A short piece of fiction

Some years ago, I wrote this little ghost story based on a some burial mounds near Cambridge. I sold it to a horror podcast who did a reading of it, but they went off the air years ago so I reckon it’s fine to put up online now. It’s just a thing I had lying around that was inspired by history; it’s a little rough in places but I’m mostly happy with it.

Let Him Lie in Foulness

The day was cool and rain was falling lightly, almost hesitantly, as I set out to bury my father. The old man had died in the night, closing his eyes almost with relief that something, anything, was putting an end to the pain in his belly. I had been watching in the dim light from the hearth, and I heard his last breath crawl its way out of his tight throat. I looked into his face and saw nothing there to recognize, so I covered him and went to bed.

There is a church at Heahtun, on a low ridge that looks down over the pastures, but it has no burying-rights, so in the morning we had to take the body to the minster-priests. A short enough journey, but my father slowed me down. Wrapped in a white cloth stitched closed around him, he lay in the back of the wagon next to what we could spare: some jugs of beer, a cheese, loaves of bread, gifts for the priests to buy him his place.

So we walked, slowed by the cart and the ox and the body, my sister’s son and I. We talked little. The rain dripped from the front of my hood, one drop every now and again, and the wool cloak became gradually heavier and the trees and hills inched past. Now and again we saw someone coming, but they withdrew off the path or seemingly chose another direction, for it is ill luck to meet a dead man on the road.

Ill luck to receive one into your house, as well, and although there were farms where we could claim guest-right, it would be a cruel thing to make a host choose between breaking hospitality and taking my father under his roof. Instead we went to a place we knew, where in the old days they had held the meetings. Three high mounds, tallest to shortest along the broken old road, built by no one knows whom long ago. They were covered with grass, and there was a little hut there for people who had travelled a long way to the rites. No one used it now. We made our shelter there and ate the bread and cheese and apples we had brought; the apples were old but sweet.

The boy fell asleep as the young do, as eager to sleep as they are to wake. But I could not, so I sat with my back to the wall, looking out on the night and the mounds and the stars bright above the black woods beyond. And my father in the cart before them. I thought of the flesh yellowing under the white cloth, of what foulness would leak from the body that had seemed so unchangeable when I was small. I thought of the few pennies I carried for the prayers and the unmarked hump that would be his long home, so far from our hearth. I felt a tiny curl within myself, as if my own death, sensing his, were writhing in sympathy and warning. I looked away, to the slumbering mounds.

And as I looked I saw a light, like the glow of a fire, just beyond the central mound. The light itself was hidden from me, but I could see how it turned the grey slopes yellow on the other two. Almost unconsciously I rose and headed toward it. Who would have come here after dark, and without offering us any greeting? I walked clumsily in the dark, fighting my unwilling limbs.

Beyond the mound there was a little camp such as men make when they are travelling, and a fire. The rain had abated, and in the footprint of yellow light I could see that clothes had been set by the fire to dry – a white cloak, a pair of shoes, a linen cloth for the hair. But there was no one in sight, no horse, no packs, no sign of a man. A tiny curl of steam rose from the cloak and vanished in the black air.

I kept my eyes on the fire, not wanting to look up, knowing what I would see, and when I finally did I almost missed it because of the blue and green flames that danced in my vision. There was a door in the mound. It had not been there before, and nor was it freshly opened. Moss grew on the stones of the lintel and the firelight danced off worn and wet slabs that lined the passage.

There was a man in the passage, and then there was not, and then there was. He stood far back enough in the grey dimness that I could only see his eyes glinting with the reflected flames. He said nothing, nor moved, but just looked at me with those wet, bright burning eyes. His face was shaven smooth and he stood slightly hunched because of the low roof of the passage. I could see the dark line of his nose and the shadow of a chin, but whether he smiled or spoke I never knew.

I reached down to the fire and took the end of a burning piece of wood. Though the flame licked only a short way from my hand I was not burned. I looked back toward the shed and the sleeping bodies there, then stepped toward the door, holding the brand before me. The firelight caught the man and in it I saw the pale, dry bone, the shadow instead of a nose, that cold smile that shows no mirth. Again I stepped forward and saw the rotted finery, the pathetic strands of gold thread woven through corruption and the black, limitless emptiness behind.

Turning, I flung the burning wood away from me. Over and over it spun, scrawling loops of fire across the dark until it bounced, sparking, once and then lay guttering. I watched its struggle for a moment, then turned and followed the old man into the lightless mound.

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A short piece of fiction

Trip report: the Museum of Jurassic Technology

Among the many other reasons that it’s been quiet around here, I have been on holiday. Like most of our long holidays, this one saw us heading back to California to visit our family; unlike most, on this trip we got to spend some time in southern California. Despite having lived in California for a long time, I’ve never really spent any time in the southern part of the state other than a few trips to Disneyland, so this was nice.

As part of my visit to LA (well, technically, Culver City), I went with an old friend to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which I had often heard about. My memory is not perfect, so while I remembered that the museum existed and that I wanted to go to it, I didn’t really remember why.

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Inside, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is … Fortean in the best sense. You might consider it as an art exhibit in the genre of museum; that’s the conclusion that I eventually came to. It includes a mixture of real things that are strange, things that mix fact and fiction, and things that are completely fictitious. It plays with the sometimes erudite, sometimes simplistic language of museum presentations, and it delights in presenting things that would seem ridiculous if they weren’t completely true, like its exhibits on Russian space dogs or Athanasius Kircher.

I realise this isn’t a very helpful description, but I don’t really know how else to describe it. It does an amazing job of replicating the hushed, almost reverential tone of a museum and using that to illuminate the history that intertwines museums, personal collections and carnival sideshows while also just presenting some flat-out nonsense in complete straight-faced kayfabe.

Very gradually as you go through the museum, you start to realise that a lot of it is phony. Is it the fact that one of the historical figures it covers is represented by a photograph of Charles Fort? Is it the slight inaccuracies in the story of the fungus-controlled ant? You think you’re wise to this thing. But honestly, I think the goal of the museum is to make you think that something real is fake. You figure out that this whole theory of memory thing is fiction, and that makes you cocky. This Konstantin Tsiolkovsky character couldn’t possibly be real, you think to yourself.

And that’s how they get you.

People sometimes say about fabulous stories, especially those that pass themselves off as real, that they draw people’s attention to what is genuinely strange and wonderful in our world. In my experience, that’s seldom true, but here I think it actually works.

Also you can enjoy a nice cup of tea in a peaceful roof garden, which is nice.

Trip report: the Museum of Jurassic Technology

Movie Monday: Queen of the Desert (2015)

I saw Queen of the Desert pop up on the Netflix queue and thought to myself “how come I had never heard that there was a biopic of Gertrude Bell, that travel writer, diplomat, spy, archaeologist and all-around clever person?”

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About ten minutes in, I said to myself “ah, this is why.”

Nicole Kidman is pretty good as Bell, and there are some fun additional performances by Robert Pattinson as T. E. Lawrence and Damien Lewis as Bell’s awkward love interest. James Franco appears early on as another love interest.

The problem with Queen of the Desert is that it’s not genuinely about anything. It’s just sort of a collection of facts and anecdotes about the life of Gertrude Bell, some with a point but others not so much. It’s not about Bell working to be accepted by her male colleagues, it’s not really about politics in the middle east, it’s not about the various exciting and adventurous things Bell did (she once nearly died in a mountain-climbing disaster, for instance), it’s just … not about anything.

And whatever it’s not about, it’s not about that in the slowest, dullest way possible. Every scene is played at three-quarter speed, with characters frequently restating the obvious and long, long, interminable pauses in the dialogue.

Can I just say that if you take someone who traveled the world, was partly responsible for the creation of modern-day Iraq, studied archaeology, etc., etc., and you choose to focus a huge amount of the attention on how she’s motivated by her tragic doomed love affair and yadda yadda, I feel like that’s a weird priority.

Things I’ve learned from this film:

  • James Franco, God love him, cannot act while doing a British accent.
  • He also cannot do a British accent.
  • I think Werner Herzog, who also wrote the script, has maybe never talked to a person. There might be some other way to explain it, but I can’t think of one.
  • Everybody likes to see people doing archaeology, but nobody cares about the actual archaeology part of it.
  • You can explain the politics of installing the Hashemite monarchies in three minutes (kinda), but you can’t make an interesting plotline out of it in that length of time.
  • I can in fact get tired of watching camels cross romantic vistas while reedy music plays in the background.

It’s really a shame that this movie is so samey and drab, because Gertrude Bell is a really interesting person who is both a pioneering archaeologist and an important figure in a pivotal moment in middle eastern history. But that’s the only thing Queen of the Desert has going for it.

 

Movie Monday: Queen of the Desert (2015)

Read this thing I wrote!

I can’t believe I didn’t mention that the cover story of Fortean Times #369, cover date August 2018, is by me! It’s about Lovecraft, history, and archaeology, and if you like that sort of thing I hope you will like it. I’m quite pleased — I have written a lot of reviews for FT, but a big cover feature article like this is a thrill for me.

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I don’t know that you can order single issues directly from FT, but I’m sure you can pick this bad boy up at your local newsagents or bookseller.

Read this thing I wrote!

Movie Monday: Kings of the Sun (1963)

If I’m back on the GHP, there must be another hokey old historical epic on Netflix! And so it seems. The film in question is 1963’s Kings of the Sun, a sword-and-sandal epic inspired … loosely … by the Mound Builder cultures of historic and prehistoric North America.

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So who were the Mound Builders? The term is used to describe a wide range of Native American cultures over a long period, and strictly speaking there’s no such thing as “the” Mound Builders. What these cultures have in common is the practice of building large mounds, often for ceremonial purposes. The similarity of these platforms to the pyramids built by cultures further to the south has often been noted.

Kings of the Sun takes the position that at least one mound builder culture was the result of settlement along the Gulf coast by refugees from the overthrow of the ruling dynasty of Chichen Itza in the late 12th or early 13th century. But although I say that, it’s a pretty silly thing to say about the plot of this movie, which is only very loosely tied to the historical premise.

Anyway, George Chakiris (Bernardo from West Side Story) is the king of Chichen Itza, right, but bad old Hunac Ceel (Leo Gordon) overthrows him and he flees with his motley band of advisers, including a cranky old priest (Richard Basehart) and a bluff warrior guy (Brad Dexter). Along the way they pick up the inhabitants of a fishing village, notably the chief’s lovely daughter Ixchel (Shirley Anne Field), and sail off north, finally making their way to Texas where they meet up with a Native American tribe led by Black Eagle (Yul Brynner). Black Eagle and whatsisface (Oh, OK, he’s called Balam) compete for the love of Ixchel, they fight, they make up, the baddie attacks, they beat him, and Black Eagle dies, neatly solving the love triangle.

Kings of the Sun is a brightly-coloured, thumping-scored, completely disposable Hollywood spectacle, similar in a lot of ways to Taras Bulba and in fact directed by the same guy. It’s just a big loud pile of who cares, but it has some interesting bits in it:

  • The Maya get to wherever they are by sailing across the Gulf of Mexico, but wherever they go, it seems to have saguaro. This is weird because, as we all know:
  • Boy, Hollywood has never found an ethnicity it wasn’t willing to cast Yul Brynner as, huh? Even so, he wears a lot of brown paint in this one and hoo boy it’s uncomfortable.
  • The usual Hollywood history rapemance plotline gets inverted here: it’s Black Eagle who gets captured and wins over one of his captors rather than the lady getting won over by the guy holding her prisoner. There is a lot of Yul Brynner’s oily body writhing around all tied up.
  • It’s sort of charming how much leaping around these guys do. It’s interesting to see a period where action heroes weren’t superheroes — fit, athletic people, obviously, but not as exaggerated as they would later become.
  • There’s a standard science-vs-superstition bit in the middle where our hero, being a right guy, objects to human sacrifice. He objects so hard that Richard Basehart kills himself, even. Yul Brynner talks a lot about buffaloes.
  • There is a pretty good bit where they tell Yul Brynner that they’re going to execute them where he stands and accuses them all, with his face in shadow but the whole rest of his body brightly lit. It’s pretty good. Unfortunately it’s the only time that the corny, melodramatic staging of this movie really comes off.
  • Speaking of Taras Bulba, it is amazing how much they want George Chakiris to be Tony Curtis. In fact, there are a lot of people in historical epics of whom this is true. I dub them: Phony Curtis.
  • Anyway, it’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s bad, it’s not … as racist as it could be, I guess, maybe, but hire a Native actor to play a Native role every now and again, classic Hollywood, would it kill you?
Movie Monday: Kings of the Sun (1963)

Something I’ve been working on!

Other commitments have kept me from updating this blog as often as I’d like recently, but here’s a thing: one of those other commitments is now in a state I can talk to you about! It’s Gaming a Crusader Castle, and it’s a collaboration between an academic historian and a miniatures terrain maker to make wargames scenery based on the crusader castles of the middle east. Not to blow our own trumpet or anything, but it may just be the most historically accurate crusading terrain ever.

Charge
This is from a different Crusades game, and shows a game based on the battle of Lodi Vecchio in 1240, but hey, it’s all connected.

Anyway, I’ll be writing a blog chronicling the project’s progress and providing some related features like scenarios and so on. If you’re interested in historical wargaming, the crusades, or the role of history in the media, please check it out. And tell your friends who might be interested!

Something I’ve been working on!

TV Tuesday: Vikings mid-season

OK, so season 5.1 of Vikings has wrapped up, with the sort of radical narrative centrelessness that we’ve come to expect from this sprawling music video of a show.

When last we left our heroes, everyone was wandering all over the map, with Ivarr and Hvitserk in York, Bjorn and Halfdan sailing around the Mediterranean falling in love, Ubbe and Lagertha being uneasy allies in Kattegat, Floki off colonising Iceland, and Harald wooing Astrid in Norway. I might have that all mixed up.

Aaaaanyway, everyone falls into one side or another of a big alliance, and Bjorn and Halfdan return, replacing their totally pointless Mediterranean side trip with an equally pointless romance between Bjorn and Princess Who Cares (Dagny Backer Johnsen). Spurned, Torvi gets together with Ubbe, which upsets Margrethe, who is sort of trying to do for Aslaug what Ubbe does for Ragnar, i.e. be the Poundland version.

And I guess Aethelwulf dies and Alfred is nominated king instead of Aethelred, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then I gave up trying to figure out this show’s approach to West Saxon history long ago.

So the two sides get together for a big season-ending battle, with occasional cuts away to the side plots in England and Iceland. The battle begins with a rousing chorus of The Only Song in Norway, but I can’t hate: the sad singing bit is effectively done, especially since I think the song ends on the line about killing lots of people.

So there is a battle: on the one side, we have Ivarr, Hvitserk, Harald, and Astrid, plus a bunch of Franks, while on the other side we have (deep breath), Lagertha, Torvi, Bjorn, Ubbe, Heahmund of all people, Snaefrid (that’s Princess Who Cares), Guthrum, and Halfdan. Throughout the battle, everyone takes little breaks to have moments of personal recognition and totally trip balls. During the battle, the following people die:

  • Halfdan, having narrowly avoided confessing his love for Bjorn and thereby concluding his lifelong pattern of being witty and fun but not actually mattering or doing anything.
  • Guthrum, who has pulled off the doing nothing and not mattering without the being clever. In fact, I’m totally baffled about why he was in this show in the first place if he’s not going to grow up to be, you know, Guthrum.
  • Snaefrid. We hardly knew ye. No, literally. Also her dad, king of the Ewoks Saami.
  • Astrid, who, in a startling moment of gender equality is a woman who gets stabbed to motivate both a male and a female character! I’ll miss you, Josefin Asplund, and the only expression you got to use this season, Totally Miserable.
  • No one who actually matters.
  • Seriously, not even Hvitserk.
  • Honestly, someone’s going to leave a comment below telling me that And Hvitserk Too died but I just forgot about it, and I’ll believe them. Poor old fluffy-lipped Hvitserk; it’s not his fault. He just wants to be liked while being totally unlikable. Is that so much to ask?

Meanwhile, back in Iceland, the Best Plot is unfolding, because Floki somehow assumed that people super devoted to Norse gods would be a peaceful community united in shared beliefs instead of like the Revenge Killings Fan Club. He has a great speech where he predicts an ever-escalating cycle of feud and murder, or, as I like to think of it, Iceland.

And in England Judith goes all Lady Macbeth, which would matter more if we gave a hoot in heck about Aethelred.

And to wrap it up, Rollo is sailing into Kattegat in a move that makes no historical sense but warms my heart because I like to see Clive Standen as the big meathead doofus who outplayed them all, and because I do like to see the Normans do well. It reinforces one of my favourite themes in media / least favourite themes in real life, You Can’t Fight City Hall.

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Forget about it, Jacques. It’s Vikingtown.

There are points in this show where you want to shout at the screen yes, I get it, I’ve seen Valhalla Rising too, I get it!

Sure looks nice, though!

TV Tuesday: Vikings mid-season