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“All right,” I said; “suppose the characters exist in the author’s mind, like the events; where does the value of invention come in?”

“Where the value of any invention comes in,” he answered. “In its purpose or use. A wheel spinning aimlessly is worth nothing; the same wheel on a cart or a pulley changes destiny.”

“You can’t learn anything from fairy tales,” I persisted stubbornly.

He smiled. “Maybe you havent read the right fairy tales.”

Damn. I got very excited by a certain stylistic quirk that I noticed in this book. Mr Ward Moore had seemingly written the entire thing without using apostrophes. You might see above he has written the contraction ‘havent’. Unfortunately right above that line of dialogue, he gives narrator Hodge Backmaker ‘can’t’.

Well there’s that theory blown out of the water.

Eight years ago I was working with a woman from Texas who used to proudly claim to share common descent with George Bush and Queen Elizabeth. What I found odd was not the claim itself, but that it was obviously so important to her. Of course I say that as an O’Cuana and we have done anything to be proud of in a thousand years.

I say this as the notion of historical prestige is not something I guess I can understand. Moore with this book examines not just the premise of an America with an alternate history, but the importance of being able to draw descent from the respective sides of the Civil War conflict.

Hodge Backmaker begins his narration telling us that he was born in 1921, but that this is being written in 1877. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error – let me explain. The fortunes of the Backmaker clan are inextricably linked with the events of the Civil War, when the Union lost to the Southron forces. What ensued was a near half-century of economic ruin for the Yankee territories. A prevalent xenophobia for foreign nations became the dominant political rhetoric. What’s more while slavery was abolished,  most citizens are so impoverished they agree to a system of indenture to corporations until they are too old to be of use. Moore even includes a few alternate history jokes. George Bernard Shaw died a little-known reverend. Carl Jung became a police chief.

Hodge is something of an anomaly, in that he sees no future in labouring to support his family and prefers to spend his time buried in books. He dreams of putting his love of reading to some good use, perhaps even becoming an academic in one of the dilapidated academies that still exist in the Union. To that end he sets off for New York with his fortune of three dollars in his pocket.

The countryboy from Poughkeepsie notices that the metropolis lacks the skyscrapers of Confederate ruled Washington, but remains a glamourous sight, with its airborn zeppelins and thronging multitude. Of course the awe-struck yokel quickly falls on bad luck, which sets him on the path to a meeting with a bookseller named Mr Tyss and the revolutionary Grand Army.

Moore’s novel is concerned not only with history, but with the notion of an objective observer of history. Hodge learns a new understanding of events from two men, Tyss and the Haitian Ambassador  M’sieu Enfandin. The one insists that history itself is predetermined; the other that man is free to choose his destiny. Hodge himself lives frozen by indecision. In that his character is a sly dig at the pretence of historians to be unbiased spectator to events. Tyss mocks him for even desiring to be impartial, stating that his love of history is simply a desire to hide from action.

It is a very fine joke, made all the funnier by Moore then sending Hodge on a fantastical adventure that explains the riddle of the book’s opening lines. This is a gripping novel of ideas, one I am very surprised to have never heard of before. Much like Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In The High Castle the book seeks to outstrip being merely an alternate history yarn, with far loftier themes in mind.

I also enjoyed how like Hamlet, Hodge is not the virginal prevaricator popular opinion might assume him to be. He’s actually quite the ladies man. He simply refuses to take responsibility for his actions, or indeed any commitments at all.

A thoughtfully written investigation of American history, with a sf glaze.

‘Do you mean to say,’ he began, ‘that if I take the trouble to observe your directions – place myself in the condition which you demand: solitude, night, and a tallow candle – you can with your ghastliest work give me an uncomfortable sense of the supernatural, as you call it? Can you accelerate my pulse, make me start at sudden noises, send a nervous chill along my spine, and cause my hair to rise?’

Before Robert W. Chambers, before H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, there was Ambrose Bierce. The increasingly more excessive supernatural tone of their stories, with an equal increase in the overwrought standard of prose – at least in certain examples of the above, was initially derived from Bierce’s use of melancholic horror.

His name is often mentioned as one of the founders of the Cthulu Mythos, which would have been much to his amusement I imagine. For the horrors he unleashes are neither squamous, nor cyclopean, but often the very real horror of war. Certainly this collection of short stories, divided into two sections ‘Soldiers’, and ‘Civilians’, is rooted heavily in the events of the American Civil War, with the division of families and loved ones a recurring theme. What there is of the supernatural on show is weighted by Bierce’s own agnosticism.

The afterlife here is not so much damnation below, or a heavenly reward, but that brief moment when the dying soldier imagines that they have escaped their fate. There’s an excellent line in the story Parker Adderson, Philosopher that illustrates Bierce’s perspective on religion. A Union soldier – the Union throughout is referred to as ‘Federal’, which was a term I was unfamiliar with in this context – has been arrested by the Confederate army as a spy. Parker Adderson proves to be a witty and bemused subject for interrogation, engaging the enemy Confederate general in a battle of words. When it is made clear that he will be executed, Adderson refuses to speak to any priest, as he says: You can hang me, general, but there your power of evil ends; you cannot condemn me to heaven.

A Horseman In The Sky and The Coup De Grace both treat of the costs the war brought to bear on families, with fathers turned against sons and husbands leaving wives and offspring to a doubtful fate when called to the field. The former story features a native Virginian following his principles and joining the army from the North, setting him against his family and community. The hallucinatory story Chickamauga, resembling at times a gory Hideo Nakata movie, shows how children playing soldier games are blind to the inhumanity of the battlefield.

Cthulu scholars should read An Inhabitant of Carcosa and Haita the Shepherd with interest as both stories feature names of gods and places referred to by successive authors, although the deity known as Hastur here appears in a far more benevolent form than in later supernatural fiction. The opening story The Suitable Surroundings, from which my opening quotation was taken, even has an early progenitor of the ‘evil book’, trope although once again, Bierce’s materialism does not allow for the amorphous threat posed by the Necronomicon. In fact I would argue his matter of fact scary story is far more frightening, as it is more plausible than outer gods threatening our reality through the gateway of mouldering, old books.

The real star of the collection though is Bierce’s seminal story An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge. This is an excellent study in suspense, with the protagonist a civilian devoted to the Confederate cause attempting to aid them and survive capture by the Federal soldiers. The story is as much a study of the lengths a man can go to when motivated by feelings of patriotism, as it is a mediation on death itself. An excellent story.

Many of Bierce’s writings can be found in different collections. This book that I have read was published in 1964 and his reputation has grown since then thanks to the generous credit given to him by contemporary Lovecraft scholars.

Suspenseful, thoughtful and chilling, this is classic supernatural fiction that does not stretch plausibility.

The story that follows can fairly be said to have two protagonists. One of them is Minor, the murdering soldier from America; and there is one other. To say that a story has two protagonists, or three, or ten, is a perfectly acceptable, unremarkable modern form of speech. It happens, however, that a furious lexicographical controversy once raged over the use of the word – a dispute that helps to illustrate the singular and peculiar way that the Oxford English Dictionary has been constructed and how, when it flexes its muscles, it as a witheringly intimidating authority.

This is the kind of book the Peter Ackroyds and John Banvilles of this world would give their eye-teeth to write. An incisive and witty account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary – with a surprising history of murder and madness interwoven into the tale.

This is, despite the quote above, the story of three men. The aforementioned Dr. W. C. Minor, an American medical doctor who suffered from what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress and paranoid schizophrenia. Dr James Murray, a gifted polymath with humble beginnings that failed to prevent him from achieving honours and great success as a result of his work as editor on the Oxford Dictionary. Finally this is also the story of George Merrett, the victim of a gunshot to the neck. His murderer was committed to Broadmoor asylum and is recognized by history as one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike Minor, Merrett is largely unremembered and unmourned. This is a book that could not have been written without the sacrifice of his life.

For as a veteran of the American Civil War, Minor was haunted by delusions of pursuit at the hands of Irish deserters from the Union army. He was terrified by the thought of being hunted down by a man he was ordered to brand with a hot iron, as punishment for fleeing the field of battle. The Irish soldiers conscripted to fight the Confederate army initially were willing to fight, with a view to someday returning home to put their newfound skills to use in liberating their own country. Disillusionment soon followed though and Winchester huge numbers of desertions from the Union cause. Minor was also troubled by increasingly disturbed sexual fantasies. No form of treatment for his maladies existed. He was judged completely insane and though not found responsible for the death of George Merrett, locked away for what was judged to be the rest of his natural life in Broadmoor.

Murray’s early life was also touched by tragedy. The loss of his first wife and child before the age of thirty and been forced to eke out a living as a bank clerk despite his prodigious intellectual gifts. Winchester includes an extract from a job application Murray wrote where he claims fluency in over a dozen languages. His fortunes, however, improved with a happy second marriage and the fortunate society he kept with many other learned men, who recommended him for his eventual career as editor of the Dictionary. Despite the efforts of Samuel Johnson, the English were lagging behind the efforts of the French Encyclopédistes and Italian lexicographers. There was no enshrined account of the English language itself, its cultural forms mutable and unaccounted for. What Murray attempted was to collect proven definitions and associations for singular words, drawn from the literature of the time. Volunteers were asked to submit completed lists of words with their origins and usage clearly defined. This proved unwieldy and met with little enthusiasm once the size of the task was glimpsed.

It was with Minor that Murray met great success. The two began to correspond over a number of years, with the American giving little hint as to his circumstances, at first merely submitting his exhaustive work without comment. Winchester argues that this research and study offered Minor relief from his painful delusions. He continued to be troubled, especially at night, by the thought of pursuit by invisible Irishmen, succubae and most disturbingly, children. Yet his work on the dictionary seemed to reflect a particularly erudite and reflective mind. I have always been struck by the phrase a ‘monk’s cell’, as if contemplation was a crime. Minor’s life following the death of Merrett symbolises that contradiction.

I love Winchester’s style of writing, with one phrase in particular just leaping off the page – seamless syrup of insanity. A beautiful, commanding book.

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