• Weird inspirations: Wisconsin Death Trip

    Weird Inspirations: Wisconsin Death Trip

    “Nowhere in this great continent of ours can be found a more desirable residence than Black River Falls…”

    Wisconsin Death Trip

    It’s amazing what you can find trawling through old newspapers from long ago. For fiction authors, old newspapers are a gold mine – from old classified ads to local and national stories. Forgotten names and forgotten faces. Eccentric ghosts from the past. People who actually lived, who were ordinary yet extraordinary in their own way. Funny, tragic, even frightening.

    Their stories are there to be dug up if you’re ever looking for inspiration for your current or next book.

    Sometimes you hit gold dust as Michael Lesy did for his 1973 book, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’, later adapted as a documentary film.

    The Background

    Between 1890 and 1900, the town of Black River Falls in Wisconsin was subject to a bizarre catalogue of murders, suicides, insanity, pyromania, a diphtheria epidemic, mutterings about witchcraft, window smashing and other acts of violence and vandalism.

    Just the sort of colourful and mysterious series of events that can or should pique a writer’s curiosity.

    These events were reported by Frank Cooper, an Englishman who edited the town newspaper The Badger State Banner.

    Charles Van Schaick, the local photographer, also recorded many scenes and faces from the town, while the records of the local asylum complete the picture.

    The Book

    Michael Lesy first brought the strange tales of Black River Falls to light in his 1973 book, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip.’

    He began his project in the late 1960s while studying for a masters degree. One day he found himself at the Wisconsin Historical Society where the curator of iconography introduced him to the photographs of Charles Van Schaick. Lesy was struck by the portraits. Later he would say that “The whole experience that day seemed like a separate universe.”

    Eager to know more about the people in the photographs and life at the time, Lesy started searching microfilm records of period newspapers. His project ultimately became his doctoral thesis.

    Using the newspaper reports, the photographs and asylum records, Lesy’s book offered an alternative take on America’s self-mythology, all the more timely because of the book’s release during the era of the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair.

    Of Van Schaick’s photography, Lesy would say in the book’s introduction: “Commercial photography, as practiced in the 1890s, was not so much a form of applied technology as it was a semi-magical act that symbolically dealt with time and mortality.”

    There were 30,000 negatives left behind in the photographer’s studio after he died in 1940. The Wisconsin Historical Society acquired 8,000 of them. (They have since acquired more.) Less than 200 were used in Lesy’s book. They included post-mortem photos of children in their caskets, a common practice at the time.

    Sometimes these were the only visual records grieving parents had of their deceased children. Something to remember them by. It seems morbid today, but in the 1890s, death was very much a part of life.

    Lesy’s book does not connect the snippets of newspaper articles to the photographs. It’s impossible to know if a particular face refers to the person in an article. There is also something cinematic about the book and Lesy originally wanted to make it as a film but couldn’t find funding at the time.

    However, the book would go on to be adapted years later.

    The Film

    The documentary film, ‘Wisconsin Death Trip,’ the adaptation of the book, was made by James Marsh for the BBC’s Arena series, though HBO Cinemax also provided funding.

    Marsh opts for a documentary collage that blends photographs of the period with black and white re-enactments of scenes acted out by ordinary people of the area. The modern day town threads through the film in colour, featuring Homecoming Parades and church meetings.

    The early scenes of the film include a photographer taking the picture of a dead child. Children often appear in the film, as killers, or victims.

    But the mayhem cuts across the generations.

    Middle-class teacher Mary Sweeney, one of the film’s recurring characters, goes on a window-smashing spree, aided by a fondness for cocaine. At one point, after completing a tour of the state, she claims to have caused $50,000 worth of damage.

    Mary would make a great character for a novel. A rebellious figure, kicking against societal norms and leaving a trail of destruction in her wake. How much fun could an author have with someone like her?!

    Then there’s the young teenage Polish girl who sets fire to her employer’s barn and his house because she is lonely and homesick and wants some excitement.

    A fourteen-year-old German boy, in the company of his younger brother, shoots an old man and takes over his house, only to go on the run later. When he’s caught and sentenced to imprisonment, he does not react, unable to comprehend either what he’s done or what his own punishment means for him.

    A famous opera singer from Europe turns up, believing herself to have bought a nice property in a resort only to have her expectations disappointed. She sings for the locals, looking for a patron, but her ill-fitting false teeth interfere with her singing and some doubt her identity.

    Again, this woman seems like a great template for a fictional character.

    On a more frightening note, the grave of a woman is opened for the purpose of removing her remains, only to find that she was buried in a trance. The body has turned over, one hand up to the mouth, the fingers half bitten off. It’s assumed she woke up to find herself buried alive and bit off her fingers in terror.

    The film includes poignant stories, including that of the fifteen-year-old girl who drowns herself. She leaves her dress on the bank, with a note inside: “My father and mother abused me and kept me working hard, so I thought it best to end my life. Here is my dress. Goodbye all.”

    A mother drowns her children in the lake, and sits on the bank. She believes that devils are after her.

    The town – past and present (as of 1999)

    Black River Falls in the 1890s is a town with many German and Scandinavian immigrants. With harsh winters and an economic depression, the town becomes gripped by a wave of deaths and acts of violence and insanity.

    The American myth lies in the suburbs and the small towns and countryside. The Western is the archetypal American genre where nature and the local indigenous peoples are supposedly tamed by the civilising forces of the white man’s culture. The Winnebago people of Black River Falls, forced out of the area, return to live on the outskirts, but do not feature in the stories of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip.’ The events are very much centred on the violent heart of the area’s white population.

    The town’s immigrant population must have arrived in the area expecting to better themselves, to participate in the American Dream. ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ suggests that many of them found something else.

    And yet the town is still there and, as one resident claims, it’s a great place to raise children.

    Cheerleaders, majorettes, church goers, Homecoming Queens are all there in the brief slashes of colourful contemporary footage. The residents of a retirement home are treated to an all-male choir singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in a scene that in its own way is just as bizarre as the events of the 1890s.

    In fact, the modern day town has its own dark undercurrents: a human head is discovered, and Jeffrey Dalmer and another serial killer are associated with the Wisconsin area.

    The film’s events are narrated by Ian Holm, together with a whispering narration of patient cases from the doctor at the asylum.

    There’s a documentary about the making of ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ on the DVD which is well worth viewing. James Marsh and the film’s director of photography also provide a commentary.

    In choosing ordinary people to play the characters, and shooting the re-enactments in black and white at 30 frames per second rather than the standard 24, Marsh and Eigil Bryld, the director of photography, create a strange, dreamlike collage that still retains a hold on reality.

    Holm’s narration of the newspaper reports is laced with irony, while the musical soundtrack is perfectly in tune with the period and location. Recurring characters like the wonderful window-smashing Mary Sweeney and Pauline L’Allemand, the Opera singer down on her luck, appear among the one-off stories.

    ‘Wisconsin Death Trip’ is a hypnotic piece of documentary film making. There’s a haunting beauty in its black and white photography, and the film’s themes transcend time.

    It’s also one of those films – and this is true too of Grey Gardens – where historical eccentrics can be inspiration for modern writers. I can also recommend going through old newspaper articles on microfilm. I’ve spent a good many hours poring over forgotten stories.

    If you’re ever looking for inspiration, a visit to a newspaper archive is definitely worthwhile. You never know what rabbit holes you might find.

    It’s certainly true that Lesy’s original book, Wisconsin Death Trip, has inspired numerous artists, from composers and song writers, to authors like Neil Gaiman and his book American Gods and Stephen King’s novella 1922.

    This post is adapted from a review on my Substack and an original review I wrote for an online site many years ago.

    References and useful links

    Wikipedia article on Michael Levy’s book, Wisconsin Death Trip.

    The real story behind eerie Wisconsin Death Trip.

    Winona Daily News 1973 review of the book.

    Philadelphia Inquirer 1991 review.

    Charles Van Schaick photos at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

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  • Joan Lindsay and Picnic at Hanging Rock

    Joan Lindsay & Picnic at Hanging Rock

    Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.

    Opening lines to Picnic at Hanging Rock

    If you’ve ever wondered whether a writer needs to establish early success, or be condemned forever to failure or obscurity, take heart. Joan Lindsay was 71 years old when her classic novel Picnic at Hanging Rock was published. It went on to become one of the most famous novels in Australian literature and a haunting film.

    Lindsay was born in 1896 and originally trained as an artist. Later, she switched to writing. Her first book was published pseudonymously in 1936 when she was 40.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967) was still 31 years off.

    Before that, in 1962, Lindsay had another novel published – Time Without Clocks. It covers her wedding and idyllic early marriage. The title also refers to a fascinating detail that links to her future novel, Picnic. According to Wikipedia:

    The work takes its title from a strange ability which Joan described herself as having, of stopping clocks and machinery when she came close. The title also plays on the idea that this period in her life was unstructured and free.

    Wikipedia entry on Joan Lindsay

    Anyone who has read Picnic or watched the film adaptation will know that when the schoolmistresses and girls are picnicking on the ground below the Rock, their watches all stop. Later, at least two of those who go missing seem to be missing their corsets or restrictive clothing. Perhaps also linking back to the theme of a life free and unstructured.

    Presented as a true story, Picnic at Hanging Rock begins with a brief note:

    Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction, my readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in the book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

    The novel opens on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, at Appleyard College for Young Ladies. The school is a hothouse of girlish crushes, presided over by the strict Mrs. Appleyard who doesn’t approve of St Valentine. The girls exchange cards and soon they are ready to set out on their picnic. Mrs Appleyard issues strict instructions about their dress and behaviour. For example, they may remove their gloves once their conveyance has passed Woodend.

    The girls are also warned about the Rock which is extremely dangerous and they are not to engage in any tomboy foolishness ‘in the matter of exploration, even on the lower slopes‘.

    Of course, some of the party choose to ignore this warning. And the repercussions ripple through the rest of the book, building to a horrifying crescendo long after the girls have vanished.

    Although the novel is set in the sweltering heat of an Australian summer, it still falls within the gothic genre. Lindsay had long been fascinated by the Rock. And she compared her book to Henry James’s novel, The Turn of The Screw, ‘about the children in a haunted house with a governess‘.

    The Rock, a former volcano, with its mysterious paths where the girls and their schoolmistress go missing, could easily be a stand-in for a haunted house. It towers above the landscape below, like a gothic castle sitting on a peak. But it is also an ancient place. A ‘geological marvel‘ according to Mrs. Appleyard, who expects the girls to write an essay on the subject. She doesn’t attend the picnic with them, and the essays are never written. Unexpected and unexplained events are about to overtake the girls, the teachers, and their school.

    Miranda, one of the seniors, is the most memorable and popular of the schoolgirls. The French mistress sees her as a Botticelli angel. Meanwhile, Miranda’s much poorer roommate Sara adores her. Miranda also haunts the young Englishman picnicking with his family below the Rock. He sees her and her friends making their way towards it. It’s Miranda who leads the party upwards. When one of the other girls calls to her in warning, she doesn’t seem to hear. Later, the young Englishman and his family’s stablehand will search for the girls. And one of the girls is indeed found.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock was written very fast – over two weeks (some sources say four) – at Lindsay’s home Mulberry Hill in Victoria. It was written in winter, after a series of dreams she’d had about the events. The dreams about a picnic at the Rock were so powerful and vivid that she awoke still feeling the heat of the summer day. Joan wrote down what she remembered, beginning to sketch out the plot. She had another dream the next night and then rushed to write down what she could remember. Night after night she had another dream.

    Joan herself remembered that:

    Picnic at Hanging Rock really was an experience to write, because I was just impossible when I was writing it. I just sort of thought about it all night and in the morning I would go straight up and sit on the floor, papers all around me, and just write like a demon!

    Joan’s live-in housekeeper, Rae Clements, recalled that:

    She would come down from her study each day and say she’d had the dream again. Then she’d discuss the characters and what they were up to. She loved Miranda and the French mistress. Miranda was her favourite character. She was also fond of Albert. She often said, ‘Poor Albert! Poor little Sara!’ She definitely had her favourites.

    The title of the novel comes from a painting Joan remembered: At The Hanging Rock (1875) by William Ford. The novel was published on the 1st of November 1967. It has since become one of the most important and famous novels in Australian literature.

    Many readers assume that the story must be based on fact, but there is no record of a vanished school party. The State Library conducted a search of the February 1900 editions of the Age, Argus, and Woodend Star and nothing was found. Nor does Valentine’s Day in 1900 take place on a Saturday.

    But this hardly matters since the fictitious events have entered Australian mythology and folklore. The fame of the book and the later screen adaptation have ensured that the Rock draws plenty of tourists curious about the fate of the girls.

    One article even mentions tourists taking pieces of the six million-year-old rock home with them, only to fall foul of weird or unhappy events. Then they sometimes post the fragments back to Australia, like the Irishman who included a map to show where his piece had come from.

    Picnic at Hanging Rock ends at chapter 17 and a fictitious newspaper article from 1913. Apparently, chapter 18 was removed on the advice of the book’s editor. This missing chapter explained something of the girls’ fate. But it was felt that the ambiguous ending was better and Joan agreed.

    The final chapter appeared in a later book The Secret of Hanging Rock. But the novel is better off without it.

    In 1974, Joan said of her novel and its ambiguous end:

    Well, it was written as a mystery and it remains a mystery. If you can draw your own conclusions, that’s fine, but I don’t think that it matters. I wrote that book as a sort of atmosphere of a place, and it was like dropping a stone into the water. I felt that story, if you call it a story—that the thing that happened on St. Valentine’s Day went on spreading, out and out and out, in circles.

    It would spread out further with the Peter Weir adaptation which became a classic of Australian New Wave. The film’s hazy cinematography is partly down to putting bridal veils over the lens and shooting through. This technique was taken from the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and it gave Weir the impressionistic effect he was looking for.

    Anne-Louise Lambert plays the part of Miranda in Weir’s film. But in the early weeks of shooting, her confidence was undermined as she was constantly asked to do more takes and retakes. Then one day, when shooting paused for a break, she walked off in her costume, ready to cry. Then she noticed an older woman making her way towards her over some rocks.

    It was Joan Lindsay. When Lambert held out her hand, Joan hugged her and said, ‘Oh Miranda, it’s been so long!’ Lambert tried to correct her, saying, “It’s me, Joan; it’s Anne.”

    But Joan just brushed this away and called her Miranda again.

    To her, I really was someone she had known, somewhere in time. Right then, I felt that if Joan Lindsay believed I was Miranda, I must be doing okay. I felt that if she believed in me, I would be okay.

    Anne Lambert

    Joan Lindsay passed away in 1984 at the age of 88. She had lived to not only see the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock but the success of the film adaptation. Through her dreams and her childhood fascination with the Rock, she conjured up a story that haunts the reader long after they have read the last page.

    The novel, described by one critic as mythopoeic, has become part of Australia’s folklore and mythology.

    She also returned to painting in her later years. Her final publication was a children’s book called Syd Sixpence.

    Some other posts from the blog

    Cross Stitch by Diana Gabaldon

    A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (review)

    Historical fiction as a time machine