Spring has fallen upon us all at once this week: gray clouds have melted into clear skies, bright green leaves have filled up the woods, and the temperatures jumped from the 50s to the 80s. For me, this Memorial Day weekend is the real beginning of summer, when lawnmowers roar to life, lilacs fill the air with sweetness, and the heat of the sun fills your winter-harrowed soul.
After enjoying several creative collaboration projects with other writers for Thanksgiving and late winter, I wanted to do something fun for this summer. I toyed with a few ideas, but finally settled on a project called Summer of Faerie that was born from my love for fantasy and fairy tales.
For this Summer of Faerie project, I gave some fellow writers from The Habit the following prompt, inviting them to contribute:
- Short, prose fairy tale retellings
- Faerie/fairy tale-themed poetry
- Creative nonfiction about fairy tales in general
I had three suggestions for these works:
- Consider focusing on something other than romance.
- Consider mythologizing your own region through this work – how can your hometown or city be just as magical as a castle on a mountain or tower in the wilderness?
- Consider how we can meditate on the Gospel through thinking about fairy tales. G.K. Chesterton argued that “conditions” of fairy tales teach us a “The Doctrine of Conditional Joy” that parallels the truth of the Bible: “A lamp is lit, and love flies away. A flower is plucked, and human lives are forfeited. An apple is eaten, and the hope of God is gone.” (I’m quoting his weird and wonderful essay, “The Ethics of Elfland,” in his book Orthodoxy.)
Several writer-friends responded to the challenge, and the contributions so far have dazzled me. One of the first contributors was AJ Vanderhorst, who just released an amazing novel, The Mostly Invisible Boy. Enjoy!
by AJ Vanderhorst
Two parents with too many hobbies. Two parents with four crazy, precocious boys. We overlooked the low sales price. We overlooked a lot. We were a little desperate, well, more than a little. We needed someplace big and HOA-free and durable—and fast.
The missing background didn’t bother me at first and I’m a journalist at the Kansas City Star. At least I used to be. Go on, laugh. These things have a way of creeping up on you.
The house’s previous owner, a genial, raisin-skinned gentleman who gave you the impression of holding nothing back, told us the sprawling four-story place was built in 1915. We believed him. Not that we cared, because the house was gorgeous. Dwell Magazine with vintage swagger. You felt taller just standing in the shade of its colonnades.
By the time I got around to checking, the origin story proved impossible to verify. No records on micro-fiche. No permits at KC Planning & Development—not that they looked very hard. For a while I dug around in the basement, hoping to find old documents in a forgotten corner. Believe me, there were plenty of those.
Forgotten corners, I mean.
When we knocked down nonstructural walls, which happened a couple times as we got moved in, I’d scan each yellowed page of newsprint while the kids sifted dust for arrowheads and shark teeth. Nothing.
Sometimes the clue you need is staring you in the face. In this case, the clue was: nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Plenty of dirt on everyone else though. One rabbit trail through KC history gave me an inside track on the next door neighbors. They’d been accused of witchcraft in 1740, which, reading between the lines, was code for “really big jerks we don’t want at the barbecue.” That family is still here and they’re still obnoxious and I can totally see it.
In 1911 someone’s rooster got blasted with a shotgun and buried in concrete for crowing at 4:59 instead of 5 am. I can’t help feeling neighborhood news has become a lot less interesting.
In the more recent past, I learned how mob “Boss Tom” Pendergast got his claws in the KC Code Department—and made it so crooked that today it still can’t stop citing and snickering long enough to look you in the face.
But I found nothing on our cavernous brick house. Only the growing feeling, as I walked its wide staircases and traced the shadows of its vaulted ceilings, that it wasn’t normal. Which was fine at first. Because downtown thought our family, with its size and irrepressibility, was pretty weird too.
I formed a theory that an exasperated realtor had pulled the 1915 date out of thin air and slapped it on his deed of sale. There were no records of the behemoth’s original use. No tales of mobs it’d outlasted with its quintuple-thick walls. No reason given for its many secret crawl spaces. The deep gouges in its irreplaceable timber floors. Or its poured concrete roof.
At the time, my most intriguing find was a sentence from an 1875 account of Kansas City’s stockyards: “The beef barons shipped their assets on the hoof, and herds of cattle, sheep and pigs overran the West Bottoms daily. This was a stark contrast to the more exotic, costly creatures that were rumored to arrive on the riverfront under cover of darkness.”
The “news” story gave me a prickly feeling behind my eyes. The feeling was hard to pin down as it scurried along my bones. I labeled it curiosity and tried to forget it. Curiosity isn’t usually so nagging. It doesn’t usually cause you to turn on extra lights and stay up late at night.
But the story appeared next to an ad for “MAGIC medicinal TONIC for the FORTIFICATION of boys, girls and calves.” So I felt justified in dismissing it, or trying to. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I know this was my first mistake. Snobbery toward old news—news I stupidly wrote off because I could associate it with hoaxes.
Before everything happened, people often asked me for advice (free of course) about buying and fixing up old houses. Now, as the sun hangs in the middle of the sky and cocktail hour approaches, I know what I should’ve told them:
“Yeah, remodeling physical history is a nasty beast. But let’s step back. How old is the place? Is it too big? Just…Way. Too. Big? In a strange Hitchcockian way that gnaws at you slowly, offending your sense of proportion? Are there too many fireplaces? Do the quiet, twisting hallways send centipedes down your spine?”
That’s all the free advice I’d offer. But if they could afford to pay me for my time…and my scars…and my abrupt career change, I’d say:
Dragons. It just might be dragons. So point me in their direction and get out of the way.
AJ Vanderhorst is a husband, dad and author who loves barbecue, as do all right-thinking people. His relationship with monsters is long and complicated. Visit him online at ajvanderhorst.com.