Partly how I heard it happened, and partly how I bet it happened: The Family Plot

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.

Right. So.

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 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:

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.

::knocks off the spider webs:: ::taps microphone:: Is this thing on?

Well, I’m back. It’s been a crazypants month over here, and blogging got lost in the shuffle – but that’s just how it goes. Quite a lot has happened, though! I had some lovely overnight guests who were headed west from the Carolinas; enjoyed a visit from an old friend (who prefers to remain nameless); finished up my part in a group project (also a secret for now); I wrapped up a major rewrite on The Agony House; watched all of Stranger Things and loved it; voted in the TN primaries; fell in love with the lady Ghostbusters; licensed some official murdery jewelry; bought some hilarious and relevant merch; kind of died at the season finale of 12 Monkeys; spent a week fighting a medical billing error that got sent to collections; did so much yardwork you would not freaking believe; kicked around with a hell of a guy who was passing through; gave an owl a new hairdo; got a new fence; got a replacement gate for the new fence; and probably a bunch more stuff that I’m totally forgetting.

It’s been a long month.

And now…I’m back to working on my rewrites for the next Wild Cards project (due at the end of this month), and then I will probably get back to work on The Toll (due November 1), and meanwhile I will continue to work on production for The Agony House. And do DragonCon. All while trying to promote a new book.


You guys, The Family Plot come out NEXT MONTH. And because LIFE IS GOOD it has garnered a STARRED and BOXED Publishers Weekly review! ::Kermit flails::


    When Dahlia Dutton’s father sends her and a small crew to salvage a house near Lookout Mountain, Tenn., she finds that what you don’t know can hurt you in Priest’s spectacular modern haunted-house story. Dahlia is no stranger to ghosts, whether she’s being emotionally haunted by a failed marriage or by the metaphorical spirits that linger in old buildings. The concept of home salvage disturbing ghosts is brilliant, and while common elements of haunted house stories are certainly present (a mysterious owner with family secrets, locked rooms, unnatural storms, etc.), Priest (Boneshaker) handles them with tremendous skill, putting the pieces together to keep the reader guessing and more than a little scared. The characters are given a compelling reason to stay (the family business will fail if this job falls through) and their interpersonal dynamics humanize them, making them more than just cannon fodder as the hauntings increase in severity. Priest has written an excellent modern house story from start to finish.

The early Goodreads reviews are smashing, too – though there are a few complaints with the ARC’s flap copy. It’s drawn from an early proposal, and though it kind of contains spoilers, most of those spoilers are wrong. (For the draft evolved and deviated from the original pitch.) So…yeah. Just ignore that! Think of the PW review instead! I’ve been describing it as “the DIY Network meets Ted Raimi,” so if that works better for you, feel free to come at it from that angle.

SPEAKING OF GOODREADS. If you are the sort of person to participate on that fine site, you can ENTER TO WIN A FREE COPY BY CLICKING THIS-HERE LINK! So get clicking! Throw your name in the hat!

* * *

In other news, as (briefly) mentioned above – our fence finally got finished. It took about twice as long as we hoped, and when it was finished, the gate crapped out on us within about a week. It was just too heavy; the entrance to the yard is fully five feet wide, and the hinges were stretching and bowing (even though the fence guy added an extra set). So we had to order a custom black aluminum number. It took a couple of weeks, but now it’s installed and looking great.

The whole fence line looks marvelous, if I do say so myself – for I added half a dozen rose bushes and a coral bark Japanese maple. In the rain. Because it’s too damn hot here to do any work in the yard when the sun is either up, or out.

On the left: That used to be a privet hedge covering a twisted chain link fence. (Some of those roses were present already; I cut them back before the fence work.) The privet was about 9 feet high and six feet wide. It was awful. On the right: That’s what it looks like now, from the back door. SO MUCH BETTER.

* * *

All pets are doing well. So well, in fact, that the other day we achieved a milestone – deliberate, voluntary cuddling on the part of the cats.

I, for one, was stunned. And delighted. But mostly stunned. The “ladies” get along pretty well – they hang out a lot, and take turns on the bed, and even play a game of whappity-paws every once in awhile. But this is the first straight-up snuggle that we’ve seen.

* * *

Greyson gets his share of Quinnie cuddles, too. It’s adorable, but not so surprising. She likes to follow him around and use his feet for a pillow.

Greyson also had a number of playdates with his best friend Luna. Their playdates all end the same way: two happy, tired dogs…covered in each other’s drool.

* * *

And on that note, I believe I’ll wrap up this post and call it a night. Thanks so much for reading, everybody – and I will try to be a little better about my updates, from here on out. Pinky swears!

With all you thought you knew, coming undone

I swear I am not dead. I’ve just been busy, as I believe I warned in the last post or two. Several big deadlines have jammed up against each other, due to the vagaries of publishing schedules, unexpected changes, and my own tendency to overcommit myself against my better judgment. I am – in no uncertain terms – eyeballs deep. This will change, but not for another few weeks at soonest.

At present, I’m trying to pull together a rewrite for my Wild Cards story (it needs a new direction), attempting to wrap up the also somewhat extensive Brimstone rewrites (due at the end of this month), figure out when and how I’m going to manage my contribution to an altogether different mosaic project, and then move on to the first round of Agony House rewrites (due end of July). Following that, I need to finish a draft of The Toll by November.

I thought about compiling a list of all the fiddly things I’ve otherwise successfully juggled in the last few weeks, but decided against it. Lists are boring, and making one won’t make me feel any more accomplished or less overwhelmed.

The only way out, is through.

* * *

Compounding my difficulties with excessive obligation … I’m getting a new fence. This new fence will begin to happen early next week (probably) and it’s going to be a really crazypants undertaking. Let me explain: Our back yard is enclosed by a 4-foot chain link fence, parts of which are at least 30 years old. These parts have two tress growing through them, in addition to decades of English Ivy, Persian Ivy, birdfoot ivy, morning glory vines, and a massive hedge of dying privets that’s about 7 feet tall and maybe thirty or forty feet long.

All of this. Growing THROUGH the fence.

One of the trees is going to have to come down; the other we can save, and we plan to. (The losing tree is a hackberry – basically a garbage tree that’s menacing our neighbors and we need to do something about it anyway. Two birds/one stone/etc.)

The fence contractor is a guy who’s done work in our neighborhood before, and he knows about the tricky terrain/difficulties; bless him, he’s taking out the hackberry and extracting/removing/carrying away all the chain link + attending privets – that part was written into the quote – but there are some things we need to take care of before he arrives. For example, we have a row of roses and a massive red quince that need to be drastically cut back to make room for the work. I have to take care of that stuff, and I have to do that some time this week.

In my copious free time.

The fence will take about a week, between the excavation/tree removal/other crap on this jacked-up lot … but when it’s done, we’ll have the proper wood six-foot semi-privacy fence that we’ve been hoping to make happen for the last few years. It’s just going to be a hell of a week.

* * *

You locals might’ve seen me on TV a couple of weeks ago, when I did the ABC affiliate’s show “This ‘N That” as part of Barnes & Noble’s B-Fest for young readers. It was a good time. I had a good hair day. Later, I did a signing with Meredith Russo, and that was good, too.

Big ups to Kelly, the gent in two of those photos with me. He’s the B&N media guy who kicked ass all day; and big ups to the girl who showed up in the Princess X tee shirt and a pair of red Chucks that she wanted me to sign. It made my afternoon!

* * *

Heads up – the awesome folks at Badali Jewelry are working up some killer bling based on my Lizzie Borden books (Maplecroft and Chapelwood). I got the prototypes in the mail the other day, and I am merrily wearing them all over the place.

I’ll let you know when they’re available for sale.

* * *

The household menagerie remains excessively fluffy and adorable, as predicted. Greyson and KittenZilla are still BFFs, the ElderCat is still fussy but tolerant, and everybody is hanging near the AC vents because it’s been pretty hot here, lately.

And that’s a nice note to end on, isn’t it?
Let’s do that, then – because I’ve run out of steam.

Thanks for reading, everyone.