The Comforter—PhD thesis

The degree I'm working toward is a PhD in Creative Writing. But what is my dissertation about?

Draft Abstract

This two-part thesis begins with an 80,000-word novel entitled The Comforter – one of the names of the Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition, and one of the names appropriated by William E. Riker, the leader of a small utopian group called the Pacific Christian Divine Way based in the town of Holy City, California. In 1919, Riker brought Lucille—his third and last wife—there, where she spent her entire married life.

Set in 1927, the novel features two female points of view – one a fictional Eurasian divorcée named Clara Cercatore (the first name meaning “light” and the second “seeker”), and the other Lucille Riker (whose first name also means “light”). One woman is seeking a place to belong, the other has found her place—or perhaps created it out of what her husband founded. One woman keeps quiet to hide who she is, because Riker’s racist doctrines would have demanded that she go. The other is free to speak—in letters, in poetry, in essays that seem to uphold her husband’s religious theories but offer glimpses into what she might really have been thinking. 

The Comforter tells what did happen and what might have happened in late 1927 and early 1928, when William Riker was sued for half a million dollars for breach of promise by Evelyn Rosencrantz, an aviatrix with whom he was having an affair. So in a way, the novel is really about three women—two present and one absent, and the effects they had upon each other’s lives. 

Hundreds of newspaper articles report on Riker’s car accidents, court cases, and grandstanding, but in his shadow is Lucille, who held Holy City together behind the scenes for thirty years. Lucille’s writing – reams of poetry and essays – was published by the Holy City Press. But she also tried unsuccessfully to be published in a larger arena, sending hymns and popular song lyrics to music companies – even collaborating on a film script. Everyone in the area may have heard of Father Riker, but now, 70 years after her death, hardly anyone remembers Lucille. Part of the purpose of the novel and reflective thesis is to explore her character through the writing she left behind.

Nearly all the characters who populate the novel were real people, whom I seek to bring to life through extensive use of documentary evidence – to be precise, interviews, newspaper accounts, and primary sources such as letters, bills, broadsheets, religious tracts, radio transcripts, and sermons. 

The novel is accompanied by a 20,000-word reflective thesis structured as a literal walk through the ruins of Holy City today. All that remains are the foundations of the observatory, the zoo, and the fountain of holy water. The Riker home, perched on its knoll, is still a private residence. But the restaurant, bottling works, dance hall, dormitories, bar, print shop, market, shoe repair, and finally the seat of The World’s Perfect Government exist now only in black and white photographs. My reflective text works via these foundations and photographs to explore some of the ways in which my novel draws upon the once very real world that was Holy City.

Fact Versus Fiction

This week I’m attending the Kauai Writers Conference to take a “master class” called “Bringing History to Life.” This entails 12 hours of classroom time led by authors Whitney Scharer and Priya Parmar, both of whom have written acclaimed historical novels. 

After introductions and getting an idea of both the breadth of historical fiction being written by the students, and our needs for the class, the discussion seemed to circle around the tension between fact and fiction in this particular corner of literature. Whitney said that invariably when she speaks to groups, someone wants to know, “How much of your book is true?” That’s a hard question to answer. My reply would be a succinct, “All of it is true. Sixty-eight percent of it is factual.”

But this question does remind us that readers like historical fiction because of the historical facts. They read to learn as well as to be entertained. They want a story underpinned by the real, though they’ll accept a certain amount of made-up stuff. But as Priya said, “History is essentially unknowable, because we weren’t there. All you can do is be true to your story and its emotional landscape.”

History is essentially unknowable.

This probably comes as a surprise to those of us who got good marks on our history exams. But from a literary standpoint, if history is unknowable except for the (probably biased and incomplete) facts that someone thought to write down, then how much is a novelist free to make up? Where is the tipping point at which the author loses credibility by going off the known track of history?

In an interview published in the BBC History Magazine in June 2017, Hilary Mantel said, “If you want to foreground real people as actors in your story, you must know as much about them as a biographer would, and then add value by taking the story where the historian and biographer can’t go: into the private aspect of the individual, the unshown and unshowable. … You are allowed to speculate, and to fill gaps, as long as you do it plausibly.”

Priya Parmar shared that for each novel, she comes up with a frame, a rubric, a code for herself to manage the mix of fact and fiction. For this book, this is how far off the track I will go in service of my characters, real and imagined. 

On a continuum that has Hilary Mantel on one end and E. L. Doctorow on the other, I fall on the Mantel end. I want to be able to point to the facts in my book, and say, “This is what we know happened. And this here? This is what could have happened because of what did happen.” 

We were asked to come up with our own code or rubric for our current project, which in my case, is The Comforter. So, here’s my line in the sand:

“My approach to the facts is to include events on the dates they happened, and use people’s words as they were quoted in newspapers and in the letters they wrote. Facts will form the bones under the personalities and behaviors I create for the people of Holy City. My fiction will fill the negative spaces between the facts.”

It was a good exercise to work through, because this is a question that bothers more experienced historical fiction writers than I. It’s almost a relief to have it worked out in my mind. To give myself permission to write what I believe could have happened, and by doing so, create an emotional landscape of living people as an overlay to the physical landscape still existing at Holy City.


November 5, 2019

The walled grove

Photo by Shelley Bates

In a town that was as much about stasis ("We're going to be immortal!") as about change (if a business wasn't profitable, it was closed), there are still a couple of things that have outlived both William and Lucille Riker and the ravages of time and human misbehavior.

One is the Riker home, which is still lived in. The other is the circle of redwoods once known as the Temple of the Gods. And if you were to walk into the grove and look up, you'd see another feature that seems impervious to time.

Today, the Old Santa Cruz Highway runs past the grove. However, most of the commuters who speed by are oblivious to what happened there, primarily because the trees are protected by a wall of cut stones about the size of bricks, laid a couple of feet thick and some twelve feet high.

There are two stories about the source of these stones. According to the first, they were made by inmates of San Quentin Prison and trucked to Holy City (bringing to mind the old bluegrass tune, "In the Gravel Yard"). According to the second story, they were ballast from a ship sunk in the San Francisco harbor. Between the Gold Rush years and the earthquake of 1906, ships were sometimes sunk on purpose, or for that matter, repurposed, to extend the waterfront. I have no proof of either theory about the stones, but I wonder if their purpose at Holy City was less protection from land movement than protection from prying eyes.

Photo by Shelley Bates

The wall does not extend all the way around the grove; its U-shape only protects the public side. The side facing the town is wide open. The arc gives the effect of a broken or half-constructed apse ... made of stones chipped into shape by other criminals and con men, if the San Quentin story is true. In this natural church, there was no altar then, but instead only the stage on which the Comforter performed. Today, the stage is gone and there is only a homemade ofrenda, with pictures of loved ones and other religious icons left by people over the years.

The wall still protects the quiet grove from what critic Leo Marx calls the “shocking intruder” of the highway and all its traffic (The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, p. 29). The wall excludes people on the one side, but at the same time it invites them in from the other.

Perhaps both the wall and Holy City were at once exclusive and inclusive, depending on the direction from which the curious approached.


SAB, October 25, 2019

California Gothic

Today is October 17—the 30th anniversary of the Loma Prieta earthquake that destroyed our house in 1989. Which leads rather well into something I’ve been thinking about lately: the California Gothic, its few manifestations in literature, and what it might mean to my dissertation novel, The Comforter.

Set in Holy City, California, in 1927 and 1928, The Comforter is historical fiction about two women, one who stays and one who goes, and the tumultuous events of those years in the town. The title comes from one of the names the town’s founder, William E. Riker, called himself. He believed himself to be the modern-day incarnation of the Holy Spirit, and thus part of the Trinity.

Aside from various pages on Tumblr, there is not a lot out there on the California Gothic. I’ve been reading Dr. Bernice Murphy’s The Rural Gothic in American Popular Culture: Backwoods Horror and Terror in the Wilderness while I wait for her upcoming book on the California Gothic specifically. Seriously, Rural Gothic is a page turner. You should read it. She suggests that the Rural Gothic has a number of tropes, some of which I am interested in incorporating into The Comforter, or, for the ones already there, brushing them up just a bit and making them work harder.

Dr. Murphy, a scholar at Trinity College, Dublin, says, “The imaginary exploitation of four indigenous features would prove vital to the establishment of the local strain [of the gothic imagination]. Allan Lloyd Smith has persuasively suggested that these are the frontier, the Puritan legacy, race, and the consequences of political utopianism” (4).

In light of the above, and of the entertaining and weirdly true online ruminations of various posters to Tumblr, for me a picture is emerging of what a historical novel flavored with the California Gothic might look like.

California Gothic marker 1:
A place or population that is always in motion, yet always in stasis

A common thread in the Tumblr entries is that the writer is in a car, on an endless freeway, always trying to get somewhere and never arriving. It’s absolutely true that “traffic” as a reason to be late for school, work, or an appointment is universally accepted. Just Tuesday night, I allowed an extra hour to get to a speaking engagement 20 miles away, because I would be driving during rush hour.

Holy City came to be in the heyday of the Model T Ford and the beginnings of the freeway and airport systems in the US. While the town might be viewed as static, located as it was next to the highway with a constant stream of passing vehicles, in reality it was always in motion, too. With profitability his only measurement of success, Riker opened and closed businesses with such capricious regularity that it’s impossible to state from looking from a photograph just what year it was. Or, for my part, to write a certain business into the novel with the certainty that it was actually there that year, even though if I eyeball the cars and people’s clothes, a photograph gives me a close approximation.

Holy City was in stasis in another way—since Riker believed he and his disciples would be immortal, there is no sign in the documents or newspaper reports of the journey to Heaven or of forward motion to eternity. I suppose it’s rather gothic that both prophet and disciples were doomed to disappointment in their belief that they would live in Holy City forever.

This ties into Dr. Murphy’s assertion that “Rural Gothic narratives … often pivot upon ill-fated encounters between people who are tied to one place, and those who are ‘just passing through’” (142). Either the outsider proves a danger to the settlement (such as the First Nations peoples came to do for the Puritans) or the settlement proves a danger to the outsider (as in the movie Deliverance).

This trope is already present in The Comforter, with the only fictional character, Clara Cercatore, playing the part of the outsider just passing through. It remains to be seen which is the most dangerous to whom.

California Gothic marker 2:
A landscape that cannot be controlled by humans

Whether this is an image of a coyote waiting on the fringes to consume the Tumblr writer or his food, or the fires and earthquakes that are an actual part of life here, the land in a California Gothic is not safe. It could even be out to get you.


Like the Inuit peoples who are said to have numerous words for snow, we on the subduction zone have several words for the kinds of earthquakes we experience. There’s the roller, where you feel rolling waves in the ground. There’s the shaker, which is the motion often portrayed in disaster movies. There’s the jolt, which feels like a vehicle hitting the house and often has the same sound. We can tell the difference between the P-wave and the S-wave under our feet. “That was a five-point-oh,” we’ll say, and then check the US Geological Survey website to see if we’re right.

One of my research tasks is to find out if there was actually an earthquake during December 1927. If so, I could use it as a metaphor for the upheaval that another real-life character, the aviatrix Evelyn Rosencrantz, caused in Holy City. She never set foot in the place, though in the best tradition of the Rural Gothic, she passed through in a taxi that did not stop, leaving emotional destruction behind.

Fire and rain

California doesn’t have four seasons. There are only fire season and rain season. In the forested mountains around Holy City, fire is a constant fear in the back of the mind. It’s a holiday or a weekend—in all that traffic on Highway 17, will someone throw a lit cigarette out the window? Or pull over with engine trouble and ignite the dry grass? Will someone using a weed whacker in their yard strike a stone and cause a spark? Fire is caused by weather far less often here than by ordinary human activity. Conversely, by October, people are anxiously scanning the skies and the weather reports for the first sign of a cloud. If a cloud is spotted, what’s its potential for rain? No one wants to see white, puffy clouds. No one. If there’s a cloud, please let it be carrying rain, or just go away and don’t get our hopes up.

Dr. Murphy says “the conflict between order and chaos, ‘civilisation’ and ‘savagery’ … lies at the very heart of the Rural Gothic.” The Puritans were responsible for the popular mythos of the forest and its inhabitants being evil or wicked, bent on the deaths of the innocent and godly villagers.

In Holy City, the circle of redwood trees known as the Temple of the Gods represents this well. Of all the things constructed in this clearing in the woods, there was never a church building. Only the Temple of the Gods (plural!). While Riker used the circle of trees for commercial purposes (self-serving sermons, musical performances), he didn’t build or invent it, and could never actually control it. Those trees were there long before he came, and are still there fifty years after he died. While the redwoods are not a threat, exactly (though I suppose one could fall on you), in The Comforter I can use them to present a sense of the uncanny—a rustle in the undergrowth, or the sight of a wild animal moving through the circle on business of its own.

Riker “conquered the wilderness” in the sense that he and the disciples built a town in the forest, which they considered the “promised land.” They didn’t consider Heaven or an eternal destiny to be this promised land, because they thought they were going to be immortal. Sadly, Holy City wasn’t. Fire took its buildings, and now the forest is taking back what is left.

California Gothic marker 3:
A search for things to consume

Fast food. Concert and sports events. Groceries from trendy stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods. New cars (Tesla or Prius? that is the question). Tourist dollars. Riker became wealthy providing things for passers-through to consume: food at the restaurant and market, entertainment with the peep shows and plaster Santas, the endless billboards, the booklets and broadsheets and newspapers created by the print shop.

Dr. Murphy agrees that another trope of the Rural Gothic may be “a bitter mockery of the ceaseless drive towards movement, exploration, and consumption that has so often shaped the national character” (128). Manifest Destiny took vast tracts of land from the original inhabitants, and imposed ownership on the frontier, where it had never been before. Now, I am interested to note, the First Nations peoples are taking it back in the form of casinos, where tourists happily hand over their money to gamble.

In keeping with the “frontier” idea of the band of renegades with their hideout in the hills, from which they would ride to rob a train or terrorize a town, while Riker stayed put and let the passers-through come to him, he made no secret of the fact that he was pillaging them for their money. Holy City’s purpose, after all, was to be a money-maker. The cash registers rang all day long, to the tune of $100,000 in annual income. In the 1920s, this was a serious chunk of change.

Even today, the accounting software I use for my writing business makes a cheery cha-ching! sound every time I record a deposit—the same sound all those cash registers at Holy City would have made. And speaking of software, Silicon Valley still has the frontier attitude of making a new life (or a new startup) with a kind of wild west approach to funding and business. And how strange is it that venture capitalists are referred to as angels? The connections between money and religion are endless.

The connections between my novel’s historical content and the California Gothic really resonate with me. Partly it’s because of my own experience with all three of these tropes in real life, and partly because of the depth and interest I can add to the novel above and beyond “what really happened.”

October 17, 2019

All creatures great and small

Irvin B. Fisher and bear, from the Fisher collection of the author
Irvin B. Fisher and bear, collection of the author. Photographer unknown.

Animals were a feature of life at Holy City. There was the zoo, of course, which over the years held a variety of creatures. One photograph in Irvin B. Fisher’s personal collection advertises an eagle in captivity, and another shows him playing with a small bear named Dixie (left). He would awe the children by putting his head in the bear’s mouth. Sadly, Dixie was poisoned by persons unknown. Other creatures included a deer, a parrot, and as Sarah Weston reported in “The Holy City of Father Riker” in The Mid-County Post in 2005, “The zoo, which claimed to be ‘The World’s Most Exotic Collection of Animals,’ contained mostly cats and dogs, one spray-painted bobcat, and a donated monkey who was too ill-tempered to be kept by its owner.” There are some reports that the monkey once bit a child, provoking threats of a lawsuit.

Lucille Riker was so fond of animals that her poem, “House of Worship,” published in April 1941, pleads for their good treatment at the hands of humans:

Should we not excel the animal

In devotion, intellect and love?

These natural principles are what we need

To apply and prove we are above


The animal in every way.

He is willing to give us a break

By worshipping us, placing faith in us

Though he knows if we are real or fake.

The animal is at our mercy

Let us not disappoint him, I pray.

Let us be humane in our dealings with him,

In the end it is going to pay. (1)

Lucille Riker
Photo: I.B. Fisher Collection, photographer unknown. Collection of the author.

A very early photograph taken when Holy City was just being built circa 1919 shows a dog jumping up on a well-dressed Lucille just as the shutter snapped. Fifteen-year-old Margaret Stauss, one of the few children ever to live at Holy City, looked after the domestic animals. Winifred Allington, Riker’s secretary, transcriptionist, and a close friend to Lucille, was well known in the neighborhood for giving a home to any cat that needed one, sometimes feeding and housing dozens at a time. In later years, “Allie’s” personal journal becomes a record less of the goings-on at Holy City than of the arrivals and passing of a succession of cats. In May 1963 she told reporter Betty Barnacle, “I’ve had up to 30 or 40 cats at a time.” (2)

Lucille liked cats as well, and she and her husband had a dog, rather unimaginatively named Boy. Boy achieved a measure of fame when in 1945 Lucille published a song entitled, “Please Don’t Leave Me Daddy.” The cover on the sheet music says “Words and Music by Lucille Riker,” but at that time, it was possible to send lyrics to a company such as Broadcast Music, Inc., in New York and have a contract composer set the lyrics to a tune. I suspect that this is the case with this piece, her only published song:

Please don’t go and leave me, Daddy,

I’m so lonely without you;

I can’t live without you Daddy,

Little Boy’s love is true blue.



Come and take Boy with you Daddy,

In the car Red, White and Blue;

Let me sit on your knee Daddy

And I’ll honk the horn for you.


I’m your little Boy-dog, Daddy,

Can’t you hear my silent voice?

I know you won’t leave me Daddy,

Little Boy’s great pride and choice. (3)

Several accounts tell of Riker driving in to Los Gatos in his red, white, and blue Cadillac with the dog in the car. Since his leg had been broken in one of his many car accidents, he found it difficult to get out of the vehicle, so he would park outside the bank or other establishment and honk the horn until someone came out to assist him.


(1) I.B. Fisher Collection, Folder 1941, collection of the author.

(2) The Harry Plate Collection: The Rikers and Holy City 1900–1970, Box 1, Folder 22 (2007-30-113), History San Jose Research Library.

(3) I.B. Fisher Collection, Folder 1945, collection of the author.