Saturday, October 21, 2017

"An occurrence, partaking of the marvelous": The legendary rocking cradle of Lynchburg, Va.

In the first volume of L.B. Taylor Jr.'s long-running series The Ghosts of Virginia (1993), one chapter is titled "The Extraordinary Rocking Cradle." It begins:
From the beginnings of my research for this book, every time I had talked about the Lynchburg area, people would mention the "Rocking Cradle House." They would say that I had to include a story on this, because it was the most famous haunted house in the city. Everyone, it seemed, had heard about the house, but seemingly no one could provide any details on where it was, or when the phenomena occurred. (275)
Taylor finally learns the address -- 1104 Jackson St., which you can see here, thanks to Google --  and finds a 1937 version of the story, told to Works Progress Administrator researcher Susan R. Beardsworth by a local architect with the lovely name of Trueheart Poston. His family had bought the house in 1902, and Trueheart lived there as a boy. Here is his version of the legend, as transcribed by Beardsworth and transcribed again by Taylor more than a half-century later.
The house at that time (1839) was occupied by a Rev. Smith, who was a cousin of Bishop Early. I do not know whether this cradle belonged to the Smiths or was loaned them by the Earlys, but the tale has it that the Rev. Smith, upon returning home from his duties, found the Negro nanny in a state of hysteria and was told that the cradle had been rocking with the baby in it for some hours and would not stop.
Upon hearing this, Rev. Smith went into the room and found that the cradle was indeed rocking. Being a very religious man, he commanded the cradle to stop rocking in the name of Beelzebub, whereupon the cradle immediately stopped. Rev. Smith then suggested that Beelzebub start rocking the cradle again, whereupon he apparently did so. This constant rocking under orders continued for a period of some days, during which, as the rumors spread, most of the town folk dropped by and witnessed this sight for themselves. … Apparently, after just so long, the cradle ceased rocking and would rock only by human efforts from then on.
Poston also cites an earlier source: "Mr. Asbury Christian in his book, 'Lynchburg and Its People,' gives the account of the rocking cradle." Taylor does not mention the Christian book further, but today I found it online. Here is the entirety of the already 60-year-old rocking-cradle story, as Christian tells it in 1900:
An occurrence, partaking of the marvelous, created a good deal of excitement in the town. It took place in the spring of 1839, in the one-story brick house on Jackson street, between Eleventh and Twelfth, the residence of the Rev. Dr. William A. Smith. Dr. Smith had borrowed a cradle from Rev. John Early, in which to put his new-born baby. One morning, as he was at breakfast, his wife, who was in bed in the next room, called to him and said: “Dr. Smith, come here and look at this cradle, how it rocks.” He arose and came to the door, and, to his amazement, the cradle was rocking vigorously, and there was no one near it. Dr. Smith moved the cradle from near the fire-place into the middle of the floor, and said: “Now Geoffrey (he called the Devil by that name), rock!” and he did.
The news of it spread through town like wildfire, and hundreds closed their places of business and went to see the “rocking cradle.” Various explanations were given, but none seemed satisfactory to the people. (126-27)
The differences between the 1900 and 1937 stories are striking.
  • The story acquires a new character, a stereotyped hysterical African-American servant -- as if a supernatural anecdote from antebellum Virginia needed some racist eye-rolling, just for legitimacy.
  • The story becomes vague on where the cradle came from, whereas the earlier story is quite clear that it was borrowed from another pastor, John Early. Early would be promoted to bishop later, but he was already in his fifties, a founder of Randolph Macon College, and one of the most prominent pro-slavery Methodists. The great man lent out a haunted cradle!
  • Rather than rocking for only a few moments, empty, while Smith is in an adjacent room, the cradle now rocks for hours, with his child in it, while he's out of the house entirely. The implication is that in his absence, the negligent nanny has failed spectacularly to protect the baby.
  • The baby's mother, who formerly sounded the alarm from her bed -- was she ill? not yet recovered from childbirth? -- now is stricken from the record entirely.
  • No longer does Smith take the eminently sensible, practical step of moving the cradle, to see whether it still rocks at another spot on the floor. Instead he leaves it where it is, perhaps afraid to touch it.
  • The most charming detail of the original is gone: No longer does Smith address a "Geoffrey." In 1839, would that have been a common nickname for the Devil? Or would this have been part of Smith's private discourse, a semi-playful way of addressing his old adversary? In either case, Christian feels the need, in 1900, to explain the reference with an intrusive parenthetical. In 1937, Poston substitutes "Beelzebub" -- which, like all cliches, is predictable, recognizable, and safe, with no thought required.
  • The most interesting detail is also gone: No longer does Smith command the cradle to keep rocking. Instead he commands it to stop, then to resume -- as a sign, presumably, of his mastery over Beelzebub. That, again, seems much safer than the older version, in which Smith says only, "Now Geoffrey, rock!" and only after he moves it. I take this to mean he's playfully daring Geoffrey to keep the cradle rocking, and of course Geoffrey obliges. One gets the sense that Smith and Geoffrey have been at these games for a long time.
  • In the 1937 version, the townsfolk come to marvel at Smith's supernatural ability to make the rocking start and stop. (In what sense, then, is Beelzebub to blame?) In the 1900 version, the spectacle is a cradle that just keeps rocking, without interruption or intervention from Smith.
  • In the 1937 version, the cradle eventually just winds down like a pocketwatch. Nothing more to see here, folks. In the earlier version, the rocking cradle never stops.
I have a guess about that last point. Before moving on to the other ghost stories associated with the Jackson Street house, Taylor quotes one more detail from Poston:
The cradle itself is a very beautiful Sheraton mahogany high poster affair with turned spindle sides and a field bed canopy. It gives the effect of being a miniature Sheraton field bed on rockers.
This seems fussy and anticlimactic, since the cradle's architectural virtues are surely eclipsed by its supernatural history, if any -- but it also sounds like a proud collector of antiques describing furniture still in his possession, a century after the celebrated episode. And after all, if that rocker is not now rocking, that must somehow be acknowledged; hence "after just so long, the cradle ceased rocking and would rock only by human efforts from then on." (I am reminded of Peter Cook's old bit about John Stitch, self-described "non-stop dancer," who is forced to explain why, in that moment, he is not dancing.)

I much prefer the 1900 story to the 1937 story, but the 1937 story makes me wonder whether the old cradle is still around.


Christian, W. Asbury. Lynchburg and Its People (Lynchburg, Va.: J.P. Bell Co., Printers, 1900). Digitized by Google from a copy in the Northwestern University Library, Evanston, Ill.

Taylor, L.B. Jr. The Ghosts of Virginia, Vol. 1. 1993. Lynchburg, Va.: Progress Printing, 2009. 6th printing.

Kit Reed, 1932-2017

(I first posted this on Facebook on Sept. 29, 2017.)

Sydney and Andy Duncan, Kit Reed and David G. Hartwell at ICFA in Orlando, Fla., March 2012.
I keep trying, and failing, to write about the remarkable fiction writer Kit Reed, who died five days ago. By “remarkable” I mean her fiction – satiric, savage, funny, powerful, deeply felt, and as unclassifiable as Shirley Jackson’s – but I mean Kit herself, too. Maybe my loss for words springs from the fact that Kit always strongly reminded me of all the long-gone aunts who helped raise me: smart, fierce, loving, generous, and unapologetically in my business all the time. I am better for their existence, and hers.

Was any luminary in our field ever easier to know? Years ago, at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Florida, a distinguished-looking older couple, he much taller than she, strolled across the patio and sat down at our table in the outdoor bar. Sydney and I had no idea who they were. "Hello," said the woman. "I'm Kit Reed, and this is Joe." “Hello,” said Joe, which was just about the last word he managed to get in, for the next hour, because Kit had begun yakking away as if she had known us all our lives, and there it was, as simple as that: We’d been adopted – by THE Kit Reed! Holy moley!

I was shocked to learn that at her untimely death, Kit was 85 years old. She always seemed about a half-century younger. In my photos of her through the years, she tends to be in blurred motion, and always talking. She loved good conversation, and gossip, and anecdotes told and retold, and long dinners with small groups of friends. I guess it was appropriate, then, that the news of her death came as I sat in a crowded booth at the Lost City Diner in Baltimore, wedged between Sarah Pinsker and Scott Edelman, whereupon we immediately began telling Kit Reed stories. But our conversation was much duller, without Kit there to help us.

She and Joe had me as a houseguest once, at their big, cozy, eclectic Connecticut home. After dinner, Kit played with the dogs, Joe painted – from an easel and palette attached to his easy chair, a startling cantilevered affair – and we all watched that week’s episode of True Blood. The Reeds kept up a running sardonic commentary, especially during the sex scenes. "True Blood is all about the sex, really," Kit said. "That’s not just True Blood, dear," Joe said, daubing his canvas. "That’s everything."

On one of our rare visits to Manhattan, the Reeds took the train into the city so that Kit could treat us to lunch at her club, the Century Association on 43rd Street (founded 1847). As we prowled the library, where I kept expecting Phileas Fogg to walk in at any moment, Kit offered to sponsor me for membership, one of the few occasions when I’ve actually been speechless; after some discussion, Sydney and I agreed we’d better keep paying the mortgage instead. When the World Fantasy Convention was in the D.C. area in 2014, we played hooky one night with Kit and David G. Hartwell for dinner at the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue, where Century members have dining privileges. Even David, that dazzling urbanite, seemed a bit cowed by the sumptuous Beaux Arts surroundings, but Kit cheerfully criticized every aspect of the joint as clearly inferior to the Century, which after all had a 31-year head start on the jumped-up wannabees of Dupont Circle. Weeks later, I called Kit just to report that the Cosmos Club comb I had pocketed as a souvenir in the gents’ already was losing its lettering. “You can barely read it,” I told her. “It’s all rubbing off.” She crowed in triumph: “That’s D.C. for you! Shoddy at every level!”
Kit Reed and Sydney Duncan on the Century Club's rooftop patio in Manhattan, with the Chrysler Building in the background, January 2015.

An hour with Kit was an hour of total involvement. She really wanted to know what you thought, and asked follow-up questions. She dug deep. Once I was traveling cross country, I forget why: one of those long weary days of planes, shuttles, taxis, moving sidewalks. Every time I looked at my smartphone, there was a fresh text message from Kit, who was obsessed that week with some mutual friends who seemed to be breaking up with one another and hooking up with other friends. Kit had opinions and speculations about all these people, was handicapping the outcome in all directions, and demanded to know what I thought. At the luggage carousel, as I typed out my 15th reply, I giggled and thought, well, this is it, this is my life now: I’m Kit Reed’s co-host. That wasn’t true, but it would have been a good life, I think.

The last time she was able to attend ICFA, she and I walked a few blocks to Sonny’s BBQ, because Kit wanted “a lot of meat.” I gently said that driving might be better than walking, a suggestion she vetoed. “I’ll tell you what you can do for me, though,” she said. “Whenever we approach a curb, let me just touch your arm with one hand. I won’t grab it. I won’t hold on. I’ll just touch it. It’ll help my balance.” So that’s what we did. At each curb, her fingertips barely grazed my arm, like a butterfly alighting, and she kept walking, and talking, and was fine. I can feel her fingers still.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Brian Aldiss, 1925-2017

I took this photo of Brian Aldiss the last time I saw him, at the World Science Fiction Convention in London, three years ago this summer. He was busily signing books at the PS Publishing table (alongside Paul McAuley, in the background), at the head of a very long line of supplicants, so I didn't think I'd get to chat with him at all. But Brian's partner, Alison Soskice, saw me lurking about, hailed me, and brought me behind the table, where she and I yakked happily for several minutes.

Brian chatted with the customers the whole time, seemingly oblivious to us. But then he slowly reared back in his swivel chair, putting his large head beside ours, and gruffly asked Alison, "What do you mean, talking to this rogue?" Then he twinkled at me, rocked forward again, and greeted another customer.

When done with her, he reared back again and asked me, with a hopeful air, "Where's Sydney?" (meaning my wife, of course). "She's at home, I'm afraid," I replied. His face darkened comically, like a panto villain's. "What good are you, then?" he snarled, then twinkled, and sat forward again.

That's how it went for the next half-hour or so. Between customers, he'd rear back, say something cheerfully insulting to me, then twinkle, and sit forward again. This photo is of one of the twinkles.

Of the many obituaries, I best liked Christopher Priest's in The Guardian. "He wrote lively, intelligent prose, shot through with subversive humour, linguistic novelty and human observation. ... One of the most exhilarating aspects of reading Aldiss is the diversity of his imagination." Priest also notes, "All his working life he did much behind the scenes to encourage, support and promote younger writers." I can attest to that personally, and I'm sure Priest can as well.

I tried to describe what Brian meant to me in my introduction to his collection Cultural Breaks (Tachyon, 2005), but it deteriorated into mere anecdote, as usual. Here are some relevant, slightly revised, excerpts from that essay.

I loved Brian W. Aldiss the writer for most of my reading life, but in the 1990s I came to love Brian W. Aldiss the person as well. I met Brian through an annual event we both attended, the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. Note the aplomb with which I toss off "we both attended," as if we were peers, old cronies from New Worlds before that kid Moorcock took it over. In fact, Brian was a living legend, with the ICFA title of Permanent Special Guest, when I first showed up as a graduate student.

I had read and admired his books since I was a kid, when I first plucked them off the shelves of the public library in Batesburg, South Carolina, where the librarian helpfully stamped each one -- even Billion Year Spree, which I read with delight, cover to cover, at age twelve -- with the little red rocketship that meant "science fiction." So being in his presence as an adult still reduced me to awe, to the level of the whining schoolboy, with his satchel.

My letter of transit to Brian was my then-girlfriend, now wife, Sydney, whom he promptly recruited, on sight, into the unofficial stock company that peopled the one-act plays he staged at ICFA each year. One year, I remember, there were several rehearsals, and at each rehearsal Sydney's role got bigger. Some of the script pages were handwritten. Brian was going back to his hotel room and writing whole monologues just for Sydney. "If Sydney's in it," Brian liked to say, "it's fireproof!" Since I was hanging around anyway, Brian was good enough to toss me a role occasionally. As a result, Sydney and I got to play the robot child's troubled parents in Brian's own stage version of "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," years before what's-her-name and what's-his-face played the roles in Spielberg's A.I.

One of Brian's ICFA plays was Drinks with the Spider King. Brian and I both were typecast, he as the Spider King and I as a brainless minion. My role was to sit at his feet, gnaw an imaginary haunch of meat and gaze up at him with fearsome adoration. This I found easy to do. I had ample time -- for it was a rather long play -- to study, up close, Brian's marvelous face. I was fascinated by its creases, jowls, and bristles, and the zest with which Brian animated them. It was an old vaudevillian's face, a face that could be instantly read from the cheapest seats in the house. It had many stories yet to tell, that face.

In later years, Sydney spent several summers at Oxford University, as a teacher and administrator in the Alabama at Oxford program. Oxford was, of course, Brian's hometown, so Sydney and I were fortunate enough to visit him repeatedly in much more congenial settings than a convention hotel. When we went to dinner or to a pub, we didn't even wear name tags! How liberating. On a number of memorable occasions, Brian was the most welcoming and gracious host one could imagine, and a marvelous tour guide to his beloved Oxfordshire.

With Brian, we lounged on the lazy banks of the Windrush in the ragged shadow of the dismantled Minster Lovell Hall, where a vault once was opened to reveal a skeleton sitting upright at a writing-table, surrounded by books. (No wonder Brian loved the place.) With Brian, we navigated country lanes to the old stone village of Langford (in which, Brian joked, Dave Langford had no economic interest), and a fabulous pub called the Bell Inn, where the lamb was divine and the conversation even better. With Brian, we had a long and luxurious cream tea at a sidewalk cafe in Burford, which Brian's then-young son, in the wake of Brian's 1969 novel Barefoot in the Head, christened Burford-in-the-Head. ("I thought that was rather good," Brian said, still the proud papa thirty-six years later.) Our Burford tea party was so lush and attractive, we actually drew bees. We also attracted a passer-by who asked, "Excuse me, aren't you Brian Aldiss?" -- a first in my writerly experience, and an instance of Brian's celebrity in his homeland.

On another occasion, as he and I sat side by side on a rough-hewn bench in an extraordinary Oxford seafood restaurant called Fishers, as the two of us munched fistfuls of deep-fried whitebait, with lemons and sea salt, Brian delighted me with a long, impassioned, funny, profane denunciation of a new critical anthology. I had contributed a chapter to that wicked anthology, hence my delight. I wonder whether Brian really had forgotten that I had helped write the book, or only pretended to forget.

Best of all, I think, was our chance to see Brian's house, his study, his library (which was pretty much coexistent with his house), and his amazing garden -- a vast, lovingly tended tangle full of surprises, into which the wanderer quickly disappeared. Goldfish thrived in the murk of what only a soulless cynic would call an abandoned pool.

Speaking of pools, in closing, I offer an ICFA anecdote that Brian doubtless did not remember, as it occurred before I met Sydney and before he even knew my name. Late one night, I sat poolside with a group of my fellow graduate students. By ones and twos, the group drifted off to bed, leaving only two of us, a young man and a young woman, deep in a high-octane critical conversation about something or other. We both gradually became aware of the sound of someone in the pool, gently swimming toward us -- at 2 a.m. We looked up. Bobbing there, a few yards away, was the conference's distinguished Permanent Special Guest, gray hair plastered across his head, beaming at us. When he spoke, his voice was barely a murmur, but the acoustics of the pool ferried it directly into our ears, like a confidence. "Come on," Brian cooed. "Don't be shy. Come in. Come into the water." He then winked, turned, and glided away, as graceful and amoral as an otter.

We did not get into the pool that night, but I've come to believe that Brian was right: The water's fine. RIP, Brian.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Ever more just, every day

Some version of this likely is going on my syllabi this fall.

As a fiftysomething Southern white man, I am inevitably associated, by history and current events alike, with the most toxic elements of American society, including the fascists now literally on the march across our nation. Because my silence in the face of such horrors might imply complicity, and because merely cutting-and-pasting our university’s anti-discrimination policies would not be personal enough or strong enough, I hereby affirm to all my students, and to their friends, families and loved ones, that I abhor white supremacy, racism, sexism, nativism and misogyny, and that I work daily to be a mentor, friend, advocate and ally for all my students, including women; people of color; students who are queer, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, undecided, intersex and asexual; immigrants and the children of immigrants, including the undocumented; and people of all religious faiths and of no religious faith at all. Dr. Cornel West reminds us, "Justice is what love looks like in public." I pledge my support as we work to make our classroom, campus, community and nation ever more just, every day.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

New sale: "The Devil's Whatever" will be in The Book of Magic, ed. Gardner Dozois (Bantam, 2018)

I just sold a new novelette, "The Devil's Whatever," to Gardner Dozois for his upcoming Book of Magic anthology, which I believe will be a 2018 Bantam hardover with new work from Eleanor Arnason, Elizabeth Bear, John Crowley, Kate Elliott, Matthew Hughes, Megan Lindholm, Garth Nix, K.J. Parker, Rachel Pollack, Tim Powers, Ysabeau Wilce and Liz Williams, among others. I'm honored to be included. 
"The Devil's Whatever" is my third Pearleen Sunday story, after "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions" (2007) and "The Dragaman's Bride" (2009); it also is a sequel to "Beluthahatchie" (1997), the first story I wrote at Clarion West 1994. All three of those earlier stories likewise were bought by Gardner Dozois, whose encouragement has been invaluable to me, these past 20-plus years.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Man Against Myth by Barrows Dunham (1947)

On my groaning bookcases devoted to pseudoscience, urban legends and folklore in general, a battered first-edition hardcover, without dust jacket, has sat for years, since I blindly retrieved it from a library giveaway table: Man Against Myth by Barrows Dunham (Boston: Little, Brown, 1947).

I could use a higher-res cover image.
I finally plucked it off the shelf, at random, and read it. Dunham devotes a chapter apiece to 10 common beliefs that he argues are not only erroneous, but active obstacles to social progress. After I read the book, I learned the author became a cause celebre a few years later, when he refused to testify before the Un-American Activities Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was fired by Temple University, where he had been on faculty, and prosecuted for contempt of Congress; though acquitted, he did not teach again for many years. 

Here are Dunham’s chapter titles, listing the beliefs he seeks to rebut:
1. That you can’t change human nature.
2. That the rich are fit and the poor unfit.
3. That there are superior and inferior races.
4. That there are two sides to every question.
5. That thinking makes it so.
6. That you cannot mix art and politics.
7. That you have to look out for yourself.
8. That all problems are merely verbal.
9. That words will never hurt me.
10. That you cannot be [both] free and safe.

(Originally posted on Facebook, Aug. 4, 2017. Bud Schultz's 2012 photo of Dunham is here.)

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Piggie Park defense

(This is re-posted from my Facebook page, where many comments can be found.)

As I graduated from an all-white South Carolina private academy that my parents helped found in defiance of school integration, I have much to atone for on Martin Luther King Day, as on every day. Today I am thinking about the Piggie Park defense, an old Palmetto State tactic that some Christians are attempting to revive in the 21st century, as a weapon against queer people.
My first-edition copy of Bessinger's self-published 2001 book.
Piggie Park is a Columbia-area barbecue chain whose founder, the late Maurice Bessinger, refused to serve black people. Spurned customers filed suit in federal court in the year of my birth, 1964. The case, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court on the narrow but important point of attorney’s fees. The larger point Bessinger had tried to make didn’t even reach the Supremes, having been a loser in the first round. To serve barbecue to black people, Bessinger argued, would violate his Christian beliefs; therefore, he argued, civil-rights legislation trampled his First Amendment religious freedoms.

The late William Price Fox, my undergraduate creative-writing professor at the University of South Carolina, loved telling this story, and always claimed the judge’s response to Bessinger’s argument was, “’Tain’t good enough, Maurice,” a sentence I sadly am forced to concede cannot be found in the published federal opinion. Fox was, however, vividly and accurately paraphrasing what the opinion does say, which is this:
Undoubtedly defendant Bessinger has a constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of his own choosing, however, he does not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens. This court refuses to lend credence or support to his position that he has a constitutional right to refuse to serve members of the Negro race in his business establishments upon the ground that to do so would violate his sacred religious beliefs.
Let us fast-forward now to the 21st century, when the Piggie Park defense is being (pardon the pun) trotted out again by the “Preserve Freedom, Prevent Coercion” statement. The 80-plus “prominent religious and thought leaders” who have signed this – almost all of them men, among them Franklin Graham and the archbishop of Baltimore – argue that all civil-rights protections for queer people are inherently unconstitutional because Jesus. That’s a paraphrase, of course – one I hope Fox would appreciate – but hey, read the statement yourself, if you have the stomach. Then re-read Judge Simons’s opinion I quoted above, from 1966. Substitute for “Bessinger” any bigot du jour, and substitute for “members of the Negro race” the phrase “queer people.” That’s the best rebuttal to Graham et al, and it was written a half-century ago. You might mention that, the next time you run into the archbishop of Baltimore in the 7-Eleven, or into Franklin Graham at some inauguration or other.

It’s getting toward lunchtime as I type this, and I must confess, at the risk of my queer-allied soul, that if you set a plate of Piggie Park barbecue in front of me right now, I gladly would eat it. But I never again will swallow the Piggie Park defense, no matter what sauce you put on it. I’ve had my fill of that already.