‘Sugar Mountain’ novel written in 2013 prescient to COVID-19 pandemic

  • Author Alfred Alcorn in his Colrain home with publisher Jack Estes of Heath. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Author Alfred Alcorn in his Colrain home in a converted barn.

  • “Sugar Mountain” by Alfred Alcorn. STAFF PHOTO/ZACK DELUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 7/17/2021 9:01:22 AM

“The news comes obliquely, unvoiced, a flicker of words across the bottom of the screen: World Health Organization raises concern about reports of deaths from avian flue outbreak in Xingjian Province. Beijing officials deny access to WHO inspectors, calling the outbreak ‘a local matter.’”

When local Author Alfred Alcorn, 79, wrote these opening words to his 2013 novel “Sugar Mountain” he had no idea the prescience they held of a world seven years in the future. The story in Alcorn’s novel, which is set within Franklin County, is simultaneously dramatized and eerily similar to the real-life events of the past year and a half amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My lucky guess, but bad luck for the world. Part of me would rather I hadn’t been prescient,” Alcorn said, sitting in his converted barn-house in Colrain.

With exposed rafters, a woodstove and a small kitchen, the barn emulates the homestead of the central characters in “Sugar Mountain.” Written in 2013, the novel tells the saga of Cryus Arkwright and his extended family who retreat from their homes in New York City and the greater Boston Area to the hill country of Western Massachusetts in the wake of a lethal avian flu outbreak. Within days, the fictional flu quickly sweeps the world, causing many facets of modern civilization to crumble.

The early chapters of the story see events all too similar to the spring of 2020 as a presidential address announces the need to wear masks and practice social distancing, and the shelves of grocery stores are emptied in frenzy. Other more extreme events in the novel see staff abandoning residents of nursing homes and violent militias cause “the burning of Shelburne Falls.”

In the novel, individual characters and world governments alike question whether the virus was created in and escaped from a laboratory — reflecting real-world claims, which are gaining traction in media circuits, that the COVID-19 virus may have leaked from a Chinese laboratory.

In addition to trying to stay safe from the deadly virus, the Arkwrights must make difficult moral decisions to keep others out of their “pod,” a decision which in the world of the novel could prove deadly for those left out. They also prepare to face the “violence and lawlessness that spreads with a contagion of its own.” A committed pacifist and doomsday “prepper,” Cyrus Arkwright, his wife Grace, and their three sons spent years making Sugar Mountain, their ancestral farm located in Franklin County, a self-sustaining haven for their family. 

“I wanted to try and figure out how a family like the Arkwrights would organize themselves, and this in-gathering,” Alcorn said. 

‘All the while I wrote fiction’

Born Alfred Denny, Alcorn grew up in the docklands of Merseyside, England, in the green fields of Ireland, and on a dairy farm in South Chelmsford, Massachusetts. When his parents Alfred and Anna Cecilia (Brooks) Denny died, he and his brother Anthony went to live with their grandfather and aunt and uncle in the County Roscommon. After a year there, they were adopted by another aunt, Mary Brooks, who had emigrated to America, married a dairy farmer, Charles Walter Alcorn.

Upon finishing high school at Keith Academy in Lowell, Alcorn studied at Harvard, graduating in 1965. His first job was as a reporter for the Alabama Journal in Montgomery, Alabama.

Two years later, he worked as an editorial writer for the Boston Herald, later for CBS Radio Boston, and then the Worcester Telegram. In 1971, he moved with his family to County Wicklow, Ireland, where he spent four years writing and absorbing the literary culture around Dublin.

Upon returning to the States, he became editor of the Harvard Gazette and held multiple positions at university, the latest as travel director of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

“All the while I wrote fiction, publishing my first novel, ‘The Pull of the Earth,’ at Houghton Mifflin in 1985,” Alcorn recalled. 

Former Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press Publisher Jack Estes, who also narrated the audiobook on Audible, recalled a day when he and Alcorn were at a local men’s group in which they are members. Estes said another member, Doug, was a “serious prepper” in real life and Alcorn asked him all kinds of questions about what one might do to prepare for cataclysmic events. When it comes to “preppers,” Estes and Alcorn said there are those who establish off-the-grid living like the Arkwrights, and “the guys with guns who are waiting for Armageddon.”

Reaction to a fractured society

As the Arkwright family develops their sustainable homestead during the early phase of the pandemic outbreak, national, state and local governments shrivel to all but non-existence. It falls on eldest son Jack, an Army Ranger veteran, to organize the defenses of Sugar Mountain by teaching the family to use his store of weapons and military training. 

The looming threat of violence exists primarily in the form of the McFerall brothers, Duncan and Bruce, whose family has a century-old feud with the Arkwrights over the true ownership of Sugar Mountain. Empowered by the possession of stolen antiviral medicine and as a member of the National Guard, Duncan comes into command of weapons and militia members. 

Alcorn said the McFeralls represent an extreme example of a reaction to a fractured society. He acknowledged that at the time of writing the 2013 novel, there was less public “hysteria” surrounding Trump, and race relations. 

“The McFeralls ... I don’t think they exist, frankly,” he said, before taking a pause. “Though, they could exist.”

Etes said he was reminded of the desolated society and the “kill or be killed” nature of the 1979 film “Mad Max” starring Mel Gibson. 

“To me, that’s the most horrific image of the future,” Estes said.

As the Arkwrights build a shelter and community with extended family in their Sugar Mountain property, characters find their human nature tested, and Cyrus and Jack disagree with how best to prepare for the looming violent altercation with the McFeralls. In the case of Jack, Alcorn said there is concern that he may enjoy some of the things he is pushed to do.

“That’s the central question of the book, how far will we go?” Alcorn said. “They both, Jack and Cryus, ask this question several times.”

Character’s development

Alcorn said he developed Jack’s character through “a combination of memory, imagination and research.” He spoke with a college classmate who served in Vietnam who, while reluctant to share too much, did provide small insight to his experiences.

He also read military diaries from soldiers who served in the war in Afghanistan. 

Through the story of this world altering pandemic, and its characters, Alcorn says “Sugar Mountain” “explores the human species in extremism — that is, in those conditions that existed through most of our evolutionary history.” He said he was inspired in part by a curiosity of the history of plagues throughout time, and cited other authors like Stephen King who have created worlds set in the wake of cataclysmic disease.

Alcorn said he wanted to explore the ways that pandemics throughout history have had profound effects on society and the dark, violent side of human nature. Speaking in his barn, he also expressed concern with the danger of another outbreak or further spread of disease from a mutated, variant strand of the COVID-19 virus. Should an even more deadly virus sweep the world and allow society to giveaway to the extent in “Sugar Mountain,” Alcorn said it's possible that “tribalism, at some, resets itself.” 

“This is a cautionary tale,” Alcorn said of “Sugar Mountain.” “This is how things could be, if things had been worse. Or if it, or something like it in a new form, were to come back. Then it could be much more radical… Then, I think, society could start to fragment.”

Alcorn has since written and published a dozen books, which Estes said generally feature more humor than “Sugar Mountain.” Alcorn is currently working on a a novel titled “The Art of Murder in the Museum of Man,” a part of a series.

Alcorn’s September 2020 novel, “The Evil that White Men Do,” is both a satiric and sympathetic take of the current turmoil about Donald Trump and race relations in the United States. It is a novel in the tradition of Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh, J. P. Dunleavy and his own “Murder in the Museum of Man,” which the New Yorker called “An adroit, hilarious send-up.”

His latest available work, “Geminius,” was published in January. Set in 2041, the novel revolves around the whole brain emulation (WBE) that Marcus Aurelius McIssac undergoes at the labs of the UPlode Group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thriving, for-profit company. 

Sugar Mountain is available to purchase online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other outlets. Readers may also inquire wit

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or
413-930-4579.


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