Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—Reaching for a 19th Century State of Mind

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Revised detail from acrylic painting “Ethan’s Hair” copyright©2010 Alan M. Clark

In developing Victorian era characters for my historical fiction horror novels, whether they are Americans from my early western, The Door That Faced West, or my southern gothic, A Parliament of Crows, or those from across the Atlantic Ocean used in my Jack the Ripper Victims series, I give each of them a mindset appropriate for the environment of the tale in which they appear. Although broadly our forbears reacted emotionally the same as we do, the thinking behind their response to the natural world, disease, death, violence, and perpetrators of violence could be very different.

PaperbackNovelsPromoBannerThe mindsets of my characters often contrast dramatically with my own. Science provides me with answers to things that might have been mysterious and therefore mystical to those who lived in the 19th century. While writing The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, as it is both memoir and fiction, I had the opportunity to juxtapose my thinking with that of a 19th century serial killer. Although a weird, creepy exercise, it was a lot of fun.

Living in the United States in modern times, I did not grow up around much death. My grandfather, my father’s father, died when I was very young. I didn’t know him well. Other family members who lived in other cities died, but I knew little of the events surrounding their deaths. My family didn’t go to funerals. A boy who I played with was killed in a car accident, and he seemed to disappear from my life. He was an only child, so I had virtually no contact with his family after he was gone. I did not truly know much more of death until my early twenties, when I pulled a drowned friend from the ocean off the California coast and held his lifeless body in my arms.

If I’d lived, as many of my characters do, in 19th century London, I would most likely have known much more of death and the rituals surrounding it.  The infant mortality rate was very high throughout the Victorian period in both America and England. In London, through most of the 19th century, at least 30% of children died by the age of five. With that, the life expectancy of the average human being hovered around 40 years. The infant mortality was responsible for the lifespan number being so low. If one lived to become an adult, there was the chance, although much slimmer than what we have today, that one might live to a ripe old age.

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Detail from etching “Forgotten” copyright©2016 Alan M. Clark

Death visited the living earlier, more often, and for what could frequently seem mysterious reasons in the Victorian period. The rituals surrounding the loss of life had a large presence in social culture, especially for the higher classes, with set terms for grieving, mourning clothes, and other observances meant to help the living let go of the dead.

A simple cut that drew blood could easily develop into a fatal infection. Of course, that can also happen today, but we have many ways to prevent or fight off such bugs. A secondary illness from a cold or flu, such as a sinus infection or bronchitis, was more likely to become fatal in a time before antibiotics. Because of the unknown associated with infection at the time, If I’d lived in the 19th century, I believe I’d have had more concern than I currently do about small wounds and simple viruses.

Science usually provides us with solid answers regarding cause of death today. The question of why some survive what kills others has never been settled easily by considering who is more fit physically, emotionally, intellectually, or morally, but imagine having to sort through such things without the aid of the science of today. Human beings have a tendency to seek what’s equitable, even in nature. If I were one living in the Victorian era, perhaps with religious views, I would probably view deaths by natural causes, disaster, and disease very differently. Regarding the mysteries that arose concerning who survived and who perished from such misfortune, I might have even considered whether or not the individuals involved deserved what they got. That is not how I do think of such things, in part because I am not a religious fellow.

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“A Vast Landscape” copyright©1991 Alan M. Clark

The discovery of and acceptance of microbes as a matter of fact was a slow process in the 19th century. Although the word “virus,” meaning slime or poison—something that causes illness—had existed for many hundreds of years, the distinction from bacteria as a mechanism to bring on something like the common cold or flu would not established until later. The discovery of the first pathogen of a type we call a virus today, would not occur until 1901. Even late in the 19th century, when those in the medical community were accepting the science of microbes (we’re talking primarily about bacteria that could be seen with the aid of instruments of the period), the majority of human beings knew nothing of bacteria and continued to view infection, whether bacterial or viral, with a superstitious eye.

Today, although many seem to lack an understanding of the difference between bacteria and viruses, most of the people I know assume that pathogens have no motive beyond simple survival and reproduction. Infection is neither deserved by the infected person, nor is it a particularly personal attack upon that individual. My view is that death, whether caused by violence, accidental or purposeful, or as a result of disease brought on by exposure to pathogens, wear and tear of tissues, or as a product of genetic traits, says little about the deceased’s character.

Concerning crime, the average person in the Victorian era could not fathom why a murderer would commit such abhorrent acts as killing, raping, or maiming on impulse, and so superstition frequently colored the thinking of those trying to interpret motive. Today, with studies of criminal behavior and psychology, we often have much more substantial ideas as to what motivates those who commit violence and murder. Although we still do not understand completely, we don’t often call such criminals “Fiends.” The word means evil spirit or demon, which suggests the acts committed by such disturbed individuals have supernatural origins and are somehow furthering the motives of powerful, unseen entities. Jack the Ripper was referred to as a fiend, but I don’t recall the modern serial murderer, the Green River Killer, ever being referred to that way. He may have been, but that was probably not the trend.

Since the concept of the subconscious was young in the 19th century, the average person had no knowledge of it. Therefore, one was either consciously and rationally responsible for ones thoughts and feelings, impulses and compulsions, or, since those can seem to come out of the blue, one might consider they arrived in the mind from supernatural agencies or as a product of lunacy, both possibilities clearly a cause for extreme concern.

If a Baptist man working a coal mine in Virginia in the19th century found the impulse to strike his boss destructive, then did it on several occasions against his own better judgement and despite the consequences, he might decide that he was beset by demons.

If a Catholic woman from the Victorian era in Scotland found herself in the downward spiral of alcoholism, she might decide that the corrupting compulsion in her life was punishment for sinful thoughts or actions.

A soldier in the American Civil war whose eyes showed no injury, yet whose sight had been lost because his mind could not accept what he’d seen in battle, would be considered a willful malingerer. Consider how the soldier’s commander viewed him. If he didn’t believe that the soldier was indeed blind, he might reasonably think him a coward or insane.

If these uncontrollable aspects of the human psyche were attributed to insanity, again frequently supernatural forces were blamed.

I don’t mean to single out religion as the only purveyor of strange beliefs. Science of the 19th century, especially medical science, had just as much weirdness in it, but since science is a growing thing, most of the bizarre notions from the time, like the idea that illness was transmitted by smell, are not well known today.

Of course, I have generalized throughout this article. There are few absolutes when talking about the trends in human thinking. Little exists today in the way of human attitude and thinking that didn’t at least get its start among those living in the 19th century. And the people of modern times hold just as many, if not more, boneheaded beliefs and superstitions as did people of the past. Some throwbacks persist. For instance, I have family members who insist that I’ll catch a cold if I get wet and cold. I am certainly not immune to such thinking and have a powerful imagination. Human beings seek to make sense of what they don’t understand and work with what they have, even if that is purely imagination. That doesn’t mean we’re backwards or nuts. It just means we’re human, our thinking much like those who have gone before. Since I like history and human beings, I find it intriguing.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

 

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Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—What the Darkness Has to Offer

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Cover art for THE TOLLTAKER by James Sneddon, published by Five Star Press. “The Tolltaker” copyright © 2003 Alan M. Clark.

In 1989, my diseased brain tried to kill me, but a year later, that experience saved my life.

Ever since I was a young adult, people have asked me in one form or another, “Why are you interested in horror?” At first I had little in the way of an answer beyond saying, “it’s just cool.” I’ve thought a lot about it over the years, though, and now have a better answer.

The darkness in horror represents man’s struggle against adversity. In life, we all face the possibility of brutality, pain, insanity, having our aspirations denied, and our freedom taken away. Even if we escape those fates for most of our lives, inevitably we lose control of our lives and die. Ultimately, we face the unknown. As we move along through life, we try to fill the time we have with light—the good and pleasant experiences—and avoid the darkness—the bad and painful. Yet the contrast between the darkness and the light provides existence with drama. Contrast helps us to see more clearly, to understand and appreciate with greater clarity. And though the people who’ve asked me the question might pretend otherwise, they too like such disturbing things, if only because they like a good story or having their preconceptions challenged by a piece of art.

Cover_TheSurgeonsMate_ADismemoir_smallestIn my new novel, The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir, I’ve  attempted to write something of an anthem for those of us who like the dark and disturbing, as well as a broadside against those who would deny the value of the morbid, and choose to believe that individuals with an interest in the macabre are hiding a sinister and disturbed nature. The story is both a memoir and a fiction with a fantasy/horror element, sort of an alternate history of my life that allowed me to speak of emotional struggles, pain, and triumph that I’ve known intimately and could therefore relate with verisimilitude.

As a visual artist and a fiction author, I know that no good story has ever existed that didn’t have strong conflict, that there’s no good piece of art that doesn’t have a slice of darkness. There is no more powerful conflict than fighting to survive while facing the annihilation of death. That sets up great contrast in story-telling.

Composition in visual art employs contrasts of all sorts: The juxtaposition of light and dark, of warm and cool colors, of shapes that suggest motion and direct the eye, of subject matter that implies unusual relationships. Intimations of death, destruction, decay, and annihilation have long been a staple of artistic expression.

I have often wondered if Utopia is boring, if human beings have arguments in Heaven, if theatre is any good in Shangri-La. Experiencing perfect happiness in Elysium, does one cease to recognize it and appreciate it after a time?

I live sixty miles from the Oregon coast. The environment at the oceanside is beautiful, peaceful, refreshing, fascinatingly unique to me.  A friend hearing me talk about it once asked why I don’t move there. An answer came to me instantly, one that was so automatic I knew it to be the truth—“If I lived there all the time, I would quickly cease to see it for the wonderful place it is.”  I live in a beautiful part of Oregon, so I’m not missing out, but If I lived at the coast, the contrast with what I live with day to day would be missing.  Sure, if I lived there, I wouldn’t cease to appreciate the environment entirely, but the intensity of what I experience as a visitor would be somewhat lost.

In 1989, as I began the treatment for brain abscesses that would keep me in the hospital for  seven weeks, my doctor said, “Your condition is very rare. If you’d gotten brain abscesses twenty years ago, you would not have survived because medicine wasn’t what it is today. You’re lucky.”

I didn’t feel at all well, having stitches in my tongue, an upset stomach from ingesting my own blood, raw tissues from the tubes the doctors had stuck in me, and a severe headache. I was an alcoholic trapped in a situation in which I wasn’t allowed to drink. A surly bastard, I wouldn’t show any appreciation for the care I’d received. “Lucky,” I said, “is not getting brain abscesses at all.”

I was wrong about that. The flow of events from the time of that illness, the twists and turns of my life, the good, the bad, and the indifferent, led to circumstances that enabled me to make a commitment to getting sober, and my life became infinitely better than it had been. The reasons are complicated and I won’t go into them here. They are laid out in detail in The Surgeon’s Mate: a Dismemoir.

Instead, I’ll relate an old Chinese tale that exemplifies the point I’m trying to make about distinguishing fortune from the misfortune.

In a small kingdom, there lived a farmer who had a small plot of land. He had one son and one horse to help him. One day the animal got out of its paddock and ran away. The farmer’s neighbors expressed their sympathy, and said, “How unlucky for you.”

The farmer shrugged and said, “Who can say what will happen?”

Not long after the horse ran away, the beast came back and entered the paddock, leading three wild horses with it, and the farmer instructed his son to close the paddock gate.
When the neighbors heard the farmer had recovered the original beast and gained new ones as well, they congratulated him and said, “You are a lucky man.”

He shrugged and said, “You never know.”

While trying to break one of the wild horses, the farmer’s son fell and broke a leg, and the farmer’s crops suffered that year because he had less help in the fields.

The neighbors again expressed sympathy, and said, “Luck is not with you.”

The farmer shrugged and said, “Perhaps.”

War came to the small kingdom, and the emperor commanded that all able-bodied young men were to be called into service. While the farmer’s son was excused from serving because of his injured leg, the neighbors gave up their sons to the fight. All the young men were lost in a terrible massacre during the war.

When the neighbors said to the farmer, you are a lucky man after all, again he merely shrugged and said, “Who knows what will come of it?”

The farmer in the tale is much more philosophical than I am. The brain abscess experience nearly killed me three different ways. In the midst of the ordeal, I quite reasonably feared the worst, and had a dread of what the future held for me. If I’d known how things would shake out, and that ultimately my life would be so much better as a result, I might have relaxed and enjoyed the ride. Probably not, though, since the experience involved a lot of pain, both physical and emotional.

We spend much of our lives trying to avoid pain and hardship, putting systems in place to mitigate risk and ease suffering, and I’m not suggesting that we do otherwise, but clearly, dreading the grim possibilities we face in the future is not helpful. Pain and death are inevitable, yet, as unpredictable as life is, some of the safeguards we thrust before ourselves as we move forward through time must also reduce the potential for good outcomes.

I try to relax and allow the world to do its complicated thing. I’ve never had to ignore or turn away from the grim, the morbid, and the grotesque in order to benefit from the good, where ever it pops up. Instead of denying the darkness, I value its role in life.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—Another Murderer in Victorian London

This post is about the historical basis for the murderer in my novel,
The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir.

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Someone took apart women in the most gruesome fashion in London in the late 1880s. Following that statement, many would say, “Yes, Jack the Ripper terrorized London in 1888,” yet I do not refer to the Ripper.

Between the years 1887 and 1889, headless, limbless torsos appeared in odd places in London. One turned up in a chamber within the excavation for the future home of Scotland Yard in the heart of Westminster, the seat of the British Government. Another was found under a railway viaduct. Several homeless people sleeping nearby were unaware of the horrid presence. Another washed up along the banks of the River Thames downstream from London. Body parts were found in the city or likewise washed up along the waterway. Few of the women were identified. One, possibly identified as Elizabeth Jackson, turned up along the Thames in at least ten pieces, often wrapped in cloth, tied with string.

Of course, as many of us would do today, the media of the time presumed that the killer known as Jack the Ripper had committed the crimes, but since insufficient similarities existed between the manner of dismemberment in the torso murders and the mutilations performed by the Whitechapel murderer, the police authorities in London of the 1880s did not believe the crimes were committed by the same person. They also did not believe that the remains were somehow the mislaid remnants of legitimate medical dissection of cadavers.

While the torso murders didn’t get the kind of press the Ripper killings got, they are to my mind just as  horrific, the mutilations similarly revolting, if different. The Ripper’s victims were left in plain sight on the streets, an affront to the sensibilities of any society. Identified and their names and histories given out through the media, they were made somewhat whole again, that personhood making the outrageous insult to their flesh, and the theft of their lives all the more horrible.

The unidentified random body parts of the torso killings were just that—parts, objects.  One can imagine that’s all they were to the perpetrator of the crimes. Life was cheap in Victorian London. A prostitute could be had for 4 cents, the same as the cost of a pint of ale or a glass of gin.

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“An Illusion of Safe Sex” copyright © 2003 Alan M. Clark

In an economic environment in which jobs were disappearing, many taken from human hands and backs and given to machines, countless people became unemployed. Employers had the upper hand. With a threat of termination, they could push any employee hard. In the unregulated, laissez-faire capitalist system that existed in London at the time, workers were frequently exposed to working conditions that destroyed their health through exposure to dangerous chemicals, mechanical equipment, toxic work environments, or sheer exhaustion from severe hardship. If an employee failed, or worse, fell dead from exhaustion, he or she could easily be replaced, perhaps more like business equipment or raw materials than human beings.

The Ripper’s victims were all unemployed middle-aged women, worn out drunkards who survived on odd jobs, begging, and casual prostitution. Likely, so were the victims in the torso murders.

Yes, life in Victorian London was cheap, and at least two murderous bastards took advantage of the over-abundant commodity wandering the streets.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Historical Terror: Horror that Happened—Relating to Psyches Long Dead

“All that She’d Need” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark. Interior Illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: THE DOUBLE EVENT

This post is based on a presentation about writing historical fiction I did for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “Relating to Psyches Long Dead: Developing Characters in Historical Fiction”

Here are some questions concerning setting that I consider when developing a piece of historical fiction:
*What were the differences, both opportunities and limitations, in the roles of females and males, both as adults and children?
*Was there a class system in place and how did it work?
*What were the prevalent religious and social beliefs of the time?
*What moral strictures were in place concerning religious faith, sexual activity, social conduct, and social mobility?
*How did people find happiness?
*What were the common ways in which life and happiness were endangered?

The key to helping audience relate to characters in a story, whatever the setting, is the emotional aspects of the tale. How we respond to the world has a lot to do with personality, but our time and circumstances have some influence on who we are as well. In developing characters within a historical setting, its important to know something of how people within the chosen environment were affected by events of their time. Also important is considering how characters’ knowledge of their environment’s history prior to their respective births might effect their thinking. That seems like a lot, and perhaps it is. The good news is that we’re basically the same creatures we’ve been for thousands of years, with all the same emotions. What stimulates those emotions varies for all of us, and we’re used to interpreting others moods within the context of their experiences. Dealing with emotion in historical fiction is no different. We just have to know the context.

Research gets me only so far within a reasonable amount of time and effort. Therefore, it’s good to have an overarching sense of history, to knowing something of when and how technological advances occurred and how they effected the lives of human beings. Something as simple as the electric drill, has an elaborate history. The tool is descended from various hole-making devices made of wood, sometimes tipped with stone, turned by hand power alone at first, later turned with the help of bows. With time, helical metal tips or bits were developed. These were turned by hand cranks. Later added leverage was provided by hand-driven cogged mechanisms. Eventually drill bits were powered with steam, electricity and compressed air. An electric drill could not exist in a tale about ancient Egypt without serious justification for its existence being provided. Perhaps the device is the invention of a genius of the period, and the advancement was later lost to history. Perhaps it arrived in ancient Egypt with a time traveler. The latter justification takes the story into the realm of science fiction or fantasy. Reasonable explanations are possible, but whatever is used, it must be important to pushing the story forward.

Those descriptions and events that help build a sense of time and place within a story should not be added arbitrarily. I shouldn’t have the hanging of a witch occur as backdrop for a town square scene in my 15th century tale about Salem, Massachusetts unless it has some bearing on what the story is about. The descriptions of objects within an environment, the actions and words characteristic of a time period, and the use of vernacular within dialogue are helpful for setting the scene, but should only be added to give atmosphere if they also help move the story forward. I must find ways to make the introduction of such things incidental to the action and dialogue to lighten the load of describing them in summary narrative.

Dear reader, what are the historical flaws and possible solutions to the scenarios below? Each scenario has at least two flaws, and some have numerous. If you’d like, use the comment feature to list them. Number three has one flaw in particular that is very subtle. See if you can figure it out.

1) In the year 1500, renaissance painter, Antonio da Roma, loses his job decorating the ceiling of a church because he’s become too obese to climb the extension ladder used in the job. He’s dissected enough cadavers to know about plaque buildup in blood vessels. Fearing a stroke, he decides to lay off all high cholesterol, fatty foods. His family can’t get along on his wife’s income, and they are about to enter the poorhouse when an opportunity arises. An insurance adjuster who knows of Antonio’s dissections, hires him to perform an autopsy. The adjuster wants to know if his client committed suicide or died of natural causes.

2) In 1820, Melody, the unwed sixteen-years-old daughter of a plantation owner outside of Atlanta, Georgia, wants to have a sleepover party with three girlfriends on an evening when the servants have the night off. Her parents agree. The night of the sleepover, Melody’s aunt Alice, her father’s sister, comes to the house to call the parents away. “Mother is very ill,” Aunt Alice says. “The Doctors says she will surely die tonight. Please hurry. We have 50 miles to travel to get to her.” While Melody’s parents are gone, four young men the girls don’t know crash the sleepover party. They spend the night, and, on a lark,  Melody has sex for the first time.

3) In 1854, during the Crimean War, the medical facilities near the front lines are overburdened with the wounded as well as with those having unseen wounds. Dr. Martin Roberts says to his superior, Dr. Susan Lee, “If they have no apparent wound, they are simply malingerers, and have no excuse not to return to battle.”
“Perhaps their wounds are of a subconscious nature.” she responds.
Doctor Roberts nods thoughtfully. “I hadn’t considered that.”

Here are links to some of the historical fiction novels I’ve written:

A Parliament of Crows

ebook

paperback

The Door That Faced West

ebook

paperback

Novels in my Jack the Ripper Victims Series:

Of Thimble and Threat

paperback

Say Anything But Your Prayers

paperback

Click the link below for both of the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novels in one ebook.

Jack the Ripper Victim Series: The Double Event.

 

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Historical Terror—Horror that Happened

Interior illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: THE DOUBLE EVENT

What Were They Thinking? How could the people of Jonestown drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid? How could Jim Jones ask them to do it?

How did Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. decide to fall on a grenade during fighting in Bougainville in WWII? Surely, he didn’t do it for the posthumously awarded Medal of Honor. No doubt he did it to save his fellow soldiers, but that’s a pat answer that leaves out all but the barest glimpse of the emotions involved. When it’s difficult to put myself into the shoes of the people making these sorts of mind-blowing decisions, their choices can become a fascination for me.

This post was originally developed as a presentation about writing historical fiction for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “What were They Thinking: The Drama Available in History.” The driving force of human emotion can be quite mysterious when we’re not present to see it in action. If the emotional context is missing, I am frequently befuddled by the decisions of my fellow human beings. History is filled with dramatic events that involve momentous and pivotal choices, some heroic, some dastardly, taken by human beings under great emotional strain. Those situations that ended in tragedy were often a result of decisions made, often hastily, based on a poor selection of choices, none of them good, or in the pursuit of a desperate agenda. Those that ended well often resulted from a persistent hope, faith, love, or just dumb luck.

Here are some of the types of choices human beings make that are difficult for me to understand on the surface.

1) Suicide (sometimes there’s no explanation left behind).
2) Maintaining relationships with those who are emotionally difficult, abusive, or dangerous.
3) Engaging in activities that are known to easily lead to addictions.
4) Unusual risk-taking or other self-destructive tendencies (sometimes referred to as a death wish).
5) Self sacrifice (a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others).
6) Courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
7) Striking out for the unknown with little but hope to sustain the effort (Christopher Columbus comes to mind).
8) Acting on intuition alone (trusting oneself to anticipate something of great import).
9) Willingness to pursue a course despite the obvious pain endured or caused to others.
10) Unwillingness to consider anything but one’s own agenda or beliefs in the face of obvious reality (Hitler comes to mind).
11) Collective belief systems that seem obviously harmful to others (South African Apartheid comes to mind).
12) Falling in love with highly flawed, even destructive individuals.
13) Hating individuals for reasons that seem to have little depth.
14) Scapegoatism.

For this paper, I’ll refer to these quirks of human decision-making as “fascinating choices.” Most of the choices seem unreasonable on the surface, so why should I trouble myself to understand? I’ve certainly made some weird, even bone-headed decisions in my life, but then, I know why, at least most of the time. If hindsight is 20 20, I should be able to evaluate others’ fascinating choices objectively, right? Of course not. If there’s no record left behind of what the actors involved were thinking and feeling, a lot of information is missing. Should I dismiss my astonishment with the notions that those who made the fascinating choices were insane, ill-informed, or merely bad at decision-making, some lucky and some unlucky? No! I think the fact that I’m left scratching my head in wonder is an indication that something particularly human and emotionally complex has occurred in these situations, something that holds great drama. Sometimes, we have the pat answer—he gave his life to save his fellow soldiers—but that doesn’t satisfy my curiosity. Was he motivated by patriotic fervor or was it a special relationship with those particular men that motivated him? If the latter, what events led to such strong feeling?

HistoricalFictionI’ve written five historical fiction novels in an effort to explore how certain seemingly unreasonable choices, or, as I’ve called them, fascinating choices, became reasonable for those who made them.

Three of the novels are part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, and Say Anything But Your Prayer, about the life of Elizabeth Stride have been released. A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, has not been released yet. Of Thimble and Threat and Say Anything But Your Prayers are available separately, but they’re also published together in the ebook volume Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event. All three novels are inspired by my fascination with what seems unreasonable choices on the part of the women involved. Surely, all three knew about the dangers hidden in a Whitechapel, London night. Since the Ripper killings had already begun and were widely reported, Eddowes and Stride would have been well-aware that a murderer stalked the city looking for victims, yet they were willing to stagger drunken along the streets at night, looking for strangers to pay them for sex. What sort of desperation leads one to take such risks to earn a crust? What level of disregard for oneself is required to allow that kind of vulnerability? People don’t set out in life to become drunkards and prostitutes, so what in their lives led to such a fall from grace? These are a few of the questions I’ve addressed in the novels. There being five canonical victims, I have two more novels to write for the series.

A Parliament of Crows is my historical fiction novel about the Wardlaw sisters (I changed their name to Mortlow in the novel). The sisters were the daughters of a

Cover art for A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS

Supreme Court Justice of South Carolina. They were born in the 1840s and ‘50s, and would have been teens during the Civil War. After the war, they stuck together. Though two married and had children, the sisters most often lived with each other, and apart from their families. They took positions in women’s colleges, teaching primarily social graces, and bilked those institutions of funds. Mourning clothes, including veils, seemed to be their perennial dress. They had homes in 3 or 4 states of the United States. The houses and apartments had virtually no furnishings. Taking out insurance policies on certain of their children, the sisters did them in for the payouts. The media circus of their trail at the beginning of the 20th century was only rivaled by that of Lizzy Borden’s almost a half century earlier. As they awaited trial, one went insane and was institutionalized, and one starved herself to death. I wanted to know how they saw the life they led as reasonable. How could it be? I had a lot of fun with that one.

Interior illustration for THE DOOR THAT FACED WEST

Finally, there’s The Door That Faced West, which involves dreadful events from early Tennessee and Kentucky history.

I am from Tennessee, and learning about my State’s history when younger, I happened upon the tale of Big and Little Harpe. They are consider some of the earliest serial or spree killers in America, having committed their crimes around the year 1800. As land pirates, they haunted the trails in what was at the time the frontier territory of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky, robbing and killing to earn a living. They had three wives who traveled with them. Life on the trail was tough, but being wanted, the men had little choice but to keep moving, and the women went with them. One of the wives, Sally Rice, was a minister’s daughter. What we know of the young woman from history is that she traveled the wilderness trails with the Harpes and was witness to terrible violence. The Harpes killed virtually everyone they robbed, at least fifty human beings. At one point, as the outlaws attempted to escape the law, the wives became separated from them. Instead of escaping the frightful life on the trail and seeking asylum in the nearest settlement, the three women traveled one hundred and eighty miles through the wilderness to the agreed-upon rendezvous point to be reunited with the Harpes. They really wanted to be with those guys!

When the wives were finally separated from the men for the last time, Sally Rice, the minister’s daughter, remarried, settled down, had children, and lived out her life in an unremarkable, seemingly normal fashion. That is virtually all history tells us about her. As far as we know she committed no violence herself, yet she had a role in terrible events, a witness at bare minimum.

I wanted to know what she was thinking. How had that life become reasonable? What sort of emotional gymnastics were necessary for her to live with herself? Having come from what people of the time considered a good, spiritual background, why would she endure the hardships of life on the trail with the horrible Harpes? How could she go on with a peaceful life after witnessing and benefitting from their most terrible deeds? What of regret, guilt, and shame did she experience or was she secretly filled with glee for what she’d seen and done? The possibility exists that she felt both extremes.

I wrote The Door that Faced West to explore through character and story development the emotional evolution of one who found herself in such a state of affairs. Adding up what’s known about the circumstances in her story provided me with some indication of the emotions experienced by those involved. Also helpful was knowing something about the environment in which those feelings emerged, the religious, political, and social beliefs and pressures of the time and place. Creating the characters to move through that environment and make the decisions that we know about helped me to understand. Once my characters were well-developed, I could see what rang true in their fascinating choices.

Inevitably, as I try to dramatize such events, I’ll get them wrong. I can only fictionalize, and, in the end, the telling of a good story has to be the priority, not telling the truth. I cannot know what people said or felt unless they expressed it somehow. Even then, their expressions may not hold the full truth. Still, the drama hinges most soundly on the fascinating choices. History as presented isn’t always the truth, but generally speaking, these choices are pivotal moments in time, after which things have changed. All evidence points to the fact that Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. did indeed purposely fall on that grenade. Afterward, he was dead and his fellow soldiers were still alive, and they knew why. Jim Jones didn’t have enough enforcers to compel all those people in Jonestown to drink the Kool-Aid. They willingly decided to die just because he asked them to.

What I get out of writing such a novel may not be an accurate portrayal of events, but I certainly find good drama and an answer to the question of how one might reasonably arrive at the fascinating choices in question. The writing itself is an incredible adventure of discovery.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

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Life in the Ripper’s London

I wrote this blog post close to Halloween, a good time for something scary. Although I like the cute horror of Halloween and a good, over-the-top zombie film, lately I’ve been chasing after some true-life horror as I research the lives of murder victims for my Jack the Ripper Victims Series of novels. As one who has always been intrigued by the dark and disturbing, as a practitioner in the horror genre, a professional writer for almost two decades, and an illustrator for three, the real horror of history and the lessons to be learned from it are what I have drawn my interest lately.

Long ago, when I first learned of Jack the Ripper and the murders associated with the killer, I was, as most everyone is, intrigued by the endless speculation about who he might have been (I use male pronouns when referring to him merely because of the name Jack; although, we don’t know the gender of the Whitechapel Murderer). The more I read about the murders and the various theories, the less interested I was in the killer and the more intrigued I became with the environment in which the murders took place. As I learned more about Victorian London and how rapidly it changed due to the industrial revolution, the more interesting I found the lives of those who lived there at the time. Although I couldn’t learn much about the killer, I could gain some knowledge of the five female victims. Potentially, there are more than five, but those considered canonical victims are Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Coroner’s inquests were held to determine the cause of death for each of the women. The inquiries are essentially trials, with juries and witnesses to help make a determination about the manner of a victim’s demise. The verdict in each of the five cases was “Wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.”

The words, actions, movements, and motivations of each of the women are most clearly known to history closest to the time of their deaths because of the testimony of the witnesses called during the inquests. In some cases, such as that of Elizabeth Stride, the last couple of hours were recounted in detail, and in other cases, such as that of Catherine Eddowes, we have a good idea what she did within several days of her death. The farther we go into the past away from the hour of their deaths, however, the less detailed and the more generalized is the information about them. Within the few years prior to their deaths, all five had suffered real hardship—all had engaged in prostitution to survive, most, if not all, had been active alcoholics, and most had spent time in the dehumanizing workhouse system.

In Victorian England, the Industrial revolution had led to large-scale unemployment, much the way the Tech Revolution has done in America today. Victorian London, much like large American cities today, suffered from overcrowding and large numbers of homeless.

We can see a modern reflection of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the homeless of twenty-first century America. Much of the cause of that homelessness went unseen in Victorian times, as it does now. With the rise in the numbers of the homeless, then as now, people had a tendency to shy away from the problem.

My natural inclination is to avoid knowing why so many people are hungry and without shelter. I want to look away, and I don’t want to look away. My experience is that many people are just as ambivalent. Many of the homeless are intoxicated much of the time or begging for the means to become intoxicated. I can easily become disgusted with the endless need of the addicts among the homeless. I could justify my righteousness by blaming their lack of hygiene, and their crimes of desperation. However, I am a sober alcoholic and expect myself to have compassion for them, even when it doesn’t come naturally. There, but for providence, go I.

Although I avoid those who are clearly intoxicated, on occasion I’ve asked someone begging on the street for their story. Most aren’t good at telling a story, perhaps because they are rarely asked to tell one. Even so, from what they say, I always get the sense that they have had happier times, that they have capabilities, and that they have aspirations involving their own personal interests and those whom they love.

Worse than the surface irritation of having to deal with a person who might be slovenly, dirty, inconvenient, or in-my-face is the emotional stress of considering the plight of an unfortunate person. My immediate response is to want look away. I speak of my experience to take responsibility for my reactions, but I’m not alone. We find it easy to scorn the beggars on the streets and then project that disdain on all homeless people, further isolating them. As a result, the down and out are less likely to find help when in danger. If they are seriously harmed or killed, fewer people step forward to try to find out what happened. Those who prey upon the homeless more easily get away with their crimes. The same was true for the down and out of Victorian London.

What events in the lives of the five Jack the Ripper victims led to their demise on the streets of London? How much of the way they lived was a result of the choices they made? What was beyond their control? Were they chosen at random by their killer, or did he choose them because he knew that fewer people would step forward to find out what happened to them? We don’t have good, solid answers to these questions.

My impression is that their choices had something to do with securing their wellbeing, but much of their existence was beyond their control. The environment of London itself was a danger. Literally hundreds of thousands of Londoners were killed by the pollution in the air, water, and food. New industries popped up everywhere to support the burgeoning population and to exploit the cheap labor market. Small factories occupied converted tenements or houses that once held families in residential neighborhoods. Sometimes, only a part of such a tenement or house was occupied by industry while the rest still functioned as a residence for individuals or families. With an increase in the use of chemistry, and with little knowledge of the damage many chemicals inflicted upon the bodies of those exposed to them, industries, such as match making, destroyed the lives of their workers and those living within close proximity to production. Those who suffered often did so without knowing why until it was too late. Matchmaking is only one example of the industrial poisoning of Londoners. Deadly chemicals were everywhere. They were used in medicines and in prepared foods as preservatives. Madness abounded, if not as a result of the emotional hardships of life, then from chemical damage to the brain.

A life of poverty in London was slowly killing all of the Ripper’s victims. Survival within that environment is the story that intrigues me. Those are lives I can relate to because I see parallels with life in my own time.

Regardless of whether the Ripper’s victims had few opportunities to live better lives or were responsible in large part for their predicaments, their legacy is pitiful and poignant. Not the cute horror of Halloween perhaps or the over-the-top-turned-almost-cartoon horror of slasher and zombie films, the stories of the five women are full of emotional content, conflict, and drama. What happened to the victims of Jack the Ripper is true horror, and in the telling of those tales we are reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

When I was growing up, my mother had a strange way of watching scary movies on television with the family; she’d stand in the hallway beside the living-room, peeking around the corner at the TV, ready to run away if the film became too scary. Is that the way we as a society treat true horror? We all love a fun scare, but when the suffering becomes too real, we want to run away because it is painful to witness. I suppose I’m saying that if fewer of us looked away, if we had the courage to see, there might be less actual horror in the world. So here’s to remaining in the living-room of life with our eyes wide open.

My Jack the Ripper Victim Series began with the novel, Of Thimble and Threat: The Life of a Ripper Victim, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, released in 2011. The second in the series, Say Anything But Your Prayers, about the life of Elizabeth Stride came out August of 2014. Although the novels are available separately in paperback, they also appear together in one ebook titled Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event. The third in the series, A Brutal Chill In August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, should be released late 2015.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Jack the Ripper Victim Series: The Double Event

TheDoubleEvent_PPandAudio_SmallThe volume, Jack the Ripper Victim Series: The Double Event, consisting of the two novels Say Anything But Your Prayers and Of Thimble and Threat is now available as an ebook and an audio book. Say Anything But Your Prayers is about the life of the third victim, Elizabeth Stride. Of Thimble and Threat is about the life of the fourth victim, Catherine Eddowes.

This post contains examples of illustrations from the two novels, the book trailer, links to articles and quizzes about the life and times of the two victims, and links to sellers of the ebook and audio book.

The Title of the Book—The night of September 30/ October 1, 1888, Jack the Ripper took two lives in the Whitechapel district of London. Elizabeth Stride was killed about 1:00 AM. A ten minute walk away, and less than an hour later, Catherine Eddowes was killed. The next day, a letter known as the Saucy Jacky postcard was received at the Central News Agency. The message was meant to taunt the police and perhaps the entire city. The writer, who signed the postcard Jack the Ripper, referred to the killings of the night before as “The Double Event.”

Since the murderer was never caught, fascination with the unsolved mystery has been widespread and enduring. But what of the women? Who were they? What was life like for them in London of the time period? What were their struggles, their hopes, their regrets? What of the decisions they made in life might have delivered them into the bloody hands of the Ripper? The two novels within this volume, Say Anything But Your Prayers, about the life of Elizabeth Stride, and Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, give possible answers to these questions.

Here are links to the book at some of the popular ebook sellers (also available elsewhere):

amazon.com (kindle)

Barnes and Noble

Smashwords

Here’s a link to the audio book edition, read by Alicia Rose.

Audible.com

While both of the novels in the book are available in paperback from Lazy Fascist Press, the only ebook available of Say Anything But Your Prayers is in the Double Event volume. The paperback of Say Anything But Your Prayers is illustrated as is the version in the ebook volume.  The paperback of Of Thimble and Threat is not illustrated, but the version in the ebook volume is. Here are a couple of the illustrations, the first from Say Anything But Your Prayers, and the second from Of Thimble and Threat. Click on the images to enlarge.

AllThatShedNeed_smallStillInItsHidingPlace_small Say Anything But Your Prayers (link to the paperback on amazon.com)
The beast of poverty and disease had stalked Elizabeth all her life, waiting for the right moment to take her down. To survive, she listened to the two extremes within herself–Bess, the innocent child of hope, and Liza, the cynical, hard-bitten opportunist. While Bess paints rosy pictures of what lies ahead and Liza warns of dangers everywhere, the beast, in the guise of a man offering something better, circles closer. Click here to visit

Of Thimble and Threat (link to the paperback on amazon.com)
The story of the intense love between a mother and a child, a story of poverty and loss, fierce independence, and unconquerable will. It is the devastating portrayal of a self-perpetuated descent into Hell, a lucid view into the darkest parts of the human heart.

Bringing  the Victims Back to Life—These are works of fiction, but they require extensive research to get the environment and characters right. For purposes of storytelling, I did not adhered strictly to the victims’ histories, yet followed as closely as I could and still write a successful tale. I have assigned to my main characters emotional characteristics and reactions that are consistent with their time and circumstances.  Wanting to see what the women looked like, and having only mortuary photos to consider, I worked on those old images in photoshop, trying to repair the damage to the womens’ features and breathe a bit of life into them. Below are the results of that effort. The images appear in the two volume ebook. The first is of Elizabeth Stride, and the second is of Catherine Eddowes. Click on the images to enlarge.

ElizabethStrideRevivedCatherineRevived

Look for the 3rd book in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series, A Brital Chill In August, in August of 2016.

Here are links to article’s I’ve written on Ripper related subjects on Saucy Jacky—A Ripper of a Site:

Alan M. Clark – Jack the Ripper, London’s Murder Weapon

Alan M. Clark – The Mysteries of Elizabeth Stride

Below are links to 2 quizzes I created on Goodreads for the book. Test your knowledge of the women who suffered at the hands of Jack the Ripper on the deadly night of Sept. 30/Oct. 1, 1888. The quizzes also have a few question about London of the period. Since the answers are based on history, one can score highly without having read the novels.

Goodreads Quiz
The Double Event Quiz 1
taken
2 times
10 questions

 

Goodreads Quiz

The Double Event Quiz 2
taken 2 times
10 questions

Watch the book trailer.

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