Fire, Phantoms, and What Didn’t Make it into The Only Harmless Great Thing

  • More Chapters from The Only Harmless Great Thing:
  • Part I: Fission - December 5, 2017

March, 1904:

It’s midnight on Coney Island, and that’s fair eerie enough to make any man say jump.

Places that are bustling during the day take on a strange kind of desolation when all the lights are out and the crowds have scattered homeward. Luna Park, Coney Island’s crown jewel, is no exception. The Electric Tower is dark, its twenty thousand incandescent bulbs snuffed for the evening. The flexible metal floors of the Witching Wave are becalmed, the Canals of Venice emptied of canoodling lovers. Further down Surf Avenue, at Steeplechase and the newly opened Dreamland, Hell’s Gates are closed for the night and the Fall of Pompeii’s hourly eruptions have subsided. No more trips to the moon, no more undersea adventures. Moonlight turns the park’s spires and minarets into a ghostly sliver and ebony shadowland.

But even dreamlands need builders, and so the streets aren’t completely deserted even at this late hour. Tony Pussiani digs ditches to earn his bread and butter. If he finds the way the wind howls down Surf Avenue eerie, or Steeplechase’s leering mascot unsettling, the thought of his wife and children back at home in the city drives superstition from his heart. He does his job, he doesn’t look too closely at shadows that flit and flutter at the edge of his vision, he goes to sleep in the workman’s quarters when his shift is done with forty other souls. He does this every day, and he tells himself there is nothing to be afraid of. This isn’t the old country. This is America, and in America every bump in the night has an explanation.

Here at the nosetip of March, squeezed between early spring and the sea, the weather is too nippy to linger outdoors for long. Tony rolls his cigarette as swiftly as his shivering, cold-clumsy fingers can manage, the snores and farts of his off-shift comrades still audible through the thin clapboard walls of the workman’s quarters. He bends his head to touch fire to paper, eager for that first warm draught in his lungs. The tip blazes orange. He inhales, squeezing his eyes shut in satisfaction.

When Antonio Pussiani opens his eyes again, there’s an elephant looming over him.

She is a green and furious afterimage stamped on his vision, the wavering outline of some bright thing stared at for far too long. Her eyes blaze with a light to match his cigarette’s cherry, candles burning in high and distant windows. The air smells of crackling ozone, scorching hair, meat and muscle and fat cooked alive. A sound of rattling chains fills his ears and his skull, a trumpeting to bring down the walls of Jericho and Seagate alike.

Tony is a brave man, strong of arm and staunch of heart. No-one who knows him in this country or the old would call him a coward. Faced with a furious spectral elephant, he drops his cigarette, buckles at the knees, and falls into a dead faint.

Getting ideas for stories is the easy part, which is probably why the old ‘where do you get ’em?’ saw earns so many rolling eyes from writers. Anything can be the incipient germ of a story. Humans are masters at gleaning narrative from whatever loose junk we find sitting around. Volcanoes become goddesses and fossils dragons. We see faces in pine knots and plots in the shapes of the stars.

No, it’s the whittling and the stitching and the snip-snip-snipping of our scissors that’s the tricky bit. Taking all that fabric and trimming it into something that’s not a shapeless, overwhelming mass of facts and loosely connected interesting tidbits? That, my friends, is where knowing what you’re doing comes in handy. The question people should be asking authors isn’t “where do you get your ideas,” but “how do you choose which ideas to use and which to throw back into the scrap basket when the world is so full of cool and interesting material to pick through?”

When you’re writing a story, there will be things you can’t just shoehorn into your narrative, no matter the length. Worse, there will be stuff you don’t come across until the book is already on its way out the door. Really, really cool stuff, stuff you discover and howl in sheer frustration at the discovery of, because how on earth could I have missed this?! Oh my god, this adds an entirely new plotline! Why now?!

In my case, there are several true-life incidents I dearly wish I could have fit into The Only Harmless Great Thing. None made it into the finished product, but taken in together they’re weird and interesting enough to warrant pointing out. They involve fire, elephants, and the restless dead.

And this isn’t even getting into the history of the Radium Girls. That’s a story for another time.

September 27, 1896:

Flames are shooting from the elephant’s eyes. They started somewhere in the stomach room, skipped up the spiral staircases in each enormous back leg, and blew the glass out of the windows in its tin-skinned haunches and back. From this high up, you can see clear to Paris and Rio de Janeiro, or so the barkers claim. From this high up, you can almost see the solemn-faced woman that replaced the elephant as the first structure visible to incoming boatloads of immigrants, eager-eyed and hollow-bellied for New World wonders.

Before Liberty, there was the Elephantine Colossus. Seedy but jolly, the Eighth Wonder of the World, abandoned now by even the good-time girls who used it as a brothel in its dotage. By the time the fire truck clangs into sight, there’s nothing left but to watch the faded paint peel off its smoking hide, fire gouting from mouth and trunk. It was never built to last.

Nobody can ever pin down how the damn thing caught fire in the first place, being empty and all. They blame it on vagrants, clean up what’s left of the charred frame, and let the lot lie fallow for the next seven years, until a couple of showmen named Thompson and Dundy lease it as part of their new project: a fanciful wonderland of delights dubbed Luna Park.

This is a true story: According to a few people, a year or so after Topsy’s death by electrocution on Coney Island, she came back.

If you don’t already know it, Topsy’s tale is a grim one. Take one abused circus elephant, Elephas maximus by species, Topsy by name. She wasn’t born here, although the owners of the Forepaugh Circus advertised her as the first of her kind born on American soil. Her true home was far away in Southeast Asia, a place she was stolen from while still a baby. She was trained early and cruelly, like most circus elephants of the time. The tactics were brutal and there was very little anyone could say or do to stop it. The animal rights movements were still in their infancy. Circus elephants were private property, to be treated as their owners saw fit.

But Topsy grew. At maturity she was ten feet high and weighed four to six tons. And like many another of her species, pushed and prodded and beaten for man’s entertainment, one day she finally decided she had had enough.

One morning a drunk spectator wandered into the menagerie tent of the Forepaugh Circus and began tormenting the elephants. He tried to feed them whiskey. He threw sand in their faces. When he got to Topsy and she refused to take the bottle, he burned the tip of her trunk–an instrument as sensitive and delicate as the pads on a human finger–with a lit cigar. What he hoped to accomplish with this move nobody can say, because in the next instant Topsy threw him to the ground and stomped all the probable intent out of his body with her feet and knees.

Thus Topsy’s reputation as a ‘bad elephant’ began. Bluntly put, Topsy had apparently lost her appetite for peace, love, and understanding. She was done with humanity’s bullshit, and anybody who came by looking to start something with an angry six-ton elephant would richly reap what they had sown.

After another spectator was attacked for poking at her ears with a stick, she was sold to Paul Boyton, the owner of Coney Island’s first amusement area, Sea Lion Park. Boyton had snarfled up sixteen acres of prime Coney real estate on which to build his attraction, including the plot of land where the famous Elephantine Colossus hotel had stood and subsequently burned down. But the park never turned a profit like Boyton wanted, and so in 1902 he sold the whole kit and kaboodle, including Topsy, to the future builders of Luna Park.

August 12, 1946:

Luna Park burns three times: Twice in 1944 and once more for good and final in the summer of 1946. The last blaze does what bankruptcy and two world wars couldn’t manage, destroying the park completely down to the blackened foundations. The Electric Tower, the Dragon’s Gorge, the Grand Ballroom–in ninety minutes it all goes to ash, a 14-alarm conflagration seventy firefighting units can’t put a halt to. A million people gather on the beach to watch it die.

Nobody’s quite sure where it started, but the best guess usually places the flash point somewhere within the park’s scenic railway, around West 12th Street and the plot of land where the Elephantine Colossus had burned fifty years earlier. To this day, the cause of the fire remains a mystery.

Another thing I wish I could have addressed in the book that had to be passed over: Topsy helped build the park where she would eventually die.

She moved timber and hauled lumber. She pushed the heavy rides into place, and the local newspapers called it ‘penance’ for her previous behavior. This went on until the day she was hitched to a load too heavy to pull. Topsy gave it her best shot, strained in the traces a few times, and–probably sensing it was pointless–planted her feet and refused to budge another inch.

Her current handler at the time, an alcoholic by the name of William “Whitey” Alf, decided to motivate and/or punish her with several vicious pitchfork jabs between her eyes and ribs. When a policeman and passing woman objected, Whitey called the woman “several vile names” and released Topsy into the growing crowd. To her unending credit, Topsy did not take this ripe opportunity to go on a rampage and stomp every human on Surf Avenue flat. She meandered around for a time before charging two police officers, who ‘lassoed’ her and brought her back in. Whitey was charged with disorderly conduct, to which he pleaded not guilty. He was also acquitted on a charge of animal cruelty, because … well, 1903, folks.

Elephant handlers must have been in short supply in the fall and winter of 1902, because Whitey didn’t lose his job and Topsy was soon back at his tender mercies. A month and change pass without incident. Then Whitey once again appears in the local news and the local police blotter, this time for drunkenly going on a ‘joyride’ astride Topsy’s back. Second verse, same as the first: Topsy was called on to help move a heavy lumber truck. Whitey, well-soused as usual and apparently not satisfied with her efforts, began “treating her cruelly” (although it’s questionable whether he had ever really stopped). When an onlooker objected and stepped in, he became abusive and belligerent and the police were called.

Again he threatened to turn Topsy loose on the crowd. This time, though, the cops pulled their guns. Even a drunken lout knows what a .38 caliber revolver pointed at his head means. Whitey and Topsy were taken in by the police. This was–finally–enough to get Whitey fired.

Unfortunately, that left Topsy with no keeper and a tainted reputation. For want of a handler, Thompson and Dundy decided to get rid of her for good.

May 27th, 1911:

Dreamland is burning, and so is its menagerie.

The fire begins in Hell Gate and spreads quickly through the wonderland of plaster and tar and dry wood, eventually surrounding the animal arena where the park’s eighty-odd beasts are kept caged. True to its origin, the fire soon turns the colosseum into a hellish pit filled with panicked, fighting animals, released into the arena by their handlers earlier in the hopes that they would escape on their own steam. It is 3:38 in the morning.

Col. Joseph Ferrari owns the menagerie. Ferrari is also the one currently putting a bullet between the eyes of every creature he can spy through the eye-watering reek of smoke and flame, trying desperately to save as many as he can from burning alive in the only way left to him. All the other trainers have long since fled. It’s just him, the flames, and what’s left of his wonderful collection of lions, tigers, bears, and miscellaneous other creatures, dying like popped ticks between the sights of his revolver. Pop! A lioness crumples with a strangled cry. Pop-pop! A pony falls kicking to the floor of the arena, mane and tail already beginning to smoulder.

But it’s not enough. The blaze soon drives him into Surf Avenue with the rest of the gawkers, where he has to stand listening to the remaining animals scream. They saved a few early on–six shetland ponies, a handful of the lions and leopards–but the majority are still trapped inside, including Little Hip, the Dreamland menagerie’s beloved baby elephant. Ferrari had tried in vain to lure him to safety. The half-grown beast planted his feet and balked in his stall, refusing to move without Captain Andre, the elephant trainer, away for the night at a party in Manhattan. Like a soldier refusing orders from any but his commanding officer, the little elephant had almost seemed. It’s a great loss; Little Hip is a local celebrity, a frequenter of soda fountains and orphanages. There’s nothing like a baby elephant to draw in a crowd.

A hand falls on Ferrari’s shoulder. He turns to find Captain Andre, back from Manhattan far too late, sides heaving like a bellows. The light makes him look like he’s been dipped by his heels in a vat of blood.

“Where’s Little Hip?” he yells. Yelling is the only way to communicate right now; between the roar of the flames, the clang of the fire engines, the shriek of dying animals, and the halloa of the crowd, Ferrari’s ears will be ringing long into the next day. “Did you get him out alright? Is he safe?”

In his head, Ferrari can still see the elephant seated at the soda fountain that day back in April, his already considerable bulk awkwardly seated over two barstools. Just like a person, the papers had noted delightedly. Dumping glass after glass of soda into his open mouth, so happy you wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to hear him laugh with the voice of a child.

So the one thing you may think you know for sure about Topsy–elephant executed by electricity to prove a point, another helpless victim in the War of the Currents–isn’t actually true. Thomas Edison personally had nothing to do with Topsy’s death. He didn’t attend the execution, never spoke about it, never even acknowledged it had happened. Edison was a nasty piece of work for myriad reasons you can read about in a million other places, but on this rarest of occasions, he was blameless. Topsy’s death was almost ten years after the War of the Currents. The only connection between the inventor and the elephant was the name printed on the camera that captured the moment of her death.

They wanted to hang her from the Electric Tower at first, but the ASPCA stepped in and pronounced this part of the plan “needlessly cruel.” Electrocution, poison, and strangulation, however, were fine and dandy. The plan went ahead with the ASPCA’s approval. On January 04, 1903, Topsy’s story on this plane came to its memorable end.

When Topsy balked halfway to her equivalent of the electric chair, refusing to cross a small footbridge, her owners called on her old trainer and tormentor, William “Whitey” Alt. They offered him $25.00 and a bottle of whiskey to lead her across the bridge. He refused. Whatever his faults, whatever he lacked in quality traits, this was a step he could not allow himself to take.

“Not for a thousand,” he said. Considering how Topsy’s death was mostly his fault, refusing to lead her to the slaughter was the least he could do.


Lucy is the last of them. When the January surf rattles like a consumptive cough on the Jersey shoreline, cold salt spray misting her tin skin and glass eyes, she feels the lack of her two siblings in the very lathes of her interior.

Not that Lucy isn’t well taken care of these days, mind. The people of Margate love her. When she was on the verge of collapse, abandoned and wrecked by eighty years of neglect, they had raised money to rescue her with bake sales and raffle tickets, bingo games and banging on doors. She’s a local celebrity now, is Lucy, with a fresh coat of paint and strong beams inside. Tourists come to see her, buy postcards with her image, and marvel at her size, 65 feet high and 60 feet long. She is, the brochures and tour guides are fond of pointing out, the oldest surviving roadside attraction in the United States.

But she thinks of the other two often, here at the grey edge of the world. Three colossal structures built by the same man: Light of Asia, Lucy, and the Elephantine Colossus, the Eighth Wonder of the World. Poor old Light of Asia was the first to go, torn down after years of ill-use left him shatter-windowed and rusted to scrap. The Colossus went next, up in mysterious flames after even the prostitutes abandoned her rooms. Lucy got lucky. Nobody remembers the others, but they always remember Lucy. She makes them smile, the children and the grandparents and the honeymooners passing through.

She is the last. As long as she stands, she will remember their names.

An uneventful year passed after Topsy’s electrocution. The world forgot about her, even as the park she had given her life for opened and became a world-famous attraction. Topsy, though, had apparently not yet forgotten the world that had dealt her such a poor hand. And reader, she was effin’ pissed.

According to a report in the Bristol Banner dated March 4th, 1904, the first to witness her return was Antonio Pussiani, a builder at Luna Park. He went for a smoke one night and was ambushed by Topsy’s furious spirit, “eyes burning, feet wide apart, and trunk issuing sparks of fire.” Understandably, he did the natural thing and fainted. A co-worker rushed outside to see what the commotion was about and saw the apparition as well as it faded, accompanied by “shrill trumpetings rising and dying away on the wind, and the rattle of chains.”

For the next fortnight, Topsy’s ghost was everywhere. She ambushed a hot dog vendor closing up shop for the night. She walked through walls, unhindered by the corporeal body that had previously kept her kidnappers and tormentors safe. No bullet, bullhook, pitchfork, or war bridle could stop her now. One builder swore he had seen her hanging by her trunk from the tight wire between the top of the chutes and the Electric Tower, wiggling her colossal toes at him. As said builder had also drained six bottles of Chianti beforehand, the paper advised that “he was not believed.”

Things got so bad that Pussiani and a delegation of Coney Island laborers confronted Hugh Thomas, the work foreman and chief electrician of Luna Park who had overseen the switch being thrown on Topsy a year earlier. He laughed at them, scoffing at their stories as humbug and “hocus pocus.” He also paid each of them off and took a brief vacation to Manhattan, for reasons best known to himself.

“At last accounts,” the missive ends, “the elephant was still fussing around for its destroyer. ”

August, 1905:

The summer heat is Brooklyn is like being dipped in warm milk and fished out to dry. It’s less a climatological phenomenon and more a glumly malevolent miasma, determined to keep you sticky and clawing at your skin from June through September. Lou Barlow desperately wishes he was somewhere cool with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other, but duty calls, and today his duty as head elephant man of Luna Park apparently involves standing in a vacant lot behind the elephant stables on West 12th and Surf Avenue watching a work crew dig.

Hugh Thomas looks amused, at least. He’s had that funny expression of mingled humor and puzzlement on his puss ever since Barlow approached him about the unsettled state of his three best elephants, Fanny, Alice, and Jenny. They’re good animals, well-trained and docile and used to the chaos of crowds and circus life. At least, they had been before coming to Coney Island. But something’s had them spooked bad recently, to the point where poor old Fanny had broken free of her tethers a week previous and tried swimming to Red Hook. Something behind the stables that his human eyes aren’t catching, some smell or shadow or trick of the light. He’s trod over the plot of land a hundred times looking for the source and come up with nothing.

Always that spot, and no other. Frustrated, he had complained to Thomas, whose eyebrows had nearly jumped free of his face. The work foreman had barked a sudden odd laugh.

“That’s a funny thing,” he said, after a long moment’s pause. “Damned funny. You come out there around 3 and I’ll show you a thing.”

And so Barlow had come, and so Barlow stands here now, perspiring in places you wouldn’t even figure a man had pores. Black dirt flies out of the hole in gritty waves. The workmen grunt and mutter. Fanny, Alice, and Jenny watch from their nearby tethers, intent but showing no signs of their previous alarm. Another five minutes of sweat-popping work and there’s a noise like the shovels have just encountered an old pipe, a hollow clang! that signals they’ve reached whatever Thomas sent them after.

“Take a look,” Thomas says casually, almost off-handedly. He looks like he’s ready to laugh or maybe swear again; it’s rather hard to tell.

The three elephants trumpet as one, a mournful call Barlow has never heard them make in all his years of training. The noise makes the hairs on his arms stand at attention.

It’s the skull of an elephant, well-rotted after years of burial in the Coney Island soil. With all the flesh removed the enormous nasal cavity looks like the eye of a cyclops, glaring accusingly up at him from its forgotten resting place. There’s faint, cloying smell of wet earth and decayed flesh.

“There’s your spook,” says Thomas. “Old Topsy again, come back to haunt us for our misdeeds. I was there when they put her head in the ground. Wonder if your girls could smell her down there or what. Damnedest thing.”

Again that mournful cry from the three, a final time. It almost sounds like they’re singing.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is available January 23rd from Publishing.
Read an excerpt here.

Brooke Bolander writes weird things of indeterminate genre, most of them leaning rather heavily towards fantasy or general all-around weirdness. She attended the University of Leicester 2004-2007 studying History and Archaeology and is an alum of the 2011 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. Her stories have been featured in Lightspeed, Strange HorizonsNightmareUncanny, and various other fine purveyors of the fantastic. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, the Hugo, the Locus, and the Theodore Sturgeon awards, much to her unending bafflement. The Only Harmless Great Thing is her first project with


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