|Jack Martin is the author of the Alfonso Clay mysteries, set during the Civil War and after. Alfonso Clay is a small man, slender and precise, so those who do not know him tend to underestimate him and dismiss him as insignificant, a lightweight. This is a mistake, for Clay has an unusual heritage that makes him dangerous to himself, but even more dangerous to his enemies.
Q: Would you explain for our readers Alfonso Clay’s mysterious lineage?
A: On his father’s side, Clay is essentially an American aristocrat, cousin to Senator Henry Clay and the abolitionist Cassius Clay. It is from his mother’s side that he inherits a dark, even fearsome, strain. His mother was the child by a nameless woman of Friedrich von Juntz, a Prussian scientist and philosopher. The mother disappeared without a trace; some years later von Juntz was found literally torn to bits in a locked room. Their daughter was in the process of being burned at the stake as a witch when Clay’s father intervened, saving her life and eventually marrying her. In the Clay mysteries, it is later revealed that Clay’s father had not come across the mob by accident; he had learned of the young woman’s existence, and was desperate to marry her, convinced that their children would be superior in every way, bringing further glory to the name of Clay. Clay’s mother died shortly after his birth; but it would appear that his father had been right. Despite being of slight build, Clay has tremendous strength and speed, and preternatural intelligence. He also has a blood lust, of which he is deeply ashamed, and tries to control, with imperfect success.
Q: Where did the idea for this supernatural heritage come from?
A: Clay’s heritage is a “tip of the hat” to the great American horror writer Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Much of his fiction deals with the idea of poisoned blood heritage passing down through the generations. This is understandable as both of his parents died in madhouses, probably of tertiary syphilis. Although he never explicitly discussed it, he must have feared that this “heritage” had been passed down to him, and as many writers do, worked out his fears in his fiction. For examples of this, see his brilliant stories “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Rats in the Walls.”
Q: There are two books you refer to in the series, the two “Things It Is Not Good to Know” books that men who covet power very much desire to have and use. Are these real, actual books, and if so, how do you know about them?
A: I hate to disappoint the readers, but both books I refer to are fictional creations of H. P. Lovecraft. Unaussprechlichen Kulten by Friedrich von Juntz supposedly describes what he had learned of “unspeakable cults” and their practices. There really was a Dr. John Dee, an astrologer, scientist and code breaker who was very close to Elizabeth I of England. Lovecraft assigned to Dr. Dee the fictional English translation of the equally fictional book of magic, The Necromonicon of the mad Arab Abdul Al Hazred.
Q: There is the motif or archetype of the dangerous man who does good deeds, who can do what nicer men cannot. Clint Eastwood plays the Dangerous Man in most of his movies; so did David Carradine in the TV show Kung Fu, and there are many other examples. Who are some of your favorite heroes?
A: I have always been obsessed by the fact that bad men can do good things, and vice versa. For instance, the leaders who tried to appease Hitler had the purest of motives, avoidance of the horrors of another world war; yet their efforts made it inevitable. When I look at those historical characters whom I admire, it seems that all of them were hard, even bad, men who nonetheless did good things. Francis Drake was a pirate, pure and simple, a man who stole and murdered for money; yet in the end he helped save England and Western Europe from the horrors of Spanish absolutism and despotism. William Tecumseh Sherman was a bigot and a proponent of war against civilians; yet he undoubtedly shortened the Civil War and prevented the deaths of the tens of thousands of people that would have resulted from a longer war. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a liar, adulterer, and dictatorial man who dragged America into a war its population did not want; yet he gave the American people hope in their darkest days, and helped to prevent Fascism from coming to rule the world.
Q: Does Alfonso see the world in black and white, like a wolf? I almost mean this literally, but it has a metaphoric component too. At the same time, at a time when race and skin color were all that some people saw, he is peculiarly color-blind, because he looks at the inner man or woman.
A: Alphonso Clay is an outsider, and knows it. Differences in color and gender mean nothing to him, as he is all too aware that he is only part human, and that the inhuman part of him thirsts for blood and death. As he was brought up to believe in a rigid code of honor, he despises that in him which is inhuman, as he knows, if left uncontrolled, it would make him a ravening monster. At the same time, his father had drilled into him the importance of the Clay line in protecting America. Therefore, his hatred of his baser instincts, along with his unwavering devotion to the best interests of America, compel him to see issues in black and white.
Q: Clearly you do a great deal of research to make the events and historical personages in these stories fairly accurate. What drew you to this timeframe? Did a love of history come first, or do you have to research extensively before you can write each story?
A: The love of history definitely came first; I literally cannot remember a time when American history has not fascinated me. The same can be said for the Civil War time period. Interestingly, I never felt much sympathy for the Southern cause, unlike most writers of Civil War fiction. My tales are definitely from the Union’s point of view; in fact, by design it was not until my fourth novel that Confederates played a major on-stage role. That is not to say I am blind to wrongs committed by Union forces; for instance, I clearly describe the atrocities committed by Union General John Turchin. Of course, when I plot out a story, I make it a point to research the historic characters who will appear in great detail.
Q: What are your source materials for your knowledge?
A: They are almost too many to name. To begin, the trilogy by the late, great historian Bruce Catton is always the starting point for my research. A surprisingly good source for the higher levels of Union command is The Autobiography of Ulysses Grant; unlike most 19th Century military memoirs, it remains very readable, and gives unique insights into not only many top Union Generals but to Grant himself.
Q: I think I am not alone in my keen enjoyment of one of your secondary characters, the notorious Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil’s Dictionary and many Civil War stories, including “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which profoundly influenced Rod Serling and hence The Twilight Zone. It says something about Alfonso Clay that Ambrose Bierce can be the light to his dark! Does Bierce’s actual timeline constrain your narrative, or is it fairly easy to work within it? Have you ever had to change a plot because Bierce couldn’t have been where you wanted him?
A: I did not originally intend Bierce to be as major a character as he turned out to be. As I wrote the series, he just seemed to provide an interesting contrast to Clay. Despite Bierce’s reputation, he was a remarkable man who, in real life, retained the close friendships of a number of other remarkable men; his bitterness and cynicism arose from his disappointment as to how the world did not live up to his values. He wished the world to be better than it was; to that extent, he and Clay are alike. Several times in the series, Bierce could not have been where the timeline required him to be; I apologize to all informed readers. However, I always tried to give the flavor of the real Bierce; and his historic record is amazing enough. At the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain he was indeed shot through the head and left to die; he did not die, and in fact was back in combat in six weeks! In the fictional timeline, Clay senses that Bierce was a victim of evil, and therefore feels protective toward him. It is my personal opinion that in real life Bierce was sexually abused by his father. In his fiction, Bierce deals with incest about four times, and the murder of a parent about six; in an era of Victorian reticence, this is even more disturbing than it would be today. As an adult, he had nothing to do with any of his family, except to spirit away his youngest brother and see that he was raised far from old man Bierce. I am not explicit about this in the Clay stories; but the implication of abuse is there, along with Clay’s pity for Bierce.
Q: Your female protagonist gives a whole new level of meaning to Kipling’s adage, “The female of the species is more deadly than the male.” She certainly seems essential to Alfonso Clay, like a Kali to his Shiva. What are her antecedents?
A: Frighteningly enough, Teresa Duval was inspired by an actual person. A few years back, an attractive young woman was convicted of multiple homicides during several robberies in Texas. She and her boyfriend would tie up the staffs of small stores; and while he emptied the tills, she would kill the prisoners with an ax. At her trial, this beautiful young woman said that she killed the helpless victims because it gave her “sexual pleasure.” Texas gave her the “gurney journey,” as it calls lethal injection, and I cannot say that I am sorry. That got me thinking about how people do not expect women to show that kind of depravity. I also thought that such a woman, completely “human”, would be a contrast to Clay; Clay the inhuman being striving to be human, with Duval the “normal” human being gleefully embracing evil. I also thought to play with the idea that she could give Clay’s inhuman side release, while Clay in turn could direct her psychotic desires to the benefit of America. Fictionally, Duval (or Brigid Doyle, her birth name) was born in Ireland, and was in her early teens when the great Famine hit. Her father was a small landowner who was involved in anti-English politics, her mother a woman rumored to be a witch. Neighbors informed on the Doyle’s, and Brigid returned to see her father hanged with his own belt and her mother being raped by drunken English militia. This did not create her perverted blood lust, but acted as a catalyst for its release; her foulest curse is to call someone a “English-loving bastard.”
Q: And what are your own antecedents? Where were your family from?
A: I am a true “57 variety” American. Ethnically, I have in my background German, Danish, English, Scottish, Irish (both Catholic and Protestant), Mexican, and Indian. My paternal grandmother’s family has been in California since the 1820s, my paternal grandfather’s family is from Utah, my maternal grandfather’s family is from Oklahoma, and my maternal grandmother’s family is from Kansas.
Q: Our present is layered over many pasts. Do you ever glimpse the past burning through the present’s veneer?
A: I see the past intruding into the present all the time; this is the reason for my frustration at the lack of attention to history given by our public educational institutions. As the cliché goes, if we don’t remember the mistakes of the past, we are bound to repeat them. For instance, in a democracy like America, it is simply impossible to enforce a law that will not be obeyed by a large portion of the public, no matter how well-intentioned the law’s authors are. For instance, in the 1850’s a stronger fugitive slave law was based, with the goal of placating Southerners threatening secession; all that happened was that most Northerners became lawbreakers, further enraging Southerners. In the 1920s, Prohibition was enacted with the laudable goal of reducing alcoholism and broken families; all that happened was a brand new industry was created to supply the millions who wished to drink, no matter how bad it was for them. Now, if I may touch on a current controversial issue, many are calling for a ban on the private possession of firearms, because of recent horrific tragedies. Leaving aside the fact that in every one of these tragedies the firearms used were obtained in violation of existing laws, there are over two hundred million firearms held by private citizens, many held by otherwise law-abiding people who will simply refuse to comply with any confiscation law. Once again, well-meaning people are rushing forward to pass a law guaranteed to be flouted by literally millions of people.
Q: Your books are secret histories rather than alternative histories; you adhere to the facts for the most part, occasionally compressing a timeline for dramatic effect, as you did in Hail, Columbia! Have you ever been tempted to write alternative history in which you rewrite events altogether?
A: In a way, what I write is alternate history. There is no Starry Wisdom, no plot to murder Robert E. Lee, no treason by Joe Hooker. Nevertheless, I do believe that there is a “secret history” of the United States; events and happenings that have been kept secret from the public, sometimes for excellent reason. I plan to continue to write stories along that line, but I also intend to keep them close to proven history, so the readers will learn of the past of this glorious country, even despite themselves!
Q: Your series qualifies as speculative fiction, SF, because of that demonic element in Clay’s bloodline. So do you yourself read much SF, either science fiction or fantasy?
A: I read much science fiction of the “hard science” variety. I started with Robert Heinlein, then moved on to Frank Herbert, Joe Haldeman, Greg Benford and such authors. As to fantasy, although not a fan of sparkling vampires and living corpses obsessed with brains, I do greatly enjoy “dark horror.” Starting (of course) with H. P. Lovecraft, I also enjoy the works of Arthur Machen, M. R. James, Peter Straub, Stephen King, and Caitlin Kiernan.
Q: What are your favorite fantasy or sci-fi films and shows?
A: As to films, my favorites include Alien, Aliens, The Thing (1982), The Quatermass Experiment, In The Mouth Of Madness, The Haunting (1963), and Prometheus. As to TV, my favorites are the Twilight Zone (of course), The X-Files, Fringe, and The Outer Limits.
Q: You dedicate your books to your wife, who passed away; have you ever had a sense that she knows? [ this may be too private question, but many reader have also lost a loved one, and I truly did wish to ask this]
A: I am not a conventionally religious person, as I believe the true nature of God and the afterlife is (to quote H. P. Lovecraft) beyond the fleshy minds of mammals. Nevertheless, I do believe there is an afterlife, that she is in a good place, and knows of my work and how I continue to feel about her.
Q: Living in California, where so much that is fantastic takes form, is the threshold between reality and imagination easier to cross, or is it all in the mind’s landscape anyway?
A: Fantasy is a product of the mind. Both Lovecraft and Poe lived lives of grinding poverty and some misery, yet they created enduring works of the fantastic. They would have done so wherever they had lived.
Q: What sort of environment do you like to have about you when you write?
A: Quiet and cool.
Q: Do you attend any writers’ events or conventions? (I hope that you start showing up at some of the SF conventions in your area.) Are you part of a writers’ group?
A: I currently am the token male in my local chapter of Sisters In Crime mystery writers. Now that I am retired from my day job, I intend to go to more conventions.
Q: What does your family think of your writing career? Are they delighted?
A: They are all ecstatic, with the exception of my son, who is blasé about the whole thing.
Q: What do you have in mind for Alfonso next? You ended the last book on a very suspenseful note! Now Alfonso has vulnerabilities again, and his enemies have new targets.
A: Alphonso will next be riding the Great Plains to prove that General Custer was led to his doom in a plot by die-hard Confederates to seize the presidency in 1876. And yes, his children will give his enemies a target to threaten. However, those enemies will have to get past Teresa; and even if they do, they will find that the children are something very special indeed.
Q: Have you ever imagined a current day story setting? What would Alfonso Clay, or one of his descendants, have taken an interest in anytime in the last, say, 30 years? Are there any short stories to be written along those lines?
A: At the risk of giving away too much, I have left hints to the careful reader that Alphonso does not age, although he is vulnerable to physical injury. I wonder what he might be doing in the 1930s….
Thank you so much for talking with us.