Balladeer’s Blog continues its examination of the many facets of Fool Killer lore. FOR PART ONE, INCLUDING THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT, CLICK HERE
PART THIRTEEN: FABLES IN SLANG (1899)
George Ade, who can be glibly described as a minor league Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce, was a newspaperman and humorist. All of his work is worth checking out, and I may very well do a series about his writing in the future, but for now I’m dealing only with his use of the Fool Killer in his 1899 work Fables in Slang.
Fables in the Vernacular would be a more accurate title, but that nit-pick aside, Ade’s collection of short fables were wryly humorous. They were written in a sort of “prose haiku” and anticipated Flash Fiction by nearly a century.
“The written word equivalent of political cartoons” might be another way of describing the fables. In any event Ade did accompany the fables with assorted illustrations.
The Fable Of How The Fool Killer Backed Out Of A Contract is the Ade fable we’re concerned with in this blog post. This tale of the Fool Killer finds him in Alabama, thus adding another state to the territory covered in the travels of the homicidal vigilante. Previously I examined Fool Killer stories set in North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia (back when it included what is now West Virginia).
The setting for this Fool Killer fable is the Old Pike Road in Alabama. To clarify, this is NOT the present-day town called Pike Road. This refers only to the actual road itself which passed by Montgomery, AL in the 19th Century.
On a long, lonely stretch of that road the Fool Killer was strolling along. This fable limits his weaponry to JUST his iron club/ walking stick/ cudgel, omitting his Bowie Knives and his guns.
The wandering murderer came across a surreal County Fair. The fair grounds were surrounded by barricades to prevent anyone from slipping in without paying for a ticket. The Fool Killer was recognized by the Marshal assigned to stand guard at the one and only entrance in order to make sure all attendees paid.
That official permitted our “hero” to enter the fair grounds for free due to his status. The Fool Killer roamed the sprawling grounds, taking in the sights and regarding the thousands upon thousands of people in attendance.
I want to emphasize the way I feel George Ade’s writing resembles much later Flash Fiction. In very few words he paints a multi-layered picture of the bizarre fair and its attendees.
On one level Ade makes trenchant observations in line with the view of such events as lures for the proverbial slack-jawed yokels to be suckered out of their money through shallow or just plain ridiculous examples of entertainment. This nicely prefigures James Joyce’s tale Araby from Dubliners.
On another level there’s the undeniable air of a horror story about the proceedings. The narrative’s emphasis on the intense heat of the Alabama summer and the suffering of the fair’s attendees are sinister hints that the poor fools are trapped in a particular circle of some sort of southern-fried Hell. The reader feels like a Twilight Zone ending might be in store.
As the Fool Killer roams the grounds he watches the fairgoers wander zombie-like through trampled weeds clotted ankle-deep with watermelon rinds, chicken bones, straw, torn paper bags and other litter. The attendees have no place to sit down and continue shuffling through the heat and the oppressive crowd.
Stifling clouds of dust swirl around them, causing them to cough and sniffle and driving them to stand in interminable lines to purchase pink lemonade – which the Fool Killer sarcastically describes as “a pink beverage of drugstore acid.”
There are sounds of children whimpering and crying, of women moaning and men constantly cursing in anger.
Eventually the Fool Killer arrives back at the gateway. He asks the leering Marshal why these thousands of fools congregate at such a horrific location and subject themselves to so much suffering.
The Marshal replies “Because everybody does it.” So George Ade also throws in a sardonic observation about conformity and cultural customs.
Our hero expresses astonishment that the attendees actually pay to enter the fair grounds. He asks the Marshal if the fools are free to leave and the sinister figure laughs that they are, but they choose to stay.
The Fool Killer regards the moaning and groaning masses for a while, balancing his weapon, then finally decides there are far too many fools to slay on the premises. He shrugs this off as too big a job and proceeds into Montgomery.
Once there he tackles the much easier task of killing a Main Street merchant who refuses to advertise in the local newspaper. The End.
So Ade even added a sly meta element at the finish! He was a newspaper man, like Charles Napoleon Bonaparte Evans back in the days of the Fool Killer Letters. Having the Fool Killer inflict fatal punishment on a businessman for refusing to pay for an advertisement is hilariously reminiscent of some of the satirical escapades of Evans’ Jesse Holmes.
For a modern parallel, picture a police procedural show in which the main characters wrap up their investigation by booking a merchant for refusing to buy ad space during their show. George Ade even underlined the joke by making it specifically a MAIN STREET merchant, in other words a businessman in such a prime location that he would have no real need to advertise in the first place.
Next time we enter the 20th Century and are presented with a very unique take on the Fool Killer.
FOR PART FOURTEEN CLICK HERE
I WILL EXAMINE MORE FOOL KILLER LORE SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK FOR UPDATES.
FOR MY LOOK AT JOE MAGARAC, THE STEEL MILL VERSION OF JOHN HENRY AND PAUL BUNYAN, CLICK HERE
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