The Clockwork Dark is a fantasy adventure trilogy set in a mythical 19th century America. The journey begins with THE NINE POUND HAMMER, continues in THE WOLF TREE and culminates with THE WHITE CITY. The trilogy title “The Clockwork Dark” refers to the Gog’s sinister Machine that John Henry died attempting to destroy. The three books follow the adventures of Ray and the new generation of heroes who have taken up John Henry’s fight to destroy the Gog’s engine of darkness.
Several years ago, I was writing these very traditional, European-style fantasy stories, which didn’t feel very satisfying. I love fantasy, but wizards, knights, and dragons have been done to death. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction growing up, but I always really liked American tales, too, in particular “The Jack Tales” and “The Tales of Brer Rabbit.” I’m a musician, and vintage country, blues, and roots music is my thing. I remember picking some song on my guitar and thinking, “What would make a fantasy story distinctly American, with the themes and archetypes that are in the folksongs I love?” I began playing around with ideas that blended Southern folklore and American legends into a fantasy epic framework. Music and folklore have been a huge inspiration for the book.
There’s a lot of distinctly American folklore in The Clockwork Dark Trilogy. Hoodoo magic, bottletrees, toby bags, root doctors. But I was especially drawn to the legend of John Henry. That story always loomed as something powerful and epic in my mind. To me, John Henry is our national folk hero.
Sadly, he seems largely forgotten now. In the early twentieth century, everyone knew about John Henry. He’s in all sorts of songs, from blues to jazz to country and even rock. As the story generally goes, John Henry was an ex-slave who worked on the railroad, laying tracks and building tunnels through the mountains. A man invented a steam drill that could dig the tunnels faster than workers could, so John Henry had a competition to see who was faster: man or machine? With Li’l Bill, his shaker (the man who held the drill bit for the steel driver to hit with his hammer), John Henry carved out fourteen feet of rock, while the steam drill only dug nine feet. But as the competition finished, John Henry fell dead. Part of the tragedy is that he supposedly knew he would one day die in this way. “This hammer will be the death of me,” as the song goes. He’s our American Achilles or King Arthur, full of tragic glory. And his instrument, the Nine Pound Hammer, is our Excalibur, a symbol of his enduring heroism.
To hear my version of the traditional song ‘John Henry’ click here. John Henry
My story takes place after John Henry’s death, which is not quite like legend would have it. It was not a competition, but a battle between good and evil: John Henry and his followers, the Ramblers, facing the terrible Machine and its maker. Otherwise, I’d spoil the good fun of the book to tell it.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, medicine shows were the entertainment for the rural masses. They were traveling shows with musicians and performers who made money by selling tonics and cure-alls. These “medicines” were usually little more than alcohol. However in THE NINE POUND HAMMER, Peg Leg Nel, the root doctor in charge of the medicine show, makes extraordinary tonics… magical, even. And the medicine show performers are children with strange and mysterious powers: an escape artist with a tattoo of the cosmos on her hand, a snake charmer who speaks to her snakes, a Kwakiutl Indian “fire eater” who can never be burned, as well as others. Also, unlike the way traditional medicine shows traveled by wagon, the medicine show here lives and travels aboard a steam train.
The usual archetypes of European fantasy are wizards and knights and dragons. Here I have hoodoo conjurers, cowboys, and steamboat pirates. There’s magic, but it’s much more folksy. I drew on the beliefs about magic of American Indians, African Americans, and Appalachian root workers. If medieval times were the golden age for European fantasy, I see the late 19th century as the golden age for America’s myths. It’s then we had cowboys, swamp mermaids, trains, and Native Americans still living much more traditionally. It’s an age when great technological advances were butting up against the “old ways.”
Yes, I’m currently writing a science fiction animal book called THE PRINCE WHO FELL FROM THE SKY that I’m describing as a post-apocalyptic Watership Down. The novel is scheduled to come out in 2012. See my Facebook author page for more information as the writing progresses.
Yes! As a former elementary school teacher with over 12 years of experience, I love getting back into the classroom to talk with young readers about my books or to present workshops on other writing topics. For more information, see my school visit flyer or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I also teach workshops and courses to adults on writing children’s literature and building creativity. See my Events page for upcoming workshops. If you are looking for a presenter for a workshop or conference, please feel free to email me.