Thursday, December 29, 2016

Incorporating Voodoo in Historical Fiction

   Growing up in the '70's, Geoffrey Holder was a fixture on the TV set as the pitch man for 7-Up, the uncola. What most people don't realize is he was recreating a character he had brought to life in the James Bond thriller, Live and Let Die. Geoffrey Holder didn't have to do much to thrill me. All he had to do was smile his engaging, Cheshire cat smile, speak in his Trinidadian calypso accent, and doff his panama hat while sipping a 7 Up as if it was the elixir of the gods. I was even more mesmerized by his no-holds-barred performance as the villainous Voodoo witch doctor Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die. The way he danced across the screen with his writhing, twisting movements so typical of West Indian performers I had grown up with in the Virgin Islands ignited in me a life-long fascination with the culture and history of the West Indies.
You can watch Geoffrey Holder's iconic performance here.
Geoffrey Holder as Baron Samedi in Live and Let Die (1973).
   Holder was the perfect foil for James Bond. While Bond reflected the posh, orderly world of Great Britain, Geoffrey Holder typified the exotic world of the Caribbean. His performance as Baron Samedi made such an impression on me that it continued to haunt me even decades later. When I decided to write "Island on Fire", a novel about the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee in Martinique, I knew I had to include voodoo elements. Even in the 21st century, voodoo is an inescapable part of life in the West Indies. From Cuba to Haiti to Trinidad, black magic and superstition still affect day-to-day life. In Martinique, the discovery of ritualistic voodoo objects out in the public square still makes headlines in local newspapers and is the source of much fear and anxiety among the population.
Even today, voodoo ritualistic objects can still be seen in Martinique.
I felt that any novel set in Martinique had to contain a voodoo theme. Quimbois, as voodoo is called in the French West Indies, has existed for centuries. I based my character, Gaston Faustin Jacquet, aka the Grand Zamy, on an actual witch doctor called the Gran-Zongle who terrorized the island in the 50's and '60's with his lethal brand of voodoo that allegedly killed up to 402 people until his suicide in 1965 due to remorse. The voodoo scenes in my novel are based on the work of two French investigative journalists who documented the practice of voodoo in the French West Indies in the 1960's. While the story is fictional and the characters are products of my own imagination, it is based on eye-witness testimony. Please read a sample from "Island on Fire", where natural disaster, black magic, and political intrigue collide in a brand new work of historical historical fiction.
The Gran Zongle was a real voodoo quimboiseur in the 1960's who may have killed up to 402 people with his particularly lethal brand of black magic according to his suicide note.


Emilie found the shop easily. The sign read, “GASTON FAUTON JACQUET, HERBALIST AND HEALER.” After leaving the carriage, she collected her nerve, but all she could see was Sister Marie’s stern but loving face flashing before her eyes. She felt a pang of guilt in her stomach but pushed it away and continued with her plan.
Pushing open the door, she entered the shop. Almost immediately she spotted a handsome, well-dressed older gentleman with stern eyes, tufts of white hair, and an imposing presence sitting behind an imposing mahogany desk. He was writing in a ledger with neat, elegant script, but as soon as she entered, he fixed his eyes on her, as if sizing her up. She felt slightly uneasy, but browsed around the shop for a few minutes, pretending to peruse various objects. Bu when the pounding of her heart became too great, she turned and was halfway to the door when a deep voice called behind her: “Bonjour mam’selle, may I help you?”
Emilie stopped short, her heart pounding. Slowly, she turned and said, “Thank you, monsieur; I was just…ah…just looking.”
The gentleman invited her to continue browsing with a gracious smile that disarmed her. He was smooth in his manner and handsome enough to beguile her. She walked around the store with as much casualness as she could muster, as if browsing through the shop of a notorious voodoo witch doctor was the most natural thing in the world to do. From time to time she would catch him studying her while he pretended to be perusing his ledger books. He had an almost paternalistic quality about him, but he was suave and elegant to a fault. Although she couldn’t say for certain, she was sure the man behind the desk with the penetrating eyes and wizened face was the Grand Zamy. She had a strong intuition about it. Was this handsome, kindly gentleman the infamous quimboiseur who held the people of Martinique in his grip?
Emilie turned to meet his gaze. He smiled, showing a row of gleaming white teeth, yet there was nothing particularly friendly about his smile. As she continued browsing through the store, Monsieur Jacquet’s eyes followed her every move. But Emilie sensed another quality lurking beneath the surface. Whether it was cunning or deviousness she couldn’t say for sure. There was something haughty and domineering about him, as if he could see right through a person to his core and then use his cunning to control him.
The store was unlike any other Emilie had ever seen. There were rows of bottles filled with various contents such as scented oils, herbs, powders, bone fragments, dried insects, flowers, holy water, eau de cologne, roots, snakeskins, berries, nuts, and desiccated chicken feet. Each bottle was labeled with a yellowed parchment on which mysterious symbols were written that could have been Latin, Greek, Arabic, or Kabbalistic. There was also a large assortment of candles in various colors and sizes, talismans, crucifixes, charms, rosaries, statues of saints and African deities. On one wall there were pictures of saints with eyes that looked curiously alive. It was enough to make her skin crawl, but she had come too far to back down.
The Grand Zamy laid down his fountain pen. “Is there something I can do for you, mam’selle?”
“I uh—” Emilie froze.
He leaned forward and urged her to continue with a kindly, paternalistic voice.
“I…uh…need some help,” she said, feeling strangely awkward.
The Grand Zamy motioned toward a chair. “Please sit down, mam’selle. What is your name? Don’t be afraid. I’m here to help you.”
Emilie slithered into the chair and met his gaze. His face looked so normal, so paternalistic, almost like a kindly grandfather. She could hardly believe this well-mannered gentleman was responsible for so much death and turmoil, most of which was only spoken about in hushed tones. She had heard a rumor from Victorine that his first wife went insane and was shut up in the lunatic asylum on the Rue Levassor, although no one knew for certain. She simply disappeared one day, and the sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres who cared for the patients were notoriously tight-lipped about the patients. But Victorine’s face went grim when she told Emilie that no one had ever seen or heard from his wife again. But that was many years ago.  Most people had forgotten about her. No one knew precisely what went on inside the stone walls of the asylum, although some people claimed they heard screams in the night. Others told stories about restraining chairs and other forms of torture. Victorine said she had heard of people who were poisoned by him. And some who were turned into zombies. It was all terrifying to Emilie. Adding to the mystery, everywhere he went he was trailed by an alluring servant girl, even when he went to mass each morning. The exact nature of their relationship was always the subject of gossip and innuendo. Still, Emilie reasoned that this sinister character was her best chance for breaking free of Lucien.
“Bonjour, my name is Emilie Dujon and I have a problem.” As she spoke the Grand Zamy fixed his eyes on her, as if he was hypnotizing her. She shifted in her seat and continued, “You see, I’m engaged to a man who is unfaithful…” She paused for a moment to let that sink in. The Grand Zamy nodded, sphinxlike, and urged her to continue. “Since I no longer love him or wish to marry him, I must find a way to end our engagement without causing a scandal.”
The Grand Zamy leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “So, if I understand you correctly. You’re engaged to a man you do not wish to marry.”
“That is correct.”
The Grand Zamy regarded her through narrow slits. “Does this man love you?”
“Yes, I believe he does, in his own way.”
“But you don’t love him.”
Emilie shook her head. “No.”
“Then, mam’selle, you have a serious problem indeed.” The Grand Zamy closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead, as if deep in concentration. “Let me think for a moment. Love, you see, is a powerful emotion. Once it takes hold it is very hard to uproot. But there are certain herbs that can help mitigate the situation, provided of course you use the correct mixture and in the correct dosage. Luckily for you I have great experience in these matters. As you can see I have a well-stocked laboratory.” He motioned toward the shelves with the assortment of bottles. “In addition, there are powerful incantations that can increase the effectiveness of the potion. I recently assisted a young man from the village of Pointe-Noir who fell in love with a young lady whose family objected to their engagement. They whisked her away to the other side of the island, which enraged him. He came to me in a state of great agitation, vowing revenge against anyone who would take away the love of his life.”
“What happened?” said Emilie.
The Grand Zamy gave a mysterious smile, like the Mona Lisa. “I don’t think you want to know the exact details of that case. Thankfully I solved the young man’s problem to his satisfaction, and in the end that’s all that counts, correct?” Emilie nodded. “The medicine I prescribe is tailor-made to suit each patient’s needs. It takes years of experience to know the correct formula and spells. That is the art of the herbalist. But it’s a mistake to think I alone hold full control over the outcome. At most I am only an intermediary. I ask the spirits to intervene on behalf of my clients. Some herbalists—my competitors, some of whom are quite unscrupulous—think the best approach is to simply eliminate the obstacle. But that is an extreme measure I rarely employ. First, let us consult the cards and see what they have to say.”
Standing up to his full height, the Grand Zamy lit the black candles on the chandelier and said, “Spirits, I invoke you, tell me how to solve this young woman’s problem.”
The black candles flickered for a moment and then mysteriously snuffed out. Taking out a deck of tarot cards, he shuffled them and asked her to cut them. He spread the cards out on his desk in the shape of a cross, then he turned them over one by one, studying them with great concentration. Finally he looked up and said, “You have recently discovered a painful truth, or perhaps you have been betrayed. You feel lost, isolated and alone. Perhaps you have seen your man in the arms of another woman. That is the Three of Swords. I see much anguish and despair. You feel as though you have been pushed to your limits and you’re going through a dark night of the soul. You are filled with worry and sadness. You lie awake all night worrying and fretting. That is the Nine of Swords.” He pointed to a card and gazed at her through narrowed eyes. “I sense you are experiencing an upheaval, a sudden change, or perhaps you have realized the truth about something. Something which was once hidden but has now been exposed. You are in a crisis. This is evidenced by the Tower card over here.” He pointed to a card that showed a tower that was struck by lightning and was in flames. Emilie shuddered at the sight of it. “And look here,” he pointed to another card. “This is the Nine of Pentacles. It represents a lady of refinement and grace. She does not seek the easy way out but learns to take matters into her own hands. She relies on herself to solve her own problems. This, mam’selle is you. You must learn to trust your own abilities. And do you see the Ace of Cups over here? This represents a new love or a fork in the road, a new path or a struggle between two choices. Beware of overconfidence and the danger of rushing in too soon. I see difficult times ahead of you. Great strife. I see a maiden, bound and blindfolded, surrounded by danger and unable to see her way out. She is overwhelmed. She feels trapped by her circumstances, lost and confused. This is the Eight of Swords. Don't look worried, Mam’selle, I am sure you will find your way out. Look here, there is a powerful, broad-shouldered man carrying a great burden. That is the Knight of Wands. He is confident and courageous. He carries the duty of responsibility on his shoulders. He will risk anything without fear. That card is a good sign. Finally, I see an awakening to a new and even greater challenge. I see a large goal ahead of you.” The Grand Zamy looked up from the cards. “Unfortunately, that is all I see. I believe your problem is not too severe and can be solved by a simple ritual and potion.”
“Are you sure?” said Emilie.
“I’ve dealt with much worse cases.”
“Are these potions dangerous? I mean, can they cause great harm?”
“My dear, anything can be harmful if applied in the incorrect dosage. That is why you must always consult with an expert. For ten francs I will prepare a powder that will calm your fiancé’s ardor cause him to break off your engagement. Perhaps it will set your destiny in motion. Have no fear that harm will come to him. I assure you the effects are not permanent.” He erupted in house-shaking laughter that sent a shiver up her spine.
With quivering hands, Emilie extracted ten francs from her purse and handed it over to the Grand Zamy. He placed the money in a strong box and locked it. He explained to her that she must take three strands of her hair and three strands of Lucien’s hair and wrap them up in a sheet of silk paper. Then she must go to the cemetery and stand at the edge of an open grave and recite the following incantation, Sator arepo, tenet opera, Rohas, Enam, Binah Jhedulah, Teburah, Jiphereth, Netzah, Hod, Jesode, Malrouth, Meschache, Obdenego! Come all to help me destroy the love that oppresses my heart! Emilie wrote down all the instructions, including the spell. The Grand Zamy continued, “Then, while still standing at the edge of the grave, you must light a candle and say, Good souls of purgatory, I entrust my love to you in order to let it fall asleep in the same way that you were plunged into your eternal sleep. So be it. As you recite the words, throw the silk paper with the hair into the grave.”
The Grand Zamy stood up and strode over to the wall. He selected an assortment of bottles containing various powders and herbs. After mixing them in a wooden bowl, he added some crushed beetles, a drop of lavender oil, and a bit of tafia. He poured the mixture into a vial which he sealed with a cork and handed to Emilie.
“Here you are, mam’selle,” he said. “This is the potion that will change your life. Now give me the young man’s name and date of birth.” She gave him the information. “Now listen very carefully. When he comes to visit, light a white candle in front of a mirror. Place the powder into a glass of punch and serve it to him. In a short while his behavior will start to change. He may seem a little intoxicated at first, perhaps even a little erratic, but he will soon ask for his ring back and your problem will be solved.”
“Is it that simple?” she asked.
Eyeing her, the Grand Zamy said, “For you, my dear, it is simple. For me it is a bit more complicated. I will recite the appropriate spells, perform sacrifices, and petition the spirits—that is the special task of the herbalist. I do not expect a fine lady to sacrifice a chicken.”
The Grand Zamy roared with laughter, causing Emilie to almost jump out of her seat. Clutching the vial, she raced out of the store.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Publishers Weekly Review of Transfer Day

I have chills. Back in 2008 when I set out to fulfill a childhood dream to write a book that would recreate the Danish colonial era of St. Thomas, the island of my youth, I was perhaps a little naive. After all, I had no idea the enormity and complexity of the task I was to undertake. But I persevered, I stuck to my guns, and along the way I had some major breakthroughs. I combed through records in the National Archives, I contacted people all over the world, some of whom have become lifelong friends. I made discoveries that shocked me; I learned so much about WWI history and how it affected even tiny, insignificant corners of the globe. In the end, I believe Transfer Day is a beautiful story that brings to life the Danish Colonial period, a part of history that both the Danes, the Americans, and the people of the Virgin Islands are in danger of losing. My rationale for doing this was: "since no one else had done it, I'll do it." I believed deeply that it had to be done. And so, I am truly grateful for this beautiful review from Publishers Weekly. I hope that with the weight of the most respected literary publication in the United States behind this project, more people will be able to discover this story and fall in love with the characters as I have. I dedicated Transfer Day to Mrs. Louise Brady, a beloved and revered St. Thomas educator who I count as a great influence in my life. I hope she would be proud of this book. Thank you to everyone who read and reviewed the book. Thank you to everyone who encouraged me. I love the history of these beautiful islands, and I hope more people will discover it in the pages of this book!


The 1917 transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States, which forestalled imperial Germany’s hopes to control strategically valuable ports during WWI, provides the background for Schiller’s engaging historical thriller. In 2001, journalist Søren Jensen, still grieving over the loss of his wife, travels from Copenhagen to the Virgin Islands to investigate a report that documents exist supporting the claim of Abigail Maduro to have “personally thwarted a German invasion” of the islands. Abigail recently died at the age of 101, and Søren meets her granddaughter, Claire Lehman, a possible new love interest (Claire’s eyes have “an inner fire, a boldness that resonated deep within him”). Claire gives Søren access to her ancestor’s diary, which details the teenage Abigail’s growth into self-sufficiency and her role in countering German espionage before the sale of the islands. Schiller deftly blends fact and fiction in a page-turner with emotional resonance. 



Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Historical Novelist Goes Digging in Martinique

Heatstroke, exhaustion, motion sickness, insect bites, and having to be escorted off a mountain by gendarmes were just a few of the privations I suffered while researching my latest novel ISLAND ON FIRE on the island of Martinique. To be blunt, conditions were bad—constant 100° temperatures and 99% humidity—but the results MORE than made up for the hardships. What I discovered while exploring the destroyed city of St. Pierre were pieces of the past, evidence of lives suddenly cut short by the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pelée on May 8th, 1902: a button, shards of pottery, broken porcelain, pieces of exploded bottles, the remnants of a flower pot, a destroyed tea set. The past comes back to life in a terrifying fashion in St. Pierre, Martinique.



An old button dug up near the Rue Levassor made of natural material, either horn, ivory, bone, or possibly even wood, carved from the tagua nut which was used extensively until WWI.

Until May 8th 1902 St. Pierre, Martinique was the most important cultural and administrative city in the French Antilles. It was completely destroyed when Mont Pelee erupted at approximately 8 am that morning, killing 30,000 people in 5 minutes. Today the city has been largely reclaimed, but it will never have the same vibrancy as it had during the turn of the last century.


St. Pierre today. Photo by Zinneke (from Wikimedia)

As I unearthed each item I was well aware that they once belonged to an individual, and that the object played some part in that person’s life. That's the poignancy of discovering the past: you have the chance to connect with someone who lived centuries ago and who died by a catastrophic act of nature. When I discovered that button or those shards of pottery, I was perhaps the first person in over 100 years to touch these items. That's sad given the fate of the people of St. Pierre. When they died they had no way of telling future generations their story. I consider that my mission. I went to St. Pierre in order to tell their story. 

A selfie taken in the ruins of "America's Pompeii".
Note the modern-day graffiti on the Roman-style columns are still doing the job they were designed to do, which is to provide a vertical structural element that transmits, through compression, the weight of the structure above to other structural elements below.
The graffiti says: "Madinina: Death" (Madinina is the old Carib name for Martinique.)

I call St. Pierre "the Pompeii of the Americas" because it resembles Pompeii by the cataclysmic nature in which the city was blotted off the face of the earth. Almost like an atomic bomb. The city and all its inhabitants were decimated by the release of the volcano's pyroclastic flows: the theater, the two cathedrals, the fort, the barracks, the jail, the hospital, the warehouses, the chamber of commerce, the lighthouses, the villas, the hotels, the fashionable stores, everything was reduced to rubble in the span of 5 minutes. It wasn't even a question of the citizens outrunning the lava, with the pyroclastic flows traveling at a rate of 500 mph (700 km/hr) and at temperatures of 1,830 degrees F (1000 degrees C) the people were asphyxiated immediately and incinerated within seconds. There was no chance of escape. Also called nuée ardente, a pyroclastic flow is a dense, destructive mass of very hot ash, lava fragments, and gases ejected explosively from a volcano and flowing downslope at great speed. It happened so fast, the residents of St. Pierre had no idea the end would be so violent yet so brief.

St. Pierre, Martinique before it was destroyed in a volcanic eruption.

As you meander through the ruins, only a few elements of the city's former life are still visible: a few retaining walls, spigots, iron gates, the remains of fountains and staircases.

The remains of a public fountain located on the Rue Levassor built in 1850.

An old spigot is all that remain of a fresh water fountain in the mental asylum.

The damage was extraordinary, and what is even more surprising is that the ruins have been left largely untouched since 1902. The entire town is a vast archaeological dig. While there, I visited all the major sites where the action of my novel takes place. I would pick a location and dig down only several inches to see what the earth would reveal. In every single case I unearthed something from the past. I will take you on a virtual tour of this extraordinary town that was obliterated by a volcanic explosion, yet has managed to come back from the dead.

Shards of tiles that have been buried for more than 100 years.
The remains of the city engineer's building, on the Rue Levassor
Ruins of the fort cathedral on the north side of town.
The isolation chamber in the mental asylum
The ruins of the theater, probably what would have been the orchestra pit.
Remains of the mental asylum.

Inside a destroyed warehouse in the Figuier Quarter
On the Pont Roche, the oldest bridge in St. Pierre that is still being used for cars!
An inside look inside one of the isolation rooms in the mental asylum. This is a restraining chair. Built in 1839 as a public and private institute for the mentally insane, the asylum was one of the first in the world to offer hydrotherapy to its patients using water from the nearby Riviere Roxelane, and they even record some successful cases.
Standing in the ruins of the fort cathedral. People live in close proximity to the crumbling remains of old St. Pierre, as if having volcanic ruins in one's backyard is the most natural thing in the world.
Rue Mont au Ciel, in the fashionable mulatto quarter of St. Pierre. Until the 1990's this passageway was still covered with rubble from the eruption of 1902.
The fountain at the entrance of the St. Pierre theater, where the opening scene of my novel takes place.
The original cobblestoned Rue Levassor that runs parallel to the Riviere Roxelane, where I found so many artifacts. At the end of this street is where the mental asylum and the Engineering building are located.
The ruins of St. Pierre from 1902.
The ruins today. The biggest difference between today and then is the growth of new vegetation.

My adventure in St. Pierre left me exhilarated and humbled at the same time. It is exhilarating to stumble upon buried objects, yet so humbling to know  these people died by an act of God so powerful, so terrifying, that only one person was left to tell the tale. If I learned anything from my experience, it is to never take anything for granted. Especially the gift of life. If a once beautiful and thriving French town can be reduced to rubble in five minutes, it shows how fragile, precious, and fleeting life is. Perhaps that is the takeaway from St. Pierre: to live each day as if it is your last.