(Published in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 23, No. 4 - Winter 2007-08: "History Mysteries I")
Haunted by the Past
A pair of old boots with horseshoe nails embedded in the soles started me on the journey to WOMEN OF MAGDALENE, my new novel from Kunati Inc., set in a 19th century ladies’ lunatic asylum. As I stared at the boots in a glass case at the Museum of Southern History, the docent explained that the nails served as cleats. She said Civil War soldiers wore such boots to keep from slipping in the mud, and the surgeons wore them to keep from slipping in the blood. In that moment, Dr. Robert Mallory, a young Civil War surgeon from Louisiana, was born in my mind to fill those cracked leather boots. He wears them first in the bloody battlefield surgery tent and later on the muddy trek to the asylum, where he assumes the post of physician to the inmates.
On his way, Mallory thinks: “Attending to the ills of madwomen would make a change from my duties during what my genteel mother referred to as the ‘late unpleasantness.’ Indeed, it had been unpleasant, amputating limbs of the wounded, dismantling whole cartloads of men.” At Magdalene Ladies’ Lunatic Asylum, Mallory finds himself treating patients who are missing pieces, not of their bodies, but of their lives. And gradually, he discovers that Dr. Kingston, the director of the asylum who has labeled the women insane, is himself a madman.
Labeling my writing, I choose the term Southern gothic, gathering the elements of my fiction—historical, suspenseful, mysterious, romantic, theatrical, and grotesque—under that dark canopy. When beginning WOMEN OF MAGDALENE, I jotted a note to myself, words to write by: “create a growing sense of unease.” Even though I’ve not yet written about the supernatural, my writing is haunted, if not by ghosts, then by shadows of the past—cast by ancient demons, which are still with us: greed, racism, misogyny, cruelty, indifference. These are the demons an uneasy Robert Mallory faces when he confronts Dr. Kingston and struggles to he keep his footing once again in those special boots.
My mother believes the whole world is haunted, and I share writer Gloria Wade-Gayles notion that some places are more haunted than others. Years ago, while attending a Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans, I heard Wade-Gayles tell her audience that spirituality is most palpable where there has been great suffering. No wonder I have found the shades of my characters in the secluded courtyards of the French Quarter and along the streets of New Orleans, a city where human beings were once sold at the slave market; where sorrow followed in the wake of yellow fever, cholera, and malaria; where lives were torn apart by war; where devastation has swept in from the Gulf.
It seems only right that a novel sparked by a pair of boots keeps its protagonist on the move, ever restless. Robert Mallory travels first to Magdalene Asylum, then to New Orleans and Baton Rouge, with an enigmatic young patient, who takes him on an inner journey of her own. Returning to the madhouse, Mallory finds his way through deception, layered like mud and silt on the delta, thick as fog along the bayou. In those cleated boots, through mire and blood, he dares to approach insanity to find his reason.
© 2007 Rosemary Poole-Carter
(Published in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 18, No. 4 - Winter 2002-2003: "Mysteries South of the Mason-Dixon Line, Part 1")
PLUNGING INTO PERVERSITY
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." These
words open THE GO-BETWEEN by J. P. Hartley. As I consider my own past
and its influence on my writing, I am reminded of Hartley's young
protagonist, who saw much that he was not yet ready to understand. Then,
retrospectively, he found the meanings that eluded him in youth--rather
like a mystery reader closing a just finished novel with the
satisfaction of at last knowing the significance of every clue. I grew
up in the South and write about it and, with a nod to Hartley, I say:
The South is a mysterious country: they hide things differently there.
That mysterious edginess in my upbringing sometimes came from my not
knowing certain facts, sometimes from my only half-hearing or
misunderstanding, and sometimes from my being purposely mislead. My
older sister was a particular source of misinformation, dispensed to me
perhaps in innocence, perhaps with malice. I have my theories. The
youthful gaps in my knowledge I filled with my own imaginings,
frequently terrifying myself even beyond my sister's best calculations.
But what a lesson I was learning in playing to the fears and feelings of
One summer, on a family car trip, we stopped to view an old grist mill
and stroll the grounds. My father led the way across a narrow stone
path, bordered on one side by dense shrubbery and on the other by a
spring-fed pond. Mama followed, then my sister, then me, bringing up the
rear. Midway across, as I struggled for balance on the uneven stones, my
sister whispered back to me that this pond was bottomless. The glassy
water, inches from my sandals, reflected only the dark shadows of live
oaks, turning the surface to polished onyx. Bottomless, she said--and
long after crossing to safety, I have shivered at the imagined sensation
of falling forever and ever through that cold, black water.
Every year, the day after school let out, my father's mother came to
visit. On her arrival, Grandma pinched my arm and my sister's arm to
check if we'd gained weight. Familiar with the Brothers Grimm, we knew
what that could mean. Then she leaned in on us and rasped: "Let me look
at you." She followed this remark by peering at us with her one good
eye. The socket of her glass eye always dripped, and she continually
dabbed at it with a crumpled tissue. Much later, I learned she had lost
the real eye to a disease, but at the time, knowing Grandma sewed a lot,
I accepted my sister's story--that Grandma had accidentally poked the
eye out with a sewing needle.
Lest I sound uncharitable in the description of my grandmother, please
believe me when I say she did more than frighten little children. While
Grandpa raised a few peaches and tomatoes, Grandma planted seeds of
discord among the whole family, often finding fertile soil. However, she
had little success with my mother. Mama listened and smiled and never
crossed anyone--but Mama had a secret life of her own opinions, which
she hid behind a lovely screen of infinite politeness. In our household
of subterfuge, we all had secret lives and various ways of hiding
them--with lies covering old bitterness, bluster masking uncertainty,
sweetness glossing determination.
My sister and I had our secrets from the grown-ups and secrets from each
other, too. But we also found a meeting place, where who we were by day
and on the surface no longer mattered. Late at night we would crouch by
our bookshelf, the lower shelves of which we had furnished for our
dolls, and begin a tale of intrigue that lasted far into the wee
hours--might even continue in installments over many nights and weeks.
These were no pink plastic stories of frivolous dating and fast
convertibles. Our dolls wore long dresses or dark suits, traveled by
carriage or on doll-horseback, and conducted themselves with 19th
century gentility--all the while seething with unspoken passions. My big
sister, who read a great deal, hinted that she had some academic
knowledge of these passions, but she wasn't telling. So, I contented
myself with my doll heroine's flutter and unease.
Thus began my fixation with 19th century drama and mystery. While the
modern world increasingly lets everything "hang out", I thrill to the
thought that what is covered, dressed, hidden, still exists--with all
its implications. My Southern gothic mystery, WHAT REMAINS, rose from
that well of inspiration filled by family secrets and conflicts. Now I
can tell my big sister that when we burned the midnight oil--lemon
verbena, by the way--in an old-fashioned oil lamp beside the dollhouse,
the glow illumined more than a momentary scene of our design. For me,
that light broke the surface of the mill pond, which is bottomless.
© 2002 Rosemary Poole-Carter
(Published in Mystery Scene Magazine, Issue 76, September 2002)
WHAT REMAINS: History-Mystery and Histrionics
Tension, passion, conflict, violence--bring on the sensational. We revel
in it, thrill to it, indulge ourselves in it. Most of us, however,
prefer indulging through our choices of entertainment, including films,
plays, and books. When tension, etc. actually affect our personal lives,
we may be less than amused. But if we're writers, even as we long for
peace, we transform our fears and frustrations back into fiction.
Years ago, when beginning to write my historical mystery, WHAT REMAINS,
I remarked to a friend that I might as well start and stay in the 19th
century. With all the interruptions in my writing life, whatever I
began, contemporary or not, was bound to wind up historical by the time
I finished it. Sure enough, shortly after I had written the first
chapter and sketched out the direction of the book, real life called me
back on duty with a vengeance.
One real-life interlude involved staying with my son in the hospital
after he had undergone surgery. I read aloud to him for hours at a time
from an Amelia Peabody mystery by Elizabeth Peters. For him, the magic
of her storytelling was a more effective pain-reliever than morphine.
For me, her novel offered a much-needed lesson in craft and a reminder
of elements I hoped to include in my temporarily suspended
work-in-progress: vivid historical setting, mystery based on character,
and intriguing dynamics between heroine and hero.
My son recovered, summer came, kids filled our home, and I mothered and
drove--and plotted and wrote in fits and starts. My children's
involvement with dance and theatrical activities led to my spending
hours sitting at the back of theatres during rehearsals. Then, as I
continued researching the setting and period of WHAT REMAINS, rural
Louisiana just after the Civil War, the material I gathered began taking
on additional forms diverging from the scope of my mystery novel--forms
not only historical, but histrionic.
This time voluntarily putting aside my book manuscript, I immersed
myself in playwriting manuals. Soon my favorite piece of Southern
folklore shaped itself into a play for young audiences. The result,
MOSSY CAPE, premiered the next fall at a private school and continues to
be performed by school groups around the country.
Back when I'd first begun WHAT REMAINS, I decided to open with the line:
"It was Isabelle's turn to sit with the body." Though I've since
rewritten the first chapter and many other sections of the book numerous
times, that line has persisted unchanged. I pictured a beautiful young
woman sitting beside a coffin--not surrounded by sympathetic mourners in
some modern funeral parlor--but all alone in a room of a drafty 19th
century house, where she is haunted by memories of the deceased. Then
another living person enters the room, and the conflict begins.
Seized by the dramatic possibilities inherent in this scene, I had to
borrow the image from my novel-in-progress and write THE LITTLE DEATH,
an adult drama set in 1880's New Orleans. While in my novel, Isabelle
keeps a vigil by her fiancé's coffin and is threatened by a vicious
plantation overseer, in the play Hesper sits by her dead father and is
approached by his surviving business partner, the man who will soon
By the time THE LITTLE DEATH opened at a theatre in Houston, I had
indeed--at last--finished the first draft of WHAT REMAINS. Re-writes and
the long, circuitous road to publication still lay ahead. But I would
not go back and redraw the map to exclude my dramatic detours. Those
skilled actors who, with sly looks and soft vowel sounds, brought some
of my Southern gothic characters to life on stage helped me better
understand other characters who remain on paper between the covers of my
first mystery novel. Also, I would not go back and cancel a single
moment spent with my family, sensational ups and downs, interruptions
and all. Sometimes what at first looks like an interruption becomes an
© 2002 Rosemary Poole-Carter
(Published in Mystery Readers Journal, Volume 18, No. 2 - Summer 2002: "Culinary Crime First Course")
High on the Hog
What Remains, my historical mystery, is set in November of 1865 on a
rundown plantation in Louisiana. While researching 19th century rural
and domestic life in the South, I found my vegetarian sensibilities
challenged by numerous references to hogs. The social history books that
I consulted fairly bristled with information regarding the hog's
economic, practical, medicinal, and, of course, culinary importance.
On a plantation, for most of the year the hogs roamed and rooted in the
woods and holly bogs. But as cold weather approached, the animals were
penned and fattened up in preparation for butchering. Then the hog's
organs, ribs, hams, and shoulders became main dishes. Served together,
liver and lights (the hog's lungs) were a special treat. The hog's
cleaned small intestines became the casings for other body parts ground
into pork sausage. Its knuckles were pickled. Its fat was rendered into
lard for cooking and for making soap and ointments. Its skin was tanned,
and its hair used for making brushes and stuffing mattresses. And the
list goes on. How true the old saying that people have used every part
of the hog except the squeal.
Plotting and writing What Remains, I could not ignore the hog's
essential contributions to the survival of my characters, who struggled
in the aftermath of the Civil War. I even named the plantation's top
hog--an enormous boar--Priapus, after the god of male generative power
in classical Greek mythology. So inspired was I that I went on to
include hog references in every chapter.
On a chilly November morning, one character, Delora Raveneaux,
announces: "Perfect weather for slaughter. It's always easier to hide
hams than hogs." Delora is concerned about the Federal troops stationed
in town, who sometimes help themselves to what food she has left. Of
course, hams are not the only thing hidden at Belle Ombre plantation,
and a side of bacon is not the only thing strung up in the smokehouse.
But depend on Priapus and his harem of sows to aid the plantation's
two-legged residents in rooting out buried secrets.
Returning now to my vegetarian sensibilities, I offer the following
medicinal recipe gleaned from Southern lore. Paul Delahoussaye, the
character who is offered this treat in the novel, is no more eager to
sample it than I trust you will be.
Auntie Pan's Hog's Hoof Tea
Cut off the hoof from the carcass.
Wash it and dry it.
Boil the hoof in plenty of water for at least an hour.
Then drink a cup of the steaming hoof water tea to cure a cold.
© 2002 Rosemary Poole-Carter