This is not a partisan comment.
It supports no candidate.
It calls no names.
It is a human cry of pain,
and a truth we all need to consider.
All my characters have roots among real-world people—after all, who can write in a vacuum? But with Elmus Rooksby, This Madness of the Heart‘s founder of Grace and Glory Bible College (later taken over by arch-villain Jasper Jarboe), I was always conscious of one real man, a professor of mine.
"Elmus Rooksby laughed with his whole body when he was happy. Almost like a glowing sphere of faerie dust, he brought joy wherever he went. His bald head shone, his blue eyes sparked, his feet almost danced, and even if he didn’t actually do it, his arms seemed to stretch out and gather you into his warmth. He was a huge teddy bear of a man, and my pleasure at seeing him was genuine. For the first time in days I felt myself relaxing, safe in the comfort of his limpid goodness."
I find goodness extraordinarily difficult to portray. It’s like wrestling with the Pillsbury Doughboy: no matter what I do, it wants to snap back into something cloying, boring, superficial, sugary—and white. Villainy, now—that’s easy. Just like it’s easier to rake someone over the coals than tell them you love them. Goodness finds its strength in being vulnerable. Evil has its roots in rage and hate—and wards its weakness behind colorful walls like nested puzzle boxes. Take JJ, for example:
"From where I stood I could see his piercing, electric, “Billy Graham eyes”—in another man perhaps even bedroom eyes. But not in Jasper Jarboe. Those deep-set blue eyes opened out on the world like caves of dirty ice, radiating none of the heat of the sensualist. His lips were thick and red, repellent on such a man in their woman’s softness. His tongue flicked out serpent-like, leaving a sheen of spittle in its wake. His absurd ski-jump nose sloped out from puffy cheeks, overshadowing a too-small chin and incipient jowls. The powerful lights exposed his teased pouf of thinning hair for what it was, chilling me with the unsettling image of a malicious overgrown infant, bald but for its newborn peach-fuzz."
Comparatively, such descriptions are so easy to write!
But back to Elmus. Perhaps good people are difficult to describe because they’re so rare. How many truly good people do you know? Really? And what constitutes a “good” person, anyway?
I spent uncounted hours across the desk from this professor through the years, watching his every move with the critical suspicion that becomes second-nature to a woman competing for a place in academe. Never did I detect a flicker of sexual tension (always on my radar), or defensiveness—physical, emotional or intellectual. He met me with his whole person, right there, open, available to me, always eager to offer anything he could that might be of help. The man listened. And when he listened, he heard. He expressed compassion for impossible situations without offering meaningless solutions or platitudes. He looked across the desk at me with real grief in his eyes when I was in trouble. On the rare occasions when he actually offered advice, his words were wise. And he never, ever turned the conversation to himself unless I asked.
In his less serious moments, I used to imagine that his habitual joy was about to burst the constraints of his portly body until nothing would remain but brilliant dancing motes of light. I never heard him spread a vicious rumor or tear another person down. His apparent love for humanity—individually and as a whole—never struck a false note.
He didn’t tolerate viciousness or grandstanding in his seminars. I always wondered after he’d shut down such displays just how he’d done it. His soft word spoken into student chaos was like oil on troubled water. The calm was immediate and irreversible, although the culprits often seemed confused by their sudden silence.
The only times I remember seeing him roused to anger were during the days that inspired Madness: when vicious, self-serving bullies were taking over some local colleges, firing brilliant and gentle scholars, and replacing them with doctrinally “pure” puppets. I realized then the absolute rightness of my professor’s emotional presence also embraced righteous rage in the face of injustice . . . righteousness without the slightest taint of self-righteousness.
Elmus Rooksby, a good man. The man behind the character is gone now, but I’m pleased with my memorial to him.
In the process of writing this post, it occurred to me to see if classic paintings of “goodness” were as rare as my own experience of it. I found 1 painting in 2 hours of web-crawling that was exactly what I’d had in mind:
Two other paintings came close:
I freely admit that these choices are subjective, but since this is my blog, that’s OK, right? Anyway, below are far more common images that came up in a search for “Renaissance paintings of men.” I would say that their expressions range from selfish, cruel, and arrogant to sad, confused, and shallow.
In the end, I’m not sure whether, like me as a writer, these painters found goodness difficult to portray–or whether its presence among the ordinary run of human beings was rare enough that they didn’t often have the chance to paint it.
And, of course, I should take into account that most of the portraits painted then–and now– were done by commission, which would have meant there was a higher than normal percentage of arrogant money lenders among the people whose portraits were painted . . .
But it’s a question I think I’ll keep pursuing.
*** Portions of this post were originally written for the Jane Reads Blogspot
Someone recently asked me if I thought there were any ties between religion/mysticism and gothic lit.
It’s an intriguing question! But I’d say there are virtually no ties between religion/mysticism/spirituality and gothic lit—at least not the friendly sort. But let’s define some terms. Any decent professor would do the same. These are my own, BTW, cobbled together off the top of my head.
Clear as mud?
Gothic lit has its roots in a backlash against the Age of Reason during the 18th-19th– centuries, when irrational, passionate, and supernatural aspects of human life began to explode into popular fiction. Gothic lit has gone in and out of vogue over the years since then, and today is often divided into horror and romance. Its most obvious elements are endangered females, villainous tyrants, “gothic” architecture/haunted ruins, paranormal phenomena, a sense of dread, and melodrama. Want more? The Internet will satisfy your every need.
I said relations between religion/spirituality and gothic lit aren’t friendly, because their purposes are at odds. A religion seeks to preserve its beliefs and institutional structure, and sometimes grow through missionary activity. Religions don’t take criticism or ridicule kindly, nor do they appreciate literature that extols (to them) sin and evil. Spirituality, while individual and personal, expresses the deepest yearnings of human souls—and human beings don’t like having their deepest experience cheapened and belittled, or questioned, either. Not that gothic lit inevitably does any of these things, but since it’s deeply rooted in anti-establishment (ie, anti-organized-religion) themes, it often does.
Take the paranormal—visions, psychic powers, the occult, vampires, etc. Look them up in any thesaurus and you’ll find them equated with devilry and black arts. It may not be PC, but religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (which make up much of Western religion) tend to consider the paranormal evil. Let us never forget the Burning Times. Yet gothic lit often relies on the occult both for its villains and heroes. To make matters worse, the villains (and heroes) are often clerics who have fallen into unspeakable evil—which religious institutions don’t like to admit happens, and certainly don’t want romanticized where it does. But since an essential part of gothic lit’s appeal is playing off cultural taboos, institutional anathemas are often just good press.
In short, while gothic lit may be full of possibly “spiritual” themes and entities, it’s usually neither religious nor spiritual. Notice I say “usually.” There are always exceptions.
Here’s the problem: good, evil, right, wrong, and sin are finally judgments we make from behind a screen of invisible cultural and personal preconceptions—Christian, Vodun, or Atheist. Human beings can’t help it. Please don’t think I’m saying here that everything is relative and anything goes; check out the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights for my position on that! No, I’m talking about how we pronounce judgment on everything that is Other.
Which brings me to the heart of the matter: gothic lit and spirituality (as opposed to religion) don’t have to be antagonistic. Yes, vampires are evil. But does that mean that spirituality isn’t part of a vampire’s existence? Take Robin McKinley’s Sunshine, for example. Can’t we as human beings hold ideas in our minds “as if,” without passing a priori judgment?
I didn’t realize that I was writing a gothic mystery when I wrote This Madness of the Heart because I’d bought into cultural stereotypes that disparage “gothic” fiction as something vaguely nasty and predictable. When I wrote Madness, I wrote what I knew, and what I know is spirituality opening up unexpectedly in the midst of everyday reality. I wrote about fear, and violence, and bigotry, and hate, all meeting along borderlands of spiritual reality . . . and discovered I’d stepped into “gothic” space.
Mea culpa. I have no excuse. No dewy-eyed fainting damsels, no emotional excesses, no human sacrifices. Just fiction that overlaps action and drama with spiritual vision. Gothic lit.
*An earlier version of this post was written by Blair Yeatts for http://www.cerebralwriter.com/blog
In Blood on Holy Ground, the 2nd gothic mystery in Blair Yeatts’ Miranda Lamden series, Miranda arrives at the convent of Monte di Angeles looking forward to a quiet summer’s research into an Indian legend. Instead, almost before she can uncrate her cats, the killings begin, and she finds herself caught up in bloody murders, stalked by a deranged killer, and haunted by evil dreams. Rolling foothills blessed with a deep and almost conscious peace are suddenly overwhelmed by one vicious atrocity after another—striking at the people as well as the land itself.
Miranda is a professor of religion at a small Appalachian college, an expert on paranormal phenomena, and a woman gifted with spiritual vision. Free for the summer, she abandons her significant other, artist Jack Crispen, and sets out for the Tennessee convent at the invitation of her old friend Sister Catherine. Catherine settles Miranda into one of the forest hermitages near the tiny Conicoke Indian reservation adjoining convent land. Miranda knows that unless she can persuade the Conicoke Grandmothers to trust her enough to share their traditions, her research will founder, and the heart of the legend will never open to her, since her only other sources are evasive and disparaging convent accounts.
When Jack arrives for a visit, they find the first body, dumped at the base of the spill from the convent’s dump. After this discovery, Miranda and Jack seem doomed to stumble across more and more evidence of the killer’s crimes, goading his malice into paranoia and convincing him that Miranda is stealing his luck. He shifts his focus to her and stalks her with obsessive fury . . . and more than just murder on his mind. Hoping that their combined sight may show them a way to stop this monster, the Grandmothers summon Miranda into their circle, immersing her in a flood of visions from the spirits of the land—and the killer’s victims.
The murderer finds himself ensnared by his own evil when his brutal assault on Miranda miscarries, leaving him to prowl the forest wounded and delusional, but lethal as a cornered viper. His ruthless violence and the powers roused by its toxic presence come together in a spiritual vortex that nearly destroys everyone in its final combustion. Only the Grandmothers can guide Miranda and Jack into visions powerful enough to escape the firestorm unleashed by their relentless enemy.
Something I discovered while writing Q&A’s and answering comments during the last month’s book tour for This Madness of the Heart was how fascinated people are by how an author gets from general ideas to a finished story. For me, one huge part of preparing to write is setting up locations–almost as if I were preparing to shoot a film: that means deciding exactly where the book’s action will take place. Not just Appalachia, but a particular ridge, and a particular holler, with a river and a mine and a town with streets and businesses. Not just a college, but a college with its own unique personality and reason for being, with its own history. And not just a big old house, but an architecturally viable and complex one, with its own history and odd little quirks.
So when I decided that my ill-fated college founder was going to build himself a house, it had to be one that worked–on all those levels. Durham’s Eyrie is that house:
The house rose like a fortress from the hillside, surrounded by ancient tulip poplars. In the distance, under the eaves of the forest, I could see the family crypt. But the house itself held my eye, as always. Red brick towers and turrets, peaks and gables rose from a limestone foundation into three stories of massive wall. Decorative chimneys towered above the slate roof, and relief sculptures carved in red sandstone flowed up the main shaft. Moorish columns flanked the broad entryway above the front steps, framing the jewel-like stained glass doors.
But how did I get from “I need a big old house,” to the house I just described? Well, first I knew it had to be Victorian, because that was the time period when Obadiah would have been setting up housekeeping. Second, no self-respecting coal baron–and particularly not one fleeing a curse–would built a light, airy, clapboard Painted Lady: he’d build a castle. Once that was decided, all I had to do was start doing research on Victorian mansions . . . stone mansions. I didn’t want to go far afield in my research, because I wanted something authentic for the area. And since I was in Louisville at the time, that’s where I started looking.
Enter the real-life Victorian mansion built by the Howard family of Ohio River shipyards fame and located on the northern bank of the Ohio. You can see it set back from the Jeffersonville, Indiana waterfront, right across the river from Louisville. Durham’s Eyrie would have been built around 1880, ten years before the Howard home, so the period was right, and I was already familiar with the house. Add a few blast screens to cover the oversized windows, and the building could almost withstand a siege. What more could I want? In the end, except for its location, the Howard house reinvented itself almost exactly as Durham’s Eyrie–at least on the outside.
By the way, the “Howard Home” (as it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), was built in 1890 by Edmonds J. Howard of the Howard Shipyards family. Today it welcomes visitors as the Howard Steamboat Museum, featuring displays from the shipyards and Howard family history.
Anyway, with the house selected, I needed photographs so I could play around with visual details as I wrote. So I went, camera in hand, to ask the Howard Museum docents if they would let me creep around places tourists didn’t normally go, so that I could get an idea of the house’s layout for my book . . . and they very kindly took me all around, even onto the third floor and into the attics. Unfortunately (for my purposes), much of the house is now used for the steamboat displays and looks little like it did when the family lived there, so I’ve supplemented my own photos with some turn-of-the-century photos from The Howard Steamboat Collection at the University of Louisville.
And . . . the stained glass doors described in Madness are not from the Howard house, but from the Old 851 Mansion in Louisville.
So follow me now on a virtual tour of the original inspiration for Durham’s Eyrie. Below is the main entrance, with the original beveled glass. As I just said, for This Madness of the Heart I changed the doors to resemble the ones at the Old 851 Mansion since the Howard glass doors weren’t stained glass.
The main entrance of the Howard mansion faces the stairway leading up to a landing and on from there to the second floor. In Durham’s Eyrie, Jack’s magical stained glass window was on the landing where the red and gold glass is in the photo.
Jack’s stained glass glowed above a daybed, filling the landing like a half-remembered dream. Mythical birds and flowers intertwined in a jeweled mosaic through fantastic trees, dappling the dark stairs with their bright shadows. Fragile, delicate, glorious, this window Jack had fashioned for Viola rivaled Tiffany at its height. We stood silent, worshipers at a shrine.
The room where Viola entertains guests (and torments college administrators) is a combination of several Howard rooms, including the room at the top of this page. There’s a period photo of the parlor below and an alcove in the dining room–which inspired the “cherries” in Viola’s windows.
My tale of high tea at Durham’s Eyrie floated through the air around us as I painted Probeck’s predicament amongst the tea cups, his stunned face splashed red with the light of the cherry windows. I enjoyed the afternoon all over again, and this time I didn’t have to choke back the laughter.
Viola’s library is partly based on this old photo of the Howard library, although, since no bookcases have survived in the house, I used other Victorian libraries as models as well. Viola’s desk is based on this handmade original from the Howard mansion.
He led me straight to Viola’s library, a handsome room lined with glass-front bookshelves that doubled as her office. Viola beamed at us around the gilded oak leaves and acorns festooning her heavy carved oak desk. The giant secretary towered over her, transforming her for a moment into a bright-eyed child rather than the matriarch she was.
Here’s another view of the dining room (with cherry window), and the masculine domain, the smoking room.
You can see the master bedroom (Viola’s) below, both in my recent photos and the 1905 versions:
The bathroom and water closet . . .
The third floor isn’t open to the public–or at least it wasn’t in the mid-90’s when I visited. Below are the bedrooms, including the tower bedroom I used as a model for Djinn’s room at the Eyrie.
Djinn only stared and then led the way to her room, an attic tower with folded shutters and a round ribbed ceiling. Djinn walked over to a heavy roll top desk, pulled out a large sketchbook, and started drawing with quick, fluid strokes. The soft scratching of her pen was the only sound I heard. Even the house had ceased its creaking.
And last, the attics . . . hobby horses, bicycle frames, and a stuffed owl!
I hope you enjoyed your tour! Any details I didn’t explain probably came out of my own teeming imagination.
Our month-long virtual book tour is ended, but please check out any of the sites below to read the posts. (I’ve spent hours and hours answering questions and writing posts!)
Congratulations to momjane, winner of the $25 gift certificate!
And thanks to all of you who made this tour a success–especially the fantastic ladies at Goddess Fish Promotions!
Reviews of This Madness of the Heart are coming in, and they’re all great! Here’s what we have so far:
Kathleen Eagle, New York Times Bestselling author of Sunrise Song:
“This Madness of the Heart is a wild ride through the dark hills of eastern Kentucky with Miranda Lamden, a professor of religion who spends her spare time studying arcane spiritual rituals—if not participating in them herself. In the end, Miranda’s own spiritual gifts are all that keep her alive in the storm of hate and violence flooding her mountain community. Yeatts fields an engaging cast of characters, and throughout she weaves a haunting pattern spun of the Appalachian wilderness and its people. The plot twists kept me guessing, all the way to the very satisfying ending. Fans of Joyce Carol Oates and Nevada Barr should relish this new series, and I look forward to more—the sooner the better!”
Nancy McKenzie, award-winning author of Queen of Camelot
“Kudos to Blair Yeatts for an absorbing read and an original thriller with intriguing characters and hair-raising plot twists. Protagonist Miranda Lamden is quite fascinating. Madness explores the genesis of hate and the power of forgiveness in a small college town in eastern Kentucky’s hill-country, where a haunting spirituality—both Christian and pagan–drives this fast-flowing mystery to an electrifying close. But beware: pick it up and you won’t be able to put it down–I couldn’t!”
Gail Godwin, New York Times Bestselling author of Evenings at Five:
“Blair Yeatts can certainly write!”
Midwest Book Review:
“Evangelical religion, supernatural forces, and romance seldom collide under a single cover, but This Madness of the Heart combines all three and more in a gripping piece that holds the rare ability to grasp and attract reader attention from more than one direction . . . Mood and setting are exquisitely placed throughout the story . . . the plot moves deftly with the skill of a thriller, the stealth of a cat, and the fine-tuned precision of personalities well developed.
“The result is a blend of supernatural thriller, romance, and mystery that will thoroughly engross anyone looking to break free of genre reads with a powerful journey through competing spiritual perspectives.”
“Yeatts is an engaging writer, a fun narrative voice . . . great at establishing setting and individual characters. The hints of paranormal phenomena are intriguing throughout . . . The mood combines gothic with the present day, giving it a feeling of “True Detective” (first season), in which backwoods religion and real supernatural phenomena collide – a world where anything can happen. Professor and paranormal investigator Miranda Lamden is an exciting basis for a series . . . the rock through it all.”
The paperback edition of This Madness of the Heart goes live on Amazon today!
Click HERE to order your copy!
When I began to write This Madness of the Heart, I was faced almost from the first paragraph (well, actually the second) with a choice: to try to write Appalachian mountain speech as I’ve heard it, or use common American English. I experimented with both, and there was just no contest. I had to try the dialect.
Yes, writing dialect can make conversation harder to read, and it alienates some readers. I even had one reviewer accuse me of showing contempt for the region by writing incomprehensible dialect. And, of course, writing in dialect is much harder than writing straight English prose.
But what happens to the gentle man from my childhood whose voice still rings in my ears, if instead of the following remarks spoken in dialect . . .
“My head’s a-spinnin’ so even God Almighty couldn’t say what I’m a-feelin’ one minute t’ the othern’n. First I’m fit to bust Jasper in the jaw fer creatin’ sech a hardness amongst the good folks o’ this town; then I’m nigh t’ bustin’ int’ tears o’er pore Welby; then I’m a-studyin’ on oilin’ up the ol’ shotgun and featherin’ int’ Jasper fer what he done t’ Delmar Peabody!”
. . . he should say this instead?
“My head’s spinning so fast even God Almighty couldn’t say what I’m feeling one minute to the next. First I’m about to bust Jasper in the jaw for creating such hardness among the good folks of this town; then I’m about to bust into tears over poor Welby; then I’m thinking about oiling up the old shotgun and laying into Jasper for what he did to Delmar Peabody!”
For me, the man’s heart disappears, along with the huge warmth of his presence.
And Sheriff Lyle Embry, with his laidback drawl—what would he be, if instead of these words . . .
“Dad blast it all t’ hell n’ back ag’in, Herbert! Don’t be a- pitchin’ it int’ the woods that-a-way as soon as I go a-turnin’ my back! Dig yerself a hole an’ cover thet trash plumb over with dirt! Lookit how yon trees is all gormed up an’ benastied now!”
. . . he said this?
“Doggone it all to hell and back again, Herbert! Don’t pitch it into the woods that way as soon as I turn my back! Dig a hole and cover that trash over with dirt! See how those trees are all spattered and nasty now!”
Perhaps only my own memory would be violated. Maybe the reader wouldn’t care one way or the other. But for me the closeness of the mountain people I’ve known would be lost in the tidying up of their speech to fit a more common mold. The scent of mountain air would disappear.
I do know that writing in dialect was extremely difficult for me. I couldn’t just rely on memory. I listened to recordings and studied academic verbatims. I studied the various ways Appalachian dialect is written down, and the variations that exist among people with different degrees of access to television and urban culture. Check and double check. Write and read and listen. Return to recordings of mountain speech, letting it roll over me again and again.
No, I couldn’t have written Madness without dialect. It seems to me that much of a people’s soul is carried on their speech. Regional speech patterns flow with the rich silt of blood and flesh, history and struggle, life and death.
How could Carter Bayless say any less than this?
“Thus saith th’ Lord God, I be a-makin’ th’ sun t’ roll down th’ sky of a noontime. I’ll be a-bringin’ dusky-dark ont’ the earth in th’ midst o’ day. I’ll be a-turnin’ yar cornivals t’ mournin’ an’ yar ditties t’ dirges. Ye’ll be a-fallin’ broke an’ ruint int’ yar graves an’ niver rouse agin!”
If you read This Madness of the Heart and have an opinion, I’d be delighted to hear it!