Author Archives: sydlogsdon

A Graveyard Christmas 2

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton
by Charles Dickens

In eight parts. Click here to begin at the beginning.

In this happy frame of mind, Gabriel strode along, returning a short, sullen growl to the good-humoured greetings of such of his neighbours as now and then passed him, until he turned into the dark lane which led to the churchyard. Now, Gabriel had been looking forward to reaching the dark lane, because it was, generally speaking, a nice, gloomy, mournful place, into which the townspeople did not much care to go, except in broad daylight, and when the sun was shining; consequently, he was not a little indignant to hear a young urchin roaring out some jolly song about a merry Christmas, in this very sanctuary which had been called Coffin Lane ever since the days of the old abbey, and the time of the shaven-headed monks. As Gabriel walked on, and the voice drew nearer, he found it proceeded from a small boy, who was hurrying along, to join one of the little parties in the old street, and who, partly to keep himself company, and partly to prepare himself for the occasion, was shouting out the song at the highest pitch of his lungs. So Gabriel waited until the boy came up, and then dodged him into a corner, and rapped him over the head with his lantern five or six times, just to teach him to modulate his voice. And as the boy hurried away with his hand to his head, singing quite a different sort of tune, Gabriel Grub chuckled very heartily to himself, and entered the churchyard, locking the gate behind him.

He took off his coat, set down his lantern, and getting into the unfinished grave, worked at it for an hour or so with right good- will. But the earth was hardened with the frost, and it was no very easy matter to break it up, and shovel it out; and although there was a moon, it was a very young one, and shed little light upon the grave, which was in the shadow of the church. At any other time, these obstacles would have made Gabriel Grub very moody and miserable, but he was so well pleased with having stopped the small boy’s singing, that he took little heed of the scanty progress he had made, and looked down into the grave, when he had finished work for the night, with grim satisfaction, murmuring as he gathered up his things-

Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,
A few feet of earth, when life is done;
A stone at the head, a stone at the feet,
A rich, juicy meal for the worms to eat;
Rank grass overhead, and damp clay around,
Brave lodgings for one, these, in holy ground!

“Ho! ho!” laughed Gabriel Grub, as he sat himself down on a flat tombstone which was a favourite resting-place of his, and drew forth his wicker bottle. “A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas box! Ho! ho! ho!”

“Ho! ho! ho!” repeated a voice which sounded close behind him.

Gabriel paused, in some alarm, in the act of raising the wicker bottle to his lips, and looked round. The bottom of the oldest grave about him was not more still and quiet than the churchyard in the pale moonlight. The cold hoar frost glistened on the tombstones, and sparkled like rows of gems, among the stone carvings of the old church. The snow lay hard and crisp upon the ground; and spread over the thickly-strewn mounds of earth, so white and smooth a cover that it seemed as if corpses lay there, hidden only by their winding sheets. Not the faintest rustle broke the profound tranquillity of the solemn scene. Sound itself appeared to be frozen up, all was so cold and still.

“It was the echoes,” said Gabriel Grub, raising the bottle to his lips again.

“It was NOT,” said a deep voice. continued tomorrow

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548. Victorian Steampunk?

 

Please note that Serial is back temporarily, to present the short story by Dickens which was a predecessor to A Christmas Carol. It starts today. Check it out.

 

 

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The Victorian era — was there such a thing?

Victoria became Queen in 1837 and died in 1901, a reign of just short of sixty-four years. Everything in Britain changed in that time except the Queen, so does the phrase Victorian Era have any real meaning?

If you are going to write steampunk, that is a fair question. Of course steampunk usually takes place in an alternate Victorian era — sometimes extremely alternate — but you have to have at least a reasonable knowledge of the original if you are going to mimic it.

Most of us get our history everywhere but a history book, so let’s see what fiction we can use to subdivide the era. Jane Austen, the Brontes, and the Queen were born only a few years apart, so if you enjoy those authors, you are reading about the early Victorian period. Not my wheelhouse, but to each his own.

More to my taste, Charles Dickens’s first novel was published in 1837, the year Victoria became queen. His last novel (uncompleted) and his death took place in 1870. At that time Victoria still had three decades to live.

The Dickensian era is almost as widely known as the Victorian. In full disclosure, I have read all of Dickens’s Christmas novellas — A Christmas Carol several times — but his larger works tend to defeat me. I think I was inoculated against them by being force-fed Great Expectations at too young an age.

Not everyone reads Dickens by choice, but everyone knows what Dickensian means. Judith Flanders in The Victorian City, said:

Today “Dickensian” means squalor . . .(Dickens was) the greatest recorder the London streets has ever known — through whose eyes those streets have become Dickensian . . .

She got it right for her literary audience, but wrong for those who never read a Dickens novel that they weren’t forced to read. Dickensian, to the average Joe (or Joan) means carolers in fancy dress, Scrooge redeemed, Tiny Tim getting a second chance at life, and a village of quaint houses for the Christmas mantle. The actual harshness of Dickens’s other novels is excluded.

The squalor and the sweetness: that is the dual heritage that steampunk authors have to work with if they set their works in variations of the early Victorian period.

As I explained last Wednesday, Like Clockwork is derived from A Christmas Carol, although it morphed into something very different from a Christmas novel. I don’t think Dickens would recognize my London at all.

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From 1870 when Dickens died, until 1901 when Queen Victoria died, the world became a very different place from the home of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, and Oliver Twist. The industrial revolution changed the world into something much closer to the present.

You might choose Jules Verne as the author that most represents this era, but not if you are concentrating on England. Verne would be the right literary reference for a steampunk novel set in the La Belle Époque, Paris. If you know of such a work, send me the author and title. I would love to read it.

My earlier steampunk novel, The Cost of Empire, travels across five continents by dirigible, but much of the action takes place in London. For that time period in London, there is only one literary creature who is in everyone’s DNA; not an author, but a character who is more real to most of us than the author who created him — Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes first case, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, and there were flashbacks to earlier cases. His Last Bow was on the eve of World War I. This neatly fills in the rest of the Victorian era and spills over into the Edwardian.

Gender gets involved here. Dickens appeals, or doesn’t appeal, to men and women alike. The rest of British popular literature, contemporary to the era (not historical fiction) is largely gender biased, with Austen and the Brontes for the gals, Kipling, Buchan, and Conan Doyle for the guys.

In other words, if you are a guy (guilty as charged) and you consider Victorian characters, you are more likely to think first of Sherlock Holmes than of Elizabeth Bennet — or even Mr. Darcy.

When I first became involved in the Victorian era, after becoming interested in steampunk, my knowledge of everyday life in London came largely from multiple readings of the canon. That is what Holmes fans call the fifty-six stories and four novels written by ACD himself.  My internal vision of Victorian London was that which could be seen from 221b Baker Street, even though Sherlock himself never makes an appearance in my writings.

Yet.

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If you want a reference book for each era, I recommend:

For the early Victorian period — The Victorian City by Judith Flanders. She gives a modern scholar’s look at the reality behind the world that Dickens wrote about.

For the late Victorian period — Sherlock Holmes: the Man and his World by H. R. F. Keating. He provides commentary on Holmes’s world, with contemporary photographs of scenes from the canon.

A Graveyard Christmas 1

Charles Dickens invented Christmas.

That is an oft repeated observation; an exaggeration of course, but not that far from the truth. His book A Christmas Carol written in 1843 forever changed the holiday. That story has become a part of the world’s DNA, and has been represented in numerous films, cartoons, and rewritings, frequently of low quality. I’m sure that anyone in America above the age of five has seen some version.

Dickens wrote four other Christmas novellas, which I have referred to in the past. In fact I have made so many references to Christmas, real and literary, that I will be providing a list of links on the twenty-fourth.

There is one more Christmas tale that will appeal to completists. It is part of the Pickwick Papers, but it sometimes appears separately. I present it here because it is somewhat hard to find. You will see that it presages the same themes that Dickens returned to in A Christmas Carol, although Gabriel Grub in this version is meaner than Scrooge, and less warm and fuzzy after his redemption.

I don’t return to this tale often, but I wouldn’t have missed reading it once.

By the way, my post title is accurate, if odd, and designed to pique the interest of search engines. Sorry about that.

            Syd Logsdon

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton
by Charles Dickens

In an old abbey town, down in this part of the country, a long, long while ago – so long, that the story must be a true one, because our great-grandfathers implicitly believed it – there officiated as sexton and grave-digger in the churchyard, one Gabriel Grub. It by no means follows that because a man is a sexton, and constantly surrounded by the emblems of mortality, therefore he should be a morose and melancholy man; your undertakers are the merriest fellows in the world; and I once had the honour of being on intimate terms with a mute, who in private life, and off duty, was as comical and jocose a little fellow as ever chirped out a devil-may-care song, without a hitch in his memory, or drained off a good stiff glass without stopping for breath. But notwithstanding these precedents to the contrary, Gabriel Grub was an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow – a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket – and who eyed each merry face, as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as it was difficult to meet without feeling something the worse for.

A little before twilight, one Christmas Eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself towards the old churchyard; for he had got a grave to finish by next morning, and, feeling very low, he thought it might raise his spirits, perhaps, if he went on with his work at once. As he went his way, up the ancient street, he saw the cheerful light of the blazing fires gleam through the old casements, and heard the loud laugh and the cheerful shouts of those who were assembled around them; he marked the bustling preparations for next day’s cheer, and smelled the numerous savoury odours consequent thereupon, as they steamed up from the kitchen windows in clouds. All this was gall and wormwood to the heart of Gabriel Grub; and when groups of children bounded out of the houses, tripped across the road, and were met, before they could knock at the opposite door, by half a dozen curly-headed little rascals who crowded round them as they flocked upstairs to spend the evening in their Christmas games, Gabriel smiled grimly, and clutched the handle of his spade with a firmer grasp, as he thought of measles, scarlet fever, thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolation besides. continued tomorrow

Back for Now

On September fifth I temporarily closed out Serial. The reason was:

It has been three years, almost to the day, and I’m out of stuff.

I’m still out of stuff, since all my recent writings are looking for more traditional publishing opportunities, but I reserve the right to bring Serial back to life  long enough to bring in ringers like:

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton
by Charles Dickens

This is the short story that later became A Christmas Carol. I will be presenting it in Serial in eight installments, starting Monday.

547. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (2)

Continued from Monday.

In the movie Scrooge, just after Bob Cratchit leaves Scrooge to return home on Christmas eve, he meets his two youngest children outside a toyshop. Inside is a wonderland of toys, including mechanical marvels. Most notable is a clockwork strongman who lifts himself horizontally and then holds himself suspended by one arm. You’ll no doubt see the movie on TV sometime this month; you can watch for the scene.

When I saw it — and every time thereafter — I found myself asking who, in an obviously poor corner of London, would buy such toys? Who would make them? Why were they there?

I buy into Christmas and its magic 100%, but I also look behind the curtain. If you are a writer, you know the feeling.

Clearly, historically, these were late Victorian toys. Their existence was a product of Dickens’ push for humanity, kindness, and his desire to make childhood the joy it never was for him. In short, these toys existed in the 1970 version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol precisely because Dickens had called them forth by the writing of the novel in 1843.

If that confused you, don’t try to write time travel stories.

As I saw the toyshop, and the poor children outside who would never have such toys, I said to myself:

Let’s write a story about the toyshop, and the man who inhabits it. Let’s make him the toy maker, not simply the proprietor. How does he feel when he see children pressing their faces against the glass, knowing that they cannot afford the toys he makes? Why is he in this poor part of London? What is his backstory?

Let’s not make him a simple fellow like the one in the movie. Let’s make him a brooding figure. Let’s unfold his story slowly, and let him find his own kind of redemption. Let’s not make him anything like Scrooge, but the product of some irreversible tragedy outside himself. And then let’s reverse the irreversible, but slowly.

The skeleton of this idea floated about in the ether for decades. The final connections came when I was writing The Cost of Empire and getting acquainted with steampunk traditions.

Clockwork. Steampunk worlds work on steam and on clockwork. The toys in the toy shop are clockwork. Clocks are clockwork. Clocks measure time. Steampunk is full of time travel. Time travel is based on unsupportable science, so it touches on fantasy. A Christmas Carol is full of fantasy, if you count ghosts impinging on the “real” world as fantasy.

Remember, the subtitle of Dickens’ story was Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.

When you come right down to it, A Christmas Carol is a story about time travel. Three ghosts take Scrooge to the past, present, and future. And it displays the most cliché time paradox, that Scrooge goes back in time (from the future to the present) and becomes a different person than he would have been if he had never seen the future.

So suppose a time traveler from the future goes back to Victorian London to — no, I don’t want to tell you that yet. I have to leave something for the book.

Don’t think of all this speculation as something that moves in linear order, like an outline. Think of it as ten thousand bees in a swarm inside the author’s head. Nine thousand of those bees will be blind alleys and will never appear in the final product.

The ones that made the cut were dragged out of the cosmos by hard thought and reflection over the year it took to write Like Clockwork. Those are the “ideas” no one ever asks about, but they are the ones that really count.

The ironic thing is that Like Clockwork ended up not being a Christmas story at all. In fact, it takes place in a universe where Christmas has been all but forgotten. The part of the novel actually dependent on the toy shop ends up as about ten percent of the whole.

So if, on some future date, you are reading Like Clockwork and you ask yourself, “Where the hell did all this come from?” — the answer is, “Dickens made me do it.”

Or the answer could be, “Out of the ether.” Both answers are true.

546. Where Do You Get Your Ideas (1)

Everybody who doesn’t write, wants to know where writers get their ideas. Everybody who writes knows the answer is, “Everywhere,” and also knows that answer won’t satisfy anyone.

I think that those who ask really want to know is where we get the initial idea, the one that sets everything in motion. For instance, I have one like that which I haven’t used yet. It’s a winner for sure. It has hippies and drugs and the . . . nope! I might still write that one, so I’m keeping it to myself.

I’ve actually already told the origin stories of one novel, one series and one fragment. You can check them out if you want. I have one more answer that covers four stories, and that answer is Scrooge.

My fascination with Dickens’s classic began during the Christmas season of 1970. I was a new college graduate, married, waiting for my date to enter the Navy. My immediate future looked grim, and possibly short.

The musical Scrooge was released that year and it went straight to the heart when my wife and I saw it in the theatre. I immediately bought the videotape, even though I had no way to play it at the time. I knew I didn’t want to lose that powerful story of redemption.

In the  years that followed, I read the original story several times, along with the other four Christmas stories that Dickens followed up with in later years. I also made a collection of other Christmas Carol movies, some good, some dull, some awful. Every actor seemed to want to play Scrooge.

Five years after the release of Scrooge, I started writing novels. I concentrated on science fiction and fantasy, but deep down I wanted to write my own Christmas classic. And yes, I know, there are ten million other writers who have had the same idea.

I won’t go into detail, but over the years the idea grew from one story to three.

Nathaniel Gunn returns from a long voyage on a trading ship to Philadelphia in 1791 to find his wife dead from disease and his two children apparently dead as well. Throughout the following Christmas season he gives away his money to the needy around him, but it does his heart and soul no good until he has to give away the one thing that means the most to him.

The children, who are not really dead, make their painful way back from their uncle’s farm toward Philadelphia. Along the way they find themselves taking shelter with a family of Moravian’s, the Christian sect that was that era’s the strongest advocate of Christmas, long before it’s celebration became generally accepted.

These two stories are bracketed by a later story. Nathan, the son, finds himself in New York in 1823 where he befriends the despondent Clement Clarke Moore.

Those stories grew out of a desire to bring early Christmas to the new world, and tie the birth of Christ to the birth of the nation. (The first congress met in New York in 1789 and Philadelphia in 1791, before moving on to the newly built Washington City.)

It needs writing. Maybe someday if I can find the time . . .

Those were literary and historical ideas. Meanwhile, there was a purely visual idea that also came out of Scrooge. I’ll tell you about it in two days.

Continued Wednesday.

545. Lottery Day at the Big Casino

Rep. Pirnie draws the first number.

The place was a class at Michigan State University, just about this time fifty years ago. I wasn’t in the room, so I may be wrong on a few details, but the basic story spread quickly all over campus.

The professor was a young radical. There were a lot of those at MSU in the late 60s. Finals were near when he announced that grades would be given out a little differently this year. He opened a notebook and began to call roll. As he did, an assistant drew notes from a bowl. The professor read, “Adams.” The assistant took a folded paper from the bowl, opened it, and said C. The professor read, “Baker,” and the assistant said F.

As you may guess, it left the room in an uproar. I’m sure the actual grades were given in the normal manner, but the young professor had made his point.

About a week later, a similar lottery took place nationwide, televised, and determined life or death for thousands of young Americans. I was listening closely, because I was a contestant. It was the first draft lottery since World War II.

There were three of us paying attention, my two college roommates and I. One of them didn’t have to worry; he had blown his knee out as a high school wrestler and was 4-F. That’s a medical deferment. The other roommate and I were on student deferments, but we were both going to graduate in June. He drew a high number and never served. I wasn’t so lucky.

I have said often that the draft leveled the playing field. It was a favorite saying in that era that Viet Nam was a war where black people were sent to kill yellow people for the sake of white people. Without the draft, that would have been even closer to the truth.

I wasn’t feeling so charitable when that bastard got to my birthday and pulled a 41.

Ain’t it fun to gamble in the big casino?