THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # EIGHTY-FIVE -- 15 FEBRUARY 2014

Much of the American landscape is hidden under thick layers of Satan's icing sugar as this newsletter is written. Many of us have experienced bitter cold more than enough to be getting along with, or not, if your buggy is snowed in or otherwise put out of commission by the weather. For many, as Shakespeare so aptly put it, the storm's up and all is on the hazard.

Speaking of which, this latest issue of Orphan Scrivener might be a hazard in itself for it may afflict subscribers with the cold collywobbles. So be sure to dress in warm clothing before venturing into it...


MARY'S BIT or AN EGGSHELL-ENT CUSTOM

The thing I most love about folklore are those unexpected cross-threads that constantly emerge in the most unexpected places.

Consider the humble egg.

Which is what I found myself doing just the other day.

But first a bit of background. When we were children it was our custom to poke our spoons through the base of the shells after eating boiled eggs or sometimes to turn the shell over and savagely beat in its bottom. This ceremonial destruction was carried out in the firm conviction it prevented empty shells being utilised by witches to sail to sea and cause shipwrecks and death on the vasty deeps.

It's been a while since I ate a boiled egg but I'd still put my spoon through the eggshell and it was wondering, in the way stray thoughts occur, why the same fate was not meted out to eggshells from bacon and eggs or baking led me to debating how old the belief could be.

It was nagging at me somewhat so I went in search of information and soon located a poem written by Elizabeth Fleming in 1934 entitled, you have it, Egg-Shells. The first verse goes in this wise:

Oh, never leave your egg-shells unbroken in the cup; Think of us poor sailor-men and always smash them up, For witches come and find them and sail away to sea, And make a lot of misery for mariners like me.

And she goes on to describe how witches "climb the rigging and dance upon the decks" as masts fall over and the ships are wrecked.

This being a relatively recent reference, just for the heck of it I set sail on a journey to see what else I could discover.

My google-telescope found Kipling's The Egg-Shell (1904) which tells how the Witch of the North sends "a little blue devil" to sea in just such a shell to sink or swim, she cares not which. When the little devil returns, he says he swam but thinks "there's someone sinking outside". While it seems accepted the poem refers to instructions from a naval higher-up to sink a ship, as indeed happens, the form of the poem assumes, I would think, readers' familiarity with the shell-bashing practice.

Reginald Scot mentions in The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) that witches could sail not only in egg shells but also in cockle and mussel shells "through and under the tempestuous seas." This leads me to suspect that had she lived earlier, quite possibly Molly Malone would not be too welcome in Dublin as she wheeled her barrow through the city streets singing her wares were cockles and mussels alive-oh, being as it's a port city.

There's a surely related belief mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History. He states there was no-one who did not dread "being spell-bound by means of evil imprecations" and thus the custom of breaking or piercing egg or snail shells immediately after eating their contents, but unfortunately does not say how such shells could be used by persons of ill will to harm the eaters.

Could our childhood custom have been brought to Bretania by its Roman occupiers? The mental picture of foreign soldiery and administrators sitting down to break bread -- and shells -- with locals is so appealing I'd like to think it was so.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

What light thru yonder window breaks? Why, t'is the spotlight we're shining in to direct subscribers' attention to our latest budget of news, although they may need to write notes on their cuffs as an aide memoir for certain entries. Get out your writing implement and read on!

TENFER ON THE SLIP or A MARCH LAUNCH

We'll be standing on the dock waving our hankies as Ten For Dying is launched upon a largely unsuspecting world next month. Whether it sails serenely around flying triumphant flags or semaphores us for money to come limping home remains to be seen, but Tenfer is available for pre-ordering right this very minute from Poisoned Pen Press http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/ten-for-dying/ as well as from Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Dying-Chamberlain-Mystery-Series/dp/1464202273 and the usual suspects.

TWELVE QUESTIONS or NO ENQUIRY ABOUT A FAVOURITE COLOUR

In Holli Castillo's Twelve Question Tuesday feature on Mary speculates whether she would be food or fighter if the zombie apocalypse were to happen and reveals the most daring things she ever did (not as lurid as it sounds). All this and more can be discovered at http://www.gumbojustice.blogspot.com on March 18th. And in case you were wondering, her favourite colour is blue.

RELICS or NEVER THE TWAIN SHALL AGREE

No less a personage than Mark Twain was dubious about the authenticity of relics he saw on his European travels. Mary's blog, slated to appear on Jean Henry Mead's View From My Mountaintop blog http://theviewfrommymountaintop.blogspot.com/ on March 15th, concerns these sacred artefacts and how a particular relic became the pivot of the plot for the about-to-be published Ten For Dying. Thanks to Jean for providing a place to talk about an unusual entry in the Lord Chamberlain series and a reminder to subscribers calendar marking is in order!

A COLLECTION AND A SHORT STORY or A MEMO ABOUT MEM

It's an open secret we sometimes move about cloaked in the shadow identity of M. E. Mayer, under which name British publisher Head of Zeus is publishing John's first nine adventures in various formats. In December HoZ also issued Death In Byzantium, a boxed set featuring ebooks of the first four novels about our protagonist John, comprising over a thousand "pages". Talk about a bargain! Point your clicker here for further info: http://headofzeus.com/books/Death+in+Byzantium+-+Box+Set?field_book_type_value_1=E-Book&bid=9781781859063

Head of Zeus is also offering an e-edition of our second short story about John, reworked and twinkled up a bit. The Body In The Mithraeum awaits your scrutiny, so hasten ye over to: http://headofzeus.com/books/The%20Body%20in%20the%20Mithraeum

MORNING MUMBLINGS or COFFEE POTS AND ELEPHANTS

On December 18th last year we related the horror of The Morning The Coffee Pot Fell Down on the Poisoned Pen Press multi-author blog. The blog masqueraded as by Eric but was written, like our fiction, by both of us. http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/the-morning-the-coffee-pot-fell-down/

Continuing our homage to Thurber, the January 18th blog related the ghastly tale of The Day The Light Fell down, and in passing urgently requested elephants not be sent. http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/21720/

If neither of the above appeal, well, there's bound to be something of interest if you browse around. Why not pop over to the PPP website and take a schnoot?


ERIC'S BIT or STYX AND STONES

Mary and I have managed to keep our noses above the snow and ice these past few months, just barely. It's been a rough winter in the northeast especially out here in the sticks. Or should I say Styx?

Although it feels like we've been living a tale of the Yukon by Jack London, in fact, during the last cold snap, I was reading Dante's Inferno. As I followed the two old poets down into the ninth circle, temperatures during the day struggled to reach fifty and that was in the house. Outside, overnight, it was well below zero. I could empathize with those wretched souls encased up to their necks in the icy Cocytus lake. At least they deserved their fate. And they don't need to pay our propane bills either.

The worst part is how do they wipe their noses? The cold must make them run. When I have to trundle the trash down to the road around dawn on pickup day my nose and eyes stream the moment the cold hits them.

It was more pleasant warming myself over the boiling pitch in the eighth circle. I reached that level about the time Chris Christie's machinations were being exposed and I couldn't help imagining the devils plying their pitchforks to push him back down like a big dumpling into the bubbling stew of corrupt politicians.

One of my favorite cantos was the one where Dante and Virgil were double-crossed and pursued by the Malebranche ("Evil claws" -- what a great name for devils) who patrol the pitch lake. Plot twists, action, danger!

Here's a confession. Whereas many readers approach every book as if it were a literary novel, alert for symbols and psychological insights, I read classics as if they were genre novels. I grew up on genre fiction -- science fiction and fantasy and then mysteries -- and I never did outgrow those kinds of stories.

So to me the horror at the end of Heart of Darkness is worthy of Stephen King. Conan the Barbarian would have been right in his element hacking away in the middle of the bloody chaos in The Red Badge of Courage. The dark, perverse romantic triangle described by Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter might have served as a noir plot device for Cornell Woolrich. And what is Crime and Punishment except a long example of the "inverted detective story" for which R. Austin Freeman is famous amongst mystery aficionados?

I know I should be paying more attention to Dante's allusions to the classics rather than being entranced by the amazing fantasy world he created. Yes, I am studying the footnotes. But how many people today are familiar enough with ancient Roman poets, classical mythology, and the Bible -- not to mention thirteenth and fourteenth century Italian artists and public figures -- to read The Inferno as Dante intended? How much of the population of Dante's time was educated enough to read it as he intended, or to read it at all?

What an author purposely puts into words is only a part -- and probably a small part -- of what readers experience. We all bring our own learning and memories, our own approaches to literature. Different people will look for different things from the same book and find them. To the surprise of the author who had no idea he'd written any such things.

Maybe I'm just trying to excuse my reading Dante's Inferno as if it were Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Be that as it may, when Dante describes the shades fully covered by ice but visible as wisps of straw in glass, I can feel the unbearable cold stinging my soles, can see below my feet ghostly distorted forms, suspended at all angles and different depths, exactly like the goldfish invariably trapped and frozen in the pond where I ice skated as a kid.

I am out of the Inferno now, and halfway through Purgatorio which is not nearly as exciting. Still plenty of cliffs but no cliffhangers. On the first terrace the proud are bent over by the weights of huge stones on their backs. I know how they feel. Every morning it feels like I have to push off a boulder along with the covers, in order to get out of our warm bed and face another freezing day. Luckily we are not condemned to suffer winter for much longer. Soon I will start on Paradiso and hope for spring.


AND FINALLY

While we're all waiting for this purgatorious winter to end, a reminder that the next Orphan Scrivener will spring into your in-box on April 15th, tax return day of doom.

See you then!
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit our home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the Web at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, our bibliography, the Doom Cat interactive game written by Eric, and our growing libraries of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/ or visit our shadow identity M. E. Mayer's blog at http://memayer.blogspot.com/ And just for the heck of it, we'll also mention our noms des Twitter are @marymaywrite and @groggytales. Drop in some time!


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