In these weeks following both Halloween and the election, we might not only find ourselves obsessed with horror but justifiably wondering if ghosts are as scary as real people. Alan Brown sidelines this question in Haunted Places in the American South, a book published a couple of years ago and listing plenty of ghost-inhabited locales, including St. Mary's Catholic Church downtown and the Carter House in Franklin. In his new book, Stories from the Haunted South, he expands his entries to include more first-person narratives, many focusing on victims of violence who have never rested quietly in their graves. While I'll give away none of Brown's stories here, I feel free to tell you that one of the most surprising subjects addressed is Hurricane Mills, where Loretta and Dooley Lynn, of course, built their famous compound. Old hotels always seem to be haunted, like the Walking Horse in Wartrace; fewer battlegrounds are homes for ghosts than one might think, though Brown's accounts of Shiloh; Corinth, Mississippi; and Huntsville, Alabama, will tempt readers to get out their maps.
♦ This Halloween I was reminded of a ferocious argument I'd had on the creaking, none-too-solid balconywas it swaying?of Square Books in Oxford on that same holiday several years ago. My friend and debate partner, the photographer Maude Schuyler Clay, sat with her face hollowed by candles and elucidated some of the finer points of The Sixth Sense. We both liked the movie very much; the one false note, I'd commented, starting the disagreement, was the mother who successfully poisoned her daughter to deathjust too weird, I said dismissively, recalling with revulsion the victim in her vomit-stained nightgown.
Maudie countered successfully with a learned, fascinating diatribe on a form of child abuse called Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which a parent subjects his or her (usually her) child to all sorts of imaginary medical procedures, insisting that the child is very ill and will die if nothing is done. Sometimes the child does die, but not because of failed medical intervention. Instead, the child fails to survive a wholly unnecessary and high-risk procedurelike the open-heart surgery that Julie Gregory's mother wanted performed on her daughter, detailed in her memoir Sickened: The Memoir of a Munchausen by Proxy Childhood.
Surreal? Yes, but a real enough sickness, and with its own patterns and history. Named after 18th-century Baron Karl von Munchausen, the term Munchausen syndrome was first used for patients who feigned or actually produced "illness in themselves to gain sympathy, nurturance, and control over others," reads the foreword to Gregory's book, by Marc Feldman, a specialist in psychiatric disease and behavioral neurobiology at the University of Alabama. Mothers like Gregory's use a substitute or "proxy" for the same reason. Although about 1,200 new cases are diagnosed annually in the United States, the foreword informs us "many more cases go unreportedindeed, entirely unprotecteddue to covert nature of the maltreatment. A recent study indicates that when a case of MBP is finally recognized, up to 25 percent of the sickened child's siblings have already died[,] most likely victims of the perpetrator." Julie Gregory not only survived, but she survived to write an elegant, understated book of horror, madness, and cruelty.
♦ After finishing the current issue of Zoetrope: All Story, I felt vaguely let down. I'd never read a copy of the magazine, founded and produced by yes, Frances Ford Coppola, before, but many of my younger and hipper writer friends have praised Zoetrope to the skies. For me, even the John Sayles story seemed pretty lame; then I dully smacked my forehead. Of course the stories seemed diminished and flat, because the reader can't help comparing what she's reading with the photographsall taken by William Eggleston, the issue's guest designer.
There's a good bit of the Memphis photographer's early black-and-white work here: a woman at a rental-car agency bending her head over her work; a giant-finned car on the verge of being devoured by the same kudzu that covers a small abandoned building. Yet several of his color standards are here too; the most arresting, perhaps, the cover photo of his son as a small boy. He's looking straight at us, wearing a rumpled shirt and slightly dirty golf hat; his body half-obscures, with almost perfect symmetry, a fire hydrant. The background, which happens to be a Franklin street, is blurred. The primary signifiers in the photograph are the child's partially open mouth, slightly agape; and his eyes, which seem haunted by some part of the future coming into focus.