Charles Dickens is in Good Company

On the last day of May in 1837, avid readers of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club were disappointed. The story had been published in installments by Chapman & Hall at the end of every month since March of 1836 and by this time was approaching a print run of 40,000 for each part. It was perhaps the first truly and widely popular piece of literature to hit the London scene, spawning bootlegged copies, theatrical renditions, circulating jokes, and a wide range of merchandise.

Charles Dickens was living the dream. He’d hit the publishing market just right and given the reading public exactly what it wanted at exactly the moment it wanted it. Then in May of 1837, as it so often does, life happened and Dickens missed a deadline when his sister-in-law Mary, to whom he was close, died suddenly. He also missed a deadline for a new serial novel called Oliver Twist.

A story written by a some guy named Charles Dickens, who, much like author Sarah Angleton, was known to serialize his novels. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens did manage to publish a section of his Pickwick Papers the following month and an anxious readership was happy to get it. The work, which was later published as a single novel, originally reached its readers as a series of nineteen issues published over twenty months.

The idea of the serial novel wasn’t entirely new, but it hit its stride with Dickens who had begun his career publishing his Sketches by Boz in various newspapers before they were later bundled into a single work.

Readers liked the format because it was cheaper to buy a short piece than a full novel. Publishers liked it because it was cheaper and less risky to produce short pieces, which allowed them to respond to market demand rather than try to predict it. And lots of authors throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century did it, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many others. All the cool kids were doing it.

Some guy named Charles Darwin who published serialized novels, similarly to author Sarah Angleton. National Library of Wales, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Then serial fiction kind of fell out of fashion, with only the occasional experimental foray by a well-known author here or there. But now it’s making a comeback. It’s happening on blogs, of course, and podcasts, and now on more and more online publishing platforms. Even Amazon decided to get a piece of the action.

Last week saw the launch of Amazon’s newest self-publishing platform Kindle Vella. For now, it’s only available in the US and I don’t entirely understand how it works just yet, but basically, it’s an app to which authors publish their stories an “episode” at a time, and readers cash in-app coins they’ve purchased in order to continue with the next episode. I think it’s supposed to be interactive, too. That’s the part I don’t have quite figured out yet.

But I assume I will figure it out before too long, because I have begun publishing a story on Vella. This novel-in-pieces is a little different than my others that got published as plain ol’ books. Those are historical novels that most likely appeal to the kind of people who like to read historical novels, which I know because I’m so great at marketing.  Or at least they probably appeal to people who like history or novels or who have ever had a conversation with my mom or dad.

This story might not appeal to the same crowd. It’s a dystopian, sci fi story I started cooking up several years ago, in which, unsurprisingly, there is a teenage girl who is destined to become a hero and do heroic things, fall in love and possibly become embroiled in a love triangle, and learn something about herself on the way to saving the world.

A serialized novel by Sarah Angleton (aka S. M. Angleton)

Probably. But as I post episodes and get reader feedback, I suppose it could always change a little bit. What I can state with a fair amount of confidence is that I am on schedule to upload episodes far enough in advance that if life happens, as it did last week when I failed to post in this space, new episodes should still drop each Wednesday.

Here’s the description you will find on Vella:

Built on the ashes of St. Louis, Becca’s dystopian world centers on a dark faith dedicated to pushing the limits of the human lifespan. After an unnaturally prolonged childhood, she faces the ritual that will determine her vocation and launch her initiation into adulthood, a ritual that two years prior, her brother sacrificed his life to protest. When Becca’s own ceremony takes a wrong turn, she finds herself in a world preserved by lies and a tangled history that threatens everyone she loves.

If you’re into that kind of thing, please check it out at this link to read the first few episodes for free. It’s an experiment, but I’m kind of excited about it. Maybe by the time I get to the last episode, 40,000 people will be waiting anxiously for it. It might spawn jokes, theatrical renditions, bootlegged copies, and a wide range of merchandise. Someday, I might even publish it as a book. The only thing I know for certain is that I have now joined the ranks of Charles Dickens. And I think he’s in pretty good company.

In Praise and Laudation of the Most Excellent and Illustrious Roget

Today represents an important day in the annals of history. I could even say it is hugely significant, or momentous, or earthshaking.  It is a day I believe should be a major holiday of great consequence. Because today is the 169th anniversary of the publication of the life’s work of Peter Mark Roget.

The guy had spent a long career as a physician, tutor, and inventor. He’d written numerous papers on health and physiology, served twenty-one years as secretary of the Royal Society, and was the founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information. But his biggest, most consequential contribution that should not be overlooked, sneezed at, or considered chopped liver resulted from an early habit of making lists.

Beginning in 1805, at the age of sixteen, Roget started making lists of words and phrases, grouping them together into a classification system based on their rough meanings. By the time he retired from medicine in 1840, he had a really long list. I mean like it was extensive and far-reaching and at times probably seemed interminable.  

And so, he spent his retirement collecting, gathering, assembling, and scraping together a book for “those who are painfully groping their way and struggling with the difficulties of composition.” He called it Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition, because as good as he was with words, Roget was not so swell with snappy titles.

Today it’s just known as Roget’s International Thesaurus. It’s in its eighth edition and has been continuously in print, aiding and assisting, helping and supporting painfully groping writers since April 29, 1852.

Even Sylvia Plath, who was pretty good with words, once referred to her thesaurus as the book “which [she] would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, or exaggerate that much, or hyperbolize in quite that way, but I do appreciate a good thesaurus. I own three and I use them extensively.

One is an early edition from 1866, great for looking up nineteenth century phraseology, circumlocution, or idiocism. The second is a pocket edition, useful for carrying in a purse, bag, clutch, or tote. And the third is the seventh edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, which contains more than 325,000 words and phrases and consists of 1,282 pages of sizeable, colossal, and monumental awesomeness.

Okay, I admit I may be a little bit obsessive, affected, or overly-stricken by my plethora, or in other words superabundance of thesauri (or thesauruses because apparently either is acceptable) and with the contribution to the world of lexicography by Peter Mark Roget. But as a painfully groping writer, I plan to celebrate, make merry, and paint the town red. I might even splurge and buy myself an eighth edition Roget’s International Thesaurus just to mark the day.

Every Day is Book Day

In 1930 King Alfonso XIII declared April 23 to be National Book Day in Spain. This proclamation changed the date from the previously celebrated Book Day on October 7, the alleged birthday of Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes because it’s always nicer to walk around open-air book markets in the spring. Actually, it sounds pretty nice to me either way and given that my corner of the world saw a good snowfall earlier this week, I might quibble. But I’m not from Spain.

This only known portrait of Miguel de Cervantes may not even be him at all, as his name was added centuries later and there is no way to authenticate it. Attributed to Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguilar, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

April 23 worked out pretty well because that’s when Cervantes allegedly died. It’s also the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England, Ethiopia, and Georgia, as well as Catalonia and the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo and some other places too. George is the protector of lovers and the patron saint of soldiers and chivalry and dragon-fighting. Or something. I’m also not Catholic.

I have read that it has become tradition in Spain to give a rose to a lady on April 23, and probably because the celebration has been mashed together with Book Day, a book to a gentleman. I certainly can’t speak for all the ladies out there, but I know I’d rather have a book.

And since 1995, that would be an appropriate gift in at least a hundred countries because that’s when the United Nations declared April 23 to be World Book and Copyright Day.

Picture of Miguel de Cervantes excited about World Book Day. Or at least it could be. Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

It’s a good day for it. It’s the anniversary of the death of Shakespeare, who is a pretty famous writer, as well as Cervantes, also famous. Some people even claim that Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, was the world’s first novel.

Personally, I think that’s a pretty tough argument to make since it wasn’t even the first novel written by Miguel de Cervantes, and is predated by thousands of years of narrative writing from around the world, and is a little bit of a spoof of the other novel-like works of chivalric romance that were popular at the time. Perhaps it would be fair to say it was the world’s first critically acclaimed novel. I don’t know. I’m certainly no professional literary critic.

But I do celebrate books. I’m actually happy to celebrate books any day of the year, and I look forward to joining with many nations of the world to celebrate books tomorrow. I suggest getting your sweetheart a rose and a book, or perhaps a book about roses if that’s your thing. Then curl up on the couch together and read. That might be even better than browsing an open-air book market on a spring day, or at least it will be if you get a stupid surprise snow shower.

Don’t Steal My Thunder! (Please)

John Dennis was not a very successful playwright in the early days of the 18th century. I would say he wasn’t very good, but as I’ve not actually read any of his plays, I can’t fairly make that claim. What I do know is that if it remembers him at all, history tends to paint him as more of a critic, and also maybe a little bit of a hothead who was once dismissed from college for wounding a fellow student with a sword.

He looks so grumpy because someone stole his thunder. Jan (John) Vandergucht, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He was also apparently a pretty clever problem solver because when, in 1704, he needed a good rumble of thunder for the production of his play Appius and Virginia, at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, Dennis came up with a new way to make it happen.

I do enjoy a good rumble of thunder. My family and I have lived in the St. Louis area in the Midwestern US for about eight years now, but our previous home was in the Willamette Valley of the Pacific Northwest where we were for just a few years.

We loved a lot about that area. We really did. The friendly people, the warmer temperatures, the ability to grow almost anything without much effort were all great things, not to mention that we could be either playing in the snow on a mountain or fishing for crab on a beach in a little more than an hour on a Saturday morning.

But it almost never thundered. Oh, it rained. A lot. It rained those tiny, swirling droplets that coat everything and against which an umbrella is useless. It just didn’t really storm. Having grown up in the Midwest where the rain means business and often comes with high winds, hail, huge flashes of lighting, and loud cracks of thunder, I missed it.

By the way, you’re probably saying it wrong. As they like to explain in the valley, “It’s Will-AM-ette (D@*n it!).” Rvannatta at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

The only time I remember a storm when we lived on the west coast, I slept through it and only knew about it because a friend mentioned how terrible the thunder had been the previous night. Now, her terrible thunder was probably my low, distant rumble that makes me smile because I know it’s finally really springtime. But in that moment, I found myself getting desperately homesick. I held it together, but I was pretty upset at the thought. I kind of wanted to yell that she’d stolen my thunder.

I realize that’s not what the phrase “to steal one’s thunder” is really about. It refers to showing someone up, which my friend most certainly didn’t do just by waking up to a storm I slept through. But the phrase didn’t start out that way.

When Appius and Virginia, a play you’ve probably never heard of, despite its innovative thunder, got pulled early and replaced with a production of Macbeth, which you probably have heard of, John Dennis decided to pick himself up and go to the show.

I can almost hear the rumbling in this picture. Shobi Ram, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Since you’ve heard of it, you may recall that Macbeth begins with three witches and some thunder and lightning. This particular production of Macbeth, at the Drury Theatre, began with innovative thunder using the same technique recently developed by John Dennis.

The story goes that he jumped up from the audience and declared something to the effect of (not all sources agree on the precise wording): “You won’t run my play, but you’ll steal my thunder!”

I suspect he used some harsher words, too, but whatever he said it is generally accepted that John Dennis coined the idiom “to steal one’s thunder.”

I realize that fun stories like this one are rarely true, but I haven’t been able to find anyone shouting on the internet that it’s not. Frankly, I’m not willing to expend more effort than a quick and shoddy Google search on this particular project, partly because I don’t want to be party to anyone figuratively stealing Dennis’s thunder.

No matter what the phrase might mean today, for frustrated playwright John Dennis and for this midwestern gal, it will always feel just a little bit literal. I’m happy to report that this past week I celebrated having my thunder back. My part of the world experienced its first good thunderstorm of the season. It sounded just like spring is supposed to sound. It sounded like home.

The Week’s Not Over Yet

Between the years 1350 and 1353, Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a collection of one hundred tales published as The Decameron. I’d never read them, and in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that other than a few translated excerpts while writing this post, I still haven’t. But I am intrigued by the premise.

Written in the common man’s Italian (at the time), the collection is set against the backdrop of a 1348 outbreak of the Black Death. The stories are presented as though they are shared among ten friends holed up in a villa outside of Florence, responsibly minding their social distance and avoiding the plague like . . . well, the plague.

Thanks to this guy and Project Gutenberg, you can spend your time stuck at home with nothing to do reading about a bunch of people stuck at home with nothing to do. Raffaello Sanzio Morghen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Seven women and three men during a fourteen-day period are tasked with entertaining the others with a story each night. Two days are reserved for chores and two for worship, leaving ten evenings of ten stories, one hundred stories in all.

If you’re familiar with the Canterbury Tales you may realize that Boccaccio’s work probably had a pretty big influence on Chaucer who pretty much did the same thing several decades later except in the common man’s English (at the time) and with more religious pilgrimaging and less plagueyness.

I have read the Canterbury Tales, both in modern translation and in Middle English, and discussed them pretentiously, and written academic papers about them. But I’ve never been on a religious pilgrimage.

I have, however, been in quarantine, holed up for two weeks at a time in my house during a plague. If the last time I read the Canterbury Tales, you’d asked me which of those I was more likely to experience, I’d have guessed wrong.

I can see why isolation and storytelling might have been a pretty good idea. Spread of the Black Death in Europe Flappiefh, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about Boccaccio and The Decameron because I’ve had a lot of time on my hands. This has been quite a week here in the household of practical history. I know that by now most of us have had those weeks at one point or another since early this year when the world went sideways, but this has definitely been one of ours.

It actually began a little bit before this week when my husband who works in healthcare was informed that his hospital system plans to close the department in which he works. His job as he knows it will apparently be gone at an occasionally determined time in the near future. Except we recently learned that might not really be true, except that it definitely is sort of true. Probably. We’re confused, too.

And then there’s our fifteen-year-old who was told two weeks ago that he’d been potentially exposed to Covid-19 in school. That meant he had to remain home in quarantine for 14 days, or for 10 days after developing any symptoms if he tested positive and took a couple days off for chores and two for worship. Or something like that. It’s also kind of confusing.

It was bound to happen at some point. Tistip, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s some of the background. Then this past weekend, our 13-year-old, who had been doing his thing with mask and appropriate social distancing while more or less keeping away from his brother as much as possible, developed a fever and tested positive for Covid-19. Apparently, the wrong kid was quarantined.

Now he’s isolated and the rest of us are homebound, including the 15-year-old who proved negative for Covid-19 when tested after his brother’s positive result. Originally, he would have been released from quarantine yesterday, but since he has presumably been exposed to his brother, the 14 days begins again. From what point, we’re not entirely sure, as the answer to that questions seems to depend primarily on who you ask and what they had for breakfast that day.

Of course, that no longer matters anyway. On Tuesday of this week, after a painfully long publicly broadcasted meeting in which the elected members of our school board proved they don’t read emails or listen, it was decided that our district’s high schools and middle schools would move to virtual learning due to staffing difficulties caused by rolling quarantines.  

Virtual school isn’t ideal, but I think it’s much better than 45% percent attendance and constant staff shortages. Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

So, we’re at home. And that’s fine. There are a lot of people all over the world in similar predicaments, and we’re fairly well set. Symptoms have so far fallen into the short-lived and mild range, and we have the supplies we need, or the ability to have delivered whatever we don’t. We just have to figure out how to fill our abundance of extra time.

I’m thinking we may start requiring family story time each evening. There are only four of us and I haven’t done the math, but as we might all be in quarantine for fourteen days after each of us develops any symptoms, I think we could make it to a hundred.

We probably have the material. Boccaccio’s narrator Dioneo offers some guidance to his tale-tellers on eight of the ten days, demanding examples of power and fortune, examples of the power of human will, tragic love stories, happy love stories, clever stories that save the storyteller, tricks women play on men, tricks any person plays on anyone else, and examples of virtue. I bet we have it all covered.

And the week’s not over yet.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

In 1871 Harriet Beecher Stowe used funds from her own substantial fortune to have a Victorian cottage built in Hartford, Connecticut, the state of her birth. The house had twelve rooms, plumbing, heating, a study for her husband, and no dedicated writing space for a woman who penned at least ten novels, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is one of the most influential books of all time and which today is often disingenuously criticized for not being written by a woman with the progressive ideological lens of 2020.

Cute house. If you don’t mind that it’s in Connecticut. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. By Midnightdreary – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5846038

And then in 1874, Stowe got a new neighbor. Missouri-born Samuel Clemens built a much larger, more ostentatious home with twenty-five rooms, sweeping international décor, and a man cave of sorts that contained both a dedicated writing desk and a billiards table. As you may recall, he also wrote a few books, including several you probably read in school and that were written at his home in Hartford between billiards games.

Personally, I’m not sure why anyone would want to make the move from beautiful Missouri to Connecticut, a state that as far as I could tell on my one brief visit boasts little more than Lyme disease and the kind of astronomical day-use state park fees that inspire picnics in gas station parking lots. But I wouldn’t mind a billiards table in my dedicated writing space. Also, I’d like to add my apologies if you are from Connecticut. I’m sure it has its charms.

It is a pretty cool looking house, but it’s still not in Missouri. Mark Twain House and Museum, Hartford, CT. By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21778275

It did for neighbors Harriet and Samuel and a whole host of movers, shakers, and big thinkers who made Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood their home. If the history books can be believed (and I am by no means suggesting they can) these were not neighbors who necessarily agreed all the time. But it was allegedly a pretty congenial place to be with open doors, stimulating conversations, and high-minded and friendly debates among respectful friends.

In the time my family and I have lived in my current neighborhood, for about seven-and-a-half years now, our street has tried to foster a similar sense of congeniality. We hold an annual Christmas open house, occasionally set up outdoor movie screenings in the cul-de-sac, wave from front porches, freely loan and borrow tools, and visit one another’s garage sales. I’m even trying to get comfortable with a neighbor popping in for a visit without feeling too flustered by last night’s dishes stacked up in the sink. I have a lousy maid. Also, she’s me.

Despite the fact that we don’t all vote the same or worship the same or root for the same baseball team (There’s just one inexplicable Yankees holdout. We’re working on it.), our neighborhood is a good place to be. And this week is particularly exciting because we have new next-door neighbors that just officially moved in.

It was a comfort knowing there were so many gnomes keeping watch over the neighborhood. And a little bit disturbing. Public Domain, via Pixabay.

Well, this isn’t entirely exciting, because the neighbor who moved out was a kind ninety-something-year-old obsessed with yard tchotchkes. I think I might kind of miss the flamingos, and gnomes, and frogs, and angels, and butterflies.

I’ll miss my quirky neighbor, too, who always attended the Christmas party in a brightly colored suit, snake-skin boots, and bling that would make most rappers jealous. He’s moved on to a retirement facility closer to his family, where he’ll get along much better than he did alone in a big house.

The place will be different without him, but our new neighbors seem nice. They are ultra-marathoners and vegans, and they have two very small dogs that compensate for their diminutive size with over-large attitudes. The newcomers have also have expressed in no uncertain terms that they are not fans of garden gnomes. I’m going to have to rethink the contents of the welcome basket.

But even though I think running is stupid, I love a good steak, and I have a relatively mild-mannered, medium-sized dog who right now is losing his mind over the canine interlopers next door, I think these new folks are going to fit right in. In fact, I already pretty much love them.

Oh, hey! If you’re not busy tomorrow night (10/9), check out Friday Night Reads presented by Title Wave Books, Revised and author Ryan P. Freeman, who will do a Facebook live reading from my book Launching Sheep & Other Stories from the Intersection of History and Nonsense.

What to Do in the Meantime

In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich added to his collection of his London shop the strangest book he never read. It’s not entirely clear how the manuscript came into Voynich’s possession, but it most likely came from the Jesuit Order, which around that time, sold some of its holdings from the library of the Roman College (by then Pontifical Gregorian University) to the Vatican and apparently to a few others as well.

Voynich2
Ohhhh… so that’s what it says. Excerpt from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jesuits didn’t read it either, not even the scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was likely responsible for the inclusion of the manuscript in the collection.

Before him, the two hundred-plus-page manuscript probably belonged to a physician by the name of Johannes Marcus Marci, who likely received it from alchemist and antique collector George Baresch, who may have gotten it from Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who served as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. Emperor Rudolf assumed the manuscript was the work of 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon and purchased it for a fairly large sum.

But none of these men ever read the book.

Because they couldn’t. What came to be known in the 20th century as the Voynich Manuscript is an enduring puzzle. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, which means Bacon didn’t write it. They are filled with an unknown language or code, written by a single, careful hand, and accompanied by lots of strange pictures of unidentifiable plants, weird symbols, and plenty of naked ladies.

Voynich1
I chose not to highlight one of the pages with naked ladies, as this is a family-friendly blog. Illustration from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housed today in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and available to view online if you want to take a stab at it, the Voynich Manuscript has been defying translators for pretty much as long as it has existed. Recent attempts at translation by television writer Nicholas Gibbs and University of Bristol research assistant Gerard Cheshire have been pretty quickly shot down by Voynich scholars and enthusiasts. And in 2016, even AI failed to convince those in the know that it could crack the code.

It’s been suggested that the book is a medical guide of some sort, that it’s written in Hebrew anagrams, that it’s nothing more than an elaborate hoax, or that it’s of otherworldly origin. All we know for certain is that it’s weird, oddly fascinating, and unreadable. Perhaps it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe.

But as frustrating as it is that there’s this one book that has remained unread by everyone except, presumably, its author, I can’t help but think there are probably a lot of books no one has ever been able to read. Most languish on hard drives or exist only as scribbles in tattered notebooks. Others have been locked up in contracts with defunct presses, trapped away from the public by copyright law.

Hopefully that last possibility doesn’t apply to too many books. Very soon it will apply to one fewer, as the copyright of my first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, will be returning to me in the coming weeks. What this means is that very soon (February 4th to be exact), I will be releasing it finally into the world for anyone to read.

SmokeFrontCover
Coming soon!

I can’t promise that it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, but it’ll be fairly easy to read because it’s written in English without anagrams, strange symbols, or unidentifiable plants. For better or worse, it doesn’t have any pictures of naked ladies, either.

I’ll have a lot more to share about this most elusive of my books in the coming weeks. You can’t read it just yet,* but maybe while you’re waiting, you can decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

 

 

*Okay, you can actually get a sneak peek if you would like to commit to giving Smoke Rose to Heaven an honest review. If that’s something that interests you, drop me a line at s_angleton@charter.net before the publication date and I’ll happily send you a complimentary e-book. You can check out the back cover blurb and read a sample here.

A Cough Drop for Edgar Allan Poe

In January of 1845, Columbian Magazine listed among its upcoming publications, a new story by Edgar Allan Poe called “Some Words with a Mummy.” The story finally appeared, however, in April of that year in American Review. People who care to know such things assume Poe pulled the story from the original magazine because he received a better offer. And, well, what writer wouldn’t do that?

Despite having a mummy at its center and being written by an author most widely known for his dark tales, the story is actually an example of Poe’s lighter work. If you haven’t spent much time with him since reading “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado” in high school, then you may be surprised to know that he was also pretty good at being funny.

mummy
Can you even imagine? By jalvear – originally posted to Flickr as Mummy at Louvre, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7141759

“Some Words with a Mummy” is straight up satire, poking fun at the 19th century Egyptomania that had people decorating their sitting rooms with mummies and hosting unrolling parties with their closest non-scientist friends, just for kicks. And he doesn’t let the scientific community off easy, either.

In case you haven’t read it (which you can do here if you want), the premise is that a tired narrator blows off his early bedtime for a chance to attend a mummy unrolling at his buddy’s house. The gathered friends decide after poking and prodding for a little bit that they might as well feed some electricity into various slits they make into the desiccated body.

The mummy, named Allamistakeo, wakes up and informs them they’re all pretty rude. Then the story really gets going. After sewing up their new friend and giving him some ridiculous clothes to wear, the 19th-century gentlemen feel compelled to prove to their ancient counterpart that mankind sure has come a long way in 5,000 years.

Edgar Allan Poe
EAP may not have been terribly photogenic, but he could be kind of funny when he had a mind to.

Allamistakeo remains unconvinced. He offers a reasonable counter for every ill-informed suggestion his hosts make, demonstrating their narrow grasp on not only science, but also history. The only thing that impresses the reawakened Egyptian at all is the throat lozenge.

That’s right folks, the best advancement humankind made in nearly five thousand years was the cough drop.

Of course, Poe’s fairly dopey narrator didn’t yet know anything about space travel or smart phones, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Allamistakeo, who had been as successfully placed into perpetual stasis as any sci fi character ever was, wouldn’t have been too impressed with those either.

This is actually one of my favorite stories of Poe’s. It’s absurd and clever and it makes me giggle, which is why I was particularly excited to discover I could pay homage to it in my own work about mummies.

My first (to be published) historical thriller Gentleman of Misfortune follows the story of an elegant swindler who steals a shipment of eleven mummies. My thief is invented, but the mummies are ripped from the pages of history and there was a point when they were located in the same city at the same time as Edgar Allan Poe. Talk about a fun cameo to write!

cough drops
So many choices! What a time we live in.

My fictional gentleman got the opportunity to have a fictional conversation with the ripped-from-history Poe himself. As you might imagine, they talked about mummies. And lozenges.

It’s one of the lighter, more playful moments in a story that has a definite dark edge. I’d like to think that if Poe found himself suddenly resurrected, he’d enjoy it. But I doubt that. He was generally a pretty harsh literary critic. And like his Allamistakeo, Poe didn’t seem much pleased with his own age. I think it’s unlikely he’d be all that impressed by ours.

Still, I bet he would appreciate our wide variety of cough drops.

The World’s Favorite Sociopath: A Goal for 2019

In 1877 a young would-be physician walked into the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and met an attending physician who seemed already to know everything there was to know about him just by making a few astute observations. Dr. Joseph Bell had a habit of showing off his highly refined detective skills in order to impress upon his students the importance of taking a careful survey of a patient before launching into treatment.

sociopathThis so impressed medical student and writer Arthur Conan Doyle that when he published A Study in Scarlet, his first detective novel, nearly a decade later, Dr. Joseph Bell’s mad skills of observation showed up in the habits of a brilliant consultant named Sherlock Holmes.

When asked about his inspiration for his beloved consulting detective, Conan Doyle always answered that the character was drawn from Joseph Bell, himself a famous surgeon and forensic scientist known for drawing large conclusions from minute evidence. The two had worked closely together for a few years, as Conan Doyle clerked for Bell, a kind of Dr. Watson to his Sherlock. It probably makes sense that Bell might show up in his student’s work.

I recently became re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes when my oldest son discovered him. My son cut his teeth on the BBC show Sherlock in which the modern-day Holmes is brilliantly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, but then he made this mama proud by plowing his way through Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as well.

Esherlock
The game is afoot!

So, when he recently turned fourteen, we celebrated with a Sherlock Holmes party, complete with a mystery to solve, a deerstalker to wear, and a little brother dressed up as John Watson. He made a good Sherlock, though I’m happy to report he’s a little more socially aware than the character.

Despite Conan Doyle’s repeated claim, there were likely other influences that contributed to the development of Sherlock Holmes as well. Edgar Allan Poe essentially created the detective fiction genre and Conan Doyle had been known to praise his efforts. The contemporary works of Émile Gaboriau also seem to echo at times through the character of Sherlock Holmes. And then there was Joseph Bell’s own claim in a letter to his former student in which he wrote, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it.”

I don’t blame him one bit for rejecting the honor. Holmes is something of a single-minded sociopath with little use for other people and a significant cocaine addiction. He’s a fascinating character and if I’m ever falsely accused of murder, I’ll want someone just like him on the case. But I wouldn’t want to hang out with him.

Because many of the people I do hang out with regularly are writers, I’m not surprised to read that Conan Doyle’s most famous character was inspired by someone he knew. That kind of goes with the territory when you are friends with a writer.

teeshirt
Never mess with a writer.

I even once had a professor who boldly confessed that the “friend” character in every novel he’d ever written was almost exactly based on a boy he’d known growing up. I’ve never done anything so blatant. None of my characters has ever been intentionally patterned off someone in my life, but I’m sure if I really thought about it, I could recognize bits of those I know and love within my work.

I suspect that’s true of most fiction writers. Like Conan Doyle’s famous detective, we draw inspiration from a variety of places—ourselves, great books, and yes, occasionally from people we know. I guess that might bother some folks. Maybe it bothers you. It just kind of makes me want to be the type of person who could inspire a great character.

And that sounds like a good goal for 2019.

Happy New Year!

Blurb’s the Word

In July of 1855, American essayist, poet, and all-around deep thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson picked up a book that some young upstart found the courage to send him unsolicited. The book, a somewhat pretentious collection of poetry self-published by an unidentified author, was called Leaves of Grass. Miraculously, the presumably quite busy Emerson opened the book.

He loved it. He searched the publication information and discovered the name of the copyright holder. Then he sat down to write to Walt Whitman. The letter is encouraging and poetic and Whitman had to be pretty psyched to receive it because up until then the reviews of his book hadn’t been especially kind.

emerson
Emerson’s response to Leaves of Grass. I’m a little surprised Whitman could even read it. By Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Library of Congress, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Next Whitman did what any author would probably do. He sent the letter to a contact at the New York Tribune. When he later printed a second edition of Leaves of Grass, he included the letter as an appendix. Just to make sure no one could miss it, Whitman also placed the tiny excerpt, “‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career’—R. W. Emerson” right on the spine.

This was probably the first example of the now ubiquitous book blurb. Just about every book you pick up off the shelf at your friendly neighborhood bookstore has at least one on the cover. There’s often even a page or two of them in the front of the books of established or well-connected authors.

They also grace the top of every description on Amazon, where you’ll find them listed along with the label: “#1 Amazon Bestseller in Lesbian Clown Self-help Literature.”

And that’s how you know the author is much better at playing the Amazon marketing game than I am. I’m hopeless. Also probably not writing in the correct category to achieve such a claim to fame.

martinblurb
Now that’s a book blurb. Damn it.

But I do have a blurb on my cover and atop my book description. A few years ago I attended a writers conference in Arkansas and was lucky enough to get to talk with keynote speak and New York Times bestselling history writer Jeff Guinn. If you haven’t read his books, you should check them out. They’re well-researched, accessible, and fascinating—everything a great history book should be.

It was with trepidation that this upstart approached Mr. Guinn to ask for his opinion on her book. Fortunately, like Emerson, he was incredibly gracious and despite a busy schedule (filming for an upcoming documentary on Jonestown for Sundance TV), he agreed to take a look. About a week after I sent him the manuscript, the Jeff Guinn sent me this:

“Quality fiction and real history make a great match, and Sarah Angleton’s Gentleman of Misfortune offers the best of both. This is an engaging story with surprises on every page.”

—Jeff Guinn, New York Times bestselling author of The Last Gunfight and Manson

And that’s when I fainted.

freakgifOkay, I didn’t really faint, but my response was definitely a little undignified. Next I did what any author probably would. I sent the blurb off to my cover artist. And if I’d had any connections to major news outlets, I’d have probably sent it to them, too.

I know not everyone loves blurbs. Some in the publishing industry complain they’ve become so common they’re basically meaningless. Some readers ignore them. I don’t think a blurb alone would ever make me decide to read a book, but personally I like them. Knowing that someone whose work I have enjoyed or respected thought enough of a book to allow their name to be associated with it is something I find compelling.

I’m so grateful to Mr. Guinn and to the handful of other authors who offered lovely words about Gentleman of Misfortune. Each of them also has produced great works that I hope readers of my book will look up if they’re unfamiliar with them. I’m grateful to be even a small part of a generous industry full of Emersons willing to help out their emerging fellows.

So, what about you? Do book blurbs make any difference to you?