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This month's column focuses on a theme that has rapidly grown into one of my favorites - the Secret History. In a Secret History story, the author takes the commonly accepted understanding of some historical time or event and proceeds to redefine it through the introduction of fictional elements. Done properly, the end result is still completely compatible with the facts of history as we know them but fundamentally different to the reader, who is now in on the secret.
In a Secret History, the events that diverge from our accepted historical record are deliberately covered-up or somehow forgotten by way of a kind of cultural amnesia. Cover-ups are an element common to many secret history stories and are often linked to a Secret Society, with perennial favorites including the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, and unnamed branches of the US Government (sometimes referred to as the Men In Black or simply The Shop). Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is a mainstream thriller example of a secret society within the Catholic Church (the Opus Dei) charged with keeping a secret that, if revealed, would fundamentally change our present day understanding of two thousand years of Western history.
If we think of history as a vast and well-ordered building with each room representing a specific place and time, then the Secret History is an Escher-scape of twisting stairways and doors in ceilings. Both buildings appear identical from the outside, but there is a world of difference inside.
Secret History stories are closely related to the Alternate History story. See "Living in Parallel: Alternate Universes in Science Fiction" for a discussion of parallel universes and alternate histories.
In fantasy and SF genres, Secret History stories incorporate fantastical elements that have shaped our history while remaining outside of the historical record. Popular media examples of this theme are television shows such as Stargate, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Roswell, and The X-Files. In addition to the link between Secret History and Secret Societies, there is an obvious link to Conspiracy Theory. In his Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute refers to this theme as "Fantasies of History" and draws additional connections to Secret Masters and Hidden Worlds. One last cross-topic is Cryptology, since the path to hidden knowledge in Secret History stories is often encoded, usually in an ancient manuscript or book. As a fascinating example, try searching the Internet for "Voynich Manuscript."
Titles of Interest related to the Voynich Manuscript:
The Most Mysterious Manuscript: The Voynich "Roger Bacon" Cipher Manuscript. Robert Sherrick Brumbaugh, Editor. Southern Illinois University Press, 1977. ISBN: 0809308088. Hardcover. Resale value: $100+.
The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma. M.E. D'Imperio. Aegean Park Press, 1981. ISBN: 0894120387. Softcover. Resale Value: $50+.
Solution of the Voynich Manuscript. Leo Levitov. Aegean Park Press, 1987. ISBN: 0894121499. Hardcover. $50+. ISBN: 0894121480. Softcover. $35.
The Friar And The Cipher: Roger Bacon And The Unsolved Mystery Of The Voynich Manuscript. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. Doubleday, 2005. ISBN: 0767914732. Hardcover. Resale value: $10
Another interesting take on the themes of encryption and Secret History is Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomican. The title is Latin for "Book of Hidden Names" and appears in the novel as a fictional book described as the "cryptographer's bible." The plot bounces back and forth between World War II and the efforts of a secret military unit to crack the German Enigma code and the near-future activities of a small group of private individuals to create a "data haven" where the flow of information can occur free of governmental interference and censorship. The key to the data haven's success lies in the good guys recovering two Nazi secrets: a sunken treasure in gold and an unbreakable encryption method developed too late in the war to make a difference. A heavy book at over 900 pages, so adjust your shipping accordingly!
Cryptonomicon. Neal Stephenson. Avon, 1999. ISBN: 0434008834. Hardcover. Resale value: $10 - $20.
Cryptonomicon has been described as Pynchonesque - in the manner of author Thomas Pynchon. The most obvious allusion is to Pynchon's own World War II novel, Gravity's Rainbow, which features numerous supernatural and paranormal elements, including precognition, ghosts, the Tarot, and angels. Gravity's Rainbow is marked by themes of paranoia and conspiracy theory, both typical elements of Secret History stories. Much closer to the mark, though, is Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, in which Oedipa Maas begins to find clues to a centuries-old globe-spanning, deadly struggle between secret, rival ... postal companies. By far Pynchon's shortest book, it is easy to dismiss as an intellectual spoof, but it is better understood as an epistemological fable as it probes the concepts of knowledge and truth. For that reason, The Crying of Lot 49 is perhaps more relevant now in the Age of the Internet than when it was first published in 1965. Also of note is Pynchon's first novel, V, in which Herbert Stencil tracks apparent incarnations of a mysterious woman known as V through various moments of historical importance. Like Cryptonomicon, the story line alternates between past and present events, with the two converging, as it were, in the shape of a V.
Gravity's Rainbow. Viking Press, 1973. Hardcover.
The Crying of Lot 49. Lippincott, 1966. Hardcover.
V. Lippincott, 1963. Hardcover.
Pynchon is a key author in postmodern literature, so any hardcover edition of these three titles (no matter the printing) is going to start in triple digits. Resale values for first printings vary wildly depending upon condition and other factors such as variant dust jackets but can easily exceed $1000. Also look for early trade paperback copies in very good or better condition of Gravity's Rainbow. $30 to $50 at least.
For a squarely SF/Fantasy genre author of Secret Histories, there is no better example than Tim Powers. In The Anubis Gates, Brendan Doyle, a modern day student of early Victorian poetry, is hired to guide to a party of time travelers. Doyle is stranded in early 19th century London, where he learns the fine art of begging, but soon runs afoul of an ancient Egyptian magician, a killer clown, a body-shifting werewolf, armies of beggars, underground torture chambers, and a secret society of London gentlemen sworn to fight evil.
Powers excels at weaving historical events and persons with completely logical fantasy, and to his credit the seams do not show. The Drawing of the Dark takes the historical invasion of Europe by Turkish forces culminating in the Siege of Vienna of 1529 and recasts it as an epic battle between Christian and Muslim magicians. Integral to the plot are mythic elements including the Fisher King (key to several other of Power's books), King Arthur and Merlin, Norse gods, and a magic elixir in the form of a dark beer that has been brewing for centuries. Declare is framed as a spy novel and functions as a secret history of the Cold War in which the US and Soviet arms race was really about attempts to control monstrously powerful supernatural beings found on top of Mount Ararat. Declare is yet another example of weaving a Past and Present story line together to converge on the hidden truth. The bulk of Power's work invokes Secret History as a central theme, with the Fisher King, wounding/death and resurrection, magical properties of beer and wine, the Tarot, Romantics poets, and rigidly defined supernatural forces and creatures as recurrent elements.
Though Powers is awfully good at what he does, to date there is very little value in first trade editions. Many of his books have been released in signed, limited editions by, for example, Ultramarine Press, Charnel House, Subterranean Press and Hypatia Press, and they range from clothbound editions of usually less than 1000 copies to highly ornate leather bound editions limited to 26 or fewer lettered copies.
The Anubis Gates. Ace Books, 1983. PBO. Resale value <$5. Chatto and Windus, 1985. Hardcover. Resale value (first edition) $100+.
The Drawing of the Dark. Del Rey Books, 1979. PBO. There are numerous paperback reprints. Resale value generally less than $5. Hypatia Press released a signed, numbered limited edition of 800 is readily available for less than $75.
Declare. William Morrow, 2001. Hardcover. Resale value (first edition) <$5. The true hardback first was, signed limited edition of 500 published by Subterranean Press is available for under $100.
The appeal of Secret History stories lies not so much in what happens - in a very broad sense we already know what happens - as in what doesn't happen. In a Secret History story about aliens crash landing in Roswell in the 1940s, we already know that they didn't vaporize Washington DC. If they had, it would necessarily be classified as an Alternate History story. But perhaps the aliens did agree to secretly cooperate with the US Government, trading alien technology for assistance in repairing their ship or building a transmitter to call for rescue. What is really interesting about Secret Histories is the shifts in historical meaning that occur, much like the optical illusion where a slight shift in perspective suddenly changes the beautiful girl into an ugly witch. In Fredric Brown's classic novelette "Come and Go Mad," a man's sanity crumbles as he begins to understand that all of human history is just a reflection of a game played by two unsuspected opponents.
Of course, in a broad sense history, like truth, will always be an unknowable secret. There is an old saying that history is written by the winners, and even the best-intentioned historians suffer from the ideologies, assumptions and prejudices of the culture in which they were raised. In a previous career I was an archeologist, and one site director I worked for liked to quote Napoleon's view of history as "the lie agreed upon." Taken one step further, a Secret History would become a lie within a lie, which then brings us to Recursive Fiction. But as Mr. Peabody used to tell his boy Sherman, "That's a topic for another day."
Other Authors and Titles of Interest:
James Blaylock - Numerous titles
Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson - Illuminatus! (trilogy)
John Crowley - Aegypt, Love and Sleep, Daemonomania
Umberto Eco - Foucault's Pendulum
Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln - The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail
Iain Pears - An Instance of the Fingerpost ISBN: 1573220825
Howard V Hendrix - The Labyrinth Key ISBN: 0345455975
Lev Grossman - Codex ISBN: 0151010668
Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark
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