Alt Hist Issue 6 is pretty much published. We are just waiting for one more retailer to sort their catalogue out – Apple iBooks, but otherwise you can now get Alt Hist Issue 6 from the usual suspects. I’ll post fully all the details next week when iBooks is up to speed!
Alt Hist Issue 6 includes four wonderful alternate history stories, plus a great “straight” historical fiction set in 1914 about a teenage girl accused of war crimes. The alternate history stories cover some classic areas for speculative fiction and of interest to alternate history buffs: what if Hitler won the war, what if the Germans invaded Britain in WW2, who really killed JFK and what if the Cold War turned hot? But none of these tales are just speculation on alternative versions of history. They all share what you have come to expect from Alt Hist: a strong story and engaging characters.
Alt Hist is the magazine of Historical Fiction and Alternate History, published twice a year by Alt Hist Press.
Stories featured in Alt Hist Issue 6:
“B-36”by Douglas W. Texter
“ Battalion 202: Worm in the Apple” by Jonathan Doering:
“The Iceberg” by Andrea Mullaney
“When Shots Rang Out” by Lynda M. Vanderhoff
“Hitler Is Coming” by Martin Roy Hill
Set in a world in which the early Cold War grows very hot, “B-36”by Douglas W. Texter tells the tale of what might have happened if the Soviet Union had taken Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. In this world, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal orders a B-36 piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Drummond and a very special mission commander to fly to the Soviet Union with a secret “gimmick” on board. The results of the mission are world-changing.
The next instalment of Battalion 202 by Jonathan Doering: “For all I know, you’re dirty as well.” Christopher felt his chest flare. “Alright then, if you don’t believe me, shoot me.” A worm enters an apple. It is seeking food, shelter. It is only acting on its nature. But sooner or later the apple will turn rotten. Everything will explode. There is a traitor in Pontefract Auxiliary Unit. A traitor who places his own survival and success in the new Nazi state ahead of everything – even the lives of his comrades….
On Boxing Day, 1914, a teenage girl sits in an Edinburgh prison awaiting trial for a war crime. Her lawyer finds himself captivated by her as he tries to establish the truth of the case, whose roots lie in the Titanic disaster two years before. ‘The Iceberg,’ by Andrea Mullaney, is based on an extraordinary true story.
In “When Shots Rang Out” by Lynda M. Vanderhoff JFK was a well known ladies man, but his family has suffered under a curse that is nearly Shakespearian in scope. Could it be that Kennedy upset the wrong person with his philandering, putting in motion the death and bad fortune that would see his family destroyed?
What would the United States be like if Hitler won the Second World War? In “Hitler Is Coming” by Martin Roy Hill protagonist Paul Klee is an OSS veteran and police investigator on temporary assignment to the post-war American SS to stop a plot to kill a victorious Adolf Hitler on his first visit to the U.S. From fascist cabbies to corrupt Party gauleiters, Klee wends his way through an America most Americans today never knew once existed.
Alt Hist is proud to be part of ShortStops – a new website that acts as a hub for information and news about literary magazines in the UK and Ireland.
It’s a great idea, and one that I hope will thrive. Here’s some more information about the site:
I’m excited. About short stories. All short stories, all the time, that’s just who I am. I grew up in London but then moved abroad for 15 years. I started trying to write short stories in 1999, reading as many as I could, and going on writing workshops. When I moved back to the UK, to Bristol, in 2009, I thought I’d take a look around and see what was going on in the short story world. You know what I found. SO much! And here was this myth about the poor old, beleaguered and unloved short story. What? There’s so much love, and so much activity and so much talent and so much dedication and time and effort – and I thought that it was about time we got really excited about it all!
So I decided short stories in the UK and Ireland should get a little razzle-dazzle of their own. Do you know how much short story activity there is in your neighborhood, or a few miles down the road, or online? I bet you didn’t know there are almost 200 literary magazines that publish short stories round these parts… and dozens of “live lit” events where short stories are read, by their authors or by actors, every month? Not to mention the loooong list of contemporary authors who’ve published short story collections. And then we have even more short story links…
Our lists will grow and grow, and our site will fill up with blog posts from all these wonderful lit mags, live lit events and authors with news, calls for submission, extracts from new issues, photos of events, reviews and other treats. Don’t miss out – sign up for our newsletter to get regular updates from all these – or follow the blog by email, on Twitter @ShortStopsUK and Facebook.com/ShortStopsUK.
We’re here for you to find short stories to read, to find events where you can go andbe read to, and to find places to send your short stories.
It’s a short story party… and we’re only just getting started!
I don’t usually mention any of my own work on the Alt Hist website, but I’m afraid I couldn’t resist giving a bit of a shout out to a new novel that I have just published in eBook format – only available on the Kindle at the moment and currently FREE this weekend.
If you like historical fantasy and stuff set in the Middle Ages it might be for you, so please be my guest and take a quick look. Thanks!
What if the demons portrayed in the Middle Ages were real and could be conjured by necromancers?
And what if those seeking power decided to use demons to get what they wanted? In Hell has its Demons a plot unfolds to use demons to take the ultimate prize of all – the crown of Edward III, King of England.
Investigating an infestation of demons in the town of St Brett’s is the last thing that Jake Savage wants to do this summer. But for his master, the controversial Oxford scholar Roger Sotil, it is a chance to prove that demons can be conjured and avoid charges of heresy.
In St Brett’s Roger sees demons possessing the townspeople. Jake thinks they are just acting very strangely. The people are scared and want answers fast. A beautiful woman, Isabel Haukwake, is accused of witchcraft. Roger feels sure that she isn’t guilty. Jake knows she isn’t. He was once engaged to marry her, until his father took her from him.
Hell has its Demons is the first novel in a trilogy
This is a blog post written for Alt Hist by Séamus Sweeney about the writer Jorge Luis Borges and Historical Fiction, with particular focus on Ireland. Séamus is the author of Dublin Can Be Heaven from Alt Hist 3.
Jorge Luis Borges, Ireland, and Historical Fiction
The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) was one of the key figures in world literature during the twentieth century. Among his favourite themes was the recurrence of tales in different forms over the centuries, the strange way our present modifies and is modified by the past (“Kafka and His Precursors” is probably the best-known example of this), the recurrence of tropes and tales in different forms over the centuries, and how literature, history and life intersect each other. Borges also pioneered what is now a familiar postmodern literary strategy; the use of fictional scholarly apparatus such as footnotes referring to invented sources.
Much of Borges’ writing is, broadly speaking, “historical” in setting. One of the last things he could be described as being was a naturalist realist. He often expressed a certain contempt for “local colour” and the ostentatious use of purportedly local slang terms. He was thinking particular of tendencies in Argentinian writing; in the story “Streetcorner Man”, essentially a tale of the Buenos Aires underworld, one of the criminal characters declares that he and his associates were always too busy for the affectation of street slang.
Both “Theme of the Traitor and The Hero” and “The Shape of the Scar” utilise framing devices in which a narrator – anonymous in the former story, addressed as “Borges” at one point in the latter – introduces the story. The main narrative in both cases is set against the backdrop of the Irish struggle for Independence. “The Shape of the Scar” takes place in 1922, and while (as discussed below), details of the story do not correspond with that date, they do relate to the War of Independence-Civil War era of 1919-22.
“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” is, at first glance, a much more explicitly anachronistic story than “The Shape of the Scar”. Here the events described take place in 1824, and end with a successful Irish rebellion against British rule. This is obviously more or less a century out of date – but the reader is well prepared for a story in which fidelity to the historical record is not a priority by the introduction to the second paragraph:
“The action takes place in an oppressed and tenacious country: Poland, Ireland, the Venetian Republic, some South American or Balkan state…. Or rather it has taken place, since the narrator is contemporary. Let us say (for narrative convenience) Ireland; let us say in 1824.”
The framing device further distances the reader from the expectations of strict realism, and moors the story in a literary-philosophical context. The story begins:
“under the notable influence of Chesterton (contriver and embellisher of elegant mysteries) and the palace counsellor Leibniz (inventor of the pre-established harmony), in my idle afternoons I have imagined this story plot which I shall perhaps write some day and which already justifies me somehow.”
Ryan, the protagonist of this “story plot”, is:
“the great-grandson of the young, the heroic, the beautiful, the assassinated Fergus Kilpatrick, whose grave was mysteriously violated, whose name illustrated the verses of Browning and Hugo, whose statue presides over a grey hill amid red marshes.”
Kilpatrick, “a secret and glorious captain of conspirators”, was the Moses of the 1824 Irish rebellion, glimpsing but not reaching the promised land. Assassinated on the eve of the victorious revolt, “the British police never found the killer; the historians maintain that this scarcely soils their good reputation, since it was probably the police themselves who had him killed.” Kilpatrick’s martyrdom helped ensure the success of the revolt; an echo, perhaps, of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising whose killings turned the Irish populace, who had jeered the rebels as they were led off to prison, decisively in favour of the so called “Sinn Fein Rebellion” (a misnomer since the Sinn Fein party had nothing to do with the Rising whatsoever)
The centenary of Kilpatrick’s death approaches; Ryan is working on his now-venerated ancestor’s biography. The murder is still unsolved; but more than this “other facers of the enigma disturb Ryan. They are of a cyclic nature: they seem to repeat or combine events of remote regions, of remote regions.” Like Julius Caesar (in Plutarch and thereby Shakespeare’s account) Kilpatrick received a note en route to the place of assassination warning him of the plot against him. Stranger still, certain words spoken to Kilpatrick echo Macbeth; Ryan thinks of Spengler, of various cosmological theories, of universal histories. The narrative continues, and like other Borges stories (particularly “Death and The Compass”), and in what was a familiar technique of Chesterton, the seemingly mystical turns out to have an all too human explanation. The conspirators became aware of a traitor amongst them (a familiar occurrence in Irish history) Kilpatrick orders Nolan, a trusted lieutenant, to investigate; Nolan conclusively proves Kilpatrick himself is the traitor.
The revolutionary committee decides, on discovering Kilpatrick’s perfidy, that to reveal the betrayal would be a scandal the movement might not survive; better to try and ensure that the traitor’s death serve the cause by creating a martyr. In this story, the theme of recurrence, of life imitating literature, is explicit. Nolan was also author of a paper on the Swiss tradition of Festspiele (massive theatrical re-enactments with a cast of entire towns and valleys, and a setting exactly corresponding to where the action occurred) and also translated Shakespeare into Gaelic (an unlikely venture in the 1820s; much more likely during the Gaelic Revival later in the 19th Century)
Nolan tries to develop a drama that will cement Kilpatrick in the public mind as a martyr; working under pressure, he is forced to incorporate elements of Shakespeare. The narrator observes that “the passages imitated from Shakespeare are the least dramatic; Ryan suspects that the author interpolated them so that in the future someone might hit upon the truth.” And there is another characteristic Borgesian note struck when we read that “on the 6th of August, 1824, in a theatre box with funereal curtains prefiguring Lincoln’s, a long-desired bullet entered the breast of the traitor and hero, who, amid two effusions of sudden blood, was scarcely able to articulate a few foreseen words.” The fictional literary past echoes not only a further-back fictional literary past but also presages the history of our own past.
Illustrating the flexibility of the story’s structure, it was adapted by Bernardo Bertolucci into “The Spider’s Stratagem”, with the “hero” an anti-Mussolini luminary rather than an Irish nationalist. It is also interesting to note how precise Borges’ literary references (Browning, Hugo, Condorcet, Spengler, Hesiod) are, by contrast with the flouting of conventional chronology.
The Shape of the Sword (also translated as “The Form of The Sword”) is at first glance a more “historical” story. Here, the framing device is the narrator’s description of an encounter with an “Englishman” who farms some land in La Cordoba (one of the ironies of Borges’ work is that, for all the contempt for local colour, he could be exactingly specific in the settings of his stories.) This Englishman has a crescent-shape scar; with his employees he is “severe to the point of cruelty, but scrupulously just.” Every so often he confines himself to his own quarters for alcoholic sprees that last some days, from which he emerges shaken.
The narrator tries to ingratiate himself with his host by declaring that the spirit of England was incomparable; the response is one of agreement, but a wry admission that he is not an Englishman but an Irishman. The narrator later asks how this Irishman got his scar; the story which follows is the real narrative of the story.
The Irishman recounts his involvement with a band of rebels during the Irish War of Independence-Civil War years. Fighting in “one of the cities of Connacht”, the band is joined by “an affiliate from Munster … John Vincent Moon”
“He was scarcely twenty years old. He was slender and flaccid at the same time; he gave the uncomfortable impression of being invertebrate. He had studied with fervour and with vanity nearly every page of Lord knows what Communist manual; he made use of dialectical materialism to put an end to any discussion whatever. The reasons one can have for hating another man, or for loving him, are infinite: Moon reduced the history of the universe to a sordid economic conflict. He affirmed that the revolution was predestined to succeed. I told him that for a gentleman only lost causes should be attractive.”
A contrast is quickly established between Moon’s arrogant Marxist certainty and his cowardice:
“We moved into an unpaved street; a soldier, huge in the firelight, came out of a burning hut. Crying out, he ordered us to stop. I quickened my pace; my companion did not follow. I turned around: John Vincent Moon was motionless, fascinated, as if energized by fear. I then ran back and knocked the soldier to the ground with one blow, shook Vincent Moon, insulted him and ordered him to follow. I had to take him by the arm; the passion of fear had rendered him helpless. We fled into the night pierced by flames. A rifle volley reached out for us, and a bullet nicked Moon’s right shoulder; as we were fleeing amid pines, he broke out in weak sobbing … Moon, trembling, his mouth parched, murmured that the events of the night were interesting. I dressed his wound and brought him a cup of tea; I was able to determine that his ‘wound’ was superficial.”
Indeed, Moon’s dogmatism seems to be, in part, a defence against this cowardice;
“By the following day Moon had recovered his poise. He accepted a cigarette and subjected me to a severe interrogation on the ‘economic resources of our revolutionary party.’ His questions were very lucid; I told him (truthfully) that the situation was serious. Deep bursts of rifle fire agitated the south. I told Moon our comrades were waiting for us. My overcoat and my revolver were in my room; when I returned, I found Moon stretched out on the sofa, his eyes closed. He imagined he had a fever; he invoked a painful spasm in his shoulder. At that moment I understood that his cowardice was irreparable.”
Once again, the themes of betrayal and the role of the informer are to the fore. The hitherto unnamed Irishman recounts returning to the commandeered house the rebels have occupied, only to overhear Moon selling them and in particular him out to the authorities.
“Here my story is confused and becomes lost. I know that I pursued the informer along the black, nightmarish halls and along deep stairways of dizziness. Moon knew the house very well, much better than I. One or two times I lost him. I cornered him before the soldiers stopped me. From one of the general’s collections of arms I tore a cutlass with that half moon I carved into his face forever a half moon of blood. Borges, to you, a stranger I have made this confession. Your contempt does not grieve me so much.”
The reason this contempt is expected is then revealed: the storyteller and John Vincent Moon are one and the same: “Don’t you see that I carry written on my face the mark of my infamy? I have told you the story thus so that you would hear me to the end. I denounced the man who protected me. I am Vincent Moon. Now despise me.” Earlier, on learning of Moon’s cowardice, the storyteller reflects that:
“This frightened man mortified me, as if I were the coward, not Vincent Moon. Whatever one man does, it is as if all men did it. For that reason it is not unfair that one disobedience in a garden should contaminate all humanity; for that reason it is not unjust that the crucifixion of a single Jew should be sufficient to save it. Perhaps Schopenhauer was right. I am all other men, any man is all men, Shakespeare is in some manner the miserable John Vincent Moon.”
These words, which reflect a recurring preoccupation of Borges with the common identity of all men, take on a further irony with the final revelation. Perhaps, too, Borges has identified a subtler reason for the obloquy in which informers are held, and a reason why they are almost universally regarded as contemptible. Certainly the informer remained (and remains) a homo sacer in Irish republican circles – the reader can be referred to the fate of Denis Donaldson if they doubt that this persists in the age of the Stormont Assembly and an established Peace Process.
The chronological deviations here are subtler; the action, we are told, takes place in 1922 and “the fall of 1923”, at which point the Irish War of Independence has ended and the Civil War had begun. The story ends with “the Black and Tans” sacking the city; again this is anachronistic as the Black and Tans’ deployment would have ended with the War of Independence.
Born in 1899, Borges’ youth and young manhood coincided with those years from 1916 to 1923 which saw the modern Irish state’s birth. This, notwithstanding various complications, was the first successful anti-colonial struggle of the Twentieth Century; one which caught the imagination of publics worldwide. The two stories discussed above illustrate, perhaps, the extent to which Borges’ imagination was captured by the struggle for Irish freedom. They also illustrate how he used the raw material of such historical events in radically transformative ways. Joyce famously said that “in the particular is the universal”; Borges upended that credo so the universality of his fabulism became particular to many settings in many lands.
Borges pioneered a certain technique common in alternative history; that of the pseudo-footnote, the fictional piece of academic arcana, which can anchor a text as “historical” by use of the trappings of professional historians. He also represents a certain approach to historical fiction which could be termed anti-realist realism; by avoiding local colour, by avoiding an excess of detail, by avoiding evidence of hours of factual research, one actually achieves a more authentic depiction of a thought-world foreign to our own selves. And that is surely one plausible definition of historical fiction, and one plausible definition of alternate historical fiction also.