Historical Terror—Horror that Happened

Interior illustration for JACK THE RIPPER VICTIMS SERIES: THE DOUBLE EVENT

What Were They Thinking? How could the people of Jonestown drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid? How could Jim Jones ask them to do it?

How did Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. decide to fall on a grenade during fighting in Bougainville in WWII? Surely, he didn’t do it for the posthumously awarded Medal of Honor. No doubt he did it to save his fellow soldiers, but that’s a pat answer that leaves out all but the barest glimpse of the emotions involved. When it’s difficult to put myself into the shoes of the people making these sorts of mind-blowing decisions, their choices can become a fascination for me.

This post was originally developed as a presentation about writing historical fiction for the WordCrafters in Eugene writers’ conference under the title “What were They Thinking: The Drama Available in History.” The driving force of human emotion can be quite mysterious when we’re not present to see it in action. If the emotional context is missing, I am frequently befuddled by the decisions of my fellow human beings. History is filled with dramatic events that involve momentous and pivotal choices, some heroic, some dastardly, taken by human beings under great emotional strain. Those situations that ended in tragedy were often a result of decisions made, often hastily, based on a poor selection of choices, none of them good, or in the pursuit of a desperate agenda. Those that ended well often resulted from a persistent hope, faith, love, or just dumb luck.

Here are some of the types of choices human beings make that are difficult for me to understand on the surface.

1) Suicide (sometimes there’s no explanation left behind).
2) Maintaining relationships with those who are emotionally difficult, abusive, or dangerous.
3) Engaging in activities that are known to easily lead to addictions.
4) Unusual risk-taking or other self-destructive tendencies (sometimes referred to as a death wish).
5) Self sacrifice (a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others).
6) Courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
7) Striking out for the unknown with little but hope to sustain the effort (Christopher Columbus comes to mind).
8) Acting on intuition alone (trusting oneself to anticipate something of great import).
9) Willingness to pursue a course despite the obvious pain endured or caused to others.
10) Unwillingness to consider anything but one’s own agenda or beliefs in the face of obvious reality (Hitler comes to mind).
11) Collective belief systems that seem obviously harmful to others (South African Apartheid comes to mind).
12) Falling in love with highly flawed, even destructive individuals.
13) Hating individuals for reasons that seem to have little depth.
14) Scapegoatism.

For this paper, I’ll refer to these quirks of human decision-making as “fascinating choices.” Most of the choices seem unreasonable on the surface, so why should I trouble myself to understand? I’ve certainly made some weird, even bone-headed decisions in my life, but then, I know why, at least most of the time. If hindsight is 20 20, I should be able to evaluate others’ fascinating choices objectively, right? Of course not. If there’s no record left behind of what the actors involved were thinking and feeling, a lot of information is missing. Should I dismiss my astonishment with the notions that those who made the fascinating choices were insane, ill-informed, or merely bad at decision-making, some lucky and some unlucky? No! I think the fact that I’m left scratching my head in wonder is an indication that something particularly human and emotionally complex has occurred in these situations, something that holds great drama. Sometimes, we have the pat answer—he gave his life to save his fellow soldiers—but that doesn’t satisfy my curiosity. Was he motivated by patriotic fervor or was it a special relationship with those particular men that motivated him? If the latter, what events led to such strong feeling?

HistoricalFictionI’ve written five historical fiction novels in an effort to explore how certain seemingly unreasonable choices, or, as I’ve called them, fascinating choices, became reasonable for those who made them.

Three of the novels are part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Of Thimble and Threat, about the life of Catherine Eddowes, and Say Anything But Your Prayer, about the life of Elizabeth Stride have been released. A Brutal Chill in August, about the life of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, has not been released yet. Of Thimble and Threat and Say Anything But Your Prayers are available separately, but they’re also published together in the ebook volume Jack the Ripper Victims Series: The Double Event. All three novels are inspired by my fascination with what seems unreasonable choices on the part of the women involved. Surely, all three knew about the dangers hidden in a Whitechapel, London night. Since the Ripper killings had already begun and were widely reported, Eddowes and Stride would have been well-aware that a murderer stalked the city looking for victims, yet they were willing to stagger drunken along the streets at night, looking for strangers to pay them for sex. What sort of desperation leads one to take such risks to earn a crust? What level of disregard for oneself is required to allow that kind of vulnerability? People don’t set out in life to become drunkards and prostitutes, so what in their lives led to such a fall from grace? These are a few of the questions I’ve addressed in the novels. There being five canonical victims, I have two more novels to write for the series.

A Parliament of Crows is my historical fiction novel about the Wardlaw sisters (I changed their name to Mortlow in the novel). The sisters were the daughters of a

Cover art for A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS

Supreme Court Justice of South Carolina. They were born in the 1840s and ‘50s, and would have been teens during the Civil War. After the war, they stuck together. Though two married and had children, the sisters most often lived with each other, and apart from their families. They took positions in women’s colleges, teaching primarily social graces, and bilked those institutions of funds. Mourning clothes, including veils, seemed to be their perennial dress. They had homes in 3 or 4 states of the United States. The houses and apartments had virtually no furnishings. Taking out insurance policies on certain of their children, the sisters did them in for the payouts. The media circus of their trail at the beginning of the 20th century was only rivaled by that of Lizzy Borden’s almost a half century earlier. As they awaited trial, one went insane and was institutionalized, and one starved herself to death. I wanted to know how they saw the life they led as reasonable. How could it be? I had a lot of fun with that one.

Interior illustration for THE DOOR THAT FACED WEST

Finally, there’s The Door That Faced West, which involves dreadful events from early Tennessee and Kentucky history.

I am from Tennessee, and learning about my State’s history when younger, I happened upon the tale of Big and Little Harpe. They are consider some of the earliest serial or spree killers in America, having committed their crimes around the year 1800. As land pirates, they haunted the trails in what was at the time the frontier territory of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky, robbing and killing to earn a living. They had three wives who traveled with them. Life on the trail was tough, but being wanted, the men had little choice but to keep moving, and the women went with them. One of the wives, Sally Rice, was a minister’s daughter. What we know of the young woman from history is that she traveled the wilderness trails with the Harpes and was witness to terrible violence. The Harpes killed virtually everyone they robbed, at least fifty human beings. At one point, as the outlaws attempted to escape the law, the wives became separated from them. Instead of escaping the frightful life on the trail and seeking asylum in the nearest settlement, the three women traveled one hundred and eighty miles through the wilderness to the agreed-upon rendezvous point to be reunited with the Harpes. They really wanted to be with those guys!

When the wives were finally separated from the men for the last time, Sally Rice, the minister’s daughter, remarried, settled down, had children, and lived out her life in an unremarkable, seemingly normal fashion. That is virtually all history tells us about her. As far as we know she committed no violence herself, yet she had a role in terrible events, a witness at bare minimum.

I wanted to know what she was thinking. How had that life become reasonable? What sort of emotional gymnastics were necessary for her to live with herself? Having come from what people of the time considered a good, spiritual background, why would she endure the hardships of life on the trail with the horrible Harpes? How could she go on with a peaceful life after witnessing and benefitting from their most terrible deeds? What of regret, guilt, and shame did she experience or was she secretly filled with glee for what she’d seen and done? The possibility exists that she felt both extremes.

I wrote The Door that Faced West to explore through character and story development the emotional evolution of one who found herself in such a state of affairs. Adding up what’s known about the circumstances in her story provided me with some indication of the emotions experienced by those involved. Also helpful was knowing something about the environment in which those feelings emerged, the religious, political, and social beliefs and pressures of the time and place. Creating the characters to move through that environment and make the decisions that we know about helped me to understand. Once my characters were well-developed, I could see what rang true in their fascinating choices.

Inevitably, as I try to dramatize such events, I’ll get them wrong. I can only fictionalize, and, in the end, the telling of a good story has to be the priority, not telling the truth. I cannot know what people said or felt unless they expressed it somehow. Even then, their expressions may not hold the full truth. Still, the drama hinges most soundly on the fascinating choices. History as presented isn’t always the truth, but generally speaking, these choices are pivotal moments in time, after which things have changed. All evidence points to the fact that Marine Sergeant Herbert J. Thomas, Jr. did indeed purposely fall on that grenade. Afterward, he was dead and his fellow soldiers were still alive, and they knew why. Jim Jones didn’t have enough enforcers to compel all those people in Jonestown to drink the Kool-Aid. They willingly decided to die just because he asked them to.

What I get out of writing such a novel may not be an accurate portrayal of events, but I certainly find good drama and an answer to the question of how one might reasonably arrive at the fascinating choices in question. The writing itself is an incredible adventure of discovery.

—Alan M. Clark

Eugene, Oregon

Women and Children in the Time of The Door That Faced West

(In this post, I speak in general terms about women’s issues in the years 1799-1800. Exceptions to what I’ll note existed, but they were few and far between.)

The point-of-view character in my new novel, The Door That Faced West, (released in February by Lazy Fascist Press) is a sixteen-year-old woman named Sadie from North Carolina. She is escaping the abuse of her father. Since he has absolute authority over everything in her life and depends on her labor to get by, if she is to get away from him, she must go somewhere that he will not search for her. She must flee into the wilderness to the west, but she knows that to survive, she’ll need to be with people who know the territory and are tough enough to fight and defend against the dangers to be found there.

In the time in which the story takes place, children and unmarried women were frequently laborers. A child’s efforts could be employed by their parents or sold as a commodity to another master. Women had no legal identity as separate from that of their husbands or, if unmarried, the eldest male member of their families. A woman could not take part in a contract, own property, find her own job, own the wages she earned, or initiate any legal proceeding, such as a divorce or law suit. Many women lived their lives, working and bearing children under near-slavish conditions. If a woman was lucky, she received a primary education, but had no opportunities for schooling beyond that. She had no say in political or economic issues. If a woman was abused, she had little chance of redress unless some male person who had the leverage to do so took it upon himself to address the problem on her behalf. If she bore children, whether legitimate or illegitimate, the offspring belonged to the man considered to be the child’s father whether he was a fit parent or not.

These legally institutionalized attitudes toward children and women may be appalling to us now, but were a given in the eighteenth century and much of the nineteenth century, and had a destructive effect on countless lives. In The Door That Faced West, these issues play a major role in driving the plot and are demonstrated in the thinking and motivations of the characters of the novel.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Paperback at amazon.com- $12.95

Kindle Edition – $7.95

The Criminal Climate in The Door That Faced West

“The Brothers Harpe” copyright©2014 Alan M. Clark

Throughout life, hope for a better future can encourage us to strive for our own betterment and to contribute to that of our family, friends, and community, but the circumstances of our birth can dictate what options we have available. If the options are grim, we have few choices, and little hope, we can become opportunists with little regard for those around us and turn to criminal activity to better our lot in life.

The rather obvious statements I’ve made about human experience are as true today as they were 200 years ago, yet imagine a time when the circumstances of our birth had much more influence over what was possible for us in life. My new novel, The Door That Faced West, released by Lazy Fascist Press, takes place in America in such a time, the years 1799 and 1800. In that period, a class system reigned within American society, much as it did in Europe. The quality of one’s clothing and other possessions, appearance of health and physical development, accent, and vocabulary of speech were signals of one’s station in life. If an individual was seen to be a poor, then in that low station that one would most likely remain throughout life. The class system was an age-old contrivance that allowed those in higher stations, those with wealth, to support each other while jealously guarding their advantage. The disparity between the haves and have-nots was large. The majority of Americans were poor, underfed, over-worked, and willing to consider underhanded measures to better themselves. They were often so desperate for a better life, they were easy for those well-to-do to manipulate.

Nearly fifty percent of immigrants to America from Europe came as indentured servants. An indentured servant was one who was contracted to work for his or her master to pay off a debt. Many of those who came to America were paying off the debt of passage to the continent by serving a term of four or more years of work for the master, generally the captain of the ship that bore them across the sea. Once in America, the ship captains sold the indentures to employers and the servants then had new masters.

A master had nearly complete control over how the indentured was treated; the quality of food, shelter, and clothing provided, and control over the servant’s hours of rest and labor. Largely, that treatment was not subject to review or questioning by others. Indentured servants mistreated by their masters frequently ran away and became wanted. Newspapers advertised rewards for their capture and return. If a person with an appearance of being poor arrived in a community, any concerned male citizen could stop and question the individual. If the person was found to be an indentured servant, they were returned to their master. Indentured servitude could be virtual slavery except for the fact that the contracts defined a time limit for service.

Indentured servitude was only one of several methods of binding the poor to highly controlled positions of labor. Conditions for those in apprenticeships were frequently not much better. If greedy, those with power over other’s lives could push their charges to the breaking point in an attempt to gain as much service as possible.

Some born into poor families sought to raise their social status by gaining glory in the military. A bold man who acquitted himself heroically on the field of battle could earn respect and thereby rise to a somewhat better station. The fear existed that life could be cut short in battle, however, and the life of a soldier was often extremely harsh. Frequently men were pushed too hard and desertion was common.

The labor of many wives and children was considered of primary importance in helping a family to survive. A hard man, husband, father or both, much like a greedy master, might work his family to the bone to make ends meet. One generation of cruelty often begat a similar one.

For the poor, the potential for suffering inhumanity in most walks of life was high, much of the callousness institutionalized as appropriate and important aspect of maintaining order and discipline. Under harsh conditions, desperation drove many individuals to criminal acts in order to survive. To hide from those pursuing them for their crimes or their masters, many fled into territories where the law was less likely to find them.

The vastness of the wilderness of the new states of Tennessee and Kentucky in the years in which The Door That Faced West takes place, 1799 and 1800, was intimidating to most Americans, yet could be a haven for criminals. To some outlaws, it was a playground. The dense, seemingly endless forest that stretched from the east coast to the Mississippi and beyond was a dangerous area in which human lives were frequently lost due to exposure to the elements, accidents, or deadly encounters with forest animals or Indians. The best land for hunting, much of middle Tennessee and Kentucky, was sacred to the Indians, and they were willing to kill to defend it. Many of the non-indigenous persons who entered that forest to hunt, to carve out a home, to help develop a new settlement, or merely to explore, were never heard from again, lost without a trace. A few more lives lost to the activities of brigands in the forest was hardly noticed.

Inevitably, settlements sprang up along rivers and well-worn animal and Indian traces, but the going was rough. The forest was largely uninterrupted in the eastern half of the continent, and had never been logged. The trees were massive, blocking out much of the light and making farming difficult if not impossible. Under the forest canopy, sometimes hidden beneath the undergrowth as well, were swamps that might be the size of a small pond or cover hundreds of square miles in area. These bogs were rimmed with canebrakes that were nearly impossible to penetrate. Consequently, what traffic there was through the wilderness—those traveling for personal reasons or involved in commerce—was often funneled along the well-worn paths. Criminals had only to wait, hidden in the forest along the traces, until victims happened along. Leaving no witnesses became a standard for seasoned footpads since the immensity of the forest allowed bodies to be easily hidden. Frequently the victims were never found and countless murders during the period went unpunished.

Within settlements, law and order was loosely held by those who appeared tough enough to do the job. Often those were men with criminal backgrounds, willing to do whatever they thought they could get away with to better their positions. Facing possible death in order to fight crime was not at the top of their agenda.

Communication between settlements was poor. Going through the rumor mill as it travelled, information communicated between settlements was often unreliable. With a few outrageous acts, an outlaw’s persona could become larger than life and twice as intimidating within a short time.

The environment described in this post, both geographical and societal, is the landscape in which The Door That Faced West takes place; one in which a couple of ruthless, opportunistic brothers with bloodlust might rampage with impunity for an extended length of time, and, indeed, they did.

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Paperback at amazon.com- $12.95

Kindle Edition – $7.95

New Novel – THE DOOR THAT FACED WEST


My latest novel, The Door That Faced West, is out now from Lazy Fascist Press.

Here’s what people are saying about it:

“It is not hyperbole to say that Alan M. Clark’s The Door That Faced West left me absolutely stunned. A thoughtfully haunting blend of historical fiction and thriller, this is one of Clark’s best works to date, across any medium. Simply amazing, and undoubtedly one of the best books you’ll read this year.”

Brian Keene, bestselling author of The Rising and Ghoul

Alan M. Clark is a master of the dreadful. The Door That Faced West through Lazy Fascist Press is absolutely brutal. Definitely not to be missed.

Molly Tanzer, author of A Pretty Mouth and Rumbullion and Other Liminal Libations

The Door That Faced West opened, and I was fast on the trail with savage murderers, the Harpe Brothers. In the Post-Revolutionary War Era, they were infamous marauders attacking and killing travelers between towns on their way to “The Wilderness” – The West. Through the eyes of the downtrodden women who followed them willingly to escape the abuse from their fathers, Alan M. Clark tells a powerful tale of choosing the lesser of two evils and does it to perfection.”

Rena Mason, author of The Evolutionist and East End Girls

Dilation Exercise 93

In an effort to promote my new novel, The Door That Faced West, due for release in February 2014 from Lazy Fascist Press, I created the Dilation Exercise below based on the story. The novel is inspired by the earliest known American serial killers, the Harpe brothers, Wiley and Micajah, and the three wives they shared. Comments are welcome, but please do not expand on this storyline.

Although she’d made the decision to push Suesanna to her death the first time they’d shared the duty on the bluff, Sadie couldn’t follow through because she didn’t want the infant the woman carried to suffer.

The second time the two shared the duty, for a noon to sunset shift, the older woman left her child with Bett.

Artwork: “Bluff” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Interior illustraion for The Door that Faced West (The artwork will appear in black and white in the paperback book)

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Dilation Exercise 92

In an effort to promote my new novel, The Door That Faced West, due for release in February 2014 from Lazy Fascist Press, I created the Dilation Exercise below based on the story. The novel is inspired by the earliest known American serial killers, the Harpe brothers, Wiley and Micajah, and the three wives they shared. Comments are welcome, but please do not expand on this storyline.

Because the Harpes had created havoc with such ferocity and gotten away with the violence for so long over a vast wilderness territory, the people of the frontier began to believe the brothers were more powerful than ordinary men.

The danger seemed to escalate as the rumor mill attributed all unsolved crimes within the territory to the Harpes, and a common, unreasoning fear, suggesting that the brothers were supernatural beings, kept honest folks from fighting back.

Artwork: “Harpe Party” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Interior illustraion for The Door that Faced West (The artwork will appear in black and white in the paperback book)

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon

Dilation Exercise 91

In an effort to promote my new novel, The Door That Faced West, due for release in February 2014 from Lazy Fascist Press, I created the Dilation Exercise below based on the story. The novel is inspired by the earliest known American serial killers, the Harpe brothers, Wiley and Micajah, and the three wives they shared. Comments are welcome, but please do not expand on this storyline.

After what the Harpes had done to him, Sadie hadn’t expected to see the man who tried to molest her ever again.

But here Mose was, tangled in her drift line at the bottom of the river, turning slowly in the current as if dancing an ominous and wicked jig.

Artwork: “Wicked Jig” copyright © 2013 Alan M. Clark. Interior illustration for The Door that Faced West (The artwork will appear in black and white in the paperback book)

—Alan M. Clark
Eugene, Oregon