Lucy’s grandmother may be a witch, her school’s lunch lady might be a murderer, and a mysterious figure stalks her in the small South Carolina town where she lives. The chapters explore themes of mental illness, religion, sexual orientation, witchcraft, and death through the eyes of this plucky girl growing up in a haunted house in the 1960’s. Charming, provocative, funny, and creepy as Hell, Night Birds will shake you up before leaving you all warm and fuzzy inside.
First Chapter of Night Birds
Daddy called me Rooster, since most mornings he found me awake when he arose. I was a bird, but not that one. No, I was a night owl, up most of the dark hours watching and listening in the quiet.
I didn’t start out that way. I’d begun in life sleeping soundly.
What troubled my sleep started with the steam whistle at the cotton mill where my father worked. Normally it blew at shift changes, 8AM and 4PM. If the whistle sounded any other time, folks sat up and took notice, because that meant something terrible had happened.
The mill had a long history of terrible things happening. The worst stories that went around town had always been about accidents at the mill. Of course they grew more dreadful still as the tales passed from one child to another on the playground, around campfires, and under the bleachers at little league games.
The first time I truly noticed the whistle, I was five and knew nothing of these legends. The moment the sound startled me, a big shadow crept over my backyard and I looked up. A blimp, I would later learn, but in that moment the shadow belonged to a silver monster in the sky, and the whistle had been its scream. As the thing drew closer, I heard an ominous droning. I scrambled for cover under my porch. The drone got louder, then changed pitch, moving off into the distance.
I saw movement in the corner of my eye, something pale among the short brick columns supporting the house. A girl, about my size. She wore a pink sack, more like a nightgown than a dress. What was she doing under my house? Maybe she was playing, and I could join in. She stared at me with big, dark eyes in the palest face I’d ever seen.
“Little girl,” I called out, and made my way on hands and knees between the columns through the sand, sticks, and leaves that had been blown under the house. My knee pressed down on something sharp and I stopped to look. A toy car, one of my brother’s, I guessed.
When I looked back up, I could not see the girl. Searching for her, I crawled forward, calling out “Hello? Little girl?”
I heard my parents’ muffled voices and crawled to a spot directly under the kitchen where, once before, I’d listened to a conversation between Mama and Ruth, the woman hired to help around the house.
“I hate that sound,” I heard Mama say sharply. “I nearly jump out of my skin every time it blows.”
I thought she meant the silver monster’s scream, and wondered if she’d become frightened like I had.
“Hate it all you want,” Daddy said, “but I’m the one who has to go down there. Whatever has happened is not going to be pretty.”
He wasn’t afraid! His footsteps crossed the floor to the door, then the back porch, and crunched into the drive as he hurried to his car. Maybe he would go scare the monster away. Dust from his hasty departure blew under the house, choking me. I had to get out of there.
I’d forgotten all about the strange girl.
Inside the house, I found Mama staring out the kitchen window. She had a troubled look, standing with her hands tightly gripping her elbows.
“What’s wrong, Mama?”
She started, rubbed her hands hard against her apron.
“Is Daddy gonna be okay?”
“Yes, he’ll take care of it.” she said, her voice sounding far away. “Go wash your hands for lunch.”
Just to see her in such a swivet, I knew I should be troubled, but I also knew Daddy would fix everything. He always did.
Standing at the bathroom sink, I rolled the soap in my hands and thought about the little girl under the house. Though she sure looked strange, I’d be looking for her to play with first chance.
When Daddy came home and we sat for dinner, I asked him about the screaming sky monster.
“Is that a cartoon?” he asked.
“No, It’s in the sky.”
“Oh, an airplane,” he said.
Mama laughed, said, “You have quite an imagination, and kissed me on the head.
Mama had smiled at me, so I knew she wasn’t afraid anymore.
All seemed right with the world again.
~ ~ ~
Some weeks later, at Mrs. Eunice Cleary’s house, I sat in the waiting room while she finished giving a piano lesson to the student ahead of me. I winced at each sour note while thumbing through a comic book that became more frightening with each new page. I’d picked it because I knew the Archie ones by heart, and had found all the hidden objects in the one copy of Highlights. Turning the page, I discovered a picture of a woman on a bed, her mouth wide in a terrified scream, as snakes slithered out from between her legs. I wadded the comic book up and shoved it under the couch cushion. Wiping my hands on my shorts, I did my best to forget what I’d seen. Somehow I knew I wasn’t meant to see that, and had to wonder how it had gotten there. I didn’t look at the student leaving, embarrassed at the thought that he might know what I’d seen.
My turn to enter the music room. Mrs. Cleary sat in her chair the same as always, but she hunched oddly, as if shrinking into its cushions. Red rimmed her eyes. The room smelled sweetly of oranges. She set down the orange she’d been peeling when I entered and wiped her hands on a napkin alongside a bowl of peels. Another bowl held several oranges. Someone had eaten a lot of the fruit. Mrs. Eunice blew her runny nose into her napkin.
“Would you like one, dear?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” I said, “I’ll get sticky on your piano.”
“Of course,” she said, “what am I thinking?” She bent over and wept, her shoulders shaking.
I stood there not knowing what to do. Had I done something wrong? Should I have taken the orange?
She mopped at her face, sat upright with a weak smile, and patted the piano bench. “Sit down, child. Despite our heartaches, we must all carry on.”
What heartache did we suffer? I wondered. Then the thought occurred that she meant strictly her own heartache.
“Please open your book to the new lesson.”
I thumbed past the pages with gummed, gold stars on them to the new piece I’d been practicing at home.
Before I’d played a single note, the cuckoo clock’s bird called four times from out in the waiting room, followed by the scream of the silver sky monster.
Mrs. Cleary cried out, buried her face in her napkin, and started weeping again.
I looked toward the window. Though I’d heard its scream a few times, I hadn’t seen the monster or its shadow since the day I hid under the house and saw the pale girl. Hidden indoors, I felt much safer.
“Dear child,” she said. “I-I’m so sorry, but I must go lie down.”
I took her sticky hands in mine and looked her in the eye. “It’s all right,” I said, trying to calm her. “It won’t come after us. It’ll just fly on by.”
She stared at me for a moment as if I wasn’t there, then took her hands back, sniffed, and said, “You may sit in the waiting room until your father arrives.” She hurried from the room.
Left with just imagination to answer my questions, I had to wonder if the monster had come after her before, maybe chased her. I looked around the room, saw the oranges and peels, Mrs. Cleary’s discarded napkin. She’d left the door to the rest of the house open. She never allowed that. What was going on? Maybe she’d eaten too many oranges. I ate too many plums once and pooped my pants. Maybe something like that had happened and she was embarrassed.
Remembering the horrible comic, I decided I’d rather wait for Daddy on the doorstep. Outside, to my surprise, I found him leaning against our car in the drive. Seeing me, he looked at his watch, dropped his cigarette, and snuffed it out with his foot.
“Ready to go early, huh, Rooster?”
“She heard the monster and got all upset.”
He frowned, turned his eyes to Mrs. Cleary’s door and back to me. “I see.”
He opened the car door. I gave him my lesson book, slid across the seat to my side, and we started for home; away from the horrible comic, the smell of oranges, and Mrs. Cleary’s mysterious heartache. Unsettled, I huddled into myself, my knees drawn up to my chest, my hands bunched up under my chin. I would have liked to hug Daddy, but I couldn’t while he drove the car. My summer clothes felt too thin, the sun too bright.
I felt Daddy looking at me. He reached over, opened the glove box, and pulled out my Bunny, the stuffed one I’d had since before I could remember. I grabbed the toy and held it tight against me, resting my chin between its ears.
“You’ll have to forgive your piano teacher,” Daddy said, glancing at me with an earnest look, “She lost her husband a few weeks ago.”
“Lost him? Did the monster in the sky get him?”
He gave me a funny look, then shook his head, “No, Rooster, he was in an accident at the mill.”
“Will he be found?”
“No, honey, it’s not the same kind of lost. He’s passed away, gone to heaven.”
“That’s forever, right?”
“Yes, and that’s why she’s so sad.”
Not understanding, I grew quiet and nuzzled bunny tighter. The familiar smell of the stuffed animal rose up and helped ease my mind.
Daddy glanced at me once, twice, and said, “all living creatures pass away sometime.”
“Well, not quite all.”
He meant that animals would not go to heaven. We’d had a conversation about that once before, one I didn’t like.
Thinking about how Bunny would never leave me to go to heaven or anywhere else gave me comfort. Because the stuffed animal wasn’t exactly alive, it would never die.
But I could lose Bunny, accidentally leave it somewhere. Imagining Bunny lost and alone someplace dark and dreary brought back all my unease.
The little lost girl under the house sprang to mind. Had she been misplaced?
And how did I know she was lost?
(End of first chapter of Night Birds)
The novel is coming soon from IFD Publishing, and will be available in paperback and ebooks from all major online retailers
(Greydogtales has kindly allowed this blog post to appear here on The River’s Edge Blog.)
Today’s special – an extensive interview with Alan M Clark, award-winning artist and writer, on his recent novel Fallen Giants of the Points (IFD Publishing, 2021), something which should be of interest to novel writers in general, and those who use historical settings in particular.
Most readers will know Alan from his Jack the Ripper Victims series, widely praised for its focus on the real women of Whitechapel in the 1880s, where their lives, their hopes and failures, are what truly matters – not the murderer. His latest book, set some forty years before that terrible autumn and a continent away, revisits poverty and deprivation to commence a new and epic journey:
A novel inspired in part by the early gangs of New York, this sprawling adventure is also a western, a coming of age story, and a tale of redemption that carries readers from the streets of infamous Five Points, New York City in the 1840s to Gold Rush era San Francisco. Told from the point of view of two dauntless orphaned children, Alta Mae and Cedric…
It’s a rattling good read, skillfully done – we dipped in from curiosity, but found ourselves reading the whole thing through, and glad we did. So we cornered Alan and got the full story what lay behind the book – his approach, his inspirations, and his thoughts on some of the issues raised.
greydog: Alan, welcome back to greydogtales. First of all, although we’re most familiar with your powerful late Victorian fiction set in England, Fallen Giants seems to fall within your ‘Early Americana’ body of work, one which includes The Door that Faced West and A Parliament of Crows. Both of those books were inspired by true events –Fallen Giants is, as far as we know, purely fictional, albeit rich with genuine period detail and historical themes. What inspired you to take this one on?
alan: I started out wanting to write a novel set, at least in part, in The Old Brewery in Five Points, New York City. The place has a role in Martin Scorsese’s film, The Gangs of New York, but we get mere glimpses of it, and much of its character is missing. For years, I’d been fascinated with The Old Brewery’s history as a haven for criminals and the extremely squalid nature of the place as a tenement. While the Old Brewery was a brewery, the three-story structure had been expanded with numerous additions and ended up looking like several structures jammed haphazardly together. It became a tenement some time in the 1830s.
The descriptions of the place as a tenement beggar belief—the numbers of people residing there, the debauchery, the murder rate on the premises—yet all descriptions I’ve found, though from different sources and worded differently, seem to be fairly consistent. To rid the city of the place, a charity bought it and razed it to the ground. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they’d then sown that ground with salt to prevent another crop of criminals from growing there. If they did, it didn’t work—that part of New York City has bred some of the worst gang violence in history.
So then I had to bone up on the criminal and political gangs of the 1840s—the time period of my story—in and around Five Points. The Bowery Boys and other Protestant, nativist gangs caught my attention because their politics were so similar to that of the MAGA crowd of today: Their bigotries, their use of outrageous conspiracy theories, and just bald-faced lies to manipulate people, to divide and conquer politically. In the decades following the 1840s, their politics would go a long way toward building the Know Nothing Party, a nationalist group of some power in the late 19th century.
I discovered that members of the nativist gangs of New York joined up to fight the Mexicans in California during the Mexican-American War. The notion of Manifest Destiny had Americans enthralled in that time, and the idea of westward expansion had become so popular that the small number of Mexicans on the West Coast didn’t stand a chance of keeping the land they’d claimed as their own. Gold was discovered near the end of hostilities. When the war ended, and the New York gang members were mustered out of service, some chose to stay in California. Many Mexican civilians remained as well. Some of the white, Protestant Americans, arriving by the day along the California Trail during the Gold Rush, didn’t want to share California with the brown, Catholic, Spanish-speaking people. The Nativist Gang members who had stayed saw an opportunity in that. They formed a new gang called the Hounds, and hired themselves out to merchants and politicians as a private security force to run the Mexican’s out of the area.
With all that, I decided I’d found the historical bones of the tale I wanted to tell. Now I just had to create characters to move around in it and help me “see” the terrain of that history and the story that might unfold within it.
greydog: How did you settle on telling the tale from the point of view of two children, the girl, Alta Mae, and her younger brother, Cedric, rather than the adults?
alan: I needed characters that could represent young America herself. The orphaned children emerge from the cultural melting pot of New York City. They are innocents in a lot of ways, not worldly, but canny children of the streets with pluck. Like many orphaned children of that time, they were concerned with keeping their liberty rather than working in the service of others, either as adopted children required to labor for a household or farm, or sold through contract as labor for some industry. They engage in criminal behavior to survive on the street, but are not heartless and cruel. Many of those aspects of their characters speak to me of early Americans in general, a downtrodden and flawed but capable bunch, with strange notions about gaining and keeping their liberty, a sizable share of them with criminal backgrounds.
greydog: The children are as young as five and seven when the story begins. What was it like trying to depict a child’s thinking and motivations? Presumably you were able to draw on the fact that children exposed to such harsh conditions had to develop a degree of ‘know-how’ just to survive – more than sheltered or advantaged children.
alan: Yes, I think we like and respect them because they are toughened enough by their experience growing up in Five Points to be rather fearless. That toughness was handy while considering what they’d be willing to do in dire circumstances, of which there are many in the narrative.
In writing from a child’s perspective, I try to narrow the scope of my understanding of what they encounter, as if I only have their experience to draw on. They make simpler connection in understanding than I might, ones that are often naive, or even laughable, depending on their age. In communicating with others, they more often take people literally. Here’s an exchange of dialogue that might demonstrate that last idea:
Adult: “Please accept my condolences.”
Child: Not knowing what condolences were, I thought he would hand me something. Like a goosecap, I just stood there looking at him, waiting. A moment passed before he nodded and walked away.
Since they age by several years in the course of the narrative, I had to adjust my approach to depicting them as the tale progressed, to allow for the greater understanding that they gain over time.
greydog: The chapters alternate between the point of view of Alta Mae and that of Cedric. Did this arise as a method of revealing different aspects of the overall story, or for other reasons—and were you ever tempted to add in chapters seen through the older brother Egan’s eyes?
alan:I was never tempted to add chapters from Egan’s POV. He, too, is an orphan, but several years older and not at all the innocent that his younger siblings are.
Bouncing back and forth between Alta Mae and Cedric, I could have two views of the same thing if needed, I could show differences in their personalities, and how they could be drawn together as fiercely loyal allies, or separated as enemies, at least temporarily, with a sense of betrayal. Having survived together on the streets since earliest childhood, they had naturally developed resentments toward each other. The hard feelings that come between them threaten their chances of reaching shared goals—just another bit of conflict thrown into the mix to make the drama multi-layered, and human.
greydog: The novel starts out with the children believing their parents are giants composed of animated clusters of buildings. It’s a powerful piece of imagery. What inspired that aspect, and how did you set out to make it believable?
alan:Fallen giants as those who were looked up to but have fallen from grace is a key theme explored in the novel, so why not take it literally as well, I thought.
My own weird beliefs when young told me it was plausible that children of five and seven might believe such things. And the “giants” thing was actually inspired by my own experience—I was maybe five when my grandparents took my brother and me to a baseball game. The grownups talked up how exciting it would be to see the Giants play—this was when the Giants were a New York team. I suppose I didn’t think too hard about what the Giants were like until we got to Shea Stadium and I saw the high ceilings. Then I became afraid, because I knew we were truly going to be exposed to real giants. That is a hazy memory, but an indelible one.
To make that believable in the novel, I show the conversation in which Egan presents the lie. Here it is from Cedric’s memory (abbreviated):
“Our Ma were a giant prostitute,” Egan told us. “She died shortly after giving birth to you, Cedric, and fell dead along Little Water Street. People took up inside her.”
“They lived inside her?” Alta Mae asked.
“Yes—still do—but you have to understand she were made of houses. We’ve visited her corpse many times. It now looks like houses along a dead end.” (In that day, several houses in a row under the same landlord might be considered one tenement)
“The Cow Bay tenement?” she asked, tilting her head this way and that.
Alta Mae gave Egan a withering look, her lips drawn back. “She couldn’t move if she were houses.”
“Little girl,” he said with a big, loving smile, “there are more things possible than you’ve known or seen in your short life.”
She shook her head slowly, as if unsure.
Egan nodded, his face open and truthful, or so it seemed.
Alta Mae frowned, squinted at the bright sky, then nodded to show she understood.
And, so, I took his words as true.
Egan tells them that their father, also dead, was a drunkard and is the tenement known as the Old Brewery. Alta Mae struggles to understand how that’s possible and finally works it out in her head:
I remember some of how I’d found my own truth in his lie. Must have been six years old when I saw the head of a figure in each of two windows set close together in the Old Brewery’s main building. As they moved about, as if together, I thought of them as Papa’s blinkers looking out at me. Never mind he was supposed to be dead. Two sets of five privies along the North side became Papa’s toes. I pictured him wiggling them and startling folks inside doing their business. The long brick parts, set close together with a corridor between, I had as his legs. Along the west side, a couple of splintered sheds, with boards poking out this way and that became his hands and fingers. In the largest chamber, which I knew to be his gut and chest, stood the old abandoned brewing equipage: a giant copper tank, vats, and barrels. They had to be Papa’s bread bag, sweetmeats, and giblets.
Here’s an example of one of several dreams Alta Mae has in which her parents are alive and moving around:
Sometimes folks fell out of Ma. Saw a cove and his prostitute, in the midst of passionate missionary hogmagundy, fall from a window in the house of her bosom. Dreamt once that Ma and Papa paused to kiss, and a man ran up to a tap in Papa’s ankle and drew off a pail of whiskey.They’re just the sad fancies of a girl who longed to know her parents, I suppose.
Because they believed the untruth at such an early age, they cannot shake it from their imaginations later, even when they know better. This is in part because, as orphans, they have a deep need to know something of their origins.
greydog:The narrative and the dialogue are peppered with slang. How much research did that take, and how did you get it to blend in?
alan:People of America in the mid 19th Century would not likely say, “How cute is that?” as a rhetorical question, but they would have their own interesting expressions. The slang is much like any other elements that tells the audience they are not in Kansas anymore. Of course, getting the atmosphere of the period right helps the audience to more easily imagine the time and circumstances in the story. The trick of letting the audience in on the meaning of slang terms is making it clear through inference. Here’s an example using the slang term “dimber:”
They thought me a boy. And why shouldn’t they? I wasn’t a particularly dimber girl. Dressing as I did, in what rags I could find to keep warm, woolen cap on my head, pulled down over my hair, I’d hidden what prettiness I may have had.
With almost a decade of writing my Jack the Ripper Victims Series, I’d used in dialogue a lot of British slang, that of the sea faring, that from the streets of London—the thieve’s cant, among others. I knew that early New York City, much of it settled by English immigrants, had slang that borrowed a lot from those same sources. I found a glossary of the slang used in New York City in the time period of my tale. Here’s what I put in the front of the book to explain (abbreviated):
Many slang terms appear in this book. The reader can find most of it defined in a book published in 1849, Vocabulum, or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, by George W. Matsell. The book is available for free in a Project Gutenberg ebook.
George W. Matsell was the first New York City Police Commissioner. He wrote the dictionary of American Thieves’ cant to make certain his police officers understood what was being said on the streets, as many criminals spoke to one another while assuming others would not understand their slang.
History and Prejudice
greydog: The young characters are unreliable and flawed narrators, who must change and grow with the events in the tale. Why did you burden them with so many outrageous untruths and bigotries?
alan:The flaws in their understanding are important since I wanted to demonstrate the changes that came over them with time and experience in the wider world; ones that parallel many of the changes that came to America, herself, with time.
Egan is eight years older than Alta Mae, and represents a father figure for his younger siblings. At first, he is with them on the streets. When an adolescent, he hooks up with the Bowery Boys as a scout and messenger. By this association, he is afforded comforts that Alta Mae and Cedric are not. He gets to sleep in a shed, while they have to brave the New York winter nights. Egan still does his best to help them get by, but he is slowly moving away from then, trying to make his life better. He lies a lot, and with the gullibility of youth and their respect for him as patriarch, Alta Mae and Cedric are easy to manipulate. He has a bit of fun with seeing what they’d believe. He also fills them with the bigotries and anti-immigrant world views of the nativist Bowery Boys to whom he is in thrall.
greydog: Speaking of bigotries, the anti-Catholic sentiments of some characters are mentioned prominently, echoing factual events such as the earlier nativist riots in America, and those later clashes featured in Asbury’s 1927 book The Gangs of New York (filmed in 2002). Such prejudice continued well into the twentieth century—did you find this a difficult issue to cover?
alan:Not really. The anti-Catholic prejudice is perhaps less a factor in the U.S. today. I hope so. In my life, I can only remember one person ever saying anything to me directly that was disparaging about another just because of their catholic faith. Still, like other bigotries, it’s basic xenophobia, and comes partly from our human need to find scapegoats for our fear and anger. Bigotry is one of the major themes explored in the novel.
greydog: Without giving too much away, Fallen Giants as a whole touches on many social justice issues with which we deal today, and the ending includes a degree of positivity. The social construct of ‘race’—and its artificiality—is also an important factor. What did you hope to accomplish with that?
alan:Because I found so many parallels between the nativist gang members in the 19th century and the nationalists encouraged by the last United States presidential administration, I looked for ways to give a haunting reflection from our past of the silent and not-so-silent religious bigotries and racism so prevalent in our politics and on our streets today.
In my life, I have a family member who once had a strong racist streak instilled in earliest childhood. Through life experience and extensive exposure to the race that person apposed, the racism was erased, as far as I can tell. Witnessing that was for me a very hopeful sign of the sort of change human beings are capable of. I wanted to demonstrate that transformation in characters in the novel, and to do it in an emotionally persuasive manner to project that hope. I think we desperately need that right now.
greydog: We’ll admit that we hadn’t expected that a story of the slums and oppression on the East Coast would turn into a western adventure and a suspense-filled tale of the great wagon trains, even referencing the Donner Party. What made you decide to splice these two together and form a whole?
alan:When I set out to write the novel, I didn’t intend to write a gangs of New York/western book. But I always allow the history of my settings to take me for a ride. Truly, the notion of it becoming a western came along when I saw that Egan, a Bowery Boy, might have been among those nativist gang members who joined up to fight the Mexicans in California. It was then that I also saw the arch of the story and its pertinence to the awful politics of our time. I’d already conceived my main characters. I knew Egan wanted out from under the responsibility of taking care of his younger siblings. Of course, characters talk to a writer, and this one told me he wanted to join up for the fight, get away from New York, and start a new life. Alta Mae and Cedric told me they’d follow because they were absolutely dependent on him. The vastness of the North American continent loomed in my imagination as an impenetrable wilderness to have to depict. I was seriously frightened by the prospect of writing that story, but decided I needed the adventure before I got too old to do it, and so I set out.
greydog: Finally, as we mentioned at the start the bulk of your work is historical fiction. What fascinates you about using history as a stage?
alan:Part of it is that ride I just referred to. Researching a historical setting will throw many things in a writer’s path, some that work, some that don’t, but all are considered. While developing the plot for Fallen Giants of the Points, research turned up many wonderful elements to include in the novel, things I would not have thought up on my own. The discovery possible in researching history is limitless. Exploration and discovery in creative process are what makes art, whether visual art or writing, fun for me.
greydog: Many thanks for joining us again, Alan M Clark.
I realized a number of things while reading this novel. One is that it’s been too long since a book left me teary eyed. Another is that I’m jealous as hell of what Alan M. Clark has pulled off here. You may know him for the multitude of illustrations and covers he produces at a preternatural pace—for his own books and many others—or maybe you’re familiar with his supernatural fiction. Well, what Clark invites you to embark upon with Fallen Giants of the Points is a work of literary artistry that alternates between hopeful realism and brutal naturalism. (No interior illustrations this time, though he is responsible for the amazing cover image)
It’s hard to know what to expect from Clark, in other words, except for quality. And rest assured, he’s delivered that once again, by the wagon load. In a perfect blend of enviable writing and forward motion, Fallen Giants starts out as a story about an orphaned pair of siblings doing what they can to get by in mid-nineteenth-century New York, but it quickly turns into an adventure that leads the brother and sister (Cedric and Alta Mae) across the country in search of a better life in California. It also becomes more and more a chronicle of America’s racist roots with each mile they cover by wagon train—and, ultimately, a powerful tale of forgiveness.
Cedric and Alta Mae are adults as they reflect back on the events of the novel, through alternating first-person chapters that serve as a collaborative effort on their part to put down a recollection of their early years. This has the effect of deepening our understanding not only of the motivations behind much of the action of the story, but also of the psychological makeup of the two principal characters. A Dickensian nightmare, complete with glimpses of the celebratory strain that marks so much of that writer’s work, Fallen Giants reads like a classic work of American literature. What more incentive can I give for you to read this book? Only tell me and I’ll endorse the notion.
On a purely fun note, anyone who has been enjoying the Matthew Corbett novels of Robert McCammon should relish the idea of fast-forwarding from the eighteenth-century setting of those books to the slightly more recent Big Apple of Clark’s imaginings. Many things changed in the city during that interval, of course, but maybe on the surface more than anything, for many of the same challenges must have existed in the two periods. In the case of both McCammon and Clark, such details are thoroughly and lovingly researched, and wrought.
Read. This. Book.
Posted with the permission of Pete Mesling, author of Jagged Edges & Moving Parts, The Portable Nine, and the forthcoming The Wages of Crime. The review originally appeared on his blog at petemesling.com
The following article was written by my grandfather, Dr. Sam Lillard Clark, who was an Associate Professor of Anatomy (1930-1937), and Head of the Anatomy Department (1937 to 1960) at Vanderbilt University. He was on the Tennessee State Anatomical Board, a group charged with the task of ensuring that the medical schools of the State had sufficient cadavers. Dr. Clark called it the “Board Stiff.” —Alan M. Clark
MEDICAL EDUCATION FROM THE GROUND UP
OUR LATE RESURRECTION MEN
Presented to the Old Oak Club, February 1945
Perhaps this paper should be begun with the comment of Hamlet’s father:
“I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres and each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porcupine”
And since I am not “Forbid to tell the secrets” of the trade of resurrectionists I should copy the manner of a well-known if not popular radio program, that begins with the statement “We warn you quietly but earnestly to turn off your radio right now!”
So at this time as we hear a few words from the sponsor (this paper comes to you through the courtesy of the Anatomical Board – or as the French might, but do not, put it, The Board Stiff) – If you do not take your hat and go home I shall assume no further responsibility for the consequences. I can recommend Dr. Wm. F. Orr, however, as one who can “minister to a mind diseased” and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the “stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs heavy on the heart”.
You might put his telephone down (AL 4-5411) for future reference if you insist on staying.
Instruction in Medicine is no doubt almost as ancient as the race. Since Chiron the Centaur, the son of Chronos, initiated Aesculapius into the mysteries of the Healing Art, man has through most gradual stages developed it into a science, meanwhile not forgetting the art. The study of medicine as we know it began its development in connection with the shrines of Aesculatius on the Grecian Island of Cos and of Rhodes, and of Cnidos, lead by the renowned Hippocrates, whose oath, it is popularly believed, every finished doctor is made to take before being given a degree and a license. Contributions to medicine by the Arabs, the Egyptians, the Chinese and the other civilizations were absorbed until, at about the time of Christ, the knowledge of medicine was fairly well along.
Near that time Galen set down most of what was known just in time for it to be ensnared by the remarkable influences that froze the knowledge and beliefs of people for 1200-1400 years. Galen’s description of Human Anatomy was regarded as scriptural, although much of it was on the morphology of animals, learned partly by Galen’s actual investigations and partly by the experience of priests and the altar attendants in the auguries.
With the general awakening in many fields, Vesalius, in the 15th Century at Padua, put aside the writings of Galen, which the Professor of Anatomy had been in the habit of reading from his elevated chair while the barber surgeon demonstrated the Anatomy on the table at a much lower level, to the students who need not even soil their hands.
Vesalius, seeing things no one had tried to see for 1400 years, dragged to the table with him all subsequent generations of medical students. Material for dissection was first provided by the state in Italy from the bodies of condemned criminals, but with all the young students crowding, as it were, into the amphitheater crying “let me see,” the occasional official execution was too rare.
Though the church frowned upon dissection of the body, man’s curiosity was too great to be thwarted. With the rapid growth of medical schools generally, the supplying of anatomical material became quite a problem in some countries. Italy, Germany, Austria, and France early made legal provision for dissection but in England there was at first no provision and the anatomical experience of students was restricted. Students of the continental schools were admittedly better prepared. Since legal measures providing anatomical material were not enacted in advance of their need, a market developed, the blackness of which would not be denied in any detail.
In this market the customers were the best people, that is, they were members of a learned profession, the Doctors, and if it were becoming of me to distinguish between the best and the better, I might add they were the professors in the medical schools. The providers of the commodities, while not learned, were of necessity smart, at least smart enough to carry on an illegal traffic which was known by everyone to be in progress and was considered both illegal and necessary at the same time. The most indifferent participants in this market were the commodities, the “friendless bodies of unburied men,” the prevailing prices 8 to 10 pounds.
With such an arrangement it is not surprising that there should have been competition for both the raw material and for the markets, and the inevitable conflict resulted. In 1829 one such focus of conflict resulted in Mr. Wm. Burke receiving legally a dose of his own medicine by being “Publicly anatomized, his carcass thereafter flayed, his hide tanned, and his skeleton by order of the court preserved in the Anatomical Museum of Edinburgh University.” One dubious honor not foreseen by the court was the inclusion of Burke’s name in future dictionaries as a transitive verb along with such other notable as Guillotine, Bowie, and Garrot. Burke and his associate Hare, having found it too troublesome to snatch bodies in the usual manner, supplied Dr. Robert Knox, popular anatomical lecturer in one of the extramural schools, with material which the latter “approved of its being so fresh, but (about which he) did not ask any questions.” Ten pounds apiece for such material plus a minor amount from the sale of the incidental belongings of the victims was easy money for the pair until some transient boarders (Mr. and Mrs. Gray, whom Burke had no doubt looked upon as “available”) uncovered the habit and reported it to the constabulary.
The horripilating details of this story can be consulted at will in an account by Mr. Wm. Roughead called “The Wolves of West Port.” For those who wish to see the good in everything the innocent victims of Burke and Hare provided the impetus for an Anatomical Act passed by Parliament in 1832 and the resurrection men retired from business, at least in the British Isles.
From the business side there were details and asides of the trade of the resurrectionists that need not detain us here, such as the extra profit from extracted teeth, the liaisons with gravediggers, the ‘mortsafes’ placed over graves in the cemeteries, the patented coffins designed to assure rest in peace, and the temporary storage house to be used until such time as the worms and their lesser brethren made it safe to bury the dead.
The resurrection men worked in England with relative freedom from the meshes of the law before the passage of the Anatomical Act, since at that time there was no property in a dead body, and a prosecution for felony could not take place unless some portion of the cerements or the coffin could be proven to have been stolen with the body.
Besides, there was perhaps the human element in the police who were probably not too anxious to get in the way of proper medical education, or to throttle a minor source of income.
Perhaps the point of view of the English constabulary in this instance was expressed by those in Messers. Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” as they sing:
When a felon’s not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plans
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man’s
Our feelings we with difficulty smother
When constabulary duty’s to be done
to be done
Ah, take one consideration with another
A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.
In case you are interested in what the resurrectionist did in his “off” as well as his “on” hours you may consult “The Diary of a Resurrectionist 1811-1812” edited by James Blake Bailey, Librarian of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, published in 1896. There you will read such entries as this:
“Friday 9th went to look at different places. At night went to St. Olave’s, got 2 adults M. and F. M. was opened took them to St. Thomas’s; again met, I got drunk. Missed going to the party.
“They separated, part went to Lambeth. Got 1 adult F., they missed one, took that to the Bore the others (except Ben who was getting drunk) went to Connolly. Got 1 adult F., took that to Bartholomew, and removed the others same place. “Saturday 10th met at Bartholomew. Mr. Stanley took three of the above two F. 8/8/00 one adult M. being opened 3/13/6d, one adult male being opened, left one on hand, came home, in all night. (p. 170)
“The back of this is occupied by a table for finding the moon’s age on any given day”- an important part of the knowledge required.
In spite of the English example we were no more forehanded in providing anatomical material for the plethora of medical schools that appeared in this country (the United States), though the main body of their curriculum was Anatomy, emphasized proportionally much more than it is today in the training of medical student.
In Tennessee alone there have been 18 medical schools, though the three today are a good percentage of the 75 in the United States for one of the 48 states to possess. When Abraham Flexner made his survey in 1909, there were nine medical schools (six white, three colored) in Tennessee with a total of 1,458 students, at least twice as much as there are today.
About them Mr. Flexner remarked “the state of Tennessee protects at this date more low-grade medical schools than any other Southern state. Perhaps the worst of these (K.M.C) had as total resources the annual fees amounting to an estimated $1,020.00. It occupied the floor above an undertakers’ establishment and had no clinical facilities and no dispensary”. Mr. Flexner’s summary: “The catalogue of this school is a tissue of misrepresentation from cover to cover.”
Legal provision for anatomical material for such schools must not have appealed to intelligent legislative bodies. There had always been considerable prejudice against dissection throughout the country, and its participants in that fine art were identified more or less justifiably with “grave robbers.”
In fact, the “students were expected to cooperate with their teachers in securing anatomical specimens” in the Cincinnati school established by Drake and Rogers in 1819-1820.
Occasionally the people gave public vent to their feeling. The most serious disturbance of the sort was the “Doctor’s Riot” in New York City in 1788.
The students of Columbia, it was suspected, were indulging in the practice of resurrectionism. On April 13, 1788, a Sunday, some boys near New York Hospital saw a limb dangling from a window. They spread the news, a mob gathered and invaded the hospital. Much damage to property was done and several doctors were mauled before they were taken to jail for protection.
The next morning the mob reassembled and started to search the homes of the suspected physicians. The Governor, the Chancellor, and the Mayor mingled with the rioters and persuaded them to disperse, but in the afternoon some came together and demanded the imprisoned doctors. Finally the militia was called out and a free-for-all fight ensued. Seven rioters were killed and many wounded when the militia opened fire.
In Baltimore in 1807 the “Anatomy Hall” erected at the expense of the professor (Dr. John Davidge) was demolished at the time of the first dissection. At Yale, in 1824, and St. Louis in 1844, there were less serious disturbances though there was an old Colonial law in Mass. dating 1649 making bodies of criminals available for “Anatomie”. The first law in this country recognizing the scientific importance of dissection was not passed until 1784. Also in Mass., its aim was oblique as it granted the bodies of those killed in dueling and those executed for killing in a duel to teachers of anatomy for dissecting purposes. New York passed a similar law in 1789, and in 1790, Congress gave Federal judges the right to add dissection when imposing the death penalty for murder. New Jersey followed in 1796.
Massachusetts liberalized the legal provision for dissection in that state in 1831 by passing a law turning over all unclaimed bodies to recognized medical institutions. In the South the white people seemed not to object to the dissection of negroes (a state of mind still prevalent) and Missouri in 1835 passed a legislative act permitting dissection of the bodies of slaves with the consent of their masters.
The Anatomical Act in Tennessee is dated 1899. It was stated by Bailey that the English act retired the resurrection men, but in Nashville, with an inadequate act, and some 300 new medical students annually about the turn of the century, it only lightened their responsibility. One of the most active of the recent ones and certainly the fittest one, if we can judge by his ability to survive a long period (at least 35 years) of activity in this field – and his willingness to take it up again at the flick of my eyebrow, reports that he and the others not only had to provide beyond the legal limit enough to make 125 to 150 cadavers to the four medical schools (Vanderbilt, Meharry, Tennessee, and Nashville), but also shipped out, by express, around a hundred bodies per year packed in unlabeled barrels in sawdust and alcohol – mostly to Iowa City. No paperwork was done on these, the expressman and dealers handling the money personally.
The general method employed here was like that of England. It was the natural development of the situation. The details of the procedure are as given to me by a participant whose character has always been above reproach and whose loyalty to the institution for which he worked rather than the monetary reward was his stimulus. I do not suppose one could discount, however, the excitement and the satisfaction of outwitting the law as it were. In order not to reveal too definitely his identity, I shall refer to him merely as “Bill.”
The procedure was standardized and the organization simple. The professors at the Medical Schools had employees who worked about the school and were usually the active part of the market. Bill was one of these. Those men had acquaintances who were the informers and at times the actual resurrectionists. The informer would learn of a burial in a small cemetery (the larger ones had permanent watchmen and alarm systems) and perhaps attended the funeral. These informers varied in occupation, some being merely hangers on, some were the caretakers of an institutions’ ground, one was the custodian of the Potter’s Field. Some were undertakers, some the doctors who had waited on the patient in his last illness and at least one in this vicinity a minister who spoke with authority on the place of burial after preaching at the funeral. The medical school representatives preferred not to do the excavating and frequently would call for the body at a stated point and time of night, pay for it, and haul it back to the school. Likewise, the medical school representative varied, and might be the colored janitor, one or more medical students, the business representative or the professor himself.
The vehicle used might be privately owned, a livery stable rig or the doctor’s buggy, on the back of which, with top pushed back, two bodies could safely be carried if well tied on.
My resurrectionist spoke with a glint in his eye of the times when he and the professor of the Tennessee Medical School would both learn of a body at the Poor Farm and have a kind of race for it. The caretaker would let the first one that came have the body he had been storing since its disinterment, in the potato cellar of the institution, and if Bill got there first, he would turn up a side lane or hide in the weeds near the Hydes Ferry Bridge until the professor drove by with his white horse and red wheeled buggy to hear some alibi from the man at the other end (or who might merely fail to show up).
According to Bill (and I shall lapse into his vernacular for the most part for a while):
“They used to bury ‘em at the State Prison and the doctors there would have the trustees go and dig’em up for us. At the Central Hospital they buried ‘em down in the far end, and me ‘n old Julius got several down there with the help of a senior student who was ‘er intern. But they got to watching that place and one night when we was pretty near through, we had to cover it and come on back to town by a back lane.
“At the Potter’s Field the caretaker was a lady. She was a gruff one and had a half-witted son. They buried ‘em there only two feet deep, but the lady she had to have the money first and maybe a quart of whiskey. There was one mail carrier on Fessler’s Lane. He lived near the cemetery and had an arrangement with the sexton. He brought ‘em in at night in the buggy he delivered mail in during the day time.
“Some folks got into trouble now and then. There was the time when Police Bennett’s father was stolen from the cemetery at Eagleville by Dr. Highmark, a prominent doctor there. They sold the body to the Nashville School and the men who worked there shipped it to Iowa. The folks at Eagleville found out about it through careless handling and then sued the Nashville School but didn’t get anything. One of the men involved was a playmate of mine, and he had a brother who is now a deputy sheriff. He came to me and I told him to go back and cuss and raise sand and make like he wanted to find the man who stole the body. Doctor Highmark got four years in prison, but the Governor pardoned him after a few months. But he didn’t do no good afterwards. He moved away from Eagleville and Dr. Owens took his place.
“There were tricks in the trade. Little Harry worked for the Medical School at the University of Nashville and he got a body out of a house by signing up with the Justice of the Peace that he was a relative. He sold the body to the University. At another time one of the fellows that worked with the University went with Little Harry and they didn’t let two other fellows, Little John and Big John that worked at the school, know they were going. When Little Harry and his friend got back they put the two bodies in the back door of the school but they didn’t shut the door tight. The other two had been hid and were spying on them. So they came out and put the two bodies in a wheel barrow and broke the lock on the door so it would look like the bodies were stolen. They come and woke me up in the middle of the night (said Bill) and brought the bodies through the street in a wheel barrow the block and a half over to Vanderbilt. No one saw them. We took ‘em and the next day when they asked if Vanderbilt had gotten any bodies we said yes but didn’t know who brought ‘em. We just took them in and told the men to come back next day to get their money. Meantime Little John and Big John were tipped off not to come. Dr. Ewing, who was head of the Nashville School, offered $500.00 reward for the ones that did it. Sidebottom and Turner were the detectives then, and they offered me a hundred dollars to tell ‘em about the bodies. But no detectives ever outwitted Vanderbilt.
“There was John Prim. He went out to Providence for the funeral. That night he hired a buggy from Waldorf Livery Stables and went out there to steal the body with a light suit and a Panama hat on, which was the wrong thing to do. The men were laying for him and shot him in the hip. He came back and told me what happened, and I took him in the buggy over to Dr. Wilson’s infirmary, and Dr. Wilson picked most of the shot out and dressed his wounds. Then I paid Dr. Wilson so it would be kept quiet and there wouldn’t be no scandal. After that I brought John over to Vanderbilt there on Ellum [Elm] Street and hid him in a little cubby hole under the floor where the steam pipes were. At night, I’d let him out and I’d dress his wounds and pick out a few more shot. I could do that as well as anybody. I’d helped Dr. Eve and all of ‘em and knew how to sterilize the instruments and all like that. Well, one night it was raining and John was about all right. I took all the money I had, about 13 dollars, and give it to John. I had Henry Red go and pack up John’s grip and took him in a buggy down that alley back of the Old Medical school ‘till we come to the fish house on Demonbreun, then on down to First Avenue and up along the side of the river and across the bridge to Gallatin Pike and to Edgefield Junction. That’s where he caught the Chicago train. He stayed away for years and years and came back here sick. He was a policeman in Chicago.
“One man got killed by his own brother. One brother was watching the grave and the other come to dig the body up and the one watching rose up and shot him. The men with him got away but they lost their brace and bit. This was on the Van Leer Kirkman place around 1899 or 1900.
“Lugro, an Italian that ran a Negro joint in Black Bottom, was another body that caused some trouble. He was a big fellow, weighed about 300 lbs. Norvell and Wallace had bought one of the buildings at the Centennial and were tearing it down. Lugro went out to buy some lumber and a piece of scantling fell on him and killed him. He was dug up and the body taken to Vanderbilt and the people who brought him told to come back and get their money. He had been buried in Calvary and somebody saw men putting his body in a buggy that night and called the officers. They found an overshoe that the grave robbers had lost. When they got suspicious, the body was slipped out of Vanderbilt from the back in the alley and put in a wagon in the daytime and carried over to 8th Avenue and put in the coal house of one of the folks that worked for Vanderbilt. Hanifer and Hanifer were the detectives. After dark the body was moved from the coal house and carried out on Ridley Blvd. and dropped right at the door of Norvell and Wallace’s lumber yard (here there was a pause and kind of chuckle at the poetic justice).
“The two men that got Lugro got to be big contractors. They were in the ice business then. Both men are dead now. I went over to their yard not long before they died and tried to buy something and they give it to me. They said my money wouldn’t spend.
“Then there was the Lee girl that was stole from the Mill Creek graveyard about 1895. They got the body and were careless. They suspicioned Vanderbilt and searched the Medical School on Peabody Street. When the sheriff come up I was standing near the door and the sheriff said “Don’t ask that boy, he’s too young.” No one knew where that body went, but I heard they were pushed so hard the body was dumped in the river at the Hyde’s Ferry Bridge.”
Bill’s memory seems to grow dim when the names of people yet alive are involved. He gives broad hints so that one familiar with the city medical directory can find his way around. As for actual technique, there were usually two or three men who would go after a body. They would carry no lanterns and this was one crop which could not be harvested unless the planting was done in the dark of the moon. The horse and wagon would be hitched some distance away and a watch posted. Only half of the grave was opened and if the coffin was glass topped a sack was put over it to smother the sound of the break. The usual wooden one was drilled, with a line of holes across it, with a brace and then the sack put over to damp the sound and the cover broken. The body was then pulled out arms first, put in a sack, and the hole filled.
If anyone came along everyone had to lie low and the man with the wagon or buggy would begin to fiddle with the harness as if something were the matter with it and he had stopped to fix it.
Other equipment considered necessary was a “44” and a Winchester, which Bill says he never went without. Bill had no trouble with the law. Once or twice the police bothered him on his way back, but afterwards were warned by the Mayor or the Chief of Police to leave him alone.
Bill did get shot once. Working with a companion, Old Sam Crockett, at Mt. Ararat, a fellow who decided he’d operate by himself hid behind a cedar tree and, as Bill said, “He didn’t act right. He rose up from behind the tree and shot me. Poor Old Sam, he run and left me there with the stiff.” The shot still show in x-ray and there are a few pains now and then.
There was pride in the trade and a sense of responsibility. Bill reports that he had driven up to Wilson County and back for a body and got only $1.50 for his part.
On one occasion, since the new school was opened, he drove out on the Murfreesboro Pike near Fessler’s Lane and parked his car in the grass, then he climbed over behind a rock wall and lay down with his Winchester and “44” to wait for a body that was to be brought to him. Instead of his business partner, another car drove up and stopped right in front of him. A man and woman got out and the man began to swear and berate the woman for her infidelity and extravagance. Then he told her he was going to kill her there and then. He had Bill convinced of sincerity and Bill could see himself as a witness in a murder trial which wouldn’t help his other business any. So he gripped his guns and cleared his throat a time or two. The man overheard, put his woman in his car and drove on to town. Bill said he searched the papers for several days but there was no evidence the man had carried out his intentions.
At one time I had an office in the old red building on 2nd and Elm. It was just off the dissecting room and on the top floor. In its ceiling was a small trap door leading to a little attic. Bill says, though I didn’t know it until recently, that the mummified bodies of two notorious bandits of the last century, Knox Martin and John A. Murrell, were stored in this attic with their names attached.
John A. Murrell, according to Herbert Asbury in “The French Quarter” (1936), was “the most spectacular of the bandits who prowled the Natchez Trace and probably the most extraordinary criminal America has yet produced. As a wholesale murderer, his exploits have never been equaled even among modern gangsters. The exact number of men who met their death at his hands has never been determined, but it has been estimated to be from 300 to 500…one of the most lucrative activities was stealing slaves and reselling them…For some fifteen years Murrell operated along the Trace, sometimes traveling in the guise of a Methodist preacher, and again as an elegantly attired gentleman…He planned a rebellion among the slaves, and the sacking of New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, and Natchez while the respectable citizens were trying to quell the uprising.”
(Virgil Stewart joined his gang and heard all – 1834 had him arrested – advanced the date to July 4, 1935.) Murrell’s mind gave way under confinement and when released he was an imbecile. He was last heard of (according to Asbury) in the Butt, the red-light district of Memphis. The secretary of the Tennessee Historical Society says that Murrell died at Pikeville and was buried there, but that his grave was robbed. Mr. Robert Quarles, the state archivist, says that there is in the museum the thumb of Murrell in a bag and a certificate from the doctor who presented it, a former professor at Tennessee Medical School.
When the new school opened in 1926, the bodies of Murrell and Martin were left in the old school, Bill being the only one who knew of them. Later, when a search was made there was no trace of them. No doubt some side show is still collecting ten cents a look.
If I could sketch a picture to illustrate this paper, it would be in charcoal on black paper. If the details could be seen in the starlight there would be a stream in the middle thinly covered with ice and on the hill to the left a small cemetery. On the hill to the right would be a rail fence bordering a road in which a horse and spring wagon stood quietly. Crossing the stream would be two dark-skinned characters, the whites of whose eyes might form the only possible highlight, with a rail laid across their shoulders and a heavily loaded sack suspended from it. The first man would be on solid ground across the creek, but the second would be just in the act of breaking through the ice into the stream. It was just such an incident that precipitated a case of pneumonia in Bill from which he slowly recovered.
“But,” says Bill, “that was the grandest pneumonia there ever was. It was got in the interests of the Medical School.”
Transcribed by Alice Clark Merritt, daughter of Dr. Sam Lillard Clark
Murder in the service of maintaining wealth and status. That’s not uncommon, but when it is done by seemingly “proper” Victorian women, three sisters who teach social graces in women’s colleges in the old South, the contrast sets us up for a good Southern gothic. Based on crimes committed by the infamous Wardlaw sisters against members of their own family, A Parliament of Crows, explores in fiction the emotions and the thinking behind such crimes. The Novel was released this month under the new IFD Publishing imprint, Horror that Happened (™). I have changed their name to Mortlow and made some other changes to drive the story, yet I’ve tried to follow what history has told us about the Wardlaw sisters’ crimes. The tale unfolds from their respective perspectives, the chapters rotating through the three POVs.
Murders committed over the course of many years left the three Mortlow sisters, Vertiline, Mary, and Carolee, with many secret to keep. Differing in personality, faith, and outlook, they were at odds with one another from the start—more so even than with those they killed. Jealousies, grievances, and mistrust threatened to break their loyalty and shared silence.
With a final crime, the murder of Mary’s daughter, authorities caught up with the sisters. They were indicted for murder and insurance fraud. That’s where the story begins. The backstories of all three are revealed as the court case proceeds.
The mystery here is not whodunnit, but how they found it reasonable to do what they did.
Concerning the title, some have asked if I meant owls, because a gathering of owls is referred to as a parliament. There is also a parliament of crows that is less description of them as a group and more something the group may do when they gather together in large numbers, say in an open field. In such gatherings of perhaps fifty or more crows, occasionally an argument breaks between one or more of the birds. The others seem to watch. When the argument is done, the crows turn on one of the participants, presumably the loser, sometimes maiming, killing, or even cannibalizing the creature. Some people who have viewed this phenomenon have likened it to a trial in which the defendent is convicted and punished. A parliament of crows is the term for that type of gathering. With the way the sisters go after each other and because they habitually wore black mourning clothes, I thought the title appropriate. A Parliament of Crows, by Alan M. Clark, is the second novel to be included in the new IFD Publishing imprint Horror that Happened (™).
The outrageous is all the more extraordinary when we know it actually occurred. Horror that Happened (™), provides riveting stories in three catagories: True Crime, Based on a True Story, and Lifted from the Past. We hope you will come back to IFD Publishing for your high-quality reading entertainment.
From time to time I write short recollections of my life and times. I call these Brief Histories. This is one.
I began attending Science Fiction and Fantasy Conventions in the early 70s. They were brought to my awareness by my friend Larry Todd, an artist who worked in that field, as well as in Underground Comics. I was still an art student at City College of San Francisco, involved in political protests against the Viet Nam War and working on the campus alternative paper, The Free Critic. As an artist I was frustrated with academic tracks that had been proposed to me, fine or commercial art, and found Larry’s world much more compelling. He introduced me to works by writers like H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and art by contemporary book jacket artists, magazine illustrators, and comic book creators.
At this time the Bay Area was ground zero for underground comics, and while there were different contingents, most of the artists socialized at parties and book release events. Larry Todd, often identified with his Dr. Atomic character, was enthusiastic about the old EC comics, and their artists like Wally Wood and Jack Davis. He was also a fan of the emerging Philippino comic book artists like Alex Nino and Alfredo Alcala. From his days in New York he knew artists like Bernie Wrightson and Michael Kaluta, who were then breaking into the mainstream. With his close friend Vaughn Bode, he collaborated on magazine covers for Galaxy and If. I would sit, talk and watch Larry as he drew comics or painted in oil. Every visit was a tutorial. Long into the night, he held forth with stories written in his head—but not on paper—historical facts and colorful anecdotes, all while he inked a strip. By 1976, we were sharing a house in Oakland, CA, where my education continued.
Science Fiction Conventions were held in hotels or motels; many still are. My first was a regional conference, Westercon, held in a downtown San Francisco hotel. At this point in time, Science Fiction literature and comic book characters were not the source of major film franchises. It took “Star Wars” to turn the tide and fully transform our niche world of fiction and art into a mass market product. Certainly, we were not pure altruists. No one objected to getting rich, or earning enough to make their living as a writer or artist. At the conventions, in hallways or conference room events, publishers and editors were cornered by ambitious writers or writers to be, eager to pitch a project. Artists gladly directed potential buyers to their displays in the art show, or tried to get assignments from art directors. The activity of commerce was not yet weaponized, being just part of the mosaic of events, readings, discussions and parties.
Being able to meet writers or artists you admired was a cherished part of the experience. In this era, I was fortunate to meet Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Frank Herbert, Roger Zelazny, C.L. Moore and George Clayton Johnson to name a few. Of course, if you were not an avid reader, you might be standing next to a major author and not know who they were or what they had written. It is difficult not to think about missed opportunities in retrospect.
Attendance at the conventions was not limited to hardcore literary types by any means. This was gathering of various tribes: the filkers (singers and musicians,) The Society for Creative Anachronism, the pagans, the gay community, the costumers, etc. Usually these groups overlapped and flowed between each other. This cross-pollination of cultural outsiders created much of the magic. The atmosphere that prevailed encouraged a general openness to trying new things. When I found myself playing drums and flutes for a group of Middle Eastern dancers, it wasn’t so out of the ordinary. Now I was also a performer, though obviously the dancers were the focus of attention. Larry’s girlfriend, Pepper, was the leader of the troupe, and we soon were appearing at Science Fiction and Comic Book Conventions. as well as other gigs. I pursued my art career, and still found time to make rehearsals, practice complex rhythms on the doumbek, and accompany the dancers as they danced in line formation and took their solos.
Robert Heinlein was a guest at the upcoming convention in Santa Rosa, CA, OctoCon, in 1977 or 78. I had read Stranger in a Strange Land in my early teens, and for me it fused the countercultural zeitgeist with fantasy literature successfully. I was not so familiar with his classic SF novels, but had an impression that they were not for me, which counts as another missed opportunity. After Viet Nam, titles like Starship Troopers were less attractive in the anti-military tenor of the liberal Bay Area. There was also much informed criticism of the sexist and racist attitudes prevalent in much pulp era Science Fiction. The new wave of writers like Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin and Roger Zelazny were lionized justifiably, while some of the major figures of the past were believed to be out of touch.
In his later years, Heinlein survived a life-threatening emergency that required numerous blood transfusions. After recovering, he became a fervent advocate of citizens donating blood as well as the importance of blood banks. In keeping with this cause, all of his convention appearances at this time included a blood drive. Since our troupe was planning to attend this convention, Larry arranged for our troupe to perform at Heinlein’s blood drive.
We rehearsed and brought our current line-up to Octocon at the laid-back Red Lion Inn. Pepper was the leader and driving force of the troupe. The other dancers and musicians constituted satellites attracted by her gravity. She demanded a serious commitment of the members, insisted they take lessons and make their own costumes. Some stayed and improved, others drifted away to other pursuits or other troupes. Larry was not a musician, but helped with equipment, and making signs and props. Another member of our social circle, artist John Burnham, was also playing drums with me at this time.
In our exuberance and poverty, we slept on the floors of packed motel rooms to divide the cost of attending conventions. In the back of my mind, I hoped I would make sales in the art show and turn a profit for the weekend. Playing with the troupe always presented a certain degree of drama; the possibility of the performance being sloppy, tensions and rivalries between the members reaching a boiling point. Fortune, or perhaps the availability of high-quality intoxicants, smiled that day. We played near the swimming pool, in front of the suite of rooms that were the site of the blood drive. Pepper danced with a sword, Melissa with a boa constrictor, and Molly with a reed cane. When we were in the groove, the music and rhythms were hypnotic, the finger cymbals of the dancers answering the drums, the ululations and exclamations of the dancers encouraged each other. The dancers took the stage and engaged the audience with the movements of the dance, a deep ritual of primal earth religion, beneath the veils of sequins and bright fabric. Pepper’s troupe combined authentic Egyptian dances and costumes with the more theatrical western, or cabaret style.
The band gathered a good crowd by the conclusion of our set, and then the blood drive volunteers encouraged donations or else a commitment to donate from the audience. The willing were brought into the suite to give blood, have refreshments and schmooze with the dancers. Signed copies of Heinlein books were provided as an enticement, as well as meeting the noted author.
From the bright sunshine of the pool, we entered the suite, dressed in flowing garments, still on an adrenaline rush, post-performance. One by one Larry introduced us to Robert. I remember Heinlein being extremely gracious, and he thanked us for our participation. His eyes were bright and he smiled broadly. I could not ignore that his skin was ashen and handshake firm, but icy. He seemed completely at ease with our band of long-haired artists and eccentrics, as well with some of our practices, like open relationships.
Heinlein was a complex figure. It seemed incongruous to me that someone associated with the military, and who expressed a xenophobic suspicion of alien races in his writing, would be so nonjudgemental, an advocate of non-conformism. But this was a long-term theme of his work as well; a healthily distrust of the establishment, and support for the rights of individuals. Due to the freewheeling nature of the time, I had the honor of meeting him, and to briefly grok the presence of a generous, visionary man. In his writing he envisioned—often correctly—how technology would change our world. To his credit he also fought to preserve the lives of others; normals, water brothers and sisters alike, through the communal act of donating blood.
In fine art printmaking, the general procedure is to make a plate or matrix of some kind, take some test impressions (artist’s proofs) and pick the best example to emulate in the edition that follows. Due to the process of printing by hand, there are often small differences in particular edition prints, and this is allowed. But what about when the differences are more dramatic, in color or value relationships for example? By writing the letters EV before the number of the print, this states that the variations in the edition prints are clearly noticeable. In Edition Variable prints, the goal of making each print as similar as possible is overridden by the desire to let each impression fulfill its greatest individual potential. I have done a number of Edition Variable prints, often prints that are printed in multiple colors, and then hand colored. Examples are Threshold, Helios and The Transit of Venus series.
There are also Monoprints and Monotypes. In the Monoprint, the individual print of an edition is given even freer reign, and while there will be other prints made from the same plate, they need not be similar, in fact may be radically different and unique. These works stand on their own as distinct originals, even though they are multiples, produced from the same matrix.
My recent landscape etching, “Liminal Passage,” has presented me the opportunity to make the all of the edition Monoprints. Each print is a unique multi-color etching with additional hand coloring. I am making selected prints from this edition available only on The River’s Edge. Unlike my standard edition prints from The Enchanted Forest series (and other monochrome works) that vary only slightly, Liminal Passage Monoprints are more akin to original paintings in their variation. In contrast to Edition Variable prints, where the variations arise from a limited number of colors, my Monoprints allow a more experimental approach and unusual diverse color combinations. So you can think of them as existing both as a painting in ink and simultaneously a limited fine art print. My first experiments with Monoprints was in a series of small prints influenced by 1960’s poster art, Remembrance, Butterfly and The Star. Every print was made in different color combinations, and in the spirit of the 60’s, given away to friends instead of sold.
Part of the challenge of selling artwork via a web site versus in person from an exhibit or gallery, is making sure the buyer has the best digital visual representation of the work and also understands what the nature of the piece is. The latter is much more of an issue in the category of prints, i.e. what medium is the print, is it a limited fine art print, an open-ended reproduction, hand colored, made with archival materials etc.. My intention is to provide collectors with the best, and most complete description of my etchings possible, be they artist’s proof, regular edition print, edition variable or monoprint.
Etchings are fine art prints, produced by a process first developed about 1500. While many items are referred to as prints— such as posters, offset lithographs and all ink jet products (including so-called giclees)—they are in fact reproductions. Fine art prints begin with a matrix created by the artist, that is used to produce images individually by hand.
The etching process begins with a metal plate, usually zinc or copper, that is covered with a ground composed of wax and asphaltum. The artist uses a tool to draw through the ground and expose the metal underneath. When satisfied with the drawing, the plate is submerged in a solution that dissolves the metal areas unprotected by the ground. When the lines etched into the plate are the desired depth, the plate is removed and cleaned.
Now that the plate can hold ink in the etched, or bitten areas, the printing process can begin. A sheet of high quality rag paper is soaked in a tray of water to make it flexible. A coating of ink is spread over the entire plate, forced into the etching lines and then wiped off the surface by hand with a specially textured fabric. At this point, the printing process can become part of the art’s final appearance. The ink is always left in the lines of the plate, and by leaving a thin film of ink on the surface of the plate as well, tonal effects can be created. This technique also gives each impression a unique individual quality, impossible to produce in a reproduction.
When the inking is complete, the sheet of paper is blotted. The inked plate is placed face up on the press bed and the damp paper is positioned on top. Using a wheel or crank, the bed is slowly moved between rollers and felt blankets and subjected to great pressure. The paper is flexible enough to be pushed into the recessed lines holding the ink, and lifts out that ink as well as any on the surface left by the artist. All of this work has produced a single print, and all the stages— soaking paper, inking the plate and running both through the press—must be repeated for every impression.
There are other techniques that can be used in etching, such as aquatint. This is a rosin that is melted onto the plate in tiny specks and then bitten in stages to produce areas of tonality. Using this technique an artist can obtain light , midrange and dark areas consistently, by wiping the plate cleanly and not leaving any ink on the surface. The tonal areas are bitten into the metal, like the lines are, but are delicate and produce fewer prints than the etched lines before they wear away. Generally, using aquatint limits the number of prints in the edition.
The size of the edition is determined by two factors. One is the wearing of the plate. After a certain number of times through the press the plate looses it’s precise lines or the aquatinted areas break down. At this point, the printing should stop, to maintain the quality of the prints produced. More often, however, the edition is limited by the choice of the artist, who decides only a certain number of a particular design will be made, and no more. Those prints are numbered, titled and signed. If there are ten prints in an edition, you will see the prints numbered one of ten, two of ten and so forth until ten of ten. Except for a very limited number of artist’s proofs, no more impressions are allowed and the plate destroyed after printing is complete . Because etching is such an old process, there have been a number of innovations since its origin, such as aquatint, multi-color printing, drypoint, mezzoprint and even photo etching. Engraving is a very old technique, and is often confused with etching. The difference is that engraving uses no solutions to eat away the metal. The engraver directly cuts into the metal with special tools to incise the lines holding the ink. Engravings are printed by the same process as etchings and are similar in appearance.
Many of the conventions originally established by the fine art printmaker, have been adopted by commercial reproductions, such as numbering prints. It should be noted that fine art prints are significantly more labor intensive to produce, use high-quality, time tested materials, have a direct connection to the artist’s hand, and are generally much more limed in number. Commercial reproductions are mass produced, identical to each other and are machine made. The newer technologies have not actually demonstrated their longevity despite promises from their manufacturers , whereas etchings have already lasted for centuries if properly cared for. These factors are things to consider when comparing the price of an etching, or another fine art print, to a photo print, ink-jet or offset reproduction.
Mark Roland has been producing etchings since 1981. The majority of his works are line etchings, printed using the plate tone technique described above. He has also used other techniques such as, soft ground, aquatint, multi-color and embossing. On some occasions he will hand color sections of his prints to enhance a particular effect. His principal series’ have been The Enchanted Forest suite, and his interpretations of Homer’s Odyssey, along with numerous related works.
If you love words as I do, you probably love history. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years writing historical fiction. In performing research for the novels, I’ve leaned about the origins of certain English words and phrases I’ve used in both written and spoken language throughout my life, but didn’t completely understand. Although many expressions that came into existence long ago are still in use and their meanings as idioms are clear to us, the original meanings of the phrases may be lost without a search in history.
Because the gun played such a large role in events over the last few centuries, many idioms are related to firearms of the past. Here are a few that are still widely used, but the context of their origination not widely known.
Lock stock and barrel is an expression we use to mean “all of it.” I used to think it meant the whole store, like a mercantile of some kind. It means the whole rifle or musket. The lock is the firing mechanism, the barrel is, well… self-explanatory, and the stock is the part that helps you hold onto the firearm.
Bite the bullet means expose yourself to possible pain and danger to get a job done. Many people believe it originally meant to bite down on a lead bullet to endure pain, perhaps while having a surgical experience without an anesthetic, but it comes from a time when to prepare a rifle for firing you had to bite the end off a paper-wrapped cartridge before placing its contents in the barrel of your firearm. Doing this while under fire took brave resolve.
Stick to your guns means remain true to principles or goals. The expression has less to do with guns per se and more to do with maintaining a particular post during battle, especially if you’re told to hold a position without retreating. Well, of course you will need that gun, won’t you?
Flash in the pan is an idiom we use to mean a great start but little or no follow up. It’s a great metaphor for a one hit wonder in the music industry who puts out a single very popular tune, yet never does any better afterward and soon falls out of favor. To do justice to this one takes some explaining, so bear with me.
The original meaning comes from a time when pistols, muskets, and rifles had flint lock firing mechanisms. To load a flintlock firearm, gunpowder was poured into the barrel followed by a lead ball, called “shot,” wrapped in a bit of rag to make it fit snugly and hold everything in place. A small pan beside a hole in the side of the barrel was primed with a little gunpowder and then protected from spillage by a hinged iron part called a frizzin (see the illustration above). When the trigger of the flintlock was pulled, the hammer, which held a piece of flint did two things: it struck sparks off the iron frizzin and knocked that hinged part off the pan. With the frizzin out of the way, the sparks could reach the powder in the pan and ignite it. The hot expanding gas of the lit powder was meant to travel down the small hole in the side of the barrel and ignite the powder behind the lead shot. If this last step didn’t occur, there was merely a flash in the pan and the gun didn’t actually fire.
Understanding the metaphor of this idiom creates a mental picture that enhances the meaning of the expression. A flash in the pan is an exciting event, with a hiss, a flash, and billowing smoke, but the results are disappointing if that isn’t followed by the loud crack of the shot flying from the barrel and striking a target. Without the mental picture some of the power of the expression’s metaphor is lost.
The original meanings of many single words are unknown to most of us today. I’m thinking of several having to do with the production of linen. A lining, like what you might have in the inside surface of your coat, means something made from line flax. Line flax is the fibers of the flax plant that don’t break off when run through a device that looks like a small bed of nails called a hackle (aka heckle). The fibers that survive going through a hackle and remain long are spun together to make fine linen thread (note the word “line” in “linen”). So a lining is something made of linen. The lining of my stomach or my water heater is not made of linen, though. When my dog gets upset, wants to look bigger and more threatening, he gets his hackles up, but that doesn’t mean he has metal spikes sticking up out of his back. In the past, the flax fibers that broke off short in a hackle were called tow flax. They weren’t good enough to make fine thread and were spun into a rough cord to make tow sacks, which are much like the burlap sacks of today. Tow fibers are very blonde, but a tow-headed child doesn’t have tow flax for hair even if the tyke is referred to as flaxen-haired. The act of drawing flax fibers through a hackle is known as heckling. The purpose was to worry, to tease (in the old sense, meaning to comb), and straighten the fibers to determine which would stand up to stress and were worth using for linen production. When a stand-up comedian is heckled, that doesn’t mean he’s drawn through a small bed of nails to straighten his fibers and break off his weak parts. Okay, so maybe it does mean he’s being teased, but still, you get my point.
Here’s an expression I like a lot: flotsam and Jetsam. It’s not the most commonly known phrase, but it’s still a fun one using curious words, and I want to use it in the last paragraph of this post. We use it now to mean odds and ends. For example, somebody might say, “The project is finished except for the flotsam and jetsam of small problems I discovered along the way.” Flotsam and jetsam are separate nautical terms, but frequently appear together, both as words and in the context in which the words have meaning. Flotsam is the remnants of a shipwreck that floats on the sea after a vessel has gone down. Jetsam is what is jettisoned from a ship going down to lighten its load and help it stay afloat longer or even save it from going down.
In the time in which the idiom, flash in the pan, came into existence, the context from which it emerged was well-known to most individuals. An expression like that becomes popular perhaps because it’s frequently used in conversation as a metaphor in lieu of lengthier descriptions. If an idiom becomes useful enough that it’s overused and becomes cliché, it will be so universally understood that the significance of its original context can be discarded. It can far outlive the simple context of its birth. The idiom still performs a meaningful function although many who hear it and repeat it may not understand where it came from. Although the expression, flash in the pan is very much alive, having outlived the technology of the flintlock by more than a century, the metaphor it presents can be considered broken since most people today don’t understand how the firing mechanism works. I’ve heard and used many idioms for years in partial ignorance. As I became more interested in history, the original meaning of some idioms came clear. Finding the discovery satisfying, I became much more curious about the origins of words and phrases, and my interest in history intensified.
My latest historical fiction novel is The Prostitute’s Price. It is part of my Jack the Ripper Victims Series. Because the stories take place in Victorian times or earlier among English speaking people, British or American, they employ characters that use the language a little bit differently than we do today. The trick is to provide scenes in which the context makes clear the meaning of what is being said. The characters are involved with simpler, humbler domestic and labor situations and technologies often in early development or infancy.
I like to think of idioms with broken metaphors as flotsam of history. The ship has long since gone under, taking its passengers with it. Phrases remain, floating above the wreckage on the surface like lost luggage, filled with words that once had specific meaning, and, in combination, still have an idiomatic meaning. The specific sense of the words might have been lost, but the phrases still have value. We all claim salvage rights from time to time, but often don’t ask the simple questions: Who owned these expressions and why did they find them valuable? If we seek answers to the questions, we can learn something about those who left them behind and perhaps find out why the phrases float so well even today.