The Literary Southern Ghost
An Interview with Sherry Austin
by Joyce Dixon
Readers often tease Sherry Austin -- "With all the ghosts right here in the South, why you want to be creating fictional ones?" But Sherry Austin is a writer of mythic fiction, a revival of Victorian ghost storytelling which is used as a means to present or change an attitude within the culture. Her blend of Southern Gothic with social commentary is fresh in southern writing. Her voice is lyrical and haunting. Sherry Austin is an author to watch.
Sherry Austin is fascinated by afterlife beliefs and mankind's search for meaning, and she believes the traditional literary ghost story has appeal both as a diversion and as a means of mystical experience. For portions of Mariah of the Spirits she was awarded an Artist Fellowship for Literature from the North Carolina Arts Council, an agency funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Sherry Austin now makes her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
How did you become interested in the paranormal?
Actually I'm not all that interested in the paranormal, and I have found that my views on the subject are not what people expect. I'm more interested in mythology, with archetype, with what we believe, than with any attempt to prove the paranormal. I think eager, simplistic belief in anything cheapens the real, the deeper truth that may lie behind it. Though the dictionary definition of "paranormal" means "not scientifically explainable," the word paranormal conjures up ghost photographs and psychics, all of which I take great pains to distance myself from because all too often these things are connected to attempts to fool and take advantage of people. This does NOT mean that I pooh-pooh people's belief in or experiences with the paranormal, and it does NOT mean I believe what we see is all there is. The real truth--about what happens after death, for instance--is far, far stranger than we can imagine, something I tried to make clear in the introduction to Mariah of the Spirits. I'm totally infatuated by the idea, put forth in a recent issue of "Scientific American," that the universe is an enormous hologram. That we are illusory. From the time I was ten years old, I've seen all of life as a holographic carnival, a Hall of Mirrors. That may be the source of my interest in what is often called the paranormal. Writing certain kinds of fiction is the best way to explore that.
What is "mythic fiction?”
Mythic or mystical fiction is a fairly new term for a sub-category of the broader fantasy genre. It is not usually about wizards and elves, which define the traditional fantasy genre. It does not take place in another world or in the distant past. It takes place mainly in the on temporary world, but is infused with myth, mysticism and archetype. The writer Charles de Lint is closely associated with it. In Mariah of the Spirits I've used the idea that a river or other body of water is a dividing line between life and death; the idea that a dove is an emissary from another world; the idea that quests for elusive goals continue after death. (Mariah is the ghost of a slave girl on an endless quest, as I believe we all are.)
You are reviving the Victorian tradition of ghost stories, which is similar to the writings of Rod Sterling's Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. Do you have a moral message in your stories that can't be easily presented in general fiction? (One of the reasons Sterling did Twilight Zone was to attack 50's mentality of banning creative expression in mainstream media).
Thank you! In "Lost Soul" and "At the Clothesline," I think we see that conscience has a life of its own. Nothing shows the haunting quality of conscience better than a good, old-fashioned ghost. In "Birds of Silent Flight," I hoped to show that tragedy is not as black and white as we like to think. In war, there are many silent victims, who can "speak"-- as Miss Emmaline Elwood does by floating face up in a tidal creek of the Cape Fear River-- only in lore and legend. In "The Other Woman," I make obvious statements about the dangers of women being too submissive to men. In "Angel Unawares" I illustrate what is often the fate of someone in the family who is, or tries too hard to be, "the good one." I didn't really mean to make statements. I just meant to tell stories, but to me drama comes from issues more than action.
Is there a "great mystical vortex" in western North Carolina? Explain.
Socially, there most certainly is. Spend a day in Asheville and you won't doubt it. People are flocking from far and wide to express, explore, and work out spiritual issues of every kind, all with the Bible Belt as backdrop.
The Gullah regions of the Carolinas and Georgia coasts hold to animistic beliefs brought over from Africa. How have these beliefs been Americanized?
I'm not sure I'd say they hold to these beliefs, not now, anyway, but the leftovers of the beliefs are definitely there. I'm not sure, for instance, that most people who put jugs of blue water outside their houses really believe that this keeps the spirits away, although some may. I think their ancestors used to believe this, and they do it simply because it gives them a good feeling to be connected to tradition, or because the colored water outside their homes is a delight to the eye. You can still find little memorial trinkets on graves in those regions. Once these were thought to appease spirits; now they are done out of respect for tradition, or "just because." They have evolved the way all beliefs and practices evolve-that is, they have gone underground and emerged as something quite different. Our European ancestors once hung evergreens in the passageways and erected evergreen trees in a central location in their homes in the winter. The original purpose may have been to pay homage to the gods, to whatever is eternal, to signify life continuing through the dead of winter, i.e. immortality. Now most of us do this in December because that's just what we do. We don't give it much thought. It makes us feel good to hunt down (or get from the attic!) the tree, to decorate it, to gather around it. However, if we dig a little deeper into our psyches, we realize the traditions have survived BECAUSE they reconnect us to the deeply mysterious notions of our distant ancestors. For this reason, I believe traditions, even those we think of as superstitions, are sacred. We don't have to believe them literally to appreciate them, though.
What is a bottle tree?
A bottle tree, featured, by the way, in Eudora Welty's short story, "Liivie," is a talisman, an object believed to be a charm against evil. They originated in Africa and were made by taking small trees outside the home, stripping the limbs of some of the leaves, and threading the limbs with colored bottles. The slaves (or their ancestors) supposedly believed that ancestral spirits sought to haunt their homes. The colored bottles on the trees in the yard would distract them. They would be attracted by the light shining through the colored bottles. They would enter them, and become trapped. When the wind blew, the bottles would make an airy, whistling sound, and this was said to be the spirits moaning to be let out. To me bottle trees bring to mind our ancient fascination with colored glass, with stained glass, and the idea that the infinite, the spiritual, is so inexplicable that we can only hope to suggest it through the agency of refracted or colored light. It's no accident that churches, cathedrals, and mosques have stained glass windows. I love bottle trees. I want to do my small part in reviving them through my website, and through the title story in Mariah of the Spirits. Recently, someone sent me a wonderful picture of a bottle FENCE in Mississippi.
Flannery O'Connor once described the South as "Christ-haunted," and she went on to say - "Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive." How does religion play in to our Southern Gothic tradition?
I could write an entire book on that! A lot of people could. It is in our blood, just as salt is. Native Southerners are steeped in religion. The South is a tapestry dipped in a vat of indigo dye and the dye is Biblical mysticism. I'm not a religious person by any ordinary standards, but it is in my blood, too. My own small renditions of the Southern Gothic have been influenced by the incredible imagery in religious expression. You can be a total non-theist and still be totally intoxicated by it. The idea of Christ as a "rock of ages" that is "cleft" (broken) for the sins of the world, of a hole in a rock where you can hide. The idea of being "washed in the blood," and being submerged "beneath the cleansing tide." All that blood! This is high poetry that is appreciated more in the American South than anywhere else in the world.
In "Mariah of the Spirits," you have put a new twist on the common hitchhiker ghost story. When writing, did you try to take common traditions in southern ghost lore, then build new stories from those elements?
To me the hitchhiker is the reigning monarch of ghost legends. Her endless quest for home, or, as is the case with Mariah, her quest for an elusive dream, best expresses what I think we all suspect our journey is a solitary journey down a long, lonesome road, toward some mysterious end. And yes, I did use common traditions as a basis for most of the stories, though they are not limited to the South: the motif of the old man who doesn't want to die, and the idea that spirits from the other side come to greet us at death formed the basis for "Come, Go Home With Me; the idea that the dead should stay in their place is in "Something Green That Grows." The idea that spirits inhabit inanimate objects (animism) is in "The Dressmaker's Mannequin." The idea that death is reached via safe passage over a body of water is in "The Excursion." There are also angels, shape-shifters, parallel universes and other fun stuff.
Have you had any interesting anecdotes from trying to convince readers and booksellers that your stories are not collected folklore?
Many, many. While promoting MARIAH I've had people walk up and say, "Boo! Y'all!" I have been accused of being a witch, handed Biblical tracts on how to get saved, (although I've spoken in churches, and the stories are full of Biblical ideas) been dismissed as silly and superstious, and I've been told I have no business making up stories about ghosts when there are so many "real" ones.
But most often I've been perceived as someone who has inside information about the other side, someone who can confirm what people most want to believe. It's as if I'm being asked to recite a catechism. People want simple answers like that guy on the TV show "Crossing Over" gives: "Yes, your deceased Mother is standing right there beside you, yes, she forgives you for everything!" I'm sorry. It is not that simple. Your mother might be standing right beside you-I really believe that's possible-but that guy doesn't know any more about it than you do. Buyer beware.
People seem to think that if "there's no such things as ghosts," i.e., if we don't have proof that we survive death with our essential souls intact, then there goes all the wonder in the world. That's nonsense! For one thing, what about the phantasmagoria of what we see with our own eyes? Look at quantum physics! Or consider that even when we're standing in line at Wal-Mart, we are actually spinning around in space in an enormous, incomprehensible void.
I often tell young people to get taking pictures of ghosts in graveyards out of their systems and go study astronomy, or geology. And beyond that, we have the ninety-nine percent of all we don't see that is probably far stranger and more wondrous than our notions of ghosts, angels, demons.
The most difficult thing to get across is the notion so many people have that if something about ghosts is in a book it is "true." They seem to think that there is something akin to the Department of Homeland Security that is the watchdog to make sure these ghost stories are verifiable. That there is some kind of independent panel of "experts" that weeds out the truth from the fiction. Years ago, I interviewed and heard from many people who told me ghost anecdotes, but the very most I could say is that I believed (i.e., thought) that the person who told me the story seemed to believe (or said they believed) that the story they told was true. This is what "true" means. Time was serious academic folklorists could record oral narratives and value these stories because they were at least suggestive of what people in a given place and time believed. Now, with the proliferation of "true" ghost stories in print, you must factor in the enhancements that the writer must add to make the story readable. This is not to knock collections of "true" ghost stories-they are wonderful fun, and a great way to learn about the history of a region. Buy them en masse, read them. But read them as stories, for heaven's sake, not as confessions of faith. And read The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton and Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, and the ghost stories and wonder tales of Isaac Singer and Jorge Luis Borges. Read the many ghost-ish and ghosty but ghost-less stories of our wonderful Southern writers: Lee Smith (ORAL HISTORY), Fred Chappell (the short story "The Wind Woman" is my favorite) and Elizabeth Spencer (the short story "OWL.") And for a real treat, read the incredible ghost stories by Victorian women writers like Lady Cynthia Asquith and Amelia Edwards. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction can be truer than fact.
What are you working on now?
Something similar, but different. Something weird, set in the South.
© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved