Tuesday, August 3, 2010

In the Realm of the Dead

Thriller Guy is heading out of town in a few days so he's turning the writing chores over to his alter ego, Allen Appel. TG will return soon, but now he must go pack his kit with extra socks and his desert cammos, a few high-powered weapons and all the ammo he can squeeze into the side pockets. It's always better to have too much than not enough, and where TG is headed the probability is high that even too much might just not be enough.

Thank you, TG. I'll keep your space warm while you're out of town. Good hunting.

My old pal, mentor and teacher Bhob Stewart sent me a Publishers Weekly review of a new book on General George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Big Horn: Bloodshed at Little Bighorn: Sitting Bull, Custer, and the Destinies of Nations, by Tim Lehman. Bhob knows of my interest in the subject because he edited, critiqued and generally ripped apart my second novel in the Alex Balfour series, Twice Upon a Time. Bhob, for me, is that invaluable resource every writer should have: a veteran writer and editor who was willing to help out his less experienced brethren, and by help out I mean go over a rough manuscript line by line, offering criticism, corrections and withering sarcasm in the hopes that what has been written can actually be shaped into something readable and good. I don't care how famous, rich and powerful a writer becomes, everyone needs a Bhob to keep the work honest and free of bullshit. Because this help has meant so much to me and all of my books, I try to pass along this service to others in the business. It takes time and effort, but we should all do it for each other because in the world of real publishing, it is, quite frankly, us against them. That's the writers against the editors, publishers, agents, sales people, marketing idiots, bookstores and everyone else who isn't a writer. About the only people who are your real friends are the wonderful copy editors and fact checkers who go over your work and make you look like you know what you're doing.

The Custer book, Twice Upon a Time, is set in America. After the first book in the series, Time After Time, came out and was nicely reviewed in the New York Times the publisher was besieged with requests – well, maybe besieged is too strong a word -- but there were nineteen requests for copies from film producers around the world. Copies were duly sent and all decided against a film project because, and this was a consensus among them, it would be far too expensive to film a reenactment of the Russian Revolution. The message was clear: set the next one in America and choose a smaller war.

So here it was, America, circa 1876. There were cowboys and indians and Custer, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and many other luminaries of the time. The hero, Alex Balfour, time-traveling historian, would interact with this fascinating world and solve one of the great historical mysteries: just exactly what happened on June 26, 1876, when Custer decided to lead his 700 men into battle against three thousand, well armed Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.

I love doing research. When writing this series I revelled in the sheer pre-Internet days of reading real books, spending days at various libraries and drowning myself in period details. I was drunk on knowledge, which I then distilled into what I hoped was an exciting story with fascinating characters. And since I made a little money on the first book I decided, after all my reading, to go to the site of my climax, what is now called the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

I flew into Billings, Montana, rented a car and drove 65 miles SE to the park. Along the way I saw fabulous scenery, made my way almost blind through a massive hoard of locusts and began to understand what the true poverty of an indian reservation really looks like.

The Battlefield park stretches along six or seven miles of moderately flat land with a river, the Little Bighorn, running along the southern edge. The land is mostly covered with tall grass and bushes. It is rocky and forlorn. You drive your car along a roadway that has markers where you can stop and read about the actions that took place there. The act of driving, getting out, reading, then driving to the next stop is tedious; I soon tired of it. I had studied the period and the battle for a year and I knew the story. Or at least I thought I did.

I drove to Last Stand Hill, which is just what you would suppose it to be, the site of the 7th Cavalry's last stand against Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and their mounted warriors. There were few other people in the park and the only other cars were far away: This is what it looked like:

Those people weren't there at the time. Through the windshield it is dull and uninspiring. I pulled to the side of the road and climbed out of my car. I don't remember the date, but the weather was overcast and cool. I was wearing a jacket. The only sound was a light wind as it ruffled the grass. I am a man of some imagination, but I am not given to over-dramatization in real life. I have few spiritual beliefs, no particular God. I certainly don't believe in ghosts. You can see this coming, can't you?

Down the slight hill to the right of this photo are the graves marking where Custer's men fell around him. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and leaned against the car. And then, I can hear them, the shouting, the shots, a bugle, faintly. But of course it is only the wind. Then I can feel them, somewhere down in the ground where they were buried, where they died. They feel, to me, unsettled. Lives unfinished. Pushing at the earth around them. I find that I cannot walk away from the car, cannot move closer; I cannot tread on them. They need to be left alone. It feels wrong to be here, voyeuristic. I got back in the car and left.

Later I would dream about that moment and hear again the faint call of the bugle. Later still I would write the last paragraphs in the novel.

“That night he held her and slept. And dreamed.

He was running. Easily, effortlessly. The tall prairie grass was a bright green sea washing over small red, yellow and blue flowers that grew tangled within the grass. He could feel the prairie, the grass and the flowers, and the wind that came cold and sharp down out of the surrounding hills, carrying the smell of old snow and tamarack pines.

He was in a valley, surrounded by black hills, beneath a brilliant blue cloudless sky.
It was as if he were all sensation, seeing and feeling with a clarity undimmed by thought. A faraway herd of buffalo moved at the end of the valley. Two antelope, white tails held high, leapt from a stand of high grass on his right, leapt and fled at his approach.

In the distance a troop of men on horseback rode up a grassy hill, away from him, and he ran after them and heard the faint call of a bugle, drawing the men away, drawing him toward them. There was a great freedom in all of it, and he was as much a part of it as the grass and hills and the sky and the animals, and they were a part of him. The clear clean wind poured in, filling him and he was giddy with the joy of it.

This time it was a dream, he was sure of it. Dreams were flowers and deer and buffalo. The past was heat and dust and grasshoppers.

This time it was a dream.

This time.”

Bhob Stewart's excellent blog about the comic's industry and much more can be found here.

Send me a true life story where you too felt the presence of the dead and I'll send one of you a signed copy of Time After Time.


  1. lovely, Allen. and I really mean it.

  2. Twice Upon a Time is the best book in the series (don't misundrstand, they're all good - but that one is my personal favorite - a rich, wonderful and thought-provoking read.)