Strings too Short to Use is a story in Lorrie Moore’s first collection Anagrams. I borrowed the name for the folder where I stash any interesting snippets I come across. Because I don’t trust my memory, newspaper cuttings, quirky anecdotes, even the odd scribbled phrase are all tucked away for ‘another time’ (also known as ‘whenever’). Occasionally I treat the folder as a scrappy game of Exquisite Corpse, and take things out at random, butting them up against each other to see will anything connect.
A Talented Man began with a single string too short to use; a casual reference to Bram Stoker’s wife I originally spotted online, which gave her full birth name, Florence Lemon Balcombe. Lemon! I mentioned it to my friend. What an interesting person Florence Stoker was, yet she is usually just referred to as the woman who broke up with Oscar Wilde for Bram Stoker. ‘Why don’t you write about her?’ my mate suggested, but I’m not interested in biography. Purporting to represent the real life of a real person makes me uncomfortable, nervous that I would be unable to stop myself colouring the paint-by-numbers of her life from my twenty-first century palette rather than her own. And anyway, my attention had moved on, distracted by another brightly coloured string: a Guardian article about a previously-unknown Edith Wharton play, The Shadow of a Doubt. Written in 1901, long before she found literary fame with The Age of Innocence, the manuscript was unearthed in an archive in Texas, eighty years after her death. Online goofing then unearthed other literary curiosities, including a BBC article from 2002 about the failed auction of the original and only known surviving manuscript of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Typed and heavily annotated in ink by Stoker himself, it had been expected to sell for more than £1m at Christie’s but failed to reach its reserve and was withdrawn. (Apparently, it was later bought by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.)
“Anything unique is at risk of vanishing,” Nick Groom writes in The Forger’s Shadow: How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature. When I read that, two strings began to edge closer together: an object uncopied is unique but under perpetual siege and human nature loves a how-the-hell-did-that-get-there discovery. It wasn’t a big leap from literary curiosities to literary frauds, especially when another string was provided by Bram Stoker himself. He was successful in all aspects of his life except his writing, and the careless disregard with which critics viewed his fiction left him sad and bitter. That Dracula is so successful today is thanks primarily to Florence’s valiant efforts as his literary executor. And there I had the heart of my book: a lost sequel to Dracula, created by talented forger and disillusioned author, Ellis Spender. Once a successful society family, Ellis and his mother Virginia live in a large, decaying house in London with two paying guests – Janey Gould, the beautiful and mysterious young secretary to the manager of the Lyceum Theatre (where Stoker himself once worked); and Irish medical student, Patrick Arcourt. Life for people like the Spenders had slowly eroded since the war. Their class was no longer on the inside, with its rights and privileges defended by those beneath it. Old money, the kind the Spenders once had, that which always replenished itself, was gone, a magic well run dry. While heavily dependent on their rent, Virginia cannot bring herself to utter the word ‘lodger’: “All her life she had treated income as air: it was just there, in whatever quantity she wanted or needed, and the adjustment to being more or less broke had been humiliating and painful.”
A Talented Man takes place in 1938 for two reasons: firstly, it would stretch credulity if the woman who could authenticate every shred of scrap paper her husband ever scribbled on, was alive. Also, even if Ellis were able to realistically hoodwink Florence Stoker, she would be the financial beneficiary of any ‘new’ Stoker book, not him. Nor could I involve her as a character in a fraud because of my own squeamishness about biographical correctness. For the plot to succeed, the book had to be set some time after her 1937 death. Secondly, from reading both factual accounts and fiction set in the mid-to-late thirties, it’s obvious that right up until the last moment, so many people (including plenty within the UK Government, as unable to deal with reality then as now) believed that another war on the scale of 1914-1918 was simply impossible. The parallels between the threat of an invasion of vampires from the east and the Nazis massing in Germany struck me: “A phantom gaining power, materialising as the shape of an eagle, its vast wings stretching to life. Yes, it is coming. A night-shadow flying high above millions of people whose eyes are shut, lost to the gleaming world of sleep, unaware that a great wind is gathering up its armies overhead, its sound that of the march of thousands upon thousands of boots striking hard against concrete.”
Ellis Spender is a man so convinced of his own entitlement, his own uniqueness, that when his new-found happiness is threatened, his response is swift and brutal. Privilege and talent turn to psychosis and murder. Murder: now that’s another string entirely…
(c) Henrietta McKervey
About A Talented Man:
Ellis Spender, only son of a once-esteemed society family, believes money, success and the high life are his birthright — only prevented by a cruel trick of fate.
Struggling to stay ahead of his creditors, the dejected writer decides to forge a sequel to one of the most famous novels of all time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Its remarkable ‘discovery’ will create the lifestyle he believes is his due. But as his scheme begins to bear fruit, others who stand to gain become obstacles. And Ellis will stop at nothing to achieve his desires…
A Talented Man is a page-turning literary thriller of deception, forgery … and murder.
‘Hangover Square meets The Talented Mr. Ripley, a chilling and engrossing tale of the psychopathic mind’ Christine Dwyer Hickey
‘The atmosphere of pre-war London is evoked with skill in this spirited story of literary skulduggery’ Joseph O’Connor
Order your copy online here.