Miss Capers Gives Edgar Allen Poe a Gothic Run for His Money

V0025881 The witch of Endor with a candle. Engraving by J. Kay, 1805,

The witch of Endor with a candle. Engraving by J. Kay, 1805, Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

 

Of all the many eccentric characters who haunted the streets of my hometown in childhood, including the mentally challenged man known as Pepsi Cola and another more infamous deviant who trafficked in underwear and firecrackers, I believe that the old crone known as Miss Capers deserves the title of the strangest Summervillian of all.[1]

In the early Sixties, my maternal grandparents stayed in a subdivided Victorian house on West 3rd Street, the upstairs having been split into two apartments, the bottom story uninhabited and warehousing a portion of some wealthy family’s estate: furniture, rugs, an extensive library with hundreds of books.[2] In the side yard there was a well.  You could remove the cinder block and then the plywood and peer into the abyss.  I think I remember looking down at my reflection in water, but I may have gotten that idea from a Seamus Heaney poem. Behind the house was an open grassy field and a patch of woods featuring bamboo that we called “Ghost Forest.”

sepia house copy

Although not an adventurous child, I somehow gained entrance into those off-limit rooms downstairs, the furniture sheeted, the air stale. I’d sneak below and explore. After repeated visitations and investigating some of the books I could reach on the lower shelves, I started secretly “borrowing” individual volumes of the Complete Works of Edgar Alan Poe.

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This is from the actual set I’m talking about

pit-pendulum-bmp-2Each slender volume, bound in red, featured sheer paper sheathing occasional engravings of ravens, subterranean crypts, or rats gnawing on ropes of the dudgeon-bound protagonist of “The Pit and the Pendulum.”  Into the forbidden first-story space I’d sneak, terrified I’d get caught, carefully replacing last week’s purloined octavo, flipping through other volumes, choosing another based solely on the luridness of the illustrations.

I was only eight or nine, so most of the prose lay beyond my reckoning, but I could manage lots of the poetry and some of the stories (“The Tell Tale Heart,” for example). Unable to distinguish bathos from profundity, I became completely enamored of the singsong silliness of “The Raven,” devoting several stanzas to memory. “Annabelle Lee” could bring tears to my eyes. Something sinister lay beneath those works, so the whole enterprise smacked of trafficking in pornography – though pornography would not have been in my early Sixties vocabulary.

I’d smuggle the forbidden text and read it surreptitiously in bed because I knew my parents/ grandparents wouldn’t approve of my trespassing and borrowing without asking. I liked the musty smell of the books, the way the pages whispered when I turned them, the way the illustrations lay perversely beneath diaphanous paper. Despite the buxom space sirens who cavorted on the covers of pulpy paperbacks, Sixties sci-fi couldn’t compete with the deep purple sublimations of diseased consciousness that I found in Poe.

The thing is, though, if it were the gothic that I was craving, I needed only to traipse across the hall and knock on mysterious Miss Capers’ door because she lived in the other apartment in the upstairs of my grandparents’ house. Truth is, I would not have knocked on her door for five dollars, a fortune in those days, because my brother David and I were convinced that she was a witch, and as far as diseased consciousnesses go, Miss Capers could give Bertha Mason, Mr. Rochester’s insane wife in Jane Eyre, a run for her money.  She was truly terrifying.

She certainly looked witchlike with her sharp nose and perpetual frown. It seemed that she only possessed two outfits, the one she wore most often a brown, probably woolen, monkish garment, the hood coming to a point pulled up over her stark white hair, even on blistering summer afternoons.  Her other outfit consisted of an old-fashioned white blouse and long blue skirt. Her shoes were strange Victorian contraptions, boots, I guess you’d call them, that had several buttons on the side.  She looked like she’d stepped out of the pages of a 19th Century Gothic novel.

shoes

She rarely left the house, but occasionally you’d spy her walking down the street, hunched over a cane in one hand and a bag in the other. Perpetually belligerent, she’d shake her cane at you if you passed her on the sidewalk. I seem to remember that she was terrified of thunder and lightning. One time my parents took David, my high-school aged aunt Virginia, and me into Miss Capers’ room during a storm, I think to try to comfort her, and she told me the safest thing to do during a thunderstorm was to place your face six inches from a window and to stare out at the rain. It’s the only conversation I ever had with her.

Eventually, a smell starting emanating from Miss Capers’ room, which we thought might be accumulated garbage, but when the smell metastasized into a stench, my father knocked, then pounded on the door, eventually forcing it open. I wasn’t there at the time, but what he found was Miss Capers sitting with her leg wrapped in newspapers, gangrenous, terrible to behold, literally rotting.

Of course, my parents called for an ambulance, and from what I understand, the leg was amputated, and she survived, but was taken away somewhere to live out the rest of her days and nights under some sort of supervision.

Miss Capers would have made an excellent ghost, moaning in that room whenever a thunderstorm passed, but the house has been redone, been spiffed up with all its gothic traces effaced, an incongruous setting for a specter. They should have kept that library, though. It was really something. Perhaps if I ever become a ghost, I’ll haunt it, aggrieved that the books shelves have been replaced with prissy wainscoting.


[1] According to legend, the second man would trade firecrackers to naive newcomers to town for a pair of their underwear and a photograph of them. He would say, “I’ll give you 50 pack of firecracker for your drawers.” If successful in the transaction, he would tie the underwear (always tightie whities) behind his bike, place the photograph of the victim in the underwear, and pedal his bicycle all over town. There was a local band fronted by the late Jerry Stimpson who adapted Yardbirds hit “For Your Love” into “For Your Drawers.”

Also, I realize that “crone” has fallen into disfavor because of its sexist connotations, but I use it here anyway because, well, she fit precisely the definition, especially the bad-tempered part.

[2] It’s still there, across the street from Bethany Methodist Church.

The Silent Screams of Preacher Simmons

preacher simmons illustration

There was a man in Summerville named Preacher Simmons. I don’t think Preacher was an ecclesiastic title, but merely what his mama had named him.

Unfortunately, cancer had claimed Preacher’s larynx, and after his tracheotomy, he communicated by holding a vibrating wand to his throat that produced a strange humming robotic voice. He and my granddaddy, Kistler Blanton, had been pals for a half-century, once boyhood fishing buddies, now surreptitious drinking buddies, both cursed with Baptist wives raised by Puritanical mothers way back in the days not long after Reconstruction.

Preacher called my house one time when I was twelve or so, asking for my granddaddy, and not putting two and two together, I thought I was getting bamboozled with a prank call. Not to be outwitted, I said in a theatrically polite voice, “I’m sorry, sir, but there are no extra-terrestrials by that name living here.”

Without waiting for an answer, I hung up.

In less than a minute, the phone rang again, so I picked it up and heard again the robotic vibrato in my ear, “Preacher Simmons, this is Preacher Simmons on the line. I need to talk to Kistler.”

Of course, I felt terrible.  “So sorry, Mr. Simmons,” I said, halfway apologizing and halfway not, segueing from my sorry-ness about my rudeness to my sorry-ness that Kistler was not at my house. I told him I had no idea where he might be, though I couldn’t imagine he wasn’t in his room, where he spent virtually all of his time.[1] No, he hummed, he’d tried that. My grandmother had given him our number.

 

Alas, this next anecdote featuring Preacher Simmons may strike you as cruel, but if I were telling it to you in the flesh, I guarantee you that you’d laugh out loud. When I was an English teacher, I used to tell it to my classes to illustrate the cruelty of comedy, to suggest that laughter itself could be strange and creepy, a sort of nervous reaction brought on by either discomfort or perverse incongruity.[2] When telling the story, I’d act the part of Preacher, placing an invisible wand to my throat, mimicking his robotic voice, making a Lowcountry baritone sound mechanical.  It never failed: at the denouement, every year, every single student would be laughing out loud, some ashamed of themselves but unable to stifle the reaction.

In fact, the story would make a great silent one-reeler, with Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd starring as Preacher. It would have to be filmed outside in a yard with an unpaved driveway that snaked some fifty yards between pine trees to a clapboard house without a garage.

Anyway, Preacher’s wife, whose name I’ve forgotten, had purchased some piece of furniture that had been stashed in the back of their station wagon and impeded her view from the rearview mirror. She had parked the vehicle way up the driveway and honked the horn, summoning Preacher from the house. The idea was that he’d turn the station wagon around and back the vehicle to the front porch so they could save some steps unloading the furniture. When she got him on the porch, Preacher’s red-rimmed eyes and the telltale olfactory emanations of Old Grandad signaled to Mrs. Simmons that she ought to be the one driving, that Preacher ought to be the one to help her negotiate the twists, turns, and trees of the driveway.

So she pulled up a ways, turned the car around, and started backing up. Standing behind the wagon, with auditory wand to throat, he guided her, waving with his free arm, back peddling as the vehicle moved slowly in reverse.

“COME ON BACK,” his electrified voice hummed. “TURN IT MORE. KEEP TURNING.”

He backed into a tree, so he decided to cut around the back of the wagon to the other side, but tripping on a root, he went sprawling, arms splayed, the wand falling from his hand and rolling out of his reach.

Of course, when he screamed for her to stop, there were no sounds, just a mouth franticly mouthing, “STOP! FOR CHRISTSAKES, STOP!”

Mrs. Simmons felt the vehicle run over something, a root or limb she thought, so she shifted gears, put in forward, and ran over Preacher one more time.

She got out, walked to the back of the wagon to find her husband, thrashing on his stomach in the dirt, screaming in pain, mime-like, his head lifted with his mouth opening and closing again and again in thunderous silence.

She leaned over and handed him his wand, so he could scream out loud, so she could ask him how bad off he was, but the contraption no longer worked.

The good news is that he wasn’t bad off at all. The station wagon had rolled over his legs, not inflicting all that much damage. According to Mama, Preacher and Kistler had consumed so much alcohol over the course of their long lives, they had become “pickled,” a metabolic process that made them impervious to injury.

I guess you could say Kiki and Preacher lived semi-charmed lives.

lloyd


[1] You can read a more detailed description of his existence here.

[2] I have a theory about the psychological creepiness of laughter, which you can read here.