I wish I had a good Halloween post for all of you today. A rollicking spooky-creepy alternate history. What I really wish I could do in honor of All Hallow’s Eve is just link directly to Ken Hite’s Suppressed Transmission and introduce the gentle readers of Cliopatria to Clio’s Nightmares.
Ken Hite is well-known by a tiny community of tabletop role-playing gamers, yet essentially unknown outside that little world. For several years now, Ken’s been writing a brilliant column called “Suppressed Transmission” for the online gaming magazine Pyramid. Alas, Pyramid is accessible to paid subscribers only. Ken’s column is a crazy grab-bag of historical mysteries, occult synchronicities in myth and literature, and gonzo alternate histories. While ostensibly written to provide fodder for role-playing scenarios, Suppressed Transmission is really just fine reading for anyone interested in the weirder side of history.
A typical column might recount the story of Red Mercury, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, or the desert of Takla Makan. (Those links just go to Wikipedia, which is pretty great, but not as fun as Ken.) Another column might imagine an alternate mystical-gnostic Christianity splitting off under Pope Valentinus in 141 A.D., or a world in which the wildest dreams of the Italian futurists came true. Hite’s readers knew all about the Chicago Murder Castle of H.H. Holmes five years before The Devil in the White City. Would-be Erik Larsons, Tom Standages, etc. could do much worse than mining Ken Hite's column for topics for future historical best-sellers. Better yet, Ken should write his own.
Every Halloween, Ken really cuts loose with a column called “Clio’s Nightmares” that offers three or four truly twisted takes on history. This year he retold the Star Wars saga using real-life historical figures from the 10th century Holy Roman Empire, mashed up the Napoleonic Wars with a dark Golden Bough-spin on Peter Pan (Admiral Nelson is Hook, snicker), and— ah, but it doesn’t work if I just give away all the premises like that. This is the sort of thing that either delights you or doesn’t, and you really have to read it yourself to find out.
“Alternate history” isn’t really the right word for what Hite does. (He’s not the only one doing it, I should note, but he is one of the masters.) These aren’t the sort of counterfactual histories where you posit one pivotal change and then try to construct the most plausible outcome. They’re more like remixes or mashups. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Ken always says, and indeed he does begin with historical facts. They’re like the raw material, the samples he loops to lay down a beat. Then he layers other histories on top of them, like bass and melody, riffing on synchronicities and similarities. What does it mean, for instance, that Vlad “Dracula” Tepes, King Arthur Pendragon, and the Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe all have surnames or nicknames meaning “son of the dragon”? If you answered, “nothing, really,” you're absolutely right—but you're not getting into the spirit of things.
The goal of the game is not historical accuracy but historical audacity, not plausibility but performance. As in the musical mixing done by DJs and mashup artists, there is a set of regular referents and even clichés. Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco, is an ur-text for this kind of play. “You can tell [a lunatic],” Eco wrote, “by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.” Sure enough, for this kind of historical play the Templars are the well-worn equivalent of James Brown saying “Good Gawd!”
I can’t, as I said, link you to this year's Clio’s Nightmares. Or I can, but you'll only be able to read the first few lines. I can link to the full text of one of Ken’s early columns—“Six Flags Over Roswell,” which relocates the mythical Roswell UFO crash into six different eras of U.S. history. It's a fun read, but I don't actually think that particular column does justice to Ken's full cleverness or ambition. In his later pieces, you're as likely to find a close reading of Christopher Marlowe or an investigation of Islamic mysticism as you are alien-controlled conquistadors. I can point you instead to Matt Rossi's “Encyclopedia of Heresies.” Matt plays in the same sandbox as Ken, and is second to nobody in deranged erudition. But if Ken is like Fatboy Slim, hitting you with a radio-friendly three-minute single, Matt is more like Paul Oakenfold, spinning out a six-hour set of slow-building trance. And not everybody is up for 20,000+ words on the Cathar heresy. The first few years of Ken’s columns have been collected into two fine books. (Matt Rossi also has a book of columns that I really need to pick up.) I wish there was a better name and a bigger market for what these guys do. They look a little like gaming publications, but they’re really not. They’re a crazy genre all their own.
I'm always curious what other historians will make of this scene, where people muck around in history for purposes so different than our own. The party line is that professional historians don’t approve of such tomfoolery. I understand why, and why we need to draw very clear lines between what we do in our day jobs and this kind of historical play. Ken himself is very thoughtful and tries to be responsible with history. Still, his work does demonstrate that with a library card, a good search engine, and the right kind of mind, one can wreak all manner of mischief on and with historical “facts.”
Professional academic history is only a tiny fraction of what people do with history in their lives. To those of us inside the guild, that’s both a blessing and a curse. Some people watch the Hitler Channel or read giant biographies of the Founding Fathers. Some people dress up like Civil War soldiers and spend their weekends in muddy ditches playing dead. Some people twist the facts of history for pernicious, hateful purposes. But some people do it just for fun.
[Crossposted at Old is the New New.]