Thursday, July 06, 2023

VIRGINIA CREEPERS: A History of Local Horror Fiction

One of my latest projects is co-editing an anthology of original, previously unpublished horror stories set in my home state. Dark Corners of the Old Dominion will be released by Death Knell Press in September 2023. In the meantime, I’ve been taking a deep dive into the history of Virginia-based horror novels.


The commonwealth of Virginia has a long history, and therefore plenty of legends and “true” ghost stories… but, as far as I can tell, it’s a relatively new setting for horror fiction. Virginia native Edgar Allan Poe published “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” an otherworldly short story set in the hills southwest of Charlottesville, in 1844—but this strange tale draws most of its power from a waking dream of an exotic Hindu civilization rather than the Virginia setting. Ellen Glasgow set her 1923 short story “The Whispering Leaves” on the banks of the Rappahannock River, but this Jamesian effort to modernize Southern American Gothic is wrapped in a cringe-worthy depiction of Old Virginia plantation culture. Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel The Beguiled—which became the basis for a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie as well as a more recent adaptation by filmmaker Sofia Coppola—was set on Cedar Hill Road near Spotsylvania in the Civil War-era, but in some ways it almost feels even more modern, like a savage modern slasher movie.


Other than those three stories, I don’t know of many Virginia creepers that predate the golden age of the American horror novel, which began with the publication of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967), William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971) and Thomas Tryon’s The Other (1971). My survey of Virginia horror starts in earnest with John Farris’s 1977 occult novel All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By. Stephen King hyped the novel in his nonfiction book Danse Macabre, and so did Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks from Hell. Mostly, they were praising Farris’s bravura opening chapter, which visualizes a gruesome wedding massacre at a fictional military institute in Gaston, Virginia. The massacre is related to a supernatural curse on one of the commonwealth’s oldest families. The mystery continues: “The day Clipper went crazy in the chapel, something else strange happened near there—on Railroad Ridge, which overlooks the town of Gaston and the military school. A little boy named—Jimmy, I think—was on the ridge picking flowers for his sick mother. A terrible thing happened to him in the woods…”


Stephen King made a trip to Virginia a few years later, in his 1980 novel Firestarter. The novel, about a father and daughter pursued by a shadowy government agency known as The Shop, is set in a fictional suburb of D.C. called Longmont. I’m betting the town name was inspired by Longmont, Colorado, which King probably visited while he was living in Boulder and writing The Shining, but the setting is pure Virginia: a pair of antebellum plantation homes formerly owned by Civil War veterans. King explains that when the old-timers gave up their ghosts in the mid-1950s, the government moved in and started conducting illegal experiments on na├»ve college students. A generation later, the sins of the fathers come back to burn them.


The sins of the fathers—and mothers and grandparents—also haunt the youngest generation in V.C. Andrews’s Flowers in the Attic. The 1979 novel is set almost entirely inside an estate house in the rolling hills near Charlottesville, but young protagonist Cathy Dollenganger gets a brief, nighttime view of her bucolic piedmont VA surroundings: “There were hills aplenty, looking like lumpy patchwork quilts, with trees parading up and down to separate them into distinct sections. Sentinels of light, I called them, but Momma told us the many trees in straight rows acted as wind-breaks, and held back the heavy drifts of snow. Just the right words to make Christopher very excited. He loved all kinds of winter sports, and he hadn’t thought a southern state like Virginia would have heavy snow.” Turns out, life at Foxworth Hall is cold as ice.


V.C. Andrews, a native of Portsmouth, lived out her later years on Lynnhaven Bay in Virginia Beach, where she wrote three and a half sequels to Flowers in the Attic before succumbing to breast cancer at the age of 63. In true gothic fashion, her name and her spirit have lived on, with ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman publishing dozens of books under her name. For better or worse, that long-lasting legacy isn’t very closely associated with Virginia.


For a time, crime writer Patricia Cornwell was the commonwealth’s most famous local writer. A native Floridian, Cornwell moved to the Richmond area in 1981, and started writing fiction there in 1984. Drawing heavily on her personal experience of working for the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office in Richmond, she published her first crime novel Postmortem in 1990, introducing Kay Scarpetta, a character that has appeared in 26 novels to date. Cornwell said she loosely based Postmortem on a series of strangling murders that occurred in Richmond in the summer of 1987, and conceived Scarpetta as “a force of reason and rationality in an evil, satanic world.”


Part of Cornwell’s early success may have been timing. Postmortem was published just two years after Thomas Harris’s bestseller Silence of the Lambs—which begins at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Cornwell, in turn, might have inspired fellow Virginian author Wendy Haley, who published her first murder mystery in 1992.  Haley’s Shadow Whispers was primarily set in Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood. The author also wrote historical romances, a couple of southern vampire novels (no, not The Vampire Diaries—but those are also set in Virginia), and a trio of ghostwritten R.L. Stine novels before her untimely death (cancer) in 1998. Haley wrote three more murder mysteries. The last one, White Light (1995), was a horror-tinged tale set against the backdrop of “New Age” culture associated with the Edgar Cayce research center in Virginia Beach.


One of the biggest success stories in the Virginia horror community is undoubtedly Waynesboro native Elizabeth Massie, recently celebrated by the International Horror Writers Association with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Massie published her first novel, Sineater, in 1992, and it was voted “best first novel” at the HWA’s Stoker Awards that year. Set in the fictional rural mountain community of Beacon Cove, Sineater is about a local conflict between tradition and modernity, a heaping helping of Southern Gothic, backwoods prejudice, and horrors of religious zealotry. It is also a surprisingly tender coming-of-age story, demonstrating the real strength of Massie’s character-driven storytelling.


Massie plays to that strength in her second novel Welcome Back to the Night, a savage and supernatural tale of culty white supremacists and “aliens,” drenched in pre-millennial dread.  The setting is the fictional town of Henford, nestled in the hills of the Shenandoah Valley, somewhere between Staunton and Harrisonburg. Massie’s third novel, Wire Mesh Mothers (2001), also starts in Virginia, near Emporia. There’s no hint of the supernatural in that one, but it’s a powerful horror novel about dysfunctional families and psychological trauma. Since then, the author has put her own unique spin on stories about witchcraft (Homeplace, 2007), zombies (Desper Hollow, 2013), and cave-dwelling monsters (Virginia: Valley of Secrets, part of the author’s Ameri-Scares series, 2013). She recently completed a sequel to her first novel, titled Wages of Sin.


Another native Virginian who has consistently explored darker corners of the state is Stephen Mark Rainey, whose fictional journeys began with a vivid nightmare set in the woods behind his childhood home in Martinsville. In an introduction to his 2000 short story collection The Last Trumpet, Rainey remembers, “It was a true night-horror, one that woke me in a cold sweat three separate times. Each time I managed to go back to sleep, the dream took up right where it left off.” The haunting experience has inspired a long-running cycle of short stories and an elaborate Lovecraftian myth rooted in Virginia’s blood-red clay. Over time, Rainey has transformed his hometown into Aiken Mill, Virginia’s version of Castle Rock. Mysteries continue to unravel in Fugue Devil and Other Weird Horrors (1992), The Last Trumpet, The Lebo Coven (2004), and Fugue Devil: Resurgence (2023). Rainey will make another stop in Aiken Mill in the forthcoming Dark Corners of the Old Dominion. 


The year 2000 seems like a reasonable line of demarcation between the golden age of the American horror novel and the current era of indie horror. By and large, horror novels haven’t had the kind of mainstream popularity in the 21st century that they had in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. But that’s not to say that there haven’t been some damned good horror novels in recent years. And quite a few of them are set in Virginia.


One of the more celebrated horror novels of the early 21st century is New Yorker Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), which is set at a haunted house in the countryside, not too far from Richmond, on the fictional corner of Succoth and Ash Tree Lane. The author aggressively distorts and breaks the frame of the traditional ghost story, haphazardly presenting fragments of documentary evidence to create verisimilitude and also disorient the reader. In some ways, House of Leaves the literary equivalent of a found footage horror movie. Some call it meta-fiction, some satire. What’s clear is that this book will either terrify you or frustrate the hell out of you. Or both.


Few horror novelists have followed Danielewski’s rather audacious lead, but one title worth mentioning in the same breath is Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements (2014). Cantero is a Spanish author who apparently has an affinity for the Virginia countryside. His novel is set in the fictional town of Point Bless, in a house built by one of the first Dutch immigrant families in Virginia—a family with a dark past (in slavery times, the author writes, “the Axtons were particularly brutal”) that won’t die. In a 2014 Reddit appearance, Cantero said he was okay with one reader’s characterization of the novel as “a lighter House of Leaves.”


British novelist Graham Masterton, a well-known name in the horror fiction world (his 1976 novel The Manitou inspired the 1978 film), also dredged up some old Virginia ghosts in his 2004 novel The Devil in Gray. The novel depicts a series of gruesome murders in the city of Richmond, which turn out to be perpetrated by an undead Confederate soldier seeking revenge. On his website, Masterton says the idea came from a simple but tantalizing question about one of the most brutal battles of the Civil War: “What if the Confederates won the Battle of the Wilderness because they used Santeria magic to help them?”


West Virginia native Justin Evans says the classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw was his main inspiration for writing 2007’s A Good and Happy Child, a first-person novel about schizophrenia and/or demonic possession set in a fictional southwestern Virginia town called Preston. “I grew up in a town very much like the one I describe in the novel,” Evans said, “in an environment where everyone believed in ghosts and everyone had their own ghost story. I’d sit in the living room while my dad told tales of demonic possession that would make grown men’s hair turn white. Some of the scary details in the book… are things that I grew up with.” As an adult, the author transplanted those scary details to the neighboring state of Virginia, somewhere near Lynchburg and Lexington, along the James River. Like Elizabeth Massie’s Sineater, his novel explores conflicts between “Old Virginia” and the modern age—a world of “Faulkner characters” set against the invading liberal culture at the local college. Religion, mysticism, Jungian psychology, and the Problem of Evil have prominent roles in the novel.


Further north, in the fictional town of Walden, zombie-master Brian Keene’s 2010 novel Darkness on the Edge of Town offers Lovecraftian apocalyptic horror with a blue-collar, beer-swilling Bruce Springsteen vibe. This one reminds me a lot of Stephen King’s novella The Mist, with its down-to-earth, morally-dubious characters, and its complete refusal to hazard guesses in response to unanswerable questions. Taking some of its inspiration from the back roads and communities near Staunton, Keene’s book is an earnest exploration of the scarcely hidden, deeply human darkness of small-town southern life.


Steve Rasnic Tem’s Blood Kin digs even deeper into the hills and the history of Virginia’s cultural bedrock. Tem is a native of Jonesville, a heavyweight among modern horror author, and this book earned him a well-deserved Stoker Award for best novel in 2014. Set during the Great Depression, in the real southwestern Virginia town of Marion, Tem’s novel offers a little bit of everything a horror fan could ask for. There’s a family curse, a terrifying preacher, snake-worshippers, psychics, small town prejudice, supernatural kudzu… but Blood Kin is much more than the sum of its tropes. It’s a poetic tribute to the power and mysteries of storytelling going back to Faulkner, Shakespeare, and the Bible.


D. Alexander Ward’s 2016 novel Beneath Ash and Bone is another deep dive into Virginia’s dark history, a gritty supernatural murder mystery set in the pre-Civil War Virginia mountains. It plays out like a splatterpunk version of a hardboiled detective story by Ambrose Bierce. Nuff said. The setting is the fictional town of Selburn, a place as bleak and stony as the tale itself.


One of my favorite horror novels of the current decade is California writer Jo Kaplan’s It Will Just Be Us, set in the wilds of the Great Dismal Swamp. Kaplan sets the scene like this: “Gray and hazy sunlight filters through tall thin trees that rise from their own rippled reflections in stagnant waters to stand on top of themselves, and the way is veined with creepers and shrouded in the mists of time.” Although the setting—an old haunted house wrapped in wisteria—may seem stereotypical at first, I think Kaplan’s novel is closer in spirit to Michael McDowell’s unconventional The Elementals than to Shirley Jackson’s oft-imitated The Haunting of Hill House. I’d hate to give too much away, so I’ll just say it’s a ghost story in reverse.


Although I’ve worked my way up to 2020, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. Before I beg off, I’d be remiss if I didn’t celebrate two new Virginia authors who are getting better with every book. Tidewater native S.A. Cosby has walloped readers with a trio of visceral Virginia-based crime thrillers that definitely skew dark enough to be called horror. My Darkest Prayer (2019, set in fictional Queen County), Blacktop Wasteland (2020, set in fictional Shepherd’s Corner), and Razorblade Tears (2021, set in Richmond) will soon be followed by All the Sinners Bleed (2023, set in fictional Charon County). Cosby is carrying the mantle of great Southern Gothic writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Cormac McCarthy—by way of Chester Himes and Walter Moseley. He says, “For me, the best Southern fiction takes the hypocrisy of the South, a region that seeks to steep itself in religion and moral rigidity, and melds that with the reality of a multitude of social, sexual and class backgrounds and situations.”


Very different but equally compelling is the work of Richmond native Clay McLeod Chapman. His recent trio of awesomely geeky horror novels—2019’s The Remaking (witchcraft and warped memory in Roanoke), 2021’s Whisper Down the Lane (Satanic panic and karmic justice in Greenfield), and 2022’s Ghost Eaters (addiction and existential odysseys in Richmond) will soon be followed by What Kind of Mother (2023, set near Lynchburg). In a 2022 interview for Virginia Living magazine, the author said, “My narrative default is always to return to Virginia. If I close my eyes and I kind of imagine where I want to set a new story, 99.9% of the time it’s going to be here because this is where I grew up and it just feels like home.” Chapman also has a new story in Dark Corners of the Old Dominion.


At the end of all this exploring, I’m left wondering what defines Virginia horror as Virginia horror. Some time ago, I read a survey of contemporary Southern literature called The Christ-Haunted Landscape, which convinced me that a certain type of religious sensibility lurks in the background of most Southern fiction. It’s just as obvious that the ghosts of the Civil War are haunting American culture and literature today, stoking the fires of political and generational conflicts. Many of our most pervasive boogeymen live here: Big (Bad) Government, Small Town Malaise, Urban Blight, Redneck Culture, Radical Intolerance, Racial Injustice, and the Long Monstrous Arm of History Repeating Itself. Are we afraid of what’s coming for us or horrified by what’s already here?

Virginia’s horror writers dare to answer.

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