Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Thornton. Show all posts

08 January 2015

With Friends Like You, Who Needs Enemas:
the Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury

by Brian Thornton

Happy New Year!

After having two of my latest posts featured on first Thanksgiving and then on Christmas Day, I don't mind telling you what a relief it is to have my latest turn in the rotation come up on a non-holiday for a change!


Now let's move on to this, our initial helping of historical crime for 2015: a capital crime (murder) committed in a capital city (London) in a royal residence (the Tower of London), specifically in the upper chamber of this, the so-called "Bloody Tower" right on the Tower complex grounds.

The upper chamber of this very building!
Now, before you start jumping up and down and shouting, "We already know all about the murder of
NOT victims of the crime in question
the princes in the Tower!" I gotta stop ya right there. Yes, the two sons of King Edward IV(King Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York) were residents of the Tower complex, and yes, they were, in fact, housed in this same building, and on the upper flower as well.

But not so fast! Although these unfortunate boys were without doubt murdered, and with very little doubt done to death by their impressive, scary, ambitious, scoliosis-ridden uncle, Richard of Gloucester, Duke of York (later King Richard III), we aren't sure where they met their end.

And in this case, we're certain that the murder in question took place in this tower, on the upper floor. We're certain of little else about this killing, most especially about how it was accomplished, whether the unfortunate who met his maker in this tower, on this floor, was done in by poison, or "oil of vitriol" (sulfuric acid), or by (get this) an arsenic enema!

NOT the perpetrator of the crime in question
Nope, this murder took place not in 1483, but 130 years later, in 1613, during the reign of King James I of England (James VI of Scotland), involved one of the greatest of the kingdom's noble families, and all the trimmings of a juicy royal scandal: corruption, pandering, sex, bribery, and (obviously) murder!

King James– Nice Hat, eh?
It all started, as so many court scandals do, with sex. Specifically gay sex. Even more specifically, gay royal sex. You see, in addition to being monarch of both Scotland and England, James Stuart was just about the biggest closet case the Renaissance ever produced.

In many ways a hard-headed pragmatist (go figure, he WAS Scottish, after all), James had a gigantic blind spot when it came to tall, handsome, well-dressed, well-spoken young men. Worse, he tended to collect pretty boys like this, lavish them with titles and expensive presents, and then place them in positions of power and authority, expecting them to be, in addition to ridiculously good-looking, intelligent and competent.

A tall order, no question. He was usually disappointed. However, it also frequently took him a while to figure out that he'd misjudged this or that favorite in some way, and allow his ardor to cool.

With James' weakness for handsome boys no secret, it should come as no surprise that entire factions of would-be operators at James' court set to work beating the bushes for attractive young men to place in James' path, in hopes of cashing in once his attention had been caught, using the smitten monarch's libido for their own advancement.

Which leads us to our victim, who was without doubt just such a one of these procurers: a cunning, well-educated, ill-mannered, self-impressed toad by the name of Sir Thomas Overbury.

The Victim: Sir Thomas Overbury

Sir Thomas Overbury–
Renaissance Douchebag
Born in 1581 at a Warwickshire manor with the cool-cool-cool name of Compton Scorpion, Sir Thomas Overbury was a particular example of a very common type to be found all over late Renaissance England. Of good family, but definitely middle class means, Overbury was the in many ways the ultimate social climber.

Shrewd, a superb administrator, and good with money, but not with people, Overbury was also tactless and nakedly self-interested. What's more he definitely lacked the "common touch." For that matter he made nothing but enemies amongst the gentry and nobility as well. As if that wasn't enough, Overbury also possessed the fatal flaw of being, as one contemporary put it: "prone to over-valuing himself and under-valuing others."

For all that, Overbury did actually possess at least one friend (for a while. More on that later) – a pretty Scottish youth of just exactly the type guaranteed to make King James go all weak in the knees: Robert Carr.

The Eye Candy: Robert Carr

When Sir Thomas Overbury first encountered him during a visit to Edinburgh in 1601, Robert Carr was a twenty-three year-old, handsome, ambitious nobody from nowhere; a page in King James' service. He was also dumb as soup and possessed no scruples about using his looks (for starters) to win advancement, qualities which made him all the more attractive to the cunning Overbury. Such a dimwitted pretty boy could be controlled and manipulated for the purposes of a climber such as Overbury, and used to further the causes of his friends (again, like Overbury), if only he could be placed where he could attract the attention of the man-loving king.

Robert Carr – Renaissance Boy Toy
Happily for Overbury, he was well-positioned to do precisely that, as he was in Edinburgh on the Queen's business. He had already made several trips north in order to assist with the pending royal transition between the ailing Elizabeth I and her cousin and hand-picked successor, James Stuart.

He lost little time in arranging for Carr to catch the king's eye: Carr participated in a joust wherein he broke his leg practically in front of the royal loge. James, taken with the young man's beauty, not only quickly made Carr a favorite, but took on the responsibilities of helping nurse the young man back to health, while also teaching him Latin.

The boy toy was on his way. Within a couple of years, James had knighted Carr, created him Viscount Rochester, and made him both a privy councilor and a "gentleman of the bedchamber" (complete with his own key!). And there is plenty of evidence that Carr's duties in that capacity didn't end at just tucking in His Majesty at night. James so enjoyed the youth's nightly presence in his bed that when he didn't visit the royal chamber he was conspicuous by his absence. At one point the king even wrote to Carr, complaining of his "withdrawing yourself from lying in my chamber, notwithstanding my many hundred times earnest soliciting you to the contrary."

Although well-suited to serving the king in this capacity, Carr could hardly have been expected to serve effectively as a "privy councilor" without the help of someone infinitely brighter than he was. This was where his friend and benefactor Thomas Overbury played an effective part.

Overbury fed Carr advice to pass along to the king, advice which served not just the royal interests, but the interests of the supremely self-interested Sir Thomas Overbury, as well. In fact, it was soon whispered throughout court that "whilst Rochester ruled the King, Overbury ruled Rochester."

When James got wind of this (a foregone conclusion), there would be hell to pay – said account to be settled in our next installment, which will include the above-teased raising of the stakes, the introduction of a bonafide femme fatale, vitriol, poison, enemas, emetics, imprisonment, and eventually, MURDER!

Truly an installment not to be missed!

See you in two weeks!

16 October 2014

Wut Werkz and Wut Duzn't in Historrikuhl Fikshunn, Part Deyuh

by Brian Thornton

We'll begin today's post with a quotation within a quotation, and end it by posing a conundrum for the reader. 

First the quote within the quote. The initial one comes from The Great Game, Peter Hopkirk's magisterial history of the Anglo-Russian struggle for control of Central Asia (and by extension, both India and all trade routes to the Far East). Within that quotation lies a telling quotation from the recollections of one of the so-called "Great Game's" most colorful players, a British army officer and diplomat named Alexander "Bokhara" Burnes:

Finally in August 1831, laden with gifts and compliments, Burnes and his companions crossed back into British territory, making for Ludhiana, the [British East India] Company's most forward garrison town in north-west India. There Burnes met briefly a man whose fate was to be closely bound with his own - Shah Shujah, the exiled Afghan ruler, who dreamed of regaining his lost throne by toppling its present occupant, the redoubtable Dost Mohammed. Burnes was not impressed by this melancholy-looking man who was already turning to fat. 'From what I learn,' he noted, 'I do not believe that the Shah possesses sufficient energy to set himself on the throne of Cabool.' Nor, Burnes felt, did he appear to have the personal qualities or political acumen to reunite so turbulent a nation as the Afghans. 

It almost goes without saying that not much has changed in or about Afghanistan over the 183 years since "Bokhara" Burnes wrote the bit quoted by Hopkirk above (Brutal terrain? Check. Unruly tribes with nearly no attachment to the central government? Check. Hostility to outside influences? Check. The list goes on...).

And yet so many things actually have.

"Hindoostan" and Environs - 1830s
Not least the fact that, as a result of events from 9/11 onward, most Americans have actually heard of Afghanistan and might even be able to find it on a map.
The same region today

Another thing that has changed is the cessation of the at times unintentional Occidental practice of  transforming proper names and other nouns into sometimes wholly other words, or at the very least, of mangling them so badly in translation as to render them nearly unrecognizable.

Not THIS Burns (Scottish poet Robert)
Take Burnes' reference above to "Cabool." Anyone who knows anything about the region (or hasn't been living under a rock for the past 13 years) is likely quick to realize that Burnes was, of course referring to modern-day "Kabul," the capital of Afghanistan. You see this all over the place, especially during the 19th century, and particularly when reading historical accounts written by British soldiers, sailors, explorers, scholars, etc.

At times seems as if this is nothing more than an extension of the old joke about English gentlemen being fluent in any number of languages, so long as it's understood that they'll speak them s-l-o-w-l-y and with an impenetrable English accent.

For example, at the mouth of the great Indus River that drains all of Pakistan, a large chunk of
THIS Burnes (actually a distant cousin, despite the difference in spelling)
Central Asia and a significant amount of Northwestern India sits a port city called Karachi. I have seen this spelled a variety of ways, including "Kurachee," "Carratchee," and "Kharatchee."

And then there's "Hindoo" (Hindu), "Hindoostan" (Hindustan), "Peking" (Beijing), and a host of other place-names. The British take on the world they set out to colonize and "make English" through the administration of British laws and forcing British customs on the locals seems to be forever misspelled, especially from a modern perspective.

Now, of course this sort of thing isn't really limited to the British. It's just fun pointing out a few choice examples from Britain's storied imperial past.

In fact to do this is to be human.

Remember these guys...
Everyone does it. Corrupting and breaking down and reshaping words is part of what keeps languages "living." Seen the capital city of Turkey referred to as "Nova Roma" ("New Rome") as anything other than a term of art lately? That's the name the Roman emperor Constantine the Great gave the city when he founded it during the 4th century A.D. Or when was the last time that anyone other than indie rock jingle writers They Might Be Giants referred to this self-same city by it's later Greek name of  "Constantinople"?

...who did this song?
(And now you've got it running through your head, admit it..."...If you've a date in Constantinople, she'll be waiting in Istanbul!")

In fact the modern name "Istanbul" comes from an old Greek nick-name for the city: "eis tēn polin" ("into the city").

Confused yet?

Anyway, for me where it gets really sticky is when you're trying to write fiction. And not just fiction, but historical fiction about places with history such as these.

Allow me to refer yet again to Hopkirk's example above. Elsewhere in his book (and if you've not read it, you really owe it to yourself to give it a look. "Compelling" doesn't even begin to describe it.) he refers to the chief city of the Afghans as "Kabul," using the modern, accepted spelling.

But of course when quoting from an historical source it is of the utmost importance to preserve the text in its original form if at all possible. This is why actual misspellings tend to be quoted whole cloth (followed by a helpful "sic").

But what to do when writing, not history, but historical fiction?

Of course it really depends upon which person you're writing in. So much historical fiction these days is written in the form of a supposed first person memoir. This is especially true of historical mystery fiction.

If you're writing in the first person, you're golden. You can use any weird-ass, archaic derivation of one of the places you're discussing that pleases you. In fact if anything it's going to help establish your narrator as a product of the time about which they're (really you're) writing.


(Aaaaand here's the question with which we're going to end today's post)

What if you're writing a third person multiple point of view story?

What then?

Case in point: as part of my current novel-in-progress, I have my protagonist talk about a visit to the Fiji Islands during the year 1840.

Fijian (Feejeean? Feegeean?) Club Dance, as witnessed  by members of the United States Exploring Expedition, 18

During this time period the word, "Fiji", had nearly as many old misspellings as "Karachi" (see above).

Note the spelling in the map's title (Upper left corner).

Think about it. As I mentioned in my last post, a good cardinal rule of historical fiction writing (and of fiction writing in general) that you don't want to put anything into your work that will jar the reader out of the story. Scare? Sure. Frazzle? Absolutely.

But if you knock your reader out of the story, they may just give up on it.

So how about it? If I have my protagonist talking about his cruise through Fiji, should it read: "I sailed the Fijis?"
A view of Fiji (Feejee? Feegee?) in 1840

Or should it read: "I sailed the Feejees"?

Or: "I sailed the Feegees"?

See the problem? He's not writing it down. He's talking about it.

Maybe not that big a deal for some, but I have heard many readers complain about just exactly this sort of thing.

What works for you, Dear Readers? Which option is least likely to take the reader out of the narrative, and why?


02 October 2014

Anachronism Revisited

by Brian Thornton

In May of last year I wrote an extensive post on what I deemed "Cosplay in Fiction." In that post I
Not THIS kind of cosplay
promised to elaborate further on what constitutes "cosplay" in historical fiction in my next post.

I didn't.

And I'm still mulling how best to elaborate and wrap up that subject in a blog posting to appear in this space in the not-too-distant future.

In the mean-time I intend to explore a tangential line of thought, centering on examples of what works and what doesn't in the historical mystery author's quest to bring believable, engaging historical fiction to the modern reader. And I'm going to spread it out over a number of my upcoming blog posts.

You see, this year I have the great privilege of moderating an historical mystery fiction panel in November, at Bouchercon.

So as I've been turning over in my mind the questions I plan to put to some of the best historical mystery novelists around, my mind rolled back to the post linked above, and the question of anachronism in historical fiction.

And not surprisingly, I've got a few thoughts.

Not THIS type, either
Not least of which is what works and what doesn't when attempting to evoke a certain time period. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the historical mystery juggling act: paint a picture of life in another era, likely with characters who speak a language other than English, and still make them seem natural and unaffected, all without diving so deep into period language that the modern reader does not get either lost or completely put off.

No mean feat.

And THIS? Just flat out disturbing....
I have some examples of what I think works, and what I think doesn't. And as always, I'm prepared to share.

As I said, I've been giving this sort of thing a lot of thought lately. Partly, as I said above, because of Bouchercon and partly because of my own on-going final pass through a long-percolating historical mystery novel of my own.

Let me state at this point that I have nothing but admiration for anyone who attempts this ludicrous balancing act– whether they fail or succeed. I for one have always found it a formidable challenge, and feel I've failed more times than I've succeeded. (Which is a large part of the reason that the final draft of my current book project is my third complete draft!).

And with that said, let's move on to what works, and what doesn't. This week's entry:


I was reading a mystery novel a while back and a fairly innocuous turn of phrase knocked me completely out of the story- you know, that experience that is usually the last thing any author wants to foist upon their audience.

The phrase in question was "Don't get your knickers in a twist."

Now, the author of the book in question is British and, although I'm an American, I'm fairly
Not THIS type of anachronism
Anglophilic, and am comfortable with British slang expressions, so ordinarily this wouldn't be a problem for me.

The problem was two-fold: the setting, and the character speaking. It wasn't set in modern England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. And the speaker wasn't a citizen of any of those countries.

The character in question was a citizen of ancient Rome, speaking to another citizen of that city, in
that city, circa 80 A.D.

Hello, Anachronism!

Now, I get what the writer in question was trying to do. Trying to portray ancient Romans talking casually with each other, in an intimate, familiar manner. No mean feat, seeing as they spoke Latin and not English.

At the very least wouldn't they have said something like, "Don't get your sublegaria* in a twist"?

I mean, the only way this character could have sounded more out of time would be if he had suggested to his comrade that he "slow your roll"!

The problem for me as a reader at this point was that, while I was and am willing to concede that Romans, like every other variety of human being since the dawn of time, had their own pet slang phrases and humorous sayings, I had a hard time believing that they used this particular one.

Further compounding the problem was the fact that the speech in this novel was so anachronistic that it pulled me right out of the story. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the story I kept picturing these ancient Roman characters speaking with cockney accents. At any moment I expected them to break in rhyming slang!

This brought to mind an author who actually gets this sort of thing right. I have raved before about the writing of Philip Kerr, a British author of the Bernie Gunther series of novels, set in Nazi and post-war Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

For my money Kerr gets Gunther just right: in some ways a morally compromised figure (as many
Germans who survived the first world war and the subsequent years-long party which was Weimar Germany of the 1920s were);former homicide detective and sometimes private investigator who has repeated dealings with the Nazis while never becoming one of them or buying in to what they were selling.

Gunther is truly a man of his time, believing, as many in Germany quietly did, that the Nazis were by turns keystone cops and murderous thugs. And even during his dealings with them he manages to chart a course that leaves him (for the most part) morally clean.

What helps Kerr really sell Gunther and the rest of his cast of period characters as believable avatars of the period in question is his ability to take German slang from that time and translate it into English, without it losing its period flavor.

For example, a pistol is a "lighter." A cigarette is a "nail" (for your coffin, obviously).  When asked during a 2009 interview whether these slang words were genuine or of his own invention, Kerr said:

"The slang is not my own invention nor is it anything to do with the police. The words are often more literal translations of real German phrases instead of their English equivalents. It's as simple as that."

With all due respect, the man is being far too modest. It's not as simple as that. While it's true that Nazi Germany is a period of history which has passed down to us a wealth of first person narratives (much of it truly horrifying), the skill herein lies in the choice of these words, knowing which concepts fit into the dialogue without extensive explanation, seamlessly, if you will.

Imagine trying to do that with such freighted concepts as gleichschaltung (the notion of every aspect of a society fitting together and working like cogs in a machine, keeping that society moving and well-run) or the ever-popular schadenfreude (joy experienced as a result of witnessing the suffering of others).

Sometimes it's what you don't try to say that sells your story. The key is in knowing what works, and what doesn't.

Making your Roman citizen sound like a cockney cab driver? Not so much. Having your German detective light up a nail, or take a lighter away from a drunken member of the Hitler Youth? Perfect.

Next time, more of what works, and what doesn't in historical fiction!

26 June 2014


by Brian Thornton

Growing up I was a fan of the BBC television show Connections.

Hosted by noted British science historian James Burke, it traced the historical connections between two events/inventions/technological innovations that seemed at first blush to have no connection whatsoever.

I'm going to attempt to do something similar, although not technological, and on a much smaller scale.

We begin near the dawn of the 19th century, at sea, with a naval barrage. We will conclude near the
end of that same century, also at sea, also with a naval barrage.

Luckily they set the abridged version to music!
Let's begin with the "rockets' red glare" and see how that leads us eventually to the Spanish American War.

The quote above is, of course, from America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." Originally a long poem written after the all-night pounding that Fort McHenry, which guarded Baltimore Harbor, taken at the hands of the British fleet during the War of 1812, "The Star-Spangled Banner"'s author Francis Scott Key is famous for that piece of writing, and for little else.

Never mind that he was an accomplished lawyer who came from a wealthy, accomplished, and deeply religious, Maryland family. Key was, for decades, the United States Attorney for Washington, D.C.

THIS was Washington's handsomest man???
By the 1840s, the upstanding Francis Scott Key had retired, making way for his widowed (and, as it
turns out, far less upstanding) son, Phillip Barton Key. Dubbed "the Handsomest Man in Washington," the younger Key was a notorious flirt, and widely suspected of committing adultery with any number of willing, lonely married women in the nation's capital.

One of these lonely women was a dark eyed beauty of Italian extraction named Teresa Sickles.

The daughter of expatriate Italian parents (her father was a noted musician and music teacher in New York City), Teresa initially met her future husband Dan Sickles when he rented a room in her family home while studying law at N.Y.U.

Dan was twenty years old.

Teresa was three.

The tragic Teresa Sickles
Thirteen years later Dan, now thirty-three, got the sixteen year-old Teresa pregnant and they eloped.

Some who study 19th century American history would describe Dan Sickles as a product of his age: a machine politician of the first order who never saw a bribe he wouldn't take or a skirt he wouldn't chase.

Put simply, he was a skunk.

No less an authority than New York lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong, a contemporary of Sickles, once said of him: "One might as well try to spoil a rotten egg as to damage Dan's character."

Sickles got himself elected to Congress, moving his young family to Washington, D.C., where he continued his philandering, his drinking, and his dabbling in wholesale graft. It was at this time that Teresa, bored, lonely, in a strange city, where she knew few people, embarked on an illicit affair with none other than "the Most Handsome Man in Washington," Phillip Barton Key.

The Sickles family lived on Lafayette Square, within sight of the White House (at the time still known as "the Executive Mansion"), and Key was wont to take up station on a park bench across the street from his paramour's house, signaling her discreetly with a handkerchief, when he wished to "get together."

Sickles got wind of the affair when he received a poison pen letter from an anonymous source (likely a jilted lover of Key's, or perhaps a jealous husband?). Enraged, he confronted Teresa, who tearfully confessed all.

And then Dan Sickles made history.

After forcing his wife to write down her confession, Sickles hid in his house, lying in wait for Key to take up his customary spot on his customary bench. When the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia showed up, sat down and waved his handkerchief, Sickles took up a pistol, rushed out of his house, into the street, and shot Key multiple times.

Key did not die immediately, but suffered in great pain for several hours before expiring.

"Crazy"? Not so crazy as to leave the house in order to murder his wife's lover without his top hat!
Sickles immediately turned himself in and made history with his affirmative defense: he claimed "temporary insanity."

And he got off!

Sickles actually got more heat in the court of public opinion for publicly "forgiving" his wife for her affair than for cold-bloodedly murdering a man a stone's throw from the White House!

This all took place in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War. And while Sickles "forgave" his wife, he never again lived with her or allowed her to see her children. She died a broken woman in 1867.

For his part, Sickles quickly got himself appointed a brigadier general in the army once war broke out. He was the worst kind of "political general": insubordinate, arrogant, thieving, and not above lining his own pockets at the expense of the welfare of his men.

Sickles' military career ended in July of 1863 when he disobeyed orders at the Battle of Gettysburg
General Sickles, hat still on.
and led his troops into a trap that led to heavy casualties under murderous fire. Sickles was one of those casualties, losing his right leg to a cannon ball during the battle. He later received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his act of willful disobedience.

Now how many palms do you suppose he had to grease to pull of that coup?

(Sickles eventually donated both the leg and the ball that severed it to the Smithsonian Institution.)

After the war Sickles returned to politics and used his influence both to defend his actions (usually by libeling such superiors as George G. Meade, who commanded all federal troops in the battle) and to ensure that a river of federal dollars flowed toward the establishment and maintenance of a national battlefield site at Gettysburg. During one of his frequent visits to the battlefield, Sickles was asked why, with all of the statues to various heroes of the battle dotting the landscape, was there no memorial to Dan Sickles?

Sickles' reply? "This entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles."

Slick, huh? A politician's answer, right?

Absolutely. And a whole lot sweeter sounding than the truth: a memorial for Sickles had been planned, with money both appropriated by the government and donated by third parties.

And then Sickles, who was tasked with overseeing the project, stole the money.

After his wife's death in 1867, Sickles was appointed U.S. Minister to Spain, where he spent six years flirting with the dowager Queen Isabella II (rumor had it he slept with her), married for a second time, and, through bellicose dispatches back home over incidents such as the Virginius Affair, did his level best to get the United States embroiled in a war with Spain over that old sore spot, the island of Cuba.

The problem for the United States was that her navy was nowhere near the equal of Spain's then state-of-the-art, steel navy.

Cooler heads (in the person of U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish) prevailed, and war was avoided. At the same time the United States government, realizing its current navy was unable to adequately defend its coasts, embarked on a race to update its navy which culminated in the Battle of Manila Bay over two decades later, during the long-delayed Spanish-American War, where the by-now decrepit Spanish fleet was destroyed in a single afternoon by a single American naval squadron. Had that battle place in 1874, instead of 1898, the outcome would have likely been the absolute reverse of what history has recorded as a resounding American victory.

Manila in 1898: the direct opposite outcome of what likely would have happened in 1874!
And Dan Sickles? He survived it all, filling a succession of government plum posts, from several of which he was dismissed for looting the coffers he had been set to oversee. And he went on visiting his leg at the Smithsonian until his death in 1914 at age 94.

01 May 2014

Chimes at Midnight, Nothing...

by Brian Thornton

...imagine hearing them every waking moment!
Me, writing. (Well, okay, me, *signing*…)

As some of you know, I suffer from tinnitus in my left ear–the result of a run-in with German measles when I was four. Most of the time I can tune it out, but not when I'm writing.

(For those of you who have never experienced tinnitus, count yourselves lucky. For the subset of you eaten alive by curiosity as to what tinnitus actually sounds like to those who suffer from it, the variety that plagues me most resembles the noise you can find here.)

This is in large part because I'm one of those guys who writes without music playing in the background. I used to be a "put in the playlist and let'er rip" kind of writer, but I eventually realized that when writing I pretty much shut out extraneous sound anyhow, so I don't usually bother with music, unless it's ambient stuff (which is, literally, in the words of Brian Eno, who founded the subgenre, and coined the phrase, "ambient music", intended to be "like the furniture in your living room. It's there, but do you really pay any attention to it?"), and that less and less these days.

All this said, there are occasions when I still ramp up the music while writing. More on that below.

It's just that most of the time silence really works best for me.

But then oh, yeah, that's right...

Hell-LOOOOO tinnitus!

So what's a savvy veteran writer to do when that damned ringinginginginging keeps him from forming so much as single coherent sentence?

That's easy. Music isn't the only type of sound considered "ambient." In fact I've found the most interesting ambient noise-employing tool to combat the distraction which is my chronic ringing left ear:

Star Trek on Youtube!

I can hear you now, scoffing.

Well, go click the link here and give this a listen, because it actually masks 90% of the ringing I hear in an otherwise silent room.

And God bless the fellow Trekkie who decided to loop the sound of the starship Enterprise's "warp engines" for a 24-hour continuous thread. It's been a genuine boon to my writing production!

The single exception to my no music while writing rule is when I'm writing action scenes. Whether they involve a chase, a fight, murder or mayhem, if the reader's pulse is intended to ramp up a notch, I find it helpful to turn to the masters for help.

Guys like Alfred Newman.

Noooo not THIS guy!
The Alfred Newman I'm referring to is the composer who wrote (among many other pieces of timeless music, the film score for the ultimate 1960s Western, How the West Was Won.

THIS guy!

And not just him, but other giants in the field: especially Howard Shore (famous for scoring The Lord of the Rings), the brilliant Michael Giacchino (too many to list, but definitely including John Carter, The Incredibles, Star Trek (the newest incarnation), and of course other auteurs who scored 60s westerns (call it a quirk of mine, that music gets me to thinking about things and people moving, and the next thing you know, that fight scene's written!), not least of them the immortal Elmer Bernstein, whose film work on the score for The Magnificent Seven alone can always get my creative juices going.

I defy you to listen to this score and NOT have your imagination run wild (you can test my theory by clicking here – in fact the guy conducting this orchestra is none other than Good Ol' Elmer himself!).

So there you have it: my recipe for success–and it is definitely
The Immortal Elmer With The Immortal Oscar!
mine and mine alone. It works for me. Feel free to weigh in: when it comes to writing soundtracks, what works best for you? Silence? Ambient noise? Bruce Springsteen? Judy Garland?

Inquiring minds want to know!


06 March 2014

Elagabalus and His Big Stone God

by Brian Thornton

(This week's entry continues delving into the long form articles I did while researching and writing The Book of Ancient Bastards (Adams Media, 2011). A shorter version of this bit about one of Rome's more "original" rulers (and the pack of relatives who descended on Rome along with him) appeared in that book.)

I will not describe the barbaric chants which [Elagabalus], together with his mother and grandmother, chanted to [Elagabal], or the secret sacrifices that he offered to him, slaying boys and using charms, in fact actually shutting up alive in the god’s temple a lion, a monkey and a snake, and throwing in among them human genitals, and practicing other unholy rites.

— Dio Cassius

If you’re going to catalogue historical bastardry throughout the ages, you’d better plan to touch on that colorful period in the historical record known as “Imperial Rome.”  As with the Papacy, the sheer number of men who wore the emperor’s purple robes over the empire’s five-plus centuries lends itself to the likelihood that the throne would occasionally be occupied by someone so “eccentric” that he stood out in a crowded field of “personalities” like Michael Jordan playing basketball with a bunch of kindergarteners.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Varius Avitus Bassianus, a young, Syrian-born aristocrat who ruled the empire under the very Roman-sounding name of “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” from 218 to 222 A.D., but was better known by the nick-name “Elagabalus.”

What "El Gabal" probably looked like pre-deification
Elagabalus was so much more than an emperor.  He was also the hereditary high priest of a Syrian sun god cult that worshipped a craggy, two-ton phallic-shaped meteorite as the actual physical incarnation of his god (“Elagabal,” or “El-Gabal,” from which he derived his nick-name).  He was also a transsexual cross-dresser who wore more make-up than most strippers, and allegedly worked as a hooker out of his rooms in the imperial palace.

Funny, he looks so....normal... here....

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or, if you prefer, the meteorite).

Elagabalus was a shirt-tail relation of the great (and ruthless) emperor Septimius Severus.  His grandmother was Severus’ sister-in-law.  When Severus’ direct line died out (and the story of how that all played out is grist for a future blog post), Elagabalus’ grandmother (Julia Maesa) and mother (Julia Soaemias) schemed along with a eunuch named Gannys to put the boy forward as a plausible claimant to the imperial throne.

An ancient "Mommie Dearest," Julia Soeamias
The kid was all of fourteen.  But, a couple of battles, an army proclamation declaring him emperor and an execution of the unpopular if effective Gannys later, and Elagabalus (along with his mother and grandmother) was on his way to Rome.
When he got there he made quite a splash, not least because he brought his god with him.


This massive “sky stone” was ensconced in a new temple complex built expressly for it, right next to the old Flavian Amphitheatre (what we know today as the “Colosseum”) on Rome’s Palatine Hill, and named the “Elagaballium.”

During Rome’s annual Midsummer Day festival, the ancient writer Herodian reports:

[Elagabalus] placed the sun god in a chariot adorned with gold and jewels and brought him out from the city to the suburbs.  A six-horse chariot carried the divinity, the horses huge and flawlessly white, with expensive gold fittings and rich ornaments.  No one held the reins, and no one rode with the chariot; the vehicle was escorted as if the god himself were the charioteer.  Elagabalus ran backward in front of the chariot, facing the god and holding the horses’ reins.  He made the whole journey in this reverse fashion, looking up into the face of his god.

As if that weren’t shaking things up enough for his new subjects, Elagabalus promptly swept aside the old Roman pantheon of gods, and “married” his god Elagabal to the Roman goddess Minerva.  As a mortal “echo” of this Heavenly union Elagabalus then did the truly unthinkable: he took one of Rome’s Vestal Virgins as his wife.  Dedicated to the Roman mother goddess Vesta, whose service obliged these priestesses to remain virgins during their twenty years of service.  If one of them didn’t, the punishment was for her to be buried alive.  And Elagabalus took one of them, a woman named Aquilia Severa as his wife not once, but twice!

In the four years he was emperor Elagabalus took at least three different women as his wife.  These marriages were likely arranged by his grandmother and mother (“the Julias”) in order to help preserve the fiction that “Imperator Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” was a solid, dependable Roman citizen and emperor, rather than the capricious Syrian drag-queen high-priest of a bloody-thirsty sun-worshipping cult.  It was hoped that keeping up this appearance would help cement support for his reign.  In fact, these two formidable women proved themselves to be particularly shrewd and capable administrators.

Put simply, things ran so smoothly in Rome and throughout the empire that for a while people didn’t seem to mind how much of a “free spirit” their emperor appeared to be.

And a “free spirit” he definitely was.  Although Romans had tolerated the tendency among some of their previous emperors to take male lovers, homosexuality in ancient Rome was by and large frowned upon.  Elagabalus flouted this attitude by taking as his “husband” a big, burly slave from Caria; a charioteer of some skill named Hierocles.  One of his favorite roles to play was that of the “cheating wife,” allowing himself to be “caught” in bed with another man by Hierocles, who then beat the emperor (who apparently enjoyed “rough trade”), at times so badly that ‘he had black eyes’ for days afterward.

Probably transsexual, Elagabalus seemed obsessed with becoming more like a woman, not with just taking men to bed. The Historia Augusta reports that the emperor “had the whole of his body depilated,” and according to the disapproving contemporary historian and senator Dio Cassius, Elagabalus “had planned, indeed, to cut off his genitals altogether,” but settled for having himself circumcised as “a part of the priestly requirements” of his cult.

By the time Elagabalus turned seventeen his continual nose-thumbing at Rome’s religious, social and sexual norms began to take a toll on his public image.  In 221 two different legions mutinied and just barely missed proclaiming their respective generals “augustus” (“emperor”) in his stead.

This unrest did not escape the attention of Elagabalus’ grandmother, the Augusta Julia Maesa.  Her hold on the levers of power depended on her grandson staying in the good graces of both the people and army, and his increasingly erratic behavior and eroding popularity with his subjects made the dowager empress very nervous.

She opted to advance Bassianus Alexianus, another of her grandsons, as Elagabalus’ co-ruler and
Severus Alexander
“heir” (he was only four years younger than Elagabalus) with the ruling name “Severus Alexander.”  He too had a strong-willed mother named “Julia” (Julia Mamea), who “guided his actions.”

At first Elagabalus and his mother went along with the move.  Within weeks, however, the senior emperor had changed his mind and tried to have his younger cousin killed.  A power struggled ensued.  The modest, retiring Alexander was popular with the people, and especially with the army.
Julia Mamea

It all finally came to a head in March of 222, when Elagabalus flew into a rage during a meeting with the commanders of his personal bodyguard (the Praetorian Guard, which also acted as the city of Rome’s police force).  Having been reminded again and again of the “virtues” of his younger cousin, Elagabalus once more called for Alexander’s arrest and execution, bitterly denouncing the Praetorians for preferring his cousin to himself.

It was not a smart thing to do this while still standing in the middle of their camp.

Praetorian in full armor
The emperor, only just eighteen years old, was chased down by his own bodyguard and killed in one of the camp latrines.  Supposedly his last words were, “Leave my mother alone!”  If those actually were his final wishes, they were ignored.  His mother was killed right alongside him.  Their bodies were beheaded, and dragged through the streets of Rome.  The corpse of Elagabalus wound up in the Tiber River: the sort of burial that contemporary Roman law reserved for criminals.

Later historians (especially Christians) whipped up improbable tales of human sacrifice conducted by this teenaged demagogue, and speculated wildly about the various depravities in which he might have indulged.  This speculation included the unlikely story of how “Heliogabalus” (sic) invited several very important people to a dinner party only to have them smothered to death under the weight of several hundred pounds of flowers.  This painting trades upon that myth.

A 19th century artist's conception of Elagablus' supposed use of flowers to smother party guests
The truth as we can divine it about Elagabalus is far more interesting.  After all, what gender-confused, hormonally addled teenager wouldn’t go off the rails if handed the literal “keys to the kingdom”?  It sure makes for one fascinating bastard.