Drawing Up the Dark

In this post, I revisit a thing I’d written some time ago as a guest blogger. As I contemplate a return to the fun and carefree days of posting my fiction on my blog (an activity that inspired me more than anything I’ve tried since), I dragged this still-relevant piece from my attic trunk and dusted it off.

Free image/jpeg: forest mushrooms in the wild nature

I follow the lengthening shadows to my writing nook, playing the creaking floorboards underfoot. I conjure up the computer and sip my coffee. Depending on the season, there may be fireflies, dancing leaves, or snow to contemplate from my high window. It’s all quite placid, a mundane evening in an old house at the edge of an older cemetery. There is little to foretell the sprouting of fearsome worlds, like a wilderness of mushrooms fat with malice, that is about to occur. I will sit down at my keyboard and open a door to that forest of night. I will apply myself to the riddle of how to serve you, the reader, a meal of those mushrooms.

I write dark fiction – stories that fall under the black umbrella of horror, but which can be further classified as dark fantasy, paranormal, fairy tale, and fable. Every creature and trope in the horror domain is fair game, but how I assemble the materials determines sub-genre. For me as a reader, and certainly as a writer, it is not satisfactory to play with tired tropes, though. Something more than B-movie scares must infuse the stories. I’ll share my own recipe, stirred up with some success, but always leading me on toward a tantalizingly elusive feast of dark perfection. It includes the spice of beautiful language – careful construction of lovely literary complexity, even a dash of the poetic. If the words are rich and fill the reader’s mouth with the desire to speak them aloud just for the pleasure of them on the tongue, I feel satisfaction.

I add to the recipe the dazzling ornament of fully imagined setting. This requires the use of every sense. It is not enough to enable the reader to see. The stories take place somewhere, in worlds of fantastic possibility, and somewhen, in distinct eras. Close attention must be paid to details, and to smells, and to sounds. Tactile input must somehow be achieved. A world complete is one the reader can inhabit in an almost physical sense, one that is an extension of her body map. It is a world that she believes she can touch, and that (gulp) touches her in return.  

So, we have a place and time to visit, we’ve not been lazy with our research, and we have a sensuous mode of communication. There must be characters, and they cannot come ready made from some market. They must be created from scratch, the words they will speak placed in their mouths with a care that could animate stone angels. They must speak and act in ways that are true to their roles as well as to the reader, and they must never fall into the dull robotism of stock action or dialogue. Keen, and even rude, observation is my friend here. I do not shy from unabashed eavesdropping in public places. I collect life stories from friends and strangers with the avidity of an interrogator. I am as enamored of the ugly as I am of the beautiful, and I accept that both live in every individual. I enjoy all that human nature has on offer, and aim to choose from the best ingredients to make well developed, round characters.  

And now we come to it, that overarching, meaty thing referred to as plot. It seldom comes to me first. Most often, I begin with the others, making a savory broth that calls for this or that happening. The plot, the toothsome flesh of the story, grows like a mushroom from the interactions of the other components. There is yet one enigmatic additive I think lends the spark of real life to an otherwise partially animated tale.

photo found in the National Archives at Atlanta

I draw it from a well within me, from the lightless shaft where I keep my secret pain and terror. It is the salt of personal experience distilled from the fathomless subterranean sea of feeling and knowing that rolls its tidal brawn at the core of each of us. In writing the kinds of stories I write, I run my fingers over the slick hides of my own monsters as they slip by me in the murk, learning their shapes and boundaries. This is where the dark rises; this is where it is hauled bucket by harrowing bucket to the torchlight. This is where we gather, all together, to look at it.    

TALES FROM LA CASA DE LOS DULCES SUENOS: Root and Bloom

Baby Herbs 2020It’s raining here on this dreary May Eve. I stare out at the garden through the blur of the screen door, longing to get my hands in the soil. For the past month, I’ve been taking stock of the established plantings at Dulces Suenos and plotting the garden-to-be. The charm and maturity of the existing beds will form a lovely foundation for future delights, a grafting of my sensibilities with those who have inhabited this house before me. I find that memories of gardens I’ve known are surfacing, as well, after a hiatus of some years. Particularly poignant is that of my grandfather’s garden, bringing with it the earthy phantom smell of his potting shed.

Through the damp screen, I look toward a large mulched area that I have designated for an herb garden. The first young plants sit patiently on my deck under a dripping eave: peppermint and spearmint, German thyme, Italian oregano, and sage. An enormous pot of rosemary has been overwintering in the house. When I can next visit a nursery, my shopping list includes chives for infusing in oil and jazzing up omelettes; lavender for its Blueberrybeauty and scent and to add a sweet floral note to cauliflower rice; tarragon, so wonderful with mushrooms and eggs; dill to lend its zing to fish and soups. I will seek out fennel because I love its subtle licorice crunch, its mild sweetness when roasted. Garlic will come in the fall. Already, two young blueberry bushes have taken possession of the garden. My Pap did not grow herbs, an omission I now find curious as I remember his bursting vegetable patch, but I love them for their easy, bee-friendly natures and their swoon-inducing aromas.

My dear friend D— sent me a package containing three chunky peony roots. Now, in another bed, Sarah Bernhardt, the Duchesse de Nemours, and Festiva Maxima are settling in beneath their blanket of mulch with their pink snouts in the air. Though I won’t have blooms this season, next year should see gorgeous creamy fluffs of pastel pink and white that are all notable for their fragrance. Peonies are one of my very favorite flowers – their spicy Fiddleheadsscent that hangs so heady on the summer air, their immense, extravagant blossoms (the white ones, especially, floating in the warm twilight like glowing moons), their petals of cool silk. There are other peonies in the garden, some of them standing among the prehistoric spirals of furled ferns. I look forward to the delicious surprise of their colors and forms, and to the opening of the sweeping fronds of the ferns.

My Pap’s thumbs were green to the wrist. I don’t think there was anything he couldn’t grow. His vegetables were legendary, and flowers outdid one another trying to please him. I do not have his magic and must work hard to earn half the reward, but he managed to instill in me at least part of his wisdom. The secret ingredient is patience, not something I am naturally blessed with in abundance. Watching him commune with his green kingdom – his tender ministrations to leaf, root, and bud, his attention to a disciplined calendar, and his meditative labor with spade and hoe – was an education so gentle I did not realize I had received it until years later, when I began my first solo garden.

There were always peonies in neat ranks of shrubbery in Pap’s garden. And exuberant purple explosions of the bearded irises that he called “flags”. There were lilacs at theResident Peony back of the lawn, painstakingly trained into tree-form. Our front porch was a showroom of potted plants punctuated by the firecracker red of gigantic geraniums. As I settle into this new house and garden, I feel a nostalgic desire for these things. They are sigils of home for me. Maybe they are signs pointing the way back home, as well. For here, at the back of the lawn, are lilacs. Peonies were the first indicators of spring to emerge from the mulched beds. Irises thrust up their swords under my kitchen window. They were all here, waiting. I read their message and came to live among them. A house, a garden, home.

TALES FROM LA CASA DE LOS DULCES SUENOS: Days and Nights of the Soul

img_0894The night crept against the windows without my noticing. I looked out, confronted its inscrutable face, and my imagination came unmoored. I was an isolated heartbeat inside a dream of home and safety adrift in darkness. All the daylight solidity of the village – the sounds of lawnmowers and barking dogs, the neighbors strolling along the sidewalk – was erased, replaced with silence and a sinister immensity.

Earlier, when sunlight had made everything seem possible, I had painted color onto white walls. Lake blue bedroom for serenity, herb green dining room for renewal. Beautiful, luminous washes of hope and intention. Outside, the quince bushes bloomed with coral fervor. I’d spent a day weeding quincearound them and pruning branches broken by winter, enjoying the lively company of the birds and breathing the sweetness of narcissi and hyacinths. But that was in the daylight when the village was real, when the reward of purposeful labor was easy to believe in and the anxiety that slunk about behind my prosaic thoughts had no invitation to compose dark poetry.

Now the night had arrived, a deep velvet void without even the minimal light of stars. It beckoned with the expansive flair of an impresario. My imagination sprang to the unlit stage, capering in her skull mask and winding sheet. Death was on my mind, those who had gone long before and those who might still be lost to plague. Perhaps I would be among them. In the past, I’d been close by on a number of occasions when others had crossed that inevitable boundary – close without, I now realized, really appreciating the transition in all its terror and wonder. What might it be like? Could I face it with any semblance of grace or strength? At my core, I cringed from it. As for the notion, so staggering, that any of my loved ones might succumb…well, it was insupportable. Why is this despair not present always, I wondered. For surely, every day is fraught with the possibility of death and the danger nothing new to me. I found it a question with no answer.

Other fears assailed me. Fears of the loss of my home and security, fear for the ability to support myself. Fears that society might collapse into gibbering violence. Wild thoughts of nature herself, always my refuge, turning and savaging us for hubris. Every grim scenario imaginable flickered through my mind with its attendant feelings of oppression and desolation. This, until I wanted to scream or weep, my heart thudding as if I’d just fled from some ravening monster.  Calmly, quietly, I went to bed and took my evil actors with me. I tormented myself with watching them for a little while as I lay in the dark but finally I drifted into a dreamless sleep. When I again opened my eyes, there was sunlight tiptoeing across the floorboards, stretching like a cat on the foot of the bed.

img_0874So, the two worlds divide me. They don’t always respect the arcs of the sun and moon. Anxiety can pounce in the bright day, peace can find and hold me in the depth of night. They often jostle one another for the same space, giving rise to an almost comical confusion. I try not to look ahead. I try to keep my eyes on the day at hand and to find as many beautiful moments during it as I can. I get things done without allowing myself to feel compelled to do anything more than read or walk in the sunshine. In my kitchen, a healthful pot of soup bubbles. Laughter rings through the house. The feelings of sorrow and trepidation are deep and acknowledged, and then they are released. I know many of us struggle with this new way of being. I sometimes feel alone, but I am not. Here, for this day, the dreams are still sweet. I am grateful.

 

TALES FROM LA CASA DE LOS DULCES SUENOS: The Ghost & the Writer

windowsToday is a day of wind and rain. I can only gaze wistfully at my garden from the back-porch windows. The flowering shrubs and budding trees appear as bright, rain-sequined smears where the glass ripples with age. I’ve spent several hours shuttling up and down a ladder, clearing the panes of a respectable strata of grime. A task that seemed to take on the proportions of a labor of Hercules has finally yielded sparkling surfaces and clear light. As I admire my work, I wonder about the line of garden gazers who preceded me. How many stood here looking out? What did they see? How did their thoughts turn? This house is more than 100 years old. The inexorable hand of change has written, erased, and rewritten many stories here, leaving an intriguing palimpsest. It is a history that spawns, on moody days, that most romantic of old house inmates – the ghost.

What constitutes a haunting is a question I’ve spent a considerable amount of time mulling over. I’m a devoted student of the art of the ghost story. I have my own shifting beliefs, theories, and superstitions surrounding the subject. One thing about which I can agree with myself is that, for a sensitive observer, every house holds a prevailing atmosphere, something that could almost be likened to a personality. Perhaps it is made of memories imprinted on the stone, brick, or timbers like images on film or voices on wax cylinders. Maybe the people who pass their lives within the walls leave some remnant of themselves, a lingering perfume of vital spirits. It could be a phantasm from the mind of the observer herself, a ghost built of imagination. Whatever its ingredients, the atmosphere of a house will make itself known given the proper circumstances.

Here, in the House of Sweet Dreams, a few things have met in fortuitous confluence (if moody spring dayhauntings are your thing) to create at least the possibility of inspiring ghostliness. First, let us consider the quiet neighbors at the back of the garden. They lie stoically beneath the weathered stones of a small cemetery, bounded by black walnut trees. Their resting place is as old as the village and far predates my house. Some of the headstones have fallen and lie flat in the moss, some have been gathered and stacked neatly in the woods. Of those that stand, some have been worn to illegibility by the elements. Others still invite the touch with their deeply chiseled names and lovely old carvings of clasped hands, willows and ivy, wreaths and lambs. I’m told the cemetery is the oldest in the area.

Next, we turn our attention to the house itself. Not as aged as the cemetery, but certainly old. Big and rambling, filled with sunlight at shocking counterpoint to shadowed nooks aplenty, it dozes peacefully and ruminates upon its people. It is a house that has been loved and cared for; it is good-natured. Yet, on windy nights or stormy days, there are spots within it than can raise the hair on the back of one’s neck. What is that energy? Just a bit of harmless mischief? Houses can have senses of humor, too, and what they find amusing can sometimes form a little splinter of ice in the blood.

Finally, there is a writer of dark fiction. A walking, talking cauldron of fantasies and alternate worlds. A quivering antenna tuned to the frequency of the paranormal. I can already see the story forming around this trifecta but, in what we all agree is reality, this is indeed a lucky convergence. What other kind of house, really, would suit me? Where else could I feel so keenly the special resonance that translates to inspiration? I’m settling in here a bit more with every domestic accomplishment, looking forward to capturing the stories I feel drifting about. I can almost see them as I gaze out at the garden and beyond, through my spotless windows.

TALES FROM LA CASA DE LOS DULCES SUENOS: To Market, To Market

grape hyacinthA few days ago, I went grocery shopping. I hadn’t been anywhere for weeks. The big university town to which I had commuted every day for work, shopping, and socializing has receded from my horizon with eerie swiftness. In the grip of the pandemic, businesses have closed their doors, my office among them, and the seemingly endless crowds of people have vanished, sequestered in their homes. I found myself contemplating the risk to reward ratio of venturing out for food, and while I chuckled over my sudden disinclination to tackle such a simple, everyday task, the fear was real. A primal situation had arisen in which a virus, instead of a sabre-toothed cat, lurked behind every shrub (or, in this case, behind every market door). In need of provisions, I buckled up and drove to town. Once busy thoroughfares were deserted, no pedestrians jostled at crossings, and the beautiful day was as still as a stage set awaiting actors.

Inside the market, people were quiet and intent on their tasks. We all observed a safe distance, those who could get them wore masks, everybody waited patiently behind the taped lines on the floor at checkout counters while clerks disinfected every surface. The mood was one of concern and discomfort at our (greatly adjusted) proximity, but I saw only friendly smiles and nods. There was a great, concerted effort among shoppers and workers to be courteous and kind. Every one of us felt the shivery finger of fear, hunted by an invisible predator that could at that very moment be lurking in our midst. Perhaps it had already battened on a victim or two…how would any of us know? But we did not cower. We attended to our necessary errands, observed what precautions we could, and smiled warmly, glad in the end to see one another.forsythia canopy

The following day, I sat in my garden with yellow forsythia blossoms blazing around and over me like a galaxy of stars. Flowering quince waved fat pink buds and lilacs thrust their slender green-tipped fingers into the blue. I took my dinner there, thankful for the good nourishing food procured the day before despite grim thoughts of contagion. The air was alive with the flurry and chatter of birds, busy about their annual labor of nest-building. I cannot imagine a more social group of creatures, nor one that derives such joy from mere conversation or from preening in the spring warmth. Yet, not an hour before my peaceful meal, I had stood happily in the sun in my driveway talking with my neighbor, standing in the sun in his driveway. We talked of houses and history, village life then and now, the routines and traditions of those two social mainstays of rural places – the volunteer fire company and the farmers’ grange. We are not so unlike the birds after all in our appreciation of nature’s simple bounty or in the satisfaction of sharing it with like-minded spring mapleindividuals.

The serene wisdom of home and garden states that the heart rests contentedly in slow time. The many small tasks that propel us down the hours are sweet when we allow ourselves frequent moments of quiet to reflect on what we most cherish. When we allow ourselves to be soft and receptive to the elegant, uncomplicated blessings that soothe us. For me, it is this garden readying itself for further bloom, a one-pot meal with a little spice, a cup of rich coffee. It is sitting among the friendly trees, observing the sinuous grace of the maple with her arms raised to call the birds, poised like a ballerina on a purple carpet of hyacinth. It is this village where the earth holds centuries-old memories of crops and harvests. There is no place here for fear, whatever may come. There is only a house of Sweet Dreams and a woman with a pen, recording them.