“Miller’s Court,” a Short Animated Film by Alan M. Clark

I created the animated film “Miller’s Court” from illustrations I’ve done for my Jack the Ripper Victims Series of novels about the lives of the women JTR murdered.

Here are some of the illustrations I put into motion:

“Miller’s Court” copyright © 2016 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil, digitally colorized.

 

Study for “Of Thimble and Threat” copyright © 2012 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil.

“The Double Event” copyright © 2015 Alan M. Clark. Colored pencil, digitally colorized.

Detail from “In the Dark, In the Night” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Acrylic on board.



At present, there are four novels in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series”

A Brutal Chill in AugustWord Horde.

Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man — IFD Publishing

Say Anything but Your Prayers — IFD Publishing

Of Thimble and Threat — IFD Publishing

The fifth and final novel in the series will be released in 2018.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Chapter 1 of APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Frontispiece for APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark

Chapter 1

Rivals

Saturday, September 1, 1888

“You pay for Eliza’s bed too,” Annie said to Eddie, careful not to sound angry.

They sat together in the early evening at the Britannia Public House, known locally as the Ringers.

He gazed across the stained and worn table at her, expressionless, his eyes cold and his mouth, hidden beneath his great mustache, offering no clue as to his feelings. Something about his look, a certain darkness around the eyes, echoed the frightful visage of Mr. Stewart, the cat’s meat man Annie had feared when she’d been little. Whenever Annie had heard Mr. Stewart’s song or seen him selling his tainted meat to pet owners about her childhood neighborhood, she’d fled and hidden from him.

What a pitiless master Eddie has become, Annie thought. Too bad I can’t say what I think of him.

The day before, Francis Booth had told her of Eddie’s two-timing with Eliza Cooper, and Annie had been trying to think of a way to talk to him about his deception.

Both Annie and Eliza lived at Crossingham’s Lodging House in Dorset Street. Although an illegal practice, the lodging house deputy, Timothy Donovan, allowed Eddie to sleep with women on the premises. No doubt, whatever arrangement the two men had involved money.

Eddie was a brick layer’s mate and pensioner with a curious surplus of funds. He currently had Annie over a barrel. She couldn’t afford a room of her own without help. As he had done for the past few months, he’d paid half her lodging fee for the week at Crossingham’s in exchange for sexual favors. Annie’s room was held as long as she paid the rest, four pence, due each night. Failing to pay, she’d lose a night on the back end. If she missed paying three nights in a row, she’d lose the room.

Likely, he had the same arrangement with Eliza because, apparently, he spent other nights with her. He had been able to get away with his cheating because the women lodged in rooms on different floors, Annie in 29 on the second floor, and Eliza in 36 on the third floor.

Number 29 was small and drafty. The loose glass in the rotten window sash rattled when anyone mounted the lodging house stairs, and the floor creaked loudly beneath one’s tread. The only heat available came through the open fanlight above the locked door to the adjoining room, number 28, which held the coal grate. Because the fanlight remained open, occupants in each room could hear what went on in the other.

On the good side, number 29 had a bed large enough for two. On the nights Eddie didn’t spend with her, she had the straw mattress all to herself—quite a luxury.

At present, she had no other prospects for lodging without going to a doss house and sleeping with strangers.

With his silence, Eddie clearly indicated he didn’t want to discuss the matter. In the midst of the busy pub, the hubbub of the patrons—the murmur of conversation, the laughter, the periodic shouting, the occasional insults hurled, both playful and serious—allowed him to turn away easily and ignore her as if he hadn’t heard. To repeat herself would seem like harping.

“Drink your stout and I’ll buy you another,” Eddie said seductively.

Annie struggled to finish her drink without appearing to do so in a hurry. The stout felt warm and comfortable in her belly.

She picked up the copy of the Evening News Eddie had discarded on the table. In it, she found an article about the murder that had taken place two nights earlier. The story had been all over the streets since yesterday. A woman named Nichols had been brutally assaulted and murdered, her body left on the street less than a mile away.

“Did you read about the murder in Buck’s-Row?” Annie asked Eddie. “Says her throat were cut, her bowel ripped open.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m certain they’ve made it out to be much worse than it was.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Another whore went against her minder.”

Annie could easily believe that the newspapers, always in heavy competition with one another, exaggerated to make their stories more sensational and improve sales. What she’d heard on the street about the murder, coming through the rumor mill, was much the same. She set aside the paper.

“Although I paid on your room,” Eddie said, “by chance, I may be gone much of the week. If so, you will give me extra satisfaction next week.”

I hope you are gone this week, she thought, disgusted that he brought up their transaction in a public place. Becoming angry would do her no good. She tried to look relaxed, even as Eliza Cooper and Harry the Hawker came into the pub and approached the table.

“Sit,” Eddie said, gesturing to empty seats, “and I’ll buy you a drink.”

The women merely nodded to one another.

“Dark Annie,” Harry the Hawker said in greeting. He called her that, as many in the neighborhood did, because her dark hair helped distinguish her from Annie Platt, a woman with fair hair who also stayed at Crossingham’s from time to time. Harry wore a brightly colored, green and coral-colored neckerchief, a ratty old maroon doublet, and a brown tricorn hat. His beard had grown exceedingly long and was held in an elaborate braid. “Anything to stand out in a crowd,” he’d said to Annie one day. “That is the way to make a sale in a crowded market.”

Eliza, a book seller, set down a heavy sack before taking her seat. She had a look of resentment about her as she looked at Annie. Possibly Francis had told Eliza about Eddie’s two timing. Then again, she could be angry simply because Annie hadn’t returned the soap she’d borrowed that morning.

Annie tried to relax and quiet her own resentment toward the woman while Eddie fetched drinks for everyone.

“Odd weather,” Harry said. “Got cold early. Were a brutal chill in August too. Hard on my knees.”

“Brutal, is it?”Eliza asked, chuckling. “Getting old, Harry?”

Harry merely huffed at her.

Annie could not determine Eliza’s age. Her body seemed younger, more powerful than Annie’s, but her round face had a weathered look. Her dark, curly hair had little gray.

Eddie returned, placed drinks before his guests and sat. He set a coin on the table, perhaps absentmindedly. Annie recognized the silver disk as a florin.

Eliza bent as if reaching for her sack, placing her right hand on the table for support, right atop the two shilling coin. When she straightened, holding a book, and lifted her hand, Annie saw that the two-shilling piece had become a penny.

“I’ve a new book to sell,” Eliza said, holding up the volume, “Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille, what come all the way from New York City.”

Seeing the theft, Annie thought she had an opportunity to turn Eddie against Eliza and have him all to herself.

Annie interrupted the woman’s sales pitch, addressing Eddie. “She took your florin.”

Eliza turned hateful eyes on her, as Eddie looked to the tabletop. He then looked at Eliza.

“Your sleeve might’ve thrown the coin to the floor,” she said, her eyes wide, “so I moved it.”

“You put a penny in its place,” Annie said with disgust.

Eliza glared again, rose up, and swung a fist from across the table. The blow connected with the right side of Annie’s face and bowled her over backwards out of her seat.

Harry the Hawker grabbed Eliza’s shoulders and pulled her back. Nearby patrons of the pub paused to turned and watch the rough goings-on. Eliza got free, picked up her sack, and left the pub.

The slight lull in movement and sound within the establishment ended as Annie got up, righted her chair, and sat. She stared back at curious onlookers until most became uncomfortable and looked away.

She glanced at Eddie, hoping to see some evidence that he was displeased with Eliza. Instead, he gave Annie a stern look. He and Harry drank their stout, and said nothing about what had happened.

Exploring the tenderness around her right eye with her fingers, she winced in pain. The blow would leave a bruise.

Annie wanted to condemn Eliza’s actions further, but couldn’t afford to get on Eddie’s bad side. Although ashamed of her opportunism, she couldn’t help thinking bitterly, That were an easy two shillings for Eliza.

I must find a way to be done with Eddie. Once this week is past, I’ll work harder to fully earn my nethers, so I don’t depend on him.

 

(Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is available from online booksellers)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Chapter 6—Cat’s Meat

(Excerpt from the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man, by Alan M. Clark)

“The Cat’s Meat Man” copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark

Around age twelve, Annie cut her right hand while helping her mother slice bread for an evening meal. Over the ensuing muggy summer days, the wound became red and hot. The hand swelled and the wound began to suppurate.

Early evening of one of those days, when their room above the cobbler shop had grown unbearably stuffy, she lay miserable and wet from sweat in bed, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in her right hand, and an increasing need to get up and use the chamber pot.

“You must get better so we can play Old Maid,” Emily seemed to say to the doll cradled in her lap, though clearly she meant the words for Annie. The two sisters didn’t get along most of the time, possibly because Emily knew Dadda looked upon Annie as his favorite. Still, she sat in a chair beside the bed and held Annie’s left hand. “I’m no good alone, and Mum’s too busy to play.”

Their father came clomping up the stairs. Annie heard him hop over the two rotten treads beneath the roof leak and the room shook a bit. She ceased to moan and writhe for fear of disappointing him. Mum, preparing supper, greeted Dadda, then he moved to the bed to have a look at Annie. Over top the odors of old leather and shoe black, he smelled most strongly of drink.

“If it worsens,” he said, turning toward Mum, “she’ll lose the hand.”

“No, Dadda!” Annie cried as he turned back to her.

Emily made a face and climbed down from the chair. She dropped the doll as she backed away toward Mum.

Hot tears poured from Annie’s eyes. She shifted uncomfortably in the bed and the rough straw inside the mattress bit into her painfully. Her bladder let go and she urinated there in the bed. He would discover the urine later, but she could not worry about that yet.

“Should they take your hand,” Dadda said, “they’ll give it to the cat’s meat man. You don’t want that, do you?”

Emily buried her face in her mother’s skirts.

“He’s teasing you,” Mum said. “Don’t believe your father.”

Busy, her defense of her daughter was weak and did not prevent the girl’s imagination from providing further torment. Annie saw the cat’s meat man, Mr Stewart, in his broad, brightly colored neckerchief, selling her severed fingers, dyed green and stabbed onto wooden skewers, to Mrs. Salter, who lived in the building next door. The woman kept a dog and a cat, and bought meat regularly from Mr. Stewart to feed her animals.

Thinking that one hand might satisfy the takers as well as the other, Annie frantically tried to pull herself together enough to say, “Tell them to take the other one, Dadda. It doesn’t work as well.” Sobs came out instead, drowning in the salty fluids of her mouth and nose.

“Cease your blubbering, girl,” Dadda said. “I’m trying to make you fight for that hand. We would not give it to the cat’s meat man.” Then he smiled with mischief. “Yet if you don’t fight to keep it, he may come in the night for it all the same. I’ll leave the padlock off the door to make it easier.”

“You are a drunken lout, George Smith,” Mum said, “terrorizing your own young the way you do.” She threw a wooden spoon. The implement smacked into Dadda’s head with a loud knock and bounced off. Unfazed, his mischievous smile remained.

Too late, Mum moved to settle Annie’s fears and calm her.

Although the wound healed and she kept her hand, afterward she knew she wasn’t up to the hardships life would throw at her. As she grew, Annie found her squeamish and fearful response to the world an increasing source of distress. She would have to become someone else if she wanted to survive.

The cat’s meat man seemed to follow her around and pop up in her imagination when Annie felt vulnerable.

(Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man, written by Alan M. Clark, is part of the Jack the Ripper Victims Series.)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Author’s Note from APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

(This is the author’s note from the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man a novel of Annie Chapman, the second Victim of Jack the Ripper.)

Cover for the Jack the Ripper Victims Series novel, APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

Author’s Note—Historical Terror: Horror that Happened

In September1888, after the brutal murders of Martha Tabram and Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols in August, how did Annie Chapman reasonably persuade herself to walk the streets of London’s East End looking for a stranger to pay her for sex? Seeking an answer to that question was in part my purpose in writing Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man.

The novel is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Annie Chapman, a woman believed to be the second victim of Jack the Ripper. I made an effort to stick to what is known about her, yet for purposes of storytelling, I did not adhere strictly to her history, in part because much of her life is obscured by the relative anonymity she had in her time. I have assigned to my main character emotional characteristics and reactions that seem possible and consistent with her life and circumstances.

To be clear, the novel is not about Jack the Ripper. The Jack the Ripper Victims series, of which Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is the fourth book, is not about the killer. Instead, each of its novels explores the life of a different victim. The books in the series can be read in any order, as each is a stand-alone account, their timelines overlapping.

“Ghost of Whitechapel” copyright©2017 Alan M. Clark. Interior illustration from APOLOGIES TO THE CAT’S MEAT MAN

For me, history is stories, perhaps more fact-based than fiction, but stories nevertheless. Good tales are driven by emotion. Following the emotional motivations of characters is compelling for me, as I think is true for most people. When the motivations are a mystery, such as those surrounding a horrible crime, I want to make sense of them. I want order in my world, and with horrible crimes, the acts by disturbed individuals and sometimes their victims hang out there in time, niggling for answers. Part of the puzzle that wants answering is context. How could that person do such a thing? What made their actions seem reasonable to them? Answers lie within the person’s time and circumstances, the world as he or she knew it and how that individual in particular responded to the comforts and stresses within interpersonal relationships and environment.

History, sufficiently remote, but somewhat familiar, like the Victorian era, makes for interesting story context for me because I know something of that world. Remnants of that time still exist today, and I have communicated with family members who grew up close enough in time to the period that they knew something of the constraints and opportunities of life then. That era seems slightly alien and a little exotic. I also find I have a borrowed nostalgia for simpler times in which the people seemed to have had a naive innocence. Of course, that is a product of my complacency.

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, yet we’re good at interpreting and understanding others’ moods within the context of their experiences.

When stories of times past hold situations sufficiently developed that the complexity of human emotion is revealed, that supposed innocence of a “simpler time” vanishes. Suddenly, understanding the historical and emotional context, the characters are no longer quaint and simple. I am right there with them, having some understanding of their motivations.

Through the research and writing of historical fiction novels, I must use my imagination to project myself into another place and time. In the midst of the effort, I feel like I’m engaged in time-travel. My wife often asks about that far off look in my eyes when I’m in the middle of a several-months-long project involving historical fiction. We might be at the grocery store or the post office at the time. Little does she know that I’m not actually standing next to her in those moments.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man is the 4th novel in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series by Alan M. Clark.  Each novel in the series is a standalone story.

Dec 20 2016 Christmas Ghosts: An Excerpt from Alan M. Clark’s A Brutal Chill in August

One of our favorite Christmas traditions, particularly popular in the Victorian era, is the telling of ghost stories. Something about the long nights of winter, the glistening of ice, and the clouds of breath that form as you step outside evokes the supernatural, the uncanny. Perhaps the most famous of these stories is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but other notable Christmas ghosts include Dickens’s “The Signalman,” M. R. James’ “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” Edith Wharton’s “Afterward,” and H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival.”

With all that in mind, Word Horde is proud to present a new Victorian Christmas ghost story, in the form of this excerpt from Alan M. Clark’s stunning tale of Polly Nichols, first victim of Jack the Ripper, A Brutal Chill in August

Ross Lockhart, Word Horde Editor in Chief

A Brutal Chill in August by Alan M. Clark

13
A Tempting Choice

On Monday morning, December 20 of 1875, Polly hid away the tinplate toys she’d bought for the children’s Christmas stockings—a steamship for John, a train for Percy, a horse-drawn carriage for Alice. As she imagined the children’s faces when they received their gifts, a knock came at her door. She answered the knock to find Judith had arrived early. Dorrie wasn’t with her. The cold and windy air outside tried to push its way in. Judith didn’t respond when invited to come in, so Polly stepped out and pulled the door shut.

“At first I couldn’t decide,” the woman said, “but I have, at present. Dorrie will begin school in the new year. She’s with her grandmother now and during the holidays. No longer shall I come on Mondays and Fridays.”

Perhaps Polly should have seen the day coming, since Percy was the same age as Dorrie, and he had already begun at the infants school. Polly had happily let go of her daytime duties of minding Percy, especially since the discovery she was pregnant again. She hadn’t told Bill or Papa about the pregnancy. Although she loved her children, she didn’t look forward to having yet another so soon.

Her surprise left her struggling unsuccessfully to think of a way to change Judith’s mind. Finally, Polly said simply, “I’m not prepared for the change.” Straining against the chill breeze, she knew she looked as if she might cry. “Could we do it just a bit longer until I can make other plans?”

Judith appeared unmoved. “No, I shall not have a child to keep during much of the week and shan’t need your help. I have plans for Christmas to think about today.”

Indeed, she wasn’t a good friend.

Polly hung her head wearily. “You’re lucky you don’t have the quick womb I have.”

“Are you knapped again?” Judith asked with a frown.

“Yes.”

“It’s not my luck,” Judith said. She grimaced slightly, then asked, “Haven’t you asked Bill to wear a sheath on his manhood?”

“He won’t.”

“Swaine does, and when that fails, I know how to end a pregnancy. There’s a woman can help you.”

“The Church tells us that’s murder.”

“Yes, well, a life unloved and spent in poverty,” Judith said, coldly, “what’s that?”

Polly had no answer. Judith started to turn away.

“Please,” Polly said, “I must have a drink today.”

“And that’s the difference between us,” Judith said. Shaking her head, she turned and walked away.

Polly stepped back inside, and slammed the door, shutting out the biting cold.

The woman’s abrupt manner aside, her suggestion about abortion made Polly uncomfortable because of the tempting option the procedure presented. She considered abortion wrong, and believed that if she took the option, she’d be guilty of murder. Apparently, Judith had chosen just such murders in the past.

Still, Polly believed the life in her womb would be better off if it never saw the world. With each child she’d had, her ability to provide for them, the time she had to share with them, her capacity for affection, and, yes, she admitted to herself, even to love them, had diminished.

What had Judith said? “A life unloved and spent in poverty.”

Perhaps if God knew how Polly felt, He would help. Yet, the Lord should know already what she held in her heart, even if the feelings were a jumble. Polly wanted the best for the three children she had, and if that meant she shouldn’t have another mouth to feed, another heart to soothe and love, then possibly He should take the infant in the midst of her pregnancy. The idea that she might have a miscarriage gave her a small hope which she knew must be dismissed, but which she clung to for fear that if she didn’t, God might not know her preference. The conflict within her turned to nausea. Although most likely mere morning sickness, the discomfort bore with it a chilling uneasiness.

She didn’t have time for such distraction, and tried not to think about the matter further. Her schedule for the afternoon required her to print a broadsheet that advertised a boxing match. She had the materials, including a nicely done woodcut of men preparing to punch each other while others in the background cheered. She needed to take care of Alice first. As she occupied herself, stoking the fire, cleaning the dishes and the pot used to prepare the meal from the night before, nausea and disquiet continued to hound Polly. Her hands trembled and her heart periodically hammered in her chest.

Finally, she promised herself that she’d find a moment to say a prayer for the infant in her womb and one for Judith. That did little to calm her.

She hurriedly fed Alice a midday meal of bread and butter, then placed her in the bed, wrapped in a faded red wool blanket, hoping the girl would take a nap. Before beginning work on her broadsheet, Polly found her moment for prayer. Alice had become quiet, and a calm came into the room, but not into Polly. The conflict in her heart had turned to an unaccountable foreboding. She voiced the words before she’d had a chance to think them through.

“Please O Lord, take this child now before it’s too late.” Polly regretted her plea immediately. While trying to persuade herself that God understood that she meant for the child not to suffer, she knew her true motive to be self-serving. After years of carefully avoiding any mention of herself in prayer, she’d found a new way to demonstrate her selfishness to God. She quickly said the penitent prayer from Mr. Shaw’s well-worn card, but she didn’t feel any better.

Polly couldn’t do her work. Feeling naked before the eyes of the Lord, she paced. When Alice began to stir, Polly knew she disturbed the child’s slumber. She had to get away.

Stepping outside, she had the intention of pacing the lane’s granite footway outside her door. Having traveled half a block up Trafalgar Street, she decided she should keep going. She imagined walking the two or more miles to the docks, and stowing aboard a ship headed to some land where people believed in a different god, one who would not know her so well.

Then, she remembered she’d left the front door open. She broke out in a sweat. Her heart moved uncomfortably as she thought of a stranger entering her room while Alice slept. She imagined John and Percy coming home from school to find nobody home, their confusion and sadness when they found out their mother had abandoned them, and so close to Christmas!

Polly turned and walked back the way she’d come.

Although the shame had become so large inside her that she saw little else, she knew that her children needed her.

* * *

Bill came home from work around noon. His foot had been hurting him for over a week after an accident at the offices of Messrs. Pellanddor and Company. He’d explained on the day of the mishap that a case of lettera heavy wooden box full of metal type—had fallen from a rack onto his foot.

He hobbled crookedly as he came in, using a cane he’d borrowed from a workmate. “I’m no good at work the way I am,” he told Polly. “Richardson sent me home. Says he’s tired of my curses. I must rest up and go back no sooner than the new year. I think a bone is broken and I should be much longer, though.”

He leaned against the wardrobe, removed his jacket, and unbuttoned his checked waistcoat.

“Alice, make room for your father,” Polly said. “Soon, you must get up and help me impose pages.”

“Yes, mum.” The girl smiled sleepily, and moved over to one side in the bed.

Polly helped her husband lie down. She pulled the shoe off his good foot, then proceeded to more carefully remove the other. He kept his lips tightly closed throughout the process.

“Have you eaten?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said with a strain in his voice. “I can wait ’til supper.”

Polly had missed some of her Monday excursions in the past, when Bill or her father had been ill and not worked for a day or more. On those occasions, with Judith’s help, Polly had always been able to look forward to a time when she’d have a day to herself again. At present, she didn’t know when she’d have another chance to have a drink. Her hands began to tremble as she thought about the problem.

“I’ll need a drink for the pain,” Bill said. “Go around to the Compass Rose and fetch a pint of gin.”

Polly concealed her excitement.

He pulled his purse from a pocket of his trousers and fished out a shilling. “I expect tuppence back.”

Polly took the silver coin. She might not have time to go for a single drink, but she could get a bottle of gin to have on hand at home for herself. Surely, a circumstance would arise in which she might have some secretly.

“Alice, don’t bother your father while I’m gone. He’s not feeling well.”

“Yes, Mum.”

Polly turned away, opened the wardrobe, and used her body to conceal her efforts as she retrieved a shilling from under the loose lining of the left boot of her Sunday high-lows. Pulling on her shawl and bonnet, she left, carrying a basket to hold her purchase. On her way up Trafalgar Street toward South Street, against the bitterly cold wind, she decided that if she ran the whole way, there and back, she’d stay warmer and have the time to drink a glass of stout when she got there. No, Bill might smell the alcohol when she got back.

Even so, she walked briskly. She smiled uneasily at the women she passed, but looked away from each man.

At the Compass Rose, she bought two pints of gin, placed them in her basket, and headed for home, again walking briskly. Polly hadn’t had anything stronger than stout for many years, and looked forward to getting the gin home and finding a chance to take a deep draft.

Bill might see that she had two bottles if she wasn’t careful. The basket held a couple pieces of coarse linen. She arranged the bottles so that each rested under its own piece of cloth. That also kept them from clinking together. When she got back, hopefully Bill and Alice would be asleep in bed. If not, she’d hurry to the larder, a set of shelves within a cabinet built into the wall to the left of the fireplace, set the basket down, and reach inside to take one bottle out. If they were asleep, she’d retrieve the second bottle and hide it away before awakening Bill.

But where?

14
Obsession

Bill was awake when she returned home. Next to him, Alice still napped.

Polly offered a bottle of gin to her husband. He drank half the pint before lying back down on the bed. The remainder of the bottle, Polly hid with the tinplate toys in the back of the wardrobe. Bill might not need any more gin. If he forgot about it, the rest would be Polly’s.

Once he’d begun to snore, she pulled the second pint from the basket, stepped into Papa’s room, pulled the cork from the bottle, and had a gulp of the gin. Although Bill would not smell the drink on her after the lush he’d had, she risked her father noticing when he came home. John and Percy would be home soon, as well.

Putting the cork back in place, Polly returned to her room, having decided to hide the bottle behind the wardrobe. No, Bill could see her when she tried to retrieve the gin if she left it there. She thought to put the bottle in Papa’s room, but decided he knew his living quarters well enough that he’d notice anything amiss and easily find the gin. The eave above the door that led out back had a few broken boards. Perhaps she could hide the gin behind them. If the landlord came to fix the eave unexpectedly, though, he’d discover her bottle. He might well take the gin for himself. Worse, he could ask Bill or Papa about it.

The drink in her belly had created a warm spot that grew. Soon the warmth would enter her head and her worries would flee. She wanted to find a hiding place before that happened.

The privies! She thought that the bricks that lined the floors of the facilities measured a bit larger than the bottle she needed to hide. She grabbed a spoon, stepped out back, and entered the closest privy. Down on her knees, she pried up one of the bricks from the corner beside the door, and found the earth underneath tightly packed. Despite the distance from the seat, the soil smelled of old urine, and she briefly feared the odor might carry with it cholera or other diseases. Undeterred, Polly used the spoon to scoop out enough earth to create a space the bottle would fit into even when the brick was returned to its spot. Settling the bottle into the space, she put the brick back to see if it sat flush with the others. The hole required more digging. She tested two more times before the preparation looked right. Before placing the gin into the hole for storage, she tipped the bottle upside down, making certain the cork sealed well. Polly placed the gin in her excavation, returned the brick to its spot, and worked the soil on top so that the floor didn’t look as if it had been disturbed.

Returning to her rooms, she found Alice up and around. Polly resumed her work on the boxing broadsheet. She gave to Alice the printed pages of a chapbook job to fold.

John and Percy came home, and Polly instructed them to sew the edges of the chapbook pages.

Papa arrived two hours later. Somehow, he knew she’d been drinking.

“Yes, I had a nip after Bill took his fill,” she said, “but it wasn’t much.” She showed him the bottle. “He took half of it.”

“He’s not a drinking man,” Papa said. “He’ll be asleep for a while, then.”

Polly prepared supper and sat with her father and the children to eat. Thoughts of the bottle in the privy distracted her. She worried that one of her neighbors would find it. She worried that the cork would leak; that either the bottle would lose its contents or that the urine of careless visitors to the facility would somehow get into her gin.

The children occupied themselves through the evening with their grandfather, playing simple card games. By lamplight after dark, Polly completed the order of broadsheets for the boxing match. When she’d finished, Papa was asleep in his room with the boys, and Alice slept in bed next to her father. Although he had not completely awakened, Bill had grumbled and shifted a few times on the lumpy mattress. She knew that when he awoke, he’d be hungry.

Polly stripped and put on her nightclothes. She lay down next to Bill and tried to sleep. The gin still haunted her. She imagined exhuming the bottle and having a drink. Once she’d played through the scenario in her head, she couldn’t get rid of the idea, and so she seriously thought it through. Her father was accustomed to having her pass through his room on the way to the privy at night, and easily slept through the sounds of her tread upon the noisy floor. Even so, she feared that as soon as she tried to get to the gin, he’d sit bolt upright in his bed and ask what she was doing. No, he would take no notice of her. She’d go to the privy, dig up the bottle, have her dram, and no one would be the wiser. By the time they all awoke in the morning, the powerful smell would be off her. Polly tried to put the plan out of her head and go back to sleep, but couldn’t.

Finally, she rose, lit a lamp, and pushed her feet into her boots. As she made her way toward the back door, her heart leapt with each pop and squeak of the floorboards. She moved quickly, got to the door leading out the back, and opened it. Stepping through, she discovered bitter cold and frost clinging to everything outside. The full moon rode wisps of cloud, high in the clear sky. She scampered to the privy. The door opened easily.

Polly entered, set the lamp on the seat, pulled up the hem of her nightclothes, and knelt with her bare knees on the cold, hard floor. She found the brick frozen in place. Having forgotten her spoon, she clawed at the floor. Her breath plumed so heavily about her head, she had difficulty seeing. She scraped the skin off her finger tips before the brick finally gave a little. While her fingers stung, she worked at it. After a time, she got the brick loose.

The gin lay undisturbed. The glass that held the potent liquid gleamed like a jewel in the soft orange light. Polly lifted the bottle and pulled the cork. She leaned back against the gritty brick wall of the privy, put the mouth of the cold glass to her lips, and sucked hungrily. Half the contents were gone before she lowered the bottle to the brick floor.

Ignoring the icy chill, Polly closed her eyes and gave the alcohol time to wash over her in soothing waves of intoxication. As she savored the sensation, she lost awareness of the passage of time. Entering a state in which nothing troubled her, she relaxed and decided that if she were discovered that instant, whatever the consequences, she would not care.

She hadn’t had so much gin since she was a girl. The alcohol had a powerful effect. As her intoxication deepened, she had a desire to throw caution to the wind and drink the rest of the bottle. Polly searched with her hands until she felt the cold glass. The bottle rested on its side next to her. Raising the vessel into the light, she saw that most of the gin had drained out.

Realizing she didn’t have a good dose for later, the troubling loss quickly became a tragedy in her mind. As a moan escaped her throat, the door to the privy opened. In her haste she’d forgotten to latch it.

Bill stood in the doorway, supporting himself with the cane. “What are you doing down there? Are you hurt?”

“I—I—” she began, although she had no good answer. Despite her earlier sense that she would not care if she were caught, Polly cowered in fear.

Bill lifted her by the arm. The bottle fell from her lap upon the brick floor with a hollow clink.

Bill inhaled deeply. “You drank my gin?”

“No!” Polly said.

“Don’t lie to me.” Bill dragged her out of the privy as she clawed at the wooden threshold to get away. He threw her down and struck at her with his cane. Polly dodged out of the way and tried to rise. He swung again, and hit her shoulder, knocking her onto her right side. She held her tongue to keep from awakening the neighbors. He landed a solid blow to her ribs that forced a cry out of Polly.

“Quiet,” he said, and struck her in the face. “This is between you and me.”

As Polly got her feet under her, he brought the cane in low, using both hands to plunge the staff into her gut, and knock the wind from her in a great bellow. She fell backwards, striking her head on the cold, hard ground. Her skull seemed to ring like a bell and a taste of iron filled her nose and mouth.

She lay on her side, unable to move for a time, watching as the door to their rooms opened and Papa came out. He looked at her briefly, then spun on her husband and struck him in the face. Bill went down and Papa followed him. He crouched over Bill and struck him in the head repeatedly. Billowing vapor shot out of Papa’s mouth and nose with every angry breath.

As neighbors began to emerge from their rooms to watch, the back lane filled up with people.

Then, Cynthia Dievendorf, who lived two doors down, was cradling Polly’s head.

Gerald Guinn, who lived next door in the opposite direction, tried to pull Papa off Bill. Once her father allowed himself to be hauled away, Polly’s husband seemed a dark, lifeless lump, except for the light, rolling mist of his breath in the cold air. His blood ran black in the moonlight, giving off a lazy vapor of its own.

She knew nothing more until she saw warm daylight coming through the front window of her room. She lay in her own bed. Polly ached all over and didn’t want to face the world. She saw no sign of Bill. Cynthia sat in a chair that had been moved from Papa’s room to a position beside Polly’s bed. Alice sat in Cynthia’s lap.

Before they noticed her wakefulness, Polly closed her eyes and willed herself back to sleep.

15
While She Was Out

The Bonehill Ghost chased Polly for several days and nights through the empty streets of London. With the sun barely visible through the London particular, which hung heavily in the air everywhere, she had a vague sense of the passage of time. Unlike the incident in her childhood, when the demon had chased her with no goal but torment, she knew that this time he’d come to take something from her.

Polly called out for help as she ran. She saw no one and nobody answered. The sound told the demon exactly where to find her. As she tried to find her way home, he repeatedly thrust his devil face at her from out of the choking haze. Sometimes, she heard the slosh of the demon’s bottle, the rattle of its chain around his neck, and his rapid steps behind her. Other times, silently and with his powerful smell masked by the fog, he surprised her, leaping out of hiding with a chortling laugh and a flash of blue flame. To avoid madness, Polly turned away before her gaze and mind fixed on his red, glowing eyes. Mile upon mile of dank, abandoned thoroughfares, mired in horse dung and running with raw sewage, passed beneath her feet. Brooding brick buildings and rotten wooden houses with darkened windows loomed on either side, some leaning so far out over the street, she feared they would fall on her as she passed.

Although Mr. Macklin would have what he wanted, giddy with drink, he prolonged the chase for the fun of it. Polly wanted the pursuit to end, yet was too afraid to allow that for the longest time. Her bare feet became raw and bloody, her lungs choked with poisons from gulping the foul air.

thebonehillghost_snow

Finally, exhausted, she stopped running abruptly. As she stood gasping for clean air and not finding any, Mr. Macklin dashed out of the yellow pea soup mist, his dark features pinched and twisted into a cruel grin. “You have something of mine,” he said. He didn’t use her father’s voice as he’d done on his first visit. Then he looked down at her gut.

Until that moment, she’d assumed he intended to take her soul. Polly realized too late her mistake. He’d come for something else, a thing precious indeed. She had only an instant of horror to react. Polly tried to turn away. He exhaled a blue flame that blinded her, and snatched the tiny child from her belly with rusted metal claws.

“The soul of you, a hole in you, as what your screams beseech,” he sang in his jeering Irish voice.

While the agony of iron penetrating her abdomen took away all thought, the plucking of the child from her womb brought an emotional devastation that eclipsed physical pain.

Polly awoke screaming and clutching at herself.

* * *

Cynthia Dievendorf lay across Polly, restraining her. “You’re safe,” she said repeatedly.

“My baby,” Polly cried. She bucked beneath the woman. “He’s taken my baby.”

Surprisingly strong for such a small woman, Cynthia held Polly against the straw mattress until the fight left her. The woman’s oily dark locks hung in Polly’s face. Cynthia’s features, at first frightening from the strain of exertion, became calmer. Her warm brown eyes gazed into Polly’s for a moment. Then, they retreated as the woman pulled away and got off the bed.

Polly’s head ached severely. A deep soreness in her muscles suggested she’d lain too long in bed.

She recognized her room. Darkness lay outside the window. The table had been moved from Papa’s room to a position beside the bed next to the chair. A lit lamp rested on the tabletop. A book lay open beside it.

“My baby,” Polly said again, her voice a croaking whisper. She tore open her night gown to look at her abdomen. Instead of claw marks and rent flesh, no more than a faded greenish-yellow bruise marred the smooth skin of her belly, no doubt from the strike of Bill’s cane.

“Lost,” Cynthia said. “I’m sorry. You had a miscarriage. You passed her on your second day in bed.”

Another girl, Polly thought. A sense of loss overwhelmed her and she wept. Cynthia held Polly’s hand.

Bill had no doubt killed the child when he’d struck Polly in the gut. The demon had come after the soul of the little girl, unless his visit had been nothing but a bad dream.

No, that my baby was lost in the nightmare, too, means it was more than a dream.

With her recent prayer gone so horribly wrong, Polly assumed the manner of the loss had been God’s answer, one meant to punish her. She’d turned her own husband into an unwitting child killer. When last she’d seen him, he appeared dead. Had she turned Papa into a killer as well?

I am responsible, O Lord. Please do not punish Bill, Papa, or my unborn for my sin. If the Bonehill Ghost has the soul of my little one, reclaim her spirit and comfort her in Heaven. I shall live in misery for what I’ve done. Amen.

Even as she prayed, she wondered why God would listen to her. Polly wept until her eyes stung from lack of tears. Even then, her sobbing continued.

Cynthia released Polly’s hand, stood, and put a kettle by the fire. “Tea will help.”

Polly gathered her thoughts and ceased to sob. At the first chance, she’d take Bill’s half pint of gin from where she’d hidden it in the back of the wardrobe and throw the bottle into the vault of the privy. She would never drink again. Although abstinence was the logical solution to the bulk of her problems, and she made the commitment without hesitation, she did so with doubts that she would not explore until she felt much better.

Cynthia returned to her seat, and held out a small mirror. Polly reluctantly took it. Cynthia nodded encouragement.

Looking at her reflection, Polly saw no fresh wound on her face. The scar on her forehead—the one she’d got at age thirteen from drunkenly bashing her head against the brick of the lodging house—appeared red and sore, but didn’t feel tender when touched. She’d received the wound on the evening of her first encounter with the Bonehill Ghost. Polly wondered if her second encounter with the demon had turned the scar red.

As the water began to boil, Cynthia returned to the fireplace.

“How long have I been here?” Polly asked.

“Seven days. A doctor came. He said if you didn’t awaken by Wednesday week, you ought to go to hospital. Today is Wednesday. Your father were preparing to take you in his barrow tonight.”
“My children—”

“—are with your husband.”

Polly had intended to ask about Bill next.

“I believe he has found a new home for you and the children,” Cynthia said. She measured tea into two cups.

So Bill had recovered enough from the beating Papa had given him to be out looking for a new place to live.

“My father?”

“He’s here each night—should come home in a few hours.”

Papa hasn’t been hauled to the drum and locked up.

Would Bill send her away with the children to live somewhere else? If so, where would he live? No doubt he wouldn’t want to stay with Papa.

Polly thought of the tinplate toys for the children, hidden away in the back of the wardrobe. “Did the children have Christmas?”

“I don’t know. They were away with Mr. Nichols. I believe he is with his sister.”

Bill hated his sister, Rebecca. Polly knew he must have truly wanted to escape to seek her help.

Polly choked back shame as she thought of how she’d spoiled Christmas. She didn’t want to think about the children’s disappointment. If they hadn’t received their toys, perhaps she might yet see the surprised delight on their faces. She supposed that depended on how much they knew about what had happened.

“You’ve been here—” Polly began.

“Since that night,” Cynthia said. Crouched on the hearth beyond the foot of the bed, she poured hot water from the steaming kettle into the cups. “I lost my baby boy the day before, and needed to do some good for my own heart.”

Polly watched a tear fall from Cynthia’s eye and catch the firelight. The woman quickly wiped the droplet away.

“I’m sorry,” Polly said. She knew Cynthia’s husband was away in the Orient with the Royal Army. “Thank you for staying by me.”

Cynthia smiled miserably.

The Lord might not hear me, Polly thought, but an unselfish prayer couldn’t hurt if it came from the heart.

She thought her words through carefully before beginning.

Loving God, help Cynthia’s heart to become whole again. Care for our infants, taken before they had a chance at life. Polly followed that with the penitent prayer.

 

abcia

A Brutal Chill in August is available now from Word Horde. Ask for it by name at your favorite local bookstore.

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.

allthatshedneed_small_sepia

“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.

Elizabeth Stridestride_beforeandafter_smallest

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.

maryjanekelly_small

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

TheTollTaker_detail2

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