I wasn’t an unhappy kid, but I did go through a gothic period. I didn’t poke holes in my face and dress in black and wear mascara like I used to see some kids when I went to Boston or New York. They didn’t allow that at my school, and I think I’d have gotten sent away somewhere if I had wanted to. My aunt used to sometimes mention a distant cousin, “your wayward second cousin,” she called her, never by name, who had gotten herself in a lot of trouble and who had been “sent out west.” Sometimes it sounded like she was maybe nuts and they had put her on a bus or something, sometimes it sounded like she had gotten pregnant and had been sent somewhere to have the baby and had never come back. Sometimes I thought she was just made up, a sort of monster to keep us in line. I guess it worked.
So my gothic periodwasn’t a fashion thing, it was more a mood. I remember reading H.P. Lovecraft when I was in, oh, sixth grade maybe, before I went away to school. It made the woods near our house seem darker, even in summertime, but especially in the fall when the leaves were falling and were thick everywhere and it was cold and dark early. I had a friend and sometimes we would go into the woods and pretend we were in one of the stories, act them out. We scared ourselves half to death. I don’t know what that is that makes you scared to death but you want to go back. Sort of like when people want to go watch zombie movies or chainsaw movies. I hate those kind of movies but some people like to go, and then they spend half the time looking down at their laps and going “Ewwww.” I hate that, but I guess going out in the woods and pretending to be a follower of Cthulhu and then freaking out isn’t much different.
When I was away in school I started reading Faulkner and some of those other southern writers. It wasn’t as obviously scary, but I liked the darkness in the people in that small town in his stories, Jefferson. You think ‘Jefferson’ and you think it’s going to be like a landmark, like one of the founding fathers. At first I pictured a well-kept colonial town, stately brick buildings. But you read it and it’s really dark. People aren’t going insane after reading crazy obscure books, like in Lovecraft, but like when you read about people going out to Sutpen’s house in Absalom, Absalom! it’s kind of creepy and forbidding. At my school there were some woods out behind it that went for miles and I used to wander around back there, just go off alone or with some friends, to avoid the guys on the rugby team or the lacrosse team who were always out prowling around looking for people to beat on. I had a couple friends and we’d go out and sit in the woods, sometimes with some stolen beers or alcohol if someone could get it. And we’d just sit under the trees and tell stories and smoke cigarettes and just spin out southern gothic fantasies. One guy was into vampire books. We’d just sit and tell each other these stories, let them get wild.
By the time I got to college in Chicago I was kind of over that goth period, and I had kind of moved on from reading Lovecraft or Faulkner or any of those guys. But I still associated that hidden darkness with small towns. When I got this job up here, one of the reasons I didn’t just freak out and say, “Grand Forks, North Dakota? No way!” was I thought it would be cool to live in a small town for awhile. I thought I might even try to write some of those old stories like we used to make up. But, I don’t know, either it’s because I’m not in that gothic mood, or the small town has to be in the woods, but this place has none of that weirdness. People here are pretty plain, well, like they are all over the midwest. There’s nothing hidden. And of course there’s no woods, unless you could the rows of trees at the edge of fields. I think they call them windbreaks. Even all these little towns I have to cover. I go out from time to time, try to meet the leaders, like the police chief or the town administrator, if they have one, whoever owns what important business in the town. And there’s just none of that feeling you get that anything is hidden. People are just reserved but nice, talk with kind of a funny accent and they talk too much about the weather. But that’s pretty much it. Good thing Lovecraft or Faulkner weren’t born in North Dakota because they probably wouldn’t have written anything. Maybe a tractor manual or some advertising, but that’s about it.