“David Liss masterfully blends rich historical fiction with terrifying supernatural body horror . . . Highly recommended.”
—Jonathan Maberry, author of V-Wars and Ink
Thomas's problems are more serious than those of a typical young Victorian gentleman. His elder brother may be sabotaging the family's bank. His childhood friend has died under mysterious circumstances. Far worse, leaves are sprouting on Thomas's skin. Perhaps it is all the fault of the long-rumored “Peculiarities” lurking in London's grey fog?
Proper society scoffs at the notion of magic, even as it seeps into their buildings, transfiguring the rich and poor alike. If Thomas is going to save the family business —and stop turning into a tree—he'll need help from some rather improper companions. Desperate for counsel, he seeks the advice of a lycanthropic medium and London's unacceptable occult society...including a strange fellow named Aleister Crowley.
Release date: September 7, 2021
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Print pages: 336
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☙ One: Abundance ❧
Thomas stands in the ballroom of the massive house near Belgrave Square wishing he were somewhere else. Anywhere would do, really, except perhaps Thresher’s Bank, his place of employment. It is his position at the bank, lowly though it may be, that has required him to endure this elegant and endless gathering. All his life, Thomas has been free of obligation and responsibility, but that is over now. He is a young man, and his best days are behind him.
A string quartet plays softly in one corner. Liveried servants mill about, gentle as sheep, with champagne coupes on silver trays or towel-wrapped bottles at the ready to refill empty vessels. Shifting slightly to his left, the better to be draped in shadow, Thomas seeks to make himself invisible to the few people who might condescend to speak to him. Perhaps if he can remain unseen long enough, he will simply cease to be. Though not optimistic, Thomas thinks it worth trying. He does not wish to die—not precisely—and it is an exaggeration to say Thomas has a plan to kill himself. It is not an exaggeration to say he holds such a plan in reserve. How could he not, in light of what he fears he may become?
Thomas looks up to see Mr. Walter Thresher, the governor of Thresher’s Bank, and the man Thomas most blames for making his life an endless torment. It was not Walter Thresher who decreed Thomas must become a junior bank clerk. That much is true. Walter does seem determined to keep him forever in that position, however, subjecting Thomas to amounts of tedium and degradation he would have previously thought impossible.
Mr. Walter Thresher is some sixteen years older than Thomas. He has always been heavy but has grown alarmingly corpulent in the past half year since ascending to the governorship of Thresher’s Bank. His hair has begun to thin and recede, as though it no longer has the strength to cling to his scalp. Heavy bags hang under his eyes. Thomas cannot remember that Walter was ever cheerful, but there was a time when his countenance might suggest brief periods of what could reasonably be called satisfaction. No more, it seems. The responsibilities of overseeing Thresher’s have settled around the new governor’s middle, along his hips, and most particularly in his jowls. They have etched new lines upon his face and robbed his complexion of what little luster it once possessed. He shaved his beard some months ago, leaving side whiskers and his mustaches. It was a nod to changing fashions, though Thomas is of the opinion, one he keeps to himself, that Walter’s looks improve the more his face is concealed.
“What are you doing, leaning against the wall like a street vagrant?” the governor of Thresher’s Bank asks the junior clerk. “You are here to perform a task, not to lounge about uselessly.”
“Of course,” says Thomas. “The task. Documents to copy? Some files to be stored, perhaps?”
Walter scowls and takes a step forward, as if he is prepared to thrash this junior clerk before the guests. It is the ever-cheerful Mr. Hawke who steps forward to prevent any needless violence. He places himself between the two men, the most senior and among the most junior at the bank. “Let us not think of this task as a duty,” he says to Thomas, “but rather as a delight.”
Mr. Hawke—something of a professional factotum, as near as Thomas can tell—worked closely with the late Samuel Thresher for many years and now is always to be found near Samuel’s heir. Unnaturally thin, not at all tall, and clean-shaven other than his bushy side whiskers, Mr. Hawke’s quick, birdlike motions give him what Thomas considers to be a look of low cunning. Hawke’s eyes are too blue to be masculine and unusually narrow. Hardly more than slits, really. His nose is a blade, his chin so pointy that Thomas cannot fathom why the man does not choose to hide it with a beard, fashionable or otherwise. His face appears both strangely young in firmness, yet immensely old in the toughness of wrinkles around his eyes.
Now he leans forward slightly, like a sailor atop the main mast hoping to sight land, and gazes across the ballroom. When he spies his target, he grins like a simpleton, or perhaps like a panderer. “Ah, there she is. Not an obligation, but a prize.”
The woman in question stands silent and stern-faced next to her homunculus of a father. Walter Thresher has decided that Thomas must marry her, that the future of the bank, and his responsibilities to that institution, require he do so.
“I should perhaps simply walk over to her, ask her how she does, and then propose marriage?” Thomas suggests.
“Don’t be a dolt,” Walter snaps. “You needn’t propose this evening. Converse with her. Attempt to be agreeable. I know you have little enough experience with women who require no payment for their services, but you could damn well make an effort.”
“It is not so very difficult a thing to be pleasant to an attractive young lady,” says Mr. Hawke in a wistful voice, as though recalling experiences of his long-ago youth.
“I cannot understand why you should want me to—”
“You are not required to understand,” hisses Walter Thresher. “You are required to obey.”
“One step at a time, young sir,” adds Mr. Hawke in a tone that suggests he is speaking to a small child. “Your task for the evening is to be kind and attentive to this young lady. I must imagine there are less pleasant ways to pass a few hours.”
Thomas does not want to marry for the good of the bank, but he supposes it may not matter. He may be dead, or something near enough to dead, long before he is made to raise the subject of marriage to a woman who can surely have as little interest in him as he has in her.
“You will do as I say,” Walter Thresher tells Thomas. “You signed a contract when you came to work for the bank. You owe Thresher’s your allegiance.”
Thomas is slightly surprised to hear Walter reference the rumors of the curiously binding nature of contracts. In the age of the Peculiarities, many believe, only a fool breaks a binding agreement. Walter, however, is a staunch Tory and so maintains that the Peculiarities are nothing more than imaginative nonsense cooked up by disreputable newspapers. Yes, the fogs in London have become more common and thicker and, admittedly, more violent, but that is merely weather, and weather is subject to change. As for the rest—the odd occurrences and beings and transformations and, of course, the punishments meted out to those who break their promises—all a lot of rubbish. That is what Walter would say. It is what he has said, though, interestingly, he does not say it now.
“I confess to not reading the contract as carefully as I might,” Thomas says, “but I am certain it said nothing of marriage.”
“You consented to work in Thresher’s best interests and conduct yourself in a manner that benefits the bank, within and without your hours of employ.”
Thomas hardly thinks this amounts to a contractual obligation to marry whomever the bank governor so chooses. Walter is not a feudal lord, however much he might wish it otherwise. Even so, being no expert on contract law, Thomas isn’t entirely sure about the precise wording of the document he really had no choice but to sign. It is better to say nothing and allow the absurdity of what Walter is demanding to settle around them.
Walter seems to have concluded he has reached the outer limits of what conversation can achieve. He and Mr. Hawke wander off in search of more productive conversation. Thomas, meanwhile, reflects that the handful of sentences Walter uttered were perhaps the most he has heard out of his brother’s mouth, at least directed toward him, in some months—very likely since their father’s funeral.
Yes, Walter Thresher and Thomas Thresher are brothers, though the former is considerably older. A stranger unfamiliar with the Thresher clan might not have observed a nearness of relation based on their conduct, though perhaps in their appearance. Thomas looks very much like a younger, leaner, more genial version of Walter.
Their relationship has always been a distant one, and Thomas living under Walter’s roof for the past six months has in no way brought them closer. It was a stipulation of their late father’s will, just as it was a stipulation that Thomas must immediately begin work as a junior clerk in the family bank, a task to which he must dedicate himself until Walter deems it appropriate for him to rise.
Rising, Walter has made it clear, will be impossible unless Thomas can find a way to marry himself to Miss Esther Feldstein.
Thomas, who believes himself to be dying, or perhaps something more worrying and grotesque than dying, understands none of it. With the freedom that comes from the prospect of metamorphosing out of the human condition, he cannot bring himself to care about his brother’s wishes. Though why Walter should wish him to marry a Jew does, to some degree, excite his curiosity.
☙ Two: Adjustment ❧
Despite his best intentions, Thomas gazes across the room at the woman his brother wants him to marry. To his great relief, she demonstrates a studied determination not to meet his eye. That is encouraging. They cannot marry if they never speak to one another.
It is better not to think of Esther Feldstein. He will think of champagne. Thomas drains the contents of his flute and holds it for a servant to refill. He considers it important to repeat this process as many times as possible, to become an engine of champagne consumption. Overt drunkenness in the company of his brother is not a sound plan, but he needs armor against an evening sitting next to Esther Feldstein. Dark haired, dark eyed, and generously nosed, she is simply not the sort of woman a Thresher should be asked to marry. The idea of marrying anyone at all does not sit well with Thomas. He is only twenty-three and cannot support both a wife and his dignity on a junior clerk’s income. He dislikes even more the notion of being told whom he must marry. It is 1899, and with the world poised to enter a new century, young men should no longer have such decisions made for them. That Thomas is being told to marry a Jew is beside the point. Or very nearly so.
Thomas does not share the violent dislike of Jews common among his peers. The truth is, he is largely indifferent on the subject, and he supposes Jews are no better or worse than anyone else. He even has a bit of a grudging admiration for a despised and abused people who manage to climb to success so out of proportion to their numbers. Thomas has always felt an inclination—one he has wisely suppressed—to champion Jews and Gypsies and Negroes and Irishmen when his friends disparage them. What does it say about him, he wonders, that he should feel kinship with the most wretched of the races of man?
Thomas wishes not to marry this particular Jewess for many reasons. The social stigma, the miasma of shame, that would swirl about him for the rest of his life—the rest of his existence as part of the animal kingdom, we should say—is not the whole of it, but it is certainly a hearty portion. Every invitation not received, every party at which he is snubbed, would poke the wound afresh. He supposes to a man in love, these burdens must be endurable, perhaps even sweet. You and I stand against the world, my darling, and all that. There is a righteous power in facing adversity for a just cause, but Thomas has spoken briefly with Miss Feldstein, and it seems unlikely he will grow to tolerate her, let alone take pleasure in copious amounts of suffering endured for her sake.
He glances around the open room as the guests mingle and laugh and tell their tedious and pointless stories. There is Walter’s wife, Pearl, talking with a member of the House of Lords. Pearl is closer to Thomas’s age than Walter’s, and in appearance she is—well, how does one describe Pearl?
Walter is no one’s idea of handsome, but a man with money needn’t look like anything at all. A banker’s wife, on the other hand, must be charming. Pearl may qualify on that front. She has charmed Thomas, and when he was younger, he was perhaps even a little infatuated with her, though his feelings have now matured into something closer to pity.
Pearl is not pretty. Her forehead is low, her chin weak, her dull hazel eyes too far apart. Her hair is neither brown nor blond, but a muddy and unflattering concoction. Worst of all is her nose—narrow and downturned, slightly elongated at the tip, so when she speaks it waggles over her mouth like a fishing pole held by a jittery angler. Though closer to thirty than not, she is still plagued by adolescent blemishes, which cunningly contrive to show themselves despite thickly applied pastes and powders.
On the other hand, while nature has been uncivil in forming Pearl’s face, it has been more generous with her shape. Her figure aligns perfectly with the current fashion in its slender grace underpinned by womanly curves. Her dress, which is in no way immodest, makes it impossible to ignore the shocking truth that somewhere under many layers of fabric stands a naked woman. It is perhaps this to which the younger Thomas responded, though more likely it was her kindness and vulnerability. At least while in company, Walter has never shown any affection toward his wife, something that once made Thomas’s heart swell with what he thought might be love but proved to be recognition of a kindred spirit.
Thomas has a most unpleasant sensation—dare we call it a Peculiar sensation?—and realizes he must discreetly make his way upstairs to tend to some extremely private needs. His brother will not notice, because Walter is having what appears to be a conversation with three of the bank’s most senior directors. This is the perfect time to escape.
Just as Thomas glides by, the discussion comes to an end, but that seems to be of no moment, as Walter is now huddled close with Mr. Hawke, evidently licking his wounds. Mr. St. John, Mr. Minett, Sir Andrew Hyland, the three directors, appear no more pleased. Thomas hears them grumbling, sees them shaking their heads, and casting looks of disapprobation at one another. He hears muttered snatches of damned foolish and must right the ship and never in his father’s time. There are rumors that Walter has stumbled since taking the helm at Thresher’s. There have been whispers of large and inexplicable loans, of incoherent gambles, of a recklessness that leaves the directors confused and uneasy.
Until six months ago, when he was dragooned into junior clerking, Thomas had no intention of working for the family concern. Indeed, both his father and brother made it clear that he was not wanted at the bank. Nevertheless, these rumors trouble Thomas. Thresher’s is his family’s legacy, after all. He never knew his grandfather, Ulysses Thresher, the bank’s founder, but his portraits suggest he was a kindly man with ready smile and sympathetic eyes. As a boy, Thomas would make up stories about his grandfather, who, in these fantasies, was reliably attentive and good-natured, always ready with a treat or toy for his favorite grandson.
Perhaps Thomas’s impression of him was shaped by the knowledge that Ulysses Thresher founded his bank to serve small men. In his charter he declared his institution was to offer its services to worthy men with whom other banks would not do business. The core of Thresher’s customers were meant to be Jews and Irishmen and Catholics—perhaps even, under certain circumstances, Asiatics and Negroes. If those circumstances never materialized, Thomas nevertheless believes the founder deserves credit for daring to dream. The dregs of society, Ulysses Thresher believed, could be made useful if someone would but offer a helping hand.
All of that changed under Samuel Thresher’s more pragmatic leadership, which placed expansion and profit ahead of the founding principles. “Always growing” became the bank’s motto. The charter was now regarded, if it was regarded at all, as a historical curiosity, the whimsical impulses of an idealist who somehow managed to succeed despite his most self-sabotaging impulses. The bank thrived under Samuel Thresher’s leadership, but Thomas worries that the venerable institution’s days may now be numbered.
Much like his own.
He can no longer delay tending to the itch that has been building on his left shoulder, so Thomas slips away unseen, climbing two flights of stairs, where he disappears into his room. There is but a single, small mirror above his dressing table because Thomas does not like to be surprised by his own reflection. It is not that he considers himself unattractive. As it happens, he believes he is reasonably handsome, but of late he has had the most inexplicable notion that hidden behind the face in the mirror is the other face, the one from his dream. He has, on occasion, attempted to test this hypothesis, and of course it is all nonsense. He shuns the looking glass all the same.
The only painting upon the wall is a likeness of his mother, of whom he has no memories. The portrait shows a woman with sad eyes and hollow cheeks. The painter’s efforts to flatter his subject stumbled upon an expression of unspeakable endurance. Only the hair, jauntily blond, defies the overall effect of a short-tempered school mistress.
Beatrice Thresher died giving birth to Thomas. Alternatively, she died of a fever in the weeks following childbirth. Thomas has heard both versions of the story, and he has never received an explanation for the variance. The late Samuel Thresher actively discouraged Thomas from asking questions, looking at paintings or photographs, or touching her things. Walter has always refused to discuss “my mother,” as he styles her. “She is none of your concern,” he declared often enough that Thomas eventually stopped asking.
Under the critical gaze of his long-dead mother, he removes his coat and vest, unties his necktie, and unbuttons his collar. He reaches around to his shoulder and finds precisely what he expects and dreads—against the paleness of his skin rests an emerald green leaf, triangular in shape, though rounded at the base like a spade on a playing card.
It snaps off from his skin painlessly. When these first started appearing a few months ago, removing the leaves left no mark, but now, where the stems have been, he develops little blemishes. They are the size of pinpricks—whiter and slightly firmer than the surrounding skin.
The leaves first grew at the rate of one a fortnight. Now they come every two or three days. Always growing, he thinks with bitter irony.
Thomas crumples the leaf and drops it into the rubbish bin under his small writing desk. He dresses once more and with slow steps, like a dog attempting to delay the end of its walk about the block, returns to the gathering. As he descends the stairs and watches the guests milling about, bankers and parliamentarians and the idle rich, he wonders if he shares something with any of them, if any among them are secretly afflicted by the Peculiarities. The more lurid newspapers publish stories of vampires and werewolves, of women giving birth to rabbits, and houses rendered uninhabitable by ghosts. He has read of people possessed by spirits and living men whose own spirits have become trapped in horses, in furnishings, in articles of clothing. There are horrible transformations and mutilations. Things that should not be, if these stories are to be believed, have become not quite commonplace but hardly rare.
Thomas read it all with a fair amount of skepticism until the first leaf sprouted below his right nipple. He’d never heard of such a condition before, which suggests to him that while the newspapers’ accounts may not be wholly accurate, they likely tell a distorted version of the truth. If violent fogs and men growing leaves are real, what else might the Peculiarities have wrought?
Who among his brother’s guests, he wonders, craves the taste of blood or is possessed by a legion of murmuring voices or suffers from violent satyromania—something vaguely suggested by one of the papers? Which husbands and wives remain together, performing happiness, only because of the curses that befall contract-breakers?
He wonders how long these hidden victims of Peculiar transformation will be able to keep their secrets. How long will Thomas? What happens when the leaves begin to grow more rapidly or sprout from his forehead or hands or other places he cannot conceal? These feelings he has been struggling with, of the pointlessness of his existence—could that be an effect of whatever plagues him? Does his ennui come from the knowledge that he is turning into something vegetative, or is it a consequence of that transformation? Regardless of whether it is cause or effect, life has become a dull and bleak affair to Thomas. When he spent his days in drunken indolence, he never believed his life was without meaning, and surely then it was more meaningless than it is now.
Thomas feels a hand on his shoulder. He looks up to see Pearl, his brother’s wife, smiling at him. She takes his necktie in her hands and begins to pull and stretch and adjust.
“Have you been sleeping in your clothes?” she scolds, but there is warmth in her voice. Her long nose wiggles above her smile. “How much have you had to drink?”
“Not nearly enough,” he tells her.
“You might try to put on a good show.” A quick jerk of her hands, and the necktie is now handsomely asphyxiating. “You know how Walter values appearances, and he does hold your fate in his hands.”
“I think it’s your hands I need to worry about at the moment,” Thomas responds as he pretends to gasp for air like a newly caught fish.
“Little things matter,” Pearl says as she continues to adjust. “You want to look your best for your bride-to-be.” There is something in her voice that Thomas cannot quite interpret. Perhaps it is sympathy or perhaps she is merely playing the spy. Pearl is kind to Thomas, but she is married to Walter, and she would do whatever he asked of her. Thomas does not doubt it.
“He needn’t have troubled himself to play matchmaker,” Thomas gasps. “I am in no mind to marry.”
Pearl finishes her fussing and releases her grip with a theatrical flaring of her fingers. She watches with mock disapproval as Thomas runs a finger inside his collar, pantomiming a desperate effort to preserve consciousness. “I understand drollery is fashionable, but I hope you will be pleasant with Miss—”and here she pauses as she prepares herself to form with her delicate mouth so odious a sound—“Feldstein.” Pearl may be soft-hearted, but she is still an Englishwoman of her class, and she is in no hurry to claim a Jewess for an in-law.
Thomas, on the other hand, begins to wonder if the social awkwardness of marrying Miss Feldstein might be endurable if he can only continue to enjoy watching Walter’s discomfort.
“When have you ever known me to be anything other than proper?”
She has heard stories, he is certain—late night debaucheries and whisky-soaked revels, brothels and brawls and mountains of money raked away at gaming tables. These stories have the ring of truth because they are, in the main, true, though generally money has been raked in his direction. He only played cards, and almost always walked away no worse for wear. He was always too prudent to remain at play at those times when luck was against him. Nevertheless, the flavor of these tales is accurate, which is why, he supposes, Pearl might, from time to time, think of him as a powder keg set to detonate with vulgar oaths and slurring, bawdy humor.
Pearl sighs. “You know, your life would be easier if you gave Walter what he wants. All of our lives would be easier.”
The forced cheer drops from her face, and Thomas sees something like dread in her eyes. Has she, too, heard the whispers of Walter’s mismanagement? Does she worry her home, her wealth, her standing might all be in jeopardy?
“Why did you marry my brother?” he asks.
Pearl shakes her head. “It is like every other marriage. Walter wanted a closer connection to my family. My father wanted to be rid of a daughter at the best possible price.”
Thomas was at school at the time of his brother’s wedding—to which he was not invited—and quite used to being outside the orbit of family matters. He hardly cared for any of the details then, but now he finds he would like to know. “There must be more.”
“The truth about life is that there is nothing more, and revelations always disappoint. Now, please be good tonight.”
Pearl squeezes his arm and turns from him to greet a new arrival. Thomas turns as well, and now sees his brother, not fifteen feet away, again in close conversation with Mr. Hawke. Walter reaches out to take a coupe of champagne from a silver tray, and there, visible for but an instant, is a flash of transgressive verdant between the bleached whiteness of the sleeve and sunless pink of Walter’s skin. It is gone as soon as Thomas sees it, but there is no mistaking the emerald color and triangular shape. He has stared at such things for far too many hours. It is a leaf.
Whatever strange affliction ails Thomas ails Walter as well.
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