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    —Jackie Cantor, Diana's first editor

Not that I have been _entirely_ frivolous over the last couple of weeks. I’ve also just finished a novella titled “Lord John and the Plague of Zombies,” and here’s a bit of it, for your entertainment–hope you enjoy it!

“Lord John and the Plague of Zombies” – excerpt
Copyright 2010 Diana Gabaldon

[This will be published in an anthology titled DOWN THESE STRANGE STREETS, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. No, I don’t have a pub date for this yet, but am assuming sometime in 2011.]

“Your servant, sah,” he said to Grey, bowing respectfully. “The Governor’s compliments, and dinner will be served in ten minutes. May I see you to the dining room?”

“You may,” Grey said, reaching hastily for his coat. He didn’t doubt that he could find the dining-room unassisted, but the chance to watch this young man walk…

“You may,” Tom Byrd corrected, entering with his hands full of grooming implements, “once I’ve put his lordship’s hair to rights.” He fixed Grey with a minatory eye. “You’re not a-going in to dinner like that, me lord, and don’t you think it. You sit down there.” He pointed sternly to a stool, and Lieutenant-Colonel Grey, commander of His Majesty’s forces in Jamaica, meekly obeyed the dictates of his nineteen-year-old valet. He didn’t always allow Tom free rein, but in the current circumstance, was just as pleased to have an excuse to sit still in the company of the young black servant.

Tom laid out all his implements neatly on the dressing-table, from a pair of silver hairbrushes to a box of powder and a pair of curling tongs, with the care and attention of a surgeon arraying his knives and saws. Selecting a hairbrush, he leaned closer, peering at Grey’s head, then gasped. “Me lord! Tthere’s a big huge spider–walking right up your temple!”

Grey smacked his temple by reflex, and the spider in question—a clearly visible brown thing nearly a half-inch long—shot off into the air, striking the looking-glass with an audible tap before dropping to the surface of the dressing-table and racing for its life.

Tom and the black servant uttered identical cries of horror and lunged for the creature, colliding in front of the dressing table and falling over in a thrashing heap. Grey, strangling an almost irresistible urge to laugh, stepped over them and dispatched the fleeing spider neatly with the back of his other hairbrush.

He pulled Tom to his feet and dusted him off, allowing the black servant to scramble up by himself. He brushed off all apologies as well, but asked whether the spider had been a deadly one?

“Oh, yes, sah,” the servant assured him fervently. “Should one of those bite you, sah, you would suffer excruciating pain at once. The flesh around the wound would putrefy, you would commence to be fevered within an hour, and in all likelihood, you would not live until dawn.”

“Oh, I see,” Grey said mildly, his flesh creeping briskly. “Well, then. Perhaps you would not mind looking about the room while Tom is at his work? In case such spiders go about in company?”

Grey sat and let Tom brush and plait his hair, watching the young man as he assiduously searched under the bed and dressing-table, pulled out Grey’s trunk, and pulled up the trailing curtains and shook them.

“What is your name?” he asked the young man, noting that Tom’s fingers were trembling badly, and hoping to distract him from thoughts of the hostile wildlife with which Jamaica undoubtedly teemed. Tom was fearless in the streets of London, and perfectly willing to face down ferocious dogs or foaming horses. Spiders, though, were quite another matter.

“Rodrigo, sah,” said the young man, pausing in his curtain-shaking to bow. “Your servant, sah.”

He seemed quite at ease in company, and conversed with them about the town, the weather—he confidently predicted rain in the evening, at about ten o’clock–leading Grey to think that he had likely been employed as a servant in good families for some time. Was the man a slave? he wondered, or a free black?

His admiration for Rodrigo was, he assured himself, the same that he might have for a marvelous piece of sculpture, an elegant painting. And one of his friends did in fact possess a collection of Greek amphorae decorated with scenes that gave him quite the same sort of feeling. He shifted slightly in his seat, crossing his legs. He would be going into dinner soon. He resolved to think of large, hairy spiders, and was making some progress with this subject when something huge and black dropped down the chimney and rushed out of the disused hearth.

All three men shouted and leapt to their feet, stamping madly. This time it was Rodrigo who felled the intruder, crushing it under one sturdy shoe.

“What the devil was that?” Grey asked, bending over to peer at the thing, which was a good three inches long, gleamingly black, and roughly ovoid, with ghastly long, twitching antennae.

“Only a cockroach, sah,” Rodrigo assured him, wiping a hand across a sweating ebon brow. “They will not harm you, but they are most disagreeable. If they come into your bed, they feed upon your eyebrows.”

Tom uttered a small strangled cry. The cockroach, far from being destroyed, had merely been inconvenienced by Rodrigo’s shoe. It now extended thorny legs, heaved itself up and was proceeding about its business, though at a somewhat slower pace. Grey, the hairs prickling on his arms, seized the ash-shovel from among the fireplace implements and scooping up the insect on its blade, jerked open the door and flung the nasty creature as far as he could—which, given his state of mind, was some considerable distance.

Tom was pale as custard when Grey came back in, but picked up his employer’s coat with trembling hands. He dropped it, though, and with a mumbled apology, bent to pick it up again, only to utter a strangled shriek, drop it again, and run backwards, slamming so hard against the wall that Grey heard a crack of laths and plaster.

“What the devil?” He bent, reaching gingerly for the fallen coat.

“Don’t touch it, me lord!” Tom cried, but Grey had seen what the trouble was; a tiny yellow snake slithered out of the blue-velvet folds, head moving to and fro in slow curiosity.

“Well, hallo, there.” He reached out a hand, and as before, the little snake tasted his skin with a flickering tongue, then wove its way up into the palm of his hand. He stood up, cradling it carefully.

Tom and Rodrigo were standing like men turned to stone, staring at him.
“It’s quite harmless,” he assured them. “At least I think so. It must have fallen into my pocket earlier.”

Rodrigo was regaining a little of his nerve. He came forward and looked at the snake, but declined an offer to touch it, putting both hands firmly behind his back.

“That snake likes you, sah,” he said, glancing curiously from the snake to Grey’s face, as though trying to distinguish a reason for such odd particularity.

“Possibly.” The snake had made its way upward and was now wrapped round two of Grey’s fingers, squeezing with remarkable strength. “On the other hand, I believe he may be attempting to kill and eat me. Do you know what his natural food might be?”

Rodrigo laughed at that, displaying very beautiful white teeth, and Grey had such a vision of those teeth, those soft mulberry lips, applied to—he coughed, hard, and looked away.

“He would eat anything that did not try to eat him first, sah,” Rodrigo assured him. “It was probably the sound of the cockroach that made him come out. He would hunt those.”

“What a very admirable sort of snake. Could we find him something to eat, do you think? To encourage him to stay, I mean.”

Tom’s face suggested strongly that if the snake was staying, he was not. On the other hand….he glanced toward the door, whence the cockroach had made its exit, and shuddered. With great reluctance, he reached into his pocket and extracted a rather squashed bread-roll, containing ham and pickle.

This object being placed on the floor before it, the snake inspected it gingerly, ignored bread and pickle, but twining itself carefully about a chunk of ham, squeezed it fiercely into limp submission, then, opening its jaw to an amazing extent, engulfed its prey, to general cheers. Even Tom clapped his hands, and—if not ecstatic at Grey’s suggestion that the snake might be accommodated in the dark space beneath the bed for the sake of preserving Grey’s eyebrows, uttered no objections to this plan, either. The snake being ceremoniously installed and left to digest its meal, Grey was about to ask Rodrigo further questions regarding the natural fauna of the island, but was forestalled by the faint sound of a distant gong.

“Dinner!” he exclaimed, reaching for his now snakeless coat.

“Me lord! Your hair’s not even powdered!” He refused to wear a wig, to Tom’s ongoing dismay, but was obliged in the present instance to submit to powder. This toiletry accomplished in haste, he shrugged into his coat and fled, before Tom could suggest any further refinements to his appearance.


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29 Responses »

  1. Diana,
    Thank you! I always enjoy Lord John stories. He has an interesting point of view. Would this timeline run with Claire's and Jamie's time in Jamaica?

  2. Dear Lynda–

    No, this is set in 1761.


  3. Spiders, cockroaches, snakes, AND zombies? This is rather pushing the limit for my creepy-crawly tolerance. But for Lord John, I will do my best to weather the storm of bugs, reptiles, and the un-dead. ;)
    Thanks for sharing, Diana.

  4. Fun!

    Where does this fall in relation to Custom of the Army & The Scottish Prisoner?

  5. Dear adventures–

    Well, let's see…

    "The Custom of the Army" (novella) comes before SCOTTISH PRISONER (novel), and "Zombies" (novella) comes after PRISONER.

    Which makes it an interesting writing exercise, in that I have to make internal references to events I haven't written about yet. But you know–if it was easy, _everybody_ would do it. [g]


  6. So will reading Zombies cause spoilers for Scottish Prisoner?

  7. Dear adventure–

    No, I shouldn't think so. The only such internal reference is one to John's feelings for Jamie–not to any plot incidents.


  8. Oh thank you so much! :) I love to read from Lord John!
    Say, do you plan to publish a collection of your short stories at some point?
    So far, I resisted buying anthology books just because I want to read one story in it. *g*
    But it gets harder with every exerpt you post! ;)

  9. Dear Myra–

    Oh, if you're patient [g], certainly you can get them printed together. I have one volume of Lord John stories–LORD JOHN AND THE HAND OF DEVILS, which includes "Lord John and the Hellfire Club," "Lord John and the Succubus," and "Lord John and the Haunted Soldier"–and in the fullness of time, there'll be another one that includes "The Custom of the Army," "Plague of Zombies," and another one I haven't yet written.

    The thing is, though, when you sell a piece to an anthology, you retain the reprint rights, but there's always a clause preventing you from using those rights within two years of the original publication. So we'll have to wait 'til about 2013 before I can publish the second collection of Lord John stories, since I think "Zombies" will be out sometime in 2011.

    Hope you'll enjoy them, though!


  10. I loved that! The part with the snake and sandwich was really funny, I laughed out loud.

    I really like Lord John stories. I got familiar with your work last year. I actually read the three Lord John books in my native language first, got addicted, got my hands on the Outlander series and read it faster than I'd ever read anything else. Then Echo came out and I went and bought it in English. Now my goal is to get all your books in English, since the translation is, well, not perfect. How do you translate, for example, Scots to another language!

    Thank you for this great experience I've had with your books, and greetings from the other side of the world. :)

  11. This is just marvelous! I love Tom and Lord Grey, and could actually see Tom's distress with the various "critters" (as we call them in Texas). I could even here the slight crunch/pop of the partially annihilated cockroach LOL. Tom becomes more and more real as a person every time you bring him into the story. Thank you for such fully-formed characters.

    But I am confused (since I haven't read any Jamie/Claire in six months or so). Is this a different trip to Jamaica for Lord John set somewhat prior to him being sent over as Governor (which–if I remember correctly, was when he actually seriously interacted with Claire for the first time)?

    Guess it is time for another re-read of the Outlander series since I am getting vague on the story lines.

    Thank you for posting this tidbit and giving me an excuse to start the tale from the beginning again ;-)

  12. Okay–that's what I get for not previewing my post–I can HEAR the cockroach, not "here" it (and I wrote that to a writer of all things LOL). Mea culpa to all.

  13. Dear Linda–

    All writers make typos, believe me. [g]

    No, this story is set in 1761, and is Lord John's first trip to Jamaica. He's a Lieutenant-Colonel, in charge of troops, charged with putting down a slave rebellion. It'll be several years later (1766/67, I think) when he comes back as Governor and meets Claire and Jamie.


  14. I love Lord John and Tom. So glad you decided to share with us again.

  15. Oh, fun! If creepy-crawly to the max… :)

  16. It's always so easy to fall into the engrossing world you create with your writing, Diana. I have two close friends who are gay men and they are ALWAYS on the lookout for attractive (mostly younger) men, much more so than I am as a heterosexual woman. I guess there's something to be said about men being visually stimulated. You capture that dynamic nicely with the Lord John character. I love how he is so dignified yet he adores admiring a nice piece of arse! Jen

  17. Oooh I can't wait to read this!!!! I might be looking to deep into it, but the snake reminds me of Willy and the wooden snake he carved for Jamie. I love it :)

  18. I just got an ad from Ingram for the graphic novel!! Going to order for my store! So excited!!

  19. Dear Castle–

    You have a bookstore? Or are you a buyer for one?


  20. You must have such fun writing these! I'll bet you chuckle the whole time!

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