Relatively late in his career, Theodore Roscoe wrote a book about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, The Web of Conspiracy (1959), and it’s difficult not to wonder if the seed for that might have been planted in this visit to the fictional town of Four Corners, NY.
In the background of this tale is the old chestnut that history is written by the winners, in the sense that Abraham Lincoln’s acts in abolishing slavery are accepted as a great thing and his — spoilers? — assassination at Ford’s Theatre therefore the tragic cutting down of a great man. And yet, as Roscoe’s historian narrator reminds us, “that Lincoln had many political enemies is common knowledge to the historian” and, at the time of his murder, there were people on both sides of the political divide who criticised his actions and/or celebrated his death as an ultimately good thing. It’s shocking in its own way, but modern sensibilities (and experience) tell you that it has to be true, even if you can’t cite from memory the cases and people Roscoe does here.
What, then, of those people who did criticise Lincoln — even had cause to hate him? And what if, following his assassination by John Wilkes Booth in 1865, you were to encounter one of his critics from that fateful day in the supposedly more enlightened — though perhaps equally politically divisive — summer of 1938? It’s a fascinating principle, that someone left to ferment in the “lies, cabals, corrupted anecdotes and calumnies invented by Lincoln’s enemies” might have plenty of bitterness, plenty of pickled hatred stored up down the years of seeing the man celebrated as a hero. And, when confronted by someone who wishes only to hear the very best of a great man, might such a person not let rip “with all the glee of a vandal throwing stones through a church window”?
And might there not also be some further revelation, which could throw the accepted order of events into even greater chaos?
Roscoe is aware of the apostasy he’s committing even here in fiction, and to a certain extent spoils his game with an author’s foreword assuring the reader that the views expressed by his mysterious, bitter old man — “a dressed-up skeleton that had just walked out of its closet” — are that fictional gentleman’s alone and in no way reflect the views of the author…reminiscent of the boilerplate put at the front of Golden Age reprints now, warning the inattentive reader that, gasp!, people thought differently in the past. Don’t read the foreword, because you’re better off, as with all Roscoe’s work, simply diving in and being swept on the currents he chooses to ride rather than being given any hint of where this might end up…although even that ends up a little damp, utilising an uncharacteristic lack of conviction in the closing stages which fumbles what could have been an otherwise enjoyable reveal.
But, I get ahead of myself.
We find our narrator negotiating the back roads of America in search of details about the murder of Lincoln and the unusual events which spun out of Booth’s escape and eventual execution several days later. This, and I see no reason to assume that Roscoe’s rendering of events strays from historical record, is fascinating — not least because these events hint at “collusion, treachery and double-dealing worthy of the murderous diplomacy of the Borgias”. I had no idea that events played out in this way, and the ground is ripe for speculation and conspiracy theories…and presumably only unmined in the public consciousness because of how damn probable they seem. Honestly, I came to this for Roscoe’s tumbling, almost hallucinogenic prose, and alongside that I got one of the most gripping history lessons I can remember, complete with a trail of death and tragedy that rode in the wake of Lincoln’s murder like history itself was rising up to even the score.
So, surrounded by trees that “didn’t want their quiet interrupted” and in a mouldy old cabin that “smelled like a cavern full of dead bats” and yet is furnished in the ostentatious style of the late 19th century, we’re treated to a one-man recreation of the Lincoln assassination from this recluse who has about him “something wizardish and repellent” and puts on a display “like a nightmare, in which delirium and reality were blended to the point where I was unable to separate them in my consciousness”. When sticking to this intent, the story is a wonderfully entertaining two-hander that gets only more compelling as it draws on both the accepted version of events and the subjective opinions of our teller.
It was abominable. Monstrous! In that nightmarish room I seemed to be sitting in a well of ice, my muscles slowly freezing, while that vitriol-tongued old recluse, in the light of the dying fireplace-embers was a sorcerer binding me in a spell, a dreadful Mr. Hategood paralyzing my spirit with words of poison.
It’s a shame, then, that the demands of the form require something approaching a dramatic denouement on which to land such a spectacular piece of aerial mastery, because when brought down to earth the final stages stumble and struggle for a payoff that makes it all worthwhile. An element of the fantastical intrudes, and the fantastical has never been Roscoe’s metier…at least not in the final instance, his talents finding themselves better deployed in weaving fantastical patterns that then land with a sure-footed grace in the corporeal realm. Were any of this final third delivered with the conviction which usually comes from writing for the pulps — committing to the thought experiment with the assuredness which betokened the masterstroke of last week’s ‘Ghoul’s Paradise’ (1938) — it might have made a more favourable impression upon me. As it is, Roscoe is perhaps a little chary when it comes to throwing over history so full-bloodedly and so we’re left with a sort of ‘Well, what do you think?’ shrug before our characters slink off-stage.
While it lasts, and in those most audacious moments of the one-man show, it really flies, and commends once again the spirit of this school of writing which celebrated and promoted such magnificently propulsive and striking prose. Weird to think of a tameness creeping in at the end, but maybe history being written by the winners held Roscoe in a stronger thrall than he was willing to admit or realise himself. Who knew the old man would have so much moderation in him?
James Scott Byrnside: What follows is a phantasmagorical performance of the night of Lincoln’s assassination and the subsequent revenge of the Yankees. While it’s handled well (Roscoe knows how to paint a scene) there isn’t anywhere this story can go plot-wise except where it ends up. To put it simply, this particular whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.
The Four Corners stories by Theodore Roscoe