James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Notes on MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS: Swinging for the Literary Fences

UPDATE: I recently heard back from a beta-reader about this manuscript. When I asked if this piece resonated with him, here’s what he had to say:

Your characters, as in your other works, portray varying experiences we all go through in the maturation process. Some pass the test. Others don’t. Thinking back on them, the characters continually prod me to ponder the big picture. What’s it all about? The characters exhibit many of our society’s all too common dysfunctional symptoms, complete with the ripple effect, which stem from lack of living in the moment and seeing that we are all trying to get to the same place. Ah, living in the moment. Easier said than done? 

Since the book begins with an epigraph from a Neil Young song— “It’s easy to get buried in the past.” — my friend’s remarks seem right on the money for what I’m trying to say in this novel.

Original Notes On… post below.

Here’s another in a series of posts designed to highlight my four completed, polished, but so far unpublished novel manuscripts, in this case the ominous and Southern gothic-sounding MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS.

MOHG. Yeah, the big one—literally. The novel that, in its 2005 original incarnation, stood proud and erect at a massive 260,000 words, including one additional ‘The’ in front of the title. I took solace in the knowledge that Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel originally weighed in at 330,000. A door, a leaf, a stone… more like a doorstop. Where was Max Perkins when I needed him?

Only two problems with the Perkins reasoning: one, I wasn’t then, and am not now, writing on the level of Thomas Wolfe, and 260,000 words is simply much too long, especially for the small-scale story at the heart of this book:

In MOHG we follow a griefstricken, end-stage alcoholic, Devin, his unfulfilled, betrayed younger sister, Creedence, and an old college friend, Billy, who we’ll find seems to be at the root of the Rucker siblings’ problems: What no one knows is that Billy, guilty of past betrayals to both Devin and Creedence, also happens to be a serial rapist and murderer, a fact that Billy himself doesn’t seem to realize—he only knows that ‘accidents’ sometimes occur with women. It’d almost happened with Devin’s old college girlfriend Libby. And it could happen again, but this time with Creedence, whose greatest fantasy would be to indulge in a charged affair with him.

If we could indulge the theft of a tagline, how about from P. T. Anderson’s film Magnolia:

You might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with you.

At the time the plot as described was not fully ‘there’ yet, though certain elements, like Devin’s ruinous, darkly comic alcoholism and the death of Libby in a car accident, have remained consistent. The original manuscript text, I’d later come to understand, was like a block of raw material that would need refinement—I’d need to think like a sculptor teasing out the true shape of this art only as pieces of the block fall away, are kicked aside if not pulverized into dust, until the final shape and curve and line of the narrative emerges.

I knew I was kidding myself about the worth of this ‘finished’ draft, but I’d finally gotten through a coherent, completed novel, so I started to shop it to agents, which only told me what I already knew: the book in this form wasn’t sellable. Wasn’t truly finished.

Of that original first draft, it was at a writer’s conference that one kindhearted agent said, hands clasped in front of her pained and pitying face, “Have you ever considered cutting it… into two books?”

I hadn’t, I replied, but I knew it needed work. Knew it needed to be shorter.

“A lot shorter,” she said in hastily departing from this amateur’s elevator pitch. “Tons shorter.”

For the moment, however, and with the juice flowing to my creative jets, I set aside this behemoth and moved on to finishing my other great literary statement, Fellow Traveler, which I would complete later that productive year. Only much later in 2006 would I return to MOHG to begin that process of sculpting that original text into a novel not only accomplished and satisfying to me, but also a bit more sellable than at its previously bloated and unnecessary length.

And so this process would go on for several years, alternating between revisions and workshopping of FT, and the composition of other novels and stories like DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW and KUNK. Each time I came back to MOHG, however, I had a bit more skill and craft under my belt, a few more awards and publications, a higher level of self confidence.

And sure enough, draft by draft, inch by inch, word by word, MOHG not only got shorter, but it got better. More intense. More affecting. More baroque in its attempt to depict a number of characters in various stages of unhinged mental breakdown, and, in a manner that I feel not only provokes the occasional gasp, but I hope the occasional barking laugh of disbelief, if not outright horror. Such a reaction has always been my vision for MOHG but only recently have I gotten it into such shape (or so I now believe).

So, flash forward to 2012, and now we have… 160,000 words? And five ‘books’ within the book? The same plot, the same three troubled Gen-X protagonists, the same twenty-year timespan, the same Edgewater County and fictionalized-Columbia setting of pretty much all my novels and many of the stories? Yep.

And that’s where we stand today with MOHG, which is divided into a very traditional and possibly creaky-seeming novelistic structure:

PROLOGUE: SHALLOW END (1985)

BOOK ONE: A MAN IN THE GRIP OF A THEORY (2004)

BOOK TWO: FACING COLLEGE STREET (1989)

BOOK THREE: A BAR CALLED HEAVEN (2004)

BOOK FOUR: ARCADIA (1990)

BOOK FIVE: THE PRETENDERS (2004)

EPILOGUE: LOVE IS ALIVE (2005)

Let’s get into the backstory behind this statement of voice and form that I continue to believe will stand not in fact as a doorstop, but as testament to the ambition and emotional scope of the literary fiction that I first dreamed of writing over thirty years ago, as an impressionable lad reading the likes of, well, everything I could get my hands on, including numerous literary statements of the day like John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and homegrown SC scribe Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline.

Flash forward from my formative years (again? very well, then) to the time of my young adulthood, when I’d been through a number of tragedies and triumphs that would serve as the kindling and outright fuel for what would become my first two completed novels. I tried to write a couple of versions of what would become MOHG, all with a terrible car accident at the center of the narrative, inspired by one in which I’d been involved, and in which I’d gotten my first taste of mortality. I hadn’t lost so much as a grandparent yet, but I had to endure the death of my beloved fiancee, there before my eyes in the hot sun by the side of the road one Sunday morning. If that’s not enough to make you want to write a literary novel steeped in mortality and madness, I don’t know what would be. Having said that, I wouldn’t wish any worse ‘inspiration’ on anyone.

Part of my path to becoming a novelist, I knew, ran through the accident and death of my first love, Allyson, and try as I might to ignore that existential tragedy hanging over my life and instead write about my Grateful Dead experience in what would become Fellow Traveler, ultimately I made the decision to tackle, and finish, MOHG first. To get this accident business out of the way, mainly so we could move on to what I hoped would be more entertaining narratives, as well as more commercial.

What did the accident, and its aftermath, mean, though? People die in traffic accidents every day, people of all ages, including the young only at the beginning of their lives. I struggled to define and assign a broader profundity to such a commonplace occurrence on the highways and byways of the sprawling American roadscape.

So: was the book to be about my grief? A tribute to Allyson? A story designed to highlight the senselessness of drunk driving? About the nature of alcoholism, which I’d already suffered from as a young man, and certainly again after the accident, during a dark time during which I questioned the reasoning behind my survival, along with that of Allyson’s brother and a pet cat named Alvy? This had been an accident that ought to have killed all of us, as it had the other driver, a man who’d managed to get on the wrong side of the interstate, and in broad daylight, no less. Having a blood alcohol level of .32 will do that to a person’s mind and body, though, won’t it? Mercy.

So from these charming circumstances, I went through any number of iterations of narratives, all revolving around the drunken tragedian, Devin, a Gen X New Southerner who’s more homogeneously American than Southern, and then the other key characters who began whispering and speaking to me: a sister and a best friend, both of whom also loved the departed ‘Libby,’ and whose links to each other held what would turn into more fictional tragedies than I’d experienced. Like I said, the accident wasn’t enough. It happens every day. Nobody wants to read about a drunk who ran into some people, and the other drunk, sober enough at the time, who emerged from the steaming and shattered wreck. Who ought to have learned something more from the experience than he did for so long.

What about a drunk who seems griefstricken over a cat?

Ah. Once the real-life Alvy died fifteen wonderful and loving years later, in 2002 this fresh and acute grief stoked a fair amount of steam through my creative valves, and I realized that the circumstances regarding Devin’s affection, and later grief, for his pet would be the window through which we’d sneak into this narrative, like voyeurs taking the next and dangerous step of actually entering the place we’ve only been watching.

Or at least that’s how it felt to me once I finally got going on the piece, and especially after the central allegory began to emerge, mainly around the character of the best friend, and his more outlandish and ultimately horrifying storyline, fictional horrors to match the real ones I’d decided, at great personal and emotional peril, to explore so deeply. Such allegory is not for me to define here, however, or ever, really. I leave any and all such academic interpretations to future readers.

Years, and xx number of drafts later, here’s the logline, which like the original draft is too long by the current stands of these industry-centric distillations, followed by the ‘detailed pitch’ of MOHG. (The support document also includes an extended synopsis of about five pages.)

LOGLINE

Devin Rucker, tortured, irascible end-stage alcoholic, is forced by circumstances to confront his past: his harridan of a mother has fallen sick, and his dysfunctional, nettlesome, domestically-abused sister Creedence begs him to come home to Edgewater County, South Carolina, the last place he’d want to be. That’s too close to the past, and to so-called best friend Billy, who once tried to steal Devin’s girl Libby, herself long dead; Billy, too, seems to both love and hate Devin, each of them holding the other responsible for Libby’s untimely death.

DETAILED PITCH

Wisecracking, death-obsessed alcoholic Devin Rucker—in his ruinous tippling and ultimate, hard-fought unconsciousness, he’s in hiding from the nightmares—is coerced from his self-imposed banishment among the foothills of the Rocky Mountains by his sister Creedence into returning home and confronting the past: memories of Libby, a beloved girlfriend killed in a drunk-driving accident; a dying mother Devin inexplicably loathes; and most problematic of all, his disloyal best friend Billy Steeple, who in college not only date-raped Libby, but in his own ongoing nightmare still pines for her almost to the point of madness. Billy, having long ago crossed the cusp of insanity anyway: Billy also happens to be a serial murderer, in this case a brokenhearted one, who might be the most dangerous killer of all.

The key subplot involves Creedence, an unfulfilled, abused rural housewife who provides a strong, sympathetic female protagonist that all readers can get behind, especially as her cathartic, suspenseful story line brings her closer to the danger represented by the cheerfully sociopathic cocksman Billy, an oblivious and darkly comic narcissist for the ages whose ‘accidents’ leave women damaged, if not dead.

As for Devin, his troubled character becomes increasingly sympathetic as we learn the history behind that which haunts him — between a maternal childhood betrayal, Libby’s terrifying date-rape and eventual death, and the loss of his beloved cat Prudy, the truth behind Devin’s past is a heartbreaking journey toward the truth he must confront about himself. By the time he achieves reconciliation with his dying mother, Creedence finds true love, and Billy’s reign of terror is stopped once and for all, MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS ought to feel to readers like they’ve enjoyed a vivid, memorably emotional roller coaster ride.

Despite the grim-sounding setup — and there is horror aplenty within its narrative — MANSION is intended as a seriocomic hybrid, a newfangled Southern Gothic: the tone seeks a delicate balance between an absurdist serial killer satire and an operatic, Freudian family drama. All three major players are given their POV due, with escalating conflicts, complications, conundrums, with redemption in store for some, but not all, of these damaged, struggling characters, three people striving for closure, for resolution, or maybe only a decent, normal lay, and another living human being to care, truly care, about who they are and how they feel.

CONFLICT & STAKES

Devin is challenged on multiple narrative levels: his contemporaneous alcoholism, while often played for poignant laughs, is also a source of much bodily degradation and driving peril; numerous troubled past and present family relationships loom as terribly dysfunctional and realistic; and a hefty dose of survivor guilt over the car accident that killed his girlfriend, a tragedy that’s magnified in relation to his memories of what occurred with his disloyal best friend. In a bit of Hitchcockian manipulation, Billy, as a secret murderer, raises the stakes higher than the characters, but not the audience, realize.

And with that we’ll end by noting that we’ve now probably said quite enough about MOHG. How, in what form, and from whom MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS becomes available to the reading public I cannot say, nor yet fully imagine, but for now I rest easy, enjoying the sense and satisfaction that, with this first and perhaps still most ambitious literary novel, I not only aimed high, but eventually hit the mark with what I’ve been told by beta-readers is a stylistically distinctive, emotive, resonant journey.

So, keep your literary eyes and ears peeled for the eventual publication of this novel, which until the eventual completion and polish of DIXIANA will remain as my most accomplished attempt to compose and complete a work of modern literary fiction.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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