really; he opened it up, measured all the fifty chapters of Genesis between thumb and forefinger, and with satisfaction noted that of the two debut novels his beat God’s on word count hands down. And that made him feel much better.
Inspecting the new crop of dead souls for punishment had always been a fairly tedious part of the job – all that pleading, all those tears – but he fairly whistled with good humour as he did the rounds nowadays; he only had to think of those books in his office, and the way those fresh pages smelt so good, and he was happy. “Hello, hello!” he called up to Mr Jones cheerily, “what are we in for, then?” and looked at his chart. Then, “Good God,” he swore, “get him down from there.” And Mr Jones was unwinched from the chains suspending him over a cauldron of oil.
“It says here,” said Nick, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, “that you’ve been reading ‘Love Among the Lobelias’. Tell me, just curious. What did you make of it?”
Fifteen minutes before Mr Jones had been speeding down a motorway with his ear being licked by a girl who bore not even a passing similarity to Mrs Jones. Even had he been alive, his mind was not in the best frame for a literary discussion. But Nick waited patiently as the corpse got his thoughts in order. “It was all right,” Jones said, at last.
“Oh, good,” said Nick. “That’s good. So you liked it? That’s good. You know,” he added shyly, “I wrote that.”
“Yes. What did you think of the characters? Did you find them engaging, warm, likeable? Who was your favourite?”
“I don’t know. Erm. What was the bloke’s name?”
“Yeah, Tom. He’s my favourite.”
“Not Susan? You didn’t like Susan?”
“Susan was good too,” said Mr Jones.
“Okay,” said Nick. “Okay. Any other favourite bits?”
“Okay. But you really liked it? That’s great. It’s so nice to meet a fan.” And Nick gave him a smile, and had him strung up for disembowelling.
The demons soon realised that their boss liked to have his readers pointed out to him. “It’s selling better than I’d hoped!” he said, one particularly gratifying day, when there were no less than four of them rotating on a wheel of spikes. And it wasn’t until the seventeen strong members of the Women’s Reading Group in Margate pitched up in his domain that he realised what was wrong.
The receptionist asked him whether he had an appointment, but then she looked up and saw the unbearable reality of him, and that where he had trod was still smouldering from the heat. “I think he’ll see me,” said Nick.
“I wish I’d known who the author was,” said the publisher, “I’d have rethought our marketing strategy altogether.” Nick was offered some bottled water; he refused. “I can’t see what you’re so bothered about. So anyone who reads your book is going to Hell. Isn’t that sort of thing right up your street?”
“But it wasn’t meant to be like that,” said Nick, and he hated how whiny his voice sounded. “It was something for me. At work all I get is destroy this, destroy that, and I just wanted to create, to carve out a little piece of something nice. Tom and Susan, they’re ever so nice, aren’t they, and, okay, they’ve got their obstacles, but even the obstacles are fairly nice. We’ve got to get all the copies back,” he said decisively, “and pulp them.”
“Hmm,” said the publisher. “Or, tell you what. We could put a warning sticker on the cover.”
“DO NOT READ,” the sticker read, in bold, and, underneath: “These are the words of the Devil. Read and you’ll BURN in Hell!” And they’d added three exclamation marks to Hell, and put a little fiery effect on ‘burn’. And Nick saw the sticker, and saw that it was good. “If that doesn’t stop them, nothing will.” And yet very soon Hell got busier; Nick had to lay on extra staff. “We need to make the sticker more lurid!” Nick told the publisher. “You’re the boss,” the publisher said, and soon there was nothing but stickers to see, the Lobelias were all buried beneath them. And the damned turned up in droves. The novel was read by professors and lorry drivers, those who worked at the stock exchange and at the counters at Burger King. “But what did you think of the story?” Nick would ask of them all; they never had much to say about that. “For God’s sake,” said Nick, “what the hell is wrong with you people?”
And the saddest thing was that he couldn’t look at his novel in the same way. Tom and Susan, everything they said was a lie, their first meeting on the bridge, that misunderstanding about the will, just lies. And he knew that all stories were lies, but deep down, weren’t the best of them true as well? He was the Prince of Lies, after all, and those evenings bashing out chapters on his old typewriter, fortified by nothing more than black coffee and the joy of creation, they were the biggest lies of all. He took his author’s copies from the shelf, threw them into the back of a cupboard, and determined to forget about writing altogether.
One day the phone rang. “Are you sitting down for this? You’ve got an Oscar nomination!”
“They made a movie of my book?”
“Check your contract,” said the publisher. “I got you a producer credit.”
Nick rented a tuxedo, and flew to Los Angeles. The screenwriter looked about twelve years old, big and hairy and enthusiastic. “I’m such a fan,” he told Nick. “I’ve tried to be as faithful as possible, only changed things here and there for dramatic effect. I must have read the book a dozen times, forwards and backwards, every which way.” “You are in such trouble,” Nick told him.
And when they won there was such a round of applause, and the kid and the devil got up in front of the podium to collect their golden statuette. And Nick wanted to tell them that this whole thing had been wrong; that it should be about the art, not the artist. That if he hadn’t been a celebrity, no-one would have touched his book, and maybe that would have been for the best, then Tom and Susan and all those Lobelias could have spoken for themselves. But he knew the audience wouldn’t understand – the clips they’d played had renamed them Brad and Jennifer anyway, there weren’t any Lobelias but bloody tulips, and there was a spotlight in his face, and millions watching at home on TV, and was that Jack Nicholson in the front row? It was, it was Jack! And Nick heard himself thank the Academy, thank his agent, and thank the parents he couldn’t remember and wasn’t sure he’d ever had.
Nick liked Hollywood. It felt so familiar to him. The heat, the bare flesh, the fact so many of its residents had already sold their souls to him. He stayed on to produce the next two instalments in the Love Among Tulips franchise, and then helped to create a whole slew of summer blockbusters. He wasn’t a writer – he soon realised writing wasn’t his forte – but he was an Ideas Man, his skill was giving his ideas to other writers to make sense of. And he knew that anyone who saw his movies was damned for all eternity, but then, he supposed, they were probably all damned anyway.
And once in a while he’d pop back to Hell. It seemed to be managing fine without him, although it had all got so busy now it lacked the personal touch he’d liked.
“Thank you,” said a voice by his side. And he was surprised to see a little old lady, wholly unafraid, smiling up at him.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he said, in that drawl he’d picked up in spite of his best endeavours.
“When I was very ill,” she said, “my husband read your book to me in bed. A chapter a night. It was so romantic.”
“Where’s your husband, sweetheart?”
“Over there, in the pit of fire.” Nick waved at the man, and he thought he might have waved back, but he wasn’t sure. “One chapter a night, and then we’d make love. Nothing much, but just like in your book. Gentle, and very, very sweet.”
“Thank you,” said Nick. “That makes it all worthwhile.” And he felt that it really did.
He went back into his office, opened the cupboard, took down his novel. The cover was still shiny, the pages still smelt fresh. And, although he didn’t like sitting, as he began to read he sank into an armchair, and lost himself in a world that was innocent and naïve and romantic.
(C) Robert Shearman 2009
© Paul Kane 2003-2018. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.