The Mythic South
2 years ago
I love a good ghost story year-round, not just in proximity to Halloween. I live in Alabama, in the Deep South, and I grew up with a superstitious bunch.
Every house was haunted. Every stand of trees hid a monster. And so, when it came time to write Every Mountain Made Low, I had to write a ghost story.
Loxley Fiddleback, like all the women of her family, is psychic sensitive, and able to see the dead. Unlike her mother, the dead also see Loxley, and will attack her on sight. Each frigid touch from a ghost brings horrible pain, but also certain knowledge, like the name of the deceased. The only way for Loxley to avoid them is to hold her breath when they’re near, and that brings me to my first myth:
Holding your breath near a cemetery
When I was a kid, we had two cemeteries on the way to school: one modern and one that predated the Civil War. On this side of the Atlantic, we’re not accustomed to any structures older than two hundred years, and so that second cemetery creeped the hell out of us. My sister told me to hold my breath or I’d breathe in an evil spirit, which was the consensus of the other kids. However, I wondered if the spirits could see the life you breathe out, almost like mosquitoes homing in on the biggest source of CO2. What would happen if they followed you and caught you? Would they cling to you like drowning victims searching for one last hold on the surface?
My friends were afraid of possession by sadistic, evil spirits. Now, I know we had all types in Athens, but it was hard to imagine any of them as forces of Satan or the like. I was scared they’d drag me back to their graves in a misguided attempt to save themselves.
But we do have a popular evil spirit in the South…
The Bell Witch
In the early 1800s, Kate Baggs died and became a malevolent spirit, haunting one family in Adams, Tennessee: The Bells. She’d curse the them by name, throwing their stuff around and torturing their poor daughter, Betsy. Joshua Bell came to believe his family was hexed by a witch, though he may have mislabeled her because it was a less civilized time, lacking a Tobin’s Spirit Guide to tell them it was clearly a poltergeist… I didn’t know much about her, until I went to high school with one of the Bell kids, many generations later.
The legend of the Bell Witch was so popular in its day that Native American mass murderer / President Andrew Jackson himself was alleged to investigate. He attempted to conjure the witch and fled in terror after she supposedly appeared, and he never made another attempt. Historians say it’s all conjecture, and I’m prone to agree. After all, it’s hard to believe that President would’ve turned tail at something so small as a demon after the evils he spearheaded.
At the height of the haunting, though, Joshua Bell responded to scratching and found a half-dog, half rabbit creature. Perhaps that creature was…
I will never forget the night we stayed in my Granny’s tin-roofed farmhouse in rural Mississippi, and my dad decided it was time to tell the story of Tailypo. The creature was a dog-sized feral thing whose tail had been cut off in a hungry moment by an Appalachian farmer. It would scratch at the walls and roof, begging in a man’s tongue for its long-eaten tail. The story builds as it asks over and over, “Where is my tail,” culminating in an old-fashioned dad-jump-scare, “YOU HAVE IT!” He left me and my sister to sleep in the old steel-framed bed while the storm coaxed the pecan tree outside to scratching the roof.
What I didn’t know at the time, was that Tailypo had a lot of history. It took a lot of forms over the years, but it had the quintessential element of American horror: the morality play. It was the farmer’s fault that this creature was going to kill him. After all, he’d stolen a piece of it in a desperate moment. I knew when I started writing Every Mountain Made Low that I had to prominently include the beast.
He’s a transaction, a penalty, a self-inflicted curse. The more of him I wrote, the more I loved the character as a devil offering a deal.
The Deep South is steeped in folklore
And there’s no way I could cover it all here or any book. I hope, however, that you’ll pick it up and look for a few of the tales contained in the main storyline. And I’m always interested in local folklore, so if you have a spooky childhood story, drop me a line on Twitter!