Thank You, Dr. Wilson!

Last week, with mixed emotions, I finished reading  Fear City, the last  Repairman Jack novel. (*sigh*)

It has been a journey of thrills, kills, chills and ultimately, just plain fun! The Jack series is more than genre-bending, it is all-inclusive – incorporating elements of horror, thriller, crime, sci-fi, international conspiracies (Dan Brown is an amateur!) and mysticism.  It is, by any standard, one of the most audacious, and entertaining, fiction series ever composed. For those of you who don’t know Jack,( or F. Paul Wilson)  – SHAME ON YOU!

Fear_City_Final_sm

 I first discovered Wilson when I read his classic horror novel, The Keep, in 1981. The book was later turned into a truly awful movie several years later – avoid! Then, in 1984, I read The Tomb, which introduced us to one of the coolest, baddest and most complex action heroes ever created, Repairman Jack. Jack is part Travis McGee, part Rambo, part Indiana Jones and pure entertainment. He is a mercenary who  “lives off the grid” and “repairs” situations for people who hire him, often through violence, but just as often through clever scams. Some of Jack’s adventures have a mystical, supernatural element in them, but mostly, they are pure adventure. If you are looking for a great beach book look no further than The Tomb. And then you’ll have about 20 more Jack books to get you through the rest of the year. 

CLICK HERE to see a list of Wilson’s novels.

Unfortunately, for the next fourteen years, Wilson did not write another Jack novel, even though he continued to write some of the best contemporary fiction of the 80s and 90s – medical thrillers, horror novels and science fiction. In the early 90s he published three connected novels titled Reborn, Reprisal and Nightworld. In those books, the evil entity called Rasalom, supposedly destroyed in The Keep, manages to have its essence stored as the soul of a cloned human, Jim Stevens. When Jim marries and has a child, Rasalom transfers its essence into the soul of Jim’s son, who is born preternaturally aware and feeds off human misery and fear. Rasalom has been reborn! The last book, Nightworld, is literally the end of the world, as Rasalom transforms earth into a world of a perpetual hellish night. Wilson himself has claimed that he will never write another novel that takes place after Nightworld, since in his fictional universe, nothing exists after that timeline.

Original editions of The Adversary Cycle

In 1998, Wilson finally published Legacies, a second full blown Repairman Jack novel. And he kept writing them, fifteen in all. He also managed to crank out three Repairman Jack Young Adult novels, letting us meet Jack as an adolescent, learning how and why Jack the kid developed into Jack the adult and finally Repairman Jack.  And with each subsequent book, the story of Rasalom’s emergence in the world creeps into Jack’s world. Which led us to a new edition of Nightworld  in 2012, completely rewritten to incorporate the entire Jack storyline. The conclusion of Jack’s story in Nightworld was mind-boggling, epic, bittersweet, and completely appropriate …  not the end of the world, just the end of the world as we know it, with Jack and his partner Gia facing a new, devastated and transformed world. 

But after Nightworld, Wilson (thankfully) decided he was not finished with Jack. He agreed to write three more novels, a series called Repairman Jack: The Early Years, which covers Jack’s first years in NYC, his initial adventures with the underworld, illegal cigarette smuggling and nasty Muslim terrorists. We also learn how Jack became “Repairman Jack.” 

Repairman Jack: The Early Years trilogy

Repairman Jack: The Early Years trilogy

So, thank you Dr. Wilson for making the reading of Fear City such a bittersweet experience, and thank you for creating such an amazing story and characterLONG LIVE JACK!

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Writers on Writing: Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut & Elmore Leonard

STEPHEN KING
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Stephen King

Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream. Your schedule — in at about the same time every day, out when your thousand words are on paper or disk — exists in order to habituate yourself, to make yourself ready to dream just as you make yourself ready to sleep by going to bed at roughly the same time each night and following the same ritual as you go.

In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives. And as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night — six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight — so can you train your waking mind to sleep creatively and work out the vividly imagined waking dreams which are successful works of fiction.

The adverb is not your friend.

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. … With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. If one is writing for one’s own pleasure, that fear may be mild — timidity is the word I’ve used here. If, however, one is working under deadline — a school paper, a newspaper article, the SAT writing sample — that fear may be intense. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.

Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?

KURT VONNEGUT
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Kurt Vonnegut

Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

Start as close to the end as possible.

Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

ELMORE LEONARD RULES
  1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

  1. Avoid prologues.
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Elmore Leonard

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

  1. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

  1. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

  1. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

  1. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

  1. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

  1. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

  1. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Happy Birthday, William Goldman

William-GoldmanMr. Goldman, you were my first favorite author. In 1974 I was 14 years old and I purchased a paperback novel titled The Princess Bride and I never looked at fiction ever the same again.

I remember walking around saying “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die!’ And everyone looked at me like I was an idiot. But I didn’t care. After I read the book three times in a row, I went and found paperback copies of everything you had written up to then. The Temple of Gold (1957); Your Turn To Curtsy; My Turn To Bow (1958); Soldier In The Rain (1960); Boys and Girls Together (1964); No Way To Treat A LadyI (1964); The Thing Of It Is … (1967). I was hooked! 

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First edition copy of The Princess Bride, 1974.

And then I discovered you had also written one of the coolest movies ever – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. Then came the novels (and screenplays) for Marathon Man (“Is it safe?”)and Magic (a perfectly creepy book and a disturbing movie with Anthony Hopkins.)   

All told, 16 novels, 9 books of non-fiction, 38 screenplays and two Academy Awards (Butch and All The President’s Men). And  of course, the best book about Hollywood, Adventures in the Screen Trade, hands down the funniest book every written, in which you shared Hollywood’s greatest unspoken secret (until then)  … goldman, nobody knows anything

And of course, your heroic effort to get The Princess Bride made into a movie that reflected what your readers expected of that special book may be your greatest contribution to cinematic history. When it was released in 1987, I was suddenly confronted with everyone walking around saying “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father. Prepare to die!'”  All I could do was smile, happy that millions more people (who would never read a book) had finally
discovered the quirky joys of Bride.William-Goldman-Quotes-1

Mr. Goldman, you have been a major part of my life for 40 years, and even though I would have appreciated a few more novels …  I cannot say “thank you”  enough.

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BOOKS TO AVOID – Even Under Penalty of Death

NOTE: I did not list any James Patterson books since it should be obvious you need to avoid Patterson. If you enjoy Patteron’s books I order to stop reading my blog IMMEDIATELY.


 

AmericanPsychoBookAMERICAN PSYCHO by Brett Easton Ellis

Sick and badly written. A cruel and vicious book. Anyone who is in a relationship with Mr. Ellis needs to re-think their decision. There are not words strong enough to describe how bad this book is.

Cold_mountain_novel_coverCOLD MOUNTAIN by Charles Fraizer

Quite simply, one of the worst books of the past decade. It is a great example of the group think among today’s university-driven literary community and publishing industry. The book is sophomoric in style, using purple phrases with awkward flourishes that most English 101 instructors will give you a failing grade for using. It is also a great example of a major problem in today’s publishing industry – an author has a wild success with a bad book, so he is given a huge amount of money to produce an even worse book, Thirteen Moons.

finnegan's wakeFINNEGAN’S WAKE by James Joyce.

It’s a classic, right? Yes, classic shit. The last section of the novel consists of 24,212 words and two sentences. Yes, you read that correctly, two sentences and 24,000 words! Enough said.

Gravitys_rainbow_coverGRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon

The 11 members of the Pulitzer Prize committee were on the right track when they described the book as “unreadable, turgid, overwritten and obscene.”

They were actually being nice.

magus_coverTHE MAGUS by John Fowles

Self-important and full of 1960ish mysticism and oblique literary games. AWFUL!

The great actor Peter Sellers was once asked, “If you had a chance to live your life over again, what would you do differently?” Sellers answered, ” I would not read “The Magus.”

Amen, Peter.  

scarlettSCARLETT: THE SEQUEL TO MARGARET MITCHELL’S GONE WITH THE WIND by Alexandra Ripley

Granted, this was a no-win idea from the get-go. Hell, even the title is ridiculous. But the book turned out to be boring, boring, boring.

And the other “approved” book, Rhett Butler’s People fares no better.

StateOfFearSTATE OF FEAR by Michael Crichton

First of all, forget all the political yammering around this novel (by the same folks that think Tom Clancy is a good writer) and the claims for “scientific authenticity.” IT’S BAD AND BORING!

Crichton has never been on anyone’s list of good writers; his prose is clumsy and his characterizations are TV depth (hence all the successful movies and TV shows made from his writings).

ShannaraTHE SHANNARA BOOKS (almost all of them!) by Terry Brooks

Second rate recycled Tolkien. Brooks’ prose is often as unwieldy as a 200 lb sword. . What is frightening is how many have been published. As of this moment there are 20+ Shannara novels. Mr. Brooks … have mercy! Take a vacation!!!!

How bad are these books? Pauly Shore bad! Michael Bolton awful!

tough guysTOUGH GUYS DON’T DANCE by Norman Mailer

A boring, boring mess. The book is the result of a self-important (and often good) writer thinking that because he is an “important artist” he could write a better hard-boiled mystery than those two-bit hacks like Hammet, Chandler and MacDonald.

Hey Norman, you lose … by a long shot!

 


 

CHARLESTON NOVELS TO READ (and some to avoid)

Here is a list of some of good (and not-so-good) fiction in which Charleston is one of the major settings. Obviously, there are plenty of books I am going to leave out. Since this is a list of my personal favorites (and otherwise) feel free to make your own list and send it to me!

WHAT TO READ

THE PRINCE OF TIDES & THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE by Pat Conroy.

Thprince tidese Prince of Tides  follows the story of Tom Wingo, teacher and football coach who is reluctant to help his twin sister’s psychiatrists unlock their dysfunctional family secrets. When his sister attempts suicide, Tom travels to New York to help her and bit-by-bit the psychiatrist pulls the family history out of Tom. Calling the Wingo family dysfunctional is like calling James Patterson a hack … true but an understatment

lords discipline Discipline pissed off a lot of Charleston people when it was published because it was a little too close to the truth. Charleston people like to be in charge of the mirror and tend to become defensive when someone else describes the reflection. Both books, Tides and Discipline are page-turners. Conroy is, at worst, an emotional and compelling writer.

Great Mischief / Josephine Pinckney.

great mischiefA perfectly creepy little book that unfortunately is out of print. I had to buy it used on Amazon. The year is 1895, and much of sleepy little Charleston is still lit by gas. Timothy Partridge operates a rundown apothecary shop, where things have’t really changed much since the glory days of Romeo and Juliet; drugs are still hanging from nails on the walls, such as bat wings, hummingbird feathers and strange, fiery potions. Timothy is supporting his shrewish sister Penelope and has a roguish best friend, the drunken doctor Golightly, who is always encouraging Tim to live a little, stop being such a fussbudget, One creepy stormy evening a young woman enters, dashing into the shop in an urgent, insistent plea for some solanum. Tim knows instantly there’s something “off” about the girl, but he has no idea that she’s actually a witch from hell, who will intertwine herself to his life and change it–forever.

Carrion Comfort / Dan Simmons

comfortThe War and Peace of the horror genre. One of my all time favorite books. It is December 1980, and a small circle of vampires—not the fanged blood drinkers of legend, but monstrously cruel human beings with the psychic ability to possess and dominate others—gather in Charleston for a reunion, where they score points by comparing the latest acts of extreme violence initiated on their command. It is a page-turning marvel, weaving multiple plot threads and over-the-top action sequences into a narrative of genuine, resonant power. One, Nina, is particularly proud of getting a faceless nobody to assassinate the Beatle John Lennon. But the game soon gives way to a power struggle of an even more ruthless sort. The mind controllers turn on one another, initiating a bloodbath fought with innocents snatched from their everyday lives.

Enter Charleston Sheriff Bobby Joe Gentry, nobody’s top nomination for action hero: An overweight, soft-spoken failed historian, who is baffled and angered by the sudden eruption of madness that has left Charleston littered with nine bodies in a single night. Gentry is out of his depth when his investigation begins to involve conspiracies that involve superpowers and cover-ups at the very highest levels of government power. He is soon joined by Saul Laski, an aging Jewish psychiatrist who has spent his life searching for the Nazi whose psychic powers he experienced during World War II, and Natalie Preston, a young black photographer whose own father was a victim of the massacre in Charleston. These woefully outnumbered three take on a global conspiracy, finding themselves alone in a world where any innocent can be possessed and turned into a murderous assassin without warning.

One of the creepiest characters is ‘sweet little old Charleston lady’ Melanie Fuller, one of the most evil creatures in modern literature.

Porgy / Dubose Heyward

porgy_dustjacketThe story of a crippled beggar who witnesses a murder during a dice game and later gives shelter to the murderer’s woman, the beautiful, haunted Bess. The Catfish Row community is united in its opposition to the union, but Porgy and Bess make each other happy, and their happiness only increases when they take in a child orphaned by a hurricane. Their idyll is brief, however. The murderer, Crown, returns for Bess, and Porgy, defending his family, kills him. The police detain him for questioning but never dream that a cripple could have been the killer, so Porgy returns triumphantly to the Row. The triumph turns to tragedy, however, when he learns that, while he was away, Sporting Life, the dope pusher, beguiled Bess with “happy dus'” and took her away to New York City to resume, it is implied,her career as a prostitute. The book, for all it’s melodrama, is beautifully written.

North & South – Love & War – Heaven & Hell / John Jakes

north and southHistorical fiction as it should be … well written, and well researched and full of forbidden love, illicit sex, double crosses and other intrigue. In North and South, two strangers, young men from Pennsylvania and South Carolina, meet on the way to West Point . . . The Hazards and the Mains are brought together in bonds of friendship and affection that neither man thinks can be shattered. And then the War begins.

Love & War: From the first Union rout in Virginia to the last tragic moments of surrender, here is a gigantic five-year panorama of the Civil War! Hostilities divide the Hazards and the Mains, testing them with loyalties more powerful than family ties. While soldiers from both families clash on the battlefields of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Antietam, in intrigue-ridden Washington and Richmond, strong-willed men and beautiful women defend their principles with their lives … or satisfy illicit cravings with schemes that could destroy friends and enemies alike!

Heaven & Hell: The war ends, but there is no peace for the Hazards and the Mains in a nation still inflamed with bitterness and hatred. The defeated South teems with schemers and carpetbaggers … and the North has no place for scarred veterans such as Charles Main, who struggles to rebuild his life in the Plains cavalry, only to be stalked by a murderous nemesis seeking revenge against both families. A gripping portrait of Reconstruction America, and a fitting conclusion to the saga of two mighty dynasties!

celia-garthCelia Garth: A Story of Charleston in the Revolution / Gwen Bristow

This young adult tale of Celia Garth, a 20 year old woman trying to make a living as a seamstress in Charleston, South Carolina during the Revolutionary war. Celia and her friends survive the seige of Charleston by the British, living through the constant shelling and lack of food until the final surrender. At first, things seem normal after the surrender and Celia begins to build a new life, but tragedy strikes after the British go back on their promises and Celia must start life afresh. This time, while working as a seamstress she is also a bit of a “spy” for the colonials.

Galilee / Clive Barker

galileeClive Barker has earned a reputation as the thinking person’s horror writer. His novels mix fantasy, psychology, and sheer creepiness in almost equal quantities. In Galilee, Barker soft-pedals the ghoulish in favor of the gothic. His novel (or as the author would have it, “romance”) tells the tale of two warring families caught up in a disastrous web of corruption, illicit sexuality, and star-crossed love, with a soupçon of the supernatural thrown in as well. On one side are the wealthy Gearys–a fictional stand-in for the Kennedys–and on the other are the Barbarossas, a mysterious black clan that has been around since the time (quite literally) of Adam.

Galilee chronicles the twisted course of this centuries-old family feud, which centers around the magical Barbarossa matriarch Cesaria and her son Galilee. Indeed, it’s the latter figure–one part Heathcliff to one part Christ–whose relationship with the Geary women sets a match to the entire powder keg of hostility and resentment. Mixing standard clichés of romance and some deep-fried Southern gothic, Baker created an intelligent and shameless potboiler.

Settling Accounts: In at the Death/ Harry Turtledove

settling accountsThis is the last novel of the Settling Accounts tetralogy that presents an alternative history of WWII. It brings to a conclusion the multi-series compilation that is sometimes referred to as Timeline-191. This alternative history began with the Confederate States of America winning the Civil War in 1862, followed by a war between the United States and Confederate States of America in the 1880s which is also won by the South. In the conclusion, the United State detonates an atomic bomb in Charleston, wiping the city off the map, in retaliation for starting the War Between the States in 1861.

Forbidden / Rebel Sinclair

forbidden coverFull disclosure … this novel was written by my wife.  So … I admit a major amount of bias. Still, it’s a page-turner.

After witnessing a murder plot in Regency London, Lady Madeline Winchester flees to Charleston, South Carolina and the protection of Magistrate Exchange Agent, Nicholas Gales. Afraid and alone but for her starchy lady’s maid, Madeline is drawn to her dark, moody guardian and his plantation home of Myrtle Downs just as she is repelled by his society of prejudice and slavery.

In a world where breeding and birthright mean everything, there is no possibility of a future with a man like him – especially since Madeline is betrothed to a duke in her homeland. Drawn together by passion, yet torn apart by social differences and dreams of the past, Nicholas and Madeline have only each other to shield them from a darkness that has been orchestrating their lives in this perilous 19th century tale of intrigue and betrayal.

The Fallon Saga / Reagan O’Neal (Robert Jordan)

Great historical fiction on the same level with North & South. Written by Charlestonian James Rigney, Jr, more popularly known as Robert Jordan, author of the massively successful fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. Jordan died in Sept. 2007. Sharp-eyed tour guides often got a glimpse offallon him walking Tradd Street.

In The Fallon Blood, escaping brutal English overlords, 1760s Irishman Michael Fallon becomes an indentured servant to Charleston merchant Thomas Carver, where his infatuation with Carver’s sensual daughter Elizabeth causes life-changing complications. In The Fallon Pride, Michael Fallon’s son Robert Fallon survives years at sea fighting Barbary pirates and enduring the siege at Tripoli. He then returns to America with an Irish wife, Moira McConnell, and goes into business in Charleston where he raises a somewhat troublesome family. In The Fallon Legacy, James Fallon, the last scion of the Fallon line, strikes south and west, adventuring in New Orleans, Missouri, and finally Texas (then still part of Mexico). He loves and loses women, ranches and breeds horses, and becomes entangled in the schemes of shady men and women. Enemies made by Michael and Robert during their lifetimes converge upon James, who must find out if he has strength enough to stand against them.

WHAT TO AVOID

South of Broad / Pat Conroy. The worst book Conroy has written (so far!)! Avoid like a syphilitic whore.

Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig. This is AWFUL!! One of the worst novels I’ve ever tried to read. Silly and poorly written. The narration is fuzzy and the story is well … silly. Why can’t they leave Gone With The Wind alone? First there was Scarlett by Alexandria Ripley which was a snore-fest and now this “Authorized Novel”. Rhett Butler should challenge the Margaret Mitchell estate to a duel for this insult!

All of the ‘island” books by Dorothea Benton Frank. You know … those books that have the fill-in-the-blank plot lines; the major change in each book is the characters’ names and the sea island she uses as the setting. Frank is the female James Patterson – books written for the barely literate.

All of Mary Alice Monroe’s Oprah-fied low country-based, let’s-save-the-turtles fiction.

William Gilmore Simms – praised in his time (1800s) by none other than Edgar Allan Poe, Simms is virtually unreadable today.


CHARLESTON’S GHOSTS – an interview with author James Caskey

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Savannah author, James Caskey, about his new book, Charleston’s Ghosts: Hauntings in the Holy City (Manta Ray Books, 2014). Caskey is a kindred spirit – tour guide, researcher, storyteller and curious about the historical truth, no matter how many toes and sensibilities get stepped on.   charleson ghostsWe met several years ago when Caskey was the writer and producer of a television program, Phantoms of History.  He kindly asked me and my wife, Rebel Sinclair, to be a part of the show, which illustrated (and de-constructed) some of Charleston’s most famous ghost stories. Since that time, we have managed to find several opportunities to meet and talk (usually over food and spirits.)  


JONES: I understand why you wrote your first book, Haunted Savannah. You are a Savannah tour guide and operate a ghost tour business, so the book was a natural extension of your research for your tours. What inspired you to expand your research to other cities?

CASKEY: I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was younger I was an artist—I actually went to art school, and even in that creative medium, my paintings had a strong linear narrative. My art told historical stories, even the portraiture. Then in 2001 I got introduced to the world of guided walking tours, and it was just a natural fit for me: I had already been telling ghost stories for years, and it was sort of funny that there was this flash like: Wait, I can get paid for this?

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James Caskey

I had been researching ghost stories even before I opened Cobblestone Tours, and what I found surprised me: not only were most of the ghost stories which other guides were telling as accepted truth sometimes wrong, but their history was frequently way off base, as well. The nighttime tour landscape back then was dotted with fictional tales of monsters (presented as fact) that lived in lairs under the cemetery, that sort of thing. I wanted to do better than that. I began writing initially as a way of giving my own employees a study manual for their stories, my version of ‘Cliffs Notes for Ghost Tours.’ I found that I really enjoyed the research aspect, and loved sharing the stories because the true history was so much better than the bogus folklore, most of the time. True life is almost always better than fiction. Well, my little hobby grew from there. I was three years into this process when I realized I was writing a book, a volume which eventually became Haunted Savannah. It published in 2005. This is a very roundabout way of explaining that once the Savannah book was in stores, I really missed that ‘researching and writing’ process. It took me a long time to muster up the courage to tackle another major writing project. Once I decided to do it, though, I really wanted to engage a city with which I was completely unfamiliar. I mean, New Orleans is over eleven hours away by car, one way, and I knew very little about it. It was a big leap. The book is very much about that journey and exploration, and fortunately I get a lot of feedback from readers that they find that level of honesty refreshing. There was definitely a fear of failure, and some moments of confusion, mixed in with the joy of unveiling an exotic and personally unknown place. New Orleans has some great stories.

JONES: Your books are as much history as they are ghost stories. What are the major problems you encounter in this type of research?

CASKEY: Well, you have a certain type of person who prefers the erroneous folklore: some just really want their pre-conceived notions confirmed. However, the documented history I present in my books is unvarnished, and often less tidy than the version you might hear on a ghost tour. It can be an uncomfortable thing, to eviscerate a legend that another person believes as fact. I know from our discussions that you experienced the same exact thing regarding Lavinia Fisher when you wrote Wicked Charlestonthe fictionalized wedding dress, the erroneously high body count, etc. People will really argue for the campfire tale sometimes, even if you can back your assertations up, point by point. I want to present both sides: the legend AND the facts. If people just want a recounting of the bogus folklore, well… those books are already out there. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good story and folklore can be very entertaining, but you’re also going to learn the truth from my books. I don’t research and write to satisfy people’s expectations: my writing is really a process of discovery.

JONES: Why did you choose Charleston as the subject for your third book?

CASKEY: Charleston SC is one of the most tragic and historically violent places in North America. It is haunted by more than just ghosts: secession, slavery, great fires, yellow fever, and a uniquely brutal timeline. There was no question whether or not I was going to write about it, the only question was when.

JONES: Are there major differences in the paranormal history between New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston? If so, what are they?

CASKEY: Honestly, I’m more fascinated by the similarities. Each location once had a huge Native American population, if you go back to before their contact with Spanish and English explorers. There was a horrific genocide in the American South, starting in the mid-1500’s, on a scale which is scarcely conceivable today. The American Indian populations were largely eradicated. All three towns had their formation shortly after that cauldron of disease, war, and death. It’s no wonder so many Southern seaport cities have such haunted reputations!

JONES: What was your favorite Charleston ghost story before you wrote the book? Is it still your favorite?

CASKEY: I probably liked the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon the most, going in. I still love it, but there are other stories which sparked my interest a little more, like Madame Talvande and the Sword Gates on Legare Street. Charleston has such a wonderfully twisted history, and is a fertile ground for storytellers.

JONES: What was the most surprising story you uncovered during your research about Charleston?

CASKEY: There are more than a few good candidates, but I would have to say that the story that most surprised me was the Tavern on East Bay. It’s just this tiny little liquor store; looking at it from the outside, one would never expect the supercharged ghost story it holds within. I talked to owner Gary Dow for hours, and it was by far the most entertaining day I’ve ever had as a researcher. The real surprise was his attitude toward the supernatural things happening to him on a nearly daily basis: he is fiercely protective of his ghosts. If you think the TV program ‘Ghost Adventures’ is the way to deal with spirits, you know, taunting and aggressive, well, Gary will politely take you to school on that subject. He likes his ghosts, and by every indication, the feeling is mutual.

JONES: What is the most haunted location in Charleston, and why?

CASKEY: I would have to say that block on Queen Street between Meeting and King is the most haunted, if you’re asking about concentration of stories. The Mills House, Poogan’s Porch, and Husk all have stories. Following a hunch, one day I had lunch at 82 Queen in that same block, and I casually asked my server if that spot was haunted. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Yes, of course it is.” I do know that area burned in the Great Fire of 1861, so perhaps the high number of hauntings in that area has something to do with that tragic event.

JONES: Any plans to research and write about other cities?

CASKEY: Yes, although I plan on taking a little break, I definitely would like to continue writing. There are a number of cities on my haunted hit-list.

JONES: Other than reading your new book, what are some of the must-do things to do during a visit to Charleston?

CASKEY: Eating and drinking have to be high on the list for anyone visiting Charleston. It’s a city famous for its food and hospitality. During one of my research trips while writing the book, I observed a family checking in to the hotel that had packed coolers full of cheap processed lunchmeat and sodas, and I couldn’t help but think that they were missing a major component of their vacation. It was oddly sad. To me, to not partake of the local cuisine would be like visiting Nashville (Music City) and only listening to ‘bubblegum pop’ the entire time. Other than that, I’d recommend taking a cultural tour of Charleston. Try a carriage or walking tour, and a couple of different house museums or heritage sites. The Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street is especially worthwhile. Oh, and you simply have to experience sunset at a rooftop bar. The view of the church-steepled skyline is pretty spectacular.


Contact James Caskey at JamesBCaskey.com.   To take a Savannah ghost or pub tour, contact GhostSavannah.com. 

HOW (AND WHY) I BECAME A NARRATIVE-NONFICTION AUTHOR

It was 2004. I was forty-five years old. During most of my 20s and 30s I had written several novels(unpublished and mostly unfinished.) In 2001 I became a city of Charleston tour guide and began to immerse myself in the city’s history, reading almost every book written about Charleston. Some were entertaining, most were factual and many were often boring. I began to compile my favorite tidbits from all these books and other sources. You know: prominent powerful gentleman gets caught in a compromising circumstance; cross-dressing socialite throws a debutante ball for two chihuahuas; a whorehouse operates out of a service station (from the back seat of a car on a lift) in the middle of the historic district – kind of like an antebellum TMZ.

One day, a fellow tour guide was reading through my computer notes and asked, “How many pages of this stuff do you have?” I looked. It was about 50,000 words. He suggested, “You ought to write a book.”

Bam! Light bulb! It had never dawned on me to write something other than fiction. In less than three months (discounting the three years I spent reading and compiling my notes) I had written a 70,000 word manuscript titled Wicked Charleston. The first publisher I queried, The History Press, bmarks books - wicked cover (hi res)ought it.They requested I turn the manuscript into two volumes, so after another month of work I had two books finished, Wicked Charleston: The Dark Side of the Holy City and Wicked Charleston, Volume 2: Prostitutes, Politics and Prohibition.

My goal with the Wicked books was to write a “good parts” version of Charleston history. I took inspiration from one of my favorite novels of all time by one of the best writers of the past 50 years, William Goldman’s 1973 classic, The Princess ride. Those who are familiar with the novel (as opposed to those only familiar with the equally classic movie based on the novel) know that Goldman’s novel was the “good parts” version of a rather turgid old-fashioned satirical romance written by someone named S. Morgenstern. Of course, none of that was true. It was nothing more than an ingenious literary device created by Goldman.

None thmarks books - doin book covere less, Goldman inspired me to write a “good parts” version of Charleston history, leaving out all the stuff I found boring. Seven years later, both books are still in print and selling steadily. Since then I have managed to write and publish three more works of narrative non-fiction, the most recent was published in September 2013, Doin’ the Charleston: Black Roots of American Popular Music. & the Jenkins Orphanage Legacy.

And now, on to the next project. What is it? Well, I keep threatening to write a book titled How The South Started the War of Northern Aggression. Maybe this time around I just might.