Super-duper happy to have made The Collagist with my story “A Picture of A Man in a Top Hat.” This is another paranoid and cranky ghostie. The title comes from the story of the ghost boy appearing in shots of Three Men and A Baby–
Been writing a lot of ghost stories lately, both inside and outside the novel project–this looks like it wants to be part of a series under the working title The Tonoloway Woods. My usual stuff–cabin, woods, creepers, etc.
The Tonoloway Witch
The man was dressed in shapeless white clothing and he stood still in the forest until he was sure the woman had seen him. Then he started walking towards her.
She’d seen him more than once, so she stood her ground. His gait was formal and deliberate, even as he waded through briars and stepped over tree-fall.
He picked up speed. His face was red. He kept his arms down by his sides, but she could tell he wanted to use them. She could see how much he wanted to shred the forest with his bare hands.
Never before had he made it all the way to the tree line, but this time he walked right out of shadow into sunshine where he stopped and asked, “Is this the hospital?”
There was no hospital, not since the fire. But there was a cabin. She went inside it to drink coffee and read.
He stayed outside, standing just beyond where he should, hands by his side. He leaned a little into the wind when it picked up.
The cold snap brought winter birds to the feeder even though it was only September. The orderly was so still that chickadees and juncos used him, touching off his scalp and shitting berries on his shoulder. By evening there would be bats to contend with as well.
In the morning he was joined by a hairy-kneed patient in a paper gown. The patient’s eyes were milky, and he tilted his face up whenever a bird flapped by. Sometimes he tried to hold the orderly’s hand, but he couldn’t pry open those giant fingers.
After lunch a pharmaceutical salesman staggered out of the forest and stood at its edge, protected from the sun by the orderly’s shadow. The patient tried to hold his hand, but the salesman preferred to hug his sample case to his chest.
The sun set and together the three men teetered between the forest and the cabin. They watched for her silhouette, the cant of her shoulders behind the shade.
They discussed green worlds.
Progress. She had to admit to that. It was time to send out the announcement: The Less Than men were almost here.
This is a tangle of thoughts, so bear with me.
In the writing world we have a culture of support that we call “literary citizenship,” and it includes activities like writing reviews, holding readings, buying books, and finding creative ways to make the world aware of all the great reads that are out there, especially in the indie markets. We keep tabs on each other, for competitive and inspirational reasons, and when someone drops off the radar, there is at the very least, gossip about their absence. I’ve noticed also that in my academic life (20 years in an English Department), my colleagues and I have more successful, sustained relationships with our alumni who specialized in writing, folklore, linguistics, and media studies than with any from our literature disciplines.
This difference in connection beyond the classroom becomes especially clear when, on an annual basis we ask an accomplished alum to return and speak at our graduation reception. The person we invite is almost never from literature, despite our calls for recommendations. We can make all kinds of guesses about this apparent lack of attachment, but I’m most satisfied with an assumption that lit students graduate in a different way, emotionally. I talked about this with a colleague who is an 18th Century scholar, and he admitted that he didn’t know much about his past students’ present activities. He also suggested that in other disciplines there is a tradition of intimacy and bonding that isn’t part of lit culture.
In writing, folklore, linguistics, and media studies we expect that our apprentices will eventually become our partners, helping to advance our disciplines in academic and commercial realms. To that end, we are social, collaborative, and promotional in very visible ways. I’m sure the energy for our activities is a matter of scale and youth; smaller/newer disciplines have to place great emphasis on identity development.
So the question I pose in the title of this post is genuine, especially as the central privilege of literature studies within English departments may appear preserved by program requirements as well as subsidized by other enrollments. This is an inaccurate characterization, but not completely, and if the accusation is ignored, an illusion of smug entitlement prevails.
going to stop here. rabbit hole just ahead
I’m past the 70k mark and it’s the Winchester House, with all those corridors to nowhere. The plot seems drowned in repetitive behavior. The writing is good. Why is it good?
We’ve been power watching Breaking Bad since the middle of August and we’re almost caught up, but the show is about the only art I’ve been exposed to for a month and in high doses. I can’t sleep. I can’t wait for it to be over. I think I’ve done something bad to my brain.
I dreamed that Cathy Day disapproved of me going to Baltimore Comic-Con.
I haven’t shown any of the ms to my husband, and that is probably a huge mistake.
I need exercise.
In 1993 I enjoyed my first major publication when a story I wrote called “Synapse and Grace” was selected by Al Young for an issue of Ploughshares that he was guest editing, with the theme “Believers.” I’ve written about this before, how being so legitimized stopped my writing in its tracks for a while, and how the digitizing of Ploughshares’ archive got me started again, initiating me to the wonderful world of online fiction. The story was live online for a few years, but then Ploughshares took down those old issues (probably as part of a technical overhaul). I never did digitize the thing myself, and my copy is up in the attic.
I googled the title because I needed the issue and volume number, and I was surprised to see that the story was summarized in 2012 by a business student in Nevada as part of what looks to be a class creative writing blog. If you want to see the post, it’s here, but keep in mind that he is journaling, so don’t be a Grammar Queen about it. His summary is 5 paragraphs down. I only mention his post because I am struck by how his misunderstanding of what I thought were key elements does not prevent him from producing a sensitive and insightful reading. It’s as if by merely glossing the nouns, he “got it.”
That said, there may not be that much to get. A troubled guy, fleeing his failed marriage, stops off in a bar in West Virginia and has an unprovoked spiritual experience while staring at a large painting of Dolly Parton. Nothing happens. Seriously. For 12+ pages or whatever. In fact Al Young made a point of telling our workshop that, even though he liked my story, no one should ever to write a story the way I had. And now seeing the work again, reminds me of how much love/hate I experienced during my MFA.
By the way, I’m convinced that only three people read the published story: the student blogger, another ploughshares author who told me he had, and my mom. She thinks my endings aren’t so hot.
Here’s a service that claims to offer the full text, but there’s a big chunk of dialogue dumped into the sample I didn’t write. Wish I had though, livens it up a bit.
I have the bones for a brief, imaginative essay about ghosts, last words, and social paranoia, partially inspired by a shocking and mysterious post made by an acquaintance weeks ago. I admit I am the biggest sucker for vague-booking–not that I do it–but I am the social media eavesdropper for whom the form was invented. For a long while the poster’s statement–just three words–has been resting verbatim within the essay. I thought about substituting alternatives to the words, but this particular list and combination burns like an after image even when I replace them.So they are still there at the bottom of the sixth paragraph.
I had just about decided, out of decency, to turn the whole thing into fiction when the person I’d hoped to shield posted yet another incredibly manipulative statement. Not a cry for help , but an announcement of a sacrifice that cannot be stopped. That could have been stopped, but now it is too late. No one can help, but the person wants us all to feel the horror in real time.
I know the person is sick, but I feel nothing but anger and a particularly non-creative desire to keep the essay as NF and move ahead. I really want the privilege of context to get those three words out there.
This is not a responsible urge.
cover image: LA Dawson Corn Snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) hatching.
Just got my print copy of Heavy Feather Review 2.2, and it’s gorgeous. My multi-part, long story about dead siblings taking over the family vacation home in Aransas Bay is included, but there is a lot of great writing and art in the issue. Thank you Jason Teal and Nathan Floom for inviting me to play. Digital versions of HFR 2.2 are forthcoming.