Conflicting Tales of the Thayer Brothers
Riding the high of having made a research request from a university special collection like I’m Indiana Jones in the Biblioteca di San Barnaba, I decided that the only way to properly research another story I’m working on is with print outs as well.
A few weeks ago I found the podcast produced by the Buffalo History Museum and this is going to come out wrong, but I was really surprised with how good it is. I should explain that I’d tried to listen to a Buffalo podcast several months ago that was at best a trainwreck. It was the living, unnecessarily profanity drenched embodiment of all the memes that say friends don’t let friends start a podcast during a pandemic. I tried three times to listen to the first episode and while I understand the choices they made for telling the story, all of those choices were wrong. That isn’t the case with the history museum’s podcast. It was excellent from the start. Well produced, well researched, and Anthony Greco, the museum’s head of the exhibits who narrates the podcast does a great job.
I started with the first of three episodes they’re doing on the Pan Am Expo and assassination of William McKinley, and then went back to see what other interesting stories they might cover. They’re pretty short episodes, which is nice. It seems like the trend over the last year is for a lot of podcasts to get longer and longer. What were once a solid forty five minutes episode are now getting close to two hours because the hosts have nothing else to do and think they’re funnier than they are.
Instead, the history museum tells a concise, intriguing story and, as in the case of the three Thayer brothers, might send some listeners looking for more information.
A week or so after I listened to the episode I was reminded of a monthly flash fiction contest from a great little horror publisher, Cemetery Gates. The theme for May is true crime and it took me about thirty seconds of brainstorming to connect it with the story I’d just heard about the first and only public execution in Buffalo.
Buffalo wasn’t even a city at the time of the crime. In December of1824 when the three brothers murdered a man of o whom they owed money the Erie Canal had yet to be opened and Buffalo was still a village of a few thousand. The site of the brothers’ execution in Niagara Square is actually where Buffalo’s City Hall would be built a hundred years later.
I was able to find a great copy of a pamphlet printed at the time of the Thayers’ executions that detailed their lives, trials and executions, along with one of two long poems written at the time about the crime. Apparently lyrical odes to vicious murders were a thing back in the day.
It’s great to have this contemporaneous account of the trial testimony too since it’s the fourth account I’ve read or listened to of the crime. All four have been slightly different and while I may lean towards the pamphlet as the definitive record I’m sure that one isn’t free of errors or embellishments.
The story I’m working on has to be under 1500 words, I’ve been doing pretty well staying on target there. I’m not entirely sold on my structure for it but maybe once I finish it and take a couple passes through it, reread the pamphlet for the sound I wanted, I’ll feel better about it.
Maybe it’s the multiple poems and conflicting accounts of the crime, but I’m reminded of John Horner Jacobs’ short novel “My Heart Struck Sorrow,” the second tale in his “A Lush and Seething Hell.”
It’s an unfair oversimplification of the story to say it’s about the history of the song ‘Stagger Lee’ but I am going to leave it at that for now. The story is horrific in multiple ways and the history it plays with is fascinating. I didn’t live the first story in the collection, but ‘Sorrow’ has definitely stuck with me. My appreciation of Chris Whitley’s cover of Stagger Lee may have something to do with it as well, but Jacobs certainly crafted an engaging tale.
I don’t have the word count right now to attempt telling the Thayers’ story in the way Jacobs did for Stagger Lee, but you never know, maybe I’ll revisit it later.
Hodgson, Special Collection-Finder
After my last piece about William Hope Hodgson and Carnacki the Ghost Finder, I realized no one out there was going to write that Magnus Archives-esque narrative of Hodgson’s death in World War I, so I started writing it myself.
As I got started on the actual writing and making some notes, I thought it might be good to have some letters or journals of soldiers from the war. This site, referencing R. Alain Everts’ essay about the life of William Hope Hodgson, seems promising and mentions some sources that help understand what Hodgson would have experienced.
But as I thought about where I wanted to story go, centered around a specific incident I’d read about during Hodgson’s career as a sailor and how to twist it into something supernatural, I realized some of the author’s own journals might be helpful as well. Apparently he kept diaries throughout his life and I went looking for some published collections of them or even those print on demand collections of poor quality page scans.
What I found instead was a special collection at the University of California of short stories, legal papers, photographs, correspondence and an undated “diary and log of an expedition at sea.”
So now I get to feel like a real writer doing research that doesn’t involve a multitude of conflicting Wikipedia pages! I was able to request scanned copies of the diary, which hopefully will give me an idea of how Hodgson sounded. I realize this isn’t a big deal for most writers even those who applied themselves in undergrad. I did not. Trust me, I paid for it. Or rather, I defaulted and then paid for it. While a part of me wishes I had done the work at the time, I get to have some fun now discovering these collections and resources.
I’ve been reading “Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder” and there are a handful of phrases and words that Hodgson seems fond of using. But you don’t necessarily know if that a product entirely of the narrative voice or Hodgson’s own. Perhaps with his own diary, and later on, letters or correspondence from other parts of the collection, I’ll be more comfortable with how he might have told a friend a story of say, a malicious spirit that’s been hunting him for years, demanding payment for the soul Hodgson stole from it, and which may have finally caught up with him in the trenches of Belgium.
Or it could be forty pages of single sentence entries remarking on who of the crew had scurvy now. Still, it’ll be fun to find out.
Out of the Void With William Hope Hodgson
It may have been during the first episode of The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel that William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Carnacki and the series of short stories he appeared in was mentioned.
This was before the documentary gave a little too much screen time to YouTube/podcast conspiracy theorists and deviated from genuinely interesting exploration of a mysterious disappearance and the creepy hotel where it happened, veering into that absurd faked moon landing Room 237 territory.
Or it may have been someone on Twitter who mentioned the stories, if I was scrolling while watching The Vanishing… because I can’t just let myself focus on one thing at a time anymore. I can’t find a tweet from anyone I follow about Carnacki from that time, although a couple authors have mentioned him before.
Whatever the trigger, the author’s name rang a bell. I remembered quoting him before. But I wasn’t familiar with what he’d written. Authors and titles all start to sound familiar after a while, and #gsbauthorquotes has only made the mountain of my to read pile even more dangerous to climb.
Maybe it’s been my recent interest in writing more horror or occult and supernatural themed stories, but the Carnacki stories in particular piqued my interest in a way they hadn’t a few years ago when I first quoted Hodgson.
I had to get a copy of the stories which were originally published in the illustrated magazine The Idler beginning in 1910 with “The Gateway of the Monster.”
In 1913, Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder was first published and included six tales. Three of the Carnacki stories were published posthumously, which led to debunked claims that two of them had been authored by August Derleth, the editor of the 1948 Arkham House edition. That edition was the first time all the Carnacki stories appeared together and further editions and collections have typically published all nine.
Hodgson was killed at the Fourth Battle of Ypres when struck by artillery fire. His death is recorded as either the 17th or 19th of April, 1918. Despite his sailing experience Hodgson had insisted on joining the Officer Training Corps and receiving a commission in the Royal Artillery. Reenlisting following a serious injury he returned to the front where he’d be killed.
That’s kind of how I ended up with this amazing, grotesque, pulptastic vintage paperback, or at least reading it now.
Since the exact date of Hodgson’s death in World War I is unknown—either April 17th or 19th—it seemed a good time to pull this one out and read a little.
Oddly, it begins with “The Thing Invisible” and not “The Gateway of the Monster” which was the first to be published. It seems “The Thing Invisible” was the last of the tales to be published in Hodgson’s lifetime, in 1912. When the single volume of stories was published a year later, this story was placed first, perhaps due to its popularity. Readers may have been more likely to recognize that title having just seen it in The New Magazine. That’s how the stories have generally been reprinted since, even with the addition of the three posthumous tales.
I’ve only read the first story so far, but it’s been enjoyable and I’m definitely slipping down the rabbit hole of adaptations and other works inspired by Hodgson’s occult creations.
Given how much of his writing built upon his years of experiences at sea, I’d love to read a fictional story about why he insisted on staying on land. A specter who chased him from the sea and eventually found him in Belgium. Or perhaps I’ve listened to The Magnus Archives’ episode “The Piper” about Wilfred Owen’s death in World War I too many times.
Even if that particular story doesn’t exist, I’m sure there are enough homages and adaptations beyond Hodgson’s original work to keep me entertained for a while.