Finding Horrific Inspiration at a Quaint New England Restaurant

Last summer, my wife and I spent a couple of weeks house and dog-sitting for my parents at their home in the woods of northern Connecticut near the Massachusetts border. Their town is little more than a crossroads in what’s known as the “Quiet Corner” of Connecticut. Union boasts literally only one restaurant: a quirky, charming establishment called Traveler Food and Books, just off Exit 74 on I-84.

M.P. Diederich with the original copy of Dressage for Beginners outside Traveler Food and Books

Traveler’s bill of fare is pretty basic diner-type food (though I highly recommend the Thanksgiving Wrap with turkey and cranberry sauce and sweet potato fries on the side), but the best selling point, in my opinion, is their tradition of allowing patrons to select three free books from their shelves with every meal. The shelves themselves are disorganized and boast an odd mix of self-help books, paperback thrillers, classic literature, and just plain kooky volumes donated by local libraries, schools, and the local community.

The restaurant also features autographed photos from authors such as John Updike, Michael Crichton, William Styron, and many others who have passed through the establishment over the years. My personal favorites are the photo of Bill Murray by the register and this little gem of a note from none other than Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

Cats, hatted or otherwise, are unfortunately not welcome

Over the years I’ve found many funny little books, none more momentous than the book that inspired me to write “Dressage for Beginners.”

Lt. Col. ffrench Blake’s original with the author’s draft copy.

The book itself is a straightforward introduction to the intricate art of dressage, a rather genteel form of horsemanship that demands the utmost precision and control of one’s equine counterpart. Mostly, I was attracted to the absurdity of the name of this volume’s author, a certain Lt. Colonel R.L.V. ffrench Blake.

After a little research, I found that Lt. Col. ffrench Blake (and no, that is not a typo, his name really begins with two lowercase f’s) was, in fact, a well-regarded military historian and instructor at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, UK. Sadly, Lt. Col. ffrench Blake passed away in 2011 at the age of 98, and I was not able to contact him. I did find the photo below on the Times of London website, however, and he looks exactly as one would expect.

Lt. Col. R.L.V. “Val” ffrench Blake, the author’s personal style icon.

Returning to my parents’ house, I spent the next few days sketching out the idea for a story based on the title “Dressage for Beginners,” specifically for the First Came Fear anthology, the submission deadline for which was fast approaching. I decided to base at least one character on the illustrious aforementioned Lt. Col. ffrench Blake, who, though he did not serve in the Crimean War, did write a book on the subject. The challenge was then to write a story which somehow combined horror with the rather frivolous subject of dressage.

Having settled on the idea of a zombie horse (postdated spoiler alert), I decided to also focus on the real-life Battle of Balaclava from the Crimean War. Balaclava is famous for two incidents which have always struck me as absurd: the stand of the 93rd Highland Regiment (immortalized in Robert Gibb’s painting “Thin Red Line,” seen below), and the Charge of the Light Brigade (commemorated in Tennyson’s famous poem of that title).

Robert Gibb’s Thin Red Line can be seen at the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle, Scotland.
“Into the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred.” —Alfred Lord Tennyson / Painting by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.

Both incidents were moments of needless bloodshed in which British and Russian cavalry units charged headlong at well-defended positions, resulting in heavy casualties and an inconclusive battle. Nothing was really gained or lost, and yet both of these moments of slaughter inspired hagiographic representations in art and literature, as if by posthumous recognition and glorification, the deaths of these men (and horses, lest we forget) could be rendered meaningful. To me, this is the true horror contained within the story: the idea of perpetuating the myth of the glory of war, sacrificing oneself and one’s own friends and family to feed the mad beast of warfare.

In any case, I hope this sheds some light on the origins of “Dressage for Beginners.” I also hope this inspires some pilgrimages to Traveler Food and Books, open 7 days a week from 7am to 8pm.

“Dressage for Beginners” by M.P. Diederich is one of several stories in First Came Fear: New Tales of Horror, available now in paperback and ebook.

M.P. Diederich