The Flotsam and Jetsam of History

If you love words as I do, you probably love history. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years writing historical fiction. In performing research for the novels, I’ve leaned about the origins of certain English words and phrases I’ve used in both written and spoken language throughout my life, but didn’t completely understand. Although many expressions that came into existence long ago are still in use and their meanings as idioms are clear to us, the original meanings of the phrases may be lost without a search in history.

Because the gun played such a large role in events over the last few centuries, many idioms are related to firearms of the past. Here are a few that are still widely used, but the context of their origination not widely known.

Lock stock and barrel is an expression we use to mean “all of it.” I used to think it meant the whole store, like a mercantile of some kind. It means the whole rifle or musket. The lock is the firing mechanism, the barrel is, well… self-explanatory, and the stock is the part that helps you hold onto the firearm.

Bite the bullet means expose yourself to possible pain and danger to get a job done. Many people believe it originally meant to bite down on a lead bullet to endure pain, perhaps while having a surgical experience without an anesthetic, but it comes from a time when to prepare a rifle for firing you had to bite the end off a paper-wrapped cartridge before placing its contents in the barrel of your firearm. Doing this while under fire took brave resolve.

Stick to your guns means remain true to principles or goals. The expression has less to do with guns per se and more to do with maintaining a particular post during battle, especially if you’re told to hold a position without retreating. Well, of course you will need that gun, won’t you?

Flash in the pan in an idiom we use to mean a great start but little or no follow up. It’s a great metaphor for a one hit wonder in the music industry who puts out a single very popular tune, yet never does any better afterward and soon falls out of favor. To do justice to this one takes some explaining, so bear with me.

The original meaning comes from a time when pistols, muskets, and rifles had flint lock firing mechanisms. To load a flintlock firearm, gunpowder was poured into the barrel followed by a lead ball, called “shot,” wrapped in a bit of rag to make it fit snugly and hold everything in place. A small pan beside a hole in the side of the barrel was primed with a little gunpowder and then protected from spillage by a hinged iron part called a frizzin (see the diagramed illustration above). When the trigger of the flintlock was pulled, the hammer, which held a piece of flint did two things: it struck sparks off the iron frizzin and knocked that hinged part off the pan. With the frizzin out of the way, the sparks could reach the powder in the pan and ignite it. The hot expanding gas of the lit powder was meant to travel down the small hole in the side of the barrel and ignite the powder behind the lead shot. If this last step didn’t occur, there was merely a flash in the pan and the gun didn’t actually fire.

Understanding the metaphor of this idiom creates a mental picture that enhances the meaning of the expression. A flash in the pan is an exciting event, with a hiss, a flash, and billowing smoke, but the results are disappointing if that isn’t followed by the loud crack of the shot flying from the barrel and striking a target. Without the mental picture some of the power of the expression’s metaphor is lost.

The original meanings of many single words are unknown to most of us today. I’m thinking of several having to do with the production of linen. A lining, like what you might have in the inside surface of your coat, means something made from line flax. Line flax is the fibers of the flax plant that don’t break off when run through a device that looks like a small bed of nails called a hackle (aka heckle). The fibers that survive going through a hackle and remain long are spun together to make fine linen thread (note the word “line” in “linen”). So a lining is something made of linen. The lining of my stomach or my water heater is not made of linen, though. When my dog gets upset, wants to look bigger and more threatening, he gets his hackles up, but that doesn’t mean he has metal spikes sticking up out of his back. In the past, the flax fibers that broke off short in a hackle were called tow flax. They weren’t good enough to make fine thread and were spun into a rough cord to make tow sacks, which are much like the burlap sacks of today. Tow fibers are very blonde, but a tow-headed child doesn’t have tow flax for hair even if the tyke is referred to as flaxen-haired. The act of drawing flax fibers through a hackle is known as heckling. The purpose was to worry, to tease (in the old sense, meaning to comb), and straighten the fibers to determine which would stand up to stress and were worth using for linen production. When a stand-up comedian is heckled, that doesn’t mean he’s drawn through a small bed of nails to straighten his fibers and break off his weak parts. Okay, so maybe it does mean he’s being teased, but still, you get my point.

Here’s an expression I like a lot: flotsam and Jetsam. It’s not the most commonly known phrase, but it’s still a fun one using curious words, and I want to use it in the last paragraph of this post. We use it now to mean odds and ends. For example, somebody might say, “The project is finished except for the flotsam and jetsam of small problems I discovered along the way.” Flotsam and jetsam are separate nautical terms, but frequently appear together, both as words and in the context in which the words have meaning. Flotsam is the remnants of a shipwreck that floats on the sea after a vessel has gone down. Jetsam is what is jettisoned from a ship going down to lighten its load and help it stay afloat longer.

In the time in which the idiom, flash in the pan, came into existence, the context from which it emerged was well-known to most individuals. An expression like that becomes popular perhaps because it’s frequently used in conversation as a metaphor in lieu of lengthier descriptions. If an idiom becomes useful enough that it’s overused and becomes cliché, it will be so universally understood that the significance of its original context can be discarded. It can far outlive the simple context of its birth. The idiom still performs a meaningful function although many who hear it and repeat it may not understand where it came from. Although the expression, flash in the pan is very much alive, having outlived the technology of the flintlock by more than a century, the metaphor it presents can be considered broken since most people today don’t understand how the firing mechanism works. I’ve heard and used many idioms for years in partial ignorance. As I became more interested in history, the original meaning of some idioms came clear. Finding the discovery satisfying, I became much more curious about the origins of words and phrases, and my interest in history intensified.

My latest historical fiction novel is the Word Horde release of A Brutal Chill in August, part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Because the stories take place in Victorian times or earlier among English speaking people, British or American, they employ characters that use the language a little bit differently than we do today. The trick is to provide scenes in which the context makes clear the meaning of what is being said. The characters are involved with simpler, humbler domestic and labor situations and technologies often in early development or infancy.


I like to think of idioms with broken metaphors as flotsam of history. The ship has long since gone under, taking its passengers with it. Phrases remain, floating above the wreckage on the surface like lost luggage, filled with words that once had specific meaning, and, in combination, still have an idiomatic meaning. The specific sense of the words might have been lost, but the phrases still have value. We all claim salvage rights from time to time, but often don’t ask the simple questions: Who owned these expressions and why did they find them valuable? If we seek answers to the questions, we can learn something about those who left them behind and perhaps find out why the phrases float so well even today.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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Reaching for a 19th Century State of Mind


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 those from across the Atlantic Ocean used in my Jack the Ripper Victims series novel A Brutal Chill in August, 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.paperbacknovelspromobanner

The 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 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 rate was responsible for the lifespan number being so low. If one lived to become an adult, there was the chance, although somewhat slimmer than what we have today, that one might live to a ripe old age.


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.


“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 be 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.

Many in the Victorian era could not understand crimes committed for reasons other than passion, greed, or hatred. If such abhorrent acts as killing, raping, or maiming resulted from impulse, 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—London’s Murder Weapon

Detail from “In the Dark, In the Night” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Cover art for EAST END GIRLS by Rena Mason

Was Jack the Ripper a monster, larger than life, beyond our comprehension?  From all that has been dramatized about the killer, one might think so. But no doubt the killer was merely a man, with the fears and frailties of an average human being.

If I could go through his pockets, I’ll bet I’d find that he carried common, everyday items that helped him maintain his physical and mental wellbeing in the world of Victorian London.  If that’s true, it would tell me that although he was an extreme danger to society, he was subject to the physical and emotional trials we all go through in life.


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

The clothes we wear and the items we carry on our person say something about us.  I wear shirts that button up the front.  I never wear t-shirts.  If asked why, I might say that I don’t think t-shirts are flattering to my middle-aged abdomen.  I carry numerous keys because I want access to areas and items I lock up.  One can easily deduce therefore that I’m doing more than most would to secure my stuff against theft, and that might say something about how many times I’ve been robbed.  I slip my keys into a flexible glasses case before putting them in my pants because they chew holes in my pockets.  I got tired of paying for new jeans just because the pockets were ruined, so it’s reasonable to assume I have been concerned about money during my life and learned to be frugal.  I carry lip balm because I have the nervous habit of chewing my lips and making them chapped.  What have I to be nervous about?  That’s a good question.  I carry a cloth handkerchief to wipe my nose instead of using paper tissues which might have something to do with my desire to preserve the natural world.  For reasons I won’t reveal here, I carry a pocket knife and have no cell phone.

All these things say something about what I think and feel in my daily life, most of it of no consequence to anyone, but if I were a suspect or victim in a crime and the truth about me was important to discern, useful conclusions about who I am might come from considering these things.

Beyond the savagery of the Jack the Ripper killings, the murderer is perhaps most defined by his choice of victims; common, poor women who would have been forgotten in time if not for the compelling manner of their deaths.

With the idea that to know something of the women is to know something about the Ripper, I became interested in the possessions of the victims.  The possessions of the murdered women, found at the crime scenes, provide a glimpse of their lives and speak volumes about the time in which the White Chapel Murderer lived.  The people of 1888 London didn’t have the mp3 players and electronic tablets we have today. They didn’t have car keys, water enhancers, thumb drives, and anti-anxiety medications, but they did carry items useful to them in their time and circumstances.

Here are lists of the belongings of the first four victims of the Ripper as found at the crime scenes:

Mary Ann Nichols (Polly Nichols)nichols_beforeandafter_small

A black Straw bonnet trimmed with black velvet
A reddish brown ulster with large brass buttons.
A brown linsey frock
A white flannel chest cloth
A pair of black ribbed wool stockings
A wool petticoat stenciled with “Lambeth Workhouse”
A flannel petticoat stenciled with “Lambeth Workhouse”
Brown stays
Flannel drawers
A pair of men’s boots with the uppers cut and steel tips on the heels
A comb
A white pocket handkerchief
A broken piece of mirror (This would have been a valuable item for one living in the work house or common lodging)

Annie Chapmanannie_chapman_small

A long black, knee-length figured coat.
A black skirt
A Brown bodice
An Additional bodice
Two petticoats
A pair of lace up boots
A pair of red and white striped wool stockings
A neckerchief, with white with red border (folded into a triangle and tied about her neck)
A large empty pocket tied about the waist, worn under the skirt.
A scrap of muslin
A small tooth comb
A comb in a paper case
A scrap of envelope containing two pills.

Elizabeth Stridestride_beforeandafter_smallest

A Long black cloth jacket, trimmed with fur at the bottom
A red rose and white maiden hair fern pinned to the coat.
A black skirt
A black crepe bonnet
A checked neck scarf knotted on left side
A dark brown velveteen bodice
Two light serge petticoats
A white chemise
A pair of white stockings
A pair of spring sided boots
Two handkerchiefs
A thimble
A piece of wool wound around a card
A key for a padlock
A small piece of lead pencil
Six large and one small button
A comb
A broken piece of comb
A metal spoon
A hook (as from a dress)
A piece of muslin
One or two small pieces of paper
A packet of Cachous. (a pill used by smokers to sweeten breath)

Catherine Eddoweseddowes_beforeandafter_smallest

A black straw bonnet trimmed in green and black velvet with black beads
A black cloth jacket with trimmed around the collar and cuffs with imitation fur and around the pockets in black silk braid and fur.
A dark green chintz skirt with 3 flounces and brown button on waistband.
A man’s white vest.
A brown linsey bodice with a black velvet collar and brown buttons down front
A grey stuff petticoat
A very old green alpaca skirt
A very old ragged blue skirt with red flounces and a light twill lining
A white calico chemise
A pair of men’s lace up boots. (The right boot was repaired with red thread)
A piece of red gauze silk worn around the neck
A large white pocket handkerchief
A large white cotton handkerchief with red and white bird’s eye border
Two unbleached calico pockets with strings
A blue stripe bed ticking pocket
A pair of brown ribbed knee stockings, darned at the feet with white cotton
Two small blue bags made of bed ticking
Two short black clay pipes
A tin box containing tea
A tin box containing sugar
A tin matchbox, empty
Twelve pieces white rag, some slightly bloodstained
A piece coarse linen, white
A piece of blue and white shirting
A piece red flannel with pins and needles
Six pieces soap
A small tooth comb
A white handled table knife
A metal teaspoon
A red leather cigarette case with white metal fittings
A ball hemp
A piece of old white apron
Several buttons and a thimble
Mustard tin containing two pawn tickets
A Printed handbill
A printed card calling card
A Portion of a pair of spectacles
A single red mitten

I have not included the possessions of the Ripper’s fifth victim, Mary Jane Kelly, because she was killed in her own bed, in her abode, and her possessions were not provided by the police reports in the same way.

These lists speak to me of women who had little of material worth in the world.  Not one of them had any money.  During the period in which they lived, unemployment and severe poverty were widespread in London.  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.  Items such as the brown stays, the comb, and the packet of Cachous suggest vanity or at least the need to maintain appearances.  The tin of sugar, the one of tea, and the black clay pipes speak of a desire for creature comforts.  The bloodstained rags, the pieces of soap, tooth combs (toothbrushes) were aids to bodily functions.  Those things that are part of a incomplete set, such as the single mitten, and the broken items, like the partial pair of spectacles and the piece of a comb, suggest that nothing could be wasted; that everything, even if seriously flawed or deficient was irreplaceable.

With little imagination, the lists speak of skills, preparedness, resourcefulness and even aspirations on the part of these women.  The list of Catherine Eddowe’s garments and possessions conjures for me the image of a Victorian-era bag lady, wearing many layers of clothing and carrying too many items in her bags (the many pockets, most of which were probably hidden under her top skirt).  The only thing missing is the shopping cart.  We have limited information about Eddowes’s life, and most of it leaves out the emotional aspects of her existence.  We can assume she didn’t set out to become a bag lady, to be homeless and poor.

swiftpassage_small_sepiaWhat events in her life led to her demise on the streets of London?  How much of the way she lived was a result of the choices she made?  What was beyond her control?  Was she chosen randomly by her killer?

I became fascinated enough with the questions that I explored her life and presented possible answers in my historical fiction novel, Of Thimble and Threat, published by Lazy Fascist Press.  Catherine Eddowes had led a hard life and was very ill at the relatively young age of forty-seven when she died.  My impression is that her choices had something to do with securing her wellbeing and placing her at risk, but that much of her existence was beyond her control.  A life of poverty in London was slowly killing her, and the final blow, London’s murder weapon so to speak, was Jack the Ripper.

Still fascinated with the environment of late Victorian London, I explored the life of Elizabeth Stride, the Ripper’s third victim, in fiction in Say Anything But Your Prayers, also released by Lazy Fascist Press.  Having thus started a string of novels, I titled it Jack the Ripper Victims Series, and went on to write about his first victim, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols in A Brutal Chill in August, which was released by Word Horde in August 2016.

ABrutalChillInAugust_coverI refer to the Ripper as male because of the name Jack, but of course we don’t know the gender of the killer.  Although we can’t know much about the Whitechapel murderer, we have information that tells us something about him and offers a glimpse of the world in which he and his victims lived.  We can surmise that he was in most ways as vulnerable as his victims in a dangerous, often merciless world, that he was no doubt as aware as they were of the need to maintain appearances and to achieve the highest social position possible in order to ensure survival in a swiftly changing environment, and that he probably understood that eventually disease and death would claim him without ceremony and that he would die, just like everyone else.  Perhaps, as he considered these things, he was filled with a pitiable fear like that experienced by his victims.

Most of us spend much of life feeling confidently alive, solid and incorruptible, not thinking about our demise, our eventual loss of facility and faculty, our loss of awareness and identity and finally the decay of our flesh.  Those of us who have not seen war or violent crime and disaster turn to face our demise slowly over many years as it dawns on us that we are just like those who have gone before us, that we all suffer and die.  But to face that terror precipitously, to have the process demonstrated within moments, to be the playwright and director of that drama—that is what the Ripper experienced.


Crime scene photo of Mary Jane Kelly.

Could he identify with the women he’d murdered and feel their suffering?  Having revealed to himself by his own cruel acts the heights of fear and pain and the terrifying frailty and ephemeral nature of flesh and awareness, was his dread of a particularly intense nature?

If his freedom or his life were never taken from him in answer to his crimes, did he at least suffer from the revelations of his own mortality? I would like to think that he did.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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InuitThe last chapter of The People of the Abyss is titled “The Management.” In it, Jack London compares the health, happiness, and personal wealth of the average Londoner of 1902 to that of the average Inuit of Alaska of the time, and concludes that those living in the more primitive setting enjoy a much better life than do those of the most sophisticated society on the planet. Since, as he says, civilization has increased man’s productivity such that one working man can produce for many, he concludes that mismanagement is the problem—indeed, criminal mismanagement.

He calls for a reordering of society. As a socialist, no doubt he hoped that a socialist system might emerge that had the best interest of the average human being in mind.

A lot of political history has been made since 1902. The socialist systems that emerged in that time, such as those of the USSR and China, have often been insular, authoritarian, and headed by corrupt governments. I believe that the capitalist system within the U.S. wouldn’t have been much better if not for the tempering influence of socialist programs.

I am a moderate. I want leaders willing to compromise while having the best interests of average human beings in mind.

The chapter raises a worthy question, just as did the end of chapter 24. Would human beings of his time be better off returning to the wild rather than living the way they did in the greatest civilization in the world.

Here are his words again from the end of chapter 24: If this is the best that civilisation can do for the human, then give us howling and naked savagery.  Far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss.

Jack London saw human industry impoverishing, sickening, creating despair, and ultimately killing those at the bottom rungs of society in Great Britain. With his indictment of civilization, I have to wonder what he saw in our future. He died while World War I raged, a conflict that seriously discouraged those looking to see what lay ahead for mankind. Setting aside human conflict, could he have imagined a future in which human industry and society threatened all life on the planet through global warming, and the polluting of our air, water, and soil?

Not that I think human beings should or even could return to the wild, but I have long believed we must shed the “man against nature” mindset that drove us to conquer the world and reshape it to suit our own purposes despite the destruction to life and habitat. I do not believe we were given the world as a home to shape at will, but instead must learn to see the Earth and its ecology as more important and valuable than ourselves.

I enjoyed reading The People of the Abyss, and found the history as revealed by London’s eye witness account fascinating. If you read the book or intend to, I hope you are as enlightened by the experience as I’ve been.

Please consider reading my new novel, A Brutal Chill in August, currently available from Word Horde on August 30. It is the story of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper. The environment in which the story takes place is virtually identical to that described in these related blog posts. If not for the extraordinary manner of her death, she might well have been forgotten. Like many throughout history, she had a simple life, but not one without controversies and drama. As with all of our stories, simple or complex, rich or poor, it’s the emotional content and context that counts.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, :

Now available, A Brutal Chill in August ABrutalChillInAugust_cover

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Thank you for reading my posts.

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“Gin Lane” William Hogarth 1751

“Drink, Temperance, and Thrift” is the title of Chapter 26. In it, Jack London spoke of the problems alcohol caused among the poor; how drink made human beings less healthy, less thoughtful, less capable; how drink provided the drinker with a fraudulent sense of gracious elevation above the concerns of daily life, an illusion that comforted, but which left the one experiencing it with less ability to deal with reality. He had his own problems with alcohol and so, as an alcoholic myself, I take him seriously when he speaks of such issues. Jack London’s book, John Barleycorn, which came out in 1913, chronicles his own drinking history and the nihilist philosophy alcoholism seemed to have given him. That philosophy includes something he calls white logic, which could be summarized as the lies we tell ourselves to make a painful life worth living. If I’m reading Jack London right, I’d say that by the time he wrote John Barleycorn, he’d come to the conclusion that life is essentially pointless.

Here’s an excerpt from my novel The Surgeon’s Mate a Dismemoir, which is part memoir, part fiction, that hopefully provides a sense of what I believe:

Substance abuse treatment worked for me. I became an inpatient at a facility on several acres in the country, just outside of Nashville, Tennessee. The twenty-eight day treatment was based around the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. I feared AA and its sister program, NA, because I thought I’d find myself involved with religious zealots. Even so, I entered the facility willing to do almost anything to get sober.

As a life-long agnostic, I had difficulty with the concept of a higher power at first. Admitting to the other patients that I had no religious beliefs didn’t go over well. Many of them tried to persuade me to believe as they did. I got the impression that most had been godless until they’d seen the need to quit drugs or alcohol, then they’d grabbed up the faith they’d been introduced to as children. I didn’t have that, since my parents weren’t believers.

Troubled with the idea that the program wouldn’t work for me unless I believed in a god, I spoke to the facility’s pastoral counselor—a tall Methodist fellow named John Isaacson who had giant, false front teeth. We sat in his office that had a large window that looked out over grassy fields that led down to the Harpeth River. The place had once been a farm, and the acreage was broken up into rectangles bordered by wind-break trees. I saw a couple of Indian burial mounds out in one of the fields.

“I’ve tried to believe,” I told him, “I’ve meditated, prayed, and listened, searching for some sort of mystical presence, and I got nothing.”

“Belief in a higher power,” he said, “as called for in the twelve step-program, can be anything you have faith in that’s greater than yourself. What have you got to work with?”

“I have the love of family and friends,” I said apologetically with a shrug.

He nodded, gave me an expectant look. That gave me the impression he waited patiently for me to think the matter through. I felt comfortable in his presence.


Native American Burial Mounds in Tennessee

I looked out the window for inspiration, saw again the Indian burial mounds. Whoever had owned the farm before the place became a substance abuse treatment center, had left the mounds alone, farming around them. I knew that the Indians of middle-Tennessee—Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Shawnee—buried their dead in the area because nearby salt springs attracted animals and so the hunting was good. Those Native American communities looked after their own, even in death.

“I have the society that raised me,” I said.

His eyebrows arched. Perhaps he wasn’t used to patients trusting human beings as a group.

“Sure,” I said, “lots of people in the world are up to no good, but so many more try to keep the best interests of human kind in mind. I’ve had people I don’t know, at risk to their own safety, save me from danger. How could they have known if I was worth the risk? They didn’t.”

He nodded. “Love of fellow man.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I suppose those acts of kindness are an unconditional love I can look up to.”

“That’s important.”

I feared in that moment that he might begin to evangelize, yet he didn’t.

I knew that many people had the opinion that the goodwill I spoke of wouldn’t exist without religious faith. With such compassion common among religions that were at odds with one another, I was of the opinion that goodwill arose from human society, as did the religions themselves. The community of man was a lot bigger than me, and had supported and safeguarded my existence. While as a higher power, human society didn’t represent the level of perfection some sought in a deity, I’d never needed perfection. I was a gray-area sort of guy.

“I believe in human beings,” I said simply.

“Sounds like you’ve got some good stuff,” John said.

That hardly settled the matter for me. Still, some of what weighed me down had lifted.

“Try not to be troubled by the idea of failure,” John said. He paused, smiled crookedly, and said, “One guy who came to us, chose the campus dog as his higher power because dog spelled backwards is God. He’d talk to her. My impression is that he told the dog about what troubled him. He left us years ago and comes back regularly, at first to visit the dog, and eventually to visit her grave. He’s still sober as far as I know.”

I liked John and his goofy teeth. He had a sense of humor. I could see it in his smile. I left his office feeling a lot lighter.

Since religion wasn’t required, I remained agnostic.

I couldn’t have concisely explained my higher power. Suffice it to say that I had one, and therefore not only got sober with the twelve-step program, but was also relieved of the desire to drink. With the help of substance abuse treatment and AA, I gained some understanding and acceptance of myself. Terribly flawed and wonderfully capable, I found myself to be particularly human. I could accept that. I could drink, and chose not to. I was an alcoholic and always would be. With that knowledge came an awareness that I was a danger to myself when I drank, and to others as well.

Finding so many sober alcoholics surprised me. If I’d known how many survived their disease, I might not have waited so long to get sober. Figuring that knowledge of my struggle and sobriety might help others, I became vocal about being an alcoholic instead of staying anonymous.

Cover_TheSurgeonsMate_ADismemoir_smallestYes, I find spiritual sustenance in loving others, and being loved in return. That is the point of existence for me. Some believe that love is a gift from god, but I don’t know that. The fact that I do not know where it comes from does not diminish its effect in my life. Perhaps it is merely in my genes, yet the thought of that also does not diminish its power.

Later in the chapter, Jack London rails against the charity organizations who preach temperance and thrift to the poor. He argues that being poor is by definition a state of thrift.

My experience is that in the midst of suffering, those in pain do not easily listen to those who have plenty and who do not know their struggles. There is an element of grandiosity involved for the sufferer that stands in the way. “No one knows what I go through, and how it leaves this, that, and the other thing necessary, as desperate as those acts are.” And often it is true that the well intentioned person who preaches the need for those suffering to change their ways is ignorant of their struggles. One wrong assumption on the part of the one preaching, and the sufferer ceases to listen.

AA and NA meetings are generally closed to those who are not alcoholics or addicts. The meetings are for those who know the experience of the disease of addiction and therefore can speak with authority. In meetings, there is most often no cross-talk, that is to say, there is no commenting on what others say, except perhaps light agreement in preparation for expanding on a point. I have found that the best thing is to merely talk about my own experiences. If what I reveal of my struggles and what helped me is something the listener identifies with, then it can be helpful. Not much else does help.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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nippers pages final2.inddChapter 25 is titled “The Hunger Wail.”

I have never truly been hungry in my life. I’ve been a day, maybe two without food. I have rarely spent any period in my life when I had insufficient food for any significant length of time. I can only imagine long-term hunger by comparing it to my addiction to alcohol.

There came a time in my alcoholism that I was irrational in my pursuit of drink. If I’d had a drink, very little could stop me from having another, even if that meant hurting family or friends, even if that meant going to jail, even if that meant the alcohol would permanently damage or kill me. Yet that condition, that state of mind, was one that I came to late in my years of drinking. I have been sober for 26 years, and have to try hard to remember what all that felt like. As long as I stay away from alcohol, I have no desire.

Of course, I don’t have the option of avoiding food. We all must eat to live. But imagine having one part of your mind always considering how best to make sure to find enough food to sustain life. I try to imagine what life was like for those in the East End that Jack London found. So many frequently went hungry, and so many more suffered insufficient food on a daily basis. London was perhaps the first fast food city. The streets had many vendors offering foods of all sorts.
Yet, many of the city were so poor, they could not afford to buy food from vendors. Many grew up with bowed legs from rickets, loss of teeth, and bad joints from scurvy, weakened immune systems that left them more open to such infections as typhoid, whooping cough, and scarlet fever.

Again, what would that be like? The more scarce the food and the funds to buy it, the more frequently my mind would be set to the task of working up plans to secure one or both. Think of the energy required—that while having low energy from too little to eat. I’ve known gnawing hunger of a very light variety. What would it be like to have my thoughts consumed by the need as I’d had with alcohol, yet not be able to eventually calm the need with abstinence? What desperate acts might I become willing to commit?

I cannot truly imagine that. I’m lucky to have lived so long without that need pressing on me daily as it must have for so many in London of 1902, just as it is for countless hungry people the world over today.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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PeopleAgain, Jack London speaks ill of the people f the abyss. In Chapter 24, after having taken a long walk through the East End late at night without wearing his pauper’s rags, he basically called them out as monsters. He felt as if the people of the neighborhoods through which he passed—particularly the men—considered him a “mark,” one whom they would fall upon violently, perhaps even murder, before robbing him, if given the chance. He had nothing better to say of the women. Although a brave man, he clearly felt threatened and afraid.

In describing the people, he spoke in general terms. He generalized—never a good idea if you want your exact meaning and intentions toward others to be known. Today, we would call that stereotyping. One might say, he was politically incorrect.

Did he hate the English? Did he see them as subhuman? Was he damning the people themselves as morally, mentally, physically inferior? Did he believe himself superior to them? Did he blame the people of the abyss for the condition in which he found them or did he blame the society and particularly its government and ruling class for creating the mire in which the poor lived and developed?

In defense of the politically incorrect, I’d say that we must all generalize to save time and energy. We cannot endlessly qualify what we’re saying, either in writing or in conversation because whoever might be listening or reading what we have to say would become bored with the endless description. A great deal of what makes for compelling reading or conversation is making contrasts with our words. If we soften everything that’s said in order to be fair, much of the contrasts are lost. How such contrast are set up in a person’s language helps provide a sense of that person’s opinions. Those who suspect the opinions reveal bigoted feelings can ask for clarification without first accusing the person of bigotry. That said, a trend over time of such opinions in a person’s language can leave little doubt of their bigoted outlook. A defensive or even an offensive response on the part of the person asked for clarification can make denial of the suspected bigotry seem insincere.

In defense of the politically correct, I’d say that a society that wants to be careful with language so as not to continue thoughtless expressions is a good thing. Most of the issues around which questions of political correctness arise are those involving people who have suffered a history of abuse. Whether the indigenous people of North America want to be called Native Americans or Indians instead of some slur like red skin is worth considering, especially since they were subjugated by those who came from overseas to colonize and eventually claim North America as their own. In the struggle between Indians and Americans, both sides mistreated the other terribly, but today it is an easier matter for the majority to mistreat the minority. The silent conspiracies of bigotry are always more successful among the majority, those who have the preponderance of power, wealth, property, and business interests.

If there are names that African Americans would prefer to never hear again, then based on the history of abuse of that group, I think we should all consider that wish and do our best to be considerate.

If a woman doesn’t want her body to be an issue in her job, doesn’t want to be referred to in a diminutive way by being called a girl, or any of a number of other ways that are meant to diminish women in comparison to men, then based on the gigantic accumulation of historic evidence of a male dominated society treating them as inferiors, we ought to do our best to abide by and consider their wishes.

For those who relish calling people out on politically incorrect statements and behaviors, we don’t need a police force for that. One cannot fight stereotyping with stereotyping. We can ask nicely for clarification. If we become persuaded by their answers that they are indeed bigoted instead of inarticulate or ignorant, then we can condemn the bigotry with confidence.

For those who bash the politically correct—in the face of humanities long history of human abuse, it’s good to learn to be gracious and considerate, especially since we have a tendency to look for scapegoats and gang up on smaller, vulnerable groups and individuals. Surely, everybody has experienced a time in life when others ganged up on them. Was it fair? How did it feel?

Unfortunately, we cannot ask Jack London for clarification. Yet, I think the answer is in The People of the Abyss. He did not gloat over his superior clothes, richer diet, and personal wealth. He did not suggest that the people he criticized were unredeemable. Yes, he was disgusted, frightened, threatened by what he saw. He condemned the state in which he found creatures he seemed to want to respect. More than blaming them, he damned the system in which they gained their formative experiences, in which they were trapped by circumstance. He damned the system in which human beings were seen as mere commodity.

Again, he did not have to endure the experiences he sought in order to write The People of the Abyss. With his ability to spin a yarn and earn a living doing so, he might more easily have written another adventure novel.

Some of his other writing reveals clearly his racism. For that I would condemn his outlook. During his life, expressions of such prejudice were more acceptable. I don’t defend it in any way. If political correctness has made expressions of racism less acceptable, I think that’s a good thing. He was a complicated, at time troubled man with a certain amount of anger in him. Aren’t we all like that to some extent?. Yet the window his writing provides of his time, and particularly the book in question, remains valuable.

(Spoiler alert for Jack London’s The Call of the Wild) In The Call of the Wild, a novel that would be released the year after London’s stay in the East End, the domesticated dog, Buck, is stolen from his master’s ranch and sold as a sled dog to men involved in the Alaskan gold rush. Buck is beaten and driven hard, forced to fight for position among other dogs, becoming an increasingly desperate and dangerous animal. Eventually, Buck is taken by a good man named Thornton, a fellow who knows the northern wilderness well. The dog is treated well for the first time in a long while. After Thornton’s death, Buck makes his way into the wild, shedding his domesticated self, as well as the pain of his enslavement. Listening to instinct once again, he shows his strength to a pack of wolves and joins them. The novel leaves one with a clear sense that London felt the natural world, the wilderness, the instinctual nature of the dog were clean, good, and purposeful, that all that was ill in the animal’s life was driven by human greed.

I see a reflection of those same feelings in the closing of chapter 24:
The unfit and the unneeded!  Industry does not clamour for them.  There are no jobs going begging through lack of men and women.  The dockers crowd at the entrance gate, and curse and turn away when the foreman does not give them a call.  The engineers who have work pay six shillings a week to their brother engineers who can find nothing to do; 514,000 textile workers oppose a resolution condemning the employment of children under fifteen.  Women, and plenty to spare, are found to toil under the sweat-shop masters for tenpence a day of fourteen hours.  Alfred Freeman crawls to muddy death because he loses his job.  Ellen Hughes Hunt prefers Regent’s Canal to Islington Workhouse.  Frank Cavilla cuts the throats of his wife and children because he cannot find work enough to give them food and shelter.

The unfit and the unneeded!  The miserable and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles.  The progeny of prostitution—of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labour.  If this is the best that civilisation can do for the human, then give us howling and naked savagery.  Far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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