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Addison Howell and the Clockroach

Addison Howell and the Clockroach by Cherie Priest (Illustrated by Galen Dara)

An Eyewitness Account by Petra Oberg (1902–1996), Resident of Humptulips

Steampunk Revolution edited by Ann VanderMeer

“Addison Howell and the Clockroach” by Cherie Priest also appears in Steampunk Revolution, edited by Ann VanderMeer. Available now from Tachyon Publications.

Addison Howell didn’t so much arrive in the town of Humptulips as appear there sometime around 1875. He had money, which set him apart from everybody else—because everybody else was working for the logging company, and mostly they didn’t have a pot to piss in, as my Daddy put it.

At first, Mr. Howell didn’t make much of a stir. He built himself a house, way outside of town, a big three-story place set back in the hills—and you couldn’t see it until you were right on top of it, what with all the trees. He had a wife with him at one point, but she died up there. Folks said he’d murdered her with an axe, but there was never any proof of that and we didn’t have any law at the time nohow, not a sheriff or anything, much less a jail, what with less than three hundred souls. We had a mayor, though—a fellow named Herp Jones—and I think if Herp could’ve rounded up enough warm bodies, he would’ve seen to a lynch mob. But everyone he might’ve asked was either working or drinking, so I guess that didn’t happen.

The town gave Mrs. Howell a Christian burial in a little plot back behind the only church we had, and her guilty-as-sin husband paid a pretty penny to have a crypt built up around her. It was a real big deal, because nobody else in town had ever gotten a crypt, and only about half the folks who ever died even got a tombstone. That rankled a bit, even though he gave a tithe in honor of our St. Hubert, protector of woodsmen. But then Mr. Howell went back to his house in the trees, and for the most part, nobody hardly ever saw him again.

But a few years later, as I heard it, after he’d been out of people’s minds, laying low so to speak, Addison Howell was out and about doing whatever it is a wicked man does on a Sunday, and he came across a homesteader’s camp just off the old logging road. There was a wagon with a broken axle, and two dead men lying beside a campfire. It looked like they’d been tore up by wolves, or maybe mountain lions, or some such creature. But inside the wagon he heard a little girl crying. He looked inside and she screamed, and she bit him—because like attracts like, I suppose, and the girl had a bad streak in her too. That’s why he took her home with him.

She was maybe eight or nine when he brought her inside, and legend has it she was mute. Or maybe she didn’t feel like talking, I couldn’t say. But we all thought the girl was too scairt to speak after wild animals all ate her family, and thought it a scandal that he took her in rather than bringing her into town. No matter what a bad seed she might’ve been, Mr. Howell was worse for having lived longer.

Anyway, he raised her as his own, and they lived together in the house in the hills, and nobody ever visited them because everybody knew they were doing evil things up there. If they weren’t up to mischief, they would’ve just moved to town like civilized people.

But people started telling stories about hearing strange noises out there at night, like someone was whacking on metal with a hammer, or sawing through steel. Word got around that he was building a machine that looked like a big bug, or a lobster, or something. It had a big stack on top and it was steam powered, or coal powered, or anyway it was supposed to move around when he was sitting inside it. The stack was strange, they said, because it curved back into the machine. That made a lot of the folks down at the tavern laugh. I don’t know who was fool-headed enough to get close enough to listen, but somebody did, and somebody talked.

Of course, I worried about the girl, and later on, the mayor and some friends of his, all of them with guns and itchy trigger fingers, went up to that house and demanded to know what was going on up there. For all they knew he was summoning Satan, or beating up that girl, or raising whatever kind of hell I just don’t know.

Addison Howell told them they were welcome to look around, so they did. They didn’t find anything, and they were mad about it. They asked the girl what was going on, but she wouldn’t say nothing and they thought maybe she was scared of Howell, and that’s why she wasn’t being helpful. But she was a teenager by then, or old enough that she could live there with a dirty old man if she felt like it, and people’d look askance, but no one would take her away.

Not long after that, Addison Howell went into town to do some business—he was over at the logging foreman’s place, and nobody has any idea why, or what they were talking about. They got into some kind of fight—the foreman’s wife overheard it and she came out and saw them struggling, so she took her husband’s shotgun and she blew the back of Addison Howell’s head clean off, and he died right then and there.

The foreman went and got Herp Jones, and between ’em, they figured it was good riddance. They decided they should just leave him in the crypt with his wife, since there was a slot for him and everything, and that’s what they did. They wrapped up his body and carried it off.

When they got to the crypt, they found that one of the doors was hanging open—and that was odd, but they didn’t make nothing of it. They thought maybe there’d been an earthquake, a little one that wasn’t much noticed, and the place had gone a little crooked. It happens all the time. But inside the thing, they found the floor all tore up. There used to be marble tiles down there, and now they were gone. Nothing but dirt was left.

I expect they wondered if someone hadn’t gotten inside and stolen them. Marble might’ve been worth something.

They didn’t worry about it much, though. They just dumped old Addison Howell into his slot, scooted the lid over him, and shut the place up behind them. Then they remembered the girl who lived at Howell’s place—nobody knew her name, on account of she’d never said it—and they headed up there to let her know what had happened.

I think privately they thought maybe now she’d come into town and pick a husband, somebody normal and good for her. There weren’t enough women to go around as it was, and she was pretty enough to get a lot of interest.

When they told her the news she started screaming. They dragged her into town to try and calm her down, but she wasn’t having any of it. Around that time there was a doctor passing through, or maybe Humptulips had gotten one of its own. Regardless, this doctor gave her something to make her sleep, trying to settle her. They left her in the back room of the general store, passed out on a cot.

And that night, the town woke up to a terrible commotion coming from the cemetery behind Saint Hubert’s. Everybody jumped out of bed, and people grabbed their guns and their logging axes, and they went running down to the church to see what was happening—and the whole place was just in ruins. The church was on fire, and the cemetery looked like someone had set off a bunch of dynamite all over it. The Howell crypt was just a bunch of rubble, and there was a big old crater where it used to be.

And by the light of the burning church, the mayor and the logging foreman and about a dozen other people all swear by the saints and Jesus too . . . they saw a big machine with that ridiculous tall black stack curving back into itself . . . crawling away—and sitting inside it was the demon Addison Howell, driving the thing straight back to hell. Some said he was laughing, some said he was crying. We were so glad he was leaving, no one followed him, and it would have been difficult to track him anyway because no smoke belched from the black stack.

That’s how it happened, and it’s God’s honest truth. As for the girl, when they went back to tend to her in the general store, she had fled. That’s how we knew she had no innocence in her, either. We went looking, but we never found her. Most everyone thought she’d finally gone to join her family, and in the same way: devoured by beasts in the forest. If she had ever come back, we would have treated her like a ghost.

***

A Brief Perspective from Historian Julia Frimpendump, University of Washington Professor

My research began with the church, as perhaps the most accurate repository of information. Though Saint Hubert’s was in fact subjected to a fire in 1889, it did not burn in its entirety and most of its records were preserved. I found a record of burial for a woman named “Rose M. Howell” on October 2, 1878, lending credence that the story of Addison Howell may hold a grain of truth; but there is no record for Mr. Howell’s death, nor any subsequent burial.

After consulting with an archeo-industrialist in Cincinnati, I have concluded that the peculiar device known locally as “the clockroach” was very likely intended for use in the logging industry. Its forward claws suggest a machine capable of carrying tremendous weight, and the multiple legs imply that it could have traversed difficult terrain while successfully bearing a load.

Based on this information, one could speculate a kinder story for the tragic Addison Howell. It’s reasonable to guess that he might have been a lonely man who, driven west, adopted an orphaned girl, and in his spare time he devoted himself once again to the very thing that had been his downfall back east: tinkering . . . eventually coming up with this peculiar engine, which might have revolutionized the industry—perhaps even the history of the internal combustion engine—had it been adopted and mass-produced. His conversation-turned-argument with the logging foreman may have been some patent dispute, or an altercation over the invention’s worth—there’s no way to know.

The casual record-keeping and insular nature of a tiny homesteader’s town has left us little with which to speculate.

However, the remains of a marble crypt can be found in Saint Hubert’s churchyard. The church’s present minister, Father Frowd, says that it collapsed during an earthquake well before his time—and to the best of his knowledge, it was salvaged for materials.

As for the wagon with the murdered occupants and the sole surviving child, evidence suggests that a family by the name of Sanders left Olympia, Washington, intending to homestead near Humptulips in 1881. This family consisted of a widower, Jacob, and his brother, Daniel, and his brother’s daughter, Emily. The small family never reached Humptulips, and no record of their demise or reappearance has ever been found.

In one tantalizing clue located (once again) via Saint Hubert’s, a spinster named “Emily Howell” reportedly passed away in 1931, at the estimated age of sixty. Her age was merely estimated because she never gave it, and she passed away without family members or identification. She was found dead alone in the large home she kept outside the city limits—her cause of death unknown.

But she is buried behind the church, and her tombstone reads simply, “Emily Howell, d. 1931. She never forgave us, and never forgot him.”

***

“Pioneer Myths and Lore in Peninsular Victoriana”: An Exhibit at the Stackpole Museum of Prototypical Industry (Port Angeles, Washington)

The Olympic Peninsula has long been home to a number of Native American tribes, including the Hoh, the Makah, and the Quileute; but it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that it became settled by white homesteaders. Primarily these homesteaders were farmers and loggers, lured by the Homestead Act of 1862 and the promise of a temperate climate.

Though much can be said about the Native traditions and myths, this exhibit focuses on the rural homesteaders and their inevitable bedtime or campfire stories—some of which were regarded with a seriousness that borders on the charmingly naïve or dangerously optimistic, as evidenced by the items on display. Highlights of the collection include the “Clockroach” (1953.99) created by Addison Sobiesky Howell (America, born 1828 in Chicago, IL, died 1899 in Humptulips, WA). The “Clockroach,” built in 1878(?) was a one-man, quasi-lobster-shaped vehicle allegedly designed and driven by the aloof, peculiar craftsman whom the townsfolk of Humptulips came to believe was a minion of the devil himself. Howell’s early past is mostly unknown to historians, but it is believed that he worked as a designer and consultant at a factory that produced train parts, before a falling out with the owner of the company led to his trek from Chicago to Washington State.

The “Clockroach” was discovered by loggers in 1903 abandoned by the side of a remote road in the forests of Washington State, overgrown by moss but otherwise marvelously intact. A private collector bought the “Clockroach” and upon his death in 1953, the museum acquired the piece at auction.

The “Clockroach” measures 40 feet long by 15 feet wide and is composed primarily of steel, cast iron, rubber tubing, and glass. The nature of the machine’s mechanical operation has been the subject of some debate, as it does not conform to the known properties of the internal combustion engine. Indeed, experts have concluded that the “Clockroach” could not have run on gasoline or, as some have postulated, a wood-fed furnace. Speculation that Addison had stumbled upon a safe hybrid steam-powered energy alternative in creating his curiosity has yet to be substantiated by evidence. What it did run on, or whether it ever really worked at all, remains a mystery.

The museum understands the fascination that the “Clockroach” holds for “children of all ages,” but due to liability issues, we can no longer allow anyone to climb the machine. Please remain behind the safety rope at all times. Remember that for energy conservation reasons, we now close at 3 p.m.

© 2011 by Cherie Priest.
Originally published in slightly different form in
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities,
edited by Ann VanderMeer & Jeff VanderMeer.

This version © 2012 by Cherie Priest.
Originally published in Steampunk Revolution,
edited by Ann VanderMeer.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Read the author spotlight with Cherie Priest

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Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest

Cherie Priest is the author of a dozen novels, including the steampunk pulp adventures Ganymede, Dreadnought, Clementine, and Boneshaker. Boneshaker was nominated for both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award; it was a PNBA Award winner, and winner of the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Cherie also wrote Bloodshot and Hellbent from Bantam Spectra; Fathom and the Eden Moore series from Tor; and three novellas published by Subterranean Press. In addition to all of the above, her first foray into George R. R. Martin’s superhero universe, Fort Freak (for which she wrote the interstitial mystery), debuted in the summer of 2011. Cherie’s short stories and nonfiction articles have appeared in such fine publications as Weird Tales, Publishers Weekly, and numerous anthologies. She lives in Chattanooga, TN, with her husband, a big shaggy dog, and a fat black cat.

Stories by Cherie Priest

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