Questions by Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a relatively tight-knit online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result a lot of our members and writers are involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion either with a counter factual focus or not. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on the rest of this community.
This week it's Charlie Allison, a spoken word Historical storyteller whose website is Charlie-Allison.com.
Hello Charlie! Thank you for speaking to us. So for readers not familiar with you, you're an academic and researcher who writes both essays and published fiction but you're perhaps most noted for your spoken word historical storytelling in the open mic scene of Philadelphia. How exactly did that come about?
It actually came about gradually. I used to write primarily fantasy and sci-fi, with a few academic and historical subjects on the side. I’d read my short stories or flash pieces at open-mics but I also watched the other performers. There were a lot of people better than me even at the top of my game—I know fellow presenters like Max Stanton’s reading and writing style rubbed off on me in a big way in terms of how to engage an audience, as well as Joe Soler’s extemporaneous style of storytelling. Slowly, over months, I abandoned my papers—I stopped reading my stories from the page, and started trying to summarize events in history. I think the first one I ever tried was my summary of the death of the Mexica poet, Temilotzin—I tried to read about a three page summary including excerpts from his poetry. I was all kinds of nervous and, given I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do quite yet, didn’t do as well as I would have liked.
But I kept experimenting, and slowly abandoned my notes as I developed my style. The first story I told without notes (and got a laugh from the audience from) was a section from the Latin epic poem—where the chief character, a gluttonous wolf, is outwitted by a horse he wants to eat and gets kicked so hard a horseshoe embeds itself in his forehead. This just after he mistakes the horse’s penis for a razor strop, mind you.
The first bit of historical storytelling I did that was close to the form I use now is actually on my website and about the conglomeration of failures and prejudices that was Admiral Kolchak of Siberia.
My original pitch for that in the open mic scene was ‘How to Lose a Civil War in A Year (Even with Unlimited Guns and Money)’. I was trying to make a reference to the romantic comedy ‘How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’ but it didn’t quite work out that way. Still, that opening hook was just enough to hook the audience, at least a little, then we could get into the bloody business of the Russian civil war and Kolchak’s wildly incompetent and bloody rule of Siberia.
I think most people when they think of spoken word history think primarily of lectures but you have an additional background in creative writing and stand up comedy. Do you think that makes you more accessible to people who would maybe bounce off a more academic style?
Oh man. I actually hate listening to myself because in order to do spoken word history or storytelling, at some level, your enthusiasm has to overwhelm your desire to be right about absolutely everything.
For me the desire to share overwhelms all other considerations. Your audience has to see that you’re excited by your subject matter—and by being so hyped about it, you are in a very real way encouraging them to mimic you and share in your passion. To get that sort of energy, you have to sacrifice some specificity, no matter how much research you’ve done—for time, for expediency, for human connection, the biased and synthetic story you are presenting—some degree of accuracy and specificity. You have to know—or come to know, or anticipate—what will land and hook your audience and that means being flexible.
For me personally, knowing I’m likely to flub some small details in a live historical storytelling session is a fair price to spread the stories of people like Caterina Sforza, Nestor Makhno, Al-Adil Kitbugha and Al-Nuwayri—to say nothing of Vlad III’s ultimate fanboy, Russian diplomat Fyodor Kuritsyn or the unheralded queen of blowing shit up, Maria Nikiforova. I think I’ve done my job as a historical storyteller if two conditions are met at the end of a live performance—the audience was entertained and informed, and at least a small percentage of them might be so intrigued they start poking around the same historical pools I frequently dip my feet into.
Obviously the Covid Pandemic has restricted a lot of live theatre, so to compensate you've put your recently finished series about Nestor Makhno up on Youtube. To what extent do you think the effect of Live theatre can be captured online?
I think that whether the exact effect of an open mic can be replicated or not through digital mediums is obvious. Digital mediums can’t replicated it. But they are what we have, and so what we must use. I have no doubt that it will become its own sub-genre of performance (I mean, Youtube vids are about the closest thing to it) with its own styles. It’s not the same, but it never could be, so may as well take what can be taken and make it unique.
You've also written purely textual essays for both Sea Lion Press Magazine and your own blog. What do you think are the advantages of a spoken performance are versus the essay or even the history book in terms of connecting with an audience?
In a sentence, there is the ability to adjust your performance on the fly with live storytelling. You can see what’s working and what’s not—wrong tone, wrong vocabulary for that audience, that night, that venue—and if you’re good, adjust for it.
With Podcasts on the rise, purely vocal performances are increasingly how people consume historical nonfiction, what downsides, if any, can you see from that?
I’m really tactile—speaking personally on this, I always feel weird that the audience can’t see my face or my hands when I’m presenting. Depending on vocal inflection and cadence—instead of those two things partnered with eyebrow movements, eyeballs, hand gestures, posture etc. always makes me feel antsy. I guess it comes from a perpetual fear of being misunderstood—voice acting and lecturing are skills that storytelling definitely uses, but in the audio format, those are the only tools you have outside of editing software.
I understand you were planning to go to Mongolia next year to teach English. Any ambitions to visit an Uliger, the traditional steppe story tellers? Do you see yourself as part of that tradition?
I am rather hesitant to call myself part of any sort of tradition—while I draw on a lot of disparate sources, I’ve never really done an apprenticeship. I had a great set of teachers in college who really hammered it home that if you couldn’t communicate clearly to your audience—aurally or through writing—then your study was wasted effort. I will make a special effort to meet (and watch and chat with) Monglian storytellers while in country of course.
Sewer Rats are a relatively new production company in the area I live. I knew Liz Zimmerman before she helped found the company— we worked at the same office. She introduced me to Kelci and Spencer, who were kind enough to listen to me ramble about the Beast of Gevaudan for over an hour on first meeting. They do wonderful work—manage to make me sound coherent through the power of editing! They actually have an audioplay coming out for the Fringe Festival soon that I’m really excited to hear. Everyone at Sewer Rats has been wonderful to work with and I hope to do so again in the future.
Obviously you're also a fiction writer, I think primarily in the horror genre, to what extent does your historical knowledge influence your writing?
I think the hard thing to remember when fiction writing is that you have to base your inner worlds on some precedent somewhere. There’s a great phrase that I’ve borrowed countless time, “a lived-in world” and it applies to most set-piece fiction—sci-fi, fantasy, historical, whatever doesn’t take place in our current 21st world. It’s the idea that you need to imagine (and do some degree of planning and expanding on) what a typical day for the majority of people living in your world is like. Food, religion, geography, city planning, cultural assumptions, the works. None of this may show up in your story—but how well know you know this will tell in your writing. The most important takeaway from a “lived in world” is that core assumptions are challenged—you can’t graft 21st century morality or assumptions into say, a 13th century Egypt based around necromancy, or the Mongol Empire’s newfound interstellar empire.
We haven't talked much about counter-factual history, though I know it's a subject dear to both of us. Academia often sneers at counter-factuals as a way of exploring history. Do you think the more informal atmosphere of historical storytelling at open mics maybe offers an opportunity for more openly counter-factual history than say academic panels?
So much of history is seemingly determined by random factors—weather, personalities, cultures etc. Running the odds, William the Bastard seemed more likely to lose the battle of Hastings than win in 1066. Bad terrain, bad tactical decisions, a drawn out-fight—but when the Saxons came down off the hills in an ill-advised charge, history changed. There’s a great alternate history essay on this subject by Cecillia Holland in the book 'What If? 2' that argues that England (and what we know as the UK) would have remained in the Scandinavian sphere of influence, up to and including the eventual expansion to North America centuries after Hastings.
Or take another favorite of mine, the game Ironheart by Lee Williams which runs an alternate history set in a parallel historical universe—the Second Crusade—Saladin, assassins, Baldwin, the whole schmeer—but with Mongols and mechs making appearances far earlier on the scene. Enough of the Second Crusade remains in place to be recognizable, but the new things (Mongols arriving in 1100s rather than the 1260s for one thing, to say nothing of the giant death machines) add spice and uncertainty. I heartily recommend it. Alternate history is kissing cousins with fantasy—and fantasy depends on both knowledge and imagination to both instruct and entertain.
This is all a very long way of saying that a fun way to teach history could be to provide students with questions like “What would have it taken for the Black Army to beat the Bolsheviks in 1920?” Or “How could the Kuomintang have retained power after WWII?”
In short, by asking readers, history buffs and students to imagine alternatives, they demonstrate their understanding of the variables at play in our present timeline.
I think that alternate history should be used as a tool for looking at history—a variant on the Socratic method perhaps? There are as many ways to teach alternate history as there are to teach history—and I think that exploring alternate history is a viable way to learn regular-timeline history. It fights against the feeling of inevitability that often comes with studying history—things didn’t have to go the way they did. John Wilkes Booth might have missed Lincoln even at point-blank range, so Reconstruction actually sticks, or Maria Nikiforova’s assassination of Kolchak actually kills him and changes the whole course and tempo of the Russian Civil War, to give but two examples. There is no such thing as ‘destiny’ in history—the discipline can’t afford such an inflexible concept, and neither can the people who study it. Destiny is just another word for lack of imagination.
So what can we expect to see from you next, now the Nestor Makhno series is completed?
I'm glad you asked! I'm currently working on a Halloween-themed series of videos (and blogs to cover what I get wrong or too excited to include) on the Beast of Gevaudan. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this historical event, from 1764-1767 a mysterious animal killed and ate well over a hundred people, mostly young women and children though men were attacked as well. What this animal was nobody can say for certain--but this beast's attacks coincided with the rise of the very concept of an international press and became one the first viral news-stories. It even got the attention of the king of France, who sent no less than three sets of hunters to kill the beast, which swiftly gained supernatural features before finally dying sometime in 1767 under mysterious circumstances.
The reason I'm talking about the Beast of Gevaudan is because the subject is usually only approached from one angle of analysis. Cryptid lovers focus on various hypotheses involving WHAT the beast was--it's identity (guesses run from hyena to wolfdog hybrid to lion to regular wolf and those are just the more vanilla options). True crime shows and sources often analyze the violence itself and speculate that the deaths were the work of a particularly depraved serial killer or a trainer of a beast who accompanied it on hunts, and fans of supernatural hypothesis surprisingly aligned with peasant beliefs at the time: that the beast was a witch or werewolf. The accounts of Gevaudan, by the way, is key in establishing the myth of a silver ball/bullet as being lethal to werewolves--a legacy of a second-hand source recounting the events of Gevaudan and putting his own pro-Royalist spin on it after the French Revolution.
But, to cut to the chase, the reason I'm doing a series on Gevaudan is that I think it has amazing potential as dark comedy. There are some jaw-dropping absurdities littered through the historical record of this three year period in rural France. What the beast was (I certainly have an opinion on the matter but that hardly figures into the history) is a secondary point of emphasis. The machinations and absurdities of royal power trying to establish primacy over an animals for a PR victory on the heels of a disastrous Seven Years War is comedy gold. A functional Bigfoot Hunt is used to curry political favor in Versailles, cross-dressing, sorcery, smear campaigns and disinformation are just the tip of the iceberg. And I saw that nobody had really talked about the grim humor of all this, the human venality, pettiness and outright silliness of everything--the beast seemed to dominate all retellings of the story. So I thought I'd take a shot at it, focused on the people who interacted with the beast. If you like cryptids, absurdity, historiography and a Mel Brooks meets Bullwinkle J.Moose approach to history, I recommend you check it out.
Charlie Allison is a writer, speaker and researcher who talks about history on his blog (where he has a series about Catherine Sforsa and a recently finished one on Nester Makhno) and has had several short stories published