Haunted by Central New York

I originally came from a small town in central New York. Cows outnumbered people approximately three to one, rural values dominated, and it’s fair to say that I left as soon as I could drive. I went to college in central New York, then grad school, and got my first job there. The place continued to not work for me, and about eight years ago, I moved to Massachusetts.

Weirdly, since I moved here, I’ve encountered several books that make me nostalgic for home. Not that they make me want to move back – I spent 25 years trying and failing to be a good fit for CNY – but because they terrify me. They’re frightening in the same way that I used to associate with some of the small towns I’d drive through on my way to work, and then also frightening in the way that I used to feel when people would tell me, without affectation or agenda, that I’d be back. Because everybody came back. That was just the way New York was.

I cannot describe the dread I’d feel when people would say this to me. It always felt prophetic. Reading home – specifically, reading horror about New York State – feels a lot like daring fate. Or pondering a return. It’s hard to say. I don’t know why the concept of living in a place that scares me is somehow so comforting.

My first experience of reading home was The Twilight Zone: Complete Stories. Little-known fact: Ron Serling may have based the show upon his upbringing in the Syracuse area. You can really see it in this collection, some of which were adapted and some of which weren’t. It’s…uneven in quality. By today’s standards for science fiction, anyway. Part of the problem is that what was fresh when Serling wrote these is now old hat. Maybe I’d be more impressed 40 years ago. But the eerie quality that carries them all is as spine-tingling as anything from Clive Barker, or so it seems to me. That sense that the rest of the world might be a myth or a delusion, that your neighbors could turn on you if the snow lasts a day too long, that you’re the alien is palpable in my childhood home. It’s a weird place and weird stuff happens there. If you’ve ever seen My Brother’s Keeper, then you know of Munnsville. It’s literally just a couple towns over from where I grew up.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Mr. Splitfoot took my breath away with its treatment of mystic cults, restless ghosts, and asteroid strikes upstate. I think I was lukewarm about this book when I first read it, but I may need to read it again. I’ve been thinking about it for years. The plot revolves around a pregnant woman whose horrible lover tries to slip abortion drugs into her food, prompting her to follow her long-lost aunt on a pilgrimage to a mysterious house in the woods of the northern foothills. Believe it or not, it gets stranger. I loved it. Part of the action took place in Troy, for goodness sake. I skated in a roller derby bout there once.

Did Mr. Splitfoot appeal to me because I recognized the place names or because it pinned the haunting nature of the place where I grew up? It’s hard to say. I’m certainly haunted by central New York now. One of the central themes that I noticed in this particular book was that it was impossible to tell who was the ghost and what, exactly, was doing the haunting. At times, it seemed like the living were haunting the dead, that the dead were being haunted by their pasts, and that New York was haunting everybody.

Finally, did you know that The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place in New York?

Because of course it does.

In case you’re curious, Sleepy Hollow is here. So it’s not far upstate, but I count it because the easy, immediate way that Ichabod Crane loses touch with reality doesn’t strike me as superstition. I like to read the story as an examination of an intellectual man trying to escape the appetites and desires of his baser half, which eventually attacks the very thing that makes him superior – his imaginative mind – and makes it so he’s never heard of again.

I can relate to the fear of being erased, tracked down by a part of yourself that you want to dominate and instead falling prey to it. It is reminiscent of the person I was back home – angry, isolated, and steeped in my issues with nothing to do about it but pace around my snowbound living space. Sometimes I feel like that paranoid way of being is constantly riding behind me, and if I look at it too closely, it’ll attack. Maybe it’ll replace me after all. Is that what I’m running away from? And will I make it to the covered bridge on time?

It’s past Halloween, and therefore past the time of year when we can have fun being frightened. Now comes the really scary time of the year: the cold months. Even ensconced in our modern comforts, life is a little less certain when the snow starts to come down. You could skid on ice and crash. You could run out of food in a freak snowstorm. You could get snowed in on the highway without a sleeping bag.

So I do the New York things that remind me of home. I put on snow tires. I stock up on food in case we get a bad storm. I pack a down sleeping bag in my trunk.

I pack a copy of Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber. And I don’t look over my shoulder.



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