The Mourner's Cradle: A Widow's Journey
by Tommy B. Smith
Damon Sharpe had in part found victory, he believed, in his battle to unearth a truth obscured by time. By autumn, he was dead, leaving to his wife Anne a house of unfulfilled wishes, remnants, and the key to the enigma of his obsession, the Mourner’s Cradle.
A journey through grief and peril delivers Anne Sharpe from her home in St. Charles to the faraway skeletons of a long-dead civilization where she will find the desperate answers she seeks…or die trying.
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It might be the first time any of them had noticed Anne’s wispy form, her light-complexioned features with pale blond hair that fell straight down on each side, and her brown eyes.
The others who filled the room spoke in hushed tones. Anne heard soft steps approaching from behind. A hand touched her shoulder. She pulled away from it.
“I’m sorry, dear,” the person, an elderly woman with curled white hair, said.
“Sorry for what?” Anne replied. She saw no value in artificial kindness. She certainly didn’t owe it to anyone.
She didn’t even know the woman who stood in front of her or most of the rest of these people, and they never knew her. They couldn’t know how she felt, what she and her husband had shared, or what remained now that he was gone.
The only things left of Damon Sharpe, other than the ring she wore and his still form in that casket, were inside of her and inside that house they had shared, though its contents had become almost worthless to her. The house might as well be empty. In a way, it was.
“Anne,” a soft voice said to her from nearby, “if there is anything I can do, please let me know.”
Anne turned and fixed the brown-haired woman in the gray dress with a flat stare. The woman swallowed, taking a step back.
“Anne, it’s me,” she said. “Tabby Reinhart. I know we haven’t talked in a while, but—”
“Miss Sharpe?” another voice broke in, the voice of a man.
The tall man in the dark blue suit stood just outside of Anne’s peripheral vision, to her left and behind, as if he meant to force Anne to turn around to face him. She wouldn’t give him that satisfaction. She continued to face the casket.
“My condolences,” the man’s low voice spoke.
“Why are you here?” Anne asked.
“Why, Miss Sharpe, I’ve come to pay my respects.”
“There is nothing respectful about your visit here. We both know that.”
The man shifted. She could imagine the amused look that crossed his face, even if she didn’t look at him.
“Very well, Mrs. Sharpe, my name is Brock Keller. Your husband and I—”
“I know who you are,” Anne said, “and I know why you’re here. You’re here to have one last laugh before they lower my husband into the ground.”
She faced the black-haired man in the blue suit and locked him full in her stare. “You have no right to be here.”
Keller appeared surprised. The surprise was feigned, Anne knew. No matter what he pretended or said to the contrary, Keller knew the hardship he had inflicted.
“You did your best to destroy everything my husband worked for,” Anne said to him.
“No, Mrs. Sharpe, you have it wrong,” Keller said.
“He was my husband,” she said. “You think I don’t know what went on his life? You think I don’t know about the things you’ve done? You’re a liar, Keller.”
Keller looked around, becoming nervous. People were staring. Tabby Reinhart, still standing near, took another step back.
“Get out of here,” Anne said to Keller. “You are not welcome here. Get out.”
“Don’t you think you’re overreacting?” he asked.
“Get out!” Her hand twisted into a fist. She swung and struck him right in the face.
Keller’s head jerked back. His face flushed crimson. He grabbed her arms and she fought him, screaming.
“GET OUT! GET OUT!”
Arms grabbed Keller from behind and pulled him back. Tabby rushed between them, pleading quietly with Anne. Anne shoved her away. More people pulled Anne back, but she shouted and fought against them.
Keller yanked his arms free of those around him and strode for the door. At the door, he took a look back, his jaw clenched. His eyes burned with anger.
“Dear, please,” the older woman urged Anne. “It’s all right. He’s gone.”
Anne turned her eyes toward the door where Keller stood a moment before, saw the truth of the old woman’s words, and forced her mouth shut. She pushed her shaking hands down to her sides.
“Will you be all right?” another voice asked her from out of eyesight. She didn’t know who had spoken and didn’t care. She took a deep breath. With this group of people around her, she felt like she was suffocating.
“Please,” she said through her teeth. “I just need to be alone.”
The group hesitated. After a moment, someone stepped away. The rest soon followed, leaving Anne again to stand in front of her husband’s coffin, tears on her face, emotion pouring from her fractured life.
The people standing behind her still wore those masks of concern, she imagined. She couldn’t turn to face them. Not now, in her moment of weakness. They didn’t deserve to witness this, her fragility. Besides, they wouldn’t understand.
It wasn’t sadness that possessed her and hardened her face against the tears that fell. It was hatred.
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I first considered myself a writer after selling short stories to various magazines, around 2007, though it took some time longer to land my debut novella with my first publisher. Several years, as it occurred.
I have enjoyed reading short stories as well as writing them since way back.
I’ve drifting toward longer stories these days. The Mourner’s Cradle was actually my first full-length novel since previous releases consisted of a novella, short story collection, and all of those short stories over the years.
Short stories allow me the liberty to explore a variety of worlds, themes, and characters, whereas I find novel writing an immersive and lengthier experience. A novel requires a commitment.
Being a writer requires the same, and in this I mean a writer rather than an author, though I’m both. An author has written. A writer writes.
I like to entertain the notion that my best work is not yet written. There is always room to explore, to develop, to improve.
What inspired you to write this book?
Some years ago, I found myself sitting a lot of funerals.
The longer you live, the more you’ll likely face the loss of those you knew and loved, and the void of their absence.
A tombstone’s inscription only reveals so much. Our own stories are epitaphs in the making. To condense our stories to epitaphs is to summarize all we’ve seen, known, and done into a few letters.
Then we have stories.
Cemeteries are places of silence, memories, monuments, and countless unspoken stories.
Loss, funerals, cemeteries, grief. These inspired my new book, The Mourner’s Cradle.
The Mourner’s Cradle is set in 1979, on the cusp of steep change. In its way, The Mourner’s Cradle is a story of what came before and why things have become what they are.
It’s a widow’s journey. After the loss of her husband, this is Anne Sharpe taking her next step forward into the unknown—and by the unknown, I mean the present.
Do you have any “side stories” about the characters?
A variety of characters inhabit these tales I’ve spun, and untold stories are a crucial part of their presence.
Of Anne Sharpe, The Mourner’s Cradle’s primary character, there is an entire past, much of which doesn’t appear in the book, though its effects translate into her present self. Also there is a story to Brock Keller’s father and Damon Sharpe, the catalyst which ignited a deadly rivalry.
Then we stories of Dr. Lawrence Cornwell, who is mentioned in The Mourner’s Cradle. The last of these is available as a free digital download from Amazon. It’s called “The Darkness That Swallows Time.”
Another minor character from The Mourner’s Cradle, Tabby Reinhart, has stories of her own.
Some of these stories I’ve written, while others I carry along through each day but haven’t yet committed to paper or screen.
There are untold chapters from the life of Lilac Chambers, the central antagonist of my horror novella Poisonous.
There are even characters from some of my short stories—Salvadore Shaw, Cinnamon Caraway, and Tarantula are some who come to mind—with extensive untold stories.
Knowing these characters and their backgrounds lends dimension to their development, I’ve found, and sometimes it isn’t necessary to tell every single story.
There can be merits to leaving things unsaid, details or back stories to the reader’s imagination. A reader’s imagination can be quite powerful.
Where did you come up with the names in the story?
Certain names suit particular characters within a story.
Let’s talk of the primary character of The Mourner’s Cradle—do I dare call her a protagonist, considering some of her actions in the story?
This is what you’ll get sometimes in my stories. You don’t get Prince Charming or the Valiant Sir What’s-His-Name. You’ll get someone like Anne Sharpe.
Anne is a classic name, belonging to countless women throughout history. Anne Sharpe’s story could be any woman’s, at least in the beginning.
When the layers begin to unwind from her core, however, we see a lot of anger and darkness. A name may not reveal much, just as clothing or a passing exchange might not, but a grueling experience will present a deeper picture, imperfect and true.
With some, a name springs into being with their personalities and place in this world of fiction. Ruben, Tabby, Brock Keller.
Harsh consonants make a name like Brock Keller, and there is a reason for that.
A name might come from anywhere, but it does have its source, even if plucked out of a hat, though I’ve never done so.
Who designed your book covers?
People say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, yet almost everyone does.
Ben Baldwin designed the cover of my new book, The Mourner’s Cradle, from Crystal Lake Publishing.
When the design of this artwork came into question, I communicated some idea of what I envisioned and he quickly found his unique spin on that concept. If you haven’t seen it already, take a close look.
It’s a gripping cover just in passing, but those who dwell on it will find a lot happening here. I’ll not spoil it for you by saying exactly what.
Undeniable kudos to Ben Baldwin, the artist, for capturing the spirit of The Mourner’s Cradle.
As for other titles, Eloise J. Knapp designed the cover art for my debut horror novella, Poisonous, a cover that conveyed the city of St. Charles under the lethal hold of the central antagonist, Lilac Chambers. Monique Snyman concocted the cover artwork for my dark fiction collection, Pieces of Chaos, more of an abstract piece which reflected the myriad of tales within. Those were the titles’ first editions.
Both of these have since resurfaced in second editions with artwork designed by Drop Dead Cover Designs.
How did you come up with name of this book?
My new book, The Mourner’s Cradle, derived its title from a term linking birth with death, and as of the latest book, has also become linked with the phrase, “cradle of civilization.”
Mesopotamia is considered to be the cradle of civilization, but other cultures existed in other parts of the ancient world and we have little information aside from vague remnants.
The South American Norte Chico, for example.
The skeletons hold their silence. It’s a prevalent theme in this story.
As for the subtitle of A Widow’s Journey, this refers to the character of Anne Sharpe, who has lost her husband. The ending of his story is the beginning of her story, a journey which begins in the city of St. Charles and carries her to the distant peaks of the Peruvian Andes and long-buried secrets of the ancient world.
The Mourner’s Cradle is a tale of rain, ice, and dead legends.
If you could spend time with a character from your book whom would it be? And what would you do during that day?
Because I write horror and dark fiction, you’ll see a lot of unpleasantness and conflict surface in the stories. I’ve had more than my share of interesting experiences with others in the past, and while many were interesting, they aren’t always experiences I would revisit.
So the question arises: if I could spend time with a character from my book, The Mourner’s Cradle, who would it be? Furthermore, what would we do?
This could be tricky.
The answer might surprise some people. Not many talk about the character of Tabby Reinhart from The Mourner’s Cradle, I’ve noticed, but because I know her so well, I think we might be able to share a drink.
Tabby is a contrary element to The Mourner’s Cradle’s maelstrom. I wouldn’t find it so easy to relax around a character like Anne Sharpe.
Anne isn’t always appreciative of Tabby’s role, readers may find. Those who look deeper may notice a contrast between Tabby’s actions and Anne’s perspective of their friendship.
What did you edit out of this book?
My new book, The Mourner’s Cradle, ends on a certain note which might have gone otherwise.
To elaborate, the book originally had an additional chapter at its end. Ultimately, I found the work stronger minus this addition, and withdrawing it ended the book on a very different note.
I’ve heard it mentioned that whether a story has a happy or unhappy ending depends on where you end the story.
I’ll divulge no spoilers for those who haven’t read the book, but I will say that ending it on this note, the one you’ll see in the book, held far more of an impact to me.
That other chapter, for those who might wonder, was a chapter of aftermath. While it might have fleshed out a certain aspect of the world in The Mourner’s Cradle, by the end, I judged the story more powerful without it.
What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
Sometimes researching for a book means looking into the past or into the imagination, whereas some projects require specific research.
The history of St. Anthony’s Fire, also known as the Holy Fire, interested me. Stories of mass poisonings, tales of people seeing dragons and demons, entire villages vanishing. These accounts inspired one of my short stories, Epitaph for Sol, which appeared in my collection Pieces of Chaos.
With a book such as The Mourner’s Cradle, research was more deliberate. I consulted outdated research materials published in the 1970s, because the book is set in 1979. The focus is on the views and developments of that time period.
Then the archaeological aspect came into effect. South American lore and relics, those we had at that time, provided only a vague outline of the ancient cultures in that region.
I spent some time in New Mexico a couple of years ago, and now my research has wandered into that territory, and I’ve begun writing a story based in the region.
Being a writer is a considerable part of life, on my end, and life and research have a tendency to overlap.
Do you read yourself and if so what is your favorite genre?
I read every day. My wife bought me a Kindle Paperwhite a couple of years back and that’s a nice thing to have. It’s easy on the eyes, allows me to read in the dark, and to carry many digital titles in a single device.
I still read paperback books as well, and sometimes I enjoy the compact collectible hardbacks. Not the gigantic hardback tomes that weigh fifty pounds, mind you.
Naturally, I enjoy horror, but I also read fantasy and don’t mind exploring the full realm of speculative fiction. Literary fiction and non-fiction as well, as long as it’s of a subject that appeals to me. It’s typical for me to read outside my genre as an author.
The only genre that doesn’t appeal to me is romance. I don’t mind a story having romantic elements, but a pure romance novel isn’t something I’ll be able to maintain interest in. That’s just my taste.
Some people are very narrow in their reading habits. I once had someone tell me he only read time-travel stories. To me, that means missing out on a broad spectrum of ideas and possibilities. Then again, though, it’s a matter of taste, and we all have our own for our own reasons.
What have I read lately? Mostly horror, as it turns out. I finished Bring Her Back by Jeff Strand not long ago, one of the more entertaining stories I happened across in the past year. Other recent reads include A Season in Hell by Kenneth W. Cain, The Unfleshed: Tale of the Autopsic Bride by Lisa Vasquez, and A Bagful of Dragon by Sakina Murdock.
Pen or type writer or computer?
Computers make things easier. I remember a time when I regularly wrote stories in notebooks. Some authors I know still do.
I had an issue with strangers approaching and interrupting me to ask what I was writing, or even standing up close and staring over my shoulder. An odd thing, trying to write in public, although I hear about many others authors doing it, but I find it distracting. It’s proven better for me to withdraw into my writing shelter to get the job done.
Those authors you hear about who are typing up their newest works-in-progress in your local Starbucks? They aren’t me.
I do have an occasional habit of writing stories on hotel stationary and in guestbooks. Writing exercises, if nothing else, but perhaps a quick tale to occupy someone’s time.
Typing is quick and easy, however. I’ve used computers since well before the reign of the internet, and value them as useful tools of the modern world.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
Writing can be a selfish affair. I know these stories, and it isn’t my way to cater to others’ whims or desires in telling them.
Despite my saying that, I do invite any questions and comments from readers. What I do is a different animal from someone else’s reaction to it, and that can make for some interesting conversation.
I don’t listen to the people who simply tell me I should be writing something else. That I should write “nice” things instead. Or those who detest a sub-genre of horror and say that no one should write it. I’ve heard this from some, yes, but someone who doesn’t like certain types of fiction—for example, a slasher story, or a tale set in another time period, or any number of other types of tales I’ve heard some say they don’t appreciate—they aren’t likely to persuade me not to write it on that basis. The easy answer is, if you aren’t open to it, don’t read it. We all have a choice.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
What is writer’s block?
You tell me, other writers. What is it that prevents you from writing?
I view writer’s block as a vague, general term for not getting any writing done. It’s more useful to pinpoint the reason why the writer can’t write, as there assuredly is one.
Are you too tired? Are the problems of everyday life occupying your attention? Are you pressed for time and overly stressed? Are you peppered by distractions and unable to focus on the writing as a result?
Rather than calling it writer’s block, call it what it is, that would be my answer—and once you’ve identified the problem, seek a solution.
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