Falling Stones: The Spirit Autobiography of S.M. Jones
By Charles Wyatt (Texas Review Press, $16.95, 144 pp.)
Author Charles Wyatt discovered the yellowed manuscript in his mother’s antique dresser. A first-person account of a distant relative’s immersion in the paranormal, it had evidently been in his family’s possession for years. Later, after a fire destroyed the dresser and its contents, Wyatt found himself compelled, and mysteriously able, to re-create the tale. The result is Falling Stones: The Spirit Autobiography of S.M. Jones, a chilling diary of spiritual possession and witchcraft in the 19th century that’s no mere ghost story.
A Nashvillian currently serving as Writer in Residence at the University of Central Oklahoma, Wyatt is now well into his second career. In 1997, he ended a 25-year run as principle flutist for the Nashville Symphony to pursue fiction writing. He’s done well thus far: His work has been published in a number of literary journals, including the Northwest Review, and his first book, Listening to Mozart, won the 1995 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, given out by University of Iowa Press. Falling Stones, recipient of the 2001 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, is currently featured in excerpted form in the winter 2003 Kenyon Review.
The book confirms Wyatt’s stature as a noteworthy, if somewhat unheralded, local author. Whatever its origins, Falling Stones is a journal of supernatural disintegration that draws power from its realism. The protagonist is young Sylvester Jones, whose haunting seems at first like the type that affects most children: Sinister snake holes, a buried skull and an encounter with a ragged demon are merely the effects of collective preadolescent hysteria, as he and his younger brother Tommy explore the imagined mysteries of their family’s farm. After a horrific accident results in Tommy’s disappearance, a guilt-ridden and injured Sylvester is sent to live with relatives in town. When his spectral obsessions follow him into his adult years, bringing terrible consequences, it becomes apparent that what might have been childhood reveries are in fact a dark legacy.
The 19th century Protestant preoccupation with culpability, preordination and signs and wonders is implicit in Falling Stones and serves to authenticate its horror. For the deterministic Christian Reformers of the era, God did not take an active interest in daily affairs; it was up to the Elect to carry out divine will, and those who weren’t in the club were left to fend for themselves. Thus guilt and the unlikelihood of sanctification fuel Sylvester’s demonic preoccupation.
Of course, there’s no more fertile ground for Protestant guilt than sex, and the grown-up Sylvester’s struggle to decide between two romantic loves furthers his undoing. He is eventually drawn to marry the mysterious, sexually possessed Lucy, whose control of him also seems to derive from dark forces. It’s at this point that Wyatt’s retelling loses some of its authentic feel; though the story’s readability is served by these brief erotic passages, the sexuality and language feel anachronistic.
There are also huge gaps in Wyatt’s narrativecharacters and plot devices occasionally appear out of nowhere. Given the book’s bizarre means of transmission, however, these are easily forgiven and actually contribute to the sense that its origins and supernatural claims are legitimate. Wyatt’s language (or is it his tortured subject’s?) combines diary-like musings with crisp dialogue and bizarre, visionary declarations. This makes for a story that reads like a lifevivid impressions and furious emotions interspersed with lapses, disparities and the banal.
Falling Stones is a unique book. Part Nathaniel Hawthorne and part John Carpenter, it provides a way into a world of suspicion, family dysfunction and prearrangement that is perhaps not so different from our own. “If I were not recording these thoughts, perhaps I might fall out of life as simply as a stone thrown in a lake,” Sylvester writes. “Surely I am a man for all this, a man whose choices make up his life. Perhaps one will yet be my own.” There’s not a journal-writer among us who hasn’t felt like that.
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