This story is by Mary Gould and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Bamboo Walk cottage is haunted.” Allistair Cavendish’s family told him, claiming that is the only reason uncle George left him the property free and clear of any debts. He agreed that the cottage would be the perfect breeding ground for ‘duppy’ stories’— ghost folklore— vital to Jamaica’s culture as reggae to dance hall battles. He smiled at the notion of a ghost community; and wished he could write horror stories. He had not seen any shadows or ghosts; myths about duppies were entertainment when he was a boy.
What did his family know about loneliness and isolation? They were responsible for the isolation he felt every time they questioned his writing ambition.
“Allistair, when are you going to finish that novel?” Cousin Gary asked.
“How long has it been now? Ten years? Better stick to your day job.” His brother Ira teased.
“You’re no Hemingway.” His sister Cheryl said. “Earnest you maybe, but little Bro, this is not working out for you.”
“Look at you. A laughingstock at every family gathering. You got to move on.” His mother added.
“Still waiting to see at least one story in print. It can’t be that hard to get published.” His friend, Jake said.
“Pay no attention to them. I’m a bestselling author. But it took me years to get there. So don’t give up.” Uncle George said. His uncle understood the intricacies of writing; the voice that constantly reminded him, he wasn’t good enough; the frustrations and compulsion that kept him writing despite his failure to get published. Uncle George had promised to provide feedback on the first draft of his novel but died before he could do so. But uncle had done him a great service by allowing him to quit his job and write full-time. He had left him enough money to live on for two years until his first novel was published. It was a lot of pressure, but as his uncle often said, “better to risk everything following a dream than risk nothing fantasizing about success.”
Allistair put his manuscript aside. He had read Stephen King’s book On Writing, and he said to put your first draft aside and begin to work on something else. He decided to write a few short stories. Another excellent piece of advice from King who started out that way.
He sat down at his uncle’s desk where he had cranked out his bestsellers. The office had a picture of a waterfall cascading rocks and a picture of rolling hills, blue-orange skies designed to instill tranquility. But he couldn’t relax. He typed the title of his story and could hear his family’s laughter and derision as they took bets on his failure.
An hour later he began writing and the words kept flowing. His mind focused and he could hear the voice in his head as he worked. Never had the words been so clear. He had always heard voices in his head for that is how his stories were conceptualized and then unfolded on the page. But this was different. He heard the protagonist telling him what happened next, how to structure the paragraphs, construct dialogue, what to paraphrase, when to use exposition and what description and imagery to use. He had never had such clear and detailed instructions on how to proceed with a story.
Allistair chalked it up to the change in location and the freedom Uncle George gave him. He finished the three-thousand-word story, read it, and didn’t find one grammatical error. This wasn’t possible. But it was. Spell Checker, Grammarly, and a line by line edit confirmed it. He followed the voice’s instructions and soon he’d written three stories. Then he complied with the directions to send the stories to the New Yorker, Paris Review, and Princeton Press. Within six months he had received acceptances and payments from all three magazines. He didn’t care about the money. His affirmation of “I’m a writer, “had become reality.
He began outlining a new novel, flushing out characters, creating scenes, and subplots. The novel was a murder mystery about a mistress who murdered the wife so the two could be together. He typed the first sentence; he heard the muse’s voice. “This story is rubbish. Put your outline away. Just listen and type.” So, he did.
For two weeks he wrote, pausing only to eat, relieve himself, and shower until the novel had been completed. He read the novel and was amazed that he wrote a page turner. It was as if he bought the novel from the bookstore and delved into the story for the first time. The plot engaged and thrilled him; he discovered clever red herrings with a brilliant twist at the end. The protagonist Detective Meuse with his sharp wit and sharper attire and boundless energy. The detective had a penchant for guessing the murder victims ’occupations correctly, which made him likeable. Allistair could really see several books in his future. He could never write anything this good. Could he? Self-doubt kept him from sleeping. He needed to test whether the story was as good as he thought. So, he contacted an editor who agreed to polish the story before he began querying agents. He sent her a check for her services, and she agreed to return it to him in a month. She returned it to him in two weeks with the note, “The manuscript has been edited. Since you’ve wasted my time. I’m keeping the check.”
Allistair couldn’t be happier, he sent it to Uncle George’s old publisher who sent him a publishing contract. He accepted the terms and felt a twinge of guilt when his conscience reminded him that this wasn’t really his creation. He shrugged it off. He and the muse were one and the same. “Demons of Self-doubt and Inferiority complex, I curse you to hell.” He muttered.
At Allistair’s first book signing, he was elated until he realized whenever he tried to sign his name, his fingers wrote, “The Muse.” One reader became angry when he wouldn’t sign his name. The muse whispered. “Write the initials, AC.” The muse had him explain to the readers that he signed the muse because it took him years to get published and he wanted nothing to endanger his success. The readers ate it up, they loved the idea of a writing fairy godmother, dubbing him, the Muse Writer. The book became a bestseller and Allistair loved the fame and felt vindicated that he proved to his family and friends that he was a legitimate author.
As the book sales increased, Allistair longed to sign his name with the flourish he had practiced for years. Instead, his egotistical muse relegated him to mere initials, and he got increasingly despondent when he realized he was being handled. The sense of accomplishment of writing a great book had gone and he felt like a fraud.
There was even talk of a movie and the media asked whether he had someone in mind to play Detective Meuse. And that news sunk him further into depression and he longed for the days when he knew for certain every word was truly his. Was he mad or stupid, not to feel pride, but only a sense of loss?
The muse continued to take credit and its invisible hand churned out three more bestsellers. He decided to hire an obeah man whose expertise in contacting the dead would allow him to seek his uncle’s advice on how to deal with the muse. The dead knows secrets in the afterlife and his uncle could also advise him how to navigate the publishing world and avoid a lawsuit. He would rather write under a pseudonym than continue to write down someone’ else words like a secretary. But if he did, would the muse still have control?
He met the obeah man at his uncle’s grave at midnight. Rum and chicken blood sprinkled on the grave signaled they came in peace. “I call forth George Cavendish spirit on behalf of his nephew Allistair.” The obeah man chanted for about ten minutes and then he appeared to be in a trance, his eyes vacant and he heard his uncle’s voice as if from a great distance. “I know why you’re here, but you must continue to obey the muse.”
“I stole Alex Conners’ murder mystery series and published them under my name, and he died shortly after that. I bought this cottage from his widow and paid off his debts to assuage my conscience. It didn’t work. Alex’s ghost appeared to me and ordered me to write his stories and use the pseudonym, Alex Connors.”
“My initials are the same as Alex’s.”
“Convenient, no? Punishment to continue my fame and fortune. Small price.”
“But I didn’t steal his work. You did.”
“Doesn’t matter. Alex wants to keep writing. If you live in the cottage, you are only free and clear to write his stories.”