How Reading at Summer Camp Led Dale Wiley to Write ‘Southern Gothic’

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514KWMDA68L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_I trace the moment I really became a reader to Fountain Campground near Washington, Georgia. We went there every year, on our annual trips to Georgia to see my mom’s family, and although I read voraciously all the way through school, I have to say I thought it was uncool … until I saw all those pretty girls at camp reading. My mind changed in an instant.

Camp meetings in the South are almost as old as America, places where people go to church services and find ways to disconnect from the modern world. For me, a tall and skinny teen nowhere near growing into my body, younger than many of the other kids who stayed on the campground, I came to be “cool.” And amazing as it was, “cool” with my group of friends and cousins was reading.

Out there, away from town, in the woods, reading in dark cabins late at night, cicadas singing in our ears, straining to read by orange bug light, we gravitated to scary titles, ones that would draw us in and send us worrying about the sounds in the darkness when a stick cracked or a critter hurried by. Those nights after we came back from Truth or Dare, when we were sure someone was hiding in the darkness after our scary stories, when we finished the nights under the covers with yet another terrifying tale from the pen of a real storyteller. The dream that place cast. The place it still has in my soul, many years and many miles away, willing yourself to read one more chapter before sleep.

We took our cues from my cousin Jennifer. She was a couple years older than me, and  was going away to college. She never reached five feet, but we would have gone into any battle for her. She was pretty and charming and oh-so-southern and could charm  anyone into anything in the world. We would listen to her ghost stories and college tales, and we wanted to join in the fun. None of this was something she asked for, it was just her way. And every summer, it was magical.

Camp meeting lasted a week in August every year, and then it was back to Missouri for me, which did not have meetings filled with bevies of young southern girls, no stay-up nights, and no built-in reading counselors. There were no evenings filled with ghost stories, nothing light as a feather, nor stiff as a board. It was like a hot, humid Christmas just before school started, at least in my opinion.

I got to go home and talk about what I was “reading” and sound very cosmopolitan. I found some of my favorite creepy books there. I still consider the early ’70s smash Harvest Home, read on the campground one of the early years, to be one of the best scary books I’ve ever read. I learned of Steven King’s short stories, took a pass through The Damnation Game and learned about the power of the urban legends that proved just how many friends of friends had awful things happen to them.

I still go to the campground, and have first read many of my favorite books in hammocks and lounge chairs in that sacred spot, eventually writing a book about the place, There Is A Fountain, filled with histories and recipes and remembrances for a place approaching its 200th birthday in just a few years. But with kids and jobs, it’s hard to recreate the magic of those summers when we had time and imagination.

It was those memories that led me to Southern Gothic (Vesuvian Books, January 24, 2017): a book I created about the tales I loved, with my cousin Jennifer basically masquerading as the heroine, Meredith Harper. My cousin Terrie is there too, and our friend Lisa, all a part of those primal memories centered around a place that nurtured our sense of suspense and love of story.

I thought about the books-within-books I loved, notably Possession by A.S. Byatt, and Envy by Sandra Brown, and worked to tell a tale long in my story-memory that needed to work its way onto the page. I hoped to bring those elements together and create a world where Civil War ghosts are reimagined as walking among us.

Soon, it will be there to read, alongside my idols, available to take to beaches and campgrounds and lose yourself in the same manner I did in years past, to see as part of this ever-growing fabric of our reading life. I’ve tried to take some of my favorite southern memories — including a memorable scene at Fountain itself — and work them into a tale that fits right alongside my favorites. And I hope you feel that way too …



wiley headshot

DALE WILEY is a Missouri attorney, who has had a character named after him on CSI, owned a record label, been interviewed by Bob Edwards on NPR’s Morning Edition and made motorcycles for Merle Haggard and John Paul DeJoria. He has three awesome kids and spends his days working as a lawyer fighting the big banks. Wiley is currently developing two original scripted projects for TV: the gritty drama, The East Side with Andréa Vasilo; and the sitcom, Confessions of a Bunny Smuggler, with Fayr Barkley.

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