Another day, another corpse. This guy had been good-looking before someone worked him over. Now he had big, livid bruises on his head and upper body, cigarette burns on the cheeks and eyelids, and the usual wide slash across the throat.
"How long have we had this one?" I asked, shivering in the morgue's chill.
"Two days," the white-coat guy said. I didn't know his name. I try to remember the lab people and support staff, but turnover's too high. This line of work burns people out faster than a crematorium on overtime.
"What did you leave it that long for?" I said, annoyed. "Waiting for the killer to turn himself in?"
"We were waiting for the ghost to show up," he said.
I shook my head in disgust. "Look, when someone's been murdered, they want us on the case. If their ghost doesn't turn up in twenty-four hours, that's because it can't."
The idea for this story arose from the background for a novel that I spent a lot of time developing (but not actually writing) around the turn of the millennium. As explained in the notes to "The Sounds That Come After Screaming", an earlier story that shared the same origins, I was sick of reading clichéd fantasy novels with generic medieval settings; I kept wondering why those societies apparently had such long histories, such advantages of magic and whatnot, and yet never seemed to progress. I wanted to create a world going through rapid change — the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution, but with magic instead of science. This meant that I had to come up with specific examples of how fantasy tropes might develop under the application of "magical technology". Ghosts were an obvious area to explore. Traditionally, ghosts are rare, difficult to see, and never have much practical use. To move forward from this primitive concept, I assumed that under the stimulus of alchemy, everyone turned into ghosts when they died, and communicating with ghosts became routine. The social implications were immense. And since nothing exists in isolation, I created an entire ecosystem for ghosts, explaining how they interacted with each other and with the physical world.
These background details inevitably suggested possible stories. I felt that it might help to promote the novel if I could publish stories set in the same world, and after I sold "The Sounds That Come After Screaming", I began writing "Memories of the Knacker's Yard". However, it soon became clear that this story, unlike the previous one, did not require the novel's milieu as its setting. It used an aspect of the premise, but it didn't need any of the characters, places or history. While I could shoehorn the story into the original milieu by the inclusion of superfluous details, I decided that this would be pointless, especially as the novel hadn't been published or even written. Instead, I'd write the story in its natural setting: a version of our own world, with added ghosts.
One advantage of a contemporary milieu is that it enables the inclusion of real-world props within the story. I therefore indulged myself by mentioning "an Escher print, the one with the white swans turning into black and the black swans into white." This image symbolises the action of the story. There are also some more subtle examples of black-and-white imagery in the narrative — it's not a coincidence that the hero used to play piano, rather than some other instrument.
When I finished the story, I thought it was one of my better efforts. However, it proved more difficult to sell than I'd expected. Partly this was because the story inhabited the hinterland between the SF and horror genres: one rejection letter said, "It is a great story, but unfortunately I didn't get enough of a science fiction feel...." I think another reason might have been that the opening paragraphs, by mentioning multiple murders, implied a "serial killer" story. Since I don't write very much horror, I was unaware that the serial killer is a cliché of the genre, overused to the point where markets often warn against them in their guidelines.
"Memories of the Knacker's Yard" is not a typical story about a serial killer. It uses the murders as a jumping-off point, simply because a story about ghosts needs a few dead people. The ghostly ecosystem always needs fresh food....