Two John Browns: A work of horror fiction or historical fiction

Ed note: Stay tuned to the end for an interview with the author.

The manacles: heavy irons coursed through with rust, ghostly webs tracing the blood, sweat and tears of Africans, ripped from their lands and torn from their relations, herded across the vast Atlantic in squalid, creaking dungeons, sold at market and beaten into servitude until their exhausted bodies and spirits gave them over to death’s embrace.

“Caesar’s things to Caesar,” said John Brown, draping the chains over the headstone. “Strange flowers, those.”

Brown started and turned. He faced a slender man in oddly cut clothing, hair parted and expertly combed. His face was long, with prominent ears and a protruding lower mouth that thrust together his thin and bloodless lips.

“A fitting bouquet, for the one buried here,” Brown answered.

The stranger peered at the headstone. “You denigrate the legacy of the John Brown?” “I AM JOHN BROWN,” thundered Brown. “The other is a kidnapper and a brute! These shackles are his legacy!”

The stranger was amused. “You journeyed to Providence to accomplish this?” Brown composed himself. “I speak before the Anti-Slavery Society tonight, at the behest of Elizabeth Buffum Chace.”

The stranger sniffed. “Ah, the blacks. I can tell you that ending their bondage will not improve their station. I truly cannot understand all this frenzied fixation over the disposition of mere n…”

“Mind your tongue!’

The stranger covered his face. “Oh how meaningless these battles! If man only knew the things he did not know—his madness and destruction would follow from a glimpse of their silhouettes. The universe is far more terrific and eldritch than man’s self-satisfied rubric of God—Hell—the Devil.”

A cold wind rose, carrying traces of some sickly miasma over the hills. The surrounding birdcalls shrieked like tuneless flutes.

“Oh!” the stranger exclaimed, as if hearing a remark. “Nyarlathotep requests a bit of sport. Quickly then: Brown, you prize human equality above all else?”

“I do.”

“And you feel toward this other man Brown a mortal hatred?”

“I do.”

The stranger began to speak a wretched garble, gibberish sounds utterly alien and deeply hideous, as if the most corrupted parts of every human language were combined and distilled into an ur-tongue of malignancy.

Up from the Moshassuck flowed a torrent, breaking off and congealing into a ragged sphere tall as three men. As this noisome shape loomed over Brown, a rustle from a stand of trees to the east heralded the emergence of two vertical darknesses, tall as oaks, their outlines writhing like swarms of flies. These ignominious columns ran in Brown’s direction on stunted children’s legs.

The dark columns stood apart and reached tentacles into the viscous blob, each pulling the plasm toward itself until between them stood a shimmering film of bloodred iridescent, beyond whose surface wavered the incomprehensible.

The stranger grasped Brown.

“In we go.”

Sunset bathed the hilltop mansion in stately amber tones. The representative-elect’s address was imminent, and assembling on the lawn were many distinguished ladies and gentlemen, thrilled to cheer with lusty hurrahs their John Brown—and his counterpart, Champlin—on to Philadelphia.

Alienated from his natural reality and time, John Brown shivered despite the warm summer night. He had lost the stranger, and he longed for the steadying presence of his sons. He regarded the dais where Brown would speak, then, overcome with nausea, he stumbled desperately away and vomited on the grass.

“Travel by shoggoth can be difficult.”

Brown looked up. The stranger offered a handkerchief. Brown accepted. “How…” “No matter,” the stranger replied. “And you will need this.”

He presented like a duelist’s pistol what appeared to be an infested turkey leg, gristle trembling at the joint. Brown reached then flinched back from the clustered eyes and seething tentacles.

“Take the clynakth and finish the job.” The stranger said sternly. “Your precious negro race depends on you.”

Despite whatever foul phantoms Brown owed his presence at this juncture, there remained spirits of a different class entirely, howling constantly in his ears. Now the enslaved carried him before the dais and gave him voice.

“What of the Sally?” shouted Brown.

From the lectern, Brown glowered. “That matter was settled decades ago. Now be silent, fool—or leave this place.”

A murmur went up. Several men moved toward Brown.

“Scoundrel! Your acts are against humanity, the Declaration, and God! By committing them in my name, you leave me no choice.”

Brown raised his arm and pinched the trigger gland. The clynakth coughed. Brown ducked and behind him a dark spawn wriggled through solid brick. Brown scurried into his mansion with Brown on his heels.
Crashing through a kitchen, Brown fired again. Wounded, Brown collapsed into the second floor study, where his brother conversed with his daughters. “Moses, stop him,” Brown gasped, holding his hip where a green effluence bubbled. Moses only stood to observe, while Alice screamed and Abigail ran to her father’s aid.

“Madman!” Abigail shouted at Brown. He leveled the clynakth, but timorously. Sensing this, the organism writhed and transformed, elongating whiplike. An orifice issued an acrid slime, driving off Abigail.
Brown had Brown dead to rights.

Brown raised his arm as so many “masters” had in all that unforgivable era of despotism and brought the living lash down on his namesake with the fury of millions denied their earthly recourse. Moses and the stranger stood like sentinels and Brown swung and swung until green bile and blood splattered the books and furniture. Finally Brown’s guests crowded in and apprehended Brown.

They carried him out struggling, heaved him atop the coffin lying in his chariot and spurred the horses. Chill December air crept in from the void and the seacoast was swallowed up in forests and hills. Between long lines of soldiers he rode, suddenly grey and brittle. The scaffold lay in a field, dreamlike, and he mounted. The rope was placed around his neck and no intermediary stood between him and God. Of regrets he had few, and regarding his efforts on behalf of the enslaved, John Brown had none whatsoever.

Interview with the Author, David Sano
“When I first moved here and saw all this stuff named after John Brown I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s bold. I can’t believe they named all this stuff after a guy whose last act was an insurrection.’” It was only a matter of time before Michigan-native David Sano learned it wasn’t that John Brown.

“It’s a funny, historical thing that one of the most fervent abolitionists in America shares a name with a slave trader. It’s a common name, but nonetheless it’s a funny cosmic joke, and I thought it would be fun to have them meet or have them confront each other, so that’s kind of where [Two John Browns] came from.”

Sano submitted Two John Browns to Motif’s Flash Fiction contest held earlier this year. The story features both John Browns and HP Lovecraft, although Sano admits due to the contest’s word count restrictions, all of the historical figures have been flattened.

“It’s a complicated legacy… I think people should read the history of the Browns and follow the trail. John Brown wasn’t just a one dimensional villain, he had a long and interesting life. He took part in the raid on the Gaspee, and then he was in the House of Representatives. I feel like a lot of stuff gets flattened but it’s interesting to trace the whole thing and try to understand the Brown family. If I were a Brown student, I would be interested to know that it was a lot of brothers with a lot going on. I wonder what that was like, especially the Moses / John Brown dynamic, what was it actually like between them?”

Sano cites Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon as two literary influences. Noting Blood Meridian as the paragon of what literature can be, and the slack-jawed brilliance of Gravity’s Rainbow as his inspiration to start writing.

“I just couldn’t believe one person could come up with all of that and research all of that and put it together and make it snappy. That was kind of it for me.”
In Two John Browns, Sano’s lyrical writing takes readers back in time to a Providence of fantasy when two John Browns – one abolitionist, one slave trader – come face-to-face.

– Meg Coss