Page 5 of 7

More on that Visit to a Children’s Mental Asylum

You know that feeling that the best achievements of your life are behind you? If the number of times I’m asked about it as anything to go by, I’m guessing that my greatest moment was climbing through a broken window at an abandoned children’s asylum.

I guess I’m okay with that.

A few people have asked me to provide some more details after yesterday’s brief entry, so here’s the story.

It starts with Joseph DeJarnette, who probably wishes you were never born.

He was the director of Staunton, Virginia’s Western State Hospital from 1905 to 1943, and in that time he performed hundreds of involuntary sterilizations of the “feebleminded,” whom I’m guessing were not in short supply only a few hours from the nation’s capital.

For DeJarnette, sterilization was less an unpleasant medical duty and more a gleeful hobby worthy of poetry:

This is the law of Mendel,

And often he makes it plain,

Defectives will breed defectives,

And the insane breed insane.

Oh why do we allow these people

To breed back to the monkey’s nest,

To increase our country’s burdens

When we should only breed the best?

 

(On the subject of “insane breed insane,” my father used to muse with a certain grudging respect about the virility of the patients at the mental hospital where HE worked, saying that “crazy sure likes to fuck.” Which did not, in fact, provoke a lightning strike of irony.)

Anyway, DeJarnette even argued to keep the United States at the forefront of eugenics:

“Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938 in the past 20 years… The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the US should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”

In 1932, the DeJarnette Sanitarium was named in his honor in much the same way that we now have the Richard M. Nixon School of Ethics in Government and the Reverend James Warren Jones Agricultural Seminary.

Weirdly, it was renamed in the 1960s to the DeJarnette Center for Human Development, because the word “sanitarium” was more offensive than “DeJarnette.” Then it became a children’s mental hospital in 1975 and was shut down for good in 1996.

It’s been abandoned ever since, though there have been discussions of making it into a “frontier museum” or condos or a mall of some kind. People sometimes break in and look around or vandalize the furniture and papers that are left behind.

papers

When I went inside in 2006 with Matthew Warner (and, truth be told, my now ex-wife), I didn’t feel any oppressive aura of suffering. It reminded me of most ill-kept government buildings, everything painted with thick flaking layers of pastels.

danglingfeet

If any feeling did seep into the structure, it was one of barely holding itself together — there were drawings and slogans on the wall that were meant to be “fun” in the way that earnest government employees try to manufacture fun.

super

friendly

One feature struck me as particularly interesting, the Universal Precautions Cabinet. How did I know that was what it was? Because someone labeled it, that’s why.

precautions

When I showed the pictures of DeJarnette to some of my friends from South Carolina, they shook their heads in disbelief that anybody would go into a place like that.

“Look at that shit,” said Jason. “Whatever went down in that place at the end took every fucking thing in the Universal Precautions Cabinet…and it still didn’t work.”

A few months later, I went to the Clarion writing workshop and had a bruising and demoralizing first critique of my work, a moment of deep personal doubt.

When Jason got wind of that, his advice was, “Next time you’re sitting with those people, you look around and ask yourself who there’s got the sack to go into an abandoned children’s asylum where even the Universal Precautions Cabinet didn’t help for shit.”

That helped. It still does.

And if you have doubts about the kind of person you are sometimes, you could probably do worse than remember that you’re the kind who goes places you’re not supposed to go just because you’re curious what other people did and how they felt.

It’s architectural empathy.

Though DeJarnette didn’t perform sterilizations at the center named for him (that was at Western nearby), I still wonder if any of the residents ever left that place feeling…better. Braver. More ready with their own internal Universal Precaution Cabinets.

Because I couldn’t bear if it was just me.

Ten Years Ago: Breaking into an Abandoned Asylum!

(I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations on trespassing has gone by long ago.)

Ten years ago today, my buddy and fellow horror writer Matthew Warner and I decided to take a stroll around the abandoned children’s mental asylum in his town of Staunton, Virginia. I’d wanted to get some pictures of the exterior because it was a cool spooky place.

awesome

Then I happened to walk by a human-height broken window and thought, “Well, clearly I’m being invited inside.”

So I went in and Matt followed.

muralhall_1

Note the feet of hanging children.

Note the feet of hanging children.

dormeropen

handswall

mattwillgood

(There are more pictures here.)

I had a great time. We touched nothing, harmed nothing, and we respected the property and the pain of the people who once lived there. I think Matt has gone in with permission since then, but what’s the fun in that?

I know there are people who go into abandoned places for the danger and the risk of it, but I’m more interested in the stories those structures seem to absorb. I don’t have a lot of supernatural beliefs (this and the efficacy of democracy are the only two), but I do think that emotion can linger in places. And even if it doesn’t, I think it’s important sometimes to extend our empathy enough to pretend it does, to remember other people in other times.

I am not in any way advocating that you should enter a building this weekend and try to imagine the lives and feelings of the people who lived there. I’m not advocating, say, finding a bent section of fence where the police rarely go and gently stepping over. And I’m definitely not advocating that you should walk carefully through a dangerous ruin, taking no souvenirs but your own thoughts and maybe some pictures.

Stick to the living like everybody else. God knows they don’t express their every little thought often enough.

Hey! A New Interview with Me on the Outer Dark Podcast!

I’m not sure why people are interviewing me all of a sudden, but maybe I’m like the Paul Lynde of horror, the kind of show biz trooper always available when someone needs a center square.

Anyway, Scott Nicolay very graciously and insightfully interviewed me for the award-winning Outer Dark podcast, and it’s available for your enjoyment now!

Why Yes, I’ll Be at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts Next Week!

Once a year, desperate genre writers and academics come to the Orlando Airport Marriott for the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA), seeking any reason to escape the bleak forlorn skies of their home states.

new_banner_with_logo2

This year, I have a reading  on Thursday afternoon at 4:30pm in the Magnolia Room. I’ll have new content, likely related to serial killers!

 

Second Interview on Elucidate with Goliath Flores!

If you liked my first interview with Goliath Flores on his Elucidate podcast, you’ll love the second when we get into writing, teaching, Game of Thrones, and why the Internet sucks!

Postcard Story: One Day

[Sometimes, I write a story in an hour based on an image.]

piddleton

They met, as they did every morning, at the ridge overlooking the train tracks in the far corner of Nat Henderson’s farm. Nat rested his hands on the fence while Dwight glanced over his shoulder to check once more on the cattle. As always, they were perfect.

“How’s the morning treating you, Dwight?” Nat squinted up at the sky. “Looks like another beautiful one.”

“Yeah, it does, don’t it?” Dwight nudged his horse Charlene and she turned them both toward town. “Another perfect day.”

“Mmm hmm,” said Nat.

“You ever wonder why there’s never been a murder over there in Piddleton?”

“What’s that again, Dwight?”

“There’s never been a murder in Piddleton. Did you know that? Nobody’s ever caught his wife with another man and strangled them both, nobody’s ever shot a teenaged couple in the backs of their heads at the lover’s lane, nobody’s ever snapped a pool cue off in someone’s skull at Victor’s Tavern.”

“I ain’t aheard of none, anyways,” Nat said. “From where I’m standing, that’s a good thing.”

“Well, yeah. But it’s a little too MUCH of a good thing, isn’t it? The only troubles we get around here are the occasional train derailment and that fire at Old Man Jenkins’s place they’ve been trying to put out since, well, since I can remember.”

“They’ll get it one of these days. They’ve kept it from spreading, at least.”

“Yeah, spreading,” said Dwight, adjusting his hat. “Spreading to a town with exactly one perfect white church with a steeple, one general store, one school with a bell, one firehouse, one police station, two train depots, and a half dozen houses.”

“I’m sure there’s more than that.”

“There aren’t. I’ve counted.”

Nat chewed that over in the side of his cheek. “Well, if you say so.”

“And these cattle I’ve been tending. They’re all perfectly brown and white, not a one of them with fleas or flies or mange or nothing. They’re perfect. You could eat them off the hoof if you wanted.”

“Now, Dwight, you don’t want to go gnawing at your livelihood!” said Nat.

“And another thing–”

A train whistle rolled up from the tracks below like a warm wind.

“Oh, look, here’s the 8:13.”

“Yes, again,” Dwight said. “8:13. And there’s the spotless passenger train and the spotless freight and that one over there with the old-fashioned engine. What’s that about?”

“No need to hang up a tool just because it’s old,” Nat said.

“You know what I think?” Dwight sidled the horse a little closer to be heard over the gentle clack-clack of the wheels below. “I think that if I rode ol’ Charlene here as far as I could along those tracks, they’d come right back around in a loop.”

Nat smiled. “That’s silly. What would be the point?”

“You tell me. What would be the point? We wake up, we do the same thing every day, we see the same things every day — the same kids kicking that ball in the field, the same old ladies with their green frock coats and black pocketbooks downtown, the same Studebakers parked across from Jim’s Hardware. What is the point?”

Nat shook his head. “You been sitting out on that horse in the sun a little too long, Dwight. That’s the kind of stuff that Commies think.”

“I feel like I’ve been sitting on this horse forever, to tell you the truth. Sometimes late at night, I swear I hear footsteps across the stars. Right up there. You ever hear that? I don’t figure so. But sometimes I hear footsteps and other times I hear voices and laughter. Because somewhere, I tell you, there are tracks that don’t go around in a circle.”

“These don’t go around in a circle, Dwight,” Nat said patiently. “I know it can get lonely out here–”

“I think I’m going to ride to town and kill somebody, just to see if it can be done. I’ll bet it can’t.”

“I hope not,” Nat said. “‘Cause I sure like talkin’ to you.”

“I’ll leave the herd here because, hey, where the hell are they going? Nowhere. I’ll just ride into town and hitch Charlene to a mailbox, and then I’ll go into one of those houses and cut up a family with my Bowie knife.”

Nat nodded. “Well, it’s a pretty day for it, anyway.”

“I’ll bet you I’ll be right back here tomorrow,” Dwight said.

“I know I will,” Nat said.

“Yeah,” Dwight said.

“Yeah,” Nat replied.

“Well, I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow again, if nothing changes.”

“It won’t,” Nat said.

Dwight nudged Charlene into her usual grudging town-ward motion, and as always they got as far as the edge of the grazing fields before stopping. Nat watched Dwight looking over the town as he always did.

“Maybe one of these days,” Nat muttered to his friend’s long-distant back. “Maybe one.”

Huh. Surprised But Not THAT Surprised…

My father wasn’t the greatest man who ever lived, but it’s still a bit shocking to get this letter first thing after the new year!

bill bad news-2

2015 By the Numbers

2015 was a year in which I cared less about goals and more about habits, trusting that if I did certain things every day, they’d eventually coalesce into achievements of some kind. That more or less worked, at least more so than just staring pie-eyed at the goals ever did.

Here’s what the year came down to for me:

  • Novels rewritten and submitted to agent: 1, Already Won.
  • Miles run: 532.46, including ten 5K races.
  • Stories sold: 1, “The Leaning Lincoln,” to Asimov’s.
  • Stories appeared: 1, “Acres of Perhaps,” in Asimov’s.
  • Stories accepted for Year’s Best: 1, “Acres of Perhaps.”
  • Days written: 361 consecutive (363 total for the year), a total of 19,445 minutes (thirteen days, twelve hours, and five minutes).
  • Postcard Stories written: 4 (Four Squares, Love in the Balance, Shaking the Boxes, and Symbiosis)
  • Interviews granted: 1 (Elucidate #40 with Goliath Flores)
  • Writing retreats hosted: 1 (Savannah)
  • Conventions where I appeared: 3 (ICFA, Oasis, and Necronomicon).
  • Classes taught: 2 (Introduction to Fiction Writing and Introduction to Creative Writing).
  • Books read: 35.
  • Short stories and essays read: 35.
  • Home projects completed for the sake of bourgeois propriety: 4 (resodding the yard, replacing the asshole built-in microwave, replacing the dishwasher, and refinishing two rooms of hardwood floors).
  • Emotional and intellectual discoveries made:
    • My father spent his whole life pretending to be better than he was and I’ve spent mine pretending to be worse.
    • Writing is learned by epiphany: you work, you experiment, you feel what works in a flash of recognition, and then you own it. Books and classes can put you in the way of epiphany, but you’ve got to have something going for the realization to stick.
    • Most people learning an art need a trusted person who will point to things and say, “Really?” And you can answer two ways, either saying “No, I didn’t mean to do that” or “Yes, I totally meant to do that so I’m going to double down to make it work.”
    • I’m really not that good at teaching writing to people who don’t want to learn.

Postcard Story: Symbiosis

[From time to time, I write a story based on an image in an hour or your next one’s free.]

Courtesy of Shorpy.com

Courtesy of Shorpy.com

Paul swept his arm against my chest suddenly in the darkness and cried, “Stop!”

It was the middle of nowhere. Once, it had been somewhere – the site of one of those old-school shopping malls that had a roof over the whole place unlike the town centers of today. It had gone out of business about ten years ago when I was little and now it had been torn down. All that was left was a huge concrete puzzle piece with weeds growing through the cracks, not that we could see it that clearly.

“This is the spot,” Paul said. “Right here.”

“What spot?” I asked.

Paul scanned the old asphalt with his flashlight, not really looking up to talk to me. “Where Hatchet Harry learned how to hunt.”

“Hatchet Harry? That was the guy’s name? Was that supposed to be scary? Because a hatchet is like two feet long.”

“That’s what’s scary about it. You can swing it real fast because it’s small and light. When a killer swings an axe, he gets maybe one shot before it gets stuck in the victim’s skull.”

“That sounds like enough.”

“Yeah, if all you want is one victim. But Hatchet Harry could split one head and then go on to the next. You know why?”

“Because a hatchet didn’t get stuck, fine.” I pulled the sleeves of my hoodie over my hands and hugged my arms close in the chill.

“So the year is 1957. Billy Joe Hargett and Norma Bea Valentine were parking out here in his – “

“Why do victims always have two names? Nobody with one name ever gets killed by a psychopathic killer.”

“You mean like Cher?”

“No, I mean like…Dave. Or Harriet. It’s always Billy Joe and Norma Bea.”

“I can’t help their names, okay?” Paul motioned back to the pavement. “Now help me out here. Imagine a 1955 Buick Century parked right about here, the windows steamed—“

“Is that a car? Because I was, like, negative forty years old when it was built. Was it pulled by horses?”

“No,” he sighed. “The windows are steamed because, well, Billie Joe has his hand under Norma Bea’s blouse and she has her hand in—“

“And Hatchet Harry comes and chops them up, the end. I get it. Creepy. Now let’s go back to the car, okay?”

“You don’t know anything. First, she sees something in the distance, a shape moving out of the trees. He tells her it’s probably a deer. Then it comes closer, but now it’s waddling close to the ground and she knows it isn’t a damned deer. It keeps coming closer, kind of duck-walking, which would be silly if it wasn’t for how determined the thing seemed to be. Straight line, right from the trees to the car, a weird shape because silhouetted in the faint light, she can see—“

“A hatchet,” I said. Goddamn, the Goth boys could be boring even if they had the cool leather dusters.

“No, it’s a fucking claw. And she sees that the thing has two of them, like a crab. A land crab. Like one of those creatures from the Pleistocene.”

“Wait. She was a paleontologist?”

Paul wasn’t stopping. In fact, he was getting excited by the story, which could actually be cute because that’s when he dropped the fake British accent and his speech impediment came out. Some of the other kids made fun of him for it, the way his vowels all sounded like they took his whole mouth to say, but you know…it made him different. Good different.

“So she’s awwll pounding on Billie Joe’s showwlder, telling him to look, but by then it’s too late: the creature is right by the backseat of the car on the passenger side, peeling it open like a can of sardines.” He held up his hands and pinched the fingers together like claws. “There was this screeching noise and that thing ripped it right open. Then it clicked two chitinous blades on the back of Norma Bea’s neck and pulled her screaming from the–”

“Wait. What happened to Hatchet Harry?”

“Well, that’s the thing. Hatchet Harry, he’s this escaped mentaw patient living in a shanty in the woods, sleeping on a cot under a blanket of sewn together human pelts. And he knows what that clicking means: it means the crab-thing from the swamp is gypping him two perfectly good human victims.”

“Hey—“

“He can say ‘gypping’ because he’s a mentaw patient and it’s 1957.” Paul finally took a breath. “So he goes running toward the crab-thing because, fuck, there are only so many people who come out to the lover’s lane. But when he gets there, the crab-thing has already torn them awwsunder and all Hatchet Harry can do is sputter and stamp his feet as it drags them back into the swamp.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“The story ends with Hatchet Harry jumping up and down like Yosemite Sam?”

“No,” Paul said calmly, regaining his accent. “It never ends. Because Hatchet Harry learned a valuable lesson that night: to work in total silence and speed.”

I heard a click seemingly echo from the woods. It made me roll my eyes. I couldn’t help it.

“Apparently not total,” I said.

The clicking noise came again and Paul turned quickly.

“Quit it,” I said.

“It was the beginning of an unholy symbiosis. Now all Harry has to do is wait for the crab-thing to come from the swamp and then he can come in and finish the job. They’ve been in competition ever since, and nobody to this day knows who has more victims.”

A branch snapped and so did something else. No, it didn’t snap. It clacked together hollowly.

“They work together,” Paul said quietly. “The hunter and his faithful dog. But which—“

I shoved him to the pavement and ran headlong to the car.

Interview on Elucidate with Goliath Flores

Before we go any further, let’s all acknowledge that GOLIATH FLORES is an awesome name. Giant flowers!

Goliath, who happens to be my neighbor, hosts a great podcast about the arts here in Jacksonville called Elucidate. I came onto the show the other day to chat about politics, creativity, politics, and mass societal delusion. You know, the usual.

 

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2017 Will Ludwigsen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑