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Sarah Perry

Novelist; academic (the Gothic, creative writing); critic (The Guardian, Financial Times); essays (BBC, Guardian, Slightly Foxed)

Born in Chelmsford, England. Based in Norwich, England, UK

Writers main Categories

Fiction

Languages spoken

English

About

Sarah Perry was born in Essex in 1979.

Her first novel, After Me Comes the Flood (2014) was shortlisted for the Folio Prize and the Guardian First Book Award, and won the East Anglian Book of the Year award.

She has been writer-in-residence at Gladstone’s Library and the UNESCO writer-in-residence in Prague.

Her criticism and essays have been published in The Guardian, Slightly Foxed and the Financial Times, and her work has been broadcast on RTE1 and BBC Radio 4.

She has a PhD in Creative Writing/the Gothic.

Her second novel, The Essex Serpent, is out now.

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Extract: The Essex Serpent

New Year’s Eve

A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He's been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned, and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle. “I’ll just go down to the water”, he said, and kissed the nearest cheek: “I’ll be back before the chimes.” Now he looks east to the turning tide, out to the estuary slow and dark, and the white gulls gleaming on the waves.

It's cold, and he ought to feel it, but he’s full of beer and he's got on his good thick coat. The collar rasps at the nape of his neck: he feels fuddled and constricted and his tongue is dry. I'll go for a dip, he thinks, that'll shake me loose; and coming down from the path stands alone on the shore, where deep in the dark mud all the creeks wait for the tide.

"I'll take a cup of kindness yet", he sings in his sweet chapel tenor, then laughs, and someone laughs back. He unbuttons his coat, he holds it open, but it's not enough: he wants to feel the wind's edge strop itself sharp on his skin. Nearer he goes to the water, and puts his out tongue to the briny air: Yes - I'll go for a dip, he thinks, dropping his coat on the marsh. He's done it before after all, when a boy and in good company: the brave tomfoolery of a midnight dip as the old year dies in the New Year's arms. The tide's low - the wind's dropped - the Blackwater holds no fear: give him a glass and he'll drink it down, salt and seashell, oyster and all.

But something alters in a turn of the tide or a change of the air: the estuary surface shifts - seems (he steps forward) to pulse and throb, then grow slick and still; then soon after to convulse, as if flinching at a touch. Nearer he goes, not yet afraid; the gulls lift off one by one, and the last gives a scream of dismay.

Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark - he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he’s blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it's nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot be merely the tug of the moon on the tides. He think he sees – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone.

In the darkness he grows afraid. There's something there, he feels it, biding its time - implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction. Down in the deeps it slumbered and up it’s come at last: he imagines it breasting the wave, avidly scenting the air. He is seized by dread – his heart halts with it - in the space of a moment he's been charged, condemned, and brought to judgment: oh what a sinner he's been - what a black pip there is at his core! He feels ransacked, emptied of all goodness: he has nothing to bring to his defence. Out he looks to the black Blackwater and there it is again - something cleaving the surface, then subsiding - yes, all along it's been there, waiting, and at last it's found him out. He feels a curious calm: justice must be done, after all, and he willingly pleads guilty. It's all remorse and no redemption, and no less than he deserves. 

But then the wind lifts, and tugs the covering cloud, and the shy moon shows her face. It's a scant light, to be sure, but a comfort - and there after all is his coat not a yard away, muddy at the hem; the gulls return to the water, and he feels completely absurd. From the path above him comes the sound of laughter: a girl and her boy in their festival clothes - he waves and calls "I'm here! I'm here!" And I am here, he thinks: here on the marsh he knows better than his home, with the tide slowly turning and nothing to fear. Monstrous! he thinks, laughing at himself, giddy with reprieve: as if there were anything out there but herring and mackerel!

Nothing to fear in the Blackwater, nothing to repent: only a moment of confusion in the darkness and far too much to drink. The water comes to meet him and it's his old companion again; to prove it he draws nearer, wets his boots, holds out his arms: "Here I am!" he yells, and all the gulls reply. Just a quick dip, he thinks, for auld lang syne, and laughing slips free of his shirt.

The pendulum swings from one year to the next, and there’s darkness on the face of the deep.

 

JANUARY

1.

One o’clock on a dreary day and the time ball dropped at the Greenwich Observatory. There was ice on the prime meridian, and ice on the rigging of the broad-beamed barges down on the busy Thames. Skippers marked the time and tide, and set their oxblood sails against the northeast wind; a freight of iron was bound for Whitechapel foundry where bells tolled fifty against the anvil as if time were running out. Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand; it was lost by those who wished the past were present, and loathed by those who wished the present past. Oranges and lemons rang the chimes of Saint Clement’s, and Westminster’s division bell was dumb. 

Time was money in the Royal Exchange, where men passed the afternoon diminishing their hope of threading camels through a needle’s eye, and in the offices of Holborn Bar the long-toothed cog of a master clock caused an electric charge to set its dozen slave clocks chiming. All the clerks looked up from their ledgers, sighed, and looked down once more. On Charing Cross Road time exchanged its chariot for buses and cabs in urgent fleets, and in the wards of Barts and of the Royal Borough pain made hours of minutes. In Wesley’s chapel they sang The sands of time are sinking and wished they might sink faster, and yards away the ice was melting on the graves in Bunhill Fields. 

In Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple lawyers eyed their calendars and saw statutes of limitation expire; in rooms in Camden and Woolwich time was cruel to lovers wondering how it got so late so soon, and in due course was kind to their ordinary wounds. Across the city in terraces and tenements, in high society and low company and in the middle classes, time was spent and squandered, eked out and wished away; and all the time it rained an icy rain.

At Euston Square and Paddington the Underground stations received their passengers, who poured in like so much raw material going down to be milled and processed and turned out of moulds. In a Circle Line carriage, westbound, fitful lights showed The Times had nothing happy to report, and in the aisle a bag spilled damaged fruit. There was the scent of rain on raincoats, and among the passengers, sunk in his upturned collar, Dr Luke Garrett was reciting the parts of the human heart. “Left ventricle, right ventricle, superior vena cava,” he said, numbering them off on his fingers, hoping the litany might slow his own heart’s anxious beating. The man beside him glanced up, bemused, then shrugging turned away.  “Left atrium, right atrium”, said Garrett, beneath his breath: he was accustomed to the scrutiny of strangers, but saw no reason to court it unduly. The Imp, they called him, since he rarely came higher than the shoulders of other men, and had a loping insistent gait that made you feel he might without any warning take a leap onto a window-ledge. It was possible to see, even through his coat, a kind of urgent power in his limbs, and his brow bulged above his eyes as if it could barely contain the range and ferocity of his intellect. He affected a long black fringe that mimicked the edge of a raven’s wing: beneath it his eyes were dark. He was thirty-two: a surgeon, with a hungry disobedient mind.

The lights went out and relit, and Garrett’s destination came closer. He was due within the hour to attend the funeral of a patient, and no man ever wore his mourning clothes more lightly. Michael Seaborne had died six days before of cancer of the throat, and had borne the consuming disease and the attentions of his doctor with equal disinterest. It was not towards the dead that Garrett’s thoughts were now directed, but rather to his widow, who (he thought, smiling) would perhaps be brushing her untidy hair, or finding a button gone on her good black dress.