From the New York Times bestselling author of Prayers the Devil Answers and The Ballad of Tom Dooley, a “fascinating historical fiction novel you won’t be able to put down” (Bustle) based on one of the strangest murder trials in American history—the case of the Greenbrier Ghost.
Lakin, West Virginia, 1930: Following a suicide attempt and consigned to a segregated insane asylum, attorney James P.D. Gardner finds himself under the care of Dr. James Boozer. Testing a new talking cure for insanity, Boozer encourages his elderly patient to share his experiences as the first black attorney to practice law in 19th-century West Virginia. His memorable case: defending a white man on trial for the murder of his young bride—a case that the prosecution based on the testimony of a ghost.
Greenbrier, West Virginia, 1897: Beautiful, willful Zona Heaster has always lived in the mountains. Despite her mother’s misgivings, Zona marries the handsome Erasmus Trout Shue, Greenbrier’s newest resident and blacksmith. Her mother learns of her daughter’s death weeks later. A month after the funeral, Zona’s mother makes a chilling claim to the county prosecutor: her daughter was murdered, and she was told this by none other than Zona’s ghost...
With her unique and “real knack for crafting full-bodied characters and using folklore to construct compelling plots” (Booklist), Sharyn McCrumb effortlessly demonstrates her place among the finest Southern writers at work today.
THE PLACE WAS AS QUIET as it ever got in the hours around midnight, with only occasional screams or sobs from the cells down the corridor to disturb his contemplation. Somewhere, perhaps on another floor of the building, someone was singing.
He was standing at the window, as he always did at that time of night, hands resting on the bars, his face pressed against the wire-reinforced glass, as if the cool night air could waft him away. Perhaps no one cared if he stood at the window after lights-out; there were a hundred patients and perhaps a dozen staff members who were busy enough without having to worry about a quiet man having a sleepless night. Anyhow, even if they did care, chances were that they wouldn’t see him. His dark face would not glow in the moonlight and give him away.
He strained his eyes, searching the darkness beyond the treetops, hoping that the clouds would part enough to let him see the shapes of the dark cliffs across the river. That was Ohio, over there. In his parents’ day, back when this place was still part of Virginia, that side of the river would have meant freedom, but that had changed now. Now freedom—or the lack of it—was the same everywhere for ordinary people. And for madmen and criminals, there was no freedom at all. Since he had spent most of his life subscribing to, and even enforcing, that rule, it seemed churlish to object to it now, just because its strictures now applied to him. Those who are a danger to themselves or others must be restrained.
He could never see the river itself—it was nearly a mile away, beyond the fields on the other side of the road. Except in the dead of winter, the trees blocked the view, and then the steep embankment obscured the water. At least he knew it was there, though: the broad, dark waters of the Ohio rolling on to the Mississippi and on to its freedom in the Gulf. He would like to have seen that confluence, followed it even, all the way to journey’s end. The puny little rivers where he came from, in the eastern part of West Virginia, weren’t a patch on this one; why, except in the spring floods, you could wade across most of them. What was the point of being here—so close—and not getting to see the river? What was the point of being here anyhow? It wasn’t as if they could help him. If he had been delusional, perhaps they could have led him back to reason, but he always thought that his problem was seeing the world too clearly.
From somewhere down the hall a long scream pierced the stillness. One of the old men was either hallucinating horrors or remembering real parts of his past, perhaps as far back as slavery—it was hard to tell which was worse, because those who imagined them believed with equal fervor. At least he was spared all of that. He spent a long time at night with his face pressed close to the window, and when he finally fell into bed, he did not dream.
He wished he could either become entirely sane or else very much more mad. A delusion that transported you right away from unpleasant realities would be more blessing than affliction, it seemed to him. Let him drift away on a current of madness into a dreamworld where he was young again, where his gentle Eliza or her successor, clever Alice, was still alive and well—or, better yet, some kingdom out of a fairy story, in which the world was entirely different from anything he’d ever known. Let there be talking horses, and penny candy stick trees, and golden rivers of bourbon. He sighed. None of those fantasies particularly appealed to him any more than the real world did just now. He had spent his life in the profession of law—not a discipline that encouraged its practitioners to be fanciful. He had always considered an excess of dignity and a dearth of imagination to be positive qualities in his character, but unless madness conferred its own artistic inspiration, his temperament made him ill-equipped to enjoy the benefits of delusion, and his lifelong habit of reserve would have held him back anyway. He was forever an observer, and one day he had decided that he had seen enough and wanted to leave. Yet here he was.
His own particular form of insanity was to see the world exactly as it was, and to despair in silence.
As he grew older, the truth, unvarnished by hope or illusion, made him desperate to escape life itself. But suicide was considered madness, rather than a shrewd appraisal of one’s options, and so here he was in this barred asylum, as desolate and bereft of choices as Shakespeare’s Ophelia, but prevented, both literally and metaphorically, from reaching the river.
Odd that, while he could never see the river, there were other things that he did see sometimes in the night. A thing with glowing red eyes and leathery wings . . . Other patients had spoken of it, too, but while they had wild imaginations, unmoored from logic, he did not. Precisely because he saw things exactly as they were, he knew that whatever-it-was was real.
Best not to speak of that, though. He couldn’t be bothered to try to convince the long-suffering staff of the asylum that this one particular delusion was not one at all. It didn’t matter really. The thing was doing no harm, except perhaps to make people who reported it seem madder than they actually were.
It hadn’t taken him long to figure out that these people could not help him, even if they wanted to, and that the best course would be to learn the rules of the game that would set him free as quickly as possible. He had been learning the rules and playing the game all his life, so this was just one more battle of wits, not much different from the others. There were no white people here, but the game was pretty much the same: those in charge versus those who had no power at all.
“You’re up late tonight, James.”
He stiffened, nettled by the condescending tone, the use of his Christian name. He turned toward the doorway, where a shadow was silhouetted by the light in the corridor. “With all due respect, sir, despite my present circumstances, I am not your inferior, and from the sound of your voice, I do not think myself junior to you in age, either. I am certainly not a child. Please address me as Mr. Gardner.”
There was a brief silence, while the shadow seemed to consider the matter. “Need we be so formal? After all, you are a patient here. And I am an attending physician.”
“If we were on my home ground—in a courtroom—instead of in a hospital, would you willingly allow me to call you by your given name while you addressed me as ‘Mister’?”
“Perhaps not. We doctors like to stand on ceremony.”
“Have we met? Your voice is unfamiliar to me.”
“In passing. I have not treated you, but my room is just down the hall here, and I thought since we were neighbors I’d pay a call on you. I couldn’t sleep, either.”
The prisoner considered it. “So you are our hall monitor. I remember you. You may come in if you like.”
“Thank you. Another time, perhaps. I didn’t bring the keys.”
“How odd that they house you doctors here among your patients. No one quarters lawyers next door to the criminals in the jail.”
The visitor chuckled. “I suppose not, but there weren’t many alternatives in this case. Point Pleasant is six miles down the road, and its population is mostly white, so it was deemed both inconvenient and awkward for us to try to live there. We’re understaffed here, too, so it’s helpful to have us in residence in case we’re needed beyond our regular working hours. I don’t mind. It saves me rent money.”
“Your voice makes me think you’re mighty young, Doctor, and that last remark of yours clinched it. What’s your name again?”
There was a slight pause before the reply. “My name is Boozer. Dr. Boozer, that is.”
He laughed. “Boozer? That name must have been a cross to bear at times.”
“I got used to it. By the time I was ten, I’d heard every schoolyard jest that can be made about it, but after people become acquainted with me they stop noticing. And my parents tried to temper its effects by giving me an ordinary first name—James. Like yours.”
“Boozer.” Gardner considered it. “No doubt people think the name means you are descended from drunkards. I don’t suppose it does, though.”
“Well, not in our case. I can’t speak for the original owners. I’m sure our surname was a leftover from the white folks back where my parents came from, because its origin is Scottish, and we most definitely are not. I looked it up one time in the library when I was in Pennsylvania. It’s a variation of Bousay, but God only knows what that means.”
“You must spend a lot of time explaining that.”
“It’s best to get it out of the way quickly, I’ve found. Anyhow, the staff says that you are an educated fellow yourself, Mr. Gardner, and your conversation certainly bears that out. When you called the courtroom your home ground, did you mean that you were a lawyer?”
“I am a lawyer, young man. I still am one. And when I get shed of this place, I shall resume my practice immediately back in Mercer County, so don’t go thinking of me as a permanent fixture around here.”
“I wish you well, Ja— Mr. Gardner. And we’ll do our best to send you on your way. God knows we need the space. They called lights-out a long while back, yet here you are, gazing out the window. Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“I savor the silence in the dead of night. If I had to exist only in the cacophony of daytime here, I would indeed go mad.”
“I know. It helps to think of them as injured. They don’t have any visible wounds to prove that, but I’m certain they suffer just as much.”
“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?” The mockery in Gardner’s voice was unmistakable.
“We do what we can. Some people are easier to reach than others. I’d like to help you, if you’d ever like to talk about things.”
“Perhaps one day, young man. But you haven’t lived long enough yet to have had much experience of the world. I warn you that the things I say, which to you will seem the sheerest lunacy, will be the plain unvarnished truth.”
“Are you standing at that window watching for the red-eyed demon some of the patients claim is out there?”
Gardner laughed. “Perhaps I am, Doctor. And perhaps I cannot tell a hawk from a handsaw. But I’ll tell you one thing I did not ever see—the ghost of Zona Heaster Shue.”
“Who is that?”
“A white lady—just a country girl who died a long time back. I never met her, but she lost a case for me in court. She testified for the prosecution.”
Sharyn McCrumb is the New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Ballad novels. She has received numerous honors for her work, including the Mary Frances Hobson Prize for Southern Literature, the AWA Book of the Year, and Notable Books in both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. She was also named a Virginia Woman of History for Achievement in Literature. She lives and writes in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, fewer than one hundred miles from where her family settled in 1790.
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