“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.

On being purple

Nabokov calls them “bravura passages.” Somebody else somewhere else says “tours-de-force,” which is French for “feats of strength.” Same thing. The “purple patches” version is Horace’s—that is to say, Quintus Horatius Flaccus’s:

Inceptis grauibus plerumque et magna professis
purpureus, late qui splendeat, unus et alter
adsuitur pannus, cum lucus et ara Dianae
et properantis aquae per amoenos ambitus agros
aut flumen Rhenum aut pluuius describitur arcus;
sed nunc non erat his locus. Et fortasse cupressum
scis simulare; quid hoc, si fractis enatat exspes
nauibus, aere dato qui pingitur?

Ars Poetica, lines 14–21

Weighty openings and grand declarations often
Have one or two purple patches tacked on, that gleam
Far and wide, when Diana’s grove and her altar,
The winding stream hastening through lovely fields,
Or the river Rhine, or the rainbow’s being described.
There’s no place for them here. Perhaps you know how
To draw a cypress tree: so what, if you’ve been given
Money to paint a sailor plunging from a shipwreck
In despair?

The Art of Poetry, lines 14–21

Stuffy old Horace seems to disapprove. I believe we’re misunderstanding him, though; it’s not the purple he objects to, it’s the patches, the patchiness. Purple itself is the good stuff.

In the Roman world, purple signified prestige, power, wealth: senators wore togas with a broad purple stripe, the triumphing general wore an entirely purple cloak, late in the imperial period the emperor wore a purple toga, and in Constantinople the heir to the throne, le porphyrogénète, was born in the Purple Room, lined with porphyry, or purple marble. Why? Because the dye was so very costly—and so was the marble, imported from a single quarry at an isolated site in Egypt’s eastern desert, discovered in C.E. 18 by a Roman legionary named Caius Cominius Leugas; a dedicated road, the Via Porphyrites, was constructed from the quarry westward to the Nile, dotted with specially dug wells to make the journey survivable. As for the dye, the famous Tyrian purple, the color of “clotted blood” when pure (it was often adulterated with cheaper dyes to produce a violet color), its extraction required vast numbers of snails and substantial labor, some twelve thousand carcasses of Murex brandaris yielding no more than a gram and a half of the pure dye, enough to tint the trim of a single garment. Pliny the Elder described the production of Tyrian purple in his Natural History:

The most favourable season for taking these [shellfish] is after the rising of the Dog-star, or else before spring; for when they have once discharged their waxy secretion, their juices have no consistency: this, however, is a fact unknown in the dyers’ workshops, although it is a point of primary importance. After it is taken, the vein [i.e. hypobranchial gland] is extracted, which we have previously spoken of, to which it is requisite to add salt, a sextarius [about 20 fl. oz.] about to every hundred pounds of juice. It is sufficient to leave them to steep for a period of three days, and no more, for the fresher they are, the greater virtue there is in the liquor. It is then set to boil in vessels of tin [or lead], and every hundred amphorae ought to be boiled down to five hundred pounds of dye, by the application of a moderate heat; for which purpose the vessel is placed at the end of a long funnel, which communicates with the furnace; while thus boiling, the liquor is skimmed from time to time, and with it the flesh, which necessarily adheres to the veins. About the tenth day, generally, the whole contents of the cauldron are in a liquefied state, upon which a fleece, from which the grease has been cleansed, is plunged into it by way of making trial; but until such time as the colour is found to satisfy the wishes of those preparing it, the liquor is still kept on the boil. The tint that inclines to red is looked upon as inferior to that which is of a blackish hue. The wool is left to lie in soak for five hours, and then, after carding it, it is thrown in again, until it has fully imbibed the colour.

The Natural History, §62: “The Natural History of Fishes”

Oh, sorry, where was I? I’m so easily distracted.

Purple prose! That’s right.

I suppose if you can’t do it, or can’t sustain it, yourself, you might well consider it a vice. But let’s listen in on Mr. William H. Gass being not merely purple, but blue:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that’s dismal—low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasing absentees of Heaven (in Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that’s empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for instance, or, when the sky’s turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese. . . the pedantic, indecent, and censorious. . . watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it’s stood for fidelity. 

On Being Blue, pp. 1–2

Thus the first sentence (the ellipses are Gass’s, not mine). If that sentence doesn’t leave you breathless with delight, well—what’s to be done with you? And in this case the writing, this higher conjuration, goes on for a lot longer, an entire (brief) book, in fact. It takes work for the reader to keep up, and some readers, I suppose, might complain—but of what, exactly? Certainly not of an ungenerous author. When such writing’s successfully sustained, the strain of reading at so continually high a pitch is tiring. So take a rest. Get some sleep. Books are patient creatures; good books throw prizes at the reader, who needs only to reach out a little to catch them; and great books heap treasures up, up above one’s head, try not to drown in them.

It seems to me that what’s faulted as purple prose is better called simply bad prose; that purple may curdle, that prose can be, and often is, bad is no serious charge—authors might fail at all kinds of efforts and effects, and frequently do. Failure is no real vice. This is why your pencil has an eraser on one end, which usually wears out sooner than the lead, and why your computer keyboard has a DELETE key. Some have two. Surely to make no effort at all is a worse fault; mass-extruded styrofoam prose (or verse, for that matter) is tedious stuff. Give it some life, give it some color!

Now, and finally, I must touch on the subject of pretension, for that is the most common charge against the purple pen. But to pretend is to lie, and therefore the fault is falsehood, not highly colored prose qua prose. Q., we may fairly say, E.D.

Notes & sources (II)


And so there it is. A new story.

Unlike most stories, which need at most a short headnote, what this one really wants is a bibliography. And an apparatus criticus.

Here they are. Enjoy, O ye pendents of this fallen world!

The story’s title is an infamous remark made by James I/VI at the Hampton Court Conference. The two earliest printed editions (1604 and 1638) of The summe and substance of the conference, which, it pleased his excellent maiestie to have with the lords, bishops, and other of his clergie, (at which the most of the lords of the councell were present) in his maiesties priuy-chamber, at Hampton Court. Ianuary 14, 1603 report his remark with slightly different wording and spelling. I’ve picked out my favorite bits from each to make a composite version.

All dates in these notes and the text are Julian, or Old Style. All direct quotations and close paraphrases are from works in the public domain; biblical quotations are from the Wycliffe translation, with spelling sometimes modernized. While I have taken pains not to explicitly contradict anything known to be true (except as noted below), I am not a historian and have omitted many facts that happen to have been preserved; and all the material has been treated fictionally — for the excellent reason that this is a work of fiction.


Sections I & II. Henry, James, Richard, and Thomas Waklee (or Wakelee, Wakely, Waklyn, Walklee, Wakle, Whately, Wacklea, Wackly, Whacklea, etc.; at that time spelling names consistently was not a virtue much striven for) are all documented as living in New England about 1635 (give or take two years), but only Thomas’s name appears on a passenger list, departing Weymouth, in Dorset, 31 March 1634 aboard the Recovery bound for Massachusetts Bay (Robert Charles Anderson, The great migration, ser. 2, vol. VII, pp. 188-193). That these men were related by blood seems probable, but the exact nature and degree of their relation must, absent new evidence, remain conjectural, as must their origins in England. James is said to be a weaver in tax records (see XXVII below).

III & IV. James’s wilderness incident, and how Henry led him to safety, is adapted from a story in Henry Reed Stiles, History of ancient Wethersfield, pp. 686–687. The “shining things” are described in a deposition in Charles J. Hoadley (editor), Records of the colony or jurisdiction of New Haven, vol. II, pp. 86–87.

V & VI. Rev. Stone’s sermon at the mustering in Hartford is adapted from Captain Edward Johnson, Wonder-working providence of Sion’s savior in New England, pp. 112–113; he was chaplain to the expedition. Henry was awarded land in Hartford for his volunteer service in the Pequot War and additional land for another period of service shortly after (James Shepard, Connecticut soldiers in the Pequot War of 1637, p. 31). Reading the history of the conflict, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Uncas, lacking the power to kill his political enemies, manipulated the English into doing it for him.

VII, VIII, IX. Henry married Sarah Burt, widow of Judah Gregory, 4 September 1649 (Clarence Almon Torrey, New England marriages prior to 1700) in Springfield — then in Connecticut colony — but soon removed to Stratford, where he was one of the original settlers. Their children are named in Donald Lines Jacobus, History and genealogy of the families of Old Fairfield, vol. I, p. 628. Henry’s remarks about providence are adapted from an anonymous pamphlet, New Englands first fruits; in respect first of the conversion of some, conviction of divers, preparation of sundry, of the Indians, pp. 36–39 (corrected pagination; original has two signatures with duplicate page numbers).

X. James’s remarkable record of litigation, and the peculiar circumstances of his marriage to the Widow Boosey, are documented in Arthur Adams (editor), Records of the Particular Court of Connecticut, pp. 28-30, 43, 45, 46, 49, 51–53, 62, 63, 69–72, 74, 88–91, 99–102, 106, 108, 116–120, 132, 174, 179, 195, 196, 222, 224, 227, 229, 232–236, 240, 244.

XI. Dr. Rossiter’s report on the autopsy he performed on Elizabeth Kelly is preserved in the witchcraft supplement of the Samuel Wyllys papers, printed in David D. Hall, Witch-hunting in seventeenth-century New England, pp. 154-155; see also the comments in the Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 21 (1893), pp. 661-662. I also wish to thank Anatoly Belilovsky for pointing me in the right direction about the retrospective diagnosis.

XII. Sarah F. McMahon presents an admirable quantitative analysis of the colonial New England diet in “A comfortable subsistence: The changing composition of diet in rural New England, 1620-1840,” in The William and Mary quarterly, ser. 3, vol. 42 (1985), pp. 26–65.

XIII. For the “fine midsummer’s frolic,” see, for example, James George Frazer, The golden bough: A study in magic and religion, chap. LXVII, sec. 5: “The midsummer fires” (pp. 720–732 in the one-volume abridgment). Those present are named in Rebecca Greensmith’s confession (see XXII–XXV below). James was a constable in Wethersfield: Stiles, Wethersfield, p. 309. On 14 May 1677, Alice Waklee was fined £40 — a sum sufficient to purchase a small farm — for selling two gallons of liquor to Indians (Helen S. Ullmann [editor], Hartford County, Connecticut, county court minutes, p. 220). She confessed to selling one gallon, and there is no reason to suppose that this was a new enterprise of hers.

XIV. The hearsay that Henry listens to is based on depositions excerpted and summarized in Gale Ion Harris, “William and Goodwife Ayres: Witches who got away,” The American genealogist, vol. 75, no. 3 (July 2000), pp. 197–205. The water test is reported in Increase Mather, An essay for the recording of illustrious providences, reprinted in George Lincoln Burr (editor), Narratives of the witchcraft cases 1648–1706, p. 21.

XV. The story James tells the children is adapted from one told by John Higginson in a letter to Increase Mather (Mather papers, Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, ser. 4, vol. 8, pp. 285–286).

XVI. Henry was appointed in November 1659 to “watch over the youths or any disorderly carriages in the time of public exercises on the Lord’s Day or other times and see that they behave themselves comely, and note any disordering persons by such raps or blows as he in his discretion shall see meet” (Samuel Orcutt, A history of the old town of Stratford, p. 167). The story of Goody Bassett is also from Orcutt, p. 148.

XVII & XVIII. The administration of Wethersfield harbor is described in Sherman W. Adams’s essay “The maritime history of Wethersfield,” in Stiles, Wethersfield, chapter XII, pp. 536–595. James’s route home is based on the admirable map published by the Wethersfield Historical Society, drawn by Arthur C. Willard and W. Dudley Birmingham (February 1951) from data in Stiles and Adams, op., as they say, cit. Sarah’s lumber pies are based on a recipe in Robert May, The accomplisht cook or, the art & mystery of cookery, pp. 222–223. For puppydog-water, see Pepys’s diary (Latham and Matthews edition), vol. V, p. 78 (8 March 1663/64) and the note in vol. X, p. 605; the formula is from Mary Evelyn, The ladies dressing-room unlock’d, and her toilette spread, together, with a fop-dictionary, and a rare and incomparable receipt to make pig, or puppidog-water for the face.

XIX. In colonial America, the untimely death of a child was an almost universal experience. Although there’s no record that any of Henry’s children died young, only the names of those to survive to adulthood are known, and Stratford vital records have not been preserved complete.

XX. Ann Cole’s strange behavior is described in Mather, Illustrious providences, pp. 17–21, which is based on a letter (4 December 1682) from the Rev. John Whiting, who had been an eyewitness twenty years earlier (Mather papers, pp. 466–469). Rev. Stone’s handkerchief was certainly illegal; according to the sumptuary laws still in effect (but widely flouted), no one of an estate worth less than £200 was permitted to own gold lace.

XXI. Usury, though permitted in the New England colonies, as in England, at rates of up to eight percent, was generally regarded as sinful and iniquitous, until the 1699 Cambridge Synod determined that charging interest was consistent with scripture; see Cotton Mather, Thirty important cases resolved with evidence of scripture and reason.

XXII–XXV. The Hartford witch panic is summarized in Charles J. Hoadly, “A case of witchcraft in Hartford” in The Connecticut magazine, vol. 5, no. 11 (November 1899), and chapters VIII and IX of R. G. Tomlinson, Witchcraft prosecution: Chasing the devil in Connecticut. James’s route through Hartford is based on the map drawn by William S. Porter (1838) in Mary Kingbury Talbott and William S. Porter, The original proprietors of Hartford. Thomas Bracey accused James at Katherine Harrison’s 1669 trial (John M. Taylor, The witchcraft delusion of colonial Connecticut 1647–1697, pp. 49–50), but the deponent likely said something similar at this time. The early Hartford prison is described in William DeLoss Love, The colonial history of Hartford, pp. 286–289; he notes: “Some prisoners took with them such articles of furniture as they needed. […] Nathaniel Greensmith had there ‘One Bed well filled,’ ‘One Boulster,’ ‘One Rugg, one Blankett’ and ‘Two Blanketts,’ valued at £6 10s” (frustratingly, Love does not cite a source for his quotations). Rebecca Greensmith’s confession in open court is summarized in Whiting’s letter to Mather, p. 468; her further confession against her husband, herself, and others still exists in the Wyllys papers supplement. James’s opinion of witchcraft, while perhaps not usual, is not anachronistic; see, for example, John Hale’s A modest inquiry into the nature of witchcraft. Similarly, contemporary reaction to homosexual behavior was, despite the rhetoric of sermon and law book, usually quite muted; see Richard Godbeer, “‘The cry of Sodom’: Discourse, intercourse, and desire in colonial New England” in The William and Mary quarterly, ser. 3, vol. LII, no. 2 (April 1995), pp. 259–286. James and Rev. Stone’s arguments about Christmas are adapted from sources quoted in J. A. R. Pimlott, “Christmas under the Puritans” in History Today, vol. 10, no. 12 (December 1960). The accusation against James that Rev. Haines reads is adapted from transcripts of the 1677 trial of Nicholas Sension, of Windsor, Connecticut, quoted in Goober.

XXVI. James first fled to Rhode Island in late December 1662 or early January 1662/63, returned by early July, was indicted again in June 1665, fled again, and this time remained in Rhode Island, forfeiting all his Connecticut assets; I have compressed these movements to a single flight.

XXVII. The lives of Ann Cole, Katherine Harrison, Elizabeth Seagar, and Judith Varlett are epitomized in Tomlinson, Witchcraft. Alice is referred to as “Widow Wakelee” in Wethersfield tax records. Her fence disputes are in Ullmann, Court minutes. James granted power of attorney to Henry, who petitioned to be released from it, and was; and both James and Alice petitioned for divorce, but were refused; see Adams, Particular Court, for this and James’s other legal woes. For Thomas Waklee’s death, see Anderson, Great migration; Cotton Mather also mentions him in Magnalia christi americana. James’s penury is reflected in the token taxes assessed on him (Horatio Rogers, et al. [editors], The early records of the town of Providence, vol. XV, pp. 195, 210; vol. XVII, pp. 47, 51). Matthew Cole’s fate is noted in Hoadly, “Witchcraft.” Rev. Stone’s riparian tumble is actually how his son, also named Samuel Stone, died, but Rev. Stone seemed to me to richly deserve such a fate; see J. Hammond Trumbull, The memorial history of Hartford County, Connecticut 1633–1884, p. 263, quoting John Whiting’s letter to Increase Mather. A letter from the citizens of Rhode Island, complaining of James’s presence, is printed in J. Hammond Trumbull, Public records of the colony of Connecticut, from 1665 to 1678, p. 527.

XXVIII. Henry’s will is abstracted in Jacobus, Fairfield; it is actually dated 11 July 1689, with a codicil added 5 April 1690, and was exhibited 8 November 1690. The quoted legal language is adapted from Peregrine White’s will (1704).

XXIX. James was still alive in early October 1690, when a court ruled in his favor; another court order of May 1691 mentions that he had died recently (Hoadly, Records, pp. 35–36 and 44).

In addition to all the above, I am indebted to these secondary sources:

Alfred A. Cave, The Pequot War.

Gregory Robert Cunningham, The history of the Wakelee family since they were known in America.

John Putnam Demos, Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the culture of early New England.

Kai T. Erikson. Wayward pilgrims: A study in the sociology of deviance.

David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s seed: Four British folkways in America.

Richard M. Lederer, Jr. Colonial American English: a glossary.

Walter W. Woodward, Prospero’s America: John Winthrop, Jr., alchemy, and the creation of New England culture, 1606–1676.

Nightstand IV

More books on a chair.
More books on a chair.

John S. Farmer. A dictionary of slang: An alphabetical history of colloquial, unorthodox, underground and vulgar English. (1980 reprint of Slang and its analogues, 1890). Mostly eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century slang, with an emphasis on the London underworld. In two fat volumes! As great for browsing as it is for reference (“tip us your flipper” = give me your hand: vital information for all time travelers). My only complaint is that the organization is eccentric. Words are gathered together by subject, under a headword that the editor judged to be, I suppose, the most common term — so that, for example, all terms for the female pudenda are listed under Monosyllable (!). Copious cross-references could have cured this defect, but they are sparse.

Malcolm Balen. The secret history of the South Sea bubble: The world’s first great financial scandal. I don’t know how secret any of this actually is, but it’s fascinating to see all the threads gathered together and laid out plainly.

Lapham’s quarterly, volume 5, number 3: Magic shows. At a recent Friends of the Library book sale, I saw a box under the table with a nearly complete run of this fine publication, many of them still in shrink-wrap. Naturally, I snapped them up; at $5 a bag (it was the last day), how can you go wrong?

James Tiptree, Jr. Her smoke rose up forever. I recently read Julie Phillips’s fine biography, James Tiptree, Jr.: The double life of Alice B. Sheldon. Rereading the stories now, there’s an eerie sensation of seeing through the surface of the fiction and catching elusive glimpses of something else lurking there, something darker, sadder, more desperate, more painful than any possible endurance.


Where do stories come from?

Where do stories come from? Of course, the real answer is: You don’t want to know. But in this case I’m going to tell you anyway.

One morning, towards dawn, I was lying abed half asleep when these sentences began circulating in my head:

Ryan North was no magistrate. Why, he was not even a lawman. If people were free to come to him with a dispute, he was just as free to offer an opinion; and if they chose to act on it, that was their own business.


Why does this happen? I don’t know; it just does, more often in the shower than in bed, but usually when I’m not fully and lucidly awake. I’ve always assumed that everyone encounters these insistent prose attacks (or, more rarely, spells of verse), but I could be mistaken. In any case, after a while I got up and wrote them down.

But who was this Ryan North? When I was actually awake, I recognized him as the author of the brilliant Dinosaur Comics, so I renamed him after an ancestor I’d been researching.

Marguerite Yourcenar, speaking in an interview about her novel The Abyss (L’oeuvre au noir), said:

To begin with, I was interested in the histories of the families and towns in the area where I had grown up. Then I realized that these histories might be combined so as to recreate a microcosm.

One of my discoveries was a book from my father’s family library entitled Mémoires anonymes sur les troubles des Pays-Bas, a nineteenth-century reprint of a work written in Old French. […] At that time I also examined certain genealogical documents, some of which I still have while others were lost in 1944 or 1945. In these documents I ran across a person named Zeno, another named Vinine, and still another named Jacqueline Bell. These names, which were not uncommon in Flanders at that time, started me dreaming, but what I had in mind at that point seems to have been a series of character portraits spanning several generations; this would have included sketches of men and women who came and went quietly from this earth, the sort of people to whom Barrès used to refer to as “cemetery fodder,” as well as people who developed their gifts to the full.



In my case, I seemed to have conceived then of Stutley as more like the character who eventually became J.E. Chambers. He was to have been a sort of freelance inquirer into weird events — ghosts and ghouls and creepy critters — that troubled the empty landscapes of early nineteenth century New York and Pennsylvania. I have these notes scribbled down right under the opening sentences:

When would 2nd great awake have reached this area?
Prophets & charlatans — [what year was lake monster hoax?]
It was a time of prophets and charlatans, of great migrations of peoples and the long + peculiar work of becoming Americans.
What year was phalanstery constructed? Brook Farm?
Shakers must have passed though this area ==> map of villages? Ohio + NY certainly
Perhaps he is a graduate of Brown College — ? He is from Providence/North Providence/Kingstowne/Little Rest in any case.


Stories have a habit of insisting on taking their own turns and meanders independently of my own feeble wishes for them.

This one did too.

I don’t recall where I first read of Jemima Wilkinson, but right away I found her fascinating. I also don’t recall how she found her way into this story, although an inkling of it is plain enough in the notes transcribed above. More remarkable, though, is Nebuchadnezzar/Amos Walker/Jonah Northup. One evening, I sat down at the computer and typed: He calls himself Jonah now, and the whole last movement of the story unreeled almost on its own, although it also required some research about artificial lighting, pens and inks, agricultural prices, underground railway activity in western Pennsylvania, and quotations from the you-know-what, which took a little while.

Before this spate of ventriloquism, he had been more of a prop than a character, and now his story echoed backwards, as it were, through the draft, transforming the resolution of the Northup-Chambers story, which at that point just dwindled away more than it ended, and also requiring more material on Stutley’s childhood and his first encounter with the visitor (at that time still a plural visitors), as well as numerous other, smaller adjustments. Here I pass over without comment many hours of drafting and revising.

After a few of the usual form-letter rejections, Scott Andrews at Beneath Ceaseless Skies — a market I’d never submitted to before — rejected it with a very perceptive note, adding that he’d like to see it again it I did end up revising it.

His remarks brought into focus a vague dissatisfaction — and so I rearranged some passages, amputated some others, added new sentences and paragraphs, and pruned away, here and there, some excess rhetorical flourishes. I also corrected some lighting technology anachronisms (ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance), and set right certain idiocies concerning the handling of rowboats (what could I have been thinking?). Despite the many additions, the cuts brought the word count down by nearly a thousand. This took about a week; I set it aside for three weeks, then looked at it again; I made some more changes (mostly cuts).

I sent it back.

Notes & sources (I)

Little Hope

Maybe you’ve read the story “Sinseerly A Friend & Yr. Obed’t” and maybe you wondered how much was fiction, how much was fact, and how much was some messy mixture — also known as conjecture.

I wanted to append a short note on sources to the story, but the editor persuaded me not to. Here, then, is the long version of the dreaded Author’s Note:

Little Hope, Pennsylvania, was a real place, although it hardly exists today, and in Greenfield Cemetery you can find the gravestone of Stutley Northup (died 10 April 1860). He did find his way to Erie County from Rhode Island via central New York, but it is very unlikely that either he or his father were followers of Jemima Wilkinson — who was nevertheless also quite real, as was her New Jerusalem settlement. I do not know if he attended Brown College (I doubt it). Nor do I have any documentation that he was accessory in the flight of fugitive slaves (I doubt that too). Many of his descendants were dairy farmers, so it seemed reasonable to suppose that he may have been too. Of course the Dark Day really did happen, and Stukely’s war service was as outlined (drawn from War Department records), and the names of his children are recorded in census records, and there was a mysterious giant wave on Lake Erie in July 1881, and J.E. Chambers was Justice of the Peace in Harbor Creek Township in 1838 (although his commission was not recorded until December).


The Dusseau brothers did encounter a giant sea-snake in Lake Erie, or so they claimed, but I have moved the event fifty years earlier and fifty miles east. The newspaper accounts are only slightly modified from those of the Stark County (Ohio) Democrat and the New York Times. (The Phoenix-Mirror is a real newspaper that was publishing in Erie at the time of the story.)

Nebuchadnezzar/Amos Walker/Jonah Northup is based — very loosely — on Joseph Taper. Taper did pass through this region of Pennsylvania on his route to Canada, but the resemblance ends there. Jonah’s internal monolog is partly made out of scraps and quotes of a letter of Taper’s preserved in the papers of Joseph Long at Duke University.

Jemima Wilkinson’s ideas about the Dark Day are adapted from Samuel Williams’s account in The analytical review, or history of literature, domestic and foreign, on an enlarged plan, volume II (1788).

The description of watercourses at the beginning of III is adapted from History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, containing a history of the county; its townships, towns, villages, schools, churches, industries, etc., as is the report of the singleton wave in XI.

I have also benefited from:

Martin Billingsley, The pens excellencie: or, the secretaries delighte for descriptions of the manufacture of quill pens.

Tom Calarco, et al., Places of the underground railroad: A geographical guide for information about fugitives in Erie and vicinity.

Charles Cassady, Paranormal Great Lakes for tales of sea monsters in the lake.

Stafford Cleveland, History and directory of Yates County, containing a sketch of its original settlement by the Publick Universal Friend for a history of Jemima Wilkinson’s New Jerusalem.

Nelson’s biographical directory and historical reference book of Erie County, Pennsylvania for all that I know about J.E. Chambers.

Antoon Oudemans, The great sea-serpent. An historical and critical treatise for inspiration and of course the epigraph at the head of VI.

Herbert Wisbey Jr., Pioneer prophetess for biographical details of Jemima Wilkinson.

Commonplace book I

But what have been thy answers, what but dark
Ambiguous and with double sense deluding
Which they who asked have seldom understood.


If one had studied the human spirit a little, one knows what power the marvelous has over it.


Since inquiry is the beginning of philosophy, and wonder and uncertainty the beginning of inquiry, it seems only natural that the greater part of what concerns the gods should be concealed in riddles.