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A Parliament of Crows

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From World Fantasy Award winner Alan M. Clark comes a godforsaken southern gothic based on the three most evil sisters in history. They are the Mortlow sisters, and they do it all for the family.

A Parliament of Crows is the story of three women in black. Always in mourning clothes, creepy and secretive, devious and deadly, they might at first blush appear to be long lost members of the Addams Family or characters drawn by Edward Gorey. But the women in this novel are inspired by three sisters from history who were anything but humorous. The story of their lives and their crimes is the very definition of Southern Gothic, and the perfect fodder for this historical fiction.

In A Parliament of Crows, the three Mortlow sisters are prominent American educators of the nineteenth century, considered authorities in teaching social graces to young women. They also pursue a career of fraud and murder. Their loyalty to one another and their need to keep their secrets is a bond that tightens with each crime, forcing them closer together and isolating them from the outside world. Their ever tightening triangle suffers from madness, religious zealotry and a sense of duty warped by trauma they experienced as teenagers in Georgia during Sherman’s March to the Sea. As their crimes come back to haunt them and a long history of resentments toward each other boils to the surface, their bond of loyalty begins to fray. Will duty to family hold or will they turn on each other like ravening crows?

162 pages, Paperback

First published October 21, 2012

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About the author

Alan M. Clark

116 books321 followers
Author and illustrator, Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. His awards include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards. He is the author of twenty-one books, including fourteen novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, a lavishly illustrated novellette, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. Mr. Clark's company, IFD Publishing, has released 45 titles of various editions, including traditional books, both paperback and hardcover, audio books, and ebooks by such authors as F. Paul Wilson, Elizabeth Engstrom, and Jeremy Robert Johnson. Alan M. Clark and his wife, Melody, live in Oregon. www.alanmclark.com Visit his blog: https://ifdpublishing.com/blog

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5 stars
24 (53%)
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8 (17%)
3 stars
11 (24%)
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2 (4%)
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Displaying 1 - 24 of 24 reviews
Profile Image for Dan Schwent.
2,888 reviews10.5k followers
February 2, 2013
The three Mortlow sisters, Vertiline, Carolee, and Mary, lead wicked lives, starting at the time of the Civil War and into their old age, leaving a trail of corpses in their wake. When the Orphia, the daughter of Carolee, winds up dead in a bathtub, they are arrested and go on trial. Has the law finally caught up with them?

First of all, I'm pretty sure a group of crows is called a murder and a group of owls is called a parliament.

The Parliament of Crows is a historical novel inspired in part by the real life Wardlaw sisters and a chilling group they must have been. Elder sister Vertiline will do whatever it takes to protect her family, and the twins Carolee and Mary make her job very tough. While Parliament of Crows was published by Lazy Fascist, which is primarily a bizarro publisher, there are very few bizarre elements in it. Mary and Carolee seem to share an empathic link but that's about it. It's mostly a straight-up historical novel.

The story shifts back and forth between the sisters' childhood during the Civil War and their adulthood in the early 20th century, ensnared in a hell of their own making after Orphia's death. The shifting builds suspense and does a lot to develop the characters of Vertiline and her sisters. The way they go from behind girls in Milledgeville during the Civil War with a deceased mother to cold hearted killers later in life was both believable and horrifying. Pushing a maid down the stairs for fun? Insurance scams? Poisonings? These are just a few things the sisters perpetrate.

The writing is really good. In addition to the gothic and horror elemetns, there's a fair amount of dark humor. Even though the Mortlows are horrible people and probably sociopaths to some degree, I caught myself hoping they'd stay out of jail a few times.

Four stars. I'd like to read a longer book by Alan M. Clark.
Profile Image for Jon Recluse.
381 reviews245 followers
October 15, 2019
An engaging work of historical fiction based on the true crimes of the Wardlaw sisters, three women whose survival instincts, honed in the Civil War, proved to be deadly to other family members....including small children. Until the death of a daughter/niece finally brought them to the attention of the law.

Clark brings empathy and a depth to this novel that one rarely finds in true crime accounts, recreating the pivotal moments of these women's lives leading to their downfall.....and offering a look into their minds, the unholy bond that drove them, and displaying the personalities that turned these three sisters into a singular deadly whole...a triad of black widows acting as one.
Finally, he offers a look into the trial that ended their spree, and sent them into a self destructive spiral as stress induced insanity shattered their unholy union.

A brilliant piece of fact based historical fiction. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Paul Ataua.
1,281 reviews120 followers
May 6, 2021
A fascinating fiction based on the real story of the three most evil sisters in history should really be a certain winner, and it seems most reviewers so far have found it to be so. For me, it just failed to grip me, and I had to force myself to keep reading. I progressed a couple of chapters each time, stopping to return to Goodreads reviews to try and find why people have been so enamored by it. For the most part it is a pretty dry telling of a potentially interesting set of events. I am pretty sure it must be me, or maybe just my reading it at the wrong time, so please go ahead. It is certainly one you should try.
Profile Image for April Cote.
262 reviews64 followers
December 19, 2014
A story of how far family will go to save or help one another. Even if that means the death of their own loved ones. This story is based of the true story of three murderous sisters from the early 1900's. The story goes back and forth between their struggle to survive as young women during the civil war, trying to start over after the war, through marriage, jobs, children; all while loved ones from spouses to their own children seem to die rather suspicious deaths. A great read that will have you feeling sorry for these murderous women one moment, and hating them the next. There were some great twists and surprises that came along for such a short story. Not overly bizarre, but bizarre enough to not be your typical murder mystery.
Profile Image for Heather.
123 reviews26 followers
March 8, 2018
Note: I actually finished this years ago, but it didn't show up on my "reading" list until I populated it today!

What I recall of this book was that it was fantastic. I enjoyed the historical aspect and the tension that Alan Clark wrote into the story. I also recall that he captured the dark feeling and unspoken story between the three main characters beautifully.

I do plan on re-reading this book and will hopefully have a more helpful review at that point. It was worth the read the first time, and I am betting I will enjoy it more a second time.
Profile Image for Vincenzo Bilof.
Author 37 books109 followers
August 24, 2013
The psychosis of history, women left to the ravages of war; survivors from The War Between the States suffering forever from the terror of an upbringing that forever shattered their souls. Alan M. Clark’s A Parliament of Crows is a page-turner that delves into the personal horror of infamous women who endured the torments of time and may have been… unlucky enough to survive.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help but turn the pages because I wanted to know WHY and HOW these women became who they are. I wanted to know the truth, but more importantly, and I wanted to feel it and witness it. As someone who has read a lot of books in the literary realm, I believed Clark’s book was a discussion on the metamorphosis from humanity to inhumanity and the loss of innocence in the wake of a struggle that would forever change the world. I kept reading because I felt like Clark wasn’t doing enough to make me realize or understand the unraveling of the Mortlow sisters, but Clark’s understanding of storytelling structure delivered a powerful conclusion. Without spoiling the plot, I will say only that the reader is rewarded after becoming a participant in the sequence of events; there isn’t a twist ending, but the emotion you think lies behind the madness of this terrifying history is delivered with a masterstroke that must be admired.

I feel this book almost needs two reviews. From the perspective of a Civil War researcher, I will say this book incorporates and honors the sentiments that have been ingrained in the consciousness that would have suffered the souls of the Morlow sisters. Indeed; it’s not called the Civil War in this book, a simple fact which displays Clark’s commitment to the story. I trusted his knowledge as the story progressed, and I didn’t feel inclined to challenge him. As a self-professed history nerd, I allowed the story to exist in both time and Clark’s imagination, because he sold me on his talents and knowledge.

This is not “historical fiction”. Such a classification demeans the narrative, as a good many readers feel intimidated by history and refused to open their minds to the possibilities of a different cultural mindset. The Mortlow sisters are hardly sympathetic women; there’s not much to like about them or celebrate, but Clark manages to build just enough empathy into one of the sisters for the reader to become invested. Again, no spoilers in this review. You don’t have to know anything about history to join the world Clark reveals to his readers.

The book seems to read like a summary at times, as Clark gambles with a reader’s patience and tests their willingness to invest in these characters and the mystery that surrounds them. Again, you don’t have to know anything about the Civil War other than the fact that it occurred; the book proves itself to be a quick read because you’re looking for the very reward that Clark gives, at last, in a moment of triumphant storytelling which reveals craftsmanship and character-investment.

The Mortlow sisters will be off-putting to some readers who aren’t interested in damnation, victimization, or character development. By analyzing the histories of infamous people who’ve passed into the realm of myth, the writer acknowledges that any reader can simply GOOGLE the characters and find out how the book ends. The strength of the writer lies in the ability to provide a rationale while exploring the inner workings of a generational and personal psychosis.

A pleasant surprise. Highly recommend. 4.5 stars… rounding up.
Profile Image for A.J. Griffiths-Jones.
Author 24 books68 followers
November 18, 2018
Based on the true story of the Wardlaw sisters, this is a thought-provoking tale of the invisible bond between siblings. The author has cleverly used creative license to build the characters according to their real-life counterparts & does so perfectly. The period, events & emotions are relayed in vivid detail, capturing the reader’s attention from the very start. I’m very impressed to say the least.
Profile Image for M.M. Santos.
Author 1 book24 followers
June 23, 2016
  The Dirty South?
                                          Civil War times?
                       Oh I love me some historical fiction!

                  Three murderous (yet resourceful) sisters?
Check, check, and check!
  The good and decent part of me listened to the story being told between the three women and knew something was a little bit wrong  between them, with a propensity for violence and manipulation from the get go but the devil’s advocate in me saw their circumstance and found excuses and not surprisingly, something I could relate to... Read the full review at www.mmdossantos.com
Profile Image for Molly.
Author 90 books400 followers
December 12, 2012
A Parliament of Crows rules, plain and simple. It's short, dirty, awful, sweet, and horrifying; it's paced expertly and structured thoughtfully. It eschews the fantastical for the grotesque, reads like pulp, takes the best parts of crime fiction and southern Gothic and then does its own thing.

Get it for yourself, mix up a batch of mint juleps spiked with absinthe, and read it until you reach the last page. Savor how the book and the liquor linger on your palate, bewitching you long after you've finished. Then get it for the Gone with the Wind fan in your life and then giggle to yourself drunkenly. There is no way this plan could go awry, I assure you.
Profile Image for S.
Author 4 books13 followers
September 24, 2019

The story virtually starts at the end with the three Mortlow sisters being held for murder. The story then shifts back and forth between their childhood during the Civil War and their adulthood in the early 20th century till their eventual arrest.

You learn early in the story that Mortlow sisters are far from innocent the twins Carolee and Mary are extremely cruel and twisted and take delight in causing pain to others.Vertiline the eldest is hard women who will and does anything to protect and keep her family together. But that does not extend to protecting her nieces and nephews.Even though you know the sisters are evil in every aspect of word, the author has written the book in such a way you feel sympathy for the sisters but I can't explain where the sympathy comes from. I don't actually think they do anything to provoke sympathy from the reader apart from the hardships they faced in the Civil War but there experiences were no different from anybody else in the south at the time. All their actions are basically
cold and calculated.

I really enjoyed reading this book and find it hard to put down well done to Alan Clark for another marvelous book based around a true life crimes.
Profile Image for Vittoria Corella.
Author 19 books29 followers
March 29, 2013
Alan M. Clark is a writer like few others. No, I'm serious. His characters are “people”. People who have survived in their bodies, intangible living beings, humans full of soul, that isn't quite physical. His characters don't have a story, actually, they are alive.

“A parliament of Crows” is an ancient English expression which derives from Germanic folklore. It is due to the belief that crows, which were believed to be as intelligent as humans, would reunite to judge their own who had offended the community. If they were judged guilty, the parliament would tear them to pieces.
The Crows in this story are three Southern belles from the United States; three sister, three who survived the Civil War: the eldest, Vertiline Mortlow and the twins, Carolee and Mary.

The three sisters are three Scarlet O'Haras in a nightmare; they are young women with a foot in “Gone with the Wind” and the other in Hell. They are an upside-down and terrifying trinity, in mourning, determined to survive – war, poverty, hunger - , diabolically stubborn, morbidly united.

Like Scarlet, Vertiline implicitly vows “never to be hungry again”. Nor will her younger sisters, which were entrusted to her by their father, widowed when she was still a little girl, and therefore, they will not feel they were abandoned or feel the humiliation of poverty. They will not suffer by the hands of Union soldiers who sacked and raped, nor will they suffer because of the weak and ill suited men that tried to enter into their lives. Most of all, they will not suffer the consequences of the evil they themselves will do to the world. For Carolee is, in effect, a serial killer. And Mary, tied to her twin by means unbelievable to common mortals, is no less dangerous, though she seems sweeter and more docile.

Their own names hold their characteristics. Vertiline is hard, straight and a leader determined to bring her people to safety. Mary is a hellish Madonna, brimming of spirituality, an upside-down mother who does not even save her own children. Carolee's name stops one letter before a name that means feminine and lovely, to indicate that under her mourning clothes something else is hidden, something more masculine and more ferocious.

Their story, wonderfully narrated by Clark, shows the three Mortlow sisters facing a trail for the homicide of Carolee's daughter, Orphia and of their illegitimate newborn son, John. These are only two names in a tremendous list of victims, in and out of the Mortlow family. On another parallel narrative plane, the three Mortlow sisters are seen as young Southern princesses, in a world of trustworthy slaves and brotherly conflict among Americans. It is during the Civil War that the animal-like nature and the will to survive of Carolee, and Vertilene takes responsibility of her two inhuman sisters.

Too much love, maybe. Certainly there is a large dose of responsibility as is the will to survive at all costs, without considering good or evil.

All told in a prefect style, through the vivid colors of reality, for this story, alas, is a true one.
Profile Image for David Bridges.
249 reviews14 followers
January 10, 2016
There is a thin line between "protecting your family" and pschyopathy. This is a great book and I really enjoyed it. It's expertly written with steady flow of tension that is compiled with horror after horror. The depth of relationships in the book are incredible especially when reflected with the cruelty of this world Clark has created. I found myself having these complicated feelings about the sisters because what they do may seem selfish and horrible but as you learn their experiences you realize they are surviving the only way they know how. The madness the sisters cause is just a reflection of the severe trauma that was caused by their time surviving the fall of the south during the civil war.

Again it's a great fucking book and all I want to do now is read everything else Alan Clark has written. Lazy Fascist Press never fails. I have read a lot of Lazy Fascist books and I have liked every single one so far.
Profile Image for Ross Lockhart.
Author 26 books198 followers
November 24, 2012
With his latest novel, A Parliament of Crows, author Alan M. Clark (Of Thimble and Threat: The Life of a Ripper Victim) weaves a strange tale of twisted family values that will shock and surprise readers, leaving them gasping for more. Part courtroom drama, part historical thriller, part Antebellum Gothic, A Parliament of Crows follows the lives of three sinister siblings--the Mortlow sisters--from privileged childhoods spent surrounded by servants and slaves in the pre-Civil War South to stark jail cells of New Jersey in the early twentieth century. A Parliament of Crows is a story of mourning, madness, and murder; of desperate choices and spiraling justification; of generational evil hidden behind poise, proper etiquette, and black lace veils.
Profile Image for Nathan.
28 reviews2 followers
March 6, 2013
Amazing! Honestly, this is a great book that deserves so much more press that it's been getting. I love the way that Clark drew me in so close to three very unlikeable people and made them very real to me. Plus, he's able to keep three narrative timelines alive at once without it feeling gimmicky or forced. This is a very hard book to recommend as the subject matter is quite difficult at times, but if your reading stomach is strong, you will get amazing payoffs. It's a beautiful and constantly heartbreaking portrait of three very damaged women who never lose the survival instinct, no matter the costs.

Profile Image for Cearbhallain.
6 reviews
June 21, 2013
This is one of the most disturbing stories I've read in a long while, and one I won't soon forget. Inspired by true events, Mr Clark provides his fictional sisters with a backstory that helps to humanize the characters while in no way excusing their monstrous behavior. A gripping read I couldn't put down.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Engstrom.
Author 70 books383 followers
December 3, 2012
This is an extreme case of sibling dysfunction, expertly told by Alan Clark. Three sisters, at once rivals and co-dependent, encourage each other in their lawlessness. Very creepy, yet a satisfying read.
Profile Image for Sid Stark.
Author 11 books16 followers
July 3, 2019
"A Parliament of Crows" is another installment in Alan M. Clark's collection of "horror that happened" historical mystery/horror books. It tells the story, based on historical fact, of the three Mortlow sisters, who went on a killing spree that lasted decades.

The story could have been lurid, and there are certainly moments in the book that may cause more squeamish readers to want to turn away, but, as with the author's books about the victims of Jack the Ripper, the focus is not on the gory details, but on the psychological development of the characters. As the tale of the sisters' crimes unfolds over the decades, we get each sister's perspective on what happened and why they felt like they had to do what they did. What emerges is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a trio of women struggling to survive in the South during and after the Civil War, and how psychopathology can meet extreme circumstances to create tragedy for all concerned.

The story, while spanning decades and told from three viewpoint characters, is not long, and the writing style is clean and simple, allowing the tale itself to shine through. This makes a complex story a surprisingly easy read. There are several different mysteries interwoven throughout the narrative, all of which draw the reader along and culminate in the denouement of the final chapters, when the events of the Civil War that set the sisters down their path are revealed. "A Parliament of Crows" is probably not for every reader, as it is far from cozy and fluffy, but fans of Southern Gothic and historical mysteries will find a lot to enjoy in the vivid historical detail and excellent plotting.

My thanks to the author for providing a free copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Caleb Wilson.
Author 8 books21 followers
March 11, 2013
Gothic in plot but not tone. I appreciate that the writing isn't fevered and emotional, instead, it's fair, even, calm, and almost mild, which I found let it get under my skin all the more. I also really like the structure, which bounces back and forth between the past and present in such a way that each turn colors our view of the three sisters differently -- and with each turn they become both more awful and more understandable. (Nice reference too to the horrible series of twins in A Pretty Mouth, from the same publisher.)
Profile Image for Pigge.
7 reviews
November 30, 2012
Clark's concocted another great read with an eerily entertaining tale of deeply disturbed sisters...and that's mildly stating their level of disturbance.  As a reader, I was torn with wanting to forgive the vile sisters for their survivalist actions or hoping they'd get what they deserved.   As I thought events were settling down and  coming to a close, a stellar climatic scene gave me horrific jolt....I love a good reader shock!    A fine read full of colorful characters, historical bits, and dark twists and turns!
Author 4 books8 followers
May 25, 2013
I heard Alan M. Clark read from this at Bizarrocon and it is just epic. Like Flannery O'Connor and [whoever really wrote Carnivale] tag-teamed the most densely-layered Gothic-procedural mystery, full of wit and canny understanding of the form, but more importantly a broad and all-encompassing cultural understanding of, and respect for, characters and reader alike. He does here with the Wardlaw sisters what Russell Banks did with John Brown's extended posse in CLOUDSPLITTER,and the results are just as human and engaging and symphonic, while pulling no punches whatsoever.
Profile Image for Cranky - The Book Curmudgeon.
2,087 reviews149 followers
September 6, 2019

This is a well written work of historical fiction. It is based on the true story of the Wardlaw sisters who survived the Civil War and went on to commit many crimes. They never got over their father’s death and were mentally deranged in different ways. In this story, they are never fully aware that what they are doing is wrong. In their minds, they have a very good reason such as “it is to keep our family together”, “it is to protect the family”, “it is your duty to the family” etc. When tried for their crimes, they were fifty-nine and sixty-one.

Vertiline is the eldest of the three girls. Mary and Carolee are twins. All their lives, Mary and Carolee have wreaked havoc on the family. Carolee has an evil streak and somehow convinces Mary to do what she says. Having lost their mother at a young age, they had no proper guidance. Vertiline was charged with raising the twins when she was just fourteen years old and still a child herself. When a few years later, at the end of the War, their father passed away, Vertiline oversaw the twins on her own. First she dressed them all in black mourning clothes which they wore their entire life. Then she took them off to Virginia to their Aunt’s boarding school. Here, they all became teachers and worked for their Aunt. This is when the life of crime began. They inherited the boarding school only to find out they were over their heads in debt. Once they got rid of the school, off to New Jersey they went to try to live more simply while teaching in schools. Unfortunately, they were proper Southern women and never tried to accept Northern ways.

More crime sent them to New York City only to find they were out of money again. This fictional account of how they lived was very entertaining and riveting. The author has done a good job making the reader feel sympathetic towards these ladies.
18 reviews1 follower
November 5, 2022
this story takes place at the beginning of the civil war. three sisters of privileged southern born. Follows them through youth to adulthood. a set of twins and an older sister. this is very well written as the sisters are on trial for murder the story flashes back to their years growing up and their self-serving privileged ways. This is a family you would not want. Chilling atmosphere all around. Recommended reading based on true events
Profile Image for Rena Mason.
Author 44 books43 followers
August 12, 2013
Nothing is more horrifying than the inhumanity of man against man. In his latest novel, Alan M. Clark perfectly captures this feeling and puts it to words in A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS. The story follows the lives of three sisters who believed they were above the law in their decades of wrongdoing. While reading, I went through the emotions of despising these women, sympathizing with them, and then finally, having pity on them. This book is well-written with a refined writing style that truly enhances the story. A PARLIAMENT OF CROWS is my first bit of Southern Gothic and the first novel I've read by this author. Now I feel compelled to read more Southern Gothic and look forward to Alan M. Clark's next novel.
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