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Bram Stoker nominated debut novel about the lives of a gypsy family caught up by a terrible curse in 19th century Hungary and Romania.
The philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment create sweeping changes throughout 19th Century Europe, but to Hungary’s despised nomads, the gypsies, the world is still a dark and very dangerous landscape. Adversaries both mortal and supernatural lurk in the shadows, waiting to strike without mercy.
Imre, a half-gypsy horse trader, understands the danger to his small family all too well. Cursed with a hideously-disfiguring and fatal disease by the vengeful sorceress Anyeta, he watches those around him suffer and fall. Mimi, his wife, who is tricked into cutting off her own arm to create a powerful talisman. His friend Constantin, struck mute by Anyeta’s wrath. And Lenore, his and Mimi’s young daughter, who has been placed in the greatest jeopardy of all.
With his health deteriorating and death imminent, his wife possessed by the witch’s ghost and Lenore being groomed for a fate far worse than death, Imre turns to desperate measures—and a hellish memory from his childhood—to still the sorceress and end her reign of bloodshed. A presence even more powerful and terrifying to him than Anyeta: the gentling box.
Nyiregyhaza, Northeastern Hungary: June, 1864
My wife sits mute now in the corner of our caravan, because this morning it is her personality which has come to the fore. Her hands are folded quietly in the lap of her skirt. Just above her left hand is a thick purplish scar that circles her wrist like a hideous bracelet. I don't want to think about the scar, about how it is the source of the evil afflicting our lives.
If I raise my head from the sweat-soaked pillow I can see her bare feet splayed against the worn floorboards, but it is her face I find myself staring at: small, kitten-shaped, dominated by her huge dark eyes. She has gypsy eyes. They were very bright when we were both younger; now they are ringed by deep gray shadows like bruises and filled with pain. Meeting mine, they beg: Save Lenore.
My wife is right of course, and she is living evidence of what will happen to Lenore, our daughter, if I don't intervene. But Christ, I think, how can I save her when the foul disease I've taken is ravaging through me like a brushfire? I close my eyes and instantly hear the swish of skirts, so I know she has gotten to her feet, she is moving toward the bed. And now I feel her hand tapping my shoulder urgently.
I open my eyes; her face is full of defiance. Her black brows contract angrily and she points at her wrist. Again.
“Yes,” I say, my voice a ragged whisper, “I know.” I know we will die shut up in this stinking grave of a caravan and Lenore will be possessed by the same hungry spirit that has taken my wife's life, that has killed Joseph and punished me.
No. She shakes her head, and suddenly her thin hands go to her face; her shoulders hitch and great wracking sobs shake her small frame. She is crying, and the wailing voice I hear is the first sound she has made as Mimi, as my wife, in more months than I can count. She speaks when she is Anyeta, I think bitterly, but never as Mimi. Anyeta has taken that from her, too.
She sinks onto the edge of the bed, her long hair falling forward, and I want to comfort her. I sit up but my chest burns. I cough, my throat a column of fire, but it's so hard to breathe. I make myself cough harder and up comes a wad of greasy yellow phlegm streaked with blood. I manage to hide the clotty mess in a handkerchief before Mimi turns her head and sees it.
I put my arm around her shoulder. Her eyes flick toward my fingers. She whirls around and points at the livid scar on her wrist. I nod. Mimi is reminding me again. She has tried to save Lenore herself, but her powers have fled. I admire her courage. It wasn't failure.
“Not your fault,” I rasp before the rumbling cough cleaves me again. We both wait until the fit passes. I let my hand rest on her knee.
All at once, Mimi seizes my wrist hard. Her grip is like iron, like steel pincers, and I'm suddenly terrified the change is on her and in a second her eyes will blink and I'll see Anyeta's demonic eyes, hear her mocking screams and taunts.
But Mimi throws my hand back at me and runs to the oval mirror. She jerks it from the plastered wall so fiercely the nail pops out with a shriek and she nearly loses her balance. The silvery mirror sways between her hands, she holds it to her chest like a shield, she moves toward the bed. She is making a grunting noise, trying to tell me something. I concentrate on her lips. She is moving them carefully, slowly. Then I have it:
In the mirror I see my features are blurred with thick scabs and crusts. My face is overrun with the red weeping sores and I would weep for the sight except I think she has seen it spreading and nursed me and never shown revulsion or fear.
Mimi thrusts the mirror toward me again and makes a furious sound, shapes the word, “Look!”
She wants me to know that time is short, that I'm dying, that the pustulent blisters will eat through my lungs, completely consume my flesh—
Mimi hurls the mirror to the floor. The sound is deafening inside the caravan. I see her feet moving among the splinters from the shattered mahogany frame, the chunks of broken glass. She squats. Heedless, she clutches a long sharp shard and I see drops of blood welling from her palm and fingers then running down and staining the white filmy sleeve of her blouse. She points at her wrist with the glass knife, then at mine, and pantomimes sawing.
And then, Christ, then I know what she wants. A sick feeling eddies through me, and I feel the vomit rising in my throat. I push it down because Mimi is asking me to be strong, to save Lenore. I look into her dark eyes and I know what she wants. She wants me to claim the hand of the dead.
I take a deep breath. We both know that claiming the hand of the dead is no small matter, and I glance up at Mimi, expecting her to be looking back at me with sympathy, with understanding, perhaps a little sadness. But she is already climbing the short flight of wooden steps to the cramped loft space above the bedroom. I hear the creak of her tread on the floorboards over my head. The roof is low, so I know she is bent over rummaging through the boxes and kegs, the rolls of dun-colored canvas we use as tents in summertime, Lenore's outgrown toys. We don't let Lenore go up in the loft. We tell her it's dusty, dangerous. We don't want her to find what my wife has kept hidden up there. Even I don't know where it is, and when I go up to look for a tool or a bit of leather to mend a broken harness, I keep my mind on my business. I don't think about the savage charm.
Mimi is on the third step, standing upright now. And I can see she has the glass-topped box in her hands. My breath catches in my throat.
The box is a rectangle. The bottom is the brilliant orange of hammered copper. It's very old, the finest craftsmanship. I think at one time the top was probably a kind of thin metal tracery or fretwork so the owner could look inside and see the relic. But the soldered hinges show signs of repair, and someone—maybe Anyeta—has had it replaced with glass. It reminds me of a miniature coffin made for a prince or a statesman.
My wife opens the lid, and the caravan is suddenly filled with a sweet fragrance. Briefly, the smell of lilies, tuberoses, gardenia overpowers the sickroom stench—the wet swampy odor of my disintegrating flesh.
She nods at me and sets the box on the low deal table between the bed and the sidewall.
The hand is nestled in a bed of worn velvet the maroon color of drying blood; displayed as if it were a wondrous antique jewel in a shop window, instead of an ugly lump of flesh.
It is black with age and has shrunken in on itself, so that the fingers are curled into a fist. It looks more like the hairless paw of some mummified dog than a human hand. If my wife were to turn it over I would see the fingernails. They make round, slightly glossy spots like stove windows made of smoked mica. At the wrist two small bits of cracked yellowish bone can be seen.
The thought of claiming it makes my head whirl.
Mimi goes to the wooden door at the rear of the wagon. At the threshold, she turns and looks at me. In the half gloom her face is nearly as pale as her white blouse, and her eyes are the violet brown of pansies. She swallows nervously, then hangs her head a little. She doesn't want this for me, but we are both afraid Anyeta will dupe Lenore as Mimi herself was tricked into claiming it.
There is no air of command in her eyes or her posture, only pleading. She pauses, her hand touching the iron latch, and gives me a small smile. For a second I'm reminded of the young girl I fell in love with.
I don't know if I can summon the strength or courage to claim the hand of the dead. I settle deeper into the feather pillows, my arm resting crosswise over my brow. Mimi seems to know that I want, need, to think about the dark twisted tale of our lives.
I sigh, and suddenly she is at my side, her hand in my graying hair. She leans over the bed and kisses my eyelids one at a time.
“I love you, Imre,” she shapes, and then she is hurrying toward the door. It shuts behind her. Neither of us knows whether she'll come back as herself or Anyeta.
Outside I hear Lenore's voice trembling with fear and grief. “Papa,” she blurts. “He—?” Her question hangs for several seconds.
“Dying,” comes the soft reply. And I know that my child is out there, alone, speaking with a demon that pretends to be her mother.
My eye is drawn to the copper box. The blackened hand seems to vibrate. I feel its power calling me, whispering promises like sighs in the hot wind that blows over the flat Hungarian plain. I grit my teeth. Drops of sweat break out at my hairline. Oh Jesus, no! I don't want this. I shake my head and a sharp steel cough racks my chest.
“Please. I can't.”
A constellation of pallid faces—Joseph, Constantin, Mimi, Lenore—crowd the air around my head like cherubs in a religious painting. Their eyes are full of sorrow, begging me to intervene.
“Think of the power.” A musical voice hums in my mind—fills it.
“Christ, Christ,” I moan. For then I am hearing the haunting sound of gypsy violins. I see the bosa venos around the campfire, their faces lit in the ruddy glare. Their heads are canted over the shining instruments. The bows are flying faster, faster. Feet moving over scattered rose petals, the swirl of a gauzy scarf. Mimi dancing. I cover my face with my hands.
Yes. After the feast, Mimi danced again—for me alone— in our caravan the night of our wedding. The women had drawn dotted patterns on her hands with red henna for the ceremony; but when I undressed my bride I found she'd privately, daringly rouged her nipples. Her boldness fled, my delight made her suddenly shy. She was afraid the Romany women would show the white nuptial sheets in the morning, and there would be no virgin's blood because we'd been making love, secretly, for months. They didn't. But we stained and reddened the sheets with the henna on her body that transferred to mine. And in the times between our long sweet couplings, I got on my knees and vowed I'd never betray her. I didn't know I was telling a lie. And it wasn't a lie until Anyeta came into our lives; I wince hearing a low throaty chuckle bubbling with mockery.
“Look, Imre,” the voice croons slyly. I watch transfixed. The copper box opens, closes, opens, closes. Each time the lid thuds down the caravan walls seem to reverberate. There is another crash, and then I'm lost in the tunnel of memories, hearing the sound of the stranger pounding the door on the night it all began ten months ago.
Review of THE GENTLING BOX by William Gagliani
Accomplished short story writer and Tarot expert Lisa Mannetti has fashioned a debut novel that demands to be read purely because of its striking originality. The fact that its promise is more than fulfilled makes the reading a rewarding and refreshing experience, the kind serious fans of dark fantasy see all too seldom. The fact that its themes might just haunt your sleep—well, that’s just gravy. After all, isn’t that what we all want to achieve? If it's not disturbing in some way, is it worth reading? Or writing? You'll find The Gentling Box has its share of the disturbing!
Gypsies—the nomadic Romany people—have been reviled traditionally throughout Europe, even while their culture was plundered and their services and labor exploited. Treated with mistrust and often labeled as thieves for the sake of convenience, or occasionally accused of worse (witchcraft and other taboo practices), their supposedly carefree lifestyle has nevertheless garnered much interest. Their colorful horse-drawn caravans have become an image recognized anywhere, and gypsy music has always stirred the heart with its tragic-joyful blend of violin and rhythm. Mannetti’s novel is set among these people and their superstitions, many of which intersected those of regular Europeans in the 19th Century. Death was an obsession, of course, and the basis for many a bizarre belief and superstition.
When the novel opens, in the mid-1860s, Imre and his wife Mimi and daughter Lenore are heading back to Romania, where Mimi’s mother Anyeta lies dying. Hated among her fellow gypsy troupe, the sorceress Anyeta is a horrific presence even before she appears, grotesque in death and apparently murdered. Too late to make peace with her mother, Mimi is left with the duties of the survivor. But the gypsies, afraid of Anyeta’s powers, burn her caravan before Mimi can comply. Though part of the culture, Imre is only half-gypsy and therefore the perfect narrator for this tale of revenge and possession. A horse trader by profession, Imre is a devoted husband and father—but he has dark secrets: for one, he once rebuffed Anyeta when she tried to seduce him in exchange for the financial help he needed. Now, with Anyeta dead, Imre thinks all will be well as soon as he takes his family back home. But Anyeta has many tricks, and Imre many weaknesses.
Imre’s tale begins as, close to death, he relates what took place when Anyeta managed to possess her daughter’s body and prolong her own cursed life—and her search for a perfect body in which to never grow old. Enchanted to separate from Mimi and take up with the lovely Zahara, a woman he had loved as a youth, Imre is faced with the horrifying task of "gentling" his wife. Having learned horse training from his father, Imre knows—and rejects -- the technique of gentling, or training, that is basically an equine version of a lobotomy, for horses thus "gentled" lose both their spirit and their intelligence. Imre is maneuvered by old acquaintances Joseph and Constantin into agreeing to impose this most depraved punishment on his wife, but Imre cannot, for memories of his father haunt his dreams.
Unfortunately, all is not as it seems, and Imre is a pawn in a tragic game that swirls around his head too quickly for him to follow. For Anyeta is anything but helpless, and she is very motivated to lead him astray. Having caused Mimi to claim in bloody self-mutilation the "hand of the dead," a Hand of Glory talisman that bestows magical healing on its owner, Anyeta’s real agenda comes to Imre when it is too late to save everyone he loves, and when his own weaknesses have broken him and branded him with despair. Imre is a tragic figure whose love for Mimi and Lenore blind him to what his mother in law has in store, and his inability to complete the evil deed that will free them is the key to his later suffering. Meanwhile, he will watch as his beloved Mimi harbors the deranged Anyeta inside her body, running as a wolf at night and indulging in the most vile, inhuman acts imaginable.
This is but one layer in the richly complex tale of evil from beyond the grave. While Mannetti has managed to portray gypsy life convincingly and with great sympathy, the novel’s true heart lies in its universal and yet very personal theme of Choices—those we make, those we neglect, those we refuse, and those which seduce us. This is why the final scenes succeed on so truly heart-rending a level.
The dark themes Lisa Mannetti explores come crawling up your throat when you least expect them, their personal nature much more horrific than world-threatening horror precisely because the cast is small, the focus tight, and the moral quandaries so impossibly torturous. We fall headfirst into a world both abundantly detailed and bleakly hideous for its personal horrors and what man—or woman—may be driven to do for power over others. Imre's story feels stifling, buried under a mantle of sadness that can't be shaken off. It's not surprising that The Gentling Box has garnered a nomination for the Bram Stoker Award—it may be a first novel, but it's one powerful and inventive, timeless treatise on darkness of the soul.
Reviewed by Gabrielle Faust for FearZone and The Austin Literary Examiner
Gypsies. The mere word sends shivers down my spine. The image of once brightly painted, now worn and peeling, old-world caravans driven by cunning horse traders and colorfully garbed fortune-tellers is one that inspires an eerie mixture of awe and trepidation. The power surrounding the very legends themselves is an incredible testament to how deeply engrained the superstitions have become within us all over the ages. Despite the legendary myths of their true magical abilities as witches and sorcerers, gypsies have cloaked themselves in an illusion lined with a vagabond patchwork of panhandling and swindling working to befuddle the world beyond their families and make outsiders extremely wary. Naive strangers never know what they might lose in their dealings with a caravan, their personal possessions or something far more valuable. However, one cannot deny the resonance of magic that surrounds gypsies, especially those of the old country. In Lisa Mannetti's debut novel The Gentling Box, she delves deep into the world of the gypsies of 19th century Hungary bringing to harsh, dark reality the brutal existence of one such caravan and the merciless supernatural power they possess.
Suffering the devastating poverty plaguing the lands of Hungary during the 1800's, Imre, a half-gypsy horse trader, along with his wife Mimi and daughter Lenore, have found their family cursed. Imre himself has fallen ill from a fatal disease cast upon him by Mimi's mother, Anyeta, a tyrannical sorceress. After Anyeta's passing, Imre and his family return to the old caravan to allow Mimi to say her goodbyes. The gypsies there are not as welcoming of Imre and Mimi's arrival, however, plagued by layers upon layers of murderous corruption and wicked illusions initiated by Anyeta before her death. When Lenore becomes deathly ill after a certain magical assault, Mimi is driven to assume her mother's power and tricked into claiming the "hand of the dead" by cutting off her own arm to create the needed talisman. But, again, it seems that nothing is as it appears and the caravan revolts against Imre and his family. As Imre becomes increasingly ill, he must return to the darkest ghosts of his past in order to save Lenore and put an end to the black reign of Anyeta's ghost once and for all.
Mannetti's depiction of 19th century Hungarian gypsies is in a word, masterful. One can feel the cold, dank air of the western Carpathians, hear the creaking of the wooden wagons on their tired wheels, smell the acrid twinge of campfire smoke in one's nose. Mannetti paints a dismal and bleak world in which the glamour and glory of a once prideful people has been reduced to a cannibalistic fear that consumes their every waking moment so that they fail even to notice the graying and fraying of the world around them. Indeed, their corrupt magical power is so great that it is rivaled only by their own superstitions and suspicions of one another. It is a sour, bitter anxiety that rises high in the back of the reader's throat as they are drawn into one terrifying scene after another. It is a poetic web of black magic Mannetti weaves as she skillfully crafts characters, which quickly evolve and are instantly identifiable and tangible. Indeed one could easily believe that she had spent time amongst the gypsies of Hungary, or perhaps was one in another lifetime, as her depictions are so believable. The Gentling Box is a brilliantly decadent opium den of mind-bending hallucinations fueled by old-world magic, each page more disturbing and haunting than the previous one. Absolutely stunning! Moving with the frantic speed of a terrified wild horse, this novel will take you on a ride you will not soon forget. If this is Lisa Mannetti's debut, I cannot wait to see what she will produce for us in the future.
The Gentling Box is based in and around 19th Century Europe’s Hungarian gypsies. Delving into their traditions and superstitions, it is debatable at first whether sorcery or petty jealousy causes the problems in Imre’s life. Imre is a half-gypsy horse-trader that pulled his wife away from her mother, the reputed sorceress Anyetta, twenty years ago so they could get away from her poisonous influence. Imre, his wife, and daughter, are summoned back to her for a final farewell while she is on her deathbed.
This journey leads to death, endured curses and desperation where no one can be trusted. Friends are suspect, allies are possessed by Anyetta and destroyed. Nothing is as it seems on the surface. We are carried along, as Imre discovers some of the gypsy superstitions are true, and the only salvation for his daughter may lay in a horrific memory from his youth. His sense of helplessness saturates the story.
The Gentling Box is structured to give you Imre’s current situation from the start and works the reader through how he got there before providing a resolution. The strangeness of the first few chapters makes increasing sense as Mannetti fills in all the little details in a rich, deliberately plotted tale that is more “terror” than “horror.” Each of our players is fleshed out to the point where their actions make sense because of their personality, not some dues ex machina. The reader gets inside our protagonist’s head, his hopes and fears, making the events resonate more fully than a sketched-out character. The oppressive atmosphere of Imre’s world permeates the prose, burrowing it into the brain until we find his family’s ultimate fate.
Lisa Mannetti’s novel is highly recommended for the reader who wants a cerebral approach to their fiction. The phantasmagoria of the plot weaves a spell stronger than Anyetta’s talisman and rewards close reading. Quite an amazing book for a first novel and her future efforts will find their way to the top of the “read” pile.
By Jim Lesniak
Reviews for "The Gentling Box"
|Reviewed by Paul Judges
|Your book sounds very good.
I am based near Whitby, England....where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula.
|Reviewed by Linda Meckler
|I am in the process of creating a cover for my new book. I love the cover of your book. Linda Meckler|
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