Whenever people ask me for a tip on becoming a writer, the first tip, literally the first one that comes to mind, is to build a library. Seriously, whenever I can, I go to bookstores and I buy up anything on their remainder shelf relating to history in particular. Biographies and reference books as well, but history first.
I believe that a shelf full of history books is the greatest possible idea machine someone can have. The internet is not the same, exactly, holding a history book and reading the close details of our past in particular serves as inspiration every single time. Many, many stories you guys might have read of mine had their roots in these books I bought on clearance at sidewalk sales and in remainder aisles.
For example, the first villain I created, The Black Swan, in Deadpool, is based on a biography of King Ludwig II, the ‘mad king of Bavaria,’ who was obsessed with the fantasy operas of Wagner, and helped create a renaissance of architecture and art that has lasted to this day.
You can’t read history as a writer and not get ideas, it’s just impossible.
I’m sure a lot of you already know this, but Kilmainham Gaol is a real place, a prison built in Dublin, Ireland, built right around the year 1800. At the time, it was considered quite ‘humane’ and progressive, even. It’s been out of commission since, I think, the 1980’s, and is now a museum.
It’s disturbing as hell, and was one of the least ‘humane’ places I have ever been in. It held, at one time or another, nearly all of the imprisoned Irish Nationalists, and at one time, public hangings were held right out in front, later, the executions were no longer public.
There are things about it that are very haunting…it’s several levels, the main room is shaped like an oval, so a few guards could see every cell. Doors did have this design, that of an eye with a viewing hole in the center, on the cell’s interior, so that the prisoners felt they were being watched 24 hours a day by both the guards and by God, never a moment’s privacy. They were made to feel like hopeless sinners. No peace, even in sleep.
They were also not allowed to speak, not even to themselves.
Perhaps the oddest thing is that the jail did not separate men from women, even children. They were tossed together, five and six in a cell, regardless of sex or age. Children as young as five were incarcerated for petty theft.
Also, it’s odd, but women were deliberately treated worse than the men, at both an institutional and practical level. Men had beds, cots, anyway, women slept on filthy hay on the floor and were often subject to particularly brutal torture and treatment.
One of the most horrifying stories is that of Anne Devlin. In another issue of Secret Six, Jeannette describes having been a prisoner here at the Gaol, and her story is essentially an abridged version of Anne’s story.
Anne was an Irish nationalist posing as a housekeeper for Robert Emmett, who was planning an uprising. She was arrested and tortured, but would not reveal anything.
Later, she was arrested again, and became the particular target of brutal treatment, vengeful actions because she refused to tell anything about her employer. Police surrounded her with bayonets and stabbed her, she refused to talk. They tried to bribe her, they threatened her with ‘ribald’ comments, and she refused to say anything.
Robert Emmett was captured, and when he heard of her refusal to say a word against him, he begged her to tell the guards everything about him that she knew, he was doomed anyway and it would end her torment. She refused.
She was repeatedly tortured, and deliberately kept in a cell where, as Jeannette says, all the sewage from the jail ran over her feet each day. She was tortured and otherwise abused, kept in the dark and in solitary, for three years. Her family was arrested, her twelve year old brother died in jail just a few cells away.
She refused to utter a single word against her compatriots, and this became an embarrassment for the police, who treated her with endless cruelty. When she was released, she had several illnesses that would stay with her the rest of her life and looked like a broken old woman at the age of 28.
Again, the people who built the gaol were quite proud of the ‘humane’ qualities of the prison.
If you read the Secret Six volume, DEPTHS, much of that story is informed by Kilmainham Gaol, as well as prisons in North Korea and China that function to this day. It was about moral relativism, and how being in power doesn’t necessarily mean being moral, or decent, or humane. About how the state can be allowed to do things that would make us aghast if committed by a serial killer. Some of the tortures used in these places, and even, as we have seen, by our own government, are little different from what we have seen the worst serial killers do, the only difference is the tacit or explicit approval of that country’s government.
This is why I believe we can’t listen to the family friendly rebranding of torture as ‘enhanced interrogation.’ It is still torture. It is still applied to force confessions from the innocent. It is applied for political gain. It is applied to silence opposing viewpoints. It is applied against the poor, the disadvantaged, and in greatly distorted numbers against the ethnic and religious minorities.
But it is still torture.
It’s said that you can judge a country by how it treats its prisoners. I leave it to the reader to decide what that says about your own country.
In any case, the entire story was inspired by a visit to Kilmainham Gaol.
Just a reminder because I get asked about this often.