Monday, September 16, 2013

Hindsight: My Mother and her "Shining"

"People who shine can sometimes see things that are gonna happen, and I think sometimes they can see things that did happen. But they're just like pictures in a book. Did you ever see a picture in a book that scared you, Danny?"
-- Dick Hallorann to Danny Torrence in The Shining.

My mama could shine. Lord have mercy, could she shine.

I know alot of people don't believe in such things. Some of you might be saying right now "That isn't true, Ron. You're just pulling our legs." Well, writing fiction -- especially horror fiction -- does consist of alot of leg-pulling. But I'm not writing horror stories at the moment. I'm expressing truth through memory. And I have plenty of memories of Mama and her shining... or her "gift" as she called it.

More country folks than city folks seem to believe in the gift of precognition. It mostly has to do with believing in things that you can't touch or see... like God or the Devil, like heaven or hell. Rural life is built on equal portions of faith and superstition, and every now and then you come across someone who shines. Sometimes it's even someone in your family... like your own mother. And that makes for a strange and sometimes frightening upbringing.

Mama mostly shined in the forward sense of the term. She could predict disasters that would befall particular people and even their deaths... sometimes day ahead of its happening, sometimes several weeks. I saw this firsthand several times, starting with the age of five. I recall sitting at the kitchen table in our rental house in Nashville one morning, while Mama stood at the stove, cooking breakfast. She had a can of biscuits in her hand and our dog, Chipper, was, as always, precariously underfoot. She dropped the biscuits and it struck Chipper on top of the hand... and at that instant she had a vision of my Uncle John A. being crushed beneath the rolling body of a truck. Of course, I didn't know that she was seeing that at the time... I was only a little boy and she didn't want to burden me with such things that were incomprehensible to my innocent way of thinking. But I remember that startled look on her face and the tears that welled in her eyes. And two weeks later, we were standing in front of my uncle's casket. He had died a couple of days earlier, in a car wreck in which he had been thrown clear of a car and had been crushed beneath the truck that had hit him head-on.

After that, when I was older, Mama confided with me about her ability to "sense" forthcoming incidents. When she was eighteen, she had gotten such a devestating sense of mounting disaster, that she insisted on taking my grandmother to Nashville for the day. When they returned to their hometown of White Bluff, they discovered that one of my uncles had fatally shot another uncle, after a drunken brawl. But her precognitions didn't always foretell death. Sometimes she was actually instrumental in saving lives. One Sunday morning, she frantically urged my father to pick up a lady they usually gave a ride to church... even though it would be going out of the way to pick her up before picking up my grandmother. He complied and the elderly woman was picked up fifteen minutes before usual. They back-tracked to get my grandmother and, upon passing the first woman's house, found it totally engulfed in flames. If my mother had waited to pick her up in the normal manner, she would have undoubtively perished.

When I was thirteen years old, I remember Mama standing at our backyard fence as our neighbor, Mr. Green, handed her a watermelon from his garden.  When she entered the house, I knew something was wrong. She set the melon in the sink and then, ashen-faced, sat down heavily in a kitchen chair. "What's wrong?" I asked. I knew that look and it frightened me. "Mr. Green is going to die," she said. "The minute he handed me that watermelon, I saw him in his Sunday suit, lying in a casket." And a week later, it came to be. He fell dead of a heart attack, in his own garden, between the tomatoes and the okra.

When I read Stephen King's The Shining in 1977 at the age of seventeen, that one revelation about the shining, between Halloran and Danny -- the one at the very beginning of this post -- struck me so strongly that I took the book to my mother and showed her that single passage. She read it, then looked up at me and said "Yes... yes, I know." Since the late 60s, my mother and I had a long-standing tradition of seeing horror movies together when they were first released. The Shining was one of the few movies that she refused to watch with me. I reckon, in alot of ways, it was just too close to home for her.

When I was ready to start working on my first horror novel, I remembered something my mother told me about long ago; something that had happened in our family history during the time of the Great Depression. My mother had been nine-years-old then; only a year earlier she had survived a nearly-fatal bout with Typhoid fever. Her teenage cousin was preparing to leave to work in one of the CCC camps in Eastern Tennessee, when she got an overwhelming premonition of doom and disaster. She ran to her cousin and hugged him tightly. "Don't worry, Earline," he told her. "I'll see you in a year and a day." But that was never to be. Later that night, he and two others were brutally murdered in an old barn no more than three miles away.

That experience, as well as the deadly tragedy behind it, prompted me to write my novel Hindsight in 1987. It was published in January of 1990, two months after Mama died of cancer at the age of 59. She never got to read it; she had insisted on reading it in book-form after it was released, which never came to be. So the publication of Hindsight has always been a bittersweet part of my professional and personal life. On one hand, I was excited about the publication of my first mass market novel, while on the other, the one person who inspired it and it was written for, never had the opportunity to read it. To this day, Hindsight has a special place in my heart for those very reasons.

Lately, a couple of things made me think about Mama and her "gift"; finishing Restless Shadows, the long-awaited sequel to Hindsight, for Thunderstorm Books, and re-reading The Shining, in anticipation of King's sequel, Doctor Sleep. When I read Hallorann's explanation of why the Overlook held such horrible after-images of the terrible things that happened within its rooms over the decades, I couldn't help think about Mama and the things she that "glimpsed", from time to time. Mama will be gone 24 years this November. But, every now and then, I get the strongest sensation of her being nearby. Sometimes behind me, watching, sometimes in the books I read or movies I watch, sometimes in the eyes of my nine-year-old daughter, who is the physical and emotional image of my mother... but thankfully without the psychic baggage that her grandmother carried following that long and feverish sickness she suffered at the exact same age.

So, think what you will when it comes to the reality or fallacy of second sight. I know what I know from experience, so I have nothing to prove, to myself or anyone else. Just remember... when you read Hindsight or Restless Shadows and regard it only as fiction... you are gravely mistaken. Both are based not only on the dark and twisted imaginings of your neighborly Southern-fried horror writer... but the true experiences of a pre-teen girl during one of the hardest and most tragic times in American history, and the strange and disturbing things that she saw.

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