A Parliament of Crows by Alan M. Clark Genre: Southern Gothic Crime, Horror
In A Parliament of Crows, the three Mortlow sisters are prominent American educators of the nineteenth century, considered authorities in teaching social graces to young women. They also pursue a career of fraud and murder. Their loyalty to one another and their need to keep their secrets is a bond that tightens with each crime, forcing them closer together and isolating them from the outside world. Their ever tightening triangle suffers from madness, religious zealotry and a sense of duty warped by trauma they experienced as teenagers in Georgia during Sherman's March to the Sea. As their crimes come back to haunt them and a long history of resentments toward each other boils to the surface, their bond of loyalty begins to fray. Will duty to family hold or will they turn on each other like ravening crows?
Confined to a jail cell, Mary experienced boredom, but not loneliness. Whether she liked it or not, her twin sister, Carolee, was always with her, even if not in a physical sense. Her connection to her twin’s thoughts, feelings, and memories, had real advantages, but disadvantages existed as well. While the two understood each other with an uncommonly thorough knowing,conflict and resentment existed between them much as it did with most sisters. Mary didn’t want to eat the shiny brown cockroach that had wandered into her jail cell, but Carolee was insistent, and she was used to getting her way. The campaign to make the disgusting insects seem palatable had begun when Carolee found out that Mary had stopped eating.The bland food in the jail wasn’t enough to maintain good health, and Mary knew that her twin ate every insect she could get her hands on. Carolee was an animal, her concerns those of an animal. Her experiences during The War Between the States had left her that way, but until recently she’d been good at keeping up appearances.
Repeatedly, Carolee shared with Mary her memories of eating the roaches: The texture, the flavor, the tiny surge of energy gained from the sustenance, and the crumbs of satisfaction she derived from it. Because the two sisters occupied separate cells in different wings of the building, though, Carolee could urge all she wanted, but she couldn’t make Mary eat it.
As the insect scurried out of the cell and disappeared down the corridor, Mary put it out of her mind. A moment later, Carolee’s insistence ceased, and Mary relaxed.
With the way she was presently treated by her sister, the idea of loneliness had become intriguing. Mary had never truly understood how others felt when they said they were lonesome. At the moment she would willingly experience the feeling and the release it would offer from her sister’s badgering.
That was a fantasy, though. Real relief would come soon. If she continued her fast, she would not have to wait long for her reward in heaven.
The cockroach, or perhaps a new one, returned and poked about in the corner of the cell. Mary tried not to think about it, but most of all she tried not to be disgusted by the creature so Carolee might not become aware of it.
Because communication through their invisible connection did not allow for words, deception was rare and difficult, although Mary had found that if she suppressed her feelings about a certain matter, she could keep the knowledge and experience of it from her sister for a short time.
Mary couldn’t help being repelled by the movements of the roach’s twig-like legs. Carolee’s urgings resumed—Mary shouldn’t have watched it.
But, no, she wouldn’t eat the insect and she wouldn’t eat the food the jail provided either. A guard removed from her cell the rough crockery bowl containing her meals after thirty minutes, whether she touched the food or not. She gestured toward a set of shelves on the opposite side of the passage from her cell. “It’s over there,” she told the cockroach, hoping it might leave the cell so she could stop thinking about it, and Carolee would leave her alone. “Go eat,” she said, a disturbing tremor in her voice.
Not one of God’s favored, the insect had no ability to understand—the creature ignored her.
Carolee kept up the pressure on Mary to eat it.
Past the painful stage of starvation, Mary felt a light euphoria. When she closed her eyes, beautiful blue and orange shapes swam in her field of vision. She knew the condition represented a weakening of her system that would lead to death. Her father had made the same sacrifice when food supplies were low during the War to ensure his children's survival. Mary saw it as right and proper that she should do the same for her sisters. If only her twin would make the sacrifice, it would go a long way toward thwarting the state of New Jersey’s case against Vertiline. Carolee had always been selfish, though. She feared she’d cease to exist. She didn’t seem to understand that being a Mortlow meant something in the eyes of the Lord.
Carolee increased her efforts, trying to prevent Mary from thinking of anything but the act of eating roaches.
The increasing euphoria from lack of sustenance helped Mary ignore her sister. She lay on the chill, damp floor of her cell, watching the insect, trying to relax, and let go of her flesh. With time, her thoughts became more independent.
Mary recalled that when she was young, her father referred to her as “the quiet one.” What he couldn’t know was that whenever Mary needed to express frustration, throw a temper tantrum or break something in anger, Carolee did it for her. In return, Mary always provided thoughtful calm and quiet reasoning for her sister.
Carolee led the way for both of them because of her aggressive nature, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t consider Mary’s point of view. Shortly after they turned twelve years old, Carolee dared her twin to push a slave down the stairs. While willing to participate in such mischief as a witness and coconspirator, Mary didn’t want to personally commit the crime. If she had not done it, though, Carolee would have kept at her, becoming a relentless irritation.
The twins hid in the guest room that opened to the left off the top of the stairs. Although the door was opened a crack, the drawn shades within the room provided plenty of concealing shadow. They listened and watched through the crack in the door for their prey. Carolee most often perpetrated the misdeeds, but Mary liked the activity and vicariously experiencing her sister’s emotions. Most of all, she enjoyed the stalking of their prey. Restless Carolee fidgeted while she waited, but the process taught Mary patience and how to keep herself entertained by pondering possibilities.
Who would suffer today? One of the young female slaves? If it turned out to be a strong adult male like Jasper, might he get up and retaliate? The question brought with it trepidation, but Mary reassured herself that such action taken by a slave was extremely unlikely.
Lost in thought, she didn’t hear the footsteps on the landing.
“Now!” Carolee said, shoving Mary out the door. Mary blundered into the slave, Agnes, who had an armload of table linens. Agnes, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, turned as she stumbled, and bounced off the banister newel. She threw out her grasping hands for something to stop her fall. A table cloth blossomed out and fell; napkins flew up like fluttering white doves. The sound of the fall was interminable, an alarm that would surely bring consequences. Agnes made a rough backwards somersault down the stairs, hit the floor with a loud smack, and lay there gasping and moaning.
The twins remained at the top of the stairs while Mr. Mortlow and his servant Merrill entered the hall below to investigate. Vertiline emerged from her upstairs bedroom. Eyeing the twins critically, she moved past them and joined the men below.
Agnes’s forearm had taken on an alarming shape, a bone within crooked and straining to emerge from stretched skin. Mary knew her twin relished the intense emotions of the moment. Carolee was about to draw everyone’s attention and claim responsibility.
Mary wouldn’t stand for that. To assert her own desires instead, she jabbed her twin with an elbow.
Carolee backed down silently and removed the smile from her rosy cheeks, and just in time too, for everyone gathered around Agnes in the hall below looked up at the twins in horror.
Although Mary felt no pride in what they had done, she also felt no shame, and would never betray her twin with a confession. She donned her most innocent look.
Even so, if not for Vertiline, they would have been severely punished that day.
Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. As a writer and illustrator, he is the author of sixteen published books, including 11 novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. His illustrations have appeared in books of fiction, non-fiction, textbooks, young adult fiction and children's books. Awards for his work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. Mr. Clark's company, IFD Publishing, has released 42 titles of various editions, including traditional books, both paperback and hardcover, audio books, and ebooks by such authors as F. Paul Wilson, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Jeremy Robert Johnson.
Can you, for those who don't know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author?
I have always loved storytelling. Although I studied fine art, I shifted my professional efforts toward illustration of speculative fiction, mostly in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I had been a freelance illustrator for about ten years, doing mostly book covers, when I began to take my writing more seriously. By 1995, I was making professional sales of my fiction. I have continued the freelance illustration and have been earning a living at it now for 35 years.
Where were you born/where did you grow up?
I was born in Nashville, TN. Shortly thereafter, my family lived in Alington VA, then New York City, NY, in Manhattan. We moved to Nashville after that, and I spent most of my childhood there. I went to high school and college in San Francisco, CA, returned to Nashville, met and married my wife, Melody Kees Clark. She and I have now lived in Eugene Oregon for 22 years.
What is something unique/quirky about you? In my work, both writing and illustration, my leaning toward horror comes in part from family influences. My father, William M. Clark, and his father, Sam L. Clark, were physicians with a tendency toward gallows humor. My grandfather was head of the anatomy department at Vanderbilt, and had been there as a professor for many years. The house he built in Nashville TN, where I spent most of my childhood, was full of the odd things he collected. There were many medical books and some remnants of his medical research, mostly in neuroanatomy. Before systems were in place to insure that there were enough cadavers for students in the medical schools of Tennessee, he employed a body snatcher to acquire what was needed, and recorded stories of the man’s exploits in the Nashville area. The house literally had skeletons in its closets. Many of the bones were ones he and my father had collected at sites in Nashville where houses were to be built and the ground was being prepared for foundations. Nashville had been the sacred hunting and burial ground of five Indian tribes for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years prior to the time when white settlers began to arrive in the area. The Battle of Nashville during the American Civil War, something of a siege, took place in part in my neighborhood. When there were dead among the soldiers involved, they were often loaded into shallow graves near where they fell. The creek that ran through our property got high when the rains came hard and eroded the bank, in one spot exposing skeletons that my brother and I found. All of this had an impact on me as a child. I loved all that history in my “front yard.” Long before I became interested in horror, I’d already gained a sense of what was creepy.
What inspired you to write this book?
A Parliament of Crows is based on the crimes of the Wardlaw sisters of 19th century America. For the story, I changed their name to Mortlow. I was fascinated with the idea of three sisters, prominent female educators in the field of social graces becoming criminals and murderers. I knew that for such prim and proper women of the 19th Century, powerful emotional issues had to be involved in their decisions to commit the crimes. The emotional motivations of characters being at the heart of any good tale, I knew that if I could find an answer to the question,”How did they find their deeds reasonable,” then I’d have a good tale to tell.
Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS?
The story is about the three Mortlow sister, Vertiline, Mary, and Carolee. Vertiline is two years older than the twins, Mary and Carolee. The twins are emotionally volatile. The sisters’ father, Supreme Court Justice of Georgia, Horace Mortlow, just before his death during the American Civil War, gave Vertiline the duty of protecting the unstable twins in his absence. Trying to protect them, often from themselves, Vertiline, also commits crimes. The three form a dangerous triangle.
How did you come up with the names in the story?
I changed the names so that what I did with the characters would not offend any of the Wardlaw descendants. I make it clear that A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS is a work of fiction. That said, it follows much of the Wardlaw sisters’ history. I used the name Mortlow instead of Wardlaw, because the “Mort” as a word or syllable is often associated with death, and the “Low” suggests that to which the sisters sink in order to survive.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Writing different chapters from the tree main characters’ POVs; developing the triangle formed by the sisters and their competing interests. The story covers most of their lives. While they are bound together as family and increasingly dependent on one another in committing their crimes and keeping their secrets, they are at odds over many things. Distrust between the siblings threatens to drive them apart and expose them.
Tell us about your main characters—what makes them tick? Vertiline feels bound by duty to see her “difficult” sisters through life. The twins, Mary and Carolee enjoy as well as suffer an emotional connection. They cannot read each other’s thoughts, but each can know what is happening emotionally with her twin. Mary is very religious. Assuming a sense that she is one of God’s chosen, she feels exempt from the rules of society, though she puts up a good front. Carolee, basically an atheist, views herself as simply an animal who should take from the world what she wants, as long as she doesn’t have to suffer any consequences. She, too, puts up a good front most of the time. Vertiline tries to keep her sisters in line, and ends up compromising her own sense of right and wrong in the process of protecting them.
How did you come up with the titleA Parliament of Crows? Apparently crows do a weird thing in which they gather in large numbers, say in an open field, and an argument ensues between one or more of the birds. The others seem to watch. When the argument is done, the crows turn on one of the participants, presumably the loser, sometimes maiming, killing, or even cannibalizing the creature. Some who have viewed this phenomenon have likened it to a trial in which the defendant is convicted and punished. The term for that type of gathering isa parliament of crows. With the way the sisters go after each other, with the fact that they nearly always wore black mourning clothes, I thought the title appropriate.
Who designed your book cover?
I did the cover art and layout. I have been a freelance illustrator for 35 years, doing mostly book covers and interior illustrations for books.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Joan Allen would be a great Vertiline and then Catherine Keener, doubling for the twins, would do well for Mary and Carolee.
What is your favorite part of this book and why?
I don’t really do favorites, but I particularly enjoyed Carolee’s flight from the sisters’ lodgings in Brooklyn to escape Mary’s grief over the loss of an infant. Carolee’s trek is something of an odyssey through dangerous 19th century New York streets at night. She knows she should be frightened, but then realizes that, based on her crimes, she, herself, is more dangerous than most of those she sees in the night. She is much more concerned with severing her connection to her sister’s grief so that she doesn’t have to “feel” it anymore.
Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?
The answer is that both are true. When writing fiction based on history, we know the highlights of what happened with a character, as often their most interesting deeds are recorded. We frequently don’t know what emotionally motivated the person. That’s part of the mystery that gets me interested in writing a tale from history. I have to give the character experiences that help form their motivations, and demonstrate their decisions and choices through scenes involving their actions and dialoque.
Do the characters all come to you at the same time or do some of them come to you as you write?
Most of my characters’ emotional development comes while I’m in the process of writing.
What kind of research do you do before you begin writing a book?
Mostly, I start a project, putting words on the page, then research what I need to along the way.
Do you write one book at a time or do you have several going at a time?
One story at a time, generally.
Pen or type writer or computer?
Computer word processing
Advice you would give new authors?
Same advice I give artists and illustrators—be tenacious in pursuing your dream.
What makes a good story?
Well developed characters facing conflict that test them and brings out emotional qualities not forseen.
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