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Miss Lucy: An Excerpt

October, 1878   

But who hath seen her wave her hand?

Or at the casement seen her stand?



The first time he saw the ghost, Bram Stoker was hiding behind the safety curtain that hung neatly out of sight by the wooden proscenium, and which he himself had insisted be installed, at some expense, only a fortnight earlier—conscious, as any Acting Manager had to be, of the ever-present possibility of fire. Such catastrophic events swept across the London theatre world with distressing frequency, owing in most cases to the presence of filmy costume material left hanging near candles, the use of cheap, highly combustible greasepaint, and the current popularity for ever greater and more elaborate pyrotechnics than had been witnessed the season before. He himself had seen—only last month, at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane—an entire parade of African slaves smeared head to foot in blacking, every mother’s son of them sporting lit torches as they cavorted beneath a slew of drapery meant to suggest palm trees. He had been nearly unable to remain in his box that night, eyes flicking over and again to the Drury’s exit while his brain pictured the sudden brightness that would no doubt appear as the paperboard sets began to catch. Next would come the shock of the players, some of them still delivering their lines; the well-dressed audience, uncertain at first whether this blazing spectacle, too, was only the latest in stage craft . . . then the stampede would begin . . .

In the end, he had managed to maintain his seat for the Drury show, but had accompanied his wife Florence into the damp evening afterward with a decided sense of having escaped a calamity whose outline they had already witnessed in full—with the exception, merely, of when it would unfold. And he had turned his steps, the next morning, toward the Lyceum with a renewed determination to leave nothing to chance.

Bram Stoker at thirty-one was a physical, redheaded presence on the London scene, broad in the chest, with a slow, sonorous voice, the precise opposite of what early life would have predicted. The childhood paralysis, never explained, lasted for years. So too did the great hunger that ravaged the island of his birth: before it was finished, over one million corpses littered the muddy fields, with an equal number emigrated to anywhere that would have them: to Boston, to Brisbane, to far-off Argentina. In New York, the Irish formed the bulk of the new poor, trading one species of suffering for another. Bram still remembered the brittle autumn when families first started appearing outside his sickroom window, shadow people that had fled the worst parts of the country on foot. In streams they gathered around the docking wall, foul rags begging food, begging passage on the ships.

Where are they going? he had askedMrs. Kirwan, the Catholic domestic who cared for him during that time. She herself lived through the worst part of the blight in Eaksey, where along with two of her sisters she had survived by creeping onto a landlord’s estate after dark, using a gentleman’s razor to cut the haunches of cattle and sucking the hot, vitamin-rich blood, a truth she will never tell. All those people?

            Whitechapel, most like.


            An who can stay here, with the devil himself up and walking about?

Bram felt deep distress over the starving crowd and their suffering faces. The walkways of Clontarf were cobbled with stones that had been pulled from the fields to allow planting, and in the evenings the emigrants wandered them up and down. Some begged food, or blankets; some merely drifted, like leaves. The twilight road was haunted by their numbers.

Aren’t they afraid?

Hunger, child, Mrs. Kirwan had grimaced, closing up the blind. Hunger will make you do anything.

Most painful to him from that time of horrors, though, had been the total loss of his father’s affection; the goodnight kiss had never returned. But infirmity, once lifted from his shoulder, had been banished forever. One afternoon—had he been seven? eight?—he could abruptly feel three toes on his left foot. By season’s end, the paralysis had leached back out of his flesh as inexplicably as it appeared, and a young man took his first, wobbling steps on yellowed soles. In his teenage years he developed an athletic streak, as if in repudiation of all weakness. His limbs grew thick, his body massy. He began sporting a copious crimson beard. At Trinity, he took medals in hurdles, vaulting, long-distance walking, swim-meets, returning from the rugby field with blanched shins and heroically bleeding nostrils. Yet it was as if he had been rendered permanently invisible by the disease. Try as he might, the old man never stopped regarding him as something already dead.

It was only a year ago now (was it so little? yes, barely more than a year) that the second great miracle had occurred in Bram’s life, a miracle that, like the recovery of his ability to stand, had altered his prospects with the swiftness of a summer storm. Twelve months ago, he had been living in Ireland still, working as a civil servant at Dublin Castle, both his personal and professional life for the next three decades as predictable as the setting on a table. Tonight, instead, he found himself here, at the noble Lyceum Theatre—found himself at the opening performance of Hamlet—found himself (was it even possible?) Acting Manager to the most powerful Shakespearean in a generation.

From his position behind the baize curtain, Bram could see the actor waiting, as the saying went, in the wings, head tilted low as if at prayer, so that his swept-back hair shone in silvery tints above the absolute blackness of his cloak. The man had his long librarian’s arms draped behind himself, fingers interlaced, listening to each line that preceded his own appearance onstage with the intensity of a chemist trying a metal for imperfections. It had been made quite clear in rehearsals that nothing would be permitted, this evening, short of excellence.

What, hath this thing appear’d again tonight?

I have seen . . . nothing!

Cautiously Bram eased himself another half-foot into the narrow gap between fire curtain and house, struck by the notion that he had seen something odd. It was an uncomfortable feeling. The demand that no element be amiss during Hamlet applied just as sharply to him as to any of the crew, and likely even more so, as he was an outsider both to the island and the profession, and it was in every sense incumbent upon him to prove himself.

Only a few yards away, their hush audible in the manner of full theatres, sat a capacity crowd of well-dressed Londoners. His searching eye could just make out the ground floor orchestra, the first dozen rows illuminated by stage lamps, with here and there a playgoer’s visage thrown into a garish relief. Above the ground, a wedge of the dress circle, likewise filled, and a small section of the mural that ran from the back wall to the head of the western stair. The Lyceum was old and of grand construction, yet hardly what purists might call a “concise” structure. There were little peculiarities in the way this theatre had been built, quirks that a casual eye would overlook, but that lent it a feeling of never quite being at right angles. Stairways came to abrupt conclusions, before the foot expected them; sounds could be heard emanating from unusual directions, or no direction at all. One of three major windows—Bram had discovered on examining the immense structure that had, almost overnight, become his responsibility—was a good eleven inches lower than its companions, a defect he had covered with a banner.

Owing to one of these awkwardnesses, at the top of the western staircase, between two rows of audience members but concealed from them, was formed a little containment called the “Nook of the Stair”: simple wasted space, like an abortive hallway, too stunted to serve any purpose. He remembered having fretted over it in the first weeks after arrival, finally deciding that it would not be possible (due to an unexpected curve in one side of the plastered wall, but not the other) to hang even a candelabra in the Nook. And it was in that confoundingly disordered space, not visible from any position but his own, that his eye stopped. For a moment, he was quite certain someone was standing there.

The figure was just past the point where deep shadows fell. It appeared to be a female, slight of build, and vaguely outlined in something white. Even from a distance, this person gave off a peculiar feeling of stillness, as if she had kept watch in this unwitnessed spot for a century already, and could do so for another, but at the same time there was an equally strong sense of activity—the motionless species one sometimes perceived in persons intently engaged in addressing some vexing, inward problem. The arms, shrouded to the wrists in that same white material, hung loosely at her sides. Bram could see an oval face, with its gleam of forehead surrounded by dark, unruly hair, and underneath it, catching lamplight, two eyes that were—he realized with a jump—looking in his direction. Then there was nothing.

It was only later, after the relief and celebrations of opening night were concluded, after red beefsteak and wine at the Plough and Harrow, after his employer had gone on for almost an hour over precise alterations to be made before tomorrow night’s performance (everything from costume details to a change in Fortinbras’ blocking), only after all that, in the quiet of his bedroom with Florence once more, the last minutes of October silent save for the cross-town carriages rattling through the fog, that Bram remembered the definite impression of someone—a woman, he had thought, in the grip of strong emotion?—standing, quite impossibly, in the shadow of the Nook; and, remembering his mother’s frightful stories on Hallowe’en night, wondered whether there were, in this world God had created, such actual things as ghosts.

And if there were, what any such creature should want of him.


William Orem’s first collection of stories, Zombi, You My Love, won the GLCA New Writers Award, formerly given to Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Richard Ford and Alice Munro. His second collection, Across the River, won the Texas Review Novella Prize. His first novel, Killer of Crying Deer, won the Eric Hoffer Award for Excellence in the Small Presses, and has been optioned for film. His second novel, Miss Lucy, won the Gival Press Novel Award. His first collection of poems, Our Purpose in Speaking, won the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize and was published by MSU Press, and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. 

Meanwhile, his short plays have been performed around the country, winning both the Critics’ Prize and Audience Favorite Award at Durango Theatre Fest, and thrice being nominated for the prestigious Heideman Award at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Currently he is a Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College. Details at

Miss Lucy Copyright (c) 2019 by William Orem. By permission of Gival Press.

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Eleanor Marx: A Life

Written by Rachel Holmes
Published by Bloomsbury Paperbacks; Reprint edition (November 15, 2016)

Review by Bonnie Stanard

I stayed up until after 2:00 AM finishing Rachel Holmes’ well-documented biography of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx. I couldn’t go to sleep once I got into the dirty dealings of the nefarious Edward Aveling. The last two chapters lay the groundwork for another book that addresses the dichotomy of Eleanor’s way of life versus her way of death.

Here’s my take on the book:

It provides a sweeping picture of socialist movements of latter 19th Century England, touching on France and Germany. This is a character study of Eleanor Marx only in so much as it relates to her career. She was an indefatigable person of enviable intellect in promoting her father’s principles. Her life was given to travel, organizing labor, writing and promoting the rights of workers.

In advocating an eight-hour day, age limits for employing children, and more humane treatment of women, she met a swell of opposition and wasn’t one to falter. With youthful boldness she faced ridicule and rejection from colleagues and powerful businessmen.

For many years she lived hand to mouth, moved from one shabby place to another, and persisted with enthusiasm to promote a socialist agenda. This won her many friends and admirers, especially among people working in sweatshops.

Holmes has given Eleanor the character of a person who faced obstacles with determination, energy, and sagacity. That she was the unlikeliest of persons to commit suicide is not the focus of this book. Eleanor’s devotion was first and foremost to her father’s social philosophy. That she gave up this cause and took her life when faced with her lover’s betrayal is covered in one short chapter at the end of the book. Worse yet, the lover-cum-conman who betrayed her inherited her estate.

The book’s concluding scenario is reason enough for another biography. This is not meant as a criticism of Holmes’ book, which is a fine introduction to the socialist scene at the time Eleanor Marx lived. 


Bonnie Stanard draws on her rural upbringing and an interest in history to write novels, short stories, and poems with credits in publications such as The American Journal of Poetry, Wisconsin Review, Harpur Palate, The South Carolina Review, and The Museum of Americana. She has published six historical fiction novels and a children’s book. She lives in South Carolina. 

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Merlin’s Prediction

By Lisette J. Merry

Vortigern, the ambitious Chief Advisor to King Maines, and Manson, the leader of the Saxons had their final secret meeting in a dark, corridor recess, in King Maines’ castle in Camelot. 

Their plan would bring Vortigern everything his jealous heart desired, and Mason certain victory.

‘At sunset, then,’ Mason said.

Vortigern nodded, they shook hands, and then pulled up the hoods on their capes, and went their separate ways.

Vortigern went back to his chambers. He was not a man usually given to fear, because he was an experienced diplomat who had cultivated a show of bravado to disguise his true feelings in public.   And in private, he had always convinced himself that the cosmos smiled upon him and therefore there was nothing that could harm him.    

* * * * *

It all began well enough.  King Maines had always trusted Vortigern implicitly, and he followed him willingly enough when Vortigern told him that he wanted to talk with him privately about ‘a very pressing State matter’.   

Manson was waiting for them near the castle wall, and when he caught sight of King Maines on the battlements, he swiftly took aim, and fired.  Manson’s arrow found its mark.  It pierced a deep hole in the King’s chest, and moments later he was dead.

Vortigern looked down at the body of his dead King and suddenly his fears overwhelmed him. And like puffs of smoke in the wind, his well laid plans seemed to vaporise.   

Vortigern bolted straight to the sanctuary of his study and when he arrived there sweating and trembling, he sat down on his chair behind the great table laden with books. He forced himself to find a book, any book, rather than sit there staring into space and shaking like a lunatic.  He picked up a book and clutched at it until his hands stopped trembling. Only then did he attempt to open it and focus on the words on the first page. He forced himself to start reading. And when his manservant, Fabrian, arrived later to inform him of King Maines’ death, it seemed, for all the world, as if he had been reading for hours.

As soon as Fabrian had finished speaking, Vortigern reacted quite naturally to the dreadful news with surprise at first, and then with outrage, finally stating that King Maines’ murder was a treasonous act. His performance was flawless.  Fabrian stared at his master unable to speak, and finally, overwhelmed by grief, he bowed, and rushed out with tears streaming down his face. 

* * * * *

After King Maines’ assassination the Saxons defeated his leaderless army within days.  And Vortigern got what he had always wanted, the crown. 

King Maines’ subjects were terrified into submission, forced to accept the new order, or face torture and execution. And soon King Maines’ younger brothers Pendragon and Uther were banished to the distant land of Estion.

But still, Vortigern could not rest, because he was constantly plagued by the fear that they would return. He was too frightened to sleep, for whenever he did, he would soon wake again from yet another nightmare about his own violent death. 

After weeks of losing sleep in this way, something rather strange happened.  One night, on the eve of the full moon, King Vortigern was too exhausted to stay awake. But this time, instead of having yet another nightmare, he had a wonderful dream.  The dream was about the construction of a huge fortified tower, built to his own specifications. As it came to an end, he saw himself saved from Pendragon and Uther’s army by taking refuge inside it.  When King Vortigern woke from this dream, he felt, that at last, he knew how to save himself.

King Vortigern got up at sunrise. He dressed without the assistance of Fabrian for once, and then he opened the shutters and looked outside, with renewed confidence. 

When Fabrian arrived in King Vortigern’s chambers a little after 7am, he was amazed when his master ordered fruits, cold meats, bread and cheeses for his breakfast, instead of his usual half goblet of red wine.  

As soon as he had breakfasted, King Vortigern, feeling like a new man, ordered that the Royal Mason, Claudas, should be summoned to meet with him. 

And when they met, an hour later, King Vortigern described to him the tower that he had seen in his dream. Claudas hastily unrolled the parchment he had brought with him and placed it on King Vortigern’s dining table. And then with a series of questions he coaxed King Vortigern to describe the tower again, from the beginning, so that he could sketch it out. When King Vortigern saw how accurate Claudas’ drawing was, he immediately approved it, and told Claudas to begin work at once. 

Claudas followed King Vortigern’s orders to the letter, and as soon as he’d left the castle he assembled his masons and put them to work. King Vortigern was delighted, and he went about his diplomatic duties for the rest of that day with the reassuring sound of the masons chipping away at large blocks of sandstone, as they prepared them to lay as the foundations.

King Vortigern had ordered Claudas and his masons to complete the work by the next full moon. And fearful of incurring his wrath if they failed, they laboured from sunrise to sunset each day for the next whole month.

* * * * *

King Vortigern watched his tower steadily rise from its foundations to completion, and on the appointed day, Claudus held open the heavy oak door to the tower for King Vortigern. Once they were inside, Claudus lit his shuttered candle, and King Vortigern followed him across the flagstone floor to the foot of the stone spiral staircase. The King looked up, entranced by every tiny detail of the construction. And, as they climbed the staircase he stopped at each of the arrow slits in the curved stone wall to look outside.  He noted that they gave excellent visibility in all directions, just as he had seen in his dream.

When they reached the top step, King Vortigern listened with great interest as Claudus pointed out the cone shaped oak timber ceiling above their heads and told him how the structure supported the roof’s weight.

When the tour was over, King Vortigern had no hesitation in approving the work. His fears had evaporated. For he now felt secure in the knowledge that he would be able to defend himself from Pendragon and Uther should they ever return.  When he retired that night, he slept more soundly than he had done in weeks.

The next morning he woke in excellent spirits, and he got up and walked over to the shutters and opened them so that he could, once more, feast his eyes on his beautiful tower.  But when he looked outside, to his dismay, his fortified tower was no more, it had collapsed during the night, and it was now just a huge pile of stones. A ruin!

King Vortigern was distraught. He began to pull at his hair and beard, and shout at the heavens in his outrage and distress. 

When Fabrian entered his master’s chambers a little later, with his breakfast, King Vortigern’s eyes were still wild with disbelief and fear.

‘How could this have happened?’ he asked Fabrian.  But he didn’t wait for Fabrian to answer, he just carried on talking, as if to himself. He ranted on and on.  Finally he said

‘……and I chose the finest mason, Claudus, the Royal Mason, no less, to design the tower and act as the foreman for the building of it. ’

Fabrian listened to him in stunned silence, too frightened to interrupt. When the King fell silent at last, Fabrian assumed that the storm of emotions was over. So he was startled when the King suddenly spoke again.

‘But, I am not deterred, Fabrian, I will have Claudus and his masons build another tower for me, and this one will stand, by God, and protect us against our enemies.’  

Fabrian breathed an inward sigh of relief as the King calmed down. But just to be sure, he waited until he had not spoken again for some minutes.

‘Yes, my Lord,’ Fabrian said as he served the King his breakfast, placing it before him on the dining table in the ante room which adjoined King Vortigern’s bedroom.  Then Fabrian poured him a goblet of sweet melon juice.

When the King had finished his breakfast, he looked up at him.

‘I will dress now, Fabrian. I have much to do.’

Fabrian bowed, and immediately fetched King Vortigern’s clothes and helped him dress. The King finally put on his sleeved cape, and as he looked at his appearance in the mirror he nodded his approval at his reflection, and gently stroked his sleeved cape’s ermine collar.

‘Bring Claudas to me, Fabrian,’ he said.  ‘I have decided that he will start the rebuilding of my fortified tower today.’

Fabrian bowed, and then withdrew from King Vortigern’s chamber and fetched Claudas.  He met with the King an hour later.  And after they had spoken, the work on the tower began again. The King had given orders that the masons were not to use stones from the old tower for the rebuild. He ordered them to use all new sandstone, which meant that they had to start the work all over again, and painstakingly shape each piece of sandstone with their hand chisels. They were furious, but they were so afraid of King Vortigern’s temper, that they kept their feelings to themselves. 

Weeks passed, and by the end of the month, the fortified tower was finished.  When he saw it King Vortigern thought it looked more splendid than the first one had done.

But ill fortune struck again. For soon after it was finished, the tower collapsed, just as the first had done. King Vortigern was furious, but he was also frightened, for he could find no explanation for why both of his magnificent towers had collapsed so suddenly.  King Vortigern was so angry that he interrogated Claudas for a whole hour after the second tower’s collapse, but he finally concluded that Claudas was as puzzled as he was.  

King Vortigern would not let the matter rest. He was determined to find out why the towers had collapsed, and he called the Court Astrologers to him to ask them for their advice.  They dutifully responded to King Vortigern’s summons without delay, and upon their arrival walked ceremoniously into the great hall, and then stood before him resplendent in their silken robes trimmed with fox fur. They listened intently to all that King Vortigern had to say.  And when he had finished, they turned to each other and spoke amongst themselves for some time.   Finally, and after much deliberation, they nodded their agreement to each other.  They had made their decision, and they chose Micas, the most learned of their number, to tell King Vortigern what they advised. 

‘Sire, we are all sorely troubled by what you have told us, and by what we have learned ourselves of these events. We can determine no explanation for them in the cosmos, despite our efforts to do so.  Our advice to you is that you seek your answer from a young boy who is known to us, and who has extraordinary gifts.’ They all nodded their agreement to this. 

King Vortigern was deeply disappointed. He had felt certain that they would have found an answer to his dilemma in the cosmos. But it seemed they had not. He was at a loss now as to how he should proceed.  And although he was startled by their advice, he knew better than to question it.

‘Who is this young boy?  And how shall I find him?’

‘You will not have to find him, Sire. We will go in search of the boy,’ Micas replied.

‘So be it.’ King Vortigern said.

Then he turned to Fabrian who was standing by his side. 

‘Take Fabrian with you, so he might be your messenger. Send him back to me with the news that you have found the boy,’ he told Micas. Then he smiled at the assembled group of men.

‘You have my leave gentlemen,’ he said, dismissing them.  

And as soon as they left the king’s presence, the Court Astrologers set out with Fabrian, on their journey.  Early the following morning, they found some children playing together by a stream. One of the children, a young boy, noticed them, and he immediately left his playmates and ran over to speak to them,

‘I am the boy that you seek. My name is Merlin.’ He said.  The Astrologers looked at him and were silent for a moment, because they were amazed that the boy already knew their purpose. Micas turned to Fabrian, and said.

‘Go now my friend, and tell King Vortigern that we have succeeded in our search.’ Fabrian nodded to him, and set off towards the castle at a run.  Then Micas spoke to the young boy.

‘Will you come back with us to King Vortigern’s Court, and speak to the King on a matter of great importance to him?’

‘Yes,’ Merlin replied. ‘But before I go with you, I must first return home and tell my mother why I am going to see the King, so that she does not worry about me. My home is close by, so I won’t delay you long.’

‘Good,’ Micas replied. And a short time later, after Merlin had reassured his mother, he went with the Astrologers to Camelot. And when they arrived there, they took Merlin straight to the castle’s great hall.

Merlin walked into the great hall behind the Astrologers, and they processed in this manner to the far end of it where King Vortigern sat on his throne.  Despite the grandeur of the hall, and being in the presence of the King, Merlin showed no fear.  He stood infront of King Vortigern, looked up at him, and said confidently,

‘Sire, my name is Merlin, and I know that you have brought me here to tell you why your great towers would not stand.’

King Vortigern was amazed by the child’s knowledge and insight.

‘And why would that be, young master?’ he asked.

‘Your towers did not stand Sire, because two dragons sleep under the ground where they stood.  And the weight of the towers pressed down on the dragons’ bodies as they slept. They became uncomfortable, and began to move about in their sleep. Their movements shook the ground above them, and it was this that caused both of the towers you built to fall down.’

Silence descended on the great hall.

There had been something about the look in Merlin’s eyes as he had spoken that defied King Vortigern to question his conclusion, and therefore, though he was amazed by what Merlin had just told him, he sent Claudas and his masons out to the site, and ordered that they should dig down beneath the foundations.  The men did as they had been ordered. And after some hours of digging, they found the two dragons, just where Merlin had said they would be, one of the dragons was red and the other one was white. As soon as the masons saw them they were terrified, and they ran away, in fear for their lives.

Although this looked cowardly, it proved to be a wise decision on their part, because only a few minutes later, the daylight woke the dragons, and they climbed out of the ground and attacked each other.  They fought ferociously for some time, and the Red Dragon was killed.  But the White Dragon was not the victor. For Destiny had determined that just before he died, the Red Dragon had found the strength to mortally wound the White Dragon and he too died soon after the battle finished.

King Vortigern had witnessed the dragons’ fight from the battlements of his castle with Merlin standing beside him. 

‘And what is the meaning of all of this? Is it possible that you can tell me, young master?’ he asked Merlin.

Merlin looked up at King Vortigern whose eyes were now wide with fear, and said,

‘I believe I can, Sire. You are the Red Dragon.  The White Dragon is Pendragon and Uther, who will soon return to Camelot, kill you, and reclaim their kingdom.’ King Vortigern smiled, and shook his head, for he did not want to believe Merlin.

* * * * *

Merlin’s prediction soon proved true.  For only a few days after the collapse of King Vortigern’s second tower and the battle between the dragons, the two brothers, Pendragon and Uther returned to Camelot with an enormous army. They fought with, and defeated King Vortigern and Manson’s Saxon army.  When the battle was over, the usurper King Vortigern was found dead in the remains of his second ruined tower. Pendragon and Uther reclaimed Camelot, and the older brother, Pendragon, assumed his place as the rightful king.

King Pendragon and Uther asked Merlin, despite his youth, to become their counsellor. For Pendragon and Uther both agreed that Merlin was wise far beyond his years. Merlin said he was honoured by their request and accepted.

Merlin instinctively knew what his first duty would be, and that was to warn them of the imminent danger of another attack on Camelot by the Saxons.

And a short time later, the Saxons did indeed invade and wage war against King Pendragon, Uther and their loyal army close to Camelot.  Both victory, and tragedy were destined to follow. For even though they won this, their second battle against the Saxons, Pendragon was struck down on the battlefield and killed. 

After his brother’s death, and the designated period of mourning, Uther succeeded his older brother Pendragon, and out of respect for his brother’s valiant deeds, and in devoted remembrance of him, Uther chose to be known from that time forth, as King Uther Pendragon.


Lisette Merry has always found history fascinating. One of her favourite periods of British history is the time of the legendary King Arthur. She lives in Kent, England with her husband.

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A Day at the Circus

By Mark C. Harwell

General Flavius Stilicho followed closely behind shorter and more slightly built Emperor Honorius, who led the royal family procession from the imperial palace down a private tunnel directly connected to the circus in Mediolanum.  Stilicho had a large nose with a boxing dent and a battle scar above his nostrils.  His sepia-colored hair was cut short in Roman military fashion.  To his right, his wife, Serena, walked straight-backed, her chin high.  He thought her a handsome woman, with pitch black hair braided and wound around her head, pinned in place by gold, pearl-studded combs that gave the appearance of a diadem rising from her scalp.  But he had not married her for her looks.  She was the niece and adopted daughter of Emperor Theodosius.

A roar echoed up the tunnel.  It reminded him of howling and snapping Alpine wolves fighting over a fresh kill late at night.  When he emerged from the tunnel into the imperial box, the noise opened up to a deafening roar like scores of ocean waves crashing against seawalls.  His nose recoiled at the pungent odor of massed, sweaty humanity.  This was the second of three days of festival races honoring the deceased Theodosius.  The unrelenting bright sun burned necks and stewed bodies among the raucous tens of thousands gathered.  He twitched his nose and scanned the assembled mob.  He spotted Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a prideful looking, round-faced senator from Rome, in the center of a group of other senators who had made the trip north for the funeral games.  They were seated along with the other people of senatorial rank or wealth on the first two rows of the marble benches that stretched the full length of the stadium’s elongated U shape.  Symmachus and his companions looked detached and unenthusiastic.  Stilicho grimaced.  “Roman sops,” he murmured.

Above the senators’ heads, in the next five rows, men and women from every lower rank and social order screamed boisterously, waving colored flags and streamers for their favorite faction, and insulting the competing teams with lewd jeers.  Separated by class horizontally, the stadium divided vertically into four distinct colored factions.  The Whites, wearing white tunics, scarves, or dresses held the quarter of the stadium on Stilicho’s right.  Next came the Blues, then the Reds, ending with the Greens seated on the emperor’s left.

Young Emperor Honorius strode to his purple-cushioned seat in the front center of the imperial box.   Stilicho stopped next to him, where he had an excellent view of the circus’ starting gate and finish line.  But he was far more interested in keeping his eyes on the teenage emperor than the pageantry of the stadium.  This was Honorius’ first public appearance as the new emperor of the West.  Stilicho was pleased how the boy had handled himself thus far.  Honorius might grow to be a handsome man.  With the stonecutters’ embellishments, his face and curly brown hair would cut a noble figure that would do nicely for the bronze and marble busts.  Still, it was what hid inside the boy emperor’s skin that worried the general.  He had yet to see any confirmation that the son had inherited his father’s intelligence, courage, or humility.  He could not keep Honorius under his personal supervision forever.  He fretted what the all-powerful adolescent might do in his absence.

Stilicho waited for the imperial party to fully assemble.  His oldest daughter, Maria, took her place on Honorius’ left.  One year younger than Honorius, Maria had her mother’s dark hair, but had inherited Stilicho’s hazel eyes and large nose.  Her shiny black locks hung loose below her shoulders.  She held her nose high in an immodest pose.  Stilicho planned for Maria and Honorius to wed as soon as she became of age.  It pleased him that Maria took to the idea eagerly.

Next to Maria came her five-year-old sister, Thermantia.  She had a mass of curly red-brown hair that jutted from her blue headscarf like loose copper springs. Stilicho smiled knowing that should the need arise, his second daughter waited ready in the wings to take her turn in Honorius’ royal bedchamber.

Behind his daughters stood Galla Placidia, Honorius’ seven-year-old half-sister.  Galla seemed to Stilicho to have a permanent, stepchild’s jealous resentment about her.  Yet, even at this young age, he could see that she might rival her mother’s legendary beauty.  She had gray eyes the color of stormy seas, but filled with golden flakes that shimmered in the same way that shiny stones reflect light in still waters.

Last among the royal entourage, and standing behind Maria and Thermantia, came Stilicho’s seven-year-old son, Eucherius.  Although Stilicho might someday choose to wed Galla Placidia to a rich Roman senator, or to a barbarian king to secure the Empire’s borders, it seemed to him more than mere chance that God had given him a son who he could graft into Theodosius’ bloodline by marriage to Galla Placidia should the need arise.

Behind the royal family came the dignitaries invited by Stilicho in Honorius’ name, the foremost being General Gainas.  He was a tall man with short black hair wearing a blue Thracian robe over his russet tunic in a style common in Constantinople, capital of the East.  He had intense blue eyes set wide atop his broad nose, the bridge of which had been clipped by a Gothic arrowhead three years ago.  Trailing after the invited guests, male slaves bore earthenware jars holding wine, water and fruit juices, and silver trays stacked with small sweet cakes.  Last, came the Hun mercenary royal bodyguards. The four swarthy-skinned stout men wore chain mail to their shins and iron helmets crested from front to back with billowy purple-dyed feathers. They took positions guarding the entrance to the tunnel.

Honorius raised both his arms skyward and the raucous noise in the circus abated.  He looked about ready to take his seat, when a male voice suddenly screamed out from the White faction seats.

“Blues suck donkey dicks!”

A bombard of bread crusts, half-eaten fruit, and flying liquids immediately responded from the Blue faction pelting the Whites nearest the dividing line.  A melee ensued.  The border line between white and blue clad spectators undulated, resembling a streamer blowing in a gusty wind as the rows of fans shoved and beat each other.

Honorius snickered, obviously delighted that the Blues seemed to be getting the best of the Whites.

Serena sharply squeezed Stilicho’s hand and growled “husband” from the side of her mouth.

Stilicho thought the commotion comical, but he did not want to cross his wife.  Serena had a steadfast orthodox Christian faith with little tolerance for roguish behavior.  It also occurred to him that the moment offered the opportunity for a test of the boy emperor.

“Augustus,” Stilicho said turning to Honorius.  “Perhaps your serene guidance would be in order.”

The boy’s childish, delighted smile changed to a stately frown.  He lifted his arms high and screamed out in his high-pitched voice: “Citizens!”  Faces turned toward him from the blue and white battle line.  “Calm yourselves!  We have come together to celebrate my late father’s great reign.  Let’s not sully his memory by brawling.”

“Hail Theodosius,” a voice screamed from the Greens.  “Hail Honorius,” a chant began from the Reds.  Soon the entire stadium vibrated with the chorus of “Hail Honorius.”  The boy’s face beamed brighter than Pharos.  After several moments of letting Honorius absorb the adulation, Stilicho waved his arms for silence.  This time everyone in the crowd instantly obeyed.  “Citizens, your emperor thanks you for your praise.  Now, with the blessing of the Holy Trinity, let the races begin.”  Honorius immediately sat down.  After waiting a respectful heartbeat, everyone else in the imperial party took their seats.  The crowd noise in the circus resumed its excited, rolling hum of anticipation.

The city prefect, gray-headed Gaius Longinus, appeared from a gated passageway beneath the imperial box.  He walked to the middle of the track.  He wore a long yellow tunic with two broad red stripes embroidered with gold that ran hem to hem and over each shoulder.  He announced the day’s slate of races and praised the aedile, quaestor, or other public officials who had sponsored each race by providing the prize money.  The names drew a polite, but unenthusiastic cheer from the audience.

Stilicho’s mind wandered from the prefect’s speech.  He half-heartedly clapped his hands when four chariots appeared for the day’s first race.  He had never had much enthusiasm for the races.  From time to time he might take a special interest in a particularly talented driver, or praise the beauty of a well-matched team of horses, but the thrill of the colored factions that drove the crowds into such a fanatical frenzy completely escaped his understanding.  To him, the chariots were an outdated relic of ancient warfare.  He had never seen one in battle, though he had heard that some of the most primitive British tribes still used them.   A two-horse chariot could not match the speed of light cavalry.  Larger chariots on a battlefield were ponderous and difficult to control, sometimes doing as much damage to their own ranks as to their enemy’s.  Compared to his memories of the thundering charge of heavily-armored horses and the sheer terror wrought by lances impaling bodies and swords splitting heads, the chariot races seemed to him a pathetic pantomime of real combat.  But the crowd did not share his disdain.  As soon as each color-coordinated chariot appeared on the track, the respective colored faction in the stands roared with wild excitement.

Each chariot driver wore a simple tunic dyed the faction’s color.  Each steered his chariot once around the track preliminary to the race.  Men in the audience yelled encouragement to their faction’s driver and curses upon the other drivers.  The women screamed just as ardently.  A woman two rows up in the Blue’s section bared her chest and screamed to the Blue rider: “They’re yours if you win.”

Serena turned up her nose.  “Disgraceful.”

A smile cracked Stilicho’s lips.  He leaned toward Serena to speak into her ear.  “Do you suppose the man beside her is her husband?”

“I wonder what he has to say about such indecency.”

Stilicho laughed.  “My guess is that he’d willingly offer himself as his wife’s substitute if the driver is inclined in that way.”

Serena snarled.  “That’s disgusting.  I can’t imagine what they see in the driver.  The man is hideous.”

Stilicho studied the Blue driver.  His arms were covered with thick black hair.  A purple swell puffed under his left eye.  A grayish scar ran the full length of his right cheek.  “It’s not about his appearance, my dear.  If the Red charioteer were to change tunics with the Blue mid-race and win, I’m sure the woman would just as enthusiastically invite him to her bed.”

 Serena gasped.  She playfully slapped at his left shoulder.

He glanced toward Honorius who sat rigid and tense, his hands gripping his seat’s armrests in excitement, visibly restraining himself from joining in the Blue faction’s cheers for the Blue charioteer as he passed the imperial box.

 “I like the Blue’s horses,” Maria said.

“Yes,” Honorius exploded.  He drew a quick breath and then quickly resumed his statelier composure.  “Yes, they are magnificent aren’t they,” he said with poorly feigned indifference.

 “I like the Green,” Galla said.

Honorius scoffed.  “My dear little sister, the Greens didn’t win once yesterday and they don’t look to be a favorite today.  Maria has a much better eye for a champion than you.”

Maria smiled proudly.  Galla’s lower lip curled to a pout.  “I still like the Green,” she said.

 “And what says my master of soldiers?”  Honorius said.

Stilicho studied the shiny black stallions pulling the Blue chariot.  Their coats gleamed beautifully, but they stomped their hooves spasmodically and randomly jerked their heads in the harness.  They had the wide, white-eyed frightened look that Stilicho had seen in horses charging into massed spears.  This must be their first race. The charioteer noticeably strained at the reins holding back the horses.  Stilicho preferred the look of the Red team.  The dappled gray horses were not so lovely as the blacks, but their legs trotted in perfect unison.  The driver steered them with casual tugs.  The horses knew to save their energy for the race.

He turned back to the emperor.  Regrettably, the sole characteristic that he had observed in Honorius that he had inherited from his august father was Theodosius’ volatile temper.  Despite the fact that he despised sycophants, Stilicho learned long ago that if he coddled the boy emperor rather than irritate him, he would not provoke a tantrum.  “Augustus, I favor your choice, the Blues, though of course, like you, I do not adhere to any particular faction.”

Honorius nodded, appearing satisfied with his own expertise.  “Yes, magnificent … the black horses are magnificent.”

The four chariots pulled up to the starting line.  Grooms wearing faction color-coordinated livery grabbed the horses’ bridles.  They held the teams steady.  When all the horses had been calmed, the grooms scattered.  The circus grew silent, the masses collectively holding their breaths.  A trumpeter stationed high above the starting gate lifted his curled trumpet, waiting for Honorius’ signal.  Honorius raised a white cloth high in his hand, the crowd becoming utterly silent.

Honorius released the cloth.  A shrill blast sounded.  The horses leapt forward.  The circus exploded with the urgent screams of 30,000 voices.  The black stallions instantly jumped into the lead.  The Blue charioteer leaned far forward in the chariot giving his horses full loose reins.  By the first turn, he had established a one length lead over the other three.  The Red chariot hung back at the rear of the pack.

Stilicho noticed movement behind him.  He turned to see a uniformed officer from the eastern VIIth Claudia palatini legion emerge from the emperor’s tunnel.  The man hesitated, scanning the group, then marched directly to General Gainas.  He spoke into the general’s ear, then both men retired back to the tunnel.

At the third turn, the Blue chariot still held its lead over the other three.  As the Blue’s horses galloped past Stilicho, he noted the white lines of sweat already streaking their midnight necks.  The dapple grays pulling the Red chariot, now three lengths back, still looked relaxed.  “Go!  Go!” Honorius cheered.  Maria joined him in the chorus.  By the ninth turn, Stilicho could see that the black stallions’ strides were flagging.  The Red chariot driver started his move.  The dapple grays charged past the Green chariot.

General Gainas returned and tapped Stilicho’s right shoulder.  “Sir, may we speak in private?”  Stilicho nodded.  “Yes of course,” he said.  “Let’s just watch the end, shall we?”  He did not care so much about how the race would conclude, but he definitely cared about how Honorius would handle what Stilicho knew to be the Blue’s impending defeat.  He wanted to be close at hand.

At the twelfth turn the Blue chariot had lost its lead to the White chariot.  Midway to the thirteenth and final turn the Red chariot had overtaken both.  It crossed the finish line two lengths in front of the White and another length in front of the Blue.  The Green came in last.  Honorius slumped in his seat.  He had a sulking, pink blush to his face.  He looked as though he thought that he had somehow been personally responsible for the Blue’s defeat.

Stilicho stood and faced Honorius.  “As usual Augustus, it’s better to be lucky than skillful.”

Honorius squinted his eyes looking up.  “Lucky?”  He nodded slowly, his flushed skin returned to a pasty hue.  “Yes … the Red had appalling good luck.”

“If they’d race ten times instead of just once the Blue would certainly win nine,” Stilicho said.  “The Red would never be so fortunate again.”

“You saw that too,” Honorius said.  “Appalling … appalling good luck that Red.”

Stilicho bowed at his waist.  “Excuse me sire, but General Gainas needs to speak with me.”

Honorius waved the back of his right hand at him.  “Go.  Come back when you can.”  He straightened in his chair and turned to face the track.  “Appalling good luck that Red.  They won’t be so lucky next time.”


Mark Harwell is a new writer who studied history at Rice University and earned a J.D. from the University of Texas.  He resides in Katy, Texas and writes historical fiction, mysteries and thrillers.  A Day at the Circus is a portion of his forthcoming novel.

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The Fire at Colney Pointe Insane Asylum

By Chris Daruns

Beatrice Carter studied the match. It was such a small thing. Just a chip of wood and a bit of white phosphorous. Such a simple thing to have so much potential.

Getting the match was simple too. All she had to do was ask. The guards kept matches to distribute to those patients that smoked. Since Beatrice smoked occasionally, asking for a match and a cigarette was not unusual.

That she had to toss off Mr. Driscoll was not unusual either. She’d been sucking his prick just about every day for the past two years. Nurse Mabel might have given her a match, but she would have hit her for the disrespect of asking. She carried around a three-foot length of birch for that expressed purpose. Beatrice would rather suck a prick than be beaten with Nurse Mabel’s medicine rod. Mr. Howard would have beaten her and made her toss him off. She was happy she didn’t have to ask him.

Later, when the London County Council attempted to understand the cause of the fire, they would find a mystery in Beatrice Carter. She arrived at Colney Pointe in 1901 after being arrested for lewd behavior and prostitution. The asylum’s physician, Dr. Wolcott, diagnosed her as having acute mania with punctuated bouts of hysteria due to “complications of the feminine cycle.” There was no record that she received any treatment at Colney Pointe. The only surviving documentation of her is in his personal notes where he wrote, “This woman has fallen into a state of complete moral decrepitude and abject carelessness; she is dirty and ragged, in a word, unable to take care of herself.”

Nobody knew why Beatrice Carter started the fire.

Nobody knew that Beatrice regretted not smoking that last cigarette. At approximately noon, she struck the match on the rusted metal of her bed frame and put the flame to her clothes.

On May 6, 1903 Beatrice Carter set herself on fire.

* * * * *

Big Joe McNeil had been called a cunt twice already and the day had barely begun. This was not unusual.

The first time was from Bernie Samson in F Ward, which wasn’t special because he called everybody a cunt and, until a few weeks ago, attempted to throw shit on the staff. The other attendants beat Bernie pretty regularly until they got the new shipment of straightjackets. Now, Bernie just yelled at anyone who came close to his room and flopped on the floor like a fish wrapped in canvas. Big Joe was just glad that he didn’t have to dodge filth anymore.

The second time came from John Avery, an upstanding politician’s son who drank some bad tonic and went slowly mad. The tonic he drank (as a hangover cure) killed his “ability to reason”. That it contained trace amounts of arsenic was never realized.

“G’ morning, you big Irish cunt,” John Avery said with a goofy grin while walking in small circles in the communal room.

Big Joe smiled and tipped an invisible hat, “Morning, your majesty.”

Colney Pointe, like other major asylums of the day, was more than just one building. It was an entire campus. The main facility was the Higgins Hospital, a four-story, U-shaped building that housed over one thousand patients and also the administrative offices for the whole institution. The offices were located at the front while the patient wards and facilities were spread between two long wings. The wings were separated by gender, with the female wards in the east wing and the male wards in the west.  It was overcrowded and underfunded as was typical for asylums.

Big Joe, as a personal rule, stayed away from the female wards. He preferred to deal with the men. The male patients were usually intimidated by his scars and his size. The women were not.  Abigail Clark could attest to that—she once took a sizable bite out of his arm when he tried stopping her from pissing on another patient.

At over six feet three inches and two hundred and fifty pounds, Joe was enormous for the day.  Sometimes, as Big Joe well knew, size didn’t mean shit.

When Joe McNeil was five, he wanted to be a fireman.  He wanted to run into burning buildings armed only with an axe and a big dose of courage and put out a fire single handedly.

He wanted to be a hero.

To the son of an Irish longshoreman, that’s what heroism is.

Instead, Joe spent his teens and twenties doing strong man competitions in London and Bristol. He spent his nights either boxing or working as a bruiser for his manager, “Lucky” Nick Davenport.

When six men, who had lost three day’s wages on a “sure thing,” cornered Lucky and Big Joe in an alley off Brixton, his career path changed rather suddenly. They stabbed “Lucky” Nick twenty times and beat Big Joe within an inch of his life. He fought hard but ultimately was overcome. That beating was one of the few times Big Joe had ever been bested. It was a minor miracle that he was able to walk now with only a mild limp.

It was hard to find regular work as a bruiser with a bum knee and a trick shoulder and Joe had to look outside the normal avenues. When he interviewed at Colney Pointe, the doctor declared him, “the biggest damn Irishman I’ve ever seen”, and hired him on the spot, provided he didn’t succumb to the “ills of his race.”

Big Joe’s duties consisted of walking the wards, maintaining discipline and control of the patients, and assisting the medical staff with their tasks.

When the fire started, Big Joe was standing next to Nurse Mabel, Warren Driscoll, and Dr. Wolcott himself in the ice room.

Joe did not like the ice room.

The new treatment, all the rage in France and Norway, was to plunge a patient’s head under freezing cold water for ten second intervals. Hydrotherapy been around for about fifty years. Men smarter than Big Joe thought that the cold would reset “overheated” parts of the brain and thus restore a patient to some semblance of normalcy.

It was a convenient side-effect that patients that underwent this treatment rarely misbehaved again, which served as evidence for its continued use as a medical treatment.

“Gentlemen,” Dr. Wolcott began, talking to everyone and no one at the same time, “we are on the threshold of a great time. To think that only a few short years ago the insane were treated like animals—chained to walls and given no consideration for their humanity. Down!  Science has shown that these poor individuals can be cured with the proper care and consideration. No longer will the mentally feeble and insane be considered possessed by demons. What bullocks!  Up! The methods of science will surpass those of superstition. Innovation, gentlemen. Innovation and reason will lead us into the future of this field. Down!”

The doctor was the smartest man Big Joe had ever known.  For example, Big Joe didn’t know why Patricia Hensley had clawed out her own eyes last spring, but the doctor said it was because of an “overactive manic disorder brought on by mental fatigue.”  Joe didn’t know what that meant, but then again, people never remembered him for his wit.

“Up!” the doctor ordered.

Warren Driscoll tipped the board that seventeen-year-old Clarence Hatch was strapped to. Clarence suffered from bouts of mania brought on by self-mutilation. He hurt himself through frequent masturbation and it had unbalanced his mind.

He came out of the water half-choking, half-screaming. “No! No, please!  No more! I’ll be proper!”


Obviously, Clarence was in the resistance stage of the treatment. Warren Driscoll dunked him again.

Joe did not like the ice room.

When Nurse Mabel screeched, a high-pitch scream that contrasted her considerable bulk, everyone turned.

Big Joe smelled it before he saw it—a sharp, acrid scent that was instantly recognizable. Light wisps of smoke sifted through the edges of the door and up to the ceiling. Nurse Mabel opened the door and smoke trailed into room.

As if by some unspoken bond, everyone in the room fled into the corridor to either investigate the fire or run away.

Clarence Hatch was forgotten about until nightfall the following day.

* * * * *

The corridor was hazy and deserted. It was hard to tell where the smoke was coming from. For a moment, the four of them just looked around, dumbfounded. Then the doctor started coughing.

It was Joe who broke the daze, “Mabel, get the doctor and as many of the loonies as you can outside. Mr. Driscoll, with me. I think it’s coming from D ward.”

“I ain’t taking orders from no paddy bastard,” Driscoll replied. “Piss off an’ die.”

Nurse Mabel, ever the diplomat, said, “You some lily tosser?  You’re part of the fire brigade too, ain’t ye?”

Warren Driscoll sneered but relented and ran down the corridor with Big Joe.

They didn’t get far before fits of coughing drove them both to their knees. They crawled into one of the water closets and soaked towels in the basin. They wrapped them around their faces; the wet fabric would block a lot of the ash and soot from being breathed in.

From the outside, Higgins Hospital looked like a castle, so it was hard to imagine that so much stone and concrete could catch fire let alone burn so readily.  Big Joe knew that the fortress-like facade was just that, an illusion.  A shell.  The interior of the hospital, the floors themselves, were wood and plaster.  The whole place was like kindling inside a fireplace.

They ran to the female wing, the fourth floor of which was D ward.

The first thing they saw was a woman, a patient, with her hair on fire. The human candle fled, away from them, bouncing off the walls of the corridor.  She was screaming. Warren cursed but Big Joe said nothing.

He was on her in three great strides.

Big Joe grabbed the burning woman and threw her to the floor.  He looked for a moment as if he was going to beat her, or worse.  She flailed and screamed under him. With the wet towel, he palm her head with his massive hands, snuffing out the fire.

The fire hissed and sizzled and disappeared.  The woman stopped struggling and became still.  When Big Joe removed the towel the fire was gone.  So was the majority of her hair and scalp.  Her face was streaked black with ash and one of her eyes had partially melted in its socket making it seem misshapen and swollen.

He picked her up, ignoring the awful smell of burnt flesh and shouldering her weight as if she were a sack of flour.

They reached the emergency hose spooled in a corner at the edge of wing. It was a short, narrow canvas set-up that, to Big Joe’s knowledge, had never been used. Ahead of them was the dull orange glow of fire behind the wall of smoke. They could both hear distant shrieks of patients as they tried to get out of their locked rooms. There were more than four hundred women on this side of the building.

Joe put the burnt woman down and handed Warren the nozzle.  He muscled open a red wheel valve to release the water pressure.

“Here we go, birdies!” Warren yelled through his wet towel. He opened the nozzle.

Nothing happened.

The two men looked at each other, and then at the hose, and then at the external pipes on the wall.

“Bloody hell!” Warren said.

Joe saw it too. The copper pipe, which should have disappeared into the ceiling, ended two feet from it. The internal pipes for the facility’s fire hoses were never completed. The hose was connected to nothing.

“To ‘ell with this,” Warren said, turning to run the opposite way. Big Joe grabbed his collar and yanked him backward, slamming the smaller man into the wall. Big Joe got close to Warren’s face.

“Open your ears, you cockney cunt,” he growled. “You take your twirls and you unlatch every single one of them doors and you get the loonies out. Then you go down to C ward and do it again. And again. If you don’t, by Jesus, I’ll gut you and bleed the life right outta ya.  Now, g’wan and git it done.” With that Big Joe pushed Warren toward the women’s corridor and watched him disappear into the smoke.

Big Joe picked the moaning woman up again and ran into the east stairwell. He took the stairs two at a time, climbing to the roof.

“You’re a daft mick,” he said to himself. That bum knee of his, the one a couple Brixton boys took grand pleasure in stomping on, burned fierce. He ignored it. He ignored the dead weight on his shoulder.  He repeated a favorite saying of his father’s: “Pain don’t mean nothing, boyo. ”

Big Joe didn’t so much open the door to the roof as drive his shoulder into it until it came off its hinges. What greeted him was a pocket of fresh air bordered by thick white smoke that wafted from the mesh windows of the burning rooms under him. In front of him was his goal: the east water tower.

The entire water supply for the Higgins Hospital came from two medium-sized water towers on the flat corners of the roof. Through gravity, they kept pressure up in every faucet, shower, and water closet in the building. They were squat structures, about twelve feet tall and braced by four, thick, legs holding up a wooden barrel that held nine thousand gallons of water. From the underside of the barrel came four copper pipes that descended into the roof and branched throughout the building.

He set burnt woman down it near the stairwell, in a pocket of clean air.  Then he kicked down the door of a small storage closet and took the large roofing axe. Big Joe fought the urge to stop, to catch his breath, to rub his knee. His first swing bit into the oak leg of the tower.  Just like chopping down a tree, he thought.

“You’re a daft mick,” Lucky Nick had told him after Big Joe had killed a man in the boxing ring. “You ought not to care so much. He was just some dumb jig.  Think he’d have given a squirt of piss for ye? You rather it be you in there?”

Big Joe swung again while imagining the leg of the water tower was just a tree. Just a tree to be felled. Nothing more.

He tried not to think about what was about to happen.

His knee burned and his bad shoulder stung every time the axe hit. His father had growled at him, “Ye stop and death will make a man outta ye, as is my word. If you want pain, I’ll be happy to oblige ye.”

“A big, dumb, daft, mick. That’s your lot in life. You listen to your pal Nick. I’ll set you on the straight and righteous.”

“He’s not so big once you take a club to ’em.” Some other voice, far away. One associated with the biggest fight of his life.

“You ought not to care so much,” Lucky Nick had smiled when he said this, “he’s was just some dumb jig. He should have known about your right hook.”

The rubber soles of Big Joe’s boots melted to the tar roof. It was like standing in wet sand. The fire was directly under him. It was directly under the water tower.

The impossible happened: the axe broke through the leg.

The water tower tilted and a splintering sound cracked through the other supports .  The two halves of the cut support met again and the tower stopped its fall.

Big Joe buried the axe in the roof and charged the support.  He hugged the wooden beam to his body and drove forward.  He bad knee buckled under the pressure so he pushed of his other leg.

“Don’t you quit on me!” Did he scream that? Or was it Nick?  His father?  “Don’t you QUIT!”

He pushed and lifted and drove forward and cried out.

“You ain’t no sap, boyo.  Only the dead don’t feel pain.  It don’t deserve to beat ye.”

He pushed harder, flexing every muscle he had, feeling hot pressure building in his bones.

Splintering wood came first.  Then he pushed through.

The water tower lurched and then let loose a series of gunshot-like cracks as the other wooden supports buckled and failed. Nine thousand gallons of water tipped behind Big Joe as he broke off the support.

Momentum drove Big Joe to the edge of the roof as the water tower collapsed behind him. When the edge of the water tower punched through roof, it exploded in a torrent of water and wood, drenching the fire underneath.

The sound of the stream exploding back up was the last thing Big Joe ever heard.

When Joe McNeil was nine, he wanted to be fireman.

* * * * *

When the London County Council attempted to understand how the fire at Colney Pointe was able to come under control so fast, they found a miracle at the location of the east water tower. The fire, their report claimed, had weakened the roof to the point of collapse. The tower, nearly full, had ruptured when the roof under it collapsed and drenched the fire. Eighteen people perished in the fire, including one staff member. If not for the tower’s location, the fire might have been much more tragic.

It was deemed a turn of luck.

They commended the heroic actions of attendant Warren Driscoll who, with great risk to his own life, managed to free fifty-six patients who would have otherwise perished.

He was declared a hero.


When not writing, Chris works as an EMT in and around Denver, Colorado. He enjoys long strolls through the mountains, hip-hop, and BJJ. His work has previously been published in Deimos, Dark Futures Fiction, SNM Horror, and Infernal Ink Magazine, among others. You can follow him on Facebook.

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No Better Plenitude: 1685

By James McAdams

“I have wanted to kill myself a thousand times, but am still in love with life.” 

Voltaire, Candide

Francois M. said his garden was better—“But your garden is all well and good,” he added, striding around the garden crimping leaves and smelling with evident lack of impression the flowers, shrubs, and larger vines that comprised Herrenhausen. His inflection was slow and dispassionate, indicating a sort of distracted scorn.  “Although your garden is…je nais sais quoi…far from perfect.”

“It’s not my garden,” said the Duke of Hanover.  “It was built for my brother by our famous librarian and courtier, Leibniz. I assume you know of him.”

“I too have created a garden, an opus of negation, of hybrid plants and black vines, of flesh-eating flowers.  I could describe to you the most hideous and bizarre things.”  He coiled his hands in the air, as if searching for the proper phrasing.

The Duke observed him looking in perplexity at the sandbox.  Everything about Francois M. promoted a protest against the world and a corresponding cultivation of deformity, illness, and negation. He was tall and thin, with a long red face and carbuncular, flaky skin.  His hair was shorn in uneven patches like a peasant and uncovered by the Baroque wigs and perukes affected by polite society.  One of his eyes was completely covered by its upper lid, the resulting slit looking vaguely reptilian.  

Francois M. returned to the table where the Duke sat with two officers of the court standing behind him.  He eased himself onto a chair across from the Duke, issuing a bitter groan.  He rapped on the stone pathway with his cane and said, “I must admit, my knowledge of Leibniz’s present inhabitance compelled my response to your invitation.  The best of all possible worlds, c’est ne pas?”  He scratched a tuft of hair over his ear and continued.  “Leibniz is an unreliable advocate for a cruel world, an apologist for a non-existent God, a God whom, as I have famously said, we have had to invent since He does not exist.” 

The Duke scoffed. “My wife and daughter are amused by him, for that reason alone I bear him.” 

 “Il faut cultivre notre jardin, you must agree.

“We must cultivate our own gardens, yes, that is another of your elegant aphorisms.  Well,” the Duke gestured equivocally, “I am a man too busy for gardens, aphorisms, or such twaddle.  Such is the misfortune of high office: to order and rule, but neither to love nor be loved.  Love is accepting that what who we dream of does not dream of us.” 

Francois M. clicked his tongue on his superior palate (the white bacteria indicating the presence of Candida Albicans).  “You love your daughter?” 

“She’s my daughter.

“A daughter you have requested me to mort-er… c’est ne pas?

The Duke shifted in his chair, crossing his stockinged legs beneath the table. This kind of impertinence was to be expected from Francois M., a seditious philosopher and assassin from Paris whose curriculum-vitae and –mortui were known throughout Europe.  Consultants had warned him of the philosopher’s contrarian nature, but it was this attitude of contemptuous superiority that especially tired the Duke now.

 “Still, she is my daughter,” he said, “and duty directs polite words. However, now that we have arrived at the topic, allow me provide you with some materials.”  The two officers of the court approached the table and laid several parchments and manuscripts before the Duke, who began sifting through them with his eyes inches from the table.  Francois M. raised his good eye with interest, producing the impression of a nefarious wink. The Duke pointed to one of the documents and said: “This is her room at the auxiliary palace, and this is the basement, where it is said she often is found.” 

“And whom shall I say I represent and convey?” asked Francois M. 

“Don’t concern yourself with that.”  The Duke said this with a grimace of displeasure.  “There is such debauchery there, such lack of discrimination that even servants, witches, and those who speak vernacular are invited to attend. My daughter has surrounded herself with children and dreamers, credulous simpletons who believe in fairy tales.  They will not ask of you.”

Among the materials on the table was a portrait depicting Sophie Charlotte, the sixteen-year old daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Hanover, on her wedding day last year, to Frederick, the Elector of Brandenburg. Her face, still reflecting the delicate malleability of youth, was held in the composed mien demanded by conventions of the period—to smile in a portrait was then seen as indecorous. Frederick’s arm hooked her shoulder in a proprietary manner. 

 “And where is this Herr Leibniz?” Francois M. said, collected the remaining materials from the table. 

“In the Harz Mountains, working on a windmill.”

“A windmill?”

“Just another of his schemes.”  The Duke flipped his hand to indicate scorn.  “He considers everything possible,” he added.  “The operation is unsuccessful and I’ll soon recall him.  Do you have everything you need?”

Non.”  Francois M. creased the materials for the assassination of Sophie Charlotte into the central pocket of the briefcase he carried and, after removing a scroll and writing instruments from a distal fold, resumed his seat at the table.  “I require my payment at this time.”

“Which is?”

Francois M. leaned back and tapped his cane slowly on the stone floor: “Why, naturally.”

“Why what?”

“Why must your daughter die?” 

In her chambers, the Duchess of Hanover stood in a torus-shaped gown with a correspondence about Sophie Charlotte in her hand, looking down upon the geometry of Herrenhausen.  The design, preparation, and construction of the Garden Project had been supervised by Leibniz and informed by his love for all things and curiosity regarding foreign flora, about which he frequently read.  It took nearly ten years to complete.  What he could not grow natively, he imported; what he could not import, he simulated.  The Duchess remembered Leibniz’s speculative statement that the sandbox, of which he was most proud, represented the future of possibility (in the form of what he hypothesized were constituent silicone granules), but then her thoughts returned once again to Sophie Charlotte and the letter she had just received. 

“Have the dinner arrangements for our guests been accomplished?” asked the Duke, appearing in the doorway.

“We have received another correspondence about Sophie Charlotte.”  The Duchess walked across the room with her long chin held high, handed him the letter, and walked back to the window, whose surface she pensively palmed.  “From Mathilde.” 

Mathilde had grown up with Sophie Charlotte in Hanover and had been commissioned to accompany her to Brandenburg to assist with all who knew Sophie Charlotte’s temperament (especially Leibniz) predicted would be a difficult transition. Six months ago the proud parents received the first letter from Mathilde.  Its testimony was concerning: Sophie Charlotte had damaged her crown sliding down a banister drunk; she had lost ten pounds because she refused to eat; in the neighboring laborer towns, tales circulated of orgies between her and boys with thick foreheads and no knowledge of Latin, and the way the moon twinkled her ripped moiré fabrics when she climbed down from her balcony was local myth.

“Apparently our daughter has removed herself from Frederick’s love,” the Duchess said, and even out of the palace. “She now lives, if that’s the word, in an auxiliary palace ten miles south of Brandenburg. People attend there in various masks, imbibe various spirits, and parody all civilized form.”

“I know.”

“Should we intervene?”

“It’s taken care of,” said the Duke.

 “Did you send Leibniz?”

“I don’t see why he should always be involved in family business,” the Duke muttered.   

“Sophie Charlotte trusts him. I can’t think of anyone else we can say that of.” 

“That’s why she’s like this. She was raised on those fancies of his: logical possibility, romantic love, individual dignity.”  He noticed he was speaking too rapidly and cleared his throat.  “I implicate these beliefs as the cause of this decadence, all these rash deeds.”

“I’m writing him a letter,” said the Duchess, sitting down at her desk.

“I would not advise that.” 

“But she’s our daughter!

The Duke shrugged. “We are part of something greater.  I have taken care of things.” 


Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz removed his spectacles, squeezed the rounded cartilage in the bump of his nose, and murmured, “So much to do, so little time,” inventing an immortal phrase for which he would never receive credit—there would be so many things for which he would never receive credit.  His brown eyes looked severe glassed behind his spectacles, but contracted into vulnerable, almost melancholy points when exposed.  The spectacles rested on the inclined draftsman’s table he sat before; the table was covered by papers with graphs, equations, designs, and correspondences he was reading while eating his eupeptic supper of brown bread and milk. 

The table and chair he sat in were the only items of furniture in the simple wood cabin which had been improvised for his stay in the Harz Mountains, the altitude of which aggravated his gout and created sinal complications.  He blew his nose.  Leibniz’s rubicund complexion and flabby broad chin were typical of a German of that time, but the ostentatious wig he wore from his days in Paris was an affectation for which he was ridiculed behind his back by the Hanoverian court and to his face by the rude Thirty-Year War veterans who labored skeptically on the construction of the windmills. Leibniz was so short and his wig so affected that it looked like a knight’s plumed helmet attached to the head of an infant, the Duke had once remarked.

Leibniz sat at his table thinking of many things, some possible, some abstract, but one thing he most definitely thought of was Hanover.  He missed Hanover, although it is true that when in Hanover he spent most of his time and energy arguing for his presence in the illustrious cities of Europe—Paris (he would never forget his years there), London, Vienna. But what he regretted when traveling was the feeling of security Hanover provided him with, a feeling that settled his nerves, and a schedule which aided his research into mathematics, physics, the natural sciences, metaphysics, Chinese ideograms, exotic geography and geology, theodicy, and logical possibility.  Most importantly, the presence of his closest friend, the Duchess. No other human—from others he often felt separated as if by a plane of glass—cured his loneliness as she did, and learning, the love of objects and words, was insufficient to cure his sense of isolation and disconnection. 

But he had other concerns than the windmill, his loneliness, and his gout—there’s always something, another phrase he often used. Two correspondences had arrived, together but exclusive. The first from the Duke, terminating the windmill experiment and ordering that Leibniz return to Hanover; the other from the Duchess, intimating that Sophie Charlotte’s emotional problems had re-surfaced in Brandenburg. Three possible decision, therefore: to Brandenburg (as the Duchess wished), to Hanover (as the Duke wished), or to remain in Harz, in service to humanity and his intellectual responsibilities.

The foreman walked through the cabin’s threshold holding his hat.  “More problems, sir,” he said.  After waiting for a minute, the foreman cleared his throat. “Herr Leibniz?”

Leibniz looked from the correspondence to the foreman.  “Indeed,” he said, standing and creasing the letter from the Duchess and placing it in a fold in his long cloak. “Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to learn,” he said, taking the foreman by his arm and walking down with him to the wilted windmill.

Leibniz arrived at the castle later that same night accompanied by Lord Pangloss, a clerk of the court whom the Duke had ordered to convey Leibniz eastward. The Lord also had an additional document written by the Duke for Francois M.

Placing his briefcase on the floor of the broad entrance hall, Leibniz looked around the castle with his ubiquitous curiosity, coughing bronchially. There were bodies passed out like the dead in Brueghel paintings, furniture broken and wet with urine, things written on walls in exotic vernaculars. He walked quietly down the steps toward the mournful sounds of a piano’s repeating tinkled notes. 

From the threshold he recognized her hair, which had been dyed with some herb with bleach-like properties and trailed down to her waist as it had when she was a child.  She was slumped on the bench, tapping with one finger the same despondent note. After a few moments of reflection, he walked away sadly, wondering what it was about this generation that made it so prone to melancholy and anomie.  How could it not perceive the wonder of things, the pre-established harmony and collaboration within the universe—how could they not find one thing to love, even if they remained unloved themselves (as he admitted he himself was unloved)? 


Francois M. was exhausted; he was in his room at the castle preparing the lethal concoction for Sophie Charlotte.  He had no interest anymore in making murders look like suicides.  Sure, talk of suicide epidemics for which he was significantly responsible once made him proud, but the event itself now, the way the focus of dead eyes turned in on themselves like the wilting of petals and portrayed a boredom he met nowhere but in his own looking-glass—to these his heart had grown unresponsive.

He’d killed more than a hundred, but less than a thousand. The third edition of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy cited statistics partially determined by Francois M. himself. He knew this, but nobody else did, which made him feel lonely. The feeling of your true self being unrecognized by others—a feeling he’d felt since he was a young child, that there was him, and there was the world, and that the two were fundamentally incompatible, separated as if by a plane of glass.  His response to this was to declare war on the Other, on that to which he could not relate. 

Lord Pangloss walked into the room, stared in wonder, and cleared his throat. With a glance, he indicated the scroll he held in his hands. 

“The Duke has requested an additional operation from you,” Lord Pangloss said. 

“Leave it.”

“Of course,” he said.

Francois M. unwound the scroll and read its brief contents, and the hint of a smile appeared on his face. He read on, a rare excitement bumping his heart. It’s one thing to portray the false suicide of a maimed Thirty-Years War veteran; yet another still, a melancholy young princess. But it’s a whole other unprecedented thing to falsify the suicide of the foremost philosopher of secular happiness, optimism, and trust in the world.  “Murder Leibniz too,” the document read. 


When Leibniz awoke Sophie Charlotte stood in his room’s doorway.  Her stained nightgown trailed down over her knees, below her waist where her hands fluttered, unfisted, thumbs rubbing the hem. Her gaunt eyes followed him as he stumbled erect in the bed, reaching for his peruke on the bedside table and squinting into his spectacles. He lit a candle.  Her eyes glowed and hung in her face like captured things. She twisted her mouth into a pained smile resembling a grimace and said, “I knew you would come, but I don’t speak in Latin no more.”  She shut the door behind her. “I only speak in vernacular now.”  

“I don’t like your arms,” Leibniz said. “I don’t see why.”

“They remind me,” Sophie said. “I’m trying to remember.”

“No, I don’t like them at all.”

Sophie rubbed her arms, which were covered with scars.

“You lied,” she said. “I’m not angry,” she continued, approaching the foot of the bed, “I just think that you should stop saying stuff like that to people, stuff like rumors of what’s possible.”

“Rumors of the possible?  Everything’s possible.  You know this, Sophie.”

“To be a beautiful thing, a great person, that’s what I wanted. You said I could. You said I could be beautiful and happy, doing things with people on islands with citrus. Anything’s possible, you said, in the garden so long ago, remember? The sandbox, remember?”  Leibniz didn’t say anything. He just there upright in bed, his mouth silently moving.

She walked across the room, pulling a strand of hair behind her ear, and sat down on the bed beside him.

“I love you, Sophie,” he said. “A lot of people–“

“You love everything.”

“If you live as long as I have, you will too.”

“Well I won’t live as long as you, and that’s why I ran away, to here.”

“I can whisper you a secret that will make your life amazing. Can I tell it to you?”

Sophie Charlotte shrugged, but didn’t move away. 

“Lean closer…”


Francois M. snuck through the castle in darkness, his hips square to the wall for feeling. His sneaking was more of an adjustment to shadows and the feeling of walls. One benefit of granite-floors: no possibility of creaking.  Then he saw a beam of light bisecting the floor below. He strode down the stairs sticking in the shadow until he arrived at the door. He leaned by the door listening, clutching the killing materials. He was happy then.  A girl’s tearful voice spoke in vernacular, but the man, his voice calm and reassuring, spoke in Latin, rhapsodizing about concepts like love, possibility, and optimism.  It was Leibniz.  Francois M. stood there in the shadows, listening, his heart beating faster than it had since he was young, when everything seemed possible, before the betrayals, frustrations and loneliness of adult life had turned his child’s curiosity and trust into ennui and desperate rage.  He pulled out the potions, uncorking the bottles and approaching the door. 


James McAdams has published fiction in Temple’s TINGE Magazine and Carbon Culture Review, serial microfictions in the Annals of American Psychotherapy, as well as forthcoming fiction pieces in per contra and Modern Language Studies. Before matriculating at college, he was a social worker in the Philadelphia suburbs. Currently, he is a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University, where he teaches writing, tutors, and edits the university’s literary journal, Amaranth.

Posted in Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on No Better Plenitude: 1685

A Dragoon’s Adventure

By Tom Sheehan

The cowman Oliver Weddle sat his horse on a small hillock, looking out over his ranch, the grass running off to the hills, Texas itself stiffening his backbone as it always had. He tried again to count the help he’d need to get the ranch back in prime order after his return from the war, wishing some of his command had come along with him when he left the service. They were good soldiers, riders, and courageous and loyal to duty; but had their own visions of search. Three foremen in a row had failed him and their mission, one or two he suspected had complicated issues on purpose. So glaring were the failures that they cost him a good deal of money. Now he was contemplating what would happen if he didn’t get a good man for the job.

Even as his backbone stiffened again, hope still working him with lures, he caught sight of an odd rider coming his way, ramrod straight in the saddle, commanding the horse, pride in the pair, but an unusual pride and seemingly an uncomfortable pride.

The rider was odd in manner and wore a strange hat, its brim swept to one side and up along his head, a long loop of leather hanging about his chest to catch that hat if blown off. A saber’s sheath and holsters for a rifle and an ax were strapped to his saddle, part of each weapon clearly visible. The saddle itself was different than a western saddle. Such equipment immediately set the rider off from the usual rider in the west, marking him as an object of attention and potential derision. A cardinal red shirt, scarred or stained where military chevrons once were attached, was filled by a rugged body, huge upper arms and prominent, wide shoulders. The man’s neck was thick, tanned, muscled. Weddle suspected the man was not comfortable in the saddle but bore any and all his discomforts with command and control, like a poor cowpoke dancer challenged at a barn rally.

“Sir,” the rider said on reining his horse in at Weddle’s side, “I am one-time Sergeant Branwell Kirkness, late of His Royal Majesty’s 6th Inniskilling Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, war my training ground and war my nature. Finding my pay cut after harsh service in India and South Africa, my comrades so treated likewise, I departed the military in 1865 and I am looking for a job riding herd here in western America. The chip I carry on my shoulder concerning my military treatment is most likely evident in all my outward manners and can be determined, by the most observant people, as roiling under my skin. But I am a hard and loyal subordinate when treated with respect and will protect with my life if necessary all trusts given unto me.”

He stared into Weddle’s eyes when he said, “Do I have a position in your employ?”

“That you do, sir,” Weddle said, the iron up his back stiffer than ever, and hope as firm.

There, at that moment, began one of the great associations in Texas cow history.

Kirkness said to Weddle, upon being hired as foreman, “Tell me what you need done, but don’t tell me how to do it.”

“I need a crew to drive a herd of 3000 cows to Fort Gibson and merge them with two other herds for a drive up the Shawnee Trail to Abilene. I’ve heard they’ll be 10,000 cows in the final push into Kansas. There’s money to be made while the opportunity lasts.”

“That I will do,” Kirkness said, his voice as sure as a line sergeant’s voice. “When is the drive to start?”

“In two days.”

That evening former Dragoon sergeant and new BLB foreman Branwell Kirkness was in the Barrows Saloon, leaning against the bar, talking to one man who was a possible hire. “I don’t expect promise from anybody, only duty from men with heart. Of course,” he added with appropriate needling, “not all men have such heart. I am too particular to hire a slave or a roustabout or a lackey. I just want men. It may seem such a simple demand, but it has a lot at stake. Real men are rare when it gets tough.”

“Yeh,” said a voice from a nearby table, “how come the BLB hires foreigners wearing funny hats to be their top man? Ain’t that a kinda funny hat?” A big, bony man, looking hard as a rock, stood up and faced Kirkness. “What is that hat, mister? Your mother make it for Christmas or did you bring it all the way from Inja with you?”

With one punch Kirkness dropped the big man beside the table. The big man did not move. Five minutes later he was still motionless. Stillness, sudden stillness in a noisy saloon, came with the mystery that silence has.

Kirkness eventually said, to all the cowpokes in the saloon, “I’m looking for real men, not flag mouths that can’t take a punch. I wouldn’t have that man now prone on the floor handling my wagon on a Sunday ramble. In India he would not have lasted one skirmish against the Gurkhas or the Sikhs at their worst. Nor would he have made his way against the Africans bent on freedom. If you want to measure men, measure me. I would guess that the prostrate figure there on the floor is typical of you westerners; all mouth and no guts for a long drive, or taking orders from their betters, or averse to good pay, real decent pay and a piece of the big pie, as the boss man has promised. How you ever did wrest the colony from the Mother country goes beyond my ken.”

So convincing was Kirkness’s approach that the following morning he arrived at the BLB Ranch with 11 men, and more on the way. The sun was shining on the small parade, with former sergeant Kirkness riding out front of the new hires, straight and upright in the saddle, his funny hat perched atop his head. Some of the new hires were battle-tested on the way to the ranch when Kirkness was openly challenged. He pummeled three men before dawn slipped up on them. Now, in the clear sunlight of morning, Oliver Weddle watched his new foreman bring a trail crew to the BLB. A sudden shot of surprise and happiness flooded his frame and he rode out to meet the men.

Weddle stood in his stirrups to get a clear look at his new crew. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I am pleased to meet you. I trust you have met Sergeant Kirkness and know now who the real boss is. I too am a mere hireling here, but with a great project in front of us, with the promise of a great payday for all of us, we can complete our task.” He pointed at Kirkness and added, in a voice full of will and determination, “That man will take us to Hell and back if that is what it will take, clear through the Oklahoma Indian territory. I don’t doubt for a minute that he’ll get us through and that some of you, wiser after the journey, will start your own business. There’s room for all in this part of the land. The east is hungry for good beef, from Chicago to Philadelphia to New York City to Boston, Texas steaks have caused a craving. I don’t know how long it will last, but let’s get in on the feeding.”

In the ranks a soft voice said, “Amen.”

In the matter of two days a cook with trail experience was hired, a remuda assembled for herders and a remuda boss put in charge, assignments wagered between the men, and a partner system set in place. Kirkness was highly in favor of the partner system.  “Stony, no matter where Clint Harkness goes, you be his pard. Keep your eyes open when it’s your turn to do so, and he will do his in turn. The man who falls asleep at his watch gets the holy hell from me, and then some. And you’ve seen some of that and then some. I don’t have time to fool around or play games this side of beef delivery. Be alert. Be aware. Be smart. It’ll all come back on you.

At the outset of an Indian attack in the middle of Oklahoma, the Indians rode in against the herd in a double column, as if trying to split the herd and drive cattle off through whatever proved to be the weakest side, a maneuver none of the cowpokes had seen before.

“What the hell they up to, Cap’n?” one rider said. “I ain’t seen them do this before.”

Kirkness replied from horseback, “I’ve seen this before, in India, at the hand of the Gurkhas, some of the finest fighters in the world, and the meanest I’ve ever seen in action.” He yelled to any herder close enough to hear him, “Fire on the right column. Concentrate on the right column. Obliterate the right column. Fire on the right.”

He said it a dozen times.

Then, heedless of the onslaught and the odds, he swung head on at the left hand column and brought his rifle to bear on the column heading in on his herd and emptied the rifle. Then he blazed away with his six guns and saw several Indians fall from their mounts in succession. The raiders veered off from the left hand column as the right column suffered significant casualties as they were repelled by the herders, and the cattle in a mad turmoil it would take hours to arrest. The main attack, though, was stemmed in a matter of minutes and three other riders rode out and joined Kirkness in his continuing rush at the Indians.

Kirkness made a point of driving a couple of cows toward the retreating Indians, knowing it was cheap enough to buy some time by assuring they had meat for their meals. When the Indians were all driven off, including the few cows that Kirkness assured were in close pursuit of the fleeing braves, night came down on the herd as most of the herd was finally rounded up. Kirkness went on a regular night watch. He had done so since the drive first started.

Near midnight, from the edge of a small dip in the land, he heard the moans of a distressed person and found an Indian suffering from a serious wound. He managed to stop his bleeding, bind him with a piece of his shirt, and hustle him back to the chuck wagon where his cook could better treat and dress the wound. The cook was a good man at his trade and almost as good as any doctor in the area, and had no aversion to treating the Indian who was still unconscious.

“You know what this’n be like when he wakes full, boss. He won’t be any less meaner’n he was afore. Too bad he won’t git to know what you done for him. Want me to tie his hands?”

“Best do as you ask, Silas. Tight at each wrist but loose enough between them so he understands he’s been left to have some use of his hands. We will try to communicate any way we can. Let us hope he has some understanding of the situation.” Looking down at the brave, who was obviously a normally rugged individual, he added, “Poor bloke is not about to go too far in his shape. Set a bit of food where he can have it if he chooses. Keep trying to communicate any way possible.”  He went back on his watch for another hour and came back to sleep. In a matter of minutes, under a blanket and beside the wagon, he went to sleep.

Just as dawn broke over the plains, Kirkness was awakened by the coughing of the wounded Indian, who had risen on the other side of the wagon. The rope at his wrists allowed him to kneel, and then, with a struggle, stand upright. Kirkness pulled on his boots, went to the Indian, and put his hand on the bandaged wound. Then he set the food the cook has prepared at the feet of the man, taking a piece of dry beef for himself and chewing on it. Retrieving his blanket he put it about the Indian shivering in the morning light.

Silas the cook, already awake, said, “Boss, some of the boys be mighty upset at the kindness you’ve spent on the critter. They been shootin’ at us and tryin’ to make off with our pay stake ‘n’ that don’t sit well.”

Kirkness was back to his old self in a hurry. “Any man wants to change things, tell him to see me, Silas. I’ll take care of his ailments too.”

The story, the rest of what has come down to me, went something like this, with portions or snippets some of which I must have conjured up in my own way of telling it; but Kirkness, that late afternoon, rode off with the wounded Indian on another horse toward the far hills. The Indian sat a horse that Kirkness told the remuda boss to “get the one we can most spare.”

Half a dozen riders watched the boss man ride off with the Indian still trussed up like he’d never get any place on his own. But somewhere out of sight of the herd and its riders, Kirkness untied the bound wrists of the brave who rode on ahead of him, turned on the crest of a small hill and held his hand palm upward. Kirkness did the same, the universal salute between warriors of the first line. The Indian rode down into a wadi and was out of sight and Kirkness, a sense of timing and circumstance working in his mind, sat his horse and waited.

He might have been waiting for a sign, an omen, any signal that his efforts, his belief in man, would have brought off a response of a similar nature. Most men would bet against him.

Kirkness stayed in his place, giving his horse a bit of water, watching for the evening star to give promise of night, hoping one harsh day would lead into one of clearer comfort and ease. Man, at his labors, at his wars, whatever the causes and the reasons, needed his rest. He clearly wanted his. This business he was into, the adventure in a new land, this liaison with a trusting owner like Oliver Weddle, had come like a reward to him, even though the costs might be high. He again hoped for the best in man, as he had often seen the worst in man … on both sides of the fray.

It was at first a small illumination that came to him in the wavering shadows, from north of him, from where they were planning to drive the herd, right through country inhabited by Cherokee or Cheyenne or Arapaho. He could not tell the difference from one to the other if they stood in front of him at parade rest, but assured himself that they were as different as Gurkhas and Sikhs standing in the same formation, under the same colors.

The illumination grew, brightened, came on the obvious rise of a small hill hidden in darkness. It was, he knew, a signal, for the Indians could have gotten a lot closer to him. In the morning, he assured himself, other signs would be evident.

He hoped he had made peace for the time being.

He would like to do the job right for Oliver Weddle; trust was always part of his duties.

Beside the wagon, under the light of stars, the former Dragoon slept a deserved sleep.

Silas shook him awake. “Boss, coffee’s up, biscuits on, shift change.” And in a most condescending tone, said, “It looks quiet out there ‘n’ all the way back toward the risin’ sun ‘n’ clear through to Montana up in front of us I’da bet.” It was an affirmation of what the old soldier had done the night before.

Kirkness, with soldier skills still working his system, changed his socks, pulled on his boots in preparation for his day. When he rinsed his used socks and hung them on a pin on the wagon, he spotted the dried blood of the wounded Indian on the spokes of a wagon wheel and thought of the flames from the night before. “There, he said lightly, was enough light for all of us.”

Again, as it had so often happened, his whole life passed in quick review, as if a silent bugle had summoned his thoughts. “Call to Colors” came to him and “Reveille” and other bugle calls that were locked into his system. He remembered, coming this way, arriving at this place, the morning he walked through West Point and felt the ramrod spiking up his back. The military in him would, even in separation, carry him through. It had made him the man he was.

Oliver Weddle, of course, finished off the story as it had begun with him. Time and time again, in all his meetings with old friends and old comrades, in saloons, at card tables, at the spiked bowl at a now-and-then barn dance, said always that “Branwell Kirkness, late of His Royal Majesty’s 6th Inniskilling Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, is the best herd driver I’ve ever known, the toughest man I’ve ever met, and the most trustworthy man that ally and foe can possibly know.”

He told them all that Kicking Horse, a son of a Comanche chief, had cleared the way for Kirkness’s herds for three years in a row. Not a shot was fired, not a cow was lost, though other drivers had their problems.

“The man’s a soldier no matter what he wears,” was often the way he said goodnight.


Tom Sheehan served in 31st Infantry Regt., Korea, 1951-52 and graduated from Boston College in 1956. Books are This Rare Earth & Other Flights, 2003; Epic Cures, 2005, and Brief Cases, Short Spans, Press 53; A Collection of Friends and From the Quickening, 2005, Pocol Press. He has 19 Pushcart nominations, in Dzanc Best of the Web 2009, 315 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine, work in 5 issues of Rosebud Magazine, 5 issues of The Linnet’s Wings and 8 issues of Ocean Magazine, and other online/print sites, including Nervous Breakdown, Faith-Hope-Fiction, Subtle Tea, Nontrue, Danse Macabre, Jake’s Locked-Room Anthology, Deep South Magazine, The Best of Sand Hill Review anthology, The Copperfield Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Dew on the Kudzu, Slice of Life, MGVersion2datura, 3 A.M. Magazine, Literary Orphans, Nazar Look, and Qarrtsiluni, etc. His newest eBooks from Milspeak Publishers are Korean Echoes, 2011 and The Westering, 2012, the latter nominated for a National Book Award by the publisher.

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Susan Vreeland

By Meredith Allard

Susan Vreeland is the author of the much-loved, best-selling historical novels Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of ArtemesiaThe Forest Lover, about the rebel Canadian painter Emily Carr, is available in paperback and Life Studies, a story collection about Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters and sculptors, has been published.

Meredith Allard: What inspired you to write Girl in Hyacinth Blue? Why do you think Vermeer’s paintings have been the catalyst for several novels?

Susan Vreeland: In 1996, a few weeks after attending Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I was diagnosed with lymphoma. Wanting to fill my eyes and thoughts with beauty as I began chemotherapy, I pored over art books and absorbed the placidness of Monet’s garden, the sparkling color of the Impressionists, the strength and solidity of Michelangelo’s figures showing the titanic power of humans at one with God, and the serene Dutch women in Johannes Vermeer’s interiors. These women took on added significance because I had a Dutch name. It was comforting, in case I had to leave this world, to find, through them, my heritage and place of origin, and perhaps something of the strength of Dutch character. I began to recognize that art can emerge from extremity. In my case, long, uninterrupted days free from teaching high school became a gift which resulted in Girl in Hyacinth Blue.

Paintings with people feed my imagination. Who sat as model for the artist? I always wonder. What was their relationship? Did any urge for physical intimacy pass between them or was their coming together at this moment in time merely a business transaction? Was there a deeper aesthetic collaboration? Was the painter sick with dread over how he would feed his family? What did his children want from him that day? Was his wife happy? Was he? Was he contented with his work?

Poring over the National Gallery catalog of the 1995-96 Vermeer exhibition while I was undergoing my treatment, I found a healing tranquility. His paintings of women in their homes, as I was, caught in a reflective moment, bathed in that lovely honey-colored light which also touched with significance the carefully chosen items in the scene, reminded me of Wordsworth’s line: “With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony and by the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.”

Vermeer’s work exhibits a reverence for home, for quiet moments. In an age when we live at too frenetic a pace, his paintings invite us to be still a moment, to reflect, to value the life surrounding us. That, together with the paucity of information about him, a circumstance ripe for the imagination of fiction writers, I believe to be the reasons he has inspired novels recently.

Vermeer painted only thirty-five canvases. There could have been another, I reasoned, which survived the ravages of time. Survival was foremost in my thinking. I constructed in my mind another painting incorporating elements he frequently used, and added objects of my own imagination—a glass of milk left by a sickly child, a sewing basket, a young girl’s new black shoes with square gold buckles. I had a painting—and with news reports of so much art stolen from Holocaust victims by members of the Third Reich, I had an idea for a story.

Not having fully realized the painting in that first story, I wrote another, this time from the point of view of the painted girl dressed in a blue smock, in my mind, Vermeer’s daughter who longed to paint. That would set the second story in the 1660s. Then I began to fill in the time gap with other stories illuminating the effect of this painting on individual lives.

The imagined painting certainly had a remarkable effect on my life. The more I imagined my way into the characters’ lives associated with the painting, the less I thought about my own dire circumstances. The creative endeavor inspired by his work, I am certain, has been a vital element in my survival and healing.

M.A.: In your novel The Passion of Artemesia, you are once again inspired by an artist, this time Artemesia Gentileschi, the first prominent woman painter. What can people learn from Artemisia’s story?

S.V.: We have in Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) a model of womanly strength in a time not friendly to women who desire to achieve. Despite a rape at seventeen by a friend and colleague of her father, Agostino Tassi whom he had hired to teach her perspective, despite her torture in the ensuing rape trial, despite the resulting scandal that accompanied the unresolved case, Artemisia produced paintings of startling invention tinged with a feminist sensibility evident in her strong heroines caught in moments of danger or tension, thinking and acting against the grain. Artemisia was the first woman to paint large scale history paintings executed from life, the first woman to be admitted into the Academia dell’ Arte del Disegno in Florence, and the first woman to make her independent living entirely by her brush, any one of which would be enough to hold her up as a formidible heroine. Anyone who has appreciated the art of Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe and Emily Carr, ought to stand in reverence before their predecessor and inspirational source, Artemisia Gentileschi.

M.A.: What is the greatest challenge when writing hsitorical fiction about art and artists?

S.V.: No different than other historical fiction about a human subject that one loves: One mustn’t let love and awe for the individual render one blind to faults, failures, shortcomings. We are apt to stand in awe at the great art of the world, and rightly so, but the creators thereof are not gods and goddesses.

M.A.: What is your research process for writing historical fiction?

S.V.: For me, the process of writing historical fiction goes something like this: Study broadly—discover an interest in a time or a person—decide on a focus—select and eliminate—invent where needed—track down needed information—perfect the voices. It involves first discovering the history, then selecting within it the story I wish to tell—in my most recent case, the inner Artemisia, her developing state of mind, her transcendence over misfortune and resentment, the possibilities of forgiveness and love in a ruptured life. Once the narrative has focus and a thematic aim, I have to eliminate individuals and events that my research reveals but that does not contribute to my chosen themes. Mine is not the business of a biographer sweeping from birth to death. In a contrary fashion, since archival and published history often doesn’t record the relationships that are significant, I have to invent characters and scenes, trivial and momentous, to allow the subject to reveal intimate thoughts and feelings through interaction.

Once I have the basic story, I must work for scenic truth and time period accuracy. For Girl in Hyacinth Blue, for example, I consulted seventy six books, and probably as many paintings for visual references (food, clothing, furniture, townscapes, landscapes, architecture). When dealing with locales as well known as those in Rome and Florence in The Passion of Artemisia, I had to ascertain whether certain streets, architectural features, sculptures and paintings were in the same place in the year in which the action takes place as they are today. For example, only a chance reference alerted me that the Scalinata up to Santa Trinità dei Monti, later dubbed the Spanish Steps, wasn’t built at the time Artemisia climbed the Pincian Hill. Sometimes nothing can be depended upon other than being there, a privilege I did not have while writingGirl.

In truth, all of the research, both the major character biography as well as the tiniest scenic detail, is enjoyable to me because I feel it directing me and giving the work depth and authority.

M.A.: What is your advice for writers of historical fiction?

S.V.: Love every step of the way, every moment of discovery. Love your characters, your time period, your scenes. If you don’t love a scene, then find out what’s wrong with it. Love the story enough to ferret out details, though don’t include them, no matter how delicious, if they don’t contribute to your narrative arc. Love the revision process whereby your story develops texture, multiple dimensions and deeper thematic reach. Love the work enough to leave no stone unturned in its pursuit and refinement. And read, of course. Read widely and voraciously. Read fiction written at the time period you wish to write about. And read your work to discerning critiquers who have the best interest of the work at heart, as you do too.

M.A.: What projects are you currently working on? Will you continue to use art as an inspiration for your writing?

S.V.: My next three books will continue my exploration of the human stories behind the brush.

Cedar Spirit, a novel, explores the power of place to provide personal identity and fulfillment. Canadian artist Emily Carr seeks to encounter and understand the British Columbian wilderness, and struggles to find a way to express her profound and complex feelings for it. In defying public scorn and hypocrisy by painting native villages and totem poles, she is caught in a dilemma of appropriating the very culture she reverences. Loving those in the margins of society, like herself, she develops deep connections with native friends, particularly the relentlessly tragic Salish basketmaker, Sophie Frank, under whose influence she shapes her individual religion to embrace a native spirituality. Quirky and rebellious and independent, with a compelling urge to find Soul in a personal trinity of art and nature and God, Emily Carr ripens into a true original.

Life Studies is a story collection of imaginary encounters between painters and people in their lives whose own situations and moral choices are wrought out in their interaction with the painters: Monet as seen by his aging gardener at Giverny, troubled by the question of what one leaves after one dies; Cezanne from the point of view of a little boy who throws stones at him and his easel, then must rebuild his garden wall in penance; Van Gogh as an influence in the life of the postman’s son in Arles just before he joins the French Foreign Legion. Eduard Manet’s longsuffering wife tolerates his numerous affairs with models, nurses him in illness, but cannot give over her obsession with discovering which of his models gave him syphilis. Berthe Morisot hires a wet nurse to feed and care for her baby, a symbiotic relationship in which each depends on the other in order to work, until tragedy and the nurse’s discovery of Morisot’s secret tilts the social order.

And now Van Gogh’s haunting painting, “The Potato Eaters,” is speaking its stories to me.


Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Jeff Shaara

By Meredith Allard

Jeff Shaara is the acclaimed author of the best selling historical novels Gods and GeneralsThe Last Full MeasureGone for Soldiers, and Rise to Rebellion, among others. You can visit Jeff online at

Meredith Allard: A family vacation to Gettysburg inspired your father, Michael Shaara, to write The Killer Angels. A few years later you helped him research his novel. What was that experience like? How did that time prepare you to research and write your own Civil War novels, Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure?

Jeff Shaara: First, I would never take credit for making some kind of invaluable contribution to the research of The Killer Angels. By 1970, when my father and I toured the battlefield at Gettysburg for the second time, he had suffered his first heart attack. I was 18, and as such, was in much better physical condition than my father, thus it was my job to do the “grunt” work- climb the hills, crawl all over the place through the brush to try to locate troop positions, the lay of the land, etc. I look back at that time now and realize it was as close as my father and I had ever been. Soon after, he had a motorcycle accident that damaged his head severely, and affected his mental state for many years. This had a dramatic impact on his relationships with everyone in his life, including his son. The lesson I learned was clear: if you’re going to try to tell the story of these events and the characters who were such a part of the history, first and foremost, you must walk the ground. There is a magic to the experience, to seeing what they saw, to stepping in their footsteps. I could not tell any of these stories now without having that experience.

M.A.:The director of “Gettysburg,” Ron Maxwell, was instrumental in prompting your journey into writing historical fiction. What role did he play?

J.S.: I met Ron Maxwell during the filming of “Gettysburg,” the film based onThe Killer Angels. Ron wrote the screenplay and directed the film. After the film was released and received so enthusiastically, Ron called me with the idea of continuing more of the stories of these characters, both before and after July of 1863. I had never written anything before, and that’s no exaggeration. But after giving his idea some thought, I decided that continuing my father’s work was something I wanted to attempt. This is the very reason I dedicate The Last Full Measure to Ron. Without his inspiration in the first place I would never have begun to write.

M.A.: What are the joys and frustrations of writing historical fiction? Does writing about the Civil War have its own specific joys and frustrations?

J.S.: One distinct frustration of writing historical fiction is that you are dealing with real events, and thus, must stay true to the history. Many times it would be convenient if some character was in a different place, or if events occurred in different order. But I don’t dwell much on that, because the particular stories I am trying to tell are so very interesting, the characters to intriguing, that I never feel as though I should perhaps sneak something in that is pure fiction. Specific to the Civil War, of course, is the ability to bring the reader both sides of the story, from (I hope) an equal perception. One great joy in telling the story of Lee vs. Grant, for example, is getting into the minds of such opposite personalities and show how they interacted in such a chess-game kind of way. That was enormous fun. Plus, the Civil War is the most awful bloody time in our history. It is not hard to find the enthusiasm for exploring the minds of these characters, to try to understand why this happened and how it was finally ended. I have to note one distinct frustration: eventually, the story ends. All of these characters are gone, and writing their deaths is one of the hardest things I have had to do.

M.A.: Most authors of historical fiction write their stories from the perspective of fictional characters. Your style of writing historical fiction is different, however, because you write from the perspective of real-life figures who become fictionalized through your portrayal of their thoughts, actions, and dialogue. Describe your process of creating a fictionalized character from a real-life figure.

J.S.: There is an enormous risk in putting words in the mouth of, not only a real historical figure, but a figure who carries the iconic status of a Lee or Grant, Lincoln, or Washington. That adds considerably to the responsibility I feel about doing the right kind of research. If I intend to put you into the mind of one of these characters, then I must first go there myself, through whatever original sources are available. In most cases, I rely on diaries, letters, memoirs, the accounts of people who were there with these characters. I am painfully aware that some writers have no qualms about imposing modern thought processes, modern terminology, or modern interpretations of 19th century figures. I despise that kind of storytelling. Before I can ever write the first word of dialog, I have to hear those words myself, as each character might have spoken them. I have to feel I know the character personally, as though I was standing beside him or her when the words were spoken. I can never claim of course, that any one of these people actually said, word for word what I write. But, I am very comfortable that, in every case, they could have, that each of these conversations could have taken place.

M.A.: There are those who think that every fact in historical fiction should be exact, but there are also those who think that dramatic license should be allowed in works of fiction. What are your feelings on this subject?

J.S.: I am very careful about exercising any kind of dramatic license. If there is license at all, it is in the dialog and the thoughts of each character, a process I described above. I am painstaking in my research of the events. The actual situation each character finds him or herself in is real. The time line, the positioning of each person in to the events that were happening around them, all of that is as accurate as I can make it. I have had one historian suggest that he has no respect for historical fiction because the history can be so easily tampered with in the name of “license.” I object to that and would never violate the spirit of these characters by tampering with the history. I have never considered writing “alternative” history, some exploration of the “what-ifs.” It is too important to me to keep the facts straight.

M.A.: Your current project, Rise to Rebellion, centers around the American Revolution and will feature George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, among others. What inspired you to write about the American Revolution?

J.S.: I felt that I had gone as far as I could with the Civil War characters, at least for a while. (One day I would like to tell the William T. Sherman story, but that’s down the road a ways). As I began to explore other ideas for stories, the Founding Fathers were impossible to overlook. What these few men accomplished is almost miraculous. The more research I did, the more I came to appreciate not only their achievement, the birth of the United States, the creation of our government, but the wonderful uniqueness of the characters themselves.

By the nature of the kind of books I write, if the characters are not very interesting, I don’t have much of a story, regardless of what the historical events might be. I was thrilled to dig into the minds of Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Gage (a man most Americans have never heard of, the British army commander who started the war). That’s the most fun for me, finding a character who is somehow overlooked by history, and bringing him to you. One example is Winfield Scott. Again, most Americans have no idea who he was. He is quite simply the man who taught Robert E Lee, and nearly the entire roster of Civil War commanders on both sides, how to be soldiers. We all know who Ben Franklin is, but do we really? I absolutely despise the latest attempts by Hollywood and television to “reveal” these characters by showing us little more than dirty laundry. It is too convenient, too lazy a way to tell a story of a man, such as Jefferson, by pointing to one aspect of the man’s life: he may (or may have not) fathered an illegitimate child with a slave girl. That kind of “history” may sell commercials in prime time, but it does a serious disservice not only to the man himself, but to Americans. Was he human? Of course. Was he perfect? Of course not. But did he not author the Declaration of Independence? That is the story I’m interested in. Most Americans don’t know that both Franklin and John Adams played a key role in helping Jefferson write that document. It was a moment that changed the history of the world forever, and that’s no exaggeration. That’s far more interesting to me than some titillating exploration of their personal scandals. It’s not to say I ignore or avoid the truth. But there is a much larger story than what Hollywood believes Americans want to see. I have more faith in my readers than that.

M.A.: Who are your favorite historical fiction authors, and what are your favorite historical fiction novels? Have these works influenced your own style in any way?

J.S.: It will sound too obvious when I say that my favorite author of historical fiction is my father, Michael Shaara. The fact is, I can’t think of anyone who has influenced my writing (or my life) more than my father. As for his influence on my style, I am asked that a great deal, if I purposely patterned my writing style after his. Absolutely not. If a writer focuses so much on mimicking someone else, they can’t focus much on the story, and the story must come first. My sister commented when she read my first manuscript that “this is being written by the ghost of our father”. I take that as a compliment. But it was never anything I set out to do. I find that I don’t read much historical fiction any more. One reason is that I have to be very careful about the possibility of picking up some bit of “information” that might find its way into my own stories. If that information is fiction, I could be accused of plagiarism. It’s ironic in one way, because I sponsor the “Michael Shaara Prize”, awarded each year by the U. S. Civil War Center, to the best work of Civil War fiction published. But I am not one of the judges (despite their continuous requests). I just can’t make a judgment like that on someone else’s work of fiction. And if I were to read something really, really good, some style or approach that caused a strong reaction in me, I can’t take the chance that some part of that might seep into my own writing.

M.A.: What is your advice to aspiring writers of historical fiction?

J.S.: I’m asked for advice a great deal. It makes me somewhat nervous, since I can’t possibly explain how I have arrived at this point where my books are best sellers and I am doing interviews and appearances all over the country. I appreciate that there are enormously talented writers out there who are doing wonderful work who are having a difficult time finding someone to read their work. It’s an unfortunate fact of the publishing business. No one can go into this believing that they will write a best seller. That can’t be your motivation. Write because you have a story you want to tell, something that is important enough for you to exercise the discipline it takes to put it on paper. If you are focusing on history, then be honest about the history. Unless, as I mentioned before, you’re writing “alternative history” (in which anything goes), above all, gets the facts straight. If you are dealing with real-life characters, then do them justice. And, please, stay away from the temptation to pass judgment based on modern standards, or modern frames of reference. That’s a lazy way to write. If you want to take the reader back to another time, you have to go there first, and leave today behind. And, by all means, if it is at all possible, walk the ground.

M.A.: What other historical periods do you think you might like to write about?

J.S.: We are very fortunate in this country to have a history that is ripe with wonderful characters. I find it humorous when Europeans dismiss American history as being too brief to be interesting. History is not a measure of years, it is a measure of deeds. In some ways, I feel I’m not ready to answer this question. Every era in our history has some great story that I would like to tell. I am considering several new stories now, including, as I mentioned before, a story about W. T. Sherman. But I can’t allow myself to get too excited about a future project. My focus right now is on completing the story on the American Revolution.


Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Little Dorritt

Written by Charles Dickens

801 pages

Published by Wordsworth Edition Limited, 1996

Review by Faith L. Justice


Every now and then, I turn back to the classics and remind myself why they are “classic.” Charles Dickens has always been a favorite of mine, but I had never read Little Dorritt. I picked up a Wordsworth edition (over 800 pages with introduction, preface and footnotes) which sat on my “To Be Read” shelf for several months before I plucked up the energy to tackle it. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

The story is simple: a few good souls struggle with fate’s decrees, society’s vagaries, fools and evil-doers to find “a modest life of usefulness and happiness.” Oh, but what innocent souls, twisted evil-doers and delicious fools! There’s a reason why “Dickensian” is applied to certain well-drawn characters. Dickens saw deep into the heart of humankind and had a wonderful facility for bringing people to life in lush eccentric detail. Amy Dorritt, as the titular character, is tiny in size, but huge in impact. She’s gentle, giving, industrious and the emotional bulwark of her family and friends. In spite of being born and raised in a debtor’s prison where her gentleman father was incarcerated for over twenty years, Little Dorritt is beloved by all who come to know her. Arthur Dennam, our other main character, is a man entering middle age and haunted by a secret he suspects and his mother won’t divulge. He’s an honorable man and wants no one hurt on his behalf. But he falls into the trap of denying his emotions and settling for less than he’s worth.

But evil-doers and fools are where Dickens excels. Dennam’s mother is a dried up, bitter woman, twisted by a strict religion and her own pain. Dickens says of her that she is guilty of reverse creation—creating a judging, wrathful god out of the dust of her own image. Mr. Merdle (with a name eerily similar to the French word for human excrement) is the Bernie Madoff of his day; running a financial ponzi scheme that eventually brings down great and small alike, and collapsing several financial institutions. He never speaks for himself, but all of society marvels at his genius for making money and can’t resist investing for the fourteen percent:

“The famous name of Merdle became, every day, more famous in the land. Nobody knew that the Merdle of such high renown had ever done any good to anyone, alive or dead, or to any earthly thing…All people knew (or thought they knew) that he had made himself immensely rich; and, for that reason alone, prostrated themselves before him.”

An ocean of Barnacles encrust the ship of state in “Little Dorritt” and they, allied with the aristocratic Stiltstockings, make sure nothing of any value gets done by parliament or bureaucracy. There are also murderers, innocent lovers, social climbers, treacherous and virtuous servants, grand society matrons and tobacco sellers. All are dissected; their virtues and flaws exposed by Dickens’ skillful scalpel.

One of his most delightful inventions is the Circumlocution Office, mostly run by the aforementioned Barnacles and Stiltstockings, whose sole purpose is to tie up any creative enterprise or invention with so much red tape that it is smothered out of existence. They hone and perfect the art of “How Not to Do It” (in more modern terms “How to Do Nothing.”) Dickens includes a chapter entitled “Concerning the Whole Science of Government” which illustrates his frustration with gridlocked government and ineffectual financial regulators.

Aristocratic society comes in for its share of sharp wit, as well. Mrs. Merdle, whom Mr. Merdle married to further his place in Society, is most often referred to simply as “the bosom” upon which she displays her wealth as a sign of power. The Barnacles, Stiltstockings and Merdles live in “inconvenient houses smelling of yesterday’s soup and carriage horses” because it is a fashionable street. They all bitterly denounce any politician who compromise with “the mob”—anyone not aristocratic, no matter how wealthy or educated.

The middle class and poor receive a few licks for their tolerance of upper class airs and their fear of “foreigners.” The following passage could describe many a modern American’s attitude towards immigrants:

“It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country…In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did…They believed that foreigners were always badly off…They believed that foreigners were always immoral…They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing.”

Written in 1855-1857, this is a darker story than Dickens’ earlier ones. It still deals with social justice, individual responsibility and governmental accountability; but the satire is crisp, biting and surprisingly relevant to a modern reader. Prisons—physical and mental—and the corrupting influence of money are reoccurring themes. In earlier stories the bad guys get their comeuppance and the good guys retire into moderate wealth and idleness. In Little Dorritt, the good guys are “happy and blessed” in their choice of service to their family and friends. But several of the bad guys and all the government and political institutions are little changed by the end; reflecting Dickens’ frustration with the scandals of his times.

In the Preface, Dickens answers his critics who claim he overly exaggerated several aspects of government and financial wrong doing (bracketed historical explanations are mine):

“If I might offer any apology for so exaggerated a fiction as the Barnacles and Circumlocution Office, I would seek it in the common experience of an Englishman, without presuming to mention the unimportant fact of my having done that violence to good manners in the days of a Russian War and of a Court of Inquiry at Chelsea. [The investigation highlighted the many shortcomings in the government and military prosecution of the Crimean War.] If I might make so bold as to defend that extravagant conception Mr. Merdle, I would hint that it originated after the Railroad Share epoch, in the times of a certain Irish bank, and of one or two other equally laudable enterprises.” [Financial speculation in railroads with boom and bust cycles plagued the 1840’s. The Tipperary and Royal British Banks collapsed in 1856, ruining many small depositors.]

In summary, if you’re looking for a meaty read, you can’t go wrong with “Little Dorritt.” Borrow it from the library, download it free (it’s in the public domain,) or pick up a cheap paperback. It’s well worth your time to revisit a classic author and see how little things have changed in 150 years. Enjoy!


Faith L. Justice lives and writes historical novels in Brooklyn, NY. Check out her website to read her award winning short fiction, articles, reviews, interviews with other authors and sample chapters of her debut novel Selene of Alexandria (available in print and all digital formats.) Her most recent effort is a nonfiction e-book—Hypatia: Her Life and Times, a collection of articles about the famous 5C Lady Philosopher of Alexandria. For fun, Faith likes to dig in the dirt—her garden and various archaeological sites.

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