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Thursday, August 13, 2015

GUEST POST: The Genesis of Andersonville by Edward M. Erdelac


Mihir invited me to write about the development of my new historical horror novel Andersonville, due out from Random House’s Hydra imprint August 18th. Andersonville tells the story of Barclay Lourdes, an African American intelligence agent who infiltrates the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp at the behest of Mary Todd Lincoln and her spiritual advisor to stop a dark ritual being enacted within its confines in order to swing the tide of the war for the South.

The story of how I came to write Andersonville actually begins with Star Wars.

Back in 2008 I discovered Lucasfilm was running an ongoing contest called What’s The Story in which every month, fans were given the opportunity to write a backstory for a different background character from the film series. These were extras basically. Characters who might have appeared for a few seconds. Over the course of the contest, I submitted three entries that won, one for a character in each of the three original movies.

This was kind of my breakout from total obscurity, and gave the confidence to really kick my career into gear. In addition to sales of short stories elsewhere, I got my first professional rate story sale over at Lucasfilm, when then online content go-to guy Pablo Hidalgo included me in a list of authors for potential short stories, and I sold one to the site, a pulp boxing story masquerading as Star Wars, called Fists of Ion.

As a lifelong fan that was a big accomplishment for me, and as thanks, when I saw Pablo a year or so later at WonderCon, I passed him a copy of my first published novel, which was the first Merkabah Rider book, Tales of A High Planes Drifter.

I kept in touch with Pablo over the years and probably about two years ago now was contacted by a pair of editors at Random House/Del Rey, Frank Parisi and Christopher Krovatin. They were searching for somebody to expand on a supernatural horror concept they wanted to publish for their Hydra imprint and Pablo had recommended me. On the strength of that and Merkabah Rider, they decided to contact me.

So I can’t take complete credit for the initial idea. The concept Frank and Christopher brought me was of a historical figure in Camp Sumter (Andersonville) using the camp as a kind of church of pain to summon some dark force to alter the course of the war, and of an intelligence agent having to infiltrate the place to stop him. They also mentioned some of the other tertiary characters that would be moving through the prison at the time that they would like to see utilized, particularly Boston Corbett, the man who would eventually play a real life role in the assassination of President Lincoln. They gave me a few days to come up with some ideas and expand upon that. One thing Frank told me was they wanted a Lovecraftian feel of cosmic dread, but not a strict Mythos book.


So I took some time and read about Andersonville. The historical Camp Sumter was a horrendous place in 1864. Some 30,000 soldiers were incarcerated there in what amounted to an animal pen. No permanent shelters had been erected by the Confederacy, so the prisoners lived in exposed conditions unless they burrowed into the ground or built what shanties they could with whatever they had on hand – and that amounted to little more than pack blankets and the odd bit of timber the Rebels allowed them to scrounge. By 1864 any trees in the pen had been cut down to expand the walls. There weren’t even stumps. Everything had been shaved clean.

The ground was mud on top and sand underneath, and situated on a rise so that when it rained, everybody not on this choice parcel of elevated land were basically washed out. The main source of clean water was a marshy creek that bisected the land, and which the Confederates upstream outside the prison used to dump refuse from their bake house. It doubled as the latrine for the inmates, and so was infested with parasites. Horrendous. Some prisoners were able to dig down and strike wells, but these became bitterly contested real estate.

As if the natural hardships weren’t enough, a hierarchy rose within the prison, in which a loose gang of ‘Raiders’ systematically beat and robbed new arrivals for their possessions, trading up to Rebel guards for amenities. Escape wasn’t really possible. The inner wall of the prison was surrounded by a kind of staked and roped border called the deadline. Sentries on the picket walls would shoot anybody who crossed that for any reason. There could be no tunneling out as the subterranean ground was shifting sand and couldn’t really sustain excavation.
The Rebellion was in its death throes at the time so resources were pretty scarce. There was barely enough to feed and clothe the Confederate Army let alone divert to prisoners, and corrupt officers in the prison diverted some resources to their own ends, denying the prisoners. They even charged the inmates a fee to receive and send mail.

So the basic story of Andersonville was horrific on its own without any supernatural element. The challenge would be in coming up with something fantastic that could even match that.

I had some left over elements of Judeo-Christian folklore research from Merkabah Rider that never made it in, angels and demons (like the named entity who opposed Moses through the Pharaoh’s court magicians) that were in my notes but who didn’t make the cut in the series for whatever reason, so I knew I had a supernatural threat I could develop. For me though, the real interest in the project came in coming up with its protagonists.

I had recently been to New Orleans with my wife and picked up a book on Hoodoo folklore and magic that I’d been reading, and I felt like I wanted to do something with an African American Creole protagonist. I’d done some things here and there with African magical practices, in my novella Dubaku and in one of the Merkabah Rider installments, The Dust Devils. I wanted to expand on that. I think unconsciously I was creating a kind of fictional bloodline. I think Kelly in The Dust Devils is some kind of relation to Dubaku, who is sort of the progenitor of this dynasty of Dahomeyan magic, which in turn, through the diaspora becomes Kelly’s Vodoun. But Kelly is a villain in Merkabah Rider, and I really wanted to write a heroic black character. I’m a big fan of the comic book character Brother Voodoo, a character I’ve always felt had a lot of potential for a writer willing to do his homework, but has never really come into his own. I wanted to write a kind of spiritual counterpart to Jericho Drumm.

So in reading more into Andersonville, I took an interest in the treatment of non-white prisoners, because of course there were African American, Latino, and Native American soldiers imprisoned there too. The situation for African Americans was even more dire, if that was possible. They were outright denied medical attention and were practically enslaved in all but name. They were requisitioned to work clearing the surrounding pine forest for the Confederates and just doing loads of menial labor. Even the white officers captured in command of black units were treated differently.

When a story clicks for me, when I’m doing it right, I feel things just start fitting together, magically. I realized that an African American would in a way, be the best kind of spy in a place like this. White soldiers were living in a state of forced indolence. They couldn’t move, they were slowly wasting away. Black soldiers were allowed to move in and out of the prison performing their tasks, and were actually fed a hair better (or at least, more regularly) to keep up their strength, much, I suppose, as a slave owning southern planter would keep his charges in a state conducive to performing physical labor. In addition to seeing more of the camp, wouldn’t the inherent racism of Southern planter culture cause the jailers to overlook and perhaps underestimate black soldiers?

Were African Americans ever employed by the Union in a covert intelligence capacity?

That’s where the first of several happy accidents occurred, and I came to educate myself about the contributions of Black Dispatch agents during the Civil War. Of course I wasn’t the first person to have this idea of black Americans being the perfect spies for the Union. They certainly were, though sadly, due to the nature of espionage work and dominant cultural mores, much of this history has been lost or obscured.

Celebrated detective Allan Pinkerton, who was a kind of proto-spymaster for the Union during the war, recognized the value of African American agents and employed several to glean valuable intelligence for the Federal side. John Scobell, an educated ex-slave, used his skin color like a chameleon in the south, fading into a cloak of faux subservience to go completely ignored where white agents could not. He feigned ignorance and so went unnoticed, and undertook several dangerous and successful missions on behalf of Pinkerton.

Another Black Dispatch agent whose story I found particularly exciting was Mary Elisabeth Bowser, an African American woman who actually worked on Confederate president Jefferson Davis’ own household staff as a servant, and passed unseen among the highest levels of government, filtering information to the Richmond Union spy ring and even attempting to burn down the capitol residence to cover her own successful escape when she was discovered. Both Scobell and Bowser appear in minor roles in Andersonville.


I also wanted to give a more holistic view of the war, one not always explored in fiction. I thought it would be interesting to portray a black character who was not, nor had ever been a slave. In New Orleans I had learned a little bit about the aristocratic Creole class of property owning African Americans called the gens du couleur libres (the free people of color), and their fascinating experience in the initial days of the Civil War. One of the first African American military units during that conflict, it turned out, was not a Federal regiment, but the Confederate Louisiana Native Guard (sometimes referred to as the Corps d’Afrique), culled from this aristocracy and the long serving black militia to defend the port of New Orleans against the incursion of Admiral Farragut and the Union forces.


Seen as something of a public relations gesture by the Confederacy, in the face of Union invasion, the whites didn’t seem to know what to do with this armed Negro contingent at their side, and ordered the Native Guard disbanded and disarmed. I think this, almost more than any other gesture in history, effectively puts the kibosh on the argument that the Rebellion wasn’t at its core about racial superiority, but that’s a heated discussion better vented elsewhere. I wondered what sort of effect this would have had on the morale of loyal Southern Creole aristocrats who volunteered to defend what they perceived as their home, to have their white neighbors refuse their help.


Lt. Andre Cailloux became another blueprint for my protagonist. A property owning sportsman and cigar manufacturer, a respected Creole citizen fluent in French and English, he was a lieutenant among the Native Guard. When Union General Butler took over New Orleans and formed the 1st Louisiana Native Guard composing mostly escaped slaves, Cailloux and others like him volunteered to lead this new regiment against the Confederacy, and was instated as a captain of Company E. Cailloux fought bravely and was killed at the Siege of Port Hudson.


Things started really clicking.

I then remembered an old episode of the Twilight Zone called Still Valley, set during the Civil War, in which a sorcerer named Teague offered to win the war for the South if only a Confederate officer would renounce God and sign his name in the Devil’s book. The officer soundly refused the offer, saying something like that if the South was to die, it would die on hallowed ground. This refusal of evil by a character whom my own upbringing in the North had sort of painted as evil himself had always stuck with me, and I knew I wanted to revisit that here, the idea that the Confederacy might not really be keen on infernal intervention in their cause, misguided as it was. Like Erwin Rommel, good men can sometimes be found on the wrong side of a fight.

This led to my secondary protagonist, a Confederate officer known personally to Lourdes, and a direct way to explore the main character’s sense of betrayal by his homeland and neighbors. It also added an interesting way to contrast the schools of African and Western European magic, and really made the characters blossom in terms of their history and motivations.

I pitched all this to Frank and Christopher, kind of holding my breath, since now I was excited by the idea and when you get to that point it frankly sucks if the editors don’t share your vision and you have to throw it out. But thankfully, we were all of us sympatico, and I took the job, and Andersonville is the end result.

*---------------*---------------*---------------*


Official Author Website 
Pre-Order Andersonville HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Merkabah Rider: Tales of a High Planes Drifter 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Merkabah Rider: The Mensch With No Name 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Deadcore 
Read Fantasy Book Critic interview with Ed Erdelac

GUEST AUTHOR INFORMATION: Ed Erdelac is the author of various books and is also a regular contributor to the Star Wars canonical universe. He is an award-winning screenwriter, an independent filmmaker, a chain reader, and a closet gamer. He was born in Indiana, pursued his education in Chicago and then moved to L.A. to pursue his career interests. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his family.

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