A couple of years ago, a neighbor called me over to the fence. He’d seen workmen start excavation in our back yard, where we were restoring a set of failed retaining walls and adding a patio.
“You’re new here,” he noted. “So you might not know the rules.” Rules? Yes, rules. “It’s like this: When you start digging back there, you’re gonna find things…mostly little things. Buttons and buckles, old glass. Bullets, probably. You keep that. That’s for you.” He looked around to make sure no one else was in easy earshot, and added, “But if you find human remains, you put that shit back where you found it – and you don’t say a goddamn word.”
Wait. Let me back up.
Four years ago, my husband and I bought a Victorian house in a historic district at the foot of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.
During the Civil War, this land saw plenty of fighting as the armies went back and forth, arguing over the mountain. After the war, it was subdivided into lots and sold off to fugitives from a yellow fever epidemic in downtown Chattanooga, a few miles away. (They escaped it with, shall we say, limited success.) In 1885 the neighborhood incorporated into its own town, and in 1920 it was annexed by the city.
A lot of people have lived here and died here, is what I’m saying. I’m also saying that if these blocks aren’t haunted, there’s probably no such thing as ghosts. But that’s another post, for another time.
At any rate, I knew my neighbor was trying to get a rise of out of me – but I’m harder to worry than that. I went ahead and asked him if Surprise! human remains turned up with any regularity. He pointed back up the hill. “It happens often enough. And you see that road up there? Just beyond that, the property belongs to the National Park Service. You do not want them thinking you’ve got dead soldiers hanging out on your lot. They might come dig ’em up.”
Can they do that, I asked? He said yes. I had my doubts, but I didn’t argue.
I won’t leave you hanging. We did not find any human remains when we dug up the old retaining walls. Of course, if we did…I probably wouldn’t mention it here. So you’ll have to take my word for it, even though I’m telling you that you maybe shouldn’t.
Our neighborhood is a hoot, in no uncertain terms. I picked up a few books about it, and made friends with a few neighbors, and chatted up a few of the old-timers who love dogs. (Greyson is the main reason I ever got to know anybody around here.) Along the way, I picked up a few stories.
Like, stories even Faulkner would call Weird South.
One of these bits of oddball lore stuck in my head, so I did a little research. I found documentation re: some of the details here and there (but not all of them), and a couple of the original players are still in the area (but not all of them, either). So here’s my disclaimer before I fill you in: This is partly how I heard it happened, and partly how I bet it happened. I only guarantee that maybe 20-30% of the following is completely true.
But some of it is.
Got it? Okay.
Sometime in the 1980s, a dude bought a run-down house that needed a whole lot of work. This house was set back on the mountain, so he went to the city and asked for a permit to put in a driveway – in order to bring heavy equipment up to the property, so he could restore it.
The city said “nope.”
There was a cemetery in the way.
Dude was confused and upset. He knew of no such cemetery! It didn’t exist! The city insisted otherwise, and showed him paperwork saying there was a private cemetery on the land. It had been open since at least the 1950s.
He ran back to the house, grabbed a weed-whacker, and sure enough – soon turned up a good number of tombstones beside and behind the house…all of them fallen over, half-buried, and completely overgrown. And much older than the 1950s. So he called up the house’s previous owner (or rather, the representative) and threw a fit about this revelation. The explanation he got was a real corker: Contrary to all appearances, what he’d found was not, in fact, a cemetery.
The house in question had been built by a fellow who’d owned a large monument company back in the late 1800s/early 1900s. This company had specialized in statuary, plaques, and…tombstones. One Halloween in the 1920s, apparently this guy grabbed a bunch of unclaimed stones from the family business, set them up along the house, and threw a big party. But tombstones are heavy, right? He never got around to putting them back.
The whole neighborhood knew about it for a long time. Everyone laughed about it. Nobody cared. Nobody thought it was a real cemetery. But decades passed, the stones fell over, and newer residents had no idea they’d ever been there in the first place.*
Relieved but still kind of confused, the new owner went to the city and explained the situation. But he couldn’t prove there were no bodies present without digging up the “graves,” which he wasn’t allowed to do, because it was a legally open cemetery…and round and round and round he went.
Eventually, he got the family’s representative to go downtown and legally close the cemetery (which wasn’t a cemetery), making it legal for him to collect and discard the tombstones and/or get the permits to put in a driveway. So that’s what he did.
And then, on the second day of work, he turned up the first set of human remains.
I KNOW, RIGHT? So many questions!
Writer brain went into overdrive!
Before long, this idea collided with another one during a marathon of Salvage Dawgs on the DIY Network.
One of the salvage guys said something – I don’t remember what – about a cool old building they were breaking down, and I had the thought, “I bet they have some good ghost stories.” I mean, renovation/remodeling work supposedly stirs up the spirits, right? Surely a good demo/tear-down would do likewise…?
Mind you, I know just enough about old houses to be dangerous – and most of what I know comes from the restoration side, not the salvage side. But I did some due diligence homework, held my breath, and got started on a draft of a southern gothic haunted house story about a small family salvage company taking a week to break down a big ol’ estate on the side of Lookout Mountain…and poltergeists ensue.
When I was about 2/3 of the way through this draft, I may have hypothetically been drinking and watching Salvage Dawgs again. (My husband was out of town. I was bored. I love old stuff. Don’t judge.) At the end of the episode, there was a little blurb about checking out their website and sending them email and I was like AW SHIT, MAN. I CAN TOTALLY DO THAT.
So upon my phone, I looked up their website and sent what – in retrospect – was probably a wildly rambling message that was equal parts earnest and tipsy, asking if I could pester somebody there with a few VERY SPECIFIC questions about the salvage business for a book I was working on and I PROMISED that I would not ask anything stupid like, “How do I start my own salvage company?”
Then I hit “send.”
Lo and behold, I logged on the next morning to find an email from the general manager of Black Dog Salvage. Not only did he not make fun of me or point and laugh, but he offered his phone number and told me to give him a call. I waited until lunch, when I had perfected my ten-second pitch, and I dialed him up – then talked his ear off for about an hour.
So Grant Holmes, if you’re reading this – thank you again for being so indulgent, patient, and an all-around class act. Also, please forgive me for not sticking precisely to the letter of (some of) your feedback. For the sake of narrative convenience, sometimes spooky contrivance must prevail. Rest assured, dear readers, if you find any improbable factual errors in The Family Plot, they are not Grant’s fault. They’re all mine.
Perhaps this is a good time to mention that The Family Plot comes out next month – on September 20th! (You might actually be able to find it early at DragonCon, but don’t quote me on that just yet. It’s not in the bag.)
HOWEVER. You can enter this Goodreads raffle to win a copy, and you can click over to Tor.com where you can read an excerpt. Yes, we’re ramping up to the big release. It’s all The Family Plot, all the time. I do hope you’ll pardon me, but this is my job and here’s my hustle.
If you’d like to preorder The Family Plot, then I would like to help:
- At Amazon.com – Hardback & Kindle
- At Barnes&Noble.com – Hardback & Nook
- Find The Family Plot at an Indie bookseller near you
Thanks so much for reading, everyone – and stay tuned! There will be more pet pictures soon, I promise. And also some more hustle, but like I said. A girl’s gotta eat.
* It would seem that a non-local census worker in the 1950s had made note of the cemetery and entered it into the public record, not knowing of its party-time origins.