I found something in a cemetery last Halloween season.
I want to tell you what it is. You know I want to, but we must stroll through this cemetery first.
Don’t worry. It will be nice. It’s a very pleasant spot, right around the corner from my childhood home. It’s quaint and understated, something less than an acre cradling the mortal remains of a few hundred souls.
The whole is bound on the south and west by an eight-foot brick wall and on the north and east by wrought iron fencing painted forest green. The whole is overarched by mature oaks festooned with Spanish moss and a host of opportunistic tropical epiphytes, eager newcomers blown in by Hurricane Katrina. The whole is carpeted in long, lush grasses that absorb every footfall, every birdcall, every insect’s wanton flitter.
Hushed and beautiful, a garden spot in a steaming subtropical paradise, it is nonetheless the scene of a dynamic struggle of remembrance versus nature. This earth has held our dead for nearly two centuries, but it is not what one would call tamed. It is not what one would call compliant. These rows of stones all but pitch and yaw atop warm, fecund soil ever on the cusp of urgent becoming, ever ready with vine and creeper and root to crush mausoleums and topple obelisks. IN ICTV OCCVLI is more than an inscribed legend in this place; were this cemetery abandoned by the hand of man, its gentle pathways and neat hedgerows would be impassable a decade hence. Even with careful and constant care, only a pitiful few of the 19th Century tombs still stand. The topslabs of the remainder lie directly on the heaving loam, their red brick plinths and the departed thereunder long since returned to clay. This climate is not kind to that which tends toward decay.
I found this cemetery soon after I was allowed to walk home from school on my own. I wandered off the main road one day, and I came to a rusted stop sign overgrown by a giant oak. I had never seen such a thing. A giant, twisting oak, whose roots had pitched the pavement up in jutting shingles, stood frozen in the act of swallowing a stop sign some fool had planted within its reach. Pole and all. I edged around it, not yet willing to turn my back on such a bizarre and unexpected act.
As I turned away from the ravening oak, I first saw the cemetery.
Can I call it love at first sight? Is it too perverse to say that I loved the place that shaped the life of my imagination?
In memory, I see the meeting from above: the uniformed child inches toward the wrought iron, close enough to see but definitely, definitely not close enough to touch. He walks along the fence, peering between the bars—and in our cinematic imagining, must we not cut to a rolling shot from inside the cemetery? The boy’s tense little face appears in stroboscopic gaps in the wrought iron as the camera keeps pace with him. Then cut streetside to a static close-up of the boy, his brow furrowed as he leans forward, staring into the shadowed enclosure. Then back to a long shot from inside the cemetery, zooming in on the startled boy as if something rushes toward the fence…
Cut to a long boom shot of the boy running back to the main road (crossing the street to avoid that hungry oak).
I didn’t even step inside the gate until the third visit. There were stone angels whose gaze I avoided and a gated mausoleum whose entrance I dared not approach. That was simply thrilling. There were wooden markers rotted and green with moss and etched deeply with indecipherable legends. There were tombs whose slabs were cracked and split, allowing me to peek inside and run off gibbering when I convinced myself that I had glimpsed a skeletal hand.
I probably only visited half-a-dozen times, and we moved away from the Gulf Coast a few years later. Since then, I’ve seen graveyards aplenty, from Gettysburg to Mayan burial sites to the tomb of the Forty-seven Ronin. I’ve stood at the head of columns of soldiers’ headstones marching off to the horizon, and I’ve stood at the foot of stupas filling half the sky to house scraps of cloth or chips of bone. None of them compares to my first cemetery, that scant acre of sodden, mossy soil. That cemetery, for me, holds more than headstones. It holds that moment when I was first touched by the macabre, just as you have been, and it’s a living reminder that I’m still dedicated to recapturing and refining that moment, just as you are.
Ah, that moment! It’s what brought you here, that moment when you were not just frightened but thrilled by the macabre. Picture yourself as an awkward child (because even if you seemed perfect and poised on the outside, you were already a halftone off the rest of the choir, right?) and recall that beautiful and terrible moment when you first were pulled in four directions by fear, fascination, disgust and longing. Perhaps you were peeking between your fingers because you knew Frankenstein’s monster had to be lurking somewhere in the smoking ruins of that burned windmill. Perhaps you were in a bookstore gobsmacked by your first copy of Eerie. Perhaps you were unexpectedly split into two children, one sitting in a sunny classroom and the other locked in the midnight chamber with that “ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore.” Whether the spark was a volume of Poe, Tales from the Crypt, or that freaky Soundgarden video on your dad’s iPod, whether it was in 1931 or yesterday, that moment altered the course of your life.
My “beautiful and terrible moment” lies in that cemetery, as solid as a tombstone. Last year, I was lucky enough revisit that moment at any time I chose.
More than thirty-five years after my parents moved us away from the Gulf Coast, I took a house around the corner from the cemetery of my youth. Springhill Graveyard is still there, more beautiful than ever. The private association that cares for the cemetery has repaired cracked topslabs and replaced wooden markers. The stones are regularly righted and realigned as the roots of young giants run rampant through the soil.
The old sign-eating tree is gone, unfortunately. Indigestion, perhaps. In its place is a canopy cover for a BMW coupe. So mystery and wonder and savage beauty give place to the mundane.
I expected nothing more. I was just pleased the gravestones hadn’t been uprooted for condos. I spent the fall picking up the random cigarette butt or bottle top when I walked among my quietest neighbors.
My young son walked with me. I pointed out the names of prominent families for whom local businesses were named, and I pointed out the forebears of children with whom I went to school. One afternoon last fall, I spotted a name that stopped me in my tracks.
Inez Heenan, my kindergarten teacher, died at the age of ninety-seven, just a month after my son was born in Oregon. Her death came more than thirty years after she retired, but I doubt that her love for children let her stay out of the classroom for very long. She lies among family; one daughter who died during the Great Depression lies to her right, her husband lies to her left, and beyond him lies her younger daughter and her younger daughter’s husband. The fact that the son-in-law was willing to spend eternity so close to Mrs. Heenan doesn’t surprise me at all. She was a wonderful woman.
I had the opportunity that afternoon to lay my hand on her headstone and tell my son that she was the kindest woman I had ever known. I had the opportunity to tell my son of her compassion, her love for children, her love of learning, and her love of nonsense. I had the opportunity to tell him of her love for me despite my smacking Trey with the rest-time mat, despite my calling her Mrs. Canine on the first day, and despite the tall tales.
Tall tales—that’s when his ears pricked up. Most of this is hearsay (I remember more about Batman than I do about kindergarten), but my family has confirmed that Mrs. Heenan was deeply involved in my early love for the macabre and the surreal.
Without her, they might not have known so early that my peculiarities were coming out at school, so it was a bit of a mixed blessing. Her first report to my parents was unintentional; I took Mrs. Heenan in pretty easily with the tale of my elder sister’s shoes being permanently glued to her feet, and she called my mother immediately, deeply concerned for my sister’s health. She had my number by the time the other kids wanted a field trip to my house to sit on the screenless porch, where trained mantises would eat the mosquitoes, and watch while pet monkeys took out our garbage. She didn’t even have to ask who told Sid a mummy was lurking in the sandbox.
My son’s eyes were wild with laughter as I told him of these kindergarten scrapes. He gets me, just as Mrs. Heenan did. As I knelt in that hushed and holy place with one hand on my giggling son’s shoulder and the other on my kindergarten teacher’s headstone, we three shared another kind of beautiful and terrible moment, a moment when the macabre becomes the sublime.
The school where she nurtured the very young for most of her adult life was a quarter-mile away, and I found her while walking with my son, who was then the age I was when I first met her. It was a perfect circle of love and loss and reminiscence, our lives and deaths intertwined, our paths parting and crossing again like the roots of the oaks in that cemetery. Would it make sense in that place to reject the macabre? To pretend it isn’t integral to love and life? Don’t we love more dearly that which know we must give away?
It would be a good question for Inez Heenan, who said goodbye to her little darlings every spring for three generations. Right now, it’s a good question for me.
When my son was two years old, he was rushed into the pediatric intensive care unit twice in a few months. The first time, we did not know if he would make it through the night. I watched helplessly as he lay gray and listless, gasping like a fish.
That, my friends, is horror.
We did what parents do. We soothed him and laughed and played and kept his spirits up as best we could.
The second visit to the ICU was for “simple” pneumonia, and we were already in a different world. We had adapted. We had done what we had to, and we had adapted. As I watched his steady breathing, watched his oxygen levels, listened for any unaccustomed beeping, I knew all this would pass from his memory, and maybe even ours, perhaps lingering only as a story we told him when he grew up healthy and strong: “Yes, you gave us a couple of little scares back then when you were… what, two?”
During that second PICU visit, I relaxed enough to read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a story of love, endurance, and sacrifice in one of literature’s bleakest post-apocalyptic worlds. The dying father shepherds his son through a hellscape of cannibalism and wanton violence, and the only hope he can offer the boy is “the flame,” the ideals that separate humanity from monstrosity.
After the last page, I lay watching the blinking lights almost till dawn.
I can’t pretend that I know what I’m doing, as a father or as a man, but I would be a much weaker specimen if I tried to turn away from the dreams that have shaped my life. The very fact that you have turned to this blog and that you have read this scrap of remembrance makes clear that you too are unwilling to give up on those dreams of the macabre and the surreal. In response to the nasty, tittering little voice in the backs of our minds insisting this is all somehow unworthy of our efforts, unworthy of the label literature, I can offer only what I found in that cemetery:
The macabre at its best is a refulgent mirror that allows us to greet the reflection of our mortality with a saucy wink. It’s good practice for the Big Show. Further, we can strive to recreate that beautiful and terrible moment such that our work transcends that moment. We aspire to nothing less than the transformation of the merely macabre into the sublime.
Tell me know when we get there, please.
We’ve since moved, and we’ll spend this Halloween season far from that beautiful cemetery, but I carry with me a sure knowledge that the wide-eyed boy within me still finds wonder in the macabre haunts of his youth and that his imaginary explorations were not futile, faltering missteps but his first forays into a rich and fulfilling world.
As for the craft, I stand unsteadily on the shoulders of giants, and I beg your indulgence.
Do not, however, doubt my commitment to recreating that beautiful and terrible moment, even if I never reach the sublime.
As for my son, he’s so like me that it hurts at times (would I wish him to be less … Kendleyish, even for his own good?), but he is his own boy with his own battles, a boy busy developing unique tastes and follies. He will have his own beautiful and terrible moment with the macabre, and it will have nothing to do with me.
If someone happened to leave a copy of The Bride of Frankenstein lying around soon after his tenth birthday, though, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
Mrs. Heenan wouldn’t be a bit surprised. I am sure of that.
JAMES KENDLEY, a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years, began his fiction career in 2009. He is a new member of the HWA. Visit him at http://www.kendley.com
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