Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Napoleon's Boots" by Donna Thorland

The Literary Lab proudly presents the winner of the Genre Wars Crime/Horror category:

Napoleon's Boots

by Donna Thorland

My wife is wrong. I haven't been drunk since we arrived home. I've been drunk since we left St. Helena. Thank you, but no. I prefer to charge my own glass.

The cruise was an awful idea from the first. But the minute she saw Nefertiri's Barque she was dead set on it. My father built the bloody yacht and left it in his will--the only thing he did leave me. I mean, what was I to do with a yacht fitted up like Pharoah's favorite brothel? I was trying to sell the damned thing for some pocket money when she decided on this cruise.

Can you imagine it? London, Spain, Italy, and Greece, all seen through pyramid shaped portholes. You know what the main cabin is called? The Theban Saloon. When she told me she'd be bringing her sisters along I said we ought to re-christen the damned boat the Argos since we were going to have the harpies aboard.

The stupid cow spent a bloody fortune—all her money really so who cares—refitting the place. As if having the brandy and port in canopic jars wasn't enough, we had to have a teapot shaped like a camel. Don't even ask what the sugar bowl looked like.

The funny thing is the whole trip went off without a hitch. My wife and her sisters spent most of the Atlantic crossing seasick in Hatshepsut's Water Closet while I enjoyed the blissful quiet—and d├ęcor—of an Egyptian tomb.

I don't know where she picked up the idea of stopping at St. Helena. Strike that: everyone, she said, was doing it. Stopping in to chat with Napoleon and taking away a souvenir. You know, locks of hair, bits of clothing, naked statues of Bonaparte's sister. The sort of thing the Frenchies prize.

Anyway, the silly cow insisted we stop so we did. And sink me if she didn't make me select a case of my best Madeira wine as an offering to the exiled Emperor!

We looked in at Jamestown, to get permission from the island's British Governor to visit Boney, and he told us we were welcome to call on the old boy, but that Boney's health had been declining steadily for months, and had fallen off precipitously since the death of his Corsican butler, Cipriani. One of the Emperor's toadies, name of "Charles Tristan de Montholon," was running the show at present and might not be inclined to receive us.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So I hired a rickety cart, and the harpies and I, and my case of wine, ascended the four hilly miles to Boney's digs at Longwood.

Well, you would expect that the man who terrorized Europe for twenty years would be chained in a cell somewhere. It's what he did to his English prisoners anyway. But Longwood was an eleven-room manor house furnished with silk and mahogany.

We were told to wait in the parlor, and out comes this Frog the Governor had mentioned, Charles Montholon, dripping with lace. A youngish, oily looking little dandyprat with dark curly hair and cold blue eyes.

Montholon looks us up and down—my wife practically cooing, her silly sisters giggling—and you could tell he was about to tell us to hie it back to Jamestown when he spotted the case of Madeira, ran his eye over the vintage stamps. He laughed, and said the Emperor would be delighted to see well-wishers from America. Hadn't the French helped us win our independence, and hadn't we offered so much valuable support to the Emperor in his late wars?

Well, I certainly hadn't, but I wasn't about to press the point. The case of wine disappeared in a wink, and we were ushered into a little room with polished tables where this portly, balding little man—who’d once terrorized the world—gravely sat sipping lemonade. Another Frenchie—middle-aged, ramrod straight, in the uniform of an officer of Engineers--hovered at the Emperor's elbow. I recognized him as Boney's faithful friend, General Bertrand—led the Danube campaign, you know.

We all spoke French—Boney’s English was as appalling as Bertrand's was perfect. The Emperor was gracious, I'll give him that. And charming to the ladies.

And damnably perceptive. After flattering my wife and her sisters a bit, and gifting the harpies some little keepsakes—a cockade from his second best hat, lockets with wisps of his hair and what not—he turned to me and said, "I think, mon ami, that you are not one of my late allies."

Of course I wasn't. Oh, I'll grant you we owe the Frogs for their help in the War for Independence. But Napoleon butchered half of Europe and made himself Emperor—a thing a good sight worse than a king, so I purchased a commission in the British Army and fought under Wellington to stop him.

But considering the pathetic little man before me—confined, he told us, to a liquid diet due to his health, exiled on this rock in the middle of the ocean—I felt sorry for him. So I said, "Nor am I an enemy, Sir, but a well-wisher only."

The little man nodded and said, "I thank you, Monsieur, for the Madeira. Montholon tells me it is an excellent vintage, a most generous gift. I have little to offer in return, in my reduced circumstances." He nodded to General Bertrand. The General left the room for a moment and came back with a pair of boots. Not as nice as the pair the Emperor was wearing, but like new.

Napoleon shrugged, said, "They never fit properly, but I would like you to have them."

Typical Frenchman, I thought. He gives with one hand and takes away with the other. I didn't need to know that the deuced things were worthless to him!

I was thanking him while the wine was poured--inferior stuff to the case I'd brought, I'll tell you—when my silly cow of a wife, who had been silent for nearly three minutes, suddenly started shrieking. She leapt up, knocked over her chair and backed to the end of the room screaming something about the "Shadow of Death" and pointing toward the Emperor.

Well, it was a hairy moment, I'll tell you. I heard Bertrand's sword leave its scabbard—it’s a sound you don't forget when you've seen action—and I looked at the Emperor. His faced was turned up in befuddlement at the shadow that bent over him, pouring a trickle of black sludge into his glass: a skeletal figure in rags that cast a shadow over the whole room. It was the Reaper, large as life and near enough to touch!

Suddenly, the Emperor chuckled, and the Shadow chuckled, and I must have blinked, because when I looked again, it was only that dandyprat Montholon, laughing his obsequious, oily laugh, pouring the Emperor's wine.

My wife then did the only sensible thing I've ever seen her do. She fainted dead away and got carted off to the Governor's mansion with her hen-witted sisters in tow. I apologized profusely and stayed to smoke cigars with General Bertrand and the Emperor.

Bonaparte was quite gracious really, blaming my wife's outburst on the heat and a trick of the light. Bertrand just smoked silently and glowered, until the Emperor suddenly brought his fist down on the table and asked him why he was sulking. The General put his cigar down and told us that he'd seen the Shadow of Death himself once, leaning companionably on the shoulder of a trusted lieutenant: a man who'd had his head blown off at St. Omer just a few days later.

The Emperor became quite fretful, and I realized it was high time to go. I took the boots he'd given me and let myself out. Boney and Bertrand just sat at the table, avoiding one another's eyes.

I walked all the way back to Jamestown, collected the harpies and was about to board Pharoah's Bathtub when General Bertrand came riding, his horse in a lather, down to the docks. He nodded to the ladies and opened one of his saddlebags. "The Emperor," he said gravely, "would like you to have these," and damn him if he didn't have another pair of boots in that bag.

I gave them the once over, wondering if there hadn't been some mistake, and then I realized these were the very boots Napoleon had been wearing not two hours ago. I remarked on this to Bertrand. He looked straight through me and said, "The Emperor does not think he will have need of them very much longer."

That was it. He rode off, back straight as a Hussar's. Damndest fellow. We shoved off in Nefertiri's Barque and spent the winter in the Mediterranean. The women visited ruins, and I played cards.

I don't know precisely why I insisted on stopping at St. Helena on the return voyage. I certainly didn't expect we'd be particularly welcome after our last visit. But the Governor was very kind. He informed us that there would be no more visits to Longwood. For the Emperor had died on May 6, just a few days before, attended to the end by General Bertrand . . . and Charles Tristan de Montholon.

You will forgive me if I prefer to fill my own glass. A little habit I picked up on St. Helena.

An interview with Donna Thorland:

Tell us about you.

I studied Latin and art history at Yale, and received my MFA in film production from the USC School of cinematic arts. Between college and graduate school I worked at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass, where I managed interpretation and produced their Halloween festival, Eerie Events. During graduate school I worked as a house mom at a USC sorority. In 2008 I was a Disney/ABC TV Writing Fellow, and was staffed on the ABC drama, Cupid.

Tell us about your story.

I wrote "Napoleon's Boots" for Eerie Events. It was performed as a monologue by a costumed actor in the Gardner-Pingree House, a National Landmark, owned by the Peabody Essex Museum. There's a great exhibit in the galleries there about America's first pleasure yacht, and a pair of Bonaparte's boots are indeed on display.

Tell us about your future.

More television and more short fiction!


  1. Wow! I've had to play catch up reading these extraordinary stories. Napoleon's Boots is exceptional. Wonderfully written, I can see why you three picked these stories. Though I'd venture to say most everything that was submitted was great, so I didn't envy your task. Hard job, I'd say. Anyway congrats Donna. This is a fantastic story. :-)

  2. Robyn, I thought this story was exquisite. It caught me off guard because it was quieter than the other stories that were in the genre--many of which I also loved. What won me over personally was how the darkness sort of creeps up slowly on you. This was an interesting genre because, if you read the other entries in the anthology, you'll see some very different approaches to crime/horror that really educated me.

  3. Wow, Donna, you've got quite the list of accomplishments! This story is creepy, but in a strangely funny and dark way. I loved it! Good luck with your future television and fiction. :)

  4. I loved this piece. Humorous but also a little creepy. The voice was great.

  5. What a mature work -- excellent voice, great characterization, not a wrong word anywhere. And the creeping darkness! Nice. Also, I love the use of the word "dandyprat." I'm going to have to remember that one.

  6. What a wonderful voice, I bet the performance by the costumed actor was great!

  7. I absolutely love this story. As soon as I hit "oily looking little dandyprat," I knew I wanted this in the anthology. It's the sort of classic horror that I love, in the Edgar Allen Poe vein.

  8. Donna,
    Your mind continues to amaze and intimidate me! Wonderfully vivid and creative writing and from a historical base that will never be in my vocabulary! Can I say, "Fabulous!"

  9. Purely and simply a delight. Thorland's descriptions are vivid and specific. The annoying wife an in-laws lay a solid foundation for creepiness to seep into the narrative. And who doesn't love a cranky protagonist? Poor bastard.

  10. I honestly thought this was going to be humorous when I first read it but as I got closer to the end, I was floored. What a fantastic combination of light and dark. I loved the the 'silly cow'. Outstanding job Donna. Congratulations!

  11. Ah, the fated journey of the Argos and its harpy crew. Wit, story and a vague sense of impending doom...a bit like my life. Must be why i enjoyed this so much.

  12. Great story! Wish I could see the stage production as well. Donna Thorland is clearly a talent!

  13. Donna is one of the more brilliant women I have ever met. She is alway full of ideas. There was much sadness, here in Salem, when she left her post at the Peabody Essex Museum, because she applied her exquisite talents toward making something magical out of a dormant collection of houses and gardens. Which is the state they are now, her tenure ended. I have seen these types of stories acted out in the PEM's historic houses. She created and managed the largest Eerie Events at the museum which put class, education and a little ghostly spirit into the annual affairs, here, around Halloween. Her efforts drew thousands year after year because it was such an excellent draw. That is all gone. It went with Donna.

  14. Dandyprat- I love it. I'm not usually a horror fan, but I like this. Great story, Donna.

  15. I love the voice in this. Really absorbing. Excellent work. Thanks for sharing it!

  16. Of all the fancy-pants writers I know, Donna is the fancy pants-iest.

    It’s a given that she is a marvelous writer. One should expect no less from an alumna of the Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship. Yes, sir, everyone who participated in that illustrious program is supremely talented.

    Particularly those in the program circa 2008.

  17. More more more! Really enjoyed the piece, hope we get to see more short fiction from her.


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