Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why I Love Writing About the Black Death - A Guest Post by Christopher Buehlman

I know you like History, so let me take you back.
Not very far–this will be personal history.
Indulge me.
July, 2010.
“Those Across the River,” my first historical horror novel (set in 1935) has been picked up by Penguin’s Ace division, and my editor wants to know if I have a second novel in me. I think I do. I ask myself what sort of story I want to tell. And it comes.
         A plague story.
The thought leaps into my head as if fired from a crossbow. Bang! Divine inspiration? Aggressive muse? Maybe. Or maybe because the stories that have most intrigued and disturbed me have always been apocalyptic in nature, and because my favorite flavor of apocalypse has always been epidemic. Nature's reassertion of primacy, even if filtered through human bungling; the epic scale, the tragedy, the distillation of individual character to its very best or very worst.
Steven King's The Stand was seminal for me-I read it for the first time at twelve, again at sixteen, and it remains one of my favorite novels, horror or otherwise. The plague narrative hooked me in short form in Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, as an exploration of man's duty to man in Camus’ The Plague and Saramago's Blindness, as science fiction in Crichton's The Andromeda Strain, and as a brilliant exercise of second-person narration in Stewart O'Nan's deliciously creepy A Prayer for the Dying.
So plague it is.
But what plague? Whose plague?
I briefly consider a contemporary novel, but numerous artists of talent great and small have explored the question “what would happen if a plague struck now?”
What I had only read once, in Geraldine Brooks' beautifully wrought historical novel called Year of Wonders, was a modern author's exploration of what would happen if a plague struck when, well, the plague struck. Ms. Brooks took us back to 1665, when a particularly nasty outbreak of the Black Death decimated Restoration England.
But what about the BIG one?
Recurrences of the Bubonic plague were horrific, but perhaps not apocalyptic; in 1665, the Black Death was a ghastly but familiar enemy that would take its toll and slink away for a decade or two.
In the mid 1300’s, however, the new disease was a mystery; it fell on a densely packed population with poor hygiene, little science, and no natural resistance; it fell like a hammer on glass. The scope of the catastrophe defies comprehension; I had always read that the Black Death carried off about a third of Europe, but recent research suggests something like two thirds.
The best explanation the University of Paris could provide was that an unfortunate alignment of planets had released miasmal air, while Western Europe’s less enlightened minds imagined Jews poisoning wells. It would be centuries before science identified yersina pestis as the pathogen and the rat flea as its agent.
         Hundreds per day died in big cities, many of them little more than towns by modern demographic standards. The firsthand accounts read like eyewitness descriptions of the end of the world, which it must have seemed to be.
So there it is.
I’ll write a novel about the Black Death and set in 1348.
Not only will this indulge my apocalyptic fetish, it will allow me to spend a year or so researching the fourteenth century. This might sound purgatorial to you, but to a history geek like me? Paradise. Let's put the chaffron on the destrier's head, couch the lance in its fewter and spin the damned quintain for all it's worth. Moreover, let's have France, not England.
"Why?" a colleague asks, and I get why he might ask that–My primary audience is America and we relate to our mother country.
"Because," I say, "in Medieval Europe, France is America-the strongest, the richest, the most culturally dominant. Then, in 1347, the four horsemen come."
And people like me who love end-of-times fiction love the Four Horsemen the way nature TV people love Shark Week. Throw in the further catastrophe of a new all-out war between Heaven and Hell, and the stakes can't really get higher.
In the summer of 1348, the Pope, living in Avignon, was advised by his physician to sit between two great braziers of fire to ward off bad air, and that is the image that sticks–Pope Clement VI sweating in his vestments in August while the city dies outside his window.
And so it began.
Thank you for your indulgence.
I had my best writing experience to date animating the knights, priests, saints, angels, beasts and devils that inhabit the world of Between Two Fires, and, however brutal it could be, it was a hard world to leave.


  1. Plague is so much fun!

    To write, not to have. (In case anyone thought I'd gone off my rocker.)

    I was thrilled to get to write about Justinian's Plague for my first novel. There's just something about suppurating buboes, isn't there?

  2. Interesting post! I was watching a doco last night about the plague in England and my thoughts were: They must have thought it was the end of the world - the apocalypse!
    Your book sounds really good and I like that it's set in France. I'm adding it to my TBR list.

  3. I like your thinking. I had not thought of France as America....

  4. The best advice is "write what you want to read," and it seems that you have done that! Plus, writing and researching about something you clearly love makes the whole process less work and more fun! I was lucky and was able to pull from some of my family history for my book, but WWI/WWII is still so intriguing! Congrats on your book!

  5. Now that I have read this piece, I'm even more interested in reading the novel - and now get the title!