“South Carolina is too small for a republic, but too large for an insane asylum.”– James Louis Petigru, 1860
South Carolina has a sort of dark magnetism to it. It’s hard to explain, unless the person you’re talking to has lived there. There’s a cosmic wrongness to it, amongst all the right. Streets that crack in curious ways, buildings that slump as if exhausted, railroad tracks weighed down with kudzu. Everything is ancient there, even things that have just been built. They accumulate years in days, and the light of the Circle K sign out on Garner’s Ferry flickers with portentous meaning. Oracles spit five dollar fortunes in broken bathroom stalls and the sins of past generations stalk their descendants through the swamp of years.
Time does not flow steadily in the Palmetto State, but instead eddies in out of the way places. Past and present collide like litter in the Congaree River, striking and spinning out in unpredictable ways. We hold tight to tradition – so tight that it warps in our hands or breaks entirely. There is a tension, everywhere. A communal pause, awaiting the inevitable drop of the other shoe. We lack Florida’s joie de vivre and Georgia’s stateliness.
It’s a shaggy sort of place, full of strange and wonderful things, if you know how and where to look. There are wraiths wandering the old paths, stinking of cinders fresh from Sherman’s fire. Devil-dogs loping through empty parking lots, in pursuit of half-glimpsed, hell-fuelled Cadillacs. Wild shadows that stretch and stumble in unsettling fashion. Witch-bottles clunk in the evening breeze and even the least-superstitious make sure there’s a bit of haint blue on the doorposts.
It’s the place I grew up. The place where I decided I wanted to be a writer. Southerners – and South Carolinians in particular – have one innate gift that no-one who has spent any time in the South can deny…we can tell good stories.
Sure, some folks call them lies, but that’s just jealousy talking. We’re born storytellers, right down to our blood and bones. We blend fact, fiction and fancy with every breath and fill the air with stories. Some good. Some bad. Mostly funny, though not all in that particular way as to be socially acceptable.
When I started writing, I started with what I knew and what I knew was South Carolina. I knew it – know it – like Lovecraft knew New England or Wellman knew the mountains of North Carolina. Or so I fancied. The truth is, I didn’t know what I knew or what I didn’t know and I still don’t.
But I feel it. I hear it and smell it and taste it. I can still hear the cicadas’ song and feel the summer breeze. I can taste rusty water and banana pudding and catfish stew. That’s what I wrote, and hope to write again.
I called my part of South Carolina – a nasty, low down dog mean part – Jackapo County. A sort of broke-down get back boogie of a place, where the Devil wouldn’t stay on a bet, but he might be inclined to visit. I’ve written around thirty stories set there – many of which feature the character of John Bass, a crochety old haint-breaker – plus an unpublished novel or two.
Over the years, I’ve drifted away from my roots and from Jackapo County. My writing has improved, but when I look back at those old stories, I see a spark of…something. Something I’m missing more and more, as the years roll on. Maybe it’s homesickness, or maybe it’s simply my muse – feral boo-hag that she is – digging her knucklebones into the underside of my mind, reminding me that sometimes you can go home again.
Sometimes you never really left at all.
At any rate, I’ve decided to indulge the hag, and try something special. Back when I started out, when deadlines did not loom and writing was a more leisurely activity than it is today, I engaged in regular free writing – pieces jotted down in ten or twenty minutes, with no regard to plot, character or structure. It was about playing with ideas that would never become stories. Most of them were set in Jackapo County. They were largely raw and – I thought – unusable vignettes, but I’ve come to see that the term ‘unusable’ don’t mean what it used to.
They were the stories between the stories. The the tall tales and urban legends that my characters knew but the readers didn’t. The swamplands of Jackapo County, where stories sink into the mire to wait for the unwary.
I aim to get back into the practice of free writing in the coming days, more for my own amusement than anything else. And maybe yours as well. I intend to share a few of them, at least – something new to entertain you. At least I hope it entertains you. We’ll see, won’t we?
Welcome to the swamplands. Try not to get mud on yourself.