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.

ABrutalChillInAugust_cover

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

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 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.

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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 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

 

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.

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“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

 Clothing:
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
Possessions:
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

Clothing:
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)
Possessions:
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.

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Clothing:
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
Possesions:
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

Clothing:
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
Possessions:
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.

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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

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

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.

AnIllusionOfSafeSex_Blog

“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

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

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