by John S. McFarland
As a kid in St. Francois County who already loved history, learning about Ste. Genevieve, Mo. was the treat in the Cracker Jack box. Even in my earliest years of elementary school in a small mining town that no longer exists, I was fascinated by the past. I loved historical movies, not yet suspecting how grotesquely inaccurate they mostly were, and reading stories set in historical times. I was a bit frustrated by how brief the history of the United States was, at least from a Hollywood-inspired Euro-centric perspective. We had no castles, no dolmens or Roman ruins, no walled towns and no sunny islands populated by sirens and Greek monsters. But then I discovered we had Ste. Genevieve.
I heard of it long before I visited it. It was sort of a legendary “old town” on the nearby Mississippi, a remnant of the French-controlled great river, the enormous diocese of Quebec from the 18th century. On my mom’s side of the family, there were old stories of an ancestor who was “raised by Indians” but my grandmother and her sister knew no more about the story than that. But my grandmother did know that I loved history, and feeling some vague connection to Ste. Genevieve, apparently, she and my grandfather took me there.
I was amazed, at age ten or so, that there was something so reminiscent, I imagined, of old Europe so close to my home town. A French town with 200+-year-old buildings where French was spoken, primarily, until sometime in the 19th century. There was also, when I imagined it, a sense of old world decadence out of place, out of time. It was a little slice of the French Quarter in southeastern Missouri.
Eventually I found out more about that mysterious ancestor. It turns out the old story was essentially true. He was a child of English settlers in Pennsylvania, age three or so, taken, along with his infant brother when his parents were killed in an Indian raid in the early 1750’s. The infant brother died of a fever soon after, but my ancestor, my great grandfather five times removed, survived with the band of raiders as they moved west to the Mississippi Valley. The group was on Kaskaskia Island on a day when the parish priest at Fort de Chartres nearby, Father Callet, was ministering to his second flock there.
Callet knew the boy was white, though he had little left of his English language by then. The priest bought him from the raiders for five barrels of whiskey and renamed him Hypollite Robert. Hypollite went on to become one of the patriarchs of old Ste. Genevieve and to father twelve children. Over time the name Hypollite was corrupted to Politte, which was my grandmother’s maiden name, she being a descendant of Hypolitte’s son Charles.
In my late teens I discovered the work of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. I was struck by how the fictional inhabitants of Yoknapatawpha County and northern Georgia in these writers’ work were people I had essentially grown up with and known all my life. As Jane Austen had found the whole world in a few counties and a smattering of families, so too had these American writers, working in a fictional field called “regionalism.”
My love of horror was at least as foundational to my development as was my love of history. In my mid-twenties I discovered H. P. Lovecraft. Here was a different kind of regionalism: an infernal one scattered with rotting gambrel roofs and cosmic terrors. One evening a light switched on in my head. I hit on the idea of creating a fictional Ste. Genevieve, an accursed, forgotten village with a dark history and tentative future.
I wanted to re-name the town. I wanted an unusual French name and oddly, I wanted the name to begin with the letter ‘O’. On many visits to the old graveyard in Ste. Genevieve, I kept coming upon the name Odile. That was perfect. Ste. Odile it was. I drew a detailed map of the town, keeping some landmarks that existed in the real location, and changing most others. Then I started thinking of a story, a dark narrative to cast a pall over my newly invented region.
I wanted all the classic elements of 19th century horror which I had enjoyed in my youth. I needed an ancient evil, a crumbling mansion, a forgotten village populated by a closed, unwelcoming citizenry. The result, after years of research and writing, was my novel The Black Garden.
The book was well-received. All reviews were good from the UK to India and beyond. The novel gave rise to a sequel, The Mother of Centuries, which resolved the life narrative of one of the essential characters of the first book. It also inspired my story collection The Dark Walk Forward, soon to be republished in German. At this moment I am at work on a second collection of Ste. Odile stories, Baby Monster which will appear later this year.
There may be one or two of my readers who wonder when I will move on and leave old Ste. Odile behind. It has happened intermittently. I am producing some tales now that have nothing to do with the crumbling village. Still, ideas keep popping into my head that include foreboding mansions, well-kept secrets and a cursed, forgotten old town.
JOHN MCFARLAND’S first novel, The Black Garden, was published in 2010, and the story continues with the recent Mother of Centuries. His work has appeared in The Twilight Zone Magazine, Eldritch Tales, National Lampoon, River Styx, Tornado Alley and the anthology A Treasury of American Horror Stories, which also included stories by Stephen King, Richard Matheson and H.P. Lovecraft. He has written extensively on historical and arts-related subjects and has been a guest lecturer in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis. He is a lifelong Bigfoot enthusiast, and Annette: A Big Hairy Mom is his first novel for young readers. Find John’s work on the Literary Underworld!