Rick Shaw has been part of the Southern California writing community for over a decade. Though I have known him for roughly five years, we both attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for the first time in 2005, when it was held at Westmont College in Montecito. When I read Rick’s work, I think, this is a guy who could actually make money off his books. His genre writing (sci-fi, horror, crime/mystery, etc.) is commercial, not in the sense of watered-down, generic speculative fiction, but in the manner of writers like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Michael Crichton. Anyone attending the writers conference over the last years has undoubtedly seen Rick in the main lounge typing away on his laptop with a slightly distracted look, as if he has mentally transported to another planet, but left his physical body behind to anchor him to our world. Rick is married to Laurie (La), an incredible baker of cakes, has four sons, and works at Antelope Valley College. It is an honor to present an excerpt of his novel in progress, The Tunguska Deception, in Luna Review.
The Tunguska Deception by Rick Shaw
Siberia, Imperial Russia – June 1908
Vadim shuddered, pulled his woolen overcoat a little closer against the northwest wind, and set the gate’s leather loop penning his small reindeer herd in the inner pasture. Concern etched his face; his milking cans were half empty again. The bite of a cold wind served as a reminder that winter had left them only a month before. His herd’s production for June hadn’t caught up with recent years, threatening his rebuilding of stores for the next winter.
He turned, and for a moment his worries melted away. The most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes upon was climbing the steps of their home, hewn for her from the wilderness. Her hair, raven black, scattered from her labors, swept and swirled with the wind, and he felt entranced yet again.
She must have sensed his eyes upon her and turned, shook her head, and suppressed a smile as she shooed him back to work. Their second-born, Vasily, toddled along at her side with his usual fist full of skirt and mimicked her.
He laughed to the expanse of sky. “Captain Vadim Makarovich Sayan, Count of Tunguska, you’re one lucky bastard!” He scraped the muck and reindeer scat from his boots with the half log at the base of the gate. “And your boots are a disgrace.”
For two years they had courted before her uncle, the Metropolitan of Saint Petersburg, gave his blessing to their union, but only after Vadim swore to resign his commission as Captain of the Guard, and retire from service to his Tsar.
For twenty years Vadim had served Nicholas. First as protector to the Tsarevich, and upon his father’s assassination, Nicholas had appointed him Captain of the Palace Guard. Tatiana’s uncle was right; the capital and Court was no place to raise their family.
As a wedding gift, Tsar Nicholas II had bestowed title and estates upon Vadim for his service to the Romanov family. Fifteen thousand versta of forest, marsh, and field among the Siberian taiga. Boreal forest teaming with bear, white elk, sable, and wolf.
Most important, Vadim’s title, bestowed for his quick action and scars earned, in foiling an assassination attempt on the Tsarevich, years before in Japan. The title invested his family name and the land — a tract rich enough for generations to divide and share.
His Tsar had gifted him a second time, shortly before Vasily was born. A letter arrived on His Majesty’s personal stationery, with his seal. He recognized his Tsar’s tight script. A request that Vadim assist and support the Serbian Wizard, Tesla, with his electricity project north and east of his lands.
Though frustrated with the possibility of being drawn back into the court’s intrigues, Vadim wrote back immediately, thanking his Tsar for his trust, and with assurances that he would do everything he could to support the endeavor.
True to his word, Vadim surveyed, mapped, and managed the laborers as they cut a road from Vanavara along the eastern margin of his lands. He then watched as dozens of wagons hauled supplies into the woods. Late in the all-too-short summer, he marveled at the enormous tower that climbed above the trees.
Twice a month, even through the long bitter winter, he rode out to check their well-being, and deliver cheese and smoked meats. Work on the wizard’s project continued within the large log buildings, regardless of weather, and he sent reports back to his Tsar. Their payment for his meats, cheese, and timber provided currency needed to secure his family’s future in this wilderness.
Still smiling at the reaction from Tatiana, Vadim was blinded by a flash that filled his vision. He dropped to one knee and shielded his eyes from bolts of lightning shooting into a clear sky above the wizard’s work site. Blue-white streaks of energy engulfed something he could not see, high beyond Mt. Ferrington.
An enormous fireball climbed above the forest, followed by a thunderous roar–louder than a thousand locomotives. Vadim abandoned the milk cans and ran for his family. He made it halfway to the house when the blast wave knocked him from his feet and through the door of his cheese shed.
His head bounced off the fallen timbers when the roof collapsed in upon him. The ground quaked with a second thunderous wave. Ringing filled his ears, as if the Tsar’s artillery pounded the ground where he lay.
Fearing some kind of attack, Vadim belly-crawled forward from under the splintered timbers. His head pounded, and his ears rang as he sat up. The ball of fire turned dark and crashed into the forest, followed by another thunderous clap. The ground shook less this third time, as what had fallen exploded.
The air was thick with the acrid smell of a lightning and scorched wood. Another blast of hot wind blew the smoke away, revealing the devastation. As far as he could see, to the north and east toward Tesla’s site, the dense forest had been blown flat and radiated an intense heat.
To his right, the reindeer pen replaced with drifts of scorched detritus blown from the forest floor. Wisps of smoke carried the stench of burnt flesh and fat on the verge of ignition. A bear hung, impaled upon the only fence post that remained. Its chest blown open, fur singed to bare blistering skin. Dismembered remains of Vadim’s herd jutted from beneath the smoldering debris.
To his left, his horse staggered about, stunned, shaking its head. Beyond, Vadim’s home still stood, though he was not sure how. The window shutters were blown in. The front door was barely hanging by its leather-strapped hinges.
Vadim tried to stand. His legs betrayed him, and he hit the ground hard. He took a moment to gather himself, then made a more deliberate attempt, and staggered forward.
He shouted, “Tatiana!” But he heard only a ringing and an incessant wind. Up the same front stairs his wife had ascended just moments before, he found her, under what remained of their bed, a large red bruise across her forehead.
The windows and heavy coverings that had protected his family through the bitter Siberian winter were gone. Bright sunlight blazed through gaps in the mortar between the logs. Vadim ran his hands down her arms and over her body looking for wounds, then sat her up, and asked, “My love, are you injured?” Though her lips moved, he heard nothing but the ringing in his ears.
“The boys, where are they?” A pained look formed on her face, then Tatiana rolled away and vomited on the floor.
Vadim held her hair back out of her face as she retched. The ringing in his ears subsided enough that he heard crying. In the corner beneath the large hanger of pelts and clothing, he found both boys. The house shook when a roof timber crashed through the floor outside the door. With a child under each arm, he nudged her to her feet and shouted, “To the barn.”
Baltimore, Maryland – Present Day
The sound of a crash, and wheels rolling across asphalt. The throbbing in his head was exquisite. Muscles in his neck, back, and arms were screaming in spasm. Where the hell am I? Can’t remember shit…
Muffled voices, yelling at him. From under water? He tried to turn his head, but the strap across his forehead held it firm. He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t hold a breath.
Brilliant flashes of light, through closed eyes, told him he was being wheeled down a hall. A deep baritone voice rumbled through the haze, “We couldn’t get a line started on him in the field. Witnesses say he had been convulsing from some kind of electrical shock. It was everything we could do to get him strapped in. Hell, he broke a weld on one of the rails. Tore the restraint loose. We had to use another torso strap to lash his arm to the frame.”
A gruff voice yelled, a woman’s maybe. “We’re going to need some more hands in here? You two! With me.”
The cluster of physicians, nurses, and paramedics crashed through a pair of doors pushing his gurney into the trauma room. He tried to focus on the woman’s voice. Older, harsh, from years of smoking. “Get the trauma table out of the way. Not releasing good straps until we have him under control.” There was another crash in the distance. “You two! On top of him. Hold him until we get an IV started?”
He screamed through clenched teeth as another seizure struck. A deep male voice said, “Should we try for a main line with the carotid. With his head and chest strapped down…”
His state left him detached; he tried to focus, again. An IV? Why do I need an IV? He was aware of the tight grip of several hands on his arms and legs, the convulsions strengthened causing the entire group around the gurney to quake.
He bounced, his arm slipped from their grip, and it flailed violently. A sharp edge cut into the back his hand as the instruments and their tray went crashing across the floor.
“Damn it people, get this guy under control.” The woman yelled. “And get a compress on that wound. Fuck it! Prep a syringe, twenty milligrams of Diazepam. Have a second ready with another ten, if that doesn’t get it.”
His convulsions eased. Why am I cold and wet? He tried to focus on the other things around him. The lights were bright as his eyelids fluttered. A steel tray clattered as it was kicked aside. The hand that held his right wrist was ice cold. His nose sensed a whiff of antiseptic hospital disinfectant and stale cigarette smoke.
“So, someone tell me what we have here?” The older woman coughed.
“Male, thirty-one. Finnaghan Moffett IV, from Clarksville. According to his Maryland driver’s license, height five eleven, weight is one-eighty-five.”
“He also had an NSA ID on a lanyard around his neck,” the man continued. “I overheard a witness talking to a cop on scene. Guy’s a Good Samaritan. Blocked the intersection with his car after seeing an accident near Fort Meade. He and another guy pulled a door open and dragged the victim out of the car. Witness said they saw this guy kneel down and try to start CPR, then some kind of electrical shock knocked him back. Said it was a big bright blue flash.”
“So we have a shock victim?”
“It’s an odd thing doc. It’s pissing down rain out there. It was a single car roll over, in the middle of an intersection. No poles down, and nobody else got shocked.”
A female voice came from above and behind him somewhere. “Where’s the other vic?”
“Arrived right behind us, non-responsive at the scene. I think they’re still working on him across the hall.”
A softer woman’s voice said, “I don’t see any scorching on his hands.” A cold hand touched his forehead, pulled his eyelid up. He recoiled from light jittering across his view. “His pupils are equal and responsive. He appears to be conscious.”
The sound of her voice became clearer. “Mr. Moffett, can you hear me? My name is Echo Onsoillan. I’m a resident here. Do you know why you’re here?”
His vision went dark as his eyes rolled up and his back arched off the padded surface. He growled through clenched teeth as every muscle in his body contracted again. A sickening crack filled the room, and the walls echoed with his scream as his left shoulder separated.
“Where the fuck is that damned Diazepam… Don’t hand it to me you idiot. Give it to him, IM, now!”
Finn was vaguely aware of the cold of the surgical scissors as they scratch his thigh. He thought about how much he liked this pair of jeans when sting of the needle slowly brought a stop to his quaking.
Sounds in the room started to fade to a distant echo. “Quick somebody draw some blood while he is still. We need a full tox screen, stat. You, call imaging. This guy goes to the head of the line while he’s out. I want an C/T of this guy’s head. See if we have a bleeder, or something, causing these seizures.” The sound of the older woman’s voice started to fade. “Make sure they get a picture of that shoulder…”
For a brief second, he sensed someone else. Something about the voice, its rhythms awkward, echoing in his head. “Finnaghan, I regret this, but I had no choice. I am very sorry.” Intellectually, he knew it was probably the drugs, but the voice. He struggled to force his eyes open and found the same pretty face.
She smiled down at him as his lids fluttered and his vision faded to the black.
Q & A
Luna Review: As someone with a day job, a wife, and sons, where/when do you make time to write?
Rick Shaw: Finding time is the challenge of every writer with a day job, and mine includes an hour’s commute each way. Because I can’t write and drive at the same time, I listen to podcasts about writing; discussing the changing landscape of publishing, storytelling, structure, pitfalls and/or craft. The list includes; Children of Tendu, The Dead Robot’s Society, Mysterypod, Unreliable Narrators, Writing Excuses, and The Writers Panel.
For me, the best time to write is in the evenings. I reread the previous page or two, occasionally tweak/edit, then pick-up where I left off.
LR: You mentioned once that you get by fine with five hours sleep a night. (Editors note: Bastard!) Does that help give you writing and reading time late at night or early in the morning?
RS: I discovered the five-hours-a-night thing at grad school almost thirty years ago. And I’m fortunate to have a mate who indulges me, and the need to get the voices out of my head. Most evenings, the house settles down at about nine. I slip on my headphones and into my worlds. When I’m in a groove and writing nightly, I’ll knock out between twelve hundred and two thousand words in that two and a half hours. My alarm goes off at 5 a.m., and I start it all over again.
LR: Who are the writers that inspired you growing up, and the ones who perhaps guided you toward writing novels?
RS: I didn’t get into reading until high school, and it was an escapist thing. I never learned or retained how to construct a sentence/essay/narrative. I even flunked a creative writing class, and was told by the teacher that I couldn’t write.
As a result, I didn’t learn to write effectively until my junior college years. It was a tough road, but thanks to the energy and investment in me, by an extraordinary English Professor at Santa Barbara City College, Royce Adams, I ultimately found a career in academia.
Reading was my escape. In high school, I dug Bradbury, Cussler, Forsyth, Twain, and oddly enough Shakespeare. Petruchio and Kate rocked my world. You see, I fell in love with a strong willed, sharp witted woman, early in high school – married her thirty-four years later.
Then came Asimov, Clancy, Clark, Echo, Follett, Greaney, Heinlein, Herbert, King, Koontz, and Ludlum. Right now I’m reading a space opera, The Empire of Bones Saga, by Mixon. In every case it is the characters journey that keeps me turning the page.
LR: Do you consider yourself a genre writer or just a fiction writer? There are absurd debates regarding genre fiction versus literary fiction.
RS: I’m a storyteller who loves the intellectual exercise of telling lies and killing characters for the entertainment of strangers. Honestly, I’m unable to slog through writing that doesn’t engage me. Something must be happening, and it must grab me. There are too many good stories to waste page turning because I have too. I’ve tried to force myself to read Rand’s Atlas Shrugged because folks raved about it, and told me it’s worth slogging through the first hundred pages, but I couldn’t get past the first fifty. I appreciate the turn of a beautiful phrase, and narrative, but the story has to be about something, with things happening to a character I connect with, in a way that pulls me in to their experience.
LR: How far along are you in your Tunguska novel, and is it challenging bouncing back and forth between sections set during a previous century in Russia and sections occurring in modern day America?
RS: The Tunguska Deception is eighty-five thousand words, and probably five to six thousand words short of being a completed draft. The Siberian timeline came about from feedback in my writers group. What I thought were throw away characters in a prologue, they wanted more of. As I played with the characters and the core premise, the second timeline took shape. I go where the story takes me and clean up the carnage afterwards.
Case in point, the two timelines in The Tunguska Deception were written as NaNoWriMo projects a year apart. Continuity and foreshadowing, balanced against an authentic voice for the different eras, provides a recurring challenge.
LR: You have mentioned to me that you have other novels, either completed or finished drafts in the process of revision. What have you learned over your years of writing, and where did you learn it?
RS: The first novel I completed in 2005, Genesis Renewed, is intended as the first of a four-part series. It topped out at as an eight hundred eighty-page brain dump. Two of its companions are in advanced stages. All three, need page one rewrites, as I think the voice and story lack authenticity. I have two other novels, gestating drafts – a techno-thriller and a time travel story. I know where I want them to go, but they’re not ready for that journey yet. Middles are hard.
I’ve found my truth behind two of the more popular clichés: Writing is Re-Writing; and In Media Res – start in the middle. Though I suffer from impostors syndrome, I do see improvement now when compared to some of my early projects. It reads to me as if I’ve stopped trying to sound like someone else and leaned to concentrate on my own voice. I believe deeply, to grow, you need a community of similarly dedicated folks, who will be equal parts, brutally honest, encouraging, and tolerant of who we are.
LR: What’s the value of writers’ conferences or writing workshops, beyond a chance to drink among fellow lunatics, I mean authors?
RS: First, never underestimate the value of drinking with fellow lunatics. Often, an overheard exchange, a bantered notion, or a tangent in conversation, triggers the next story idea.
I didn’t turn to writing until I was in my early forties. I had this story and character running around in my head for months. I decided over a holiday break to get him out of my head, so I started an outline, with the intent of sticking it in a folder and forgetting about it. Three pages became ten, ten became fifty, and the outline morphed to a full narrative.
By February, I had two hundred single-spaced pages and found myself dragged to a one-day workshop at the Schott Center in Santa Barbara. After a brief conversation, one of the facilitators, Marla Miller, pressed a Santa Barbara Writers Conference brochure into my hand, and in her lovingly forceful way said, “You must go to this!”
This June will be my seventh year attending SBWC. I owe so much to the infinite generosity of everyone involved. The late-night Pirate Sessions are an amazing stew of styles and story. I found my band of lunatics at SBWC. The value of a supportive community of writers, all invested in the success of others, cannot be overstated. We all learn from each other, and grow a bit with each page.
Portrait of the artist beset by his own demonic creations.