Ten years ago, on a Sunday night, I found myself walking the darkened streets of downtown Durbin, W.Va, dressed as an 1880’s train conductor, and looking for a bar. (What brought me there into that situation was an experience I decided to write about at the time. What follows is a revised edition of that writing. And if any of it seems familiar already, it’s probably because you read the introduction to A Consternation of Monsters, because this experience informed that introduction.)
The day before that, I received a phone call from Jessica Viers, a friend of mine who worked for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg. She asked if I was interested in going up to Pocahontas County, to Durbin, to act in a Canadian basic-cable television series that would air on the Outdoor Living Network. The job only paid $50 and would probably be filming late into the night, but it was a paid acting gig and I’d get to ride on a vintage train and hang out with friends from the theatre. Sounded like a fun time to me, so I signed on.
We pulled into town around 3p and stopped at the depot where we were to meet our Canadian film-crew. Durbin, back then, was a little town of about 300 people with an amazingly picturesque main-street, complete with a general store, a little bed & breakfast and a working train depot that runs scenic train tours using classic locomotives of the past. It’s one of only three incorporated townships in Pocahontas County.
The crew we met worked for a company called Creepy Features, based out of Toronto, which produced a show called Creepy Canada. They were in Durbin to film segments of a story called The Ghost of Silver Run Tunnel. (Which we assumed must mean that they’d run out of creepy stuff to cover in Canada so they had to go south.) It was a legend I had never heard, but that might be because Silver Run Tunnel is nowhere near Pocahontas County. It’s 154 miles away from Durbin, in Cairo, W.Va. The reason Durbin and not Cairo was chosen as a film location, though, is because its tourist railroad depot is home to the oldest of two working Climax Model locomotive engines in the world, the very sort of engine that was part of the original legend. It’s a great black, smoke-belching, steam-spitting dinosaur of an engine and is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. This engine was attached to four cars around and within which we would be filming. Bob & Al, the engineer and conductor, were tuning it up as we arrived and we spent a half hour watching it as we waited for the crew.
The legend of the ghost of Silver Run Tunnel is pretty standard ghost story material: a young lady is murdered on a train in the 1880s, her ghost comes back to haunt the Silver Run Tunnel near the site of her murder, and has allegedly appeared to people traveling in the area, often including train engineers and other such folk.
After signing waiver forms granting rights to use my likeness for the show, in any form it might take, etc., I was hustled off for a costume fitting and before long was dressed in an honest-to-God conductor’s uniform, which had been graciously provided by the actual conductor, Al. I had the hat, the vest, the pocket watch and the big flappy gold-buttoned coat.
Now, from the script I’d been given, I didn’t think I would have much to do. The conductor was only mentioned twice in it and wasn’t necessarily the same conductor in both scenes. He certainly didn’t have any lines, nor did any of our parts since most of this action would be overdubbed later with narration. However, the director for the shoot had other ideas and soon I was in costume and being filmed assisting Jessica–our would-be ghost–in some pre-death scenes, the both of us improvising dialogue which was recorded by a boom mic over the roar of the train. I’m sure we looked atmospheric standing beside the enormous train-engine as it spat a steady stream of steam over us. After several different angles and close-ups, the director added the presence of the killer himself, played by my former local play director, Devin. He did look quite menacing coming through the steam and the atmosphere was lent additional creepiness by the overcast and rain-threatening weather.
We moved on for some filming in the caboose of the train, which we had to use for all the train interior shots as there were no passenger cars available. This filming wound up stretching on past sunset as the crew fought to get all their daylight shots done while they still had light, plus some day-for-night shots that would be darkened later in post-production.
As with any kind of project like this, a lot of our job as actors was to hurry up and wait, particularly after dark where every shot had to be lit, which was a complicated process as all the equipment had to be powered by a portable generator. I felt kind of bad for the others in our group who had to wait back at the depot doing nothing while Devin, Jessica and I filmed scenes in the train itself for a couple of hours, but I figured it would eventually be my turn to wait.
One of Devin’s scenes got to be a bit hazardous. Director Bill asked him to move along the side of the tanker car, which meant walking on a seven-inch wide grid of metal runner while holding onto a pipe for a railing, then step across into the caboose while the camera filmed. This was not an easy thing, as there’s a nice sized chasm between the two cars that’s constantly shifting length due to the jostling of the train. One wrong step meant potentially falling between the cars and getting ground up under the train’s wheels. Making matters even trickier was that the camera was set up blocking most of the way across. Devin did it just fine, though, and even looked menacing the whole while. We had several “Do your own stunts” occurrences throughout the evening, another of which was Jessica’s “death” scene at the hands of a knife-wielding Devin. It took a while to film and from my vantage point outside the caboose windows, looked pretty violent.
Around 8 p the train pulled back to the depot and we were told supper had been served. The crew had brought in around 8 huge pizzas and there was plenty to go around. It was good stuff too, particularly since it was not pizza from a major chain. After we ate, Bill announced that Devin was through filming as the killer and could change back to civilian clothes. Everyone else would be needed, but I wouldn’t be needed for a while as there were quite-a-few night scenes they wanted to get out of the way that didn’t involve me. Devin asked if there were any bars in the area and the crew mentioned that there was one across the street. He decided to give it at try and I decided to join him since it didn’t appear my services would be needed for hours yet. Downtown Durbin is a ghost town on a Sunday night. Not a single store or business was open including, as we later found out, the bar. But that didn’t stop us from walking its length in search of something open. Other than the sounds of the train and some cool wind breezing through, everything was perfectly quiet. If it weren’t for the sole Coca Cola machine, which looked quite out of place set against its backdrop, we could have convinced ourselves that we’d been hurled back in time to the 1940s.
Eventually, after walking all the way down to the end of town and then back up, Devin and I found the bar. It looked closed from the outside, but one of the two doors on its storefront was unlocked. We entered to find chairs on tables, the lights dim and not a soul to be seen.
“Hello?” Devin called.
“Meow,” a kitty voice answered. But no human voice returned our calls. There were some lights coming from beneath a door that appeared to be an office for the bar, but no noises came from within. We decided that they really were closed and that shotguns might become involved if we disturbed the place further, so we left, shutting the door firmly behind us. Only in a place like small town West Virginia could the bars leave their doors unlocked on a Sunday night.
Back at the depot, there was a family waiting on one of the benches. We’d had a few curious on-lookers throughout the day, but at 9 at night these folks were determined to stick around in case anything interesting happened. I believe they were related to Durbin’s mayor, who had welcomed us earlier and had been very gracious.
“Excuse me, but aren’t you the man who was filming over by the train earlier?” a little boy asked me. “You helped carry that woman’s bags?”
“Yeah, that was me,” I said. The kid beamed up at me as though I was the most famous person he’d ever met. (For all I know, I might very well have been at that point in his life.) His sisters and grandmother were soon talking to me about the filming process and seemed very eager to hear what I had to say.
“Do you know when they’re going to film the ghost on the front of the train?” the grandmother asked. She had heard that there was a scene in which the ghost, i.e. Jessica, was to ride on the front of the engine itself as it rolled down the track. Even then Jessica was getting into her ghost garb and was cinched up eight ways from Tuesday, not only in a corset so she could squeeze her thin frame into that even tinier wedding dress, (she was only able to eat one slice of pizza because she had no room for more in there), but also with a harness with which she was to be affixed to the front of the engine for her upcoming scenes. The harness was woefully uncomfortable, difficult to remove for bathroom-break purposes and her ghost costume was not the warmest either. But she was a trooper
I told the grandmother that from what I heard there were several scenes that had to be filmed elsewhere before they would get to the ghost on the train, so it would likely be a good wait. Then the grandmother surprised me.
“Would you mind, maybe, finding a piece of paper and signing it for us. Like an autograph?” she asked.
“Um, ma’am, none of us here are actually famous, or anything. We’re just from Lewisburg.”
“Well, I know. But you might get to be famous. You’re going to be on TV.”
Only then did it truly hit me how surreal yet oddly cool this situation was. Sure, I might think it was absurd for them to want our autographs, but I was seeing the matter from backstage, where we were just a bunch of community theater players. In front of the curtain, though, life was still glitzy and this little documentary program looked like the big time. I went and told the cast that their autographs had been requested. They thought it was cute too. Devin suggested we sign a copy of the script, so I volunteered mine (hey, I hadn’t used it so far, what were the chances I’d need it?) and we all signed our names and our character names. The family was overjoyed. (Now, it should be noted that Tonri Latham was then and continues to be a much-sought-after lighting designer who works all over the country on major projects, and Max Arnaud is a working actor in New York, who I’ve since worked with in other shows at GVT, so there was some degree of fame present.)
It was around this time that I had a very interesting conversation with a local man on the topic of ghosts and legends. As detailed by fictional radio host “Rik Winston” in the introduction to A Consternation of Monsters, this gentleman, with fear in his eyes, told us about the time he encountered a mysterious figure on his family’s property, when he was young. As “Rik” says in the introduction: “He was hesitant to spell it out at first, but I could tell from his manner that whatever he’d seen had shaken him so badly that the very memory threatened to overcome him right then. I had to know his story. With some encouragement, he explained that, as a teenager, he had once heard some odd noises coming from atop the tin roof of his family’s barn. He crept out into the night, his daddy’s shotgun in hand, only to find that the noises were being made by the boot-clad heels of a figure standing atop the barn. And that figure, he told me in a whisper, was none other than a headless horseman.” When he finished, I don’t recall having much to say, other than “Wow,” cause the notion of someone claiming to have seen a headless horseman in this day and age, outside of a show on FOX, is simply ridiculous. Then again, how much more insane is the concept of a headless horseman than, say, a ghost haunting a tunnel?
Eventually, a flat-bed car was attached to the front of the engine, Jessica was attached to the engine itself and the cameras and lights set up on the flatbed for filming of her first ghostly scenes. The family loved that too, Jessica less-so, as she spent much of the time wearing a very non-ghostly jacket over her ghostly duds.
Around midnight I was starting to get sleepy and my remaining scenes—whatever they might be, as I wasn’t really sure myself—still didn’t look like they were any closer to being shot. I tried napping on one of the depot benches, but didn’t get any sleep. So mostly I just sat up talking to my castmates, Tonri and Max, who had played engineers and were just grinning from ear to ear that they’d actually been allowed to drive the train during their scenes.
Soon Devin came back to the depot and told us we’d missed out on all the fireworks. While the crew were filming near a small building just down the tracks from us, the wind whipped up and tipped over one of their $35,000 (Canadian dollars, mind you—probably about $10,000-$15,000 American) arc-lamps. It struck ground, went out and seemed a lost cause. Then, while rushing over to check on the lamp, the director caught his foot in the camera cable and down their expensive hi-def camera went too. If not for the barn-door shutters on the front of the camera, its lens would have likely smashed when it struck one of the rails. Instead it was mostly fine and so was the light.
Our next technical difficulty came when Bob, the Real Engineer, announced that his steam-powered locomotive was nearly empty of water and thus out of steam. It would take an hour to fill it back up. This put the the director, Bill, into fits, as there were still several shots of the train moving in the darkness that he needed. He moved on, though, and wound up filming some locomotive perspective shots using a tiny gas-powered service car. I can’t say enough good things about Bob and Al. They were fantastic and really seemed to enjoy the process.
Around 2 a.m. it was my turn before the cameras again. We set up several scenes on a boardwalk beside the stationary train, only to have Bob back the train out of our shot several times. By then the trains tanks were mostly full again and he was busy switching out the train cars we’d used onto side tracks in preparation for bringing on the more modern-looking cars and even a new engine which would be used for tours next weekend. So every time the Climax Engine backed up or came toward us, Bill would interrupt our shots to quickly get footage of the train passing. This helped him secure the shots he needed. Pretty smooth. We finished up our shots and Bill announced we were at a wrap.
Months passed before I heard anything more about the episode itself. By then it had already aired in Canada, but there was no word on a U.S. airing. Eventually, I received a DVD of the appearance. And when I watched it, I was shocked. Not at the quality of it, which was fine, but at the fact that my character, the innocent 1880s conductor, got pinned by a modern day Silver Run Tunnel Ghost theorist/psychic as the killer of the girl who became the ghost of Silver Run Tunnel. I know!
Turns out, I actually know that Silver Run Tunnel Ghost theorist/psychic. Her name is Susan Sheppard and she’s a writer and paranormal investigator who lives in the Parkersburg area. I know her and her daughter through West Virginia Writers, Inc. Susan was actually the whole reason Creepy Canada came down to film in our state at all. She’d worked with the director and producer on a previous project and had pitched some legends in our state to them at the time. They bit. So Susan, who I was unaware was involved at all, got to be the on-camera talking head to speak about the case of the ghost and propose a few theories about it. She, unaware of who was playing the conductor, supposed that he may have been the guy to kill the girl who became the ghost and not the guy Devin was playing at all. The funny thing is, the producers took footage from the scene where I was leading Jessica to her seat in the train and were able to zoom in and freeze on a micro expression on my face that looked a little bit sinister in order to have visual record to help shore up Susan’s theory. I never made the expression intentionally, but for a second my face registered something dark all the same.
About a year ago, my friend Courtney at the theatre sent a note to me, Devin, Max and Tonri to say she’d seen us on Destination America. Evidently her mother had recorded a bunch of DA’s ghost shows for use as background in the Halloween season and Courtney had tucked into the second episode of their show Hauntings and Horrors, only to be shocked to find herself staring at me, Jessica, Max, Devin, and Tonri in our various roles. The Creepy Canada footage had been repurposed for a new show in 2014, which has now been replayed any number of times. That $50 they paid me has gone pretty far for them.
Well, it wouldn’t be October without the annual airing of my episode of “Hauntings and Horrors” on Destination America. (Shhh! It’s actually my episode of “Creepy Canada” recorded way back in 2005, then repurposed in 2014 for American audiences who apparently need a destination.)
So if you happen to have super deep cable or Dish Network, set your DVRs to record episode 2 on 10-7-15, at 6 a.m. eastern, and you can see me play a train conductor who may or may not have a big shocking secret (depending on the version of the story they used).
In addition to me, you’ll get a glimpse or two of other acting luminaries such as Jessica Viers, Tonry Lathroum, Devin McCann Preston, and Max Arnaud.
And not to plug my book, or anything, but the story “Rik Winston” tells in its introduction–the one involving a trip to Durbin, W.Va, and a local guy who told him about the time he saw a headless horseman on the roof of his barn–was actually a tale that I was told first hand by said local guy during my trip to Durbin to film for Creepy Canada.
In other words, a Headless Horseman lives near Durbin, W. Va. Fun fact.
In fact, I think I’ll just tell that whole story here on the blog, next week. Stay tuned…
In honor of this week’s Consternation of Monsters Podcast, I thought I’d take a look at the origins of the first story in the Consternation collection, “The Hocco Makes the Echo.”
Before I go on, however, you should probably read the story I’m about to talk about. If you’re already equipped with a Kindle account, you can download a free sample of the book which contains the entire story. If you don’t have a Kindle account, it’s easy as pie to sign up for, as Kindle offers a free app for a number of reading devices. If you have a smart phone or a tablet or simply a computer, you can use Kindle and get great deals on digital books. Check it all out HERE. Or, you can listen to me read it to you as part of the latest podcast HERE.
Okay, so you’ve gone and read or heard the story, and enjoyed the dickens out of it, I’m sure.
Guess what? Probably 95 percent of it is true. Maybe 94. Granted, a lot of difference goes down in that remaining, largely supernatural, 6 percent, but that doesn’t discount that the rest of it has a lot of basis in truth.
“The Hocco Makes the Echo” is a tale I wrote nearly 15 years ago, way back in October of ought ought. I did it as a writing challenge laid down by a group of writer friends, which was for each of us to write a horror story for Halloween. I think we had to have a deadline extension at one point, but we got our horror stories written before the holiday itself. Mine was probably an easier one to write because I didn’t have to make up much of the details at all. It was based on an incident that happened to me which had become one of the standard family stories that get trotted out every-so-often. The story itself had its origins nearly a quarter century before then.
When I was about 4-years-old, my father tried to teach me about the science of echoes in the driveway of my Papaw’s Wayne County Mississippi farm. Dad was all about science, and had indeed earlier taught me how to recognize Orion, both in the sky and on his home-brewed star maps, (which he originally created when I was in utero). So he would clap his hands to hear the echo of the sound from the trees. And he would shout various phrases into the trees as well. (I believe Hamburglar may have actually been one of the words he used.) Little me wasn’t buying into it, though. I can’t exactly recall my thought processes at the time, but the idea of sound bouncing off of trees making the echo just didn’t make logical sense to me. Instead, according to Dad, I proclaimed “The Taco makes the echo.” And stuck to my guns for the first couple of his attempts to prove otherwise. “The taco makes the echo.” Then some part of me realized that the word taco was already taken. We were, after all, living in San Antonio at the time, so I knew from tacos. I switched the name of the echo culprit to hocco after that, (pronounced “hocko”). “The Hocco makes the echo, Daddy.” And here’s the thing: I even knew what the Hocco looked like because I was staring right at it the entire time. The Hocco was, in fact, a the stump of a cypress tree, down in the boggy area between Papaw’s yard and the thick woods of the state forest beyond. The stump itself was probably three feet high and blackened with rot and moisture. Due to the way it was broken, the Hocco stump had two tall ear-like protrusions at its top, making it appear to my young mind like a tall black cat seated on its haunches, its back straight, listening. (My parents owned a couple of tall black cat wooden sculptures at the time, so I had a point of reference for tall skinny cats sitting like that.)
“The Hocco makes the echo, Daddy.”
Dad, for his part, was none too pleased that I wasn’t buying his science. And he did indeed walk closer to the woods (closer to the Hocco) and I, in turn, tried to climb on top of his head to get as far from the ground as I could get. He has since said that at the time he assumed I must have thought the Hocco was something very small, or many very small things, close to the ground, but it was only decades later that I let him in on the stump Hocco reality. (I wish I had a picture of that stump today, but it has long since returned to the earth. The illustration on the cover, however, gives you kind of an idea of how I saw it in my child’s mind.)
Of course the remaining events of the story, the last six percent, were largely fiction, though they were fictional elements within a nonfiction setting. The geography of Papaw and Mamaw’s farm house, for instance, is true to reality; including the bathroom in the center of the house, inconveniently just off the dining room. I also did own a book called Gateway to Mystery, which was a collection of abridged versions of classic stories. We also did tend to sleep in Mamaw’s back bedroom, in the brown-painted metal bed (a bedroom that appears prominently in Puppet Legacy, though that story flips the 94/6 nonfiction/fiction ratio in favor of fiction).
Write what you know–that’s the standard advice. So that’s what I did. Incorporating not only the base story of the father/son science lesson, but also elements from my Papaw’s farm which have always struck me as odd, if not especially horrific. For instance, I already discussed the various cement-block face etchings in the buildings of Papaw’s farm in my blog entry Album Cover. But the other major farm landmark I have not discussed here is the Creepy Tree. This structure existed then and still exists today, albeit in a new location.
The creepy tree, in reality, is exactly as described in the story: just two gnarled branches of wood, grown together, bolted to a post, around which Mamaw grew roses. It’s odd-looking to be sure, but isn’t truly all that creepy in real life (as can be seen in the photo). However, the fact that a nearly identical one existed on the property of Old Man Manning down the road (an actual neighbor, who was a fascinating character worthy of chronicle in his own right) was certainly a notable one. My dad noted it and also has said he could never get a straight answer out of Papaw as to the reason such structures existed on both farms. (Though, if you think about it, it could have been as simple as Mamaw noticing the Mannings’ homemade rose trellis during a visit, wanting one for her own yard, then putting Papaw to the task.) The fantasist in me, though, saw the two creepy trees as possible folkloric totems. And if such totems were present in both places, it must be for a reason. I had just the reason to plug in.
Now, I suppose a reader might ponder why the totem of the Creepy Tree, if assumed to be powerful, doesn’t seem to do much to stop the Hocco once it builds up a head of steam and decides to enter the house? It’s a good question. And there is an answer to it. Perhaps you don’t want to know it, though, so I’ll offer only a hint. It ties into one of the general themes of the stories of A Consternation of Monsters: belief is a powerful thing. There are also some fundamental questions that could be asked about the Hocco itself. I offer further hints below in green text (highlight it, if you dare): Is the Hocco an actual, physical creature, or is it an idea brought to life? Perhaps better still, which is scarier: dark, cat-like creatures in the woods who hunt using echo-location in the truest sense of the word, or entities that exist across the globe who feed on belief and can use its power to take on whatever form may be necessary to achieve the response they need in a victim (including those who may not initially believe)? Sound like any implausible monsters you’ve heard of?
The Creepy Tree, by the way, has another wrinkle in its tale. Not only did similar trees exist on my Papaw’s property and Old Man Mannings, but some time after my Papaw and Mamaw had both passed away, the Creepy Tree moved. Or, rather, it was relocated from its place on Papaw’s farm to my aunt and uncle’s home next door. It is now bolted to a new post in their front yard. Now quite likely my aunt just wanted the object, so associated with her mother and her mother’s roses, to be closer to her home by a hundred yards. But the fantasist in me finds it curious from a potentially folkloric totem standpoint all the same.
The Hocco Makes the Echo was the very first of my Aaron stories (also known as the Southern Parallels, to use their official title). While I didn’t intend it initially, Aaron Hughes (or whatever his surname happens to be from story to story) has become my literary alter ego. He’s now a character through which I can tell both fictionalized versions of events I experienced as well as events which I might have experienced had things gone a bit differently (much as the Hocco doing in Rob Hughes might suggest). In turn, Rob Hughes, being an analog of my dad, doesn’t stay dead for long. He’s turned up or has been referred to in most of the other Aaron stories, including one which was recently published in the Diner Stories: Off the Menu anthology.
Is there a master plan to the Southern Parallel Aaron stories? Sure thing. I’ll probably even wind up adapting some of them into podcast form in the coming months, being as how I only have 10 stories in A Consternation of Monsters itself. Publication plans are afoot as well, though.
Here is a short flash fiction sequel to “The Hocco Makes the Echo.” It’s a small section from a much larger piece.
Professor Riggs pointed at one of the layered blackboards of the lecture hall. On it was a barbell-shaped diagram he had drawn with chalk. There were arrows pointing into the spiraling mouth of the uppermost barbell and more arrows pointing from the mouth of the mouth of the lower one.
“Parallel universes,” he continued, “are also a factor in the Einstein-Rosen bridge.” He stabbed a fat finger in the direction of diagram. “Mathematically, the theory of black holes simply doesn’t work consistently without the existence of a universe beyond the black hole into which the matter and light that are pulled in from our universe must pass. Though science fiction would have you believe otherwise, these other universes are inconsequential to our reality because it’s not possible for us to have any interaction with them. One theory states that these universes exist all around us at different vibrational attunements. However, our most powerful supercollider could only muster up one millionth of the amount of energy necessary to open a gateway between them and allow us to see these realms. In other words, it can’t be done, so stop thinking about it.” There were chuckles from the students. Aaron only smiled.
“And beyond the impossible notion of communicating with or seeing into a parallel world,” Professor Riggs continued, “the idea that these parallel worlds would be mirror images of our own, with duplicate copies of each of us, is preposterous. Consider the genetic factor alone. We each came from an ovum fertilized by a sperm. It may have only taken one to do the fertilizing, but there were 280 million others attempting the same feat any one of which might have won the race had things gone a little differently. Factor in that this math would have been the same for your father, your grandfather and on back through the generations—each coupling a 1 in 280 million shot at producing your next ancestor in the family line. In other words, it took thousands of people and billions of chance fertilizations to make you who you are today. So to consider that there would even be one other parallel world where all the zygotes lined up and everything fell into place exactly as it did here, is truly, astonishingly, retarded.”
Back in March of this year I was invited to be a player and writer in the live Floyd Radio Show which was to and in fact did take place on the stage of Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg, WV.
The radio show itself originated in Floyd, Virginia, at the historic Floyd Country Store. The store itself was already a haven for live folk music on the weekends. The way I heard the story, musicians Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle were already regulars there when the owners approached them with the idea of them hosting a live show there in the style of an old time country radio program, bringing the music and traditions of Appalachia to a much wider audience. This would be streamed live during the show itself and recorded for posterity and podcastability down the line. They had never done anything like that before but said “sure” all the same. In addition to music, though, the ladies and a rotating number of co-writers began crafting fake commercials and comedy sketches that would pop up throughout the show, acted by members of the bands featured on the show and themselves.
Eventually the ladies took the show on a tour to other towns in other states, which is how it came to Lewisburg. Since they weren’t able to travel with bands, the show invited regional performers to come and be a part of the show in its new locations, and sought out local folks to help brainstorm and help write sketches for the show itself. From what I understand, they were given the name of Josh Baldwin, editor and publisher of the Greenbrier Valley Quarterly, a publication for which I occasionally write. He in turn sent them my name as a writer/performer. And so on the evening of March 25, I was invited to what turned out to be an Algonquin Roundtable of local Greenbrier County types, whose brains the ladies wanted to pick for local history and stories that might be fuel for the show.
We met on the top floor of what used to be a Masonic Temple on Court Street in Lewisburg, but which is now a private bar/performance space. (For about five minutes, it was a public bar/performance space until some fire code issues nixed it.) I’d only heard of there being such a space on the third floor of the former lodge. I’d never actually seen how cool it is. It has a bar with pool tables, comfy seating and a stage area for performances. We all sat around the bar and gnoshed on pizza and beer and shot the shit for three hours or so, regaling the ladies with tales of local legends and Lewisburg luminaries. There were probably a core group of 12 of us at first, but maybe 25 people filtered through during the evening to share stories and their take on stories. I only knew a handful of the people assembled. It was fascinating to be a part of, though, because I also only knew about a quarter of the stories and history being discussed, so it was a real education for me, too. The ladies took great notes.
I was invited to help write the script for the show and chose a couple of topics from their brainstorming notes to tackle. The ladies gave me access to their Google Doc for the script and I was given free reign to punch up or edit any material there, just as I invited them to alter my material however they saw fit. Most of my writing was done during rehearsals for The Skin of Our Teeth at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, which occasionally caused issues when I was late for my cues because I was in the lobby writing. The ladies were great in their edits of the stuff I wrote. They knew what would work for their audience and what would not. They also altered the script somewhat to take advantage of some classic radio Foley equipment they had borrowed from the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, finding ways to incorporate it into the show. After several more drafts of the script, we finally assembled on the afternoon of the show itself to do a full cast readthrough. Many of the performers of the night were readers in the sketches, which were assigned as we read. I got to do a number of voices as well. A schedule of music was posted with sketches layered in between.
What truly astounded me about the program, though, was how calm Elizabeth and Anna were in the face of a show that was kind of assembled and edited on the fly. They did not appear nervous in the slightest even though they were working with a number of people who were not performers for an evening of entertainment that could go any number of directions. And while most of the rest of us had the scripts in hand, providing a net for our high wire act, they did a good bit of unscripted material during the show. They were also great at making adjustments to the intended script both before and during the show itself, as they jettisoned two or three written bits along the way for time consideration.
The stage was set up with eight mics on stands, as well as a number of sofas and chairs in which performers could sit and watch the show from the stage itself. The show’s producer and stage manager was on top of things, too, as far as alerting the players in the sketches as to when they were supposed to step out. When it came time, we just went to the most convenient mic and did our thing. It was all very relaxed and the ladies kept the show always moving forward at a nice pace.
What was really fun to experience was the green room, where the musicians who played throughout the show tuned up via impromptu jam sessions. They really seemed to enjoy it and it was a pleasure to watch. The other thing that you’ll not be able to enjoy as a podcast listener, but for which I got a front row seat for, was Elizabeth LaPrelle’s dancing. She does a traditional Appalachian step dance which is impressive. I just happened to be hanging out in the wings of the far side of the Carnegie stage when she stepped within four feet of me and began dancing in time to the music. You can likely hear it in the recording, but it was really cool to see. It was a window on a traditional part of Appalachian culture that your average West Virginian just doesn’t get to witness very often these days. The whole evening was a terrific night’s entertainment. My wife says it was among her favorite things to have seen me perform in.
My one regret is that I did not have A Consternation of Monsters finalized as a title at that point. The collection itself was already assembled and undergoing last minute editing, but the title I had chosen for it at that point, Ten Monsters Walking, just didn’t feel like the final title to me and I was hesitant to promote it by anything other than its final name.
That was all back on March 27. Why, you might ask, has it taken so long for the show to be released as a podcast? Well, I don’t know the particulars, but I expect it’s because the Floyd Radio Show is a monthly event and is typically released as a podcast on a monthly schedule. Doing a few road shows in a row, as they did, allowed them to bank a few shows that can be slotted in between the podcasts of their Floyd-based shows.
You can find Part 1 of the two part podcast, at the Floyd Radio Show site. And you can find Part 2 HERE.
I think for the time being I’ll keep it a secret as to which bits of the show I had a hand in writing. I got to perform in quite a bit of the show, but my performances are not limited to the things I wrote, nor did I perform in all of the things I had a hand in scripting. So far people who saw the show live who’ve made guesses as to what I helped write have mostly gotten it wrong, though. which I guess attests to how close to the show’s sense of humor mine may be. Elizabeth and Anna were delights to work with. I’d do it again in a second.
It’s the question of the ages, at least around this website. Who is Mister Herman?
In short, Mister Herman’s Home Page has been the name of my website since I coded my very first one back in 1995. It’s been around in one form or another, from one ISP or another, for over two decades. The actual origin of Mister Herman, however, extends well before that–technically even before my very birth…
At some point during his 20 year career in the Navy, my father acquired the head of a mannequin. It was not the sort of head that once sat upon a mannequin body, but more of the sort of fiber-glass, life-sized head used to display hats or sunglasses. As a kid, I named it Eddie and it took up residence in my bedroom, usually as the support of whatever hat I happened to like at the time. It used to have painted eyes and uniformly painted reddish brown hair, but over the years of my youth I used the head as a base for sculpting faces in modeling clay. The many times I scraped it off with a kitchen knife have scared and chipped away at the paint, until I eventually just filled it in with liquid paper. At some point, I gave Eddie a touch of gray at the temples, due to his resemblance to the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards. These days he sports a set of welder’s goggles, which hide his seemingly cataract-coated eyes from the world.
Jump ahead to my sophomore year of high school. I made what was perhaps an error in applying to receive information about educational opportunities from a major religious college in Virginia. I was then and remain a religious fellow, so I’m not knocking the institution itself. However, in this particular institution’s zeal to secure my place as a student with them, they sent me approximately one metric shit-ton of mail. For the better part of at least three years, I received on a fortnightly basis at least one thick envelope stuffed with brochures, followup notes, encouraging form letters, and earnest pleas to come visit the campus. Again, this began when I was a sophomore in high school and was entirely my fault, but it became annoying to me quickly all the same. For the first year I simply dropped their letters into my sister’s gerbil cage, where they were happily shredded into bedding. By the time I was a senior, I had pretty much had an assful of these letters. (When you’re young, you take seriously the small amount of mail you receive and are prone to take offense at any you feel are wasting your time. Did I mention the fact I was receiving all of this resented mail entirely due at my original request? Oh, it was all my fault.)
In what can only be described as a wildly passive aggressive and immature move, I began a new tactic: whenever one of their thick envelopes would arrive, I would remove from it the postage-paid envelope that was always within, then I would shred every other piece of paper within the original envelope into tiny confetti bits, then stuff those bits into the postage paid envelope, write “Mister Herman’s Mental Home” as the return address, in crayon, and then pop them back in the mail. It only took about a year of doing this before the mail from them stopped entirely. Again, I’m not claiming I had any kind of moral high ground in this battle, nor was I acting maturely; I was 17.
Mister Herman’s Mental Home was born from this and is what I began to call my bedroom. I even had a sign. And the symbol of all things Mister Herman became a drawing of a partially deflated smiley balloon, which I also used to draw on the return envelopes. To me it represented warped optimism, which is about the best I can claim on any given day.
During college, Mister Herman took on a new life. I began working on the writing staff of a summer theatre camp called Summer Scholars Onstage. As a lark, I started writing top ten lists, inspired by those of David Letterman. Wanting to join in the fun, a number of other staffers became co-authors of the lists. Not wanting to take credit for their work, I decided to use the collective name of Mister Herman’s Top Ten List in order to have a neutral party at the helm. Those began in 1991. I’m proud to say that the top ten list tradition of that camp continues to this day, though they have had several other names over the years, including Uncle J.J.’s Top Ten List and Rick & Bill’s Top Ten List.
As I mentioned earlier, in 1995, as a project for a college introduction to computer concepts class I was taking, I created the first version of Mister Herman’s Home Page. It was pretty bare bones then, but soon grew to house such things as the archive of Top Ten lists from camp, my then ongoing series of college-themed recipes, my series of Mister Herman’s Cat Games, my Horribly True Tales stories, my short fiction stories (some of which now appear in A Consternation of Monsters), and, of course, the Rules of Joe–a lengthy and inside-joke-choked guide to the dos and don’ts of interacting with my friend Joe Evans. Before MySpace, Facebook and Twitter essentially gave everyone their own home page, this one was mine and remains so to this day. Only now I use it to hock my wares in addition to blogging and fun stuff.
A bit further down the line, I started operating under the heading of Mister Herman’s Production Company, Ltd., an umbrella entity I use for webdesign, graphic design, and my podcasting and voiceover work. It seemed only natural when I began looking into publishing some of my work that Mister Herman take over that as well. Ed’s a good guy to have around.
As for Mister Herman himself, he still remains a fixture in my office. He’s had a number of other hats over the years, but is currently wearing only three. He occasionally even comes back to Mississippi with me for the Summer Scholars camp.
Had a blast at the Lewisburg Literary Festival this weekend! Sold a goodly number of books and the “cemetery” performance of the play adaptation of my story “…to a Flame” had a fantastic turnout and, despite some initial sound problems, went nigh on perfectly. A big thanks to Devin Preston for co-starring with me. You were a great Virgil Hawks. And thanks to Dr. Larry Davis (the original Virgil Hawks in the Greenbrier Valley Theatre production from a few years back) for introducing us. As I told Larry, I’d planned for Devin and I to do a reading of “The Ones that Aren’t Crows” for the cemetery reading up until two weeks ago when I realized that the already in-existence “…to a Flame” stage play would be a more satisfying fit for a performance. If I’d thought of doing it sooner, I would have had Larry and another local actor, Curtis Pauley, step in and star. But I thought it was too much to ask on too soon a notice. Since Devin and I were already supposed to be involved, and since he can memorize lines like a super human, it seemed the way to go.
Apologies should be issued to the handful of folks who waited at the Old Stone Cemetery, the original location for the play, rather than the revised location of the green space in downtown Lewisburg. The story of why the location had to be changed the day before the event is long and wrought with controversy. It is also one I do not plan to tell here (though it miiiiiiiiiiight get told in a podcast in the very near future… just sayin’). Needless to say, we at the LLF dropped the ball in not sending someone to stand in the cemetery and redirect traffic. And Devin got chewed out for it good by the folks who stood there for half an hour waiting. Again, this is entirely our bad. In what little defense we have, though, my acting partner and I were simultaneously trying rehearse for the first time in over a week, test our wireless microphones, load sound equipment, and paranoidly checking weather apps on our phones to see if it was about to pour rain on said equipment. (Nary a drop.) It slipped our minds that some folks might not have gotten the memo about the venue change, and for that we are sorry.
Thanks also go to Eliot Parker, who held down the fort for Publisher’s Place’s table in our Literary Town Square and shared proximity to the Mr. Herman table. Thanks also to S.D. “Sam” Smith, author of the fabulous young person’s book The Green Ember and his publisher at the Story Warren, Andrew, who both kept us all entertained (and fed, cause Sam bought us lunch on Saturday).
Thanks to Cat Pleska, Fran Simone and Ed Davis for leading great workshops and traveling a distance to be a part of the event. I got to interview Ed for the West Virginia Writers podcast, but I’ll repost that here as well when it’s edited and ready to go.
Thanks to all the folks behind the scenes at the LLF (Greg Johnson, Josh Baldwin, Cindy Lavender-Bowe, Mary Cole Deitz, Erin Hurst, Laura Lee Haddad, Sarah Elkins, and so many more) for all the time and effort they volunteer throughout the year and throughout the event to keep things running smoothly. Very few fires had to be put out. Thanks also to Aaron and Monica Maxwell, co-founders of the event, who stepped down from the LLF board this year, but who still did quite a bit to make it happen and are missed dearly. (We never knew exactly how much work you guys did for the LLF until we had to do it in your absence. It took six of us to pull it off and we still got things wrong. Hats off to your three years of making it happen and for what you did to assist this year. Come baaaaaack!)
And thanks to my lovely wife for womaning my table while I had to go do introductions for speakers, rehearse plays in alleys, and haul sound equipment. She sold more books in two hours than I did before she got there.
The latest episode of the Consternation of Monsters Podcast adapts my story “The Ones that Aren’t Crows.” It is is one of three award-winning stories in the collection, the others being “Nigh” and “…to a Flame.” However, when this particular story won 2nd place in the Animals Category of the 2011 West Virginia Writers Annual Writing Contest, it did so under the title “Native Arts.”
I never liked that title. I often don’t like my first choice of title and tend to use them as placeholders until I can find something that feels like a better fit. It was not until a later draft of the story, a revision I made prior to a live-reading of it, though, that the new title suggested itself and felt perfect.
As to the origin of the story itself, it is a quad-fold affair.
The first fold: Back in 2007, the wife and I took a two-week trip to her home state of Alaska. It was a three week trip for her, as she had gone up to present a poster at a medical conference, in her capacity as chief resident at the local hospital. (She likes to downplay the significance of the chief resident part, as she was the only person in her program for that year, so she was the only available candidate to be chief resident. I maintain she would have been chief regardless of other candidate availability, but that’s a question for an alternate universe.) I flew up after that first week and we rented a Winnebago in which to vacation, touring around Alaska to see the various places where she’d lived and grown up. Our first leg of the journey took us down to Seward, where we spent a couple of days on the shores of Resurrection Bay–occasionally venturing out onto the water for chilly June tours of the Kenai Fjords and the glaciers that could be seen there. Oh, and the whales. We saw a goodly number of whales, though due to the slowness of our camera we mainly took pictures of their tails as they disappeared again beneath the surface. The ranger on the tour was sure to point out the restricted speeds for the tour boats in the bay, done to give whales plenty of time to get out of the way. We had a great time.
One of the things I noticed during our trip, though–which brings us to the second fold–was the amount of native Alaskan art on display, everywhere you went. There were brightly-painted totem poles in most of the places we visited, as well as other totemic art that depicted whales and bears and birds and fish, all with bright red, teal, black and white coloration. Curious, I began reading up on the traditional stories of the native peoples. They offer some very interesting tales of how the world came to be, and the interesting gods and figures who helped shape it. The standard fantasy trope of “what if these aren’t just myths” began to ring in my head. Or, more importantly to a common theme in the stories I write (and those of many other writers) what if belief in the myth is the power necessary to make it real?
Another source of inspiration, perhaps the third fold, came during one of a number of, perhaps, ill-advised solo hikes I took during our time in Alaska. I like to explore, especially when there is the promise of a cool view, or a waterfall to be seen, and I’m willing to go above and beyond to reach that goal. I always invited the wife to come along, but she’s rarely interested, especially if the journey will require strenuous physical effort. One of my hikes, in Valdez, was to try and climb up the lower section of a mountain, to try and reach a step where the lower part of the mountain jutted out, creating a natural incline that continued on up to a much higher elevation. It looked like the sort of thing a person could reach and then walk up to get a great view. The wife thought the plan was foolhardy and a lot more work than I knew, but I insisted on trying it. Because neither of our cell phones worked well there, I said if I didn’t come back in an hour and a half she was to assume I’d been lost or eaten by a bear and call the authorities. It was, as she predicted, more difficult than I’d thought, because to simply get to the foot of the mountain meant having to walk pathways through the thick brush leading up to it. While in those paths, I came upon the remnants of a lunch interrupted. There was a plastic grocery sack which had been torn open and its contents shredded. My memory of this is that it was a grocery store pre-made sandwich and some chips, but all food items were gone, leaving behind shredded remnants of their packaging. The most curious item from the mess, though, was a 16 oz plastic soda bottle, its cap still in place, but empty due to a VERY large tooth hole in the side of the bottle. (I thought I had a picture of this, but evidently not.) The tooth hole, to my eye, could only have been made by something the size of a bear. I was then on my guard, as this meant bears were in the area, or had been in the area. I still continued on my trek, though, eventually making it to the foot of the mountain, and then, slowly, step by step, handhold by handhold, clawed my way up the steep slope of the foot of the mountain. It was tough going. But while I did it, the image occurred to me that it would be super creepy if, suddenly, I were to discover the claw marks of a bear on the side of that slope, except the claw marks in my image were of a bear being dragged UP the slope by something much larger. And I instantly knew what that something would be. It’s the same creature that went on to inspire “The Ones that Aren’t Crows” and is a short story that may yet appear in next year’s volume of tales. (I did manage to make it to the top of the step, but it took way more work and way more time than I’d planned for it to. By the time I got up there, it was time to head back or risk the wife calling out the authorities.)
The fourth fold of this tale’s origin happened over a year after we returned from our trip. We had left Lewisburg and moved to Princeton, WV, in 2008. I had been looking for a job there, but things were pretty scarce. So I began seeking other possible employment opportunities. I saw an ad online for a job as a transcriptionist. I thought this might be something for me, since I type superhumanly fast. The application process involved learning the formatting, in which the transcriptionist types all the words being heard, down to the ums and uhs, and any incidental sounds or other business that can be heard–doors opening in the background, coughing, sneezing, etc.–is included in bracketed statements. I learned the format, took the transcriptionist test and thought I did pretty well. Never heard anything back from them, which led me to believe that what they were really trying to do was sell me the expensive transcriptionist foot-peddle-pause button, which seemed to be mentioned a lot in their materials as being something serious transcriptionists used. I didn’t bite. But I did think that the idea of a short story formatted as a transcription was something I’d not seen before. I even thought of a way for the format itself to become part of the storytelling. After that, it was just a matter of plugging in a story and I knew just the one that would fit.
As I said before, this story has been read live on a couple of occasions and turns out pretty well. It does require a second reader to provide the transcription notations. I’ve always read the captain’s part, with someone else doing the transcription voice. The first time I read this live, back in 2011, my wife did the voice and was excellent at capturing the cold, flatness I heard in my head. Unfortunately, when I recorded that reading, only I had a microphone, so her voice could not be heard in the recording. The second time, she was unavailable for a reprise, so I recruited my friend and fellow actor Joe Lehman. We performed it for the Greenbrier Valley Theatre’s Literary Tea series in 2013. I had a much better recorder by then and we were both miked. It was a great performance, too. Joe was great at keeping the exact same tone on each of his repeated words and I felt especially in good bronchial form as the captain. Unfortunately, when I stopped the recorder after the show, something went amiss and the recording vanished into the ether never to be seen again. It was a tragic loss, as that would have been a recording for the archive and probably would have been podcasted in some form long before now.
I’m still pleased with how Episode 04 turned out, though. The text-to-speech program I used for the transcriptions is not without his charms. I may have to hold on to it for future use.