We spent a long weekend in Alachua County, Florida, in an area known as Haile Plantation.
Thomas Evans Haile was a South Carolina cotton grower who established a plantation near Gainesville in the 1850s. I’m not up to speed on what became of Haile following the Civil War, after the Emancipation Proclamation freed his 66 slaves. My guess is he suffered a reversal of fortune.
Haile and his wife died in the 1890s. The plantation was left to the 14th of their 15 children, a defense lawyer in Gainesville. The great house was used for parties until the 1930s, when it was boarded up and left to rot. Eventually a movie producer saved the place and helped turn it into an historic site. The Haile landholdings are now an extended, growing housing development, with a golf course and country club.
Thomas Evans Haile’s presumed fate is a metaphor for what happened to the Deep South after the Civil War (or as the conflict is known in the region, the War Between the States).
There’s something peculiar about the South. Where I’m from, most people focus on the present, some the future. If the general orientation in the South is not directed toward the past, then that is at least true to a greater extent than it is north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Maybe some of this slightly altered reality derives from the South’s literary tradition. Faulkner, Capote, McCarthy, Williams, O’Conner – chroniclers of the ruined and doomed, splendor lost, silk gone to rot, family dynasties undone.
The echoes in the South whisper of the aristocratic and chivalrous, yet its heroes are deeply flawed – as heroes often are. The powerful and mighty fallen on hard times, the plantation great houses crumbling; 18th century downtowns mostly untouched due to a lack of capital; pride, prejudice, violence. Romance and ruin, religion and whisky, tradition and rebellion. Feuds and duels. Unspeakable desire. Loss, yearning, madness, lust and revenge under the pitiless sun or the cold moon, blood soaking red clay.
Even nature conspires to create a mood of elegant decadence. The oak trees are draped with Spanish moss. In the bayous, alligators doze with their heads barely out of the water, watching you with dead reptilian eyes. Snakes crawl out of the tall grass toward where your feet move along the path, see you, and flee — and it does not disappoint you in the least to see them go. You are reminded that nature is, as the poet said, red in tooth and claw.
It is a haunted land. Haile’s plantation house has its ghosts. The presence of the dead is never far away. You feel them when you are walking down a deserted country lane beneath a canopy of gnarled trees draped in moss like crepe at a funeral. In these silent places where carriages once traveled back and forth to balls or to town to visit the bank or the cotton exchange or slave markets, the dead are with you. The past intrudes into the present. You can almost hear the murmur of great families humbled but unbroken. Chalk writing on the alley wall is a voodoo letter written in another time for delivery to you, today. You hurry past, not stopping to try to make out its meaning.
I half-jokingly made some social media posts during the trip saying I was “vampire-spotting in the Deep South.” But in a way I truly was. I was looking for the undead among the living, and I was in the right place. The South is a part of the country where the tales of the idyllic past, the age before the Fall, hide concealed secrets, and the fierce southern sun is not quite bright enough to dispel the last shadows.
The South is, in a word, Gothic.
(My new book, Telluride Blood, I Vampire, is here: http://amzn.to/1NE15tk)