Saturday, February 25, 2012

Past Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Continuing on a sporadically unintentional King-centric itinerary started last year, I arrived last Monday in Savannah, Georgia, hot on the heels of Stephen King's appearance the day before wrapping up the fifth annual Savannah Book Festival. Last April I spent some time in Estes Park, Colorado, at The Stanley Hotel, the place that inspired King to write The Shining. Last September in Fairfax, Virginia, I exchanged a few comments with King about The Stanley and The Shining. Just a few days ago our travels intersected again in Savannah, a stunningly beautiful town. It's often called "A City Built On Its Dead," and is allegedly so thoroughly haunted that King joked he should move there.

Of course, it's not any of King's books that revived Savannah's well-deserved touristic allure in the 1990's. That honor belongs to John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, the "non-fiction novel" (known to locals simply as "The Book") that lived in The New York Times bestseller list for 216 consecutive weeks following its publication in 1994. Three years later Clint Eastwood produced and directed a movie bearing the same title, starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack. Between them, the book and movie electrified Savannah's tourism coffers with a jolt that continues to this day.

As an author, it's astounding to wander through Savannah and see that there's virtually nowhere to go without directly or indirectly encountering Berendt's book. I've been fortunate enough to have seen a lot of the world, but excepting Vatican City I can't think of any place where a single book's presence is so abundantly pervasive as Berendt's is in Savannah. There's even a store on Calhoun Square called "The Book" Gift Shop, owned and operated by a lovely dark-haired belle named Deborah, that sells nothing but Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and wares connected to or derived from it. The shop has thrived ever since it opened in 1996, and unsurprisingly, is reputed to share its quarters with a ghost.

Berendt says he happened upon Savannah one day in 1982 when he took a spontaneous road trip south from Charleston, South Carolina. Enchanted by the city's Southern Gothic charms, nefarious history, and quirky personalities, he returned three years later to research and write his book. Initially, he planned to spend only a few weeks at a time in Savannah while working on the book, but after a short while he found the city such a great place to write that he moved there in earnest in 1985 and remained for years until the book was done.

Having just spent the best part of a week in Savannah, I have to agree with Berendt -- Savannah struck me hard as a fantastic place to write. In addition to the qualities that drew Berendt there, since his book's release enrollment at the Savannah College of Art and Design has skyrocketed from 500 to well over 10,000 students, reflecting the city's deep appreciation and unwavering support for all of the creative arts. One of the very few things I noticed in Savannah that were nearly as ubiquitous as Berendt's book, were the omnipresent influences on daily life throughout the city of SCAD and its students and graduates.

(And the chandeliers. I've never seen so many chandeliers. Antique or modern. In public buildings and private homes and businesses. In foyers and living rooms and dining rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms. On verandas and porches. In real estate offices and galleries and classrooms and restaurants. Lit by electricity or gas or candle. Indoors and out. Everywhere. It seems there's something about a chandelier nearly irresistible to Savannahians.)

So take a writer's walk with me through Savannah's historic district. Let's see what you might encounter.

Deciding a little reluctantly to forgo the Psychotronic Film Society's Don Knotts revival at the Sentient Bean after watching an angry hippie slap an unyielding car with a plastic "Stop for Pedestrians" sign, I ventured between the monuments and fountains and SCAD girls playing rugby in Forsyth Park, past the dreadlocked man in the wheelchair wearing a cartoon Batman mask and weaving cool rhythms on a set of African bongos, to stand in the room where Jim Williams shot and killed Danny Hansford with a German Luger at the Mercer House, thus triggering Berendt to write The Book. After wandering further south and grabbing a bite at the Moon River Brewing Company, a bar so infested with spirits that it drew the rapt attention of the Ghost Adventures Crew, I climbed into a hearse for a drive-by tour of some of Savannah's most haunted places. Along the way I traded greetings with a very large man reading tarot cards outside a Starbucks on the corner of Bull and Broughton Streets. I discovered he's the cousin of the notorious Dr. Buzzard, the dead shaman whose magic Jim Williams desperately called upon to secure an acquittal in each of the last two of his four murder trials; it wasn't till the fourth trial that the magic seemingly worked. While on the tour, my guide "Lunatic Laura" taught me how the phrases "dead ringer," "saved by the bell," and "graveyard shift" originated. After disembarking the hearse, I strolled beside the Savannah River on River Street, serenaded by live blues played by a man on his battered acoustic guitar to the accompaniment of his buddy working some steel drums, before visiting the rooftop bar of the Grand Bohemian Hotel to watch immense freighters lumber up and down the river with their lights and marine horns blaring. Meandering north on cobblestone streets and brick walkways under gaslit arches of huge, ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, I found myself beckoned to explore the Sorrel-Weed House, from whose roof the opening scene of Tom Hanks' movie Forrest Gump was filmed. The current owner of this grand old house is too scared of it to live in it. He tried paying various people to live in and care for the house, but in each case only a few nights passed before they fled, too afraid to return to pick up their belongings. While I was there, I heard something utterly eerie, a sound I couldn't identify as coming from this mortal realm. I have it recorded, and a hundred listenings later I still can't make other than "paranormal" sense of it. The sound made me recall immediately the advice a sweet African-American woman named Angel had given me hours earlier when I told her I was going to take Laura's tour -- "You don't want to be doing that. You want to be like me. I'm only riding in a hearse once." Exhausted, I climbed into a taxi driven by a woman named Big Mike, who told me as we drove past dozens of gently lit antique stores and art galleries that the key to understanding her city is to know that Savannahians consider the curtains between past and present extremely thin and rarely closed, especially every night between three and four a.m. "Between those times, that's when it's really midnight here," she said. "That's the real witching hour in Savannah."

All of that's only an hors d'oeuvre. I was there less than a week, and I'd have had to try very hard not to find fascinating people, places and things in Savannah that my muse wouldn't adore. I ambled through that town with plots, characters and dialogues ceaselessly spinning in my head all the time.

Maybe I'll room with King.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
~~William Faulkner~~

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