End of Summer
by Michael Potts
Genre: Coming of Age
A middle aged man, Jeffrey Conley, has obsessive interests, including a fascination with death and the process of dying and a fetish for the sound of a woman's heartbeat. His wife, Lisa, encourages him to get help. His psychologist diagnoses him as having Asperger's Syndrome, a mild condition on the Autism spectrum. When his granny dies, Jeffrey returns to Tennessee for her funeral, and then walks the same field he walked with his granddaddy as a child. On that cold, late November day, Jeffrey walks toward The Thicket, an outcropping of trees and vines from the woods adjoining the field that crossed the fence and are invading the field. In that special place he and Granddaddy would sit and talk as Jeffrey swung on vines or sipped cola. The middle aged Jeffrey looks back to that time, to the summer of his ninth year, an idyllic year and a terrible year, a year of joy, a year of loss and grief. Will Jeffrey Conley be able to discover and understand his struggles by this journey back into his past. While remembering Sunday dinners with relatives, hunting rabbits with his granddaddy, or visiting the town square, Jeffrey rediscovers pain and the worst loss of his life. Will he be able to make sense of his life, his past, his obsessions, his faith? Or will he sink into despair, The Thicket becoming a place of pain rather than redemption? That is the fundamental problem of the book.
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This Sunday’s sermon was not to be about an Old Testament hero after all. Brother Noland began in a tone of voice that made me shiver.
“If you died today, would you be ready to face God in eternity? One day, you will die - this is a certainty. Not one of us will leave life alive. When Judgment Day comes, will your name be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life so you can enter into heavenly glory? Or will your name be missing? What a terrible thing it would be to fail to hear your name when they read from the
Book of Life! To face eternity without God, to be without hope, to be lost in hell forever!”
I usually liked sermons about hell. I found them exciting - like horror movies. I wrapped my fingers around the edge of the pew as Brother Noland continued.
“How long is eternity? It’s hard for our minds to follow. Imagine that the earth and sun are solid balls of steel. Imagine that an eagle flies constantly to and from the earth and sun. Each
time it reaches the earth, it brushes a wing against the earth. Each time it reaches the sun, it
does the same. Now the eagle’s feathers aren’t really hurt by all this, but they wear a little
scratch of the steel away from the sun and earth every time! The time it would take for that
eagle to wear away the earth and sun is nothing compared to eternity.”
I listened - transfixed. Until now, my sense of time and space had been limited and
circumscribed. About the longest time period I ever thought about had been summer vacation,
and distance was either measured in tilled acres like Granddaddy’s field, or in the time it took
to get to school in Gilead or else to ride to Randallsville. The geographical limit of my world
was the Sears store in downtown Nashville. Going there was a voyage of adventure.
I shivered in my seat, even though the seventy bodies in the building had made it warm
despite the squeaky air conditioner. I felt constricted, as if I were smothering. The immensity of
eternity was like a weight, the steel sun and earth crushing me. I felt my small size, my short
life. The lives of others grew smaller, too, as did the things I thought were permanent: the
house, the field, The Thicket, the earth itself. As these thoughts ran through my head like a
rabbit, I tried to stop them. I focused on Brother Noland’s eyes.
“Do you really want to spend eternity in hell, in a place prepared for the devil and his
minions? Imagine the hottest heat you’ve felt on earth. Take a stove eye. Imagine you turn your
stove on high, until the eye turns bright red. Then take one hand, hold the other hand with it
against that stove eye. Feel the searing pain. Listen to your hand sizzle. Then turn it around to
the other side, do the same. Repeat with the other hand. The agony you feel is a small pinprick
compared to the pains of hell. The pain of your sizzling, swollen hand will stop one day. The
pains of hell never end. Trillions of times hotter than the sun. Darkness all around. Demons
taunting you. And eternal regret. You’ll know you could have followed God, could have been
baptized, could have become a faithful Christian, could have gone to heaven to be with God
forever. But now you can’t! Not now! You’re lost, lost, lost for eternity.”
Brother Noland never raised his voice. He sounded like the calm of the sea. Yet I found that made the message more frightening. I held my hands over my eyes, which I shut as if squinting to avoid the light of the sun. That made things worse - I felt pulled into darkness and saw a demon face with thick, leering lips sneering at me, its razor claws coming to cut my face before throwing me into eternal flames. I opened my eyes, focused on the schoolhouse lights hanging from the ceiling. Their warm yellow light calmed me. I was just a boy and had not yet reached the age of accountability, the age at which you had to be baptized. Most people figured that was about the age of twelve. When you reached that age, if you died without being baptized,
you’d go to hell. No exceptions. But I was nine and should be safe for a while. If I died, I would
go to heaven because I did not fully understand right and wrong. At least that’s how Brother
Martin had explained it in Sunday school class.
I thought about Granddaddy. He was lucky. He waited until he was sixty-five to be baptized. He did not die first and go to hell. I was grateful that Sunday when I witnessed Brother Noland lower Granddaddy into the water, then raise him up, dripping wet, out of the baptistery.
Granddaddy was safe unless he sinned again. Even then he could ask God for forgiveness. I
hoped that he asked God for forgiveness whenever he was mean to Granny. I could not bear the
thought of Granddaddy burning in hell.
Brother Noland gave the invitation for sinners to come forth during the invitation song. “If there’s anyone here is not a Christian, you should believe with all your heart that Jesus is the
Son of God, repent of your sins, and confess them before men. Then you should be baptized
into Christ for the remission of sins, and you will be a new child of God. If there’s anyone who is
a Christian who has fallen away, we invite you to come forward and confess your sins so we can
pray for you. Whatever your need, won’t you come forward as we stand and sing?”
We all stood, stretching our legs to the sound of opening song books. Brother Martin began singing the words, and I sang along. I loved the first verse about judgment - the second verse was about heaven:
There’s a bright day coming,
a bright day coming,
there’s a bright day coming by and by.
But its brightness will only be for them who love the Lord:
Are you ready for that day to come?
It was the third verse that reminded me of the sermon’s end and made me want to scream. I almost did. Words struck with the force of fear itself.
There’s a sad day coming,
a sad day coming,
there’s a sad day coming by and by,
when the sinner shall hear his doom, “Depart, I know thee not;
are you ready for that day to come?
I was about to leave my seat to come forward, but I caught myself, recalling that I was only nine and not old enough to sin.
Still, God’s all-seeing eye seemed to be everywhere. I wanted to hide, to play outside for a while so I could avoid God’s fiery glare. I felt as if God were waiting for me to sin before killing me. Then he could send me to hell. Maybe I would be one of the eternally damned.
What about my mama and daddy? Did they curse God just before the other car hit them? If they cursed, they did not have time to pray for forgiveness. And if they did not have time to
pray for forgiveness, God would not forgive them. Unless God forgave every one of their sins,
they would go to hell. I remembered that Brother Noland said in another sermon that it was
wrong to assume that God would forgive someone in an accident who didn’t have time to pray.
I read most of the Bible and knew what God did to sinners. God told the Children of Israel to stone a man to death who picked up rocks on the Sabbath Day. I figured that was kind of unfair. Not only would the man suffer when the rocks hit him; but, when he died he would go to hell. Later, in the New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira had lied to God about the amount of
money they gave the church, and God had killed them both. I figured they went to hell too.
It seemed so easy to get to hell and so hard to get into heaven. Didn’t Jesus say that the
way was narrow? What if Granddaddy died and went to hell? What would I do? I thought about
that, and figured that if I saw Granddaddy falling into hell on Judgment Day I would do
something bad right then and there and go to hell myself. I would not want to be in heaven for
eternity without Granddaddy. Then I was scared God would be angry at me for thinking such a
thought, and I wanted to go home and hide under the covers.
I felt better after the invitation song. No one had come forward today. Most of the time,
nobody did. It was time for the Lord’s Supper. That, at least, was a break. Several men from
the congregation assembled in the back of the church, then walked to the front. They stood
behind a long wood table loaded with metal trays. Some trays contained what I had always
thought were Saltine crackers, although people called them “unleavened bread.” The men
would then distribute the trays row by row to the congregation. Church members would break
off a piece of cracker and eat it. I did not understand what they were doing or why I was not
permitted to partake. Only those who were baptized could eat the crackers. I figured that was
good in a way, since my mouth was already dry.
The men returned to the front, replaced the small trays, and distributed the big trays filled
with tiny cups of grape juice. A man would pray for “this cup, the fruit of the vine, which
represents Christ’s shed blood. May we partake of it in a manner well-pleasing in Thy sight.” I
wanted to take one of those cups and drink, but I knew I would be in bad trouble if I did.
After that, the men took two bamboo baskets and passed them out. Aunt Jenny gave me a
quarter to put in the basket. I would hold the quarter flat in front of my eyes, where it would
shine like polished silver. I liked the “clink” it made when it fell into the basket full of dollar
bills and change. I calculated how many tiny tootsie rolls a quarter would buy. Then I thought
about Sunday dinner. My stomach growled.
It was finally time for the closing prayer. After the prayer, I quickly moved outside to shake Brother Noland’s hand. I didn’t have time to play with the other children on Sunday morning because the service ended after twelve noon, and Granny was not happy if the roast beef
dinner in the oven burned.
I walked to the car and waited for my family members. I got inside and sat in the back seat. I was glad Uncle Lawton had parked the car in the shade. It was hot enough in the car without the sun cooking it. When everyone else was finally in the car, Uncle Lawton put on the air conditioner, and once we were on the road, he lit a small cigar. In the enclosed space I felt as if I were about to choke, but I knew it was no use to ask Uncle Lawton to stop smoking. Aunt
Jenny said, “Jeffrey, why don’t you crack your window just a little if that cigar smoke’s
bothering you?” I did, and it helped some.
We pulled into the gravel drive and parked under the Kiefer pear tree where a swarm of
wasps had congregated to enjoy the fallen fruit. Stepping carefully to avoid the wasps, the
whole family went inside as the screen door slammed shut.
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Much, perhaps most, of horror fiction has some relation to folklore. Ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and zombies were all creatures of folklore before they found their way into horror fiction. Bram Stoker read studied legends concerning Vlad Tepes Dracula before writing his landmark novel. Although H. P. Lovecraft’s “old ones” arose from an attempt to create a mythology, Lovecraft was interested in folklore, especially the folklore of his native New England.
Despite our living in an advanced technological society, folklore still thrives, and not only in the sense of “urban legends.” Stories of ghosts and hauntings continue to be a part of American folklore, and provide fuel for groups of paranormal investigators (I am a member of one such group myself). The story of the Bell Witch of Robertson County, Tennessee is a well-known part of Tennessee folklore. Since I am originally from Tennessee and am familiar with the legend, it serves as a good starting point for my discussion of folklore and horror.
Most of you are probably familiar with the story of the Bell Witch, but here is a short synopsis for those who are not. John Bell, a farmer in Robertson County, Tennessee, was haunted by a spirit during the second decade of the nineteenth century.i The phenomena described included strange animals that disappeared, poltergeist phenomena, and a disembodied voice that tormented John Bell. Supposedly the spirit poisoned him to death in 1820. There is some speculation, fueled by the Brent Monahan’s novel, An American Haunting: The Bell Witch Story, ii and the movie based on it, that John Bell’s daughter, Betsy, may have been responsible for the haunting because her father violated her sexually.
Now what is most frightening about folklore stories such as the Bell Witch as opposed to horror fiction is the question, “Is there truth behind this legend? If so, how much? And if the accounts of the Bell Witch are true, could something like this happen again?” Horror fiction carries with it the paradox that we are afraid of something that does not exist.iii Folklore opens the possibility that we are afraid of something that may have existed and may still exist.
Part of what adds to the air of reality about folklore is that the events described in the stories are said to have occurred in actual places. I have visited the farm formerly owned by the Bell family and have been on a tour of the “Bell Witch Cave” on the property. John Bell and the other persons in the legend were real people, and one can view their tombstones today. Those people interested in the Dracula legend can visit some of the places in Rumania Vlad Tepes Dracula once lived and roamed. Someone interested in Lovecraft’s stories can focus on the folklore he studied and visit the places that remain that are part of this folklore.
John Gardner says that “In any piece of fiction, the writer’s first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened, or to persuade the reader that they might have happened (given small changes in the laws of the universe)…”iv The horror writer can make use of folklore to lend an illusion of reality to a story. The more detailed the research into people and places, the better—but the author must work such details into the story in a skillful way, and omit or change details that are not needed for plot or characterization. But the skillful use of folklore in a horror story that results in strong verisimilitude can draw the reader into “the vivid and continuous dream”v of a story in an effective way. It can move a reader to ask, “Could something like this really happen? Did something like this really happen. Maybe it’s happening now.”
i The best sources for the Bell Witch legend are M. V. Ingram, An Authenticated History of the
Famous Bell Witch (Nashville: Rare Book Reprints, 1961 ) and Charles Bailey Bell, A
Mysterious Spirit: The Bell Witch of Tennessee (Nashville: Charles Elder, Bookseller, 1972
ii Brent Monahan, An American Haunting: The Bell Witch, 2nd ed. (New York: St. Martins
iiiNoël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart (New York and London:
Routledge, 1990), 59.
iv John Gardner, The Art of Fiction (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), 22.
v Gardner, The Art of Fiction, 31.
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