Katrina Monroe's The Rack
Bunny’s been gone two weeks now. Gone where, I have no idea, but I’m almost certain she won’t be coming back. She took everything from her broom cupboard, except the TORTURE FOR DUMMIES book I gave her for Arbor Day, and left no note. It’s as clean a break as I could have asked for, so why do I feel so crappy?
It certainly isn’t my new assistant, Grog. Big, ugly, with ears and a nose that look chewed up and spat back on his face, he looks a proper Igor-type. All that’s missing is the crumbling castle on the moors and a good thunderstorm.
Today is Grog’s first session; I couldn’t think of a better ginuea pig than Marcus Sedgwick. Airy, with a kind face and a sense of the ethereal about him, Marcus is strapped to the rack. Today, it’s tipped upright so that Marcus’ arms already strain from the effort of staying attached. I made a few adjustments to the rack last night, working well into the morning, that I can’t wait to see in action.
I check the straps and motion for Grog to stand on the other side. I turn to Marcus. “Where do you think your fascination with spirals originated?”
His eyes light up. I enjoy seeing the glee in their eyes before the terror of what is to come sets in. “I can trace it back to an exact moment, when I was 19, at university, and wandering along a street in Bath, UK, called The Paragon, a name that always amused me. Anyway, I was thinking about how life goes in circles, as people often say, and then I realised that actually it’s more like a helix, because no matter what you come back to, in one crucial day you have always moved on - because time has moved on. So the best way to draw a circle in in 3d space is by picturing a helix, with time as the z-axis… (for those of you who love Mathematics). Many years later, reading the work of Jung and others, I discovered that the spiral has been thought of in this way by lots of other people.”
“A bit like this, then?” I nod to Grog who grips the top of the rack in his meaty hands and yanks. The rack’s table spins on a crude axis and on the first half of the rotation, all is well. Then it reaches the halfway mark and somehow I got the math wrong because Marcus’s head smacks the floor. On the way up, he looks dazed but no worse for wear.
“That’s interesting.” I grin. “Does where you live play heavily into the settings of your books, or do you prefer to venture elsewhere?”
He smacks his lips a few times before answering. I hope I haven’t jarred anything loose. Bunny’s a big fan and if…
No. Bunny’s gone. Who cares what happens to her future reading material?
“A bit, yes,” he says. “The first part of Ghosts is based on the valley where my wife and I live in France. It’s an alpine gorge, and is snow-bound in the winter, but hot and verdant and lush in the summer. And full of spirals - ferns, and snails, and birds of prey that attack their prey in a spiral stooping path.”
I nudge Grog and he tilts the rack to the side. There’s only a flimsy rope securing Marcus’s middle to the rack, so he leans precariously sideways, with only his wrists and ankles keeping him from falling. He grimaces and his biceps twitch with the effort of keeping his body parallel.
“You named Poe as one of your writing heroes. What’s your favorite story or poem of his? Do you think you’ll ever adapt Poe’s work into your own (because I see a similar lyrical style and, frankly, I’d love to see it)?”
His answer comes out pocked with grunts and exasperated sighs. “Actually, I already did. At least in a short story. It was called The Heart of Another and was a riff from The Tell-Tale Heart. I think it’s in a collection called The Restless Dead, if you want to check it out. It was also based on the apparently true phenomenon that occasionally the recipients of hearts in transplant operations start to show some of the characteristics of the donor. Which is wonderful and also a tad creepy.”
I make a note on the title of the collection, and then scribble it out. Bunny’s gone..Gone.
His face is contorted and purple. The rope at his middle digs under his rips, almost bisecting him. With another prod, Grog tilts the rack a little further.
“If you were forced to take one book while exiled on a desert island, what would it be? (And nothing cheeky like The Art of Boat-building, eh?)” I ask.
“Well, I find this question relatively easy. I have two books that I could read for the rest of my life, starting again at the beginning as soon as I read the end. The first is Moby Dick, but since that contains a lot of quite technical nautical information and you might therefore consider it to be akin to The Art of Boat Building, I will take my other book: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It’s another very long book, and is my favourite book of all time. It’s about illness and love amongst many other things and is sad, funny, moving, thought provoking, challenging, uplifting and life affirming. I only know of one other person who likes it though. But she’s my wife, so that’s convenient.”
The answer seems to take the wind out of him and his breath comes in short gasps. The rope at his middle is probably constricting his lungs. I shrug and shove the rack further until he’s almost completely upside down. “I see you’ve got a book coming out in October set during the Russian Revolution. This is my favorite time period to read about in fiction and non-fiction alike. Reading the blurb makes me very excited for the release. Tell us a little about it.”
Marcus’s eyes, bloodshot and dim, fix on Grog. The doofus is picking his nails and eating what he finds underneath.
I wobble the rack to get Marcus’s attention.
He clears his throat. “The Russian Revolution is a wonderful, fascinating period of history, you’re right. It’s such a rich story, and yet one with such tragedy and despair, it makes for compelling reading. This book I’ve written is based on a true story, and one that I thought had every single thing you could hope for in a classic adventure story: spies, romance, cursed princes, beautiful princesses, revolution, war, and a missing fortune in jewels. It’s the true story of a British writer called Arthur Ransome, how he became a spy, and a double agent, and fell in love with Trotsky’s private secretary, escaping with her across enemy lines to return to the West, and freedom together.”
Grog claps his hands. “Spy!”
I raise an eyebrow. “Don’t talk, Grog.”
He hangs his head. “Grog sorry.”
For the hundredth time today, I miss Bunny. I hate her for it.
Taking care with Marcus’s head—I’m cruel, not evil—I spin the rack until he’s upside-down. The relief of the rope slackening around his middle is overshadowed by the instant tug on his ankles. Blood rushes to his face, turning it a bright red.
Left long enough, he’ll pass out.
“And while we’re on the topic,” I say, “Do you have a favorite time period? Your books have spanned several centuries (sometimes in a single novel) so I’d imagine you have a few.”
His eyelids flutter.
“Oh no you don’t.” I tug on the ropes around his ankles.
He whimpers. “I don’t have one favourite time period. I love many times history, including the present. I’m just looking for a good story to tell.”
I take no joy in his trembling limbs, his bulging eyes, the drool hanging in one continuous, glistening stream from his lip. There’s no way around it. I need her. And if I’m right, she needs me, too.
I have to wrap this up. Grog has wandered off—it’ll be no time before the place falls apart with his stomping and carrying on—so I’m on my own.
My last question carries weight. Perhaps it’ll prove useful in my plan. “What are you working on now?”
It takes a beat before I realize he passed out.
I shake the board—the thing almost tips over—and he sputters awake, talking as though he hadn’t finished with his last answer. “And as proof of that, my next book is set on the Mexican border in Juárez, and concerns 24 hours in the life of two friends in desperate trouble. It’s called Saint Death and comes out in the Spring…”
And back to unconsciousness he falls.
No matter. I’ll have Grog attend to him shortly.
For now, I need a plan. I’ll get my Bunny back if it’s the last thing I do.
MARCUS SEDGWICK was born and raised in East Kent in the South-east of England. He now lives in the French Alps.
Alongside a 16 year career in publishing he established himself as a widely-admired writer of YA fiction; he is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Michael L. Printz Award for 2014, for his novel Midwinterblood. Marcus has also received two Printz Honors, for Revolver in 2011 and The Ghosts of Heaven in 2016, giving him the most citations to date for this prize.
His books have been shortlisted for over forty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (six times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (four times).
Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and teaches creative writing at the Arvon Foundation and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and other graphic novels with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards.