Regards to the Master
The primary protagonist, Kirk Matthews, is a failed author and alcoholic who desires above all else to see his work published and himself validated as a writer.
Tabitha Lake in Twisted Oak, Maine is home to an ancient, drowned muse. The protagonist moves his family to its shores in a desperate effort to shake up their lives and remove himself from the only relationship that matters: his relationship with alcohol. Kirk discovers almost immediately that his creative impulses and drive are heightened here. What’s more, he discovers his need to drink rapidly edged out by an overriding directive to write. Aware on an escalating level that he is channeling something from the lake into his creative work, Kirk eventually learns that all who’ve been called to these shores have gone on to critical and financial success with their work. It’s only after he’s too deeply invested in the promise of the life he’s wanted that Kirk comes to understand that only the first bit is free, and if he wants to continue creating, he will need to feed other creatives to the lake. To the black.
Regards to the Master
Into the Black
1. Micah Dean Hicks’s, Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2019)
Hicks’s town of Swine Hill is so thoroughly haunted that each resident has his/her own ghostly companion. Protagonist, Jane, has been haunted since childhood and carries the weight of a family she is desperate to extricate from Swine Hill.
2. Nick Cutter’s Little Heaven (Gallery Books, 2017)
Cloistered away in the woods of New Mexico is a place called Little Heaven. There, a religious cult dwells within the influence of an ancient and spiteful presence woken from its long sleep deep in the earth.
3. Scott Carson’s The Chill (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2020)
The Chilewaukee Reservoir in upstate New York conceals a drowned village with a story. Founded in the early days of colonization, the town was erased in order to bring water to millions downstate. But there is a presence still alive beneath those waters, one with its own dark design.
Each of these novels takes place in a setting similar to my (fictional) town of Twisted Oak, Maine. In each, a dark and otherworldly presence has woven into the lives of normal people who can either submit to the conditions in which they live or get out forever.
Hicks’s style and literary flair are most comparable to my style of writing, while the atmosphere of Swine Hill and its residents’ general acceptance, even affection, for their dark domain hit similarly to the attitudes of residents in Twisted Oak.
Cutter’s Little Heaven touches on the larger themes in his books of ancient intelligence dwelling in the darker hollows of the world, and hits similarly to my antagonist LLORHEST, an ancient muse who has suffered millennia alone and cannibalized herself in the absence of souls to inspire toward creativity.
Carson’s The Chill most closely resembles the atmosphere of Twisted Oak and the novel’s main setting of Tabitha Lake. The deeper mysteries and building suspense as answers emerge in Carson’s novel very closely mirror the slow trickle of answers out of Tabitha Lake, leaving my protagonist similarly deep in LLORHEST’s designs by the end and nearly lost in the revelation of what he’s become.
Kirk Matthews is a failed novelist and alcoholic, determined to save his family from himself by shaking up their lives and moving to Tabitha Lake in Twisted Oak, Maine. To his surprise, the decision is an immediate success as Kirk finds his body literally rejecting its former poison, replacing it with an overriding directive to write. Soon Kirk is composing like his life depends on it, unaware he’ll soon be asked to reciprocate with an offering to the corrupted and famished muse feeding his work.
Sketch the inner conditions for the protagonist’s inner conflict
Kirk’s primary conflict is with himself. He understands he’s lost, that he’s been hiding in the bottle to forget all he’d once used to define himself. He wants to be a better father and husband, but his need for success and validation as an author will always override the rest.
Kirk’s secondary conflict is with the ancient, drowned muse, LLORHEST. It speaks to him through his pets and the animals of the woodlands. He’s warned about it by his neighbor, an elderly artist once tapped by LLORHEST but able to dull out its influence through drink. Kirk is promised fame, riches, and validation, but warned that his new creative channel is a fickle one and will eventually require sacrifice. Determined to do anything required of him to attain the life he’s always wanted, Kirk must choose between protecting his family from the penetrating influence of the lake and riding its influence toward inevitable success. As Kirk grows more and more comfortable sacrificing lesser creatives to the lake, he soon realizes that the quality of these sacrifices matter greatly, and if he wants to produce something truly exceptional, it will require sending a greater creative mind to the black. Understanding this, it isn’t long before Kirk’s eye settles on the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King.
Twisted Oak, Maine is a fictional town occupying the area of real-life Arundel, Maine. It is a town with a black history tied to the protected lands around Tabitha Lake, a history its residents foam over like addicts. It is a town of secrets, most held by the descendants of its early landlords, the Rysher and Tromblee families, as well as those who still dwell along the shores of its only lake. From the blueberry plains along its western fringe to the ocean-washed strip of volcanic rock on its eastern border, Twisted Oak is a town alive and embedded in its own darkness.
Kirk Matthews arrives with his family at their new home on Tabitha Lake. Like other water-fronted property in Maine, their new home comes already (and ominously) named, White Specter. Kirk is set to drink his way through the unloading of the U-Haul, allowing himself to work through a twelve-pack of high ABV beer and leaving him fully wasted by the afternoon. But Kirk hides it well, as he’s hidden the true depth of his relationship with alcohol over the last eight years following his final rejection letter from a New York agent where his own query had been returned with a hand-written note in its upper margins reading: Sloppy. Unreadable. Won’t sell.
Tabitha Lake is home to a scattering of camps and cottages along a sliver of its eastern shore. The rest of the lake is protected by an iron-clad land trust in place since twelve boy scouts, two scout masters, and a German shepherd vanished there in the ‘40s. While Kirk’s family finds themselves quickly taken with the stories of Camp Rendwood, now swallowed up in the wilderness along the western shore, Kirk busies himself with a trip to the local mom-and-pop for the bottle of scotch which will push him over the edge on their very first night in White Specter.
Making his way into the basement of their home, Kirk discovers renovations that seem to have been left in the middle of work, and as he enters the utility room to hook up their washer and dryer, his body immediately rejects the booze in his system. Kirk is overwhelmed by a crushing dread in this place, doubling over and vomiting until he’s purged all he has consumed. He loses consciousness and wakes to his wife accusing him of blacking out. When she goes to bed, furious with him, Kirk lifts a pad of paper used for grocery lists and notes, and he finds himself lost in the first story he’s written in eight years. He works on it until sunrise.
Time passes and the Matthews settle in at White Specter. Kirk meets his neighbor Reggie Barber after nearly running the 80-year-old down filling potholes in their gravel camp road. Reggie recognizes Kirk as a creative immediately, and explains to him that the lake attracts those who’ve struggled to build a life around their art. He explains to Kirk that life on Tabitha Lake (Black Tabby as Reggie calls it) is one of give-and-take, and that while Kirk may be happy with his new muse, even guaranteed success if he fully succumbs, it will end up taking things from him which he’ll come to regret in the end. He tells Kirk that the only way to mute their creative channel to the lake is by drinking to excess.
Kirk ignores Reggie’s warnings and promises his wife Kennedy that he won’t touch another drop again. Not only is it easy to abstain here, it has afforded him a way to replace his addiction with creative work while easily juggling his roles as a father and husband in a way the bottle would never allow. Kirk digs into his work, praised by his family, and produces a handwritten first draft of his first new novel after only one month. During this period the lake begins to communicate with him using the family cats, Peanut Butter and Jelly, suddenly imbued with the powers of speech and sentience. Kirk’s relationship with the lake deepens, and his wife Kennedy drowns unexpectedly while swimming with the kids.
Kirk is left alone with his children, and over the following few months he finds himself active as a father in ways at which he’d only ever scratched. What’s more, he’s creating under the promise of a better life for himself and the children, who move on from Kennedy’s death with an ease that is almost otherworldly.
It’s only as autumn transitions toward winter that Kirk begins to feel his channel to the lake weaken. He has started another book, but over time the words stop flowing as effortlessly. He’s told by Jelly that the lake would demand a sacrifice, and he’s led back into the basement utility room, a place he’ll seldom venture, and instructed to lift the grille on the sump pump pit. Kirk discovers there a passageway through solid granite into the black of Tabitha Lake. He’s told by the cat that he is expected to feed a fellow creative to the black.
Though Kirk understands what he must do, he struggles with the act. He wants to continue feeding his work, but Reggie’s promises that he’d lose himself to this place begin to take on weight. It’s not until Kirk places his manuscript in the hands of an old friend and self-identified indie-publishing expert that things simply fall into place. Kirk’s friend Terry is a realtor and self-published novelist. Like Kirk, Terry defines himself with his art. Unlike Kirk, Terry seems happy self-publishing his print-on-demand paperbacks and soaking up the weak validation they offer. Terry spends a week reading and re-reading Kirk’s book, eventually arriving disheveled and stinking at White Specter to discuss its finer points. Terry begs Kirk to sell him the manuscript, insisting that Kirk will write others. Terry understands that this is a book which will truly sell, and he’ll do anything to have it.
Enraged, Kirk smashes a boiling pot of coffee over Terry’s face and drags him at the cat’s urging into the basement. There, Kirk works through his conflicting emotions, eventually offering Terry to the black. All at once Kirk’s creative juices are flowing again. Terry’s history of suicide attempts is manipulated by the lake to explain his disappearance. Kirk secures the very agent who’d demoralized him into quitting writing and started him on the bottle nearly a decade earlier, and by the start of the new year Kirk has sold his first novel.
Summer arrives in Twisted Oak to find Kirk editing his first release and wrapping work on his fourth novel since coming to White Specter. Everything is progressing exactly as he’d been told, with two strikingly new developments. His twelve-year-old daughter Michaela has started work on a book of her own. His fourteen-year-old son Jason has learned how to code video games. Kirk doesn’t simply suspect that the lake is flowing now into his children, he knows it. What he fails to see is how his new addiction to writing has replaced his former relationship with booze. Kirk begins making excuses for his children’s odd and obsessive behavior, assuring himself that they’d never be asked to do the things he’s now done in maintaining his bond with the lake.
Reggie re-emerges from his solitude farther down the lake and tells Kirk while draining a bottle of 18-year-old scotch that he’s been to Camp Rendwood on the western shore and he knows what lives beneath the lake. Kirk accompanies Reggie to the camp, with Jason tagging along at Reggie’s odd insistence. Upon arrival, Reggie is armed with an assortment of alcoholic nips, which he insists Kirk and his son imbibe if they’re going to pass onto the camp grounds. Kirk grudgingly accepts this only as that familiar dread from his basement settles over him. It’s his first drink in months, and as Kirk feels the alcohol weaken his connection to the lake, he realizes for the first time that he isn’t entirely himself.
Reggie leads Kirk and Jason into an old mess cabin, where he shows them a similar portal into the earth to the one disguised as a sump pump pit in White Specter’s basement. There, Kirk is overwhelmed with intuited information, learning that the force beneath the lake is an ancient and corrupted muse named LLORHEST. He learns that, after spending millennia alone in this place, LLORHEST has essentially consumed and perverted its own creative power. Where the muses of old lived once to spill their creative powers upon humanity, asking for nothing in return, LLORHEST is a resentful force and needs to feed.
Kirk returns with Reggie and Jason. Reggie tells him that he can only attempt to dissuade Kirk from remaining on Tabitha Lake, that the free will of man trumps all. He tells Kirk that he’ll have nothing more to do with him so long as he continues to send others to the black, informing Kirk that a final conversation awaits between them before all is irretrievably lost.
Not willing to turn away from his dreams, Kirk remains on Tabitha Lake, watching as his children’s obsessions deepen. As the summer months unfold, Kirk and his children meet their new neighbors, Derek and Carolyn Imperioli, a construction man and his daughter out of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The father and daughter nearly collide with the swimming Matthews in their boat, only to invite them along for a ride. Michaela and Carolyn become fast friends, while Derek and Kirk come to discover that they are both former slaves to alcohol.
The Matthews and Imperiolis become like one family. They are inseparable all summer. Kirk finds in Derek a kindred spirit who understands all he’s given up, and as they explore their relationship, the two men begin to circle feelings for one another. For the first time in his life, Kirk comes to understand the ties that bind certain souls in this world.
The months fall off the calendar with nary a blemish on the lake family’s summer. It isn’t until Twisted Oak’s autumn celebration and fair, Rysher Family Days, kicks off that Kirk notes a dramatic and dark shift in Michaela. He confronts her one night after tailing her into the basement with Peanut Butter. There he overhears her speaking to the cat, though he cannot hear the voice which answers. Michaela assures her father that she’s fine, even weaponizing his own relationship with the lake against him, and as Kirk often did when his drinking held up a mirror to the monster he’d become, Kirk presses beyond his reservations and finds frustration as his creative work once more begins to fail him. Another sacrifice would be required of him soon.
Kirk and Derek host a barbeque for the residents of the lake. There Derek learns that Stephen King (a regular attendee of Rysher Family Days and massive supporter of the Pine Hill Refuge League where flying fox bats are often showcased) doesn’t simply visit Twisted Oak once each year. The Master of Horror actually owns a camp at the edge of the land trust on the eastern fringe of Tabitha Lake. Derek rushes to tell Kirk but finds Kirk, Michaela, and Carolyn missing from the party.
Earlier that evening, Kirk senses something in his daughter. Something dark. He leaves the party to pursue the girls to White Specter, where he’d glimpsed them entering on his front door camera minutes earlier. Kirk arrives to find Michaela alone and insisting that Carolyn had ventured home on her own, but Kirk knows better. They return together to the party, where Derek is beyond distressed, still unable to find his daughter. Kirk and Michaela assist in canvassing the lake for signs of Carolyn, knowing that she’d been fed by Michaela to the black. Almost at the same moment, a fireworks explosion at the fairgrounds claims the lives of the entire Twisted Oak Department of Public Works. Something truly terrible has happened.
Kirk knocks on Reggie’s door that night to ask if the old man has seen Carolyn. Kirk knows she’s gone, but he understands on a deeper level that the time for his final conversation with Reggie has arrived. He finds Reggie in the final throes of cirrhosis of the liver, still drinking heavily and dying on his front porch. Reggie explains that he’d wanted Jason to accompany them to Camp Rendwood those months ago to show Kirk how dangerous LLORHEST was to the malleable minds of children. The old man dies in Kirk’s arms while spilling his secrets. He reveals that he’d never made it all the way down into the pit at the camp, that he couldn’t force himself down no matter how much he drank, but he’d left with enough intuited knowledge from the place to fill the heads of a dozen people. Reggie then tells Kirk that he’d lost a duffel of dynamite in the black, and that he’d intended to blow the caverns beneath the lake and flood LLORHEST out for good. He informs Kirk with his last words that he’s left something inside his house for him. Kirk ventures inside to find a crude painting of LLORHEST, a black and tumorous female form shedding tar-like sludge at her feet.
Kirk leaves Reggie’s house feeling conflicted and broken, but lacking the willpower to abandon all he’d worked to accomplish on Tabitha Lake.
The Matthews drift away from Derek, who falls into deep despair over the mysterious loss of his last living family member and surrenders once more to the bottle. Kirk, frustrated with his ever-declining productivity, sends Kennedy’s sister Scarlett, an amateur painter from Ogunquit, to the black. He’s instantly rewarded by an even heavier period of obsessive creation, and as he and his children settle further into LLORHEST’s designs, they alienate Derek entirely.
As autumn closes and Kirk is on the verge of seeing his first novel hit shelves, Derek visits him with a gift. Derek, the very embodiment of love in Kirk’s darkening world, places a Ruger pistol in Kirk’s hands and tells him to use it on himself. Derek explains that he can feel what has them, that he knows they were responsible for his daughter’s disappearance, and that he knows Kirk and his children are lost to it. He finishes by telling Kirk that Stephen King comes to Twisted Oak once each year for an entire month, alone. Derek seems to understand the course this will place Kirk on, and as he leaves Kirk forever, he explains that Kirk’s end will be far worse than anything they’d done to Carolyn.
Kirk begins to divide his time between his work and steady research into the travels of Stephen King. He learns that the Master of Horror will be in town according to schedule in only a month, and he realizes how easy it could be to send King to the black and absorb his creative power. Kirk Matthews would be the richest, most famous, most universally beloved author in the world. This consumes him, erasing the former gains with his children, who are themselves equally invested and already seeing success with their creative work. Michaela has landed a publishing deal of her own, gleefully likening herself to Carson McCullers and showing zero remorse at having sent her friend Carolyn to the black. Jason is receiving offers from game developers for the video game he’s coded, but hasn’t, to Kirk’s knowledge, sent a single soul to the black.
It’s as his time comes and Kirk prepares to murder Stephen King that he catches Michaela in the process of feeding her own brother to the black. Now little more than a monster driven by impulse and unimpacted by morality, Michaela turns on her father, who is able to stop her only as he dumps the notebooks containing her writing down the sump pump pit. As she dives for them he shunts her aside, and she lands knocking her head on the concrete, unconscious.
Kirk rushes his children to a hotel on the coast, just outside of Twisted Oak. There he abandons them to his task with Stephen King, listening numbly as Jason begs him not to leave them alone. But Kirk can only see the great future he’s been promised, and he’s unable to extract himself from what must be done. He needs King’s power. Only with this sacrifice can he channel the energy needed to crank out enough stories to flee Tabitha Lake forever with his children.
Having already sourced out the location of King’s camp, Kirk arrives with Derek’s Luger and a bottle of scotch, prepared to wound King and cart him back to White Specter. But Stephen King is waiting for Kirk when he arrives, and its only as Kirk sits down to palaver with his greatest hero that he learns King has been coming to this place every year since writing his first novel, Carrie. Not once has Kirk entertained the idea that King’s power and his own might be funneled from the same source, and as Stephen King explains that Kirk will not be feeing him to the black he lights into Kirk for not seeing the bigger picture in his life. King explains that the difference between himself and Kirk is that King understood the darkness of this place from the get-go and refused to bring his family to its shores.
Kirk leaves demoralized and prepared to take his own life. He understands as he breaks his sobriety and gives in to the bottle for the last time that he’s always been rich, he’s always had all he’d needed, and he’d squandered and corrupted it all. What were fame and success and validation without loved ones with whom to share them? It’s with these thoughts that Kirk travels to Camp Rendwood, intent on confronting LLORHEST once and for all to save himself and his children. He drinks the entire bottle of scotch and descends into the black.
Reggie’s voice speaks in his mind as he descends into the caverns and catacombs beneath the lake. It bombards him with so much information that Kirk nearly passes out under its crushing weight. He learns that LLORHEST, like the rest of the Greek and Roman muses, came into existence in love, but found no souls in its domain to touch. LLORHEST had fed upon herself over the centuries leading toward the first Micmac Native Americans discovering the lake. Kirk intuits that the Micmacs (and later the Abenaki) did not live on the lake, but would visit it for rituals of creation where they’d willingly offer up their best and most talented artisans to LLORHEST, stoking a hunger which would endure for all times.
Kirk spends what feels like years in the black. After collecting the duffel of dynamite Reggie had lost here decades earlier, he presses deeper into LLORHEST’s domain.
Kirk stumbles over crude pottery and snags his feet on elaborate weavings. As he explores the vaults beneath the lake, Kirk finds waterlogged paintings belonging to his friend Reggie along with a pile of discarded King first editions. These are not the collections of a benevolent muse but the discarded offal of its denizens. They are meaningless to the muse, who has kept them out of lost detachment to her former existence. Kirk comes to understand that LLORHEST sees them as the waste-product of its endless feeding, and is confronted then by the muse. LLORHEST is a non-corporeal shade taking the form of a woman. Her body is black and tumorous, exactly as it had been in Reggie’s painting. When she seizes Kirk, intent on devouring him, he’s overcome with the need to return home and write, but he’s able to use the liquor in his system to deaden it enough to follow through with his original plan.
Clutching Reggie’s lost dynamite to his chest, Kirk turn’s Derek’s Luger upon it and fires.
The next morning Derek Imperioli is walking the western fringe of Tabitha Lake, still searching for his daughter. He breaks through the trees at Camp Rendwood, noting a difference in the lake’s very character. Lifting a bottle of his own to his lips, Derek notes a shimmer of activity draws outside the mess cabin. There he see’s Kirk’s ghost and understands that something has happened on Tabitha Lake. The men share a moment together, both feeling the loss of what could have been between them, then Kirk vanishes and the darkness of Tabitha Lake lifts entirely.
Michaela and Jason sit within a police conference room in Twisted Oak. They are told that their father cannot be located, and on a level they understand what has happened. It’s as an email arrives from a Silicon Valley developer asking to option Jason’s game, and as Michaela produces a pad and pen, that Derek Imperioli arrives asking about them.