A Few Things Before We Start

As is tradition, we’re going to do something spooky around here for October. This year, it’s a retelling of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shunned House.” I have never been a huge Lovecraft fan. I mean, I respected that the man managed to convince people The Necronomicon was a real thing, but tentacled horror doesn’t really do it for me. I just couldn’t slog through those stories.

But earlier this year I realized that too many writers I respect were too influenced by Lovecraft for me to continue to be like “eh, whatever” and I would have to dig in and at least get the gist of what he was up to. And so I came across “The Shunned House,” which is such an amazing haunted house story that I about couldn’t stand it. You know when you hear a new song you instantly love? How you want to learn it and sing along with it and then sing it in the shower and then sing it in an opera version and a bluegrass version and the imagine what it would sound like if Mick Jagger sang it?

That’s how I felt about “The Shunned House.” I wanted to learn it. I wanted to tell it in the shower. I wanted to tell it in a Tennessee version. I wanted to tell it to you in a way that would let you see what it is about this story that hit me right in the gut.

And so I shall. Starting tomorrow night at 6 o’clock in the evening and continuing until Halloween.

Just a few notes before we get started. First, I want to openly and clearly acknowledge that this is a retelling of Lovecraft’s story. I think what I pulled off is pretty cool, but it’s just a redecoration of Lovecraft’s house. If you like my story, please, please, go back and read the original.

Second, I postulate a pretty extensive backstory for Joseph Deraque in this story. Since I know this blog is occasionally visited by the descendants of ole Joe and the story strives for a certain amount of historical verisimilitude, let me be clear–I made up every single thing pertaining to any part of his family. I don’t know his father’s name. I don’t know where in French Canada Joseph was from. There’s not a single hint of any rumors of this specific ailment being associated with the family. I’ve not found any evidence that Deraque would have been known at Fort de Chartres. If anything, he was probably operating out of St. Louis (where his boss, Mr. Fagot was from) before he made the move permanently to Nashville. He wasn’t living up in what would be Gallatin with his father. It’s all made up. And therefore none of the rest of us should hesitate a moment to sleep with any of Joe’s descendants if they prove lovely, nor to sleep above their graves, if they prove dead.

Third, along those same lines, no one from Maine needs to come to Tennessee to find good pot. That also is obviously made up.

Okay, I think that’s everything. Let’s meet back here at six tomorrow evening to get started.

Has The Thing Been Found?

You may recall how Margaret Lindsley Warden described the actions of The Thing–

A rush of wind that rustled the ladies’ voluminous petticoats usually announced the arrival of The Thing. Some felt The Thing to be like a large cat, others like an arm without hand or fingers. Besides rubbing legs, unbuttoning high-buttoned shoes, and rattling silver and china, other phenomena were attributed to it. The big table would rise and push people around the room. An occasional putrid odor would necessitate circle breaking and window opening.

So here I am last night, reading through Nashville: Haunted Handbook by Jeff Morris, Donna Marsh, and Garett Merk, when I come to the entry on Centennial Park, which reads, in part,

In the section of the park near the funeral home, people have felt something like a cat rubbing against their ankles. When they look down to see what is at their feet, there is nothing there. Sometimes these hapless victims find that their shoes have been untied.

And who owned that house before it was a funeral home?

Sue Allen.

They Never Call When You Want Them To

I got a couple of rambly texts from my mom, but I have heard nothing in person from them about how the family reunion went. And yet, they’ll call me up to gossip about people at a church I’ve never attended, whom I’ve never met, and don’t know.

Parents these days, I swear.

In other news, I’m trying to read The Diviners and I need to know if any of you have read it, because I need to know if the “I’m narrating things like I’m a stereotype of a twenties flapper” thing fades into the background more or what. Because I found the opening chapter really scary and the next chapter almost insufferable. Does it get better? I think the story sounds really interesting, but I’m not sure I can stick it out.

Also, the dog smell like burning roux. I’m not sure why.

The Butcher assures me the den will be empty by Monday. I have to tell you, I’m a little terrified it will not be.

Whew, Life

In the past twenty-four hours, one of my old friends has gotten great life-changing news and a friend from high school revealed he is dying, quickly, of cancer. And somehow learning of both things together has left me feeling existentially exhausted.

Life. It is too much and never enough.

I hope I am doing right by people. I really do.

In the Future, I am Going to Write Only About History

Wow, I’ve gotten some really nice feedback on the Finnelson piece. I mean, really nice. I’m kind of stunned, because I never did find out why Finnelson did what he did. But I tell you what, the longer I blog for The Scene, the more I’m convinced that people, especially in Nashville, are hungry for stories about the past–even messy stories that don’t really have a resolution.

I might not be the best writer on these things, but I love those stories, so I am glad to get to tell them. And I really love that era of about 1770-1815 or so. The people there are just full of interesting crap.

Still, man, sometimes you read nonfiction about the past and it’s so good. You feel like you really have gained some insight into how people were. I don’t have that talent, yet. But I want it.

Another thing I want is to read more books in which Native Americans are treated more as individuals. One of the biggest problems I had understanding what was going on here is that, for instance, it’s obvious that the Cherokees have big differences of opinions on things and different loyalties to each other–and those loyalties can be based on family relations, clan relations, and where one lives, along with personal opinion and preference–you know, how it works for people in general–and yet, so many of the texts I consulted just treated them like a monolith, even in the face of the rise of the Chickamaugas (which should be a huge clue that people within groups associate with subgroups within those groups) that it’s hard to understand what’s really going on.

It would be nice to read works in which everyone is recognized to have mixed motives. I want to see it done well, because I’d like to learn to do it well.

I would pay good money to get an archaeological survey done of the Geist shop’s back yard. How sure is anyone that Timothy Demonbreun isn’t still there?

The Shunned Vampire House of Emerson’s Wife of Awesomeness!

All day, people! I have been waiting all day to tell you about this.

First, this guy wonders–and it turns out with reason!–if Emerson might have been concerned his wife was a vampire.

And then there’s a story all about the Great New England Vampire Epidemic. (NatGeo says “Panic” but please! Please.)

Scraping away soil with flat-edged shovels, and then brushes and bamboo picks, the archaeologist and his team worked through several feet of earth before reaching the top of the crypt. When Bellantoni lifted the first of the large, flat rocks that formed the roof, he uncovered the remains of a red-painted coffin and a pair of skeletal feet. They lay, he remembers, “in perfect anatomical position.” But when he raised the next stone, Bellantoni saw that the rest of the individual “had been com­pletely…rearranged.” The skeleton had been beheaded; skull and thighbones rested atop the ribs and vertebrae. “It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I’d never seen anything like it,” Bellantoni recalls.

Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.

The other skeletons in the gravel hillside were packaged for reburial, but not “J.B.,” as the 50ish male skeleton from the 1830s came to be called, because of the initials spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin lid. He was shipped to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., for further study. Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site.

Finally, one colleague asked: “Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?”

And it just gets better from there! Seriously, I know you think there’s no way that the article can improve upon “Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?” but it totally does.

And best of all, and applicable to our shared October adventure, the article even ties the vampire panic in with “The Shunned House.”


1. a. I wrote a huge piece for the Scene about a guy who’s been dead 200 years. I expected them to cut it down by like 2/3 because it is an enormous info dump. An interesting info dump, I think, but an info dump none the less. But no, they’re running the whole damn thing. Honestly, I can’t believe it. It’s so awesome.

1. b. But y’all, you should see how Jim Ridley turned it from something… well, like what I write. Very nerdy. To something that has a little interesting bite to it. The more I work with him, and really any of the guys over there, the more I think I need an editor. I do my best, you know? But I need someone who can tease out better stuff from that.

2. The part of the Sue Allen thing I wrote yesterday is not very long, but man, it took it out of me. It bugs me, because it’s so terrible for John, but I really feel like you need to see how his character arc goes, how there was not a single real hand out to him to help him his whole life (we can argue about William when/if the book ever comes out) and when help finally comes, it can’t do enough good for him fast enough to knock him off his terrible course. But it does mean that a character I was fond of before has a side to him that makes me feel a little ugh about him now.

3. I’m trying to strike a balance, too, because John, because of his peculiarities, is pretty omnisexual and though he gets helped by a woman and dicked over by a dude, I don’t want it to seem like that’s really because there’s something inherently wrong with liking a dude. I’m hoping that the dicking over is of a heterosexual enough nature, due to John’s boundary issues, that readers just roll with it. John will fuck anyone. He wants emotionally unavailable men to love him back because he has daddy issues. Poor John. Poor serial killing John. I keep having to keep that in mind. He’s kind of the bad guy.

4. It’s the 26th! “Allendale” starts in five days! What if it’s terrible?! Ha ha ha. Whew. Well, what can you do? I hope you’re ready, Gallatin!

5. Oh, one last thing. So, there was this story over at IO9 yesterday and I am pleased to report that John cannot accurately tell us what kind of time travel story he’s in because he only travels to the past once and he wasn’t paying that close of attention to what things were like before he left, so he doesn’t know if they’ve changed or not.

6. One last, last thing. So, I think the story mentioned in points 1a. and 1b will be out tomorrow.

Edited to add: Oh, crap, I forgot 7. Look at this madness! People really get advances like this? And then just don’t deliver? What the fuck? Publishing is weird.

A Phone Call with the Phillipses

My parents are in Michigan for a family reunion of all the still-living cousins on their mom’s side. This therefore involves a mini-reunion of my dad, mom, Uncle B., Aunt C., Aunt J., and Uncle G.–six people who I love dearly, but for some reason all want to talk at the same time on speaker phone. When I called this morning to get a better understanding of what they wanted last night, it was like talking to a circus. I don’t know how else to explain it.

My dad was attempting to offer me a clear explanation of what they needed me to do. My mom was just, I think, randomly saying my name. My uncle G. was laughing at my Aunt J. who was reading my Pith post aloud, I think, to me. My Uncle B. was simultaneously shouting clarifying things to me while, it became apparent, talking to one of his kids on his phone. My aunt C. was trying to do what I was advising them to do and reporting on whether it was working.

Thank the gods there were not iPhones back when my other two uncles and grandparents were alive or I swear, it’d just be calling up and talking to a wall of sound.

My brain just shuts down. It can’t figure out who to focus on or what they’re talking about or why it might be necessary for me.

Thank god, when I called my dad back, he was on the toilet. NEVER have I been so relieved to reach someone without the sense to, oh, you know, not take a call in the middle of going to the bathroom.

I said to him, “Oh my god, how are you holding up?”

And he said, “This is better than yesterday.”

Poor Dad! But I admit, I laughed long and hard when I got off the phone. It sounds like he needs to send about four people into the other room to play solitaire on the computer for a while. Ha.

Oh God, the Smell

Mrs. W. and I went for our walk, as we do, and we must have just missed a deer, but like seconds, because the whole back of the yard, both ours and the neighbor’s smelled so bad, like someone had just been spraying all over. And then, up on the road in big spots, just this overwhelming almost head-ache inducing smell of piss. I mean, you think cat piss is bad, it’s nothing compared to this.

By the time we came back, it had cleared away enough that my paltry human nose could no longer smell it, but oh my god.

It was kind of hilarious, but terrible, too.

Another Sumac Shot

See what I mean?! How is that orange a real color in the world? There is nothing more lovely than that orange. I could look at that orange every day for the rest of my life and feel like I was looking at the secret to happiness spoken in a language I will never know. That orange hurts my heart it is so beautiful.

I Wait All Year for the Sumac to Turn

I, myself, don’t know a lot about what makes architecture good. I know what I like–“A welcoming haunted house!”–and that’s about it. But I love that Frank Lloyd Wright loved and found inspiration in the sumac. If you watched no other tree or shrub or shrub-like tree (whatever the hell a sumac is) turn, it would be worth your time to watch the sumac, because it turns all these different shades of oranges and then these deep reds that will stop you in your tracks. Even the branches turn a deep pinkish red. It’s extraordinary. Who wouldn’t want to build a house that invoked that kind of magic?

Speaking of fall magic, the dog was anxious to go on a walk this morning, for the first time in as long as I can remember. I didn’t have to go hunting her down. She was standing by the back door like “What are you waiting for? There is a walk out there! We should be on it.” I am deeply thankful for these moments, because it gives me hope that there may be another summer together, another fall.

The contractor is coming next Monday to get started on the ceiling in the den. How that goes is going to enormously influence how I feel about the other three rooms. Because that ceiling is busted! Full of ever-increasing cracks. If it’s difficult for them to get it down, I’m going to feel a lot better about waiting to do the other three rooms. But it means we have to do a final push this weekend to get that room totally cleared. Not that there’s much left in there. I tell you, people, my anxiety about this stuff–getting the living room back together, getting the den done–is completely out of proportion to what it deserves. I know that and yet cannot stop myself from wanting to throw up about it.

Writing, well, re-writing continues. I am now at the point where the true rewriting starts–the last 100 pages of the book. Which is kind of funny to me because I struggled so much the first time with those last 100 pages. I should have known something was not right as hard as I struggled with them only to end up with something I still felt uncertain about.

But this is it, where John is not just the narrator but one of the main actors. I’m nervous as fuck. And yet, excited. It’s hard to explain, though I think I said it to S. (or maybe here, but I’m not stopping this train of thought to look), it feels like I have a hold of a live wire. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m not sure I’ve felt something like this at the time I was writing before. I mean, I look back at “Frank” or read it now and I’m like “Holy shit. How did I do that again? That’s something fucking special.” It has a kind of crackle.

This work has a kind of crackle to it.

I need a favor from you Middle Tennesseans. Is there someone or maybe a museum that specializes in 19th century forms of transport? After talking with nm, I would really like to be able to see first-hand what kinds of carriages folks might have had and to ask someone questions about which one(s) would fit my story. NM has me worried I’m inadvertently working horses to death.

Today, more than most days, Czeslaw Milosz weighs on my mind.

Here’s the second stanza of one of his masterpieces, “To My Daimonion“:

My daimonion, it is certain that I could not have lived differently
I would have perished if not for you. Your incantation
Would resound in my ear, fill me,
And I could only repeat it, instead of thinking
About my bad character, the decline of the world,
Or about a lost laundry ticket.
And it seems that while others loved,
Strove, hated, despaired,
I have only been busy with listening intently
To your unclear notes, to change them into words,
I had to accept my fate, today called karma,
For it was as it was, though I did not chose it –
And get up every day to honor the work,
Even if there is no guilt of mine in it and no merit.

Holy shit. That makes me weepy.

The Rolling Stones

I don’t like the Rolling Stones. I think I’ve come to that conclusion. There are individual Stones songs that I love like anything. But they’re not a band I trust to put out albums I might find interesting. No, that’s not exactly it. I prefer if someone else listens to the Stones and points me to the stuff that’s worthwhile. Right now I have “Under My Thumb” on my phone and every time it comes on, it just scrapes against my aesthetic sensibilities like a fork on teeth. Same with “Brown Sugar” (though I’d argue that “Brown Sugar” is a better song than “Under My Thumb.” Both are still not songs I care to hear ever again).

But “Time is On My Side”? Brilliant. And sounds timeless. (For fun, check out how much “The Last Time” has a kind of Monkees-esque-ness, by comparison.) “Play with Fire,” too. Wow. I’m not sure there’s a rock band at that time that did creepy as well as them. I spent a great deal of time in early high school listening the fuck out of “She’s a Rainbow” and “Ruby Tuesday.”

And, of course, “Sympathy for the Devil” is pretty much the greatest. I could go on. Song after song of theirs that I like. And they should be right up my alley. I love Led Zeppelin, and Led Zeppelin never met an old blues artist they didn’t try to impersonate.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I could put together a personal Rolling Stones greatest hits album. But I never do, and I’m not sure why. Just that I don’t like them. I can’t really understand it.


Six Days!

I love October. The weather is cool. Dead people are around. Everything is creepy in a homey way. I am a little nervous but mostly excited about the October project. It’s my first serialized thingamabob (holy shit, people, thingamabob is in Spellcheck. While Spellcheck is not. Is Spellcheck from the 40s?) and I’m kind of excited to see how it goes.

I have to call the contractor today and see when he can come do the den. That’s an exciting relief and a little stressful. I’m just afraid the demolition is going to be a bear. But I want to have that room done before Thanksgiving both because that ceiling is a visible mess and because I need to stick people in there to play solitaire on that computer when they’re being giant babies during the holidays. And I emphasize “need.” And I can’t have the ceiling caving in on loved ones, again, no matter how obnoxious they’re being.

We spent Saturday getting the big stuff back in the living room. It honestly makes me want to cry. It’s weird, but it would have been emotionally easier on me to just throw everything out except for the irreplaceable art and get all new. But, of course, that’s not an option. So, everything has to be wiped down and cleaned off. Eventually, I just started tossing shit I had no idea how to clean. I told the Butcher, if it’s missing, just assume it’s gone. And I should have worn a mask to do it, because breathing in that shit is terrible for you.

But we didn’t. There’s not a whole lot left to be done. We have to figure out some way to clean a couple of chairs and get them back in, get the hall tree back in and the stuff that was on it cleaned and on it, and the curtains hung. It’s not that bad. I’d rather do just about anything other than that, though. Plus, it means facing that some stuff is ruined. The awesome rocking chair? Not fixable. Now a pile of ashes. The chair that was my grandma’s? Not fixable. Now a pile of ashes. We can’t get the stereo equipment to work, but we’re hopeful that someone can come see if it’s salvageable. I guess the thing is not just that everything is so very dirty and some things are broken. It’s that you have to face, repeatedly, that this bad thing happened.

You can’t just let it recede into memory yet. You’re still in the immediate aftermath.

Thank the gods that we won’t have to go through that in the den.

Holy shit. Knock on wood.

Desire and Grief

One thing about this rewrite that stands out to me is just how close for me desire and grief are, like two notes in a chord where I’m not quiet sure what the third note is yet. I guess because both are a kind of longing.

The rewriting is going more quickly than I’d anticipated. Of course, I haven’t gotten to very many of the parts that have to be massively rewritten because of the narrator change. Mostly I’m just fleshing out some details. and adding some bits about John’s early life. As I get further in, I imagine it will get stickier.

The thing I wonder is how a man like John can be redeemed. If, indeed, he can. I mean, I’m not sure I even believe in redemption, exactly, but what I mean is, if your first act is as a serial killer who doesn’t face legal consequences–because in one time you don’t really exist and in the other time, your victims are already dead–but you regret it, kind of, what is your second act? In that regard, it’s good that he’s run into Ed, who feels such a grave responsibility for each one of his men who didn’t come home.

But it troubles me a little how fleshing John out, giving him a more adult voice as a man with absolutely no boundaries and very little morality in the conventional sense, makes him attractive to me. Charisma and brains are really almost enough to make me not care if a person is a monster. That’s not a trait that’s good for one’s well-being.

On the other hand, fiction is a safe place to explore said feelings, right?

I guess what I’m saying here, folks, is that Han Solo has a lot to answer for. Ha ha ha ha ha..

It’s Only What I Want that Makes Me Weak

It’s time for a reckoning of the best Gillian Welch songs, in album order.

1. “Pass You By”–Starting with the chug of the music and the cocky smoothness of the singer and going straight through the fact that she drives an “old V-I from the year I was born” this song is just beautiful and menacing in ways that please me.

2. “Caleb Meyer”–It’s frightening and there’s a ghost and there’s a way that the guitar part is menacing with the amount of notes in the song. It’s hard to explain, but this is as close as they come to a heavy metal song, I think.

3. “Elvis Presley Blues”–This song will literally tell you everything you need to know to understand Elvis. It’s a song about magic, how it’s done in our culture, about one of our greatest practitioners. They linking of it with the myth of John Henry is just… ugh… so brilliant I about die of jealousy every time I think about it.

4.  “Wrecking Ball”–“Look at Miss Ohio” has that one genius lyric–“I want to do right, but not right now,” but I think “Wrecking Ball” is overall better. It’s like the 70s and old timey music had a baby and here it is, heading toward the wall, like a… well… you know the words. Plus that line about being a little Deadhead hits me right in the heart, even though I never was.

5. “Tennessee” Oh, holy god, how do you go on not loving this song after he presses his whiskers to her cheek?

Extra! I assume we all know why. (Hint: It’s the greatest country song ever, hands down, don’t even fight me on it.)


Eight Years Ago, On a Cold Dark… No, I think it was an afternoon

Eight years ago, I started Tiny Cat Pants. In some ways, I’m still the same old me. In other ways, it’s simply impossible to imagine how I got from there to here except that it just somehow happened.

Blogging has brought me so many good things. I’ve met some of my best friends this way, had opportunities I just can’t even believe, still, are real, and found a real community in which I can flourish and grow.

I am incredibly grateful to you all for reading. And I hope it has been and continues to be worth your while.

The Thing that Frightens Me Most about Governor Haslam

The thing that frightens me most about Governor Haslam is that, if you listen to him, he’s very up-front about the fact that he has no fucking idea what he’s doing. Take, for instance, his response to the DCS clusterfuck of lawbreaking and dead-kid hiding.

“The death of one child in Tennessee is too many,” Haslam said in an emailed statement. “I am currently reviewing the data to better understand how we rank with other states when you compare apples to apples in how we’re collecting and accounting for the information. I’m also reviewing historical data for Tennessee.”

Let me just reiterate–DCS acknowledges they’ve knowingly been breaking the law for some great length of time and the Governor’s response is to “review the data.” See how we rank with other states. Well, my god, is there some acceptable ranking for “number of dead kids a state’s department of family services can illegally hide from state legislators?” Like, oh, well, Tennessee only hid 31 dead kids, but this other state hid 32, so we’re not doing so bad?

What should happen when you have a department breaking the law is that the people responsible for that department–who are responsible for the law-breaking–are put on leave until you can fire them.

But Governor Baby is busy running the state like a giant corporation, where we collect data and compare ourselves to our competitors and everyone sits around making and then passing around report after report. Things that should register as affecting real people are just data points to be theorized over.

Governor Baby, if he’s going to run the state like a business, should run it like a small business where, when someone in your company does something illegal, you act as if you, yourself, are responsible for stopping it and making it right, because you are.

But the difference between a small business owner–someone who’s out on the sales floor regularly, who knows everything about the product he’s trying to sell–and Bill Haslam’s CEO state-running model is that there are very few, say, John Deere dealers who think they can just step in to owning a Dairy Queen successfully without having to learn some really Dairy Queen specific skills. Nothing in your oil changing training is going to teach you how to put a pretty loop on the top of your soft serve, you know?

And yet, Haslam has been our governor for two years and he’s still not gotten his head around the fact that you can’t just swap CEOs of a state like you can of a corporation. Or that you can’t lead a state while keeping the reality of that state at arm’s length.

It’s time for Haslam to look our state straight on. Not compare it to what other states are doing. Not try to force it into some corporate model most people in the state have no experience with. But look at this state as it is right now and figure out how to govern this.

Book Stuff, Blah blah blah

Ha ha ha. I’m glad I’m not you guys, because I’m sure reading process posts about a novel that might never exist is not exactly thrilling. But they’re incredibly helpful for me to write. And, you know, maybe when y’all are writing and you’re struggling with how stupid the process is, you can remember that you are not alone.

Writing a novel is like tangling up a skein of yarn and then working to untangle it. Every knot undone is you crying “Why did I make this mess in the first place?” And every novel is a new set of knots tangled together in ways different from the first. The lessons from one untangling–other than the fact that it can be done–aren’t really applicable to the next.

But I am completely reenergized by switching narrators. Did I tell you that’s what I decided to do? I feel like I just may have alluded to it, being unable to say it outloud to myself because of the monumental amount of work it represented. But I’m saying it now. The narrator is switching from a slightly fictionalized me to John, the time-traveling, drug addicted, gun nut murderer.  It opens with him in a whore house. Not a whore house. The whore house that lingers in the background of the novel, where there is a woman in a back room willing to do to you things you can’t ask another person to do. After the War, she’ll beat a man with a Springfield rifle, for instance.

I wrote it and I cried and I read it and I cried and I knew–yep, this is the livewire the thing has been missing.