The Devil's Footprints: A Novel

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9780385522090: The Devil's Footprints: A Novel
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Michael Gardiner has lived in Coldhaven all his life yet still feels like an outsider. Married but rather distant from his wife, he reads in the local paper that a school friend, Moira Birnie, has killed herself and her two sons by setting their car on fire; but she has spared her 14-year-old daughter Hazel. Michael uneasily recalls his past connections to Moira. As teenagers, Michael and Moira had a brief romance, yet more troubling to Michael is the fact that he was responsible for the death of Moira’s brother, the town bully. In the wake of the tragedy, Michael becomes obsessed with Hazel, who is just old enough to be his daughter. Aware of his obsession, Hazel convinces Michael to take her away from the village and her father, an abusive and violent man.

Setting his story against the untamed Scottish landscape, John Burnside has written a chilling novel that explores the elemental forces of everyday life: love, fear, grief, and the hope of redemption. In its ability to evoke and exploit our most primal fears, The Devil’s Footprints prompts comparisons to the best of Stephen King. In both language and imagery, it is a novel of mysterious beauty, written with the clarity and power of a folktale.

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About the Author:

JOHN BURNSIDE’s five works of fiction and eleven collections of poetry have been published in the U.K. The Asylum Dance won the Whitbread Poetry Award, and The Light Trap was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize. His acclaimed memoir, A Lie About My Father, was published in the United States in May 2007; The Devil’s Footprints is his first novel to be published in this country.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Evening Herald
A year ago, almost to the day, a woman called Moira Birnie and her two sons, Malcolm, aged four, and Jimmie, three, were found dead in a burned–out car seven miles from Coldhaven. Moira was thirty–two and was married to a man called Tom Birnie, a local tough, with whom she shared a ground–floor flat at the dank, lower end of Marshall’s Wynd. A flat that I happen to know she rented from Henry Hunter, now also deceased but, in his day, a notoriously mean landlord and entrepreneur whose reputation for shady dealing went back thirty years or more to when he bought his first house, next to the chip shop on Sandhaven Road, and rented it out—faulty wiring, bad ventilation and all—to a bunch of students from the fisheries college. I don’t imagine Tom and Moira Birnie were paying a high rent for their accommodation, but whatever it was, it was too much. Henry Hunter was better known for his greed than his conscientiousness.

The local press reported the fire, treating it as a freak accident to begin with, but as more details emerged, and the full story of what Moira had done became clear, the national papers got involved. As it happened, I didn’t read about the events leading up to the tragedy, and the gruesome details of the fire itself, until the Saturday after it happened, when Amanda was over at her Mum’s. I like to get all the Saturday papers and scatter them about the kitchen table, doing the crosswords, reading the odd story at random, catching up on the week’s news, clipping puzzles and reviews and human interest pieces that I want to keep for later. I might have missed this particular item, had it not been for the fact that, two days before, the police had released a statement to the effect that the fire in the car had been started deliberately and they were treating the case as suspicious. By the time the nationals got hold of it, the story had become a major event, a tale of tragic, or vicious, proportions: Moira Birnie had drugged her young sons, driven them to a quiet, sandy road near a local tourist spot, and torched her car, with herself and the boys inside. Nobody seemed to know why she had done this, but the powers–that–be had no doubts about where the guilt lay. The only question in anybody’s mind was: How could a woman, a mother, do this terrible thing? And why had she killed only the boys and not her fourteen–year–old daughter, who had been abandoned in remote farmland, alone and terrified?

I read the story between the Scotsman crossword and the Guardian review pages. Naturally I thought it ghastly, and I was intrigued by the fact that it had happened so close to home, but it took me a minute or two to realize that I knew the main protagonist, Moira Birnie; or rather, I had known her once, when she was Moira Kennedy, eighteen years old and almost pretty, with a bright, slightly nervy smile and—it seems irreverent to say it now, but it was the first thing I noticed when I met her, and it was the first thing I remembered, reading about her tragic death—legs of a kind you usually only ever see in advertisements for silk stockings. When I say I had known her, I mean I went out with her for a while, thinking, partly because of her legs, but also because she was intriguing in any number of ways, that I might even be in love with her. I was at college then, and she wasn’t, which may have been why it ended fairly soon, but I imagine the real reason for the brevity of the affair was Tom Birnie, whom I never really knew but remembered as a forceful and crudely handsome boy, manufactured, as our house cleaner, Mrs. K., would say, on one of God's off–days.

As it happens, Moira Kennedy was my first real girlfriend. My first lover, in other words and, for a few months, it was a fairly intense affair. Even then, I think I half–knew that it was going to end, so it didn’t surprise me when she wrote, halfway through the summer term of my first year, to say it was over. I think I might even have been relieved because, though I loved Moira’s legs, and her pretty smile and the excitement of the sex, I could see that we had little in common and, when the sex was over, nothing much to talk about. We had begun the affair by accident, more or less, and it had always been tainted by a secret I had kept from her, a secret that—had I been in my right mind—should have prevented me from forming any association with Moira in the first place. For the fact was that I felt guilty, and drawn in, transfixed by a kind of morbid fascination, if that’s the right word for it, because, even though Moira didn’t know it, even if nobody knew it but me, I was the one who had killed her brother, when I was thirteen and he was fifteen, killed him and left him to rot in the old limeroom on a weekday afternoon, when we should have been in school doing math or P.E., out of the cold and the rain, thinking about Christmas, or birds’ eggs, or the pretty girl with black eyes and shoulder–length pigtails in 4C. That was what really drew my attention, that Saturday afternoon: not Moira’s unspeakable act, or the image of her dead children. It was the memory of something I had never told, something I had managed to shift to the back of my mind and leave there, but still relived in my dreams from time to time: the story of a simple lie; the compelling logic of a child’s fear and a surprised boy falling away into the blackness of shadows and water.

When she got home that day, Amanda was annoyed about something. She often was when she came back from her Mum’s, and usually it was with me—or rather, with the idea of me, the man she had intended to do a better job on, the man who so mystified her mother, a kindly woman, who had so wanted to like her only daughter’s husband. Amanda was, and no doubt still is, pretty, alert, sensible, hardworking and fun to be with. If she were placing an ad in the lonely hearts columns, she would get plenty of offers. She liked spending time with friends, enjoyed good food and fine wines and, though she didn’t read much, she kept up with current affairs and the arts. She deserved better than me. “Do you have to make such a mess?” she said as she came into the room. She said it so quickly, before she even had time to register the mess, that I wondered if she prepared these entrances in advance, knowing exactly what she would find and tailoring her opening gambit accordingly.

I looked up and smiled. “Nope.” I tore a page out of the Telegraph that I thought I might want to read again later. “It’s entirely voluntary.”

“It’s chaos in here,” she muttered, heading for the kettle. “God, I need a coffee!” Amanda always said she needed a coffee when she’d had a hard day at work, or some kind of run–in with her mother. It was a formula; she always used the exact same phrase; it was intended to evoke sympathy, concern, interest.

I ignored it. “I like chaos,” I said. “Anyway, Mrs. K. will be here on Monday.”

“I swear to God,” Amanda said. “You make all this mess on purpose, to give the poor cow more to do.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“What do you mean, what’s wrong with that? It’s obvious what’s wrong with it.” I enjoyed it when Amanda mimicked me. It was one of the few things that I still found charming about her.

“Mrs. K. cleans,” I said. “That’s what she does. She cleans.”

“She probably gets enough of that at home, don’t you think? Without you giving her more to do here.”

I shook my head. Sighed. “You don’t understand her at all, do you?” I waited for a response, though I didn’t expect one. Amanda was far too dignified for that level of banter. In fact, Amanda was far too dignified to be married to me, full stop. She tolerated Mrs. K.—just—but she didn’t care about the workings of her heart, or of her mind. “She cant clean at home,” I said. “There’s no point cleaning at home. If she cleaned at home, it would just be a mess again five minutes later. Here, she gets to see a result.” I considered this for a moment. I hadn’t thought about it before—though it was obvious—but now that I was thinking about it, I realized that I did give her more to do, I did go about the place making little islands of chaos for her to attend to, and I rather suspected the reason for it all really was so she could see the result of her labors. Or was it so I could see it? “Come to think of it,” I said.

Amanda wasn’t listening. Her coffee was made, and she was on the way out again, heading for the sitting room to keep up with current affairs and the arts on the telly. Work, Mum, telly. Mum, coffee, work. Telly, telly, telly. Not that I cared. I was thinking about Mrs. K. I had hired her, originally, because she had married into one of the Coldhaven family clans who had made my parents’ time on Cockburn Street so miserable. Now she was miserable herself, as anybody could have predicted the day she married Alec King. I suppose, back then, it gave me some kind of perverse satisfaction, having her as a cleaner—not that I had anything against her personally. She was a decent woman who had made a fatal mistake in life and was determined, according to the custom of the place, to spend the next several decades paying for it. Amanda only tolerated Mrs. K., but I enjoyed seeing her about the place, making things neat and tidy, restoring order. She enjoyed her work, and I enjoyed letting her do it. Sometimes I even suspected that I enjoyed having her around, not just because she had been as ill–treated by the Kings and the Gillespies and their ilk as...

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

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