“A Theatre”

Available for free now at Beneath Ceaseless Skies (q.v., by all means) is my new novella, “A Theatre.” Let’s say a few words about its genesis, shall we?

Where I used to live in Alexandria, Virginia, there’s a cannon in the middle of the street.

If one braves the traffic to get to it, the marble plaques embedded in either side of the plinth may be read. The north side says:

This monument marks the trail taken by the army of General Braddock which left Alexandria on April 20, 1755 to defend the western frontier against the French and Indians. Erected by the Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Virginia, May 26, 1915.

And the south side:

The Cannon used here was abandoned by General Braddock at Old Alexandria April 1755. The Cobble-Stones composing this mound were taken from the streets of Old Alexandria which were paved by legal enactment in 1785.

That’s to say, the cobblestones that were removed when the streets were repaved in more modern materials suitable for automobile traffic. Here’s what the monument looked like in 1915, newly built:

The fence and the house to the right are still there. To the left, on the east side of Russell Road, my own house would be built about five years later. I used to see that cannon all the time. Occasionally, someone would run their car into it (damaging the car much more than the cannon). At some point, the city made the curb around it taller. Sometimes, too, the city would have to send people out to scrub off the spray paint some vandal had adorned it with, apparently in celebration of a sports event of some kind. The paint was bright pink.

One day, in, I believe, April 2015, while I was walking home from Old Town on King Street, a sentence popped into my head unbidden, as they tend to do from time to time. Or, rather, three slightly different sentences—the first dozen words or so of the extracts below—that a little later rapidly evolved into three short passages. Here’s one:

The end of the world, brother—from here on out to yonder blue horizon, no taverns, no farms, no gates, no fences, no roads, no paths, only hills and foothills and mountains, only wastes and woods and savages.

Ephraim Magoon’s stomach did handstands and swoons.

…Savages? he asked. Mountains?

(He should never have come here. He should never have agreed.)

The local slapped him on the back and guffawed.

Did I member to say bears and wolves too? Good God! And cats big as dogs with teeth long as your fingers! And sharp.

And another:

The end of the world, brother—or at least the end of any part for your own poor self to play in it. Come now, come now, on your knees now, surrender, and show me if you be but a traitor, or traitor and coward also!

Steel pressed to jugular.

Enoch Crosby (if that was truly his name) dropped to the floor but laughed out loud.

O yes! he said. Yes indeed, we shall make a fearless spy-taker of you yet.

Don’t laugh, Augustus Burnham complained. A lax teacher spoils the student.

And the third:

The end of the world, brother—must it not look much like this?—these flames and tribulations, these blasts and trumps, and wretched, stumbling sinners longing to learn the right path?

The horizon south and west flared orange; distant cannon boomed. To the east, smoke. To the north, darkness and the rumble of troops and equipment. The whole world seemed in motion and on fire. Middleton Thompson could only hope that his own house and barn might not become part of the general conflagration.

Matthew Browne, his hired hand, laughed; a short, sharp bark.

And as these sentences coalesced out of wherever such sentences come from, I conceived of a story in three parts, or rather three separate stories set roughly twenty-five years apart that would be spliced and interwoven, and united by textual coincidences, passages that use the same words but differ wildly in context, such as those quoted above.

The action, or actions, would take place in three distinct places and times:

  1. Along the route from Alexandria, Virginia, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as those places are now called (Braddock’s Road, now various streets so called and parts of U.S Route 40), June–July 1755;
  2. The Hudson Valley, from approximately Ossining, New York, to Watervliet, New York, near Albany (the Albany Post Road, now various roads named Old Post Road, and parts of U.S. Route 1), August 1780; and
  3. In and around Brookeville, Maryland (the route of American troops fleeing Washington, now parts of Georgia Avenue Extended and U.S. Route 29), August 24–29, 1814.

The main protagonists were to be Ephraim Magoon, Augustus Burnham, and Middleton Thompson, respectively. I thought the entire piece might be about 12,000 words.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that these antiquarian fantasias of mine feature in starring roles various of my ancestors. Augustus Burnham (1751–1823) was one of my thirty-two great-great-great-great-grandfathers, as was Middleton Thompson (1780–1863); Ephraim Magoon was one of my sixty-four great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers—or so I believed at the time. The records concerning Ephraim are more than a little meagre and confused (and confusing), but more and better research has demonstrated that he simply can’t be the hero of the story I’d planned for him. He hadn’t been born yet, for example.

In any case, it soon became clear to me that I couldn’t advance all three narratives in lockstep, as I had wished to do; so, arbitrarily, I took up the second one. Which eventually—in fits and fallows, starts and stops, over the next five years—grew to over twice the length of the projected whole, some 26,800 words. Clearly, if I kept to the original plan, what I had on my hands was not a story but a novel. Or a book-length prose fiction (BLPF, pronounced blimpf), as I prefer to say, partly out of a sort of superstition not unrelated to the prestige of the novel as a literary form, and partly out of a fussy punctilio about its definition. I did not (and do not) want to write a BLPF. 

But at least I now had this new novella in hand. Last July, I queried Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies about submitting a manuscript so much longer than the guidelines’ maximum word-count. He generously agreed to look at it, and over the next nine months persuaded me, with the most gentle and gentlemanly of arm-twisting, to cut out large chunks, especially over-long lists and stale japes; rework or delete dull stretches; add signposts, memoranda, and other way-finding aids for the reader; and make an entirely new ending—all of which changes had the net effect of making the story about a thousand words longer.

I still have not been able to decide if I want to (or can?) write the other two narratives and complete the original plan. One at a time, I suppose. One thing at a time.