My name is Declan Shea.
I never thought I was monster.
My life changed overnight. I was driving home from a gig when a tramp stepped out in front of my car. I killed him. I know I did. But no-one believed me. The medical staff at the hospital insisted he was the result of some sort of hallucination because trauma sustained during the accident. I tried to convince them otherwise, but the more I protested, the more obvious it became to them that I had damaged more than just my ribs in the crash, so I started to lie to keep them happy. I pretended he wasn't there. But he was. He was everywhere.
And he was determined to destroy my life and take away everything I loved in revenge.
How do you fight a monster no-one else can see?
This is what he reduced my life to. I am stopped being Declan Shea that night and became someone else entirely. I became a monster.
Laughing Boy's Shadow, International bestselling author Steven Savile's debut novel is a document humane charting the descent of an ordinary man into a murky world of very human monsters, grief and madness as he wrestles to come to terms with who he is and just what he is capable of in the name of love.
A descent into madness, a two sides with no heroes fighting for control of the city of my youth. I was an angry young man, and Newcastle, my Newcastle, was a brutal place. – Steven Savile
"A story about Death written by a man who has clearly consorted with devils."– T.M. Wright, author of A Manhattan Ghost Story
"A raw, gritty novel: part social commentary, part philosophy, part fantasy. Savile handles his episodes of graphic violence skillfully, eschewing cliches and shock tactics in favor of understated, detached narration, and the result is a genuinely chilling portrait of total alienation. Savile's novel is original, smart, and well-written; his disturbing images and bleak prose and both thought-provoking and genuinely unsettling."– Rue Morgue
"The tale is compelling. The protagonist Declan Shea's transformational journey through the underground; his confrontation with the marvellously named Crohak and the Rookery; the iconic imagery cheerfully interwoven with allusions cribbed from L. Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll and Joseph Campbell make for a dark intriguing sojourn through a mythic urban landscape of bewildering wonderment."– Fear Zone
Not quite three a.m. and already I had Saturday chalked up as one more in a long line of miserable experiences eager to come my way.
You know how some days have their own smells? Well, Saturday was mothballed in that rancid, mouldered smell of the meat markets.
Outside, it was raining hard. Sports cars aren't made for rain. The Midget's soft-top was leaking and her heater had given up the ghost the week before. To add insult to injury, crossing the bridge into Gateshead, the DJ slipped into that monotony of love songs aimed at helping loners through the worst of the night. Keeping my eyes open was struggle enough. I was in no mood to suffer another bout of that emotional bullshit, so I switched radio for tape, and coming up Split Crow Road, The Surfing Brides were happily informing me that Everything's Fine (If The World Was Going To End).
A nice, cheerful little number; its selection was a pretty good indication of my state of mind right then, but I had a car full of music and not a single word about love anywhere to be heard.
I wanted to be at home, in bed, curled up around Aimee's soft crescent, not cramped behind the wheel, driving through Newcastle's own grim parody of Hell's Kitchen; backstreets, bridges and graffiti. The entire side of a tower block had been painted with the silhouette of a bird, wings rising in a thirty foot vee that scraped the roof of the tower. Each detail of the shadow was immaculate, though God alone knew how the artist had accomplished his art. I had wondered the same thing nearly every day for the thirteen weeks since the bird's manifestation, but like everyone else I was no closer to an answer for all that wondering.
The lights on the roundabout up ahead were changing to red. I thought about running them for as long as it took me to yawn and my foot to ease down on the brake. There were no cars coming either way, so I let the lights run through their cycle again while I groped around on the backseat for the pockets of my jacket and, deeper into the puzzle, my tobacco tin and lighter. The roll-ups were one last throw back to the good old days I wasted as a student, scruffing about Liverpool Poly. There's something soothing about the whole process of rolling your own, drawing on the smoke, letting it leak out in a veil that rafts up in front of your eyes. It's still the cheapest form of therapy I know. That said, I'm not an idiot. I live with my addiction, call the home rolled coffin-nails my pocket shrinks, and tell anyone stupid enough to ask: 'They're helping me to quit.'
Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't; that's immaterial. I enjoy my occasional drag, and that's healthy enough for me right now. When the doctors tell me I'm riddled with lung cancer and have three months to live, well by then it'll be too late anyway, so I'll probably start chain-smoking my home-rolled Virginia leaf and taking nicotine intravenously.
Stifling another yawn, I knuckled the ache out of the bones in the base of my back and stretched, rolling the muscles of my shoulders. I was exhausted, and it felt as if the last week had been an endless series of to-ing and fro-ing between Gateshead and the pianos of the civilised world. London and back twice in the space of three days, and all aches twelve hundred miles could inflict centred on the two-inch square of vertebrae above my belt. Two times over. Once to Golden Square to lay down six tracks worth of free fall backing piano for Tachyon Web's Live And Unplugged session on Virgin 1215 though what a Tech-Metal band wanted with a jazz pianist I shudder to think and then again to Charlotte Street to audition for the resident piano slot on one of those night-time chat shows The Channel 4 Gurus have been rehashing ever since The Last Resort went its own sweet way.
This marathon was served up with a Jazz Club chaser, backing a band called Poetic Justice, and a late night poker session with the boys after the performance.
Still, to misuse a cliché; mine is not to reason why, mine is just to grab the money with both hands and make like one little Linford. If they are prepared to pay me to play, I'll play. I'm all for prostituting what little talent God gave me.
The lights changed again. This time I went with them.
Indicating left, I swung out onto the Old Durham Road.
I hate cities. I always have.
Gateshead at night is a dying animal. The streets have emptied. The gangs of kids have gone home to bed, and the older, more dangerous ones have risen from their pits to prowl, attracted by the danger-pheromones drifting off lonely car stereos. The bag ladies and the old soaks have crawled back under their shopping trolleys and park benches, taking their bottles and bad breath with them. Women walk in pairs because one in three streetlights don't work. Every avenue has its own boarded up windows. They've even built a garage on Lover's Lane. One more strut from the scaffold supporting my childhood that has been dismantled by greed. A second-hand fix-it workshop cut into the arches beneath the Railway Bridge, its rust-buckets spilling out and down the alley where the good kids and I was one of them were supposed to emerge winking and wisecracking when they had: 'Been there, and done that.'
Cats and dogs, all slack skin and stuck-out bones, run wild, scavenging after whatever scraps the bins have to offer. The litter looks more at home on the road than the cars do. More common, too.
As a place, it reeks of abuse, filth and decay, and I have to call it home.
The road curled around into the onset of the local labyrinth. Nothing as elaborate as Daedalus' creation for the Cretan king; it mazed through avenues of redbrick and cement up away from the harbour of the Tyne Valley into the avenues around Saltwell Park and home.
I wasn't lying when I said I hate cities; there are few things I am more passionate about. I hate the lies they offer with their numbers and bodies close packed. I hate the innocence they stole from me, and from others like me, pretending to offer the world in return. I know how it feels to walk the streets and feel the brittle and naive dreams of youth crack between the soles of your shoes and the chill hardness of the pavement. I walked alone, surrounded by people smiling because they weren't alone. I survived. So many others didn't. So many more won't.
The music changed. I stopped listening. Noise was noise. I was thinking about Aimee and the sort of day she must have had at the Arnessen Refuge, battered children and all. She knew my feelings. She wasn't hard enough to cope with the sorts of abuse those bastards dished out. I'd be there when things got nasty, and on her first day I had made a promise to myself; not a single 'I told you so.'
It must have been the absence of other cars on the road, or the repetitious regularity of the twisting and twining road where it followed the familiar contours of the houses, the built-up monotony of the cityscape all around. I started to drift. Felt the car drifting, too. Riding the white line. Faster than was safe in the rain. Yawning, I corrected for my lapsing concentration. Knuckled the sleep out of my eyes.
'Oh, don't you dare. . . Don't you bloody well dare.'
That was my first thought when I saw him standing at the roadside. One hundred yards away, give or take. An inch-high dark stain in the perfect circle of the Midget's spotlights that the wipers couldn't sluice away. His squalid gabardine coat tattered in the wind like black rags. Streamers of cotton and wool lapped at his legs, swam around his lower half like a terrier snapping at his heels. He was staring straight at me through the full-beam, waving a bottle of something, and all I could think was:
The bastard thinks he's playing chicken!
I don't know where it came from. It was as if a bolt-hole opened in the back of my head to let in this one suddenly cold certainty. The crazy old bastard was psyching himself up for a race his rickety old pegs couldn't hope to win.
'You want to kill yourself,' I muttered, trying to shake off the soupy blanket that tiredness was draping over my head. 'Fine, but I don't need you on my conscience.'
His face was split by a grim parody of a smile; a rictus that had to be a trick of the peculiar light. As the distance rapidly narrowed, the hazy edges of my perception hardened and the visceral world the real world trapped out there on the other side of the glass snapped into focus. Inside the bizarre chiaroscuro the old man seemed oddly content to meet his maker, both legs shattering on the radiator grille even as his body was tossed up into air like rag doll.
We looked at each other, sharing the same terrible token of recognition; murderer and victim. I tried to convince myself it was the dazzle reflecting back from the glare of the headlights, but it wasn't. The rain blurred the sight, as if he were losing some shape. His eyes seemed to be pleading with me to put my foot down on the accelerator and plough straight through him. I couldn't do it. Without thinking I was slamming my left foot down on the brake and praying a litany:
To whatever deity or angel watched over bums and piano players at three o'clock on a Saturday morning.
The bite of the rubber on the road was a short-lived sensation, replaced by the sickening glide of the wheels locking as the water on the road undermined the little tread that hadn't worn away. The Midget was sliding away from me before I had the chance to start wrestling with the wheel.
My prayer had fallen on deaf ears; not that I should have expected anything more.
He stepped out into the road and stopped, holding his hands and bottle out as if to cushion the impact or turn the free-wheeling momentum of the Midget aside. His rakish, chicken-bone skeleton had no realistic chance of succeeding at either, and the taut rictus he wore in place of a smile said he knew as much.
The speedometer was arresting; a hideously graceful fall from sixty down to zero. The car wasn't slowing.
'Why me?' I wanted to scream I was screaming, but I couldn't lay claim to any particular sounds that might have been deciphered by sharper ears than mine.
And then he was punched high into the blue-black sky and the only sound I could hear was laughter.