Monday, March 16, 2015

Page 69: Vermilion

We're kicking off a new series here at TNBBC, though it's not new to the world. The Page 69 Test has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....

In this installment of Page 69, 
we put Molly Tanzer's Vermilion, which will be release in April by Word Horde, to the test.

Ok, Molly, set up what we are about to read on page 69.

Vermilion is a weird western/steampunk set in 1870.

In this scene, my protagonist, Lou, is in the basement of Madame Cheung's Flower Garden, a respectable whorehouse in San Francisco's Chinatown c. 1870. A mysterious crate arrived that day, addressed to Heunggu, one of the prostitutes, full of bottles of what appear to be a quack tonic, but also the corpse of one of Heunggu's sons, who has been missing for some months. Lou's a psychopomp by trade, meaning she helps the restless dead find peace, and she has an arsenal made up of both traditional Taoist necromancer's tools, and arcane inventions of her own. The body in the crate is spiritually rotten, likely from a traumatic death (he appears to have suffered great violence before dying), and so Lou is helping the remnant of the young man's soul pass into the next world by cleansing him of any spiritual impurity. He's becoming geung si, which is a sort of cross between a vampire/zombie in Chinese lore, and his mother Heunggu, and Lou's mother Ailien are both present for the exorcism.

A few pages before, the geung si awoke but Lou managed to get him under control pretty quickly, but that's why Lou's mom is snipping at her, because they're pretty nasty undead creatures.

What Vermilion’s about:

Gunslinging, chain smoking, Stetson-wearing Taoist psychopomp, Elouise “Lou” Merriwether might not be a normal 19-year-old, but she’s too busy keeping San Francisco safe from ghosts, shades, and geung si to care much about that. It’s an important job, though most folks consider it downright spooky. Some have even accused Lou of being more comfortable with the dead than the living, and, well… they’re not wrong.

When Lou hears that a bunch of Chinatown boys have gone missing somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies she decides to saddle up and head into the wilderness to investigate. Lou fears her particular talents make her better suited to help placate their spirits than ensure they get home alive, but it’s the right thing to do, and she’s the only one willing to do it.

On the road to a mysterious sanatorium known as Fountain of Youth, Lou will encounter bears, desperate men, a very undead villain, and even stranger challenges. Lou will need every one of her talents and a whole lot of luck to make it home alive…

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the book is about?

Yes, I do think this passage can be seen as synecdochic of the novel. Not only is Lou literally using vermilion in this passage (the geung si is immobilized by a vermilion-inked ward she slaps on his head when he first awakens, on the previous page), she spends quite a bit of the novel exorcising the dead and putting the undead to rest. Lou's a consummate professional, so she's concerned with not only dong it the right way, but the respectful way, and her thrifty nature is actually a motif, as well. 

Also... not to give away too much, but this body in the crate provides several major clues toward the solving of the central mystery of the novel, which makes page 69 a slam dunk of relevance, come to think of it.


Page 69

…Now that he was on his back, his arms and legs were sticking straight up, which meant as Lou worked his feet hovered above her head on one side, hands on the other. The only way to fix the situation was to finish the exorcism.

Once she had him in position she retrieved a black velvet pouch from her satchel. Loosening the neck, she poured out a small handful of sticky rice into her left palm.

“What are you doing?” asked Heung-kam, who had apparently come up behind her. Lou almost jumped out of her skin.

“Oh. Uh... he’s becoming geung si. I’m helping him pass on, so he can rest.”

Heung-kam furrowed her plucked brows. “Can I help?”

“Yes, actually,” said Lou, pleased. Perhaps if she sent Heung-kam on an errand Ailien would go with her. “If you could get me a kettle of hot water, some black tea, and a tea bowl, that would be a big help. Do you have one he used to drink from?”

Heung-kam nodded eagerly. “Yes, and some of his favorite tea.” She paused. “Is all this necessary? Could we not just bury him?”

“It has become necessary,” said Lou, and with an apologetic shrug, turned back to the corpse. She heard footfalls on stairs behind her, but only one set. Her teeth clenched when she heard Ailien shift a little on the divan.

“Sticking around?” she said without turning.

“Yes,” said Ailien. “Just in case you let that geung si awaken again.”

Lou smiled ferociously. “Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of Mr. Vampire over here.”  
Lou upended the palmful of rice over the young man’s throat where it 
formed a loose pyramid of white grains. The soul reacted instantly—the purple-red lazily circulating through his veins began to writhe purposefully, and then receded into the carotid artery.

Lou’s father had described this phenomenon as the attraction of imbalance to balance. Sticky rice, long understood to be one of those rare, perfect expressions of yin and yang, was the ideal reagent for this particular process. Lou had seen other psychopomps use a host of different catalysts, from dragon bones to chemical powders, but sticky rice was cheaper than anything else, and easily replaceable, too.


Molly Tanzer is the Sydney J. Bounds and Wonderland Book Award-nominated author of two collections: A Pretty Mouth (Lazy Fascist, 2012) and Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations (Egaeus, 2013). Her debut novel, Vermilion, is forthcoming from Word Horde in April of 2015, and her second novel, The Pleasure Merchant, is forthcoming from Lazy Fascist in November of 2015. She is also the editor of the forthcoming Swords v. Cthulhu (Stone Skin Press) and an issue of The Lazy Fascist Review (Lazy Fascist). Her Lovecraftian fiction has appeared in venues such as The Book of Cthulhu (I and II) (Night Shade), The Book of the Dead (Jurassic London) and The Starry Wisdom Library (PS Publishing). She has had additional short fiction appear in Schemers (Stone Skin Press), Running with the Pack (Prime Books) and The Magazine of Bizarro Fiction, among other places. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and a very bad cat. 

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