:: Article

The Great Ask

By Ansgar Allen.

Image adapted from the frontispiece of John Kelk’s “The Scarborough Spa,” 2nd ed. (1843)

The following excerpt comes from Allen’s novel  Plague Theatre.

—the disturbances first began the town magistrate called a meeting at which various ineffectual suggestions were offered, including the imprisonment or exile of all those who showed signs. He then decided, unilaterally, as was his right, to summon his equivalent, since retired, from Whitby who reputedly dealt with something similar some time before and extinguished it entirely. The result was perhaps not what our magistrate expected, since his equivalent, the man we came to know as The Great Ask—for some less than improbable reason—demanded absolute submission if we were to avoid the impending doom, or what he called the plague of the sea, for which our magistrate granted him considerable freedom about town and the services of a hastily assembled and well-paid militia whose first task was to place our existing magistrate under arrest, have him tried, and then sent to sea in a cobble, which sank. The magistrate from Whitby then advanced to closing the harbour, halting all shipbuilding, and confiscating all boats. Those that were not willingly surrendered were filled with lead shot and sunk by small canon fire. This wiped out almost all fishing, except by line from the pier, which was subsequently abolished too. Crab fishing was also abolished, and the collecting of whelks discouraged and punished where possible, since both were carriers of the plague of the sea. This caused great suffering, because the town gates were also closed against escape, or the gathering of harvest, and there was very little to eat once the fish were denied and the stocks ran out. The success of his operation can only be explained, I have come to think, by the effects of the plague he was recruited to prevent, this plague being already more widespread than assumed. It was down to the plague, I thought, that had already weakened the populace and rendered it pliable, or it was due to the bewitching effects of his presence, the stage presence, of this man from Whitby who none would refuse. The man had his men build the very stage that the coroner later spoke from and from which the coroner was tipped into the cart. The magistrate from Whitby rose to that stage each morning with his assembled militia and reported on the events of the night, who had been caught eating whelks, or attempting escape, or drinking beer, since that was outlawed too—an unthinkable imposition were it not for the general decline of the populace to the febrile and weak condition of abject servitude that greeted the magistrate and his men as they first walked through the gates. The magistrate, it must be remembered, arrived in a manner that already set the tone of his exorcism. His people carried him through the town gates within the belly of a fish, a large creature of unreal proportions that some called a whale. The structure on which it rested was set down in the main square to the awe and curiosity of the town. Rumours of the great fish spread throughout the streets, the streets filled with people, and the people crushed their way to the square to see the thing, protected by his people, the men who would become his militia, with a few extra recruits drawn in. When the whole town had assembled, so far is it could, within sight or earshot of the square, his first man climbed to the top of the creature, now baked by the sun, and held his hand out raised to signal our silence. The sound of cutting could then be heard by those nearest by, and myself, and we looked to the belly of the thing. A knife punctured the side and worked its way up and across and down until a door fell away, wet with the innards and from which the Whitby magistrate emerged as if freshly born, yet old already, his face cut by the sea and the elements and the cruelty of life, with lines that declared the latitudes he had crossed, and the seas he had beaten into submission. The ocean had never consumed him whole, as it consumed so many like him, though it marked him with its reaches, and its vastness, and its depths. I have come, he cried, to save you from the plague of the sea, a plague that fell upon my own town to the north not long ago and that I annihilated for my people and for their sins. This plague is now upon you too, beleaguered folk, carried by the waves, in and out of bays, along the cliffs and round to your harbour, hauled in by your fishermen and spread by their wives and children, the children worst of all. To defeat this scourge I demand absolute submission and the formation of a militia, a plague militia, I demand men who will at great cost to themselves become hardened to their needs and ruthless to their neighbours, because nothing but the terror of man will do before the terrors you now face as a people. His people then lined up before the mouth of the creature, which they prised apart and entered by crawling, each appearing at the opening in its side, wet with the innards, and born. This stirred those assembled into a frenzy of desiring recruits pressing to be admitted and born by the stomach and the opening that still bled. The magistrate stood by the mouth, having clambered down, and peered at the frenzied crowd as if looking for those faces that declared their own cruelty and did not merely reflect his own. Those he selected followed his own men into the bowels and out, standing after that, strangers to themselves and those who knew them, and readied for command—

—the problem of keeping the militia fed, because the men would only do their work which required considerable effort with a bellyful of food, even as the populace became weak from hunger and no longer put up so much resistance. In subsequent weeks they patrolled less for the purpose of terror, and more for the gathering of food, anything that might be stored, in barrels, drawers, corners or cellars, either forgotten, but mostly hoarded and concealed—

—horses. They had eaten well on the meadow ground at the summit of the hill by the castle and had been left undisturbed since the closing of the town gates. None thought much of them until that time came when the militia decided that horsemeat is as good as any other—

—roused finally against their magistrate. The horsemeat had caused indigestion and considerable pain, their stomachs not used to it, or much accustomed to food in any quantity. He sat, as usual, in the, by now, dried out whale, or whale skin, that lay as before in the main square, only it was propped up from the insides against collapse, its eyes replaced by two silver-plated flagons from a nearby tavern, the innards long ago removed and boiled and eaten. They hauled him out through the mouth of the creature and its teeth turned inward that caught against and lacerated his clothes, his skin. The magistrate did not complain or fight against the reverse exorcism but allowed himself, his body, to be dragged out as he had once entered and hauled to the sea and along the pier from which he was rolled into the water, in chains, weighted, and drowned. The gates were opened, the militia disbanded, and all forbidden activities resumed as soon as they were able to return to their boats, cast lines, and drink the rest of the beer, now sour. With all horses dead there was no travel inland or along the coast to beg assistance or tell of what happened. Instead there was the slow, painful, regaining of strength and appetite, and the forgetting of the plague of the sea, or all talk—

Ansgar Allen is the author of several books including the novella Wretch (Schism) and Cynicism (MIT Press). He is based in Sheffield, UK.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 5th, 2021.