THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 26

GinLane_Hogarth

“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.

BurialMounds

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

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

THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS Liveblog Part 23

PaupersThe children of the abyss is the subject of Chapter 23. Imagine growing up in a one room dwelling with your parents and siblings—no privacy, no room to accumulate possessions, to pursue interests, or even find rest unless the others were all at rest. Imagine living that way while eating poorly, little full protein like meat, eggs, milk, cheese, and few fresh green vegetables. The privy would be outside, and used by numerous others, perhaps never cleaned, its vault allowed to accumulate waste for years before being cleaned out. You are required to attend school between ages 5 and 10.

Here’s a little about the educational opportunities for children:
Compulsory education for children ages 5 to 10 began in 1870 with lots of exceptions available to parents who needed their children to work or who lived too far away from schools. Compulsory education for those ages became a much more serious effort in 1880, but the government didn’t truly fund it until 1891. In 1899 the ages for compulsory education were expanded to include children 5-12 years of age.

Just because education was compulsory, didn’t mean you actually attended school, because the financial pressures on your family might demand that you work.

Here’s a bit about the laws concerning child labor:
In 1814, compulsory apprenticeship by indenture was abolished. The first law to regulate child labor was passed in 1802 to limit the hours performed in a factory or mill to 12 per day. In 1819, a minimum age for child labor in factories was set at 9 years with a maximum of 12 hours per day. In 1847, the maximum hours were changed to 10 and that was also applied to women. Child labor was prohibited below the age of 10 in 1878.

227076If you are a child of a poor family and you do go to school, you’ll have to make up the time away from work. You’ll probably do piece work in the evenings—work for which your parents would be paid by the piece—finishing clothes or preparing goods used in garment manufacturing or making things such as boxes, brushes, and a wide array of other small objects. That’s assuming your parents can find such work and that you are fast enough at it to make the wages earned worthwhile.

Once you’re 13 years old you either find a way to earn a living in the streets or find a job. If you’re still relatively small, you have the advantage over adults looking for work when it comes to labor that must be done in tight spaces. You’ll get paid less than an adult, but at least you have a job, right? If you are sufficiently malnourished that your growth has been stunted, you are even better off. You can work in a mill, where you can access parts of the steam-powered machinery that larger human beings can’t reach. Be careful not to get any body parts caught in the machinery. You can work as a chimney sweep and crawl inside flues to clean them out. Don’t get stuck. Your livelihood depends on your ability to squirm in and out with a minimum of time and effort. You must be efficient! If the city has nothing for you, then off you go to the mines that have very tight passages.

ChildrenCottonMillUpon reflection, perhaps the streets are a better idea. You could become a shoeblack and polish the shoes of those who can pay. Perhaps you could run a coster’s barrow on the street, selling food or other items, offer shoe repair or the services of a locksmith. Still, your earnings are poor and the rents keep going up. You’ve left your family and now live with others teens in tight spaces, perhaps in an abandoned, condemned building. A life of crime is beginning to look attractive. And, of course, if all else fails, you can beg on the streets as long as the local police don’t catch you or are sufficiently compensated to look the other way. One day, a chrismatic boy joins the ranks of your friends, and shows some initiative. “Some children perform as acrobats in traffic,” he says, “risking injury to thrill audiences and perhaps earn a gratuity.”

What I’m suggesting here is an early life much like that of the character Frederick Bledsoe  in my novel The Surgeon’s Mate : A Dismemoir. Here’s an excerpt:

Simon eventually took their act to the streets around Leicester Square. Instead of scampering about in ruins, they performed in the road. Again, two boys gaped, pointed, and called attention, while their fellows dashed about among the traffic. Frederick and his pals leapt through the gap between the legs of walking and trotting horses or the wheels of carriages in motion. They capered over the backs of horses, climbed moving carriages and wagons, leapt from one vehicle to another, deftly avoiding the whips and swats of the drivers. Gripping spokes, they cartwheeled down the road attached to hansoms and growlers. If those driving or riding the conveyances became upset, or if a constable got involved, so much the better. The two boys calling attention to their fellow’s feats also solicited donations. During times when crowds made their way to various performances at the square, the earnings doubled.

Among the Regal Rats, Simon’s greatest competition for the boldest, most daring feats had always been Frederick. The two worked out increasingly dangerous street antics. With a sense that the larger society had tossed him away and preferred to ignore him, Frederick continued to feed on the attention he got. His goal was to shock audiences into remembering him. His craving for the attention grew so strong that he pushed Simon for more.

“Let’s set up for the crowds leaving the halls as well,” Frederick said.

“Too dangerous after dark,” Simon said. “Not enough light, and you know how the pavers sweat once the sun goes down.”

“We’ll be more careful.” Frederick turned to the other boys to make an appeal. “We can do it for the money, can’t we, Rats?”

He’d touched upon a motivating force. The boys were doing better than ever keeping themselves housed and fed, but they wanted more comfort. Currently, they sat around an abandoned saw mill where they slept at night. The business had closed down after a fire burned half the structure.

“Bertram and I found lodgings in Great Windmill Street as might take us all,” Alex said. “We just need enough chink.”

“Winter is coming,” Quint said. “Would be nice to have a warm place.”

Several of the others nodded hopefully.

“Squint, he always complains when the weather turns cold,” Simon said. He waved his hand in the air as if he could dismiss the idea entirely with one gesture. A long silence followed while the Regal Rats continued to gaze at their leader. Simon clearly became uncomfortable. “We’d be too tired out to do another show so late,” he protested. “That and the dark—I won’t lead you boys into harm.”

“Well,” Frederick said, “if you’re frightened…”

Finn poked at Simon with a look of challenge.

“Come on,” Alex said. “Like Freddy says, we can do it.”

Simon glared at Frederick, yet reluctantly agreed to do a street performance the evening of the following Saturday.

When the day came, the chill fall weather had left moisture on the paving stones. The air had become still. A haze of coal smoke hung over the Leicester Square area. As the audiences attending performances exited the theaters and music halls, the pall of smoke seemed to dampen their mood. The Regal Rats’ antics in the road were largely ignored.

“Walk the wheel,” Frederick said to Simon. “That always gets the crowd excited.”

Simon frowned. The leader of the Regal Rats was the only one among the group who could balance on the moving wheel of a hansom cab. The feat required a carriage moving at just the right pace, and a confederate to draw the driver’s attention to the right side of the vehicle, while Simon mounted the left wheel and took rapid steps on top of the turning rim. He dropped off the wheel onto the pavement as soon as the driver noticed him. Although the action didn’t last long, those watching loved the feat, and it always increased their earnings.

Simon shook his head. “Too dangerous.”

“Is that all you have for us tonight,” Frederick asked, “cowardice?”

Several of the boys watched to see what Simon would do. Their leader looked up and down the lane. His eyes fixed on a hansom cab approaching from the south. “Squint,” he said, “you catch the driver’s eye.”

Simon spit on the pavement at Frederick’s feet, then scampered with Quint into the road to meet up with the cab. As the carriage came close, Finn and Alex did their best to draw the attention of the crowd moving along the footway to the action in the street. Frederick saw the head of the hansom driver turn toward the right. Simon made his move, grabbing spokes near the rim and allowing their movement to pull him up onto the wheel. In a fluid motion Frederick had never been able to get right, Simon found his feet on the wheel rim, facing the direction the carriage traveled, and began walking backwards in rapid, mincing steps. Gasps, oohs, and aahs from the crowd on the footway drew the driver’s attention back to the left.

The man was quick. Seeing Simon, he struck him with his whip.

Frederick had seen Simon dodge whips many times, and didn’t want to believe his eyes as he watched his friend stumble. Simon’s face reflected confusion and frustration. His arms pinwheeled briefly as he fell in front of the wheel. The rim passed over Simon’s neck, and the carriage kept going. Those watching on the footway flooded into the road, surrounding the broken boy, and obscuring Frederick’s view. That was the last he saw of Simon.

Frederick experienced a pang of loss that reminded him so much of what he’d known when his mother died that he immediately pushed the feeling aside, and walked away.

~ ~ ~

In the days that followed, the Regal Rats looked at him with scorn. Even so, he tried to lead them. Their performances lacked a certain vitality. They had lost their spirit. None of them had the charisma to gather much of an audience. Frederick told himself that Simon’s death wasn’t his fault, but fearing that he deserved to be the next to fall maimed or dead, he quit the street company.

He returned to scavenging for a living. Trying to find a position in industry at age fifteen, he found that he’d become too large to perform most child labor, and wasn’t considered mature and trustworthy enough for an adult job. He worked as a pure finder, selling dog shit to tanneries, and tried his hand as a tosher in the sewers beneath the city. Once he’d had enough of going hungry, he lied about his age and joined the Royal Navy.

Cover_TheSurgeonsMate_ADismemoir_smallestThe excerpt above is from a part of The Surgeon’s Mate: A Dismemoir that takes place in the 1870s when childhood for the poor in London was certainly fraught with dangers, pains, and difficulties. By 1902, the likelihood of good in a pauper’s childhood had not become better, and was probably most often much worse.

At the end of the chapter 23 in The People of the Abyss, Jack London reveals his bigotry when he writes:

In London the slaughter of the innocents goes on on a scale more stupendous than any before in the history of the world.  And equally stupendous is the callousness of the people who believe in Christ, acknowledge God, and go to church regularly on Sunday.  For the rest of the week they riot about on the rents and profits which come to them from the East End stained with the blood of the children.  Also, at times, so peculiarly are they made, they will take half a million of these rents and profits and send it away to educate the black boys of the Soudan.

I’m not suggesting that he’s not right to point out the odd priority of helping people on the other side of the world before helping those who suffered at home, but by pointing out that those of Soudan are black he leaves a clear impression that he believes they are less worthy. Other bigoted statements the author made in his writing during his lifetime make it clear that he indeed was a racist.

—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

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