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Ten Terrifying Historical Tidbits, with Michelle Butler Hallett

Michelle Butler Hallett, Ten Horrifying Historical Events

However you want to say and/or spell it—Halloween, Hallowe'en, All Hallows Eve, Celebration of the Thrown Egg—October 31 is indisputably the candy industry's spookiest time of year. That in mind, we asked a few Goose Lane authors, past and present, for some personal, highly suggestive lists of Halloween recommendations, avoidances, and/or reminiscences.

Michelle Butler Hallett writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace.  She is the author of the novels This Marlowe, deluded your sailors, Sky Waves, and Double-blind, and the story collection The shadow side of grace. Her short stories are widely anthologized: The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction, Hard Ol’ Spot, Running the Whale’s Back, Everything Is So Political, and Best American Mystery Stories 2014.

Top 10 Terrifying Historical Tidbits

I’m a history nerd, so I present a list of ten bits of history that scare the hell out of me.

1. EYAM

One flea. One bad year: 1665. Plague takes England, again, and those who live in the village of Eyam pray the plague will pass them by. The tailor has ordered some cloth from London, and it arrives—infested with fleas.

EyamWithin a week, the tailor’s assistant succumbs to the horrific Black Death. Others become ill and die. The village waives a rule about burying the dead in the churchyard; residents may bury their own dead on their own property, and they must do so with all haste.

Then, a decision.

Eyam will shut down.

No one may enter. No one may leave.

Two options present themselves at this decision: starvation and death.

The endgame: keep the plague within the village.

The people of Eyam stare down death in a terrible solitude of many.

2. SOVIET JOKE NUMBER ONE

Q: Why is Lubyanka Prison in Moscow the tallest building in all the Russias?

A: Because you can see Siberia from the basement.

3. WHAT FUSED SPINE?

ankylosing spondylitisThe disease ankylosing spondylitis can, as a worst outcome, fuse the spine into one long bone, often deforming it first. This process takes decades and causes mobility problems and agonizing pain. For decades, medical students are taught that this poorly-understood disease is one of men, that it happens four times, ten times, more often to males than females. Therefore, goes the lazy perversion of horses-not-zebras medical thought, women don’t get ankylosing spondylitis. You’re a woman. You develop ankylosing spondylitis. Your spine deforms, fuses. It takes many years. You suffer absurd agony. No one believes you.

4. CHILD PSYCHOLOGIST

A woman working as an advanced scientist in the 1930s: just imagine what she had to overcome to become a paediatric psychologist in a patriarchal culture. Then she took over an organization which would give physical education and social training to other girls.

Just imagine how much Jutta Rüdiger must have enjoyed running The League of German Girls—roughly analogous to the boys’ organization Hitler Youth—from 1937 to 1945.

Just imagine how she claimed never to have approved of League members being forced to shoot anti-aircraft guns and die when bombed.

Just imagine her relief when, after two years of detention after the war, she is not charged and set free.

Just imagine how she goes to work every day in her medical practice as a child psychologist.

5. PAPA’S TRAIN

The railway: lines, energy, transport, even across this empire, the largest landmass in the world. She lies in bed, miserable with fever and pain, watching the Trans-Siberian Railway etch itself across the ceiling. The trains run late more and more, a sign of the troubled days. Papa has gone to war, but he is coming home now, on a train. Good thing, too, because life has become quite confusing. Soldiers who once protected her and her family by keeping people out now work to keep her in. This palace: a prison. Sometimes the electricity is cut. She and her adolescent siblings very sick with measles and pleurisy and pneumonia. Misery and high fever mean no travel, not even to escape to another country, perhaps England with Cousin George? Oh, what an idea. Then again, the family has made the voyage before, yet she knows your family must move. Her mother knows it, too, not that you can catch her eye or get more than two words with her. The ceiling above gets lower, and each day gets stranger, darker, colder. All these years worrying about her baby brother and very little bump and bruise: when will someone worry about her and the other sisters, for a change? When will Mama worry about her? Call her by name and not “one of the girls?” Papa’s train—surely, he’s not been detained by the revolutionaries, no, unthinkable—Papa’s train is so late.

6. THE VISION

After a romance shot through with rebellion and the frisson of the forbidden—and shot through with a short term in prison—John and Anne Donne start their married life together. John, however, for daring to flirt with and love Anne, has lost his plum job.

The couple end up far outside London, away from fashionable society and good connections…away from any gainful employment. The children arrive, a steady parade of squalls and sickness and death and joy. John gets a job. However, he must travel, and leave Anne behind, Anne who is, as ever, pregnant. John needs this job. John wants this job. John takes it, makes the travel, leaves Anne behind, does what must be done.

Eyeing his bed one night, ready for sleep, he’s interrupted.

By Anne.

She stands there, pale, hair down over her shoulders, cradling an infant. She holds the infant out for John to see.

The infant—so still.

Not long afterwards, John receives word that Anne has given birth, and that the infant has died.

7. SOVIET JOKE NUMBER TWOGeorgy Konstantinovich Zhukov

During World War Two, Marshal Zhukov, head of the Soviet forces, storms out of a meeting with Stalin, muttering “Murderous old moustache!”

An office worker overhears this and alerts Stalin. Zhukov is immediately summoned back to the Kremlin, to Stalin’s office.

“Marshal Zhukov,” demands Stalin, “what did you say as you left our meeting?”

Zhukov stands very straight, refuses to look down. “I said, ‘Murderous old moustache,’ Comrade Stalin.”

The office worker gasps in horror, expecting Stalin to order Zhukov’s terrible exile or violent death on the spot.

“And to whom,” snarls Stalin, “did you refer?”

“Why, to Hitler, of course.”

“Ah,” says Stalin. Then he fixes his little yellow eyes on the office worker.

“And you, comrade? To whom did you think Marshal Zhukov referred?”

8. EXPOSURE

All her life, she choked on the stinks of salt water: fish guts, brine, seagulls, sweat, because all her life she’s seen only water when she looks out the front window. So much water. How far, this ocean? How deep?

No. She refuses to surrender to the ocean, to be yet another woman who lights lamps, wrings her hands, and prays at drafty windows, desperate for a glimpse, a sound, of returning men. Let them fish, if that’s what they want. But don’t expect her to hang around, waiting for them to die off, one by one. It’s 1929, an entire world out there waiting to be found—some of it already reaching even St Lawrence via undersea cables.

Communications at last. Still, she will leave St Lawrence come the spring.

Communications already severed. That storm the other night tore down the telegraph line linking the Burin Peninsula to the rest of Newfoundland. It’s November, already bitter cold, likely a snowstorm tomorrow, maid, wouldn’t be surprised.

Just gone after five o’clock, get the supper dishes off the table, one more dreary task to—

Plates rattle across the table and fall to the floor.

This sudden shaking: another flu? Down to her bones. Down, down, down to the bones of some buried god.

And it stops. People stagger about; words refuse to come. The clock reads seven minutes after five.

An earthquake, she decides, comfortable in her book-learning. Yes, here, on the south coast of the Dominion of Newfoundland. Why not? A bitterness in the wind: snow tomorrow, almost guaranteed. Please God, not yet.

Around half past seven: shouts. Boats fall over in the harbour because nothing holds them up. The stink that rises from what one man calls the ocean’s arse: the bottom, sighted for the first time, because the water has retreated.

Gone.

Gone where?

So much debris? Would one find bones? Will they still rise incorruptible?

So much water, so much depth.

Where is it?

9. HEARTS AND MINDS

They who dance must pay the piper. On a 1976 evening, he rubs the back of his hand over the stubble on his jaw, smells the swampy Washington air, and tries to recall where he heard that bit about the piper: from Ewen, at that dinner in…no, the one in…gone.

Memory flits for him some days. He’s trained his memory to go blank, to submit to convenient amnesia, if only so he might sleep at night. Such slippage occurring by itself? He scowls.

A sales rep called Bob explained the paper shredder: capacity, long life, reduced noise.

What else did Ewen say that night, something about giving back to one’s society? Yes, even and especially those too frail to look after themselves must give back something. Any decent person would.

Were these people in their right minds, and such a tragedy they were not, surely they would understand his reasoning and agree with it.

Perhaps one day, when Ewen’s cures took, the subjects would do just that.

Thank you, Doctor. And thank you, Director, for giving me the chance.

Patients, not subjects. Must call them patients. Patience.

He'd shown great patience over the years. Decades. Slow and methodical research. Never mind the new frontier crap; this was deep frontier, the settlement not of a swatch of land but of the human mind. Because you could be damned sure the Russians did exactly the same, perhaps worse. And he had worried: long nights sitting up while the rest of North America slept the quiet sleep of the protected. Were the studies humane? Were the studies useful?

Were the studies on budget?

Pay the piper.

One drug, one simple drug to inject into a vein, to break down a man’s resistance and compel him to answer questions. A new level of decency in espionage and even open warfare. No need for torture when one had a needle. No more torture.

Getting to that needle, however, to that drug…God damn it, the commies were right on one thing: the ends justify the means.

Those jackasses in the White House got their panties in a twist over the means. Sob stories, left, right, and centre. Then the investigating committee. What is this, a witch hunt? Called themselves the Church Committee, what, bringing about the wrath of God on honest men who’d served their country in its darkest needs?

Get rid of the records, the boss said.

So he examined shredders. Many files. Many minds. Suffering, yes, but suffering for the greater good: why could John Doe and Mary Roe not grasp that? And just as history, as a record of what was done, and how, and to whom: should that not be preserved, somehow? If we keep tax records for decades…

The boss said, Get rid of the records.

Ewen would understand. He’d want those records preserved. Ewen, who served as President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychopathological Association, the Society for Biological Psychiatry, and the World Psychiatric Association, terms often overlapping, Ewen would want those records kept. Ewen might even have talked the boss into keeping them. Ewen, however, had been so thoughtless as to die. He died climbing a mountain, with his son—died happy.

Right?

Bob the sales rep hadn’t lied. The shredder ran quiet.

10. SOVIET JOKE NUMBER THREE

Five precepts for the Soviet intellectual:

  1. Don’t think.
  2. If you must think, then don’t read.
  3. If you must think and read, then don’t write.
  4. Oh, dear. If you must think, read, and write, then don’t sign.
  5. Very well. If you must think, read, write, and sign, then don’t be surprised.

 

Halloween

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