Welcome to The Interactive Novel, the novel that allows you the reader to decide what happens during the novel. The Interactive Novel follows fifteen year old Nigel Briggs, apprentice to Professor Ashcroft, as they investigate supernatural occurrences in Victorian Britain.
At the end of each weekly instalment there will be at least one poll where you will decide what happens next. Whatever option receives the most votes decides what happens. To take part, read the instalment below and then make your vote.
Voting closes for the Second Instalment on Monday the 6th April 9am GMT
Sunday 9th of September 1860
Gertrude Stubbs sat cross legged on the floor, the tip of her tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth. Concentrating she tried to sound out the word in front of her. Nigel waited, knowing that she would not utter a syllable until she was certain she was right.
“Do you want me to help you?” he asked.
She looked up from the page. “No, I can figure it out. It’s just a bigger word than I have ever read before.”
“That’s the idea. I thought I would test you.”
Gertie was a maid in Professor Ashcroft’s house and for her assistance in a previous investigation the Professor had promised to provide her with an education. Of course, this meant Professor Ashcroft had delegated Nigel as her tutor. At fifteen years of age Gertie had spent the previous ten years of her life working in a pottery factory and could not read and write. Nigel had not known where to start. He had no previous experience in teaching and had improvised his lessons sometimes pushing her too hard and other times patronising her. Fortunately, Gertie was a keen student with a hunger to learn and she accepted his teaching methods as just another challenge to work through.
Nigel enjoyed teaching Gertie. Not only did teaching Gertie allow him to escape the monotony of recording the Professor’s notes it gave him the perfect excuse to spend time with her. She was Nigel’s confidant and the only person he could tell the truth about what had happened in Rose Harvey’s bedroom and at the churchyard. They had had shared several terrifying experiences together. They had seen dead men walk and been hunted by a murderous wraith. After experiences like that she did not doubt his encounter with a vampire.
“Is the word, beeeecause?” Gertie said.
“Excellent,” he beamed. “I didn’t think you would get that word. Shall we call it a day?”
“It’s not even lunch time yet. If Mrs Cooper suspects I’m not learning she will make me do the laundry. Or perhaps I should sneak out the house and get some fresh air. What do you think?”
“I will leave you some work to do. The Professor will be up soon, and I will have to report to him.” Nigel had returned late the previous night and had missed seeing the Professor. Professor Ashcroft had been at his usual haunt, the Noscere Society, where learned gentlemen discuss their big ideas until the early hours. He would rise late morning, early afternoon, and even though Sunday was Nigel’s day off, the Professor would still expect to hear his report.
“Are you going to tell him the truth this time?” Gertie asked.
“Sort of,” he said uncomfortably.
“You’re going to tell him it was a vampire? Like from that story you showed me.”
Nigel had shown Gertie the story Varney the Vampire. He had seen the parallels between the creature in the girl’s bedroom and a vampire from a penny dreadful story published several decades earlier. Surprisingly he had found the story published in book form in Professor Ashcroft bookcase full of novels. Amongst the works by Dickens, Shakespeare and Brontë were Frankenstein, several anthologies of ghost stories and Varney the Vampire. It appeared that even though the Professor disputed the existence of the supernatural he did enjoy a good ghost story.
“I’m going to tell him that the superstitious locals believed it was a vampire, broke into a crypt, and set fire to a body.”
“What about when you confronted the vampire in the bedroom?”
“That is just a minor detail I will omit from my report.”
“You have to tell him the truth.”
“And have him lecture me how I let my vivid imagination run away with me or tell me that I dreamt it all. I could do without his disproval for once. He will be happy to know that the locals are pleased they burnt a vampire and it is all over.”
A bell rang from the floor above. Professor Ashcroft was awake. Nigel rose to his feet.
“Nigel, tell him the truth. One of these days the Professor will underestimate the dangers you face and one of you will get hurt.”
“I need evidence. Without proof he won’t believe me. Even if I had managed to have brought back the vampire there in no saying he would accept it as genuine. The Professor won’t accept anything he can’t explain. Once I can prove to him, without a shadow of doubt that he can’t dispute the evidence, I will tell him the truth, until then it is better to keep quiet. Now I must report to him. Why don’t you work on your letter formation?”
Nigel made his way up the stairs. He passed Mrs Cooper, the housekeeper, on the second-floor corridor. “The Professor wants you to wait in his study while he dresses. He wants you to brief him while he eats his breakfast. Now where is Gertie?”
“Working on her writing.”
Mrs Cooper gave him a sour look. She would have to fetch the Professor’s breakfast herself. She thought that Gertie’s education was just an excuse to avoid work and at times it was.
Mrs Cooper had already lit a fire in the Professor’s study. It was a cool damp day but still September and dressed for the weather Nigel found the room sweltering. He stood by the window to wait for the Professor. Looking out on the quiet street he considered opening the window.
“Do not even think about it, Nigel,” the Professor said entering the room. He was dressed in a thin shirt. “I do not pay good money to burn coal for you to let all the heat out. If you are hot, take off your jacket. You are dressed as if you are embarking on an expedition to find the North West Passage.”
Professor Ashcroft lowered himself down into his armchair beside the fire. He scratched his chin, smoothing down his fashionable rim beard that framed his face. In his mid-thirties the Professor did not have a single grey hair, yet his skin was pale from his lifestyle spent indoors and he had begun to develop a stomach pushing against his shirt.
“So how did you get on?” asked the Professor gesturing for Nigel to sit on the hard-wooden stool in front of him.
“The locals believed a vampire was responsible for attacking Miss Harvey.”
“I hope you told them that the girls night terrors were nothing more than nightmares.”
“Was that all that happened then?”
Nigel took a deep breath. “While I was there the locals broke into a crypt, they removed a coffin and set fire to it.”
“Did they? Why on Earth did they do that?”
“They believed the body in the coffin was a vampire and was attacking the girl.”
The Professor laughed. “What a load of nonsense. Really, it makes you despair what the uneducated will foolishly believe. I hope you told them that vampires do not exist. What made them pick this body? Let me guess the deceased was a lone individual more likely despised when alive.”
“Supposedly the vampire was seen in Miss Harvey’s room. It was chased away and fled into the crypt. When they opened the crypt, they found the vampire in its coffin and recognised it as the same creature that had been in the girl’s room”
“My goodness you could not make this up. And you observed all this?”
Nigel shifted uncomfortably on the stool. “Just the removing of the coffin and the burning of it, sir.”
The Professor frowned. He opened his mouth as if to question Nigel further but then deciding he didn’t want to know fell quiet.
“Can we assume that burning the coffin has placated the superstitious locals and has put all this nonsense of vampires to rest?”
“Good, good. You know Nigel, I think you may turn out to be a valuable apprentice after all.”
Nigel gave a small smile in reply. Pleased the Professor clapped his hands together. “Now shall we discuss more pressing matters?”
The Professor rose to his feet, crossed over to his desk, and returned with a small package wrapped in brown paper. He passed the package to Nigel. The package was star shaped and the paper was loosely wrapped as if it had been opened on multiple occasions. It had been tied shut with some string pulled into a tight knot.
“Tell me what you make of this?” the Professor asked sitting back down.
Nigel pulled at the knot trying to open a loop to pull the string free. He pulled at the string to no avail. He lifted the knot to his mouth.
“Really, Nigel? Must you make a meal of everything. I loosely tied that knot myself. Pass it here.” Nigel passed the package over. The Professor pulled at the knot. He shook his head. “You have made a right mess of this. I tied the knot loose so it would be easy to open, and you have gone and tightened it. Go and get some scissors.”
Knowing it was best not to object Nigel fetched some scissors from the Professor’s desk. The Professor cut the string, unwrapped the paper, and then passed him a tightly wound bundle of black straw. At first Nigel thought it was a misshapen straw star then turning over he realised it was a straw man with his straw arms and legs splayed out.
“It’s a corn dolly, sir?” Nigel said failing to see the importance of it. In the village where he had grown up it was common practice to weave little straw figures at harvest time. He held his left hand up. It was covered in black soot from where he had touched the corn dolly. “Where has it been? Up a chimney?”
“Precisely. You are right on both counts,” the Professor said with surprise. “Perhaps we have better stop there while you are winning. Now do you know the significance of finding a corn dolly in a chimney?”
“Stops a draft coming down the chimney in summertime?”
“I should have known your new-found insight would not last. This is no ordinary corn dolly. It is a poppet.”
Nigel turned the figure in his hand. It was rather crudely made, he even though he might be able to make a better figure himself, and he failed to see what made it different from any other corn dolly.
“I don’t know what a poppet is sir?”
“It is a certain kind of doll that can be made from straw, roots, hair, reeds, and so on. A poppet is used in sorcery or witchcraft. It is hidden within in a house often up a chimney. Depending on the motivations of the caster a poppet can be a force of good to protect the household or can be used to cast curses on the occupiers. The poppet in your hands is believed to be the later.”
Startled Nigel dropped the poppet to the floor. “It’s cursed?”
“Stop being ridiculous and pick it back up.”
Under the Professor’s disproving gaze, he cautiously picked up the little straw man by his fingertips. He held it out to the Professor, who made no attempt to take off it him, leaving Nigel to hold on to it. He half expected the little straw figure to writhe in his hands. He held it as far from himself as he could without risking the Professor’s disproval. Oblivious to his discomfort the Professor continued
“There is no such thing as witchcraft, but there are those that still believe in the superstitious nonsense that has blighted history with its intolerance. The belief in witchcraft is an evil that has condemned many innocent souls to death. In primitive parts of the world women are still accused and murdered for witchcraft. It was only 170 years ago that women were being put to death in America. The crimes committed in the heinous belief of witchcraft is one of the reasons why I have made it my life’s work to disprove any notion of the supernatural. I will not sit by and tolerate any person’s life being ruined by clearly false accusations of possessing impossible powers.”
The sudden passion in the Professor’s voice took Nigel by surprise.
“But sir I fail to see the significance of this poppet thing. If witchcraft is not real, why are you showing it to me?”
“The poppet you are holding in your hands was discovered by a good friend of mine, Thomas Berwick. He owns Moonhurst Estate in Yorkshire. The poppet was found last week in a chimney in Moonhurst Hall. It was not the only poppet discovered. There was a poppet in every chimney in the hall, over two dozen in total. Now a horde of little straw dollies on their own is not a lot to worry about. However, there has been other strange occurrences at the hall.”
Not liking where this was going Nigel swallowed nervously. “What sort of things?”
“Many are mundane and can be easily explained by the imaginations of uneducated servants. Such as doors opening and closing on their own, phantom voices, spontaneous writing and things going bump. What is more serious is several animals on the estate have been found killed in a ritualistic manor.”
“There is more, isn’t there?” Nigel said. He knew the Professor well enough to know that what he had just heard was not enough to spark the Professor’s interest in the matter.
“You are getting better at this. My teaching is not going to waste,” the Professor said. “I have known Thomas since we were boys. We went to school together and I have never met a more rational mind than Thomas. He is well read and does not take fools lightly. Of course, he does not believe that witchcraft exists. However, his wife has been inflicted by a mysterious illness that is draining the energy from her body. She has unexplained pains that come and go as if almost at someone’s whim. Doctors are puzzled about the cause. Then the poppets were discovered and now accusations of witchcraft are causing severe disruption in the household. False beliefs are like a virus and easily spread. The rumours of witchcraft at Moonhurst hall are being spread in the local village. There is a danger it could begin to affect his business interests. He has asked me to disprove all this nonsense, especially as things have taken a serious turn for the worse.”
The Professor hesitated. For a moment he looked lost for words, an occurrence that Nigel had not believed possible.
“What is the matter, sir?” Nigel prompted.
The Professor exhaled deeply. “There has been…”
What happens next is up to You!
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The choices with the most votes will decides what happens next, so choose wisely.
The choice with the most votes will decide what happens next in The Interactive Novel,
So choose wisely!
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Vote Closes 6th April 9am GMT
Third Instalment Published Friday 10th April