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November 28, 1897

     Cemeteries can be disturbing for some people.

     And Emily Laurion was terrified of them.

     At the age of 31 in 1897, Emily was a spinster. She was not married, had no intention of being married, and no illusions as to her attractiveness to a potential mate. Emily was neither pleasing to the eye, nor was she wealthy enough for an ambitious – if vulgar – gentleman to overlook her physical shortcomings.

     Both Emily’s parents had been carried away by fever when she was 22, and she suffered from terrible nightmares that they were still alive in their graves. When forced to pass Old Cross Cemetery, where her parents were buried, she often did so with eyes downcast and quick steps.

     On the afternoon of November 28, 1897, Emily was returning from a trip to town, walking as swiftly as she could past the graves of her parents when she heard a mournful, frightened cry.

     For the first time since her parents’ burial, Emily stopped and peered into the cemetery. The sound continued unabated, and she realized it came from a headstone near her parents. She went running into the cemetery, fell to her knees and began digging furiously at the grave of Jos. Eustace St. John (Died 1772 – Age 8yrs.).

     When others came upon the scene, they found her nearly 3 feet down, and they helped her dig the last two feet, the cries growing louder. When they reached the old hardwood of the coffin, Emily tore the top off and revealed a young boy of 8 years, weeping in his coffin.

     On November 28, 1957, Emily Laurion was buried beside her parents by her son, Joshua E. St. John-Laurion.

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My Father and Writing

     Each of us views the world through our own particular lenses, and these are crafted by our experiences.

     My father is an intelligent and difficult man. He was raised in a hard household, and he made certain not to pass on certain experiences of his own, for which I am exceptionally thankful. While I have written of my father’s experiences as a child, it was done through a filter, and with the goal of keeping some elements of the family’s history private.

     That being said, there were certain expectations placed upon me as a child and as a young man. I am the eldest of his sons, the first born, the one to carry his father’s name. It was my responsibility to not only protect my younger brother, and to shield him from the world as much as possible, but to produce children and carry on the name when it was time.

     My father was raised in a Greek home, and learned the lessons of patriarchy well. Add to this the ferocious demands upon males in American culture in my father’s generation, and you will understand some of the pressure I felt as a young man. In addition to this, there is a history of mental illness in the family.

     Expressing emotions – other than devotion and loyalty to my father and brother – was not only frowned upon, but ridiculed. Acknowledging pain and fear was taboo as well.

     My mental image of my father has always been that of a man of stone. A frightening God at the best and worst of times.

     He has, in no small way, affected my life. It is difficult to move beyond some of those experiences, to write past them, and to be an adult who has emotions and fears.

     Over the years my father has begun to change. To soften. And it is frightening.

     Imagine seeing a great stone edifice slowly crumble, with large chunks breaking off suddenly and for no understandable reason, and you will understand my sense of shock each time my father makes a statement completely out of character.

     Years ago, when I was riding shotgun in a snow-plow, during a particularly brutal nor’easter, the plow I was in passed by an accident. This wasn’t a minor fender bender, or even a car off the road. Someone had lost control of their vehicle, and slammed into a telephone pole, breaking the pole in half.

     People were beginning to stop, trying to get to the vehicle to check on the driver.

     I asked the driver of my truck to pull over, to see if we could help. Even if it was nothing more than parking our large vehicle behind the wreck and directing traffic around it.

     My driver wouldn’t. He shook his head and said other people would help. I was furious, but could do nothing as he turned the truck onto another street and left the scene.

     Later on I learned the driver of the car had been killed.

     When speaking with my father several days later, I told him about what had happened, and how I was angry that the driver of my plow didn’t stop and try to help.

     And my father surprised me.

     “He was afraid,” my father said. “Some men can’t deal with death. You have to cut them some slack, kid. They’re not made like you and me.”

     My father’s compliments are rare. His understanding of the fears of others, and his acceptance of them, was something I had never seen before.

     And like everything else my father has said and done in my presence, it has affected me, and its effect on my writing can still be seen when I craft my characters, and seek some understanding for their actions.

 

 

 

 

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November 27, 1941

     Raymond Bassett was an avid collector of insects and arachnids from around the world. At the age of 16, he had amassed an impressive collection of identified and – according to his parents – dead creatures. His father, who suffered from a severe phobia of anything with more than two legs, refused to enter Raymond’s room, and stated he would ‘burn the bugs out’ should they ever escape.

     The fact that the bugs were already dead did not stop him from repeating this threat constantly.

     On November 26, 1941, Raymond received a package from an African dealer of rare insects. What the bugs were, Raymond didn’t say, nor did anything later examined reveal where exactly the creatures had originated from.

     When Mr. and Mrs. Bassett retired for the evening, Raymond was in his room, examining his new collection. Raymond was at his happiest when he had a creature to devote his attention to.

     At 6:34 AM, November 27, Mrs. Bassett went to wake Raymond up for breakfast, and when he didn’t answer she opened his door. Her scream brought Mr. Bassett rushing out of the bathroom, and when he peered into their son’s room, he fainted.

     When the police arrived on the scene, Mrs. Bassett had succeeded in dragging her husband outside. The skeletal remains of Raymond were found in his room, and unknown beetles were devouring the marrow in his bones.

     Despite an intense fumigation, the house could not be saved.

     A short time later, the structure was soaked in kerosene and set ablaze.

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November 26, 1920

No satisfactory answer was ever given for the madness which struck Norwich Street on the night of November 25, 1920.

Norwich Street, which was home to nine families in small, well-built houses, was one of the newer neighborhoods of Cross. The homes were less than 30 years old, and the residents there were mild and peaceable. Between the nine families, there were 47 men, women, and children of varying ages.

On the night of November 25, a young man walking home to his room on Main Street overheard raucous laughter from each house that he passed.

By 4 AM, on the 26th, when the milk was to be delivered to the De Groots, the first house on Norwich, the bodies were discovered.

All 47 people were hung by the neck in the graceful elm trees that lined the street. Each person was dressed in their Sunday best, and later it was discovered that the length of every rope was cut exactly to 72 inches.

Fearing some sort of contagion, members of the local chapter of the Red Cross were called out with protective gear to help with the removal and disposal of the bodies.

As the police went through the homes, searching for any sort of clue that would explain what had occurred, they found a single letter at the home of Jeremy and Helen Whiting.

The note was written on the couple’s stationery, but those who knew the Whitings did not recognize the penmanship. Each letter and word was beautifully formed, and the contents were brief and to the point.

“I’ve taken them in their Sunday finest, for there is nothing quite so funny as death.”

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Experiences and Characters

I am an angry man.

Please don’t read that as boastful, or prideful. It’s merely a statement of fact. It is, in fact, something I am not particularly proud of. I have let my past experiences interfere with my own personal growth, and that has, more than once, negatively affected my relationship with my wife and children.

I struggle on a regular basis to keep my anger under control and to examine what about a situation makes me angry. My wife’s support, the various therapists I’ve had over the years, and my writing all contribute to the small steps forward I make.

I have read that the first thousand or so pages of writing tends to be autobiographical whether you mean it to be or not. In my case, I think it was a lot more than the first thousand.

That being said, I see my anger and my past when I create my characters. Some of the men reflect the man I want to be: kind and caring, considerate and emotional.

Others reflect the man who I was for so long: furious and full of hate.

Being able to see my own faults, to understand them and to acknowledge the role they’ve played in my life, helps me as a writer. I reveal traits and memories of a character that helps the reader understand why the protagonist – or antagonist – commits a certain act.

I believe that the writing of my own experiences, albeit through a fictional character, lends a degree of believability to the characters. And, more importantly (as my wife has helped me to understand) that by broaching important issues for the character, I can give both readers and characters something substantive to consider.

My characters are not moralistic, dashing heroes.

And that’s because I am not a moralistic dashing hero.

I don’t know many of them out there, and I don’t think I would want to know them if I found them.

Would you?

Keep writing!

Nicholas

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November 25, 1939

     Ms. Delilah Buckshaw was born in Cross in 1909, and she spent her first 10 years in town. Her family moved in 1919, and Delilah did not return to Cross until 1937. She was a stunningly beautiful woman, regardless of the fact that at first, she never smiled.

     There was anger in her, and some said it was because her husband died in Alabama in 1935.

     Whether there was any truth to the reason behind her bitter mien no one knew. Delilah did not speak of it. She did wear black, and she refused to accept the calling cards of any suitors. The only man she spoke with on a regular basis was Duncan Blood, but all could see there was no romantic interest.

     In 1938, Duncan Blood accepted delivery of a large piece of furniture on behalf of Delilah and helped to have it installed properly in her home. After that, Delilah was rarely seen. When she was, people noticed how she smiled. It was not an expression of joy, but one of satisfaction.

     On November 25, 1939, members of the FBI arrived in Cross and raided Delilah’s home in an effort to arrest her on suspicion of multiple acts of murder.

     She eluded them, people learned, by stepping into her hall mirror and vanishing.

     According to rumor, the FBI had become aware that someone matching Delilah’s description was seen strangling men to death in Decatur, Alabama. These men had been accused of lynching Delilah’s husband, although none were prosecuted for the crime.

     While the FBI agents did not leave with Delilah, they did exit Cross with her mirror.

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The Revival, 1932

     The canvas tent looked large enough to swallow half of Cross, and part of Christopher Ryan wished it would. Thursday had been his fourteenth birthday, and there were far better places for him to be than a revival on a bright and beautiful Sunday.

     “Christopher,” his mother said, taking him by the arm and turning him to face her. “Today will bring us closer to God. It will serve as a reminder of His love for us. You need to lose your sour attitude and remember that, young man.”

     “Yes, Ma’am,” Christopher replied, keeping his voice neutral. His mother’s tongue could be harsh as the back of her hand, and he had no interest in receiving the brunt of either one.

     “I shouldn’t have to remind you,” his mother continued, straightening his tie, “how hard your father worked to bring this revival to Cross. Nor how great our struggle has been here. The town has never shown any affection for our ministry, or your father’s efforts to create a Christian community.”

     “I know, Ma’am,” he said.

     “Excellent,” his mother said, smiling at him. “Now, let us go be an example to others and help lead them to the light of the Lord.”

     “Yes, Ma’am,” Christopher said, forcing a smile.

     “That’s my good son,” his mother said, and she smiled and gave his cheek an affectionate pat.

     Together, they left their small home and followed the street up to the farm road that led to the grounds of the revival. They passed parked cars and joined a thin, but steady stream of people. Christopher recognized several from Sunday service, and he offered them his false smile.

     His mother wore a long, dark gray and modest dress, and she moved easily amongst the people. She greeted them and fawned over children as she played the role of the pastor’s wife to perfection. Her small form was in constant motion, her slight build filled with boundless energy. Christopher had never seen her slow down, or even rest.

     His mother, as far as Christopher Ryan knew, never slept.

     When they entered the massive tent, Christopher was reminded of the time his parents had taken him to a circus outside of Boston. It hadn’t been to attend the performance, but to witness for their community. Between handing out pamphlets, Christopher had snuck glances at the various acts.

     Until his father had seen him.

     Christopher shoved the unpleasant memory aside and followed his mother to the first row of fold-out wooden chairs. The passage from entrance to seat took longer than the walk from their home to the tent as his mother saw and greeted more people she knew.

     Finally, they arrived at their seats, and once his mother was situated, Christopher joined her. He managed to suppress a groan at the sight of the empty seat beside him.

     His father would join them later, it seemed.

     Christopher’s attention was drawn to the front of the tent where large, wide steps led up to a long, low stage that had been constructed. Three chairs were arranged behind a podium, and he knew that his father would soon be on the stage.

     Christopher had attended revivals before, both as a participant with his parents and as an assistant for small events his father had organized in the western portion of Massachusetts. The memories of which reminded Christopher of how little enthusiasm there was in Cross for his family’s faith.

     They had overcome such difficulties before, but those had been encountered in towns where Catholicism dominated the spiritual landscape.

     Cross was different.

     Few people attended the Catholic Church, and there was only slightly more attendance at the First Congregationalist Church. There were other churches, but there were even fewer members of the town who patronized them.

     It was as though Cross didn’t care for God.

     Christopher had never experienced a lack of faith in a community, and in his heart, he knew his father’s efforts in Cross would fail.

     His mother leaned closer and said in a soft voice, “It’s nice to see you smiling.”

     “I am excited, Ma’am,” Christopher said. But not for the reason you think.

     “Good,” his mother said, “your father will be pleased.”

     Movement distracted Christopher, and he looked at the raised platform. His father and a trio of men climbed the few steps, each man dressed in a black suit, the creases as severe and stark as the features of the men. While his father approached the podium, the other men sat down. Yet before his father could speak, someone else stepped close to the stage.

     A girl, perhaps the same age as Christopher, came in from the rear of the tent. On her head she wore a black hat, the brim curled up around its entire length. Her light brown hair had been put into a braid that hung down to rest against the white sweater she wore. An equally white border collie stood at her side, the dog’s intelligent eyes peering out at the gathered crowd. The girl’s black skirt ended below the knees, and her white socks had fallen down around her ankles. And while all of her clothes looked fairly new, her shoes, by contrast, did not.

     Christopher had the unsettling image of the girl and the dog walking thousands of miles together, her feet always clad in the worn leather of the shoes, and he tried to shake that idea away. When he was able to focus his thoughts again, he saw his father motion to one of the ushers.

     The man, one of the newer members of the church, walked toward the girl and reached out for her arm. As his hand touched her, the usher screamed. Flames burst into life, raced up his arm and enveloped him. After a moment of stunned hesitation, people leaped from their seats and attempted to put out the flames.

     The girl, in turn, reached out and touched the platform. Like the usher, it too exploded into flames.

     Christopher’s father and the other men tried to flee, but the fire followed them, and the flames overwhelmed each of the men as they tried to leap to safety. Within moments their dying shrieks filled the air.

     His mother rose up and hurried towards the girl, and later in life, Christopher often wondered what she had been thinking. For like the usher, when Christopher’s mother grabbed the girl, fire consumed the woman.

     Sitting numbly in the wooden folding chair, Christopher watched the flames spread. They swept over people and raced up the sides of the tent. The ground burned, and the girl and her dog watched it all.

     Finally, her attention fell on Christopher, who had been unable to force himself out of the seat.

     She smiled at him, her eyes reflecting the bright flames, and she uttered a single word he heard clearly above the chaos around him.

     “Run.”

     And he did, the screams of the dying following him for the rest of his life.

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