They say write what you know, which for a guy who has written stories about vampires and psychics, has always seemed like a tall order. But in my years of writing, I’ve discovered that this adage is less about bringing the workaday you into your fiction than it is about making it a vessel for your worldview, your aspirations, and occasionally your nightmares. I didn’t realize it at the time but I began the experiences that lead to A House on Jefferson Street nearly twenty years ago. My own emotional horror story became both a catharsis and a steel trap to run my protagonist, Monica, through in a heightened version of one of the darkest year of my life.
At the root of both Monica and my story is the location. I graduated from college in 1998 and quickly dove into looking for a full-time teaching position. I grew up in the Tidewater area but couldn’t land a job in any of the nearby school systems. As the summer progressed, the radius of my job search expanded. Then in August I was offered a job by the Brunswick County school system teaching ninth grade math (strangely my certification was only up to eighth grade, which should have been my first clue that they were desperate to find warm bodies to fill classrooms). Brunswick County and its seat, the town of Lawrenceville, were about two hours away from home, but it was late in the summer and it seemed as if I didn’t land a teaching job now I’d be stuck working part-time jobs until the next school year, so I took it.
Naturally I assumed that, working in Brunswick county, I’d be living there, too, however during one trip I realized this wasn’t going to be a case. Unless you were buying a house, or were living in low-income housing, there weren’t any options. Being a recent college graduate who had a thirty-thousand a year contract but hadn’t actually earned a paycheck yet, it turned out I was too poor for the former, too rich for the latter. So I looked east. Twenty miles down the road was Greenville County and the city of Emporia.
The main thing that the reader should know is that while much of what happens in A House on Jefferson Street is heightened and exaggerated, it’s built on a very real foundation. The house in the story does exist. I lived there, and for nearly a year paid $300 per month rent for three bedrooms, an incredible deal which would probably be my only stroke of luck in this entire scenario. And while the overarching events that happen to Monica are designed to be the stuff of a creepy and atmospheric thriller, they’re either inspired by or connected to real things that happened to me during that year. The in-classroom fight that kicks off the story actually happened. And like Monica in the story, I had a fellow teacher inform me that a few of the kids on my roster weren’t going to show up because they’d been locked up over the summer.
But while it is true that most of the grief from that tumultuous year came from my work in Brunswick, somehow it was the experience of living in Emporia that still sticks with me the most.
Being a kid raised in the suburbs, everything I knew about “small towns” I knew from either movies or television or peoples’ wistful assertions that life is just somehow better in a small town. People there are friendlier. Everyone knows everyone, the pace is sedate, and you don’t have to lock your doors.
None of this turned out to be true, except that rural life can be pretty sedate. Of course, so are the final moments before a lethal injection.
Emporia turned out to be a bundle of contradictions. If you went a few blocks down the street from my house there was a small, locally owned grocery store. Go about two miles in a different direction there was a strip mall with a Roses and a Farmer Jack. Emporia remains the only place where I have, and probably will ever, have actually eaten a burger and fries at the lunch counter of a pharmacy, however if you venture out to the main drags of the city that are meant to service travelers rom 58 or I-95 you’ll find the usual suspects of food mart gas stations, fast food franchises, and restaurants designed to at least simulate a good sit-down dinner while still getting you out the door fast. The city had a Christmas parade, but it also had gangs and drugs and poverty. In fact everywhere seemed to be a simmering pool of tension. Racial, regional, inter-familial. If I had assimilated more into the towns and the cultures the story I wrote might have been more of a straight-up mystery about a murder and the societal rot that brought it to fruition, but being a person who has never made, nor kept, friends easily, I spent most of my time held up in an emotional fortress keep. Like Monica in the story, I had no support system to return to at the end of the day. The house on Jefferson Street was a refuge, but on the long weekends and during the long nights it was also a prison, like Lloyd Henreid in The Stand, trapped even though the world outside was essentially dead.
If all of that was the fuel for the story, the spark came one particular night. I woke up to hear what seemed to be a sound coming from the downstairs. I’ve always let my imagination go too far, turning simple sounds or shadows into an indication that something malevolent is happening. However that night, despite knowing this, the sound seemed both too close and too familiar. The windows in the house all had cheap Venetian blinds and when you closed or opened them the blades made a plastic-on-plastic scratching sound.
This sound was like that, and I had the mental vision of someone breaking in through one of the downstairs windows, pushing through the Venetian blinds as they made their way in.
Needless to say, in real life there was a simple explanation. Next to the house was a 7-Eleven, the only one in Emporia, at least I think at the time. Particularly on weekends the parking lot was a hotbed of drunks caterwauling random profanities. But that night all that was happening was a store clerk emptying trash into the dumpster. Why I misinterpreted this so badly is a mystery to me, but when I needed something to wake Monica up in the middle of the night, that moment came back to me in a flash.
A lot of things in Emporia have changed. Sometime after I left the city got a Wal-Mart and the pharmacy where I ate lunch fell prey to the carnivorous maw of progress. But the house on Jefferson Street is still there. The few times I’ve gone past it while traveling I’ve thought and hoped that the people who live there now are happier than I was then, that they don’t feel as alone and isolated. I hope they don’t find themselves in the same kind of place that I did, years later, tasked with writing a story, and only having hopelessness and darkness to draw inspiration from.
Michael Sean McGowan is a teacher and the author of two novels Pawns and The Shadowlands. He also contributed to the original Virginia is for Mysteries. He lives in Virginia Beach. Visit Michael on Facebook and Twitter.