31 Lists of Horror: Michelle Butler Hallett’s Historical Tales of Terror

Today, in Day 17 of 31 Lists of Hor­ror, it’s time to delve into that rarest of gen­res: his­tor­i­cal hor­ror.

Luck­i­ly, we’ve got a kick-ass tour guide.

You know, before down­load­ing became a thing.

Today’s special guest lister: Michelle Butler Hallett


Michelle But­ler Hal­lett writes fic­tion about vio­lence, evil, love, and grace.  She is the author of the nov­els This Mar­lowe, delud­ed your sailors, Sky Waves, and Dou­ble-blind, and the sto­ry col­lec­tion The shad­ow side of grace. Her short sto­ries are wide­ly anthol­o­gized: The Vagrant Revue of New Fic­tion, Hard Ol’ Spot, Run­ning the Whale’s Back, Every­thing Is So Polit­i­cal, and Best Amer­i­can Mys­tery Sto­ries 2014.

October 19, 2017

Top 10 Terrifying Historical Events


I’m a his­to­ry nerd, so I present a list of ten bits of his­to­ry that scare the hell out of me.


Eyam Plague Vil­lage

One flea. One bad year: 1665. Plague takes Eng­land, again, and those who live in the vil­lage of Eyam pray the plague will pass them by. The tai­lor has ordered some cloth from Lon­don, and it arrives—infested with fleas.

With­in a week, the tailor’s assis­tant suc­cumbs to the hor­rif­ic Black Death. Oth­ers become ill and die. The vil­lage waives a rule about bury­ing the dead in the church­yard; res­i­dents may bury their own dead on their own prop­er­ty, and they must do so with all haste.

Then, a deci­sion.

Eyam will shut down.

No one may enter. No one may leave.

Two options present them­selves at this deci­sion: star­va­tion and death.

The endgame: keep the plague with­in the vil­lage.

The peo­ple of Eyam stare down death in a ter­ri­ble soli­tude of many.


Q: Why is Lubyan­ka Prison in Moscow the tallest build­ing in all the Rus­sias?

A: Because you can see Siberia from the base­ment.


Anky­los­ing spondyli­tis

The dis­ease anky­los­ing spondyli­tis can, as a worst out­come, fuse the spine into one long bone, often deform­ing it first. This process takes decades and caus­es mobil­i­ty prob­lems and ago­niz­ing pain. For decades, med­ical stu­dents are taught that this poor­ly-under­stood dis­ease is one of men, that it hap­pens four times, ten times, more often to males than females. There­fore, goes the lazy per­ver­sion of hors­es-not-zebras med­ical thought, women don’t get anky­los­ing spondyli­tis. You’re a woman. You devel­op anky­los­ing spondyli­tis. Your spine deforms, fus­es. It takes many years. You suf­fer absurd agony. No one believes you.


A woman work­ing as an advanced sci­en­tist in the 1930s: just imag­ine what she had to over­come to become a pae­di­atric psy­chol­o­gist in a patri­ar­chal cul­ture. Then she took over an orga­ni­za­tion which would give phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion and social train­ing to oth­er girls.

Just imag­ine how much Jut­ta Rüdi­ger must have enjoyed run­ning The League of Ger­man Girls—roughly anal­o­gous to the boys’ orga­ni­za­tion Hitler Youth—from 1937 to 1945.

Just imag­ine how she claimed nev­er to have approved of League mem­bers being forced to shoot anti-air­craft guns and die when bombed.

Just imag­ine her relief when, after two years of deten­tion after the war, she is not charged and set free.

Just imag­ine how she goes to work every day in her med­ical prac­tice as a child psy­chol­o­gist.


The rail­way: lines, ener­gy, trans­port, even across this empire, the largest land­mass in the world. She lies in bed, mis­er­able with fever and pain, watch­ing the Trans-Siber­ian Rail­way etch itself across the ceil­ing. The trains run late more and more, a sign of the trou­bled days. Papa has gone to war, but he is com­ing home now, on a train. Good thing, too, because life has become quite con­fus­ing. Sol­diers who once pro­tect­ed her and her fam­i­ly by keep­ing peo­ple out now work to keep her in. This palace: a prison. Some­times the elec­tric­i­ty is cut. She and her ado­les­cent sib­lings very sick with measles and pleurisy and pneu­mo­nia. Mis­ery and high fever mean no trav­el, not even to escape to anoth­er coun­try, per­haps Eng­land with Cousin George? Oh, what an idea. Then again, the fam­i­ly has made the voy­age before, yet she knows your fam­i­ly must move. Her moth­er knows it, too, not that you can catch her eye or get more than two words with her. The ceil­ing above gets low­er, and each day gets stranger, dark­er, cold­er. All these years wor­ry­ing about her baby broth­er and very lit­tle bump and bruise: when will some­one wor­ry about her and the oth­er sis­ters, for a change? When will Mama wor­ry about her? Call her by name and not “one of the girls?” Papa’s train—surely, he’s not been detained by the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies, no, unthinkable—Papa’s train is so late.


After a romance shot through with rebel­lion and the fris­son of the forbidden—and shot through with a short term in prison—John and Anne Donne start their mar­ried life togeth­er. John, how­ev­er, for dar­ing to flirt with and love Anne, has lost his plum job.

John Donne

The cou­ple end up far out­side Lon­don, away from fash­ion­able soci­ety and good connections…away from any gain­ful employ­ment. The chil­dren arrive, a steady parade of squalls and sick­ness and death and joy. John gets a job. How­ev­er, he must trav­el, and leave Anne behind, Anne who is, as ever, preg­nant. John needs this job. John wants this job. John takes it, makes the trav­el, leaves Anne behind, does what must be done.

Eye­ing his bed one night, ready for sleep, he’s inter­rupt­ed.

By Anne.

She stands there, pale, hair down over her shoul­ders, cradling an infant. She holds the infant out for John to see.

The infant—so still.

Not long after­wards, John receives word that Anne has giv­en birth, and that the infant has died.


Geor­gy Kon­stan­ti­novich Zhukov

Dur­ing World War Two, Mar­shal Zhukov, head of the Sovi­et forces, storms out of a meet­ing with Stal­in, mut­ter­ing “Mur­der­ous old mous­tache!”

An office work­er over­hears this and alerts Stal­in. Zhukov is imme­di­ate­ly sum­moned back to the Krem­lin, to Stalin’s office.

Mar­shal Zhukov,” demands Stal­in, “what did you say as you left our meet­ing?”

Zhukov stands very straight, refus­es to look down. “I said, ‘Mur­der­ous old mous­tache,’ Com­rade Stal­in.”

The office work­er gasps in hor­ror, expect­ing Stal­in to order Zhukov’s ter­ri­ble exile or vio­lent death on the spot.

And to whom,” snarls Stal­in, “did you refer?”

Why, to Hitler, of course.”

Ah,” says Stal­in. Then he fix­es his lit­tle yel­low eyes on the office work­er. “And you, com­rade? To whom did you think Mar­shal Zhukov referred?”


All her life, she choked on the stinks of salt water: fish guts, brine, seag­ulls, sweat, because all her life she’s seen only water when she looks out the front win­dow. So much water. How far, this ocean? How deep?

No. She refus­es to sur­ren­der to the ocean, to be yet anoth­er woman who lights lamps, wrings her hands, and prays at drafty win­dows, des­per­ate for a glimpse, a sound, of return­ing men. Let them fish, if that’s what they want. But don’t expect her to hang around, wait­ing for them to die off, one by one. It’s 1929, an entire world out there wait­ing to be found—some of it already reach­ing even St Lawrence via under­sea cables.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at last. Still, she will leave St Lawrence come the spring.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tions already sev­ered. That storm the oth­er night tore down the tele­graph line link­ing the Burin Penin­su­la to the rest of New­found­land. It’s Novem­ber, already bit­ter cold, like­ly a snow­storm tomor­row, maid, wouldn’t be sur­prised.

Just gone after five o’clock, get the sup­per dish­es off the table, one more drea­ry task to—

Plates rat­tle across the table and fall to the floor.

This sud­den shak­ing: anoth­er flu? Down to her bones. Down, down, down to the bones of some buried god.

And it stops. Peo­ple stag­ger about; words refuse to come. The clock reads sev­en min­utes after five.

An earth­quake, she decides, com­fort­able in her book-learn­ing. Yes, here, on the south coast of the Domin­ion of New­found­land. Why not? A bit­ter­ness in the wind: snow tomor­row, almost guar­an­teed. Please God, not yet.

Around half past sev­en: shouts. Boats fall over in the har­bour because noth­ing holds them up. The stink that ris­es from what one man calls the ocean’s arse: the bot­tom, sight­ed for the first time, because the water has retreat­ed.


Gone where?

So much debris? Would one find bones? Will they still rise incor­rupt­ible?

So much water, so much depth.

Where is it?


They who dance must pay the piper. On a 1976 evening, he rubs the back of his hand over the stub­ble on his jaw, smells the swampy Wash­ing­ton air, and tries to recall where he heard that bit about the piper: from Ewen, at that din­ner in…no, the one in…gone.

Mem­o­ry flits for him some days. He’s trained his mem­o­ry to go blank, to sub­mit to con­ve­nient amne­sia, if only so he might sleep at night. Such slip­page occur­ring by itself? He scowls.

A sales rep called Bob explained the paper shred­der: capac­i­ty, long life, reduced noise.

What else did Ewen say that night, some­thing about giv­ing back to one’s soci­ety? Yes, even and espe­cial­ly those too frail to look after them­selves must give back some­thing. Any decent per­son would.

Were these peo­ple in their right minds, and such a tragedy they were not, sure­ly they would under­stand his rea­son­ing and agree with it.

Per­haps one day, when Ewen’s cures took, the sub­jects would do just that.

Thank you, Doc­tor. And thank you, Direc­tor, for giv­ing me the chance.

Patients, not sub­jects. Must call them patients. Patience.

He’d shown great patience over the years. Decades. Slow and method­i­cal research. Nev­er mind the new fron­tier crap; this was deep fron­tier, the set­tle­ment not of a swatch of land but of the human mind. Because you could be damned sure the Rus­sians did exact­ly the same, per­haps worse. And he had wor­ried: long nights sit­ting up while the rest of North Amer­i­ca slept the qui­et sleep of the pro­tect­ed. Were the stud­ies humane? Were the stud­ies use­ful?

Were the stud­ies on bud­get?

Pay the piper.

One drug, one sim­ple drug to inject into a vein, to break down a man’s resis­tance and com­pel him to answer ques­tions. A new lev­el of decen­cy in espi­onage and even open war­fare. No need for tor­ture when one had a nee­dle. No more tor­ture.

Get­ting to that nee­dle, how­ev­er, to that drug…God damn it, the com­mies were right on one thing: the ends jus­ti­fy the means.

Those jack­ass­es in the White House got their panties in a twist over the means. Sob sto­ries, left, right, and cen­tre. Then the inves­ti­gat­ing com­mit­tee. What is this, a witch hunt? Called them­selves the Church Com­mit­tee, what, bring­ing about the wrath of God on hon­est men who’d served their coun­try in its dark­est needs?

Get rid of the records, the boss said.

So he exam­ined shred­ders. Many files. Many minds. Suf­fer­ing, yes, but suf­fer­ing for the greater good: why could John Doe and Mary Roe not grasp that? And just as his­to­ry, as a record of what was done, and how, and to whom: should that not be pre­served, some­how? If we keep tax records for decades…

The boss said, Get rid of the records.

Ewen would under­stand. He’d want those records pre­served. Ewen, who served as Pres­i­dent of the Cana­di­an Psy­chi­atric Asso­ci­a­tion, the Amer­i­can Psy­chi­atric Asso­ci­a­tion, the Amer­i­can Psy­chopatho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion, the Soci­ety for Bio­log­i­cal Psy­chi­a­try, and the World Psy­chi­atric Asso­ci­a­tion, terms often over­lap­ping, Ewen would want those records kept. Ewen might even have talked the boss into keep­ing them. Ewen, how­ev­er, had been so thought­less as to die. He died climb­ing a moun­tain, with his son—died hap­py.


Bob the sales rep hadn’t lied. The shred­der ran qui­et.


Five pre­cepts for the Sovi­et intel­lec­tu­al:

  1. Don’t think.
  2. If you must think, then don’t read.
  3. If you must think and read, then don’t write.
  4. Oh, dear. If you must think, read, and write, then don’t sign.
  5. Very well. If you must think, read, write, and sign, then don’t be sur­prised.

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