I found myself unexpectedly giddy this morning. Why? Nostalgia, perhaps. Or maybe a sudden influx of satisfaction.
While cleaning and organizing files on the computer, I stumbled across the earliest drafts of AMONTILLADO. Among the collection, I found the very first draft of Chapter 1. I have only vague memories of writing it. For structural and tonal reasons, the early chapters went through the most numerous and thorough revisions, meaning the words that spouted from my fingertips during those early days are furthest removed from those that made their way to the bound pages of the novel. Nothing unusual about that.
The most exciting aspect of the discovery, however, is the noticeable difference between the chapter I know and the original idea. I’ve lived with the final version of Chapter 1 for so long I can almost recite it by memory. It seems inconceivable that the chapter once existed in a different form. And yet here I have a clear example that it did, and I can witness the fruits of my own editing labors. All the effort, all the rewrites, suddenly exist together, and I can set them side by side to compare the differences. I can read each objectively, follow my own decision making process, and objectively judge it from a distant perspective. Such an opportunity is less common than one might think, at least in my experience.
Overall, I’m impressed. The early version is raw and directionless. It makes no attempt at foreshadowing (and yes, I knew the story enough to foreshadow, even on day 1). It offers no allusions to Poe’s classic story, which ultimately plays a significant role in the novel. Perhaps the differences won’t be as clear to others, especially if you haven’t read the book, but for me there is education here, and knowledge, and an illustration of improvement. It’s rather rewarding, and I wanted to share. Let me know what you think about the differences.
Amontillado: Chapter 1 Excerpt - Draft 1
This night grows worse every minute. I fear the detectives and their pugels. It’s obvious they don’t believe me. An abundance of bruises will prove it. This corridor, like the last, is endless and barren. Dungeonous. The bleak walls mirror the shallow nature and lustless monotony of my world. But tonight is different. In a short span of hours, life has flopped on its side like a dying fish, and, like that hypothetical fish, I crave an endless plunge into the sea’s black depths. But even death cannot deny what must be true: the man responsible for this torment, the antagonist in my otherwise uneventful life story, is, without a doubt, Marcus McComber.
But that’s unfair of me. I don’t know for certain.
Twice already they’ve beaten me. My shoulder is dislocated. I dare not glance in the mirror. The fact I’m still able to stand astounds me and angers them. They want me on my knees, hands outstretched, palms upturned. They want me to beg forgiveness, to confess with or without sincerity, so long as I confess.
Therein lies the problem.
We descend another set of stairs. An icy aura of judgement emanates from the walls. Piercing the skin, it delves deep into the bones, twisting and gutting and tearing away every layer of self-confidence a man ever possessed. And now we’re in another corridor identical to the last, with its dirty brick walls, cobwebbed piping conduits along the ceiling, and red neon EXIT signs at every corner. How do they not get lost? Is there no variety to this wretched hell?
They drag me into another interrogation room. Two new detectives are waiting. With what intention? More torture? My previous captors, mindless thugs with no respect for humanity, drop me in a chair beside a wobbly table and exit without a word. Fury is evident on their flushed cheeks. The new detectives must outrank the others. But is that good or bad?
Outside, the storm continues its rampage. Even in the catacombs of police headquarters, beneath several floors of concrete and brick and authoritative hypocrisy, the beating heart of the tempest is strong and terrifying.
My neck refuses to support my head, so I lean forward, resting a bruised elbow on the table and cupping my chin in the palm of a bloody hand. The room is dark. A single light bulb dangles low over the table, shorting out with every crash of thunder and casting the room in shadow
At first, no one speaks. The new detectives look on with sad, pitying eyes. Yes. Pity. But pity only goes so far. The burly fellow with the thick beard wears a stern look of unapologetic disgust. His companion probably shares the thought, but his features are too effeminate to convey such angry emotion. If only they wouldn’t beat me, I’d try to cooperate. No one has given me a chance.
“For the record,” says the burly one with the beard, “please tell us your name.”
It is the first word anyone has spoken since the officer knocked on my apartment door, and that must have been in a different life. “Is that a joke?” I ask. “Surely you know my name.”
They exchange glances, then the burly fellow continues, “This ain’t a time for being cute, Mr. Lyons.”
“You do know my name. That’s good.” It’s in my character to be a smartass. They can beat me, but they can’t have my personality.
Amontillado: Chapter 1 Excerpt - Published Version
Call me Fortunato. You won’t be the first.
Point a gun at my face and bury me alive. Again, you won’t be the first.
Tonight I’m like a fish caught in the web of a sailor’s net, hoisted from the sea to flop and flounder on a cutting board. My only desire is one more plunge into the black depths of a familiar ocean, a return to life as it existed before that particularly treacherous worm arrived for dinner. I smell of whiskey and urine. I’m cold. My skin is wet and shriveled from too many hours in a storm, and my clothes cling like a dying author to his pen, an author eager to scratch out a final epitaph to encapsulate his career for posterity. If I were that author, and if that pen were mine, I know what I’d write:
Death to Marcus McComber.
Are you confused? Offended by my venom? Don’t be. My entire world has been upended. At the center of it all is Marcus McComber. He is the source of my torment, the betrayer, the worm, the antagonist in my otherwise uneventful existence. If he were here now, he would laugh and tell me to accept my demise without a fuss, to admit guilt without question, because to do otherwise would only worsen my sins. He would order an ale and toast my life, and he would joke that his poor Fortunato had been most unfortunate indeed. But as I’ve already proven tonight, I am no Fortunato.
The man seated across from me is Andrew Ruben, a detective, a burly fellow with a thick beard. He hasn’t beaten me yet, which, to his credit, is more than I can say for the lanky gentleman behind him. That man’s name, I believe, is Burrows, and I’m sure I’ve exaggerated his manners by using the term gentleman. These detectives are evil. Ruben with his disbelieving stare and Burrows pacing back and forth like a jailer concocting new methods of torture are the absolute definitions of abusive authority. Every word they utter, every upheaval of their lungs, betrays a belief in tyranny and intimidation.
Now Ruben says, “We’re not getting anywhere. Let’s start over. For the record, please tell us your name.”
“Surely,” I laugh, “you already know my name.”
“This is not the time for games, Mr. Lyons.”
“You do know it!” I say. But these men are incapable of smiles, so I answer, “Jacob Moses Lyons.”
And while he scratches the name on a pad of paper, please take a moment to look around. Does this dungeon not speak of Fortunato’s tomb with flattery? The walls are dull. There are no windows. The chamber is dank and isolated, rank with fear and uncertainty. No one has told me why I’m here. And yet the inescapable nature of my predicament is as near to being buried alive as one may come.
Now, as a bonus, here’s the earliest piece of Amontillado prose I can find. It’s an earlier beginning to Chapter 1, before I decided to start with the interrogation scene. This is very similar to a scene later in the novel, so I guess it was worthwhile practice!
This is what I know. Through the dark dingy lantern light deep in the catacombs, I saw evil in his eyes. A malevolence rare and mystifying. A hatred etched deep into his fiery soul. My heart sank. He was laying the foundations of my tomb, my eternal home, brick by moldy brick. He begged and pleaded, questioned my motivations, chided me time and again for answers. Why? he asked. Why? It needn’t have ended this way. And again I asked for my own answer, any explanation. Why indeed. As the bricks rose to two feet high and three. To four feet, and five, I demanded his attention.