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Review Round-up: Walls and Watchmen

In Kings BywaysStanley Weyman's In Kings' Byways (1902) is a collection of short historical romances from Europe of the 16th through 18th centuries. They all follow the classical definition of romance - that is, 'adventure fiction' rather than 'snogging', although to be fair, Mr. Weyman does include his fair share of the latter.

Like his contemporary, my beloved Robert Chambers, it is fairly evident that Mr. Weyman has never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Rather, he sees history as the inspiration for a rollicking tale. Like Chambers, Mr. Weyman also keeps his stories driven by characters, rather than action - preferring to invent personalities than recreate battles.

Most of the stories in In Kings' Byways are focused around (imaginary) bit players in sweeping events: scribes caught up in plots against the crown, pages that accidentally eavesdrop on battle plans, students that encounter Kings in disguise. Mr. Weyman's protagonists are all enjoyable, but also a bit repetitive: young men and old men.

The young men are chivalric, dim and filled with good intentions. Their stories are generally driven by the combination of gambling debts and an overdeveloped sense of honor - straight out of Dumas. The older men are clever, proud and a touch nostalgic. Their stories generally involve discovering dangerous plots against the throne, disguising themselves (alongside their King) and facing said danger in person - essentially retellings of Harun al-Rashid tales from the Arabian Nights.

The sole exception to these two patterns is "The House on the Wall". The story is set in a small town in Flanders in 1706, a French possession under siege by Austrian forces. The siege, Mr. Weyman explains, is not particularly threatening. The town is well-fortified and well-supplied. The story even begins comically, as Mr. Weyman describes the plight of the town's beleaguered Burgomaster. Every Sunday, like clockwork, he is himself besieged - by the town's female population. They demand the town's immediate surrender. Even if he wanted to agree (he doesn't), the Burgomaster has no choice - the French commander wouldn't dream of it. So every Sunday he's harangued at length with no recourse and no hiding place.

After one Sunday's session of abuse, the ladies of the town retreat. The Burgomaster is relieved, but then finds that one lady remains. She enigmatically demands that the Burgomaster make good on his son's promises. The Burgomaster, much more courageous when he's only facing one opponent, yells at her, calls her a peasant and drives her from his home. At this point, both the view and the tone shifts, as Mr. Weyman follows this last, nameless woman through the streets.

It seems that this woman lives alone with her (beautiful) (teenage) daughter, in a house on the wall. As their window looks out through the town's fortifications, their home was deemed a security risk. A dashing young captain (the Burgomaster's son) came to brick it up personally - a fairly menial task that he managed to drag out for the length of a long and passionate courtship. The result? A pregnant (implied) daughter, a despairing mother and a Burgomaster that refuses to make good on his son's promise of marriage.

The mother, our protagonist, is ruined - as is her daughter. Approached by an Austrian agent, she makes the decision to betray the town and lend her house to the enemy. She refuses to even take payment for this - she's out for revenge, not profit. Her daughter in tow, they check in to an inn for the evening, and the mother anxiously awaits the results of her treason.

The bulk of the story is in the waiting. The mother's desire to see the town ruined is only inflamed as she thinks of the destruction waiting to happen. Then she catches sight of another young woman, her daughter's age, and starts to picture the true destruction that's yet to come. The reader learns that surrender on terms, the object of the town's women's "shrewish" pleading, means the peaceful transition of power. The sacking of the town, as she's now enabled, means an orgy of looting, murder and rape. Her decision made, the mother can only wait helplessly for the Austrian forces to invade.

Interestingly enough, there's no fairy tale ending to "The House on the Wall" - no miraculous intervention that spares the town. Given the (slightly predictable) results of many of Mr. Weyman's other stories, this is already surprising. Instead, "The House on the Wall" focuses on the unnamed protagonist's guilt and redemption. This is also unlike the other stories, where the focus is almost always on the greater political or historical relevance of their actions. In this case the ownership of the town is insignificant - the one true stake is the mother's soul. The story's climax, one that's both emotionally and morally ambiguous, is unexpectedly shattering, and puts "The House on the Wall" head and shoulders above the other stories in this collection.

ChewSam Wilson's "The Walled Garden" (2010) is emotionally and morally ambiguous throughout - a brief and disturbing tale about a corporate employee whose role is to evaluate "inappropriate" content from a major (unnamed) website. The work is grinding, both physically ("We each have to get through sixty thousand images a day, or we’re out") and mentally. The images are of the most horrific scenes imaginable. 

"The Walled Garden" is, in and of itself, a snapshot - a quick glimpse at what damage this sort of work does to the employees. Some go mad, some tell jokes, some kill themselves and a few, like the protagonist, try to bury a bit of their own psyche in a place far, far away. There's also the unasked (and deeply disturbing) question of why these images even exist. The reader is seeing the impact of undesired exposure to them - who are these people that seek out this sort of horror? 

Mr. Wilson also touches on the issue of responsibility in the swarming chaos of the modern era. Needless to say, our living filters can't stop the images (under corporate guidelines, they can't even go through the futile exercise of reporting them to the police). What they can do is create the titular "walled garden" and serve as the collective watchmen and sin-eaters, trying to keep the world a tiny bit tidier for everyone else. 

Like "The House on the Wall", Mr. Wilson's story is less about the big historical picture and more about personal salvation. In both tales, the unnamed protagonist is placed in a position of (unwanted) responsibility - protecting a fragile (and disappointing) community from destructive outside influences. Mr. Weyman's story examines what happens when the guardian fails, and what that failure means to her. Mr. Wilson takes the opposite position and looks at the cost of success. This is a nightmarish little parable about the price we pay in the modern world (or the price that someone else pays for us) and well worth the read.


"The House on the Wall" was originally published in In Kings' Byways by Stanley Weyman (1902). Available for free on Project Gutenberg (currently at a whopping 18 downloads) and other archive sites.

"The Walled Garden" by Sam Wilson was originally published in Chew Magazine and is currently available for free on Books LIVE

By Jared (@pornokitsch) who can't think of any image more terrifying than the "Parktown Prawn".