“A Voice From the Past” Appears In Ellery Queen: The Story Behind The StoryJune 23, 2009
The August 2009 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine hits newsstands today, and with it — I’m proud to say — my story “A Voice From The Past.”
While this story largely recounts a fictional encounter between two former high school classmates, two major aspects of the tale have their roots in real life. As a teenager myself, I attended boarding school at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA, and during those years (1983-1986), the tradition of a “rat system” still prevailed. First-year students — generally freshmen, but often sophomores like myself — were called “rats” and had to show respect for older students (the “old boys,” since Episcopal was all-male at that time) and for the school’s faculty, administrators, and their families. Respect meant, for example, that rats held the door for old boys anywhere within 15 feet or so of passing through it and that rats sat in the middle of the long dining hall tables, were served last from the platters of food, and stacked the dishes at the end of the meal. And respect for the school itself was a part of this as well. For instance, Episcopal’s fight songs had to be learned (and learned quickly) and then shouted with great enthusiasm at each football game. Too little enthusiasm was frowned upon, ad flubbing the lines was a terrible error. I knew one student who failed to spell Episcopal correctly and was ever-after ridiculed mercilessly.
The foundation for the system was, I continue to think, a good one. These incoming students — frequently children of some privilege — were taught fundamental lessons in manners and humility, and not only did the group experiences of each new rat class serve to form some form of brotherhood but, because all students before and after went through the same process, it also connected each incoming class with a sense of lasting tradition and shared history.
But as you might expect (especially given the echoes of fraternity life in the above description), the rat system also had its share of hazing. Rats who didn’t show proper respect could expect some form of derision (again, misspelling Episcopal?) and even small brands of punishment. And respect for an old boy was occasionally a fuzzy concept. Did it mean that a rat had to walk out in the snow to Blackford Hall to fetch a can of coke for an upperclassman who didn’t feel like trekking out himself? Well, sure. I did that myself. And as rats, we also did the soap races that I discuss in the story — racing to the shouts and laughter of the old boys who gathered to watch us. It still gives me a surprising and oddly shameful pride to remember that I won those races.
The head of the hierarchy were the hall monitors — all seniors — and at the top stood four senior monitors and a head monitor. The worst of the punishments that this group could dole out was “send up,” in which an errant rat was summoned from his room in the dark of night to be yelled at for his transgressions or forced to run laps around the football field or worse. The cruel episode that forms the central flashback to “A Voice From The Past” is a true one, at least to the best of my knowledge; my first-year roommate claimed it happened to him. And rumors suggested that worse happened. During my own years at Episcopal, one upstart student supposedly found double-edged razors waiting in his bed. Race was apparently a factor in that instance as well. The rat system was abolished soon after.
On a lighter note, the second true aspect of “A Voice From The Past” is the dream that prompts the reunion of the two central characters and that ultimately determines each twist of the plot. One night I had that dream myself — almost exactly as it’s recounted in the story — about one of the senior monitors from my own first year at Episcopal, a student to whom I’d hardly given even a passing thought in nearly two decades. Why did he appear in my dream? What did the dream mean? I had no idea, but it stuck with me and — a small lesson in craft, I guess — ultimately prompted me to put pen to paper, beginning the story here and then trying to figure out for myself the puzzle of “What next?”
“A Voice From The Past” provides that “what next,” and I hope that anyone who searches it out and picks it up will enjoy reading it.