Brooke Bolander: FIVE THINGS I LEARNED WHILE WRITING THE ONLY HARMLESS GREAT THING
In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.
These are the facts.
Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
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PATIENCE WILL SAVE YOUR ASS
I originally got the idea for this book back in the misty Before Times of 2013 or thereabouts, when the world was slightly simpler. Colours back then were brighter. Birdsong was louder. People went about their business without worrying if they and everyone they loved were under imminent risk of re-enacting Sarah Connor’s dream sequence from T2 because a demented elderly version of Veruca Salt had thrown a spitball at the wrong world leader’s head.
Setting the scene, folks. It’s hard to remember, but there was a Before Time.
In those days, before the seas bent and the oceans drank Melmac, Twitter was a lot more fun. We talked about a lot of stuff that wasn’t vitally important or vitally depressing. One afternoon, a fellow writer friend of mine, the lovely and talented Helena Bell, took a poll asking what she should write about next. The choices, so far as I recall, included:
– Radium poisoning
Me being the sassy little contrarian I have always been and will probably be unto my gravestone, I said, “Well, why not all of them?”
And then the idea alarm went off in my head. It sounds a lot like the “Ironside” sting from Kill Bill, for the record.
“… Wait. Shit, no, hang on, I think I want to do that. Can I do that?”
I studied History & Archaeology at university, and my subconscious is a drifting garbage barge of weird historical facts. Occasionally my brain, gull-like, will swoop down and pluck one of these tasty noms half-buried out of the muck. If I’m lucky, it may come up with a couple. Occasionally I think I can make them work together and after much gnashing of teeth and weeping of blood realize I can’t. Seagulls aren’t great gourmands, unless they’re some kind of crazy Ratatouille seagull working part-time in a fancy cocktail bar and boy, that might even be more unsanitary than a rat chef.
In this case, it was a little of both. I knew about the story of Topsy, the elephant electrocuted at Coney Island in 1903. I knew about the Radium Girls, the factory workers of New Jersey & Illinois who succumbed to radiation sickness after their employers let them ingest toxic radium-laced paint in the of their jobs. I had seen elephants wield paintbrushes in their trunks as deftly and delicately as any human artist, trained to paint ‘art’ for tourists and zoo-goers. All these things bubbled to the surface and combined and I knew I had the seeds of a story.
But it wasn’t enough yet. Cool ideas are great. In the age of the Internet, they’re frickin’ everywhere. You can’t click an Atlas Obscura article without getting bombarded by interesting facts that would make a bomb-ass story handled the right way. Here’s the thing, though: That doesn’t always mean you should write a story about them. There has to be more to a story than HERE IS A FACT WITH A HASTILY GLUED-TOGETHER STORY THROWN OVER IT, ISN’T THAT RAD? I’ve read those stories before, and while I get the impulse, nay, the need, to turn your favorite fact about Teddy Roosevelt into a story, a lot of times they’re rushed and aren’t great. The idea has to work in service of the story, not the other way around.
I wrote a couple of early drafts, and they were garbage. The seagull/giant industrial ACME magnet/Katamari of my brain had not collected the right themes, throughlines, and critical plot mass to turn it from a weird mishmash of historical facts into a story worth writing. So I trunked it. I waited. I let it ferment like the finest Kentucky moonshine, the choicest prison hooch. Either it would turn into something, I figured, or it wouldn’t.
it took THREE YEARS for things to finally come together. Three. Fuckin’. Years.
Writing is not a job for the impatient, but I try not to let that stop me. Because then I sat down and wrote it all in two weeks and it was done and it wasn’t a short story, it was a BOOK, and no extensive rewrites were called for. But it definitely taught me to let things mature in their own damn time, rather than rushing out something sloppy and forgettable just to have it done.
That brain-seagull makes a mean cocktail if you let it, turns out.
RAY CATS. JUST—RAY CATS.
A few things finally pushed the initial idea over the edge from “weird and mildly interesting mashup of historical events I desperately want to write about” into a shape and a form that didn’t look like it had gone through a telepod making out with a camel spider. One was the world at large turning from “kinda fucked, needs work” to “WELCOME TO YOUR 24/7 WAKING NIGHTMARE.” I dunno about you, Dear Reader, but it has made me dedicate a lot more thinky-thoughts to the old classics: The pervasive evils of capitalism, crushing feelings of powerlessness, women’s anger, and acts of rebellion and solidarity. Stuff that was already there in massive quanitites, but which suddenly demands a lot more space in my brain a lot more of the time. I also read a really great book on the history of uranium by Tom Zoellner, which you should pick up even if you think you don’t give a good god-damn about uranium. I didn’t! And now look at me, married to a hunk of uranium ore.
Zoellner’s book has a chapter on the ongoing issue scientists have come up against in leaving a warning sign for future generations regarding the heaps and heaps of nuclear waste we still have no solution to discarding other than “I dunno, grab a shovel, whatever.” You’ve probably heard about it before, but if not, it’s a deeply interesting topic that gets everybody from folklorists to anthropologists to historians to linguists involved in its orbit.
Oh, and color-changing cats. Which is the bit I didn’t previously know about, because we don’t talk about just how brilliantly batshit cuckoo bananapants some of the solutions posited have been.
At some point during the early ‘80s—when, I might point out, there was a rather heroic amount of cocaine floating around in the atmosphere—a French writer and an Italian semiotician put their heads together and came up with an idea. Simplified, they figured that humans fuckin’ love them some kitty cats and that doesn’t look likely to change at any time in either the near or distant future. If scientists could somehow breed cats whose coats changed colour when in proximity to radioactive materials, the story of these “ray cats” could be passed down in humanity’s folkloric tradition. Stories and songs would spread the legend and the warning, outlasting scientific knowledge and maybe even civilizations. There’s a great and deeply amusing little documentary about it at The Ray Cat Solution ; it is totally worth 15 minutes of your grim daily slog.
For a number of reasons not even including the part where flashy colour-changing cats would have to be genetically engineered, the whole thing has never seriously caught on with other semioticians. But coming across the tale of the Ray Cat Solution made me think about a lot of things—how we twist stories to our use, how we use animals, how the stories that make up history are passed down and how they shape the narratives of our cultures. Boom, as they say, went the dynamite.
EDISON DIDN’T HAVE A DANG THING TO DO WITH TOPSY, BUT AS USUAL HAS BEEN POSTHUMOUSLY TAKING CREDIT FOR IT
Everything you know about Thomas Edison’s involvement in Topsy’s death is probably horseshit.
The story most of us know is more or less this one: During the War of the Currents, Thomas Alva Edison, noted asshole inventor and archfiend rival slash fucker-overer of Nikola Tesla, electrocuted a disgraced circus elephant—Topsy—and filmed the entire thing to prove that alternating current was way more dangerous than direct. Parts of this are absolutely true. Edison was an A-plus, major league asshole and all-around bad human being who screwed many over during his long and illustrious career. In 1888 he oversaw the electrocution of four calves and a horse at his West Orange laboratory and made sure the members of the press were there to witness it as well. It was cruel and self-serving and the experiment was also used in future development of the electric chair. All well-known, nasty Edison stuff.
Here’s the catch: Topsy’s execution didn’t take place for another fifteen years, well after the War of the Currents and Edison’s crusade had petered out. As far as anyone can tell, Thomas Edison wasn’t even in the crowd that day to see her die. Frederick Thompson and Elmer Dundy, the two showboating owners of Topsy and Coney Island’s then under-construction Luna Park, saw a way to both get rid of the troublesome elephant and drum up publicity for the park’s opening. The cultural confusion arises from Edison’s past as an ardent animal-fryer, combined with the fact that the film crew who shot what would later be known as Electrocuting an Elephant worked for the Edison Film Company.
So, yeah, Edison was a dick, but in this one instance his dickishness had nothing to do with whether or not Topsy lived or died. Other factors and other men signed her sad fate.
RADIUM CONDOMS ARE A THING THAT EXISTED, AND YOUR GREAT-GRANDPARENTS PRESUMABLY BOUGHT AND USED THEM
I knew about the radium craze of the early 20th century. I knew about the tonic waters, the soaps, and the hot springs where people would go to have a nice irradiated soak. What I did not know about—and may God forgive me for this sad oversight—was the radium-laced condoms.
So, backstory: Before people realized that in large enough doses it would eventually snuff you like a candle, radium was considered a healthful and beneficial element. Nobody was quite sure HOW it benefited the human body, or to what degree, but it was new, it was radioactive when that word meant about as much to people as ‘organic’ does today, and it occasionally glowed in the goddamned dark. That was more than enough cause to make it an additive and a selling point in everything from chocolate bars to cigarettes to patent medicines. It was like probiotics, if probiotics eventually replaced the marrow in your bones and murdered you.
And, of course, it was in condoms. Because what good was science if Mankind could not insert Himself into it?
Yes, Nutex actually sold radium-dosed condoms from roughly 1927 until 1940, when the FTC shut them down for ‘false and misleading’ advertising regarding the disease-preventing properties of their product. Now, I’m pretty sure by 1940 the dangers of putting radium into literally everything were more or less known. In 1932 a fabulously rich industrialist’s scion named Eben Byers died from drinking too much radium-laced tonic water and was eulogized by the Wall Street Journal, who ran his story with the headline “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”. The first of the sad trials of the Radium Girls was settled in 1928, and the last, in Illinois, didn’t come to a close until 1938.
But it won’t prevent syphilis any better than your competitiors! Stop telling people that! Oh, and (cough) also it may make your junk fall off.
TOPSY THE UNDEAD ELEPHANT WILL HAVE HER REVENGE ON CONEY ISLAND
I have gone on about this at LENGTH in many other places across the Internet, because it’s my favorite thing that I learned and also I learned it too late in the process to actually use it in the book. Which is maddening. I don’t know WHERE I would have used it, but when life gives you furious spectral elephant ghosts in the historical record, you damn well find a place for them to go.
But I didn’t. It’s all on me. And now I have to tell literally everyone I meet about Topsy’s vengeful spirit and how she roams the streets of Coney Island seeking, if not revenge, then the opportunity to scare the bejesus outta some people.
Topsy was electrocuted on January 4th, 1903. A taxidermist took her skin, her legs were turned into umbrella stands, and her 300-lb skull was buried on site. The crowd dispersed and that was that, until a year later when workmen at Luna Park began to see some seriously weird shit late at night.
Quoth the Bristol Banner from March 4th, 1904—and I’m quoting the blurb in is entirety because there is no possible way anything I could write would match up to the real deal:
Elephant’s Ghost Haunts Coney Island and Seeks Revenge on Destroyer!
There’s a ghost at Coney Island—an astral body of huge dimensions that treads the windswept streets of Luna Park, and with clankering chains and hollow bellows turns the heart of the hibernating hot-tamale man to ice. It is the specter of Topsy, the unruly elephant which was electrocuted, come back from the elephant hades to wreak vengeance for its untimely taking off. The apparition made its appearance last Wednesday night, just as the clock in the sleeping quarters of the workmen in Luna Park was striking 12. Antonio PussianI, a ditch digger, saw it first. He fainted. A comrade opened one eye and was temporarily paralyzed. The huge form stood over him, its feet wide apart and its trunk issuing sparks of fire. The eyes blazed, then faded. The place was in an uproar in an instant. Several others witnessed the uncanny thing’s exit and heard shrill trumpetings rising and dying away on the wind, and the rattle of chains. On the following night, the Frankfurter man was seen to drop on his knees on Tilyou’s Walk. He was so scared that he couldn’t tell of the elephant for an hour afterward.
Then reports came in from other places. They were not restful. As the elephant took advantage of privileges accorded to ghosts, doors were no bar to him. He just went through without noticeable squeezing. One laborer, who had drunk two bottles of chianti, said he had seen the beast doing trapeze acts on the tight wire between the top of the chutes and the electric tower. He hung by his trunk and wigged his toes in the vicinity of the base of his proboscis, he said. He is not believed.
Yesterday six laborers, headed by Pucciani, waited upon Hugh Thomas, who sent Topsy into another world, and demanded their pay. Mr. Thomas said the ghost was all hocus pocus, but he paid the men off and came to the city. He’s here yet. At last accounts the elephant was fussing around for its destroyer.
Nobody can ever tell me historical research is boring ever again. I don’t wanna fuckin’ hear it. History is AMAZING, and sometimes it is filled with vengeful ghost elephants.
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Brooke Bolander writes weird things of indeterminate genre, most of them leaning rather heavily towards fantasy or general all-around weirdness. Her stories have been featured in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, Uncanny, Tor.com, and various other fine purveyors of the fantastic. She has been a repeat finalist for the Nebula, Hugo, Locus, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards, much to her unending bafflement. She currently resides in Brooklyn and has the haircut to prove it.