Southern Horror

I guess I should add a disclaimer from the get-go.  My post is not about the horror of an unexpected swallow of unsweetened tea or being served grits without salt, butter, or cheese.  No, that goes well beyond horror.  This is about the horror genre and its effects on the unexpecting.  The effects of being so scared your feet refuse to move. 

A pair of New Englanders find themselves lost, stuck up to the axles of their ’56 Ford in the middle of a Southern piney woods.  The light is quickly failing over a dilapidated Southern mansion sitting at the end of an overgrown drive.  Brothers, they discuss what to do and decide to spend the night in the abandoned mansion.  Never a smart move if you are familiar with Southern Gothic.

The Pendleton-Graves Home in Sparta, Georgia.
The Pendleton-Graves Home in Sparta, Georgia.
Photo by David Bulit

As they walk to the mansion a flock of pigeons are spooked…the makings of a Southern Gothic horror story for sure.  I can think of dozens of reasons it is a bad idea to spend the night in an abandoned mansion but then I have seen too many movie and TV episodes and have read too many horror stories.

I can tell you exactly when I fell in love with Gothic Horror, specifically Southern Gothic Horror. That would be June 6, 1961.  It was a Monday night in front of a black and white TV.  I watched and listened to a lisping Boris Karloff introduce this week’s Thriller episode, “Pigeon’s From Hell.”  Murder by ax, Voodoo, Zombies, the Blassenville family with a history of abuse, all with bad Southern accents dripping from the screen like Spanish moss hanging from cypress trees.  

I jumped when character Johnny Banner is caught in the afore mentioned flock of pigeons, pigeons that represented the lost souls murdered. Later, I hid my eyes when the same character attempts to split his brother Timothy’s skull with a hatchet.  He does this after having had his own skull split by persons or “things” unknown. 

Love me some murdering Zombies with split skulls although my former Haitian baseball player says Zombies are a movie creation…wait was he Haitian or Jamaican?  Does it make a difference to Zombies? 

A Thriller a Day...: Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36
Johnny ready to give forty whacks…wait, wrong movie.

Many years later I would read the short story with the same title the TV episode drew from.  It was written by pulp fiction icon and the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard.  The story was published posthumously in Weird Tales, a fantasy and horror magazine in 1938.  Despite “Thirties noir speak”, it is a good short story and a better story line than the TV version. 

Weird Tales - Wikipedia
Image from our favorite Free Encyclopedia, Wikipedia

There is something baleful about abandoned Southern mansions, with or without pigeons or Zombies.  Doors and shutters hanging askew, broken windowpanes, paint peeling to expose the silver of many layers of whitewash underneath, old chimneys collapsing under their own weight.  Columns…one can almost hear the voices of the dead and abused in the breeze especially if you have an active eleven-year-old imagination…even an active seventy-year-old imagination.

A Thriller a Day...: Pigeons From Hell: Season 1 Episode 36
The decaying Blassenville sisters killed by…well, you’ll have to watch the episode on YouTube to find out.

In the late Sixties, our group of high school friends decided to explore the Brattonsville Plantation house near Rock Hill, SC…in the dead of night, near what is universally known as the witching hour.  Alcohol might have been a contributing factor; I don’t rightly remember.  I do remember there was a Mars/Venus component as we males wanted to impress the young women among our group.  Young women make young men stupid…stupider.

I won’t deny feeling a bit of trepidation as I thought about how close the name Blassenville was to Brattonsville and wondered if anyone had been practicing Voodoo within its less than comfy confines.  Pigeons?  Are there pigeons?

During those days Brattonsville was the perfect example of a “rundown” and abandoned Southern plantation.  The homeplace has since been renovated to its Antebellum glory as have the other buildings but I do not remember them that way. The mental vision I have is of a place perfect for Southern Gothic Horror.

I remember there was a full or near full moon and the unkept grounds seemed to glow with a light of their own as we made our way to the huge mansion house. In my mind I see the first story entryway door standing open, under the twin galleries’ roofs. The darkness beyond is inviting the lambs to a possible slaughter. 

Homestead House, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Restoration of the Homestead began in 1975 and it was opened to the public a year later. http://chmuseums.org/history-hb/

One of the members of our group was well versed in Brattonville’s “supposed” history and regaled us with stories of a less than sane family, abused slaves, the Klu Klux Klan, cruel medical experiments and a Yankee spy hung from a pulley above an attic window.  Owned since before the Revolutionary War by a series of doctors, our historian told tales that made the Bratton doctors seem to be the combinations of Doctors Jekyll, Frankenstein, and Phibes.

We explored all the rooms and made our way to the third-floor attic, site of the medical laboratory and the hanging according to my date’s history lesson.  I had overcome my initial fear and found myself leading the group, not because of my bravery I assure you, but because I had the only flashlight.

Built for John Simpson Bratton Jr. and his wife Harriet Rainey Bratton in 1856. Then called “Forrest Hall,” it is now known as “Hightower Hall”. It could have been its own haunted mansion. https://chmuseums.org/hightower-hall-hb/

As my cute historian told her story of hangings and medical experiments, I found myself in the narrow and empty attic lab…not exactly empty.  There appeared to be examination tables and I fully expected to see a medical skeleton. Instead, a breeze drew my attention to an open window and the figure hung with a perfect hangman’s noose suspended there.   

I froze in place while my five friends took off like scalded haints.  My brain said run, my feet refused.  I might as well have been a tree rooted in place.  I froze long enough to realize what I was seeing was a department store mannequin.  The plastic kind…in fact one of its legs had fallen off.

As my fright dissipated, I found my feet and walked closer.  As the mannequin slowly turned in the breeze, I noticed a note held around its neck by a cord.  My flash revealed a single sentence written in red lipstick…”Mickey Mouse is a Jew.”  Yeah, kind of anti-climactic but a sentence that has kept me wondering for over fifty years. 

My friends? They didn’t leave me…I had the car keys. It did take a while to gather them up.

Historic Brattonsville main house.jpg
The Main House at Brattonsville with the memorable attic window visible
Picture by Zan Maddox of LaValla Maddox Design.

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The history of Brattonsville (documented history) includes  

The original home was built in 1776 by Colonel William Bratton who participated in the nearby Revolutionary War Battle between Patriots and Loyalist, The Battle of Huck’s Defeat. Brattonsville was used in the filming of the movie, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson.

There was a one night stay by Jefferson Davis as he fled the surrender of Richmond in hopes of reaching Confederate troops in the South or West. (Supposedly this is when the spy was hung but I can find no documentation.)

Dr. J. Rufus Bratton, a York County Klan leader, was the inspiration for the book The Clansman and the 1918 movie it spawned, Birth of a Nation. I am not telling this with any sort of pride but history is history. My guess is Dr. Rufus Bratton was not a nice person when it came to race relations.

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Don Miller’s authors page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0pjOyQmBib8Mbptaegd7cbdhBk1Dqd3AwEssRjtjCtVGq4zxV2P_c9zKk

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The featured image is from another Southern Gothic film, Swamp Water, starring Walter Brennan, Dana Andrews, and Walter Huston.

The Old Man

The old man sat on the top step of the porch and watched the movement of children as they played tag. His vision was bad and he squinted attempting to see. Cataracts had thickened, reducing the children to ghostly apparitions. Too much time spent in the blazing sun. He could still see their blurry forms and could discern the gaily clad little girls in their summer dresses from the little boys in their shorts and long pants. Thank God! My hearing is still good.

Someone wanted to take a picture with their new-fangled camera. Something called a Brownie. He sat a bit slumped, his hands resting on his thighs. An eighty-year-old…today. His once red hair was now white as the cotton bolls bursting in the fall. His beard, years ago red and sparse had thickened like his cataracts. White and long, it spread to the middle of his vest. Tobacco juice from years of chewing stained the sides of his mouth.

His gaze shifted to the distant horizon. His once blazing, blue-green eyes had faded but his vision was still sharp…with the visions of the past. He smiled at his thoughts. He couldn’t remember what day it was, but his memories of times now past was as sharp as the old boning knife he once carried. He spent most of his time gazing back at the past. Mostly he spent his time with the memory of Lucretia, now dead nearly fifty years.

He had been lucky. He had loved three times. Three fine women had warmed his bed and brought him comfort and joy. Lucretia, Genevieve, and Josephine. He had loved them with all his heart. The old man had been unlucky too, he had outlived all three. He cherished the memories of them all, but Lucretia was special. She had been his first…. He liked to remember her in the emerald green ball dress. High waisted, it bared her shoulders and dipped low showing her décolletage. An emerald ribbon held her mother’s cameo and brought attention to her long slender neck. He remembered slowly taking her out of the dress…Damn, I almost felt something stir.

Timmy, Tyler James’s youngest, sat down beside him. A chap of six, he recognized the boy’s voice when he asked, “Whatcha’ thinking about Grampy?” He was John William’s youngest grandchild. John William was not the old man’s grandson but his grandnephew, Arlo and Stella’s boy. He had sired no children but had been adopted by John William and his brood.

“Timmy, I was thinking about Grammy Lucretia. I wish you had the chance to meet her. She was a special woman.”

“As special as Grammy Josey?” He asked as if he might be worried about my answer.

“Oh yes, oh yes she was…and Josephine loved you very much.”

“I miss her…’specially her molasses cookies.”

“I miss her too…and her molasses cookies.”
He missed his friends too. All were gone. Sean, Arlo, and Stella, Alexandre’ and Shailene, James. All had been gone for ages. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” from the book Momma Edwards had taught him to read from. He had been here too long. It was time to move on.

“Tell me a story Grampy.”

Well, maybe it’s not quite time to move on quite yet.

Finis

I’ve always wondered about the picture I used to illustrate this fictional piece that may or may not become a novel. It is a picture of my great, great-grandfather, Marion DeKalb Rodgers, who was born in 1842. I have no idea when the picture was made…and it really doesn’t matter. It’s his tanned and weathered face, along with the squint, that captivated my thoughts. I wondered what he was thinking and what his life was like, the sights he saw. I understand he was a farmer and a carpenter. I know as a seventeen-year-old he went off with his father to fight in the Civil War and was one of the lucky ones who returned. Again, I just wonder.

Don Miller is a multi-genre, Indie author. He has just released his second work of fiction, South From Sutherland’s Station. It along with his other works may be purchased or downloaded at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM.

SOUTH FROM SUTHERLAND’S STATION

Excerpt from Don Miller’s soon to be released historical novel, South From Sutherland’s Station.

As he traveled down the Ohio to the Mississippi, the side-wheeler made stops along the way: Cincinnati, Memphis, Greenville, Vicksburg, Natchez, and finally New Orleans.  Over and over, it loaded and unloaded cargo, livestock, and people.  Vicksburg, Tennessee, and the flanking Delta, Louisiana, were the worst.  Despite having been out of the fight for nearly two years, the people who met them on the wharves still bore scars from the war.  Few young men met them, just older men, colored and white, stooped from both age and abuse.  Underweight and hollow-eyed children begged and faded Southern Belles twirled their parasols, all dreaming of a time now past.  Any joy of being near his home soil was offset by the gloom covering the landscape like the thick fogs off the river.

The easiest way home would be to disembark at Vicksburg, cross the river to Delta and then catch a stage overland the seventy miles to Edwards’ Crossroads.  Going on to New Orleans meant having to catch a riverboat traveling back up to the Red River and onto the Ouachita but his promise to Wyatt ate at him worse than a case of the quickstep.  Allen Kell knew if he did not make the trip to Wyatt’s mother and sister, his promise would continue to gnaw at him.  Maybe he could find some work to get enough money to get home.  Anytime offered work to load or unload the side-wheeler, he had volunteered.  Despite his efforts, he had less than five dollars of army script in his pocket.

Allen Kell sat on the barge and brooded.  He wanted to be happy the war was over.  Memories of the killing and disease seemed to sap his resolve.  He was empty inside, a shell.  Allen Kell knew but refused to admit, he missed the killing.  He had been most alive making the charges against Federal lines, looking down barrels of death pointed in his direction.  The vicious hand to hand fighting sent adrenaline pulsing through his body, leaving him spent and at peace when it was over.  Allen Kell’s ruminations were interrupted as the side-wheeler’s steam whistle went off.  Moments later, just around the next bend, the New Orleans’s wharves came into view.

Allen Kell agreed to trade more labor for meals, a piece of deck to sleep on and passage back to Vicksburg later in the week.  He would end up with more army script to go with what he had.  After spending part of his script on some new clothes-a union suit, one pair of tough canvas pants, two shirts, one flannel for work and a muslin to visit Wyatt’s family in-Allen Kell went to the community baths to bathe and shave.  He kept the officer’s slouch hat he had picked up off the battlefield at Gettysburg, the red Garibaldi shirt he had been issued in Baton Rouge, his braces and his boots, and trashed the rest.  When he looked at his reflection while shaving, Allen Kell was shocked at the gauntness of his face and realized he had the same hollow-eyed stare he had noticed on the faces of the people of Vicksburg.  It had been the first time he had seen his face in over a year.

South From Sutherland’s Station is a novel of the chaotic days following the Civil War and ex-Confederate soldier, Allen Kell Edwards.  It will be available for purchase in early December.  Until then you may go to Don Miller’s author’s page at http://amazon.com/author/cigarman501