Title: The Heartbeat Thief
Author: AJ Krafton
Genre: New Adult, Fantasy
Release Date: June 12, 2015Summary:
Haunted by a crushing fear of death, a young Victorian woman discovers the secret of eternal youth—she must surrender her life to attain it, and steal heartbeats to keep it.
In 1860 Surrey, a young woman has only one occupation: to marry. Senza Fyne is beautiful, intelligent, and lacks neither wealth nor connections. Finding a husband shouldn’t be difficult, not when she has her entire life before her. But it’s not life that preoccupies her thoughts. It’s death—and that shadowy spectre haunts her every step.
So does Mr. Knell. Heart-thumpingly attractive, obviously eligible—he’d be her perfect match if only he wasn’t so macabre. All his talk about death, all that teasing about knowing how to avoid it…
When her mother arranges a courtship with another man, Senza is desperate for escape from a dull prescripted destiny. Impulsively, she takes Knell up on his offer. He casts a spell that frees her from the cruelty of time and the threat of death—but at a steep price. In order to maintain eternal youth, she must feed on the heartbeats of others.
It’s a little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Edgar Allen Poe, and a whole lot of stealing heartbeats in order to stay young and beautiful forever. From the posh London season to the back alleys of Whitechapel, across the Channel, across the Pond, across the seas of Time…
How far will Senza Fyne go to avoid Death?
Speaking “English” English: Cockney Rhyming Slang
The Heartbeat Thief is a historical fantasy that follows the journey of a girl who learned a secret that was quite dangerous for an English girl in 1860s Surrey: the secret of immortality.
As a writer, I faced a challenge. Not only was I writing a historical, but one that would span many different time periods, in various countries. What had I been thinking? : ) This wouldn’t just be a case of making up a story—this was going to involve serious research.
I don’t mind research. (In fact, writers tend to do it without even realizing it—everything we see or hear or read or experience is potential research for a book.) However, I’m easily distracted when doing Internet research. One page leads to another and another and the next thing I know I’m three hours away from my original query (but a happy, happy reader, nonetheless.)
One particular scene in The Heartbeat Thief involved Senza’s stay in Whitechapel in late 1888. You hear the neighborhood, you hear the year…you must know the story.
It wasn’t enough to research names, dates, maps of East London during the time. When I write, I hear the characters conversing in my head. Trouble is, I didn’t spend much time in Whitechapel in the late 19th century, so I needed to research the sounds of Whitechapel.
Every region has its own dialects and slang. In East London, there was a particular slang that grew amongst criminals and dodgy folk. They used the slang as code—that way, they could speak without their information being overheard by the wrong ears. Some of it was to hide vulgarity and some of it was just fun to say.
Whitechapel and Spitalfields were considered Cockney neighborhoods, so the characters we meet in The Heartbeat Thief would have been fluent in Cockney rhyming slang. A country-born manor-bred woman such as Senza Fyne was sure to be completely bewildered the first time she encountered one of the residents and attempted conversation.
Cockney rhyming slang
When I came across this dialect, I realized that there was an entire separate world of English to be discovered…and, once I delved into the phenomenon of Cockney rhyming slang, I was completely hooked. It would days before I got back to actually working on my manuscript and by then, I was using the slang so much my family thought I’d suffered a minor stroke.
My research also put to rest lingering questions I had from the first time I watched Austin Powers: Goldmember. (Yes, I know I just dated myself by referring to a movie from 2002.) Remember this scene with Myers and Caine?
Austin: Listen, dad, if you are going to say naughty things in front of these American girls then at least speak English English.
[Nigel looks back at girls]
Nigel: All right, my son: I could've had it away with this cracking Julie, my old China. (Subtitle: I was about to make love to this pretty girl.)
Austin: Are you telling pork-pies and a bag of trout? Because if you are feeling quigly, why not just have a J. Arthur? (Is this true? If you were aroused, why didn't you pleasure yourself?)
Nigel: What, billy no mates? (What, alone?)
Austin: Too right, youth. (Indeed.)
Nigel: Don't you remember the crimbo din-din we had with the grotty Scots bint? (Remember Christmas dinner with the Scottish girl?)
Austin: Oh, the one that was all sixes and sevens! (The insane one?)
Nigel: Yeah, yeah, she was the trouble and strife of the Morris dancer what lived up the apples and pears! (She was the wife of the dancer who lived upstairs.)
Austin: She was the barrister what become a bobby in a lorry and... (A lawyer who became a policeman in a truck) [inaudiably] (????????)...
Austin & Nigel: --tea kettle!
Nigel: And then, and then--
Austin & Nigel: She shat on a turtle!
Of course, when I first saw the movie the only thing that made sense was the last line…and that didn’t really make any sense at all. (But at least I knew what a turtle was.)
After a bit of researching, I was able to translate Austin Powers all by myself (I thank you) and even tried a hand at the lingo myself.
In The Heartbeat Thief, Senza was the most innocent ribbon and curl when she went to Whitechapel. Her very best china was a brass nail but then some bushel of coke took a shovel and spade to the birds they knew and the next thing you know, it’s off to the overcoat maker. Again. Poor fing can’t catch a break.
So, anyway that’s Cockney rhyming slang. And it’s a whole different kind of English than the kind we speak here in eastern Pennsylvania. (Although…we do have a unique slang of our own in these parts. How’s this for a linguistic cage match: Cockney verses Coal Region Speak)
As much fun as it was to learn more about Cockney rhyming slang, you won’t find large portions of The Heartbeat Thief written with it. Unless you’re well versed in the dialect, you’d need a reference or two to translate it all—and in the process, you’d get as distracted from reading the story as I did when I was writing it!
But when you’re reading a passage from Senza’s stay in Whitechapel, I hope you’ll hear the characters conversing in your head while you read. If you do, then all my hours of watching mini-series and movies and reading novels research totally paid off.
What inspired the story of The Heartbeat Thief?
It started with a single scene, a conversation between a young woman and a mysterious stranger who steals up beside her at a funeral.
A lot of my stories start out like this, a single scene with no other context. It’s as if I happen across a conversation between strangers and only see one tiny snippet of their story. Sometimes, the scenes get written and tucked away in an “ideas” folder on my hard drive, lying dormant. Sometimes, a trickle of life stirs within, and a story grows out of that tiny seed.
Sometimes, the seed germinates and grows and blooms into a novel. That’s what happened with that first passage—it was the seed that grew into The Heartbeat Thief.
I went back to the oldest draft of the story and found that original seed. Here is the passage as I’d first written it:
That frightens you, doesn't?
She didn't turn to look at him. His presence was like a thick fog, tenuous yet flowing, something she felt along her skin. She didn't need to look at him—she knew right where he was. That sense of nearness, something she recognized even for all his strangeness.
She knew him. Didn't know why, or how. And she didn't care. It was simply what was.
She pinched her lips together, watching a woman bent in grief, clutching a handkerchief to her mouth. “Doesn't it frighten everyone? Dying--in such a sudden way—“
Ah, it's not the suddenness, or the surprise, or even the shock. It's the brick wall at the end of the road of life. You don't like the ending, no matter how it comes.
She tilted her head, just enough that she could capture him in her periphery. “No. I don't like the ending.”
He drifted closer, hovering just over her shoulder, like an umbrella. His mouth close to her ear, he chuckled a sonorous tone. Why would you? Your beauty, faded? Your charms, withered? Your friends and admirers, all gone away? You'll die alone, bienaimee. Everyone dies alone.
She tugged her shawl tighter about her shoulders. “Don't say that.”
But it is truth. Oh, if only there was a way to avoid all that.
“No one lives forever.”
Do they not?
His voice held such a curious tone, a tease in the words that caught her attention. “In the afterlife, yes.”
In this life.
She faced him, locking her gaze with his. His dark eyes glittered and a smile tugged at the corners of him mouth. “Why would you say things, here?”
Where better to admit the truth? He stole behind her, trailing his finger along her shoulders. In this place, life meets death. They stare each other in the face. The only difference between them is that the dead no longer care.
He drew back, his sudden withdrawal leaving a cold mist on her skin. The only question that remains is…do you still care, bienaimee?
She wrinkled her nose. “Of course, I still care.”
Then, he said, his voice deepening into a throaty chuckle. Don't die.
She turned to admonish him for his audacity but, when she spun around, he was gone.
No way could something like this stay dormant in a dusty old file. The stranger’s mystery and his shadowy threat and the promise of eternal life simply held me captive, and I knew it would haunt me until I wrote it.
That was where The Heartbeat Thief came to life.
Where did the characters get their names?
One character was named by a fan on Facebook, one name was inspired by a song, and one simply named himself.
Felicity Keating is a close friend of the main character, and was named in an impromptu contest I held on Facebook. I had a name for her but I felt like doing something spur-of-the-moment. I loved the suggestion of Felicity because it was so fitting for the character and what she symbolized. (The Facebook Friend who suggested the name is mentioned in the Acknowledgements section of the book.)
The main character is Miss Constance Fyne, who prefers her nickname “Senza”. Her given name, Constance, alludes to the word “constant”. The suffix con- means with. Senza is Italian for “without”.
Her last name Fyne is a play on fine, or fin: French for end.
Senza Fyne is a play on the Italian word senzafine, which means “endless”. Fitting name for a girl who seeks the secret to eternal youth.
I love the word senzafine. I learned it when I heard the Italian metal band Lacuna Coil sing their song of the same name. It’s my absolutely favorite LC song.
One line of the song, when translated into English, fits Senza perfectly: I’m standing still in this moment of pure madness…I don’t know if I wish for good or evil although perhaps sin will give me more…
Playing opposite to Senza is a tall, mysterious stranger who teases her with secretive smiles and suggestions of magic. From their first meeting, he calls her bien-aime, which is French for “beloved”.
When she demands his name, he listens to the tolling of a nearby church bell before calling himself Mr. Knell.
But he has an older name. A much older name. And it will take Senza a very, very long time before she realizes just who he truly is.
The song “Senzafine” fits him, too. One particular verse fits Senza’s dark seducer perfectly. There is no life without me. There is no choice without me.
And Senza utterly believes him.
How did the work of Edgar Allan Poe inspire this story?
I’ve been a Poe fanatic from an early age. There is something about that tragic man that keeps me captivated: his unwavering stare into the depths of the shadows that filled his life, his penchant for beautiful, melodramatic language, his undying devotion to the people he’d loved and lost.
My favorite Poe spots are in Baltimore (where he’d once lived and is interred) and in Philadelphia (where one of his homes has now become part of the National Park Service). It’s believed that his story “The Black Cat” was inspired by the basement of that house. (I have a black cat Webkinz that I would love to stick into a hole in the wall there but the husband says NO THAT’S VANDALISM AND JAIL and other husband-type warnings. Such a party pooper.)
A few years ago, I had the chance to visit the Rare Books department at the Philadelphia Free Library, where they had Poe’s work on display. I could have spent a week in there, with only a thin pane of glass between my hand and the pages touched by Poe’s very pen. The original manuscript of Rue Morgue was inches away from my face. I was in complete thrall. (The husband rolled his eyes and moved me along.)
While my short stories and poetry often pay a small tribute to him, this is the first full-length work that I’ve devoted to his style. I let all the wonderful macabre shadows creep in and take over while I was writing. The Heartbeat Thief also includes specific references to “The Masque of the Red Death”.
In “The Masque of the Red Death” a wealthy lord turns his home into a sealed fortress in an effort to protect himself and his close friends from the Red Death, a plague that was spreading through the country. One night he threw a party for his guests…but someone unexpected showed up. The unexpected guest was dressed as a ghoul bathed in blood and everyone fell dead at its feet. (The End.)
Elements of “Masque” are present throughout The Heartbeat Thief. Excerpts from Poe’s story are used in the section introductions, setting the tone of the chapters to follow. The novel’s structure was also loosely based upon the flow of Poe’s story—Prince Prospero's seven apartments now become the seven major settings of the story. I used color references and allegorical context to connect Senza's journey through time to the passage of Poe's ill-fated party goers, right the very last black room, where Death awaited them all.
Overall, I hope that the theme, the atmosphere, and the character’s obsession with life and death would do my idol proud. I hope to visit Baltimore again soon, just to stop into Westminster Burying Ground for a moment to say hello, to offer another bit of thanks for his unending inspiration, and to leave a few pennies on his gravestone.
AJ Krafton is the author of New Adult speculative fiction. Her debut The Heartbeat Thief is due out on Kindle in June 2015. Forthcoming titles include Taking' It Back & Face of the Enemy. She's a proud member of the Infinite Ink Authors. AJ also writes adult spec fic as Ash Krafton.
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