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

Dilation Exercise 83

In an effort to promote my new novel, A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS, released by Lazy Fascist Press, I created the Dilation Exercise below to expand the story beyond the end of the novel. This week’s exercise works with last week’s. The novel is inspired by the three infamous Wardlaw sisters.

Need a further explanation? Go to Imagination Workout—The Dilation Exercises.

By the time Vertiline had given up the search for Mary, Carolee had taken a terrible toll on the innocent, and by all signs, her deadly activity stretched far into the future.

Weary and reconciled to her existence ending in shame and failure, Vertiline tried to lie down and be still, but the wind gave her feathers life, picked her and sent her flying onward, ever doomed to witness the murderous career she had helped to shape.

Artwork: “Portents” copyright © 2008 Alan M. Clark. Cover art for Portents edited by Al Sarrantonio, published by Flying Fox Publishers.

Captions are original to this post and have nothing to do with the literary project with which the artwork first appeared.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Writing the Human Experience: Guest Blogger Molly Tanzer on her Debut, A Pretty Mouth

Molly Tanzer and I both have new books released by Lazy Fascist Press. She invited me to do a guest blog crossover to help promote them, so here we go!

I’m proud to introduce an incredible imagination and talented writer, Molly Tanzer.

When you’ve read this post, you might want to go to her blog, and read mine.

***

I asked Alan Clark about the possibility of doing a blog-exchange to give readers (and potential readers) some insight into our most recent works—my debut, A Pretty Mouth, and his 5th novel, A Parliament of Crows. He graciously agreed, so huzzah! Today, you can read my post on his blog—actually, I guess you already are—and his on mine.

I specifically asked Alan about doing a blog exchange because his 5th novel, Of Thimble and Threat, was one of the best books I read last year. Oh, and his latest has a bit of overlap with mine. (Alan talks about this very thing over on my blog, so that’s another reason to go read it!)

I read Thimble because our mutual publisher, Cameron Pierce, sent me an ARC. He thought I would like it, and I did, I did indeed. It’s a wonderful book, perfectly appealing to avid readers of genre and those who prefer straight literary/historical fiction. It also had the effect of forcing me to ratchet up my game for Mouth. I knew if I was going to be published side-by-side with Alan I needed to get real and start taking things seriously. It was extremely intimidating, but in that way that gets me excited about a challenge. (That said, if Cameron had sent me Parliament, I might have just thrown in the towel and given up on writing. Yeah, it’s that good.)

Anyways, blog exchange! As it turned out, I got the easy job. Alan wrote his piece first, and I liked it so much I decided to just riff off his. Which, if you must know, is pretty much how I wrote the largest chunk of A Pretty Mouth. More on that after a brilliant quote from Alan’s post that I found so inspiring:

“… The period a writer chooses for a story will define the characters in it to some extent. Obviously, some experiences we have today are not possible for characters set within a time, say, 100 or 500 years ago. This can present real limitations unless the writer is willing to learn about the period and really open up the character’s world, discover the possibilities, and share that with the reading audience. … No matter the period, the emotional characteristics of human beings are just as subtle and complex as those of human beings today. The everyday realities and events that shape their feelings and motivations can be very different, however. In creating characters, I try to take advantage of the similarities and the differences, setting up parallels and contrasts with what we know today to express something about human experience.”

That’s Alan for you. Saying pretty much everything there is to say on a subject, and more concisely than I, perhaps especially, could ever dream of doing. I mean, read Of Thimble and Threat and tell me there’s more to write on the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper. (I mean, his introduction to the book was shocking in its simplicity, honesty, and wisdom.)

I suppose the above quote struck me in particular, because it’s talking about exactly what I wanted to do with the biggest portion of A Pretty Mouth, which, depending on what you want to call it, is a novel told in parts, or a collection of related short stories. You see, the title novella is a (hopefully) witty Restoration comedy re-envisioned as an 80s teen sex romp.

Huh? What? Yeah, I know. I figured I was going buck-wild with genre in the book anyways, so why not have a “school story” kind of thing? I love school stories, always have. But how do you write something realistic and fresh about school experience when writing about a educational system long gone?

Wadham College, in 1660, was an interesting community of intellectuals, half middle/high school, half university. Boys from 12 years old were required to take courses in Astronomy, Physics, Logic, and Latin; older students attended more college-style classes, as we might think of them. Girls were not allowed. In fact, at that time the only female servant employed by the college was the laundress, who was required by the statutes to be older (and lower-class) as to not distract the students. And she was only allowed to come to the gate of the college, lest her presence inflame the boys’ passions. Kind of hard to stage a panty raid, or whatever, under those circumstances, you know?

And yet, when you read Restoration-era texts—let’s say, for example, the poetry of John Wilmot, the novels/plays of Aphra Behn, or the diary of Samuel Pepys—it’s obvious that some things haven’t changed that much. Worrying over things like popularity, academic performance, uncertainty over one’s future, all those concerns existed then, as they do now. So I hoped to exploit those similarities to make an unusual setting familiar.

Now, my stuff is more anachronistic than Alan’s, deliberately so. Alan’s the kind of writer who shocks you with the horror of reality; I’m the kind of writer who thinks it’s funny when 17th century schoolboys say things like “Busted!” and, I dunno, “motherfucker.” Which let me walk that line between historical drama and 80s comedy.

Maybe. I say that, but you, dear reader, must be the judge of that.