Jack Alcott, Grim Legion
reviewed by Sam C. Ivey
Publisher: Bewildering Press, 2006
Trade paperback: $12.95 + sh
Length: 240 pp.
“I killed him,” the shadow-man hissed. “Cut his head clean off.”
With that, he yanked a bloody head-sized lump from the sack and tossed it at Charlie, who leapt from his seat with amazing agility for a man of his size. The cadets were all on their feet now, upending chairs as they clambered over one another to get out of the way. Someone knocked the lone candle over, and the room went black.
From its very opening page, on which are found the preceding words, Grim Legion — an historical fiction novel by Jack Alcott and the premiere print publication from Bewildering Press — the reader is drawn irresistibly into the socially chaotic, corpse-cluttered and drug-bedeviled world of the Macabre Maestro, Edgar Allan Poe.
Devotees of Poe-etry and mystery-minded minions in general — swept back in time to the third decade of the 19th century — will discover themselves quite captivated with this homicide-haunted tale, based on a little known segment of the great writer’s life.
There, among the superficially egalitarian corps of West Point cadets, where Poe is failing in his studies and where he feels himself to be anything but officer material, one is introduced to a surprising mix. There the politically proper are side by side with the perennial prankster; the bullies and the bullied are as one might find them anywhere. And there, too, are the vicious and the victims.
Old Ben’s Tavern, which Mr. Alcott colorfully describes as “a sagging old saltbox” — an off-limits hangout for the cadets — becomes the scene of a grisly murder. Clutched in the victim’s hand, Poe is alarmed to find a page from Al Araaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, one of his own works published two years earlier. Because of the murder’s striking similarity to one of Poe’s prior escapades, he is seen by many as its likely perpetrator. As the clouds of suspicion gather, his romantic attachment to Eleanor, Ben’s daughter, is jeopardized.
Enter William Henry Poe, Edgar’s brother. Here is a wastrel more accomplished: a profligate drinker and womanizer par excellence from the loins of David Poe, their capable but ill-fated father. In loose alliance, Edgar and his brother are swept by circumstances from one den of illicitness to another — from one murder to another.
Underlying this matrix of mayhem, for which Poe is often seen to be the cause, intrigue and sabotage against the perceived monster of industrialism is being hatched in the very bosom of West Point propriety. And Poe’s curiosity as to this conspiracy, as well as other malcontents, is almost his undoing.
Written with the flavor of Edgar Poe himself, Mr. Alcott’s Grim Legion relates a tale that smacks of Poe’s 1841 short story classic, Murders in the Rue Morgue. It is a rough-edged story of dissolute people; of a destroyed love; of misguided political hotheads; and of not atypical corrupted government.
The story is well crafted and has been well researched by Mr. Alcott, bearing the unmistakable hallmarks of recognizable history. An editor of the Journal News, in White Plains, New York, Mr. Alcott lives in the very geographic area about which he writes with such knowledge and skill.
For those who love a tangled mystery, Grim Legion holds hours of engrossing entertainment.
Grim Legion is reviewed by Mr. Sam Ivey, whose book Crooked Triangle is available at Hastings and on line at Amazon.com. His forthcoming book, Gilboy’s Quest, will be available in February.
Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey