The Killing House – extract

Faun, 1898, by Wilhelm von Gloeden
This is Chapter 22 of GOMERY KIMBER‘s novel The Killing House, about a would-be hitman who finds he’s the one who’s in danger

Outline: American Troy has one ambition in life, to be an international hitman, so when he gets the chance to work for veteran assassin Rickardo Hanratty, he can hardly believe his luck. But Hanratty, also known as The Big Shilling, turns out to be the strangest of mentors. Tasked with killing a Russian oligarch on the island of Cyprus, American Troy innocently believes the hit will be like some uber-cool crime movie, but he quickly finds himself in a different kind of picture entirely – a horror movie – with his mentor, The Big Shilling, cast as the monster. If he’s going to escape Cyprus alive, Troy realises that he has to make himself indispensable. That’s when he remembers The Big Shilling’s weird mantra – ‘believing is seeing.’ As Shilling explains: if he wants to escape from the island, American Troy must imagine that he already has.

Chapter 22

‘It’s tight,’ said American Troy. ‘It’s real tight, but I think I can do it.’

The Big Shilling, dressed in the old lady’s frock, ushered him out of the camper van and into the blazing sunshine of a Nicosia noon.

‘We’ll sit down first and have a drink,’ said the Big Shilling in the high-pitched Irish-accented voice he’d adopted since arriving at their rendezvous.

The Brits were still seated at the little metal table, under the arbour beside the lay-by kiosk, a couple of miles outside the Cypriot capital. The old fat guy, who sounded like Sir Michael Caine, American Troy now recognised. He was the dipstick who’d been conducting the singing at the birthday party in the restaurant, near the Russian exile’s house in the Akamas. His wife, terminally wrinkled and the colour of oiled mahogany, bared her false teeth in a grimace.

‘No luck?’ she asked, ironically.

‘It’s no problem at all, it’s not,’ said the Big Shilling, encouraging American Troy to sit. ‘Brian, be a love and get the lad a drink, will you?’

The Brit lumbered to his feet. ‘Whatcher ‘avin?’ he seemed to say.

‘He’ll have a beer is what he’ll have,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘A Keo.’

American Troy sat down under the arbour of grape vines. Here, in the middle of the island, away from the cooling sea breezes of the coast, it was infernally hot, and American Troy felt enervated, not just sapped physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. All he had left was his will power.

‘I can do it,’ he told the Big Shilling.

A cop car cruised by, but the pair of leos didn’t even glance their way.

The Big Shilling was searching through the contents of his handbag. American Troy heard the rattle of pill bottles and the crinkle of foil-wrapped plastic trays being extracted from stiff cardboard packs. Doctor Shilling had brought his dispensary with him.

‘Here y’are, son,’ said the cockney, passing American Troy a bottle of not quite cold enough beer, ‘get yer larfin’ gear round that then.’

‘Thanks,’ said American Troy wearily. He tasted the beer. It was gassy and tasteless, and reminded him of home. Hicksville, Illinois, how he wished he were there right now.

‘Drink it,’ ordered the Big Shilling, glaring at him playfully from under false eyelashes.

American Troy drank, and when the Big Shilling dropped four or five white pills into his cupped hand, American Troy didn’t bother to look at them, he just tossed them into his mouth and washed them down with pulls on the bottle.

‘God love him,’ said the Big Shilling, ‘wasn’t he always my best boy?’

The cockney’s wife tittered at this, and sucked orange juice through the straw from her plastic beaker. The cockney winked encouragement and toasted American Troy silently with a bottle of water. Only the Big Shilling was without a drink. Instead, he was fussing with the corner of a tissue and a compact mirror.

‘I’m running,’ he said. ‘It’s terrible warm.’

‘Take yer knickers off,’ advised the cockney’s wife before emitting a cackle of laughter.

‘There’d better not be vodka in that OJ, Bet,’ said the Big Shilling, smiling dangerously.

That shut the old lady up. She cleared her throat nervously and puckered her mouth.

American Troy was suddenly feeling very, very relaxed. He sipped his beer with newfound pleasure. He had to admit it, now it tasted pretty darn good. The sunshine dappling the tables was beautiful, and he was no longer troubled by the intense heat, or by the noise of the traffic that kicked up dust and irritated his eyes. In fact, the dust itself appeared to be . . . friendly. American Troy experienced a loving surge of emotion. The Big Shilling and the two Britons were infinitely appealing, why hadn’t he noticed that before? People, man, they were beautiful, and connected, to everyone else and to everything else.

‘Well?’ asked the Big Shilling. ‘All right now are you?’

‘More than all right,’ said American Troy, the words catching in his throat.

‘You’ll be feeling a bit emotional,’ the Big Shilling went on, ‘but it’ll pass in a few minutes, then you’ll be feeling relaxed, very, very relaxed indeed.’

‘Relaxed,’ said American Troy, and the word seemed to be imbued with special meanings which he had never before apprehended.

‘I’ll have what he’s having,’ said the trouble and strife, Betty Blee, ‘bless him.’

‘Time to make a move?’ asked her husband.

‘There’s no hurry,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Finish your drinks.’

‘Take your time,’ American Troy heard himself say, ‘and don’t hurry up.’

They had to help him up the steps into the campervan.

‘It’ll be like being reborn,’ said the Big Shilling, holding his hand as American Troy stepped into the coffin, the smuggler’s compartment hidden beneath the bench seat. ‘It’ll be like being unified, having a soul.’

‘Awesome,’ said American Troy, and meant it.

It was awesome. The prospect of being reborn was awesome indeed. How had he ever doubted? How could it have been any other way? The Big Shilling was Odysseus, navigating the way home across the wine-dark sea.

‘Beautiful,’ said American Troy, ‘you’re beautiful.’

Again, the words caught in his throat and he thought he was going to cry.

The false bottom was laid on top of him, and he listened to the turn of the Allen keys as the screws were fixed into place. Next came the clothes and innocent odds and ends to fill the storage compartment, then the seats fitted on top of that, the sounds growing more muffled now. American Troy, lying on his side in the foetal position, closed his eyes, a big, beatific smile on his face, and drifted off to sleep.

When he awoke, he remembered the sound of the engine and the noise of the moving vehicle, of being pushed against one side of the coffin then the other as the campervan negotiated bends and corners and traffic. He discovered he couldn’t move. It wasn’t confinement, he really couldn’t move: he was paralysed. He heard creaking above him as someone sat on the bench seat. Then he heard the Big Shilling speaking in that high-pitched Irish accent, or at least he thought he did. He wasn’t sure if he was truly conscious, or dreaming. The fact that he was paralysed did not bother him in the slightest and that made him think he was dreaming, listening to the Big Shilling speak.

‘Even the outlaw, even the murderer,’ the voice was saying, softly, distantly, hypnotically, ‘even the basest creature ever to have walked the earth, if he was initiated into the Mysteries then he was assured of everlasting life in the hereafter. That is what the normal person cannot understand. It has nothing to do with morality, achieving immortality, with being a good person, with doing good deeds, nothing whatsoever. It has everything to do with secret knowledge, with actual experience of that secret knowledge. Finding it hard to breathe? Yes, you are finding it hard to breathe. It’s getting hotter. Of course it is getting hotter. You are nearing the infernal regions. You are nearing the other side, and you cannot breathe.’

American Troy could not breathe. There was no air in the coffin. He tried to drag air into his lungs but his lungs did not inflate. With every exhalation his lungs grew smaller, tighter, harder. There was a pain in his heart. He could not move. Sweat leaked out from every pore. He felt like he was broiling in his own broth. Panic rose in him. Surely he was dreaming. A red mist filmed his sightless eyes and strange creatures, baleful, inhuman, rose from the darkness, disturbed by his presence. He’d seen them before, in Amsterdam: therianthropes, half-animal, half-men. One of them came closer, a dog-headed monster that seemed to examine his very heart, and was gone.

Again he heard the Big Shilling speaking with an Irish accent, but he could no longer understand what he was saying. He could not breathe. Make a soul? He was burning up. You are many? He wanted to scream, to thrash about, but his vocal chords were as paralysed as his limbs. Was this death? Was he dying? Was this the end? This time his life was not relayed to him backwards.

Then he heard the Big Shilling’s Irish brogue, saying, ‘A gift of unity.’

A great black wave welled up and engulfed him, and he fainted. And when he came to, American Troy underwent the strangest experience of his life. He was on the other side, in the absolute elsewhere. It was as though he were dead but still conscious. It was indescribable. Ultimate freedom, infinite joy – but the words meant nothing compared to the actuality. It began to fade, as though he were being dragged backwards by a silver cord. No! He wanted to stay, but the pull of life was too strong. Back he went, back into the coffin, back to the island, Cyprus, the island from which it seemed impossible to escape.

He could hear again, and breathe, and no long panicky. It sounded like the police were searching the van. This everyday reality appeared massive, solid, utterly mundane. The van was stopped, and it rocked slightly as heavy feet plodded through the cabin. Outside, men with official voices were speaking Greek. Michael Caine was having a laugh and a joke. Cupboards were opened and closed, drawers searched, walls tapped. American Troy realised he could move, and that his breathing had returned to normal. It wasn’t even that warm anymore. He had the idea that the van was parked beneath a sun-shade. Then he heard the bench seat cushion being removed and the contents of the storage tray being moved about. A sliver of brightness as a flashlight was shone.

Then it was over. The bench seat cushion was roughly replaced, and the customs officers or cops or whoever they were, disembarked. Shortly thereafter, he heard three people get aboard, the engine started up, and the van rolled forward slowly in bottom gear.

American Troy felt sick. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could take. Had the drugs worn off? They couldn’t have, not yet. But at least he could breathe. He concentrated on that thought, and on the inhalation and exhalation his body automatically made. Calm, he told himself, stay calm, but an insistent inner voice started whining – why me, why me? Then he slipped into sleep once more, and not even the distant sound of men speaking Turkish could disturb him.

The next time he awoke it was because he was about to be released. The bench seat cushion was removed, then the clothes and assorted items, finally the tray was unfastened, and blinding daylight poured in along with humid fresh air.

‘Will you look at the state of him?’ said the Big Shilling in his Irish voice. Then, in his more familiar white-colonial accent, he said, ‘Like a real sweat box, hey? Here, my boy, drink this.’

American Troy chugged gratefully on a bottle of cool water, glugging it down his parched, sore throat until the bottle was empty. He gasped for air, his chest heaving.

‘Are we through?’

‘We’re through,’ said the Big Shilling, amused by the ambiguity of the question.

To American Troy, reborn from the smuggler’s coffin, the Big Shilling’s colonial accent sounded as fake as his Irish one. The Big Shilling was whatever he wanted to be, he was the man with a thousand faces. It seemed to American Troy that he knew nothing at all about the Big Shilling, that everything he thought he knew about him was a lie, was a fabrication, an act, and that it did not matter. The only thing he knew for sure about the little man was that he possessed the kind of knowledge that normies never even dreamed of.

This surreal experience continued for the next few minutes until it dissipated and American Troy was left feeling weary and disquieted. He had the impression that he knew things he had no right knowing, that he had glimpsed not only the future but some kind of strange afterlife as well. And then the rational part of him was telling him that was just a bunch of bullshit, a drug-fiend’s dream. But . . .

‘He’s not going to pay,’ he now said, seated on the bench seat opposite the Big Shilling, who was still dressed incongruously, and patently falsely, as an old woman. ‘We won’t get our money, whatever we do.’

Another insight accompanied this certainty but it stayed tantalisingly out of reach, as though it could only be accessed from inside the coffin and from within a drugged consciousness. American Troy clenched his fists in frustration. He had an inkling that Ahmet Bey was acting too, but in what way he couldn’t quite grasp.

‘It was never about the money,’ said the Big Shilling, the twinkle in his eye contrasting sharply with his grim visage.

American Troy averted his gaze. The make-up on the Big Shilling’s face was smeared and runny, the lipstick licked off by that sharp tongue, the mascara smudged, false eyelashes coming unstuck. It was a clown’s face or a joker’s, the kind of clown or joker who’d entice children into the woods, or criminals into a try-out, the kind of face of a man who’d soak a billion dollars in gasoline and negligently toss a lit match.

‘What we need is a better kind of criminal,’ said American Troy.

‘You saw it then?’

‘I don’t know what I saw.’

‘But you saw it.’

‘Yeah, I saw it.’

‘Are we through?’

‘Not yet,’ said American Troy.

‘No,’ said the Big Shilling. ‘Not by a long chalk, not by a long chalk, eh?’

It was never about the money. No, it had never been about the money. It had always been about domination. The Big Shilling had a will to power, a will to dominate everyone around him, a will to dominate life itself. And that was the prize he was offering American Troy. Overcome yourself, rise above your weakness, and you too can dominate. And now he had gone further still. Not only could you dominate life but you could, in some still undefined way, overcome death as well. That was today’s lesson. Why be afraid of death when death wasn’t the end?

What was that he said, back in the apartment? Something about men who are not afraid of death being infinitely superior to the most powerful temporal power?

But American Troy still wasn’t sure. He wasn’t at the end, but he had been helped along the way, that much was certain.

‘Here we are,’ said the Big Shilling from the cab of the camper van.

He was seated between the Blees, Brian was driving and Betty Blee was reading directions from the sat nav. American Troy began to take notice of his surroundings once more. The van was turning into a dusty suburban street, and from nearby came the roar of a passenger plane taking off.

Half an hour later and the Blees had left in the van. American Troy and the Big Shilling were drinking beer in the living room of Mrs O’Gurley’s rented villa.

‘Man, I’m tired,’ said American Troy. ‘I need to sleep.’

‘Good,’ said Shilling. ‘You can go and have a nap in a minute, when I’ve finished instructing you, so pay attention, eh. Are you paying attention?’


‘It’s all about visualising, of visualising the outcome, remember? I want you to visualise the successful outcome of our escape from this island, I want you to visualise it as you fall asleep. The question you must ask yourself is: what would I see? What would I see, eh, when I succeed? What would I see? What would I say? How would I feel? And once you’ve answered those questions, you write the scene, eh, the scene of fulfilment. But you must convince yourself absolutely, convince yourself to the point of self-persuasion. You must convince yourself that we’ve already escaped.’

‘Can’t you do it?’

‘We’re both going to do it,’ said the Big Shilling, getting annoyed.

American Troy pulled himself together. ‘Yes, right, I’m going to do it.’

‘What is the scene of fulfilment?’

‘The two of us, a bottle of tequila and the finest Havana cigars, drinking a toast: we did it.’

‘We did it,’ chimed the Big Shilling. ‘We did it. I like it. But how about, we made it? Wouldn’t that be better?’

‘Yes,’ said American Troy eagerly. ‘We made it!’

The Big Shilling was beaming with pleasure. ‘That’s my boy,’ he said. ‘Now, you get off and have a nap. I’ll wake you in a couple of hours, because I want you to make a phone call for me, a phone call to Ahmet Bey.’

‘What about?’

‘About how you’re going to betray me,’ said the Big Shilling, amiably, ‘about how you’re going to betray me, eh, in return for an obscene amount of cold hard cash.’

Adolf of Gloucester goes to the Wall

This is Part 3 of LIAM GUILAR’s still-being-written epic of Britain. Chapter 1 was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and you can read Chapter 2 in the previous issue of The Brazen Head.

The story so far: 449 AD. The Roman province of Britannia is tottering. The Legions have long gone and raiders and civil war are becoming endemic as central authority breaks down. The Ruling Council has sent Adolf of Gloucester1 on a mission to establish contact with the new war lords in the North and call them to a meeting. After that he is to continue further north to investigate the rumor of a lost legion. The Council intend to use such an army to protect the province. Adolf has other plans. Adolf’s main rival is called Vortigern. You can find out more about Vortigern and the Legendary History at

Chapter Three: Playing Dress up in the Ruins.

Gloucester goes north

Ghosts on the great north road

moth-eaten capes, tarnished brass:

pretend Romans on a fading track

its edges blurred, the landscape

creeping back, erasing the affront.

The old Cursus Publicus.

No one waited with a change of horses

to speed them on their errand.

No patient slaves were waiting

to lead them to a bath house.

Stunned groups struggling south,

unable to say where they were going.

Some with belongings. Some

begging for food, or running

at the first sight of armed men.

The worst were those too tired to run

who simply stood or sat and waited.

All day darkness, and the sky fouled with smoke,

as though the north itself were burning.

They were grateful for the rain.

An abandoned temple gave them shelter.

Gloucester imagines ordered lines

stepping towards the incoherent mob.

Discipline against barbarian chaos

the grateful blood stained victors

chanting their general’s name.

A legion at his back? Why not?

It worked for Constantine.

His men are camped outside.

More scared of ghosts than rain.

But in this world of broken shadows

even the ghosts are now afraid.

You’ve met these two before:

History’s statistics.

They are there to prove how great the victory

how terrible the defeat. Until recently

nobody bothered with their stories.

They’ve been around since wars began.

They’ll grumble on until there are no wars.

Two faces in the firelight, sharing food.

Veterans of the service, though the service

in their eyes, is looking very shabby.

‘All punishment and no discipline.

Innocent or guilty, capable or clumsy

makes little difference to this Adolf.’ 

‘When that rider came…’

…’The gibberer?’ ‘Him.’

‘What did he say?

A raiding party running for The Wall?’

‘Burdened with loot and captives.’

‘Wagons loaded down with loot he said.’

‘Pushing wagons loaded down with loot.

But Gloucester says They’re heading east.

Our orders take us west.’ ‘That’s true though isn’t it?’

‘Yes, indeed it is, but consider this.

Can you imagine Vortigern letting them escape?

Or being insulted at that hill fort

and turning tail? He’d have burnt it round their ears.’

Two days earlier….

The hill fort had been recently reoccupied.

The path rose, cutting a labyrinth of bank and ditch

until they were confronted by a well-made wall.

Everything was squared, trim, and even.

They waited in the shadow of the gate house

Then a voice, like the north wind coming off a glacier,

speaking British in defiance of their uniforms and banners.

‘Is Vortigern the Thin amongst you?’2

‘I am the Magister Militum,

Count of the Saxon Shore.’

‘Pretty titles for these ugly times.’

‘The Council summons you to London.’

‘Whatever your titles meant

when you left home,

here you are unwelcome.

There is no legion at your back,

nothing to ratify your idle names.

We can slaughter you and no one

no one, will come to bury you

let alone avenge your deaths.

Turn back, we will not follow.

Go home, we know the place

to break a column of toy soldiers

but we have better things to do.

‘We should have burnt it down around their ears.

They have sent a boy out on a man’s errand.’

The Risen Christ

Gloucester continued north.

Torch light and candle light

lamplight and firelight

and never enough light

to stop the darkness

infecting everything

so the edges blurred.

A marching camp, smoke rising,

the usual signs of occupation.

The bank is sagging underneath the wooden wall.

The platform like a discarded party streamer. 

No man could hold his ground on such a footing.

From a gate tower creaking in the breeze,

the watchman said, ‘No more than four.’

Gloucester and the Proconsul

are escorted to a timber building

with not one right angle in the joints.

In the middle, facing the smouldering fire,

whoever calls himself king of this rank and smoky space. 

A cloak of raven’s feathers, bright rings, armbands, native paint.

The protocols of embassy and messenger are swept aside.

He insists they kneel. When they refuse, he rises:

‘I am the risen Christ and you will worship me!’

Only the years of discipline stop Gloucester’s laughter.

This silly little man in this squalid little barn:

Christ how the world has shrunk

if fools expect such folly to be taken seriously.

The women are attractive, desirable but hesitant.

Eager to please their messiah. The apostles

are playground bullies in patchwork armour.

The proconsul is a bald, grey bearded man

who in his youth…etc. etc.

But now has the power…etc, etc.

It’s all implied and understood.

‘We’re all familiar with the law.’

‘This is the law,’ said the kinglet,

his fist smashing the bewildered face.

He asks the sprawling body:

‘Who will enforce your law?’

He knifes the writhing man.

‘I will’, he says, in the bloody silence

that is so profound, you can hear it

hold its breath and bleed.


Gloucester grabs a log from the woodpile

and swings it hard against the Saviour’s head.

Blowing the hunting horn around his neck,

his men break through the flimsy wall.

The risen Christ and his disciples

soon lie scattered on the dirty floor.

The Wall

Impressive but redundant marker,

of a boundary the land ignored.

Camped at a central fort,

Gloucester waited for his scouting parties.

Men sent out along the roads

or following The Wall in both directions.

Stopping in the little villages.

Abandoned huts,

cooking fires still smouldering.

Rarely a furtive native,

perhaps an ancient man or woman

left behind when all the others

had taken to the heather.

Gloucester, in the rain,

supervising his fort’s repair

imagines ranks stepping into incoherent mobs.

The disciplined advance into barbarian chaos.

The grateful victors chanting their general’s name.

His command is leaking men.

Even here, snuggled into winter quarters,

riders don’t return, and patrols sent to find patrols

find nothing. No one. The land is empty. 

Did you dream about the other

who would solve your problems?

The pay rise you deserved

to cancel out your debts.

Did you clasp the lotto ticket

dreaming of your new life

if they called your numbers?

Did you throw it in the bin

and swear you’d never bet again?

Or did you keep on betting

long after common sense had called a halt,

and there was nothing in the bank

to fuel the fantasy but a bruising desperation.

Another party rides towards the turf wall further north,

along a broken road no one has bothered to repair.

The surface fractured by the travellers’ wheels

is best avoided. On the hills, blocked culverts,

force the streams to flood and wash away the terrace

and the road it balanced. Beyond all that

right on to the end of marching

past the broken watch towers and abandoned forts

to ditch and bank and sometimes rubble

where squatters huddle in the outline of a camp,

sheep graze and the indifferent, stupid cattle

trip on the remnants of a barracks floor

that once held 30,000 men

and housed the Emperor himself.

Standing on The Wall,

waiting for patrols,

he scans the bleak upland.

It doesn’t roll, it heaves.

The burnt look of moorland

the gullies and abrupt valleys

too untidy for his taste.

No straight lines except the roads

confidently heading south.

Here, at its northern limit,

the whole ruined empire echoing behind him.

Over there the chaos that slighted Rome,

source of the tidal surge threatening to drown them all.

News from the South.

Vortigern this. Vortigern that.

His fifty Germans had erased a raiding party

then seized their ships.

He’d want a Triumph next.

What were fifty tribesmen to his Legion,

forcing the channel crossing,

following their choice of Caesar.

It worked before.

The Western Empire could be saved.

The sun crawls over the horizon,

then slides, embarrassed, to the west.

Winter, immobility and failure,

creep towards him, deaf to threat or reason.

Days when the demented wind

battered them, assaulting roof and wall

while the horizontal rain trashed

anyone who dared to stand outside.

The world was dissolving in rivers of slime.

His soldiers slithered and flopped

as if some magic had removed their bones.

Soon winter would invest the fort,

forcing them indoors to brood beside their fires

and analyse his failures. 

Vortigern this. Vortigern that.

Questions. Disappointment.

The patrols encounter roads

that fade into the heather,

ruins in the glens, tracery of walls,

fear and incomprehension

and neither had an answer.

No violent opposition.

Until one shepherd, caught on the run,

shaking with fear, stammered:

there was a fort in the north west:

it had been repaired.

‘In Wood or stone?’

So much hung upon the answer.

He didn’t know. It was a story he’d been told

by a drover he’d been drinking with.

He wouldn’t even swear that it was true.

Far from any road, overlooking a river

that drained hills to the north.

Playing dress up in the ruins

They watched, while rain was turning into sleet,

the great gate shaking in the wind.

There were guards on the wall.

So they retreated to the ruined vicus                                                                                          

where traders and camp followers had sold their wares

unwrapped their eagle, donned their fathers’ uniforms

and moved in line towards the gate.

It opened, men in armour moving out

a legion on the march. Adolf saw the future:

the roads busy, the towns thriving,

but no legion ever staggered,

ragged arsed into a line that bent.

He rode closer playing Roman.

There was nothing Roman or Imperial on view:

patchworks of rust and improvisation.

Someone whose faded plume suggested rank

stepped forward. Braided hair leaked

from the badly polished helmet.

Only the little gimlets of his twinkling eyes

broke the bearded, tattooed face.

He spoke a mix of Pict and Legion

Gloucester struggled to translate.

Inside the fort, the walls contained a rubbish tip.

Once neatly ordered barrack blocks were patterns in the mud.

Dirty children squabbled in the wreck of the Principia.

Dirty women moved amongst the dirty huts.

Removing bits of armour with relief,

the garrison was every other native they had met.

‘They said that you would come for us,

the oldies.

They said: “The bastards sailed without us.

They’ll return.’’

We buried the last of them so long ago.

My father’s father. Take us back to Rome.

Take us to the bath house and the forum.

The oldies said that Caesar would reward our loyalty.’

They celebrated in the wooden barn

that once had housed the grain.

Perhaps they thought it was a feast.

Perhaps, they thought that this was how

the legions honoured their important guests.

So Gloucester lied about his errand. Pretended

Rome was still unscathed, the Empire

sound but still in need of loyal troops.

Would they drill for him tomorrow?

Those who weren’t too drunk turned out.

He counted less than fifty,

some too old to stand up straight.

Echoes of empire in mangled Latin.

Their drill was comically inept,

like little boys playing dress up

in a misremembered game.

They were no use to anyone.

He couldn’t take them with him.

But they wouldn’t let him leave.

So Gloucester gave instructions.

They rode away.

The wooden buildings smoking in the rain.

The bodies piled into a heap.

The glory that was Rome

left for the raven and the wolf.

  1. Adolf is one of Laȝamon’s oddities. Although he is a British hero, he has a very German name []
  2. He is ‘Vortigern the Thin’ in Welsh tradition []

Compromising documents – the hidden history of constitutions

The U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides”, one of the United States Navy’s first frigates

The Gun, the Ship and the Pen: Warfare, Constitutions and the Making of the Modern World

Linda Colley, Profile, 512 pages, £25

KEN BELL finds a new way of looking at global constitutional history

A history of constitution making does not sound like a page turner at first glance, but in the hands of Linda Colley it becomes one, as she upends the notion that constitutions are necessarily liberal documents that helped only in the creation of the modern nation state. For her, their modern origins are imperial and grew out of the clash of empires in the 18th century. Many were not even born out of liberal thought; Catherine the Great spent long hours drafting a guide for legislatures that aimed at putting autocratic rule on a constitutional footing.

One of the questions that historians always seek to answer is why events occur at a particular moment in history, and not either before or after that moment. For Colley, the desire to write constitutions came about as a result of the “hybrid warfare” of the period, with empires clashing on land, at sea, and all across the globe. Those wars were costly in terms of lives lost, to say nothing of the financial terms. During the Seven Years’ War from 1756-1763, “Prussia lost an estimated 500,000 troops and civilians out of a pre-war population of 4.5 million.” The cost of those global wars to the taxpaying class was enormous, as just to build a 72-gun man of war took over 3,000 mature oak trees, along with acres of canvas, miles of rope and tons of iron for the nails to hold it all together.

Giving men constitutional rights made them more likely to put on a uniform and risk their lives for a cause. That is why so many generals were also constitutionalists, from Toussaint Louverture in Haiti to Napoleon Bonaparte in France, along with many of the men who met in Philadelphia in 1789 to draft the American constitution. At the same time, the men who paid the taxes would be more inclined to pay up with only minimal grumbling, if they had the right to vote for the governments that were levying the taxes to fight the wars.

The men who created the American Constitution met in secret, but as soon as the document had been finalised someone leaked it to the press. Then the jobbing printers got hold of it and ran off cheap pamphlets that contained the draft constitution along with essays that defended or attacked it. Ships carried these types of political works across the oceans, so what began as a Western affectation was quickly picked up by other cultures who wanted to get in on the cult of modernity. Simon Bolivar and the generals in South America swiftly created constitutions for the new republics that emerged in the wake of the defeat of the Spanish Empire and as Japan rushed to modernise from the middle of the nineteenth century, a constitution was swiftly adopted based upon the Prussian version.

Colley’s argument that these constitutions were often made by conservative military men, who wanted to ensure that other men would either serve in wars or pay for them, can also be used to explain why Great Britain did not adopt a written constitution. The English Civil Wars and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that followed a generation later had already settled and legitimised the English, then British, constitutional dispensation. The King reigned with the consent of Parliament, and not by divine right.  His Protestant subjects had the right to carry arms thanks to legislation passed in the wake of William of Orange’s accession. So the British already had what the rest were battling to obtain, just not in a single document. They also had Jeremy Bentham who was only too happy to offer advice to the political exiles who made London their home, and who could then use the London printing trade to produce their new documents and British ships to carry them wherever they needed to go.

As with most globalist histories, the odd error is bound to creep in, so the Americanists will immediately spot the mistakes in her comments about American technology during the Civil War. “Quick-loading rifles using high-calibre bullets that were potentially lethal at 600 yards or more replaced older, far less accurate, muskets,” she claims. I suspect that she meant to write high-velocity, rather than high-calibre, which is not true, either, but aside from that, both sides used muskets throughout the war, with the Union fielding Springfield rifles and the Confederacy the British Enfield. The fact that they had rifled barrels does not mean they were not also muskets, as they were loaded from the muzzle.

The claim that the Confederacy had a rail network similar to that in the United States will also raise a few eyebrows. The South had about 10,000 miles of track, with a myriad of gauges and very little that linked up to anywhere else; the aim was to get cotton to a river or port, rather than connect the South’s few urban areas. So the railways that ran into Richmond, Virginia, from the south could not then go through to the north as there was a gap of several miles in that city between northern and southern lines, that was covered by draymen with carts. But however enjoyable such pedantry may be, minor details of this kind do not detract at all from Colley’s fascinating and highly original argument.

Spirits of the Jazz Age – the Spiritualist craze of the Twenties

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD evokes an age of desperate belief

On 7 September 1919, the 60-year-old Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GP, lecturer, seafarer, sportsman, indefatigable social campaigner – and globally-renowned author of the Sherlock Holmes tales – shared the platform of a Spiritualist rally at the seafront Grand Hotel in Portsmouth with a 38-year-old medium named Evan Powell. The Great War had ended just ten months earlier, and it had taken a fearful toll on Conan Doyle’s family. He lost no fewer than 11 relatives either to combat or disease, among them his 25-year-old son Kingsley, who had been invalided out of the front line in France but then succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic. It was a blow from which many felt his father never quite recovered.

After several departed souls had apparently materialised on the stage of the hotel ballroom, Conan Doyle, his wife Jean, and five colleagues repaired to a private upstairs room where they searched Powell, tied him semi-naked to a chair, and turned off the lights.

“We had strong phenomena from the start”, Doyle later wrote to his friend the physicist Oliver Lodge.

The medium was always groaning, muttering, or talking, so that there was never a doubt where he was. Suddenly I heard a voice.

‘Jean, it is I.’

 My wife cried, It is Kingsley’.

I said, ‘Is that you boy?’

He said in a very intense whisper and a tone all his own, ‘Father!’ and then, after a pause, ‘Forgive me!’

Conan Doyle, who assumed Kingsley was referring to his earthly doubts about the paranormal, concluded his account by saying that he had then felt a strong hand pressing down on him, followed by a kiss on his forehead. “I am so happy”, his late son assured him.

This encounter would have a profound effect on Conan Doyle, hitherto best known as the creator of English literature’s most formidably rational human calculating machine. Soon the author turned away from detective stories and towards a steady stream of papers and speeches on the subject of what he called collectively the “new revelation”. It was now clear to him, he wrote, that this insight into the ultimate meaning of life was not for his benefit alone, “but that God has placed me in a very special position for conveying it to that world which needs it so badly.”

Of course, Conan Doyle wasn’t the first celebrity, or even the first literary giant, to apparently commune with the dead. In 1849, Charles Dickens had begun to attempt ‘mesmeric cures’ of his young sister-in-law, who was said to be suffering from ‘intestinal evil.’ The great novelist reported that his performances of ‘animal magnetism’, as hypnotism was then called, afforded him clairvoyant power. Personalities as diverse as Queen Victoria, W.B. Yeats, and Edvard Munch all later engaged in Spiritualistic efforts to reach a departed loved one. There was a dramatic surge of interest in the paranormal both during and in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, with its 620,000 military casualties and undetermined number of civilian deaths. In the White House, Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary held a series of candlelit séances following the loss of their 11-year-old son William to typhoid fever, by no means the last time a US president would dabble in the occult.

But it wasn’t until the early 1920s that the Spiritualist message really gripped the imagination of the Western public. It did so as a consequence both of the Great War, and of the period of unrivalled national prosperity that followed. It sometimes seemed that the concept lying deepest at the heart of American life, in particular, as that country embarked on its extended period of 20th-century world dominance was that of illusion. The nation had bread, but it wanted circuses – and now it got them, in an explosion of music halls and other places of entertainment offering a rich variety of fare whose most common artistic theme was the idea of mystification, legerdemain, or some other form of deception. In 1909, there were 427 officially licensed “Mentalists, visual deluders, and [other such] artistes” active in the seven core eastern seaboard states; a decade later, the figure had jumped to 6,390, quite apart from the profusion of “street fakirs, jongleurs, bunco merchants, miracle workers, healers and seers” one New York newspaper found at work in the city.

“The times hungered for something”, remarked Harry Houdini, a sceptic who knew something about escapism, in every sense of the term. “A war memorial had appeared in every town, and many people naturally sought some divine solace for their grief.” Unfettered by an established Church, America was particularly rich in alternatives, among them such sects as the Holy Rollers, the Holy Jumpers, and the estimated three million followers of the evangelist Frank Buchman, whose core gospel of ‘inclusiveness’ eventually led him to try to convert Adolf Hitler.

But none of those groups, however well-patronised or devoted to their various causes, compared in size or intensity to the worldwide Spiritualist crusade with Conan Doyle as its de facto head. By early 1923, there were reported to be some 14,000,000 ‘occasionally or frequently’ practicing occultists, served by a network of 6,200 individual churches or lodges, in North America alone. Barely a week passed without some sensational paranormal claim appearing in the newspapers or over the radio. ‘“MY FRIENDLY CONTACT WITH DEPARTED SOULS: MESSAGE RECEIVED FROM MURDERED CZAR”, by Grand Duke Alexander of Russia’ ran one such headline in the New York Times. A few weeks later, Doyle explored this same historical turf when he and some friends sat down in a darkened room of a London home and apparently made contact with the recently deceased Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. The revolutionary hero left the sitters with the cryptic advice: “Artists must rouse selfish nations”.

In Edwardian Britain, the fashion for Spiritualism often came with a feminist subtext. Women were thought to be uniquely qualified to communicate with spirits of the dead, and in the séance room, at least, a medium could enjoy a degree of independence and authority not readily available to her elsewhere. There are no reliable figures on actual attendance at séances or services, although it was widely believed at the time that an increasing number of the nominally respectable were dabbling in psychic affairs. When reviewing the history of Spiritualism in the UK, Houdini would remark that

…by the turn of the new [20th] century an invitation to tea amongst London’s gentility would often conclude with a candlelit course in which the spirits would be asked to reveal themselves by rotating or lifting the table, among other manifestations, to the delight of the audience.

As early as 1882, the British movement as a whole was sufficiently widespread to bring about the creation of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), with a committee of largely Cambridge-based academics promising

…to approach [Spiritualist] issues without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated

One can almost hear a foreshadowing of the ‘Follow the data’ mantra that distinguishes the great Covid debate of our own day. The SPR initially set up five subcommittees, to variously investigate Mesmerism, Mediumship, Reichenbach Phenomena (electromagnetic forces), Apparitions and Haunted Houses, and Séances, as well as a Literary Panel to study psychic history and conduct surveys. In one early census, the SPR asked 17,000 British adults whether they had ever experienced a “spiritual hallucination” while fully awake and in good health. Of the 1,684 who said they had, there were those who insisted that they had been psychically ‘embraced’ or ‘kissed’ by an unseen force, among several other less conventional liaisons.


There were several reasons other than the shock of war and the extended economic boom that followed for the early-20th century loss of momentum in the traditional religious dynamic. For one thing, science again. Who needed the Church, the theory went, when the answers to day-to-day life could be found in the laboratory? Presented at every turn with new labour-saving devices that owed their existence to breakthroughs in automation (this was the era of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine and the refrigerator), the Western man – and, increasingly, woman – in the street was ready to believe that technology could accomplish almost anything. On the loftier philosophical level, people were now reading daily about scientific developments that seemed to lend respectability to psychic beliefs.

Among the newly evolving doctrines that purported to question man’s role in the universe was Quantum Field Theory – on one hand, a structure designed to analyse the creation and annihilation of minute particles, and on another, a contemplation on the ‘non-observable’ material world. It was one of several such “seismic jolts”, as the lapsed Catholic Conan Doyle called them, of an era that also saw the belated confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, as well as the invention and rapid availability of the household radio, which Oliver Lodge, one of its pioneering figures, insisted was itself a medium that allowed the spirit world to communicate with the living one over the ether. Many people shed their traditional religious beliefs in the face of rational scrutiny, while, to others, science diluted religion to a watery sort of social work.

By the spring of 1921, the Spiritualism debate was sufficiently ingrained in all walks of life for it to be the theme of several prominent Easter Day church services on either side of the Atlantic. In fact, opposition to the occultist message seems to have united the ordained ministry of New York, in particular, to a degree not seen since their similarly stout defense of Prohibition in 1918-19. At the city’s Seventh Day Adventist Temple, for instance, an overflow audience of 672 heard Revd. Carlyle Haynes speak on the topic of “Can the Dead Come Back? An Answer to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle”. The minister of the Community Church of New York was compelled to hurriedly move proceedings to the nearby 800-seat Lyric Theater in order to accommodate a congregation reportedly “seething” for his own views on the subject. Rabbi Lewis Newman, preaching at the Temple Israel on Central Park West, roundly mocked the idea that “the departed ever bring tidings from the grave”, a notion that “could surely only be visualised by a writer of fiction”.

Meanwhile, what might be called the more enlightened, or charitable, Roman Catholic attitude was expressed by the British Jesuit priest Herbert Thurston, when he wrote:

If Spiritualism has the merit of upholding the belief that man is not purely material and that a future life awaits him, the conditions of which are in some measure dependent upon his conduct here on earth, it must be confessed that there is very little else to set to its credit. Catholic teaching recognises one divine revelation which it is the appointed office of the Church, in dependence upon the living voice of the Supreme Pontiff, to maintain inviolate. For this, Spiritualism substitutes as many revelations as there are mediums … all these communications being open to suspicion and, as the briefest examination shows, abounding in contradictions about matters most vital.

Many contemporaneous Roman Catholic views on the spirit world were not as benign as that. The Catholic author J. Godfrey Raupert, a psychic investigator who abandoned his initial sympathy on the subject, wrote in the 1921 edition of his book The Dangers of Spiritualism:

The root of Spiritism … is the diseased moral condition of the age … Too powerfully dominated by intellectual pride to submit to the law of Christ, men seek another world capable of demonstrative proofs … That they should build a system upon phenomena which elude rational examination, that they should stake their hopes for time and eternity upon manifestations which have so much in common with the juggleries of the magician, while at the same time they shut their eyes to the proofs of supernatural life and supernatural power which living Christianity offer them, is a melancholy example of that fatuous superstition which is so often the punishment of unbelief.

Even this was mild compared to the likes of Fr. Arnold Pinchard, who in July 1921 wrote to enlighten Arthur Conan Doyle about his views on the “deplorable tendency” of Spiritualists to put curiosity-seeking before the cardinal requirement of seeking God. “You probably do not realise that I speak as a Catholic,” he wrote, “and that Catholics have certain knowledge upon such matters which others like yourself, more in an atmosphere of doubtful empiricism, lack.” Some of Conan Doyle’s critics took a more robust tone even than that. The author was to remark of one telephone conversation with the perhaps well-named Lord Dunraven, a self-appointed ‘Catholic authority’ on a wide range of spiritual matters, that “he was so furious that I felt it best to hold the instrument away from my ear.”

Arthur Conan Doyle and “the little chap”, Harry Houdini

Perhaps the greatest, and certainly most theatrical, showdown between the two foremost public performers of their day, respectively representing the pro- and anti-Spiritualist camp, came when Conan Doyle and Houdini met in the author’s suite at the Ambassador Hotel in New Jersey’s Atlantic City one sunny afternoon in June 1922. Even the occult can have produced no stranger sight than that of the birthright Catholic, then a stout, mustachioed 63-year-old figure of military gait, seated alongside his equally substantial wife and the “little chap”, as Doyle affectionately called their guest, the latter dressed in an ill-fitting white tropical suit, with their heads bowed over a table in their candlelit room. They were there in an attempt to bring Houdini news from his sainted mother Cecilia, who had died nine years earlier. In time the three sitters joined hands, and said a prayer. For some moments after that, Lady Doyle, who had recently begun to show a gift for channelling the spirits, sat motionless, poised over the blank writing pad before her. Then, with a jolt, the pencil in her hand began to move.

“It was a singular scene” Conan Doyle later wrote,

…my wife with her hand flying wildly, beating the table while she scribbled at a furious rate, I sitting opposite and tearing sheet after sheet from the block as it was filled up, and tossing each across to Houdini, while he sat silent, looking grimmer and paler every moment.

Lady Doyle was eventually to produce 15 pages seemingly full of the late Mrs. Houdini’s expressions of love for her son, including the statements “I am so happy in this life”, and “It is so different over here, so much larger and bigger and more beautiful”, and concluding, “God bless you, Sir Arthur, for what you are doing”. It was “profoundly moving” for all parties, Doyle later wrote, and a “striking affirmation of the soul’s immortality”.

When they met in New York two days later, Houdini gave Conan Doyle the impression that he believed “my mother really ‘came through’ … I have been walking on air ever since”. Over the next few weeks, Doyle spoke effusively of the event in public meetings, and in a full-length book he called Our American Adventure, while the ‘little chap’ apparently did nothing to contradict him. But perhaps it was all another case of artifice by a master of the craft, because Houdini later marked a newspaper report of the event with a satirical “Ha! Ha! Ha!”, while coming to wonder why it was that his dear mother should have chosen to communicate with him in fluent English, a language she had never spoken.

Samson’s Riddle – At Saint So-and-So’s – Caravaggio Catching Fireflies

MICHAEL YOST is a teacher, freelance essayist and poet. He lives in rural New Hampshire with his wife and two sons.

Samson’s Riddle

From the stench of rotting hide,

From the hot and muscled weight of death,

From the hunter’s tawny jaw,

From the ancient eater’s mottled mouth,

            Comes wealth of peace;

Comes a city from the open side,

Comes the hum of honeyed breath,

Comes the transformation of the law,

Comes the manna in the drouth,

            From all decease.

At Saint So-and-So’s

Highway traffic scores and hums

Beneath the Sabbath hymnody.

Laymen in tropic shirtsleeves come

Their wives in wireless fidelity arrayed.

The seating is precise, the manners casual.

Grins and handshakes are exchanged

Inside the sanctuary gate as usual.

Outside, Escalades and Honda Pilots range.

The Victim crouches on his cross an hour,

Tired as an aging wall-flower,

Who will not speak to the rotarians

Any more than Pharisees or Arians.

He turns with an embarrassed groan

Towards the altar, with its flower pots

And the altar boys, their hair well combed

Whose sagging bodies tell their wandering thoughts.

Soon these will return to the world they know;

Soon ever and again they will return

To low-calorie beer, boutiques, and late night shows,

To spread-sheets, focus-groups, and therapists in turn.

They will leave the cobwebbed well

And wander through the desert’s stations

For gross are the hearts of the nations

And uncultivated is the soil.

Caravaggio Catching Fireflies

As the sunlight fades and dies, Caravaggio catches fireflies

amid chiaroscuro, and the studio light;

With pestle reforms fire into night

Cups the light, turns alchemist, and drinks

Converting it to darkness as the daylight sinks.

The Break of Day – Lugubrious Fall Evening – The Walk

GREG HUTESON’s poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Orbis, The Honest Ulsterman, A New Ulster, the Alabama Literary Review, Trinity House Review, BigCityLit, and various other journals. For the past 20 years, he’s lived in China and Taiwan.

The Break of Day

Though still, I’m ringed by flocks of middling angels,

smudged guardians of no specific rank.

They are half-bored and overlook

my seafood porridge and my tilted chair,

even the cautious pigeon on the ledge.

Now with these spirits, there’s no need to quake

or craven urge to fall and then revere.                                                                                     

They are too simple, motley and too dull.                                                                              

And while they stand and watch, these lax recruits,

they sometimes shuffle in their stained white boots.

Once breakfast’s done, ceramic bowl aside,

I tug my leather Bible from the shelf

and knock the Songs of Innocence askew.

The woolly beings start to twist and squirm

despite the faces, wings and dervish wheels.

They yawn at these symbols in Ezekiel one.

The languor of familiarity

is my conjecture of the likely cause.

Impiety? Who knows, for they are not 

inclined to speak, these dingy, fretful ones.

The Lamb and golden throne are more their choice

than a pine desk and scruffy leather book

illuminated by an alley light.

The yellowed rag quilt, it discomfits them

as do the tiles and drifting strands of dust.

I fear that they aspire to a raise,

a quick promotion to a senior rank,

a place, say, in a holy man’s small guard.

That or the ranks around a seraph chief,

a speedy end to skirting my divan.

The Bible closed, I stand and lift my hands

to pick the firstfruits of the autumn day,

then shuffle to the door. The angels wait

in twos and threes to file out and grunt

half-heartedly of lethargy and doom.

Lugubrious Fall Evening

And still the sun, it does not slant or slope.

The flame-licked clouds, they neither ash nor fall.

The moon withholds its ice-flecked eyes and hope.

As squirrels scramble from the oaks then crawl,

the split-tongued crows scorn each other’s croaks

and roosters – hellions – strut, prepare to brawl.

The sombre hounds are slouched among the folk

and shorthair kittens crouch and glare like thieves

while hawks abide on draughts and stare at smoke.

Pecan trees slough their nuts and jagged leaves.

The chastetree stands all twisted and all bare.

The rose’s prickly branches lack safe sleeves.

The while the grass lies staggered in fraught air

and sandburs’ seeds await a heel or toe.

Cicadas are long burrowed on a dare.

The wind is up. The barometer is low.

The storm drain cracks its narrow yawn

as twigs and tattered things jig to-and-fro.

Old toys are littered on the dirt-patched lawn.

A chair tossed crooked near a rubber ball,

a garland draped across a metal fawn.

And still the sun has not yet found its fall.

The clouds still hesitate to tear and drain.

The moon may rise to a salubrious squall.

The Walk

We walk not glad and ramble on.

A white-haired lady hums and strides along.

Half-tugging at a wagon in the street,

a toddler halts to study grey pecans

when, randomly as coughs in crowded trains,

a rusting Chevy pickup backfires twice.

The toddler and the lady start and stare

like us. The sky is flecked with heedless clouds,

all blithely butting, heading east and glad.

We talk not sad and stumble on.

A pecan-filled tree, anomaly among

the junipers, is stacked with cracker crows.

A broken trike’s upended on the lawn.

Quite nonchalant, some flop-eared Nubian goats

stand tightly packed on doghouse roof,

the droopy watchmen of this dreary place.

Their yard is marked by sagging wire mesh,

a mongrel barrier, neglected, sad.

We gloat not bad and bumble on.

The braggart crows would swagger if they could.

Yes, they would hook and tug their belt loops hard

while closely eying one or two pecans.

When three hop down and spit their brownish chaw

in narrow streams into the checkered dust,

the others wildly thrust their heads and caw.

And if they could, they’d slap each other’s backs

for this is their new-seized demesne. It’s bad.