Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Book Review: A Plague of Pythons by Frederik Pohl

A Plague of PythonsA Plague of Pythons by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I heard that Frederik Pohl, one of the Grand Old Masters of science fiction, had died earlier this month, I rummaged through my collection of vintage paperbacks looking for something of his I hadn't read. I came up with this short 1965 novel.

Someone or something is taking over people's minds and leading them to commit horrible crimes. Nuclear bombs go off, people go on killing sprees, and in one unsettling scene a jetliner crashes into the Pentagon. The people who get possessed are fully aware of what is happening but are unable to stop themselves, having to watch helplessly as their bodies kill, main, and rape those around them. Then they are let go and have to live with the guilt of their crimes.

No one knows why this is happening and as you might expect, civilization is quickly unraveling. Then one man begins to learn the truth, and is faced with the choice of stopping the madness or taking on this power for himself.

This is a gripping tale that still seems fresh more than 40 years later. It lost a bit of an edge when the protagonist learned what was causing the possession, but the story built up again as he gets wrapped up in the conspiracy. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes the genre.

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Friday, September 27, 2013

Wild West Photo Friday: Mexican Rurales

These tough looking hombres are Mexican rurales from the late 19th century. The rurales were officially called Guardia Rural (Rural Guard) and were founded in 1861 to fight the numerous bandits that infested the Mexican countryside.

They were a cavalry force that chased criminals across the land and quickly gained a reputation for brutal efficiency. They were trained like soldiers but acted like gunslingers. In fact, many bandits, once caught, were given the choice between prison or joining the rurales!

During the wild days in Arizona in the 1880s, when places like Tombstone were getting shot up on a regular basis, the rurales had their work cut out for them. The Cowboys, a loose-knit group of rustlers living in southern Arizona, often went south of the border to steal cattle, bring them north over the border, rebrand them, and then sell them.

Mexican ranchers, of course, resisted, and often got killed. The rurales stepped in and started fighting the Cowboys. They took some tough hits (which we'll talk about in a later post) but eventually put enough pressure on the Cowboys that they started rustling American ranches instead, as well as robbing stagecoaches. This escalation of crime north of the border heightened tensions in Tombstone with the law enforcement faction led by Wyatt and Virgil Earp and eventually led to the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

The rurales still exist and still fight bandits, although mostly they work to eradicate marijuana crops.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book Review: AD 410 The Year that Shook Rome

AD 410: The Year That Shook RomeAD 410: The Year That Shook Rome by Sam Moorhead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The British Museum Press is famous for producing clear, well-illustrated books about archaeological subjects, and this volume is no exception. It focuses on Alaric the Visigoth's sacking of Rome in 410 AD, a momentous event that signaled the imminent collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

The authors go into detail about the politics that led to the sacking, especially Rome's mismanagement of the Visigoths. This Germanic tribe was fleeing the Huns from the east, and wanted only some land and food, offering loyalty and military help in return. The Romans in their arrogance spurned the Visigoths' offer and instead starved and massacred them. Alaric comes off as forgiving to a fault in this narrative and the Romans missed several opportunities to make good.

The book follows several other stories as well, including the clash between paganism and an emergent Christianity, rebellions in Africa and Britain, and relations with the Eastern Roman Empire, later to be called Byzantium.

Long quotes from several contemporary writers liven up the text, and there's a helpful Who's Who and annotated bibliography in the back. While any serious student of Late Antiquity will find little that is new, the educated lay reader for whom this book is targeted will find this an enjoyable, somewhat complex, and enlightening read.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Civil War veterans invade Canada!

Courtesy Canadian Military Heritage

If I wrote this up as a novel, readers would complain that it was unbelievable, yet this actually happened.

In 1866, the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States was determined to free Ireland from British rule. Many were battle-hardened veterans from both the Union and Confederate armies and they hit upon a daring plan--capture Canada and use it as a bargaining chip with England.

On June 1, 1866, barely a year after the end of the Civil War, an army of about 1200 Fenians crossed the Niagara River. The Canadians reacted quickly and rushed some 850 militiamen to the area, including many University of Toronto students who got to skip class. None of the Canadians had ever been in a battle and only half had ever practiced with live ammunition.

The two sides met near the village of Ridgeway, Ontario. While the Canadians were outnumbered, they only faced the Fenian advance guard, which was roughly equal to their numbers.

At first all went well for the Canadians. They pushed back the Fenian skirmishers and engaged the main line. The Canadians drove them back for about an hour, when suddenly all went wrong. A few Fenian horsemen appeared, and fearing a cavalry charge the Canadian commander ordered his men to form a square. When he saw no such charge was imminent, he ordered his men to reform a line. This put the main body too close to the Canadian skirmish line and he ordered the main line to withdraw.

Other Canadian units saw this rearward action and assumed their comrades were retreating. They withdrew, and the Canadians' inexperience turned a rearrangement of the line into a general retreat. The veteran Fenians charged and turned the retreat into a rout.

The Canadians lost 7 killed and 37 wounded. Several more died of their wounds later. The Fenians had 6 killed and 10 wounded. While the Fenians carried the day, they realized the stiff resistance they'd met guaranteed more battles to come. Canada wouldn't be a pushover and their relatively small numbers would spell defeat in the long run. The Fenians slipped back into the United States. Many deserted and headed home while the leaders and about 850 men surrendered to U.S. forces.

You can read some first-hand accounts of the battle at the Queen's Own Rifles website, and blogger buddy and Canadian army chaplain "Mad Padre" recently refought the Battle of Ridgeway as a wargame.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

I got a short story accepted!

I recently signed a contract with Rocking Horse Publishing, a Missouri-based small press, for one of my short stories to appear in an anthology. The anthology is called Spirits of St. Louis: Missouri Ghost Stories, and will be available next month in print and electronic formats.

My story, "After the Raid", is a spinoff of my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness. It tells the story of Helena, who sees her father gunned down by bushwhackers in front of their home and wreaks a terrible revenge. . .

I never got to fully tell Helena's story in the novel so this was a good chance!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Scorched Earth Policy in Civil War Missouri

By the middle of 1863, 150 years ago, the Civil War in Missouri had gotten nasty. Regular Confederate forces had long since been pushed out of the state, but the Union troops were constantly harassed by cavalry raiders and guerrillas.

Many Missourians supported the South, especially in the small towns and countryside, and Union troops took vengeance on them by burning their homes, barns, even entire villages. Guerrillas did the same with Unionist homes and villages.

For example, in June a Union scouting party torched the house of a Mr. Robertson after guerrillas had been found sheltering there on two occasions. They also burnt the town of Sibley, which the guerrillas used as a base for sniping at boats passing down the Missouri River. That same month, rebel guerrillas burnt the Unionist town of Butler in Bates County. After the civilians fled the inferno there were no more Union families in the county.

In August, another Union detachment torched Gouge's Mill. They'd found a recruitment poster for the Confederate army tacked to a tree nearby, and discovered it was a rendezvous point for Confederate recruiters and a local guerrilla band. There was a blacksmith shop and gunsmith shop on the premises that the rebels used to repair their equipment. Another house nearby where they were accustomed to stay was also burned to the ground.

The war in Missouri would only get worse.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. This is actually a modern fire of an early 20th century barn, with the firefighters cropped out. :-)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review: Nanok and the Tower of Sorrows by Jack Badelaire

Nanok and The Tower of Sorrows (The Adventures of Nanok #1)Nanok and The Tower of Sorrows by Jack Badelaire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novella is by Jack Badelaire, better known for his excellent Commando series of war novels. Here the author takes on a different subject--old school pulp fantasy in the vein of Robert E. Howard.

There are far, far too many Conan pastiches circulating these days, but fortunately Badelaire takes a lighthearted approach. There are lots of jokes and pratfalls mixed in with Badelaire's signature fight scenes.

I especially enjoyed all the references to fantasy fiction and movies. In his adventures Nanok even meets The Beastmaster (oh, sorry, The Master of Beasts!), one of the more embarrassing fantasy films of our youth. There could have been more, though. What? No reference to The Barbarians or Willow? I would have loved seeing mighty-thewed Nanok cleaving Willow's head in with his massive sword.

Anyway, this is a fun little read, nothing Earth shattering, nothing you'll be tempted to read again, but an amusing way to spend an hour or so. If you want something meatier, check out his Commando books. Those are more serious, and seriously good.

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Book Review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

The Prague CemeteryThe Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Umberto Eco is back with a typically convoluted novel that showed his zest for minutely detailing odd corners of history.

Set in late 19th century Paris and Italy, it follows the exploits of a fictional counterfeiter of legal documents as he meets with the real (and really strange) figures of his era.

Simone Simonini is entirely without scruple and apolitical except for a deep undercurrent of antisemitism. He will forge documents for anyone but prefers to create conspiracy theories about the Jews. As you might suspect, he contributes to that notorious fake, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of Hitler's favorite reads and still a bestseller in many Muslim countries.

Eco is at his best when describing the bizarre beliefs of bygone ages, something he returns to again and again in his fiction. He's in top form here, with lots of information about the Freemasons, political radicals, and religious hucksters of the era. At times, however, it gets a bit long winded and reads as if it was lifted verbatim from century-old sources.

Another problem is the narrative conceit. Simonini has lost his memory, and carries on a correspondence with a clergyman who may or may not be his alter ego and who seems to know everything he doesn't. I saw no reason for this structure and it quickly becomes tiresome, as do the broad winks to the reader. His first two books, The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, were much better.

Still, it's a fun read and gives a detailed skewering of the Protocols and how they were cobbled together from earlier antisemitic screeds and novels. It gives this frivolous romp through history a relevant tone.

I give this book three and a half stars.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: A Duel Between Confederate Generals

"You're a coward!"
Remember Confederate General John Sappington Marmaduke? He was best known for raiding Missouri, although he had some fatal flaws as a cavalry commander.

This didn't stop him from being judgmental about his fellow officers. After the Battle of Helena, Marmaduke felt General Marsh Walker had let the side down. He accused him of "avoiding danger", basically saying he was a coward. The fact that Walker was later given some of Marmaduke's troops didn't help matters.

That was in July of 1863, but in September, 150 years ago this month, Marmaduke began to be vocal about Walker's supposed cowardice. Walker heard of this and, being a Southern gentleman, demanded satisfaction.

Both were in command of troops defending Little Rock, Arkansas, from an advancing and considerably larger Union army, but they didn't let little things like a military crisis from standing in the way of their egos.

"Wanna fight?"
At dawn on September 6, the two met at a plantation seven miles north of the city. With a crowd of officers looking on, the two men stood back to back with drawn pistols. They then marched fifteen paces, spun, and fired. Both missed. Marmaduke was the first to get another shot off, putting a bullet into Walker's side. The general staggered back, firing off a shot that went wild as he fell to the ground.

Walker lingered for a whole day, during which time he wrote a statement to his friends and family that they should forgive Marmaduke and not do him any harm. Soon after, Walker died, a gentleman to the last.

Marmaduke's commander General Sterling Price could have had him court marshaled and shot, but with the enemy at the gates he kept him in command. The Union army pushed the rebels out of Little Rock on September 10 and as the Confederate army retreated everyone seemed to forget about Marmaduke's deed. He continued to command troops until he was captured in the autumn of 1864.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Civil War Horror tops 100,000 hits!

My hit counter told me yesterday that I've gone past 100,000 hits! Thanks for reading, everyone!

This isn't the only place I can be found on the Internet. I'd love to connect with you beyond this blog. We can talk books on Goodreads, follow each other on Twitter, and you can see all of my news and online articles on my Facebook fan page. If you want to chat privately, feel free to email me at the address on the sidebar.

And if you're looking for help promoting your work, check out the How Can I Help You? page on this blog.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Civil War Photo Friday: An 1864 Silver Dollar

When I was writing my Civil War novel A Fine Likeness, I had a scene where the protagonist pulls a silver dollar out of his pocket. Then, being the stickler for accuracy that I am when it comes to historical novels, I wondered if silver dollars actually existed in 1864.

It turns out they did, and they were beauties!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Apocalypse is here! Yippee!!!

Today is "The World Ends How?" blogfest to celebrate Hart Johnson's latest book. More on that below. But first she's asked fellow bloggers how they think the world will end.

My answer? Slowly, painfully, and through our own ignorance. We will keep poisoning the air and seas, keep fighting each other, keep increasing our population, until it all begins to fall apart. And we won't change even then.

For more, check out my personal vision of the apocalypse. For Hart's vision, read on!

Deadliest virus in a century, or a social experiment gone awry?

Every year they warned about the flu and more often than not, it amounted to nothing. Sidney Knight, a young freelance reporter had certainly never written on it. But a trip to Lincoln City, Oregon, cut short by a beach full of dead seagulls and a panicked warning from her brother the scientist catch her attention.

This batch is different. Deadlier. And the vaccine doesn't seem to be helping. It almost looks like it's making it worse...

A Flock of Ill Omens: Part I is the first episode of A Shot in the Light, an Apocalypse Conspiracy Tale about what happens when people play God for fun and profit. There will be approximately ten episodes, each the equivalent of about 100 pages. Good Reads has a sneak peak posted. You can find the purchase link and more information about the book here. And if you want it FOR FREE, I will be offering it free on the release dates of at least the next two in the serial: September 19 and October 10.

Hart Johnson writes books from her bathtub and can be found at Confessions of a Watery Tart, though be warned. She is likely to lead you into shenanigans.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Wild Bill Hickok in the Civil War

When we think of Wild Bill Hickok, we usually think of him as an Old West gunfighter and scout on the Plains. Here he is, second from left, with some of his scout buddies. Like many of his kind, however, he was involved in the American Civil War.

His war service got off to a humble start when he signed on to the Union army as a civilian scout. He was at the Battle of Wilson's Creek, where the noise of the cannon fire so frightened him that he was momentarily paralyzed.

Later he served as a wagonmaster, once having to make a quick escape when his wagon train was attacked by rebel bushwhackers. By early 1862 Hickok had become a scout again. He probably figured that if he was going to be involved in the fighting anyway, he might as well have a more impressive title! He saw action at the Battle of Pea Ridge and probably numerous smaller engagements.

He did so well at the battle that the Union command made him a spy, riding around the Missouri countryside without a uniform while trying to learn about rebel troop and guerrilla movements. When Confederate General Sterling Price invaded Missouri in 1864, a campaign that serves as the background to my novel A Fine Likeness, Hickok was sent to infiltrate Price's camp.

This he did, and according to his own account he was able to hang out in Price's headquarters and gather useful information. But that information would be of no use if he couldn't get back to his own lines. So one day when pickets from the opposing armies were lined up on opposite sides of a river, Hickok dared a boastful Confederate sergeant into riding out into the river with him to see who would get closest to the Yankees.

The Union soldiers recognized Hickok and held their fire. One of them was dumb enough to cheer, "Bully for Wild Bill!" The sergeant became suspicious, and so Hickok blasted him out of his saddle. Then he urged his horse through the water as the rebels opened fire after him. He returned safe and deliver the information to the Union command.