This is another fragment found amongst the Jack Vincent Papers, the first volume of which I edited and published last year. Like the story of the murderer George Slaughter, this curious little anecdote was not part of the packet containing the second memoir, and I confess that I am not entirely sure where it belongs. I’ve decided to share it here because it confirms my theory that Jack Vincent and the author and traveller George Borrow knew each other, while also providing an interesting portrait of my hometown, Norwich, in the early-1850s…
I do not believe in anything. My dear wife was always more religious than I. That is to say she was more open-minded when it came to matters spiritual and incorporeal, tending towards a polite agnosticism over my own intractable atheism, and general scepticism towards the supernatural beyond the pages of my own fiction.
The current fashion for talking to the dead started about four years ago. While Europe was in revolt and the Chartists were falling apart, across the Atlantic the veil was lifting. It began in a desolate farmhouse in the Hudson Valley, where the Fox Sisters, Kate and Maggie, struck up a dialogue with an entity that had been nightly tormenting the family by banging on walls, doors and windows. They asked the presence questions which it affirmed or denied by rapping, clearly indicating some sort of intelligence. The girls called it ‘Mr. Splitfoot.’ They said it was the ghost of a murdered peddler.
CURSING and stumbling, Anne and Bannockburn fled blindly from Blackbeard’s fortress in stolen boots. Every step was a symphony of agony, but despite the ravages of their starved and tortured frames, they ran as if the Great Adversary himself was upon their heels, and, given the Stygian dungeon from which they had lately been liberated, who could say he was not? The local inhabitants of the island, they had learned, believed the dreadful pirate Edward Teach to be a demon, and there was no doubt in Bannockburn’s mind that something alien and terrible now possessed the spirit of the already brutal buccaneer. He gripped the hilt of the sword that he had taken from a poisoned guard, along with his boots, and ran on, following the boy who had aided their escape as he crashed through the leathery jungle foliage that concealed paths which, he claimed, were known only to his family.
So this is how the big project first began, as an interior monologue that came to me quite spontaneously while I was still living in Japan, just over ten years ago. This was the voice of a soldier in the water after the Birkenhead went down on February 26, 1852, off Danger Point, a Victorian naval disaster that had fascinated me since I’d first come across the story as a student in the late-90s. It’s rough, but you can see the premise quite clearly. After writing two incomplete versions of the manuscript with the protagonist a soldier from the ranks, the first Irish, the second English, I realised he needed to be a journalist instead…
We were approaching the islands of Madeira, about midway in our journey, the day we lost a man and a horse. The animal belonged to Sheldon-Bond, and he was considerably more put out by its passing than he was that of the human being that accompanied it into the void. The young subaltern remained in a foul humour for the rest of that miserable and ill-omened day, his unfortunate man, Private Dodd, getting the worst of it. I tried to avoid him, as there was already bad blood between us, but this was difficult given the confines of the ship. As he stormed around the deck like a vengeful wraith in a graveyard, I could read the message in his eyes when they connected with my own quite clearly.
Jack Vincent used to be famous, part of a rising generation of literary authors that included Dickens, Ainsworth and Thackeray. Now he’s a nobody, scratching a living as a freelance journalist writing for a penny a line. Worse, the only job he can get is on a troopship bound for the frontier wars of colonial Africa. Outed as a friend of Dickens at the captain’s table, Jack recounts the events that have brought him to this fallen state. It is a journey that begins in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison and ends in the shark infested waters of the Western Cape and his berth on the HMS Birkenhead, the Victorian Titanic.
For a family that’s not much bothered by celebrity autographs we seem to have nonetheless acquired a few as part of our collection of film and rock ’n’ roll memorabilia, an ongoing hoard that competes for shelf space in a small house with about 2,500 books and god knows how many comics, records and action figures. We’re not serious collectors, like our friends Matt and Ray at Geek Shelf, whose walls are covered in signed convention photos of them beaming next to a positive pantheon of sci-fi and horror legends; our stash is much more limited and, to a certain extent opportunistic, if not downright eclectic.