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.

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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.

 

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

Mysteries of Elizabeth Stride

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In researching the life of Elizabeth Stride, the third victim of Jack the Ripper, for my novel, Say Anything But Your Prayers, I discovered several fun mysteries beyond the most obvious one concerning the identity of her murderer. In the process of writing a fictionalized account of her life, I had to make sense of the mysteries, and that meant coming up with reasonable story elements to stand in for missing information. One of the most interesting mysteries involves a misidentification of her body while it was at the mortuary. I will get to that shortly. First a couple of smaller mysteries.

On the surface, Elizabeth and her husband, John Stride, seemed to have had good opportunities. They opened a coffee shop in London in 1870. Although the shop was moved to two other locations within the city over time, they ran it until 1875 when their ownership of the business was sold. John Stride was a carpenter during a time when London was growing in leaps and bounds. Despite these endeavors, in the end, the couple was impoverished and both spent time in the workhouse.

Concerning the coffee shop—the Strides could have been terrible at business. In researching the possibilities, I discovered another likely explanation: The Ceylon coffee crop, which was the main source for the British Empire, was all but destroyed by a fungus known as coffee rust in the early 1870s. As a result of the damage to the crop, the price of coffee might have become too high.

Concerning John’s carpentry—yes, London was growing by leaps and bounds, but the industrial revolution had eliminated so many jobs throughout the countryside and the unemployed flooded into the city to find work. Competition for jobs was fierce. Any stain on a worker’s reputation might leave him out in the cold, and that could include not making the required “contributions” to organizations that organized carpentry work and workers. Victorian London was a challenging environment in which to live and thrive. The possible reasons for a lack of success for John Stride’s carpentry are endless. I chose one that made sense within the context of the tale I was telling and helped further the plot.

Two days after Elizabeth Stride’s death, on Tuesday, October 2, during the inquest into her murder, a woman named Mary Malcolm testified that she’d seen the body at mortuary twice and was certain it was that of her sister, Elizabeth Watts. She said that she met with her sister each Saturday on a street corner to give her financial assistance. She’d been meeting her for that purpose for at least three years, yet on the previous Saturday, her sister didn’t show up. Mrs. Malcolm recounted a strange experience she’d had that night. “I was in bed, and about twenty minutes past one on Sunday morning, I felt a pressure on my breast and heard three distinct kisses. It was that which made me afterwards suspect that the woman who had been murdered was my sister.” This occurrence, coincides approximately with the hour of Stride’s death.

Under questioning by the coroner, Detective-Inspector Ried, and the Foreman of the inquest, Mrs. Malcolms said of her sister, Elizabeth Watts, that she’d once had a policeman as a lover, that she’d lived with a man who kept a coffee shop in Poplar, that she’d gone by the nickname Long Liz, that she was a drunkard who had been arrested more than once for public drunkenness, and that she’d gotten released from jail on one occasion by saying that she was subject to epileptic seizures. All six of these descriptions seemed to also hold true for Elizabeth Stride.

Mrs. Malcolm said that in part she could recognize her sister’s body because the right leg had a small black mark. “It was from the bite of an adder. One day, when children, we were rolling down a hill together, and we came across an adder. The thing bit me first and my sister afterwards. I have still the mark of the bite on my left hand.”

The Coroner had already received information from other borders at the common lodging where Elizabeth Stride had been living that the body was hers. He instructed Mrs. Malcolm to go as usual on the upcoming Saturday to the corner where she met Elizabeth Watts to see if her sister turned up.

Elizabeth Watts—who had taken the name of her current husband and was named Elizabeth Stokes—did turn up.  When the inquest reconvened on Tuesday, October 23, the woman became a witness, declared herself very much alive, and said many things meant to discredit Mary Malcolm.

Still, there are the six elements of description Mrs. Malcolm gave that fit Elizabeth Stride. I found only weak explanations for this mystery. Applying the principle of Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is that Mary Malcolm lied, but coincidentally offered up so many descriptions that actually fit Elizabeth Stride that she might have been believed if Elizabeth Stokes had not shown up.

The solution to the mystery that I chose seems to be the next-simplest, and helped me to further develop the character of Elizabeth Stride. I had a lot of fun fitting my solution into the greater puzzle of her life.

Say Anything But Your Prayers, was released by Lazy Fascist Press in 2014. The novel is the second book in my Jack the Ripper Victims series, the first being Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes—Lazy fascist Press in 2011. Exploring the long gone, but not lost world of Victorian London has been an immense pleasure for me as I perform research for the books. The first two volumes within the series are also available in one ebook titled Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event.

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The third novel, A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of the first victim, Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, was released on August 31st, 2016, the 128th anniversary of her death.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

The artwork with this post: “Her Client” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark.

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

THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

Now available, A Brutal Chill in August ABrutalChillInAugust_cover

Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com

Thank you for reading my posts.

THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 26

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“Gin Lane” William Hogarth 1751

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Native American Burial Mounds in Tennessee

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

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

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

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

He nodded. “Love of fellow man.”

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

“That’s important.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since religion wasn’t required, I remained agnostic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

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THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Get a free ebook copy of The People of the Abyss from Project Gutenburg—available in various formats including Kindle and Epub, : http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1688

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Visit Alan M. Clark online: www.alanmclark.com