The Last: Kýrie, Eléison

If you read one historical fiction novella about the Byzantine Empire this year, read mine!

the-last
Theophilos Hatzimihail painted this depiction of the final battle for Constantinople. As in other Hatzimihail paintings concerning this subject, Constantine XI is featured on a white horse.

Writing The Last in June and July of 2014 was an exciting time for me. I started writing at the beginning of summer and the first draft was finished within 24 days. Two years and four drafts later, I have a historical fiction novella that I am genuinely proud to claim as my own work. The Last benefited greatly from several volunteer readers over the last two years. The feedback I received from those individuals spurred the various revisions that created the present novella. Insight from Father Bob Lubic was of considerable help. His suggestions and wisdom were of special worth to me and I greatly appreciate the time he invested with The Last.

The first draft of The Last was also the final piece of my writing that my grandmother read before she passed in July of 2014. She had always been the greatest advocate of my writing and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to share this one with her. 

I have seriously kicked the tires on making The Last the final novella in a trilogy of historical fiction pieces (each with a slight supernatural edge) concerning the Byzantine Empire. I had even seriously considered using the Battle of Yarmouk and the Byzantine Iconoclasm as potential foundations for the two other (“previous”) installments (the Battle of Manzikert and the Fourth Crusade are two other options). 

Researching for this project also opened the door for my love affair with Byzantine history. I am simply unable to read enough about the topic and I don’t intend to bring this romance to an end anytime soon. If you are looking for just a taste of Byzantine history, I suggest you start here.

The fall of Constantinople was one of those amazing turning points in history and I do believe I’ve captured the essence of that event’s significance in The Last. Below, I have shared quotes that really helped me capture the characterizations of George Sphrantzes, an imperial courtier, and Emperor Constantine XI Dragas Palaiologos. These quotes communicate a great deal about the foreboding that existed in Constantinople just before the Ottoman siege in 1453. 

“On the same night of May 28th [1451] I had a dream: it seemed to me that I was back in the City; as I made a motion to prostrate myself and kiss the Emperor’s feet, he stopped me, raised me, and kissed my eyes. Then I woke up and told those sleeping by me: ‘I just had this dream. Remember the date.’ ”

                                                                                 -George Sphrantzes

                                                                                   Roman (Byzantine) Imperial Ambassador

 

“But how can I do this and leave the clergy, the churches of God, the empire and all of the people?

What will the world think of me, I pray, tell me?

No, my lords, no: I will die here with you. ”

                                                             – Constantine XI Dragas Palaiologos,

                                                                in Christ true Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans

The quote from Constantine XI is really at the heart of The Last. The sense of responsibility and determination in that man must have been absolutely astounding. 

Including the prologue, a list of characters, and a handful of illustrations, The Last runs 13,473 words over 45 pages. 

The Emperor raised his sword into the air.

Kýrieeléison!” He called, “Lord, have mercy!”

Interview with the Grandfather

Yes, that’s a play on the title of the popular Anne Rice novel, but who said Brad Pitt isn’t playing the role of my grandfather in the film adaption?

A couple months ago I was working in the yard at my grandfather’s house (where he has lived the last few years), when I remembered that I had a few questions for him. I was in the middle of researching and developing a science fiction writing project called The Day the Sun Died and I knew he could provide the kind of details I wouldn’t so easily find in a book or online. The Day the Sun Died concerns three primary characters struggling to survive several weeks after the sun has mysteriously vanished, sending the planets of our solar system careening through the darkness of space.   

The Day the Sun Died was inspired by this video, which does an excellent job outlining the changes the Earth might experience if our sun disappeared (or if the Earth was ever ripped out of the solar system and cast into space). Of course, there would be a period of chaos and turmoil, but life would not immediately come to an end. Depending upon their actions, some humans would undoubtedly find ways to survive for weeks or months (possibly longer in a few cases) as the planet slowly became colder and colder.

The setting for the majority of the story was essentially my grandfather’s old farmhouse. When I was a child, he and my grandmother lived there and, in many ways, that’s where I grew up – I could say the same for my sister and a couple of my cousins as well. The farmhouse was truly old, constructed around 1878, and the surrounding property that my grandparents maintained functioned as a miniature farm. 

Perched on a hilltop, the farmhouse commanded an impressive view in all directions and could be seen for quite a distance standing among several tall maples. There was always a grace and grandeur about the house, especially when I was young. The rooms were large and the ceilings very high. There were narrow passages, old fixtures, fireplaces, and secret doors. The house was remarkably consistent. Years passed and the place never really changed. All the furniture and appliances remained in the same place. The rooms were always used for the same purposes. My grandparents’ routines seemed to be the exact same each day (I can still distinctly remember my grandmother listening to WCVI or WMBS in the kitchen each morning). Although some felt the house was slowly falling apart (especially as my grandparents aged), I think that part of me always suspected my grandparents’ house would last forever. 

My grandparents had lived in this house far longer than I had been alive, so I could only draw upon what I remembered as a child and young adult. I needed to know more than my memory alone could provide. That’s when I got the idea to interview my grandfather.

I needed my grandfather to describe to me some of his experiences living in that old farmhouse (especially in winter) because the three principal characters in The Day the Sun Died begin the story eking out an existence at a similar house in the countryside. These characters are faced with a question: do we continue to live here and slowly succumb to the conditions or do we take a chance and attempt to reach a destination where our lives could be prolonged?

Stephen Graduates
Clark Junk, my grandfather.

I started with very straightforward questions. My grandfather explained his daily routine to me, especially about how the house’s coal furnace had to be maintained. He explained how the chimneys and fireplaces in the house had originally been designed (as some of this had changed before I was born). He recalled the specifics of the system that moved hot water from the furnace to iron radiators throughout the house. Much of the information he shared with me encouraged me to ask questions I had not thought of before. He went on to outline the process by which he had butchered animals in his younger years and, basically, the finer details of operating a small farm. I took notes as he spoke and was very satisfied with all that he had to share.

After forty-five minutes, our conversation had ended. I decided to explain to my grandfather why I had asked so many questions about his old house and, specifically, the heating system used inside. I even shared some of my ideas for The Day the Sun Died with him. He seemed somewhat perplexed by this, as I suspect that he thought I needed this information for a research paper or newspaper article. I thanked him for all the information he had provided and that was that. I didn’t really think that he and I would ever discuss those details again and I assumed he may well have forgotten the entire conversation by the next day.

Earlier this week I was at his house again working in the yard. He was sitting on the porch and sharing this and that about some local happenings and recalling who had visited him recently and what news those visitors had told him. There are moments when my grandfather seems to have walked right out of a John Wayne film – and his porch becomes the front steps of the town saloon or lawman’s office – and this was one of those times. The way he banters is whimsical and, if you really listen, creates a certain nostalgia for some bygone era that you can’t quite place. He really isn’t the science fiction sort, but he could have played a mean Friar Tuck. I knew that, while he may have vaguely recalled our conversation about coal furnaces and the worst winters he could remember, he probably hadn’t thought again about why I had asked all those questions.

After about an hour or so, I had finished the intended task and was preparing to leave. That’s when my grandfather really surprised me. He asked plainly, “How is that book coming?”

That definitely brought a smile to my face.

Strange Stories, Amazing Facts

Described as “a Disneyland for readers” and available online for less than one dollar, this title is well worth a read or two.

Strange Stories
Strange Stories, Amazing Facts

About twenty years ago, I found a book at my grandparents’ house that I must have read cover to cover multiple times by now. The book I found two decades ago was Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, originally published in 1976 by Reader’s Digest (the copy I later received from my grandmother was printed in 1980). The very first page of the text states that the book contains “an astonishing variety of subject matter, treatment, and tone”. This is certainly accurate, as Strange Stories, Amazing Facts methodically covers an unbelievable range of topics. The book blends together science and the supernatural in a way that is “bizarre, unusual, odd, astonishing, and often incredible”. 

Among many other topics, this book (which is divided into five parts) manages to include commentary on:

  • The Solar System
  • The Moon
  • Meteorites
  • Black holes
  • Acupuncture
  • The immune system
  • Volcanoes 
  • The legend of Atlantis
  • Plate tectonics
  • The creation of life
  • The Great Wall of China
  • The Canadian Pacific Railway
  • Marco Polo
  • The discovery of the Americas
  • The exploration of Antarctica
  • El Dorado
  • Halloween
  • Tarot cards
  • Easter Island 
  • The Oak Island Money Pit
  • The mystery surrounding Anastasia Romanov
  • Jack the Ripper
  • The Lost Dutchman’s Mine
  • The Mary Celeste 
  • The Flying Dutchman 
  • The Faces of Bélmez
  • Vampires
  • Werewolves
  • The Borley Rectory
  • The Loch Ness Monster
  • Nostradamus
  • Extraterrestrials

Of course, considering that Strange Stories, Amazing Facts is forty years old, the articles concerning science often come across very dated. Otherwise, the book’s relevant examinations of a seemingly endless number of interesting topics have stood the test of time. 

My grandmother had encouraged me to keep this book a long time ago. She passed just over two years ago, and there is no picking up this book without thinking about the value she placed on reading and imagination. She was a wondrously imaginative woman. I had the opportunity to speak at her funeral service, and I included this book as part of the reflection I shared with those in attendance. Strange Stories, Amazing Facts might as well have been the title of my grandmother’s biography. She just lived that kind of life.

I do still reference this book and did so as recently as April. In a previous post, I mentioned this volume as one I wanted to include on this blog. I recently shared a passage from this book with a colleague, who was just as impressed with the subject matter as anyone else I know who has picked up this title.

Although Strange Stories, Amazing Facts seems somewhat rare (although inexpensive) in 2016, I found and bought another copy at a fundraiser held by the Dunbar Community Library in Dunbar, Pennsylvania. I simply could not pass up the opportunity to own a spare copy. 

Without a doubt, this book has given me years and years of imagination fuel. And I think that’s exactly what my grandmother intended. 

Has anyone else read Strange Stories, Amazing Facts? If so, what did you think?