Victorian Now Literacy

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Why has 50 Shades of Gray sold like crazy despite everyone of any relevance condemning it as a badly-written, badly-conceived infantile book unworthy of attention?

No one reads for style. Maybe a handful of us, sure, but mostly people read ONLY for plot-points, with a strong preference for a fourth-grade reading level in sentence and scene construction. Keep the vocabulary simplistic, with the occasional big word carefully explained so they can feel oh so smart. Best exemplar is the prose of Arthur Conan Doyle.

This means discussion of quality falls on not only deaf but ignorant ears. Readers do not know what we’re talking about. Oh, good readers do. Literate readers, that tiny group, they know, but the masses who make 50 Shades a big seller have no clue. Tad’s right, it’s not a zero-sum game, it’s just Gresham’s law, is the thing: Bad writing forces out the good writing.

That’s what worries me about the popularity of empty fakes like 50 Shades. ERB did not preclude PKD but Gerald Kersh is already forgotten and Harlan Ellison will be, once he actually croaks instead of taking about it.

What’s sad but true: the best boil off. They become “writers’ writers” and are known in tiny coteries of literate appreciators. Meanwhile the bad forces out the good, there being no room for it, no patience. Exploitative pulp will always sell wider and faster than quality.

So maybe we should stop grousing when sub-literate crap floats. Instead, decide: Are you commercial or serious in your writing? Can’t be both, they won’t let you. Those who mix in quality with popularity are the ones we tend to admire but it’s deucedly hard.

As an example, Dickens is far less sentimentalist than he’s so often charged with being. Yes, he did indeed address the masses in their concerns, and spoke for the common man. However, he did not write down to them. His prose is as eloquent, as high and pure as any; the public back then was far more apt to be largely illiterate but those who were literate were actually up to reading Dickens.

When his installments came out, people who could read would stand on boxes and read the work aloud to rapt listeners. His stories penetrated to the whole society the way addictive mini-series or binge-watched shows do now, despite being “too hard to read” as many modern students complain.

Read the Victorian newspapers, or try to, and you’ll see what I mean about the standards and levels of general literacy having been higher in Victorian times. Today’s readers cannot read the average front page of a Victorian newspaper meant for general consumption.

We’ve lost much by thinning and diluting literacy in order to spread it wider, and now we see the GOP destroying literacy and education so it can rule with impunity.

Back to the debtor’s prisons and indentured servants, etc. Slavery in the mines, child labor, etc. Will this also mean a return to writers writing for themselves and for the people, the readers, by-passing corporate editors and gatekeepers in order to shrug off limitations and controls?

Let’s hope so.

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My Name is Marnie by Tracy L. Carbone Shadow Ridge Press, 2014 trade pb, 245p, ISBN: 978-989-77963-0 cover design by Kealan Patrick Burke

Marnie, Carbone
A mystery ghost story with oomph, crisply written, with sharply-drawn characters, this book is a one-sitter. It pulls you through seamlessly, adding layer, shadowing the tangles, and delivering you to a denouement that has you wondering how it got so complex so fast.

Carbone’s prose is clean. Her approach to scenes is to being in media res and let the actions carry you through. It’s effective, especially when she is dropping hints about the crimes, the ghostly goings on, and the possible reasons for it all.

A compleat professional, Carbone does not let the reader lapse into dull spots or wander off for a cup of coffee. Her story, and the plight of Marnie, is compelling: Fired from her job after her husband is murdered, pregnant, Marnie seeks a place of refuge so she can have the baby and get her shattered life back on some kind of acceptable track.

She finds a lovely cottage in a charming New England village. Almost at once, though, unsettling aspects arise. A deja-vu familiarity with the cottage and town, for one. Her importunate, perhaps crazy neighbor, an intrusive guy who keeps saying upsetting things that make little sense. Dire warnings, hints of hauntings, and a hair-trigger nervous energy make the man seem crazy, yet Marnie senses things that might just confirm some of what he’s saying.

Who is he? Does she know him? Does he know her? Is he a stalker?

Then the little girl shows up. Sad, silent, and misty. The visits are short and spectral, puzzling Marnie. She moves from startled through fearful to curious. What is the ghostly little girl trying to lead her to? What does she want her to realize? A part of her must know. Another, deeper part screams at her to stop, to run, to get away from the deepening shadows.

When the revelations come it is an unraveling worthy of a Hitchcock film and darker than one of Clive Barker’s night frights. This is an enjoyable horror mystery ghost story that deserves to be filmed in 1940s style. Grab a copy at www.shadowridgepress.com or from your favorite small press source.

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Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker Harper trade pb, 2004, 282pp, $13.95 8pp b&w photo insert, ISBN: 0-06-008667-X

Lily Dale by Wicker
Lily Dale, on Cassadagah Lake in upstate New York, is one of those places where a spell has been cast, or conjured. It is a small town, a hamlet or village really, of Spiritualists. Founded in 1879, it is the oldest Spiritualist community in the world. That we know of.

At the time Wicker wrote this book it had a population of 450 residents in the summer, although upwards of 20,000 tourists flocked there. In winter months the place shrinks as registered mediums go elsewhere, usually south, leaving only about half the houses inhabited year-round.

Spiritualism is generally credited to, or blamed on, the Fox sisters, Kate & Margaret, who communicated, they claimed, with spirits who used knockings or table or wall rapping in elementary codes. This began in 1848 when their family moved into a house in Hydesville, NY. Later confessions said these knockings were faked, and those confessions were later recanted, having been issued in order to get money offered them by religious groups opposed to encouraging spirit communications. One’s conscience, or cynicism, must be the guide here.

While it is evident such things as spirit boards, divining rods, pendulums, crystal gazing, scrying, and other means of communing with spirits had existed for millennia — ask the Delphic Oracles, for instance — the Hyde Sisters created a huge public stir and interest in Spiritualism, or the communication with spirits, exploded in popularity. Spirits were generally thought to be the shades of dead people but demons and djinn and other forms quickly got into the act, much to Harry Houdini’s disgust.

Christine Wicker is an excellent, sharp-eyed reporter with a charmingly ironic take on things. Her approach to Lily Dale is part personal quest, curiosity, and assignment. She is skeptical but open-minded and fair, and eventually learns to let things flow without questioning them too much at the time. This helps her experience things she otherwise might have missed.

This is an engaging, amusing book full of wonderful anecdotes, trenchant character sketches of various eccentrics, and a human, genuine affection for her subjects, even as she keeps their claims mostly at arm’s length. Turns out, most of the folks in Lily Dale are highly skeptical of each other, too. Turns out, they are a contented, happy lot, and not nearly as mindless as many would have us think.

Finding ways to be happy in this world, this veil of tears, is not easy, but it can be, if we get out of our own way. Wicker finds this out slowly, and never fully. By fighting and struggling and straining to make her way in life, she made things hard for her. By learning to accept things as they are, and as they come, she was able to relax into a much more productive mode, even though she was never a slacker. Far from it.

We meet so many folks she includes a partial list of characters in the back of the book. She also includes a couple pages of excellent suggestions for further reading, prime among them the work of William James, the famous and ground-breaking American psychologist, brother to writer Henry.

Much of Lily Dale is Wicker confirming, to her own surprise, James’s conclusions from the 1800s, when he was a found of and active in the Society for Psychical Research. Where Houdini found only cynical exploitation of the bereaved, James found genuine flashes of amazing ability amidst the dross of fakery and fraud. He even understood that some genuine mediums learned to fake in order to continue pleasing clients when their natural gifts got tired.

Wicker does not set out to prove or disprove. Her interest is the people. Why do they believe and behave as they do? Does it help or harm them? Is it based on delusions, projected hopes, or is it mere patter, a carny barker’s advertisement for this or that type of ESP? She is also deeply interested in the spiritual impulse in most people. Why do we respond to such things so deeply? Why do some crave it enough to allow themselves to be duped?

These and other questions she raises are serious but the book maintains a generally light, bemused tone. It sprawls among many people she meets, to the point she must remind us now and then which person she is now talking about. Oddly, this lack of overt order doesn’t matter by the end of the book. It was never about portraiture.

Christine Wicker is a hard-core physics devotee. She is a hard-headed skeptic. She is reality-based and grounded in materialism. These flaky folks with their readings are alien to her and she is justifiably curious. She is as unlike today’s cheating, lying debunkers as a poltergeist is from a residual haunt. She is not desperate to dismiss even the discussion of things paranormal, as the debunkers are. She has no fear, no dread, and no mistrust of reality, despite baggage from her religious upbringing, which she readily admits to.

This book was a brief sensation when it first came out but it’s nearly forgotten now in the welter of ghost hunting merchandise flooding us today. It’s well worth finding and reading; check your library or the used books section of your favorite online provider. Skeptic, believer, or anyone else will enjoy this book thanks to its discursive style and level-headed, honest accounts.

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The Demon of Brownsville Road: A Pittsburgh Family’s Battle with Evil in Their Home by Bob Cranmer and Erica Manfred Berkeley mass market pb, 2014 $9.99, ISBN: 978-0-425-26855-1 appendix, 8pp b&w photo insert

Demon Brownsville

Well made book, physically, with a striking sepia cover, soft paper, and clear typesetting. Well-written book; the ghost writer Erica Manfred, an experienced journalist and essayist, does a very good job of delivering Bob Cranmer’s story of a haunting and his response to it in his own distinct voice.

Too good a job. His self-impressed, fatuous bragging, his ego mania, and his narcissism combines with a huge urge to testify about the massive religion chip on his messianic shoulder to make him one of the most repellent liars one could hope to encounter. He makes Holden Caulfield almost tolerable.

In consequence I abandoned trying to ignore Cranmer’s twittery for any meat that might be in the book. Unreadable for anyone allergic to right wing entitlement, religious bigotry, and dumb-ass pronouncements about the paranormal from a typically fearful and willfully ignorant god-yap view. Avoid.

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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King Scribner hc, 1st edition, 531pp ISBN: 978-1-4767-2765-3

Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Scribner hc, 1st edition, 531pp
ISBN: 978-1-4767-2765-3

The sequel to The Shining, in which Danny is all grown up, succeeds in remaining consonant to the original novel enough to justify considering them a duad, a single whole in two distinct parts.

This is not to say the tone is the same. This is not a direct sequel, until the very end, where there is a show-down scene at the site of the now-burned Outlook, in Colorado, where Jack Torrance, Danny’s father, died. Where spirits wait for vengeance. Where there is emotional and spiritual power for all, light and dark.

Prior to that we see that Danny has had a rough life. He’s inherited his father’s propensity to get drunk; in his case, to dampen the shining, which can otherwise drive him crazy with all the ghostly chatter and appalling insights. He takes the latter syllable of redrum to heart for a long while.

We meet him during his last-ditch effort to pull himself out of the self-destructive downward spiral he has been in too long. He comes to a tidy New England town that has a small gauge steam locomotive for tourists during the season. He falls for its charm and, even better, finds a job at a local hospice where his skills with the shining allow him to help ease dying patients’ final moments.

He’s doing well and even psychically links with a little girl named Abra who may well be even stronger and better at shining than he is. His bond with her grows through occasional mental images, words on a chalk board, and other hints, winks, and nudges, but eventually they are communicating fully. They are birds of a feather and support each other. He’s like an uncle to her.

Less avuncular, more threatening is the True Knot. This is a group of travelers who look like slightly below-average retirees and families in battered RVs who roam the United States in a ragged group. What is not evident at first glimpse is how dark a group this is, and how old, and how powerful. Seems they like to feed on people, on the energies they release when tortured to death. They even bottle this energy and feed off it during lean times.

They’re hungry again, and if they don’t get what they call steam, which is what Danny calls shining, they will perish. Can’t have that, now can they?

Sensing Abra’s great power like an X station from across the border of humanity, they zero in, trying to find her so they can torture her to death or maybe, just maybe, keep her alive and tortured so she keeps producing that sweet steam.

Danny and Abra just can’t catch a break, and will not be left alone to enjoy their unusual lives. Not with the True Knot around.

King weaves the story lines well, bringing things together naturally into the kind of all-out show-down we crave. Shades of The Stand struck me, but perhaps that is in the nature of such chiaroscuro tales. Harsh contrast breeds apocalyptic conflict, and readers benefit.

Not knowing what to expect from a sequel to The Shining, I trusted King and let the book work its charms. It satisfied me in surprising ways and one can but applaud the bravura performance. Stephen King is King Stephen for a reason, and he continues to get better with age and experience. That can be said about few writers at his current stage of career.

Ignore the naysayers and grab a copy, especially if you loved The Shining and always wondered what happened to that intense little boy and his finger-pal who lives in his mouth, Tony. Incidentally, King also supplies some rational, reasonable explanations for his concept of the shining. Bonus material, no strings of goo attached.

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Out by Natsuro Kirino First Vintage International Edition, Jan. 2005 Translated by Stephen Snyder for Kodansha, Ltd. pb, 400pp, $13.95, ISBN: 1-4000-7837-7

Out, Kirino

Out by Natsuro Kirino
First Vintage International Edition, Jan. 2005
Translated by Stephen Snyder for Kodansha, Ltd.
pb, 400pp, $13.95, ISBN: 1-4000-7837-7

Perhaps the title confused browsers into thinking this is a book about someone coming out of the closet in some way. It is not. Yet it is.

In it, a small group of women in Tokyo who work in a bento boxed lunch factory, on night shift to earn a fraction more money per shift, decide to help one of their own when, during a typical fight with her husband, one of the women kills.

Murder is not such a big deal to them, turns out. Not murder of a man. Males so dominate females in Japan, so unfairly exploit, manipulate, bully, and discard them, that the practical concerns kick in without much of a moral or ethical blink.

Masako Katori is the focus of this gritty, realistic, and grim novel. It is a crime, rather than a police, procedural. It lays out in unblinking detail how Katori decides to help her younger, stupider friend when that friend confesses to having killed her useless husband. Katori enlists others to help, too, and keeps them in line. They use their lunch factory skills at cutting up meat. They use their skills in packaging and distribution, too.

They dismember the corpse, put it into small packages, and discard them all over Tokyo, but one of them does the lazy thing, typical for her, and this leads to the discovery of the body. Well, parts.

Tension mounts slowly with such realism and insight into character that we read fascinated and breathless. A pall of doom seems to hang over everyone so readers tend to expect the worst.

In a sub plot that gradually blossoms into quite a touching and bizarre set of scenes, one of the men at the factory, Kazoo Miyamori, is a stalker, a lonely man of Japanese descent who was born and raised in Brazil. He is in Tokyo hoping to earn enough money to go back home and set up a business. He’s reduced to night shift at the box lunch factory, his hopes dashed. Is he dangerous or merely truculent? Is he crazy or merely strange?

That he fixes on Masako, a blunted woman in her forties who does nothing to enhance her own looks, only adds to his ominous qualities. It is while he watches her from concealment that he sees her drop some things into a sewer as she walks to the factory one evening. Turns out he investigates, and finds personal affects from the murdered man.

Pressures mount, loyalties tilt, and Masako is faced with bad choices all around. Her world has become unstable. It does not bother her unduly, however. In many ways it’s what she’s needed. She has craved something more, something different. Independence, yes, but a kind of freedom, too, found outside society. This is a clue to the otherwise puzzling title.

When gangsters get wind of how efficiently Masako has rid herself of a corpse, and offer to pay her to do the same for some of their inconvenient messes, money beyond insurance pittances enters the drama, with predictable effect. Not that Masako’s responses are ever typical; she is a surprise all along, though hardly a delight.

This story of Masako Katori is remarkable on many levels, not the least of which the damning indictment of how women are viewed, treated, and abused in Japan. This is modern industrial Japan, not some Samurai fantasy. It is presented in such detail, so matter-of-factly, and with such intense scrutiny of individual lives that we are held spellbound as we read. It’s best, we discover, to keep reading, to lop off as many paragraphs, scenes, and pages as possible with each sitting so we can pop our head up for a gasped breath when we’re done.

Women ignored or abandoned by drunken husbands intent on gambling and bar girls. Women burdened by invalid mothers-in-law or unwanted babies, left to earn the money to run the household because the husband’s wages all go to his hedonism. Women abandoned by men, beaten and left for dead by men. It’s a brutal, even savage depiction that rings all-too-true. Add to this poverty the need for menial labor that deforms the body and crushes the soul and you, too, would want out, by any route possible.

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Eschaton’s Fate by Gene Stewart, From Out of the Dark anthology, Robert N. Stephenson, editor, Altair Publishing, Jan. 2015

Eschaton’s Fate by Gene Stewart

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I Still Carry A Knife

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Root causes are often breathtakingly ugly. We don’t generally let boys play with dolls because they might become… good fathers. This turned up in a brief online discussion.

By the way, dangerous toys were mooted, too, and I have to say that, thinking back, many of the toys I had great harmless fun with would today be considered unconscionably dangerous. Know what changed? Responsibility shifted from parenting to lawsuits. In my childhood, we were taught, “Look. This can hurt people, so when using it we be careful, and if you’re going to be irresponsible with it, then we’ll take it away until you grow up some more.” Hell, we were proud to demonstrate how grown up.

Know how old I was when I got my very first real pocket knife? Six. Today that would be considered a crime and child abuse and unthinkably crazy. Knives are demonized now, even though they are arguably the most useful tool ever invented and should be part of everyone’s accoutrements.

I had a set of toy pistols that shot plastic, spring-loaded bullets. We had cap guns. We had chemistry sets with instructions on how to make explosives, radioactive stuff, and so on in the kit. I helped my father and his father in a wood shop from age 4 or 5. Sure, they gave me tasks suited to me, but I was occasionally taught to run a radial saw or how safely to do this or that atrociously dangerous thing. I have all my digits and limbs intact.

Political Correctness and lawsuits have rendered us helpless fat soft moronic saps, incompetent and incapable, entitled and pampered, the worst combination of deluded and ignorant.

Look around. You really think this is better than that? Is helplessness and panic an improvement over competence and stoicism? Why did we lose confidence in our individual ability? It was taught out of us by a thuggish, all–pervasive media serving the psychopathic greedy corporate fascists, who want us so absurdly infantllike that we must call AAA to get a flat tire changed or pay to have some schlub come build a knock-down shelf for us. Using those terrifying dangerous tools that are considered terrorism weapons by officials.

Fuck all that.

I still carry a knife and always will.

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Review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman

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American Gods
by Neil Gaiman
Harper Torch, 588pp
$7.99 mass market paperback
ISBN 0 – 360 – 78003 – 5

A Review by Gene Stewart
(written originally for BRUTARIAN in 2002)

This book comes complete with a set of reviewers’ blurbs that would make Gore Vidal blush in his grave.  Such effusive praise must be based on something, right?

Gaimain’s prior books, such as the novel of his TV limited-run series Neverland and the collection Smoke & Mirrors, offered us a glimpse of a serious writer doing genre work.  This one has the feel of a genre writer doing serious work, but that’s not a put-down, largely because he almost pulls it off.

American Gods is a picaresque novel that focuses on Shadow, a huge guy who is just about to be released from jail as we meet him.  He’s eager to see his wife, whom he loves, and eh was in jail because of the crimes of others.  Now he’s ready to be sprung, and the news comes that his wife and his best friend are both dead.  Both were killed in the same car crash.  In the same car.

She died with a significant part of his best friend in her mouth.

Shadow’s world is shattered.  HIs sacrifice has gone for nought.  He is released into a world that no longer holds a damned thing for him.  Or so he thinks.

He meets a cheap older man who calls himself Wednesday.  This guy makes a living conning people with grifts as old as civilizations, governments, and gods.  In the course of this first evening of freedom, Shadow drinks Wednesday’s mead, fights a leprechaun who’s even bigger than he is, and he’s six feet eight, and is given a gold coin with which to practice his endless prestidigitation.  Shadow does coin manipulations to take up slack time and calm himself.

From this simple beginning we get… well, a simple story that takes Shadow all over the United States with a jaunt to San Francisco, where he meets a succession of oddly-named people.  Most are old, all are eccentrate, to say the least, and all have that noumenal glow that tells of godly hints, winks, and nudges.  Their names are often contorted and hard to squint at but it’s a fantasy so you go along.

This cutesy name scheme will annoy those familiar with the gods of various mythologies and spoil the foreshadowing, too, but that’s a small cavil, one suspects, these days.

I liked this book but it took me forever to read it.  Not sure why but I suspect it was the succession fo interchangeable scenes.  They just kept coming, without adding up to anyting.  There didn’t seem to be a bigger pattern.  Unlike Neverwhere, which was a much better-organized and streamlined book, perhaps because he was working from an already-produced TV script with the bugs already worked out, American Gods leans out of the moving vehicle and tries to grab Significance a bit too often.  Or was it merely the Ring of Permanence being rushed past?  It lacked cohesion so I’m not sure.

Okay, there was a mysterious and highly-significant battled looming, yes.  It flickered at the vanishing point on the elusive horizon as if teasing us onward.  It was to be between the old gods, dragged to North America by immigrants over the centuries,and the new gods, such as TV, the Internet, and Political Correctness.  The old gods are a pretty broken-down lot by now, from neglect and lack of respect.  Most barely eke out a living, with exception of lovely Oestre, who is a kind of female Bacchus.  We meet him first, unavoidably, alcohol being ubiquitous.  The new gods are pimply rich fat smart-asses who are also callow, unsure of themselves, and a bit dull.

The battle is the reason everything’s happening but it never gets there, except in a mostly off-stage half-hearted set of scenes mostly concerned with aftermath.  By this time we have learned that the battle was just a con to sucker the gods into shedding their blood for the good of, yes, Odin and Loki.  So what began as a conceit with huge potential is frittered away on a somewhat banal and Marvel Comics sort of ending.

Much of this book is superbly written.  Gaiman has talent, vision, and guts.  He does very well keeping his Britishisms out of the book, although there are a few, mostly nearer the end where the proof-reader were probably feeling the length a bit.

Cutting down the set-up scenes and expanding the battle into something worth of all the conniving, whispering, and plotting would improve the book.  It would also lessen its big for significance, making it less literary.  Make no mistake, a writer like Gaiman can write any form he wants and excel.  He his better than most and just getting warmed up.  
American Gods is well worth reading and very enjoyable.  It is also not his masterpiece and doesn’t begin to live up to the puff blurbs on and inside the covers.  What book could?

Read it not as “unforgettable” but rather as just “damned good” and you’ll get a kick out of it and come away with some cool imagery, such as the roadside attractions.  Read more than what’s on the page into the book and you may be reaching.

Oh, and look the hel out for his next book because he’s going to get all these elements to coalesce one day in an ambitious book like this one and when it happens it will be spectacular.

Now go outside and play while you can still catch the old gods at frolic and at ease.

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Note from 2015:  This was written in 2002 when I was, briefly, editing BRUTARIAN and as we now know Neil rewrote American Gods into the preferred text I’d recommend to readers today.  In the rewrite he corrected many of the minor flaws this review touched on and added a wealth of treasures, raising American Gods to his masterpiece-so-far level.  That is a writing quality so high larks have trouble spotting it.

By now we also know anything and everything Neil Gaiman writes is worth reading immediately.

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Wynter’s Tower, A Developing Story

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Having gathered at the gazebo on Wynter’s front lawn, we followed our host near dusk into his manor house, pausing to admire the grand staircase and balcony, diverting briefly to explore the library, and finally reaching the tower’s round ground-floor room. Curved windows framed a view of the back lawn, gardens, and woods. As night clotted our sight diminished.

We were gestured toward a curved door through which we found spiral stairs of wrought iron. Our footsteps echoed in the stone throat as we climbed to a second door, this one not of carven wood but of metal. Pushing it open brought us onto the tower’s roof from which, standing in the evening surge of breeze from the river, we saw the lawns, gardens, and woods of Wynter’s estate and beyond them. We saw too the crescent of river and across it into the farm fields and dirt roads. We saw the sprinkle of hamlets, glittering villages, even the city’s glow at the horizon. We saw, in short, most of the county. It seemed our vista was widened enough to grant us insights to which others of lower vantage had no access and might not imagine.

Our host now led us down to the ground floor room but did not stop there. We kept descending past storage cellars stacked with wines and sacks of grain and fruit, bins of vegetables. Below these lay the stables where horses nodded into their feedbags as if offering sage consent. Still lower we went into vaulted basements where lay furniture workshops and other repair benches crowded with broken or worn items awaiting a craftsman’s hand.

Finally we came to the locked metal gate worked into a complicated pagan orgy scene. Over it a wrought-iron sign that read: Forbidden Caves. Beneath this label hung a wooden sign stating: Enter Only By Unkind Permission.

Wynter unlocked the gate with a large key. It swung open without a creak on well-oiled hinges. We trooped through with various levels of dread, anticipation, and eagerness for what ever dark frolics our host would have prepared. He stopped to let us gather in the antechamber. “Here we stand under the tower.” His voice resonated. Faint echoes mocked him from the seven main, two secondary, and three deepest chambers. “Here in mother Earth’s womb we disport ourselves in strict privacy among ourselves. Nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted. Here among a select few we are free from all society’s constraints. No prudery, no disapproval, and no condemnation is present among we chosen. There is wisdom in this. Only by freeing one’s self at the root of all things in life can a man climb high above a ground-level view to glimpse what may loom on life’s horizon. In this way our so-called Hellfire Clubs, denounced by the envious and damned from the pulpit, allow us to advance toward enlightenment despite the common clinging to ignorance and darkness. So come free yourselves in abandon and leave the conventional behind.”

With this we slapped shoulders and laughed as we moved into the first chamber, where the conformities of clothing and other outer signs of slavery to the status quo were shed in exchange for robes, togas, or nothing at all, as each chose.

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Dashwood’s guest that night, hell, that weekend, was a colonist from the Americas. He was, one gathered, rabble-rousing in Parliament on behalf of the rebellious faction. Being freethinkers and democrats each in our own way, most present at the revels supported him in his cause. His buckskins and furry animal cap with its ringed tail dangling at his shoulder, as a coquette’s flirtatious curl might, kept him easy to spot even in the more shadowed rooms, for he left the cap on even as he disported himself in an otherwise nude state.

Conversation had it that Franklin, for that was the Yank’s name, had bottled lightning and found the key to electrification. He spoke of Leydon jars and making dead tissue dance. A marvel of scientific endeavour, it was but one of his singulars, signal achievements. His rather nasal upper class accent has many odd aspects that kept him audible even from other rooms. This led a goodly part of my mind to follow him, as it were, mentally. To keep track of, was how his woodsy frontier idiom put it when he spoke of remaining cognizant of many lines of scientific inquiry at the same time. He talked much at times, at others listening as if committing each overheard syllable to memory. He wandered incessantly, never indulging too much in any one room’s offerings.

“And how is it, Mister Franklin, with your wit and persuasive charm, you do not yet lead our freedom-seeking American colonists?” This question was posted partly in a gently mocking jest by one of the local gentry, whose land holdings exceeded, it was said, those of the royals themselves.

Franklin’s response proved of interest, with subtle points hidden at first hearing only to blossom like well-planted bulbs along unexpected paths. “It ought be understood that ruling or leading others is a weak position. Weak in that some unavoidably balk and rebel.”

“Even so in your America,” someone called.

Franklin smiled. “Even so. Yet a superior method of supporting everyone’s inalienable, one might say Providential, rights exists. It is the esoteric way. Influencing and guiding an unaware public, herding the masses as a pastor is said to tend his congregation like a shepherd with his flock, is optimum. Doing so unnoticed works best of all; what man or woman–” here he gestured gallantly toward some of the lovely ladies enlivening our festivities, some still busily pursuing their latest stooped conquest– “who among us, be we sheep, cattle, or stallions roaming wild –” cheers arose from some of us men — “balk, let alone rebel, at the invisible? Does one make war against whispers in the breeze?”

These thoughts stayed with me over the turbulent years to come.

Franklin, for all his fame, importance, and travel, remained in reality an invisible man. He embraced esoterica and inhabited its vast, hidden chambers. He made secrecy look easy. Franklin, top scientist and smartest man of his age and epoch, was not trusted to write the U.S. Constitution for fear he would hide encoded or delayed provisions that would spring their traps only years or decades later. Jefferson’s first draft was too liberal and democratic and idealistic. The resultant compromise, the now-famed U. S. Constitution, kept the gentry in control while upholding the principles espoused in America’s Scottish-, Pirate-, and Iroquois-influenced Declaration of Independence.

Anyone who knew him could not help but find Franklin’s invisible presence in all this and so much more.

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