Category Archives: Florida

Review: ‘Parade of Horribles’ by Rhett DeVane

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The people in Rhett DeVane’s new novel Parade of Horribles are the kind of folks, foibles and all, that most of us wish we knew, wish we could call kin, and when danger and hatred intrude into our lives, wish we had looking out for us. Chattahoochee is a real town in the Florida Panhandle and, as the book’s back cover description tells us, it really does have a “state mental institution on the main drag.”

Do Elvina Houston, Hattie Lewis and Jake Witherspoon really live there? Probably not. But they are so real in Parade of Horribles that–in telling their story–DeVane has seemingly conjured them out of the cosmos and placed them there, 37 miles west of Tallahassee as the crow flies, alongside the Apalachicola River. A notable feature in the town, the river is a figurative and literal feature in DeVane’s well-told story. It’s both a haunting reminder of old wounds and a restful escape from the 24/7 preparations for the upcoming harvest festivals and a growing number of signs there may be a dangerous serpent in this Garden of Eden.

DeVane hints at the danger early on the way Hitchcock would show a trace of something wrong near the beginning of his feature films. But the townspeople’s attention and the reader’s attention are drawn to the mix of daily life and harvest festival duties. The horribles, as Jake thinks of them, steep like tea half forgotten on a back burner and, as the story moves toward its unexpected ending, grows all the stronger and more foul tasting for the wait.

Parade of Horribles is the seventh book in the “Hooch Series.” As we saw in earlier novels such as Cathead Crazy and Mama’s Comfort Food, this very Southern author deftly captures the way people in her panhandle world think, talk, work, support each other–and, yes–gossip about what’s in plain sight and what’s not yet apparent to everyone else. Residents of the Florida Panhandle know that in many ways it’s a country unto itself, not like south Georgia and even further and farther removed from the snowbirds and tourist destinations of the peninsula.

Reading DeVane’s Hooch Series is an immersion into this country; Parade of Horribles is wonderful mystery/thriller and a highly recommended addition to a body of work that makes “the other Florida” and “Florida’s forgotten coast” altogether real and impossible to forget.

Malcolm

 

 

Florida: it’s like living in an asylum and loving it

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“The deal with Florida is the charlatans and lunatics and Snapchat-famous plastic surgeons. It is the Ponzi schemes, the byzantine corruption, the evangelical fervor and the consenting-adult depravity. It is the seasonless climate. The lack of historical consciousness. The way in which this nation’s unctuous elements tend to trickle down as if Florida were the grease trap under America’s George Foreman grill.” – Kent Russell in a tongue-in-cheek review of the book “What Makes Florida So Weird”

Shug, I’m not a Florida native. That means I’m not allowed to psychoanalyze the state, as Kent Russell says natives are inclined to do. I will say that time has ground away some of the state’s weirdness, the alligator wrestling and jungle petting zoos that once lined major tourist arteries from the Georgia border to Key West like dead skunk roadkill.

gatorgirlSad to say, most of the real jungles and pristine beaches have been paved over by the grease trap of a million condos and bikini-clad bodies per square foot enjoying nature in a former natural setting. I know this will offend some people, but when I saw what was happening to the sunshine in the sunshine state as a kid, I frankly hoped a badass hurricane would clear away all the crap in the peninsula part of the state like a giant flush in a huge toilet so that “we” could start over.

God knows, Mother Nature has tried, but there’s more work to be done before the seas rise and the state slides down into the Bermuda Triangle with the missing ships, squadrons of military aircraft, and maybe Atlantis. Word is, Atlantis sank because its movers and shakers abused their power. By the time I graduated from college and left home, I thought Florida would go that route, compliments of rogue developers more prevalent than palmetto bugs and equally able to slither away out of the light.

When my fiance came down to Florida to meet the family, she decided one afternoon while we were tip-toeing through the alligators at a nearby wildlife refuge that we were crazy. “What about those gators?” she asked. “No worries, Sugar, they’re in the swap and we’re here on the road through the swamp.” That made her feel about as safe as a can of tuna in a room full of cats.

But here’s the thing. When one moves into the state, one usually starts out sane. But things happen. Maybe it’s the water or too much sun or a million mosquitoes per square foot no matter how many times Mother Nature tries to blow them out to sea. Nobody knows because the people who’ve been there long enough to judge are no longer competent to judge.  With more data, people could get out before they’re involuntarily committed.

Looking back on it all–chasing stingrays, sinking speed boats, teasing copperheads, crawling into dark caves, camping in the piney woods, getting addicted to boiled peanuts, dining on bait fish–I truly think the large blue welcome signs on I-75 and I-10, need to say “No exit,” meaning once you drive into paradise almost lost,  you become lost and can’t leave. You won’t know any better.

If you figure out how to leave, you’ll miss it fierce. If you’re a writer, you write about it. If not, you’ll look at your summer vacation  slides on an old Carousel projector and tell people that in those days, you had it bad and that wasn’t good. Of course, if you’re an FSU Seminoles fan, you’ll still hate the U of F Gators while you watch every game on ESPN. You’ll watch folks boarding of their windows with plywood on the Weather Channel during hurricane season, and you’ll remember the good old days when you road out all the storms because you didn’t know any better.

(Fact of life: people buy new plywood every year when the first big storm approaches because they threw it all away last year, thinking they wouldn’t need it again. If this isn’t a clue to something or other, I don’t know what is.)

Here’s a tip. If you’re planning a Florida vacation, keep it short because if you stay there long enough to start believing the Swamp Booger is read–maybe even in your closet–then you’ve gone native, lost in the swamp, so to speak.

–Malcolm

In a continuing search for sanity, former Florida resident Malcolm R, Campbell is the author of the following stories and novels set in Florida: “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” “Carrying Snakes Into Eden,” “Cora’s Crossing,” “Moonlight and Ghosts,” “Snakebit,” “Dream of Crows,” “College Avenue,” “Emily’s Stories,” and “The Land Between the Rivers.” Learn more on his Amazon page.

 

 

Those beautiful, sometimes risque and sometimes racist orange crate labels

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A long-time favorite of mine.

A long-time favorite of mine. Seald Sweet was Florida’s answer to California’s “Sunkist.”

If you visited a farmer’s market or walked into a grocery story stockroom in Florida up through the 1950s, you’d find oranges, grapefruits, and kumquats stacked in wood crates with colorful labels on each end. As kids, we used leftover orange crates for storing all kinds of things until they suddenly disappeared in favor of boring cardboard boxes. While the use of orange crate label art began in California in the 1880s, the practice soon moved to Florida which still has a near-monopoly on U. S. citrus production.

If you Google “orange crate labels” or “vintage orange crate labels,” you’ll quickly find many of the major labels. If you stop by Florida Southern College in Lakeland, you can look at the digitized collection of labels at the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. (Many of these can be viewed on line.) Labels, and related post card advertising, are almost always for sale on eBay

While the artists were popular names at the time, their work on the ends of those utilitarian crates was seldom signed. For one thing, its purpose was identifying a grower or a shipper to grocery store chains and distributors, not the general public.

banjobrandIn his 2015 review of Florida’s First Billboards: Florida Citrus Crate Labels, Kevin Bouffard wrote, “A new book stands for the proposition that Florida citrus crate labels played as much a role in the development of the state and its signature agricultural industry as Anita Bryant, beaches and Walt Disney.” No doubt, the book’s limited printing meant that most copies ended up with those who collect and/or sell orange crate labels. Two earlier books are long out of print and hard to find.

When my wife and I set up a general store shelf exhibit for a Georgia museum, we enjoyed purchasing old orange crate labels as well as the labels used on canned goods to add to the ambiance and realism of our displays. The “Belle of Crescent City” was one of the labels we chose.

buxomI mention a few of the racially pejorative labels in Eulalie and Washerwoman when my conjure woman protagonist borrows some crates from the local general store. She was quick to notice the “Southern charm” of labels featuring happy African Americans–many of whom were forced to pick the oranges just as others were forced to work in turpentine camps–as though they were in change of the orange groves and personally selected the oranges in the crates. Labels from Indian River featured Indians, some in skimpy dress. Others featured women in bathing suits or were purposefully racy.

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When we used orange crates for hauling and storing things, we noticed the labels, but never made an attempt to salvage them. Now I wish we had. We might make a few dollars on eBay or donate them to the Citrus Hall of Fame for its collection. Even the sexist and racist labels are part of our history, something we hope never to repeat, but generally speaking, most of the labels are advertising works of art. I’m sorry to see them gone.

–Malcolm

ewkindlecoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the 1950s-era novel Eulalie and Washerwoman, a story of kidnapped men, stolen houses, and a conjure woman’s magic.

Visit his website here.

 

 

Florida Legends: The man who could turn into an alligator

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One of my favorite stories out of the Federal Writers Florida Folklore project, is the one about Uncle Monday collected by the author Zora Neale Hurston in the 1930s. Among other places, it appears in “Uncle Monday and Other Florida Tales” by Kristin G. Congdon.

Uncle Monday was a powerful conjure man who brought his magic from Africa. He was sold into slavery. When he escaped, he joined up with the Seminole Indians to fight against federal troops. He vowed that he would never be taken captive and enslaved again.

ewgatorDuring a ceremony at Blue Sink Lake in central Florida held by Africans and Indians, Uncle Monday danced and transformed into an alligator and plunged into the lake with all the other alligators. He is said to live there even now and to change into a man again when it suits his fancy. At the end of the day, though, he returns to the lake and, as Congdon writes in her rendition, folks “feel more comfortable with Uncle Monday home in the waters with his reptile family.”

If you search on line, you’ll probably find a number of tales about the alligator man, one of which relates the story of one Judy Bronson of Maitland who claimed she was a more powerful conjure doctor than anyone else. One night when she was fishing at Blue Sink, she saw Uncle Monday walking across the water in a beam of light with an army of gators.

She tried to escape, but her legs wouldn’t function. Uncle Monday told her she would stay right there until she admitted that her magic wasn’t as powerful as his. This was the last thing she wanted to do, but she had no choice. When she confessed she could not do such magic, she was carried back to her house. Soon, she threw away her conjure bottles, candles and herbs and claimed that she fell ill on the shore of Blue Sink and that Uncle Monday cured her.

As Congdon writes, “Folks will try to tell Judy that she only suffered a stroke and fell in the lake, but she knows better.”

Since I’ve read more than one story about this man, I couldn’t resist mentioning him in my Florida folk magic novel Eulalie and Washerwoman, along with other legends such as the giant gator named Two-Toed Tom, the Swamp Booger, and the ghost from Bellamy Bridge near Marianna.

Malcolm

 

Florida Legends – All You Can Eat if You Know How to Find It

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Zora Neale Hurston’s “tales from the turpentine camps, on the surface, could be seen as silly, promoting these stereotypes. A sweet potato floating through the air with a knife sticking out of it? Pure fantasy. But a closer reading shows a culture of resistance and resilience. In the camp workers’ wildest dreams, all they want is unlimited access to food, a basic need that often locked them into the camp through debt racked up at the company store, or one that they were sometimes flatly denied. Food was hope and optimism.” – Julie Botnick in “Zora Neale Hurston, Diddy-Dah-Widdy, and the WPA Federal Writers’ Project”

The legendary Florida town called Diddy-Wah-Diddy, collected–or perhaps, imagined–by Zora Neale Hurston in 1938, has been celebrated by numerous blues singers and included in anthologies and re-tellings by Mary E. Lyons and others for years.

zoradiddyIn his New York Times review of The Food of a Younger Land, Jonathan Miles writes, “Couched between a selection of black Mississippi recipes transcribed in dialect (‘wrop cakes in a collard leaf, place on dese coals coverin wid some more hot so hot’) and the Christmas dinner menu at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky., is a stunning prose poem by Zora Neale Hurston about a mythical place in African-American folklore — a kind of barbecue version of Shangri-La — known as ‘Diddy Wah Diddy.'”

While the WPA Federal Writers project featuring the story was never completed, Hurston’s work lives on, describing her take on the many dreams of food and better times and magical places from Blacks enslaved in the turpentine camps, usually for minor or imaginary offenses.

Unfortunately, Lyons’ book appears to be out of print. Her website description sounds tempting: “During Virginia’s 2008-2009 Big Read for Little Readers, Mary E. Lyons rewrote these same stories for young people. Now children in grades 1-4 can travel with Zora to a magical land where nobody cooks, but the food is always ready. In Diddy Wah Diddy readers meet Chicken, Pie and Moon Man. They wander to Zar and stroll through Bella. They amble across Amen Avenue, then fly down to West Heck with High John.”

bodiddleysingleI came across the mythical town while researching Florida legends for my upcoming novel Eulalie and Washerwoman. I couldn’t resist including a reference to the place, a town nobody knows how to get to, but if they happened to find it, all that had to do was sit and wait and pretty soon the best food they could possibly want appeared, ready to eat, with knife, fork and spoon ready to go.

In her collection, Uncle Monday Monday and Other Florida Tales, Kriston G. Congdon’s version includes the line about a town “way off somewhere” that “Is reached by a road that curves so much that a mule pulling a wagon-load of feed can eat off the back of the wagon as he goes.” Congdon says that most people think the place exists.

Perhaps so.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “The Sun Singer,” and other magical novels. The soon-to-be released “Eulalie and Washerwoman” is a sequel to “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

 

‘Voodoo & Hoodoo’ by Jim Haskins

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“As a child growing up in a small town in Alabama, I shared the experience of most southern-born black children as well as many northern black children whose families migrated from, or maintained close ties with, the South. We were aware at an early age that there were more forces to contend with than met the eye. A person’s very neighbors, thought outwardly friendly, might be plotting against him, ‘laying a trick’ on him. But they didn’t perform the actual trick themselves; they had neither the power nor the knowledge. Instead, they went to the local hoodoo doctor or root worker.”

– Jim Haskins, in the book’s introduction.

VoodooHoodooFirst published in 1978 and available as a used book on Amazon, Jim Haskins’ Voodoo & Hoodoo: The Traditional Craft as Revealed Traditional Practitioners is a worthwhile introduction to southern folk magic. One Amazon reviewer says that the author didn’t want the word “Voodoo” in the title, but that this was added by the publisher to ramp up sales. The term is misleading because the book is about herbs, root doctors and practices that have little to do with the Voodoo religion.

When I was writing my novella Conjure Woman’s Cat, I found this book to be a credible introduction, especially for those of us who grew up in the South around the edges of the practices and point of view Haskins describes. The quotation at the beginning of this post is typical of the kind of thing many of us (white and black) heard when we were young, but often had a hard time finding anyone who would tell us what it was all about.

While the book includes spells and recipes, they aren’t the strong point: the value here is the ambiance and sense of the craft one gets from the practitioners themselves.

You’ll find plenty of spells and recipes and herbal information on the Internet and in books such as Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic and The Black Folder both by cat yronwode. Or, you can look at hoodoo blogs such as Spiritual Information for more details about methods and practices. As an author, I needed a starting point and Haskins’ book was a good one for that. If you’re researching hoodoo, or simply interested in learning more about it as a component of southern culture, the book will also give you a starting point.

Frankly, I do not like authors who look up practices (spiritual, cultural, or ethnic) on, say, Wikipedia, grab a few basics, and then head straight for books with spells. Doing this is dishonest because it paints an inaccurate, Hollywood-style picture of something real and twists it into something made to look like fantasy. J. K. Rowling recently got into trouble with American Indian nations for taking bits and pieces of their beliefs and using them out of context in her new writing on the Pottermore site.  This practice is often called appropriation.

I prefer appreciation when it comes to another culture and its spiritual and folk magic practices. With appreciation, we’re telling something true–even in a novel–because we’re keeping our references to the art and craft of the people as correct and in context as we can make them. In order to do this, one has to immerse himself or herself into the world and world view of your fictional hoodoo (or other magical, cultural or spiritual) practitioners long before looking for, say, specific spells/charms/herbs that fit into the plot of one’s fiction.

The resulting book, whether it’s in the magical realism genre or labeled by Amazon as fantasy, is reality based in the same sense that a book with a protestant minister or Catholic priest is reality based because it starts with characters whose beliefs are part of a real system.

When it comes to hoodoo, Jim Haskins’ overview of the craft and the culture it came from was a good place for me to start.

–Malcolm

KIndle cover 200x300(1)Conjure Woman’s Cat, from Florida publisher Thomas-Jacob, is available in e-book and paperback editions–and coming soon as an audio book. It’s set in the world where I grew up, the places I explored when I sneaked away from the house, and focuses on the racism I didn’t understand then or now.

 

On location: Carrabelle, Florida

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Carrabelle waterfront as it looked in the 1960s. - Photo from the Florida Memory Project.

Carrabelle waterfront as it looked in the 1960s. – Photo from the Florida Memory Project.

Carrabelle sits on the gulf coast in the Florida Panhandle and has three rivers running through it. I lived an hour away in Tallahassee from the first grade through college and loved those rivers,  Carrabelle River, Crooked River and Ochlockonee River. I also liked the unspoiled coast–still called the Forgotten Coast–and the nearby Tate’s Hell State Forest. Except for the unfortunate logging in Tate’s Hell, which is currently in recovery, the beaches, swamps and rivers were more pristine than those in the crowded peninsula section of the state.

Across the bay from Carrabelle is Dog Island. In the 1950s and 1960s, my Scout Troop often went camping there. My best friend and I went there by speed boat and sail boat to explore the dunes along its coast. The island remains sparsely developed while the nearby St. George Island has more traffic since it’s connected to the mainland by a bridge. I was against the bridge when it was being built, but they the state department of transportation didn’t ask me.

Carrabelle as it looks today.

Carrabelle as it looks today.

In addition to the great seafood and the well-publicized “world’s smallest police station,” visitors will enjoy Alligator Point, Carrabelle Beach, St. George Island State Park, Ochlockonee State Park, and the Ft. Gadsden Historic Site. Highway 98 is a scenic coastal road and highway 67 is a scenic route through state and national forests. With 1300 residents, Carrabelle is not crowded except on warm summer days when people drive down from Tallahassee to enjoy the beaches.

I figuratively traveled to Carrabelle last week while working on a new short story set there in the late 1960s. I wish it weren’t seven hours away from my home in northwest Georgia. I would have taken a fresh look at a place out of my childhood for hushpuppies and mullet–along with the ambiance. Called “Visiting Aunt Ruby,” my short story will be released on Kindle by Thomas-Jacob Publishing February 12 as part of our Stories from Tate’s Hell series.

carrabellemapquestIf you live closer to the gulf coast and haven’t been to Carrabelle, go take a look, and while you’re there, climb to the top of the Crooked River Lighthouse and explore the World War II museum at Camp Gordon Johnston.  If you dare to hike into Tate’s Hell and end up getting lost, don’t call me on your cell phone (if it even works there) and ask me how to get the hell out.

“The history of Dog Island and Carrabelle, Florida, includes a wonderful mix of Indians, shipping, bootlegging, logging and battles. This charming town was a fishing village prior to the Civil War, isolated from the rest of Franklin County by the lack of bridges and paved roads. After the war, it became an internationally known lumber town, shipping wood from the hundreds of thousands of acres of surrounding virgin forest. Turpentine, distilled from pine sap, was shipped via schooners from the natural deep water port on the Carrabelle River. ” – Get Hooked on Carrabelle

— Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a 1950s-era novella set in the Florida Panhandle. It features a conjure woman who claims to be older than dirt, but not too old to fight the KKK when her town’s police force refuses to investigate the murder of a Black girl.