In some ways, the impetus behind A FIELD OF DARKNESS is my own backstory. Like me, my protagonist Madeline Dare’s “money is so old there’s none left.” Like me, she has a love-hate relationship with her WASP heritage: yearning for the trappings of that lost wealth—the shoes, the curtains, the crustless cucumber sandwiches—while remaining appalled by the dark legacy of cruelty and bloodshed that twines through her family’s history.
When Madeline first realizes her favorite cousin may have committed a decades-unsolved double murder in Upstate New York, she says, “I imagine most people would deny the possibility of a killer in the family. With us, start counting at Plymouth Rock and you’ll run out of fingers before Paul Revere.”
Madeline’s as haunted as I am by the slave graves in my mother’s family cemetery on Long Island, and the dawn massacre of Connecticut’s Pequot tribe led by a forebear named Captain John Underhill—a man who, when asked why he had not spared several hundred women and children, replied, “We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”
Before dawn on May 26, 1637, Underhill and his troops set fire to the tribe’s wigwams and wooden palisades. He published a pamphlet in London, some time later, describing the events of that morning, in which he wrote that, “Many were burnt in the fort, both men, women, children. Others forced out, and came in troops… twenty and thirty at a time, which our soldiers received and entertained with the point of the sword.”
Governor William Bradford later recounted, “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of.”
Somewhere between four hundred and seven hundred people were slaughtered in under an hour, and Underhill boasted that the young soldiers with him were sickened by “so many souls gasping on the ground, so thick, in some places, that you could hardly pass along.”
I mostly grew up in California, moved there with my mother and sister in 1969. The band of gypsies we kept company with in the years that followed included Sufis, surfers, single moms, Black Panthers, Ansel Adams, draft dodgers, striking farmworkers, and Henry Miller's toughest ping-pong rival.
My second-grade teacher taught us Russian folksongs, so we’d know what to sing “come the revolution.” The first thing I ever wrote on “vertical” binder paper at school was an essay railing against the Christmas carpet-bombing of Vietnam and the government harassment of Angela Davis. I was eight years old. I wanted to believe that the cool hippie grownups really could change the world, and that “all you need is love.”
I wanted to believe that all the horrible things I knew my ancestors had perpetrated over the centuries had nothing to do with me. But I have always been aware that history—good and bad—leaves its mark on us all.
That knowledge was the driving force behind A Field of Darkness. I’ve made Madeline Dare my doppelganger, in many senses, and I forced her to try navigating our shared legacy of angst and guilt.
Madeline doesn’t emerge unscathed at the end of the story. She discovers, as I have, a hard truth I’ve best seen expressed by Alexander Solhenitzyn in the opening pages of his book The Gulag Archipelago: If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
I have a sneaking suspicion that Solhenitzyn’s piece of heart is the same one Janis Joplin was always singing about, during the course of my hippie childhood.