Thursday, May 23, 2013

West Virginia Death Train

When I think of the Appalachian roots I inherit from my mother's side of the family, a few things pop into mind. Train tracks. twisty, windy mountainous roads, a particularly raucous, book of Revelations Jesus, and hard times.

When I say hard times, I don't mean 'having a bad day' hard times, I mean coal miner lore hard times. Trouble with the police. Trouble with alcohol. Disease, bad luck, poverty, suicide. That kind of hard times.

I don't know how accurate this impression is, because I haven't visited Matewan West Virginia much in my life, but these are the images I took away from family stories I overheard as a child. Maybe it says more about me that I fixated on the most morbid stories--Ghost stories, tales of demonic possession, disturbing suicides--but that's how it is. The soundtrack to the family history that exists in my mind could be done by Bonnie Prince Billy or Nick Cave.

My grandmother is not a hopeful woman. She comes from West Virginia, and she has always had something of an air of inevitable doom about her. She is a woman who doesn't expect the other shoe to drop; she knows it will drop. And wait just a minute, that guy might have three feet, and thus three shoes. Maybe four shoes!

One of my favorite past times when I was a kid was to read the book of Revelations and scare the holy hell out of myself. I would draw crosses on the door frames of my room to protect it from demonic infiltrators--I must have mixed my religion heavily with the many monster movies I enjoyed--and would phrase my prayers very carefully to protect all in my family from demonic calamity.

The god of my childhood was a frightful being, and the devil was a consistent enemy I had to be ever vigilant against. As the song I sang in a church Christmas pageant one year stated:

"Satan is my enemy,
daily he gets after me.
Like a hungry lion he
Wants to gobble me up
and swallow me!"

Not only were demons really floating about the place, and Jesus ever present with his big rule book and punitive black sharpie (to mark up my soul when I sinned), there were black folks out there who were up to something. I wasn't sure what, but I knew it wasn't good. Black folks and liberals who hated America and wanted to burn flags. No wonder I found my way into the arms of H.P. Lovecraft; how could I not identify with horror stories that suggested other, terrible worlds, and were infused with a pronounced fear of 'the other'? Lovecraft's work is animated by a deep fear and a feeling of cosmic smallness that is completely familiar to me, and still resonates.

Of course, these are just my impressions. I have many kind, gentle family members that still live in West Virginia. They don't seem to be possessed by the same demons that I perceived to be the natural aura of those who live in those areas, and--as far as I know--are neither particularly racist nor overly fearful. Real or not, this is part of my mind's landscape; and if I am to continue to grow as a human being, I am going to need to learn how to traverse it.

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