Archive for March, 2010

This story comes from my paternal grandmother.

Here in my little hometown there stand several houses that were designed by and built for wealthy local families in the last two or three decades of the nineteenth century by a man who is always referred to as the Philadelphia Architect. Although I may be wrong as to this (all my books on local history have been spirited away by my brother, who uses details from them when he occasionally guides hikes), he originally came to town from Pennsylvania to build a new courthouse in the 1870s, and stayed on to undertake private commissions.

One of these private houses, which stands out in the knobs alongside what was once a major US highway but became a glorified back road when a bypass was built in the 1970s, is different from others built by this man, in that it has a spiral staircase that rises two full stories and can be seen from outside the house through a huge window on the second floor.

In the 1930s, the house was owned by a family named Blanchard (a pseudonym): a married couple with several children ranging in age from puberty to their late teens. All was well in the family until the husband began an affair with a woman whose name is not preserved in local lore. The affair was especially devastating to his wife, and she finally in despair hanged herself from the top of the spiral staircase. Her children found her when they arrived home from school that afternoon.

Blanchard eventually sold the house. It’s been through several families since then, but there have always been whispers that, down the decades, alarmed motorists have rushed up onto the front porch, banging on the door and anxiously informing whoever answers: “I saw a woman hanging off that staircase–through that big window! Is she–did you–” And the words trail off into silence as they look up at the stair and see there’s no one there at all.

I’ve been past that house many times, but have never seen the dangling body. Maybe I haven’t been in the right frame of mind; maybe I’ve not seen the right trick of the light. But Gran told the story well; I can’t go by there without feeling a chill up my spine.

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The Demon Lover

One of my favorite writers of macabre tales is the Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). The other night I found and read online one of his most eerie tales, “Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter” (1839). In this story the young apprentice painter Schalken is in love with his master’s ward, Rose, and is likely to marry her when, out of the blue, a wealthy suitor makes an offer for her hand. This suitor, popeyed and cold to the touch, appears and vanishes at will; when he IS visible, he does not blink, breathe or remove his gloves. Rose is forced to marry this repellent creature, and the story ends with the terrified girl vanishing forever, forced to accompany her husband to the netherworld from whence he came.

Le Fanu was inspired to write the story after viewing the works of the Dutch Baroque painter Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706), who specialized in nocturnal scenes consisting of small lighted areas surrounded by vast dark ones–a technique called chiaroscuro. Le Fanu’s dreadful suitor, however, is a literary example of a British folklore figure: the Demon Lover.

The Demon Lover–who returns from the dead in the form of the Devil himself–first emerges as a distinct folklore figure in medieval times, from what I’ve been able to find, but made his first appearance in print in a 1657 broadside ballad. Ballad lyrics were published in this form, on one side of a sheet of paper, for distribution from the sixteenth till the early twentieth centuries. Only the lyrics were published early on because England’s Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) gave a monopoly on the publication of musical notation to two court musicians. Ballads often dealt in musical form over those centuries with current events; many were written, many more vanished. “The Demon Lover” survived because it was collected in the all-important Child canon–it’s Child Ballad 243.

In the ballad the Demon Lover is a ship’s captain who returns after an absence of seven years to claim “the vow you promised me/To be my partner in life” of his sweetheart. Thinking him dead, she has in the meantime married another man (usually identified as a “house carpenter”) and borne his sons; nevertheless she willingly abandons her husband and sons to go with her former lover, only to learn once they are at sea that he is in fact the Devil and is taking her off to hell with him.

“The Demon Lover” was one of the ballads brought across from Britain to America by early ballad singers; here he lost most of his demonic characteristics and the ballad is usually called “The House Carpenter”; the young wife still abandons husband and sons, but ends in a shipwreck, rather than on “a mountain of hell” as does the original. Among professional folk singers, though, he’s come back in his original form, my favorite version of the song being a duet by Tim O’Brien and Karen Kasey on his 2001 CD TWO JOURNEYS.

Le Fanu was not the only writer to make use of the Demon Lover motif. He turns up again in an 1852 story by Charles Dickens called “To Be Read at Dusk,” in which a young English bride in Italy meets a man whose face has terrified her in her dreams; she vanishes at the end of the story, last seen with the man of whom she was so afraid. This story has since gained the status of an urban legend. In 1945, the Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen uses the motif in her short story “The Demon Lover,” in which a woman traumatized by the World War II blitz wanders back to her ruined London home, where she encounters the man who was her lover at the time of World War I; ultimately she vanishes with him. And the American writer Shirley Jackson, in her short story collection THE LOTTERY AND OTHER STORIES (1949), has several stories featuring a character called James Harris who may, folklorists theorize, have been the prototype of the Demon Lover, centuries ago.

There is also a tale told in Michael Paul Henson’s MORE KENTUCKY GHOST STORIES (1996) which is alleged to be true, on this same motif. Henson says the events took place in Letcher County, Kentucky, in 1934, and involved a young wife who, before her wedding, was courted by a much older man who was believed by the locals to be a male witch. She married a younger man to escape the older one’s attentions, but on their way home after the wedding were accosted by the old man, who told her that he would die soon, but he would be back for her, and that she would go with him…The old man died. A year after his death, on a snowy night, there came a knock at the front door. The young wife–called Evelyn in Henson’s account–was reading in the living room and called to her husband, who was sitting in the kitchen with his two brothers, that she would see who was at the door. The three men heard the door open, but no one came in; when they went into the living room they found the door wide open and Evelyn gone. Outside the door they found the tracks of her bare feet in the snow; they followed the footprints two miles, to where they vanished at the old man’s grave. The grave was undisturbed, but when they opened it the casket was empty–and neither the old man’s body, nor any trace of the young wife–was ever found.

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I confess that as art goes I come from the “I know what I like” school. One artist whose works I genuinely like is the early Italian Renaissance painter Masaccio (1401-1428). In part this is because he was the first Italian artist whose works break completely from the stiffness of late medieval art, using perspective to give his paintings an almost three dimensional depth and shading to suggest heavenly gradations of light. Mostly though it stems from the fact that we know almost nothing about him outside of his art.

Born Tomasso Cassai (for his grandfather’s profession of cabinetmaker) or, in other accounts, di Ser Giovanni di Mone, in 1401, he lost his father at the age of five. His mother remarried, but the next fact we know for certain is that he joined one of the seven main crafts guilds in Tuscany’s capital city of Florence in 1422. It was members of this guild who gave him the nickname that has overshadowed his birth name: in English, “Masaccio” means something like “big, ugly Tom.” He apparently was a big goodnatured lug of a man; the only image we have in paint of him is a self-portrait contained in one of his surviving frescoes. We also have no idea where he learned to paint, a very strange circumstance in an era when the great artists of the day ran workshops and schools and younger painters were apprenticed to them.

His career lasted a bare five years. In those five years he completed a number of paintings, many of them lost in the centuries after his death. The most famous of his surviving works grace the walls of the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, painted for a patron named Felice Brancacci for his family’s private chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Other works can be found in such far-flung locations as Berlin’s Staatliche Museen, Florence’s fabled Uffizi Gallery, and London’s National Gallery.

In late 1427, Masaccio left some of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel unfinished and relocated to Rome. We do not know why he moved; we only know that by the autumn of 1428, he was dead, two months short of his twenty-seventh birthday. One lurid account claims he was poisoned by a jealous fellow artist; another says he died “of grief and want” which suggests that, unable to get commissions in the highly competitive art community in Rome, he fell ill from malnutrition and was carried off by disease or outright starvation.

His influence can be seen in particular in the paintings of the late Renaissance painter and sculptor Michelangelo. I see a lot of Masaccio in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, especially in the size and musculature of the figures.

At left is his painting of the Holy Trinity (1425), in Florence’s church of Santa Maria Novella. The figures depicted here include the Virgin Mary and a “donor”–i.e. the patron who commissioned the painting. The Trinity is depicted as God tenderly supporting a cross on which hangs the dead Christ, with the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove hovering between them. The whole scene is given perspective by a spatial structure in the form of a barrel vault, giving the impression that the whole painting is set into a hole in the wall, as art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote.

My favorite of all Masaccio paintings, however, is “Adam and Eve Expelled from the Garden of Eden,” also known as “The Expulsion from Paradise” (c. 1427).

Masaccio painted exclusively on biblical themes. This one has brought the story of the Fall and Adam and Eve’s punishment by being banned from Eden alive for me in a way the words on the page cannot. In her book SISTER WENDY’S 1000 MASTERPIECES, Sister Wendy Beckett, Carmelite nun and art historian, pinpoints its emotional impact: “No artist has entered more deeply into the horror of the expulsion from Paradise than Masaccio. It is a refugee situation that he portrays: home and happiness swiftly turned into loss and misery. It is this position of exile, so painfully familiar to our own times, that we can well appreciate.” I’ve never been to Florence, but the first time I saw a picture of this painting my breath literally caught in my throat.

Worth noting that Masaccio apparently painted his figures of Adam and Eve nude, and some later painter–possibly Filippino Lippi, who completed some of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel some six decades after Masaccio abandoned them–added fig leaves to them. In the late twentieth century, a cleaning removed the fig leaves. In any case, there is no eroticism implicit in the painting–only grief and contrition and fear. The great brooding swordwielding angel who blocks the way back in to Eden has a look of such sympathy and sorrow on its face as to move me to tears.

So Eden sank to grief–as Robert Frost wrote in another context.

One day I hope to get to Florence. And the first place I’m going to sightsee (after a good authentic Tuscan meal, of course) will be the Brancacci Chapel. Surely I won’t be the only overawed slackjawed tourist standing gawking before the majesty and genius of a man who gave us more beauty in five short years than most artists do in a lifetime.

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About thirty miles northeast of Chattanooga, on the Hiwassee River, sits the little town of Charleston. Nowadays it’s famous mostly as the site of a giant Bowater plant. On days when the air hangs close to the ground like a wet blanket and the wind is just right, you can smell the sickly sweet scent of wood pulp being made into paper products all the way over in my county, some thirty miles farther east. If you drive by the plant itself, it burps great stinking clouds of white smoke. If there’s fog on the river, smoke and fog can turn into a deadly soupy mess of low visibility and agonizingly slow traffic–if you’re lucky; if not it can turn into a chain reaction wreck, as it did some years ago, when several people were killed.

There was no Bowater plant in Charleston in 1867, though. Then it was more or less just one of the small towns that sat on the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. In 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War, Union sympathizers burned the railroad bridge at Charleston to keep the Confederate army from using the tracks to move soldiers and materiel. The bridge was rebuilt after the war, and all was fairly quiet until 1867.

That year was a flood year. The rains came and did not stop. The waters of the Hiwassee rose and rose. Most dangerously, the flood undermined the roadbed under the railroad bridge. One train did not make it much beyond the bridge before sections of the roadbed gave way under the heavy train, and one by one the engine and cars tumbled down an embankment and into the swollen river.

The citizens of Charleston worked heroically to save as many people as they could. There were many dead, and many injured. A temporary morgue was set up in the depot so families could come and hopefully locate their dead, only to load them on another train for their sad last journey home.

Charleston had only one doctor in 1867. He nearly worked himself into his grave in the couple or three weeks after the wreck, and once the crisis was past, he was forced to spend some time at one of the spas, or “watering places” where the sick (or sometimes hypochondriacs) went to get well. No sooner had he left town, though, when a family arrived from Baltimore seeking their brother, a Catholic monk who had been on the train, on his way to New Orleans.

Survivors from the train remembered seeing and even talking with the young monk, but he had simply vanished in the aftermath. The family hung around Charleston for a few weeks, waiting for the doctor to return, hoping he might have treated their brother or at least seen him, but they had to return to Baltimore without knowing what happened to the young monk.

When the doctor came home, he was well and ready to go back to work, and he brought with him a new piece of office equipment, you might say: a fully articulated skeleton, something he’d always wanted. The skeleton remained in his office as long as he was in practice.

Some years later, when the doctor retired (taking the skeleton with him), a younger doctor bought his practice and set up his office in the same building the old doctor had used. From the earliest days of his tenancy in the building, the new doctor was plagued by sightings of a robed figure that always disappeared before he could turn to speak to it, and most annoyingly by a sound that reminded him of beads clicking against each other. It was not until a patient told him the story of the monk who vanished after the 1867 flood that the young doctor realized that he was hearing the click of rosary beads, and that the robed figure was the ghost of the monk–and surmised where the old doctor had gotten his skeleton.

In 1932, so the story goes, the doctor’s office building was torn down. The workmen found, in a space between the interior and exterior walls, a brown robe and a rosary hanging from a nail.

For perhaps the best version of this spooky tale, see Kathryn Tucker Windham’s 13 TENNESSEE GHOSTS AND JEFFREY (1977).

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My paternal grandfather was a World War I veteran. Many times I’ve heard the story of how, when he was twenty-two years old, in early 1918, he and a cousin were lollygaggin’ in a little mountain town not far from his home place in the knobs. They spotted a recruiting poster–yep, one of the famous UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU! ones, painted in 1916 by John M. Flagg and used in the next two years in particular for recruitment purposes–and decided it would be a great lark to join the Army and see if the world was really bigger than the knobs and mountains. They caught a train that very afternoon and rode to the nearest big town, about thirty miles away, and signed up. They were first sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, if I remember right, and then on to Belgium. Cousin Jim, a little sawed-off wart of a man, ended up in the cooks’ corps, and Papaw, a strapping six-footer who could shoot a hickory nut out of a squirrel’s mouth at three hundred yards, ended up as an infantry sharpshooter. He found out the world WAS bigger than he’d ever dreamed, captured thirty Germans singlehanded but turned them in to the wrong unit so he wasn’t credited with the capture, and busted an ankle stepping in a shell hole–and, ornery mountain boy that he was, was unimpressed with the fabled AEF general “Black Jack” Pershing.

I expect that was how a mountain boy named Charlie Smith ended up in Europe in the waning days of 1917. Charlie’s story was a bit different, though; Papaw was pretty much footloose and fancy free, while Charlie had a steady girl, Ruthie Jones. When Charlie told Ruthie he had joined the army, she cried, of course; but he promised her that he would write to her every chance he got, and when he came home they would be married and live happily ever after. So Ruthie let him go.

For awhile his letters came regular as clockwork; then they tapered off and then stopped altogether. Ruthie was afraid something had happened to Charlie, especially when her own increasingly frantic letters got no answers. But then, Ruthie didn’t know about the machinations of Charlie’s older brother, Sam. Sam had a vested interest in Ruthie, one might say; he was in love with her too, but she loved Charlie. Sam took to destroying Charlie’s letters and telling Ruthie that Charlie had probably taken up with some French hussy and had forgotten all about her. Sam played on her fears so well, and made her so angry with Charlie, that she agreed to marry Sam from sheer spite. They were married in October. And still, never a word from Charlie.

So things stood on Christmas Eve 1917. There was a snowstorm that day; by the evening the snow was a foot deep. Ruthie was cooking supper when she heard a knock at the front door. Sam called that he would answer it; when he opened it, he let out a startled cry. “CHARLIE?”

There was a sound as if Charlie had pushed his way past Sam into the front room, and he spoke one sentence: “I know what you have done to Ruthie and me, and I have come to kill you as you deserve.”

And then there was a single gunshot that echoed through the entire house. Ruthie rushed in from the kitchen to find Sam lying dead on the floor, a look of surprise on his face–and the front door standing open. She also caught a glimpse of a man in an AEF uniform going out onto the front porch, but she was in too deep a state of shock to follow.

Nobody, least of all Ruthie, ever knew how long she knelt there beside Sam, in a spreading pool of his blood, with the door standing open and the house full of snow and wind. The next thing she knew there was another knock on the door facing and a youthful nervous voice saying, “Ma’am?”

The voice at the door belonged to a Western Union telegraph delivery boy. It was not until he had delivered his message, and rushed back out to summon the sheriff, that Ruthie, still in shock, read these words in cold lifeless black letters, on a black-edged sheet of paper: “Regret to inform you that Private Charles Smith died in action in France on the 21st of December, 1917.”

It was proven that Sam Smith owned no gun; and no murder weapon was ever found. It was equally proven that there were no footprints in the foot-deep snow other than those of the Western Union boy.

Ruthie insisted until her dying day that Charlie had come home from the dead to avenge his brother’s lies. And the sheriff, in the absence of all other evidence, had no choice but to concur.

This story is told in at least two versions that differ mostly in small details; one, from Morgan County, Kentucky, is retold from his own family’s recollections by the late Michael Paul Henson in MORE KENTUCKY GHOST STORIES (1996); the other, from Logan County, West Virginia, is told by Lonnie E. Legge in VISIONS OF GHOST ARMIES: FROM THE FILES OF FATE MAGAZINE (2003). I’ve pretty much collated the two versions and changed the names, but it’s told for true in both those collections.

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Portraits of Jo

Some time ago I checked a book out of our public library about the life and work of the American expatriate painter James McNeill Whistler. Most famous for the 1871 piece Arrangement in Gray and Black: The Artist’s Mother, Whistler also painted a number of pictures of his beautiful Irish mistress, Joanna Hiffernan, which are more attractive than his austere mother.

Jo Hiffernan, born in Ireland around 1843, became Whistler’s model at the age of seventeen, and his mistress not long thereafter. She was the subject of the 1862 work Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl, in which Whistler used a series of white on white tones, kept from outright dullness by the rich red of Jo’s hair and the patterned carpet and bearskin under her feet. This painting has been used as cover art for many editions of the Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins’s 1860 novel The Woman in White.

Whistler also used Jo as the model for his 1864 work Symphony No. 2: The Little White Girl, in which he shows a pensive Jo in front of a mantelpiece mirror.

From the time she became his mistress up until this point, Jo had been a steadying influence on the irascible Whistler; she served not only as model and mistress for him, but housekeeper and agent. But the relationship began to fall apart when Whistler’s widowed mother, who had heretofore lived in the United States, moved to London and into his home in 1864. Whistler was forced to find other lodgings for Jo, as his mother regarded her, beautiful and good for her son or not, as no better than a prostitute. He was also forced to sneak around in order to spend time with Jo. For this purpose, he took Jo to the French resorts of Trouville and Deauville, in Normandy, in the summer of 1865. There they met the contemporary French painter Gustave Courbet. A leading exponent of the French Realist art movement, Courbet was impressed by Whistler’s art, but he was even more impressed with Jo’s red hair and porcelain skin. While the three were in France, Jo posed for Courbet, which sent the possessive Whistler into a fury. Their relationship ended not long thereafter.

There is reason to believe that Jo became Courbet’s model and mistress, as she had been previously to Whistler. The best known of Courbet’s paintings of her is the 1866 work La Belle Irlandaise (The Beautiful Irish Girl), also known as Portrait of Jo, in which her red hair falls around her like a curtain of flame.

Courbet had, by the late 1860s, begun painting increasingly more erotic works, some of which were commissioned by a Turkish diplomat named Khalil Bey, and it is believed that Jo modelled for at least two of them: L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World) (1866), which resembles nothing so much as a gynecological shot from Penthouse in oils, and Le Sommeil (Sleep) (1866), which depicts two naked women asleep on a bed.

Despite the end of their relationship, Whistler gave Jo power of attorney to act as his agent, and for some years she sold his artwork on a commission basis. She also helped raise Whistler’s illegitimate son, born to a housemaid in 1870. Her liaison with Courbet did not last.

Little is known of Jo after 1880. It is thought that, at about the age of thirty-eight, she married an Englishman named Abbott, and they lived on the continent. The last time she is mentioned in historical records is in 1903, when art collector Charles Lang Freer met her at Whistler’s funeral. Freer described the encounter to fellow art collector Louisine Havemeyer:

As she raised her veil and I saw. . .the thick wavy hair, although it was streaked with gray, I knew at once it was Johanna. . .She stood a long time beside the coffin—nearly an hour I should think. . .I could not help but be touched by the feeling she showed toward her old friend.

Nothing more is known of Jo—how long she survived Whistler, or how old she was at her death, where she died, or where she is buried.

Call me a softie, but Jo Hiffernan’s story seems to me to have much in common with Patty Boyd’s—the beautiful young woman who inspired George Harrison and Eric Clapton to write two of the most brilliant love songs in the popular canon: “Something” and “Layla.”

Something in the way she moved inspired Whistler and Courbet, for certain.

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Dull day in the knobs, leaden sky and intermittent rain, high wind that makes the pines sing the saddest songs in their repertoire. Even the peepers sound mournful. Down at the neighbors’ the crocuses are fading and the Bradford pears loom like ghosts.

The other day, though, while Willard and I were out in town, we passed a yard that has forsythia down one side and across the back, in full riotous bloom. That cheerful yellow reminded me of this painting by Mark Shasha (b. 1961); I found it last year while looking for an illustration for a blog about Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, and it’s become a favorite.

This yellow won’t stay for long; we have ahead of us those cold snaps knobites and hillbillies call “dogwood winter” and “the Easter squall”, during which temps plummet and we can and have had snow; the forsythia won’t survive the chill. For now, though, it brightens this day with no sun.

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