Here are Howard’s comments on his personal success of melding his own life experience into his novel The Mystery of Thunderbolt Mansion:
I could even see the end of my book, the five of us trudging uphill with thousands of other refugees, with all we owned on our backs or in our arms, heading for open country to sleep by night under falling ashes and to watch by day a sun swinging across the sky like a blood-red moon through the smoke. I even had my theme to lie hidden behind the story’s action: “Wealth does not always bring happiness.”
My story would be an attempt to dramatize a struggle with human values, material vs. spiritual. My family would learn the difference between false values, fleeting values and basic values. At the end we would hold fast to the old enduring values, with my family once more closely knit.
While the Baxters learned to come down to earth before catastrophe struck them, my own family as usual would have to learn the hard way. Later, to my surprise, I realized that my father’s aunt Mary had left me a delightful inheritance, my own favorite of my twenty-two books of fiction.
If you have read Howard Pease’s The Mystery of Thunderbolt Mansion, then you can see the authenticity of his story in this reminiscence:
I could remember only confused bits of the day following that ominous dawn, with newsboys crying “Extry—extry!” with word pictures of San Francisco shaken into rubble, and the spreading fires and no water to fight with because of the broken water mains, and Mama going about her housework with a strained expression because her younger sister, my aunt Libby, worked and lived in the City right in the path of the flames; then the second day with worse news of the fires spreading and joining in one immense holocaust and the militia ordering thousands of refugees to walk back toward the hills; and then the third day with the army dynamiting all the buildings and houses along Van Ness Avenue in hope of halting the flames. No one but rescue crews could enter the City except doctors and nurses and wagons bringing medicines and water, and all these disappeared into the darkness of smoke. And where was Aunt Libby? After ten days we learned that she had been seen with several people from her boarding house seated high on bedding in a beer truck driven by a friend of hers, heading for the slopes of Twin Peaks. This sounded like my aunt Libby, all right. She always came out on top.
The following material is taken from Howard Pease’s Writing In Depth. It contains biographical material obtained nowhere else. In this section, Howard recalls his childhood experience of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. The unique characteristic of this excerpt is that Howard is describing how he crafted this event into his book Mystery At Thunderbolt House.
Flash! On the instant I had a complete book laid out before me like an architect’s design. Our inheritance in Chapter One. My own family as a boy moving to San Francisco with a new way of life leading to bickering, arguments, mishaps, frustration, clashes, all ending the good family life we had once known and only now appreciated. Then the final section with the earthquake at 5:13 on the morning of April 18th, as I remembered it, wakening in Stockton, eighty miles from the center of the quake, with my room trembling all round me. And I could see myself jumping out of bed in my long cotton-flannel nightgown and rushing into the hall and seeing my parents in the same kind of nightgowns standing at the open front door. And while the terrifying tremor went on I could see past them to the two big elms at our curb swaying and shivering as in a wind. And I could still hear my mother’s firm voice repeating the ninety-first psalm: Thou shalt not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flieth by day.
I will continue this selection in another posting to bring in the stories of his family members in San Francisco in these fateful days.
A list of ambulance drivers during World War One.
John Dos Passos
E. E. Cummings
W. Somerset Maugham