Author: DeAnna Knippling Page 1 of 69

Texting While Driving - Image of Shattered Glass

New Release, Short Horror Story: Texting While Driving

I have a new horror short story out! It was originally published in my newsletter as part of a “How to Write a Short Horror Story” article, which is now posted on my other blog, Writing Craft.


Driving halfway across the country, somewhere north of New Orleans, bored, radio dead, and your passenger asleep.

The phone buzzes with a new text message.

Escaping a bad marriage is difficult. If you want to make it out in one piece, you have to plan everything down to the last detail, and you have to do everything perfectly right.

But nothing ever goes according to plan.

What if the reason that things don’t go according to plan is you?

You know you shouldn’t check your phone while you’re driving.

But sometimes you do.

Check your status now with this dark tale of biological horror!


What do you call it when you’re lost and panicking and you feel like you can’t stop, not to ask for directions, not to get gas, not even to pull over on the side of the road and look at a map? What do you call it when you seriously catch yourself thinking “Maybe I should just text someone” while driving?

I don’t know, but I did know I was on a road somewhere in Louisiana with New Orleans somewhere ahead of me. Or behind me. I had the GPS turned on but it hadn’t said anything for the last thirty miles on a stretch of road that seemed much longer, like it had been going on for hours. I kept checking the gas gauge in between quick glances around at the scenery around me.

The road was narrow, without a shoulder, and dropped off rapidly into a steep ditch full of water. The road was patched, rough, full of potholes that made me swerve into the oncoming lane. God help me if I had to swerve at the same time a car was driving in the other direction. Most of the drive, I had been surrounded by thick woods that crowded up to the edge of the ditch, but there were small boxy houses, too, wrapped in rotting porches and cut out of the trees, their shaded front yards stuffed with rusty cars that had no tires, their window glass speckled with dirt.

Now and then an open field would pop out of nowhere, big and green, full of plants I didn’t recognize and bright in the sunlight—sunlight that vanished as soon as the woods closed around us again.

My daughter, nineteen, was asleep in the seat next to me. In the back were two air mattresses, a box full of tools, two suitcases stuffed full of tightly-rolled clothes, a ukulele, a few stuffed animals, and more, as much as I could pack inside the car, with just enough room at the top to see out the back window.

The radio had gone dead shortly after my daughter had fallen asleep. All that I could get on the FM band was static and half-heard mumbling, and I wasn’t about to listen to any AM stations. Trying to find music had given me a headache. I had turned it off.

My phone, sitting in the tray under the radio, buzzed.

I grabbed the phone, cursing myself for not getting a dashboard clip or something, and saw that someone had just texted me. I put the phone back in the tray. At least whoever it was hadn’t called. Was it my ex? I hoped not. What I was doing wasn’t illegal, but it felt that way, like any second I’d get pulled over and arrested for leaving, dragged back and made to stay. Whoever had just texted me, I didn’t want to know.

It was quiet out there. I felt abandoned and alone. And bored. I would have pulled over somewhere but there were only driveways leading straight to houses and small gravel roads leading deep into the woods. It was dumb but I couldn’t make myself pull off onto those small stubby roads. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d get stuck, trapped.

Five miles later, bored and paranoid, I powered up the phone screen to look.

I propped up the phone on my steering wheel and thumbed in the password, looking up at the road in between characters.

I unlocked the phone and brought up my text messages.

I shouldn’t have looked.


The Angel of Crows cover

Review: The Angel of Crows by Katherine Addison

The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Sherlock is an angel, not fallen, definitely not fallen, in a London where a wide variety of supernatural elements exist.

The Angel of Crows is a collection of intertwined episodes, which is similar to a collection of short stories, yet structured more like a series of the TV show Sherlock with a main plot-of-the-week but with some overarching story threads that build to the end of the book, or season, as it were. This is Sherlock (the TV show) fanfic, admitedly so.

Writing alternate versions of Sherlock Holmes has a fairly long tradition; I tend to like them. I don’t read a lot of fanfic per se, though, mostly because I feel getting into fanfic might be a little dangerous for me. When I was younger, I constantly reread books. These days I have a lot of new things I want to read and don’t want to get set on an infinite spin cycle of Sherlock Holmes or other favorite fiction.

At any rate, I was curious as to how this book would play out. I’ve read another book by this author under her Sarah Monette name and liked it.

There seem to be plusses and minuses to this particular approach to these ideas. (Whether this is consistent across all fanfic, well, probably not.)

Plusses:
– Familiar characters.
– The drama is focused on the plots, not the two main characters (Crow and Doyle–the “Sherlock” and “Watson” characters, that is–get along well and even treat each other with consistent kindness).
– Plot twists that wouldn’t have been acceptable on TV were fine here.

Minuses:
– The plots got tired, mainly rehashes of Sherlock Holmes plots, and got shorter and less interesting as the book went on.
– There were logical inconsistencies between the Angels being so limited and the Fallen being so powerful; how does any sort of stable society exist?
– It feels like this is really a Neverwhere-meets-Sherlock fanfic and there is a second set of rules about the world that’s not handled openly.
– The worldbuilding wasn’t organic with everything else; something like Anno Dracula by Kim Newman or A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullen has an overall vision for the world that comes to life.
– Some of the plots didn’t pay off, as in, the plot was wrapped up almost as an aside and in the middle of what should have been a smaller, less important plot! One of the big plot twists was completely obvious, if you knew Sherlock Holmes at all. And in a world that has been designed to give readers what they want, there were definitely plot threads where the satisfying choices didn’t happen.

How I experienced this was:
– I gulped down the book like a long cool drink of water.
– But afterwards I didn’t feel really refreshed, and if there had been more of it, I would still have been gulping for more.

This book was good and fun! Don’t get me wrong. But overall it tells me that fanfic as such may not be for me. Books like this one, where the author has put fanfic out into the wider world, should be fine overall, but may not be something I seek out. What made this book work for me was the author’s writing and ability to handle the characters. Reading an author who isn’t as standout as she is would probably leave me disappointed.

So I think I will leave the first-wave reading to fanfic fans, yet not avoid fanfic-that-is-now-a-packaged-book, but not seek it out, either. Other intrepid souls can bring back the cream of the fanfic crop, as it were.

I want stories that feel like the whole thing fits together seamlessly. Sometimes new work that’s built on existing work can do that; often it can’t. The Angel of Crows didn’t quite make the jump to taking on a life of its own as a retelling (which is what I’m looking for) but was quite readable if you’re a fan of Sherlock.

Recommended if you’re a Sherlock fanfic reader or a historical urban fantasy reader in general. A perfectly readable page turner, even though it doesn’t make the leap to quite becoming its own thing.


Read more of my reviews.

Check out MY revisioning/fanfic of Alice in Wonderland (with zombies) and see if I have put my money where my mouth is. Free as of this writing.

Gothic Doorway to Graveyard

What makes a story gothic?

FrankensteinDraculaThe Phantom of the Opera. If you like stories full of atmosphere, horror, and bittersweet emotions, then you may enjoy a good Gothic story. That story may go back a few centuries or it may be completely modern. The characters will be dramatic, the language will be flowery, and the atmosphere will hang in the air, often quite literally as fog. Or snow. Madness abounds.

But what makes a story gothic? What drives people (like me!) to write gothic stories?

As far as I can tell, what makes a story gothic is something that’s often known as “making the setting a character.”

(I don’t like calling setting a character, though, because the setting itself rarely takes actions as a character would.)

In order for a gothic to feel properly atmospheric, horrific, and bittersweet, then the setting has to seem to come alive as the negative behaviors and emotions of one or more of the human characters are projected on the setting. (Projection here means unconsciously taking unwanted emotions or traits you don’t like about yourself and putting them onto someone or something else, such as saying that your car is “cranky” if it “acts up” at the same time you just happen to be having a stressful day.)

In other words, in a gothic story, some element of the setting has to personify the moods or personality of one or more of the characters.

All of which means that it was a dark and rainy night…when the gothic was born!

Frankenstein’s experiments happen in a coldly rational laboratory at a university in Switzerland; the frame story is told in the Arctic. The female monster is created on the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. Dracula has his castle and Transylvania, but becomes his most suave and urbane in London. Jane Eyre features a house with a madwoman in the attic. The Stange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde takes us back to the laboratory, and contrasts the upper and lower classes—and neighborhoods—around London. Rebecca’s heroine dreams of Manderlay (although I dream more of that evil sailboat), and Cathy haunts Wuthering Heights, even before her death.

The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best examples of a place that takes on a well-nigh human mood:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The main character of the book, Eleanor, is a woman who is not allowed to have dreams of her own, living as the caretaker for her mother. She isn’t sane; she is isolated and holds her darkness within, appearing to be a perfectly ordinary, boring, very private woman. Whether or not the house is haunted is up for debate—but it is certain that it is Elenor’s sentiments that affect how the house was written.

If what makes a gothic a gothic is the setting, then it is the New York City apartment, elegant but sinister, that defines the events of Rosemary’s Baby; the decaying plantations and twisted, wrought-iron balconies of New Orleans that create Interview with the Vampire; even the tall pines and mist that created Twilight.

What makes a writer create a gothic, I think, is the desire to reveal some element of the truth of a situation to the reader, by making it external and obvious as part of the setting.

The virgins in white nightgowns flee from the castle because their so-called happy home is a place of entrapment and misery; Montressor can bury his enemy behind a wall in his endless wine cellar because of his wealth and privilege; Melmoth the Wanderer finds the other characters of the story all over the world, but mainly in monasteries and churches, as opposed to the paradisical island of his victim and lover, Isidora, written by a Protestant clergyman denouncing the evils of the Roman Catholic church.

Although, given that writers’ minds tend to wander, perhaps it is the reverse, with the author starting with a setting and trying to explain the creepy feeling they get there, and building characters that justify that feeling, as when Southern Gothic writers write about the South. (Or other regional gothic writers write about their homes!)

At any rate, whether the source of the atmosphere comes from the characters projecting onto the setting or the setting projecting characters to create the right atmosphere, the truth behind the setting will come out.

Flash Fiction: The Future of Birth Control


It’s the future and technology is being used to force women to have babies they don’t want. But technology works both ways in this flash fiction piece about the future of birth control.


It’s a perfectly normal day when I decide that it’s time to go to the coffee shop down the street and end it. The skies are blue, blue with a slight tinge of purple, blue so clear that it feel like living inside a marble. The cloud overhead is white and as soft as a puff of cotton stuffing. I walk through the iron front gate, which is pulled back during business hours, into the courtyard. I walk past the juice shop to the right—bee pollen, vegan cheese, poblano avocado dressing—to get to the coffee shop. The courtyard is paved with bricks in a basketweave pattern. The umbrellas are open, the mismatched patio tables and chairs set out, but there aren’t many people here yet. It’s four o’clock on a Friday and some goth is humming over the stereo, a mournful tune backed by a drum machine. The rainbow flags are out—we still celebrate Pride month here. Palm leaves rustle and birds chirp and squeak.

Cozi, the owner, is the one at the counter today, only she’s not at the counter. As soon as she saw me come past the gates, she picked up a broom and started sweeping dirt out of the big garage-style doors at the front of the coffee shop and out onto bricks.

“Hey, Danielle. Be right with you.”

She doesn’t ask me anything, and I don’t tell. We both know why I’m there. I won’t be able to order coffee today; it’s bad for the baby.

The baby. It’s not that; it’s barely an embryo.

Cozi sweeps the last of the dirt outside—knowing it’ll blow back in—then puts down the broom. Still ignoring me, she heaves the lid off a trash container, then hefts the biodegradable bag out. It’s almost closing time. The bag makes a sucking sound and she has to shake it to work it loose. The container drops to the floor and she grunts, swinging the bag over the edge of the container. It would be easier if she were taller.

I stand next to the counter, waiting, and look over the pastries that are left: chocolate croissant, leek croissant, gluten-free blueberry muffin. Over the counter is a brittle paper sign that should have long since been recycled.

NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS. BLACK LIVES MATTER.

It’s still relevant. I reach over the counter, steal the key to the bathroom off the hook, and edge past the tables blocking off the back room. I let myself into the bathroom, then sit down to pee. The room smells slightly of bleach. I wipe, then wash my hands using the automatic sink and soap dispenser. The toilet flushes itself.

I pause to take a paper towel, then, squatting a little, correctly position my upper left arm under the old manual soap dispenser. I count to ten.

There’s no sign of whether it works or doesn’t. No noise, no blinking light, no warmth under my skin where the cartridge was implanted.

I come out of the bathroom and reach across the counter to put the key back on its hook. Cozi is nowhere to be seen, but the garage doors are down now, tinted glass darkening the perfect blue skies outside.

Bottles rattle, glass on glass. Cozi comes out from the kitchen, glass syrup bottles interleaved between her fingers. She puts them on the battered wood counter.

“Sorry about the wait! What dd you need today? Maté? Chai?”

“Chai, please.”

Cozi brews her own chai, adds a few things to it from the juice bar next door. They’ve tested all the drinks at both places but have found nothing. They don’t realize that we carry our protection under the skin now. I wonder how long this trick will work. It’s so hard staying one step ahead, these days.

The steamer screams as it heats the nut mylk to near boiling and the air fills with the scent of spices and honey. I pay for the drink with a swipe of my right wrist over the sensor. The sensor beeps and flashes so you know you’ve paid. Earlier last week I received a text message saying that my birth control had been turned off last month; my lottery number had come up and I was already pregnant. The lottery age changed just last week. Birth rates are down again. I’m forty-five.

The sensor registers my stats: blood pressure, hormones, calorie, caffeine, and drug intake, exercises performs, heart rate, the works. The cartridge won’t release its drugs for a couple of weeks to a month, at random. Then I’ll start to bleed.

It doesn’t make me happy, what I’m doing. But I’ve made up my mind and I have no regrets.

The rhetoric goes, “What if the baby you aborted could have cured cancer?”

But what I know for certain is, she won’t be born a slave.

Story notes:

There are basically two types of people who have abortions:

  • People who consented to get pregnant.
  • People who did not consent to get pregnant.

You can sue someone who knowingly gives you an STD, which means you can consent to having sex without consenting to an STD. So why can’t you sue someone who knowingly gets you pregnant?


millennial tarot deck

The Millennial Tarot

Please note: this is not currently a serious project! I am actually working on a tarot deck to go along with a novel series, tentatively named The Clockwork Gothic. It turns out that trying to put together an actual tarot deck seriously changes how you see the tarot. I was journaling one day and came up with a smartass idea for a tarot deck—the Millennial Tarot Deck—and managed to get through the major arcana before I got stuck.

I should also note that I am not a Millennial but a younger Gen-Xer. I’m not here to mock, though. I could have done a Gen-Xer deck, but my initial thoughts on it were kind of depressing. When Paul Ryan showed up as the Devil in my deck…I just couldn’t do it.

So please enjoy this as a smartass mini-project I did to help solidify my thoughts on tarot 🙂

The Millennial Tarot

Tarot is meant to map and organize the great tales of our culture in a way that enlightens us to our common humanity without erasing our individuality, helping us move past ideas that hold us back from a sense of balance and peace.

Tarot points out that we keep doing the same damn things over and over again. It’s the mysterious voice that seems to call from nowhere, saying, “DON’T GO DOWN INTO THE BASEMENT.” Although the tarot is used as a fortune-telling tool, it is always trying to tell us that it isn’t fate that controls our destiny, but our own willful blindness, both as individuals and as a society.

When the cards are upright, read them as generally obvious and straightforward answers: the forces described by the card apply, and you usually not only recognize its existence, and you probably saw it coming—at least in retrospect, you should have.

When the cards are reversed, it’s an invitation to look deeper. Rather than simply reversing the meaning of the card, ask yourself what insecurities may apply to the matter at hand, whether yours or someone else’s. For example, a Fool reversed might mean someone is blaming money troubles on someone else, or telling everyone “it’s all part of the plan” when it isn’t. Or they may become judgy, seeing “fools” everywhere rather than accept their part of the problem.

All you have to do to live a good life, they say, is stop spending money on Starbucks and avocado toast.

At first it may be hard to see how a reversed card might be beneficial. But “good” and “bad” cards are all in how you take them. Nothing stays the same forever in tarot. There are only temporary upturns and downturns, giving us the opportunity to treat ourselves and others with more care, to honor our own choices, to draw healthy boundaries, and to resist the unfairness of the world with a core of inner strength.

Side note, I did find a Buzzfeed article on making the tarot more Millennial-friendly, and it’s cute but not thorough.

The Major Arcana

Note, the text in italics is what’s on the card; the text in regular Roman font is the text that would be in the little book that goes with the deck!

0. The Entrepreneur (The Fool)

A laptop bag on one hip, a latte in the other, the Entrepreneur is surrounded by a halo of icons: lightbulbs, gears, clocks, email, bar graph, wrench. They reach out for a dollar sign, not watching as they step toward the edge of a steeply descending staircase.

Wisdom comes from making mistakes. Just make sure they don’t destroy you after you make them.

1. The Hipster (The Magus)

He stands behind the table, beard flowing, copper home distiller setup on the table before him. He wears a fedora and suspenders. One hand holds an upraised cell phone. His Everyday Carry is on the table: keys, wallet, pocket knife, flask. At his feet and growing up into an archway overhead, are a fecundity of hops vines.

Without the Hipster, there would be no craft beer. But be wary of building a tolerance for bitterness.

2. The Naturopath (The High Priestess)

A dark-haired, young white woman sits cross-legged on a yoga mat on a wooden platform. Two posts stand on either side of the platform. Between them stretch Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind, half-concealing the symbols written on them. A white veil stretches behind her, around her, above her. She, too, holds a phone: is she offering it to you, or taking a selfie? Is she reading the screen as she imparts her wisdom, or recording her message to be passed on?

The doctors said the pain was all in your head. The Naturopath offers different truths—sometimes the wisdom to listen to your body and seek help, sometimes the idiocy of a healing crystal sex toy.

3. The Secretary (The Empress)

A Hispanic woman sits at a desk, phone jammed to her right ear, computer monitor and keyboard to the left. Behind her hand two flags: one of them shows the lands of the Earth, and the other shows a field of stars. She’s wearing a businesslike ivory blouse but is showing tattoo sleeves under them: spiderwebs, skulls, and other images of darkness and death. She has a lot of ear piercings.

She might not be the most traditional…but business is good. Let’s keep it that way.

4. The CEO (The Emperor)

He is white, bald, and has funny ears, and sits upon a messy jumble of books, in a cavernous warehouse that stretches backward to infinity. Distantly, robots move boxes. Beside him, what looks like a golden backpack: his parachute.

True power means not having to care whether you use it wisely or not.

5. The Tech Guru (The Hierophant)

He is Black, has a dimple in his chin like it was driven into him with a golf tee, and wears black plastic-framed glasses, plaid shirt, and overlarge striped tie. He is holding a fire extinguisher. The fire extinguisher is on fire. Behind him are a number of action figurines on shelves.

In the beginning, there was code. But soon there were help request tickets. Some of which may repeatedly and deliberately get lost. He controls your settings, he controls your passwords. Anger him at your own risk.

6. The Fanatics (The Lovers)

The crowd stands behind a row of crowd control stanchions. They look nothing alike, except that they are all—all!—wearing the same t-shirt, a man’s face on them. Above and behind them rises an enormous man with tousled brown hair, tinted glasses, and kohl-rimmed eyes, wearing a goatee and a blazer over the same t-shirt. It is the same man, and the bottom of his chest is indistinguishable, and inseparable, from his fans.

The love of something or someone can bring us together—or it can blind us and ultimately tear us apart.

7. The Feed (The Chariot)

There is always an old man with a goatee in a gray suit. There is always a platform in a room that stretches out of sight both above and below, filled with monitors. There is always a walkway leading to the man, and he is always waiting for you.

The feed is a never-ending stream of information. It can carry you forward; it can crush you; it can hide any lie underneath the flicker of its images.

8. Self-Care (Strength)

In the apartment is a lounge chair, on the lounge chair are fat pillows. Next to the lounge chair is an end table, and on the end table is a steaming teapot, and a large friendly mug showing a crack. Behind the end table is a fiddle-leaf fig tree. On the wall beside the fig tree is a painting, and the painting is of a woman wearing a green facial mask and drinking tea in the same room, with the same cup, only the crack is sealed with gold. On the table in front of the lounge chair is a plate, and that plate holds avocado toast. Beside the plate of avocado toast is a remote control. On the floor is a rug, and the rug is soft and fluffy. In the painting, the woman has already eaten the toast. The remote has been replaced with a set of keys.

Treating yourself as a precious object can make you strong. Treating yourself as a disposable one will only make you weak.

9. The Basement Dweller (The Hermit)

We cannot see his face, only a silhouette in front of a monitor screen, the rays dimly illuminating shelves, a desk, a washing machine, baskets of laundry. A mug sitting beside the monitor reads, if one peers at it, “World’s Greatest Dad.”

He moved out of his mom’s basement a long time ago, but he still sits alone in the dark, reborn with a different identity, one that feels more like himself.

10. The Hustle (The Wheel)

A fidget spinner with three lobes and an eye in the center, the eye of the Illuminati. On the lobes are the icon of a clock, a dollar sign, and a heart. All three icons are slightly cracked. A car, a bicycle, and a walking figure traverse the outside edge of the spinner. Behind the spinner are stairs.

When we’re on the way up, we say it’s talent. When we’re on the way down, we say it’s bad luck. But whose hand holds the spinner? And when will it come time to rise?

11. Cancel Culture (Justice)

A figure straight out of a Magritte painting has not an apple for a face, but a bullseye. It is a dartboard. In the foreground, a strong arm grasps the handle of a beer mug, with the other hand preparing to throw the dart.

They praised it when the majority was moral. But now they mock it as cancel culture. Generally the darts won’t kill you. But they are always a test.

12. The Scapegoat (The Hanged Man)

A door opens onto a dark room, casting light across a dark-haired woman in a blue dress bent backward over a desk, hair hanging loose, a silk scarf tying her hands together as they dangle toward the floor. She is caught in the light between pleasure and humiliation. The man on the other side of the desk is not revealed by the light.

Some truths are more easily revealed than others. Often the truth is that someone needs to be thrown under the bus…and it won’t be whoever is in power. But all is not lost. Often, it is only “normality” that is overturned.

13. Black Friday (Death)

The faces are grotesque, pressed on the other side of a locked glass door, zombielike. In reverse, letters on the glass read the magical incantation ELAS, ELAS, FFO FLAH ELAS, OGOB. The crowd has been summoned. A woman in a polo shirt with full-sleeve tattoos showing spiderwebs and skulls approaches the door from the inside, preparing to open it.

Working shit jobs changes you. It may seem like you have been changed for the worse—but think of the people who have never worked a shit job. It shows.

14. Store Bought Is Fine (Temperance)

A friendly, apple-cheeked woman with a dark bob cut, wearing a blue denim shirt and an orange scarf smiles at you with nothing but kindness. In one hand, she holds a slice of red velvet cake; in the other, a prescription bottle.

A chosen life is the best life. But be wary of constantly making choices using nothing but Google and your drug dealer’s advice.

15. The Alternative (The Devil)

The enormous figure of a clean-cut white man, his hair longer on top and shaved on the sides, wearing a black trench coat over a dark, three-piece suit. He stands over a mass of figures giving a Heil Hitler salute. Churches burn in the distance.

The best way to brainwash someone is to make them believe they’re the exception to the rule. To release yourself is to admit an ugly truth: in most ways, you’re just like everyone else.

16. The Leak (The Tower)

Lightning strikes an oil platform rises above a stormy ocean, dark oil spreading over the surface. Swimmers struggle in the water in the foreground, desperate for help. The platform is on fire. Honestly, the oil had already leaked, the fires started, and swimmers fallen before the lightning even struck.

Sometimes the best of all possible outcomes is when that which is “too big to fail” actually does.

17. Britney (The Star)

A gorgeous woman in a silver dress stands backstage, towel around her neck, holding out a coffee mug to be refilled from off the side of the card. A peep at the stage shows flashing lights. The coffee mug is marked with a hand flipping you off. The woman is bald. A techie watches the stage via a monitor, showing the crowd being addressed by a man in a gray suit.

Behind the spectacle and illusion, there is a pure light that must be nurtured and protected.

18. Beyoncé (The Moon)

The Black woman floats underwater, her hair a swirling halo around her head. Around her is an abandoned apartment, a lounge chair and a painting floating in the current. Below her are tendrils of shadow; above her is the full moon. In the distance, stairs lead upward to the surface, where a line of Black women are emerging, with strength and power.

When we are pulled down into the depths, past all sanity, we can never return unchanged. Some might call that madness or delusion—but we did what we had to do, in order to return at all.

19. Lady Gaga (The Sun)

A woman in a revealinng gold “women’s fantasy armor” bikini with molded shoulder plates and thigh-high boots sits astride a white horse, her white hair flying behind her, turning to a rainbow as it leaves the card. A pile of hospital robes lies beneath the horse’s rear hooves. The front hooves plunge upward, as the horse rises from the edge of a cliff.

Our bodies and minds might burn from the inside out, but our souls stay bright.

20. Activism (Judgment)

A crowd wearing white masks holds up hand-lettered cardboard posters. One shows an upraised fist with rays coming from it. Another reads, “Justice now.” Still another, “There is no Planet B.” In the background, one woman yawns.

Don’t let things to go back to normal. Don’t go back to sleep.

21. Universal Basic Income (The World)

A team of robots builds a staircase, which a crowd ascends. At the base of the staircase is a collection of abandoned spinners. At the top the crowd have begun to help build the staircase: they are wearing space suits. Beyond them, the stars.

There is no “winning” at life, only building a path ahead for others to take.


If you liked this post, please support me by signing up for my monthly newsletter. I’m going to be starting a “Clockwork Tarot” series soon (after the next book is done), and have already designed the deck for it! Also, please let me know what your favorite decks are. I’m always looking for new ones!

New Release: A Shrewdness of Swindlers

A Shrewdness of Swindlers

An old world dies during WWI and another rises in the Roaring Twenties: cruel, sharp, glittering. Magic. 10 tales of fantasy in the Jazz age.

A SHREWDNESS OF SWINDLERS

Available at all the finer ebook distributors (and a few scummy ones, too)! (That is, no longer as part of the Storybundle.) Now, with short story notes! It will be 99c for the next 2 weeks, and then go up to full price. Please buy a copy and give me an awkward review about how wonnnnderful (or terrible) it is 😛


Available now at all the finer ebook distributors (and a few scummy ones, too): https://books2read.com/swindlers

Print version still in testing, but coming soon.

A Shrewdness of Swindlers

A Shrewdness of Swinders: Preorders Live

A Shrewdness of Swindlers

A Shrewdness of Swindlers

Ten Tales of the Fantastic and Falsehood in the Fabulous Roaring Twenties

Dames, detectives, and deception…magic meets the decadence of the Roaring Twenties in ten tales of glitter and jazz.

The year is 1929. It’s two months after the financial collapse on Wall Street, and the world is bating its breath, unsure of what will happen next. Is it the end of an era?

At the Honeybee’s Sting, a speakeasy in the basement of a laundry, a group of unusual figures meets to discuss the past—and perhaps some possible futures: the Detective turned writer, the Dame who’s older than she looks, the Vampire who’s been riding the financial markets for generations, the Spy from across the ocean, the Actress who’s only just learned the truth about Hollywood, and more.

But one of their number is missing, a man connected to the mob, a man who holds the prize for a mysterious storytelling contest—a prize that can give you your heart’s desire.

Ten stories, woven together in the style of The Canterbury Tales, follow the contest along a long, dark night where nothing is what it seems and the best way to tell the truth is to lie.

Pour yourself a cocktail and join us at the liar’s table for the divine, the slapstick, the tragic, the transcendent 1920s today!

Table of Contents:

The Liar’s Table

When Pigs Fly

Myrna and the Thirteen-Year Witch

All the Retros at the New Cotton Club

The Mysterious Artifact

Memento Temporis

The Page-Turners

The Last Word Cocktail

The Man Who Would Sell Fear

The Liar’s Table, Part 2

Sample: A Liar’s Table

The Honeybee’s Sting was a speakeasy back in Prohibition days, in a big brick Lincoln Park building in Chicago. The main floor was a Chinese laundry. Upstairs was Madame Ixnay’s, a house of what you might call ill repute, with eight working girls.

It was a classy joint, as far as those things went.

The bribes it took to keep that place open flowed like the Chicago River into Lake Michigan—polluted and thick.

The Boss was a big man, broad in the shoulders, with a big bushy mustache and dark hair. He had impeccable taste in suits and a knack for getting supplies of decent liquor, sometimes even with the right labels on the outside. He was connected to at least two crime families but somehow managed to stay independent. Everyone knew the Boss was bringing in the liquor via the laundry carts, but as long as the bottles weren’t sticking out from under the piles of towels and bedsheets, the cops pretended not to notice.

The Honeybee’s Sting was down in the basement. The outside of the building was plain brick, nothing fancy. You’d get there by car. The driver would pull up to a door in the alleyway, a huge double steel door stenciled with the words KNOCK FOR SERVICE.

You’d get out of the car, dressed to the nines, and knock on the door with whatever the secret code was that week, and either the door would open or it wouldn’t.

That door was never wrong. There was a lock on it but we never used it. It was just that the door would open…or it wouldn’t.

Like magic.

You’d go inside through a plain brick landing stacked with empty laundry carts, then down some cement stairs to the basement, where there was another heavy door, oak this time. You’d knock the code on the door again, and someone would have to swing it open to let you in.

Light and sound would come spilling out, and the smell of alcohol and perfume and men in heavy coats sweating like pigs, the sound of Black men playing jazz or an octoroon crooning, voices chattering, the sound of glass smashing, of women laughing.

You stepped inside that door and the temperature went up at least twenty degrees. The door slammed behind you, and you were in.

Back then, speakeasies couldn’t afford to be all that fancy, unless they were run directly by the mob. You had to be ready for the cops to seize whatever they could get their hands on. The patrons weren’t too gentle on things, either.

So the Honeybee’s Sting wasn’t all that much to look at in 1929. After Prohibition ended, we fancied it up, but that was later.

In 1929, the walls were open brickwork and the floors were bare cement. A high oak table served as the bar and there were high, round tables around the edges of the room. One corner was cleared for the musicians, and the center of the room was cleared out for dancing. Silk palm trees stood in pots in the corner, half-hiding the spittoons. Bare bulbs hung from overhead on cords.

Behind the bar was a door that led to a reinforced smuggler’s closet that was hidden behind a second door at the back of a shallow safe—not a place you wanted to get locked up in at night, but it did mean that the cops couldn’t get at the liquor stores during a raid.

Opposite the safe was a door to the back room, which used to be the coal cellar. The coal furnace had been replaced a few years ago with a gas furnace that worked more efficiently, and didn’t require stoking.

At least, that’s what everyone said had happened. But I never saw where that gas furnace wasin that basement, or anywhere else for that matter. We had radiators for heat and no end to the amount of hot water for the ladies to wash clothes in, but I never saw a hot-water tank, either. Dom told me not to worry about it.

If the Boss was big, Dom, the bartender, was bigger.

Dom was his own favorite bouncer. If it was busy, the Boss might send one or two guys over to help him, but mostly what they did was answer the door and pour drinks for the girls. I never saw a one of those other guys have to lift a finger against a customer. Dom took it as a point of pride to handle things personally. Word got around. Dom would let loose on some scumbag about once every six months. There was one time Dom cut a guy’s pinky finger off, right in the bar. I put it in a jar of milk to help keep it fresh while he saw if a doctor could sew it back on again.

Dom had an on-again, off-again middle-European accent. He used to talk to the bar itself, and that’s when the accent would come out. “Tair tair,” he’d tell the bar while wiping it. “Is only scratch, noboty means bat. Only scratch.” Then he’d turn around and, in a pure Chicago nasal accent that went straight through your eardrums, would yell, “Hey mister, you gonna get yer fat ass offa that tabletop, or yam I gonna have ta come over and remove it?”

The tables were small, the Black jazz musicians were all right when you could hear them, the girls serving drinks were pretty and had sharpened fingernails, and I washed dishes, mopped floors, swept out spiderwebs, and served as general dogsbody.

They called me Kid.  I started working there in 1927 and stayed after Prohibition ended, all the way to 1949 when it closed. Some new folks re-opened the bar in 1993. It wasn’t the same. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I couldn’t tell you. Just different.

The Honeybee’s Sting had a number of incidents worth telling stories about, but one in particular sticks in my mind.

The date was December 29th. Two nights later, it would be one of the busiest days of the year, with everyone out looking to celebrate the change from one decade to another. But the twenty-ninth was a cold Sunday night, cold enough to freeze your spit before it hit the ground, a night so cold it couldn’t snow. It was windy as hell, though, and what snow there was on the ground whipped around like knives.

In short, it was a slow night, even for the girls upstairs. Nobody wanted to go anywhere. Even the jazz trio, always desperate for tips, hadn’t showed up.

And yet that night, the back room had been reserved for special guests.

The back room was darker and damper than the main room and had a low ceiling, just high enough that I didn’t hit my head. Two walls were nothing but rough brick, and the far wall had an old coal chute that had been rebuilt as a back exit against police raids.

When I had come in for the night, Dom had told me, “The Boss wants you to serve the special guests tonight, so the girls can go home.”

I said I was game, and the girls left gratefully. I even got a kiss on the cheek from one of them. Problem was, I was so shy I could barely stutter out my own name, let alone make witty banter. I hoped I wouldn’t have to say much. Maybe the whole thing would be cancelled due to weather.

I finished up my chores early, then sat at a table, reading an old back issue of Black Mask that I had in my back pocket. I reread one of the Continental Op stories, and waited.

Cover of A Shrewdness of Swindlers

New Release: Wild Magic Storybundle, Featuring A Shrewdess of Swindlers

Cover of A Shrewdness of Swindlers

There’s the real world…

…and then there are our worlds, secret, wild, and free.

We can’t remember when we first noticed magic.

Oh, sure. When we were kids, we played pretend and imagined we were powerful sorcerers, clever tricksters, and subtle witches. But then we got older, and we told everyone that we’d grown up and were too old for that stuff now. How much we wanted to be like the adults!

But then the enchantments of adulthood grew thin. We may not like to talk about it, but we know it’s true: all the things we truly needed to learn in our lives, we learned as children, as dreamers. We learned what it was like to be stand up for what we believed in…and what it was like to be punished for it. We learned how to fall in love…and how to be rejected by our first crush. We got up to mischief…and hurt someone we shouldn’t have.

And we knew what it was like to be filled with wonder at the world.

But adulthood doesn’t last forever. As the enchantments of adulthood finally grew as thin as a haze in the sky, we began to see magic again.

Here and there.

In the small things—and sometimes in the big things when we needed it most. We vowed to protect it, to nurture it, and to visit it as often as we can.

The Wild Magic bundle holds ten volumes of the magic. Ten books about what we find after we have passed through the illusion that we can live without wonder in the world, and come out the other side.

Pack your bags, put on your good walking shoes, and make sure you bring plenty of water. We’re going out into the wilderness, and who knows when we’ll be back?

A Shrewdness Of Swindlers

Ten Tales of Fantasy and Falsehood in the Fabulous Roaring Twenties

Dames, detectives, and deception…magic meets the decadence of the Roaring Twenties in ten tales of glitter and jazz.

The year is 1929. It’s two months after the financial collapse on Wall Street, and the world is bating its breath, unsure of what will happen next. Is it the end of an era?

At the Honeybee’s Sting, a speakeasy in the basement of a laundry, a group of unusual figures meets to discuss the past—and perhaps some possible futures: the Detective turned writer, the Dame who’s older than she looks, the Vampire who’s been riding the financial markets for generations, the Spy from across the ocean, the Actress who’s only just learned the truth about Hollywood, and more.

But one of their number is missing, a man connected to the mob, a man who holds the prize for a mysterious storytelling contest—a prize that can give you your heart’s desire.

Ten stories, woven together in the style of The Canterbury Tales, follow the contest along a long, dark night where nothing is what it seems and the best way to tell the truth is to lie.

Pour yourself a cocktail and join us at the liar’s table for the divine, the slapstick, the tragic, the transcendent 1920s today!

Table of Contents:
  • The Liar’s Table
  • When Pigs Fly
  • Myrna and the Thirteen-Year Witch
  • All the Retros at the New Cotton Club
  • The Mysterious Artifact
  • Memento Temporis
  • The Page-Turners
  • The Last Word Cocktail
  • The Man Who Would Sell Fear
  • The Liar’s Table, Part 2

Sample!

The Honeybee’s Sting was a speakeasy back in Prohibition days, in a big brick Lincoln Park building in Chicago. The main floor was a Chinese laundry. Upstairs was Madame Ixnay’s, a house of what you might call ill repute, with eight working girls.

It was a classy joint, as far as those things went.

The bribes it took to keep that place open flowed like the Chicago River into Lake Michigan—polluted and thick.

The Boss was a big man, broad in the shoulders, with a big bushy mustache and dark hair. He had impeccable taste in suits and a knack for getting supplies of decent liquor, sometimes even with the right labels on the outside. He was connected to at least two crime families but somehow managed to stay independent. Everyone knew the Boss was bringing in the liquor via the laundry carts, but as long as the bottles weren’t sticking out from under the piles of towels and bedsheets, the cops pretended not to notice.

The Honeybee’s Sting was down in the basement. The outside of the building was plain brick, nothing fancy. You’d get there by car. The driver would pull up to a door in the alleyway, a huge double steel door stenciled with the words KNOCK FOR SERVICE.

You’d get out of the car, dressed to the nines, and knock on the door with whatever the secret code was that week, and either the door would open or it wouldn’t.

That door was never wrong. There was a lock on it but we never used it. It was just that the door would open…or it wouldn’t.

Like magic.

You’d go inside through a plain brick landing stacked with empty laundry carts, then down some cement stairs to the basement, where there was another heavy door, oak this time. You’d knock the code on the door again, and someone would have to swing it open to let you in.

Light and sound would come spilling out, and the smell of alcohol and perfume and men in heavy coats sweating like pigs, the sound of Black men playing jazz or an octoroon crooning, voices chattering, the sound of glass smashing, of women laughing.

You stepped inside that door and the temperature went up at least twenty degrees. The door slammed behind you, and you were in.

Back then, speakeasies couldn’t afford to be all that fancy, unless they were run directly by the mob. You had to be ready for the cops to seize whatever they could get their hands on. The patrons weren’t too gentle on things, either.

So the Honeybee’s Sting wasn’t all that much to look at in 1929. After Prohibition ended, we fancied it up, but that was later.

In 1929, the walls were open brickwork and the floors were bare cement. A high oak table served as the bar and there were high, round tables around the edges of the room. One corner was cleared for the musicians, and the center of the room was cleared out for dancing. Silk palm trees stood in pots in the corner, half-hiding the spittoons. Bare bulbs hung from overhead on cords.

Behind the bar was a door that led to a reinforced smuggler’s closet that was hidden behind a second door at the back of a shallow safe—not a place you wanted to get locked up in at night, but it did mean that the cops couldn’t get at the liquor stores during a raid.

Opposite the safe was a door to the back room, which used to be the coal cellar. The coal furnace had been replaced a few years ago with a gas furnace that worked more efficiently, and didn’t require stoking.

At least, that’s what everyone said had happened. But I never saw where that gas furnace was in that basement, or anywhere else for that matter. We had radiators for heat and no end to the amount of hot water for the ladies to wash clothes in, but I never saw a hot-water tank, either. Dom told me not to worry about it.

If the Boss was big, Dom, the bartender, was bigger.

Dom was his own favorite bouncer. If it was busy, the Boss might send one or two guys over to help him, but mostly what they did was answer the door and pour drinks for the girls. I never saw a one of those other guys have to lift a finger against a customer. Dom took it as a point of pride to handle things personally. Word got around. Dom would let loose on some scumbag about once every six months. There was one time Dom cut a guy’s pinky finger off, right in the bar. I put it in a jar of milk to help keep it fresh while he saw if a doctor could sew it back on again.

Dom had an on-again, off-again middle-European accent. He used to talk to the bar itself, and that’s when the accent would come out. “Tair tair,” he’d tell the bar while wiping it. “Is only scratch, noboty means bat. Only scratch.” Then he’d turn around and, in a pure Chicago nasal accent that went straight through your eardrums, would yell, “Hey mister, you gonna get yer fat ass offa that tabletop, or yam I gonna have ta come over and remove it?”

The tables were small, the Black jazz musicians were all right when you could hear them, the girls serving drinks were pretty and had sharpened fingernails, and I washed dishes, mopped floors, swept out spiderwebs, and served as general dogsbody.

They called me Kid. I started working there in 1927 and stayed after Prohibition ended, all the way to 1949 when it closed. Some new folks re-opened the bar in 1993. It wasn’t the same. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I couldn’t tell you. Just different.

The Honeybee’s Sting had a number of incidents worth telling stories about, but one in particular sticks in my mind.

The date was December 29th. Two nights later, it would be one of the busiest days of the year, with everyone out looking to celebrate the change from one decade to another. But the twenty-ninth was a cold Sunday night, cold enough to freeze your spit before it hit the ground, a night so cold it couldn’t snow. It was windy as hell, though, and what snow there was on the ground whipped around like knives.

In short, it was a slow night, even for the girls upstairs. Nobody wanted to go anywhere. Even the jazz trio, always desperate for tips, hadn’t showed up.

And yet that night, the back room had been reserved for special guests.

The back room was darker and damper than the main room and had a low ceiling, just high enough that I didn’t hit my head. Two walls were nothing but rough brick, and the far wall had an old coal chute that had been rebuilt as a back exit against police raids.

When I had come in for the night, Dom had told me, “The Boss wants you to serve the special guests tonight, so the girls can go home.”

I said I was game, and the girls left gratefully. I even got a kiss on the cheek from one of them. Problem was, I was so shy I could barely stutter out my own name, let alone make witty banter. I hoped I wouldn’t have to say much. Maybe the whole thing would be cancelled due to weather.

I finished up my chores early, then sat at a table, reading an old back issue of Black Mask that I had in my back pocket. I reread one of the Continental Op stories, and waited…

The Grandiosity of the Grandhotel Pupp

Grandhotel Pupp 1912
(Above: The Grandhotel Pupp in 1912.)

The history of the Grandhotel Pupp has stretched from the dawn of the eighteenth century all the way to modern times. You can see it in movies symbolizing the epitome of wealth and elegance; it is one of the inspirations for the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. The James Bond movie Casino Royale was filmed there, as was the Queen Latifa movie The Last Holiday. Its current appearance is designed to evoke a sort of worship for excess and status, via a style inherited from the Roman Catholics thumbing their noses at Protestant austerity. It was once a hospital for German officers during World War II, then helped lure tourist dollars into Czechoslovakia during Communist rule. Movie stars flock there in July to attend a famous European film festival. And during the COVID-19 epidemic, it has been forced to close, holding its breath in anticipation of its clientele’s return.

Our story begins under a different name. The earliest part of the hotel began in 1701 as Saxony Hall, built by the mayor of Karlovy Vary, also known as Carlsbad, as part of the Duchy of Bohemia, a part of the Holy Roman Empire (which was formally dissolved in 1806). The Saxony Hall served a ballroom for nobility. Later, in 1708, another mayor build a second hall, the Czech Hall, at right angles to the Saxony Hall, as a competitor for the noblemen’s trade. Descendants of the first mayor’s family built another building at the corner of the two halls in 1730, calling the corner-shaped building “The House of God’s Eye.”

In 1775, a Czech named Jan Ji?í Pop (or Johann Georg Pupp in German), a confectioner by trade, married his employer’s daughter, Františka. With her dowry, she purchased a third of Czech Hall from the widow of the second mayor. All the best people in town being German rather than Czech at the time, the family stopped using the Czech form of Pop‘s name and switched to the German, or Pupp. The Pupps, husband and wife, each bought another third of the hotel by 1778, their success in managing the hall completely overshadowing that of the Saxony Hall next door.

In 1821, there was a flood that ruined the ground floors of both halls; in 1828, a legal dispute meant the Pupp family had to sell Czech Hall to other members of the family; in 1868, Saxony Hall came back into the Pupp family’s hands again, and began buying up all the houses around it, recreating them in 1877 as the Parkhotel, which was so successful that they bought up more property, and built another wing.

In 1890, the Pupp family finally got their hands on the Saxony Hall, with plans to rebuild the entire complex of hotels in a Neo-Baroque style.

The original Baroque style comes from the Seventeenth century, pushed by the Jesuits as a means for the Catholic Church to combat the Reformation and the spread of the Protestant faith, by creating impressive, highly decorated buildings designed to impress a sense of power, wealth, and tradition upon everyone around it, by taking the ideals of Renaissance architecture and exaggerating them: taller, bigger, more heavily decorated, and more dramatic, with a lot of optical illusions, or trompe-l’oil painting, to create the illusion of even more space to create even higher heavens.

The Neo-Baroque style comes from one of the heirs of Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoléon Bonoparte III, trying to impress upon the French people that an empire was exactly what they wanted—enough of that republic nonsense! One of the main principles of the Neo-Baroque style has been stated as “leave no space undecorated,” and

The style was so effective, architecturally speaking, that it was copied by most of Europe whenever buildings speaking to wealth, power, and tradition were required: government buildings, churches, universities, and…grand hotels.

The rest of Karlovy Vary seemed to follow suit after the Grandhotel Pupp—although the Municipal Theater may have preceded and inspired it—with different types of fanciful, even gaudy, architecture filling up the town, replacing older buildings and helping turn Karlovy Vary into one of the most luxurious spa towns in Europe.

That luxury did not last forever, although at the Grandhotel Pupp it certainly extended to private bathrooms and hot and cold running water by 1923.

During World War II, the area was annexed by German as Sudentenland, or the part of Czechoslovakia populated mainly by ethnic Germans—an irony for a hotel run by the Pupp family, originally ethnically Czech. Karlovy Vary, long used to catering to the health of its many patrons, became a hospital town, with Grandhotel Pupp (of course) housing injured officers.

By 1950, however, the hotel had been nationalized and the name changed to the Hotel Moskava, while the Pupp family being expelled, along with most of the population of the town, as the Communist-controlled government of Czechoslovakia pushed out ethnic Germans. Once again, the Pupp family was caught by their assumed ethnic identity. The International Film Festival for which Karlovy Vary was famous was started during the Communist years, with the festival eventually switching back and forth between Moscow and Karlovy Vary. The hotel became run down under the communists, but was refurbished in 1968 in order to attract more tourist dollars.

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution overturned the Communist government, the hotel was re-privatized, and the name was restored—although the Pupp family no longer owns it. It is now owned by a joint stock company who made an agreement with the family in order to keep the name, a name that was Germanized in order to appeal to a higher clientele, a name that has been treated as a sort of chameleon, changing from Czech to German, from welcomed to exiled, from ownership to an element of tradition, a way to change a complex history into the illusion of a simpler one: a single name, a single building, a grand hotel.

Karlovy Vary served (and serves) as a quiet retreat a short distance from Prague, the town presenting itself as both isolated and exclusive, even though for the most part, it was neither. Its hot springs and (often smelly) mineral water were touted as having health benefits: purifying the blood, curing illnesses, restoring youth, and melting away excess weight. And fully half of the current Grandhotel Pupp’s rooms are, while expensive, simple, small, and unassuming, small enough and cheap enough to serve as an affordable luxury, one that I know has been more or less created by a façade of stories.

The truth is, Karlovy Vary and the Grandhotel Pupp are not centers of wealth and power. Even today, Karlovy Vary only has a population of 48,000—about the size of Grand Island, Nebraska…Castle Rock, Colorado…or San Jacinto, California. The average income is around US $16,000 a year. It’s a tourist town, a lot like every other, with little industry other than the Moser glass factory and other porcelain, glass, and textile factories. Once you leave the main thoroughfares through the town, it’s a lot of rooming houses and apartment blocks that look too new to be from the Communist era, but were definitely inspired by it.

And yet…

I grew up around tourist towns, vacationed in tourist towns, like tourist towns. There’s a sense of possibility: anything might happen, even being able to pay the rent, or falling in love with a stranger who’s only there for the season, or learning all the stories that happen behind the scenes, from dark rumors to secret dance parties, to hidden caves just off the beaten trail, in the mountains.

I love the fabulous white marble frontside of tourist towns, and the peeled-paint plaster of the backside, too. And to me, the town of Karlovy Vary seems to embody the most romantic, purest form of tourist town possible—and the Grandhotel Pupp, for all its grandiosity, the purest form of luxury hotel to be found in that town.

It’s closed now due to the Covid pandemic. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someday fate will take me there, to see both the front and back sides of the house.

(Below: The Grandhotel Pupp in modern times. By ????? ???????, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54784141)

See other entertaining curiosities here!

The Folly of Whitaker Wright

Statue of Neptune at Whitaker Wright's Witley Park
A view of the statue of Neptune above the underwater ballroom at Whitaker Wright’s Whitley Park

(I’m going to be developing some neat stuff about Whitaker Wright later! Research!!)

The tale of Whitaker Wright begins in Stafford, England, and ends in Surrey about a hundred and fifty miles away. But this is not a small tale. While Whitaker Wright was born the eldest child of a humble clergyman, he rose to fame and became a wealthy man in the Americas, then once again in the United Kingdom. He died a ruined man, sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude, but left behind a country house worth (at the time) over $50 million in today’s US dollars.

Wright started out in business running a printing press, and briefly served as a Methodist preacher before starting another printing business with his brother, John Joseph Wright, inventor of the reversible trolley pole—the pole that transfers electricity from the overhead live wires to trolley cars.

That business failed as well; following the death of their father, the entire family packed up and moved to Canada, which perhaps speaks of the financial straits they were in, or of a reputation that needed to be left behind. Wright also left behind his attempts at running a profitable printing press per se, and instead began hustling business for silver-mining companies for the Denver City mine in Leadville, Colorado, and then again in Lake Valley, New Mexico, where he picked up knowledge about mining and engineering.

The companies he promoted made him a lot of money, but suspiciously, none for the shareholders.

In 1878, he married Anna Edith Weightman, age seventeen, when he was thirty-two.

By the 1890s, he was back in England, promoting American and Canadian mines to English stock and bond purchasers, apparently supported by titled men like the Marquess of Dufferin, a man who had served as the Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India. Some of these mining companies were not, and would never have been profitable; others tapped rich veins but were run more to drive up the value of the stock than to profit the shareholders.

Wright might not have been able to run an honest business, but he had no trouble extracting profits from the shareholders. In 1890, he purchased Lea Park (later known as Whitley Park) and began excavating an entire hillside to “improve the view” and establish three lakes, as well as expanding the exiting Tudor-style house to a 32-bedrom mansion.

The country house included a theater, ballroom, glass-roofed conservatory, velodrome, fifty-horse stable, several lodges and farms, and other modest amenities.

But is Whitaker Wright’s folly for which the house is known.

In architectural terms, a folly is an ornamental building or structure constructed primarily as a conversation piece or to add ambiance. Other follies include fake “ruined” castles, a pineapple-shaped roof in Scotland, and even the modern-day Bishop’s Castle in Custer County, Colorado.

Whitaker Wright’s folly was an underground smoking lounge or “ballroom,” so called because the underwater dome looked like the upper half of a ball! It was built at the bottom of the largest of the three lakes, with an underwater path leading from the house to the entrance of the folly.

To get to the folly, visitors take a spiral staircase from the surface downward to a sunken, curved metal doorway; below that, another forty feet of steps take visitors to a tunnel, then to the underwater conservatory itself, made of metal framework and thick panes of glass.

Outside, in daylight, the light that reaches the bottom of the small lake is somewhat green and murky; the lake was been stocked with carp that liked to goggle in through the windows at the guests whenever the inner lights were on. The floor was covered with mosaic tilework, held a potted palm tree in the center, and was lined with long, curved velvet benches along the walls—an elegant retreat.

To top the folly, a statue of Neptune was added, one that remains today, appearing to stand effortlessly atop the surface of the water.

Wright’s fame and fortune seemed impressive, but they didn’t last for long. In 1900, he tried to issue a bond to build a rail line in London, the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (now called the Bakerloo Line). The project was plagued by construction issues, and no one wanted to buy the bond. (Once again, Wright struggled as he attempted to pull off a project that was intended to do more than look impressive on paper.)

When the bond flopped, Whitaker began moving money between his different companies in an attempt to prop up his fortune. However, the money he was moving around was the money intended to pay customer dividends.

When no dividends appeared in December of 1890s, shareholders began to become suspicious and eventually called for an investigation into his finances.

It is said that at the exact moment that Whitaker Wright’s finances failed, one of the stones of Stonehenge toppled. The collapse of his companies certainly caused a panic at the stock exchange, and many of his wealthy investors lost large sums of money.

The Government declined to pursue the matter, not believing they would be able to bring charges to bear on the man (the fact that a few high-ranking members of Parliament were caught up in the scheme might have had something to do with that). However, a civil suit was brought against Wright by his stockholders; he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years of penal servitude.

Having been sentenced, he stepped out of the court to an antechamber with his lawyer, asked for a glass of whiskey and a cigar, then excused himself to the restroom, where he took a cyanide capsule. He was not searched upon being brought into the courtroom, as he was in a civil court; he also had a silver revolver in his pocket, just in case the cyanide didn’t work.

He had a few sips of whiskey, took a few drags from the cigar—then fell down dead.

After Wright’s death, Lea Park was sold to Viscount William Pirrie, the man who helped build the RMS Titanic, and who famously said that the new Olympic-Class ships were unsinkable and the lifeboats were only there to save the survivors of other wrecks they might encounter. The viscount eventually sold Lea Park in 1950 to a butcher who had risen from a humble background to wealth; this new owner, Ronald Hugget, was always just about to move into his mansion, but never did; the construction necessary to make the building habitable still hadn’t been completed.

Hugget mainly lived with his wife in one of the lodge houses at the edge of the property, selling off furnishings and other materials from the house, until one day in 1952 a fire began (or was set) in the aboveground ballroom of the main house and burned it to the ground.

The larger property, originally thousands of acres, has been split up, part of it becoming an event center and other parts becoming farms and apartment houses. Still, the lodge houses, the folly, and several other original buildings remain.

Recently, a stately new country house has been built on the property by the new owners, who are very private, and don’t take kindly to “urban explorers” coming onto the property to explore it—or even flying drones over it. The grounds are overgrown, a wilderness of trees and rhododendrons. Construction is ongoing as, once again, the house is being expanded, the grounds landscaped, and the older lodge houses restored.

The folly remains locked, however, and not even a drone can get inside.

A collection of images of the original house exterior and interior.

Images of the new house, designed by architect Robert Adam.

Daily Mail article with lots of great photos of the folly.

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