ONCE A MONSTER by Robert Dinsdale (EXCERPT)
Today, we’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Robert Dinsdale’s brand new novel ONCE A MONSTER
From the critically acclaimed author of The Toymakers comes an imaginative retelling of the legend of the Minotaur, full of myth and magic and steeped in the grime of Victorian London; perfect for lovers of historical fiction with a mythical twist.
London, 1861: Ten-year-old Nell belongs to a crew of mudlarks who work a stretch of the Thames along the Ratcliffe Highway. An orphan since her mother died four years past, leaving Nell with only broken dreams and a pair of satin slippers in her possession, she spends her days dredging up coals, copper and pieces of iron spilled by the river barges – searching for treasure in the mud in order to appease her master, Benjamin Murdstone.
But one day, Nell discovers a body on the shore. It’s not the first corpse she’s encountered, but by far the strangest. Nearly seven feet tall, the creature has matted hair covering his legs, and on his head are the suggestion of horns. Nell’s fellow mudlarks urge her to steal his boots and rifle his pockets, but as she ventures closer the figure draws breath and Nell is forced to make a decision which will change her life forever . . .
Once a Monster is out today from Pan Macmillan! You can order your copy on Bookshop.org
It’s one of those nights when rain lacerates the city and every familiar sight is obscured. You’ve been out in thunderstorms before, but not like this. Tonight, the old rivers beneath London rage and rise up. Gas lamps flicker and die. Caught out on a night like this, a faithless man might find God (if only for the sanctuary of one of his churches); a thief might find honour (if only for the shelter of a Newgate cell). But you don’t have to worry about that, because you’re one of the lucky ones, watching from the window, the heat of a hearth-fire prickling at your back. Tonight, you get to curl up with a book and read this story. There are people out there who have to live it.
Minos is one of them. Spare a thought for him as he shambles through the storm – for he’ll be left for dead by chapter’s end, and after that, who knows what will become of him?
The giant has known he is being followed since he took shelter in the alley behind St Anne’s. There among the cowering street dogs, he sensed a presence: four cowled men, watching from alley’s end. Fellow vagabonds, you might think, caught out in the storm – but Minos has been hunted before, and he knows them instinctively for what they are. There are different kinds of street dog in the world, so he bows back into the storm.
The North Marsh Low Lodgings are not so very far away, but the city is different on a night like this. Watch how the wind turns the trees at St Anne’s to a frenzy of motion. Narrow your eyes, like Minos does, against the sleet driving into you at every conflux of roads. London is a deceitful city; what is navigable by day proves more devious by night – and, on a night like this, more devious yet. Without gas lamps or stars, there is little way of knowing north from south, or east from west; the city is hidden behind a constantly shifting cascade, so you must trust instead to the sensation of cobbles beneath your feet, the soles of your work-boots threadbare and thin.
Onward he goes. Left he turns; then right. Forward he ploughs; then back. It is strange how the whole of London devolves down to the few inches in front of your face, the ability to put one foot in front of another. Indeed, it is only by the strobing lightning that he realizes his hunters still shadow him at all. If only that lightning might illuminate the palaces at Westminster, perhaps he could find his way home. Instead, it reveals four cutpurses fanning out around him, a fifth somewhere ahead.
Instincts take over. Animal instincts. Yes, he has enough of those. He takes flight into tighter alleys – there are enough places to lose yourself in a tangle of London backstreets – but a man like Minos will always stand out.
Somehow, he reaches the river.
On its banks, the storm lifts squalls from the water and casts them around in wild, disordered furies. Minos tries to get his bearings – but being lost is a state of mind as well as body, and it takes too long to pick out the silhouette of the abbey. By then, the men are already around him.
‘He’s a big one,’ says the first.
‘But there’s five of us,’ says another.
Minos sees the cudgels in their hands. Leather straps. A length of lead pipe. Then: the flashing of knives. Something in his body remembers the touch of steel, and he rubs at a furrow of scar tissue by the nape of his neck.
‘Is he going to say anything?’
‘He’s one of those oafs. He’s got the body, but he doesn’t got the brain.’
‘Is he even going to fight back?’
They have their eyes on the satchel over his shoulder. Just as the cutpurses constrict around him, Minos tosses it into the water at their feet. Inside it, they find the four shillings and sixpence he got paid at the end of shift – but men like this are never satisfied without a fight; men like this always believe there’s more.
So they set about him.
How many times has this happened? He rolls with each blow, recoils at the knives plunged into his side, cradles himself as they set about him with steel-capped boots.
The only moment he tries to resist is when, satisfied with their work, they drag his brutalized body to the water’s edge. The river is high tonight. He can hear it surge and roil. He opens his lips to plead with them, but discovers, somehow, that he knows no language. Everything has been taken from him. Again.
Seconds later, he is submerged, and all the world is a kaleidoscope of grey, feathered only by red where his life’s blood leaks out.
The water pummels and turns him around. He does not know, any longer, which way is up or down. But that doesn’t matter, because he is already falling. Falling into dreams older than time. Falling into history and myth. Falling into memories that, if he lets them, will trap him like a maze.
Listen carefully, because that is where this story begins.
Enter the Labyrinth
Off the Ratcliffe Highway, London, November 1861
Nell wasn’t ordinarily the first to awake in the cramped, frigid attic above the Water’s Edge. At ten years old, and four years since she slept in a bed made up by a mother’s kindness, she had got used to the shifting of bodies around her, the sulphurous stenches that too often populated the night. But last night had been different. The rain sluicing through the roof slates and collecting in the tin pails, the wind roaring along the backstreets of Ratcliffe – all of that meant she hadn’t slept at all. Instead, she’d reached into the straw mattress, pulled out the two satin slippers she kept hidden there and stroked them, imagining the possibilities of the world that used to be.
Then, before another soul awoke, she pushed the slippers back into the mattress and waited for dawn. No sleep tonight – not for Nella Hart.
That was why she was the first to the river that morning.
That was why it was Nell who found the body, washed up on the shore.
She was poking it with a stick when the rest started arriving, pouring out of the lodging house attic with their bellies full of bread and beer. Storms worked strange magics on the river. The waters danced wild, and things were dredged up from below – not just the coal and iron ingots that were their usual trade, but treasures which had sunk to the bottom and lain undisturbed with the years. Plenty of treasure in that river, said old Murdstone. Find me a treasure and it will transform your life.
‘What you got there, Nell?’ asked one of the older boys.
His name was Noah. He said his father had danced the turncoat’s waltz at Newgate, but the others said he’d too often been seen selling himself at the Executioner’s Dock for that to be true.
Nell shrugged. They’d all seen dead bodies before. You didn’t spend your life picking through the tidal mud of the River Thames and not, occasionally, see the half-face of some unfortunate staring back at you. She poked it with a stick again. It was bigger than most. From a distance, she’d thought it the hull of some sunken river barge; it was only when she got close that she understood it was a man. Most of his flesh was covered in silt, but there was no doubting the enormity of the creature. Twice as tall as old Murdstone, and three times as broad. He could have closed one of those enormous hands around Nell’s neck and touched fingertips on the other side.
‘Well, go on then,’ said Noah, ‘into his pockets, Nell.’
Nell looked back. Most of Murdstone’s crew were here now, but not yet a sign of the old man himself. A collection of eleven ragged faces looked curiously upon her; eleven pairs of eyes egging her on.
Murdstone said there was no such thing as ghosts. You couldn’t desecrate the dead because the dead had done their own desecrating, by leaving their mortal bodies behind.
‘So get digging,’ Murdstone used to say. ‘Pockets and linings. Belt buckles and bootstraps. Take the coat off his back, if it’s worth a thing.’
Nell got down on her knees, then lifted the man’s enormous arm so that she might reach the pockets of his overcoat. Most of these were filled with river mud as well.
‘You’ll have to do better than that,’ Noah scoffed. ‘He’s got a belt, ain’t he? Check his teeth. Might be a false set in there. Murdstone’ll buy you a fish supper, for a set of false teeth.’
Nell recoiled at the idea of reaching into the man’s jaws, but the thought of a fish supper was, at least, a restorative. Noah seemed sweet on the idea himself; he was ready to reach for the cadaver when one of the other boys shouldered him out of the way, grunted, ‘It’s Nell what found it,’ and goaded Nell on with his eyes.
Nell crawled to the head of the corpse, whispered a plea for forgiveness, and took hold of the man’s lower jaw.
Almost immediately Nell knew something wasn’t right. She’d never felt a man’s face like this before. His jaw seemed more prominent than it ought, his brow ridged and starkly defined. She supposed the river could do terrible things to a body. Or perhaps he’d been brutalized before being tossed in. She screwed her eyes against the slimy horror of it, pushed her fingers between his lips – and then felt the whisper of something on her fingertips, the whisper of something that was surely not the wind.
‘Go on, Nell!’ Noah crowed. ‘Get your hand in there, or by God, I’ll—’
‘Stop!’ Nell cried. She was suddenly aware that, of all the faces gathered on the shore, she was the youngest – and, by rights, had no cause to be shouting at anyone at all. But she knew what river wind felt like: cold and sharp, coarse with the touch of sand. This thing she felt on her fingertips was warm and dewy. It came from within.
‘He’s alive,’ she said, and dropped her head to his breast to hear the distant tolling of a heart. ‘I don’t know how it happened, but he’s still alive!’
Once a Monster is out today from Pan Macmillan! You can order your copy on Bookshop.org